Study Guide

King Lear

by William Shakespeare

King Lear Essay - Apparent Perversities: Text and Subtext in the Construction of the Role of Edgar in Brook's Film of King Lear1

Apparent Perversities: Text and Subtext in the Construction of the Role of Edgar in Brook's Film of King Lear1


"Apparent Perversities": Text and Subtext in the Construction of the Role of Edgar in Brook's Film of King Lear1

J. G. Saunders, Chichester University College

In an otherwise eulogistic review of Peter Brook's film of King Lear ('the best of all Shakespeare movies'), a review which affirmed the need for imaginative interpretation of Shakespeare's texts ('The point is simple: these texts, if we are to hold on to their greatness . . . have to be reborn in the imagination of another'), Frank Kermode listed Edgar's speaking of some of Edmund's libels against him, and the transposition of Edgar's terrible words over the dying Edmund ('The gods are just . . . ') to the dying Cornwall, as two of the film's 'apparent perversities'—wondering whether Brook himself could explain 'what he was up to'.2 I intend to show that the role of Edgar was central to Brook's reading of King Lear and that the textual liberties which he took in constructing Edgar's character and role were integral to the subtextual, imaginative processes leading to the film's composition. In so doing, I hope to demonstrate that Brook's treatment of Shakespeare's text was in some respects much more audacious and less reverential than Kermode and other commentators seem to have realized.


Brook's attempt to break from the tyranny of the King Lear text is well documented in a statement which the film's producer, Lord Birkett, made for Roger Manvell.3 First, they (Birkett and Brook) cut from the text certain passages which they regarded as 'completely unnecessary'. Then, after making further cuts, they presented their script to Ted Hughes, asking him to treat it as though it were a 'foreign classic' and to translate it into his own idiom—'into a language which seemed to him to be expressive of the story as he saw it, in his own right as a poet'. They hoped that by working on a modern script they would be able to achieve the kind of freedom available to foreign directors such as Kozintsev and Kurosawa, for whom Shakespeare's text did not have the inhibiting 'quality of Holy Writ'. From this experiment they discovered 'that there are passages, obviously the greatest passages in the play, which have a force and emotional power that no translation, no paraphrase, can possibly match'. Kermode congratulated Brook on having discovered for himself the power of the text—'the whole play, and its verse'—though he continued to lament the loss of several cherished moments. However, he is one of a number of commentators whose familiarity with the sound of the King Lear text may have prevented them from noticing the textual manipulations which occur when the verbal text in the film serves a predominantly narrative function.

Brook's most striking textual liberties occur in the sequence where Edmund dupes his brother Edgar, in the film a single episode, introduced by a Brechtian title:


Edmond, bastard son of the Duke of Gloucester, plots against his brother Edgar.

The concentrated 'plot' which follows is constructed out of short passages of text taken from two quite separate scenes in the play—Act I, scene ii, and Act II, scene i. In order to appreciate Brook's audacity in cutting and adapting Shakespeare's text to suit his own narrative purpose, it is necessary to consider the structure of these two scenes in some detail. Act I, scene ii would, in the conventions governing French scenic structure, be divided into four short scenes. It begins with Edmund's soliloquy in which he asks WHY BASTARD (1) and descants on his illegitimacy. Gloucester then enters and Edmund traps him into reading THE LETTER (2), purported to be written by Edgar. Gloucester reflects on the breakdown of order and then leaves. Edmund again soliloquizes, this time on the EXCELLENT FOPPERY (3) of those who link behaviour with planetary influence. Edgar enters and discovers that SOME VILLAIN (4) has done him wrong. Act II, scene i, is made up of four more sub-scenes. First Curran tells Edmund of Cornwall's imminent arrival and hints at LIKELY WARS (5) between Cornwall and Albany. Then when Edgar enters, Edmund tells him he must FLY THIS PLACE (6). After Edgar has flown, Edmund tells his father how he saw his brother CONJURING THE MOON (7) and how he tried to persuade him to join in Gloucester's murder. Finally Cornwall arrives and commends Edmund for having a nature of SUCH DEEP TRUST (8).

In the reconstruction of Brook's film narrative which follows, I have used the capitalized short phrases and numbers given above as an easy means of identifying the source of each textual fragment. The bold-type descriptions of setting and action are cut to a minimum. Line numbering of Shakespeare's text is from the Riverside Shakespeare.

Edgar and Edmund talk as they ride,
How now, brother Edmund, what serious contemplation are you in?
I was thinking, brother, of a prediction Iread this other day, what should follow these eclipses.

And do you busy yourself with that?
I promise you, the effects he writes of succeed unhappily, as of unnaturalness between the child and the parent, death, dearth, dissolution, divisions, menaces.

(I. ii. 138-46) (SOME VILLAIN, 4)

When we are sick in fortune—we make guilty of our disasters, the sun the moon and stars as if we were drunkards, liars and adulterers by planetary influence.

(I. ii. 116-22) (EXCELLENT FOPPERY, 3)

Why brand they me with baseness. Bastardy? Base?

(I. ii. 9-10) (WHY BASTARD, 1)

My father coupled with my mother under the Dragon's tail and I was born under Ursa Major, so that it follows that I am rough and lecherous. I should have been that I am, had the maidenliest star in the firmament twinkled on my bastardizing.

(I. ii. 128-33) (EXCELLENT FOPPERY, 3)

The brothers are looking at their sleeping father.
When sons are at perfect age and fathers in decline the father should be put in care of the son.
And the son manage the revenue.

(I. ii. 72-4) (THE LETTER, 2)

Edgar leaves.
It's the policy of reverence for age that makes the world bitter.

(I. ii. 46-7) (THE LETTER, 2)

A messenger comes to Edmund's room.
The Duke of Cornwall and Regan, his Duchess will be here this night.

(The entire section is 2322 words.)


The importance of subtextual imagining in establishing Edgar's role and relationships had emerged as a feature of the rehearsal process which helped shape the stage version of King Lear which preceded Brook's work on his film. Charles Marowitz, his assistant director, described how he and Brook had identified the relationship between Edgar and Poor Tom as one of the play's major problems.4 The problem became more complicated when they found that Brian Murray, the actor who then played Edgar, suffered from an 'inner stiffness', which accentuated his difficulty in changing from courtier to Bedlam beggar and which resulted in a clash in acting styles between Edgar and Edmund (then played by James Booth). To assist the two actors in finding their own solutions, Marowitz had devised a series of subtextual improvisations to develop the relationship between the brothers. In one, Edmund as a Franciscan friar had to give Edgar confession and in so doing provide theological arguments for his forfeiting his lands for the good of his soul. In another, Edgar recounted a series of horrible nightmares to Edmund who (still a clergyman) had to explain that the dreams were a divine instruction for him to murder his father. These Stanislavskian role-plays were supplemented by some Brechtian exercises devised to enable Edgar to create a distance between himself and Poor Tom. These involved speaking Poor Tom's part in the third person (prefaced by 'he said') and using a mask to distinguish the moments when the persona of Poor Tom was to be dominant. In the processes which led to the making of the King Lear film, these 'problems' were to be explored in rather different ways.

In his interview with Roger Manvell, Lord Birkett described the process which led to the construction of 'the final film script' as follows. First, Peter Brook wrote a narrative version of the story with no dialogue. Then from this narrative they (producer and director) worked out 'a very precise storyline' for the film with 'a very careful estimate of the weight' they 'wanted to put on each episode, each character, and each theme of the piece'. Then, with this more detailed subtextual narrative as a basis, they cut and adapted the text to produce 'the final script'. In the Folger Shakespeare library there are two draft shooting-scripts which correspond to the last two stages of this process. Draft 1 is dated 9 September 1968 and has a brief note explaining that '[a]s the dialogue exists already in the original play, but will need eventually to be cut and adapted, here it is merely indicated'. It divides the film's action into 152 sequences, each new sequence marking a change of time and/or location. Draft 2 is dated 5 December 1968. It incorporates text into the narrative, omitting some of Draft l 's sequences, altering others, and adding several new sequences.

Both drafts provide a rich source of information on Brook's attitude to both major and minor characters. In some ways the commentary is similar to a lengthy set of stage directions written by a dramatist like Shaw who knows all and tells all. It is particularly revealing in its revelations concerning Edgar's relationship with Edmund and (more surprisingly) a network of subtextual linkings between Edmund and Poor Tom.

In both screenplays Edgar's relationship with Edmund is foregrounded in a number of sequences which have been almost entirely erased from the final film. Sequence 3 reads as follows:


Last, we see the face of a young man, EDGAR. We hear the wind. He is scanning the horizon. In the distance a wide plain. In his eyes, a searching look. A speck becomes a galloping horseman. EDGAR'S face lights up with pleasure and excitement.

On the galloping horse, another young man, EDMUND. Same age, almost a twin. A face also full of life. He is surveying the land as he rides. As he sees his brother, his expression is at first one of dislike, which he rapidly converts into one of seemingly candid joy.

He leaps off his horse and throws himself into his brother's welcoming arms. They embrace.


So, even before the final titles, in the screenplays the story of Edgar and Edmund was given prominence. The narrative and commentary which follow develop the relationship between the brothers in ways scarcely hinted at in the text. Sequence 13 provides a second subtextual encounter between the two. In Draft 1 the sequence reads as follows:


EDGAR and EDMUND both on horseback are playing a dangerous game, each trying to snatch up and carry away a dead fox. It leads them into wild horsemanship: EDGAR scoops up the dead animal and EDMUND pursues him. Drawing level with his brother, he struggles with him, until by superior strength and skill, he topples EDGAR out of the saddle. EDGAR, laughing, yields the carcass: EDMUND looks down triumphantly. In the distance, he sees GLOUCESTER'S coach approaching the castle and gallops towards it.

In order to emphasize Edmund's dominant malevolence, the last lines are altered in Draft 2 as follows:

In the distance, he sees GLOUCESTER'S coach approaching the castle. He charges at EDGAR's riderless horse, frightening it away, then turns and gallops towards the castle, leaving his brother chasing his horse across the heath.

In sequence 15, where Edmund serves Gloucester, Kent, and the assembly with wine, we learn that he is 'one of the family, yet half a servant'. In sequence 17, in Gloucester's study, his claim to be 'rough and lecherous' is made before Edgar, who 'laughs in admiration, envious of his half-brother's worldliness'. A new sequence (19) is added to Draft 2 where the two brothers look at their drunken father and, with dialogue based on Edmund's later claim that he has often heard Edgar speak subversively of sons and fathers, the two (as in the final verbal text of the film) mockingly suggest that 'the father should be put in care of the son' (Edgar) and that 'the son manage the revenue' (Edmund). In the draft shooting-scripts a textual and subtextual portrait of Edgar emerges as a young man eager to impress his more worldly brother and the sharing of 'libels' forms a part of the relationship. They show Edgar (the great role-player) playing at being a sophisticated young cynic. Given that the Stanislavskian 'If governing Brook's production included this interpretation of Edgar among its 'given circumstances', it is a short step to imagining that Edmund had, indeed, 'heard him oft [the authentic Quarto and Folio reading] maintain it to be fit that, sons at perfect age and fathers declin'd . . . ' etc. So Edmund's completing of Edgar's lines might be seen more as a sign of tired familiarity than as a shared speech. The text, here, may have led to a subtext which recreated the text.

In the draft shooting-scripts Edmund's servantdom is an important dimension of his role (a dimension which has left a faintly discernible trace on the final film). The servants' quarters feature importantly in Edmund's stratagem, since it is here that he hides Edgar before arranging his escape. By imagining Edmund as a servant, Brook was building a web of subtextual relationships from Edgar's lines as Poor Tom ('A...

(The entire section is 3079 words.)