I was flipping through A.C. Bradley’s Shakespearean Tragedy recently, and came across something interesting. Bradley notes that King Lear is often regarded as Shakespeare’s greatest work, the masterpiece among masterpieces. And yet, among the four “great tragedies” (the other three being Macbeth, Othello and Hamlet), it is the least performed and the least read by “casual” readers.

Bradley proposes that, while it may well be Shakespeare’s greatest work, it is not his greatest play. According to Bradley, in short, King Lear is too “big” for the stage. The vast scope of the play interferes with enjoyment of it as a drama, Bradley says.

There is, I think, truth in this. I have seen some bad productions of King Lear, which I think were so because the play is so ambitious that a staging of it must be as well. Furthermore, the number of characters that can dramatically bring down production value with a poor performance is huge: Lear, Goneril, Regan, Kent, Gloucester, Edgar, Edmund and the Fool all need to be acted beautifully to make a good production. Maybe Cornwall and Albany as well. Am I missing anybody?

At the same time, I think the scope of the play can be a boon to any director attempting to stage it. The amount of action, if directed well, can lead to incredibly dramatic moments, such as the storm scene. The best Shakespeare play I ever saw was, in fact, King Lear, with Alvin Epstein.