For years, I avoided teaching King Lear. The play struck me as too bleak for college students. But I’ve learned that when I think a work isn’t right for students, it usually means that it isn’t right for me—that I haven’t come to terms with it. Early in my career I decided not to teach The Merchant of Venice because, I told myself, I didn’t want to offend Jewish students (although I had almost none in my classes at the time). In reality, I didn’t want to grapple, as a Jewish teacher, with the difficulty and embarrassment of the complex stereotype of Shylock. When I grew more confident as a teacher, I taught the play with illuminating results, which I have written about in a longer piece.
Similarly, my unease with Lear was less because my students couldn’t relate to such a bleak landscape than because I couldn’t. The few times that I tackled the play I didn’t get it: the behavior of Lear’s daughters Goneril and Regan seemed too heartless, the reserve of Cordelia too inexplicable, the suffering of Lear and Gloucester too extreme. I didn’t buy it.
A few years ago, however, when I decided to teach the play again, I found the power in it that I had missed before. My students did as well. Perhaps I had become a better teacher; I had certainly become a better teacher of this particular play.
What most struck me now was the depth of the play’s violence. What had seemed artificial and over the top now felt extraordinarily real and disturbing. I wasn’t sure why this was until I talked to my students about their response. Their reaction to the play’s violence was, if anything, stronger than mine. Several said they were deeply unnerved by the scene in which Gloucester’s eyes were plucked out. One student said she had to put stop reading midway through the play and take a walk. Another said she was so repulsed by the behavior of Goneril and Regan toward their father that she felt she would be sick. Others agreed.
I asked them how this could be when they had had a steady diet of violence from television and movies. How could a 16th-century play, in which the stage directions are minimal, be so unsettling?
Partly, it seems, they simply didn’t expect such viciousness in what they assumed was a gentler, more innocent age. Also, they explained, because they were reading the play they had to imagine the violence. What the mind’s eye perceives can be more vivid than anything the literal eye sees. But most affecting of all, they said, was the degree to which these characters existed within a family: Goneril and Regan as Lear’s daughters, Edmund as Gloucester’s son. We discussed the perversion of these family relationships in the play, and the students felt that the violence arose from a sense of distorted intimacy. This was not cartoon violence; it was family violence of the sort that they could recognize in more oblique forms in their own lives. King Lear gave that psychic violence a concrete, physical form. I realized that this is what had so disturbed me as well.
Shakespeare’s work allows us to tap into our most intimate sense of ourselves—to face our anxieties or fears. This is one reason why it endures.
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