Book Reviews: King Lear Edition

Thursday, July 15, 2010

I love Shakespeare. I love his wit, his stories, the comedies, the tragedies, the characters, the language, I love it all. I try to read a couple plays by the bard each year and this year I decided to read King Lear. Lear, of course, led to Fool, which led to A Thousand Acres, both of which are re-tellings of the original play.

I decided I would read all three and compare them. In addition to that, I watched the 2008 Royal Shakespeare Company production of King Lear starring Ian McKellen and Romola Garai, which was delightful (in that horribly tragic kind of way).
I'm a bit King-Leared out now, but it was interesting to read them all at once.

King Lear
by William Shakespeare

King Lear decides to divide his kingdom between his three daughters based on how clearly they express their love for him with words and flattery. Cordelia, who loves him best, refuses to participate in the charade, because her actions over the years should be testament enough. Because of this Lear gives his other two selfish daughters his entire kingdom. They quickly strip him of power and he realizes his mistake, but it's too late to avoid the horrible consequences.

This is a tragedy in every possibly way. The characters make horrible decisions, which lead to their inevitable downfall. The thing I found fascinating about this play is the family dynamics. Relationships between a father and his daughters, sisters, brothers, a father and his sons; these are the real heartbeat of the story. More than Hamlet, Romeo & Juliet or Othello, King Lear dives deep into the world of families and questions why we do awful things to the people we're suppose to love.

I loved the writing, but was so frustrated with the characters. Even the good characters were destroyed in the end. I wanted someone to punish the bad, without harming the good, but alas, that's not how tragedies end.


by Christopher Moore


A bawdy re-telling of King Lear from the clever Fool's point of view. Moore's hilarious satire introduces us to King Lear's fool, Pocket, and through his eyes we see the tragedy unfold. Moore infuses humor into the dire situations, which breathes life into the story. In this version the Fool plays a pivotal role in the drama, prodding the characters to make certain decisions and suggesting solutions to others.

Pocket and his apprentice Drool have a very "Lenny and George" style relationship. Pocket is small and clever, while Drool is large and dim, but their friendship is sweet. Pocket is hilarious and the language throughout is so clever. Moore showers his readers in puns and plays with words just like Shakespeare himself loved to do.

"Carpe Diem!"

"What? The Fish of the Day?"

This was my first taste of Moore's work and I will definitely be back for more. Sometimes satires based on a classic can fall flat, but this one only enhanced my reading of the original Lear. Jenners of Find Your Next Book Here, has been singing his praises for a long time and I'm glad I listened!

A Thousand Acres

by Jane Smiley


In this retelling of King Lear, Ginny, the eldest daughter, tells the story from her point-of-view. Set in modern day Iowa an elderly farmer, Larry, decides to give his daughters joint ownership of his farm. He cuts his youngest daughter out of the deal after she disagrees with the decision. The names of the characters are all close to the original characters' names (Larry is Lear, Ginny is Goneril, Rose is Regan, and Caroline is Cordelia), which makes it easy to see the mirrored plot.

The book uses the story of King Lear very loosely, as more of a jumping off point than a true re-telling. We learn about Ginny's frequent miscarriages and troubled relationship with her sisters and father. Her neighbor (a loose recreation of Edmund) becomes a distraction from her sedate marriage as the rest of her life spirals into conflict.

In this version of the story, Ginny and Rose are the victims and Larry/Lear is a controlling, abusive father who has been exploiting his daughters for years. Caroline is spoiled and oblivious to much of the family's history and so she doesn't see her father for who he really is. This twist of the original tale reminds me of Gregory Maguire's books (Wicked, etc.), which rewrite fairy tales from the "villain's" point-of-view.

After awhile I felt really frustrated by Ginny's character, she's so weak and so malleable. I had a hard time connecting with her. Rose is hard to love, but at least she's honest about how she feels. The book drags a bit and I felt like it could have cut a lot without hurting the plot. I'm glad I read it to compare it with King Lear, but it won't stick with me like the original will.

"I have often thought that the death of a parent is the one misfortune from which there is no compensation."


Enbrethiliel said...


And now I confess that I'm totally unfamiliar with King Lear. (I remember laughing at someone's comment that the only way it would be successful as a movie is if it were renamed Cordelia and cast with Gwyneth Paltrow--but I was obviously laughing at another element in the joke!)

Having said that, I think Moore's retelling of the story from the point of view of the court fool is a brilliant idea. Who better to dissect court politics for us?

The Readings of a Busy Mom said...

i ove shakespear and i love your reviews may of these books i have not heard off so may look into buying them

My Blog

Anonymous said...

I had no idea the Smiley book was based on King Lear. So now, maybe I'll stay clear. I am not that good at following these kinds of things unless I 've really delved into the Shakespeare. (not, just haven't - not my background?) I totally missed it in Edgar Sawtelle and then felt really foolish. I'm starting to think I really SHOULD do more research before I read some books.

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

Enbrethiliel - I would have laughed at that comment too, because it's kind of true and I completely agree about the fool comment. It was a great way to hear the story.

bkclubcare - I hadn't heard that about Edgar Sawtelle, but it makes me more interested to read that one now.

Jenners said...

Yay!! You read a Moore and liked him!! I'm so glad!! This is my next Moore book -- I'm reading Fool and King Lear for the Take Another Chance Challenge. And I read A Thousand Acres years ago ... and did not realize it was based on Lear too!!

I suspect I shall be writing a very similar post to this one in the near future!