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Is ripeness all? Lear, Dementia and Zipper the Cat

ZipperZipper the cat is twenty three years old. In human terms, she’s over 110 and like all elderly creatures spends most of her time dozing – though unlike her human equivalents she’s occasionally to be found at the edge of the lawn, hoping to catch mice. Why she does this is a little unclear as she hasn’t caught anything for over eighteen months.

For a long time we thought she might be immortal, but it’s now apparent Zipper can’t have very much longer to go. We’ve been told that once she ceases to use the litter trays, it will be a sign her mental faculties have degraded – and even though there seem to be trays everywhere she has begun to poo on the floor or door mat or any place else she happens to be. In addition to which she’s arthritic and deaf and unable to groom herself.

Even so, it’s not been easy deciding when she should be put down, assuming that she doesn’t simply wander into the garden and die under a bush.  And if it’s tough making such a decision about a cat, how much more complicated and painful it is to consider when a human life might reasonably be ended. As we live longer, so we are having to face the problems of extreme age on a scale unimagined even a generation ago. Once upon a time we mostly would have died of pneumonia or septicaemia or some other cheery condition long before we had chance to develop Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s or something equally horrible.

So the question whether we continue to preserve life, irrespective of its quality, perhaps for years on end has become urgent. Many of us may have the care of an elderly parent or other loved one whose mind may have died but whose body continues to live. It was possibly this that prompted a new interpretation of King Lear in the current National Theatre production in which Simon Russell Beale portrays Lear in the grip of Dementia with Lewy bodies – symptoms of which include hallucinations, delusional behaviour, disordered sleep, agitation and aggression along with physical problems such as stooping, shuffling and trembling of limb.

Russell Beale’s performance is compelling and colossal. He plays the king as an old man whose mind and body are equally eroding, at times lucid and strong, at others broken and mad. I saw the live-streamed production and during the interval the actor explained in a recorded interview how an understanding of DLB had informed his characterisation. He said that while the illness did not provide a blueprint, it had helped shape his understanding of the part and that its typical ‘sudden outbursts of rage’ had ‘seemed to tie to Lear very well.’

This reading sees the madness on the heath not as a consequence of mistreatment by his daughters following an unwise decision to divide his kingdom, but the intensifying of a mental frailty that led him to abdicate in the first place. In the earlier scenes, it also allowed Regan and Goneril to counterfeit the role of carers of a father that they love but by whose lack of reason they are exhausted and driven beyond patience.

Russell Beale’s portrayal of Lear as a dementia sufferer equally adds insight to the lines, ‘I fear I am not in my perfect mind/Methinks I should know you.’ The lines have always been heavily poignant, but now seem related to the experience of all those caring for people with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia who fail to recognize their children or life-time partners and are ‘mainly ignorant/What place this is’ and ‘know not/Where I did lodge last night.’

Lear’s speech continues,

Do not laugh at me;

For as I am a man,

I think this lady To be my child Cordelia.

While Lear is briefly reunited with his daughter, the blind Gloucester has unknowingly been accompanied by his son Edgar. It is he that persuades the despairing old man that a fall from the cliff at Dover has been miraculously survived and urges him to continue. Gloucester promises that henceforth he’ll bear ‘Affliction till it do cry out itself/”Enough, enough,” and die.’

Later though, he relapses and Edgar has to remind him,

What, in ill thoughts again? Men must endure

Their going hence, even as their coming hither;

Ripeness is all.

His words are sometimes taken to show that redemption is possible, even in Lear’s cruel world. It’s true that when Edgar finally reveals himself, Gloucester’s ‘flaw’d heart’ is torn between ‘extremes of passion, joy and grief’ and ‘bursts smilingly’, but context is everything and throughout the play one event is contradicted by another. Edgar had declared to Edmund that the ‘gods are just’, but there is no justice for Lear. Cordelia is murdered. The Fool is dead.

Gloucester’s long journey may have ended with a kind of peace, but Lear is left in torment. What would he have lost had he died in madness on the heath? True, he would have missed the tender reconciliation with his daughter, but he would have been spared the agony of her death. So much for ripeness being all. And when Edgar later attempts to salve the dying king, Kent rebukes him saying,

Let him pass! He hates him much

That would upon the rack of this tough world

Stretch him out longer.

It’s hard to find much comfort in Lear. By the end, nearly all its principal characters are dead. Even Kent, one of the few left alive, announces he’s off to follow his late master, his ripeness for death unchallenged. Yet why should Edgar frustrate Gloucester's attempted suicide and not Kent's? The answer presumably lies in the fact that he was emotionally unprepared to lose his father, so inpreventing Gloucester’s death he is allowing his own needs to prevail over those of his parent. This contrasts with Kent whose love for the king favoured Lear’s wish for death over personal desire to sustain him.

Which is a curious route back to the cat, sleeping on the sofa. At some point we shall have to decide when it’s time for her to go, trying to consult her needs, not ours. Our children were at primary school when she came to us as a kitten. In the subsequent twenty three years, they have left secondary school, travelled the world, graduated and in my daughter’s case, married and become a mother.

And all that while, Zipper remained with us, allowing us to feed her but indifferent to our attention. When she produced young of her own, she proved an excellent mother. Her kittens were born under the kitchen table, but one by one she carried them to the top of the house where she had prepared a nest for them. She would bring them dead mice, and was always an expert hunter. Even until two or three years ago she was still catching up to thirty rabbits a year, as well as innumerable smaller rodents.

Sometimes she would return with soil on the back of her neck where she had followed prey into its burrow. Often the creatures she brought home were dazed or half-conscious and she would fling them around the lawn or let them stagger away from her before pouncing again. Occasionally we would find dead things behind a cupboard where they had hidden from her before expiring. When not hunting, she would find a sunny place to lie and take in warmth, or somewhere dry to shelter from rain. She was always utterly herself; sleek, elegant, aloof – though in her declining years becoming more affectionate and seeming to need our company.

In the natural state, she would have died years ago, either of cold or starvation, or been killed and eaten. In our insulated houses, it’s easy to forget the savagery of life in the fields and hedgerows. Foxes will break into hen coops or pheasant pens and kill all the birds in a frenzy. Crows are said to peck the eyes from new born lambs and though I've never seen evidence of that, creatures killed on the road will first have their soft and protein full eyes removed before the corpses are scavenged by other birds and rats.

It all seems cruel, but it’s just nature going about its business. The bird that pulls a worm from the ground may feed it to its chicks and in turn be taken by a hawk, which might once have been shot or poisoned by a gamekeeper. This is the world Lear inhabits, where humanity preys on itself ‘like monsters of the deep’ and it’s not surprising the play should contain so many references to wild creatures. Humans are exposed as simply poor bare, forked animals and when Lear laments his daughter’s death he cries ‘Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life/And thou no breath at all?’ There is no explanation. In Lear’s world you are born, suffer and die and there is no promise of anything beyond.

The father of Zipper’s kittens was a monstrous brute of a tom. We didn’t know where he came from, but one day found him dead in the lane, hit by a car. He was buried in the flower bed. One day Zipper will join him there. She is unaware of this. Being a cat, she is also unlikely to be acquainted with King Lear. For now she is sleeping on the sofa, probably dreaming of mice.

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