Edward Bond's Lear is, perhaps paradoxically, both an enhancement of the basic plot and themes of Shakespeare's King Learand a kind of inversion of it.
In Shakespeare, despite Lear's faults and his descent into madness, the basic premise is that Lear is a good man and a good ruler...
Edward Bond's Lear is, perhaps paradoxically, both an enhancement of the basic plot and themes of Shakespeare's King Lear and a kind of inversion of it.
In Shakespeare, despite Lear's faults and his descent into madness, the basic premise is that Lear is a good man and a good ruler who is victimized by the evil around him as well as by his own misjudgment and foolishness. The play conforms to the basic ideal of tragedy in showing Lear as a great but flawed man, one who is defeated but still emerges as somehow greater than the forces that have brought him down. In Bond's version, the premise with regard to Lear himself is arguably the opposite of this. Lear begins as a cruel tyrant whose main goal is to build a wall to keep his enemies out. Bond's play was premiered in 1971, so in some sense it was prophetic with regard to this "wall" theme and a leader who makes it the centerpiece of his rule, or at least his intentions. Lear tyrannizes his daughters Bodice and Fontanelle, but they are evil themselves, more so than Shakespeare's Goneril and Regan. Instead of arranging and approving their marriages to noblemen as in Shakespeare, Bond's Lear opposes their marriages to his enemies, Cornwall and North. The daughters and their spouses make war against him and defeat him.
This plot device is similar to that in Shakespeare, but the implications of it are dissimilar. There is no third daughter in Bond's version, though there is a character named Cordelia. Therefore the central conflict between the "good" Cordelia and the evil sisters is eliminated. Other elements in Shakespeare are altered or conflated. Bond has Lear as the one blinded, as is Gloucester in Shakespeare's version. Early in Bond's play, a character named Warrington serves as a Gloucester-type figure who is mutilated: his tongue is cut out and his eardrums are destroyed by needles, on the order of the one of the daughters. Overall the cruelty shown by Bond is greater and more systematic than that seen in Shakespeare's play, to the extent that some critics and theatergoers were repulsed by the violence and sadism in Lear when it premiered in the 1970's.
Yet despite these differences, both plays are linked by a kind of fantasy atmosphere. They are fable-like, disconnected in some sense from concrete time and history, and are dreamlike, surreal parables of man's evil and, paradoxically, helplessness. In both there is a message against the violence and cruelty which are enacted again and again, and in both Lear learns and is transformed by the suffering he undergoes. But as a whole Bond's play is even darker and more pessimistic than Shakespeare's Lear, despite the status that play rightly holds as the darkest of all Shakespeare's tragedies.