Skip to main content

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 " 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).


Popular posts from this blog

An autobiographical poem about walking on water

A decade ago, give or take – feeling at crisis point in my mental health and desperately socially disconnected – I "went up for prayer" at a church I was visiting. (I find it hard to do this at my own church when I feel desperately socially disconnected. It's hard enough even to be at my own church at such times). And the gentle, kindly woman who placed her hand on my shoulder and prayed some simple, general, healing words to suit my simple, general, hurting plea looked thoughtfully at me afterwards and said "just, if and when you can, keep taking each next step towards Jesus, whatever that looks like," or words to that effect. It seemed as good a plan as any, so I did. (Not instead of getting medical and professional help, I hasten to add; seeking out and receiving whatever support is available has always felt more like an action of faith than a compromise of it).

Since then, stepping towards Jesus has taken me (slowly, often painfully, and usually the long w…

The Sin of Onan

Judah got a wife for Er, his firstborn, and her name was Tamar. But Er, Judah’s firstborn, was wicked in the Lord’s sight; so the Lord put him to death. Then Judah said to Onan, “Sleep with your brother’s wife and fulfill your duty to her as a brother-in-law to raise up offspring for your brother.” But Onan knew that the child would not be his; so whenever he slept with his brother’s wife, he spilled his semen on the ground to keep from providing offspring for his brother. What he did was wicked in the Lord’s sight; so the Lord put him to death also. (Genesis 38:6-10) According to Google's answer to what (let's face it) must be right up there among the most-asked questions since the invention of the search engine, this story is the closest the Bible comes to saying anything directly about masturbation.

And it isn't a story about masturbation. It's not even a story, not really, about birth control methods – although they feature. It's a story about the denial of ju…

(Come in under the shadow of this red rock)

What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water. Only
There is shadow under this red rock,
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.  (T.S. Eliot, from The Waste Land, part I: The Burial of the Dead,1922) These lines have lingered in my mind the past few days. Eliot wrote The Waste Land in the years following the First World War, when the landscape of humanity seemed perhaps particularly stark and bleak. The poem resounds with disquiet and despair: all glimpsed respite turns out to be illusory or faltering; it seems improbable that any grounds for real hope exist at all. Eliot …