Following Michael Elliott’s version of King Lear, Brian Blessed creates a menacing Medieval world. Images of the full moon, Stonehenge-like stone slabs, naked flames, white-robed priests and sharp blades profilerate. He also uses a rug-like map spread on the floor. At this point, a jovial Lear (played by Blessed) enjoys Goneril’s and Regan’s flattery. He responds by dividing the map with a stick, an insignificant act if it wasn’t for Lear’s linguistic flourish that first rewards Goneril for her professed love:
Of all these bounds, even from this line to this,
With shadowy forests and with champaigns riched,
With plenteous rivers and wide-skirted meads,
We make thee lady. (I.i, lines 63-6)
Blessed’s Lear is not a tired aged king who looks forward to relinquishing power. Instead, he is a loving though deluded father bestowing on his daughters an inheritance based on the wealth generated by bountiful land. In this context, the ‘shadowy forests’ and ‘plenteous rivers’ recall Irenius’s description of Ireland in Edmund Spenser’s A View of the State of Ireland (1595 publ. 1633):
And sure it is yet a most beautifull and sweet countrey as any is under heaven, being stored throughout with many goodly rivers, replenished with all sorts of fish most abundantly, sprinkled with many very sweet ilands and goodly lakes…(Spenser 27)
Ireland is sold to potential New Englanders as ‘a most beautifull and sweet [and profitable] countrey’, perhaps in order to justify the needless death of thousands and the cost of the ‘Irish problem’ for the Elizabethan government. Therefore, Ireland is reduced to its property value, an island to be ravaged for its resources. Although Lear already owns the land he is dividing through being its ruler, he breaks it down further into monetary units for his daughters to enjoy. Monarchical power is seemingly usurped by a landlord’s property rights. My interpretation of the map scene teased from Blessed’s film is similar to that of Richard Halpern who compares King Lear to King James I’s (1566-1625) reliance on the feudal property law to describe his position of power, rather than the king’s two bodies. Halpern states that:
[i]n James’s mind, the entire kingdom and its inhabitants ultimately belonged to him as landlord; and it is this property relation that secured his political authority…(Halpern 221)
The fact that Blessed’s Lear does not wear a crown strenghtens the idea of Lear as a landlord rather than king. However, whilst in a rage caused by Cordelia’s refusal to exaggerate her fatherly love, Lear crushes between his hands a simple crown that may have been destined for Cordelia’s ‘now our joy’ (I.i, line 82) fair head.
What is particularly impressive about Blessed’s Lear is that he does not portray the king as a frail old man, but as a monstrous horse-riding hunk that gives the viewer a real sense of Lear as a strong no-nonsense Medieval king (like Henry VIII on steroids). The IMDb reviewer Calibanhagseed observes acutely that ‘the thick robes he [Blessed as the king] wears create a Lear of great power (watch how the the clothing changes to more delicate gowns when Lear is in his weaker moments, even to a white thin robe when he has come to terms with his insanity…)’. The clothes shedding could also demonstrate Lear’s frailty as an elderly man. Apart from a thick plummage of grey hair sprouting from head and chin, the only sign that Lear is old is shown by an encroaching senility revealed in odd comic asides bookending the division of his kingdom scene. When Lear first arrives in his castle to address his court that has an audience of Dickensian men, women and children and after his brief exchange with Gloucester, he forgets what to do next. With a discreet whistle, Lear calls his female fool (played by Hildegard Neil) to remind him of his ‘darker purpose’ (I.i, line 35). In another humourous moment following an aggressive display inflamed further by Kent’s criticisms, Lear falls asleep in a chair and has to be woken in order to address Cordelia’s potential husbands: Burgundy and France.
Furthermore, Blessed gives Lear an uncontrollable rage that is described in the play as ‘the dragon and his wrath!’ (I.i, line 123). Lear’s anger is not simply confined to shouting and sweating profusely, but is also expressed visually through swinging the rug-like map like a hammer, crushing a crown, upturning long tables and pressing Goneril’s and Regan’s heads together. Blessed indicates that Lear’s uncontrollable rage is his Aristotelian tragic flaw or what is popularly known as hamartia. However, by providing a clearer definition of hamartia, Lear’s behaviour can be better understood. Amelie Rorty argues that:
[t]he tragic hero’s hamartia is an accident of his excellence: his purposes and energy make him susceptible to a kind of waywardness that arises from his character. Although the occasions that unfold the consequences of the agent’s hamartia are contingent, they are the sorts of things which might well happen. (Rorty 11)
It can be deduced from Rorty that a character’s hamartia is not so much a plot device essential for a tragedy’s development, but a natural phenomena that occurs whether it is crucial to the play or not. Blessed gives Lear’s anger a free rein not simply because it makes his film more exciting. Lear’s status as a powerful king or what Rorty terms ‘excellence’ has a damaging side effect or ‘waywardness’ that casts doubt on Lear’s tragic “flaw” being attributed to mis-judging his daughters. In Marxist terms, ‘Lear violates his royal obligation to protect the realm, and also the custom of primogeniture in promising the “third more opulent” portion of the land to his youngest, not his eldest, daughter’ (Liebler 199). Instead, Blessed accentuates Lear’s hulk-like temper to suggest that Lear’s downfall would have occurred whether he had chosen to divide his kingdom or not. As Rorty states ‘the protagonist’s fortune has…a terrible and irreversible inevitability’ (Rorty 11). In other words, the qualities that make Lear a successful king are also responsible for his tragic actions.
Another noteworthy point for Blessed’s filmed version of King Lear is Hildegard Neil’s constant presence as the fool from start to finish. She acts like Lear’s conscience reminding him of his duties and his foolish errors. Her femininity may emphasise Lear’s gentler side that gradually gains prominence once Lear is banished from his castle. Lear’s storm speech in III.ii, for instance, that ‘seem[s] to demand powerful utterance’ simply has the king delivering the words using a calm inner voice (Foakes 263).
However, I found the film’s main problem is a strange curtailment of key dramatic moments. Gloucester’s blinding is literally all over in a blink of an eye. Although Edgar’s return to battle with Edmund is given a dramatic entrance and pause as he sits poised on a horse wearing head armour, the sword fight is over in seconds as Edgar simply stabs Edmund in the chest. In a similar build up, the film shows the armies of Albany and Cornwall versus the French readying themselves on hillsides. The actual battle is never shown.
The film ends with a washed-out Lear sitting slumped over Cordelia’s corpse. Cured of his violent temper that incorporated his ability to rule, Lear’s only option is to die. He is then cremated in a raging fire that had no doubt consumed him all his life.
Foakes, R. A. ‘Footnote’. King Lear by William Shakespeare. 1606. Ed. R. A. Foakes. London: Arden Shakespeare, 1997, 263.
Halpern, Richard. The Poetics of Primitive Accumulation: English Renaissance Culture and the Genealogy of Capital. Ithaca & London: Cornell Paperbacks, 1991.
Liebler, Naomi Conn. Shakespeare’s Festive Tragedy: THe Ritual Foundations of Genre. London & New York: Routledge, 1995.
Rorty, Amélie Oksenberg. ‘The Psychology of Aristotelian Tragedy.’ Essays on Aristotle’s Poetics. Ed. Amélie Oksenberg Rorty. Princeton: Princeton Paperbacks, 1992.
Shakespeare, William. King Lear. 1606. Ed. R. A. Foakes. London: Arden Shakespeare, 1997.