The anguish of King Lear’s ‘despised old man’ is timeless

Genius has no need of demographic tables. Shakespeare would not have seen many examples of age-related dementia at a time when average life expectancy hardly reached 40

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Modern arts audiences, like modern people as a whole, like to think of themselves as sensitive, caring types, more alert to others’ pain and woe than their rough ancestors in the benighted past. I wonder. If you can sit through a first-rate production of King Lear and come out even trying to make polite chat – as I and a packed house (which included that pugnaciously faithful follower of an outcast ruler, Alastair Campbell) did at the National Theatre on Tuesday this week – then you may have grown a thicker skin than any human should.

Shakespeare’s literary heirs openly admitted to the anguish that Lear can bring. Samuel Johnson wrote: “I was many years ago so shocked by Cordelia’s death, that I know not whether I ever endured to read again the last scenes of the play till I undertook to revise them as an editor.” In his sonnet about sitting down to read King Lear, John Keats treats exposure to the tragedy as a dread-inducing ordeal, a “fierce dispute/ Betwixt damnation and impassion’d clay” that he must again “burn through”. Charles Lamb thought the king’s humiliation so “painful and disgusting” to witness on stage that “the Lear of Shakespeare cannot be acted”. The better the production (and Sam Mendes’s is outstanding), the more it rends the soul. And I did wonder what Mr Campbell made of the little tweak that Mendes had given to the excruciating torture scene in which the Earl of Gloucester is blinded. This time, he was waterboarded too.

Every generation and every audience seeks, and finds, its own path to Lear. Across today’s Middle East, for example, Mendes’s visual cues that hint at the crumbling of a patriarchal tyranny would resonate among the ruins left by Mubarak, Gaddafi and Assad. For spectators in Britain now, happily untroubled by whimsical old despots, another aspect of this family and state breakdown slaps us in the face with all the force of the “pitiless storm” that Lear endures.

Sally Magnusson makes the connection well. This week, the journalist and broadcaster publishes Where Memories Go, the latest, and very powerful, addition to an ever-expanding shelf of memoirs about a parent’s slow descent into dementia. “King Lear is our play for today,” she argues when tracing its relevance to the slipping selfhood of her mother, the writer Mamie Baird Magnusson. She calls it “a devastating exploration of the human condition for a 21st century struggling as never before with the implications of long life. As he starts to lose his sense of self, the old king is pleading for someone to help define it for him. The words are directed at us. He is speaking to me”.

The tremendous Simon Russell Beale, whose Lear lurches between antic, second-childhood petulance and thunderous, capricious fury, researched dementia while preparing for the role. He found that Lear’s behaviour seems to mimic a rarer type of the condition called Lewy body dementia. For the actor, “the picture of the disease seems to fit with what Shakespeare was writing about, including hallucinations and wandering. But the main thing is shame, anger and embarrassment. Active, vicious embarrassment – not retreat”.

Along with the rage comes absurdity. Twist the perspective, or harden the heart, and the unbearable pathos of cognitive impairment becomes hilarious bumbling folly. “I will do such things,” rails Lear as the storm breaks, “what they are, yet I know not, but they shall be the terrors of the earth.” Is that a laugh-line? You bet. Absent-mindedness strikes us as comic. madness as tragic. But who will call the moment when the line is crossed? In Lear, or in life, the border blurs.

Russell Beale as King Lear with daughter Cordelia, played by Olivia Vinall Russell Beale as King Lear with daughter Cordelia, played by Olivia Vinall

“Who is it that can tell me who I am?” asks the king. “Lear’s shadow,” replies his Fool. As he fades into a ghost of his former self, moments of lucidity recur. Intermittent self-knowledge intensifies Lear’s torment: “O, let me not be mad, not mad, sweet heaven/ Keep me in temper: I would not be mad!” Sally Magnusson, addressing her distracted mother, writes: “In ruined, deluded Lear, one minute incoherent in rather familiar ways, and the next astonishingly acute, I see you. I hear from him your own heart-breaking attempts to school your will and control your mind, as you feel both slipping away.” She quotes the original case notes of Dr Alois Alzheimer, who in 1906 examined a formerly even-tempered housewife whose lapses of speech, memory and reason had brought her to his Frankfurt asylum. As Frau Deter told Dr Alzheimer, “I have, so to speak, lost myself.” That Lear-like utterance captures the erratic, on-off quality of the disease that causes sufferers and family such distress.

Genius has no need of demographic tables. Shakespeare would not have seen that many examples of age-related dementia around him at a time when average life expectancy hardly reached 40. Fast-forward four centuries from 1606, and an incredibly rare condition in Jacobean London may afflict the parents of dozens of people in a large theatre audience today. Lear speaks out of an exotic past into a commonplace future. According to the Alzheimer’s Society, the one-in-100 incidence of dementia among 65- to 69-year-olds rises to one in six after the age of 80. (Lear himself is “four score and upward”.) By the mid-nineties, the ratio of sufferers climbs to one in three. More than 20 million people in Britain have a relative or close friend with dementia.

At present, about 800,000 people in the UK have a dementia diagnosis. By 2021, that will rise to a million. The reported figures radically underestimate the scale of the challenge ahead as longevity extends. The society warns that the diagnosis rate still runs at about 45 per cent of the actual total. As for research funding, dementia receives less than one pound for every 10 that goes into the investigation of cancers. Compassion auctions among good causes always leave a nasty taste. No life-shortening condition is more “worthy” of support than any other. But Sally Magnusson has a point when she argues that dementia “does stand alone in disabling so many people for so long and at such inordinate public expense”. In the UK, that expense amounts to £23bn each year.

For Shakespeare’s afflicted king, individual collapse trails national ruin in its wake. Lear’s surrender of power and division of his kingdom, the “darker purpose” proclaimed in the first scene, heralds convulsion in the royal body and in the body politic. Could he have already feared the loss of reason when he opts “to shake all cares and business from our age”? Follow that route and another dementia-struck leader makes his entrance: Harold Wilson.

Alzheimer’s certainly contributed to the former PM’s death in 1995. Rumour suggests that he had begun to exhibit symptoms – or maybe pre-symptoms – during his second term after 1974. In March 1976, Wilson resigned, a political thunderbolt never since explained to anybody’s satisfaction. Might Wilson, perhaps the finest academic mind to have occupied 10 Downing Street in the 20th century, have felt a faint, Lear-like premonition of declining powers?

In 2008, dementia specialist Dr Peter Garrard analysed Wilson’s linguistic patterns in his House of Commons speeches over decades. He found evidence of changes consonant with the advent of Alzheimer’s, as he had in the later novels of another sufferer, the novelist Iris Murdoch. These verbal shifts count as early warnings rather than markers of the full-blown condition.

Dr David Owen, Wilson’s health minister and then foreign secretary, would later merge his backgrounds in medicine and politics to study the impact of serious illness on the exercise of power. Owen, after “having talked to [Wilson] in the House of Commons over a decade”, writes that the PM quit “because he became aware that his near-photographic memory was no longer working effectively”. As for Ronald Reagan – although the public announcement of his Alzheimer’s came only in 1994, for Owen “it is hard to believe that he was not suffering from some cognitive impairment while president” up to 1989.

Even as improving longevity swells the ranks of domestic Lears, the cult of youth in Western democracies makes it less likely that many of them will hold down key jobs when dementia strikes – or creeps. In Asia, which respects age in office, the problem may surface more rapidly. But if, in the Shakespearean scheme of things, the state is a household, then a household is also a state. An aged father’s confusion and despair shake the heavens in sympathy. And Lear feels himself to be no more than “a poor, infirm, weak and despised old man”.

On stage in the Olivier, that despised old man will, thanks to Simon Russell Beale’s gifts, wring you dry. Perhaps today’s ministers – rather than yesterday’s spin doctors – should take a break from managerial responses to failures in NHS geriatric care and watch the hospital-gowned Lear. He wakes to see his daughter by his bed, and to remember his plight: “Do not laugh at me;/ For, as I am a man, I think this lady/ To be my child Cordelia.” “And so I am, I am.” True to his research, Russell Beale plays it more angry than tender. No matter: the scene can still stop a train. Society, medicine, the length of life may change. But Shakespeare remains, in the words of Polish writer Jan Kott, our contemporary.

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