It currently seems to be the age of Ian Mckellen: the man endears both adults and children alike with his portrayals of some of the most interesting and complex men in literature – Magneto, Gandalf etc. However, amidst all that buzz it is easy to forget that his is also one of the finest Shakespearean actors, and one of his greatest turns of late was as the grizzled old King Lear in 2008.
It is easy to see why King Lear is not only considered one of Shakespeare’s greatest works, but also a play which transcends race or culture to be adapted by almost anyone. At its core it is a tragedy of families, of relationships, loyalty, selflessness and selfishness. We touch on what power and hubris can do to people, the difference between age and wisdom, what’s real and what isn’t. Lear himself is a powerhouse of a role, the kind that more seasoned actors – both male and female – dream of. Lear is not the typical ‘father figure’ that we sadly see Robert De Niro’s and Steve Martins relegated too when they get too old. No, the physical and mental journey of King Lear plays front and centre here, made all the more scary because it can happen to any of us.
He begins the play as the greatest of Kings, the kind with all the land he wants and loyal servants to boot. However, he has three daughters and he must therefore decide where his land will go when he dies. The decisions he makes leads all the characters down their paths in the play: death, deceit and pain. At the same time, we are paralleled with the story of the Duke of Gloucester’s sons, Edgar and Edmund (who is illegitimate).
Thou, nature, art my goddess; to thy law
My services are bound. Wherefore should I
Stand in the plague of custom, and permit
The curiosity of nations to deprive me,
For that I am some twelve or fourteen moon-shines
Lag of a brother? Why bastard? wherefore base?
When my dimensions are as well compact,
My mind as generous, and my shape as true,
As honest madam’s issue? Why brand they us
With base? with baseness? bastardy? base, base?
The nature of bastardy and baseness is a torment echoed throughout the whole play in the characters. Regan and Goneril, though true sons of King Lear, behave in a manner not ‘becoming’ of loyal children to the king: once they have what they want, they cast him aside. Through unfortunate circumstances, Edgar is cast into a physically based social position, stripped of titles and land. Quite a turn on the head for a noble legitimate son.
As I write this, I am exploding with the multitudes of things I could say about the play. For all the things I love about it, for the sake of my review I must pick carefully and thus I must mention the Fool.
Mark it nuncle
Have more than thou showest,
Speak less than thou knowest,
Lend less than thou owest,
Ride more than thou goest,
Learn more than thou trowest,
Set less than thou throwest;
Leave thy drink and thy whore,
And keep in-a-door,
And thou shalt have more
Than two tens to a score.
There are many theories behind the purpose and identity of one of the most sadly profound characters by Shakespeare, no less that the Fool and Cordelia share some kind of duality. Whatever your view on it may be, every line of the Fool’s counts. As a character that is meant to be typically made fun of, he demonstrates the follies of the characters in the play, most notably Lear. When the aged King has nothing, the Fool is the closest thing Lear has to ‘family’, and the kind that is honest and true and says what needs to be said (if under a veneer of strangeness).
In King Lear, Shakespeare flips the nature of humanity on its head via not just the setting, but the situations and dynamics faced by our characters. I challenge you to watch it and not feel connected to some of the characters. My of the tones and attitudes displayed can be most uncomfortably seen in the present day, where companies promote certain images in order to win your favour and then leave you high and dry thereafter. The love I hold for the play is such that I’ve attached a preview of the great 2008 Trevor Nunn adaptation below, with the hope that it will compel you to watch and read it. You will not regret it: Shakespeare’s King Lear is one of the finest works in the English language.
(photo credit: moviemail.com)