Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Clear on Lear

When the gasbags in Congress make speeches on the floor, they usually ask permission to "revise and extend" their remarks in the Congressional Record. That's more or less what I'm doing here, for Lear: a gasbag revising and extending my recent Journal column.

Some call King Lear the greatest of Shakespeare’s tragedies, but it is among the least performed of his major plays. In number of productions, it doesn’t make the Shakespeare Top Ten of England’s Royal Shakespeare Company, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival or Broadway. The story of the old king who divides his kingdom among his daughters with calamitous consequences is certainly among the most analyzed, and playing Lear has been considered a crowning achievement for elder actors, but the role and the play itself also have the reputation of being un-actable.

There actually have been more productions in the past decade or so, perhaps as a generation of actors reaches that point, but also because the play speaks to contemporary artists and audiences. (See the accompanying photos for some examples.)

Shakespeare is a master of synthesis, and scholar Maynard Mack makes a convincing case that the preponderance of very bad and very good characters surrounding Lear is due in part to this drama’s roots in medieval morality plays. But virtue is not rewarded, and the demise of the king and his good daughter Cordelia was so shocking that for more than a century the play was rewritten with a happy ending. But after two world wars, the Holocaust and Hiroshima, the spectre of thermonuclear Armageddon and now the climate apocalypse, as well as the other automated cruelties of modern life, we don't shock much.

Another of Mack's insights involves themes Shakespeare often uses in his comedies, turned inside out into tragedy in King Lear. A conspicuous one is the court vs. country dilemma, usually weighted towards nature being superior, as in As You Like It. It's somewhat the opposite in Lear, though the court is just as full of snakes. But I think Mack is on to something here, because I feel the theme of shelter is an important one in this play. It is set in a more primitive time than Shakespeare's, and the secure world of the castle seems set against the wilderness, where the exiles are naked in the storm and go mad.

[continued after photos]

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