Speak again: King Lear retold by Anne Enright and Preti Taneja
The Green Road gives us a matriarch, not a monarch; We That Are Young relocates Lear to India today
King Lear: “Shakespeare’s greatest achievement, but it seems to me not his best play”
Lecturing on Shakespeare’s tragedy in the early 20th century, AC Bradley declared: “King Lear seems to me Shakespeare’s greatest achievement, but it seems to me not his best play”. Explaining that he regards the play to be “the fullest revelation of Shakespeare’s power”, Bradley argued that the impact of King Lear went beyond being a piece of theatre, instead finding it more appropriate to group it “with works like the Prometheus Vinctus and the Divine Comedy, and even with the greatest symphonies of Beethoven and the statues in the Medici Chapel”.
At the heart of Shakespeare’s King Lear is a swell of emotion arguably deeper and more poignant than the jealous rage of Othello, the ambition of Macbeth, or the indecision of Hamlet. In Lear, we are faced with what is, at heart, a family drama about ageing and responsibility: an old king, hoping to prevent future strife, holds a love-test between his three daughters in order to divide up his kingdom. It is a tragedy of bitter misunderstanding in and of itself, but one which develops greater grandeur as the implications start to play out on a national and international scale. Shakespeare’s Lear gives us a familial feud fuelled with such resentment that it threatens to tear apart an entire nation.
So what does it mean to relocate the story of Lear to Co Clare, and replace a king resigning his offices of state with an elderly woman who, disappointed by her children, wields passive aggression like the sharpest of swords? Taking on the challenge of rewriting King Lear without including any of the actual plot, Anne Enright’s recent novel The Green Road gives us not a monarch, but a matriarch: the difficult Rosaleen, whose decision to put the family home on the market brings her four children back for one last Christmas.
Both generations are plagued with perceived ingratitude. On one side, we have a lonely widow, wondering why there is no one left to love her; on the other, her daughter, the aptly-named Constance, tasked with managing her frail mother as the only child still living locally. If Shakespeare’s Lear tells us, “How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child”, then Enright’s Lear serves as a stinging reminder of the equal difficulty of having a thankless parent.
Published in 2015, The Green Road deftly traverses Ireland in the 1980s, the separate paths trodden by Rosaleen’s four children, and the gaudy wealth of the Celtic Tiger. With her characteristic lightness of touch which, remarkably, has the unexpected effect of a slap in the face, the characters in Enright’s novel realise that “the house they were sitting in was worth a ridiculous amount, and the people sitting in it were worth very little”. The callous calculation of the worth of human life versus profit margins is more brutally explored in a yet more recent novelisation of Lear, Preti Taneja’s We That Are Young (2017). Winner of the Desmond Elliott Orize for first-time novelists, Taneja’s book relocates Lear to contemporary India: the world’s fastest growing economy.
We That Are Young begins with the return of Jivan, the equivalent of the bastard Edmund, who is returning to India after leaving for America at 13. Upon his homecoming, he is met with the shock resignation of Devraj, the founder of a grossly lucrative company responsible for reshaping the economic (and geographical) landscape of New Delhi, Amritsar and beyond. While Enright’s retelling of Lear homes in on the unspoken and unspeakable tensions within a small family, Taneja’s novel takes the narrative back to its roots as a state-of-the-nation narrative, where a single, selfish family wields great power with little responsibility. It is an angry meditation on the placing of profit before people and the gut-wrenching contrast of garish wealth alongside the gutter life of the slums.
Both Enright and Taneja reflect upon their heritage, and their novels serve as a reminder of how Shakespeare has been used as a colonial tool, brandished by the British as an argument for cultural superiority. But these two novels do not live in the past, but engage with the present, holding a mirror up to the hypocrisy rooted in the rampant rise of a neoliberal culture which swallows everything in its path.
Written in 1606, Shakespeare was himself retelling a story already known by his audiences. Building on the historical narratives surrounding Leir, a king of ancient Britain whose reign was detailed by both Geoffrey of Monmouth and Holinshed, Shakespeare retold, re-formed and adapted history for his own dramatic purposes. But he wasn’t even the first to do so: an anonymous play, King Leir, was first performed at the Rose theatre in London in 1594, 22 years before the Lear Shakespeare’s company went on to produce.
Shakespeare wrote the story of Lear more darkly than it had been told before. Rather than reuniting the king with his fondest daughter and restoring him to the throne, as the anonymous Leir does, Shakespeare’s obsession with nothingness pelts the plot into existential oblivion, and the play ends with king and daughters all dead. Over time, the tragic role of King Lear has become a rite of passage for veteran Shakespearean actors, with Ian McKellen being the most recent famed thespian to don the crown of weeds. But I am still haunted by Bradley’s assessment of King Lear being simultaneously Shakespeare’s greatest achievement and not his best dramatic work.
Perhaps, the emotion of Lear is better suited to the novel rather than the stage. Stripped of the mimetic pageantry of classical drama, modern novels give us the everyday tragedies of our own age in a format we can read in snatched moments on a dreary morning commute or after the children have been finally put to bed. Because this is where we find ourselves reflected; rather than as a wealthy audience member able to afford eye-watering theatre tickets, it is as a silent reader of the humble paperback that we can best understand the pain that courses through families: a messy, toxic glue which is at once an irritant, a strengthener and an eternal bind.
Miranda will be in conversation with Anne Enright and Preti Taneja for Novelising King Lear, on Thursday, November 8th, 6pm, at UCD. Free tickets available via Eventbrite