Before You Read We That Are Young, a Quick Guide to King Lear
Preti Taneja’s debut novel We That Are Young is a stunning retelling of Shakespeare’s King Lear set in modern-day India where a billionaire hotelier and political operator decides to divide his empire among his three daughters. Taneja’s adaptation reminds us that the bard’s works remain bracingly relevant while opening our eyes to contemporary inequalities. Shakespeare’s enduring themes of the clash between youth and age, the hunger for power, the ever-present specter of death, and the fragility of the human heart have inspired countless productions and authors from Ian McEwan to Jane Smiley. Now, Taneja brings her own exquisitely original take to this classic work.
You don’t have to have read Shakespeare’s play to enjoy We That Are Young, but it does help to have a basic understanding. So for those of us whose high school copies of King Lear have gathered some dust or for others who have never cracked the spine on this tragedy, here’s a brief summary.
King Lear: King of Britain who has decided to divide his kingdom among his daughters
Cordelia: Lear’s youngest and favorite daughter
Goneril: Lear’s oldest daughter
Regan: Lear’s middle daughter
An elderly King Lear of Britain decides that he is ready to retire and wants to hand his kingdom down to his three daughters, giving the largest share to the daughter who loves him most. The two oldest daughters, Goneril and Regan, speak first flattering Lear in sycophantic terms. Lear grants them their shares then turns to his youngest and favorite daughter, Cordelia, expecting an even greater declaration. Cordelia at first refuses to speak and then explains that she cannot put her love into words. She loves her father as much, no more no less, than is her bond. Lear becomes enraged at her heartfelt but forthright statement and disinherits Cordelia, dividing her share among the older sisters.
As soon as they gain power, Goneril and Regan reveal that they lied about their love for their father. They work to discredit his position and engage in an underhanded power struggle amongst themselves. We don’t want to give away the particulars in case you and your reading group want to revisit the play, but what follows is a story of backstabbing, jealousy, and madness, ultimately resulting in one of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies.
“Nothing will come of nothing: speak again.” (Act I, Scene I)
“How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is
To have a thankless child!” (Act I, Scene IV)
“Have more than thou showest,
Speak less than thou knowest,
Lend less than thou owest.” (Act I, Scene IV)
“As flies to wanton boys are we to th’ gods.
They kill us for their sport.” (Act IV, Scene I)
“When we are born, we cry that we are come
To this great stage of fools.” (Act IV, Scene VI)
“The weight of this sad time we must obey,
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.
The oldest hath borne most: we that are young
Shall never see so much, nor live so long.” (Act V, Scene III)