Tuesday, August 11, 2015

King Lear, Part 2: Does Anyone Here Know Me?

Last summer, in a binge of live theatre, I saw Man of La Mancha and then King Lear immediately after.  I began a piece called "King Lear of La Mancha" noting the similarities between the two works. 

Man of La Mancha is based on a novel by Cervantes, first published in 1605.  The first performance of King Lear was in 1606.  Both stories deal with family issues and difficulties seeing women (life, the universe, everything) clearly.  Lear saw his lying, selfish daughters as loving and devoted.  He saw his honest, true daughter as uncaring. Don Quixote saw the bitter, angry Aldonza as the saintly Dulcinea.

One doesn't have to be a foolish, old man to have a distorted view.  We all do it.  We tend to see what we choose to see and interpret behaviours in ways that fit our needs and self-perception.  Art experiences can sometimes help us see more clearly.

The Lear that I saw recently struggles with his identity and his threatened sense of self. After he rashly banishes Cordelia, even the evil sister Regan notes, "He has ever but slenderly known himself."

Upon giving his two dissembling daughters each half his kingdom, he still sees himself as a functioning unit.  He will lead 100 knights and, together, they will reside with his daughters:  one month with Regan, one month with Goneril.

The daughters see him as worthless.  Rather than recognize that he made a mistake, he rages at his daughters.  The more he denies his error, the more he loses his identity.  He asks, "Who is it that can tell me who I am?" (I, iv).  The Fool replies, "Lear's shadow."  His fall into madness continues until he begins to take responsibility for his own contribution to his problems.

That might be the take-home message of the play.

At the end of Act IV, Cordelia, her soldiers, and her doctor rescue Lear.  He wakes up and gradually recognizes Cordelia -- and recalls the wrong he did her:
Be your tears wet? Yes, faith. I pray weep not.
If you have poison for me, I will drink it.
I know you do not love me; for your sisters
Have, as I do remember, done me wrong.
You have some cause, they have not.

And with these words and the recognition that he has wronged Cordelia, he knows who he is. Lear and Cordelia are then taken prisoner by Goneril and Regan's men:
                Come, let’s away to prison.
We two alone will sing like birds i' th' cage.
When thou dost ask me blessing, I’ll kneel down
And ask of thee forgiveness. So we’ll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues
Talk of court news, and we’ll talk with them too—
Who loses and who wins, who’s in, who’s out—
And take upon ’s the mystery of things
As if we were God’s spies.

Lear says that they will take on "the mystery of things."  Instead of arrogance and pomposity, Lear is vulnerable and humble.  He asks forgiveness.  He's aware that he knows nothing.
And we’ll wear out
In a walled prison packs and sects of great ones
That ebb and flow by the moon. 

- by being weak and open, they will wear out the great ones.  Greatness, he says, ebbs and flows.  He now knows this well.

He is no longer struggling with his identity.  Clinging to an identity of greatness only made him crazy.

Note:  Please read the King Lear Part 1 and King Lear Part 3

There will be one further blog on the ending of King Lear.  Coming soon.

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