Q: Sam, I've always found King Lear to be the most powerful (and most overwhelming) Shakespearean tragedy. For example, Lear's rage and suffering are utterly cosmic in magnitude, Goneril and Regan show a mythic disrespect towards Lear, the Edgar-Gloucester scenes are some of the most poignant scenes ever written for the stage. As a play, it's a stroke of genius, yet I'm reminded of A.C. Bradley's line that "King Lear is too huge for the stage." But don't many of the plays we traditionally attribute to Marlowe bear this incredible theatrical intensity and force, as well? For example, in re-reading Marlowe's Edward II recently, there are some very stirring, dynamic scenes where I'm saying to myself, "Hey, it feels like Lear."
Sam: Carlo, you are right about the intensity in Marlowe's plays that preceded what came later in the plays he wrote under Shakespeare's name. The dramatic genius of Marlowe is that he was willing to create emotional scenes that few human beings can endure. Remember, those were the days when people were burned at the stake or drawn and quartered. And that is what his audiences liked: emotional intensity.
You're right that Edward II feels like Lear in that it is non-stop emotional conflict from the very opening lines to the murder of Edward and the execution of Mortimer at the end. The same with Lear, nonstop emotional tour-de-force. Putting out the eyes of Gloucester! Unbearable!
I tend to agree with A.C. Bradley that King Lear is too huge for the stage. I believe that Harold Bloom says he has never seen a production of Lear that he liked. It is a play to be read rather than staged. And since I believe that it was written by Marlowe, I can see how Marlowe would have written it with little consideration for how it was to be performed. For example, the scenes in the storm would be difficult to stage. Yet, the Elizabethan theatre was quite inventive, and the audience was required to use its imagination.
King Lear was written during the author's dark period, one of pessimism. We wonder what Marlowe was drawn to write about, living in a state of exile, unable to collaborate with others. He had just lost his parents, and the story about Lear may have appealed to him because it was really a story about family. There is no doubt that he loved his parents and grieved greatly when he lost them. Is that why he chose to write about Lear?
And that is why the authorship question is so important. If we know who wrote the plays, we can better understand them.
© The Marlowe-Shakespeare Connection, June 2008
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