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Cordelia, you're fired!

Picture the scene: the aging, cantankerous supremo presides, hands folded, at the head of a grand table, flanked by trusty advisers. The candidates enter, a mess of nerves and brashness in varying ratios. Invited, by turns, to take the floor, they each make their bid for the favour of their patron: Impress him, and fortune and fame could follow. Leave him cold, and expulsion awaits.

This was the first time I'd seen King Lear (unless you count Ran)... It's playing at the Tobacco Factory until the 24th March and is a brilliant production -- catch it while you can! [1]

The 'candidates' in question are Lear's three daughters; the reward, his kingdom, which he has decided to apportion as dowries so that he can retire from his duties whilst retaining the recognition and honour that are his 'due'. Ever eager to feed his own ego, he demands they compete with one another in declaring their regard for him, by which he will determine their relative portions. Goneril and Regan, keen to get good 'deals' for themselves, are more than happy to oblige; Cordelia is horrified at their empty flattery and, out of genuine love for him, refuses to pander to his attention seeking: "I am sure my love's more ponderous than my tongue -- I cannot heave my heart into my mouth. I love your Majesty according to my bond, no more nor less." (Cordelia, I.i) The outraged Lear immediately disowns and disinherits her: "Thy truth, then, be thy dower" (Lear, I.i). He also exiles his loyal friend the Earl of Kent, for attempting to reason with him. To paraphrase somewhat: 'I've made my decision, and what I say goes. Nobody tells me how to run my kingdom. Kent -- you're fired!'.

Thereon in the story is one of decline, distrust, and scheming, as Lear struggles to maintain his position and dignity having relinquished all his real power in return for vain flattery. Goneril and Regan, now that they have what they were after, seek only to secure their positions and subdue their father and his troublesome entourage. Having begun with feigned regard, they now have no incentive even to pretend: Lear has nothing left with which to buy their affections.

By contrast, Cordelia and Kent, punished for caring more about him than about what he could do for them, come into their own as the heroes of the play. Kent, undeterred by banishment, goes undercover to serve his beloved King in the guise of a bedraggled, loyal peasant:
Now, banish'd Kent,
If thou canst serve where thou dost stand condemn'd,
So may it come, thy master, whom thou lovest,
Shall find thee full of labours. (Kent, I.iv)
This picture of unselfish love, willing to serve where scorned, calls to mind Jesus' command "...love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful." (See Luke 6:27-35).

Cordelia is rescued at the start by the King of France, who asks her hand in marriage, loving her all the more for the honesty by which she deprived herself of her inheritance: "She is herself a dowry" (France, I.i). She returns at the end with the French army, in a bid to help her father -- proving that her love for him is 'in deed and in truth' by comparison with the 'word and talk' of her sisters (c.f. 1 John 3:18):
No blown ambition doth our arms incite,
But love, dear love, and our ag'd father's right. (Cordelia, IV.iv)
By this time Lear has awoken to reason; he is all too aware of his past folly and fully anticipates her condemnation:
If you have poison for me, I will drink it.
I know you do not love me; for your sisters
Have, as I do remember, done me wrong.
You have some cause, they have not. (Lear, IV.vii)
In his humbled, wiser state he is able to receive her reassurances and joyfully recognise the undeserved grace offered to him...their reunion is a beautiful but all-too-brief one (it's a tragedy...fill in the gaps).

A pity King Lear was not familiar with 'The Apprentice' -- a leaf out of Lord Sugar's book could have saved him no end of hassle and heart-ache. Take last season's finale, for example: The four remaining contestants were tasked with pitching their business proposals to Alan and his advisers. In a hideously cringe-worthy development, smooth-talking salesman extraordinaire, Jim Eastwood, delivered what good old Nick later described as "one long seduction letter" -- essentially lauding the universal brand appeal of Alan Sugar himself and proposing to attach his name to some vague, half-baked idea for an e-learning scheme. Lord Sugar was not impressed: Jim was first to go and the title eventually went to bright nice-guy Tom Pellereau -- an idea-a-minute inventor type with seemingly no business sense and a pleasing but almost self-destructive absence of guile.

Flattery isn't really one of those tricky, dilemma-ridden problems; the 'lessons' are all too obvious. And, as on so many other matters of human experience, the Bible has lots to say that I reckon most of us can relate to...
  1. Don't succumb to it: Lear learned the hard way what Sugar was canny enough to pre-empt -- that those who use it are out for what they can get and don't care for you as much as you would like to believe. "A lying tongue hates its victims, and a flattering mouth works ruin." (Proverbs 26:28)
  2. Don't resort to it: It may sometimes get you to where you want to go, but will you like who you've become when you get there? Cordelia's disgust with her sisters is readily shared by the audience, and watching Jim's Boardroom performance was enough to make one squirm. "For there is no truth in their mouth; their inmost self is destruction; their throat is an open grave; they flatter with their tongue." (Psalm 5:9) Besides, as Kent discovers to his advantage, and Jim to his undoing, "Whoever rebukes a man will afterwards find more favour than he who flatters with his tongue." (Proverbs 28:23)
Nevertheless, however sound our theorising, flattery persists at the implementation level -- as long as there is vanity within us we will fall victim, and as long as there is greed we will fall into temptation. Here's a prayer from the Psalms which is seldom far from my lips...
Search me, O God, and know my heart!
     Try me and know my thoughts!
And see if there be any grievous way in me,
    and lead me in the way everlasting! (Psalm 139:23-24)


[1] The great thing about SATF is that they understand the plays so well that the audience inevitably does too. You completely forget they're talking olde worlde language and just get absorbed in Shakespeare's 'genius': the jokes are funny, the characters compelling and well sketched, the action exciting -- just as it should be. And -- a BIG 'plus' in my book -- they don't go in for gimmicks or alternative 'readings' that usually end up watering down or distorting the original intent (although there was something slightly fishy going on in the costume and set-dressing department after the interval...Mr W and I were divided).

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