Reading King Lear In Theatre And Cinema

There has always been a demand for literary scholars to understand the tragedy in literature so that it perhaps can be understood in reality. An exploration of how the tragic form unfolds itself, during the Reformation period, through words and images elicits curiosity, chiefly when interpretation becomes contingent on the verdict. King Lear was first printed in 1608, when James VI & I theorized the political role of the monarch as the absolute ruler. A multitude of scholars has examined the play as a reflection of its time and as one of the grandest tragedies written. “We are not ourselves when nature, being oppressed, commands the mind to suffer with the body. ” In this paper, I discuss the adaptation of King Lear into the film Korol Lir (1970) by Soviet film director Grigori Kozintsev, as well as the film adaptation in 2018 by Richard Eyre. I will also refer to the performances at the Globe Theatre in 2017 and at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester in 2016. I will focus on the different characteristics of stage and screen, selecting the scene of Gloucester’s maiming as a reference and its relationship with nothingness. An exploration of the difference between screen and stage will be discussed, in addition to how tragedy is achieved through each medium. I will refer to J. L. Styan’s article “Sight and Space: The Perception of Shakespeare on Stage and Screen” and Esther Merle Jackson’s essay “King Lear: The Grammar of Tragedy”.

The language of poetry and despair juxtaposed with images of destruction and betrayal are elements that construct the theory of tragedy. Greek philosophers have pondered over the power of tragedy and its elements in the world of art. Aristotle in Poetics talks about the tragic hero as a relatable character in which the audience become sympathetic with. William Shakespeare, a name redundantly recited when listing geniuses behind English literature, has been known to those who are literate and illiterate. Shakespeare’s brilliance comes from his intrepid portrayal of the issues of patriarchal monarchy and human relationships. He writes about misery as a consequence of being alive and wise. Naturally, the play has been performed on stage and on screen, in different languages, with distinctive interpretations. Theatre has been the envy of cinema for its immediate nature and cathartic relationship with the audience.

The earliest production of the play took place at the court of King James I in 1606, and scholars believe that it was not received well. In addition, Nahum Tate’s radical adaptation of the play was received well because of its happy ending. Tate’s version was also subject to adaptation. However, although King Lear may have been less popular because of its harsh ending, it became more prominent in later centuries. Stanley Wells describes the play in the introduction to King Lear, as “a poetic drama whose poetry can be fully apprehended only through performance. ” It depicts performance as a humanizing technique that arouses both laughter and terror. Tragedy without comedy is intelligence without wit. “I can tell why a snail has a house… Why, to put his head in, not to give it away to his daughters and leave his horns without a case. ” One of the important characters in King Lear is the fool who tells the king what he needs to know. The harmony between the king and the fool is admirable in this tragic play, for it is tragic that they complement one another in art, but not in reality. Although the fool is not played to be funny, he is funny. When the king asks the fool to teach him, this unorthodox education where the fool is lecturing the king is an intriguing comic encounter and yet it breeds life in tragedy. The fool sings, “Fools had ne’er less wit in a year,/ For wise men are grown foppish. / They know not how their wits do wear,/ Their manners are so apish. ” King Lear tells the story of a king who denounces his most beloved daughter for not expressing her love towards him. She says, “And yet not so, since I am sure my love’s more richer than my tongue. ” Her adamant attitude on being true and humble results in a collapse of her relationship with her father, the king, who becomes a madman. His belief that “nothing can come of nothing” is recurrent throughout the play, and only the fool helps him realize otherwise. The fool calls the king a fool for not knowing the difference between a sweet fool and a bitter fool. It is a classic paradox where the king, who is supposed to be wise, is, in fact, the fool, and the fool is the wise man… or woman?

In 2017, King Lear was performed at the Globe Theatre by Nancy Meckler where the fool is a female clown. However, this is irrelevant to the progression of the plot yet in a male-dominated world, it’s a noteworthy interpretation that the wise person telling the king what to do is a woman. The fool says, “He’s mad that trusts in the tameness of a wolf, a horse’s health, a boy’s love, or a whore’s oath. ” There is a comic relief prevailing wisdom, in which it flows on paper as a poem. Poetry intensifies the tragic form of a play with its rhymes and savage diction. In Act III, Scene 14, Gloucester is being maimed by King Lear’s second daughter, Regan, and her husband, Duke of Cornwall. Gloucester has been betrayed by his bastard son, Edmund, who told both Regan and her husband that his father knows about an impending French invasion to reinstate King Lear to the throne. A family betrayal leads to Gloucester’s eyes to be gouged out. Gloucester says, “Because I would not see thy cruel nails Pluck out his poor old eyes, nor thy fierce sister In his anointed flesh rash boarish fangs The sea, with such a storm as his bowed head In hell-black night endured, would have buoyed up And quenched the stelled fires. Yet, poor old heart, He helped the heavens to rage. If wolves had at thy gate howled that dern time, Thou shouldst have said ‘Good porter, turn the key; All cruels I’ll subscribe. ’ But I shall see The winged vengeance overtake such children. ” The idea behind blindness is almost religious because of its utmost terrifying experience. To lose sight is a conflict in theatre, for one relies on spectators who can see and not only hear. This scene raises a question regarding the different experience one undergoes when watching such a scene on television verses on stage. What does photography do in which a stage cannot and what does a stage comprise which no screen can fulfill? This brings us to the central point of this article where a violent repulsive scene transforms itself from page to stage and to screen. Those who suffer in the mind are miserable, but those who make others suffer are tragic creatures. In 2017, the play directed by Nancy Meckler at the Globe Theatre has a subtler portrayal of the maiming. Gloucester is held in a cage with Regan and Cornwall, and when his first eye is gouged out, the audience does not see blood nor does it last too long. The terror is intensified with background music. Even when Regan takes the sword and hits the servant who is defending Gloucester, the audience can see that the sword is banging against the metallic cage. Later in the scene, the spectators can see that there is some blood on Gloucester’s face but there is no suspension of belief. We are constantly made aware of the play’s fictional element.

In 2018, Richard Eyre directed the film King Lear with Anthony Hopkins as the king and Jim Broadbent as the Earl of Gloucester. In this scene, Cornwall begins by removing the spectacles off of Gloucester’s face when Gloucester screams, “He that will think to live till he be old. Give me some help!”. The scene slowly builds up. The camera jumps from the terrorists to the one being terrorized. There is music. There is intimacy where Cornwall caresses Regan’s face and smiles. Gloucester’s realizing his fate, and the spectator’s anticipating what will happen next. Cornwall holds Regan’s fingers and we only hear the sound of flesh being torn, music getting louder, and the characters’ faces of disgust are emphasized. We cannot see Gloucester, but we can hear him scream. We can recognize his voice. Similar to how Gloucester will be able to recognize King Lear from his voice when he loses both of his eyes. “I know that voice”, and he says, “The trick of that voice I do well remember. ” Blood splashes on Cornwall’s face, and with the aid of makeup and montage, we see Gloucester’s eyes gouged out. However, as explored by J. L. Styan, in his article “Sight and Space: The Perception of Shakespeare on Stage and Screen”, it is unfruitful to argue the degree of realism imposed upon a Shakespearean play. Styan writes about how most of Shakespeare is unconcerned with such an illusion. He goes on to point out the nature of cinema which fills the visual vacuum with realistic details, but he argues that both, stage and screen, “have sinned in decorating Shakespeare’s scenes to the point of smothering them”. Styan reasons that the perception will be the same on stage and screen unless the film is in black and white. For instance, Grigori Kozintsev’s beautiful adaptation in black and white in 1970 reflects many unusual interpretations. Does that bring into question the degree of infidelity? “Kozintsev interprets Shakespeare’s play as a profoundly political work with broad social dimensions where all classes and groups – royal family, court nobles, the military, the masses down to the most ragged beggars – are drawn into the explosive disorder resulting from an arbitrary decision by a self-indulgent ruler. At this film’s start the director established a dialectic between the general populace and the ruling class in order to stress their interrelationship, demonstrating that the exercise of power cannot occur in isolation since all segments of society will be affected by the corruption of regal authority. ”

The use of black and white intensifies the tragic element of Lear. It forebodies a work of political power juxtaposed with images of barren lands destroyed by war. Kozintsev sees the play taking place in the past but becoming the future. In Korol Lir, when Goneril, Lear’s eldest daughter, is giving a speech on how much she loves him, she ends her dialogue by approaching him and kneeling in front him while taking his hand and kissing it. This is not a stage direction described in Shakespeare’s version. Similarly, at the Globe Theatre production in 2017, Goneril kneels but does not take Lear’s hand, and Cordelia says her line, “What shall Cordelia speak? Love and be silent. ” In Kozintsev’s film, Cordelia’s line is narrated in her voice with the camera zooming in on her face without her moving her lips as if the viewer can listen to her thoughts. Styan explores the quality of immediacy generated by theatre which makes the experience grow either richer or poorer. He draws attention to the characteristic of improvisation that involves live performances including the fundamental difference between the grammar of theatre and grammar of film. The camera controls the space and what the human eye can access. It is fragmented and impartial. He writes, “The human eye is a dozen simultaneous cameras, able to zoom in for a close-up and take a general picture simultaneously. ” Hence, Shakespeare’s sense of space is portrayed differently on the open stage verses on the screen. There is a conflict between author and director, highlighted by Styan, which I would like to further investigate here. To go back to the scene of maiming, I will refer to Kozintsev’s perspective and execution of the scene. Gloucester is tied with ropes and held down. The act of maiming is not displayed on the screen. In fact, it is rather ambiguous the brutality of the scene. Jackson writes, “Lear seems a skeptical work, an imitation of catastrophe, suffering, and reconciliation; an image of a universe in which all laws appear to have been temporarily suspended. ” She argues that the difficulty of interpretation requires collaboration with the spectator who translates the playwright’s poetic symbols. It is true that the language of Lear is susceptible to a multitude of perspectives, and as such, defines the brilliance behind this work of literature. The loss of sight, the poetic features of the text surrounding this horrifying scene, is familiar with its spiritual significance. Odin, King of the Norse Gods, God of poetry and death, offered one of his eyes to gain more wisdom. Jackson explores Shakespeare’s use of space and time as emblems of reality and its inspiration from Renaissance paintings and sculptures. She denotes how this symbolic framework is both religious and pagan in its sources, and it is evident not only in Shakespeare’s romances but also in the tragedies.

To continue the association between religion and tragedies, an emphasis on the concept of nothingness will be studied in this paragraph. Shakespeare repeats the phrase, “Nothing can come of nothing” in various scenes in King Lear. The first time he says it is when Cordelia says, “Nothing, my lord,” when Lear asks her, “What can you say to win a third more opulent than your sisters?”. A sense of nihilism reflects Lear’s perception of nothingness; philosophical and demanding a religious interpretation. Keiji Nishitani, a Japanese philosopher, wrote a book titled Religion and Nothingness where he believes that religion can be the “elemental source” of all existence. The reason I refer to Nishitani is because the character Lear brings into question the meaning of human existence, and the lack of spirituality is evident in this phrase of nothing coming out of nothing. In another scene, the fool asks King Lear if he can make use of nothing, and Lear repeats that “nothing can be made out of nothing. ” Even the Earl of Kent says, “Nothing almost sees miracles but misery. ” Throughout the play, Lear shows no remorse or faith towards his own children. He resentfully tells Goneril, “Into her womb convey sterility. Dry up in her the organs of increase, and from her derogate body never spring a babe to honour her. If she must teem, create her child of spleen, that it may live and be a thwart disnatured torment to her. ” However, at the end of the play when he meets Cordelia again whom he disowned for not saying what he ought to hear, he says to her, “We two alone will sing like birds i’th’ cage. When thou dost ask me blessing, I’ll kneel down And ask of thee forgiveness; so we’ll live, And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues Talk of court news, and we’ll talk with them too – Who loses and who wins, who’s in, who’s out, And take upon’s the mystery of things As if we were God’s spies; and we’ll wear out In a walled prison packs and sects of great ones That ebb and flow by th’ moon. ” The performance by Lear develops from a madman to an almost spiritual man who is a bird in a cage, free and yet anchored by age and guilt. There is tragedy in forgiveness; a paradox we live by. In the end, Cordelia who loved Lear the most dies. Let us ask the question which many philosophers and literary scholars have attempted to answer: what is tragedy? Is it the loss of spirituality? Is it madness? Is it blindness?

The reason I keep coming back to the scene where Gloucester becomes blind is that it represents not only madness and great affliction but also transcendence and wisdom. When Lear tells Gloucester to wipe his hand before he kisses it because it smells of mortality, one cannot help but understand that human’s tragedies is not simply death but humiliation. This is the struggle of humans; the disgrace of mortality. Goneril’s humiliated by her father, Gloucester by his bastard son, and Lear by Cordelia’s brutal truth. We want to exist, and dishonor ceases our existence. Gloucester is a symbol of not only a religious awakening but of the power the audience presents by being able to witness. If we cannot see, we cannot be part of the audience in a theatre event. Gloucester has no eyes nor money, but he can see how the world goes, Lear says. Therefore, from nothing, he can see everything. Edgar is right, there is reason in madness. Within reason lies irony, and in the first act, Edmund is pretending to hide a letter from Gloucester, saying it is nothing. Gloucester replies, “The quality of nothing hath not such need to hide itself. Let’s see. Come, if it be nothing I shall not need spectacles”. The idea of nothing becoming more is paradoxical. Since he can see everything, he really does not need spectacles. In tragedy, blindness brings knowledge. One must lose the most precious and vital aspects of their lives to gain perspective on the world.

Jackson’s investigation brings attention to how the popularity and acceleration of Lear among countries who were involved in World War II are significant. She points out that it brought new meaning to the play, and while it did contribute to the existentialist thinkers, certain elements of language were in conflict with the stated existential ontologies. She discusses how Lear of the contemporary English theatre proved to be more philosophically skeptical than the existentialists. “For the existentialists have, according to theorists such as Jean Paul Sartre, arrived at a new rationalism: the systematic verification of the principle of unreason in the universe itself”. She continues to explore the anti-romantic characteristics of the play since Lear does not present the source of truth. The idea of tragedy positing an imitation of human’s suffering, ignorance of the truth and an illusion to reality.

To summarize, the tragic elements of Shakespeare’s play found in the multitude of productions emphasize the versatility and brilliance of King Lear. It is not tied to the history of the English people, but it is crucial to the Russians and other parts of the world because tragedy is a lingua franca. One will continue to wonder what it means for King Lear to take on a new life with a new language and in a new medium? The camera redefines history and the boundaries of the audience. The terrible maiming of Gloucester has been portrayed realistically on camera causing the spectator a certain dissonance, whereas, on stage, the scene had to be exaggerated in order to achieve the dramatic effect. Blindness and nothingness expose intriguing philosophical thoughts, including an existentialist thought in Shakespearean tragedy. The act of perception reveals the creative and interpretive factors and emphasizes the power of the eyes to determine our knowledge.

10 October 2020
Your Email

By clicking “Send”, you agree to our Terms of service and  Privacy statement. We will occasionally send you account related emails.

close thanks-icon

Your essay sample has been sent.

Order now
Still can’t find what you need?

Order custom paper and save your time
for priority classes!

Order paper now