King Lear and Metatheatre
In 1982 I spoke with a distinguished Canadian actor who was preparing to act Lear in a production at Fordham University. I was hoping he would wish to implement some of my readings of the text. Unfortunately, our conversation got no further than Lear’s codpiece. He felt that the several textual references were to something the Fool was wearing, not Lear himself. “It would diminish his ‘tragic’ stature,” he told me. “Tragedy is serious. It evokes pity and fear, passion and awe, not laughter.”
What if Lear is not essentially a tragedy but “metatheatre”? That is the question Lionel Abel asked about Hamlet in his book Metatheatre: A New View of Dramatic Form (1963, Hill and Wang). “Metatheatre” is a word he coined for convenience to describe “the quality or force in a play which challenges theatre’s claim to be simply realistic — to be nothing but a mirror in which we view the actions and sufferings of characters like ourselves, suspending our disbelief in their reality.”
Only certain plays tell us at once that the happenings and characters in them are of the playwright’s invention, and that insofar as they were discovered…they were found by the playwright’s imagining rather than by his observing the world. Such plays have truth in them, not because they convince us of real occurrences or existing persons, but because they show the reality of the dramatic imagination, instanced by the playwright’s and also by that of his characters. Of such plays, it may indeed by said: “the play’s the thing.” Plays of this type, it seems to me, belong to a special genre and deserve a distinctive name.
Abel describes metatheatre as reflecting comedy and tragedy at the same time, where the audience can laugh at the protagonist while feeling empathetic simultaneously. He relates it to the character of Don Quixote, whom he considers to be the prototypical, metatheatrical, self-referring character. “He looks for situations of which he wants to be a part, not waiting for life to oblige, but replacing reality with imagination when the world is lacking in his desires.” The similarities between Don Quixote (1605) and King Lear (1607) are striking. Both works are about disjunctive realities; the world as it is and the world as it imagined. Lear is a textbook example of a metatheatrical character. He is the most histrionic and self-referring of all Shakespeare’s creations. He is aware of his own theatricality. “When we are born we cry that we are come to this great stage of fools.”
It is Lear’s imagination that controls the events from beginning to end. He is his own dramatist, his own set man, his own stage manager. He calls upon his imagination to substitute itself for reality wherever the real does not accord itself with his will. From the moment he walks upon the stage he presents an image of himself that presages folly. Unlike Prospero in The Tempest, who can raise a storm and cause shipwrecks at will, Lear’s efforts to orchestrate events are completely impotent. His terrible imprecations and maledictions have no effect. He cannot direct thunder and lightning to do his bidding; the trial he stages of his daughters comes to nothing. His desire to impress an army and bring justice to the world is quixotic.
The most widely discussed feature of Don Quixote is the incongruity between the world as it really is and the way that its hero perceives it. This is also an inherent attribute of King Lear, but one that is not evident from a reading of the text alone. It is only when we look at Lear in a theatrical context that we can see the disjunction. The props, the costumes, the effects all have an objective reality that is discordant with Lear’s self-imaginings. These incongruities do not diminish the heroic size of his will any less than they do Don Quixote’s. Lear’s anguish is not diminished because he is impotent against storms and daughters, if anything his suffering seems more real to us. Nor is Lear less tragic of a character because his actions arouse in the spectator feelings other than pity and fear.
The practice of Elizabethan dramatists referring literally to stage business in the plays is so well-established that scholars have based their reconstructions of nothing less than the Globe theater on copious references to it in the plays themselves. I have based my reconstruction of the action in King Lear on what is said in the spoken dialogue. With regards to Lear’s codpiece, for example, there are three direct allusions to it in the text:
Marry, here’s grace and a codpiece! (III,ii,40)
That’s a sheal’d peas-cod. (I,iv,197)
The codpiece that will house
Before the head has any,
The head and he shall louse;
So beggars marry many. (III,ii,27-30)
In Shakespeare’s time, characters were often costumed in styles of the day. Lear is “eighty and upward”, and if you follow his fashion history from 1607, the presumed date he first took to the boards, back to 1540 or thereabouts, his wearing a codpiece tells us that he has not changed his style of dress since he was young.
“The most extraordinary item of Tudor male clothing is undoubtedly the bragetto or codpiece. All subsequent ages have regarded it with surprise mingled with horror, and it is interesting to note that when the drawings of Holbein were reproduced in facsimile in the eighteenth century the codpiece was omitted. It was anything but discreet, being puffed out and exaggerated and even adorned with the puffings and slashings characteristic of the rest of the male outfit. So little opprobrium was attached to the codpiece that it served as a pocket in which a gentleman kept his handkerchief and purse and even oranges, which he would pull out before the ladies’ eyes and hand to them!” Boehn, Modes and Manners, ed. 1932, Vol. ll, p.128
Lear’s codpiece is the source of the Fool’s joke upon first taking the stage. In order to give money to Kent for tripping up Oswald, Lear takes his purse out of his codpiece (I,iv,92). (All stage directions in red are from my edition of the play.)
Lear. [To Kent.] Now, my friendly knave, I thank thee. There’s earnest of thy service. [Takes purse from codpiece.
Fool. Let me hire him too! Here’s my coxcomb.
[Offers Kent his cap
What’s funny is the analogy. No codpiece, no joke.
There is another jest based on Lear’s identification with his codpiece. In III,i,51-55, Kent and the Gentleman decide to look separately for the King, agreeing that whoever finds him first will shout “holla” to terminate the efforts of the other.
Gent. Have you no more to say?
Kent. Few words, but to effect, more than all yet.
That when we have found the King, in which you pain
That way, I’ll this, he that first lights on him
Holla the other. [Exeunt.]
Kent’s “holla” to the Gentleman has been deleted in the folios and quartos, but there can be no doubt where it would be exclaimed, and I have restored it to the text:
Kent: Who’s there?
Fool. Marry, here’s grace and a codpiece!
Kent. [Within.] Holla!
Fool. [Aside.] That’s a wise man and a fool. (III,ii,39-41)
Lear Tears Off His Clothes (III,iv)
As a practical matter, the style of Lear’s dress is going to determine what pieces of it he can actually be rid of when he strips off his clothes in the speech below (III,iv,106):
Lear. [To Edgar.] Thou wert 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. Unacomodated man is no more but such a poor, bare, forked animal as thou art. –Off, off you lendings. [Throws off his cloak.] Come, unbutton here!
Fool. Prithee, nuncle, be contented! ‘Tis a naughty night to swim in.
Enter Gloucester warmly dressed, carrying a torch.
–Now, a little fire in a wild field were like an old lecher’s heart, a small spark; all the rest on’s body cold.–Look here comes a walking fire.
If he is wearing a costume comprised of a full-length gown, all the actor can do is rip it, and struggle with Kent. There is nothing for him to throw off. If, however, he is wearing Tudor fashions that include a codpiece, it means that parts of his costume can actually be removed: possibly a short cloak or cape, one of his sleeves–whatever he can untether from his body before Kent is able to restrain him. Edgar is not going to hesitate to snatch up Lear’s discarded clothing because he is half frozen to death. In a later scene, Lear asks him to remove them.
Lear [To Edgar]. You, sire, I entertain for one of my hundred; only I
do not like the fashion of your garments; you will say they are Persian, but let them be changed. (III,vi,76-79)
What else can “Persian” possibly be referring to except for the ostentatious cape Edgar steals from the ground? Valuable silks were imported to England from Persia by the East India Company founded in 1600. Shortly after Edgar puts on the cape, Lear likens him to a Greek philosopher, in part because it looks like he is wearing a chlamys. See “I’ll talk a word with this same learnèd Theban”(I,vi,147). In III,vi,36 Lear refers explicitly to the robe, “Thou robèd man of justice, take thy place.”
What I believe is objectionable to both editors and actors is the metatheatrical effect of the collective action. The scene plays more like one of the farcical episodes in Don Quixote than something one would expect to see in a grand “tragedy.” Apart from the striking incongruity of a bedlam beggar wearing the silks of a king, Gloucester makes a perfectly timed comic entrance in warm clothes. The latter’s costume is implied by the Fool’s jest, “a little fire in a wild field were like an old lecher’s heart, a small spark; all the rest on’s body cold.” His unnatural looking appearance in the cloak gives him the look of a demon, like Bruegel’s The Misanthrope. Here comedy is used as it is in Don Quixote to distance the audience from identifying emotionally with the hero. It completely destabilizes any sense of psychological realism. Instead, it provokes rational self-reflection and a critical view of the action on stage.
Maynard Mack writes that only a sentimental Lear would give his clothes to Edgar, and it is true that such a gesture would mischaracterize Lear’s impulse, which is to shed, not share his clothes. But Lear does not give Edgar the robe directly,–it is Edgar’s choice to put it on, and he scrambles to steal it off the ground. While divesting his clothes is not explicitly an act of charity, Lear’s kindness is implicit; hence the epithet “kind” given to Richard Burbage, (doubtlessly referencing this remarkable incident in the story).
The Mock Trial (III,vi)
Moving forward to III,vi, Lear is taken to an outbuilding where he holds a trial of his daughters, whom he hallucinates in the scene. It is the classic play within a play that one associates with metatheater. It is comic in effect, like “Melisandra’s Deliverance,” the puppet play in Don Quixote Part II. Just as Don Quixote believes some Moorish puppets are real soldiers, and hacks them all to pieces with his sword, so Lear’s madness is triggered by fox skins he finds hanging or piled up behind the curtain. The action is quite easy to follow when one imagines it is happening in a hunting lodge, and if one is prepared to look for comedy.
There are no stage directions in the quartos or the folios indicating where III,vi takes place or what’s supposed to be happening in the scene. The many references to game, — hounds, spaniels, foxes and polecats, decay and corruption,–correspond with the insides of a Jacobean hunting lodge. Shaftesbury, describing the lodge of Henry Hastings, Keeper of the New Forest during the reign of James I writes:
The great hall [was] strewed with marrow bones, full of hawks’ perches, hounds, spaniels and terriers, the upper side of the hall was hung with fox-skins of this and last years’ skinning, here and there a polecat intermixed. (Earl of Shaftesbury, Fragment of Autobiography, c. 1675, qu. A.F. Scott, The Stuart Age (Thomas Y. Crowell: New York, 1974, p. 57)
A hunting lodge was used as a setting by other Jacobean dramatists, notably Cyril Tourneur in The Revenger’s Tragedy. It is a suitable location for a scene in King Lear where allusions to hunting and game run through the play. Such a setting can, of course, be brought into accord with what we know about stage scenery and stage fixtures in the period. Part of the rear wall of most, if not all Elizabethan stages, was either permanently hung with curtains or arras, or where a curtain or arras could be put up when required. The device of a “Discovery,” that is, the dramatic opening of curtains to show a specially arranged group or set-pieces, is constant and common. The opening of the curtains to “discover” the caskets in The Merchant of Venice is one example among many. Professor Thorndike, in his book Shakespearean Theatre, lists 158 indisputable examples where an arrangement of curtains or arras is used in this or some similar way, and these are only a sample. We know from Lear’s command to “Draw the curtains” (l81) at the end of the scene, that a “discovery” of set-pieces falls within the realm of probability.
The mock trial of Lear’s daughters comes about upon his “discovery” of some fox skins behind the curtains:
Lear. To have a thousand, with red burning spits Come hizzing in upon ‘em!1 [Discovering fox skins.
1Cf. Harsnett, Declaration, p. 97. “fire him out of his hold, as men smoke a Foxe out of his burrow.” The pelts remind Lear of his crafty daughters and he decides to hold a trial in order to determine the degree of their corruption.
Fool. He’s mad that trusts in the tameness of a wolf, a horses’s health, a boy’s love, or a whore’s oath.
Lear. It shall be done; I will arraign them straight.
[To Edgar.] Come, sit thou here, most learned justicer; [To the Fool.] Thou, sapient sir, sit here. Now, you she-foxes!
Edg. Look where he stands and glares! Want’st thou eyes at trial, madam? [Sings.] Come o’er the bourn, Bessy, to me.
Fool: [Aside.] Her boat hath a leak,
And she must not speak,
Why she dares not come over to thee.
Edg. [Belches.] The foul fiend haunts poor Tom in the voice of a nightingale; Hoppedance cries in Tom’s belly for two white herring. Croak not, black angel, I have no food for thee.
Kent. How do you sir? Stand you not so amaz’d:
Will you lie down and rest upon the cushions?2
2 I contacted English foxhunting authority David C. Itzkowitz about the “cushions” Kent alludes to above. He replied that “The cushions could have been pillows; they could also have been pelts of all sorts including deer, bear, and wolf.”
Lear. I’ll see their3 trial first. Bring in their evidence.
3their] 1) Goneril’s and Regan’s 2) the cushions’
[To Edgar.] Thou robèd man of justice, take thy place;
[To the Fool.] And thou, his yoke-fellow of equity,
Bench by his side. [To Kent.] You are o’ th’ commission,
Sit you too.
Edg. Let us deal justly.
Sleepest or wakest thou, jolly shepherd?
Thy sheep be in the corn;
And for one blast of thy minikin mouth,
Thy sheep shall take no harm.4
4Sleepest…harm] Probably the fragment of an old song. The lines echo the nursery rhyme “Little Boy Blue”, who everybody knows blows a horn. See note on Edgar’s horn below
5Purr] A charge to speak
Fool. [Aside.] The cat is grey.6
6grey] It is very likely a pun exploiting the different meanings of grey, like the phrase “I took you for a joint stool” below. I have reassigned the line to the Fool.
Lear. [Pointing to a joint stool Kent is sitting on.] Arraign her first; ’tis Goneril. I here take my oath before this honorable assembly, she kick’d the poor King her father.
Fool. Come hither, mistress. Is your name Goneril?
Lear. She cannot deny it.
Fool. Cry you mercy, I took you for a joint-stool.7
7A proverbial expression facetiously apologizing for overlooking a person. It’s also a pun on the different meanings of the phrase. It refers literally to the joint stool Kent is sitting on.
Lear. [Giving Kent a pelt.] And here’s another, whose warp’d looks proclaim
What store her hear is made on. [Kent tosses it aside.]—Stop her, there!
Arms, arms, sword, fire! Corruption in the place!
False justicer, why hast thou let her ‘scape?
Edg. Bless thy five wits!
Kent. O pity! Sir, where is the patience now
That you so oft have boasted to retain?
Edg. [Aside.] My tears begin to take his part so much
They mar my counterfeiting.
Lear. The little dogs and all,
Tray, Blanch, and Sweetheart, see, they bark at me.
Edg. Tom will throw his head at them.—Avaunt you curs!
Be thy mouth or black or white,
Tooth that poisons if it bite;
Mastiff, greyhound, mongrel grim,
Hound or spaniel, brach or lym;
Bobtail tike or trundle-tail;
Tom will make him weep and wail;
For, with throwing thus my head,
Dogs leap the hatch, and all are fled.
[Blows his horn.] 8 Sessa!9 Come march to wakes to wakes and fairs and market towns. Poor Tom, thy horn is dry.
8 Blows horn] Ed. Do de, de, de, de. F, not in Q. Cf. III,iv,57, “O! do de, de, de.” “Bedlam beggars wore about their necks a great horne of an ox in a string or bawdrie, which, when they came to an house for almes they did wind, and they did put the drink given them onto this horne whereto they did put a stopple.” Aubrey, Natural History of Wiltshire, ed. 1847, p. 93.
9 Sessa!] An interjection said upon blowing a horn. Cf. III,iv,94. Cf also The Taming of the Shrew, where I conjecture Sly belches:
Sly. The Slys are no rogues. Look in the chronicles.
We came in with Richard Conqueror. Therefore
Paucus pallabris, let the world slide. [Belches.]
Kent retrieves “Regan.” Her corruption is self-proclaiming, and the trial is concluded.
Lear. Then, let them anatomize Regan. See what breeds
about her heart. Is there any cause in nature that makes
these hard hearts?
In his letter to me, Dr. Itzkowitz writes that “a lodge would have bits of all sorts of animal remains lying about. King James I himself was an avid huntsman and delighted in keeping up the medieval tradition of plunging his arms up to the elbow into the carcass of a freshly killed stag and smearing his courtiers with gore. The gamier the lodge, therefore, the more likely it is to be historically accurate.”
The Blinding of Gloucester (III,vii)
Gloucester’s plan to reunite Lear with Cordelia is betrayed by Edmund, and in III, vii. the old Earl is brought before Cornwall and Regan on charges of treason. No sooner is led into the scene than Regan calls him a “fox”, just as Lear mistook a fox for Regan in the previous scene. Where the latter wants for eyes, the other is stolen of his.
Re-enter Servants, with Gloucester prisoner
Reg. Ingrateful fox! ‘tis he.
I believe there are several difficulties in the blinding scene that need to be examined. First off, Gloucester is bespectacled. Cornwall does not stomp on his eyeball; he treads on his glasses before blinding him. Secondly, there is not a valiant sword fight between the First Servant and Cornwall, and thirdly, the line “Out, vile jelly! Where is thy luster now?” is properly assigned to Regan. It is manifestly she who plucks out the second eye. Below is the scene as it reads in my edition.
Corn. Where hast thou sent the King?
Glou. To Dover.
Reg. Wherefore to Dover? Wast thou not charg’d at peril—
Corn. Wherefore to Dover? Let him answer that.
Glou. I am tied to th’ stake, and I must stand the course.
Reg. Wherefore to Dover?
Glou. Because I would not see
Thy cruel nails pluck out his poor old eyes;
Nor thy fierce sister in his anointed flesh
Stick boarish fangs. The sea, with such a storm
As his bare head in hell-black night endur’d,
Would have buoy’d up, and quench’d the stelled fires;
Yet, poor old heart, he holp the heavens to rain.
If wolves had at thy gate howl’d that dearn time,
Thou should’st have said ‘Good porter, turn the key.’
All cruel’s else subscrib’d. But I shall see
The wing’d vengeance overtake such children.
Corn. See’t shalt thou never. Fellows, hold the chair.
Upon these eyes of thine I’ll set my foot
[Cornwall stomps on Gloucester’s spectacles.1
Glou. He that will think to live till he be old,
Give me some help!
[Cornwall puts out Gloucester’s eye.
O cruel! O you Gods!
Reg. One side will mock another; th’other too.
Corn. If you see vengeance,—
First Serv. Hold your hand, my Lord.
I have serv’d you ever since I was a child
But better service have I never done you
Than now to bid you hold.
Reg. How now, you dog!
First Serv. If you did wear a beard upon your chin
I’d shake it on this quarrel. [Serv draws his sword.2
Corn. What do you mean,
My villain? First Serv. Nay then, come on, and take the chance of anger.
Reg. Give me thy sword. A peasant stand up thus! 77
[Takes a sword and runs at him behind.
First Serv. O! I am slain. My Lord, you have one eye left
To see some mischief on him. Oh!
[He plunges his sword into Cornwall; both fall to the ground mortally wounded. Servant dies.
Corn. Lest it see more, prevent it!
Reg. Out, vile jelly!
[Regan plucks out the eye.
Where is they lustre now?
Glou. All dark and comfortless. Where’s my son, Edmund?
Edmund, enkindle all the sparks of nature
To quite this horrid act.
Reg. Out, treacherous villain!
Thou call’st on him that hates thee; it was he
That made the overture of thy treasons to us,
Who is too good to pity thee.
Glou. O my follies! Then Edgar was abus’d.
Kind Gods, forgive me that, and prosper him!
Reg. Go thrust him out at gates, and let him smell
His way to Dover. [Exit one with Gloucester.]
How is’t, my Lord. How look you?
Corn. I have receiv’d a hurt. Follow me, Lady.
Turn out that eyeless villain; throw this slave
Upon the dunghill. Give me your arm.
[Exit Cornwall, leg by Regan.]
1I have inserted the SD Cornwall stomps on Gloucester’s spectacles. Cf. I,ii,34-35. If it be nothing, I shall not need spectacles. When Cornwall says, “Upon these eyes of thine, I’ll set my foot,” he is not talking about stomping on Gloucester’s eyeballs. The smashing of the spectacles is not only chilling but quite an important bit of stage business. It represents a central paradox in the play between vision and understanding, blindness and seeing, madness and sanity.
Old Man. You cannot see your way.
Glou. I stumbled when I saw. Full oft ‘tis seen
Our means secure us, and our mere defects
Prove our commodities. Oh, dear son Edgar,
The food of they abused father’s wrath;
Might I but live to see thee in my touch,
I’d say I had eyes again. [Edgar blows his horn.]
—How now! Who’s there?
See also IV,vi,167-9
Lear. A man may see how this world goes with no eyes.
Get thee glass eyes, and, like a scurvy politician,
Seem to see the things thou dost not.
2There is a stage direction in the Quarto that is not given in the Folio: “They draw and fight.” In my judgment, a sword fight at that particular moment serves no dramatic purpose in the story, slows down the action, and muddies the characterizations of Regan and Cornwall. Here’s how I think the action goes down: The First Servant draws on Cornwall and challenges him to fight. Cornwall is not given the opportunity to draw or answer the Servant’s challenge before Regan runs the Servant through from behind with a sword. The Servant never sees her coming. The force of the blow drives him and his drawn sword into Cornwall; so, for all intents and purposes, it is Regan who causes her husband’s death when she propels the First Servant into him. Cornwall is lying on the ground bleeding beside the dead Servant. He is not physically able to put out Gloucester’s other eye, and commands Regan to do it.
Corn. Lest it see more, prevent it.
Reg. Out vile, jelly!
Where is thy lustre now. [She plucks out the eye.
Sarcasm is not a rhetorical device that Cornwall uses anywhere in the play. Regan on the other hand seems incapable of uttering a single word without it! From what we have already observed of her domineering and vicious behavior, it would be most unlike her to allow Cornwall the final satisfaction of blinding Gloucester regardless of what condition the Duke was in. The opportunity of tearing out somebody’s eye is the apotheosis of her being. Gloucester even says as much when he tells her that he sent Lear to Dover
Because I would not see
Thy cruel nails pluck out his poor old eyes
Absolute authority in the kingdom rests with Goneril and Regan by the power invested in them by Lear and the English law of succession. Cornwall’s only claim to power is through his marriage to Regan, and she is quick to assert her primacy at every opportunity. She snatches words out of his mouth faster than Katisha does the Mikado’s:
Corn. You know not why we come to visit you—
Reg. Thus out of season, threading dark-eye’d night;
Occasions, noble Gloucester, of some prize,
Wherein we must have use of your advice.
She countermands Cornwall’s sentence upon Kent to sit in the stocks till noon, and imposes an even stricter penalty of her own, thereby showing not only her crueler nature but her husband’s lower rank.
Corn. Fetch forth the stocks!
As I have life and honour, there shall he sit till noon.
Reg. Till noon? Till night, my lord; and all night too.
She is angered by the servants when Gloucester is bound too softly to the chair during his interrogation, and becomes so aggressive questioning him that Cornwall has to beg her to slow down:
Corn. Wherefore to Dover? Let him answer that.
As described above, she herself kills the First Servant for his insolence, trodding on whatever honour her husband has left, and then orders Gloucester expelled from the castle, jeering at his blindness and his fidelity to Lear
Reg. Go, thrust him out of gates
And let him smell his way to Dover.
After the mortal wound he has received from the servant, Cornwall is lost in the background. He says and does nothing. He needs Regan to lead and support him off stage.
Corn. I have receiv’d a hurt. Follow me, Lady.
Turn out that eyeless villain; throw this slave
Upon the dunghill. Regan, I bleed apace;
Untimely comes this hurt. Give me your arm.
Regan is given a distinctly feral character in the imagery. It is so much more savage and unnatural for a woman to perform this deed, or at least it would have been in Shakespeare’s time.
Proper deformity seems not in the fiend
So horrid as in woman. (IV,ii,6061)
If she live long,
And in the end meet the old course of death,
Women will all turn monsters. (iii,vii,98-100)
Lear. When she shall hear this of thee, with her nails
She’ll flay thy wolvish visage. (I,iv,305-6)
Glou. I would not see thy cruel nails
Pluck out his poor eyes; nor they fierce sister
In his annoint’d flesh stick boorish fangs. (iii,vii,54-57)
Alb. Tigers, not daughters. (IV,ii,40)
The Messenger’s account of the incident below is further proof that Regan puts out the eye. The Messenger informs Albany that Cornwall was slain going to put out the other eye. He does not say what ultimately happened to the eye. He hesitates telling Albany anything about it, and abruptly changes the subject when it becomes necessary for the Duke to ask him for a second time what happened. With Goneril standing portentously beside him, the Messenger is understandably reticent to implicate Regan lest he invoke in the sister the wrath of her mentor. We have already seen what happened to the First Servant for opening his mouth! In fact, the Messenger does not even mention Regan’s presence during the trial.
Enter a Messenger
Alb. What news?
Mess. O, my good lord, the Duke of Cornwall’s dead;
Slain by his servants, going to put out
The other eye of Gloucester.
Alb. Gloucester’s eyes?
Mess. A servant that he bred, thrill’d with remorse,
Oppos’d against the act, bending his sword
To his great master; who, thereat enrag’d,
Flew on him, and amongst them fell’d him dead;
But not without that harmful stroke, which since
Hath pluck’d him after.
Alb. This shows you are above,
You justicers, that these our nether crimes
So speedily can venge! But, O, poor Gloucester!
Lost he his other eye?
Mess. Both, both, my lord.—
[To Regan] This letter, madam, craves a speedy answer;
‘Tis from your sister. (iV,ii,69-83)
The Mad Scene (IV,vi)
Abel regards metatheater as a comparably philosophical form of drama that rests on two basic postulations: (1) the world is a stage and (2) life is dream. If what Shakespeare shows us of the world in Lear’s mad scene is not altogether illusion, it is anamorphotic. Everything we see and know is based on certain vantage points. “Change places, and, handy-dandy, which is the justice, which is the thief.” The scene is cast directly against the panorama Edgar draws from atop the highest cliff at Dover, where crows and chough appear as beetles, fisherman on the beach look like mice, cock-boats buoys almost too small for sight. Shakespeare challenges the audience to view the action from a great distance. He wants the audience to regard the action objectively, not soley from Lear’s point of view.
I base my reconstruction of the scene on two basic assumptions: 1) the only dramatic necessity is that Lear shows sympathy for Gloucester at the top of the scene. His great “stage of fools” speech is a direct response to the misfortunes and injustice suffered by Gloucester. If Lear is so out of touch and self-absorbed not to recognize Gloucester’s suffering, what possible authority can his words have? If there is only one idea that audiences take home from this play it is man’s capacity for empathy and kindness. If we do not see Lear acting kindly towards others, all of his words are empty. 2) That the scene is metatheatrical. It makes us aware of the illusoriness of thought and language, and destabilizes our emotional identification with Lear. There is a disconnection between the world as it appears to us, and the way that Lear perceives it. The effects are often farcical.
Upon entering the scene, Lear spies Edgar, who he thinks will make an excellent soldier for his army.
Enter Lear, coining weeds.
Edg. The safer sense will ne’er accommodate
His master thus.
Lear. No, they cannot touch me for coining1; I am the King himself.
Edg. O thou side-piercing sight!
Lear. Nature’s above art in that respect. There’s your press-money2. That fellow handles his bow like a crow-keeper3: draw me a clothier’s yard4. Look, look! A mouse5. Peace, peace. This piece of toast’d cheese will do’t6; there’s my gauntlet7; I’ll prove it on a giant8. Bring up the brown bills9. O! well-flown bird; i’th’clout, i’th’clout.10 Hewgh! Give the word.
Edg. Sweet marjoram.
Glou. I know that voice. [Kneels.11
Lear. Ha! Goneril with a white beard.
1No, they cannot touch me for coining. I am the King himself. Lear is converting weeds into currency in order to impress an army. We know from Act I,iv,91 that Lear carries a purse with him. It is possible that he is using it in this scene to gather flowering weeds among the rushes.
2Nature’s above art in that respect. There’s your press money. The coins minted by Queen Elizabeth 1 were not a pretty sight. Lear thinks the weeds make a better currency.
Lear gives money to Gloucester a bit later in the scene:
Lear. Give me an ounce of civet, good apothecary,
To sweeten my imagination.
There’s money for thee.
[Gives a weed to Gloucester.
Lear also gives money to the Gentleman as ransom before running off.
Gent. O! here he is; lay hand upon him. Sir,
Your most dear daughter–
Lear. No rescue? What, a prisoner? I am even
The natural fool of Fortune. Use me well;
You shall have ransom.
[Gives him weeds.
3 That fellow handles his bow like a crow-keeper. Lear is not certain he wants to impress Gloucester, who appears better suited to be a scarecrow than a soldier. “Crow-keeper”, “bowman” and “brown bills” are all suggested by the staff Gloucester is supporting himself with. The prop is explicitly referenced in the text by Edgar, who warns Oswald: “keep out, che vor’ ye, or ice try whither your costard or may ballow be the harder.” A ballow is a North-country word for pole. When Oswald draws his sword, Edgar disarms him with the staff, and kills him.
4Draw me a clothier’s yard. Lear asks Gloucester to prove his worth as a bowman. Steward, Textual Difficulties, p. 84, says that a bowman who could draw a clothier’s yard was one who, when the butt of the shaft was at his nose, had the strength to force the bow out the full length of the arm.”
5Look, look! A mouse! Gloucester is hunched up and appears to be squinting like a mouse.
6Peace, peace, this piece of toast’d cheese will do it. Gloucester becomes agitated. Lear’s impulse is to pacify him, and gives him his hand, which reeks of mortality. Cf. “O ruin’d piece of nature” (IV,vi,134).
7There’s my gauntlet, i.e. his hand
8giant. “Giant” and “mouse” both refer to Gloucester, and represent the rapidly shifting perspectives in Lear’s mind. There are no epistemological absolutes in Shakespeare’s universe. Minutes before Lear’s entrance in this scene, Edgar shows us men and the world as they might appear from a dizzying height. “The fisherman that walk upon the beach / Appear like mice.” In a universe of anamorphosis, mice become like giants.
Edg. The fishermen that walk upon the beach
Appear like mice,
9Lear recognizes that Gloucester has been blinded, and summons forth his army, “Bring up the brown bills.”
10His assailing pity has struck him in the heart, “i’th’clout, i’th’clout.”
11Ha! Goneril with a white beard! Cf. I,i. In the first scene of the play, Goneril kneels before the Lear when she declares all the ways she loves him. Here in IV,vi, recognizing the King’s voice, Gloucester kneels in deference.
In an incongruous bit of stage business further on in the speech, Lear shows Gloucester his challenge, i.e. his gauntlet or hand. Cf. IV,vi,90 above. The penning refers to the lines in his hand, which Gloucester feels.
Read thou this challenge12; mark but the penning of it.
[Shows Gloucester his hand.
12To “throw down the gauntlet is to issue a challenge.” Earlier, Lear calls his hand his gauntlet. “There’s my gauntlet; I’ll prove it on a giant” (IV,iv,90). For the Romans, the manus signified protection, authority, power and strength. In Jung’s explanation, the hand is endowed with generative significance.
Edgar’s Reconciliation with his Father and the Battle
Act V,ii is an interpolation, and I have deleted it from my version of the text. Lines V,ii,7-11 were transposed from IV,vi,281, and they have been restored to their original context. Note that the images of “rot” and “ripeness” follow “mature” in a poetic sequence. Below is how I believe the play was performed at Blackfiars with intermissions between the acts. The text that has been passed down to us was one performed at the The Globe, which had no intermissions.
Below is the ending of IV,vi as I believe it was written by Shakespeare, where Edgar’s reconciliation with his father is foreshadowed by the words, “Come, father, I’ll bestow you with a friend.”
Edg. O indistinguish’d space of women’s will
A plot upon her virtuous husband’s life,
And the exchange my brother. Here in the sands
Thee I’ll rake up, the post unsanctified
Of murderous lechers; and in the mature time
With this ungracious paper strike the sight
Of the death-practis’d Duke. For him ‘tis well
That of they death and business I can tell.
[Exit with Oswald’s corpse.
Glou. The King is mad. How stiff is my vile sense
That I stand up, and have ingenious feeling
Of my huge sorrows! Better I were distract;
So should my thoughts be sever’d from my griefs
And woes by wrong imaginations lose
The knowledge of themselves. [Drum afar off.
Edg. Give me your hand.
Glou. No further, sire; a man may rot even here.
Edg. What, in ill thoughts again? Men must endure
Their going hence, even as their coming hither;
Ripeness is all. Come on.
Edg. Far off methinks I hear the beaten drum.
Come, father, I’ll bestow you with a friend. [Exeunt.
Returning to IV,vi, Lear is chased down by Cordelia’s men; Gloucester and Edgar are found by Oswald, Goneril’s servant, who attempts to slay the old Earl. Edgar intercedes and quickly kills Oswald, discovering Goneril’s letter of treason. As they are leaving the stage together, Edgar says, “Come, father, I’ll bestow you with a friend”. The “friend” is, of course, no other than Edgar himself. “Father” is spoken familially, and Gloucester now suspects the truth of Edgar’s identity. As they depart the stage, the audience anticipates their reconciliation, which becomes associated linearly with Lear’s and Cordelia’s in the next scene.
The first red light that something is wrong with V,ii is that Gloucester still doesn’t know his son. Their reconciliation was beautifully set up in IV,vi by its link with Lear’s and Cordelia’s. The second red light is the battle, which James Spedding observes is simply preposterous, and unlike any other in Shakespeare. Below is the scene as it is printed in standardized versions of the text:
Alarum within. Enter, with drum and colors, Lear,
Cordelia, and their forces; and exeunt.
Enter Edgar and Gloucester.
Edg. Here, father, take the shadow of this tree
For your good host; pray that the right may thrive.
If ever I return to you again,
I’ll bring you comfort. [Exit Edgar.]
Alarum; afterwards a retreat. Re-enter Edgar.
Edg. Away, old man! Give me thy hand! Away!
King Lear hath lost! He and his daughter ta’en!
Give me thy hand! Come on!
Glou. No further, sir; a man may rot even here.
Edg. What, in ill thoughts again? Men must endure
There going hence, even as their coming hither;
Ripeness is all. Come on.
Glou. And that’s true too. [Exeunt.
There is a defect so striking, that I could not be mistaken in pronouncing it indefensible upon any just principle of criticism. This is the battle; a most momentous battle, yet so carelessly hurried over that it comes to nothing; leaves no impression on the imagination, shocks the sense of probability, and by its own unimpressiveness makes everything insignificant that has reference to it. It is a mere blank, and though we are told that a battle has been fought and lost, the mind refuses to take in the idea . . . As a contrast with all other battles in Shakespeare, observe that of which I am speaking. This is literally the whole battle! The army so long looked for, and on which everything depends, passes over the stage, and all our hopes and sympathies go with it. Four lines are spoken. The scene does not change; but “alarums’ are heard, and ‘afterwards a retreat’, and on the same field over which the great army has this moment passed, fresh and full of hope, reappears, with tidings that all is lost, the same man who last left the stage to fight in it. That Shakespeare meant the scene to stand thus, no one who has the true faith will believe. Still less will he believe that it can admit any reasonable defence. (Spedding, New Shakespeare Society Transactions, 1877-9, p.11.)
The scene serves only one dramatic purpose, viz. as a segue between the two adjoining scenes. Edmund cannot leave us at the end of V,i saying that he is going to take Lear and Cordelia prisoner after the battle, and then immediately reenter in the next scene with them his captives, the battle fought and won. Some sort of transition allowing for the time of the battle is dramatically necessary.
This problem is easily rectified if there is an “intermission” between the scenes. We leave Edmund at the end of Act IV at the dawn of the battle, and return to our seats at the beginning of Act V, the battle fought and won. Shakespeare’s plays had a life outside the Globe theater. They were performed in private playhouses, such as Blackfriars, where intermissions were customary.
Shakespeare’s seeming indifference to act divisions may have been caused by his realization that the splitting up of a play into five parts was an unmitigated nuisance in actual performance; it robbed the plot of continuity, diverted the thoughts of the spectators from the drama to extraneous trivia, and forced the actors to recapture the audience’s attention when the next act began. Nevertheless, frequent intermissions were unavoidable in the private playhouses because their auditoriums were lighted by candles, and because candles needed frequent tending; in the sunlit auditoriums of the public playhouses, on the other hand, that need did not exist, and plays could be presented there without pause. The relations between candles and act breaks was pointed out to me by Dr. John Cranford Adams in conversation. Irwin Smith, Shakespeare’s Blackfriars Playhouse, p.230.
The speech of Albany’s highlighted above must be spoken before Lear enters with Cordelia dead indicated by the arrow. From The Globe Shakespeare Edition.
The concepts of justice and just desert are principal themes of the play. They are first introduced when Lear divides his kingdom “Where Nature doth with merit challenge” (I,i,52), and conclude with Albany’s assigning merited rewards and punishments: “All friends shall taste/The wages of their virtue, and all foes/The cup of their deservings” (V,iii,302-4). This latter speech of Albany’s does not make any dramatic or human sense where it is received in the quartos and folios, and confuses the moral purpose of the tragedy. He awards prizes to Kent and Edgar when all is lost; gives Lear absolute power when he is out of his mind and manifestly about to die; then righteously proclaims “All friends shall taste/The wages of their virtue” with Cordelia, virtue personified, lying murdered at his feet.
The natural time for Albany to attempt to reaffirm the moral order is when the situation admits some chance for redemption—as Edmund is being borne from the stage, while we await the entrance of Lear and Cordelia. The outcome is in suspense, and Albany’s moral convictions have not been proven false.
Edm. He hath commission from thy wife and me
To hang Cordelia in the prision, and
To lay the blame upon her own despair
That she fordid herself.
Alb. The gods defend here!–Bear him hence awhile.
[Edmund is born off.]
You lords and noble friends, know our intent.
What comfort to this great decay may come
Shall be appli’d. For us, we will resign,
During the life of his old Majesty,
To him absolute power;—you to your rights,
With boot and such addition as your honours
Have more than merited. All friends shall taste
The wages of their virtue, and all foes
The cup of their deservings.—Oh, see, see!
Re-enter Lear with Cordelia dead in his arms; others following.
Lear. Howl, howl, howl!—Oh, you are men of stones!
Had I your tongues and eyes, I’d use them so
That heaven’s vault should crack. She’s gone for ever.
I know when one is dead, and when one lives;
She’s dead as earth.–Lend me a looking-glass;
If that her breath will mist or stain the stone,
Why then she lives! (V,iii,251-262)
When Albany’s speech is transposed, Lear’s final words become a direct response to the Messenger’s news of Edmund’s death:
Alb. He knows not what he says, and vain is it
That we present us to him.
Edg. Very bootless.
Enter a Messenger.
Mess. Edmund is dead, my lord.
Alb. That’s but a trifle here.
Lear. And my poor fool is hang’d. No, no, no life.
Why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life,
And thou no breath at all? Thou’lt come no more,
Never, never, never, never, never.
The characterization of Albany in the final scene is totally confused by the received placement of the speech. The few curt remarks he utters after the revelation of Cordelia’s death indicate that he has abandoned all hope of a moral resolution. Upon seeing Cordelia dead, he looks to the heavens and curses the gods:
Alb. Fall and cease! (V,iiii,263)
He remarks to Edgar that it is utterly futile to condole Lear, whom he sees is insensible:
Alb. He knows not what he says, and vain it is
That we present us to him. (V,iii,292-3)
Albany believes in divine retribution. He repeatedly warns us of the gods’ condign punishment to those violating the moral law. He tells Goneril:
Alb. If that the heavens do not their visible spirits
Send quickly down to tame these vile offenses,
It will come! (IV,ii,46-8)
He sees the hand of god in the Duke of Cornwall’s death:
Alb. This shows you are above,
You justicers, that these our nether crimes
So speedily can venge! (IV,ii,78-80)
and the death of Regan and his wife also:
Alb. This judgment of the heavens, that makes us tremble,
Touches us not with pity. (V,iii,2301-1)
Albany is changed by the tragedy. He offers no moral explanation when told of Edmund’s death, and he summarily dismisses the Messenger:
Alb. That’s but a trifle here. (V,iii,294)
What makes Albany’s speech metatheater is its dramatic irony. Shakespeare places him center stage during Lear’s death scene, and forces the audience to look at the action through his eyes. He hinders us from bathing in empathetic emotions with Lear, and takes us above the action to question the moral purpose of events:
Glou. As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods,
They kill us for their sport.
Words, words, mere words. Hamlet
Perhaps the most striking instance of metatheater in King Lear is I,v, which appears to take its formal inspiration from the Commedia dell’arte and popular Elizabethan street theater. It is a heartbreaking little scene that has to be played slowly. It is not a noisy scherzo like the end of I,iv where Lear is driven from Goneril’s castle; it is an adagio. It is the slow pas de deux movement in a ballet. It is the Cavatina that caused Beethoven to cry. Lear is feeling deeply remorseful for having banished Cordelia, and twice is unable to keep himself from weeping. The only way to keep the dialogue from moving too fast, and allow the actor playing Lear the necessary time to reflect, is for the Fool to punctuate his jokes with calming music. There is no explicit reference to the Fool’s carrying a lute with him during the play, as there is, for example, to Lear’s wearing a codpiece. But I do feel the instrument’s presence here can be inferred with some certainty by the tempo of the dialogue.
What was Shakespeare’s intent when he wrote this anomalous little scene? What does the Fool want? Just as the Doctor calls for music to restore Lear’s internal harmony in IV,vii, so here the Fool is trying to quiet his mind, not excite it further. “The sounds of the lute were perceived by Elizabethans to act as benign forces over the human spirit; like musical homeopathy, they eased melancholy by transforming it into exquisite art” (Mary Springfels).
Cor. O you kind Gods,
Cure this great breach in his abused nature!
Th’untuned and jarring senses, O! wind up
Of this child-changed father.
This scene in particular will have the most resonance if Cordelia and the Fool are played by the same actor. The actor who played Ophelia in Hamlet might well have created the dual roles of Cordelia and the Fool in King Lear. We know from the stage direction “Enter Ophelia distracted, with her hair down, playing on a lute.” that the actor could play this instrument.
What is most remarkable about this scene is that it has nothing to do with anything that is actually being said with words. It’s meaning is expressed in the staging. Kent and Lear take positions farther downstage than the Fool when they all three enter together. As the scene moves forward, so does the Fool, who gets closer to Lear with each joke until they are standing right next to one another.
Enter Lear, Kent and the Fool
Lear. Go you before to Gloucester with these letters. Acquaint my daughter no further with any thing you know than comes from her
demand out of the letter. If your diligence be not speedy I shall be
there afore you.
Kent. I will not sleep, my Lord, till I have delivered your letter. [Exit.
Fool. If a man’s brains were in’s heels, were’t not in danger of kibes?
Lear. Ay, boy.
Fool. Then, I prithee, be merry, they wit shall not go slipshod.
Meaning: Your wits are in no danger of slipping because the kibes they’re going to get will be so painful they’re certain to tread carefully.
Lear. Ha, Ha, ha!
Fool. Shalt see thy other daughter will use thee kindly; for though
She’s as like this as a crab’s like an apple, yet I can tell what I can tell.
Lear. What canst thou tell, boy?
Fool. She will taste as like this as a crab does to a crab.
Meaning: This joke refers to the size of his daughters’ breasts. Though Goneril’s are much bigger than Regan’s, they will taste just as bitter.
Thou canst tell why one’s nose stands i’ th’ middle on’s face?
Fool. Why, to keep one’s eyes on either side’s nose, that what a
man cannot smell out he may spy into.
Lear. I did her wrong.
Fool. Canst tell how an oyster makes his shell?
Fool. Nor I neither but I can tell why a snail has a house.
Fool. Why, to put’s head in; not to give it away to his daughters,
and leave his horns without a case.
Lear. I will forget my nature. So kind a father! Be my horses ready?
Fool. Thy asses are gone about ‘em. The reason why the seven
stars are no mo than seven is a pretty reason.
Lear. Because they are not eight?
Fool. Yes, indeed: thou would’st make a good Fool.
Lear. [Starts weeping.] To take it again perforce! Monster
Meaning: Lear is talking about his manhood. He has begun weeping again. I have inserted the stage direction.
Fool. If thou wert my Fool, Nuncle, I’d have thee beaten for being
old before thy time.
Lear. How’s that?
Fool. Thou should’st not have been old till thou hadst been wise.
Lear. O! let me not be mad, not made, sweet heaven;
Keep me in temper; I would not be mad! [Enter a Gentleman
How now. Are the horses ready?
Gent. Ready, my Lord.
Lear. Come, boy. [Exeunt Lear and Gentleman.
Fool. She that’s a maid now, and laughs at my departure,
Shall not be a maid long, unless things be shorter.
Meaning: The Fool is talking about the time of her maidenhood. If it’s shorter than now, she’s already lost it. That is, any virgin who is so naïve to think this is funny, is sure to be robbed of her maidenhood if she hasn’t been already.
On a personal note, I was struck in the head by a swing in 1956 when I was five years old. It left me in a coma for several days, and I woke up with aphasia. Aphasia is a disorder that results from damage to portions of the brain that are responsible for language. I developed an embarrassing speech impediment, and it is a struggle for me to connect my words and thoughts. One of the reasons I like this strange little scene, is how it communicates its meaning on a non-verbal level. The facial expressions, the gestures, the eye contact (or the want of it in this case), body language, tone of voice, the music, all of these extra-textual, metatheatrical elements speak louder than the words themselves.
What I love most about Shakespeare as a dramatist are not the words, but his ambivalence about them. It’s a paradox that one of our greatest wordsmiths should have felt ambivalently about spoken language, but I believe it is so: “Words, words, mere words, no matter from the heart.” Who knows, maybe Shakespeare chose not to publish any of his plays during his lifetime on principle. Perhaps he did not regard them as being literary in nature, but inextricably tied to performance, to living theater. For me, King Lear is not intrinsically about words but matters from the heart.
Appendix: Communications with Shakespeareans over the years