Rogues Guide to Shakes on Film

65. Ali Edel’s King of Texas [King Lear] (2002)

Those fucking snobs who discuss Shakespeare’s plays pretend like he didn’t even write any westerns. I wonder why?

Oh—right.

So Patrick Stewart has performed King Lear on film once, but it was set in Texas, and didn’t use Shakespeare’s text, but was re-written into a nineteenth century Texas vernacular by someone named Stephen Harrigan.

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I watched this Shakespeare-free, made-for-TV Shakespeare movie without high hopes, but decided to give it a chance because—Patrick Stewart.

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I don’t know who the unheralded Stephen Harrigan is, but the script of The King of Texas is quite smart and rather miraculously good. For the first thirty minutes, I kept waiting to be bored by the set pieces as the cast marched through a presumably bland version of the tragedy, but Harrigan—by not being beholden to the text—moved freely to find new pathways to Shakespeare’s sense of drama, including the psychological fallout of patriarchy and the devaluation of women in the American frontier. By granting his daughters his property, Lear is basically bestowing property upon his former property, which is now the property of their husbands, but which Lear still treats like his own property.

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In Shakespeare’s version, the sisters flatter Lear when he demands to be informed about the depths of their love for him, and then use more stately rhetoric to cast him out of their provinces. In Harrigan’s version of the story, though, they will also reveal to their father their repressed emotions, thus making these villains more comprehensible, more anguished, more human, and perhaps more terrible because of it. The story is so engrossing that one easily forgets that this isn’t a strict adaptation of Lear at all.

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I mean, this was a Hallmark production of a movie made for the TNT network, with a cast mostly cobbled together from television talent. Marcia Gay Harden and Lauren Holly are impressive as Lear’s eldest daughters.

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David Allen Grier plays Rip, a ranch hand and former slave perhaps, who is our analogue to the fool in the play, and Grier’s performance is the first to find the toughness necessary for the bitter humor of the play not to come off as annoying.

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Roy Scheider (of Jaws and Naked Lunch fame) plays Henry Westover, an analogue to the Earl of Gloucester, whose own family is torn apart by jealousy in a way similar to Lear’s. These are veteran actors feeding off each other’s performances.

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I am not sure if I am sad that Stewart has not done a straightforward Lear on film. The King of Texas is too good. His mad scene is quite believable, exposed to the desolation of the Texas landscape.

The other shock is that this film is well-paced. It’s original running time with commercials must have been 2 hours. It comes in around 90 minutes, and doesn’t feel rushed. I am not sure how this project got green-lighted, but it seems as if all involved made the most of the opportunity. If you can find King of Texas, this rogue says, watch it.


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John King (Episode, well, all of them) holds a PhD in English from Purdue University, and an MFA from New York University. He has reviewed performances for Shakespeare Bulletin.

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