Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 181
A banished queen receives word that her husband and three daughters are dead. Learwife, a new novel by J.R. Thorp, picks up where Shakespeare’s King Lear leaves off: The queen is Berte, Lear’s wife and Regan, Goneril, and Cordelia’s mother, and she has been exiled in an abbey for the past fifteen years. Now, newly informed of her family members’ deaths, she remembers her life with them while trying to plot her way forward. Thorp talks with Barbara Bogaev about her inspirations (including Eleanor of Aquitaine, The English Patient, and a stray line from Agatha Christie’s The Moving Finger), her new backstories for Lear’s characters, and the roles of grief and nothingness in the book.
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J.R. Thorp is a librettist and writer working across a variety of forms, primarily with composers, choirs, orchestras, and musical organizations. Learwife is her first novel. It was published in the US by Pegasus Books in December 2021.
From the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast. Published January 4, 2021. © Folger Shakespeare Library. All rights reserved. This podcast episode, “All Her Mother's Pains and Benefits,” was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster. Ben Lauer is the web producer. Leonor Fernandez edits our transcripts. We had technical help from Andrew Feliciano and Evan Marquart at Voice Trax West in Studio City, California, and Duncan O'Cleirigh at Blackwater Studios in Cork, Ireland.
Read an excerpt from Thorp's novel on our Shakespeare and Beyond blog.
Read the play online with The Folger Shakespeare.
Shakespeare Unlimited: Maggie O'Farrell on Hamnet
O'Farrell tells us about her award-winning novel, which imagines the lives of Shakespeare's wife Anne and son Hamnet.
MICHAEL WITMORE: They’re Shakespeare’s most famously dysfunctional family, and—as you may have noticed —they have one key piece missing.
From the Folger Shakespeare Library, this is Shakespeare Unlimited. I'm Michael Witmore, the Folger’s director. In the world of what you might call “Shakespeare-adjacent” art, it’s not uncommon to find a character who is mostly hidden. I’m thinking of Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet, or Ophelia by Lisa Klein. But what first-time novelist J. R. Thorp has done with her new book is to take that idea one step further.
The novel is called Learwife and it takes place entirely inside the mind of the woman who was mother to Regan, Goneril, and Cordelia: the wife of King Lear, a queen named Berte. As the novel begins, word of her family’s death has just come to the abbey where she’s spent 15 years in exile, largely alone with her thoughts. Through her musing and memories—and J. R. Thorp’s beautiful, lyrical prose—we get new and completely plausible backstories for some of the most well-known characters in literature.
Learwife was just published in the US, and J. R. Thorp joined us from a studio in Cork, Ireland to talk about it. We call this podcast “All Her Mother's Pains and Benefits.” J. R. Thorp is interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.
BARBARA BOGAEV: Full disclosure, until I read your book, I watched Lear I don’t know how many times—and I read it of course—but I just accepted unquestioningly that there’s no mother in this screwed up family. Now I’m really annoyed with myself. Was there an “Aha” moment for you when you asked, “Where the heck is this queen?”
J.R. THORP: Well, it’s funny that you ask because I’ve been trying to pinpoint one moment where I’ve realized she wasn’t there. I think it was just, sort of, a gradual realization. I got to a certain point in about 2015 where I started to get curious about, “Okay, maybe there is a possibility for a story here. But surely, she must be referenced somewhere in the play.” And I went back and found two vague oblique references: Lear talking about… I believe it’s when he’s talking about the serpent’s teeth and thankless children, and he tells one of his daughters, “You know, I knew that you would understand me,” basically, and, “if you hadn’t, I would have gone to my wife’s tomb and declared her an adulteress.”
The other is a very light throwaway joke that the Fool produces at one point about mothers. So that’s really where… those were the two references I found and I built this entire edifice off that.
BOGAEV: Well, so did the idea for the book then come out of this desire to unearth this hidden history and narrative, which is something of a trend right now? Or did you first start thinking about family really or grief and arrive at the book?
THORP: It was really about family. One of the adaptations I saw in high school was the 1998 Richard Eyre production with Ian Holm as Lear, which is very heavily focused on the family dynamic. But there was also—and I promise this is true—when I was about 11 or 12, I read an Agatha Christie story. Like a lot of Agatha Christie stories, it features a lot of very damaging, toxic family dynamics. People not understanding each other in, you know, peculiarly British ways, when no one ever talks about their feelings. One of the characters who is a young woman who has a very fraught relationship with her family says this sort of throwaway line, “I always wondered why Regan and Goneril were like that. It must have been so difficult for them where they had to prove their love all the time.” For me, that was, sort of, the clicking point that I went back to when I first started thinking about the novel.
These characters in Shakespeare’s play, obviously they’re fully-formed by the time they arrive on the stage, but I wanted to go back to how a family dynamic could create these characters, could create Regan and Goneril and Lear. And how they interact with one another because that is a very entrenched dynamic by the time—when that first scene turns up, they all know the roles they are meant to play. And of course, the big tragedy is set off by the fact that Cordelia decides she’s not going to play anymore.
BOGAEV: That makes so much sense because that’s really one of the joys in reading your book, is that it gives psychological depth and backstory to these characters that are, as you say, so fully-formed but also so overshadowed by Lear.
BOGAEV: So, to do this, how did you approach it? Did you sit down and reread the play a million times, or watch a lot of productions?
THORP: A bit of both actually. I’ve been very lucky in my life to have seen… I saw Ian McKellen as Lear. I waited outside the Globe theater at six in the morning for student tickets back in 2007. That was just this incendiary performance, but it also—they featured very, very strong… Romola Garai was Cordelia, I remember. They very deliberately, I think, picked women who had equal charisma on that stage, so it was very much a battle. You know, I read the play backwards and forwards. I watched Ran, the famous Kurosawa play. I’ve watched a lot of adaptations.
Also looking for, “Has someone done this before?" Because to me, it seemed like, “I’ve noticed this gap. Someone else has done this.” The only thing I could find was a W.S. Merwin poem, which was published, I think, in The New Yorker, which was basically from the perspective of Lear’s wife saying, “Well, if anyone had asked me, I would have told you how it would go.” It’s a very short poem but it’s a very brilliant take on the whole situation.
BOGAEV: Wow. This raises so many questions for me. One of them is the setting that you chose. Thinking of the play actually, the play is set in an ancient pre-Christian Britain, or at least how Shakespeare imagined that time. How did you think about the time period for your story?
THORP: Well, initially it was very kind of amorphous. I started focusing on the dynamics first and thought, “Okay, well, I’ll flesh out setting as, like, hour-long.” And it became very clear to me that what I wanted was having Lear’s wife somewhere that she’d been exiled somewhere.
But actually, the determining factor for where the book is set is biographies of Eleanor of Aquitaine. Because I went back basically to what was it like to be a powerful woman in the early medieval period? What would that have looked like? What did it feel like? How would people have talked to these people? And the life of Eleanor of Aquitaine and the other very, very powerful medieval queens shaped, “Okay, this is a point in time where this story could viably—you know, this could be fleshed out, this could be understandable.”
Also, there’s a line in the book, a kind of a theme that I’ve put through, of the conflict between emerging Christianity and paganism, because Lear is very famous for drawing on every god that he can think of. When he is blaspheming and when he’s furious, he will invoke anyone that comes to mind. Hecate, anyone.
BOGAEV: When he’s raging against them.
THORP: Yeah. All the gods have betrayed him. And I thought it would be really interesting to, kind of, pit that instinct for polytheism, that pagan background, against maybe a wife who was coming from a Christian point of view. What would that mean? What would that do for the relationship? How would that…
Because that was, you know, also a thing that happened quite a lot. In history, it was multifaith couples who were, kind of, married together in the idea of producing conversion or allying states. So those were the determining factors.
And of course, Eleanor of Aquitaine: famously exiled to the abbey. That was what I was trying to create: this queen who is so intensely charismatic that even in exile for 15 years in an abbey in the middle of nowhere, she is still the center of that world.
BOGAEV: Did the language that you use or give her follow from that? Because Berte—we should say, that’s her name in your book—this queen, she doesn’t really sound like a Shakespeare character to my ear. She sounds, again, more ancient than that.
THORP: Yeah, that was sort of a deliberate choice. A lot of the risk, I think, of writing from a kind of Shakespearean and more explicitly Shakespearean linguistic perspective is you can sound, like, pastiche. Because obviously, and particularly with Lear, so many of the lines are so famous.
I chose to kind of make her a lot—like, give her a very defined register that wasn’t Shakespearean, that was more medieval, more lyrical, but definitely referenced elements of the play. There are little references all the way through.
BOGAEV: At the beginning of the process, anyway, you’re steeped in the play and the language and you have this idea of different words that you want to put into your protagonist’s mouth. You start your story with the ending of Lear, that he’s dead and the three daughters are dead and the queen finds out the barebones facts of this in the abbey where she’s been exiled for 15 years. So, it’s this huge shock and inconceivable grief. But she is such a force even in exile and in the midst of all this. Maybe this is a good time for you to read this passage that begins, “Lear, you old ghoul,” so we can get a sense of her and her voice.
“Lear, you old ghoul, softening down in the soil and sprouting a mushroom from your eye, listen: you tried to do me wrong, you thought you’d bury me. After all I gave. And look how I took your punishment and made it thicken. I made it bud down to the root with new growth, furred and greening.
“This abbey: fifteen years, and through the thin body of the abbess, I spoke and formed it, and from my word came plenitude. Benison.
“Look, stupid boy, what I wrought, as I once did for you. This place hoards me like a relic, like the Cross flowing with sap. Richness that is a wise and well-born woman: they recognized it; the abbess was sensible. They see what you did not.
“I am not a vengeful woman, but if you lived and knew my thoughts, Lear, you would cry out in the night and feel fear close around your neck.”
BOGAEV: What did you base this idea of her on?
THORP: I think I just looked back at what I imagine total devastation, total emotional devastation, would be to someone who nevertheless wants to retain her power, who nevertheless remains this intense force, and who also has been denied closure in any way.
She’s been in the abbey for fifteen years, she doesn’t know why. All of the people that she loved have now gone and she won’t get the chance for forgiveness, for understanding, for any future interactions with them. All of that possible future has been taken from her as well.
And, in that sort of nothingness, I wondered: someone really used to power and having their own way, what they would do? That’s what I came up with. Fury, and calculation, and attempts to claw for hope in any way possible, political scheming. You know, the whole book is kind of a journey through how she navigates her grief and what she realizes about her past and also, crucially, what she does not realize about her past.
BOGAEV: Yeah. She’s having this long, interior struggle and monologue with herself. She’s such a powerful character and she has no power, and she’s had no power for so long and now has no power in this situation. All of which also applies to grief. You have no power against death. And you mentioned nothingness. We’ll pick up on the nothingness and nothing theme in Lear and in your book a little later.
But what you’re describing, this long, interior struggle, is such a hard thing to sustain throughout a novel. So how did you think about building tension and incorporating action into a story of grief and pain?
THORP: This was something that was structurally a constant process. So the book was written out of order with the two threads: the thread of continuing action and the memory thread separate. Then, I splice them together into this kind of mosaic of, “Okay, what is happening in her world right now that might set her off onto this particular memory?”
The idea that she’s living, in a sense, in two timelines at once. She’s existing in the abbey, causing complete chaos. But also, there is this other—her memories are so strong that in essence, she’s living them at the same time.
That structural deliberation went on for a very long time. Lots of things got shoveled around—shuffled around, not shoveled. And, you know, things were taken out, things were put back in, to create the sense of forward movement, even as we were pushing further and further back.
I’m one of those people who doesn’t mind a lot of narrative stillness, as long as lots is happening emotionally, you know, lots is or something is being revealed internally, or stories are appearing. The choice I made was to hook things together in that way.
BOGAEV: Wow. Did you have a model for this?
THORP: There were quite a lot of really good models for memory-based novels. I suppose Marilynne Robinson was one of the really big ones, with Lila and Gilead. And, you know, very based on both what is happening now and how it echoes constantly back into the past, and how that’s a very seamless process to give the people who are grieving or troubled or experiencing massive change.
Yeah, Michael Ondaatje is also a model for… in The English Patient, notoriously, there’s that wonderful mosaic-like feel of pieces coming together from the past and from the present in a way that feels very natural, because that is how people think and feel. They aren’t constantly in a present time, without acknowledging the other things that have affected them.
It was an interesting process, and I haven’t learned from it at all—I’m writing my second book in exactly the same way… so.
BOGAEV: I was just going to ask you. Well, the whole exercise does give you this opportunity, as we were saying earlier, to flesh out the backstory of Berte’s children and Lear through her eyes. Maybe this would be another good time for you to read one of those passages where she’s reminiscing about her daughters. We should say, she didn’t see Cordelia grow up because, in the book, she was banished right after giving birth to her. This passage I’m thinking of is, it starts with, “Regan, white as paint.”
THORP: “Regan: white as paint with coarse black hair. My own, so I taught her taming, the lines of it on her back, night-wetting to smooth its wilderness. Every morning she rose and unbound her hair, wash of dark over her shoulder, and I would think, “God help the man who sees it.” Heron-girl, full in the breasts, long and smooth with edgeless eyes. Small-featured, like my mother: pass a hand over her face and the lips, the cheeks, would barely rise under your fingers. Perhaps Cordelia was like this, when she grew.
“That whiteness, that pale clay. When I slapped Regan once on the neck (some small disobedience, she had arranged my pale combs in her own plaits) the mark rose and would not fade. High scarlet, like a bite. She wore low bodices to display it, flagrant, turning to the light at dinners. I ignored her. Gave her pounded hazel for the “burn.” Later Goneril told me (whispering—always in my memory she is whispering, smothered, a giggle in the dark) that she had rubbed and pinched it every night to keep it virulent.
“Twisting her wound, bending to the glass to check its swell. So industrious in her spite.
“I remember other things. You start searching for portents after disaster, you sift through old tragedies to see what they begat, a poor foundation-stone that cracked the building down.”
BOGAEV: There is so much packed in here about these girls and what kind of mother the queen was. She’s a slapper. Goneril’s a whisperer and a tattletale. And Regan’s manipulative and vindictive. I love that, twisting her wound. What was the inspiration for the backstory for the daughters?
THORP: I think the real foundation of it was that competition for love, in that first scene, and how obvious it was that they’d all done it before. I thought, well, what would it mean if they had done that their whole lives, and not only just competing for their father’s love, but for their mother’s love? What if they were pawns in this power struggle between a mother and father who were always fighting for supremacy? Would that have made them how they became? I thought that seems like a very logical through-line.
Being raised in that sort of, you know, morass of intense psychological game-playing creates the sense that you yourself are a game player. You always have to play your part or suffer the consequences.
BOGAEV: And be strategic.
THORP: Mm-hmm. Very strategic.
BOGAEV: The queen is very strategic. And that makes a lot of sense, that Cordelia would be different from her sisters, because she was the youngest, but also, she wasn’t brought up by this very tough mother, so she wasn’t competing for that mother’s love.
I’m thinking also that the queen’s process in all of this is so true to grief too, that you sift through these, as she says, “Old tragedies searching for potence.” How do you know so much about grieving?
THORP: I mean, I wish I could say that I had some incredibly traumatic backstory but unfortunately, I don’t. I’m just a very morbidly imaginative person I think. I mean, we’ve all gone through griefs for various things. Particularly the past 18 months have all taught us a lot about grieving for lives and for, you know, possibilities that we weren’t able to have.
But I’ve also always been drawn to literature that evokes particular very strong emotions, and grief is one of them. Part of my PhD was actually about elegy, saying goodbye to people and what that was as a poetic form. It’s always something I’ve been kind of drawn to.
BOGAEV: Huh. And going back over the past, picking through it in that stillness. You know, you also really give us a sense of Lear as a younger man, which is fascinating. Aside from the hands in the play, who was your model for this young king?
THORP: A lot of it comes from hints that are kind of given by really huge performances given by, you know, these big personalities. But it also goes back to Eleanor of Aquitaine and her very famously energetic and boisterous and loud and interesting second husband, Henry.
I read about him and went, “Well, that’s really interesting as a potential model.” Someone who clearly has a lot of potential as a king, as a leader, who has that natural charisma but hasn’t quite yet been molded. Then, the queen can come along, and she can be a very big part of that molding.
BOGAEV: A lot of the memories that Berte goes over, they’re about that, in which she’s schooling Lear in kingcraft because she’s older than he is and she’s been married before.
BOGAEV: Or at least she remembers all that she was schooling him. She remembers it that way.
THORP: Yeah. That’s always the key bit, that it’s very much based around her perspective on her past.
BOGAEV: Right, which is fine because we didn’t get it before: her perspective.
THORP: Crucially, there’s no one else there around her to correct her or tell her that anything was different because, you know, she’s alone in her own head and she has been really for 15 years.
BOGAEV: Yeah. They seem really well-matched, though, in her memories. And he has his own ideas about things. You give a great window into another one of those big mysteries in King Lear, why he sets up the craziest succession scheme with his daughters in the first place. Could you read this passage? It’s about why Lear didn’t want to divide his kingdom.
“Lear was in his furs, holding his throat. All his life he would have eyelashes that drooped to his cheekbones, petal-curled. ‘Do you know what they eat in monasteries on fish days, Queen?’
“‘No, King.’ I had come to his arm. We were close at that time.
“‘The archbishop told me, the babes pulled from a ewe’s stomach. Tiny lambs.’ He showed me the size between two fingers. ‘Barely the width of a child’s fist. Apparently, their eyes are like small fruits. I would like to taste them one day.’
“‘I will ask the kitchen.’
“He had my arm. We were arranging our robes to process.
“‘You see, don’t you?’ He said. ‘Taking the lambs from the belly, killing the ewe. It’s waste! To divide a country poorly produces waste.’ His hands tracing the air. As if along skin. ‘I do not know how to do it well.’
“‘Yes, King. May it never come to that.’ I must have looked ghostly as he kissed my forehead.”
BOGAEV: Oh, wonderful reading. Tell me about writing this conversation.
THORP: I thought quite a lot about where that famous first scene came from and what it meant for the women in his life. And it comes back to, also, the famous exchange later on, “I gave you all—,” “And in good time you gave it”—That’s one of the daughters back to him.
I realized that Shakespeare sort of set up this situation where he had been withholding, basically, dowries and gifts and everything from his daughters all this time, and I wondered why. And I went, “Well, he doesn’t have a son.” He is making decisions based possibly on the idea that he might have a future heir one day, or he’s been using this to control them, as a way to keep them close.
It’s this very interesting kind of political problem of who gets what when a king passes away, particularly if there isn’t a natural person to give it to. The question of who gets what and how things are divided should be present very early on in the book as well because it’s the starting point for everything when the play begins; this idea of, finally the king’s promises are coming to pass, and then everything goes horribly wrong.
BOGAEV: Why the tiny lambs in the ewe's stomach? I mean, there’s an ickiness to this story that works really well. I’m not even sure why.
THORP: The lambs, that’s a true thing. That was an actual true thing. I found it in, I think it was a book of medieval history. I researched the period quite closely and went, “God, that’s a good symbol for the wastefulness of the entire debacle.”
But, also, if you think about it, the familial relationship of, “How much do you love me? And I’ll give you land,” it is quite gross. It’s meant to evoke this kind of feeling of weird disgustingness. So, I connected that to bring that feeling of watching that scene and going, “Oh, I don’t like this and I don’t understand precisely why but there is something about this that is very disturbing.”
BOGAEV: That’s good. I like that because it is very disturbing, the idea of controlling your children with money.
BOGAEV: That was a very rational story, but it somehow in my mind evoked the whole theme of, in some ways, mental illness, and how it runs throughout this family, or that it’s an ever-present backdrop to the play and to your story. You write about Lear’s father wandering the corn believing himself a bird, and you invoke Lear’s madness and also hint that Berte herself might be mentally ill. I mean, who wouldn’t be, being banished and ripped from her child and stuck in an abbey for 15 years.
This is a story of the mad woman in the attic in some ways. And she assumes, at times, that she is mad. How did you think about the connections between madness and the family dynamic while you were writing?
THORP: The really interesting point for that for me was going back to Geoffrey of Monmouth source text, which is what Shakespeare originally referred to. It’s his chronicles, in which the idea of King Lear with his three daughters, that’s where it emerges from.
I originally went back to look at it going, “Well, maybe there’s a wife in here.” There isn’t, but it also traced Lear’s legacy, and he’s descendant from Bladud the Mad. It’s very evocative of what that madness looked like. That, kind of, gave a context to Lear’s constant worries throughout the play. It’s not coming from nowhere. It’s coming from this idea of possible inheritance.
But I was very careful to… It’s very easy to go, “Oh, a character is mad,” and make things very irrational very quickly in ways that are very melodramatic. Whereas I think Lear itself as a play is very sensitive about what mental illness can look like. What it can feel like. Where it comes from. What sets it off.
You know, this huge trauma basically sends Lear reeling out into a storm. And yes, it’s a trauma of his own making but that doesn’t stop it basically loosening him from his logical foundations and having everyone around him, including the Fool—who is meant to be the person who kind of occupies that liminal space between, you know, mad and not mad—be the ones trying to anchor him back to earth. I was doing it very carefully, I think is my answer to your question.
BOGAEV: Yes, and that shows. I mean, in the original, Lear’s father was the man who created wings for himself. And I’m glad you mentioned the Fool because, you know, such a fascinating character of course. And in your telling, Berte gave the Fool to Lear when they were married. Why don’t you read this passage that begins, “I miss him nearly as much I do Kent.”
THORP: “I miss him nearly as much as I do Kent, or Lear. Bearing his wit like a lance to prick the bloated balls of every pompous ass. He feared nothing, our fool. Bow-legged, his hair hard scraped back against a broken-veined scalp to fit his fool-cap. He’d have been a scholar if he were not so intelligent, bright enough to see behind the backs of things and through all opaque and golden objects. There was nothing left for him, he told me once, but to be a fool. No other job.
“And a king’s fool sees all, knows all, embraces and reverses. When I gave him to Lear, newly married, I knew, barely, what it was I did, but I had given Lear an underside, a nonsense man, who appeared in the glass and said, ‘Lo, all is mortal. None of this is real.’
“I cannot think of him living past Lear. The idea makes my tongue taut against my teeth. Kings and fools are hard companions. They live in the high absurd and look down on us grimacing. There was no fool beyond the king. His land was Lear, everlasting. He served him as long as my marriage, longer.”
BOGAEV: I love that line, “Kings and fools are hard companions. They live in the high absurd and look down on us grimacing.” How does the Fool figure into your story of this grieving queen?
THORP: The Fool was, in many ways, her first friend along with Kent in the way that I formatted things, and also figures as a kind of mentor figure. The Fool, for her, is a person who begins to kind of teach her the power of the absurd, the power of being close to people and showing them, you know, the power of double-sided words and nonsense I suppose. The Fool throughout—also in the relationship that I’ve created—sees things that she can’t see about Lear, about her relationship with her children, and tries very hard to make her see them and she just isn’t capable.
BOGAEV: It’s interesting that, yes, he is everyone’s teacher and yet he has no power, really, no voice. That brings us back to this word “nothing,” which is so central in King Lear of course. You invoke it throughout the book.
In a way, since it’s so much about this woman who’s lost everything and can’t get out of a cloister and only really has her thoughts, I guess you could say that nothing much happens in your book, yet it’s so full of meaning. At one point did the concept of nothing become something of a main theme for you?
THORP: I think nothingness was a starting point, really, because it’s Cordelia’s invocation of nothing that starts everything going in the play as well. You know, this idea of, “No, there is a boundary I will not cross. No, this is a game I refuse to play.”
Equally, the novel starts with this nothing. The family is dead. Kent is possibly dead, as far as she knows. All of her connections to the person that she was, the power that she held, have gone and she must survive and rebuild in any way that she can really.
It’s interesting because nothingness isn’t the same necessarily as stillness. Like, it’s a novel where I very clearly prioritized women in small spaces struggling against one another, and her life story, and the breadth of her memories. And so I’ve somehow snuck quite a lot of plot into a book that doesn’t seem to go anywhere or do anything, you know.
BOGAEV: That’s true. I didn’t mean to criticize your book. Absolutely, nothingness kind of engenders everything. There’s a plague which kills the abbess and then there’s a competition between… and the queen is the arbiter for who’s going to take over the abbey. So that really ratchets up the tension too.
THORP: It’s one of those things where the plot isn’t necessarily the focus. It keeps things—it’s very much, again, this sense of her living in two parallel times where both are her attempt to actively cope with this nothingness. How is she going to survive it? How is it going to affect the people around her?
And that’s the other thing about both the play and the novel, is it’s very much about how this nothing resounds through and causes chaos and things that perhaps were not initially intended but then escalate and escalate.
BOGAEV: So going back to King Lear, after writing the book, did you return and read the play or watch any more productions or have different perspectives on it?
THORP: Well, I finished editing like, at the beginning of the plague year, I suppose is what we’re going to call it. And of course, there was all this talk about, “Oh, Shakespeare wrote King Lear in a plague time. No one has any excuse for being unproductive.” And so I couldn’t…
BOGAEV: I got so tired of that.
THORP: I couldn’t get away from it. It was very annoying. This is the thing, I didn’t mean to write a topical novel. It’s not my fault. I’m not a witch. Please leave me alone.
But it’s one of those things where going back to Lear, I think I’ll need some space before I can go back and look at it without just constantly seeing my own interpretations just washing over the screen. Because it’s a play that very much deserves to be seen on its own and my head is still… I only finished the final, final, final copyedits two days ago so it will always, for me, have that place as a piece of art I know I can always go back to and get something from.
BOGAEV: Yes. And going back to your idea of nothingness and nothing as a theme, your idea of nothingness is so deeply personal to this queen and to your story. It’s so different from the play, not that it’s not personal to Lear but it has a cosmic, a different connotation entirely in my mind.
THORP: Well, it’s kind of a reframing of… because one of the excellent things about Lear as a play is that it can be staged as a political drama or you can go a thousand acres and make it into this very familial, a purely familial drama. Because I was writing very much from the kind of familial perspective, the nothingness very much became an emotive nothing. You know, a nothing of the heart, a nothing of self.
Part of the reason I’ve written her memories as so important is that it’s also she’s trying to remember who she is without her family, even though they haven’t been physically present in her life in the novel for 15 years. She’s been a queen, she’s been a mother. These things have defined her in relation. And certainly, those relations have gone and she is drawing on every part of herself to remember what she is without them physically there in the world.
BOGAEV: I think that’s a hard place to end but a good place. I really enjoyed talking with you. Thank you.
THORP: Thank you. I really enjoyed talking to you too.
WITMORE: J. R. Thorp is a librettist and writer working across a variety of forms, primarily with composers, choirs, orchestras, and musical organizations. Her first novel is called Learwife. It was published in the US by Pegasus Books in December 2021. She was interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.
Our podcast, “All Her Mother's Pains and Benefits,” was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster. Ben Lauer is the web producer, with help from Leonor Fernandez.
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Shakespeare Unlimited comes to you from the Folger Shakespeare Library. Home to the world’s largest Shakespeare collection, the Folger is dedicated to advancing knowledge and the arts. You can find more about the Folger at our website, folger.edu. Thanks for listening. For the Folger Shakespeare Library, I’m Folger Director Michael Witmore.