Allan Massie

Life & Letters: Shakespeare’s women

Life & Letters: Shakespeare’s women
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Gordon Bottomley, Georgian poet with an unpoetic name, wrote a play called King Lear’s Wife with which he hoped to inspire a poetic revival in the theatre. It might be interesting to see it revived — though most 19th- and 20th-century verse-dramas proved forgettable.

Nevertheless, he surely happened on an interesting subject, though one which L. C. Knights, among others, would have deplored.  In a famous essay, ‘How Many Children Had Lady Macbeth?’, he poured scorn on the practice of treating Shakespearean characters as if they were real people with an anterior life beyond the play. Yet surely it is tempting to do so. When Lady Macbeth says she would have killed Duncan herself if he hadn’t resembled her father as he slept, it’s natural to wonder about her relationship with Dad.

As for King Lear’s wife, we may suspect she had a hard time of it. In his own household, in his prime, we can be sure that Lear’s word was law. Clearly all three daughters resented this — even Cordelia, who defies him by refusing to pretend that she loves him more than a daughter should love her father, to the exclusion, that is, of her future husband.

It is clear that Goneril and Regan despised and disliked him. They display their contempt in their protestations of love, which they know the old fool will accept as his due, and one would guess that apart from the advantage they expect from their lies, they take pleasure in deceiving him. Their subsequent treatment of Lear and their relish in his humiliation are evidence of their deep dislike. It’s reasonable to suggest that this is in part inspired by their sympathy for their bullied mother.

It may be objected that any attempt to make sense of the two ‘wicked daughters’ is futile. They are mere conveniences. Shakespeare does not pretend to account for their hatred of their father. It’s enough for the purpose of the play that they should display it. Finding a psychological explanation for their cruelty is self-indulgent. They are like the juvenile delinquents in Noel Coward’s song: ‘Waste no time on the wherefores and whys of it, / We like crime, and that’s about the size of it.’ Even so, it’s tempting to wonder. Does an actress playing Goneril or Regan try to understand the character, or should she be content merely to speak the lines? And certainly to do so without any thought of King Lear’s wife?

In his comedies Shakespeare usually fights shy of a study of marriage. Like Jane Austen’s novels, they end at the church door. There is admittedly a nice study of a married couple in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and if the female parts in his plays had been played by women rather than boy actors, one might think that Oberon and Titania were based on a celebrated theatrical couple, joined in stardom and rivalry.

Marriage does feature in the tragedies, rarely happily. Antony and Cleopatra may be great lovers, but marriage destroys Antony, turning the great general into ‘a strumpet’s fool’. It does for Othello, another general, too, his emotional immaturity making him a jealous and impossible husband. There is some evidence that the Macbeths were once a happy couple — perhaps drawn together by the loss of however many children Lady Macbeth may have had. Certainly there is pain in Macbeth’s cry to the doctor, ‘Canst thou not minister to a mind diseased?’(Theme for a novel: Anne Hathaway’s nervous breakdown and the strain put on the marriage by Shakespeare’s alternative life in London.)

Possibly the most successful marriage might have been that of Gertrude and Claudius, very evidently sexually compatible, to young Hamlet’s disgust. All might have been well in Elsinore if Hamlet himself had not been so sexually confused, obsessed with Mum, and also desiring and cruelly rejecting Ophelia. One wonders if he had been as jealous of his own father previously as he now is of Uncle Claudius.

The point is that, no matter the strictures of puritanically high-minded critics who insist that the plays are ‘dramatic poems’ and that it is wrong to think about the characters as if they were real people, this is actually what we are likely to do when we read a Shakespeare play or see one performed. So there is nothing wrong in wondering about King Lear’s wife, which is why it would be good to have Bottomley’s play revived, however bad it may be. Over to the National or the RSC?