Warning - This blog contains spoilers for Pigeon Creek’s production of “King Lear.”
Over the last month or so, I’ve had multiple conversations that have gone more or less like this:
Them: So what play are you working on right now?
Me: King Lear
Them: Ooh a tragedy! What character are you playing?
Me: The Duke of Cornwall
Them: *blank stare*
Me: How familiar are you with the play?
Them: Uh, a little bit, I guess.
Me: Well, there’s a character that has his eyes gouged out on stage…..
Them: *wide eyes*
Me: and I’m the character that DOES the gouging.
The conversation, from here, has shot off in many different directions. My point is, there are a lot of Shakespearean characters that are just not very well known to the general public. If you tell a random friend or family member you’re playing Hamlet, or Puck, or King Henry the Fifth. They will sort of have a pretty good understanding of what you’ll be doing on stage. BUT if you play a character like the Duke of Cornwall, Sir Andrew Aguecheek, Lord Northumberland, or any other sort of random guy in a random play, you have to find a distinguishing characteristic or action to help give people a frame of reference. Boil your character down to his essence. But in building a character for a performance, it’s often much more complex than that.
One of the first questions our director, Katherine Mayberry, asked me to consider was this: Does your character start the play as a villain? It was an important question. Cornwall spends a lot of time on stage, invested in what is happening, but doesn’t have a lot of ACTION to go along with it. The gouging of the eyes is really his big moment. But you can’t base a character on one action that he performs, or you’ll wind up with an incomplete, and possible one noted, performance. If I play Cornwall as a blood thirsty brute, ready to maim and kill at any moment, that might be fun, but won’t really serve the truth of the play.
At its heart, “King Lear” is a tragedy of a disintegrating family. The play begins with Lear going into retirement, and splitting his kingdom between his three daughters. So at the top of the story, Cornwall is just a nobleman who is about to be gifted with a third of the kingdom to rule. During the first scene, things go off the rails a bit (come see the play to find out how) and he leaves the scene as basically the new co-king of England along with the Duke of Albany. That’s quite a bit of power and responsibility to have thrust upon his head.
When building a character, one of the most useful tools is in creating on stage relationships with your fellow actors. Cornwall is married to Lear’s second daughter, Regan. Much of my character development has been born out of the onstage relationship I have developed with the actor who plays her, Kate Tubbs. Kate is giving a very lovely and nuanced performance as Regan, but for this blog I’m just going to pick out one characteristic that she has been playing that I’ve been reacting to strongly. That is Regan’s fear of Lear. Lear has a hot temper. He banishes some of his most trusted servants, threatens people with bodily harm, and says some of the most wretched things about his own daughters. Regan reacts to her father with shock and fear. Even flinching and pulling away from her father when he flies into a rage. As a reaction to the relationship between Lear and Regan, my Cornwall feels fiercely protective of his wife. The text seems to indicate a good partnership between the two characters, and Cornwall would take drastic action to protect the people he cares about.
Finally, there are cues in the text as to who Cornwall is as a person. He’s described as having a fiery personality and as being hot tempered. We see this when he breaks up a fight and throws one of Lear’s servants into the stocks. He’s also loyal to his friends and family. He protects the servant of his sister-in-law and refers to her as HIS sister as well, indicating to me a close relationship. When he receives intelligence of a coming invasion from the bastard Edmund, he rewards him by making him the legitimate Earl of Gloucester. And he seems willing to stand up to Lear, and stand behind his wife as SHE stands up to Lear.
Through all of these things, we can see the journey that Cornwall takes through the play. He starts as a slightly hot tempered nobleman, married to the daughter of the King. Through circumstances beyond his control, he becomes the co-steward of England. So he is gifted a great amount of power and responsibility in a very short amount of time. Almost immediately after that has happened, he is needed to defend his wife and family from the angry rantings of his father in law and his country from invading forces. The stress and power force him to take drastic action and do what he thinks is best. It just happens to manifest itself in a very gruesome way.