By Howard Jensen
King Lear has been called Shakespeare's greatest achievement, and many critics echo Maeterlinck's belief that the play is “the mightiest, the vastest, the most stirring, the most intense dramatic poem that has ever been written.” It is, at the same time, as A. C. Bradley wrote, “certainly the most terrible picture that Shakespeare painted of the world. In no other of his tragedies does humanity appear more pitiably infirm or more hopelessly bad.”
In the action of the tragedy, we witness something universal. The conflict is not so much of particular persons at a particular time, as of the powerful tensions of good and evil in the world. King Lear is meant to take place in pre-Christian Britain and be roughly contemporaneous with the ancient kings of Judea. There is no overt reference to Christianity, and there is indeed only one reference to “God” in the singular. Still, it is a most contemporary play set in a pagan world. Shakespeare does not mean it to be period piece; he means it to be of universal significance.
The world of King Lear is a world that the universe has disregarded. The celestial harmony of the spheres is no more. The world is in a constant state of decomposition. Man is on his own, and, by the end, he and his world have reached a state of “great decay.” Everything that distinguishes civilized man—natural bonds, morality, mercy, affection, justice, social and family order—is destroyed or strongly called into question. Man cries to heaven but is not heard. In this dark landscape where evil is often rewarded and good punished, Gloucester's cry seems appropriate: “As flies to wanton boys are we to th' gods; / They kill us for their sport.” Where evil consumes itself it also consumes goodness. For their acts of kindness, Gloucester is blinded and Cordelia is hanged.
True, a few remarkable individuals remain or become truly humanized in this cruelest of worlds. Lear becomes much more than a king; he becomes a man. To begin he is vain, rash, and self-centered. Through intense suffering and madness, he experiences spiritual regeneration and gains wisdom, humility, and charitable fellow-feeling. But, at the end, the earth is bled dry. Indeed, from the storm to the final image of the play, the chaos of the end of the world is glimpsed more often than not.