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.


  1. I remember when I first saw Lear being particularly moved by Edmund's opening soliloquy on the unfairness of the law toward bastards. "Now, gods, stand up for bastards!"

    I felt him to be an oddly sympathetic villain compared to, say, Igao or King Mark. Sure, he's a scoundrel, but he plays the hand he is given. Had he succeeded, he might have gone down in legend as a hero.

    Just as a side note, my middle daughter is Cordelia. :) No Regan or Goneril, though...

  2. Thanks for the comment. I can see where you are coming from with Edmund, but I admire him for his shrewdness. I don't think I know anybody called Goneril (though I do know of a Regan).