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Summary

King Lear is perhaps the most poignant character in literature. The aged, abused monarch is at once the consummate figure of authority and the classic example of the fall from majesty. He is widely agreed to be William Shakespeare's most moving, tragic hero.  

Award-winning writer and beloved professor Harold Bloom writes about Lear with wisdom, joy, exuberance, and compassion. He also explores his own personal relationship to the character: Just as we encounter one Emma Bovary or Hamlet when we are 17 and another when we are 40, Bloom writes about his shifting understanding - over the course of his own lifetime - of Lear, so that this audiobook also explores an extraordinarily moving argument for literature as a path to and a measure of our humanity.  

Bloom is mesmerizing in the classroom, wrestling with the often tragic choices Shakespeare's characters make. He delivers that kind of exhilarating intimacy, pathos, and clarity in Lear.

©2018 Harold Bloom (P)2019 HighBridge Company

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Its a kind of running commentary

The format of this book follows much of Bloom's later work (taken from his lectures apparently). He mixes interpretation and reflection as he comments on key passages in the play (moving in sequence). His commentary links the text to specific characterisation, side-references to other Shakespearean plays (mainly Hamlet), and wider cultural references - he thinks that the play King Lear is linked to various bits of the Old and New Testaments. He considers, briefly, themes such as nature, authority, madness, and he refers quite a bit to characters adopting disguises and changing their roles (i.e. actors acting within the play) but doesn't get into the kind of theatre that makes a theme of theatricality.

Many decades ago, Lear was my A-Level set text and the essays we were taught to write seemed pretty similar (that mix of quotation, thematic analysis and don't forget the use of mini-quotations to show you have read all the play!). I was expecting this to be a few levels above all that, but it wasn't really. I'm not sure what Bloom's students really got from this - I'm sure most of the real work came through Bloom's assistants who probably had the task of checking the students could actually make independent critical use of these insights (I hope so!).

Bloom's genius was based upon his vast knowledge of literary creation and his ability to make links between such writers that are not immediately obvious. There was not too much scope for this here - by contrast Take Arms Against a Sea of Troubles (2020) employs the same format, using it to read the history of poetry in the light of the stark reality of death, makes full use of this great ability.

But, that said, I found this commentary on King Lear accessible and there was no super-complicated criticism - though he does presume a working knowledge of the play. The narrator, Simon Vance, handled everything with consummate skill, which helped make it pleasant listening. I was not wowed, but would probably enjoy listening to another of his Shakespearean commentaries.