The Other Notebook
by David Helwig
In the past I’ve bought tickets for the Stratford Festival. I’m on their list. So last summer I wasn’t surprised to receive an email advertisement for their production of King Lear, with Colm Feore playing the lead. Attached to their announcement of added performances were video clips of an early scene from the play. I watched them eagerly. Colm Feore appeared to be a convincing Lear, and the video from this new production started me thinking again about what I’ve always regarded as Shakespeare’s greatest work.
The memory of my first reading of King Lear is still vivid, after almost sixty years. I was seventeen, alone in the house I shared with my parents, and reading Lear because it was part of the assigned curriculum for the final year of high school in Ontario. In the earlier years of high school I had studied other Shakespearean plays, two comedies, two tragedies, but I never before had the experience of something so huge, so astonishing.
More than one intelligent critic has argued that Lear is too large, too painful, too crazed and profound and intense for live performance on stage, though Shakespeare was himself a professional actor and shows every sign of having known what would work on the stage of the Globe theatre. Over the years I have seen two great actors play Lear, Kenneth Branagh and Christopher Plummer, but I couldn’t say that either one reached the heights and depths the play demands. In a Canadian TV series called Slings and Arrows (a kind of parody of the Stratford Festival), William Hutt (who was well on in years when the show was made) is cast as an old, sick, addicted, irascible actor who is shown rehearsing a couple of Lear’s great scenes. That performance made me wish I had seen Hutt’s Lear when he performed the play.
The one scene from the play that was extracted and offered on video as part of the Stratford advertisement was a crucial scene near the beginning, in which Lear, about to withdraw from kingship, is enraged that Cordelia, his favourite daughter, will not flatter him as egregiously as her two older sisters have done. Watching the scene on my laptop I had a new thought about its playing. The sister motif is derived from earlier narratives, and its consequence—the good, honest daughter being set aside, her portion of the kingdom given to her two hypocritical sisters—is an effective dramatic device.
Lear’s immediate response to Cordelia’s refusal is a destructive rage. He is abrupt and unreasonable and chaos follows. All his own fault? Well, it can be played that way.
But then, as I watched the video, a new idea struck me. Imagine Cordelia possessed of an impulsiveness as great as her father’s. Let’s suppose she is very young but capable of making sharp judgments. Faced with her father’s foolish whim, his insistence that everyone take part in his script for his abdication—a renunciation of kingship that is probably less than wise and is certainly unprepared—she grows annoyed and refuses to play her role as written.
And chaos follows.
Most productions base their reading of Cordelia’s lines on the assumption that she loves her father and is essentially a good person and a good daughter. She will not offer an exaggerated love, which devalues her true feelings. But isn’t it possible, I asked myself, for a good and loving person to grow irritable when faced with foolish behaviour?
If we have seen or read the play, we know that Cordelia will be one of its victims. But reading backward from this tragic ending and portraying her as always calm and affectionate in her determination, a paragon of virtue, perhaps loses something.
I wouldn’t want to insist too much on this reading of the confrontation between Lear and Cordelia at the play’s opening, but I do think it’s worth a second thought.