Jessica Winter in Slate:
Thackeray found King Lear boring. Tolstoy was no great fan. Samuel Johnson dreaded rereading the play—he recoiled from the death of Lear's youngest daughter, Cordelia. (Johnson preferred playwright Nahum Tate's sentimental rewrite of Lear, published in 1681, which inserted a happy ending and supplanted Shakespeare's version onstage for more than a century.) Nineteenth-century essayist Charles Lamb declared that staging Lear “has nothing in it but what is painful and disgusting,” concluding, “The Lear of Shakespeare cannot be acted.” Nearly two centuries later, Harold Bloom concurred: “You shouldn't even go and see somebody try and act the part,” the scholar said, “because it's unactable… I've never seen a Lear that worked.” Beginning with a vain, irrational king rejecting both his favorite child and his most faithful servant on a whim, ending with a mad, uncrowned derelict dying of a broken heart—with a detour wherein another foolish old man's eyes are gouged out—King Lear is a shocking spectacle of two families eating themselves alive.
Yet more and more actors have attempted the unactable in recent years; in New York City alone, they've included Ian McKellen, Christopher Plummer, Kevin Kline, and Stacy Keach. The latest is Derek Jacobi, who performs the title role in the rapturously received Donmar Warehouse production of the play (at BAM Harvey Theater in Brooklyn through June 5). The laurelled English actor Greg Hicks will do Lear at the Lincoln Center Festival this summer, and Law & Order's Sam Waterston takes the role for the Public Theater in the fall; a film version starring Al Pacino is also in the works. To a confident actor in the winter of his career, the notion of Shakespeare's tragedy as “a labyrinthian citadel, all but impregnable” (Kenneth Tynan) may seem less like a warning and more like a provocation.
That's how a viewer can approach King Lear, too. Like most, I first read it in college, where I took notes in lectures and seminars about its reputation as a play that resists being played—and, flush with those earnest yet contrarian energies peculiar to late adolescence, I sought out every Lear I could find. And I still do. This quasi-completeist mission is perverse, because its frisson depends largely on expectations of shameless presumption and abject failure. (You fiends! How dare you dare to stage this!) But the promise—always kept—is the thrill of seeing actors try the impossible.