“The oldest hath borne most; we that are young/Shall never see so much, nor live so long.”

King Lear

Act Five, Part Four

By Dennis Abrams

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To continue with Mark Van Doren:

lear jacoby“As the third act opens we listen to a gentleman telling Kent that Lear has made the plunge: he has disappeared into a world which is all foul weather and inhuman storm, he tears his white hair in the blast and

Scriver in his little world of man to out-scorn

The two-and-fro-conflicting wind and rain.

Then we see the thing itself, and hear it:

Rumble thy bellyful! Spit, fire! Spout, rain!

Nor rain, wind, thunder, fire, are my daughters

I tax not you, you elements, with unkindness.

But we have yet to learn that Lear does not feel thunder and rain as other men feel them; that they have become symbols under which he can find a sort of shelter. He explains to Kent at the hovel:

Thou think’st is much that this contentious storm

Invades us to the skin; so ‘t is to thee;

But where the greater malady is fix’d,

The lesser is scarce felt…When the mind’s free,

The body’s delicate; the tempest in my mind

Doth from my senses take all feeling else

Save what beats there.

(III, iv, 6-14)

And we have yet to listen as he tears off both his actual and his mental clothes, pressing fiercely against the nude secret of nature in the mad hope of entering it at last.

Thou were better in a grave than to answer with thy uncover’d body this extremity of the skies. 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.

Man delighted not Hamlet, but he was still accommodated, if only with suits of vapors over his head. Lear has stripped himself to the thing itself, and it is poor and bare. Not that he is satisfied, for his thirst is absolute and cannot be quenched.

They flatter’d me like a dog, and told me I had the white hairs in my beard ere the black ones were there. To say ‘ay’ and ‘no’ to everything that I said!…Go to, they are not men o’ their words; they told me I was everything; ‘tis a lie, I am not ague-proof.

(IV, vi, 98-107)

They told him he was everything, and now he must be nothing. So must the world with its mockery virtue; he will tear the fine clothes off of every simpering lecher this side of hell. Like Hamlet and Othello, and like Timon…he grows suddenly and cynically gross, laying the whip of obscenity on:

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

Adultery?

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 you 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 the gods inherit,

Beneath is all the fiends’;

There’s hell, there’s darkness, there’s the sulphurous pit, burning, scalding, stench, consumption; fie, fie, fie! pah, pah!

Give me an ounce of civet; good apothecary, sweeten my imagination.

(IV, vi, 111-33)

Such is the terrible progress of Lear to the point where at least he has no longer the strength to rage and is found by the sentries of Cordelia, whose giving him into the hands of a doctor does not save him any more than Edmund’s repentance saves her. No happy ending was thinkable for a hero who had learned so much so late. There is a lull before the end, a hesitation on the brink of serenity that reminds us of Hamlet when he returns from England and talks with Horatio in the churchyard, or even of Othello when Emilia says ‘he looks gentler than he did’ (iv, iii, 11). ‘The great rage, you see,’ says the doctor to Cordelia, ‘is killed in him.’ But the ominous tide has been set too firmly in to be withstood. The catastrophe has been too long preparing not to shatter the final rock.

The world of the play has been too sinister and comfortless for any warmth to come at sunset. The ceiling of Lear’s world is low, the atmosphere is murky. The wet earth creeps with treacherous, slimy-weather beasts; rats, toads, wild dogs and wolves, eels, pole-cats, snakes, and vultures. The wild flowers in Lear’s hair are not flowers at all; he is crowned, says Cordelia,

With rank fumiter and furrow-weeds,

With hardocks, hemlock, nettles, cuckoo-flowers,

Darnel, and all the idle weeds that grow

In our sustaining corn.

The dark sky is oppressive, and clouds of enormous weight hang low in it to torture human beings with their bulk. The play is rich in recognition scenes which increase rather than relieve the prevailing gloom. The function of recognition scenes in tragedy is to light pain and death with understanding; and their effect upon the audience is normally, by compressing two or more past lives into the excitement of a single moment, by bringing all the forces of the play to bear upon one glance, one gesture, one exclamation, to discharge a load of emotion which has become intolerable. The discharge in “King Lear” is instantaneous, but it is incomplete. For few of the recognitions are mutual. Gloucester never knows Edgar, or Lear his faithful Kent. Lear takes Gloucester’s blindness for a squint and calls him Cupid. And not until we are past the expectation of relief does Lear plainly recognize his daughter. ‘We two alone will sing like birds i’ the cage,’ he says. But the power of that line is nothing like the power of

     Do not laugh at me;

For, as I am a man, I think this lady

To be my child Cordelia.

The genius of the play is working there – in the interest, perhaps, of that part of tragedy which is pity rather than towards that whole for which there can be no common name. Such recognition scenes enlarge our misery without enlightening it. Edgar has to make sure that Edmund knows him at the end:

My name is Edgar, and thy father’s son.

And the line is as welcome as lightning over a lost road, or as a trumpet when the suspense of stillness has lasted too long. But Edgar has existed in the play for his father’s sake rather than for his own, and Edmund ceases at once to be the man he was.  The tragedy has not been chiefly theirs:

The oldest hath borne most; we that are young

Shall never see so much, nor live so long.

The tragedy has been that of two old men who learned too much too late.

Shakespeare, who spares us nothing in this play, knows also how to let us have it all at once from time to time in little speeches, in single pregnant lines that pierce us literally to the heart. If the whole is as vast and shaggy as the cosmos is to fearful man, the parts are fitted with wonderful refinement. Nothing in all his work is more impressive than these two extremes of skill. Line after line carries in its apparently frail body the immense burden of the whole. Such lines – or they may be less than lines – come everywhere, but naturally they thicken towards the close. Then they imply so much that their context cannot be suggested short of a reference to all that has happened. In themselves they are of the utmost simplicity, and seem to mean nothing:

I stumbled when I saw.

(IV, i, 21)

Too well, too well.

(IV, vi, 66)

You do me wrong to take me out o’ the grave.

(IV, vii, 45)

I fear I am not in my perfect mind.

(IV, vii, 63)

No cause, no cause.

(IV, vii, 75)

Ripeness is all. Come on.

     And that’s true too.

(V, ii, 11)

Is the promised end?

(V, iii, 263)

     Her voice was ever soft,

Gentle, and low; an excellent thing in woman.

(V, iii, 272-3)

Why should a dog, a horse ,a rat, have life,

And thou no breath at all? Thou, ‘It come no more,

Never, never, never, never, never!

(V, iii, 306-8)

In “King Lear,” however, they mean everything. What the play means it means all of the time; which must be the last way now of saying that it is not only wide but deep, not only pitiful but huge.”

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As I think we’ve seen, the role of Lear is one of the most demanding in all of theater.  But what makes a great Lear?  Jonathan Bate wrote about it in The Guardian in 2010:

KingLearBristol2“The play’s special place in the modern Shakespearean repertoire can be traced back to a moment in the early Sixties when the director Peter Brook read an essay by the Polish literary scholar Jan Kott called King Lear, or Endgame. The unlikely juxtaposition of an epic drama set in Ancient Britain and Samuel Beckett’s nihilistic Endgame, in which dying characters exchange absurd dialogue as they lurk in dustbins in a post-nuclear wasteland, gave Brook a new way into the play. He cast Paul Scofield as the aged king and inspired the great critic Kenneth Tynan to write: “Lay him to rest, the royal Lear, with whom generations of star actors have made us reverently familiar, the majestic ancient, wronged and maddened by his vicious daughters.” Scofield’s Lear was an irascible father, a difficult old man, as much sinning as sinned against.

The genius of Brook and Scofield was that they revealed the play to be about Big Issues — power politics, international conflict, poverty and social exclusion, the condition of humanity in a godless universe — but equally about domestic problems, such as coping with a father who has dementia or dividing an estate between three daughters. The key to a great production is the ability to hold together the huge and the tiny, the universal and the local, the epic and the intimate. Shakespeare’s language makes just this demand, as it moves at speed from vast philosophical questions (“Is there any cause in nature that makes these hard hearts?”) to the language of small and ordinary things — garden waterpots, gilded flies and toasted cheese.

To make these shifts an actor needs long experience and terrific stamina. It’s sometimes said that the problem with the part of Lear is that by the time you are old enough to play it, you are too old to play it. Laurence Olivier tried both too soon and too late: on the stage in 1946, still in his thirties, he seemed to be impersonating a whimsical old tyrant rather than actually being one, while on television in 1983, he was too frail for the rage.

“Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! Rage, blow”: the role is often associated with the barnstorming style of Sir Donald Wolfit, as immortalised in Ronald Harwood’s play about his experience as the old actor-manager’s backstage dresser. But many of the finest modern productions have been in small spaces and a quieter style. For the actor, the real difficulty in playing the part is deciding how much to let rip how soon — if you give too much to the anger in the first half you’re too exhausted for the madness in the second half, but if you have too much control to begin with, the transition into madness can seem too sudden and extreme to be convincing. A slow build and then a relentless stretching out of emotional agony: that’s what works best.

Minimalist design and physical proximity to the audience help tremendously. The three best Lears I have ever seen were all in “black box” studio theatres: they were Tony Church, directed by the late Buzz Goodbody in an RSC “Theatregoround” production, Ian Holm in the little Cottesloe in Richard Eyre’s farewell production as artistic director of the National, and Lee Beagley with a company called Kaboodle in Liverpool’s tiny Unity Theatre. What they had in common was the ability to range from a whisper and a tear to a curse and a howl. Fancy design on a cavernous stage, by contrast, can all too often lead to a train wreck, as Nigel Hawthorne discovered when he teamed up with the Japanese director Yukio Ninagawa in 1999.

The other key to a great production is the quality of the ensemble. Many a Hamlet has shone even in an indifferent production — as Jude Law did for the Donmar last year — because the character’s soliloquies allow him to hold the stage alone. But Lear, exceptionally for a Shakespearean tragic hero, is hardly ever alone. He constantly bounces off his companions — the Fool, who tries to teach him wisdom; the loyal Kent, who follows in disguise; the other broken aged man whose name is Gloucester.

Many of the most brilliant productions have depended on double acts: Michael Gambon as Lear with Antony Sher as Fool (perched on the king’s lap like a ventriloquist’s dummy), Ian McKellen as Kent standing resolute with Brian Cox’s Lear for Deborah Warner at the National, Alan Webb as Gloucester beside Scofield in both the stage version and the film of the Brook production. Compelling performances from Lear’s antagonists are equally important.”

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And to conclude, I want to share with you an excerpt from Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon which I thinks gets as close to the heart of the matter as anything else I’ve read:

Greg-Hicks-and-Kathryn-Hu-001“For many readers the limits of human art are touched in King Lear, which with Hamlet appears to be the height of the Shakespearean canon. My own personal preference is for Macbeth, where I never get over my shock at the play’s ruthless economy, its way of making every speech, every phrase count. Still, Macbeth has only the one huge character, and even Hamlet is so dominated by its hero that all the lesser figures are blinded (as we are) by his transcendent brilliance. Shakespeare’s power of individualization is strongest in King Lear and, oddly enough, in Measure for Measure, two plays in which there are no minor characters. With Lear we are at the center of centers of canonical excellence, as we are in particular cantos of the Inferno or the Purgatorio, or in a Tolstoyan narrative like Hadji Murad. Here, if anywhere, the flames of invention burn away all context and grant us the possibility of what could be called primal aesthetic value, free of history and ideology and available to whoever can be educated to read and view it.

Partisans of Resentment might stress that only an elite can be so educated. As our more truthful moments inform us, it has become harder and harder to read deeply as this century grows older. Whether the cause be media or other distractions of the Chaotic Age, even the elite tend to lose concentration as readers. Close reading may not have ended with my generation, but it has certainly been eclipsed in the generations after us. Is it irrelevant that I was nearly forty before I first owned a television set? I cannot be sure, yet I sometimes wonder if a critical preference for context over text does not reflect a generation made impatient with deep reading. The tragedy of Lear and Cordelia can be imparted to even superficial playgoers or readers, because it is Shakespeare’s oddness that will divert nearly every level of attention. But properly played, properly read, it will demand more than any single answering consciousness is able to provide.

Dr. Johnson famously could not endure Cordelia’s death: ‘I was many years ago so shocked by Cordelia’s death, that I know not whether I ever endured to read again the last scenes of the play till I undertook to revise them as an editor.’

There is, as Johnson conveyed, a terrible desolation in the final scene of The Tragedy of King Lear, an effect surpassing anything else of its kind, in Shakespeare or in any other writer. Johnson perhaps took Cordelia’s death as a synecdoche for that desolation, for the vision of the old king, driven mad again by his grief, entering with Cordelia dead in his arms. As a spectacle, it has the force of an image reversing all natural expectations and was famously misread by Sigmund Freud in his ‘Theme of the Three Caskets.

‘Enter Lear with Cordelia dead in his arms.’

Cordelia is Death. Reverse the situation, and it becomes intelligible and familiar to us – the Death-goddess bearing away the dead hero from the place of battle, like the Valkyr in German mythology. Eternal wisdom, in the garb of the primitive myth, bids the old man renounce love, choose death and make friends with the necessity of dying.

Freud, at fifty-seven, had twenty-six years still to live, yet he could not speak of ‘the hero’ without casting himself for the part. To renounce love, choose death, and make friends with the necessity of dying is Prince Hamlet-like, but does not suit King Lear. Kings die hard, in Shakespeare and in life, and Lear is the greatest of all representations of a king. His precursor is no literary monarch but the model of all rulers: Yahweh, the Lord himself, unless you choose to regard Yahweh as a literary character, encountered by Shakespeare in the Geneva Bible. The Yahweh of the J writer, who dominates the primal strand of Genesis, Exodus and Numbers, is as irascible and sometimes as mad as Lear. Lear, image of paternal authority, is not a favorite of Feminist critics, who easily categorize him as the archetype of patriarchal coercion. His power, even in ruin, appears to be what they cannot forgive, since they interpret it as the union of god, king, and father in the one impatient temperament. What they neglect is the given of the play: Lear is not only feared and venerated by everyone on the side of goodness in the play, he is positively loved by Cordelia, the Fool, Gloucester, Edgar, Kent, Albany, and evidently his people in general. He owes much in personality to Yahweh, but he is considerably more benign. His principal fault in regard to Cordelia is an excessive love that demands excess in return. Of all Shakespeare’s vast company of characters, Lear is much the most passionate, a quality attractive perhaps in itself but suiting neither his age nor his position.

Even the most resentful interpretations of Lear, which demystify the king’s supposed capacity for social pity, leave untouched his passionate intensity, a quality shared by his daughters, Goneril and Regan, who lack his bewildered drive toward love. They are what their father would have been if he had not also possessed the qualities of his daughter, Cordelia. Shakespeare makes no explicit attempt to account for Cordelia’s difference from her sisters, or Edgar’s equally startling contrast to Edmund. But he masterfully endows both Cordelia and Edgar with a recalcitrance that is much larger than their shared reticence. There is something against the grain in these two authentically loving characters, something stubborn, a strength whose undersong is willfulness. Cordelia, knowing both her father and her sisters well, could forestall the tragedy by a touch of initial diplomacy, but she will not. Edgar adopts a self-punishing disguise far lowlier and more degraded than is strictly necessary, and he maintains all his disguises long after they could have been discarded. His refusal to reveal himself to Gloucester until just before he anonymously goes forth to cut down Edmund is as curious as Shakespeare’s refusal to dramatize the scene of revelation and reconciliation between father and son. We hear Edgar’s narrative of the scene, but we are denied the scene itself. I think we sense that Edgar may be Shakespeare’s personal representative in the play, in contrast to the Marlovian Edmund. Edmund is a genius, as brilliant as Iago but colder, the coldest figure in all of Shakespeare. It is the antitheses between Edmund and Lear that I would locate one of the sources of surpassing aesthetic power in the play. Something at Shakespeare’s core is in this antithesis, something the playgoer’s or reader’s heart misses in the play, and something which makes the play unable to bless either us or itself. At the center of the strongest literary work I have ever encountered there is a terrible and deliberate gap, a cosmological emptiness into which we are thrown. A sensitive apprehension of The Tragedy of King Lear gives us a sense of having been thrown outward and downward until we are left beyond values, altogether bereft.

There is no transcendence at the end of King Lear, as there somehow appears to be when Hamlet dies. The death of Lear is a release for him, but not for his survivors: Edgar, Albany, Kent. And it is no release for us either. Too much has been incarnated in Lear for the manner of his dying to be acceptable to his subjects, and our own investment in Lear’s suffering has become too large for a Freudian ‘making friends with death.’ Perhaps Shakespeare kept the death of Gloucester offstage so that the contrast between the dying Lear and the dying Edmund would retain all of its pungency. Edmund makes a supreme effort to avoid a meaningless death by attempting to rescind his order for the deaths of Cordelia and Lear. He is too late, and neither we nor Edmund knows what to make of him as he is carried offstage to die.

The greatness of the play has everything to do with Lear’s patriarchal greatness, an aspect of the human that is now severely devalued in a critical age of Feminism, literary Marxism, and the various related modes of our importation from Paris of an antibourgeois crusade. Shakespeare is too shrewd, however, to commit his art to a patriarchal politics, or to Christianity, or even to the royal absolutism of his patron, King James I, and Lear is resented now mostly on irrelevant grounds. The bewildered old king takes his stand on behalf of nature, an altogether different nature than the one invoked as goddess by the nihilizing Edmund. In this vast play, Lear and Edmund never speak a single word to each other, though they are on stage together for two major scenes. What could they possibly say, what dialogue is possible between Shakespeare’s most passionate character and his coldest, between one who cares too much and one who does not care at all?

KingLear2_1780052iIn Lear’s sense of nature, Goneril and Regan are unnatural hags, monsters of the deep, and so indeed they are. In Edmund’s concept of nature, his two demon lovers are surpassingly natural. Shakespeare’s drama does not allow us a middle ground. Rejecting Lear is not an aesthetic option, however exercised one may be against his excesses and his uncanny power. Here Shakespeare rejoins the J writer, whose all-too-human Yahweh is both incommensurate with us and impossible to evade. If want a human nature that does not prey upon itself, we turn to the authority of Lear, however, flawed, however compromised it is in its hurtful power. Lear cannot heal us or himself, and he cannot survive Cordelia. But very little in the play can survive him: Kent, who wishes only to rejoin his master in death; Albany, who emulates Lear in abdicating; Edgar, apocalyptic survivor, who speaks evidently both for Shakespeare and the audience to close the play:

The weight of this sad time we must obey.

Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say:

The oldest hath borne most; we that are young

Shall never see so much, nor live so long.

Nature as well as the state is wounded almost unto death, and the three surviving characters exit with a dead march. What matters most is the mutilation of nature, and our sense of what is or not natural in our own lives. So overwhelming is the effect at the play’s close that everything seems against itself. Why are we simultaneously so strongly and so ambivalently affected by Lear’s death?

In 1815, aged sixty-six, Goethe wrote an essay on Shakespeare that attempted to reconcile his own antithetical attitudes about the greatest Western poet. He had begun as a Shakespeare idolator, had developed a supposed ‘classicism’ that found Shakespeare not wholly adequate, and had ‘corrected’ Shakespeare by a rather severe version of Romeo and Juliet. Although Goethe’s ultimate judgment is made in favor of Shakespeare, the essay is a bafflement and an evasion. It helped enhance Shakespeare’s reign in Germany, but Goethe’s ambivalence about a poetic and dramatic genius beyond his own prevented him from achieving a clear statement about Shakespeare’s unique and abiding interest. It remained for Hegel, in the lectures posthumously published as The Philosophy of Fine Art, to achieve the insight into Shakespearean representation of character that still needs to be developed by us, if we are ever to arrive at a criticism worthy of him.

Essentially, Hegel attempts to distinguish Shakespeare’s kind of characters from those of Sophocles and Racine, Lope de Vega and Calderon. The Greek tragic hero must oppose a higher, ethical Power with an individuality, an ethical pathos, which blends into what confronts him, because it is already part of that higher pathos. In Racine, Hegel finds an abstract style of character-drawing in which specific passions are represented as pure personification, so that the opposition between the individual and the higher Power tends to be abstract. Lope de Vega and Calderon are rated somewhat higher by Hegel, who sees in them as well an abstract style of character-drawing, but also a certain solidity and sense of personality, however inflexible. The German tragedies are not rated even that high: Goethe, despite his early Shakespeareanism, falls away from characterization into an exaltation of passion, and Schiller is rejected for having substituted violence for reality. Against all of them, at a salutary height, Hegel places Shakespeare, in the best critical passage on Shakespearean representation yet written:

‘The more Shakespeare on the infinite embrace of his world-stage proceeds to develop the extreme limits of evil and folly, to that extent…he concentrates these characters in their limitations. While doing so, however, he confers on them intelligence and imagination; and by means of the image in which they, by virtue of that intelligence, contemplate themselves objectively, as a work of art, he makes them free artists of themselves, and is fully able, through the complete virility and truth of his characterization, to awaken our interest in criminals, no less than in the most vulgar and weak-witted lubbers and fools.’ [Italics Bloom’s]

Iago and Edmund and Hamlet contemplate themselves objectively in images wrought by their own intelligences and are enabled to see themselves as dramatic characters, aesthetic artifices. They thus become free artists of themselves, which means they are free to write themselves, to will changes in the self. Overhearing their own speeches and pondering those expressions, they change and go on to contemplate an otherness in the self, or the possibility of such otherness.

Hegel has seen what needs to be seen in and about Shakespeare, but the Hegelian gnomic lecturing style requires some unpacking. Consider the bastard Edmund, Marlovian Machiavel of Lear’s tragedy, as our Hegelian instance. Edmund is the extreme limit of evil, the first absolute representation of a nihilist that Western literature affords, and still the greatest. And out of Edmund, more even than out of Iago, will come the nihilists of Melville and Dostoevsky. As Hegel says, Edmund excels in both imagination and intellect; much more than Iago, he might almost be a match for the greatest of counter-Machiavels, Hamlet. By virtue of his supreme intellect – endlessly fertile, rapid, cold, and accurate – Edmund projects an image of himself as a bastard follower of Nature, and by means of that image h e contemplates himself objectively as a work of art. So does Iago before him, but Iago imagines negative emotions and then feels, even suffers those emotions. Edmund is a freer artist of himself: he feels nothing.

I have observed already that the tragic hero, Lear, and the principal villain, Edmund are never allowed a single moment in which they address each other. They share the stage in two crucial scenes, at the start and close to the end, but they have nothing to say to each other. Indeed they cannot exchange a word, for neither could engage the other for even a moment. Lear is all feeling, Edmund none. When Lear rages at his ‘unnatural’ daughters, Edmund, for all his intelligence, cannot understand, since to Edmund his behavior toward Gloucester, and Goneril’s and Regan’s toward Lear, are ‘natural.’ Most natural of bastards, Edmund inevitably becomes the object of the murderously rapacious passions of Goneril and Regan, both of whom he gratifies, and neither of whom moves him at all until he beholds both of their corpses carried in upon stage just as he himself lies slowly dying from the death-wound given him by his brother Edgar.

Contemplating the dead monsters of the deep, Edmund confronts the true image of himself and is freed by it into becoming the absolute artist of his self: ‘I was contracted to them both; all three/Now marry in an instant.’ The tone is stunningly without affect, the irony almost unique, though Webster and other Jacobeans attempted to imitate it. Edmund’s contemplation passes from irony into a tonality I can experience but can barely categorize: ‘Yet Edmund was belov’d!/the one the other poison’d for my sake/And after slew herself.’ He is speaking not so much to Albany and Edgar as out loud in order to be overheard by himself. Shakespeare’s language conveys the painfulness of this most brilliant of villains spelling it out for himself, sharpening the image so as to enlarge the freedom of his own artistry of self. We do not hear pride or wonder, and yet there is a bemusement at the sense of connection, if only to these terrible sisters.

Hazlitt, with whom I share my startled affection for Edmund, emphasized Edmund’s refreshing lack of all hypocrisy. Here too there is no shamming or posturing on Edmund’s part. He overhears himself, and the will to change is his response, which he realizes will be a positive moral alteration, though he insists that his own nature is not changing: ‘I pant for life. Some good I mean to do,/Despite of mine own nature.’ Shakespeare’s tragic irony demands that this reversal be too late to save Cordelia. We are left asking: Why then does Shakespeare represent this extraordinary metamorphosis in Edmund?”

For anyone who’s interested, here’s the link to entirety of Jan Kott’s take on Lear – I recommend it highly.

And with that, our reading of King Lear is complete.  For me, I have to agree with Bloom – the limits of human art are touched with Lear.  No matter how often I read it, I’m devastated, and find myself like Edgar at play’s end – a shell shocked survivor.  The play’s bleakness confirms my own point of view all too well.

Please…share your thoughts with the group.  If it was your first time reading King Lear, what did you think?  And if you’ve read it before, how have feelings, how has your conception of the play changed?

My next post will be Thursday evening/Friday morning on Sonnet #139

I’m taking the weekend off to recover from Lear – next week on Tuesday night/Wednesday morning I’ll post my introduction to a play very different than the one we just finished, but equally as strong – Antony and Cleopatra.

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13 Responses to “The oldest hath borne most; we that are young/Shall never see so much, nor live so long.”

  1. Michael Palmer says:

    While I have seen several performances of King Lear in most of the past 25 years that I have lived in London, this is the first opportunity I have had to read in depth commentaries on each Scene and Character by a variety of Professors/Critics. I find this experience has much enhanced my understanding and enjoyment of the Play.

    Thank you, Dennis Abrams!

  2. Sandy Bucay says:

    Thank you, Dennis! The journey has been fully enjoyable. M. Garber’s reflections on the sublime struck me as particularly enlightening.
    Relish your well deserved break. Looking forward to A & C.
    (May I suggest adding captions to the images?)

  3. Mahood says:

    As usual Dennis, the commentary here for the last few weeks has been terrific – not sure that I can add anything else that hasn’t already been said…except to say that King Lear was an overwhelming reading experience.

    Regarding the posts themselves, a particular highlight for me was Jan Kott’s look at Lear and Endgame. I’d been aware of his commentary for years but hadn’t got round to reading it – thanks!

    And finally, I read somewhere that Beckett (who liked the play) reread Lear in 1983 and declared it ‘Unstageable; wild; scenes and words impossible to stage’ … Not a criticism I think, but just acknowledging the power of the text itself.

    • Mahood! Glad you enjoyed the commentary and yes, I fully agree that Lear is an overwhelming reading experience — more so than the previous times I’ve read it, I think, because my understanding (and appreciation) for Shakespeare has grown and grown through the process of reading and dissecting the plays (in a manner of speaking) chronologically over the last…two years. I almost hate to leave Lear behind, but then I remember what an extraordinary experience Antony and Cleopatra is, and I can hardly wait to get to it.

      • Mahood says:

        Two years?! Time very well spent, frankly.

        With (only!) 8 plays to go, have you thought about life after Shakespeare? I like your format of reading writers in chronological order…are there other major writers you want to tackle in the future?

        As for Antony and Cleopatra, this is one I’m looking forward to: I haven’t read it, but know how highly rated it is among Bardian fans!

      • Mahood: I haven’t given it a LOT of thought yet, but I’ve given some thought to doing The Odyssey followed by Ulysses (please don’t ask me to do Finnegan’s). Do you have any ideas/suggestions?

  4. Mahood says:

    Yes, that sounds like a great idea – two weighty tomes that have long been on my never-ending reading list…though should ‘The Iliad’ be read before ‘The Odyssey’?

    There are so many other books and authors that I want to read/finish: ‘Don Quixote’; ‘Gargantua & Pantegruel’; ‘The Anatomy of Melancholy’; ‘The Canterbury Tales’; the complete works of Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Thomas Mann; Thomas Pynchon; etc. … but ‘The Odyssey’ followed by ‘Ulysses’ (and maybe ‘Finnegans’ Wake’?!) sounds like a good start!

    By the way, on the back of a recommendation from this blog (during the Othello posts, I think – Bloom raved about it), yesterday I finished Cormac McCarthy’s ‘Blood Meridian’ … still reeling from it…breathtaking in every way: the richness of language; the poetry of the violence; the intelligence of the judge; the kid (a kid/man of few words, intelligent in his own quiet, ignorant way); … one of the best novels I’ve read in a long time – can’t stop thinking about it.

    • Mahood: I’ve thought about doing Dickens or Austen or even George Eliot (all of whom I love dearly) is that I’m not sure that it’s needed, they’re all fairly…self-explanatory. I love Canterbury and Don Quixote, I’m embarrassed to say that I simply can’t read Pynchon — I’ve been carrying around a copy of Gravity’s Rainbow since college, and have never been able to get more than maybe 50 pages into it before tossing it aside.

      Now Blood Meridian…that book I love. Bloom is a huge fan (I think he spoke about the Judge in conjunction with Iago), and for me, if one was force to name the legendary “Great American Novel”, that might be it.

  5. Joe Simon says:

    This is truly fascinating stuff. Some of it has been downright jaw dropping, such as the connection between Lear and zero. I love the varying viewpoints; not just different people, but approaching the material from linguistic, historical, psychological, and acting perspectives, etc. Lear is a completely different…and much better…play for me now.

    When I was in Stratford last year, I saw an original 1619 quarto of Lear as well as an original of Nahum Tate’s version. That was open to the last page, and I read the happy ending. It seemed almost as unrealistic and contrived as the end of the book of Job did.

    On a less serious note, I never realized how similar King Lear is to Seinfeld. Both are about nothing.

    I end with a question: I am catching up, reading the early blogs. Would you prefer I make any comments on the relevant pages even though they may be two years old?

    Thanks again for doing this!

    • Joe: It’s posts like this that make my day. So glad you enjoyed reading Lear with us and that it helped to expand your understanding of it. (And I was also completely fascinated and floored by the connection of Lear with “zero”). I’m also jealous that you were able to see both the Quarto and the Tate versions — I’ve wondered just how the Tate version would play now — I’d think, if played as a comedy it could be a success.) And as for your question, please feel free to post comments and questions on the earlier posts — they’ll show up on my feed and I’d love to read them (and to answer anything I can.) Hope you’re going to read Antony and Cleopatra along with us as well…Dennis

      • Joe Simon says:

        I will definitely be reading A&C. I’ve seen it performed live once and at least two movie versions: Carlton Heston and a BBC production with Patrick Stewart as Enobarbus. I also rehearsed the messenger scene for my acting classes.

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