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Variations on KING LEAR That Could Work as Interesting TV Series

Jorge Sette By Jorge Sette Published on April 12, 2016

Shakespeare Day is coming up: April 23rd. Time to celebrate.

King Lear in one of the darkest tragedies Shakespeare wrote. It seems it was not staged for years due to its gloomy themes. The story of the old King of Britain who decides it’s time to pass on his riches and responsibilities to his three daughters and their husbands so he can prepare for death – as long he can still keep the title of King and a few privileges – and then has two of his heiresses turn cruelly on him resonates with audiences all around the world.

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To divide up his property the King sets up a contest among his daughters: they are supposed to tell him how much they love him. Goneril, the oldest, is quick in flattering her father, claiming she loves him the best; the second daughter, Regan, who is made of the same metal as her sister, is not behind her in apple-polishing skills. The third daughter, Cordelia, however, is the one who really loves him the most, but she refuses to use language as a mercenary weapon to curry favor with her old father: so she is excessively restrained in her demonstrations of true love. As a consequence, the King gets furious and divides all he has between the older daughters, disinheriting the youngest one.

It does not take long for him to realize his mistake, though, as, in less than a month, both Goneril and Regan start showing their true colors and drive their Dad insane with all the ingratitude and disrespect of their behavior. One of the most powerful scenes of the play depicts Lear, bordering insanity, wandering in pain in the middle of a terrible storm, vituperating against the ingratitude of his older daughters.

With quick variations and tapping into all the emotions and complexities of the characters of the original text, creative writers have been using King Lear, and many other Shakespeare plays, as a template for their stories for ages. This is not plagiarizing, but actually a way of honoring the Bard of Avon, and, of course, relying on a firm structure to tell new stories. Writers and screenwriters do that all the time, having fairy tales, myths and legends as a source.

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Let’s do an exercise of creative writing here and try and come up with 5 simple premises NETFLIX, HBO or SHOWTIME could use as templates for some of their future shows. We can easily accomplish that by changing the sex of the main characters, the motivation for the rejection of the youngest and favorite offspring, by twisting the personalities of each of the siblings, or by adapting the time and setting of the story. Let’s do that:

1. The rural Lear: a widow is the owner of a very productive cattle farm in the countryside of Brazil. She wishes to retire and appoint one of her three sons to run the business – they are equally able but the fittest for the position is Cornelius, the youngest and favorite son. They live in a rural and conservative community. The mother finds out Cornelius is gay. She is so disappointed and mad at him, she considers hiring hit men to kill Cornelius. She refuses to let him assume her position as head of the farm. She accuses her son of having made the wrong choices in life and showing terrible ingratitude towards his mother, exposing the family to the mockery and wrath of a conservative and cruel community.

2. The corporate/lawyer Lear: the rich owner of the most famous law firm in town wishes to find a replacement as head of the company. He has two sons and an adopted daughter – she happens to be his favorite, though. He is warned by his sons that she’s been hanging out with the wrong crowd for the past year and is possibly involved in heavy drug use. That’s a terrible blow. She loves her father but can’t free herself from the compulsive love she nurtures for Franco, a rock musician with a history of drug abuse. What can they do about it?

3. The Pablo Escobar kind of Lear: a drug kingpin who runs a powerful cartel in…Medellín (where else??) is getting old and tired. He wishes to pass on his empire to his three sons. One of them – the youngest and cleverest - is college educated and does not wish to be part of the business. His father is angered by what he thinks is a derisive and ungrateful attitude. He says that his son owes him everything. He claims he was only able to climb the ladder of academic success because he had his way paved by the dirty money of his Dad’s business. Wait a minute: hasn’t this been done already in a slightly different way? It just dawned on me this is a kind of Michael Corleone’s story!

4. The superhero Lear: a mutant aging X-man feels his losing his powers. Could it be time to retire? He has three daughters. Only the youngest of them has inherited his superpowers. He is supposed to coach her and prepare her to make good and skillful use of her supertalent. But she is evil and will not take her father’s advice. His older daughters, who are kind and generous, will help him hammer some sense into CordeXlia. They are good and average women, with no superpowers, but eXtremely clever, and, with luck, may stop their sister’s machinations.

5. The teenage Lear: Leona is the leader of a group of bad girls in high school in the suburbs of Rio. She has three best friends: Chelsea Goneril, Amanda Regan and Cordelia. They are all black and good looking. They love flirting with boys, drinking, taking recreational drugs and dancing wildly at FUNK balls (typical raves that take place in more working class neighborhoods in the outskirts of big Brazilian cities). They are all mean and vain, always getting involved in petty crimes. After a riot at a FUNK rave, where a cop is killed, Leona is wrongfully charged with murder and convicted. She is a minor and will not be kept in jail for very long. In the meantime, there’s a power struggle among the three remaining members of the girl gang. Who will be in charge? They fight fiercely and dirty for the leadership. None of them has made any effort to help or comfort their friend in jail. And Leona is about to come out…

See how easy it is to come up with a killer show and be hired as the staff writer’s showrunner in a powerful TV or cable network? Have a go at it. You are NOT allowed to steal any of the ideas above and claim as yours, though. Unless I get old and tired and decide to hand them over to you. Be good and love me in the meantime.

Jorge Sette.

Jorge Sette is Bookwitty's Regional Ambassador for South America. He represents the company, writing relevant content for the region, recruiting contributors, contacting partners and ... Show More