In 1609 a group of English Catholic players named the Simpson Brothers performed an anti-government play in which a Church of England minister is carried off to hell by the Devil. The interlude was performed in Gouthwaite Hall, the home of the prominent recusant nobleman Sir John Yorke of Nidderdale. A local Protestant diehard denounced the production to the government in London. According to the manuscript of the proceedings of the Court of Star Chamber, which documented the trial in 1614, Sir John, his wife and his kinsmen were charged with “permitting a company of players to act a scandalous interlude, designed to exalt Popery and bring the Church of England into derision, and of maintaining secret chambers at Gouthwaite for the entertaining of Jesuits, seminary priests and other disloyal persons.” Sir John ended up spending many years in prison for failing to pay the crippling fines imposed upon him for his obdurate recusancy. Among the items confiscated and examined by the government was a list of plays previously performed by the Simpson Brothers; two of these were Pericles and King Lear.
It is interesting to conjecture why Shakespeare’s bleakest tragedy about power and its abuses might have appealed to these religious dissenters so far from London and the direct control of Westminster. Perhaps they saw their own fate as a persecuted minority reflected in the arbitrary punishment and exile of Kent and Cordelia; perhaps they identified with Edgar, the faithful and legitimate son of the Earl of Gloucester, who is betrayed by his illegitimate brother Edmund just as, in their eyes, the true Catholic faith of England had been usurped by the false heresy of Protestantism. For a multitude of reasons King Lear, has inspired radical political interpretations across the centuries, as early—it seems—as Shakespeare’s own lifetime. From the disaffected Catholics of Jacobean England to the renegade actors of the Belarus Free Theatre—several of whom have been persecuted for joining the group and banned from working in their own country—King Lear seems to resonate with the most personal experiences of those who stage and perform it.
Commissioned by the Shakespeare Globe Theatre in London and first performed on May 17, 2012, as part of the international Globe to Globe Festival, this raw and powerful production of King Lear has garnered immense praise and admiration in the West. Reflecting the repressive political conditions of life under Europe’s so-called “Last Dictatorship” (personified by Alexander Lukashenko, the president of Belarus since 1994), it audaciously interpolates non-Shakespearean words and songs into the original play text. From the powerful choral chanting of folksongs, which burst through the spoken text with explosive force, to the sinister lines added in the scene of Cordelia’s hanging—and involving masked executioners cataloging the victims’ confiscated goods in the manner of modern totalitarian bureaucracies—the production powerfully echoes not only the recent experience of political oppression in Belarus but the entire tragedy of twentieth-century eastern Europe. This is hardly surprising, since it was in this part of Europe—what Yale historian Timothy Snyder has termed the “blood lands” located between Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union—that the worst atrocities of World War II took place. According to Snyder, between 1939 and 1945, about fourteen million non-combatants lost their lives in Poland, Belarus, Russia and the Baltic states, most of them outside the death camps. Belarus lost about a third of its population, and the scars of the past are still evident in its government’s inability to shed its oppressive Soviet-era legacy.
This bloody history of eastern Europe in the twentieth century is brilliantly and powerfully evoked in the civil war scenes in which corpses lie scattered beneath a red plastic sheet stretched across the stage. Amidst the carnage we see Edmund and Regan violently copulating, his hand clutching her throat. What struck me most about this production was its unremitting pessimism about human nature even as it energetically asserts the right of human beings to express political freedom. As Lear first enters slowly and painfully pushing his suitcase on a pram, he pulls off a long white wig as if to shed the traditional interpretation of the role as an exhausted patriarch anxious to repudiate power and “crawl towards death.” (In Peter Brook’s famous film version of King Lear the British actor Paul Scofield plays the abdication scene in precisely this way as an old man slumped on his throne and seemingly on the brink of death). By contrast, this Belarusian Lear (played by the youthful and athletic Aleh Sidorchyk) has no intention of relinquishing his power even as he goes through the rhetorical motions of doing so. Armed with a prosthetic metal gauntlet, he bullies and terrorizes his daughters and subjects, giving Cordelia a bloody nose and clasping Goneril’s throat in a vice-like grip. After he has divided up his kingdom (symbolized by a suitcase full of dirt which he pours into his daughters’ laps), Regan, Goneril and their spouses—suitably wearing Russian fur caps—kneel to kiss the metallic gauntlet like groveling boyars at the court of Ivan the Terrible.
If Lear lacks compassion, it is not surprising that his favorite daughter Cordelia is presented as equally callous and uncaring. Far from the meek daughter of standard interpretations, this Cordelia (played by Victoria Biran) resembles her father and her sisters in her self-destructive anarchism. In her response to the King’s foolish demand for absolute love, she not only refuses to play her pre-scripted sycophantic role, she does so in a comic song-and-dance routine that resembles her sisters’ similarly lewd performances. This interpretation of Cordelia as a female anarchist is effective, since its extremism helps to motivate Lear’s sudden shift from fun-loving fool to furious despot. Later in the play we see Cordelia—now Queen of France and married to a crippled and blind old lecher rather than a chivalrous prince—as a wine-drinking dipsomaniac; and in the scene of reunion and reconciliation with Lear she does not even address the infirm King directly (slumped in a wheelchair and covered with a sheet) but speaks her lines in the opposite direction. And as she is being selected for execution, she tells the henchmen to hang “the old fart.”
Through his crude despotism Lear has not only lost the love of his youngest daughter, he never possessed it in the first place. His three daughters may have different responses to his ludicrous demand for unconditional love—two compliant and sycophantic, the third defiant and contemptuous—but they are all equally cynical. Goneril’s flattering speech suggests carnal, sexual desire rather than daughterly devotion as she seductively writhes like a striptease artiste. All three daughters replicate their father’s violent bombast. This is a family that prefers hatred and cruelty to love and compassion. It is this terrible insight that there is no love to start with that makes the final scene so utterly bleak: even in suffering and death there is no redemption, only self-delusion. The final scene echoes the opening one as Lear slowly wheels in Cordelia’s dead body. But this time he is no longer feigning old age and decrepitude but has become its very embodiment. Lear’s final soliloquy is all the more powerful and effective for contrasting with the splenetic bombast of his previous speeches: here is a man utterly broken in spirit as well as body.
In a similar pessimistic vein, we are given no moral contrast between the “evil” Edmund and the “virtuous” Edgar. Edmund is a drug addict shooting up early in the play, while his brother Edgar is a dissolute, spoilt playboy who later, as Poor Tom, strips naked and besmirches himself with his own excrement (effectively simulated with crunchy peanut butter). In the subsequent storm scene all the actors on stage strip naked and take shelter under a blue sheet inundated with water while Regan and Goneril—attired in expensive fur coats to symbolize their sudden rise to power and wealth—scour the stage with flashlights as if to track down the enemies of the state. Later, in his scene with blinded Gloucester, demented Lear emerges wearing a mock-crown consisting of a birds’ nest and eggs, which he later smashes on the ground as if they were the skulls of his enemies (“And kill, kill, kill, kill!”). Blood, water, excrement and egg yolks become the ingredients of a morally corrupt world, flooding the stage and defiling the actors’ bodies as if reducing all and sundry to a common state of depraved inhumanity.
Like Lear’s daughters, Edmund and Edgar are the inevitable products of this dehumanized universe. In this sense this harrowing production does not chart a downward spiral of moral corruption and escalating violence but manifests them as the norm from the very outset—a world in which a father punches his recalcitrant daughter in the face while she in turn contemptuously exposes her backside to him; a world in which a wheel-chair-ridden Gloucester beats his son Edmund with a belt only to be punished in turn when Regan and Goneril bite out his eyes. By the time we reach the horrific scene of Gloucester’s blinding we have become so desensitized to violence that it seems almost anti-climactic. Although the sustained fortissimo pitch of this violence might seem to detract from the play’s power and effectiveness, it actually enhances it. The final scene, in which Lear crouches next to his daughter’s crumpled body, is entirely spoken in hushed whispers as if the massive energy that preceded it has fizzled out into a pathetic whimper.
Returning to my opening account of the Simpson Brothers and their anarchic anti-government interlude performed in Yorkshire in 1609: One of the court deposition accounts of the friction between the Church of England minister and his Catholic tenantry describes a scene in which the tenants would assemble near the churchyard on Sunday with a piper: “And there with theire piping and revelling wolde make such a noyse in time of praier, as the mynyster could not well be harde.” In the account of the interlude in the play there is also evidence of the same boisterous and disdainful humor toward those in authority. As I watched this raucously entertaining and subversive production of King Lear—including the Fool’s cacophonous bursts on the trombone and the frequent lapse into Brechtian song and dance—I was reminded of those early modern carnivalesque techniques of using discordant noise and riotous song in order to drown out the language of political intolerance and mock the self-deluding pretensions of those who wield absolute power.
Alfred Thomas is a professor of English at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where he teaches courses on medieval and Renaissance literature. He has published eight books, including A Blessed Shore: England and Bohemia from Chaucer to Shakespeare (2007), Prague Palimpsest: Writing, Memory and the City (2010), Shakespeare, Dissent, and the Cold War (2014), and Reading Women in Late Medieval Europe: Anne of Bohemia and Chaucer’s Female Audience (2015). His new book project is tentatively titled Maimed Rights: Shakespeare, Religion, and the Middle Ages.