Shakespeare in the Saddle

This week, William Shakespeare joins the ranks of Western writers.

King Lear becomes King of Texas for the cable network TNT on Sunday night. 

The western, set not long after the battle at the Alamo in 1836, transforms Lear from a king to an aging Texas land baron. 

Screenwriter Stephen Harrigan had to rewrite Shakespeare. "It's a peculiarly tall order," he laughs. "The first challenge was not to be intimidated by, you know, Shakespeare." 

Patrick Stewart, a Shakespearean actor familiar to TV audiences as Capt. Picard of Star Trek, stars as Lear. 

The aging Lear sets the plot in motion when he gathers his three daughters and announces that he's going divide his huge land holdings among them. But before allocating his acres, he insists that each one tell him how much they love him. 

Two of them  played by Oscar-winner Marcia Gay Harden and Lauren Holly offer fawning expressions. 

But the third, Julie Cox, who's been caring for him all along, doesn't go along with the program and is disinherited. 

"In Shakespeare," said Harrigan, "it's a very mysterious scene. Why is he doing this? Why is he so desperately in need of an expression of love when he's never shown any need for that before?" 

The scene sets the rest of the story in motion. Land is divided, and the Lear family as well. 

The land-rich daughters plot to take more territory from a neighboring Mexican rancher. The disinherited daughter takes up her romance with the Mexican. 

Also involved is another rancher, played by Roy Scheider. And adding to the story's racial texture is David Alan Grier as Lear's ranch hand. 

In a story full of betrayals and misreadings of character, Grier's character sees other people for what they are and remains loyal to Lear through thick and thin. 

And as the story unwinds, things get very thin for Lear. As he loses his grip on his land and those around him, he also loses his grip on himself. 

"I think he is losing his mind," says Harrigan, explaining this sudden turn. "This is a story about a guy freaking out. 

"Volumes have been written about what causes him to freak out. But it's very simple — this is a guy used to power, absolute power, now finding himself to be for the first time in his life vulnerable," he says.

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