Once upon a time there were three sisters and an overbearing father. Two of the girls were ugly, at least in temperament, while the third, younger one was beautiful and badly treated, her only crime, honesty. Sound familiar? No, not Cinderella but a story with a similar origin. These elements form the basis of the story of Lear, King of Briton, an ancient tale which William Shakespeare adapted for his own use when he wrote his play, King Lear and performed it before ‘The King’s Majestie’ at Whitehall, on St. Stephen’s Night, 1606.
From the start it seems that the play was very popular but it is only in relatively recent times that King Lear has become thought of as possibly Shakespeare’s greatest play and one of the most admired works of art in Western tradition. Maybe this reputation has not served the play well, the emphasis on its universal themes and ‘cosmic significance’ persuading many that it is difficult to understand, or that you have to be intellectual to cope with it. None of this is true, of course, and though the play has all of those qualities, it is also a cracking story with loads of what these days we would call ‘human interest’.
It tells the tale of the old King Lear who, having been a strong monarch and a tyrannical father all his life decides to step down from kingship and fatherhood to have an easier life in retirement. Like many a parent, he thinks he can keep his authority while giving up responsibility; like many a powerful person, he believes you can keep status even when you are no longer doing the job. Though he is given good advice, he rejects it because he is too arrogant and selfish to see the reality of his situation. His daughters resent the way he has treated them and, bit by bit, they cruelly bring home to him that he cannot have things his own way. But they go too far and drive him mad as he struggles to comprehend what has happened to him. There is rage, pity and anguish; scenes of great pain and pathos; loads of humour and fantastic poetry. As the County Drama Group actor playing Lear, Ken Allden puts it: ‘There’s something for everyone in this play. It’s on a scale where Grand Opera and Soap Opera meet. If you like either, you will like King Lear!’
Shakespeare is the greatest of observers of human nature and a fantastic storyteller to boot: in this play the audience are treated to huge emotional range, variety of incident, dramatic encounters and spine-chilling spectacle. To see King Lear in performance is like sharing in a rich feast: it is a fantastic experience but it needs careful serving.