King Lear

Royal Shakespeare Company at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on Wednesday, September 26.

I need to study King Lear because whenever I see it, I always wonder whether I’m supposed to despise Lear. Is that just a modern or youthful interpretation, to see the play as a warning not to ungrateful children but ungrateful parents? Goneril and (especially) Regan’s treatment of Gloucester is appalling, but their treatment of their father, at least initially, seems reasonable. They’re perfectly within their rights stripping him of his slovenly, rowdy, expensive attendants, and if they do so with unseemly relish, well, given the disrespect with which he’s treated them, I’m not sure I blame them. As unforgiving and vicious as Goneril and Regan can be, that very hard-heartedness marks them as Lear’s true daughters, at least as I usually read the play.

So I’m grateful that Trevor Nunn’s production and Ian McKellen’s masterful performance in the title role managed to complicate and maybe even soften my feelings toward Lear because that makes the play more interesting. Lear becomes more sympathetic if you can see his bullheadness and inability to empathize as—to some extent—symptoms of creeping dementia. Not that Lear was ever a good father to Goneril and Regan or that his treatment of Cordelia was appropriate, but he might have been able to learn and repent—like Gloucester, the other rotten father—if he hadn’t been losing his grip on his sanity.