Recently, in response to some treasured theatre friends defending the art form as still a home for fresh ideas by proffering, god help us, Shakespeare as an example, I countered that there were just a few issues that perhaps the pumpkin-panted paragon had not considered: oh, you know, stuff like nuclear annihilation, ecological annihilation, quantum mechanics, computers, cognitive science, genomics, communism, Darwinism, social media, outer space exploration, inner space exploration. You get the picture. There was no budging for some. “Shakespeare espouses the timeless verities. Period. No further work need be done.” So in frustrated response to this nonsense, I re-posted my gentle reminder from a few years ago: Shakespeare Would Hate Us.
Little did I know that this reposting would attract the attention—and thus inevitably the addled wrath-- of the anti-Stratfordians. You know, those bozos that believe Shakespeare was anyone but. I finally had to cut their mic in the comments section of the piece because they couldn’t seem to get it through their obsessive heads that I couldn’t care less about the authorship controversy. I care about new plays for a non-museum theatre. Period.
But then I remembered these notes I jotted while on a glorious kid-free vacation to St. Thomas a few years back. For reasons unfathomable to me now, I took along a copy of King Lear.
Been thinking about Lear, the degeneration of fairy tale into messy horrifying reality, plus the way sub-plot gnarls around main plot like a choking ivy. Why does Shakes. love the bitter bastards so? What happened to the Fool? The recurring examinations of how one speaks to power and how power listens. Or not.
It really is such a rich play in ways the other great tragedies lack. Hell, three sisters is enough to do that.
There’s something frightening about Lear that goes deeper than the other three, even though it lacks the supernatural twist of Macbeth, or the atavistic punishing drive of Othello, or the bleak alienation of Hamlet. Quite simply, these are real people in Lear doing really horrible things to each other, people they had no apparent cause to hate, in many cases, ten minutes before the action of the play begins. This is no revenge play. The malice blisters before our eyes on stage.
It was upon discovering that my hunch about “What happens to the Fool? Was confirmed today in the Wiki article about Lear: namely that the reason he disappears so abruptly is that he has to go off and change back into Cordelia. The fact that these two characters were very likely—and given the traditions of staging in the given parameters of the script— very easily played by the same actor goes at something eminently more dreadful than mere convenience in the hands of Shakes. Both characters are incomplete and dramatically unsatisfying taken separately but as an amalgam—which is how the audience would had to have taken it, at least on some perceptive level— they are (it is) a daintified horror on a Jungian order.