King Lear

Throughout the given assignment, there will be the discussion of the relationship between theatre and its socio-culture context and this will be through the use of the theatrical history of Shakespeare’s King Lear.

There have been many interpretations throughout the years, most of which have shown King Lear in a distinct way, or changed it altogether from what it was originally created to be: a tragedy.

It is a play of an ageing superficial king in ancient Britain who requires loud declarations of love from his daughters to find which of the three loves him most, promising them his kingdom in return. Two of his daughters, Regan and Goneril, share their love for him without hesitation, flattering him and in return, receive fractions of his kingdom. However, his third daughter, Cordelia, refuses to proclaim her love for her father in such an insincere way, stating, “I cannot heave my heart into my mouth. I love your majesty according to my bond: nor more, nor less.” (Shakespeare and Cornwall, 2009). Due to her brusque declaration of love that was undesirable in his eyes, King Lear banishes Cordelia. It is an action he soon regrets when his older daughters cast him out into a storm. Despite being disowned, once she finds out what has happened to her father, Cordelia leads the French army’s invasion in a valiant effort to save her father. However, they are defeated by the English army, who are being led by Edmund, leading to Lear and Cordelia’s capture and, inevitably, their deaths. During that time, the elder daughters also die – Goneril having poisoned Regan out of jealousy over Edmund, followed by Goneril committing suicide when her treason is found out.

The first recorded performance of King Lear was on Boxing Day in 1606 and was part of the Christmas festivities, performed in front of King James I at Whitehall. Just as it was ill received then, in modern times, it is questioned “how suitable it is for festive entertainment” (Smith, 2012). This is due to the tragic ending that understandably depresses the audience, effectively evoking negative emotions that are unwanted during the holidays. It is even stated that King Lear was only performed twice after the Puritan Revolution, during the Restoration, where it was then replaced by Tate’s version.

Nahum Tate’s adaptation of King Lear first appeared in 1681 and it is believed to have replaced Shakespeare’s until 1838 (BBC, no date). Contrasting to Shakespeare’s tragic ending, Tate’s version ends on a lighter note, where King Lear regains his throne, Cordelia marries Edgar and he announces, “truth and virtue shall at last succeed.” (Tate, 1681). This interpretation, in the audiences’ eyes, was a vast improvement, leaving the original version to appear only in printed editions. It was not performed for over a hundred and fifty years. This shows that audiences crave happy endings, as plays, stories and movies are all escapes from reality.

There are several changes in the play, but the most noticeable changes include the exclusion of the King of France, the fool and the added evilness of the character Edmund, who plans to rape Cordelia and sends his men to kidnap her. As there is no inclusion of the King of France, Tate inserted a romantic relationship between Cordelia and Edgar. This could be viewed as interesting as the pairing never addressed one another in the original. Additionally, if one was to compare the couple, they would immediately discover the parallels between them, an example of this is that they are both loyal characters who care deeply for their fathers, even when they both turn against them. Through no fault of their own, they lose their bonds with their fathers and are forced to leave. They have their struggles with their villainous siblings and are later reunited with their fathers by the end of the play. Moreover, when Edmund sends his men to kidnap Cordelia, it is Edgar who saves her, even after she had told him not to speak of her love again. This could be Tate adding more sentimentality to the play, potentially trying to prove that good will always overcome evil.

It is the sentimentality, however, that many critics are against. While it was hugely popular on stage and altered to adapt to the changes created by the Restoration, there are many who condemned Tate’s version. These critics included: William Hazlitt, Charles Lamb, Anna Jameson and Joseph Addison. One critic in particular, August Wilhelm Schlegel, said the following, “I must own, I cannot conceive what ideas of art and dramatic connexion those persons have who suppose that we can at pleasure tack a double conclusion to a tragedy; a melancholy one for hard-hearted spectators, and a happy one for souls of a softer mould. After surviving so many sufferings, Lear can only die, and what more truly tragic end for him than to die from grief for the death of Cordelia? And if he is also to be saved and to pass the remainder of his days in happiness, the whole loses its signification.” (King Lear .org, no date). Despite their arguments, it is Tate’s version that triumphed.

From 1742 until 1776, David Garrick became the first actor/manager who attempted to revive the original King Lear by removing several of Tate’s alterations. Although he kept the happy ending and retained other major changes, he removed many of Tate’s lines, including Edgar’s closing speech and his relationship with Cordelia, in order to bring more attention to the relationship between Lear and his daughters. (Marsden, 2002). This was a wise move on his part, as the play was originally supposed to revolve entirely around the family, excluding the rivalry between Goneril and Regan when they discover their mutual feelings for the same man, Edmund. Including a relationship between Cordelia and Edgar is unnecessary and simply a way to appease the audience. Moreover, this particular version (the mixture of Shakespeare, Tate and Garrick) is said to have had a powerful effect on the audience, many being reduced to tears by Cordelia’s love and loyalty for her father alone.

In 1811, William Charles Macready brought the romantics’ attitude to King Lear while writing his essay “On the Tragedies of Shakespeare, Considered with Reference to Their Fitness for Stage Representation”. In his essay, he says the play “is essentially impossible to be represented on the stage,” preferring to experience it in the study. Additionally, in the theatre, he claims, “to see Lear acted, to see an old man tottering about the stage with a walking-stick, turned out of doors by his daughters on a rainy night, has nothing in it but what is painful and disgusting,” yet “while we read it, we see not Lear but we are Lear – we are in his mind, we are sustained by a grandeur which baffles the malice of daughters and storms.” (Moody, 2002).

During the era of King George III’s insanity (1811-1820), King Lear was politically controversial and due to this, it was not performed. However, within three months of the king’s death, it was the subject of major productions in the two professional theatres in London. (Potter, 2001)

In 1838, Macready performed Shakespeare’s version in the Convent Garden, completely removing all traces of Tate’s influence. It was surprisingly well received, with Cordelia’s final appearance in the play, dead in her father’s arm, becoming one of the most iconic Victorian pictures. Up until that year, however, many had failed to bring back Shakespeare’s original. One actor in particular, Edmund Kean, played King Lear in 1823 with the original ending, only to revert to Tate’s version upon its failure to appease the audience. (Potter, 2001).