“It is we who paint the leaves”
This King Lear section of Great Performances Online provides a wide range of resources for appreciating King Lear, as well as a living means by which the play may be actively and creatively engaged. The resources include: Ian McKellen’s full film (after 25 March); reviews of all other films and print editions of King Lear; synopses and the full play text combined with the McKellen film; background on Ian McKellen, Trevor Nunn, Shakespeare and his time, English stage history, and the quite strange history of the play itself, including more than a century in which the play had a happy ending. The section’s active part provides various perspectives on the play that, frankly, admit the play’s confusions and unwillingness to be exactly this or that. Perhaps no other play asks so many questions and then refuses to answer them. The play’s central question, of mankind itself, comes from a deranged Lear at the center of the play as he looks upon a dirty, nearly naked Edgar in a state of utter but pretended madness: “Is man no more than this?” But many corollary questions about how man conducts his life, his family, his state, his art, his language, and his philosophy pour out of the film like the storm in its featured middle act. The play thus challenges us to answer its questions, individually or together, in terms of how the world seems to us today. This Great Performances section hopes to help.
For the most part this section presents material in two or three levels of detail—a thumbnail or sketch, a more detailed picture, and then in some cases a leap into deeper regions. You may go as deep as you like. You may comment anywhere. The section itself will grow over time. Soon after 25 March 2009 (the date of the PBS broadcast of the McKellen King Lear) it will provide the following elements:
The McKellen King Lear. The full film in small screen format.
The Play Itself. 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. Ian McKellen. 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.
Backgrounds. Shakespeare himself. Did Shakespeare write his plays. English stage history. Shakespeare’s England. 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.
Over the three months following the initial PBS broadcast, this section will fill in some material in the elements above (most notably a full set of annotations for the play and more detail background pictures of Shakespeare and his times), refresh the material based on your commentary, and add a section on how to have fun with King Lear.
King Lear is a work of art. But as a work of the dramatic arts, it 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 ten movie versions of King Lear. The production from Ian McKellen and Trevor Nunn will make it eleven. 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.
To bring us into some collaborative contact with King Lear is the central hope of Great Performances and this section of its web site.
NOTE: Some elements on this section have been borrowed from others. They are signified by a web address which may link to the owner’s site. If you click on such a link, you may leave this site, with no assurance that you can return at the point you left. For your convenience, we suggest you bookmark the home page of this section, www.pbs.org/wnet/gperf/episodes/king-lear/introduction/475/. We also encourage you to subscribe to our RSS feed to keep up with the latest content published on the Great Performances site.