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."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Life and Style
love + sex A new study has revealed the average size - but does that leave men outside the 'normal' range being thought of as 'abnormal'?
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Voices
The Palace of Westminster is falling down, according to John Bercow
voices..says Matthew Norman
Sport
Steve Bruce and Gus Poyet clash
football
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
News
Graham Norton said Irish broadcaster RTE’s decision to settle was ‘moronic’
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Jake and Dinos Chapman were motivated by revenge to make 'Bring me the Head of Franco Toselli! '
arts + ents Shapero Modern Gallery to show explicit Chapman Brothers film
Arts and Entertainment
Kurt Cobain performing for 'MTV Unplugged' in New York, shortly before his death
music Brett Morgen's 'Cobain: Montage of Heck' debunks many of the myths
Life and Style
life
Sport
Brendan Rodgers
football The Liverpool manager will be the first option after Pep Guardiola
News
Amazon misled consumers about subscription fees, the ASA has ruled
news
Arts and Entertainment
Myanna Buring, Julian Rhind-Tutt and Russell Tovey in 'Banished'
TV Jimmy McGovern tackles 18th-century crime and punishment
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Whitehouse as Herbert
arts + ents
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

Recruitment Genius: Lettings and Sales Negotiator - OTE £46,000

£16000 - £46000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Recruitment Genius: Home Care Worker - Reading and Surrounding Areas

£9 - £13 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is a great opportunity to join a s...

Recruitment Genius: Key Sales Account Manager - OTE £35,000

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Have you got a proven track rec...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - OTE £40,000

£15000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a great opportunity for...

Day In a Page

Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

Poldark star Heida Reed

'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn