17th and 18th centuries
Shakespeare wrote the role of Lear for his company's chief tragedian, Richard Burbage, for whom Shakespeare was writing incrementally older characters as their careers progressed. It has been speculated either that the role of the Fool was written for the company's clown Robert Armin, or that it was written for performance by one of the company's boys, doubling the role of Cordelia. Only one specific performance of the play during Shakespeare's lifetime is known: before the court of King James I at Whitehall on 26 December 1604. Its original performances would have been at The Globe, where there were no sets in the modern sense, and characters would have signified their roles visually with props and costumes: Lear's costume, for example, would have changed in the course of the play as his status diminished: commencing in crown and regalia; then as a huntsman; raging bareheaded in the storm scene; and finally crowned with flowers in parody of his original status.
All theatres were closed down by the Puritan government on 6 September 1642. Upon the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, two patent companies (the King's Company and the Duke's Company) were established, and the existing theatrical repertoire divided between them. And from the restoration until the mid-19th century the performance history of King Lear is not the story of Shakespeare's version, but instead of The History of King Lear, a popular adaptation by Nahum Tate. Its most significant deviations from Shakespeare were to omit the Fool entirely, to introduce a happy ending in which Lear and Cordelia survive, and to develop a love story between Cordelia and Edgar (two characters who never interact in Shakespeare) which ends with their marriage. Like most Restoration adapters of Shakespeare, Tate admired Shakespeare's natural genius but saw fit to augment his work with contemporary standards of art (which were largely guided by the neoclassical unities of time, place, and action). Tate's struggle to strike a balance between raw nature and refined art is apparent in his description of the tragedy: "a heap of jewels, unstrung and unpolish't; yet so dazzling in their disorder, that I soon perceiv'd I had seiz'd a treasure." Other changes included giving Cordelia a confidante named Arante, bringing the play closer to contemporary notions of poetic justice, and added titilating material such as amorous encounters between Edmund and both Regan and Goneril, a scene in which Edgar rescues Cordelia from Edmund's attempted kidnap and rape, and a scene in which Cordelia wears men's pants that would reveal the actress's ankles. The play ends with a celebration of "the King's blest Restauration", an obvious reference to Charles II.
In the early 18th century, some writers began to express objections to this (and other) Restoration adaptations of Shakespeare. For example, in The Spectator on 16 April 1711 Joseph Addison wrote "King Lear is an admirable Tragedy ... as Shakespeare wrote it; but as it is reformed according to the chymerical Notion of poetical Justice in my humble Opinion it hath lost half its Beauty." Yet on the stage, Tate's version prevailed.
David Garrick was the first actor-manager to begin to cut back on elements of Tate's adaptation in favour of Shakespeare's original: he retained Tate's major changes, including the happy ending, but removed many of Tate's lines, including Edgar's closing speech. He also reduced the prominence of the Edgar-Cordelia love story, in order to focus more on the relationship between Lear and his daughters. His version had a powerful emotional impact: Lear driven to madness by his daughters was (in the words of one spectator, Arthur Murphy) "the finest tragic distress ever seen on any stage" and, in contrast, the devotion shown to Lear by Cordelia (a mix of Shakespeare's, Tate's and Garrick's contributions to the part) moved the audience to tears.
The first professional performances of King Lear in North America are likely to have been those of the Hallam Company (later the American Company) which arrived in Virginia in 1752 and who counted the play among their repertoire by the time of their departure for Jamaica in 1774.
Charles Lamb established the Romantics' attitude to King Lear in his 1811 essay "On the Tragedies of Shakespeare, considered with reference to their fitness for stage representation" where he says that the play "is essentially impossible to be represented on the stage", preferring to experience it in the study. In the theatre, he argues, "to see Lear acted, to see an old man tottering about the stage with a walking-stick, turned out of doors by his daughters on a rainy night, has nothing in it but what is painful and disgusting" yet "while we read it, we see not Lear but we are Lear, – we are in his mind, we are sustained by a grandeur which baffles the malice of daughters and storms."
King Lear was politically controversial during the period of George III's madness, and as a result was not performed at all in the two professional theatres of London from 1811 to 1820: but was then the subject of major productions in both, within three months of his death. The 19th century saw the gradual reintroduction of Shakespeare's text to displace Tate's version. Like Garrick before him, John Philip Kemble had introduced more of Shakespeare's text, while still preserving the three main elements of Tate's version: the love story, the omission of the Fool, and the happy ending. Edmund Kean played King Lear with its tragic ending in 1823, but failed and reverted to Tate's crowd-pleaser after only three performances. At last in 1838 William Macready at Covent Garden performed Shakespeare's version, freed from Tate's adaptions. The restored character of the Fool was played by an actress, Priscilla Horton, as, in the words of one spectator, "a fragile, hectic, beautiful-faced, half-idiot-looking boy." And Helen Faucit's final appearance as Cordelia, dead in her father's arms, became one of the most iconic of Victorian images. John Forster, writing in the Examiner on 14 February 1838, expressed the hope that "Mr Macready's success has banished that disgrace [Tate's version] from the stage for ever." But even this version was not close to Shakespeare's: the 19th-century actor-managers heavily cut Shakespeare's scripts: ending scenes on big "curtain effects" and reducing or eliminating supporting roles to give greater prominence to the star. One of Macready's innovations – the use of Stonehenge-like structures on stage to indicate an ancient setting – proved enduring on stage into the 20th century, and can be seen in the 1983 television version starring Laurence Olivier.
In 1843, the Act for Regulating the Theatres came into force, bringing an end to the monopolies of the two existing companies and, by doing so, increased the number of theatres in London. At the same time, the fashion in theatre was "pictorial": valuing visual spectacle above plot or characterisation and often required lengthy (and time consuming) scene changes. For example, Henry Irving's 1892 King Lear offered spectacles such as Lear's death beneath a cliff at Dover, his face lit by the red glow of a setting sun; at the expense of cutting 46% of the text, including the blinding of Gloucester. But Irving's production clearly evoked strong emotions: one spectator, Gordon Crosse, wrote of the first entrance of Lear, "a striking figure with masses of white hair. He is leaning on a huge scabbarded sword which he raises with a wild cry in answer to the shouted greeting of his guards. His gait, his looks, his gestures, all reveal the noble, imperious mind already degenerating into senile irritability under the coming shocks of grief and age."
The importance of pictorialism to Irving, and to other theatre professionals of the Victorian era, is exemplified by the fact that Irving had used Ford Madox Brown's painting Cordelia's Portion as the inspiration for the look of his production, and that the artist himself was brought in to provide sketches for the settings of other scenes. A reaction against pictorialism came with the rise of reconstructive movement, believers in a simple style of staging more similar to that which would have pertained in renaissance theatres, whose chief early exponent was the actor-manager William Poel. Poel was influenced by a performance of King Lear directed by Jocza Savits at the Hoftheater in Munich in 1890, set on an apron stage with a three-tier Globe-like reconstruction theatre as its backdrop. Poel would use this same configuration for his own Shakespearean performances in 1893.
20th and 21st centuries
The character of Lear in the 19th century was often that of a frail old man from the opening scene, but Lears of the 20th century often began the play as strong men displaying regal authority, including John Gielgud, Donald Wolfit and Donald Sinden. Cordelia, also, evolved in the 20th century: earlier Cordelias had often been praised for being sweet, innocent and modest, but 20th-century Cordelias were often portrayed as war leaders. For example, Peggy Ashcroft, at the RST in 1950, played the role in a breastplate and carrying a sword. Similarly, the Fool evolved through the course of the century, with portrayals often deriving from the music hall or circus tradition.
By mid-century, the actor-manager tradition had declined, to be replaced by a structure where the major theatre companies employed professional directors as auteurs. The last of the great actor-managers, Donald Wolfit, played Lear on a Stonehenge-like set in 1944 and was praised by James Agate as "the greatest piece of Shakespearean acting since I have been privileged to write for the Sunday Times". Wolfit supposedly drank eight bottles of Guinness in the course of each performance.
At Stratford-upon-Avon in 1962, Peter Brook (who would later film the play with the same Lear, Paul Scofield) set the action simply, against a huge, empty white stage. The effect of the scene where Lear and Gloucester meet, two tiny figures in rags in the midst of this emptiness, was said (by the scholar Roger Warren) to catch "both the human pathos ... and the universal scale ... of the scene." Some of the lines from the radio play were added into the mix by The Beatles for "I Am the Walrus" while John Lennon was fiddling with the radio with the play from BBC Third Programme that happened to be on at the time. Actors Mark Dignam, Philip Guard, and John Bryning from the play all appeared in the song.
In 1974, Buzz Goodbody directed Lear, a deliberately abbreviated title for Shakespeare's text, as the inaugural production of the RSC's studio theatre The Other Place. The performance was conceived as a chamber piece, the small intimate space and proximity to the audience enabled detailed psychological acting, which was performed with simple sets and in modern dress. Peter Holland has speculated that this company/directoral decision – namely choosing to present Shakespeare in a small venue for artistic reasons when a larger venue was available – may at the time have been unprecedented.
Brook's vision of the play proved influential, and directors have gone further in presenting Lear as (in the words of R. A. Foakes) "a pathetic senior citizen trapped in a violent and hostile environment". When John Wood took the role in 1990, he played the later scenes in clothes that looked like cast-offs, inviting deliberate parallels with the uncared-for in modern Western societies. Indeed, modern productions of Shakespeare's plays often reflect the world in which they are performed as much as the world for which they were written: and the Moscow theatre scene in 1994 provided an example, when two very different productions of the play (those by Sergei Zhonovach and Alexei Borodin), very different from one another in their style and outlook, were both reflections on the break-up of the Soviet Union.
Like other Shakespearean tragedies, King Lear has proved amenable to conversion into other theatrical traditions. In 1989, David McRuvie and Iyyamkode Sreedharan adapted the play then translated it to Malayalam, for performance in Kerala in the Kathakali tradition – which itself developed around 1600, contemporary with Shakespeare's writing. The show later went on tour, and in 2000 played at Shakespeare's Globe, completing (in Anthony Dawson's words) "a kind of symbolic circle". Perhaps even more radical was Ong Keng Sen's 1997 adaptation of King Lear, which featured six actors each performing in a separate Asian acting tradition and in their own separate languages. A pivotal moment occurred when the Jingju performer playing Older Daughter (a conflation of Goneril and Regan) stabbed the Noh-performed Lear whose "falling pine" deadfall, straight face-forward into the stage, astonished the audience, in what Yong Li Lan describes as a "triumph through the moving power of noh performance at the very moment of his character's defeat".
A number of women have played male roles in King Lear; most commonly the Fool, who has been played (among others) by Judy Davis and Emma Thompson but also, significantly, Lear himself, played by Marianne Hoppe in 1990 and by Kathryn Hunter in 1996-7. Marcia Gay Harden plays Lear in the few scenes of the play-within-the-film If I Were You.
In 2002 and 2010, the Hudson Shakespeare Company of New Jersey staged separate productions as part of their respective Shakespeare in the Parks seasons. The 2002 version was directed by Michael Collins and transposed the action to a West Indies, nautical setting. Actors were featured in outfits indicative of looks of various Caribbean islands. The 2010 production directed by Jon Ciccarelli was fashioned after the atmosphere of the film The Dark Knight with a palette of reds and blacks and set the action in an urban setting. Lear (Tom Cox) appeared as a head of multi-national conglomerate who divided up his fortune among his socialite daughter Goneril (Brenda Scott), his officious middle daughter Regan (Noelle Fair) and university daughter Cordelia (Emily Best).
In 2012, Peter Hinton directed an all-First Nations production of King Lear at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, with the setting changed to an Algonquin nation in the 17th century. The cast included August Schellenberg as Lear, Billy Merasty as Gloucester, Tantoo Cardinal as Regan, Kevin Loring as Edmund, Jani Lauzon in a dual role as Cordelia and the Fool, and Craig Lauzon as Kent.