Back in 1967, with all of an adolescent’s assurance and pomposity I wrote in my A Level English exam that King Lear was too great a play actually to be successfully staged. It makes me cringe somewhat to think of that now, but it must have impressed the examiners as they gave me a good grade. And it is true that I have in fact never seen Lear on stage. I fear that I would not see it done well enough. A couple of years back I tried to get to the Ian McKellen production – surely that would have been top class, I thought – but it was sold out.
Two nights ago I went to a talk by a Professor* who has translated ALL of Shakespeare into Czech, in which he told his spellbound audience how he went about it and what the difficulties and the joys are in that huge task. In it he said that he put Lear among the best plays ever written, by anybody, with its massive themes of folly and loyalty and disloyalty.
It was while my father was driving me home after seeing Richard III at Stratford in November 1963 that we learned of the death of President Kennedy. We turned on the car radio and heard the voice of Sir Alec Douglas-Home, then the Prime Minister, paying tribute to the President. An evening of dramatic deaths became all too real.
I had not thought much of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in my teens, thinking that it was all about fairies and with not much happening. But then at college I saw a student production and came out of the theatre feeling that it was so good to be alive. Not many plays have done that – fingers of one hand? – but that was one of them.
Some reservations? In that study of how power corrupts, Measure for Measure, the amazing coincidences that solve the plotlines do grate somewhat: did the Bard lose interest, or run out of time, and just bring in a deus ex machina or two (dei ex machina?) to finish it? And I admit to not actually enjoying The Taming of the Shrew, and to having seen so many Twelfth Nights that I won’t mind if I go to my grave not having seen any more.
But a great King Lear …………? Yes please.
*Prof. Martin Hilský, of Charles University in Prague, awarded an honorary MBE for his services to literature