‘Dunbar’ by Edward St. Aubyn – King Lear Comically Revisited


‘Dunbar’ by Edward St. Aubyn   (2017) – 244 pages

‘Dunbar’ is a pastiche on ‘King Lear’ that is a lot of fun. Instead of a King, we have a media mogul. Edward St. Aubyn writes under the reasonable premise that the world media owner families of today are at least as ruthless, petty, and cruel as the ancient royal families of yesteryear. Think Rupert Murdoch.

King Lear is considered one of the most depressing tragedies ever written, depressing even for a Shakespeare tragedy. St. Aubyn turns King Lear from a tragedy into an over-the-top comedy.  We realize from his Patrick Melrose series of novels that St. Aubyn knows just how dysfunctional and flat out crazy some of these aristocratic families can be.  In ‘Dunbar’ he has perfectly captured the lust for power and the wretched behavior of the super wealthy and privileged.

Old man Dunbar as a media king was the high priest of tabloid entertainment for the masses. Now he has just had his lofty position in his media empire swiped from him by his two elder daughters, and they have stuck him away in a remote sanatorium in the Lake District in rural England.

“They stole my empire and now they send me stinking lilies.”


The older daughters outdid themselves professing their great love for their father. The youngest daughter refused to play that game, so Dunbar in a rage disinherited her, a bad move because she is the only one who truly loves him. From the beginning, the two older daughters are portrayed as having an evil wickedness that knows no bounds.

St. Aubyn is one of those authors who understand it is not a novel’s final destination that matters but instead the joys and jests and other acute feelings we experience along the way that matter.  The story is played for laughs, but I suppose it also does contain its share of truth. Edward St. Aubyn is rapidly becoming one of my favorite fiction writers.  There is a verve to his individual sentences that carries the tale. Take this sentence from when Dunbar escapes from the care home into the pastoral moorland of the Midlands:

“The white noise of rushing water helped to camouflage the anxious murmur of his thoughts.” 

Here one of the few quiet moments in the novel is well captured. The humor early on is helped along by Peter who is a drunk but sharp-tongued comedian who plays the Fool in the story.

‘Dunbar’ would be an excellent zany novel even without the shadow of King Lear.


Grade:   A 


4 responses to this post.

  1. Hmmm. I love King Lear, it’s my favourite Shakespeare. I’m not sure that I’m ready to see it subverted…
    But maybe I’m being stuffy. I’ll keep an eye out for this at the library!

    Liked by 1 person


    • Hi Lisa,
      I don’t believe Edward St. Aubyn is subverting King Lear but instead putting it in a modern context to show that the situation applies as much today as to its historical time. I think the novel helped my appreciation for Shakespeare rather than hindered it.
      My Shakespeare favorite is Hamlet.



  2. It sounds excellent, and I say that even though unlike Lisa King Lear is probably my least favourite Shakespeare (he worked for you for twenty years, how can you not recognise him? He’s just changed his clothes for god’s sake!).

    It doesn’t sound like subversion. It sounds like homage and interpretation, but born from an affection I personally lack. Still, St Aubyn certainly can write can’t he? As your quote demonstrates.

    I don’t much like Hamlet either. Macbeth probably for me, failing which either The Tempest or Twelfth Night.

    Liked by 1 person


    • Hi Max,
      Probably my favorite modern pastiche of Shakespeare is a movie ‘Smiles of a Summer Night’ which was made by Ingmar Bergman in 1955 and is based om ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, sort of.
      ‘Dunbar’ was also great though. An old cutthroat like Rupert Murdoch finds out that he’s raised his kids to be at least as cutthroat as he is, and they kick him out. Too bad it didn’t happen in Murdoch’s case. Perhaps we here in the US would not have been stuck with lying Fox News that way.
      I am now at the point where I will read anything Edward St. Aubyn writes.



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