This is going to be a ten part series (duh) from Working Author theater critic and sometimes – and hopefully more frequent – Bitter Lemons’ contributor, Ernest Kearney. I think the title of the series explains itself. Enjoy. And stay tuned for Part Two. CM


By Ernest Kearney

Whenever I see a production of King Lear where right at the outset Goneril and Regan are being portrayed like Cinderella’s wicked sisters on steroids, I know my options are limited; either suffer through it until intermission then bolt screaming from my seat or just screw it and get myself immediately carted from the theater by faking another epileptic fit.

King Lear with its dramatic structure of repeating motifs, comparable to Ravel’s Bolero with eye gouging, is arguably the most challenging of Shakespeare’s “big” plays to stage. This is due in part to the role of Lear himself, which is more exacting for an actor in many ways then even that of Hamlet. I can call to mind a dozen actors who accounted themselves satisfactorily as the Prince of Denmark. I can barely recall three “Lears” I can say the same of.

Yes, you could attribute this imbalance to the fact there are more productions of Hamlet than King Lear, but this serves in affirming my point. Every actor at the start of his career with the blind confidence of youth feels he can play “Hamlet”, but that actor who’s acquired the wisdom of age and experience will be more realistic, as well as hesitant, about jumping into Lear.

King Lear also presents another staging challenge that is unique among the Bard’s works – it cannot be carried by a lead performance.

Any mounting of Hamlet has hopes of being marginally successful so long as it has in the title role an actor who possesses as they say, “Chops”. Pull off this bit of casting and then your audience will be more likely to tolerate a whiny Ophelia, incoherent Laertes or mugging Grave digger. If you have an actor playing Richard III with the talent to merrily beguile a theatergoer with his murderous mayhem then there’s a chance you could pull off a production even if the rest of the roles are filled by penguins in period costumes. An acceptable staging of Macbeth requires mainly the Thame himself, but a good Lady Macbeth doesn’t hurt. In Romero and Juliet you need the star-crossed lovers and having a solid Mercutio is always a plus. For Henry V you need Henry period. In Taming of the Shrew, if you have a robust Petruchio and Katherine, just about all the other roles can go on the cutting block.

Now don’t misunderstand me, it would be wonderful having a production of Shakespeare in which every single role boasts an actor of supreme talent and ability – and that’ll go on my list of “things I expect to see” right after the “workers’ paradise” and “the Second Coming”. Nor do I mean to say that a skilled actor cannot work utter magic in the role of Macduff or Friar Lawrence. In the hands of the right actor wonderful things can be achieved in a role. (Why I happened to have been the Grave digger of my generation).

My point is that with the right actor in the title role, a production of Hamlet may manage to prove satisfying for an audience regardless of less than perfect casting in the so called “lesser” roles.

However this is not the case with King Lear, for while the lead role is among Shakespeare’s most vexing, the play itself is without question populated by the most demanding roster of Dramatic Personas ever assembled on a single stage.

Albany, Kent, Cornwall, Edgar, Edmund are all roles of such hidden complexity that the tyro Thespian approaches them at his own peril. Then there is Gloucester. Over the years if I’ve only found a few “Lears” worthy of praise, I have found even fewer “Gloucesters”. Gloucester, who serves as Lear’s doppelganger, challenges any actor taking on the role to transfigure the character from an aged, self involved rake to a blind wretch standing at the edge of a Dover cliff.

For an actress, the part of Cordelia can be daunting. For here is one of the most finely etched and superbly human roles that ever flowed from Shakespeare’s quill, yet she’s allotted a staggeringly brief amount of stage time; and if an audience doesn’t see the sincerity of Cordelia’s love for her father, and feel the pain he causes her in the opening scene, it won’t matter who your Lear is because you’ll be DOA before the starting pistol pops.

King Lear is like Hamlet except all the rest of the play’s supporting characters are just more “Hamlets”. This means the measure of the whole is found in the sum of its parts, and a great Lear is at the mercy of a mediocre Edmund or lackluster Kent. (I recall the James Earl Jones staging done at the Mark Taper many years ago which was like watching a mighty lion strutting amongst a pride of Pekinese).

So given this amazing array of multi-dimensional, fully fleshed out characters, you can be sure Shakespeare wouldn’t have written Goneril and Regan as two stock villainesses plucked out of some telemundo soap opera.

What does the text reveal about them? That perhaps they too once loved their father as Cordelia does, but they have had that love strangled by years of Lear’s callous and dictatorial behavior, which the younger Cordelia apparently is experiencing for the first time. Both the elder sisters have a desperate craving to be loved which is exploited in the play by the cunning Edmund. Both are rather cold and detached as children often are coming from a dysfunctional family. Responding to Lear’s questioning as to how much they love him; they aren’t trying to deceive him they’re simply telling him what he wants to hear. How many of us are guilty of that with our own parents? Their objections to the obligations he’s imposed on them are nothing if not reasonable. (How would you like your folks showing up on your doorstep expecting six months of accommodations for themselves and a couple of hundred knights? Start pricing those futons at IKEA!)

Shakespeare shows us that the sisters are not evil, blood sucking harpies, but two frightened individuals who, as the family feud expands into a political revolt that threatens their power and position, will resort to committing monstrous acts in order to survive .

After Edmund’s betrayal of his father’s participation in the plot to revenge their “treatment” of Lear, the two sisters and their husbands are interrogating Gloucester when news of the French army’s invasion arrives. Now the “family feud” has become a matter of life and death, and the next two lines spoken to the captured Gloucester reflect that new reality –

Hang him instantly.

Pluck out his eyes.

No, Goneril and Regan are not monsters, but they are their father’s daughters.

The play is thick with references to sight, vision, eyes, blindness, perception. Goneril attesting she loves her father “dearer than eye-sight”; Kent’s indictment of his beloved king to “see better, Lear”; Lear’s heart breaking admission, “I stumbled when I saw” just to touch on a very few.

The play opens with Lear dividing his kingdom amongst his three daughters with the “largest bounty” going to the one who “doth love us most.” After listening to the flattery of Goneril and Regan he turns to Cordelia and asks what she can say “to draw A third more opulent than your sisters?”

Nothing, my lord.

Nothing will come of nothing: speak again.

I love your majesty
According to my bond; nor more nor less.

Unable to see beyond his own ego, Lear banishes Cordelia setting into motion the tragedy that will eventually overtake him. This is what predominates Shakespeare’s King Lear, the notion of “seeing what should be seen”; and in approaching this work, whether as producer, director or actor, one had better see that the characters are far from being merely flat cardboard figures.

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  1. Jason Rohrer Jason Rohrer says:

    A good overview of a difficult play. I wish every company would read it before mounting Lear.

    Another way to screw up Shakespeare specifically and classics generally is to do the play just because it’s a really good play. A production must bring a timely perspective, highlight a counter-intuitive theme, exploit an overlooked angle. Otherwise instead of honoring the classic text the production detracts from it by piling another irrelevant offering on the altar.

  2. Jason Rohrer Jason Rohrer says:

    And: I believe it’s Gloucester who says “I stumbled when I saw.”


    Thank you Jason.

    I think Shakespeare sets up the whole theme in the first scene of the first act –

    “Why, this is not Lear…. Where are his eyes?”


  4. Jason Rohrer Jason Rohrer says:

    Indeed. Thank you for your insights. I look forward to the next 9 installments.