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Is King Lear Shakespeare's Most Over-rated Play?


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#1 richard

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Posted 04 June 2007 - 09:44 AM

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Blind spots are always interesting.  One of my perennial blind spots is King Lear.  Is it Shakespeare's most over-rated play?  Nowadays nobody seems able to discuss King Lear without lapsing into a hushed reverential tone.  It seems to be an accepted universal truth that it is Shakespeare's greatest play. I just don't get it. 'Twas not ever thus, and Nahum Tate, Dr Johnson, and Leo Tolstoy, had its measure in differing guises.  I recently saw the McKellen Lear, which was clearly a bravura performance, but in common with some of the critics, it did not move me in the slightest.  Lear never does.  I thought the 'famous' Brook/Scofield Lear of 1962 a pretentious bore, mannered and so pleased with itself.
After the Corin Redgrave RSC Lear a few years back I vowed that would be the last time I would see the play,  but I made an exception for McKellen.  But now in the words of Sylvia Plath, 'I'm through'.  Never again all that appalling Nuncle stuff and poor Tom. Lear is a crotchety old man who deserves all that he gets, not a tragic character at all, wallwoing in self-pity.  The real victim of the play is Gloucester, a far more affecting role, but that is pathos (as in Tchaikovsky Pathetique) rather than true tragedy.  And as for the Fool, did Shakespeare ever create a more tedious, irritating character, whom he seems to forget about half way through.  I saw Othello at the Globe shortly after the Lear and though the production was not as 'professional' as the RSC it was heart-rending.  Not least because it is such a superior tragedy, as are Hamlet, Macbeth, Coriolanus, and Antony & Cleopatra.  I even find Timon of Athens superior to Lear.   Any other Lear refuseniks out there?

#2 Jenny_tyr

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Posted 04 June 2007 - 10:02 AM

I'm glad to hear that I'm not the only person who doesn't love this play. I've tried time and time again to convince myself of its greatness, at times nearly succeeding against my better judgement, but I've never been moved by it; not now, not ever. I used to think that the fault was mine - or possibly Ingmar Bergman's, as his appalling production still haunts me - but perhaps not. I must say that it has occurred to me that it would be a much more interesting play if you edited out, oh say, about a third of it. That would bring it down to about the same length as Macbeth (which I would say suffered such a treatment sometime in its now lost history, even if there are those that claim that Macbeth, as it now exists, is largely uncut) and such a Lear might well be a much more powerful experience. I'm not saying that Lear is a bad play, far from it, but it's strangely disappointing somehow.

//Jenny
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#3 Job

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Posted 04 June 2007 - 10:11 AM

I've never had a problem with Lear. It usually draws me in, and I really enjoy the apparent randomness of its dramatic shape. I suppose I'm lucky in that I've only seen good productions of it.

The one that really rattles my cage is Romeo and Juliet. They're such an irritating pair, and I find their death scene cynical, calculated, contrived and unconvincing. As a consequence I can rarely bring myself to see this play, so I've probably missed out on some really good productions... but honestly - what dolts they both are.

Job
With the ancient is wisdom; and in length of days understanding.

#4 richard

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Posted 04 June 2007 - 11:08 AM

QUOTE(Job @ Jun 4 2007, 11:11 AM) View Post
I've never had a problem with Lear. It usually draws me in, and I really enjoy the apparent randomness of its dramatic shape. I suppose I'm lucky in that I've only seen good productions of it.

The one that really rattles my cage is Romeo and Juliet. They're such an irritating pair, and I find their death scene cynical, calculated, contrived and unconvincing. As a consequence I can rarely bring myself to see this play, so I've probably missed out on some really good productions... but honestly - what dolts they both are.

Job

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Ah, but in R & J there is the wondrous poetry -

Give me my Romeo; and when he shall die,
Take him, and cut him out in little stars,
And he will make the face of heaven so fine
That all the world will be in love with night,
And pay no worship to the garish sun.

Lines quoted by Robert Kennedy at the Democratic Convention after his brother's assassination.  Not a dry eye in the house.

#5 Jan Brock

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Posted 04 June 2007 - 11:56 AM

I have never seen a satisfactory production of Lear - I too may give up trying after having seen 10 or so. However, I go right to the top of the shop for my vote for the most overrated: Hamlet, especially in its uncut format - just a Jacobean revenge drama with pretentions. By far the best of the tragedies is Othello.

#6 peggs

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Posted 04 June 2007 - 12:58 PM

Until I saw a dvd of Richard Eyre's Ian Holm version I couldn't really get what was meant to be so good about King Lear. Lear rants and raves, never knew what the fool was on about, Edgar was annoying whether as himself or Tom and as for Cordelia why couldn't she just tell Lear what he wanted to hear and save us all the bother? Eyre's version was the first time I appreciated that Goneril and Regan couldn't have had the best of upbringing with Lear as a parent and maybe at first at least had some reason for their actions and I actually felt compassion for Cordelia rather than just wanting to slap her. I could still live without poor old Tom but this production at least I found compelling to watch.

I think in general any of the plays i studied at school I tend to dislike until i see a production that makes them come alive, school reduced them all to a few quotes and a simplistic one way reading. Romeo and Juliet has yet to recover from GCSE english.

#7 Alexandra

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Posted 04 June 2007 - 02:23 PM

QUOTE(peggs @ Jun 4 2007, 01:58 PM) View Post
Until I saw a dvd of Richard Eyre's Ian Holm version I couldn't really get what was meant to be so good about King Lear. Lear rants and raves, never knew what the fool was on about, Edgar was annoying whether as himself or Tom and as for Cordelia why couldn't she just tell Lear what he wanted to hear and save us all the bother? Eyre's version was the first time I appreciated that Goneril and Regan couldn't have had the best of upbringing with Lear as a parent and maybe at first at least had some reason for their actions and I actually felt compassion for Cordelia rather than just wanting to slap her. I could still live without poor old Tom but this production at least I found compelling to watch.

I think in general any of the plays i studied at school I tend to dislike until i see a production that makes them come alive, school reduced them all to a few quotes and a simplistic one way reading. Romeo and Juliet has yet to recover from GCSE english.


Doing Merchant of Venice at school aged thirteen did that to me. Until it was restored for me by Henry Goodman & Co (in the Cottesloe, not the Olivier). Now I feel I never want to see another production of it again for different reasons: I just can't imagine a better one that that.

Lear's the best tragedy by far in my view. The social awakening (Oh I have ta'en too little care of this, etc), the social commentary (rascal beadles hotly lusting to use whores for that for which they whip them, etc), the indifference of the gods, the father-daughters/father-sons drama - it's a huge and wonderful play. I've seen about a dozen Lears and I've loved many of them, especially Robert Stephens, Ian Holm and Oliver Ford Davies (whose curse of Suzannah Burdock as Goneril was absolutely terrifying). But unlike Shylock, I don't yet feel I've seen a definitive Lear. I haven't see McKellen's yet. But I love the fact that it looks Russian...that's perfect.

#8 Job

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Posted 04 June 2007 - 04:02 PM

QUOTE(Alexandra @ Jun 4 2007, 03:23 PM) View Post
Doing Merchant of Venice at school aged thirteen did that to me. Until it was restored for me by Henry Goodman & Co (in the Cottesloe, not the Olivier). Now I feel I never want to see another production of it again for different reasons: I just can't imagine a better one that that.

Lear's the best tragedy by far in my view. The social awakening (Oh I have ta'en too little care of this, etc), the social commentary (rascal beadles hotly lusting to use whores for that for which they whip them, etc), the indifference of the gods, the father-daughters/father-sons drama - it's a huge and wonderful play. I've seen about a dozen Lears and I've loved many of them, especially Robert Stephens, Ian Holm and Oliver Ford Davies (whose curse of Suzannah Burdock as Goneril was absolutely terrifying). But unlike Shylock, I don't yet feel I've seen a definitive Lear. I haven't see McKellen's yet. But I love the fact that it looks Russian...that's perfect.

This posting is amazingly close to my own experiences (though I never saw Goodman in the Cottesloe, only in the Olivier) and I echo it all the way. Of recent incarnations Oliver Ford Davies was, perhaps surprisingly, a great Lear and was surrounded by a fabulous cast (if one discounts an unaccountably feeble Fool). David Ryall and Tom Hollander stood out for their fascinating insights into Gloucester and Edgar respectively, and Lear's dealings with all three daughters had fantastic emotional weight. I haven't seen the play since then - must have been 2003 or thereabouts? - but I'll certainly be going to the New London later this year.

Job

With the ancient is wisdom; and in length of days understanding.

#9 Lynette

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Posted 04 June 2007 - 09:59 PM

I'm with Alexandra here; it has taken me a long time to love King Lear but I'm very close now.
We've lost some of the references in the fool's part so that makes it distant.

Othello is the only one that makes me want to stand up and yell at the stage. Do you think they did that in Shakespeare's time? I've always wondered how the audience 'answered' Iago for example when he says' Who is it then that says I play the villain? '. Do the audience answer back at the Globe in the current production, anyone seen it?  

I think I liked the McKellen Lear so much because they all seemed to be digging deep. I am a bit concerned that the staging will suffer at the theatre in London. In Stratford the new Courtyard really came alive for Lear, more so than with the other prods I have seen there. I have only seen Cats at the New London so I guess it is a flexible space.

#10 Jan Brock

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Posted 05 June 2007 - 06:32 AM

I agree that one problem with Lear is presenting the Fool in any sort of believable and coherent way for a modern audience - I have only seen this succeed once when it was played by David Bradley in the Deborah Warner production, like some hyped-up vagrant from the back-streets of Leeds (Sylvester McCoy is good as a conventional Fool though).




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