An aging king, facing his mortality, divides his kingdom; anguish, bloodshed and a world turned upside down are the fruits of his decision. The premise of “King Lear” reflects real-world upheavals on scales both large and small, from the nationalistic struggles and civil wars that rend whole countries, to dysfunctional family relationships encompassing sibling rivalries, jealousies and insecurities, the changing relationship between children and their infirm parents, and the loss of the self that an aging person experiences.
First performed in 1606, “King Lear” is thematically complex. Though built from threads of pre-existing source material, in Shakespeare’s hands, the story became a searing epic of loyalty, power and madness, good and evil, justice and cruelty, misogyny, social class, and compassion. The tumultuous years surrounding the end of the 45-year reign of the unmarried and childless Queen Elizabeth I in 1603, and the passage of crown to her cousin, James, son of the executed Mary, Queen of Scots, surely informed the sense of chaos and vulnerability that undergirds much of the work.
An undeniably challenging piece, Restoration era audience sensibilities preferred a softened adaptation of “King Lear,” rewritten to feature a happy ending and a gentler sense of poetic justice. But critics in the early-18th century began to push back, gradually returning Shakespeare’s lines until, by the 1830s, Shakespeare’s tragedy was again performed as he wrote it. As the ensuing generations have rolled on, “King Lear’s” reputation has only grown as both a physical and interpretive challenge for a seasoned actor, and as a reflection of a modern world whose pace of change can leave people prone to rage at the storm surrounding them.