In the second episode of Shakespeare Uncovered – Series II, airing at 10:00 pm on January 30th, Christopher Plummer explores Shakespeare’s great tragedy, King Lear. It is a role he knows well, having played the doomed king in a critically acclaimed production that was directed by Sir Jonathan Miller.
Plummer’s guests include Ian McKellen and Simon Russell Beale who share their own unique observations about the play. He also talks with theatre historian Tanya Pollard about how Shakespeare’s Lear disappeared from the stage for nearly 150 years, replaced by a version with a happy ending in which Edgar rescues Cordelia and Lear and they all live happily ever after. That adaptation (written by Nahum Tate) still exists today. He takes us to the Globe Theatre where we see the alternate ending performed and then returns us to Shakespeare’s much more devastating tragedy.
You may be surprised to learn that Lear was a real English king who lived 800 years before Christ and much of the story is thought to be true. It is included in the Chronicles of English History, which Shakespeare often used as source material. But while the real king’s story had a happy ending, Shakespeare chose to turn his play into a much bleaker exploration of what it might be like to lose your mind. He also discusses the events that inspired Shakespeare to write the play to begin with; that delicate moment when Scotland’s King James was trying to create what has become the “united kingdom.”
As one of Shakespeare’s later plays, there is speculation as to whether King Lear is a product of his own mature cynicism. Good does not intervene in the end to prevent the deaths of Lear and his daughter yet Plummer maintains that beneath the cosmic emptiness, the possibility of love survives.
The complete schedule will air on PBS as follows (check local listings).
January 30, 2015
9:00 pm: A Midsummer Night’s Dream with Hugh Bonneville
10:00 pm: King Lear with Christopher Plummer
Friday, February 6, 2015
9:00 pm: The Taming of the Shrew with Morgan Freeman
10:00 pm: Othello with David Harewood
Friday, February 13, 2015
9:00 pm: Antony & Cleopatra with Kim Cattrall
10:00 pm: Romeo and Juliet with Joseph Fiennes
Produced by Blakeway Productions, 116 Films and THIRTEEN Productions LLC for WNET in association with PBS, Sky Arts and Shakespeare’s Globe. For more information and to view previews of upcoming episodes of Shakespeare Uncovered, visit www.pbs.org/wnet/shakespeare-uncovered.
Pictured above: Christopher Plummer. Photo credit: Mark Molesworth