Michael McKean and Sam Waterston in the Public Theater production of King Lear. Photo: Joan Marcus.
The Public Theater production of King Lear, with Sam Waterston, Michael McKean, and Bill Irwin and directed by James Macdonald, closes this weekend after a run which received lackluster reviews. This provides me with the opportunity to repost my essay of November 2010, “King Lear and the theatre of ignorance,” which originally appeared in two parts; they are combined in one post below.
Every few years I turn to King Lear again, and recently did so one more time (in the Stanley Wells Oxford Shakespeare edition). In his essay on the play, A.C. Bradley noted that of the other three great tragedies it was, to his mind, unique: “When I am feeling that it is greater than any of these, and the fullest revelation of Shakespeare’s power, I find I am not regarding it simply as a drama, but am grouping it in my mind with works like the Prometheus Vinctus and the Divine Comedy, and even with the greatest symphonies of Beethoven and the statues in the Medici Chapel.” What precedes this statement, however, is a rather interesting disclaimer: “When I regard it strictly as a drama, it appears to me, though in certain parts overwhelming, decidedly inferior as a whole to Hamlet, Othello and Macbeth.”
Bradley was not alone. It does not, in Shakespeare’s lifetime, appear to have had the success of his other plays. The only recorded performance during the Jacobean years was for the court of James I on 26 December 1606. While Shakespeare often “tried out” plays at the Globe before these frequent court presentations, Stephen Orgel notes in his introduction to the Penguin edition that during 1606 the London theatres were closed due to the plague, making it quite possible that the performance for the king was the premiere and that it was only performed for the general public the following year; this seems likely, since the role appears in the list of those that Burbage played at the Globe, though there is no more specific contemporary record of a public performance.  What’s more, after the Restoration the most common text used for production was that prepared by Nahum Tate in 1681, which gave the play a happy ending with the restoration of Lear to the throne and the marriage of Cordelia to Edgar. It wasn’t until 1838 that William Charles Macready restored the text and the play as Shakespeare conceived it returned to the British stage.
In his introduction to the Oxford text, Wells touches on a few notes that may have led to Bradley’s ambivalence, not the least of which is the play’s thematic and structural resemblance to the morality plays that preceded the drama of the 17th century. Characters are quite consciously emblems (father/king, parent/child, private individual/public subject, kindness/cruelty, legitimacy/illegitimacy, nature/humanity), and the play’s setting in the distant, even Stonehengian past of England lends to it an otherworldly quality. In this, and in its misanthropic pessimism, it is quite the most Schopenhauerian of Shakespeare’s plays along with Troilus and Cressida and Timon of Athens, which were written at about the same time. Schopenhauer’s aesthetics granted to the individual artist an epiphany, an insight into the Platonic Ideals not only of concrete objects (trees, stones, bodies) but also of abstract qualities (suffering, duty), which the artist then through discipline and talent rendered as an aesthetic object in the phenomenal world. The emblems of the morality play are shorn of individualism and approach instead these Platonic figures, which are then presented to the spectator for disinterested contemplation. Nor is that all, for much of the imagery of King Lear — its obsession with nothingness, its repeated motifs of the wheel (of fate, cyclic movement and Ixion) and the condition of torture, of individual life as a pensum to be endured — is also reflected in The World as Will and Representation.
The play has had a special appeal to the dramatists of the New Expressionism explored here before. James Knowlson notes that Beckett studied the play again during the last decade of his life, but there’s far more than this. Each of the New Expressionists, in fact, has devoted individual plays to the reexamination of Shakespeare’s tragedy: David Rudkin (Will’s Way), Howard Barker (Seven Lears), David Ian Rabey (The Wye Plays) and Sarah Kane (Blasted).  And though he can’t be counted among the New Expressionists, Edward Bond also rewrote the play for his 1971 Lear.
All of these writers explore the drives of death and eros and appear to locate one of the earliest expressions of their relationship in King Lear. But to close today, I want to offer a particularly sensitive reading of the play from Sigmund Freud, who in his 1913 paper “The Theme of the Three Caskets” suggested not only a perspective on the emblematic significance of Cordelia but also went some way to consider the conspicuous absence of a mother figure in the play:
To avoid misunderstandings, I should like to say that it is not my purpose to deny that King Lear’s dramatic story is intended to inculcate two wise lessons: that one should not give up one’s possessions and rights during one’s lifetime, and that one must guard against accepting flattery at its face value. These and similar warnings are undoubtedly brought out by the play; but it seems to me quite impossible to explain the overpowering effect of King Lear from the impression that such a train of thought would produce, or to suppose that the dramatist’s personal motives did not go beyond the intention of teaching these lessons. …
Lear is an old man. It is for this reason, as we have already said, that the three sisters appear as his daughters. The relationship of a father to his children, which might be a fruitful source of many dramatic situations, is not turned to further account in the play. But Lear is not only an old man: he is a dying man. In this way the extraordinary premises of the division of his inheritance loses all its strangeness. But the doomed man is not willing to renounce the love of women; he insists on hearing how much he is loved. Let us now recall the moving final scene, one of the culminating points of tragedy in modern drama. Lear carries Cordelia’s dead body on to the stage. Cordelia is Death. If we reverse the situation it becomes intelligible and familiar to us. She is the Death-goddess who, like the Valkyrie in German mythology, carries away the dead hero from the battlefield. Eternal wisdom, clothed in the primaeval myth, bids the old man renounce love, choose death and make friends with the necessity of dying.
The dramatist brings us nearer to the ancient theme by representing the man who makes the choice between the three sisters as aged and dying. The regressive revision which he has thus applied to the myth, distorted as it was by wishful transformation, allows us enough glimpses of its original meaning to enable us perhaps to reach as well a superficial allegorical interpretation of the three female figures in the theme. We might argue that what is represented here are the three inevitable relations that a man has with a woman — the woman who bears him, the woman who is his mate and the woman who destroys him; or that they are the three forms taken by the figure of the mother in the course of a man’s life — the mother herself, the beloved one who is chosen after her pattern, and lastly the Mother Earth who receives him once more. But it is in vain that an old man yearns for the love of woman as he had it first from his mother; the third of the Fates alone, the silent Goddess of Death, will take him into her arms.
In his introduction to the Oxford edition of King Lear, editor Stanley Wells remarks on the difficulty of the play’s reception even in its own time, the early 17th century:
[There] must … have been a profound creative urge that impelled [Shakespeare] to write so intellectually ambitious and passionately expressed a play, one that makes fewer concessions to the need to entertain, in any easy sense of the word, than anything he wrote before or after. … To its early audiences, the language of King Lear must have seemed very strange, as original in its day as that of James Joyce or Dylan Thomas in theirs. The commentary to this edition notes over a hundred words or compounds which either represent or predate OED‘s first recorded use (absolutely or in this sense), and though this is not entirely reliable it gives some idea of the innovativeness of the play’s vocabulary.
And then there is the message (if such it can be said to be) of the play itself. One possible interpretation is contained in a precis that I recently read, the source of which escapes me for the moment; to paraphrase, it is that “if the play teaches us anything, it’s that suffering teaches us nothing.” What is one to do with such knowledge — not in the instrumental sense of the word, since there is no practical utility to such a message, but how does it color one’s perceptions of the world and the self once recognized? Especially if, as the play explicitly demonstrates, suffering and cruelty are the ultimate conditions of both man and nature? There is no sentimentalization of either man or nature in King Lear, no environmentally correct interpretation of the natural world or “humanistic” (in one sense of the word) interpretation of man. “Stripped of the consolations of received religion,” Wells writes, “it gains in mystery, in the sense of life as a battle with the elements, a struggle for survival against wind and rain in a world where humanity has to compete with animal forces both within and outside itself. Shakespeare turns the play into a kind of anti-pastoral by his addition of the storm that is external to Lear and of the tempest that rages in his mind. As in As You Like It, the ‘winter wind’ is ‘not so unkind | As man’s ingratitude.’” Nature is not merely the beauty of the landscape; it is the ugliness of Gloucester’s empty eye sockets, just as natural as any tree.
Both in style and in content, then, King Lear attempts to elicit from the spectator a recognition and knowledge of the suffering and cruelty inherent in both nature and man. This can easily be interpreted as a nihilistic interpretation, but not necessarily so; in a wider sense, it is also a humanistic interpretation, but from the perspective of a humanism that grants pessimism as vital a dimension as its opposite. For the end of the play is drenched with love and compassion: Lear and Gloucester are both reunited with the children who truly love them and reconciliation is achieved; but this is a very temporary state, for death follows near. Rather uniquely among Shakespeare’s tragedies, Lear and Gloucester both die not from poison or at the point of a sword or knife, but of what must be called “natural” causes. Edgar describes how Gloucester’s heart exploded in his chest once the full knowledge of the love of his son is achieved:
Not sure, though hoping, of this good success,
I asked his blessing, and from first to last
Told him my pilgrimage; but his flawed heart –
Alack, too weak the conflict to support –
‘Twixt two extremes of passion, joy and grief,
And Lear bears Cordelia’s dead body onto the stage only minutes after their powerful reconciliation before succumbing.
As Freud said in his notes on the play, “I should like to say that it is not my purpose to deny that King Lear’s dramatic story is intended to inculcate two wise lessons: that one should not give up one’s possessions and rights during one’s lifetime, and that one must guard against accepting flattery at its face value. These and similar warnings are undoubtedly brought out by the play; but it seems to me quite impossible to explain the overpowering effect of King Lear from the impression that such a train of thought would produce, or to suppose that the dramatist’s personal motives did not go beyond the intention of teaching these lessons.” Indeed, to conclude that all the play has to offer are those Polonius-like lessons is to ignore its dense and ambivalent fabric.
What knowledge there is in the play seems to be this: that, far from man’s true estate, love and compassion are rare qualities in existence, granted by grace to a race which does not deserve them. The source of this love and compassion remains Shakespeare’s secret and the play’s mystery. It is only fortune that grants them; they are by no means assured in this existence. With this knowledge, the spectator can then turn eyes inward as well as to the world without, praying for this love and compassion and hoping against hope for this state of grace. It engenders compassion for this inescapable suffering and those who are crippled by it. For the love and compassion that close King Lear do not eradicate the horrors that come before; indeed, the horrors are magnified by them. Far more complex, this, than the simplifications of the text that Nahum Tate undertook when the play was revived after the Restoration, with its triumphant Lear, happy Cordelia and Edgar, and absent Fool. And far more complex than those who would consider the play merely misanthropic nihilism, even if it provides no assurance of comfort.