King Lear, Ian McKellen, and Character

Last night (as I’m writing this) I was fortunate enough to see The Royal Shakespeare Company’s King Lear with Ian McKellen (major props to my aunt Lee for scoring the tickets—2013 update: Lee has since passed away and I miss her). W. O. W.!

I have seen many great performances of Shakespeare including several other Royal Shakespeare productions. None of them was in the same league as this one. Lear, Goneril, Edmund, and Kent were beyond extraordinary. Regan, Gloucester, and the Fool were merely astonishing. Everyone else turned in the kind of performance that would have made a scene-steeling star turn in any other company. It was the playgoing experience of a lifetime and the small touches were every bit as telling and smart as the big ones. I’m only going to touch briefly on a few things so as to get to the part where this becomes a writing post.

In two seconds of side business in the opening scene—side business that managed to be the center of attention just for those two seconds without distracting from the main action, Regan established herself as an alcoholic and set up her own poisoning at the end of the play. Ian McKellen somehow managed to give Lear enormous dignity while naked from knees to armpits and wrestling with his clothes in the storm scene. The fool did quite a number of his pieces as singsong while playing a pair of spoons and managed to be both terribly funny and terribly tragic simultaneously. Kent’s exit at the end of the play to go commit suicide was so right and so poignant at the same time that it hurt.

And all of it was in some cases despite the writing. Yes, you read that right. Shakespeare is one of the greatest writers ever to have walked the earth, and in every other performance I have seen, the writing has transcended the acting. Where there have been moments that fell short it was always because the actors couldn’t quite live up to the play. In this case, the acting was so good that it exposed the weak spots in the writing. Despite the fact that it was Lear, despite the fact that it is one of the great plays, despite Shakespeare’s phenomenal pen, he was outperformed.

Cordelia’s performance in particular was positively heroic in a way that exposed the weakness of the part. The actress’ Cordelia was outstanding, Shakespeare’s not nearly so much. Likewise Edgar, who put into face and gesture things that Shakespeare did not put into the text.

And that is exactly what you want your characters to do in your books. To transcend your writing of them. This is why you want to leave some gaps in description and to sometimes choose to imply things about motivation instead of spelling them out absolutely. So that your actors and set–provided in a novel by the imagination of the reader–have room to do more than you can make them do on your own.

The writer who spells out absolutely everything leaves no room for the reader to make the book their own, and that investment of reader interest and effort is priceless. Of course, you can’t make them do too much of the work or you will lose them on the other end. As with everything in writing it is a matter of balance.

(Originally published on the Wyrdsmiths blog October 15 2007, and original comments may be found there. Reposted and reedited as part of the reblogging project)