King Lear with Christopher Plummer

Full Episode

King Lear with Christopher Plummer airs on PBS, Friday, January 30, 2015 at 10 p.m.

King Lear is universally acknowledged as one of Shakespeare’s greatest tragic roles. Plummer has played the role under the direction of Sir Jonathan Miller (who, we discover, has directed it six times).

Lear was, in fact, a real English king, who lived 800 years before Christ. Shakespeare’s premise of Lear dividing his kingdom among his daughters and, in the process, disinheriting his favorite is, for the most part, supposedly true. It is included in the Chronicles of English History, which Shakespeare often used as source material. The historic story has a happy ending, but Shakespeare gave his theatrical interpretation a dreadful dénouement that has been shocking audiences for 400 years.

Ian McKellen and Simon Russell Beale share their insights into this often-difficult character. And Plummer examines what inspired Shakespeare to write a play about a kingdom divided – at a delicate moment when a new King (James) from Scotland was trying to create what has become the “united kingdom.”

We learn how the storm scenes might have been produced at Shakespeare’s own theater, and how they represent the storm going on in Lear’s mind. The pain he endures is so intense that Shakespeare’s version of the story was soon rewritten with a happy ending; at the Globe, we see this alternate ending acted out. Then we return to the real play and its heart-breaking tragedy of old age. One of Shakespeare’s later plays, its ending may reflect something of his own mature cynicism. The powers of good fail and the gods do not prevent the deaths of Lear and Cordelia. But Plummer finds that beneath the cosmic emptiness, the possibility of love survives.