THE TRAGEDY OF KING LEAR - Emporia State University

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Bevington, Chapter 17
KING LEAR is a drama
of old age and family
disintegration in which
human life often
appears meaningless
and brutal...only
HAMLET and
MACBETH approach it
in depicting such
thorough devastation
Critics and producers have sought--over the past 400
years--to find more hopeful ways to view the play
that are not utterly nihilistic
These approaches are best summed up in Cordelia’s
lines when she is reunited with Lear late in the play-She counsels him, as Edgar does Gloucester on the
virtues of patient suffering: “We are not the first /
Who with best meaning have incurred the worst”
(V.3, 3-4)
With these lines and Lear’s promise to “kneel down /
And ask thee for forgiveness...” comes the
possibility that the compassion of Lear learned from
being reduced to the state of a “poor, bare, forked
animal” may lead to personal redemption
Henry Irving as Lear

Other interpreters view it in
secular terms as an emotional
and psychological
reintegration after Lear’s
madness

Others view the awful
suffering and carnage in the
play as necessary to cleanse
the realm and restore a moral
order that Lear violated when
he relinquished his throne
A school of existential criticism--Herbart Blau, Peter
Brook, Richard Eyre--has emerged in the wake of the
Holocaust and the destruction of Hiroshima: Nowhere
in Shakespeare do evil and injustice triumph for so long
with the capability of inflicting so much suffering upon
the innocent
In light of this pessimism and nihilism--the word “nothing” sounds like
the tolling of a death knell throughout the play--has made the play
seem the most existentially modern of the tragedies
In 1985, Kurosawa adapted the play as RAN--a title which means
CHAOS
The play’s history is fraught
with controversy, still,
divergent producers Harley
Granville-Barker and Peter
Brook have proclaimed the
play the greatest stage work
written in English
The first known performance
was at Whitehall Palace in
December 1606 with King
James I in attendance
Friendship, Families, Misjudgments, The Fool
Lear is King of Britain in
pagan times...he is viewed
by the vicious characters in
the play as being irascible,
intemperate and
demanding...the loyal others
treat him with respect for his
age, with loyalty and love...In
the cases of Kent and
Cordelia, their love includes a
candor that leads to
banishme
Kent is the most loyal of Lear’s followers,
disguising himself to protect the King he knows
has erred

Goneril is married to the compassionate Albany...their incompatibility motivates
her lust for the bastard Edmund...The cruel sisters are further prodded by the
sadistic Cornwall, husband of Regan

Cordelia returns to England with the French army to restore sanity to the kingdom
and her father to a place of authority

The corpses of the wicked sisters, as well as the bodies of Lear and Cordelia
appear together in the last scene...the family has disintgrated, reunited only in
death
In the parallel plot, the two
sons of the Earl of Gloucester
vie for the affection of their
father...Edgar, like Cordelia,
must live apart from the
family...He is a chameleon-like
character who assumes
various roles depending
upon the scene
Edmund the bastard is the
most villainous character in
the play
Like Edgar, the Fool serves many
functions and is often portrayed as
Lear’s personified conscience...He is
loyal, but also bitter that Lear has sent
Cordelia away...the Fool’s jokes help
steer the audience’s changing
relationship to Lear...ultimately, he
simply disappears from the action
King Lear
HISTORIA REGUM BRITANNIAE (c 1136)

THE MIRROR FOR
MAGISTRATES (1574)

Holinshed’s
CHRONICLES (1587)
An earlier LEIR was written
as early as 1588 and printed
in 1605, THE TRUE
CHRONICLE HISTORY OF
KING LEIR...this older play
contains models for Albany,
Kent and King of
France...has a happy ending
in which Lear and Cordelia
are reunited
Much of the material in the
parallel plot comes from Sir
Philip Sidney’s ARCADIA (1590)

VICE from medieval
morality plays
↵
Some of Tom o’ Bedlam’s rants
come from Samuel Harsnett’s
DECLARATION OF EGREGIOUS
POPISH IMPOSTURES (1603)
THE TRAGEDY OF KING LEAR
The formal structure of double plot is unprecented in the
rest of Shakespeare’s canon...Gloucester’s tragedy
provides a commentary and counterpoint to Lear’s
•
•
•
•
•
Lear misjudges Cordelia, as Gloucester does Edgar
Both men are blind to the essential qualities of their
children
Both go through a kind of spiritual death (madness,
mutilation)
Both wronged children return to help their fathers
Both have the joy, however fleeting, of acknowledging
their wronged child

The language of the play is wide-ranging and
complex drawing from OLD Testament
sources

It also moves into wild, even violent excesses

The Fool often speaks in gnomic paradoxes
The Tragedy of King Lear

Whereas Cordelia, Lear, Kent and Gloucester see the
wicked Goneril and Regan as unnatural, Edmund
views them as adhering to nature’s law

Only when Lear has been reduced like Poor Tom to
the level of a “poor, bare, forked animal” does he
demonstrate the compassion and generosity that
should distinguish human from animal nature...Lear
achieves self-knowledge only when he is mad

Downfall and death come alike to those who view
nature as a civilizing force in the divinely ordained
hierarchical order

The interrelated themes of seeing and self-knowing
are omnipresent in the play...Yet, it is psychological
suffering and degradation, not physical blindness,
that brings insight and moral vision to Lear

Although self-awareness and fortitude emerge from
Lear’s staggering losses and from Gloucester’s
suffering and blindness, those virtues are all the
rewards that are given

Lear and Gloucester both eventually perceive that,
paradoxically, adversity has brought them precious
insight

Two characters adopt literal disguises in order the
survive the wrath of Lear and Gloucester: Kent and
Edgar

Kent returns as a servant named Caius

Edgar dons at least three different disguises

The paradox is that the loyal, loving truth-tellers must
seek refuge in disguise while the hypocrites (Edmund,
Goneril, Regan) successfully present themselves until
late in the play as persons of honest
straightforwardness
The play exists in two early texts--The Quarto
of 1608 and the considerably changed Folio
edition of 1623...evidence suggests that
Shakespeare had a hand in the revisions for the
Folio edition...Most modern editions (like those
in the Bevington book) are composite texts
The Tragedy of King Lear

He must be strong enough to handle the 800
lines, to rage to the heath and carry the
actress playing Cordelia
Once Lear divides his kingdom, the action escalates in
violence. Cornwall puts Kent in stocks. The daughters
throw their father out in the storm. Cornwall blinds
Gloucester. Oswald is killed. Edmund wounds himself.
Goneril is poisoned.
Regan commits suicide.
Cordelia is hung offstage.
The battle between
Britain and France
Film has proved an ideal medium for depicting the storm that rages on the
heath and in Lear’s mind

Original Globe Theatre production might have added simple effects
to the stage directions in the speeches

David Garrick strove for authenticity in the 1700s


Edmund Kean’s use of stage machinery and illusions gave
substance to Coleridge’s observation that watching Kean as Lear
in the storm was like reading Shakespeare by flashes of lighting

Henry Irving’s storms were admired

In the Granada TV Lear with Olivier, stagehands doused the actors
with 900 gallons of water during the storm
King Lear in the Storm by John Runciman.
National Gallery of Scotland
Act IV presents a
remarkable staging
challenge in the
attempted suicide of
Gloucester...a
remarkable thematic
moment in the play
On the Cliff: Gloucester and Edgar
by Boardman Robinson
NYC Metropolitan Museum of Art
Richard Burbage played Lear when he was just
under 40 years of age, the original Fool was
Robert Armin
For many years, the Nahum
Tate adaptation held the
stage...adapted in 1681, he
added Edgar as a love interest
for Cordelia and included a
happy ending that restored
Lear to the throne...the first
Cordelia in Tate’s version was
Elizabeth Barry...remained in
the repertory for 150 years
Garrick and others in the 18th
century still used the Tate
Lear with varying degrees of
success
Lear was one of Garrick’s
most famous roles
Other great Lears of the 18th
century were John Philip
Kemble and Edmund Kean
1838-William Charles
Macready at Covent
Garden
 1845-Samuel Phelps
emphasized the ensemble
 Henry Irving developed
Macready’s visual style and
set the play shortly after
the departure of the
Romans with Druid priests
and Barbaric warriors
 Edwin Forrest 

Both high-concept and simple
productions have been successful,
speaking to the strength of the play
 1946-Olivier at the Old Vic
 1950-John Gielgud at Stratford-on-Avon
 1962-Jan Kott’s version staged by Peter
Brook
 Adrian Noble cast Antony Sher as a rednosed clown to Michael Gambon’s Lear
 Morris Carnovsky was praised in the 1963
and 1965 seasons at Stratford (Canada)
Old Vic, 1946, Olivier as Lear
and Alec Guinness as the Fool
The play has
inspired more
than 20 film
adaptations
including the
Russian film by
Director Grigori
Kozintsev with
Yuri Yarvet as
Lear (1970)
Peter Brook directed Paul Scofield as Lear
Thames Television production with Patrick
Magee as Lear and directed by Tony Davenall
Jonathan Miller directed Michael Hordern as
Lear for the BBC
Michael Elliott directed Laurence Olivier for
Granada Television
Richard Eyre directed the NT production with
Ian Holm as Lear
1953
For American Television, Peter Brook directed
Orson Welles on CBS. The production was
edited to 82 minutes and featured music by
Virgil Thomson.
The Royal Court Theatre
Akira Kurosawa directed RAN
KING LEAR
Directed and written by
Jean-Luc Godard 
 With Peter Sellers,
Burgess Meredith, JeanLuc Godard, Molly
Ringwald, Norman
Mailer, Kate Miller, Leos
Carax, and Woody Allen.
THE KING IS ALIVE is about
stranded desert travelers
rehearsing and performing
scenes from the play.
An adaptation of Jane Smiley’s novel. Jason
Robards starred as the patriarch. His daughters
were played by Jessica Lange, Michelle Pfeiffer
and Jennifer Jason
Leigh. Colin Firth
had a featured role.
Patrick Stewart starred as John Lear
Ian McKellan in the
title role filmed for
PBS Great
Performances after a
world-wide tour by
the RSC. The stage
production was
directed by Trevor
Nunn. Chris Hunt
directed for television.
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