Shakespeare is good on treachery – and those deprived by gender, breeding and culture, can only dissemble and manipulate to achieve their ambitions.  Once a great King, Lear is an old man, over-ripe for plucking.


The RSC production of Lear is being staged at the New London Theatre at the top of Drury Lane – sixties concrete, thrust stage – not unlike The Crucible in Sheffield.  Ian McKellan plays Lear.  He is quite magnificent; he manages the nuances of dementia with great insight and consummate skill.  He opening scenes show an ageing King, still clinging to the trappings of power and dispensing blessings to his people and largesse to his family.  But this is a King gone soft.  A widower with three daughters – who knows how such a once powerful man would have behaved, exploiting his wife’s family, cheating on her – perhaps his daughters are not all by the same woman anyway – there is a history there.  But now, this great King wants to know that he is loved before he dies. 

He sets up a test for his three daughters.  Which of them loves him most?  Goneril and Regan try to outdo each other in their affections.  Cordelia, who up until then had been the favoured one, can say nothing. ‘Nothing’, splutters Lear, ‘Well, nothing can come of nothing.’  She loves her father as is his due; no more, no less.  If she loved him as much as her sisters say they love him, then how much love would she have left for her husband.  Lear is furious.   Wasn’t she the favoured one? 


Cordelia is banished and goes off – without a dowry – to marry the King of France; not a bad outcome for her under the circumstances.  Lear’s kingdom is divided into two, but as son as his two elder daughters have the power, they set about stripping their father of his.  There is no way they are going to tolerate him playing the great King any more.  They will give him house room, but he has to behave and not embarrass them.              

Cordelia and Regan are the real villains.  Not only do they usurp their father’s power, but it is clear that they are not above betraying their husbands and indeed each other to gain absolute power.  One wonders again what the father would have done to them to make them wreak such vengeance on the men in their lives.  They are both in love with Edmund, the ambitious bastard son of Gloucester, who has plotted the disinheritance of his half brother, Edgar, and the exile and mutilation of his own father on grounds of treason.  Edmund is a nasty piece of work, who promises to marry both the evil sisters, setting them against each other.   

Treachery begets treachery.  There are all too many ambitious people around to do the bidding of those in power.   The bad guys are evil; the good are fools.  There is little exploration of deeper motives in Shakespeare.  It’s black and white. That’s what makes good theatre, just as Eastenders makes good television.  It is just too confusing to explore the deprivations that have created the insecurities that have precluded trust.  It’s a dog eat dog world; if you don’t exploit others, you will be exploited yourself. 

But who are the fools?  Yes Lear has lost his devious edge along with his power and judgement, believing in the myth of his own benevolent omnipotence.  He has to be stripped of all reason and live as a beggar with madmen to recover a kind of tragic sense and stature – Lear removes his clothes to reveal a sceptre of a size that is impressive in one so old.  Edgar becomes poor Tom, a filthy, naked lunatic, to avoid capture and certain death; he is only playing the fool.  Gloucester is blinded but gains insight in his sightless state.  And what of the King’s fool?  Of course, he is the wisest of the lot of them.  He is played by Sylvester McCoy.  What would you expect of a doctor who is able to travel in time?