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  • Writer's pictureMarcus Bazley

29. King Lear

Got a couple of the big guns coming up now. King Lear this week and Macbeth next week. It’s always interesting to come to these ‘great’ plays with fresh eyes and see what new ideas or perspectives emerge.

The first thing that struck me about reading King Lear, was how easy to read it was. Despite being a theatre director, I don’t always find plays that easy to read. I would rather read a novel or a good piece of non-fiction – something that was actually designed to be read. I find I often have to force myself to read plays – they are, after all, primarily designed to heard and seen.

But the thing that has stuck me during this Shakespeare challenge, is that the really great plays are a joy to read. Hamlet, Richard III, Henry V all whizzed by whilst reading. King Lear was exactly the same – if not more so.

I absolutely see why this is often regarded as Shakespeare’s greatest play. There is so much here to mine into and so many different directions and interpretations you could take. It is both an intimate family drama, and an epic contest for the future of a nation, its identity and style of government. It has scheming villains, flawed heroes, black comedy and almost farcical violence. Like Hamlet, it is another play that pushes characters to the boundaries of their mental capacity, exploring some of our greatest human fears – physical mutilation, mental incapacity, abandonment, death, loss of power and much more.

Writing this now, it strikes me that discussions around King Lear (like Hamlet) often hinge around the madness or otherwise of the title character. In both cases though, one could argue that it is the characters around them that are far more mad than they are! I think it would be fair to say that Goneril, Cornwall, Regan and Edmund all behave at various points throughout the play in a far from sane manner. Their crazed, even demented, lust for power, plus their almost psychopathic lack of empathy seems far more mad to me than Lear himself.

In Lear’s case, he is certainly unruly and rash. He appears to make span judgements and be slow to forgive. One suspects he has been like this much of his life though. It’s hard to imagine him as an especially loving father or a particularly measured and just king. His struggles are quite easy to rationalise though. He goes from a position of absolute power to a position of powerlessness incredibly rapidly and all through his own doing. It was his plan to abdicate and put himself at the mercy of his daughters. What did he expect to happen? A power vacuum and subsequent power struggle was almost inevitable. And he would no longer be a key player in that process. In one stroke, he made himself irrelevant. For me, it is this that drives him to despair and distraction. He has failed both as a king and as a father. His stubbornness to stay out in the storm seems like a form of self punishment. He won’t consciously admit to himself that it was his fault – he still outwardly blames his ungrateful daughters (though where did they learn this ingratitude but from him?) – but his actions suggest a man who cannot cope with his own behaviour and failings. He is overwhelmed with the horrible realisation that he is meaningless.

It’s quite trendy to try and place modern medical diagnoses on Shakespearian characters. Does Lear suffer from dementia? Does Hamlet suffer from depression? I, personally, don’t think this is very helpful. This is placing an external interpretation or framework onto a pre-existing piece. Just play the text. If the audience interprets the character’s behaviour as madness, dementia, or depression, so be it. It is not our place to diagnose our characters. It is our place to play them as openly as possible. The diagnosis is essentially irrelevant because the play is not about a medical condition, it is about a human experience.

Edgar is also a fascinating character. I find his feigned madness intriguing because he seems to inhabit that role so easily! In fact, he seems to revel in his part – spouting forth. He also jumps into our roles with ease and joy. It’s an interesting aspect of this character that I feel is often under explored – his love of play-acting or possibly his eagerness not be himself?

There’s so much to talk about with this play but I think it’s especially important to acknowledge one of the challenges that the final act presents. Mainly, that loads of really important things happen off stage! Goneril poisons Regan, Regan dies of that poison, Goneril kills herself, Edmund dies, Cordelia is hung and dies, Lear kills the man who murdered Cordelia, Edgar tells Gloucester who he is, Gloucester dies. All these really crucial and dramatic moments and yet Shakespeare chooses to play them off stage. It reminds me of Greek tragedies, where all the existing stuff happens off stage and we’re just left with the messengers telling us what happened!

In this case, I do think it is more dramatically interesting than the Greek messenger though! I would be interested to workshop this, playing it as written and then trying it with putting some (or all) of these moments on stage in some way. (I know Sam Mendes did put various bits on stage in his NT production). My instinct is that Shakespeare got it right though. Somehow it puts us in the eye of the storm, with all of this confusion and uncertainty happening around us. We can’t do anything about it and we’re not sure exactly what calamity is going to happen next. Plus, he sets up Cordelia’s death incredibly well. The seed is planted early in the scene with Edmund sending off the order. We know that the clock is ticking – will Edgar and Albany save her in time? It’s a very neat dramatic trick that is often undersold.

Phew. I could write an essay on this which I think says a lot about how much it has sparked my imagination. This truly is a phenomenal piece of dramatic writing and is one that would be an honour to work on.


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