“The worst is not/So long as we can say ‘This is the worst.’’’

King Lear

Act Four, Part Two

By Dennis Abrams


From Harold Bloom:

henryirvinglear“If we could speak of a poetic rather than dramatic center to the tragedy, we might choose the meeting between the mad King Lear and blind Gloucester in Act IV, Scene vi, lines 80-195. Sir Frank Kermode rightly remarks that the meeting in no way advances the plot, though it may well be the summit of Shakespeare’s art. As playgoers and readers, we concentrate on Lear and Gloucester, yet Edgar is the interlude’s chorus, and he has set the tonality of Act IV, in its opening lines, with their keynote in ‘The lamentable change is from the best;/The worst returns to laughter.’ The entry of the blinded Gloucester darkens that desperate comfort, compelling Edgar to the revision, ‘the worst is not/So long as we can say ‘This is the worst.’’ It will be the worst only when ‘the worst’ is already dead in our hearts. Gloucester, blinded and cast forth, is a paternal image suggestive enough to reilluminate even Lear’s outcast madness. Madness and blindness become a doublet profoundly akin to tragedy and love, the doublet that binds together the entire play. Madness, blindness, love, and tragedy amalgamate in a giant bewilderment.”


“Lear’s language achieves its apotheosis in his astonishing exchanges with the blinded Gloucester (Act IV, Scene vi, lines 86-185), after the mad king enters, ‘fantastically dressed with wild flowers.’ These hundred lines constitute one of Shakespeare’s assaults on the limits of art, largely because their pathos is unprecedented. After Gloucester recognizes Lear’s voice, the king chants an attack upon womankind so extreme that he himself calls for balm to sweeten his diseased sexual imagination.

     Ay, every inch a king:

When I do stare, see how the subject quakes.

I pardon that man’s life. What was thy cause?


Thou shalt not die: die for adultery! No:

The wren goes to’t, and the small gilded fly

Does lecher in my sight.

Let copulation thrive; for Gloucester’s bastard son

Was kinder to his father than my daughters

Got ‘tween the lawful sheets. To’t, Luxury, pell-mell!

For I lack soldiers. Behold yond simp’ring dame,

Whose face between her forks presages snow;

That minces virtue, and does shake the head

To hear of pleasure’s name;

The fitchew nor the soiled horse goes to’t

With a more riotous appetite.

Down from the waist they are Centaurs,

Though women all above:

But to the girdle do the Gods inherit,

Beneath is all the fiend’s: there’s hell, there’s darkness,

There is the sulphurous pit – burning, scalding,

Stench, consumption, fie, fie, fie! pah, pah!

Give me an ounce of civet, good apothecary,

To sweeten my imagination.

There’s money for thee.

Shakespeare, hardly a hater of women, risks this extremity precisely because Lear’s trouble authority has foundered where he thought it most absolute: in the relationship with his own daughters. Goneril and Regan have usurped authority; their nature is akin to Edmund’s idea of nature, rather than Lear’s, and so the mad king’s revulsion is from nature itself, not an idea but the fundamental fact of sexual difference. Shakespeare’s audience, women and men alike, jocularly accepted the slang of ‘hell’ for the vagina, but Lear may have startled even those happy to be entertained by the representation of madness. No exorcism applied only to women could solve Lear’s difficulties, every old man, as Goethe shrewdly wrote, is King Lear, exorcised by nature itself. ‘Sweeten my imagination’ is the deepest pathos of this passage, because it manifests the same Lear who soon proclaims to Gloucester, ‘There than might’st behold/The great Image of Authority:/A dog obey’d in office.’

This Lear is mad only as William Blake was mad, prophetically, against both nature and society. Edgar, agonizing at his godfather’s sufferings, cries, ‘Reason in madness,’ but that is not necessarily the audience’s perspective. Again as with Blake, Lear’s prophecy fuses reason, nature, and society into one great negative image, the inauthentic authority of this great stage of fools. We enter crying at our birth, knowing with Lear that creation and fall are simultaneous. This realization [continues] in Macbeth, where again the action takes place in the world that ancient Gnostics called the kenoma, or ‘emptiness.’ What can fatherhood be in the kenoma?  Mirrors and fatherhood alike are abominable, according to the modern gnostic Borges, because both multiply the images of men and of women. Lear’s terrible wisdom, far from being patriarchal, is as anti-patriarchal as the Wisdom of Solomon and as Ecclesiastes, whose ‘vanity’ is similar to the ‘emptiness’ of the Gnostics. ‘Nothing begets nothing’ could be the pragmatic motto of fatherhood in Lear’s play. Only Cordelia could refute that despair, and Lear also prophesies the drama’s great darkness when he emerges from madness to see Cordelia and to say, ‘You are a spirit, I know; where did you die?’


From Kermode:

Edwin Forrest as King Lear-sketch-Resized“The suitability of this play for such a [Theatre of Cruelty] is well suggested in IV.i, when Edgar congratulates himself on having fallen so deep into misery that he can fall no further, at which point his eyeless father enters and Edgar understands that as long as we are capable of saying we are ‘at the worst’ we have not yet reached that point: ‘the worst is not/So long as we can say, ‘This is the worst.’’  This might be the motto of the play, an unrelenting study in protraction; patience, which is continually recommended, is defeated by fortune, by nature, by the indifference of heaven to justice. Gloucester’s famous observation ‘As flies to wanton boys are we to th’ gods,/They kill us for their sport’ is often contradicted by other characters, including Albany, Cordelia, and eventually Gloucester himself, but in the context it carries conviction. When father and son have met, the old countryman brings to the naked tom ‘the best ‘parel that I have.’ He provides him with additions. There is something rather terrifying about the way in which, having created this nightmarish scenario, Shakespeare continues his clinical insistence on a linguistic subplot: ‘Tis the time’s plague, when madmen lead the blind’ …’the best ‘parel’…’naked fellow’…’Poor Tom’s a-cold’…’Bless thy sweet eyes, they bleed.’ Much of the effect of King Lear seems to me to arise from its own unsparing cruelty, which can sometimes seem to be an almost sadistic attitude to the spectator, an attitude enhanced by the coolness with which we are manipulated, forced to deal with a pain that does not hinder the poet from playing his terrible games.

The strongest hints that goodness can survive these trials come from Kent and, more strikingly, Albany; easily put down by his wife, Goneril, in the early scenes, Albany can now tell her she is ‘not worth the dust which the rude wind/Blows in [her] face’ (IV.ii.30-31). This fine speech reminds us of another Shakespearean style, the one in which an initial idea makes itself more complex in its expression:

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.


The sentiment is fairly clear in the first two lines, this is another excursion into the semantics of ‘nature’; and the second line carries the implication that Goneril’s contempt for her progenitor must be a kind of self-contempt which she will be unable to control. The remaining lines move silently to the image of the family as a tree; in destroying her father she must destroy herself, here represented as vegetation ruining itself; the ‘deadly use’ may be the equivalent of being burned. Goneril finds this ‘foolish,’ and Albany follows her contemptuous remark with the famous speech that ends:

If that the heavens do not their visible spirits

Send quickly down to tame these vild offenses,

It will come,

Humanity must perforce prey on itself,

Like monsters of the deep.


These lines are missing from the Folio and the cut is attributed by some to ‘authorial revision.’ The cut again diminishes any confidence that evil will be overthrown, and it certainly makes a difference to the character of Albany, but he is voicing a sentiment and a mood that are found throughout the play. A little later Lear takes Cordelia to be a visible ‘spirit’, another bleak, insane error. Albany is soon to say that the fate of Cornwall demonstrates that there are ‘justicers’ above, another remark that is stronger in the Folio, where the earlier pessimistic utterance is cut; but the concurrent lamentation for Gloucester’s eyes (72 twice, 81, 88, 96) restores the mood of despair and horror. There is something appalling about the thought of an author who will submit his characters and his audiences to such a test.

Lear_and_Cordelia_(1849-54)IV.iii is the scene, already mentioned, that was cut from the Folio text. In IV.iv we see something of the Cordelia that is log when the scene is excised. The lines ‘O dear father,’/It is thy business that I go about’ (23-24) inevitably recalls Luke 2:49: ‘I must be about my Father’s business.’ The echo is very bold, but probably without the allegorical significance sometimes attributed to it, for Lear is not God, and Cordelia could not save him, even if, absurdly, he would in that case have needed to be saved. Once again the effect is of a sort of authorial savagery; irony is too civilized a word for it.

Regan and Oswald are again at their horrible worst in IV.v (‘It was great ignorance, Gloucester’s eyes being out,/To let him live.’ Iv.vi is probably the cruelest and paradoxically the most beautiful scene in Shakespeare. Nowadays a comparison with Samuel Beckett seems inevitable. First there is the wild moment when Edgar leads his father to the edge of an imaginary cliff top and vividly describes to the blind man the nonexistent drop beneath him. Here the energy of the verse goes into imagining the scene: the birds are below them, and ‘Half way down/Hands one that gathers sampire, dreadful trade!’ Once more one feels that this trick, using great poetic resources is cruel; the scene must look either absurd or deeply shocking. One notices that Edgar insists on the ‘eyes’ anguish,’ on the act of casting down one’s eyes, on ‘the deficient sight,’ even as he is demonstrating what to see. He also contrives to mention his change of ‘garments.’ The obsession with additions and with vision is not peculiar to Edgar; he is serving the play as a whole. When he takes on his second role as the man who comes to the aid of Gloucester on the beach, he again stresses the vastness of the cliff face: ‘Do but look up./Alack, I have no eyes.’ Edgar tells his father that he has been preserved from a devil by ‘the clearest gods,’ a lie in the serviced of filial piety, followed by a plea for patience in circumstances that will make patience less and less useful or possible.

The hopelessness of patience is at once demonstrated when Gloucester encounters the mad King. The thread of sense in Lear’s ravings is his memory of kingship (‘they cannot touch me for coining’) and forfeited power, along with the ingratitude of his daughters. The King, accustomed to being the agent of justice, now finds he is human, and since man’s life is now known to be as cheap as beast’s, he concludes that crimes such as lechery should not be punished. But the great speech turns into a disgusted rejection of sexuality, stronger even than Iago’s. There follows an amazing passage in which the topics of the King’s mortal body, the authority of kings, justice, nature, clothes (additions), lust, eyesight, nothingness, and apocalypse are all introduced.

Glou:  O, let me kiss that hand!

Lear:  Let me wipe it first, it smells of mortality.

Glou:  O ruin’d piece of nature! This great world

Shall so wear out to nought. Dost thou know me?

Lear:  I remember thine eyes well enough. Dost thou squiny at me?

No, do they worst, blind Cupid, I’ll not love. Read thou this challenge;

mark but the penning of it.

Glou:  Were all thy letters suns, I could not see.

Lear:  Read.

Glou:  What, with the case of eyes?

Lear:  O ho, are you there with me? No eyes in your head, nor

money in your purse? Your eyes are in a heavy case, your purse in a

light, yet you see how this world goes.

Glou:  I see it feelingly.

Lear:  What, art mad? A man may see how this world goes with no

eyes. Look with thine ears…

learbarrettLear speaks prose and Gloucester verse. The prose is appropriate in the same way as Poor Tom’s; this is ‘matter and impertinency mix’d,/Reason in madness!’, which also resembles in some ways the Fool’s, for Lear is now, with the privilege of madness, playing a fool’s role, being ‘The natural fool of fortune.’ The dreadful emphasis on blindness is the prime mark of Lear’s madness and the play’s cruelty, but nothing could be more sanely calculated than this dialogue. At one point Lear takes over the talk, curses authority in disgusted verse, and advises Gloucester, ‘Get thee glass eyes,/And like a scurvy politician, seem/To see the thing thou dost not’ – after which he tries to remove his boots, and does remove his ‘natural’ crown of wildflowers and weeds; they have helped to cover the naked wretch. Offering Gloucester his eyes, Lear counsels him to be patient, for the world is so designed that endurance of sorrow is required from the moment of birth.

Gloucester, now acquainted with apparently inescapable demands for patience, is willing to call the gods ‘ever-gentle’ a view of them inconsistent with the arrival of Oswald, in search of Gloucester’s ‘eyeless head.’ Edgar dispatches this ‘post unsanctified/Of murtherous lechers,’ and Gloucester ends the scene wishing he could be as mad as the King.

     Better I were distract,

So should my thoughts be sever’d from my griefs,

And woes by wrong imagination lose

The knowledge of themselves.

This coiled sequence is characteristic of Shakespeare in this period: If I were mad, I should be unaware of my huge sorrows – that is the simple sense, but the idea grows complicated: thoughts and griefs are severed, as if one could experience griefs as griefs without being aware of them. That idea is then rephrased ‘wrong imaginations’ are crazy fantasies, which disable the holder of them from knowing about his woes.

When we think of Shakespeare’s imagination at its most incandescent, as perhaps we do in the foregoing dialogue between Gloucester and Lear, it is well to remember that the more normal business of playwriting can also be intellectually challenging; indeed, it habitually is so in Shakespeare, from Hamlet on. Cruelty is always a matter of a poet’s calculation, like Cornwall’s or Regan’s. Dr. Johnson said he could hardly beat to read Lear to its conclusion, and Keats spoke of having to burn through the ‘fierce dispute/Betwixt damnation and impassioned clay.’ Somewhere in our heads we have, as Johnson quite expressly had, a desire that some justice will prevail, that Cordelia should be allowed ‘to perish in a just cause, contrary to the natural ideas of justice, to the hope of the reader, and, what is yet more strange, to the faith of the chronicles.’ For although several versions of Cordelia survive in chronicles and other poems, including the old King Leir, on which Shakespeare drew, no Cordelia except his is murdered. Johnson seems to be expressing dismay at a cruelty inflicted on him personally, and I think he is not alone in feeling like that. There is a cruelty in the writing that echoes the cruelty of the story, a terrible calculatedness that puts one in mind of Cornwall’s and Regan’s. Suffering has to be protracted and intensified, as it were, without end.

The Book of Job, which was so obviously in the playwright’s mind, ends with Job’s patience rewarded and his goods restored; Lear has no such restoration. It is the imagery of torment proper to representations of the Last Judgment that we might find parallels; they envisage an endlessness of torture and are often beautiful. It is the play itself that is an ‘image of that horror.’

The King is captured and in friendly hands; the ‘kind gods’ appear to have relented; he sleeps and has been clothed in ‘fresh garments.’ Music plays (but only in the Quarto), and in Shakespeare music is often a signal of peace and reconciliation, as in The Merchant of Venice and Pericles. Here it is meant to  be a restorative, and is followed by the blissful recognition scene of Lear and Cordelia. It has extraordinary beauty, resembling the recognition scene in Pericles, which is an exercise in that mode of a virtuosity that betokens long research. There is forgiveness and mutual benediction, and no real reason to think they are not final; but of course they are not.”


And finally, from Tony Tanner, continuing from his discussion of the servant attacking Cornwall, and the issue of “taking preventative issue with evil, comes not from above, but from below, socially one of the lowest of the low.”

lear4“This raises the question of whether there is anything or anyone above in this world. There are many references to divinities and the gods (always ‘gods,’ generic and plural; there is no reference to ‘God’ as there is in Macbeth; there is no monotheism in this play). We have invoked – Hecate, Apollo, Jupiter, Juno; we have ‘heavens’ with their ‘visible spirits,’ ‘the stars above,’ ‘dearest gods,’ ‘ever-gentle gods,’ Fortune, Jove, even ‘fairies.’ We are told ‘the gods are just,’ ‘the gods are clear’ and pious references are made to ‘gods that we adore.’ When Albany hears of the servant’s killing Cornwall his reaction is:

This shows you are above,

You justicers.

(IV, ii, 78-9)

‘Thou, Nature, art my goddess’ – Edmund’s opening words, of course. But when Lear curses his ungrateful daughters, he, too divinizes Nature. ‘Here, Nature, hear; dear Goddess hear.’ What do these people believe? Are they pagans, pre-Christians, or what? (It is curiously hard to get a sense of the date and time of the action, even the place. No Elsinore, no Venice, no towns at all. In one of the oddest lines of the play the Fool says ‘This prophecy Merlin shall make, for I live before his time.’ It almost feels as though we are in pre-history.) Certainly, the very proliferation of divinities invoked makes it impossible to believe that these people live within any stable belief-system. There is a famous moment as the unbearable last scene comes to a climax:

Albany:  The gods defend her!

(Enter Lear, with Cordelia in his arms.)

If these gods are ‘justicers’ it is of the most inscrutable sort. Russel Fraser wants to say – ‘The Gods dispense justice. But they do not dispense poetic justice.’ He fastens on the fleeting presence of a vocabulary of ‘redemption’ in this play:

     Thou hast one daughter

Who redeems nature from the general curse

Which twain have brought her to.

(IV, vi, 208-10)

The ‘twain’ could be Goneril and Regan – or Adam and Eve. Robert Heilman finds some of Lear’s late speeches ‘permeated with Christian feeling’ – full of contrition, self-abasement, renunciation – and, in general, detects ‘a pervading consciousness of deity…a largely unconscious, habitual reliance upon divine forces whose primacy is unquestioned.  He points out that Edmund, Goneril, Regan, Cornwall, and Oswald never invoke gods (unless as public gesture) and never pray; while Cordelia, Kent, Albany, Edgar – and Lear – all pray. But Stephen Greenblatt thinks that, although people may pray, the gods never answer – which perhaps means there are no gods to answer. ‘King Lear is haunted by a sense of rituals and beliefs that are no longer efficacious, that have been emptied out. The characters appeal again and again to the pagan gods, but the gods are utterly silent. Nothing answers to human questions but human voices…’ These are not entirely unreconcilable positions. There seems to be a good deal of vague, instinctive piety – conventional? desperate? – in the play, but there is certainly not the slightest hint of divine response or intervention. If anything, Albany might have said ‘This shows you are below, you justicers’ – nature does seem slowly to correct and re-regulate itself, and it is thus appropriate that the first agent in the process is a figure with the lowliest social status in the play. There is also, perhaps, what Frank Kermode calls ‘a self-limiting factor in the nature of evil.’ If it happens that evil finally withers and exhausts itself, and that a few of the good characters are left alive – just – then it happens ‘per-force’ and not per-Jove or Jupiter or any other spirits or, indeed, fairies.”

Personally, I side with Greenblatt on this.  What are your thoughts so far?  Redemption?  Gods?  Anything and everything else?

And as a weekend bonus (and to keep it short so you all can catch up…)

This from Hazlitt:

We wish that we could pass this play over, and say nothing about it. All that we can say must fall far short of the subject; or even of what we ourselves conceive of it. To attempt to give a description of the play itself or of its effect upon the mind, is mere impertinence: yet we must say something.—It is then the best of all Shakespear’s plays, for it is the one in which he was the most in earnest. He was here fairly caught in the web of his own imagination. The passion which he has taken as his subject is that which strikes its. root deepest into the human heart; of which the bond is the hardest to be unloosed; and the cancelling and tearing to pieces of which gives the greatest revulsion to the frame. This depth of nature, this force of passion, this tug and war of the elements of our being, this firm faith in filial piety, and the giddy anarchy and whirling tumult of the thoughts at finding this prop failing it, the contrast between the fixed, immoveable basis of natural affection, and the rapid, irregular starts of imagination, suddenly wrenched from all its accustomed holds and resting-places in the soul, this is what Shakespear has given, and what nobody else but he could give. So we believe.—The mind of Lear, staggering between the weight of attachment and the hurried movements of passion, is like a tall ship-driven about by the winds, buffeted by the furious waves, but that still rides above the storm, having its anchor fixed in the bottom of the sea; or it is like the sharp rock circled by the eddying whirlpool that foams and beats against it, or like the solid promontory pushed from its basis by the force of an earthquake.

And finally…

On Sitting Down to Read King Lear Once Again

By John Keats

O golden-tongued Romance with serene lute!
   Fair plumed Syren! Queen of far away!
   Leave melodizing on this wintry day,
Shut up thine olden pages, and be mute:
Adieu! for once again the fierce dispute,
   Betwixt damnation and impassion’d clay
   Must I burn through; once more humbly assay
The bitter-sweet of this Shakespearian fruit.
Chief Poet! and ye clouds of Albion,
   Begetters of our deep eternal theme,
When through the old oak forest I am gone,
   Let me not wander in a barren dream,
But when I am consumed in the fire,
Give me new Phoenix wings to fly at my desire.

My next post:  Sunday evening/Monday morning – more on Act Four.

Enjoy.  And enjoy your weekend.

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1 Response to “The worst is not/So long as we can say ‘This is the worst.’’’

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