Stage history

King Lear (2006) - Zhou Yemang as Lear in the Yellow Earth production as part of the RSC's Complete Works Festival. Photo by Yin Xuefeng

Performance history expert Rebecca Brown guides us through the stage history of King Lear from the time Shakespeare wrote it to the present day.


The title page of the 1608 Quarto edition of the play proudly tells us that King Lear has been performed as part of the Christmas festivities at court: it has been "played before the Kings Maiestie at Whitehall upon S. Stephans night in Christmas Hollidayes". The entry in the Stationers' Register for the 26 December 1606 confirms this. The title page continues with the information that his Majesty's servants are usually to be found at the Globe on the Bankside.

The Globe playhouse was a tall, tiered, open-roofed building, where plays were performed in daylight on a simple apron stage. The lack of scenery allowed for swift, fluid action and a concentration on the actors and the words they spoke. The roles of the three daughters were taken by the talented boy players of the company. It has been speculated that Cordelia and the Fool were doubled by the same boy player: both are beloved of Lear, despite (or, perhaps, because of) their uncomfortable truth-telling, and Lear appears to confuse them in death at the end of the play, and they are never on stage together. Doubling was common practice in the Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre but it is impossible to know if this particular pairing occurred.

Richard Burbage, the leading tragedian of the King's Men, took the part of Lear and was praised for it in one of the epitaphs written at his death. Shakespeare wrote the part for him, capitalizing on his extraordinary, versatile gifts; the superb vocal technique needed to deliver long speeches of blank verse, the powerful expression of high emotion and the physical stamina to carry such a demanding role through to the bitter end.

After the Restoration, in the latter part of the seventeenth century, King Lear was to be seen on the stage only in the adapted form devised by Nahum Tate. This version held the stage from 1681 to 1838. Tate famously described Shakespeare's original as: "a heap of jewels unstrung and unpolished". Under Tate's bold hands, the play was much altered with significant cuts and additions. The Fool disappeared and the tough truth-telling of Cordelia was softened by the introduction of a love story. She and Edgar were now thwarted lovers, whose mutual happiness was achieved only at the play's end. The good were rewarded and the bad ended unhappily, with Lear and Gloucester living on into a comfortable old age, under the benevolent rule of Cordelia and Edgar.

This was the version of the play in which David Garrick appeared as Lear in the eighteenth century, winning praise for the pathos and distress of his presentation of the outcast father. At first, Garrick presented his King Lear in modern dress; only in later years did he change to the setting of Ancient Britain. This became the established period setting for the play until the more daring productions of the mid-twentieth century. In 1838, William Charles Macready surrounded his Lear with massive Druidic stone circles. Fifty years later, Henry Irving presented the knights attending on Lear as long-haired Vikings dwelling among the ruins left by the decayed Roman Empire. Macready was bold enough to trust Shakespeare over Tate: he returned to an original, albeit much shortened, text for his production of the play. He bravely restored the Fool after an absence of over 150 years but chose not to push public taste too far and cast a fetching young actress, Priscilla Horton, in the role.

Nineteenth-century audiences were spared the distress of Gloucester's blinding; it was only later in the twentieth century that theatre-goers were tough enough to take Shakespeare straight! Victorian audiences found their satisfactions in painstakingly recreated and elaborately picturesque visions of Ancient Britain and in the thrilling effects of storms and battles. Charles Kean's 1858 production at the Princess's Theatre, for example, chose 800AD as the date for Lear's reign. Much of the text had to be sacrificed to allow time for the complex scene changes necessary to achieve such 'authentic' historical recreations.

In the twentieth century, John Gielgud was the actor who most frequently grappled with the demands of the play, both directing and acting in it throughout his long career. He first played the role in 1931, at the age of 27 and his final performance was in the Renaissance Theatre Company's radio production in 1994, at the age of 90. His performance at the Old Vic, in 1940, was his most significant and influential. He was directed by Harley Granville Barker and Lewis Casson. Barker was one of the most influential theatre practitioners and writers of the century, initiating a return to the simplicity and fluidity of staging for which Shakespeare's plays were originally written.

Donald Wolfit was another famous Lear of the 1940s, touring the provinces with great success. In 1946, Laurence Olivier played the King at the Old Vic, directing the production himself, with a young Alec Guinness as the Fool. Many years later, in 1983, Olivier, frail but resilient after a serious illness, headed the cast in a television production, directed by Michael Elliott.

Brian Cox's Lear careered exuberantly onto the stage in a wheelchair at the beginning of Deborah Warner's production at the Royal National Theatre in 1990. Sporting a red nose and trailing streamers behind him, he was ready to celebrate his eightieth birthday. The wheelchair was a joke no longer when he woke up much later, pitifully frail after his wanderings on the heath, to find Cordelia, at last, once more by his side.

Helena Kaut-Howson directed Kathryn Hunter as Lear in a bold production at the Leicester Haymarket in 1997. The production opened and closed in a dilapidated nursing home: the action appeared as the painful hallucination of one of its dying patients. In the same year, Ian Holm won praise for his interpretation of Lear in Richard Eyre's studio production for the Royal National Theatre.

For more on RSC stagings of King Lear, see Our Past Productions »

Lear on film

Grigori Kozintsev directed a powerful and moving film version of the play in 1970, in a translation by Boris Pasternak. A year later, Peter Brook's boldly stylized film was released. This was based on Brook's 1962 production of the play at Stratford and Paul Scofield again played the title role. In 1982 Michael Hordern played Lear in the BBC TV series of Shakespeare's plays. Its director, Jonathan Miller, chose a dark and austere Jacobean setting for his production.

Written by Rebecca Brown © RSC
Photo by Yin Xuefeng shows Zhou Yemang as Lear in the Yellow Earth production of King Lear which played as part of the RSC's Complete Works Festival in 2006.

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