More sinned against than sinning? Not this predatory King Lear

A Critical View: King Lear as a sex offender, new books straight through your letterbox and some nebulously defined art


The question of how many liberties you can take with Shakespeare is usually a matter of editorial fiddling or wild exercises of translocation. You less often encounter a controversial boldness of back-story. I did this week, in Michael Attenborough's consistently interesting and intriguing production of King Lear at the Almeida. What do you think about a King Lear who qualifies for the Sex Offenders Register?

As Jonathan Pryce plays the King there's no question that that's what's being hinted about his past relationship with his two oldest daughters. After Lear has cursed Goneril he seizes her and plants a kiss directly on her lips, an aggressive gesture of sexual possession. And, while you might pass that off as merely a spark of his incipient madness, there's no mistaking the implication when Lear rails at Regan, "Tis not in thee/ To grudge my pleasures". Pryce thrusts his groin lasciviously against his daughter as he denies her ability "to oppose the bolt/ Against my coming in". This King's sense of sovereign sway, you're meant to think, extends to every part of his daughter's bodies.

I think it would be something of a stretch to claim that the text licences such a reading, though the lines will (just about) bear the nuance that is applied to them. You might argue that the phallic "bolt" takes a defensive role not a penetrative one in this image, and that Shakespeare would have avoided the muddled mental picture it presents. But, equally, I don't think you could argue that there's anything in the text that categorically rules out the possibility that Lear sexually abused his daughters. The liberty is available to Pryce and Attenborough and they take it. You might equally suggest, I suppose, that Desdemona really is sexually tempted by Iago, because the moment you embody a text by putting it on stage you have the opportunity to say things with bodies and faces that aren't said by the lines.

The question of whether it's justified is a different matter, and it surely depends on whether the subversive reading causes more problems than it solves. The sex-abuser Lear isn't without its attendant difficulties, beyond its challenge to convention. It makes it quite tricky, for example, to feel the same way about Lear's final, heartbreaking scene with Cordelia. Did she escape a dreaded night-time visit because he just hadn't got around to her? And shouldn't some of our sympathies be diverted to her psychologically-damaged sisters, now dead? But, in Attenborough's production, this hint of past predation also does something very interesting. It nudges you towards the realisation that Regan and Goneril are both frightened of their father. Not just scornful or unfeeling or ungrateful. But physically frightened. And for this there is textual warrant. When Goneril questions the size of her father's retinue, for instance, she notes that it enables him to "enguard his dotage with their powers,/ And hold our lives in mercy".

It nudges you towards the realisation that Regan and Goneril are both frightened of their father. Not just scornful or unfeeling or ungrateful. But physically frightened.

I studied King Lear at A-level, wrote essays on it at university and have seen it numerous times. And yet until the other night I'd never really noticed that little tremor of fear in Goneril's speech, the sense that, in admitting her father to her house, she's admitting someone dangerous. But suddenly it glistened and caught the eye in the lurid – arguably perverse – light of Pryce's characterisation. The invention had pointed us back at the play, not away from it. This could be evidence of my obtuseness, of course, rather than the intelligence of the performance and production. But I think I'd prefer to give them the credit and, in this case, uphold their licence to take liberties.

Get the best new books, post-haste

As has already been noted, it's been a good Booker year for independent publishers, with three of the shortlist selections rewarding the judgement of very small houses. The most interesting of these – from a business point of view rather than a literary one – is And Other Stories, publisher of Swimming Home by Deborah Levy, which offers interested readers the opportunity to take out a subscription – not to a magazine or a single title, but to the editorial wisdom of the publisher's core team. You can't pick what you're sent. You just wait for a literary treat to drop through the letterbox. For £50 you get six books a year, which seems like a pretty good deal.

High art? Or pie in the sky?

The Cultural Olympiad officially finished last weekend, but I'm still looking forward to one of its headline events. Looking forward, though, with warily contained expectations. Anthony McCall's Column – one of 12 public art commissions called Artists Taking the Lead – is a proposal to erect a mile-high pillar of cloud over Merseyside. After problems with planning, air traffic clearance and technical details the mechanism for producing it was floated into place a few weeks ago, though it's still not performing as it should. Wisely, perhaps, Column now has no fixed launch date. I'm sure the Liverpool Biennial would be happy to adopt it as part of their festivities; but since that only runs until 25 November, they'll have to keep their fingers crossed.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

1st line call logger/ User access administrator

£9 Per Hour: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Warrington a...

Shine Night Walk 2014 - 'On the night' volunteer roles

Unpaid Voluntary Work : Cancer Research UK: We need motivational volunteers to...

Accounts Assistant (Accounts Payable & Accounts Receivable)

£23000 - £25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Accounts Assistant (Accounts Payable...

Senior IT Trainer - Buckinghamshire - £250 - £350 p/d

£200 - £300 per day: Ashdown Group: IT Trainer - Marlow, Buckinghamshire - £25...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Liberia immigration officers wearing protective gloves inspect the travel documents at a border post with Sierra Leone, 30 July (EPA)  

The Ebola outbreak teaches us an important lesson about aid

Natalie Bennett
Passengers sit and enjoy a quiet train journey in a bygone age  

Why I'm shouting about the tragic demise of the quiet carriage

Simon Kelner
Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

We will remember them

Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
Billionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers

Spanx launches range of jeans

The jeans come in two styles, multiple cuts and three washes and will go on sale in the UK in October
10 best over-ear headphones

Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel
Commonwealth Games 2014: David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end

Commonwealth Games

David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end
UCI Mountain Bike World Cup 2014: Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings

UCI Mountain Bike World Cup

Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings
Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star