Lear Post-Shakespeare: Answering Questions

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Shakespeare’s King Lear has inspired hundreds of adaptations in the 400 years after it was first published and performed, and, as it is considered to be among Shakespeare’s best works, it has also inspired millions of essays of critical analysis. Lear inspires questions, and both critics and dramatists have explored those questions in a variety of ways. My adaptation is no different…There are other questions that my adaptation explores, questions such as:

What happened to Lear’s wife, and the mother of his children?

Shakespeare is completely silent on the matter and, in fact, makes NO reference (other than obliquely) to his wife.

Gordon Bottomley, in his 1913 play King Lear’s Wife, ponders this very question with remarkable results. In “Adapting King Lear for the Stage,” Dr. Lynne Bradley writes, “Bottomley’s decision to set the play within the close confines of a domestic space is significant, reflecting as it does the intimacy of the action. In contrast to Shakespeare’s play, which covers a broad range of settings…Bottomley’s setting is whittled down to claustrophobic proportions…where Shakespeare’s play spanned a series of interconnected familial, political and psychological themes, Bottomley’s focus is exclusively on the domestic…(he) focuses on Lear’s private life…”

And this, from Dr. Bradley, “Bottomley’s examination of motive in Lear harks back to one of the foundational principles of character criticism. King Lear posed a particular challenge for critics because Shakespeare had excised so much of the motive from his plot. Critics were left wondering: why is Lear so belligerent? Why is Cordelia his favorite? Why is Goneril so angry towards her father?” and, not asked by Dr. Bradley but by me, Why is Regan such a bitch?

This is a key question for me, and for hundreds if not thousands of critics, readers and audience members, related to Shakespeare’s King Lear: Why? Who ARE these people? What happened to them? Why are they LIKE this? Bottomley’s King Lear’s Wife is an attempt, and a successful one, at trying to answer these questions but giving us a glimpse into the life of Lear, his daughters and the invisible, never mentioned mother once at the heart of the family and, not unrealistically, whose death started the inevitable destruction of the family.

I love this from Bradley, “Character alone (can) relate the adapted text back to Shakespeare. Characters become the channel through which meaning is passed from the original text into the adaptation…An audience watching an adaptation is thus potentially conscious of both the real narrative they are watching and the remembered or imagined narrative that the character evokes…”

Another question: why is Lear “mad?” What is the “cause” of his madness? Is it his advanced age, some mental illness, some mind-shattering trauma? This is not just an issue for me, friends…It has been an issue since 2 seconds after Shakespeare’s King Lear appeared on stage…

Josephine Waters Bennett writes, in the Spring 1962 issue of “Shakespeare Quarterly,” in her article The Storm Within: The Madness of Lear, “An understanding of Lear’s madness is essential to any serious interpretation of the play and to any understanding of its structure. Yet critics have not agreed about when Lear goes mad, and almost no attention at all has been given to the dramatic function of his madness.”

Remember something: Lear was NOT mad in the original source materials Shakespeare used…he was just old and grumpy. Yes, in a few of the sources, he was “getting on” and maybe losing his shit a little, becoming angry, forgetful, physically weak…but he was not MAD, not INSANE…Shakespeare made him that way.

We know that Shakespeare was heavily influenced by Elizabethan notions of madness, that he, like most others of his time, believed it had to do with an “imbalance of the humours,” bodily liquids like blood, urine, phlegm, and others not to be mentioned in mixed company…and Shakespeare references these “humours” in his play, calling Lear “out of his humour” or “choleric”…but why? Why did he make Lear mad, lunatic, insane?

For dramatic effect…remember that Shakespeare was one of only two Elizabethan playwrights who did not treat madness exclusively as a source of comedy…He and Thomas Kyd both took this “lunatic” thing pretty seriously…just think about Lady Macbeth and a little spot she couldn’t clean off…and, like Lady Macbeth, Shakespeare allows “actions” and “character decisions” to be a part of Lear’s spiraling madness…the rejection of Cordelia, the impact of his other daughters anger and mistreatment, his own narcissism and arrogance, his declining power…all of these things had an impact on Lear’s mental state…

But why? Why mad?

I think, in large part, because he was intimately familiar with a family who had struggled with a deeply personal and, ultimately, deeply domestic, circumstance mirrored in the Lear source materials.

Geoffrey Bullough edited the final word on the influences on Shakespeare’s work in his massive and painfully hard to read 8 volume set, The Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, in which he pulls apart every single line of Shakespeare and links them, if possible, back to some other original text…and he found something incredibly interesting about Lear’s madness and its possible inspiration.

Bullough writes,

In October of 1603, a young woman named Cordell Annesley was forced to prove the sanity of her father, Bryan, who was accused of senility by Cordell’s sister, Grace:

“According to your letter of the 12th of this present, we repaired into the house of Bryan Annesley, of Lee, in the county of Kent, and finding him fallen into such imperfection and distemperature of mind and memory, as we thought him thereby become altogether unfit to govern himself or his estate, we endeavored to take a perfect inventory of such goods and chattels as he possessed in and about his house. But Mrs. Cordall, his daughter . . . refuseth to suffer any inventory to be taken, until such time as she hath had conference with her friends, by reason whereof we could proceed no farther in the execution of your letter.’From Lee, 18 Oct, 1603.

Signed: John Wildegos, Tymothe Lawe, Samuel Lennard.”

Bryan Annesley was, apparently, in a similar situation to King Leyr/Leir/Lear, in that he had three daughters, one named Cordell, and there was a power struggle when he proposed to divide his estate between them. Cordell, remaining faithful to her father’s wishes, successfully held off the maneuvers of her sisters to have him judged insane – much like Cordelia of Lear.

Furthermore, as Geoffrey Bullough states, “One of the executors was Sir William Harvey, third husband of the Dowager Countess of Southampton, mother of Shakespeare’s early patron. And after that lady’s death in 1607, he married Cordell Annesley.”

Shakespeare could not have helped but have been struck by the powerful similarities between Annesley and Lear, especially given that Annesley’s youngest daughter was actually named after Cordelia…The story comes full circle…and the powerful, intimate nature of the Lear story is both reflected by the Annesley family and reasserts itself into the Lear story yet again…the shadow of the original impacting the new…which, in turn, impacts others who, in turn, impact me, and us and our story…

The final source I want to touch on briefly is a remarkable poem called “Lear at the Cloisters”…a cloister is a rectangular open space surrounded by walks and galleries, usually in a church or cathedral…it is also a reference to a religious order, the life of a monk or a nun…

In the 1950s, a very influential Spanish poet by the name of Jose Hierro wrote a powerful, thoughtful response to Lear entitled, “Lear at the Cloisters,” which, in sweeping and very modern style, attempts to give readers a glimpse into the mind of Lear at the end of his life…it is a confession, of sorts, a deeply moving, sad and introspective vision of Lear, near death, seeking absolution and forgiveness even as he struggles with the weakness and failure of his own mind.

The poem inspired me perhaps more than any other source I turned to in one specific way, and with one exceptionally powerful image…Lear, alone, at the end of his life, all around him dead or dying, and Lear, the father, the king, as if trapped in a dream…bearing the weight and consequence of his choices…for all eternity…

The poem begins…

SAY that you love me. Say, “I love you.”
Say it to me for the first and for the last time.
Only: “I love you.” Don’t tell me how much.
Those three words are enough.
“More than my salvation,” said Regan.
“More than springtime,” said Goneril.
(He didn’t suspect that they were lying.)
Say that you love me. Say, “I love you,”
Cordelia, even if you are lying to me,
even if you don’t know that you’re lying to yourself.

Everything has faded into dreams.
The ship in which I crossed the sea,
lashed at by the lightning flashes,
was a dream from which I still have not awakened.
I live embraced by a dream,
helpless in its viscous web
for all eternity,
unless eternity is but another dream.

This image of Lear, alone, trapped in a dream of his life, living it over and over and over again for all eternity…struck me in a way that was both horrifying and…I will be honest…exciting…at least dramatically and is one of the most important concepts we will employ in the costumes, sets and, also, in the original score to be composed and performed by Tylor Neist…