Comments on Act 1 scene 4
With Edmund and the sisters, Shakespeare has created fully rounded characters, more than one-dimensional villains. Notice that they all have real grievances against their fathers. Edmund has always been treated as an embarrassment and a lesser son than Edgar, due not to any inherent failings but to his illegitimacy, the fault of his father’s adultery. Notice that Shakespeare gives him, not Lear, most of the soliloquies in the play, sharing directly with the audience.
Likewise, Goneril is forced to put up with the riotous company that Lear keeps at his side. In the 1962 Peter Brook production at the Royal Shakespeare Company (and in his 1971 film), these “men of choice and rarest parts” (as Lear claims) overturned tables and wrecked Goneril’s home; in one rehearsal the actors became so violent that they brought a chandelier crashing to the floor, to the chagrin of the stage manager but the delight of the director. Similarly, in Lawrence Olivier’s video, Lear rides into Goneril’s dining hall on horseback, accompanied by several hunting dogs. Such inexcusable behavior gives Goneril some justification for treating her father so harshly, rather than mere ingratitude.
Throughout his production Peter Brook challenged any simplistic distinction between the “good” and “evil” characters. Kent, usually depicted as blunt yet loyal and admirable, was a rough bully, not content with insulting Oswald but twisting his arm and throwing him to the ground, forcing the audience to see a beloved character in an unlovely light. “Brook was at some pains to block the easy emotional response that comes from a clear conflict of good and evil, the easy sympathy that comes to victims who do not deserve their suffering” (Leggatt 51-2). Critic Kenneth Tynan described Paul Scofield’s Lear in this interpretation as “an edgy, capricious old man, intensely difficult to live with” (View from the Stage, 1975).
The curse that Lear places on Goneril reminds us of his rash rejection of Cordelia in scene one. To this point Goneril has not mistreated her father or threatened his life, but has simply insisted that he practice a little restraint, to which Lear explodes in terrible rage. “The question is not whether Goneril deserves these appalling [curses] but what they tell us about Lear. They show that, although he has already recognized his injustice toward Cordelia … the disposition from which his first error sprang is still unchanged.” (A. C. Bradley, Shakespearean Tragedy. Fawcett, 234)
Ian Holm (1997) played Lear with a short fuse and unpredictable temper. In this scene he told Kent, “if I like thee no worse after DINNER!” shouting impatiently to the servants who should not have made him wait. He had moments of sudden insight as well; his answer to the Fool, “Nothing can be made out of nothing” caught him in a moment of self-reflection (Leggatt 165).
The part of the Fool was usually cut from productions in the 18th and 19th centuries, as critics thought that this “comic” role was out of place in the tragedy. However, unlike most of Shakespeare’s clowns, the Fool should not be interpreted as primarily humorous. He acts as the voice of Lear’s conscience, telling him truths that no one else dare speak to his face (as witnessed in Lear’s rejection of Cordelia and Kent’s blunt criticism in scene one). Almost every line of “nonsense” the Fool speaks has a definite point, reminding Lear of his own folly. He describes a topsy-turvy world where men carry asses on their backs and fathers must obey daughters. He echoes Lear’s own words from scene 1, “Nothing will come of nothing,” turning their sharp point back on Lear himself: how can he expect the reverence he once knew now that he has given away his authority?
Shakespeare probably wrote the part of the Fool for Robert Armin who had taken over the lead comic actor position in the company from Will Kempe. Kempe had played parts such as Dogberry (Much Ado) and Falstaff and was known for his broad physical humor and improvising (Shakespeare probably comments on this with Hamlet’s criticism that “clowns [should] speak no more than is set down for them”). Knowing Armin’s strength was his sharp wit and sardonic humor, Shakespeare created Lear’s Fool as a role unlike any other he had written, more philosophical and worldly-wise. He also relied on the relationship of Armin and the lead actor Richard Burbage to bring the part to unique life. Usually kings and clowns do not appear together in his plays, but here they share an intimate bond, similar to Lear’s love of Cordelia whom he has spurned. At her death he also laments that “my poor fool is hanged” (Shapiro, The Year of Lear, 2015, 27).
One alternate theory suggests that in the original Globe production the part of the Fool was played by the same boy actor that doubled as Cordelia, as they are never on stage together in the script.
In the 1982 RSC production Anthony Sher as the Fool (who thought Shakespeare’s clowns “totally unfunny”) wore a red clown nose, bowler hat and ill-filling suit. He and Lear performed for the knights like a vaudeville team, punctuating lines with a foot stomp and hand gesture. Poems were sung in different styles accompanied by a small violin. To illustrate his lesson to Lear, he magically pulled two eggs out of his hat. At times he sat on Lear’s lap acting like a ventriloquist’s dummy. The production opened with the striking image of Cordelia and the Fool stretched out on the throne with a rope around their necks; it turned out they were playing a game but with frightening portent of the future for both. (Leggatt 84-5)
In the Lawrence Olivier video, John Hurt plays the part with great feeling and sympathy, deeply concerned for Lear’s welfare.