Detailed Description

This seminar will provide its participants with the opportunity to spend 3 weeks focusing on the work that many consider Shakespeare’s greatest play, King Lear.

As far as possible in the time available, the seminar will attempt to see the play through many lenses:  in formal terms; in its historical contexts; and in its life beyond Shakespeare’s time.  Since there is so much material on and relevant to King Lear, the seminar will serve as an introduction to the current state of Shakespeare scholarship and criticism, and to the question of adaptations of Shakespeare, literary and cinematic.

The first week of the seminar will be devoted to attempting to come to terms with the material existence of the play.  We have two early texts of it, one printed during Shakespeare’s lifetime (a quarto – essentially a cheap paperback – published in 1608) and another text printed in the grand, expensive volume published in folio form (larger pages) by two members of Shakespeare’s theatrical company in 1623, seven years after Shakespeare’s death.  The question of the relation between these texts is one of the hottest ones in Shakespeare studies today.  We have quarto versions of half of the plays that appear in the magisterial first folio (which contains all the plays, with the exception of Pericles, that we consider exclusively by Shakespeare or in which he was a major collaborator).  There are differences between the quarto and the folio texts of the 18 plays that we have in quarto.  The big question is what to make of these differences.

The canonization of Shakespeare – in both senses (putting the plays into a special canon of English literature and exalting Shakespeare to a special status) – began early in the eighteenth century.  In the course of that century, the versions of the plays that we all grew up with were developed.  In the case of the plays with two or more texts (Hamlet has two different quartos, and editions of the quartos of the same play differ among themselves), the eighteenth century editors tended to put material from the multiple texts together, on the view that all this material was by Shakespeare and that they were essentially reconstructing the ur-text that underlay all the versions.  This is called conflation, and by the end of the century Edmund Malone’s edition of the plays, thoroughly conflated when the material was available, was the version of the plays that all of us read in school.

But in the mid-80’s of the twentieth century something remarkable happened.  Scholars started to question whether conflation was the right procedure.  Perhaps the different versions represented different versions of the play by Shakespeare (or perhaps his company or others).  Perhaps Shakespeare revised his plays, or the texts evolved in performance.  Perhaps each version has its own integrity, and should be treated as such.  King Lear was at the center of this rethinking of editorial practice and of the text of the plays for which we have quarto versions, since the quarto and the folio version of this play are different in many ways.  The overall story is the same, of course, as are the characters, but the quarto contains about 300 lines unique to it, and the folio, though shorter, contains about 100 lines unique to it.  And there are hundreds of verbal differences at the level or word and phrase between the two texts, and differences, at times, in the character to whom a particular speech is assigned.  Our seminar will begin by diving right into the two-text, authorial (or other) revision issue.

All our further discussion of the play will, therefore, be with the two texts in mind.  Shakespeare normally had narrative and / or dramatic sources for his plays – mostly he did not invent his plots – and Lear is no exception.  We are almost certain that there was at least one dramatic version of the Hamlet story on stage before Shakespeare’s version, but we do not have that well-attested play.  In the case of Lear, we are luckier.  We have a late Elizabethan play – author unknown – on the Lear story, a play that certainly predated Shakespeare’s version and that Shakespeare definitely knew.  We will read that play.  We will also read the source for a whole strand of material that was not in the older Lear play but that Shakespeare borrowed from elsewhere and added to the Lear story.  Comparison of the source material to the Shakespearean text(s) allows us to get as close as possible to Shakespeare at work, since we will be able to see what he took, dropped, changed, and added to his sources.  We will see whether this makes some of his intentions in the play(s) clear.

We are in a position to study the afterlife as well as the previous life of Lear.  From the 1680’s until well into the 19th century, the version of the play that audiences saw on stage was not directly derived from Shakespeare’s texts but was a version of the play rewritten by Nahum Tate (1652-1715) in 1681.  Nowadays, Tate’s version is much-mocked – often by critics who have not read it, or certainly have not read it carefully and with respect.  We will see what we can learn from it.  The Restoration adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays (of which Tate’s Lear is but one of many) are just now becoming a field of study in themselves.  Another burgeoning field of study is “Shakespeare on film.”  Here too, as with the case of the texts and the source play, we are lucky — perhaps the greatest films yet made of a Shakespeare play are versions of Lear.  And, speaking of luck, two great film versions of the play were made in the same year (1971), by famous directors, and by directors who were in touch with each other while they made their versions:  Peter Brook in England and Grigor Kozintsev in Russia.  The films share some key features, and yet are quite different realizations of the text(s).  So the comparison between them can be especially tight and fruitful.  Again, we will see what we can learn from the films – separately and in comparison with one another.

Needless to say, there is a significant body of literary criticism and scholarship on our play.  Much of it tries to contextualize the play as a whole, or to deal with particular issues in it in a historical context.  Shakespeare’s religion is a hot topic these days, and the matter of religion in King Lear is a major critical and historical issue.  But, nowadays, historicism is itself a topic.  We have the “New” historicism and the “Old.”  We will study two major examples associated with each type of historicism, and will discuss both what each tells us about the play and how the methods of the two differ.  As with the sources, the texts, and the adaptations, the idea is not to decide which is better but to try to see what can be learned from each.  Religion is certainly a major issue in Lear, but it is possible to think that social and political issues are at least as important to the play.  We will read and discuss essays that see the play as being about the major social transition that was taking place in Shakespeare’s period; essays that see the play as politically or economically radical or existential; and we will also consider some criticism that sees such work as anachronistic, and argues against such readings.  How to contextualize the play is a major critical problem, as is the question of anachronism.  Again, we will find ourselves at the heart of some very lively current debates.

But readings need not be contextual or historical.  We will also study some “character criticism” in both its early and late 20th century form.  A different version of this is psychoanalytic criticism, and here too Lear has proven a rich field for analysis.  We will read a major psychoanalytic study of the play.  But so far, we have not taken into account one of the great critical movements of the 20th century, especially in the United States, the approach that came to be known as “New Criticism” (“New Historicism” is obviously a consciously parallel phrase).  Here we will read one of the most influential essays of the 1950’s, and will recognize an approach that many of us encountered in our High School and college Shakespeare courses.  This is an approach that seeks out patterns of images, and then interprets these as “symbols.”  The reading that emerges from such a practice is memorable and familiar.  But we will also read an essay that sharply questions the propriety – both aesthetic and ethical – of such procedures and such readings, arguing against reading for “symbols.”  This discussion will be further complicated by an essay by an important philosopher that seeks to reinstate the symbolic reading even in the face of the critique of it.

Finally, we will discuss two essays that represent current trends in literary criticism.  The first is an essay by one of the main theorists and practitioners of an approach to Renaissance texts through humoral psychology, a recent trend in historical contextualization.  The second is an application of the field of animal studies to our play, an exercise which yields surprisingly rich results.

The result of these intense three weeks of reading and discussion (and viewing) should be a deepened sense of the richness of the play and also a sense of how many deep and interesting questions the play raises.  The ultimate aim of the seminar is not to answer these questions, but to raise them in an intellectually (and perhaps affectively) compelling way.

For further details, see the Week-by-Week description under the “About the Seminar” tab.