“See better, Lear,” (Kent, Act I, scene i) is a caution that highlights the theme of sight and blindness in William Shakespeare’s masterpiece, King Lear.
With a lack of insight that may or may not have come with an octogenarian’s senility, King Lear has chosen to withdraw from his position of power and divide his kingdom between his three daughters, Goneril, Regan and Cordelia, his favourite. Lear grandly announces a test based on the quantification of love (“Which of you shall we say doth love us most/That we our largest bounty may extend…?”) The two older daughters fuss and fawn over him, but Cordelia refuses to be part of this charade. Lear either does not or cannot see Goneril and Regan’s insincerity any more than he can see Cordelia’s love. In arrogant wrath, he banishes Cordelia and divides his kingdom between his older daughters who, by Act III, brutally cast him out into a raging storm. As Lear wanders a wild heath with his loyal Fool and an Earl’s dispossessed son on the run, he bursts into aggrieved metaphor: “Judicious punishment:’ twas this flesh begot those pelican daughters.” (Act III, Scene iv).
Pelicans were believed to feed on flesh, and Lear feels his older daughters to have been blood-sucking parasites.
Lear’s love continues to be a matter of arithmetic – “bond” “dues”, “endowed,” – all part of his self -delusional, self-destructive persona, until he is compelled to realise the insignificant position of man in the vast cosmos. Others who acquire power in the course of the play and use it brutally do not meet their end with the same understanding.
King Lear could be rendered as a mawkish familial and property conflict beginning in the desire of one and ending in the death of many. Japanese director Akira Kurosawa’s Ran (1985) is a robust adaptation, unfurling in a spectacular pageant of pennants.
Recasting sons for daughters, Ran (meaning Chaos) turns the legend of 16th century Japanese warlord Monotari Mori and his three devoted sons inside out. A feudal ruler, Great Lord Hidetora Ichimonji (Tatsuya Nakadai) is surrounded by enemies, though not from the fallout of any love test. Besides warring brothers, there are opportunistic others – victims and vassals of Ichimonji’s years of glory. Politics and lineage become the subtext of the film as “an ocean of blood” flows over castles and concubines. Lady Kaede (Mieko Harada) is Hidetora’s pelican daughter-in-law, a toxic daiquiri of Goneril and Regan. First wife and then widow of Taro, Hidetora’s oldest son, she turns literally to bloodletting and blood sucking Jiro, her brother-in-law, the heir apparent. The slithering of clothing across the palace floor is indicative enough of Kaede’s successful seduction. In keeping with Shakespeare’s play, the death of the beloved youngest child (in this case, Saburo) brings death to the old ruler, and using the shadow of its subplot, the film ends with an edge-of-the seat epiphany.
Nakadai’s Hidetora is perfect – first, as a bellicose man of war and then as a hallucinating nomad, his mouth hanging open, his hands pressed to his ringing ears and bringing to screen memories of the indelible Scream paintings of Edvard Munch. Ran rests on simple language (unfortunately, for purists) but visual eloquence makes it compelling. The sky that smiles over Hidetora turns into a flaming bronze canopy under which the people of a land struggle to survive the chaos unleashed by a single rash decision.
Not unlike the 1981 Hungarian production of King Lear, which is a parable about dictatorship, director Sam Mendes’ version (2014), produced by National Theatre Live, makes Lear a small man given to grand gestures and bombast, his position metaphorically illustrated by the retinue of Beefeaters on stage.
King Lear has been “a bully”, Mendes said in an interview, and his lead actor, the outstanding Simon Russell Beale, reminds us that whether sane or senile, Lear has been more violent than fuddy-duddy. Certainly, his cry to “kill, kill, kill, kill, kill!” is no more about one uncontrolled moment than his “reason not the need”.
Mendes’s superb expose of the play, both as a personal saga and a political chronicle, emphasises the theme of reduction – a progressive “stripping away” of power where home, rank, status and ultimately, even sanity disappear. From strutting his stuff and imperiously shrieking curses at the sky as he feels “necessity’s sharp pinch”, Lear is reduced to a shuffling victim of Lewy body dementia in which tremors, ticks, hallucinations and loss of inhibition make for his stripping himself to near nudity. Mendes’s play gives “our joy” Cordelia (Olivia Vinall) more astuteness and impact than conventionally seen and while Shakespeare allows the Fool (Lear’s satirical voice of reason) to simply vanish, Mendes makes the Fool’s exit dramatic, reducing Lear to even less than the scrabbling figure at the base of his own looming statue. Equally deft is the treatment of the shadow plot involving the alienation of the Earl of Gloucester and his real son Edgar by the Machiavellian bastard son Edmund.
Kurosawa’s Ran is a film of startling feudal images, while Mendes’s play functions as a chilling op-ed on our times.