Last week a friend and I went to an exhibition at the John Rylands library, owned by The University of Manchester. The exhibit was on witchcraft and the supernatural, and they had some fantastic documents on display. It is definitely the most beautiful library I have EVER been in, here are some pictures, for anyone who might be interested. Would recommend a visit as a must to anyone in or near Manchester, if they haven’t already been!
Although we mainly went for my friend, who specialises in Italian Renaissance history, I also found a few things on display which were of particular interest to my degree. They had Shakespeare’s first folio on display, as well as a first edition of the sonnets (obviously open on Sonnet 18). Which got me thinking, which Shakespeare play is my favourite?
Don’t get me wrong, I am more of a Marlowe person, but unfortunately he never had the chance to produce as many plays as Shakespeare. I get that the language can make his work seem inaccessible, at first, but I think with a good edition and after reading a few of his plays, it gets much easier to get to grips with. Some people argue with me that he’s dated- I could not disagree more on this point, he is just as relevant (probably more so) now as he was in the 1600’s. His plays represent human nature, in all of its forms. I really can’t think of a personality which he has not covered, in some way. He also doesn’t get credit for his sense of humour, a lot of his plays are hilarious!
My favourite play by Shakespeare, however, is not very generously supplied with humour. I first read King Lear three years ago, and I absolutely hated it. I know all plays require a certain amount of suspending your disbelief, but this? From the first scene it hit me as being so blatantly ridiculous; he’s cast aside his loyal daughter and split his kingdom between the two evil ones instead, and it doesn’t necessarily get much more convincing after that.
But then I, for college, had to read it a few times, and it struck me that perhaps it wasn’t all so black and white. The play didn’t get more believable the more often I read it, I just stopped seeing the play as a plot that had to make sense, and started seeing it as a depiction of human nature. Take Goneril and Regan; they do bad things, but how would you feel if your father had declared in front of a room full of people that you were only getting a decent share of his will because his favourite child had displeased him, and the terms of this was that he was going to stay with you for six months every year, along with 100 of his friends? I thought so. Lear is a difficult man, and he shows himself to be rash. Or Edmund, he is a bastard and very much a product of his time. I was born out of wedlock, and I can safely say I have never even been asked about it, but back then it was considered a pretty horrendous social stigma. Plus, he is a lot more intelligent than Edgar, and ALWAYS cast as being the better looking brother. These characters are what makes King Lear so amazing- good and evil characters are ENTIRELY subjective.
I think the play took longer to grow on me, because tragedies are a genre I just find harder to like. Some do contain comic elements, like Romeo and Juliet (which was my close second favourite), which I think helps me to warm to them a bit more. After the second reading of King Lear I could appreciate the literary merit and significance. Then I began to see, it is just so incredibly relevant. There is no person who can be completely good all of the time, even the saintly (wet flannel, if you ask me) character of Cordelia shows herself to be very proud. Likewise, although Lear is rash and often cruel he is not an inherently evil character who can’t be sympathised with.