‘Tis the season of King Lear! Following The Royal National Theatre’s sell-out production of King Lear, with Simon Russell Beale giving a stunning performance as the eponymous character, rehearsals for our Sixth Form production of King Lear have commenced.More critical words have been used to attempt a definition of ‘Shakespearean tragedy’ than the Bard himself has used to write his plays. I suspect he
himself would find it difficult and even futile to define the concept. When we try to discover “the tragic experience”, are we not in danger of stressing common factors at all costs only to miss what is truly individual about each of these plays? Is the endeavour to find patterns or meanings or moral purposes that explain Shakespearean tragedy just a means of taming the experience of these plays and perhaps lessening their direct impact upon us? Isn’t there a danger of bringing to tragedy assumptions that offer some comfort that may be false to the true experience of tragedy? I am thinking particularly of our school-worn familiarity with the Aristotelian notions of the purging of our passions through the tragic experience, or perhaps more dangerously the notion of the tragic flaw whereby the tragedy is somehow attributable to the failings of the characters: their ambition, introspection, delay, jealousy, anger, pride, etc.
On my recent return from the Y9-10 Drama trip to Greece and as our Sixth Form production of King Lear approaches, I have been looking again at Aristotle’s ‘On the Art of Poetry’ in which he outlines what he considers to be the features of the “perfect tragedy”. Those of you who already know King Lear, ask yourself the following questions which are not all that easy to answer:
· Do we feel acquiescent or comforted at the end of King Lear?
· Do we feel that a moral power is at work?
· Do we feel that the tragic hero has secured an insight that compensates for his tragedy?The searching itself for such emotional and moral comfort is likely to take us away from, rather than towards, the tragic experience that the text might convey. It is interesting to note that throughout the play the characters themselves claim to have found some meaning in the universe that will explain the unfolding of events that occur, for example:
ALBANY This shows you are above,
You justicers, that these our nether crimes
So speedily can venge! (IV, ii, 78-79)
GLOUCESTER As flies to wanton boys, are we to th’Gods;
They kill us for their sport. (IV, I, 36-37)
KENT It is the stars,
The stars above us, govern our conditions;
Else one self mate and make could not beget
Such different issues. (IV, iii, 32-35)
EDGAR The Gods are just, and of our present vices
Make instruments to plague us. (V, iii, 169-70)
These comments are relative, made within their differing dramatic contexts, contradicting one another and failing to offer an adequate overview of the full experience of the play, perhaps indicating that the author did not intend to give us one.An important aspect of the catastrophe in Renaissance tragedies, sometimes overlooked, is one we can all recognise from real life and which offers no real solace: that is that events seem to be governed by accident or mischance and gratuitous deaths occur often through disastrous miscalculations. Horatio’s words at the end of Hamlet provide a good indication of the importance of this aspect of Renaissance tragedy.
HORATIO And let me speak to the yet unknowing world
How these things came about: so shall you hear
Of carnal, bloody, and unnatural acts,
Of accidental judgements, casual slaughters;
Of deaths put on by cunning and forc’d cause,
And, in this upshot, purposes mistook
Fall’n on the inventors’ heads; all this can I
Truly deliver. (V, ii, 371-78)
This speech is remarkable for its stress on the random, indiscriminate nature of the destruction that occurs in the play.
By looking briefly at the ending of Romeo and Juliet can we see how this element of accident can make up an important factor of tragedy and to some extent be an important ingredient in the contract that the audience makes once it is witnessing the enactment of tragedies. Although the fact that the play is a tragedy may be announced on the front page of the poster or programme, in the title of the play itself (Lear folio, but not quarto) or through a prologue, as in Romeo and Juliet, the audience’s experience is not wholly one of inevitability. Indeed, we are frequently on the edge of our seats with suspense at an outcome which is unpredictable and contingent.
Romeo finds Juliet in her tomb, seemingly dead. What Shakespeare stresses here is that Romeo is in fact very close to the truth in what he sees when he looks at Juliet.
ROMEO Death, that hath suck’d the honey of thy breath,
Hath had no power yet upon thy beauty.
Thou art not conquer’d; beauty’s ensign yet
Is crimson in thy lips and in thy cheeks,
And death’s pale flag is not advanced there. (V, iii, 92-96)
He is right; she is alive! In fact he gets extraordinarily close to realising this (what the audience of course knows). Shakespeare wants to emphasise that closeness. Twice in the course of the speech Romeo looks at Juliet and makes an observation about the freshness of her beauty. Critics have thought that the accidental nature of the tragedy is a weakness; I feel that the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet is unbearable because a happy reunion is such a close possibility for the two. Juliet, when she awakes, finds that Romeo’s lips are still warm! In some productions that are sensitive to this, Juliet is beginning to stir when Romeo kisses her. In the 18th century, they thought that Shakespeare had got it wrong in not letting the lovers actually meet; in a revised version of this period the apothecary’s potion is slow to work and they do. They enjoy their reunion and then Romeo has to break the news that he is poisoned. I think this instructs us as to why Shakespeare got it right. Tragedy occurs through mischance or accident and that in itself is an important element. It is this that tips the scales towards tragedy; we cannot simply attribute the tragedy to the failings of the characters.
In Hamlet this is even more evidently true, as already indicated in Horatio’s quotation above. The fencing match between Hamlet and Laertes is one where there is a great deal of possibility for suspense to be exploited. In Franco Zeffirelli’s 1990 film, it appears that Hamlet is almost as good a fencer as Mel Gibson as he outclasses Laertes at every move! Is Shakespeare raising the possibility that Hamlet might not be killed? It is not clear from the text what Laertes does to wound Hamlet. In some productions it is assumed that “Have at you now!” means that Laertes actually stabs Hamlet when he is off guard. Shakespeare further complicates things however by having Gertrude drink from the poisoned cup (in Laurence Olivier’s 1948 film deliberately). In the text it is nevertheless clear that chance is operating and that the outcome is highly unpredictable. Essentially, the deaths at the end of Hamlet are in the Revenge tradition and Hamlet succeeds in revenging himself on Claudius at an appropriate moment, i.e. when Claudius is full of sin and has the maximum chance of being consigned to Hell. Despite this, Hamlet does not seem acquiescent in his own death; instead what we see is his frustration at having been killed in this encounter:
HAMLET Had I but time, - as this fell sergeant, death,
Is strict in his arrest, - O! I could tell you –
But let it be. Horatio, I am dead;
Thou liv’st; report me and my cause aright
To the unsatisfied. (V, ii, 328-332)He is vigorously active, despite the effects of poison, in preventing Horatio killing himself, in ensuring that his story will be told to the people, and in nominating an heir. He dies concerned with these arrangements for the future.
In King Lear the final scene is very crowded. It could be said that it is designed to distract our attention away from the final fate that is to occur to Cordelia and Lear. There is a great deal of rivalry between Goneril and Regan and this culminates in their deaths; it only seems to be an accident that provokes the thought “Great thing of us forgot!” It is not until this point that the attention turns to the fate of Cordelia and Lear. Shakespeare wants to maximise the shock that the death of Cordelia will have on the audience. The True Chronicle of King Leir, Shakespeare’s source, shows a happy ending. In Shakespeare’s version we have a number of Romance as well as Tragic elements which feed into the audience’s expectations for the final scene, e.g. disguises, the journey, the chivalric encounter between Edgar and Edmund – all arouse the desire for a reconciliation to occur. There are oscillations between hope and despair in the scene: Lear is allowed his reconciliation with Cordelia, Albany emerges and puts down Goneril quite effectively, Edgar plans to reinstate himself by challenging his brother. There is the possibility in the final scene of a whole series of reconciliations and reunions occurring when people’s disguises are finally thrown off (e.g. Edgar to Edmund and Gloucester, Kent to Lear). Despite Cordelia’s defeat, Lear is only concerned that they should never part again.
Various surprise interruptions ensue – a gentleman with a bloody knife comes onto stage and we momentarily think it is Cordelia who has been killed (the dramatic language serves this false alarm and suspense is built up). The bodies of Regan and Goneril are brought onto stage. At this point, possibly provoked by the sight of the dead women who were rivals for his love, Edmund decides to do some good before he dies and we have his confession about the writ on the life of Cordelia. This leads to more suspense and they have to send a man to try to stop her death. As the audience waits, we can only join with Albany in praying “The Gods defend her”, however they don’t. It is at that point that we have the final entry of Lear with Cordelia in his arms. There is possibly another tension here for the audience as certainly Lear himself seems to find great difficulty in accepting that she is dead and carries out little experiments to see if she is breathing. The audience watching the play do not have the benefit of the stage direction ‘Enter Lear with Cordelia dead’ (incidentally, neither the folio nor the quarto versions have this statement), so possibly the tension is extended further in regard to Cordelia’s state. Critics have disputed whether Lear dies thinking Cordelia is alive or not. Could his last lines about her lips (folio only) be referring to the fact that they are moving or that they are still?
LEAR Do you see this? Look on her. Look, her lips.
Look there, look there.
He dies. (V, v, 286-287)
What is certain here is that at this point the play puts the focus on Cordelia and we cannot in any sense argue that Cordelia brought her tragedy upon herself. Even if she only speaks the truth or is, like Lear, somewhat stubborn, it would be hard to find any sense in which it can be said to represent poetic justice. It is gratuitous but it is characteristic of tragedy that the innocent die along with the guilty.
My argument is that in King Lear and other tragedies, life’s incomprehensible events and their brutal aftermath are more at the heart of the tragic experience than traditional motifs like fear, pity and ensuing catharsis. In other words, the absurd tinged with a sense of unexplainable awe is at the heart of Shakespearean tragedy. Macbeth really springs to mind and in this as in other pieces of analytical criticism, Shakespeare has expressed it most efficiently: "It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing". A fitting reflexion on King Lear too!………………………………………………The PGS Sixth Form production of King Lear is a promenade performance at the Square and Round Towers, 2nd and 3rd July, 2014. Tickets will be available soon from reception at £3 (concessions) and £6.