Monday, April 28, 2014

William Shakespeare: King Lear (1605-06)

[Cordelia (Ashley Ricard), Lear (Ron Gural), Regan (Trina Beck), Goneril (Rebecca Frank) in a Tulane Shakespeare Festival production from 2009. Photo by Brad Robbert, image sourced from]

[Line references are to the Series 3 Arden edition, ed. R.A. Foakes, 1997. This conflates the three scenes usually numbered II.2-4 into one tremendous composite scene that begins at dawn and ends at night (II.2).]

From The Faerie Queene, Bk II, Canto X:


Next him king Leyr in happie peace long raind,
  But had no issue male him to succeed,
  But three faire daughters, which were well vptraind,
  In all that seemed fit for kingly seed:
  Mongst whom his realme he equally decreed
  To haue diuided. Tho when feeble age
  Nigh to his vtmost date he saw proceed,
  He cald his daughters; and with speeches sage
Inquyrd, which of them most did loue her parentage.


The eldest Gonorill gan to protest,
  That she much more then her owne life him lou’d:
  And Regan greater loue to him profest,
  Then all the world, when euer it were proou’d;
  But Cordeill said she lou’d him, as behoou’d:
  Whose simple answere, wanting colours faire
  To paint it forth, him to displeasance moou’d,
  That in his crowne he counted her no haire,
But twixt the other twaine his kingdome whole did shaire.


So wedded th’one to Maglan king of Scots,
  And th’other to the king of Cambria,
  And twixt them shayrd his realme by equall lots:
  But without dowre the wise Cordelia
  Was sent to Aganip of Celtica.
  Their aged Syre, thus eased of his crowne,
  A private life led in Albania,
  With Gonorill, long had in great renowne,
That nought him grieu’d to bene from rule deposed downe.


But true it is, that when the oyle is spent,
  The light goes out, and weeke is throwne away;
  So when he had resigned his regiment,
  His daughter gan despise his drouping day,
  And wearie waxe of his continuall stay.
  Tho to his daughter Regan he repayrd,
  Who him at first well vsed euery way;
  But when of his departure she despayrd,
Her bountie she abated, and his cheare empayrd.


The wretched man gan then auise too late,
  That loue is not, where most it is profest,
  Too truely tryde in his extreamest state;
  At last resolu’d likewise to proue the rest,
  He to Cordelia him selfe addrest,
  Who with entire affection him receau’d,
  As for her Syre and king her seemed best;
  And after all an army strong she leau’d,
To war on those, which him had of his realme bereau’d.


So to his crowne she him restor’d againe,
  In which he dyde, made ripe for death by eld,
  And after wild, it should to her remaine:
  Who peaceably the same long time did weld:
  And all mens harts in dew obedience held:
  Till that her sisters children, woxen strong
  Through proud ambition, against her rebeld,
  And ouercommen kept in prison long,
Till wearie of that wretched life, her selfe she hong.


Then gan the bloudie brethren both to raine:
  But fierce Cundah gan shortly to enuie
  His brother Morgan, prickt with proud disdaine,...

And so, with barely a ripple, Spenser’s chronicle proceeds; miraculous, haunting, powerful and infinitely distanced. The first three books of the Faerie Queene were published in 1590, and recognition was immediate.

Shakespeare knew the passage, and took “Cordelia” from it as his preferred version of the youngest daughter’s name; perhaps, too, the basic drift of Gonerill’s and Regan’s formal flatteries in the opening scene.

He also took the detail of Cordelia dying by being hanged. The old play of Leir had followed the chronicles up to the point where the king is triumphantly restored, and no further. But the overarching tranquillity of Spenser’s chronicle involves the acceptance that all happiness is temporary; that dissolution follows achievement, dissension follows peace, tragedy rears up without warning and the best that can be hoped for is calm release. In short, Spenser denies the possibility of happy endings, and with Spenser in mind Shakespeare must have felt that the structure of Leir fell short of that insight. He wanted his protagonist to experience something yet chillier than the true worth of his daughters, with its relieved conclusion that one at least is a rock. The surprisingly desolate nature of Cordelia’s end, in Spenser’s version, suggested a way of making the play a tragedy.

Lear’s own death, at such an advanced age, wouldn’t be sufficient to make the play tragic. But the play had to be made tragic, or the power of Lear’s unhinged rhetoric would be seriously undercut by a vague sense that a silly old man makes a lot of pother about nothing, and it all comes out all right by the end. (Of course I am not suggesting that Shakespeare analysed his way to this, or conceived his dramatisation in these terms. More likely the whole thing fell into place at once.)

When we read Spenser the expanses of time are so great, and the events so isolated, that we don’t know the characters. An intelligent reader is bound to wonder what it felt like for Lear to be gradually disdained, or what sort of a person Cordelia was, but we can gain no sense of integrated personalities, and chronicle flows smoothly away. We, the readers, feel an imaginative impulse to stop and “bring it all to life”, but the materials of history are sparse. Shakespeare dwelt on the suffering implied in “Too truely tryde in his extreamest state”, and on what it must then have meant for Lear to be received at last “with entire affection”.

Shakespeare’s dramatisation of chronicle entails shortening long periods of time, both for practicality of staging and for dramatic tension. The suggestion of long time having passed is allowed to remain, and “double time” is the inevitable result; seen at its most blatant in Othello, where times and dates are critical to the plot, but really a basic methodology that Shakespeare uses everywhere. *

In Spenser’s chronicle the king spends a long time reigning, a long time contentedly with Gonerill, another long time contentedly with Regan, and finally a few years contented resumption of his rule. Shakespeare is ruthless with these periods of undramatic peace. Of Lear’s past reign we learn nothing; Shakespeare blanks it. He ends the first scene with Gonerill and Regan already making it clear that the king’s amiable plans are going to be severely modified; and before Lear reappears on stage Gonerill is pushing matters to a crisis (I.3). Regan smartly avoids entertaining Lear at all by not being at home (he is, of course, not yet due); by the time Lear meets with her he has a fair inkling of what to expect (II.2), and it will take no more than an animated conversation in a courtyard to propel him out into the storm. As for the contented resumption, it is eliminated by making Cordelia lose the battle (a reversal of Spenser, or rather, a conflation with her later defeat at the hands of her sisters' children) and meet her death while in custody.  

All this hustling of the time-scheme produces a more concentrated anguish, as it did in the history plays. Someone once said that people commit suicide when three things go wrong on the same day. In Lear’s case, it leads convincingly to madness – to what we would call today, “some sort of breakdown”.

This is well prepared for. He is a man who is already accustomed to “losing it” in an imperious sort of way, as he does in the first scene. These volcanic tantrums are in fact part of how he does his job. On his own account, he feels it’s time to slow down, but retirement does not come easy to such a man. In fact he conceives his retirement not as an unobtrusive slipping away but rather as a grand abdication ceremony in which he majestically cedes kingdoms to his courtiers; a ceremony emphasizing his God-like power. He had planned to spend his retirement thereafter with Cordelia; Shakespeare presents the idea of a monthly progress between the other daughters as an improvisation after his first plan is frustrated. All of his daughters are new-married and leaving home for the first time; Lear seems to need a daughter on hand, and does not think of maintaining his own household. Nevertheless the improvised solution is a very bad idea, and it’s this as much as the treatment of Cordelia that provokes Kent to say

                                   Reserve thy state,
And in thy best consideration check
This hideous rashness.      (I.1.149-51)

No outrageous wickedness on the part of Gonerill and Regan is required for things to go wrong thereafter, as has often been remarked. The word “evil” is first applied to Lear.

I’ll tell thee thou dost evil.     (I.1.166)

But Cordelia soon enough tells us what her sisters are, and her condemnation is fresh in our minds as we listen to their subtle dialogue at the end of the scene.

Gonerill is the instigator of it. No doubt bothered by Lear’s announcement of the “hundred knights” and “The name and all th’addition to a king”**, she recognizes the need to circumscribe his authority; she also sees that this will only happen if the two sisters support each other. What she says is really unexceptionable, though clearly her comments on Lear’s “poor judgment” are designed to make a case. It is tough-minded and realistic, but that’s all; which is how wickedness generally does slip into existence. Regan hangs back; her first remark is coolly neutral:

That’s most certain, and with you; next month with us.  (I.1.287)

This is a sentence that is ready for anything. The next speech is barely more committed, since everyone would agree with it:

‘Tis the infirmity of his age. Yet he hath ever but slenderly known himself. (I.1.292)

Everyone, that is, but Lear. With these words Regan denies her own formal speech of flattery, but only to the extent of admitting that she has common sense. The hanging back is suggestive. Gonerill has every reason to be optimistic, for the sisters are close (Regan’s flattering speech had actually paid a compliment to Gonerill’s); Regan’s hesitation at this juncture could be seen as a faint hint of their future enmity, but more likely it registers timidity. If Regan were a games theorist, she should consider a clever strategy here, which would be to encourage Gonerill to commit herself, and then to betray her by supporting the king. But Regan is not so calculating. Gonerill is a dominant elder sister, and Regan is somewhat in her shadow. She has less confidence, is less confrontational, and feels her way (II.4.287, for example, is a question as much as a statement; she is seeking approval from Gonerill). Sensing her own weakness, she likes to assert herself by interrupting her husband. Her manner is more “tender-hefted” than Gonerill’s (Lear is trying to persuade himself, but this must be based on the truth), and she wears gorgeous, feminine clothes that hardly keep her warm (II.2.459 – Lear must be addressing Regan, who arrived at dawn and has had time to change her clothes; Gonerill would still be cloaked). Some have speculated that Gonerill is good-looking (II.2.355), Regan rather less so (II.2.91-3), though to push this too far might rather spoil the Fool’s remark at I.5.15, which emphasizes the extent to which Regan duplicates her elder sister.

Regan discovers her own strength, however, in the scene where Gloucester is blinded. It was Gonerill who came up with the idea that Cornwall now executes, and Regan behaves at first as a one-woman rent-a-mob, most of her speeches being shouted (her aptitude for this role was already apparent at II.1.88 and II.2.133) .

[I have not seen the following lines explained:

            (Gl.)                 ... O cruel! O you gods!
            Reg.   One side will mock another – th’other too.
            Corn.   If you see vengeance –
            1 Serv.                            Hold your hand, my lord. (III.7.69-70)

Gloucester’s cry indicates the point where Cornwall rips out his eye, presumably by hand, throws it on the ground and squelches it with his boot. Regan, having watched this, looks back to Gloucester. The pause is palpable. Then she makes a comment about his now unsymmetrical face. It means something like this: He doesn’t “match” – you’d best have the other one out too. Cornwall starts to wind himself up again. His uncompleted sentence refers back to Gloucester’s assertion that “I shall see / The winged vengeance...” (III.7.64-65) – perhaps Cornwall was going to say: If you ever do see vengeance it’ll be in hell (because I’m going to put out your other eye).]

But he’s interrupted by the servant, and Gloucester does manage to glimpse the blow that will be the end of Cornwall, at least. It’s Regan who deals with the unruly servant (stabbing him, probably twice). At this point she begins to understand her own potential, and from now on feels subservient neither to Cornwall (who is about to die) nor to Gonerill. We recognize her new independence as soon as, when she next appears, we hear her say:

It was great ignorance, Gloucester’s eyes being out,
To let him live. Where he arrives he moves
All hearts against us.                           (IV.5.11-13)

No doubt it’s her late husband’s error that she is moaning about. But “us” must mean Edmund, Gonerill and, chiefly, herself; she being now (as Gonerill fearfully predicted) potentially the apex of the triangle. There is also a hint of the royal “we”, which she certainly does use a few lines later (IV.5.16, and again at V.1.1, 34, 36, V.3.61, 62, 63). Something has changed with the death of Cornwall. It empowers Regan, who now calls no-one lord and is thus indisputably the ruler of her half of Britain (but since Lear is still alive and retains the “name and all th’addition to a king”, should Regan be using the language of a queen? I am unsure of the royal protocol for princesses). Cornwall’s demise also empowers Albany, because he is now the only male with the supreme executive (he pointedly rejects Edmund’s assumption of parity). Albany seems to use the royal “we”, at V.1.20, 22, 25 and V.3.45. But both these elevations seem rather to diminish Gonerill, who herself uses the royal “we” on just one occasion (IV.2.1).  

At present Regan is only trying out this commanding tone on Gonerill’s servant, and there is some fumbling when she tries to turn him. But she has also met with Edmund, and something, not conclusive but nonetheless constructive, has been said (IV.5.32).

[The 3rd Arden edition (R.A. Foakes,1997), misled by Regan’s question at IV.5.6, says that she has had no opportunity to discuss love or marriage with Edmund, but this is wrong. Edmund left Gonerill (IV.2.15-16) to help Cornwall muster his forces. Though he learned on the road that Cornwall was dead, he had all the more reason to go to Cornwall’s HQ (that is, either Cornwall’s or Gloucester’s home) and he was certain to meet Regan there. He has since departed, and Regan knows roughly why (IV.5.10-16). The question in line 6 (“Lord Edmund spake not with your lord at home?”) means either that they didn’t discuss this when they met, or (more likely) that they did discuss it but Regan is feigning ignorance in order to fish for an explanation of Gonerill’s letter.]

In V.1 Regan’s manner jars on Gonerill, at least according to the quarto, and Regan tries to manipulate the movements of her sister, who sees through her at once. When she regally says “Tis most convenient; pray you go with us”, it’s a reversal of Gonerill’s dominance at the end of I.1. Gonerill appears to comply, but we know enough of her to doubt what this means. By the time Regan reappears in V.3, Gonerill has already poisoned her. I forget which sister Bradley regarded as the more detestable, but Regan remains the more uncertain one, the one who feels the need to assert herself. It is not inappropriate that she should also be the sister who goes furthest in the play’s most savage episode.

I've digressed a long way down a Bradleyan road to support the assertion that in the play Lear’s madness arises from his character, but I don’t regret the digression since it demonstrates Shakespeare’s consistent and subtle character-portrayal in a comparatively minor figure.

The growth of Lear’s madness is carefully portrayed, too.  At I.4.69 he admits, fairly lightly, that he has been uneasy about his treatment, but has assumed it’s “just in his head”. And he doesn’t like people referring to Cordelia (I.4.74). This is fertile soil, but nothing unusual. From here up to the end of Act II the progress, at first slow, is remorseless; Lear never gets a breathing space in which to recover his equanimity. He blames his folly at first; that’s painful, and exposes a tension between the man and the king, but it still leaves his present poise unthreatened. At I.5.44-45 he identifies his internal adversary for the first time. The possibility of madness, at that moment, is viewed with terror. At various points in II.2 he registers its growing pressure to break out, and finally arrives at this:

                       You think I’ll weep,
No, I’ll not weep.
I have full cause of weeping, but this heart
Shall break into a hundred thousand flaws
Or e’er I’ll weep. O fool, I shall go mad.        (II.2.471-74)

This amounts to an acceptance of madness; sanity, which would mean sobbing in front of his daughters, has now become unendurable. It’s not a matter of dignity – it’s just that they aren’t his daughters any more.

Lear is now homeless and alienated from his family, states that perhaps have always been closely connected with mental instability. From a dramatic point of view Lear is no longer an agent and his grand speeches in the face of the storm are from one point of view a compensation; he grasps at a sort of universal agency. He also becomes politicized. At the same time his wits are turning, and though this is first clearly seen in his unhinged words to “Poor Tom” (III.4.48) it may be suspected earlier in the anti-climactic inconsequence of III.2.57-60.

That there is a problem of sorts with the middle scenes of the play has been often stated and as often denied. The dramatic movement of the first two Acts exemplifies Shakespeare doing what no-one has ever done better – taking the bare bones of a chronicle (as in Spenser’s verses) and by force of imagination turning them into a wholly vivid and astonishing portrayal of character in action. But in III.2, III.4, III.6 and IV.6 Shakespeare has arrived at a dramatic situation that lies outside the action, from which Lear has become detached. Those who want to regard these scenes as the heart of the play, like G.K. Hunter in his introduction to the New Penguin edition (1972), are forced into making rather unsatisfactory formulations such as “terrifying maelstrom of words.... a world of fragmentary reactions to the present, a world without a connected past and therefore without personal purpose.... bound together by the orchestration of the scene... In this unstructured and disparate world Lear comes to know things he (and we) could not know in sanity. The whirlpools of his obsession dredge up truths that are normally concealed... ‘The reader’s attention’ is meant to be prised loose from individual motives and actions, I suspect, and attached to a different but equally dramatic sense of man’s general status, rather than his individual destiny... the language of the play is not so much an imitation of the way people speak as an evocation of the realities behind what people say... This stupendous scene (IV.6).... (Lear) the master of a torrential vein of mad moral eloquence....  the free-wheeling phantasmagoric energy of Lear....” Inspiring as much of this commentary is, the wealth of metaphors, adjectives and italics also strikes me as insecure. Does the utmost pitch of human art require so much talking up?

From a dramatic point of view there are formidable difficulties with presenting scenes in which the characters have no urgent sense of time passing and in which, though they speak, they don’t listen. There are indeed moments when we are compelled to do so; Lear’s speech about the “poor, bare, forked animal”, or “None does offend, none, I say none”. These powerful generalities arise from the logic of the play with which I began; if Lear was to be tragic at all, it had to be a “supra-tragedy” that contemplated a universal suffering. (An analogy that must have occurred to many people is Euripides' Women of Troy.)

One way of giving the scenes a “thread” might be to show them trying to contain Lear’s madness. The would-be containers are (sometimes) Lear himself; Kent; Gloucester, when he is trying to control where the king stays or when he flees; the attendants in IV.6, and so on. Naturally it is not possible to tie up the winds again, as Cordelia’s death eventually proves. I am not at all content with this idea, and perhaps the mad scenes resist theatrical interpretation as well as Bradleyan commentary. The mad scenes represent the world that we actually inhabit, and while you can leave the rest behind when you leave the theatre, you take this bit outside with you. Lear thus plays on the notion of an “interlude”. A brief scene of loopy rhetoric was always a popular thing on the Jacobean stage; but it was contained by the rest of the play.  Here, however, the “interlude” is an incursion from outside, like the sudden whine of a motor-bike, which threatens the dramatic illusion.     


*Note on “Double Time”:

This was not Shakespeare’s invention, but is a potential device in any narrative. In unsophisticated fiction the present action is bound to be described one step after another: “and then... and then...” Time-pauses are uninteresting and apt to be elided by phrases such as “the next day”. But the implications of the imagined background are by definition not observed so attentively, and are open to manipulation. It actually takes more effort to maintain consistency than to flout it; I am thinking of those boring calculations of dates and logistics with which a novelist is familiar; the readers will never notice, but the novelist has to work out consistencies to be sure that all the narratives he does not actually recount are viable. Characters show a tendency to age at different speeds, a great deal happens to one person while another is in one of those vacant periods when their preoccupations have nothing to do with anything and even they can hardly remember afterwards what they were doing. Unless the teller deliberately focuses on the development of a community over time (as e.g. Zola), stories are so unlike the passing of real time – so selective, so heightened – that distortions such as double time are almost inevitable.

A notable earlier example is in Chrétien’s Li contes del graal, where Gawain’s foreground adventures after leaving Arthur’s court occupy around three days and we are then informed that, in the mean time, Perceval has been on his quest for around five years.  

**Note on “the name and all the addition to a king”

This use of “addition” appears (I think) 4 times in Lear and is thematically important. It means – what exactly? It means honours, of a sort, that Lear thinks important; to him they represent respect,  but does it really amount to anything more tangible than “honorific titles”?  What it does not mean, as Lear soon discovers, is power; as the Fool urges, what Lear has really retained doesn't add up to very much. At one level Lear is an examination, building on the earlier Richard II, of the nature of majesty deprived of power. The debate was current, and would shortly lead on to a quantified Divine Right of Kings that was then found to be much too tangible to be acceptable.

(2003, 2014)



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