Inside Shakespeare's mind: King Lear
Shakespeare's weakness in European history is yet another revelation
in King Lear <S> but for his part he never intended any accuracy in this
play. King Lear and the King of France are not a part of history and he
makes it very clear in the play. Even the battle France loses is not
identified unless he had it in his mind.
So, what was it that Shakespeare had in his mind when he wrote the
King Lear – A mighty part,
best left for imagination rather than acted. The text has
752 lines for the King to utter. He is the King of Britain.
* Earl of Kent – His loyalty
for his master was so great that he would not wish to
* Earl of Gloucester – The blinding scene is as intolerable
as anything in the Folio. The more sensitive in the audience
should avoid it.
* Edgar – Only an actor with great depth of character who
can switch on the dual role for Poor Tom should attempt it.
* Edmund – Gloucester's bastard son
* Cordelia, Regan and Goneril – Daughters to Lear King of
France. Cordelia's romantic rescuer who makes her his Queen.
* Duke of Cornwall – Regan's cruel husband who blinds
* Duke of Albany – Goneril's gentle husband.
King Lear – 'Howl, howl, howl, howl;
O' you are men of stones. Had I your tounges and eyes, I'll
use them. That heaven's vault shall crack. She's gone for
ever.'......ACT. V Sc III
A beautiful simple story of a loving father who wanted to test the
love of his three daughters for him that could have ended up on a happy
note even with the straying daughters and their spouses. The story has
been reduced to a melodramatic epic spiced up with too many characters
inter-woven in a slip shot manner. If the playwright wanted to lengthen
the story, he could still have done it with less characters. Old King
Lear is made to look helpless and confused for no reason, stressed up to
test the affection of his daughters.
Written in 1605 and sited in Britain, King Lear resolves to divide
his realm between his three girls as he was ageing fast. He was testing
the depth of their professed love.
The two elder daughters, Goneril who is married to the gentle and
caring Albany and the other Regan whose husband is the vicious Duke of
Cornwall, extravagantly declare their affection to him but the youngest
who is upright in virtue and honesty is truthful in her declaration.
Cordelia with a sense of disdain says, 'I cannot heave my heart into my
mouth' King Lear is horrified and divides her share between Goneril and
Regan. He disinherits her and along with the Earl of Kent who spoke on
her behalf, banish them. However, the King of France takes her as his
Queen, once Cordelia's wealth divided, the King proposes to live with
them alternately with his retinue of 100 knights.
Here, again why would an ageing King have 100 knights attending on
him when he had his two daughters. Shakespeare should have been more
specific on this.
Gloucester's bastard son, Edmund, creates a discord between his
legitimate brother, Edgar and their father, Kent. In the meantime, Kent
disguised and returns to serve his beloved master, Lear. Goneril
receives her father, King Lear with contempt, invoking a curse over his
Lear – 'Your name, fair gentlewoman?'
Goneril – This admiration, sir, is much o' th' savour. Of other your
new pranks. I do beseech thee to understand my purpose aright. As you
are old and reverend, you should be wise. Here, do you keep a hundred
knights and squires, men so disorder'd so debosh'd and bold that our
court, infected with their manners. Shows like a riotous inn. Epicurism
and lust.... ACT. 1, Sc. iv.
Furious by her attitude towards his knights, Lear leaves for Regan.
At this moment, Regan and Cromwall leave for Gloucester's castle from
where Edgar has fled.
Disappointment awaits Lear when he finds Regan to be harsher than
Goneril who feigns madness to supervene.
Disgusted and sad, Lear goes out with his Fool into the night storm
on the heath where the loyal Kent finds him. Braving the anger of the
two sisters and Cornwall, Gloucester finds shelter for them in a hovel.
There is Edgar, disguised as the half-witted Poor Tom and urges Kent
to take the King of Dover with his readied litter. Returning to his
castle, Gloucester is reviled and savagely blinded by Cornwall who is
then slain by a servant.
Still in disguise as Poor Tom, Edgar in known to his blinded father,
sets off with him towards Dover. There is a strange meeting between the
mad King and blind man.
Cordelia – 'How does my royal Lord? How fares your majesty,
Lear – You do me wrong to take me out o' the' grave. Thou art a soul
in bliss but I am bound upon a wheel of fire, that mine own tears do
scald like molten lead.
Cor. - Sir, do you know me?
Lear – You are a spirit, I know. Where did you die.
Cor. - Still, still far wide.
Doctor – He's scare awake, let him alone awhile.
Lear – Where have I been? Where am I, Fair day light. I am mightily
abus'd, I shouldn't die with pity. To see another thus. I know not what
to say. I will not swear these are my hands. Let's see.
- I feel this pin prick. Would I were assur'd of my condition.
Cor. - O, look upon me sir; And hold your hands in benediction o'er
me. No, sir: you must not kneel......ACT. IV Sce. VII.
Later Cordelia arrives from France and is reunited with the feeble
Lear. Captured in a battle which the French forces have lost, Edmund
instructs them to be murdered. However, Edmund who had been deceiving
the furious Goneril and Regan, is killed by Edgar in a single combat.
General poisons her own sister, Regan and stabs herself. Cordeila has
been hanged in prison. A devastated Lear carries her in his arms and
within minutes, he too dies. Albany requests Edgar to look after the
state while Kent has decided to follow Lear. In a sacrificial and
heart-broken state, he declares;
'My Master calls me. I must say no'
Thus ends Shakespeare's somewhat irregular epic in a very sensitive
and emotional mood.
A very high profile tragedy of retribution is the storm-ridden
journey of the mind and spirit of man whose anguish has no bounds. This
great play has been a part of repertory because of it complexity and the
difficulty having it on stage. The Lear of Shakespeare cannot be acted.
This is the story of an aged patriarch driven to madness without
reservation. It fell on to wrong hands in 1681 and fared badly. With the
original text restored, King Lear survived for 30 odd years at Drury
Lane from 1760. Old Vic mounted a version in 1931 with Jean
Forbes-Robertson as Cordelia.
Since then many versions under several directors were seen by the
public. Though many thespians took on the roles of Cordelia and Lear,
none stood out with distinction which makes King Lear unactable. It also
failed in America where Shakespeare did not return until Macready
visited New York.
In films and television
1970 – directed by Grigori Kozintsey, with Yuri Yarvet as Lear. 1971
filmed in Denmark, directed by Peter Brook with Paul Scofield as Lear.
1987 by Jean-Luc Godard had a mafia royal family. 1971 Royal Court with
Edward Bond. In 1983 Granada televised King Lear with Sir Laurence
Olivier as Lear, directed by Michael Elliot. The BBC Television version
featured Michael Hordern as Lear. Aribert Reimana wrote an opera on this
tragedy in 1978.