Shakespeare's tragedy King Lear can be interpreted in many ways and many responses. The imprecision’s and complication of the play has led to its many production. Interpreting the issues and ideas in King Lear is dependant upon each individual responder. Individuals may be influenced by their own personal experiences, moral and ethical standards and the situation of their time.
The play explores and examines the underlying nature and basic faults of humanity like self-indulgence. Because of the plays conflict of issues, it can consistently be reshaped and analysed to suit current times. Because of this, different meanings are constantly produced.
Peter Brook 1971 – with Paul Scofield as Lear
Who thought Lear to be “A prime example of the absurd”? Comments on how twentieth century critics often try to put King Lear.
Brooks’ Produced an absurdist interpretation which come to life a state of moral lack of involvement but still retained textual truth, this forced responders to make their own interpretations of the play. Brooks used traditional Shakespearean techniques in this early production to convey his absurdist interpretation; this meant no differential lighting or computerised sound effects.
The viewer is captured by Brook’s method in the opening scene. The changeable use of voice by the actor in this production was used to show his volatile character. Critics of this early play comment on the straight-faced that Lear conveys while asking the question “which one of you, shall we say, doth love us most?” The replies from Gonerill and Regan are given an absurdist notion by the bizarre over-reactions. Their realistic language is contrasted to their two-faced body language.
The plot of the play, from confusion to order was designed in similarity with the set. The stage gradually worn out until during the last scene it spears as an earthquake had struck. Lear’s costume also deteriorated at the same time with his character. He began the play in rich robe that distinguishes him as King however later his costume changed to leather and boots and by the last scene he was dressed in rags. This erosion of appearance conveys quick emotional, mental break down. Also Lear’s frustrated and dissatisfied facial expression made this more suggestive to the audiences own explanation.
The storm scene in King Lear is one of the most involving scenes the play. During this scene Shakespeare gives the storm as a personality and it echoes Lear’s inner confusion. It allows Lear to grow a sense of human weakness and humbleness. Brook’s interpretation of the storm scene remains consistent with his simple Shakespearean techniques. Wobble boards and symbols are used for thunder and lightning. Brook prefers to focus on the use of language and acting skills to convey Lear’s inner confusion. The neutral colours of Peter Brook’s set highlight the deathly nature of his belief. He must make the most of the effectiveness of Shakespeare’s language and form to reveal to the audience Lear’s decline into humility. This is evident when Lear shouts with and showing his emotion with body language “here I stand your slave!”
Marxist / Nhilistic Reading–
Grigori Kozintsev 1970 – with Yuri Yarvet as Lear
This Russian interpretation provides a larger level of firm meaning than Peter Brook’s absurdist production. Konzintev focuses on the wider implications of the play, the actions to include the effects on the general public. The storm scene in Kozintsev’s version King Lear is similar to Brook’s production. This black and white television film of ‘King Lear’ takes on a slightly nihilistic tone. The storm scene in this play is constructed with the artificial use of loud thunder noises. A close up a of a black storm cloud above Lear’s head becomes symbolic of his clouded madness. The use of real rain and muddy grounds provides less room for the imagination of the responder however provides a physical representation of the storm. Less importance is placed on the language of this scene. For an English speaking audience there is a reliance on subtitles and visual images to convey the fragility of this scene.
This production is perhaps the most commonly interpreted with a Marxist perspective. The cmain reason for this is the way in which the composer has shaped this production of the text to be particularly relevant to Russia at the time of production.
It shows the struggle and suffering of the peasants contrasted with the richness of the royal family and the ultimate end of the monarch. Konztinev shows this in his opening scenes with a procession of ragged beggars making their painful way towards Lear’s castle, the very isolated location importance a empty universe and kick starts a nihilistic interpretation for most contemporary viewers.
Shakespearian views often relate order in nature to order in society. Konztinev develops the film medium to reflect this universal idea. In the opening scenes while Lear becomes furious from Cordelia’s reaction to his power driven love test “nothing my lord”. Konztinev uses barking dogs, horses and rattling trains are used during Lears description of his “pelican daughters” to show some of the verbal imagery Shakespeare would have used to have the same suggestive effect in his descriptions, “sharp as a serpents tooth”.
The Feminist View
The Sydney Theatre Company (STC) production, directed by Benjamin Winspear, used modern technology to represent Lear's inner confusion, and for this reason his loss of power. The sounds used in the STC production is mostly high frequency sounds and cool sound effects, which characterise the madness and insanity going through Lear's head. In both the Harlos and STC productions, it is evident that Lear's loss in power is an important focus of the play.
Another theme which explores the struggle for power is the patriarchal views exhibited by many of King Lear's characters, and indeed by the Shakespearean society Feminists analyse literary works to discover whether or not the text supports feminism, by allowing women to have power, or actually looks down upon women, by creating misogynistic views of the play.
Coppelia Kahn was a feminist critic who believed that, in the end, King Lear supported feminism. She argued that Lear's confusion was caused by the unacceptance of his feminine side: 'Let not women's weapons, water-drops, stain my man's cheeks'. But in the end, when Lear does eventually give in an weep tears, order is restored. Kathleen McLuskie has provided an opposing view, believing that King Lear criticises women rather than supports them. When Lear talks of 'women's weapons', McLuskie sees it as a harsh offensive remark about women's weakness and absence of power. It is true indeed, that at the end of the play, the two women who have struggled to gain power, Gonerill and Regan, have failed, and their lives are lost.
The Harlos production is directed by a female, Tanya Denny, and so it seems only natural for her to add a feminist understanding to the play. And this she does, with Gonerill and Regan acting in very male-like manners, and put on strong, black, almost dominatrix-like costumes. Particularly in the eye-gouging scene with Gloucester and Regan, the latter's power is strongly describe by her body language and actions.
The Sydney Theatre Company production also deals with the struggle for power through a feminist point of view, as Gonerill and Regan are also played in a very masculine manner. However, Winspear has added even more than that in his play, through his cutting down of the characters to just seven. As a result of this, the characteristics of various chartacters were combined, so the Fool was also played by Cordelia. This, in soul, symbolises how women could only gain power through masks.
The STC production has been famous for its insight into public issues. The third major aspect of power struggle lies in that of society's struggle, in real-life situations. The critic Jonathan Dollimore once said that King Lear is a “subversive, radical tragedy which questions the Jacobean status quo.” Lear's loss of power as a King was almost beyond our understanding for the 17th century Jacobean society, and the play was therefore a shock to the audience. Because of this harsh reaction to King Lear, Nahum Tate thought that it was necessary to change some aspects of the work, so that Lear's loss of power and Edgar and Cordelia's struggle for power was better received in the 7th century contemporary audience. In 1861, Tate changed the ending so that King Lear became a romance rather than a tragedy, and also removed the death of Lear.
•REVIEW OF EYRE PRODUCTION: Michael Cummings states Eyre’s King Lear; “is a daring adventure into minimalism: But the austerity of the set and the brief nudity of Holm serve only to accentuate the naked ignorance, greed, and enmity that consume the characters in Shakespeare's pitch-black play about family relationships gone wrong.”
•REVIEW OF HARLOS PRODUCTION: Audiences and critics have highlighted the Orientalism and minimalist elements of the production, with Stephen Dunne from the Sydney Morning Herald stating simply, “Minimal resources, maximum effect.”
From studying different readings, interpretations and productions, it has helped me to develop my understanding of the play. Also, different productions of King Lear can alter meaning of the play. As a result, it is up to the individual responder to understand the play as he or she wishes. The ‘modern audience’ of the 1990s would view the play as a drama of the family. This major sector of the ‘modern audience’ can directly relate to issues of the family to the domestic drama that happens surrounding the play. The Elizabethan / Jacobean audience would view the play more as a political tragedy due to their context.
King Lear - William Shakespeare
King Lear - Eyre Production
King Lear - Harlos Production