Thursday, August 2, 2007
King Lear was not a favorite play among Victorians, even in the "happy ending" version by Nahum Tate. However, the role was played by all the prominent nineteenth-century tragedians. The king showed in one play a range of characters favored by Victorian audiences: royal authority, a mind shattered by madness, and the protective father. Although contemporary artists liked to show Lear with Cordelia, or Lear with the three sisters together, the favored pose for photography (popular in postcard or cabinet print form, for middle-class collection) was King Lear mad on the heath (a location never mentioned by Shakespeare, but fixed in the public mind by Tate's version).* Above are photographs, respectively, of Edmund Kean, Charles Macready, Edwin Forrest, Sir Henry Irving, Robert Mantell, and Henry Baynton as the King.
He was also played by Charles Kean (son of Edmund)and Edwin Booth, who brought back the full Shakespeare text to the stage. Edmund Kean, at the beginning of the century, seems to be the last dominant tragedian to have played Lear without the fully flowing white hair and beard which became iconic to the role.
*The weeds and straws in his hair were a trope of madness dating from before Shakespeare and hardening into stereotype in the Romantic and Victorian periods, especially in the "Crazy Jane" character.