Posted by: mpura | December 2, 2015

Plays in Pictures: Julia Margaret Cameron’s “King Lear”



King Lear Alotting His Kingdom to His Three Daughters, 1872


In our last class we had a full-length discussion on the work of Julia Margaret Cameron. I was particularly intrigued by how Cameron staged her photographic subjects; she determined what was to be worn, how the subjects were to pose and the level of intensity of their facial expressions.In each photograph, especially ones that depict scenes from myth and literature, Cameron takes on the role of the director of a static theatrical production. We briefly touched upon Cameron’s depictions of famous Shakespearean scenes. So I’d like to examine one that we did not look at.

I recently finished reading Shakespeare’s “Tragedy of King Lear,” for my Amherst Shakespeare course. The plot is based on the relationship between a man and his daughters. King Lear, an elderly and innocent King is deceived by two of his daughters, and blind to those who are truly loyal to him. Female characters in this play actually have a lot more substance than many other Shakespeare plays. Instead of a central female figure, we are given three. One, Cordelia, a symbol of purity and innocence, and Goneril and Regan, evil and conspiring figures. The play is set in a pre-Christian era, which paints a world surrounded by the the fantastical and natural world.

When it was mentioned in class that Julia Margaret Cameron photographed a scene from King Lear, I knew I had to do a close reading. The King Lear photograph is entitled, “King Lear Alotting His Kingdom to His Three Daughters.”

The scene depicted in the photograph takes place at the beginning of the play. King Lear is aware of his advanced years and deteriorating sanity, and has thus decided to distribute his power and land equally amongst his three daughters (and their husbands). While Lear seeks to give up the work necessary for a King, he still wants to maintain his power over emotion and the loyalty of others.

In order to determine who gets what part of the Kingdom, he asks his  daughters to explain how much they love him.

Goneril and Regan, the two eldest daughters, will say anything to attain power. So each give over-the-top, wordy proclamations of false devotion and love.

Cordelia, on the other hand, sees a problem in this request. She is the only daughter who truly loves her father, but she knows that she cannot participate. In her opinion, to admit that her father is the only one that she could ever love would be a lie. What about her future husband? What about her sisters’ husbands? The truthful Cordelia thus refuses to adorn her father with false proclamations of love. Feeling betrayed, King Lear banishes his once favorite daughter. All the while, his two eldest daughters plan to usurp all of his power and ultimately plot against his life.

Cameron captures this intense moment incredibly well. The King Lear figure in the middle, who is actually her husband, has long and snow white hair. His hair gives him both a regal quality and elderly appearance. His age and decrepitness is further emphasized in the presentation of his hands. The camera has a clear image of the long veins protruding from his skin. His long and gangly fingers grasp the detailed cain, further suggesting that he is not able to support himself.

This regal but visually weak King look as if he is also leaning on the two women to the left. These women are Goneril and Regan. As Lear leans against them, you can see the daughter in the foreground placing one finger against his shoulder. Her eyes are facing downwards with her mouth slightly open. It looks as if she is whispering into his ear, filling him with false proclamations of love and devotion. The other daughter is almost completely covered by the first. We can only see her face which looks off into the distance. Her eyes give off a maniacal feeling. While the first daughter speaks of love, the second reveals to the audience their true intent and vision of the future. It should also be noted that the the eldest daughter in the foreground is the only sister wearing fine clothes and jewelry. We can imagine that the sister behind her is dressed in the same way. By adorning these two evil sisters in royal luxury, Cameron hints at their selfish and sadistic nature. While they appear beautiful on the outside, their adorned bodies are merely a distraction from the evil truth within.

The King’s cane itself serves as a hint that the sisters are up to no good. If you look carefully, the cane is carved with a serpent rising from the wood. In the play, there are comparisons drawn between the sisters and snakes. Serpants are often seen as symbols of evil. It’s as if the serpent from the cane is wrapping itself around Lear’s hand just as one of the eldest daughters is placing her finger on his shoulder.

These sisters come in sharp contrast with the woman on the right who is playing Cordelia.Unlike her sisters, she is dressed plainly. She is only wearing white, a symbol of the divine or pure. Her facial expression gives off a childish innocence. While here sisters’ expressions give off an almost sensual gaze, she looks down in thought. She is almost ashamed that she cannot do what her father asks.

It is possible that Lear has just banished Cordelia. While all three sisters have their hair down, Cordelia is the only one who does not have a crown on her head. Could Lear have stripped it from her? Her body is also not as intimately connected to her father has the other two sisters are. The black triangular space between Lear and Cordelia gives the viewer a sense of physical and emotional separation.

We discussed in class that Cameron, when working with plates, would allow them to be exposed to scratching and smudging. If you look at the bottom right-hand corner of the photograph you can see what looks to be three streaks of dirt. This in fact appears to be Cameron’s smudged finger prints. This adds an eery element to the photograph. The dark finger marks placed over Cordelia’s body look as if death’s fingers are reaching out for her. In fact, if we personify death through Cameron’s smudges, it could be said that death is reaching out for Lear and all three of his daughters. Spoiler alert, all of them die at the end of the play.


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