As any great play, King Lear is many things to many people. We are accustomed to seeing an older actor—of 60, 70, or even 80 years of age—playing the monarch whose hubris precipitates the destruction of his realm, his family, and himself.
Ostensibly, this casting is based upon: "I am a very foolish fond old man, Fourscore and upward, not an hour more nor less ..." (IV, vii, 60-61) Given the insights of the Colorado Shakespeare Festival's new production, perhaps we should take this line metaphorically, as it comes near the end of many trials.
In director Lynne Collins' new adaptation, with a mild Colorado flavor, a Lear in his 50's (John Hutton) attempts to give his land away to his three daughters. This small change in the title character's age reaps significant benefits.
|John Hutton as King Lear|
and Jamie Ann Romero as Cordelia
Photo: Casey A. Cass
for CU Communications
It may be coincidental that Collins casts Lear at the age which "William Shake-speare"1—one of the pseudonyms for Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford—was forced by Queen Elizabeth I to deed his ancestral lands to his three daughters;2 nevertheless, this alignment adds immeasurably to the subtlety of Lear's madness and his subsequent lucidity as the surrogate Fool, whose final speech reveals the heart of a poet.
Such remarkable insights are a rare thing as Shakespearean productions go, but likely to multiply as the countless details of the Oxfordian biography in the canon are explored.
As a character not far from his own age, Hutton is able to open with a still feisty Lear (de Vere died at 54, having been slowed for years by jousting and dueling injuries) who, in recognition of his waning powers, is ready to confer his rule "... on younger strengths." (I, i, 41)
Goneril (Karyn Casl) and Regan (Karen Slack) flatter the King's ego, providing a quick glimpse into the immediate past. The conflict begins to unfold when Cordelia (Jamie Ann Romero) speaks the plain truth to her father, thereby incurring his wrath: "Nothing will come of nothing." (I, i, 92)3
Following Cordelia's disinheritance, Goneril convinces Regan that Lear is losing his ability to lead, and conscripts her to strip him of his remaining power.
These three blows from his daughters, as well as his breach with Kent,4 send Lear into madness. Hutton wisely takes this no further than is necessary. It is not a permanent state of insanity, but rather an emotional breakdown from which he emerges much like anyone who loses everything before he sees the light.
This shading allows Hutton to assume the mantle (and hat) of the Fool (Steven Weitz), after the Fool hangs himself, and deftly change our long-held perception of Lear's state at the end of the play: rather than seeing Lear-as-the-Fool as a continuation of madness, we see the foolish Lear's words as evidence of his painfully acquired new wisdom. This adds stature to Lear's heroic standing and, in turn, to his tragedy. Hutton's poignancy as he speaks to Cordelia unknowingly for the last time and at the end, when she is dead, is electrifying.
As the closing couplet notes—"The oldest hath borne most; we that are young / Shall never see so much, nor live so long." (V, iii, 325-6)—it is the remaining elders, Kent (Robert Sicular) and Gloucester (Bob Buckley), who bear the brunt of this bloody legacy. In addition to Hutton's watershed performance, the power of both Sicular's and Buckley's work, the nobility of their suffering, bear witness to the playwright's summary.
Collins' one questionable choice is Regan's late stage-pregnancy, which foreshortens Slack's transformation from someone who needs convincing of her father's incompetence into a full-fledged harpy. Casl's Goneril is a steady source of malevolence, from her barely concealed insincerity at the beginning to her murderous jealousy that destroys her sister in the end.
In concordance with the period setting and costumes, Jamie Ann Romero imbues Cordelia with elegance and independence in a role that often is played for mildness and powerlessness. Cordelia's pure heart shines through as well. Along with the other characters who are wrongly maligned—Kent and Edgar—Romero's Cordelia illustrates the noble virtues of which the playwright was so fond.
Without saying a word in the first scene, Stephen Weitz establishes the reprobate nature of the Fool and leverages this into an audacious yet sensitive persona, fully attuned to his King's behavior, presaging a despondent demise when Lear himself becomes the Fool.
Geoff Kent's layered and well-paced portrait of Edmund, the "bastard" son of Gloucester, reveals a complexity of character often missed. Here again, the playwright's life informs us: de Vere was twice sued by his sister as the "illegitimate" heir to their father's estate.5 This theme is most famously repeated in Much Ado About Nothing, with Don John.
The harmonics of Shakespearean dramatic structure are everywhere in King Lear, with parallels in character and action throughout. For example, the echoing of the extremes of Lear's fate—from King to flower child to fool—in Edgar's radical shift from genteel, "legitimate" heir of Gloucester, to:
"... the basest and most poorest shape
That ever penury, in contempt of man,
Brought near to beast. My face I'll grime with filth,
blanket my loins, elf all my hairs in knots ..."
(II, iii, 7-10)
Josh Robinson's fully embraces Edgar's dichotomy, drawing the strength from this untamed state that eventually enables him to subdue his brother, Edmund.
Beethoven Oden's even-tempered eloquence throughout underscores the redemption adjudicated by Albany in the final scene.
The Colorado Shakespeare Festival's production of King Lear runs through August 8th, in repertory with Measure for Measure, The Taming of the Shrew, The Fantastiks, and Our Town. 303-492-0554 or www.coloradoshakes.org.
¹ "William Shake-speare" was one of three known pen names of Edward de Vere.
² De Vere's first marriage produced three daughters who inherited their father's family seat while he was still alive. Like Lear, he was recently widowed and his three daughters unmarried. Elizabeth I refused to allow him to trade Hedingham, the family estate, for the Welsh castle, Denbigh, so he was forced to turn it over without recompense. In his anger, de Vere razed and liquidated whatever he could from Hedingham (I, v, Fool: "a snail has a house ... to put's head in, not to give away to his daughters," and III, ii, "He that has a house to put's head in had a good headpiece."). (Head, repeated thrice, underscoring Hedingham) Three years later, Lear was brought to the stage by the Queen's Men. The loss of ancestral lands, however, pales in comparison to the loss of attribution for the poetical and dramatic masterpieces he had brought into being.
³ Susan de Vere's plight as the youngest, exactly mirrors Cordelia. John Davies had written a masque for noble young ladies to perform at court during the summer of 1602. Each was given a gift and a couplet. Susan's read, "Nothing's your lot. That's more than can be told. / For Nothing is more precious than gold."
Lear. What can you say to draw a third more opulent than your sisters? Speak.
Lear. Nothing will come of nothing. Speak again.
Cordelia. Unhappy that I am, I cannot heave / My heart into my mouth. I love Your Majesty / According to my bond, no more nor less. ...
Lear. But goes thy heart with this?
Cor. Ay, my good lord.
Lear. So young and so untender?
Cor. So young, my lord, and true.
Lear. Let it be so. The truth then be thy dow'r!
This is also wordplay on the de Vere family motto: Nothing truer than truth. Susan, as it turns out, proved the one daughter true to her father's life and legacy, by marrying into the Herbert family (something de Vere had attempted unsuccessfully for his second daughter). Susan was extremely well read and performed on the stage. She was courted by publishers for her connection to her father's literary behests. Though the political climate did not permit the revelation of the true author's name, Susan and her husband and her brother-in-law served as patrons to what was to be entitled "Mr. William Shake-speare's Comedies, Histories & Tragedies, Published according to the True Originall Copies."
4Caius, the alias that Kent assumes in exile, refers to Dr. John Caius, whom de Vere met on a number of occasions, probably beginning with his time at Cambridge and later when Caius served Elizabeth I as court physician. Caius also appears in The Merry Wives of Windsor.
5 "Why bastard? wherefore base?
When my dimensions are as well compact,
My mind as generous, and my shape as true,
As honest madam's issue?"
(I, ii, 6-9)
For further details on the life of Edward de Vere see: Mark Anderson's "Shakespeare" by Another Name, Gotham Books, New York, April, 2005; Charlton Ogburn, The Mysterious William Shakespeare—The Myth & the Reality, Dodd, Mean & Company, New York, 1984; Charles Sobran, Alias Shakespeare, The Free Press, New York, 1997; or our own essay, The Shakespearean Authorship Question on this site.