11 April 2014

The Queen is Dead: On King Lear

We can go for a walk where it's quiet and dry 
And talk about precious things
But when you're tied to your Mother's apron 
No one talks about castration

I had the opportunity to see a rather fine production of King Lear at The Theatre for a New Audience, here in New York, last night.

King Lear really is, I think, the most disturbing and harrowing of the Bard's plays, more so than Hamlet or Macbeth. I have never been more affected by Gloucester's plight nor by his exchanges with his son and Lear after his blinding than I was with this production. It is almost as if Shakespeare had to find a son and father to be emotional about in this play about fathers and daughters. It is also his most viscerally misogynist work, where womankind, as such, is denigrated, cursed, and shown at its worst across the board, except for fated, honest Cordelia. Not even Edmund's poor, unnamed mother escapes Shakespeare's angry, broad brushstrokes. Despite the fine, nuanced performances of the women playing Goneril and Regan in this production, I have never had such an easy time seeing these roles as imagined by a man to be played by men. What was the Bard going through at the time of its writing to make him paint such awful pictures? And by the end, as in Hamlet, everyone is dead or about to die, even, offstage, Gloucester of a broken heart bursting with love, "smilingly." So terrible.

Oh! Take me back to dear old Blighty,
Put me on the train for London Town,
Take me anywhere,
Drop me anywhere,
Or Liverpool, Leeds, or Birmingham
But I don't care!
I should like to see my--...

I don't
Bless them
Farewell to this land's cheerless marshes
Hemmed in like a boar between archers
Her Very Lowness with her head in a sling
I'm truly sorry, but it sounds like a wonderful thing

I said, "Charles, don't you ever crave
To appear on the front of the Daily Mail
Dressed in your Muther's bridal veil?"
Oooh. Oooooooh-ooh-ooooh....
And so, I checked all the registered historical facts
And I was shocked into shame to discover
How I'm the eighteenth pale descendant
Of some old Queen or other

Or has the world changed, or have I changed?
Oh, has the world changed, or have I changed?

Some nine-year old tough who peddles drugs
I swear to God, I swear,
I never even knew what drugs were
Oooh. Oooooooh-ooh-ooooh....

So, I broke into the palace
With a sponge and a rusty spanner
She said : "Eh, I know you, and you cannot sing"
I said: "That's nothing, you should hear me play piano"

We can go for a walk where it's quiet and dry
And talk about precious things
But when you're tied to your Mother's apron
No one talks about castration
Oooh. Oooooooh. Oooooh....

We can go for a walk where it's quiet and dry
And talk about precious things
Like love and law and poverty
Oh, ooooh, these are the things that
Kill me

We can go for a walk where it's quiet and dry
And talk about precious things
But the rain that flattens my hair
These are the things that
Kill me

All their lies about make-up and long hair are still there

Past the Pub who saps your body
And the Church who'll snatch your money
The Queen is dead, boys
And it's so lonely on a limb
Past the Pub that wrecks your body
And the Church, all they want is your money
The Queen is dead, boys
And it's so lonely on a limb

Life is very long, when you're lonely
Life is very long, when you're lonely
Life is very long, when you're lonely
Life is very long, when you're lonely.

Lear should know that, don't you think? Life is very long when you're lonely. It's so lonely on a limb. The Queen is dead, boys! The Queen was dead before this play ever began. And this play, is, in a very certain sense, addressed to boys. Lear has only daughters, and he gives his land to their husbands, but not to France, who accepts Lear's only honest girl to his royal bosom, anyway. Isn't it funny how France keeps showing up in Shakespeare in so many funny ways? So funny and so strange. Passing strange. The others of England are constantly France and Italy in Shakespeare. And in Hamlet the attacking other is Fortinbras, who comes to take control of this diseased dynasty from without, not England, not France, not Italy. Yet, we should pay attention to this dead place where a family kills itself, as in Hamlet, as in King Lear. The obverse of King Lear is The Tempest, but not right now. No....

The Queen is dead, boys! Who was this Queen? Who was this Queen upon whom Lear begat such awful progeny, except for the one? The Queen, she is dead! Long live the Queen; the Queen is dead! The Queen was always dead. For Shakespeare--whom I prefer to call The Bard, rather than to give him a name, because his naming is far from clear--had to kill the Queen long before she could arrive to make anything better. The Queen must be dead in King Lear, because any softening agent would only interrupt his attack upon Woman. Elsewhere, the Bard seems to have a great fondness for Woman, for women--he recognizes their power and their beauty, both in the Sonnets and the plays, but not here; not in this play. In King Lear his fury, his anger--and only a man could write with such hatred toward Woman--is implacable, so much so that his writing of Cordelia almost feels like an afterthought. "Oh, I've given 'Woman' a hard time. I should make the most perfectest example of obedience and love and fidelity in Cordelia. That will do." In fact, my Bard, it will not do. And also, though you are inevitably my Bard, you are not "my" Bard. I rebuke your glorious nonsense. And not only because it has a great deal to teach us about ourselves. I welcome/I rebuke you. At the same time, I do. I have no other choice.

Who are these monstrous girls that The Bard thrusts upon us? It's Lady M. in twain; and Regan's husband matches her in her awfulness. How did these people find each other, when Goneril found a good man, so unlike her in every way, which she hides until it is too late? The Dead Queen knows. She lords over the whole play, and its improbability.

Oh. Oh, the Dead Queen knows. The Dead Queen knows so much more than we do. That is one of the great fortunes of being dead. Being dead, one can see the future; one can see everything. And this play joins all futures, all figures, in the same infinite death, where everyone can know everything. It is only being dead that they can know. And the play is one long procession toward Death, itself. It begins in an anterior past with the Dead Queen and marches the whole cast right into the grave. The Queen is dead! Long live the King, The King is dead....

Boys. The boys. Let us gather them up. They are scattered all about the field, all about the field of battle. I choose Gloucester; poor, late, blinded Gloucester. I choose you. I choose you and your sons. Both of them, and their failed legitimacy. Legitimacy must always fail, and isn't that what this sad poem, this play, this paean to that failing of what that is legitimate also always tells us? Let us bring them together, Gloucester and Edmund and Edgar, so named to make us forget which is who. (Is it not so easy to misremember Edgar as Edmund and nice-versa? And doesn't Edmund become Gloucester for a brief time, near the end, when he is so close to the Kinghead?) Let us gather them up; let us make them dance.

EDGAR says:

Let's exchange charity.
I am no less in blood than thou art, Edmund;
If more, the more thou hast wrong'd me.
My name is Edgar, and thy father's son.
The gods are just, and of our pleasant vices
Make instruments to plague us:
The dark and vicious place where thee he got
Cost him his eyes.

Is this not the darkest place in this play? Edmund's mother is blamed for his father's blindness. Her womb--that love--is called a "dark and vicious place." Horrible! Horrible. This isn't charity, and the gods are not just, because the gods are Shakespeare. No, this is the most woman-hating thing. And the Bard even allows Edmund some redemption at the end, in his failed attempt to save the King and Cordelia. In the Nineteenth Century, they changed the ending so that Cordelia and Lear lived. Not so, now. We get no such reprieve as the dead mothers get no reprieve. Not one mother in this play is named: not Edmund's mother, not Edgar's, not Goneril's, not Regan's, not Cordelia's. All the mothers are dead and nameless and almost completely forgotten except only to be cursed and blamed. It is a play without mothers, only fathers and their very bad decisions; where even the women are men. Is it any wonder their children are monsters? The Dead Queen knows why. The Dead Queen knows all.

10 April 2014



And every year takes
Me further away from
You. Time measured as
Space. And I sit within
You, within your great
Silence. Like a room.

Und jedes Jahr nimmt
Mich weiter weg von
Sie. Zeit ausgemessen als
Raum. Und ich sitze in
Ihnen, in Ihrer großen
Stille. Wie einer Kammer.

L. Steve Schmersal, Lightyear, April 2014.