There are truths which are not for all men, nor for all times. – Voltaire

Tudor, Portrait of a Man in Red, codpiece, King Lear, Shakespeare, Bill Comstock

Unknown artist, Portrait of a Man in Red, c. 1530-1550 Royal Collection Trust/ © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2013

Shakespeare did not publish any of his plays.  King Lear was sewn together from corrupt quarto and folio versions just as Frankenstein was assembled  from dead body parts.

We risk great hubris wanting to reinvest Lear with a life it had 409 years ago, but it is a necessary evil. The discrepancies between the quarto (1608) and Folio (1623) versions are extreme, and the stage directions so limited that the basic story itself is ambiguous.  Restoration of the play is not possible, however, at least as defined by Webster’s: “bringing back something that existed before.” King Lear never existed as literature.  The play is only readable after editors reconstructed it.   

When Tolstoy wrote in 1906 that King Lear sucks, he had good reasons for saying so.  “I remember the astonishment I felt when I first read Shakespeare. I expected to receive a powerful esthetic pleasure, but having read, one after the other, works regarded as his best: King Lear, Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet and Macbeth, not only did I feel no delight, but I felt an irresistible repulsion and tedium, and doubted as to whether I was senseless in feeling works regarded as the summit of perfection by the whole of the civilized world to be trivial and positively bad, or whether the significance which this civilized world attributes to the works of Shakespeare was itself senseless…… When reading or listening to Shakespeare the question for a young man is no longer whether Shakespeare be good or bad, but only: In what consists that extraordinary beauty, both esthetic and ethical, of which he has been assured by learned men whom he respects, and which he himself neither sees nor feels? And constraining himself, and distorting his esthetic and ethical feeling, he tries to conform to the ruling opinion. He no longer believes in himself, but in what is said by the learned people whom he respects.” [Tolstoy on Shakespeare: A Critical Essay on Shakespeare trans. V. Tchertkoff]

King Lear, Shakespeare, Bill Comstock, Folger Shakespeare Library

John Gregory’s 1932 bas relief of King Lear at the Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington, D.C.

Tolstoy’s harsh judgments of King Lear in particular are not based on writings that Shakespeare himself authorized. Shakespeare was dead when the Folio was published, and probably never even looked at the quarto version. Tolstoy was responding to an inauthentic text that had been pieced together in the Romantic Era, and animated by scholars caught in the web of the Victorian zeitgeist.  “The Romantics, feeble descendants of the tragic writers to whom they are linked by their effort to see life and nature in grandiose terms, loved to imagine that the sea or the sky had a way of according itself with their moods, of storming when they stormed and smiling when they smiled.” (Joseph Krutch, The Tragic Fallacy.)

There is not a better paradigm of prejudice in the reconstruction of Shakespeare’s plays than the representation of Lear’s costume.  On the authority of scholars, Lear is depicted wearing  a dignified gown befitting his “tragic stature,” like the one on the bas relief at the Folger Shakespeare Library. However, there are  three direct allusions to his wearing a codpiece:

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)

Certainly the allusions above do not constitute definitive proof that Lear’s original costume included a prominent codpiece, but at the very least, it would behoove editors to provide readers with a footnote explaining that the codpiece references might be literal.  And of course they are.

As for myself, I believe the codpiece is the first thing Shakespeare wanted us to know about Lear.  The costume is a paradigm of the many incongruous effects in this play as well as a statement about Lear’s tragic character: a vain fellow, who “hath ever but slenderly known himself;” a man pathologically concerned about his potency and manhood.

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,…. sorta like Snoop Dogg who thinks it’s still cool in 2015 to be wearing the baggie jeans and 3XL shirts he wore when he released Doggystyle.

Guidobaldo, codpiece, King Lear, Shakespeare, Bill Comstock

Bronzino, Guidobaldo II della Rovere, 1532, Florence, Palazzo Pitti, Galleria Palatina

“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

Charles V, hunting

Charles V with a Dog, Titian, 1533

The joke below is predicated on Lear’s wearing a codpiece, which he might have used to hold his purse. He gives Kent money for beating Oswald, and must keep his purse somewhere (I,iv,92). I believe it is the brandishing of his codpiece the prompts the Fool to give Kent his coxcomb:

Lear.    [To Kent.]  Now, my friendly knave, I thank thee. There’s earnest of they service. [Takes purse from codpiece.]

Enter Fool.

Fool.   Let me hire him too! Here’s my coxcomb.

There is another joke based on Lear’s recognizability 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.]


Pattern for Tudor men’s bias cut hose. The Tudor Tailor (

Although Kent’s “holla” to the Gentleman is not found in any of the copy-texts, there can be no doubt where it would be said, and I have inserted it accordingly:

Kent:   Who’s there?

Fool.   Marry, here’s grace and a codpiece!

Kent.   Holla

Enter Kent.

Fool.   [Aside.] That’s a wise man and a fool.  (III,ii,39-41)

The style of Lear’s costume stands out markedly from all the other characters’ manners of dress, and contemporary audiences will not need a background in costume history to see that it’s an eye-sore. It will stick out like a sore thumb.

More about Lear’s costume

Richard Burbage, Shakespeare, King Lear, Bill Comstock

Self-portrait of Richard Burbage, Dulwich Picture Gallery, London.

He’s gone and with him what a world are dead.
Which he review’d, to be revived so,
No more young Hamlet, old Hieronimo
Kind Lear, the Grieved Moor, and more beside,
That lived in him have now for ever died.

—A Funerall Elegye on the Death of the famous Actor Richard Burbage who died on Saturday in Lent the 13 of March 1619, ANONYMOUS POET

Lear’s costume is more than period dress.  As one might say of Miss Havisham’s shoe and wedding gown in Great Expectations, it is a symbol that has deeper meaning in the context of the whole story.    As a practical matter, the style of Lear’s clothes is going to determine what pieces of it he can actually be rid of in the storm: if he is wearing a Moses costume comprised of a full-length gown as depicted on the bas relief at Folger Shakespeare Library, all the actor can do is tear it, and make ham-handed faces at the audience.    There is nothing for him to throw off.

King Lear, Shakespeare, Bill Comstock

King Lear in the Storm (1793), Benjamin West. “This print shows a scene from Act III, scene iv of Shakespeare’s play King Lear. It depicts the deranged Lear and his companions in a storm on a heath. Lear is attempting to tear off his clothes, while his companions try to persuade him to take shelter in the hovel seen on the right.” Courtesy of The Victoria and Albert Museum.

Lear.   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. Come, unbutton here!

Enter Gloucester carrying a torch.

Fool.   Prithee, nuncle, be contented! ‘Tis a naughty night to swim in. –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.

King Lear, Shakespeare, Bill Comstock

Gentleman giving alms to a beggar. Illustration for “Of Pride” in John Day’s A christall glasse of christian reformation, London, 1569

If, however, he is wearing fashions that include a codpiece, it means that pieces of his costume can actually be divested: possibly a cape or a mantle, one of his puff sleeves–whatever he can get off his body before Kent is able to restrain him. Edgar, in the guise of Tom o’ Bedlam, would not hesitate to snatch Lear’s discarded clothing off the ground because he is half frozen to death.  “Poor Tom” might be wearing Lear’s cape, and one of his gorgeous puff sleeves—whatever he’s able to lay his hands on from the ground. 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.

Tudor doublet, jerkin, hose

Pattern for Tudor doublet, jerkin and Venetian hose. The Tudo Tailor (

What else can “Persian” possibly be referring to except for the ostentatious cape?  Like the references to Lear’s codpiece, a literal interpretation of Persian (valuable silks were imported to England from Persia by the East India Company founded in 1600) is not offered as a possibility by textual scholars in any modern edition.  Why?  No doubt because Edgar will look ridiculous in the clothes and people are going to laugh. Somehow the gravity of the play will be diminished by its farcical elements.

Maynard Mack writes that only a sentimental Lear would give his clothes to Edgar.  That is true.  The need to cleanse himself, to decontaminate himself, is the impulse that Lear is acting on at this moment.  He wants to feel what beggars feel, and show the heaven’s more just. He does not directly hand his garments over to Edgar. One of the things that keeps this episode from falling into bathos is the simultaneous appearance of Gloucester dressed in a superfluity of clothing. Gloucester’s snug 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 gives him the look of a demon. The episode is incongruous and discordant. It is completely without sentiment. Ironically, it is the traditional staging of this scene that is sentimental. Lear’s tearing off his clothes plays more like one of the farcical scenes in Don Quixote than something you’d expect to see in a “tragedy.”  It is incongruous and discordant, without a hint of bathos.  Audiences will very likely laugh, as they do when Don Quixote goes barreling into a windmill. What is really at issue here is the consensus that the incongruous will somehow diminish the gravitis of the tragedy.

Lear becomes deeply empathetic with others suffering and misfortunes. While tearing his clothes is not explicitly an act of charity, his kindness is implicit. Hence the epithet “kind“ given to Richard Burbage.


Lear.   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 window’d 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.   [Edgar blows his horn.1]

Edgar [From below2]   Fathom and half, fathom and half!  Poor Tom

Tom o' Bedlum, horn

Tom o’ Bedlum, Woodcut Illustration

Fool. [From below]   Come not in here, Nuncle; here’s a spirit.
Help me! Help me!  [Kent helps him out from below.]

1Edgar blows his horn.]  “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.

2From Below]   Edgar uses the horn call in the manner of a boatswain’s whistle. It alludes to the practice of summoning sailors to the “upper deck.” In Heywood’s Fortune By Land and Sea, Young Forest commands:

“Boatswain with your whistle
Command the Saylors to the upper deck
To know their quarters, and to hear their charge.”

3Dolphin] In all probability, “Dolphin” is a name for Edgar’s horn, which is bottle-nosed like a dolphin.

4Do de, de, de, de.]   The onomatopoeia of a horn sounding.  I have substituted the stage direction.  Cf. III,iv,57, “O! do de, de, de.”

5Sessa!]   An interjection said upon blowing a horn. I conjecture that it is used similarly in the Induction of The Taming of the Shrew after Sly belches, and have added the stage direction acccordingly.

Sly.  The Slys are no rogues, look in the chronicles, we came in with Richard Conqueror; therefore paucas pallabris, let the world slide. [Belches.]   Sessa!

It is difficult to free fools from the chains they revere. Voltaire

fox skins hanging

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.

Don Quixote, Master Peter's Puppet Show, King Lear, Bill Comstock, the mock trial

In scene 6, Don Quixote, convinced that the puppets are real, destroys the puppet theatre. Illustration by Gustave Doré, chapter 26.  

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.

I believe that the mock trial of Lear’s daughters comes into being upon his “discovery” of some fox skins  behind the curtains:

Lear. To have a thousand, with red burning spits
Come hizzing in upon ‘em!

Cf. 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.

The comic effect of this scene might be compared to “Melisandra’s Deliverance,” the puppet play in Don Quixote (1605), published around the same year that King Lear is thought to have been first staged. 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.

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?

The Fool sings a popular ditty to one of the pelts imagined to be Regan, and jokes aside to the audience about its eviscerated condition:

Fox pelt

Fox pelt.  “Her boat hath a leak”

Fool:    Come o’er the bourn, Bessy, to me.
    [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.

I contacted English foxhunting authority David C. Itzkowitz about the “cushions” Kent alludes to below.  He replied that “The cushions could have been pillows; they could also have been pelts of all sorts including deer, bear, and wolf. “

Kent.    How do you sir? Stand you not so amaz’d:
                 Will you lie down and rest upon the cushions?

Lear.    I’ll see their trial first.  Bring in their evidence.
                [To Edgar.] Thou robed 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.

Illustration for November for Edmund Spenser's poem The Shepheard's Calendar, 1597. Two shepherds holding their shpherd's crooks guard their flocks, one of them playing a wind instrument. Woodcut.

Illustration for November for Edmund Spenser’s poem The Shepheard’s Calendar, 1597. Two shepherds holding their shpherd’s crooks guard their flocks, one of them playing a wind instrument. Woodcut.

Fool.    Sleepest or wakest thou, jolly shepherd?
              Thy sheep be in the corn;
              And for one blast of thy manikin mouth,
              Thy sheep shall take no harm.

Edg.    Purr!

Fool.   The cat is grey.

Lear.    [Pointing to a joint stool.]  Arraign her                 first; ’tis Goneril. I here take my oath                   before this honourable assembly, she                  kick’d the poor King her father.

Joint stool, King Lear, Shakespeare, Bill Comstock

The warped legs of the joint stool are its distinguishing feature here.

Fool. Come hither, mistress. Is your name                     Goneril?

Lear.    She cannot deny it.

Fool.   Cry you mercy, I took you for a joint-                  stool.

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.4]  Sessa!5  Come march to wakes to wakes and              fairs and market towns. Poor Tom, thy horn is dry.1

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.”

New ideas pass through three periods: 1) It can’t be done. 2) It probably can be done, but it’s not worth doing. 3) I knew it was a good idea all along!
– Arthur C. Clarke

Tolstoy, King Lear, Shakespeare, Bill Comstock

Tolstoy at age 20, 1848

Tolstoy’s rant against Shakespeare and King Lear was very likely piqued by the same anti-authoritarian spirit that prompted him to write War and Peace, viz,  the idea that Napoleon was a “genius.”  What I think ticks Tolstoy off about Shakespeare is the unquestioned acceptance by young readers of Shakespeare’s genius.   He believes this has less to do with with anything they truly feel themselves than the browbeating they have taken from Goethe and other respected thinkers over time, and have become too intimidated to think critically about what they reading. 

Tolstoy’s argument that Shakespeare is a bad playwright is based on the fallacy that the various texts he was reading were authoritative, and bore the bard’s stamp of approval.  This is not the case.  Shakespeare did not supervise the publication of any of his dramatic works; they are all scholarly reconstructions of non-existent originals.  King Lear never existed in a complete manuscript form, folks. Shakespeare never intended it to be read, the way we do his Sonnets. What Tolstoy criticizes Shakespeare for are failed literary constructs of the play which bear as much likeness to the original stage production as Nineteenth century restorations of classical statuary.  “The cool white of ancient Greek statues isn’t a reflection of the sensibilities of antiquity. It’s a reflection of the nineteenth century, when art curators found traces of the garish paint that used to cover them and blasted it away in order to make the statues look more beautiful to them. The 1800s also did a number on David.  First he was covered in wax to put a nice white surface on him, and then the wax was removed with hydrochloric acid, along with the original patina of the statue” (The Worst Art Restoration Mistakes of All Time).

Tolstoy himself does not question the authority of what appears to be badly written scenes, which he is quick to lambast Shakespeare for: the mock trial, the battle, and so on.  When Shakespeare scholars expunge all of the stage directions that give meaning to the text, of course it makes no dramatic sense.   Tolstoy doesn’t hesitate to skewer Shakespeare for contriving words and speeches that sound stilted and unnatural, but he doesn’t take a minute to question their authenticity.  Take for example Albany’s speech in the final scene, where he gives a homily on the rewards of virtue with Cordelia lying murdered at his feet.     

Highlighted below is the speech in question copied from the Globe Edition. I have drawn an arrow showing where I believe Shakespeare intended it.

King Lear, Albany's speech, Lear's death scene, Cordelia's death

The speech of Albany’s highlighted in aureolin above must be spoken before Lear enters with Cordelia dead indicated by the arrow highlighted in fuscia. 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 finals words are made a direct response to the Messenger’s news of Edmund’s death, and the world’s injustice.

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 tgheir visible spirits
              Send quickly down to tame thesee 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 judgement 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—Cordelia’s fate has proven it devoid of any moral purpose—and he summarily dismisses the Messenger:

Alb.      That’s but a trifle here. (V,iii,294)

He understands that Cordelia’s death is senseless and purposeless and repudiates the fundamental moralities of his life. Albany, who begins the play espousing the moral nature of the universe, is as disillusioned by its end as Gloucester:

Glou. As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods,
            They kill us for their sport.

I wrote to dozens of scholars about the placement of this speech, and their responses can pretty much be summarized by playwright William Gibson (see the photocopy of his letter below in the Appendix). While he agrees that the transposition is “very sensible”, and keeps Albany from “looking like an idiot,” he goes on to say that “In production, directors move bits like this around all the time, and it’s only on the printed page that the text is regarded as sacrosanct. But I suppose, if there is to be any standard text, there must be a more objective precedent – as, in Hamlet, the 1603 quarto – and not every editor’s subjective sense of fitness.”

Mr. Gibson is correct that it is improper for an editor to move Albany’s speech in a printed text representing itself to be authoritative (albeit falsely: we cannot presume to know what Shakespeare wrote), however, it quite another thing to include criticism of it in the footnotes. By failing to say anything about its impropriety, editors are tacitly establishing the authenticity of the speech, which in all likelihood is a gross textual corruption. No, a quarto has yet to be found showing that the speech was delivered before Lear enters with Cordelia dead, but so what? Did astronomers need to actually see the planet Neptune before it was mathematically predicted? Does the textual structure of the play mean nothing?  None of the texts are authoritative, and Albany’s speech doesn’t make any dramatic or human sense where it is now placed.  Did Shakespeare really intend for Albany to upstage Lear during his death throes only to show him “an idiot?”  What dramatic sense does it make to break the bond of empathy the audience is feeling with Lear?

The Blinding of Gloucester

Marqués de Salinas. Luis de Velasco II, King Lear, Bill Comstock

Luis de Velasco II, Marqués de Salinas, Viceroy of New Spain and of Peru. Artist unknown. 1606

We now move from the mock trial to the real one.  Gloucester’s attempt to reunite Lear with Cordelia is betrayed by Edmund, and in III, vi. the old Earl is brought before Cornwall and Regan on charges of treason.   Regan immediately tags Gloucester as a “fox”, just as Lear identified a fox for Regan .  Where the one is wanting eyes, the other is stolen of his.

  Re-enter Servants, with Gloucester prisoner.

            Reg.      Ingrateful fox! ‘tis he.


There are several inconsistencies in the standardized text of King Lear which I think need to be looked at.  These are the proposed sword fight between the First Servant and Cornwall, and the assignment of the line “Out, vile jelly! Where is thy luster now?” to Cornwall. It is manifestly Regan who says this as she herself plucks out the second eye.

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.]
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.] 
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.]

ernando Niño de Guevara, El Greco, King Lear, Bill Comstock

Portrait of Fernando Niño de Guevara by El Greco, 1600

The reader will note that I have inserted the SD Cornwall stomps on Gloucester’s spectacles. Cf. I,I,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.

Textual scholars are in agreement that Shakespeare intended a sword fight between Cornwall and the First Serv at line 77 above.  They base this opinion on a stage direction in the Quarto that is not given in the Folio: “They draw and fight.”  In my judgment, however, 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 Shakespeare intended the action: 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 pushes him and his drawn sword into Cornwall; so, for all intents and purposes, it is Regan who causes her husband’s death when she pushes 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.

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 throughout the play, and putting out the second eye herself makes manifest all of the images. 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)


In my correspondence with Kenneth Muir, the editor of The Arden Shakespeare Edition of King Lear, he doubted that this was Shakespeare’s intention based upon the Messenger’s description of the incident in a later scene. “It is legitimate for Regan to gouge out Gloucester’s other eye, but I doubt Shakespeare intended this. See the account given to Albany.”

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)

I always thought that the Messenger’s account above was proof positive that Regan put out the eye, and was quite surprised that Dr. Muir, who had some experience himself as an actor, could be so completely deaf to subtext. The Messenger informs Albany that Cornwall was slain going to put out the other eye. He does not say what 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 to the eye. 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.  What I think editors find objectionable with this reading is that audiences are likely to snicker at the subtext, which is not deemed fitting in a tragedy.

Lear’s Mad Scene

Don Quixote, King Lear, Shakespeare, Cervantes, Bill Comstock

Was Shakespeare influenced by Don Quixote when he wrote King Lear?  The first official record of the play: entered into the Stationers’ Register by Nathaniel Butter and John Busby on 26 November 1607 as “A booke called. Mr William Shakespeare his historye of Kinge Lear.”

In attempting to reconstruct what might have been Shakespeare’s original staging of this scene, I begin by making three basic assumptions:

  1. The only dramatic necessity is that Lear expresses sympathy for Gloucester at the top of the scene, not at the bottom. Lear’s speech is a direct response to the misfortunes of Gloucester’s. If there is only one idea audiences take home from this play, it must be man’s capacity for empathy and kindness. Hence the epithet “kind” given Richard Burbage in an elegy. If audiences do not see Lear acting kindly towards others, he is not kind. All of his words are empty.
  2. Elizabethan audiences were prepared to laugh at madness. King Lear was first staged circa 1606, shortly after Don Quixote (1605) was published, and the two are as much a product of their time as The Drunkard and Uncle Tom’s Cabin are of theirs.  While Shakespeare scholars from the Romantic era, were codifying the text of King Lear on the basis of their own peculiar ideas about comedy and tragedy, Cervantes scholars from the same period were busy telling readers that Don Quixote  was not funny.”For more than one and a half centuries after [Don Quixote] was first published, readers, not only in Spain but in all Europe, apparently accepted without cavil that [it] was simply a brilliantly successful funny book. So it was that, as late as 1742, Henry Fielding sought to attract readers to his novel Joseph Andrews by explaining that he had written that work in imitation of the manner of Cervantes, making the sentiments and diction ‘not sublime but ridiculous’. Sixty years later, however, the dawning of European romanticism introduced a drastic reassessment of the traditional view that Don Quixote was a funny book. Sismondi, in his very influential study De la Littérature du Midi de l’Europe (Paris, 1813), takes the view that it is improper to laugh at the Manchegan knight and that the book is ‘le livre le plus triste qui ait jamais été écrit’. We know, on the authority of Napoleon Bonaparte, that from the sublime to the ridiculous is but a short step. Indeed, until the early nineteenth century, most readers of Don Quixote had taken the book to be an illustration of just that. Now romantic criticism had arrived to proclaim the perhaps more dubious proposition, à propos of Cervantes’ work, that a step in the reverse direction is equally easy. Bouterwek, in his History of Spanish Literature (1812), complements Sismondi’s view of the mad knight, declaring, to quote the French translation of that date, that he is ‘un paladin, irréfléchi sans doute, mais sublime’. And everyone knows what Byron wrote (Don Juan, Canto 13): ‘Of all tales ’tis the saddest ‘— and more sad / Because it makes us smile . . . ‘ — a pronouncement which hardly fits comfortably with Cervantes’ own first assertion of intent to which I have already alluded: ‘procurad también que leyendo vuestra historia el melancólicose mueva a risa, el risueiio la acreciente’ (Don Quixote, I, Prólogo). It is nevertheless, this romantic view which has continued to dominate Quixote criticism everywhere.” Don Quixote as a Funny Book, P.E. Russell. The Modern Language Review, Vol. 64, No. 2. (Apr., 1969), pp. 312-326.
  3. Shakespearean textual scholars hold an ancient bias against the theater. Aristotle writes, “We are told that Epic poetry is addressed to a cultivated audience, who do not need gesture; tragedy to an inferior public” (xxvi.2 The Poetics)  Indeed, Charles Lamb, the Romantic writer and essayist, would have us do away with performances of King Lear entirely, and content ourselves only to read it. “The sublime images, the poetry alone, is that which is present to our minds in the reading…On the stage we see nothing but corporal infirmities and weakness, the impotence of rage; while we read it, we see not Lear, but we are Lear,—we are in his mind, we are sustained by a grandeur which baffles the malice of daughters and storms; in the aberrations of his reason, we discover a mighty irregular power of reasoning, immethodized from the ordinary purposes of life, but exerting its powers, as the wind blows where it listeth, at will upon the corruptions and abuses of mankind.”

Rushes on The Globe stage

Enter Lear, coining weeds.

Edg.    The safer sense will ne’er accommodate
              His master thus.
Lear.   No, they cannot touch me for coining; I am the King himself.
Edg.    O thou side-piercing sight!
Lear.   Nature’s above art in that respect. There’s your press-money.              That fellow handles his bow like a crow-keeper: draw me a                      clothier’s yard. Look, look! A mouse. Peace, peace. This piece                  of toast’d cheese will do’t; there’s my gauntlet; I’ll prove it on a              giant. Bring up the brown bills. O! well-flown bird; i’th’clout,                    i’th’clout. Hewgh! Give the word.
Edg.    Sweet marjoram.
Lear.   Pass.
Glou.  I know that voice.    [Kneels.]
Lear .  Ha! Goneril with a white beard.

In King Lear, there is always a disjunction between the world as it really is and the way that Lear perceives it.  The effect is farcical, as it is in Don Quixote, but enriches the pathos.  His intent when he enters the scene is to raise money for his war so he can build an army.

No, they cannot touch me for coining. I am the King himself.

There was no paper money during the Elizabethan era. Coins were minted by the Crown from gold or silver and not a pretty sight during the reign of Queen Elizabeth l. Lear thinks the flowers make a better currency.

Nature’s above art in that respect. There’s your press money.

The coins minted by Queen Elizabeth l were not a pretty sight. Lear thinks the flowers make a better currency.

Lear gives money to Gloucester a bit later in the mad scene:

Lear.   Give me an ounce of civet, good apothecary,
              To sweeten my imagination.
              There’s money for thee.
                                                 [Gives a flower 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 flowers.]

Lear is not certain he wants to impress Gloucester, who appears better suited to be a scarecrow than a soldier.

               That fellow handles his bow like a crow-keeper.

Bowman, King Lear, Shakespeare, Bill Comstock, mad scene



Brown bills

“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 takes the staff to defend himself.

Lear asks Gloucester to prove his worth as a bowman:

   Draw me a clothier’s yard.

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.”

Gloucester is hunched up and appears to be squinting like a mouse.

             Look, look! A mouse!

Gloucester becomes agitated. Lear’s impulse is to pacify him,

             Peace, peace,

and gives him his hand, which reeks of mortality.

this piece of toast’d cheese will do it.

Cf. “O ruin’d piece of nature” in the passage below.

There’s my gauntlet. I’ll prove it on a giant.

A giant mouse. Lear recognizes that Gloucester has been blinded, and summons forth his army, “Bring up the brown bills.” His assailing pity has struck him in the heart, “i’th’clout, i’th’clout.”

The Ambassadors, Hans Holbein, the Younger, Shakespeare, King Lear, Bill Comstock, anamorphic perspective

Anamorphic Perspective in The Ambassadors by Hans Holbein the Younger (1533). “A distorted or monstrous projection or representation of an image on a plane or curved surface, which, when viewed from a certain point, or as reflected from a curved mirror or through a polyhedron, appears regular and in proportion; a deformation of an image.” Webster’s Dictionary, 1913

“Giant” and “mouse” both refer to Gloucester, and represent the rapidly shifting perspectives in Lear’s mind. 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.                                                                How fearful
            And dizzy ‘tis to cast one’s eyes so low!
            The crows and choughs that wind the midway air
             Show scarce so gross as beetles; half way down
             Hangs one that gathers sampire, dreadful trade!
             Methinks he seems no bigger than his head.
             The fishermen that walk upon the beach
             Appear like mice, and yond tall anchoring bark
             Diminish’d to her cock, her cock a buoy
             Almost too small for sight. The murmuring surge,
             That on th’unnumber’d idle pebble chafes,
             Cannot be heard so high. I’ll look no more,
             Lest my brain turn, and the deficient sight
             Topple down headlong.


Lear requires the password from Edgar before he is allowed to move upstage.

Lear.   Give the word
Edg.    Sweet marjoram.
Lear.   Pass
Glou.  I know that voice.
                                              [Gloucester kneels.]
Ha! Goneril with a white beard!

Recognizing Lear’s voice, Gloucester kneels in deference to the King.

Further on in the speech, Lear shows Gloucester the challenge he has penned to Goneril.

Read thou this challenge; mark but the penning of it.
                                                                          [Shows Gloucester his hand.]

1027535-title-page-of-chapter-on-chiromancy-from-robert-fludd-utriusque-cosmiI imagine any hand gesture would work at this moment
except the Vulcan salute. I think the open palm showing the five fingers, as represented on the title page of Robert Fludd’s book on chiromancy is probably Tomus secundus Wellcome L0061088best. I believe the gesture is intended to suggest something occult, such as pervades King Lear, but I don’t think it has any hermetic significance except as a symbol of humankind, which, afterall, is the challenge Lear is issuing. As J.E. Cirlot writes in a Dictionary of Symbols, “the symbol proper is a dynamic and polysymbolic reality, imbued with emotive and conceptual values.” For the Romans, the manus signified protection, authority, power and strength.  In Jung’s explanation, the hand is endowed with generative significance.

There is quite a bit of hand symbolism in the play, used mostly to express irony:

Lear.    Who stock’d my servant? Regan, I have good hope
              Thou didst not know on’t. —Who comes here?
                                      [Enter Goneril.]
               O heavens,
               If you do love old men, if your sweet sway
               Allow obedience, if you yourselves are old,
               Make it your cause; send down and take my part!—
               Art not asham’d to look upon this beard?—
                                                                        [She takes her by the hand.]
               O Regan, will you take her by the hand?

Reg.     Why not by th’hand, sir? How have I offended?
               All’s not offence that indiscretion finds,
               And dotage terms so.  (ii,iv,187-195)

Shakespeare reveals the true meaning of Goneril’s gesture to the audience in Act IV when she again takes her sister by the hand.

Alb.     Let’s then determine,
With th’ancient of war on our proceeding.
Edm.   I shall attend you presently at your tent.
Gon.    Sister, you’ll go with us?
Reg.     No.
Gon.    ‘Tis most convenient; pray you, go with us.
                                                                [She takes her by the hand.]
Reg.      Oho! I know the riddle; I will go.

Some lines ascribed to Goneril are properly spoken by Regan based not only upon the distinctly different voices of the two women, but Shakespeare’s emphatic use of dramatic irony for its humorous effect.  As noted above, Regan’s lines are readily identifiable by their sarcasm.

I have switched the assignment of lines in the passage above from Regan to Goneril.  Goneril has neither an opportunity nor a pretext to leave with Edmund. She is bound to go with Albany so as not to arouse his suspicion. The widow Regan, on the other hand, has Edmund for her escort, and is free to go with him wherever she likes. I also assign the  line “I had rather lose the battle than that sister/Should loosen him and me” to Regan . . . because of the laugh it will get from the audience.

Enter, with drum and colours, Albany, Goneril and Soldier.

Reg.   [Aside.] I had rather lose the battle than that sister
             Should loosen him and me.
Alb.     [To Regan.] Our very loving sister, well bemet. 

Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex, attributed to Nicholas Hilliard, c.1587. (The eldest surviving son of Lettice Knollys and stepson to Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester & Elizabeth I favorite) in tilting armour. He wears a lady's glove as a favor on his right arm; this miniature may commemorate his appearance at a tournament in 1595 when Elizabeth I of England gave him her glove.

Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex, attributed to Nicholas Hilliard, c.1587. (The eldest surviving son of Lettice Knollys and stepson to Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester & Elizabeth I favorite) in tilting armour. He wears a lady’s glove as a favor on his right arm; this miniature may commemorate his appearance at a tournament in 1595 when Elizabeth I of England gave him her glove.

King Lear, Shakespeare, Bill Comstock

Pair of gloves, ca. 1600. English. Leather; satin worked with silk and metal thread, seed pearls; satin, couching, and darning stitches; metal bobbin lace; paper; 12 1/4 x 6 1/4 in. (31.1 x 15.9 cm) Gift of Mrs. Edward S. Harkness, 1928

Dramatic irony is a device Shakespeare uses throughout the play, and the business of the favors Goneril and Regan give to Edmund is intended to mock them.  Glove, ring, letter . . . whatever it is, the important thing for editors to note is that it’s the same favor.

                   Enter Goneril and Edmund

Gon.    Welcome, my Lord; I marvel our mild                                         husband’s
              Not met us on the way.   [Enter Oswald.]
              Now, where’s your master?
Osw.   Madam, within; but never man so chang’d.
               I told him of the army that was landed;
               He smil’d at it: I told him you were coming;
               His answer was “The worse’: of Gloucester’s                        treachery,
               And the loyal service of his son,
               When I inform’d him, then he call’d me sot,
               What most he should dislike seems pleasant to him;
               What like, offensive.
Gon.    [To Edmund.] Then shall you go no further.
               It is the cowish terror of his spirit
               That dares not undertake; he’ll not feel wrongs
               Which tie him to answer. Our wishes on the way
               May prove effects. Back, Edmund, to my brother;
               Hasten his musters and conduct his powers.
               I must change arms at home, and give the distaff
               Into my husband’s hands. This trusty servant
               Shall pass between us; ere long you are like to hear
               (If you dare venture in your own behalf)
               A mistress’s command. Wear this.—   
                                                                                  [Gives him a glove.]
                                                                                      Spare speech.

                Decline your head. This kiss, if it durst speak,
                Would stretch thy spirits up into the air.
                Conceive, and fare thee well.
Edm.      Yours in the ranks of death. (IV,ii,3-25

Regan gives Edmund the same favor in IV,v

Reg.   I know your lady does not love her husband;
            I am sure of that; and at her late being here
            She gave strange oeilliads and most speaking looks
            To noble Edmund. I know you are of her bosom.
Osw.   I, madam?
Reg.    I speak in understanding. Y’are, I know’t!
             Therefore I do advise you, take this note:
             My lord is dead. Edmund and I have talk’d,
             And more convenient is he for my hand
             Than for your lady’s. You may gather more.
              If you do find him, pray you, give him this
                                                                                          [Gives him a glove.]
              And when your mistress hears thus much from you,

              I pray, desire her call her wisdom to her.

Edgar’s reconciliation with his father.

When Shakespeare originally staged King Lear, I believe he gave dramatic representation to the moment when Gloucester recognizes Edgar, but it was subsequently lost due to the exigencies of the Globe Theater.  It will be recalled that Lear is chased off by Cordelia’s men; Gloucester and Edgar are found by Oswald, Goneril’s loyal servant, who attempts to slay the old Earl. Edgar intercedes and quickly kills Oswald with the heavy staff Gloucester is carrying. After dragging off his body, he returns to get his father. As they leave the stage together, Edgar reveals himself to his father.  Gloucester’s flash of recognition leads us into the next scene where Lear is reunited with Cordelia.

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.

globe edition v,ii-resized

Here is how I believe their meeting was constructed by Shakespeare

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.   Music afar off.]
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.

                             Re-enter Edgar

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.

At the end of the scene Edgar says to him, “Come, father, I’ll bestow you with a friend.” Of course, it is possible that Edgar is speaking these words with the feigned accent he uses to disguise himself from Gloucester.  Kenneth Muir explains to readers in The Arden Shakespeare Edition, that “Father” is a colloquial term for an old man, and the “friend” is a friendly bloke Edgar met somewhere on the way to Dover: “We are not told how the fugitive Edgar has got in touch with a friend.” (The Arden Shakespeare Edition. p. 175)

the madsWhen you read nonsense like this in the “explanatory” notes, can any one really fault Tolstoy for lambasting “Shakespeare”?  When he picked up his copy of King Lear, Tolstoy assumed a priori that the text he was studying was what Shakespeare wrote or intended. He believed that textual scholars had an authoritative understanding of Shakespeare and trusted their opinions as one might a petroleum engineer or an atomic physicist, someone with highly specialized knowledge.  What Tolstoy did’t realize was that he was listening to the Mads on Mystery Science Theater 3000.

If one accepts the folio and quarto versions as what Shakespeare wrote, and allows the text to stand unchallenged even in a footnote, Muir’s risible friendly bloke interpretation is the only one allowed readers because father and son reappear in Act V,ii not knowing one another. However, if we look critically at these unauthorized copy-texts believing Shakespeare to be a skilled playwright, we start smelling corruption.  The first question we need to ask ourselves is what are Gloucester and Edgar doing back on stage together? What’s up with V,ii?

Alarum within. Enter, with drum and colours, 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.

The problem of Gloucester’s reentrance with Edgar in V,ii has been totally eclipsed by the preposterous battle scene, which James Spedding observed was unlike any other in Shakespeare.

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.

The scene serves only one dramatic purpose, viz. as a segue between the two adjoining scenes. Edmund cannot leave us at the end of one scene saying that he is going to take Lear and Cordelia prisoner after the battle, and then immediately reenter in the next with them his captives, the battle fought and won. Some sore of transition allowing for the time of the battle is dramatically necessary.

This problem is easily rectified if there was 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.

There is no question that some of the lines in V,ii were penned by Shakespeare, and rather than throw the baby out with the bathwater, textual scholars have opted to let the interpolation stand, subjecting Shakespeare to the denunciations of Leo Tolstoy.  So where did these lines come from if not during the battle scene? They were lifted from IV,vi where they are in keeping with the circumstances, and mood of the characters. They also form a poetic sequence.

Words, words, mere words.  Hamlet

Lute Player, Hans Hals, King Lear, Shakespeare, Bill Comstock

I love this androgynous portrait of a Fool with a lute , widely attributed to Hans Hals in 1623. It is just as I would hope the actor who played the dual parts of Cordelia and the Fool looked in King Lear.

This is the most heartbreaking scene in King Lear, and it has to be played slowly.  It is not a noisy scherzo like the end of preceding scene 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 to 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, just as exoplanets too far away to see with a telescope are inferred by their radial velocity.  The scene takes its formal inspiration from the Commedia dell’arte and popular Elizabethan street theater.

lutes, King Lear, Shakespeare, Bill Comstock

A lute for every purpose.

What was Shakespeare’s intent when he wrote this anomalous little scene?  When we try to restore it to its original, we must begin by stepping back and asking first of all what it’s about.  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.

Fool, lute, King Lear, Shakespeare, Bill Comstock

Franz Isaac Brun; 1555-1610 The British Museum

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.  We can reasonably conjecture that the melody the Fool is playing in l,vi is the same one played for Lear in IV,vii. The Fool sings snatches from popular cradle-songs throughout the play.  Much research has been generated on the role of lullabies in nurturing caregiving bonds between mother and child.

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 walk carefully.

Lear.     Ha, Ha, ha!
Fool.     Shalt see thy other daughter will use thee kindly; for though                   she 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?
Lear.   No
Fool.   Why, to keep one’s eyes on either side’s nose, that what a                          man cannot smell out he may spy into.
Lear.   [Starts weeping.] I did her wrong.
Fool.   Canst tell how an oyster makes his shell?
Lear.   No.
Fool.   Nor I neither but I can tell why a snail has a house.
Lear.   Why?
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                                    ingratitude!

Meaning: Lear is talking about his manhood. He has begun weeping again.  I have inserted the stage directions.

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. 

fool with lute from recorder home page

Fool with lute

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 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 it is so:  “Words, words, mere words, no matter from the heart.”   Who knows, maybe Shakespeare chose not to publish any of his plays on principle.  They are not literary in nature.  They are not intrinsically about words but matter from the heart.

Leo Tolstoy, Shakespeare, King Lear, Bill Comstock

Leo Tolstoy, 1856

Four hundred and nine years have elapsed since King Lear was originally performed.  The original play existed only for a flash in time, and was never published in literary form by Shakespeare. Tolstoy’s reading experience should have sounded alarms, but it didn’t.  It was much easier for people to blow him off as a mad man for pronouncing Shakespeare a bad playwright, and Lear a bad play, than admit that the text he was reading was an ideological construct of their own.

I believe the standard reconstruction of King Lear is as much like Shakespeare’s original as Cecelia Gimenez’s restoration of Ecce Homo. Believing we can commit King Lear to a literary form takes incredible hubris on the part of an editor, and the first thing we must concede is any absolute authority over the text.  The goal must be to encourage readers to think critically and reflectively about the production as it first lived.  It was not the plays of Shakespeare that ruffled Tolstoy so badly, but the institutionalized suppression of critical thinking about them.  

Ecce Homo, Elias Garcia Martinez, Cecilia Giménez

Ecce Homo by Elías García Martínez showing damage caused by an elderly woman who decided to restore the masterpiece.

I wrote to Stephen Fry not too long ago about playing Lear.  I asked him to put out of his head anything and everything he had been told about Shakespeare and King Lear.  It is not the cynical work represented by scholars.  On the contrary, it is a loud, youthful play, that challenges the cynicism that comes with old age.  Shakespeare shows us that we make choices in life.  He paints a world where greed, lust, and cruelty are balanced with nobility of spirit, charity and kindness.  Nature is indifferent to our sufferings.  There are no gods to care for us, but better than that we have each other.  

Appendix.  Correspondence with scholars.

The great American classicist and educator William Arrowsmith encouraged me to contact several Shakespeare experts about my work with the caveat “I am prepared a priori to suppose that they have ignored the essentials, simply on the basis of the way scholars in my field have read Greek tragedy.”  In this Appendix, I attach some correspondence I’ve had with scholars and actors through the years.  

In a nutshell, my work was dismissed as “conjecture,” even by scholars who were sympathetic to it, and could offer no rational defense of the play as it is now being sold in bookstores.  Until  corroborating evidence was found to support it, I was told the work had no validity at all.  This sounded specious to me.  Evidence?  Are scholars expecting to find copies of King Lear or Hamlet or Macbeth written in Shakespeare’s own hand complete with stage directions, music and costume designs all carefully notarized by the county clerk in Southwark?  There is NEVER going to be any evidence that will resolve the inconsistencies between the quartos and folios.  We are never going to have stage directions that describe how King Lear was originally conceived by Shakespeare, let alone how it was realized on stage.   King Lear never existed as a book. Shakespeare probably chose to write plays instead of books because he distrusted words and did not want his plays published in a literary form on profoundly held principles of his own. 

The Fall and Expulsion of Adam and Eve, Michelangelo, Shakespeare, King Lear, Bill Comstock

A composite image of The Fall and Expulsion of Adam and Eve by Michelangelo. The upper left is shown unrestored, the lower right is shown restored.

The challenge of reconstructing King Lear is principally ideological.  The task before us is removing all the shit left on the play by Shakespeare scholars. We have to filter out the false ideologies that were passed down to us from our Romantic forefathers, which are now as deeply insinuated into the text as the bas relief on the Folger Shakespeare Library. Despite loud claims to the contrary, Shakespeare scholars are NOT interested in facts at all, and I don’t doubt for a second that if Shakespeare was resurrected from the dead for the sole purpose of telling us how King Lear was written and staged, that they would not accept a word he said, and treat him as rudely as they did Tolstoy.  They have their careers and egos to protect.  

For many years I have felt a kinship with author Graham Hancock, whose fastidious research into the development of human civilization has been derided by archeologists for decades.  His new book Magicians of the Gods was published this year, and he has been speaking about his experience with academics on various Internet talk shows including the Joe Rogan Experience #725, and DarkJournalist.  In Hancock’s words, his work

raises a horrible possibility for archaeology.  That they have been completely wrong about the origins of civilization.  Not just slightly wrong but completely wrong.  That’s a horrible possibility and it’s much better to just try and get rid of the data.  I’m not saying that it’s a conspiracy by archaeologists, I’m saying it’s human nature.  If you’re invested in a system of ideas, so powerfully invested in it that your own personality is connected with it, you just can’t accept it.  It’s really hard to accept.  

I have come to view archaeology and history more as a kind of ideology really than science.  We like to think of scientists as rational and reasonable people but the fact is that when you get very committed to a particular model, to a particular idea I think you start to connect your own personality to it and any attack on that idea becomes an existential attack on you yourself.  In 1995 when I published Fingers of the Gods there was still what I call “The Cult of the Experts.”  You only had to be Professor X or Doctor Y and make some grave pronouncement and 99% of the population would believe you, and not challenge you or question you any further.  That attitude to authority that willingness to abase ourselves before authority and say, “Yes, yes, you are the expert! You are right!  Tell me what to believe!” . . .  that’s gone in the last 20 years. There is a whole new spirit in the world today which is a spirit of inquiry.  

William Gibson, Shakespeare, King Lear, Bill Comstock

Communication with William Gibson

William Arrowsmith, Shakespeare, King Lear, Bill Comstock

Letter from William Arrowsmith, 2.26.76

Anne Drury Hall, Shakespeare, King Lear, Bill Comstock

Letter from Anne Drury Hall, page 1, April 26, 1978

Anne Drury Hall, Shakespeare, King Lear, Bill Comstock

Letter from Anne Drury Hall, page 2, April 26, 1978

David Itzkowitz, Shakespeare, King Lear, Bill Comstock

Letter from David Itzkowitz, September 20, 1979

David Itzkowitz, Shakespeare, King Lear, Bill Comstock

Letter from David Itzkowitz, October 2, 1979

Gwynne Evans, Shakespeare, King Lear, Bill Comstock

Letter from Gwynne Evans, 7 April 1980

John Andrews, Shakespeare Quarterly, Shakespeare, King Lear, Bill Comstock

Letter from John Andrews, April 29, 1980

Letter from Marvin Rosenberg, January 31, 1979

Letter from Marvin Rosenberg, January 31, 1979

Maynard Mack, Shakespeare, King Lear, Bill Comstock

Letter from Maynard Mack, 27 August 1981

John Dexter, February 21, 1978

John Dexter, February 21, 1978

Kenneth Muir, 3 March 1978

Kenneth Muir, 3 March 1978

Y.L.Warburton, 15 December 1989

Y.L.Warburton, 15 December 1989

Ralph Richardson, 10 May 1983

Ralph Richardson, 10 May 1983

Stanford Lehmberg, June 12, 1992

Stanford Lehmberg, June 12, 1992

Al Rowse, 27 May 1992

Al Rowse, 27 May 1992

AL Rowse, 30 July 1992

AL Rowse, 30 July 1992