Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 204

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

Illustration of PDF document

Download King Lear Study Guide

Subscribe Now

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.


Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2322

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.
How comes that?
I know not. The messenger leaves.

(II. i. 3-6) (LIKELY WARS, 5)

The better best.
This weaves itself perforce into my business.
Briefness and fortune work.

(II. i. 14-15) (LIKELY WARS, 5)

Edmund hides a letter.
If this letter thrive, Edmund the bastard shall top the legitimate.

(I. ii. 19-20) (WHY BASTARD, 1)

Edmund is looking at Edgar sleeping.
Legitimate Edgar, I must have your land.

(I. ii. 16) (WHY BASTARD, 1)

Edmund pauses outside his father 's room.
Now Gods stand up for bastards.

(I. ii. 21) (WHY BASTARD, 1)

Edmund wakes his father.

Edmund is talking to Gloucester.
I swore he could by no means.
By no means what?
Persuade me to the murder of your lordship.
I told him the revenging gods
'Gainst parricides did all the thunder bend,
Spoke with how strong a bond
The child was bound to the father.

(II. i. 43-8) (CONJURING THE MOON, 7)

My son Edgar.

(I. ii. 56) (THE LETTER, 2)

I threatened to discover him; he replied,
' Who would put any trust or faith in thee
Thou unpossessing bastard?'

(II. i. 66-7) (CONJURING THE MOON, 7)

He cannot be such a monster to his father who so tenderly and entirely loves him.

(I. ii. 94-7) (THE LETTER, 2)

I dare pawn down my life for him.
He's done this to feel my affection to your honour and no other pretence of danger.
Think you so?

(I. ii. 85-9) (THE LETTER, 2)

Has he never before sounded you in this matter?
I have heard him maintain it to be fit that sons of perfect age and fathers in decline, the father should be put in care of the son and the son manage the revenue.
Villain, villain, unnatural brutish villain.

(I. ii. 75-7) (THE LETTER, 2)

If your honour judge it meet.
I'll place you where you shall hear us confer of this.

(I. ii. 90-1) (THE LETTER, 2)

Edmund hides Gloucester and wakes Edgar.
(Edgar!) When saw you my father last? Parted you on good terms? Saw you no displeasure in him? Bethink yourself wherein you may have offended him.

(I. ii. 152-60) (SOME VILLAIN, 4)

Edmund leads Edgar into Gloucester's hearing and shows him the letter.
(What does it say?)
Edg. (reads)
If our father would sleep till I waked him ycou should enjoy half his revenue for ever and live the beloved of your brother. Edgar.

(I. ii. 52-5) (THE LETTER, 2)

Edmund hurries Edgar away.
(Help! Murder! Help! Murder!)
Edgar and Edmund talk in Edmund's room.
When came you to this?
I found it thrown in at the casement of my closet.

(I. ii. 58-61) (THE LETTER, 2)

Some villain hath done me wrong.
That's my fear.

(I. ii. 165-6) (THE LETTER, 2)

Have you not spoken against the Duke of Cornwall
And of his coming hither now in the night in haste,
And Regan with him? Have you nothing said
Against the Duke of Albany?
Not a word.

(I. ii. 23-7) (FLY THIS PLACE, 6)

I've told you what I've seen and heard but faintly. Nothing like the image and horror of it.

(I. ii. 174-6) (SOME VILLAIN, 4)

Edmund helps Edgar escape and cuts his arm.
Light, ho! here! stop! stop! torches! torches!

(II. i. 31, 36, 32) (FLY THIS PLACE, 6)

Where is the villain?
There stood he in the dark sir, his sharp sword out.

(II. i. 37-9) (CONJURING THE MOON, 7)

Pursue him. Go after, ho.


Gloucester bandages Edmund's arm.
Loyal and natural boy. Of all my lands I'll work the means to make thee heritor.

(II. i. 84-5) (CONJURING THE MOON, 7)

A number of features of the above text warrant discussion. Most obviously, as the derivations show, it is a collage of some thirty fragments taken from seven separate textual units. Though most of the text derives indirectly from an edition of King Lear, a few words and phrases which are printed in brackets (such as 'What does it say', 1.57 and 'Help! Murder! Help! Murder!', 1.60) are interpolations. Less obvious, perhaps, are a number of changes which render Shakespeare's language somewhat more accessible to a modern audience. These include 'planetary influence' (11. 10-11) for 'spherical predominance', 'coupled' (1.12) for 'compounded', 'I was born' (11. 12-13) for 'my nativity was', 'put in care of the son' (1. 17) for 'as a ward to the son' and 'make thee heritor' (11. 77-8) for 'To make thee capable'. Much more complex are a number of changes in speech allocation which are linked to a major plot difference between play and film.

When, at line 8, Edgar makes his comment on Edmund's professed view of the significance of eclipses, his words in the film text are taken from Edmund's second short soliloquy (EXCELLENT FOPPERY, 3) in which he comments cynically on his father's superstition. More complicated is the textual derivation of Edgar's claim at line 16 that fathers in decline should be wards to their sons. In the play texts these words are spoken by Edmund to Gloucester, prefixed by the claim that he has often heard the idea expressed by Edgar. In Brook's text, at line 48, Edmund does speak the lines as in the play: 'I have heard him maintain it to be fit that sons of perfect age and fathers in decline, the father should be put in care of the son, and the son manage the revenue.' In the film Edmund is speaking some truth—but possibly not the whole truth, for the words 'And the son manage the revenue' (1. 18) had previously been spoken by Edmund, not Edgar, the two brothers sharing the sentiment in a duet. After Edmund has said 'and the son manage the revenue' the first time, Edgar leaves and Edmund's next line, 'It's the policy of reverence for age that makes the world bitter' (1. 19) has an even more complicated derivation. In the play the words belong to the part of Gloucester. However, they are from the letter that he reads—a letter ostensibly written by Edgar but, as a part of Edmund's stratagem, actually written by Edmund. In the film, the letter, itself, is not read by Gloucester. It is read by Edgar, on Edmund's instruction, and overheard by Gloucester. This leads to one further change in allocation. At line 61 the bemused Edgar asks 'When came you to this?' and Edmund tells him 'I found it thrown in at the casement'. In the play texts this small exchange takes place between Gloucester and Edmund. In the film Gloucester is unaware of the existence of the letter. However, the idea of placing Gloucester in a position where he can overhear Edgar does come from Shakespeare ('If your honour judge it meet, I will place you where you shall hear us confer of this, and by an auricular assurance have your satisfaction, and that without any further delay than this very evening' (I. ii. 90-3)). In the play, these words are, in terms of plot, quite redundant. They seem like an echo from Othello where Iago does provide his victim with 'an auricular assurance' of a kind the unseeing Gloucester doesn't need. What in the play turns out to be a false trail becomes the basis of the narrative in the film.

In the section on Subtext which follows, I attempt to provide an explanation for Brook's treatment of the text in this episode, but first I want briefly to consider the second of Kermode's 'apparent perversities'—the transference of Edgar's uncompromising judgement on his father to the dying Cornwall. In Shakespeare's King Lear text(s) a tendency to stand back and moralize is a feature of the roles of both Edgar and Cordelia. These moments have a medieval theatricality, the character concerned highlighting the moral significance of a tableau or a moment of action which has just passed. Omissions in Edgar's role include his two philosophical soliloquies, 'When we our betters see bearing our woes' (III. vi. 102-15) and 'Yet better thus, and known to be contemn'd' (IV. i. 1-9), and a number of shorter passages where he reveals his moral concern. These include the following:

Why I do trifle thus with his despair
Is done to cure it.

(IV. vi. 33-4)

O, matter and impertinency mix'd,
Reason in madness!

(IV. vi. 174-5)

and, most notoriously:

The gods are just, and of our pleasant vices
Make instruments to plague us:
The dark and vicious place where thee he got
Cost him his eyes.

(V. iii. 171-4)

In giving these lines to Cornwall, Brook may have been highlighting the idea that they have a choric significance transcending the character of the actual speaker. Whatever Brook's motive, an insight such as this would have been completely inappropriate as the culmination of the relationship between Edgar and Edmund which Brook had invented as an integral part of his film and it is the nature of this relationship which forms the basis of the section which follows.


Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3079

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 servingman! proud in heart and mind', III. iv. 85) and Edmund's claim to be 'rough and lecherous' (I. ii. 131), a claim echoed in Poor Tom's 'serv'd the lust of my mistress' heart, and did the act of darkness with her' (III. iv. 87-8). This web of textual and subtextual associations takes on its full significance in the draft shooting-scripts when Edgar as Poor Tom finds himself face to face with Lear. Sequence 93 in Draft 1 reads as follows:

To give body to his madness, EDGAR plays a role, a role that has surged out of his imagination that is strangely like his brother, a role in which he claims to be a dangerous, proud, seductive servant, a role in which he gives free reign to everything that is normally opposed to his nature.

The sequence continues to make clear the links between such imaginings and Stanislavskian acting theory—the need to create a subtext in order to give role-play its authenticity: 'Like an actor, he is totally identified with his role, yet still free to observe what goes on around him.' The arrival of Gloucester forces Edgar to the edge of his sanity and more fully into the role of Poor Tom: 'he continues his improvisations and now he is inspired, speaking strange words whose meaning he cannot even guess.'

In the shooting-scripts the roles of both brothers are developed and commented on. While Edgar begins to explore 'his own obscure erotic imagery' (sequence 95), Edmund is enjoying his new status and power. In sequence 104, in the 'curtainless interior' of Goneril's coach, he makes love to her while she murmurs 'The difference of man and man'. He is pictured in sequence 107 'riding into his courtyard as Duke of Gloucester' where some servants 'are immediately obsequious, some resentful'. In sequence 129c, he is 'making love to REGAN'. Goneril delivers to him her love-letter which in 129e he reads aloud to Regan, 'while stroking and humping her'. In the drafts Edgar's killing of Oswald is marked as a decisive stage in his development. 'This is perhaps the most intense moment of all for him—this is the point in his own journey that he never expected to reach—he has killed a man' (sequence 123). He is about to kill his brother. When he does so, the subtextual commentary makes it quite clear that this was to be a very different ending from that of the earlier Stratford production, where Edmund's lines of repentance were cut. The drafts describe Edmund's last moments as follows:

Now the two brothers look into one another's face, a long, long, look, while EDMUND'S life drains away.

It is as though some strange understanding passes between them. The contorted look on EDMUND'S face—the contorted look we have seen in death locked on CORNWALL, GONERIL and REGAN—slowly softens. He whispers something. EDGAR bends closer. He whispers again. It is almost inaudible, 'Some good I mean to do . . . ' . EDGAR puts his ear very close to his brother's mouth. The captain . . . has commission . . . to hang . . . Cordelia . . . quickly . . . send in time'.

There is no trace of this moment of repentance in the film. Edmund's last words are 'The wheel has come full circle, I am here'. However, the expressions on the two brothers' faces do hint at 'some strange understanding' and this leads me on to a brief consideration of the relationships between what Birkett called 'the final script' and the film which eventually emerged, a relationship a good deal more complex than that between the King Lear Quarto and Folio texts.

Birkett himself goes some way towards accounting for differences. He told Manvell that 'certain events took on an extra importance as we came to shoot them, and certain events seemed less impressive by comparison, so that a certain amount of adaptation went on throughout'.5 Brook himself has spoken scathingly about the very concept of 'a final script', contrasting the freedom of rehearsals in the theatre with the tyranny of the script in most film production, where 'it's terrifying to find that all manner of things one has scribbled into the script as local colour, notes one has made as a reader for oneself, possibilities to try out, have been taken deadly seriously and that months later someone will hold you to them'.6 He went on to distinguish between a director's 'surface whims' and 'deeper intentions', suggesting that fidelity to the film script was likely to honour the former while ignoring the latter. Many of the details suggested in the two film scripts are not even hinted at in the final film. There are no subtextual encounters between Edgar and Edmund. The relationship between the two brothers leading to Edgar's flight is treated in the single sequence discussed above. Whether or not the missing moments were no more than 'surface whims' is a matter for speculation, since during the process of editing much material was cut. Brook described this last stage in a letter to the Russian director Kozintsev,7 who was in the process of completing his own film of King Lear:

Now in the editing, we are searching to interrupt the consistency of style, so that many-levelled contradictions of the play can appear. As a result, we are cutting more and more ruthlessly, eliminating more and more text, so that the film which was 3 hours long, then 21/2 hours a few weeks ago, is now shrinking to about 2 hours and a quarter!

When the film finally emerged it had shrunk to 2 hours and 12 minutes. Though, according to Birkett, he and Brook had initially 'wanted in Lear to achieve the same sort of effortless effect as a modern thriller', after the first screening of the edited film Brook realized that in his attempt to 'interrupt the consistency of style' he had produced a film whose ellipses provided major difficulties of comprehension for 'an average audience'. (It was only at this stage that he decided to introduce the narrative explanatory titles which have subsequently been admired for their Brechtian audacity.)

While working on the relationships between the two film scripts and the finished film, I wrote to Peter Brook to ask him if he would comment on a number of changes in the film which are not hinted at in the drafts. One of these centres on the character of Edgar. It is the moment in the film where Lear first encounters Edgar as Poor Tom. Lear and the viewer see Edgar in a series of shots which rapidly alternate between his face, speaking in close-up, and full shots of his near-naked body. It is a violent sequence where lighting and sound-track assist in producing a series of burning epiphanies, the images of Edgar being disconcertingly unrelated to his words ('A servingman proud in heart and mind', etc.). Most viewers see the Edgar of this sequence as a kind of Christ figure (an association triggered by his bearded face, his posture, and his wearing of an unambiguous crown of thorns). When asked to comment on the 'Christ-like parallels' in this sequence, Brook replied as follows:

'Christ-like parallels . . . ' this is post facto interpretation that of course everyone is free to make. But one doesn't direct a play or a film as a commentary, one tries to make the essential spirituality of Edgar emerge through his state and his actions: at that point he joins all naked hermits of history—the Middle and Far East as well as the Middle Ages are full of them—Christianity hasn't the monopoly.

The references to Edgar's 'essential spirituality' and the concern with the religious traditions and practices of 'the Middle and Far East' suggest that Brook's sense of King Lear's mystical significance might have been developing even while he was working on the film. Several features8 of the film's subtext do not square with the many readings which find the film unyielding in its nihilism.9 Both film scripts end, as they began, with the focus on Edgar. The second draft has a hint of humanism in its final image. 'The future is his. He cannot avoid it. He has a crown on his head.' The last moments of the film itself are, however, closer in form and in feeling to the very different words which conclude the first draft: 'He is alone in the desert. Then this picture also vanishes, until nothing has left a trace.' I asked Brook if he would be prepared to comment on the differences between the film's ending, with its muted hints of transcendence, and the ending of his Stratford production. His answer was, perhaps appropriately, enigmatic: 'Nothing! This is not a refusal to comment, but an explanation: nothing, nothingness is one of the great zeros out of which the play rises and to which it returns.'


1 Brook's King Lear was first shown in 1971. It was distributed in video format in 1986 by RCA/Columbia.

2 F. Kermode, 'Shakespeare and the Movies', in G. Mast and M. Cohen (edd.), Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings (Oxford, 1974), 322-32.

3 R. Manvell, Shakespeare and the Film (New York, 1971), 136-43.

4 C. Marowitz, 'Lear Log', Encore, 41 (1963), 21-33.

5 Manvell, Shakespeare and the Film, 138.

6 'Interview with Peter Brook: Penelope Houston and Tom Milne', Sight and Sound (Summer 1963), 109-10.

7 G. Kozintsev, 'King Lear' The Space of Tragedy (London, 1976), 240.

8 Most noticeably, in the closing moments of the film there are two tantalizing glimpses of Cordelia. In the first, on the line 'Cordelia, Cordelia! stay a little', Lear sees an image of her which lasts only for a moment. The second glimpse provides a more complex perceptual problem. On the line 'And my poor fool is hanged' the audience sees both Lear and Cordelia in medium shot facing the camera. This time the shot is unambiguously from the audience's viewpoint, since Lear is looking at the camera and not at Cordelia. 'Does Lear' as he dies 'see Cordelia's spirit or is this a final madness?' The question comes from Brook's own shooting-scripts, as does the answer, 'We can never know'.

9 The judgements and the rhetoric of most commentators highlight the film's cruel nihilism: A. Jorgens, Shakespeare on Film (Bloomington and London, 1977), sees the film as 'a bleak existential tale of meaningless violence in a cold, empty universe' (pp. 236-7); M. Mullin, 'Peter Brook's King Lear: Stage and Screen', Literature and Film Quarterly, 11 (1983), argues that the film shares the same vision as the earlier stage production: 'Nihilistic, bleak, hopeless, ugly, full of horror and lacking pity' (p. 195); P. Kael, in her New Yorker review of 12 Dec. 1971, finds 'no apparent light sources', just 'blind, godless desolation' shown in 'nightmare images of blindness and nothingness'. Of the earlier commentators, only W. Chaplin, 'Our Darker Purpose: Peter Brook's King Lear', Arion (Spring 1973), seems to have seen the images of Cordelia in the closing moments of the film: 'Lear stalks the presence of the living Cordelia on a white beach' (p. 174). Very much against the trend in interpretation, Chaplin sees the film's ending as essentially holy: 'With his daughter he has passed, now, like Oedipus, into a hallowed mystery . . . he has turned in Brook's iconology into the pure sanctity of the light' (p. 175).

Source: '"Apparent Perversities': Text and Subtext in the Construction of the Role of Edgar in Brook's Film of King Lear," in The Review of English Studies, n. s., Vol. XLVII, No. 187, August, 1996, pp. 317-30.

Unlock This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-hour free trial

King Lear


From Leir to Lear

Explore Study Guides