In every age and time commentators have found parallels for contemporary concerns in the stories of their forebears. Arguably, no one writer has spoken to as many different cultures as William Shakespeare, whose 1606 play King Lear is now widely considered one of the greatest pieces of literature ever written. For centuries it has illuminated countless debates on topics as diverse as leadership, madness and inequality, and continues to do so today.
King Lear is the story of a vainglorious monarch who hands his kingdom to his three daughters through the means of a humiliating love trial. When his youngest refuses to feed his vanity and her older sisters exert their new power over him, he flies into an uncontrollable rage, preferring to ‘abjure all roofs’ and ride out into a storm both literal and metaphorical, losing his mind but eventually gaining both understanding and some degree of humility.
Writers, commentators and performers have frequently drawn parallels between Shakespeare’s monarch and a certain capricious occupant of the White House. Indeed, it doesn’t seem too far-fetched to imagine Donald Trump demanding of his staff – many of which are of course family members – ‘Which of you shall we say doth love us most?’ Much of this commentary has also pointed up Trump’s seemingly tenuous grip on reality as papers like The Washington Post and The New York Times have compared his behaviour to Lear’s wild ravings in Act IV. In March this year, as Trump boasted of the size of his nuclear button on Twitter, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Jon Meacham imagined a surly and defiant Trump ‘lashing out like King Lear with a cellphone’.
It is not only his vanity and volatility that he shares with the ancient king however, but his misogyny. And it is here that Shakespeare’s masterpiece speaks to our own age, a world in the grip of a crisis of masculinity.
In his new book Age of Anger, Pankaj Mishra argues that the 19th century brought about ‘the most radical shift in human history: the replacement of agrarian and rural societies by a volatile socio-economic order’. Defined by industrial capitalism, this order came to be rigidly organised through new sexual and racial divisions of labour – ‘Women’s bodies were meant to reproduce and safeguard the future of the family, race and nation; men’s were supposed to labour and fight.’ Being a mature man meant adjusting oneself to society and fulfilling one’s duties as breadwinner, father and soldier. However, having straitjacketed themselves into this role, men left themselves undefended against the emasculating effects of industrialisation, urbanisation and mechanisation. Thus the ideal of a rigorous manhood shifted and ‘came to be embodied in muscular selves, nations, empires and races’. Living up to it ‘required eradicating all traces of feminine timidity’ with failure inciting self-loathing and ‘a craving for regenerative violence.’
This violence simmers within King Lear. The play’s major turning-points are the three occasions when his daughters refuse to obey him. On each occasion, when his demands are not met with obeisance but with female resistance, we see his hatred of this ‘soft’ femininity come to the fore. Incandescent at his daughters’ refusal to house his hundred knights, he feels tears well up in his eyes but cannot accept such a ‘womanly’ reaction. He renounces his emotions, calling his tears ‘women’s weapons’ and asks the gods to prevent them from staining ‘my man’s cheeks.’ His attacks on his daughters bear all the hallmarks of violent misogyny. Most harrowing of all is his excoriation of his eldest, Goneril. He calls on Nature to ‘convey sterility’ into the ‘degenerate’ bastard’s womb.
Later he attacks her again, this time recognising their kinship:
‘But yet thou art my flesh, my blood, my daughter,
Or rather a disease that’s in my flesh,
Which I must needs call mine. Thou art a boil,
A plague sore, or embossed carbuncle
In my corrupted blood.’
Feminist critic Janet Adelman has posited that ‘In recognizing his daughters as part of himself he will be led to recognize not only his terrifying dependence on female forces outside himself but also an equally terrifying femaleness within himself’. Unable to accept his own femininity and female power in the man’s world he is meant to be master of, Lear decides to reject society altogether, dashing off into the wild as a storm descends. At the apex of his madness in the fourth act, he expresses a grotesque fascination with the female sex organs:
‘Down from the waist they are centaurs, though women all above. But to the girdle do the gods inherit, beneath is all the fiend’s: there’s hell, there’s darkness, there is the sulphurous pit, burning, scalding, stench, consumption!’
This fascination and terror is not unique to Lear. Trump’s boast of grabbing women ‘by the pussy’, may be one of the worst utterances of an American politician, but it pales in comparison to Rodrigo Duterte’s chilling threat to female rebels in the Philippines. And these comments are echoed by much masculinist writing which is shot through with morbid visions of castration at the hands of a feminine conspiracy.
For generations, stage performances of Lear portrayed him the way he describes himself, the king ‘more sinn’d against than sinning’. His eldest daughters Goneril and Regan were little more than venal harpies; his youngest, Cordelia, a bland paragon of innocent virginity. It wasn’t until the twentieth century and in particular Peter Brook’s seminal production that Lear was judged equally to those around him. As Kenneth Tynan wrote at the time: ‘Lay him to rest…the majestic ancient, wronged and maddened by his vicious daughters...’
Since then directors and actors have turned an even sharper eye on Lear’s own culpability. Nicolas Hytner’s 1993 production at the National Theatre explored the idea that Lear had subjected his daughters to chronic abuse. Michael Attenborough’s 2012 staging with Jonathan Pryce in the lead role took this further as Pryce savagely kissed Goneril and later threatened Regan in an overtly sexual way, saying it was not in her nature ‘to oppose the bolt against my coming in.’ In the public’s perception, Lear has gone from a wronged old king to a possible sexual abuser.
In the space of a few tumultuous days, Lear travels the path that many men are currently on. The world of which he was once master descends into chaos, and those who were previously weak become strong. He lashes out, terrified by his own weakness. Yet it is only by accepting this ‘feminine’ weakness as a part of himself that Lear comes to some kind of self-knowledge and acceptance.
In the fifth act his language changes totally. From airily shouting commands he now asks politely and remembers to thank the servants. From hurling abuse he talks sweetly of singing ‘like birds i’the cage’. From mercilessly exiling his beloved daughter he now gently begs her to ‘forget and forgive’. Not for a second is his strength or masculinity in doubt yet he is now able to be both hard and soft, active and passive, masculine and feminine. Finally, he is able to cry. And seeing the other men around him unable or unwilling to do likewise he excoriates them:
‘O you are men of stones, Had I your tongues and eyes, I’d use them so
That heaven’s vault should crack’.
He does not die – as other Shakespearean heroes do – valiantly fighting to the last, or romantically taking his own life. He dies a weak, broken old man, his world destroyed, his body wracked with grief. His last wish is to share just one more tender embrace with his beloved daughter. For all his failings; his indefensible anger, his violence, his madness, he is still redeemed, because ultimately he learns that love is more important than power.
Though I have read and seen King Lear many times over the years, those harrowing final moments of the play never fail to bring tears to my eyes. And today, as men struggle to cope with this chaotic and emasculating world, they could do worse than heed the advice Shakespeare gives in the last lines of the play:
‘The weight of this sad time we must obey,
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.’
Join Patrick this Sunday on 'Talking History' for 'King Lear: A History of a Play'.
Article by Keith Thompson, Cultural Critic, Director & Teacher.