Act Three, Part One
By Dennis Abrams
Act Three: Lear appears with the Fool, raging against the storm and his daughters’ cruelty. Kent arrives and tries to persuade them to shelter in a nearby hovel, where the Fool finds Edgar, disguised and feigning madness. Lear, now genuinely mad, takes pity on him. Gloucester – though forbidden to do so – seeks out Lear and offers to house him. Meanwhile, Edmund has informed Cornwall (Regan’s husband) of his father’s contact with France. Gloucester is captured and his eyes are gouged out, but a servant who defends him fatally wounds Cornwall.
It doesn’t get much better than this. Lear, declaring his intention to “abjure all roofs,” and confront “the enmity o’ th’ air” rather than continue to stay with his heartless children, rages at the cosmic forces in one of the play’s, if not all of literature’s most memorable images. “Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks!” he cries,
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
Till you have drenched our steeples, drowned the cocks!
You sulph’rous and thought-executing fires,
Vaunt-couriers of oak-cleaving thunderbolts,
Singe my white head; and thou all-shaking thunder,
Strike flat the thick rotundity o’th’ world,
Crack nature’s moulds, all germens spill at once
That makes ungrateful man.
Lear turns the storm raging around him into a symbol of his own suffering, but though addressing these elemental forces he is not in control of them, and the destruction they cause will in the end seem directed against him alone.
The storm scene is Shakespeare’s invention, as is Lear’s companion on the heath, his faithful albeit in some ways equally mad Fool. Lear’s Fool (as we’ve seen, he has no other name) is, like his equivalents in Twelfth Night and All’s Well, used as commentator on the play’s events, “licensed” or granted leave, by his position – as many Fools were in the real-life households of real-life Nobles – to ridicule those in authority and say things that others could (or would) not. In King Lear, the humor is bleak almost beyond belief, and the wisecracks of the Fool, bizarre as they often seem, never stray far from the subject of his own master’s folly – “Can’st tell how an oyster makes his shell?” the Fool asked, mock-innocently, back in Act One:
Fool: Not I either, but I can tell why a snail has a house.
Fool: Why, to put ‘s head in, not to give it away to his daughters and leave his horns without a case.
“If thou were my fool, nuncle,” the Fool continues, “I’d have thee beaten for being old before thy time…Thou shouldst not have been old till thou hadst been wise.” His bitter punchline seems to echo Regan’s curt conclusion early on that for all her father’s advancing years, “he hath ever but slenderly know himself,” but the Fool’s counsel is ignored by the King, who seems perpetually unable to hear those who have the most concern for his welfare.
Lear’s progress to self-knowledge is halting, and before he gains any further insight he will become, starting in Act Three, through his madness, an utterly different person. His distress – like ours, witnessing it – is intense. But he is far from the only character to suffer during the course of the play; in King Lear, terrible pain touches nearly everyone. Lear’s experience is shadowed by that of one of his courtiers, the Duke of Gloucester, who falls prey to a plot by his illegitimate son Edmund to disinherit his brother Edgar, who as Gloucester’s lawful offspring stands to inherit his father’s land. The parallels with Lear and his children are obvious, and when the Machiavellian Edmund managed to convince Gloucester that it is Edgar who has turned against him, Gloucester frets that the world itself is falling apart. Reflecting on the King’s own behavior, Gloucester anxiously exclaimed, “These late eclipses in the sun and moon portend no good to us:”
Love cools, friendship falls off, brothers divide; in cities, mutinees; in countries, discord; in palaces, treason; and the bond cracked ‘twixt son and father. This villain of mine comes under the prediction: there’s son against father. The King falls from bias of nature: there’s father against child. We have seen the best of our time.
Gloucester sees, correctly I think, that if families are torn apart, the state itself will follow, and he notes that what he delicately (and politically savvy) calls the King’s “bias of nature” (his temperament, though we might think of his developing insanity) has the capacity to destroy everything in his path. But sadly, at the same time, Gloucester fails to understand (or to see) how his own “bias” towards Edgar has been overcome by Edmund, who, resembling Iago and Richard III (although perhaps even more cold-blooded), who revels in his ability to convince others of his own goodness while plotting to ensnare them all. And in this play Gloucester will be made to suffer terribly for his error: when Edmund informs on his father, revealing that he has been in contact with the forces of Cordelia and the King of France, plotting to invade Britain and recapture it, Gloucester is captured by Goneril, Regan and Cornwall and as punishment his eyes are gouged out. He pays for his metaphorical blindness in the bloodiest and most grotesquely literal of ways. In this his plight is not unlike that of his son Edgar, who is forced to run and decides that his only chance for survival is to disguise himself as an insane beggar, a refugee from the “Bedlam” madhouse. The irony of his disguise becomes starkly obvious when the pretend madman meets Lear, the real one, on the stormy heath. King Lear turns the most lurid of nightmares into reality.
“A similar effect [dramatic effect achieved by juxtaposition] develops in the structure of act 3, Lear’s remarkable confrontation with nature and with human nature. At the end of act 2 we heard dire warnings of the storm that is about to come. After Lear’s proud and pitiful boast, ‘No, I’ll not weep,’ and the immediately ensuing ‘Storm and tempest,’ the act closes with Cornwall’s ironically prudent advice to Gloucester, who has expressed his desire to go out to succor the distraught King, ‘Shut up your doors, my lord,’ Cornwall says, ‘Tis a wild night./My Regan counsels well. Come out o’th’ storm.’ One again, with artful juxtaposition, the next exchange we hear is in a way the answer to this – an answer, this time, by contrast rather than similitude. ‘Who’s there besides foul weather?’ asks the disguised Kent, and a gentleman replies, ‘One minded like the weather,/Most unquietly’ (3.1.1-3). Weather has become something that cannot be shut out. We onlookers cannot ‘come out of the storm,’ for it is all around us, and within us, as it is all around Lear and within him. ‘This tempest in my mind,’ he will call it. The human condition in the play is now the equivalent of ‘foul weather,’ and is, like the loyal gentleman, ‘minded like the weather,/Most unquietly.’
This is a kind of dramatic point it is easy to miss when a play is divided into discrete acts for performance. In a modern production an interval or intermission might separate Kent’s remarks in act 3, scene I, from Cornwall’s in act 2, scene 2. But in Shakespeare’s time the plays would have been performed straight through, without a break. In the case of King Lear, the inexorability of deprivation and suffering increases the dramatic tension to a point where we in the audience – like Edgar, like Kent – can hardly bear what we see before our eyes. Act 3 (in the Folio) begins in the open air with a scene of generosity and charity that stands in brutal opposition to the isolated scenes that are shortly to come. Kent and the gentleman meet and speak of the King’s exposure to the elements – of how he ‘tears his white hair,/While the impetuous blasts, with eyeless rage,/Catch in their fury and make nothing of’ (Quarto, 8.6-8. ‘[E]yeless rage’; ‘nothing,.’ And we hear of how he ‘[s]trives in his little world of man to outstorm/The to-and-fro conflicting wind and rain’ (Quarto 8.9-10). Lear is now a microcosm, a ‘little world of man.’ What confronts us, the spectators in the theater, is the inner agony of a man’s soul played out as if it were some immense and tragic metaphor writ large upon the landscape, so that we can see it and share it.
At this point the King who was the emblem of all earthly comforts is exposed to the elements. The place in which he finds himself is an articulated metaphor, the counterpart of his state of mind, on the one hand, and of his fallen status in polity and society, on the other. Since the early eighteenth century editors have situated these scenes on a heath, an open space of land. (As the critic Henry Turner notes, neither the Folio nor the Quarto specifies a ‘heath,’ although that designation, aligning the scene with a windswept wasteland familiar in British topography, and possibly with the also wild and eerie heath in Macbeth, has by now become conventional.) As if to underscore the inner nature of the storm, Lear himself disclaims any real physical discomfort: ‘I am cold myself,’ he admits, but
This tempest in my mind
Doth from my senses take all feeling else
Save what beats there…
In such a night
To shut me out? Pour on, I will endure,
In such a night as this!..
The play picks up a familiar Shakespearean topos, the journey from civilization to a place of wilderness and apparent unreason – a pattern often used in the comedies and also, as m any critics have noted, in the genre of pastoral. Lear’s heath is no Forest of Arden. It is a place of transformation and change, but the change it produces is a stripping away, not an augmentation of magical powers, love, agency, or wit. The heath is a reversal of the condition of ‘civilization,’ a version of Hobbesian nature, the nature of a life that is ‘nasty, brutish and short’ – a place in which the only dynamics that count are those of will and power. This is Lear’s ‘little world of man,’ not only a philosophical microcosm but also a psychological landscape.
It is important to bear in mind, though, that at the beginning of act 3 Lear himself does not see this larger and more ‘transcendent’ picture. He is still the King – stripped though he may be of daughters, knights, land, and power. As he enters his own ‘landscape of the mind,’ the one thought in his mind is that he can control it. He will try to invoke and direct Nature (‘Hear, nature…’). Nature, with a small or a large N, is for him not yet a metaphor of his condition, but rather an instrument of his wrath, something he can use:
Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! Rage, blow,
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
Till you have drenched our steeples, drowned the cocks!
You sulph’rous and thought-executing fires,
Vaunt-couriers of oak-cleaving thunderbolts,
Singe my white head; and thou all-shaking thunder,
Strike flat the thick rotundity o’th’ world,
Crack nature’s moulds, all germens spill at once
That makes ungrateful man.
Lear is here demanding – commanding – the destruction of the world. ‘Germens’ are seeds (compare ‘germination’); to spill the germens that make up the interior of the earth, to crack the molds, is to destroy life and all its possibilities. ‘Rumble thy bellyful; spit, fire; spout, rain.’ Lear continues.
Here I stand your slave,
A poor, infirm, weak and despised old man,
But yet I call you servile ministers,
That will with you two pernicious daughters join
…’gainst a head
So old and white as this. O, ho, ‘tis foul!
We may notice how Lear seems to age, onstage, in his own self-description. The rain and wind are false flatters, who have deserted and weakened him to flock to the side of Goneril and Regan. And yet he feels himself still the King, bereft of power that should rightly still be his. Lear is now victim rather than victor; acted upon, not actor or director; no longer the center of the court, the kingdom, or the world. In a way this is the consummate Shakespearean metaphor, an individual confronting his own radical limitations – or, to use Lear’s word, his own ‘necessities.’ That resonant word ‘need’ has echoed throughout the play (‘What need you five and twenty?’; ‘What need on?’; ‘O , reason not the need!’; ‘But for your true need –/You heavens give me that patience, patience I need’). Now,. in extremis, he finds necessity suddenly not in a roster of one hundred knights, nor in power or rich clothing, but in a bale of straw:
Where is this straw, my fellow?
The art of our necessities is strange,
And can make vile things precious…
Among the ‘vile things’ he will come to value and to cherish are people as well as straw.
The storm scene is a learning experience for Lear and for his audiences, as it was for his time. The optimism of the sixteenth-century humanists, as expressed in Pico della Mirandola’s Oration on the Dignity of Man, placing man so confidently just below the angels, is frayed or lost here, at the beginning of a new, perhaps more skeptical, century. Human beings are vile things that necessity – need, not luxury – makes precious. The ‘heath’ and the storm, then, are effectively understood – and performed – as projections of Lear’s mental situation upon a larger screen, at once nature and theater.
But King Lear is not completely alone in the storm, although he speaks, at first, with no apparent concern for anyone but himself: ‘I am a man/More sinned against than sinning’ (3.2.58-59). With him is his Fool. It is for the Fool, and not for himself, that Lear seeks the comforting haven of necessary straw. And who, or what, is Lear’s Fool? Who is this most evocative of all Shakespearean clowns and motleys? Above all, perhaps, the Fool, both in his professional position as ‘allowed fool’ in the court and in his specific role in Shakespeare’s play, is an aspect of Lear himself. Repeatedly in earlier acts the Fool has artfully and poignantly demonstrated that the King is a fool, just as Feste, his comic prototype in Twelfth Night, proved the Countess to be a fool. Thus the Fool will say to the King:
That lord that counseled thee
To give away thy land,
Come, place him here by me;
Do thou for him stand.
The sweet and bitter fool
Will presently appear,
The one in motley here,
The other found out there.
Lear: Doest thou call me fool, boy?
Fool: All thy other titles thou hast given away. That thou wast born with.
Kent: This is not altogether fool, my lord.
The Fool is a mirror, as the wasteland and the storm are mirrors, reflecting back at Lear his own concealed image. He is in this sense all too truly ‘Lear’s shadow,’ at once a reflected image, a delusive semblance or vain object of pursuit, a symbol, prefiguration, foreshadowing, or type; an attenuated remnant, a form from which the substance has departed; a spectral form, a phantom; a parasite or today; a companion whom a guest brings without invitation; even, in the most modern, and anachronistic connotation, a spy or detective who follows a person in order to keep watch on his movements (OED). The professional duty of the ‘licensed fool’ in the period was to say things that were otherwise forbidden, to reveal painful, humbling, and cosmic truths – in short, to do that which a later age would call speaking truth to power. The role of the fool was to reflect and epitomize the folly of the world around him, and in essence to draw it off, or neutralize it. thus the Fool gives Kent – disguised as ‘Caius’ – advice about following only a master whose fortunes are on the rise, and this exchange follows:
Kent: Where learned you this, Fool?
Fool: Not i’th’ stocks, fool.
Which is the fool, which the sensible man? Or, as Lear will put it, alluding to a familiar game for children, ‘change places, and handy-dandy, which is the justice, which is the thief?’ (4.5.144-145). Handy-dandy: Guess which hand holds the prize. The fool speaks often in h andy-dandy, in inversions, reversals, and conundrums. He exemplifies, in part, the aspect of King Lear that has turns its back on his own kingly nature, the Lear who cut his crown in half and gave its meat away.
We have noticed that the Fool appears in the play only at the point when Lear has begun to act like a fool. The fool of the play’s opening scenes is the Mad Lear before he is mad. As one of the King’s knights tells us, speaking of the banishment of Cordelia from the court, ‘Since my young lady’s going into France, sir, the fool hath much pined away.’ A disputed stage tradition holds that the parts of the Fool and Cordelia were played by the same boy actor. She departs and he appears; when he leaves (‘And I’ll go to bed at noon’ [3.6.39]), she shortly reappears by Lear’s side. Lear’s final, agonized observation, ‘And my poor fool is hanged,’ although it refers to Cordelia, may, according to this view, have evoked as well associations with the other fool so dear to the King. Some critics have found this theory more like fictive poetic justice than like stage-historical fact, suggesting that instead of a boy player the celebrated comic actor Robert Armin would have played the Fool’s part. But the Fool/Cordelia argument, whatever its historical merits or demerits, points to a linguistic commodity (both are Lear’s fools) and to a common social role of comfort and rebuke.
The Fool of this play is also related to the fool of biblical tradition as described by Saint Paul in a passage from 1 Corinthians that can as well be applied to the figure of Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream: ‘But God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and god hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty;/And base things of the world, and things which are despised, hath God chosen, yea, and things which are not, to bring to nought things that are’ (1 Corinthians 1:27-28). Foolish things, weak things, base things, things which are despised, things which are not. Lear’s own folly; his weakness, and Gloucester’s; Edmund’s baseness and the baseness of Goneril and Regan; things which are despised (Lear and ‘Poor Tom’); things which are not (madness and nothing; ‘An O without a figure’; ‘This is not Lear’) bring to nought things that are. The Fool is this kind of holy fool, and he exemplifies the biblical paradox that underlies so much of the play. For Lear, throughout the earlier acts obsessed with rank, obsessed with order and precedence, infuriated because his ‘man’ the disguised Kent, was humiliated in the stocks, though not yet concluding that stocking is an indignity to any man – this same Lear will say to his Fool (in the Folio text of the play), ‘In, boy; go first.’ The Fool is to precede the King into the hovel, into the shelter, away from the storm. The passage that lies behind this is the celebrated line from the Gospel according to Saint Matthew: ‘many [that are] first shall be last; and the last [shall be] first’ (Matthew 19:30). Again the verse comes alive in dramatic action: the first shall be last (Lear, the King, Gloucester, the Duke, the briefly triumphant evil daughters and Edmund); the last shall be first (Cordelia, ‘our last and least’; Edgar; the Fool).
But if Lear’s Fool is this kind of biblical fool, he is also the biblical fool of the Psalms, and especially of Psalm 14: ‘The fool hath said in his heart, [There is] no God. They are corrupt, they have done abominable works, [there is] none that doeth good.’ In a play that has so much to say about sex and bastardy and illicit lust, the Fool is the principal taunting voice of corrupt sexuality: ‘Marry, here’s grace and a codpiece – that’s a wise man and a fool’ (3.2.39-40). A fool’s costume often included an exaggerated codpiece, as if to emphasize that a man could be governed either by his mind and judgment or by his body and its desires. It is Lear’s Fool who evokes the image of the ‘cockney’ and the live eels she put in her pie; suppressing these unruly phallic symbols, she ‘knapped’ em o’th’ coxcombs with a stick, and cried ‘Down, wantons, down!’’ Edgar as “Poor Tom” will speak of doing the deed of darkness, of Pillicock on Pillicock Hill; Gloucester and Lear will return, over and over again, to images of sex and lechery. But is the Fool who above all gives wry voice to this aspect of the human animal, the ‘natural man.’
In the iconography of the medieval and early modern periods the Fool was often to be found in company with Death, as in Hans Holbein’s ‘The Idiot Fool’ in his Dance of Death series. Sometimes the fool is Death in disguise, a skull wearing the traditional cap and bells that were part of the costume of the court jester; at other times he mocks Death or is heedless of him. In Richard II death is explicitly an ‘antic,’ or fool, in King Richard’s despairing account: ‘For within the hollow crown/That rounds the mortal temples of a king/Keeps Death his court; and there the antic sits,/Scoffing his state and grinning at his pomp.’ (Richard III 3.2.156-159). Bearing in mind this very consistent association, we can see Lear’s Fool as the death he carries with him, an acknowledged, and sometimes unwitting, memento mori for a king.
And yet at the same time the Fool, precisely because he is, in extremis, the representative of the body and of self-preservation, becomes the voice of common sense and practical wisdom. His response to the storm, to the tempest that Lear will locate in his own mind, is to urge the King to avoid it, to come out of the storm – which is to say, to avoid self-confrontation; not to look inside himself, at his failures and his pretensions and his tragic hubris. To avoid having the tragic experience at all. ‘Good nuncle, in, ask thy daughters blessing. Here’s a night pities neither wise men nor fools’ (3.2.11-12). But Lear is a wiser fool than this, and he chooses to brave the elements, the neutral, not unkind, rain and thunder, rather than to turn back, a craven and defeated man, to the safety of the house. This is, after all, what makes him a tragic figure and a hero – that he confronts and chooses the tragic experience. [MY NOTE: Really? I’m not really sure about that…] He asks the question ‘Who is it that can tell me who I am?’ and he answers it with Kent’s answer, ‘A man, sir.’
In short, the Fool is a figure of infinite value in the court world, where he reminds Lear by wit and gesture, indeed by his very existence, of Lear’s own potential for folly. But when the play moves from a chronicle of royal folly and paternal misjudgment to a parable of the human condition, the Fool’s own radical limitation is shown. And when Lear is finally convinced that he himself is a fool, the character called Fool disappears from the play, uttering his final, riddling words (found only in the Folio text): ‘And I’ll go to bed at noon. ‘I’ll go to bed at noon’ was a proverbial phrase, meaning ‘I’ll play the fool, too.’ And Jack-go-to-bed-at-noon was the folk name for the flower purple goat’s-beard, or salsify, which closes at midday. The Fool will leave in the middle of the play (‘at noon’). He is no longer needed. He has done his job of mirroring the folly that is in every man, and particularly in Lear. There is no more he can do. His place is taken for the rest of the play by Cordelia, who represents not contempt for mankind’s limitations but hope for redemption: allegorically, if the Fool is a codpiece, Cordelia – as we have noted from her name – is the heart. Whether or not the same actor played both parts, the larger ‘part’ played by this most intimate companion and closest confidant can be seen to be of a piece. When Lear cries out at the death of Cordelia ‘And my poor fool is hanged,’ the world ‘fool’ takes on its conventional meaning as ‘child,’ but the resonance of that other ‘poor fool’ (as well as of “Poor Tom’) remains.
The Fool, then, is part of Lear’s learning process on the heath, in the storm, and I think it is useful to look at the entirety of the third act as a tightly knit sequence that functions as a learning process at the same that it exhibits onstage Lear’s interior world of self-knowledge, what he called his ‘little world of man.’ The Fool is with him from the first, and from the first the Fool has realized that Lear has been a fool: in dividing his kingdom, in rejecting his beloved daughter Cordelia; even in failing to heed that instinct that had made him ‘more affect’ – that is, prefer – the Duke of Albany to the Duke of Cornwall.
But the King and the Fool are not alone for long. The Fool urges Lear to go in, and provokes him with another song, another riddle, so that Lear, clinging to the last bits of his sanity, is moved to speak out against the forces that assail him:
No, I will be the pattern of all patience.
I will say nothing.
As if drawn forth from the recesses of his inner consciousness, there now appears onstage, in this dreamlike, ever nightmarish scene, the play’s pattern of all patience, Kent, whose anger was real but whose loyalty and patience were greater; who sought to serve authority and therefore returned in disguise to serve his king, even going with good grace to the stocks in that service. The sudden appearance of Kent/Caius upon the heath sets the expectation that underlies everything that is to take place in this great third act, everything that makes up its dramatic pattern, because that pattern is the logic of psychological generation, things called up in the mind. We could imagine the storm scenes as one vast, articulated soliloquy in which no one actually appears but King Lear – and aspects of his own persona given life by his words. This would be a cinematic way of performing these scenes, or a ghostly one, true to the spirit of the events and their placement.
First his mind summons the Fool, and then the ever-patient Kent. Now, moved by the storm’s fierceness, Lear’s mind begins to ruminate on those sufferers he had never before imagined, sufferers who are always out in storms like these. Strikingly, he speaks not of them but to them, addressing them directly in their absence, in a speech that is part apostrophe and part invocation:
Poor naked wretches, wheresoe’er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitless storm,
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your looped and windowed raggedness, defend you
From seasons such as these? O, I have ta’en
Too little care of this. Take physic, pomp,
Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,
That thou mayst shake the superflux to them
And show the heavens more just.
It is clear from the last line that Lear still believes he can control the elements, the world outside him, as well as the world inside him. It will take his immersion in madness to convince him that he can do neither, and that the heavens may not be just. But this invocation to the poor naked wretches with their ‘looped and windowed raggedness’ (an unsurpassable description of tattered clothing and bony limbs) conjures its own living visual metaphor, a human equivalent of the barren wasteland itself. The naked Edgar, dressed in rage, pricked with nails and sticks, is summoned symbolically by Lear’s words, and now appears from within the hovel where he has been hiding. Lear, looking at this stripped, barren piece of humanity, has only one question, only one thought: ‘Didst thou give all to thy two daughters/And art thou come to this?…Couldst thou save nothing? Wouldst thou give e’m all?’ (3.4.47-59, 60). ‘He hath no daughters, sir,’ Kent intercedes gently, rationality correcting madness. But Lear knows better. He has recognized in “Poor Tom” a living emblem of his own condition. This could happen only in the inner world of the storm. It is madness, but madness with method in it.
Moments before, Lear had spoken of shaking the ‘superflux’ to wretches such as these. I tis a word the play’s audience has heard before, in his ‘reason not the need’ speech (‘Our basest beggars/Are in the poorest thing superfluous’), and we will hear it again in the heartfelt cry of the blinded Gloucester, questing for justice: “Heavens deal so still./Let the superfluous and lust-dieted man…feel your power quickly./So distribution should undo excess,/And each man have enough’ (4.1.60-65). But the King’s concern with superflux and caretaking (‘O, I have ta’en/Too little care of this’) soon shifts to an identification with the ‘thing’ that is ‘Poor Tom.’ We have three terms now, not two: ‘everything,’ ‘nothing,’ and ‘the thing itself.’ Lear tells the disguised Edgar,
[T]hou art the thing itself. Unaccomodated man is no more but such a poor, bare, forked animal as thou art. Off, off, you lendings! Come, unbutton here.
In the midst of the storm Lear begins to tear off his clothes, to ‘unbutton,’ as he will finally be able to do in the play’s last scene – there, significantly, with a prayer, not a command (‘Pray you, undo this button’). But in penetrating to the identity of ‘the thing itself,’ Lear – like Hamlet regarding the skull of Yorick – faces the heart of his own mystery. This ‘thing’ is humanity – the king as well as the beggar, a poor, bare, forked animal. The language of stripping we have encountered from the play’s first moments here reaches its culmination and will carry us through until that time, in a very different mood, when the King will awaken from sleep, in fresh garments, in the fourth act of the play. Lear’s encounter with “Poor Tom” is a central recognition scene, one different from but not really secondary to that stunning recognition scene between Lear and Cordelia in act 4. Here one man looks at another and sees himself. Lear looks at ‘Poor Tom’ and sees Lear. At this point in the play, are they two distinct characters? Are they two different people? It is the power, the aesthetic of theatrical representation, of the play itself – like ‘the thing itself’ – that renders this matter of identity and fictive representation, if not an unaskable, at least an unanswerable question. Nowhere in literature is allegory more effectively naturalized. (Lear’s recognition of ‘Poor Tom” as ‘the thing itself,’ a ‘thing’ that is also an estranged version of himself, points forward to Prospero in The Tempest, who will say of his rebellious servant, the enslaved monster Caliban, ‘This thing of darkness I/Acknowledge mine.’)
So Lear evokes first Kent, and with him, the virtue of patience; and then Edgar, and the recognition of barren, stripped humanity. The Fool, whose only comment on the latest manifestation is ‘’Tis a naughty night to swim in,’ now begins to wish for creature comforts, for warmth and rest, like the practical fool he has become. ‘Now a little fire in a wild field were like an old lecher’s heart – a small spark, all the rest on’s body cold’ (3.4.99-101). From this fanciful simile of inappropriate sexual desire comes the next spectral manifestation, for immediately the Fool calls out, ‘Look, here comes a walking fire.’ This animate will o’-the-wisp is the Duke of Gloucester, coming with a torch to seek his king and guest. Gloucester has already been established in the play as the ‘old lecher,’ the sporting begetter of the bastard Edmund. Now he has come, bearing a little fire in the darkness, to offer fealty and hospitality if he can.
Gloucester and Edgar (the latter still, of course, disguised as ‘Poor Tom’) both see mirrors of their own condition in Lear, even as he finds mirrors in them. Gloucester says, ‘Our flesh and blood, my lord, is grown so vile/That it doth hate what gets it’ (3.4.129-130). For his part, Edgar, masking his language as well as his person from his father by uttering incomprehensible shrieks of madness, spells, riddles, and the names of fiends, finds a cognate lesson in Lear. ‘He childed as I fathered,’ he remarks, aside, to the audience (Quarto 13.99). This is one of those moments in King Lear that open up toward the sublime, as the speaker’s generalizations on human nature begin to approach the condition of aphorism. It is for perceptions like these, and not for its commentary on seventeenth-century monarchy or the plight of early modern mendicants, that the play is regarded as one of Shakespeare’s most magnificent achievements.
Edgar now begins to assume a necessary mediating role in the play, a role he will retain as the tragedy deepens, as events become even more unbearable, even more unspeakable. Edgar as onlooker, as onstage audience and as our confidant, offers a point of perspective from which the audience in the theater can watch and share the appalling proceedings before us. For with the arrival of Gloucester, the storm’s transformation is almost over, and Lear is mad.
Over and over again we heard him cry out against the onset of madness: ‘O, let me not be mad, not mad, sweat heaven!’ (1.5.41); ‘Keep me in temper, I would not be mad’ (42); ‘I prithee daughter, do not make me mad’ (2.2.383); ‘O Fool, I shall go mad!’ (451). In the very first scene of the play we heard Kent say, ‘Be Kent unmannerly/When Lear is made,’ and now Gloucester says to the disguised Kent, ‘thou sayst the King grows mad; I’ll tell thee, friend,/I am almost made myself’ (3.4.148-149). So is Edgar. So are we. In fact, Lear’s madness now becomes itself an emblem, a touchstone, for the madness that afflicts so many others in the play. And this madness is a condition we have seen before in Shakespeare. Hamlet feigned madness (or was it feigned?). And what of Othello? And Ophelia? And Lady Macbeth? What is this disease of madness, and what is its function in drama?
Most evidently, and perhaps most importantly, madness permits the maddened victim to speak the truth, like a licensed fool, and be disbelieved. A madman or madwoman is a sublime version of a fool – in the confines of theater. He or she can echo the prevailing madness of the world, speaking through the onstage audience to an audience in the theater, asserting, proclaiming, or establishing contestatory and unwelcome ‘truths’ about the human condition…”
Obviously a lot to think about here. And while I agree with her (or see her point) in a lot of things, I’m not sure that I’m willing to go so far as to say that the storm is a “projection” of Lear’s psyche rather than a reflection, or that he “calls forth Kent”…thoughts?
I’d like to conclude today’s post with this observation from Kenneth Tynan, from his 1977 profile of actor Ralph Richardson, discussing whether Richardson had the “vocal firepower for the ‘Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks’ aria on the storm-blasted heath’:
“…the point, nearly always forgotten, about this speech is that Lear is not attacking the storm or trying to shout it down. Its fury confirms his misanthropy: he is on its side. Played thus (as I have yet to see it played), the speech would be well within Sir Ralph’s compass.”
I’ll have much more on Act Three in at least my next two posts: Thursday evening/Friday morning, and Sunday evening/Monday morning. Too much for you all?