The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 28.290 Monday, 13 November 2017
Date: November 12, 2017 at 8:50:36 AM EST
Subject: From TLS - 'Both, both, my lord'
'Both, both, my lord'
SEPTEMBER 26, 2017
Edward St Aubyn
224pp. Hogarth. £16.99.
WE THAT ARE YOUNG
503pp. Galley Beggar. Paperback, £9.99.
Both, both, my lord
In one respect, at least, there are unarguably two King Lears. Before the 1960s, the play was seen as a coherent, often explicitly Christian narrative of educative consolation and personal regeneration. At the beginning of the twentieth century, and at the beginning of English Literature as an academic discipline, A. C. Bradley mused, “should we call this poem The Redemption of King Lear?”, and the generations schooled on his great Shakespearean Tragedy tended to agree that we should.
Things changed around the time of Larkin’s liberating moment between “the end of the Chatterley ban / And the Beatles’ first LP”, as theatre and criticism both began to decentre Lear himself, and tell instead an absurdist, post-humanist parable of political grievance and brutality. The Polish critic Jan Kott drew on Samuel Beckett’s Endgame in his provocative Shakespeare Our Contemporary (1964), which argued that the play was neither affirmative nor transcendental, nor even tragic, but, rather, grotesque: “the theme of King Lear is the decay and fall of the world”. W. R. Elton’s sceptical account of the critical adherence to a “sin-suffering-redemption” paradigm in the face of Act V’s shattering “of the foundations of faith itself” (King Lear and the Gods, 1966) drew on a different, historicist methodology – and came to similar conclusions. The convergence of these approaches was already evident in what Barbara Everett, in a landmark essay of 1960, dubbed “the new King Lear”: less a morality play than a study of negation and cessation, anatomizing materialist absence, rather than redemptive plenitude. “Nothing shall come of nothing” became the play’s own watchword.
The old and the new King Lear provide the inspiration for two contemporary prose reworkings by Edward St Aubyn and Preti Taneja. St Aubyn’s Dunbar is a salvific story of familial breakdown animated by decadently wicked rich people on the one hand and the fragile optimism generated by expensive psychotherapy on the other. The elderly media mogul Henry Dunbar is reunited with his beloved Florence (Cordelia). Even as she is assassinated in Central Park by a poisoned dart fired by her sister Megan’s lover-bodyguard, the story ends with hope. “All of us will be blown to dust”, the loyal Wilson (part Gloucester, part Kent, part escaped Polonius) tells Dunbar over Florence’s hospital bed, “but the understanding won’t be destroyed, and it can’t be, as long as someone is left standing who still prefers to tell the truth.” The closing chords of the redemptive King Lear sounds clearly here: “speak what we feel, not what we ought to say”.
Taneja takes her title from the same speech, given either to Edgar or to Albany – “we that are young / Shall never see so much nor live so long” – but the ending of her novel is deeply pessimistic. The compromised Jeet (Edgar) emerges from the wreck of the Devraj family and their vast and corrupt corporation known as the Company, inspired with terrible messianic zeal. He vows to end “the blind age” symbolized by his father Ranjit (Gloucester), who has his eyes ground out, and, as “a pure leader of men”, “to leave a legacy so strong that none will be able to erase it”. The last words – “it is time to begin” – echo with the ominous inevitability that nothing has changed except the face and fascistic vigour of the dictator. These two adaptations thus offer quite different versions of what King Lear might signify: the ultimate triumph of self-knowledge, love and integrity in an ordered universe, or the self-perpetuating madness of a hierarchy in which “humanity must perforce feed upon itself, like monsters of the deep”.
[ . . . ]
Few Shakespearean adaptations achieve an independent claim on our attention. The pleasure of St Aubyn’s Dunbar is its triangulation of delicious aphoristic ruination from the Melrose novels with familiar tropes and scenes from King Lear. With less to prove and more to offer, Preti Taneja’s ambitious We That Are Young cuts rage with poetry to produce a flawed but memorable national epic.