King Lear (or what happens when you divide yourself from yourself)

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Above is Ford Maddox Brown’s “Lear and Cordelia.” I could just leave it at that: say to whoever may read this: “what are you doing? Look up! There you will find all you need!” But I will get over my Pre-Raphaelite obsession and progress. But I will get back to the painting in its time.

I was reading King Lear last week and trying to create a series of tableaux for a class of grade 12 students. You would think it is an easy task. Take Hamlet for example – I could come up with ten visual scenes standing on my head….it would hurt but I could do it. How many visual scenes are there in King Lear? Lear in front of the map, the plucking out of Gloucester’s eye, Lear bearing Cordelia at the end – that’s about it. Granted, Brown thought of one I did not. The image above of Cordelia watching over Lear as he sleeps is wonderful. Given her expression and the placement of her hands, you could almost hear:

O my dear father! Restoration hang
Thy medicine on my lips; and let this kiss
Repair those violent harms that my two sisters
Have in thy reverence made!” (IV.vii)

The point I was driving at before Brown distracted me (again!) is that when compared to Romeo and Juliet, Titus Andronicus or Hamlet, Lear comes across as a very auditory play. Blindness is a key topos in this play – whether Lear’s metaphorical blindness, or Gloucester’s metaphorical and then literal blindness – there is a severe lack of sight taking place in this play. Why shouldn’t Shakespeare play around with this idea and create a play that could be as enjoyed with one’s eyes shut as when they are open. I think that Lear makes a better radio play than stage production, even given the advances in modern theatrical technology. It all comes around to Addisonian philosophy – that when deprived of sight our minds have the power to create the most beautiful images. And Lear is certainly beautiful – grotesque, but beautiful. How fierce a storm would 1607 audiences have been exposed to in the theatre? How realistic would Cornwall look as he plucked out Gloucester’s eye and stepped on it? But in the mind, these images have power. Furthermore, the scene when Lear carries in Cordelia is sublime in the mind, reduced to mere pathos or physical beauty on the stage (particularly when you consider that it was not really a young girl carried on stage.) Paintings and etchings of this final moment of Lear’s life tend to focus on Lear himself, his wild expression or tattered looks, but little give attention to Cordelia. She is depicted as the girl in white, the pure innocence: but this is not who she is. I really like that Brown does not paint Cordelia as such, but rather Brown’s Cordelia has a wold-wearied way about her. But can you imagine Brown’s Lear carrying his Cordelia? It would make a strange image and not one that is intended.

In short – Lear works better in the mind than in the eye. It is one of the few plays that I find contests that unfortunately oft-quoted line “Shakespeare is meant to be seen not read.” Lear, Hamlet, and The Winter’s Tale all contest this notion and for different reasons.

But let’s leave the aesthetic world for a bit. Edmund! Edmund? Edmund. King Lear is a distinctly divided play when it comes to the plot. You have Lear’s plot and you have Gloucester’s plot. Lear is king of his own plot, but it is Edmund who is king of the other plot. What a disgusting word: plot. It’s unpleasant, conjuring up too much phlegm. Plot. Say it ten times fast and you will wish hadn’t when the pool of spit gathers. Plot.

As with most concurrent story lines you would imagine that the two stories interact at some point. And they do in King Lear, several times. They are so intrinsically connected, considering they are concerned with the same time, place, and series of actions. And it’s it great when the two kings of the two stories interact. That scene with Lear and Edmund is so – non-existent. Lear, the tragic hero (sort of) and Edmund, the great villain (sort of) – they never interact with each other.

“Aha,” you say, “I’ve one-uped this guy. I know more about Lear than he does. What an idiot! Lear and Edmund are together at the beginning of the last scene!” Bravo, person who sounds strangely like me: bravo!

Here is the interaction between Lear and Edmund:

EDMUND

Some officers take them away: good guard,
Until their greater pleasures first be known
That are to censure them.

CORDELIA

We are not the first
Who, with best meaning, have incurr’d the worst.
For thee, oppressed king, am I cast down;
Myself could else out-frown false fortune’s frown.
Shall we not see these daughters and these sisters?

KING LEAR

No, no, no, no! Come, let’s away to prison:
We two alone will sing like birds i’ the cage:
When thou dost ask me blessing, I’ll kneel down,
And ask of thee forgiveness: so we’ll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues
Talk of court news; and we’ll talk with them too,
Who loses and who wins; who’s in, who’s out;
And take upon’s the mystery of things,
As if we were God’s spies: and we’ll wear out,
In a wall’d prison, packs and sects of great ones,
That ebb and flow by the moon.

EDMUND

Take them away.

In these lines, Edmund speaks exclusively to his officers: Lear and Cordelia to each other. They are far away as if a scene separated them. This is no accident. This is Shakespeare at his height – this is just brilliance! It is also another reason why an auditory version of this play works really well – it is hard to capture the distance between Edmund and Lear when they are placed together on a stage. It would have to be carefully and artistically done to represent it properly.

But Edmund. He is held up as one of the great villains – alongside Richard III, Aron the Moor, and most notably Iago (who he is closest to chronologically speaking.) Edmund is a bastard like the Bastard Faulconbridge, Don John and Thersites before him. In the Folio, the character in the stage directions is not Edmund, but Bastard, same as the Bastard Faulconbridge. The Bastardy of Edmund is as much a part of his character as is his name. But unlike Phillip, who is called Bastard, by the other characters, Edmund is rarely referred to as Bastard in the play proper. This is because, like Iago, he wears the noble disguise. But he is a Bastard, and like all Shakespeare Bastards who are denied any control in a play, they try to claim it for themselves. Edmund’s opening lines are almost Romantic. Actually they are Romantic – I could imagine Shelley saying them:

Thou, Nature, art my goddess; to thy law
My services are bound. Wherefore should I
Stand in the plague of custom, and permit
The curiosity of Nations to deprive me, (I.ii)

He forswears customs in favour of a purer Nature, what’s wrong with that. He then builds up sympathy:

Why bastard? wherefore base?
When my dimensions are as well compact,
My mind as generous, and my shape as true,
As honest madam’s issue? Why brand they us
With base? with baseness? bastardy? base, base?

This is very different from Iago’s opening in which he delights in being a villain. He is far closer to Richard III – “since I cannot prove a lover…I am determined to prove a villain.” If Edmund must be a Bastard

Well, then,
Legitimate Edgar, I must have your land:
Our father’s love is to the bastard Edmund
As to the legitimate: fine word,–legitimate!
Well, my legitimate, if this letter speed,
And my invention thrive, Edmund the base
Shall top the legitimate. I grow; I prosper:
Now, gods, stand up for bastards!

From this point on we do not see this side of Edmund again. It’s now just plots and schemes, treating people like crap and playing them off one-another. That is, until Edgar kills him at the end, at which point he becomes a little repentant.

As far as Edmund goes, I have mixed feelings about him. His plots to rid himself of Edgar and then Gloucester seem too easy. He does not have the artfulness that Iago has, or Richard III to a lesser degree. He is king in a world of idiots. Edgar is naive until he becomes Poor Tom and Gloucester as big a fool as Lear when it comes to Edmund. Goneril and Regan, who both fall in love with Edmund, end up killing each other for him, which he is quite pleased with. Put Edmund in a room with Hamlet or Iago and he wouldn’t stand a chance, but he is delightful in his nonchalant way.

While Edmund may surpass everyone in intellect, he is a perfect fit for this all-hating play, ruled by himself, Goneril, Regan, Oswald, and Cornwall. Edgar alone is the voice of sentimentality until Cordelia returns at the end of Act IV. This is the case in the Folio edition. Apparently in the 1st quarto there was another moment of tenderness but the compilers of the Folio (or Shakespeare himself) decided that the play was not dark enough so he removed it. Incidentally, since 1623 many editions restored it because they disagreed with the Folio. It is the moment following the blinding of Gloucester. The 1st Quarto version, and modern versions look like this:


REGAN

Go thrust him out at gates, and let him smell
His way to Dover.

Exit one with GLOUCESTER

How is’t, my lord? how look you?

CORNWALL

I have received a hurt: follow me, lady.
Turn out that eyeless villain; throw this slave
Upon the dunghill. Regan, I bleed apace:
Untimely comes this hurt: give me your arm.

Exit CORNWALL, led by REGAN

Second Servant

I’ll never care what wickedness I do,
If this man come to good.

Third Servant

If she live long,
And in the end meet the old course of death,
Women will all turn monsters.

Second Servant

Let’s follow the old earl, and get the Bedlam
To lead him where he would: his roguish madness
Allows itself to any thing.

Third Servant

Go thou: I’ll fetch some flax and whites of eggs
To apply to his bleeding face. Now, heaven help him! (III.vii)

In the Folio, the scene between the servants is cut and the scene ends with Cornwall’s line, and we are left to imagine Gloucester struggling in the dark, alone, until he is rescued by Edgar(Poor Tom). That moment I think surpasses the rape of Lavinia in sheer grotesqueness in Shakespeare. The servants at least redeem it, allowing us to bear with this play. Catharsis brought on by tragedy is good, but blind Gloucester being tossed out the door is too much. But it prepares us for that greatest of Shakespeare’s horrors – Lear carrying in dead Cordelia.

But yes, Edgar is the sentimental saviour of this distressing play. I had a professor who loved to talk about the scene where Edgar(Poor Tom) leads Gloucester to the “cliff.”

EDGAR

Come on, sir; here’s the place: stand still. How fearful
And dizzy ’tis, to cast one’s eyes so low!
The crows and choughs that wing the midway air
Show scarce so gross as beetles: half way down
Hangs one that gathers samphire, dreadful trade!
Methinks he seems no bigger than his head:
The fishermen, that walk upon the beach,
Appear like mice; and yond tall anchoring bark,
Diminish’d to her cock; her cock, a buoy
Almost too small for sight: the murmuring surge,
That on the unnumber’d idle pebbles chafes,
Cannot be heard so high. I’ll look no more;
Lest my brain turn, and the deficient sight
Topple down headlong.

GLOUCESTER

Set me where you stand.

EDGAR

Give me your hand: you are now within a foot
Of the extreme verge: for all beneath the moon
Would I not leap upright.

GLOUCESTER

Let go my hand.
Here, friend, ‘s another purse; in it a jewel
Well worth a poor man’s taking: fairies and gods
Prosper it with thee! Go thou farther off;
Bid me farewell, and let me hear thee going.

EDGAR

Now fare you well, good sir.

GLOUCESTER

With all my heart.

EDGAR

Why I do trifle thus with his despair
Is done to cure it.

GLOUCESTER

[Kneeling] O you mighty gods!
This world I do renounce, and, in your sights,
Shake patiently my great affliction off:
If I could bear it longer, and not fall
To quarrel with your great opposeless wills,
My snuff and loathed part of nature should
Burn itself out. If Edgar live, O, bless him!
Now, fellow, fare thee well.

He falls forward (IV.vi)

In actuality the “cliff” was a foot or so off the ground. Visually, there is something incredible funny about this moment. The reason my professor likes it so much is because of the play between comedy and tragedy. The speech is said and full of pathos, but the act of falling on your face (when there is no real harm) looks comical. There is something to be said about this moment – and how inevitable laughter would completely derail the audience. Perhaps this is a good thing: the audience is afforded so little laughter in this play. Even the Fool ceases to be funny after Act I, scene iv. But imagine my auditory version where we are robbed of the humour of the visual act of Gloucester falling on his face. We are still told by Edgar that he is not taking Gloucester to a cliff but rather to a small ledge, so there is no fear that Gloucester will die here. Yet, without the physical sight impeding us, we can indulge ourselves in Gloucester’s words

“O you mighty gods!
This world I do renounce, and, in your sights,
Shake patiently my great affliction off:
If I could bear it longer, and not fall
To quarrel with your great opposeless wills,
My snuff and loathed part of nature should
Burn itself out. If Edgar live, O, bless him!
Now, fellow, fare thee well.”

We can luxuriate in the depths of the tragedy and believe for that moment that Gloucester is about to die, that as he screams after leaping off the “cliff” he is truly leaping off a cliff. We are given a moment of silence. All is lost. This play is too much. Too tragic. Then Edgar frees us:

“Gone, sir: farewell.
And yet I know not how conceit may rob
The treasury of life, when life itself
Yields to the theft: had he been where he thought,
By this, had thought been past.”

Not a comic relief by an means but one that smooths us over. Visual or auditory, this scene is the height of the play for me – rivaled only by the carrying in of Cordelia.

Cordelia is, as I mentioned, often portrayed as the epitome of virtue and innocence. She is Desdemona as a young girl. But even Desdemona was rebellious in her youth – strange how quickly we forget this. One of the more famous moments of this play, also captured by Ford Maddox Brown, occurs at the opening of the play, while Lear divides his kingdom.

KING LEAR

Now, our joy,
Although the last, not least; to whose young love
The vines of France and milk of Burgundy
Strive to be interess’d; what can you say to draw
A third more opulent than your sisters? Speak.

CORDELIA

Nothing, my lord.

KING LEAR

Nothing!

CORDELIA

Nothing.

KING LEAR

Nothing will come of nothing: speak again.

CORDELIA

Unhappy that I am, I cannot heave
My heart into my mouth: I love your majesty
According to my bond; nor more nor less.

KING LEAR

How, how, Cordelia! mend your speech a little,
Lest it may mar your fortunes.

CORDELIA

Good my lord,
You have begot me, bred me, loved me: I
Return those duties back as are right fit,
Obey you, love you, and most honour you.
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.

KING LEAR

But goes thy heart with this?

CORDELIA

Ay, good my lord.

KING LEAR

So young, and so untender?

CORDELIA

So young, my lord, and true.

KING LEAR

Let it be so; thy truth, then, be thy dower:
For, by the sacred radiance of the sun,
The mysteries of Hecate, and the night;
By all the operation of the orbs
From whom we do exist, and cease to be;
Here I disclaim all my paternal care,
Propinquity and property of blood,
And as a stranger to my heart and me
Hold thee, from this, for ever. The barbarous Scythian,
Or he that makes his generation messes
To gorge his appetite, shall to my bosom
Be as well neighbour’d, pitied, and relieved,
As thou my sometime daughter.

And Brown’s version:

Image

As with the other Brown painting, Cordelia is not the virtuous maiden in white. Nor is she in the text. She is flippant. As much as we all love Cordelia and hate Lear for what he does to her, she is just as bad as her sisters in this moment. There, I’ve said it. Pelt away. Goneril and Regan are insincere, but Cordelia is withholding. She thinks she is being smart by playing the “honesty card” but her honesty is framed in such a manner that I find it hard to sympathize with her. But then she is harshly treated and the sympathy rushes in as Cordelia is rushed out.

She returns in Act IV and suddenly she is no longer cold and curt. She is as full of love as her sisters claimed to be, but now she seems sincere. The Cordelia of Act IV is not the Cordelia who said.

You have begot me, bred me, loved me: I
Return those duties back as are right fit,
Obey you, love you, and most honour you.”

So what happens to Cordelia between Act I and IV to soften her heart? She becomes the Fool. As soon as Cordelia leaves the Fool comes in and as soon as Cordelia returns the Fool goes out. This is not the same as the reasoning for why Edmund and Lear never interact. It is quite likely that Cordelia and the Fool would be played by the same actor: and this is how I would cast the play were I to direct it. The Fool is the child that Lear feels he does not have. Yet, unlike Cordelia, the Fool is allowed to tell the truth. The Fool can insult Lear in ways Cordelia never got away with.

If you accept that on some level Cordelia and the Fool are the same, the we see the development of the relationship between Cordelia and Lear throughout the play that justifies the change in her from Act I to IV. By being able to engage with her father honestly without fear of reprisal, she goes from “you are my father, I must honour you” to something deeper, to a genuine love of two people. And this is how we see her when she comes to the sleeping Lear (as seen in the top painting.) Next time you read this play, keep in mind that Cordelia is the Fool – it becomes quite interesting. And with all the disguising that happens – Kent to Caius, Edgar to Tom – why shouldn’t Cordelia be disguised. The rational answer is “because she is in France” – but who said that this play operated on reason. Reason holds as little sway as vision in this play.

To bring this cruelest play to a close, I will touch on that cruelest moment. Kent, Edgar, and Albany have just learned from Edmund that an assassin was sent to kill Lear and Cordelia in prison. Edgar is about to run to save them when Lear enters, bearing Cordelia in his arms.

KING LEAR

Howl, howl, howl, howl! O, you are men of stones:
Had I your tongues and eyes, I’ld use them so
That heaven’s vault should crack. She’s gone for ever!
I know when one is dead, and when one lives;
She’s dead as earth. Lend me a looking-glass;
If that her breath will mist or stain the stone,
Why, then she lives.

KENT

Is this the promised end

EDGAR

Or image of that horror?

ALBANY

Fall, and cease!

KING LEAR

This feather stirs; she lives! if it be so,
It is a chance which does redeem all sorrows
That ever I have felt.

KENT

[Kneeling] O my good master!

KING LEAR

Prithee, away.

EDGAR

‘Tis noble Kent, your friend.

KING LEAR

A plague upon you, murderers, traitors all!
I might have saved her; now she’s gone for ever!
Cordelia, Cordelia! stay a little. Ha!
What is’t thou say’st? Her voice was ever soft,
Gentle, and low, an excellent thing in woman.
I kill’d the slave that was a-hanging thee.

Captain

‘Tis true, my lords, he did.

KING LEAR

Did I not, fellow?
I have seen the day, with my good biting falchion
I would have made them skip: I am old now,
And these same crosses spoil me. Who are you?
Mine eyes are not o’ the best: I’ll tell you straight.

……………….

KING LEAR

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!
Pray you, undo this button: thank you, sir.
Do you see this? Look on her, look, her lips,
Look there, look there!

Dies

EDGAR

He faints! My lord, my lord!

KENT

Break, heart; I prithee, break!

EDGAR

Look up, my lord.

KENT

Vex not his ghost: O, let him pass! he hates him much
That would upon the rack of this tough world
Stretch him out longer.

EDGAR

He is gone, indeed.

Why does the Fool die? Because he cannot live while Cordelia does not. Who hanged him? This is something we will never know. Just another tragedy to pile on top. But why is this moment so much more tragic than the deaths of Romeo and Juliet? The death of Hamlet? of Cleopatra?

First is the shock of her being brought on stage. Then their is the realization of how senseless this was. Cordelia did not bring this upon herself. There was really no motive to kill them. It is this one act that gained Edmund the reputation he has. Thrid, there is the idea that this is the first and only time we see Lear with his wits about him. We see Lear in his perfect form, in the form he once had before old age and greed consumed him. Here was a King who we could believe led a Pre-Christian Britain. A King who did not come to us until he had everything removed from him.

A final thought – when Lear faints and dies, what happens to Cordelia? I would love to see a Pre-Raphaelite take on this.

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Filed under Post-Hamlet, Tragedies

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