Teaching King Lear in a Global Context

How might we engage with the “essence” of King Lear, or “Learness,” in a networked culture?  Juxtaposing the clips of the division-of-the-kingdom scene from different films allows us to reexamine our perceived ethical burden to explain Lear’s problems away. The scene in Peter Brook’s 1971 film is dominated by close-ups of Lear and other characters, framing Paul Scofield’s Lear as a solemn statue. Peter Brook’s 1962 RSC production and subsequent 1971 film of King Lear engages with the theme of ecocriticism through an apocalyptic mise-en-scène.

In contrast to Laurence Olivier’s Lear in Elliott’s 1983 film, who laughs off Cordelia’s initial response, Scofield’s Lear speaks methodically and remains stern throughout the scene, which ends with him calmly banishing Cordelia. Cordelia’s aside is cut, thereby diminishing the weight of a potentially revelatory moment as well as Cordelia’s self-discovery.

Placed side by side with Kurosawa’s Ran (1985) and other versions that contain elements of merriment, this scene in Brook’s film sets a much more sinister and nihilistic tone for the entire narrative. Drawing on one single line by Goneril (‘When he returns from hunting/ I will not speak with him’, 1.3.8–9), Kurosawa presents a lavish, extended opening scene of boar hunting. It has become a critical commonplace to read Lear’s journey as that of an un-accommodated animal: the wild boar is a metaphor for Hidetora’s (Lear) degeneration from the hunter to the hunted. However, the film’s Buddhist framework hints at Hidetora’s reincarnation in the form of a boar after death. The line between humanity and the natural world is more porous and permeable in Shinto Buddhism.

One of the key lines in Shakespeare’s King Lear is the aging monarch’s rhetorical question ‘Who is it that can tell me who I am?’, to which the Fool answers ‘Lear’s shadow’ (1.4.189–90). In Ran, which places its characters firmly among the animals and frequently in epic natural landscape, Hidetora frequently asks where he is rather than who he is.

Scofield’s Lear does suffer from an identity crisis (who is Lear if he is no longer king?) that is more typical of most performances of Lear, but he is at the same time firmly planted in his solitude and tragic immobility. External, sartorial signs of regality are largely absent in Scofield’s Lear.

In contrast to Trevor Nunn’s and Elliott’s films, this scene in Brook’s film does not treat the division of the kingdom ceremonially.

Digital tools help us make necessary links between different modes of literary representation and between different iterations of the human experience. When a work survives and appears in more than one form, we have both a vexing problem of interpretation and a rich opportunity for the study of cultural variants. As a play that begins with an aging monarch staging a fantastical, paradoxical last act as a king, Shakespeare’s King Lear lures us toward a final act of interpretation to nail down the nature of the sufferings and yet fails to provide any sense of closure.


There are two challenges to teaching King Lear and Shakespeare in performance in general. I would like to examine potential solutions provided by a video-centric platform that focuses on performance video as a common object of study. While there is much discussion of mediated representations of Shakespeare in the mediascape (such as YouTube) and while there is an increasing number of apps with supplementary video content, video-centric teaching platforms have remained marginal to pedagogical and critical inquiries.

The vexing history of reproducing Lear is the first challenge to teaching the play. Variations and different performance texts can seem abstract or irrelevant to students, while in fact these versions and variants are central to our understanding of the play. For example, is the opening division of the kingdom scene a psychological game, a contest of expressions of love, a political act or a classic case of a delusional ailing old father? One answer to this pedagogical challenge is to turn many versions into common objects of study and to make links among them. The challenging editorial and reception histories of King Lear around the world make it a good starting point for building digital teaching tools that make links. More specifically, linking textual variants to videotaped performances allows for active learning through more dynamic commentary and close reading of performed meanings.

The second challenge is how to teach against the popularized universalist notion of the tragic elements in the play. Teaching Lear entails teaching each culture’s and generation’s reaction to the challenging ethical burden within and beyond the play’s actions. The play’s history of reception is informed by a particular ethical burden to explain Lear’s problems away or legitimize the characters’ suffering and the tragic pathos of the play. Are Lear’s ‘evil daughters’ implicated as a source of the tragedy of King Lear that has been said to be coded masculine? Does Cordelia’s hanging enhance the tragic pathos surrounding her journey, or does it help to highlight the senseless male suffering? How does Lear speak to cultures far removed politically and historically from early modern England, and make certain themes of contemporary cultural life more legible, such as the generational gap, filial piety, and loyalty and duty?

One way to address this challenge is to teach the play and performances in comparative contexts, rather than privileging one textual or performative iteration of Lear over another. Several online learning modules were launched in recent years as part of the MIT Global Shakespeares open-access digital performance video archive, including Global King Lear in Performance (https://studyshax.mit.edu/kinglear) and Lear Is Here: A Learning Module (http://globalshakespeares.mit.edu/modules/module/lear-is-here). The former, designed for classroom use and accessible only to registered students (for copyright protection), features thirteen full films and numerous video clips that have been pre-arranged in clusters of pivotal scenes (such as the blinding of Gloucester). The feature of clustered, curated clips from a large number of performances is pedagogically useful. While it is only feasible to teach in-depth by assigning one or two films of Lear in a given class, students can expand their horizon by close-reading competing performative interpretations of a few pivotal scenes.


Excerpted from Alexa Alice Joubin, “King Lear on the small screen and its pedagogical implications,” in Shakespeare on Screen: King Lear, ed. Victoria Bladen, Sarah Hatchuel, and Nathalie Vienne-Guerrin (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019). Full text freely available online.