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  • From Divestment to Due Resolution:King Lear and the New York Fabulists, 1989-92
  • Mark Nicholls (bio)

I would unstate myself to be in a due resolution.

—Gloucester in King Lear (1.2.102-03)

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The New York fabulists: Francis Coppola, Woody Allen, and Martin Scorsese, 1989. Credit: Touchstone/Kobal Collection/Myles Aronowitz.

Before even a frame of the godfather part iii had been screened in late 1990, Francis Ford Coppola made a highly publicized connection between his new film and Shakespeare's King Lear. In Peter Cowie's book on Coppola, the director is quoted thus:

Michael Corleone's instincts were always to be legitimate, so it would be odd now, when he's almost in the King Lear period of his life, if his prime aim and purpose were not indeed to become legitimate. The result is a very classical piece, in the tradition of a Shakespeare play. Before I began writing I read a lot of Shakespeare, looking for inspiration to Edmund in King Lear, Lear himself, Titus Andronicus, even Romeo and Juliet.


Filmmakers and film publicists like to throw this kind of allusion around, and it is worth noting that when Coppola recorded a commentary track over the film for the 2001 DVD release, although he spoke fleetingly and lovingly of Shakespeare and Hamlet in particular, he made no specific reference to King Lear at all. Nevertheless, the Lear allusion was picked up in reviews of the film in the early 1990s and has persisted in critical work on the influence of Shakespeare in Hollywood cinema ever since (Mizejewski 28-31; Rothwell 220-21, 226; Risko; Griggs, "Western Elegy"; Griggs, "Humanity"). The emphasis on [End Page 3] themes of guilt, aging, renunciation, illness, family destruction, and redemption (or at least reconciliation) in The Godfather Part III indicates the usefulness of a comparison with King Lear.

Furthermore, the timing of the film's production and release during the recession of the early 1990s—when the global economy was beset by mounting unemployment, home repossessions, high interest rates and mortgage default statistics, declining house prices, and stagnant housing sector construction—suggests ways in which the comparison might be even more fruitful and of more general use (Kamery; Eberts and Groshen). King Lear is, after all, a play that is very much concerned with economic crisis in both the contemporary and classical senses of those words.

To elaborate on the context of Francis Coppola's high-profile "Lear dropping" and the global recession in which he made the allusion, it is important to point out that the late 1980s and early 1990s were notable years in King Lear's stage production history. For a tragedy by Shakespeare that is critically almost sacrosanct, it is not subject to nearly the same regularity of stage and screen production as Hamlet, Macbeth, or Romeo and Juliet. In the English summer of 1990 alone, however, there were three major stage productions of the play running at the same time—namely, those of Kenneth Branagh's Renaissance Theatre Company, the Royal National Theatre, and the Royal Shakespeare Company. These productions followed stage adaptations of Shakespeare's play by Tadashi Suzuki (The Tale of Lear) in the United States and Japan and by Barry Keefe (King of England) at Stratford Upon Avon in 1988, as well as the overdue UK premiere of Aribert Reimann's opera Lear for the English National Opera in 1989, a Hindi adaptation directed by Amal Allana performed in Delhi the same year, and finally, a New York production directed by Lee Breuer and a production of Howard Barker's Seven Lears at London's Royal Court Theatre, both in early 1990.1

As Shakespeare's apparently recession-proof tragedy was dominating the stage and Coppola was contemplating his new Corleone film, Coppola was also participating in the omnibus production New York Stories (1989) with Martin Scorsese and Woody Allen. What is interesting about this spiritual rather than literal (Björkman 202) union in the financial capital of the world in the early 1990s is what came after it for each of the filmmakers. Following New York Stories each of these New York...


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