The Serpent’s Tooth

I saw the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival’s “King Lear” in previews recently, and I was reminded once again of how rich Shakespeare’s characterizations are, particularly of parents and children and villains.

As usual, Will has fun with doubles upon doubles – was he a tennis player? – with two sets of ungrateful offspring, those who are sharper than the Shakespearean “serpent’s tooth”; two worthy kids, two clueless dads, two sets of rival siblings and two sets of villains. Most readers are familiar with how Lear stupidly divides his ancient English kingdom between suck-up daughters Goneril and Regan, who have no intention of caring for their father once they’ve got their hands on the realm, and disinherits youngest daughter Cordelia, who has the temerity to speak truth to their relationship. Let’s be honest about this, folks: We all think Lear’s a fool and yet, we are Lear. People don’t want to hear the truth. They want a confirmation of their own opinions, particularly when the opinion is a high one of themselves.

But Lear isn’t the only one who’s blind here. The Earl of Gloucester is equally in the dark about the fatal flaws of son Edmund and the sterling qualities of son Edgar, and it’s interesting that Shakespeare makes the hapless Gloucester pay for this lack of awareness with his gouged eyes. He becomes sightless, but then, he never really could see.

And yet, it’s only in their affliction that Lear and Gloucester can finally appreciate the true parent-child bond. The loving child isn’t the one who pays lip service. It’s the one who cares for you when no other will, leading you from the darkness to the light. Anyone who’s ever cared for an aged or sick parent can’t help but be moved as the disguised Edgar tenderly guides his father or when Cordelia, reunited with her father, advises him to “forget and forgive.”

Still, it’s fun to watch Edmund, one of the Bard’s greatest villains. He’s almost always played by a glamorous actor. (I remember Linus Roache, who was playing Bolingbroke to Ralph Fiennes’ Richard II in Brooklyn, telling me that he once played Edgar to Fiennes’ Edmund in England.) He’d have to cut a glamorous figure. After all, Goneril wants him. Regan wants him. And Edmund – bless his teeny, adulterous, nihilistic heart – is smart enough and cold enough to play the two witches off each other.

He does, however, have something of a redemptive epiphany at the end as the wheel comes full circle and he realizes, “I am here.” And that’s fun, too.

After all, they do but jest. It’s just a play. And the play’s the thing.

For more on the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival, call (845) 265-9575 or visit hvshakespeare.org.

– Georgette Gouveia

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