How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is
To have a thankless child!
— King Lear, Act I, Scene 4
With the Bard’s histories behind us, it’s time to start diving into those plays marked as the tragedies. As with the histories, I’ll be working chronologically according to the time in which the story is set, not when it was written. And that means we start with King Lear. With the drama taking place in 800 BC, this is the second earliest setting of the Bard’s plays. (A Midsummer Night’s Dream is set approximately in the 13th century BCE.) The chronicle of Leir of Britain would have been made readily available to Shakespeare thanks to a popular source: the 12th century writings of Geoffrey of Monmouth, Historia Regum Britanniae, aka History of the Kings of Britain. If that sounds familiar to you, it’s the same pseudo-history where we find early mention of King Arthur. In it, Leir is identified as the founder of the city of Leicester, using the Old Welsh form Kaerleir, or “city of Leir.” As we know from the Bard’s history plays, lineage and legitimacy is everything to the people at this time, and especially to the Bard himself in terms of political relevance and righteousness. It’s a theme that matters, and it will feature prominently once more in King Lear.
The story of King Leir in the Elizabethan / Jacobean eras appears a few times before the Bard got there. The first was a comedy, registered in 1594, and published in 1605, about the time Shakespeare began writing his play. The comedic version is almost a direct retelling of Monmouth’s account, which includes Leir’s restoration to power, continued rule for three more years, and a happy ending where Cordelia succeeded him. Didn’t see that coming, did you? It seems you didn’t read what Monmouth had to say. Other accounts of Leir at this time include a mention in a collection of Tudor era poetry by John Higgins, Mirror for Magistrates, and another in Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, among others. As you can see, the “historical” Leir would have been a known commodity to Shakespeare’s audience, even if only in name. The tragic ending… that’s all Shakespeare, and it is has relevance that will be discussed herein.
King Lear is considered one of the select handful of plays often marked as the pinnacle of Shakespeare’s repertoire, often cited as second only to Hamlet. Even of those who disagree with that, most would surely rank it in the top five. That seems a fair assessment, yes? While familiar with the story, I had neither read nor seen Lear performed before this point, so with the play’s reputation preceding it, I approached this with high expectations and a desire to get the utmost from it (as I tend to do with respect to the Bard’s works). With an understanding of who the “historical” Leir would have been to the Bard’s audience, I opted next to fix the time period in my mind with a look at what the British Isles were like in 800 BCE.
This is why I’ve built a personal library, I told myself. I’ve got plenty of books on the history of Britain, and… the vast majority of them start with Caesar’s invasion in 55 BCE. This is, apparently, where recorded British history officially begins, a point of which I was aware but never really considered before. The only reference I have to anything earlier than this is from one book that includes an essay on Cheddar Man, the oldest complete skeleton found in the Isles, dating back to 7150 BCE. That’s a bit too far back. There’s Geoffrey of Monmouth, of course, who also tells us that Leir is the last of the line of Brutus of Troy, descendant of Aeneas and one of Britain’s founders. Isn’t that interesting? Britain’s heritage and legitimacy hinges on the fallout of the Trojan War (c. 1250 BCE), a tale similarly told of the founding of Rome. It also means Britain got there first because Rome was presumably founded by King Romulus in 753 BCE. There’s an interesting romance at work in all of this where Britain is at once the monarch of its own destiny and the underdog who will somehow keep rising, even after a dramatic fall. That’s an ideal Rome itself subscribed to, a tradition the Church practically clung to as the last vestige of the Empire. Maybe that’s something Shakespeare was tapping into. Maybe it’s something he couldn’t help but tap just due to the blood in his veins.
It still didn’t answer my question, however. What was Britain like in the time of Leir? Most of what I understand is surrounded by shadows and fog, which eventually part when Arthur steps out with Merlin at his side.
According to the BBC’s handy timeline of British history, 800 BCE marks the transition from the Bronze Age to the Iron Age, and hill forts are beginning to be constructed. From the BBC site:
Originating in the later Bronze Age (1000 BC – 800 BC), the hill forts of the early Iron Age are found over a wide area of the British Isles: in Scotland (Finavon Fort in Angus), Wales (The Brieddin and Moel y Gaer in Powys) and England (Grimthorpe in Yorkshire, Ivinghoe Beacon in Buckinghamshire and Bathampton Down in Somerset). Many seem to have been used infrequently and may have been seasonal meeting places and food stores rather than permanently inhabited settlements.
From there, I went down one of my little rabbit holes and got caught up in Celtic prehistory and… fascinating as this may be, I needn’t have bothered with any of it for purposes of this project. After reading the play a couple of times, seeing a couple of different performances in full, finding some clips on YouTube of other performances, and listening to some audio, I’ve come to the understanding that for all of his otherwise utilitarian knowledge of history, Shakespeare either didn’t know or didn’t care — probably both — about anything resembling historical accuracy for his script. His version is all from Monmouth — and the ever-trusty Holinshed’s Chronicles (Holinshed himself used Monmouth as a crutch) — plus the twist ending. I probably should have gone into this with such understanding. The names and places as well as the politics and feudal hierarchies are those of Shakespeare’s time as opposed to what we might expect from the tribal chieftains of the early Iron Age. In short, history is out the window here, and ultimately it just doesn’t matter. Even so, there are a couple of references that were hot-spotted for me on account. For example, Lear’s fool makes reference to a prophecy that will later be told by Merlin, which would also have been found in Monmouth. It doesn’t bother me so much that he would know that as he’s not exactly a seer. By tradition, fools make excellent soothsayers (“In jest, there is truth”), and he does call it out to the audience. I can look past that easier since asides to the audience are designed to be informative and not necessarily indicative of potential superpowers. The one that bothers me is when the members of the court are offhandedly described in dialogue to be Epicurean… 500 years before Epicurus. It’s the little things that make my eyes twitch. But seeing as how it’s been another 500 years, it’s not like anyone else will have reason to care about my hangups. Shakespeare is said to have been himself an Epicurean, so who am I to deny him his influences?
And so, we’ll move on to what does matter. As pointed out, Shakespeare wrote his Lear circa 1605 to 1606. We’ve already discussed in relation to his histories that Shakespeare had severe problems with Tudors being in power at all, let alone that Elizabeth failed to appoint an heir. And with her failure, Shakespeare and his contemporaries had to look forward to the reign of James I, who by the time of the play’s writing would have been seated upon the throne of England for a couple of years. The fear of James was two-fold: he was Scottish (oh, the horror!), and he was even more Protestant (re: less tolerant of Catholics) than Elizabeth. Just because the Bard had flown under Bess’ radar thus far in his career, it didn’t mean that James might not catch on. If anything, he fully expected James to understand, which brings us back to the tragic ending of this play. Before he was James I of England, he was James VI of Scotland. There were two thrones and two parliaments. The unification of the realm we’d come know as Great Britain would not happen for another century. From where Shakespeare’s sitting, it’s easy to imagine that he might see where England, and especially the Catholics of England, would be treated as second class subjects in a realm divided. Suddenly, the reign of the Tudors looked a lot more benevolent. Better the devil you know… (And in case you’re interested, that comes from an Irish proverb dating back to the 1530s, so it’s oh-so appropriate here. I looked it up because I thought maybe Shakespeare coined it. It’s been known to happen.)
The parallel sufferings of Lear and Gloucester at the hands of their children may have been influenced by a 1603 lawsuit. According to the suit, the eldest of three sisters tried to have their elderly father, Sir Brian Annesley, declared insane, which would allow her to seize control of his properties. Annesley’s youngest daughter, Cordell, successfully defended her father.
Then again, that could just be coincidence…
Which brings us, at long last, to the play itself. The plot has already been eluded to, but let’s spell it out. Lear, King of Britain, opts to step down and divide his kingdom among his three daughters. The greater spoils go to she who flatters him most. His youngest, Cordelia, refuses to flatter him and speaks only truth. Her statements are misinterpreted, causing Lear to rage against her and ultimately to exile her. While he’s at it, he banishes Kent for sticking up for her. Kent returns to court in disguise in the hopes of setting things right. Once Cordelia’s older sisters, Goneril and Regan, begin to abuse Lear, the king descends into madness and goes out to wander the countryside.
Meanwhile, one of Lear’s noblemen, Gloucester, suffers family problems. His illegitimate son, Edmund, tricks him into believing that his eldest son, Edgar, is plotting to kill him. Gloucester puts a manhunt on Edgar, who in turn flees for his life, disguising himself as a crazy beggar, “Poor Tom,” as he wanders the countryside.
Regan and her husband Cornwall learn that Gloucester is helping Lear, so they accuse the nobleman of treason, blind him, and set him forth to — you guessed it — wander the countryside. He is found by Edgar, who escorts him to Dover where they run into Lear. Meanwhile, a French army lands at Dover; the invasion force is led by Cordelia, who has come to save her father. Edmund becomes romantically involved with both of Cordelia’s evil sisters and conspires to kill Albany, Goneril’s husband. Gloucester tries to commit suicide, but Edgar saves him by leading him off an imaginary cliff and convincing him that his time isn’t yet up.
English troops arrive, led by Edmund, and summarily defeat Cordelia’s army. She and Lear are captured. Edgar duels with Edmund, slaying his evil brother. Gloucester’s heart breaks from the strain of being reconciled with Edgar, and he dies. Goneril poisons Regan out of jealousy over Edmund, then kills herself. Edmund’s earlier orders result in Cordelia being executed. And Lear dies of grief. Hey, it’s a tragedy. Besides that, we’ve now crossed the divide from 1600, from the Renaissance to the Baroque. That means Opera is a thing. Indeed, it’s the thing that divides these two eras. Opera means go big or go home: everyone dies.
There are some truly weighty themes in this play, and just as many motifs that build them. In terms of themes, the concept of justice — or rather, the absence of justice — is perhaps the boldest theme of all. It would certainly reflect an English Catholic playwright’s anxiety and fear over being ruled by a Scottish Protestant king. And as the Bard ages, one might wonder if he feels he’s being appreciated by his own children.
Lear also sets us up with a dichotomy between political authority and family strife. Can there be one where the other is present? A better question might be, how could there not? But in the chaos that Lear himself put into motion, he loses all authority to the point where disorder claims his entire realm.
Even in the darkness of this play, there is hope in the form of reconciliation. Cordelia’s love for her father holds true to the very end. Lear is ultimately able to understand and experience the depth her love, proving that it truly does conquer all. Oh, wait… no… death conquered all here. Dammit, Shakespeare!
These themes are pushed into motion by twin motifs: madness and betrayal. Fear of betrayal drives the madness, which in turn becomes prey to betrayal, thus making the reality become far worse than when fears were only imagined. The storm is the raging disquiet within the characters, made manifest in nature around them. The power of the storm forces the powerless king to become humble in his weakness. Gloucester’s physical blindness — both eyes — represents the metaphorical blindness of both he and Lear. They are both blind to the truth of their loyal children and their disloyal children, thus making heirs of their disloyal brood. Only when they have lost their senses — Gloucester’s sight and Lear’s sanity — do they truly see.
As I said near the top, King Lear is considered to be among the absolute pinnacle of Shakespeare’s plays, his truly top shelf stuff. I… am going to have to agree to disagree with the vast majority on this one. I tried. I really did. When I first set upon this Shakespeare project, I had the Bard up on a pedestal. I was prepared not to critique him, but rather simply to understand him in the effort to be elevated. If I did not enjoy something, it had to be because I failed to understand or appreciate something. I got a hard dose of reality back on Henry VI, Part I. I understood perfectly what he was doing, and I still cried foul. And after slogging through the next two parts, which were only slightly better, I’ve decided the Bard is only human after all. It’s sad, but true, and it does make the bright lights shine even brighter. But I was hoping for so much more from Lear. I wanted this to be one of those truly bright lights. On its own, the script is damn near unintelligible in places where madness is overtaking the characters. Not to worry, I told myself. This is why we have actors! These are only scripts, and actors will show me why this is awesome! Nope… even some notable greatest of the greats out there were unable to prove to me that this was anything beyond sophomoric drivel. Don’t get me wrong here, I appreciated a great many of the villainous speeches, and nobody does a long-winded stream of insults like the Bard. Nobody. I loved that. But I don’t care how much of this was pulled from other sources when I say the setup was contrived right from the start, the dialogue made it worse because clearly Cordelia and Lear are both smarter than that, and the entire house of cards is built around on that slipshod foundation. The ramblings of the fool… I don’t think these work in performances at all, at least not for me, but I think when you break them down there’s something more to be had. It’s less ramble and more soothsayer, as I’m sure is the intent. The biggest issue for me involved the sequences depicting madness. *face / palm*
Do you know why I was willing to give this play the benefit of the doubt even after going through it a couple of times? Well, it is still Shakespeare, that’s true enough, but there’s more to it for me. First, the people wandering around near where I work who are off their meds are far more intelligible than this. I can’t make that up. Second, director Nicholas Meyer became a fan of any film based on Shakespeare. For him, it comes down to performance, which is how I learned to understand and appreciate such things. You can see that influence in his 1982 classic Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Ricardo Montalban is absolutely nucking futs in that film. He starts crazy and descends into madness beyond reckoning. It’s a lesson in “less is more.” It allows for a dynamic range when things get truly big. Lear has virtually none of that, at least in the versions that I’ve seen. Granted, I’ve hardly experienced the depth or breadth of Shakespearean performance, but I’m not going in completely ignorant of what’s out there either. “Howl, howl, howl!” is hardly what I call high art. There’s not a dramatic actor on the planet that can make me take that seriously. It’s not that the actors aren’t worthy, it’s that they’re only as good as the material. It looked to me like every actor involved had a great time with it. I can only assume they got more out of it than I did. Maybe Lear is one of those that becomes embraceable by further exposure. All I know for certain is that every time somebody expressed a little crazy, I cringed. There were times I was just simply embarrassed. Reading some of these lines were bad enough. Watching a performance… I couldn’t pull the blanket over my head fast enough. This is not a reaction I should associate with the Bard! I know Shakespeare can do better on this front because I know Hamlet pretty well. I’ll be more than happy to discuss its merits when I get that far. Good times.
In the meantime, if my fellow Shakespeare geeks feel like they need to shun me for this, I’ll understand.
Did I say “more than happy?” Is that a characteristic of crazy?