Shakespeare’s King Lear performed, and class conflicts

This video is the trailer of King Lear, as played by Het Toneel Speelt.

On Friday 19 October 2012, theatre group Het Toneel Speelt was on stage in the theatre in Leiden, the Netherlands. This time not with a play by Dutch author Herman Heijermans about conflict between twentieth century capitalists and working class fishing folk, but with King Lear by William Shakespeare.

The theatre was full of spectators. The play lasted for three hours and a half. The audience applauded enthusiastically after the performance.

After King Lear, they will play Gijsbrecht van Aemstel, about the aftermath of a conflict between 13th century count Floris V of Holland and his baron vassals; a conflict in which town bourgeois and peasants played a role as well.

The play is about an aging monarch, King Lear of Britain. He has two evil daughters and one good daughter, Cordelia, the youngest one. A sub-plot is about people lower on the feudal pyramid than the royal family, but still far above the commoners: the earl of Gloucester with one good son and one bad son.

King Lear, according to Shakespeare, was king of Britain in a pre-Christian, prehistoric age. He was king of Britain in a time when there were no kings of Britain, or of France (the king of France is a role in the play). There were also no dukes of Burgundy (another role). So, twentieth century Witold Gombrowicz was not the first author to write a play including rulers of Burgundy with a very tenuous connection to the real historical duchy of Burgundy.

Why is the setting of the play in such foggy times, so long ago, loosely based on a medieval pseudo-historical chronicle? We don’t know. Though one may suspect that, if Shakespeare would have called the monarch in the play not King Lear, but Queen Elizabeth I, ruler during the first part of Shakespeare’s life; or King James I, ruler during the second part of the bard’s life; then Shakespeare would have got the death penalty. Not by beheading, that was a “honourable” death, only for nobles. As a commoner, Shakespeare would have been hanged.

David Walsh writes:

Between 1810 and 1820 no version of the drama was performed, out of fear that audiences might see a parallel between Lear’s mental state and that of the decrepit and insane George III.

We have seen that Het Toneel Speelt does plays about tumultuous times of social contradictions, whether set in the Netherlands in the twentieth century or in the county of Holland in the Middle Ages.

King Lear, of course, is also about times with lots of conflicts. King Lear’s times? No, King Lear never lived. Shakespeare’s times? Yes. When Shakespeare was in his twenties, Queen Elizabeth I had her relative and rival to her throne, Mary, Queen of Scots, beheaded. Mary represented links to the Roman Catholic church and the continental kingdoms of France and Spain, often enemy states. 26 years after Shakespeare died, there was the English revolution, resulting in another beheading of a ruler: King Charles I. This time, the death penalty was not the result of rivalry between monarchs, but of conflict between monarchists and revolutionaries wanting to replace the monarchy with a republic.

In King Lear, conflicts within the royal family and the nobility kill so many people that at the end of the play only a few of the original protagonists are left. Conflicts within the royal family and the nobility, not conflicts between them and the mass of the people. Town dwellers and peasants participated in conflicts of the middle ages and later sometimes as fighters for themselves against ruling classes. But often, also as foot soldiers for one of two warring aristocratic parties; usually the party which they saw as the lesser evil.

If we look at the Gijsbrecht van Aemstel play, which Het Toneel Speelt will perform after King Lear: Count Floris V of Holland was not an anti-feudal revolutionary. Still, many peasants and bourgeois took his side in his war against his vassal barons, as the barons stood for still harsher exploitation. A late medieval chronicle claims that the barons hated that count, calling him sarcastically the peasants’ god; because he had bestowed knighthoods on some rich peasants.

The play King Lear does not represent the lower orders of the feudal pyramid as fighters. No peasant masses, not Shakespeare’s own class, the burghers. Not as fighters to overthrow the nobility and have a commoners’ republic. Also not as fighters for one of the two fighting royal family cliques.

Still, they have at least one representative in the play. The fool, the court jester.

Het Toneel Speelt based their performance not on one Dutch translation of Shakespeare, but on multiple translations. One of many Dutch King Lear translations is by Flemish author Hugo Claus. Hugo Claus wrote a play, Tijl Uilenspiegel, in which a jester becomes a leader in the Low Countries revolt against the king of Spain.

Often in royal courts, there was free speech for two people only. For the king (though kings often themselves were a kind of prisoners of court traditions, limiting their freedom). And there was free speech for the court jester. While the rest of the court usually flattered the king, the court jester had the freedom to tell disagreeable truths about the king and the courtiers (freedom until the king considered that the jokes had gone too far and might punish the fool cruelly for that).

When King Lear’s youngest daughter Cordelia thinks that she can express the truth, like the fool, refusing to flatter her father like her sisters did, she creates a scandal in the untruth-based court, which ultimately leads to a bloodbath.

Shakespeare’s King Lear has both conventional and unconventional, rebellious aspects.

Contrary to Shakespeare’s play, in the medieval pseudo-historical source for the play (Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae) Lear wins the civil war against his two evil daughters. His good daughter, Cordelia, succeeds him on the throne. A happy end. Shakespeare changed that to a very unhappy end, with Cordelia hanged (not even beheaded, the privilege of noble birth which Elizabeth I respected about Mary Stuart); and the king dying as a madman. For a long time after Shakespeare’s death, the literary establishment would keep hating that unhappy end; with its implication that the powers that be are not just.

The conflict in King Lear is not a pure evil against pure good conflict. The two senior royal princesses and their supporters are evil indeed. But Lear is far from being an ideal king, unwisely preferring flattery to truth and of unstable mental health. Princess Cordelia truly loves her father and truth. But to bring her father back to the throne, she invites the army of France, England’s enemy during the Hundred Years’ War and also often in Shakespeare’s sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, to her country.

It is ironic that Shakespeare depicts in his play the king of France, the enemy, as a good person. While depicting the duke of Burgundy, England’s ally during the Hundred Years’ War, as a careerist money-grabber.

In other aspects, Shakespeare affirms feudal rules rather than destabilizing them. One son of the earl of Gloucester is a “bastard”, born out-of-wedlock. He is the bad son. While the mother of the earl’s good son is his lordship’s legal wife.

Discussion on the relationship of King Lear to social conflicts is here. And here.

A feminist interpretation of King Lear is here. And here. And here.

Some both Marxist and non-Marxist interpretations of King Lear claim that non-aristocratic classes are, in fact, much more strongly represented in the play than just by the lone character of the fool.

They claim that Goneril and Regan, the two evil elder daughters of Lear, and Edmund, the youngest, bastard son of the earl of Gloucester, are in fact representatives of bourgeois rebellion against feudalism, as represented by Lear.

Jeffrey Kahan and Richard Halpern mention this view, while disagreeing with it.

I tend to disagree with that view as well. The selfishness of Lear’s eldest daughters, breaking feudal family rules, might seem “capitalist” at first sight. But both have, according to feudal primogeniture rules, more rights to succeed their father than the younger Cordelia. Both princesses are married to dukes. They flatter their father, according to court rules. Later, they betray their father indeed, but not in any burghers’ or peasants’ revolt.

Edmund, the earl of Gloucester’s illegitimate youngest son, looks a bit closer, as an upstart who manages to rise to being an earl and general of the army, to a sort of rebellious bourgeois. But even if Edmund would have been the son of the earl’s legal wife, like his older brother, he would still have been youngest brother with all disadvantages of that. The Middle Ages are full of dissatisfied younger sons of the aristocracy, violently and with cunning trying to ascend the social pyramid, without being social revolutionaries.

Shakespeare was a genius, but he did not have a crystal ball to predict how the bourgeoisie would rule after an anti-feudal revolution. Shakespeare based the characters of Lear’s evil daughters and of Edmund closely on Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae. Geoffrey of Monmouth lived in the 12th century, when towns were still small and had little political power. It is very improbable that Geoffrey of Monmouth saw Regan, Goneril and Edmund as capitalist prototypes.

The version of the play by Het Toneel Speelt had various elements anachronistic to King Lear’s imaginary prehistory.

The princesses wore high heels, which became a fashion in Shakespeare’s sixteenth century.

When the earl of Kent, disguised as the servant Caius, is put into the stocks on the orders of Princess Regan, part of the torture as depicted on the Leiden stage is putting a hood over his head, looking similar to the hoods used during torture in Abu Ghraib prison in the 21st century.

The element of social tragedy in King Lear: here.

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