Trevor's Reviews > King Lear

King Lear by William Shakespeare
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it was amazing
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I went to see Lear again last week. It must be the fifth time I have seen it performed and I’ve read it three or four times. It is a play that I can never become ‘familiar’ with. It is like no other play I know.

This time was the second time I have seen it performed by the Bell Shakespeare Company. This one was much better than the last – and I think I can say that because this time the performance brought out lots of the humour of the play. This is a play that is as dark as it is possible to make a play. But there is still humour – even if that humour is often as black as coal.

I was once told that the end of this play, with Lear holding Cordelia in his arms and uttering that achingly human line ‘Why should a dog, a rat, a horse have life and thou no breath at all?’ could well be the perfect test of our humanity. If you are incapable of being moved by that scene you no longer deserve to be considered properly human. Last week there was a young woman sitting beside me at the play, I assume she was watching the play for the first time. It was clear she was getting the play as she laughed in all the right places – but when final scene was played out it was also clear she was deeply moved, nearly to the point of tears. If I am likely to ever cry in a play, that is probably the scene that will do it for me. It was lovely getting to see someone be moved by this scene in the same way I had been moved by it when I first saw it nearly 30 years ago.

So much of this play is astounding. The drama at the start with Kent trying to stand in front of the furious Lear so as to take the bullet rather than see Cordelia exiled is great drama – as is the wonderful long soliloquy by Edmond about people blaming their wickedness on heavenly compulsion caused by the movement of the stars. I really love all of the sexual difficulties between Edmond and Lear’s older daughters, Goneril and Regan, and Edgar making himself Poor Tom in an attempt to avoid being captured and killed. The Fool is remarkable in this play, the most bitter fool in all of Shakespeare, I think, and one that has the oddest role, appearing and disappearing, at once being essential one minute and then never even being mentioned again the next.

This is a play about family dysfunction as much as it is about the dangers of a divided kingdom. It is a play about madness, but this time it is not the madness of Hamlet, a kind of questionable madness that stands in stark contrast to that of Ophelia, but the all too confronting madness of a once great man slowly losing his way, the inevitability of aging and decay. The truth be told, it is hard to know how ‘great’ Lear ever really was. He is not a loveable old man – more a tyrant far too used to getting his own way and of bending the will of others (even those he is supposed to ‘love’) until they meet his will.

If you have any unresolved issues with your father, this is either not the sort of play you should be watching or precisely the sort of play you should be watching (it is hard to tell which). The psychology of this play is just as deep as that of Hamlet and often I find it much more confronting.

It is hard to say who is right and who is wrong in this play. Just as it is reasonable to put aging parents into homes when they start lighting fires in the corners of rooms that don’t have fireplaces, so it is probably reasonable for Goneril and Regan to feel uncomfortable about Lear having a personal army with him while he is staying over at their place for the month. This play is much easier to follow, and the morality is clearer, in the sub-play – the one with Edmond and his father, the Duke of Gloucester. Gloucester gets to be involved in some of the most memorable scenes in the whole play. The scene where he tries to fling himself off the cliffs of Dover is utterly amazing. The ‘out vile jelly’ scene is virtually too much to watch, one of the most stomach turning scene in any play.

Bell did a good job of this. They brought a very bright light to the front of the stage and when each of the eyes were plucked out they flashed the light into the eyes of the audience and then turned all of the lights in the theatre off. The effect was the blinding of the audience and that worked incredibly well in making the audience walk in the shoes of Gloucester as he was being blinded.

I think I love every scene of this play, but the one that I find most remarkable in many ways is the one where Kent, dressed as a lower class hanger-on of Lear’s (someone who has been sent on a message by Lear, in fact) comes across Oswald who is delivering a letter from Goneril and starts a fight with him. This is followed by him being asked why he has been fighting with Oswald and he is unable to answer more than to say, I don’t like the look of him. He has to answer like this because he can hardly say, I dislike him because he is doing the work of his mistress. So, he is left looking like a pugnacious fool. It always makes me think of that other brilliant line from the play, “Through tattered clothes small vices do appear; Robes and furred gowns hide all.” As a poor man Kent is seen as insolent and needs to be punished, if he had still been a Lord he would have been excused this particular fault.

This is a truly remarkable play, one of my favourites and yet almost too painful in so many of the scenes. Like Hamlet it ends with just about everyone dead, but in this case that is virtually a necessity in ways I don’t think are true of Hamlet. But like Hamlet the end is utter tragedy – in this case nothing of Lear is left to continue on. His whole world has come to an end on the stage before him and with him. Like I said, it is almost too painful to watch. And why? I think because there is a kind of redemption in this play, but even after the redemption (for both Gloucester and for Lear) it so quickly and so effortlessly is snatched away from them again. No sooner has Gloucester been saved from his fall off the cliff at Dover than he dies after being told he was rescued by his loyal son Edgar. No sooner is Lear reconciled with Cordelia than they are both dead. This is not a play brimming with hope, but it is a strikingly human play and one that, perhaps like none other, makes me ponder the human condition.

And of course there are the lines, oh dear, the endlessly quotable lines.
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Quotes Trevor Liked

William Shakespeare
“This is the excellent foppery of the world, that,
when we are sick in fortune,--often the surfeit
of our own behavior,--we make guilty of our
disasters the sun, the moon, and the stars: as
if we were villains by 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 to the charge of a star.”
William Shakespeare, King Lear


Reading Progress

Finished Reading
June 14, 2010 – Shelved
June 25, 2010 – Shelved as: literature

Comments Showing 1-10 of 10 (10 new)

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Helen (Helena/Nell) I liked your review very much indeed, although I've never really been able to like this play. I find it too painful, from the start onwards -- the awfulness of Lear's predicament so very predictable -- almost like Cinderella (ugly sisters and all) but with no happy ending. I always want to smack some sense into Lear right at the start. I like the clown. I think this is my favourite clown, but even that makes me think how much fonder I am of Twelfth Night than this play. Do you think it could be a man's play? I so much prefer Hamlet. Even Othello satisfies me more than Lear.


Trevor I don't know enough about Tolstoy, but I heard somewhere that he hated Lear and some people said that was because he was too much like him. I'm not sure if it is a man's play. I find it really confronting. Lear knows at the start he has to fix things, he just has that stupid man thing that he also can't be wrong, can't admit he is wrong.

In Aristotle's view of tragedy there is always hope (even if it is misplaced hope) - the audience is able to imagine, even in the most bleak of Greek plays that if only there hadn't been the fatal flaw that things might have worked out. You know, if you've been told not to sleep with your mother it is probably best not to sleep with anyone old enough to be your mother - and for most of us achieve this isn't too much of a hardship even without the warning. But with Lear I always get the feeling there are not enough smacks in the world to knock sense into him. Although, the play is actually the world giving him enough smacks to knock sense into him, isn't it?

The problem is that I've seen this very male trait played out too often in life. That whole bullshit swagger that only very stupid men seem capable of. To me the most dangerous line in the play is said by the fool when he says Lear is old before his time, "Thou shouldst not have been old till thou hadst been wise". I had a boss at the ASU that line could have been written for. People who would rather wreck the whole world than change their mind.

It is interesting, as Lear does change his mind in the end, when it is all too late. He becomes less a king and more a man in his last scene with Gloucester and the scene where he thinks Cordelia is a ghost come to kill him. But by then there is no going back and the play couldn't end otherwise, I think.

Like you I've always found 12th Night more satisfying, if that is the word. And not because I always leave the theatre smiling or because it is light - there are dark undertones to that play too, and lots and lots to think about in it as well, but Lear is all too much and all too much like life. Lear is, unfortunately, the kind of person we are all too likely to put into positions of power - perhaps giving power to people turns them into Lear, particularly if they are not very intelligent. But then, it is clear that power makes fools of the brightest of men.


notgettingenough Trevor, I'm wondering if the inferior version of Bell's Lear you went to see was Kosky's maybe ten or so years ago?

That was the first time I'd seen Lear and Kosky ruined it, even omitting important characters and story in order to have room for the tedious dances of the men with the phalluses - if you did see it, you will remember that.

It was very disappointing and unfortunately I put the blame on the wrong shoulders and stopped going to see Bell - this was the first Bell I'd seen - when in fact the trouble was Kosky's a wanker.

A couple of years ago I saw the RSC version that came to town and although lots of my friends passionately hated it, I thought it was great. If you did see that version, what did you think of it?


Trevor I didn't see the Kosky - I heard really bad things about it and avoided it. The other I saw was maybe five years ago with an Aboriginal actor playing Edmond. I think the point was so that he could say, "I must have your land" - and it have that devilishly clever double meaning. Even I prefer my politics a little more subtle, if possible.

I also saw the RSC and thought it was really great. I saw them do Richard 3 a million years ago and really liked that too. Maybe 12 years ago I saw Bell do The Tempest with a woman playing Ariel and Bell himself as Prospero - that was a remarkably good version. I think it might have been my first Bell and I was so impressed I suffered through three or four really bad productions before learning he could be 'patchy'. All the same, like hearing the MSO do Shostakovich or Mahler, sometimes sublime, sometimes not - it is always good for the soul.


message 5: by notgettingenough (last edited Jun 15, 2010 05:07PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

notgettingenough Trevor wrote: "I didn't see the Kosky - I heard really bad things about it and avoided it. The other I saw was maybe five years ago with an Aboriginal actor playing Edmond. I think the point was so that he coul..."

Recently I've come to greatly regret that I boycotted Bell for ten years or so. Actually, when I think about it, it's the sort of mistake Lear would make.

At least when I saw the Kosky version I was with my father who knew it literally by heart and could therefore be reasssured it wasn't the play's fault.

As for the RSC's version, I had friends who were plain upset at what they saw as its opulence. It didn't strike me as so, not having anything meaningful to compare it with, but I don't understand in any case why a court scene should not be opulent. I believe there is an extremely minimalist film version which is taken as The Way It Should Be.


Trevor This version was pretty minimalist - I thought the drums were both a good and bad idea. They worked so well during the storm (although, that's hardly much of a surprise) but were distracting, particularly when the sisters were chatting at the end of scene one (which ought to have been scene two).

The first time I saw King Lear was at Melb Uni by the students out there. They did the first scene (with Gloucester and Kent chatting with Edmond) in the foyer. It was really clever as when they say the King is coming we entered 'court' with them. I like things like that.


Toph Great, now I need to go see it live :)


Trevor Plays are quite different beasts on stage than on paper or on film. It's not just snobbishness, it is a completely different experience.


Oswald I think you may have mentioned just about every favorite moment of mine from this play. I too remember my first time reading it, being moved, and being ten times as moved when seeing it performed.

I think one moment I enjoyed as much as the ones you noted is the moment of the faux-trial of Goneril and Regan that Lear and the Fool put on. What a powerful moment- for me, it drew into more contrast just what a "faux" trial it was, and how, while in their little act they were holding up a little image of what they thought justice would look like, at that very moment, justice was far from coming and redeeming them. It drew into sight the hopelessness of their hope, I guess I could say. At least that's how I saw it.


Trevor He's particularly good at that - putting plays within plays to make sure you get the point of what's happening, and of looping similar stories across different characters. Thanks for this Keenan


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