King Lear

There are many good reasons why aficionados of "Shake-speare"¹ often rate King Lear as the playwright's greatest work, and all these reasons are crystallized in artistic director Kent Thompson's astoundingly well-conceived production on the main stage of the Denver Center Theatre Company.

Philip Pleasants as King Lear
Philip Pleasants as King Lear
Photo: Terry Shapiro
Thompson is, of course, a seasoned Shakespearean director, having come to the DCTC from the Alabama Shakespeare Festival. This production marks the third time he's helmed Lear and his experience shows in every detail.

For openers, the entire cast—from Philip Pleasants as the ubiquitous tragic king, to the fleeting servants and slaves—present the audience with the rare gift of an entirely audible, sensible, and rich rendering of the Bard's exquisite text. Such consistent projection and elocution alone would be worth the price of admission, but there's much, much more.

Philip Pleasants as King Lear and Kathleen McCall as Regan
Philip Pleasants as King Lear
and Kathleen McCall as Regan
Photo: Terry Shapiro
The casting, too, is pitch perfect. As Hamlet is the ultimate role for a developing actor, so Lear is the quintessential role for a fully-realized talent. Here, the marvel of Pleasants' performance is in the subtle differentiation he brings to Lear's vast and mercurial psychological and emotional vicissitudes. Vibrant and regal one moment, mad and decrepit the next, the role demands not only range, but core insights into the affective triggers for these transformative dynamics. Clearly, Pleasants has found Lear within himself, transparently revealing the King's secrets, and we are delighted and privileged to be able to share in his epic catharsis.

While it is often the case in the 37-play canon that the playwright constructs parallel plots to reinforce and comment upon the central drama, in King Lear Shake-speare has outdone himself, providing a cascade of storylines that echo the catastrophe of the royal family.

Conventional Stratfordian analysis dates the play late in the poet's career with the story loosely based on an earlier tale, but modern research shows us it was performed at least a dozen years earlier and borrows (as do all the plays) a number of events from the life of Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford.

Philip Pleasants as King Lear and Stephanie Cozart as Cordelia
Philip Pleasants as King Lear
and Stephanie Cozart as Cordelia
Photo: Terry Shapiro
It is no coincidence that Lear prematurely divides his kingdom among his three daughters, for that is exactly what de Vere was forced to do when his first wife died.² It's also worth noting that Lear's favorite daughter, Cordelia, is his youngest, as was the case with Edward's daughter Susan, who married into a literary family and administered her father's legacy.³

(Left to right) Rodney Hicks as Edmund and Markus Potter as Edgar
(L to R) Rodney Hicks as Edmund
and Markus Potter as Edgar
Photo: Terry Shapiro
Like Lear, the Earl of Gloucester faces choices in dividing his estate among his progeny, in this case his two sons—Edgar, his "legitimate" heir, and Edmund, his "bastard" love-child. In addition to the dramatic forces unleashed by this opposition, the conflict between the half brothers allows de Vere to explore another personal theme—that of his own birth, for he was twice the subject of lawsuits concerning the legitimacy of his claim to the estate of his father, and Elizabeth I at least once called him a bastard, for which he said he "would never love her and [would] leave her in the lurch one day."4

And as Lear deceives himself in judging the worthiness of his daughters, ignoring the heartfelt truth of Cordelia's testimony in favor of Regan's and Goneril's flattery, Gloucester, too, allows himself to be deceived in judging the faithfulness of his sons, failing to recognize the depth of Edmund's ulterior motives and Edgar's unflagging loyalty.

Informed by his own experiences in seeking office and arranging the marriages of his daughters, de Vere is ever conscious of subtle gradations among nobles, drawing Gloucester a shade less tragic than Lear: Lear's blindness is spiritual while Gloucester's is literal; Lear's madness is literal while Gloucester's is situational; and while both are reconciled with their most devoted offspring, Lear loses Cordelia and then dies of a broken heart.

(Left to right) Markus Potter as Edgar and Mike Hartman as the Earl of Gloucester
(Left to right) Markus Potter as Edgar and
Mike Hartman as the Earl of Gloucester
Photo: Terry Shapiro
Leaving no emotional wrinkle unexplored, Mike Hartman deftly untethers the aging Gloucester's underpinnings of rationality, exposing the Earl's full tragic potential and in doing so reinforcing the tragedy of Lear. Shocked by the letter that Edmund has forged in Edgar's name (another biographical event in de Vere's life),5 Hartman nimbly orchestrates Gloucester's shifting mental landscape sown from a lifetime of disappointment: "Love cools, friendship falls off, brothers divide: in cities, mutinies; in countries, discord; in palaces, treason; and the bond crack'd 'twixt son and father."

Lear's tragedy is further amplified by John Hutton's robust Kent, whose physical confidence and Stentorian delivery test Lear's virility and leadership, providing us with a measure by which we later may judge just how far the king has fallen. Kent's banishment6 not only reinforces Lear's misjudgment, but provides yet another echo of a noble in exile, following Cordelia, with Edgar, Lear, and Gloucester to come.

Sharon Washington as Goneril and Robert Jason Jackson as the Duke of Albany
Sharon Washington as Goneril and
Robert Jason Jackson as the Duke of Albany
Photo: Terry Shapiro
Unlike so many directors who seek to impose their vision on Shake-speare, Thompson wisely relies on text and character to allow Regan and Goneril to fully partake in their family's tragedy. Instead of heavy-handed harpies who come out brandishing talons drawn for blood, we are instead treated to two politically savvy princesses whose flawed ambitions get the better of themselves: "You see how full of changes his age is; the observation we have made of it hath [not] been little. He always lov'd our sister most; and with what poor judgment he hath now cast her off appears too grossly."

The fire that we see in Lear when he does not get what he expects from Cordelia is evident in Goneril and Regan in equal but different forms of radiation. Sharon Washington cloaks Goneril's ambition in well-spoken phrases and regal bearing, while Kathleen McCall's Regan is quick-tempered and overtly passionate. Together, they are a powerful duo capable of ruling a kingdom and making war on their enemies, but as the crisis grows, the sisters' radically different personalities gradually turn mutual concerns into enmity, bringing chaos to the realm. The moral lesson concerning such material ambitions couldn't be clearer.

In contrast, Cordelia's refinement is a tribute to the playwright's love for his youngest daughter. Where Portia in The Merchant of Venice was unable to live up to her "quality of mercy" speech, Cordelia, much like Hermione in The Winter's Tale—another script completed late in the de Vere's life—achieves sainthood by walking the talk, transcending base desires and remaining true to her father.

Philip Pleasants as King Lear
Philip Pleasants as King Lear
Photo: Terry Shapiro
Thompson's choice of Stephanie Cozart makes for a transcendent and delicate Cordelia, and creates room for Pleasants to stretch Lear's madness to that of a flower-wreathed aesthetic, revealing the full range of human emotion contained within the tragic hero—a chimera of lion and poet. The case for not double-casting Cordelia and the Fool was never so well expressed as in Cozart's performance and that of Sam Gregory as the Fool.

Sam Gregory as the Fool
Sam Gregory as the Fool
Photo: Terry Shapiro
Gregory wholly commits himself to the sacred clown that cuts no slack, spinning metaphors that cut to the quick, even if those so humbled could end his life on a whim. Choosing to play the Fool as lame, it's as if the thespian has anticipated the unkindest cut and, like an Aikido master, turned it to his advantage. Yet his cleverness never abuses; he remains true to Lear to the end. So, while the parallels between Cordelia and the Fool are notably intended, Thompson's choices make it clear that, like the other parallel themes, the two are better left to resonate in contrast to one another than in forced unity.

While Thompson gives weight to Regan's and Goneril's flaws and flight to Cordelia's virtue, Gloucester's children offer a starker contrast and less directorial wiggle room. One irreverent speech by Gloucester right off the top sets Edmund on his criminal venture, as if his fate were to don the bastard cloak he so righteously seeks to discard.

Sharon Washington as Goneril and Rodney Hicks as Edmund
Sharon Washington as Goneril
and Rodney Hicks as Edmund
Photo: Terry Shapiro
Echoing Richard III's persuasive strategy, Rodney Hicks' imbues Edmund with cool rationality that speaks directly toward the audiences' sympathies for the victims of prejudice and misguided convention. However, if there's anything more to be read into Thompson's casting of his black actors, most notably as Gonerial, Edmund, and Albany, it's that the racial distinctions are arbitrary and could be used in a variety of combinations, the logical pursuit of which would only result in meaningless moral judgments.

As noted earlier, the ensemble reinforces the tremendous depth of this production, most notably in William Hahn's masterfully understated Oswald, steward to Goneril, two poignant cameos by Randy Moore, and the powerful presence of Robert Jason Jackson as Albany.

Philip Pleasants as King Lear and Stephanie Cozart as Cordelia
Philip Pleasants as King Lear
and Stephanie Cozart
as Cordelia
Photo: Terry Shapiro
The craft work reflects Thompson's straightforward explication of the tale, beginning with Ralph Funicello's majestic rows of Elizabethan columns that mix and match as need be. Susan Branch's costumes are quietly elegant, also reflecting the tenor set by the directing. The generally dark moods of the masterpiece are enhanced by Craig Breitenbach's sound design and original music and arrangements by Gregg Coffin.

Thompson calls upon martial displays sparingly, thus allowing Geoffrey Kent's fight direction to impressively punctuate rather than distract from the intersecting storylines. Kudos to Michael Cobb for the overall vocal consistency and punch.

The Denver Center Theatre Company's definitive production of King Lear runs through February 24th. 303-893-4100.

Bob Bows


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 alienated 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.
Cordelia. Nothing.
Lear. Nothing?
Cordelia. Nothing.
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."

4 "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?"

5Like Edmund's scheme urging Edgar to flee, de Vere had urged a Catholic court conspirator, Charles Arundell to do the same, and was discovered for doing so.

6Caius, 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.

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.

Bob Bows

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