While pondering a glass (half-full or half-empty, and the contents of which, is not important) it occurred to me that there is a liquid reading of King Lear which can join other suggested takes on the play.
Lear’s ebullient behaviour in Act One is arguably symptomatic of a person who has lost the social sense of inhibition because he has had a few drinks. Indeed, his need of flattery in the misguided test of his daughters’ ‘love’ could also be argued to a lubricated crossing of social boundaries: an encouragement to make public the kind of emotions Cordelia imagines to be part of the private realm.
As the scene continues his pre-entrance imbibing takes hold and Lear erupts into anger, another stage in the decline of an individual linked to an increase of the drunk drug. And the rest of the play can follow the march of the six stages of intoxication.
Lear is unreasonable in his dispute with his eldest daughter– at least it can be played so, as it was in the 2010-11 Donmar Warehouse production of the play, with Derek Jacobi as the king. One felt enormous sympathy for Gina McKee’s Goneril, when she complained,
By day and night he wrongs me. Every hour
He flashes into one gross crime or other
That sets us all at odds. I’ll not endure it.
By the time Lear, the Fool and Kent make it to the heath, only to be joined by Edgar as Mad Tom, he is clearly out of control. Indeed, some of his antics during the trial of his invisible daughters could qualify for a manifestation of delirium tremens. These, as the medical sites will inform the casual reader, are an indication of withdrawal from overuse of alcohol.
Lear’s road to recovery is, of course, complicated by ‘events, dear boy, events’. With a battle imminent the Doctor brings a now booze-free monarch back into circulation who shows a new awareness himself :
I am a very foolish fond old man,
Fourscore and upward, not an hour more nor less,
And to deal plainly,
I fear I am not in my perfect mind.
Methinks I should know you and know this man,
Yet I am doubtful, for I am mainly ignorant
What place this is, and all the skill I have
Remembers not these garments; nor I know not
Where I did lodge last night.
The diagnosis is confirmed by the Doctor, though he tempers his advice with caution:
Be comforted, good madam. The great rage,
You see, is killed in him, and yet it is danger
To make him even o’er the time he has lost.
Desire him to go in. Trouble him no more
Till further settling.
Anyone who has pushed the alcohol envelope will recognise the remorse and regret, the need to apologise, if they are not affected by a loss of memory. And Lear displays elements of the eighth, ninth and tenth steps of Alcoholics Anonymous ‘s twelve stage programme.
There is a bitter irony in King Lear’s end. The ultimate destination of alcohol abuse is death. (NIDA students were expected to trace the arc from first drink to coma or decease in a long living essay for the first year class mysteriously called Improvisation before the terror-inducing Margaret Barr.)
The man who abandoned fairness when he acted to split Cordelia’s already determined allocation of land among her siblings dies with her in his arms. It is a death that can leave not a dry eye in the house. It is also a conclusion that, on more than one occasion, I have heard a patron say, ‘After that I think I need a stiff drink.’