In an earlier, generously illustrated post, we noted how artists have liked to paint scenes from Hamlet. Happily, artists have also given plenty of attention to Emsworth’s favorite Shakespeare play, King Lear.
The finest Lear picture that we know is also the easiest to see in person, at least for New Yorkers. It’s at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and it illustrates the end of the dramatic first scene in King Lear. The aging English warrior and king, Lear, has called his three daughters to him in order to divide up his kingdom among them; he plans to enjoy himself in retirement at their respective castles.
With ill-considered vanity, Lear first asks his daughters to tell him how much they love him. Goneril and Regan flatter the old man shamelessly and are awarded their shares of his kingdom. But Cordelia, his youngest daughter and always his favorite, refuses to play the game and arouses the wrath of the choleric old king, who gives her nothing and banishes her in a fit of pique.
Cordelia calls out her hypocritical sisters in a parting speech whose lines are engraved on the frame of Cordelia’s Farewell, the 1894 picture by the American artist Edwin Austin Abbey from the Met shown above:
Ye jewels of our father, with wash’d eyes
Cordelia leaves you: I know you what you are;
And, like a sister, am most loath to call
Your faults as they are nam’d. Use well our father:
To your professed bosoms I commit him:
But yet, alas, stood I within his grace,
I would prefer him to a better place.
So farewell to you both.
The three sisters are on the left side of Abbey’s large painting (nearly ten feet wide!). Regan wears a dark gown, Cordelia wears a bitter smile and holds up the folds of her red dress, and Goneril, in white, points toward the back of the stoop-shouldered Lear, who is followed by a dog. (The dog is not in Shakespeare.)
Scenes from Shakespeare seem to have been something of a speciality for Abbey. He used a similar palette in The Play Scene in Hamlet, at the art museum at Yale University (shown here; Hamlet is lying with his head on Ophelia’s lap). It looks as if his models for the two pictures may have been wearing some of the same borrowed costumes and props.
In the play, things go badly for Lear after he has given away his kingdom. Regan and Goneril can’t be bothered with their father and refuse to let him stay with them; they even turn him away in the face of a storm.
As the tempest reaches its height, Lear wanders on the heath, accompanied only by his Fool and his faithful friend, Kent, railing against the elements, his ungrateful daughters, and the unjustness of the fates. Of all the scenes from Lear, the tempest scene seems to have been the most tempting to painters. This large picture, King Lear and the Fool in the Storm, by the Scottish painter William Dyce, who showed the wind but overlooked the rain, was painted about 1851 and is at the National Gallery of Scotland in Edinburgh. The Fool is begging his master to go and ask his daughters for mercy: “here’s a night pities neither wise man nor fool” (Act III, scene 2).
Kent persuades Lear, nearly mad with grief, to take shelter in a hut, a scene that is the subject of the American artist Benjamin West’s crowded 1788 painting, King Lear (just above), which is at the Detroit Institute of Arts. In the hut, Lear, the Fool, and Kent are joined by Edgar (disguised as a madmen), and then by Lear’s friend Gloucester, who risks the wrath of Lear’s older daughters by offering the king food and shelter. According to Maria Grazia Messina in Shakespeare in Art, the English portrait painter George Romney was “obsessed” with the story of Lear. The Romney painting to the left, King Lear in the Tempest Tearing off his Robes (left), gives us the moment in Act III, scene 4 when Gloucester appears through the storm, looking for Lear. In the center of the picture, Lear is tearing off his clothes in solidarity with the near-naked Edgar; the Fool points to Gloucester, who carries a torch: “Look, here comes a walking fire.”
Toward the end of the play, Cordelia returns from exile with a French army and is briefly reunited with her father, whose senses are recovered and who now realizes how unjust he has been to his youngest daughter. But after a battle, both Lear and Cordelia become prisoners of the bastard Edmund, as depicted in William Blake’s 1779 watercolor, Lear and Cordelia in Prison (above), which is in the Tate Britain in London. At Edmund’s order, Cordelia is hanged. Lear discovers her body and carries her onstage, then himself dies of grief, the scene portrayed in the Irish painter James Barry’s 1774 picture, King Lear Mourns the Death of Cordelia.