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King Lear In Film And Novels Essay, Research Paper

Compare the Various Film and Literature Adaptations of Shakespeare.

The adaptation of Shakespeare’s works has become a common activity in the Twentieth century. His works have constantly influenced literary minds. But recently, and uniquely, created media have too attempted to embrace the universal stories proposed by this ‘father of modern English’. Modern cinema has often strained to shape Shakespeare’s stories into the limited time of the film reel, resulting in dramatic, even sacrilegious to some dedicated thespians, cutting of scenes and characters. Since the post-Freudian saturation of critical essays on these plays, popular media have been able to take this into account, to acknowledge it. This essay proposes that Peter Brook’s version of King Lear is more a critical essay, an interpretation, then a stage adaptation. Narrative adaptation must assume certain aspects of a play, where the author replaces gaps and questions with his or her own answers. As Jane Smiley said, narrative questions the validity of appearances, and changes the perspective of the traditional play .

King Lear is certainly a problematic play. From the outset, it appears conventional, dividing the evil and the good. But upon closer examination, such clearly defined distinctions become dubious. The idea of Lear as the typical protagonist, of evoking sympathy, is difficult. Even from the beginning a materialist valuation of love emerges: “Tell me, my daughters/ Which of you shall we say doth love us most” . The love is for the land . The character of Cordelia is also difficult to confine to a traditional role. Although Lear banishes her from her claim to the kingdom, she rarely is involved in any action, and her lines of forgiveness can be interpreted as submissive, to her father’s regained dominance. Edgar’s motive for bringing his blind father to the cliffs of Dover are unclear. His reason for allowing Gloster to reach the depths of despair, to perform fake suicide, appears mocking and grotesque . Redemption through suffering seems to be the premise of the play, but this results in dissatisfying, tentative reconciliation. Both Brook and Smiley confront different themes in order to resolve or highlight these problems. Brook focuses on the more philosophical concept of the world being meaningless, and therefore cruel, as well as knowledge gained through blindness or madness, through the change of self. Smiley offers a new perspective, excusing Goneril and Regan from their ambiguous reasons for mistreating Lear. She interprets Lear as a brash, misogynist figure, overreacting, perhaps fleeing from his own femininity.

Many scholars in Shakespeare’s works condemn the attempts made to portray King Lear into the mass-market medium of cinema. The time restrictions placed upon a film’s length resulted in extreme editing of the original text, which often led to a loss of the multi-textual meanings, some attempts even losing all coherent significance at all. Many critics considered Peter Brook’s 1971 version of the play to be a disjointed, incoherent piece of art, an endeavour to make a film with roots placed firmly in the theatre. But if one were to compare Brook’s screenplay to his 1962 stage version, a substantial difference would be noted. Brook appears to have acknowledged the problems of adapting a play to suit the screen, and wanted to capture the swiftly shifting associations and evanescent imagery that made Shakespeare’s works so dynamic on stage. The problem lies in changing styles and conventions as lightly and deftly as the mental process, which can be reflected by blank verse but not the consistency of a single image.

Brook considered King Lear as a play in similar vein to the Absurdist dramas of Ionesco and Samuel Beckett and was influenced by Jan Kott’s essay comparing the grotesque elements of Shakespeare’s play to the hopelessness of Beckett’s ‘End Game’ and ‘Act Without Words I’. The world of this Lear, like Beckett’s, is in a constant state of decomposition. Sets made of rusting metal, tattered, worn-out looking costumes, rotten furniture all give his film a haggard, haunted appearance. During the storm, Lear can see dead animals scattered across the land, and later Gloster’s dead corpse is as lifeless as the dead beasts . This can be compared to Beckett’s vision of man as merely another creature, another toy of insignificance. The decay of vision, of tradition, and finally the end of all certainty was made frighteningly material in this understanding of Lear. Brook attempts to avoid the epic audacious appearance of film sets, overbuilt and dramatic in themselves, that seemed to plague Shakespearean films. He wanted to avoid authenticity in their design, as the play is a history play. The film was shot in North Jutland, Denmark, a landscape as abstract as a theatrical production . Brook’s film is anchored by the fear and bombast of Paul Scofield as the protagonist. Like the sets, Scofield’s Lear is a character stripped to its muscles , lacking ornament. The film, and its world, commences with an austere yet meaningful order, which instantly disintegrates once the land is divided. By the end, with Lear descending deeper into emotional and physical disability, Brook’s scene-design choices, and his understanding of his protagonist, come together in a collision of dread and insight.

Several techniques are used to emphasise the bleak and cruel reality of this interpretation. The most obvious examples can be seen from the lines and scenes that Brook omitted from Shakespeare’s text. Brook removes most of the motivations for the characters’ actions, whether malicious or kind, retaining a meaningless existence as a theme. Gloster’s claim of keeping Edmund from living with him is cut, leaving his motivation for revenge ambiguous. Lacking knowledge is a theme of Shakespeare’s play, and highlighted in a prominent manner for Brook. The first spoken line in the film version is Lear’s “Know we have divided/ in three our kingdom” . In true Beckettian style, the word ‘know’ is isolated from the sentence, it attains a meaning that transcends that of the full sentence, and out of context of the entire sentence, the word is heard as ‘no’ . This adds to the unity of universal negation. Cordelia’s first lines, her asides signifying self-awareness, are ignored, leaving her defiant actions stupefying for the audience. As with Lear, her initial line of the film involves negation : “nothing, my Lord”, and is countered by “nothing will come of nothing” , perhaps the film’s most crucial line. Most of the fool’s musings remain in the screenplay. The fool (played by Jack MacGowran, a famous Beckettian actor) displays wisdom as insanity, and attempts to indicate Lear’s flaws, but only while remaining outside of the drama .

Cinematic visuals add a new depth to the presentation of ideas and literary devices, creating an important and new celluloid dimension. Brook generally relies on a very stark, basic filming technique, consisting of conventional, often static, frames. These shots emphasise on the dialogue, on the drama within the words, and the expressionism of the acting cast in relation to their roles . But various experimental camera techniques disperse the traditional scenes, indicating that a new aspect of the film experience must be considered. Even during the first scene, these techniques can be clearly perceived. When Lear speaks to his daughter, the camera views him using an extreme close-up, almost as if his person, and thus his power, is grandiose, and intimidating. But when we first see Cordelia, through a medium shot, minute in comparison to the bare wall behind, the camera purveys her as isolated from the congregation. When Cordelia and her estranged father reunite, a two-shot (a shot involving both characters’ faces in the frame together) is not established until Lear recognises his daughter, thus linking the redemption with the camera’s view of them sharing the screen .

The experimental development becomes more ambitious throughout the film’s progression. At one point, when Lear curses his daughter, the camera rocks in conjunction to his bellowing sentences, as if his booming is physically shaking the camera, increasing the intensity of the conflict for the viewer. Various image transpositions are used during the cathartic storm scene. During Edgar’s speech in act III, scene IV, a close-up of his face, speaking with gestures of dementia, is alternated between a medium-shot of his shivering body, the alternations being signalled with a loud, thunderous noise. This frenzied image mirrors Lear’s distorted view of the situation, and perhaps indicates the mask of madness that Edgar wears . In Act IV, Scene VI, Brook challenges Kott’s claim of the impossibility of portraying this scene in cinema, of the audience having to be part of Gloster’s mime . A camera facing upwards is unaware of the true surroundings, whether they are cliffs or an empty beach. Only later does the shot change to a wide view of a flat, barren land, portraying the absurdity of Gloster’s suicide attempt and plea to the gods. The final act contains some of the more curious visual manipulations. The theme of isolation re-emerges again when Lear is seen carrying the deceased Cordelia, as the shot shows him alone and desolate upon a deserted expanse of sand. When Lear expresses his mourning muttering, we briefly see his daughter alive again. The camera has entered the world of Lear’s mind, of his denial, and we see her as if revived. The final image involves Lear’s face gradually falling from the screen, into nothing, muttering “never, never, never, never, never” , before the camera as it fades to white, as it did from the beginning. There is no need for Edmund’s comment, “the wheel is come full circle” , Brook’s editing displays this, the notion of nothing coming from nothing.

Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres places its roots in the story of King Lear to tell its own dark tale of a corrupt patriarchal society which operates through concealment. It is a story in which the characters attempt to manipulate one another through the secrets they possess and the subsequent recognition of those secrets. Smiley indicates that, regarding this patriarchal society, women who remain financially and emotionally dependent on me decay, and those who break the economic and emotional chains develop as women and as human beings. Smiley re-evaluates the conception of Lear as the protagonist, and creates a more feminist approach. She found the play unsatisfactory in relation to the characters of Goneril and Regan, that their vicious reaction to their father lacked any coherent cause .

Smiley decided to create a new perspective from this problematic play, using a narrative centring on the point of view of the Goneril character, Ginny. Because of this more realistic, almost objective, interpretation of the event, the fool, a character that was essential for Book’s film, is absorbed into the textual narrative, his ‘insane’ rationalising is unnecessary. The remaining characters are modernised, updated to exist during the American farming crisis during the late 1970’s. King Lear now become a farmer, an owner of a large farm in Iowa, with his three daughters. Lear’s, or Larry’s, title may be reduced but Smiley attempts to retain the drama for a modern audience. Yet, this Lear figure is undermined, his madness attributed to Alzeimher’s or perhaps the poisoned water. The most radical alteration, or addition, to the story involves the daughters’ motive for hating their father. The regular rape Larry imposed on her when she was a teenager caused Rose s bitter loathing. “We were just his, to do as he pleased” , the concept of material possession taken from one possibility of Lear’s outrage at Cordelia’s rebellion. Any sympathy for Larry, even that retained from the play version, has been dissipated, Shakespeare’s eponymous character shifts to antagonist. This has implications for the Cordelia figure as well. Caroline was probably saved from her father’s impulses, due to the submission of Regan and Ginny . She is unaware of Larry’s true character, and thus sympathises with him. But as opposed to the kind and forgiving nature of Cordelia, Caroline can only be portrayed as naive, even wrong.

The treatment of nature, or Nature, is a prominent theme in both the novel and the original play. Shakespeare’s text sees nature as a raging, malevolent beast, disrupting the course of human actions in a meaningless universe: “crack nature’s moulds, all germens spill at once, that make ungrateful man” . It dominates man with its rage, as if some predatory female. Smiley replicates this feminine association with nature, but sheds the misogyny that Lear makes explicit. Instead, she connects the idea of the suppressed female with the manipulation of the land by farming. Nature is seen as unproductive, and is thus ploughed, injected with toxins, manipulated, dominated. Progress is a comfortable disease, and the use of toxins with the land gradually poisons the water, and infects the inhabitants of the area. Rose develops cancer, and Ginny has several miscarriages, because of this poisoned water. The disintegration of a natural land is passively leading to repercussions, especially for the women. Parallels can be drawn between the treatment of the female characters and the land. Just as Larry violated his two daughters, taken to its figurative extreme he also rapes the land of its natural state. Smiley uses Ginny to suggest this idea as a way of life for modern society:

“You see this grand history , but I see blows. I see taking what you want because you want it (…) I see getting others to pay the price, then covering up and forgetting what the price was. Do I think Daddy came up with beating and fucking us on his own? (…) No, I think he had lessons, and those lessons were part of the package, along with the land and the lust to run things exactly the way he wanted to no matter what. poisoning the water and destroying topsoil (…) and then feeling certain that he was right, as you say”. (Smiley, 342-3)

Shakespeare’s Lear is said to have universal traits, and Smiley’s implicates American society for its control of women .

Imagery saturates the novel. with water being the prevailing one. It is originally seen as purity, when Ginny imagines her homeland pure of interference:

“For millennia, water lay over the land. Untold generations of water, plants, birds, animals, insects, lived, shed bits of themselves and died (…) I liked to imagine them because they were the soil (…) more alive with a past and future abundance of life than any soil anywhere”. (Smiley, 131-2)

The land is more alive as it’s pure, left to nature’s development. A pond Ginny was once fond of was drained by Larry, in order to “work that field more efficiently” (Smiley, 85). Corruption of water is seen as a loss of nature, for itself and for women . In King Lear, the protagonist experiences a moment of clarity, noting the animalistic of humanity: “unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor, bare, forked animal” . Lear chastises the feminine and the beastly, to make himself appear more humble. But in A Thousand Acres, animals and females are treated as the dominated, and then domesticated . Ginny sees herself as a “horse haltered in a tight stall, throwing its head and beating its feet against the floor, but the beams and the halter rope hold firm, and the horse wears itself out, and accepts the restraint that moments before had been an unendurable goad”. (Smiley, 198)

Ginny’s only option is to abandon nature, and the associated controlled self, in order to gain independence. She must accept the losses, her debt shared with Caroline, and the loss of self-knowledge: “And when I remember that world, I remember my dead young self, who left me something, too (…) of remembering what you can’t imagine”. (Smiley, 370)

From what has been discussed, both Smiley’s and Brook’s versions of the play are not attempts, in any way, to recreate the nuances of Shakespeare’s original. Instead, they interpret the play, extracting their own opinions and elaborating on them. Both distance themselves from the stage. Brook often places the actors in a position facing the camera directly, placing the viewer in the scene, forcing him/her to evaluate the truth . Smiley places the reader in an intimate relationship with Ginny, as if listening to a friend’s discourse. But Brook’s film interpretation faces the problem of working as a film without the carrying the literary weight of the play. He tries to free the story from history, to convert Lear into the ‘everyman’, toppled from sanity and sureness by the whirlwind of universal flux. Yet, the emphasis on certain important aspects (the intensity of cruelty) can only be fully acknowledged in relation to the play, for example, Edward’s treatment of Gloster. Smiley’s novel is acceptable as a novel in itself or as an interpretative device, creating an interesting critique of patriarchal U.S. standards while illuminating the problems of the play. Her only discrepancy lies in Caroline, as her character is as ambiguous and problematic as Cordelia. A play is still a common art form due to its gaps. What the thinking audience receive from both what is said and not said aids the understanding. But film and prose fill these gaps, the enigmatic nature of the stage is replaced with detail, and this detail is what validifies the notion of approaching a play adaptation with personal theories.

Smiley, Jane. Shakespeare in Iceland . Transforming Shakespeare: Contemporary Women s Re-Visions in Literature and Performance. Ed. Marianne Novy. Macmillan, 1999. 172.

Shakespeare, William. King Lear. The Stratford Shakespeare. London: Chanceller Press, 1987. I-I-54.

Berger, Harry Jr. King Lear: The Lear Family Romance. Making Trifles of Terrors: Redistributing Complicities in Shakespeare. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1997. 30.

Kott, Jan. King Lear, or Endgame. Shakespeare Our Contemporary. London: Methuen, 1965. 114-5.

Wilds, Lillian. One King Lear For Our Time: A Bleak Film Vision by Peter Brook. Literature/Film Quarterly 4 (1976): 162.

Rothwell, Kenneth. Representing King Lear on Screen: From Metatheatre to Meta-Cinema. Shakespeare the Moving Image. Ed. A. Davis and S. Wells. 219.

Shakespeare, William. King Lear. I-I-40.

Wilds, Lillian. One King Lear For Our Time: A Bleak Film Vision by Peter Brook. Literature/Film Quarterly 4 (1976): 159.

Gilman, Todd S. The Textual Fabric of Peter Brook s King Lear: Holes in Cinema, Screenplay and Playtext. Literature/Film Quarterly 20 (1992): 298.

Shakespeare, William. King Lear. I-I-92-3.

Kott, Jan. King Lear, or Endgame. Shakespeare Our Contemporary. London: Methuen, 1965. 128-133.

Note: The film, even though made in the 1970’s, is filmed in black and white. The director Orson Wells once said that this forces the audience to focus on the performance of the actors.

Holland, Peter. Two-Dimensional Shakespeare: King Lear on Film. Shakespeare and the Moving Image: The Plays on Film and Television. Ed. Anthony Davies and Stanley Wells. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1994. 64.

Wilds, Lillian. One King Lear For Our Time: A Bleak Film Vision by Peter Brook. Literature/Film Quarterly 4 (1976): 163.

Kott, Jan. King Lear, or Endgame. Shakespeare Our Contemporary. London: Methuen, 1965. 115.

Shakespeare, William. King Lear. V-III-304.

Shakespeare, William. King Lear. V-III-174.

Smiley, Jane. Shakespeare in Iceland . Transforming Shakespeare: Contemporary Women s Re-Visions in Literature and Performance. Ed. Marianne Novy. Macmillan, 1999. 172-3.

Smiley, Jane. A Thousand Acres. London: Flamingo, 1992. 191.


Shakespeare, William. King Lear. III-II-89.

Alter, Lisa. King Lear and A Thousand Acres: Gender, Genre, and the Revisionary Impulse. Transforming Shakespeare: Contemporary Women s Re-Visions in Literature and Performance. Ed. Marianne Novy. Macmillan, 1999. 156.

Mathieson, Barbara. The Polluted Quarry: Nature and Body in A Thousand Acres . Transforming Shakespeare: Contemporary Women s Re-Visions in Literature and Performance. Ed. Marianne Novy. Macmillan, 1999

Shakespeare, William. King Lear. III-IV-109-110.

Mathieson, Barbara. The Polluted Quarry: Nature and Body in A Thousand Acres . 138.

Holland, Peter. Two-Dimensional Shakespeare: King Lear on Film. Shakespeare and the Moving Image: The Plays on Film and Television. Ed. Anthony Davies and Stanley Wells. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1994. 65.


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