King Lear on screen - King Lear

Four tragedies - Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, Othello, the Moor of Venice, Macbeth and King Lear - David Bevington and David Scott Kastan 1988, 2005

King Lear on screen
King Lear


Shakespeare could not, of course, have imagined a world in which people would see performances of his plays projected onto large or small screens rather than acted live in theaters, but that has become the case. In the more than one hundred years since the first film of a Shakespeare play was made (in 1899, an excerpt from Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree’s production of King John), the screen has become Shakespeare’s proper medium no less than the stage or the printed page. If Shakespeare’s works are undisputedly literary classics and staples of our theatrical repertories, they have also inescapably become a part of the modern age’s love affair with film. In a movie theater, on a television screen, or on a DVD player, Shakespeare’s plays live for us, and thereby reach audiences much greater than those that fill our theaters.

It is, however, a development not always welcomed. Some critics complain that Shakespeare on screen is different from (and worse than) Shakespeare in the theater. Certainly it is a distinct experience to see a play in a darkened movie theater with actors larger than life. It is different, too, to see it on a television screen with actors smaller than they are in life, and where the experience of play watching is inevitably more private than in any theater.

But there are obvious advantages as well. On screen, performances are preserved and allowed easily to circulate. If films of Shakespeare may sometimes lack the exhilarating provisionality of live theater, they gain the not insignificant benefit of easy accessibility. In a town without a theater company one can see a Shakespeare play virtually at will. Some newly filmed version of a Shakespeare play is seemingly released every year. A video or DVD can be rented even if the film itself has passed from the local cineplex. And on video we can replay—even interrupt—the performance, allowing it to repeat itself as we attend to details that might otherwise be missed.

Filmed Shakespeare is indeed different from staged Shakespeare or Shakespeare read, but it is no less valuable for being so. It provides a way—and for most of us the most convenient way—to see the plays. For people who cannot get to the theater and who find the printed text difficult to imagine as a theatrical experience, filmed Shakespeare offers easy access to a performance. For students for whom the language of a play often seems (and indeed is) stilted and archaic, the enactment clarifies the psychological and social relations of the characters. For all of us who love Shakespeare, his availability on film gives us an archive of performances to be viewed and enjoyed again and again. It is no less an authentic experience than seeing Shakespeare in the theater, for the modern theater (even the self-conscious anachronisms like the rebuilt Globe) imposes its own anachronisms upon the plays (as indeed does a modern printed edition like this one). And arguably, as many like to claim, if Shakespeare lived today he would most likely have left Stratford for Hollywood.

King Lear presents a mammoth challenge to any filmmaker. It is one of Shakespeare’s longest plays and has an extensive double plot, and its stage history is one of prolonged reluctance on the part of directors to face its inexorable bleakness. Fortunately, its film history begins after the centuries in which the problem had been solved by substituting a happy ending; no film version adopts Nahum Tate’s 1681 stratagem of rescuing Cordelia from death. Instead, King Lear on film has given directors the repeated opportunity to jar and terrify a modern world grown too familiar with existential nightmare. The new medium of film seems painfully well suited to the assignment.

King Lear came to the silent screen in 1909 as a ten-minute Vitagraph one-reeler, twice in 1910 in Italy, and in 1916 with the veteran U.S. actor Frederick B. Warde in the title role. Orson Welles played Lear in 1953 with Peter Brook as a co-director. This television debut of Welles was broadcast live on October 18 without the interruption of ads. Heavily cut to seventy-three minutes, it lacked the Gloucester-Edgar-Edmund subplot entirely. Generally excoriated by the critics for its liberties with the text, it nonetheless does preserve on film the work of a director and a lead actor who are of central importance.

Brook returned to King Lear with a powerful stage production at Stratford-upon-Avon in 1962, followed by a film version in 1970—71 with Paul Scofield in the title role. The setting, especially when the story moves to Scotland, is of a bleak, wintry landscape filmed in northern Jutland in Denmark. The thick furs worn by the occupants of this barren wilderness seem insufficient to ward off the cold. The wooden buildings resemble primordial caves in a no-man’s-land. In the storm scene as well, the sense of physical discomfort is unrelieved. The production is uncompromisingly austere. Scofield as Lear mutters his lines with an expressionless face, seldom raising his voice even when he is cursing his daughters. No music is heard. The effect is numbing. In this barren world, the inhumanity of the villains stands out in bold relief. Gloucester’s eyes are gouged out with a spoon; when the screen is blacked out at the critical moment, it is then filled with the face of the relentless perpetrator, Cornwall (Patrick Magee). When Cornwall himself is stabbed by one of his own servants, Regan (Susan Engel) turns on the assailant and bludgeons him to death. Edmund (Ian Hogg) and Goneril (Irene Worth) are shown in bed together as a way of making explicit their adultery. Edmund’s last-minute reformation and attempt to save the life of Cordelia (Anne-Lise Gabold) are excised. Instead we glimpse the snapping of Cordelia’s neck as she is hanged. No less brutally, though with more of a sense of a deserved fate, we see Goneril dash out the brains of her sister Regan before hurling her own head against a rock face. At the same time, the characters with whom we might sympathize are stripped of heroic stature. Cordelia, in the opening scene, is sullen and bitter. The old Lear who imposes himself on the household of Goneril and Albany (Cyril Cusack) in Scotland with his hundred knights and unnumbered attendants is imperious and impossibly difficult to handle; the medium of film allows Brook to show what it would be like to have such a huge crowd returning from hunting and demanding breakfast. Edgar (Robert Lloyd), usually interpreted as a humanely decent man, cuts down Oswald like a squealing animal and later dispatches his brother Edmund with a massive ax blow to the neck before their encounter can be shaped into anything like the chivalric duel that seems called for in the text. The Fool (Jack MacGowran) offers gnomic companionship for Lear but disappears midway through the play, as indeed called for in the script; the gruffly loyal Kent (Tom Fleming) is unable to help. Elsewhere, cuts, rearrangements, and reassignment of speeches add to rather than relieve the horror. Lear and Gloucester, together on the beach of Dover in Act 4, scene 6, splendidly invoke a spectacle of ruin as these two old men cling together and behold their world crumble around them. Brook, heavily influenced by Jan Kott’s “King Lear, or Endgame” (Shakespeare Our Contemporary, published in English in 1964), sees little reason to believe that Lear and Gloucester have learned much from their suffering other than to discover what suffering is like. To some reviewers, this unrelieved vision of apocalypse was unendurable; to others, the film was a brilliant modernization.

Grigori Kozintsev’s film version of 1970, Korol Lir, sees King Lear from a Russian perspective, one in which individuals are caught up in the larger forces of history. Peasants wordlessly behold the goings-on of their social masters and wait for deliverance; massive armies determine the outcome of battle. The use of a Russian version of cinemascope facilitates an epic, wide-screen vision of the sweep of history in which human figures are always seen in a larger context. Yuri Yarvet’s Lear is small and frail, at once pathetic and heroic as he stands defenseless against loneliness and brutality. Self-knowledge, painfully bought, comes to him in the storm scenes with the compassionate realization that he has failed to heed the suffering of his people. The visual effects are stark and uncompromising, as in Brook’s version (both of them in black and white); much of the filming was shot on rock-strewn hillsides and in freezing, muddy locations in a region bordering on the Sea of Azov and the Crimean archipelago, as well as in the small northwestern town of Ivangorod, Estonia, and on a plain near the Caspian Sea. At the same time, Kozintsev has consciously striven, as he says, “to strengthen the voice of Good, even in those instances when it has no words to speak.” The moral contrasts are pointed and instructive: Cordelia (Valentina Shendrikova) is innocently beautiful, while her sisters Goneril and Regan (Elza Radzina and Galina Volchek) are repellent and coarse. The Fool (Oleg Dal), absent from the latter half of the play and from Brook’s film, survives to the end in the Russian version as a plaintive, shaven-headed, silent mourner for his dead master, playing a sad tune on his recorder-like flute. The climactic duel between Edgar (Leonard Marzin) and his brother Edmund (Regimantis Adomaitis), amid a vast circle of soldiers, is stirringly chivalric in a way that Brook’s version is deliberately not. Dmitri Shostakovich’s music underscores the tragic “weight of this sad time” as expressed in Boris Pasternak’s Russian translation.

The BBC has televised King Lear twice, first in 1975 with Jonathan Miller as director and Michael Hordern as the king, following up on a stage production with this same team at the Nottingham Playhouse in 1970, and then in 1982 for the Shakespeare Plays series with the same director and lead actor. Other members of the cast similarly appeared in both television versions, particularly Frank Middlemass as an aged Fool and Penelope Wilton as Regan. Hordern in 1982 is an understated and demythologized Lear, regal but also pathetic, a recognizable grandfatherly type overwhelmed by family conflict, a man more poignant than rantingly powerful. Edgar (Anton Lesser) drools idiotically in the storm scenes. The moral contrasts are highly in evidence, with Cordelia (Brenda Blethyn) a shiningly virtuous daughter and Kent (John Shrapnel) as a thoroughly compassionate man, while the outwardly attractive Goneril (Gillian Barge) and Regan are vicious. Critics generally have found this a workmanlike, satisfying performance, not shattering but sturdily executed. Visually, the production is confined by its spare sets, its black undifferentiated costuming, its flat, nearly colorless lighting, and its generally static camera perspective.

Director Michael Elliott’s King Lear (1983) is all the more moving when one reflects that Laurence Olivier was by then aged and not well (he would eventually die in 1989 at the age of eighty-two); the shooting had to be scheduled to accommodate his declining strength. The role, and Olivier’s interpretation of it, come across as at once the chosen capstone of a remarkable acting career and a meditation on death. Olivier is visibly frail and almost angelically haloed in white hair as he enters leaning on the shoulder of his favorite daughter, Cordelia (Anna Calder-Marshall). When he musters the energy to turn on her in disappointed rage, the effect is as emotionally and physically shattering for him as for his shocked auditors. The psychological distance traversed by Lear in the play’s opening scene is a model of inspired acting. The setting is the ancient Britain of Stonehenge, shrouded in druidic mystery and fog. The storm scenes, though marred by the noises of the violent storm to the point of overwhelming the dialogue at points, effectively conveys the horrendous extent of Lear’s inhumane suffering. Olivier is supported by a distinguished cast, with Dorothy Tutin and Diana Rigg as the suavely heartless Goneril and Regan, Colin Blakely as a stout-hearted Kent, John Hurt as a Fool who can see only too clearly the approaching disaster that his master refuses to anticipate, Leo McKern as a fleshy and gullible but well-meaning Gloucester, David Threlfall as a thoughtful Edgar, and Robert Lindsay as an Edmund whose villainy glints from his restless eyes in well-executed close-ups. Partly because of Olivier’s legendary status as an actor and partly because television encourages a personal focus, this King Lear is preeminently the tragedy of a wronged father and old man reunited at last with his precious Cordelia only to have her cruelly snatched away. The performance stresses the heartbreak, the loss, the brief euphoric hope, the wordless mad despair in the moment of dying.

Among the many adaptations and spin-offs of King Lear, the most impressive is Akiro Kurosawa’s Ran (1985). In this majestic exploration of Japanese culture and mores, the Lear figure is Hidetora Ichimonji (Tatsuya Nakadai), a warlord and father of three sons modeled on the legendary Monotari Mori of sixteenth-century Japan. In Kurosawa’s film, the three sons resemble Lear’s three daughters in that one (Saburo, played by Daisuke Ryu) is virtuously loyal to his father, despite being angrily rejected by the old man, while the other two sons, Taro (equivalent to Goneril and also sharing Albany’s weakness, played by Akira Terao) and Jiro (equivalent to Regan, played by Jinpachi Nezu), are disloyal. When Taro is given the mantle of warlord of the First Castle, his first step is to humiliate his father by taking away all of his authority; Jiro, lord of the Second Castle, is no less ungrateful and pitiless. Tango (Masayuki Yui), the Kent-like follower of Hidetora, is banished along with Saburo. The now-deposed warlord also has two daughters-in-law: Sué (Yoshiko Miyazaki), the wife of Jiro, who is decent and generous despite the violent acts that Hidetora has practiced against her family, and the Edmund-like Kaede (Mieko Harada), the wife of Taro, who avenges Hidetora’s crimes against her family with coldly terrifying resolution. Sué’s brother, Tsurumaru (Takeshi Nomura), is another victim, having been blinded by Hidetora; he and his sister together embody the charitable and stoical wisdom in suffering of Shakespeare’s Edgar and the Earl of Gloucester. Thus Kurosawa has united Shakespeare’s double plot into one large and tragically disunited family. An androgynous fool (played by a popular transvestite singer named Peter) accompanies Hidetora in his painful odyssey. The ending is as unsparingly existential as in Shakespeare’s play, with nearly all the characters dead, including the Cordelia-like Saburo, his father, his two brothers, his sister-in-law Sué (murdered at the behest of Kaede), and Kaede herself, who joins her husband, Jiro, in suicide. The blind Tsurumaru survives, but in an apocalyptic landscape that mutely symbolizes the ruined world suggested by the film’s title: Ran, or “chaos.”

Jane Smiley won the Pulitzer prize in 1991 for her novel A Thousand Acres, adapting the Lear story to an Iowa farm family of an aging father whose sad history as a sexual abuser of his own children and decision to divide his large property among three daughters lead to heartbreak, adultery, and suicide. Moral allegiances are reversed: the two older daughters, deserving of sympathy for their having been mistreated by an abusive patriarch, stay on to manage the affairs of the farm, while their younger sister opts for the life of a city lawyer. Jocelyn Moorhouse’s film of 1997, starring Jason Robards as the father (Larry Cook) and Jessica Lange, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Jennifer Jason Leigh as the daughter-equivalents of Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia, has fared less well with the critics, many of whom have been dismayed to see one of the great tragedies of all time brought down to the level of a daytime soap opera.

In Jean-Luc Godard’s perversely revisionary film of 1987, a William Shakespeare Junior the Fifth (played by the American stage and opera director Peter Sellars) undertakes to recover the texts of his famous ancestor, which have been destroyed by the Chernobyl nuclear accident of 1986. He does so by eavesdropping on a certain Don Learo (Burgess Meredith) and his daughter Cordelia (Molly Ringwald) at the lakeside Hotel Beau-Rivage in Switzerland. Shakespeare Junior also seeks the scholarly assistance of a Professor Pluggy, bizarrely played by Godard himself. Norman Mailer originally was to have been Learo but left the set in a huff after the first day’s shooting. Woody Allen puts in a brief appearance. Apart from such name-dropping antics, this film has mainly succeeded in puzzling viewers, though of late it has captured the attention of postmodern criticism as an avant-garde study in discontinuity and disjunction.

A Western, Broken Lance (1954), stars Spencer Tracy as an overbearing cattle rancher whose son Joe (Robert Wagner) must deal with violent conflict among his three half brothers after the father has died and the ranch has been divided in three.

Apart from Ran, the most engaging film adaptation of King Lear is Peter Yates’s The Dresser, 1983, with Albert Finney as the aging and tyrannical actor-manager of a seedy touring company presenting King Lear to a succession of provincial British audiences in the era of World War II. The film is a wry tribute to Donald Wolfit, the last of the great actor-managers. Like Wolfit, the Sir of this film browbeats his poorly paid actors, insists on the limelight for himself, and makes life miserable for his harried company manager (Eileen Atkins) because of his advanced alcoholism. His main casting requirement for the actress playing Cordelia is that she be light enough for him to carry her on stage in the finale of King Lear. Tom Courtenay is quite wonderful as the dresser, that is, the valet who repeatedly performs the minor miracle of getting his master ready to go on stage, and whose emotional life is so bound up in catering to Finney’s monstrous ego that the dresser is desolated by Sir’s inevitable death at the end of the film. Life imitates art in a touching and believable fashion. Meantime, the glimpses we are given backstage of how such a provincial touring company would have staged King Lear, with rattling metal sheets and huge rolling cannonballs pressed into service to create the sound effects of thunder during the storm scene, are priceless. This marvelous film was based on an even better stage play by Ronald Harwood.

King Lear


1. 1909 (15 minutes)


J. Stuart Blackton and William V. Ranous, producers

William V. Ranous, director

King Lear—William V. Ranous

Cordelia—Julia Swayne Gordon

2. 1916

Ernest C. Warde, director

King Lear—Frederick Warde

Cordelia—Lorraine Huling

Goneril—Ina Hammer

Edgar—Edwin Stanley

Edmund—Hector Dion

3. 1934—The Yiddish King Lear

Jack Rieger and Johnie Walker, producers

Harry Thomashefsky, director

Gitl—Esther Adler

Joffe—Jacob Bergreen

4. 1953

TV/Radio Workshops of the Ford Foundation

Peter Brook, director

King Lear—Orson Welles

The Fool—Alan Badel

Mad Tom—Michael MacLiammoir

5. 1970—Korol Lir

Lenfilm (Russian trans. by Boris Pasternak, with English subtitles)

Grigori Kozintsev, director

King Lear—Yuri Yarvet

Cordelia—Valentina Shendrikova

Goneril—Elze Radzina

Fool—Oleg Dal

Edmund—Regimantis Adomaitis

6. 1971

Filmways (London)

Michael Birkett, producer

Peter Brook, director

King Lear—Paul Scofield

Goneril—Irene Worth

Fool—Jack MacGowran

Edgar—Robert Lloyd

Edmund—Ian Hogg

7. 1976

Steve Rumbelow, director

Chris Aurache

Monica Buford

Helena Paul

Genzig Saner

8. 1977

New York Shakespeare Festival (filmed in the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park)

Edward Sherin, director

King Lear—James Earl Jones

Edmund—Raul Julia

9. 1982

BBC/Time-Life Television

Shaun Sutton, producer

Jonathan Miller, director

King Lear—Michael Hordern

Cordelia—Brenda Blethyn

Goneril—Gillian Barge

Fool—Frank Middlemass

Edgar—Anton Lesser

Edmund—Michael Kitchen

Kent—John Shrapnel

10. 1983

Granada Television

David Plowright, producer

Michael Elliott, director

King Lear—Laurence Olivier

Cordelia—Anna Calder-Marshall

Goneril—Dorothy Tutin

Fool—John Hurt

Edgar—David Threlfall

Edmund—Robert Lindsay

Kent—Colin Blakely

11. 1984

Bard Productions

Jack Nakano, producer

Alan Cooke, director

King Lear—Mike Kellan

Goneril—Gela Jacobson

Fool—Vincent Caristi

Edgar—Joel Bailey

Edmund—David Groh

12. 1985—Ran

Orion Classics

Akira Kurosawa, director

13. 1988

Thames Television

Charles Warren, producer

Tony Davenall, director

King Lear—Patrick McGee

Goneril—Beth Harris

Edgar—Robert Coleby

Edmund—Patrick Mower

14. 1999

Brian Blessed, director

King Lear—Brian Blessed

Fool—Hildegarde Neil

Edmund—Jason Riddington