The Sad Tale Of King Lear

The empyreal works of Shakespeare were brought to the BBC over the bank holiday weekend.

It served as a reminder to TV audiences what beautifully set, intricately plotted, exceptionally paced drama really is.

King Lear is to divide his kingdom between his three daughters, and in deciding to do this makes each of them profess their love to him in order to decide who inherits what. The two elder daughters pledge their love whilst the youngest, Cordelia, refuses to join in with the conceited show of false adoration for her father. Lear reacts to this by giving Cordelia’s share of inheritance to her sisters. However, the sisters (Goneril and Regan) were lying about the affection they hold. This drives Lear to madness and he never gets over the mistake of giving so much to two ungrateful little brats.

Running parallel with this is the story of Edmund, resentful of his illegitimate status and envious of his brother Edgar. Edmund sets up an attack on himself supposedly performed by Edgar. When he tells his father Gloucester of this, Gloucester pronounces Edgar outlawed.

(C) Playground Entertainment – Photographer: Ed Miller

Edmund goes on to betray his father, before his fate ends violently when his eyes are gouged out by Regan and her husband the Duke of Cornwall.

And so it goes on. By the end of the play, Regan is poisoned by her sister Goneril, who kills herself after Edmund is killed by Edgar, whilst Cordelia is hanged and Lear dies of a broken heart. It’s a Shakespearean tragedy…

To most, the stumbling block to Shakespeare is the language, and I get it. Unrhymed iambic pentameter isn’t the best way to tell your story in the times of Grime and Drill.

Watching a Shakespeare play, instead of just reading it, is an entirely different experience. It’s an essential experience being able to enjoy arguably the greatest prose ever written.

Richard Eyre’s modernist version of Lear told round GIs and migrants is outstanding, performed by a cast so acknowledged that the brilliant Christopher Eccleston is reduced to a bit part role as Oswald (Eccleston could easily be a world-class Lear.)

However, that honour is left to the exceptional Anthony Hopkins, flying the nonsensical nest of Hollywood and returning to his roots as a theatrical actor.

Hopkins is superb, as is Jim Carter as The Duke of Kent, as is Andrew Scott as Edgar, as is Anthony Calf as the Duke of Albany. Most of all Emma Thompson is simply stunning as the cruel conniving Goneril.

Lear really was a bank holiday treat, and a version of the story (for there will be many more versions of Lear to come) that can go into the burgeoning Shakespearean annuals as a real classic.

Catch King Lear on BBC iPlayer now!