Things are stressful so burying oneself in Shakespeare seems the only logical recourse.
So, remember when I said I had a special surprise in store for King Lear? (I just posted two days ago, so I’m assuming you do.) Here it is! A guest post!!!
Linda is one of my closest friends and is clearly a goddess. I want you to know that I asked if she could write up this post three days ago. This is what this woman can throw together in three days. She’s also currently working on her dissertation for a PhD in English Lit, so how she has the brain power to blink let alone do this is beyond me. So, enjoy the below and send her loving thoughts.
But fear not! I’ve already listened to this play, so I’m totally working through Shakespeare’s corpus like I resolved; I just didn’t write up the summary.
Also, I looked into all my posts and I was right! Most of my past posts have hovered around the 2,000-word mark; some where lower (1,300 was the least) and some were higher (Hamlet clocked in at over 3,000). But Othello, Measure for Measure, and Macbeth all came in at over 5,000 words! No wonder these summaries have taken so long to write! This post is currently around the 4,300 mark, which is still substantial. Obviously I need to rethink my work schedule on this blog.
With that said, enjoy the play!
King Lear, or It’s Really Hard to Like Any of These People
King Lear is largely acknowledged as one of Shakespeare’s very greatest works. It is technically pretty brilliant, it is wide in scope, it follows a twinned plot structure, and the language is fabulous. But I still find it deeply hard to commiserate with any of the characters, since they are all so bloody minded.
As the play opens we see Gloucester and Kent providing us with a commentary on Lear’s proposed plans of dividing his kingdom. This division is put in terms of giving his lands to Goneril and Regan’s husbands (The Duke of Albany and the Duke of Cornwall respectively) rather than to the daughters themselves because of conventional and contemporary mistrust of women in power. (Recall that this play was written in between 1 and 4 years after Queen Elizabeth’s death and the massive difficulty of her not having a child and refusing to name an heir until the last possible second). We are told that Lear had appeared to like The Duke of Albany a bit better than Cornwall, but now it seems he is waffling. We also meet Edmund, who is frankly acknowledged to be Gloucester’s “natural” or bastard son, although Gloucester has seemingly given him an upbringing commensurate with being a recognized child and appears to love him as much as the legitimate son, Edgar.
Lear with all the pomp and circumstance of a king now leads in his daughters, their husbands, and the usual court hangers-on. And here’s where stuff starts to get real. Lear announces that he’s getting a bit old for the weight of kingly responsibilities, so he has decided to divide up his kingdom among his children so he can enjoy his retirement. Oh, but wait; it’s not that simple; it never is. Lear plans to divide said kingdom on the basis of which of his children make the prettiest speech about how much they love him. Because, yeah, that’s a sound method of government. And it later transpires that although he plans to divide his lands, he wants to maintain a retinue of a hundred knights and “retain/The name, and all th’addition to a king” (I.i.135-136). Essentially, he wants to give up all the lands, money, and cares of kingship but still maintain all the authority and deference that comes with a position of power. What could possibly go wrong here?
Goneril and Regan, the two elder daughters, maintain that they love their father “Dearer than eyesight, space, and liberty” (I.i. 56) and that they are nothing without him. Accordingly, he gives them each a third of the kingdom’s lands. Then it is the turn of the youngest and supposedly favorite daughter, Cordelia, to speak. When asked what she has to say, she replies “Nothing, my lord.” She maintains that she loves Lear according to the bonds between father and child and that when she marries she must perforce take half her love and give it to her husband. Hers is certainly a reasonable answer, but she gives it like a surly brat and Lear takes so much offense that he immediately repudiates her as his child. He brings her two suitors in, declares that she owns nothing but his curse and asks if they still want to marry her. Our hero, the King of France, says she is rich in herself and accepts her without a dowry.
Meanwhile, the Earl of Kent tried to stick up for Cordelia and at least get Lear to back down from disinheriting her, so he got himself banished as well. Good times for all. The scene ends with Cordelia telling Goneril and Regan that she knows they don’t plan to do well by dear old dad and they dismiss her but more or less confirm her suspicions. And THAT, friends, is Scene freakin’ ONE. Fortunately, that scene sets us up for most of the action in the play.
In Act I Scene 2 Edmund, the bastard, tricks his father, Gloucester, into believing that his legitimate son, Edgar, has declared against him. He does this by means of a forged letter, and then he promises that if Gloucester will hide in his house, he (Edmund) will bring Edgar in and have a conversation with him that will prove or disprove the claims of the letter. Gloucester leaves and we get a delightful meditation on astrology and bastardy from Edmund. Seriously, you should read this one—it’s short and it’s interesting. Basically, Edmund claims not to believe in astrology because the stars and sun cannot compel us to be “fools…knaves, thieves, and treachers” (I.ii.122-23). His own chart shows that he was conceived “under the Dragon’s tail, and my nativity was under Ursa Major” (I.ii.129-30) which should mean that he is “rough and lecherous” (I.ii.131). The interesting thing is, that his natal chart is right—he is rough and lecherous—but he dismisses that, claiming that “I should have been that I am, had the maidenl’est star in the firmament twinkled on my bastardizing” (I.ii.131-33). This discussion can thematically lead into questions of astrology, compulsion, free will, and self-knowledge. But his reverie is interrupted when Edgar, his brother, enters and Edmund tells him their father is furious and he must hide. Edgar, being an honest type, believes it and goes to hide in Edmund’s house.
Scene 3 gives us a quick glimpse of Goneril’s attitude toward her father who is now lodging with her. She basically views him as a burden and gives her head servingman, Oswald, permission to be rude to Lear and his knights. In Scene 4 we meet the Earl of Kent again. He has refused to leave, despite his banishment, and has disguised himself in order to get a position serving Lear again. Lear enters looking for Goneril, meets and accepts Kent’s service, is informed that Oswald is being saucy, and has a fight with Goneril wherein she tells him that his followers are a burden on her resources and patience and that he must decrease his retinue by half if he is to remain. Unsurprisingly, he takes this badly, pitches a fit, claims that she is forgetting his rights and prerogatives, denies her as his daughter and says he is going to go stay with her sister, Regan. As he leaves we hear that Goneril’s husband, the Duke of Albany, thinks she is perhaps being overly harsh on her father, but she ignores him. In this scene as well, we meet Lear’s fool who is the choric voice reminding Lear that his own rash decision to abdicate and his habit of disowning his children. Scene 5 is a plot moving scene where Kent is dispatched by Lear with letters to Gloucester and Lear and the Fool banter further.
As Act 2 begins Edmund, in Gloucester’s house, is not only trying to stir up strife between his father and his half-brother, but is also spreading gossip that there is trouble between Goneril and Regan’s husbands. He further convinces Edgar to flee because he claims their father is out for his blood. Regan, Cornwall and their train show up. In Scene 2, Kent and Goneril’s steward, Oswald, get into a fight and Cornwall and Regan have Kent set in the stocks despite Gloucester’s protests and the indignity of insulting a King’s messenger. This makes it clear that Regan, Cornwall, and Goneril are working together to strip Lear of his power.
In Scene 3, we see the pursued Edgar decide that the best course is for him to pretend to be Tom o’ Bedlam—a poor insane beggar—so that his father and the troops of Regan and Goneril will not find him. Meanwhile Scene 4 opens with Lear and his attendant finding Kent in the stocks. He then confronts Regan about punishing his messenger, tells her that Goneril has been treacherous and that he plans to stay with her. Regan shows her solidarity with her sister and claims that Lear may well decide to disown her if the mood strikes him. He, of course, vows that he never would, but when she tells him that she cannot and will not support even 50 of his followers, his anger again gets the best of him and he rages out onto the moors feeling his dignity very much offended.
In Act 3 the storm that has been threatening all through the second act has finally broken. There is lots of atmospheric wind, rain, thunder, and lightning. We see Kent in disguise searching for the King who has left Regan and Cornwall at Gloucester’s house and wandered into the storm. Scene 2 opens with Lear’s famous rage to “Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage, blow!” as the storm outside mirrors the turmoil of his mind and heart. Lear is starting to lose control of his sanity, but his followers, Kent and the Fool, struggle to take care of him. They eventually find him a hovel in the rock to shelter him. Of course, the cave is occupied by none other than Edgar disguised as poor Tom o’ Bedlam, whom Lear mistakes for a philosopher. And, honestly, it’s about time he listened to someone other than himself.
Meanwhile, in Scenes 3 and 5 Edmund continues to stir up Gloucester, who tells him that he has a letter indicating that France is planning to invade and restore the lands to Lear. Of course, Edmund decides immediately to use this knowledge for his own ends. As soon as Gloucester is out looking for the King, Edmund gets the secret letter his father mentioned and shows it to Cornwall, who promises to give him Gloucester’s title and money in payment for his loyalty. Cornwall acts immediately posting a letter to Albany so that they may meet the King of France and march on him. During the same night Gloucester, Kent, the Fool, and Edgar are trying to take care of Lear who is losing his wits and pretends to have a mock trial against Goneril. When Gloucester returns to his own home, he is captured and bound as a traitor by Cornwall, Goneril, and Regan; and because what is a play without a bit of gore, they gouge out Gloucester’s eyes…as ya do…and then they inform him that it was Edmund who told them of his treachery. During this scene, Cornwall receives a wound from a serving man who was attempting to stand up for Gloucester.
Act 4 is where things start to wind further and further into chaos. First we meet Edgar wandering about on the hill and he is soon joined by his blind father led by an elderly man. Gloucester wants desperately to find Edgar again, but Edgar does not reveal himself, choosing to retain his disguise. Gloucester sends the old man for garments to cloth Edgar/Tom and asks that Tom lead him to the high cliffs of Dover from which he can throw himself.
In Scene 2, things are not going quite as planned for the usurping parties. The Duke of Albany refuses to meet Goneril and Regan for the march on France because he has a conscience. Goneril sends Edmund back to Regan to await news and prepares to take the martial lead from her husband. They quarrel because he claims she is in the wrong to treat her father as she does. And at the other castle, the Duke of Cornwall ends up dying from the wound he received while blinding Gloucester. Albany is shocked that Gloucester has been blinded and promises to avenge him. Goneril is angry that she sent Edmund back to Regan for fear that Regan, now a widow, will seduce him and become more powerful.
By Scene 3 the French have landed near Dover and have made camp, but the King of France has had to return home unexpectedly, leaving Cordelia in charge of the army there. So now we have 3 armies—Albany, Cornwall, and France—all theoretically in the charge of women, which is rather odd and delightful. Kent has sent letters about Lear’s situation to Cordelia who is, of course, upset at the treatment of her father. And Lear, alternating between moments of sanity and insanity, does not wish to see Cordelia because he is so ashamed of his behavior. Cordelia has heard that her father, adorned much like Ophelia in her death scene, is wandering the land and sends men to bring him back to her camp and consults a doctor who will provide Lear a sleeping potion.
Scene 5 gives us a long-distance cat-fight between Goneril and Regan essentially about which of them is to become Edmund’s mistress. Jersey Shore ain’t got nothing on Shakespeare.
In Scene 6 we are back with Edgar who leads Gloucester to Dover, but not to the actual cliffs. Gloucester asks for peace and forgiveness and then throws himself from what he thinks to be the highest cliff and faints. Edgar, now posing as a gentleman rather than poor Tom, wakes him and says he has miraculously survived the fall. Clearly the gods don’t want him dead yet. Also Edgar-as-gentleman tells Gloucester that Edgar-as-Tom who stood at the top of the cliff with him was a devil. At this point Lear wanders in, strewn with flowers and singing nonsense. Gloucester recognizes his King’s voice, but has difficulty making Lear recognize him, although Lear does claim that Edmund treated Gloucester better than his own lawful daughters treated him (remember that Lear does not know of Edmund’s treachery and Gloucester’s blinding). Eventually, Lear regains some sanity, recognizes and sympathizes with Gloucester, but someone from Cordelia’s camp comes to get him without mentioning her name. The shock of thinking he is taken prisoner topples him again and he runs off with her men chasing him. At this point in the game Oswald (Goneril’s man) shows up and tries to cut Gloucester’s head off, but Edgar kills him and takes the letter he is carrying to Edmund. Gloucester thus learns that Goneril has designs on Edmund and a plot against her husband. The act ends with Cordelia and her doctors waking Lear and trying to convince him that they are truly there and want to restore him to power.
Act 5 is surprisingly short, but filled with action. We open with Edmund, Regan, and their army. Regan says that the Duke of Albany has pledged to fight the French with them, and she asks whether he has had sex with Goneril or whether he has declared that he loves her. Edmund denies both things and is very clearly engaged in playing the sisters against one another until he may choose the one with the best advantage. Goneril and Albany show up and Goneril exits with Regan and Edmund, not willing to allow them to be alone. Edgar enters and shows the letter containing plans for Albany’s death to him. Albany exits and Edmund re-enters to muse on which of the sisters he should take as his mistress.
Scene 2 exists simply as a way to show us the results of the battle occurring offstage. Edgar leaves Gloucester under a tree to attend to the battle, then comes back to tell him that Cordelia’s troops have failed and that she and Lear are taken prisoner. In the final scene of the play, Scene 3, Edmund leads in Cordelia and Lear as prisoners, but then sends them out with orders to a Captain of his as to their treatment. Albany, Goneril, and Regan enter and Albany praises Edmund on his fighting and asks to see Lear and Cordelia. Edmund claims to have sent them away because they were in danger of acting as a rallying point for a mutiny. Regan now proclaims that Edmund is to be her new husband, but she is sick, so she goes to her tent. Albany now seeks to arrest Edmund for treason based on the letter Edgar gave him; he calls for Edgar. Edgar and Edmund fight; Edmund falls but is not killed. Goneril runs off to her tent and stabs herself. Regan also dies, having been poisoned by Goneril out of jealousy. Edgar is restored to his rightful position by Albany, and his speech makes Edmund repent his own actions. However, Edmund confesses that he has arranged to have Cordelia hanged and make it look like suicide. The messengers are too late to prevent Cordelia’s death and Lear dies in his grief for her.
The World of Lear:
Just a quick note on the world in which the play takes place. King Lear is set in the 8th century BC, so it is a pre-Christian play in a literal sense. There is also little or no reference to a Christian figure or deity because during Shakespeare’s active years direct mentions of God or Christ were forbidden on the stage as potentially blasphemous.
Themes in Lear
Nothing/Zeros: The first appearance of the term “nothing” in the play is a fairly shocking one as it is Cordelia’s reply to her father’s query on what she has to say about how much she loves him. She responds “Nothing, my lord.” (I.i. 87). Lear encourages her that “Nothing will come of nothing, speak again” (I.i.90) to which she replies that she loves him as she is bound to, no more, no less. We already see here the multi-level nature of the idea of nothing. When Cordelia claims to have nothing to say, she means no pretty words, but Lear’s “Nothing will come of nothing” means (a bit more sinisterly) that no dowry will be forthcoming if those pretty words are not spoken. Also in the first act, Lear’s fool asks whether he can make no use of nothing, and Lear repeats his conviction that “nothing will come of nothing” (I.iv.131-33). Lear’s fool tells him that he is a zero. Edmund riffs on nothing and negation in his bastardy. These are all connected with the overarching question/theme of pretending as well.
Masks/Pretending: It is interesting that both good and bad characters dissemble here. Kent and Edgar do actually take on physical disguises here—so the good characters must physically mask themselves. Goneril, Regan, and Edmund especially mask without putting on a costume. Their masks are their falsehoods. In a sense, they are always masked because their true natures are not visible from the outside. And that internal mask is how we know they are negative characters. This type of masking also relates to the theme of the nothing or the zero. Their invisible masks would ask us to question whether there is really anything behind them. The idea of mask was connected to the idea of a cypher. The cypher is an algorithm to encrypt or decrypt a code, much as I have suggested that the necessity for physical disguise in this play indicates that the character in disguise is good. The method by which I assess the disguised figures is my cypher, which in ancient times meant zero. Edmund’s masking is also connected to the question of “naturalness” as he is Gloucester’s “natural”, meaning bastard, son.
Naturalness: I’ve just mentioned that naturalness in terms of offspring means bastardy. Since there is so much less stigma connected to out-of-wedlock births now, modern readers may often forget that this was actually a huge issue in Shakespeare’s day. Remember how Henry VIII was having a hissy fit because he had no male heirs until Edward was born? Yeah, well he had no legitimate male heirs, which is to say that he may have had any number of bastard male children, but they were not allowed to inherit his lands and power because they were his natural children produced out of wedlock. That is what is so extraordinary about Gloucester being so willing to discount Edgar and prefer the bastard Edmund. There is also quite a bit of talk in Lear’s speeches about how unnaturally his daughters are behaving towards him. His speech spans both meanings of natural as out of wedlock and as part of nature. Lear laments that they are not treating him as nature intended and his threatened punishment of them is to declare them natural (bastard) rather than legitimate children and push them away from him.
Astrology: Edmund combines his musings on his natural/bastard birth with astrological lore, encoded as relatively negative in this play. Edmund claims that he would have been the same bastard (in the modern sense of jerk) that he is “had the maidenl’est star in the firmament smiled on [his] bastardizing”. In truth, his astrological charts would assign roughness and lechery to his character because of his natal dates. It would certainly seem that his astrological chart read correctly and his repudiation of it has no difference on its truth. Still, even though the play is clearly not set in a Christian universe, the supposed truths of astrology are not entirely embraced. In Act 4, Scene 3, Kent blames the stars for the radical differences in the temperaments of Cordelia and her sisters (as well as implicitly contrasting her with her father). Thus, even the characters with whom we are supposed to sympathize have some reliance on the astrological system.
Authority: A massive question of this play is what creates authority. Lear seems to believe that his authority is inherent and is only enhanced by his position as a King and father. What is interesting in the progression of the story is that Lear demands more and more authority as he gives away more and more of what invests him with that authority. In the opening scenes he more or less says, I’m giving away my land and my royal concerns but I want to keep my knights (representing wealth and authority) and my prerogative (that is his ability to make and enforce rules). In other words, he wants to dispense with the responsibility of kingship without getting rid of its benefits…nice work if you can get it. At the same time, he begins giving away his moral authority as a father by repudiating Cordelia. As he loses more and more of his temporal authority (through Regan and Goneril diminishing the number of knights he has at his command), he also gives away more and more of his natural or fatherly authority by repudiating Goneril and then being repudiated by both Goneril and Regan. Gloucester is similarly tragic in his decision to repudiate Edgar solely on the authority of his bastard’s word.
Wisdom and Self-Knowledge: Closely tied to this theme of authority is the question of wisdom and/or self-knowledge. Even the potentially good characters of Lear and Gloucester become confused between their authority and their wisdom. They both implicitly believe that because of their ability to make things happen (i.e. their authority), they also have the wisdom to choose the right things to make happen. Lear demonstrates his lack of wisdom from the beginning by being willing to divide his lands while he is still living, and further to divide them on a principle of who says the nicest things about him. Surely the first thing a king learns should be that flattery is the least reliable index to the feelings of people. But Lear has conflated the outward pomp of flattery and ceremony with the inward nature of humans. This conflation has ties to the theme of masking (since he cannot tell the difference between the truth of Cordelia and the falsehood of the other two), to authority (since authority should be built on wisdom) and to naturalness in the sense of nature (since he cannot tell the difference in which of his children behaves in a manner that is natural to the respect for a father). Gloucester similarly has the authority as a noble of the court to cause various outcomes, but he does not have the wisdom or self-knowledge to see the danger Edmund places him in, or to support the cause of Kent, who at least recognizes that Lear is a better ruler for all his faults than Goneril and Regan will be.
And, as is frequent in Shakespeare, the most wise and self-aware character in this play is the fool. The fool’s speeches are licensed to be rude and truthful because he is supposed to be funny. And for all his wit, he acts more as chorus or moral compass, pointing out to Lear the mistakes that he has made and urging him on to self-knowledge. He is what might currently be designated as chaotic good. He knows himself to be no more than a jester, and therefore not the wisest figure around, but at the same time he knows that he is wiser than those who delude themselves.
Of possible interest is this link to audio of Janet Reno reading King Lear at the Justice Department. Enjoy!