One of the great things about William Shakespeare’s plays is that he was usually able to offer insight into the psychology of his characters.
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The dramatic play King Lear is no exception. Intended to be performed before an Elizabethan audience, the main action of the game follows the path of King Lear, a powerful monarch who has decided to retire.
However, because of his choices, Lear undergoes a much longer spiritual journey to death. It is this aspect of the play that emerges most clearly as it was performed at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego, CA.
As he shifts from being a strong ruler of a wide domain to a penniless madman to dying king, Lear experiences a much longer journey than he anticipated while a modern audience gains some insight into Shakespeare’s world.
As the play opens, King Lear (Robert Foxworth) is seen to be a strong but aging king. The emptiness of his life is reflected in the void of the stage, the only significant prop being the leather armchair in which he sits and the raised central platform of the staging area.
His power is reflected in the raised platform on which he sits and the crowds of court people that surround this platform in attendance upon him.
It is clear from the way he slumps back in the chair that he is tired of the responsibilities of his office, so he decides to divide his kingdom among his three daughters – Goneril (Emily Swallow), Regan (Aubrey Saverino) and Cordelia (Catherine Gowl).
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He imagines himself growing old as he takes turns relaxing in the castles of the first one and then another grateful daughter: “’tis our fast intent / To shake all cares and business from our age, / Conferring them on younger strengths while we / Unburdened crawl toward death” (I, i, 38-41).
His loyalty is evidenced in the crown he wears on his head, the cane he holds in his hand, his position about the other actors and in the great respect his subjects show him.
There is also a deeper sense of nobility in that he wants to divide his kingdom between his three daughters instead of giving to just one.
Rather than simply divide the kingdom up equally, Lear makes a game out of it, telling them, “Which of you shall we say doth love us most, that we our largest bounty may extend where nature doth with merit challenge” (I, I, 51-53).
Again, it is clear through the actions of the characters on stage that both Goneril and Regan have no sense of true affection for their father but are instead attempting to win as much property as they can acquire.
Cordelia, on the other hand, seems most concerned with her father’s welfare and refuses to play the game. Angered with her response, Lear goes into a rage.
The Elizabethan costumes worn by the actors are helpful at this point to remind the audience that women, especially daughters, were expected to behave on command by the audiences attending the theatre at the time the play was produced.
This is an effective use of costuming to emphasize the meaning of the play that might have been lost had the director opted to place the actors in more ancient styles reflective of the period within the play.
Acting again helps bring out the idea that perhaps Lear’s rage is instead disappointment because he had planned to use this ruse as an excuse to award Cordelia, his youngest and clear favorite, the lion’s share of the kingdom.
His reaction is thus proportional to his disappointment: “Here, I disclaim all my paternal care, propinquity, and property of blood, and as a stranger to my heart and me hold thee from this forever” (I, I, 113-116).
In disinheriting Cordelia, though, Lear removes his only protection from the greed and heartlessness of his other two daughters.
It isn’t long after Cordelia is banished that Lear realizes his mistake. This occurs when he is clothed in a shabbier suit and divested of his props – large and small.
His lamentations, “O the smallest fault, how ugly didst thou in Cordelia show! Which, like an engine, wrenched my frame of nature from the fixed place; drew from my heart all love and added to the gall. O Lear, Lear, Lear! Beat at this gate that let this folly in” (I, iv, 257-262), are delivered with such agony in the soul, the audience begins to feel his regret deeply.
His arrival at Regan’s household quickly strips him of all friends, and he is thrown out on the moors with nothing. His increasingly scattered thoughts are accompanied by an increasingly darkened stage until he is finally seen in beggar’s wool with a vine garland wrapped around his head.
He is staggering about the platform in blue light, raving at the elements he sees around him, with flakes of snow blown up from the back of the stage to fall on him and flashes of white ‘lightening’ flickering overhead.
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Through this gloom, the Fool crawls to Lear’s side and clings to his leg as if they have become one.
The climax of the play occurs when Lear is finally reunited with Cordelia. This occurs just as he’s dying from the extreme exposure he’s suffered in the winter storm. Because he is again provided physical comfort from caring hands, Lear begins to recover his intellect.
This brief recovery enables him to save Cordelia from meeting her death and gives him a chance at salvation that the audience has been hoping for him.
This provides a comforting end to the violence of the storm that didn’t end until both Goneril and Regan were killed through their greed, and the kingdom itself is on the verge of collapse.
Although he dies because of his exposure, he does so with dignity because he can leave the kingdom in capable hands after all. The warm light that bathes this final tableau makes it seem as though all has been set right with the world.
“King Lear.” Dir. Adrian Noble, Perf. Robert Foxworth, Catherine Gowl, Aubrey Saverino & Emily Swallow. Old Globe Theatre. San Diego, CA, 2010.
Shakespeare, William. “King Lear.” The Complete Pelican Shakespeare. Ed. Alfred Harbage. New York: Penguin, 1969.