Sunday, 22 May 2016

What is Truth? - 10 Cloverfield Lane



Director: JJ Abrams
Starring: John Goodman, Mary Elizabeth Winstead
Release: 11 March 2016
IMDB User Rating: 7.5/10
Rotten Tomatoes User Rating: 90%

If you are reading this post and have not seen the movie then I recommend that you stop reading now and go and see it. There are two reasons - first of all you probably won't understand what I am writing about if you haven't seen the movies, and that this post will contain an awful lot of spoilers. As with my other posts on movies this is not a review, namely because I prefer to go much deeper into movies than simply looking at them in a superficial way as you would in a review. Anyway, I've already written a review of the film on IMBD (and there are plenty of reviews of the film there anyway).

I should mention though, that 10 Cloverfield Lane is basically a psychological thriller about a woman who finds herself trapped in an underground bunker and has been told that she cannot go outside because there has been an attack and that the outside world is toxic. As such it appears that she will be trapped down here for at least a year, if not more, with two strange men. One of the men, Harold, claims to have rescued her, and gets very aggressive when she doesn't show him the courtesy that he believes he is owed. However there is a second man, Emmett, who is just as mysterious, who was let down here after he begged Harold to let him in.

Anyway, as I tend to do with these things, here is a trailer for the movie:


That was actually the first time I saw the trailer, and I have to admit that they did it really, really well. I actually went and saw the movie without seeing the trailer, but rather knowing that it had something to do with a woman being imprisoned in a bunker and being told that she cannot go outside because there was been a nuclear or chemical attack.

I wasn't initially going to write a blog post off this film, however as I tend to do occasionally, when I go to write a review of the film I sometimes like to read through the discussion boards on IMDB (they can be interesting at times), and one of the discussion boards that I read actually turned my entire understanding of the film on its head. In fact it made me realise that it wasn't as straight forward as I originally thought it was going to be.


Normally I would jump into the synopsis, but I feel that is not necessarily required because it is not so much a film that moves from plot points to plot points, but rather a tension fuelled look into the human psyche and the nature of Truth. Most of the film is set in the bunker, and even though the plot develops, it has more to do with the changing relationship of the occupants than any external events, or a movement towards a goal (though one could argue that is goal is for Michelle, hopefully, to escape).

Truth or Perception

This actually turns out to be an important part of the film. The thing is that the entire film is told from Michelle's point of view. If Michelle is not in the room then we do not know what is happening. All we know is what Michelle knows, which means that we are subtly being dragged into Michelle's mind. What the movie makes us believe is that we are simply watching Michelle, and as such we automatically trust her. Further, the visual nature of the film makes us automatically trust Michelle. However the question is whether we can actually trust her - my position is maybe not.



The thing is that we know very little about who she is, all we know is what we see of her. She seems to be a decent, middle class girl, but in reality this is only our perception. What we perceive we automatically accept as the truth. Since we have been following her from the beginning of the film, and are following her after she escapes, we are comfortable with her. However what the film is doing is forcing us to make assumptions based upon a lot of things that we do not know. We accept what we believe about Michelle as being the truth, yet in reality it is only a perception.

First Impression

Let us consider our first impressions of the bunker. When Michelle wakes up she is in a bare cell chained to the wall. This immediately raises our suspicions as to where Michelle has landed up. My first though was from the film Misery, a Stephen King thriller where a famous author is also involved in a car crash and is rescued, and then imprisoned, by a psychotic fan. I suspect that this may have been intentional, except that many of the younger viewers would not have known of that film. However, the fact that she is chained to the wall immediately raises up the tension, and also creates suspicion towards the person who put here here.



Let us think about the mobile phone incident. There is no signal. This would make us suspect that she is underground, and based on the title, we suspect that she is really deep underground. So, she is trapped in a cell, and while she has a mobile phone she has no contact with the outside world, so this makes us believe that she is a prisoner - but of whom? Okay, there is also a very good possibility that she is also in a Faraday Cage, which is another reason why she isn't getting any signal, but that is just me being smart.

Then we meet Harold, played by John Goodman. As soon as he opens the door and enters the room our suspicions are confirmed. She is a prisoner of some horrible man (which is why I believe the casting of Goodman in the role was perfect) and we are left to wonder what is actually going to happen. She is scared, rightfully so, and the door is once again locked. So we are made to believe, more and more, that she is in fact a prisoner.

The Cell

After an incident with a burning piece of paper in the air vent, and a failed attacked with a sharpened crutch, we are finally allowed to see outside the door and into the hall. Harold seems like a nice enough guy, and we are still suspicious but less so. He has opened the door and let her out, despite her trying to kill him. He has provided her with food. He also tells her that he found her after the car crash and had brought her back here to recover. This is also when we first hear of the attack and that we cannot go outside - however we are still suspicious.



So, we now get to see where she is actually located. It is clearly a well stocked nuclear bomb shelter which will allow them to survive inside for an extended period of time. Harold is also very technically competent, and is clearly a survivalist. We also learn that there is another occupant - Emmett - who is a lot younger, and has somehow broken his arm. We are told that this was because Emmett is clumsy, but in reality we actually don't know, and are never given any alternative - therefore we simply accept this to be the truth, but there could be something a lot more sinister.

What we know as fact

Let us now consider what we know to be fact, not so much up to this point in the movie, but in the movie as a whole:

1) There was a car accident - we are pretty certain of that, however we don't know how it was caused: was it truly an accident, or was it deliberate. We know that when Michelle arrives at the service station a car approaches from behind, but we don't know what type of car it is (except that it is large) and that when she is back on the road she suddenly has a crash. After we discover that it was Harold who crashed into her, and he explains that it was because he had learnt about the impending attack an was not paying attention as he was trying to get back to the bunker.

2) There was an attack, and it was alien - At first we aren't even sure if Harold is telling the truth about there being an attack, and this distrust is increased when Michelle first looks out the window and sees everything normal, except for a couple of dead pigs: Harold's pigs. It is only when Michelle gets into the airlock and a diseased lady bangs on the door that we realise that there was an attack. Yet the truth of the attack is always sitting at the back of our mind. It is only when the alien space ship comes flying over the house, spraying gas out the back, that we realise that Harold was telling the truth all the time.

3) There was a girl in Harold's life - The thing is that we don't actually know which girl is Megan. In fact we are given conflicting stories: Harold produces one photograph and says this is Megan, where as Emmett says that it isn't, but a girl that went missing from the local area. However we actually don't know who is telling the truth. The way the movie is crafted we are more suspicious of Harold than we are of Emmett, therefore we automatically accept Emmett's version.

4) Somebody was trapped, and killed, in the bunker - when Michelle is fixing the air purifier she discovers that somebody has scratched help into the glass, and she also finds an earring. This raises a very interesting question because this is Michelle's earring. Okay, Emmett then produces a second photo of a girl, sitting with Harold wearing Megan's clothes, and Emmett tells us that the other girl was the one that went missing. This is probably one of the biggest plot holes in the movie, and one of it's major flaws - why does Harold show Michelle the picture of the missing girl, as opposed to Michelle, it's sort of a little damning for Harold, but let us continue ignoring this for a bit (because it does undermine the mystery of the film). In reality, we don't actually know who the killer is.

5) Emmett did receive an offer to run for the state university - this is important because what it means is that because his story about the bus ticket is true, we actually accept everything else that he says. However, I don't think that we can accept Emmett to be a reliable narrator, it is just that the film works to try to make us believe that he is.

6) We know that Michelle had a fight with her boyfriend - yet, like all domestics, we don't really know the circumstances around the fight. All we have is her point of view, and that she is upset. However the substance of the argument, who started it, and what caused it, is unknown. More so there is actually quite a lot we don't know about Michelle. For instance, why is it that she is so resourceful.

Harold

The film makes us think that Harold is actually the bad guy, and I suspect that this is intentional. The thing is that there is a lot that we don't know, and it is just Harold's nature that makes us want accept that he is the villain of the piece. However I am going to argue that maybe this is not actually the case. I suspect that we are being led to believe it by the film, and we are letting the film lead us in this way. I'm not sure that Harold actually meant to harm Michelle, and that he has just been pushed to the point where he is forced to defend himself.

1) Harold has difficulty controlling his anger - this doesn't actually mean that he was going to hurt her, though it quite well could, especially if he is provoked to a point where we will (and kicking a vat full of acid onto him, and then knocking him down is probably provocation enough). Sure, he seems to get angry when Michelle doesn't show him gratitude, but once again this is not surprising. He is actually trying to help Michelle, not harm her, and I suspect that he doesn't have any malicious intent. It is probably also the fact that he is prone to anger that resulted in Megan, and his wife, leaving.

2) Some have suggested that the fact that he gave Michelle Megan's clothes suggests that he is trying to somehow replace Megan, but let us remember that Michelle only had one set of clothes. It wasn't as if she could change into something else because she didn't have anything else. It was just fortunate that he still had some of Megan's wardrobe.

3) He's actually more reliable than we give him credit for - the thing is that everything that he says (with the exception of the photograph) turns out to be true. In fact he admits, and apologises, for causing the accident. He says that there was an attack, and it is true. It is clear, from his knowledge, that he is not lying about his time in the navy. Also, remember that we hear on the radio that the entire southern seaboard has blacked out, which means that he wasn't lying about the warning he received of an imminent attack.

4) He allowed Emmett into the shelter - this is an important point because if Harold was looking to have his wicked way with Michelle, Emmett wouldn't be in the bunker. In fact by allowing Emmett into the shelter means that he does actually have a good heart, and this good heart may actually overide his sensibilities. However he does know Emmett, and he also seems to be acting to keep Emmett in line as well. Notice when he instructs Emmett not to touch Michelle (and also when he blows up when Michelle touches Emmett, no doubt to elicit a response from Harold).

5) Chaining Michelle to the wall is actually a wise move - Harold may have saved Michelle, but he still doesn't trust her. He needs to find out whether she is trustworthy or not. Okay, it certainly freaks Michelle out, but having her chained to the wall means that she can't do anything unpredictable, such as kill him in his sleep. This may also be why Emmett has a broken arm.

6) Harold killing Emmett - we are meant to be shocked at this, and automatically turn against Harold at this point. However we are in a bunker and Emmet just admitted that he was building a weapon to kill Harold. Personally how stupid is that, but then again, as on Emmett's admission, he wasn't all that talented in the brains department. This is an expected reaction from somebody who has just been threatened. Obviously Michelle didn't understand them, but then again she already distrusts Harold. However, they were in a bunker, Harold was threatened, therefore needed to be judge, jury, and executioner.

Emmett

Okay, let us now consider Emmett. In reality we don't know all that much about him, except that he helped Harold build the shelter, and that he was given a scholarship to run at the State University, but was too scared to take up the offer. However everything else we are left to believe. The thing is that he comes across as a nice person, while Harold is the monster, therefore our sensibilities are going to lie with Emmet. However I suspect that he is only playing Michelle up against Howard.

The thing is that we don't know anything about Emmett beyond what we see, and what is consistent between Harold and Emmett. However it is entirely possible that Emmett was the one who killed the second girl, the one that went missing. Personally I don't think it is beyond plausibility, and Howard knows about it. However Howard probably also feels responsible for her death, which is why he showed Michelle the wrong picture. In fact, it is possible that Emmett was the one who kidnapped her, and locked her in the air purifier room. It is difficult to know exactly what happened to her, but it is not beyond reason for Emmett to have killed this girl. However, based on Howard's character, I'm not sure if he could have actually been the killer.

Also, notice that Emmett's arm is broken, and Harold makes it clear that Emmett isn't to touch Michelle. It is quite possible that the arm was broken so that he couldn't do anything to Michelle. However, it does raise the question of why he let Emmett into the shelter. Quite possibly because he also felt responsible, and wanted to take responsible for Emmett as opposed to handing him over to the police, and also because of his past relationship with Emmett meant that he couldn't leave him outside to die - he does have a good heart.

We do must remember though is that Emmett can be very sweet and friendly, and he is also Michelle's age (or a little younger). This is why Michelle relates to Emmett much more than she does to Howard. Also, consider when they are playing that game, and Harold keeps on saying 'he knows what you have done'. At the time he doesn't know about the biohazard suit, but it is clear that Emmett knows what Harold is talking about. It is only when Michelle diffuses the situation that the truth comes out. Yet this could have been to her detriment because the truth about Emmett could have come out then - but it doesn't, and in the end we never really find out the truth about what happened to the girl.

Michelle

Instead of using my own words I'll simply reprint the opening statement on the IMDB Discussion 'Michelle a Monster?'.
We get to see the movie through Michelle's eyes and therefore automatically assume she's the hero...but some her manipulations seem to suggest borderline personality disorders.

Howard brings her food which she spurns, tells her he saved her life--which she disbelieves--and then immediately endangers herself and Howard's lives by starting a fire in an underground bunker.

She then sharpens a stake intending to spear Howard ala Vampire Diaries as he attempts to investigate (and to presumably save Michelle, again).

She sociopathically drives Howard to anger by deliberately pushing buttons at the dinner table, toys with Emmett's emotions by falsely coming on to him, and then conspiratorially gets Emmett to perform most of the dangerous work for their escape plan (stealing kitchen implements under Howard's wrathful eye, getting Howard to dispose of the shower curtain, distracting Howard while she made the Hazmat suit, and volunteering to singlehandedly subdue Howard and relieve him of his gun).

Even when the suit was done they knew only one was getting out. So of course, old Emmett volunteers to stay behind...with what would be a supremely pissed-off Howard.

(Makes one wonder if she subconsciously set-up Emmett up to be that "hero" with her carefully emoted story about "freezing under pressure," which precipitates Emmett's rushed confession to Howard and gets him killed? Naughty girl!)

She lies, manipulates, steals, gives Howard a 10-point faceplant in an acid bath, and her only act of kindness is to stitch up Howard's cut--which she in fact, caused.

She then locks Howard in a burning bunker and watches it explode--after killing an organic spaceship with some strategically lobbed firewater to its kisser.

Who knows what havoc she will wreak when she reaches Houston?
I think he makes some very important points, however my position is that she was just acting on her survival instincts. Her distrust of Harold comes from the fact that she awoke chained to the wall. She sharpened the crutches and set a fire in the vent because Harold didn't give any indication as to why she was in the room when he first entered. More so she was being influenced by Emmett, who I suspect was turning her against Harold. Sure, it was her plan to escape, and she was the one who was going to escape, but the theory was that once Harold was subdued then Emmett was probably not going to be in much of a problem.

I just feel that Michelle's actions were quite understandable in the circumstances, it is just that she ended up being closer to Emmett (which once again is not surprising) than she was to Harold.

What is Truth?

So, this leaves us with the question of who really is the monster? Well, the aliens of course (and I have to admit that blowing up the spaceship with a molotov cocktail, and the fact that she didn't die when the gas mask was ripped off her face, sort of required me to suspend my disbelief quite a lot). However I don't believe that we can easily claim that Harold is the monster - it could quite easily be Emmett, or even Michelle.



Creative Commons License
What is Truth? - 10 Cloverfield Lane by David Alfred Sarkies is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. This license only applies to the text and any image that is within the public domain. Any images or videos that are the subject of copyright are not covered by this license. Use of these images are for illustrative purposes only are are not intended to assert ownership. If you wish to use this work commercially please feel free to contact me.

Sunday, 15 May 2016

Hangmen - A Redundant Executioner


Normally I don't go and see all that many, if any, contemporary plays (namely plays that have been written during my life-time), and after seeing Hangmen I realised why - they tend to be quite boring. Okay, I probably shouldn't bag this particular play too much, however despite it being English black comedy (which tends to be really good), the play itself didn't hold my interest all that much. The main reason that I went and saw it (and it was one of the National Theatre Live productions by the way) was that it was advertised at another film/play that I saw recently (As You Like It) and it looked quite interesting (and it also gave me an excuse to get out of the house for a while, since I tend to travel all the way to Brighton to see these film/plays).

Okay, it did have some amusing moments in it, but it seemed to run more like a soap opera than a traditional black comedy, and I didn't find myself laughing all that much (but then again it is black comedy so they tend to not produce continuous reams of laughter as other comedies tend to do, though they will have some absolute pearlers in them). The thing is that from what I gathered this is actually a particularly popular play, and after it's initial production is soon found its way to the Royal Court Theatre (not that I am hugely familiar with London's Theatres - the only one that I actually know is The Globe). They did that a spiel at the beginning about the Royal Court, but as I mentioned I'm not hugely familiar with the peculiarities of the various theatres (though I do get the impression that a number of them have their own particular style of plays).

So, What's it About?

I guess that is a particularly good question, but before I continue here is a trailer that I found on Youtube:


Okay, it was the joke about executions in China that initially caught my attention, however this trailer doesn't necessarily tell you what the play is actually about. So, the play is set in the north of England (and there are a few in jokes that probably only native English folk would actually get, which is probably another reason that I didn't warm to the play) and is about the life of a former hangman named Harry Wade (though for much of the play he is referred to as The Hangman). The reason he is a former hangman is because he was made redundant after the death penalty was abolished, so he now finds himself running a pub.

The play begins in a prison cell were a poor fellow has finished his last meal and is now about to be executed for the murder of a young girl. The thing is that he goes to the gallows protesting his innocence. Mind you, it is never revealed in the play whether he was actually innocent, but this event is a dark cloud that seems to haunt Wade throughout the play, not that Wade is all that phased by it because he sincerely believes that this guy was guilty (though a number of others seem to think otherwise).

The play then jumps two years into the future where Wade is now running a pub with his wife, and a stranger enters the pub and begins to court his daughter (and is also enquiring about a room that is available). Wade's wife is a little suspicious of the guy when she attempts to contact his references to no avail, and when she reveals this to him he flies into a rage and then storms out. After he has gone Wade's old assistance (who was sacked because of an inappropriate joke he made about one of the prisoners he executed) comes in and starts suggesting that this particular character is actually up to no good, and may be the person who was guilty of the crime for which the other person was executed.

Then, when Wade's daughter doesn't return they suddenly start to become a quite concerned.

The Executioner's Job

One of the big problems that I found with this play was that there didn't feel as if there was actually all that much that I could comment on. It wasn't like Shakespeare, or even Bernard Shaw, where I could write a huge blog post on the subtleties and ideas that came out of the play. However, as I think about it a bit more there is probably a bit more to Hangmen that just a bunch of guys hanging around the pub having a conversation with a retired (or should I say retrenched) hangman. Even then I am still not comfortable with actually giving any spoilers because even though I thought the end was somewhat unsatisfying, I still feel as it would be best if I don't ruin it for anybody who might end up going and seeing it.

Anyway, the job of an executioner would be an interesting one in that it is your job to basically kill people. It isn't like the police force where killing people is something that happens in the job, but isn't necessarily the focus of the job, or even the army (though there are parts of the army where having the ability to be able to end somebody's life is required). Instead it is one's job to actually end somebody's life, and as such one probably needs to not have too much emotion, or sentimentality. It has been suggested that ending somebody's life is actually a really hard thing to do, to the point that members of a firing squad will not necessarily have live bullets so that they don't purposely miss the target.

However, try as I might, I simply did not feel that Wade was all that emotionally distant from humanity. Sure, they had the interview near the beginning of the play where we are given an insight into Wade and his thoughts on the role, and the one thing that we do learn is that there was this sense of competition between Wade and another executioner - Peirpont. The question of how many he actually killed was also raised, though he was very reluctant to answer that question. What does come out though is that he and Peirpont were both asked to go and participate in the Nazi trials, and Wade turned the opportunity down because of the Grand National.


I'm not really sure if he regrets turning this down, though the idea of him going to the Grand National instead of executing Nazi's seems to suggest that he is some sort of coward, not wanting to actually get his hands dirty. However I also got the impression that he was much younger at the time, and only starting out in his chosen profession, so maybe he was somewhat nervous about having to participate. However it is interesting that Peirpoint actually appears later in the play and gives him a complete dressing down, particularly in light of some of the comments that came out from the article. In the end one gets the impression that Wade was actually quite insecure and was always playing second fiddle to Peirpont (and when it is suggested that the guy at the beginning of the play would prefer to be executed by Peirpont than him it seems to strike a chord).

An Appropriate Penalty

With the exception of the United States pretty most advanced democracies have long since abolished the Death Penalty, and even in the United States nineteen states have abolished it. In Australia the last person to be legally executed was Ronald Ryan on 3 February 1967 (and he had been found guilty of shooting and killing a police officer). These days it is really only the dictatorships that still have the death penalty, and even then organisations like Amnesty International are relentlessly campaigning to have it abolished. Oh, before you jump up and say 'what about ...' I do realise that there are some advanced industrialised countries (such as Japan and Singapore) that still practice the death penalty.

The problem that I have with the death penalty is that it is permanent - there is no going back from it, and there is no opportunity for the person who has been subjected to it to be able to turn their life around and actually once again become a productive member of society. Okay, there are some out there who will remain unrepentant until their dying breath, and there are some whose crimes have been so heinous that allowing them to re-enter society is simply not an option. However, even though when I was younger I held the belief that the death penalty was a good thing because it cost too much to keep people behind bars, these days I tend to feel that giving people the opportunity to think about what they have done, and to give them the option of repentance, is a much better road to take (though the counter-argument is that people are not necessarily executed straight after the trail, and the period between when they are sentenced and when they are executed should give the ample time to repent).


The other concern that I have with the death penalty is that it can be politically motivated in that people who are perceived as being a threat to the government can be executed so as to silence them. Okay, I would like to think that such things don't occur in the advanced democracies, but there is always the danger that such a thing might occur. Okay, I can't imaging anybody being executed in the United States for anything less than murder, however when we consider some of the South-east Asian countries, where simple drug possession can lead to the gallows (or the firing squad) then such concerns come to the fore, especially if the drugs are planted.

Then there is the concern about access to justice. Sure, in the advance democracies there is an explicit (or even implied) right to be represented by a suitably qualified counsel, however there is also the tendency to tip the scales in favour of those who can afford experienced counsel. In Australia it is the middle class that tends to get hit the hardest since the lower classes have access to legal aid, while the upper classes tend to be able to afford the best lawyers - where if you are a member of the middle class then a simple criminal trial could completely wipe you out (and I've heard stories of people having to sell their house simply to pay the legal bill).

An Innocent Man

The final thing I want to touch upon is the question of innocence - what if the person who is executed is found, years after their death, to actually be innocent of the crime for which they were found guilty. This seems to be a nagging thing at the back of Wade's mind throughout the play, and there is always some doubt as to whether that particular person was guilty. Mind you, one of the themes running through the play, and the thing that leaves us guessing, is whether he actually was innocent, and the playwright does actually throw a huge amount of doubt onto it. Wade's position, of course, is that he is the executioner, not the judge or the jury - if somebody comes before him then all due process has been followed, and he can execute this person without guilt.

However there is still the idea that once an executioner, always an executioner. Once one has blood on their hands then it can be very hard to clean it off. Sure, he was executing people under the authority of the state, but having already executed as many people as he has, all one needs to do is to push the right buttons and that bloodlust once again fires up. While employed by the state he can comfort himself in knowing that the people he has executed have come to him through due process, but what if he takes matters into his own hands, and becomes his own judge, jury, and executioner? It is a question that in the end is left hanging for us to think about as we walk out of the theatre.


Creative Commons License

Hangmen - A Redundant Executioner by David Alfred Sarkies is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. This license only applies to the text and any image that is within the public domain. Any images or videos that are the subject of copyright are not covered by this license. Use of these images are for illustrative purposes only are are not intended to assert ownership. If you wish to use this work commercially please feel free to contact me.

Sunday, 8 May 2016

The Boy King - Richard II


One day I was perusing the internet to see what Shakespeare plays were available on DVD. It probably had something to do with having seen a particularly good version of a play at the cinema as a part of the National Theatre Live productions, and I wanted to see if some of them were available for purchase (unfortunately, at this stage, this doesn't seem to be the case). However my eyes fell upon a production of Richard II by the Royal Shakespeare Company, and it starred David Tennant. Most of us are probably familiar with him as Doctor Who, however I had recently discovered that he had starred alongside Patrick Stewart (of the Star Trek and X-Men fame) in a version of Hamlet. As such I made it a priority to get my hands on a copy of this DVD.

There was a time that I was particularly interested in some of the lesser known Shakespearian tragedies, in particular the histories. Also, ever since I watched Ian McKellan's contemporary version of Richard III, I had also been quite interested in seeing the tragedies (and the comedies) in a more contemporary setting. Seeing that the cover of this DVD had David Tennant sitting on a throne dressed in modern casual attire (and also having seen a version of Macbeth and Hamlet on DVD, also released by the Royal Shakespeare Company), my interest in this particular DVD increased. However, in wasn't until quite recently that I finally got my hands on a copy, and also managed to set aside the two and a half hours to watch it.

I guess I had a bit too many expectations when it came to this film because I have to admit it seemed to drag on a bit too much and I had a lot of trouble getting into it. It's not as if Tennant is a bad actor, nor do I feel that he had been tainted by his role in Doctor Who (though I have to admit that when I watched his version of Hamlet I did feel that a bit too much of his Doctor Who persona was seeping through), it was that this play didn't seem to come out all that well.

What it turned out to be was a recording of a live production of the play. Also, it was performed in traditional costume as opposed to being performed in modern costume. I guess I have grown a little too accustomed to Shakespeare being modified to appear more relevant to us modern audiences that when the producers decide to give it a more historical flavour then I feel somewhat more disconnected to the play than I would otherwise (despite the fact that I am an amateur historian). Still, the play did hold itself out in the poster as being performed in modern dress, so I guess I did feel a little cheated.

For those who are interested in actually getting their hands on the DVD, here is a bit of a taste of what to expect:



Who Was Richard II?

Richard II isn't a king that would immediately come to mind when somebody asks one to name one of England's monarchs, and even if you figure that since there is a Richard III, then their must be a Richard the second, if one were to ask to tell them what makes this particular Richard notable then I suspect most people would come up with a blank. He's hardly an Elizabeth, or a Henry Tudor, or even a Richard the Lion Heart. Okay, we do know about Richard III, but that has more to do with him being a really nasty piece of work who cried out 'a horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse' (despite the fact that our entire picture of Richard III, hunch back and all, comes from Shakespeare, who was a master of rewriting history, and historical characters).

Like most things, if you really want to know anything about Richard II your best bet is to jump onto Wikipedia (though I wouldn't reference it if writing an essay on the guy). Anyway, simply saying that Richard II was a king of England, and that his last name was Plantagenet (which is one really cool last name), and pointing to the Wikipedia article, the question has probably already been answered. However, I don't want to say much about his personality yet because that is one of the things that Shakespeare explores (if, as has been the case with other plays, he has made some alterations to suit his own purposes). However, it might be an idea to actually look at when he lived to get a better understanding of who he was, and also to put the play into context.

Richard lived at a time when the world was transitioning from the Medieval Ages into the modern age. This transition was already in full swing in Italy, however it hadn't quite arrived in England yet. Sure, the Magna Carta had been signed, but the monarchs had been doing everything that they could to wiggle out of it (despite the fact that parliament had begun to restrain the monarch's powers). This is important, as we shall see, because one of Richard's biggest mistakes was that he got onto the wrong side of one of the noble factions. The era of the absolute monarch had gone, yet the kings were still trying to fight against progress.

Richard's father was Edward III (another king that most people probably had never heard of), and in many ways lived in his shadow. Edward almost didn't become king because his father had been murdered and he had been sidelined by his mother's lover Roger Mortimer (who was also responsible for deposing Edward II). However, as history had it, while Mortimer and Isabella were having fun in Isabella's room, Edward III basically kicked in the door and killed both of them. The problem was that Isabella happened to be the sister of King Charles of France (and Charles had been toying with England anyway), so hostilities soon reared their ugly head. However, Edward (and his son the Black Prince) were very capable warriors and it wasn't long before they had brought France to it's knees, and had effectively occupied half the country.

Things then simmered down a bit (though for a more detailed account of his reign there is, you guess it, the Wikipedia article), however it was around this time that the Black Plague began to devastate Europe. The Black Prince (cool name) had actually died of the plague, but had managed to have a son - Richard, who, at the age of 10, became king. This, no doubt, is going to start raising some alarm bells because it is never a good thing when a boy ascends the throne.

So, there we have it, the Black Plague is ravaging Europe, England and France are in the midst of a cold war, as well as having hostilities with Scotland and Ireland, and a boy is sitting on the throne of England. Mind you, the play doesn't begin until the last two years of Richard's reign (when he is in his early thirties), but as we will discover, Richard never really grew up.

Shakespeare's Play

As for the play, you can always read a synopsis (and a very academic, encyclopeadic one at that) on Wikipedia, and there are also numerous copies of it posted all over the internet (though I am linking to the one on the MIT website, namely because that is the first one that pops up on Google). However, so you aren't jumping all over the internet, or interrupting my post to read the play, I'll give a brief run down here (and anyway I like writing the odd synopsis in my posts).



So the play begins with Richard sitting on his throne and asked to settle a dispute between his cousin Henry Bollingbrooke and Thomas Mowbry, who has been accused of squandering money and murdering the Duke of Gloucester (though it is actually believed that Richard was the one who murdered Gloucester, but then again Richard is the king, meaning that he is the law, so in all logic Richard can't actually be guilty of murder). Anyway, the two squabble and Richard finally gives them permission to duke it out, however just as they are about to cross swords Richard calls a halt to the entire spectacle and instead banishes the two lords from England (though he banished Bollingbrooke for only eight years, while Mowbry is basically told to get lost and not return).

This has the effect of really upsetting the lords (particularly Mowbry, who suspects that Richard actually murdered Gloucester), however they slink off and plot their revenge. Now that this is sorted Richard decides to go on his own grand adventure - Ireland - however, as is the case with most wars, Richard needs money. So he does what any self respecting tyrant does - he takes it from his lords (in fact he confiscates all the wealth of the recently deceased John of Gaunt). This is his first (and probably biggest) mistake - don't take people's money and then leave the country while the lords are really annoyed with you.

Anyway, Richard goes off to Ireland with his army, wins a glorious victory, and then returns home to discover that Bollingbroke hasn't actually left the country. In fact he not only is in England but he is in England with an army (of Englishmen of course). So, Richard doesn't have all that much time to bask in the glory of his victory when he finds himself in another war, this one a civil war, and one that he pretty quickly loses. So, realising that the odds are stacked against him, he surrenders and is imprisoned in Pomfret Castle.


Not everybody is happy that Bollingbrook, now Henry IV, has decided that he will be a better monarch than Richard, so they stage a rebellion, which is pretty quickly nipped in the bud. Anyway, despite the fact that Henry is now secure on his throne he does ask 'have I no friend who will remove me of this living fear?' and this is quickly interpreted that he basically wants somebody to kill the former king, which happens. However Henry is horrified when he discovered that Lord Exton took this statement literally, and the play ends with him saying that he must then travel to the promised land to be cleansed of his sin (which he never manages to do).

A Childlike Temperament

There are a number of things that Game of Thrones gets right, and one of them is how a boy king generally does not handle power all that well. One of the reasons is that when they grow up having everybody bend to their will, and having everything done for them, they get used to it. In effect they become what we know of as 'spoilt brats'. Actually, the crown prince generally had a lot of privileges that pretty much everybody else didn't, including a whipping boy - a boy that would take the punishment that was supposed to be dished out to the prince. This sort of undermines the whole point behind punishment - we are hit so that we learn that if we do something wrong then bad things will happen. Well, the prince grows up learning that if he does something wrong then bad things will happen to other people.


I was going to suggest that while the prince is still a prince he would have his father, and his father's advisers, over him, but a young king wouldn't necessarily inherit the kingdom at a young age - a regent would govern in the king's stead until the king would come of age. However the problem is that regents had a nasty habit (as was the case with Edward III) of not relinquishing power when the king came of age. As such it was decided that in Richard's case they would dispense with the regency and have him guided by a group of councils.

Well, Richard did eventually reach the stage where he would govern in his own right, however he was still quite immature. Okay, he was suddenly thrust into the realms of adulthood at the age of 14 when the peasants suddenly revolted (the peasant's are revolting; yes I know, I can smell them from here). The reason behind this revolt was due to the fact that the black death had pretty much decimated the population of Europe and all of a sudden they discovered that there was a shortage of workers. As such they rose up demanding better pay and conditions (namely an abolition of serfdom). In fact they were actually quite an effective force, killing a number of high nobles, and forcing the king to the negotiating table. Realising that the peasants had the upper hand Richard agreed to their demands and effectively abolished serfdom. This, in many ways, was the beginning of the end of Medieval England.


This was Richard in history so let us look at him in the play, or at least in this version of the play. The impression that I got from this production is that Richard never really grew up. Okay, having the entire country revolt does have the effect of forcing somebody to grow up, however they weren't revolting against the king per se they were revolting against the system. In any event the peasants never really played any role within the play itself - the action is between the members of the aristocracy.

You see, Richard still very much lived in the past, treating England as his own personal playground. He wasn't ruling with the support of the nobles, but rather as the monarch - the opinions of the nobles are inconsequential. This is why he over rode the laws of inheritance and took the wealth of the late John of Gaunt, the father of Henry Bolingbroke, for himself. In the historical context Richard did this because Gaunt, and in turn Bolingbroke, were the wealthiest, and most powerful, family in England, and there was a concern that Bolingbroke would use his wealth and influence to secure the throne in the event of Richard's death (who was childless).

Sure, this may have been brought out in the play, but what we see is an indecisive king who seems to treat his position as some sort of game, and his throne unassailable. However, if he was a true, and decisive, king he would have been firm with Bolingbroke, and certainly wouldn't have given him an opening to allow him to return to England and claim the throne. Let us also consider this - while there are factions waiting to deal with him Richard does something that could be considered incredibly foolish - he takes his army and he goes to Ireland to fight a war. Not only were they at war with France (though the French king at the time was basically mad), but his position wasn't all that secure. This, no doubt, was the major cause of his downfall as when he returned he suddenly discovered that somebody had come along and taken all of his toys.

The Hollow Crown

The idea of the hollow crown seems to have a significant meaning in this play. In fact there is a series, based on the first four plays of the history Cycle called 'The Hollow Crown' (and the first episode in the series The Age of Kings is also called 'The Hollow Crown'). The phrase appears in Act 3, Scene 2, where Richard soliloquises after discovering that Henry Bollingbroke had taken the throne while he was away in Ireland. The context the the phrase is as follows:

For God's sake, let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings;
How some have been deposed; some slain in war,
Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed;
Some poison'd by their wives: some sleeping kill'd;
All murder'd: for within the hollow crown
That rounds the mortal temples of a king
Keeps Death his court and there the antic sits,
Scoffing his state and grinning at his pomp,
Allowing him a breath, a little scene,
To monarchize, be fear'd and kill with looks,
Infusing him with self and vain conceit,
As if this flesh which walls about our life,
Were brass impregnable, and humour'd thus
Comes at the last and with a little pin
Bores through his castle wall, and farewell king!
There are two ideas that come from this passage, the first being that a crown is more like a circlet that sits upon one's head (or is even little more than a fancy hat) meaning that by it's nature it is hollow. However the other idea is that while the crown is a symbol, it is in fact a symbol with no meaning, particularly when the king that is wearing the crown has no power.

For those of us that live in Commonwealth countries, we still refer to the state as being 'The Crown'. In fact criminal cases are referred to in writing as 'R v That Guy', and in court they are announced as 'The Crown vs That Guy'. In a sense the government is still referred to as the 'The Crown', though that is a little archaic in everyday life. However what this means is that the crown represents the government, and as such the person who wears the crown is the head of the government.


Yet this is meaningless in Richard's mind because even though he wears the crown, he has no power - he has been usurped - and while he might still have allies floating about the place Bolingbroke is in the stronger position. Yet he also looks back at the monarchs that came before him. Sure, he inherited the throne through his grandfather, but his grandfather, Edward III, had to wrestle the crown out of the hands of Mortimer, who had stolen it by usurping Edward II. In many ways the idea of the crown, and one's hold on power, is quite similar to the wars and struggles that are unfolding on A Game of Thrones.

What is interesting is that Richard fell foul of Bollingbroke not so much because he was a weak king (which is what he was) but rather that he pushed Bolingbroke to the point that he felt he had no choice but to remove him. This is something we see in politics (at least in the Commonwealth countries, or rather should I say Australia - something like four different prime ministers in as many years) - when a leader loses control of their party, and their allies begin to desert them, then sooner or later they are going to find themselves sitting on the back bench.

The Reign of the Usurper

Well, here is something that is somewhat unusual in your typical Shakespearian play - an usurper not only gains the throne, but he manages to cement his hold on power and gain the respect of the people around him. Okay, that probably has a lot to do with this play being based upon historical occurrences - Bolingbroke certainly successfully took the throne from Richard, and then managed to hold onto power without being removed himself, or the entire country going to hell.


The thing with usurpers is that Shekespeare doesn't seem to particularly like them, especially since in many of his other plays they tend to meet a rather sticky end, and in some cases bring the entire nation down with them (see, for instance, Hamlet and the Scottish play). However this doesn't happen with Henry. Rather it is Richard that is the problem, despite the fact that he isn't a really good king (in that he dithers somewhat, and will also use his royal prerogative to take things for himself). Unlike the other usurpers, who saw an opportunity and seized it, Henry comes across as a rather reluctant usurper, taking the throne simply because it needed to be done. It was clear that Richard wasn't a good king, and he had begun to step over the limits of his power that had been put in place by the Magna Carta, so somebody needed to step up and put a stop to it. That person was none other than Bolingbroke.


The final thing that I wish to touch upon is how Bolingbroke and Richard were dressed (and appeared). Richard was dressed in robes and had quite long hair, while Bolingbroke had a crew cut and for most of the play was dressed in armour. This paints an interesting contrast between the two: Richard is basically a dandy, a boy that has grown up with everything, and wants for nothing, while Bolingbroke has had to fight for everything he has (which is not actually true - his family was one of the richest in England at the time). What we have are two men, one spoilt and soft, the other hard and a warrior. Yet once Richard is deposed, and Henry is on the throne, we see him discard his armour for the robes. I guess the reason is that while as Henry Bolingbroke he was a warrior, as Henry IV he is now a king, and wishes to play the part.

Creative Commons License

The Boy King - Richard II by David Alfred Sarkies is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. This license only applies to the text and any image that is within the public domain. Any images or videos that are the subject of copyright are not covered by this license. Use of these images are for illustrative purposes only are are not intended to assert ownership. If you wish to use this work commercially please feel free to contact me.

Monday, 2 May 2016

Riches to Rags - McKellan's King Lear


My original plan was to publish this post on the 23rd of April, which was the 400 year anniversary of Shakespeare's death. However, due to slackness on my part (and also my failure to actually do any research into the exact date) that unfortunately has not happened. Anyway, it was fitting that if there is one play that I would write about for the belated 400 year commemoration post it should be King Lear, since it is probably my favourite of all Shakesperian plays (at least among the tragedies).

In a way the complexity places King Lear at the peak of Shakespeare's career, alongside plays like Hamlet. It is a bit of a shame that in High school our teachers tended to talk up Hamlet and the Scottish Play so much more than this one, especially since it is, in my opinion, a superior play. Still, I guess the complexity that lies within, and the nature of Lear's madness, makes it a play that could be a little out of reach of the ordinary high school student (which is probably why they go for simpler plays, not that I consider Hamlet all that simple).

I've seen this play performed live twice, on the big screen once (which was a recording of the National Theatre production) and read it countless of times. Everytime I have seen it I have literally been blown away, and at least twice I was crying at the end (namely with one of the performances that I saw - the other performance was by an amateur theatre group, which while it was good, wasn't as powerful as the professional troupes). I also own a copy of the McKellan version on DVD, which was released by the Royal Shakespeare Company, though it has been filmed in a studio (which sort of detracts from the play somewhat - I found that the live performances were so much more powerful than these studio performances). 

Anyway, before I continue, here is an extract from the National Theatre Live production (even though it is the McKellan version that I am basing this review upon):


The Story of Lear

While you can easily find the plot of King Lear on the internet (as well as the entire play), I will give a brief run down on what happens. Actually, I have to admit that giving a brief run down isn't the easiest of things to do with this play namely because the plot is so complex and there are so many threads weaving throughout the play. However the play begins when Lear decides that he wants to retire so he asks his three daughters to tell him how much they love him. Two of the daughters carry on saying how much they love him, and are rewarded with a third of his kingdom. However the third daughter, Cordielia, speaks honestly and says that her actions should be enough, and even then she was obliged to love her husband when she marries. In a rage Lear banishes Cordielia to France and then divides the last third of the kingdom between the other two daughters.

Anyway, he then grabs 100 knights and goes and lives with one of the daughters, until her, and her husband, get annoyed and kick him out. So he goes and lives with the other, but when he gets there his first daughter has already arrived, and they tell Lear that he can stay as long as he gives up his retinue. This results in an argument, and Lear ends up being banished to the moors. All the while the sisters, and the bastard Edmund, are manoeuvring against each other to take complete control of the kingdom.



Upon hearing of Lear's fate Cordelia, and her husband the King of France, launch an invasion of England in an attempt to restore Lear to the throne. Meanwhile Lear is ambushed in a house on the moors but manages to escape, while the fool is executed and Edmund's father is blinded (while the duke of Cornwell is also killed in a duel). Lear then wanders the moors alone, while the former Duke of Gloucester, Edmund's father, also wanders around the moors with his son Edgar, who has disguised himself as a mad man. They are then rescued by the invading army, but when the battle is joined the French lose and Lear and Cordellia are captured. This sets the stage for the gripping, bloody, and incredibly suspenseful conclusion.

Source of King Lear

The basic story of King Lear comes from Gregory of Monmoth's History of the Kings of Britain. While Shakespeare got most of his material from Holinshed's Chronicles, the original material dates back to the 12th Century. However the story that appears in Monmouth places Lear at a time prior to the Roman Occupation of Britain, which places the story squarely into the realms of myth and legend. Monmouth does ascribe his source material as a 'red book' that he came across, though is unlikely that prior to the Roman occupation there would be any form of centralised government, or any written records. Mind you, Monmouth does suggest that Britain was originally colonised by the Trojans, when a group split off from Aeneas to search for another place to settle, and conquered the land by waging war against the giants that were the original occupants.


There are a number of additions to the text, in particular the entire subplot concerning Gloucester, Edgar, and Edmund (which I have to admit is absolutely genius of Shakespeare as this subplot turns King Lear into the masterpiece that it is), as well as the very dark ending. The original story had Lear divide his kingdom into four, giving a quarter to each of the two sisters, and after banishing Cordelia to the 'Kingdom of the Franks', kept the remaining half to himself. However the two 'evil' sisters married, and it was their husbands that conquered the land and exiled Lear, who fled to France, made peace with his daughter, and then returned with an invading army to regain his throne.

Unlike the play the original story has quite a happy ending.

McKellan's Version

I remember talking to a friend of mine who used to work as a nanny in London and how she went and watched the McKellan version of King Lear performed live. I'm not entirely sure whether she saw the play in London or actually went up to Stratford-upon-Avon to see the play (as that is where the Royal Shakespeare Company is based), however I have to admit that I was insanely jealous. Mind you, my experience of Ian McKellan is probably the same as pretty much the rest of that - that is as Gandalf from Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, and Magneto from the X-men franchise. Mind you, if people go and see King Lear simply because they liked McKellan as Magneto then I can't say that that is entirely a bad thing. The problem is that when an actor becomes associated with such roles then it can be difficult to differentiate them from that role - a friend of mine wanted to see A Boy from Oz because he was hoping that Huge Jackman would flick out his claws.

However, when I was perusing Amazon one day, specifically looking for Shakespeare videos, my eyes fell upon this one. Having had that insane sense of envy at not being able to see McKellan playing King Lear I immediately added it to my shopping cart and within 6 weeks I was the proud owner of this DVD. Unfortunately, as has been the case with other films that I have seen, this version wasn't anywhere near as good. It's not to say that it was bad, it just wasn't as good as I was expecting it to be. Maybe it had a lot to do with a part of me expecting King Lear to suddenly whip out his helmet and start bending metal to save the day (no, not really).


In a way it reminded me of those old BBC productions which were pretty low budget and focused more on the play as opposed to fancy set designs. To be honest, I'm not a big fan of those old BBC versions, especially since the acting was nowhere near as good as some of the modern productions. However, unlike the BBC versions (which tended to use period costumes, or rather costumes that were scavenged from the back room so as to keep the costs down), this version used more modern costumes, or at least created a setting similar to the World War I era.

However, what I am going to suggest is that it isn't all that bad, it's just not mind blowingly fantastic as it was with other versions that I have seen (and maybe it is time for somebody to turn King Lear into a full blown film, but then again I've been waiting for somebody to do that to Julius Caeser for ages - the Charlton Heston version of that play is nothing short of rubbish).

A Retirement Party Gone Wrong

I probably should start my analysis of the play with the opening scene, but then again the opening scene is actually where Gloucester is talking about how enjoyable it was conceiving Edmund, and while it does work to introduce the villain of the piece (Edmund is identified as a bastard here, which means that he isn't going to command all that much respect) the foundations of the play is actually in the next scene, where King Lear announces his retirement.

This is interesting on a number of levels, particularly since back in those days people didn't actually retire. Okay, there is reference in one of Jesus' parables about this guy building barns to store up grain so that he could retire, but the reality is that retirement simply didn't exist. Back in those days you either worked, or you collected rent. If you collected rent (which includes taxes) then you basically didn't work (with the exception of going off to war when the king asked you, but even then you would send others to do your dirty work). If you worked, well, that was your life until you died - back in those days there was no superannuation, no old age pension, and certainly no retirement - if you were too old to work then you had better hope that your kids still loved you because, well, you'd be stuffed if they didn't.


So, this is the first odd thing that we notice - King Lear doesn't want to be king anymore. In fact, like peasants, kings didn't retire, and if they became too old and befuddled to actually be able to rule, the crown prince would usually step in to take his place - the king would basically rule in name only while the real power would sit behind the throne, but then again this was probably the case all the way through the king's life. The other thing is that while the king is the king basically everything that is owned by the crown is basically his, so by renouncing his title he is in effect renouncing all of his property.

This goes to show that Lear is clearly not in the right frame of mind. To him, retirement basically means that he is not only giving up his title, but he is also giving up his right to all of the crown's property. This act of stupidity, which clearly leaves him incredibly vulnerable, is pointed out by the fool pretty early in the play. In fact, this mockery by the fool is a harbinger of the horrors that Lear is about to face in the rest of the play.


So, I guess the question that is raised is why does he do this? Well, it is clear that Lear is getting on in years, and it is also clear that he isn't thinking all that straight. The job of being a king isn't all that easy a job to do, and he is getting really tired. However I suspect that it also has a lot to do with him being lonely - as they say it is a really lonely place at the top of the ladder. When he steps down he basically gathers together his knights and spends his days drinking and carousing. Yet the question that is raised is whether these knights are actually his friends - I don't think so - when Regan and Gonerill dismiss them we don't see them come rallying to his side - in fact we only see two people stay with him: the fool, and the one of the men he banished: the duke of Kent.

Also notice how he divides his kingdom - he does it by asking his daughters to tell him how much they love him, and the one daughter who is honest as says 'of course I love you, I will always love you, but I do so through my actions, and not my words, and even then when I marry I'm going to have to divide that love between you and my husband' causes him to fly into a fit of rage which results in him banishing her. This is the how I see King Lear - it is a play about a man who just wants to be loved.



This scene goes to show us not just Lear's character, but also his style of rule. He is a king that is prone to outbursts of anger, meaning that people don't love him, they fear him. In fact from this one scene one could pretty much imagine that Lear's reign was a reign of terror where he was surrounded by yes-men, and those who spoke out against him where either banished, or executed - all except for one person: The Fool.

So, here we are, at a point where Lear, after driving away any body who could love him, is left sitting on a throne surrounded by people who are scared stiff of him. However, it is interesting to note that he does have his loyal followers - obviously Kent managed to avoid the gallows, and Cordiella is suggested to be his favourite. Sure, the Fool was able to get away with speaking his mind, but the fact is that he is the fool: historically they were able to get away with making similar statements. However, with the others, there is a sense of fear and revulsion, which is probably why Regan, Goneril, and their ilk were so quick to disarm him and send him out into the moors.

In the Company of Madness

The interesting thing about King Lear is it's structure. The play begins in the castle and then shifts out too the moors where Lear exists as an outcast, before moving back into the castle (or as is the case with this production, a military camp) for the final scenes. However the section on the moors is also split into two, with a rather violent scene in the middle set in an abandoned cottage. Yet these two sections on the moors have a different focus - focus of the first involves Lear, Mad Tom, and the Fool, while in the second Lear seems to melt into the background as the focus is entirely upon Mad Tom (who is in fact Edgar) helping his father who had been blinded.

When Lear is stripped of all his knights and flees into the moors we see a sharp descent into madness. However this is also seen when Edgar is banished, after being set up by his half-brother Edmund. Edgar takes on the persona of Mad Tom, a homeless beggar that wanders the wastelands. Mind you, Edgar isn't actually mad, rather he has taken on the persona of madness so as to protect him against reprisals from his brother and his ilk, yet there is probably some reality in this masquerade as I doubt that somebody can go from having everything provided for him to becoming and outcast and a beggar without it affecting him mentally.


This scene is actually set in a storm, which is quite appropriate since the storm not only represents the madness that has descended upon both Lear and Tom, but also the fact that they have been both cast out of their respective comforts to be buffeted about about by the chaos of the world. Sure, Tom claims to be feigning madness, but I suspect, like Hamlet, not all of this madness is fake. Lear, on the other hand, was continuing on a spiral that had begun well before the beginning of the play. In a way he could have retired simply because the pressures of kingship were too much, and only actedway that he did to try to determine whom he could trust.

However now everything that he had is gone. He had given away his title, his power, and his right to live in the castles, and now he is wandering around the moors, a destitute man with no friends and no hope. This is a contrast to Edgar, who is out here through no fault of his own, but rather through the treachery of a scheming brother. Mind you, Lear isn't entirely on his own - he still has Kent, and he still has the fool, and Mad Tom has also come to offer him comfort.

Yet the scene on the moors is interrupted by the scene in the cottage - Lear comes here to shelter from the ravages of the storm outside, yet it quickly becomes apparent that even in this abandoned cottage the storm still manages to penetrate its walls - in the form Lear's Daughters. Upon finding the cottage they storm the building, forcing Lear to once again flee. However not everybody is able to escape - the fool is captured and executed. Further more we have the duke of Gloucester arrested, his eyes plucked out, and then cast outside to wander about as a blind man.


This brings us to an interesting part of the play - Gloucester's blindness. Blindness is something that seems to appear in literature, particularly in the case of Oedipus Rex. Oedipus blinds himself as he has discovered that he has committed such a heinous sin that he no longer believes that he has the right to look upon the world. It differs with Gloucester as he his blinded when it is revealed that he is a traitor, who has knowledge that the French have launched an invasion of England with the intention of re-establishing Lear to the throne - no wonder they are seeking to kill Lear as while Lear is still alive he still has a claim to the throne.

It is in the cottage that we begin to see the ending of the play unfold. The invasion has begun, Gloucester is blinded, and Cornwall is killed when one of the servants steps in to to defend him. Lear flees back into the moors, this time without any company, while Mad Tom steps in and begins to take care of his father. However we note that Gloucester has now lost all will to live, namely because he has been robbed of his sight. It seems that out off all of the senses it is one's sight that is the most precious. Once again we see a contrast between Lear and another character - Lear wilfully blinded himself to the truth of his daughter's love, while Gloucester was blinded due to his loyalty to the king. However, like Lear, it is also quite probable that Gloucester is responsible for his own fate, particularly since he put his trust in the wrong son - he believed the bastard Edmund, who in those days would have attracted much suspicion, and cast out the legitimate son Edgar, who was portrayed as an intellectual.


The Rise of the Tyrant

No doubt Edmund's actions in turning Gloucester against his son had a lot to do with his position. By painting Edgar as a treacherous son would have not only endeared Edmund to his father, but also secured his inheritance. Bastards, at least in those days, had no right of inheritance simply because they were born out of wedlock (and usually to a woman that was not the father's wife). It is interesting that even today, if a couple were to find out that one was pregnant then they would seek to be married before the child is born, despite the fact that the question of legitimacy has long been abolished.

So, Edgar is banished and Edmund is now secure in knowing that he has now become the legitimate son of Gloucester (and we should note that there doesn't seem to be a wife, which means that his title and position is protected from the unfortunate creation of another heir). However one simply doesn't stop being a treacherous individual simply because one has achieved their goal - Edmund's treachery goes further, particularly once he is named Duke of Gloucestor after his father is blinded and cast out into the moors. Mind you, Gloucester's downfall doesn't come about without Edmund's help - in fact it is Edmund who reveals Gloucester's knowledge, and by revealing Gloucestor's knowledge, Edmund is elevated further up the ladder.

By this time things begin to fall apart for Regan and Goneril. Cornwall is dead, and Albany no longer wants to be apart of this bloodthirsty game of thrones. Further, the French have landed and are making their way towards to capital in an attempt to remove the usurpers and restore Lear. However Edmund, once again, isn't going to allow all that he had built up begin to fall apart, especially when he sees an avenue for further opportunity - the sisters, the current heirs to the kingdom, are without worthy partners, so he takes not just one, but both of them, knowing that the road to the throne isn't far behind.

This was another mistake the Lear had made - he didn't give the title to a single person but split the title between two. Mind you, this was actually common practice during the dark ages - a king would carve out his kingdom, and then divide the kingdom amongst his sons, which didn't actually work all that well in maintaining stability, particularly since wars would likely break out once the king had died. It wasn't until the middle ages that the idea of passing the title down to the eldest came into practice. The interesting thing though is that what Edmund is doing is playing the daughters against each other - by becoming romantically involved in both of them the daughters don't go after Edmund, but after each other, which means that all he needs is for one to die so that he can then claim the title of king.




The True Act of Love

King Lear is a play about love and about trust, and about the failure to understand who really loves you and who you can trust. Lear rejects Cordellia because he has his own particular view of what it means to be loved, and then rejects Kent because he dares to speak up. Gloucester banishes Edgar because he listens to the wrong person, and choose to trust somebody who has laid charges against somebody who could never act in such a way. It is probably understandable that when we are first introduced to Edgar in this version of King Lear, he is dressed rather academically, wearing glasses, and reading a book. From this impression doubt is immediately cast upon Edmund's accusations, yet despite knowing his son, Gloucester accepts Edmund's words without question.

We also note that neither Kent, nor Cordellia, ever give up on Lear. In fact Cordellia has her husband launch and invasion of England in an attempt to restore Lear to the throne and to remove her sisters. Yet, one must remember that they haven't actually usurped the throne - they were given the throne by Lear who no longer wished to be king. Still, they know that Lear is not in his right mind, and that his rather foolish actions have resulted in opening the throne up to the ambitions of an usurper. However, even then the only thing that Edmund did was to frame his brother (and play the sisters up against each other, oh and betray his father), every other movement was bestowed upon him.

Of course, once the events have been set in motion, as is the case with most (if not all) of Shakespeare's tragedies, then there is little anyone can do to stop the events spiralling out of control until they arrive at the fateful, and usually incredibly bloody, conclusion.





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Riches to Rags - McKellan's King Lear by David Alfred Sarkies is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. This license only applies to the text and any image that is within the public domain. Any images or videos that are the subject of copyright are not covered by this license. Use of these images are for illustrative purposes only are are not intended to assert ownership. If you wish to use this work commercially please feel free to contact me.