Rewriting and reinterpretations of literary works have become a widespread issue in recent productions of literary works. This has been considered as one of the leading novelistic genres in the current world. Reinterpretations of literary works through rewriting or retelling show the changing political, economic, and social aspects of the world, the interaction and interplay of the present and past modes of fictional presentation, and the use and development of text comprehension. Among all the plays that were written by Shakespeare, King Lear is probably the most reinterpreted and retold in many plays, novels, and movies. None of Shakespeare’s tragedies has received such consideration as King Lear, especially in terms of modern remakes.
Rewriting acknowledged works has become widespread in recent works of literature. This has led to the appreciation of appropriation as one of the leading novelistic genres in the modern world. One of the most popular types of reinterpretation or rewriting is re-contextualization. Re-contextualization comes in the form of placing a literary work in a rather different context, for instance, placing an original work of literature in a new temporal and spatial context, such as a modern context.
An example of re-contextualization can be found in the novel called A thousand Acres (1991) written by Jane Smiley. The author put the plot of King Lear in the context of the American Midwest during Jimmy Carter’s presidency. A Thousand Acres reinterprets King Lear by giving the reader a different side of the story through retelling it from the two evil older daughters’ point of view. The author lets the reader understand evil as a thing that comes as a psychological suffering caused by an abusive father. The main theme that is highlighted in A Thousand Acres is the brutality of domestic violence involving father-daughter incest and the reaction of the innocent daughters to the incest. In A Thousand Acres, Smiley reinterpreted Shakespeare’s King Lear from the scene of public politics and retold it from a domestic context (Lin 96).
Shakespeare’s King Lear presents tragedy that begins with precipitancy. Readers can easily see that two conflicts occur in a royal family and in another family of the grandee. The conflicts reveal moral and social essence of the tragedy. The relations in feudal society highlight the issues of submission of peasants to knights and landowners to barons. Therefore, the tragedy that exists in King Lear represents conflicts that can be seen in a perishing social system.
The world has experienced a change with respect to the social systems that existed in the past. In the present world, modern social systems are different in many ways from the past social systems. For instance, the feudal social systems that were characteristic of the past are no longer existent. Therefore, the reinterpretations of King Lear highlight changes in time. When Shakespeare wrote King Lear, he did so in a way that it reflected the manner in which society was organized at that time. The reinterpretations and retelling of King Lear have been done to reflect the current societal backgrounds.
King Lear is still important in the study of literature. Therefore, to make it meaningful in the current world situation, authors choose to retell and reinterpret King Lear in a manner that will make sense to the current generation. The original version of King Lear is important in understanding history. However, the retelling and reinterpretations serve continuity purposes so that readers can relate the original Shakespearean King Lear to modern versions of King Lear that show the current picture of social systems (Small 67).
Many literary works are written with a touch of ancient times. In his tragedy, Shakespeare took advantage of a plot that told a story that goes back to ancient times of mankind. Despite the fact that many literary works use stories of ancient times, only a few of them go to the remote times of humankind to find tragedies. This forms one reason why King Lear has many modern interpretations.
One of the books that Shakespeare is said to have read multiple times was Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland (1577) by Raphael Holinshed. This book had a story of ill-fated destiny of an ancient British King Lear. Moreover, the book touched on stories of the times before the birth of Christ. This book has been retold many times because of the importance of the story that it tells. The issue that makes the tragedy about King Lear be retold numerous times is not just about the tragedy, but also about the social motif in the tragedy. Having seen the possibility of a tragedy, King Lear decided to commit the unreasonable act of giving the kingdom to his daughters. The story is about human nature and the execution of human desires.
The tragedy is about a man who possesses power, loses the power, and then comes to understand matters of injustice and distress. Therefore, the motive in King Lear by Shakespeare is one of the reasons why the play is reinterpreted and retold today. The reinterpretations serve to inform the reader about the fact that power does end and those in power can find themselves in positions that are unfamiliar to them, while those without power can gain it. In A Thousand Acres, Smiley does this by addressing the Jimmy Carter years in the United States. In King Lear, social motives have been clearly brought up and influence its interpretations. For instance, in the scene where mad Lear and blinded Gloucester meet, Lear says, “Get thee glass eyes; and like a scurvy politician, seem to see the things thou dost not.” (Shakespeare IV 6) This phrase shows the indignation of inequality and social injustice as Lear expresses his thoughts in a satirical manner that reveals the social motif.
The interpretations and reinterpretations of King Lear brought about a problem that has for a long time been a cause of concern for scholars, producers, and writers. The source of contention has come from the fact of the claim that the tragedy was first played in 1605, while others state it was first played at the end of 1606. Thus, the earliest printed version of the tragedy appeared in the celebrated First Quarto of 1608. The other date that conflicts with that is the Folio of 1623. For instance, in Act III, scene 6, the mock trial that was included in the Quarto is not present in the Folio (Small 68). Therefore, there have been questions as to which version is the original one.
The reinterpretations have made this debate even more complex. The reinterpretations of King Lear have not started in the modern times. The first reinterpretation was done roughly 76 years after it had been first produced. An Irish born playwright, Nahum Tate, rewrote the classic tragedy in 1681. He did this because he wanted to satisfy the tastes of the post-restoration audience. Tate considered the tragedy by Shakespeare to be unpolished, but excellent. Therefore, one of the reasons why Tate rewrote the tragedy was to polish its language and characters to make it more understandable or readable. When talking of the script that Shakespeare wrote, Tate said, “A heap of jewels, unstrung and unpolisht; yet so dazzling in their disorder.” (Partee 1)
When retelling the tragedy, Tate edited the language that Shakespeare had used, added, maintained, and deleted some characters and reshaped the entire plot of the tragedy. Tate put a ending to the plot of the play. In the version that Tate wrote, Edgar and Cordelia fell in love towards the end of the play. His reinterpretation was a success because it lasted for about 150 years that followed. Therefore, Tate’s reinterpretation shows that one important reason for reinterpretations of Shakespeare’s King Lear is to appeal to the needs of the audience.
In the modern era, there have been several reinterpretations and retelling of Shakespeare’s King Lear. For instance, in 1955, director George Devine together with designer Isamu Noguchi came up with a modern staging of the tragedy in Stratford-on-Avon. Noguchi managed to put up a remarkably unique environment when designing the staging. The costumes that were used in the production were grotesque cloaks that had many holes. They also used a set that was made of mobile geometric formations. However, as noted, the reinterpretation did not perform as well as was intended because the costumes that were used distracted the actors on the stage (Billington 1).
In 1962, Peter Brook that followed more of the Folio than the Quarto made another production. The producer managed to put up a production that had a seething, violent interpretation. Commenting on the reinterpretation, Halio stated, “The most widely discussed and influential post-war production of King Lear.” (Halio 50) The producer reinterpreted the original script to his own liking instead of considering Shakespeare’s interests. As such, the producer brought in characters that created a feeling of moral neutrality. Therefore, this shows that another reason for reinterpretations and retellings is to fulfill the authors’ or producers’ intents as opposed to the original author’s (Shakespeare’s) intent.
Other reinterpretations, retellings, and productions are done to reveal the trappings of society that display issues and troubles of the human condition. These reinterpretations focus on an exploration of the agony of conflicts in families, violence, and misunderstandings that occur in the contemporary world faced with issues of madness, dementia, and mortality. In the past, societies were organized into kingdoms. The focus of plays and tragedies, one of which is King Lear, was on the troubles that households in these kingdoms experienced. However, in the modern world, the division of societies into kingdoms does not exist anymore, but the problems that humankind experienced during the ancient times, such as political power issues, household misunderstandings, and violence, are still present in the modern world. Therefore, authors, scholars, and producers who form reinterpretations of Shakespeare’s King Lear take this aspect into consideration and render King Lear that is identifiable to the problems that humankind in the modern times experience (Small 70).
Literary texts are written with the purpose of benefiting the audience in one way or another. When Shakespeare wrote King Lear, he had the intent of making the audience understand the myth of King Lear, which was identifiable to the audience at that time. The myth of King Lear is not as much important now as it was in ancient times. Therefore, putting Shakespeare’s King Lear in the modern world may not make a lot of sense to the audience because, despite the fact that it addresses some topical issues, it does not concern the present generation. Therefore, reinterpretations are aimed at making Shakespeare’s King Lear hold the importance it had in ancient times.
The modern world has many problems, especially with wealth and politics. Shakespeare’s King Lear is a story about an old person who has power and everything that power can give him. However, his world turns upside down, as he loses his power and wealth. The reinterpretations of Shakespeare’s King Lear reflect this reason. Despite the fact that the story is an ancient one, some portion of its plotline reflects an important aspect that exists in the present-day world. The relationship that the tragedy puts between the ancient world and the present-day world is important in influencing the reinterpretations of the tragedy. In the modern world, many people possess immense power, amass wealth, and live prestigious lives. However, because of certain forces, some of these people lose their power and wealth and go through suffering that they may not have imagined would ever happen. In a larger context, the reinterpretations of King Lear reflect the issue of morality. The reinterpretations and retellings are done to act as a story that teaches people a lesson.
Another reason for reinterpretations and retellings is the issue of license. Shakespeare’s King Lear has not been protected by copyright in a manner that reinterpretations and retellings can be prevented. On the one hand, there are purists who believe that Shakespeare’s King Lear should be left as it is, without any additions or deletions. On the other hand, there are non-purists who believe that Shakespearean works can be changed in whatever direction one pleases. No one between the two groups has the exact answer to the problem, but this gives a leeway for reinterpretations to be made to King Lear. For instance, Edward Bond, whose rewriting is known as Lear, wanted to emphasize the violence in the text. He said, “An unjust society must be violent.” (Halio 57) He considers modern society as unjust.
In conclusion, Shakespeare’s King Lear has been reinterpreted and retold in many ways and versions, including texts and productions. The reasons for the reinterpretations and retellings are various as discussed in this paper. They include relating the tragedy to modern issues, authorial interests, audience needs, unavailability of licenses to prevent reinterpretations, and reflection of moral issues among others. Therefore, just like the controversy in the true text of King Lear, reinterpretations will be made and controversies will come up in the future.