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Are we really any more civilised than the world of King Lear?

Sir Anthony Hopkins as King Lear

Sir Anthony Hopkins, one of our greatest actors, is shortly to play King Lear on BBC Two. He has given an interview to mark the occasion, and the interview tells us a great deal, not just about Sir Anthony, but about the state of British society, as well as providing us with a few insights into the play itself.

Sir Anthony reveals that he has no contact with his only child, a daughter, and that he has no idea whether he is a grandfather or not, and does not care either way. He says: “People break up. Families split and, you know, ‘Get on with your life.’ People make choices. I don’t care one way or the other.” When told that sounded rather cold, he replies: “Well, it is cold. Because life is cold.”

From a certain perspective, Sir Anthony just states a bald fact. Nowadays, lots of people have no contact at all with some of their nearest relatives. Family life is not what it once was. The only real question is as follows: is this a good thing, a bad thing, or does it not really matter one way or the other?

As you might expect me to answer, it is to my mind an extraordinarily bad thing. Family ties are of the greatest importance, not just to children as they grow up, but to adults as well. We all need these ties as they are part of being human. To be human is to be social, and we learn social behaviour in the family, and that is a lifelong process. I think more or less every social scientist would agree with that position. Families count; friends can be a substitute, but never a complete substitute.

Moreover, families are the safety net that we all need. They provide emotional support, and in many parts of the world they provide other types of support as well. In many countries your family will always look after you if you fall on hard times.

Just as in the developing world your family will support you in the daily battle with poverty, so in the developed world strong family bonds are to be found in countries with strong economies and confident cultures. Look at Italy and Japan: both have robust, highly traditional family structures, and both are also highly successful and modern countries. (It is very interesting to note that Italy’s most successful enterprises are almost all family firms.) The same is true of Jewish communities spread throughout the world: very strong family bonds, and marked social and financial success.

What happens when family bonds decay? King Lear provides an answer. Set in the never never land of the distant past (the mythical King Lear supposedly reigned in the 8th Century BC) Lear is really about the human nature that never changes. Lear and Gloucester are both extraordinarily bad fathers; three of their children are bad, perhaps the result of having such fathers, and two are saints, Cordelia and Edgar, whose goodness throws into relief the savage selfishness that we see all around them.

The play has two key moments: Lear takes refuge on the blasted heath, a place of greater kindness than the indoor comforts offered by his daughters; and Gloucester is thrust out of doors, blinded, to ‘smell his way to Dover’. These two scenes dramatise the very reverse of filial piety.

Are we as bad as the world of Lear? Would it be an exaggeration to say that we are? We send our old people to nursing homes where we hardly ever visit them. Some old people go to Dignitas in Switzerland, which they see as the kinder alternative. More and more of us are suffering mental health issues. And we kill our own children through abortion. We cannot make a convincing case, I fear, that we are a kinder gentler society than the world of King Lear.

Needless to say, none of this is the fault of Sir Anthony Hopkins, who no longer speaks to his daughter; but one thing is for sure; if we want to be a happier society, we need to talk to one another or start talking to one another again, and the family is the natural place for this conversation. On it depends the happiness and the flourishing of the human race. As Shakespeare’s terrible masterpiece shows us, when we turn against the bond of nature, the tragic results are frightening.