Background on King Lear

Shakespeare’s Sources

King Lear As was his general habit, Shakespeare borrowed his two plots from previous sources. Holinshed reported in his Chronicles (1577) a story that dates back as far as Geoffrey of Monmouth (1136) in which a supposedly real King Leir who ruled England around 800 BC divides his kingdom between two of his daughters, disowning the third for failing his love test, who nevertheless marries the King of France. Abused thereafter by the successful daughters, Leir goes to France, unites with his third daughter and her husband, and regains his throne by military force. The story took many shapes and variations, including a history play produced before 1595 in which the daughters actually try to murder Leir. The Edmund story came from Sidney’s Arcadia. In both cases Shakespeare made radical changes.

Summary . . . Geoffrey of Monmouth . . . Holinshed . . . Spenser . . . Sidney. . .  King Leir the play

Bizarre Stage History

Shakespeare wrote King Lear around 1605. His version held the stage until 1681. In that year Nahum Tate introduced a radical rewrite to satisfy changing stage fashion. Tate struck many lines and the Fool, rewrote many others, added a love affair between Cordelia and Edgar, and fashioned a happy ending. With a few exceptions Tate’s version and versions of it held the English and American stages until 1838, more than 150 years. Restored to Shakespeare’s original, the play subsequently went through many interpretative variations, including enormous stage spectacles (more mechanical thunder and lightning than words), radical Christian treatments (Lear dies happy in his redemption), radical dark treatments (Lear as emblem of human horror and emptiness), a Russian film version with music from Shostokovic, and superb adaptations (say, Kurosawa’s Ran). It is in this sense the most refashioned play Shakespeare wrote.

Reading the Tate version of the play, given here in synopsis and full text forms, can be quite rewarding. It is not a bad play—it probably comes closer to our present popular movie sensibilities than Shakespeare’s version. But it is not a great play. Comparing the two can suggest some reasons why Shakespeare’s is a great play.

The Two Text Problem

FolioThere are two texts for King Lear, a QuartoFolio
published in 1608, some two years after the play was first produced (Q), and a Folio published in 1623 (F), seven years after Shakespeare died. (Quarto and Folio refer to book sizes, which depend upon the number of times a printed sheet is folded, a Quarto four times for eight pages, a Folio twice for four pages. The Folio is larger and more expensive.) There are more than 360 lines, and more than 1000 words that are different from one text to the other.

It is commonly accepted today that both were written by Shakespeare.  Thus we have two King Lears.  For three centuries editors have pushed the two together, for a third conflated text.  However, this text would require four hours to stage.  So all film and most stage productions cut the play substantially (as would have been the practice of Shakespeare himself).

Ian McKellan as King Lear

“Nothing, my lord.”

Perspectives on the McKellen/Nunn film version of King Lear

King Lear has been interpreted over its 400 year history with greater variety than any other play from Shakespeare.  Described alternately as Shakespeare’s “Everest”, and his deepest plunge into the human soul, there is no intrinsic, coherent view of the play’s meaning. In attempting to stage King Lear, a director must decide at least three things: to emphasize the spectacle of Lear’s behavior, or his state of mind; how to characterize the changes in Lear’s state of mind as the play progresses;  and how to portray Lear’s condition in the context of the human spirit —hopeful, or hopeless?  Meaningful, or meaningless? Known or unknown?  Should the 80 year-old king be be portrayed as majestic, yet enraged (as opposed to mad); childish and mad; or enfeebled by age to the point of senility; or somewhere in between?

Trevor Nunn  chooses the last of these alternatives. This helps to makes sense of the play’s opening scenes, but it creates the most difficult task for the actor; Lear has to be clear and quite rational at crucial moments, he must develop and change, and he must in the end be responsible for what he says and does. On the human spirit Nunn chose a kind of agnosticism, symbolized most graphically by Edgar’s plea to heaven at the end, which goes unanswered. (The film cuts Edgar’s line, “the gods are just.”)  But it is less a declaration of hopelessness than a suspicion. Nunn steers clear of  both the unmitigated darkness of Peter Brook’s 1971 film version and the of the virtual beatitude ending Olivier’s 1985 film version. But he also avoids the hope of rebuilding the world one feels at the end of Kozintsev’s 1971 Russian film. The bodies pulled into the mist ending Ian Holm’s 1998 film create an impression much like Nunn’s, but Holm’s Lear is radically different from McKellen’s. Fortunately, we have all these films to see, each rewarding, each expanding our own sense of the play’s many possibilities. To this library we can only welcome Nunn’s prodigious effort.

Nunn’s film  production departs considerably from his stage production, particularly the one at Stratford-on-Avon. The latter created a considerable degree of spectacle, including half the side-rear wall crashing down mid way through. The film is comparatively quiet. It is played with backgrounds dissolved in darkness until the beginning of Act IV when we see Gloucester, blinded, wandering towards Dover; suddenly the sky is bright and blank, the ground visible. Between this and persistent close-ups, the film loses a sense of spectacle but gains a sense of chiseled psychological space. While the film has cut at least a thousand lines from the full play, it has taken them from longer speeches, retaining all but one of the scenes, and all of the relevant action. (See the comparison of the play’s full text and that of the film for comparison. The British release of the film is half an hour longer, but still a good hour short of the play with every word.)

The minimal sets and costuming reflect a number of periods, hence no period at all (guns appear from time to time amidst the candles and suggestions of a pre-Christian era). The film does retain Nunn’s most shocking innovation relative to Shakespeare (not to be disclosed here). And to remove any curiosity about the film’s most publicized but least interesting possibility, McKellen does appear to undress completely, but the film cuts him off at the waist; there is no spectacle here.  For those fond of Waiting for Godot, look for the tree—the connection must be intended.

Finally, without giving a real review of the film until it has been broadcast on 25 March, it can be said that this film works, and any film of King Lear that works is a great film.

There are presently ten film versions of King Lear on DVD. Each is worthwhile, but each differs from the others, at times considerably. For a first film, one should not choose Orson Wells or Paul Scofield. Rather, one should see Ian Holm or Lawrence Olivier. However, after the first taste, one should see the Kozintsev Russian version, Scofield (really Peter Brook) in the darkest version, and Orson Wells (also directed by Brook) in a radically abbreviated version, but with the words spoken like no other.

Note that the McKellen version will likely be released in DVD this year. Next year Anthony Hopkins and Al Pacino will release their versions of King Lear for theaters, both in performances that begin life as screen plays, not stage plays.

King Lear has also been adapted to other stories or forms, most notably in Akira Kurosawa’s Ran (which means “chaos.”)

  • 1953 Orson Welles as Lear, McCullough / Brook, directorsOrson Welles as Lear
  • 1971 Paul Scofield as Lear, Peter Brook director
  • 1971 Juri Jarvet as Lear, Grigori Kozintsev director, in Russian
  • 1974 Patrick Magee as Lear, Tony Davenall director,
  • 1974 James Earl Jones as Lear, Edwin Sherin director
  • 1982 Michael Hordern as Lear, Jonathon Miller director, BBC
  • 1982 Mike Kellen as Lear, Mike Kellen director
  • 1985 Lawrence Olivier as Lear, Michael Elliot director
  • 1998 Ian Holm as Lear, Richard Eyre director, BBC
  • 1999 Brian Blessed as Lear, Brian Blessed director
  • 2008 Ian McKellen as Lear, Trevor Nunn director
  • 2010 Anthony Hopkins as Lear, Joshua Stern director
  • 2010 (?) Al Pacino as Lear, Michael Radford director

Film Adaptations

  • 1983 The Dresser, Albert Finney, Peter Yates, directorRan
  • 1985 Ran, Akira Kurosawa, director
  • 1987 King Lear by Jean Luc-Godard
  • 1997 A Thousand Acres, Jason Robards, Jocelyn Moorhouse director
  • 2001 My Kingdom, Richard Harris and Lynn Redgrave
  • 2002 King of Texas, Patrick Stewart as John Lear, Uli Edel director (TV)
  • 2007 Baby Cakes Sees a Play, Brad Neely

Reading Editions

The following texts provide some introductory material, clean texts, and annotations for unfamiliar words on pages facing the text pages.They are inexpensive.

  • King Lear, Bantam, David Bevington, editor
  • King Lear, Washington Square Press (Folger Library), Barbara Mowat and Pual Werstine, editors (Amazon does not recognize “Folger” as a publisher)

Academic Editions

The following texts either provide much deeper material in copious footnotes (Arden) or a significant number of critical essays (Norton). For serious Shakespeare reading of King Lear, one should have a reading text from above and both the Arden and Norton (supposing one is not interested in the two-text question itself). For what they are, they are inexpensive.

  • King Lear, Norton, Grace Ioppolo, editorArden's Lear
  • King Lear, Arden, R. A. Foakes, editor

Complete Works

There are seven in-print editions of Shakespeare’s complete dramatic works (with some including his poetry). Five provide a conflated text. Each provides footnotes for unfamiliar words or phrases.

  • The Complete Works of Shakespeare, Pearson/Longman, David Bevington, editor
  • The Norton Shakespeare Based on the Oxford Edition, Greenblatt, Cohen, Howard, Maus editors
  • The Riverside Shakespeare, Evans and Tobin, general editors
  • The Complete Pelican Shakespeare, Stephen Orgel and A. R. Braunmuller, editors
  • The Arden Shakespeare, Proudfoot, Thompson, and Kastan, editors