George Hunka on King Lear

Monday 15th November 2010

Critic and blogger George Hunka
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A fascinating blog by George Hunka summarises some thoughts about Shakespeare’s King Lear. Quoting Stanley Wells’s introduction to the Oxford edition of the play, he emphasises how unusual this work (which we now know so well) must have been for its first audience: “To its early audiences, the language of King Lear must have seemed very strange, as original in its day as that of James Joyce or Dylan Thomas in theirs. The commentary to this edition notes over a hundred words or compounds which either represent or predate OED’s first recorded use (absolutely or in this sense), and though this is not entirely reliable it gives some idea of the innovativeness of the play’s vocabulary.” Thinking about such innovation, and looking at the myriad examples of rather simple word use in the dialogues of many modern plays, you can’t help thinking: if King Lear had been submitted to a new writing theatre in Britain today the literary manager would probably have rejected it. Yes, um, you can imagine them thinking, very innovative, very fancy, but surely that ending is a bit too sudden, too brutal. Doesn’t make sense; not lifelike. And the audience won’t really understand all this philosophy, and what they don’t understand they won’t like!

© Aleks Sierz


  • George Hunka commented

    on Monday 15th November 2010 at 2:57 pm

    If what Stephen Orgel said in the preface to the Penguin/Pelican edition of the play is correct -- that there's a high likelihood of the play's premiere being at Whitehall rather than the Globe, since the London theatres had been closed (plague) for the entire year before the premiere -- then one can speculate that Shakespeare may have composed King Lear with this court performance in mind, instead of a premiere at the Globe (where it may have eventually ended up, but after the fact). In this case, his conception of the first audience as courtiers and professionals rather than the more differentiated audience at the Globe may have freed his inspiration and vocabulary to take more powerful leaps of imagination. It may also explain the relative lack of mention of a Globe performance in contemporary accounts. Perhaps it flopped. It's an interesting idea to toy with.

    Anyway, I doubt the RC would take it on either, really. After all, the beggars and homeless in the play are really aristocrats playacting at the condition. Kent and Edmund are courtiers, after all, slumming it because they must.

    My first post on the play is here:

    Thanks for the mention, Aleks.
  • George Hunka commented

    on Monday 15th November 2010 at 3:12 pm

    I meant Edgar rather than Edmund in the post above, of course. Whoops.

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