Wednesday, August 3, 2011

King Lear can be read in a variety of ways

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King Lear, like all texts, has been interpreted in a number of ways. The way an audience reads the play is shaped by the time, place and culture in which they live. This is illustrated through the two very different readings of the play the Elizabethan perspective and Richard Eyre’s perspective. While the Elizabethan perspective, revealed through Shakespeare’s use of several literary techniques, interprets the play primarily as a social tragedy. Richard Eyre’s perspective revealed through the production techniques of the 18 film version interprets the play primarily as a domestic break down. Thus, these two readings of the play, taken from two different points in history reveal how social and political context can shape very different interpretations of the one text.

When King Lear was originally written, most audiences would have interpreted it through an Elizabethan perspective. The Elizabethan perspective was a result of the social, political and cultural values of the time. Society at this point believed very strongly in social order and structure. Everything in life had its place under God in what was referred to as the ‘great-chain-of-being’, and essentially it was a theocentric (God centered) age. Elizabethans believed that if anyone, particularly someone high up in the social hierarchy, disturbed the great-chain-of-being total chaos would result. So when Lear, the King, decides ‘to shake all cares and business from our age, conferring them on younger strengths’ (Act 1 scene 1, lines 4-5), the Elizabethan reading would have interpreted him as actually rejecting his God given role as head of the state and thus disturbing the natural order of society.

Another social belief of this time that would have shaped the Elizabethan reading of the play was that natural order could only be maintained if reason ruled over passion within the mind of individuals. When Lear therefore, decides to suddenly step down from the throne and rashly banishes Cordelia from the Kingdom it is because he is letting his emotions and desires rule over his reasoning. This behavior went against the natural order of society and ultimately could only led to disaster. According to the Elizabethan perspective therefore, it is Lear’s decision to let passions govern his reason and his decision to break the social structure by dividing the kingdom in three that leads to disagreements, disorder and ultimately death. ‘Take but degree away, untune that string, And hark, what dischord follows.’ (Act 1, Scene , line 10-110)

Shakespeare uses a variety of literary techniques to reveal the Elizabethan perspective. Through his use of imagery Shakespeare very clearly reveals the disorder that is seen to be occurring within Lear’s Kingdom. Perhaps the clearest illustration is through the storm, which metaphorically symbolizes the turmoil and confusion that is occurring not only within the mind of Lear, but over the whole state. Animalistic imagery, used by Lear to describe Regan, reveals how characters that step outside their place in ‘the chain-of-being’ transform into something ‘unnatural’ and unpleasant. ‘Thou marble-hearted fiend, More Hideous when thou show’st thee in a child, Than a sea-monster.’ (Act 1 Scene 4, lines 1-15) Gonerill and Regan’s transformation into something increasingly unfeminine and unnatural is also illustrated through the way Shakespeare switches their language from verse to prose as the play progresses.

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Shakespeare’s use of soliloquies also plays a vital role in revealing the Elizabethan reading of the play. Through these personal and intimate speeches the intentions and thoughts of individual characters are revealed. The audience sees, laid bare, the corruption and political machinations that evolve when Lear disturbs the state’s natural order. Edgar’s soliloquy informs the audience of his amoral schemes, ‘To take the basest and most poorest shape, That ever penury in contempt of man, Brought near to beast.’ (Act , Scene, lines 7-8).

In a contemporary society however, King Lear has been received very differently. No longer preoccupied with social order and structure, people have taken on an anthropocentric (human-centered) view of the world. This new social belief system and context has brought new readings to King Lear and one of these is that of Richard Eyre, which is presented in his 18 film version of the play. While the Elizabethans felt that if the social order of the state was disturbed chaos would result; contemporary audiences are more familiar with the chaos that occurs when the family unit is broken down. As a result, Eyre’s reading presents King Lear as a domestic rather than a social tragedy.

According to Eyre’s reading of the play, it is Lear’s failure as a father - his failure to understand and bestow the love that as a father he was responsible for giving, which ultimately leads to disaster. When Lear banishes Cordelia saying, ‘Here I disclaim all my paternal care, propinquity and property of blood, And as a stranger to my heart and me, Hold thee from this forever’ (Act 1 Scene 1), he is denying his responsibility to as a father offer unconditional love to his daughter. Eyre’s reading of play puts great emphasis on Lear’s inability to give selfless love to his family and his inability to understand love as something independent from wealth and power. ‘Thy fifty yet doth double five and twenty, And thou art twice her love.’ (Act Scene 4 line 5-5) According to Eyre’s perspective it is disorder in the familial units of both Lear and Gloucester that leads to the Kingdom’s state of despair and turmoil. And in this sense Eyre uses the family unit as a microcosm of the state.

Richard Eyre uses several production techniques to illustrate his personal reading of the play. Through use of facial expressions Eyre reveals the emotions of characters and on several occasions highlights the despair they experience as a result of family disfunction. When Lear curses Gonerill the audience sees for the first time, through Gonerill’s tear filled eyes and sorrow struck face how a father’s refusal to show their child paternal care can grief even the toughest and inhumane of characters. The facial expressions, body language and tone of voice used by individual characters reveal more clearly than any other technique both the love and the hate within humans that Eyre explores in his reading of the play.

Eyre also uses the set designs in his film production to reveal his perspective of the play. Using a minimalist style for the set designs Eyre takes the emphasis of the play away from Lear’s kingly splendors and places it on the most basic social structure - the family. Eyre does not create scenes containing large crowds of people, because the play according to his perspective, is essentially not about the state but about something much more personal, that is the family. The set designs are in no way homely, warm or welcoming. Regan’s castle has no windows or furniture, like the relationship that Lear shares with his daughters as a result of his fowl fathering; it is cold and hostile. Eyre uses set designs, stage props and even costumes to put emphasis on what be believes to be the most important aspect of the play, the family breakdown.

These two readings; the Elizabethan and Richard Eyres, therefore illustrate how different social contexts can shape very different interpretations of King Lear. While the Elizabethans, as a result of their political and cultural values view the play a domestic tragedy, and place the significance on the break down of social structure that occurs in King Lear. Richard Eyre as a result of contemporary views and values interprets the play as a domestic tragedy. These two readings are also presented very differently, while Shakespeare presents the Elizabethan perspective through uses literary techniques such as language, imagery and soliloquies. Eyre as a result of modern technologies presents his perspective in a film through the use visual techniques such as facial expressions, stage sets and costumes. Thus, the Elizabethan and Eyre’s perspective demonstrate how different times, places and cultures can shape very different readings and interpretations of King Lear.

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