I have noticed that Shakespeare’s King Lear (1606) has been filmed a number of times in recent years (1982-2008). These filmed adaptations also feature British actors as the eponymous king. Perhaps one reason is that playing King Lear is the ‘everest every Shakespearean actor must climb to be labelled great’, as the sleeve text to the 2008 DVD version of King Lear, directed by Trevor Nunn and starring Ian McKellen boldly states. Does the role of King Lear present a considerable and distinctly British challenge to aging actors, or is there a sense that King Lear is the last great British role that an old actor must perform before dying? In this context, King Lear permeates the seemingly universal idea that Shakespeare’s plays are the preserve of an intellectual elite registering a quality performers must aspire to. What is the point of having a great play if no one can breathe life into the characters as Shakespeare wrote them? It is no surprise that the five King Lear DVDs I intend to watch are all around three hours in length – watching the play requires as much stamina and perservance as performing it. In this sense, ‘King Lear gives one the impression of a high mountain that everyone admires, yet no one particularly wishes to climb’ (Kott 100). The implication is that the reader/spectator must regard great art as a masochistic and time-consuming pleasure.
However, King Lear does not have to be a painful viewing experience. Charles Marowitz’s response to the BBC adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays that began in 1978 indicates a less torturous enjoyment of the collected works:
The great lesson of those filmed Shakespearian plays is that, through the refusal to allow the material to transform – to adapt itself to a different medium – most of the works were denatured. One could praise this performance or that scenic idea, but, all in all, it produced leaden and inert television viewing. And why? Because the underlying assumption of the exercise was: the plays are so great, all one need do is bring together the best British talent one can find and record them for posterity. It is this high-varnish approach to Shakespeare which is his chiefest foe – the detestable conservative notion that all one ever needs do with ‘classics’ is preserve them. (Marowitz 4).
King Lear is not simply the great, often named the greatest, Shakespearean play but it also presents a great part in which actors attempt to outdo each other in their portrayal of the deranged king. These filmed versions are not simply about preserving a ‘classic’, but are also concerned with preserving a ‘classic’ performance.
By watching five different filmed versions of King Lear I aim to discover if ’reconstituting Shakespeare’s ideas and finding new ways dramatically to extrapolate them’ is really the best approach (Marowitz 5). The alternative, as Marowitz implies, is that directors should reduce Shakespeare’s plays to their basic themes, then reimagine them as cinematic CGI spectaculars and abstract art. In other words, is dumbing down Shakespeare or making his work into equally arduous experimental dramas the way forward?
Interestingly, Shakespeare’s King Lear itself is derived from ‘folk-tales, in which the motif of a father submitting three daughters to a love-test is common’ (Foakes 93). A version of the story also appears in Book II of Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene (1591):
Next him king Leyr in happie peace long raynd,
But had no issue male him to succeed,
But three faire daughters, which were well vptrained,
In all that seemed fitt for kingly seed:
Mongst whom his realme he equally decreed
To have diuided. Tho when feeble age
Nigh to his vtmost date he saw proceed,
He cald his daughters; and with speeches sage
Inquyrd, which of them most did loue her parentage. (II.x.27, lines 1-9)
Unlike Shakespeare’s version, Spenser points out that Leyr has no male heir. Instead, he has three daughters who ‘seemed fitt for kingly seed’. Instead, Gonorill and Regan abuse their power and ‘wearie wax of his [Leyr's] continuall stay’ (II.x.30, line 5). Cordelia restores Leyr’s crown but the king dies from old age. The story then continues with Gonorill’s and Regan’s children rebelling against Cordelia who should be queen and imprisoning her. Spenser deviates from the traditional source by having Cordelia hang herself, which Shakespeare imitates by having Edmund ordering Cordelia to be hanged. R.A. Foakes also notes that Spenser changes ‘Cordeilla or Cordila into Cordelia, which not only suggests a link with the heart or feelings in [the latin name] ”Cor”…but associates the other part of her name [delia] with chastity (as in Samuel Daniel’s sonnet sequence, Delia, 1592)’ which is ’an anagram of “ideal”‘ (Foakes 96). Cordelia literally means ‘ideal heart’, an unwavering morality that replies to the gullible king, ‘Unhappy that I am, I cannot heave/My heart into my mouth. I love your majesty/According to my bond, no more nor less’ (I.i, lines 91-3). Unlike her sisters, Cordelia’s pure heart will not allow her to flatter her father. Her ‘bond’ suggests a constancy of affection that contrasts with her sisters’ hyperbolic love for their father, then loathing as they banish the aged king from the castle.
Yet, judging by the DVDs I have selected for review, there is a belief that tampering with Shakespeare is blasphemous and even pointless because King Lear is already perfect. I will be analysing the films by taking note of how key moments from the play such as the opening map scene, Lear and the fool in the thunderstorm, Edgar’s transformation into Poor Tom, Gloster’s blinding and Cordelia’s death are presented. I will attempt to identify what factors make King Lear great as a performed play, and suggest what qualities a near perfect filmed version of the play should contain. Along the way, analytical insights will be provided to enrich our understanding of King Lear. For fun, I will announce my favourite King Lear DVD from my selection, and you will have the opportunity to also have your vote. Of course, the DVDs I am watching are just a small selection of the films available. I have selected them because of certain similarities: the DVDs all promote a great actor playing the king, they are all faithful to Shakespeare’s text and are driven by the commercial need to be the authoritive version of King Lear.
The filmed versions of King Lear I have chosen are:
Dir. Jonathan Miller, starring Michael Hordern. Time-Life Television Productions and BBC, 1982. Running time: 183 mins.
Dir. Michael Elliott, starring Laurence Olivier. Channel 4 Television Corporation, 1983. Running time: 158 mins.
Dir. Brian Blessed, starring Brian Blessed. Cromwell Productions Ltd and Lamancha Productions, 1999. Running time: 190 mins.
Dir. Richard Eyre, starring Sir Ian Holm. A Chestermead Production for BBC TV in association with WGBH Boston, 2006. Running time: 138 mins.
Dir. Trevor Nunn, starring Ian McKellen. A co-production of The Performance Company, Iambic Productions, Channel 4, Thirteen/WNET New York and NHK Japan, 2008. Running time: 173 mins.
Let the battle commence!
Foakes, R. A. ‘Introduction’. King Lear by William Shakespeare. 1606. Ed. R. A. Foakes. London: Arden Shakespeare, 1997, 1-151.
Kott, Jan. Shakespeare Our Contemporary. Trans. Boleslaw Taborski. London: Methuen & Co LTD, 1965.
Marowitz, Charles. Recycling Shakespeare. London: Macmillan, 1991.
Shakespeare, William. King Lear. 1606. Ed. R. A. Foakes. London: Arden Shakespeare, 1997.
Spenser, Edmund. The Faerie Queene. 1590 & 1596. Ed. A.C. Hamilton. Harlow & London: Pearson Education, 2001.