The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 17.1108 Saturday, 30 December 2006
From: Al Magary <
Date: Tuesday, 26 Dec 2006 15:02:21 -0800
Subject: King Lear Anniversary
"An unhappy birthday for Shakespeare's tragic King Lear"
By Louise Jury, Arts Correspondent
The Independent, 26 December 2006
Four hundred years ago today the first known performance of one of
William Shakespeare's most powerful and heart-rending plays was
presented at the court of James I at Whitehall.
Richard Burbage, the greatest actor of the age, is believed to have
performed the title role as King Lear, the monarch who divided his
kingdom and went mad.
The subject was tailor-made for James, who had been king of Scotland for
36 years when he ascended to the English throne in 1603 on the death of
He was desperately trying to unite the parliaments of London and
Edinburgh, so a cautionary tale of the perils of division must have been
music to his ears.
But while the political ramifications of Lear would have been clear to
the contemporary audience, it is the human drama that has resonated
As the director Richard Eyre observes in a documentary about the play on
Radio 4 today, while it might not seem festive, the family row at the
heart of it makes it curiously apt for Christmas.
Actors such as Anthony Hopkins, Laurence Olivier, Orson Welles, Nigel
Hawthorne and Brian Cox and even one actress - Kathryn Hunter - have
tackled a part which the actor Ian Holm said required "enormous stamina".
Jonathan Bate, the Shakespearean scholar, said he used to regard it as
Shakespeare's supreme achievement. "There have been many times in
history when people have said it's Shakespeare's greatest play," he
said. These days, he considers the Bard's work too diverse to decide.
"But it's a play that Shakespeare obviously spent a lot of time working
on, exploring huge questions, not only about politics, but about sanity
and madness and primal emotions - family loyalty, love and hate."
The work was based on a story about a king called Ler, Leir or Lyr who
was part of British and Irish mythology. Geoffrey of Monmouth, the Welsh
bishop, recounted it in his Historia Regum Britanniae in the 12th
century and Raphael Holinshed retold it in his own Chronicles of
England, Scotland and Ireland in 1577.
It is possible, however, that Shakespeare's main source was a play
called The True Chronicle History of King Leir and his three daughters,
Goneril, Regan and Cordelia, which was published shortly before his own
version was presented at court.
Professor Bate said plays were normally premiered at public theatres to
refine them for court presentation. But in the second half of 1606, the
theatres were closed because of the plague, so the first recorded
mention, on Boxing Day, was probably the premiere.
Described by Shelley as "the most perfect specimen of dramatic poetry
existing in the world", the play's performance career has been troubled.
It first earned popularity in 1681, when the Irish poet and dramatist
Nahum Tate massacred the text by axing the role of the Fool, which he
considered inappropriate to tragedy, and writing a new, happy ending in
which Lear and Cordelia survive and she marries Edgar.
David Garrick, the great actor-manager of the 18th century, questioned
Tate's reworking and created his own amalgam, cutting more than 200 of
Tate's lines, but keeping the happy ending. Critics remained convinced
that Shakespeare's tragic conclusion, in which Cordelia is hanged and
Lear dies of a broken heart, was too overwhelming.
There followed a period when the play was not performed at all, in
deference to the supposed madness of George III.
When Edmund Kean, a popular actor, revived it in the 1820s, deaths and
all, the reaction was such that he reverted to Tate's ending after three
Only in 1838 was a full Shakespearean version presented again, by the
English actor-manager William Charles Macready.
Even so, further efforts were made to bowdlerise the script. Henry
Irving axed nearly half of Shakespeare's text in 1892 to reduce the
violence and sexuality.
It was the 20th century before any reverence for the text returned -
along with new interpretations, including Andrew McCullough's 1953 film
with Orson Welles in the title role and the Japanese director Akira
Kurosawa's 1985 adaptation, Ran.
For actors, it remains a monumental challenge. "It's often regarded as
the Everest for a Shakespearean actor," Professor Bate said. The next to
assault the mountain is Sir Ian McKellen, who returns to the stage in
Stratford in March, directed by Trevor Nunn.
Nunn said: "I have been looking forward to the fulfilment of the vow Ian
McKellen and I made that one day we would do King Lear together."
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