Wednesday, August 12, 2015

King Lear, Part 3: Our Present Business is General Woe

I sat on the edge of my seat, leaning towards the stage, eyes wet, and watched the final scene of King Lear.  Here are some thoughts arising from the lines in Act V, Scene iii:


Edmond is a villain - and we need villains to advance the plot, but Edmond is an interesting and almost sympathetic villain.

At the beginning of King Lear, Edmond's father, Gloucester, admits that Edmond is his out-of-wedlock son that he has always "blushed" to acknowledge.  Gloucester blames the boy's mother for having a son "ere she had a husband for her bed."  Like Lear, Gloucester is another character who takes no responsibility for his actions and pays the price.

After Lear splits the country between Goneril and Regan, the state is weakened and the sisters compete with each other for Edmond. When there is division in a state or a relationship, a malefactor, like Edmond, can wedge himself in creating a wider division.  I am reminded of modern-day Syria which, due to the civil war, became a breeding ground for ISIS.

Edmond has sent orders to have Lear and Cordelia killed while in prison.  When he is captured, he tries to undo his order - his only redemptive act: 
Some good I mean to do,
Despite of mine own nature. Quickly send
(Be brief in't) to the castle; for my writ
Is on the life of Lear and on Cordelia.
Nay, send in time.

Edmond is very full of his own importance and influence, but when his death is announced, the response is "That's but a trifle here."  Nobody cares.

General Woe:  

The soldiers running to rescue Lear and Cordelia are too late.

Lear enters carrying Cordelia.
Howl, howl, howl, howl! O, you are men of stone.
Had I your tongues and eyes, I'ld use them so
That heaven's vault should crack. She's gone for ever!
I know when one is dead, and when one lives.
She's dead as earth.

Soon Lear dies as well.  The Duke of Albany is still standing. By Act IV, Albany could see that Goneril, his wife, was a piece of work.  She calls him "a milk-liver'd man" and he calls her "a fiend" shielded by a woman's shape" and a lot worse.  The play ends with his instructions:
Our present business is general woe.

These are sad times and must be so recognized.  Our very business is grieving.  Let's do nothing else.  There is a formalness and authority in this declaration that I find helpful and comforting.
The weight of this sad time we must obey,
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.
The oldest have borne most; we that are young
Shall never see so much, nor live so long.

We are told to speak what we feel.  Our feelings are so often mediated, censored, or blocked by our roles and beliefs in what "we ought to say."  The direct line from our heart to our voice is interrupted by beliefs in how we should present ourselves.  To speak what we feel would be too raw, too vulnerable.  Yet here, Albany calls all present to only speak their feelings.


I began these meditations on King Lear by asking, "What's love got to do with it?" There's not a lot of love in King Lear.  There is a great deal of anger, shouting, cursing, and howling.  

One person who did not shout was Cordelia whose voice was ever "soft, gentle and low."  That is not only "an excellent thing in a woman," it is a thing possible for anyone who is self-reflective, honest both to self and others, and responsible for their contribution, great or slight, to their own fate.

King Lear Part 2

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.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Whither Shakespeare? Part XI: King Lear or What's Love Got to Do with It?

King Lear is about a self-absorbed senior citizen who wants to retire.  He wants others, particularly his daughters, to love him as much as he loves himself.  He is willing to pay an army of men to carouse with him and this props up his belief in his own importance.  He no longer wants the responsibility of running a kingdom.

Perhaps he devoted his whole life to his kingdom.  Perhaps he was a good king, as he has some loyal followers, Kent for one.  But King Lear is somewhat addled and mistaking his older daughters' fawning praise for love, he divides the kingdom between them.

His youngest daughter, Cordelia, really does love him, but will not buy into the division of the kingdom based on the one-off expression of love that he demands.  She is banished, but has a husband who will love her for herself, not for her share of the kingdom.

In the opening scenes of King Lear, the noise of love is mistaken for the deeds and behaviours over time that prove love to be real.  Intensity is mistaken for intimacy.

Lear, who is not aware of his failings and believes 100% in his impulses, banishes Kent and Cordelia and the play is off and running.

I am about to see a live performance of King Lear in a park in Vancouver.  I will report back soon with an update - looking particularly at how love, both false and real, recognized and unrecognized, lead to the tragic outcomes of this play.

King Lear, Part 2 here.      King Lear, Part 3 here.