We live in a society obsessed by the “black and white” – that you either love someone or you hate them, you’re either right or wrong, in or out, left or right … King Lear is about the murky ambiguous area of love and the demand and need for love – and it is Lear’s incestuous need for love that leads him into paranoia and madness.
The decline of the name-of-the-father signifier and the King’s fall into madness as a dramatisation of our current political climate could seem like a somewhat obvious and banal reason for adapting King Lear for TV, if that is what it is. Nevertheless society fetishises both the signifier of the father, and the concept of removing the primal father – and it’s both of these unconscious psychic phenomena that Shakespeare transforms into an ambiguous language which both destabilises and enslaves the characters of the play.
King Lear’s relationship with his three daughters creates a familiar topology between three psychic spaces (Imaginary, Symbolic and Real) – and the three women could also be seen as representing the three mythological women of a man’s life. The woman that gives birth to him, the lover and the woman that carries him to his death.
The play begins with Lear retiring as King and dividing his land between his three daughters and Lear demands that the women tell him how much they love him. Both Goneril and Regan lie to him, Goneril in fulsome terms. However the youngest Cordelia speaks honestly and bluntly, saying that she loves him “according to her bond, no more and no less”.
Freud, in his 1919 paper “The Three Caskets”, refers to Cordelia as the dumb or silent one, “The Goddess of Death”. She says it ‘how it is’ and Lear feels compelled to reject her, what in psychoanalysis you would call a disavowal. Infuriated, by Cordelia’s refusal to flatter him, Lear disowns her and divides her share between the elder sisters. Cordelia ends up marrying the King of France who is shocked by Lear’s decision to disown her and then later in the play France invades England.
[That which has been expelled or disavowed, returns in the Real]
The drama concludes with Lear carrying the corpse of Cordelia [The Goddess of Death] on stage before dying himself from his own [words] wounds.