Dearest Anglofilmia readers,
I’ve been struggling to write this post for something like two months now. How do you tackle something as complicated and epic as Shakespeare’s King Lear, especially when it’s acted by one of the greatest actors of all time in one of the best performances of his life?
Luckily, the amazing cartoonist Kate Beaton applied her signature, hilariously-eyeballed humor to the topic, and my resulting gut laughter effectively broke down my own mental blockages.
So, King Lear.
Shakespeare made him famous, but the story of King Lear dates back to pre-Roman Celtic mythology. Leir of Britain was a contemporary of the Biblical prophet Elijah, putting his reign somewhere in the 9th century BC.
(For the record, Leir was also the son of Bladud/Blaiddyd, who built Caervaddon, more commonly known as Bath, where he built the hot springs. Using magic.)
Approximately 2450 years later, William Shakespeare turned his hand to the legendary leader’s tale.
But wait, you say — you don’t know the story of Lear? Allow me to illustrate using the excellent 1984 production, apparently the only one that actually places the performance in an appropriate pre-Roman setting (instead of Shakespearean? Will have to research and amend this post…).
Lear had three daughters and no male heirs, and was living a pretty happy life of power and riches, hanging out with his beloved Fool.
But as he approached the end of his 60 year reign, he decided to divide his kingdom between his progeny, so that he could retire and be taken care of by the three, dividing his time between their houses.
Give me the map there. Know that we have divided
In three our kingdom: and ’tis our fast intent
To shake all cares and business from our age;
Conferring them on younger strengths, while we
Unburthen’d crawl toward death.
His two eldest daughters Goneril and Regan flatter him unrelentingly, but his youngest and by far the most favorite Cordelia can’t bring herself to speak meaningless words of flattery when her affection for him is so great, and nothing exists for her to compare her love.
Tell me, my daughters,–
Since now we will divest us both of rule,
Interest of territory, cares of state,–
Which of you shall we say doth love us most?
That we our largest bounty may extend
Where nature doth with merit challenge.
And yet not so; since, I am sure, my love’s
More richer than my tongue.
Now, our joy,
Although the last, not least; to whose young love
The vines of France and milk of Burgundy
Strive to be interess’d; what can you say to draw
A third more opulent than your sisters? Speak.
Nothing, my lord.
Lear obviously doesn’t take that blow too well, and casts Cordelia off with no property. Then he gathers up his cohort knights and decides to live in the house of his daughter Goneril. Little does he know that Goneril and Regan both decided he was an old fool, and both ladies team up to force him to reduce his party of knights and submit to their power.
Consumed with impotent rage, he bursts out onto the stormy heath, strips down, and goes mad.
Meanwhile a subplot about a power struggle between an illegitimate son and his father (who gets his eyes gouged out!) has brought about a huge battle, which the British win…but not soon enough to prevent the deaths of 99% of the characters.
King Lear was so amazingly engrossing and dramatic, I’m shocked I’ve never had cause to see or read it before now. And this particular production was astoundingly powerful.
For an audience to buy into the portrayal of a king, the actor has to possess the right mixture of bravado, reckless self-confidence and gravitas. I think Jonathan Rhys Meyers nailed this for The Tudors, and I think a lack of weight was what sank Colin Farrell’s Alexander.
Lear seems to be a definitive role for elderly male actors, the one that gets bragged on or quoted as a kind of proof of authenticity. So seeing Laurence Olivier have his turn is really something special.
The Fool, played by John Hurt, is amazing, and Brian Cox puts in a very convincing Burgundy. (Side note, kinda weird to see him so young in this, having seen him so old in our last film, Troy.)
Now that I’ve been exposed to it, I find myself kind of obsessed with the story. I think the story could easily translate to a contemporary corporate setting, with the relationships, lessons and drama intact.
But even without an update, there exist multiple versions of the play, including Shakespeare’s rough draft and a variety of endings, and there are all sorts of performance variations to check out. Up til the early 1800s the ending was revised into a happily ever after for Lear’s youngest daughter, even seeing her married off to the wrongly-exiled Edmund despite her having married the King of France in Act I.
And there are so many versions out to consume that if I were to pursue them all right now, we’d never move further down the Anglofilmia timeline. I’ll watch the latest version with Ian McKellen, though, and Akira Kurosawa’s Ran, plus a version with Al Pacino due in 2012.
In the meantime, I’ll be satisfied with the rest of the Kate Beaton comics on the subject.