Tag Archives: King Lear

Valuing sadness, past and present

March was a big month for me – my first monograph, Beyond Melancholy, came out with Oxford University Press. The book focuses on the different ways in which Shakespeare and his contemporaries understood and thought about sadness, and how this influenced explorations of identity and self-experience. While my digital Shakespeare research is in many ways a world apart from this work on the history of emotions, there are some important connections in terms of how new technologies shape how we feel and how we experience our own sense of self. I wrote the short essay below for OUP’s blog last week, and while it’s mostly about Renaissance sadness, you’ll quickly see that 21st century digital technology has made its way in too…


In September 2013, the American comedian Louis C.K. talked to chat-show host Conan O’Brien about the value of sadness. His comments emerged from a discussion about mobile phones, and the way they may distract us from the reality of our emotions. ‘You need to build an ability to just be yourself and not be doing something. That’s what the phones are taking away, the ability to just sit there. That’s being a person.’

For Louis C.K., a large part of that ‘being there’, of being a person, is about being sad. ‘[S]ometimes when things clear away, you’re not watching anything, you’re in your car … it starts to visit on you. Just this sadness. Life is tremendously sad, just by being in it.’ And the best response to this, he suggests, isn’t to dodge the feeling by picking up a mobile phone, but rather to look at it head on, ‘and let it hit you like a truck … Sadness is poetic. You’re lucky to live sad moments.’

Four hundred or so years ago, around the time of Shakespeare, Queen Elizabeth I, John Donne, and King James I, people also talked about the meaning of sadness, and whether or not it brought any value to life. While few would have described the experience of sadness as ‘lucky’, many did suggest that, in the right contexts, the emotion could be seen as useful, productive, and even enlightening. Think of Shakespeare’s King Lear on the stormy heath, whose extraordinary sorrow helps him see life from a different point of view, to acknowledge the suffering of his impoverished subjects and ‘to feel what wretches feel’.

If we read much of the literature of this time – and perhaps any time – we discover a world of agonizing, and yet somehow also constructive, pain and sorrow. Emotion is repeatedly represented as an extension of the self, meaning that as characters start to know their feelings, they also start to understand themselves and the world that they’re a part of. At the same time, if we read much of the more formal and explanatory writing on emotion from this period, we get a rather different story. Here, writers frequently characterized emotion as a ‘malady’, a ‘perturbation’, and even a ‘disease of the soul.’ For emotion was believed to cause motion in the mind and body, which could destabilize rational thinking and jeopardize the harmony of the self.

Frontispiece to 'The use of Passions'
The unruly passions.

This was nowhere truer than in the experience of sadness. Of all the emotions recognized and discussed at this time – or of all ‘the passions’, as they were called then – sadness or ‘grief’ was widely regarded as the most dangerous and damaging. Countless writers emphasized the physical ailments sad feelings could bring. ‘There is nothing more enemie to life, then sorrow’, the humanist and diplomat Thomas Elyot wrote in his best-selling medical regimen The Castell of Health, and the theologian Thomas Wright likewise advised readers in his The Passions of the Minde in Generall to ‘Expell sadnesse farre from thee; For sadnesse hath killed many, neither is there any profite in it.’

Medical physicians agreed, identifying the passions as one of the six ‘non-natural’ factors dramatically influencing health (the other five being diet, sleep, exercise, environment, and, to put it delicately, ‘evacuation’). Linked to the cold, dry humour of melancholy (literally meaning ‘black bile’ in Greek), sadness was seen as the harbinger of numerous bodily troubles, including stomach aches, light-headedness, heart palpitations, and wasting illnesses, which, in their most extreme forms, might even cause death.

Indeed, while we might now think that dying of sorrow is a rather sentimental idea fit only for the stage, in the seventeenth century ‘grief’ was regularly included as a cause of death in the London Bills of Mortality, which were one of the earliest forms of municipal record keeping. Though many of the Bills no longer survive, if we look through those that do remain, we can see that during the years 1629-1660 more than 350 people in the city of London were believed to have died from extreme sadness. Elyot and Wright’s comments, it seems, were not idle threats.

J. Graunt, Natural an political observations.
11 deaths from grief in 1632.

And yet, despite the palpable dangers posed by sadness at this time, many writers still suggested that it had important benefits, and even a kind of ‘poetry’, to harken back to Louis C.K.’s twenty-first-century observations. First and foremost, these writers insisted that there were different sorts of sadness, which had different effects on the mind, body, and soul. ‘Grief’ was not always identical to ‘melancholy’, which was certainly not the same as ‘godly sorrow’ or ‘despair’ – both of which had much more to do with theology and the immortal soul than physiology and the medical body.

Second, and perhaps most importantly, these different sorrows didn’t mean the same thing irrespective of the sufferer. Even a dangerous grief could be productive if the person experiencing it deemed it so. In the literature and historical records of the period we can find numerous instances of people defying the advice of doctors, priests, family, and friends, and persisting in sorrow due to a belief that it revealed something important to them about their own sense of self.

Many scholars have suggested that culture offers people ‘emotional scripts’ by which to make sense of and act out their feelings, but looking at responses to sadness in Renaissance England we can also see how people engaged in what I call ‘emotive improvisation.’ These wilful, and often defiant, responses took sufferers ‘off book’ and towards new ways of understanding emotional experience and self-discovery. They show us what happened when people ‘put the phone down’, as it were, and let life hit them like a truck.

– See more at: http://blog.oup.com/2016/06/valuing-sadness-past-present/#sthash.Xas4UAhP.dpuf


The curse of Lear? — NTLive, 2011 and 2014

Macbeth is the Shakespearean play actors and directors are most superstitious about, but I wonder if Lear might be gaining on the ol’ Scottish play as far as live recordings go? The most famous instance of technical mishap in other otherwise fairly seamless NTLive series remains Michael Grandage’s 2011 production of King Lear at the Donmar Warehouse, starring Derek Jacobi. I didn’t see it, but in a much discussed snafu the picture transmission went dead at one point, leaving cinema audiences listening to the production but looking at a black screen. The stage manager eventually had to come on and stop the performance while the technical team fixed the satellite link, at which point the company took the scene again from the top. The incident caught people’s attention not so much for the technical failure in and of itself (surely things like this are bound to happen at some point), but rather for the way it raised questions about who the primary audience really is in a live theatre relay. We might imagine that the ‘real’ audience during a broadcast remains the couple of hundred people live and present in the theatre, but in fact doesn’t it have to be — and indeed shouldn’t it be — the several thousand people live and present in the cinema?

This past Thursday the NTLive series featured another King Lear, this time produced by the National itself and featuring director Sam Mendes and actor Simon Russell Beale back together again in a continuation of their longstanding Shakespearean partnership. I found a lot to like in this production — in particular Beale’s very naturalistic, even medicalized interpretation of Lear’s madness, and Kate Fleetwood’s stunning realization of Goneril’s barbed vulnerability — but I want to briefly reflect on this production’s own set of technical hiccups. They were in no way as significant as the 2011 incident mentioned above, but they still produced moments in which the broadcast drew attention to itself as a filmic mediation, chiefly due to a few instances of things going wrong.

The first happened during Kent’s altercation with Oswald (I think in 2.1 outside of Gloucester’s, rather than 1.4 at Goneril’s, but I’m still getting used to taking notes in very dark cinemas…). Somehow Kent’s body mic must have been moved or damaged in the stage fight, resulting in a heavy sound distortion and crackling that producers quickly switched off. The sound mix was as a result much quieter for a short period of time following this, though I wouldn’t say that it significantly impeded the ability of the cinema audience to engage with the production. I did wonder though if this hitch caught the production team off guard and led to the problems that followed, or if it was all just coincidence. When Lear and the Fool arrived at Gloucester’s castle to find Kent in the stocks, the Fool sat with Kent at the bottom of a demagogic statue of Lear for some of their bantery lines. The camera started to pan beyond the two of them (perhaps thinking that the Fool was going to move that way?), then hesitated, and then zoomed from mid-shot to wide-shot very suddenly, getting everyone centered and back in view. Later in the same scene, when Lear pleaded with Regan over her involvement in Kent’s punishment and his own treatment in his daughters’ households (‘No, Regan, thou shalt never have my curse…’), the camera again started to pan in one direction, halted, then scooted back quickly in the other. And finally, in the production’s harrowing, closing scene, some body mic trouble re-emerged as Lear pulled Cordelia’s lifeless body to him, muffling and thumping the sound of his final speech in the process.

I’d say these were all small moments of confusion, though, and if anything they served to remind audiences that these broadcasts are indeed live, and vulnerable to occasional difficulties. They really didn’t bother me — in fact, I found the confused camera pans strangely endearing — but I have noticed people talking about them in the aftermath of the broadcast, which has in turn meant more discussion of the broadcast itself as a technical and creative event (rather than as a transparent medium through which the theatre production is realized).

My personal opinion is that the overall broadcast was not that dissimilar from the other NTLive work I’ve seen — at the risk of banging on about the same point in these posts, I found that the camera work frequently divided the staging up more than I’d like, using mid-shots and close-ups to push us into a particular character’s finely detailed psychological world but at the expense of cutting other important exchanges and spacial relationships out. When Lear started to deliver his ‘I am ashamed / That thou hast power to shake my manhood thus…’ speech in Goneril’s home, it was not clear to me until nearly the end of the speech that his daughter was still on the stage. When Edgar told us that his ‘country gives [him] proof and precedent / Of Bedlam beggars’ wandering the countryside, we could vaguely spy a crowd of destitute men emerging in the background, no doubt composed from this production’s very ample cast, but any larger scenic effect was lost. And when the storm on the heath finally shook Lear’s world, the camera divided up the exchanges between the different characters in a way that made the composite use of the stage very hard to imagine — in my notes I jotted down that the ‘camera work breaks the stage apart, turns it into a set’.

Still, there were moments of brilliant composition that I wouldn’t trade. The close-up on Lear and Gloucester in the Dover scene, when Lear finally addressed his companion soberly and directly (‘I know thee well enough; thy name is Gloucester’), allowed us to witness the full range of Stephen Boxer/Gloucester’s devastating reaction. In a very different mode, the crane shot that swooped down to Gloucester as he stood on the ‘cliff’ was absolutely stunning — it offered a sense of the vertiginous beauty and terror that we might imagine while reading the scene, but that can be very difficult to create on the stage. Though I haven’t yet seen this Lear on stage at the National, I’d wager that the filmic very likely exceeded the staged in these moments — but I’ll refrain from speculating any more until I have the chance to test this hypothesis at the end of this month.

I suppose what I’m saying overall is that this Lear showed the kinds of strengths and weaknesses that for me have been present in other NTLive broadcasts, but also that its more explicit technical hitches brought attention to it as a broadcast in a way that I think is productive. Like the 2011 Lear showing (re-edited for Encore performances and also the NT archive), it offers us an interesting case of how these broadcasts work, not just in the filming itself but also in the reaction to it.