The Relevance of King Lear Today

The relevance of King Lear today is partly due to the relevance of the story as a timeless portrait of family dysfunction, sibling rivalry and the inability of family members to properly communicate. All those aspects contribute to the universality of King Lear as a tragedy that thought it may be about kings and princesses also manages to transcend its fairy tale construction to speak to those at all stages of class division and economic empowerment. What really makes the story especially relevant to today’s audiences, however, is the subplot involving Edmund which speaks directly to the issues of class division and economic disempowerment that has resulted in movements like Occupy Wall Street and the realization of the chasm existing between the 99% and the 1%.

The story of the fairy tale kingdom of Lear becoming a nightmarish retelling straight out of the Brothers Grimm is due specifically to the same sort of absence of communication skills among family members that is on display every day on the Jerry Springer or Maury Povich shows. Lear and Gloucester may represent the elitist aristocracy, but their respective family squabbles would fit right at home inside today’s trailer parks. All one needs to do is update the lexicon and on those shows and around the world every day would be heard the same sentiment that is expressed by Gloucester:  “How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is/To have a thankless child.—Away, away! (1.4.302-303).  It is Kent who really speaks for the relevance of the tragedy’s commentary on family disputes in the modern world. For that matter, Kent also speaks to the relevance of King Lear to the worlds of the past as well. Upon the orders from the King to remove himself from his sight, Kent a suggestion that fathers around the world would do well to follow:  “See better, Lear” (I. i. 166).

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The main plot of Lear and the subplot of Gloucester provide an example of parallel plotting that makes both of them relevant today. Lear and Gloucester both commence a journey toward redemption for their lack of ability to communicate with their children precisely due to that lack of communicative capacity. What is at stake in the narrative of both the King and the Lord is a distinct inability of both fathers to correctly judge the sense of character within their offspring.  Expectations of characters insight are based somewhat on a dislocated sense of pride. It is Cordelia who provides the illuminating insight this time when she observes that “We are not the first/Who with best meaning have incurred the worst” (5.3.4-5). Lear trusts that maintaining a truly bizarre contest between his children to determine which of them loves him the most is the key to keeping the family and kingdom together. How many sibling rivalries and estranged families today result from exactly that sort of misapprehension of intentions?

The most relevant aspect of King Lear has to do with both family squabbles and the economics of familial relations. Edmund ties both family squabbles today while also acting as the symbol of the distinctly unfair economic laws of the times. Edmund’s extended soliloquy opening the second scene of the first act reveals explicitly the contradictory values that not only existed between the haves and have-nots of his own time but also are relevant for the same two levels of class today. Some may find it distasteful to view Edmund as a heroic character, but the fact remains that unlike Goneril he is not merely trying to grab for more than he deserves, but is only making a play for what he has coming to him.

“Wherefore should I
Stand in the plague of custom, and permit
The curiosity of nations to deprive me
For that I am some twelve or fourteen moonshines
Lag of a brother? why ‘bastard’? Wherefore ‘base,’
When my dimensions are as well compact,
My mind as generous and my shape as true
As honest madam’s issue?
Why brand they us
With ‘base,’ with ‘baseness,’ ‘bastardy,’ ‘base,’
‘base,’
Who, in the lusty stealth of nature, take
More composition and fierce quality
Than doth, within a dull, stale, tired bed
Go to th’ creating a whole tribe of fops
Got ‘tween asleep and wake? Well then,
Legitimate Edgar, I must have your land.
Our father’s love is to the bastard Edmund
As to th’ legitimate. Fine word, ‘legitimate,’
Well, my legitimate, if this letter speed
And my invention thrive, Edmund the base
Shall top th’ legitimate. I grow, I prosper.
Now, gods, stand up for bastards!” (I. ii. 2-23).

What Edmund is saying throughout this long and involved and insightful soliloquy is the same that many members of the 99% are saying today. Why should they be left out of the game simply as a result of custom, tradition and accident of birth? Edmund will spend the rest of the play proving time and again that he is more intelligent and even, in a sense, wiser than most of the other characters. Certainly, Edmund comes off as far more deserving Lear’s kingdom than Lear himself or Goneril or Regan or, really, any other character. Changes in the wording a little here and there and the long passage quoted above could be spoken not just by Edmund in an updated version of King Lear but by anyone in the Occupy Movement or any socialist supporting Bernie Sanders who sees the patently unfair system of economics which capitalism has become. “I grow, I prosper” thus becomes a manifesto for the working class.

The relevance of King Lear to modern society is illuminated daily whether it is family feuding on reality TV shows or whether it is the struggle of the oppressed underclasses attempting to impose fairness upon an outdated and outmoded system. The tragedy that plays out reveals that both internal fighting among family members and external fighting against conventions based on family history are timeless and pass from one generation to the next with little change or improvement.