RSC’s King Lear: poverty, humanity and destruction

Can we use 400-year-old plays to reflect on how we live today? Charlie takes a look at Shakespeare’s King Lear to determine whether anything has really changed between then and now:

Every time I watch this play, I see it in an utterly different way. This time round, it was Gregory Doran’s poverty-stricken portrayal of Shakespeare’s classic that I chose to watch. Curled up in my comfy Vue seat with a pick and mix, Shakespeare’s most harrowing play was great- although a little miserable- Wednesday night entertainment, opening my eyes to the political instability of King Lear’s kingdom.

If you have not seen the play before, Shakespeare’s King Lear revolves around the broken relationship and divided land between the King and his daughters, Lear’s consequent mental unraveling, and a constant stream of gruesome and salacious violence. Throughout the story, there are several cases of backstabbing, and- in true Shakespearean tragedy style- there are barely any survivors at the end. So why bother putting myself through this emotional torture over and over again? It’s because this play teaches us so much about the mistakes and toils of humanity.

In the introductory interview, Anthony Sher (King Lear in this production) discussed the difficulty of defining such a vast play, but did comment that the play ‘is about humanity’. The Stratford-upon-Avon stage certainly reflects this, conveying a constant reminder of the ‘poor wretches’ inhabiting Lear’s kingdom. We see peasants shooed away by knights in the very first scene, figures shivering in rags as the king loses his mind in the ever-famous Storm scene, and the downfall of Edgar from his comfortable, sheltered life to his feigned nonsense speech and naturalistic clothes. It is only when Lear’s life falls apart that he can notice such poverty, morbidly sighing ‘Is man no more than this?’

By making the poor’s presence significant, Gregory Doran links the ‘political instability’ of early 17th century England under the reign of James I to our own society. We are in a time of governmental changes, world confusion and anger about the new US President, and continual economic crisis’s. It’s only natural that a Shakespearean play about political instability is still being compared to our own unstable environment.

King Lear talks of the roles we perform every day. Whether it is looking after our loved ones, maintaining social status or helping the poor, we have obligations as human beings which- as Lear discovers- will cause serious consequences if they are not adhered to. Looking after the impoverished and misfortunate members of our society is so important. Helping more refugees is certainly a fundamental duty as human beings that we are currently neglecting. If there was one point to stand out during Gregory Doran’s King Lear, it was the chilling indifference to poverty. Like King Lear, we need to re-discover our compassion for other human beings before it is too late.

Charlie Collett

Find out more about Royal Shakespeare Company’s 2016 production of King Lear here:

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