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King Lear is a tragedy by William Shakespeare. The title character descends into madness after disposing of his estate between two of his three daughters based on their flattery, bringing tragic consequences for all. The play is based on the legend of Leir of Britain, a mythological pre-Roman Celtic king. It has been widely adapted for the stage and motion pictures, and the role of Lear has been coveted and played by many of the world's most accomplished actors.
The play was written between 1603 and 1606 and later revised. Shakespeare's earlier version, The True Chronicle of the History of the Life and Death of King Lear and His Three Daughters, was published in quarto in 1608. The Tragedy of King Lear, a more theatrical version, was included in the 1623 First Folio. Modern editors usually conflate the two, though some insist that each version has its individual integrity that should be preserved.
After the Restoration, the play was often revised with a happy ending for audiences who disliked its dark and depressing tone, but since the 19th century Shakespeare's original version has been regarded as one of his supreme achievements. The tragedy is particularly noted for its probing observations on the nature of human suffering and kinship. George Bernard Shaw wrote, "No man will ever write a better tragedy than Lear".
In the first scene the Earl of Gloucester and the Earl of Kent meet and observe that the King, Lear, has awarded equal shares of his realm to the Duke of Cornwall and the Duke of Albany (and this even before the formal division of the next scene has taken place). Then the Earl of Gloucester introduces his illegitimate son Edmund to the Earl of Kent. In the next scene, King Lear, who is elderly and wants to retire from power, decides to divide his realm among his three daughters, and declares he'll offer the largest share to the one who loves him best. The eldest, Goneril, speaks first, declaring her love for her father in fulsome terms. Moved by her flattery Lear proceeds to grant to Goneril her share as soon as she's finished her declaration, before Regan and Cordelia have a chance to speak. He then awards to Regan her share as soon as she has spoken. When it is finally the turn of his youngest daughter, Cordelia, at first she refuses to say anything ("Nothing, my Lord") and then declares there is nothing to compare her love to, nor words to properly express it; she speaks honestly but bluntly, which infuriates him. In his anger he disinherits Cordelia and divides her share between Regan and Goneril. Kent objects to this unfair treatment. Enraged by Kent's protests, Lear banishes him from the country. Lear summons the Duke of Burgundy and the King of France, who have both proposed marriage to Cordelia. Learning that Cordelia has been disinherited, the Duke of Burgundy withdraws his suit, but the King of France is impressed by her honesty and marries her anyway.
Lear announces he will live alternately with Goneril and Regan, and their husbands, the Dukes of Albany and Cornwall respectively. He reserves to himself a retinue of one hundred knights, to be supported by his daughters. Goneril and Regan speak privately, revealing that their declarations of love were fake, and they view Lear as an old and foolish man.
Edmund resents his illegitimate status, and plots to dispose of his legitimate older brother Edgar. He tricks their father Gloucester with a forged letter, making him think Edgar plans to usurp the estate. Kent returns from exile in disguise under the name of Caius, and Lear hires him as a servant. Lear and Kent-as-Caius enter into a quarrel with Oswald, Goneril's steward. Lear discovers that now that Goneril has power, she no longer respects him. She orders him to behave better and reduces his retinue. Enraged, Lear departs for Regan's home. The Fool mocks Lear's misfortune.
Edmund learns from Curan that there is likely to be war between Albany and Cornwall, and that Regan and Cornwall are to arrive at Gloucester's house that evening. Taking advantage of the arrival of the duke and Regan, Edmund fakes an attack by Edgar, and Gloucester is completely taken in. He disinherits Edgar and proclaims him an outlaw.
Bearing Lear's message to Regan, Kent-as-Caius meets Oswald again at Gloucester's home, quarrels with him again, and is put in the stocks by Regan and her husband Cornwall. When Lear arrives, he objects to the mistreatment of his messenger, but Regan is as dismissive of her father as Goneril was. Lear is enraged but impotent. Goneril arrives and supports Regan's argument against him. Lear yields completely to his rage. He rushes out into a storm to rant against his ungrateful daughters, accompanied by the mocking Fool. Kent later follows to protect him. Gloucester protests against Lear's mistreatment. Lear's retinue of a hundred knights has dissolved. Thereafter no more is heard of any of them. The only companions Lear has left are his Fool and Kent-as-Caius. Wandering on the heath after the storm, Lear meets Edgar, in the guise of a madman named Tom o'Bedlam. Edgar babbles madly while Lear denounces his daughters. Kent leads them all to shelter.
Edmund betrays Gloucester to Cornwall, Regan, and Goneril. He shows a letter from his father to the King of France asking for help against them; and in fact a French army has landed in Britain. Once Edmund leaves with Goneril to warn Albany about the invasion, Gloucester is arrested, and Cornwall gouges out Gloucester's eyes. As he is doing so, a servant is overcome with rage by what he is witnessing and attacks Cornwall, mortally wounding him. Regan kills the servant, and tells Gloucester that Edmund betrayed him; then she turns him out to wander the heath too. Edgar, in his madman's guise, meets his blinded father on the heath. Gloucester, not recognising him, begs Tom to lead him to a cliff at Dover so that he may jump to his death.
Goneril discovers that she finds Edmund more attractive than her honest husband Albany, whom she regards as cowardly. Albany has developed a conscience - he is disgusted by the sisters' treatment of Lear, and the mutilation of Gloucester, and denounces his wife. Goneril sends Edmund back to Regan; receiving news of Cornwall's death, she fears her newly widowed sister may steal Edmund and sends him a letter through Oswald. By now alone with Lear (Lear's Fool has completely vanished from and does not reappear in the play) Kent leads him to the French army, which is commanded by Cordelia. But Lear is half-mad and terribly embarrassed by his earlier follies. At Regan's instigation, Albany joins his forces with hers against the French. Goneril's suspicions about Regan's motives are confirmed and returned, as Regan rightly guesses the meaning of her letter and declares to Oswald that she is a more appropriate match for Edmund. Edgar pretends to lead Gloucester to a cliff, then changes his voice and tells Gloucester he has miraculously survived a great fall. Lear appears, by now completely mad. He rants that the whole world is corrupt and runs off.
Oswald appears, still looking for Edmund. On Regan's orders, he tries to kill Gloucester but is killed by Edgar. In Oswald's pocket, Edgar finds Goneril's letter, in which she encourages Edmund to kill her husband and take her as his wife. Kent and Cordelia take charge of Lear, whose madness slowly passes. Regan, Goneril, Albany, and Edmund meet with their forces. Albany insists that they fight the French invaders but not harm Lear or Cordelia. The two sisters lust for Edmund, who has made promises to both. He considers the dilemma and plots the deaths of Albany, Lear, and Cordelia. Edgar gives Goneril's letter to Albany. The armies meet in battle, the British defeat the French, and Lear and Cordelia are captured. Oddly enough Kent has disappeared from before the battle and nothing is said of his part in it, even though he was supposed to be with the French army. Edmund sends Lear and Cordelia off with secret orders for the execution of Cordelia.
The victorious British leaders meet, and the recently widowed Regan now declares she will marry Edmund. But Albany exposes the intrigues of Edmund and Goneril and proclaims Edmund a traitor. Regan falls ill, and is escorted offstage, where she dies. It is stated that Goneril slipped poison into her food. Edmund defies Albany, who calls for a trial by combat. Edgar appears masked and in armor, and challenges Edmund to a duel. No one knows who he is. Edgar wounds Edmund fatally, though he does not die immediately. Albany confronts Goneril with the letter which was intended to be his death warrant; she flees in shame and rage. Edgar reveals himself, and reports that Gloucester died offstage from the shock and joy of learning that Edgar is alive, after Edgar revealed himself to his father.
Offstage, Goneril, with all her evil plans thwarted, commits suicide. The dying Edmund decides, though he admits it is against his own character, to try and save Lear and Cordelia; however, his confession comes too late. Soon after Albany sends men to countermand Edmund's orders, Lear enters bearing Cordelia's corpse in his arms, having survived by killing the executioner. Kent suddenly reenters with no explanation as to what he had done and where he had been all this time. (As stated above, Kent disappears before the battle and nothing is said as to the part he takes in it or his fate after it). Lear now recognizes Kent, but fails to make the connection between Kent and his alter-ego, Caius. Albany urges Lear to resume his throne, but like Gloucester, the trials Lear has been through have finally overwhelmed him, and he dies. Albany then asks Kent and Edgar to take charge of the throne. Kent declines, explaining that his master is calling him on a journey. It is unclear whether Kent intends to commit suicide, following Lear into death, or feels he is going to die in the same manner as Lear and Gloucester. Finally, either Albany (in the Quarto version) or Edgar (in the Folio version) has the final speech, with the implication that he will now become king.
Shakespeare's play is based on various accounts of the semi-legendary Brythonic figure Leir of Britain, whose name has been linked by some scholars to the Brythonic god Lir/Llŷr, though in actuality the names are not etymologically related. Shakespeare's most important source is probably the second edition of The Chronicles of England, Scotlande, and Irelande by Raphael Holinshed, published in 1587. Holinshed himself found the story in the earlier Historia Regum Britanniae by Geoffrey of Monmouth, that was written in the 12th century. Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene, published 1590, also contains a character named Cordelia, who also dies from hanging, as in King Lear.
Other possible sources are the anonymous play King Leir (published in 1605); A Mirror for Magistrates (1574), by John Higgins; The Malcontent (1604), by John Marston; The London Prodigal (1605); Arcadia (1580–1590), by Sir Philip Sidney, from which Shakespeare took the main outline of the Gloucester subplot; Montaigne's Essays, which were translated into English by John Florio in 1603; An Historical Description of Iland of Britaine, by William Harrison; Remaines Concerning Britaine, by William Camden (1606); Albion's England, by William Warner, (1589); and A Declaration of egregious Popish Impostures, by Samuel Harsnett (1603), which provided some of the language used by Edgar while he feigns madness. King Lear is also a literary variant of a common fairy tale, Love Like Salt, Aarne-Thompson type 923, in which a father rejects his youngest daughter for a statement of her love that does not please him.
The source of the subplot involving Gloucester, Edgar, and Edmund is a tale in Philip Sidney's Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia, with a blind Paphlagonian king and his two sons, Leonatus and Plexitrus.
Besides the subplot involving the Earl of Gloucester and his sons, the principal innovation Shakespeare made to this story was the death of Cordelia and Lear at the end. During the 18th and 19th centuries, this tragic ending was much criticised and alternative versions were written and performed, in which the leading characters survived and Edgar and Cordelia were married (despite the fact that Cordelia was already betrothed to the King of France).
Although an exact date of composition cannot be given, many academic editors of the play date King Lear between 1603 and 1606. The latest it could have been written is 1606, as the Stationers' Register notes a performance on 26 December 1606. The 1603 date originates from words in Edgar's speeches which may derive from Samuel Harsnett's Declaration of Egregious Popish Impostures (1603). In his Arden edition, R.A. Foakes argues for a date of 1605–6, because one of Shakespeare's sources, The True Chronicle History of King Leir, was not published until 1605; close correspondences between that play and Shakespeare's suggest that he may have been working from a text (rather than from recollections of a performance). Conversely, Frank Kermode, in the Riverside Shakespeare, considers the publication of Leir to have been a response to performances of Shakespeare's already-written play; noting a sonnet by William Strachey that may have verbal resemblances with Lear, Kermode concludes that "1604-5 seems the best compromise". Dr. Naseeb Shaheen dates the play c1605-6 per line 1.2.103 "These late eclipses in the sun and moon" which relates to the lunar eclipse of September 27, 1605 and the solar eclipse of October 2, 1605.
The modern text of King Lear derives from three sources: two quartos, published in 1608 (Q1) and 1619 (Q2) respectively, and the version in the First Folio of 1623 (F1). The differences between these versions are significant. Q1 contains 285 lines not in F1; F1 contains around 100 lines not in Q1. Also, at least a thousand individual words are changed between the two texts, each text has a completely different style of punctuation, and about half the verse lines in the F1 are either printed as prose or differently divided in the Q1. The early editors, beginning with Alexander Pope, simply conflated the two texts, creating the modern version that has remained nearly universal for centuries. The conflated version is born from the presumption that Shakespeare wrote only one original manuscript, now unfortunately lost, and that the Quarto and Folio versions are distortions of that original.
As early as 1931, Madeleine Doran suggested that the two texts had basically different provenances, and that these differences between them were critically interesting. This argument, however, was not widely discussed until the late 1970s, when it was revived, principally by Michael Warren and Gary Taylor. Their thesis, while controversial, has gained significant acceptance. It posits, essentially, that the Quarto derives from something close to Shakespeare's foul papers, and the Folio is drawn in some way from a promptbook, prepared for production by Shakespeare's company or someone else. In short, Q1 is "authorial"; F1 is "theatrical." In criticism, the rise of "revision criticism" has been part of the pronounced trend away from mid-century formalism. The New Cambridge Shakespeare has published separate editions of Q and F; the most recent Pelican Shakespeare edition contains both the 1608 Quarto and the 1623 Folio text as well as a conflated version; the New Arden edition edited by R.A. Foakes is not the only recent edition to offer the traditional conflated text.
The words "nature," "natural" and "unnatural" occur over forty times in the play. There was a debate in Shakespeare’s time about what nature really was like, a debate that pervades the play and finds symbolic expression in Lear’s changing attitude to Thunder. John F. Danby, in his Shakespeare’s Doctrine of Nature – A Study of King Lear (1949), argues that Lear dramatises, among other things, the current meanings of "Nature." There are two strongly contrasting views of Nature in the play: that of the Lear party (Lear, Gloucester, Albany, Kent), exemplifying the philosophy of Bacon and Hooker, and that of the Edmund party (Edmund, Cornwall, Goneril, Regan), akin to the views later formulated by Hobbes. Along with the two views of Nature, Lear contains two views of Reason, brought out in Gloucester and Edmund’s speeches on astrology (1.2). The rationality of the Edmund party is one with which a modern audience more readily identifies. But the Edmund party carries bold rationalism to such extremes that it becomes madness: a madness-in-reason, the ironic counterpart of Lear’s "reason in madness" (IV.6.190) and the Fool’s wisdom-in-folly. This betrayal of reason lies behind the play’s later emphasis on feeling.
The two Natures and the two Reasons imply two societies. Edmund is the New Man, a member of an age of competition, suspicion, glory, in contrast with the older society which has come down from the Middle Ages, with its belief in co-operation, reasonable decency, and respect for the whole as greater than the part. King Lear is thus an allegory. The older society, that of the medieval vision, with its doting king, falls into error, and is threatened by the new machiavellianism; it is regenerated and saved by a vision of a new order, embodied in the king’s rejected daughter. Cordelia, in the allegorical scheme, is threefold: a person; an ethical principle (love); and a community. Nevertheless, Shakespeare’s understanding of the New Man is so extensive as to amount almost to sympathy. Edmund is the last great expression in Shakespeare of that side of Renaissance individualism – the energy, the emancipation, the courage – which has made a positive contribution to the heritage of the West. "He embodies something vital which a final synthesis must reaffirm. But he makes an absolute claim which Shakespeare will not support. It is right for man to feel, as Edmund does, that society exists for man, not man for society. It is not right to assert the kind of man Edmund would erect to this supremacy."
The play offers an alternative to the feudal-machiavellian polarity, an alternative foreshadowed in France’s speech (I.1.245–256), in Lear and Gloucester’s prayers (III.4. 28–36; IV.1.61–66), and in the figure of Cordelia. Until the decent society is achieved, we are meant to take as role-model (though qualified by Shakespearean ironies) Edgar, "the machiavel of goodness," endurance, courage and "ripeness."
Since there are no literal mothers in King Lear, Coppélia Kahn provides a psychoanalytic interpretation of the "maternal subtext" found in the play. According to Kahn, Lear in his old age regresses to an infantile disposition, and now seeks for a love that is normally satisfied by a mothering woman. Her characterisation of Lear is that of a child being mothered, but without real mothers, his children become the daughter-mother figures. Lear’s contest of love serves as the binding agreement; his daughters will get their inheritance provided they care for him, especially Cordelia, whose "kind nursery" he will greatly depend on. Her refusal to love him more than a father is often interpreted as a resistance from incest, but Kahn also inserts the image of a rejecting mother. The situation is now a reversal of parent-child roles, in which Lear’s madness is essentially a childlike rage from being deprived of maternal care. Even when Lear and Cordelia are captured together, this madness persists as Lear envisions a nursery in prison, where Cordelia’s sole existence is for him. However, it is Cordelia’s death that ultimately ends his fantasy of a daughter-mother, as the play ends with only male characters left.
Sigmund Freud asserted that Cordelia symbolises Death. Therefore, when the play begins with Lear rejecting his daughter, it can be interpreted as him rejecting death; Lear is unwilling to face the finitude of his being. The play’s poignant ending scene, wherein Lear carries the body of his beloved Cordelia, was of great importance to Freud. In this scene, she causes in Lear a realisation of his finitude, or as Freud put it, she causes him to "make friends with the necessity of dying". It is logical to infer that Shakespeare had special intentions with Cordelia’s death, as he was the only writer to have Cordelia killed (in the version by the anonymous author, she continues to live happily, and in Holinshed’s, she restores her father and succeeds him).
The play opens with a formal ceremony in which King Lear seemingly divides his kingdom among his daughters according to their avowals of their love for him. If this were a test, it would make most sense for Lear to hear out all three daughters before starting to divide the kingdom. David Ball posits an alternative interpretation. He bases this analysis on the conversation between Kent and Gloucester which are the first seven lines of the play and serve to help the audience understand the context of the drama about to unfold.
Ball interprets this statement to mean that the court already knows how the King is going to divide his kingdom; that the outcome of the ceremony is already decided and publicly known. Nor do Kent and Gloucester express the slightest surprise about the division.
Alternatively, it has been suggested that the King's "contest" has more to do with his control over the unmarried Cordelia.
The adaptations that Shakespeare made to the legend of King Lear to produce his tragic version are quite telling of the effect they would have had on his contemporary audience. The story of King Lear was familiar to the average English Renaissance theatre goer (as were many of Shakespeare's sources) and any discrepancies between versions would have been immediately apparent.
Shakespeare's tragic conclusion gains its sting from such a discrepancy. The traditional legend and all adaptations preceding Shakespeare's have it that after Lear is restored to the throne, he remains there until "made ripe for death" (Edmund Spenser). Cordelia, her sisters also dead, takes the throne as rightful heir, but after a few years is overthrown and imprisoned by nephews, leading to her suicide.
Shakespeare shocks his audience by bringing the worn and haggard Lear onto the stage, carrying his dead youngest daughter. He taunts them with the possibility that she may live yet with Lear saying, "This feather stirs; she lives!" But Cordelia's death is soon confirmed.
This was indeed too bleak for some to take, even many years later. King Lear was at first unsuccessful on the Restoration stage, and it was only with Nahum Tate's happy-ending version of 1681 that it became part of the repertory. Tate's Lear, in which Lear survives and triumphs, the fool is completely omitted, and Edgar and Cordelia get married, held the stage until 1838 when British actor and manager William Macready insisted on restoring both the Fool and the tragic ending. Samuel Johnson endorsed the use of Tate's version in his edition of Shakespeare's plays (1765): "Cordelia, from the time of Tate, has always retired with victory and felicity. And, if my sensations could add anything to the general suffrage, I might relate that I was many years ago so shocked by Cordelia's death, that I know not whether I ever endured to read again the last scenes of the play till I undertook to revise them as an editor."
The Fool, important in the first half of the play, disappears without explanation in the third act. A popular explanation for the Fool's disappearance is that the actor playing the Fool also played Cordelia. The two characters are never on stage simultaneously, and dual-roling was common in Shakespeare's time. However, the Fool would have been played by Robert Armin, the regular clown actor of Shakespeare's company, who is unlikely to have been cast as a tragic heroine. Even so, the play does ask us to at least compare the two; Lear chides Cordelia for foolishness in Act I; chides himself as equal in folly in Act V; and as he holds the dead Cordelia in the final scene, says, "And my poor fool is hanged" ("fool" could be taken as either a direct reference to the Fool, or an affectionate reference to Cordelia herself, or it could refer to both the Fool and Cordelia). Furthermore, it is worth noting that in the 19th century it became popular for the Fool to be played by an actress, which emphasized the similarity between the Fool and Cordelia (although the same actress did not necessarily play Cordelia). Likely, the decision was an effort to reconcile 19th-century artistic expectations with Shakespeare's seemingly conflicted elements—at the beginning of rehearsals for Macready's 1838 production, the manager wrote despairingly of fitting the fool into his play: "[my] opinion of the introduction of the Fool is that, like many such terrible contrasts in poetry and painting, in acting representation, it will fail of effect." Several days later, Macready fired the actor who was playing the Fool and attempted to reconcile the "terrible contrasts" by casting a woman in the role.
Critics are strongly divided on the question of whether or not King Lear represents an affirmation of Christian doctrine. Among those who argue that Lear is redeemed in the Christian sense through suffering are A. C. Bradley and John Reibetanz, who has written: "through his sufferings, Lear has won an enlightened soul". Other critics who find no evidence of redemption and emphasize the horrors of the final act include John Holloway and Marvin Rosenberg. William R. Elton stresses the pre-Christian setting of the play, writing that, "Lear fulfills the criteria for pagan behavior in life," falling "into total blasphemy at the moment of his irredeemable loss".
Shakespeare wrote the role of Lear for his company's chief tragedian, Richard Burbage, for whom Shakespeare was writing incrementally older characters as their careers progressed. It has been speculated either that the role of the Fool was written for the company's clown Robert Armin, or that it was written for performance by one of the company's boys, doubling the role of Cordelia. Only one specific performance of the play during Shakespeare's lifetime is known: before the court of King James I at Whitehall on 26 December 1606. Its original performances would have been at The Globe, where there were no sets in the modern sense, and characters would have signified their roles visually with props and costumes: Lear's costume, for example, would have changed in the course of the play as his status diminished: commencing in crown and regalia; then as a huntsman; raging bareheaded in the storm scene; and finally crowned with flowers in parody of his original status.
All theatres were closed down by the Puritan government on 6 September 1642. Upon the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, two patent companies (the King's Company and the Duke's Company) were established, and the existing theatrical repertoire divided between them. And from the restoration until the mid-19th century the performance history of King Lear is not the story of Shakespeare's version, but instead of The History of King Lear, a popular adaptation by Nahum Tate. Its most significant deviations from Shakespeare were to omit the Fool entirely, to introduce a happy ending in which Lear and Cordelia survive, and to develop a love story between Cordelia and Edgar (two characters who never interact in Shakespeare) which ends with their marriage. Like most Restoration adapters of Shakespeare, Tate admired Shakespeare’s natural genius but saw fit to augment his work with contemporary standards of art (which were largely guided by the neoclassical unities of time, place, and action). Tate’s struggle to strike a balance between raw nature and refined art is apparent in his description of the tragedy: “a heap of jewels, unstrung and unpolish't; yet so dazzling in their disorder, that I soon perceiv'd I had seiz'd a treasure." Other changes included giving Cordelia a confidante named Arante, bringing the play closer to contemporary notions of poetic justice, and added titilating material such as amorous encounters between Edmund and both Regan and Goneril, a scene in which Edgar rescues Cordelia from Edmund's attempted kidnap and rape, and a scene in which Cordelia wears men’s pants that would reveal the actress’s ankles. The play ends with a celebration of "the King's blest Restauration", an obvious reference to Charles II.
In the early 18th century, some writers began to express objections to this (and other) Restoration adaptations of Shakespeare. For example, in The Spectator on 16 April 1711 Joseph Addison wrote "King Lear is an admirable Tragedy ... as Shakespeare wrote it; but as it is reformed according to the chymerical Notion of poetical Justice in my humble Opinion it hath lost half its Beauty." Yet on the stage, Tate's version prevailed.
David Garrick was the first actor-manager to begin to cut back on elements of Tate's adaptation in favour of Shakespeare's original: he retained Tate's major changes, including the happy ending, but removed many of Tate's lines, including Edgar's closing speech. He also reduced the prominence of the Edgar-Cordelia love story, in order to focus more on the relationship between Lear and his daughters. His version had a powerful emotional impact: Lear driven to madness by his daughters was (in the words of one spectator, Arthur Murphy) "the finest tragic distress ever seen on any stage" and, in contrast, the devotion shown to Lear by Cordelia (a mix of Shakespeare's, Tate's and Garrick's contributions to the part) moved the audience to tears.
The first professional performances of King Lear in North America are likely to have been those of the Hallam Company (later the American Company) which arrived in Virginia in 1752 and who counted the play among their repertoire by the time of their departure for Jamaica in 1774.
Charles Lamb established the Romantics' attitude to King Lear in his 1811 essay "On the Tragedies of Shakespeare, considered with reference to their fitness for stage representation" where he says that the play "is essentially impossible to be represented on the stage", preferring to experience it in the study. In the theatre, he argues, "to see Lear acted, to see an old man tottering about the stage with a walking-stick, turned out of doors by his daughters on a rainy night, has nothing in it but what is painful and disgusting" yet "while we read it, we see not Lear but we are Lear, – we are in his mind, we are sustained by a grandeur which baffles the malice of daughters and storms."
King Lear was politically controversial during the period of George III's madness, and as a result was not performed at all in the two professional theatres of London from 1811 to 1820: but was then the subject of major productions in both, within three months of his death. The 19th century saw the gradual reintroduction of Shakespeare's text to displace Tate's version. Like Garrick before him, John Philip Kemble had introduced more of Shakespeare's text, while still preserving the three main elements of Tate's version: the love story, the omission of the Fool, and the happy ending. Edmund Kean played King Lear with its tragic ending in 1823, but failed and reverted to Tate's crowd-pleaser after only three performances. At last in 1838 William Macready at Covent Garden performed Shakespeare's version, freed from Tate's adaptions. The restored character of the Fool was played by an actress, Priscilla Horton, as, in the words of one spectator, "a fragile, hectic, beautiful-faced, half-idiot-looking boy." And Helen Faucit's final appearance as Cordelia, dead in her father's arms, became one of the most iconic of Victorian images. John Forster, writing in the Examiner on 14 February 1838, expressed the hope that "Mr Macready's success has banished that disgrace [Tate's version] from the stage for ever." But even this version was not close to Shakespeare's: the 19th-century actor-managers heavily cut Shakespeare's scripts: ending scenes on big "curtain effects" and reducing or eliminating supporting roles to give greater prominence to the star. One of Macready's innovations – the use of Stonehenge-like structures on stage to indicate an ancient setting – proved enduring on stage into the 20th century, and can be seen in the 1983 television version starring Laurence Olivier.
In 1843, the Act for Regulating the Theatres came into force, bringing an end to the monopolies of the two existing companies and, by doing so, increased the number of theatres in London. At the same time, the fashion in theatre was "pictorial": valuing visual spectacle above plot or characterisation and often required lengthy (and time consuming) scene changes. For example, Henry Irving's 1892 King Lear offered spectacles such as Lear's death beneath a cliff at Dover, his face lit by the red glow of a setting sun; at the expense of cutting 46% of the text, including the blinding of Gloucester. But Irving's production clearly evoked strong emotions: one spectator, Gordon Crosse, wrote of the first entrance of Lear, "a striking figure with masses of white hair. He is leaning on a huge scabbarded sword which he raises with a wild cry in answer to the shouted greeting of his guards. His gait, his looks, his gestures, all reveal the noble, imperious mind already degenerating into senile irritability under the coming shocks of grief and age."
The importance of pictorialism to Irving, and to other theatre professionals of the Victorian era, is exemplified by the fact that Irving had used Ford Madox Brown's painting Cordelia’s Portion as the inspiration for the look of his production, and that the artist himself was brought in to provide sketches for the settings of other scenes. A reaction against pictorialism came with the rise of reconstructive movement, believers in a simple style of staging more similar to that which would have pertained in renaissance theatres, whose chief early exponent was the actor-manager William Poel. Poel was influenced by a performance of King Lear directed by Jocza Savits at the Hoftheater in Munich in 1890, set on an apron stage with a three-tier Globe-like reconstruction theatre as its backdrop. Poel would use this same configuration for his own Shakespearean performances in 1893.
The character of Lear in the 19th century was often that of a frail old man from the opening scene, but Lears of the 20th century often began the play as strong men displaying regal authority, including John Gielgud, Donald Wolfit and Donald Sinden. Cordelia, also, evolved in the 20th century: earlier Cordelias had often been praised for being sweet, innocent and modest, but 20th-century Cordelias were often portrayed as war leaders. For example, Peggy Ashcroft, at the RST in 1950, played the role in a breastplate and carrying a sword. Similarly, the Fool evolved through the course of the century, with portrayals often deriving from the music hall or circus tradition.
By mid-century, the actor-manager tradition had declined, to be replaced by a structure where the major theatre companies employed professional directors as auteurs. The last of the great actor-managers, Donald Wolfit, played Lear on a Stonehenge-like set in 1944 and was praised by James Agate as "the greatest piece of Shakespearean acting since I have been privileged to write for the Sunday Times". Wolfit supposedly drank eight bottles of Guinness in the course of each performance.
At Stratford-upon-Avon in 1962, Peter Brook (who would later film the play with the same Lear, Paul Scofield) set the action simply, against a huge, empty white stage. The effect of the scene where Lear and Gloucester meet, two tiny figures in rags in the midst of this emptiness, was said (by the scholar Roger Warren) to catch "both the human pathos ... and the universal scale ... of the scene."
In 1974, Buzz Goodbody directed Lear, a deliberately abbreviated title for Shakespeare's text, as the inaugural production of the RSC's studio theatre The Other Place. The performance was conceived as a chamber piece, the small intimate space and proximity to the audience enabled detailed psychological acting, which was performed with simple sets and in modern dress. Peter Holland has speculated that this company/directoral decision – namely choosing to present Shakespeare in a small venue for artistic reasons when a larger venue was available – may at the time have been unprecedented.
Brook's vision of the play proved influential, and directors have gone further in presenting Lear as (in the words of R. A. Foakes) "a pathetic senior citizen trapped in a violent and hostile environment". When John Wood took the role in 1990, he played the later scenes in clothes that looked like cast-offs, inviting deliberate parallels with the uncared-for in modern Western societies. Indeed, modern productions of Shakespeare's plays often reflect the world in which they are performed as much as the world for which they were written: and the Moscow theatre scene in 1994 provided an example, when two very different productions of the play (those by Sergei Zhonovach and Alexei Borodin), very different from one another in their style and outlook, were both reflections on the break-up of the Soviet Union.
Like other Shakespearean tragedies, King Lear has proved amenable to conversion into other theatrical traditions. In 1989, David McRuvie and Iyyamkode Sreedharan adapted the play then translated it to Malayalam, for performance in Kerala in the Kathakali tradition – which itself developed around 1600, contemporary with Shakespeare's writing. The show later went on tour, and in 2000 played at Shakespeare's Globe, completing (in Anthony Dawson's words) "a kind of symbolic circle". Perhaps even more radical was Ong Keng Sen's 1997 adaptation of King Lear, which featured six actors each performing in a separate Asian acting tradition and in their own separate languages. A pivotal moment occurred when the Jingju performer playing Older Daughter (a conflation of Goneril and Regan) stabbed the Noh-performed Lear whose "falling pine" deadfall, straight face-forward into the stage, astonished the audience, in what Yong Li Lan describes as a "triumph through the moving power of noh performance at the very moment of his character's defeat".
A number of women have played male roles in King Lear; most commonly the Fool, who has been played (among others) by Judy Davis and Emma Thompson but also, significantly, Lear himself, played by Marianne Hoppe in 1990 and by Kathryn Hunter in 1996-7. Marcia Gay Harden plays Lear in the few scenes of the play-within-the-film If I Were You.
In 2012, Peter Hinton directed an all-First Nations production of King Lear at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, with the setting changed to an Algonquin nation in the 17th century. The cast included August Schellenberg as Lear, Billy Merasty as Gloucester, Tantoo Cardinal as Regan, Kevin Loring as Edmund, Jani Lauzon in a dual role as Cordelia and the Fool, and Craig Lauzon as Kent.
The first film of King Lear was a five-minute German version made around 1905, which has not survived. The oldest extant version is a ten-minute studio-based version from 1909 by Vitagraph, which made (in Luke McKernan's words) the "ill-advised" decision to attempt to cram in as much of the plot as possible. Two silent versions, both titled Re Lear, were made in Italy in 1910. Of these, the version by director Gerolamo Lo Savio was filmed on location, and it dropped the Edgar sub-plot and used frequent intertitling to make the plot easier to follow than its Vitagraph predecessor. A contemporary setting was used for Louis Feuillade's 1911 French adaptation Le Roi Lear Au Village, and in 1914 in America, Ernest Warde expanded the story to an hour, including spectacles such as a final battle scene.
The only two significant big-screen performances of Shakespeare's text date from the early 1970s: Grigori Kozintsev was working on his Korol Lir at the same time as Peter Brook was filming his King Lear. Brook's film starkly divided the critics: Pauline Kael said "I didn't just dislike this production, I hated it!" and suggested the alternative title "Night of the Living Dead". Yet Robert Hatch in The Nation thought it as "excellent a filming of the play as one can expect" and Vincent Canby in The New York Times called it "an exalting Lear, full of exquisite terror". The film drew heavily on the ideas of Jan Kott, in particular his observation that King Lear was the precursor of absurdist theatre: in particular, the film has parallels with Beckett's Endgame. Critics who dislike the film particularly draw attention to its bleak nature from its opening: complaining that the world of the play does not deteriorate with Lear's suffering, but commences dark, colourless and wintry, leaving (in Douglas Brode's words) "Lear, the land, and us with nowhere to go". Cruelty pervades the film, which does not distinguish between the violence of ostensibly good and evil characters, presenting both savagely. Paul Scofield, as Lear, eschews sentimentality: this demanding old man with a coterie of unruly knights provokes audience sympathy for the daughters in the early scenes, and his presentation explicitly rejects the tradition (as Daniel Rosenthal describes it) of playing Lear as "poor old white-haired patriarch".
By contrast, Korol Lir has been praised, for example by critic Anikst Alexander, for the "serious, deeply thoughtful" even "philosophical approach" of director Grigori Kozintsev and writer Boris Pasternak. Making a thinly veiled criticism of Brook in the process, Alexander praised the fact that there were "no attempts at sensationalism, no efforts to 'modernise' Shakespeare by introducing Freudian themes, Existentialist ideas, eroticism, or sexual perversion. [Kozintsev]... has simply made a film of Shakespeare's tragedy." Dmitri Shostakovich provided an epic score, its motifs including an (increasingly ironic) trumpet fanfare for Lear, and a five-bar "Call to Death" marking each character's demise. Kozintzev described his vision of the film as an ensemble piece: with Lear, played by a dynamic Jüri Järvet, as first among equals in a cast of fully developed characters. The film highlights Lear's role as king by including his people throughout the film on a scale no stage production could emulate, charting the central character's decline from their god to their helpless equal; his final descent into madness marked by his realisation that he has negelected the 'poor naked wretches'. As the film progresses, ruthless characters – Goneril, Regan, Edmund – increasingly appear isolated in shots, in contrast to the director's focus, throughout the film, on masses of human beings.
Jonathan Miller has twice directed Michael Hordern in the title role for English television, the first for the BBC's Play of the Month in 1975 and the second for the BBC Television Shakespeare in 1982. Horden received mixed reviews, and was considered a bold choice due to his history of taking much lighter roles. Also for English television, Laurence Olivier took the role in a 1983 TV production for Granada Television. It was his last screen appearance in a Shakespearean role, its pathos deriving in part from the physical frailty of Olivier the actor.
In 1985 a major screen adaptation of the play appeared: Ran, directed by Akira Kurosawa. At the time the most expensive Japanese film ever made, it tells the story of Hidetora, a fictional 16th-century Japanese warlord, whose attempt to divide his kingdom among his three sons leads to an estrangement with the youngest, and ultimately most loyal, of them, and eventually to civil war. In contrast to the cold drab greys of Brook and Kozintsev, Kurosawa's film is full of vibrant colour: external scenes in yellows, blues and greens, interiors in browns and ambers, and Emi Wada's Oscar-winning colour-coded costumes for each family member's soldiers. Hidetora has a back-story: a violent and ruthless rise to power, and the film portrays contrasting victims: the virtuous characters Sue and Tsurumaru who are able to forgive, and the vengeful Kaede (Mieko Harada), Hidetora's daughter-in-law and the film's Lady Macbeth-like villain.
The play's plot, or major elements from it, have frequently been used by film makers. Joseph Mankiewicz' 1949 House of Strangers is often considered a Lear adaptation, but the parallels are more striking in its 1954 Western remake Broken Lance in which a cattle baron played by Spencer Tracy tyrannises over his three sons, of whom only the youngest, Joe, played by Robert Wagner, remains loyal. A scene in which a character is threatened with blinding in the manner of Gloucester forms the climax of the 1973 parody horror Theatre of Blood. Comic use is made of Sir's inability to physically carry any actress cast as Cordelia opposite his Lear in the 1983 film of the stage play The Dresser. John Boorman's 1990 Where the Heart Is features a father who disinherits his three spoilt children. Francis Ford Coppola deliberately incorporated elements of Lear in his 1990 sequel The Godfather Part III, including Michael Corleone's attempt to retire from crime throwing his domain into anarchy, and most obviously the death of his daughter in his arms. Parallels have also been drawn between Andy Garcia's character Vincent and both Edgar and Edmund, and between Talia Shire's character Connie and Kaede in Ran.
In 1997, Jocelyn Moorhouse directed A Thousand Acres, based on Jane Smiley's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, set in 1990s Iowa. The film is described, by scholar Tony Howard, as the first adaptation to confront the play's disturbing sexual dimensions. The story is told from the viewpoint of the elder two daughters, Ginny played by Jessica Lange and Rose played by Michelle Pfeiffer, who were sexually abused by their father as teenagers. Their younger sister Caroline, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh had escaped this fate and is ultimately the only one to remain loyal.
The play was again adapted to the world of gangsters in Don Boyd's 2001 My Kingdom, a version which differs from all others in commencing with the Lear character, Sandeman, played by Richard Harris, in a loving relationship with his wife. But her violent death marks the start of an increasingly bleak and violent chain of events (influenced by co-writer Nick Davies' documentary book Dark Heart) which in spite of the director's denial that the film had "serious parallels" to Shakespeare's play, actually mirror aspects of its plot closely. Unlike Shakespeare's Lear, but like Hidetora and Sandeman, the central character of Uli Edel's 2002 American TV adaptation King of Texas, John Lear played by Patrick Stewart, has a back-story centred on his violent rise to power. Daniel Rosenthal comments that the film was able, by reason of having been commissioned by the cable channel TNT, to include a bleaker and more violent ending than would have been possible on the national networks. 2003's Channel 4-commissioned two-parter Second Generation set the story in the world of Asian manufacturing and music in England.
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