Christian Versus a Nihilist Interpretation of King Lear
Traditional, orthodox or dominant views are opposed by resistant, variant, dissident, divergent, subversive, aberrant or niche ones.
King Lear arouses dialectical or polemic interpretations because it, like most of Shakespeare’s tragedies is a problematic play raising complex questions without providing neat pat solutions. Until 1962, the play was presented in either the sanitised and now totally discredited Nahum Tate’s version with a fairy tale “everyone lived happily ever after” ending or a traditional Aristotelian interpretation attempting to engender audience empathy, identification, “arousing pity and fear”, leading to the purging of emotions and Catharsis.
It was Jan Kott’s interpretation as Theatre of the Grotesque (1930’s) that inspired Peter Brook of the Royal Shakespeare Company to present an Epic Theatre interpretation of the play diametrically opposed to all traditional approaches. This was a pivotal presentation that radically and profoundly influenced future productions. The Christian interpretations follow the Aristotelian tradition while Nihilists follow the Epic Theatre, in the Platonic Tradition.
The Christian view is one of optimism based on hope. Based on dogma passed down throughout the ages through the teachings of Jesus, Christians believe in the dignity of man created in God’s image. Though they acknowledge human imperfection and fallibility, they also believe in salvation and redemption. Christians reject moral relativism and espouse the moral absolutism of truth, the mystery of creation, affirmation of life, divine justice, triumph of good over evil, upright living and faith in a loving benevolent God. Like Aristotle, they assert a rational moral order in the universe and that while suffering is inherent in the human condition, it can lead mankind to a noble form of dignity.
Christians argue that Lear has to become mad in order to become wise, that Gloucester can really only see once he becomes blind, yet the brutal gouging out of his eyes inspires the greatest upheaval of traditional order when a servant turns on his master, Cornwell, slaying him. Edgar makes some of the most profound observations that support the Christian view:
“The gods are just and of our pleasant vices
Make instruments to plaque us.”
The dark and vicious place where thee he got
Cost him his eyes. V.3.170
Albany expressing the fallibility of man and the nature of man’s evil, begins to comprehend what is happening concluding:
“Humanity must perforce prey on itself IV. 2. 46 – 50.
“This shows you are above,
You justicers, that these our nether crimes
So speedily can venge! “ IV. 3. 78 – 80.
Kent: (the final word)
It is the stars,
The stars above us, govern our conditions. IV. 3.32.
When Gloucester’s attempt at suicide fails, he confesses and resolves: “Let not my worser spirit tempt me again to die before you please.” And Edger reaffirms this when he states “Men must endure their going hence, even as their going hither, Ripeness is all. V.ii. 9-11.
L.C. Knight contends that despite Lear’s suffering we are justified towards affirmation in the end. Like most Christian interpretations they see Lear’s rejection of revenge and his opting for meditation in “We two alone will sing like birds i’ the cage” as acceptance of his destiny and a state of peace and serenity. King Lear has finally been redeemed, a wiser dignified and noble man.
The Nihilist1 interpretations are broadly based on Plato’s theories of Epic Theatre of disconnection, detachment, disengagement, estrangement or alienation. Rather than emotionally empathising or identifying with the main characters we become critical observers and respond rationally and intellectually. We assume a universe governed by chance, randomness, or caprice. Chaos rides supreme in a discordant world where evil often triumphs over good.
1Nihilism is a 19th C. Russian extreme revolutionary movement. A skeptic doubts, a cynic distrusts, while a nihilist rejects all traditions, beliefs, morals, values and aspirations. They are utterly negative, destructive and subversive, believing or valuing nothing. They appealed to disenchanted youths urging them to destroy a repressive society and rebuild it from scratch. “Someone who does not bow to any authority or accept any principle or trust”.
Gloucester expresses this best when in despair he resorts to cynicism and at worst to nihilism:
“As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods, they kill us for their sport” IV.1.35.
Lear also expresses deep dark despair:
When we are born, we cry that we are come
To this great stage of fools:
In this view, revived by Jan Kott’s essay, The Theatre of the Grotesque, we lack the ability to fully engage and identify rather we stand back in awe overwhelmed by a malevolent or indifferent universe. Modern philosophical movements like existentialism and absurdism support or reflect this absurdist thinking. Even earlier critics like Dr Samuel Johnson asserted this pessimistic view when he stated that: “King Lear is a play where the wicked prosper”.
The Nihilist view is filled with despair, futility and disintegration. It asserts that instead of dying in peace, Lear dies in a distracted and demented state and that suffering can be degrading, dehumanising leading to a numbing, narcoleptic desensitised or brutalising condition. This is best supported by the recurring motif of nothing throughout the play, from Cordelia’s “nothing”, The Fool’s nothing and to Lear’s “No, no, no life?” There is no sense or meaning in all this.
The best example of a nihilist interpretation would be Peter Brook’s direction of Lear with Paul Schofield Staged in 1962 and Filmed in 1971.
A pivotal version influenced by Jan Kott’s essay ‘Tragedy of the Grotesque’, Brook used minimalist stage props to produce a bareness, (striking a chord with post WWII audiences) and identifying with Brecht’s alienation effect (appealing to the mind rather than the emotion). The absurdist symbols echoed Becket with no claim to political implications.
The non- illusionary techniques do not allow us to get too close to any of the characters. Brook manipulates the audience to see the characters remotely.
In the establishment scene, Lear is depicted with grizzled head erect, eyes narrowed dangerously, a figure of cold, vain, arrogance and fearfully dangerous.
Cordelia comes across as much warmer but not empathised.
Brook embellished the hunting scene with Lear overthrowing the dinner table and storming out while his knights stay behind, tip chairs, throw plates and generally trash the joint. (chamber). This alienates us from Lear, diminishes our sympathy and increases our partiality for Goneril. Instead of assuming Lear is right, and therefore pitiable, we are forced to make judgements to decide between his claims and those of his daughters. The balance is maintained evenly throughout with both sides appealing to our partiality.
Non-illusion dominates the scenes on the heath. Brook demands our imagination. A bare stage with the actors acting non-naturalistic styles distances the audience.
The graphic violence and gory scenes of Gloucester’s eye gouging highlight the cruelty we are capable of. The plays ending has Goneril and Regan bashing each others heads against rocks graphically depicting their fear and hatred of each other.
The film – 1971
There is a strong reliance on settings and costuming to bring out the characters, Peter Brook in an attempt to distance the audience, avoids Aristotelian empathy, and Catharsis. He uses extensive alienation techniques to detach the audience such as:
- Characters talking straight to camera
- Second shot of opening scene is oversized low angle close up of Lear (Paul Scofield) opening with “Know…….” Followed by a long endless pause.
- Hand held camera –wobbly
- Rapid acceleration , zooms and fades
- Out of focus shots
- Jump cutting and cross cutting suggesting the rupture, confusion and discontinuity of Lear’s mind.The film focuses on faces and heads to assert that these have been detached from the heart, soul and rest of the body. Humanity has detached itself from humanness.
The heads and faces are often out of focus and askew as is much of the thinking. Heads bear the brunt of punishment such as:
- The graphic violence and gory scenes of Gloucester’s eye gouging highlight the cruelty we are capable of.
- Edmund slain by an axe to the head.
- Goneril bashes Regan’s head against the rocks and then bashes her own brains out.
The final shot of Lear carrying Cordelia’s lifeless body up a beach into a blank sky. The close up shot of Lear’s anguished face pans out to the empty grey sky that ends the film on its nihilistic tone.
His excision of much of the text can be seen as severely limiting K.L.’s sprawling intensions by restricting focus, imposing a resistant view. Many would view this as lacking textual integrity.
Richard Eyre’s film in 1998 followed the non- realistic, non-illusionist Epic theatre style initiated by Peter Brook. Eyre also employs a number of alienistic devices. With strong reliance on settings and costuming to bring out the characters, Eyre is largely influenced by Peter Brook in an attempt to distance the audience, avoiding Aristotelian empathy, and Catharsis. Eyre presents a domestic setting focusing on the family scenes in familiar settings of houses sitting and dining rooms.
Eyre is obsessed with the intent of depicting as balanced view, and even handed approach so that we stand back in a detached manner and see the characters
Both use extensive alienation techniques to detach the audience such as:
- Characters talking straight to camera
- Second shot of opening scene is oversized low angle close up of Lear.
In reflecting the world they live in, dramatists no longer enjoy universally accepted dramatic conventions in which the action proceeds within a framework of fixed and self-evident set of accepted values. Faced with this vacuum many artists turned to nihilism, the Da-Da movement, or existentialism or felt the need to fit their work into the frame of values and dogma expressed in contemporary ideologies: Marxism, psychoanalysis, aestheticism, or nature worship.
The Literature of the absurd attempts to depict a grotesque caricature of our world; a world without faith, meaning, direction or freedom of will. Human life is more and more removed from natural; we are alienated from the earth and each other. As human behaviour becomes more conditioned and psychologically manipulated and pre-determined by the conformity of the mass media, it is no longer governed by logic or the rational.
The meaningless and fecklessness (loss of a sense of direction and purpose) of life is depicted as rambling often chaotic structure of the works. Nothing is sequential and nothing follows from that which went before.
The arbitrariness of decision making is indicated in the capricious way the promotions system works in most bureaucracies, especially the army. There seems little rhyme or reason for many decisions that are made- they are whimsical and illogical.
The Literature of the Absurd shows the world as an incomprehensible place. Distortions occur both in time and place that perplex us. Language fails to communicate and explain symptoms.
While the Christian view has strong followers and reigned dominant for many years, the Nihilistic view has gained much ground in the last century and appears to have become the dominant view in modern productions.
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