Before the Kings Maiestie
As the title page of the 1608 quarto proudly proclaims, King Lear was “played before the Kings Maiestie at Whitehall upon S. Stephans night in Christmas Hollidayes,” confirmed by a December 26 entry in the Stationers’ Register for the 26 December 1606. Richard Burbage, leading tragic actor for Shakespeare’s company, The King’s Men, played the title role. Shakespeare probably wrote the part with Burbage in mind, and his performance was so much of a success that it was remembered as one of his crowning stage moments by an anonymous elegist at his death. Some scholars assert that Cordelia and the Fool were played by the same young male actor, evidenced by the two characters never appearing onstage together and Lear’s line “And my poor fool is hanged” with the dead Cordelia in his arms. Others argue that The Fool was more likely portrayed by famous comic actor Robert Armin, and the role of Cordelia, along with her two sisters, was given to a young boy player.
Audiences were most likely shocked by Shakespeare’s retelling of the classic tale. He drew an a number of earlier King Lears for his play, including the Raphael Holinshed’s “Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland.” Spectators were also familiar with an anonymous play performed in 1594 entitled “The True Chronicle History of the life and death of King Leir and his three Daughters.” These earlier depictions of the ancient British king included similar elements, such as the love test, banishment of his most loyal daughter, and the division of his kingdom. Shakespeare’s interpretation veered from these classic stories most dramatically through the addition of a subplot and Cordelia’s unexpected death. There is no evidence regarding how King James reacted to the St Stephen’s Day performance, but if he was at all familiar with traditional versions of Lear’s story, he would most likely have been shocked by Shakespeare’s tragic ending. St. Stephen’s Day encouraged charity and goodwill toward the poor; church boxes were opened and distributed and the homeless feasted alongside the wealthy. The character of Poor Tom, as well as the play’s numerous references to “poor naked wretches,” would have been particularly resonant for James and his fellow theater-goers that December day.
Heap of jewels
Aside from a brief revival after the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660, King Lear all but disappeared from the stage except in the form of Nahum Tate‘s dramatic rewrite. His 1681 version of the play conformed with contemporary arguments for morality plays that featured good characters triumphing over evil. Tate’s play polished Shakespeare’s “heap of jewels” by eliminating Cordelia’s death. Instead, his Lear ended with the King being rightly restored to power and handing his throne over to Cordelia and her romantic interest, Edgar. Tate replaced the confusing Fool with a more understandable confidante for Cordelia, Arante. This version dominated the stage for more than 150 years.
David Garrick was the iconic Lear during the eighteenth century. He partially restored Shakespeare’s text, but continued to use Tate’s happy ending. He was renowned for the ability to bring his audience to tears.
Compared with other Lears of his time, most of whom embodied the Romantic vision of a titan, godlike king, Garrick’s portrayal was intimate and moving. He was once described as “a little old white-haired man…with spindle shanks, a tottering gait and great shoes upon little feet,” he interpreted the king as a “weak man…old and weakly fond of his daughters…an Old Fool” (The Masks of King Lear, 28). He was only 24 years old for his first King Lear. His final staging of the play was set in Ancient Britain, using “Old English dress” instead of contemporary costumes like other eighteenth century productions, setting a precedent for Lears to come (Shakespeare in Performance, 7).
The play disappeared once again during the Regency period, theater managers preferring to avoid allusions to monarchical madness under King George III’s unstable reign. During this time, it was appreciated more as a work of literature than drama. As Charles Lamb famously argued in 1812: “The Lear of Shakespeare cannot be acted. The contemptible machinery by which they mimic the storm which he goes out in, is not more inadequate to represent the horrors of the real elements, than any actor can be to represent Lear… Lear is essentially impossible to be represented on a stage.” Productions returned after the King’s death in 1820, but it wasn’t until 1838 that Shakespeare’s version reappeared.
A ‘lusty winter’
William Charles Macready‘s staging kept the original, tragic ending, despite major cuts to the text. His audience was treated to the first revival of the Fool in more than a century, portrayed by the acclaimed actress Priscilla Horton. Unlike Garrick and other contemporary Lears, Macready avoided portraying Lear as a feeble old man, telling his friend that “Most actors, Garrick, Kemble and Kean among others, seemed to have based their
conception of the character on the infirmity usually associated with ‘four score and upwards,’ and have represented the feebleness instead of the vigour of old age. But Lear’s was in truth a ‘lusty winter:’ his language never betrays imbecility of mind or
body. He confers his kingdom indeed on ‘younger strengths:’ but there is still sufficient invigorating him [sic] to allow him to ride, to hunt, to run wildly through the fury of the storm, to slay the ruffian who murdered his Cordelia, and to bear about her dead body in his arms… Indeed the towering rage of thought with which his mind dilates identifying the heavens themselves with his griefs, and the power of conceiving such vast imaginings, would seem incompatible with a tottering, trembling frame, and betoken rather one of ‘mighty bone and bold emprise,’ in the outward bearing of a grand old man.” Like Garrick, Macready’s world was ancient England, his set consisting of Druidic stone circles.
Other notable nineteenth century stagings include: Samuel Phelps in 1845, a naturalistic Lear with a more comprehensive text than Macready’s. It used a relatively simplistic set, but its realistic storm sequence was considered excessive by some; Charles Kean’s lauded 1858 production was set in Anglo-Saxon England, but his attempts at historical accuracy meant sacrificing much of the text to allow for lengthy scene changes; Henry Irving’s 1892 Lear was set in a Britain of Roman ruins, including Druidic priests and long-haired Viking warriors as Lear’s knights. He emphasized Lear’s paternalism and age alongside a praised Ellen Terry as Cordelia, on whom Irving’s feeble Lear leaned to make his way offstage.
The play’s next major revolution occurred in 1940, a return to the mountainous, authoritative depiction of Shakespeare’s king. This was John Gielgud‘s second of many Lear portrayals (his first was in 1931 at only 26 years), and he worked extensively with Henry Granville Barker in his reinterpretation of the role. Barker, still famous for his “Prefaces to Shakespeare,” personally assisted Gielgud with his performance. Barker told the young actor: “Lear is an oak. You are an ash. We must see how this will serve you” (Gielgud 1963, 51). Gielgud, a small actor, transformed himself into a powerful king with the help of an enormous beard and cloak; a hidden sling helped him carry Cordelia’s body onstage with one arm. Gielgud was praised for his quick, delicate shifts in mood and temperament; from line to line, his Lear changed from rash and terrifying to gentle and compassionate. He also integrated humor into his performance, stating that “he [Barker] thought the King should show a childlike, but often savage, sense of humour throughout.” Goneril and Regan, for the first time, were not innately evil, but human, driven to cruelty by specific motives. Gielgud played Lear many times over, his final performance over the radio at the age of 90. He continued to refer to Barker’s notes as inspiration.
Averywhere and Everyman
Arguably the most transformative contemporary interpretation of King Lear was Peter Brook’s 1962 Royal Shakespeare Company production featuring Paul Scofield. Brooks was influenced by Jan Kott’s influential scholarly article, “King Lear and Endgame,” a comparison of the play and the works of Samuel Beckett and Theater of the Absurd. In the same fashion, Brooks’ production interpreted Lear on a much larger scale than had been seen before, staging it as a metaphor for the fall of humanity, not just the fall of a kingdom. The design took place in “big, violent and therefore very realistic circumstances, with flesh and blood actors in very harsh, cruel and realistic situations.” He therefore created an antiquated, violent society, vaguely pinpointed as Iron Age or Anglo Saxon Britain. Compared to contemporary productions, Brooks’ costumes were simple: minor characters were dressed identically to emphasize a sense of totalitarianism, and Lear was only character to wear a robe. The few props used were significant: Gloucester’s astrological chart, a looming oval platform behind Lear’s throne in the first scene, an orb passed among the sisters to represent power, an ambiguous metal shape later used as a chair against which Lear leaned as he died. The minimalism of the set made the actors look as if they were drowning in the vast darkness of the stage, echoing back to Beckettian themes of godlessness. One critic said that Brook’s Lear was “Anywhere and his Lear is Everyman” (The Evening Standard, 1963).
The minor characters had more of a spotlight than usual. Goneril and Regan grew into distinctly different characters, whereas most contemporary productions lumped them together as identical, evil sisters. Brooks eliminated any notions of good and evil among characters; the villains and heroes were all kind and mean, bad and just. Kent was loyal to Lear but oftentimes bullying and cruel; the sisters were not monster-like, but somewhat understandable in their struggle to deal with their father’s unruliness; Gloucester slapped his bastard son while introducing him; and most notably, Lear was portrayed as a cold, ruthless leader. Younger than most Lears (Scofield was only in his 40s) this was not the crippled, frail King so many expected. One critic said he was “a figure of rigid, cold arrogance, set in tarnished gold, his hands clenched upon the arms of a crudely fashioned throne…[His] was the voice of an old man, but a man not yet infirm, a ruler still in command. We recognised it, as in the past, what someone has called the random music of a turning world: but tonight I was thinking of an angry sound swell and of the intermittent surge beneath the low vaulting of a sea-cave” (Birmingham Post, 1963). This is considered the darkest of Lears, without the glimmer of hope or renewal that so many directors choose to inject in their productions.
Knowingly or not, every director since 1962 has taken some cue from Peter Brooks’ Lear. As the play marches forward in the 21st century, however, directors continue to reimagine the play in its meaning, context, performance and design. Some notable contemporary Lears include:
– 1982, Royal Shakespeare Company with Adrian Noble (Director), Michael Gambon (Lear), Antony Sher (Fool): Particularly notable for Sher’s portrayal of the Fool (and his accidental death after the mock trial scene), this was a particularly Beckettian production.
– 1974, James Earl Jones (Lear), Edwin Sherin (director): Jones was a strong, purposeful Lear, as seen in the life recording, probably my favorite film version of Lear.
– 1997, Ian Holm (Lear), Richard Eyre (director) at the National Theatre: A minimalistic staging that earned Holm a Laurence Olivier award, later filmed for television.
– 2001, Julian Glover (Lear), Barry Kyle (director) at the Globe.
– 2002, Christopher Plummer (Lear), Jonathan Miller (director) for the Stratford Festival.
– 2004, Corin Redgrave (Lear), Bill Alexander (director) at the RSC.
– 2007, Ian McKellen (Lear), Trevor Nunn (director) at the RSC.