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Royal Shakespeare Company's 'King Lear' For Kids: Does Shakespeare's Bleakest Play Work For Children?

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Sir Derek Jacobi as King Lear in the Brooklyn Academy of Music's spring 2011 production.
Sir Derek Jacobi as King Lear in the Brooklyn Academy of Music's spring 2011 production.

"So great is the suffering depicted in Shakespeare's 'King Lear' that one has trouble finding the words to write about it," begins the Folger Shakespeare Library's introduction to the text, a common opinion of "King Lear," which many consider Shakespeare's darkest, most emotionally unbearable play.

So how can children deal with such a play, when even adults have long had trouble doing so?

New York's Park Avenue Armory will find out when they present an adaptation of "King Lear" in October 2012. The company joined forces with the Royal Shakespeare Company this past summer to produce two plays for children -- "The Comedy of Errors" and "Hamlet." The children invited, ranging from about ages 6 to 14, are often from under-served communities. Many of them have "never seen a play at all, much less a Shakespeare play," said Rebecca Robertson, president of the Armory.

"It's like how children respond in an odd way to Grimm's fairy tales -- some fairy tales are really awful, but it's more allegorical to them," said Robertson, explaining the reasoning for choosing the show. "With 'Lear,' it's more a story of how you relate to your family."

The Royal Shakespeare Company's Tim Crouch will be directing the production as well as making the edits to "King Lear." Though he has not yet completed his revision, it will be 70 minutes long, like their previous productions for children.

"My hope is to retain the fullness of the play -- with all its qualities," Crouch told HuffPost via email. "There is great difficulty in the play, but there is also great redemption. Hearts burst with joy in this play as well as with despair. The bad die as well as the good."

But can a production of "King Lear" for children preserve the dark quality of the play that makes it so great?

"I am for anything that makes more people want to read Shakespeare, and I have seen productions for kids and productions by kids that succeeded amazingly well," said David Kastan, the George M. Bodman professor of English at Yale University, and one of the general editors of the Arden Shakespeare. "But Lear seems a particularly difficult play -- its language is complex, and it is emotionally harrowing."

In the play, having banished Cordelia, his youngest and only kind-hearted daughter, Lear finds himself at the mercy of his two conniving elder daughters after he names them as his heirs. Eventually, he ends up wandering the heath, totally insane. His loyal subject Gloucester is blinded in a vicious, protracted scene in which a villain gouges out one of Gloucester's eyes, steps on it, pauses for a brief swordfight to kill a servant willing to stand up for his master, and then proceeds to pluck out the other eye. At the end, everyone dies -- including Cordelia -- whose mute body Lear hauls onstage at finish.

"I was many years ago so shocked by Cordelia's death, that I know not whether I ever endured to read again the last scenes of the play till I undertook to revise them as an editor," wrote scholar Samuel Johnson, of his own experience.

Presenting Shakespeare for children is nothing new. In the 1878 book "Tales from Shakespeare," Charles and Mary Lamb included a summarized, editorialized version of the play, which omits Gloucester's blinding and shifts the focus of the story to Cordelia, who is a far smaller player in Shakespeare's play. Lear's death is written simply as, "Lear did not long survive this kind child."

Part of the decision to select "King Lear" for children, however, is in appreciation of the darkness that runs through it. Children's literature is not, and has never been, completely reassuring. From the twisted morality fables of the Brothers Grimm to bittersweet tragedies like "The Velveteen Rabbit," children have always been exposed to the idea that life is as much about loss as it is about joy.

According to Crouch, to pretend otherwise would be a mistake.

"'King Lear' is one of Shakespeare's richest plays -- and richness includes bleakness," Crouch said. "I don't think that, because it's for young audiences, we need to sugar-coat the world, erase the bad and accentuate the good. Young people deserve more respect than that."

"Lear" can also be seen as having been based, loosely, on an old fairy tale, "Love Like Salt," in which a king asks his three daughters how much they love him. Like Lear, this king is displeased to hear his most beloved daughter tell him she loves him as much as she loves salt, and banishes her. Unlike "Lear," there's a happy ending.

Of course, Shakespeare's ultimately hopeless "Lear" is itself a departure from the "true" story. Shakespeare, whose "Lear" borrowed from accounts of the actual Celtic King Leir, changed the traditional story radically when he decided to kill off Cordelia at the end, a decision that theatergoers of the time found outrageous. In Nahum Tate's restoration-era take on the play, "Lear" ends with Lear restored to the throne and Cordelia set to marry Edgar. But the Armory's production of "Lear" will not restore a happy ending.

"We've done other art projects with kids and one doesn't find that it's necessary to dumb it down much for them," said Robertson. "We live in these dynamics -- not getting our eyes gouged out, but terrible things happen and sometimes being able to talk about those things in the context of art is cathartic for the kids."

According to Shakespeare scholar and Harvard professor Stephen Greenblatt, the question is, "What do we want our children to know, when?"

When presenting "Lear" to children, an editor could not simply select scenes or stretches of brutal language that can be excised to make the play more palatable. Indeed, the show's underlying message suggests that life can torment even those who don't deserve it. Parents have to decide whether or not they want their children to learn that the good don't always win, and the bad aren't always punished.

"It is, in some structural ways, a fairy tale," said Kastan. "But to emphasize that in order to make it available and appropriate for kids will be to make it something less than King Lear -- and then, one might ask, why bother?"

For the Armory's production, rather than sidestep the tougher emotions, the focus will instead be on the family dynamics that drive the story.

"'Comedy of Errors' the kids loved, but they loved 'Hamlet' even more," said Robertson. "They related to the family dynamic in a way that was really, really interesting. Of course 'King Lear' has a family dynamic. It's bleak but it really is all about gratitude, ingratitude, father's daughters..."

And children, according to Robertson and Crouch, are perfectly capable of understanding these dynamics.

"Two fathers break with nature. They reject natural order, banish children, destroy families. They are blind and impetuous and they suffer the consequences," said Crouch. "For young people, the idea of the children teaching their parents feels immensely potent and empowering. What's not for a child to get?"

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