Posts Tagged ‘King Lear’

James Shapiro: 1606 Shakespeare and the Year of Lear

February 28, 2019

51b-1ngINUL._AC_US218_This is obviously a follow-up to the author’s earlier 1599, which dealt with the context to another significant year in Shakespeare’s dramatic output. Here the focus is on a different reign – that of James 1 – and a different social context, with the background to three significant tragedies, Macbeth, King Lear and Antony and Cleopatra. There is also the fall-out from the Gunpowder Plot of the previous autumn, and James’ ongoing drive for the union of the crowns of Scotland and England.

The anxieties of the final years of Elizabeth’s reign may have passed, but life was no more settled, and events showed that James’ hold on the throne and his acceptance by the people was not completely secure. The status of the theatres was just as parlous, what with recurrent plague and the growing Puritan dislike of people enjoying themselves. I had been aware of the fact that a law was passed to eliminate profanity, which had eliminated most of the oaths and swearing from Shakespeare’s and other dramatists’ plays but hadn’t quite realised the implications of this, as, in the spirit of the law every existing text had to be amended, 1984-style, to remove all objectionable matter: the penalties were too severe for theatres and publishers not to do this. And of course this meant that the great First Folio of 1623 is in fact a bowdlerised edition of Shakespeare’s plays…

King Lear is set against the backdrop of Britishness which the new kind propounded: Englishness is out with the king imported from Scotland. We are shown the structural complexity of the play – it’s the only tragedy with a fully-developed subplot – and there is interesting exploration of the use of negative language in the play. Context in terms of equivocation, and references the the Gunpowder Plot are all fully detailed, too, as are the many significant differences between the Quarto and First Folio texts.

Similarly, James’ obsession with witches and witchcraft, and how this is explored in Macbeth, is very interesting, and again the phenomenon of equivocation is embedded. You will need to read the relevant chapters to get to the bottom of this Jesuitical device for justifying being economical with the truth and how outrageous everyone was supposed to find it at the time. And we realise just how Shakespeare was treading on eggshells writing the Scottish play, during the reign of a Scottish king, depicting two kings of Scotland being killed: both of those deaths take place off-stage, understandably, but not in the spirit of the onstage gore of the times. And this in the immediate aftermath of the plot to blow the king up with gunpowder.

There is good depth and detail in Shapiro’s exploration of all three plays he treats in this volume: the context is very enlightening, and surprising amounts of new insights and interpretations, even for me as a long-time student of Shakespeare. There was also a good deal of fairly tiresome and tedious stuff about court masques and entertainments, and despite the title, Shapiro actually spreads his net quite widely, going back at times to the 1580s as well as looking at Shakespeare’s final years. Overall, though, a book I’d very much recommend to any serious reader of Shakespeare.


Heroes and icons

January 25, 2019

Something got me thinking about heroes recently, and I found myself wondering if I had any. A hero: someone whose life and work I greatly admire; is that a good enough definition? Or am I thinking of an icon?

One will have to be Shakespeare. I realise I had a very good first encounter with the man and his work, through an inspirational English teacher (who was ultimately responsible for my pursuing such a career myself) who chose a demanding and challenging play for study at O Level: The Merchant of Venice. Difficult to classify, though many critics call it a tragicomedy, which will do, I suppose. The point is, it raised so many issues for teenage minds to wrestle with: what is justice? What is racism? Who are we meant to sympathise with? In other words, I had an early introduction to the idea that there are no easy answers, and that one should beware of anyone who claimed to have one… And this same teacher went on to teach us Othello and King Lear at A Level, two astonishingly powerful tragedies which move me to tears whenever I watch them.

At university we had a course on ‘The Drama’ in our first year, and were fortunate enough to have the lectures on Shakespeare delivered by Kenneth Muir, the head of the Department of English at the University of Liverpool and eminent Shakespearean scholar, then on the verge of retirement. He was amazing: clear and perceptive in his analysis, what stunned us all most was that whatever play he was discussing, he could immediately recall whatever lines he wanted, from memory, as he paced the lecture theatre.

Obviously as an English teacher myself, I had to teach many of the plays. I tried only to teach plays I really liked, especially after having made the early mistake of trying to interest year 8 students in A Midsummer Night’s Dream because that was one of the plays designated for year 8… I had to teach Macbeth – a play I liked but never really completely warmed to – more times than I care to think; I loved teaching Julius Caesar and Romeo and Juliet, and when it came to sixth form, went for the tragedies whenever I could, though only ever once managed to get to teach King Lear. Othello and Antony and Cleopatra were my great favourites.

Everyone will have their own take on Shakespeare’s greatness. For me there were two things in particular: the astonishing power and beauty of his language in so many different situations and through so many different characters, and his ability to raise so many questions through his plots, to make his audiences think, to make them uncomfortable, in short to make them see that there was no one easy response to anything.

I said ‘one’ before I mentioned Shakespeare, so logically there will be another, and there is.

​_Whereas I can claim a certain measure of expertise in the field of literature, in the field of music I am a zero. Tone deaf, unable to play any instrument, bribed at school not to sing in music lessons because I put others off. But my other hero, or icon, is J S Bach. And I will find it much harder to explain why. A long while ago I mentioned how a teacher at school had initially fired my curiosity by refusing to play Bach to us ‘peasants’; another teacher played us the fifth Brandenburg Concerto, and I could not believe my ears, transported by the speed and virtuosity of the harpsichordist.

My encyclopaedic knowledge of 1970s rock music gradually began to fade as I explored the world of jazz and classical music, and one fateful day I spent a whole pound on a whim, on a secondhand LP of two Bach cantatas from a stall on Lancaster market. Many years later, having worn it out, I managed to find a replacement.

Bach’s music transports me onto a more spiritual plane: that’s the only way I can put it, really. The cello suites, for example, some of the shorter and less fiery organ pieces, but above all the church cantatas take me away from myself, my ordinary little world and its worries and preoccupations and lead me somewhere completely other with my mind – my being, thoughts, consciousness — to another place entirely. It’s beyond me and much more powerful than me; I don’t understand it and I feel unutterably grateful for the experience.

Bach was a Lutheran, a very religious and God-fearing man: I am not. As a Quaker, I explore a spiritual path, true, but worship in silence; I don’t know whether God exists or is a creation of the human mind. But Bach’s music speaks to me so profoundly, from nearly three centuries ago, in a way which complements everything I believe in, and manages to restore my faith in humanity.

So yes, perhaps there are heroes, and I have a couple of them.

August favourites #4: Shakespeare

August 4, 2018

When I was teaching, my students used often to ask which was my favourite of Shakespeare’s plays, and my honest answer was almost always that it depended on what I was teaching at the time. For some reason, I never liked Hamlet enormously. King Lear I studied at A level myself, and I cannot watch it without tears at the end, so powerful is it. Othello, for the power of passion and the torment at having one’s love destroyed, as well as the sheer evil of Iago, was always one of my favourites, but I think now that my preference has settled on Antony and Cleopatra, as a picture of the power of love in later life, and how that emotion wins out over everything else in a person, even though that entails the loss of everything. For me, that means that there is something great in being a human. Antony has ‘kissed away kingdoms’: what a marvellous line! And Cleopatra, in the final act, is matchless…

I’m doing something different for the holiday month of August, writing about some of my favourites: poems, plays, music, art and other things, a short piece on a different topic each day. The categories are random, as are the choices within them, meaning that’s my favourite that day, and is subject to change… And I will try and explain why each choice is special for me. As always, I look forward to your comments.


On being lost for words…

August 15, 2017

I’m not often left speechless, but I was yesterday evening, as I did my final catch-up on the day’s news online, before bed. I came across a story reporting that a professor of English Literature at the University of London had decided to remove John Cleland‘s novel Fanny Hill from a course on seventeenth and eighteenth century libertine literature which she had taught for years, on the ground that it might upset students…

I really don’t know where to start. If it’s a course on libertine literature, what sort of texts do you expect to meet? And surely it can’t be a compulsory course, so why have you chosen to do it? If you are at university to study literature, what were you expecting to be reading – Winnie the Pooh or Thomas the Tank Engine? Are you not up to being challenged, to being expected to read books you may not like, even books that you may actually dislike? A university course is usually put together carefully, with a specific aim in mind and a corresponding reading-list to suit the purpose.

I never met this issue at school myself, either as a student or as a teacher. I read disturbing and challenging books whilst in the sixth form: my English teacher handed us Hubert Selby‘s Last Exit to Brooklyn, among other things. I’m not sure I got it completely at the tender age of seventeen, but I read it, marvelled that people actually wrote like that and about those sorts of things, and came back to it when I was a bit older and a little more worldly-wise. And it was round about then that I read Cleland’s novel, too. I enjoyed it, as many teenage males would at that age; it made me think that a man should write such a book, purporting to be by a woman, and it certainly reinforced the notion that women had a right to sexual pleasure. I know that I wasn’t aware of a whole range of subtexts and broader issues that the book raised, but it was a start.

When teaching, I worked on all sorts of potentially upsetting texts with students: all that literature about the First World War, for starters. And what about all the horrible stuff that goes on in Shakespeare’s plays (back to the article that has triggered this rant – apparently a student had been ‘upset’ by King Lear, the death of Cordelia and the gouging out of Gloucester’s eyes…)? I always felt that one had a ‘duty of care’ in my situation, i.e. to warn students that something a bit strong or violent was coming up, but these were school students, often not even at a stage where they could be choosing what they studied…

I’ve tried, and failed, at least three times, to get to the end of Nabokov‘s Lolita. Various people have recommended it to me, including students of mine, and I’ve give it my best efforts, but I have found it so toe-curling that I have been unable to get beyond the first third or so. If I’d been asked to read it as part of a university course, I’d have made myself do it, and delivered my opinions in the seminar. But when it’s optional, as it has been, I don’t have to read it.

I’ve said many times before in these pages that good literature is meant to challenge, to make us think. The world is a nasty place in many ways, full of violence, certainly, but also increasingly sexualised (and I make no judgement on whether that is a good or bad thing here) and young people of university age have long had access via the internet to all sorts of horrendous violence and pornography if they chose to view it. Literature reflects our world, showing us the goodness and the evil in ourselves and those around us. It’s perfectly possible to avoid literature and what it presents, and the issues it rubs our faces in, if one is afraid of being upset. In which case, don’t go off to university to study it…

My A-Z of reading: B is for Beginnings

October 16, 2016

What’s the most effective and memorable beginning to a novel (or a play or poem, for that matter) for you? Many will perhaps default to the obvious ones, like the opening line of Pride and Prejudice… but what makes a really effective start?

I suppose there are the ones we remember, and the ones that actually work, the ones that have an instant effect, and the ones that creep up on us. I’ve always liked the opening of George Orwell‘s Nineteen Eighty-fourIt was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. That works for me partly because of the immediate shock – what sort of world is this, where clocks actually strike thirteen? And it takes me back to my childhood, at the end of the 1950s in the little village where I was born, where the next-door neighbour but one, a reclusive old woman, actually had a decrepit clock that did strike thirteen. This astonished me, and I used to love listening to that final, wrong strike.

But the one I remember most often is not actually an opening sentence, but the opening incident: the narrator of Lawrence Sterne‘s Tristram Shandy is telling of the Sunday night ritual in his parents’ household: Sunday night is intercourse night and he is about to be conceived, when in medias res his mother enquires of his father if he had remembered to wind the clock… for me, this sets the tone for the rest of this wonderful novel, the longest shaggy-dog story in the world as someone once called it.

When teaching To Kill A Mockingbird, I was often conscious of the long opening section – Part One – which is getting on for a third of the entire novel, and appears to go absolutely nowhere. Occasionally a class would become somewhat restless as we read, and this caused me to reflect on it as the opening to a novel; it was often only at the end of the entire book that we could go back and reflect on what Harper Lee had been doing with that lengthy introduction – “too much description, sir!” – creating such a vivid sense of place that we could actually fit ourselves into Maycomb. The book needed it, before the real story of Tom Robinson could start.

Plays are no different, and looking at what Shakespeare does is instructive. Often he hurls us head-first into the action – the witches in Macbeth, the storm in The Tempest: we are instantly gripped and cannot look back, and in different ways he develops the stories and sweeps us forward. And yet, he can do slow and subtle, too: the discussion of Antonio’s melancholy at the start of The Merchant of Venice, for example, or the gentlemen comparing notes about the king’s erratic behaviour at the start of King Lear.

John Donne has some wonderful opening lines in his Songs and Sonnets: Busy old fool, unruly sun (The Sun Rising), for example, or For God’s sake hold your tongue (The Canonisation), or When by thy scorn, O Murderess, I am dead (The Apparition), or Mark but this flea… as an exercise in seduction technique unequalled by any other poet I know.

So what works, and how? Something must intrigue us, either instantly and suddenly as in the Donne poems, or it must begin to insinuate itself, to sow a trail of loose ends and possibilities that we find sufficiently interesting to continue to pay attention, rather than go off to something else, as Shakespeare intrigues us at the start of King Lear. And whatever bait a writer or poet dangles before an audience or reader, it must go on to offer the promise of (eventual) satisfaction after that initial flash of inspiration.

How good is Hamlet?

June 1, 2016

Hamlet is probably Shakespeare’s best-known play, most famous play, even. The hero’s role is a target for young actors to play while they are still young enough to convince an audience. The hero is possibly a likeable hero, more so than Othello, Lear, Macbeth or Mark Antony. But I have found myself wondering a number of times whether the play is really Shakespeare’s best

A youthful hero, plus some love interest – depending on how well the relationship between Hamlet and Ophelia is hinted at and played. Surely Othello, and Anthony and Cleopatra are in with a chance here?

Shakespeare has a lot of themes up in the air in the play: a man’s duty (or not) to revenge his father’s murder. And yet, perhaps not so relevant today? A corrupt country, full of spies and surveillance. A hero who delays action, who is indecisive – perhaps an idea that many would be able to identify with. A hero with a very complex relationship with his mother, though this is also perhaps less in the foreground since Freud went out of fashion. A play about mental states, instability and madness; a play about acting, pretending and dissembling… Certainly there is a great deal here.

And yet, I find that others of Shakespeare’s major tragedies have even more to say, move me even more deeply. Othello explores sexual jealousy and its consequences; although many of us have perhaps experienced this feeling, we have not responded in like manner. King Lear looks at the duties of children towards their parents and shows us ingratitude. Macbeth explores ambition: if we are ambitious, presumably we have not gone as far as he did, to achieve our goals? Love or infatuation in older age and the messes it can get one into: Antony and Cleopatra.

But those are only ideas, you may object: what about the characters, and their relationships, presented to us on stage? Hamlet and his mother, Hamlet and Ophelia, for me pale before the power of the entanglement of Othello and Iago, his tortured relationship with Desdemona, and the touching closeness between Emilia and Desdemona. I think there’s a closer exploration of relationships between father and children with King Lear and his daughters, and it’s counterpointed by the pairing of Edmund and Edgar. And I find the interplay between Antony and Cleopatra, between Antony and Octavius, between Cleopatra and her women all quite riveting in different ways.

Is it Hamlet’s youth that grips us, the young man with an impossible dilemma, the burden placed on his shoulders that he cannot cope with? Is it just that the play is too familiar that I feel it’s over-rated, that I feel a little jaundiced about it, in comparison with the other plays I’ve mentioned? Is it because I’m older than Hamlet and can no longer relate to his cause?

Feelings at the end of the plays: usually I feel a sense of loss at the end of Hamlet. I feel overwhelmed at the end of Othello, King Lear, Antony and Cleopatra. Only Macbeth leaves me uninterested.

I’d be very interested in others’ thoughts on this one. It nags at me, won’t go away and I’m unclear what to think. At the moment my verdict is good, but by no means the best.

On a certain 400th anniversary

April 10, 2016

serveimageAs I shall be away on the actual day – 23 April – of the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, I’ll write something a little early. This piece will be more about my encounters with him, rather than anything academic.

I’ve lived longer than Shakespeare did: I still have the set of commemorative stamps issued to mark his 400th birthday in 1964, at a time when I collected stamps but knew nothing about our greatest writer. Before I first read any of his plays – as preparation for O level English Literature – I remember I had the feeling that he would be dull, difficult and boring.

I have an inspirational teacher to thank for my experience being so different. We had to study The Merchant of Venice, and I was astonished at the level of detail, the hidden meanings, and the messages beneath the surface, as well as the vulgarity. But most of all, even at that relatively early age, I think I was seduced by his masterly use of language, the magic of his verse, and his wit. Over time, I came to like the tragedies best; it took me a long while to engage with the histories, and I’m still wrestling with the comedies…

I was introduced to live performance while at school, too. The wonderful new – at that time – Nottingham Playhouse, with its ground-breaking revolving stage, had only just opened. I remember seeing a wonderful performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream – a play I’ve little time for – there, and also Ian McKellen‘s first Hamlet.

Obviously I went on to study more Shakespeare at A level – King Lear and Othello – and then at university, where I had the thrill of attending lectures by the great Kenneth Muir, who could stroll around the lecture theatre and reel off any quotation from any play that his train of thought required – just like that… And then I went on to teach Shakespeare to my students for many years.

Now, in retirement, I’m a student again, not a teacher, as each year I head off for a week deep in the Oxfordshire countryside to spend a week looking at three plays – usually two by Shakespeare and one by a contemporary – and then heading off to Stratford to see them at the RSC. There’s good company, and one of the course leaders is the Shakespearean actor Jane Lapotaire, who explores the plays from performance perspectives and is always very illuminating; one thing I did relatively little of as a teacher was drama.

So I have set myself a target in my retirement: finally to get to see all of Shakespeare’s plays in performance. My acquaintance is somewhat limited so far: teaching syllabuses meant that I’ve only taught about a dozen of the plays, and only seen a few more than that, although some I have seen many times, in some very memorable performances. This year I hope to see Cymbeline for the first time…

Though it can be hard sometimes to separate the brilliance from the bardolatry, my love of the richness of our wonderful language and its myriad possibilities does firmly convince me that in Shakespeare’s works is something very special indeed in our literary history and culture.

Shakespeare: King Lear – a Thatcherite play?

March 29, 2016

51k02psI2sL._AA160_It was the tidy-up, and coming across Danby‘s book on Shakespeare’s Doctrine of Nature, that sent me back to King Lear, which I haven’t read for many years. There was only one opportunity to teach it as an A Level text, many years ago, after which it largely disappeared from the syllabus, another of those texts perhaps deemed too difficult for most sixth form students… Certainly, the madness scenes do take some unravelling. I’ve only ever seen one, rather poor, stage performance of the play.

My perspective on King Lear has certainly changed over the years: this time, I had a much stronger impression of the chaos the kingdom immediately falls into as soon as Lear gives up his regal powers to his daughters, whereas in the past, the sense of it’s being a purely family conflict had been more powerful. There was also a sharpening, for me, of the sense of loss of control over his world by an ageing man, and the vulnerability of his mind to disruption and madness. And I found myself thinking ‘Thatcherite’ every time Edmund, Goneril or Regan outlined any of their plans or ideas: there is no such thing as society, what I want I will go out and take, no matter who gets trampled along the way. I was quite shocked, initially, to find myself reacting like this, but as I persevered, the adjective made more and more sense. And the last time I taught the play, Thatcher’s reign was only halfway through!

In the early stages, the younger generation’s way of dealing with their fractious and cantankerous father seemed almost reasonable, until it came to abandoning him out in the storm; then the true, harsh and unfeeling nature of their behaviour was patent. A bit like the cheese-paring of benefits currently going on, not really noticeable by outsiders until the foodbanks are widespread and despairing claimants are taking their own lives… then suddenly we are outraged, and wonder how things got to this, as well as asking ourselves just what sort of a person could do this to another human being?

Chaos and strife do beset the kingdom instantly; the nasty party are almost at once at loggerheads with each other, the daughters colliding with each other against their father at the same time as scheming for advantage and for Edmund’s body – again, this hadn’t been quite so foregrounded las t time around, at least not in my memory of the text.

I found it a very powerful and convincing portrayal of the incipient and developing derangement of Lear, with the moments of sharp and tragic lucidity interspersed. Somehow the jarring nature of the Fool’s frequent interjections heightened the sense of madness, as well as the king’s suffering. And I was struck by just how masterly the whole flow and structure of the play is, with its various sub-plots so skilfully knit together. It was a play that could move me to tears when I studied it, and still can, I found: I remember now why I always used to say it was the best of Shakespeare’s tragedies.

John F Danby: Shakespeare’s Doctrine of Nature

March 7, 2016

31M42iJdaRL._AA160_I’ve been having a tidy-up and clear-out, and rediscovered this, which is one of those books that you come across once in a while, that do a superb job in explaining key concepts and background material in cultural and literary works. Danby’s work, although more than half a century old, seems to me to sit alongside other such classics as Huizinga‘s The Waning of the Middle Ages, and Tillyard‘s The Elizabethan World Picture: essential reading for students who need to have a clear understanding of the ideas and thinking of another age.

I’ve found, over years of reading and study, that many books, particularly history and literary criticism, are rewritten by each generation (academics do have to make a living, after all), with new interpretations and updated expression and examples replacing those of a former age, but I haven’t yet come across what could replace any of the books mentioned above.

Danby’s book is certainly an excellent key to making sense of the word ‘nature‘ in King Lear, two diametrically opposed meanings of which are illustrated and explored both through the action and in certain key characters in that play; that is where I first came across the book more than forty years ago. The explanations and the illustrations are precise and clear, and Danby widens his scope by bringing in aspects of, and characters from, Richard III, King John, Henry IV (both parts) Julius Caesar, Hamlet, Troilus and Cressida, Othello and Macbeth, to flesh out his thesis and illustrate developments in Shakespeare’s overall thinking. Through his close focus on Nature, we can also perceive more clearly how what Shakespeare has to say in his plays remains relevant to us today, even though we may nowadays use different words to articulate our feelings and fears.

Danby has also sent me back to the play King Lear itself, which I haven’t read for many a year; though I studied it at A level a long time ago, and have always liked it, I only ever had one opportunity to teach it as a text – it’s now another of those that examiners seem to regard as ‘too difficult’ for today’s students…


Shakespeare: The Taming of the Shrew

December 17, 2015

4116zMytiZL._AA160_I have realised it’s taken me a very long time to begin enjoying Shakespeare’s comedies as much as his tragedies, and I have been thinking about why this may be. Perhaps the tragedies are easier to access: a (pretty) clear plot, and message, and an expected audience response. Certainly, I understood Othello and King Lear when I studied them for A Level. At university, I preferred the tragedies, saw some sense in the histories, and managed, largely, to overlook the comedies.

The Taming of the Shrew is wonderful, for its plot, its framing, its message and its language – full of wit, pun and obscenity. I think the quick-fire, rapier wit exchanges are also probably somewhat more difficult for twenty-first century audiences to grasp quickly, meaning the moment has often passed before we know what to laugh at. Although I’m getting better at this. The interaction/ interplay between Kate and Petruchio is masterly, often hilarious. And again, what audiences find humorous or witty does change over time, whereas the subject-matter of tragedy remains pretty constant.

So, the range of Shakespeare I enjoy has broadened: I’ve grown to like Love’s Labours Lost, Much Ado About Nothing, As You Like It, and The Merry Wives of Windsor; I may even go back to some of the more obscure ones like The Comedy of Errors, or All’s Well, but I don’t think I’m ever going to be able to like A Midsummer Night’s Dream, although I did once, many years ago, see a wonderful production of it.

The challenge in Shrew comes with the ending: what has Kate said, and done? Is it a feminist declaration, as some would like to think, or is it shades of St Paul, putting all women in their place, silent and subordinate? I always read the last couple of scenes particularly carefully for this reason, and I look forward to seeing a production again one day, to see how it comes across. The best account I’ve come across is in the Arden two edition introduction, by Brian Morris, who sets the ending very carefully in its context, which cannot be feminist, yet also elucidates the freedom and happiness open to a Kate who understands her position in her world and what it offers her…

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