I have enjoyed the season at the Globe this year. Their Merry Wives has received much deserved praise for its light hearted romp through the lives and loves of Windsor housewives, and their Midsummer Night’s Dream stresses the comic, with well played scenes from Bottom and the mechanics. The production which has made the biggest impression on me was the depth and tragedy of King Lear.
The tragedy seems so topical because it is on one level about a King who gives away his kingdom to the wrong people, splitting it physically to do so and causing civil discord through the gross lack of judgement. It has been a bad few years watching our present government giving away our powers of self government with a similar lack of judgement, stirring up disagreements where there need have been none, and splitting the country into European style regions. Gloucester also makes a rank misjudgement by choosing the advice and word of his illegitimate son over his legitimate son, setting himself up for loss of title, and loss of his eyes.
Both Lear and the Duke of Gloucester bring their misfortunes on themselves by making gross misjudgements about their children. Lear refuses his sweetest daughter a third of his kingdom when he dismembers it for his three daughters before his own death, because she does not express her love as flatterers do. Gloucester, who wishes to keep his inheritance whole and is not in the business of giving it away before his death, rashly decides to disinherit his heir, giving the promise of it to his bastard son who is falsely undermining his brother and then his own father. Neither old man can see clearly. Lear goes mad. Gloucester, in one of the most shocking scenes in theatre, has his eyes put out, to make the point that he has not been using them well. He is stripped of his title and powers thanks to the duplicity of his illegitimate son. Had Lear not made the error over Cordelia and given her her just third there would still have been trouble in the kingdom, for the whole idea of splitting it with daughters like Goneril and Regan was fundamentally ill conceived. Both old men lose their revenues and their authority through their stupidity.
Shakespeare is not suggesting there are easy answers to the war between the generations.His play reminds us how fragile a thing peace and good government is. A single rash misjudgement on the scale of Lear’s or Gloucester’s can set in train a series of events that leads to the destruction of a person’s health, wealth and status. There are always people in the world of politics – or most other worlds – who will lie and cheat to gain office. Once in office they will abuse or even destroy it. Others will have to obey them for they have “authority”, and some will willingly obey them because they have patronage.
Like Lear, this government’s tragedy is they cannot see clearly. They are unwilling to admit the magnitude of the economic errors they have made. They refuse to accept that their mismanagement of the public sector is a big part of the problem the UK now faces in adjusting to the credit crunch. Indeed they wish to make it worse by their extreme policies of public spending and borrowing. They too have set in train a series of tragic events that will do harm to the United Kingdom. Just as Lear’s splitting of the country caused grief, so Labour’s lop sided devolution is now destroying them through the pressure of the SNP and the strength of English resentment at its unfairness.
Shakespeare’s masterly use of the theatrical – Lear’s madness in the storm and Gloucester’s pathetic attempts to kill himself – are extreme to illustrate wider truths about the human condition. Seeing Lear again in such a good production was a poignant experience. Our country is beign dismembered by politicians who cannot see clearly. Once again powers to govern ourselves are being given away. Once again those in power are making rash judgements, and cannot distinguish good advice from false.
No wonder this too is a time of troubles. Bad economic misjudgement and a bungled constitutional settlement with Brussels and the regions will bring the government down eventually . The tragedy is we are still so far away from a possible change of government, and this government is so far away from understanding what is wrong, let alone wanting to do anything to put it right.