“Poor naked wretches, whereso’er you are,/That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm”

King Lear

Act Three, Part Three

By Dennis Abrams


I’d like to talk a bit more about Lear’s (and my) beloved Fool before we say goodbye to him.

fool last appearanceIn the Quarto the Fool’s role ends with his participation in the trial held by the now mad King Lear of his daughters; not so in the Folio, which gives the Fool an exit line “And I’ll go to bed at noon,” said in response to Lear’s mad topsy-turvy, “we’ll go to supper i’ the morning”; a proverbial phrase meaning “I’ll play the fool as well.”  Nothing more is heard of him until the end of the play (although he is glimpsed helping to carry away the sleeping Lear at the end of scene six), when n Lear’s last speech the ambiguous line “And my poor fool is hanged” refers most obviously to Cordelia (who we know has been hanged), but also (intentionally?) recalls the Fool as well.  No explanation is given for the Fool’s disappearance, a matter which some have found troubling.  In the highly regarded production by Adrian Noble (Royal Shakespeare Theater, 1982), the Fool (Antony Sher) was accidentally stabbed to death by a mad Lear (Michael Gambon) as he retreated downstage in an attempt to escape the king’s fit of rage during the “trial” of his daughters.  (I think I would have disliked seeing this a great deal).  By contrast, Grigori Kozintsev keeps the Fool alive until the end of his 1970 film version. The film ends, fittingly, with a close-up of Edgar, but for Kozintsev the Fool becomes especially important as symbolizing the continuation of life in the sound of the pipe he plays:

‘Rags, and the soft sound of the pipe — the still voice of suffering. Then, during the battle scenes, a requiem breaks out, then falls silent. And once again the pipe can be heard. Life — a none too easy one — goes on.’

But if directors worry about the disappearance of the Fool, I honestly doubt whether anyone watching a performance is troubled by it. Lear has gone mad, and can no longer relate to the wit of the Fool. In fact, the action moves in a different direction with the blinding of Gloucester in 3.7, and Lear himself is offstage for roughly five hundred lines in the Quarto (and four hundred or so in the Folio, which makes some substantial cuts between 3.7 and 4.6). When Lear returns in 4.6, he seems to have become, in (or through) his madness, something of a seer, with something of the Fool’s wisdom, and seems to play the role of the fool in relation to Gloucester. In Act I, Lear and the Fool maintain in their dialogue something of the cross-talk act of the music-hall tradition (a tradition which one can see in the work of Samuel Beckett — more on that below), in which one partner in a double act plays the “feed” or straight man to the other; as he goes mad, and is engrossed by Poor Tom in Act 3, Lear loses this close bantering relationship with the Fool, and 4.6 establishes a new cross-talk act in which Gloucester has become the “feed” to Lear, who more or less takes over something of the role of the Fool, though not, of course, his function as professional entertainer.

It is, I think, in his role of professional entertainer and “feed” to Lear, in Act 1 especially, that the Fool serves, with his generalizing rhymes and songs and direct address to the audience at the end of 1.5, as a connector between the audience and the…titanic figure of the old King, who is so absolute in his authority, peremptory in his actions, and, as we’ve seen, given to uncontrollable outbursts of violent rage. The Fool may be thought of, maybe, as a lightning conductor, earthing the power of Lear’s majesty, and humanizing him. In these early scenes Lear plays straightman to the Fool, whose intellectual superiority in seeing so clearly what the consequences of dividing the kingdom will be brings out the aspect of folly in what King Lear has done. “Now thou art an O without a figure; I am better than thou art now. I am a fool, thou art nothing.”This function of the Fool in the early scenes can be effective no matter how the role of the Fool is played. It is a function that loses its importance when Goneril and Regan make clear the truth of the Fool’s perceptions in Act 2 and a function that is no longer necessary when Lear goes mad. Thus in Acts 2 and 3 the Fool’s comments are directed more to other characters such as Kent, or to everyone (including the audience), and his rhymes and songs usually have a generalizing force expressing a kind of folk-wisdom. In act 3 he is more concerned to persuade Lear to take shelter from the storm than to mock him.  After 3.6 the Fool has no function, and it understandable (although regrettable from at least my point of view) that Shakespeare should let him drop from sight.

And while I should say something about the blinding of Gloucester…words fail me.

From Harold Bloom:

kinglear5_541x813“A decade or so back, I had to defend Lear against the dislike of many of my women students, but that time is past. Feminist critics will be unhappy with the mad old king for perhaps another decade. I suspect they will make fewer converts in the early twenty-first century, though, since Lear is very much a fit protagonist for the millennium and after. His catastrophe doubtless sends him into rages within the mother within. Nevertheless, he is aware of his need to ‘sweeten’ his ‘imagination’ – the return of Cordelia heals him, and not through mere selfishness. It isn’t Shakespeare who destroys Cordelia [MY NOTE:  Booth disagrees with that], but Edmund…and he is anything but Shakespeare’s surrogate. I will argue that Edmund is a representation of Christopher Marlowe, Shakespeare’s troublesome forerunner and rival, whose influence effectually ended much earlier, with the advent of the Bastard Faulconbridge, Bottom, Shylock, Portia, and overwhelmingly, Falstaff. Marlowe returns brilliant as Edmund, but as a shadow strongly controlled by Shakespeare, and so Lear’s antithesis, who cannot even speak to the magnificent king. Edmund fascinates; he outIagos Iago, being a strategist rather than an improviser. He is the coldest personage in all Shakespeare, just as Lear is emotionally the most turbulently intense, but Gloucester’s Bastard is madly attractive, and not just to the infatuated Goneril and Regan, who die for him. Properly played, he is the sublime of Jacobean villains, icily sophisticated and frighteningly disinterested for a Machiavel who would have secured supreme power but for Edgar’s triumphant return as accuser and avenger. Edmund and Edgar are the most interesting set of brothers in Shakespeare…each is the other’s undersong, I will keep the play’s ultimate hero in mind as I consider its principal villain. Edmund outplots everyone in the play, easily duping Edgar, but the purgatory of Edgar’s impersonating Tom O’Bedlam and of guiding his blinded father produces an implacable champion whose justice cuts down Edmund with inevitable ease as the wheel comes full circle. The interplay of Edmund and Edgar strikingly becomes the dialectic of Lear’s fate (and of England’s) more than of Gloucester’s, since Edgar is Lear’s godson and involuntary successor, while Edmund is the point-for-point negation of the old king.

One need not be a Goneril or a Regan to find Edmund dangerously attractive, in ways that perpetually surprise the unwary reader or playgoer. William R. Elton makes the suggestion that Edmund is a Shakespearean anticipation of the seventeenth-century Don Juan tradition, which culminates in Moliere’s great play (1665). Elton also notes the crucial difference between Edmund and Iago, which is that Edmund paradoxically sees himself as overdetermined by his bastardy even as he fiercely affirms his freedom, whereas Iago is totally free. Consider how odd we would find it had Shakespeare decided to present Iago as a bastard, or indeed given us any information at all about Iago’s father. But Edmund status as natural son is crucial, though even here Shakespeare confounds his age’s expectations. Elton cites a Renaissance proverb that bastards by chance are good but by nature bad. Faulconbridge the Bastard, magnificent hero of The Life and Death of King John, is good not by chance, but because he is very nearly the reincarnation of his father, Richard Lionheart, whereas the dreadful Don John, in Much Ado About Nothing, has a natural badness clearly founded upon his illegitimacy. Edmund astonishingly combines aspects of the personalities of Faulconbridge and Don John, though he is even more attractive than Faulconbridge, and far more vicious than Don John of Aragon.

Though Edmund, unlike Iago, cannot reinvent himself wholly, he takes great pride in assuming responsibility for his own amorality, his pure opportunism. Don John in Much Ado says, ‘I cannot hide what I am,’ while Faulconbridge the Bastard affirms, ‘And I am I, howe’ev I was begot.’ Faulconbridge’s ‘And I am I’ plays against Iago’s ‘I am not what I am.’ Edmund cheerfully proclaims, ‘I should have been that I am had the maidenliest star in the firmament twinkled on my bastardizing.’ The great ‘I am’ remains a positive pronouncement in Edmund, and yet he is as grand a negation, in some other ways, as even Iago is. But because of that one positive stance toward his own being, Edmund will change at the very end., whereas Iago’s final act of freedom will be to pledge an absolute muteness as he is led away to death by torture. Everything, according to Iago, lies in the will, and in his case everything does.

In Act V, Scene iii, Edmund enters with Lear and Cordelia as his prisoners. It is only the second time he shares the stage with Lear, and it will be the last. WE might expect that he would speak to Lear (or to Cordelia), but he avoids doing so, referring to them, only in the third person in his commands. Clearly Edmund does not wish to speak to do Lear, because he is actively plotting the murder of Cordelia, and perhaps of Lear as well. Yet all the intricacies of the double plot do not in themselves explain away this remarkable gap in the play, and I wonder why Shakespeare avoided the confrontation. You can say he had no need of it, but this drama tells us to reason not the need. Shakespeare is our Scripture, replacing Scripture itself, and one should learn to read him the way the Kabbalists read the Bible, interpreting every evidence as being significant. What can it tell u s about Edmund, and also about Lear, that Shakespeare found nothing for them to say to each other?

Edmund, for all his sophisticated and charismatic charm, inspires no one’s love, except for the deadly and voracious passions of Goneril and Regan. And Edmund does not love them, or anyone else, even himself. Perhaps Lear and Edmund cannot speak to each other because Lear is bewildered by the thwarting of his excess of love for Cordelia, and by the hatred for him of Goneril and Regan, unnatural daughters, as he must call them. Edmund, in total contrast, hardly regards love as natural, even as he grimly exults in being the natural son of Gloucester. But even that contrast hardly accounts for the curious sense we have that Edmund somehow is not in the same play as Lear and Cordelia.

When Goneril kisses Edmund (Act IV, Scene ii, line 22), he gallantly accepts it as a kind of literal kiss of death, since he is too grand an ironist not to appreciate his own pledge: ‘Yours in the ranks of death.’ Still more remarkable is his soliloquy that closes Act V, Scene i:

To both these sisters have I sworn my love;

Each jealous of the other, as the stung

Are of the adder. Which of them shall I take?

Both? one? or neither? Neither can be enjoy’d

If both remain alive: to take the widow

Exasperates, makes made her sister Goneril;

And hardly shall I carry out my side,

Her husband being alive. Now, then, we’ll use

His countenance for the battle; which being done,

Let her who would be rid of him devise

His speedy taking off. As for the mercy

Which he intends to Lear and to Cordelia,

The battle done, and they within our power

Shall never see his pardon; for my state

Stands on me to defend, not to debate.

So cool a negativity is unique, even in Shakespeare. Edmund is superbly sincere when he asks the absolutely open question ‘Which of them shall I take?/Both? one? or neither?’ His insouciance is sublime, the questions being tossed off in the spirit of a light event, as though a modern young nobleman might ask whether he should take two princesses, one, or none out to dinner? A double date with Goneril and Regan should daunt any libertine, but the negation named Edmund is something very enigmatic. Iago’s negative theology is predicated upon an initial worship of Othello, but Edmund is amazingly free of all connection, all affect, whether toward his two adder-or sharklike princesses, or toward his half brother – or toward Gloucester, in particular. Gloucester is in the way, in rather the same sense that Lear and Cordelia are in the way. Edmund evidently would just as soon not watch his father’s eyes be put out, but this delicacy does not mean that he cares at all about the event, one way or the other. Yet, as Hazlitt pointed out, Edmund does not share in the hypocrisy of Goneril and Regan: his Machiavellianism is absolutely pure and lacks an Oedipal motive. Freud’s vision of family romances simply does not apply to Edmund. Iago is free to reinvent himself every minute, yet Iago has strong passions, however negative. Edmund has no passions whatsoever, he has never loved anyone, and he never will. In that respect, he is Shakespeare’s most original character.

There remains the enigma of why this cold negation is so attractive, which returns us usefully to his absolute contrast with Lear, and with Lear’s uncanny Fool. Edmund’s desire is only for power, and yet one wonders if desire is at all the right word in connection with Edmund. Richard III lusts for power; Iago quests for it over Othello, so as to uncreate Othello, to reduce the mortal god of war into a chaos. Ulysses certainly seeks power over Achilles, in order to get on with the destruction of Troy. Edmund is the most Marlovian of these grand negations, a will to power with no particular purpose behind it, since the soldier Macbeth does not so much will to usurp power as he is overcome by his own imagination of usurpation. Edmund accepts the overdetermination of being a bastard, indeed he overaccepts it, and glorifies in it, but he accepts nothing else. He is convinced of his own natural superiority, which extends to his command of manipulative language, and yet he is not a Marlovian rhetorician, like Tamburlaine, nor is he intoxicated with his own villainy, like Richard III and Barabas. He is a Marlovian figure not in that he resembles a character in a play by Marlowe, but because I suspect he was intended to resemble Christopher Marlowe himself. Marlowe died, aged twenty-nine, in 1583, at about the time Shakespeare composed Richard III, with its Marlovian protagonist, and just before the writing of Titus Andronicus, with its Marlovian parody in Aaron the Moor. By 1605, when King Lear was written, Marlowe had been dead for twelve years, but As You Like It, composed in 1599, is curiously replete with wry allusions to Marlowe. We have no contemporary anecdotes connecting Shakespeare to Marlowe, but it seems quite unlikely that Shakespeare never met his exact contemporary, and nearest precursor, the inventor of English blank-verse tragedy. Edmund, in the pre-Christian context of King Lear, is certainly a pagan atheist and libertine naturalist, as Elton emphasizes, and these are the roles that Marlowe’s live exemplified for his contemporaries. Marlowe the man, or rather Shakespeare’s memory of him, may be the clue to Edmund’s strange glamour, the charismatic qualities that make it so difficult for us not to like him.

Whether or not an identification of Marlowe and Edmund is purely my critical trope, even as trope it suggests that Edmund’s driving force is Marlovian nihilism, revolt against authority and tradition for revolt’s own sake, since revolt and nature are thus made one. Revolt is heroic for Edmund, whether as consort either to Regan or to Goneril, or as solitary figure, should they slay each other…”


From Frank Kermode:

KingLear30_361x541“From this moment on, the language of King Lear has such force and variety that to give a convincing account of it seems close to impossible. Lear rages, and his rage is rant:

   And thou, all-shaking thunder,

Strike flat the thick rotundity o’ th’ world!

Crack nature’s moulds, all germains spill at once

That makes ingrateful man!

Nature is again to take his part against his ‘unnatural’ daughters; again the plea is for sterility, anything rather than the kind of vitality they display. The next appeal is to justice, which it was once his prerogative to dispense; now it will come, if at all, from elsewhere. It is at the disposal of the criminal, the perjured, the incestuous; the elements have become the ‘servile ministers’ of his daughters, [MY NOTE:  THIS makes sense!] and the punishments fall on him, even though he is ‘More sinn’d against than sinning.’ The sheer noise of Lear’s speeches is a necessary prelude to his sudden turning in compassion to the Fool, and later to Poor Tom. The shouting of the King and the barbed chatter of the Fool accompany this recognition of what it is to be cold and poor, to be at the bottom level of nature. The tone changes in the lines beginning ‘Poor naked wretches, whereso’er you are,/That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm’ (III.iv.28-29); and Lear sends the Fool before him into the hovel. There they find Poor Tom. It is superbly apt that Lear imagines Tom’s troubles to have come from the ingratitude of his daughters, a punishment for his having begotten them.

Once more the theme is justice. Edgar-Tom provides a vision of unjust luxury; he has been a fine courtier, but now, without shoes and clothes and perfume, his is an image of destitution: ‘here’s three on ‘s are sophisticated. Thou art the thing itself: unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor, bare, fork’d animal as thou art.’ And Lear begins to tear off his own clothes: “Off, off, you lendings! Come, unbutton here.’

This scene is in prose and yet it is poetry of the highest quality. Shakespeare had mastered the device of allowing a pattern of language to irrupt into violent dramatic action. This shedding of ‘additions’ or ‘lendings’ is an instance. Another, equally extraordinary, is the tearing out of Gloucester’s eyes, for which all the references to eyes and to sight and to ‘nothing’ might have prepared us, save that the sheer violence of the act, and of all anger displayed – Cornwall’s cold and Regan’s sadistically excited – makes us, even four centuries later, turn our heads away from the sight.

The crazy chatter of Tom is now heard together with the lament of the newly arrived Gloucester:

Gloucester:  Our flesh and blood, my lord, is grown so vild

That it doth hate what gets it.

Edgar:  Poor Tom’s a-cold.

The themes intertwine as it were musically; the cruelty of children, the unsheltered life of unaccommodated man. Gloucester himself says his wits are crazed. Lear believes that Edgar has shown himself to be a philosopher, a student of thunder, one who is so close to being the thing itself that he will understand other elemental phenomena.

The play now maintains a double movement: the craziness on the heath and the treachery of Edmund, with the cruel calculations of Cornwall, indoors. The next scene on the heath (III, vi) presents an image of mad justice in the fantasy trial of Goneril and Regan. (This is only in the Folio, but it is hard to believe that this amazing scene, so much of the very substance of the work, was an afterthought.) The ‘justicers’ are a Fool (dealing with equity rather than unmitigated justice) and a Bedlam maniac (‘Thou robed man of justice.’ ‘Let us deal justly,’ says Tom. Lear, now quite mad, still in his babblings, does not stray far from the obsessive language of the play. ‘Is there any cause in  nature that makes these hard hearts?’ [It is a philosophical question, like inquiring into the cause of thunder]…You, sir, I do not like the fashion of your garments.’ As Lear sinks into sleep, the Fool makes his last quip and disappears from the play.

lear blindingThe action proceeds with another trial, this time the interrogation and punishment of Gloucester. In the midst of this obscene horror the words ‘justice’ and of course ‘eyes’ and ‘seeing’ are repeated again and again, even with an echo of the Fool’s earlier joke about the use of the nose to separate the eyes. The vile jellies are trampled on, and Gloucester, now an ‘eyeless villain,’ must ‘smell/His way to Dover.’ In the end, there are compassionate servants to bring him ‘flax and whites of eggs’ for his bleeding face; but only in Q. Whether or not this passage existed only in the Quarto, or in a lost archetype, it would seem that some hand, not willing to forgo absolute cruelty, removed in. In Peter Brook’s unforgettable 1962 production, it was omitted, not on textual grounds, but because ‘a note of sympathy’ was not wanted in ‘This Theater of Cruelty.’”

Which makes this seem like a perfect opportunity to segue back into Marjorie Garber’s Shakespeare and Modern Culture where, as we left her last week, she was about to discuss Jan Kott and Peter Brook…


“Polish critic Jan Kott’s book Shakespeare Our Contemporary (1964) had an enormous influence on the director Peter Brook. Martin Esslin’s introduction to the American edition of Shakespeare Our Contemporary ends by praising Brook’s production of Lear as ‘by now generally acknowledged as one of the finest Shakespearean performances within living memory.’ Paul Scofield’s portrayal of the title character struck audiences with a new force.

Here is Esslin’s account:

In that production a play which had been regarded as unactable for many generations came to life with tremendous impact, and as a highly contemporary statement of the human condition. And this because it was presented not as a fairy-tale of a particularly stubborn story-book king, but as an image of aging and death, the waning of powers, the slipping away of man’s hold on his environment: a great ritual poem on evanescence and mortality, on man’s loneliness in a storm-tossed universe.

‘Great ritual poem’ and ‘man’s loneliness’ both seem terms bound to another era, although they had powerful resonances then, and still carry some effect today. But that the play is a ‘highly contemporary statement of the human condition’ seems itself a highly contemporary statement.

From the time of the 1960s, King Lear was read, produced, and thought of as a bleak and despairing play. [MY NOTE:  I find it even more unbelievable that there was a time when it wasn’t thought of as “a bleak and despairing play.”] The idea of sublimity, long associated with the play of King Lear, was now connected to the idea of modernity. And that connection made the mid-twentieth century the age of Lear.

Samuel Beckett’s Endgame and Acts Without Words were performed together at their premiere in London in 1957. It was Jan Kott who had the idea of comparing them to Shakespeare’s play, in a chapter called ‘King Lear or Endgame.’ In each the tragic and the grotesque coexist, and exchange places without warning.

Kott took somber note of the new theater then emerging in postwar Europe. ‘[B]uffoonery,’ he claims, is not only a philosophy, it is also a kind of theatre. To us it is the most contemporary aspect of King Lear. And again, ‘In Shakespeare clowns often ape the gestures of kings and heroes, but only in King Lear are great tragic scenes shown through clowning.’

Both the tragic and the grotesque vision of the world [Kott writes] are composed as it were of the 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 automaton. 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,’ Kott continues, ‘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 whatever.’ But it is not always easy to distinguish the tragic from grotesque. Lear with his Fool, or mumming in front of an unresponsive and unamused Goneril and Regan, is always, it seems, precariously balanced between majesty and folly, grandeur and the ‘new pranks’ of which Goneril accuses him. Yet it was the story of the blind Gloucester, as much or more than that of the mad Lear, that seemed perhaps most emblematic of the modern condition. But the most sublime and most grotesque play within the play is the scene on ‘Dover Cliff,’ where Gloucester, blinded onstage by the unspeakable cruelty of Cornwall, encounters (and does not recognize) his disguised and loyal son.

[MY NOTE:  This section is going to get into Act Four – I think it will give you an interesting way in if you haven’t read it yet, but if you prefer reading it “on your own”, skip the next few paragraphs – I’ll insert another note when it’s safe to start reading again.]

Gloucester: Dost thou know Dover?

Edgar:  Ay, master.

Gloucester:  There is a cliff, whose high and bending head

Looks fearfully in the confined deep.

Bring me but to the very brim of it,

And I’ll repair the misery thou dost bear

With something rich about me. From that place

I shall no leading need.


He intends, of course, to commit suicide – to kill himself by leaping from Dover Cliff into the sea.

A few scenes later Edgar and Gloucester reappear onstage, not, of course, actually at Dover Cliff, but on a flat piece of open land. Edgar is pretending that they are climbing to the cliff top:

Gloucester:  When shall we come to the top of that same hill?

Edgar:  You do climb up it now. Look how we labor.

Gloucester:  Methinks the ground is even.

Edgar: Horrible steep.

Hark, do you hear the sea?

Gloucester:  No, truly.

Edgar:  Why, then, your other senses grow imperfect

By your eyes’ anguish.

Gloucester:  So may it be indeed

Methinks thy voice is altered and thou speakest

In better phrase and matter than thou didst.

Edgar:  Y’are much deceived, in nothing am I changed

But in my garments.

Gloucester:  Methinks y’are better spoken.

Edgar:  Come on, sir; here’s the place. Stand still.  How fearful

And dizzy ‘tis, to cast one’s eyes so low!

The crows and choughs that wing the midway air

Show scarce so gross as beetles. Halfway down

Hangs one that gathers sampire, dreadful trade!

Methinks he seems no bigger than his head.

The fishermen, that wlak upon the beach,

Appear like mice; and yound tall anchoring bark,

Diminished to her cock: her cock, a buoy

Almost too small for sight. The murmuring surge,

That on the unnumbered idle pebble chafes

Cannot be heard so high. I’ll look no more,

Lest my brain turn, and the deficient sight

Topple down headlong.

This is a consummate Shakespearean ‘unscene’ – entirely conjured up by language, even though it seems terrifyingly real.

‘Set me where you stand,’ says Gloucester, and the disguised Edgar says:

Give me your hand. You are now within a foot

Of th’ extreme verge. For all beneath the moon

Would I not leap upright.

And aside to the audience, he says:

Why do I trifle thus with his despair

Is done to sure it.

When Gloucester does ‘leap upright,’ of course, he jumps, or falls, from flat ground to flat ground. In the Peter Brook production Gloucester faints, and thus ‘awakens’ thinking he is at the bottom of the cliff. He is met ‘there,’ and ‘discovered,’ by Edgar, still in disguise, still not recognized by his blind father, now assuming yet another vocal disguise:

Edgar:  Yet he revives –

What are you, sir?

Gloucester:  Away, and let me die.

Edgar:  Hadst though been aught but gossamer, feathers, air,

So many fathom down precipitating,

Thou’dst shivered like an egg; but thou dost breathe;

Hast heavy substance, bleed’st not, speak’st; art sound.


Thy life’s a miracle. Speak yet again.

Gloucester:  But have I fallen, or no?

Edgar:  From the dread summit of this chalky bourn,

Look up a-height; the shrill-gorged lark so far

Cannot be seen or heard. Do but look up.

Gloucester:  Alack, I have no eyes.

King_Lear_The_Blinding_of_GloucesterKott’s existential view of the Dover Cliff is at the same time hypertheatrical: ‘[T]he Shakespearean precipice at Dover exists and does not exist. It is the abyss, waiting all the time. The abyss, into which one can jump, is everywhere.’ He understands, too, what ‘pure theatre’ is – that is, theater that is emblematic, symbolic, iconic, and self-referential, not referring (merely) to the ‘outside,’ to historical events or human characteristics – ‘The white precipice at Dover performs a different function. Gloucester does not jump from the top of the cliff…For once, in King Lear, Shakespeare shows the paradox of pure theatre.’ And he sees, very clearly, that the connection between blindness and insight is ‘read’ by Beckett: ‘Edgar is leading the blind Gloucester to the precipice at Dover. This is just the theme of Endgame; Beckett was the first to see it in King Lear, he eliminated all action, everything external, and repeated it in skeleton form.

[MY NOTE:  Feel free to jump back in here…]

The scene in Endgame that comes closest to the Dover Cliff scene is the one of stasis rather than action. The blind man, Hamm, sits in a wheelchair and receives descriptions form his sighted servant (or son), Clov, who describes the room, the stage, the world outside the stage set’s two windows, and finally the toy dog that is said to regard him as a master.


Where is he?

Is he gazing at me?

As if he were asking me to take him for a walk?

Or as if he were begging me for a bone.

Leave him like that, standing there imploring me.

The toy dog is black. ‘He’s white, isn’t he?’ asks Hamm, and Clov replies, ‘Nearly.’

Hamm:  What do you mean, nearly? Is he white, or isn’t he?

Clov:  He isn’t.

The ‘endgame’ is the last set of moves in a game of chess, when there are only a few pieces left. One of the most common is that of king and pawn. When Hamm says ‘Me–/–to play’ he is recognizing or acknowledging that fact.

Hamm, whose name has been associated with everything from Hamlet to ham actors, is ‘like King Lear…a ‘ruined piece of nature.’’  His wheelchair is his throne. ‘Hamm who cannot get up, and Clov who cannot sit down.’ Kott cites what he calls the ‘Endgame of King Lear.

Lear:  Read

Gloucester:  What, with the case of eyes?


Lear:  What, art mad? A man may see how this world goes without eyes. Look with thine ears.


But perhaps most Beckettian of all encounters in Shakespeare’s play takes place when the made Lear meets the blind Gloucester and Gloucester says, ‘O, let me kiss that hand!’ To which Lear replies, ‘Let me wipe it first; it smells of mortality.’

Kott put the question of King Lear and the grotesque together with horrible developments in European politics. But the fact that the play had affinities with the grotesque had been noticed by critics as well, perhaps most importantly in G. Wilson Knight’s essay ‘King Lear and the Comedy of the Grotesque,’ published in a collection called The Wheel of Fire (1930). Wilson Knight’s phrase ‘the wheel of fire’ is taken from Lear: King Lear’s anguished speech to Cordelia, when he awakens and thinks he has been dead – a death he longs for:

You do m e wrong to take m out o’ th’ grave.

Thou art a soul in bliss; but I am bound

Upon a wheel of fire, that mine own tears

Do scald like molten lead.

The ‘wheel of fire’ is Ixion’s wheel; his punishment in hell, to be bound to an ever-whirling wheel. It was not Ixion, however, but another classical icon of eternal punishment who was to become the model for mid-century philosophical speculations about the absurdity of modern life. The Myth of Sisyphus, published in 1940 (‘amid the French and European disaster’) by the French-Algerian writer Albert Camus, became the talismanic book of a generation. ‘There is but one truly serious philosophical problem,’ the book declared forthrightly, ‘and that is suicide.’

Sisyphus was determined to roll a rock up a steep hill for all eternity. When the rock was almost at the top, it rolled down again, and Sisyphus had to begin his task all over again. Sisyphus is Camus’ hero, a man for whom happiness and the absurd are inseparable. The absurd ‘makes of fate a human matter, which must be settled among men,’ Camus declared. ‘The struggle toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.’ This is the famous last sentence of the book.

The idea of the absurd was, in the period, on many philosopher’s minds. Camus’s friend Sartre was intrigued by it, and so was Soren Kierkegaard. For Camus, the absurd, and existential philosophy more generally, were tied to the concept of ‘the leap,’ an image that calls to mind the grotesque stage ‘leap’ of the blind Gloucester, a leap that, in the theater, requires him to jump – grotesquely, absurdly – from flat stage to flat stage. ‘There are many ways of leaping, the essential being to leap,’ is how Camus will describe ‘the leap’ for existentialists. But ultimately Camus himself will say, apropos of what he calls ‘plain suicide’ (as distinct from ‘philosophical suicide’): ‘The leap does not represent an extreme danger as Kierkegaard would have it. The danger, on the contrary, lies in the subtle instant that precedes the leap. Being able to remain in that dizzying crest – that is integrity and the rest is subterfuge.’

We’ve already seen Jan Kott’s view of ‘the leap’ in King Lear: ‘The Shakespearean precipice at Dover exists and does not exist. It is the abyss, waiting all the time. The abyss, into which one can jump, is everywhere.’ The fact that Gloucester ‘does not jump from the top of the cliff’ became, for him, an example of ‘the paradox of pure theatre.’

Camus worked for much of his life in the theater, and the Myth of Sisyphus, a work of French philosophy, makes easy and regular reference to phrases from Hamlet and turns at key moments to King Lear, and indeed to Gloucester. ‘Take Shakespeare, for instance,’ he writes.

Never would King Lear keep the appointment set by madness without the brutal gesture that exiles Cordelia and condemns Edgar. It is just that the unfolding of that tragedy should thenceforth be dominated by madness. Souls are given over to the demons and their saraband. Now fewer than four madmen: one by trade, another by intention, and the last two through suffering – four disordered bodies, four unutterable aspects of a single condition.

One by trade – the Fool. Another by intention – the disguised Edgar as Poor Tom. The last two through suffering – Lear and Gloucester. And of Gloucester specifically, Camus writes, ‘In that short space of time [the actor] makes [him] come to life and die on fifty square yards of boards. Never has the absurd been so well illustrated or at such length.’

The actor, in fact, is one of Camus’s types of the absurd man:

[H]is vocation becomes clear: to apply himself wholeheartedly to being nothing or to being several. The narrower the limits allotted him for creating his character, the more necessary his talent. He will die in three hours under the mask he has assumed today. Within three hours he must experience and express a whole exceptional life. That is called losing oneself to find oneself. In those three hours he travels the whole course of the dead-end path that the man in the audience takes a lifetime to cover.

This passage brings us back to Endgame. Here there certainly is no ‘leap,’ since Hamm can’t stand and Clov can’t sit, and when Clov takes his ladder over to the window what he sees (even through the telescope) is ‘zero.’ The stage set, with its windows high on either side and the wheelchair/throne in the middle, might be imagined to look like the inside of a human head, the eyes on either side (seeing, like Hamm’s eyes, nothing). The first line of the play is a last line, Clov’s: ‘Finished, it’s finished, nearly finished, it must be nearly finished.’ The last line of the play is Hamm’s, as he has become finally, like Lear in the first act of his play, stripped of all possessions and relations: father, dog, whistle, Clov. Only the bloody handkerchief remains: ‘You…remain.’

When we look and listen closely to the play, the resonances are there. Hamm, as king, wants to make sure his chair is in the center, the very center. ‘Am I right in the center?’ ‘I’m, more or less in the center?’ ‘I feel a little too far to the left.’ ‘Now I feel  little too far too the right.’ ‘I feel a little too far forward.’ ‘Now I feel a little too far back.’ All this time, Clov is moving the chair.

Beckett’s favorite line in the play was said to be the exchange between Hamm and Clov about Nagg, Hamm’s father, who is in one of the dustbins:

Hamm:  What’s he doing?

Clov:  He’s crying.

Hamm:  Then he’s living.

It takes no stretch at all to recall here Lear’s ‘When we are born we cry that we are come/To this great stage of fools’ (4.7.176-77). There’s something of Lear and Cordelia here, too, again eviscerated of content.

Hamm’s question-and-answer game with Clov ends with Hamm’s expression of (apparent) pleasure: ‘I love the old questions. Ah, the old questions, the old answers, there’s nothing like them!’ But Clov doesn’t have the right answers, any more than Cordelia did at the beginning of King Lear.

Hamm:  Why do you stay with me?

Clov:  why do you keep me?

Hamm:  There’s no one else.

Clov:  There’s nowhere else.

Hamm:  You’re leaving me all the same.

Clov:  I’m trying.

Hamm:  You don’t love me.

Clov:  No.

Hamm:  You loved me once.

Clov:  Once!

Later in the play, Hamm demands of Clove ‘A few words…from your heart’ – and gets a toneless rambling narrative that ends with the notion that ‘the words that remain…have nothing to say.’ And Hamm repeats the word ‘Nothing’ as Clov prepared to depart. The short and funny exchange about Nature (‘Nature has forgotten us/there’s no more nature./…But we breathe, we change!/…Then she hasn’t forgotten us’) rivals, in its spareness, the eloquent invocations to an unresponsive Nature – and to truth – throughout Shakespeare’s play.”


So what do we think so far?  Thoughts?  Impressions?


Our next reading:  King Lear, Act Four

My next post:  Tuesday evening/Wednesday morning


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