Madness awaits everyone at the close of that cold night. “These four are already mad,” wrote Camus about King Lear. “One is mad by profession, another by choice, and two from the suffering they could not bear.” The jester is mad by profession; Edgar, in order to save his life; Lear escapes into madness; and Kent alone tries to fend it off to the very last. In the middle of the third act the three exiles find their last refuge from a raging nature in the abject hut where Edgar had hidden himself earlier. This is the key scene for every interpretation of Lear but even more so for a theatrical or cinematic vision of the play.

In both the theatrical and film versions of Peter Brook’s King Lear, a Beckett-like dialogue between cripples takes place on the sack bedding in the mud hut, and it is here that the madmen judge Goneril and Regan, personified by two overturned wooden stools. In Grigori Kozintsev’s film adaptation of King Lear, some fifteen years ago, the abandoned hovel where the exiled old man who was once king finds his last shelter teems with human bodies. We see old men and women, cripples shaking their stubby limbs, women nursing infants, and even a yurodivy (“God’s fool”), intoning unending litanies which mix with “poor Tom’s” exorcisms. Sitting on rags, sacks, or the bare ground, they fill every corner, are packed one on top of the other. In Kozintsev’s dramaturgy, the exiles from the royal court walk past “refugees” streaming into the steppe from razed settlements and villages. In that enormous shack, the mad ruler and his subjects find themselves sharing a common Russian fate: poverty, degradation, and suffering.

In Kurosawa’s King Lear it appears, for just an instant, that there is no one in the abandoned hut when the former ruler, the Jester, and his last servant finally reach it. But a strange figure glimmers in the darkness. By the feeble light of a candle stub, the newcomers can make out hair falling over someone’s eyes. He turns out to be a blind man. Hidetora, the Japanese Lear, recognizes the blind man as one whose life he did not take, but whose eyes he put out. The blind man was allowed to keep only a flute and it is on this flute that he now plays to Hidetora. Just as in those scenes in the kabuki theater where the murderer returns to the scene of the crime, the flute wails over the orchestra, moans, rises in more and more penetrating tones, as if it were tearing not only at the ears but at the heart as well. The memory and reproach of the flute are unbearable. The Japanese Lear, exiled by the voice of the flute, flees the cottage and submits himself again to the storm and torrential rains.

When Lear is staged in the theater, the décor is always conventional, even in the most illusionistic scenic conception. In the film, the landscape is real, and of all the royal tragedies, King Lear is probably the one that most needs a real landscape. Yet the selection of landscape in Lear is, perhaps more than in any other play, simultaneously a selection of costume and historical time. In King Lear the question where is also the question when. What Mikhail Bakhtin called the chronotope, the unit of time and place, has a degree of concreteness different in film from that in theater. In Shakespeare’s dramas, the other place—the other “historicity” outside Elizabethan England—gives, at the same time, the plays’ other universality. And what is more, the place often supplies their other contemporary meanings.

Everyone, adapters as well as stage producers, have had to grapple with the historical setting of King Lear. The play has been transported to the time of Druids, with menhirs built on stage. There was even a production where Lear was ruler of the Aztecs. Peter Brook wanted to avoid a narrow historicity in both of his productions, the stage adaptation at Stratford in 1967 and the film version five years later. He placed his Lear somewhere in the epoch of William the Conqueror, but at the same time he veered away from historical verisimilitude. He dressed his actors in the simplest costumes: furs, boots, and long, voluminous robes. He wanted to suggest the severity and primacy of the Renaissance royal court while at the same time showing its sophistication and menace. Brook transported the film version into the cold landscape of Jutland. Kozintsev took his Lear into the Russian steppe—a Russian Orthodox priest presided at the wedding of the King of France and Cordelia.

Brook’s Jutland and Kozintsev’s broad Russian steppe were a way of introducing Lear into universal history. Kurosawa places the drama of Lear in sixteenth-century Japan. For the second time since Throne of Blood, his memorable adaptation of Macbeth, Kurosawa has discovered a new historical place for Shakespeare’s royal dramas. In the Edo period, before the consolidation of the almost absolute power of the shogun in Kyoto, samurai clans, whose power depended on mercenary armies and the blind obedience of their vassals, devoted themselves to ravaging the land and killing one another. There are striking analogies between these wars and the Wars of the Roses in England or, perhaps even more, between the samurai wars and the fratricidal battles and unceasing betrayals of Scottish clans.


In Kurosawa’s Ran, Hidetora, lord of a wooden fortress, has extended his rule to the limits of the horizon—all three castles, situated on distant hills and visible from the camp tent, now belong to him. In the twilight of his years, the cruel tyrant divides his kingdom. Among his sons, however, not his daughters.

Kurosawa’s greatness lies in his capacity to reveal historical similarity and variance; to find a Shakespearean sense of doom in the other, remote, and apparently alien historical place. He trims the plot to the bone. Hidetora’s three sons are all that remains of Lear’s three daughters and Gloucester’s two sons. Shakespeare added the second plot of Gloucester, Edgar, and Edmund to the old folk tale about three daughters (two vile and one noble). Kurosawa has cut and compressed it. In this Japanese condensation of plot and character, only the eldest son’s wife, a substitute for Goneril and Regan, is left in the castle where Hidetora has murdered her entire family. In this samurai epic, it is her drive for vengeance that destroys Hidetora’s clan and legacy.

In the first scene of Ran, the aged Hidetora dozes off before his tent in the noon sun. His youngest son cuts down three small trees and plants them next to his sleeping father to provide him with shade. This is how Cordelia’s silent faithfulness is translated into the signs of another theater. In Ran, Goneril/Regan in one body grows to the dimensions of a new, forbidding Lady Macbeth, but her glassy, immobile, white face with uplifted brows is like the mask of the woman-vampire and woman-serpent in the no theater. In the only love scene, she becomes violent before she yields. Seizing a sword, she slashes at the face of Hidetora’s second-born. He had murdered her husband, the eldest of the sons. Now he will become the instrument of her revenge. The long white sash of her kimono falls to the empty mat and slowly unwinds like a serpent. In the theater of kabuki, and in the Japanese custom which is still honored, the sash of the kimono thrown to the floor is a sign of sexual compliance. The concubine now demands the head of her lover’s wife. A standard prop in Elizabethan theater was a head in a cage. In the kabuki a standard prop is a head wrapped in rags. In the Japanese Lear, the Goneril/Regan character unwraps just such a head. But it is not the head of her lover’s wife, but the sculpted, stone head of an animal.

In Laurence Olivier’s film version of Richard III, pages carry crowns, set on vermilion pillows, into the Coronation Hall. They trip on the stairs and the crowns, destined for the royal brothers, fall to the scarlet carpet. Twenty-five years have gone by and I remember only that one scene from the entire film. It has settled into my memory like Shakespeare’s aphorisms, which are the essence of his dramas. In the language of film, that short scene with the falling crowns is also its essence. In Kozintsev’s Hamlet, Ophelia is put into a rigid corset before she is led into the royal chambers. In Rome a few years ago I attended a large exhibit showing instruments of torture from the Middle Ages to our own century. I saw steel cages with spikes inside that were designed to dig into the flesh. Except for the spikes, Ophelia’s corset was amazingly similar to that instrument of torture.

In the last scene of Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood, Macbeth hangs from the walls bristling with arrows like an enormous dying porcupine. The farther the “other” setting in Shakespeare’s dramas is from Elizabethan England, the less likely it is that the image will match the text. It stops being an illustration and becomes its essence and sign. In Throne of Blood and Ran, Shakespeare is moved not just into another cultural circle, but into another theater. And here lies Kurosawa’s genius and the singularity of his Shakespeare. The theater he makes use of is, of course, classic Japanese theater: no and kabuki.


No is medieval theater and kabuki would be considered late Renaissance theater by our standards of chronology. But it is exactly here that we find amazing chronological surprises: the years around 1600, when Hamlet was first performed, mark the beginning of kabuki theater. But it is not chronology that is the most important. Of the two extreme choices at the disposal of a modern producer of Shakespeare’s royal tragedies, that is, historicism and anachronism, faithfulness to history (but which history?) seems the most deceptive. The costume, of course, can be faithfully copied from a museum, but an actor—who is unfamiliar with the gestures of the ruler or the heir awaiting the falling crown—must know how to move in the trappings of another age. Even when the scene takes place in the bedchamber of the queen or concubine, the modern actor knows only the rudimentary sexual gestures that would have been used. Perhaps this is why modern film adaptations of Macbeth prefer to show Lady Macbeth in the nude.

It seems that the traditions of Japanese feudal culture have endured. The rituals of the conjugal bath, of flower arrangement, and of the tea ceremony are still rigidly observed. Of course they may simply be gestures and empty signs, but gestures and signs are the basic material of theater. Classic Japanese theater has preserved them, lent them an enduring form, and repeats them unchanged. The wife of Hidetora’s eldest son and the concubine of his second-born bites at the hem of her kimono in an attack of furious weeping, just as the bunraku dolls and geishas in kabuki cry and bite the hems of their kimonos in fits of jealousy. But the Japanese theater has not only preserved the gestures and signs of amorous passive in family dramas, it has also preserved much else: the court ceremonies the rituals of receiving vassals, the dispatch of envoys with secret letters, the acts of allegiance and betrayal. Just as in Shakespeare’s royal tragedies the battles of entire armies are presented as pageant and action. On the stage of the kabuki, two great samurai armies, cavalry and infantry, are represented by four, maybe eight, warriors. They wear the same leather helmets and move in the game, easy steps; they draw their bows and shoot with a simultaneous gesture. The two armies differ only in the color of the large streamers attached like wings to their shoulders.

Lear’s three daughters, as I’ve said, are replaced by Hidetora’s three sons. The theme is fratricidal war. The castle gates are rammed open. The red troops pour in like rivers of ants while the blues pour out in another stream. Nothing but arrow-studded bodies remain on the ramparts and turrets of the castle, nothing but bodies are left speared to the floor. Kurosawa is a peerless master of battle scenes. Even the cruelest of them makes you gasp in amazement. They are a vision of the apocalypse rendered with the highest artistic perfection.

The enormous castle constructed of wooden beams that Hidetora had attacked and conquered years ago, the castle in which he murdered every last man, is now set afire. Hidetora remains in it alone. His guards have been shot or speared. The bodies of concubines, who ran themselves through with daggers, litter the floor of the neighboring room. Flames approach the throne where Hidetora sits. He runs to the roof of the fortress where he sees the fields covered with his son’s armies. Hidetora runs down into the courtyard. The soldiers step aside for the old man who runs like a ghost out of the flames. The son takes out his sword. But neither he nor his generals have the heart to kill the old man.

Hidetora steps out through the gates of the fortress into the green fields. His last journey leads him through these green hills and fields. The faithful exile and the Jester, the two nurses of the madman, will serve him until his death. The Jester puts a crown of reeds on his head. Hidetora crawls through the rushes like a large child, on all fours, picking flowers. The two armies, the red and the black, occupy their starting positions on opposing hillsides.

From then on, everything happens as in Shakespeare. Except that the youngest of his sons, not Cordelia, finds Hidetora. But briefly. The youngest son dies in an ambush arranged by his older brother. And, as in Shakespeare, the Japanese Lear dies holding the expiring body in his arms. “As flies to wanton boys are we to th’ gods; / They kill us for their sport.” The lines uttered by Gloucester at the height of his experience are spoken by Kurosawa’s jester.

A few years ago during a break at a conference on Shakespeare, I asked two of my colleagues, “Who succeeds Lear?” “The Duke of Albany is still one of the titles of English kings,” said the first colleague, “and it is clear to every civilized Englishman that Goneril’s husband, the Duke of Albany, would inherit the throne after Lear.” “Even my grad students,” said my Italian colleague, “who have just scanned Aristotle, think it obvious that noble Edgar must succeed Lear, in keeping with the logic of a tragedy.” “Every Pole,” I said, “in keeping with his personal and historical experience, is certain that no one will succeed Lear. The world in which Lear lived has been torn asunder and it will never grow back together again.”

“Ran” means “fury,” “revolt,” “madness” in Japanese. In the last scene, a blind man feels his way along the thresh-old of the gutted castle to the edge of a precipice. In fleeing the assassins, he has left his flute behind. His sister goes back to find his flute, leaving him meanwhile with a roll of parchment on which appears a picture of the Buddha. Kurosawa understood that in the architectonics of Lear, even in the most remote adaptation, Cordelia’s place could not remain completely vacant. The eyes of this Buddhist brother of Cordelia have been put out. Hidetora orders the rest of her family murdered. Later Hidetora marries her off to his middle son. She alone does not hate. But perhaps in the broader perspective in which nothing at all survives, pity and hate are equal.

Yet not even she is left alive. When she returns for the flute her head is cut off. The wife of Hidetora’s eldest son, who had asked for her head, is also dead. Hidetora himself is dead, as are all his sons. The blind man feels his way to the edge of the abyss. The parchment falls from his hands and unrolls over the bluff where the wind gently rocks the likeness of the smiling Buddha. The sky is light blue, streaked with gentle, slow-moving clouds. The blue sky is completely empty.

This is also the color of the winter sky in Santa Monica, where I now live. Some miles southeast of Santa Monica, in Irvine, the sky is perhaps even bluer. Coral trees bloom bright red and give off a strong fragrance even in February. The Irvine campus is one of the largest in the US. It seems to be empty, because it is part of an enormous garden, almost a forest, and the campus stretches imperceptibly into the desert. There at the edge of the campus, Jerzy Grotowski has a wooden shack that houses the last of his theater-laboratories. The shack is empty, furnished only with a torn drum. Next to the shack Grotowski has built a Siberian yurt or hut out of a light, still fragrant wood. The floor in the yurt is waxed, and those entering it remove their shoes. The yurt is also bare except for a crude table that stands against one wall.

Grotowski’s “Poor Theater” has not existed for years. Three of the actors have died, all the others—actors, co-workers, and students—are scattered throughout the world. Behind the yurt stretches a green meadow, where horses graze as if in a painting by Gauguin. Beyond that is the desert. At night, coyotes come as close as Grotowski’s yurt. At noon, when the sun is hottest, you can hear the clattering whir of rattlesnakes.

translated by Lillian Vallee

This Issue

April 24, 1986