In our new episode we tackle William Shakespeare’s monumental tragedy King Lear, a play that the poet Shelley called “the most perfect specimen of the dramatic art existing in the world”. Shakespeare probably wrote King Lear in 1605-06. The first recorded performance of the play was at the court of James I in the Great Chamber in Whitehall, on Saint Stephen’s Day (or what we know as Boxing Day) in December 1606. That must have been cheery festive fare for the relatively new King James and the select audience of 300 who saw it. In fact, the play’s dark story proved too bleak for many, as for 150 years from the late 17th century on it was only presented in a corrupted version which inserted a happy ending in which King Lear and his daughter Cordelia survive.
Since 1838 when the original version of the play reasserted itself, the towering role of Lear himself has been assailed by every generation of leading actor. As we record this episode a new production directed by and starring Sir Kenneth Branagh arrives in London’s West End. Branagh is of course no stranger to Shakespeare, having directed and starred in five film adaptations, as well as numerous stage performances.
I have to confess to being not a little daunted to be taking on an examination of this immense play that has been the subject of centuries of critical study. It’s a prodigious play in every sense. There are ten major roles, it has multiple significant plot lines, an elemental stormy setting, intense domestic conflict, and acts of war and violence which roll on with a propulsive tragic energy and conjure a challenging philosophical vision.
So I’m very pleased to be able to be joined by a properly qualified Shakespearean analyst. He is Paul Prescott, an academic, writer and theatre practitioner who has held positions at the University of Warwick and California. He has authored several books on Shakespeare, and is the co-founder of the annual festival ‘Shakespeare in Yosemite’ in Yosemite National Park in California.
Here are our other episodes on Shakespeare’s plays:
064 – A Midsummer Night’s Dream
048 – Much Ado About Nothing
038 – Macbeth
036 – Hamlet
005 – The Tempest