QUICK ACCESS TO THE MOST IMPORTANT CRITICS & CRITICISM OF WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE'S KING LEAR
If King Lear were to have been written according to the classically accepted rules of writing, Shakespeare would not have ended up with the play as it is. The illogicalities in the plot and characterisation have been examined and found wanting. The storm on the heath has been criticised as unpresentable on a stage. Perhaps most significantly, the choice by Shakespeare to change the ending of his source material - from a justice-prevailing happy resolution to a disconcertingly bleak outcome, with no physical redemption for its main characters - has resulted in a rewriting of the play by later authors in order to make it palatable to 'softer souls'.
Critical opinion since Shakespeare has been more divided on King Lear than perhaps any other play. Called 'too savage and shocking' by Joseph Warton, 'impossible to be represented on a stage' by Charles Lamb, and even Harold Bloom in 'Shakespeare - The Invention of the Human' argues for a moratorium on stagings of Lear in favour of solitary readings. Tolstoy so disliked the play, he used it in a pamphlet to attack Shakespeare - 'Shakespeare might have been whatever you like, but he was not an artist.' Orwell countered with a meticulous essay, painstakingly going through each of Tolstoy's arguments and refuting them and still came to the conclusion that King Lear is not a very good play - 'It is too drawn-out and has too many characters and sub-plots.'
Recently however, the critical mass of opinion has moved in favour of the play, particularly in the last century. G. Wilson Knight in 'The Wheel of Fire' 1930 explored the hugeness of the world of the play- 'King Lear is great in the abundance and richness of human delineation, in the level focus of creation that builds a massive oneness, in fact, a universe...'
Harley Granville Barker in his Prefaces to Shakespeare (1930) wondered at the magnificent stagecraft shown in the wealth of characters that Shakespeare brings to King Lear - 'Edmund is another Iago, Edgar might have been at Wittenberg with Hamlet and Oswald steps straight from the Seventeenth Century London streets...'
Peter Brook's monumental production of the play for the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1962, recently voted the greatest stage performance of Shakespeare ever, reimagined King Lear anew, with a perception that this was not only a great play but a necessary one.
Jan Kott in 1964 drew parallels between King Lear and Samuel Becket's Endgame to point out the link between the world of tragedy and the world of the grotesque. G.K. Hunter wrote in 1987 'King Lear is generally agreed today to be Shakespeare's 'greatest play', not only by the learned...but also by the general public...'
In Everybody's Shakespeare (1993), Maynard Mack presents King Lear as the play most in line with contemporary philosophy, 'As compared with Hamlet, the nineteenth century's favorite, King Lear speaks of a world more problematical...King Lear's world, like our century, is larger, looser, cruder, crueller.'
Harold Bloom in Shakespeare - The Invention of the Human (1998) places the play beyond even the greatest works ever written, and posits that Hamlet and King Lear 'now constitute either a kind of secular scripture or a mythology'.
Nahum Tate from Dedication and Prologue to his version of King Lear 1681
Samuel Johnson from Preface and Notes to his edition of King Lear 1765
Charles Lamb from 'On the Tragedies of Shakespeare' 1810
Samuel Taylor Coleridge from 'Shakespeare and Milton' 1811
August Wilhelm Schlegel from Lectures on Dramatic Art and Literature 1811
William Hazlitt from Characters of Shakespeare's Plays 1817
John Keats 'On Sitting Down to Read King Lear Once Again' 1818
Percy Bysshe Shelley from A Defence of Poetry 1821
Edward Dowden from 'Shakspere' 1893
Click here to use our guide to the currently available published critical studies of Shakespeare's King Lear.