Learning Lear

by Anna Sharp

To kick off the spring 2016 CLASS Seminars, the scholars attended the Nashville Shakespeare Festival’s production of King Lear in Belmont’s Troutt Theater. It was quite a different show from the one the scholars attended last year, the comedy Twelfth Night. In Lear, the scholars saw a darker side of the Bard. “It surprises people,” Dr. Marcia McDonald noted as she opened the seminar. “There are moments of violence.” And indeed, there are. From stabbings to swordfights to poisoning to pulling out eyeballs, King Lear deserves every bit of its categorization as a tragedy. “Did you expect all the characters to die at the end?” Dr. McDonald asked the scholars.

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The scholars get familiar with Elizabethan English.

The truth of the matter is that life is sometimes violent and heartbreaking, and as Dr. McDonald revealed, what Shakespeare was doing in his plays was simply recording life and humanity as he saw them. She emphasized that Shakespeare “did not go to an ivory tower to write.”And when the scholars were asked what they thought a day in the Bard’s life would have been like, their answers were spot on: observing people, writing, and spending time in theaters. This is the down-to-earth image of Shakespeare Dr. McDonald presented. “He probably saw the kings and he probably saw the beggars.” This helped to explain the range of characters found in the play—regal but mad Lear and shamed Edgar turned Poor Tom who only masqueraded as mad. Dr. Jayme Yeo shed further light on the complex characters of Lear by explaining how “kings were like fathers” whose duty was to care for the nation, which symbolized their family. She emphasized that Lear giving up his kingdom was akin to giving up his family, so it was not a stretch to see Lear as a bad father to his daughters. Historical and literary insights like this helped to clear the scholars’ confusion over aspects of the play such as King Lear’s treatment of Cordelia.

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The discussion moved from the 17th century to the 21st as Denice Hicks, the director of King Lear and actor who played him when the scholars saw the show, took the lead. She revealed that King Lear was a bit of a challenge for her. “I avoided that play my whole life because it’s so dark…and because I didn’t want to have to figure out how to pull somebody’s eyeballs out onstage,” she admitted to the scholars. Her solution to this turned out to be focusing on the humanity of the play—the ways in which it is still relatable to audiences today. The scholars certainly related to the show and were engaged in the discussion, asking questions about characters, costumes, and sets or commenting on what they liked best about the production. The Fool seemed to have captured the scholars’ hearts more than any other character, as they were especially inquisitive about him. Denice Hicks shared the sentiment, musing, “Everybody should have a fool, right? Someone who can make you laugh.” Soon after, the scholars got their chance to try the Fool on for size by participating in staged readings.

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‘King Lear’ plans to divide his realm between his three daughters, but ‘Cordelia’ doesn’t agree with his method.

Dr. McDonald laid out a variety of King Lear scenes for the scholars to choose from. “Who would like to go mad?” she asked, making the scholars laugh as she stacked one of Edgar’s ‘Poor Tom’ scenes into a pile. Everyone divided into groups and chose their favorite scene to work on, and as the minutes passed they were transformed from CLASS Scholars into Shakespearean actors. Quiet voices and self-consciousness turned to giggles and grandiose gestures as the scholars—excuse me, actors—grew more comfortable with the lines and language. In addition to Denice Hicks, Dr. Yeo, and Dr. McDonald, King Lear’s producer Robert Marigza was on hand to help with the scenes. He gave one group of scholars a lesson in stage combat, although stacked dry-erase markers were used in lieu of swords. Three groups chose to perform their scenes, and it was not hard to see how much fun the scholars had as both actors and spectators.

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Robert Marigza teaches a group of actors stage combat moves using markers.

By the end of the seminar, the scholars had not only learned about but also felt the madness of Lear, the betrayal of Cordelia, and the sage sadness of the Fool. Nashville may be a long way from the Globe Theatre, but distance didn’t matter for the CLASS Scholars. Shakespeare was right there with them.

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