King Lear has a story that will always be relevant to human nature because human nature does not change according to the era, and is able to simply be read as a story due to Shakespeare’s skilful use of metaphors, and characterisation through specific imagery associated with each character, which would convey the themes implicit in the play to the reader. However, in order for the story to work as a play, it is important for a director to bring their own vision to the play and find unique ways of conveying this vision to the audience because a play is a visual text, and additional techniques must be incorporated into the play in order for it to work.
Shakespeare is able to use language to position the audience to see certain characters in certain ways simply by using different types of imagery. An example of this can be seen in Act 1, Scene 1, in which Lear says to Cordelia that she could have “a third more opulent than [her] sisters”, then says to Burgundy about Cordelia “When she was dear to us, we did hold her so, but now her price has fallen.” The way that Lear uses words like “price” and “third” suggests that he has a rather childish habit of equating love with material possessions. Lear’s immaturity is further emphasised through lines 116-117- “I loved her most, and thought to set my rest on her kind nursery.” and in line 36- “we, unburdened, crawl toward death.” Here, the metaphors of the nursery and crawling are suggestive of Lear’s emotional maturity, which is currently no more than that of a very small child.
Shakespeare uses a similar technique to position the audience to be less sympathetic towards Goneril and Regan, through his constant use of animal imagery-examples include Lear referring to them as “dog-hearted” “pelican daughters” and Goneril as having a “wolvish visage” when he leaves her castle. This has the effect of making them sound particularly unflattering, especially when compared to Cordelia, who is described in very religious imagery, for example “The holy water from her heavenly eyes”, and when Lear sees her in Act 4 just as he awakens, he believes she is a “spirit.”
Had Shakespeare chosen to produce a play, he would have had to employ visual techniques as well as the language techniques that he already uses in order to convey his themes to the audience, such as maybe dressing the actor who plays Cordelia in white to suggest innocence. However, unlike contemporary directors, he has the advantage of not having to downplay themes that are not relevant to his audience in order for the story to work as a play, as the context of the play and the context of his audience are basically the same.
In the 2007 production at Parramatta Riverside Theatre directed by Mark Kilmurry, for example, there appears to be a particular emphasis placed on the family conflict, and less emphasis placed on aspects such as Lear’s status as a king. The characters are dressed in modern clothes that show no hint of possible royalty, however Lear’s royal status is vaguely alluded to as his suit is purple, the colour of royalty, This approach would make it more relevant to a contemporary Australian audience as royalty and the power that comes with it are themes that the audience would not be able to relate to as well as the themes of family conflict and betrayal, especially since Australia does not have a royal family.
Another decision made by Kilmurry was to leave out the characters of Albany and Cornwall, the husbands of Goneril and Regan. This omission makes Goneril and Regan’s competition for Edmond’s affection seem less immoral, because in the original play Goneril is married to Albany and Regan pursues Edmund shortly after the death of her husband Cornwall. The absence of Albany and Cornwall also means that Goneril and Regan have larger roles as they end up saying most of their husbands’ lines. This could be seen as a feminist interpretation as the female characters are given larger roles and are made to appear strong and independent and the less significant male character’s in Shakespeare’s version are left out. However, a review of the production that appeared in the Sydney morning Herald states that Albany and Cornwall’s absence “destroys Shakespeare’s delicate balancing act of slightly less evil sister/fiery duke versus really evil sister/eventually ethical duke.’
Kilmurry’s decision to focus on the family conflict through the use of modern clothing and the omission of Albany and Cornwall makes King Lear work as a play for the specific audience that he was targeting.
A similar approach towards King Lear is taken by Richard Eyre in his film version that was made in 1998 as there is particular emphasis placed on the theme of family conflict, through the use of red walls in the room where Act 1, Scene 1 takes place in Lear’s castle. In this particular context red is used to symbolise blood, and blood ties, and possibly the danger that occurs as a result of these ties.
Like Kilmurry, Eyre also chooses to dress the characters simply, in clothes that would be far too plain to have been worn by Elizabethan royalty and nobility. However, Lear does wear a crown at the beginning, symbolically taking it off when he passes on his power to his daughters.
Unlike Kilmurry, however, Eyre’s production also addresses the theme of power, especially within families, through the use of camera angles: low-angle shots of Lear are constantly used, particularly in the scene in which Goneril and Regan strip him of his retinue to emphasise the fact that he clearly has no power anymore. Eyre’s use of framing emphasises this even further, as Goneril and Regan are standing on either side of Lear, towering over him, and Lear is in the middle, shorter than them.
Eyre and Kilmurry both choose to focus more on themes that relate to their audiences, such as power and its effects on families. These themes would be much more relevant to a late twentieth/early twenty-first century audience than, for instance, nature controlling one’s destiny because that is an idea that fits in with Shakespeare’s context because it was a time of great superstition and belief in external forces.
The decisions that the directors of the two productions both made to focus on particular themes that are relevant to a contemporary audience and using various techniques to convey them ensured that the story of King Lear did work as a play and a visual text.