The old king and his daughter do not enter alone, however. They are accompanied by at least one soldier, possibly more. This soldier, about whom we know almost nothing, has a single line later in the scene, but his entrance is not marked in either of the authoritative texts that have been handed down to us – the quarto and the Folio – and, consequently, presents the director of King Lear with a problem. When, precisely, should the soldier, or soldiers, enter? Every line spoken by Lear in this short, final scene is a wonder and I suspect that most directors instinctively feel that his words and the image should be left, as it were, to stand alone.
This is a tiny example of another Shakespearean manoeuvre, one to set against his skill at articulating the big things like love and hate. It’s the type of thing that makes mounting Shakespeare’s work endlessly fascinating, demanding and frustrating. For whatever reason – the way the texts have been transmitted, carelessness on the part of the writer, a change of intention – the plays, in their lack of precision, often raise questions for which the playwright has provided no clear answer. Any actor or director in search of clarity could be forgiven for interpreting this as an opportunity or a challenge.
If this challenge seems, at times, difficult to meet then it’s comforting to know that we are not alone. Ben Jonson, Shakespeare’s younger contemporary and a writer whose narrative was always meticulously charted, found his older colleague’s work, for all its beauty, sloppy and often absurd. He probably found the paucity of information about Lady Macbeth’s child, for instance, infuriating. Unfair though it might be, however, Shakespeare’s capacity for absorbing endless reinterpretation, in contrast to the demands that Jonson makes, is maybe one reason why the latter’s work has never been as popular as his colleague’s. Perhaps we should be braver with Jonson, but the truth is that, over nearly thirty years of working on Shakespeare’s plays, there have been countless occasions when, in the rehearsal room, I have witnessed (and expended) a great deal of enjoyable effort in the attempt to sort out apparent inconsistencies and ambiguities. We could leave the plays alone, I suppose, but that seems the lazy and irresponsible option. Shakespeare demands a more considered response, I think.
This is a tricky business, however. One never wants to “tidy up” Shakespeare’s writing without considering as many options as possible and ambiguity is often a good thing. There are sometimes unexpected discoveries to be made by investing fully in something that is apparently confusing. The soldier in the final moments of King Lear is there precisely to complicate matters. In this case, the king may very well be embodying a profound and far-reaching pain that has universal relevance, but the playwright cannot resist providing a more mundane and savage context. Lear is not floating free of the real world; and this may remind us that it is in the oddities of Shakespeare’s writing, his exploration of the confusion and ugliness of any situation, his absolute refusal to sentimentalise, that a great deal of his power lies.
The fact, too, that the plays are, from an interpretative point of view, open-ended leads satisfyingly to our questioning, not only the playwright, but also each other. We may not agree with a particular analysis or interpretation, but if it is neither wilful nor illogical, then it may well be, despite our preconceptions, valid. Shakespeare’s plays are very hospitable. As a fellow actor said to me recently, interpreting Shakespeare is “a game we can all play”.
The feeling that one is standing on shifting ground is there right at the start of any close reading of the text. The astonishing work of literary scholars over the last century has radically changed our view of the plays as comprising an unchanging and rigid canon. Not one of Shakespeare’s plays exists in a single, unchallenged version. There are, as I mentioned earlier, two authoritative texts for King Lear – with significant differences – and three for Hamlet. Plays like Measure for Measure are frankly a bit of a mess and Timon of Athens is clearly unfinished.
It seems that Shakespeare’s plays are, in some sense, there to be adapted. We have to tread carefully, of course, because we are dealing with a man who was unquestionably a genius;, but he was also a working man of the theatre and, it seems, was willing to adapt his work, responding to his own changing ideas and, presumably, to the demands of those he worked with. What this all boils down to is that you can’t perform a play by Shakespeare without first editing it. There is no set text.
The reason why this is a worry for some is that editing is necessarily an interpretative activity and our judgment of a play can therefore be manipulated. Choosing between options that the playwright himself offers is not, of course, objectionable, although many are surprised at how different these options sometimes are. For instance, one of Hamlet’s famous soliloquies, his last, “How all occasions do inform against me” is not in the Folio version of the play.
Difficulties arise when theatre practitioners change things that Shakespeare did not clearly authorise. In the production of King Lear that I am currently involved with, there is a glaring, perhaps even controversial, example of this. The Fool, one of Lear’s few friends, disappears halfway through the play and this is considered by commentators as either gratifyingly mysterious or simply unsatisfactory. We decided that the King, now mad and predictably violent for much of the time, should club the Fool to death.
Whatever arguments we can produce for such a decision – and I, of course, think they are watertight, despite the fact that much later in the story Lear mentions that the Fool has been hanged – there is no doubt that some find such a departure from the text distressing. Years ago, in a production of The Tempest (also directed, as it happens, by Sam Mendes), I played a rather haughty Ariel who, at the moment of being given his freedom by Prospero, spat in his master’s face. This seemed to me to be an absolutely understandable protest given Ariel’s long years of servitude, but many spectators, for understandable reasons, disliked it intensely.
My defence is that the texts themselves are not stable and that, anyway, we are following Shakespeare’s footsteps. For instance, editing a play for performance often means cutting lines and we know that some of the plays exist in shorter versions, presumably intended for particular occasions and I’m sure he changed things for other reasons than that of length. Even if the principal aim of a group of practitioners is simply to reduce the playing time, rather than something more devious, distortion of some (largely mythical) ur-text is inevitable.
This process of editing may challenge our preconceptions about a play and those preconceptions, especially if they manifest themselves in a desire for something that we can easily define, are often very difficult to shift. I’m aware, when watching a production of a Shakespeare play I know well, that I have to work hard not to impose my rigid requirements on the performers in front of me. There is always a danger that, while working on a Shakespeare play over months or even years, one can persuade oneself that a certain interpretation is the only one possible. After all, it is part of an actor’s job to convince an audience that, within the context of the production, this is momentarily the case. But Macbeth need not be, as I saw him, a man whose poetic imagination is liberated by a murder that is a gift to his wife. Iago may not have a second-rate mind, as I would argue, but perhaps is really is some sort of Machiavellian superstar.
I know I have to fight against my own prejudices (and acknowledge that, in any case, my ideas can change). Equally well, I have been guilty in performance of smoothing over, rather than embracing, difficulties, in the vain hope that no one will notice. For instance I have always found it hard that Hamlet, a character that I love and admire, is guilty of a puerile misogyny and, perhaps, more worryingly, of the unnecessary deaths of his old friends from university, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. When I played him, I could find reasons for the misogyny but half- ignored the murders. The conflict and, most importantly the play on our sympathies are there, however, and should not be ignored.
The question of sympathy is one that has been exercising me over the months that I’ve been working on King Lear in Sam Mendes’s production for the National Theatre. If the soldier in the final scene is a reminder that Lear is not just a poor old thing but an angry, indeed homicidal, man, operating, however feebly, in a harsh world, then the first scene of the play is a direct challenge to our natural desire to like the central character. Unlike Othello or even Macbeth, we never get a chance to see Lear at his best, to see the man that Cordelia loves and that Kent and Gloucester, his devoted allies, respect. There are ways of softening the scene up, of playing it in a more vulnerable way, although I feel that this dodges the issue. What the king does in dividing his kingdom and banishing his daughter is, in Kent’s word, “evil”. Consequently, it’s a long haul back to forgiveness both from the other characters and from the audience; to be honest, I’m not sure we ever really get there.
Forgiveness, and the difficulties of defining it, is something that Shakespeare seems always to have been interested in and this interest becomes especially intense in his later plays. In The Tempest we see Prospero offering forgiveness to his errant brother in a manner that looks suspiciously like another arbitrary display of power. The brother, perhaps significantly, does not answer. Leontes in The Winter’s Tale, wracked with a guilt that seems for a long time too deep-rooted to shift, faces a wronged wife who talks, not to him, but to their daughter. Not a word is spoken that promises unequivocally a settled and happy resolution.
Shakespeare recognised that the wish to be forgiven and the desire to forgive is the start of a process, that reconciliation or redemption take time, and time, of course, is the one thing that Lear and Cordelia do not have. That is what ultimately is so heartbreaking about King Lear. Not all mistakes can be fully rectified, all damage repaired and all love restored – at least, not here and now. The best we can do is accept the muddle of it all.
What Shakespeare always demands, though, is our sympathy, because, to put it simply, he writes about people like us. Offhand, I can think of only one character he wrote – Iago in Othello – that slips through the safety-net of his concern. Shakespeare might not agree with Lear’s sweeping and anarchic assertion that “none does offend”, but he sensed, I think, the danger of easy judgement. He recognises that self-worth and dignity are hard-won and that our lives cannot but be inconsistent, unpredictable, and confused. The only sane response for all of us, perhaps, is to emulate him – to look carefully, to withhold quick judgment and to try to understand.