Posts Tagged ‘King lear’

#Shakespeare400 “King Lear” revisited

I saw King Lear again last night – a touring production in the Oxford Playhouse, with Michael Pennington, a very favourite actor of mine, as Lear. I go back quite a long way with both actor and play. On my first visit to Stratford-on-Avon, back in 1978, I saw Michael Pennington play Berowne in Love’s Labour’s Lost, and the Duke in Measure for Measure, and I have since seen him play Timon of Athens, Antony (in Antony and Cleopatra), and double up as Claudius and Hamlet’s father’s ghost in Peter Hall’s production. And as for the play itself, it has haunted my mind ever since the age of eleven, when my parents took me to see a production at the Edinburgh Festival with Timothy West in the title role. That night, I was so excited by what I had seen, I couldn’t get to sleep. I have seen the play on stage several times since: by my count, last night’s performance was the ninth. There have been some extraordinary Lears amongst them – Brian Cox, John Wood, and Timothy West again, some thirty years after I had first seen him in the role. (I have also seen Robert Stephens’ much admired performance, but I saw him only at the end of the run, when it was obvious that he was physically exhausted, and not really up to it: he died shortly afterwards, and it was intimated that the physical exertion of playing the role hastened his demise.)

I think it’s fair to say I have been very close to King Lear over the years, although I should be careful about making such a claim: this huge, craggy monster of a play is not really something one can get very close to. But for over forty years now I have read and re-read it, seen television broadcasts, heard radio productions, listened to audio recordings, revisited it in my imagination God knows how many times – made it, in short, my own. I have no gift for memorising things, and don’t try to do it anyway, but I found, watching the play last night, that I could anticipate every line spoken; I could identify the omissions, the slight re-orderings; I could even tell at which point they were following the Quarto or the Folio text. One would think that when one gets to such a stage, the interest in the play itself would become a bit jaded, and focus not so much on the work, perhaps, but on how it is done this time round: how, after all, can one be shocked or overwhelmed by something one has been so familiar with for so long? But that was not the case. Not that I didn’t take an interest in how it was done this time round, and not that I didn’t make comparisons with previous interpretations: one can hardly help doing either. But the sheer elemental force of the play, a force so unremittingly powerful and startling that it seems to render all commentary both irrelevant and impertinent, remained undiminished.

Will there ever come an age, I wonder, when this play will not speak with such burning urgency to the issues of the times? The world is currently on fire. Perhaps it always was, and I am just noticing it now more intensely. Senseless hatred, cruelty and brutality on unimaginable scale, grotesque injustice, and dumb animal suffering – somehow, no matter how much the world changes, some things seem to remain with us, as if ineradicable. This is the world of King Lear. The centre cannot hold, and mere anarchy is loosed upon the world. We get a sense of being close to the apocalypse itself. And yet, when we came to the storm scenes at the centre of the play, I found myself asking just how we came here. Was this inevitable from the opening scene? One could certainly trace a coherent line from the opening scene to this raging tempest, a tempest both real and also of the mind, but could that line have been otherwise? If, say, all we had of the play was that opening scene, could we have guessed that this is what it would lead to? I don’t think so. If we had the opening scene alone, we would, I think have conjectured this to have been the start of a fairy-tale: we may have conjectured that the rest of the play would have been something like, say, Cymbeline. For that opening, though psychologically coherent, does have a fairy-tale feel to it. But how did we get from a fairy tale to … well, to this? Despite all the familiarity with the text that I had bragged about earlier, I honestly don’t know. There’s a mystery about art of this stature, no less than there is about life itself, that all the knowledge and understanding in the world cannot fathom. And, furthermore, I claim only familiarity with this play: knowledge and understanding are different matters.

We tend to think of the play these days as, essentially, a bleak play. Since Peter Brook’s ground-breaking production with Pau Scofield in the early 60s, we tend to think of it in Beckettian terms – dark, desolate, comfortless. But it was not so long ago that so distinguished a critic as Kenneth Muir (editor of the old Arden edition) was seeing it as essentially a Christian play – a play about a man who loses the whole world, but gains his soul. We like nothing better these days than to scoff at what we deem to be “sentimental”, but if it is indeed true that Muir’s view of it as a Christian play falls well short of telling the whole story, seeing the play through a Beckettian lens seems to me to fall similarly short. For although we see the most extreme evil and cruelty in this play, humanity is by no means presented solely in such terms. Indeed, it may be claimed that in no other work of literature are we presented with such overwhelming pictures of human good – of good that is tender, self-sacrificing, heroic. And Muir isn’t wrong in what he says: Lear does lose the whole world, and he does gain his soul. That is not the whole story, no, but is there any formulation of this work that can give us the whole story? In the end, we simply do not know. We do not know anything of the nature of the gods – whether, in their inscrutable way, they do indeed administer justice of sorts, or whether they see humanity as wanton boys see flies, and kill us for their pleasure. We do not even know whether the gods exist at all. The extreme good and extreme evil we see are all human good, and human evil: what need of gods or of devils when we can fulfil ourselves the roles of both? By the end, both good and evil are destroyed: so absolute is the sense of destruction that no-one even pauses to think of who should now rule, of how the country should now continue: such matters are important at the end of a Hamlet or of a Macbeth, but not here. Is the Good we see an irrelevance because it is crushed by the Evil? Or does the very presence of Good, miraculous as it is, redeem the world on some plane, despite all the Evil that engulfs it? The play offers us no hint of an answer either way. Lear speaks of taking upon us “the mystery of things, as if we were God’s spies”, but even this is ambivalent: are we spying on behalf of God, who, by implication, cannot see what is happening in his creation? Or are we spying on God himself?

This year will be the Year of Lear for me. I have tickets to see Anthony Sher play the role this summer at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre (after his magnificent performance as Falstaff, expectations are high) ; and it has been announced that later this year, Glenda Jackson will be coming out of retirement to tackle this Everest of Shakespearean roles. And I am certainly not missing out on that. My obsession with this most terrible and awe-inspiring of works shows no sign of diminishing.

Revisit Lear? When have I not inhabited this play?

Lear eviscerated: Jonathan Miller’s latest production of “King Lear”

Although it’s often quoted as if it were a profound piece of wisdom, I have never really understood what Wilde meant by the line “Each man kills the thing he loves”. I suspect that, as with most other Wildean epigrams, he was more concerned with sound than with sense. But I couldn’t help thinking of that line on seeing the Northern Broadsides touring production of King Lear, featuring Barrie Rutter in the title role, and directed – for the eighth time, I believe – by Jonathan Miller.

This is a production I very much wanted to like. Regional theatre companies are amongst the most important aspect of our artistic life here in Britain, and the standard of Shakespearean production in this country – despite some ill-considered sniping to the contrary – remains very high. Putting on such a colossal masterpiece such as King Lear is precisely what a company such as Northern Broadsides should be doing. And there can be no doubt that Jonathan Miller loves this play: he would hardly have directed it eight times if he didn’t. In the programme notes of this production, he is quoted as saying that this is the play he “knows best”. His production of King Lear for the BBC Shakespeare series in the early 80s struck me as, in many ways, quite outstanding: it would certainly be my top recommendation for anyone wanting a performance of this play for home viewing. And yet, this latest production, which is likely, given Jonathan Miller is now 80, to be his last of the work, never springs to life. I do not think this is a fault of the cast, who were hardly given the opportunity to make the most of their parts: no – it is Jonathan Miller himself who, for reasons I cannot fathom, appears to have killed the thing he so obviously loves.

Of course, Jonathan Miller has long held views on this play that may be described as idiosyncratic. Perhaps uniquely amongst major theatre directors, he does not see King Lear as an epic play; he does not see Lear himself as a towering figure, larger than life; he does not see the drama as a work of cosmic significance: the characters in this play, he insists, are contending not against cosmic forces, but against each other. This is not, I admit, my own view of the work, but I am always happy to have my views challenged, especially by someone who has thought as long and hard about the work as Miller has obviously done. But he has a strange way of making his point: to demonstrate that the play is not epic or cosmic, he simply removes from it all passages that suggest the epic or the cosmic. If, say, a pianist is convinced that Beethoven’s piano sonatas contain no slow music, and tries to demonstrate this by omitting all the slow movements in performance, I doubt anyone would be taking that pianist too seriously; yet, I do not see that Miller’s approach is any different.

It is not that I insist on a full presentation of the text. In the first place, what is generally regarded as a “full text” is really a conflation of two quite separate texts; and, in general, most Shakespeare plays can, in performance, take a bit of judicious cutting. But here, the text wasn’t so much cut as eviscerated. In scene after scene, some of the most affecting, extraordinary, and – dare I say it – epic and cosmic of passages were simply cut away.  Of course, in saying this I realise I lay myself open to the charge of being a mere Shakespearean tourist, as it were, wanting merely to savour the famous highlights, like those who step off the tour bus for a few minutes to take a snap of the Eiffel Tower before being whisked on to the next famous landmark. But I plead “not guilty” to that. The cuts imposed by Miller were so ruinous that they seemed to take the very heart out of the play. I understood how Miller doesn’t see the play, I got no sense of how he does.

For instance, I can understand – though not necessarily agree with – the excision of the passage depicting the mock-trial in III,vi: if the Folio text is regarded as Shakespeare’s own revision of the earlier Quarto text, Shakespeare made the cut himself. But if the reason for this excision is textual, it is hard to account for the excision of the lines Shakespeare had added in the Folio text: Lear’s last line, for instance, which, at the very point of extinction, seems to hint at a transcending vision. Perhaps Shakespeare was being too “cosmic” here for Jonathan Miller – I don’t know.

The famous storm scenes too had their dark heart removed. In other productions I have seen, and even in my readings of play, the combination of Lear’s ragings, the Fool’s increasingly irrelevant gibberings, Poor Tom’s utter gibberish – in which the very structure of language seems to break down – and, of course, the elemental nature of the storm itself, transports me into a world of apocalyptic terror. But here, Lear does not rage – so when the French doctor later says his “great rage … is killed”, one can but wonder what he is on about; and much of the Fool’s part, and virtually all of Poor Tom’s are cut. After the Fool speaks a prophecy (mainly nonsense: Shakespeare has taken us into a world here that has stopped making sense), he speaks the very strange line “This prophecy Merlin shall make, for I live before his time”, and suddenly, we realise that the Fool is actually prophesying a prophecy, and chasms open at our feet; the very structure of time itself seems to have collapsed. In this production, the prophecy is retained, but not the line that follows, and, as a consequence, nothing very much is communicated to the audience at all. (This entire passage appears only in the Folio text, not in the Quarto, but since only part of it is retained, I doubt that the reasons for the cut had anything to do with textual considerations.) And while there is, as I said, some textual argument to support the excision of the mock-trial (which appears only in the Quarto text), one wonders what could have prompted Miller to cut the entire scene in which it appears.

And so it continues. The scene where the mad Lear meets the blind Gloucester – which projects the most terrible of tragic visions more powerfully than just about any other scene in drama that I can think of – is cut to shreds; and even at the end – where, in this production, Lear, instead of entering with Cordelia’s corpse in his arms, totters in weakly after her body – the chilling animal-like cries of “Howl! Howl! Howl! Howl!” are cut. And, of course, Lear’s final line, which really does hint at the cosmic dimension that Miller insists isn’t there, is also cut. All that is grand; all that is magnificent, colossal, epic; all that is visionary; is cut away.

One does not, I agree, need to be epic to communicate artistic visions of passion and of intensity: to consider an example from a rather different medium, Rafael Kubelik’s recording of Mahler’s mighty 6th symphony is conceived on a much smaller scale than the grand, epic readings of Barbirolli, Bernstein, Solti or Karajan, but is nonetheless overwhelming on its own terms. But that is not so here: there was nothing, absolutely nothing, to compensate for all that was missing. At times, it seemed no more than a perfunctory run-through of selected scenes from the play. Indeed, I can think of no better argument to counter the “Meant-to-be-seen-not-read” contingent: any reading of this play yields greater dividends than seeing a production as limp as this; and anyone whose sole acquaintance with this towering masterpiece is this production will come away with a very distorted and diminished view of Shakespeare’s work.


Normally, I try not to write on this blog about what I don’t like, and I feel a bit bad, I must admit, about writing this particular post: the tradition of Shakespearean performance remains very strong in Britain, and I have no wish to join the ranks of trendy detractors who seem hostile to the very idea of “tradition”. But I do have a genuine respect for Jonathan Miller, admire much of his work as director, and really was looking forward to a production that I was hoping would open up, for me at any rate, new ways of looking at this endlessly fascinating play. But in the event, for reasons best known to himself, Jonathan Miller really has killed the thing he loves. He has killed it stone dead, and I don’t have the faintest idea why.

“King Lear” at the National Theatre

The following is a review of Shakespeare’s King Lear from the National Theatre, London, starring Simon Russell Beale and directed by Sam Mendes, seen as a live cinema broadcast on May 1st, 2014

Anna Maxwell-Martin and Simon Russell Beale as Regan and Lear (Picture courtesy of National Theatre)

Anna Maxwell-Martin and Simon Russell Beale as Regan and Lear (Picture courtesy of National Theatre)

As a Shakespeare commentator, A. C. Bradley is, for understandable reasons, somewhat out of fashion these days, but I do tend to agree with him when he describes King Lear as Shakespeare’s greatest achievement, but not his greatest play:

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. 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.

I suppose there’s room for debate on the first point: is King Lear Shakespeare’s “greatest achievement”? The Henry IV plays, Twelfth Night, Hamlet, the sonnets, etc. all have claims on that score; but if one were to qualify Bradley’s assertion to “one of Shakespeare’s greatest achievements”, few, I imagine, would dissent: speaking personally, I can’t think of any other work of art, in any medium, that makes on me a greater impact than this. But as for Bradley’s second point, there can surely be no quarrel at all: as a play, it is a mess. How many other plays can one think of where a character who is a major presence in the first half disappears without explanation half way through, and is never referred to again? Where another major character is given virtually no motivation at all for what can only be described as outrageous behaviour? Where important plot complications are introduced as late as the fourth act, when there is not sufficient time to resolve them satisfactorily? Where the sub-plot resembles the principal plot so closely that the climactic moment of this sub-plot has to take place off-stage so as to avoid repetition? Where there is much travel between different locations, but no indication given of how far from each other these locations are, nor how long the characters would need to travel from one to the other?

And yet, this is not because Shakespeare did not know how to write plays: even as early as The Comedy of Errors, it is obvious that he was a master of his craft, shaping and pacing unerringly even the most intricate of plots. And it is worth noting also that when Shakespeare revised the text (assuming the Folio text is a revision of the Quarto text – a reasonable assumption, I think, to make), although he did tidy up a few loose ends, there were many other loose ends (e.g. the mysterious disappearance of the Fool half way through the play) which he could very easily have sorted out, but which he chose not to. This suggests to me not merely that the rough edges don’t matter in the overall context, but, further, that Shakespeare had actually intended these rough edges to remain; that we should no more lament the seemingly unfinished nature of this play than we should the unfinished nature of so many of Michelangelo’s sculptures.

I don’t insist on that last point. Possibly a finished surface would have made this an even greater work, but, given my decades-long familiarity with the work as Shakespeare left it, I cannot imagine it any other way. But whatever the reason for the seemingly unfinished and rough-edged quality of this play, it causes no end of headaches for the director. What is an actor to make of Edgar, whose frequently bizarre behaviour seems so utterly unmotivated? What can an actor make of Edmund, for that matter – the complete villain who, for some unknown reason, decides to do some good before he dies? What can an actor make of a character so dull and two-dimensional as the Earl of Kent? Or any of the other supporting characters, who all seem – at least in comparison with the supporting characters in Shakespeare’s other mature tragedies – so desperately under-written?

This latest National Theatre production, broadcast live in cinemas last week, features at its centre an extraordinarily powerful performance from Simon Russell Beale as Lear, but otherwise, presents what seemed to me a rather lacklustre and frequently misjudged interpretation. Kate Fleetwood as Goneril, and Anna Maxwell-Martin as an increasingly psychotic Regan both impressed, but the rest of the cast seemed to do little with their characters. Admittedly, Shakespeare hadn’t given them much to work on, but I have seen more made of Gloucester and his two sons, of the Fool, and even of Kent, than was apparent here. Many of the directorial decisions (by Sam Mendes) also seemed to me doubtful. There is, in theory, no objection to playing Shakespeare in modern dress, but in this case, it meant that the heraldic formalities preceding the duel between Edgar and Edmund in the final act could no longer make sense: here, the entire duel was cut, with Edgar simply walking on stage, declaring himself, and casually assassinating Edmund. It seemed, somehow, too casual and too understated an act to serve as a resolution of what has been, till then, a major strand of the play. And it also deprived that final scene of much of its weight: thinning out the material between Lear’s great speech at the start of the scene (“No, no, no, no, come, let’s away to prison…”), and his entrance at the end with Cordelia’s body, may have seemed like a good idea: after all, who is really interested in Edgar and Edmund by this stage of the drama? But in practice, the pacing seemed all wrong, and, despite Simon Russell’s Beale’s peerless delivery of some of the most intense of all tragic lines, the impact this scene normally makes seemed somehow diminished.

One can also question the wisdom of providing an explanation for the disappearance of the Fool. Trevor Nunn’s RSC production had also accounted for this: there, we saw the Fool hanged by Cornwall’s soldiers, thus linking the disappearance to Lear’s line near the end of the play, “And my poor fool is hanged”. (In most productions, Lear refers here to Cordelia rather than to the Fool.) Here, as in Adrian Noble’s 1982 production for the Royal Shakespeare Company, Lear kills the Fool himself in a frenzy of madness in III,vi, and the Fool’s enigmatic words – “And I’ll go to bed at noon” – become his dying words. It is certainly a shocking moment; but introducing such a moment of shocking violence at this stage diminishes the shock value of the scene that follows immediately after, in which a servant is killed, Cornwall is fatally wounded, and, most famously, Gloucester has his eyes plucked out. It is this later scene, surely, that should be the culminating point of the tempestuous third act: in this production, it did not seem so. In any case, there is surely little point served in explaining the disappearance of the Fool: we are here within a dramatic framework in which the world itself has stopped making sense: why go out of one’s way to explain something that Shakespeare, even in his revisions, did not think worth explaining?

There are several other features in this production which seemed to me misjudged. When, for instance, Lear delivered his terrible curse to Goneril (I,iv), here, Goneril reacted instinctively by slapping her father; and later, in the mock-trial scene, Lear’s allegation that Goneril had “kicked the poor king, her father” is changed to “hit the poor king, her father”. This diminishes the drama in every sense. Is it at all credible that Lear, a man accustomed all his life to unquestioned obedience, unable to control his violent temper, and already in a towering rage, would take a slap from his own daughter and let it pass? Lear’s allegation in the mock-trial scene in Act III – that Goneril had kicked him – is a wonderfully mad and surreal image, and I see nothing to be gained by ironing out this surreal madness into something that is true and reasonable. And in any case, the word “kicked”, with its concentration of plosive consonants, makes a far greater impact that the relatively weak “hit”. Shakespeare knew what he was doing: re-writes almost invariably result in diminution.

There were other things also. Edmund was presented as a corporate careerist, bespectacled, sharp-suited, and with a portfolio under his arm; Edgar, in contrast, was a layabout – casually dressed, swigging from a bottle of wine and smoking a fag*. It wasn’t clear why they were characterised thus, nor why these characterisations had to be made so blatantly obvious.

But even given all this, it is a measure of the extraordinary qualities of the work that it reduced me once again to tears. Simon Russell Beale must take the credit for this. Right from the start, he presented a man still physically powerful, but who is already descending into dementia: his mind is beginning to go, and he knows it. I have rarely seen that moment in I,v where he confronts this awareness directly for the first time (“Let me not be mad, sweet heaven”) performed with such heartbreaking poignancy. He takes care to differentiate, as all the best Lears do, between the violent but essentially childish tantrums of the first act and the deeper passion that overtakes him later in the play. His reunion with Cordelia, where, out of shame, he could hardly bring himself to look at her, really couldn’t have been done better; and his inconsolable howling over her dead body really did seem like the promised end, or an image of that horror. This was a tremendous Lear; but it needed badly a production that was better thought out, and in which the supporting cast could rise above the various directorial misjudgements, and make something out of their admittedly difficult roles.


* Whatever a “fag” may mean on the other side of the Pond, in UK, it means a cigarette.

The two King Lears

Lear, enraged by Goneril, rants at her thus in the Quarto text of King Lear:

Does anyone here know me? Why, this is not Lear.
Does Lear walk thus, speak thus? Where are his eyes?
Either his notion weakens, or his discernings
Are lethargied. Sleeping or waking, ha?
Sure, ‘tis not so.
Who is it who can tell me who I am?
Lear’s shadow? I would fain learn that, for by the marks
Of sovereignty, knowledge, and reason
I should be false persuaded I had daughters.

Fool:      Which they will make an obedient father.

Lear (to Gonoril): Your name, fair gentlewoman?

– From Scene iv of the Quarto text (1608), edited by Stanley Wells, Oxford World Classics

In the 1623 folio text, this same passage appears thus:

Does anyone here know me? This is not Lear:
Does Lear walk thus? speak thus? Where are his eyes?
Either his notion weakens, his discernings
Are lethargied. Ha! Waking? ‘Tis not so!
Who is it that can tell me who I am?

Fool:      Lear’s shadow.

Lear (to Gonerill): Your name, fair gentlewoman?

– From I,iv of the Folio text (1623), edited by Jay L. Halio, New Cambridge Shakespeare

Different, certainly, but the situation and characters depicted are, I think, much the same. What we tend to get in most texts and productions is a conflated version. Here is the same passage from the conflated version in the Arden Shakespeare series:

Does anyone here know me? Why, this is not Lear.
Does Lear walk thus, speak thus? Where are his eyes?
Either his notion weakens, or his discernings are lethargied. Ha! Sleeping or waking? Sure, ‘tis not so. Who is it who can tell me who I am?

Fool:      Lear’s shadow.

Lear:      I would fain learn that, for by the marks of sovereignty, knowledge, and reason, I should be false persuaded I had daughters.

Fool:      Which they will make an obedient father.

Lear (to Goneril): Your name, fair gentlewoman?

– From I,iv of conflated text, edited by R. A. Foakes, Arden Shakespeare

I realise one can get too precious about these matters, but it does seem to me that either the Quarto text or the Folio text is preferable to the conflated version. In the Quarto text, Lear’s rant builds up a fine head of steam, but is deflated at the end by the Fool’s one’s liner. Lear then turns to Gonoril (so-spelt) with heavy-handed irony. In the Folio text, the rant is curtailed, and the words “Lear’s shadow” that had previously been spoken by Lear as a rhetorical question, are now spoken by the Fool as an ironic rejoinder to Lear. But the conflation seems to me the worst of all worlds: giving the words “Lear’s shadow” to the Fool while the rant is still in full flow not only robs the rest of the rant of all momentum, it also diminishes the impact of the Fool’s deflating one-liner once Lear is finished.

Time after time I found passages like that. Most of the changes between the Quarto and Folio text are minor, but where there are two distinct versions of the same passage – i.e. when it is not merely a matter of changing some of the odd bit of wording, but, rather, substituting one entire passage for another – it seems to me to make little sense conflating them.

043Consider also Scene 8 in the Quarto text (III,i in the Folio). Lear has already wandered off into the storm, and his daughters have shut the door on him. Before we have the big scenes of Lear in the storm, there is a short scene between Kent (still in disguise) and an unnamed “gentleman”. This scene merely serves an expository purpose, and shouldn’t take too long. But almost invariably, the two versions of Kent’s speech to the gentleman are conflated, and, as a consequence, this speech becomes overlong: a long expository speech is surely the last thing we want at this stage of the drama! And also, as a consequence of the conflation, the exposition itself becomes muddled. In the Quarto text, the King of France does not know about what’s been happening in England, and Kent sends the gentleman to his camp to tell him; in the Folio text, the King of France knows, and so Kent doesn’t send him.  In the conflated text, the King of France knows, but Kent sends the gentleman anyway.

Despite all the many re-wordings and the occasional re-writing, the nature of the drama does not seem to me very different between the two texts. When I read the two good texts of Hamlet recently (the “Good” Quarto and the First Folio), it seemed to me that Shakespeare had revised his thoughts on certain important aspects of the play, and of Hamlet’s character, and that the two texts effectively give us two different plays. Here, the changes don’t make for so radical a re-casting of the drama: mainly, it seems that Shakespeare had tidied up the play at certain points, and, at other points, had added a few afterthoughts. The tidying up is generally, I think, to be welcomed: in the Quarto version, for example, between the scene in which the blind Gloucester is led away by Edgar, and the scene in which Goneril returns with Edmund to her castle, there are three successive scenes that do no more than explain details of the plot; cutting out one of these three scenes, as Shakespeare does in the Folio, does no harm at all: quite the contrary. However, there is at least one excision from the Quarto text that is mystifying. It is the scene during the storm in which Lear, his mind collapsed, puts his two absent daughters on “trial”. The excision of this is scene in the Folio is surely no accident: the cut is expertly done. But why? Why cut out one of the most extraordinary scenes that even Shakespeare has ever conceived? Many conjectures have been advanced, but none to my mind is convincing. Whatever Shakespeare’s reason may have been, I’d certainly feel cheated were I to see this scene cut in any performance.

And of the afterthoughts, there is at least one that is magnificent, and another that takes us into another world entirely, and defies analysis. The first is at the end of III,ii, where the Fool appears to step not merely out of character, but out of the time-frame of the drama itself, to deliver a “prophesy” to the audience; and, having done so, prophesies that the prophesy he had just made will later be made by Merlin, “for I live before his time”. Suddenly, time itself seems to yawn before us: this piece of absurdity – the prophecy itself seems to make little sense – seems to take us into a dramatic world in which nothing, not even time itself, can hold together.

And then, there is the ending. In the Quarto, we get this:

And my poor fool is hanged. No, no life.
Why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life,
And thou no breath at all? O, thou wilt come no more,
Never, never, never.   Pray you, undo
This button. Thank you, sir. O, O, O, O!

Edgar:   He faints. (To Lear) My lord, my lord!

Lear:      Break heart, I prithee, break.

Now, I wonder what sort of artist could look upon even something so wonderful as this, and think it could be improved upon; or what sort of mind thinks of expanding the three nevers to five to form a trochaic pentameter:

And my poor fool is hanged. No, no, no life?
Why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life,
And thou no breath at all? Thou’lt come no more,
Never, never, never, never, never.
Pray you, undo this button. Thank you, sir.
Do you see this? Look on her! Look, her lips!
Look there, look there.

Edgar:                                          He faints. My lord, my lord!

Kent:     Break heart, I prithee, break.

Faced with something such as this, all criticism, even the finest, seems superfluous.

Gloucester’s mock-suicide

…for, once again, the fierce dispute
Betwixt damnation and impassioned clay
Must I burn through…
– John Keats

“Damnation and impassioned clay…” Keats certainly had a way with words! But impressive though those words are, I particularly love here his use of the word “must”. King Lear is a harrowing play: fierce disputes betwixt damnation and impassioned clay, even at best of times, are unlikely to be anything but harrowing. But no matter: those of us who are under its spell feel that they must keep returning to it. And no matter how many times one sees or reads this play, each new encounter overwhelms with its terror and its pity, and its savage power.

I was eleven years old when I first encountered this play. It was at the Assembly Halls in Edinburgh, during the 1971 Edinburgh Festival: Timothy West played Lear. I am not sure how much I took in, or even how much I was capable of taking in at that age: but I took in enough. I was so excited by what I had seen, that I could not get to sleep that night. There are few single instances that one could describe as “life-changing”, but I think I can with some confidence describe that evening in such terms: my Shakespeare mania can be traced back to that performance.

Timothy West was, I think, only in his forties when he played that role in Edinburgh. Some thirty or so afterwards, I saw Timothy West, now himself closer to Lear’s “fourscore and more”, play the role again, this time in an English Touring Theatre production directed by Stephen Unwin. I am afraid I cannot give a detailed account of how his interpretation had changed over the years, but his performance was every bit as overwhelming as I remember it to have been some thirty years earlier.

I am currently reading the play in two different texts. Last year, I read Hamlet in different texts – the two Quarto texts (the so-called “good Quarto”, and also the “Bad Quarto” for completeness), and the Folio – and convinced myself that when more than one legitimate text exists, then we must treat them as different versions of the work: no purpose is served in conflating them. So now, to King Lear: as with Hamlet there are two good texts – the First Quarto, of 1608, and the First Folio, printed after Shakespeare’s death in the 1623; and there are sufficient differences between the two texts to indicate significant revisions. I’ll try to compare the two texts once I have finished reading them, but for the moment, I am drawn once again into this fierce dispute betwixt damnation and impassioned clay. And there’s one scene in particular in this fierce dispute that, even after forty and more years of repeated reading and viewing, I find puzzling.

It occurs in Act 4, shortly before the famous scene in which the blind Gloucester encounters the mad Lear on the heath. Edgar, Gloucester’s exiled son, leads his eyeless father: the father is unaware of the identity of the man leading him, and, in despair, wants only to die. Edgar pretends that they are at the edge of a cliff, and delivers a magnificent vertigo-inducing description of what it is like to look down from the imagined heights. Gloucester, thinking himself to be on the edge, leaps forward, only to fall on the level ground. When he comes to, Edgar approaches him again, this time pretending to be another person; and he tells Gloucester that he is now at the foot of the cliff, having fallen from the top, and that, but by some miracle, has remained physically unscathed. He adds also that the person Gloucester had been with at the top of the cliff – himself of course – had appeared to him from the bottom as some sort of fiendish supernatural figure.

This episode has always struck me as bizarre. I frankly do not understand it. Edgar playing these games with his sightless father makes no sort of sense at all: what is he trying to achieve? He tells us that he is doing all this to cure his father from despair, but how all this tomfoolery could achieve such an end, or even why he thinks it could achieve that end, is far from clear. It is utterly bizarre.

And yet, it is a scene that haunts the mind. I do not understand it, and I cannot see how it fits with what I understand to be the themes of the play. But I would not even think of cutting it from performance. After all, Shakespeare did not remove it when he revised the work: he clearly thought it important.

Am I missing something here? Or is this scene – like Charmian’s “Ah, soldier!” – one of those Shakespearean miracles that defy analysis? I do not know. Analysis is important, certainly, but it is salutary perhaps to keep in mind that a work of this stature has about it a mystery; and that even the most trenchant of analyses cannot pluck out the heart of that mystery.