King Lear and Incest, 1969-2016

In Media Res


  • Carol Thomas Neely University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign


The work, King Lear, without origin, authenticity, or telos, is always already in process — in media res. This essay analyzes one strand of this process in screenshots of six iterations that implicate incest in the work between 1969 and 2016: Stanley Cavell's 1969 essay, "The Avoidance of Love: A Reading of King Lear"; the Women's Theatre Group's 1987 Lear's Daughters; director Nicholas Hytner's 1990 Royal Shakespeare Company production; director Kristian Levring's 2000 film, The King is Alive; Season Three (2006) of the Canadian Television series, Slings and Arrows; and the Belarus Free Theatre's production of King Lear (2012, 2016). These instances circulate and remediate the work and the motif of incest through each other. As the deeply taboo subject emerges from hiding, the work metamorphoses. Lear is less sympathetic, the daughters are less stereotyped. The domestic, erotic, and political entwine and the work's redemptive qualities are challenged. King Lear's mobility is catalyzed as it adapts to the historically changing cultural surround; is appropriated by the talents and ideologies of makers; and is transformed by the multiple affordances of trans-media. Each remediation is shaped by prior instances and re-shaped by future audiences.

Author Biography

Carol Thomas Neely, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

Carol Thomas Neely is Professor Emerita of English and Women's Studies at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and has served as President of the Shakespeare Association of America and on the editorial boards of PMLA and Shakespeare Quarterly. She is co-editor of The Woman's Part: Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare, and author of Broken Nuptials in Shakespeare's Plays and Distracted Subjects: Madness and Gender in Shakespeare and Early Modern Culture and many essays. Current research interests include Shakespeare adaptation, appropriation, and remediation, and the circulation of queer desires through multiple erotic triangles (in 2016 essays on The Merry Wives of Windsor and The Revenger's Tragedy).