About the episode
King Lear is almost universally acknowledged as one of Shakeapeare’s greatest tragic roles – and it is the last of his four great tragic plays. Christopher Plummer played the role under the direction of Sir Jonathan Miller (who, we discover, has directed it six times!). He performed it at Stratford Ontario and then at the Lincoln Centre in New York.
Lear was, apparently, a real English King, who lived in approximately 800 BCE. And the story that he divided his kingdom among his daughters while disinheriting his favourite is, supposedly, true. Certainly, it was in the Chronicles of English History that Shakespeare often used as his source material.
This supposedly true story does have a happy ending, but Shakespeare’s play flies in the face of that history and his dreadful and tragic dénouement has been shocking audiences for 400 years.
“Nothing will come of nothing” - Christopher Plummer
Actors who have played the role help us to understand this often difficult character – after all he starts the play by behaving in a way that is hard for us to sympathise with. Christopher examines what inspired Shakespeare to write a play about a Kingdom divided and disunited at a delicate moment in our history, when a new King (James) from Scotland was trying to create what has become the “united” Kingdom.
We examine how the famous storm scenes might have been performed and produced at Shakespeare’s own theatre, and how they represent the “storm” going on in Lear’s own mind. We seek a psychiatric viewpoint to uncover how Lear’s mind begins to unravel under the almost self-inflicted pressures that the play shows us.
This heartbreaking tragedy of old age was one of Shakespeare’s later plays, written at the end of his astonishing career. The fact that he gives it a tragic and not a happy ending might reflect something of his own mature cynicism – the powers of good fail and the gods do not really prevent the evil that kills Lear and his favourite daughter. But Christopher reveals that beneath the surface of the undeniably dreadful conclusion and cosmic emptiness, the spirit of Lear and the possibility of love somehow survive.
My Shakespeare starts on Monday 22nd September at 9pm on Sky Arts 1 HD.