King Lear - How Realistic Is Act I Scene I?

Essay by PaperNerd ContributorHigh School, 12th grade October 2001

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It is tempting to launch straight into a close analysis of the text, searching for some sort of "˜realism'. Nevertheless I feel it is important to first try to define what "˜realistic' means, and place our definition within the relationships created by the reading and performance of the play.

What do we actually mean when we say something is "˜realistic'? If something is "˜realistic' it is a depiction of events, object or people as they are or were. There should be no idealization or presentation in abstract form. This is a rather dry dictionary definition. In common use, we mean realistic to be roughly equivalent to believable. In the context of a play, we do not generally judge on whether the action is truthful but whether it is believable. Especially when we see a play, rather than read it, we are invited to enter a state of suspended belief. External realism, connections we make between the action on stage and the "˜real world', matters less, we still ask whether it could happen, but we are less interested with whether it would happen.

It is more important for the play to be consistent, for the play to believe in itself.

This would be fine if it not for the fact that Shakespeare often reminds us that we are of course sitting in compact little seats or standing in the rain, with the rumble of jumbo jets above our heads. He jars the internal cohesion of the play, letting us know directly that we are watching, not experiencing, (from Scene 2, "like a catastrophe of the old comedy"). If we take Shakespeare's work as a collection of allegorical stories, (don't let ambition be your downfall! Don't kill your family!! Love before politics!!), then it is in his interest to maintain our belief in the play as the ultimate reality, as we are watching it. As soon as we realise we are merely watching actors trot out line after line his spell is broken and his "˜message' diluted. But to take Shakespeare's work as purely allegorical is idiotic, and a charge of unrealism is moot. Shakespeare's "˜message', if indeed it can be defined as such, is situated on both a theatrical and meta-theatrical level.

The point I am trying to make, however unsuccessfully, is that it is invalid to ask "How realistic"¦?" without any further definition or clarification.

All this having been said, I will now explore the areas of Act 1 Scene 1 which I find more or less "˜believable', or more or less sound within the fabric of the play itself.

The scenario we are presented with is certainly rather peculiar. We have a King who is most likely near eighty years old (""˜Tis the infirmity of his age"), since he is splitting his kingdom in preparation for his "Unburdened crawl toward death". This King, who "hath ever but slenderly known himself", though "˜realistic' in his sense of absolute power verging on dictatorial authoritarianism, presents a rather fragile psyche when he can no longer control his anger towards Cordelia. He has worked out exactly what his plan is to be, only to come unstuck in the face of his youngest daughter. As part of his reaction, to ask for "an hundred knights", which would have resonated in any contemporary mind as an outrageous burden.

Most audiences would know how Charles V had acted after leaving the throne. Lear asks for "all th'addition to a king", whereas Charles went to live in a Monastery. These details ground the play within the mind of the audience, making them more receptive to the play as a whole. This could be interpreted as a sign of "˜realism'. Conversely, some audiences would find it a continual annoyance that, for example, we never find out about Lear's Queen. It only serves to heighten to sense that we are watching a play if we feel that we are viewing a "˜reality', but only one having been heavily filtered by the Author. The audience's desire to know about non-existent characters acts to move our focus away from the play as a continual birth of pure narrative and onto the act of composition itself.

The Author appears from beyond the grave with Goneril's proleptic statement, "dearer than eyesight". For the reader or viewer with knowledge of the later content of the play, the foreshadowing once again removes the focus from the narrative to the Author and the composition.

Lear's seemingly sudden anger at his youngest daughter's words is more dramatic than realistic in a pure sense, but within itself it seems perfectly plausible. Later though, France points out to Lear, and us, that "The best, the dearest, should in this trice of time | Commit a thing so monstrous, to dismantle | So many folds of favour".

When we see the questionable speed and strength of his anger, either now or when Kent had tried to reason earlier, we are exposed, however briefly, to "˜Lear', Shakespeare's great vessel of emotion and contradiction, rather than a Lear as a character operating perfectly believably within the bounds of his own artificial world. Essentially, Lear's actions are perfectly realistic as long as we are only aware of them within the truth of the play itself.

It seems that the first scene of the play is realistic. But for this statement to be truly valid it must be qualified. Within the "˜performance space', whether in reading or actual performance, exists an alternate reality, which by definition is perfectly realistic within itself. When we enter this space, without trying to sound too "˜New Age', we do not need to relate the play impersonally to "˜our' reality, in fact we cannot. The main relationship is between us, and each of our subjective cultural and social perceptions of our "˜own' realities, and the play. It is when we leave this space, having become aware of Shakespeare's meta-theatrical material (or when watching particularly crap acting), that we can say, as objectively as is possible, that it is only a play. It is then and only then thaten the question "How realistic"¦" becomes valid.

· Areas in which we may take issue with the realism o Lear so old 80ish, giving up to "crawl to death" + daughters young o Where is wife? o Lear is bizarre 51, though unbelievable? o Goneril : line 56 à proleptic having read/seen play"¦.author's entry o Lear's anger"¦.more dramatic device than realistic, but it is believable § 215 à France points out speed of anger · Areas that give us reason to believe.

o For contemporary audiences Charles/Lear comparisons o Lear has planned o 100 knights o The process of dowry o Kent o Swept up in harshness of words, 235 · Conclusion o Act1Scene1 is unmistakably dramatic"¦"¦but the thing is a fucking play, so what do you expect!! · Intro "“ · What does "˜realistic' mean o Supposedly, representing things as they are, o Yet, we take the word to mean "˜believable' "“ we don't judge the play on whether it actually happened, just whether it could have.

o Since this is a play, we naturally suspend most of our disbelief o It just has to work within itself, not jar too much.

o That jarring could within itself be Shakespeare trying to influence us in a meta-theatrical way.

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