Essay Assignment

For this  assignment you will select, annotate and post short clips on a range of topics relevant to Lear is Here.  Choose ONE of the following themes and CREATE TWO or THREE clips  that allow you to trace the theme in detail and comment on it.  For ONE of the clips also CREATE TWO or THREE sub-clips that will help you to show how a central aspect of the theme or topic develops or changes in a brief span of time.  WRITE a short multimedia essay incorporating these clips into a coherent account of the them.  Your essay should point out performative details, aspects of staging and visual presentation, music, script and adaptation strategy, as needed to make your point.  Please feel free to reference material in the introductions, glossaries and essays, scripts and Shakespeare text provided in this module as well as other online or print resources as needed. Length: 1000-1500 words.

Topic 1: Recognitions

Recognitions include moments at which a character recognizes something about him or herself, about other people, about the world, the gods, the circumstances, the truth or untruth of  some fact relevant to the action.  Such moments, of course, happen all the time in theater, and they have a special importance for tragedy in the West, since Aristotle made recognitions one of the defining markers of tragedy in his still influential Poetics.  Recognitions involve a change in a character’s understanding, and for this exercise you will try to catch one of them as it happens and explain what you see as changing — both in the details of the stage presentation and in what that presentation implies about the character’s altered understanding.

Topic 2: Religious and Secular Perspectives

Shakespeare’s King Lear  is notable for its multiple and perhaps irreconcilable perspectives that range from:

a.  A strongly materialist and naturalist  view of the world (Edmund claims his “natural” birth makes him superior to his brother born in a conventional and religiously sanctioned marriage — but he still calls on “gods”to “stand up for bastards.)

b. A Christian or seemingly Christian perspective on forgiveness. There are elements of this in the discourse of the King of  France in Act 1, in Cordelia’s words and actions in forgiving her father in Act 4, and elsewhere in the play.

c.  A kind of vision of possible and necessary collaboration between the gods (or “the heavens”) in making the world more just and re-balancing the inequities of civil society.  These include Lear’s vision of the possible value of the rulers feeling the power of the gods in the storm — “so distribution shall undo excess, and each man have enough.”  Gloucester has a similar (but not exactly similar) vision after he is “saved” from his intended suicide.

d. A perspective that might be called apocalyptic, meaning that humanity may be in the last stages of depravity, with the end of the world approaching.  Perhaps clearest in the exchange between x and y at the end of the play — “Is this the promis’d end?” and the reply  by y in the form of another question “Or image of that horror.”  In the Bible, such views of the end of humanity and of the world are balanced by promises of eternal life for the redeemed or “rule of the saints” in a post-apocalyptic  world, but many critics hold that, despite Shakespeare’s society being monolithically Christian, King Lear  pointedly withholds any promise of redemption.

e.  Other critics, however, and many productions, do interpret King Lear as offering some redemptive possibilities at the end, some, like the Elliott/Olivier television version presenting the final scene as a kind of sacred event,  in this case taking place on the altar of Stonehenge, with the characters robed in white.

WU Hsing-kuo is working within very different assumptions.  His explicit religious references are to Buddhism — at the end of Act 1, Wu, speaking in the character of the actor rather than Lear himself, describes his choice to “resume his profession” as “better than entering some monastery,” in Act 2 he puns, across languages, on Gloucester’s attempt to go “to Dover” and one of the names of the Buddha (that sounds very much like this phrase in Mandarin, and Act 3 presents the actor, again,  rather than Lear, in dress that evokes(but not exactly) that of a Buddhist monk.  Does his long discourse suggest a kind of religious acceptance?  Or its opposite?  Choose one of two very short clips, and write a paragraph on how Wu uses performance to comment on religion, the “gods” or their absence in Lear is Here.

Topic 3:  The Self and its Transformations

In Shakespeare’s play, old age, the challenges to Lear’s authority, the hazards of nature, the betrayals of his daughters and his changing status, from king to homeless wanderer all cause the king to question what we might call today his identity, his sanity, and the coherence of his self.  This is one of the themes of King Lear that Wu Hsing-kuo explores most attentively in Lear is Here, asking, explicitly at times, whether the theatrical role or the person playing the role is the real self, and perhaps even whether there can be a real self, or only a sequence of roles and reflections.  Yet the end of the play seems to suggest a kind of persistence of the self and through its various and contradictory states.  Define one or two brief sequences and comment.

Topic 4:  Character Transformations

In Lear is Here, Wu plays all the characters, and never really exits the stage completely.  Even when he hides behind a part of the set and the lights go down, he often signals the advent of a new character vocally from his hiding place, and never leaves us in the dark for long.   One could look at this flow of one character into another as simply a condition of his decision to adapt King Lear as a one-man show, but it is also clear that moving from one role to another is also part of the autobiographical story he want to tell about his quest for freedom from playing the wusheng leading male role he was trained to do, and to make use of the skills he gained outside the jingjiu form and training, including modern dance and film acting.  Please choose one moment of transformation from one character to another, and two sub-clips from that moment to tell your story of how Wu changes from character to character, focusing not only on the two different roles, but on the transition itself.

Topic 5. “Nothing will come of Nothing”

King Lear  is a play in which the word “nothing” — as in the exchange between Lear and Cordelia (“Nothing, my Lord” … “Nothing will come of nothing, speak again.” reverberates through the play, not only as a refusal to speak, but as a larger question about emptiness, despair, nonexistence.  Choose one or two brief sequences, and discuss how Lear is Here addresses this theme in its specific performance choices.

Topic 6. “Lear is Here in the context of recent Asian King Lear adaptations”

Other influential King Lear productions in Asia have included Ong Keng Sen’s Lear (Singapore/Japan, 1997) and David Tse’s King Lear (UK/China, 2006). Write a multimedia essay focusing on a brief sequence in Lear is Here and comparable moments in one or both of these productions. See Video Library for videos from Ong’s Lear and Tse’s King Lear.

MIT students use VITAL to create the clips.