Novelists Rework Shakespeare’s King Lear to Explore Gender, Power and Legacy

A powerful man decides to divide his vast property between his three daughters. It’s not going as planned — in fact, things are going very badly. The girls have a mind of their own, the old man won’t get out of the way, a family implodes and all is lost.

It’s the familiar plot of Shakespeare King Lear.

“It covers a lot of ground, from justice to forgiveness. But at its core, it’s about family dynamics, as great tragedies usually are,” said Stratford Festival artistic director Antoni Cimolino.

This is also the plot of novels written in our time.

When Preti Taneja first read King Lear in high school in England, “the play melted into my imagination as an Indian story”, she said.

“I recognized the Indian family structures here, the mothers and aunts who were constantly trying to manage the households, to be honorable and to exercise that honour.”

The play also struck her as a powerful exploration of the consequences of a “divide and conquer” approach that pits different factions against each other.

“The stories of the partition, of British history in India, they are not taught in British schools…the first time I saw this discussed in class was by Lear.”

An 1818 painting by William Frederick Yeames titled Cordelia – a fictional character from Shakespeare’s tragic play, King Lear. Cordelia was the youngest of three daughters and was considered Lear’s favorite. (Wikimedia)

Years later, Tanjea wrote We who are young – a story of King Lear set in contemporary India and Kashmir that explores the long-term ramifications of partition.

Taneja was also inspired by Jane Smiley’s novel thousand acres, a tale of King Lear set on a family farm in Iowa. Smiley’s novel, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1992, is told from the perspective of Lear’s eldest daughter, Goneril, who is generally considered one of the play’s villains.

“What always struck me was how much of a jerk Lear was,” Smiley said.

“I was always blown away by the fact that we as viewers were supposed to be on Lear’s side, when he was obviously not in his right mind and also quite rough. I really wanted to see him – or having it be seen by the reader – from the point of view of his daughters.”

Taneja, Smiley and Cimolino spoke with Nahlah Ayed about what King Lear has to tell us today about gender, power, loyalty and legacy.

This is the first episode of the 2021 edition of IDEAS in Stratford, a long-running project produced in collaboration with the Stratford Festival in Ontario. This year the focus is on “The Novels of Shakespeare” – all about novels based on a play by Shakespeare.

Guests in this episode:

Preti Taneja was born in England to Indian parents. She has worked with youth charities, with refugees and in conflict and post-conflict areas on minority and cultural rights, and teaches writing in prisons and at Newcastle University. We who are young, a King Lear tale set in contemporary India, won the 2018 Desmond Elliot Prize for the UK’s best first novel. His next non-fiction book Consequences explores the language of terror, trauma and grief.

Jane Smiley won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1992 for his novel thousand acres, a tale of King Lear set on a family farm in Iowa. She is the author of numerous books, including Greenlanders, moo and The Hundred Years Trilogy: A Bit of Luck, an Early Warning and the Golden Age. She won the PEN USA Lifetime Achievement Award in 2006.

Antoni Cimolino is the artistic director of Stratford Festival, the largest classical repertoire theater company in North America. In 2013, his first season as Artistic Director, Cimolino presented The Forum, a season-long series of events illuminating poster themes and illustrating their relevance in today’s world. Among the many plays he has directed, there is a wildly successful production of King Learwith Colm Feore in the title role.

* This episode was produced by Philip Coulter and Pauline Holdsworth.