Actability of William Shakespeare’s “King Lear”

To see Lear acted, to see an old man tottering about the stage with a walking stick, turned out of doors by his daughters in a rainy night, has nothing in it but what is painful and disgusting. We want to take him into shelter and relieve him. That is all the feeling which the acting of Lear ever produced in me. But the Lear of Shakespeare cannot be acted. ……………………Lear is essentially impossible to be represented on a stage.”- On the tragedies of Shakespeare by Charles Lamb from The Reflector 1810-1811

King Lear has been variously described as Shakespeare s greatest achievement, his finest specimen of deepest tragedy and sometimes even as the best of his plays. Few demur with the first two descriptions but with regard to the last, there is much debate and division among the critics and laity alike. The’ debate seems to formulate itself clearly from a criticism of Charles Lamb, which it is necessary to quote in some detail for a proper discussion of the question. It runs thus: “Lear is essentially impossible to be represented on a stage…… The greatness of Lear is not in its corporeal dimension, but in intellectual the explosions of his passion are terrible as a volcano: they are storms turning up and disclosing to the bottom that sea, his mind, with all its vast riches……on the stage we see nothing but corporeal infirmities and weaknesses, the impotence of rage; while we read it, we see not Lear, but we are Lear.” Lamb might have stated the extreme case against the actability of King Lear but he is not alone and there are facts to show that this great achievement of Shakespeare did not enjoy high popularity.

William Shakespeare
“Indeed, from the end of the seventeenth century, critics and players have viewed it with distaste”, declares G. B. Harrison. Nahum Tate rewrote the play in 1681 with a happy ending and this re-written play was enjoyed by the play-goers for well over a hundred and fifty years. A. C. Bradley tells us that of four greats, King Lear is certainly the least popular and “it is also the least presented on the stage, and the least successful there.” As a matter of fact there is perhaps unanimity about King Lear being Shakespeare’s greatest achievement. Bradley, however, does not consider, it to be his best play. He thinks it to be decidedly inferior to Hamlet, Othello and Macbeth as a drama. He, however, holds Lear to be greater than all these as the representative of the fullest revelation of Shakespeare’s power, comparable only to Dante’s Divinia Comedia or a Beethoven symphony. The stage is the test of a play’s dramatic quality and by that test King Lear falls fully to satisfy, perhaps because, “it is too huge for the stage.” Bradley does not deny that it has scenes “immensely effective in the theatre” and he appreciates highly the masterly inter-weaving of the two plots as in Much Ado About Nothing. “But King Lear, as a whole, is imperfectly dramatic” as its essence demands a purely imaginative realization. Its comparative unpopularity, according to Bradley, is ascribable “not merely to the extreme painfulness of the catastrophe, but in part to its dramatic defects, and in part to a failure in many readers” to catch its peculiar effects. And then Bradley concludes that “even the best attempts at exposition of King Lear are disappointing; they remind us of attempts to reduce to prose the impalpable spirit of the Tempest.” There is much truth in Bradley’s by-now classic and sympathetic observation but the conclusion seems a little bit disappointing for the lovers of Shakespearean dramas which are meant primarily as pieces to be acted on a stage and written by a playwright who had also been an actor.

G. B. Harison in his Shakespearean Tragedies comes nearer the truth when he pronounces; “Lear is not so often Successful on the stage as Othello, which even with mediocre direction can hardly fail; Lear demands universal range, power, and maturity from the actor, and an indifferent performance can be exceedingly tedious.” Therefore to succeed, Lear requires (a) highest imaginative direction, (b) mature actors and (c) last but not the least, a responsive audience “who are capable of the closest attention and are not afraid of their own emotions, and who, moreover, are sufficiently well-read and intelligent to understand” the most packed and difficult language in all Shakespeare. As Harrison says Lear’s craftsmanship is “intricate but superb” demanding naturally for its appropriate dramatic rendering a superb directing genius who with a poetic sensitivity can actualize the intricate pattern in responsive acting worthy of appreciation.

This worthy genius was found in this century in Henry Granville-Barker who not only gave the fitting reply to the non-actability thesis of Lamb by a proper and imaginative representation of the play but also created a tradition of staging Shakespeare’s plays poetically as they were acted under the original stage conditions of Shakespeare’s times, The achievement of this actor—scholar—director is staggering in the long history of Shakespearean and it is well to listen to his opinion on the actability of Lear. “There is always a danger”, says Barker in his British Academy Lectures (1925) entitled From Henry V to Hamlet “that the scholar, approaching a play from its histrionic standpoint may trip himself up over a simple snag. This is very unfortunate and unfair; for it is a very proper way of approach. But the drama is an old art; it cannot be reduced to the terms of the printed page,” It is no reproach to the scholar or the editor for only the next moment, Barker asks pertinently, where would Shakespeare be without them? “ The histrionic side of drama requires a tradition very much like other arts and mysteries and that tradition, according to Barker, was not properly preserved in the British theatre—a tradition that is enriched not only by the individual excellence of the actors but more so by the constant collaboration of the spectators. Without this rapport involving a tradition, no great drama can be successfully acted. King Lear is no ordinary drama and viewed as an evening’s entertainment of the common variety, it “is a foredoomed failure, even as Beethoven’s Great Mass or Bach’s Mathew Passion would be.” It comes into another category of art altogether requiring not pretty perfect performances but claiming to soothe us by an acting that can purge by pity and terror. “There is much enjoyment of the common sort in King Lear as there is a shattering spiritual experience of our own” and it demands from its spectators an extraordinary self devotion. Even after that its greatest effects may be within their reach but not fully within their g ‘asp. Auditors, actors and singers in perfect collaboration can be brought by imaginative production to a point “where they forget themselves.” But such a happy coincidence happens about a dozen times in a life time, according to Barker himself, “when we are in a crowning moment or so in a realm of absolute music and of drama” that Shakespeare’s genius seems to have freed from all bonds.

That is Barker and to sum up, Lamb’s non-actability thesis is not fully tenable because firstly, it is a reaction to the elaborate and unpoetic staging of his own times and secondly because, Lear has been successfully acted since then and notably by O. Barker. Bradley’s opinion that Lear is inferior dramatically to the other three great tragedies is nearest the truth but he errs grievously to say that the best attempts of dramatic exposition of Lear are disappointing, If anything, Barker’s representation has done away with that eminent disappointment but then admittedly such crowning moment comes only a dozen times in a play-goer’s life. Lear is actable no doubt; it, however, requires the directing genius of a Barker to explore dramatically the vast Learean Universe.

References:1.  A. C. Bradley's Shakespearean Tragedy
2. King Lear by William Shakespeare G B Harrison
3. On the tragedies of Shakespeare by Charles Lamb from The Reflector 1810-1811

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