LEAR: I GAVE YOU ALL
GONERIL: AND IN GOOD TIME YOU GAVE IT.
The more I look at King Lear, which I am using for my next Michael Chekhov workshop on the polarities of Good and Evil here in Galway, the more I consider how we, the older generations, will be leaving the world for those to come after.
Chekhov said that most drama was in some senses, the battle between Good and Evil and our relationship with these moral forces. This of course is a minefield because some in some ways morality is a personal issue … Yet, is it? We know it is wrong to murder, to steal, to lie or to betray. Some would say, however that, it is the context which defines a moral act. Of course , Good and Evil is not the only polarity which charges this play: youth and age, cruelty and compassion, loyalty and betrayal, honesty and deceit, are a few potent polarities.
These forces, though they exist under all circumstances, needs something to grow in to thrive. What is the dark soil of King Lear in which this evil grows, an evil which utterly transforms the world of the play? Is it a good approach that we make assumptions about Lear’s tyrannous behaviour, about his perhaps abusive behaviour towards his daughters ? In order to consider this, we might examine another short scene in which Lear is not present ;Gloucester’s grudging presentation of his illegitimate son, Edmund, to Kent.
“He has been out nine years, and away he shall again.”
In other words, back into exile. In this short sequence Edmund has very few lines, so what does the scene do? Perhaps it presents a moment where a young person is disregarded, made a joke of. Gloucester is only embarrassed by his presence in a kind of laddish way, boasting about the attractiveness of Edmund’s mother. To a modern audience, this is excruciating.
Lear has overstayed his tenure of the Crown. and the younger people are restless and embittered. Whether Lear’s view of the world is accurate or not is not the point; the young need to have their say, their moment of power before they too become the older people. Edmund has been exiled, hidden away, brought briefly to court only to be promised a further sojourn away. Let’s consider how many young people are on the march for revolution right now across the globe, often fighting the legacy of what the older generations are leaving them.
Lear and Gloucester are seduced by their own authority, entitlement and naive view of the world. Gloucester is made to believe that Edmund is good and Edgar is plotting to kill his father; Lear to believe that Goneril and Regan speak the truth; that Cordelia is ungrateful and that everything bar Lear’s workload will remain the same whilst he maintains an unruly and boorish retirement.
It is comfortable to believe the old certainties, the old props that have supported the story of your life, but it is also dangerous because they can entrap you. Lear’s utter refusal to accept he has made a terrible mistake, despite all the warnings, is perhaps his most grievous error. His action of stepping down and handing the kingdom to his children causes such change that it unleashes horrors. as an audience, It makes one realise in how delicate the balance is between Order and Chaos (another potent polarity). This is true of our own lives and the bigger picture in the world right now
It is easy to consider King Lear as some kind of folktale; it carries so many of the tropes . Old King tests his daughters, finds them deceitful and eventually horribly cruel. And yet another interesting point to consider is the how of Lear’s test of love. Lear is by his own words a very materialistic king. He asks his daughters to declare their love in competition, like some kind of contest in exchange for their particular parcels of land and wealth. When Cordelia refuses to play this humiliating game, she loses her father’s love and her dowry. Burgundy refuses to take Cordelia for herself.
“ Since that respect and fortunes are his love/ I shall not be his wife.”Cordelia retorts…..Cordelia, unlike her father appears disinterested in wealth, especially when comparing it as a marker for love and companionship. Later, when Lear who has demanded to have a retinue of 100 knights in his retirement is given the option to keep only 50 by Goneril , and then receives the offer from Regan to bring only 25, Lear reckons it is better to go with Goneril because she has allowed him to keep more companions. So much of his journey is about measuring the material against the intangible and spiritual. It is only when he loses everything and the material world becomes completely meaningless can Lear move on; that he can become reborn. it is perhaps in this context that the idea of good and Evil can be thoroughly embedded and tested.
Looking forward to this weekend workshop, November 29th.