The DVD’s main attraction is Sir Laurence Olivier’s Emmy award winning performance as the insufferable King. However, director Michael Elliott’s vivid recreation of Lear’s Medieval polytheist world (complete with appropriate outfits that History of Costume could explain) provides Olivier with an authentic space for his commanding role. The opening outdoor scene presents a Stonehenge setting in which Lear throws down a large rug-like map on the ground. He then steps on it not only in a display of regal power, but to invite a comparison to The Ditchley Portrait (1592) in which Queen Elizabeth I stands on a map of England. It is a striking moment in which Lear uses his sword, which now appears too heavy for him to wield, to point to the map.
Another indication of Lear’s old age is shown minutes earlier as he enters his ‘Stonehenge’ court like an exhausted Father Christmas with long white straggly hair and beard. He leans against Cordelia for support, notably with one arm around his favourite daughter who laughs gaily. Lear appears as ‘an aging man who looks toward retirement, dependency, sickness, and senility’ (Cefalu 117). It is as if the tragedy has already occurred when Cordelia fails to provide in words the comfort Lear needs (Cefalu 117). Lear’s sanity appears to disappear with Cordelia, as she is banished from the kingdom.
Having divided Britain between Goneril and Regan, Olivier as Lear then does something that has a resonance throughout the rest of the play. He throws away his crown. Perhaps to finalise his retirement/abdication. However, his action emphasises the play’s engagement with the Renaissance theory of the King’s two bodies in which a monarch has a natural fleshly body, and a divine body politic or what Ernst H. Kantorwicz terms a ‘superbody’ (Kantorwicz 13). When and only when the king dies, by God’s will the body politic passes into or is reincarnated in the next monarch. In Shakespeare’s King Richard II (1595), faced by Bolingbroke’s rebellious forces, Richard comforts himself with the knowledge that ‘The breath of wordly men cannot depose/The deputy elected by the Lord’ (III.ii, lines 56-7). Yet Bolingbroke becomes King Henry IV because Richard is an unsuitable king. Under duress, Richard hands his crown to Bolingbroke and relinquishes his divine right to rule.
While Richard sort of admits that Bolingbroke will make the better king and ends up imprisoned in the tower to be eventually murdered, Lear hangs around. No one else is crowned king. Though, interestingly, Cornwall makes Edmund Earl of Gloucester. Power is redistributed throughout the court but, while Lear and Gloucester are still alive, it has little substance. Lear remains the King of Britain until he dies. The crown’s symbol of monarchical power pales in comparison to the divine right to rule. Shakespeare’s King Richard II states that it is not possible to ‘wash the balm off from an anointed king [though as the play demonstrates it can be if the king is useless]’ (Richard II, III.ii, line 55). However, part of the fascination of King Lear is that it pushes Lear’s inherited regal power, his royal blood, to the limit. Lear’s refusal to die, to truly surrender his monarchical power, only exacerbates his situation.
Both Shakespeare’s play and Elliott’s production subtly satirise the notion of a king’s God-given ability to rule. When Lear returns on a horse to his village after a hunting trip, his people crowd enthusiastically around him. He looks remarkedly healthy with trimmed hair and beard. Like a celebrity who has retired from showbusiness, he soaks up the attention. His behaviour within the village’s circles of power is also brash, as Goneril complains:
By day and night he wrongs me Every hour
He flashes into one gross crime or other
That sets us all at odds. I’ll not endure it.
His knights grow riotous and himself upbraids us
On every trifle. (I.iii, lines 4-8)
Having relinquished the responsibilities for his kingdom (though one of the questions the play and production asks implicitly is can a king surrender his divine power while still alive?), Lear still enjoys wielding authority or perhaps he cannot help display his authority because it is in his nature. Either way, he becomes so much of a problem for Goneril and Regan it is possible to feel sympathy for them. The sympathy may stem from how the daughters value ‘efficiency and utility’, while Lear pursues a Medieval hedonistic lifestyle (Cefalu 122). In this context, the disguised Kent does not help matters with the following exchange:
LEAR Dost thou know me, fellow?
KENT No, sir; but you have that in your countenance which I would fain call master.
LEAR What’s that?
KENT Authority. (I.iv, lines 26-30)
The irony is that Kent perfectly knows who Lear is. Yet, in order to serve him again, Kent flatters Lear by effectively praising his ‘superbody’ or his inbred authority that he claims to see in the king’s aged face.
Once banished from his village/court, Lear’s rage is seemingly mirrored in a storm in which Elliott shows no mercy for Olivier. Rain is a thick downpour and the wind nearly blows Olivier off his feet. However, when thought of in the context of the monarch’s divine authority, the storm has renewed historical significance. It is possible to think that Lear creates the storm in order to recall Queen Elizabeth I’s defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 attributed to her divine power that created the storm that destroyed Spain’s formidable navy.
Yet is the storm’s creation on stage or a film set necessary? R. A. Foakes advises future productions that ‘[a]lthough directors are often tempted to invent strong visual and sound effects for the storm, Lear’s words effectively create it, and need to be heard’ (Foakes 263). The implication is that Lear uses language so that his anger is not mirrored in a storm, but actually produces it.
Interestingly, Lear’s court, albeit on a smaller scale, is reproduced in the hovel to which Gloucester leads the king. Here, Lear is in his element organising a trial to prove his innocence as dictated by his divine duty:
I’ll see their trial first. Bring in their evidence.
[to Edgar] Thou robed man of justice, take thy place.
[to the Fool – a lithe and lively John Hurt, who is so good I missed his absence] And thou, his yoke-fellow of equity,
Bench by his side. [to Kent] You are o’the commission;
Sit you too. (III. vi, lines 35-9)
Although Lear is displaying signs of madness, the only semblance of sanity he can rely on is his ‘superbody’ or body politic that appears to automatically take control. My insight is verified later in the production when, out in the countryside, Elliott has Lear washing his clothes, trapping a hare for food and making garlands. In other words, Lear is still a king whose divine right is demonstrated by his mastery over a natural environment. It is not until Lear carries Cordelia’s corpse that his ‘superbody’ is visibly diminished, as we see a frail old man, a broken father, mourning his daughter’s untimely death.
Gloucester’s blinding (that mirrors Lear’s metaphoric blindness as he fails to realise, until it’s too late, the effect his errant behaviour has had on Cordelia then on Goneril and Regan) is a well-executed dramatic moment. Having safely installed Lear in a hovel, Gloucester returns to the village to find two soldiers waiting to arrest him. As Gloucester, Leo McKern‘s countenance betrays his fear of having been found out like a Jew in Nazi Germany. He is then transported to the interrogation room and bound to a chair. Jeremy Kemp‘s Cornwall whips himself into a psychotic frenzy and Gloucester’s chair tips backwards on to the floor. Kemp and McKern are so convincing that it actually feels like Gloucester’s eyes have been gouged out for real.
Elliott’s version of King Lear is faithful to Shakespeare but also distinctively creative so as to reward further discussion. It emphasises the fact that King Lear is still a king even after his apparent abdication. The question Elliott teases from the play (that is also echoed in King Richard II) is what does a government do with a king past his prime and who poses a threat to his own country, but remains stubbornly alive?
Cefalu, Paul. Revisionist Shakespeare. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.
Foakes, R. A. ‘Footnote’. King Lear by William Shakespeare. 1606. Ed. R. A. Foakes. London: Arden Shakespeare, 1997, 263.
Kantorowicz, Ernst H. The King’s Two Bodies: A Study in Mediaeval Political Theology. 1957. Princeton:PrincetonUniversity Press, 1981.
Shakespeare, William. King Lear. 1606. Ed. R. A. Foakes. London: Arden Shakespeare, 1997.
—. King Richard II. 1595. Ed. Charles R. Forker.Bedford: TheArdenShakespeare, 2004.