Background – general
Prof G K Hunter has written: “King Lear is generally agreed today to be Shakespeare’s ‘greatest play’….The play as a whole gives an impression of a monolithic and rough-hewn grandeur” [New Penguin edition, 1972, page 7].
Prof R A Foakes has written: “King Lear stands like a colossus at the centre of Shakespeare’s achievement as the grandest effort of his imagination” [Arden 3 edition, 1997, page 1].
However, doyen theatre critic Michael Billington has left Lear out of his 101 Greatest Plays [Guardian Books and Faber & Faber, 2015]. He explains his decision thus: “I admit it’s a craggily awesome play….I can only say that….I find it structurally unwieldy: the Gloucester sub-plot too consciously mirrors the main plot, and I find Edgar’s refusal to identify himself to his father inexplicable and needlessly cruel” [page 15].
TV productions include the BBC Television version (1982) (with Sir Michael Hordern as Lear), the Granada Television version (1983) (with Laurence Olivier as the King), and the British-American TV film shown on the BBC in May 2018, directed by Sir Richard Eyre, with Sir Anthony Hopkins in the title role. The running time of the latter is 115 minutes, because of substantial cuts. Because of the bleakness and the cruelty intrinsic to the play – enhanced in performance – I have waited for nearly three years to watch it (saved as it is on my “black box” hard drive).
In order to properly revisit the play and to re-evaluate it, I decided to re-read it and also to compare it with the 2018 television film.
I have found that my re-reading, at speed, with little reference to explanatory notes, has taken about three-and-a-quarter hours. I have relied on the Arden 3 text – a conflation of the Quarto and Folio texts of the early 17th century. A performance of all of this would take as long, if not longer, because of stage business (music and movements without speech). It is a long play: doubtless all directors feel obliged to curtail it somewhat.
Conclusions from re-reading
1 The main plot resembles a fairy tale, with its two “bad” elder daughters and one “good” younger one. Compare the Cinderella story, in its various versions. The minor plot has one “good” elder son and one “bad” younger one.
2 King Lear’s career goes through the last three stages of Shakespeare’s “Seven Ages of Man” (compare As You Like It): at the outset, he is like the “justice”; as he declines there is some resemblance to the “pantaloon” and even “second childishness”. However: (i) Lear’s character undergoes a partial reversal of this process, at the end; (ii) it is Gloucester, not Lear, who is “sans eyes”, from Act 3 Scene 7 onwards.
3 Does Lear go “mad”? Many say so. Does he suffer from dementia? But he does not suffer from a readily recognisable mental illness. The best fit is a depression, in reaction to his vicissitudes (and to his realisation of his poor decision making).
4 The language of the play is rhetorical and poetic; it is varied; but many words and phrases are obscure and require notes for understanding. Often, the poetry overwhelms the progress of the story. Some passages are like operatic arias: see for example Edgar’s description of the coastal landscape [4.6.11-24] from the top of the cliff, and also his pretence that his father has survived a great fall [4.6.49-59].
5 While editors Hunter and Foakes use the Folio text rather than the Quartos as the basis of their editions, several Quarto passages omitted from the Folio are useful for inclusion in a performance because of their poetic and dramatic qualities – for example Lear’s “trial” of Goneril and Regan [3.6.17-55].
6 The part of the Fool is an attractive one. He is the only source of “comic relief” in the whole play. Unaccountably, he goes missing in the middle of the play.
7 The opening scene is truly magnificent – it is all that one could hope for as an exposition. It is paralleled somewhat by the final tableau [circa 5.3.229-325], where all three daughters are re-united – albeit in death – on the stage, where Lear himself joins them.
8 The scene where Gloucester is blinded on stage (Act 3 Scene 7) is unbearable to watch. An example of an excess of bad taste?
9 Arguably, Shakespeare loses control of his complex material in the last third or so of the play. There are some riddles here:
- What happens to the Fool?
- What happens to the King of France?
- What does Kent do during the battle?
- Why does Edgar not reveal his true identity to his father?
- How does Edgar change back into a respectable-looking man (and make a good impression on Albany)?
- Does Edmund die from his wounds?
- How can a private duel take place in the aftermath of a battle?
10 The Gloucester-Edgar-Edmund sub-plot is closely linked to the main plot, but the elaborate working out of it takes up much space on the page (and much time on the stage or screen if it is given its full scope). I have some sympathy with the judgement of Michael Billington (above), but I wonder how any excision of the sub-plot could be carried out satisfactorily.
Remarks on the 2018 television film
1 This is a “modern dress” production, which includes “soldiers” in camouflage uniform. (Perhaps the real armed forces contribute to the pool of extras.)
2 The principal actors are justly famous, and their acting here is impressive. Sir Anthony as Lear, Emma Thompson as Goneril, Emily Watson as Regan, and Jim Broadbent as Gloucester, fit their roles as hands fit in gloves. The roles of Cordelia (Florence Pugh), Edgar (Andrew Scott) and Kent (Jim Carter) are much reduced.
3 The cuts mentioned above are pretty drastic; the momentum – the main thrust of the story – is maintained; some of the links in the chain of events are missing, because of these omissions.
4 Emma Thompson and Emily Watson succeed in making Goneril and Regan appear as somewhat reasonable in contrast with their unreasonable father – that is, until their capability for mercilessness and cruelty is exposed unambiguously.
5 The film is well worth watching.
King Lear has many fine dramatic qualities, with memorable poignant scenes and evocations of character. It also has many highly poetic passages. Visiting it and revisiting it (whether on the page, in the theatre, in the cinema or on television) is a “must” for lovers of Shakespeare.
Whether it is his “greatest play” remains a matter of dispute. This not a competition!