Directed by Jonathan Miller in 1982, King Lear is part of the BBC’s project to film all of Shakespeare’s plays. It is performed as though on a theatre stage with minimum props. At Lear’s court, the players are attired in black Jacobean costumes that reflect the king’s ‘darker purpose’ (I.i, line 35). Though Cordelia wears a white headdress and shawl to indicate her purity. The overall effect is that the court is aggressively banal with nasty schemes being hatched in a disturbingly calm and superficial space. Even the characters speak in the same moderate tone, a featureless wall Michael Hordern as the frustrated Lear can only rail against.
Amidst this trite behaviour, the Fool supposedly provides witty relief as he satirises Lear’s decision to handover his kingdom to his two eldest daughters. However, Frank Middlemass is a lifeless Fool who delivers his lines perfunctorily. The sharp-tongued exchanges Shakespeare wrote for the king and Fool become lumpen discourses, as Hordern engages futilely with a mannequin-like Middlemass, who not only acts wooden but looks incongrous amidst a Jacobean ensemble wearing clown make-up. In the English Renaissance, aristocratic ladies and, more famously, Queen Elizabeth I painted their faces with a white lead mixture consisting of flour, vinegar, egg white, lead and arsenic in order to look fashionably fair, because a pale face signified beauty in this Patriarchal society. Therefore, men enjoyed a fair face as voyeurs rather than practitioners. More damaging is that Middlemass’s circus clown look also misunderstands the Shakespearean fool. In his illuminating study, Everett G. Neasman identifies in Shakespeare’s plays what he calls the clown-servant who humourously challenges the master/servant relationship to reflect the ‘often unpleasant, socioeconomic changes within the Elizabethan servant-class’ (Neasman 2). Interestingly, in King Lear, the Fool also challenges Lear’s authority that reflects the play’s concerns with traditional hierarchal values – the king is ousted by his scheming elder daughters, and Edgar for most of the play loses his rightful claim as being the Earl of Gloucester’s heir to the bastard Edmund. These socioeconomic changes present former masters as bitter servants.
The court’s mundanity becomes even more apparent when contrasted with the storm in the untamed countryside. Miller adds rain and lightning flashes to accompany Lear’s vivid words:
Blow winds and crack your cheeks! Rage, blow!
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
Till you have drenched our steeples, drowned the cocks!
You sulphurous and thought-executing fires,
Vaunt-couriers of oak-cleaving thunderbolts,
Singe my white head! And thou, all-shaking thunder,
Strike flat the thick rotundity o’the world, (III.ii, lines 1-7)
The image ‘Blow winds and crack your cheeks!’ alludes to how old maps depicted winds ‘as faces puffing from the corners’ (Foakes 263). The ‘old maps’ may refer to Ptolemy’s Geographia (circa 150). In the 1540/42 edition of Ptolemy’s Ecumene or known universe, Sebastian Münster ‘shows the full twelve winds designated by Aristotle’ that was used for navigation during the Middle Ages. The notion that the storm is indicative of an ancient power is implied further by ‘Strike flat the thick rotundity o’the world’. Lear’s descent into madness is mirrored by a primeval storm that causes the world to regress to a darker time. Furthermore, the ‘flat’ world recalls the map in the play’s opening scene. In this production, the map is a fairly small rectangular sheet placed on a wooden table, which Hordern acknowledges with brief hand gestures. Its powerful role as a Monarchical contract is not emphasised.
However, the most striking contrast with the court is provided by Anton Lesser as the naive and bland Edgar who, hiding out in the country, becomes the brilliant Poor Tom spouting poetic madness:
This is the foul fiend Flibbertigibbet: he begins at curfew and walks till the first cock; he gives the web and the pin, squinies the eye and makes the harelip; mildews the white wheat and hurts the poor creature of earth. (III.iv, lines 112-5)
Edgar’s debasement from being an Earl’s firstborn son to the peasant Poor Tom is further indicated by how he now speaks in prose rather than verse. His disturbing banter is even given an added supernatural element by appearing to predict his father’s, Gloucester’s, blinding as echoed by ‘squinies the eye’.
Unsurprisingly, for a DVD certified PG, the viewer only sees the back of Gloucester’s chair during his blinding. His interrogation by Cornwall and Regan is not as harrowing as it could be, though Cornwall’s vitriolic ‘Out, vile jelly,/Where is thy lustre now?’ (III.vii, lines 81-2) is spat hatefully by Julian Curry.
Michael Hordern plods along as Lear. His portrayals of the arrogant bad-tempered king, to a mad rustic crowned with wild flowers then finally the repentant father who carries the dead Cordelia in his arms are given no dramatic overtures. In fact, all the performances are strangely leaden as though the players have been kidnapped and forced to act in an abandoned warehouse. Anton Lesser is, of course, the exception who plays Poor Tom with manic delight.
With my virtual quill now dripping with fresh blood may the next King Lear tremble in its ermine robes.
Foakes, R. A. ‘Introduction’. King Lear by William Shakespeare. 1606. Ed. R. A. Foakes. London: Arden Shakespeare, 1997, 1-151.
Neasman, Everett G. Take My Coxcomb: Shakespeare’s Clown-Servants from Late Feudal to Proto-Capitalist Economies in Early Modern England. New York: iUniverse, 2009.
Shakespeare, William. King Lear. 1606. Ed. R. A. Foakes. London: Arden Shakespeare, 1997.