Talk about Shakespeare’s great King Lear tends to focus on the action of the play and its meaning.
A self-satisfied monarch, blind to the consequences of his actions, splits his realm in two, giving half to one daughter and half to the other. To his third and dearest daughter, he gives nothing. Her sin: Failing to flatter him enough.
This is a play about loyalty and disloyalty, about parents and children, about wisdom and foolishness, and about the many forms of madness — arrogance, greed, anger, ambition, dementia and pride.
It is a play filled with murders and hangings and a suicide and not one but two eyes being ripped out.
It is a lot like the Book of Job in the Bible in which the central character rails at the unfairness of life. It is a story about pain and stupidity and the cruelty of being a human being, prone to failure.
King Lear is also a work of great literary beauty, and that’s what I want to focus on.
This is, of course, Shakespeare, so we expect great poetry. Here, though, there is a concentrated fierceness to his words that make them seem like knife slashes or the bludgeoning of a baseball bat.
King Lear: “Dry up her organs of increase”
Here is Lear who has finally realized that his daughter Goneril is betraying him. In his condemnation of her, he reaches deep inside his kingly self to curse her with awesome grandeur:
Hear, nature, hear; dear goddess, hear!
Suspend thy purpose, if thou didst intend
To make this creature fruitful!
Into her womb convey sterility!
Dry up in her the organs of increase;
And from her derogate body never spring
A babe to honour her! If she must teem,
Create her child of spleen; that it may live,
And be a thwart disnatured torment to her!
Let it stamp wrinkles in her brow of youth;
With cadent tears fret channels in her cheeks;
Turn all her mother’s pains and benefits
To laughter and contempt; that she may feel
How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is
To have a thankless child! Away, away!
The Duke of Cornwall: “Vile jelly”
After ripping one of the Earl of Glouchester’s eyeballs out, the Duke of Cornwall, the husband of Lear’s daughter Regan, fights a duel with a faithful servant who is aghast at his master’s action. He kills the servant, but suffers what he doesn’t yet realize is a mortal wound. In anger, in celebration, he turns to Glouchester and tears out his second eyeball.
Lest it see more, prevent it. Out, vile jelly!
Where is thy lustre now?
The Earl of Glouchester: “This villain of mine”
Earlier in the play, Glouchester, like Lear, is tricked by one of his children. His bastard son Edmund leads him to believe that his legitimate son Edgar wants to kill him and take over his title.
These late eclipses in the sun and moon portend
no good to us: though the wisdom of nature can
reason it thus and thus, yet nature finds itself
scourged by the sequent effects: love cools,
friendship falls off, brothers divide: in
cities, mutinies; in countries, discord; in
palaces, treason; and the bond cracked ‘twixt son
and father. This villain of mine comes under the
prediction; there’s son against father: the king
falls from bias of nature; there’s father against
child. We have seen the best of our time:
machinations, hollowness, treachery, and all
ruinous disorders, follow us disquietly to our
Edmund: “Villains by necessity”
When Glouchester leaves the stage, Edmund turns to the audience and, in one of his many asides, readily acknowledges that his betrayal of his father has nothing to do with celestial bodies, but with his own ambition.
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.
Fool: “Before thy time”
As the play unfolds, it becomes clear that Lear’s Fool is one of the monarch’s best friends and advisors. He is filled with pity and sorrow to see his formerly majestic lord cast aside like garbage. What’s worse is that Lear’s fate is of his own doing.
If thou wert my fool, nuncle, I’ld have thee beaten
for being old before thy time….
Thou shouldst not have been old till thou hadst
Duke of Burgandy: “Must lose”
Lear disinherits his dearest daughter Cordelia on the day that she is to be engaged to one of two suitors — the Duke of Burgandy or the King of France. When the two enter the throne room, they are told that, because she has been disowned, Cordelia no longer has the dowry that Lear had earlier promised: a third of his kingdom. That settles it for Burgundy, as he tells the young woman.
I am sorry, then, you have so lost a father
That you must lose a husband.
The King of France: “Most rich”
The King of France, though, has a different response.
Fairest Cordelia, that art most rich, being poor;
Most choice, forsaken; and most loved, despised!
Thee and thy virtues here I seize upon:
Be it lawful I take up what’s cast away.
Gods, gods! ’tis strange that from their cold’st neglect
My love should kindle to inflamed respect.
Thy dowerless daughter, king, thrown to my chance,
Is queen of us, of ours, and our fair France:
Not all the dukes of waterish Burgundy
Can buy this unprized precious maid of me.
Bid them farewell, Cordelia, though unkind:
Thou losest here, a better where to find.
Edgar: “So many fathom”
By the end of the play, Edgar is taking care of his sightless father who is so despairing that he wants to commit suicide by jumping off a cliff.
Edgar tricks him, and Glouchester falls forward, but, instead of plummeting to his death, lands on the grass in front of him. Even so, Edgar tells him that he has miraculously floated down, safe and sound.
Hadst thou been aught but gossamer, feathers, air,
So many fathom down precipitating,
Thou’dst shiver’d like an egg: but thou dost breathe;
Hast heavy substance; bleed’st not; speak’st; art sound.
Ten masts at each make not the altitude
Which thou hast perpendicularly fell:
Thy life’s a miracle. Speak yet again.
(When Glouchester asks, “But have I fall’n, or no?”)
From the dread summit of this chalky bourn.
Look up a-height; the shrill-gorged lark so far
Cannot be seen or heard: do but look up.
Regan: “The goodness I intend”
Regan and Goneril are each wanting to share Edmund’s bed, but they fear each other. Regan wants Edmund to tell her that she’s the one she wants.
Now, sweet lord,
You know the goodness I intend upon you:
Tell me — but truly — but then speak the truth,
Do you not love my sister?
Goneril: “Milk-liver’d man”
Goneril is angry that her husband the Duke of Albany isn’t as blood-thirsty and ambition as she is, and she lets him have it.
That bear’st a cheek for blows, a head for wrongs;
Who hast not in thy brows an eye discerning
Thine honour from thy suffering; that not know’st
Fools do those villains pity who are punish’d
Ere they have done their mischief. Where’s thy drum?
France spreads his banners in our noiseless land;
With plumed helm thy slayer begins threats;
Whiles thou, a moral fool, sit’st still, and criest
‘Alack, why does he so?’
Kent: “Reverse thy doom”
The Earl of Kent is perhaps Lear’s closest friend and ally, and, as such, he risks everything to try to talk his king out of his disastrous splitting of his kingdom. Lear won’t hear it, though.
Whom I have ever honour’d as my king,
Loved as my father, as my master follow’d,
As my great patron thought on in my prayers…
Let it fall rather, though the fork invade
The region of my heart: be Kent unmannerly,
When Lear is mad. What wilt thou do, old man?
Think’st thou that duty shall have dread to speak,
When power to flattery bows? To plainness honour’s bound,
When majesty stoops to folly. Reverse thy doom;
And, in thy best consideration, cheque
This hideous rashness: answer my life my judgment,
Thy youngest daughter does not love thee least;
Nor are those empty-hearted whose low sound
Reverbs no hollowness.
Patrick T. Reardon