The comfort of King Lear
Shakespeare in Modern Culture – Marjorie Garber
The name King Lear echoes for me with the tinny sounds of GCSE and A-level criticism. The blindness of Lear, the blindness of Gloucester, the insights of the Fool, Cordelia as the Fool, Kent as the Fool, the reader as the Fool, and of course dare I suggest it, the Fool as the Fool. For me, the playing fields of Shakespeare are marked and marred indelibly by the muddy boots of education. I long to come to Lear afresh, to read with innocence and the insight that comes only with the solo exploration of the virgin text. I envy anyone who has not read Lear, or does not remember reading it, their opportunity to read it in ignorance.
When I re-read the play for this review, I was mostly standing up. To read a play is a literally theatrical experience and I found myself occasionaly jousting with the book, or with a spare hand, allowing my feet to beat out the rythms of Shakespeare’s poetry and prose as I paced the house speaking the parts in my head or outloud; now Gloucester, now Regan, now Edmund, now Lear; constantly taking on and throwing off disguises, taking on and throwing off personae, reaching into and out of banks of memory and experience, in some places adding to them, in some places drawing from them – filling my head with words, trying them on my tongue, testing, exchanging and delighting in examining them so that by the end, more clearly than any other, I had this phrase of Regan’s ringing in my ears: “‘Tis the infirmity of his age: yet he hath ever but slenderly known himself.”
My first re-reading of the play was safely secured for a review. So I moved to read some criticism, and in doing so to expand the experiences I had gained by reading the play again. I turned to American critic, Marjorie Garber and her book of essays: Shakespeare in Modern Culture – chosen, mostly, for its proximity to my desk.
Lear, she contends, has been a century resurgent in fame against Shakespeare’s other great tragedy Hamlet. Lear’s star has risen on the back of a century of ‘ground zero’ events she says from the end of the Second World War to now: bookended (at her publication) by Hiroshima and 911. We are drawn to its ultimate bleakness, she writes, as opposed to the Victorian obsession with Lear’s redemptive ending. Paul Scofield’s extraordinary portrayal of the bleakest and brashest of Lears in Peter Brooke’s 1953 film adaptation captures this depressive critical zeitgeist at its lowest ebb. If you haven’t seen it, you really should.
Garber’s book is an inspired topic for literary criticism. It interprets the intrepretations of Shakespeare throughout the last century. Each new reader takes the code, the DNA, that is the bare text of the play and establishes their own hermeneutic, applying the bare text of the play to their own circumstances and inflecting it with the hopes, fears and colours of their times.
And once you have decided to, you can apply Lear to sociological phenomena quite easily in this way. Really the trick is taking the play and believing it is your own – exercising the reader’s proprietorial rights over it. For example:
Lear is a play about the financial and ecological crises that we are experiencing as extreme weather conditions and adverse fiscal conditions which have been operating to chip, smash and destroy our security, our happiness and our economic stability in the West for over a century. Edmund, the bastard, is regularly cast as the entrepreneurial rebel, shaking off the bounds of his illegitimacy to vault the vaunted, ‘legitimate’, position of his brother Edgar by the fabrication of a conspiratorial letter against their father, Gloucester. Edmund embodies the Thatcherite/Blairite rise of leveraged social mobility and prosperity, rising on a tide of engineered debt products, built on a century or more marked most strikingly by the meteoric rise of the limited liability company – or in the words of Lear’s Fool:
Fool: Give me an egg and I’ll give thee two crowns.
Lear: What two crowns shall they be?
Fool: Why, after I have cut the egg i’ the middle and eat up the meat, the two crowns of the egg. When thou clovest thy crown i’ the middle and gav’st away both parts, thou borest thine ass on thy back o’er the dirt: thou hadst little wit in thy bald crown when thou gavest the golden one away.
Lear is the pioneer, the early shareholder: leveraging, building, dividing his kingdom to maximise the pleasure of his retirement. Goneril and Regan are the ambitious, selfish, ill-bred offspring of a great tycoon brought low by his love of himself and his love of flattery and his blindness to the modesty of truth.
You see? It is relatively straight-forward. So Garber’s chief achievement was helping me let go of the academic King Lear. I can fabricate enough readings of it to satisfy my personal curiosity, to fill a great many quiet evenings – just by picking it up and reading it and thinking about it. It is a good parlour game, more informative than a Scrabble board or a Monopoly set, and with Lear all you have to do is read it for yourself, and to try to understand it in the broadest possible context and – as if by magic – it unlocks a world of pleasure and insight and entertainment.
What I learned by re-reading King Lear (and this play was written for me after all) is that if I were marooned on a desert island I could find an allegory for every hardship I would be likely to encounter contained within its pages. That, for me, is extraordinarily comforting.