Ask Philippa: King Lear

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Philippa Kelly speaks outside in front of green trees
Philippa Kelly giving a Grove Talk; photo courtesy of Kelly

Ask Philippa: King Lear

On September 15, Resident Dramaturg Philippa Kelly continued Shakespeare In-Depth—a 10-week deep dive into five of Shakespeare’s most enduring plays— with a powerful lecture on King Lear. Here are a few questions that came up during the session. Feel free to join the conversation by adding your own questions and comments below.  If you missed the class but would still like to be part of Shakespeare In-Depth, there is still time to register for the final play, The Taming of the Shrew.

Q: I always thought Cordelia was just unwilling to play games of bargaining. She thought Lear would just reward her out of paternal love, but was taken aback that the other daughters would have to brag about what they have done for Lear to gain anything. Is that a reasonable interpretation?

Philippa: Absolutely! Also, when someone has had plenitude (which Cordelia has had) perhaps she doesn’t understand the scarcity mentality that her sisters (always less-loved) may be coming from. But I do think, too, that with the suitors France and Burgundy vying for her hand, this has to be at the front of Cordelia’s mind – “How have my sisters husbands if they say they love YOU all?”

Q: I’ve seen a few productions (including one at Cal Shakes) where the fool IS Cordelia and it is hinted that the fool might be a figment of Lear’s imagination… thoughts?

Philippa: The first part of your post – the Fool/Cordelia…. These roles are sometimes doubled, as the Fool disappears (“And I’ll go to bed at noon”) as Cordelia re-enters. But the danger of this is that it sacrifices two amazing and different roles for the sake of virtuosity (and cost-cutting). The second part of your post – I think this is a really interesting idea, that the Fool is played as part of Lear’s imagination – his psychic truth-teller. 

Q: Will you discuss the differences, if any, in Shakespeare’s exploration of service in Lear versus Julius Caesar or Hamlet? Does true service require sacrificial love? 

Philippa: I think that we are all servants when we love – not doormats, but rather, we dethrone ourselves from the center of the universe when we truly love. What a gift, to be able willingly to dethrone oneself. My experience of Shakespeare is that service is a sort-of mark of the antique world – not just a time of loyalty, but of service being the true mark of accomplishment (which was all changing in the new times of Claudius-style takeovers in Hamlet and assassination in Julius Caesar). The conflict at the heart of Caesar is that service to the ideal of Rome is in conflict with service to Caesar. We also have, for example, Macbeth’s “The service and the loyalty I owe/In doing it, pays itself,’ or Othello’s ‘I have done the state some service, and they know it.’ Service was the highest kind of duty, and a breach of service was a breach of the self that, in many Shakespeare plays, leads to mayhem.

Q: Does Lear ever see Goneril and Regan as damaged, or as other than monsters, or monsters of his own creating?

Philippa:  I think he sees them as ingrates, monsters, AND as toxic part of himself – carbuncles/in my corrupted flesh. This could be interpreted as monsters of his own making.

Q: Lear is progressing toward shame but he is perceived as going mad.  The paradox is that in fact he’s not going mad but becoming human. Am I on the right track?

Philippa: Yes, Shakespeare often stages madness as a release from the constricts of the self, a sort of emotional forest.


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3 thoughts on “Ask Philippa: King Lear”

  1. I have always loved the fact that Edmund’s belated, end of life repentance (which literally means to take a new path) follows hard upon his “Yet Edmund was belov’d.” As though the realization of his being loved is what lets him make a tiny, inadequate, last turn away from what he has been. There’s a guy in the Purgatorio who gets into purgatory through just such a last minute turn to the good. But what do you think of this, Wise Philippa?

  2. PS: I put my collected works in the car when I thought I might have to evacuate, and I keep forgetting to fetch it back! I probably misquoted Edmund.

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