Lear by Edward Bond

Lear by Edward Bond

Table of Contents

1. Lear: Introduction

2. Lear: Edward Bond Biography

3. Lear: Summary

4. Lear: Characters

5. Lear: Themes

6. Lear: Style

7. Lear: Historical Context

8. Lear: Critical Overview

Lear: Essays and Criticism

¨ Moral Development of Lear

¨ Bond, Shakespeare, and the Absurd

¨ King Lear versus Lear at Stratford


10. Lear: Compare and Contrast

11. Lear: Topics for Further Study

12. Lear: What Do I Read Next?

13. Lear: Bibliography and Further Reading

14. Lear: Pictures

Lear: Introduction

Edward Bond's Lear was first produced at the Royal Court Theatre in London in 1971. Bond's 1965 play Saved had already established his position as an important new playwright, and some believe early reviewers of Lear did not fully understand the play but were reluctant to condemn it, largely because of Bond's reputation. Many did find fault with the play, however, and much attention was focused on Leafs tremendous violence. Some were critical of that violence, while others defended its extremity as essential to the playwright's purpose. As with Bond's other plays, the violence in Lear remains a subject of critical debate to this day.

Another focus of attention on Lear is its relationship to William Shakespeare's play King Lear. As the playwright has noted, it is important to note that Bond's Lear be seen not simply as an adaptation of Shakespeare's play but as a comment on that drama. In various interviews, Bond has said that current audience

Lear 1

reaction to Shakespeare's King Lear, which focuses on the artistic experience of the play, is far removed from the way Shakespeare's audience would have responded. Bond's purpose is to make Shakespeare's play more politically effective, more likely to cause people to question their society and themselves, rather than simply to have an uplifting aesthetic experience. As a socialist playwright, Bond writes plays that are not meant merely to entertain but to help to bring about change in society.

Lear has been called the most violent drama ever staged as well as the most controversial of Bond's plays. It has been revived a number of times since its original production, and its reputation has grown as more critical attention has been paid to Bond's work Although it is clear that Lear is an important work among Bond's plays, its full effect on contemporary drama remains to be seen.

Lear: Edward Bond Biography

Edward Bond was born on July 18,1934, to working class parents in Holloway, a North London suburb in

England. When World War II began in 1939, Bond, like many children, was evacuated to the countryside.

Even so, he was exposed to the violence of the war, the bombings, the continual sense of danger, all of which

helped to shape Bond’s image of the world as a violent place. Bond's education was interrupted by the war,

and he left school for good at fifteen. He worked m factories and offices and served for two years in the

British army. In his early twenties, he began writing plays.

At this time, in the 1950s, a new generation of playwrights was beginning to revolutionize British drama.

These playwrights included John Osborne (Look Back in Anger), Arnold Wesker (Chicken-Soup with Barley),

and Harold Pinter (The Homecoming). As a group, they moved away from the predictable, even insipid,

British post-war theater to create drama, often political, that was new and vibrant. Bond eventually became

one of this group of new playwrights.

Bond wrote a number of plays before his first staged work, The Pope's Wedding, was produced in 1962.

Although that play contained some violence, it was not until the production of Saved (1965), a play that

includes an onstage depiction of the stoning of a baby, that Bond became notorious for the extreme violence

of his work. The Lord Chamberlain, a public official responsible at the time for maintaining moral standards

in British theater, heavily censored the original script. The eventual production of the play, in its entirety in

1965 at the Royal Court, resulted in the theater being prosecuted and fined.

Bond's next play, Early Morning, produced in 1968, featured cannibalism. It was the last play banned by the

Lord Chamberlain before censorship in the British theater was abolished that same year. Other important

plays by Bond include Lear (1971), Bingo (1971), and Restoration (1968). He has also written two volumes

of poetry and a number of screenplays, including Walkabout (1971), directed by Nicolas Roeg.

In his later work, Bond continues to be noted for the violence in his writing. A socialist and atheist, he is also

known for the highly political content of his plays, and by the 1990s was considered a major voice in the

British theater.

Lear: Summary

Act I

Lear opens at the site of a wall King Lear is having built in order to keep enemies out of his kingdom. Two

workers carry a dead laborer onstage just before Lear enters with Lord Warrington and Lear's daughters,

Bodice and Fontanelle, among others When Lear sees the dead man, his primary concern is with the resulting

delay to the building of the wall, and he shoots the worker who accidentally caused the man's death. Bodice

and Fontanelle object to Lear's violence and reveal their own plans to marry Lear's enemies, the Duke of

Lear: Introduction 2

North and the Duke of Cornwall, respectively. Lear's daughters believe their marriages will lead to peace, but

Lear believes that only the wall can protect his people. After Lear and the others leave, Bodice and Fontanelle

reveal the plans they share with their husbands to attack Lear's armies. In Scene 2, as Lear prepares for war,

Warrington informs him that each daughter has written separately, each asking Warrington to betray Lear,

then the other daughter In Scene 3, each of the daughters complains about her husband and reveals plans to

have him killed.

In Scene 4, the audience discovers that the sisters' armies have been victorious, but Bodice and Fontanelle

each has failed at having her husband killed Warrington, now a prisoner whose tongue has been cut out, is

brought before the sisters. Bodice calmly knits while Warrington is tortured by her soldiers Fontanelle calls

for increased violence against Warrington, then deafens him by poking Bodice's knitting needles into his ears.

Warrington is taken out by a soldier.

In Scene 5, Lear, m the woods, finds bread on the ground and eats it. Warrington, crippled, and for whom the

bread is intended, sneaks up behind Lear with a knife but leaves when the Gravedigger's Boy arrives with

bread and water for Lear. The Boy asks Lear to stay with him and his wife. Scene 6 takes place at the Boy's

house, where Lear finds out how the Boy lives. The Boy has two fields and his pregnant wife, Cordelia, keeps

pigs. When Lear goes out with the Boy, Warrington returns with a knife, and the Boy\s wife calls out, saying

that the Wild Man has returned. While Lear sleeps, Warrington returns with a knife, attacks Lear, then leaves.

In Scene 7. the Boy complains to Lear about the king who caused so much suffering for the workers building

his wall, but asks Lear to stay. A sergeant and three soldiers come on stage looking for Lear. Warrington's

body is discovered plugging the well. The soldiers kill the Boy, rape Cordelia, and kill the pigs. The Carpenter

arrives and kills the soldiers. Lear is taken prisoner.

Act II

In the first scene, saying Lear is mad. Bodice and Fontanelle bring him before a judge. When asked about

Bodice and Fontanelle, Lear denies that they are his daughters. Bodice has her mirror given to Lear, as she

believes that madmen are frightened of themselves. Lear sees himself in the mirror as a tortured animal in a

cage. He is found mad and taken away. Bodice tells Fontanelle that there are malcontents in the kingdom and

that there will be a civil war. Fontanelle replies that the rebels are led by Cordelia.

In Scene 2, the Gravedigger's Boy's Ghost appears to Lear in his cell. Lear asks the Ghost to bring him his

daughters. The apparitions that appear are of Bodice and Fontanelle as young girls. Lear and his daughters

talk as the two girls sit with their heads on his knees. Lear asks the daughters to stay, but they leave him. The

Ghost reappears and asks Lear if he can stay with him. Lear agrees, saying they will be comforted by the

sound of each other's voices.

In Scene 3, Cordelia appears with her soldiers, one of whom was wounded in a skirmish with Bodice and

Fontanelle's troops. The Carpenter arrives. A soldier captured by Cordelia's men asks to join their forces, but

Cordelia has him shot because he does not hate. The others go offstage, leaving the wounded soldier to die

alone. In Scene 4, Bodice and Fontanelle, talking at their headquarters, reveal that their husbands have tried to

desert. Fontanelle is given Lear's death warrant by Bodice and signs it. The Dukes of North and Cornwall

arrive and are told they are to be kept in cells unless there is a need for them to be seen in public. Left alone.

Bodice reveals that she started to have the wall pulled down, but that she needed the workers as soldiers.

In Scene 5, Cordelia's soldiers, who appear leading Lear and other prisoners, have lost their way. Lear says

that he only wants to live to find the Ghost and help him. Fontanelle is brought in, a prisoner also. In Scene 6,

Lear and the other prisoners, including Fontanelle, are in their cell. 

The Ghost arrives. He is cold and thin.

Lear says he wishes he'd been the Ghost's father and looked after him. Fontanelle tells Lear that if he helps

her, she will protect him if Bodice is victorious At the Carpenter's command, a soldier shoots Fontanelle A

Lear: Summary 3

medical doctor who is also a prisoner arrives to perform an autopsy on Fontanelle. Lear is awed by the beauty

of the inside of her body, in contrast to her cruelty and hatred when alive.

Bodice arrives as a prisoner, indicating that Cordelia's forces have defeated the last remnants of the daughters'

regime. Lear tells his daughter that he destroyed Fontanelle. Bodice too has been sentenced to death. The

soldiers stab her with a bayonet three times. Cordelia, now the Carpenter's wife, has asked that Lear not be

killed. Using a "scientific device,'' the doctor removes Lear's eyes. In terrible pain, Lear leaves the prison with

the Ghost. In Scene 7, Lear meets a family of farmers by the wall. They reveal that the father will go to work

on the wall and the son will become a soldier. Lear feels pity and tells them to run away. Lear says that

Cordelia does not know what she is doing and that he will write to tell her of the people's suffering.


In Scene 1, Lear is living in the Boy's old house with Thomas, his wife Susan, and John, all of whom care for

Lear in his blindness. A deserter from Cordelia's wall arrives; the Ghost wants him to leave for the sake of

everyone else's safety. Soldiers arrive, looking for the deserter, but Lear hides the fugitive Unable to find him,

the soldiers leave. The others want the deserter to leave as well, but Lear insists that he—and all escapees who

come to the house—can stay.

Scene 2 occurs some months later. At the Boy' s house, Lear tells a group of people a fable. The audience

learns from Thomas that hundreds gather to hear Lear's public speeches, but Thomas believes it is dangerous

for Lear to continue speaking out against the government. An officer arrives with Lear's old Councilor and

accuses Lear of hiding deserters. The deserter from Scene 2 is taken away to be hanged. The Councilor tells

Lear that Cordelia has tolerated Lear's speaking, but now he must stop. The Councilor and those who came

with him leave. Lear complains that he is still a prisoner; there is a wall everywhere. The Ghost enters; he is

thinner and more shrunken. The Ghost suggests that he poison the well so the others will leave; he will take

Lear to a spring to drink. Lear sleeps, and John tells Susan that he is leaving and asks her to come with him

John leaves, Thomas enters, and Susan, crying, asks Thomas to take her away from Lear. Thomas tells Susan

to come into the house.

In Scene 3, Lear is alone in the woods. The Ghost arrives; he is deteriorating rapidly and appears terrified The

Ghost believes he is dying and weeps because he is afraid. Cordelia and the Carpenter enter. Cordelia speaks

of how the soldiers killed her husband and raped her and of the way in which her new government is creating

a better way of life The Ghost watches his former wife, wishing he could speak to her. Cordelia asks Lear to

stop working against her. Lear tells Cordelia she must pull the wall down, but she says the kingdom will be

attacked by enemies if she does. When Lear continues saying he will not be quiet, Cordelia says he will be put

on trial, then leaves.

The Ghost is gored to death by pigs that have gone mad. In Scene 4, Lear is taken to the wall by Susan. He

climbs up on the structure in order to dig it up. The Farmer's Son, now a soldier, shoots Lear, injuring him.

Lear continues to shovel. The Farmer's Son shoots Lear again, killing him Lear's body is left alone onstage.

Lear: Characters


Ben is an orderly m the prison who is kind to Lear When Ben, pursued by soldiers, later appears at the

Gravedigger's Boy's house, Lear takes him in despite the danger in doing so.


The Bishop appears briefly in the first act, blessing Lear's army. He tells Lear that God will support him, not

the women who act against him.

Lear: Characters 4


Bodice is Lear's daughter and Fontanelle's sister. In the first scene, she objects to her father's cruelty in killing

one of his workmen, but when she marries the Duke of North and leads a successful rebellion against her

father, she becomes more cruel than he was, even coolly planning her own husband' s murder. Although in

many ways she is quite similar to her sister, Bodice is the more cold and calculating of the two. While

Warrington is being tortured, Bodice calmly knits, and her concentration on her knitting throughout this horrid

scene is so extreme that it becomes darkly comic. As the play progresses, Bodice's desire for power grows,

and she imprisons her husband and speaks of eventually killing her sister. She is, however, the more

introspective of the two sisters, and in a monologue speaks of her own feeling that all of her power traps her

and makes her its slave. When Bodice is finally imprisoned, she is as calculating as ever. She is killed by

Cordelia's soldiers while in prison, and it is clear that she has learned nothing.


The Carpenter is first seen at the home of the Gravedigger's Boy and his wife, Cordelia. The Gravedigger's

Boy says that the Carpenter comes to their home often because of his love for Cordelia. Shortly after soldiers

kill the Gravedigger's Boy and rape Cordelia, the Carpenter comes on stage and kills the soldiers. He and

Cordelia marry. Although his killing of the soldiers seems to be a noble act, when Cordelia gains power, he

becomes a part of her corrupt government.


The audience first sees Cordelia, the Gravedigger's Boy's Wife, at home with her husband when Lear comes

seeking shelter. She is not as compassionate as the Gravedigger's Boy and wants Lear to leave. After her

husband is killed by the soldiers who cruelly rape her, Cordelia marries the Carpenter and leads a rebellion

against Bodice and Fontanelle. Her rebellion is successful, but once in power, she is every bit as cruel as those

she fought against. It is Cordelia who leaves her own wounded soldier to die alone, who orders the executions

of Bodice and Fontanelle, and the blinding of Lear She allows Lear to live but tries to stop his public

speaking. It is one of her soldiers who finally kills Lear.

Duke of Cornwall

The Duke of Cornwall begins as an enemy of Lear's kingdom, but Fontanelle says that by marrying him, she

can bring peace between him and her father. Instead, he becomes a part of Fontanelle and Bodice's revolution

against Lear. Fontanelle quickly tires of him and attempts to have him killed. He survives, but Fontanelle later

has him imprisoned. As a character, he is virtually interchangeable with the Duke of North.

Duke of North

Initially an enemy of Lear's kingdom, the Duke of North marries Bodice, supposedly in order to bring peace,

but then supports Bodice and Fontanelle's revolution. Bodice, however, soon grows tired of him and tries to

have him killed. Although that attempt fails, she eventually succeeds in having him imprisoned. There is little

difference between the Duke of North and the Duke of Cornwall, Fontanelle's husband.


The Farmer appears by Lear's wall with his wife and son shortly after Lear is released, blinded, from prison.

When Lear asks to rest in his home, the Farmer explains that he has lost everything due to the madness of the

king and his obsession with building the wall. Lear begins to see the real effects of what he has done and to

feel compassion for the people of the kingdom.

Farmer's Son

The Farmer's Son appears with his mother and father at Lear's wall. At the time Lear meets him, he is being

conscripted into Cordelia's army. Lear begs him not to go, but to run away instead. In the final scene, it is the

Farmer's Son, now a soldier, who shoots and kills Lear.

Lear: Characters 5

Farmer's Wife

The Farmer's Wife appears at Lear's wall with her husband and son. She is resigned to the dark fate of her


Firing Squad Officer

The Firing Squad Officer commands the firing squad that is supposed to shoot one of Lear's workers at his

command. When they are not quick enough, Lear shoots the man himself.


Fontanelle is Lear's daughter and Bodice's sister. In the first scene, her objection to her father's killing of a

workman makes her seem compassionate, but when she and Bodice lead the rebellion against Lear, it becomes

clear that she is immensely cruel. Fontanelle plans the murder of her husband, an effort which fails, but is

shown at her cruelest during the torture of Warrington, when she becomes so excited about Warrington's

suffering that the result is a sort of black humor. Her extreme pleasure in the torture contrasts with Bodice's

calm state. Although Fontanelle and Bodice are supposedly working together, they are not loyal to one

another; Fontanelle has her own spies. Fontanelle is finally imprisoned by Cordelia and executed. Afterwards,

she is autopsied onstage and Lear is moved by the beauty of the inside of her body In viewing Fontanelle's

autopsy, Lear becomes aware of his

responsibility in the formation of his children's characters. Although she learns nothing herself, in death

Fontanelle contributes to Lear's clearer understanding of his own cruelty.


See Gravedigger's Boy

Gravedigger's Boy

The Gravedigger's Boy plays a strong part in teaching Lear about compassion When he first meets Lear, the

Gravedigger's Boy is living in a pastoral setting with his pregnant wife, Cordelia. The simplicity of his life

and his kindness bring about the beginning of Lear's change. After the Gravedigger's Boy is murdered by

soldiers, he later appears to Lear in his prison cell, now as a Ghost. As the Ghost, he continues to teach Lear

as he tries to help him, but the Ghost himself is in a state of continuing deterioration. He is slowly dying and

is afraid. Lear, calling the Ghost his boy, becomes his protector, but is unable to save the Ghost from his

decline. Meanwhile, the Ghost continues in his protective attitude toward Lear. The two learn to help and

teach each other and to show one another true kindness and compassion. Finally, however, the Ghost is

mauled to death by maddened pigs, and Lear feels the pain of his second death.

Gravedigger's Boy's Wife

See Cordelia


John lives with Thomas, Susan, and Lear at the Gravedigger's Boy's house. He is more critical of Lear and

eventually leaves for the city, asking Susan to leave Thomas and come with him She stays with Thomas and



The Judge, who is clearly under the control of Bodice and Fontanelle, presides at Lear's trial and concludes

that Lear is mad.


Lear is the play's title character. The action revolves largely around his growth as an individual. When he first

appears on stage, it is as a cruel king bent on building a wall around his kingdom, supposedly to protect his


His actions, however, soon show his indifference to their lives, as he kills a workman who has

Lear: Characters 6

accidentally killed another and thus delayed the completion of the wall. When Lear is deposed by his

daughters, Bodice and Fontanelle,

he begins to suffer and to change through that suffering. When the rebellion first begins, Lear denies that he

even has daughters, but he eventually takes responsibility for his part in building their characters. His

relationship with the Gravedigger's Boy, and subsequently with the Gravedigger's Boy's Ghost, also changes

him as he begins to see the possibility of true kindness. Much of Lear's change, in fact, comes because of his

relationships with other people. As he sees the world through their eyes, he develops compassion and is

finally willing to give his own life because of the good it might do others. His final act, an attempt to dig up

his own wall, shows the extent of his transformation. It is this transformation that is the center of the play.


The Officer comes to the Gravedigger's Boy's house while Lear is living there with Thomas, Susan, and John.

He accuses Lear of harboring deserters and takes the Small Man away to be executed.

Old Councilor

The Old Councilor is loyal to whatever regime is in power. He begins as a minister of Lear's, supports Bodice

and Fontanelle when they are in power, and eventually works for Cordelia.


Four Prisoners appear with Lear in a prison convoy. One of them is also the Prison Doctor who performs the

autopsy on Fontanelle and later blinds Lear.

Small Man

The Small Man is a deserter pursued by soldiers. He asks Lear, Thomas, Susan, and John to hide him. Lear

tries to protect him, but he is eventually found by the soldiers and taken away to be executed.


Fourteen soldiers have speaking parts in the play, and others appear on stage. These soldiers are a frequent

presence throughout the play and are usually seen in the act of killing or torturing people. They are in the

service of the various corrupt regimes.


Susan is Thomas's wife and lives at the Gravedigger's Boy's house with Thomas, John, and Lear Like Thomas,

she is concerned that Lear's compassion for others will endanger the household, but it is she who leads Lear to

his wall so that he can commit his defiant final act.


Thomas, his wife Susan, and John live with Lear at the Gravedigger's Boy's house after Lear has been blinded

and released from prison. Thomas is compassionate, but unlike Lear, he is reluctant to endanger the household

by helping those pursued by Cordelia's army. He is also concerned that Lear's public speaking will bring

trouble. Yet he says he wants to fight for the good of the people. Susan and John want him to leave Lear, but

he refuses.


Warrington is loyal to Lear. He is captured and brutally tortured under the direction of Lear's daughters when

they first rebel against their father. The daughters decide not to kill Warrington and for a time he lives in the

woods and is referred to as ' 'the wild man" by the Gravedigger's Boy and his wife. He drowns in their well.

Wild Man

See Warrington

Lear: Characters 7


The three workmen appear in the first scene, where they are seen building Lear's wall. Their only value to

Lear is in their ability to work on the wall. When one is accidentally killed, Lear's only concern is for the

resulting delay in building the wall.

Wounded Rebel Soldier

The Wounded Rebel Soldier was injured fighting in Cordelia's army. She, the Carpenter, and the other rebel

soldiers abandon him to die alone.

Lear: Themes

Parents and Children

In Lear Bond provides a picture of a family that has disintegrated. In the very first scene of the play, Bond

portrays hostility between Lear and his daughters. Bodice and Fontanelle reveal to their father that they will

marry his enemies, the Duke of North and the Duke of Cornwall, then tear down Lear's wall. Lear responds in

kind, telling them he has always known of their maliciousness. When Lear

leaves the stage, Bodice and Fontanelle reveal then-plans to attack their father's army. Lear and his daughters

are literally at war with one another; when presented with Lear's death warrant, Fontanelle eagerly signs it. At

his trial Lear seems to reject his children altogether, saying he has no daughters.

Yet in prison, Lear shows a desire for a relationship with his children. Lear asks the Ghost to bring him his

daughters who, he now says, will help him. Apparitions of the daughters as young girls appear, and the

audience is given the sense of happier, more peaceful times. The daughters are afraid of being in prison, but

Lear comforts them. When they say they must leave, Lear begs them to stay. Lear realizes that at some point

in the past his daughters were kind, lovable people. Later, when Fontanelle is killed and autopsied, the

procedure reveals to Lear that his daughter is flesh and bone and not some evil beast in human guise.

Lear is awed by the beauty and purity of the inside of Fontanelle's body. He sees no maliciousness, no evil,

there, just base human matter. He says that if he had known how beautiful Fontanelle was, he would have

loved her. ' 'Did I make this-—and destroy it?" he asks. It is only at the autopsy that Lear realizes that he is

responsible for the evil in his daughters. He has shaped their personalities and behavior. They learned all of

their cruelty, greed, and thirst for power from him There is an inherent connection between the children and

the parent who nurtured their development, and Lear can no longer see himself as simply the victim of his

daughters' evil. Lear and his daughters are inextricably bound together. By the time Lear realizes this,

however, it is too late. Both daughters are dead, and he cannot change the past. The disintegrated family

cannot be rebuilt. Lear must live with his guilt.

Violence and Power

In his preface to Lear Bond states, "I write about violence as naturally as Jane Austen wrote about manners."

For Bond, violence is an integral part of contemporary society; writing about modern culture means writing

about violence. Lear begins and ends with violence. In the first scene, Lear shoots a worker who has

accidentally caused another worker's death; in the last scene, a soldier shoots and kills Lear. In between, there

are numerous acts of brutality. Warrington's tongue is cut out, he is tortured, and knitting needles are shoved

into his ears. The innocent Gravedigger's Boy is shot, and his wife is raped. Even as a Ghost, the

Gravedigger's Boy suffers a second violent death, this time an attack by pigs. Fontanelle is shot and Bodice is

gored by soldiers. Numerous minor characters also die violent deaths.

Aside from the violence, there are scenes depicting graphic gore. The autopsy of Fontanelle and the blinding

of Lear are among the most horrifying scenes in recent literature As traumatic as watching Bond's violent

scenes may be for the audience, however, it is important to note that these scenes are not mere titillation or

sensationalism; Bond uses the violence in Lear, as well as in his other plays, to highlight the violence of

Lear: Themes 8

modern society. His interest is not simply in the violence itself, but in the circumstances that provoke such

savagery in both reality and fiction.

Most of the violence in Lear is directly related to the desire for power. When the first worker is shot in Act I,

the audience immediately realizes a connection between Lear's power and the violence that has repeatedly

been used m the formation of his regime. Supposedly horrified by Lear's violence, Bodice and Fontanelle

revolt against their father, but once m power, they are every bit as violent as he. One might expect Cordelia,

originally one of the oppressed masses, to also govern without violence, but, once in power, she is as ruthless

as Lear and his daughters Although the rulers change, their policies of governing through violence remain the

same. The very structure of this society is violent. It is Bond's intention that the audience see the violence of

Lear's society as a reflection of its own time. Through recognition of its own savagery, society may change.


Lear begins the play as a violent man, a ruthless king. His rancor is immediately highlighted when he shoots

one worker who has accidentally killed another. The crime, in Lear's view, is not in taking an innocent life,

but in delaying the building of the wall. Although the king, when he talks of his people in the abstract, speaks

of his duty to protect them, as individuals their lives mean nothing to him As the play progresses—and his

circumstances change— Lear begins to perceive things differently. When his daughters' revolution succeeds,

he flees to the countryside, where he meets the Gravedigger's Boy, who generously feeds him and gives him


Lear witnesses the human ability to forgive when the Boy tells him of the subjects' suffering caused by the

building of the wall and yet allows the deposed king to stay. Lear's education in suffering

is continued when he sees the Boy killed, his wife raped, and their livestock killed. His imprisonment by his

daughters also teaches him about pain. In prison, Lear develops feelings of protectiveness toward the Ghost.

Also in prison, Lear's observation of Fontanelle's autopsy helps him to further see the damage for which he is

responsible. At this point, when he is beginning to see, Lear is blinded.

The blind Lear is released and meets the farmer, Ms wife, and their son; Lear now truly sees their suffering

and longs to end it. He begins to live among the people and endangers his own life by offering sanctuary to all

who need it and by speaking out against Cordelia's regime. Lear's last act is his attempt to tear down the wall,

an attempt that will clearly fail, and he dies in this symbolic act. Violence and evil still reign. Yet, in Lear's

transformation and virtuous final act, an example for positive change has been presented.

Lear: Style

Epic Theater/Alienation Effect

Twentieth-century playwright Bertold Brecht (The Three Penny Opera) developed the modern concept of the

epic theater for use in his political dramas. 

Unlike conventional drama, epic theater develops from a sequence

of many scenes, as in Lear, that often take place over a considerable time period and employ a large number

of characters. The continuous movement from scene to scene is meant to keep the audience from becoming

too emotionally involved with the characters. This lack of emotional involvement is also developed through

Brecht's alienation effect, which occurs when the audience is continuously made aware that it is not watching

reality but a play.

In Lear characters periodically speak to the audience rather than to one another. This sort of speech is called

an "aside" and contributes to the alienation effect. When Warrington is tortured, the darkly comic comments

of Bodice and Fontanelle remind the audience that this is an exaggerated fiction removed from reality. This is

part of the alienation effect as well. The purpose of this method is to force the audience to use its intellect

rather than its emotions in considering the themes and action of the play. Brecht believed that focusing on

Lear: Style 9

reason, not emotion, would be more effective in conveying the motives of political drama.


An anachronism is an object or idea that is from a time period different from the one in which a work of

literature is set; it is something that is clearly out of context with the rest of the work's environment. The

modern workers building Lear's wall are an anachronism, as is the futuristic "scientific device" used to blind

Lear. Anachronisms can have two major effects. They are sometimes used to make a story more universal—to

illustrate that the story is not only about the time in which it is set but that it uses themes and ideas that apply

to all times. Anachronisms can also contribute to the alienation effect, creating a sense of the surreal that

reinforces the unreality of the proceedings. In Lear, Bond's anachronistic technique serves both purposes.


An allusion refers to something outside of the play, usually a literary work. By using allusion, the playwright

is able to enrich the audience's experience of the drama. Though a complete story in itself, Bond's entire play

is an allusion to William Shakespeare's

King Lear

. Because the play is about Shakespeare's text, familiarity with King Lear will deepen the audience's

understanding of Bond's interpretation. Bodice's knitting in times of mayhem is an allusion to Charles

Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities, a novel about the French Revolution in which the character Madame Defarge,

one of the revolutionaries, knits a list of aristocrats who must die into a scarf.


Bond's play takes place in a year numbered 3100, presumably in ancient Britain, although Bond fills his story

with modern devices, indicating that the action may be taking place in some distant future. Read in this

manner, Bond could be condemning the phenomenon of history repeating itself. If the play is set in the future,

then the events are a recreation of the original Lear legend that took place centuries before.

The action of the play takes place in a multitude of locations, but there are some that reappear within the play.

Although the audience does not actually see Lear's wall until the final scene, the play opens near the wall,

which becomes a pervasive symbolic presence throughout the play. Frequent references to the wall cause the

audience to sense a feeling of enclosure and claustrophobia that is representative of the oppression caused by

the different regimes throughout the play. Paradoxically, in the final scene the audience is shown the wall, and

thus the possibility of a future on the outside; the inspiration for freedom is deepened by Lear's insistence that

the structure, and all that it symbolizes, be destroyed.

The Gravedigger's Boy's house is also an important location. It is in this more pastoral setting that Lear

experiences the possibility of change and the depth of human kindness. It is to this house that the blind Lear returns and establishes a sanctuary for fugitives from the regime. The house represents the chance of happiness and freedom, an idyll from oppression. Another important location is the prison, where Lear learnt of his own responsibility for the suffering of others. Imprisoned with his daughters, he becomes aware that their evil is a reflection—and creation—of his own capacity for such behavior.


A metaphor is a word or phrase whose literal meaning is subverted to represent something else. The wall, theplay's greatest metaphor, is a presence which pervades the play even when it is not seen. It is representative ofthe oppression and control of various corrupt regimes. Bodice and Fontanelle as well as Cordelia initially seethe wall as something that must be dug up. Yet whoever ascends to power realizes that the wall is a means topreserve their authority. At the same time, the people see the wall as the source of their misery. Because of themassive effort put into constructing the wall, their farms are lost and the men sicken and die. The structure is

Lear: Style 10

also a metaphor for the "wall" that Lear has figuratively built between himself and his adult daughters, as well

as between himself and the emotional needs of his subjects Lear's final attempt to dig up the wall represents

his realization that such oppressive structures must be demolished to advance humanity.

The blinding of Lear is also metaphoric. In literature blindness is often associated with greater insight,

Tiresias, the mythological Greek prophet, is blind as is the character of Oedipus. Lear is blinded just as he

begins to realize his own responsibility for the pain of others. In these cases, physical blindness enables

greater insight into the human condition. It is also symbolic of an epiphany or great self-reflection. As with

the legend of Oedipus (who unwittingly killed his father, married his mother, and, upon learning what he had

done, blinded himself), Lear's blinding occurs at the moment that he gains full realization of his life's


Lear: Historical Context

British writers of Bond's generation were profoundly influenced by World War II and its aftermath German

leader Adolf Hitler's intense bombing of London, known as the "blitz,'' brought the horrors of war home to

British soil At the end of the war, the discovery of the Nazi concentration camps (in which millions were put

to death for their perceived threat to the German regime) revealed a previously unimagined evil. The

American use of the atomic bomb at the end of the war led to new fears about the future of the planet, fears

which were exacerbated when Britain tested its first hydrogen bomb in 1954.

For the British people, the violence of war was very real. At the close of the conflict, Britain began to lose its

status as a nation. It had once been said that the sun never set on the British empire. Now that same empire

was gradually dismantled as former colonies such as India and Africa regained their autonomy. The Suez

crisis of 1956, in which Britain tried to gain control of the Suez Canal in Egypt and was subsequently

condemned for its military interference, caused great disillusionment with the government. After the United

Nations condemned Britain's action, troops were forced to withdraw, and the prime minister resigned. Equally

sobering for leftist causes was the Soviet Union's invasion of Hungary in 1956 and its subsequent invasion of

Czechoslovakia in 1968. Socialism, seen by many as a hope for the future, was revealed to be as aggressive,

dictatorial, and violent as any other political system.

The postwar years m England also saw the development of the Welfare State, in which responsibility for the

poor would rest largely on the government. In 1946, the National Insurance Act and the National Health

Service Act were passed. The National Assistance Act of 1948 was designed to provide government relief for

the poor. Many believed that through the government's actions, poverty and unemployment would be

abolished, a line of reasoning that was quickly proven false. The belief in the need for government assistance

for the poor, however, continued into the late 1960s and early 1970s. In these later years, government policies

also became increasingly liberal. Homosexuality, previously illegal, was now considered outside of

government jurisdiction. The National Health Service began to fund contraception and abortions for the poor.

Women and members of minority groups began to agitate for their rights. The Lord Chamberlain's power to

censor the theater was abolished.

In his preface to Lear Bond writes, "We can see that most men are spending their lives doing things for which

they are not biologically designed. We are not designed for our production lines, housing blocks, even cars;

and these things are not designed for us." Bond's suspicion of technology is a reflection of his times. During

this period the idyllic pastoral rife depicted at the home of Lear's Gravedigger's Boy was fast disappearing as

farms became more industrialized There was also the sense that the increase in technology, because of the

resulting displacement of workers, was a large contributor to the problems of unemployment and, thus,

poverty. Medical advances were also under suspicion. When the first heart transplant was performed in

England in 1967, some compared that breakthrough to the depiction of biological technology (and the creation

Lear: Historical Context 11

of a monster) in Mary Shelley's novel Frankenstein.

The time in which Bond wrote Lear was also a tune of violence. In 1968 alone the Soviets invaded

Czechoslovakia, Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were both assassinated, and the Six Day War was

fought in Israel. During these years, the war in Vietnam was escalating, and British troops were sent into

Northern Ireland to quell unrest over that country's sovereignty Students became deeply involved in politics

and there were mass demonstrations. It also became clear, however, that the students could turn violent as

well. In 1970, three members of the radical American group "The Weathermen" were killed when the bomb

they were building for terrorist purposes exploded. It was this type of destruction, this kind of violence, that is

dramatized in Lear, a play in which all governments and all revolutions are shown to be violent and,

ultimately, alike in their ruthless cruelty and disregard for human life.

Lear: Critical Overview

The pervasive violence of Bond's Lear has been a focus of criticism since the play's premiere in 1971. By that

time, Bond was well known for the graphic nature of his 1965 play Saved, which features a scene in which a

baby in a carriage is stoned to death. That play, in part because of its intense savagery, received many

negative reviews, but its importance in British theater was virtually unquestioned by the time of Lear's debut

six years later. Richard Scharine, in The Plays of Edward Bond, quoted the Lear's assistant director, Gregory

Dark, on the influence of Saved's reputation on early reviews of Bond's 1971 work: "On the whole, we felt

that the critics were scared of giving an outright condemnation—they had been caught out that way with

Saved—but obviously did not like the play, so they chose a middle road which satisfied nobody, and really

meant nothing." Critic Benedict Nightingale, quoted by Scharine, managed criticism and qualified praise of

Lear at the same time: "I must admit that the more seats around me emptied, the more the play impressed me,

albeit against many of my instincts and much of my judgment." Nightingale also offered mild criticism of

Bond's violence, saying that “The play's horrors perhaps overemphatic place."

In Bond on File Philip Roberts quoted early reviews by Irving Wardle and Helen Dawson, both of whom

defend Bond's graphic depictions while acknowledging their profoundly disturbing nature. Wardle wrote, “At

first glance [Bond] seems totally lacking in common humanity. But what passes for common humanity in

other writers can mean that they share our own compromising attachments." Dawson noted that "the violence

is not at all gloating; it hurts, as it is meant to do, but there is no relish m it. As a result, Lear, despite its

unflinching brutality, is not a negative work."

When the play was revived in 1983, twelve years after its original production, Anthony Masters, also quoted

by Roberts, wrote, "What is unbearable about seeing Edward Bond's greatest.. play again ... is not the horrors

and bleakness of war, the bayonetings and mutilations ... and the other brutalities that had members of

Thursday night's audience carried out in seizures of shock." For Masters, what was truly horrible was "the

knowledge that [the play] is even more topical now and will become more so as man's inhumanity gains

subtle sophistication with the twenty-first century's approach." For Masters, it was not so much the violence

itself that was upsetting, but what Bond was saying by the portrayal of such violence According to Masters,

"the reality of the violence was the true horror."

Nonetheless, for most later critics, it is the violence that remains disturbing and continues to dominate

discussion of the play. David L. Hirst, in his book Edward Bond, wrote that "it may be that the excessive

amount of realistic violence in the play—-far greater than in any of Bond's previous dramas and never equaled

in any play since— considerably alienated reviewers and public alike when the play was first performed." The

violence, according to Hirst, creates two problems for the audience member: "There is an escalating violence

in the play which makes very tough demands on the audience; and there is no apparent escape from it."

However, this is not necessarily negative for Hirst. He saw Lear as part of a tradition of twentieth century

Lear: Critical Overview 12

drama, an example of Bertolt Brecht's concept of the alienation effect. For Brecht, because drama is supposed

to teach, it is important that theater audiences not simply have feelings about the play's characters, but that

they think. Such tremendously disturbing scenes of. brutality can overwhelm the audience so greatly that

viewers disengage themselves from identifying with the characters and are able to view the violence in a more

distant way, to examine it. In that sense, audience alienation is a desirable effect as it enables the audience to

go beyond emotion to thought.

On the other hand, Jenny S. Spencer in her book. Dramatic Strategies in the Plays of Edward Bond, saw the

savagery in Lear as intended to have the opposite effect. Spencer referred to the violent scenes in the play as

"akin to terrorist tactics. depend[ing] upon a certain amount of shock, and play[ing] upon the audience's

socially conditioned fears." For Spencer, "Bond calls on his audience to 'witness' and "suffer' the full force of

the characters' actions ... one must feel the urgently unacceptable nature of events before desiring to change

them." According to this viewpoint, what Bond intends is not alienation, but identification. The audience is

not meant to feel distance from the characters, but, through its shock and horror, to empathize.

Despite differing viewpoints on Lear's violence, few critics now simply condemn the play, as earlier critics

condemned Saved, for its excesses. The focus of most criticism is to consider, not the violence itself, but

Bond's purpose in portraying such severity. The question is not whether such intensity is appropriate, but what

Bond is trying to show and whether the violence of Lear ultimately serves its purpose.

Lear: Essays and Criticism

Moral Development of Lear

In his play Lear, Edward Bond focuses on the moral development of the title character, a king in ancient

Britain. Although Lear begins the play as an old man. his behavior is that of a child; he is totally absorbed in

himself and his own security and needs. He is literally building a wall to keep others out. As the play

progresses, however. Lear loses his position of power and is forced to move outside of his self-absorbed

sphere and into the society he helped to create. As he suffers along with his former subjects, Lear begins to

mature, realizing that others are human beings with needs and desires of their own. For the first time, Lear

truly sees other people, and this leads him to recognize the consequences of his own actions and to take

responsibility for what he has done. His moral growth, however, is only complete when he turns his

understanding into action. It is only then that he becomes a morally mature human being.

When the audience first meets Lear, he is morally a child, seeing nothing beyond his own needs and desires.

He is obsessed with the building of his wall, which he claims will benefit his people. It is clear from the

beginning, however, that Lear has a callous disregard for others He complains about the workers leaving

wood in the mud to rot, then almost immediately turns to complaints about the living conditions of the men.

Bond makes it clear, however, that Lear's complaints do not arise from true concern for his workers. His

dissatisfaction about their living conditions is, in fact, parallel to his complaint about the wood. "You must

deal with this fever,'' he tells the" Foreman. “When [the men] finish work they must be kept in dry huts. All

these huts are wet." Like the wood, the men are being left to rot. Lear goes on to tell the Foreman, "You waste

men," a statement that shows that to Lear, the workers are simply more materials to be used in building the


Bond makes Lear's attitude even more clear when Lear's primary concern with the accidental death of a

worker is that it will cause delay in building the wall. Lear insists, over the protests of his two daughters,

Bodice and Fontanelle, that the worker who inadvertently caused the death be executed. Here Bond contrasts

Lear's spoken concern for his people with his actions. When his daughters say they will tear down the wall,

Lear says, “I loved and cared for all my children, and now you've sold them to their enemies'" Immediately

Lear: Essays and Criticism 13

after this statement, Lear shoots the worker who caused the death; it is Lear who is the true enemy of his


What Lear's wall actually protects is not so much his subjects but his position as their king. When his

daughters reveal their plans to take over the kingdom, Lear turns on them as well, saying, “I built my wall

against you as well as my other enemies." In his book The Art and Politics of Edward Bond, Lou Lappin

pointed out that Lear's wall also functions as a glorification of himself. Lear says, "When I'm dead my people

will live in freedom and peace and remember my name, no-venerate it." Lappin called the building of Lear's

wall "a self-absorbed gesture, an act of solipsism that seeks to ennoble itself in a cult of personality.'' Like a

child, Lear thinks only of himself.

In his book The Plays of Edward Bond, Richard Scharine wrote, "When Lear is overthrown, he is propelled

into the society he created like a baby being born." Scharine went on to say, however, that "the mere fact of

his being overthrown does not teach Lear moral maturity." At the Gravedigger's Boy's house, Lear is still very

much a child. Physically, he depends on the Gravedigger's Boy and his wife to feed and shelter him. "You've

looked after me well," says Lear. "I slept like a child in the silence all day." Like a child, Lear retains his

self-absorption. When he glimpses the tortured Warrington, Lear's emphasis is not on Warrington's pain, but

on the effect of that sight on himself: "I've seen a ghost. I'm going to die. That's why he came back. I'll die."

When Cordelia, the Gravedigger's Boy's Wife, tells Lear he must go, his response resembles a child's tantrum:

"No, I won't go. He said I could stay. He won't break his word.... No, I won’t be at everyone's call' My

daughters sent you! You go' It's you who destroy this place! We must get rid of you!" It is only when the

soldiers arrive, killing the Gravedigger's Boy and raping Cordelia, that Lear shows some recognition of the

pain of others when he says to the soldiers: "O burn the house! You've murdered the husband, slaughtered the

cattle, poisoned the well, raped the mother, killed the child—you must burn the house!'' Yet as Jenny S.

Spencer pointed out in her book Dramatic Strategies in the Plays of Edward Bond, Lear's cry of horror is

"ironically underscored" by Lear's "unrecognized responsibility for the soldier's brutality." Lear has begun to

see outside of himself, but he still does not recognize that the pain he sees is the consequence of his own


Lear's lack of insight continues in the courtroom scene. As Scharine noted, Lear “still does not understand

that he himself is the architect of his prison.” Not only does he not realize his responsibility for his daughters'

actions, he denies that he has daughters at all. In his madness, he sees himself in the mirror as an animal in a

cage, but in viewing himself as an animal, he also sees himself primarily as the victim of others and an object

of pity. "Who shut that animal in that cage?" he asks. "Let it out." Yet at the same time, Lear's view of himself

as an animal implies a greater connection with those around him. "No, that's not the king," he says. He is not

above the others. In fact, Lear shows the mirror around to those in the courtroom, letting them see the animal,

an act that equates the others with himself. In a sense, all are victims Lear can now see pain outside of

himself. However, his moral growth is still incomplete. He still does not take responsibility for his actions,

still does not see his own guilt

It is in his prison cell, after the Gravedigger's Boy's Ghost appears to him and brings him his daughters as

young children, that Lear begins to see a connection between his daughters and himself. In the courtroom he

says, "My daughters have been murdered and these monsters have taken their place." Yet when Bodice and

Fontanelle appear as young girls, Lear shows that they are, in fact, his daughters. The apparitions sit next to

Lear with their heads on his knees, and he strokes their hair. When they finally leave, he asks them not to go.

At this point, Lear begins to see what he has done, saying, "I killed so many people and never looked at one of

their faces.'' When the Ghost, already deteriorating, asks to stay with Lear, Lear responds for the first time

with real compassion: "Yes, yes, Poor boy I'll hold you. We'll help each other. Cry while I sleep, and I'll cry

and watch while you sleep.. . The sound of the human voice will comfort us." Lear recognizes not only that

the Ghost can help him but also that he can help the Ghost Later, when walking with the other prisoners, Lear

expresses even more concern, saying "I don't want to live except for the boy. Who'd look after him?" In his

Moral Development of Lear 14

relationship with the Ghost, Lear also begins to develop a sense of his own responsibility, saying of the Ghost:

"I did him a great wrong once, a very great wrong. He's never blamed me. I must be kind to him now." Lear is

now moving toward moral maturity, toward the recognition that he needs to practice compassion,

responsibility and action.

With Fontanelle's autopsy, 

Lear's responsibility becomes even more clear to him. When he sees the inside of

her body, he says, "She was cruel and angry and hard. Where is the beast?" He is surprised to find there is no

monster inside of Fontanelle. "I am astonished," he continues. "I have never seen anything so beautiful."

Unlike the Ghost, Fontanelle had done Lear wrong, so he could continue to see her as a monster, separate

from himself, but at this point Lear understands his responsibility in forming her character. "Did I make this,"

he asks, "and destroy it?" Earlier, when the Ghost had tried to take Lear away from the jail, Lear answered, "I

ran away so often, but my life was rained just the same. Now I'll stay." Lear continues now in his desire to

face reality. He says, "I must open my eyes and see."

Lear's desire to finally see is followed almost immediately by his blinding. Scharine quoted Bond as saying,

"blindness is a dramatic metaphor for insight, that is why Gloucester, Oedipus, and Tiresias are blind.'' Once

blinded, Lear is released into the countryside. Near the wall, he meets the Farmer, the Farmer's Wife, and their

son, all of whom describe how the lives they had known were destroyed by Lear's wall Lear now sees that he

has harmed not only isolated individuals but all of his society, and he is horrified. Falling on his knees, in a

posture that asks forgiveness, Lear begs the Farmer's Son not to go into the army, but his efforts are fruitless

As Scharine pointed out, "The society that Lear created has been perfected. Cordelia's subjects are socially

moralized and go to their consumption by the social order without questioning." Lear cannot unmake the

society he has created, and he sees the depths of his guilt.

In the third act, Lear is seen living at the Gravedigger's Boy's former house with Susan, Thomas, and John. In

a sense, this is an attempt to return to the idealized, pastoral life that he glimpsed while living with the Boy

and Cordelia—the life he lead in his child-like phase. Lear, however, has changed. He is no longer the

self-absorbed child, simply seeking the help of others. Now it is Lear who shows compassion, even as the

others, including the Ghost, are concerned that Lear is endangering himself by helping those the government

considers enemies. When Lear is told to protect himself, to tell those who come to him that they must leave,

Lear insists that all can stay: “I won't turn anyone away. They can eat my food while it lasts and when it's

gone they can go if they like, but I won't send anyone away."

Lear is not only taking people in, however; he is also speaking out against the government he helped to create.

Lear's former Councilor appears, telling him he must end his public life: "In future you will not speak in

public or involve yourself in any public affairs. Your visitors will be vetted by the area military authorities.

All these people must go." Knowing that he cannot defeat Cordelia's regime, Lear despairs. He is trapped.

“There’s a wall everywhere," he says. “I’m buried alive in a wall. Does this suffering and misery last

forever?.. I know nothing, I can do nothing. I am nothing."

After Cordelia tells Lear that he will be tried and executed, however, Lear is again able to move beyond

himself and his own despair to his final act, an attempt to dig up and destroy the wall he created.

In their book, Playwrights' Progress, Colin Chambers and Mike Prior saw Lear's final act as "so random and

so futile that it seems an almost meaningless choice except in terms of the individual conscience." For

Chambers and Prior, "Lear's final nod towards the continuing existence of a will to resist is ... a gesture.''

Yet Malcolm Hay and Philip Roberts, in their book Bond: A Study of His Plays, disagreed. "The gesture he

makes is neither final nor futile," they wrote. “It is the demonstration of Lear's integrity to those he leaves

behind that action is both necessary and responsible " Knowing that he will die soon anyway, Lear uses his

death to show the need, not only for compassion and responsibility, but also for action. No longer the child

Moral Development of Lear 15

who hides behind his wall, Lear has reached a position of moral maturity and even an ability to teach others.

In the final scene, as the workers leave Lear's body on stage, one looks back, showing that others can learn

from Lear's death, that there is purpose in his moral journey, that his final act is not futile.

Lear's attack on the wall also carries symbolic weight, for the barrier he seeks to destroy is not only the

physical wall he has built but the metaphoric wall he has constructed between himself and others. In gaining

compassion for his former subjects— and human life in general—Lear completes his transformation by seeking

to eradicate both of these walls. Yet where he fails to destroy the physical wall, he more importantly succeeds

m tearing down the wall within himself.

Source: Clare Cross, for Drama for Students, Gale, 1998.

Bond, Shakespeare, and the Absurd

Edward Bond thinks that playwrights must be morally responsible to their societies. Their plays ought not

only to analyze history—-how societies became what they are—but also to suggest ways in which societies can

better themselves. Too often, he believes, theater is immoral. It encourages playwrights who have no political

awareness; it fosters uncritical attitudes toward plays that have become classics. Such plays, he argues, may

have been moral enough m their days. But they have outlived their historical moments and entered the realm

of myth; and because myth codifies and perpetuates the values of the old order, it is dangerous. Bond wants

his audiences to "escape from a mythology of the past, which often lives on as the culture of the present," and

thus be free to correct injustices: theater therefore must commit itself to political reform if it is to be moral

instead of frivolous. Its aesthetic cannot be divorced from that commitment.

Not surprisingly, then, Bond has turned repeatedly to our most revered cultural myths as subjects for his

plays. By doing so, he has been able to feed on fables of proven theatrical power, yet, by revising them, to

attack their social and political presuppositions The myth of King Lear haunted Bond most of all. Why Lear?

Bond replies: "I can only say that Lear was standing in my path and I had to get him out of the way. (Theatre

Quarterly, Vol. 2, No. 5, 1972)" For Bond, Lear epitomized all that was best and worst in Western culture.

Lear was authoritarian, his rule was socially oppressive, he was blind to the needs of common humanity, and

he resorted to violence. And yet the old king learned to see he acquired the power to penetrate the myths of

the civilization he had made—belief that tyranny can be just, that despotism can be benevolent, that violence

can preserve peace. Bond loved the old king for his insight, loathed him for neglecting to act on it. Likewise,

Bond admired Shakespeare's King Lear for its potent critique of the human condition; but insofar as

Shakespeare elected to focus on Lear's personal suffering rather than on the society that Lear had tyrannized,

Bond condemned the play as a dangerous product of its age, bound in by the very myths it exposed.

Perhaps "condemned" is too strong a word. In The Activist Papers, Bond explains that the Elizabethan

aesthetic was different from ours' in soliloquy, Hamlet and Lear spoke not merely through their own

consciousnesses, but through "the consciousness of history itself." Their voices were at once personal and


When Shakespeare wrote the court had political power and the rulers were a private family as

well as a state institution This meant that Shakespeare didn't need to distinguish clearly

between public and private, political and personal. He could handle the two things together so

that it seemed as if political problems could have personal solutions.

That is, the problems of Lear's world could be purged within the confines of Lear's own imagination.

Bond, Shakespeare, and the Absurd 16

What was true for the Elizabethans, however, is not true for us. Bond suggests that by maintaining a

fascination with the personal at the expense of the political, with the individual at the expense of the social,

modern drama has devolved into absurdity; and he rejects the theater of the absurd on moral grounds:

Now society can no longer be expressed politically and morally in terms of the individual and

so soliloquies don't work in the same way The individual is no longer a metaphor for the state

and his private feelings can no longer be used to express cause in history or will in politics.

Changes in social and political relations make a new drama urgently necessary ... The

bourgeois theatre clings to psychological drama and so it can't deal with the major dramatic

themes. Hamlet's soliloquy has withered into the senile monologue of Krapp's last tape.

This in part explains, I think, why Bond felt compelled to revise King Lear—to rip it from the embrace of

bourgeois psychology where our modern sensibilities are wont to lock it and to address more clearly the moral

issues it raises; to make it the public play that Bond thought it had the potential to become. Bond's model for

such revision was Brecht. He had seen the Berliner Ensemble when it visited London in 1956, and his work

with George Devine and his successor William Gaskill in the Royal Court Writers' Group educated him more

formally in Brecht's methods. Lear, which he began in 1969 and which opened at the Royal Court in 1971,

represents Bond's first significant attempt at epic drama. In it, he presents a series of scenes (equivalent to

Brecht's gestus) that offer social and moral perceptions of the world: he disavows coherent psychological

motivation of characters and eschews conventional notions of dramatic causality.

A few instances will illustrate how Bond has transformed Shakespeare's original into a Brechtian critique of

contemporary culture. For example, he does not allow Lear a loving Cordelia to forgive him his sins and

entice him into the antisocial resignation of "Come, let's away to prison. We two alone will sing like birds i'

the' cage." Such contemptus mundi finds no sympathy in a socialist bent on reforming this world. In fact,

Bond regarded Shakespeare's Cordelia as "an absolute menace—a very dangerous type of person." I suspect he

felt this way for two reasons First, by righting a war on her father's behalf, Cordelia presumes to use violence

to protect the "right", and "right" to her means returning society to what it was—-reinstituting a patriarchy.

And second, by defending her father, by ignoring his past iniquities and assuring him that he has "No cause,

no cause1' to feel guilt, she reduces the play to a melodrama about a poor old man who has been mightily

abused. Bond abstracted those qualities of Cordelia that seemed to him politically most significant—her

self-righteous militarism and her willingness to overlook Lear's social irresponsibility—and divided them

between two characters in his own play: the new Cordelia (no longer Lear's daughter) and her husband, the

Gravedigger's Boy.

Bond's Cordelia is a victim of the war that Lear wages against his daughters and that his daughters wage

against each other. She hears soldiers slaughter her pigs; she watches soldiers brutally murder her husband;

then she herself is raped. These atrocities prompt her to take revenge. She becomes a kind of guerrilla leader

bent on reform who, once victorious, attempts to make her country safe by rebuilding a wall to protect it. She

thus repeats Lear's error of building the wall in the first place. Lear himself has' come to understand the folly

of it. Walls only bring woe; and so, as a blind prophet at the end of act three—a British Oedipus at Colonus—he

speaks against them. Cordelia defends herself with the myth that one needs walls to keep out enemies; and

when he protests. "Then nothing's changed! A revolution must at least reform!", she replies: "Everything else

is changed " Through Cordelia, Bond dramatizes what he regards as the major flaw in our conception of a

humane society defensiveness.

Against this self-destructive Cordelia, Bond pits the Gravedigger' s Boy, who embodies the more charitable

instincts of Shakespeare's Cordelia— someone who would allow the king to retreat from self-knowledge and

live out his old age in ignorance of what he has done. Rather like Lear's Fool, the Boy attempts to talk sense to

the poor old king— to calm the storm raging within—when the king comes to him unhoused. Later, when he

returns as a ghost, the Boy tempts Lear, in the words of Simon Trussler, "towards an easeful rather than a

Bond, Shakespeare, and the Absurd 17

useful death"—-with a vision of idyllic retreat such as Shakespeare's Cordelia offered her father But Bond's

Lear knows he must resist the temptation, because it would mean turning his back on political responsibility;

and Bond's Lear has learned, as Shakespeare's had not, that to reform society, to build it into something more

humane, one must acknowledge the loss of innocence and then act on that loss by tearing down the wall that

separates men from other men, not merely suffer m guilty silence Together, then, Cordelia and the

Gravedigger's Boy represent the Scylla and Charybdis, married in opposition, of political defensiveness and

private retreat between which Lear must sail if he is to become a genuinely moral man....

Source: James C Bulman, "Bond, Shakespeare, and the Absurd," in Modern Drama, Volume XXIX, no 1,

1986, pp. 60-70.

King Lear versus Lear at Stratford

King Lear is a great play. By itself, the proposition seems harmless enough, and I don't mean to dispute it, but

its ramifications in English culture are considerable. The 1982 production by the Royal Shakespeare Company

at their main theatre in Stratford and the concurrent presentation of Edward Bond's Lear at The Other Place

provoke fundamental questions about the way we use Shakespeare.

Since its first production at the Royal Court in 1971 Bond's play has been regarded, in the main, with horror

and respect as a modern gloss on King Lear. What critics have found it difficult to say outright, because of

this matter of greatness, is that Bond's Lear amounts to a systematic and hostile critique of Shakespeare's play,

at least as it is usually understood.

King Lear suggests that loosening the conventional bonds of authority in society gives rein to all manner of

violent disturbance. Bond believes the opposite: that the State, as we have developed it, is the main source of

injustice, cruelty and misery: "Your Law always does more harm than crime, and your morality is a form of

violence." We need not regard this just as Bond's act of faith; the same conclusions are reached by Richard

Leakey through his palaeoanthropological research (see Richard Leakey and Roger Lewm, People of the

Lake, London, 1979). By making his Cordelia the leader of an insurrection which, when successful,

re-establishes most of the repressive apparatus of the government it has overthrown, Bond draws attention to

the fact that in King Lear Cordelia seeks to redress the wrongs committed by her sisters by having her army

fight their army. In other words, at the level of the State and its readiness to take and to sacrifice the lives of

ordinary people, King Lear does not envisage the need for an alteration in principle. Shakespeare's king

perceives that the State has perpetuated injustice: "Take physic, Pomp;/ Expose thyself to feel what wretches

feel,/That thou mayst shake the superflux to them,'' but pomp is not called upon to revise its authority, only to

distribute superfluity. Albany's final proposal is that Kent and Edgar should "the gor'd state sustain." Bond's

point, in relation both to King Lear and to certain modern ideas about revolution and social change, is that you

cannot expect to modify the repressive Lear society without challenging its fundamental structures.

Shakespeare's and Bond's attitudes are dependent finally upon divergent views of human nature. When

Shakespeare's Lear demands, "Then let them anatomise Regan, see what breeds about her heart. Is there any

cause in nature that make these hard hearts?," there is no reply. It seems that we must refer the answer to the

gods, who are not as systematically concerned for humanity as Lear once thought The autopsy on Fontanelle

in Bond's play leads Lear to appreciate the potential beauty and goodness of humanity: "She sleeps inside like

a lion and a lamb and a child. The things are so beautiful. I am astonished. I have never seen anything so

beautiful." For Shakespeare the problem begins when authority is weakened. That is why there is no prior

motivation for Lear and his daughters: established hierarchy guarantees order and no remoter source is in

question, except perhaps the gods. Bond, however, shows that his characters have been socialized into

paranoia and violence. Shakespeare's Lear spends most of the play discovering what the world is, essentially,

like; Bond's Lear discovers that things do not have to be the way they are.

King Lear versus Lear at Stratford 18

The positive force in Shakespeare's play is the personal loyalty of Cordelia, Kent and Edgar. It is shown to

transcend the punitive ethic assumed by the king:

I know you do not love me, for your sisters Have, as I do remember, done me wrong: You

have some cause, they have not. No cause, no cause.

But the play knows no way of relating this generosity of spirit to the structure of State authority. That is why

it is difficult to reconcile Cordelia's initial legalism with her subsequent magnanimity: one belongs to the

endorsement of formal order in the play, the other to the interpersonal ethic which responds to the collapse of

order. Shakespeare, with great integrity, makes his inability to relate the two apparent when he has Cordelia's

army defeated. The interpersonal ethic remains as a subversive intuition of another way of relating, but the

reconstitution of the State over the dead body of Cordelia is offered as the most satisfactory attainable


The most provocative aspect of Bond's Lear, conversely, is the repudiation of merely personal solutions. The

Gravedigger's Boy represents a pastoral withdrawal which is destroyed, initially, through Lear's selfish

intrusion. His ghostly presence helps Lear to recover his sanity through the expense of personal affection (the

combined role of the Fool and Cordelia in Shakespeare's play). But Bond makes his Lear realize that this is

not enough. Whereas Shakespeare allows Lear to rejoice in the prospect of imprisonment with Cordelia and

the selfishness of this sentiment is not foregrounded, the Boy's notion that Lear should withdraw from

political engagement, put a wall around them and accept the demands of the State, is recognized as a

temptation. So Lear allows him to die and sets out to begin dismantling the wall. Individual "redemption"

through interpersonal love is not enough, the State must be confronted.

In August 1982 Bond's Lear seemed relevant enough, with the Falklands, Lebanon and Poland in mind.

Without necessarily agreeing with Bond, we can see that he has engaged with major political issues. The RSC

production by Barry Kyle was excellent. The epic mode of the play is not immediately suited to a small space

with the audience on three sides, and it may be that this staging altered the implications of the violence in the

play, bringing it into our homes (as it were) rather than keeping it out there in the political arena where it

belongs. But perhaps this corresponds to the effect of TV—the medium through which most of us experience

political violence—and is therefore appropriate. Barry Kyle made strong use of diagonal lines where a

conventional stage would have permitted depth, and managed to establish stylization and allusion—for

instance, taking the clothes-line behind which the Gravedigger's Boy is killed diagonally, and the final

interview between Cordelia and Lear, with the Boy behind him, at right angles to that line. Bob Peck was

massive as Lear; it became quite excruciating to follow his weary, painful limbs in movement Mark Rylance

was both gruesome and winning as the Boy and his interaction with Lear was physical and moving. It falls to

these two actors to repudiate any imputation that Bond is deficient in positive human feeling—to show that the

rejection of the interpersonal pastoral is grounded in sufficient awareness of what is sacrificed. To my mind

they achieved this.

Adrian Noble, who produced King Lear, was evidently conscious of the main lines of Bond's critique. Bob

Crowley's set, a towering, bleak imperial facade (the back of which was torn out when Lear is exposed on the

heath) was reminiscent of the wall which dominates the Bond set; many of the costumes were the

same—rough, clumsy greatcoats, the gear of an army on the march, exposed to danger, accustomed to

discomfort. Some of the casting of the two plays overlapped significantly, and Bob Peck looked like Michael

Gambon, who was Shakespeare's Lear. I am about to make a number of intricate and critical points about this

interpretation of King Lear, so it should be established at the start that Gambon's performance was an

extraordinary achievement: entirely convincing, broad in scope, moving though not in the expected places,

inventive but not quirky.

King Lear versus Lear at Stratford 19

As a member of the International Shakespeare Conference I had the advantage of a question and answer

session with Noble, so I know that it was his intention to bring out a contemporary political dimension in King

Lear, He said that the effect of concurrent work on Bond's play was like a steady drip of cold water,

preventing them from keeping King Lear in a separate historical pocket; that the country was at war when the

play was in rehearsal, that he wanted to show "the potential for violence which you get within an absolute

State," and that they had felt the events and value system of the play to be relevant constantly in the current

political climate.

In many ways this was a triumphantly political interpretation. “We did want to put a war on stage,'' Noble

remarked, and the sense of unnamed people moving about a recalcitrant terrain, menaced by each other, was

strong, and the sense that they had to lift really heavy objects, had trouble keeping warm, keeping going. The

great achievement was the refusal or suppression of the transcendence which is usually assumed to be the goal

of certain episodes. 

In this production Edmund, Goneril and Regan are not evil incarnate (nor is there any

attempt to make them seem justified, as in Peter Brook's version). Edmund (Clive Wood) is butch, sulky and

scornful; Goneril (Sara Kestelman) is like an obsessive landlady, tidying up the set, who goes on to accosting

the lodgers in the hallway. They are cruel and selfish, but they are people. The account of Cordelia shaking

"The holy water from her heavenly eyes" is all but smothered by soldiers humping sandbags around the stage;

"Ripeness is all" is shouted, desperately, over the drum of the preparing army in turbulent lighting Frequently

lighting is used to disconfirm the centrality of the main protagonists, it refuses to focus them but, instead,

moves independently, so that they come in and out of it. When Edgar flees, the spotlight rake the stage and the

audience, as if from a watchtower m a prison camp.

The whole effect is to quell the commonest interpretation of the play as "tragedy,'' wherein the king,

especially, transcends events by the intensity of his inner experience. So Noble reserves attention for the range

of characters and for the power of political relations. Gambon's Lear is not inward-looking: he does not

discover reality in the depths of himself. He is mad for much less of the time than is commonly supposed, so

that there is far less pitiful raving, far less sense that the essential struggle, the essential reality, is inside his

head. In the disputes with Goneril and Regan he retains the unwavering baleful glare with which he began; his

anger is rarely uncontrolled, he is frail but determined, nobody's fool. In particular, he is rational at the Dover

meeting with Gloucester, so that "A dog's obey'd in office" comes through as powerful analysis. This scene

was most effective: there was little courting of expressionist significance, but two old men seeing the way the

world goes, nodding, chuckling and crying together. Again, when Lear wakes with Cordelia, the whole

impression is of a bemused old man, and of physical frailty: it is a human incident, and the visual key is given

by pajamas rather than the customary flowing white robes of an Old Testament prophet/penitent. "Come, let's

away to prison" is spoken matter of factly, flatly, as a clear perception of the kind of life that may be left to

them; and at the end Lear is sane, though he has trouble coping with a stage full of people. At every point in

the latter part of the play Noble and Gambon prevent Lear becoming an ultimate representative of "man."

This assault on the transcendence often ascribed to the "tragic hero" is expressed most importantly in the

treatment of the blind/sight imagery—"I stumbled when I saw." The production is very physical throughout:

Lear is ready to strike anyone, and also to hug anyone—he hugs Goneril, the Fool, Kent, Edgar, Gloucester. "I

see it feelingly," Gloucester says. The production takes this up, and so disqualifies the whole dichotomy of

mundane versus transcendent vision. The point is not insight into a further reality, there is no further

reality—-just the material world in which people and systems do things to you, and you respond to it most fully

through the sense of touch. Touch is both more basic (in Platonic thought sight is the highest sense, touch the

lowest) and more communicative, more to do with human interaction. For this Lear, the chaos and threat is

not, finally, inside him; the precision of Gambon's acting is all directed towards responding to other people.

This is a Lear of reaction, not distraction.

We have, then, a production which turns one eye towards Bond, which is aiming at a political awareness

relevant to the problems of the world today. At the same time, in the middle of the production, there is an

King Lear versus Lear at Stratford 20

alternative, incompatible conception, equally powerfully realized. This split exposes with almost brutal clarity

the uses to which Shakespeare is put by the RSC and English culture at large.

The issue is focused by the storm, which is brilliantly staged with flashing lights, billowing smoke, and noises

which were those of the elements but which also (several people remarked) led one to think of an air raid on

Beirut (the current international horror). This was a tour de force, a kind of infernal discotheque. And perched

above it all, on a platform on a pole fifteen feet above the stage, were Lear (looking like a Blakean deity) and

the Fool clinging to him. But all this magnificent effect worked against a socio-political understanding of

what was going on. A society in dissolution was transformed into the universe in apocalypse. The idea is in

the text—"Is this the promis'd end?''— but Doomsday is not a socio-political concept.

Noble said that his idea in staging the storm was to show "what it's like inside that head .. what it's like when

the horizon tilts." Fine, but this is suddenly to transform the action into the interior monologue which in other

respects it is not. The presentation of real human relations, with all the disparities of power, suffering and

understanding, and their implied ramifications in society at large, could well continue through the scenes on

the heath. But Noble is tempted into another manner—he mentioned Jan Kott's essay "King Lear or Endgame."

The Beckettian aspect is developed through the Fool, who is played with great agility, inventiveness and

conviction by Antony Sher. Initially his relationship with Lear is played realistically: he tries to cheer Lear up

but cannot avoid mentioning the source of Lear's disquiet. But the manner of the professional clown is already

hinting at a more abstract notion of the Fool's role. When he and Lear crouch at the front of the stage and peer

desperately at each other, then: shadows thrown monstrously on to the back wall, and when the Fool, left for

once to himself, goes off like a spring released, cavorting manically round the stage and shaking his fist at the

sky, we begin to suspect that the Fool is supposed to stand for something, perhaps an aspect of Lear's psyche.

Adrian Noble in fact confirmed that this was his conception: this is why, in the most striking innovation of the

production, Lear kills the Fool.

Lear is anatomizing Regan—plucking handfuls of feathers out of a pillow (a few are still in the air in the

closing scenes of the play); he flings the pillow across the stage, sending a light swinging, and the Fool, who

has jumped in fright into a large dustbin (Endgame) catches it; Lear stabs the pillow, and the Fool through it;

Lear never realizes what he has done. Noble meant this to be Lear killing his conscience, that of which he is

ashamed. I didn't think of this at the time, and I don't see how Lear is supposed to manage without a

conscience in the second part of the play (he seems to have it at the reunion with Cordelia).

Two general reflections arise from the confusion in this production—three if we begin, as we should, by

granting without reserve its sheer professional competence, intelligence and power to provoke thought. The

first concerns the RSC. In the 1960s it was a spearhead, in some ways more important than the Royal Court,

of a left-liberal movement in the theatre and ultimately in the country. By the end of the decade, this

movement had become established—had become an establishment. In theatre, it had purpose and committed

audiences when the West End was floundering; it successfully challenged censorship; it had the endorsement

of national subsidy; it gave birth to the National Theatre. The dominant influences were Brecht, representing

political concern; and Beckett/Artaud, representing a sense that the human condition is fundamentally absurd

and violent. Together, these influences destroyed the assumptions of naturalism and opened the way to vital

developments in theatrical stylization, but, finally, they are incompatible. The first is materialist and

optimistic about humanity, tracing our ills to changeable political structures. The second is essentialist and

nihilistic, discovering in the depths of personality inexorable tendencies towards cruelty, alienation and

self-destruction. Their co-occurrence in the work of Peter Brook for the RSC, including his King Lear of 1962

(much influenced by Jan Kott), The Marat—Sade and US, rendered this work powerful but politically and

artistically incoherent The same conjunction informs the 1982 production of King Lear.

King Lear versus Lear at Stratford 21

But the original movement, contradictory as it was, was of its time These were new, exciting influences, and

the confused and compromised political stance was characteristic of other institutions in the period. Bond's

use of violence to shock us into awareness also shows signs of Artaud. What we must ponder now is how far

the RSC is living off the manner which served it before, how far it is depending on the thought of an earlier

generation rather than assessing, clarifying and challenging that thought Two pieces of evidence are quite

disconcerting. One is Noble's appeal to Jan Kott (* 'one has to read Kott")—Lear even leaves his boots at the

front of the stage, like Estragon The other is the programme. The RSC pioneered the intellectual programme,

but this one is all design, a production job, m which pictures and quotations from the most diverse prestigious

intellectual sources are jumbled together in an evocative collage (including Auden, Dylan Thomas, Keats,

Kozintsev and Dostoyevsky); and, in particular, we find the political awareness of Orwell and Bond ("Our

world is not absurd—our society is") alongside the apocalyptic transcendentalism of Ecclesiastes and Yeats. It

seems, at least, that the RSC is in danger of parodying its former achievements.

However, and this is my second general reflection, it is probably not fair to blame this gifted company for

problems which may be traced much further back, namely to our whole conception of Shakespeare and his

"greatness." Since King Lear is a great play—I think this is the underlying argument—it must speak to our

condition. And if our condition seems to involve brutally destructive political systems and profound inner

compulsions which threaten a general apocalypse, then the play must be seen to address such issues The text

as we have received it tends to encourage certain ways of seeing the world and to inhibit others and does not,

of course, envisage modern society. Therefore the play and current concerns must, by one means or another,

be brought into line.

Hence the extraordinary conventions which govern contemporary productions. In the attempt to get the play to

“work'' as the director wants, almost anything may be cut, almost any "business" may be added to affect the

significance of the words and, increasingly, words may be altered or added. But all these developments are

mashed together so that only the expert can see what has been done, and the impression that we are "really"

seeing Shakespeare is preserved For an excellently detailed and discriminating description of such practices,

see Stanley Wells's account in Critical Quarterly of two productions of Measure for Measure. Of one

production he concludes: "Some of the ways in which it departed from tradition were entirely legitimate.

Others required textual tinkering. The resulting play may be more sentimental, and happier, than that

suggested by the script that has come down to us, but in its own terms it worked." But Dr. Wells still speaks,

throughout, of "the play:" it is assumed that we remain, importantly, in the presence of Shakespeare's original


My objective is not a theoretical discussion of at what point this or that production becomes no longer "the

same" play; nor is it a complaint that Shakespeare's text is being tampered with (it is still there for another

day). I am trying to identify the cultural assumptions, based on a conception of Shakespeare's greatness, which

hold that we can and should ventriloquise contemporary significance through the plays, and the manipulations

of presentation which ensue.

In part directors are trying to cope with the fact that most people in the audience don't understand the

language: part of the greatness is that Shakespeare speaks to us even across such barriers of comprehension.

Hence the business which breaks up a conversation or a line unexpectedly, making a joke unanticipated in a

straightforward reading (it is called "making the scene work"). But also, the cutting and business are designed

to wrest the text away from what seem to be its dominant concerns and into a preferred dimension of meaning,

using every slightest cue, nuance, crux and hiatus to develop an * 'interpretation.'' If, instead, the company

reworked the play explicitly, the interpretation would lose the apparent authority of Shakespeare, and

Shakespeare's basically conservative oeuvre would lose the apparent authority of speaking to all conditions.

This is the great collusion in which most productions of Shakespeare have become involved. The shuffles

commonly conducted maintain both these dubious authorities, and more adventurous treatments—like Bond's

and Charles Marowitz's— become objects of suspicion.

King Lear versus Lear at Stratford 22

It is these pressures that he behind the kinds of efforts the RSC makes to achieve relevance. This production

pushes the conventions of interpretation to the limit by having Lear kill the Fool and by omitting (as Brook

did) Edmund's attempt to save Cordelia and Lear. The first is designed to develop Lear's inner experience in a

way barely suggested by the text; the second is designed to suppress issues of good, evil and the perversity of

fortune and to leave the responsibility for failing to secure the safety of Lear and Cordelia with Albany who

(Noble says) is preoccupied with the feud in his own family—so that the theme of the damage done by

arbitrary rule is sustained to the end. In so far as these intentions are (as I have argued) contradictory, they

witness to a theatrical mode which is in danger of ossification. By offering extreme instances of the

conventions of presentation which accompany that mode, they draw attention to their artificiality. Noble leads

his audience (or those to whom I spoke) to ask whether this is really Shakespeare.

The questions which should be asked, however, are whether any production which aspires to modern

relevance is really Shakespeare; whether our conception of the greatness of King Lear— meaning capable of

speaking positively to all conditions—is honest; and whether attempts to ventriloquise a modern political

stance through the play will inevitably be confused by countervailing implications in the text. It may be that

the only way to produce a more definite political theatre (or criticism) is not to interpret King Lear but, as

Edward Bond sees, to quarrel with it.

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