Resident Dramaturg Philippa Kelly. Photo courtesy Philippa Kelly.
King Lear is about an elderly king who makes a fatal, capricious decision that wreaks havoc on his country. But it is his family that is the focus of this play—his blood relatives and their husbands and servants, as well as the “family” of loyal servants who try to comfort him in his bewilderment, suffering and rage. They remind Lear of who he was and is (“your Majesty”). But the true meaning of their love goes deeper than titles and entitlements—they are willing to suffer with him, to give themselves over to the service of love.
We are all in some sense servants when we love: the king has never known this, but he comes to discover what love can mean. The place where we first learn about love—and about how to misunderstand or abuse it—is in our families, those places of intense, chaotic, misdirected feeling.
In The King and I I wrote my own personal account of family love, which sought to illuminate, via King Lear, how I saw my own family within the larger networks of Australian society. I looked to King Lear to tell me more about my family, and I looked to my family and my society to afford a deeper and richer understanding of King Lear.
King Lear invites us to think of our families within a frame bigger than ourselves; deeper than ourselves; more varied than our own personal experience.
Kjerstine Rose Anderson as Cordelia and Anthony Heald as Lear in Cal Shakes' production of King Lear. Photo by Kevin Berne.
Loss, abandonment, entitlement, authority—these issues are all fundamental to King Lear, and, 400 years later, this play still resonates deeply within families all over the world. We all come from some kind of “family”—some two people generated us, and they had their own lines of descent. We may experience our families as absent, loving, broken, supportive, ungrateful, or even, as Lear does, destructive—but all of these experiences constitute some kind of family connection. I don’t pretend to have the answers to complex family dynamics (although, being a Lear scholar, I have many thoughts about them). But if you have a response to King Lear that evokes your own family relationships, here are four things you can do:
- Show up at the Bruns on the evening of September 24th (6-7pm) or 25th (6:30-7:30pm), or at the Champion donor event on October 10th. At any of these three events (or at all—our stories often shift as we tell them) you can record your family story with Cal Shakes’ Rebecca Novick and her Triangle Lab team. The Cal Shakes Triangle Lab is partnering with communities to make a moving document of “Lear family stories,” of which your story can be a vital part.
- Email your thoughts to Rebecca (firstname.lastname@example.org) if they feel, as a whole, too personal to be shared in public circulation. There will be an opportunity to work out with Rebecca and her team whether you feel that any part of your story is suitable for the community art-making project in written form. You are the artist; Cal Shakes is your artistic collaborator.
- Blog your thoughts here on Ask Philippa! to be shared on this forum.
- Avail yourself of the email address available below, in which case I will receive your story directly and will treat your thoughts as personal. I’ll be delighted simply to read and respond.
Learn more from Rebecca and her team and sign up for or the project here.
Dr. Philippa Kelly, Resident Dramaturg for the California Shakespeare Theater, is also a professor and author. Her 2010 book, The King and I, a meditation on Australian culture through the lens of King Lear, garnered international praise in its very personal examination of themes of abandonment, loss, and humor).
You can email Philippa at email@example.com, or post below to ask her a question or tell your family story.
Buy tickets for King Lear here; or, call the Box Office at 510.548.9666.