Working in a middle school in a town that is the county seat in a state with an unemployment rate that exceeds the national average, I see plenty of dysfunctional families. Who would have thought I would have been amazed by the crazy family dynamics of a play written in 1605.
Things I see in my everyday student interactions include:
- Students with four sets of parents
- Students whose parents are in jail
- Students who live with their grandparents or aunt and uncle
- Students with hyphenated last names because of their parental marriage situation
- Students who don’t have enough food, clean clothes or their own bed to sleep in
I could continue, but just writing this down is depressing me.
In King Lear, we have a crazy king with three daughters (no one knows what happened to Mrs. Lear) and a lord who has two sons. None of these people live happily ever after.
The king disowns his youngest daughter for no apparent reason and bequeaths his worldly goods to the other two (and their spouses) with the stipulation that he will reside a month at a time at either of their estates. He will arrive to the oldest daughter’s home with his retinue of 100 knights shortly.
These loving daughters turn him away. He can’t stay unless he gives up his knights. How could they possibly support such a hoard of hungry men? Oh, I wonder. Using the money you just inherited from the very father you’re denying perhaps?
Our other model family is Lord Gloucester and his sons. His oldest son seems somewhat dense but fiercely loyal. His youngest son is illegitimate and weary of being overlooked. Big brother gets all the strokes and carries around dad’s name. He decides to betray them both.
First, he manufactures a plot against his father and says his brother planned it. He sends the brother away, claiming he will take up his cause with their father. Not a chance. Later, he allows the father’s eyes to be gouged out and the brother to wander aimlessly.
In the end, they all die. After all, this is Shakespeare. The two older sisters fight over the illegitimate son and poison each other. The older brother kills the younger brother in a duel. The disowned daughter is murdered and the king dies of a broken heart.
It’s worse than any soap opera aired today. Exponentially worse.
Do you feel that Shakespeare needed to kill so many of his major characters to get his point across? Do people have to die for a story to be considered tragic? I’d love to hear from you.