Well, it seems as if Sir Ian McKellan is in the position where he can simply do what ever he wants, well when it comes to the theatre at least. Apparently the Chichester theatre approached him and asked him if he would like to do a play, and then proceeded to ask him what play he would like to do, considering he is one of those actors that has probably played every role out there. Anyway, he said that he wanted to give King Lear another shot, and fortunately for me, this particular production appeared on the National Theatre Live listing. The thing with King Lear is that a few years back I saw this awesome National Theatre production but unfortunately is just is not available beyond the fact that I saw it in a cinema. That was back before I actually started writing this blog. Further, I do have a version of King Lear staring McKellan on DVD, but honestly, it actually isn’t all that good (though I will probably be burnt at the stake for making that comment).
So, it was with a little reservation that I decided to go and see this production. Look, don’t get me wrong, I love Ian McKellan, not that I have seen in him all that much beyond the X-men, Lord of the Rings, and a National Theatre Live production where he and Patrick Stewart performed a Harold Pinter play. I guess it happens to be one of those things, like a Midsummers Night Dream, where I saw a production years ago by the Royal Shakespeare Company, and thought that it was so well done that I simply could not go and see another version of it. Well, I didn’t, not for a long time, and I even avoided watching the more recent film version as well. Okay, I have since seen it again, and will probably be seeing another version of it shortly, but with King Lear, despite it being one of my favourite plays, the fact that the version I saw was so good, that I wasn’t sure that even the venerable Ian McKellan could out do that.
Well, it turns out that I was quite wrong. This version of King Lear was nothing short of awesome, and McKellan was outstanding, but then again I am not really all that surprised. Okay, the play was performed using modern costumes, but that seems to be pretty much the done thing these days, though that doesn’t actually seem to be the case when it comes to The Globe. Then again the Globe is The Globe, and as far as I can tell, authenticity is what they are on about there.
Look, I could go on about the play itself, but I feel that I have already done that elsewhere. The thing is that we probably already know the story quite well, you know, about how a king wants to retire, decides to divide his kingdom into three, but since his favourite daughter does not pander to his feelings, he kicks her out of the country and instead gives the country to his two remaining daughters. The rest of the play is basically his, and his country’s, descent into madness. The play basically ends with literally half the cast dead, and the country once again without a ruler.
So, where did the story come from? Well, it appears that the story can be traced back to the History of the Kings of Britain, though this isn’t the story that has come down to us in Shakespeare. Well, I doubt that Shakespeare built the play out of that rather short account, but rather was inspired by numerous other renditions that had been produced over the period. The subplot including Edgar and Edumund, which a part of me feels isn’t actually a subplot because the entire play is a coherent whole, is the story that was added later to produce the form that we currently have.
The thing is that Shakespeare is hardly original. Sure, there are all these arguments about Shakespeare not actually being Shakespeare, but I’m not sure if people really understand what is going on. What he is doing is taking stories that had been around for quite a while and then adding his own flare. You know how we all hate remakes in Hollywood? Well, it turns out that Shakespeare was the grandfather of all remakes, it is just that his plays survived where was many of his sources disappeared into the mists of history.
Speaking of Hollywood, I do wander whether they could really produce a film like King Lear, and if they did whether they would alter it to make it more appealing. Honestly, this is a very unappealing story, but the reality is that it is always a very moving story – I always cry at the end, whether it be because Cordelia dies (and the first time I saw that scene I was struck dumb), and then when Lear dies because basically he has lost everything. Then there is the French invasion where they attempt to remove the tyrants from the throne of England. Well, they lose, but then again, they do happen to be the French, and surely Shakespeare couldn’t have a play where the French actually won, even if they were lead by the good guys, and they were attempting to overthrow the bad guys.
A Country without a King
While we might suggest that it was a bit silly of Lear to actually divide up the country between his daughters, the reality is that this wasn’t all that uncommon. The whole first born inheriting the entire country is a relatively new phenomenon. In fact, during the middle ages, or at least during the time of Charlemagne, it was quite common for the kingdoms to be divided between all of the children. This obviously doesn’t result in a particularly stable system of passing on the title to the country, since the lands will get smaller and smaller as time, and generations, progress. Yet, at the time, or at least at the time the play is supposed to be set, this wasn’t necessarily an absurd idea.
However, there is also this idea of the females inheriting the throne. Once again, this isn’t necessarily an absurd idea, particularly since England was ruled by a queen (in fact there had been two queens in recent memory). Yet it is a little unclear as to where the power actually lay. Did it lie with Regan and Goneril, or did it lie with their husbands. Honestly, Albany and Cornwell simply aren’t a couple of guys that happen to be playing second fiddle to the daughters – they have a role and a function of their own. Cornwell is a pretty brutal character, particularly since he is the one who gouges out the eyes of Glouscester. As for Albany, well, it actually seems to be the more honourable one, though he is completely dominated by his wife right up until the end.
Yet let us consider the idea of this power vacuum. From the point where Lear sets down his crown, it appears that there is a throne waiting to be claimed. Sure, the daughters aren’t necessarily fighting amongst each other to claim that throne, but they have other concerns in the front of their mind. This is why I don’t consider Edmund to actually be a subplot, but rather a character that is at the front and centre of the action. He sees what is going on, and he sees a way where he can climb the ladder to take the throne for himself.
This inevitably happens when there are power vacuums. It is interesting to note that the daughters are pretty quickly attempting to strip Lear of his retinue, until such a time as he only has two faithful followers, and one of those followers is a fool, and a fool that is not afraid to actually say it like it is. The thing is that these daughters don’t necessarily appear to be particularly strong rulers, especially since Edmund is playing in the background to seize power for himself. He first of all gets rid of his brother, then his father, and finally brings himself into a relationship with both of the daughters, with the intention of dispatching both of them. In fact he poisons Regan near the end of the play, and no doubt intends on dispatching Goneril as well once Albany is out of the way.
A King of Fools
So, what is the problem with King Lear. Well, it is clear that he is a bit of a narcissist. He panders to those who tell him what he wants to hear, and banishes those who speak the truth to him. At first I simply thought he was somebody who wants to be loved, but the reality is that when one has been in a position for so long where he is surrounded by yes men it means that one simply cannot stand to hear anything other than yes. The reality is that to deal with such people you have to tell them what they want to hear, but the thing is that if these people have all of the power then maybe doing so isn’t necessarily going to assist you in your progression, but on the other hand maybe it will.
The problem that Lear faced was that due to his narcissism, he gave up all of his power to people whom in reality he couldn’t trust. This is the danger. Since he only listened to those who would heap praise upon him, and since they knew that that was the way to get ahead with him, once he had dispensed his of his power, he simply wasn’t able to do anything once they turned against him. In a way, he ended up becoming a king of nobody but a couple of fools. In fact you could attribute this to his descent into madness. His narcissism at the beginning of the play resulted in him being stripped of everything that matters to the point that he was wandering alone around the country side handing out flowers to anybody who would listen.
People have suggested that maybe Lear was suffering from Dementia, and at first I thought that this was a reasonable theory. However, I’m not entirely all that sure any more. The thing is that we are watching a man being stripped of everything that made him who he is. He thought that it was time to retire, and in fact that is probably quite reasonable, and smart, since he was getting rather old. However, it becomes pretty clear that he is not thinking straight. Well, not quite, because it seems that he is seeking praise and simply will not settle for anything less.
Yet with this mind set, he begins by fighting with both of his daughters, and then finds himself excluded, wandering around the moors drenched in the rain. Sure, he picks up poor Tom, who is actually Edgar in disguise, but he has literally become a man with nothing. This is the nature of Shakespeare’s genius – he understands human nature, and understands what it means to be a narcissist, somebody who will only respond to praise, and will banish the critics. When everything is stripped away from them all that is left is madness.
In many cases we are all like that. I’ve been there, where people have tried to speak to me to help me understand my flaws. Yet the problem is that sometimes it is really difficult to differentiate it from those who are genuinely friends, and those who are only attempting to get a leg up on us. The reality is that everybody wants to offer us advise, and sometimes that advice simply isn’t going to be good advice. In a way we need to learn to accept criticism, but to also be able to retain a semblance of free will so that we will not become dominated by people who seek to dominate us.
A part of me was wandering whether it is possible for me to write multiple posts on a single Shakespearian play. Well, it certainly seems possible because with every play we watch, and every time we watch a play, we will certainly see something different, and certainly be able to draw more out of it that we weren’t able to draw out of it previously. One thing that I know is that there is more that I want to write about here, but at this point in time what I actually wanted to write about has completely slipped my mind. Oh well, I guess there is always another production of King Lear out there to watch.
Power Vacuum – King Lear’s Resignation by David Alfred Sarkies is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. This license only applies to the text and any image that is within the public domain. Any images or videos that are the subject of copyright are not covered by this license. Use of these images are for illustrative purposes only are are not intended to assert ownership. If you wish to use this work commercially please feel free to contact me