Performance and Text: King Lear

By Foakes, R. A. | Medieval & Renaissance Drama in England, January 1, 2005 | Go to article overview

Performance and Text: King Lear


Foakes, R. A., Medieval & Renaissance Drama in England


PERFORMANCE criticism of Shakespeare's plays has been haunted by two anxieties in particular. One is theoretical, and, as formulated by W. B. Worthen, concerns "the legislative power of the authorial work."1 He is troubled by criticism that uses performance as "an interpretive institution for the recuperation of Shakespearean authority" or as a realization of the text so that "performance becomes merely another way of reading."2 He thinks of performance as not bound by the text, but as "operating in a given social and historical horizon," and as producing meanings "intertextually in ways that deconstruct notions of intention, authority, presence."3 Every performance transforms "the text into something else, . . . something concrete that is not captive to the designs of the text."4 The second anxiety relates more to practice, to what Anthony Dawson sees as an impasse between literary and performance criticism.5 This anxiety informs Harry Berger's attempt to bridge theatrical and textual analysis by the notion of an "imaginary audition," while concerned that "the literary model of stage-centered reading perforce shuttles back and forth between two incompatible modes of interpretation, reading and playgoing."6 The problem would seem to be that on the one hand performance criticism may collapse back into another mode of critical reading and support of the authority of the text, while on the other hand it may become a description or celebration of ways in which a play by Shakespeare has been adapted or reworked on stage in order to produce new meanings.

I have no solution to offer, but I would like to draw attention to a feature of Shakespeare's dramaturgy that offers authorial guidance without imposing authorial control. In staging a play choices have to be made that limit interpretive possibilities, while at the same time they may produce new meanings, usually by contextualizing the action in relation to contemporary issues. There are various ways in which this can be done. For instance, at the center of King Lear is the storm scene in which the old king encounters Edgar, who has transformed himself into the beggar Poor Tom by discarding his clothes:

Identifying with this poor naked wretch, Lear cries, "Off, off you lendings: come, unbutton here" (3.4.106). Playing the king in the 1998 production by Richard Eyre at the Royal National Theatre in London, Ian Holm literally stripped off his clothes and appeared naked, or virtually so. When the televised version of this production was shown in Los Angeles, Holm was interviewed for the Los Angeles Times, and remarked how excited he was that Shakespeare's original intention had been restored in this scene. The director and cast were presumably using an edition that retained here a stage direction introduced by Nicholas Rowe in 1709, "Tearing off his clothes." There is no stage direction at this point in the 1608 Quarto or 1623 Folio texts of the play, and it was, in fact, stage practice until the early twentieth century to have Kent and the Fool prevent Lear from disrobing.

Shakespeare's intentions for staging are not often apparent, and at many points, as in this example from King Lear, are finally unknowable. So in this scene one actor playing Lear may strip naked onstage, whereas another may remain regally clothed. Some performance critics have claimed that "Shakespeare controls not only what we hear but what we see."7 but in truth Shakespeare leaves a great deal of freedom to the director, actors, and stage designer who control what we see, and in their cutting, rearrangement, or alterations to the text, they exercise much control over what we hear also. In the end they have to settle for one way of staging each part of the action. The reader is free to imagine at leisure various ways of playing a scene, but the director and the actors have to convert the text into an acting script and decide on a particular way of presenting any incident in the action.

In the case of King Lear the choices to be made are affected by the existence of two texts, the Quarto (1608) and the Folio (1623). …

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