The audience around the thrust stage of Trevor Nunn's Ruritania-inspired production could expect to get rained on during this loud and stormy production.

Ian McKellen balanced Lear's contradictions, playing Lear as a kind father, violent master and vulnerable old man, and he infamously appeared naked during Lear's madness.

The play's action took place against a tumble-down theatre auditorium with rich velvet drapes matching the ornate scarlet military uniforms of the players.

In a twist on the text, the Fool (Sylvester McCoy) was hanged on-stage.

Article: A Shifting Landscape

Peter Holland examines the diverse responses that King Lear has inspired on the stage. This article first appeared in the show programme for our 2007 King Lear.

It has become something of a cliché to describe the role of King Lear as a mountain, the Everest every Shakespearean actor is supposed to have to climb before being labelled 'great'. But when Ingmar Bergman was directing the play he found a more troubling landscape:

'We equipped expeditions which with varying skill and success mapped a few heaths, a river, a few shores, a mountain, forests. All the countries of the world equipped expeditions; sometimes we came across one another on our wanderings and established in despair that what was an inland lake yesterday had turned into a mountain today. We drew our maps, commented and described, but nothing fitted.'

At its first recorded performance, King Lear fitted especially well. On 26 December 1606, the King's Men performed the play at court for King James, a king who, far from dividing his kingdom, was busily trying to unite two sovereign realms, England and Scotland. Shakespeare, for the first time in his career, wrote a play about a King of Britain (he would do so again with Cymbeline), at the point at which King James was creating a new concept of nation, calling it Great Britain. Even the play's first line, 'I thought the king had more affected the Duke of Albany than Cornwall', had a special point when spoken before an audience that may well have included both dukes, titles King James had conferred on his sons. But then the play's resonances with the current monarch have often been troubling: during King George III's bouts of madness the play was not performed in London.

On Shakespeare's bare stage, the map in the first scene and the play's dialogue were the only signs of the play's landscape. Now it is the designer who makes visible the terrain of the play. Adrian Noble's 1993 RSC production covered the stage floor with a paper map on which the lines of division were painted by the Fool; as the action tore apart family and rule, so the map was shredded and torn. At The Other Place in 1988 (directed by Cicely Berry) the stone platform of the opening scenes split apart in the storm to become rocky boulders the characters clambered over. Others have made the landscape a more abstract space, like the flight of steps that stretched the stage's full width and up and down which the characters made apparent the play's power struggles in Komisarjevsky's 1936 Stratford production, or the bizarre and largely incomprehensible shapes for set and costumes in Isamu Noguchi's designs for Stratford in 1955. Though the play unsettlingly mixes Christian and pagan, Jacobean and mythical, Victorian productions sought to find a historical moment for their spectacle and, from Macready's performances in 1838 onwards, ancient Britons peopled the stage together with druids and distant vistas of stone circles.

In Michael Elliott's 1983 television version, with Laurence Olivier as Lear, the first scene was still taking place in a version of Stonehenge. But such precise historicizing was never satisfactory.

It was the storm that most completely showed off theatres' resources, with actors competing against sound effects to be heard. David Garrick's final performances as Lear in 1776, probably his greatest triumph, played against powerful depictions of the natural world in chaos while Edmund Kean, fifty years later, demanded a storm so realistic that the set's trees swayed in the wind to the sounds of their creaking. Later storms could be hyper-realistic or totally silent, drenching actors with rain or illuminating symbolic groupings by flashes of light(n)ing, creating the ultimate storm or an apocalyptic vision that was more metaphysical than natural.

Neither Garrick nor Kean had quite been playing Shakespeare's play. Bergman's sense that 'nothing fitted' was shared in 1680 by Nahum Tate who found the play 'a heap of jewels, unstrung and unpolished' and sought to 'rectify what was wanting in the regularity and probability of the tale' by giving Cordelia a romantic love-affair with Edgar and therefore a straightforward reason for not wanting to marry the Duke of Burgundy (Tate cut the King of France). Barely 20 years after the restoration of Charles II, a tragic ending for the plot was a political impossibility and Tate ended his play, as Shakespeare's source The True Chronicle History of King Leir and the Elizabethan histories had done, with Cordelia rescued, Lear restored to his throne and Cordelia's succession secure. For more than a century Tate's ending (and much of his text) was the only version performed and when Dr Johnson, with searing honesty, wrote that 'I was many years ago so shocked by Cordelia's death, that I know not whether I ever endured to read again the last scenes of the play till I undertook to revise them as editor', it was a shock neither he nor his contemporaries could ever have had in the theatre. Kean, trying to return to Shakespeare's ending in the 1820s, is said to have tottered under the weight of his Cordelia (and Lears have been advised to get themselves a light Cordelia ever since).

But, whatever the ending, Garrick's Lear was an overwhelming emotional experience for his audience, moving them to deep grief and floods of tears at the sufferings of the wronged father, their tears echoing his as, even when cursing Goneril, he could manage the transition from the horror of the father's brutal rejection of his daughter to his pain at his realisation of her filial ingratitude. The spectators' sympathetic response was the means to wring out of them the highly-praised feelings of pity and compassion. More father than king, Garrick claimed to have based his depiction of madness on his (probably invented) visit to a man driven mad by having accidentally dropped his daughter from a window. The imitative realism of the performance and the depth of its emotional demands made Garrick's Lear for the first time into the star role it has continued to be ever since.

An old adage says of this physically as well as mentally exhausting assignment: 'When you're old enough to play King Lear, you're too old to play King Lear'. But Garrick was a young man when he first played Lear and Paul Scofield was only in his forties when, for Peter Brook at the RSC in 1962, he overturned the traditional image of the part. As Kenneth Tynan wrote in his review, Lay him to rest, the royal Lear with whom generations of star actors have made us reverently familiar; the majestic ancient, wronged and maddened by his vicious daughters…Lay also to rest the archaic notion that Lear is automatically entitled to our sympathy because he is a king who suffers. Scofield's arrogant Lear seemed to deserve what he got, the consequences of his irrational acts, the results of his exercise of arbitrary power. Brook almost exonerated Goneril and Regan in the process but he also created a world that was outside history, a pitiless universe of despairing nihilism that owed much to Samuel Beckett.

Brook's adaptation of this production to film was released in 1971, just after the one by the Russian director Grigori Kozintsev, subversively brilliant exploration of the politics of power, a profound commentary on the Soviet state. What for Brook had been an existential drama of humanity was for Kozintsev a depiction of the state's abandonment of responsibility. In neither version did everything fit, any more than Bergman had found, but for all three the impossibility of encompassing and explaining the vastness of the play was the point. A certain amount of incoherence was a virtue, not a failing.

Others have tried to explain what caused the play: King Lear has attracted its clutch of prequels (Lear's Daughters by Elaine Feinstein and the Women's Theatre Group and Seven Lears by Howard Barker) and of transformations (such as Akira Kurosawa's film Ran, Edward Bond's Lear and Jane Smiley's novel Thousand Acres). There are operatic adaptations composed and tantalizingly planned: what would Verdi's or Elgar's or Britten's King Lears have been like? There are paintings that try to envision the play and poems that search for its meanings. But in the end, actors yet again come out onto a stage, as Burbage and others did for King James in the Christmas celebrations of 1606, and start to map the play's astonishing and appalling landscape for their audiences.

Trevor Nunn talks to Sylvester McCoy during rehearsals for King Lear
© RSC – Image Licensing

Trevor Nunn and James Shapiro in conversation 

Nunn A play called King Leir was in performance close to the time Shakespeare was writing his Lear. That's quite a rare coincidence isn't it? What's the story about that?

Shapiro An old play called King Leir was published in 1605 and its title page declares that 'it has been diverse and sundry times lately acted'. While that may be stretching it, it surely was on the boards in the 1590s and perhaps into the early 17th century. So it was a play that Elizabethan playgoers knew well. It was a play that Shakespeare almost certainly read in that 1605 edition - if he hadn't remembered seeing it or if indeed he hadn't played in it himself. Those going to the theatre to see Shakespeare's Lear would have most likely had a passing acquaintance with the old Leir, so it's remarkable what Shakespeare does with their expectations. When Elizabethan playgoers went to see Henry V, they remembered the earlier Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth; when they went to see Shakespeare's Hamlet, they remembered the old Hamlet. The one thing they had learned to take for granted was that Shakespeare wouldn't tamper too much with the plot.

Nunn But now with Lear...

Shapiro They would have come to King Lear expecting from the older Leir version of the play that the old king is, in the end, restored to his throne - and Cordelia lives. It's hard to imagine how devastated audiences must have been seeing the final scene of Shakespeare's King Lear, because he violated that fundamental rule of remaking an old work, which is changing the ending.

Nunn ...And perhaps a fundamental rule of drama that plays serve as a moral or cautionary influence on us, because they show, regardless of the trials and vicissitudes, that the good will triumph by the end of the story. In Lear we're expecting just that, but Shakespeare won't have it.

Shapiro We're waiting for it. We've seen so much suffering in this play, but at last, we think, we'll be rewarded with a father and daughter reunited and with a sadder and wiser Lear restored to power. No one put it better than Dr. Johnson, who had just these expectations and who wrote that 'Shakespeare has suffered the virtue of Cordelia to perish, contrary to the natural ideas of justice, to the hope of the reader and, what is yet more strange, to the faith of the chronicles'.

Nunn Isn't it therefore proof positive that Shakespeare's intentions were very different from those of the old play? Shakespeare's play is an investigation of the extremes of human behaviour, an enquiry into the nature of man, into what sort of a species we are and he concludes that life isn't like a morality play. When everything in our history tells us to believe the gods will intervene on the side of virtue, Shakespeare says they don't.

Shapiro I want to push you a little further on that. The earlier Leir play was filled with Christian references, and Shakespeare's version is ominously silent on Christian ethos and that religious veneer. I'm curious in your understanding of Lear, where is God, where is religion? Is there any sense of divine justice in your reading of the play?

Nunn This is absolutely central for me, because I find no sense of divine justice, and so I'm wondering whether, to your knowledge, any other writer of the Elizabethan age had ever ventured into questioning whether or not the heavens might be empty? In the early scenes, Shakespeare's play sets up the strong belief in his characters that human actions are overseen by the gods. The deities are not very specifically defined - there's an Apollo, there's a Jupiter, Lear seems to believe that, like him, they are old men, that they are intelligent and that they're watching. Lear clearly sees himself as a conduit of the gods. But as the play progresses, more people pray and appeal for the intervention of the gods, to no avail. The battle at the climax of the story will determine whether or not the good will triumph. Gloucester is urged to 'Pray, that the right may thrive.' He does. It doesn't. Finally, as it's realised that a death sentence is on both Lear and Cordelia, Albany leads all present in a final prayer as soldiers run to the prison: 'The gods defend them'. The next word is 'Howl'. Cordelia is dead. No intervention. The gods aren't mentioned again.

Shapiro ...And the run up to Albany's cry has Edgar reassuring us that the gods are just. Everyone we trust in this play is telling us to trust in the gods. It's extraordinary to think that Shakespeare would set up his audience in that way, and then have Lear enter with Cordelia dead in his arms. Modern, mostly secular audiences live in a world where religion is unlike what it was for Shakespeare and his contemporaries. We don't have mandatory church attendance. Even the atheists back then, if there were a handful, were Christian atheists, those who had once had faith. How as a director can you in such a sceptical age as our own convey the force of this ending?

Nunn I hope just by playing what's there. I think Edmund is placed before us early on as evidence of a solitary shocking atheist intelligence. At the end of his first soliloquy he calls out as if in mockery, 'Now gods, stand up for bastards'. Meanwhile, Lear's journey takes him increasingly towards challenging the gods, and arrives at his understanding of 'unaccommodated man', as no more than an animal. Then his fundamental questions begin. 'What is the cause of thunder?' 'Is there any cause in nature that makes these hard hearts?' His questions seem to be reaching towards Darwinian rather than divine explanations.

Shapiro Let me push you a little further there as well. When you come to Lear's final words - and in a sense the play can be read backwards through them - it's only in the Folio that Lear dies saying 'Look there, look there'. Is your production going to retain those lines or not?

Nunn Oh yes, the production does retain those lines.

Shapiro Do you have a sense, then, building on what you're describing, of what Lear may or may not be seeing when he's asking us to 'Look there'?

Nunn Lear asks just before: 'Why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life and thou no breath at all?'. Is there any reason in nature that can explain why somebody is? What is life? But if this feather stirs, he says, it will be enough 'to redeem all sorrows' he has ever felt. So perhaps in 'Look her lips, look there', he sees the hint of breath from Cordelia's lips, and so a flicker of optimism that means Lear's heart bursts smilingly. Beyond the finality of 'Never, never, never, never, never' is there for Lear a last illusory release? Or is 'Look there' a final coming to terms with a dead child in a random world?

Shapiro It was A. C. Bradley who argued 100 years ago that Lear, speaking these lines, was 'dying in unbearable joy'. It's hard to imagine that at the end of this play.

Nunn Impossible to imagine if the 'unbearable joy' Bradley had in mind was Lear looking heavenwards. Elysium is entirely absent from this play.

Shapiro This is your third go at Lear. I know that you've done two major productions of it, first in 1968 and then in 1976 with Donald Sinden, which was the first great Lear that I ever saw. You've had now thirty-some odd years to think about it. How much has your thinking about the play changed?

Nunn Thirty-some odd years in the second half rather than the first half of my life. So Shakespeare engaging with questions about mortality and what we construct for ourselves either to explain or to accept our mortality, speak very potently to me now. The play is very hard on organised human society and institutions of every kind. Lear, speaking under the cover of madness, takes the lid off officialdom. Justice - 'handy dandy, which is the justice, which the thief.' Finance - 'the userer hangs the cozenor.' Politicians - 'seem to see what they do not.' Authority - 'a dog's obeyed in office.' There is very little Lear and Gloucester have left to believe in, before they must endure their going hence.

Shapiro I've recently turned 50 and as I listen to you I feel I'm almost ready to wrestle with this play in a future book, though perhaps I'm still a little bit on the young side. I've always thought being too young is an impediment to understanding this play. When Shakespeare is writing Lear he's 42, which doesn't sound that old to us, but he knew that people lived on average until their mid-40s – only one of his three sisters was still alive and his three younger brothers would all die within the next 7 years or so. He was also, it seems, a little tired of working with institutions himself – he was a King's Man but probably not all that happy about appearing in livery at the king's beck and call. As a writer he thoroughly understood his craft; as a man of the theatre, though, he seems disengaged. I suspect that a more solitary Shakespeare is reflected in this play. I'm curious if you feel a difference between a play like Hamlet, which you've directed a number of times as well, and a play like Lear? Only 7 years at the most have passed between one and the other but it almost seems like he's passed through a stage of life by the time he's writing Lear.

Nunn I do feel he's passed from one stage of life to another. So I think of that extraordinary sonnet [No. 66 'Tired with all these for restful death I cry'], the 'suicide' sonnet. Was the composition of that extraordinary catalogue of life's disappointments in any way contemporaneous with Lear? How much despair was Shakespeare in about the world he saw around him?

Shapiro I wrestle with that question a lot…. I do get a sense of a pervasive darkening of Shakespeare's world. In 1603, one in six& Londoners died of the plague, and plague never fully disappeared for the rest of that decade. For most of 1606, the year in which this play was first staged at court at Christmastime before King James, the public theatres were closed because of plague. Walking the streets of London in these years, and with every major outbreak of plague seeing crosses painted on doors, houses sealed up, year after year, with no end to the nightmare of plague in sight, had to be deeply depressing, numbing. It must have been somewhat like living in Baghdad now - and it absolutely coloured Shakespeare's sensibility.

Nunn I mentioned that risky things are said under the cover of Lear's madness - would there have been the necessity of censorship or of the play being manipulated if it was to be performed at court?

Shapiro There's no question that there were cuts made to the play - in the production that was played at Whitehall on St Stephens Day 1606 and again in the Folio version. That having been said, the 1606 and 1623 versions of the play are both quite radical in their take on court intrigue, economic inequality, the hypocritical system of justice and on the nature of a political state. So if there was censorship, there doesn't seem to have been enough of it. This play offers as condemning a view of political and social relations as any I know.

Nunn Why was Shakespeare drawn to the subject of madness again? Was there anything going on in his life to explain why?

Shapiro That's such an essential question and such an impossible one to answer. We know that a few years earlier he was interested in madness in a very different way with Hamlet's feigned madness. Ophelia and even Malvolio come to mind, Othello and Lady Macbeth too. But this seems to be on another level entirely, a profound engagement with the question of madness and possession. We don't know what was going on in his intimate life, with his friends, lovers, or family, that might explain this. But we know for a fact that he was reading Harsnett's Declaration of Egregious Popish Imposters, an attack on Catholic priests who conducted exorcisms, and that the obsession with exorcism and with madness as 'possession' is something he's brooding about. But we only have the traces of the play, not of the life. Let me ask you, going back to this question of the text. Was it tough choosing between the 1608 Quarto and a conflated text that includes passages from the 1623 Folio?

Nunn Scholarship, as you say, has changed a lot in the last 30 years concerning this play. I don't think in 1968 anybody was saying, 'The Quarto and the Folio are two quite different plays'. I remember at the time consulting John Barton, and arriving at a 'best of both worlds' conflated text. That became the basis of the text I used in 1976, but then when I started out this time I did read a number of people who were telling me that I should be making a choice between Quarto and Folio. But I found myself unwilling to lose rich and evocative material from either version, and so I am working with a conflation again.

Shapiro You're not speaking with a purist here. I'm convinced that Shakespeare tinkered with his plays and that he handed over a script he knew would be changed in theatrical practise. Reg Foakes, who edited the Arden edition of King Lear, argues that there was revision and probably censorship, but that the two versions of the play are not as far apart as those who argue you must choose between Quarto and Folio would claim. You've obviously felt responsible and resourceful enough to go back and read some of the stuff that's been written before arriving at a conflated text and I suspect if I were directing it - rather than simply writing about it - I'd have chosen the same path as you.
One of the key differences between the Quarto and the Folio centres on the question, is this a civil war, or is it a foreign invasion from France? I've long believed there's a fundamental difference between the two, but of late I've also been thinking that if I were sitting in downtown Baghdad and somebody asked me, 'Are we experiencing a foreign invasion or a civil war?', I would probably say…

Nunn What's the difference?

Shapiro ...Yes, on an academic level and perhaps even on a theatrical level it makes a difference, but what difference does that make to the suffering that ordinary people endure?

Nunn You've mentioned Baghdad twice, and indeed we're living now through a time of war that millions of us regret, not only because as always the military solution only leads to greater misery, but because we're also seeing people so persuaded by their beliefs, that they will kill on behalf of them in the absolute certainty that God is on their side.

Shapiro When Shakespeare was writing Lear, England had just gone through, if you will, the equivalent of a '9/11' moment - the Gunpowder plot - the year before Lear was first staged. There must have been a sense that terrible destruction had been averted, and yet it was a time of great social and political rupture, reflected in the issues in the play: rebellion, loyalty, fear of a foreign invasion, an attempt on a monarch's life. So it's hard to ignore the ways in which contemporary pressures shape a play like this.

Nunn On the internet, we're told, there are images of people being executed, shot, beheaded - and we recoil at the thought that human beings can behave in such an animal way, and that out there are other human beings who want to watch and want to gloat over these images. It's inhuman - then we remember the blinding scene in King Lear.

Shapiro I can't help but think that playgoers will recall what they're seeing on the news or on the internet as they are watching that scene in your production. It's impossible to not feel the pressure of one's own times. Shakespeare would have expected as much of those who went to see his Lear.

James Shapiro is Professor of English at Columbia University and author of 1599: A year in the life of William Shakespeare (Faber, 2005).

You might also like