“In cities, mutinies; in countries, discord; in palaces, treason; and the bond crack’d ‘twist son and father…We have seen the best of our time.”

King Lear

Act One, Part Two

By Dennis Abrams


mckellen learA couple of things to watch for and think about:

1.  Patterns of verbal imagery in the play, including those related to seeing, blindness and insight; the use of terms like “nothing,” and of fools and folly; the use of verbs pertaining to violence like “pierce,” “stamp,” ‘fret,” ‘pluck,” “strike” and “blister,” as well as the many reference to animals (Spurgeon, pages 338-44 is strong on this) which related to the reduction of man to animals.

2.  The contrast between plain speech and rhetoric, and the gap that can exist and be exploited between words and intentions.

3.  The many examples of words beginning with the prefix “un” ; note, for example, the way in which the play begins with Kent remarking of Gloucester’s adultery, “I cannot wish the fault undone,” and ends with Lear crying, “Pray you undo this button.’

4.  To Jacobean audiences, Cordelia’s one word response to her father, “Nothing,” would have been astonishingly shocking.  An appropriate way for a princess to address her father can be seen in a letter that the newly-married Princess Elizabeth wrote to her father, James I, from Canterbury, days before she left the country in April 1613.  In it she makes no mention of the husband, Prince Frederick of Bohemia, that she had married in February, instead, she bemoans “the sad effects of separation,” and that she may never again see her father.

‘My heart, which was pressed and astounded at my departure, now permits my eyes to weep their privation of the sight of the most precious object, which they could have beheld in the world.’

She goes on to wish that she could “show to your majesty with what ardent affection she is and will be, even to death, Your majesty’s very affectionate, very humble, and very obedient daughter and servant.’

5.  No information is provided us, but it seems likely, doesn’t it, that Goneril and Regan are somewhat older than Cordelia?  But what happened to Mrs. Lear?


From Tony Tanner:

forrest lear“’Now thou art an O without a figure’ – this is the Fool, desperately trying to get Lear to realize the folly of what he has done: ‘thou hast parted thy wit o’ both sides and left nothing i’ the middle…I am better than thou art now: I am a Fool, thou art nothing.’ (I, iv, 191-200).  Under Iago’s ministrations Othello became an ‘O’ in the course of the play. Lear makes himself ‘nothing’ at the start with no visible prompting or provocation. The play veritably starts with the eruption of, or into, nothingness and the word reechoes throughout the opening scenes.

Cordelia:  Nothing, my lord.

Lear:  Nothing?

Cordelia: Nothing.

Lear:  Nothing will come of nothing.

Lear repeats the word a number of times. Then Gloucester, very much a parallel figure for Lear, finds Edmund reading something. He asks him what it was.

Edmund:  Nothing, my lord.

Gloucester:  No? What needed then that terrible dispatch of it into your pocket? The quality of nothing hath not such need to hide itself. Let’s see. Come, if it be nothing, I shall not need spectacles.

The play will be preoccupied with problems of seeing and right vision, and given what happens to his eyes, his words carry a terrible proleptic irony. Shortly after, Lear is repeating himself to the Fool who asks him ‘Can you make no use of nothing, Nuncle?’ ‘Why, no, boy, Nothing can be made of nothing.’ (I, iv, 135-6). When Edgar, a little later, decides to disguise himself as Poor Tom he says ‘Edgar I nothing am’ (II, iii, 21). The word becomes increasingly ominous and it is as we are watching the world of the play being infiltrated with ‘nothingness’ – indeed, actively serving to install it, a world literally an-nihil-ating itself. It is a spectacle about to freeze you – a world, turning, returning, itself to ‘nothing.’

There was a well-known Elizabethan Morality play called The Three Ladies of London (1584) The three ladies in question are – Conscience, Love, and Lucre, and they are variously beset and besought, importuned and rejected by characters such as – Dissimulation, Fraud, Simony, Simplicity, Usury, Hospitality, Sincerity, and so on. Lucre enjoys a good deal of success and boasts of turning Conscience out of house and home. In King Lear, too, we find many unjust banishings and harsh shuttings out. Sincerity has fallen on bad times for, as she complains, it is the flatterers who love from the teeth forward who enjoy worldly success – and there could hardly be a better way to describe what Goneril and Regan are doing in their opening speeches to their father. Exactly like Cordelia, Sincerity prefers to ‘see and say nothing’ rather than attempt to match the dissimulators. Lucre’s only gift to Sincerity is a Parsonage called St. Nihil – and Nihil is nothing. It is Lear’s gift to Cordelia. It becomes pretty well the gift to Lear’s family, and of his realm to itself.

I am not arguing for a specific source for the play. [In his footnote:  As I indicated, I do not intend to go into sources, but – briefly. There was an old folk tale in which a daughter tells her father that she loves him as much as salt. This makes him very angry until she explains that she means he is essential to her life. The story enters literature in the twelfth-century History of Geoffrey of Monmouth. In the sixteenth century it becomes part of British history and is told by John Higgins in the 1574 edition of A Mirror for Magistrates, by Warner in Albion’s England (1586), by Holinshed, and by Spenser in Book II of The Faerie Queene (1590). Shakespeare probably knew all of these. The most important thing to know, perhaps, is that in Holinshed Cordelia successfully restores her father to the throne and then succeeds him for five years – though she then commits suicide when imprisoned by her enemies…] Rather, I want to draw attention to the importance of the exchanges in the opening scene. Cordelia who is indeed Sincere and has a Conscience can only ‘see and say nothing’ in the presence of so much Dissimulation and Fraud. But how has this situation come about? Like Othello, Lear asks for the wrong sort of evidence; asks disastrously the wrong questions. He asks for ‘auricular assurance’ of his daughters’ love as Othello had asked for ‘ocular proof’ of his wife’s unfaithfulness. But you can no more ‘hear’ love than you can ‘see’ honour. Worse, he asks in terms of quantity. ‘Which of you shall we say doth love us most?’ He hands himself over to rhetoric and easily manufactured hyperboles. In a matter of how many knights he can bring with him to his daughters’ houses, when Goneril says to him ‘disquantity your train’ (I, iv, 255)  she is in fact speaking his language. He is still trying to quantify love when Regan wants to reduce his train by another half: he turns to Goneril – ‘Thy fifty yet doth double five-and twenty,/And thou art twice her love’ (II, iv, 258-9). The sisters rapidly reduce his permitted train to zero. ‘What need one?’ says Regan, which provokes the searing response:

O reason not the need! Our basest beggars

Are in the poorest things superfluous,

Allow not nature more than nature’s needs,

Man’s life is cheap as beast’s. Thou art a lady:

If only to go warm were gorgeous

Why, nature needs not what thou gorgeous wear’st,

Which scarcely keep thee warm.

(II, iv, 264-9)

Many of the questions and preoccupations of the play are compacted in these lines, but let us return to the opening scene.

Lear’s initial fault is exposed in Gloucester’s opening words when he refers to ‘the division of the kingdom’ (I, i, 4). Almost immediately we see this made literal when Lear takes a map and divides the realm into three. It is a deed of horrifying irresponsibility and introduces ‘division’ into every unit of the society – family, court, realm. His explanation of what he is doing would have been even more shocking to the Elizabethans:

Meantime we shall express our darker purpose.

Give me the map there. Know that we have divided

In three our kingdom; and ‘tis our fast intent

To shake all cares and business from our age,

Conferring them on younger strengths, while we

Unburthened crawl toward death…

(Since we shall divest us both of rule,

Interest of territory, cares of state)

(I, i, 38-53)

By ‘darker’ he here means simply ‘hidden’ but it is an ominous word coming from a king, and, indeed, from this initial act there will spread a darkness over the realm until by the end ‘all’s cheerless, dark and deadly’ (V, iii, 293). That a king, the great hub of the social wheel, the maintainer of unity and order, should suddenly express the wish to ‘shake’ off cares and ‘crawl,’ like a child or a wounded animal, toward death, is almost terrifying if only because he should represent – indeed embody – stability, concord (not ‘division’), the inexorable responsibilities involved in positions of power, and duties firmly discharged and unquestioningly upheld. He wants to keep the ‘name’ of king, but leave the ‘execution’ of his duties to others – a fatal attempt to divide word from thing. It as though the lynch-pin should withdraw itself from the wheel, the corner-stone rebel from its place in the structure of the church. No wonder the scene ends with a sense of dissolution and scattering. ‘Kent banished thus? And France in choler parted?/And the king gone tonight” (I, ii, 24-5 – emphasis added). The ‘division’ has started, initiating an atmosphere marked by rapid, furtive, untimely, and uncertain movement. The plotters turn up at odd times which surprise even themselves – ‘out of season threading dark-eyed night.’ Lear ‘calls to horse, but will I know not whither.’ The French army creeps into England ‘on secret feet.’ Gloucester and Kent grope around the heath looking for Lear. Everywhere there is a sense of midnight flight and fumbling which is either conspiratorial or desperate. All seems uncertain and unnerved. ‘The images of revolt and flying off!’ (II, iv, 88). Movement is no longer coordinated, harmonious, ceremonially managed; rather it is madly centrifugal – as though all things were being whirled off their right paths.

Shakespeare was clearly fascinated by what might happen if the great central maintaining principle of social order was withdrawn, or withdrew itself – he had tried the great experiment shortly before in Measure for Measure. It allows him to explore, dramatically, the question – what is human nature when it is, as it were, unchecked in all directions: when all the bonds have ‘cracked’ and the rats have bitten ‘the holy cords atwain/Which are too intrince t’unloose’ (II, ii, 76)? Lear’s sudden abdication leaves a vacuum where there should be a majestic and irresistible principle of order, custom, and degree. And in that vacuum, the deep realities of human nature are afforded a dark arena in which to play themselves out. Majesty has fallen to folly, power has bowed to flattery, as Kent says – and indeed by the end of the play Lear will have bowed, fallen, knelt, and crawled in dead earnest. (It is a very sadistic play. People stumble, kneel, fall; are tripped, elbowed, shoved, kicked, and tortured. I will just note here that, in this play, it is the victims, the sufferers, the thrust-out and kicked-along, the blinded and maddened who, at intolerable cost, achieve true vision. By contrast, the perception of the evil characters seem to shrink progressively until by the end we have the image of Goneril and Regan ‘squinting’ at each other.) Wishing only to shake off his cares, shrug off his burdens, ‘divest’ himself of rule, Lear discovers that there is no stopping the divesting, and he will be stripped of his knights, his house, his clothes, his very reason – and finally of Cordelia. His terrible fate lies coiled and nascent in his own opening words.

‘The King falls from the bias of nature,’ says Gloucester (I, ii, 121). The last time Shakespeare used that metaphor was in Twelfth Night when Sebastian tells Olivia: ‘So comes it lady, you have mistook;/But nature to her bias drew in that’ (V, I, 259-60).  The metaphor is from bowling and Sebastian is saying that, although Olivia was mistaken when she married him – because of course she thought she was marrying Cesario – she has in fact swerved back to nature’s proper course in marrying him, because Cesario is, of course, a woman – Viola. For her to have married a woman would have been to ‘fall from the bias of nature.’ To be sure, Lear has not contracted a homosexual marriage, but, more generally, the image suggests that, in nature, there is a right way for things to go, and a wrong way, and Lear has taken the wrong way. How nature may ‘err from itself’ (to take an image from Othello, III, iii, 227) is a matter to which I will return. But Lear has fallen from the ‘bias of nature’ by his division of the realm, his abdication, and – worst of all – his disastrous misjudgment of Cordelia. To Burgundy he says ‘her price is fallen’ (more quantification – Lear is assessing her in Iagoish money terms whereas, like Desdemona, she is a jewel), and dismisses her as ‘little seeming substance’ (I, I, 199-200). He describes her as unnatural (‘a wretch whom nature is ashamed/Almost t’acknowledge hers’ – I, i, 214), strips of her dowry, and strangers her with an oath. He is not only completely wrong, but has totally inverted true values – Cordelia is all substance and no seeming, and is (along with Kent and Edgar and, for the most part, Albany), the most steadfastly ‘natural’ character in the play (there are problems in such an assertion to which I will return). No wonder Kent says ‘See better, Lear’ (I, i, 160). Lear is going to have to travel a hard and painful road to learn to penetrate the seeming and mere show of things and discern true reality – ‘the thing itself.’ He will suffer greatly, indeed unendurably, before he draws back to ‘the bias of nature.’

The King of France finds Lear’s behavior incredible, and finds it most strange that;

The best, the dearest, should in this trice of time

Commit a thing so monstrous to dismantle

So many folds of favor…

When he learns of what her ‘fault’ consisted, he is happy to take her as she stands – metaphorically naked, like traditional pictures of truth. I will return to ‘monstrous,’ but want here to concentrate on that phrase – ‘dismantle so many folds of favor.’ When Cordelia departs her last words are (to her sisters):

The jewels of our father, with washed eyes

Cordelia leaves you. I know you what you are…

More proleptic —  by which I mean anticipatory – ironies. Cordelia is the ‘jewel’ of her father, and her ‘washed eyes’ and tears will be of extreme importance later in the play. Finally she says:

Time shall unfold what plighted cunning hides,

Who covers faults, at least shame them derides.

To this I must add the words of Isabella when she thinks she is not going to receive any justice at the hands of the Duke of Vienna (in Measure for Measure):

Then, O you blessed ministers above,

Keep me in patience, and with ripened time

Unfold the evil which is here wrapp’d up

In countenance.

(V, i, 115-19)

‘Unfold’ became a very important word for Shakespeare. It is one of the first verbs in Hamlet:

Bernardo:  Who’s there?

Francisco: Nay, answer me. Stand and unfold yourself.

Thus the play opens, and it is a long ‘unfolding’ that is to come. In Othello it occurs at least four times. Desdemona says ‘To my unfolding lend your prosperous ear’ (I,iii,245), and ‘This honest creature doubtless/Sees and knows more, much more, than he unfolds’ (III,iii,242-3). Emilia talking about her husband Iago, though she doesn’t yet know it, says ‘O heaven, that such companions thou’dst unfold,/And put in every honest hand a whip/To lash the rascals naked through the world’ (IV, i, 141-3). Iago himself, expert folder, has a worry – ‘the Moor may unfold me to him’ (V,i,21). Cunning is ‘plighted’ (pleated, enfolded); evil is ‘wrapped up,’ and, ultimately, only ‘ripe time’ (also used in this play) can do the unfolding (the ‘blessed ministers’ are hardly to be relied on). This suggests that once evil has been released – made its ‘wasteful entrance’ – no human agent can arrest it, it must simply exhaust itself. In time. It is thus in this play where even Edmund cannot stop the murder of Cordelia he himself ordered. He is not – in time. Our acts get away from us. ‘Unfolding’ implies exposure, revealing, revelation, and, as we say, the story ‘unfolds’ in front of our eyes in the theatre. By the end of the play we too see them – all of them – ‘what they are.’”


From Frank Kermode:

Brian Bedford as King Lear“Apocalypse is the image of human dealings in their extremity, an image of the state to which humanity can reduce itself. We are asked to imagine the Last Days, when, under the influence of some Antichrist, human beings will behave not as a rickety civility requires but naturally; that is, they will prey upon themselves like animals, having lost the protection of social restraint, now shown to be fragile. The holy cords, however, ‘intrinse,’ can be loosened by rats. Gloucester may be credulous and venal, but his murmurings about the state of the world, which do not move Edmund, reflect of the mood of the play, ‘in cities, mutinies; in countries, discord; in palaces, treason; and the bond crack’d ‘twist son and father…We have seen the best of our time.’ The voices of the good are distorted by pain, those of the bad by the coarse excess of their wickedness.

The rhetoric of the play is accordingly more explicit, less ambiguous, except – and it is admittedly a large exception – in the apparent unreason of the Fool and Poor Tom and the ravings of the mad King, where the imaginations of folly flood into the language and give it violent local color. These wild linguistic excursions come later; the opening scene is in cool, even bantering prose, but as always in Shakespeare, it achieves much more than mere exposition. Coleridge understood its depth; the opening conversation between Gloucester and Kent makes it plain that Lear has already arranged the ‘division of the kingdom’ before the ceremony in which he formally announces it, which was therefore intended to be less the declaration of a secret intention (‘our darker purpose’) than a self-gratifying charade. Lear can already be seen as imperious and selfish; we discover that even giving his kingdom away is a selfish act. And immediately we are offered a critical view of the other main sufferer, Gloucester, and his relations with his natural son, Edmund. Gloucester treats Edmund’s birth as an occasion for bawdy joking and does not explain why, unlike his legitimate brother, Edgar, he should have been so long absent or why ‘away he shall again.’ All this has much to do not only with their characters but with the nature of the ensuing action as it depends on the folly of Gloucester and the ingenious unregenerate wickedness of Edmund.

Such economical writing is perhaps no more than should be expected of a dramatist in his prime. The ceremonial love competition that follows of course requires verse. The verse of the daughters Goneril and Regan has to be formal, manifestly insincere. Goneril is using what rhetoricians called ‘the topic of inexpressibility,’ standard fare in the eulogy of kings and emperors – ‘I love you more than words can wield the matter,/Dearer than eyesight…A love that makes breath poor, and speech unable…’ Regan follows with the well-established topical formula that Ernst Curtius calls ‘outdoing,’ or the ‘cedat-formula’ – ‘let her yield’; her sister has expressed Regan’s sentiments quite well, ‘Only she comes too short.’ Cordelia, coming third in order of praising, would have a hard task, but shuns this competition, meaning nevertheless to outdo her sisters by exposing their rhetorical falsity. She would prefer to be silent, but the only way to announce that intention is to speak about it, which she does. She does not come out of the archaic and artificial contest well, defeated by the genuineness of her love, as France recognizes; but she is far from passively yielding:

Lear:…what can you say to draw

A third more opulent than your sisters’? Speak.

Cor:  Nothing, my lord.

Lear:  Nothing?

Cor: Nothing.

Lear: Nothing will come of nothing, speak again.

She does speak again, but virtually only to say nothing. Here rhetorical formulae are used for a dramatic purpose. The rage of the King confirms that he cannot be temperate in the absence of ceremony; the love he seeks is the sort that can be offered in formal and subservient expressions, and he therefore rejects the love of Cordelia and of Kent. The rest of the scene is equally well contrived. The style of personal pronouns is worth attention: Lear is almost always, regally, ‘we,’ until he loses his temper with his daughter, when he uses ‘I.’ Kent is truly ‘unmannerly,’ freely addressing the King as ‘thou’: ‘What wouldest thou do, old man?…Reserve thy state,/And in thy best consideration check/This hideous rashness.’

Lear has already given away everything except an imaginary possession: ‘Only we shall retain/the name, and all th’ addition to a king.’ The word ‘addition’ seems to have interested Shakespeare. It can refer to ‘honours, prerogatives, titles’ – as when, in Othello, Cassio, after his disgrace, reacts to Iago’s calling him ‘lieutenant’ by saying he is ‘The worser that you give me the addition/Whose want even kills me.’ In Lear there is a way of looking at people as if they were simply basic human beings, naturally naked, wretches whose standing as more than that depends on their additions, without which they might be indistinguishable from Poor Tom: ‘unaccomodated man is no more but such a poor, bare, fork’d animal…(III.iv.106-8). Not only honours but clothes are ‘additions’: splendid in the case of Goneril and Regan, though meant for ostentation of rank rather than warmth; deemed unnecessary by Lear, who tries to take his off in the storm and at the moment of death; fraudulent in the case of corrupt judges, as we see in Lear’s extraordinary tirade: ‘Robes and furr’d gowns hide all’ (IV.vi.164). Clothes are emblems of ‘addition’ – what is added, out of pride or wickedness, to the natural man.”


And finally, for the weekend, a bit more overview of the play, from Harold Bloom:

old-man“No one would regard The Tragedy of King Lear as a Shakespearean aberration: the play develops out of aspects of Hamlet, Troilus and Cressida, Measure for Measure, and Othello, and clearly is prelude to aspects of Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra, and Timon of Athens.  [MY NOTE:  I’ll accept Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra, but I’m close to positive that Timon came before Lear.]  Only Hamlet, of all the plays, seems more central to Shakespeare’s incessant concerns than King Lear is, and in their ultimate implications the two works interlock. Does Hamlet love anyone as he dies? The transcendental aura that his dying moments evoke, our sensation of his charismatic freedom, is precisely founded upon his having become free of every object attachment, whether to father, mother, Ophelia, or even poor Yorick. There is only one mention of the word father by Hamlet in all of Act V, and it is reference to his father’s signet, employed to send Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to extinction. The only reference by Hamlet to his father the person is when he speaks of Claudius as having killed ‘my king’ and whored his mother. Hamlet’s farewell to Gertrude is the not very affectionate ‘Wretched Queen, adieu!’ There is, of course, Horatio, whose love for Hamlet brings him to the verge of suicide, from which Hamlet save him, but solely for the purpose of having a survivor who will clear his wounded name. Nothing whatsoever that happens in the tragedy Hamlet gives love itself anything except a wounded name. Love, in any of its modes, familial or erotic or social, is transformed by Shakespeare, more than any other writer, into the greatest of dramatic and aesthetic values. Yet more than any other writer, Shakespeare divests love of any supposed values of its own.

The implicit critique of love, by Shakespeare, hardly can be termed a mere skepticism. Literary criticism, as I have learned from Dr. Johnson, is the art of making the implicit finely explicit, and I accept the risk of apparently laboring what may be to many among us quite obvious, once we are asked to ponder it. ‘We cannot choose whom we are free to love,’ a celebrated line of Auden’s, may have been influenced by Freud, but Sigmund Freud, as time’s revenges will show, is nothing but belated William Shakespeare, ‘the man from Stratford’ as Freud bitterly liked to call him, in support of that defrauded genius, the Earl of Oxford. There is love that can be avoided, and there is a deeper love, unavoidable and terrible, far more central to Shakespeare’s invention of the human. It seems more accurate to call it that, rather than reinvention, because the time before Shakespeare had his full influence upon us was also ‘before we were wholly human and knew ourselves,’ as Wallace Stevens phrased it. Irreparable love, destructive of every value distinct from it, was and is a Romantic obsession. But the representation of love, in and by Shakespeare, was the largest literary contamination that produced Romanticism.

A.D. Nuttall, more than any other twentieth-century critic, has clarified some of the central paradoxes of Shakespearean representation. Two of Nuttall’s observations always abide with me: Shakespeare is out ahead of us, illuminating our latest intellectual fashions more sharply than they can illuminate him, and Shakespeare enables us to see realities that may already have been there but that we would not find it possible to see without him. Historicists – old, new, and burgeoning – do not like it when I add to Nutall the realization that the difference between what Shakespeare knew and what we know is, to an astonishing extent, just Shakespeare himself. He is what we know because we are what we knew: he childed as we fathered. Even if Shakespeare, like all of his contemporaries and like all of ours, is only a socially inscribed entity, histrionic and fictive, and so not at all a self-contained author, all the better. Borges may have intended a Chestertonian paradox, but he spoke a truth more literal than figurative: Shakespeare is everyone and no one. So are we, but Shakespeare is more so. If you want to argue that he was the most precariously self-fashioned of all the self-fashioned, I gladly will agree. But wisdom finally cannot be the product of social energies, whatever those are. Cognitive power and an understanding heart are individual endowments. Wittgenstein rather desperately wanted to see Shakespeare as a creator of language rather than as a creator of thought, yet Shakespeare’s own pragmatism renders that a distinction that makes no difference. Shakespeare’s writing creates what holds together language and thought in a stance that neither affirms nor subverts Western tradition. What that stance is, though, hovers still beyond the categories of our critiques.

Social domination, the obsession of our School of Resentment, is only secondarily a Shakespearean concern. Domination maybe, but that mode of domination is more personal than social, more internal than outward. Shakespeare’s greatest men and women are perpetually doom-eager not because of their relation to state power but because their inner lives are ravaged by all the ambivalences and ambiguities of familial love and its displacements. There is a drive in all of us, unless we are Edmund, to slay ourselves upon the stems of generation, in Blake’s language. Edmund is free of that drive, but he is caught in the closed circle that makes him another of the fools of time. Time, Falstaff’s antagonist and Macbeth’s nemesis, is antithetical to nature in Lear’s play. Edmund, who cannot be destroyed by love, which he never feels, is destroyed by the wheel of change that he has set spinning for his victimized half brother. Edgar, stubborn sufferer, cannot be defeated, and his timing becomes exquisite the moment he and Gloucester encounter the bullying Oswald.

The best principle in reading Shakespeare is Emerson’s: ‘Shakespeare is the only biographer of Shakespeare, and even he can tell nothing, except to the Shakespeare in us.’  I myself deviate a touch from Emerson, since I think only Shakespeare has placed the Shakespeare in us. I don’t believe I am that horrid thing, much deprecated by our current pseudo-Marxist Shakespeareans, an ‘essentialist humanist.’ As a gnostic sect of one, I blink at a supposed Shakespeare who is out to subvert Renaissance ideology or who hints at revolutionary possibilities. Essentialist Marxists or feminists or Franco-Heideggerians ask me to accept a Shakespeare rather in their image. The Shakespeare in me, however placed there, shows me a deeper and more ancient subversion at work – in much of Shakespeare, but in the four high tragedies or domestic tragedies of blood in particular.

Dostoevsky founded Svidrigailov and Stavrogin upon Iago and Edmund, while Nietzsche and Kierkegaard discovered their Dionysiac forerunner in Hamlet, and Melville came to his Captain Ahab through Macbeth. The nihilist questers emerge from the Shakespearean abyss, as Freud at his uncanniest emerged. I do not offer a nihilistic Shakespeare or a Gnostic one, but skepticism alone cannot be the origin of the cosmological degradation that contextualizes the tragedies King Lear and Macbeth. The more nihilistic Solomon of Ecclesiastes and the Wisdom of Solomon tells us, in the latter, Apocryphal work, that ‘we are borne at all adventure, and we shall be hereafter as though we had never been.’ The heretic Milton did not believe that God had made the world out of nothing, we do not know what Shakespeare did not believe. Lear, as charted by W.R. Elton, is neither an Epicurean materialist nor a skeptic; rather he is ‘in rejecting creation ex nihilo a pious pagan but a skeptical Christian,’ as befits a pagan play for a Christian audience. Lear, we always must remind ourselves, is well past eighty, and his world wears out to nothing with him. As in Macbeth, an end time is suggested. The resurrection of the body, unknown to Solomon, is also unknown to Lear…”

And, I usually don’t recommend recordings, but this one, if you can find it, is pretty extraordinary.  Gielgud is Lear.  Enough said.

My next post:  Sunday evening/Monday morning – last post on Act One, including our intro to Jan Kott.

Enjoy.  And enjoy your weekend.

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7 Responses to “In cities, mutinies; in countries, discord; in palaces, treason; and the bond crack’d ‘twist son and father…We have seen the best of our time.”

  1. Lesley says:

    Funny you should recommend Gielgud audio. I’ve been listening to a audiobook of him reading Alice in Wonderland. Thanks for pointing out his version of Lear.

  2. mpalmer32 says:

    Thank you, Dennis Abrams, for this superlative “reading” of KL. An ‘oldie’ (like Lear), and a ‘newbie’ to the wonders of the Internet, I have been gobsmacked by your ability to juxtapose the words of great critics/scholars, your own thoughts, and Video clips of varied performances of each scene. BRAVO!
    Because I so love KL, and am lucky enough to live in walking distance of the great Theatres of London (including the Globe), I have seen KL performed several times each year for the past 20 years. From this experience, I think it is the Actors/Directors who best “interpret” the text of KL. They, like Shakespeare, must: Fill the theatre (“bums on seats”). Productions of KL are almost invariably sold out, both in the UK and in North America. This is proof, not only of Shakespeare’s genius, but also that the KL Text can be interpreted by Directors/Actors dozens of ways successfully.

    I have seen successful, wonderful productions with totally different ‘interpretations’ of the text. A recent example: Ian McKellen/Trevor Nunn, RSC vs. Jonathan Pryce/Michael Attenborough, Almeida. I exaggerate only slightly when reporting that McKellen played a royal KL brought down by Pride & Fate; while Pryce played a (middle class?) Medieval Father who mistook his incestous relationships with his 3 Daughters for Love…

    Obviously, the Text of KL is a constant. And studying it, Academics can enrich immensely our knowledge (and that of the Directors/Actors) of the historical period, contemporary competitors, and of Shakespeare’s language. Moreover, great Literary critics can alert us to the influence or echos of the Literature which absorbed by Shakespeare. (The passionate Bloom teaches us the process by which Shakespeare “created The Human”.)

    Finally, then, the Text of KL is not a constant. Like a Human: it grows, it molts, it metamorphoses… Like Heraclitus’ river, it is different each time it is stepped into.

    And, that is why I and many others happily see/read KL as many times as possible.

    • Thanks — you have made my day (if not my entire weekend.) Now if only I could do something about my jealousy of all the performances of Lear (and the rest of Shakespeare) that you’ve seen…

      • mpalmer32 says:

        Best cure for your envy is to share London’s riches…. So be sure to get here for the National Theatre’s upcoming (but as yet unannounced) production of KL with Simon Russell Beale as KL, directed by Nicholas Hytner (whose modern dress ‘Othello’ is now playing to justified acclaim and full houses). (If you can get to London during the run, I would be delighted to take you to see it.)

      • I’m going to HAVE to get there for that. Dennis

  3. Lesley says:

    I am “gobsmacked” (my new favorite word,) with this whole play.
    Will there be a discussion on the role of letters–written messages– in this play?

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