An unhappy birthday for Shakespeare's tragic King Lear - This Britain - UK - The Independent

An unhappy birthday for Shakespeare's tragic King Lear

Four hundred years ago today the first known performance of one of William Shakespeare's most powerful and heart-rending plays was presented at the court of James I at Whitehall.

Richard Burbage, the greatest actor of the age, is believed to have performed the title role as King Lear, the monarch who divided his kingdom and went mad.

The subject was tailor-made for James, who had been king of Scotland for 36 years when he ascended to the English throne in 1603 on the death of Elizabeth I.

He was desperately trying to unite the parliaments of London and Edinburgh, so a cautionary tale of the perils of division must have been music to his ears.

But while the political ramifications of Lear would have been clear to the contemporary audience, it is the human drama that has resonated through centuries.

As the director Richard Eyre observes in a documentary about the play on Radio 4 today, while it might not seem festive, the family row at the heart of it makes it curiously apt for Christmas.

Actors such as Anthony Hopkins, Laurence Olivier, Orson Welles, Nigel Hawthorne and Brian Cox and even one actress - Kathryn Hunter - have tackled a part which the actor Ian Holm said required "enormous stamina".

Jonathan Bate, the Shakespearean scholar, said he used to regard it as Shakespeare's supreme achievement. "There have been many times in history when people have said it's Shakespeare's greatest play," he said. These days, he considers the Bard's work too diverse to decide. "But it's a play that Shakespeare obviously spent a lot of time working on, exploring huge questions, not only about politics, but about sanity and madness and primal emotions - family loyalty, love and hate."

The work was based on a story about a king called Ler, Leir or Lyr who was part of British and Irish mythology. Geoffrey of Monmouth, the Welsh bishop, recounted it in his Historia Regum Britanniae in the 12th century and Raphael Holinshed retold it in his own Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland in 1577.

It is possible, however, that Shakespeare's main source was a play called The True Chronicle History of King Leir and his three daughters, Goneril, Regan and Cordelia, which was published shortly before his own version was presented at court.

Professor Bate said plays were normally premiered at public theatres to refine them for court presentation. But in the second half of 1606, the theatres were closed because of the plague, so the first recorded mention, on Boxing Day, was probably the premiere.

Described by Shelley as "the most perfect specimen of dramatic poetry existing in the world", the play's performance career has been troubled.

It first earned popularity in 1681, when the Irish poet and dramatist Nahum Tate massacred the text by axing the role of the Fool, which he considered inappropriate to tragedy, and writing a new, happy ending in which Lear and Cordelia survive and she marries Edgar.

David Garrick, the great actor-manager of the 18th century, questioned Tate's reworking and created his own amalgam, cutting more than 200 of Tate's lines, but keeping the happy ending. Critics remained convinced that Shakespeare's tragic conclusion, in which Cordelia is hanged and Lear dies of a broken heart, was too overwhelming.

There followed a period when the play was not performed at all, in deference to the supposed madness of George III.

When Edmund Kean, a popular actor, revived it in the 1820s, deaths and all, the reaction was such that he reverted to Tate's ending after three performances.

Only in 1838 was a full Shakespearean version presented again, by the English actor-manager William Charles Macready.

Even so, further efforts were made to bowdlerise the script. Henry Irving axed nearly half of Shakespeare's text in 1892 to reduce the violence and sexuality.

It was the 20th century before any reverence for the text returned - along with new interpretations, including Andrew McCullough's 1953 film with Orson Welles in the title role and the Japanese director Akira Kurosawa's 1985 adaptation,Ran.

For actors, it remains a monumental challenge. "It's often regarded as the Everest for a Shakespearean actor," Professor Bate said. The next to assault the mountain is Sir Ian McKellen, who returns to the stage in Stratford in March, directed by Trevor Nunn.

Nunn said: "I have been looking forward to the fulfilment of the vow Ian McKellen and I made that one day we would do King Lear together."

Life and Style
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape
music
News
Paper trail: the wedding photograph found in the rubble after 9/11 – it took Elizabeth Keefe 13 years to find the people in it
newsWho are the people in this photo? It took Elizabeth Stringer Keefe 13 years to find out
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)
filmMatt Damon in talks to return
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
News
peopleThe report and photo dedicated to the actress’s decolletage has, unsurprisingly, provoked anger
Arts and Entertainment
Evil eye: Douglas Adams in 'mad genius' pose
booksNew biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Life and Style
tech... and together they're worth at least £100 million
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
filmsDaniel Craig is believed to be donning skies as 007 for the first time
Arts and Entertainment
Fringe show: 'Cilla', with Sheridan Smith in the title role and Aneurin Barnard as her future husband Bobby Willis
tvEllen E Jones on ITV's 'Cilla'
Life and Style
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch
tech(but you can't escape: Bono is always on your iPhone)
Sport
Tim Wiese
sport
Life and Style
Kim Kardashian drawn backlash over her sexy swimsuit selfie, called 'disgusting' and 'nasty'
fashionCritics say magazine only pays attention to fashion trends among rich, white women
Arts and Entertainment
TVShows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Arts and Entertainment
Hit the roof: hot-tub cinema east London
architectureFrom pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Programme Test Manager

£400 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client are currently seekin...

Secondary supply teachers needed in Peterborough

£21000 - £35000 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Secondary supply teac...

Modern Foreign Languages Teacher

£100 - £110 per day: Randstad Education Group: Full time German Supply Teacher...

Project Manager with some Agile experience

£45000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Chelmsf...

Day In a Page

Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week