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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.