Tuesday, February 10, 2009

King Lear for The Drama Challenge

Shakespeare, William. King Lear. Harbage, Alfred, ed. The Complete Works. Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1969.

I was so encouraged by my reaction to Spenser that I decided to kick off my drama challenge with King Lear. Big mistake. I hurried through this one in college, because I couldn't stand Lear. I see nothing has happened during the 20+ intervening years to change my opinion. In fact, nothing happened to improve my general opinion of the entire play. It didn't become something that made better sense to me at this point in my life (despite the fact I naïvely wrote in my post when choosing this one for the challenge that I was going to read it slowly and savor it. In fact, I may even have hurried through it even more than I did the first go-round). The characters didn't suddenly develop senses of humor or become sympathetic or become anything other than sickeningly sweet, cunningly evil, or scarily insane (and it's a very cruel insanity).

I've never been one who's latched onto any of those "Shakespeare-was-more-than-one-man" theories, but re-reading this play has got me re-thinking my stance on that. How could the man who made me laugh so hard when I was reading A Comedy of Errors that I had to leave the library where I was reading it have written this yawn-inducing work? How could the man who had me get to the end of Romeo and Juliet and go right back to the beginning to start again have written this work that I could barely bring myself to open? How could the man who gave me the lively, mischievous, and wicked characters in A Midsummer Night's Dream have given me characters who made me feel I was sitting around a boardroom watching PowerPoint slides on the intricacies of a lawn mower being read verbatim? Suffice it to say that if William Shakespeare did, indeed, write this one, it must have been during some period when he was suffering from insomnia, and he was desperate to compose a soporific.

You know, I'd completely forgotten what it's like to read pages and pages; mind thinking about what I'm going to have for dinner (three weeks out), what tasks I need to get done for work (during the next six months), household projects (till the day we retire), etc.; only to discover I have no idea what I've read. I don't think I've done that since I was in grad school. If I hadn't already known the basic plot line for this one (selfish father going mad, has three daughters, plays favorites, youngest daughter is so too-good-to-be-true she deserves to be smacked, older daughters are vengeful, everyone dies in the end), I wouldn't have much of a clue as to what happened here, because I just did not and could not care enough to stay focused.

I have evidence, though, that this play was written by the same man who wrote those plays I so love. There was a point at which I woke up and was greeted with this wonderful passage that smacks of the sort of wisdom I expect from Shakespeare,

This is an excellent foppery of the world, that when we are sick in fortune, often the surfeits of our own behavior, we make guilty of our disasters the sun, the moon, and the stars; as if we were villains on necessity; fools by heavenly compulsion; knaves, thieves, and treachers by spherical predominance; drunkards, liars, and adulterers by an enforced obedience of planetary influence; and all that we are evil in, by a divine thrusting on...An admirable evasion of whoremaster man, to lay his goatish disposition on a star. My father compounded with my mother under the Dragon's Tail, and my nativity was under Ursa Major so that it follows I am rough and lecherous. Fut! I should have been what I am, had the maidenliest star in the firmament twinkled on my bastardizing...(p. 1070)

Now that is the Shakespeare I know and love. Most especially when, a few lines later, the character (Edmund) in the sort of ironic, fun twist I expect from Old Will says (in comparing himself to his brother),"Oh, these eclipses do portend these divisions..." (p. 1070)

If only all of it had been like that! Do you suppose Shakespeare was like Rodin, hiring a team of writers to flesh out his basic plot line, like Rodin hired sculptors, letting them do the grunt-work most of the time and occasionally putting pen to paper to make his mark with passages such as this one? I hate to think so. I much prefer the notion of giving himself the literary equivalent of an Ambien, or maybe he was suffering through a period when his "More-Lovely-and-Temperate-Than-a-Summer's-Day" was "More-Hideous-and-Violent-than-a-Summer's-Tsunami," and he just couldn't focus or care too much about what he wrote. It makes him more human, anyway.

Now I need to go off and re-read A Comedy of Errors to restore my faith in his brilliance. Before I do, however, I must let you know that the notes in this edition of Shakespeare's complete works are far superior to the notes in my edition of The Faerie Queene. How do I know this, since I was basically just reading words while composing to-do lists in my head? Well, I came upon this word, "puissance." My first thought was, "Uh-oh. Is this some common word I ought to know? Did I draw too much attention to the ignorant fool I am by using it as an example in my blog post on FQ?" But then I checked the notes to discover it had been defined (so I must not be the only ignorant fool in the world). For those of you who are dying to know, it means "powerful.

Oh, and one final thing. If you've been reading this and thinking I'm more mad than Old Lear himself, I will have you know, you are in good company. Should I ever be served divorce papers by Bob, I'm quite sure one of the grievances against me will be, "She doesn't (oh, how could she not?!) like King Lear."


Anonymous said...

Oh, I'm sure Bob can deal! Anyway, it's lovely that he cares so much!!

As for Lear, this is a play I have always loved -- for Lear's grievous mistakes, his suffering, and the beauty of the language. But I like suffering. Still, I can see how others might find all the stumbling around in bad weather incredibly tedious.

I'm with you on Comedy of Errors, though. I am very fond of mistaken identities and lost gold chains.

Anonymous said...

The worst student drama production I ever saw was of Kind Lear. Clearly at some point during rehearsals someone had moaned 'it's not fair that Lear gets to be mad and the rest of us don't!' and the director suffered a flash of artistic originality that doomed the production. I could only tell who King Lear was because he was played by a friend of mine. Otherwise he was indistinguishable from everyone else on stage.

So Lear has never ranked as one of my favourites, no.