SHAKESPEARE’S KING LEAR: A DRAMATURGICAL NOTE
By Mark Ringer
Shakespeare was an actor, shareholder and leading playwright in the principle theatre company of London, The King’s Men, when he wrote King Lear in 1604/ 5. As in the case of Hamlet (1601), Shakespeare was rewriting a popular earlier play, a tragicomedy called King Leir, the work of an anonymous playwright from the 1590’s. Lear’s main plot line of an aged king and his three daughters originated in prehistoric British myth. The subplot of Gloucester and his two sons originated in a poem by Sir Philip Sydney.
Shakespeare’s vision with the creation of his so-called problem plays, Measure for Measure and All’s Well That Ends Well, comedies which stretch the limits of the genre to the breaking point. Even more importantly, he was also composing in rapid succession his series of mature tragedies; Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra, Coriolanus, and King Lear. Lear is Shakespeare’s starkest tragedy. In Lear the art of theatre is compelled to express the greatest extremes of human experience. While popular in Shakespeare’s day, Lear was considered so shocking by later generations that the ending had to be rewritten during the Restoration period by the hack writer Naham Tate
Tate’s version, with its happy ending and simplistic moralizing held the stage from the 1660’s until the original play was restored to the professional theatre by the actor Samuel Phelps in the 1840’s. The extremity of experience depicted in the play resulted in centuries of critics claiming that the play was Shakespeare’s greatest buthat it was fundamentally “unactable” and unstageable. The cataclysm of two world wars led to a radical reappraisal of the play’s stage worthiness and the mid to late twentieth century saw a succession of notable Lear productions featuring such actors as Donald Wolfit, John Gielgud, Paul Scofield, and James Earl Jones.
Professor Dr. Mark Ringer
Trezana Beverley stars as King Lear. TWAS Mainstage production of KING LEAR 2008-2009 | Photo credit Hubert Williams