King Lear is, according to the seasoned Shakespeare critic and scholar Maurice Charney, “the most savage and unredeemed of Shakespeare’s tragedies”, while he considers the character of Lear himself to be “the most fully developed of Shakespeare’s tragic protagonists”. At the same time he finds the play very didactic — even preachy — at times. Such contradictions are part of what leads Harold Bloom to confess (in his commentary on the play) that “King Lear, together with Hamlet, ultimately baffles commentary”. I think they’re both right. It’s a vast, intense, sprawling, and somewhat undisciplined play, founded more upon a mood and a tonality than upon any particular plot or narrative movement from point A to point B.
Accordingly it keeps not only readers but viewers off balance. Its curious construction and apparent disproportions are bewildering. It is nearly impossible to figure out whether there is anyone who has the whole picture or who holds the moral high ground. It is not an easy play, therefore, in any respect.
For all that, the outline of the story is remarkably straightforward and devoid of complications. Lear foolishly determines to divide his kingdom amongst his daughters, and in so doing, is swayed too little by plain but honest speech (that of Cordelia) and instead actively seeks and rewards flattery. The rest of the play is the playing-out of this initial folly. Lear himself, of course, winds up paying the price for his capriciousness; but other characters in the play — none of them entirely good or wise — are also ensnared in the brutal consequences of his blindness as well.
Film versions of King Lear have been made in some number — not as many as versions of Hamlet or Romeo and Juliet, perhaps, but quite a number. The play is something for the seasoned and respected Shakespeare actor to sink his teeth into at or near the end of his career. It has been the capstone achievement of many a Shakspearean, and it’s one of those plays (like Hamlet) that will rise and fall based on the single performance of its lead character.