English literature poses 2 endings in Ho drama

PUBLISHED : Monday, 31 January, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 31 January, 2011, 12:00am

'How sharper than a serpent's tooth it is to have a thankless child,' laments King Lear in the tragic play by William Shakespeare.

The majority of parents have probably agreed with the old monarch's sentiment at least once or twice. But with 16 fractious children by four different wives, Macau casino mogul Stanley Ho has had more occasion than most over the past few weeks to agree with the tragic king about the painful ingratitude of his offspring.

Ever since last Monday when Ho first accused two of his wives and five of his children of fraudulently misappropriating ownership of the company which controls most of his business empire, the parallels with Lear have been striking.

Of course, if you have assiduously avoided all contact with Shakespeare since leaving school, or if you were one of those fortunate enough not to have had his plays rammed forcibly down your throat at school, then the similarities between Ho's family spat and a 400-year-old play about a legendary king of pre-historic Britain may not be so obvious.

But if you've missed Lear, you've missed out. As the huge popularity of the production now playing at London's Donmar Warehouse demonstrates, the tragedy speaks just as powerfully to modern audiences as it did in Jacobean England. And it transcends cultures as easily as it has crossed the centuries. The tragedy was adopted by Japanese film-maker Akira Kurosawa as the inspiration for his 1985 epic Ran. It has even been adapted as traditional Beijing opera.

In Shakespeare's play, the ageing King Lear seeks to divide his kingdom between his three daughters. Before apportioning the goodies, however, he tries to discover which of the three loves him most by the simple expedient of commanding each to describe their feelings towards him.

Their eyes on the prize, the eldest two fall to gross flattery. The sinister Goneril declares that she loves her father 'dearer than eyesight, space and liberty; beyond what can be valued rich or rare; no less than life'.

Not to be outdone, the second daughter, Regan, says her sister 'comes too short', pronouncing herself 'an enemy to all other joys' but love for her dotard father.

Disgusted by such insincerity, Lear's youngest and favourite daughter, Cordelia, says that she loves the king just as much as it is proper for a daughter to love her father.

Incensed, Lear marries Cordelia off to the king of France as punishment and splits his kingdom between his two eldest children.

Alas, Lear's retirement is not happy. With his kingly powers already in their hands, Goneril and Regan have nothing more to gain by buttering up the old monarch and progressively they strip him of both his retinue and his dignity, leaving poor old Lear wandering mad across the heath, with none for company but his one-time jester, swearing justice against his two disloyal elder daughters.

The parallels with Stanley Ho may not be exact, but they are inescapable. In recent months Ho had been showing signs of favouritism towards his fourth wife, Angela, and her children. Then in December, the tycoon's second wife Lucina and daughters Pansy and Daisy, in their positions as directors of the company that controls the bulk of Ho's fortune, approved a massive share issue to the families of Lucina and third wife Ina which diluted Ho's ownership almost to nothing.

The dispossessed Ho is fighting back. Last week, he filed a lawsuit accusing his second and third wives and five of their children of illegally seizing control of his empire.

As a guide to what might happen next, Shakespeare is hardly encouraging. In the play, the dutiful Cordelia landed at Dover at the head of a French army intent on wresting power from her two older sisters and restoring her father to his kingdom.

Alas, she lost the battle, and the play ends in a welter of bloodletting, with Cordelia hanged, Regan poisoned, Goneril dead by her own hand and poor old Lear 'a man, more sinn'd against than sinning' dead from a broken heart.

It's an unrelievedly grim ending. But Stanley Ho need not be too disheartened. Although Shakespeare may have been a fine dramatist and the finest poet ever to write in English, the playwright was no respecter of intellectual property.

The story of Lear he stole unashamedly from Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the kings of Britain, written almost 500 years earlier. Like the Hollywood scriptwriters of today, however, Shakespeare played fast and loose with the original account to suit his own dramatic purposes.

In Monmouth's version of the tale, the destitute Lear makes his way to France where he throws himself on Cordelia's mercy, denouncing his two elder daughters for their mercenary treatment of him and lamenting his own credulity, crying: 'So long as I had that which was mine own to give, so long seemed I of worth unto them that were the lovers, not of myself, but of my gifts'.

Taking pity on her father, Cordelia crosses the Channel with her husband and his army, defeats her sisters, and restores Lear to his rightful throne, from which he rules Britain happily until his eventual death some years later.

No doubt Stanley Ho would prefer Monmouth's original ending to Shakespeare's gruesome tragedy.