On Shakespeare

King Lear

Is this the promis'd end or image of that horror?

The ending of Shakespeare's play leaves us stunned with unbearable emotion. But the playwright also leaves us with a question but will not give us an answer.

The test of any production of King Lear is whether it leaves you, at the end, sitting in the theatre with your heart knocked out of place.

There is no other experience in the theatre that has such power to move me as this play does when the production has the courage to follow Shakespeare’s text in allowing every character, ‘good’ and ‘bad’, to have their own point of view, and to let the audience grapple with the moral questions it poses but does not answer.

Shakespeare’s ending of this play is so overwhelming in its emotional effect because he’s earned it. A King, who is old, also a father, also a man, and also a widower (with all the significances these roles will have on the plot) thinks he can cut into three a cartographical representation of his kingdom with impunity and leaves him finally, cradling the corpse of his beloved daughter and asking his heart to break. But along the way to that final scene we watch the fragmenting of a unified state signalling a catastrophic dislocation of political and social cohesion, fraught with ominous resonances for Shakespeare’s original audience.

The division of the kingdom - the social, political, cultural, economic well-being of a whole nation depends on a rhetoric contest. But it’s also an intensely personal story of individuals and relationships,, the consequences of illegitimacy, the mental disintegration of a man and so on. A divine providential order is invoked in this play, only to be discounted. There is so much in this play, it’s hard to even comprehend how many of the deepest aspects of what it is to be human it explores.

We might laugh at poor old Samuel Johnson who related that ‘I was many years ago so shocked by Cordelia’s death that I know not whether I ever endured to read again the last scenes of the play till I undertook to revise them as an editor.’ I’ve always had some sympathy with him in one respect. But not his endorsement of Nahum Tate’s 1681 ludicrous adaptation, which cut out the Fool, made Cordelia and Edgar lovers, Edmund and Regan enjoying sex - they are discovered in a grotto ‘amorously seated, listening to musick’ and Lear and Gloucester go off to ‘some cool cell’ to pass their time in ‘calm reflections on our fortunes past’. All rounded off with the jolly ‘Old Kent throws in his hearty wishes too.’ Tate’s version held the stage for 150 YEARS!

One of my favourite Essayists, Charles Lamb, wasn’t too impressed with this mutilation. But his objections are a brilliant insight into why Shakespeare earned his ending:

‘Is not enough that Cordelia is a daughter, she must shine as a lover too. Tate has put his book into the nostrils of this Leviathan, for Garrick and his followers... A happy ending! - as if the living martyrdom that Lear had gone through - the flaying of his feelings alive, did not make a fair dismissal from the stage of life the only decorous things for him. If he is to live and be happy after, if he could sustain this world’s burden after, why all this pudder and preparation - why torment us with all this unnecessary sympathy? As if the childish pleasure of getting his gilt robes and sceptre again could tempt him to act over again his misused station - as if at his years, and with his experience, anything was left but to die.’

I leave you with Keats’ unforgettable lines describing his response to reading the play which he loved with a deep passion and which haunted him throughout his creative life:

‘Once again the fierce dispute
Between damnation and impassion’d clay,
I must burn through; -’
‘The excellence of every art is in its intensity, capable to making all disagreeables evaporate, from their being in close relationship with Beauty and Truth. Examine King Lear, and you will find this exemplified throughout.’

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