Monday, May 12, 2014

Mammals vs. Snakes in King Lear

That's the theme of KING LEAR - mammals vs. snakes. And it is presented in many ways - the roles are evenly divided between mammals and snakes.

King of France
The servant who stabs Cornwall  
Duke of Burgundy
Edmund's henchman

I left the Fool out of this dichotomy - I think all of Shakespeare's fools are sort of neutral - they comment on the action but don't participate in the action. Although the fact that the snakes hang the Fool would tend to align him with the mammals.

Not only do snakes scheme to hurt the mammals, they scheme against their snake allies too. And that is the weakness of the snakes - they are utterly lacking in personal integrity and loyalty and so don't truly have anybody. The mammals have each other - most clearly shown when Lear and Cordelia are captured and take solace in each other's company.

 The weakness of the mammals is that they are not always scheming to gain advantage over others, and so they can be ridiculously oblivious to the machinations of the snakes, Which Edmund explicitly states about his brother Edgar:

A credulous father! and a brother noble,  
Whose nature is so far from doing harms, 
That he suspects none: on whose foolish honesty 
My practises ride easy! I see the business. 
Let me, if not by birth, have lands by wit: 
All with me's meet that I can fashion fit.

This obliviousness is considered a sign of stupidity and weakness by the snakes, and they exploit it as much as possible.

It's interesting to contrast the marriages of the two evil daughters. Regan is married to Cornwall - they are both snakes, and so their marriage is harmonious because they completely understand each other. They make an efficient team when it comes to punishing Gloucester, until a servant intrudes and kills Cornwall. And in the production I saw on Saturday, by the Titan Theatre Company, the director's choice makes Regan more cold-blooded than in the original script. In the original, when Cornwall is mortally injured, Regan takes his arm and leads him off-stage. In this production she exits by herself, leaving him to die. It was always my impression that Goneril was the more evil of the two sisters. In the original script Goneril poisons Regan and then when confronted by Albany goes off and kills herself. In the Titan version the poisoned Regan uses her last ounce of strength to shoot Goneril.

Goneril, a snake, is married to Albany, a mammal, and so it's an unhappy marriage, once Albany finally gets a clue. Goneril holds Albany in perfect contempt because he isn't a manipulator or schemer. She insults his manhood frequently. And at first Albany appears to be completely oblivious to his wife's true nature. When Goneril reduces the number of Lear's retainers and he starts to freak out, Albany sides with Goneril out of "the great love I bear you." By the end of the play she will be plotting to kill Albany so she can hook up with Edmund.

Albany finally does wake up to the true nature of his wife but it takes something pretty big to do it - after she and Regan turn Lear out into the cold:
O Goneril!
You are not worth the dust which the rude wind
Blows in your face. I fear your disposition:
That nature, which contemns its origin,
Cannot be border'd certain in itself;
She that herself will sliver and disbranch
From her material sap, perforce must wither
And come to deadly use.
Snake that she is, Goneril scoffs at his metaphor on the nature of ungrateful children.

You do have to wonder how Albany could have married Goneril without any idea of the person she is. But King Lear is even worse - somehow he has raise three daughters without knowing their true natures. The early big scene where Lear disinherits Cordelia is so iconic because such injustices happen all the time and almost everybody can think of a situation in their life when a manipulative smooth-talking flatterer has gotten their way, while the honest non-flatterers are scorned, as both Kent and Cordelia are by Lear.

One of the satisfactions of KING LEAR is that Lear discovers very early on what a huge mistake he made. In real life people sometimes take years to discover their error - sometimes they never even discover it but just roll along being played for a fool, in the very nest of snakes. Meanwhile those who truly loved them are cast out.

The play demonstrates how idiotic Lear was to cut off all communication with Cordelia - if he hadn't been so extreme in his response to her honest criticism and refusal to flatter him he would have had her aid sooner. How much anguish could be spared if people would only communicate with each other.

The King Lear character isn't only a fool though - one of the interesting bits that Shakespeare throws in during Lear's madness is that Lear learns wisdom when his sufferings provoke empathetic insight:
Poor naked wretches, whereso'er you are, That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm, How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides, Your loop'd and window'd raggedness, defend you From seasons such as these? O, I have ta'en Too little care of this! Take physic, pomp; Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel, That thou mayst shake the superflux to them, And show the heavens more just.
And of course Lear redeems himself later by acknowledging his error to Cordelia, and of course she forgives him because even though he treated her so unjustly she still loved him all along. Mammals tend to have a hard time letting people go, once they have loved them. The tragedy is that Lear doesn't see it sooner, as events will prove.

Shakespeare suggests that not only mammals can find redemption, but even snakes may do so. Unfortunately the Titan production left out the part where Edmund has an eleventh-hour change of heart - I assume it was left out for the sake of shortening LEAR down to a two-hour playing time, but it's a real shame. It makes the dichotomy of snakes vs. mammals even more extreme. It also reduces the dramatic tension a bit. This is what the production left out:
I pant for life: some good I mean to do,
Despite of mine own nature. Quickly send,
Be brief in it, to the castle; for my writ
Is on the life of Lear and on Cordelia:
Nay, send in time.
Run, run, O, run!
To who, my lord? Who hath the office? send
Thy token of reprieve.
Well thought on: take my sword,
Give it the captain.
Haste thee, for thy life. 
He hath commission from thy wife and me
To hang Cordelia in the prison, and
To lay the blame upon her own despair,
That she fordid herself.
The gods defend her! Bear him hence awhile.
So for a moment it looks like Cordelia might be saved by Edmund's confession, but it is too late and Lear enters with the dead Cordelia.

Shakespeare makes an important point about learning to tell the difference between mammals and snakes. But how rarely do people heed the lesson.