King Lear: Breakdown of Its Central Character Essay
As one of Shakespeare’s most famous tragedies, King Lear explores the breakdown of its central character, King Lear, as he tries to divide his kingdom between his daughters. McAlindon (cited in McEachen, 2) defines tragedy as ‘an intense exploration of suffering focused on the experience of an exceptional individual’ and there is no doubt that this play focuses heavily on the gradual breakdown of Lear as he tries to understand which of his daughters is most worthy. A play of such intense emotional turmoil does not always translate easily onto the cinema screen. However, one very effective way of portraying deep emotion is through close-up. This essay aims to explore the use of close-ups in Peter Brook’s 1971 adaptation in order to ascertain their effectiveness in conveying the inner emotions of the doomed king.
Act one, scene four, comes in the midst of Lear’s confusion over the division of his lands amongst his daughters. He begins to lament punishing Cordelia and instead turns against Goneril, regretting that he ever trusted her. Lear curses Goneril in the lines;
‘Into her womb convey sterility,
Dry up in her the organs of increase,
And from her derogate body never spring
A babe to honor her.’
Lear is full of wrath and the early signs of madness in this scene, as he wishes sterility upon his daughter. At the start of this speech, the camera sits in a close-up shot from behind Lear, looking over his shoulder as he stands on the right of the frame. Initially, it seems like a soliloquy as Lear appears to be addressing no-one, gazing into the middle distance. However, as he states ‘into her womb convey sterility’ he turns sideways onto the close-up shot and this cuts to a close-up of Goneril looking directly into the camera. It is clear from this point that Lear is addressing the daughter and the camera angle changes.
For the remainder of the speech, Lear is in the close-up center shot looking past the camera to his daughter. Lear looks away from the camera only once during this speech and the intensity of the camera’s gaze on the wrathful king reflects his own intensity of emotion. The camera is unflinching as it observes Lear’s anger and the king, in turn, is unrestrained in his condemnation of his daughter. Through two brief cuts to a front-on close up of Goneril, the tension is briefly abated, only to be increased when the camera returns to the same shot of Lear. The camera refuses to shift and so the viewer is drawn into the full intensity of the moment. Only when Lear utters his final words ‘How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is / To have a thankless child’ (I, iv,271-2), does the camera shot change, panning sides ways to show Goneril and Lear facing each other, side-ways on to the camera, in the same frame. Lear’s condemnation of his daughter is cemented in what Buchanan (2005: 8) describes as Brook’s ‘gritty edged close-ups’.
These unrelenting close-ups are of central importance in Brook’s rendering of King Lear. They return time and again in moments of high tension, especially when Lear lashes out against his daughters and falls into madness. They are often fixed, with Lear moving towards or away from the camera and this rigidity makes the viewing experience a particularly intense one. It has been noted that ‘Brook…highlight[s] Shakespeare’s motif of sight/perception and render[s] this cinematically through….extreme close-ups’ and it is certainly true that it is this intensity of the cinematic gaze that makes Brook’s close-ups so effective.
Shakespeare, William, King Lear. Ed. Appolo, Grace. London: Norton, 2007
King Lear. Dir. Peter Brook. Perf. Paul Schofield, 1971. DVD. Warner Home Video, 2001
Buchanan, Judith, Shakespeare on Film. Harlow: Pearson Education, 2005
Burt, Richard & Boose, Lynda E., eds. Shakespeare, The Movie, II. London: Routledge, 2002
Holland, Peter ‘Two-dimensional Shakespeare: King Lear on the film’ in Shakespeare and the Moving Image: The Plays on Film and Television. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994
McEachen, Claire Elizabeth, The Cambridge Companion to Shakespearean Tragedy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002