Sunday, 24 April 2016


I think I first really got into tragedy when I was about nine or ten, perhaps even younger.  I used to stay at my nan’s flat some weekends and she’s take me down to the video shop and let me chose pretty much whatever I liked.  I watched Robocop again and again, and all the Swarzenegger films, but what I liked best was films about Vietnam.  There was a whole slew of them at one time  - Hamburger Hill, Full Metal Jacket, Born on the Fourth of July – and they were all really grim.  My nan was a wonderful person, but I still can’t believe she used to let me watch this stuff.

Platoon was my favourite.  The part where Elias is being pursued by the Viet Cong as his buddies look on from the deck of a departing helicopter, all to the tune of Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings , has always stuck with became me.  I wonder whether or how much it has shaped my outlook on life, since I’ve always been told to not take myself and life too seriously.

We all know that we can look at the world in a variety of ways; that we find in experience whatever it is we’re looking for.  As a matter of survival, most people I know tend to cultivate a more comic state of mind.  These days, the adage ‘look for the ridiculous in anything and you will find it’, is not difficult to apply.  Dwell on tragedy, common sense runs, and you risk cultivating a sense of victimhood and seriousness neither yourself nor the world deserves.

Opening the newspaper it often seems we have lost the ability to accept the fact that terrible things occur beyond our control.  If everything, and everyone, is accountable then nothing can be tragic.  We seek redress through the law, and this perhaps is where tragedy ends and the black comedy Kafka described begins.

However, perhaps one of the greatest tragedies ever written – King Lear – is still as relevant as ever.  It plays itself out again and again wherever an inheritance is at stake and estranged siblings begin squabbling over money.  When I first read King Lear it was the language that drew me in.  I still have the New Swan edition with all the footnotes at the bottom of each page.  It was the most intense reading experience of my life, and I have been reading Shakespeare ever since, but I thought the story in itself was pure fiction.  After all, how could Goneril and Regan behave like that?  And Edmund?

The older I get the more I realise that this murderousness and deceipt are a part of the human experience we have not evolved out of, nor are ever likely to, no matter how sophisticated we suppose ourselves to be.  In holding a mirror up to us in his his great tragedies, Shakespeare wasn’t embellishing for dramatic effect.

The opening scene in King Lear I find cringe-worthy.  Lear’s reign has descended into farce and inauthenticity.  He banishes Cordelia for having the temerity to speak truth to power but tolerates the Fool, who also understands the danger of the situation.  The machinery of the state is thrown out of kilter, and like Lady Macbeth, Lear’s two remaining daughters and Edmund make their grab for power.  I still find it genuinely discomfiting how strong these characters are in their moments of becoming, and how clearly they understand the self-deceipt of others: ‘this excellent foppery of the world’…. ‘An admirable evasion of whoremaster man, to lay his goatish disposition to the charge of a star!’ (ActI sceneII)

Both Lear and Kent make the mistake of growing complacent in their old age.  Perhaps the greatest tragedy a play like King Lear shows is that turmoil is cyclical.  It’s a play that contains dark truths, that we ignore at our cost.

Dan Holt