Villains By Necessity
I have seen 4 separate productions of King Lear over the past 10 years, from Ashland to England; most notably, Ian McKellen in Stratford. All very different productions yet all having one striking similarity… I didn’t enjoy any of them. I have read synopses, reviews and heard people endlessly gush about how perfect a story Lear is. Being a fairly regular Shakespearean actor it would seem that I should very much enjoy this work but there was always something missing. I just didn’t like the character of Lear.
I was satisfied to go on with my acting, ignoring this fundamental problem and all the awkward conversations where I sat through tirades about how I wasn’t mature enough to understand his arc or hadn’t worked with Shakespeare enough to “get it.” As strong as those points are… no one shed any light on why I should like the patriarch of the play.
So when the part of Edmund was presented I was a touch nervous yet resolved to dive in. The language is wonderfully vivid, the characters are nuanced and the story is long, albeit complete. And I quickly realized the flaws I found in the productions I saw were very much laid at the directors’ feet.
Every production I have seen and everyone I have spoken with maintain that Lear is a sympathetic character. This is almost entirely established by presenting Regan and Goneril as fundamentally wicked. This is a play where no character is plain enough to be labeled villain. Each character has villainous moments but none of them are enough to justify the title completely.
Yes Regan and Goneril turn their backs on their father who has become completely belligerent. Yet all they require of him is to disband half of his 100 riotous knights that treat their homes like brothels and an apology for cursing their unborn children… The nerve. Lear behaves like a two year old having a tantrum when his favorite daughter won’t say she loves him more than she could love a husband. Ultimately, when Lear goes “insane” from his self exile into the storm, there is no real epiphany that he was wrong and should just apologize for being a needy, abusive, insecure father. Instead he decides to wage war, with a foreign army, against all of England.
Yes Gloucester gets his eyes put out at the order of Cornwall and Regan but let’s not forget that he was committing high-treason by encouraging France (once again, a foreign army) to invade England. Although the blinding is a barbaric punishment, usually played up by directors, it is still a mercy that Gloucester is not killed. I believe high-treason is still punishable by death in THIS country, but we should probably check with Edward Snowden.
Finally, yes, Goneril poisons Regan and after kills herself. But let’s not forget that they are both madly in love with Edmund (who has made a point to follow the carnal laws of nature because he has been treated like a second-class citizen his whole life… but that is a different blog post). By the end of the play Edmund has seduced these 2 women who are in marriages of necessity to husbands who will ultimately take the helm leading the country while their wives, formerly king’s daughters, are only expected to bear children. We all know at the time, this was the fate of high-born women and obviously having a 21st century view is going to skew our impressions of duty but try to imagine how limiting and oppressive a life that is entirely planned out for you before you were born must feel. Then add on a caustic father. Now introduce a charming man that has made a point to seduce by presenting options into an otherwise option-less life. Murder is hardly a justifiable act, but I think I can understand how Goneril got to the point where she poisoned her sister.
It is too easy to whitewash the sisters and Edmund as evil. By doing this, directors force an audience to side with mad Lear and his bully knights (I’m looking at you Kent) and this is what was bothering me about the productions I have seen. As a result you lose too much nuance to make this an interesting story. At least for me.
-Tom Walton, Edmund