Join the conversation
Subscribe to Our Emails
Boston Review is a public space for the discussion of ideas and culture. Sign up for our newsletters and don’t miss a thing.
King Lear on the big screen.
For centuries after Shakespeare wrote King Lear, interpreters refused to accept the play’s desolation and lack of redemption. Nahum Tate gave it a happy ending in 1691, and for 200 years a redeemed Lear and the Earl of Gloucester would peacefully retire while their good children, Cordelia and Edgar, marry and rule a unified Britain. As late as the start of the twentieth century, preeminent Shakespeare scholar A. C. Bradley lectured that Lear had reached transcendence through his suffering and died happy. Even though the play contains the bleakest line in all of Shakespeare—Lear’s “Never, never, never, never, never,” as he holds his daughter’s dead body in his arms—Bradley insisted on a Christian moral to the story.
Today King Lear is recognized as the greatest tragedy in the English language, less brilliant than Hamlet but more profound and prophetic: “Humanity,” the Duke of Albany laments, “must perforce prey on itself, Like monsters of the deep.” There is no god or justice in the pre-Christian world that Shakespeare invented for Lear. Stanley Cavell’s justly famous essay “The Avoidance of Love” captures the paradox of Lear for modern audiences. “We can only learn through suffering” but have “nothing to learn from it,” he writes.
Stalin’s reign of terror, Hitler’s concentration camps, and the atomic bombs that fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki gave philosophers, literary critics, and theater directors a context for understanding Shakespeare’s grim text. Even so, actors and directors remained puzzled by Lear. Lear himself asks in Act I, “Does any here know me?” Was he already senile before he divided up his kingdom in exchange for public professions of love from his three daughters, or was he driven mad by the consequences of his rash decision as he realized that the two daughters who professed so much love and devotion—Goneril and Regan—now ruled over him? Regan and her husband, the Duke of Cornwall, lock Lear out of Gloucester’s home, and leave him in a terrible storm. “Blow winds and crack your cheeks! Rage, blow! You cataracts and hurricanes, spout till you have drenched out steeples,” he cries. But there is also pathos, “Here I stand your slave, a poor, infirm, weak and despised old man.” Lear is at once emotionally transparent and unable to acknowledge what he has done—“Who is it that can tell me who I am?” he wonders.
Over the past four decades some of the world’s most eminent film directors and actors have attempted an answer to Lear’s question. Among them are the Soviet Russian Grigori Kozintsev with the Estonian actor Jüri Järvet as Lear, and Britain’s Peter Brook with Paul Scofield—both productions from 1971. On television, Michael Elliott and Laurence Olivier tackled Lear in 1983, and Trevor Nunn and Ian McKellen tried their hand in 2008. And there are many others, including Akira Kurosawa, whose Ran is an Edo-period interpretation in which three sons replace Lear’s daughters.
None of these films give us the definitive answer to Lear’s question. His madness, which sees through conventional reality to the bare bones of humanity, is close to genius, yet, like all real madness, it cannot see itself. A close reading of the poetry of his madness only begins to give some sense of the man. Another challenge for filmmakers is the radical abridgement of the play without which it could not be transposed into the visual language of film.
Kozintsev first produced Lear in 1941, with the help of Boris Pasternak. Thirty years later Kozintsev adapted that script for a film set to Dmitri Shostakovich’s music. These giants of Russian culture used film to emphasize the epic scope of Lear as only film can. Indeed, the power of the opening scene in Kozintsev’s version is unmatched by any other film adaption, let alone a stage production. In an impassioned DVD commentary, Peter Sellars describes Kozintsev’s cinematography as an improvement upon Sergei Eisenstein’s in Battleship Potemkin (1925) and Ivan the Terrible (1944, 1959). The resemblance is clear. Lear, in black and white, begins with a sea of peasants struggling across barren landscapes. Thousands of them converge on the high citadel of their ruler and joyously prostrate themselves when the king appears on the ramparts. Lear’s decision is momentous for these poor souls as well as for him.
For close readers of Shakespeare's poetry, the Soviet version is appalling. But the film is nonetheless a sublime homage to the original.
In the history of Lear performances, there has been a general trend away from the political fall of the erminegarbed royal and toward a more psychological reading of a dysfunctional family with a father who is losing his grip. In Kozintsev’s version Lear conveys both grandeur and pathos. Kozintsev chose for his Lear an actor of slight stature, whose most striking characteristic, pace Sellars, is his seeming vulnerability. Sellars reads Kozintsev’s earlier Lear as a commentary on Stalin’s regime, whereas Järvet’s Lear seems to me to be the antithesis of the iron man, and more like the Czar. Lear enters the fateful first scene in a lighthearted mood. We glimpse him playing with the fool. Then he has a temper tantrum when Cordelia insists that a public profession of love is a betrayal of the true love she has for him. This childlike Lear’s face and body language mirror his emotions.
Yet this Lear is nonetheless accustomed to absolute command. As he leaves his citadel, he imperiously points to the knight’s horses, the dogs, and the hunting birds he will take with him. The huge dogs appear in closeups, barely restrained by their leashes, saliva dripping from their ferocious teeth. These images inspired by Shakespeare’s words establish Lear’s savage world.
One can feel something operatic in Kozintsev’s film and Shostakovich’s score. A cast of thousands teems in vast, desolate spaces; threatening skies substitute for words. There is war and bloodshed in the end of the play, and in Kozinstev’s film, they clearly do not represent some family squabble. Unlike many actors (McKellen and Olivier come to mind), who in their excessive narcissism dominate and distort the play, Järvet allows the whole sweep of tragedy to unfold around him. Towns are destroyed; people are driven out of their homes by fire. And though in Shakespeare’s text the fool disappears after the night of the storm, here he is the half-naked witness to an apocalyptic ending. He plays a plaintive tune on a flute as counterpoint to the violence that rages around him. In a final “Russian” touch, soldiers heedlessly brush him aside as they pass with pallets of dead bodies.
For close readers of Shakespeare’s poetry—and there is much of it in Lear—the Soviet version is appalling. But the film is nonetheless a sublime homage to the original. And because the plot is easier to follow than in other productions, one might even suggest that this Russian Lear with English subtitles is the best introduction to Shakespeare’s play.
When Peter Brook put Lear on the stage, critics competed for superlatives in response. Brook’s productions, starring the great British actor Paul Scofield, interrogated injustice and raised awareness of the mentally ill, whose ranks, at that time, were growing rapidly among the homeless in London and in large cities in the United States. Scofield’s Lear became one of them. While these performances offered no catharsis, they reached across the fourth wall and touched the conscience of the audience by holding up a mirror to the gulf between rich and poor. His was a Marxist, existential reading of the play.
Perhaps because he directed the play so successfully and so often, Brook decided to take a different approach in his film. What he ended up with is a Beckettian void of feeling. Indeed, his critics say he got the idea from an essay that compared Lear to Beckett’s Endgame.
I must confess that when I saw this film 40 years ago with my teenage son, we sat weeping in our seats as others filed out; we were both deeply moved. When Pauline Kael reviewed the film, she made clear that she hated it. And when I recently screened it with a group of students, they hated it just as much as Kael had. In truth, I can no longer explain why I was so affected. In a Beckettian postwar world, the bombs have already fallen and people are alone, waiting to die. They do not howl like Lear; they do not even weep. They are passionless, and their existence is absurd.
In Brook’s film Scofield again plays Lear. In an early scene, the camera pans around Lear in his primitive wooden throne, and when it reaches him, we see a face distorted as if by a stroke, frozen and emotionless. This Lear has no hint of humanity, nor does Brook allow any for the other characters, even Cordelia. He eliminates Cordelia’s first line, an aside to the audience prompted by Goneril’s false professions of love, which suggests the youngest daughter’s moral predicament: “What shall Cordelia speak? Love, and be silent.” He also cut her second line, after Regan’s profession of love, which ends, “I am sure my love’s more ponderous than my tongue.” With those gone, Cordelia’s later “Nothing” and Lear’s “Nothing will come of nothing” become empty pronouncements.
Bradley had it right when he argued that what happens to the characters in Lear is not “poetic justice,” but in some sense the characters (with the exception of Cordelia) do deserve their fates. In Brook’s Lear, however, there is no moral adventure; that is Brook’s debt to Beckett. By no stretch of Brook’s imagination could he have found that vacuum in Shakespeare’s Lear. In his attempt to achieve it, he has deprived the characters not just of feelings, but of all moral sentiment.
Brook’s cinematography seems to have been inspired by Bergman’s Seventh Seal. The stark images are filmed in black and white in a remote part of Denmark. Inexplicable flashes of light suggest an unsuccessful attempt at avant gardism. Unlike the smooth plotline of the Russian film, this Lear is episodic. It is as if Brook expected the audience to know the play as well as he did and supply the missing pieces themselves.
A few years after their films were released, Brook wrote a letter to Kozintsev congratulating him for putting “all of humanity” into his Lear. Unfortunately, Brook left all of humanity out of his own.
...we need your help. Confronting the many challenges of COVID-19—from the medical to the economic, the social to the political—demands all the moral and deliberative clarity we can muster. In Thinking in a Pandemic, we’ve organized the latest arguments from doctors and epidemiologists, philosophers and economists, legal scholars and historians, activists and citizens, as they think not just through this moment but beyond it. While much remains uncertain, Boston Review’s responsibility to public reason is sure. That’s why you’ll never see a paywall or ads. It also means that we rely on you, our readers, for support. If you like what you read here, pledge your contribution to keep it free for everyone by making a tax-deductible donation.
Vital reading on politics, literature, and more in your inbox
Printing Note: For best printing results try turning on any options your web browser's print dialog makes available for printing backgrounds and background graphics.