“Who is it that can tell me who I am?” “Lear’s shadow.”

King Lear

Act One, Part Three

By Dennis Abrams


kinglear460A couple of things of interest:

1.  I talked in my introduction to Lear about the fact that there are really two different versions of the play:  the Quarto and the Folio.  Act One, scene 4, lines 217-222 show a good example of the differences.


Does any here know me? Why, this is not Lear.

Does Lear walk thus, speak thus? Where are his eyes?

Either his notion weakens, or, his discernings are

lethargied – Ha! sleeping or walking? Sure ‘tis not

so. Who is that can tell me who I am?


Lear’s shadow.

“Lear’s shadow.”  In the Quarto, it is Lear who speaks those words. The Quarto version is in effect simpler, since it is Lear who calls himself a shadow, or semblance in contrast to the real person.  But in giving the words to the Fool, the Folio is automatically more complex: does the Fool mean both that he is Lear’s shadow (or the mirror-image in which Lear may see himself as a fool), AND that Lear has become a shadow of his former self, a mere appearance of a king lacking authority? In Quarto, Lear is immediately aware of a split within himself, which in Folio is only observed (or mentioned in) the Fool’s acerbic comments.

2.  In Lear’s speech to Albany, “Hear, Nature, hear, dear goddess…” note how it recalls Edmund’s appeal to nature, “Thou, nature, art my Goddess…” but with a difference; Lear invokes Nature as a creative force, but his horrible curse would, indeed, make nature unnatural (or disnatured, 275) which aligns him with Edmund.

From Stephen Booth:

lear and fool“An audience’s experience of King Lear persistently reflects its characters experience of the events depicted in it. The play makes its audience suffer as audience; the fact that King Lear ends but does not stop is only the biggest of a succession of similar facts about the play. The parallel between tests of the audience’s theatrical endurance and the trials of the characters is illustrated by the two limp little speeches that intervene between Edgar’s account of his father’s death and his postscript on Kent. The first is by Edmund, and its lifelessness evokes a sense of unwarranted continuation:

This speech of yours hath moved me,

And shall perchance do good; but speak you on –

You look as you had something more to say.


In the second speech Albany explicitly takes up the threat of ‘more’:

If there be more, more woeful, hold it in,

For I am almost ready to dissolve,

Hearing of this.

Edmund’s speech both is and promises a burdensome and superfluous appendage to the audience’s immediate theatrical experience; Albany protests the threat of augmentation but, of course, protests it in the dimension of the dramatized events rather than that of the dramatization.

Almost from the beginning, both the characters and the audience of King Lear must cope with the fact that the idea of the ultimate is only an idea, a hope, a working convenience.

The first speeches of King Lear are full of comparatives (‘had more affected the Duke of Albany,’ ‘no dearer in my account,’ ‘know you better,’ ‘darker purposes,’ ‘no less loving son’). Lear introduces the superlative (‘which of you shall we say doth love us mot’) and triggers an inflation in language and in its aspirations. Goneril begins her answer with comparatives and progresses toward the absolute (I.i.55-61); Regan outdoes her (‘she comes to short…I profess/Myself an enemy to all other joys’ – 72-73). Cordelia’s ‘Nothing’ is the ultimate among ultimates; it makes retreat to relativism futile:

Cordelia:    …I love your Majesty

According to my bond, no more nor less.

Lear:  How, how, Cordelia? Mend your speech a little…

On the other hand, the realm of the absolute is paradoxically wanting in substitutes for the relative but serviceable sureness (definition, limitation, finality) available in the comfortable confines of comparison. Cordelia can say nothing ‘to draw/A third more opulent’ than her sisters, but she does say ‘Nothing’: she cannot literally ‘love and be silent’ – any more than Lear’s hyperbole (‘I disclaim all my parental care,’ ‘we have no such daughter’) can literally obliterate Cordelia’s daughterhood or remove her from the category ‘daughter’ in his speeches. Moreover, Cordelia does attempt to measure her love for Lear. The terms of her speech are relative (‘That lord whose hand must take my plight shall carry/Half my love with ‘ – 101-2); the speech his, in fact, an overt rejection of absolutes (‘Sure I shall never marry like my sisters,/To love my father all’ – 103-104). But the rejection is itself an absolute, an absolute that collapses when she assents to Lear’s response, ‘But goes thy heart with this?’ Heart in Lear’s question is potentially a precise synonym for love in Cordelia’s ‘carry half my love with him,’ but love (affection) in Cordelia’s phrase is not synonymous with heart in Lear’s question (a question that means ‘But do you really mean what you have just said?’). Cordelia does and does not contradict herself; her absolute allegiance to relativism is final, definitive, absolute – but only relative to the contextually, and thus tenuously determined meaning of words.

That was a very abstruse example, offered only to suggest the depth to which the impossibility of finality permeates the play. For a simpler but equally incidental example, consider IV.vii.61, the line in which Lear specifies his age with absolute and absolutely ineffectual precision: ‘Fourscore and upward, not an hour more or less’…

Lear’s confident reservation of a hundred knights exemplifies a fruitless quest for definition of another sort. His initial scheme and his later dream of retirement in a walled prison exemplify yet another. The play is full of such quests, and the lines I quote for other purposes will include all the evidence one could wish. I prefer to turn my attention to the audience’s similar efforts and frustrations. Those, too, come in many sizes and shapes. Take, for example, the experience of listening to the speech in which Lear first mentions the hundred knights. First, he makes an apparently absolute donation of everything (‘I do invest you…’); then, after he has nothing, he tacks on his provisos:

Peace, Kent!

Come not between the dragon and his wrath.

I loved her most, and though to set my rest

On her kind nursery. – Hence and avoid my sight! –

So be my grave my peace as here I give

Her father’s heart from her! Call France. Who stirs!

Call Burgundy, Cornwall, and Albany,

With my two daughters’ dowers digest the third;

Let pride, which she calls plainness, marry her.

I do invest you jointly with my power,

Preeminence, and all the large effects

That troop with majesty. Ourself, by monthly course,

With reservation of an hundred knights,

By you to be sustained, shall our abode

Make with you by due turn. Only we shall retain

The name and all th’ addition to a king. The sway,

Revenue, execution of the rest,

Beloved sons, be yours; which to confirm,

This coronet part between you.

I have quoted the whole speech because it is also the first of the many instances where Lear leaps suddenly from one topic to another. The first four speeches of King Lear are an orderly, efficient, and symmetrical introduction to two distinct plot lines in the play; the two plots are never distinct again, and from the time of Kent’s first attempt to interrupt Lear, no two things are ever distinct again. The scenes in which Lear’s mind pounces upon one and then another topic are only exaggerated manifestations of the audience’s constant difficulty in knowing where one topic ends and another begins.”


From G. Wilson Knight:

scofield and rigg“In this essay I shall analyze certain strata in the play’s thought, thus making more clear the quality of the mysterious presence I have noticed as enveloping the action; and in the process many persons and events will automatically assume new significance. The play works out before us the problems of human suffering and human imperfection; the relation of humanity to nature on the one hand and its aspiration toward perfection on the other I shall note (i) the naturalism of the Lear universe, using the words ‘nature’ and ‘natural’ in no exact sense, but rather with a Protean variation in meaning which reflects the varying nature-thought of the play; (ii) its ‘gods’; (iii) its insistent questioning of justice, human and divine; (iv) the stoic acceptance by many persons of their purgatorial pain; and (v) the flaming course of the Lear-theme itself growing out of this dun world, and touching at its full height a transcendent, apocalyptic beauty. These will form so many steps by which we may attain a comprehensive vision of the play’s meaning.

The philosophy of King Lear is firmly planted in the soil of earth. Nature, like human life, is abundant across its pages. Lear outlines the wide sweeps of land to be allotted to Goneril:

Of all these bounds, even from this line to this,

With shadowy forest and wide champains rich’d,

With plenteous rivers and wide-skirted meads,

We make thee lady.

We have the fine description of Dover Cliff:

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!

From this elevation:

     the murmuring surge,

That on the unnumber’d idle pebbles chafes,

Cannot be heard so high.

And, from below, ‘the shrill-gorged lark so far cannot be seen or heard’ (iv, vi, 59). Lear is ‘fantastically dressed with wild flowers’ (iv, vi, 81). And we hear from Cordelia that

     he was met even now

As mad as the vex’d sea; singing aloud;

Crown’d with rank fumiter and furrow-weeds,

With burdocks, hemlock, nettles, cuckoo-flowers,

Darnell and all the idle weeds that grow

In our sustaining corn.

(Iv, iv, 1)

The references to animals are emblematic. The thought of ‘nature’ is as ubiquitous as that of ‘death’ in Hamlet, ‘fear’ in Macbeth, or ‘time’ in Troilus and Cressida. The phraseology is pregnant with natural reference and natural suggestion; and where the human element merges into the natural, the suggestion is often one of village life. The world of King Lear is townless. It is a world of flowers, rough country, tempestuous wind, and wild, or farmyard, beasts; and, as a background, there is continual mention of homely, countrified customs, legends, rhymes. This world is rooted in nature, firmly as a Hardy novel. The winds of nature blow through its pages, animals appear in every kind of conte4xt. The animals are often homely, sometimes wild, but neither terrifying nor beautiful. They merge into the bleak atmosphere, they have nothing of the bizarre picturesqueness of those in Julius Caesar, and do not in their totality suggest the hideous and grim portent of those in Macbeth. We hear of the wolf, the owl, the cat, of sheep, swine, dogs (constantly), horses, rats and such like. Now there are two main directions for this animal and natural suggestion running through the play. First, two of the persons undergo a direct return to nature in their purgatorial progress; second, the actions of humanity tend to assume contrast with the natural world in point of ethics. I shall notice both these directions.

Edgar escapes by hiding in ‘the happy hollow of a tree’ (Ii, iii, 2), and decides to disguise himself. He will

…take the basest and most poorest shape

That ever penury, in contempt of man,

Brought near to beast; my face I’ll grime with filth;

Blanket my loins; elf all my hair in knots;

And with presented nakedness outface

The winds and persecutions of the sky.

The country gives me proof and precedent

Of Bedlam beggars, who, with roaring voices,

Strike in their numb’d and mortified bare arms

Pins, wooden pricks, nails, sprigs of rosemary;

And with this horrible object, from low farms,

Poor pelting villages, sheep-cotes, and mills,

Sometime with lunatic bans, sometime with prayers,

Enforce their charity.

(II, iii, 7)

The emphasis on nakedness open to the winds; on man’s kinship with beasts; on suffering; on village and farm life; on lunacy; all these are important. So Edgar throughout his disguise reiterates these themes. His fantastic utterances tell a tale of wild country adventure, in outlying districts of man’s civilization, weird, grotesque adventures…”


From A.D. Nuttall, “Shakespeare The Thinker”:

Harrowing Hell:  King Lear:

paul-scofield_1786698i“When students are asked when Shakespeare thought King Lear reigned in England they usually say, ‘Early Middle Ages?’ This is not a good shot. Holinshed’s Chronicle, Shakespeare’s principle source, places Lear’s accession to the throne in anno mundi 3105. Anno mundi (‘in the year of the world’) is a system of dating that counts years from the original creation. Unfortunately Holinshed is confused about the relation of anno mundi dating to the B.C./A.D system. In Book ii, chapter 6, Holinshed says that after Lear’s death, Cordelia became queen in anno mundi 3155 and adds that this was fifty-four years before the founding of Rome. Since we have an accepted date for the foundation of Rome (754 B.C.), this means that Cordelia became Queen in 808 B.C., and that the creation book place in 3963 B.C.  At the beginning of the following chapter Holinshed, the son of Cunedag, began in anno mundi 3203 and explains that this was fifteen years before the foundation of Rome. The date of creation, we notice with dismay, has slipped back by some nine years to 3972 B.C. There are other wobbles elsewhere. The nearest synchronism of these dates – and they are not so far apart as to be utterly unmanageable – places Lear’s reign in the later ninth and early eighth centuries B.C.  The earlier account in Geoffrey of Monmouth provides no dates but says that Lear ruled for sixty years after Bladud the aeronaut, a contemporary of Elijah. This gives the rough dating, 820-760 B.C. These numbers chime eerily with the dates of the reign of George III, 1760-1820, who was thought to be mad and identified closely with Lear. So Lear is a figure of primeval antiquity, long before the Middle Ages, long before the birth of Christ, long before Julius Caesar or Coriolanus, long before Aristotle or Sophocles.

Shakespeare, one may safely bet, would not have engaged in arithmetical calculation when he read Holinshed, but he certainly took in the fact that Lear belongs to very early history. He is aware that this is a pre-Christian world. That is why Lear swears ‘by Apollo’ – a pagan oath. King Lear is one of the chronicle plays, and the 1608 Quarto describes it as a ‘true chronicle history,’ but the editors of the 1623  Folio placed it not with the histories but with the tragedies. We all now think of it as a different kind of play from Richard III or Henry V. Are we wrong? The Folio editors may simply have made a mistake, or else they made a critical decision and the designation of this play as tragedy is no mistake. Of course the categories are not mutually exclusive. As we have seen, Richard II can be called a tragedy with perfect propriety. But they are distinct. Tragedy is all to do with pity and fear (Aristotle’s terms, but they apply after his time). History is all about the evolution of England. One aspect or the other may carry greater weight in a given case. It may well have been evident to the editors when they came to King Lear that they were dealing with work of a different order. They were looking at the greatest tragedy ever written.

Pedantic precision over dates is not Shakespeare’s line. But there is in King Lear a strange preoccupation with mathematics. It is a play about the breaking down of a king who descends into madness, learns charity, but then loses the daughter he loved most. These emotional heights and depths are married in the bloodless sphere of mathematics. Has Shakespeare made a mistake, in choosing to interweave, in this most humane, most passionate of plays, a strand of pure numerical abstraction? Surely, it might be said, this can only weaken the tragedy. But King Lear is also about the fear of madness. The very incongruity of the mathematics can work as a bat squeak of hysteria within the complex chords of the major action. We sense the mind breaking free from its moorings. The extremes represented verbally by ‘all’ and ‘nothing’ can both be converted to the sign ‘0.’ David Wilbern has noticed, behind the word ‘nothing’ that reverberates through the play, a pun on ‘hole’ and ‘whole’ (the round world)  both represented by the figure ‘0.’ As early as Henry V one can find Shakespeare thinking half-humorously about the odd union of nullity and multiplying power in the zero, in that Arabic notation that had by Shakespeare’s time virtually ousted the old Roman numerals. In the Prologue he describes the Globe Theatre (‘Globe’ = ‘the round world’) scornfully as ‘this wooden O’ and then interjects a curious apology: ‘ O, pardon! since a crooked figure may/Attest in little place a million’ (lines 15-16). In King Lear the interest in the exponent power of zero falls into the background, and Shakespeare’s imagination is instead engaged  by the notion of a nothingness that is universal and therefore equal to all. In Act I, Scene iv, the Fool says to Lear, ‘Thou art an 0 without a figure…Thou art nothing’ (I,iv.192-4).  Earlier in the same scene the Fool, living dangerously, calls the King fool and adds,

     Nuncle, give me an egg, and I’ll give thee two crowns.

Lear:  What two crowns shall they be?

Fool:  Why, after I have cut the egg i’ the’middle and eat up the meat, the two crowns of the egg. When thou clovest thy crown i’ the’ middle and gav’st away both parts, thou bor’st thine ass on thy back o’er the dirt. Thou hadst little wit in thy bald crown when thou gav’st thy golden one away.

Together with putting over his moral lesson that the King has made a dreadful mistake in resigning his power, the Fool must fool around with circles. A crown is one kind of circle:

Within the hollow crown

That rounds the mortal temples of a king

Keeps Death his court.

(Richard II, III.22.160-2)

The bald head of the old King is suddenly abstract, another kind of circle. The egg is nothing. In scoring tennis we say ‘Thirty love’ for ‘Thirty nil’; ‘love’ here is a corruption of French l’oeuf, ‘the egg,’ ‘zero.’ The Fool sees that these circles may be filled or empty. Eat the boiled egg and you have two half-shells, empty roundels. These ragged, scraped-out circlets later become the gouged eye-sockets of Gloucester – ‘bleeding rings’ (V.iii.190). Shakespeare links Gloucester back to the image of the egg by having the third servant say that he will fetch egg-white to treat Gloucester’s wounded face (III.vii.106), and by having Edgar say that if Gloucester were to throw himself from the (imagined) height of Dover Cliff, he would be smashed ‘like an egg’ (IV.vi.51).  Lear’s nothingness becomes, entropically, the final nothingness of the universe in the words of the blinded Gloucester when he meets the King (by this stage in the play truly mad): ‘O ruin’d piece of nature! This great world/Shall no wear out to nought.’ (IV.vi.134-35)

The mathematical obsession shows elsewhere, sometimes in what could be mistaken for a mere accident of phraseology – ‘all th’ addition to a king’ (I.i.136) – sometimes in more evidently painful contexts. When Lear speaks of shedding the addition to a king – that is, of resigning all the grand apparatus of practical sovereignty to a king as part of his retirement plan – he gives a mathematical form to a sentiment expressed earlier, with serious tragic import, by Richard II, when he presided over his own dethroning: ‘Now mark me how I will undo myself.’ (IV.i.203). Sometimes the line of mathematical reasoning is in contradistinction to the world of human compassion. When the unloving daughters, Goneril and Regan, with cruel relish gradually subtract persons from Lear’s retinue, they end with the words, ‘What need one?’ (II.iv.263). Here mathematical calculation is emblematic of inhumanity. Lear’s answer is strong: ‘O, reason not the need! our basest beggars/Are in the poorest thing superfluous/’ (II.iv.264-65). Even a destitute woman, sleeping rough, will have about her some object of ‘sentimental value,’ something not rigidly calculated as necessary to survival.

But Cordelia, the good daughter, is also given to mathematical calculation. At the beginning of the play Lear embarks upon what he has obviously planned as a happy family occasion. He has a map of England already divided in three, a part for each daughter, with the best part reserved for Cordelia, who indeed deserves it. Each daughter is to say how much she loves her father and because Cordelia is the most loving of the three she will easily earn her share. It all goes wrong. Cordelia will not play. She is clear that she cannot possibly offer all her love to her father:

Why have my sisters husbands, if they say

They love you all? Happily, when I shall wed,

That lord whose plight shall take my hand shall carry

Half my love with him, half my care and duty.

The King is appalled by this and so in a way is the spectator in the theatre. Surely it is only the wicked who quantify love in this way? Cleopatra will say, later, ‘There’s beggary in the love that can be reckon’d’ (Antony and Cleopatra, I.i.15).

Lear’s plan for the day had a fairy-tale simplicity in easy accord with the uncritical simplicity of his own mind. Now fairy-tale founders upon human complexity. It is often said that Cordelia answers as she does because she is a truth-teller. But she is not invited to lie. The question is, ‘Which of you loves me most?’ The true answer to this, from Cordelia, is ‘I do – by far the most.’ Cordelia feels acutely what Lear has not even noticed: that if she speaks warmly of her love where it is known that warm words will obtain a huge reward, her declaration will be infected in advance by a presumption of mercenary intent. Brilliantly, Shakespeare makes Goneril employ the ‘inexpressibility topos’ in her speech to Lear: ‘Sir, I love you more than words can wield the matter.’ (I.i.55). Now, even to say, “I cannot express my love’ (Cordelia’s position) will also be tainted by the rhetoric of self-interest. Indeed she does say, ‘I cannot heave/My heart into my mouth’, but she must say this to herself, not to the King.

It is made clear that the stilted tone of Cordelia’s words to her father gives a wholly misleading impression of the love she really feels. Can we say then that she lies when she says that half her love will go to her husband? Is she talking nonsense when she says she loves according to her bond, ‘no more nor less?’ We think of the phrase, ‘Not a penny more, not a penny less.’ There is no easy answer. In Holinshed’s Chronicle, Cordelia says, ‘If you would more understand of the love that I beare you, assertaine your selfe, that so much as you have, so much you are worth, and so much I love you, and no more.’ In Shakespeare’s play by this point realistic psychology has taken over completely from primitive story. In Holinshed’s Chronicle the logic of fairy-tale still holds. The words of Holinshed’s Cordelia have magical, prophetic force. Lear is being told by a voice that is in a way superhuman that he must look into his own heart and discover what he lacks. In Shakespeare, this secondary level of prophetic import is present too, but in an uneasy relationship with the character of Cordelia, now fully humanized.

Perhaps we are to suppose that the young woman, Cordelia, disabled by embarrassment, nevertheless clings (because of her habitual truthfulness) to a cooler version of the situation, setout now according to the very different test of justice. The difficulty is that if she were to say challengingly to Lear, ‘How much love do you deserve?’ as her counterpart virtually does in the Chronicle, the implied Olympian censoriousness would be intolerable. So Shakespeare avoids the frontal accusation. Instead he makes her clutch at an impersonal mode, an escape from the hotly personal situation in which her father had placed her, by referring to justice. This can then work in the play in alliance with the mathematical language of reduction and annihilation that follows. The Chronicle’s Cordelia says that Lear must ‘assertaine him selfe’ and Shakespeare reminds us that the King ‘hath ever but slenderly known himself.’

When Goneril and Regan subtract ‘all the addition’ of Lear’s state they are wicked. When Cordelia, almost against her will, pitches King Lear into an abyss of negation she is part of a mythic logic. Lear must be broken down before he is remade. When Lear invites her to speak on her own behalf she answers famously with a single word, ‘Nothing.’ Now Lear, confronted by what must seem to him a moral impossibility, wildly attempts to re-run time itself (though his words are made less crazy by the fact that the daughters are being asked to lay on a performance of filial love). ‘Let’s cancel that,’ says Lear, ‘And start again,’ or, in his own words, ‘Nothing will come of nothing, speak again’ the disyllable uttered by Cordelia has a resonance  beyond its immediate conversational context. A black hole opens in the fabric of the play. Lear falls through the hole into a dark counter-world of continuing subtraction, a reduction now authorized by the moral movement of the drama itself. He passes from the upper-class England of the map – good-hunting here, good fishing there (‘with…forests…rich’d,/With plenteous rivers.’) – to an under-nation of wretched poverty and madness, where beggars are driven by dogs from filthy farm-yards and people hammer nails into their arms to extort charity (IV .vi.154-55, II.iii.16). When Richard II undid himself and ceremonially discarded the outer signs of royalty; he was half-able to enjoy the process of his own unmasking. Lear, mad on the heath, tears off his clothes in an agony of spirit, straining to reach the ‘poor  bare fork’d animal’ that lies beneath (III.iv.107).”


Lear and foolAnd finally, as promised, our first look at Jan Kott:  “King Lear or Endgame”

King Lear. Dost thou call me fool, boy?

Fool. All thy other titles thou hast given away;

that thou wast born with. (King Lear, I, 4)


We are all born mad. Some remain so. (Waiting for Godot) II)

 The attitude of modern criticism to King Lear is ambiguous and somehow embarrassed. Doubtless King Lear is still recognized as a masterpiece, beside which even Macbeth and Hamlet seem tame and pedestrian. King Lear is compared to Bach’s Mass in B Minor, to Beethoven’s Fifth and Ninth Symphonies, to Wagner’s Parsifal, Michelangelo’s Last Judgment, or Dante’s Purgatory and Inferno. But at the same time King Lear gives one the impression of a high mountain that everyone admires, yet no one particularly wishes to climb. It is as if the play had lost its power to excite on the stage and in reading; as if it were out of place in our time, or, at any rate, had no place in the modern theatre. But the question is: what is modern theatre?

The apogee of King Lear’s theatrical history was reached no doubt in the romantic era. To the romantic theatre King Lear fitted perfectly; but only conceived as a melodrama, full of horrors, and dealing with a tragic king, deprived of his crown, conspired against by heaven and earth, nature and men. Charles Lamb might well laugh at early nineteenth-century performances in which a miserable old man wandered about the stage bare-headed, stick in hand, in an artificial storm and rain. But the theatre was soon to attain the full power of illusion. Diorama, scene changes effected by means of new stage machinery, without bringing the curtain down, made it possible suddenly, almost miraculously, to transform a Gothic castle into a mountainous region, or a blood-red sunset into a stormy night. Lightning and thunder, rain and wind, seemed like the real thing. It was easy for the romantic imagination to find its favourite landscape: gloomy castles, hovels, deserted spots, mysterious and awe-inspiring places, towering rock gleaming white in the moonlight.[i][1]  King Lear was also in keeping with the romantic style of acting, since it offered scope for sweeping gestures, terrifying scenes, and violent soliloquies, loudly delivered, so popular with Kean and his school. The actor’s task was to demonstrate the blackest depths of the human soul. Lear’s and Gloster’s unhappy fate was to arouse pity and terror, to shock the audience. And so it did. Suffering purified Lear and restored his tragic greatness. Shakespeare’s King Lear was the ‘black theatre’ of romanticism.

Then came the turn of the historical, antiquarian and realistic Shakespeare. Stage designers were sent to Rome to copy features of the Forum for sets to Julius Caesar. Crowds of extras were dressed in period costume. Copies were made of medieval dress, renaissance jewelry, Elizabethan furniture. Sets became more and more solid and imposing. The stage was turned into a large exhibition of historical props. A balcony had to be a real balcony, a palace – a real palace, a street – a real street. Real trees were substituted for the old painted landscape.

At that time attempts were also made to set King Lear in a definite historical period. With the help of archaeologists, Celtic burial places were reconstructed on the stage. Lear became an old druid. Theatrical machinery was more and more perfect, so that storm, wind and rain could drown the actors’ voices more and more effectively. As a result of the odd marriage between new and perfected theatre techniques with the archaeological reconstruction of a Celtic tomb, only the plot remained of Shakespeare’s play. In such a theatre Shakespeare was indeed out of place: he was untheatrical.

The turn of the century brought a revolution in Shakespearian studies. For the first time his plays began to be interpreted through the theatre of his time. A generation of scholars were busy on patiently recreating the Elizabethan stage, style of acting and theatrical traditions. Granville-Barker in his famous Prefaces to Shakespeare showed, or at least tried to show, how Lear must have been played at the Globe. The return to the so-called ‘authentic’ Shakespeare began. From now on the storm was to rage in Lear’s and Gloster’s breast rather than on the stage. The trouble was, however, that the demented old man, tearing his long white beard, suddenly became ridiculous. He should have been tragic, but he no longer was.

Nearly all Shakespeare’s expositions have an amazing speed and directness in the way conflicts are shown and put into action, and the whole tone of the play is set. The exposition of King Lear seems preposterous if one is to look in it for psychological verisimilitude. A great and powerful king holds a competition of rhetoric among his daughters as to which one of them will best express her love for him, and makes the division of his kingdom depend on its outcome. He does not see or understand anything: Regan’s and Goneril’s hypocrisy is all too evident. Regarded as a person, a character, Lear is ridiculous, naive and stupid. When he goes mad, he can only arouse compassion, never pity and terror.

Gloucester, too, is naive and ridiculous. In the early scenes he seems a stock character from a comedy of manners. Robert Speaight compares him to a gentleman of somewhat old-fashioned views who strolls on a Sunday along St James’s Street complete with bowler hat and umbrella.[ii][2] 1 Nothing about him hints at the tragic old man whose eyes will be gouged out. It is true that Polonius in Hamlet is also a comic figure, who later is stabbed to death. But his death is grotesque, too, while Lear and Gloucester are to go through immense suffering.

Producers have found it virtually impossible to cope with the plot of King Lear. When realistically treated, Lear and Gloster were too ridiculous to appear tragic heroes. If the exposition was treated as a fairy tale or legend, the cruelty of Shakespeare’s world, too, became unreal. Yet the cruelty of Lear was to the Elizabethans a contemporary reality, and has remained real since. But it is a philosophical cruelty. Neither the romantic, nor the naturalistic theatre was able to show that sort of cruelty; only the new theatre can. In this new theatre there are no characters, and the tragic element has been superseded by the grotesque. The grotesque is more cruel than tragedy.

The exposition of King Lear is as absurd, and as necessary, as in Durrenmatt’s Visit is the arrival at Giillen of multi-millionaires Claire Zachanassian and her entourage, including a new husband, a couple of eunuchs, a large coffin, and a panther in a cage. The exposition of King Lear shows a world that is to be destroyed.

Since the end of the eighteenth century no other dramatist has had a greater impact on European drama than Shakespeare. But theatres in which Shakespeare’s plays have been produced, were in turn influenced by contemporary plays. Shakespeare has been a living influence in so far as contemporary plays, through which his dramas were interpreted, were a living force themselves. When Shakespeare is dull and dead on the stage, it means that not only the theatre but also plays written in that particular period are dead. This is one of the reasons why Shakespeare’s universality has never dated.

The book devoted to ‘Shakespeare and the new drama’ has not yet been written. Perhaps it is too early for such a book to appear. But it is odd how often the word ‘Shakespearian’ is uttered when one speaks about Brecht, Durrenmatt, or Beckett. These three names stand, of course, for three different kinds of theatrical vision, and the word ‘Shakespearian’ means something different in relation to each of them. It may be invoked to compare with Durrenmatt’s full-bloodedness, sharpness, lack of cohesion, and stylistic confusion; with Brecht’s epic quality; or with Beckett’s new Theatrum mundi. But everyone of these three kinds of drama and theatre has more similarities to Shakespeare and medieval morality plays than to nineteenth-century drama, whether romantic or naturalistic. Only in this sense can the new theatre be called anti-theatre.

A striking feature of the new theatre is its grotesque quality. Despite appearances to the contrary, this new grotesque has not replaced the old drama and comedy of manners. It deals with problems, conflicts and themes of tragedy, such as: human fate, the meaning of existence, freedom and inevitability, the discrepancy between the absolute and the fragile human order. Grotesque means tragedy rewritten in different terms. Maurice Regnault’s statement: ‘the absence of tragedy in a tragic world gives birth to comedy’ is only seemingly paradoxical. The grotesque exists in a tragic world. Both the tragic and the grotesque visions of the world are composed as it were of same elements. In a tragic and grotesque world, situations are imposed, compulsory and inescapable. Freedom of choice and decision are part of this compulsory situation, in which both the tragic hero and the grotesque actor must always lose their struggle against the absolute. The downfall of the tragic hero is a confirmation and recognition of the absolute; whereas the downfall of the grotesque actor means mockery of the absolute and its desecration. The absolute is transformed into a blind mechanism, a kind of automatons. Mockery is directed not only at the tormentor, but also at the victim, who believed in the tormentor’s justice, raising him to the level of the absolute. The victim has consecrated his tormentor by recognizing himself as victim.

In the final instance tragedy is an appraisal of human fate, a measure of the absolute. The grotesque is a criticism of the absolute in the name of frail human experience. That is why tragedy brings catharsis, while grotesque offers no consolation whatsoever. ‘Tragedy,’ wrote Gorgias of Le6ntium, ‘is a swindle in which the swindler is more just than the swindled, and the swindled wiser than the swindler.’ One may travesty this aphorism by saying that grotesque is a swindle in which the swindled is more just than the swindler, and the swindler wiser than the swindled. Claire Zachanassian in Durrenmatt’s Visit is wiser than Ill, but III is more just than she is. Ill’s death, like Polonius’s death in Hamlet, is grotesque. Neither Ill, nor the inhabitants of Gullen, are tragic heroes. The old lady, with her artificial breasts, teeth and limbs, is not a goddess, she hardly even exists, she might almost have been invented. III and the people of Gullen find themselves in a situation in which there is no room for tragedy, but only for grotesque. ‘Comedy’ – writes Ionesco in his Experience du theatre – ‘is a feeling of absurdity, and seems more hopeless than tragedy; comedy allows no way out of a given situation.’

The tragic and the grotesque worlds are closed, and there is no escape from them. In the tragic world this compulsory situation has been imposed in turn by the Gods, Fate, the Christian God, Nature, and History that has been endowed with reason and inevitability.

On the other side, opposed to this arrangement, there was always man. If Nature was the absolute, man was unnatural. If man was natural, the absolute was represented by Grace, without which there was no salvation. In the world of the grotesque, downfall cannot be justified by, or blamed on, the absolute. The absolute is not endowed with any ultimate reasons; it is stronger, and that is all. The absolute is absurd. Maybe that is why the grotesque often makes use of the concept of a mechanism which has been put in motion and cannot be stopped. Various kinds of impersonal and hostile mechanisms have taken the place of God, Nature and History, found in the old tragedy. The notion of an absurd mechanism is probably the last metaphysical concept remaining in modern grotesque. But this absurd mechanism is not transcendental any more in relation to man, or at any rate to mankind. It is a trap set by man himself into which he has fallen.

The scene of tragedy has mostly been a natural landscape. Raging nature witnessed man’s downfall, or.-c- as in King Lear played an active part in the action. Modern grotesque usually takes place in the midst of civilization. Nature has evaporated from it almost completely. Man is confined to a room and surrounded by inanimate objects. But objects have now been raised to the status of symbols of human fate, or situation, and perform a similar function to that played in Shakespeare by forest, storm, or eclipse of the sun. Even Sartre’s hell is just a vast hotel consisting of rooms and corridors, beyond which there are more rooms and more corridors. This hell ‘behind closed doors’ does not need any metaphysical aids.

Ionesco’s hell is arranged on similar lines. A new tenant moves into an empty flat. Furniture is brought in. There is more and more furniture. Furniture surrounds the tenant on all sides. He is surrounded already by four wardrobes but more are brought in. He has been closed in by furniture. He can no longer be seen. He has been brought down to the level of inanimate objects, and has become an object himself.

In Beckett’s Endgame there is a room with a wheel-chair and two dustbins. A picture hangs face to the wall. There is also a staircase, a telescope and a whistle. All that remains of nature is sand in the dustbins, a flea, and the part of man that belongs to nature: his body.

Hamm. Nature has forgotten us.

Clov. There’s no more nature.

Hamm. No more nature! You exaggerate.

Clov. In the vicinity.

Hamm. But we breathe, , we change! We lose our hair, our teeth! Our bloom! Our ideals!

Clov. Then she hasn’t forgotten us. (p. 16)[iii][4]

It can easily be shown how, in the new theatre, tragic situations become grotesque. Such a classic situation of tragedy is the necessity of making a choice between opposing values. Antigone is doomed to choose between human and divine order; between Creon’s demands, and those of the absolute. The tragedy lies in the very principle of choice by which one of the values must be annihilated. The cruelty of the absolute lies in demanding such a choice and in imposing a situation which excludes the possibility of a compromise, and where one of the alternatives is death. The absolute is greedy and demands everything; the hero’s death is its confirmation.

The tragic situation becomes grotesque when both alternatives of the choice imposed are absurd, irrelevant or compromising. The hero has to play, even if there is no game. Every move is bad, but he cannot throw down his cards. To throw down the cards would also be a bad move.”

More to come…


Our next reading:  King Lear, Act Two

My next post:  Tuesday evening/Wednesday morning


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2 Responses to “Who is it that can tell me who I am?” “Lear’s shadow.”

  1. Lesley says:

    Now I keep coming back to the line of the Fool’s towards the end of Act 1, Scene 4 (I’m reading Harold Bloom’s edition–Shakespeare’s King Lear[Riverhead Books, NY; 2005] not sure which version of Lear it is! I think it might be Quarto)

    “…and yet I would not be thee, nuncle, thou hast pared thy wit o’ both sides and left nothing i’ the middle.”

    This is after the business about an egg and two crowns. In the BBC production this is staged so that the fool is between the balding Lear and the bald Kent (now just “a man”) so that the round egg halves mirror the two bald men with the fool in the middle. This gives added punch to “left nothing in the middle”–which mirrors the current staging and also the larger division of the kingdom/daughter with “the heart”–dear Cordelia pared out. (Could that also be “paired ourt”?)

    I’m enjoying the staging in the BBC series, along with the subtitle feature which allows the viewer to follow the text along with the staging and performance.

    This play’s structure conjures up the image of a honeycomb. Such sweetness from such a god-awful plot! This is one of the great reading joys of life! Thank you Dennis.

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