More than word can wield the matter

A brief catch-up on how Lear is doing now that we’re in week two of classes (and the rehearsal process): First off, the entire class, nearing 40 students if my guestimation is correct, actually applauded as our professor, director and King Lear entered the room. If that isn’t an epic start to a production process, I don’t know what is.

We dedicated our entire first day of class and first night of rehearsal to a thorough read-through of the text. We’d scheduled another evening to finish the reading, but to everyone’s pleasant surprise, we zipped through the Folger text before some of us finished our slices of pizza (yes, our professors are that cool). Everyone in the class — actors, stage managers, those just taking it for credit — read, speaking the dialogue in turn until we made it through the entire play. This fresh read-through method, inspired by a post-show talk at the production of Angels in America this fall, wasn’t only faster; it was fun. Our director gouged out Gloucester’s eyes and some of the shyest students in class read some of the bloodiest, biggest moments in the play.

Our director presented the class with his vision for the production next class, talking everyone through his inspiration, design ideas, setting and overall concept. I finished the afternoon with a presentation on the performance history of the story, reaching from its pre-Shakespearian roots to modern film adaptations. We worked with a guest professor the next week on the basics of Shakespeare in performance, examining verse and rhythm and how small details can be indicative of big acting choices.

And today, we plunged into the stickiest part of King Lear research: Quarto versus Folio. I first examined the two texts the winter before last, noting differences and noting my own opinions on how they affected the meaning of the play. The next big steps were working with my director on choosing a text and making possible cuts on my own. Needless to say, I’m a bit exhausted with the Folio/Quarto (F1/Q1) debate. But every time I think we’ve made a “final” decision on the text and it’s finally time to just play with the words, we’re confronted with some tiny but significant textual dilemma, one of which we discussed as a class today. The guilty passage:

Lear: Now, by Apollo —

Kent: Now, by Apollo, king,

Thou swear’st thy gods in vain.

Lear: O vassal! Miscreant!

[Albany/Cornwall: Dear sir, forbear.]

The brackets indicate a piece of text only found in the F1, not the Q1. But as our director noticed while glancing over another edition of Lear, that last line has another point of contention. In the actual F1 print, the line looks like this:

Alb.Cor. Dear sir, forbear.

Now to grapple an impossible-to-answer question: To whom was Shakespeare referring? Cornwall, as most productions and editors assume, or Cordelia?

And so we debated. Both actors staged the dialogue for the class, and the questions everyone raised, about staging, characterization, relationships, were astounding: If it’s Cordelia’s line and she’s saying it to her father, does that indicate she still cares for him? Or is she more concerned for Kent’s wellbeing? What does that imply about her relationship with Kent, and, for that matter, Kent’s role in the court? If it’s Cornwall’s line, what’s his motivation? He’s one of the most clearly evil characters in the play, so why would he exhibit a moment of seeming compassion for someone else? Are he and Albany near each other for this line? How can the actors’ reading of the line indicate differences in character? What did Lear do to spark this interjection? Did he threaten Kent? Why question him now, when he’s angry enough to banish his favorite servant?

We voted as a class on which version we preferred, and the majority liked the Cordelia reading better, contrary to most stagings of the play. 

I promise, I didn’t just dump all those F1/Q1 details to show off informed I am about this play (because I’m really not, especially compared to all the articles I’ve read that took years of examining minute F1/Q1 differences to make a point). I think today’s class is an important reminder of how much work goes into staging a Shakespearian production. I’m not implying that contemporary plays are any less challenging (I’ve been involved with enough to know, don’t worry) but these plays, especially ones that are so academically tricky, present us with a special crop of difficulties. We’re going to face a lot more decisions like the one made in class today, and we won’t have the luxury of spending an entire hour debating it amongst ourselves. 

Good thing we’re having fun, right?

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One Response to More than word can wield the matter

  1. Jason says:

    Brava: excellent summation of events so far.


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