I was due to direct King Lear at the Edinburgh Fringe this August but after a series of heartbreaking pitfalls, this is no longer possible. Here is a treatment I wrote for the play when we thought it was going to happen. It includes some reflections on love, honesty, power, and the psychology of relationships within the family.
The question the play poses:
what do we have when we have absolutely nothing left?
Other big questions:
why does Shakespeare choose to deny a sense of divine justice, coming short of offering us this with Cordelia’s death? How can she die; is justice asserted in the deaths of Goneril, Regan, Edmund, or not?
It is not. There can be no justice, really, in death.
The search for hamartia
Many interpreters, readers, audiences have attempted to interpret Lear along the lines of Aristotle’s theory of tragedy, one that necessitates the fall of a protagonist of great stature from a high station to a low station as the result of a hamartia. Hamartia has been translated variously as ‘character flaw’, ‘moral violation’, and simply, mistake, which I think given examination of the context and the history of tragedy is the most useful. This is not a popular or widely accepted opinion.
To be clear, the temptation to search for a moral flaw in the characters in Lear whose choices drive the plot is natural and irresistible. Lear treads the line between fairytale and psychological realism, and one way of reading the play is seeing King Lear and Gloucester as being righteously punished for two sets of hamartia that they complete. When hamartia is translated as ‘moral violation’, we can see how Gloucester’s fate in the play could be explained by the hamartia he enacted before the play’s action: adultery, namely the adultery that produced Edmund. Arguably, had he not erred in sexual fidelity Edmund would never have been born to resent the society in which despite his fathers’ earldom he stands to inherit neither title nor fortune, unlike Edgar, Gloucester’s legitimate son.
I do not think this explanation is psychologically satisfactory, nor is it really possible to leave King Lear feeling like justice has been served. Gloucester’s mutilation is hideous to watch, and action-wise constitutes the tragic climax of the play. Additionally and decisively, the reconciliation scene between Edgar and Gloucester on the hilltop as Gloucester tries to kill himself and his son, for a reason which I think is best dramatically explained by grief, shock, and resentment at the position he suddenly finds himself in, is in many ways the most moving and heart-breaking of the whole play.
Nor do I think identifying a hamartia in the character of King Lear is either constructive or ultimately satisfying. However, critics can make a more convincing case for this than they can for Gloucester, if they identify Lear’s hamartia as his failure to recognise that Cordelia is his one loyal daughter, and Kent a true advisor, and his choice to exile them both in the first scene for expressing themselves honestly and refusing to pander to his show.
Arguably, this mistake, which one can colour with a moral judgement and claim that like Sophocles’ Oedipus Lear can be blamed for rage, (Oedipus unknowingly commits parricide on a crossroads in a fit of rage a long time before he realises he is married to his mother) can be used to ‘explain’ the entire ensuing narrative – the vindictive rage of Goneril, Regan, and Edmund at the stubbornness, selfishness and stupidity of their parents that culminates in Gloucester’s, Cordelia’s and Lear’s deaths, and indeed all the death and suffering that the audience witness before the play is over.
I have never found this satisfying, and it is a reading that plays down the psychological and dramatic autonomy of the play’s female characters. Goneril and Regan are in no way presdestined to torture Lear psychologically; we must ask, if we are committed to psychological realism, why Goneril and Regan hate Lear so much.
The first place to look is Act One, Scene One. Why is Cordelia Lear’s only loyal and loving daughter? Other productions have explained Goneril and Regan’s hatred by suggesting in the first scene that Lear has sexually abused the older daughters but not the youngest. This is a deeply depressing reading, but opens up the audiences hearts to Goneril and Regan. The elder sisters are dynamic, passionate women, who the audience can be inclined to sympathise with totally and completely up until the stabbing of Gloucester, a physical mutilation so grotesque that though technically just it is so visually disturbing that ‘poetic justice’ that you can read into this act is utterly, emotionally, undermined.
Nor is the play a simple conflict between ‘good’ characters and ‘evil’ ones; Shakespeare’s characterisation is too psychologically compelling to allow the mundanity of a ‘good versus evil’ narrative to really be convincing. The line between the purportedly ‘good’ characters (Lear, Cordelia, Kent, Gloucester, Edgar, the Fool) and ‘bad’ characters (Goneril, Regan, Edmund, Cornwall, Albany (?)) is increasingly blurry. Though the fact that Kent is Lear’s only loyal advisor is borne out by his honesty in the first scene and his choice to return in disguise and serve Lear even without status, his violence to Oswald in Act One puts him morally alongside Albany and Regan if we view physical violence as the ultimate indicator of immorality. Cordelia is verbally and emotionally violent in the first scene; had she not accepted that for once, she would need to perform her love and swallow her pride, there would be no conflict and no play.
Therein lies the ‘problem’. Good, honest people make mistakes, and are driven to moral violations that spiral out of control in the worst of circumstances and lead to death. Old men are annoying, and Lear’s infirmity, the lack of judgement that he demonstrates and Sam Mendes chose to interpret as only explainable by a degenerative disease is as much attributed to old age as some kind of eternal moral flaw; rashness, rage, etc.
So what is left, at the end? Cordelia lies dead in Lear’s arms. He dies of grief; as does Gloucester, both suffering from the loss of their loyal children.
But the utter dejection and impossibility that Cordelia’s death entails is in itself a redeeming force. Cordelia represents honesty, loyalty, forgiveness; the capacity of love to overcome less welcome emotions within us, the capacity we all have to continue to see the best in people, the light in the darkness, even if the evidence around us shows that man’s animal nature can undermine all the values he professes to have. The very pain with which her death comes, and the fatal effect of this grief on Lear, is proportional to how important are the values she stands for.
Moreover, the joy which Lear’s vision of himself and his daughter locked up forever in prison gives him, the force of his gratitude, has a thoroughly redeeming force. Father and daughter may be despoiled of all the trappings of wealth and status, and have no hope of recovering them, or the respect society afforded them as king and princess. But they have each other; the capacity of caged birds to sing represents the capacity of the human being to voice his or her joys and sorrows honestly, to communicate, to love and remain wholehearted while still alive no matter what they have been through. It takes seeing Lear’s transformation from bitter, puerile king to naked old man, and repentant old man with loving child for us to discover what is left when everything that can be taken away has been taken away.
Every character who expresses their sexuality and is shown to be prone to sexual desire is punished. Gloucester receives the ultimate punishment for his infidelity (blinding); Goneril and Regan die for their desire of Edmund, who cares not for them as people but as pawns in his power game, and throughout uses his sexuality to further his own interests. He dies. Cordelia comes across as pure because she does not desire France, but he chooses to welcome her and marry her for who she is rather than what he can gain from her. It is familial love – father daughter (Lear-Cordelia) and father-son (Gloucester-Edmund) rather than romantic love which carries the redeeming emotional force. This is starkly different from the ideal of heterosexual love that resolves the end of most fairy stories (prince kills dragon marries beautiful princess.) At the end of the play we have a father with his daughter in his arms, rather than a pair of characters in each others arms who have a sexual/romantic bond. As if to say that lust – for power, for sex, for status, for material goods (the trappings of wealth) is defined by its transience, where love, when true, is defined by its imperviousness to fortune circumstance.