‘Lear without the King’ | ‘Henry V without the King’

The phrases Lear without the King and Henry V without the King, and their variants, were coined after the phrase Hamlet without the Prince, which denotes an event or occasion at which the expected principal participant is not present.

The phrase Lear without the King occurs, for example, in Nothing to fear but FIA 1 itself, by Paul Hayward, published in The Guardian (London and Manchester, England) of Wednesday 12th November 1997:
—Context: The German racing driver Michael Schumacher (born 1969) had tried to ram the Canadian racing driver Jacques Villeneuve (born 1971) off the track in the European Grand Prix at Jerez:

According to the 24-man World Motorsport Council, Schumacher’s actions were “deliberate but not premeditated” and he is free to zoom into the 1998 season as hot favourite to win the drivers’ championship. […]
Deep down it probably wanted to throw the book at him but the logic of the box office said no. A three-race ban would have killed the start of the 1998 season because a grand prix without Schumacher would be like a performance of Lear without the king.

1 FIA stands for Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile, the name of Formula One’s governing body.

The phrases Lear without the King, Henry V without the King, and Hamlet without the Prince are based on the absurdity of performing, without an actor playing the title role, respectively, The Tragedy of King Lear, The Life of Henry the Fifth, and The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, by the English playwright and poet William Shakespeare (1564-1616).

—Cf. also the phrase Waiting for Godot without Godot.




The earliest occurrences of the phrase Lear without the King and variants that I have found are as follows, in chronological order:

1-: From Our London Letter, by the special correspondent of The Montreal Daily Star, published in The Montreal Daily Star (Montreal, Quebec, Canada) of Saturday 5th March 1904:
—Context: The British statesman Joseph Chamberlain (1836-1914) had resigned from the Cabinet to campaign for tariff reform, but, in February 1904, suffering from gout and neuralgia, he was forced to take a two-month leave of absence:

London, February 20.—[…] Mr. Chamberlain has now left upon a two months’ complete holiday. […]
Of course to debate the fiscal question in the absence of Mr. Chamberlain is like playing “Lear” without the King.

2-: From the review of King Lear, interpreted by the Italian actor and playwright Ermete Novelli (1851-1919)—review by the U.S. actress Ethel Barrymore (born Ethel Blythe – 1879-1959), published in The Sun (New York City, New York, USA) of Sunday 24th March 1907:

As usually happens when Shakespeare is seen through the Latin temperament, the play is reduced in spirit as in language to prose, and in consequence to melodrama. The very text as Novelli presents it is stripped of many of its loftiest flights of imagination. Thus the incident between Edgar and the blind Gloucester in which the old man hurls himself, as he thinks, over the cliff at Dover—an incident which at best is not without a touch of Elizabethan exaggeration—is retained without the mainspring of the whole effect, namely, the lines that convey to the spectator that image of Turnerlike aerial space and color. Lear without the King is bad enough, but what shall we say of Shakespeare without Shakespeare?

3-: From The Music Festival, by ‘Uncle Dudley’, published in the Boston Evening Globe (Boston, Massachusetts, USA) of Saturday 22nd May 1926:

As a Nation we have long been intensely interested in competitions of various sorts. Our business and industrial life was reared upon it. Observers long ago noted it in our social life. In education and in sports this same preoccupation has made itself dominant, even to the point of overemphasis. We have but recently begun to realize (many of us) that we have been trying to play Lear without the King: that we have been postponing the day when we shall begin “to live” without realizing that the fullness of life (if there is to be any fullness in it at all for us) must be sought today, as well as tomorrow. Effort toward appreciation of the excellence of those things which endure after the tinseled show of a civilization has vanished has, till lately, had little dramatization publicly in America.

4-: From The Northern Whig and Belfast Post (Belfast, Antrim, Northern Ireland) of Friday 18th December 1931:

Excellent Presentation by the Boys of “Inst.”

If only in the matter of staging last night’s performance of “King Lear” by boys of the Royal Belfast Academical Institution deserves to rank among the best dramatic efforts in the school.
Shakespearean tradition was never more faithfully observed. Everything was subordinated to the tragedy; upon the players and the players alone, did the interest of the audience focus.
“Hamlet without the Prince” is an expression synonymous with absurdity. The phrase, “Lear without the King,” might just as well be used. Upon the tragic figure of the half-demented monarch, centre of elemental storms, inhuman wickedness, and filial impiety, more depends than on almost any other character in Shakespearean performance.

5-: From an interview of the British actor Andrew Leigh (1887-1957), by W. H. Bush, published in the Evening Despatch (Birmingham, Warwickshire, England) of Saturday 5th June 1937:

He was one of the first actors to be televised. It happened when he was playing Tweedledum in the Little Theatre production of “Alice Through the Looking Glass.” He says that the experience in front of the television viewer was rather like playing the Fool in “Lear” without either King Lear or his daughters.

6-: From the review of King Lear, interpreted by the British actor Michael Redgrave (1908-1985)—review by the British theatrical critic Kenneth Tynan (1927-1980), published in the Evening Standard (London, England) of Friday 17th July 1953:

Hamlet without the prince is still a fascinating text; Lear without the king is something of a bore. How one wishes that Shakespeare had passed the manuscript to someone like Jonson, with instructions to mend the leaks in the Gloucester sub-plot and provide at least some excuse for the unaccountable behaviour of Edgar!

7-: From the review of John Gabriel Borkman, by the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906), produced at the Mermaid Theatre, London—review by ‘D. H.’, published in the Somerset & Dorset Evening Post (Bristol, England) of Saturday 18th February 1961:

[Borkman] could be called a visionary, his vision a fixation on his own capacity for power which survives a gaol sentence and the ostracism of his friends.
Bernard Shaw, more simply, called him a madman. By any account he is much larger than life, symbolising the materialist cravings of the world. In this production Bernard Miles plays him as a slightly superior clerk, pompous and not quite house-trained.
It is not so much “Hamlet” without the prince as “Lear” without the king.

8-: From an account of parliamentary debates, by Colin Welch, published in The Daily Telegraph and Morning Post (London, England) of Thursday 1st March 1962:

Mr. Healey referred to the “treasonable threats” of Sir Roy Welensky. It was Mr. Paul Williams (C., Sunderland S.) who rose to rebuke him, earning thereby louder and more widespread cheers than are often his lot.
Though some of his adjutants were in the gallery, Sir Roy himself was absent: King Lear without King Lear.




The earliest occurrences of the phrase Henry V without the King and variants that I have found are as follows, in chronological order:

1-: From the review of Henry V, produced by Peter Hall and John Barton, and interpreted by the British actor Ian Holm (1931-2020)—review by ‘E. G.’, published in The Stage and Television Today (London, England) of Thursday 11th June 1964:

Ian Holm’s Henry—shrewd, blunt, bearded and with a voice pitched an octave lower than usual—will not please all comers—and let us, at once, get rid of this totally irrelevant idea that Mr. Holm’s stature has any bearing on the matter. The fact is that he never once tries to be the golden boy of shining armour and gushing pre-battle emotion. For some, this immediately cuts Harry down to half size.
In an introductory article, Peter Hall writes of Henry that he is, “a devious politician and a man of sincerity; a hypocrite and an idealist”. This paradox within the character is both the strength and weakness of Ian Holm’s performance. In the end he seems to give us a complete Henry without the king.

2-: From the review of Mother Courage and her Children, by the German playwright Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956), produced at Simon Fraser University, British Columbia, Canada—review by Christopher Dafoe, Sun drama critic, published in The Sun (Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada) of Thursday 26th November 1970:

The people who fill the stage are not the generals and the kings, but the poor louse-ridden wretches who follow in the wake of a great conflict, pecking a mean living out of the blasted farms and the wasted fields. It is, as Kenneth Tynan has written, Henry V without the king and without the great orations; a play about ordinary people caught up in the merciless tide of war.

3-: From Sketch: A Christmas without Santa missing, by the British journalist Simon Hoggart (1946-2014), published in The Guardian (London and Manchester, England) of Friday 17th December 1999:

Treasury questions yesterday, and no sign of Gordon Brown 2. Questions without Gordon is empty—like Hamlet without the prince, Henry V without the king, or Waiting For Godot without Godot. Well, not the last perhaps, but you get the idea.

2 The British Labour statesman Gordon Brown (born 1951) was then the Chancellor of the Exchequer in the government of Tony Blair.

4-: From the review of Henry V, produced by the Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier, Chicago, Illinois, from the 29th of April to the 15th of June 2014—review by Terri Bourus, Indiana University/Purdue University, Indianapolis, published in Shakespeare Bulletin (Baltimore (Maryland): The Johns Hopkins University Press) of Winter 2014:

There’s something desperately wrong when what you remember about a performance of Henry V is Fluellen and Gower and the alarums and excursions that Shakespeare deliberately downplayed. People talk about Hamlet without the Prince; this was Henry V without the King. The young Harry Judge was a beautifully photogenic “star of England.” Hawkins choreographed him in a series of spotlit speechless battle poses. Costume designer Mariann S. Verheyen dressed him in sexy leather, clearly inspired by The Tudors, but his new boots never lost their shine, and his moussed hair stayed perfectly in place. He delivered the Crispin Crispianus speech as though he was auditioning, with no one else on stage: he never physically touched any of the so-called “band of brothers” arrayed around him, and he never emotionally touched the audience.

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