And Take Upon Us the Mystery of Things: The Poetry of King Lear

At the heart of King Lear we are taken inside a rather common experience: an elderly man loses his power, his wealth, his family and his mind. Lear begins to lose these things early in the play, so that his story is not a typical tragedy but rather a new, modern kind of epic. The hero’s adventure is not a grand quest across foreign lands. It is instead an exploration of an interior underworld, of the losses of aging and mental illness, carried out among scenes of horrific violence and absurd humour.

The Talawa Theatre’s Don Warrington as King Lear
Photo: Jonathan Keenan

Descent into this underworld has proven irresistible to actors, writers and artists across the centuries. Especially after the altered, non-tragic ending created in the 1680s gave way to Shakespeare’s original plot, King Lear has been an incomparably rich opportunity to examine with an unflinching eye “the nature of human suffering and kinship on a cosmic scale.” From performances by colonial troupes in Jamaica to the Talawa Theatre’s 2016 production, from Kurosawa’s Ran to Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres to a brand-new Indian novel, We That Are Young, Lear’s universally compelling story continues to be reinvented and retold.

Statue of King Lear in Leicestershire
Photo: Matt Fascione

At the centre of so many of these retellings is the extraordinary poetry in Lear’s speeches, which makes his journey real for us. In our seminar we will study the language of these dramatic monologues and “mad” conversations, which have become some of the most influential poetic works in English. While we will discuss the play as a play and include performances of it, the poetry will be our area of sharpest focus because that is where “the mystery of things” is realized.

 

“Thou shouldst not have been old till thou hadst been wise”

– Lear’s Fool, act 1, scene 5

Overview

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Leader
Rosemary Gould lives in Charlottesville with her family (which includes three naturally very grateful teenagers). She has a Ph.D. in English literature from the University of Virginia and is communications director of a small nonprofit. King Lear is her favourite tragedy and the only one that seems to offer a kind of crazy wisdom for her own life. She has been leading seminars on lyric poetry for many years. 

Books
King Lear, by William Shakespeare (Folger Shakespeare Library)
(Simon & Schuster, 2015)
ISBN-13: 978-1501118111

In seminar and/or during the afternoon programs, we will also consider retellings of Lear from around the world.

Participants are required to obtain the specified edition to facilitate the group’s ability to find and cite portions of the text during discussion. Details will be provided at registration.

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