A Bardic battle royal: 'Hamlet' vs. 'Lear'
By Sid Smith
Tribune arts critic
Published September 3, 2006
"I read three Shakespeares," President George W. Bush boasted of his vacation book list during an interview last week on the NBC Nightly News.
Presumably, he meant plays, not sonnets. But even a meager 42 lines of the playwright is something for the U.S. leader to crow about. William Shakespeare remains that pre-eminent. In a time when just about every aesthetic standard is otherwise open to blogosphere debate, he universally ranks as the best writer in English ever. Director Terry Hands, recalling that his words are still spoken aloud on our stages, says, "In England, we call him our greatest living writer."
As we face the fall season here, he's alive in Chicago. At the risk of bollixing one of his own statements, the time is very much in joint.
"Hamlet" and "King Lear," two of his greatest works, are on the brink of side-by-side productions.
"Hamlet" is now in previews at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, and "Lear" begins performances Saturday at the Goodman Theatre. The directors hail from opposite sides of the Atlantic. Great Britain's Hands, distinguished former artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, is mounting "Hamlet."
Chicago's Robert Falls, celebrating his 20th season as head of the Goodman, is adding "Lear" to credits including "Hamlet" at Wisdom Bridge and "Death of a Salesman" and "Long Day's Journey Into Night" here and on Broadway.
Huge casts, celebrated directors, mammoth masterpieces, incandescent language and great expectations. The challenges -- and opportunities -- are titanic.
Just to explore why these plays matter is to dive deeply into an ocean of centuries-old debate among scholars, critics, thespians, psychologists, teachers and students. More simply, and nearly impossible to answer: Why are "Hamlet" and "King Lear" so great? And which is the greatest?
Both rank with that elite club of Western artworks that endure as monuments: the Eiffel Tower, the Sistine Chapel, the Mona Lisa and Beethoven's Ninth Symphony come to mind. Both are known to those who've never read them.
Conveniently, they're an almost bottomless study in contrasts. Hamlet is a young king wrongly robbed of his throne. Lear is an old monarch who willingly gives his crown away. Hamlet is too self-aware, Lear not enough so.
"Hamlet" is a maelstrom of mystery. Answer one question, only to stumble onto another. Why does he wait so long to take the revenge his ghost of a father demands? Does he love and desire Ophelia -- or his mother? If he can easily kill Polonius hiding in his mother's bedroom, why can't he kill Claudius?
`Why' is the question
One critic, A.C. Bradley, suggested in the early 20th Century that Hamlet suffers from melancholy, an ailment that sounds a lot like our contemporary notion of clinical depression. Any attempt to map Hamlet's motives confounds analysts. One classic work of scholarship is bluntly titled "What Happens in Hamlet," as if the play needed a doctoral Cliffs Notes. Chicago Shakespeare's ads tout the play as a thriller: "The question is not whodunit -- but why?"
"Lear" is sublimely straightforward, a fetching fairy tale devolving into apocalyptic parable. Lear invites his three daughters to flatter him, tickled by the untrustworthy two who do so disingenuously. Then, he peevishly banishes his favorite, Cordelia, when she refuses to stroke his ego. He mistakes false love for true, and he learns too late that wise leadership involves not just might but sympathy for the governed, including the beggar in rags. If Hamlet is our first bipolar tragic hero, Lear, by the end, may be an early bleeding heart.
Though it's ultimately a fatuous exercise -- like choosing between the Pieta and the statue of David -- my money's on "Lear." "Hamlet" is eloquent Sudoku. "Lear" is primal scream. "Hamlet" is thought. "Lear" is vision. And light, blinding but profound. The eyes of Lear loyalist Gloucester are horrifically gouged out, followed eventually by solace from Edgar, the son he wrongly indicts. Foreshadowing Gloucester's fate, Kent gives Lear -- and us -- invaluable counsel: "See better, Lear." "Hamlet" peers deeply inside; "Lear" casts its eye worldwide.
"I'd be inclined to agree with you," says Verna Foster, associate professor of English at Loyola University. "But it's wicked of me. We're not supposed to make those kinds of value judgments, nor encourage students to do so. When you do, you need to ask this question: If one is greater than the other, by whose standards? A lot of these preferences come down to us, after all, from dead white males."
A challenger today: "Othello," with its window on race and class.
"I think, with a lifelong experience of Shakespeare, you keep changing," suggests Mary Beth Rose, English professor and director of the Institute for the Humanities at the University of Illinois at Chicago. "It depends on what's happening in your own life and in history. When I first read `Taming of the Shrew,' I loved it. Not now, and not just because of the sexism, but the violence to the servants as well.
"It's much harder now to laugh at drunkenness than in the '50s. Things change."
That said, for "Hamlet" and "Lear," both scholars trace a history that shifts pre-eminence, depending on the age.
"`Hamlet' came off as the top tragedy in the late 19th and early 20th Century because of the appeal and difficulty of getting at the causes of his behavior," Foster says. In both the Romantic fascination with the individual, and its later relative, existentialist man, "Hamlet" fed a hunger for self-discovery.
"The tradition in soliloquies is that we get the character's honest thoughts," Foster notes. "But with Hamlet, you don't always believe what he says. You can't know people. What they say is not what they mean."
With World War II, "Lear" came into its own. "The atrocities of the war left a world in chaos, broken down, just as Lear's is broken down in the scene on the heath," Foster says.
"Lear" also fit nicely in the era of theater of the absurd, called by one scholar Shakespeare's "Endgame" in a reference to Samuel Beckett.
That bleakness lured Falls, who argues, "`Lear' is by far the greater play, the more complex work. It's so much darker, not a fairy tale at all. It emphasizes a moral universe that's modern and godless, even as it prays to the gods.
"Most versions of `Lear' stay in that fairy tale realm, about a benign, wise old man," he adds. "But `Lear' is actually a terrifying play about a world that disintegrates into complete madness and despair -- a personal conflict that leads to a devastating civil war," one with Balkan war imagery in Falls' production.
Our coincident mountings may lead us to see these epics as tantalizing bookends.
"The possibilities to discover who you are in `Hamlet' are limitless," says Barbara Gaines, Chicago Shakespeare's artistic director. "It's so personal, the mysteries of life unpeeled, and different for me or you or anyone else.
"Lear is about a king who becomes homeless and sees the homeless around him," she says. "He realizes that when he had money, when he had power, he could have changed their lives."
To borrow astronaut Neil Armstrong's aphorism, "Hamlet" is about a man. "Lear" is about mankind.
Even Hands, staging his first English-speaking "Hamlet" (he directed it in French in Paris), agrees.
"`Hamlet,' like `Richard III,' is one of Shakespeare's great concertos," he says. "The orchestra's there, but it's serving a single instrument. `Lear' is one of the great orchestral pieces, full of enormous riches.
"I love a good concerto," he concludes. "But a great symphony? Finally, you'd have to choose it."
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