King Lear
Introduction

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King Lear is a masterpiece of literary fiction.  Ian McKellen and Trevor Nunn have rendered the play in a masterful fashion.  PBS has broadcast the play, and now makes it available here, at Great Performances Online.  A masterpiece done in masterful fashion should not be missed.

However, King Lear is long, complicated, and quite strange.  It has also been interpreted more broadly and in more diverse ways than any other Shakespeare play.  As all great art that can be endlessly appreciated, King Lear can be explored and experienced in many ways, but not all at once.  Much as one must view a great cathedral from a particular vantage point, one can only appreciate King Lear from some perspective or point of view—one or many.  This Lear section of the Great Performances site provides a great deal of information about King Lear, and offers a variety of points of view. We cordially invite you to watch the film at Great Performances Online.  We also invite you to explore the many ways in which the play can be appreciated, and contribute your own thoughts.  King Lear may be fiction, but it offers one the richest ways we have for thinking about life.

McKellen’s riveting film may also be purchased at www.shoppbs.org.  Put King Lear in the search bar.

“It is we who paint the leaves.”

As a work of the dramatic arts, King Lear places unusual demands upon us. A temple, a painting, even a poem or a novel, have some sense of permanence, a thing itself to be seen or read. A play is more like a symphony, marks on a page that must be brought to life by someone other than the author. We can read King Lear of course; indeed, to understand the play it must be read. But the written play presumes a state of incompleteness. The complete work demands a director, actors, a place to perform it, and an audience. It is the ultimate experience of art as collaboration.

Before movies, King Lear in this complete state was ironically transient, gone when the curtain closed. But we now have eleven movie versions of King Lear.  Next year we will receive a movie version with Al Pacino as Lear.  (A planned movie with Anthony Hopkins and a star-studded cast has been either canceled or indefinitely delayed.)  They are all worthwhile, but they are each different from the others, sometimes dramatically so. Despite the sense of permanence that the reproduction of movies gives us, King Lear on film still requires collaboration with the one thing that all art involves in the end—us.

This web site offers the following sections to allow us to appreciate and engage with the play.

Interview with Ian McKellen. Ian McKellen talks about his sense of filming King Lear.

Watch the Play. The full film in small screen format.

The Play in Summary and Full Text. Brief synopsis.  Introduction through film clips.  Full scene-by-scene synopsis with commentary.  Full text of Shakespeare’s King Lear divided into scenes or scene segments with companion clip from McKellen film for each segment, including indication of text cuts for PBS version of the McKellen film.

Films and Print Editions.  Introduction to the McKellen film. Biographies of Ian McKellen and Trevor Nunn.  Reviews of McKellen film.  Ten more films of King Lear with casts and reviews.  Six film adaptations of the Lear story.  All in-print editions of King Lear with reviews and recommendations. All in-print collected works of Shakespeare with reviews and recommendations.

Background on Shakespeare.  Shakespeare biography.  Did Shakespeare write his plays?  English stage history.  Shakespeare’s England.

Background on King Lear.  Sources Shakespeare plundered for King Lear.  The problem of two different texts for the play.  The bizarre stage history of King Lear.

Engaging with the Play.  What this might mean.  Ways of seeing the play, from diverse perspectives.  Themes the play naturally, or unnaturally, provokes—the play’s questions.  Ways King Lear might be connected to other plays of Shakespeare, other literature, or other things in the world at large.

Education. At present, a compilation of lesson ideas around King Lear from high school teachers, supplied through the Folger Shakespeare Library.

  • Carmen Knapp

    I do not have a television. Can I watch the show King Lear, airing 3/25 online?

  • Kim MacRae

    You say your web site is still being developed. How about developing a cast list for the film so we can know who we are watching later this week? I have searched and cannot find one on your site. I am looking forward to seeing this film.

  • marian christian

    I look forward to more details of this rendition of Lear

  • Sumita Bhattacharya

    I am looking forward to watching the preview and following the thread afterwards. King Lear is my favorite Shakespeare play and I would be interested in looking at it from as many diverse perspectives as possible.

  • Hank Cierski

    Thank you for putting one of the brightest many faceted literary gems ever to be read or heard and, above all, seen.

  • paul georges

    what are the date(s) and time that the unedited version of king learill be shown?

  • http://stevenhartsite.wordpress.com/2009/03/24/stage-magic/ Stage magic « STEVENHARTSITE

    [...] production of King Lear, PBS is showing the filmed version tomorrow night on Great Performances, then making it available online. There’s a DVD already out in the U.K., so I can only hope we’ll be getting a Stateside [...]

  • Glen

    Given the fact that the telecast of King Lear could be viewed by young children I would suggest that the “nudity” part be omitted. On stage, in a controlled showing, this would be expected and welcomed as part of the Shakespeare experience. However, I do not support that type of on air,TV viewing, and to remove that part would not detract from the performance and it would maintain a moral standard.

  • http://npt08.wordpress.com/2009/03/24/nashville-shakespeare-fests-denise-hicks-on-king-lear/ Nashville Shakespeare Fest’s Denise Hicks on King Lear « NPT Media Update

    [...] March 24, 2009 by Joe P. Ian McKellan as King LearOn Wednesday, March 25, at 7:00 p.m. on NPT, in GREAT PERFORMANCES’ “King Lear,” Ian McKellen gives a tour-de-force performance as Shakespeare’s tragic titular monarch in this [...]

  • JOSE GARCIA

    I AM IN BEAUTIFUL MEXICO AND WOULD LIKE TO WATCH (internet) SOME TV PROGRAMS FROM YOU. KING LEAR IS ONE OF THEM. HOW SHOULD I DO THAT. I LISTEN TO WXXI CLASSICAL MUSIC EVERYDAY. GRACIAS

  • Charles Montague

    Please, someone clean up the text up there in the introduction. Surely this subject deserves clearer copy?

  • Laurie

    Glen, are you serious?! The naked human form isn’t evil or something that should be hidden from view! If you’re uncomfortable with the human body, then maybe you need to discuss the issue with your family. Shakespeare and the people of his time weren’t concerned about nudity as a natural state of being and neither should we. The problem with nudity these days is that people automatically assume that nudity=sexuality and that simply isn’t true. Lear running naked at a critical point in the play is intense and it’s a reflection of his mindset and how by shedding his clothes he realizes how vulnerable he is.

  • Matty

    Glen Says:
    “Given the fact that the telecast of King Lear could be viewed by young children I would suggest that the “nudity” part be omitted.”

    What child today would have an interest in watching King Lear on PBS? None that I know of.

    I want the production to air as is, I’m fed up of all the censorship going on lately and all these people with their so-called “morals”. Funny how when there’s nudity involved they all get bent out of shape, but yet every form of violence imaginable can be shoved down our throats and these same people won’t even bat an eyelash. The human body (or sex) is nothing to be ashamed of.

  • http://dailyrevolution.net/?p=4732 Tonight, Watch TV | dailyrevolution.net

    [...] the land, there is something that will very likely become a classic moment in TV history — Ian McKellen as King Lear. If you like, have the text handy too — if you don’t have a book of the plays, go [...]

  • Celia Jacobowitz

    I recently switched to Verizon Direct TV and can no longer get NYC channels. I hope this will change but my area which is considered Princeton does not receive NYC channels only Philadelphia Sorry for you and me.

  • Michael Hoshall

    Kim MacRae — you can finf the whole cast list at IMDB.com under Ian McKellen’s listing. :-) PBS is the BEST!!!!!!!!

  • Colin

    The show will be online as of tomorrow 3/26

  • Bruce Paulsen

    Is nobody involved in this production other than Sir Ian and Trevor Nunn? It might be interesting to know what other actors make up the ensemble.

  • Bruce Paulsen

    Michael — I missed seeing your comment before I asked about the cast. Thanks for shedding light!

  • RoseMary Johnson

    Matty, you said that “The human body (or sex) is nothing to be ashamed of.” I absolutely agree. However, I don’t think it necessarily follows that we should be able to display it all over the place. Morality is not (or at least should not be) prudery; rather, it is should be based on an understanding of the human body and sex as sacred. They are sacred because they are not the same in humans as they are in animals; human sexuality is not just reproduction–it is also a powerful way of expressing love.

    Thus, censorship should be based on the belief that the human body must not be displayed in surroundings that ignore or deny its immense dignity and value. This does not mean that the portrayal of the human body or sex in art should be totally banned–it just means that art must never treat human sexuality lightly or demeaningly. I think Laurie makes a good case for nudity in King Lear when he observes: “Lear running naked at a critical point in the play is intense and it’s a reflection of his mindset and how by shedding his clothes he realizes how vulnerable he is.”

    When you introduce children into the matter, however, the problem becomes more complex, as Glenn observed. Most children are not mature enough to understand intellectually the great beauty and holiness of sex. Thus, we teach them how precious sex is (and remind ourselves) through symbols. What Matty calls “hiding” the human body is an object lesson. If a woman has a valuable diamond necklace, she hides it away in a secret place until she finds the perfect occasion to wear it. In the same way, we must guard the nakedness of our body and save it for those special occasions when we use it to express our love for another. The nakedness of our body, through the sexual act, is the most powerful tool we have to communicate love, and it will be dulled or destroyed if we use it in every circumstance, just as a knife will become dull if we use it as a can-opener.

    Sorry for going on and on–I just have such a high opinion of human sexuality that I can’t keep from jumping in when I think it is being given less than its due!

  • http://grainsfrommybrain.wordpress.com/2009/03/25/not-a-ren-faire/ Not a Ren Faire. «

    [...] bring this all up because tonight’s Great Performances on PBS features Sir Ian McKellen in King Lear. I will watch just about anything Magneto/Gandalf is [...]

  • Lisa Hahn

    Is it possible to buy this Great Performance of King Lear?

  • anne hawthorn

    Please let’s not get distracted by arguments about censorship. Censorship is bad. Personal autonomy is good. Censor only oneself and ones’ charges. Meanwhile, the grownups will watch this GP series. PS – Don’t forget to check out A Thousand Acres on DVD – King Lear in modern day American farmlands. Fascinating acting.

  • Tim Fielding

    As a school/university contemporary, acting colleague (v. minor) and classmate I was pleasantly surprised to detect the vestiges of a Lancastrian accent in his post-performance analysis of Lear. Sorry I missed the Reunion last year, Ian! Superb acting all around!!

  • Bill Fisher

    why no list of the credits? cast?
    pbs.org is often maddeningly incomplete.

  • http://freememberzone.com/king-lear-pbs/king-lear-pbs king lear pbs|everything about king lear pbs

    [...] the acclaimed Royal National Theatre production of King Lear, starring Ian Holm. http://www.pbs.orgKing Lear: Introduction | Great Performances | PBSKing Lear is a masterpiece of literary fiction. Ian McKellen and Trevor Nunn have rendered the play [...]

  • Linda Chiavaroli

    Kim McRae – There is a cast list in the pbs.org press room at
    http://pressroom.pbs.org/programs/great_performances/king_lear
    But viewers shouldn’t have to ferret it out. Shame on pbs for not having enough respect for the artists to make it part of this section of their web site. Credits roll so fast and sometimes unreadably small on programs these days that it’s absolutely necessary to have them on web sites.

  • Andrea Palladino

    I listened to King Lear tonight on the radio 97.9, and it was wonderful!

  • Jill

    Regarding Nudity in King Lear:

    Get a grip, people. If you don’t want your kids to watch it, then don’t let them watch it. But don’t let your own conception of “morality” or human sexuality enforce itself over everyone else. You have a choice here: You can turn the TV off, you know.

  • Roger Desy

    Best Lear I’ve seen. Thank you, Ian. Thank you, cast. Thank you, WQED.

  • Bill Kreher

    This is a masterpiece of literature done beautifully by a cast of true professionals.

  • James Crouser

    I also don’t have access to KET right now, but I’m very interested in seeing this program. It would be nice to see a version of it available online if at all possible.

  • VI Viewer

    The Actors, Actresses and all involved in this truely “great performance” did a wonderful job. The journey was full of unexpected turns, emotions, and very thought provoking. The cast was perfect. There were some heavy scenes and luckily the “fool” was their to make light of it all. I wasn’t able to see it to the end , so please re-show it if possible.

    Encore…Thanks,

    Virgin Island Viewer

  • colin fitzpatrick
  • PBS visitor

    Is the full film online yet? I can’t seem to find it anywhere. :/

  • Rae

    Looking for link to watch online. Not up yet?

  • Nancy Mericle

    The half that I got to see was magnificent. WHEN will it be repeated?

  • Jessy

    You can watch the whole play online:
    http://www.pbs.org/wnet/gperf/episodes/king-lear/watch-the-play/487/
    I can’t wait to get home from work and watch it with my husband!

  • Carl from California

    I’ve seen the live version at UCLA’s Royce Hall, and the PBS filmed version. Each has its moments to shine. They were slightly different in approach, by necessity. A play can’t be a film, nor can a film be a play. It’s an extraordinary Lear, in both cases. McKellen has a range of emotions that few actors could manage. The stage version was riveting, and the film version, intense. I’m getting the DVD. It’s a keeper!

  • Libby Dornbush

    My husband and I watched….or should I say “struggled to watch”….King Lear Wednesday night. Unfortunately, we are both hard of hearing. The station volume seemed to be turned very low and the closed captionning was useless…just a quick flashing by of most of the lines. We do know Lear well enough to follow it and a superb production it was, but the careless presentation by WGBH practically ruined it as a theatrical event.

  • Carl from California

    If you could’t follow the dialogue, get the DVD. It will have the option of captions. It’s also a very involved story, with many sub-stories. I recommended to the folks that attended the live version with me to read the Charles and Mary Lamb “Tales from Shakespeare” version of Lear. It tells the story in prose, so you know who is who.

  • Sean

    Wonderful!

    This is the PBS I miss a lot. I remember waiting every week to watch productions such as this. I recall Keith Mitchell in a scaled down ‘Henry VIII’ and Glenda Jackson in ‘Elizabeth R’.

    Watching this production of ‘King Lear’ reminds me how great PBS was, and how it did not try to compete with cable and network TV productions.

    Thank you to those involved in this production for proving a scaled down production is just as great as overproduced film and television shows.

    As for the actors, all of them are great and have a startling grasp of their craft.

    It would be wonderful if PBS decided to stage Dame Anna Massey’s ‘Daunt and Dervish’. Ms. Massey is a marvellous actress.

    Nonetheless, why are there no more programs like ‘King Lear’? Where are Dame Kiri Te Kanawa’s operas? I could list more PBS used to be hailed for. Now PBS looks too much like every station on the television and hard-sells us all every chance it can. Believe me, if I like what I see on PBS – I’ll buy it! I do not need to be well groomed talking heads trying to sell me something every five minutes. Still, thank you for this look back at PBS has it used to be.

    Thank you for your time.

  • Sean

    Wonderful!

    This is the PBS I miss a lot. I remember waiting every week to watch productions such as this. I recall Keith Mitchell in a scaled down ‘Henry VIII’ and Glenda Jackson in ‘Elizabeth R’.

    Watching this production of ‘King Lear’ reminds me how great PBS was, and how it did not try to compete with cable and network TV productions.

    Thank you to those involved in this production for proving a scaled down production is just as great as overproduced film and television shows.

    As for the actors, all of them are great and have a startling grasp of their craft.

    It would be wonderful if PBS decided to stage Dame Anna Massey’s ‘Daunt and Dervish’. Ms. Massey is a marvellous actress.

    Nonetheless, why are there no more programs like ‘King Lear’? Where are Dame Kiri Te Kanawa’s operas? I could list more PBS used to be hailed for. Now PBS looks too much like every station on the television and hard-sells us all every chance it can. Believe me, if I like what I see on PBS – I’ll buy it! I do not need well groomed talking heads trying to sell me something every five minutes. Still, thank you for this look back at PBS has it used to be.

    Thank you for your time.

    ***Typo Corrected***

  • Denise Lundy

    What a brilliant production! I have HD & felt like I was there with the cast. As usual Sir Ian has outdone himself and the rest of the cast was fabulous. Costumes, etc. just can’t rave enough. This should be made available to the English Depts. in US Schools. While reading the play was great, IwWish we had had this media of this quality in the 70’s to bring these plays to life.
    Note to Glen: This is Shakespeare. How impudent of you to expect King Lear to be watered down for children (who are too young to get it anyway). Would you have them put jocky shorts on David?

  • Daniel Angus Cox

    Thank you PBS for making this available. I was glued to my TV by this performance. Amazing work not only by McKellen(Gandalf, Magneto) but supporting cast as well. Sylvester McCoy(Doctor Who)will surprise you, as well as Phillip Hincliffe(Robinson Crusoe). If you’ve only seen these actors in their movie and film roles then be prepared for a real treat. Well filmed and makes you feel you are there in the theater, and superbly directed by the always brilliant Trevor Nunn. Some of the best acting I have ever seen. All serious actors should want to study this. See it soon if you can.

  • Blind Guy

    Cast
    King Lear – Ian McKellen
    Goneril – Frances Barber
    Regan – Monica Dolan
    Cordelia – Romola Garai
    Albany – Julian Harries
    Cornwall – Guy Williams
    Gloucester – William Gaunt
    Edgar – Ben Meyjes
    Edmund – Philip Winchester
    Kent – Jonathon Hyde
    Fool – Sylvester McCoy

  • Carl from California

    I got the DVD, and much to my surprise, there is NOT an option for captions. Sorry. PBS, advisory: put in captions option, particularly when you’re dealing with archaic language, and people who can’t enunciate (Sylvester Mccoy is a fine actor, but we had difficulty hearing bits of his dialogue in both the live and DVD versions), and for people who are auditorially impaired

  • http://www.enotes.com/blogs/english-teacher-blog/2009-03/king-lear-and-the-folger/ The English Teacher Blog » Blog Archive » King Lear and the Folger

    [...] March 25, PBS airs Trevor Nunn’s production of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s King Lear, originally staged in Stratford-upon-Avon in the spring of 2007. “Today, advances in [...]

  • Borden

    Hi. In the future I’m going to keep here links to their sites. But I do not worry about the sites where my link is removed. So if you do not want to see a mountain of links, simply delete this message. After 2 weeks, I will come back and check.

  • Jase

    But the cutting out of mans eyes is OK for kids to see.

  • Beverly

    RoseMary, that’s the most beautiful statement of the case I’ve yet read. Thank you; I’m saving it.

    As far as Lear running naked on the heath is concerned, there’s no indication in the play that he does so: also, even Edgar as Poor Tom has kept his blanket about his loins, “lest we all be shamed,” as Shakespeare says. Lear, in the storm scene when he first meets Edgar, says, “Here’s three on us are sophisticated” (for wearing clothes, that is).

    I think Lear’s nakedness is distracting, and a rather thumpingly literal “symbol” of vulnerability.

  • virginia

    For use in school, yes. I don’t want to debate. It is merely the reality.

  • http://www.dailymile.com/people/Mack165 Domenic Deyette

    When I originally commented I appear to have clicked on the -Notify me when new comments are added- checkbox and from now on each time a comment is added I get four emails with the exact same comment. Perhaps there is a means you are able to remove me from that service? Kudos!

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