“See what breeds about her heart./Is there any cause in nature that makes these hard hearts?”

King Lear

Act Three, Part Two

By Dennis Abrams


From Tony Tanner:

lear“But of course foldings and pleatings and wrappings directly evoke clothing, and not for nothing are Goneril and Regan ‘gourgeously’ arrayed. There is much changing of clothes in the play. Edgar abandons his court clothes for a beggar’s rags, then finally appears as a knight in armour.  Cordelia dislikes Kent’s necessary disguises. Lear himself sheds his crown, then his clothes, marks his uttermost descent into sheer nature by dressing in weeds, and is finally ‘arrayed’ in ‘fresh garments’ at Cordelia’s command. There is a feeling that while clothes change, people do not – ‘in nothing am I changed/But in my garments’ says Edgar to his father (IV, vi, 8-9) – though people can certainly regress and degenerate. Clothes can indeed cover evil and cunning, but clothes are also the very mark of the human, and the ‘folds of favor’ can be the signs of an achieved and functioning civilization. This play ‘dismantles’ these folds as well, and in addition to exposing evil it lays bare the human body. Denudation is a deep theme of the play. Let us call it the spectacle and exploration of the ‘disaccommodation’ of man. Literally – the Fool warns Lear of the folly of having given away his crown, thus risking exposure. He calls him a ‘shelled peascod’ and he is contrasted with the oyster and snail who at least have the wisdom to carry their shells with them. In fury at the inhospitality of his daughters, Lear says, ‘I abjure all roofs, and choose/To wage against the enmity o’ th’ air’ (II, iv, 207), and Act II ends with the sinisterly repeated order – ‘Shut up your doors.’ Directionless, Lear rushes wildly off into the heath where nature itself is at its most naked – ‘For many miles about/There’s scarce a busy’ (II, iv, 300-301). Stripped of crown, palace and followers – his ‘folds of favor’ – Lear moves towards complete denudation. But the exposure brings the beginning of insight. When he tells the Fool to precede him into the hovel, he calls him ‘You houseless poverty’ and follows this by considering – perhaps for the first time – ‘poor naked wretches whereso’er you are,’ wondering

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!

(III, iv, 30-33 – emphasis added_

Lear is becoming aware of basic, deprived conditions not thought about or cared for in the palace. But it is the sight of Edgar with his ‘uncovered body’ which provokes Lear to the final stripping.

Is man no more than this?…Thou art the thing itself; unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor, bare, forked animal as thou art. Off, off you lendings! Come, unbutton here. [Tearing off his clothes]

(III, iv, 105-11 – emphasis added)

The ‘thing itself’ was precisely what he could not see in the first scene, since he had put himself in the thrall of ‘seeming.’ Now we get the feeling that the terrible ‘disaccommodation’ which Lear has undergone has brought him – shatteringly – to true vision, even at the expense of what Edgar calls ‘the safer sense’ (i.e., sounder, saner – IV, vi, 81). Which is perhaps – in Lear’s case – just what it costs. But in his ‘madness,’ he breaks through to those piercing insights into and through the whole fabric of society – ‘a dog’s obeyed in office’ (IV, vi, 160):

Through tattered clothes small vices do appear;

Robes and furred gowns hide all…

(IV, vi, 166-7)

Lear has been brought to see through all the pleats and wraps and folds. Well might Edgar say wonderingly – ‘Reason in madness!’ (IV, vi 177).

France things Cordelia must have committed something ‘monstrous’ to ‘dismantle so many folds of favor.’ We shortly get an echo of this when Gloucester, too credulously accepting Edmund’s account of Edgar’s treachery, says, ‘He cannot be such a monster.’ (I, ii, 11). The word occurs quite frequently, but most importantly in Albany’s rebukes to Goneril.

Thou changed and self-covered thing, for shame

Be-monster not thy feature.

(IV, ii, 62-3)

He calls her ‘barbarous, degenerate’ and says:

If that the heavens do not their visible spirits

Send quickly down to tame these vile offenses,

It will come,

Humanity must perforce prey on itself,

Like monsters of the deep.

(IV, ii, 46-50)

Heaven sends down no spirits, visible or invisible, in this play, and humanity – visibly – preys upon itself. Let me add this, from Troilus and Cressida:

And appetite, a universal wolf,

So doubly seconded with will and power,

Must make perforce a universal prey,

And last eat upon itself.

(I, iii, 121-4)

Just noting the recurrence of the word ‘perforce,’ let us stay for a moment with the repeated word ‘prey,’ usually used to refer to animals that hunt and kill other animals. The extraordinary proliferation of animal imagery and references to animals has often been noted. These references include – dog, cur, rats, monkeys, ant, eels, vulture, wolf, frog, toad, tadpole, newt, mice, foxes, cats, greyhound, worms, adders – this list is by no means exhaustive. The general feeling is that the human world is being rapidly taken over by animals – palaces seem to be repossessed by dogs and foxes and snakes and other low, mean, snapping and sliding animals. There is no sense of magnificent animal energy, rather of things that prowl and creep and slither – sharp-toothed yet devoid of valour and glamour. One of the horrors of the play is the sense of the fading away of the human while such animals scurry and leap and slip into the play from every side. But it is the humans who are reverting – degenerating – to animals. Goneril and Regan end up as ‘adders’ squinting at each other. Edmund turns out to be a ‘foul-spotted toad.’ The relapse, or regression is, we feel, to some prior stage of evolution when things had but recently crawled out of the mud. These animals are not fine enough to be man’s competitors; they are rather his mean ancestors. Yet how quickly they can repossess his world – how easily he can re-become them. So near is the ditch; so easy is the fall back into the slime. It is the copious listing of such encroaching and invading animals, or animalized humans, that gives such agonizing force to Lear’s final complaint against the universe:

[MY NOTE:  I’m going to skip over this so I don’t ruin it for you…]

…This is a world in which rats retain all their mean, scurrying activity while Cordelia is hanged…

It is, indeed, monstrous, and there are number of people in the play who effectively regress to the condition of preying animals or, worse, ‘be-monster’ themselves. As I have indicated, the ‘monstrous’ is the non-natural, and we are again confronted in this play, as never before so horrifyingly, with the profound and insoluable problem of how nature can produce the unnatural – anti-nature. Kent points to the problem:

     It is the stars,

The stars above us, govern our conditions;

Else one self mate and make could not beget

Such different issues.

(IV, iii, 33-6)

Star-governed or not, how can Cordelia and Goneril and Regan issue from the same womb? (the play opens with the description of a pregnant belly  — ‘she grew round-wombed’ – and the play will precipitate a deep exploration of what the ‘thick rotundity’ of nature can bring forth.) Why should one daughter draw to the bias of nature and the others fall from it? And what is the bias of nature? This is what Albany says to Goneril:

     I fear your disposition:

That nature which contemns its origin

Cannot be bordered certain in itself;

She that herself will sliver and disbranch

From her material sap, perforce must wither

And come to deadly use.

(IV, ii, 31-6)

Again – perforce; by force, of necessity. It will happen whether we will it or not, with or without visible or invisible spirits, irrespective of the stars. This is the belief, or perhaps we should say – the hope. And note: Albany’s image. To ‘sliver and disbranch’ means to cut off from the main trunk, and introduces the idea that Goneril has perversely, unnaturally, stripped herself away from the true source of life.  In her treatment of her father, she certainly ‘contemns’ her origin, and she does wither and came to deadly use.’ She, in her turn, has despised Albany’s ‘milky gentleness,’ and here counters by calling him ‘milk-livered man!’ (IV, ii, 50). (In Macbeth, we hear of the ‘milk of human kindness’ – there is a ‘great abatement of kindness’ in King Lear – and the ‘sweet milk of concord.’) Milk and sap evoke the nourishing, nurturing, generative and gentle aspects of nature. Natural nature. Evil is often rendered or figured as a state of desiccation in Shakespeare; conversely, there is a beneficent, life-promoting – milk and sap – force in nature which it is possible, even more natural, to remain attached to and keep in touch with. It is often associated with a benign moistness, and this is the importance of Cordelia’s tears. They provoke an anonymous Gentleman to a description of astonishing beauty:

     You have seen

Sunshine and rain at once; her smiles and tears

Were like a better way: those happy smilets

That played on her ripe lip seemed not to know

What guests were in her eyes, which parted thence

As pearls from diamond dropped.

(IV, iii, 18-24)

Rain, tears (and note that they are ‘guests’ in her eyes: when Cornwall and Regan put out Gloucester’s eyes in his own house, among other things, they are hideously disfiguring and transgressing the sacred rules of hospitality and the guest-hose relation, as Gloucester impotently complains); pearls, diamond – here surely, irresistibly, are the true and enduring values. These are aligned with – spring from – the gentle and restorative virtues of nature – ‘our foster-mother of nature is repose,’ says the Doctor, indicating the nursing side of nature (IV, iv, 12) – which Cordelia invokes and summons as she seeks to cure and heal her mad father:

     All blest secrets

All you unpublished virtues of the earth,

Spring with my tears! be aidant and remediate

In the good man’s distress!

(IV, iv, 15-18)

These tears are, indeed, ‘holy water from her heavnly eyes’ (IV, iii, 81). The ‘unpublished virtues of the earth’ may mean, specifically here, secret remedial herbs, but the words have an infinitely larger resonance. After all the predatory cruelty and viciousness we have witnessed, Cordelia’s tears demonstrate and remind us that there is ‘a better way.’  The earth does have ‘virtues’ even if it does produce monsters. Cordelia is not an angel or a divinely appointed agent of redemption. She is – we must feel this – the truly, uncorrupted human: dutiful, kind, honest, ‘heavenly true,’ respectful of her origin and all the bonds and obligations that branch from it – nature most natural. But she is murdered and Lear is on a ‘wheel of fire’ of mental anguish and dies of unsustainable grief. What of ‘nature’ now? It is not visibly ‘aidant and remediate’ – not at all. And it is Shakespeare who murders Cordelia, which is more than legend and chronicle ever did.

When Albany hears Lear cursing Goneril with terrible rage, he asks – ‘Now, gods that we adore, whereof comes this?’; to which Goneril replies – ‘Never afflict yourself to know the cause’ (I, iv, 297-8). Whereof comes a father’s maddened rage; whereof comes a daughter’s cruelty and ingratitude; whereof comes whatever it is that drives a man to pull out another man’s eyes – whence ‘ruins wasteful entrance?’ If we asked Iago such questions, we know what he would say, or rather what he wouldn’t. Goneril’s last words offer an eerie echo of Iago’s…[MY NOTE:  Skipping a bit so as not to give stuff away…]

‘Demand me nothing,’ ‘Never afflict yourself to know the cause,’ ‘The laws are mine,’ Othello starts his long speech as he enters Desdemona’s bedroom to kill her – ‘It is the cause, it is the cause’…he will not ‘name’ it, but his repetition of the word is immensely suggestive. ‘Cause’ has, at least, two senses. In natural science it is assumed that every ‘effect’ has a ‘cause.’ You cannot actually see causes – they have to be inferred or deduced. This way the laws of nature are discovered and established. The apple falls and the cause is gravity. Of course there is scope here for any number of problems, both scientific and philosophic. Causes may be multiple or untraceable: one cause is the effect of a prior cause, and so on. But the word was also used to refer to a matter (case, cause), which someone feels entitled to take to law. It could be that in his entranced invocations, Othello is hoping (asserting) that he has both natural and human law on his side. But we have seen how his legal improvisations are a gross travesty of the law. Lear improvises a grotesque parody of a courtroom, in the farmhouse where Gloucester leads him from the heath.

I will arraign them straight.

[To Edgar] Come, sit thou here, most learned justice.

(III, vi, 21-2)

216020‘Let us deal justly,’ says Edgar, and Lear starts the proceedings. ‘Arraign her first’ (III, vi, 46) meaning Goneril. Staying with the word ‘arraign’ for a moment, it is worth noting that it occurs in almost the last words of Goneril when she defies her husband, Albany: ‘The laws are mine, not thine:/Who can arraign me for’t?’ To ‘arraign’ is to bring to trial, and her words suggest a complete collapse of the legal structure. How legitimates itself is always potentially a problem – is it simply a way of rationalizing and preserving the status quo, with all its inequalities? Goneril reveals here that she recognizes no law except her own – adapting a good phrase of Melville’s, we can say that her conscience has become simply ‘a lawyer to her will.’ She is beyond ‘arraigning.’ Lear himself moves to a perception of the manifold injustices concealed by ‘law’: ‘see how yon justice rails upon you simple thief. Hark in thine ear: change places, and, handy-dandy, which is the justice, which is the thief?’ (I, vi, 154-6). Back to the farmhouse and the imaginary ‘trial.’ Having arraigned Goneril in the form of a ‘joint stool,’ Lear moves on to Regan: ‘Then let them anatomize Regan. See what breeds about her heart. Is there any cause in nature that makes these hard hearts?’ (III, vi, 75-7).

One could see this as the question of the play. Is there a cause in nature for the effect which is Regan’s hard heart. Or is the effect itself the cause – hearts are causes, and her heart is like that because it is like that. Chilling. Lear spend a lot of the play aiming his deranged anger at his daughters – as though they are to blame for everything. Like many tragic heroes (like Othello in this), Lear resists and fights against self-knowledge until almost the end, and, it must be remembered, it was Lear’s initial actions which permitted, arguably encouraged, the emergence and release of evil, even if it was already latently there, ‘wrapped up in countenance.’ To that extend, he is responsible. Only after he has been exposed to a maximum of inner and outer buffeting can he kneel and say to Cordelia – ‘I am a very foolish, fond old man’ (IV, vii, 60). And then:

I know you do not love me; for your sisters

Have, as I do remember, done me wrong.

You have some cause, they have not.

Cordelia:  No cause, no cause.

The calm, generous gentleness of Cordelia’s words awaken thoughts of a side of nature which has been systematically and brutally erased in the course of the play, but which is serenely above arguments about causes. It is the cause, it is the cause? No cause, no cause. It is the better way. Let them anatomize Cordelia. See what breeds about her heart. Is there any cause in nature that makes these gentle hearts? I think we have to give the Emilia answer. They are not ever gentle for the cause, but gentle for they’re gentle.

Edmund, of course, despises law from the start – ‘Fine word, ‘legitimate’’ (I, ii, 18). Cornwall, determined to punish Gloucester, has an attitude toward the law more like Goneril’s.

Though well we may not pass upon his life

Without the form of justice, yet our power

Shall do a court’sy to our wrath, which men

May blame, but not control.

(III, vii, 25-8)

This is another way of saying – ‘the laws are mine.’ He will twist the ‘forms of justice’ to satisfy his ‘wrath,’ as he does in the horrifying improvised trial and torture scene the follows. There is a lot of anger in this play – Lear’s rage, awesome in its excess, cosmic in its reach, as well as Cornwall’s and Regan’s sadistic wrath.

To be in anger is impiety;

But who is man that is not angry?

(III, v, 57)

Thus Timon of Athens. And there is another kind of anger – call it righteous indignation – which must be seen as justified and part of the fully human. As Kent says: ‘anger hath a privilege.’ When Cornwall is bent on putting out Gloucester’s eye, a servant – one of those usually voiceless, deferential, obedient appendages of the court – says:

    Hold your hand, my lord!

I have served you ever since I was a child;

But better service have I ever done you

Than now to bid you hold.

Cornwall is incredulous at such insubordination, but the servant persists with the thrilling line – ‘Nay, then, come on, and take the chance of anger,’ and although Regan stabs him in the back he has in fact killed Cornwall. The play with father turning against his child, then brother plots against brother; in due course husband and wife fall out (Albany and Goneril), and here the servant turns on his master. All the bonds are ‘cracking.’ But in this case it is a matter of the triumph of humanity over hierarchy. Evil has reached such a pitch that even the lowliest man – if he is still human – cannot sit idly by and watch. The cruelty of dukes can stir the anger of a serf. In a curious way, it is the hinge moment of the play. It occurs literally just about at mid-point, and in fact it marks the beginning of the end for the evil plotters. They have done much damage and will do more, but increasingly and in turn they ‘come to deadly use.’ Thus far, the tide of evil has gathered force and swept along unopposed. Now there is a physical reaction. Not words of horror but a deed of anger. And not by Albany, or Kent, or Edgar, but an anonymous servant, a serf ‘thrilled with remorse,/Opposed against the act’ (V, ii, 723). That the agent who precipitates the turn, initiates the slow (too slow for Cordelia) self-correcting process of nature, is part of the grim power of the play. Outraged reaction to, and taking preventative issue with evil, comes not from above, but from below, socially one of the lowest of the low.”


And from Stephen Booth:

Ian-McKellen-as-King-Lear-002“…I am arguing that the greatness of Lear derives from the confrontation it makes with inconclusiveness – that the greatness of King Lear (in the metaphoric sense of ‘greatness’) derives, at least in part, from its greatness (in the literal sense of ‘greatness’), its physical extent, its great duration. King Lear is not the longest of Shakespeare’s play, but, in ways comparable to those by which he makes Polonius, who does not speak much, seem always to be talking, and makes the verbose Coriolanus seem tightlipped, Shakespeare uses great and demonstrable technical skill to stretch his audience out upon the rack of this tough play.

The way of our escape and Lear’s are one. We want Lear to die, just as, almost from the beginning, we have wanted the play to end. That does not mean that we are unfeeling toward Lear or that we dislike the play: watching King Lear is not unlike waiting for the death of a dying friend; our eagerness for the end makes the friend no less dear. In his first speech Lear promises to die: he will, he says, ‘Unburdened crawl toward death’ (I.i.41); for the progress of the play, crawl becomes the operative word. Even while the plot still offers, indeed promises, the happy ending the story has in all tellings previous to Shakespeare’s,  Lear’s death is our only way out of a play that has been ready to end since it began. By its kind, the story of Lear and his three daughters promises a happy ending in which the virtuous youngest daughter proves herself so and the parent sees his error; but the play refuses to fulfill the generic promise inherent in its story.

After scene i the story of Lear and his daughters lacks only three quick steps to its conclusion: Goneril will show her colors; Regan will show hers; and Cordelia will prove true. Scene ii delays the predictable advance by opening up an echoing situation in Gloucester’s family. In scene iii we see Goneril obviously preparing to do her duty by literary genre; in scene iv she does it. Lear now sees her as we see her, curses her, says, ‘Away, away!’ and exits (I.iv.280). Goneril has played out her part, and Lear is done with her. Four lines later Lear comes back onstage: ‘What, fifty of my followers at a clap?/Within a fortnight?’ Both the re-entrance and the new indignity Lear suffers are extra; the fact that Lear discovers the new and unexpected wrong offstage and discovers it to us only obliquely heightens our sense that the five-line resumption of his curse on Goneril (290-95) is excessive. It is theatrically excessive. We cannot pause to reason its need, and we do not grumble like Polonius listening to the player, but as Lear curses on, doing again what was over and done with, we endure the slow passage of time like criminals in the stocks.  When King Lear, the character, says ‘I’ll assume the shape which thou dost think/I have cast off for ever’ (300-301), his hollow threat echoes the action of King Lear, a play that persists in resuming completed incidents and relapsing into past circumstances. In terms of our real experience, the experience of watching a play, we are, like Lear, oppressed beyond reasonable limits, even though the oppression is scaled to a three-hour stay at the theater.

It takes Shakespeare about twenty minutes to get us to Regan and the next necessary step; ;but, when it does come, it is, appropriately, an intensified repetition of Lear’s confrontation with the elder wicked sister. In II.iv.84-115, we are presented with an echo of Goneril’s feigned sickness (I.iv.49) and with a variation on Oswald’s negligence and refusal to come when Lear calls for him. (I.iv.43-54, 75-79). Then, when Regan is on the point of teleological fulfillment, Enter Goneril (II.iv.184) – and we take a half step back in our progress toward Cordelia, just when we seemed about to complete a step forward.

Similarly, Lear’s meeting with Cordelia, which does not occur until IV.vii, is systematically delayed from IV.iii onward. (One reason, perhaps a main reason, why the meeting of Lear and Gloucester in Iv.vi is so moving is that it is narratively superfluous.)

A complete index of phenomena that avoid available means of concluding would note that Edgar and Kent continue to masquerade well after need has passed, and would include the curious fact that Lear’s madness remains an impending event of the hear future long after we have concluded that he is mad; but exhaustive demonstration is probably unnecessary. I will, however, discuss the part of King Lear that perennially prompts critics to talk about endurance: Lear’s night on the heath.

Forty-five lines into III.ii, Lear’s first scene in the storm, Kent says this:

     Since I was man,

Such sheets of fire, such bursts of horrid thunder,

Such groans of roaring wind and rain, I never

Remember to have heard. Man’s nature cannot carry

Th’affliction nor the fear.

`No audience that has both heard Lear described in III.i as ‘contending with the fretful elements’ and seen him do so at the beginning of the scene needs Kent’s iterative and iteratively structured testimony to the horrors of the night and of Lear’s situation. I think the power of the storm scenes derives not from the events portrayed but from contemplation of those events in combination with a real trial of our own endurance. Lear’s agony and the audience’s are totally different both in scale and kind, but they have the same remedy: Lear must ‘come out o’th’storm’ (II.iv.304), must enter the hovel.

In his next speech after evaluating the storm, Kent tells us about the hovel (and does so in a scene that has so far been crowded with language of shelter, coverings, and roofs):

Gracious, my lord, hard by hear is a hovel;

Some friendship will it lend you ‘gainst the tempest.

Repose you there…

Lear agrees immediately and with an unusual constancy of general focus:

     My wits begin to turn.

Come on, my boy. How dost, my boy? Art cold?

I am cold myself? Where is this straw, my fellow?

The art of our necessities is strange,

And can make vile things precious. Come, your hovel.

Poor fool and knave, I have one part in my heart

That’s sorry yet for thee.

The Fool sings a song; Lear says, ‘True, boy. Come, bring us to this hovel,’ exits with Kent, and, once the Fool concludes the seventeen-line prophecy with which he lengthens the scene, III.ii is over.

The next time we see Lear, Kent, and the Fool is in III.iv; they are still outdoors. The scene begins thus:

Enter Lear, Kent, and Fool:


Here is the place, milord. Good my lord, enter.

The tyranny of the open night’s too rough

For nature to endure.

Storm still


     Let me alone.


Good my lord, enter here.


     Wilt break my heart?


I had rather break mine own. Good my lord, enter.

lear_this-440x296Lear continues to rage, echoing the manner he abandoned when he agreed to seek the hovel and stressing his need of shelter (‘In such a night/To shut me out! Pour on; I will endure’). Kent again urges Lear to enter the hovel – exit the stage and thereby end the scene. Kent gets Lear’s attention. Lear says he will not go in; then says he will; then send the Fool in (‘In, boy; go first’) and resumes his address to the whirlwind. One character, the Fool, has at last achieved shelter, but that achievement is counterproductive; the stage does not begin to empty but to fill. The Fool discovers Poor Tom; both come out into the storm; Gloucester arrives to second Kent’s urging; Lear continues to delay (‘First let me talk with this philosopher’). Finally, 175 lines from Kent’s ‘Here is the place’ and a quarter-hour after a hovel hard by was offered to the expectations of the audience, Lear goes in.

James Thurber’s account of the Get-Ready Man is a fitting epigraph for an essay on King Lear: the Get-Ready Man was on the right track, but his prediction was really only wishful thinking – wishful thinking raises to assertion by a confidence in limits that can be maintained only by fanatics. Every time King Lear is performed, the theater knows moments far more disquieting than the ones the Get-Ready Man shaped for the cultural elite of Columbus, Ohio.”

Obviously, much more to come…


My next post:  Sunday evening/Monday morning, more on Act Three.

Enjoy.  And enjoy your weekend.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s