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  • Title: King Leir
  • Author: Peter Cockett

  • Copyright Queen's Men Editions. This text may be freely used for educational, non-profit purposes; for all other uses contact the Editor.
    Author: Peter Cockett
    Peer Reviewed

    King Leir

    70King Leir, Scene 10

    King Leir: Don Allison
    Gonorill: Matthew Krist
    Cornwall: Jason Gray
    English Lord: Phil Borg
    Perillus: Peter Higginson

    Performing King Leir (Sc. 10)

    Read about performing King leir in Scene 1

    One of the most substantial differences between this play and Shakespeare's is the representation of the king. The kings are both accused of pride, vanity, and lack of self-knowledge; his daughters complain that he criticizes and asserts his authority even after abdication. In Shakespeare's play we see that there is some substance to his daughters' accusations (even the knowing fool agrees), but in King Leir there is no support for their mistreatment of their father. Leir is a good old man who makes a terrible error of judgment, rewarding the sisters' flattery instead of Cordella's modest honesty.

    In this scene, Leir does nothing to warrant his daughter's aggression. His comment about her "breeding young bones" (TLN 844), although taken as an insult by Gonorill, was read in performance as a hopeful surmise that pregnancy might be the cause of his mistreatment. That is, Leir intended to reassure Cornwall as well as make sense of the surprising reversal of affection he experiences at the hands of his daughter.

    Leir eventually realizes his mistake and the play takes him through a process of recognition, repentance and suffering, comparable to what we see in King Lear. The focus, however, does not fall on Leir's character development or the cultural complexities of kingship; instead, the play presents us with a spectacle of Christian suffering and an example of endurance and faith in God's providential justice. Rather than investigating the psychological complexity of the king as an individual, the role challenges a contemporary actor to empathically connect with the ideas of faith and despair. These ideas that were alien to our largely secular actors and it was necessary to highlight their importance during the rehearsal process. The dialogue between King Leir and Perillus, here and in the later scenes depends for its affect on the gravity with which early modern Christians viewed the sin of despair.

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    Performing Cornwall (Sc. 10)

    Read about performing Cornwall in Scene 5

    Jason Gray (Cornwall) found his character's sudden exit from this scene difficult to motivate (TLN 850). Looking at the issue from the point of view of psychological realism: why would a character so keen to console Leir at the outset (TLN 819-810) suddenly abandon him to the anger of his daughter? Is he afraid of Gonorill? Does he have an extremely low tolerance for domestic conflict? Does he feel that it is not his place to interfere in the relationship once the depth of the conflict is clear? Jason considered all of these options but I don't believe he ever found a solution to the problem that fully satisfied him. As rehearsal progressed Jason increased the level of naivety that he brought to bear on his first scenes and used this device to build motivation for his exit here. The result was a kindly and charming king and husband who became befuddled by his wife's behavior and was unwilling to take sides; having put his foot in his mouth with his comment about a "woman's words" (TLN 843), he decides the wiser move is to absent himself from the family argument. Jason's approach to his character has much in common with Shakespeare's initial treatment of the kindly and somewhat ineffective Albany.

    75His choices worked well enough for this scene but Cornwall later becomes very concerned about Leir's welfare (TLN 945-951) and retrospectively it remained strange that he should just abandon him at this point. Dramaturgically, however, his exit is convenient as it allows Gonorill to throw Leir out without her husband's knowledge. The important consequence of this is that it makes Cornwall appear to be the dupe of his dominant wife, an idea that is picked up in Ragan's subsequent soliloquy in (Scene 25). From the point of view of conservative patriarchal ideology, this inversion of authority suggests a further sign of the disorder brought about when fathers abdicate their authority to daughters.

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    Performing Gonorill (Sc. 10)

    Read about performing Gonorill in scene 2

    In contrast to the portrayal of Leir as an innocent in this scene, Gonorill is indisputably vicious. Her cruelty has no justification aside from her selfish desires that have been made openly apparent from her first appearance on stage. The scene presents the actor with another opportunity to revel in the character's manipulative wickedness and Matthew Krist continued to enjoy doing just that, beginning with a performance of the wronged and loving wife that carried just enough irony to amuse the audience even while fooling Cornwall (TLN 832-840), and then moving to a sarcastic moral outrage when she takes mock offence at the implication that she might have been pregnant before she was married (TLN 846-849).

    Read more about performing Gonorill

    [[ Resource not found ]] Watch video of Scene 10 on the Performing the Queen's Men website. (The video footage is password protected. Click on "Cancel" in the pop-up window to obtain password.)

    Queen's Men Dramaturgy: Moral Dichotomy (Sc. 10)

    Read about Queen's Men moral dichotomy in Scene 9

    As critics point out, Lear's culpability is an open question in Shakespeare's play; in Leir, this ambiguity vanishes as the play defines Gonorill and Ragan as evil from the start and depicts Leir as a good man suffering as a consequence of one error of judgment rather than because of a flaw in his character, a lack of self-knowledge, or his insensitivity to those over whom he ruled - all of which are implied in Shakespeare's play. In King Leir, good is set more clearly against evil. God's providential justice will lead the good king through suffering and penitence to reconciliation and a happy resolution. Such providential orderliness is a stark contrast to Shakespeare's Lear. Even at moments of high conflict, as in this scene, the quality of pantomime in the villainy invites a strikingly different response from the audience - its transparency makes it more playful and less perplexing than the same wickedness in Shakespeare's play. In performance we could have encouraged a less light-hearted approach coupling the playfulness of the sisters with a fearful awareness of the influence of evil in the world. The comedy of the devils in the morality tradition is often both funny and spiritually frightening in this way and by not considering the spiritual dimension here we may have diluted the emotional impact of the sister's wickedness. The moral dichotomy would remain clear-cut but the affect could have been more complex.

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    [[ Resource not found ]] Watch video of Scene 10 on the Performing the Queen's Men website. (The video footage is password protected. Click on "Cancel" in the pop-up window to obtain password.)

    Queen's Men Dramaturgy: Rhetoric of Emotion (Sc. 10)

    Leir's treatment by Gonorill causes him to long for death and to weep. Perillus then steps forward to rescue his master from despair, kindling his hope that Ragan will treat Leir more kindly. The pattern of this scene is repeated later in the play and much time is invested in these exchanges. In terms of action, it first appeared relatively static to us: Leir despairs, Perillus persuades him to hope again. But in the world of the play this action is highly significant and for this section we did draw on the spiritual context of the conflict to give the action a greater sense of urgency, stressing the dire consequences of despair for Christian believers.

    The exchange is constructed using patterns of rhetoric that give a formal beauty to an emotional development that will subsequently shape the play's action. Perillus' persuasions are drawn out across a series of rhetorical figures in which the friend picks up on the complaints of his king and cleverly turns them into justifications for his own loyalty. Leir then turns the tables on his friend by arguing that rationality has no authority in a world where daughters can undermine "sacred law" (TLN 898) and "condemn, despise" and "abhor" their fathers (TLN 904). At this point, Perillus resorts to the eloquence of his own tears that weep in sympathy with Leir and prove his own "love" for his master (TLN 906).

    80 The rhetorical patterning requires the actor to allow the character to be conscious of his manipulation of language. Rather than attempting to give the verse a natural quality as if imitating everyday speech, the actor must accept that the characters are consciously and deliberately engaging in a rhetorical game as they each pick up on the rhetorical figures and arguments of the other. The beauty and charm of the technique come from the combination of rhetorical word-game and high emotional stakes. Since the technique occurs twice more in the play (TLN 1094-1117) and (TLN 2038-2081), the appeal of this dramaturgy for a contemporary audience was obviously something that the Queen's Men felt they could rely upon. Don Allison and Peter Higginson, the actors that performed this scene, are both adept verse-speakers and were able to capture the appeal of the technique for our twenty first century audience.

    Read more about the rhetoric of emotion in the SQM production

    [[ Resource not found ]]Watch video of Scene 10 on the Performing the Queen's Men website. (The video footage is password protected. Click on "Cancel" in the pop-up window to obtain password.)