10 April 2013

Congee (good texture today but found it after nodding off, so it wasn’t completely hot) and finished Othello. Next in this, the Edward G. Nilges Grand High Shakespeare Re-read: the 1608 version of King Lear. This is the version with a more plangent reunion scene as seen on the BBC version, more development of the supposedly “weak” Albany and a more detailed revolt of the servants of Cornwall, including flax and whites of an egg as a palliative for having your eyes gouged out.

I believe that the populist tone of the first (1608) version went over well at the Globe but didn’t translate to middle-class enclosed theaters where there may have been fear of the Jacquerie of the first version. Shakespeare may have been asked to “tone it down” and being an easy-going guy, he did so.

Either version is a comment on Thatcher who was probably the sort of schoolgirl or “Top Girl” who would write a paper justifying the behavior of Goneril and Regan. Yeah, that’s a sort of obligatory “Cathago delenda est” this week of Thatcher’s passing, but I’ll make no apology.

In my video of the Harvard class on the late Shakespeare Marjorie Garber points out that until this discovery/realization/admission that there are two distinct versions of Lear of equal quality (where the 1608 is more of a crowd pleaser and the Folio version more focused) editors would collate the two plays producing something not by Shakespeare.

Critical insights have been based on the more extensive material in the 1608 play. In that version alone does Albany unload on his wife:

Wisdom and goodness to the vile seem vile:
Filths savour but themselves. What have you done?
Tigers, not daughters, what have you perform’d?
A father, and a gracious aged man,
Whose reverence even the head-lugg’d bear would lick,
Most barbarous, most degenerate! have you madded.
Could my good brother suffer you to do it?
A man, a prince, by him so benefited!
If that the heavens do not their visible spirits
Send quickly down to tame these vile offences,
It will come,
Humanity must perforce prey on itself,
Like monsters of the deep.

In the 1608 version, the “weak” character Albany nonetheless triumphs and is given the last lines of the play, lines normally given over to victorious characters such as Fortinbras in Hamlet (“Let the soldiers shoot”). In the Folio, this is given to the victorious single-combat warrior Edgar no longer masked as Tom o’ Bedlam, therefore no longer identified with “the wretched of the earth”. Whereas Albany is a wronged husband and a cuckold.

Margaret Thatcher, far from being (in my personal view) a feminist heroine, introduced an impossible construction of masculinity as do the evil sisters of King Lear. Thatcher undercut “wet” Tories who wanted to go slow on “reform” (where “reform” meant “dismantling the welfare state and handing out wealth to insiders”). Thatcher portrayed them as flaccid sexual partners in an inappropriate sexualization of 10 Downing Street and this resulted in the tragic silliness of a mediaeval poll tax and her ouster, not by Labour but by her own allies.

In reading Lear we have to imagine an unbelievably violent world. The Pop-trash novels of Bernard Cornwall such as his “Azincourt” help as does the Pop-trash TV programs about Sharpe’s Rifles and the Flashman series to show that even the 19th century and even in Britain (or the USA) everyday life was a more violent place, day to day, in the 1950s.

This violence was controlled and channeled by a deep and necessary sexism accepted by all parties. You messed around with an upper class woman, you die. On top of these institutions of frozen violence, other institutions bound together with writing served to enforce a rackety social harmony.

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