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Having reviewed over 1200 books on this blog, I have now written two myself. Motherdarling is a story about a search for a missing Will which reveals long-hidden family secrets. The Kids of God is a thriller set in a dystopia ruled by fascist paramilitaries. Both are available as paperbacks and on Kindle through Amazon. I live in Canterbury, England. I lived for more than thirty years in Bedford. Having retired from teaching; I became a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Liminality. I achieved my PhD in 2019. I am now properly retired. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Sunday, 9 October 2016

"King Lear" by William Shakespeare

I saw a stupendous performance of King Lear by the Royal Shakespeare Company in the Barbican Theatre on 26th November 2016 with Anthony Sher as the King and a magnificent performance by David Troughton as Gloucester. I also saw Lear on BBC2 on 28th May 2018 in a superb TV adaptation with the wonderful Anthony Hopkins as Lear, Emma Thompson and Emily Watson stunning as Goneril and Regan, Jim Carter stupendous as the Earl of Kent, Jim Broadbent brilliant as Gloucester, great performances by Fool (Karl Johnson) and Oswald (Christopher Eccleston) and a spell-binding performance as Edmund by John Macmillan.

King Lear is the classic Shakespeare play about a King, retiring, who gives his kingdom to his daughters after asking them to tell him how much they love him. The older two flatter him and please him, the younger cannot and, in a rage, he cuts her off without anything. But then he discovers that the older two won't look after him now they have his power. He runs off into the teeth of a storm on a heath, accompanied by his Fool, and the Duke of Kent (whom he earlier banished but has returned disguised to serve him). In the storm, Lear goes mad.

This is the only tragedy with a full sub-plot. Edmund is the bastard son of the Earl of Gloucester and fools his father into disinheriting his half-brother, legitimate Edgar, and then betrays his father to Lear's harpy-like daughters who blind Gloucester. The sisters then fall out over which one of them should take Edmund to their bed.

The madness of Lear is a remarkable piece of Shakespearean theatre when, for perhaps the only time, Shakespeare leaves the formality of verse-drama far behind. Act 3, Scene 6, almost at the dead centre of the play, contains a remarkable three-hander in which Lear is going mad, Edgar pretends madness, and the Fool is making fun. 

Nothingness is a motif. In the first scene, when Cordelia the youngest daughter is told to tell Lear how much she loves him, because she lacks "that glib and oily art? To speak and purpose not", she says: "Nothing, my Lord." Lear replies "Nothing?" and she repeats "Nothing." He then states "Nothing will come of nothing". And, in the end, this is what happens. When Edgar is pretending to read a forged letter from his brother he tells his father that it is "Nothing, my lord" and Gloucester says "The quality of nothing hath not such need to hide itself." When Kent derides a poem by the fool as  "This is nothing, fool", the Fool asks Lear "Can you make no use of nothing, nuncle?"; Lear replies "nothing can be made out of nothing"; later the fool will tell Lear that Lear himself is "Lear's shadow." A Gentleman tells Kent that he has scene Lear upon the heath:  the wind "tears his white hair/ Which the impetuous blasts, with eyeless rage,/ Catch in their fury, and make nothing of". And when Lear meets Gloucester, who has had his eyes plucked out, he says sadly: "This great world/ Shall so wear out to nought"

Edmund's anger at being a bastard. He thinks that love-children, because they are born in passion, must be better than children born from dutiful marital sex: 
"Why brand they us
With base? with baseness? bastardy? base, base? 
Who in the lusty stealth of nature take? 
More composition and fierce quality
Than doth, within a dull, stale, tired bed, 
Go to th'creating a whole tribe of fops,
Got 'tween asleep and wake?"

Later, he is in the position of having to decide which queen to marry:
"To both these sisters have I sworn my love;
Each jealous of the other, as the stung
Are of the adder. Which of them shall I take?
Both? one? or neither? Neither can be enjoy'd
If both remain alive
But at the end, defeated and dying, he can still reflect that he was loved by two queens:
"Yet Edmund was belov'd: 
The one the other poison'd for my sake,
And after slew herself."

Edgar, fleeing the battle with his father, helps him rest beneath a tree. They need to go further off to be safe but Gloucester just wants to stay there and die. Edgar refuses: "Men must endure/ Their going hence, even as their coming hither:/ Ripeness is all."

And in the final scene, Lear enters bearing the body of Cordelia. But is she dead? He can't decide:
"Howl, howl, howl! O, you are men of stones!
Had I your tongues and eyes, I'd use them so
That heaven's vault should crack. She's gone for ever.
I know when one is dead, and when one lives;
She's dead as earth. Lend me a looking glass;
If that her breath will mist or stain the stone,
Why then she lives.

There is a great explanation of this play in James Shapiro's 1606: William Shakespeare and the Year of Lear.

Other Shakespeare plays reviewed in this blog include (productions mentioned in parentheses; RSC = Royal Shakespeare Company; NT = National Theatre):

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