Sir Ian McKellen performs a Lear established as a forgetful, feeble, foul-tempered and, new for the twenty-first century, incestuous militarised king. Where other directors have failed, Trevor Nunn excels by adding depth to other key characters such as Goneril and Regan. They are not simply fairytale wicked sisters, but sexualised women desperate to be freed from their father’s overpowering influence as they vie for Edmund’s seductive Machiavellian charm.
Regan, in particular, is a character who parallels, in her own disturbing way, her father’s mental breakdown but becomes stronger rather than weaker. At the start of the play, Nunn shows Regan as diffident and even fearful of Lear as she struggles to find words to praise him. She is prompted by her husband, the Duke of Cornwall, to top her elder sister’s grandiose profession of love to their father in order to receive a richer part of the kingdom represented by an A3 sized map (shown below, tellingly with Lear’s crown placed on top).
What is particularly striking is that Regan’s low self esteem or fragility is in complete contrast to Goneril’s starched authority and Cordelia’s rebellious youth. The three daughters are sufficiently different to form a hierarchy of incestuous abuse from which Lear anticipates supplanting Regan, as his current fancy, with Cordelia ‘now our joy’ (I.i, line 82) . Following Sir Ian Holm’s Lear, McKellen also kisses Regan but adds a fastidious wiping of his lips on his handkerchief – a characteristic reminiscent of his performance as Iago in Othello (1990) also directed by Nunn. What is intriguing about his gesture is that it suggests how he has become tired of his timorous second daughter. The implication is that Lear unconsciously looks forward to the challenge provided by Cordelia’s insubordination as she refuses to play his love game.
Furthermore, the king’s fastidious kiss as a measure of his incestous fondness for his youngest daughter also helps rethink Coppelia Kahn’s ideas (from 1986!) about his ‘darker purpose’ (I.i, line 35). She argues that:
in Lear’s scheme for parceling out his kingdom, we can discern a child’s image of being mothered. He wants two mutually exclusive things at once: to have absolute control over those closest to him and to be absolutely dependent on them. (Kahn 40)
Even though Cordelia is about to be married, the suggestion is that Lear looks forward to enjoying his youngest daughter perhaps as a substitute wife, while Goneril and Regan become his mother figures. Cordelia’s youthful free spirit may help Lear relive his youth in the same way Gloucester recalls Edmund’s conception, ‘Though this knave came something saucily to the world before he was sent for, yet…there was good sport at his making’ (I.i, lines 20-2). Not only does Lear want to be ‘mothered’ by his daughters, he also wants to take Cordelia’s youth like what he has done with Goneril and Regan.
It is not until Gloucester’s blinding and her husband’s murder following the brutal act that Regan sheds her meek persona. Drunk on wine and the power she wields over a captive Gloucester, Regan fluctuates between a giddy nervous wreck and aggressive interrogator. Though her hardened resolve crumbles when faced with the full horror of Gloucester’s blinding, which is powerfully conveyed by her bloodcurdling screams.
Freed from the domineering patriarchal influences of her father and husband, Regan becomes a stronger woman who even competes with her sister for Edmund’s sordid affections. What is particularly striking is that her interrogation of Gloucester is mirrored in her questioning of Edmund:
REGAN: Now, sweet lord,
You know the goodness I intend upon you:
Tell me but truly, but then speak the truth,
Do you not love my sister?
EDMUND: In honoured love.
REGAN: But have you never found my brother’s way
To the forfended place?
EDMUND: That thought abuses you.
REGAN: I am doubtful that you have been conjunct
And bosomed with her, as far as we call hers.
EDMUND: No, by mine honour, madam.
REGAN: I never shall endure her. Dear my lord,
Be not familiar with her.
EDMUND: Fear me not – (V.i, lines 7-16)
Aping Lear’s love test, Regan has to settle the doubts in her own mind oover whether Edmund has slept with her sister before bestowing ‘the goodness I intend upon you’. However, her newly acquired confidence still reveals her inbred insecurities as a woman, daughter and sister that Edmund detects with his telling reply: ‘Fear me not -‘ It is a well substantiated fear confirmed by Goneril’s poisoning of Regan. Nunn successfully highlights jealousy as one of the play’s strongest themes, an emotion that not only destroys Lear but most of the play’s other characters too.
One of the great mysteries of King Lear is what happens to the Fool. R. A. Foakes notes that:
In the Quarto [earliest edition of the play] the Fool’s role ends with his participation in the mad Lear’s imaginary trial of his daughters; this is not in the Folio, which gives the Fool an exit line ‘And I’ll go to bed at noon’, responding to Lear’s mad topsy-turvy ‘we’ll go to supper i’the morning’ (III.vi, lines 81-2) with a proverbial phrase meaning ‘I’ll play the fool too’. Nothing more is heard of him until the end of the play, when in Lear’s last speech the ambigious line, ‘And my poor fool is hanged’ (V.iii, line 304), refers most obviously to Cordelia (who we know has been hanged), but recalls the Fool also[?] No explanation is given for the Fool’s disappearance, a matter which some have found troubling (Foakes 56).
Nunn takes Lear’s last comment about his Fool literally to add dramatic unity to the play. No sooner has Gloucester dispatched Lear, Kent and Poor Tom to Dover than he is arrested in his shed-like building. It is not clear why the Fool stays behind, though it might be to buy Lear some time by keeping his enemies busy. Yet the Fool seems half mad at this stage, and accepts his fate with melancholic inevitability. However, in order to make Gloucester’s blinding appear less arbitrary, Nunn has the Fool roughly handled before his spasming body is hanged from a beam by laughing soldiers.
The great end scene where Lear laments over Cordelia’s body with the immortal words: ‘Never, never, never, never, never’ (V.iii, line 307) is reproduced faithfully. McKellen as Lear appears holding in his arms, no doubt with his last reserve of strength, a dead Cordelia. They are both dressed in white perhaps to indicate spiritual purity where Lear can be with Cordelia in heavenly bliss rather than in his implied bestial fantasy of incestuous union. Yet whether Lear mourns Cordelia as a father rather than a lover or even as a child who has lost his mother is an intriguing question. Throughout the play, Lear is always dependent on his loyal followers. It is perhaps fair to say that he is a man/child dangerously out of touch with political reality. Thankfully, there are not any leaders like Lear alive today.
Trevor Nunn’s version of King Lear (2008) is available to watch online here.
Foakes, R. A. ‘Introduction’. King Lear by William Shakespeare. 1606. Ed. R. A. Foakes. London: Arden Shakespeare, 1997, 1-151.
Kahn, Coppelia. ‘The absent mother in King Lear‘. Eds. Margaret W. Ferguson, Maureen Quilligan and Nancy J. Vickers. Rewriting the Renaissance: The Discourses of Sexual Difference in Early Modern Europe. Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press, 1986.
Shakespeare, William. King Lear. 1606. Ed. R. A. Foakes. London: Arden Shakespeare, 1997.