In Lear and life, everything comes from nothing

Watching Shakespeare's greatest play again it struck me it has as much to say about parenting as madness and getting old

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Of all the adolescent enthusiasms that have stayed with me through my twenties, few have such stamina as the belief that King Lear is the greatest literary achievement of all time, in any language. This column is not usually a province of literary criticism; but on the grounds that every social problem is in some sense negotiated by the play, I hope you'll forgive me for the following reflections on the magnificent production I saw at London's Almeida theatre earlier this week.

First, as my dear supervision partner Brooke Lewis, now taking over New York, said all those years ago, the thing about Lear is that it's not so much tragedy as comedy gone horribly wrong. The play is full of comic structures – the letters of deception; Dover Cliff, which in another context could just be a hilarious rendition of Blind Man's Buff – but devoid of comic forgiveness. The pain of the conclusion comes from the constant sense that another more tender and gentle plot might have unfolded.

For starters, Cordelia could have just played the game of “Love-thy-Father” that her sisters play, sang his praises, and we'd all go home after the first scene. Instead, when asked what she'll say to profess her love, she says “Nothing”. Lear responds “Nothing will come of nothing. Speak again.” And still she refuses, so Lear's wits begin to turn, and we get five acts after all. In Lear, everything comes from “Nothing”.

I was also struck by how few lines Cordelia actually has; how peculiar it is that Edmund, the bastard anti-hero, and Lear should have no relationship at all; and finally by the utter majesty of Edmund's “excellent foppery” speech, in which he perfectly lays out the case for atheism by pointing out the stupidity of man laying “his goatish disposition to the charge of a star”.

Above all – and this is the real reason for writing this column – I was struck by the sheer egoism monarchy infects Lear's parenthood with. I've been thinking a lot about parenthood recently, for reasons I'll explain at a later date, and about how my parents, not having much to give, gave me everything. Lear, by contrast, has so much to give that he ends up giving nothing at all.

“Poverty makes you rich” was always the stupidest thing that hippies said. But Lear does show how wealth can distort familial obligation. I used to think my favourite play was about madness, and growing old. Watching it this week, I realised what my parents gave me that I never knew I had.

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