Teaching King Lear: practices and processes

We’re now three weeks into term, and my Year Twelves are up to Act 1 Scene 4 of King Lear. We haven’t met the Fool yet – he’s waiting until next lesson – but we’re thoroughly immersed, and I’m remembering what a fantastic play this is to teach.

Over the years I’ve witnessed lots of discussions about the teaching of Shakespeare: whether you approach a play through a cold read or a warm read, when to introduce contextual and critical reading, whether to watch a production of the whole play first and so on. My approach varies a little depending on the nature of the group I have in front of me, but I begin by scaffolding students’ reading very heavily. In a typical lesson, I’ll give them a brief overview of whichever scene we’re focusing on – not a plot summary, but a sense of its significance within the play and any major characters we meet. We’ll then read the scene out loud, sometimes splitting it into sections. At the start of the course I ask for volunteers to read, as the start of an A level course can be intimidating not just academically but also interpersonally, especially if you’ve come from a different school or if you’ve spent much of your school career in middle sets and have suddenly found yourself in a group with people who are much more able and confident than you. I don’t want to expose anyone. Once the students are more comfortable with each other, and once I’ve got to know them, I’ll start to allocate parts.

I know some people are sceptical about getting students to read Shakespeare out loud, with memories of stumbling over words and taking ages to get through the play. I think the stumbling is an important part of the learning process and use it as a way of exploring unfamiliar vocabulary. Lots of reassurance also helps to build a sense of your classroom as a safe space where struggling is accepted. I will intervene at points when we’re reading aloud to question and check understanding, drawing in especially those students who aren’t reading and anyone who I suspect might be struggling but not want to admit it. Yes, I could show a professional production of the play, but the exploratory talk is really valuable and part of helping the group to coalesce and learn to trust each other (and me) at this early stage.

That didn’t go to plan. Cordelia’s Portion, by Ford Madox Brown

Once we’ve finished a particular part of the scene, I’ll display a set of questions designed to make sure students’ understanding is secure and get them to make some observations about aspects of language, character and theme. At this stage, these are fairly simple: I emphasise that our study of the play will be an iterative process and that we’ll add layers of detail and complexity as we go along. Students discuss these questions in pairs or small groups and make notes. We then discuss as a whole class, and I’ll build in further layers of questioning to probe, secure, extend – whatever’s needed at this stage.

We encourage students to use the Cornell method of notemaking, but for our read-through of the play I’ve introduced a slightly modified version in which students split the main part of their page into two equal columns rather than having a narrower left-hand column. Their initial responses to questions go on the left, and then they use the right-hand column to add detail during our discussion. The section at the bottom of the page is used to summarise key points when they revisit their notes.

What about introducing productions? I do this in a number of ways: showing clips of different versions to highlight different interpretations, showing the play act by act so students can consolidate their understanding, and showing the whole play so they get a sense of the overall arc of the tragedy. We’ll go and see a production if one is accessible, but there are a number of fantastic films of stage productions available and these are really useful for focusing on particular scenes. I introduce these once we’ve read the love trial in Act 1 Scene 1. I want students to be able to grasp a number of things about this scene. One is its ceremonial nature. The lack of stage directions in Shakespeare’s plays means that students often skim over the stage directions that are there, but I think it’s really important that they look at the transition from the conversation between Kent, Gloucester and Edmond and the formal, orchestrated quality of the love trial. So we pick up on the sennet that heralds Lear’s entrance, the procession onto the stage of Lear, his daughters, Albany and Cornwall, and the attendants. Those attendants are another thing: we don’t know how many, or what they do, but I want students to think about how they could be used to draw attention to the formality of the scene. Another is the difference between Goneril and Regan: it’s easy to lump them in together, but I want students to be able to pick up on the subtle differences between them. And then there’s the way everything starts to disintegrate, once Cordelia refuses to play the part that Lear has given her. (Because we do Macbeth at GCSE, we draw parallels with the banquet, another scene that starts with a formal entrance and disintegrates into chaos.)

In order to explore these ideas further, I show them clips of two different productions. The first is the 2014 National Theatre production, directed by Sam Mendes, starring Simon Russell Beale as a pugnacious, dictatorial Lear. In this, Lear’s daughters sit at a long table, with Albany and Cornwall, in sombre business suits, beside their wives. Lear sits at a distance on a plain wooden throne, and gets up to pace around as his daughters deliver their speeches. Kate Fleetwood as Goneril is hesitant and careful with her words: Anna Maxwell Martin as Regan is a flirtatious daddy’s girl who gets up to sit on her father’s knee. The tension is heightened by Lear’s close scrutiny of his daughters, and his air of teetering already on the edge of irrationality: Michael Billington, in the Guardian, commented that ‘he has all the aspects of a Stalinesque tyrant and struts around with his massive head thrust forward as if about to devour anyone who crosses him’. There’s also the presence of those attendants, several rows of them in dark military uniforms, who encircle the group on stage. When Cordelia (Olivia Vinall) refuses to play along with her father’s wishes, the enraged Lear upturns the tables and sends his daughters shrinking in fear.

The second clip we watch is from Greg Doran’s 2016 RSC production with Anthony Sher as a very different Lear, dressed in furs and borne onstage by his attendants on a throne enclosed in a transparent case. Again, there’s a sense of distance, created this time by the fact that Lear sits on high, a huge gold disc in the background reflecting the play’s astrological theme. The performative nature of the love trial is emphasised by the fact that Nia Gwynne and Kelly Williams, as Goneril and Regan, speak to the assembled company, their backs to Lear, when delivering their speeches. Sher’s Lear is more godlike than Russell Beale’s, and raises his hand as if channelling some higher power when he banishes Mimi Ndiweni’s Cordelia. Those on stage bow or cower, terrified of what he might unleash.

What’s clear from both these productions is that the trial, of course, isn’t a trial at all. Lear has already decided how he will divide his kingdom, and who will get which portion. Students can see the tension on stage, the power imbalances at play, and recognise the coercive nature of this situation. It’s the perfect example of hubris, and from this point, they’re ready to see Lear’s tenuous grasp on sanity weaken further.

Busy times at work at the moment, but my next King Lear post will focus on the character of Edmond. The clip of Simon Russell Beale’s Lear is here; further clips and interviews are available here. An extract from Anthony Sher’s performance is here; the whole production is available on DVD and Blu-ray from the RSC and can also be streamed from Digital Theatre if you’ve got a subscription.

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