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Discussing ageing in ‘King Lear’ with Sir Ian McKellen

Discussing Ageing in King Lear with Sir Ian McKellen (30:06)
Literature down the ages has explored all aspects of human life. Shakespeare famously wrote about the seven ages of man. And in this final week, we’re looking at the final ages of a human life. Looking at questions of ageing, and in particular of the mind becoming frail in times of age, dementia, Alzheimer’s, conditions that affect so many people now. And as with so many people living longer, it’s a huge problem for society. And we want to explore whether people living with loved ones suffering from dementia might be helped in some ways by seeing how a great writer like Shakespeare deals with the painful aspect of old age. And there’s no one better to talk to about this than Sir Ian McKellen.
Sir Ian McKellen, one of the greatest Shakespearean actors of modern times. He’s played all the major parts. And a few years ago, he embarked on the role of King Lear. In many ways, perhaps the most demanding of all Shakespeare’s tragic parts. I remember speaking to another actor, Oliver Ford Davies, also a very good Lear. And he said the problem with King Lear is that by the time you’re old enough to play it, your too old to play it. It’s a huge endurance test. And yet, you have to have a kind of inwardness with the experience of old age. Ian, thanks so much for talking to us today about King Lear.
It was quite a struggle to get inside that role, wasn’t it? I’ll give you a little secret. I saw your Lear in preview even before the press night. And then I saw it again near the end of the run many, many months later. And I don’t think I’ve ever seen a performance that has changed and grown so much, and become so much more profound and complete, than I did there. And it’s really that… I don’t know if you felt that yourself. Well, as performances go by, and I suppose I did about 150 of Lear, over a year, in a variety of different theatres across the world, actually, you can’t really judge day by day how things are changing.
But of course it is the great joy of theatre that you’re not stuck. You can advance. In a film, a decision has been made by the editor and the director, and that is the performance. Eventually we did film King Lear, actually. And what you get in that is the experience of year’s working on it. So I’m not surprised that you were more taken with the later than the earlier version. Going back to what you were saying about Oliver Ford Davies, I think the first thing that struck me about Lear was his strength, his physical strength. In Shakespeare’s day, a man of over 80 would be an unusual person, so he is still alive.
But right at the top of the play, although we know very little about him, about his past life or even what sort of king he has been, he’s come to a decision that he’s going to stop being king. He’s going to keep the name and all the ‘additions to a king’. Is that the phrase? But he’s going to hand over the power to his sons in law. And then the story starts. So he is at a point, I think, where he’s aware that his strength is going. Even though, in the first scene, he seems to offer to hit one of his oldest and most loyal allies, Kent, and later definitely does hit Oswald.
And in the story’s surviving everything that’s he’s… all the indignities he’s put through. Being thrown out by two daughters who seem to want to kill him, destroy him. He still survives. And I think it’s rather that will power that he’s got against increasing frailness that is the mark of his madness. Mad is a word that rings through the play, isn’t it? And I think perhaps has a different sort of emphasis depending on where it’s actually used. But I don’t look on Lear’s madness as being a frailty. Rather, it’s a sign of his strength. It’s almost… it’s a way of fighting back. Yes. And I don’t, therefore, connect it with what I know of dementia.
He’s pretty well almost always in control, or trying to be in control. And if he’s lost in a world of his own making, (when he meets up with Gloucester, another disadvantaged old man), and I think the stage direction, whether it’s Shakespeare’s or not, Lear enters mad.
We may not quite be able to totally get into that world. But he’s in a world of his own making. And therefore, I never really think he’s a victim of some mental disability. But he does… I mean, Shakespeare, I’m sure, a great observer of human life, would have observed the behaviour of old men and old women. And there are, for instance, moments where his memory is going. And I’m always particularly struck by that moment when he’s angry, and he’s raging about what is he going to do about his evil daughter? I will do such things! What they are, I know not, but they shall be the terrors of earth. He can’t actually remember what he’s going to do. Mm.
Or imagine what he might do. It all goes wrong right at the outset, when this man who seems to have been totally in control of the nation, the court, his family, decides to change all that and retire, I suppose would be a good word. Not abdicate, retire. Let the work be done by others. Perhaps he’s looking forward simply to retire, as many old people do. Oh, at last I can do what I want to do, rather than be relived of all responsibilities. Always bolstered by his connection with the gods. And it’s probably a theocracy he’s been running.
And that’s why, in our production, we began with a silent show of everybody in the play kneeling to him and almost worshipping the power that he got. He gives away that power. Nobody really comments on that. What they’re concerned about is that he rejects his loving daughter, Cordelia, whose dared, perhaps with a family trait of obstinacy that she’s learnt of her father, to speak the truth and stands up to him. That is what appals everybody, his reaction to that, his throwing her out, then discarding Kent, his ally, almost immediately. That’s what everybody thinks to be extraordinary.
Although his daughter is left alone. The elder daughters, Goneril and Regan, say well but he’s always been a bit like this. Yeah, he hath ever but slenderly known himself. So is it is a sort of continuation of a form of behaviour that’s been always his characteristic? Or some of it comes with old age? I sense that they perhaps don’t know their father very well. And why would they? They’ve been very much his subjects, it seems. They’ve been very much brought up to obey orders and do what he wants. And if he’s an all powerful king, that’s the situation.
But all his… the journey that he goes on towards a self awareness, towards I think - I felt strongly - a rejection of the gods, who turn out to be absolutely no use in the dilemma in which he finds himself. This all comes from his decision to stop being the sort of king he has been. And I think we can all relate to that, that if you stop doing the job which has been all absorbing, what are you going to do? And if you’ve been all powerful, if you’ve been a god on Earth, and suddenly you’re just a man, you’re suddenly just a father, you’ve suddenly got time to play, that’s not the life he’s used to.
So it’s a self-imposed change, which he’s absolutely not prepared for. But it’s a change that releases in all the other characters sometimes a madness of their own. Surely it’s mad to blind somebody, isn’t it? And particularly on a stage in front of us, a lot of strangers. I mean, it’s the worst thing you could almost do. Almost worse than actually killing the man. And so everybody’s released.
Cordelia becomes herself and becomes estranged from her father. Kent, the same.
Lear’s dilemma even seems to get inside someone who’s making a parallel journey towards a self awareness that the young man, Edgar, who takes off all his clothes and says, ‘I’m going to start afresh’. By being somebody else, by pretending to be mad. I feel that couldn’t have happened unless the whole nation hadn’t been put into turmoil by the King’s wrong decision, stupid decision, foolish decision, mad decision, to think that you can give away everything and yet retain it. And so it begins with not a mental disability, but a bad decision. But it’s interesting… yeah, you’re saying it’s a play about retirement. Yes. I guess the problem is that, as you say for him, he’s not prepared himself for it.
And no longer is he able just to give commands and do what he wants. And for his children, of course, they then have the problem, he says, ‘right, I’m going to come and live in your home. Oh, by the way, I’ll bring 100 knights with me’. And that sort of sense that retirement is one of the most difficult moments in the life not only of an individual, but also in the life of a family. Yes. And in that sense, one does have a degree of sympathy for Goneril and Regan, although they do terrible things. It’s not easy to have a difficult old man coming living in your house.
And there’s been nothing we can detect to prepare them for this situation. He’s not been a good father to that extent. If he’s going to hand everything over to his sons in law and his daughters, their wives, there should have been some preparation for it. But it’s all, as he seems to have behaved all his life, wilful. ‘What I say is right. And don’t contradict me, because I have the gods on my side’. That’s an unfair advantage, isn’t it. I think one of the other key aspects of his ageing is how quick he is to be angry. He has a quick temper.
And I sense that a lot of what his anger is about is the sort of frustration that, as you get older, even day to day tasks become more difficult. When he’s trying to do up buttons and put on boots and so on. Was that something you sort of played with when you were…
You refer to one of his last lines. ‘Pray, sir, undo this button’.
What other playwright could have sort of summed everything up with that? ‘I can’t breathe, I can’t undo this button’. Played perhaps in a theatre a bit smaller than we’ve always imagined Elizabethan playhouses.
A theatre where everybody in the audience could have seen that button. Which becomes, for Lear at that moment, the most important thing in his life, a button. But that’s our human experience, isn’t it? The stumble on the stairs which ends up with a broken leg and a long time in the hospital, and permanent disability, perhaps. Just that small, everyday thing.
One of the problems of playing King Lear, and other Shakespearean leading roles, is that the backstory, the history, is not revealed to the audience. He’s 80 years old. He’s got a daughter Cordelia, his youngest, who must be what, early 20s? She’s getting married. For the Elizabethans, that would be rather late, wouldn’t it? She might even be younger than that. So he became a father when he was in his early ’60s.
Was Cordelia the daughter of the same mother as Goneril and Regan? I thought not. I thought perhaps he had had two wives. And that’s why I wore two wedding rings. Nobody noticed but me.
It would explain the difference in temperament between Cordelia and her sisters and would explain, perhaps, why she was absolutely his favourite. Because at the point at which he now is at the outset of the play, she would look rather like perhaps her mother had looked when Lear fell in love with her. Perhaps he fell in love with her. But we don’t know. And suddenly, it’s all happening. And it happens with an enormous speed, the decline, the release of all the violence and other characters, as well as in King Lear. And I suppose Shakespeare’s there playing with what is kingship? And what responsibility does a leader have, and so on. But he retains his physical strength.
Yes, he may find it difficult at times to putting on his boots. And of course, all his life, somebody else has put his boots on for him. You know? He’s not an ordinary man. But one of the last things he does, it appears, there are alternatives, but the traditional way of playing it is that the old man of over 80, having been through all the physical degradation of being out of doors for the first time in his life, cold and miserable, and unhoused, actually carries the corpse of his daughter. That’s a remarkable physical feat. So you do feel all the time, right to the very end, that he’s bull-like. He’s potentially aggressive.
And I think that appealed to me most about playing the part. And perhaps it’s germane to what your questioning is, that he discovers his weaknesses and then sort of embraces them, and recognises that love is more important than power. He becomes gentle. Yes. For me, my absolute favourite scene in the play is when he awakens after that, that sleep. And there… I don’t like using the word madness, but if there is this sort of other worldliness, isn’t there? He almost thinks, am I still dreaming? Have I died and gone to heaven? Are you an angel? ‘I am bound on a wheel of fire. Mine own tears do scald molten lead’. Now that doesn’t seem to me to be a dementia.
That seems to it him trying to understand his physical and his mental, his emotional state, and what it is to be a father, and indeed, what it is to be a human being. But there is still an element of that memory loss that is very characteristic of him. Do you remember he says, ‘I don’t remember where I was last night’. And that sort of sense you can remember things from long ago, but you can’t remember last night. But that’s just a stage he’s going through and we’ve all been in, you don’t have to be very, very old to have that experience. What have I come into this room to do? That sort of…
that may be a sign of things to come, but we’re all familiar with that. It’s that, as he goes along, as an observer you might say, this man is so intemperate, so foolish, so wilful. We can only put a label on it. He’s mad.
And although Lear says, ‘I don’t want to be mad, don’t let me be mad, I think I’m mad’, actually what he’s trying to do is define himself and the stage he’s at. So for him, it isn’t a madness. Others might think it’s so peculiar that we have to put a label on it. But for him, it’s a learning process that he’s going through.
Therefore, I don’t really relate it to my notions of what dementia is, where you’re losing it. You’re losing it. You’re losing it the whole time. I feel, on the contrary, Lear is gaining it, gaining it, gaining it. But he does behave in some quite peculiar ways. I mean, it’s a little strange for an old man, a former king used to being robed, to start taking his clothes off in a storm in the middle of the night. Obviously, he’s doing it because Edgar, poor Tom, has done it. But what did you… when you were playing that segment of it. I mean, famously, you did take all your clothes off on the stage and quite right, too.
Well, I wanted to do that because Edgar has done that at the beginning. And I think their stories are related, that they’re both trying to get back to themselves as poor, naked, what’s the phrase? ‘We’re poor, naked wretches’ and ‘unaccommodated man’. He uses that phrase. Yes. A poor bare forked… ‘A poor bare, forked animal’. …forked animal. Yeah. Wow. In terms of the play on the stage, it’s only about an hour and a half from having been ruling the world to seeing himself and others as being bare forked animals. Well, what a revelation that was for him and for us. And for the king! If that’s madness, it’s a madness for which we should be grateful. It is.
What I just can’t get over with that scene. We know this play was performed in front of King James the day after Christmas day, 1606, in the palace at Whitehall. For a king to be sitting the prime seat in the centre of the auditorium watching a king do that, I mean, it’s astonishing. How Shakespeare got away with it, I just don’t know. I suppose, by saying he’s mad, therefore, but don’t relate it to anybody else. But I know, from talking to friends and strangers who’d seen me play King Lear that they often related it to their own experience with aged parents.
And my own stepmother was stumbling towards 100 years old while I was doing King Lear.
Old age, being tired, wanting a little peace. I think that’s how Lear starts out. He just wants to let it all go and have a bit of fun, or just sleep, or something. He’s exhausted and then by this foolishness (not just of getting rid of his youngest daughter, but giving too much power to the other two daughters), he then has to cope with all those reactions. So when he’s in the storm, and he takes off his clothes and wants to be part of the elements, that wouldn’t have happened if the daughters hadn’t turned him out of doors. And for the first time, he was having to cope against the rain, and the storm, and the cold.
It would be an intolerable play to watch if Shakespeare hadn’t given Lear his care, as those who love him. Why do they love him? There must be something about this man that is admirable. And always, at his worst moments of distress and discomfort and discombobulation, is that a word? At his side is a fool, who serves him and loves him, wants to help. Kent, in disguise, always there with him. And eventually, his youngest daughter, with all her love.
So you think, there’s a sense in the play it is going to be all right. If he were just on his own, I don’t think we could watch it. And there’s also… So old people need us, need their carers, need a family, and need love. And they also need the kindness of strangers, don’t they? One of the wonderful things about the play is this parallel plot where you have Gloucester, also an old man, and old man who is rendered blind on stage. And the extraordinary thing with him is the way that he is helped by a servant, and then by Poor Tom in disguise. And an old man. And an old man. Who doesn’t have a name.
Doesn’t have a name, that’s right. But just that sense that, at the moment when he’s been treated in the most appalling way, the servant of the Duke of Cornwall stands up and fights for Gloucester. And then other servants apply ‘flax and whites of eggs’ to his wounded eyes. And the people who are kind are not always the ones, in fact, often they’re the ones who don’t have power and wealth and status themselves. And I think it’s a mistake, therefore, to think that King Lear isn’t entirely pessimistic. And on the contrary, every little sign of love and affection and simple humanity shines even brighter because of his context.
And at the end, the last line spoken by Edgar or Albany, depending on which text you follow - ‘we that are young shall never live see so much nor live so long’ - I think is the summary, really, of perhaps what Shakespeare wants us to take away from the play, is that we must learn by the misfortunes of our elders and what they’ve been through, and take it into our own lives. So the hero at the end is Edgar, who is, like Lear, thrown out by his family, discarded, unloved.
Goes on a journey of self awareness, much of it to do with wanting to help other people and not being totally self-regarding, which is perhaps Lear’s biggest sin.
And so even at the end of all this horror, it’s going to be all right, perhaps, for the people who are left. Yeah. One of the other heroes at the end is Kent. Oh. I mean, Kent, his heart begins to break when he and Lear are reunited, when he’s out of disguise. And then I always love that bit where Albany has this rather daft idea that they should divide up the kingdom again and maybe Kent and Edgar should take it in turns to rule. You think, hey, Albany, hang on. Dividing the kingdom, that wasn’t a very good idea at the beginning of the play. I don’t think it’s a good idea at the end.
And do you remember Kent just says, ‘no, I don’t think that’s a good idea’. He says, ‘I have a journey, sir, soon to go. My master calls me. I must not say no’. And you sense he knows his heart, perhaps he’s already had a heart attack. It’s almost as if he knows he’s going to have another heart attack. He’s just gracefully going to withdraw into death, to make sure that Edgar - I’m convinced it should be Edgar - who takes over at the end. No, what an amazing man Kent is.
When his master dies, his life seems to be over, as well.
In the end it’s the survivors who draw attention isn’t it, and particularly Edgar.
But I agree with you. People often say Shakespeare’s bleakest tragedy. But actually, there’s so much love at the end. I always think of that line of Philip Larkin’s ‘what will survive of us is love’. Yes. Well, probably Larkin knew this play very well and then learned that lesson from it. One of the things about dementia, isn’t it, and an old person who seems to be utterly changed, perhaps physically as well as mentally, is the effect they have on people who are with them.
And in my experience, and those of friends, looking after someone who is incapable, who in the past has been the provider, is very, very, very distressing. But, and then you say, well, that’s life. And you don’t, when the old person dies, feel, oh, I too must now die. No. You must go on. It’s not your turn yet. It’s very humane, always Shakespeare, isn’t he? But I think that’s a very, a very, very good point to end on, that it’s a play about dealing with old age. The effect on families and a community of these changes that come with retirement, and then failing physical health, mental health, and so on.
And I would put in a plea, as an atheist, to the notion that seems to me strongly in the play that, in the end, you can’t depend on the gods. Because they’re utterly unreliable. Yeah. It’s old Albany again. He keeps invoking the gods and something else goes wrong, doesn’t it? That’s right. And I can’t remember whether there’s a line that Lear says. But I certainly felt it when I was playing it. It was, by the end, Lear has no faith in the gods whatsoever, and doesn’t refer to them. Which is a huge change for him. Because clearly, the beginning, he invokes the God’s immediately that anyone tries to cross him. And that goes.
So we are bare forked animals, and we have to get on with it. And we have to do it ourselves. As best we can.
Sir Ian McKellen took on the role of King Lear in a 2007 production of the play for the Royal Shakespeare Company, directed by Trevor Nunn.
In this video, Sir Ian shares with us some of the unique insights he gained into the play, through inhabiting the role of its title character.
When preparing for the role, Sir Ian says that he was struck, first and foremost, by King Lear’s considerable strength. A man in his eighties, being ‘fourscore and upward’, Lear nevertheless survives a night on a stormy heath, and after all his other ordeals, he is still capable of killing his daughter’s murderer and carrying Cordelia’s dead body onto the stage in the final scene of the play. Sir Ian interprets Lear as a resilient and powerful man, and therefore, he does not associate the character’s madness with the frailty of dementia.
Sir Ian talks to us about the play’s exploration of the trials and complexities of ageing. He emphasises that Lear’s decision to hand over his kingdom is an act of retirement, rather than one of abdication: Lear is an ageing man looking forward to rest, but his decision to relinquish all his power quickly proves a destructive one, for himself and for his kingdom.
As well as discussing Lear’s act of retirement, Sir Ian also emphasises the crucial role played Lear’s companions. Although Lear is remarkably strong for his age, he still relies on his band of supporters – on his Fool, on his faithful courtier Kent, and eventually, on his loving daughter Cordelia. In the play’s parallel subplot, the elderly Gloucester, too, is dependent on the kindness and guidance of others. Sir Ian talks about King Lear as a play which understands and demonstrates the vital importance of carers. King Lear, crucially, is never left entirely on his own, and the selfless acts of friends and strangers in this play should remind us of the importance of looking after the older generation in society today.
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