TiaTalk











{Tue 10 July 2007}   King Lear: more sinn’d against than sinning?

After a month of rain and stormy weather, our King Lear reading took place on the first sunny weekend of the summer. However, with the images of grey skies and floodwaters still strong in our minds, it wasn’t difficult to feel the intensity of Shakespeare’s insistent “Storm continues” repeated so often in the stage directions. Poor Lear is adrift in an awful storm of his own making. Despite their loyalty to him, the Fool and Kent repeatedly assert that he is the author of his own misfortune, for giving up his crown too early and for disinheriting the one daughter who truly loved him and on whom he might have counted when the others betrayed him.

Many hold this to be the Bard’s greatest play, but not always for the same reasons, or perhaps because there are so many possible reasons. As usual, we enjoyed the different perspectives that arose in our group’s discussion. Are Lear’s irrational pronouncements and acts born purely out of wilful folly or monstrous ego, or does his great age suggest the possibility of dementia, something he senses is happening and knows he cannot control? If a king of forty wants to give up his throne in order to “shake all cares and business from our age”, we might well accuse him of laziness, of simply wanting an easy life with the trappings but not the responsibilities of authority. But when the king is eighty (in a world when many people did not live past fifty), and has exercised authority throughout a long life, is the same charge fair? In this latter case, might one not see his attempt to transfer power peacefully during his lifetime as a brave and responsible act, fouled only by the dementia itself when he repudiates Cordelia? Goneril’s and Regan’s references to earlier irrational acts before the play opens lend themselves to this interpretation, as do Lear’s own expressed fear of going mad and his alternating periods of apparent lunacy and lucidity.

Of course he also represents humankind at large, buffeted by the storms of life. We know this because our sympathy for him grows as he rails alone against the storm, even if it is his own fault that he’s there at all. Is Shakespeare suggesting that most of our stormy experiences arise because of our own stubborn refusal to see clearly and to act rightly? Or does the theme of “nothing”, also repeated often, suggest a lurking nihilism, the idea that all our intentions and efforts may be meaningless, subject to the random attacks of nature, no matter whether we act responsibly or not? Cordelia acts according to her conscience throughout, but ends up just as dead as Lear and the traitors. Is Shakespeare evoking an absurd universe, long before Waiting for Godot? This is one possibility raised by the really enjoyable essay “Speak What We Feel: An Introduction to King Lear” by Ian Johnston at http://www.mala.bc.ca/~Johnstoi/eng366/lectures/lear.htm. This essay also raises several other questions, such as the ‘normality’ of evil and the value of individual acts of goodness, like that of the unnamed Servant who challenges and kills Cornwall. There is a wealth of other Lear material online as well — just search on “King Lear”.

After such a stimulating reading and discussion, we are very much looking forward to seeing the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of King Lear with Ian McKellen in the title role at the New London Theatre in November. Join us if you can! Note that booking for this production is currently only available to RSC Members. Public booking opens on 7th September 2007. RSC Membership costs £15 and is well worth it, as tickets for most productions over the past two years have sold out very quickly.

The next reading, probably in August, will be The Merchant of Venice.



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