Critical views on King Lear since 1970

Martha Burns: ‘It is all too easy to dismiss Regan and Goneril, King Lear’s elder daughters, as mere emblems of female evil – the demonic opposites of their saintly younger sister, Cordelia. But Shakespeare’s characters are seldom that simple … When women are tough and ballsy, and just as obsessed with power as men, they are called evil rather than formidable. Regan and Goneril are formidable.’ 

Derek Cohen: ‘Early modern drama can be seen as a secular re-enactment of a sacrifice ritual. The essential components are similar: each requires a participant audience, a visible reconstruction of human conflict, and a resolution of that conflict by the spectacle of group triumph in the death or expulsion of the ultimately vulnerable participant in the process. That subject or victim is always perceived in the drama to be the source of discord, dissension, and danger. His or her physical removal, by death or exile, is a necessary precondition of the re-establishment of the cultural practices and norms that enable the supposedly peaceful continuance of social order. [In King Lear] every scapegoating, every cleansing in blood, is fraught with insoluble contradiction. Something, someone, must die for something else to be born and peace to be restored.’ 
Philip D.Collington: King Lear depicts various nefarious effects of public life and companionship on the individual self […] What is at issue is not Lear's ‘dependency behaviour’: no one in the play disputes his legitimate need for assistance because of advancing age or his royal prerogative for assistants even after he has divested his authority. Instead, what is at issue is Lear's choice of companions, the number of companions, the activities encouraged by his companions, and most importantly, their moral fitness to accompany the king.’ 
John Donnelly: ‘With no male character in the drama does Lear have a good relationship, for Kent is banished and Gloucester does not seem close to him. All his affection is centered on his daughters and this appears to be linked with a latent incestuous orientation.’ 
Stephen Greenblatt: ‘As the play’s tragic logic reveals, Lear cannot have both the public deference and the inward love of his children. The public deference is only as good as the legal constraints that Lear’s absolute power paradoxically deprives him of, and the inward love cannot be adequately represented in social discourse, licensed by authority and performed in the public sphere, enacted as in a court or theatre.’ 
Germaine Greer, image available through Creative CommonsGermaine Greer: ‘The play has two strands: one is the strand of optimism, the belief that there is a providence in the fall of a great man as in the fall of a sparrow; the other, the strand of rage against the ‘dying of the light.’ ’
Andrew Hadfield:King Lear must surely […] be read in terms of the danger of a monarch cutting himself off from the people he rules, and so destroying what he has so carefully built up. The play does not represent a king who is ineffective or unimpressive, but one who has not taken enough care of his kingdom.’ 
Michael Ignatieff: ‘The heath is both a real place and a place in the mind. It is what the human world would be like if pity, duty, and the customs of honour and due ceased to rule human behaviour. It is the realm of natural man, man beyond society, without clothes, retinue, pride and respect. But natural man has a terrible identity, Lear learns —the identity of life at degree zero, a hair’s breadth from death. It is an equality of abjection that no man can endure.
‘The choice of staging the play in a small space where the actors are so close you can reach out and touch them, makes clear that the play is about the intimate violence of family life. It is about the anger held in check even in families which call themselves happy, about our inability as parents and children to love selflessly and the lessons which selfless love teaches us, often too late. The play creates an antithesis between home and heath and stresses the razor-thin line, in our own lives, between safety and danger, between having it and having nothing.’ 
Coppelia Kahn: ‘The play’s beginning is marked by the omnipotent presence of the father and the absence of the mother. Yet in Lear’s scheme for parceling out his kingdom, we can discern a child’s image of being mothered. He wants two mutually exclusive things at once: to have absolute control over those closest to him and to be absolutely dependent on them.’
Paul W.Kahn: ‘Edmund is the most dangerous and treacherous of the characters. Yet, he begins from a cause that we cannot identify as unjust. By placing himself ahead of his brother, he is only rejecting the fate that law had dealt him. If there is no justice in Edmund’s plan, neither was there any justice in Edgar’s legal entitlement.’ 
Alexander Leggatt: ‘Tom is a more vivid and recognizable character than Edgar … He commits himself to the nakedness, and to the brutality of the elements, that the Fool cannot face. He is truly outside society. No family, no institution, no system of charity has a place for him.’ 
Thomas P.Roche: ‘Is Lear a Christian play? … Is Shakespeare a Christian writer? … I think that Shakespeare is a profoundly Christian writer, and I think that King Lear, based as it is on historical sources, is meant to depict the plight of man before the Christian era, that is, before the salvation of man by Christ’s sacrifice was available.’ 
C.J.Sisson: ‘The idea upon which the play rests is indeed the consequence of a grave error and abuse of justice by the king within whose powers justice lies.’ 
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