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Christian Versus a Nihilist Interpretation of King Lear

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Christian Versus a Nihilist Interpretation of King Lear

Traditional, orthodox or dominant views are opposed by resistant, variant, dissident, divergent, subversive, aberrant or niche ones.

King Lear arouses dialectical or polemic interpretations because it, like most of Shakespeare’s tragedies is a problematic play raising complex questions without providing neat pat solutions. Until 1962, the play was presented in either the sanitised and now totally discredited Nahum Tate’s version with a fairy tale “everyone lived happily ever after” ending or a traditional Aristotelian interpretation attempting to engender audience empathy, identification, “arousing pity and fear”, leading to the purging of emotions and Catharsis.

It was Jan Kott’s interpretation as Theatre of the Grotesque (1930’s) that inspired Peter Brook of the Royal Shakespeare Company to present an Epic Theatre interpretation of the play diametrically opposed to all traditional approaches. This was a pivotal presentation that radically and profoundly influenced future productions. The Christian interpretations follow the Aristotelian tradition while Nihilists follow the Epic Theatre, in the Platonic Tradition.

The Christian view is one of optimism based on hope. Based on dogma passed down throughout the ages through the teachings of Jesus, Christians believe in the dignity of man created in God’s image. Though they acknowledge human imperfection and fallibility, they also believe in salvation and redemption. Christians reject moral relativism and espouse the moral absolutism of truth, the mystery of creation, affirmation of life, divine justice, triumph of good over evil, upright living and faith in a loving benevolent God. Like Aristotle, they assert a rational moral order in the universe and that while suffering is inherent in the human condition, it can lead mankind to a noble form of dignity.

Christians argue that Lear has to become mad in order to become wise, that Gloucester can really only see once he becomes blind, yet the brutal gouging out of his eyes inspires the greatest upheaval of traditional order when a servant turns on his master, Cornwell, slaying him. Edgar makes some of the most profound observations that support the Christian view:

“The gods are just and of our pleasant vices

Make instruments to plaque us.”

The dark and vicious place where thee he got

Cost him his eyes. V.3.170

Albany expressing the fallibility of man and the nature of man’s evil, begins to comprehend what is happening concluding:

“Humanity must perforce prey on itself IV. 2. 46 вЂ" 50.

“This shows you are above,

You justicers, that these our nether crimes

So speedily can venge! “ IV. 3. 78 вЂ" 80.

Kent: (the final word)

It is the stars,

The stars above us, govern our conditions. IV. 3.32.

When Gloucester’s attempt at suicide fails, he confesses and resolves: “Let not my worser spirit tempt me again to die before you please.” And Edger reaffirms this when he states “Men must endure their going hence, even as their going hither, Ripeness is all. V.ii. 9-11.

L.C. Knight contends that despite Lear’s suffering we are justified towards affirmation in the end. Like most Christian interpretations they see Lear’s rejection of revenge and his opting for meditation in “We two alone will sing like birds i’ the cage” as acceptance of his destiny and a state of peace and serenity. King Lear has finally been redeemed, a wiser dignified and noble man.

The Nihilist1 interpretations are broadly based on Plato’s theories of Epic Theatre of disconnection, detachment, disengagement, estrangement or alienation. Rather than emotionally empathising or identifying with the main characters we become critical observers and respond rationally and intellectually. We assume a universe governed by chance, randomness, or caprice. Chaos rides supreme in a discordant world where evil often triumphs over good. Gloucester expresses this best when in despair he resorts to cynicism and at worst to nihilism:

1Nihilism is a 19th C. Russian extreme revolutionary movement. A skeptic doubts, a cynic distrusts, while a nihilist rejects all traditions, beliefs, morals, values and aspirations. They are utterly negative, destructive and subversive, believing or valuing nothing. They appealed to disenchanted youths urging them to destroy a repressive society and rebuild it from scratch. “Someone who does not bow to any authority or accept any principle or trust”.

“As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods, they kill us for their sport” IV.1.35.

In this view, revived by Jan Kott’s essay, The Theatre of the Grotesque, we lack the ability to fully engage and identify rather we stand back in awe overwhelmed by a malevolent or indifferent universe. Modern philosophical movements like existentialism and absurdism support or reflect this absurdist thinking. Even earlier critics like Dr Samuel Johnson asserted this pessimistic view when he stated that: “King Lear is a play where the wicked prosper”.

The Nihilist view is filled with despair, futility and disintegration. It asserts that instead of dying in peace, Lear dies in a distracted and demented state and that suffering can be degrading, dehumanising leading to a numbing, narcoleptic desensitised or brutalising condition. This is best supported by the recurring motif of nothing throughout the play, from Cordelia’s “nothing”, The Fool’s nothing and to Lear’s “No, no, no life?” There is no sense or meaning in all this.

The best example of a nihilist interpretation would be Peter Brook’s direction of Lear with Paul Schofield Staged in 1962 and Filmed in 1971.

A pivotal version influenced by Jan

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