Lear, Land and Expropriation without Compensation

  • Geoffrey Haresnape


King Lear has been extensively used by Shakespearean critics in South Africa for the discussion of land ownership issues. This essay alludes to the work of Martin Orkin and Nicholas Visser, who brought postcolonial and materialistic critiques to bear upon the play in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. The essay itself carries the investigation forward to present times, when the text asks to be read in relation to expropriation without compensation: a land proposal being ventilated at the highest political level. The issues which emerge are diverse and unexpected. King Lear’s gifts of land to his daughters are actually ‘deals’ requiring the compensation of their public declarations of love for him. For various reasons this strategy fails. The reader is then invited by the play’s imagery to see the body of the old king as a piece of ‘real estate’ that is incrementally expropriated by the ageing process and the onset of dementia. Spenser’s allegory of the House of Temperance in Book II of The Faerie Queene is discussed as a likely influence here. By the end of the play, Lear is divested of his own bodily health and cognitive ability by the arch expropriator, ‘time’, and its subaltern, the fallible human cell. With regard to critical reception, this essay argues that King Lear has complexity and substance enough to engage the interest of postcolonialists, materialists and universalists alike – even in relation to a topic as specific as land.