King Lear has haunted me for a long time now, ever since I was a college junior enrolled in my “Advanced Shakespeare” class with my favorite English professor. I was excited to take it and delve into more of the obscure Shakespeare plays-really spend some time with Troilus and Cressida, perhaps, or Pericles. So imagine my surprise the first day of class when I arrived to discover that we would be spending the entire semester on just one play: King Lear. I thought, “A whole semester on one play? How is that possible? What will talk about all those classes?”
I was in for an adventure, though, because not only did we have plenty to talk about, I left that class thinking I could spend at least two or three more semesters exploring the play. I also left with a strong desire to direct it: to engage with the text in a performance context and continue on the road to discovery and understanding.
Lear: Who is it that can tell me who I am?
Fool: Lear’s shadow.
Years later, I finally have the opportunity to tackle this rich and brilliant text with a company of talented actors and designers, and I have been learning more about the play with them every day. Stage tradition has given us either a Lear as tragic King, or Lear as misunderstood everyman, though I think he is actually both. He begins the play “every inch a King,” dressed in his robes and finery, attended to by many, deferred to by all. He has had absolute power all of his life, and is so convinced of the sincerity of those who bow to him, that he feels comfortable stepping down as King and dividing his lands and power amongst his daughters and sons-in-law.
As the play continues, the audience, along with Lear, realizes what a mistake he has made. As he faces his daughter Goneril who wants to reduce his followers and take control of his life, he asks, “Who is it that can tell me who I am?,” wanting to know, is he still the King? Will anyone there stand up for him, show him the respect that is his due, and that he has always received his whole life? The answer, (given by the Fool in the Folio version of the text, and Lear himself in the Quarto) is “Lear’s shadow.” He has become just a shadow of his former self, the pale colorless reflection of the powerful man he used to be. Later, in the midst of his madness, and stripped of all the “addition of a King,” Lear realizes, “Through tattered clothes great vices do appear; Robes and furred gowns hide all.” Now, as just a man, Lear understands how his position blinded him to the true natures of those around him.
Speaking of “Nature,” and “Blindness,” those are also two themes that run throughout the play. Listen for their use by Edmund the Bastard, as he justifies his villainous behavior, or Gloucester as he struggles to understand his fate. “Nothing will come of Nothing,” Lear tells his daughter Cordelia, who refuses to publicly speak of her love for her father, and he is correct, as “nothing” returns in the play again and again, leading to some critics to view this piece as nihilistic or as a precursor to existentialism. Whatever it is, it is fascinating, and I hope gives you lots to think about and ponder after you leave the theatre.