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Introduction to King Lear

 

King Lear is a problematic play in that it asks more questions than it answers; a Problem play that is not wholly resolved.  That is, it may have a simple plot with many twists and turns, but it is full of rich ambiguity, many  contradictions and multiple interpretations. As John Bell  claims,  Shakespeare does not show his hand; he raises many issues, delineates both sides but then lets us the audience draw our own conclusions.  With Shakespeare's plays, there is always another interpretation.  

“We can seldom be certain about anything. People want infallible answers; only liars or politicians have answers.  Art should ask the questions”       Michael Haneke, Film Director

King Lear is a difficult play to produce for many reasons; the intensity of the emotions it attempts to evoke makes it more suitable for the sounds of poetry than to be acted out on stage.  William Hazlitt warned “ All we can say of Lear must fall far short of the subject, or even what we ourselves conceive of it”  Hazlitt considered it the best of Shakespeare’s plays “it is the one in which he was the most earnest.”

John Bell admits that despite playing in at least three different productions, it is a role "he never got";  it is the impossibility of cracking the part: condensing that Dante-esque vision of humanity into two hours, conveying all the horror of the world while the audience fidgets and checks their programs.

Many consider it unproduceable and it remained one of the least performed of his tragedies for many years.  Early versions of the play after the restoration until the late 19th C. were sanitised by Nahum Tate to the extent that at the end all the characters are reconciled and live happily ever after.  Eventually with the rise of modern theatre, directors began to revive authentic Shakespearean plays reflecting the style of their time.  The first was by Edmund Kean in 1823.

Variant productions espouse the divergent interpretations of the play as well as what an authentic Shakespearean portrayal would be.  The determining factors in interpretive productions are Casting, settings and props, lighting, positioning, Scripting, costuming, directing of actors actions and expressions……

Critical Approaches to King Lear:

 

What the syllabus actually says:

There is no mention of the ‘isms’ in the syllabus. They are not mandated.

Module B states:

This module requires students to explore and evaluate a specific text and Its reception in a range of contexts. It develops students’ understanding of questions of textual integrity.

It demands close study of the text and also requires that students ‘research others’ perspectives of the text and test these against their own understanding and interpretations’. In doing so, they need to ‘evaluate the ways in which the set work has been read, received and valued in historical and other contexts [and]… extrapolate from this study …to explore questions of textual integrity and significance. 

The emphasis is on a critical reading, ie; evaluating various readings ‘against their own and others’. The end point of the study is that students question the integrity of the text asking: how can a text be read differently in different times and by different people? What is it about the context of reception that influences meaning? These questions assist students in addressing Outcomes 1, 2A, 12 and 12A.

There are essentially two ways of presenting King Lear, in the tradition of an:

Aristotelian tragedy of identification and empathising or

Platonic - a Brechtian Epic Theatre using Alienating and disengaging techniques.  


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