Location, location, location..

24 Oct



King Lear and the demonstrative use of set and location to represent mental decline.

               The tragedy of King Lear is a play of progression and decline where the protagonist is demonstrably taken on a journey and literally walked through the tableaus of his own sanity. Not necessarily an odyssey of enlightenment but instead one of ever decreasing circles where ultimately the monarch discovers the truth behind the man whose crown he wears. An excruciating self-induced circuitous expedition and one that’s distinctly less travelled. Throughout the play we see a monarch on progress but not through the estates of his courtiers rather through the state of his own mind. Shakespeare offers us a personal psychological drama where the travelogue is picture-post-carded with a slide into dementia and loss of faculty by equating location with competence. It’s the symbolism of location that’s so important to the action that even if one had never read the text, one could certainly recognize an evolution in the debasement of self. Each location is cast deliberately to demonstrate mental health, each staged vignette an episode of cerebral degradation. In as much as the story line is vital, it’s the categorical showcasing of the inner workings of mind that is of equal importance The play is for all time, but no matter what personality a director gives the piece they must be true to the atmospherics of implied location. Shakespeare, through location and assisted by language, offers his audience an explication of the implicit. It isn’t only the action on stage that’s of significance, but where it takes place and what it reveals about the frailty of mind.

               Act 1 finds us in Lear’s castle, a stronghold of kingship, the center of royal control and the home of the divinely anointed. Ensconced behind thick walls, bourn above deep foundation we’re exposed for the first time to the mind of the king. Just as his home stands for stability, so are we met with a man who is clearly in control. His very first words are to disseminate orders, the progress of lucid thought and kingly endeavor forefront in his mind. “Attend the lords of France and Burgundy Kent.”(1,1,35) A clear command from a well ordered mind, a man considered of the future, what it holds and how he can manipulate it. A dynasty of kings of whom Lear is the regnal head and from which, we soon learn, wishes to divest himself. Lear we’re told is a man of years who wishes to relinquish himself of responsibility and abdicate sovereign cares by passing his crown down to “younger strengths.” What we’re really being shown by Shakespeare is the bulwark of psyche tormented by age, under siege and under tunneled, where the strong walls of mind that hold one together are beginning to crumble. One can assume that grass is growing through the paving slabs and the mortar that holds the great stones of the castle in place is in need of maintenance, ergo the onset of Lear’s dementia. Both castle and kingship are representative of mind; the immutability of statehood and the dexterity of Lear’s faculty. It’s this disturbing fact that’s presented to us within the symbolism of location. Lear then produces a map; or rather Shakespeare exposes the king’s inner psyche to the audience. By spreading his kingdom in full view, the map not only describes a location, it demonstrates inner conflict, the contention of mind and a “darker purpose.” Lear’s mental health is as splintered as the lines which divide the land on the map. His slide into dementia is further exacerbated by his banishment of his dearest daughter and his most trusted friend, both of whom are exiled and sent away from the castle and cast from the land. This is significant as the castle that represents a bastion of stability is now shown to be losing key pieces, revealing the king’s vulnerability and weakness. Both Kent and Cordelia are analogous of the king’s faculties and their banishment from the whole shows the disintegration of its parts. The castle or court is depleted of vital resources just as Lear is relieved of his senses; gone the dependability of the old and in with the insecurity of the new.

               Shakespeare continues to offer psychological diagnosis in Act 2 with the removal of the king from his castle and into the Duke of Albany’s palace, the home of Goneril his daughter. Why change location? The removal isn’t simply a set change but attempts to demonstrate that the mind of Lear is wandering, that he’s no longer of sound mind and that his judgment is impaired. He’s abandoned the castle of compos mentis and opted to move into the unknown, the daughter’s house representing those parts of the mind that are supposed to be left unvisited. If the castle was psychological stability then Goneril’s home is the fringe of insanity. That which Lear thought would be familiar is in fact foreign. Having moved into one new home, or transitioned his state of mind, he’s quickly ushered into another geographical shift, the home of the other daughter Reagan, describing schizophrenic tendencies or even split personalities. As with the revelation of Russian dolls from one another we understand Shakespeare’s location changes as demonstrative of Lear’s sanity. Briefly attended by the familiar, his knights, they’re as quickly removed as fleeting thoughts and his entourage, or rather the remainder of whatever senses he has left, banished. The king confused, a shadow of himself with his mind crippled, must once again remove his person and find accommodation elsewhere. The playwright hasn’t shown us the daughters’ homes for theatrical license alone but instead revealed a loss of the quotidian, or rather described a deeper context where the knowledge of oneself is no longer relevant and the inevitability of madness is in onset.

               Perhaps the most desperate location we’re shown is the heathland where Lear is left to wander the moors and “abjure all roofs;” a pathetic fallacy of wind and rain-riven heather where a king of fools rants and raves to a deaf heaven. Why isn’t he stalking the abandoned corridors of some great house or screaming his last from the ramparts of an Elsinore? Shakespeare instead deliberately takes his audience into that which Elizabethans feared, the empty spaces and faerie hollows of the countryside – a place of rape and murder – in order to horrify. Nothing is familiar and all is strange; the heath is representative of the total separation of mind and wits. What are the realms of madness like, he seems to be asking, and who’s returned, if any, to tell of the horrors that lie there? Shakespeare with all the drama he can muster knows that the moorland is a country from whose boarders few of his characters will return and we’re deliberately led into the storm. Lear has abandoned by choice, or rather whichever personality at the time was dominant in the realms of his madness, and sought refuge in the ravages of the storm. Red in tooth and claw, the heath represents the finality of insanity, the complete isolation of the king’s mind and an empty stage. Left alone on the heath with rude shelter and a madman for company and with the distinct possibility of death, the Elizabethan audience would’ve been more than aware of the logic behind yet another location change. What was being enacted before them was their worst nightmare. King Lear isn’t just a tragedy but a horror story and the groundlings knew exactly what terrors were being represented on the scaffold before them. One can only imagine the hush that this would have elicited in an open-air roofless theater with the rain beating off their faces. Reality T.V. for a renaissance crowd perhaps?

               Finally we see Lear imprisoned all be it with his daughter. He’s achieved nothing and destroyed everything, left to rot in a cell with the body of his dead Cordelia. The cell is clearly the end, the closure of mind and an end to sensibility. The idea of prison to an Elizabethan audience would’ve been familiar but was generally reserved for the rich and landed. Most crimes committed during this period would have resulted in death by hanging or worse. Therefore the isolated cell location, rather than a representation of punishment, would’ve probably elicited the idea of the demise of conscious thought and reason.

                How does a sane man react with the onset of dementia, with the self-knowledge that mental fecundity is diminishing? This is the purpose of the geographical challenge the playwright sets for his characters. One can imagine Shakespeare pondering thoughts of madness and how he should demonstrate this to an audience. The staging of a mad rant would have been too simple and the allusion to insanity and multiple personality disorder could be accomplished by the continued reimagining of the stage. After all why interrupt the willing suspension of disbelief, time and again, without reason or just cause? Set change, or its Elizabethan equivalent, and multiple locations where obviously extremely important to the sub-plot and rather than stage the whole in a Forest of Arden, Shakespeare chose to change location continuously during his play.  The metaphor of mind and location are self-evident when one considers the Elizabethan understanding of corporal humors. The body, so they believed, was controlled and compartmentalized by various forces – bloods and bile’s – and the movement of humors through the body could easily be equated to location and state of mind. Very cleverly Shakespeare leads his audience through various palaces offering them the view from each and then quickly relocating them to one from which the vista is far worse. The diverse locations are an allusion to mental stability and its inconstant aspects and are representative of a fragility of life that would not have been beyond an Elizabethan understanding.


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