This poem was first published in Other Lovers in 1993, one of Kay’s best-known collections of poetry. This particular collection explores familial relationships from the past and present. ‘Going to See King Lear’ is a great example of the poetry in this collection.
Explore Going to See King Lear
‘Going to See King Lear’ by Jackie Kay depicts a childhood experience that changed a young girl’s life.
In the first part of the poem, the speaker begins by describing how annoyed she is by the fact that she’s been dragged to see King Lear with her mother. It’s only her mother who has any interest in the show, and as the last few lines reveal, the speaker is only seven years old.
She’s irritated by all the people in the theatre and notes that she’s the only child there. It’s immediately clear that the mother is not paying good enough attention to her child and doesn’t notice when her daughter is traumatized by what’s going on in the play.
The main themes of this poem are childhood and family. The speaker describes a mother/daughter relationship and how it develops or changes when the two go to see Shakespeare’s play, King Lear. The daughter has a very different experience in the theatre from her mother. The latter doesn’t notice that her daughter doesn’t want to be there and is then traumatized by what she sees playing out on screen.
Structure and Form
‘Going to See King Lear’ by Jackie Kay is an eight-stanza poem that is divided into sets of seven lines, known as septets. These septets are written in free verse, meaning that the poet did not use a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern.
The poet creates a subtle transition from the first to the last stanza, as well. She writes with simple, child-like language in the first few stanzas but, after seeing the horrors of the play, the language becomes more sophisticated, hinting at the child growing up.
The poet uses a few literary devices, including:
- Sibilance: the repetition of the same “s” sound at the beginning of multiple words. For example, “smooth seat” in stanza one.
- Symbolism: the repetition of an image that reveals something about a literary text. In this case, the color green is used to represent greed. It’s seen in the mother’s eyes.
- Enjambment: occurs when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point. For example, the transition between lines five and six of stanza one.
- Personification: occurs when the poet imbues something nonhuman with human characteristics. For example, “tight bossy bun.”
On the big red smooth seat,
put me in such a bad mood:
In the first stanza of ‘Going to See King Lear,’ the speaker describes sitting in a theatre while watching King Lear, one of Shakespeare’s best-known tragedies. The poet intentionally chose King Lear as the play shares some familial similarities to what occurs in the speaker’s life (something that becomes clear as the poem progresses).
The speaker uses simple language in these first lines (something that changes later on in the poem as they experience the horrors of the play). The speaker describes her mother’s eyes as “greedy” and “gulping” down everything. This is metaphorical and physical. She’s physically eating and using her eyes to consume every image on the screen. The mother is very invested in the experience, and the speaker is not.
When the speaker looks around her, she feels like an outsider. The people in the rows in front of her put her in a “bad mood.”
sleek shining page-boy, snobby
in the hand or in the month.
The people around her in the theatre (who she judges based on the backs of their heads) are uptight, selfish, and irritating. She’s very agitated and unhappy about being in the theatre. She sees them as snobby and very different from herself. She sees her mom in the same light.
Things change in the next lines as the lights turn off, and the speaker is surrounded by darkness.
I am sitting with strangers,
for the trailer to end and
King Lear begin. No children,
The speaker discusses the people around her, saying that she’s surrounded by strangers in the dark, and they’re all experiencing the same things. They breathe in and out together and are waiting from one trailer to the next for the same thing—the main feature, the play King Lear, to begin. They are unified in a way that they weren’t before.
The speaker also makes it clear that she’s the only child in the theatre. The reason for this is that the play is incredibly graphic and dark and not suitable for children. But, the mother (in her “greed”) had to see the play and brought her young child with her.
except me, watching with mum,
with that.’ ( I think it was
The speaker is the only young child in the audience and is still paying closer attention to her mother than she is to the screen. She’s still annoyed by her mother’s interest in the show (and presumably lack of interest in her child). She describes her mother’s fury at Lear’s daughters and even how her mother spoke to the screen throughout the play, trying to urge the characters to do one thing or another.
Never in the entire poem does the mother check on her child or even look at her to make sure she’s okay.
Cordelia.) When the King Lear’s
hands over his helpless, scooped
There is a clear example of enjambment between stanzas four and five. It allows the speaker a moment to pause in order to remember “Cordelia’s” name. Suddenly, something terrible happens on screen. Gloucester gets his eyes gouged out, and it happens too quickly for the young speaker to turn away.
She saw it before she knew what she was seeing and was immediately traumatized by it. The language in these lines has grown more complicated than it was in the first lines, suggesting that this experience has aged the speaker and matured her in a way that she didn’t want.
That was good. That was so good
The play ends in stanza six after the speaker watches Gloucester get his second eye gouged out. The phrase “Vile jelly” comes straight from the play. The mother has a very different experience in the theatre than her child. She says, “That was good. That was so good” when the play ends, emphasizing the mother’s focus on the play and not her child. This is reiterated in line one of stanza seven.
Her eyes glint, green with pleasure.
all quiet. My mouth has fallen
In the first line of this stanza, the poet writes that the mother’s eyes were “green,” an indication of greed. She took pleasure in the show in a way that her child certainly did not.
The mother is very oblivious to her daughter’s feelings. The latter is learning about life in a terrible, shocking way, but all the mother has to say is, “What a good, good girl, sitting / all quiet.” She praises her daughter for sitting through the show quietly but doesn’t seem to realize how horrible the experience was for her.
open for good. It won’t close.
velvet curtains drawn open.
The final stanza of the poem continues the stream-of-consciousness style of the poem. The speaker is changed forever after the play. It’s only revealed in this stanza that the speaker is seven years old, a number that is meant to shock and surprise the reader.
She uses the phrase “Lear’s best friend” in line three of this stanza which further emphasizes how young she is. She’s probably thinking about her own best friend and seeing the same thing happen to this person.
Her world is falling apart around her, she says, and changing how she sees everything. By referencing the future at the end of the poem, she alludes to the fact that seeing the play changed her identity and helped make her into the person she is today. The phrase “velvet curtain drawn open” speaks about her true personality and identity being revealed.
The purpose is to speak about the changes one goes through in childhood and allude to challenging parent-child relationships. The speaker continually emphasizes how selfish it was of her mother to take her to see King Lear when she was only seven.
The main theme of this poem is childhood. The speaker was only seven years old when she saw the play. She clearly thinks it was too young and knows that she was negatively affected by the experience.
The tone is annoyed in the first few stanzas, but as the poem progresses, the speaker describes her situation in more sophisticated language that conveys an accepting tone of what she’s seen and experienced.
The poem ‘Going to See King Lear’ by Jackie Kay is about a young girl’s experience when her mother takes her to see a movie version of King Lear. It forces her to grow up in a way that she does not want.
Readers who enjoyed this poem should also consider reading some other Jackie Kay poems. For example:
- ‘Got You’ – a poem about sibling rivalry and friendship.
- ‘Love Nest’ – depicts the struggles of same-sex couples in England and Scotland in the 1980s.
- ‘My Grandmother’ – a poem about the speaker’s grandmother and the last years of her life.