Nottingham Shakespeare Society
November 5th 2019
King Lear The Last Tragedy A Talk by Les Wilkinson
Our speaker on Tuesday 5th November, Les Wilkinson, believes that ‘King Lear’ (1606) was Shakespeare’s ‘last tragedy’. After it in the canon come what academics call his problem or ‘last’ plays. In these, as indeed in the mature comedies, potentially tragic outcomes are avoided: the endings focus on forgiveness, redemption and reconciliation.
Les argued that there is no sign of any of that in ‘King Lear’. It is Shakespeare’s bleakest play. He suggested that in a sense it made the perfect prequel to ‘Waiting for Godot’, sharing that play’s nihilist view that humans wait for Godot (God) in vain.
In Ancient Greece, he reminded us, drama was part of the festivals of Dionysus. Early tragedians (like Aeschylus) were religious poets who focused on myth and legends – stories which showed the gods acting for the good of mankind. The audience knew how these stories ended and there were no plot surprises. Later tragedians, like Sophocles, concentrated more on the mortal side of things; thus was ‘character’ developed as flawed humans struggled to fulfil or avoid their destiny. Euripides went a step further in plays which began to call the gods’ behaviour to account and focused on the human struggle against them.
Les likened ‘Romeo and Juliet’ to a Sophoclean tragedy set within a Christian framework. The opening sonnet sets out what will happen: Romeo and Juliet will die. Their deaths will reconcile their families and end the feud. The drama, the tension, lies not in what will happen, but how it will play out. The ethos, the language, is Christian. Friar Lawrence hears confession and delivers the Christian sacraments of absolution and marriage. However, the ‘pagan’ is not far away. Romeo and Juliet are ‘star-cross’d’ and – to my mind - it is not God who directs their ‘misadventure’d piteous overthrows’ but fickle Fate in the form of the plague which scuppers Friar Lawrence’s well - intentioned Christian plan for reconciliation and leads to the ‘glooming peace’ brokered through the usual pile-up of corpses one has learnt to expect at the end of Shakespeare’s tragedies.
I felt Les’s case for religion in ‘Macbeth’ was stronger. Christian theology (as referenced in the language and imagery) is stronger here. Macbeth has a fatal flaw - his ambition. When they first meet the witches, Banquo is sceptical, Macbeth is riveted. Of Macbeth’s initial elevation Banquo comments: ‘Can the Devil speak true?’. Physically strong, Macbeth is spiritually weak. In his soliloquy in Act 1 scene 7 he shows awareness of the evil he is about to do, of the ‘judgement’ which will follow and the ‘deep damnation’ he risks by murdering Duncan. In the end he chooses the summons of Lady Macbeth’s ‘bell’ over any call to prayer. He has signed up to the Devil’s party, while Malcolm (aligned with the English led by the sainted Edward the Confessor) is poised to overthrow him. The play ends like a morality play. The ‘dead butcher, and his fiend-like queen’ are punished: Malcolm, the true heir, will be crowned at Scone. None of this, of course, is without plenty of ‘collateral damage’ and some Shakespearean juggling with historical ‘facts’ (my suggestion).In ‘King Lear’ there are neither winners nor losers. Order is not restored by divine will. Back in pagan territory, the gods are ‘wanton’: they toy with humans for ‘their sport’. Chaos is come. Kent, Edgar and Albany, all characters who demonstrated belief in humane and moral virtues, remain with no hope; there is no reward for doing good. (Someone - I think it may have been Flamineo in Webster’s ‘The White Devil’- commented on how there was no reward for doing good in this world except for the doing of it.)
Two things, Les suggested, make this emptiness even harder to bear. Much of the imagery, certainly in the latter part of the play, hints at Christian forgiveness and redemption. The language is suffused with Christian words and imagery. Cordelia, like a saint, is able to intercede as a cure for Lear’s madness. She isn’t dead as he first suspects when he awakes believing himself ‘a soul in hell’ but alive, as he is. They have survived. Indeed, the original audience would now have expected a traditionally ‘happy’ ending They knew other stories about King Lir and his daughters. Shakespeare thwarts that expectation. He takes it to the wire. Edmund revokes their death warrant, but his change of heart comes too late.
A sane Lear is forced to accept that Cordelia is indeed dead before dying himself. What a cruel twist of Fate! Are the gods, in fact, ‘just’? Les suggested that Shakespeare is asking the question: what if there is no connection between God and Man? Is there no divine will? Is Shakespeare suggesting stuff merely ‘happens’? As Macbeth realises, life, that tale ‘told by an idiot’, signifies ‘nothing’?
In the light of that, Les concluded, Shakespeare could no longer write tragedy. Ergo ‘King Lear’ is his ‘last tragedy’ in the traditional sense of the word.
Discussion followed. The fate of the Fool was raised again, his death mentioned en passant at the end of the play. Yet another example, Les suggested, to illustrate the play’s emptiness, there being no satisfactory explanation in the text.
There was also debate about the difference between the Quarto and Folio endings of the play, the former offering no stage directions. Nahum Tate was mentioned. He couldn’t bear Shakespeare’s ending. In 1681 he wrote. ‘The History of King Lear’ bringing Lear and Cordelia (and the Fool) back from the dead, marrying Cordelia to Edgar and restoring order to the kingdom. Les said, if he were directing, he would end the play without a curtain call. There would be no comforting ‘bridge’ for the audience back into reality via the actors. They would be left facing a mirror held up to nature, human nature, showing what it means to be human in a world without divine intervention.
There was also discussion about how well-acquainted Shakespeare might have been with the ancient Greek works Les cited at the beginning of his talk. With his ‘less Greek’, people felt the grammar schoolboy might not have read the texts as university-educated Marlowe or Johnson might have done. No answer was given except perhaps a suggestion that the themes of life and death have always exercised mortals, wondering how best to do the former and avoid the latter. Another reason to maintain Shakespeare was writing for all time.
Review by Julia Pirie