“My duty kneeling, came there a reeking post”
One question that comes up when people find out I teach English is “What’s your favorite play?” When it comes to Shakespeare’s tragedies, it’s Lear. I love the complexity of the relationships between the siblings, I love the dual plot lines, I love the ambiguity of the settings, I love the extremes of the emotions and mostly, I really love the villains. Even when I was a kid, I gravitated toward the bad guys. Growing up, I myself, was terribly afraid to get in trouble with my parents, so the bad guys were sort of my heroes, the people who weren’t afraid to break the rules. King Lear was the first play I studied academically and I instantly fell in love. I’m going to get into more depth with the play itself and my interpretations when I write about the Festival performance we saw in Cedar City in my next blog, but here I’m going to discuss Scott’s lecture from 14 July called “King Lear: Doing Shakespeare in Different Ways.”
Because I love Lear, learning about the backgrounds, both of the history of the story and the history of the text of the play is a subject I’m enthralled with and I think it’s important to know that too, especially if you’re teaching the plays. I’m of the mind where I want to be as informed as I possibly can be. I’m always afraid a student will ask a question I can’t find the answer to. I want to give them the information they want. Of course, I know they won’t always ask on their own, but if I say “King Lear was published in several forms before this one,” maybe they’ll wonder why this is the one we’re reading, or why it changed. I find when the students are genuine about the things they want to know, we can introduce much more. Yes, sometimes the lessons go off the rails, but many times it arrives at the same station, but we took a different route and that’s good too. I also find that it demystifies Shakespeare to show that other people have edited or modified the text in some way. When I give them lessons like we did in class - cutting a speech in half or more to get to the bare bones of it, showing the professionals did it too makes it a little easier to do in class. Though, watching their anxiety grow when line after line is being redacted is a delight made better by their defenses of the lines. But I digress.
Like much of the Bard’s work, there is quite a bit of borrowing from previous sources, something of a usual practice at the time. Scott’s lecture covers in great detail the history of the Lear story going back to Geoffrey of Monmouth (1095-1155), who is generally associated with King Arthur. For me, because I like the history of things anyway, it’s a slippery rabbit-hole indeed when I really like something and Lear is one of those things. The people of the time would have known some of that history not unlike the people of ancient Athens who knew some of the stories that had come before them, so when they went to see a play, they went to see how the story looked “this time around.” Not unlike how Spiderman keeps coming back around every few years.
Scott’s lecture spent some time focusing on Lear’s Fool. An important character as Fools in the plays serve an important purpose, that of speaking truth to power. Scott also cited Edwin Booth who pointed out “the Fool should be a man who has both humor and pathos and be able to sing.” The humor and singing is clear, as it tempers the tragedy and illuminates various points, but it’s the pathos which is most important; it’s through his eyes in which we see just how far Lear falls. Now this is where Scott and I diverge, though we agree on many other points. Again, however, I’ll speak more to that when I discuss the performance.
Scott makes interesting points in focusing on the Fool and how this character serves not only Lear, but us the audience. The audience would have been familiar with the role of the Fool on stage and in real life. That this wasn’t just a fictional role, it was a trade and profession, brings some gravitas to the character on stage. Scott’s research project discusses the Fool’s role as a barometer to the stability of the court. In my undergrad, I was taught we pay attention to the king - “how goes the king, so goes the kingdom” was the mantra when discussing national stability, but this focus on a lesser, seemingly minor courtesan is very interesting. That’s the thing with Shakespeare’s characters, they are all interesting if the eye is drawn to them. Consider Oswald, Goneril’s man, is he really “Goneril’s man” or is he Albany’s man and offended by Goneril’s actions with Edmund? If he’s Albany’s man, then there could be a different audience reaction by his death at the hands of Edgar.
With the Fool, Scott argues by keeping on eye on Lear, we can see the court disappearing symbolized by the shedding of the clothing, layer by layer and once it has evaporated on the heath, the Fool can no longer exist as a Fool and must disappear. Scott further suggests the “1606 audience, well versed in absolute monarchical power and the roles of fools and courts, would have likely been at least put on guard by the disappearance, preparing them for an ending that they otherwise would never have expected.” This is where Scott and I think differently. I don’t have that much faith in the 1606 audience to be as versed in courtly affairs in real life as much as they would have been in theatrical life. But, more on that to come next time.