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ClassicsOnline Home » SHAKESPEARE, W.: King Lear (Unabridged)
The tragedy of King Lear receives an outstanding performance in an all-star cast led by Britain’s senior classical actor, Paul Scofield. He is joined by Alec McCowen as Gloucester, Kenneth Branagh as The Fool, Harriet Walter as Gonerill, Sara Kestelman as Regan and Emilia Fox as Cordelia. This is the ninth recording of Shakespeare plays undertaken by Naxos AudioBooks in conjunction with Cambridge University Press, and is directed by John Tydeman. It was released to mark the eightieth birthday of Paul Scofield in January 2002.
"If you buy only one spoken-word recording this year, make it this. Forty years after first playing Lear at Stratford, Paul Scofield repeated the role just months short of his 80th birthday. He is breathtakingly, stingingly brilliant. The range and control of that wonderful voice remain awesome, and like an organ virtuoso he switches registration seamlessly, from blazing diapason rage down to dulciana pathos, exploiting the studio's opportunities for intimacy never offered by the stage. Taken right down, the small mad ensemble pieces with Edgar, the Fool and Kent yield so much more. The studio also spares an actor of Lear's actual four score years the near-impossibility of carrying in the dead Cordelia (Emilia Fox). David Burke gives a bravura performance as Kent, and Kenneth Branagh a nippy yet restrained counterpoint as the Fool. But this is Scofield's show."
King Lear, perhaps Shakespeare’s most profoundly searching
and disturbing tragedy, is the story of a foolish and self-indulgent king who
learns, late in life and after terrible suffering, the value of self-knowledge.
The play asks the ancient questions about God and the meaning of pain with
uncompromising directness, but provides no reassuring answers...
King Lear, probably dating from 1605, was first printed in a
quarto version in 1608 and in a different form in the First Folio
of 1623. It is the third in Shakespeare’s great sequence of
four tragedies: Hamlet (1600–01) and Othello (1602–1604) precede it, and
Macbeth (1606) follows. It possesses the widest emotional and thematic reach of
them all, occupying a space which achieves an almost abstract, symbolic quality
while at the same time offering a painful concreteness of experience: it is
both intensely personal and impressively universal, tackling the great
questions of suffering and morality (‘is there any cause in nature that makes
these hard hearts?’) within the context of a social conscience (‘O! I have
ta’en too little care of this’) and an anguished questioning of God (or the
gods, who, it seems, ‘kill us for their sport’).
The plot of King Lear, it has often been remarked, has
something of the quality of fable or fairy tale (Cordelia as Cinderella?), and
in fact the story seems to be of very ancient origin. Geoffrey of Monmouth
tells it in his 12th century History of the Kings of Britain, albeit with a
happy ending, but Shakespeare’s chief source was undoubtedly his well-thumbed
copy of Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles (1577). Again, the end of the play
differs significantly from the source: Cordelia, for example, commits suicide
in Holinshed but, of course, is murdered in Shakespeare. One or two details
were borrowed from The Mirror for Magistrates (1574) and from Spenser’s The
Faerie Queene (1590), while the sub-plot of Gloucester’s story derives from Sir
Philip Sidney’s Arcadia (1590). Finally, Shakespeare was almost certainly
familiar with The True Chronicle History of King Lear, and his three daughters,
Gonorill, Ragan and Cordella, probably dating from 1594. This has many general
similarities but is clumsy in verse and characterisation. In none of these
sources do we find, for example, the crucial factor of Lear’s madness, so
powerfully developed in the play. Thus we are reminded of the breadth and
culture of Shakespeare’s reading, and also of his ability to transmute
sometimes fairly base metal into gold.
Act 1, Scene 1: The play is set in an ancient, seemingly
pagan, Britain. Kent and Gloucester discuss the King’s imminent ‘division of
the kingdom’; Gloucester introduces his illegitimate son Edmund to Kent. Lear
enters and initiates a contest in which the daughter who most convincingly
pleads her love for him will gain the largest portion of the kingdom. Gonerill
and Regan make false and extravagant speeches, but Lear’s youngest and hitherto
favourite daughter, Cordelia, refuses to play this absurd game and is, as a
result, furiously disowned. Kent, interceding on her behalf, is abruptly
banished. Cordelia’s two suitors, Burgundy and the King of France, enter and
are asked if they still wish to marry the dowerless daughter. France,
undeterred, claims Cordelia as his bride. Left alone, Gonerill and Regan, who
have been given everything by Lear, agree to ‘sit together’ against their now
Scene 2: Edmund, in soliloquy, delivers a powerful defence
of his imminent treachery, and then tricks his credulous father Gloucester into
believing that his other son, Edgar, intends to murder him. Gloucester having
left, Edmund then warns Edgar to beware of his father who is inexplicably angry
Scene 3: Lear is now staying with his daughter Gonerill, who
encourages her steward Oswald to provoke Lear into some indiscretion so that he
may be humiliated and his entourage reduced.
Scene 4: Kent enters, disguised: intent on protecting his
king from the evil purposes of his two older daughters, he persuades Lear to
take him on as a servant. Kent quickly picks a quarrel with Oswald, while
Lear’s Fool (or jester) makes some pointed allusions to what he sees as his
master’s folly. Gonerill enters and demands that Lear control his retinue’s
behaviour and reduce its number. Lear, enraged, calls down a fearful curse upon
her and departs in search of Regan’s hospitality. Gonerill sends Oswald to warn
her sister of Lear’s imminent arrival.
Scene 5: Lear sends Kent ahead with letters to Gloucester.
In conversation with the Fool, he begins to acknowledge his own folly and fear
Act 2 Scene 1: Edmund hears that Regan and her husband
Cornwall are expected soon; there is also a rumour of coming war between
Cornwall and Albany, Gonerill’s husband. Edmund uses this information to
suggest to Edgar that he should flee the Duke of Cornwall, who believes him to
be an enemy. Edmund then tells Gloucester that Edgar was trying to persuade him
to join in murdering their father. Gloucester, believing these fabrications,
promptly disowns Edgar and promises to leave everything to Edmund. Regan and
Cornwall, arriving, commiserate with Gloucester and explain that they have left
their own home in order to avoid entertaining Lear.
Scene 2: Kent and Oswald appear simultaneously outside
Gloucester’s castle: Kent is busy beating Oswald when he is found by Cornwall
and put in the stocks in spite of Gloucester’s pleading.
Scene 3: Edgar, pursued, decides to adopt the disguise of a
filthy and demented Bedlam beggar: ‘Poor Tom’.
Scene 4: Lear is furious to discover Kent in the stocks, and
is further incensed by the initial refusal of Regan and Cornwall to come down
and speak with him. Regan receives her father coldly; Lear repeats his curses
upon Gonerill, who then herself appears. The daughters combine to refuse Lear
any of his own retinue; Lear, beside himself with fury, rushes out into the
night, in which a storm is brewing.
Act 3 Scene 1: Kent hears from a Gentleman that an army from
France is soon to arrive, determined to restore the King.
Scene 2: As the storm rages, Lear, accompanied only by the
Fool, urges the elements to destroy this world in which moral values and family
loyalty no longer exist. Kent joins them and leads the king to a hovel where he
can find some shelter.
Scene 3: Gloucester confides in Edmund that he now wishes to
help the king. Edmund, alone, determines to tell Cornwall of Gloucester’s
Scene 4: Lear urges the Fool to seek shelter first; the Fool
is terrified to find the apparently mad Poor Tom (the disguised Edgar) already
there. Lear, himself now almost mad with grief, feels drawn towards a
fellow-sufferer and is moved to acknowledge the pitiful vulnerability of man,
the ‘poor, bare, forked animal’. Gloucester appears and leads them towards a place
‘where both fire and food is ready’.
Scene 5: Cornwall thanks Edmund for his information. They
set out to find Gloucester.
Scene 6: Lear, his wits having deserted him, shelters with
‘Poor Tom’ and the Fool, who has his last line in the play ‘And I’ll go to bed
at noon.’ This is usually taken as a foretelling of his death. Gloucester
re-enters to warn the king that he must leave at once for Dover if he values
Scene 7: Gonerill and Edmund leave Regan and Cornwall to
deal with the now-apprehended Gloucester, who is tied to a chair and blinded. A
servant, prompted by righteous disgust, wounds Cornwall mortally but himself is
killed in the attempt.
Act 4 Scene 1: Gloucester, now aware of Edmund’s treachery
and Edgar’s innocence, is being guided by an old tenant of his; Edgar (still
acting the role of Poor Tom) offers to lead his father to the cliffs of Dover.
Scene 2: Gonerill, warned by Oswald that Albany now favours
the king, asks Edmund to take over her husband’s position, and then sends him to
Cornwall to request a rapid muster of his army. Albany enters and delivers a
withering denunciation of Gonerill’s behaviour. They are interrupted by news of
Scene 3: Cordelia, concerned for her father’s health, sends
out attendants to bring him to her tent. She confirms that the army from France
is intent solely upon restoring her father’s position.
Scene 4: Regan, in conversation with Oswald, reveals her own
love for Edmund and consequent jealousy of Gonerill. Oswald is sent off with a
note for Edmund, and instructions to kill Gloucester if he should see him.
Scene 5: Edgar persuades his father that he stands on the
edge of Dover cliff. Gloucester, wishing to commit suicide, falls tamely onto
his face, but is made by Edgar to believe that he has indeed fallen and has
survived by a miracle. Lear enters; not yet recognising Gloucester, he
acnowledges his own folly and goes on to attack all forms of hypocrisy and
misused privilege. As Cordelia’s attendants approach, he flees, convinced that
they intend him mischief. Gloucester and Edgar (now posing as a ‘most poor man’)
are attacked by Oswald, who is killed by Edgar. Edgar then reads the
love-letter from Gonerill to Edmund.
Scene 6: Lear is brought into Cordelia’s tent, asleep. As he
wakes he expresses his shame and contrition: Cordelia seeks to comfort and
Act 5 Scene 1: The two sisters openly compete for Edmund.
Edgar appears, disguised, to issue a mysterious challenge. Edmund confirms in
soliloquy that, once Cordelia and Lear are in his power after a victorious
battle, he will defy Albany’s authority and have them executed.
Scene 2: Edgar has difficulty in persuading his despairing
father to flee after Cordelia’s forces have been defeated.
Scene 3: As Lear and Cordelia are led into captivity, Edmund
sends a soldier
after them with instructions to kill them. Albany and Edmund
vie for control of
the prisoners, which Edmund refuses to give up; meanwhile
of sickness, having been poisoned by Gonerill. Albany
declares that he will fight Edmund to the death if no other champion appears to
do so. The trumpet having been sounded, Edgar’s mysterious challenge is read
out. Edgar – still disguised – emerges to fight Edmund. Edmund is mortally
wounded; Edgar reveals himself and recounts the tale of Kent’s heroic deeds;
news arrives of the deaths of Gonerill (who has committed suicide) and Regan
(by poison); and Edmund, repenting of his evil, confesses that he has ordered
the deaths of Lear and Cordelia. He has spoken too late: Lear enters carrying
the dead body of Cordelia, who has been hanged. Believing – falsely – that she
still breathes, the king dies. Kent, it seems, will follow very soon in his
master’s footsteps, while Albany and Edgar are left to sustain the ‘gor’d
For contemporary readers and audiences, King Lear is probably
the most powerfully and unbearably moving of the tragedies. From the
mid-twentieth century to the present day it has acquired a remarkable relevance
and seeming modernity: for generations reared after the horrors of two world
wars it seems to be tackling the key questions about evil, suffering and the
role of God. When Lear cries out to Cordelia ‘Why should a dog, a horse, a rat
have life/And thou no breath at all?’ we surely cannot answer, whatever our
religious belief, or lack of it; when Kent and Edgar ask ‘Is this the promis’d
end? Or image of that horror?’ we might think of Hiroshima; at the blinding of
Gloucester and the hanging of Cordelia we, like Lear, demand to know what
‘cause in nature ... makes these
hard hearts?’ Shakespeare, of course, cannot answer his own questions, which
resonate in our minds long after the performance or reading have ended.
Critics have shared this sense of profound disturbance:
Samuel Johnson, editing Shakespeare in the eighteenth century, relates that ‘I
was many years ago so shocked by Cordelia’s death, that I know not whether I
ever endured to read again the last scenes of the play till I undertook to
revise them as an editor’. Johnson was used to the standard version of the play
then performed: Nahum Tate had rewritten King Lear with a happy ending in which
Cordelia marries Edgar. Keats and Shelley, in the next generation, both
celebrated the bitter-sweetness of the play, Keats in his sonnet ‘On sitting
down to read King Lear once again’ and Shelley in his Defence of Poetry, where
he praises the sublimely effective blending of comedy and tragedy. G. Wilson
Knight in the twentieth century brilliantly analysed the surreal comedy of the
play, pointing to the scene in which Gloucester imagines himself falling down
Dover cliff but in fact merely falls on his face: the comedy succeeds because
it is simultaneously exquisitely painful, ironic and appropriate. All of this,
together with the savagely pointed exchanges between Lear and the Fool, looks
forward to twentieth-century theatre of the absurd, in particular the plays of
Samuel Beckett. In King Lear one feels always that what is being said and what
is happening resonate universally: the very heath itself, where Lear confronts
the storm outside and the storm in his own mind, suggests a kind of cosmic
wasteland where all meaning and faith have been lost.
It is interesting that Shakespeare paganises the old story:
it is the gods, not God, who must be questioned, and perhaps the key word of
the play is ‘nature’: human nature, the nature of the divine (if it exists),
the nature of things, the ‘natural’ world of ‘unaccommodated man’, man without
his clothes (‘Off! off! you lendings!’), man as a ‘poor, bare, forked animal’.
Shakespeare asks, as we living after the Holocaust must also ask: how much is
our civilisation really worth if we can behave to each other like ‘monsters of
This brings us to what is perhaps the crux of the play and
how we understand it. Modern critics (roughly speaking) are divided between the
Christian apologists and what we might call the nihilists. The Christians point
(for example) to Cordelia as a kind of sacrificial Christ figure, and believe
that Lear’s deluded belief that Cordelia still breathes is an image or
suggestion of a better life to come. The nihilists (to which group I belong, I
must confess) see the whole play as a demonstration of existential despair:
there is no God, merely a combination of cruel misfortune and human malignity,
and all we can hope to do is to survive, promoting where possible the good over
the evil. Albany fears that ‘If the heavens do not their visible spirits/Send
to tame these vile offences,/It will come/Humanity must
perforce prey on itself,/Like monsters of the deep’, and even the most
optimistic reader of the play can hardly claim that the heavens do indeed
prevent such excesses. True, by the end the powers of evil are in abeyance; yet
what is left? – two exhausted men will struggle to sustain the ‘gor’d state’,
as the curtain comes down over the dead bodies of Lear and Cordelia.
Notes by Perry Keenlyside
This recording uses the First Folio version, which departs
from the quarto at several crucial points. Both versions are available from
Cambridge University Press.
Lear for the ear
“The role of the King is always seen as one of the most
formidable challenges open to an actor, one that can crown a career” writes the
Shakespeare scholar, Stanley Wells. On the stage the part also requires
considerable physical stamina and emotional energy in its trajectory from proud
authority, through selfish irritability, rage, suffering, senile madness,
hopeful reconciliation, to heartbreak and death. Consequently the role is often
played by an actor much younger than Shakespeare’s rather precise “Fourscore
years and upward/Not an hour more no less”. And it is not just a question of
having the strength to carry on the body of his youngest daughter towards the
very end of the play. “Get a light Cordelia” was the only tip a famous actor
could give on being asked for advice about the role!
Garrick was 24, Gielgud 27 and Burbage under 40 when they
first played Lear on stage. Scofield was 40 when he first played the King in
Peter Brook’s 1962 Stratford production and was acknow-ledged as one of the
finest Lears of the 20th century. Now, 40 years on and all but a few months off
the “fourscore years and upward”, he interprets the role for a second time.
This time it is for
the ear alone without the exhausting demands of a continuous
Paul Scofield is the supreme actor for the ear. He knows how
to mine a text for every nuance of meaning. He is blessed with a voice of the
widest range which experience has taught him how to exploit, control and
modulate. He has a thinkingness, an interior quality, which is part of the
mystery of things. This the microphone detects and conveys.
Playing a man whose age is closer to his own, he has no need
to ‘age up’, i.e. to act age. Nor does he have to act authority. That he has
through course of nature. Besides, a king should never play a king; he is a man
who happens to be a king. In the theatre, as in life, it is the other actors
who create his authority.
Forty years after the first stage performance as Lear I felt
that it might be time for Paul to revisit the play and re-inhabit the old king.
I suggested this to Paul and he confessed that he had had similar thoughts.
Happily, Naxos and the Cambridge University Press came together to make this
present production happen. I had previously worked with Paul on two other major
Shakespearean roles, Macbeth and Othello, for BBC Radio. We explored these two
characters in a sound studio some time before he played them in the theatre
(RSC and RNT respectively). Now, with Lear, the situation is reversed and the
sound production follows the theatre one – but at a considerably greater remove
Like Ibsen’s “Peer Gynt”, King Lear is, in a certain sense,
an extended, dramatic poem. For several centuries the complete original text
was thought too intractable for the stage as well as being reckoned to be too
painful for audiences to bear. Hence it was much cut and considerably
rewritten. Nahum Tate’s 1681 version, with a happy ending in which the good all
live and Cordelia marries Edgar, was the one which was used for nearly 200
At a recent production of the play at Shakespeare’s Globe I
was made to realise how Burbage and his company must have been forced to bang
out the words into a large, open space. In Shakespeare’s day there could have
been no room for vocal subtlety. The actor would have to fight the volume of
the thundersheet in the storm scene; there could be no intimacy in the mad
scenes, no sweet quietness in the reconciliation scene and no hushed whispering
of ‘close-up’ lines. But in audio a play takes place within the human skull.
That is its theatre. It occurs within the mind and imagination of a listener.
It happens in the very place in which the author originally conceived and
composed his work – his head. Moreover, full focus is necessarily upon the
poet-dramatist’s language and sense, without the distraction of any
The fact that Paul Scofield, probably the most admired and
loved actor in the profession, was to play Lear again attracted a fine company
of fellow actors. Shakespeare’s works belong pre-eminently to actors and to
audiences, rather than to scholars and directors. There is always a handed-on
continuity in the cast of any one of Shakespeare’s great plays. Most of the
actors in any given play will have acted in it before, usually in a different
role. Hamlet will graduate to Polonius, Edgar to Lear.
In the current production out of a cast of 15 actors only 3
actors have not appeared in the play before. For instance, Kenneth Branagh
(Fool) had played Edmond in a radio recording with Gielgud as well as having
directed the play in the theatre (with Richard Briers as Lear); Sara Kestelman
had played Gonerill more than once, but never Regan; David Burke recreates for
sound his recent brilliant performance as Kent given in the Richard Eyre’s RNT
production; whilst Peter Blythe (Albany) and Alec McCowen (Gloucester) had both
appeared (McCowen as the Fool) with Paul Scofield in the Peter Brook production
those forty years ago.
Forty years of living brings its own wisdom and perhaps an
even greater understanding of human nature and old age. I think it is to those
qualities of enrichment through experience that Shakespeare refers when he says
that “ripeness is all”.
Notes by John Tydeman
John Tydeman played a key role in BBC radio drama for nearly
four decades, as producer, Assistant Head and then Head of Radio Drama. During
that time he directed most of the major plays in the classical repertory, from
Greek drama to Shakespeare, Chekhov and Shaw. He was also active in
contemporary theatre, directing works by Osborne, Stoppard, Albee, Pinter and
many others. Directing for television and the stage has been a regular feature
throughout his busy career. He has worked with Paul Scofield on many occasions,
including radio productions of Macbeth and Othello.
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SHAKESPEARE, W.: King Lear (Unabridged)