Monday, 15 March 2010

Why King Lear is Shakespeare's most brutal play

… and why the current RSC production steps back from this brutality.

The other week, I saw the second half of King Lear – performed by the RSC at the Courtyard Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon, directed by David Farr.

Yes. That's right. The second half.

During the first half, by contrast, I was staring at the largely motionless rear end of one Mégane.

One Renault Mégane.

… All because some incontinent tanker (Cockney rhyming optional) had emptied itself across the M40's northbound carriageway.

So by the time I made it to the theatre (after trading a few hundred grams of Pringles with some teenagers in exchange for directions to the Courtyard Theatre – see, my travels were little short of Odysseian) people were already scrambling to wet their parched gobs with halftime cups of lemonade.

But no matter. I was in time for the best bits.

King Lear is a brute of a tragedy. A massive, bastarding great brute. The kind of brute who'd club you in the face with a fire extinguisher, kick away your legs then leave you to be mauled by his slavering pitbull.

It is the most savage, the most unrelenting, the most utterly bleak of Shakespeare's tragedies, making Hamlet look like Punch & Judy.

(I exaggerate, my friends, I exaggerate. You know this, don't you? If you don't, may I refer you elsewhere?)

Lear has a fair deal in common with Othello: he's not a Hamlet-esque smartarse; on the contrary, he's actually sort of dumb. And that's no surprise, is it? Because even before he'd finished writing it, Shakespeare hated Hamlet. His late tragedies tend to focus on heroes who are much less inclined toward the intellectual, the introspective.

And Lear is possibly the least introspective, least intelligent of them all.

His arrogance and his poor judgment become evident (fairly quickly, to the audience and, at length, to Lear himself). But we are dealing throughout the play with a man whose capacity for profound insight is extremely limited.

So while Hamlet may move us as he meditates on existence, or appearance vs reality, Lear dwells (and worries upon) extremely simple and immediate themes. He is not abstract. And when he is reunited with Cordelia (his wronged, faithful daughter), his words are immensely, chokingly direct:
'Pray do not mock me
I am a very foolish, fond old man,
Fourscore and upward, not an hour more nor less;
And to deal plainly,
I fear I am not in my perfect mind.
Methinks I should know you and know this man,
Yet I am doubtful; for I am mainly ignorant
What place this is and all the skill I have
Remembers not these garments; nor I know not
Where I did lodge last night. Do not laugh at me,
For, as I am a man, I think this lady
To be my child Cordelia.'

This – if you'll pardon my observation – is fucking outstanding. As with so many of Lear's speeches, we can practically hear the cogs turning. Shakespeare brilliantly inserts faffy (and not always entirely sensical) digressions ('not an hour more nor less'; 'And to deal plainly', 'Where I did lodge last night'). The effect is curiously reminiscent of a not-quite-quick-enough politician interviewed on the Today Programme, playing for time while he formulates answers to unexpectedly tricky questions.

Anyhow, you can read a great deal about King Lear, you know. It's even been covered by a few relatively famous critics and the like. You'd be surprised. I shalln't go on.

… But what I wanted to talk about was a specific piece of direction in Farr's production of King Lear. And all the above was (I felt) necessary to establish aforehand.

So, as Lear draws toward its climax, we think we see a time-honoured narrative pattern emerging: an initially misguided hero realises his folly and begins to see things as they are.

This ties in with a feature characteristic of tragedy (Shakespeare's and those of many others before and after him): the movement toward a moment of tragic insight: as the hero reaches his point of defeat and demise, then (and only then) does he fully and clearly see the whole of his plight and his actions for what they are. He apprehends his tragic flaw and sees (with a piercing clarity) the manner in which it has undone him.

It's a moment that undoubtedly serves in many cases to intensify the tragedy. It is to some degree ennobling (the pathos being in the fact that the hero transcends his flaw by realising it – but does so too late to escape death); to some degree (oddly) optimistic and affirming. There is a reconciliation. That whole catharsis thing that everyone always bangs on about: the hero dies horribly, to be sure – but he dies in a state of comprehension. He – and we – learnt something, in spite of it all.

And this is where we come back to my earlier charge of gross (inspired) Shakespearean brutality.

Because Shakespeare, in Lear, is savage. He doesn't give us catharsis; he gives us entropy. And he rips the arse out of the moment of tragic insight. Let's look, shall we, at Lear's dying speech:

'And my poor fool is hanged. No, no, no life!
Why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life
And thou no breath at all? O thou'lt come no more,
Never, never, never, never, never.
[to Edgar] Pray you undo this button. Thank you, sir.
Do you see this? Look on her: look, her lips,
Look there, look there! He dies.'

Now, it's not entirely clear what's going on at the end of this extract, and I realise I can't resolve the essential ambiguity of the text. For what it's worth, though, it seems to me that this is Lear (as the critic Bradley argues) calling attention to a movement of Cordelia's lips. In other words, dying in the belief that Cordelia is – after all – alive. (He has, a short while earlier, been holding a feather to Cordelia's mouth in order to test whether she is breathing.)

If you hold with me (and Bradley) in this interpretation, you'll also note that a member of the audience at this point knows no different – and is relying on Lear's words. For all they know (not close enough to discern subtle movements) Cordelia is moving her lips. In the widespread versions of the Lear story predating Shakespeare's (and with which his audience would have been familiar), Cordelia does not die here.

And so there is an uneasy moment (as has occurred earlier in the play, during the Dover Cliff scene) during which the audience is thrown into confusion, or at least doubt: is she alive?

No. She isn't.

Lear dies on a pathetic (in the sense of pathos-inducing) error. Believing a falsehood. Hell, even if you disagree with me and my mate Bradley – if you don't think those last lines imply a misapprehension – you have to grant that at very least they are confusing and confused, and that the whole speech is far from profound, noble or insightful.

It is fragmented, irrational, chaotic, raw.

And I don't think that its lack of nobility is meant as a criticism of Lear specifically. Instead, I'd say it serves to ram home the desolate incoherence and arbitrariness of death: messy and impenetrable.

It is this more than anything else that (to me, your Hooligan) makes Lear such a brute of a play.

But the RSC wimped out.

Directing this production, David Farr obviously couldn't bring himself to acknowledge this bleak interpretation. Instead? He makes Lear look upward (not downward at Cordelia in his lap) during those final two lines.

In other words: Lear (in Farr's portrayal) dies with a vision of Cordelia resurrected, shimmering in the air, towards whom he yearningly gazes.

You can see how different this is. And the text doesn't rule it out, I admit. But I find it unconvincing: the text's myopic focus in Lear's final lines upon a physical feature – the lips – does not (it seems to me) signal a spiritual vision (which would tend to be heralded – surely – by a textual 'zooming out'). For my money, I don't think Shakespeare would've been so ambiguous had he intended such a mystical interpretation.

Of course, Farr might even agree. Perhaps he simply decided, in the end, to spare his audience the full brutality of what seems to me to have been Shakespeare's savage intent.

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