The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 25.047  Friday, 24 January 2014


From:        Michael Luskin <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>

Date:         January 23, 2014 at 8:25:27 PM EST

Subject:    Matthew D'Ancona on Lear


There is a fine New York Times op ed by Mathew D’Ancona on Lear today.

The link is:




The Opinion Pages

Expressing Our Darker Purpose

Matthew D’Ancona


JAN. 23, 2014


LONDON — “Shakespeare,” wrote the American philosopher Allan Bloom, “was an eminently political author.” On this matter, at least, the great controversialist was correct: As Mr. Bloom wrote 50 years ago in “Shakespeare’s Politics,” there was a time when “the political man seemed to be the most interesting theme of poetry.”


A new “King Lear,” which opened at London’s National Theater this month, restores this forgotten sense of priority. Already — deservedly — the hottest ticket in town, the director Sam Mendes’s production presents the downfall of the aging monarch as much more than a study in human implosion, familial collapse and lyrical introspection. This “Lear” deserves a Broadway transfer, and as wide a digital audience as the National Theater can muster.


Simon Russell Beale, shrunken, shriveled and broken, shows as convincingly as any actor I have ever seen what it is to lose everything (mind, children, kingdom). Yet his astonishing performance as Lear owes as much to an understanding of political dynamics as it does to the pathos of dementia. When we first meet him, he is a robust, impatient soldier-king, surrounded by an entourage of muscle. He divides his kingdom while seated — his back to the audience, oozing disdain through his very posture.


What is striking is the contemporary resonance of this production, the way in which it nags at the political subconscious and stirs our present anxieties. This is not the leaden “political theater” of didacticism and finger-wagging. Rather, it uses the text of the early 17th century to illuminate the night terrors of the 21st, speaking directly to the pathologies of our time.

Mr. Mendes is right to claim that “it feels like a national play.” “King Lear” was written in the infancy of what became the United Kingdom: Performed at Whitehall, London, in 1606 for King James I, who was also James VI of Scotland, it explores the fears of fragmentation and civil war that marked the declining years of the childless Queen Elizabeth I.


Now it returns to the stage only eight months before a referendum on Scotland’s future. The polls suggest that independence will be rejected by the Scots on Sept. 18, but referendums are notoriously unpredictable.

Whatever the outcome, the fact that the question is being asked at all is unsettling for a union of nations such as the United Kingdom. Lear divides his kingdom to keep the peace; the outcome is precisely the opposite.


At a less literal level, there is an even stronger correspondence between “Lear” and the spirit of the age. More than any other play in the language, it navigates the terrain between the personal and the political, the threads that connect decisions of state to the vulnerable individual. By stages, Lear is reduced from a mighty ruler to a naked vagrant, no better than a “poor, bare, forked animal,” as he puts it to Poor Tom (the loyal Edgar, son of Gloucester, who is disguised and feigning madness).


This symbolic landscape is precisely where political battle is being waged in 2014. While the British economy is recovering, its resurgence has yet to translate into a sense of well-being. The fear of personal indigence remains deep. Austerity, insecurity and the cluster of social problems that Prime Minister David Cameron calls the “broken society” continue to define the times.


No politician is more vulnerable than one who is not believed when he claims that things are getting better. Every regime is obsessed by what Lear calls “court news”: “Who loses and who wins, who’s in, who’s out.” But a coalition such as the Conservative-Liberal Democrat government headed by Mr. Cameron is conspicuously vulnerable to the charge of introspection and detachment.


The next general election, scheduled for May 2015, will be won by the party that persuasively connects the economic recovery to voters’ personal circumstances. In one of the play’s great moments of self-discovery, Lear considers the “poor naked wretches” of his realm, helpless before “the pelting of this pitiless storm.” He reproaches himself for his failure to help them when he could: “O, I have ta’en / Too little care of this.” He tells “pomp” — his own — to “Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel.” Never has the need for political empathy been so exquisitely expressed.


Herein lies the timeless demand made of those who govern on behalf of those with no apparent hope. As Conservative leader, Mr. Cameron has intermittently presented himself as the champion of the vulnerable. But his party is still associated in the eyes of the electorate with “pomp” and indifference to the “wretches” of our own time.


[ . . . ]


Matthew d’Ancona is a political columnist for The Sunday Telegraph and The Evening Standard.


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