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Lear: a tragedy for our times?

King Lear on his throne as his daughters surround him
Courtesy BBC pictures

An old man made homeless by his cold-hearted daughters descends into madness.  A king abdicates and gives away his power to his children. An act of barbaric savagery leaves a nobleman blinded and helpless. A young woman with the courage to speak truth to power pays with her life.

These sound like stories a tabloid news editor would salivate over (which one will make the front page?) but readers will probably recognise them as story lines from one of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies, King Lear.  A new production starring Anthony Hopkins is broadcast on Bank Holiday Monday (9.30 pm BBC2) directed by Richard Eyre, and for all teachers and students of English Literature this is a must-watch (and must-record) event. You can watch the trailer here.

The modern staging shows a shabbily-clad Lear pushing a shopping trolley filled with his belongings down a pedestrian precinct, and features homeless refugees and drunken soldiers out of control.  The adaptation focuses on timeless themes and motifs such as dysfunctional family life and the fragility of order and authority, but the 21st century setting heightens their poignancy and relevance.

The BBC broadcast a very different Lear as part of their 2016 Shakespeare Lives season, a live version from Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre with the Lear family played by black actors.

The BBC Shakespeare Archive also has a range of resources which can be viewed as streamed playback in an educational setting.

Teachers have already realised the value of the Archive and many are making extensive use of it. Anita Ark of Eastbury Community School is a big fan. Her school is part of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Learning and Performance Network and the pedagogy inspired by this has transformed the way that Shakespeare is taught.

“Teachers would traditionally show hour-long videos to students – but now that we have the BBC Shakespeare Archive, we can use short clips that are really effective and don’t take up much time in a lesson,” explains Anita. “Multimodal, visual presentation of Shakespeare goes hand in hand with our rehearsal room pedagogy inspired by the RSC. It really tackles student disengagement in the classroom.”

To find out more about how Anita uses the Archive, see our case study featuring her work.