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King Lear – Shakespeare’s profoundest assessment of the human condition

April 23, 2013

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As well as a sublime wordsmith Shakespeare is a brilliant interpreter of human character and experience.  Nowhere are both qualities shown in greater profile than in King Lear, his uncompromising story of old age, family strife and mental illness.  It remains my favourite of his plays and I have been lucky to see some great productions including portrayals of Lear by Donald Sinden, Ian McKellen and now by the excellent Simon Russell Beale.

The play is driven by two powerful and interconnected stories.  First the central tragedy of the old king whose descent into mental illness sees him lose his kingdom , his family, the very roof over his head and most sadly those whom he loves most.  However almost equally powerful is the “sub-plot” of the wicked Edmund, illegitimate son of the Earl of Gloucester, who ruthlessly uses the political turbulence around Lear’s fall to further ruthlessly his own interests at the expense of his father and legitimate brother Edgar.

The play starts quietly enough.  Lear, apparently in sound mind, is planning to retire from his office and divide his kingdom between his three daughters.  In doing so he makes a demand for each daughter to make a public declaration of the extent of their love.  The elder sisters Goneril and Regan happily do so but the youngest and favourite daughter Cordelia, sensing some growing distress in Lear’s mind, refuses. As a result she is deprived of her share of the kingdom.  Only Kent is prepared to stand up to his royal master and point out the folly of his action “Thinks’t thou that duty shall have dread to speak when power to flattery bows?  He too is banished for his pains.

Already Shakespeare is exploring the boundary between sanity and madness.  Are Lear’s actions those of a foolish old tyrant who has been used to getting his own way or the emerging signs of mental illness?  As Kent suggests there have been earlier signs – “Yet he hath ever but slenderly known himself”.

The pace quickens.  We are introduced to the unscrupulous Edmund as he starts to weave a treacherous net to entrap his brother and deprive him of his father’s favour and his inheritance.  We see Lear’s retirement settlement rapidly unravel as his daughters use the rowdy behaviour of his retinue to limit his privileges.  Lear, used to unconditional obedience, is shaken to find himself on the other side of the fence.  He also senses the growing danger to his mental health “O let me not be mad, not mad, Sweet Heaven I would not be mad”.

The play reaches a climax in Act 3.  A fearsome night “Things that love night love not such nights as these” is the backdrop to Lear being thrown out by his daughters and finally losing his wits.  The ravages of the weather are nothing to the distress which Lear is experiencing in his mind “This tempest in my mind Doth from my senses take all feeling else”.

During this tremendous dramatic scene Lear’s real and profound mental distress is contrasted with the Fool, who in some senses plays madness for a livelihood and Edgar, who also driven out into the dark night on account of his brother’s plotting, has taken the guise of Bedlam beggar.  In his own misery he recognises the deep torment which Lear is ensuring “When we our betters see bearing our woes, We scarcely think our miseries our foes.”

 The focus of the story shifts to Gloucester.  As a reward for the loyalty who has shown his old master Gloucester is cruelly blinded by Regan’s husband Cornwall, a scene which still in our era of graphic on screen violence still manages to shock.  The bastard son Edmund is fully complicit with this act.  In his constant play on opposites Shakespeare brings out the blind Gloucester ‘s realisation of the error of his previous ways – “I stumbled when I saw”.

The play comes close to a happy ending (and indeed in previous times was given one) but Shakespeare is too sharp an observer of the human condition to provide a Disney sickly sweet conclusion to his drama.  Cordelia has come with her husband the King of France and army to claim back the kingdom.  She is reunited with her father and her presence brings calm to his troubled mind.  However all does not go to plan.  Lear and Cordelia are captured and at Edmund’s instigation Cordelia is killed.  Lear dies of grief. 

In Lear Shakespeare is the first mainstream English literary figure to explore the dreadful reality of mental illness.   There is some evidence that he drew from some of the contemporary writing on the issues such as that of Timothy Bright’s Treatise on Melancholy.  His work is full of the deep understanding of human nature and psychology which makes him the wonderful poet and playwright he is and Lear is a portrayal of mental illness which is plausible and powerful at the same time.

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