A few weeks back the BBC aired a two hour long rendition of William Shakespeare’s play King Lear. Directed by Richard Eyre (who mainly works in theatre) it features an ensemble cast with the likes of Anthony Hopkins, Emma Thompson, Andrew Scott and many more. Including a few up and comers apprising the role’s of Edmund and Cordelia.
The tale is about a King in Britain who gradually befalls to senility. At the beginning he still has enough wits to realise that he isn’t fit to rule, so he divides up his kingdom to his successors. A power struggle alludes to which Lear is gravely offended, he soon becomes homeless and dives forward to senility. The ending is one of Shakespeare’s darkest of tragedies.
Shakespeare himself based the play off of the legends of King Leir of Britain, who was allegedly ruler of England during the reign of the Celts around 800BCE- the time in which Rome itself was founded.
There’s not much historical evidence to suggest that Leir himself was real or just a Mythic figure passed down by the Celts in Oral tradition. So most historians would place him in the same category as King Arthur.
It follows a similar plot to Shakespeare’s Lear, but it has a happier ending.
The recently televised version of King Lear decided to mix it up a little bit by having the tale take place in modern times. So Britain has evolved in regards to technology and architecture, but not in regards to social mobility and class structures. There is no Parliament or Prime Minister, no United Nations or even a European Union- there is only a King.
A bad king at that. I found a funny review of the adaptation in this Spectator article, in which the writer describes it thus; “the programme opened in what seemed to be present-day Britain under military dictatorship” that latter part gave me a laugh. Dictator? No, that’s…that’s what a King is.
Or rather what they were. I imagine that the author is so used to seeing their Royals as the neutered incestuous meatballs that they are that the author has lost touch of what they used to be. Spoilt Monsters.
Now the original play is well over three hours long but seeing as this TV adaptation is just under two hours so obviously a lot has been cut out. I’m not fluent in Old English so I had some issues with understanding what the hell was happening on the first viewing, but upon doing some research and reading a translated version of the script I can see that on the second viewing that the whole thing is a bit messy.
This show should have been two and a half hours long at least. Scenes are either muddled up or cut out all together. Some very necessary lines of dialogue and character interactions are no where to be seen, so if you’ve never seen Lear before (and were for some reason fluent in Old English) it’d be confusing as hell.
Before reviewing this, I set out to view another rendition of this play. The best I could find was the BBC’s 2016 Shakespeare Lives version that they filmed, which you can watch here. It’s not an actual TV adaptation, rather it’s just a bunch of cameras filming a live performance on stage (some of which is out of focus) it’s more faithful to the original source material. The only twist being that the majority of the cast is black.
The performances were great. While Hopkins’ Lear is more reserved, Don Warrington’s is more emotional. The rest of the cast is great, although I take issue with Cordelia’s portrayal since she’s a little too emotional for my tastes. Then again that may just be the difference between a stage performance and TV.
But of course having King Lear be played by a Black man ruffled a few hoods so you can find such comments as “WTF why so PC?” under the video. Which I find personally irksome.
There’s nothing politically correct about changing the race of a character who’s been around for hundreds of years. Especially if his race is indifferent to his very character. What would be politically correct is removing the character of Oswald for being a bad stereotype of a Gay guy (he’s not, btw) or removing Lear’s misogynistic ramblings or removing the character of Edgar all together in fears that they may offend people who’s parents copulated outside of marriage.
That’s what being Politically Correct would mean in regards to Shakespeare.
So King Lear starts out with a meeting between the King’s family and colleagues- comprising of his daughters Goneril (Queen bitch), Regan (middle child, also a bitch) and Cordelia- who is the youngest and Lear’s favourite. She’s the nicest out of the pack, probably because Lear didn’t bully her while she grew up.
They’re accompanied by the Duke of Albany (Goneril’s husband) and the Duke of Cornwall (Regan’s) the scene starts while two of Lear’s colleagues, the Earl of Gloucester (pronounced Gloster for some fucking reason) and the Duke of Kent. Lear has realised that he’s too old to govern so he’s decided to divide his kingdom up into three pieces- which is already a sign of his problematic thinking since he initially promised to hand over all the land to Albany.
Having these dogs share a bone isn’t going to end too well.
The way Lear decides to carve out his land is interesting as he prescribes to his daughter’ to flatter him, the greatest flatterer get’s the biggest chunk. It’s very unsettling that this crossed my mind, but when I watched that scene I couldn’t help but think about Trump and how his sycophants treat him.
I guess John Meachum wasn’t half wrong when he suggested; “If he knew who King Lear was, it would be like King Lear.”
Goneril and Regan oblige, spouting love that they don’t really feel. Cordelia on the other hand finds the whole thing absurd and decides to keep it real by not engaging in such hefty flattery, instead saying that she loves Lear as a daughter- no more, no less.
There’s a lot of poetry in Shakespeare’s plays, it’s probably the reason why they’ve never been translated to modern English- in fear that it would lose it’s essence. Even though (on my first viewing) I could barely understand a lick of it, I got the general vibe of what was going on.
Lear disowns Cordelia. In doing so the Duke of Bergundy forsakes his offer of marriage, but the King of France decides to take her hand due to her honesty. A good decision on his part, as the great philosopher Kanye West once said; “One good girl is worth a thousand bitches” later adding that the word “bitch” was a term of endearment.
Kent stands up to Lear, suggesting that he has gone mad and then Lear banishes him. In the TV adaptation they cut out his goodbye to Cordelia and his callous farewells to her other sisters. A real shame really.
Some aspects of Shakespeare just weren’t developed with TV or film in mind. Take the Edmund’s soliloquy, it’s a great introduction to a villain. You got motive, method and means all laid out. I want to slap the editor of this show, the way they introduce his soliloquy is fucking disgraceful.
Goneril and Regan leave the room and pass Edmund, who’s standing guard in the hallway. Instead of using that continuous tracking shot of the two sisters and then focusing on Edmund, the editor opts to use this weird, jarring close up of Edmund that lasts for about a second and a half and then cuts back to the tracking shot! Who the fuck taught this cunt how to edit???
I blame the director. There’s a variety of shot’s in this whole program that aren’t suited for it’s purpose- most of them unnecessary wide shots, like when Goneril rants to her husband about Lear’s crazy antics. I assume that since the director’s main field is in theatre that he’s used to every scene being a wide shot, so stuff like this he’d never catch on to.
But anyway, Edmund is the bastard child of Gloucester. He’s pissed off that his father treats him so poorly and that because of his status he is unable to inherit his father’s wealth. So he concocts a plan to frame his legitimate half brother Edgar in a plot to kill his father.
It’s a weird transition from the soliloquy to the scene in which Edmund confides the plot to his father. Firstly it’s a different location (in a play characters can just walk on and off, so story structure is easier) which is a little jarring when you consider Edmund enters this room full of his father’s peers, takes out a letter from his jacket randomly and then places it back into his pocket fifteen seconds later when his Father walks towards him.
It’s the most awkward movement I’ve ever seen portrayed on TV in my entire life. If they were insistent on having everything set up in modern times, why not replace the letter with a text or an email? If Edmund can forge Edgar’s handwriting then surely he can hack his phone.
Also, having Gloucester demand to see Edmund’s phone would make him come off more as an entitled prick- because demanding to see a letter is one thing, but to go through your son’s messages? Total breach of privacy. This entitlement would make Gloucester’s *redemption* later on more becoming.
Gloucester is let on to the alleged plot and so Edmund goes to warn Edgar (they really need to change those names, you can’t have two sons named Ed for christ sake) now this is the bit where my suspension of disbelief falters. Because Gloucester is lead on to believe that his son is plotting to murder him so that he can inherit his lands. Edgar on the other hand? He’s simply told that his Dad is, like, really fucking mad at him.
Now I’m not too sure if Filicide was all the range back in the day, but there is no justifiable reason for why a sheltered boy such as Edgar would be so terrified of his own father that he would rather run away and feign madness than confront him and set the record straight.
And you heard me right, Edgar decided to run away, cover himself in shit and pretend to be a crazy person called “Poor Tom” because that’s a rational decision.
Why do so many characters in Shakespeare feign madness? I know Hamlet feigned madness so that he could discover who killed his dad…but why? Who does that? Was that just like a normal thing? Was Bill Shakespeare’s social circle so dramatic that they were prone to pretend to be clinically insane? Was Renaissance London the Florida of Europe?
I can just imagine the conversations;
“Hey Greg, what’s up?”
“Oh not much. Just found out my wife was cheating on me”
“Shit man, how’d you find out?”
“Oh, I had suspicions so I dived head first into the stream of shit that is the Themes river. Pretended to be a crazy guy called ‘Pete the Slete’ and I hopped around on one foot acting like I only had one leg even though I have two. That went on for about six months until one day I spotted my wife holding hands with another man- so I publicly shamed her and had her burned at the stake”
“Shit man, that’s rough”
“I mean…fuck. How are you feeling?”
“I fucked a dog, Bill.”
So Edmund tells his brother to run under the cover of darkness. They fake a fight and Edmund fakes an injury by cutting his own arm. The guards and Gloucester arrive outside to find Edmund. Gloucester asks for what happened and Edmund says “Look sir, I’m bleeding” to which his Father repeats the question.
I love this little awkward interaction so much. If you’re ever told an elaborate lie, then you know how it feels to create this meticulous detail to add a sense of realism to the whole thing. But the thing is the victim of the lie never even notices that little detail so all that creativity and planning you had done is gone to waste.
Meanwhile, Kent has returned to serve his king in disguise. His disguise being…he shaved his moustache…and head. Yep, nobody notices him. I can’t complain though, considering I believe that Clark Kent’s disguise is a work of genius.
After the world’s easiest job interview, he get’s to work for Lear as like…his guy. It’s an unpaid internship to be honest.
Here’s one of the examples in which the programme cuts or removes certain lines or jumbles up certain scenes. When Lear questions him about his age, Kent replies that he’s old enough not to fall for a basic bitch but still young enough to do the buck nasty and rightfully fuck the brains out of a consenting partner.
Now, if you’re reading Shakespeare and you’re not imagining a packed theatre with a mosh pit of drunk and malnourished peasants- then you’re not reading it properly. Shakespeare’s competition wasn’t another playwright, his competition was a bear that was getting slaughtered in the arena next door.
So to ensure that these raunchy peasants didn’t get bored, he’d throw in the occasional innuendo to keep them engaged. It’s a way to keep his target demographic happy. His target demographic being mostly middle aged whore-mongers who were going to die in five days of either cholera or gonorrhoea- or both. Alongside dumb fuck teenagers who’ve never seen a pussy in their entire lives.
So for every joke, for every confrontation or fight that doesn’t make sense now- that’s why it exists. To keep an otherwise illiterate crowd on alert.
Speaking of illiteracy, there’s this weird insult thrown in here that I found particularly odd. In the second or third act Kent insults Oswald by saying that he’s as useless as the letter Z. Did Shakespeare have this weird gripe about the letter Z? I mean the crowd was almost entirely illiterate so only someone like him could have appreciated that insult, was he really so petty about the alphabet that he’d use the term Z as an insult?
When did they add Z to the alphabet? Did the King decry “we’re using Z’s now” and Shakespeare threw a hissy fit? Was this the Shakespeare equivalent of complaining about political correctness?
“Ugh- why so PC? Keep the Alphabet the same!”
So the agreement Lear had to seceded his power was that he would control nothing so long as he would be referred to as King and was able to keep a hundred knights around him at all times. He’d spend his days living in between Goneril’s and Regan’s houses, hunting and doing various stuff.
Now, handing over a hundred knights to a senile old man goes about as well as you can expect. It’d be like letting Prince Phillip command a squadron of riotous and/or rapey rugby players. So they abuse the staff, break shit- all until Goneril get’s mad an tell’s Lear to stop fucking shit up.
Which he get’s mad at and then curses her. Now cursing back then I believe was like the cursing in the bible, it was considered a legitimate threat to ones life. That’s why the ten commandments tell you not to cure your parents- because it’s super fucked up.
Lear curses her with infertility followed up with a proclamation that if she ever did have children that they would grow up to be cunts that hated her. To us this is just another example of the abuse Lear gives his daughters and why they hate him so. They’re cruel hearts did not come about via nature but rather nurture.
Abuse like this would create what people refer to as “daddy issues” in a child. For normal people this would most likely result in them making poor life decisions along the lines of sex and drug addiction while engaging in self destructive behaviour that ultimately sabotages their relationships. Goneril on the other hand is a woman of power, so she gets to take out her Daddy issues out on England…which is a step up, I guess.
Lear flees towards Regan’s house, finds that she’s not in. Heads on to Gloucester’s house where Regan is staying to avoid him- where he is further insulted by discovering that his servant Kent is in the stock (his crime? being a Cunt) and he starts another senile rant (even goes so far as to french kiss Goneril, which fucking terrifies her) and then storms off with his Fool into a storm.
The fool, by the way, is probably one of the best characters in the play. He’s the one person who gets to call Lear out on his shit. He’s constantly warning him about the mistake he made by forfeiting his thrown- he’s this really funny yet tragic character. The perfect blend between coward, sycophant and loyal friend.
They head out into this violent storm, in which Lear is giving this crazy rant about nature and the gods and whatever. The storm is a symbol of the chaos that is ensuing in both Lear’s life and mind. It’s a literary device known as pathetic fallacy, in which an inanimate object or subject- such as the weather- takes on human feelings or responses.
Kent eventually catches up with the two, they run into this camp of beggars (the modern update is a refugee camp) and they find Edgar who is now wearing a skimpy dress, covered in shit and shouting crazy nonsense. Lear, the self obsessed bastard that he is, asks if his two daughters had drove him to this?
Edgar, the comic relief, goes on this mad tangent about his fake life story in which he states that he was once a nobleman who was in and out of a whorehouse like a gust of wind and how his lies and betrayals eventually ended up driving him insane. At this point I assume that the peasants are laughing, they seem like the type of cunts that’d find the ramblings of a mad man funny.
They eventually find shelter and Lear holds a mock trial for his two daughters where he decries them guilty- apparently the imaginary Regan starts a fight which involves the guards unsheathing their swords. At this point Edgar realises that he may be just acting-crazy, but Lear is legitimately insane.
For some reason he feels better about his situation, even though he’s a homeless weirdo pretending to have schizophrenia.
Gloucester comes by and takes Lear and crew to Dover. He doesn’t recognise his son and thus leaves him behind. In the programme it’s made apparent that the fool dies of hypothermia inside the ambulance to Dover, however later on Lear says that they hanged the fool- which makes n fucking sense until you realise that he’s insane and you just let it slide. It’s a genius continuity error, I have to admit.
Meanwhile Edmund tells Cornwall that his father has been acting as an agent for France (who seek to re-establish Lear as king) and he’s tried for treason. By tried I mean Regan and Cornwall yell at him and then gouge his eyes out. There’s this weird scuffle between Cornwall and one of his guards who protest the act of violence, the Duke is mortally wounded while Regan shoots the guard.
Cornwall dies off screen- despite advances in medicine a good stab ton the kidney will kill a man. I like to think that Regan poisoned him later on so that she could be with Edmund, or think that the scene was written in a time in which the common cold would take off a limb.
This scene is a little strange, it’s an unnecessary action sequence and it’s just clear that Bill just needed to get rid of Cornwall so hat he could have that weird love triangle between Regan, Goneril and Edmund. There’s no set up to that latter part other than a few glances that you’d only really notice on the second viewing.
Oh, and that time Edmund grabbed Regan’s ass but that was less setup and more of a “wait, isn’t she married? Like a really healthy and weirdly erotic marriage?” kind of reaction. It was a strange sight upon first glance.
So Gloucester is thrown out of his house and is left to wander alone, until he meets Edgar who is still pretending to be crazy. So he can’t stop pretending and has to guide his father to the cliffs of Dover, where he fakes his suicide. Basically Gloucester want’s to kill himself by falling to his death. Edgar tells him that he’s reached the edge when in actuality he’s no where near it. He falls forwards and lands on his face.
Edgar now has to pretend to be a different person who saw the man fall and is amazed that he wasn’t harmed. Gloucester is sad that he didn’t die but Edgar tells him that some kind of Devil led him astray and that the Gods performed a miracle. It’s a very dark yet humorous scene.
They then run into Lear who is now this raving homeless guy pushing a shopping cart in the town centre and harassing passers by. He greets Gloucester (albeit in his own senile manner) and then is taken away by the french troops sent by Cordelia.
Lear is brought to Cordelia where they make amends, even though the king is on his wits end. The battle ensues- we get to see some footage of a jets flying over housing estates and mortars flying. Gloucester dies of exhaustion/infection but he learns of Edgar’s presence before hand.
The French lose the fight, Cordelia and Lear are abducted and brought forth to Edmund who sends them to the dungeons. Lear gives this weird enthusiastic portrayal of life in jail while Cordelia is simply heartbroken. It’s a sad moment in the narrative, Lear appears to be content dying in jail alongside her while she wants to live and fight.
Edmund and Albany get in a heated argument, the Duke calls Edmund a traitor citing a letter he received that showed Goneril instructing him to kill he husband so that they may be together. See, here’s where the programme is messy- they’re missing vital scenes such as where Albany got this letter.
Albany got it from Edgar- who pretends to be a commoner who will get a champion ready if Albany challenges him to a duel, Edmund got it from Oswald after he tried and failed to kill his father- his dying words were to take his belongings and bury him, Oswald got them from Goneril and was later interjected by Regan who proclaimed her love for Edmund and demanded Oswald’s allegiance.
That’s not to mention various other scenes that were cut out such as Edmunds internal monologue upon his discovery that his father was a french informant- which set up his snitching to Cornwall and the subsequent actions that take place after Gloucester loses his eyes.
There’s a good half hour of scenes that would have made this programme much more cleaner. The Shakespeare Lives version had minor problems in that they cut out 50% of Edgar’s lines- which is a travesty since his soliloquies are some of the most powerful in the play and the actor he had was really good.
But yeah, the modernised equivalent of a duel is an MMA match for some reason. Albany calls forward a champion who is just Edgar in a mask. Not just any mask mind you, a fucking balaclava. Do I have to explain to you how hard I laughed to see Andrew Scott, an Irishman (albeit a Dubliner) play a Shakespearean character dressed like a fucking IRA man?
It made me laugh way too hard. What followed was a pitiful excuse for a fight scene. Now I love Andrew Scott, he’s a great actor with a distinct voice who has so much range- but he can’t fight. Neither can Benedict Cumberbatch. That’s what made the Sherlock Christmas special so shit- that stupid fistfight on the Reichenbach falls looked like a pathetic squabble between two twinky nerds.
Now being unable to fight isn’t anything to be ashamed about. Most adult life requires little to no physical confrontations or even physical labour so you don’t even need to exercise (although that latter part is highly recommended) and people who go out of their way looking for fights are not necessarily good people.
So Andrew please, for the love of god, don’t let anyone film you fight ever again.
The fight was terrible. Foley was off, choreography was terrible and that one finishing move by Edgar pissed me off so much. So the fight is ensuing, Edmund has the upper hand when all of a sudden Edgar trips him up and breaks his back over his knee.
Yes, Edgar pulled a fucking Bane.
A move, by the way, that doesn’t kill the opponent. At best it cripples them. In Edgar’s case he’d be lucky to bruise the spine never mind break it. But despite that Edmund dies two minutes later, after admitting his crimes and discovering his opponent was actually Edgar.
Goneril runs away and kills herself off stage, it’s revealed that Regan also died via poisoning to which Goneril also admitted to perpetrating. Edmund cries out that he didn’t get laid and then reveals that he commanded the prison guards to kill Lear and Cordelia.
Lear comes on screen yelling at the top of his lungs, pulling a bag with Cordelia behind him (Anthony Hopkins is either too old or not strong enough to physically carry the actress) this is probably one of the most tragic scenes in the programme. Hopkins play’s Lear as this Old man whose seen it all and is acting hard, but eventually his age gets the better of him and he bursts down in tears.
Kent reveals himself to Lear but he’s too crazy to care. He goes on a senile rant and then dies. They place him on the cart and Kent does this weird thing where he tries to pull it but the realises he’s not strong enough. It’s one of those things that are either planned out in advance or happen on set in an improvised moment.
It’s a very gloomy ending. Almost everyone is dead, Kent himself says he’s not long for this world and Edgar gives this sad speech at the end. It’s a great tragedy.
All in all this televised rendition was a little messy editing wise but the cast were phenomenal. If you added half an hour more and fixed up some of the modern story elements you could make a damn fine adaptation. For now the adaptation is mostly beautiful but terribly flawed and in great need of adjustment.
As for the tale itself, it’s one of Shakespeare’s best. It resonates with audiences because it deals with the struggles of old age and the troubles of youth. It dabbles with the toxic allure of power and how it turns otherwise decent people cruel.
The greatest lessons the play has to offer is to always trust in honesty, to never let flattery surpass and to above all else- keep it real.
The tragedy of Lear is not only that he’s old, but that he grew old before he became wise. If he had enough wisdom at the start of the play he would have never fallen for false flattery and none of these dilemmas would ever have taken place. Only when you lose something do you truly see things clearly.
Lear realised that his children hated him and that he was turning cruel whenever his power was taken away from him, Gloucester realised he was an entitled ass who fell fell for Edmund’s lies as soon as his eyes were taken away, Edgar (who literally did nothing wrong) learned the cruelties and the sufferings of man and his brother after his comfortable life was taken away from him and in a way Edmund learns that his pursuit of power and revenge was all in vain when his life was taken away from him.
The only person that really never learned anything was Kent. He remained loyal to a fault to the very end.
The play can be observed as a battle between the Young and the Old. The young being Edmund, Goneril and Regan. The old being Lear and Gloucester. With the Renaissance came Machiavelli and thus new thoughts about the pursuit of life. The character of Edmund employs that Machiavellian philosophy, a direct challenge to the social order and an assertion that man does not exist for the society, but rather society exists for the man.
Both points are wrong. Man exists for the Society and Society exists for the man. You must be able to maintain the very boat that helped you cross the waters, no matter how good of a swimmer you believe yourself to be.
The older generation aren’t used to all these plots and back stabbings, that’s why they fall. They’re used to creeds of honour and not of deception. However Albany can fall under the category of the Old since he has a very strict sense of honour, he wins in the very end so the Young technically don’t win. But then again, neither do the old.
In conclusion, King Lear is a great play, the recent BBC programme is a good albeit flawed portrayal of it as is the Shakespeare Lives rendition. Shakespeare is one of the most famous playwrights in the world, his plays get produced across the globe and they’ve sold roughly four billion copies of his works- including a few dozen plays and hundreds of sonnets. Hopefully I’ll get to review all of the prior, ideally before I reach the age of Lear.