“Get thee glass eyes, and like a scurvy politician, seem to see the things thou dost not.”
—Someone writing under the name William Shakespeare, King Lear
I never studied King Lear in any formal class, unlike Shakespeare’s other three great tragedies: Hamlet, Othello, and the Scottish Play.
And until the past few days, it was the only one of those four that I had never seen either on stage or in a movie.
In my senior year in high school, for Mrs. Papson’s English class, I opted to write an essay (probably not very good) on King Lear, and that was it. I only vaguely remembered the story; a stupid old king divides up his kingdom among his daughters, but only to the two who hypocritically flatter him, not to the third who speaks the truth. Chaos ensues, and one fellow even gets his eyes gouged out. Right there on the stage!
First Servant: O, I am slain! My lord, you have one eye left
To see some mischief on him. O!
Cornwall: Lest it see more, prevent it. Out, vile jelly!
Forcing out Gloucester’s other eye.
Where is thy luster now?
So a few days ago, I started to watch a production of the play. To prepare myself, I took down my trusty copy of Asimov’s Guide to Shakespeare.
In there I discovered:
“Bedlam” is a corruption of “Bethlehem,” of all things. In 1402 the hospital of St. Mary of Bethlehem in London began to be used as a lunatic asylum. It was notorious enough to give rise to the custom of calling a lunatic or an asylum for such a “bethlehem” or “bedlam” in colloquial language. In the days before modern programs for taking care of the mentally ill had been developed, a lunatic asylum was full of the wailing and shrieking of the mad, so that “bedlam” came to mean any scene of wild uproar.
Anyway, once I had refreshed my memory and started watching the play, I couldn’t help but notice how much like a recent political family King Lear and his daughters seemed to be. You know, the one whose family name rhymes with frump.
And once I noticed that, I had a hard time sympathizing with the old coot during the second half of the play where he allegedly becomes more sympathetic.
I fear that our current political environment has soured me on King Lear, perhaps forever.
“As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods.
They kill us for their sport.”