By Bob Hall
& Stephen M. Buhler
William Shakespeare has spoken to readers and audiences across the centuries. His friend and rival Ben Jonson declared that “He was not of an age, but for all time!” The classically minded Ben was thinking of the past, as he saw that Will’s works were equal to those of Greek and Roman antiquity. We usually think ahead as we see how the plays can seem uncannily prophetic of later political and social developments.
Some stage and film productions over the years have stressed parallels between the plays and later historical events. This approach can lead to successful, if controversial, results, such as Orson Welles’s “fascist” Julius Caesar
in the 1930s (echoed by the film version of Richard III
with Ian McKellen and by elements in Julie Taymor’s Titus
) and Bill Alexander’s 1990s Troilus and Cressida
in Washington, D.C., with its astute references to the first Gulf War. Other updates or redates, of course, don’t work so well. The impulse to make
Shakespeare our contemporary can simply get in the way, resulting in concepts that are barriers rather than bridges between a play and the present time.
Which is why those of us involved with the Flatwater Shakespeare Company prefer to trust that Shakespeare and our audiences can connect on their own. Building upon years of experience in bringing Shakespeare’s plays to Lincoln audiences, Flatwater Shakespeare was founded in 2004. We are dedicated to inspiring and informing actors, artists, audiences, scholars and students through theater productions of the highest quality. Presenting the works of Shakespeare with honesty and clarity provides, we feel, built-in quality control. Certainly our version of King Lear
requires no overt contemporary references. As we’ve worked through the play in rehearsal, preparing for a September production, we’ve been struck time and again by the absolute pertinence of Shakespeare’s examinations of politics and family dynamics, despite the apparent differences between today and Shakespeare’s time, as well as between today and the times depicted by Shakespeare. In some ways, the present has become the past, devolving into the stark struggles of prehistoric Britain.
The world of Lear
is a world in which mere disagreement with authority can be declared treason and punished accordingly. Lear himself disowns one of his daughters and exiles his most devoted nobleman. Their crime? Public disagreement with what the king has decided. The Duke of Cornwall is one of Lear’s two sons-in-law and successors. He determines that any sympathy or aid offered to Lear is treasonous. When it is disclosed that the Earl of Gloucester has given comfort to the former king, Cornwall declares him to be a traitor and exacts a cruel penalty: he personally gouges out the eyes of Gloucester. The viciousness of the punishment in part reflects the Duke’s frustration that he can’t just kill the old king’s ally, not without a trial, anyway.
One of Gloucester’s sons, Edmund, informs Cornwall that Gloucester has received a letter concerning possible moves to reinstate Lear as monarch. Cornwall gladly accepts the information, rewarding the son with his father’s title. It doesn’t matter to Cornwall if the letter is accurate: “True or false,” he tells Edmund, “it hath made thee Earl of Gloucester.” A convenient tale, regardless of its truth, is to be exploited. An inconvenient truth remains treason, to his way of thinking.
There’s no need, then, to make the parallels between Lear’s world and our own any more obvious. But there is great benefit in exploring the options that Shakespeare gives his characters—options that we have, as well. A kind of social contract is implicit in the play, bumping up against Renaissance notions about the divine right of kings. At one point, stunned by his loss of power and by the loss of his daughters’ affection, Lear sends himself into internal exile. He wanders across open land amid a violent storm. Fighting against encroaching madness, he realizes that his humblest subjects have always been exposed to nature at its most harsh. He addresses a prayer to them, the “Poor naked wretches … That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm.” With a shock of contrition, he exclaims, “O, I have taken / Too little care of this!” Since he ignored the plight of the needy, what claim to authority could he rightly make?
The contract, however, works both ways. A mere servant dares to oppose Cornwall, telling the Duke not to continue with Gloucester’s blinding. He declares, “better service have I never done you / Than now to bid you hold.” The resistance is clearly not successful. By the end of the scene, Gloucester has lost both his eyes and the brave servant—dismissed as a villain, a peasant, a slave by his supposed betters—is dead. His body is to be thrown upon the dunghill of the manor, denied any decent burial. But he delivered a mortal blow to Cornwall in their brief struggle: Cornwall’s death shortly after hastens the unraveling of the new regime that Lear half-knowingly set in place. Defying tyranny is dangerous; that’s what makes it brave. Subjects and citizens, counselors and legislators, can also take too little care of their responsibilities, mutely accepting any abuse of power.
We invite you to experience King Lear
under the stars at the Swan Theatre, on the grounds of Wyuka Cemetery and Park in Lincoln, Neb. The play is one of the greatest tragedies ever written, at any time or in any language—as we might expect from the author that earned Ben Jonson’s glowing praise. The actors and artists of Flatwater Shakespeare are committed to realizing the play with all its personal drama and rich, often fierce, language. But we will also bring you its political drama, its reflections on how power is wielded and who bears responsibility.
The Flatwater Shakespeare Company’s King Lear
, directed and designed by Bob Hall, will be staged at the Swan Theatre at Wyuka, 3600 O Street in Lincoln. Performance dates are September 13–16, 20–23, and 27–30. Show time is 7 p.m. Tickets are $18 for adults, $15 for students and seniors. To reserve tickets, please call 402-484-7640. For more information, visit www.flatwatershakespeare.org