The art of our necessities is strange

Shakespeare drew on a handful of sources to write King Lear (Holinshed’s Chronicles, Edmund Spencer’s the Faerie Queen, Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia), but to trace Lear’s roots all the way back to the beginning, you have to start in 700 BC. That’s when the legendary King Leir ruled the Britons, as retold in Geoffrey Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae. In Shakespeare’s version, historical facts and accuracy are pretty fudged; there are references to Greek and Roman gods as well as pagan, and unless you know something about the sources of the play, you’d have no idea it was originally set in Iron Age England.

But for our production, we’re digging all the way back to the age of Celtic Britons for our artistic inspiration, among other sources of course. While our set is going to be minimalistic, costumes and props will evoke the sense of antiquity and paganism we’re aiming for. We want Lear searching for his identity in a world of myths and mystery, an ancient time when power and land equated status.

Like Shakespeare, we’re not aiming for total historical accuracy though. We’re not using strictly authentic materials or forgoing the use of sewing machines as the Globe does for its intricate wardrobes. Not only is this impossible (we don’t have nearly as much evidence for how Iron Age Britons dressed as we do for the Tudors and Stuarts), but it’s not the point; our goal is to give the audience and actors a sense of place and time for the sake of mood and theme, not accuracy.

So when I visited the Iron and Bronze Age exhibits at the British Museum this week, I wasn’t looking for facts and figures so much as images and themes off of which we can work. Many of the objects I found fascinating weren’t from the eight sentury BC at all, but all of the images I’m including I found evokative in some way. Most fascinating I think is how these artifacts beg the question: What do we value in life? How do material goods define us? These Iron Age villagers based their status and worth on objects and how much they physically owned. As we look back hundreds of years later, does all that really matter? What will historians think of us years in the future? King Lear was especially  materialistic; he defines himself on ownership and status, and it isn’t until he is stripped of all his worldly belongings that he finds enlightenment. He would probably have had a burial like the one image I included in this gallery.


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