The play got me thinking, too, about alternative settings to its medieval, pre-Christian royal court. The plot, you remember, centres on an old spoiled king deciding that he's going to hand the job to his daughters' husbands, based on who flatters him most. He intends to retain all the trappings of authority without all the work.
Being an academic in a neoliberal educational paradigm, the scene unfolded before my eyes.
Enter LEAR played by The Spirit of Humanist Education, or perhaps it may be Andrew McGettigan, tired and confused.
'tis our fast intent
To shake all cares and business from our age,
Conferring them on younger strengths while we
Unburthen'd crawl toward death.
Not entirely unworldly, he hints at some kind of quantitative assessment of intangible concepts, which we may as well call REF.
Which of you shall we say doth love us most?
That we our largest bounty may extend
Where nature doth with merit challenge.
His Daughters, GONERIL played by Entrepreneurial Managerialism and REGAN played by Ye Modern Real World. They make professions of love but their discourse is rather unconvincingly over the top.
I love you more than words can wield the matter;
Dearer than eyesight, space, and liberty;
Beyond what can be valued, rich or rare
Only CORDELIA understands that love (or as we may call it, education for the public good) cannot be measured and will not survive the new regime, but fooled by the sharp-suited executives of the New University, she is expelled for her honesty. She is played by Marina Warner.
Meanwhile, we have the sub-plot of the two brothers, EDGAR the loving son and his illegitimate half-brother EDMUND. EDMUND appears to care for his father and the fuddy-duddy establishment, but is actually a cold-hearted individualist free-marketeer intent on destroying it from within.
Lag of a brother? Why bastard? wherefore base?
When my dimensions are as well compact,
My mind as generous, and my shape as true,
As honest madam's issue? Why brand they us
With base? with baseness? bastardy? base, base?
Who, in the lusty stealth of nature, take
More composition and fierce quality
Than doth, within a dull, stale, tired bed,
Go to th' creating a whole tribe of fops
Got 'tween asleep and wake? Well then,
Legitimate Edgar, I must have your land.
Our father's love is to the bastard Edmund
As to th' legitimate. Fine word- 'legitimate'!
Well, my legitimate, if this letter speed,
And my invention thrive, Edmund the base
Shall top th' legitimate. I grow; I prosper.
Now, gods, stand up for bastards!
He is played by David Willetts, AC Grayling or perhaps by Michael Gove. EDGAR, outlawed through Edmund's wiles, is cast out into the cold for his honesty and care, where he becomes POOR TOM weeping and gesticulating over the world's evils. He is, naturally, played by Thomas Docherty.
through fire and through flame, through ford and whirlpool, o'er
bog and quagmire; that hath laid knives under his pillow and
halters in his pew, set ratsbane by his porridge, made him proud
of heart, to ride on a bay trotting horse over four-inch'd
bridges, to course his own shadow for a traitor. Bless thy five
wits! Tom 's acold. O, do de, do de, do de. Bless thee from
whirlwinds, star-blasting, and taking! Do poor Tom some charity,
whom the foul fiend vexes.
His ally is the FOOL: beaten, abused and despised for reminding the rulers of their follies, he is played by the Universities and Colleges Union.
th' middle and gav'st away both parts, thou bor'st thine ass on
thy back o'er the dirt. Thou hadst little wit in thy bald crown
when thou gav'st thy golden one away. If I speak like myself in
this, let him be whipp'd that first finds it so.
[Sings] Fools had ne'er less grace in a year,
For wise men are grown foppish;
They know not how their wits to wear,
Their manners are so apish.
And so our tragedy unfolds. LEAR hands over the care of his campus to these cold-eyed asset-strippers while assuming that they'll have its best interests at heart. He is sadly mistaken. GONERIL and REGAN have no interest in the trappings of old-school scholarship and proceed to deny him the comforts of the academy: Lear has been an old fool, but they intend to tame him, perhaps with Performance Management Plans or a Bonus Scheme.
That still would manage those authorities
That he hath given away! Now, by my life,
Old fools are babes again, and must be us'd
With checks as flatteries, when they are seen abus'd.
For poor old LEAR, thinking his values still have some sway despite selling his realm to managerial forces, will insist on baubles like research time, ethical values and decent staffing levels. This does not go down well – the new rulers don't like dissent or 'inefficiency':
Each buzz, each fancy, each complaint, dislike,
He may enguard his dotage with their pow'rs
And hold our lives in mercy.
These troublemaking loiterers have to go, and a Compulsory Redundancy Scheme is initiated.
GONERIL: What need you five-and-twenty, ten, or five,
To follow in a house where twice so many
Have a command to tend you?
REGAN: What need one?
LEAR's arguments are as convincing to them as ours on tuition fees and non-STEM subjects are to the BIS.
Are in the poorest thing superfluous.
Allow not nature more than nature needs,
Man's life is cheap as beast's.
And so LEAR is cast out upon the blasted heath, accompanied only by a faithful FOOL and Poor Tom. Reduced to nothing, LEAR strips off his garments and rages against the indifferent market.
Nor rain, wind, thunder, fire are my daughters.
I tax not you, you elements, with unkindness.
I never gave you kingdom, call'd you children,
You owe me no subscription. Then let fall
Your horrible pleasure. Here I stand your slave,
A poor, infirm, weak, and despis'd old man.
But yet I call you servile ministers,
That will with two pernicious daughters join
Your high-engender'd battles 'gainst a head
So old and white as this! O! O! 'tis foul!
Gradually LEAR begins to understand the folly he has committed, having been reduced to rags and madness and we think there may be a happy ending. The sisters GONERIL and REGAN are revealed to be poisonous betrayers of the realm and kill each other (having disagreed over who will get the bonus, namely EDMUND, representative of illegitimate poor and false values). But it is too late. CORDELIA is DEAD. Poor Tom is restored to his father's good grace just as Thomas Docherty was reinstated, but life will never be the same again. LEAR takes up the Vice-Chancellor's office once more, but quickly passes on: he is out of time.
And so our revels are ended. We humble players commend our allegory to those in the pit and in the circle and pray that a moral has been drawn.