Translated by Ádám Nádasdy


In 18th and 19th century performances of King Lear, Lear was clearly associated with tragedy and majesty. The tradition of the time elevated Lear to almost Christ-like heights in his story of suffering; some directors placed him in a context of 'suffering and redemption', one and all, alongside the traditional register of tragedy and suffering of 'sublime and majestic'. There have been directors who have, accordingly, taken the humour and the grotesque out of the text. The Fool, for example, did not return to the stage until 1838, and even Kozintsev's famous 1960s film of Lear lacks Gloster's scene at the cliffs of Dover (Kozintsev, incidentally, reinterpreted the story as a parable of contemporary Soviet reality, with allusions ranging from Stalin's cult of personality to the manipulation of power to political exiles and executed prisoners.)


But already in the 1930s, the tendency to emphasise Lear's tragic nature was countered by G. Wilson Knight, who analysed the grotesque moments of the play and wrote that Lear's "titanic power" was combined with "infantile intelligence", and by the late 1970s Susan Snyder was already talking about a straightforward "basic comic structure". Yet for a long time the 'sublime and tragic' remained the leitmotif of the theatre, and in Peter Brook's famous Lear, the character of Lear, played by Paul Scofield, is also a tragic character, although Brook's Lear differs markedly from earlier productions of Lear: he was undoubtedly influenced by Jan Kott's study of King Lear as Shakespeare's Endgame, and its existence as a brutal, pointless joke.


Lear is marginalised; a small dot on a vast, empty, almost Beckettian stage. Brook's is the first theatre production to break with the 'Lear as poor old grey-haired spinster' interpretation. Later, other directors were happy to cast a younger actor as Lear: the awakening of a man still in his prime, when life is slipping away, is more tragic than for a man who is approaching the end of his life anyway. As Giorgio Strehler says, 'Lear must never look like an old tyrant. But there must be something of a tyrannical fidgetiness in him, a childishness, I might say."


In the 1980s Laurence Olivier again played Lear in the "sublime and tragic" sense, even though it was precisely in the 1980s that the tendency to undermine this unquestioned pedestal was gaining ground in England; Deborah Warner's 1991 production at the National Theatre in London, starring Brian Cox, for example, went much further towards nihilism. Since the '90s, freer interpretations of Lear have included female Lear, most recently - in a 2016 London production - played by the octogenarian Glenda Jackson. Richard Eyre's 2018 film version (with Anthony Hopkins as Lear and Emma Thomson as Goneril) is astonishing, with the director adapting the visuals to the contemporary milieu of 21st century Britain.


According to R.A. Foakes, a renowned 20th century Shakespeare scholar, "King Lear will for some time be regarded as Shakespeare's greatest work, for in no other tragedy is the modern world's concerns and problems so fully expressed as in this."