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About this book

An introductory guide to King Lear in performance offering a scene-by-scene theatrically aware commentary, contextual documents, a brief history of the text and first performances, case studies of key productions, a survey of film and TV adaptations, a sampling of critical opinion and annotated further reading.

Table of Contents

1. The Texts and Early Performances

Abstract
The title page of a small, unbound text of King Lear, known today as the first Quarto and here referred to as Q, announced that it had been
played before the King’s Majesty at Whitehall upon St. Stephen’s night in Christmas Holidays by his Majesty’s Servants, playing usually at the Globe on the Bankside … London, 1608.
The date, place and royal audience of an early performance offer more information than we have about most of Shakespeare’s plays — even the most popular, Hamlet and Macbeth, for instance — but Lear’s early history on stage and in print remains far from clear. Even Q’s title page disguises the performance’s true date because on 26 November 1607, the Stationers’ Register had recorded the right of John Busby and Nathanial Butter to publish ‘A book called Mr William Shakespeare his history of King Lear, as it was played at Whitehall upon St. Stephen’s night at Christmas last.’ This tells us that the first recorded performance was on 26 December 1606 and not a year later as the title page implies; a performance at the Globe would have been some weeks or months earlier.
John Russell Brown

2. Commentary

Abstract
Readers are recommended to keep a text of the play open at the side of this commentary and refer to it frequently. In this way, they can explore the physical implications of the dialogue and the life that Shakespeare’s words can be given when they become part of a performance. A student studying the text, an actor preparing a role, a director or designer planning a production will all find practical assistance as they respond to the words that Shakespeare wrote for performance before an audience. While on the watch for corruption by editor, scribe or printer and for alternative ways of acting the text, my prime task has been to imagine the play in action and speaking directly to us.
John Russell Brown

3. The Play’s Sources and Cultural Context

Abstract
All the books Shakespeare might have consulted when writing King Lear would cover a large table if piled on top of each other. A father with three daughters, one loving and gentle, the others ambitious and unloving, are found in the retelling of numerous folk tales: Cinderella and her two ugly sisters is a well-known version of those that end in marriage for the youngest. These ancient prototypes lay behind the history of King Lear as told in Latin by Geoffrey of Monmouth in the early twelfth century and in later versions indebted to him. In chronicles and shorter accounts (Bullough reprints three in verse and three in prose), the youngest daughter, called some variant of Cordelia, is rejected and disinherited by her father and then marries a king of her choice. In consequence, Lear divides his kingdom between the two older daughters and, when they refuse to give him the hospitality and respect they had promised, he seeks refuge with his youngest child who, with her husband, intervenes and defeats the other daughters in battle, restoring Lear to the throne for the few remaining years of his life. Later the two sons of her sisters defeat Cordelia in battle who then in despair commits suicide by hanging. In broad outline, this is the story that Shakespeare knew and might well have read in Holinshed’s The Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland (1587) that he had used repeatedly for his English History plays.
John Russell Brown

4. Key Performances and Productions

Abstract
When theatres reopened after the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660, King Lear was allocated to Davenant’s company who between 1662 and 1665 staged the earliest revivals with Thomas Betterton, the foremost actor of the time, as Lear. But after 1681 it was not played again and The History of King Lear an adaptation by Nahum Tate, took its place in the repertoire and, judged to be an improvement on Shakespeare: this version with a happy ending continued to be staged well into the nineteenth century. Tate’s preface explained that a stage ‘encumbered’ with dead bodies ‘makes many tragedies conclude with unseasonable jests’ and so his Lear does not die and Cordelia marries Edgar who has followed her faithfully in disguise through the preceding Acts. Among many omissions and alterations, Gloucester is quickly and simply blinded — the horror could be hidden from the audience — and the sadistic speeches are gone; Fool has been cut entirely. Sexual encounters were not eliminated but given a new gloss: for example, while in a grotto and ‘amorously seated, listening to music’, Regan reassures Edmund:
Live, live my Gloucester, And feel no Death but that of swooning joy, I yield thee blisses on no harder terms Than that thou continue to be happy. (IV.i.6–9)
Dialogue was altered in much the same way throughout the play, in accordance with the taste and morality of the time: ‘less quaintness of expression’ remained (Preface), and oaths and lewdness gave way to discretion and elegance. In the last scene Cordelia succeeds to her father’s throne together with Edgar whose closing words salute the victory of ‘Truth and Virtue’.
John Russell Brown

5. Screen Versions

Abstract
Most of the video recordings of King Lear are stage productions adapted for the camera to a greater or lesser extent. For a student of the theatre life of the play their interest lies chiefly in how the text comes alive when spoken by persons interacting with each other and involved with the on-going action. By viewing one recorded version after another, different vocal readings and contrasting realizations of character and action can raise questions about which is the most effective at the moment and in contribution to the entire play. Much will depend on the physique and temperament of the actors and so raise questions about the qualities that best suit the text and action.
John Russell Brown

6. Critical Assessments

Abstract
For well over a hundred years, critical opinion agreed with theatre practice and Nahum Tate’s strictures on the play’s dialogue and its final scene were echoed on all sides (see p. 112 above). Allusions to King Lear in the years after its first performance and recognisable quotations from its text were far less frequent than those from other tragedies, Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar, Hamlet, Macbeth and Othello. More than a century passed before it was accorded comparable stature.
John Russell Brown
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