Difficulties of Producing “King Lear”
There are many things about Shakespeare’s play “King Lear” that makes it difficult to bring to the stage. The first, and most problematic, is King Lear himself. This is a complex character that demands an excellent performance. The second is the issue of disguise. Several of the characters in this play disguise themselves from other characters. When producing the play, the director must decide how to handle these disguises. Third is the challenge of balancing the plot and sub plots, especially since this is such a long play. Lastly, there is the issue of the weather. These factors, when added together, offer a significant challenge when producing this play.
King Lear is the protagonist of the play. It’s his willingness to believe in the flattery of his older daughters that leads to much of the conflict and sorrow in the play. In this opening scene, Lear is foolish with the management of his Kingdom. He splits it up amongst two daughters who lied to him about their love. Using the test of love proves that he either has no common sense or is unable to detect the false tone of the older daughters’ declarations. Additionally, he is so taken in with this flattery that he cannot see the simple and honest love that Cordelia offers. Lear’s pride also gets in his way. He responds overly harsh to loyal Kent; refusing to admit that he might be wrong. Hubris is a Greek term that refers to excessive and destructive pride. Hubris leads Lear to make a serious mistake in judgment; while Lear’s excessive anger toward Kent also suggests the fragility of his emotional state. In the ancient Greek world, hubris often resulted in the death of the tragic, heroic figure. This is clearly the case with Lear, who allows his excessive pride to destroy his family.
Throughout the play, the audience is permitted to see how Lear deals with problems. He is shocked when people do not obey as they have in the past, since Lear is king and he expects to be obeyed. However, instead of dealing with issues, Lear looks to the Fool to distract him with entertainment, to help him forget his problems. He has been insulted and demeaned as king, but he is not prepared to face those who are responsible. Instead, Lear often responds to problems with anger and outbursts of cursing, even a physical attack when provoked. When confronted with insults, Lear is helpless, at the mercy of his daughter and her servants, and he often succumbs to despair and self-pity. The once-omnipotent king struggles to find an effective means of dealing with his loss of power.
Eventually, the king reveals that he is frightened and apprehensive for his future, but he refuses to submit to another’s decisions. Lear wants to remain in charge of his destiny, even though the choices he makes are poor or filled with danger. Thus, Lear chooses to go out into the storm because he must retain some element of control. The only other choice is to acquiesce to his daughters’ control, and for Lear, that option is not worth considering. Lear is stubborn, like a willful child, and this is just one additional way in which he tries to deal with the events controlling his life. Lear flees into the storm, as a child flees a reality too harsh to accept.
In spite of his despair and self-pity, Lear is revealed as a complex man, one whose punishment far exceeds his foolish errors, and thus, Lear is deserving of the audience’s sympathy. Eventually, Lear displays regret, remorse, empathy, and compassion for the poor, a population that Lear has not noticed before. Lear focuses on the parallels he sees to his own life, and so in a real sense, his pity for the poor is also a reflection of the pity he feels for his own situation.
Lear is the anointed king, God’s representative, and thus, he shares the responsibility for dispensing justice on earth. He recognizes that he bears responsibility for both his own problems and for those of others, who suffer equally. His understanding of his complicity in the events that followed is a major step in accepting responsibility and in acknowledging that he is not infallible. Because of his own suffering, Lear has also learned that even he is not above God’s justice.
This is a long and convoluted road to travel (especially is just three hours!). The actor portraying King Lear has a difficult task. He must be able to display all the varying emotions of Lear in a convincing manner and do so in a way that still allows Lear to remain a unified whole. This is the pivotal role and if it is played badly, the entire play will fail.
There are several characters in this play that disguise themselves. Kent was banished from the Kingdom, but returned in disguise to continue to serve his King. Edgar took up the disguise of the madman to hide from the wrongful order for his murder. Later, Edgar also disguises himself as a peasant in order to help his father. Finally, one could argue that Cordelia disguised herself as a Fool to remain with her father, knowing that her sisters would betray him.
The issue for a director is simply to choose whether the audience will be able to tell the real identity of these characters from the beginning of their disguise or allow the audience to discover their identities along with the other characters in the play. This is really a question of suspense. Should the audience be left wondering and struggling to solve these mysteries or should they be allowed to enjoy a simpler view? If the audience knows the identities of these characters, the irony of the play is strengthened. However, the director must also be careful not to be too heavy handed with either suspense or irony, since this play is already heavily laden with emotional content.
Consider first the disguise of Kent. He was banished by the King for questioning his decision and being brave enough to voice his doubt. When Kent returns and offers his services to the King, he presents himself as an honest and capable man. If the audience does not know the true identity of Kent, they will miss the irony of this. The King is happy to accept an honest man into his services after he has recently banished this same honest man for being honest. Kent’s identity isn’t revealed to the other characters until the end of the play. By that time, this scene will no longer be strong enough in the audience’s memory for them to appreciate the ironic humor. Thus, if the director wants to maximize the irony surrounding Kent’s role, the audience must know who he is when he returns to the service of the King. However, if the director wants to add suspense and intrigue to the complexities of the plot, the audience cannot know Kent’s identity until the character reveals it himself.
This issue of irony versus suspense is also true for Edgar. However, if the audience is paying attention to the speech Edgar makes at the end of Act Two, Scene Three, they will probably be able to guess the true identity of the madman without any help from the director. However, this speech is quite removed from Edgar’s entrance as a madman and his identity could be apparent or masked. Like Kent, there is a lot of irony in Edgar’s disguises. If the audience knows the madman is really Edgar, they can appreciate the irony of Gloucester being guided by him. It is to the madman that Gloucester laments the wrongs he has committed against his son Edgar.
Lastly, is the possibility of the Princess Cordelia being disguised as the Fool. The director can simply allow the play to proceed as written without any consideration to this, letting the play itself present the intrigue of it. When Cordelia is reunited with her father, Lear, she comments “Mine enemy’s dog, though he had bit me, should have stood that night against my fire.” She is speaking of the terrible storm that her sisters left Lear in. She speaks of it as if she were with him that night (as the Fool). Additionally, Lear carries Cordelia’s dead body onto the stage and when speaking of her says “And my poor Fool is hanged!” This suggests that not only was she the Fool, but Lear knew it. These two bits of dialogue are enough to make the audience wonder about the true identity of the Fool, but as written, the play offers no definite answer. However, the director could choose to have Cordelia and the Fool be the same character and have this fact be readily apparent to the audience. Doing so would further the sense of irony. After all, it is the Fool who openly rebukes Lear for his bad choices.
Balancing the Plot and Subplot
King Lear is such a strong and emotionally powerful character that he commands the stage and the interest of the audience. This causes difficulty with balance. While the other characters and the subplot offer more mellow moments, letting the audience rest, they still have to have enough emotion and power of their own. If the subplot performances are weak, they will be drudgery compared to the scenes with King Lear. This is mostly addressed by picking strong actors for all the roles of the play. That sounds simple, but a director has only the actors in his troupe or those who audition for the part.
The weather in this play could easily be used to accentuate the tone and emotional state of the play. However, using weather poses a challenge. The scene that uses weather the most is when King Lear is in the storm. The director has to decide how much of the storm to portray and how much to leave to the audience’s imagination. Creating the physical presence of the storm is a challenge in itself. How does one produce rain and not drown the people in the first row? There is also the issue of the wind and thunder of the storm. These sounds should be loud enough to add a sense of ferocity to the storm, but not so loud as to muffle the speeches being made by Lear.
The complex nature of this play can offer many challenges to a director attempting to produce it on the stage. The realistic and changing personality of Lear makes finding the right actor difficult. His powerful emotional outbursts can overwhelm the other parts of the play and fatigue the audience if not carefully balanced with the other characters and subplot. The balance of irony and suspense can be tenuous, and will greatly change the flavor of the production. The use of weather can also add to the flavor of the play, but presents difficulties of its own. Solving these challenges is what gives each production of the play the director’s mark and offers the audience wonderful variances in different viewings of the play.