King Lear and the Two Strings: Lotta eye-gouging in this one

Spoilers for both works in the title. Assuming “all but two people die” even counts as a spoiler when it comes to Shakespearean tragedy.

A few days ago, I posted on Facebook noting that I had seen two disparate shows two weekend nights in a row: the new stop-motion movie Kubo and the Two Strings on Saturday, and a production of King Lear on Sunday. The latter was in doubt: I waited too long to get the tickets, and saw it on the last night, from an obstructed-view seat. It didn’t matter much, as longtime readers will know I’m enough of a Shakespeare groupie that I’d have seen it if I had to wear a gorilla suit the whole three hours.

Both amazed me. Kubo cemented Laika’s serious claim to being the American Studio Ghibli–not only do their original stories, characters, and visuals shine, but they are funded by the CEO of Nike, who has given creative control to his son, Travis Knight. This means they’ll never have to be saddled with a parent company who will force them to churn out endless sequels to properties that were once charming and original (not that this has happened to any other animation studios we know whose names rhyme with “Blixar”). One could call this blatant nepotism, but I really want few things more than for all the most talented artists in the world to inherit huge sums of money so they can do whatever they want. I’m glad it happened at least once.

(Seriously, though, if Pixar tries to make WALL-E 2, I will…not see it and move on with my life like an adult. But I won’t be happy.)

As for Lear, it was performed in an actual real convent, staged with a pre-Christian Celtic aesthetic–stone tables, furs and leather, knots, and selection from Adrian von Ziegler’s celtic YouTube videos, which have been pretty constant writing companions for me. Lear himself talked a little fast, but Edmund was a timelessly sardonic nihilist, and Goneril was surprisingly sympathetic. Really, I was lucky. Nobody ever seems to do Lear. Not that I wouldn’t rather have been in Walla Walla for Whitman’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, but this was a close second.

As great as both were, they couldn’t be more different…or so I thought at first. Is this more than just a random confluence? Is it actually possible to link a modern fairy tale about a boy coming to terms with loss to a bloody tragedy where everyone murders everyone and achieves pretty much nothing?

Probably not, but let’s give it a try! I love being able to talk about this stuff without having to follow MLA format or really cite anything or avoid using contractions.

I noticed the one strong connection fairly quickly: eyes. Both the movie and the play feature the gouging out of a character’s eyes as prominent plot points. Kubo wears a patch to cover the eye stolen by his grandfather, the Moon King, who seeks to steal the other one. In King Lear, the Earl of Gloucester has his eyes torn out by the brutal Cornwall, when he’s discovered to be still loyal to Lear. So let’s use eye removal as our basis.

What does the loss of eyes symbolize in each of these works? In King Lear, Gloucester is vulnerable to deception while he still has his sight: he falls for Edmund’s tricks and banishes his non-evil son Edgar. Only once he loses his eyes does he see the truth, even though he’s now dependent on others to survive. His blindness is retribution, a symbolic punishment for accepting Edmund’s blinkers–but it also makes him more complete, Tiresias-style. The only problem with this is that Lear doesn’t present a world of karmic justice. Bad things happen to good people, and also to bad people, but not soon enough. And his new knowledge isn’t enough to keep him from dying of grief when Cordelia’s French army is destroyed.

Then what does it accomplish to take Gloucester’s eyes? “Nothing” is a reasonable answer. Shakespeare has a lot to say about “nothing” in Lear, and I’m pretty sure he’s not talking about vaginas this time. But it’s not totally accurate. Blindness serves one function: separating the Earl from his earthly concerns. He’s not trying that hard to rectify his mistake in disowning Edgar. He’s more interested in dying.

This meshes well with Kubo, where the Moon King’s dialogue reveals why he wants Kubo’s eyes so badly: he wants his grandson to take his rightful place in the sky beside him, as an immortal celestial being. In other words, he wants to free Kubo of his humanity, but Kubo will never consent to this. He’s a storyteller, who makes his living being human. This informs a central concern of the movie–why do we need stories so badly? Why do we keep telling them after they’ve all been told?

If Kubo became perfect, he would lose his identity. Because of his job as a street performer, he’s acutely aware that stories are how we interact with the world: we can’t find objective truth through our senses, so everything must be, in a way, composed.

And this works on a larger scale than the senses, as well. Kubo, like I said above, is about dealing with loss. At the beginning of the movie, he can’t move on from losing his father because the story isn’t finished. Completing the tale completes him as well, and it’s for that reason that he will never move beyond stories. Any one of us who has grieved will know that “closure” is as important in our lives as it is in our movies.

Aristotle wrote that the purpose of tragic theater is to grant the viewer catharsis, a cleansing of the emotions. King Lear, despite the way we keep revisiting it in the hope that Cordelia maybe won’t die this time, is a finished story for the same reason. It sucks, but it’s over, and now something new can take its place. Edgar probably will be a decent king.

Now we’ve got two stories where the loss of the eyes represents the failure of something to end the way it should. But here’s the kicker: while it doesn’t end well for Gloucester, it does for us. He doesn’t get to repent his mistakes, but isn’t there something redemptive in the way we keep telling these peoples’ stories? Gloucester, and Regan and Goneril and for that matter Hamlet and Macbeth and Richard II (yep, I like Richard II, because I am a filthy hipster) die without quite understanding why. But we know. And we save them by allowing them to save us.

The real kicker for me is that we could reverse these stories and the cumulative effect would still be the same. If Lear ended happily, as it did for several centuries, and Kubo ended up forcibly turned into a moon spirit without recognizing his Monkey and Beetle as his parents, we could still learn from the pairing about how stories can save us. But only–only–if the story was respected. In my eyes (heh) Edgar is the most important character in King Lear because he survives to bear witness. He alone makes it all not futile. A tragic Kubo would require a survivor: some other child stepping into the village square, proclaiming: if you must blink, do it now.

Gods, I love that phrase. Keep your eyes open, you who watch. Don’t pretend this story isn’t about you. It is. Everything is.

Well, there’s a few pages of rambling for you, but I had fun. Good luck to all the Whitties (and Kaeldra) starting school this week. I miss you all, and think of you often.

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