Sunday, April 5, 2009

Book Review : King Lear

This is where Shakespeare takes off the gloves. He brings us right to the edge of the abyss, then kicks us over that edge. "King Lear" is the most devastating by far of the Shakespeare tragedies -- this is a play which leaves the reader shattered as the curtain falls.

The play has a kind of primal power, which I find hard to explain. The plot is fairly typically Shakespeare, perhaps a little more complicated than usual, mixing elements taken from legend and from the historical record. At the outset, Lear is a narcissistic, bullying despot. His two older daughters, Regan and Goneril, are a couple of bad seed cougars, both of whom lust after Edmund, an equally amoral hyena. Their goody-two-shoes sister Cordelia behaves with such one-note pointless stubbornness, it almost seems like she's not playing with a full deck. Over in the Gloucester household, Edmund (the bastard hyena) is plotting against both his brother Edgar and his father. Lear’s court is filled with lickspittle sycophants. Only two people have the guts to speak truth to power, and one of them wears the costume of a Fool. There's a nasty storm brewing on the heath.

Fasten your seatbelts - it's going to be a bumpy ride.

Characters in “King Lear” pay dearly for their weaknesses. Gloucester is blinded in order that he might see, but is denied any lasting happiness; after reconciling with Edgar, he dies. Lear will be driven insane before he finally learns to empathize with the poor and the meek. We watch him return from the brink of madness only to discover that’s not enough. Before the curtain falls, Shakespeare gives us what is arguably the most brutal scene in his entire work.

Enter Lear with Cordelia (dead) in his arms –

Howl, howl, howl! O, you are men of stone!
Had I your tongues and eyes, I’d use them so
That heavens vault should crack. She’s gone forever.

Even if, like me, you find Cordelia a saccharine, two-dimensional character*, this scene is shattering. Two pages later, after learning that his fool has hanged himself, Lear dies, broken-hearted. Edgar, Kent and Albany – literally the only characters still standing – are left to bury the dead and move on, as best they can.

Why do I find this the most affecting of Shakespeare’s plays? (I’ve seen seven different stage productions**, and two on TV, and it only gets more powerful upon repeated exposure.) I can’t really pin it down – it’s a combination of various elements. The characters are idiosyncratic, fully realised, and their behavior is highly relatable, so the play is convincing at the level of the individual protagonists. But the fable-like nature of the opening scene also confers a kind of universal quality to its message, and the themes explored within the play – abuse of power, relationships within families, responsibilities of parents and children, the breakdown of the natural order and its consequences, the human capacity for enormous cruelty – are no less relevant today than in Shakespeare’s time. The skillfully constructed parallel plotting of the Lear and Gloucester arcs adds to the power of the story, the breakdown in natural human behavior is further accentuated by the raw fury of the elements during the storm scenes, where Nature echoes Lear’s fury.

Ultimately, there’s no getting away from the uncompromising bleakness of the play’s message. In Gloucester’s words – “as flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods; they kill us for their sport”. The nihilism of “King Lear” has always disturbed audiences, and it was common during the 18th and 19th centuries to stage an altered version, in which Cordelia was allowed to live, implying a more upbeat view of human nature. But, given what the events of the last century demonstrate about mankind’s vicious capacity for self-destruction, one has to think that Shakespeare got it right first time. As usual.

*: the character that Cordelia most reminds me of is the slave-girl, Liu, in Puccini’s “Turandot”. Neither is realised in any great depth, but each serves an important function in the way that their death effects a crucial change in one of the other protagonists.

**: including one particularly memorable performance in Mönchen-Gladbach, Germany, where Regan and Goneril were decked out like biker chicks and roared on stage riding what appeared to be Harleys.

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