Shakespeare Uncovered (2012–…): Season 2, Episode 2 - King Lear with Christopher Plummer - full transcript

Christopher Plummer discusses William Shakespeare's King Lear with Jonathan Miller, Ian McKellen and Simmon Russell Beale.

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"Nothing will come of nothing."

These haunting words
are a father's threat

to his daughter.

The man is a king,

William Shakespeare's King Lear,

but it is in the
course of the play

that Lear will himself
lose everything

and come to know nothing.

"King Lear" is a play
about a father who makes

a terrible mistake.

He disowns his beloved daughter.


Lear will lose his kingdom

and even his mind.

His only hope of survival
is to try and answer

the one question that
he's failed to understand...

what is real love?

The play "King Lear"
is dark and desperate,

and yet it's one of
the most cherished

of Shakespeare's works.

The role of Lear is probably one

of the toughest parts
an actor can play,

but when I was offered
the part at 72... heh heh...

I certainly wasn't
gonna turn it down.

It's just about one
of the greatest parts

ever written for a male actor.

He's a selfish old
boor, but there—there is

something wonderful
about his temper

that can frighten an audience.

"King Lear" is so modern,
it's more universal.

It's extraordinary.

It is the masterpiece
of what happens

to the powerful who fall.

According to legend, King
Lear was a real English monarch,

who reigned in 800 B.C.

Like Shakespeare's
character, he loses his kingdom,

but the Lear in the
old story regains it.

Shakespeare took
this ancient tale

from the "Holinshed Chronicles"
and made it much darker.

kingdom, and 'tis our fast intent...

He created a role that has

challenged actors ever since.

The meaning of
Shakespeare's play hangs

on the very character of Lear.

Who is the man behind the crown?

He's a fighter and
I suspect he's been

that all his life.

There is neither good nor bad,

but he's just human.

King Lear's a very angry man,

and he...

As his powers decline,
he doesn't get less angry.

The earliest
interpretation of "Lear"

on film is silent.

I rather like this Lear.

His gestures are
absolutely wonderful

for silent screen acting.

I mean, I wish to God I'd
used those when I'd played it...

Cut down a slight bit.

This is my favorite
Lear that I've ever seen.

It's played by the
Russian actor Yuri Yarvet.

He's always on the
edge of madness...

Ha ha ha!

And he's always a little
distracted... King Lear.

Better has not been bom
than not to have pleased.

Laurence Olivier played him more

as a vulnerable old man,

possibly because he had
himself become quite fragile.

His voice was
going in life a little bit

and very high-pitched.

Some of it is—is
terrific because

of course Lear is
also kind of failing.

Whoever plays Lear has
to decide what's going on

in his mind when
as a king and father

he decides to
divide up his kingdom

between his 3 daughters.

LEAR: Give me the map there.

Now we have divided
in 3, our kingdom.

It is our fast intent
to shake all cares

and business from our age,

conferring them on
younger strengths.

At The Globe Theatre in London,

actors are running
this crucial first scene.

The portion each
daughter will get depends

on how eloquently
they say they love him.

Tell me, my daughters,

which of you shall we
say doth love us most?

Lear is hoping to
give the best portion

to his youngest and
favorite daughter Cordelia,

but he's miscalculated
the family dynamics.

It starts off as a bit of a game

that then goes wrong.

Goneril, our eldest
born, speak first.

Sir, I love you
more than words can

wield the matter.

Dearer than eyesight,

space, or liberty.

Cordelia is repelled
by her sister's

ridiculous flattery.

What shall Cordelia speak?

Love, and be silent.

What says our second daughter,

our dearest Regan?

I am made of that same mettle

as my sister

and price me at her worth.

In my true heart,
I find she names

my very deed of love.

Only, she comes too short.

Cordelia knows she
cannot and will not compete

with her sisters' wild promises.

She's really shocked.

I don't think it's something
that he's done before.

She doesn't have
time to plan it,

so it's very much
in that moment,

and it's all from her emotions.

What can you say to win a third

more opulent than your sisters?

Nothing, my lord!

Nothing? Nothing!

Nothing will come of nothing.

Lear is showing
himself to be a bully

and a game player
and a manipulator

and, uh, abusing
these daughters openly

in front of everyone,

and that's what
she's saying no to.

You have begot me,
bred me, loved me.

Why have my sisters
husbands if they

say they love you all?

You are meant to
understand that she's

standing up for some
kind of basic principle,

including the principle
of her... her own life.

Uh, "Why do my
sisters have husbands

if they love their father all?"

Let it be so!

Thy truth then be thy dower.

He's divvying up his— Heh...
his land and his properties

and—and, uh, Cordelia
wants nothing from him

and, uh, refuses to
give anything of her.

Uh, he is so absolutely
desperately hurt by this

that he let's
fly, "Let it be so!

"Thy truth then be thy dower.

"For by the sacred
radiance of the sun,

"here I disclaim
all my paternal care

"and as a stranger
to my heart, and me,

hold thee from this, forever."


These are cruel words to
say and hard words to bear.

He's just completely
shocked, and she's shocked

that he's done this because
they love each other.

He was playing the game
with Cordelia because

of course he adored her
more than anyone else

from the very start.

It's only when she tums
on him and tells him

the bloody truth, that he, uh,
he... he is hurt beyond measure

and then lets fly his anger.

King Lear may have
been set in 800 B.C.,

but Shakespeare knew
his audience would connect

the play to their own lives,

and this makes it
highly controversial.

The play was first
performed in 1605

just two years
after a major event

in British history, the
death of Elizabeth I

and the accession of
a king from Scotland.

When James comes
to the throne in 1603,

his great idea is about a union,

a union of Scotland and
England, and that's about Britain,

it's about creating this
new place called Britain,

and "King Lear" is a
play which is set in Britain.

The whole idea
is about security.

James is creating
this new kingdom,

which is bigger,
but it needs security,

and the first thing that Lear
does as soon as he comes

onstage, he says,
"Give me the map there,"

and he says, "No, that we
are dividing the kingdom in 3."

The audience is
completely horrified by this.

Shakespeare is
painting a portrait

of a divided country,
vulnerable to invasion,

and the new king
will see this play.

James I is watching this happen.

He's in the audience
there at court,

watching this play out.

This is actually
an explosive thing

for Shakespeare to be doing.

It's a very dangerous
game to be playing.

You should be
talking about unity

and celebrating Britain,

and he's ripping it apart.

Where's my knave? My fool?

The consequences of
King Lear's decision now

become painfully clear.

His favorite and youngest
daughter Cordelia

has fled the country,
and he goes to live

with his eldest Goneril.

His retinue is substantial,

and Goneril exploits this to
totally undermine her father.

Here you keep a hundred
knights and squires.

Epicurism and lust
makes it more like a tavern

or a brothel than
a graced palace.

Lear is finding out
that his elder daughters

do not love him.

So who can he tum to?

Once Cordelia's no
longer there for Lear,

his most significant
relationship is with his fool,

and that's how we get a glimpse

of a different side of Lear.

Mark it, nuncle!

The fool, or jester,
was a traditional role

in medieval royal courts.

His purpose was to entertain

but also to speak
truth to power.

It's a very special,
unique relationship,

isn't it? Yeah.

They have an understanding,

which is absolutely only shared

by the two of them, and he...

He doesn't have that
relationship with anyone else.

He's incredibly
blunt and forward

and yet is able to say
it through these riddles.

It's seems to me that Lear
would not accept anything else

but that kind of
honesty and directness,

and I think he's
the only character

who has that license.

Doth thou call me fool, boy?

All thy other titles
thou hast given away;

that thou wast born with.

I will forget my nature.

So kind a father!

my stage production of "King Lear,"

we cast the fool
the same age as me

to show how close
they could become.

Nor I neither.

But I can tell why
a snail has a house.


To put's head in.

Not to give it away
to his daughters

and leave his
homs without a case.

Obviously Lear saw him in
some Vaudeville nightclub

somewhere and thought
"Oh, he's wonderful.

I think I'll have
him as me fool."

So he brought him on
board, and the two of them

have that wonderful

My production was
directed by Jonathan Miller,

who is so fascinated by the play

that he's just started
his sixth production.

Here again, king
and fool have bonded

through a history of
past misadventures.

I want it to indicate that

you've had it with him.


And that actually
you've been trailed along

against your will into a place

"where I have
never been out here.

"The last time I went here,

"we had a tour
once from the pub,

and we actually never
got out of the... bus."

realize that here is a monarch

and here is a fool,
who actually is wiser

and more mature than this silly
old man who has never grown up.

I think this sketch of
me as this "silly old man"

has managed to encapsulate
what it is to be Lear.

There's everything in the eyes,

there's rage, there's
arrogance, and fear.

The fear is real because
every time you try

and do King Lear, it's
not—you're not exactly

at comfort stations,

and, uh, I just think
it's wonderful because

it's also unfinished,
and so is that character...

Unchallenged, unfinished
by any actor who's

attempted to play him.

Canst tell how an
oyster makes his shell?

No! Nor I neither.

All these contradictions are there

in Lear's relationship
with his fool.

To put's head in.

If thou wast my fool, nuncle,

I'd have thee beaten for
being old before thy time.

How's that?

Thou shouldst not have been old

'til thou hadst been wise.

Let me not be mad.

Not mad, sweet heaven.

Keep me in temper!

Lear knows he's lost his
beloved daughter Cordelia.

He is now losing
his status as king.

He is tormented, and he
fears he will lose his mind.

It is a hugely
significant moment

when Lear says, "O,
let me not be mad,"

um, and I've always taken
it that this is the first moment

at which he's gaining
an inkling that actually

things are not going to be quite

as straightforward.

In fact, his identity is
a—a great deal more fragile

than he realized.

Who am I?

Is it my clothes and my status

and my roles and
my relationships

that make me who I am,

or is there some other
really fundamental essence

of who I am that persists,

even if I take off
my royal robes?

If I'm just me, am
I still King Lear?

His empire is crumbling,

his relationship with
Cordelia is in ruins.

In this play, Lear
will suffer physically,

but above all, it is his mind

that will be tortured.

The idea of what it might
mean to lose your mind,

to lose control runs
right through this play.

It's something
that frightens us all.

Return to her and
50 men dismissed?

Bah! Persuade me...

After being shunned by
his eldest daughter Goneril,

Lear turns to her sister Regan.

It's every parent's nightmare,

their children's rejection.

I can stay with Regan, I
and my hundred knights.

Not altogether so, Sir.

The sisters are arguing
away their father's right

to have any retinue at all.


Is it not well?

What should you need of more?

Yea, or so many?

The scene is incredibly
painful because

it, among other
things, rubs Lear's nose

in a kind of
quantification of love.

"You love me enough to
give me a hundred knights."

"No. You." "Well, 50 knights?"

"No." "25 knights...
at least you're

giving me 25 knights."

What? Must I come to
you with 5 and 20, Regan?

Said you so?

And speak it again, my
lord, no more with me.

Compromise is something
that Lear wouldn't...

Wouldn't even think of.

He's—he's too—too...
The megalomania of him

is... is too... is too strong.

I mean he, his pride
is... Is just extraordinary.

Just if one ser—um...
Soldier was taken away,

he would go berserk.

What you need 5 and 20, 10 or 5?

What need one?

O, reason not the need.

Our basest beggars are in
the poorest thing superfluous.

"O, reason not the need,

"our basest beggars are

"in the poorest
things superfluous.

"Allow not nature
more than nature needs.

Man's life is cheap as beasts."

In some way, already
he's beginning to kind of

get the feeling that something's
not all right with his world,

his own personal world.

Lear is starting to realize that

when he gave up his crown,
he gave up who he was.

It's a vital moment for
any actor taking on the role.

It's an absolutely
valid point he's making.

"I have to be
defined by something.

"I can't be defined just by
what you provide for me.

I need my self-definition,
and I'm losing it."

That's what finally flips
him into real madness.

The scene asks a
profound question...

What do we need to be human?

Soon to be destitute, Lear
will be forced to find out.

The interesting twist
in "Lear" is that there's

no going back,

and that's crucial.

Having broken
from his daughters,

Lear now has nothing.

Homeless and furious,
he has no choice

but to face the elements.

We next meet Lear
on a heath in wilderness

at the mercy of a
tremendous storm.

The turmoil is both inside Lear

and all around him.

This dramatic storm scene is one of the
most famous moments in Shakespeare.

Film adaptations
from around the world

have always made the most of it.

Oh, boy, what a shoot
that must have been.

Christ, I'm glad
I wasn't in that.

Today's special effects
mean almost anything

is possible on film,

but what about
Shakespeare's stage?

Take it away, Bill.

At The Globe's version
of Shakespeare's

indoor theater, they
are demonstrating

how they make the storm.

The challenge is to make
a huge amount of noise

but still leave space
for the king in the middle.

You've got some real challenges,

and you've got to
work with the actor

who's playing the king.

You've got to give him
something to play with,

to fight against.

You can push it quite far.

So as Bill's doing now,
we're getting... this is

a very good illustration.
I'm gonna keep talking

to you while this
drum gets louder...

and louder...

and louder.

Uh, and the difference
is that the audience,

they're expecting the line

"Blow winds and
crack your cheeks".

So at the point that
the king reaches

the front of the stage,
the storm is getting

to its highest we know
that line is gonna come.

If you—if you make so
much noise that we can't

hear him saying the famous words

"Blow winds and
crack your cheeks!

Rage! Blow!"

then you've done a bad job.

So you've got to vary the level.

We can't have full volume
for the full 10 minutes

that he's out there struggling,

so we map the ebb and
the flow of the scene.

So at some points,
there'll be shocks,

there'll be little eruptions

and things for the, uh,
actors to respond to,

and at other times, we
need to find a moment

where it's just a bit gentler.

And then that might happen.

The challenges of
staging this scene

have made it a magnet for
directors and actors ever since.

Well the one big choice,
which was actually out

of my hands, was
to not have any rain,

which I'm very, very
relieved about actually.

However, Simon the actor
felt something was missing.

We have a bucket of
water poured on our heads

before we go on.

It's actually useful for me.

It's a psychological thing

that it can't
necessarily be seen

particularly well
from the audience,

but it—it makes me feel
as if I'm in the storm.

I mean, the very
first roll of thunder is

the moment when he
goes, "Ah, yes. Blow winds!

"That's what I
wanted," you know,

"that's the sound
I wanted to hear,"

and a lot of it's about that.

It's about saying, "Yes, go on.

Yes, you're doing it... you're
doing it beautifully, storm."

He both responds
to it and creates it.

Heh heh heh.

When Ian McKellen
took on the role,

he drew on the anxieties of
old age for his storm scene.

Blow winds

and crack your cheeks!

It helped me that I was

within calling distance
of the right age

and that I didn't
have to imagine

what it would be like to
be all aches and pains

and... and for the mind
to be forgetful or to have

regrets about the past.

O, nuncle.

It wasn't a foreign
country really.

Singe my white head!

And thou, all-shaking thunder.

Lear is indeed being tortured

as much his own thoughts
and regrets as he is

by the storm, and
that, for me, means

that one could play the
scene in a very different way.

There should be
no storm at all really,

ideally, and he...
He makes the storm

and imagines it.

It would be wonderful to
see a production like that

with no background storm,

just him persuading the
audience that there is a storm,

in him because he... the old
adage that Lear is the storm.

Out on the heath,
stripped down physically

and psychologically,
Lear has to adjust.

He starts to see his fool

in a way that he
never has before.

My wits begin to turn.

Come on, my boy.

How dost, my boy?

Art cold?

I am cold myself.

Where is this straw, my fellow?

Suddenly, he's out
there in the, in the storm,

unprotected, as indeed
very many people are.

He begins to realize
how ordinary people

might have to live.

McKELLEN: What he's
discovering is—is that empathy

between what he's feeling,
the misery he's feeling,

and people who
are constantly feeling

that misery themselves,
and he hasn't thought

about that before and
is... is bright enough

to... to... to realize that he
hasn't thought about it before

and to chastise himself for it.

At last, the once
selfish king has shown

he is capable of tenderness.

This is a sign of a change

in Lear's consciousness,
but actually perhaps

it's a different sign,
that we are all King Lear,

that it takes an enormous
amount of work and also

a great deal of suffering

before we can see that
there's anyone else out there.

I have one part in my heart

that's sorry yet for thee.

♪ He that hath
and a little tiny wit ♪

♪ With a hey ho ♪

♪ The wind and the
rain must make content ♪

♪ With his fortunes fit ♪

♪ For the rain it
raineth every day ♪

Lear does seem to be changing.

He's already showed
compassion for his fool,

and now something
astonishing happens.

He refuses shelter

and instead prays
for forgiveness.

He realizes he not only
wronged his beloved daughter

but that he's been a cruel
and uncaring monarch.

"Poor naked wretches,
whereso'er you are,

"that bide the pelting
of this pitiless storm.

"How shall your houseless
heads and unfed sides,

your looped"...

How shall your houseless heads

and unfed sides,

your looped and
windowed raggedness,

defend you from
seasons such as these?

O, I have ta'en
too little care of this.

"O, I have ta'en
too little care of this."

Suddenly, he's
starting to get guilty.

The play is an
extraordinary examination

of power,

and yet it's the powerless

who somehow seem most human.

Lear himself only becomes
truly human when he puts off

all that guise of royal power,

all the pretensions of office,

and sympathizes with the
beggar, the naked wretches,

the houseless poor.

This horrible scene of
wretchedness is where he

starts to realize the
mistakes he's made,

and it's a very, very
personally powerful moment,

but politically
for the audience,

it's really shocking because
you've seen Lear come

from being the great king,
you know, in his throne room,

reduced to a hovel.

The Jacobeans
have never seen this.

The world is, as it were,
turned upside down.

Lear's repentance
might make us feel that

the play will now allow
his situation to improve.

But no! Shakespeare
has completely suspended

the conventional dramatic rules.

"Lear" has an
important parallel plot.

Urge Your Grace not to do so.

The Earl of
Gloucester, Lear's ally,

has two sons Edgar and Edmund.

Is this not your son, my lord?

His breeding, sir, hath
been at my charge.

Being born a bastard,
Edmund will not inherit

his father's estate,

but his contempt extends
way beyond his situation.

Shakespeare has
created a villain who mocks

the entire Jacobean world view.

Edmund is a... a
very modern character

in a lot of ways.

Shakespeare's writing
at a moment where

customary belief is
still very traditional.

There is a belief in the gods

and in the order of
things in the stars.

Astrology was something
that people believed

very, very seriously,

that God had written
your fate in the stars.

Edmund mocks all that.

He doesn't believe
any of this nonsense

about astrology and divine will.

This is the excellent
foppery of the world,

that, when we
are sick in fortune,

often the surfeits
of our own behavior,

we make guilty of our disasters
the sun, the moon, and stars.

Concerned for nobody
and nothing but himself,

Edmund turns his
father Gloucester

against his legitimate
brother Edgar.

Having done that,
Edmund then betrays

his father, as well.

Now Shakespeare lines
up something truly shocking.

Lear is actually offstage
for a good part of the play.

He is not involved
in what has become

one of the most notorious
scenes in theatrical history.

Lear's two eldest
daughters Goneril and Regan

are now in charge
of the kingdom.

Lear's faithful ally,

is appalled at how they
have treated their father,

and he has planned
to restore Lear.

But Edmund, the opportunist,

has now joined forces
with Lear's elder daughters

and informed on his own father.

Where hast thou sent the king?

To Dover. Wherefore to Dover?

Wast thou not charged at peril?

Wherefore to Dover?

Onstage, Gloucester will be blinded.

Wherefore to Dover?

See it shall thou never.

Fellows, hold the chair.

Upon these eyes of
thine I'll set my foot.

Aah! Aah!

Aah! Aah! No!

It's horrible,
absolutely horrible.

It never fails to be horrible.

And what's so amazing
about Shakespeare...

He does this again and again...
He... he makes you think...

Don't know how he does it,

but he makes you
think about torture

in general, doesn't he?

He has this ability
to make that scene

about everything
that's ever been done

to human bodies for
the sake of causing pain,

uh, and it's—it's...
It's magnificent.

Out, vile jelly!



There's something
about an eyeball,

the sensitivity, the
squidginess of an eyeball...

"Out, vile jelly!"

We—we—it makes us squeamish,

and Shakespeare knows
that, and he... he's... he thinks,

"Right. I'm gonna push
the audience to their limits.

I'm going to make
them confront the worst."

And that's what
"King Lear" is about,

confronting the worst
that is imaginable.

Go thrust him out at gates

and let him smell
his way to Dover.

For Lear, as well as Gloucester,

the blinding scene
is a turning point.

Gloucester will stagger
out onto the heath,

towards his king.

When Lear and Gloucester
meet on the heath,

you see two old friends
who have changed utterly.

Lear, once a king, is in rags,

and Gloucester, a duke,
is a bedraggled blind man.

When I do stare, see
how the subject quakes.

At first, Lear fails to
recognize his friend.

It's a poignant scene,
yet shot through

with black humor.

Lear is now
completely uninhibited.

Sweeten my imagination.

There's money for thee.

O, let me kiss that hand.

Let me wipe it first.

It smells of mortality.

Dost thou know me?

I remember thine
eyes well enough.

Finally, he recognizes
it's Gloucester.

I know thee well enough,
thine name is Gloucester.


The mind's whirring.

He cut himself off
for so long, I think,

during his maturity...
King Lear...

That, uh, everythi... life's
coming in at him at a rush.

Thou must be patient.

McKELLEN: He's got
an interest in things.

He's interested in flowers,

he's interested in strangers,

so interested that
he realizes that

the stranger is an old friend.

I tried to do it...

God knows I hope it worked...

Just from the
moment of recognizing

"I know those eyes, yes."

It's... it's just...
It's so tender,

but it should be
very conversational,

which makes it more...
More sort of frightening

and more poignant.

Lear's mental frailty
seems to have expanded

his world, not diminished it.

What is losing your
mind in this play?

The losing his mind
is Lear on the way

to recovering his mind,

Lear on the way to seeing
things that he was not able

to see before.

Shakespeare insists
that, at least in this play,

Lear's madness is his
route toward perceptions

of things that he's
not been allowed,

he's not allowed
himself to see before

but that must be spoken,
that must be said now.

Lear's kingdom has
been sliding into civil war,

but he has been on
his own private journey,

and this has changed him.

Does he now deserve forgiveness

for the dreadful judgments
that caused all this suffering?

It is now that we hear from
his loyal daughter Cordelia,

who returns to
liberate the kingdom

from her two sisters
and their unholy alliance

with the bastard Edmund.

Cordelia comes back
as the Queen of France,

a woman who's now married.

She's been through
something devastating,

and that's ma...
That's matured her,

and I think the realization
of her love for her father, um,

has matured her because
often you don't know how

you love a parent
'til they're gone.

By now, Lear is
frail and confused.

Will he even recognize
his beloved daughter?

Sir? Hmm?

Do you know me?

You are a spirit, I know.

When did you die?

Still, still far wide!

He's scarce awake.

Where am I?

Intensely moved,
Cordelia asks her father

to bless her.

No, sir, you must not kneel.

I pray you do not mock me.

I am a very foolish
fond old man,

fourscore and upward.

The skill I have remembers
not these garments.

Do not laugh at me.

For, as I am a
man, I think this lady

to be my child Cordelia.

And so I am!

I am!

no longer the arrogant man he was

at the opening of the play.

McKELLEN: He begins to
be... Be... being a man who says

something and
expects it to be obeyed.

"You're my favorite daughter,
therefore you will love me

more than my other daughters."

Well, you can't—you can't
impose that on somebody.

But by the time
they're reconciled,

he has won the right to her love

and... and sweetly, um...

thinks that he
doesn't deserve it,

and I think that's what
touches her so much,

that he's asking to be forgiven,

and... and what he
clearly needs is her love.

I know you do not love me,

for your sisters
have, as I remember,

done me wrong.

You have some
cause, they have none.

No cause.

No cause.

Uh, he... he doesn't care
what happens to him at all,

as long as—everything
is for her now.

is no longer selfish.

It's everything is
for Cordelia, for her.

Um, his world doesn't
matter to him anymore.

"Pray, you do not mock me.

"I am a very
foolish fond old man

"and to deal plainly,

"I fear that I'm not
in my right mind.

"Do not laugh at me,
for, as I am a man,

"I think this lady

"to be my child...


Emotionally, the play could
end there for us the audience.

Father and daughter
have been reconciled.

In the historical
story, it does.

Lear regains his kingdom,

but Shakespeare's play
flies in the face of history.

In a battle between
Cordelia's forces

and those of her elder sisters,

Lear and Cordelia are
captured and sent to prison.

Shakespeare's conclusion
will be devastating...

but does it have to be that way?

I want to take
you on a diversion.

Believe it or not,
for nearly 150 years,

Shakespeare's "Lear"
vanished from the stage,

and in its place
audiences saw a version

with a happy ending.

In a script by Nahum
Tate, Cordelia and Lear

are rescued by
Edgar, and they all live

happily ever after.

Theater historian Tanya Pollard

has made a study of what seems
to me to be an outlandish idea.

From 1681, when Nahum
Tate wrote this version,

until 1838, this
was the only version

of "King Lear" that
any audiences knew.

In America, in fact,
the original version had

never been staged,
so this was "King Lear"

for all intents and purposes.

Oh, it's extraordinary, isn't it,
when you come to think of it?

It's awful.

It's fascinating!

But what's also
fascinating is that

15 years before
Macready restored

the tragic ending, um,
Edmund Kean tried to restore it,

and he played the tragic ending,

and it played for
only 3 performances

before it shut in 1823.

And what I find fascinating is

the question of what
inspired audiences

to be ready, to
be willing to watch

a tragic ending in 1838

when they hadn't
been for so long?

Yeah, well I think
it was a—well,

if Macready, with great guts

said, "Let's go
back to the original

"and teach these
sons of guns about life

on the stage and off,"
uh, then I think he was

obviously very, very
effective as King Lear

and made them believe
it and made them suffer.

And perhaps they
were tired of all that.

Who knows if they
were tired of all this

coy happiness going around?

Yes, I see. Yes.

However, it seems as if this lighter take

has never completely gone away.

The Tate version is
still staged periodically

as a curiosity, and
there was a version

of it done not long ago,

and the actors were
struck by how much

the audience really
enjoyed the play.

As a matter of fact, I would
like to see a production

just for fun. I think it
would be fascinating.

For fun, yes. Yeah.
Yeah, would be great.

At The Globe,
they're going to show

just what Nahum Tate's
version might have looked like.

To reflect the formal
Restoration style of acting,

they are going to don their
very restrictive costumes.

I'm gonna keep my thermals on.


Thank you. Leg.

So, um, let's look at a
slightly different ending

to the play by Nahum Tate.

The happy ending version,
there's no—there's no

dead bodies at the end.

Um, well, there's less dead
bodies, uh, shall we say.

Um, what do, what do
you make of it in Cordelia?

Yeah, I think it's, um,

it's definitely entertaining,

um, if not a bit silly.

Yes, of course he gets the girl,

but that's what should happen

in—in a good old romp,

which this feels
a bit more like,

you know, like "Zorro" or...

Yeah, it is, it's that. Or
"The Three Musketeers."

"The Three
Musketeers," yes. Yeah.

It starts, as in
Shakespeare's original,

with Cordelia
and Lear in prison.

A sudden gloom o'erwhelms
me and the image of death

o'erspreads the place.

Ah! Who are these?

It's a guard, arrived
to take them away

for execution.

Thou deceiving sleep!

Come, sirs, make
ready your cords.

You, sir, I'll seize.

If there be anything
that you hold dear,

I beg you to dispatch me first.

Ugh! Off! Hell hound!

By the gods, I charge thee.

'Tis my Cordelia.

Lear struggles.

Pious daughter!

Can he manage?

No pity? Err!

But wait!

It's Cordelia's beloved.

Ye vultures hold
your impious hands

or take a speedier
death than thou shalt give.

My Edgar, oh!

Edgar has saved the day.

Ha ha ha!

That was not what
Shakespeare wrote.

In Shakespeare's play,
Edgar will defeat Edmund,

but he cannot help
Cordelia, nor Lear.

They are captured and,
under Edmund's order,

Cordelia is hanged.

Lear dies

with his daughter's
body in his arms.

Every actor playing Lear
has to prepare himself

for this moment.

This is it.

She's dead as earth.

Thou'lt come no more.






He is absolutely
bewildered by the fact

that she's dead,
whatever that is,

that he has to come face to face

with the absolute
irreversibility of mortality.

Look, there!

Look! There!

It's a heart-breaking moment,

but this ending gives us
something that Tate's version

completely misses.

Look up, my lord.

Vex not his ghost.

O, let him pass!

Shakespeare makes
us confront the worst

and then, at this
moment, he offers us

something like hope.

With nothing
more to learn in life,

Lear almost welcomes death.

He's ready to die, and he dies.

The extraordinary
thing about that scene,

is it despair at the end?

No, it's not. It's ecstasy.

It's... it's... it's
a sublime death

that Lear is experiencing,
and it really... it really is

the happiest of
all... Of all deaths.

It's extraordinary that
he's rel... that he is

released at last,
um, by, by death.

So there... there's
nothing wrong about dying,

and... and he shares with
her, and he realizes of course

that he now knows
what love is really.

Cordelia has to sacrifice
herself in some way.

She has to go.

She has to die to make him see.

McKELLEN: We know him
so well by that time that I think

we want him to be
released, want him to go.

What else can
he do with his life?

What's the pur... what possible
purpose would there be?

He doesn't need to
discover anything more.

He... he has discovered it.

So there's sort of
peace in the end.

It's so tragic.

It's so bleak,

but at least they've
had a moment together,

and that's—nothing
can break that ever,

and that moment is more
important than anything.

But I think he's not
just found Cordelia.

I think he's found
everything in life he missed

and the beauty of
it that he longed for.

The tragedy of the
play is that it's too late.

This is a play
where the characters

are forever invoking
the gods for their support,

and the gods don't answer.

The gods aren't just.

This is not a play that
ends with the divine justice

of the evil dying and
the good surviving.

It's as if there's an awful kind

of cosmic emptiness,

the end of the world,

and yet even in
all that suffering,

there is love in the play,

something human,
something to hold onto.

And that humanity, for me,

is the beauty of the play.

Despite all the conflict
and all the horror,

we see the spirit of Lear

and the possibility
of love survive.

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