Prologue to King Lear - The Enigma of Shakespeare
Only a small percentage of the plays (some seven hundred) written during the Golden Age of Elizabethan drama (1590-1610) survive into print (Nolan 30). Popular drama in the 1580s existed as no more than the street professions of clowns and jugglers performing the occasional dramatic interlude (Nolan 35). As with the "bohemian" and "hippie" youth movements in New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco and other American cities during the sixties, bands of reckless youth with working-class and college educations invaded the London urban underworld and street culture in the latter half of the sixteenth century, living mostly by their ...view middle of the document...
Only a few rough folios of lines to his plays written down some twenty years after his death endure beyond his epoch. Surviving stage-notes indicate that he had created some characters for the talents of specific but now nameless actors and actresses (Evans and Williford 86) - "A kingdom for a stage" (H5 1.3), a deluge afterwards, washing away any memory of the man Shakespeare into oblivion. We trace his life and art only through the poetry and drama attributed to him.
Since the development of modern English in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, each generation has revered the characters created by Shakespeare, despite the constraints of Elizabethan dramatic style and language (Collins). Over-studied and over-simplified in many high school English classes in America, his characters pass into our culture "to be or not be" (Ham. 3.25), as it were, vital to our own modern predicament (Abernathy). As the Shakespearian actress Diana Riggs once illuminated, modern readers with ears dull to the Elizabethan tongue, accustomed to American "fast-food" English and decidedly unaccustomed to Shakespeare's flowery and obsolete speeches, fail to understand the profound spectacle of King Lear as his fate emerges before them on the modern stage (Mute). A British critic of Shakespeare once
noted that King Lear studies the wages of personal and political power, transforming "brutal arrogance" into madness and then "divine humility" (Smith). If so, then accounts appear no less true about Shakespeare's own artistic powers, which, at the age of 37, produced the brutal visage and behavior of Hamlet and then developed a series of dark characters, culminating with the broken, mad character of Lear (Recome). Following his early plays, which juxtaposed the hardened boyish wisdom of Henry V and the fantasy of A Midsummer Night's Dream, this enigmatic "dark period" of Shakespeare's life saw the creation of Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth, Coriolanus and King Lear (The Later Shakespeare). Despite the ardent claims of nineteenth-century Romantics that a tragic personal experience prefaces the advance of Shakespeare's tragic power, no substantial proof exists for this mood in his work (Allen 82); however, a dark mood permeates his writing in this period.
The reader feels a dark strain, a far off-sound ... from dreaded histories, of great men and women caught in an older web of Destiny, wrecked by some flaw in themselves, or rendered helpless amid a crushing environment of evil, and swept down by terrible non-human forces on the remorseless flood of fate. (Smith)
The setting of King Lear appears grim and dark, a world of terror and strangeness, harboring Lear's struggle with his own nature and ending in insanity and death (Ardath, "Geilgud"). Despite the edification of a...