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Shakespeare's Greatest Play?
Letter by Tom Foot, April 2005
Thank you Sabby Sagall for your review of the RSC's production of King Lear, (February SR).
It was interesting to see the review mention my old lecturer, Kiernan Ryan. Kiernan believed that King Lear endorsed neither the feudal nor the bourgeois worldviews that do battle in the play, but instead looked forward to a utopian future beyond both.
King Lear has provided a source of inspiration for many political figures over the years. For William Hazlitt it was Shakespeare's greatest play. George Orwell, in his attack on Tolstoy, wrote that Lear expressed the moral that 'if you live for others, you must live FOR OTHERS and not as a roundabout way of getting an advantage for yourself'.
For centuries King Lear was read as a morality play, hammering home Christian ideals of divine justice - that things always work out for those who are good, and the bad will always get their comeuppance. Thankfully, this performance rubbished that interpretation. Albany's concluding lines, 'All friends shall taste the wages of their virtue, and all foes the cup of their deservings,' were delivered with self-doubt and uncertainty - hollow, if not absurd, amidst a stage littered with corpses.
Each of the characters in the play has some experience of poverty or destitution. Through empathy their wits begin to change. Lear cries out, 'Take physic Pomp, expose thyself to feel what wretches feel.' But Gloucester's lines are more realistic. He pleads with the beggar not to wait around for pomp to cure itself, for the rich to jeopardise their riches, as that will never happen. Instead, he calls for the poor to rise up and revolt.
I was a little disappointed by David Hargreaves, who delivered these lines in a rather meek, disbelieving way. But apart from that, I was impressed by the performances of all the characters, including Corin Redgrave as Lear, but especially Ruth Gemmel as Regan. Thoroughly enjoyable, and inspiring.
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