King Lear: dementia, madness, homelessness, love, power, blindness, wickedness, death, poetry: the play with all that matters

I’ve seen King Lear three times before, the first time in 1968, but this time it spoke to me louder than ever–probably because I’m now nearly as old as Lear and wondering every day whether dementia (madness for Lear) is approaching. My eyes filled with tears in the scene when a distraught Lear fleeing his daughters in a cart with Kent and his fool says with terror:

O, let me not be mad, not mad, sweet heaven

Keep me in temper: I would not be mad!


And later, once the dementia is well established:


Pray, do not mock me:

I am a very foolish fond old man,

Fourscore and upward, not an hour more nor less;

And, to deal plainly,

I fear I am not in my perfect mind.

Methinks I should know you, and know this man;

Yet I am doubtful for I am mainly ignorant

What place this is; and all the skill I have

Remembers not these garments; nor I know not

Where I did lodge last night.


It’s a play–like much (but by no means all) of Shakespeares’ and many works of art–that makes more sense to the old, when you can relate the events of your life to those depicted. I wonder what I made of it when I saw Eric Porter play Lear in 1968 at Stratford (if I could be bothered I could find the entry in my diary): all I remember is falling asleep in the heat in the first half, which lasted 2 hours 10 minutes, and being shattered by the storm scene with a naked Edgar shouting “poor Tom’s a cold.” Much of the poetry and the plot passed me by, attentive as I was.

James and I saw the production at the Globe in the afternoon. The actors faced the same challenges as actors in Shakespeare’s plus planes and helicopters flying overhead, but they did magnificently. I enjoyed the performance more than the one I saw a year or two ago at the National Theatre with Simon Russel Beale playing Lear. I thought Kevin McNally better as he spoke his words so clearly with all the meaning and fitted them exactly to his actions; Russell Beale tends to rush at times.

The production emphasises the theme of homelessness, with the actors arriving on stage like a troop of homeless and tearing down barriers saying “keep out” to reveal a palace and perform the play. James and many of the critics found this too contrived, but it didn’t bother me–and homelessness is a theme of the play.

What affected me more was the parallel between Goneril and Regan trying to persuade Lear to opt for a quiet life and me taking Hazel to her nursing home:

O, sir, you are old.

Nature in you stands on the very verge

Of her confine: you should be ruled and led

By some discretion, that discerns your state

Better than you yourself.


And who cannot sympathise with Lear’s response:


No, rather I abjure all roofs, and choose

To wage against the enmity o’ the air;

To be a comrade with the wolf and owl,–

Necessity’s sharp pinch!


But life could be good in a nursing home;
No, no, no, no! Come, let’s away to prison:

We two alone will sing like birds i’ the cage:

When thou dost ask me blessing, I’ll kneel down,

And ask of thee forgiveness: so we’ll live,

And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh

At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues

Talk of court news; and we’ll talk with them too,

Who loses and who wins; who’s in, who’s out;

And take upon’s the mystery of things,

As if we were God’s spies: and we’ll wear out,

In a wall’d prison, packs and sects of great ones,

That ebb and flow by the moon.


Madness is a theme not only with Lear descending into dementia, but also with Edgar acting as Mad Tom. The original 1508 playbill, which was reproduced in the programme, emphasised the entertainment to be provided by Tom O’Bedlam: those were the days when people would go to Bedlam, the mad house, to watch the mad for entertainment, even beating them. Edgar does put on a marvellous show pretending to be with exquisite poetry pouring out of him. It must be read fast, almost gabbled, which is why we need to read it afterwards.


A serving-man, proud in heart and mind; that curled

my hair; wore gloves in my cap; served the lust of

my mistress’ heart, and did the act of darkness with

her; swore as many oaths as I spake words, and

broke them in the sweet face of heaven: one that

slept in the contriving of lust, and waked to do it:

wine loved I deeply, dice dearly: and in woman

out-paramoured the Turk: false of heart, light of

ear, bloody of hand; hog in sloth, fox in stealth,

wolf in greediness, dog in madness, lion in prey.

Let not the creaking of shoes nor the rustling of

silks betray thy poor heart to woman: keep thy foot

out of brothels, thy hand out of plackets, thy pen

from lenders’ books, and defy the foul fiend.

Still through the hawthorn blows the cold wind:

Says suum, mun, ha, no, nonny.

Dolphin my boy, my boy, sessa! let him trot by.


Shakespeare seems profligate in that magnificent poetry flies by you so fast that you long to hear it again. I respond by going home and reading my way through the play. I’ve picked out lines that most appeal to me–because of their message, their poetry, or both, and they are in a separate blog.


The other moment in the play when my eyes filled with tears was when Lear enters carrying the dead Cordelia in his arms: she so light and young, him so heavy and old–but him alive and her dead.


Howl, howl, howl, howl! O, you are men of stones:

Had I your tongues and eyes, I’ld use them so

That heaven’s vault should crack. She’s gone for ever!

I know when one is dead, and when one lives;

She’s dead as earth.

Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life,

And thou no breath at all? Thou’lt come no more,

Never, never, never, never, never!


Then, I’ve become more and more fascinated by the wicked and the devious (Richard III, Iago, Lady Macbeth) as I encounter them in real life. Shakespeare’s plays are my only aid in dealing with these people.


But one of things I like best about the play is the Fool. I empathise with the fool, who again speaks great poetry and gives excellent advice:


Have more than thou showest,

Speak less than thou knowest,

Lend less than thou owest,

Ride more than thou goest,

Learn more than thou trowest,

Set less than thou throwest;

Leave thy drink and thy whore,

And keep in-a-door,

And thou shalt have more

Than two tens to a score.Fool


I wrote about the fool in the very last words I published as editor of the BMJ:


“Editors of the BMJ are, my predecessor insisted, alternating fools and bastards. He was clear that he was a bastard rather than a fool and that his predecessor was a fool. That makes me a fool, and I accept the judgment without a murmur. But I hope that I’ve been a jolly fool. Even more ambitiously, I would aspire to be like the fool in King Lear.


It is time now for me to climb into the picture of all the past editors of the BMJ that hangs outside our office. They are mostly glum looking with lots of facial hair. I will look down from my space on my ex-colleagues for a few years before somebody takes down the picture, puts it on eBay, fails to get a buyer, and then throws it out. I find the thought of oblivion deeply comforting, but even more comforting is the thought of my successors doing wonderful things. And I know they will.”



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