King Lear and Othello: Shakespeare’s Tragedies for the Truly Morbid

Reference & EducationEducation

  • Author Paul Thomson
  • Published July 5, 2010
  • Word count 590

Romeo and Juliet is mandatory reading in most public high schools across the country. For romantics, it’s a beautiful story of the ultimate sacrifice. For lit buffs, it’s a showcase of some of the best writing in the English language. For students with some knowledge of Elizabethan slang, it’s a treasure trove of sexual humor.

But for those of us who’ve had it up to here with hormonal teen angst, it’s a low point on the reading list. Before you throw your hands up in frustration, try another of Shakespeare’s less peppy tragedies on for size, like King Lear, a play about the downfall of a stupid character. (No, really.) So what’s so tragic about that? Namely the fact that he takes eight other major characters down with him.

It all starts when King Lear takes his three daughters aside and asks them to tell him how much they love him. The first two, who really can’t stand the guy, wax poetic about how great he is. (Kings have that effect on people. Especially rich ones.) The third daughter, who actually loves her dad, refuses to belittle her feelings by playing some stupid game. Like a true egomaniac, King Lear then splits the kingdom between the first two daughters and disowns the third. Parenting: accomplished.

Once the greedy sisters have what they want, they go ahead and give their old man the boot. Things go from bad to worse, and before you know it, King Lear is wandering around naked in the wilderness with a homeless guy and all the time in the world to think about what he’s done. A battle for the kingdom ensues, and though we don’t want to give away the ending, suffice it to say that banishments, suicides, affairs, and executions all take turns seriously screwing things up.

If sibling rivalry isn’t dark enough for you, try sinking your teeth into Othello, one of the earliest, edgiest works in the Western canon to deal openly with the theme of racism. Othello is a black former slave from North Africa who’s worked his way up to the position of general in the Venetian army. The Italians are a-okay with him risking his life for their country, but as soon as he marries Desdemona, a white woman, everyone decides that, come to think of it, he’s kind of a monster.

The plot unfolds as Iago, a jealous, conniving fellow soldier, decides to destroy Othello’s marriage. First, he and a friend run to Desdemona’s father and tell him that his daughter is eloping with a black man without his blessing. Desdemona’s father assumes that Othello somehow "tricked" his daughter, so imagine everyone’s surprise when she explains that actually, she was only too happy to marry the man she loves.

Cut to Plan B: Iago decides to really hit below the belt by convincing Othello that Desdemona is having an affair. That way, when Othello reacts, you know, angrily, everyone’s hatred and fear will be totally justified. Through constant, escalating manipulation, Iago manages to push Othello into a violent rage. Finally getting their I-told-you-so moment, everyone is satisfied. Except, you know, all the people who’re dead (or wish they were).

So if dying in the name of love à la Romeo and Juliet isn’t your cup of tea, there’s always dying as a result of other people’s stupidity. After all, no one gets his tragedy on like Shakespeare.

Shmoop is an online study guide for King Lear, Othello and many more. Its content is written by Ph.D. and Masters students from top universities, like Stanford, Berkeley, Harvard, and Yale who have also taught at the high school and college levels. Teachers and students should feel confident to cite Shmoop.

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