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."

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