King Lear

This marks the end of an era, doesn’t it?  All of Shakespeare’s extant plays have been documented here, and soon I hope to move on to other copyright-free plays fit for production.  But now are the final thoughts on Shakespeare’s complete works, culminating in King Lear.  This is a complex and intriguing play, regarding the reign of Britain’s prehistoric, mythic era.  It even predates the Knights of the Round Table, who are occasionally referenced with lines like This prophecy Merlin shall make; for I live before his time,” and Child Rowland to the dark tower came, His word was still,–Fie, foh, and fum, I smell the blood of a British man.”  The latter is a reference to Arthur and Gwenevyre’s children, who journey into the Fairy-world on their own adventures in a cool little fairytale.

One that has gone on to have a life of its own.

But King Lear has a mythology of his own, which Shakespeare has dominated.  Like Hamlet, there are multiple known versions, but King Lear is unique in that two versions are equally used.  I am reviewing a conflated version available here, and cutting the two variant versions together is a common choice.  I won’t spend time analyzing the differences between the First Folio edition and the Quarto (or Q1) version, though I recommend reviewing both if you desire to produce the play.  The story, however, remains essentially the same no matter how you splice it: an aging king decides to retire, dividing his dominion into control under two of his daughters, Goneril and Regan.  A third daughter, Cordelia, is snubbed because of her blunt honesty.  The idea, according to Lear, was To shake all cares and business from our age; Conferring them on younger strengths, while we Unburthen’d crawl toward death.”  Cordelia, his favorite daughter, was supposed to inherit land as well. Unfortunately, she does not play along with the masturbatory presentation of land division that Lear has set up before his court. With Cordelia out of the way, the country is divided in two, and chaos unfolds as a result of Lear’s decision.

What political scientists refer to as “civil bloodshed.”

Cordelia marries the King of France, who recognizes her value as a woman regardless of her absent dowry.  Goneril and Regan are, Lear of course realizes, “my flesh, my blood, my daughter; Or rather a disease that’s in my flesh, Which I must needs call mine: thou art a boil, A plague-sore, an embossed carbuncle, In my corrupted blood.”  Through Lear’s foolish decision, Britain is cast into chaos, and the King in name only falls into madness.  The play concludes in Cordelia’s return with an army of France, which fails in its invasion but ultimately restores order after much death.  Albany, by then the widower to corrupt Goneril, concludes: “The weight of this sad time we must obey; Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say. The oldest hath borne most: we that are young Shall never see so much, nor live so long.”

 

Naturally, my affinity for setting Shakespeare’s plays in World War I is showing.

The play highlights themes that run strong throughout much of the Bard’s work, like the undervalued virtue of Truth versus flattery, and human evil versus the brutality of nature – what Werner Herzog calls “The harmony of overwhelming and collective murder.”  It is a dark echo of many motifs seen in As You Like It, with Lear’s famous conversation with a storm highlighting the issue: Rumble thy bellyful! Spit, fire! spout, rain! Nor rain, wind, thunder, fire, are my daughters: I tax not you, you elements, with unkindness; I never gave you kingdom, call’d you children, You owe me no subscription: then let fall Your horrible pleasure: here I stand, your slave, A poor, infirm, weak, and despised old man”  Natural disasters are vicious, but nature is ultimately kinder than the many maddening examples of human cruelty, and those elements that blast us are consistently generous in their treatment of our species.  That weather-defying passage is so delightfully personal to me now, especially since, in the busy month that has passed since the last entry here, I have personally fired a cannon back at thunder and lightning and 96 mph winds while on a ship (True story.  Also: a hurricane force wind officially starts at 75 mph.  So 96 mph is super fun).

As a side note: Yes, my day job is utterly awesome.

This is a well-known story, which does not require a great deal of elaboration.  But I would like to draw attention to a curious coincidence in the division of characters, where Cordelia never appears in the same scene as Lear’s Fool.  The nameless Fool here is probably the most famous of all Shakespeare’s fools, following the increasingly insane king and berating him for his disastrous choices, and yet he disappears suddenly in Act IV around the same time that the French army is discovered on British shores.  The Fool never even mentioned again until the final act, after Lear has regained sanity just in time to see war ravage his native soil, when Lear walks in with the dead body of Cordelia and he cries, And my poor fool is hang’d. No, no, no life!  Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life, And thou no breath at all? Thou’lt come no more, Never, never, never, never, never!”  He is clearly addressing the body of his daughter, and so the mention of the fool is strange – unless they are indeed the same character.

Holy crap, Cordelia is like Batman!

The motif of characters in disguise to help the very men who abandoned them is rife throughout this play: Kent, the English Lord who is banished for trying to convince the King against disowning Cordelia, remains with the King throughout the play in disguise as a mercenary.  Edgar, the disowned son of Gloucester, presents himself as the naked and devilish madman Tom o’ Bedlam until he reunites with his blinded, suicidal father whom he guides back to safety.  It is thought that Edgar is is with the Earl of Kent in Germany,” though we know they have remained in England this entire time.  When Kent hears this, his coy reply is simply, “Report is changeable.”  It seems like no stretch at all, either thematically or textually, to cast the same actress as both Cordelia and the Fool.  What I especially like about that casting choice is not only that it the loose end of the Fool’s unmentioned disappearance, but that it gives Cordelia power that the character lacks otherwise.  While Regan and Goneril flatter their father to keep in his good graces, Cordelia falls from the position of favorite daughter because she simply speaks the truth: Why have my sisters husbands, if they say They love you all? Haply, when I shall wed, That lord whose hand must take my plight shall carry Half my love with him, half my care and duty: Sure, I shall never marry like my sisters, To love my father all.”  And she’s that old fashioned style of admirable woman, the type that dies nobly for being pristine, and, well, shit, that’s boring.  As the Fool, she gets to rant and vent against the foolish father: “I am better than thou art now; I am a fool, thou art nothing.”  And, of course, there’s the profoundly connecting line: “Prithee, nuncle, keep a schoolmaster that can teach thy fool to lie: I would fain learn to lie.”The Fool is one of the great archetypes in literature, and certainly Shakespeare, because he gets to spout anarchic truths and, unlike a Princess, benefits from that.  Indeed, as Regan later admits, Jesters do oft prove prophets.”

 

I trust this man implicitly.

The other great Shakespearean archetype represented here is the Bastard, taking the vile form of Edward.  His villainous rise to power is celebratory, and like Richard III he can garner a great deal of the audience’s sympathy if performed properly.  He is the hated burden of Glouster, trounced publicly from his father’s own mouth: this knave came something saucily into the world before he was sent for, yet was his mother fair; there was good sport at his making, and the whoreson must be acknowledged.”  Soon after the favored Cordelia is disowned, Edward quickly devises a fall for Gloucester’s favored son.  Successful in his plot, he then topples his father for title, and then wins the love of both Regan and Goneril so that the two cuckolded halves of England are turned against each other even as foreigners breach their soil.  After Cordelia’s French forces are defeated, Edgar’s ploy gains the upper hand in allowing a duel between the bastard and the legitimate sons of Gloucester, the former disguised as a black knight.  Edgar is mortally wounded, and repents before his death allows a complete restoration of order.  Nevertheless, he presents one of the most interesting and complex characters in the play.  His archetype, the Bastard, is even wilder than the Fool throughout Shakespeare, as villainous here as he was heroic in King John.  Yet his pleas of injustice are legitimate, and there is one speech of his that I can’t help but quote here in its entirety: “This is the excellent foppery of the world, that, when we are sick in fortune,–often the surfeit of our own behavior,–we make guilty of our disasters the sun, the moon, and the stars: as if we were villains by necessity; fools by heavenly compulsion; knaves, thieves, and treachers, by spherical predominance; drunkards, liars, and adulterers, by an enforced obedience of planetary influence; and all that we are evil in, by a divine thrusting on: an admirable evasion of whoremaster man, to lay his goatish disposition to the charge of a star! My father compounded with my mother under the dragon’s tail; and my nativity was under Ursa major; so that it follows, I am rough and lecherous. Tut, I should have been that I am, had the maidenliest star in the firmament twinkled on my bastardizing.”  It’s a sort of violent inverse to Cassius’ call to greatness in Julius Caesar, but also inversely great in his ownership over his own character.  Here is a man who has been taught loathing and remorse ever since he came under his father’s charge, and so he seeks the greatness that all men seek in a way that scorns those who oppressed him.  Ultimately, he turns his vengeance against all of humanity for the wrongs he has suffered, and that makes him the best sort of villain.

Batman reference # 2. Sorry, I can’t help it.

So this play rightfully enjoys its reputation.  In many ways, it is greater than Hamlet, the usual trumpeted king of English language dramatic literature.  While Hamlet is an existential rant of unrealized vengeance, Lear ultimately proves to be a more violent, more brutal treatment of court politics and human madness.  Like Timon of Athens, there is a more realistic, lacking any singular villain conspiring against the hero, and the hero himself being a rather pathetic Everyman whose weakness ultimately created his own pitfall that nobody with power is willing to help him out of.  King Lear is such a compelling protagonist because his situation embodies the most fearful era of human life: on the cusp of death.  The horror of his situation is echoed best in Gloucester’s own pleas, as Cornwall prepares to tear out his eyes: He that will think to live till he be old, Give me some help!”  Lear’s situation is not entirely unsympathetic, the only flaw in his attempt to retire is a foolish pride that leads him to scorn Cordelia.  Her inability to articulate her affection for him is the first pang of what inflates his madness, How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is To have a thankless child!”  Yet her unspoken love is greater than the hollow flattery of her sisters, and they are the ones who throw him out into the wilderness.  Lacking real power as a king, and then bereft of even the vestiges of royalty, his philosophy of : O, reason not the need: our basest beggars Are in the poorest thing superfluous: Allow not nature more than nature needs, Man’s life’s as cheap as beast’s” eventually gives way to “Unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor bare, forked animal as thou art. Off, off, you lendings! come unbutton here.”  And then he roams the wilderness naked, covered only in flowers, until circumstance reunites him with Cordelia.  Sanity returns, after that psychic descent to hell, only in time to see the entire world collapse around him.  But despite the bleak destruction, there is the glimmer of hope that the world will rebuild: “The younger rises when the old doth fall.”

 

“The menace was gone… so was a great man. But the whole world could wake up and live again!”

And so I end the final entry of these Shakespearean analyses, with hopes of moving on to other copyright free plays that are worth exploring.  In my tradition of ending with a favorite quote, here is one of the many spectacular insults that the badass masked Kent adores spitting out: Thou whoreson zed! thou unnecessary letter!”

Also, stay tuned for my plans for a new road trip movie, where two old misanthropes, King Lear and Timon of Athens, go on a search for the heart of America!

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