The Reinvention of King Lear
On any given night within the global theatre community, chances are good that somewhere upon a stage there is at least one production of a Shakespearean play being performed, and whether it is Hamlet set in Nazi Germany (Eine Klein Hamlet) or The Tempest reworked as children's theatre (The Island of Anyplace), this production is, more often than not, a new interpretation of the ancient text. While the average audience member may never have heard of modern masters like Albee, Beckett, or Chekov, no matter their station in life or how far away that we get from the Elizabethan era, they have heard of William Shakespeare. Moreover, there are theatre practitioners who dedicate the entirety of their careers to the performing or directing of his plays. Still others make their careers out of teaching or writing about the famed playwright. All of this, of course, is common knowledge. Some consider Shakespeare to be the gauge by which all other theatre is measured. We know this, and I will by no means be labeled as a visionary for making such a statement. It is obvious, but because of this sheer epidemic fanaticism, Shakespeare's plays have been, and are, a key center of invention and debate since the poet himself penned the plays in the seventeenth century.
Perhaps of all of Shakespeare's master works The Tragedy of King Lear has received the most scholarly debate and bold interpretation, often to the point of complete reinvention, throughout theatrical history. The tragedy was first performed in 1605 or at the end of 1606 depending on who is speaking. The earliest printed version of the play appears in the celebrated First Quarto of 1608. This account stands in direct conflict with the Folio of 1623. While each document contains the essential text of the play, the variants make additions and deletions to the details of the play. For example, in Act III, scene 6, much of the "mock trial" included in the Quarto is deleted in the Folio. Such variations run throughout the play forcing the potential editor or director to decide which version that they should adopt.
Today scholars are constantly clashing over this issue of a true, definitive text. What makes up the true Lear? Is the Quarto the true product of Shakespeare's hand, or is the Folio closer to the author's intent. In an attempt to make sense of the matter, Professor Jay L. Halio of the University of Delaware maintains, in his thorough 1992 edition of the tragedy, that the Quarto serves as a better representation of how Shakespeare pictured the text as he was writing it. Conversely, the Folio is indicative of how an actual staged production of the play would have appeared (xiii). Therefore, a value judgement must be made. What is more important, Shakespeare's original intent as he was writing or a true account of a performance? Perhaps, an inquiry as to the purpose of the play will dictate the answer. Did Shakespeare write...