“A man may see how this world goes with no eyes. Look with thine ears.”

King Lear

Act Four, Part Three

By Dennis Abrams


Before we dive into Act Five, I thought a few “lighter” pieces to start with might be in order…

First, from Living With Shakespeare, James Earl Jones’ take on Lear:

Rene-as-Edgar-in-King-Lear-1974-rene-auberjonois-11718537-919-632Lear starts out as an issue of King Lear’s will and his reason. He has lost his reason to begin with, and he is just acting on his will: his will to be king, and his will to retire the way he wants to retire. He’s like a grumpy old man who wants everything his way. Does he want to divide his kingdom equally? No, he wants to sponge off his daughters, one after the other. But without his reason, his will alone can defend him for only so long against the rise of his own tragic confusion.

Lear utters that chilling plea ‘O, let me not be mad’ – but how would that be worse than what’s already happening? He is already in the grip of his confusion, which is that he doesn’t know where the fault lies, and that he doesn’t want to accept the responsibility himself. Lear never goes mad; what he suffers from are severe exhaustion and exposure. [MY NOTE:  Really?]  He never loses his mind; he gains his awakening. This occurs on the heath, which is a moonscape devoid of all the comforts of humanity where nature hammers the characters out into what they really are and breaks them down into the elements, the bare essentials. He starts calling Edgar ‘philosopher’ because he sees that in the simplicity of a man who has nothing, whose ass is hanging out of his clothes, there is wisdom. ‘Is man no more than this?’ he asks. ‘Consider him well. Thou ow’st the worm no silk, the beast no hide, the sheep no wool, the cat no perfume,’ and then determines, ‘Thou art the thing itself: unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor, bare, forked animal as thou art.’ Lear wants that wisdom, and then he starts gaining that wisdom – which is what he needed all along. Lear goes on to the wisdom he finds only by acknowledging that, in contrast with his previous indulgences as king, there are poor people out there in the storm who are freezing to death.

Poor naked wretches, whereso’er you are,

That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,

How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,

Your lopped 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.

That recognition replaces him in society; it repositions him in humanity. A man is king when he finally learns to accept responsibility for his own actions, and his own life, and if there’s any lesson Lear learns in this play it’s what it means to rule, and to fail to rule, over himself.

Lear accepts his responsibility early enough to save his own character; but the tragedy must play out.”


And from the same book, by Royal Shakespeare Company Director of Voice Cicely Berry, “King Lear in Retrospect”:

“I was truly delighted when, in 1988, I had the opportunity to direct King Lear. Tony Hill was Head of Education at the Royal Shakespeare Company at the time and I was Head of Voice, and he asked me if I would like to direct a Shakespeare play which would be performed in The Other Place, and around which we could arrange a number of open workshops. These workshops would focus on Shakespeare’s language and would be practical, with those attending participating in the work. I agreed – a little nervously.

The idea was two fold; first, to see what would happen when a play was directed beginning from an awareness of the language of the text; second, to then perform such a piece specifically with a school’s audience in mind. The project spoke to two sides of my love of the work I do: exploring and developing the use of the voice in communicating Shakespearean poetic thought, and sharing Shakespeare with both acting professionals and young people. I had got to know Tony Hill in the early 1980s when the Company had started their annual visits to Newcastle, and where I led workshops for schools and youth centers. One of these was Backworth Youth Center, which was run by Tony; we worked together well and became close friends. Later, when the Company started up its education programme, Tony was asked to head the department which he did – and our work was able to develop accordingly. The King Lear project was an important test of this – and I think it worked.

Because I feel so strongly that we cannot understand Shakespeare fully until we inhabit the language in our bodies as well as our minds, I looked on this as a great opportunity to test my beliefs in a full production of the play. It was a way of testing out the strategies and exercises I had developed doing such workshops in schools, colleges, and youth centers in order to enrich student’s understanding of the text, and thus their understanding of the character. I was then also working with professional actors at the RSC and elsewhere who had not done this work in rehearsal before: the production was very successful, and I felt it proved my point. The work was thereafter taken seriously as part of the rehearsal process.

The production was to be staged in the old Other Place, I say old, because it had been a tin shed which housed theatre costumes and which was converted into a studio theatre by Buzz Goodbody in 1974. With both her vision and her strong political beliefs, Buzz created a space for both modern and classical work, which would change the actor/audience relationship, and create an environment in which the audience could feel a part of the work itself —  it was affectionately known as the ‘Tin Hut.’ In 1989 it was deemed unsafe and so was pulled down. The new TOP (The Other Place) building was unveiled in 1991, but in spite of its facilities and its elegance, it does not have quite the ambience of that original ‘other’ place.

Looking back, I realize that my choice of King Lear was an ambitious one, to say the last’ but my reason at the time for choosing it was that the language offered such wonderful possibilities not only for the actors to work on and discover, but also to share with those coming to the workshops. I wanted to approach the play by speaking first, and listening to the movement and texture of the language, before coming to conclusions about character, place, and relationships. I wanted to hear where the language takes us.


Having decided on the play, my next thought was to ring Edward Bond to find out his vision of the play. I believe that every play has a centre image, an idea, a feeling, around which the play revolves, and of course Edward Came up with his unique vision; he said something like this: ‘It is a play where people are getting on and off trains with a lot of luggage.’ And that became my centre image.


I think King Lear is probably the greatest play ever written; I am sure I am not alone in this. But to me it is also a great Marxist play, for I do not believe it is a play about Lear getting old and losing his wits – that makes it sentimental. I believe Lear goes on a journey from first being ruler of a kingdom, then being rejected by his daughters, through madness on the heath, to finally realizing that he is but a man – like any other – and that he has not fulfilled his duty as a man.

Here are four key speeches which illustrate this. First, his opening speech as the King in Act 1, Scene 1:

Meantime we shall express our darker purpose.

Give me the map there.

(Kent or an Attendant gives Lear a map)

     Know that we have divided

In three our kingdom, and ‘tis our fast intent

To shake all cares and business from our age,

Conferring them on younger strengths while we

Unburdened crawl toward death.

Next, in Act 2, Scene 2, after Goneril and Regan have both disempowered him by denying him his followers, he knows he must take action in order to find himself again:

     I will do such things –

What they are yet I know not, but they shall be

The terrors of the earth! You think I’ll weep:

No, I’ll not weep: I have full cause of weeping,

(Storm and tempest)

But this heart shall break into a hundred thousand flaws,

Or ere I’ll weep. O fool, I shall go mad!

Thirdly, on the heath with Kent and the Fool in Act 3, Scene 4, as he experiences the full force of the storm, he sends the Fool into the hovel:

In, boy, go first. –

             You houseless poverty –

Nay, get the in. – I’ll pray, and I’ll sleep.

(Exit the Fool)

Poor naked wretches, whereso’er you are,

That bide the pelting of this pitless storm,

How shall your boundless heads and unfed sides,

Your lopped 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.

Here, the realization of what poverty really means, and his own failure in attending to it, becomes apparent to him.

Lastly, a little later in the scene, after Edgar has entered disguised as Poor Tom, Lear says to him:

Is man no more than this? Consider him well. Thou ow’st the worm no silk, the beast no hide, the sheep no wool, the cat no perfume. Ha? Here’s three on’s are sophisticated. 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. (Tears off his clothes)

And so he embraces his own nakedness, his own situation of having nothing.

There are two other lines which always remain with me:  Lear’s

Is there any cause in nature that makes these hard hearts?

and Edgar’s

The worst is not

So long as we can say ‘This is the worst.’

But the centre line of the play for me has to be Gloucester’s words

So distribution should undo excess,

And each man have enough.

So how to make this huge play work in a small studio space, with limited resources and a very limited rehearsal time: that was my journey. We had to create the world through the language. I am just going to set out two instances of the work we did.

The first was this: at the end of the second week, after we had worked on each scene, and although the actors did not know their lines completely, I asked them to run the play through to clarify their own story line, and to work out their particular characters’ journeys. But I asked them to do it in a very special way: with the help of our resourceful Stage Management, each actor had a lot of luggage, cases, and boxes, etc., and I asked them to work through the play in the order of their own scenes. If scenes in the play were played simultaneously in time, then they were played simultaneously in the space, but at no time could they leave the building – they had to keep on the moving carrying their luggage around the space. As you will obviously gather, this strategy was inspired by Edward Bond’s words. At the same time I gave each actor a simple task to do at some time during the run: for instance, I asked the Fool to tell at least two jokes out to the audience while running the play.

The result was chaotic, but in a very positive way, for with it came a great sense of the urgency of the play. King Lear was thrown off centre stage, and scenes kept erupting all over the place. At one point Cordelia, played in Stratford by Maureen Beattie, drove off in her Fiat with the King of France, and when she returned she sent letters to Kent via the Stage Manager. This may seem absurd, but it most definitely made her aware of her distance from Lear and her need to make contact with him. I also wanted us all to get a sense of the land and the spaces they had to travel between castles, and also of the nameless inhabitants of that land. The actors became totally immersed in their own story through the play, and we were made aware of the extraordinary dynamic of that journey and of the distance traveled. That awareness stayed with them throughout rehearsal.

Perhaps the key work was done on the storm, which evolved through the whole rehearsal period. It started like this: as Lear began his speech to the storm

Blow winds and crack your cheeks! Rage, blow…

the actors would surround him and throw the words back at him. But as we got further into rehearsal it got rougher, for, as well as bombarding him with words, perhaps sentences from their own characters, they would also throw light objects at him to represent twigs and leaves etc., so that the story was palpable to Lear, both by the noise around him, and by the words in his own head. It became a storm both inside and outside himself.

Tim Olivor, who was our Sound Designer, recorded all this: sometimes the words were whispered, sometimes shouted, and he remembers that at one point when he was recording, an actor sneezed, and this became the noise which accompanied the blinding of Gloucester. The recorded sounds were distorted, either by slowing them down or speeding them up. Tim was extremely imaginative in the way he worked all this, and in the subliminal way it was used throughout the play: he was also able to give a ‘sound’ presence to the hundred knights.

Now, for the design, Chris Dyer wrote at the time:

‘The design ‘idea’ came after the main staging had been decided on. What should the map be? Why not draw it on the floor? Seems a good idea and a rough drawing was done. It then became obvious that what should happen is for the pieces of map to break and fall apart, creating different layers and planes.’

And that is exactly what happened. The cement stage floor broke into three pieces, and it was quite literally an earth-shifting moment, for it took us right into the world of the heath: it also spoke vividly of the divided nation and the broken world of Lear’s mind. No image could have expressed this more potently.”

I’m not sure if I would have loved or hated this production, but it sounds fascinating, nonetheless.


From actor Brian Cox, from the same book, from his essay “I Say it is the Moon,” talking about psychological states and changes caused by shifts in “order”:

David-Bradley-as-the-Fool-002“Even King Lear deals with a psychological state similar to that in the high romances of As You Like It and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, because the order is out of whack. Lear makes bad decision after bad decision, beginning with dividing his kingdom and then giving it away, and for him the world turns upside-down. He has been thrust out of the patriarchal order he created, he sustained, and in which he was at the top. It was a bad decision, but it was a generous decision – and at the same time it was a self-indulgent decision, coming from the desire to retire in ease and revelry, with no cares of governance, and no responsibility for his people. Moreover, though, it was also an understandable decision, because he’s a man who is coming to the end of his life. He can see his intimations of mortality, and the one thing that has been missing in his life and that he is desperate for is an affirmation of love. He knows that he has not been a great father and he is trying to make amends, and although his youngest daughter does love him despite his bad parenting, she doesn’t say it. You can’t ask people to say that they love you, since they either do or they don’t, and you can’t buy their love either, since it’s not a commodity – but those are the lessons he has to learn. His decision to divide his kingdom was therefore also made out of his need for love.

Cordelia sees what her father is doing, but it’s not a conversation to be had at a formal gathering. She knows he’s overturning the order, and making it unnatural, both in governance and in his family, and she can’t agree – she can’t bend to it. Katherine [MY NOTE:  In The Taming of the Shrew] can, but she’s in a comedy – hers is a problem play, yet at least it’s one with a reasonably happy ending. Cordelia ends up dead, and Lear ends up dead, and it’s because they can’t survive the upending of power based on an unnatural bargain that results in a state of madness, both social and personal. Edgar can survive – he becomes king at the end – but the only way he can survive is by pretending to be even madder than the world itself.  [MY NOTE:  Yes.]  You have to make decisions, you have to think on your feet, you have to keep up with changes when changes are needed and there are tough times. Edgar becomes Poor Tom, Rosalind becomes Ganymede, and the shrew Katherine becomes the good wife – and they make it out of the chaos they’re in with a clearer understanding and better ability to live with the necessary orders of the world.”


From the same book, from Camille Paglia’s essay “Teaching Shakespeare to Actors”:

King Lear too opens with characters entering midconversation: the Earls of Gloucester and Kent are sharing worrisome political rumors when the subject takes a personal and indiscreet turn. Each production of Lear must decide how much, if any, of this humiliating talk is heard by Gloucester’s bastard son, the embittered and soon malevolent Edmund. Some show of overfamiliar, leaning-in body language seems implied in Gloucester’s lines, as he tastelessly boasts to Kent about the ‘good sport’ had with a nameless pretty wench at Edmund’s accidental conception. Kent’s discomfort at this coarse sniggering is blatant, as he vainly tries to restore a dignified tone. Ideally, the audience should probably read the body language of Gloucester and Kent exactly as Edmund is reading it: Gloucester’s bumptious insensitivity met by Kent’s embarrassed unease. Before we have even heard Edmund speak, therefore, we already have a clue about the formation of his sociopathic character, hardened by routine discrimination and abuse – a prime example of Shakespeare’s prescient anticipation of modern social psychology.


Nationalism, customarily portrayed today as a crucible of war, imperialism, and xenophobia, is a positive value in Shakespeare. Nation-states had emerged in the Middle Ages as a consolidation of dukedoms, an administrative streamlining that, at its best, expanded trade, advanced knowledge, and reduced provincialism. This progressive movement of history is the major theme of King Lear, where Lear’s foolish choice to divide his kingdom (which he does not possess but holds in trust) plunges it backward toward chaos and barbarism, reducing the king himself to a nomad battered by the elements. Unless they know European history well, most American actors rarely notice the nationalistic motifs in Shakespeare. In Lear, for example, the invasion of Britain by France – even though it promises rescue by the forces of good (Cordelia is now the queen of France) – creates patriotic conflicts for a British audience that Americans will not feel.”


From the same book, from actor Tobias Menzies’ essay “Method and Madness,” continuing his comparison of madness in Lear and Hamlet.

edgar menzies“…at the end of Lear, Edgar is left behind, on the blasted heath, if you will. No bright light is being extinguished at the end of Lear, whereas a radiant light is being extinguished at the end of Hamlet. Hamlet is like a star, burning out. The texture of the tragedy at the end of Lear is very different from that at the end of Hamlet: there is nothing elegiac or redemptive about the end of Lear.

I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Shakespeare was a real magpie in terms of stealing from personalities he knew in his life. Obviously he was a person who moved through different strata of society. Like a real Renaissance man, he seems to have had a handle on life from the tavern to the court and everything in between. For example, Polonius, in Hamlet, is a fantastic realization of a bumptious old man, and even if Shakespeare wasn’t that himself, he certainly knew who that sort of person was, and must have spent time around that sort of person to come up with such a loving portrayal. It’s almost like he’s looking through that set of eyes, and that’s true of so many of his characters.

The idea of seeing as another sees, or trying to see where another can no longer see, is central to Lear. When Edgar meets his father, Gloucester, on the heath he responds in a very esoteric way. His father has been blinded, and he wants to die. Edgar then creates an imaginative and psychological journey for his father in which he will pass through death, in which he will believe that he has thrown himself from a cliff and that he has survived. Through that, Edgar hopes to lead his father to a more benign acceptance of his fate. It’s incredibly strange. When we were doing that, [director Rupert Goold] was interested in sucking all the sentimentality from that scene, to have Edgar set up an existential laboratory in which he says, ‘I’m going to lead my father through this set of experiences, and see how he responds.’ Edgar is trying to lead his father out of despair, but rather than using kindness he uses a rigorous existentialism. Edgar does not comfort his father; he does not say, ‘Dad, don’t worry, I’m here. I’m your son. Everything’s going to be fine.’ Instead he says, ‘You want to die, and rightly so. Terrible things have happened to you.’ The proposition is that the only real cure is to actually look at what it is to die, and so Edgar creates this existential experiment.

Just before Edgar meets his father, he mocks the heavens:

     Welcome, then,

Thou unsubstantial air that I embrace!

The wretch that thou hast blown unto the worst

Owes nothing to thy blasts.

This is a brazen statement of self-realiziation against the fates. And then he meets his blinded father, and he has that incredible line, ‘the worst is not/So long as we can say ‘This is the worst.’”

What I get from that moment is that he realizes that you have to go through life: you never escape it. You have to go through experience: you can’t go around it. In Peer Gynt, a voice cries, ‘Go roundabout, Peer!’ and he responds, ‘No, through.’ There’s no getting out of pain and suffering. That idea goes to the very heart of Shakespeare’s play. There’s something in it that’s quasi-religions, in a way. ‘Thy life’s a miracle,’ says Edgar. To live is to endure, to suffer, and at the same time it’s also a blessing. You suffer, and you have go through to the end of your suffering before you turn the corner, or before you can shuffle off this mortal coil. As Edgar says, ‘Men must endure/Their going hence, even as their coming hither:/Ripeness is all.’”

[MY NOTE:  Echo of Hamlet’s “The readiness is all?”]


And finally, a bit more from Marjorie Garber’s essay on Lear in Shakespeare and Modern Culture:

lear-gloucester-cliff“The word ‘absurd’ comes from a root that means inharmonious or deaf, insufferable to the ear. Remember Edgar and Gloucester in the Dover Cliff scene:

Edgar:  Hark, do you hear the sea?

Gloucester:  No, truly.

Edgar:  Why, then, your other sense grow imperfect

By your eyes’ anguish.

And the mad Lear to the blind Gloucester at the end of act 4: ‘A man may not see how this world goes with no eyes. Look with thine ears.’

In Endgame, Beckett has a little joke about this, too, in the conversation between the two aged parents stuck in the ashbins:

Our sight has failed.


Can you hear me?



Our hearing hasn’t failed.

Our what?

Our hearing.

Throughout the play we hear questions like Kent’s ‘Is this the promised end?’ and Edgar’s ‘Or image of that horror?’ – but here without any context:

What’s happening?

Something is taking its course.

We’re not beginning…too…too…mean something?

But perhaps the most powerful refrain in the play is Hamm’s constant call for his painkiller. Is it time yet? Not yet. Is it time yet? Not yet. Is it time yet? Not yet. And finally it is time…and there is no more painkiller.

Lear’s play starts with passion, and ends with compassion:


He hates him much

That would upon the rack of this tough world

Stretch him out longer.

Hamm’s play starts and ends with the notion that it is his move. ‘Me –/–to play’ are his very first words, and we hear them again near the close:


Cover me with the sheet.

No? Good.

Me to play.

And Act Without Words ends without words: ‘He does not move…He looks at his hands.’

They, too, smell of mortality.

King Lear and Endgame are both concerned with stripping, divesture, and loss. Lear’s discovery that mankind is a ‘bare, forked animal’ – ‘the thing itself’ – les at the heart of this comparison.

These lines come in the storm scene, act 3, scene 4, when Lear confronts Poor Tom (the disguised Edgar) and asks him not who he is, but who he has been. Edgar replies with a speech right out of the social satire of the time: ‘A servingman, proud in heart and mind, that curled my hair, wore gloves in my cap, served the lust of my mistress’ heart, and did the act of darkness with her…Wine loved I deeply, dice dearly, and in woman, out-paramoured the Turk.’ This is a social critique of the excesses of the court – Lear, the made Lear, penetrates to the essential human animal behind the social, erotic, and cultural veneer: ‘Poor Tom’ is, says Lear, better off as he is than as he was: ‘thou art the thing itself. Unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor, bare, forked animal as thou art.’

And Lear now tries to emulate this state of ‘unaccommodation’ tearing off his own clothing: ‘Off, off, you lendings! come unbutton here.’

In Beckett’s Endgame, not only are the characters pared down to the essentials of living – Hamm, Clov, Nagg, and Neil in their ashbins – but also the stage, and indeed the language of the play, is reduced, or expanded, to ‘the thing itself’ – unadorned, bare, forked (mildly ridiculous), and, paradoxically, therefore ennobled.

1129Lear’s recognition of Poor Tom as a version of himself – a poor, bare, forked animal – was anticipated by his encounter with his daughters Goneril and Regan at the end of act 2, in that terrible scene where they begin, mathematically, to strip him of his knights and entourage. Lear had wanted a ‘reservation’ of one hundred knights – that is, to keep one hundred knights for his own private service even as he prepared to abdicate his throne.

In act 2, scene 2, Goneril tells Lear that he can indeed come to her household for a time, but only if he dismisses ‘half your train,’ keeping only fifty knights. The desperate Lear looks about him for comfort, and turns to the other daughter, Regan: ‘I can be patient, I can stay with Regan,/I and my hundred knights.’

‘Not altogether so,’ says Regan. In fact, not so at all. Regan agrees with her sister. ‘What, fifty followers?’/Is it not well? What should you need of more?’ She continues:

If you will come to me –

…I entreat you

To bring but five-and-twenty. To no more

Will I give place or notice.

So Lear turns back to Goneril:

   I’ll go with thee;

Thy fifty yet doth double five-and-twenty.

And thou art twice her love.


Hear me, my lord.

What need you five-and-twenty, ten, or five?

To follow in a house where twice so many

Have a commend to tend you?


What need one?

This methodical – and mathematical – stripping is what leads immediately then, to Lear’s great speech about necessity, and thus to the storm scene:

O, reason not the need! Our basest beggars

Are in the poorest things superfluous.

Allow not nature more than nature needs,

Man’s life is cheap as beast’s. Thou art a lady;

If only to go warm were gorgeous,

Why, nature needs not what thou gorgeous wear’st.

Which scarcely keeps thee warm. But, for true need –

You heavens, give me that patience, patience I need!

In this magnificent speech, his invocation to the gods, his imprecations on his daughters, and his pledge not to weep are followed by the stage direction ‘Storm and tempest,’ as nature weeps for him, and he leaves the stage with the Fool – ‘O fool, I shall go mad.’

While much attention at mid-century was devoted to the existential Lear, the Lear of conscious absurdity in an already grotesque world, another strand of political thinking was directed at the play’s social and economic relevance to the present day.  When the political scientist Marshall Berman came to write his book All That is Solid Melts into Air: The Experience of Modernity, he read the lines about ‘unaccommodated man’ from King Lear in the context of a passage of Marx from the Communist Manifesto about stripping and nakedness:

‘The bourgeoisie has stripped of its halo every occupation hitherto honored and looked up to with reverent awe…The bourgeoisie has torn away from the family its sentimental veil, and turned the family relation into a pure money relation…In place of exploitation veiled by religious and political illusions, it has put open, shameless, direct, naked exploitation.’

For Berman, this passage seemed directly to invoke King Lear. ‘The dialectic of nakedness that culminates in Marx,’ he wrote, ‘is defined at the very start of the modern age, in Shakespeare’s King Lear. For Lear, the naked truth is what a man is forced to face when he has lost everything that other men can take away, except life itself. We see his voracious family, aided by his own blind vanity, tear away the sentimental veil.

Existentialist critics had focused on Lear’s madness and, especially, on the scene of Gloucester’s ‘leap.’ Marxist and social critics pointed toward another key moment – Lear’s realization, in the midst of the storm, that he was now suffering as others in his land had long suffered.

Poor naked wretches, whereso’er you are,

That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,

How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,

Your loop’d and windowed raggedness defend you

From seasons such as these? O, I have ta’en

Too little care of this! Take physic, pomp;

Expose yourself to feel what wretches feel,

That thou mayst shake the superflux to them,

And whos the heavens more just.

To many in the sixties and seventies, these lines seemed to describe a disparity between rich and poor, privileged and underprivileged, that spoke of ‘now’ rather than ‘then.’ Berman, writing in the wake of these concerns, made the link to theory and to Marx. ‘Shakespeare is telling us,’ Berman says, ‘that the dreadful naked reality of the ‘unaccommodated man’ is the point from which accommodation must be made, the only ground on which real community can grow.’ This is Shakespeare applied, as if he were himself writing a manifesto. ‘Marx’s hope is that once the unaccommodated men of the working class are ‘forced to face…the real conditions of their lives and their relations with their fellow men,’ they will come together to overcome the cold that cuts through them all..’ Thus ‘one of the Manifesto’s primary aims is to point the way out of the cold, to nourish and focus the common yearning for communal warmth.’

Berman is interested, but somewhat skeptical. ‘It isn’t hard to imagine alternate endings to the dialectic of nakedness,’ he suggests, endings far less ideal or idealized. And he speculates, too, about the changes that modernism has brought:

raja-lear-bhuthiadia-sharad-1993-40‘The nature of the newly naked modern man may turn out to be just and mysterious as that of the old, clothed one, maybe even more elusive, because there will no longer be any illusion of a real self underneath the masks. Thus, along with community and society, individuality itself may be melting into the modern air.’

The final phrase is again from Marx (‘all that is solid melts into air’) but it could, of course, come from Shakespeare, from The Tempest: ‘Our revels now are ended,/These our actors/As I foretold you, are all spirits,/And are melted into air, into thin air.’

Samuel Beckett’s Endgame, first performed in 1957, had become a modernist classic. Its hypertheatricality, its spareness, its ferocious humor, and its combination of philosophical abstraction and residual pathos made it an iconic work for its time. A decade and a half later, when the British playwright Edward Bone came to write his own Lear, the darkness remained, but the dramatic mode shifted into something much closer to Grand Guignol, or to the horror film – or to the news of the world.

Endgame was a kind of astringent philosophical redaction of the essence of King Lear. The characters in Beckett’s play do not bear the same names as those in Shakespeare’s. In fact the name of the central figure, Hamm, has led some critics to associate him with Hamlet rather than with Lear. Yet the visions, or blindnesses, of King Lear and Endgame brought them, at mid-century, into a compelling relationship with each other. Beckett derealized the ‘bare, forked animal’ that Lear noticed in the storm and recognized not only as Poor Tom, or the Fool, but also as himself. The language of Beckett’s play is minimal, its resonances vast. Its mode, we might say, is allegorical, but it is an allegory of a state of mind, not of a narrative. It performs a condition. Something that, if the phrase had not been made banal by overuse, we might call ‘the human condition.’ It performs, that is to say, a condition very like the condition encountered in, and by, Lear. Or by, at least, the King Lear staged and performed (and then filmed) by Peter Brook – a Lear that had been, of course, inspired and motivated by Brook’s own encounter with Jan Kott’s Shakespeare Our Contemporary and its key chapter, ‘King Lear or Endgame.’ So that, in a nice reversal of literary history, critics could come to say things like this: ‘Brook’s production reclaimed Shakespeare’s text for a post-Holocaust age by highlighting (often grotesquely) its bleakest, most Beckettian aspects.’ Shakespeare has thus become Beckettian.”


So gang…your thoughts?  What do you think of the play?  The commentary?  Share your thoughts with the group!


Our next reading:  King Lear Act Five

My next post:  Tuesday evening/Wednesday morning.


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5 Responses to “A man may see how this world goes with no eyes. Look with thine ears.”

  1. GGG says:

    I finished the play this weekend. Wow! I know there are lots of ways of categorizing Shakespeare’s plays–for me I’ve decided on “flowery” versus “muscular.” Pardon me if this sounds goofy.

    This is definitely one of the “muscular” plays–like a fist beating us down further and further into despair.

    I liked the idea of the version of Lear with the luggage and maps–perhaps more than some of the others this seems a play so elemental that the background scenery almost doesn’t matter.

  2. GGG says:

    I should say that “flowery” versus “muscular” for me relates to the language in the plays–Lear’s language seems stripped down and lean.

    • GGG: I see your point, although I’m not sure I’d refer to some of Lear’s ravings as stripped down and lean. I was thinking about your initial comment last night, and it occurred to me that another way of looking at it was “romantic” versus “realistic.” Maybe, anyway. Thoughts? And you’re definitely right about the non-need for background scenery.

  3. GGG says:

    Yes, I meant the play as a whole, not particularly Lear! Sorry. Maybe what I meant to say is that the language in the play is less convoluted than in some of the other plays. Lear’s ravings were easier for me to understand–maybe the language, maybe we have gotten better at reading it.

    I thought it was an interesting point brought up by James Earl Jones that Lear may not really be “mad” when he is naked and wearing flowers for a crown, but actually has finally gained the wisdom that it’s not external trappings that make someone “kingly” or a good person in general. Of course Lear still wants to kill all his enemies, so he hasn’t really become a completely blissed-out pacifist.

    Sure, romantic vs. realistic sounds good. It’s really comedy versus tragedy, I know. I guess the history plays are in the middle somewhere.

    • GGG: Personally, I think a good part of it is that (a) we’ve all learned how to READ Shakespeare and (b) he’s at the peak of his powers his career, and a far better writer than he was, let’s say, around the time of Henry VI, Part Two.

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