The Madness of King Lear Week

How could you resist the temptation to attend King Lear Week? The “Week” part of the title surely indicates some kind of festivity or celebration, such as Holy Week, Fashion Week, Sidmouth Folk Week, or, best of all, reading week. The connotations of fun and frivolity hanging around the last syllable clash heavily with the doom, gloom, madness, and misery festooning the first two syllables. The university where I teach and study for my PhD has a Shakespeare network which aims to create an intellectual community of Shakespeare fans both postgraduate and undergraduate. The Shakespeare network proposed the enticingly named King Lear Week to coincide with planned undergraduate lectures on Lear. At school we had an Arts Week in which we were released from normal classes to get involved in fun, creative projects. I wondered whether I would be forced to abandon my seminar teaching in favour of plucking out the eyeballs of old men. In fact festivities included much discussion over drinks, a screening of Peter Brook's King Lear, and a visit to see Howard Barker’s Seven Lears at the theatre. The film screening was exactly what you might expect from an event falling under the drenched umbrella of King Lear Week: cold, dark, disorientating, but, somehow, oddly amusing.

I thought I’d make my way on foot to the screening as there’s a pretty cycle path from my home to campus, which is usually an hour long walk. I set out with a spring in my step and a feeling of optimism, but of course this was King Lear Week: before long the twee, Warwickshire countryside began to resemble a blasted heath. Whilst there were no “oak-cleaving thunderbolts” or “all-shaking thunder” to “Strike flat the thick rotundity o' th' world”, it was certainly very windy and rainy indeed. I arrived at the film screening knee-deep in mud with wild eyes and hair looking as if I had been loosed out of hell to speak of horrors (wrong play – I know – but I wasn’t going to turn up naked as the thing itself!). To begin with the large group was giggling and jovial and there were creme eggs involved, as is right for anything with “week” in the title, but soon the brooding, chiaroscuro opening of Brook’s King Lear silenced all giggling, and any wanton chocolate chomping was deterred under the scowl of Peter Scofield’s great, white, baleful face. The effect of the film’s surreal and atmospheric cinematography was heightened the rain outside distorting what little light was left in the stormy sky and the glare of the screen was multiplied by the building’s many glass surfaces. The starkly modern, and usually rather antiseptic, social sciences building was transformed into something more closely resembling the primal and inhospitable landscape on the screen. What’s more, it was flipping cold. It was more like the King Lear Experience than Week.

At first I was pretty sure I hated the film. I mean, honestly, it opened with an image of some kind of enormous phallic totem, and all my favourite bits were cut out. It is true, I liked the rehearsed and ceremonial nature of Goneril and Regan’s declarations of love, and Cordelia’s blow-dried hair-do was very impressive considering the setting made me doubtful of there being any power points in Lear’s castle. I really enjoyed the depiction of Lear as a difficult man, and his attendants as loutish thugs, which created more sympathy for Goneril than is often allowed her. Despite all of these factors, I found the film ponderous and outdated and I really couldn’t understand why they kept eating all those eggs. To put it bluntly, I felt about the film how Goneril and Regan felt about having their dad and his hundred knights to stay: it was unwelcome and I’d probably kill or sadistically maim to stop it happening again. That is, until the end. After watching the end, Peter Brook’s Lear is now my firm favourite. The ending of the film diverges significantly from Shakespeare’s text. Whilst in Shakespeare the lust and jealousy fuelled Goneril and Regan do away with each other in a dreadfully farcical and undignified manner, Brook's film ends with just one of the pair murdered (Regan), and Goneril kills herself. Irene Worth’s Goneril, a captivating figure throughout the film, seizes Regan and dashes her head against a rock. She sinks to her knees. Kneading her leather skirts she begins to sway. She sways and weaves, like a horse that has gone mad through extended isolation. She gets faster and faster, picking up momentum, before ultimately hurling her own skull against the rock where she had killed her sister. You may ask why I prefer this brutal sororicide and suicide to the neater, Shakespearean offering; the answer is because Goneril is allowed to go mad.

I suggest that Goneril’s madness here is evidence of a humanity that is not present in the Shakespearean sisters, who are almost comic villains by the play’s end. Mechanised warfare, the mass-produced homicide of WWI, provoked art movements (or anti-art movements) pronouncing that loss of language, meaning, traditional form, and beauty in the work they created was the only appropriate or possible response to such atrocity. What the world had seen had fractured its sense of meaning and order irrevocably.  Madness in Shakespeare can be seen in a similar way. Lear’s mind and identity are fractured by a catastrophic disordering of his world (arguably set in motion by his own actions). Natural relationships between father and child, king and subject, and between words and their supposed meanings have been overturned. How can a mind respond to such a loss of order but to lose order itself? It could be argued that several characters in Hamlet are driven to madness by exposure to such monstrous disorder: Hamlet appears in disarray after hearing about the foul and unnatural murder of his father (unnatural because it is both fratricide and regicide and so undermines the whole structure of society), and Ophelia’s mind becomes disordered in response to Hamlet’s disorder. Titus Andronicus’s eponymous protagonist  can also be seen as an example of madness in response to atrocity. After all, cooking someone’s children and serving them for supper is hardly the act of a rational man! Noble minds are overthrown by atrocity. Madness becomes evidence of humanity. Shakespeare’s Goneril and Regan display no such humanity or regret, and are driven by their venereal desires to murder one another. There is only ignominy in their deaths. Worth makes it clear that her Goneril is tortured from the start by the unnatural position in which she has been placed. It may be lustful jealousy which motivates her to kill her sister, but Brook’s ending shows this is an unnatural act too far. That Goneril’s sanity cannot survive this last act is evidence of her humanity. Albany’s final words had new resonance. “The oldest have borne most; we that are young / Shall never see so much, nor live so long.” This respectful expression of incomprehension can now be applied to Goneril as well as Lear.

After the film was over, we all fled pretty quickly from the scene of the crime due to the unbearable cold. Over all though, the evening was a success and a good start to King Lear Week. I started my little trek back across the now pitch-black fields and felt very much in need of one of King Lear’s big, furry cloaks. After pondering the film’s ending, I decided to give Peter Brook another go. I wondered what the rest of the week would hold, and if I was required to bring any Lear-themed food, what could I bring. I did think of peeled grapes (eyeballs!), but in the end I resolved to stock up on creme eggs: for whatever reason eggs seemed to be peculiarly significant in Brook's film, and as far as I'm concerned, chocolate ones are definitely a necessity for any Week-type event.


Popular Posts