What did King Lear have for breakfast?

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What did King Lear have for breakfast? What does Cordelia like to do on her holidays? And who would win at a game of chess – Gonerill or Regan? Answers on a postcard.

Some actors find it really useful to create imaginary lives for Shakespeare’s characters beyond the words on the page. Shakespeare often throws us into situations that buzz with a sense of back-story bristling under the surface of the scene. There’s an ‘ancient grudge’ to bear in the back of our minds as we meet the Montagues and the Capulets in Romeo and Juliet – and the promotion of Michael Cassio which took place before we enter the world of Othello. I’ve been looking at the opening moments of King Lear with students from Lakeside School (Seattle, USA)  this week, and we’ve been playing with different ways of staging this scene. How should the characters be arranged spatially in relation to one another? How much distance is there between them? How do the characters respond as they listen to one another’s words?  We have been asking ourselves lots of questions of this kind along with a long list of other queries, such as – how quickly or slowly do characters speak and think? – how comfortable do the different characters feel? – and what do the characters expect to achieve with every word they choose to speak?

We were helped tremendously in our search for answers to these questions when Kelly Hunter (who is currently playing Gonerill in the RSC’s production) came to chat with us about her performance.  As we listened it became very clear that there are many ways in which this scene can be played.  So much depends upon the tone of Lear’s opening statement about dividing his kingdom.  How should everyone gathered react to that news – with surprise – a sense of relief – bewilderment – fear – excitement?  So much to decide.

As if deciding upon ways to play the scene was not difficult enough in itself, I gave the students a further challenge to tax their ingenuity and imaginary forces. In the style of a lucky-dip competition each student closed their eyes and pulled out a prop from our basket of weird and wonderful objects. Out came – a severed hand – donkey ears – a crown – a skull – colourful sheets – a soldier’s cap –  and a seemingly endless supply of tea-towels. The students could use or discard these props as they saw fit.  And one further challenge remained…… the students picked one of two envelopes in which I had written a context for the presentation of their work. One group would present a public/political rendering of the scene, while the other would present a private/domestic atmosphere. The results were super. The private scene took place around a dinner table, with Gonerill and Regan flicking food at Cordelia whenever their father wasn’t looking.  For the public scene the students created a power-point presentation for Gonerill and Regan – complete with graphs and pie-charts to illustrate their love for their father.  Cordelia  was the only one of the daughters who hadn’t prepared a presentation, and shut down the computer in an attmept to have a genuine face-to-face conversation with her father.  Inspired.  Great work Lakeside.

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Author:Nick Walton

Nick Walton is a Lecturer in Shakespeare Studies at The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.

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