William Shakespeare’s King Lear is a timeless play whose textual integrity lends itself to a variety of interpretations and in exploring the human condition the text remains relevant across a wide range of contexts. It is possible to present the text as exploring and affirming the human condition, where humanity is defined as the ability to love and empathise. However, in the same instance, a nihilist perspective, such as Peter Brooke’s 1971 production of King Lear, challenges this by outlining that humanity as an imaginary ideal.
The notion that humanity is possessed only by those who understand and perceive the basic human condition can be seen to be explored in King Lear. Lear’s advancing madness allows him to perceive reality once he is stripped of his title and reduced to “nothing” during the storm scene; that is, that man is merely a “poor, bare, forked animal” and that he, for all his royalty, is “no more than this”. Imagery is utilised to affirm his epiphany and accept his insignificance as a mere mortal. In his humility, Lear is able to understand the values of humanity, demonstrated when he bids Cordelia not to resist being jailed, an indication that he has discovered that true filial love is more important than fighting for the material concepts of rank, property and power.
However, this play could be just as readily interpreted by Nihilism to be an indication of the fundamental nothingness that the world consists of, where Lear is portrayed as accepting the notion that there is nothing but the cold, harsh, bleak world represented by the empty frosted landscape in Peter Brooke’s production. The logical sanity of the antagonists, Gonerill, Regan and Edmond, belie their “base” tendencies, as represented through animal imagery such as “pelican daughters” and “toad spotted traitor”. Regan exposes sadistic tendencies and a lust for bloodshed and violence during Gloucester’s blinding, though her speech is consistently rational and lacking in...
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