I read an article recently about a literature reading in Greenwich, New York, by a group going by the name of ‘Naked Girls Reading.’ The women come onstage in kimonos, led by the delightfully named Nasty Canasta and Gal Friday. They then drop their kimonos and begin their reading, which includes passages from Shakespeare.
It’s interesting in this age of nudity and near nudity in films and television, on beaches and other public places, that this should make headlines in a place like New York. We have seen in the past nude newsreaders and many nude performances on the stage.
When it comes to Shakespeare nudity is nothing new at all, and Shakespeare, ages in advance of all of us in the way his mind worked, sometimes wove nudity into his texts as vital thematic elements.
A long time ago, when Roman Polanski’s Macbeth came out I was an English teacher in a school in Kent, England. I took my O level group – all boys – to the cinema to see it. The cinema was full of school kids that afternoon and when Lady Macbeth, played by the beautiful actress, Francesca Annis, came on in her sleepwalking scene, straight from her bed, she was naked. That was the highlight of the film for my boys, and that familiar special rush of excited whispering went all around the auditorium
In Romeo and Juliet we see the star-crossed lovers in the early morning, in bed, after a night of consummating their marriage. In Franco Zeffirelli’s film they are naked. To see a thirteen-year-old girl in that situation with a boy not much older goes against our grain, as we don’t have marriages among that age group in our culture and, indeed, sexual activity at that age at all is one of our taboos. In the film, the couple are tastefully covered by sheets, but the fact remains that Shakespeare wanted us to see them expressing their fatal love sexually.
Shakespeare intends to show us the couple in bed but he makes no mention of what they are wearing. The same is true of Lady Macbeth. However, I have no doubt whatsoever that Shakespeare fully intended Lear to be completely naked through most of King Lear. I once saw a production of the play with Donald Sinden as Lear. It was a very impressive production, even having real wet rain on the stage. It was set in the Edwardian era with those lovely costumes and smart dark uniforms. When Lear strips off his clothes, calling them ‘lendlings’, he is left in Edwardian longjohns and a long-sleeved vest. He then proceeds to fulfill the role dressed like that.
But Lear has to be completely naked. The nakedness and extreme vulnerability of the poor forked human being is reinforced throughout the text with hundreds of references to nakedness. The whole point of the play is that Lear is stripped of everything, bit by bit, until he is naked, and it is only then, when he has to start all over again like a new-born babe, that he begins to understand the realities of life that have eluded him because his title, power, wealth and authority have blinded him. He is stripped of his family, his title, his authority, his possessions, and even a roof over his head, and he is left to wander in a ferocious storm in the open countryside along with other homeless people. He tears his clothes off with the cry ‘off lendlings.’ It is only then that he can change and become a real human being. When a man is naked you can’t tell whether he is a king or a beggar. Dressing like a king and having the trappings of kingship does not make a man a king: it’s the inner kingly qualities that a man has that will make him ‘every inch a king.’ And that’s what Lear learns. His nakedness has to be apparent: the condition is as important as the other elements that Shakespeare has put together in his text.
And so, nudity is built into the very fabric of the text. I have yet to see a production of King Lear with a naked Lear but that’s what I would offer if I were planning one.