Glass houses and jelly meerkats: King Lear, Part 2

Dysfunctional Shakespearean families: They’re just like us!

I have a lot of questions about King Lear. Like what is wrong with these people?

“Which of you shall we say doth love us most?” a retiring King Lear asks his three daughters, Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia, as he divides his kingdom up among them (1.1.49). Unlike her sisters, Lear’s favorite, Cordelia, doesn’t fawn over him with the false flattery he’s fishing for. And Lear loses it. He disowns her, sending her off to the King of France without dowry, “for we / Have no such daughter, nor shall ever see / That face of hers again” (1.1.263-65).

Why would you ask that question, Lear? Don’t you think you took things way out of proportion? Did you really listen to what Cordelia what was saying? What were you thinking? This has been my struggle with Lear: Everything escalates so quickly. From 0 to insanity in one act.

Later, Goneril, now heiress to half her father’s kingdom, can’t handle her father’s retinue, who “hourly carp and quarrel, breaking forth / In rank and not-to-be-endured riots” (1.4.175-78). They’re unruly house guests, to be sure, but Lear is none too pleased with her ingratitude: “Into her womb convey sterility! / Dry up in her the organs of increase” (1.4.255-56). “Infect her beauty,” he later curses, “You fen-sucked fogs, drawn by the powerful sun, / To fall and blast her pride!” (2.4.159-61)

He did give you half his kingdom, Goneril. Can’t your father enjoy his waning days? But Lear, again, do you have to ratchet things up so much? I mean, you gave up your crown. Do you think you get to act like a king still?

I thought my family was dysfunctional. But the Lears are just batshit cra–like us.

Regan adds insult to injury: “O, sir, you are old” (2.4.139). She won’t put up with Lear’s knights either. “I gave you all–” Lear points out; Regan, like an entitled millennial, answers that it was about time he did (2.4.245). Everyone sees that Lear is cracking, especially when, martyr-like, he threatens to stay out in a violent storm after his daughters refuse to house his full retinue. But his daughters think he “must needs taste his folly” (2.4.286). “Shut up your doors,” Regan orders, and they actually lock their old father out (2.4.299).

Who do you think you are, Regan? Your dad’s losing his mind. Now’s not the time to make him learn a lesson – and out in the storm of the century at that. What is wrong with these people? I thought my family was dysfunctional. But the Lears are just batshit cra–like us.

***

“Goddamnit,” I complain, vainly thrusting the broom handle under the fridge. “How the hell did it get all the way back there? Jesus.” I stormed into the sitting room. “Aren’t you going to help me?”

“Are you listening to yourself right now?” My wife gets up from the couch. “I was trying to but you didn’t want me pulling out the fridge.”

We argue our way back to the kitchen. “I’m pulling out the fridge.”

“But you said it was gonna scratch the floor!”

“Well, I don’t know how our landlady expects us to keep these fucking floors perfect.”

“Just leave it back there then.”

“Leave it back there? It’ll attract ants and mice. What do you mean, leave it back there?”

“Well, you’re the one so concerned about the floors.”

“You’re not concerned with the floors? See, this is why you’re a slob. This is why we don’t buy shit in checkout lines. It’s impulse. It’s crap.”

“This is why you’re a dick.” My wife stomped back to the sitting room and slammed the door.

I carefully pulled out the fridge, reached back, and picked it up. I was tempted to march into the sitting room and present it to her: “You still fucking want this?”

Sometimes it just takes a gummy candy in the unusual shape of a meerkat that, after my wife accidentally dropped it, somehow fell all the way under the back of the fridge.

Then I thought about Lear. I lightly rap on the door. “I’m sorry, honey.”

***

When we first meet him in the Royal & Derngate’s production of King Lear, Edgar is carrying a bottle and slurring his words. (In a parallel plot, Gloucester’s so Edgar has a half-brother , the bastard Edmund, who convinces their father that Edgar is scheming to kill him for their inheritance.) I didn’t really give much attention to Edgar’s drunkenness – a directorial decision – until I later came read a short review by Lyn Gardner in The Guardian. She observes:

This is a production that makes you wonder what has been going on in the Lear household to produce three such dysfunctional daughters, and the emphasis is very much on the younger generation. Interesting, but it has the effect of sidelining Michael Pennington’s king, who seldom seems more than a volatile domestic tyrant.

Perhaps it does sideline Lear, but to good effect, because why does everyone in King Lear just fall to pieces?

In his opening soliloquy, Edmund grumbles: “Why brand they us / With base? with baseness? bastardy? base, base?” (1.2.9-10). Historically, we might appreciate his bitterness: His father’s sexual indiscretions cut him off from inheritance. Over 400 years ago, Shakespeare’s audience, familiar with primogeniture, would have felt his plight more keenly – not that it justifies plotting against his family. But in 2016, his motivation is much less immediate, making Edmund seem purely evil. And it’s hard to relate to pure evil.

This is why I find the director’s choice (or the actor’s) to make Edgar drunk so brilliant. This is why the Royal & Derngate’s Lear helped bring the drama of this trumpeted tragedy to life. We get hits of motivation. Edgar initially comes across as a cocky, entitled rich kid, and Edmund, a quietly suffering loner. Again, not that this justifies Edmund ruining his family (and, in part, Lear’s), but that bottle, that drunken swagger, hints at so much emotional baggage, pent-up resentment, and complicated family history. Do Goneril and Regan hold it against their father for favoring Cordelia? Is Lear just looking for a little filial reassurance as he confronts his mortality? What past wounds are reopened when Lear feels so totally rejected by his daughter’s slights? Have the youth of this play somehow been held back the systems of inheritance? Do the youth of this play take for granted their inheritance?

***

We don’t see the tension build up in King Lear. We just see it boil over. We just see the jelly meerkat: Not all the previous arguments about cleanliness, control, respect, and tone it triggers, the ongoing friction of two strong-willed personalities learning interdependence, the monetary and career burdens my wife takes on for me to write, the enduring trauma of divorce and how it shapes my communication habits and values, insecurities about body image and anxieties about what it means to be alive and –

What has been going on in the Lear household? Perhaps in King Lear Shakespeare wants us to imagine our own. Mine, for one, is made of glass. And you know what they say about glass houses and jelly meerkats.

Drama drama: King Lear, Part 1

I really should be getting to the theater more.

It’s bad enough I don’t know a whole lot about Shakespeare’s life or world. But I can’t even say I’ve actually seen many of his plays performed. I mean, the texts were intended for the stage after all.

The last production I can recall seeing was at an amphitheater in a park by the Cincinnati Art Museum – and I caught a only a few scenes at that. I stumbled on a public performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in medias res. It was hot outside, I was a little drunk, and I had no idea what was going on in the play. I soon left to find a bathroom, I think. I’m not even sure why I was there in the first place, who I was with, or even when this was my life, exactly. It must have been some sort of midsummer art festival during college – and equally as enchanting, apparently. For as much as I can’t recall, I can call up glimpses of Titania’s leafy crown. I can hear a donkey-headed Bottom braying. I can taste the IPA I was sipping from a cheap plastic cup, already warm and flat in the heat.

Before that I saw Macbeth. On a TV carted into a high school classroom. My junior-year English teacher – the late Mr. Cahill with his tweed-patched blazers, his breath stale from cigarettes and cafeteria coffee, his chalkboard listing smutty words you couldn’t say in class (“boring”), the rapturous “Great God!” he’d yawp when reciting “The World Is Too Much With Us” – had my class watch the Royal Shakespeare Company’s 1979 release of Macbeth with Sir Ian McKellen and Dame Judi Dench. With its bare, black staging, this was a powerful performance. I still conjure it up whenever I think of Macbeth. But I think I liked it all the more because in my coffee-drenched, cigarette-stenched, ego-hunched intellectual coming-of-age, I wanted to impress Mr. Cahill. I wanted him to like that I liked what he liked.

We watched Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet that year, too. A classmate – he’s a successful editor in New York now – guffawed in surprise, in glee, in contempt when Branagh javelins his rapier into Claudius’ back and sends a chandelier swinging down onto him in Act 5’s climactic bloodbath. I always felt like that classmate was always several beats ahead of my own sophistication.

***

Certainly I’ve seen other plays. There’s no way I haven’t seen other plays. And not just on film. I hope. I suppose I can’t count those adaptations we’d gathered for on the gymnasium floor whenever the children’s theater came to school, can I? I even rented Lawrence Olivier’s famed production of Henry V after I read the play this year. I renewed it three times. Three times, the upper limit. I eventually sent it down the return box, unwatched. Pathetic. Criminal. I just don’t know why I don’t get around to these things.

Over two decades’ worth of schooling – including graduating summa cum laude with a degree in English literature, mind you – never put me in the theater seat. But apparently 140 characters could.

So, while recently walking through Oxford to meet an acquaintance from Twitter, I passed the Oxford Playhouse and spotted a poster for a production of King Lear, which I learned of from another acquaintance on Twitter, it so happened. The next day, I promptly ordered two tickets online. Over two decades’ worth of schooling – including graduating summa cum laude with a degree in English literature, mind you – never put me in the theater seat. But apparently 140 characters could.

My wife and I had an argument over seat selection. I wanted to reserve two seats by the aisle, she, sensibly, by center stage. “I’m tired of everything we do revolving around you having to go to the bathroom,” she complained. “I just like the option. There’s comfort in proximity,” offering the best defense even George Constanza could surmise. Begrudgingly, I booked seats facing centerstage. Marriage requires compromise, see. And sacrifice, though not of my fluid consumption. I still downed two pints at a pub before heading to the theater.

***

One dresses up for the theater. A man wears a jacket in the least. And I hadn’t been to the theater in a long time. I wanted to look nice. I wanted a cultured evening out on the town with my wife. So, I decided to wear the suit I had tailored for my wedding. It’s a classic suit: navy blue, cut slim. Maybe a little too slim, as some post-nuptial weight stretched the waistband. But I sucked in my belly, shoved in my shirt, and adjusted my subsequently bunched-up underwear. I was looking good, feeling fresh – until I got caught in a sudden hailstorm on my way to pick up the tickets at will call. Oxford’s old cobblestone streets are charming until you try to run them in dress shoes and slacks that are riding up your ass. I felt like Lear out on the heath: older, less spry than in my youth, and confronting the elements, only to be humbled later by my discovery that I had far overdressed for this weeknight performance. Oxford is a college town after all. At least I would be disturbing no one if I had to empty my old-man bladder during the play; we occupied the only seats in the entire row. Naturally, I enjoyed a glass of wine at intermission.

***

I loved the production. It opens with Cordelia aiming a rifle right at the audience: bang. Provocative, but I still haven’t decided on what it means. She struck me as a sort of revolutionary fighter, in fact, when she reappears with the French invasion later in the play. Edmund the Bastard was quite the bastard. So were Regan, Goneril, and Cornwall. The Fool accompanied himself with a concertina, giving additional voice and volume to his humor. And Michael Pennington played the mad king brilliantly. The costuming evoked, for me at least, interwar England, an interesting juxtaposition for tragedy set in ancient Albion. This, too, has a meaning, though I’m still deliberating on it. The set design was sparse, a stark brick wall suggesting not royalty but hard times, actually. A wind machine mimicked the elements when Lear is roving the heath and raving out in the storm; the effect was a bit gimmicky. But I can’t pretend to be a theater critic. You’ve seen my record, for one thing. For another, I don’t any have other productions of King Lear to compare this one to.

If I connected with the language in the first half, I connected with its emotions in the second.

I did read King Lear in high school, though. For Mr. Cahill’s class, in fact. A few of my peers said it was their favorite play, that it was Shakespeare’s best. I hadn’t even read enough of the Bard to have an opinion. My classmate – the successful editor – often quoted a favorite line: “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods;/ they kill us for their sport” (4.1.37-38). I wanted to be serious and literary like them, so I agreed. It, too, I said, was my favorite play, though I never personally connected to Lear’s madness, as sublime as Lear’s descent into it is. I certainly didn’t understand a damned word of the Fool at the time (a lot of dick jokes, I now know). Like a well-trained but unimaginative literary analyst, I circled all the references to eyes and sight in the text, scrawling in the margins “seeing vs. blindness” and thinking myself a brave explorer setting the first foot in some new world.

I also tried to re-read the play before this performance. I only made it halfway through, but this was to my benefit. In the first half of the performance, I was delighted I could follow along with the actual lines. Shakespeare is hard enough to understand when you’re studying him in private with time, footnotes, and the internet at your disposal. In the second half, a lot of the lines went right over my head, as stuffed with Shakespeare as it’s been this year. But the meaning didn’t. If I connected with the language in the first half, I connected with its emotions in the second. Because theater centers, well, the drama.

I’ll pick it up in Part 2.