Saturday, September 30, 2006

"How much do you love me?"

If asked to guess the gender of the person saying that, many people say that that's a woman.

That's King Lear, in the Shakespeare play of the same name. The beginning is he is going to retire as king. He wants each of his three daughters to say to him publicly in the court how much they love him. He will then decide how to divide up his kingdom.

Two do this with smarmy over-the-topness that he likes. Cordelia, the third, won't.

When I first read "King Lear" I was reminded at this point of how Shakespeare's company had titles like "The King's Men." They performed at court regularly. Shakespeare put in time around the monarch and people close to the monarch.

When I read this scene, Cordelia's refusal, I felt like I could feel Shakespeare's disgust with the ass-licking around the head of state, the power person. I felt like he made his disgust Cordelia's disgust from watching so much self-serving psuedo affection, and she just won't and can't.

The "How much do you love me?" part of "King Lear" is based on a very old story, old when Shakespeare used it. Maybe part of the draw of the story for him was thinking just once he'd like to see someone refuse to fake positive emotions for the monarch.

She gets nothing from Lear. He is enraged with her, and banishes her. As it happens as foreign power guy with his own land and power basedvalues her, so she marries him and goes into exile but is not penniless or anything like that.

I thinking of "King Lear" now because I'm thinking of the lack of big parts for women.

King Lear is a gigantic and difficult part. I think it would be easy to gender-shift it.

Change the "he"s referring to Lear to "she"s, change the "king"s to "queen"s and you're there with a great and difficult part for an older actress.

King Lear, the character, doesn't have a partner--the other parent is never mentioned. He doesn't start a war. He has a deal with his two daughters who mouth affection for him that they will divide his kingdom between them. He will live half time with each and be treated with respect.

Doesn't work out. He has misjudged his daughter's characters, the good one is far away, and it's not too long before he is thrown out into the wilds and the storm by his bad daugthers.

None of this seems highly gendered to me, even in traditional gender terms. It's set in a vague, long-ago England, and there might as well be a Queen Lear. If there were lots of big parts for women and old women, maybe it wouldn't be worth the trouble. But there aren't.

If it were first done by someone famous on stage or in a movie, it would be high risk, because of the being made fun of factor, and it would be high risk because no matter what it is a tough part. Shakespeare's language somehow makes Lear be something other than a whiny idiot who makes bad choices that work out badly. But that is always there, and must be overcome, at least partly, by performance.

Some people try to be loyal to be Lear and Cordelia, the good daughter. Loyalty to him means telling him how he's wrong about Cordelia and getting banished.

That kind of larger loyalty to a queen would have a slightly different vibe than to a king--I love you so I know you wrong right not.

When Queen Lear figures out her daughters whose coerced affection words she believed want her out of both there houses, the hurt of that would be different--a mother betrayed by daughters is different than a father betrayed by daughters.

One thing women say among themselves and not so much in mixed groups is that women really know how to hurt women. Not physically, but knowin knowing how to get inside and really do some damage in a way that would elude most guys.

I think that kind of hurt could come out between Queen Lear and her daughters in the words as written. I think more of it could come out in looks in a movie of Queen Lear with great actresses and closeups.

Julie Christie has let the nature that gave her beauty also age her. It's seeing her look the way an older beautiful woman looks that helped start me thinking of this. The first time I saw her in the movie "Darling" where her character was in theory having a great time in a life that was a party her character and the Laurence Harvey character looked at each other with such pain.

Christie got great reviews as Queen Gertrude in Kenneth Branaugh's movie is "Hamlet." I think she'd great as Queen Lear in a movie of same. Or Judy Dench, movie or stage. Meryl Streep, movie or stage.

Any of these women could look like great fools, but anyone who plays the big Shakespeare parts risks that.

Not seeing women in such parts in a corset stay that is pressing in on our thinking and doing and keeping us from moving freely. It might be better to try it out at the college or regional theatre level, but I hope somebody goes for it, and changes the world.

Someone sees a woman actress take up as much space as Lear takes up, it changes their world. That, and a lot of other things. More space for more kinds of people--making that happen is part of the process of making the human us smart enough to not kill ourselves and everything else.