-Forgive the bad puns. my students have been looking at an essay entitled “King Lear can be seen as beginning as a fairy tale, whilst ending as a nightmare”. I wanted to make some points as stimulus for the writing – not as an essay, but as bullets which might give impetus to deeper thought on the topic. These are notes, with few line references and no discussion of specific critics – that is your job. The intention is to stimulate discussion and set students scurrying away to find relevant passages and articles to take the discussion further.
- Are the two ideas mutually exclusive? Certainly most fairy tales begin “once upon a time” and end “happily ever after”, but this might require a very Disneyfied view of Grimm to hold true after the “Gothic” revolution of the late 18th and early 19th Century. There is also no quantifiable notion of “happily”. Since most stories follow a pattern of disruption of a status quo leading to an eventual resolution and establishment of a status quo,which need not be the same as the starting point, there is no reason why the limited hope offered by the unity of the Kingdom under one ruler at the end of the play might not suggest hope. Hope against the odds and assailed with threat, but hope, and hence, happiness of a sort. Indeed if we follow the Folio and have Edgar assuming the leadership, there is even the idea of the wronged child attaining some sort of moral reward for his suffering and attaining the kingdom.
- So where does that leave the dichotomy of the title? Fairy tales can also be nightmarish, especially tales written after the Gothic explosion. Whatever Shakespeare wanted to write in 1606, the audience of the 19th Century would have a different set of cultural signposts. Whilst Cordelia is generally seen as the fairy tale character (which we will see later), Edmund makes a very convincing fairy tale protagonist for a darker age. Like all good characters he is disowned and disenfranchised and this is made clear in the first lines of the play. Gloucester shows no affection and boasts of his sexual adventures in procreation. He also is clear that Edmund -discarded for years -is shortly to be removed from his presence again. It is understandable the Edmund should resent this, and just like Cinderella, try to regain/attain what he sees as rightfully his. Unlike Cinderella he does this himself. He is clear that “whoremaster man” will seek to evade responsibility for his actions by blaming either astrology or heaven for all that takes place . There is no “fairy Godmother” in his version of the tale. Instead he acts for himself and is very successful. Until the end. So Edmund might present a new, nightmarish character – dark and self possessed, but interestingly it is this version of the tale which allows most happiness and moral rectitude to emerge from the end of the play.
- A nightmare which leads to light? By any perspective the ending of the play is bleak. If we follow the Corderella direction, there is no hope. Yes she meets her father again, but he barely recognises her, seems to accept their fate with little reference to her feelings and (I would argue) neither requests nor receives any reconciliation or benediction. Instead, hr army is defeated (a clear inversion of an expected happy ending) and she is murdered. But, what if Cinderedmund is the fairy tale character? yes, it is dark, but after his death, there is a clear restoration of order and Edgar will live happily ever after, in some way. Edmund gains revenge for his treatment as a bastard by his duping of Edgar and betrayal of the lecherous Gloucester, but the moral order of the 17th Century is not ready for the triumph of the unnatural. Order is restored and the happy ending exists.
- When Nahum Tate recomposed Lear with a happy ending and a living Cordelia, we could argue that this obsession with this side of the plot is the first Disneyfication of such a dark tale. The message is too harsh? Change the message seems to be the idea here. Possibly audiences do not want to be forced to face the unrelenting cruelty found in this play – it certainly is rarely a play to “enjoy” in the theatre, rather a deeply uncomfortable confrontation with the Human Condition. Maybe not a nightmare, but much more than a simple “once upon a time…. happily ever after” event.
- It is hard to know how the roles in this play were performed at their creation. Certainly the modern analysis of a role would have had little place in Jacobean Theatre. I think it entirely plausible that the opening scene may well have been played with more humour than often seen today. Gloucester is bragging about his sexual prowess at the opening and the manner in which Regan trumps Goneril’s expression of love is a wonderful opportunity for both actors to show their comic timing and to engage with the audience in a fully lit Globe Theatre. Pure pantomime. Pure Cinderella. Until Cordelia speaks her first “Nothing”. Even at that stage Lear can seem humorous and indulgent. Once she repeats the negative and denies him his display of flattery there can be no going back. I read Cordelia as too full of pride to see the danger she is in and also to recognise the danger she is placing everyone in since her father is known to by unstable and prone to rash and violent action. From this point, it feels as though Fairy Tales are off the menu. This is a morality play and an acutely perceptive reading of “unaccomodated man” – it is dark, yet it also can be seen as offering hope in some way at the end. it is not a Fairy Tale in the sense expected in 16/17C but on the other hand, it can be seen as a forerunner of the type of morality espoused by Grimm – tales in which malevolent male figures torment innocent females and in which the Gothic Female will emerge – not the victim, the cruel temptress – Regan, Goneril and Lady Macbeth. Shaekespeare is not writing Gothic literature and is not writing either Fairy Tales or Nightmares. The play has elements of both. Your job as A level students is to respond to the debate and show your awareness of the range of possibility.
Feel free to respond and start a discussion!