This is a big play. It’s massive. Uncut, it runs at about four hours. The cast calls for at least 10 actors, mostly male, not including various soldiers and gentlemen. The special effects needed — a violent storm, a man’s eyes being plucked out of their sockets, bloody and fatal sword fights — are a director’s nightmare.
But the reason this play virtually disappeared from the stage for hundreds of years (not counting Nahum Tate’s 1681 rewrite, notable for its sitcom-worthy, happily-ever-after conclusion) isn’t just its logistics. It’s more than a difficult play to block or design; its characters are some of Shakespeare’s most complex; he breaches terrifying, sometimes grotesque and taboo subject matter. It’s a play that throws mortality and human suffering in its audience’s face, and it calls for an equally capable actor to pull it off.
Up until recently, the role of Lear was considered, as Charles Lamb described it in 1818, “essentially impossible to be represented on stage.” He says that “to see Lear acted, to see an old man tottering about the stage with a walking-stick, turned out of doors by his daughters in a rainy night, has nothing in it but what is painful and disgusting.” In 1904, A.C. Bradley echoed Lamb’s critique, describing the play as “too huge for the stage,” “Shakespeare’s greatest work,” but not “the best of his plays.”
It was only rediscovered as a tragic masterpiece in the early twentieth century, and even then, it wasn’t until Jan Kott’s modernized re-evaluation and Peter Brook’s revolutionary staging in the 1960s that actors and directors recognized it as a poignant contemporary story.
As a dramaturg, I know I can’t realistically analyze and research every aspect of the play. It is, as Lamb and Bradley assert, simply too big. But I can focus my energy on one element: the character of Lear himself.
Even narrowing my lens that much presents me with a nearly insurmountable task. In “The Masks of King Lear,” the chapter on the king himself includes an enormous footnote listing every adjective the author has found used to describe him. In the positive descriptions, he includes absolute, dignified, like an oak, pensive, poetic, sombre, titanic, and well-preserved. Negatives include abject, blasphemous, feeble, hysterical, sexually obsessed, tyrannical, and wrong-headed. There were dozens more, but the point is this: Lear is anything a director or actor wants him to be. Shakespeare provides us with a framework, but it’s our job to construct a three-dimensional person from it.
Marvin Rosenberg categorizes the king into a few main, archetypical interpretations:
“a barbarian, with primitive, untamed impulses”; “senile”; “old–with all the frailties, physical and mental, of age”; “mad from the first”; “not mad–but capricious: angry, impetuous, spoiled, willful, unnatural, revengeful, proud, stubborn, tyrannical, implacable, lacking imagination, etc.”; “a slave of passion (wrath); though the very greatness of his passion reveals the greatness of his soul”; “wise, loving, magnanimous, a tender father upset by ingratitude”; “conditioned to rule, he cannot adjust to the rule by others”; “an archetypal king figure, living out its inevitable fate”; “a troubled Everyman in the robes of a king”; “selfish, narcissistic–needs love desperately, but cannot give love”; “he has a repressed incestuous attachment to his daughters, particularly Cordelia or Goneril”; “regressive, mainly in the direction of a return to the womb, the shelter of the mother”; “his motivation is mysterious (Sometimes an alternative for: Shakespeare failed.)” (19-20).
Our version of Lear is in its very early phases. Auditions are next week, and much of our king’s person won’t reveal itself until we see him interact with his daughter, enemies and servants on stage. Until then, my director and I know this much: He is a king. We want to focus on his lust for power, how he begins, not as a senile, crazed old man, but as someone fully aware and proud of his kingship. The play is about his journey, his devolution into madness and dual evolution into humility and humanity.
So there you have it. I’m working on tracing Lear through the ages right now, observing how different directors and actors have taken his dozens of archetypes and motivations and created their own version of his story. Hopefully, this will give us a sense of what works and what doesn’t. So here goes nothing….