Sunday, February 14, 2016

Shakespeare Study: The Tragedy Of King Lear (revisited)

Initially, my Shakespeare study was a three-year project (well, three and a half years), in which I read one play each month (and then the poems and sonnets and apocrypha), and watched as many film versions as I could find. But of course I keep acquiring new DVDs and books, and so revisit each of the plays. This time it’s The Tragedy Of King Lear, which is one of the greatest works of literature, along with The Tragedy Of Hamlet.

This time around I read The New Penguin edition, which was edited by G.K. Hunter. It was originally published in 1972; the copy I read was from 1988, and includes a fifty-page introduction. In the introduction, G.K. Hunter writes, “King Lear is certainly a play in which everything is at full stretch: extremes of cruelty and suffering face extremes of loyalty and self-sacrifice” (p. 7). Regarding earlier versions of the story, Hunter writes, “In all versions other than Shakespeare’s there is a happy ending” (p. 9). Regarding identity, Hunter writes: “Lear asserts, in his sanity, that he cannot tell who he is, for the defining family relationship is denied by his daughters. In the mad scenes it is not only the relationship between a man and his family that he finds denied; it is the whole sequence of loyalties, duties, and respects that everywhere in Shakespeare describes the final good” (pages 13-14). And then: “The relationship between man and beast, the potential for bestiality in man, is constantly referred to by the imagery…This is why it is the idea of Edgar’s nakedness (however it was represented in the theatre of Shakespeare’s day) that gives the final impulse to Lear’s madness” (p. 14). Regarding Lear and Cordelia, Hunter writes: “It has often been remarked that Lear’s refusal to listen to Cordelia in Act I, scene 1, finds its mirror-image in Act V, scene 3, where her voice ‘soft,/Gentle and low’ is the only thing in the world he is listening for, and where her silence is his executioner” (p. 26). About the end, Hunter writes: “It is only in the dream of art that one really recovers that which is lost. What Edgar can find at the end of the play is only the debris of the world which exploded in Act I. The only wisdom that is available to him at the end is the knowledge of insufficiency: ‘we that are young/Shall never see so much nor live so long’” (p. 36). Hunter also writes, “The process of the play see-saws between hope and disappointment; and any sense of values that the play is supposed to affirm must be held against this background of recurrent betrayal” (pages 38-39).

The notes in this edition are at the end of the play rather than at the bottom of the pages, and there are no indications in the text for when a related note is included. A note on Lear’s “Although our last and least” reads: “least littlest (or perhaps, as youngest, ‘last in precedence’). Cordelia’s low stature may be implied elsewhere (for example line 198 of this scene). The Q reading, ‘last, not least’, is easier, but the text may have been remembered in this form because of the very triteness of the phrase” (p. 189). Regarding Lear’s line “Hence and avoid my sight,” Hunter notes, “addressed, presumably to Cordelia; but it appears that she does not obey, and that Lear accepts this, since he calls for France and Burgundy” (p. 190). A note on France’s “dismantle/So many folds of favour” reads “strip away the protective clothing of your favour (the first appearance of the idea of stripping clothes, later so important in the play)” (pages 194-195). Regarding Lear’s use of the word “bandy” in “Do you bandy looks with me, you rascal,” Hunter notes: “The technical term for a stroke in tennis. The dialogue following picks up the tennis metaphor; from ‘bandying’ looks, Lear turns to blows. Oswald objects to being made a tennis-ball; Kent trips him and says that football, a plebian game, is more suitable for him than tennis, a royal and noble game” (p. 207). Regarding the Fool’s line “Whoop, Jug, I love thee,” Hunter notes: “perhaps the refrain from a lost song. Obviously it repudiates the involvement with others which appears in the preceding line. Jug Joan” (p. 212). Regarding Edmund’s “Fled this way,” Hunter notes, “As the eighteenth-century editor Capell said, Edmund should point in the wrong direction” (p. 220). Regarding Gloucester’s “O madam, my old heart is cracked; it’s cracked,” Hunter notes: “The repetition suggests the sentimental self-pity that is a part of Gloucester’s basic temperament. Compare lady, lady (line 92) and too bad, too bad (line 95)” (p. 222). Regarding Gloucester’s “I know not, madam” and Edmund’s “Yes, madam,” Hunter writes: “Gloucester’s response to Regan’s efforts to blame her father is not very satisfactory; he is too sunk in self-pity to catch her drift. It is Edmund, with his clear eye for the main chance, who gives her the reply she wants, thus establishing at first sight the natural rapport between them” (p. 222). A note on the Fool’s “This is a brave night to cool a courtesan” reads “It is not clear why the comment on the weather takes this form. Perhaps a pun is intended on ‘night’/‘knight’. If so, this would explain the sudden switch to medieval parody in the lines following” (p. 246). Regarding Lear’s “Didst thou give all to thy daughters,” Hunter notes: “the first words that can be used to prove that Lear has finally lost his hold on external reality, is ‘mad’. The appearance of ‘Poor Tom’ is undoubtedly intended to be the catalyst that releases the inner forces that have been beating in Lear’s mind. Immediately after the Poor naked wretches speech he finds a figure with whom he can wholly identify himself and whose role (of madman) he can take over” (pages 250-251). Regarding Edgar’s “O do, de, do, de, do, de,” Hunter writes, “This set of sounds is probably meant to represent Tom’s teeth chattering with cold” (p. 251). Regarding Regan’s “pray you give him this,” Hunter notes: “Some commentators assume that she gives a love-token rather than a letter. Certainly only one letter is clearly mentioned when Oswald dies – that from Gonerill; but it may be implied that he was carrying more than one… one given by Regan at this point is not ruled out” (p. 281). Regarding Lear’s “And my poor fool is hanged,” Hunter notes: “Presumably Cordelia is meant (since she is the centre of his attention, and was hanged), ‘poor fool’ being a common Shakespearian form of parental endearment. It is impossible to know if the reminiscence of the Fool’s title is accidental or intentional. It has been suggested that the same boy actor played both parts; but the Fool is likely to have been played by Robert Armin” (p. 311). And regarding Lear’s “no life,” Hunter writes, “I take it that Lear is making a general point (‘Let all life cease’) rather than the particular one: ‘There is no life left in Cordelia’” (p. 311). And regarding Lear’s “Pray you undo this button,” Hunter writes: “presumably the button at his own throat, which seems to be causing his feeling of suffocation. But it could equally well be a button on Cordelia’s garment” (p. 311).

Related Books:

King Lear: Before During After by Ben Crystal  -  This is a volume in The Arden Shakespeare’s Springboard Shakespeare series, and functions as an introduction as well as study guide for students and those who are new to the play. Ben Crystal writes: “The heath scenes, out in the wilds of Nature, sit at the heart of the play. The words nature, natural and unnatural occur 50 times and over the course of the action we see children betray and rule over their parents, moving against the natural way of things” (p. 6). About the area of Kent in England, Crystal writes: “a beautiful county in the seat of south-east England, and the closest part of the country to France; its position and strength in times of war a possible character note for Kent; the county was singular in England in that it held the common law of gavelkind, where lands were divided equally among heirs – is Lear intentionally adopting the laws of the territory of his most loyal subject?” (p. 23). About the Fool, Crystal writes: “His sudden absence is often explained by the arrival of Poor Tom. Lear, drowning in madness, can no longer hear the Fool’s wisdom, instead cleaving to Tom’s ramblings; so realising he is of no further use, the Fool leaves. Some productions have him captured by soldiers and hanged, as war breaks out (first between Albany and Cornwall; then with Cordelia’s French army)” (p. 29). Ben Crystal goes through the play scene by scene, with notes on the characters, actions and even specific words. Regarding Regan in Act IV scene iv, Crystal writes: “Using all the tricks of persuasion at her disposal in an effort to see the letters, productions have had Regan try to seduce Oswald into submission. There’s a lovely shift in the way she talks to him too, moving in one speech from the formal you to the informal thou” (p. 71). Regarding Cordelia’s line “And so I am, I am” in Act IV scene vii, Crystal writes: “These last repeated extra syllables are a point of contention. Some consider them a mistake, others agree that the shared line intentionally extends the metre, Cordelia’s emotions fittingly breaking past the confines of the poetic style” (p. 77). Regarding Edgar’s Act V line “Ripeness is all,” Crystal notes, “echoing Hamlet’s fifth act line The readiness is all” (p. 81). Regarding the effects of Lear’s absent wife, Crystal writes, “As Lear’s wife gave him no son and therefore no direct heir to the throne, this may have given rise to his breaking up of the country at the beginning of the play” (p. 92). Crystal provides this side-note: “Shakespeare’s younger brother came to London, worked as an actor, died two years after King Lear was written, and was buried in Southwark Cathedral, a few minutes’ walk from the Globe. Father to an illegitimate son named Edward and 16 years Shakespeare’s junior, he was christened Edmund. Whether the character of Edmund was written as a compliment – or an insult – to him has been a source of great debate and we’ll never know, but the parallels fascinate biographers” (p. 96). King Lear: Before During After was published in 2013.

The King And I  by Philippa Kelly  -  This is a volume in the Shakespeare Now! series. In this book, Philippa Kelly relates King Lear to her experiences and life in Australia, and to the Australian identity. Regarding the play’s first scene, Kelly writes: “The old man, Lear, has had, in abundance, all that the world can offer. What he most wants now is for his beloved youngest daughter to declare – publicly, so he can believe it – that she loves him. He offers her the greatest measure he possesses (the kingdom of England, the finest slice), and he expects to become a dependent, or even a babe again, in the warmth of her ‘kind nursery’ (1.1.122). He is utterly unprepared for her rebuke” (p. 12). Then Kelly adds, “And in the course of the next several scenes he becomes physically naked, needy, left out in the cold – until, at his lowest ebb, he is embraced by his youngest daughter, who returns chastened from France to give him the very solace he had wanted in the first place” (p. 13). Kelly writes, “No matter what else King Lear is about, banishment is fundamental to its emotional plumbing” (p. 28). Regarding Edgar, Kelly writes: “But Poor Tom is also at odds with himself: he is in fact Edgar, Lear’s wealthy godson, who claims in this figure of the madman a cover for, and an image of, his lonely, rejected self. Edgar, like the madman, is banished. But unlike the madman, he is entirely aware of an alternative ‘true’ identity; he has somewhere else that is his ‘real’ upper-class life away from the heath” (p. 36). Regarding the idea of dispossession, Kelly writes, “Dispossession, for Lear, is not just about a kingdom: it involves pain, indignity and humiliation, and it rehearses the unavoidable dispossession to come in death” (p. 63). Going back to that important first scene, Kelly writes: “Lear demands that his daughters give him expressions of love in return for portions of his kingdom. What he wants here is acknowledgement – he just doesn’t know how to ask for it, and so he barters ridiculously with pieces of land” (p. 66). Kelly adds, “Lear’s kingdom and his identity fall apart because he cannot accept the words Cordelia gives him as a substitute for the acknowledgement he wants” (p. 66). The King And I was published in 2011.

Lear’s Fool: I Will Not Go To Bed At Noon  by Joseph Gergen  -  Lear’s Fool: I Will Not Go To Bed At Noon is a play, presented in prose in two acts, focusing on the Fool from King Lear. Most of the other characters from Shakespeare’s play are here as well, the exception being King Lear himself. The title, of course, comes from the Fool’s famous last line, “And I’ll go to bed at noon.” This play starts five years before the events of King Lear, with Edgar, Edmund and the Fool in Paris, studying. So in this version, the Fool is a young character, not Lear’s age as in some productions of King Lear. Edgar’s first line to his brother is “You annoying bastard” (p. 1), a none-too-subtle joke on Edmund’s status. Edgar soon indicates he doesn’t trust Edmund, calling him a snake. However, in Shakespeare’s play, Edgar readily believes Edmund’s tale. In that first scene Edgar also says, “I’ll not go about begging,” playfully foreshadowing Edgar’s Poor Tom disguise. The Fool is just about to take over the job as King Lear’s Fool, which means he has that job for only five years. And in this version, they make it clear that the Fool is smitten with Cordelia. The second scene is four years later, and so one year before the events in Shakespeare’s play. And in the third scene, Regan complains that Cordelia crawls out of bed at noon, drawing a humorous connection between Cordelia and the Fool (some people believe the two roles in King Lear were originally played by the same actor). By the fifth scene, we are brought up to the time of the play, with the Fool at a bar lamenting the fact that Lear is dividing up his kingdom and giving it away. Edmund says: “The King no longer needs a fool. He has taken that job himself” (p. 29), which of course is one of the theories regarding the Fool’s sudden departure from King Lear. This play makes explicit Cordelia’s reasoning behind her refusal to play along with Lear’s demand: “I have thrown away my kingdom because I was too stubborn to flatter an old man. A white lie to ease his last days. Who would have objected? I could have cared for him and watched over him. But no. I had to choose that moment to stand up to him, to make a statement, to assert my independence. I thought I had to teach the old man a lesson on life. As if I could teach him. As if I had lived long enough to understand the complexities of life, to know what it might be like to need some harmless flattery to keep one’s humanity” (p. 43). The Fool says to Gloucester, “Even you’re not so blind to the fact that something must be done” (p. 48), a play on Gloucester’s impending torture. At one point the Fool makes mention that this is a play: “The King is a child again, which is ridiculous. I should be the only child in this play” (p. 57). Disguises don’t quite function the way they do in Shakespeare’s world. Oswald sees through Kent’s disguise (p. 67), and the Fool sees through both Kent’s disguise (p. 71) and Edgar’s disguise (p. 77). The Fool’s last line is referred to again: “You all thought I would go to bed at noon, but I have made it to dusk” (p. 86). (There is also a Beatles reference: “And here I stand. A fool on the hill,” p. 93.)  Lear’s Fool: I Will Not Go To Bed At Noon was published in 2011.

King Lear  by William Shakespeare  -  This book is a volume in the Pocket Classics series, famous works of literature presented in comic book form. Twelve of Shakespeare’s plays were thus presented. Though William Shakespeare is credited as the author of this book, his lines have been changed, and as a result sometimes the meaning is changed as well. For example, the last speech of the play is given as: “Yes, I will rule this land. And nothing like this shall ever happen again!” That’s not exactly what Edgar is saying in the play. No other writer is credited; nor is the artist credited.

Act I

The map is held up by two men. Cordelia’s asides are presented as thoughts, such as “If my father doesn’t know I love him, then I can’t help it!” (p. 14). Lear’s “Nothing will come of nothing” becomes “Nothing will get you nothing” (p. 15). In this version, Lear gives Kent just five days to be out of the kingdom. In the play Kent is given five days to provision himself, and he must leave on the sixth day, and won’t face death unless he is still in the kingdom “on the tenth day following.” Kent’s disguise is merely a hooded cloak. The Fool is present, but all of his lines from the first act are cut.

Act II

Kent hits Oswald in the head with the flat of his sword. Scene 3 is cut. This version offers a little explanation: “While Kent had been left in the stocks, King Lear arrived at Regan’s castle. Finding her gone, he went to Gloucester’s” (p. 36). Some of the most famous and important lines are cut, such as Lear’s “O reason not the need.”


Interestingly, the first scene of the third act is left in, a scene that is often cut. But then cut is Lear’s “Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks.” It oddly goes from scene 1 to scene 3, losing scene 2 completely, which is one of the famous scenes and includes Lear’s “I am a man/More sinn’d against than sinning.” Instead, we go to scene 4, with Kent urging Lear inside. The Fool’s famous last line is cut. Gloucester’s blinding is not depicted in any extreme detail. The line “Let him smell his way to Dover” is left in.

Act IV

Scene 3 is cut, as is scene 5. Edgar doesn’t describe himself as a demon for Gloucester, but instead simply says, “I saw you fall! It is a miracle that you are still alive!” (p. 48).

Act V

Goneril’s aside, “I’d rather lose the battle than lose Edmund to her” (p. 52), is delivered as a thought, as is her “If not, I’ll never trust medicine again!” (p. 55). Edgar wears a helmet hiding his face. Cut are the lines where Lear thinks Cordelia might yet live. His last line is “never, never, never, never, never” (p. 60). As I mentioned, Edgar speaks the last lines, which are: “Yes, I will rule this land. And nothing like this shall ever happen again!” (p. 61)

King Lear was published in 1984.

Shakespeare And Outsiders  by Marianne Novy  -  This book discusses various characters who are treated as outsiders in Shakespeare’s plays. There are chapters on The Merchant Of Venice, Twelfth Night, Othello and King Lear. In the introduction, Novy writes, “Lear also moves into madness while his age becomes a mark of weakness rather than authority, and he becomes an economic outsider in his homelessness” (p. 3). And then in the chapter on King Lear, Novy writes: “While Lear is wrong to believe that Poor Tom’s poverty comes from his daughters’ cruelty, the homelessness of the character who plays Poor Tom does come from family members’ actions, and Lear’s intuition hints at an analogy between the responsibility of family members for one another and the responsibility of the rich for the poor” (p. 122). Regarding Edmund, Novy writes, “In the first conversation of the play, Gloucester marks his son Edmund as an outsider, by focusing on the embarrassing circumstances of his birth, and attempts to dismiss him” (p. 122). And about poverty, Novy writes, “Poverty in Shakespeare’s day was marked, among other ways, by the increased visibility of bastards, elderly poor, and beggars – represented in Lear by three characters who most thoroughly play the role of outsiders, Edmund, Lear, and Edgar” (p. 124). And again about Edmund, Novy writes: “He does not want to share the family inheritance of land with Edgar, just as he does not want to be seen as just as good as everybody else. He wants to reverse the hierarchy and take the land” (p. 127). Relating Edmund to Othello’s Emilia, particularly in the change toward goodness, Novy writes: “But while Emilia’s outburst is crucial to the resolution of the plot, the major effect of Edmund’s conversion, in the context of the play, is its futility, since it comes too late. Yet, when he dies soon after, Albany’s epitaph, ‘That’s but a trifle here’ (5.3.295), may seem inadequate. Though understandable given Edmund’s relationship with Goneril, it echoes too much of the neglect of Edmund that Gloucester showed at the beginning of the play” (p. 130). Regarding King Lear, Novy writes: “When Lear goes to the heath he dramatizes and intensifies his position as an outsider. Lear’s calling to the winds in Act 3 Scene 2 could be seen as a parallel to Edmund’s addressing Nature as his goddess – both seeking alliance with nature as opposed to humans – in their struggle partly with humans in their family” (p. 131). Also regarding Lear, Novy writes: “He now sees the deference given to a king as no more than the caution a beggar shows in running from a dog. The institutions of his society that are supposed to bring justice now look to him simply like the rule of the rich over the poor” (p. 133). About Goneril and Regan, Novy writes, “Shakespeare gives neither of them a soliloquy, makes them seem less isolated than Edmund by doubling them, and makes Lear’s behaviour to them seem less negligent, if more manipulative, than Gloucester’s to Edmund” (pages 140-141). This book was published in 2013.

Related Programs:

Shakespeare Uncovered: King Lear  (2015) -  Actor Christopher Plummer talks about the role of King Lear and about the play. He says, “When Lear and Gloucester meet on the heath, you see two old friends who have changed utterly.” Regarding the Fool, he says: “Once Cordelia is no longer there for Lear, his most significant relationship is with his Fool, and that’s how we get a glimpse of a different side of Lear.” He mentions how in his production of King Lear (directed by Jonathan Miller), the Fool was the same age as Lear. Jonathan Miller is interviewed in this program. There are also interviews with other actors who have played Lear, including Ian McKellen and Simon Russell Beale, plus with Olivia Vinall, who played Cordelia in 2014, and with Stephen Greenblatt. There is also footage from several film versions of the play. Plummer does talk with theatre historian Tanya Pollard about the version with the happy ending. This was directed by Nicola Stockley, and aired on PBS on January 30, 2015.

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