Wednesday, 18 May 2016

Context from 'The Year in Lear' - James Shapiro

  • Unlike most other leading dramatists at this time, Shakespeare chose not to write civic or courtly entertainments in praise of the king. 
  • After Guy Fawkes- there were competing narratives to try and get the audience to imagine the deaths of a monarch- something that Shakespeare had been doing for years. Shakespeare grasped the dramatic potential of popular reaction to the Guy Fawkes plot: 
  • 'a maelstrom of fear, horror, a desire for revenge, an all-too-brief sense of national unity, and a struggle to understand where such evil came from.' 
  • Anthony Weldon in 1650 saw James I as the 'wisest fool in Christendom' 
  • 'The mortal moon hath her eclipse endured/ In-certainties now crown themselves assured/ And peace proclaims olives of endless age.'  All the anxious predictions that preceded the eclipse of Elizabeth were misplaced - the crowning of the new king as a peacemaker had put an end to these 'incertainties' 
  • Will Kemp- played many comedic roles and when he left the King's Men in 1599- it was a blow to the company.  People were drawn to the company for Kemp's clowning as Burbage's tragic roles of Shakespeare's words. 
  • Kemp's replacement was Robert Armin a different kind of comedian. Armin was able to step into Kemp's roles. But Kemp's improvisational and physical style and commonsensical if at times dim-witted demeanour was v. different from sardonic, witty style of Armin 
  • It took Shakespeare a while to write well for Armin- he played Touchstone in As You Like It and Feste in Twelfth Night and the Gravedigger in Othello. But it was the Fool in King Lear that was his defining role as John Davies wrote Armin could 'wisely play the fool' 
  • James I: "Do we not yet remember, that this kingdom was divided into seven little kingdoms, besides Wales? And is it not now the stronger by their union?" 
  • Before 1560, England and Scotland had often been at war, and that Scotland was allied with England's sometime enemy France. England considered themselves superior to their poorer backward nothern neighbours 
  • "I thought the King had more effected the Duke of Albany than Cornwall" - Jacobean playgoes knew that King James' elder son Henry, was the current Duke of Albany and his younger one, Charles, the Duke of Cornwall ( James did prefer Henry over his younger brother). Albany = Scotland (James had previously been Duke of Albany as had his father). For Shakespeare it was an uncharacteristically topical start- the opening gossipy exchange marking the play as distinctively Jacobean 
  • It was treasonous to distinguish between the physical and political bodies of kings (so that subjects couldn't sweat allegiance to one and not the other) 
  • Opening scene when a map of Britain is brought onstage, it wrestles with what Britishness means especially in relationship to the long standing national identities it superseded. 
  • The role in play of the kingdom of France further complicated matters. Playgoers at the Globe should naturally have sympathised with the British forces in their efforts to defeat French invaders. But nationalistic sympathies become compromised when it turns out that the virutous Cordelia now married to the King of France is on the wrong side
  • In King Leir there is now sub plot - but Shakespeare needed it as the story in Leir lacked counterpoint, a way to highlight Lear's figurative blindness by juxtaposing it with something more literal. Enable him to critique the very notions of authority and allegiance at the heart of the main plot
  • Shakespeare uses 'nothing' to suture together the Lear and Gloucester plots. Cordelia's initial response to her father are 'Nothing my lord' and Edmund when asked by Gloucester about the contents of the letter replies with the very same words: 'Nothing, my lord' 
  • The words 'never' and 'nothing' - 30 times and the word 'no' more than 120 times and 'not'- 240 times. Negativity is reinforced by the sixty or so times the prefix 'un' occurs as the characters are 'unprized', 'unfortunate', unmerciful'
  • 'What wilt thou do, old man?' - addressing the King as 'thou'. In Jacobean England ''thou' and 'you' were used with precision and purpose. 
  •  'You' = superiors or members of the upper class speaking to each other eg. 'You have begot me, bred me, loved me.'
  • Inferiors were for 'thou' - even addressing someone of equal rank as 'thou' could be taken as an insult
  • 'Come sonne and daughter, who did me advance/ Repose with me awhile, and then for France.'
  • KL is considered anomalous among Shakespeare's great tragedies because it lacks a supernatural element- ghosts of Caesar and Old Hamlet in Juliet Caesar and Hamlet, magic sin the web of Desdemona's handkerchief in Othello or the sisters in Macbeth. Demonic possession is feigned by Edgar it serves a similar purpose. Invocations of the 'devil' and 'fiend' sliding uneasily between the literal and figurative. 
  • In Lear's increasingly maddened and diseased imagination, women and their sexual organs are reimagined as a site of the demonic, a kind of hell that fills him with revulsion 
  • The mock trial shifts in and out of lucidity,from prose to blank verse to snatches of song, the scene captures the ways in which sanity yields to overpowering and terrifying visions. In collapsing the distance between the possessed and the truly mad it is unlike anything else Shakespeare would ever write- closer to Samuel Beckett than a Jacobean drama
  •  There is evil that stems from the abuse of authority and there is another kind that cannot be so easily explained by self-interest and the human propensity for cruelty. 
  • In KL , WS wrestles with the nature of this kind of evil as well something that Harsnett, in a book about the demonic, takes as given but never confronts. 

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