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The End of King Lear

August 23, 2015


Re-reading King Lear, I found myself considering the implications of either Albany or Edgar delivering the final lines of the play.  You’ll be aware of the Quarto versus Folio discrepancies on this score.

The weight of this sad time we must obey;
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.
The oldest hath borne most: we that are young
Shall never see so much, nor live so long.

If it’s Albany delivering these final lines – then the play follows the pattern of other tragedies where the senior surviving (but not very interesting) authority figure wraps things up.  Fortinbras, Lodovico and Malcolm.  In all of these plays, there’s a sense of the houselights slowly being raised or the camera panning back, a feeling of larger social context putting the intensity of suffering in something like a larger perspective.

If it’s Edgar delivering the lines – Edgar who until recently was skipping about naked shouting “Poor Tom’s a’ cold!” then the effect of “normal service will be resumed as soon as possible” is much reduced.  Indeed, it is the Albanys, Fortinbrases, Malcolms and Lodovicos of this world who can generally relied upon to speak not what they feel but what they ought to say. Edgar will presumably be confirmed as Earl of Gloucester, but his role in the governance of this shattered pre-Roman Celtic Britain appears less clear.

Now either option is pretty unsettling – because if Edgar delivers the lines, then the expected voice of authority does not get the last word and if Albany delivers the lines, then the expected voice of authority is not giving us what we expect.

Perhaps small wonder that Samuel Johnson thought the play was too terrible to be staged at all in its original versions and preferred to stay home and read it.  Unless of course Nahum Tate’s version was playing.  While it usually was.

Samuel Johnson approved Nahum Tate’s “happy ending” on the basis that there are some things which quite simply defy stage representation are better suited to private reading.  Nahum Tate also produced a “happy ending” to Romeo and Juliet which is rather funnier – it features in the legendary David Edgar adaptation of Nicholas NIckleby starring the late Roger Rees.  Juliet wakes up in time, doesn’t stab herself, Mercutio has recovered from his wounds, Paris recovers too and marries Benvolio who turns out to be Benvolia in tights.  Tybalt’s still dead but who really cares about Tybalt?

I miss squeamishness sometimes.  Squeamishness is a tribute paid to the authenticity of horror.  So I don’t sneer at Nahum Tate.  Merely rereading the conclusion to the play chilled my blood.  What Shakespeare did not shrink from, and what I don’t blame anyone for shrinking from, is the depiction of the absolute wrongness of losing a child, the blank inhuman injustice of if that makes you want to just howl at the universe as long as there is breath left in your body to howl at it.

As Lear struggles to find a trace of breath in Cordelia’s body, the desperation of hope is expressive of a despair that is too immense to ever be accepted or accommodated.

And I feel closer to Johnson and Tate.

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