Lear and Paulina

Another literary post, this is going to be. That’s two in a row. Well – I have a literary side, so you’ll have to bear with me. I usually cover it up here, I pretend to be interested exclusively in other things – and in fact I am interested in other things; I’ve been getting less and less exclusively literary for years. All my adult life really. Which I guess is just a roundabout way of saying I used to be a rather narrow, boring, incurious person when I was young, and then I outgrew it. (Yes I did. I’m not boring. Stop it at once.)

It’s a Shakespeare poll. And not just any poll, but a poll that asks interesting questions, and gets even more interesting answers. And it’s a poll of RSC actors, so of people who know Shakespeare from the inside, so to speak. I learned of the poll from Normblog. Norm had a Shakespeare poll the other day. I have a notion that it was something I said here – the thing about Horatio, and ‘Give me that man that is not passion’s slave,’ and why we love Hamlet – last week that gave him the idea of the poll. No not gave him the idea – prompted the thoughts of his own that gave him the idea. Yes, that’s what I mean. [Update: No, it wasn’t. Nothing to do with me. I suppose I think I make the sun rise, too, do I? And the flowers to bloom, and the dog to smell? Honestly, the conceit of some people.] Anyway he asked me for my ranking before he did the poll – and I was predictable. That is to say, I thought what everyone else thinks. Hamlet and Lear tied for the top spot. Then Macbeth then Othello. Quite conventional.

But the RSC poll has some less conventional answers, at least I think they are. Just for one thing, I’m really delighted to see Henry IV part 2 in fourth place. I love that play. It’s one of my top favourites too. But I had an idea it wasn’t other people’s – partly because the management of the local Shakespeare Festival thinks it is actually much less interesting and audience-grabbing than part 1, whereas I think it takes part 1 and runs with it – soars past it. It’s both funny and moving – and the language!

I’m a bit thrown by the presence of Titus though. But never mind; that’s a wild card. But I love the fact that Paulina was voted the most inspiring character. Paulina is a brilliant character! She fascinates me. She has got the most colossal nerve. She not only shouts at the king and scolds, reproaches, guilt-trips, and calls him hard names – she even ‘thou’s him. Doubly outrageous. Her rank is not all that high, and she’s a woman. She has no business calling him ‘thou’ – it’s a kind of insult, a deliberate insult. Kent calls Lear ‘thou’ in the first scene (and is instantly banished on pain of death), and for the same sort of reason – exactly the same sort of reason, in fact: because Lear has betrayed and disowned a woman closely related to him for the most trivial and absurd of reasons, a woman he should have been loyal to and wasn’t. There is nothing that riles Shakespeare more – cf. Romeo and Juliet (Juliet’s father), Much Ado (Hero’s father), Cymbeline (Postumus and Imogen), Othello. So to make clear how drastically wrong such behavior is, he has underlings and even women chastise the men who do it. It’s extraordinary. And Paulina is much the most defiant and enraged of them all – and also the best reconciler. She gives Hermione back at the end. She’s an amazing character.

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