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

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(Shakespearean Criticism)

"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.


(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 5,605 words.)