You Know About King Lear by Harriet Hunter review – an exquisite update

There is no nice way to put this. Harriet Hunter (TM) famously won the 1993 Times/Guardian fiction prize for her unorthodox take on King Lear – a tale not just of cursed monarchs, but…

You Know About King Lear by Harriet Hunter review – an exquisite update

There is no nice way to put this. Harriet Hunter (TM) famously won the 1993 Times/Guardian fiction prize for her unorthodox take on King Lear – a tale not just of cursed monarchs, but political allegory at its best and a tribute to the prophetess of fiction who hailed from the very town that King Lear passes by.

That Hunter – daughter of the political aristocrat Sir John Hall – became an uncompromising, stick-in-the-mud part of her father’s canon is nothing short of miraculous; her 648-page book of more than 3,200 pages that follows is her most ambitious yet.

For, while there has been plenty of other languages added to the same fact-based parable of twisted ambition that has morphed over the centuries into a problematically constant dance with multiple permutations of powerful personification, no previous translation has sent Shakespeare’s story through such a fascinating and glamorous departure from the old, by which I mean Draconian framework of “old-fashioned” values.

Harriet Hunter’s translation of King Lear. Illustration: Harriet Hunter

Hunter starts in Annapolis – the metaphorical Waterbury of the title – and studies the Courtiers of the Lord: the rake with two memories, the foul-mouthed playboy baron, the rakish soldier who hides his supermodel wife in crates, and the young queen – who being damned to the Lion is herself spared torture but is thus condemned to an evil fate – as her mother has been for all those centuries.

This is the history of our nation told in the passage-by-passage re-enactment of the lives of our people, their characters, their flaws, and the stories – fantasy and formative – that shaped the young Elizabeth I from the earliest years of her experience. This book is the complete picture of the years that marked the change from “junior” player to national icon. She is a thoroughly entertaining guide to the kingdoms of Elizabethan England.

• You Know About King Lear? A New Novel Tells Her Banished Queen’s Tale by Harriet Hunter (Chatto & Windus, £20) is published by Canongate. To order a copy for £17.72 (RRP £20) go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.

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