Teaching King Lear: changes, connections, and lessons in life

One thing that can often be difficult, if you’re studying a play as huge as King Lear, is to maintain a sense of the whole play in students’ minds. It can easily become atomised, chopped up: a scene here, a speech there, and the overall trajectory is lost. We reached the end of Act Two earlier this week, and I’ve been getting the students to revisit aspects of Lear’s tragic journey and looking at key overarching themes, so they don’t lose sight of the big picture.

Act Two Scene Four is a good place to pause and look back at the journey Lear is making, since it marks a number of significant changes since the beginning of the play. One of these is the final breakdown of his relationship with Goneril and Regan. In the love trial of Act One Scene One, both were very keen to profess their love for Lear, whose plan was to visit each of them for a month in turn, with his train of a hundred knights in tow. Later in Act One, Lear’s knights cause chaos in Goneril’s castle: when Goneril refuses to house more than fifty of his knights, Lear leaves in high dudgeon. By the end of Act Two, his daughters have questioned why he needs any knights to accompany him at all:

What need you five-and-twenty, ten, or five,
To follow in a house where twice so many
Have a command to tend you?
What need one?

It’s a clear demonstration, in numerical form, of how far Lear has fallen since the beginning of the play, when he stated his determination to retain ‘The name and all th’ addition to a king’. The fact that his daughters are prepared to work so closely together to deprive him of his knights is a devastating moment for Lear. They told him that they loved him, and he believed them. And now, they won’t let him have what he wants. His ‘O reason not the need!’ speech shows very clearly that need, in Lear’s eyes, is irrelevant: he might not need any of his knights, but he certainly wants them, to convince himself that he is still as important as he once was. From here, there really is no way that his relationship with Goneril and Regan can be salvaged. (And let’s face it, if your father cursed you with sterility and called you a boil and an embossed carbuncle, I think you could be forgiven for crossing him off your Christmas card list).

Howl of anguish: Head VI, after Velasquez’s portrait of Innocent X, by Francis Bacon (1949)

There’s also a neat physical opposition between the start of the play and the end of Act Two. In Act One Scene One, Lear’s first entrance is a ceremonial one. His arrival is heralded by a sennet, and he is accompanied by Cornwall, Albany, Goneril, Regan, Cordelia and his attendants. On stage, this entrance is often used to heighten the king’s status, as in the 2016 RSC production when Anthony Sher’s Lear was borne aloft in a glass box in a quasi-religious ceremony, or the 2018 National Theatre production when Ian McKellen’s Lear was surrounded by deferential guards and took up his place in front of a giant portrait of himself. But by the end of Act Two Scene Four, he has been very unceremoniously shut out of Gloucester’s castle. He exits, in a rage as high as the winds, and his daughters and Cornwall decide that the gates should be barred, on a wild night with no shelter for miles around. So, another demonstration of Lear’s peripeteia: his fall from ‘high estate’ to ‘low degree’ could not be illustrated more clearly.

The third change that I want to talk about is a more subtle one. It concerns the breakdown of Lear’s speech and his increasing lack of fluency – ‘the ‘glib and oily art’ that Cordelia refers to in Act One Scene One when taking leave of her sisters. At the beginning of the play, Lear dominated not just in his physical and symbolic presence, but in his language. His first speech is long, measured, and gives the impression of having been carefully planned. He also directs the speech of others. Notice his use of imperative verbs: ‘know’, ‘tell’, ‘speak first’, ‘speak’, ‘speak’, ‘speak again’, ‘mend your speech a little’. But as Lear’s mental state begins to deteriorate, so too does his command of language. Sentences trail off, exclamations and self-contradictions become more frequent, and the King is sometimes reduced to an incoherent splutter, as when Gloucester informs him that Regan and Cornwall are refusing to speak to him:

“Fiery”? The “fiery” duke? Tell the hot duke that—
No, but not yet. Maybe he is not well.

The addressees of Lear’s speech also change. Within just one speech, he can jump from addressing another character on stage to speaking to the gods, himself, a different character, and various abstract entities: it’s as if the contents of his mind are becoming increasingly and messily exposed to us. This is particularly apparent in his final speech in Act Two Scene Four. Look at how Lear’s argument about need breaks down as he reflects on his growing inability to regulate his emotions. He swerves from speaking to his daughters, to pleading with the heavens. He asks the gods to make him angry, rather than letting him cry. He goes back to speaking to his daughters – the ‘unnatural hags’ – and issues the most impotent of threats. I get my students to put these lines into their own words. I’m going to do something really awful to get my own back on you. I don’t know what it is that I’m going to do, but it’s going to be really, really bad. He pauses, mid-line. Is he out of breath, choking back tears, gathering himself? And then he tells the Fool, his trusted companion, that he shall go mad. (This in itself is a change from Act One Scene Five, when pleads with the heavens: ‘Let me not be mad, not mad, sweet heaven, / Keep me in temper, I would not be mad!’ At that point, he was desperate to retain his sanity: by now, he senses that madness is increasingly inevitable.)

O reason not the need: our basest beggars
Are in the poorest thing superfluous:
Allow not nature more than nature needs,
Man’s life’s as cheap as beast’s. Thou art a lady;
If only to go warm were gorgeous,
Why, nature needs not what thou gorgeous wear’st,
Which scarcely keeps thee warm. But, for true need, –
You heavens, give me that patience, patience I need!
You see me here, you gods, a poor old man,
As full of grief as age; wretched in both!
If it be you that stir these daughters’ hearts
Against their father, fool me not so much
To bear it tamely; touch me with noble anger,
And let not women’s weapons, water-drops,
Stain my man’s cheeks! No, you unnatural hags,
I will have such revenges on you both,
That all the world shall – I will do such things, –
What they are, yet I know not: but they shall be
The terrors of the earth. You think I’ll weep
No, I’ll not weep:
I have full cause of weeping; but this heart
Shall break into a hundred thousand flaws,
Or ere I’ll weep. O fool! I shall go mad.

There are some further interesting discussions that you can have with students at this point. One is to use an analysis of Lear’s speech as a springboard to get students to think about each character’s relationship to language. Cordelia cannot ‘heave [her] heart into [her] mouth’; Goneril, Regan and Edmund use language to flatter, scheme and manipulate. Kent is known for his plainness of speech, and is put in the stocks for it. Edgar seems almost pitifully tongue-tied when he is on stage with Edmund. The Fool’s language is, of course, notoriously playful and slippery, but even he has to operate within certain limits, for fear of the whip. Another – at a point in the play where questions of ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ are particularly acute – is to get them to consider which characters are insiders, which are outsiders, and which have changed their status, physically or metaphorically, since the beginning of the play. Lear was the most important insider at the beginning, but now he’s on the outside. Goneril and Regan are on the inside, as is Cornwall: Albany has expressed his doubts about what Goneril is doing, but hasn’t yet made his allegiances completely clear. Cordelia, Kent and Edgar were insiders, but now they’re on the outside. And Edmund, of course, was very definitely on the outside, but is now inside, as a result of his ability to dissemble.

A couple of years ago, one of my students pointed out that the insiders in the play are all those who can manipulate language to secure their own interests. The outsiders can’t. We paused, and another student said, ‘That’s like life, really, isn’t it?’ Never say that Shakespeare isn’t relevant, and that his plays don’t still have things to tell us.

Tragedy: knowledge, understanding and handling genre

It’s been quite a couple of weeks, here in the Flatlands, but here I am, and here’s my latest King Lear post.

Tragedy! When the feeling’s gone and you can’t go on … You get the picture. Today I’m writing about the T-word, everybody’s favourite big chunky genre, ripe for students to get their teeth into. Who doesn’t love teaching tragedy? I adore it. And King Lear is one of my favourite tragedies to teach, along with A View from the Bridge and The History Boys. (You thought The History Boys was a comedy? Try reading it again, using tragedy as a lens, and see what you make of it. But that’s another post entirely.)

Greek tragedy mask from the 4th century BCE, in the Archaeological Museum, Piraeus. Photo by
George E. Koronaios. Source: Wikimedia Commons

It’s easy to see why tragedy, as a genre, has been given a place on A level specifications. It has enormous cultural and historical significance. It has its roots in classical Greece, but has been adapted, updated and played around with by writers ever since. The central concepts of tragedy give us a tool to explore all manner of narratives, from Sophocles to the present day. Is the history of humanity itself just another tragic drama? Are we suffering the consequences of the hubris of previous generations? That’s one for your Year Thirteens to ponder. So tragedy is massive, and complex, and serious. Because of this, it also challenges all those accusations that studying literature is simply a matter of personal opinion – mere ‘chatter about Shelley’, as E. A. Freeman, Regius Professor of History at Oxford in the late nineteenth century, put it. Studying tragedy involves knowledge: knowledge about narrative arcs and character-types, literary history and key features. It involves terms and definitions. Just think of all those Greek words with their complicated spellings: the perfect material for a set of beautifully colour-coded flashcards, for any number of Do Now activities. What’s not to like?

There are complications, though, and it’s these complications that I want to examine here. The first of these is that it is easy to fall into the trap of designing a knowledge-based unit on tragedy that prioritises the learning of facts about literature over an understanding of literature. You could construct a fabulous knowledge organiser that summarises a range of information about the genre of tragedy, build in opportunities for spaced retrieval and low-stakes testing, and make sure students know their stuff inside out: the difference between peripeteia and anagnorisis, A. C. Bradley’s concept of the tragic flaw, the phases of classical tragedy, examples of tragedy through the ages and so on. In fact, you needn’t restrict this to A level: if your students are doing Macbeth or Romeo and Juliet, you could include it at GCSE as well. Make sure they know about goat songs and antistrophes and you can really feel you’ve ticked the cultural capital box. The problem, of course, is that all this knowledge doesn’t necessarily increase students’ understanding of tragedy. It’s easy to teach: of course it is, it’s factual. And it’s easy to test students’ retention of this kind of factual knowledge. But as Robert Coe points out in his Impact article, one of the dangers of an emphasis on retrieval is that too much classroom time can be devoted solely to factual recall rather than application and understanding. I’d go further than this, and argue that too much of students’ learning time can be devoted to retrieval practice – often because this kind of learning involves nice neat notes, Leitner boxes, Quizlet activities and the like, rather than the messy complicated process of diving into a text, getting your hands dirty, and emerging with the sense that it’s all a whole lot more complex that you initially thought it was. There’s a safety in knowing that you’ve learned something off by heart, and if you’re a stressed A level student, that kind of safety has a definite appeal.

So we need to make sure that when we teach students about the genre of tragedy, we treat this knowledge carefully, as a means to an end – where that end is an understanding of the text – rather than an end in itself. And even when we set aside the distractions of retrieval practice, this knowledge can still, sometimes, get in the way. Students can often get bogged down in concepts such as hamartia and anagnorisis, treating them as what AQA describes in its 2017 Examiners’ Report as ‘generic absolutes or templates which writers are always trying to model’ rather than ‘a loose set of conventions which are modified or reinforced with every text produced’. (That this is clearly an ongoing problem is indicated by the fact that AQA repeats this point in its 2018 Examiners’ Report.) AQA also emphasises that ‘the stories have to come first. There is no point writing about … ‘aspects’ of genre if students haven’t got inside the stories that the narrators are telling’ (Examiners’ Report, 2019). But students do need to know about the features of the genre, ‘how their texts connect with what might be regarded as traditional generic patterns’, and how they disconnect, ‘as seen when writers consciously play with and subvert genre’ (Examiners’ Report, 2019). How, then, do we ensure that this knowledge is handled sensitively, and that it illuminates students’ understanding of the play rather than obscuring it?

Over the years, I’ve experimented with various ways of introducing knowledge about the genre of tragedy. I used to front-load it, but that approach is almost guaranteed to encourage students to treat the idea of tragedy as a rigid framework. It might be possible to do a quick read of the whole play, then introduce the idea of tragedy, then go back and study the play in more detail, but that seems incredibly time-consuming, and given that the unit we’re studying is called ‘Aspects of Tragedy’, I think the concepts need to be introduced relatively early. But not too early. What I’ve started to do is to explore Act 1 Scene 1 – a scene where there’s a lot going on, in terms of establishing character and setting the plot in motion – and then to introduce the genre and its central concepts. I sketch it lightly, looking at the notion of tragedy as a fall from a position not just of high status but also of potential greatness. We talk about what might provoke that fall. This has been interpreted, variously, as an error of judgement (Aristotle’s hamartia) or as a fatal character flaw (A. C. Bradley’s concept, although many study guides on the internet conflate the two). I emphasise that despite these differences of opinion, the key thing students need to know is that the protagonist’s fall is prompted by something that he or she does – and that once this process has been set in motion, it cannot be halted. I also talk about the idea that the protagonist will, at some point, experience moments of insight into the consequences of their actions. I touch on the idea of catharsis, but don’t dwell on it too much at this point, largely because I think it’s more helpful to focus on catharsis once we get closer to the end of the play: it’s a difficult concept for students to grasp, bound up as it is with audience reaction, and I feel it’s something they need to experience from within rather than dealing with it as a purely abstract concept. (Several years ago, I took my A level group to see Death of a Salesman at the Royal Exchange in Manchester, an intense, harrowing production with Don Warrington as Willy Loman, and one of them remarked afterwards, ‘I never really understood what catharsis was all about before, but I do now’.) All of this, at this stage, is verbal. I talk through the concepts, and expect students to make notes, but I find that giving them a set of notes seems to encourage rigid thinking, as if everything they need to know about tragedy can be summarised on one sheet of paper. Getting them to make notes seems to help keep things provisional and tentative, and that’s how I want it to be at this stage.

We then talk about Macbeth. All of the students have done Macbeth at GCSE, and getting them to apply their new-found knowledge about tragedy to a play they know well helps them to see the conventions of the genre as tools to help them explore aspects of the text, rather than a rigid framework. We think about Macbeth as a tragic protagonist, and the image we get in Act 1 Scene 2 of a brave, loyal warrior. We think about what Macbeth’s tragic error might be, and examine several possible answers. And we identify potential moments of anagnorisis that occur in the play, those points when characters recognise the nature of their circumstances. I ask them, then, to try applying the conventions to other narratives they know, including examples from film and television. Playing around with the concepts in this way helps to increase the students’ familiarity with them, but it also enables them to see the conventions as malleable.

It’s at this point that they can start to use the conventions to explore King Lear. They can see that the love trial of Act 1 Scene 1 is a perfect example of hubris (and when you show them different stage interpretations, like the ones I refer to in this post, they can see how this can be emphasised by setting and direction). They’ve got several examples of Lear’s irascibility and rash decision-making, and they can also see how the foundations are laid for Lear’s downfall, in that conversation between Goneril and Regan at the end of the scene. It’s all starting to make sense, but it’s also set within the context of the play itself, rather than overpowering it.

There’s a lot more work that I’ll do to develop students’ understanding of tragedy, including modelling how to write about it in ways that maintain a sense of tentativeness, of weighing different interpretations, rather than simply cramming in terms. We’ll continue to make links with Macbeth, and later, we’ll look at different interpretations of the genre itself, using Emma Smith’s excellent lecture on King Lear for the University of Oxford’s Approaching Shakespeare series. But no quizzing, and no flashcards, because ultimately, they don’t help students to work productively with this fascinatingly complex genre.

Teaching King Lear: Introducing Edmund

We’re nearly at the end of Act One of King Lear! There are lots of things I could blog about – Goneril and riotous knights and the concept of tragedy among them – but today I’m going to focus on Edmund.

Where do we start? Edmund is there right at the beginning of the play, in the conversation that takes place before the entrance of Lear and the spectacle of the love trial. His father, Gloucester, introduces him to Kent, and makes a crass remark about what ‘good sport’ there was ‘at his making’. He also informs Kent that Edmond is illegitimate, referring to him as a ‘whoreson’. Edmund, in response, says very little. It’s easy to skim over this brief conversation on the way to the main part of the action, but I’d argue that students need to go back to it, once they’ve studied Act 1 Scene 2, and imagine what Edmund is thinking while his father is engaging in tactless banter about his conception. How does he react? Is there an eye-roll, a grimace? Does he play along? Has he heard it all before?

Thou, Nature, art my goddess: Daniel Schroeder as Edmund (Source: YouTube)

If Edmund’s behaviour in Act 1 Scene 1 is somewhat inscrutable, Act 1 Scene 2 leaves us under no illusions whatsoever as to how he actually feels about his situation. His soliloquy at the beginning of Act 1 Scene 2 reveals him as charismatic, persuasive, and deeply resentful. Note that it’s the first soliloquy spoken in the whole play. I draw students’ attention to this, as it’s a good point to make about Shakespeare’s methods, and encourages them to think about dramatic method on a much broader level than the picky micro analysis that GCSE often seems to encourage. (I get them to think of Shakespeare as the puppeteer, pulling the strings: why does he make this character, whichever character it might be, do this at this particular point in the play?)

Soliloquies are a funny thing. They can be played simply as the revelation of a character’s thoughts, allowing the audience access to feelings and motivations that do not – for whatever reason – emerge in conversation. In this type of soliloquy, it’s as though we, as the audience, are not actually there: we’re simply witnessing the private unfolding of the workings of a character’s mind. A good example of this kind of soliloquy is Macbeth’s ‘Is this a dagger I see before me?’ in Act 2 Scene 1, immediately before the murder of Duncan. But some of Shakespeare’s soliloquies can equally be played as monologues, spoken directly to the audience. Edmund’s soliloquies fall into this category. Yes, he could be speaking just to himself, voicing the grudges that have been burning within him ever since he learned of his inferior status. However, I’d argue that his solo speeches are much more effective when used as a way of building a relationship with the audience, breaking the fourth wall and inviting us to share in the injustice of his situation. One excellent example of this is Paapa Essiedu’s performance for the 2016 RSC production, available on Digital Theatre: Essiedu’s facial expressions beckon the audience to join in with his disdain and present Edmund – after the mannered speeches of Gonerill and Regan – as perfectly plausible and sympathetic. Two very good short film examples are Daniel Schroeder’s and Riz Ahmed’s for the Guardian’s Shakespeare Solos series, both of which are delivered straight to camera. After all, to a 21st century audience, Edmund’s objections to his treatment are perfectly reasonable. Why should he be branded with baseness, purely because of his illegitimacy?

There’s also the language that Edmund uses. I get students to count the number of questions in his first soliloquy. There are nine in the first fifteen lines: not only questioning, but almost hectoring. Who is he addressing? There’s Nature, first of all, who he addresses as ‘my goddess’, although note that he uses the familiar ‘thou’. There’s Edgar, who we have not yet seen, and who looms in Edmund’s mind as an object of hatred. And there are the gods, the object of Edmund’s final command: ‘Now, gods, stand up for bastards!’ (An interesting exercise you can get students to do is to look at how many times characters in King Lear try to command the gods, as opposed to making requests of them: they’ve not yet learned to ask politely.) Students can also examine the way Edmund plays around with the words that taunt him, spitting out the plosives in ‘bastardy’ and ‘base’ and holding the syllables of ‘legitimate’ up for inspection. Get them to experiment with different ways of emphasising these words, or demonstrate yourself.

I wanted to find out how many soliloquies Edmund actually speaks, so I consulted Open Source Shakespeare and did some counting. (Open Source Shakespeare is brilliant: I found out that the word ‘nothing’ appears more times in King Lear than in any other of Shakespeare’s plays, which is a useful thing for your students to know.) Edmund has more soliloquies than any other character in King Lear – six in total – and his soliloquies make up almost a quarter of his lines. After him, the character given the most opportunities of speaking to the audience is Edgar. An interesting point to note is that Lear – alone of the four great tragic protagonists – has no soliloquies at all, although there are some well-known study websites that claim he has a number of soliloquies, including his ‘O reason not the need!’ speech in Act 2 Scene 4 (spoken in front of both his daughters, Cornwall, Kent, the Fool, and various servants) and his apostrophising of the storm in Act 3 Scene 2 (spoken in front of the Fool). A useful point to make to your students: don’t trust everything you read online.

For a very different Edmund – Robert Lindsay, dripping with hatred – see the 1983 Granada TV production, about 20 minutes in. And see also my article for the British Library’s Discovering Literature series on Edmund, Goneril and Regan, which explores Edmund as an example of Machiavellian duplicity.  

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.

On setting out to teach King Lear once again

So. It’s the start of term, I’m back in my own classroom after a year of carting my stuff around six different teaching zones, and I have an A level English Literature group after two years of focusing on English Language. Teaching A level English Literature is – as you might expect – one of my favourite things about my job, and I’ll be starting the year with King Lear, which is just about my favourite text to teach. Wahey! So, as a new-school-year resolution, I’m going to try to blog my way through teaching King Lear, partly as a record of the whole unfolding teaching process, and partly to help anyone who’s teaching it for the first time and could do with a hand.

A word first about the start of the A level course. I know A level English Literature isn’t simply a list of set texts, and that the course should involve a wider exploration of what the study of literature actually involves. In the past, I’ve begun the course by getting students to think about what literature is, why we read the kinds of books we do, how our interpretations are shaped by our own particular contexts, and so on. But I was never convinced that the students were ready for that kind of philosophical reflection at that point in their A level experience. Students are often too nervous to open up in front of peers who they might have only just met, and they can get hung up on not wanting to say the wrong thing. A few years ago, I decided to go straight into the first set text, and start to feed in wider critical concepts once students had found their feet and relaxed a bit. It worked much more effectively, and I’ve never been tempted to go back.

Michael Perry’s King Lear poster design. Source: Pinterest

We do the AQA B specification, and study Aspects of Tragedy and Elements of Political and Social Protest Writing, two big chunky genres that students enjoy. Most of our students have done Macbeth at GCSE, so should know something about tragedy already, and in many ways Macbeth is the perfect preparation for King Lear, raising similar questions about tragic protagonists and the errors that set their downfalls in motion, as well as the nature of kingship. But before we even start to think about tragedy, I put the students into groups, and give them a series of images to explore. I also give them a number of prompts:

  • What clues do these images give you as to the play’s central characters and themes?
  • What kinds of locations are featured?
  • What kinds of emotions are conveyed?
  • What do you notice about eyes?
  • What do you notice about crowns?
  • What do you notice about the number three?

The images I chose are all examples of art inspired by King Lear: theatrical posters, cover designs and illustrations. Pinterest is a great source of suitable images, and students can then, as a follow-up, be asked to find their own images and save them to a shared class Pinterest board. My King Lear Pinterest board is here, and you’ll also find some examples on Michele Walfred’s ‘King Lear Theatrical Posters’ website, which provides a fascinating commentary on some of these images. I chose these images to highlight particular aspects of the play and give students a context for their reading, but it’s important to note that the discussion generated also helps the students to get to know each other and establishes a culture in which they are allowed to be tentative and exploratory, sharing ideas and building on each other’s contributions.

Students then summarise the outcomes of their discussion. It’s interesting to see how much of the play’s plot and themes they can piece together. There are obvious points about tensions and rivalries within families, about the precariousness of the crown and the idea of division. Stefano Imbert’s poster for the Boomerang Theatre Company’s 2006 production depicts a man literally split into three, alone on a hilltop in a bleak landscape. Wieslaw Walkulski’s poster for the 1992 production of Król Lear at the Teatr Nowy in Poznan shows the king’s crown disintegrating and obscuring his vision. Istvan Orosz’s striking poster for the 1999 production of Lear Király at the Petrofi Theatre in Hungary, meanwhile, shows the crown entangled in the bare branches of the king’s mind. Other images – including Clare Van Vliet’s woodcut illustration for The Tragedie of King Lear and the stark poster produced for the Wharton Center’s 2011 production of the play – focus on the threat posed by the elements, while chess pieces and grasping hands also feature.

I then introduce some quotations from the play:

  • Meantime we shall express our darker purpose.
  • Come not between the dragon and his wrath!
  • He hath ever but slenderly known himself.
  • Now gods, stand up for bastards!
  • The king falls from bias of nature, there’s father against child.
  • Who is it that can tell me who I am?
  • How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child!
  • Thou would’st make a good fool.
  • I pray you, father, being weak, seem so.
  • I prithee, daughter, do not make me mad.
  • You heavens, give me patience, patience I need!
  • I will do such things – what they are, yet I know not, but they shall be the terrors of the earth.
  • I am a man more sinned against than sinning.
  • The younger rises as the old doth fall.
  • Then let them anatomise Regan; see what breeds about her heart.
  • The worst is not, so long as we can say ‘This is the worst’.
  • As flies to wanton boys are we to th’gods; they kill us for their sport.
  • ‘Tis the time’s plague when madmen lead the blind.
  • Through tattered clothes great vices do appear: robes and furred gowns hide all.
  • You ever gentle gods, take my breath from me.
  • I fear I am not in my perfect mind.
  • O fool! I shall go mad.
  • I am a very foolish, fond old man.
  • The gods are just.
  • The wheel has come full circle.
  • Why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life, and thou no breath at all?

Students are asked to look for further examples of the themes they’ve identified, and to make connections between quotations. Again, it’s surprising how far students can get in these initial explorations. This week, for instance, my new Year Twelves observed that a number of the quotations make requests of the gods – from Edmond’s ‘Now, gods, stand up for bastards!’ to Gloucester’s ‘You ever gentle gods, take my breath from me’. However, they also spotted that the gods do not necessarily assent to these requests: ‘As flies to wanton boys, are we to th’gods; They kill us for their sport’. They linked this quotation to the recurring images of chess pieces, and the idea that while characters might think they can command the gods, they learn eventually that they are little more than pawns in an indifferent universe.

That was a long way to go in just our first two lessons, accompanied by incredibly rich discussions. Students drew on their knowledge of other plays, and working in groups meant that they were able to build relationships with their new classmates, as well as giving me the chance to observe how they interacted and gauge how confident they were in handling Shakespeare’s language. Their homework for the next lesson was to research the features of tragedy, which is the kind of flipped learning we’ve been doing in English for years without making a fuss about it 🙂

Exploring Caliban: ‘You never think of Shakespeare as being about things like that.’

Year Eight are doing The Tempest at the moment, and have done some fantastic work exploring the character of Caliban. I’m writing about it here because it illustrates a number of important things: how the study of literature contributes to critical thinking; how Shakespeare can be used to illuminate contemporary issues; and how sophisticated and thoughtful students can be, if they’re given the opportunity.

The Tempest can be a difficult play to teach. Its links to colonialism and slavery can seem tricky to negotiate: the play is complex enough in itself, with its long scenes and those really boring bits with Miranda and Ferdinand. (I mean, come on.) I’d argue, though, that the play’s historical context, and its stage history, make it ripe for exploring issues of representation and the idea of the Other, and raising students’ awareness of how decisions about how to present particular characters can convey complex messages about ethnicity and power.

With Year Eight, I keep historical context relatively simple. We look at the storm in Act 1 Scene 1, and discuss how a storm at sea might have been created on stage when the play was first performed. Then we examine the backstory outlined by Prospero in Act 1 Scene 2. He and his daughter Miranda have been exiled from Milan, put on board a ship, and left to the mercy of the seas. Eventually, they find themselves on an island. The island has been given by a witch, Sycorax, to her son, Caliban. We note that Caliban’s name is a near-anagram of ‘cannibal’. I remind them of when Shakespeare was writing, and ask them what they know about overseas exploration and exploitation at this time. We note that travellers were setting out from Europe and laying claim to other parts of the world, and share what students know about colonialism. And then we turn our attention to Caliban.

Before our first encounter with Caliban, I ask students to search for images of him in different stage and film productions. Wikipedia proclaims confidently that Caliban is ‘half man, half monster’, and Prospero describes him as a ‘mooncalf’ – a monstrous birth – and as ‘a freckled whelp hag-born, / Not honoured with a human shape.’ Many productions have taken their cue from this, and presented Caliban as a strange being who is only partly human. The students test Google Images to its limits, and find pictures of hairy wild men and strange scaly beasts. In one image he’s a weird lizard-man with green reticulated skin: in another, he’s encrusted with barnacles and seaweed. An early Caliban – Fyodor Paramonov in 1905 – seems almost human, but has enormous claws and spikes on his elbows. Hugh Griffith’s 1946 Caliban is warty and amphibious. A puppet version of Caliban, pictured on the RSC website, looks more like a giant toad.

Fyodor Paramonov as Caliban in 1905, complete with claws and spikes. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Many of these beast-like Calibans make the students laugh, but the more human Calibans get them thinking. We look at John Kani’s Caliban for the RSC in 2009, a dignified man who is almost a mirror image of Prospero, and Djimon Hounsou’s Caliban in Julie Taymor’s 2010 film version of the play. We examine Calibans who have scars, who look aggrieved and exhausted. Why might Caliban feel this way? What might have happened in his past?

We place these images alongside the words that Prospero and Miranda use to describe Caliban. He’s ‘a thing most brutish’, a ‘savage’, ‘filth’. He is ‘got by the Devil himself.’ He is, shockingly, addressed as ‘slave’, ‘poisonous slave’, ‘abhorred slave’, ‘most lying slave.’ Prospero calls him a ‘tortoise’, and while the students initially think this is funny, I ask them to think of it alongside the references to slavery: Prospero is insulting him for not doing his bidding quickly enough. The students discuss these descriptions of Caliban, and think about how much more appalling they are if they’re directed at a human being, rather than a giant warty mutant. Is it more effective, I ask, to present Caliban as a monster, or as a human? The penny drops. One student says, ‘If you present Caliban as a monster, you’re kind of justifying why Prospero treats him in the way he does, because Prospero wants to bring him under control. But if you present him as human, it makes Prospero seem worse. Prospero’s more of a monster than he is.’

There are a number of moments in the play that students find particularly intriguing. One is Caliban’s description of how Prospero treated him when he first came to the island:

When thou cam’st first,
Thou strok’st me and made much of me, wouldst give me
Water with berries in’t, and teach me how
To name the bigger light and how the less,
That burn by day and night. And then I loved thee,
And showed thee all the qualities o’th’isle,
The fresh springs, brine pits, barren place and fertile.
Cursed be I that did so!

The students are outraged on Caliban’s behalf. ‘It’s not fair!’ one of them exclaims. ‘He treats Caliban as if he’s really special, and then takes advantage of him. Caliban just wants to show off his island, and he ends up having it taken away from him.’ Another is Caliban’s description of the way Prospero’s demons torment him:

For every trifle are they set upon me;
Sometime like apes that mow and chatter at me
And after bite me, then like hedgehogs which
Lie tumbling in my barefoot way and mount
Their pricks at my footfall; sometime am I
All wound with adders who with cloven tongues
Do hiss me into madness.

We look at how the use of a soliloquy here enables Shakespeare to build sympathy for Caliban, allowing a direct communication with the audience. And then there’s the way Caliban reacts to Stephano, and the prospect of a new master. What does Caliban’s behaviour show us about him?

The students are full of ideas. He’s so used to being insulted that he almost throws himself at the first person who’s kind to him. He’s desperate to not be under Prospero’s power. One student points out that Caliban has been treated like rubbish for so long that he can only see himself as someone else’s servant: he doesn’t see himself as worthy of being free. I ask them to link these observations to the images we looked at, and they decide that the humanoid Calibans would just seem ridiculous at this point. One even says that the humanoid Calibans ‘seem funny, but when you think about it they’re actually really offensive.’ Their favourite Calibans, the ones they think are most powerful, are the human Calibans, those who are scarred and dignified. ‘It makes you think’, one boy says, ‘that Shakespeare was saying that colonialism was wrong, because this is what it did to people. It wasn’t just a physical thing, it was a mental thing as well. You never think of Shakespeare as being about things like that.’

The students will be writing their own Caliban monologues next week, exploring Caliban’s feelings about the island and the way Prospero has treated him. We haven’t read the whole play – we’ve missed out the Miranda and Ferdinand bits – and there hasn’t been a GCSE-style extract-based question in sight, but there has been a lot of rich discussion and close reading, and a real awareness of why representations matter.

in thunder, lightning, and in rain

I’ve just started teaching Macbeth for the sixty billionth time. Okay, the fifty billionth time. Well, actually it’s the twenty-third time, but the point is that in the course of a teaching career there are some texts that come up over and over again. People think this must get tedious. My standard reply is to remind them of all the Maths teachers, teaching Pythagoras’ Theorem and quadratic equations year in year out, or the biologists with photosynthesis, or the French department conjugating present tense verbs: now that’s what tedious is. With Macbeth, at least you’ve got some blood and guts involved.

There are some parts of Macbeth that are fantastic to teach. I’ve just got to the end of Act One Scene Three with my Year Tens, and we’ve been focusing on how Shakespeare builds up a sense of Macbeth in our minds before we even meet him. There’s that tantalising mention by the witches in Act One Scene One: what do they want with him, exactly? And then there’s the account of his prowess in battle by the wounded captain in the next scene, telling us of his sword that smokes with bloody execution and of how he killed the treacherous Macdonwald by unseaming him from the nave to the chaps. Scotland has been invaded by Norway, and a number of Scottish thanes have betrayed their king: in fighting against them, Macbeth is cast as not only brave and ruthless, but also loyal. So, we’ve got mixed messages about him. It’s not surprising, then, that he reacts to the witches in the way he does. He starts, and seems afraid. It takes him a while to find his voice. And when he finds out that he is indeed going to become Thane of Cawdor, his mind starts to work overtime. On Friday, we looked at his aside in Act One Scene Three, where Shakespeare explores the thoughts that are beginning to take shape:

[Aside] Two truths are told,
As happy prologues to the swelling act
Of the imperial theme. — I thank you, gentlemen. —
This supernatural soliciting
Cannot be ill, cannot be good. If ill,
Why hath it given me earnest of success,
Commencing in a truth? I am Thane of Cawdor.
If good, why do I yield to that suggestion
Whose horrid image doth unfix my hair
And make my seated heart knock at my ribs,
Against the use of nature? Present fears
Are less than horrible imaginings.
My thought, whose murder yet is but fantastical,
Shakes so my single state of man that function
Is smothered in surmise, and nothing is
But what is not.

Look at the quibbling in this speech. He doesn’t know whether the witches’ words are good or bad. If they’re bad, why have they brought him something good? If they’re good, why are they making him think of something so awful that he can’t even name it, so terrible that it makes his heart pound and his hair stand on end? Nothing is but what is not; fair is foul and foul is fair. This is a man whose world is about to be turned upside-down, who is contemplating something that goes against everything his identity has been built on.

Macbeth also introduces students to the idea that you need to know something about the context of a work of literature in order to inhabit its imaginative world. There are the obvious things that students can research – beliefs about witchcraft in Shakespeare’s England, the Divine Right of Kings, and the status of women – but I also like to show them images of Hell from the ‘doom paintings’ that decorated the walls of medieval churches, to show them that Hell was something that Shakespeare’s audience would have seen as very real and utterly terrifying, and therefore to underline just what Macbeth faces as a result of killing Duncan. There’s a fantastic example in the church of St Peter and St Paul at Chaldon in Surrey. It dates back to the thirteenth century, and depicts the seven deadly sins and the weighing of souls. In one image, the condemned are thrown into a boiling cauldron, with leering demons poking them with giant forks: in another, some poor unfortunate is suspended by his ears while his nether regions are roasted over an open fire. Imagine sitting in church every Sunday, looking at pictures of flame-grilled genitals and eternal torture: that’s what Macbeth has in store for him. The other thing I like to get them to do is to find out when Macbeth was first performed, and then to find out the date of the Gunpowder Plot. Why would James I have been so keen on a play that points out the evils of regicide? You can see the students putting the dates together. Oh.

Doom mural at St Peter and St Paul, Chaldon (Source: Peter Trimming at Geograph Britain and Ireland; licensed for reuse under Creative Commons)

The main problem I have with Macbeth is that it jumps the shark. There are the brilliant early scenes with Lady Macbeth, the murder of Duncan, the unravelling of Macbeth’s mind, the breakdown of his relationship with his wife (look at how he tells her, just before the murder of Banquo, to ‘be innocent of the knowledge, dearest chuck’, and contrast it with how much he needed her earlier in the play). There’s the chaos unleashed in Scotland, the banquet scene, and Macbeth’s return to the witches. And then there’s that tedious conversation between Malcolm and Macduff, and the unravelling of the second set of prophecies. And it’s all a bit rubbish. I remember sitting in a Year Eleven lesson when I was studying Macbeth for GCSE, and thinking, ‘is that it?’ Some verbal quibbling about a C-section, and a group of men cutting down branches? Compared with the end of King Lear, it seems contrived, a bit of a trick. You’d tell him to go back and have another go, if you were his beta reader.

I expect you know that Fleance, in Roman Polanski’s 1971 version of Macbeth, was played by Keith Chegwin, later of Swap Shop, Cheggers Plays Pop and, after several years in the wilderness, the Channel 5 gameshow Naked Jungle. Did you know, though, that Paul Farley wrote a poem about Chegwin’s role? It’s here, at the Poetry Society website. The most atmospheric Macbeth I’ve ever seen: the production in the crypt of the Norman church of St Peter in the East in Oxford, now the library of St Edmund Hall. It was December 1991, the end of my first term, and there were actual bats flapping around. And my favourite Macbeth-related moment: back in 2017, when we were driving up to Orkney, we passed through Birnam, and a group of forestry workers were cutting down trees.

In the beginning

In sooth, I know not why I am so sad. It’s September 1987, the first week of the new school year, and we’re doing Shakespeare. We’re allowed to do Shakespeare because we’re in the top set. It gives us a sense of importance, of privilege: we square our shoulders and underline our headings and brace ourselves for the task ahead. There are two top sets, one in each half of the year, and the other one is doing Twelfth Night. We’re doing The Merchant of Venice. We’re in Mrs Ferns’ class. I’ve never had her before, but my friend Catherine has, and says you don’t want to get on the wrong side of her. Mrs Ferns has half-moon spectacles that she will lower occasionally, peering over the top of them and fixing some poor unfortunate with a beady glare. She keeps singling me out to answer questions, and for a while I think she’s picking on me, until my mum says that she’s probably just trying to test me out. Then I start putting my hand up more often, and she moves on to someone else.

It seems a bit weird, this Shakespeare business. My impression of studying Shakespeare has been formed by Adrian Mole, who writes in his diary of ‘translating Shakespeare into modern English.’ It takes us a while to get Salarino and Solanio sorted out, and we whinge about why it didn’t occur to him to choose names that were a bit easier to distinguish. We suspect that Mrs Ferns is playing mind games, sometimes, when she asks us to interpret what kind of language Shakespeare has used, why he’s used this particular word and what it might suggest. We complain that we’re reading too much into it. (Reading too much into it: that thing that every English teacher will be accused of, at some point. Surely Shakespeare didn’t mean to use all those metaphors and things?) But we’re a biddable class, and we do our homework diligently. We’re doing this new qualification, the GCSE, and know that it’s important to work hard right from the start: we’ll be doing coursework soon, and it’ll go towards our final grades. Shakespeare is all part of this. He’ll help us to do well.

In Venice, things are afoot. Antonio is borrowing money from Shylock because his friend Bassanio wants to marry a woman called Portia, who lives in Belmont. We’re not quite sure why he needs money to do this (new clothes? hiring a carriage?) or why Antonio is getting himself in debt for him. Mrs Ferns tells us that Antonio is sometimes played ‘a bit queer’, and because it’s 1987, nobody thinks to pull her up on this, although I know it’s a comment that at least one of my classmates still remembers over thirty years later, citing it as one of the things – the slow drip-drip of ingrained thoughtlessness and prejudice – that made him feel different, and isolated, without any hope of ever fitting in. Mrs Ferns also tells us about the roots of anti-Semitism, and about stereotypes of Jewishness. We think of Shylock in his gaberdine, a bogeyman, another outsider, pleading for acceptance. If you prick us, do we not bleed? In Belmont, the Prince of Morocco chooses the wrong casket, and learns that all that glisters is not gold: the Prince of Aragon, not wanting to opt for what many men desire, picks the silver, and is rewarded with the portrait of a blinking idiot. We know, from long-ago fairytales, that both of them were obviously misguided, that the third casket, the least special, is the right one to pick. But the story is trying to teach us something, as well as to entertain us, and so we let it.

There is news on the Rialto. Antonio’s ships have run aground on the Goodwin Sands: immediately after Bassanio claims Portia as his, he hears that his friend’s ventures have failed. All the riches of Tripoli, of Mexico, of Barbary and India, all lost. We picture silks and spices, rich brocades and woven cloths, all floating on the sea or sunk at the bottom of the English Channel. None of us has ever been to Venice. We know it’s in Italy, and that the streets are canals filled with gondolas, but that’s about it. We know that the Rialto is a bridge, but not what it looks like. We imagine somewhere busy and bustling, alive with colours, the scents of distant lands. Shylock is ready to exact his bond, and Portia puts on her disguise, ready to make her speech. The quality of mercy is not strained: It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven Upon the place beneath … Mrs Ferns makes us learn it off by heart, and I can still remember it even now, reciting it as my party piece whenever my students complain about having to learn quotations.

Our GCSE coursework is to write the front page of a newspaper, reporting on the trial. I have an idea of what I want to write but can’t make it work. I don’t know how to get the sentences to sound right. I get 16 out of 20, and ‘Good’ in red biro, but I don’t know why I got 16 out of 20, or how I could have got 17 or even 18. That wasn’t how schools worked, then. Today we’d have been given assessment criteria and mark schemes; we’d have been shown examples of what a good piece of work looked like and had the chance to get feedback on a draft of our work before having a go at the finished version. But it’s 1987, so we accept what we’ve got, and move on to our piece of work, on the War Poets, where we do even more reading-things-into-things and where our answers never seem to match up to the ones in Mrs Ferns’ head.

*             *             *             *             *

We tried to go to Venice in 2000, but there was an air traffic control strike in Italy and all the planes were grounded. Then life got in the way, as life does, and we didn’t try again until 2016. This time, we made it. It was February half-term, the week after the Carnevale, and we arrived in a misty Cannaregio towing our suitcases and hardly believing we were here. Venice! But backstreet Venice, away from the tourist hubs. Humpbacked bridges and buildings scarred with graffiti and patched with damp. Elderly men and women with wheeled shopping trollies and small dogs, going about their daily business. I remembered something I’d read in a biography of Edith Wharton, about how the interesting places were always to the side of the important monuments, hidden away.

And then we were at the Rialto. Covered in scaffolding, but still, the Rialto! Shylock wouldn’t have recognised it. The silks and brocades were cheap scarves; the spices were sachets of dried herbs for making different types of pasta sauce. There was Murano glass and fake designer handbags and bottles of olive oil. The bridge sloped under my feet and I stood and bounced, absorbing it through my soles. This was the Rialto and this was Venice and in some ways, this was where it all began. I thought of Mrs Ferns’ lessons and of everything that had happened since, and the people flowed past me on either side, oblivious.