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Fall 1998

Reconsidering Lear

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Michael Ignatieff
Asking what King Lear is about is like asking what life is about. It is a play, the play perhaps, about what life is. What we think Lear is about depends on how old we are, how much we have lived. When I saw the play first at a school outing, at the age of sixteen, I must have thought it was principally about cruelty. What I remember best from that production is "Out! vile jelly." Gloucester's blinding seemed to be about the wild disproportion between provocation and retaliation, between offense and punishment, between what Gloucester did and what he was made to suffer. For a teenager with no experience of anything much, the lurid excess of the blinding was deeply instructive. I had some intimation that one could be astonished by one's own cruelty, no less than by the cruelty of others. Malignity can be truly motiveless.

When I saw the play again in my twenties, it seemed to be about the ingratitude of children towards their parents. It seems a revealingly guilty reflex to have seen the play in this light at a time when I was in the process of displaying startling (if standard) ingratitude to my parents. The play has an immense capacity to trigger recognition, but in my case, the recognition was not of myself. I identified with Lear, when I was in fact behaving, if anything, like Regan or Goneril.

Now that I am older, I find myself surprised to identify this time not with the wronged father, but with the wronged children. Twenty years ago, as a son, I felt the full sting of Lear's "I gave you all." Now, as a father, I hear the full force of Regan's reply: "And in good time you gave it!" I cannot account for these reversals, except to think that the play allows us to identify, as we so often fail to do in life, with our opposites, with the diseases within our own flesh that we must needs call our own.

Not all great art need be extreme, but this play is an experiment in extremity. It sets out, using only the force of English speech, to rival the immensity of Nature itself. When I was younger I wanted to see the play staged on the largest possible scale. Indoors wouldn't do: the storm scenes seemed to demand Exmoor itself. I never saw a production which was adequate to the Heath, to the vast, violent desolation of the place we all go when we lose our homes.

Now it seems to me that this demand for vast scale was unnecessary. The choice of staging the play in a small space— as in the recent Cottesloe production, for example— where the actors are so close you can reach out and touch them, makes it clear that the play is about the intimate violence of family life. It is about the anger held in check even in families which call themselves happy, about our inability, as parents and children, to love selflessly and the lessons which selfless love teaches us often too late.

There would be no tragedy— in the play and in life— if parents were able to let go of their children with good grace, if they were able to master the mad intensity of their love and allow children the freedom to come into their own. But children are like diseases, whose existence seems to grow at the expense of one's own. Lear's shocking curses, which call down barrenness and sterility upon his own daughters, are not the ravings of dementia; they give voice to a primal anger which the piety of "family values"— in all ages— strives to conceal: old men's fury at the failing of their powers and their corroding envy at the sexual ripeness of their own children. Lear might be saved, too, if he could laugh about his falling off: humor is the only remedy for age, as the Fool tries to remind him. But Lear's greatness— and also his folly— is that he is unreconciled. The other old men around him— Gloucester, Kent, the Fool— have each reached a rueful truce with age. But Lear is one of those old men whose quarrel with life— with its elemental unfairness— seems only to become more intractable as he grows older.

From his daughters' point of view— I see this now— he really is an impossible old man: violent, abusive, by turns imperious and then querulous, confused and pathetic. They are among literature's most dark-dyed villains, these daughters, and yet if we want to see the play anew, as if for the first time, we need to forget, as we watch the family quarrel rising to its full pitch of recrimination, that later they are going to bolt the doors on their father and conspire to blind his friend and defender. We need to forget their villainies in order to recover the logic of their grievances. For they do have justification. They know they are unloved. Their father made the most elementary of parental mistakes: he played favorites and then compounded favoritism with arbitrariness, disowning the one he loved most and settling his estate on the daughters he loved least, in the expectation that their gratitude would allow him infinite license to abuse their hospitality. He comes to stay with them and runs their houses as if they were his own. Most of all, he is deeply embarrassing: he abuses servants, breaks down in public, weeps, rages, laments. They come to hate their own pity for him, and once they have come to hate their pity, it is by easy stages of gathering contempt that they come to hate him.

The play creates an antithesis between home and heath and stresses the razor-thin line, in our own lives, between safety and danger, between having it all and having nothing. But it does so with none of the sentimentality that so infects our ideas of both estates. Lear only begins to learn when he becomes homeless, when he steps into the zones of danger and begins his awesome downward flight from madness to insight, from blindness to sight. The play refuses to sentimentalize home and family, and is also too wise to romanticize suffering. Lear is redeemed by his passage through madness, by discovering a capacity for selfless love, but the suffering which teaches him these lessons is too terrible for him to bear: he learns everything, but too late.

The idea of the tragic is always linked with the idea of fate. But nothing in Lear is fated to happen. What is tragic in the play, as in life, is the way the characters will their own destruction without intending to. It is best to watch this play thinking, as one often does in the middle of some family quarrel, that none of this need be taking place. There is nothing ineluctable about the daughters' villainy and the old man's downward flight: it should be played as if one saving word, one saving gesture, could have averted catastrophe, just as in our lives we can look back and know that one word might have saved us if we could have brought ourselves to utter it.

Michael Ignatieff lives in London and writes frequently about human rights issues. He is the author of several books, including the first major biography of Isaiah Berlin.


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