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Published in January 2017 issue of Prospect Magazine
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In King Lear, Shakespeare took an old story about the disintegration of Britain and re-fashioned it for the Jacobean era.
As James Shapiro writes in his book 1606, published last year, England and Scotland were in an uneasy alliance under James I. Shortly before the play was performed, extremist Catholics had tried to assassinate James. He was accused of giving away too much power to his favourites. What better time for a play that showed an unwise king ceding authority to his daughters, recognising his folly (“Oh, I have ta’en / Too little care of this!” he says of his homeless subjects) and eventually being reinstated with his daughter Cordelia by his side?
Except that Shakespeare changed the traditional ending. Lear is defeated and Cordelia hanged. The foolish ruler is not redeemed. James got away with it, but his son Charles did not. He provoked a civil war that led to his own execution in 1649.
Writers can be prescient about politics because, as Emran Mian argues, they are engaged with the question of how to live a good life and also allow others to do the same. But British novelists especially need to respect the motivations of politicians a little more, he argues, and stop treating them as simply figures of intrigue.
In Peter Hobbs’s short story, “In the Reactor,” the machinations of corporate life are explored with deftness and wit. The protagonist is working in a nuclear reactor that turns out to be not exactly what it seems. You could take the story as a metaphor for the modern British state, trying to fix problems over which it has little control.
Two new productions of Lear—one starring my old MP Glenda Jackson, the other Antony Sher—set the play in different times. Jackson’s is a modern dystopia, Sher’s set in Shakespeare’s own era. That the play could fit both scenarios is a tribute to the author’s political intelligence. The aim of political art should be to understand how power is wielded and in whose interests. Circumstances change; those themes are universal.
Fiction in Brief: