I figured I’d follow on from Romeo and Juliet with King Lear for a couple of reasons. One, it is the Shakespeare play I consider my favourite and with which I am most acquainted and two, I think it is the one that best contrasts with the outright comical stupidity of the ‘tragedy’ of Romeo and Juliet.
It is, I feel, my strongest argument for Romeo and Juliet being a comedy. You see they both end very similarly – basically “Everybody’s dead, Dave!” But whereas I feel the deaths in Romeo and Juliet are the darkly comical punchlines to a tragic farce, the deaths in King Lear are the tragic inevitability of some, admittedly often darkly comical, events.
“What is it about?” is probably the wrong question to ask of Lear, “What isn’t it about?” being much more likely to give you the short answer, and even then I’d struggle.
The plot is that a dithering old fuck decides the best way to ensure stability of his power is to make his kids fight for it, not realising they’re just going to suck his old husk dry, discard him and then set about killing each other. In amongst all this a Prince becomes a beggar, a beggar becomes a Prince, an old man shouts at a cloud and a soft-spoken, though earnest, mouse of a girl turns out to be a saviour princess but then dies. The smartest character is the second least respectable, the least respectable of which later turns out to save the day – by which I mean end the day because by the end there’s little left to save that hasn’t already been ruined. It is, quite simply, miserable and I can’t wait to see how I sum it all up and conclude at the end.
Unlike Romeo and Juliet, however, little of this misery could have been spared by alternative action. Besides a couple of characters everyone else is bumbling through their ‘parts’ – as if they are actors in a play at the behest of nature itself. The titular Lear is the main one who could have prevented any of this from occurring and we learn not too deep into proceedings that it is quite apparent with age he is losing his mind. How much control he even had of himself becomes the question we are asking, by the end of the play. Was all this misery set in motion by the miseries of dementia and senescence? Why, then, does nobody else step in to stop it? Or why, then, do the people who try end up ignored?
I know I’m not doing such a good job of We Lack Disciplining the shit out of the play right now but it’s because more than any other of Shakespeare’s works King Lear represents a tragedy we all face – age, decay and death. We may never all be in the position to hold a dagger over a King’s throat and ask if we could do it for our own gain. We won’t all have to listen to our uncle go at it with our mum, knowing he killed our dad, and wonder what to do. We don’t all get to have whirlwind romances end in suicide pacts. We will all get old, we will all find our power and influence withering upon the tendrils of the vines we worked so hard to grow, and we will all die. We are not all Macbeth, Romeo, Juliet or Hamlet – We are all Lear.
I’d like to tell a personal anecdote about King Lear, if I may? Not that you get much permission, I’m the fucking editor now.
I hated studying King Lear. It was part of my AS Level (sort of high-school diploma level for United States folks) English Literature study. They force-feed you Shakespeare in the English school system and it’s wrong and foolish. Shakespeare should not be part of the curriculum because it is too obtuse, too ripe for interpretation and far too saturated in other people’s opinions. That was the problem I found with Shakespeare but I first noticed it with King Lear. People wanted to convince me that Lear was a hubristic fool when I saw only a poor demented old git. People wanted to convince me that Edmund was a Machiavellian villain when I saw a victim of circumstance. People wanted to convince me of Cordelia’s naivety when she was the only one with any strength or sense. When you study English literature at a certain level what you study is what other critics have thought and your own ideas and interpretations are almost irrelevant, never mind me having been told I was ‘wrong’! Wrong, for an interpretation on a text, a subjective interpretation by a human with their own unique experience. There’s no such thing!
Now I was not a particularly respectful sort, I’m sure you haven’t noticed this site being called “We Lack Discipline” and the amount of bad language and all, and so I was in the habit of stealing the copies of the texts we were to read, so I could doodle and note in the margins as much as I damn well pleased – and I did. I still have my pilfered copy of King Lear and it is the text I will be writing this article from. It is in the margins of my copy of Lear that I have written “I am Bic Pentameter!” presumably some kind of superhero who speaks pentasyllabically. Anyway I was glad to have nicked it because eventually, stuck without something to peruse on the shitter (this being before the era of easily available smartphones (yeah, I’m old)), I grabbed my tattered, doodled copy of Lear.
Funnily enough it seemed less shit on the toilet than it had been in the classroom and this was where I learned to enjoy Shakespeare. I’ve never met a single person who tells me the first time they truly enjoyed Shakespeare it was in a classroom. It is either reading alone, or in the theatre. It’s why in my introduction I urged people to give Shakespeare a go. It won’t be for everyone, but most people’s experiences of Shakespeare are being told what to think by teachers who if they had any clue what good writing or drama was they wouldn’t be fucking English teachers. No offence, English teachers.
The point of this near 1,000 word pre-amble is this. Shakespeare was writing 500 years ago. There have been 500 years of performances, studies, opinions, documents, deconstructions, reinterpretations and reimaginings but Shakespeare is like all the best art. Nobody can tell you what it is or isn’t. Nobody can tell you what it does or doesn’t mean. Nobody can tell you whether to like it or not. That’s up to you.
Except Romeo and Juliet – which is definitely a dark comedy.
In the words of Snoop Dogg in ‘Nuthin’ But a “G” Thang’ – back to the lecture at hand…
We open with a man named Gloucester talking up his sexual exploits in the creation of his bastard son Edmund right in front of his bastard son Edmund.
People want to consider Edmund a villain but if my first introduction to courtly life was my aristocratic father talking up what ‘good sport’ was had in my making, how my mother was basically a whore good for only fucking, in front of me, and how I was essentially a piece of shit because I was illegitimate, I’d start plotting to take over the crown of that fetid kingdom, too! Get used to this running line because in my opinion Edmund is possibly the least understood of all of Shakespeare’s villains and it is my belief that if Shakespeare did not want to make a point of the justification of his villainy he would not have given him the introduction and half the lines he does. Edmund’s my boy!
Now all of this is basically chit-chat before the introduction of the King himself, Lear. He is joined by a retinue of people, his daughters Gonorrhea, Ronald Reagan and Lime Cordial… Sorry, Goneril, Regan and Cordelia. There’s also some blokes there, but this is nothing if not a feminist play and they’re basically unimportant cucks.
In this scene King Lear, in his aging insecurity, and fearful of death, decides that the best way to divide up the Kingdom is to get his scheming bitch daughters to lie to him over who loves him most. Only the problem is one of them is not a scheming bitch and is actually honest, decent, strong and wonderful and so refuses to play his game. It just so happens that is his favourite youngest daughter, Cordelia, so he gets a bit moody about the fact that clearly he’s not a complete fuck up and at least managed to raise one child right, throws a dementia-addled tantrum and marries her off to the King of France because he thinks she’s hot, Burgundy’s a ponce and Lear’s an idiot.
The thing, the incredible thing in my opinion, about King Lear is the whole plot is almost established in this opening. Every theme to be explored, every philosophy to be laid out, every character to be developed is presented here. Sure Macbeth’s opening is more dramatic, loud storm “so foul and fair a day…” etc. I mean by contrast Romeo and Juliet opens like a…well…like a COMEDY! (Yes, I will continue to use this article as a justification for my prior one’s opinion.)
Even though it opens with the bawdy and supposedly humourous exchange between the Dukes Kent and Gloucester, that itself is providing the mocking basis for the motivations of one of the key ‘villains’ of the piece, Edmund. We are laughing at the expense of him and his mother who, surely being good in Edmund’s eyes is merely ‘sport’ in his father’s.
Lear’s opening line “Meantime we shall express our darker purpose” Is a prophecy more than an instruction. The rest of the play is nothing if not a ‘darker purpose’.
The speeches of Goneril and Regan are as empty as the sentimental request to speak them. Imagine your boss begging you to justify why you should get a raise. You’d lie through your fucking teeth, right? Tell them what a great boss they were and how nobody could work harder or be more loyal than you and then sit on your arse and slag them off behind their back once you get yours.
No the interesting focus in this scene is the dialogue between Cordelia and Lear. After her sister Goneril has spewed sugar all over the stage like a bee with a tummy bug, Cordelia makes an aside, to us, the audience saying firstly;
“What shall Cordelia do
Love, and be silent.”
And after Regan’s saccharine yacking;
“Then poor Cordelia!
And yet not so; since, I am sure, my love’s
More richer than my tongue.”
I can see why some would call her naïve, but at no point are there any indications or stage directions that her speech is anything but measured, sincere and knowing. Naivety would be implied by shock at her father’s reaction and yet we will see that she reasons well, and is stoic in her reaction to his ire. The other important thing to note is that the only other person to use measured reason as well in this entire play is supposed chief among villains, Edmund.
At AS Level I was taught that this was because villains are rational, but so too is Cordelia. Is she a villain? If both Cordelia and Edmund act rationally, yet villains act rationally then either Cordelia is a villain or else Edmund is merely more deserving of elevation of status, and not a villain.
Anyway the dialogue continues;
To thee and thine hereditary ever
Remain this ample third of our fair kingdom;
No less in space, validity, and pleasure,
Than that conferr’d on Goneril. Now, our joy,
Although the last, not least, to whose young love
The vines of France and milk of Burgundy
Strive to be interess’d; what can you say to draw
A third more opulent than your sisters? Speak.
Nothing, my lord.
Nothing will come of nothing: speak again.
Unhappy that I am, I cannot heave
My heart into my mouth: I love your majesty
According to my bond; nor more nor less.
How, how, Cordelia! Mend your speech a little,
Lest it may mar your fortunes.
Again note the emphases, the placement of exclamation marks. It is Lear who is losing his shit over this response. Cordelia is, apparently, quite measured and for good reason. She is reasonable, she is rational. She knows her heart, she knows her speech and she’ll not lie about either for a slither of kingdom. The repetition of the ‘nothing’, indeed the motif of ‘nothing’ and this nihilistic thread is going to come up time and time again in King Lear, as if Lear’s preoccupation with the ‘nothing’, with ‘death’ is in some way the very reason for the whole sorry chain of events. “Nothing will come of nothing” is itself a remarkable line, especially for the time period it was written. We are talking Jacobean, the end of the reign of Queen Elizabeth I and the beginning of the reign of King James I. Religious zealotry, suspicions and tensions between catholics and protestants were rife – this is a society, a world, a very universe that a God is supposed to have created out of nothing. Yet “Nothing will come of nothing.” I find that interesting. It continues;
Good my lord,
You have begot me, bred me, loved me: I
Return those duties back as are right fit,
Obey you, love you, and most honour you.
Why have my sisters husbands, if they say
They love you all? Haply, when I shall wed,
That lord whose hand must take my plight shall carry
Half my love with him, half my care and duty:
Sure, I shall never marry like my sisters,
To love my father all.
But goes thy heart with this?
Ay, good my lord.
So young, and so untender?
So young, my lord, and true.
There is nothing here, besides Lear’s reaction, that does not make sense. Cordelia makes perfect sense and Lear seeks only flattery, comfort and reassurance.
Lear then does what Lear does best and I wish I could transcribe every one of his misogynistic, fem-cursing diatribes but then I’d end up typing up half the fucking play because there is a lot of an old man cursing out what ungrateful harpies his daughters have become and how horrible women are. In this case, though, he is wrong. The only one of his daughters showing him true love, true respect, the deserving, merited speech of their love between one another is Cordelia.
But Lear, in his death-fearing pursuit of the comfort-blanky of flattery essentially disowns Cordelia. When Kent tries to intervene he is told;
Come not between the dragon and his wrath.”
and yet it is obvious for all to see that the dragon is ailing, his wrath little more than the death-throes of an angry former power, his flames diminished, he’s puffing little more than smoke. Kent, bless his woolen long-johns, sees this and rather has a problem with it and has a bit of a to-do that ends up with him being banished. He actually has a really good little passage here;
“Let it fall rather, though the fork invade
The region of my heart: be Kent unmannerly,
When Lear is mad. What wilt thou do, old man?
Think’st thou that duty shall have dread to speak,
When power to flattery bows? To plainness honour’s bound,
When majesty stoops to folly. Reverse thy doom;
And, in thy best consideration, cheque
This hideous rashness: answer my life my judgment
Thy youngest daughter does not love thee least;
Nor are those empty-hearted whose low sound
Reverbs no hollowness.”
He’s basically saying, in as courtly language as possible “Lear, dude, chill the fuck out. What are you gonna do? You couldn’t take me, you’re too old. You have a bitch at me for speaking my mind, tell me to shut the fuck up but when your daughters are chatting shit you bow to it. You need to check yourself before you wreck yourself motherfucker.”
This is our first demonstration of Kent’s loyalty and his recognition almost that Lear has gone from King to whom he should be dutiful to friend toward whom he should be concerned. An awful lot of this play is people reacting to, or even directly talking about, Lear acting out of character. Most of them use it, as a tool, a means to advance their position. Kent acts as a true friend, confronts it, and pays a price – for now. We rarely get a glimpse of Lear at his full pomp and power. Instead we see this crotchety, fearful old man. Yet surely at some point he must have been a capable King?
But back to business, Cordelia was to be married. So then two princes kneel before her, that’s what I said now. Princes, well they may adore her, that’s what I said now. One has only dowry in his sockets, that’s what I said now. The other’s got an erection in his pocket, don’t rub its head now. Marry France, or Burgundy, France’s the one that loves you baby, can’t you see. You might be disowned by your own family but France knows what a King and lover ought to be, France knows what a King and lover ought to beeeeeee…So if you want to call him baby, then go ahead now and if you would like to tell him maybe, you’re probably dead now. If you want to buy him flowers, you’ve got not money but he just wants to talk for hours, ‘cause you’re his honey.
Or something like that, anyway. That might just be a King-Leared version of ‘Two Princes’ by Spin Doctors.
Returning to the prior theme of how, as I have it in the notes of my margin, “Villainz iz rational” we see France being quite rational here. It has been said that Cordelia is the fairest of Lear’s daughters, by which me must assume she is not only fair in nature but in beauty. Burgundy is busy negotiating for a slice of the dowry pie whilst France is busy saying “She is herself a dowry.” And his speech as he agrees to take her hand in marriage and whisk her away to France is as if you’ve gone to an auction and someone lets you buy a genuine Van Gogh for a tenner!
“Fairest Cordelia, that art most rich, being poor;
Most choice, forsaken; and most loved, despised!
Thee and thy virtues here I seize upon:
Be it lawful I take up what’s cast away.
Gods, gods! ‘tis strange that from their cold’st neglect
My love should kindle to inflamed respect.
Thy dowerless daughter, king, thrown to my chance,
Is queen of us, of ours, and our fair France:
Not all the dukes of waterish Burgundy
Can buy this unprized precious maid of me.
Bid them farewell, Cordelia, though unkind:
Thou losest here, a better where to find.”
Let’s go back to Romeo and Juliet, that masterful comedy, for a second and talk of love. Do I think Cordelia and France are in love with each other? No. I think France is certainly somewhat enamoured with Cordelia, enough to make her his wife with no dowry. But in his speech France has somewhat of that true, rational tone that Cordelia herself used. What is more, unlike Romeo who does nothing but put Juliet in danger, France is willing to help remove Cordelia from danger, in exchange only for her company. Both suitors could have rejected her and, then what? She would be banished, or executed. For what? Not speaking lies and flattery? France here says she is ‘most rich, being poor’ and ‘most loved, despised’. He admires her for who she is and how she behaves, indeed he respects her more because of what she has done to irritate Lear. Here, here are the seeds of a true love’s tragedy. Romeo and Juliet can go give each other head behind the bikesheds for all their romance is worth. Also, just have to add, I love the shade thrown at Burgundy. Fuck Burgundy. The character, not the region, or the wine.
Before she leaves she says goodbye to her sisters with what can only be described as a diss;
“The jewels of our father, with wash’d eyes
Cordelia leaves you: I know you what you are;
And like a sister am most loath to call
Your faults as they are named. Use well our father:
To your professed bosoms I commit him
But yet, alas, stood I within his grace,
I would prefer him to a better place.
So, farewell to you both.”
I want to remark again about Shakespeare’s careful use of language. Sometimes he throws words around with abandon but it’s all so, within the flowers, he can hide that one damning thorn. “Use” is the word here that I think is that weighty thorn. “Use well our father.” This whole speech, this whole goodbye, is basically Cordelia saying “I know you’re bitches, if you’re going to use dad, use him well. I’d rather he be with me but I’ve got to leave him with you bitches. Laters.” Cordelia knows the intentions of her sisters.
And no sooner does she ‘exeunt’ (if you haven’t figured out yet that’s Shakespearean stage direction for ‘fucks off’) with France than Goneril and Regan basically have a chat about how Daddy needs putting in a home. The basic gist of the conversation is he’s old, crotchety and demanding, they can’t be arsed with it so they have to conspire to disempower him somehow. They justify it with lots of things they witnessed but remained silent about, like Kent’s banishment. There’s only one line that carries any weight, when Regan says;
“’Tis the infirmity of his age: yet he hath ever
but slenderly known himself.”
This gives us a little insight into Lear as a King before his decline. Has he always been unsure of himself? Has he always been emotionally needy? Constantly seeking solace? Are his loyal knights, like Kent, also his strongest comforts?
Finally, though, we get to move on to another scene! And what a scene because it features my bro, Edmund.
“Thou, nature, art my goddess; to thy law
My services are bound. Wherefore should I
Stand in the plague of custom, and permit
The curiosity of nations to deprive me,
For that I am some twelve or fourteen moon-shines
Lag of a brother? Why bastard? Wherefore base?
When my dimensions are as well compact,
My mind as generous, and my shape as true,
As honest madam’s issue? Why brand they us
With base? With baseness? Bastardy? Base, base?
Who, in the lusty stealth of nature, take
More composition and fierce quality
Than doth, within a dull, stale, tired bed,
Go to the creating a whole tribe of fops,
Got ‘tween asleep and wake? Well, then,
Out father’s love is to the bastard Edmund
As to the legitimate: fine word, — legitimate!
Well, my legitimate, if this letter speed,
and my invention thrive, Edmund the base
Shall top the legitimate. I grow; I prosper:
Now, gods, stand up for bastards!”
Ooh-ee! Do I love this. That speech, right there, is this entire man’s philosophy, excuse, justification and motivation all in one fine soliloquy. “Thou, nature, art my goddess…” The idea of nature versus nurture is an old debate indeed, clearly since Shakespeare is here, discussing it. Edmund, the bastard, Edmund, the base is saying he is a slave to his nature, but there’s sarcasm to it, self-awareness to it. That the only way he can escape the very notions of his bastardy baseness is to behave as a base bastard as he’ll never be considered legitimate, thus will never get what one may get legitimately, so he’ll have to act as bastard to get it. He will always be looked at as nothing but a base bastard. He knows the circularity of it all, how much he has to work against the false-reasoning of others. Even though he’s only a little younger than his brother, even when his ‘shape as true’ and his ‘mind as generous’ – indeed one could argue later on his mind is far more generous than his brother, Edgar’s! That, by nature, he is considered lesser, is held back, is discriminated against, is why he must commit misdeeds to put himself ahead because he needs to behave with the same ‘fierce quality’ involved in his making. This man, who is ‘deprived’ not because of his talents, his merits, his qualities but because of his nature, is rebelling against that.
Edmund is not a villain, he’s a revolutionary. He’s the Malcolm X of bastard sons, “By any means necessary.” Yes, ultimately his actions are scheming, conniving, one could argue ‘villainous’, but such is the world he was born into, and the status he was born into, and the nature he was born into and everyone considers him in those same terms. In order to change that he will have to act, but acting virtuously will get him nowhere. He’ll just be the poor bastard. He’s up the metaphorical creek without the proverbial paddle. We will get to more musings on him later on but I just don’t think he is the villain he’s made out to be. Indeed the biggest villain in King Lear is nature – or rather nature as it presents itself socially – itself.
Back to the plot – The ‘letter’ of which Edmund speaks is a forged missive from his brother, Edgar, proposing he and his brother engage in a conspiracy to murder their father, Gloucester and split the winnings, as it were.
There’s a beautiful asymmetry to this plot. The sisters of King Lear didn’t need to conspire against their sister, they knew she would act as she did and didn’t give two shits in a bucket of fucks when daddy spat his dummy out about it. They knew their father would get angry, effectively banish her and they would have their share of the spoils. With the Edmund-Edgar-Gloucester triangle the one brother has to connive against the other in order to bring about a similar banishment. Gloucester, wrongfully duped and rightfully angry, intends to do harm to his son and Edmund, seeing his opportunity, convinces Edgar to banish himself. It is as if Edmund, base bastard that he is, illegitimate that he is, actually has to work towards his ends, whilst the pampered Princesses of Goneril and Regan can simply have fate throw opportunity at their feet. I can try my best not to make this analysis political but Shakespeare is making it damn hard for me.
But that’s what happens, Gloucester goes off mad and wants to have it out with his son and Edmund convinces Edgar he’s made dad mad and needs to keep on the down-low and ‘be armed’.
“This is the excellent foppery of the world, that,
when we are sick in fortune, –often the surfeit
of our own behaviour, — we make guilty of our
disasters the sun, the moon and the stars: as
if we were villains by necessity; fools by
heavenly compulsion; knaves, thieves, and
treachers, by spherical predominance; drunkards,
liars, and adulterers, by an enforced obedience of
planetary influence; and all that we are evil in,
by a divine thrusting on: an admirable evasion
of whoremaster man, to lay his goatish
disposition to the charge of a star! My
father compounded with my mother under the
dragon’s tail; and my nativity was under Ursa
Major; so that it follows, I am rough and
lecherous. Tut, I should have been that I am,
had the maidenliest star in the firmament
twinkled on my bastardizing…”
I get it, okay. I’m not saying Edmund is a nice person. Neither were British Bomber Command in World War II. Neither was Dr. Werner Von Braun who helped put humans on the moon and, oh, was a Nazi whose rocketry helped terrorise the British people with his V1 and V2 rockets. The service men and women we applaud as heroes kill people as part of their job, police officers sometimes arrest and convict the wrong people, never mind profiling, racism and brutality – what the fuck is right anyway?
But what Edmund says here should hit home. They called him bastard. They called him base. They told him who he was and what he could do not based upon an assessment of his person but by the nature of his birth, by how the sky looked, by ‘spherical predominance’, the rotation of the Earth, the position of the planets. He’s ‘Born under a Bad Sign’ so he must be a bad man. It’s an excuse. Edmund sees it for what it is. It’s a lie, an excuse, he admits we are ‘often the surfeit of our own behaviour’ but ‘make guilty of our disasters the sun, the moon and the stars’. It’s back to the sarcasm earlier when he said “Thou, Nature, art my goddess…” We’ve got the psychological understanding of these phenomena today. Shakespeare understood it too, when he wrote those lines for Edmund, so we’d know Edmund knew.
That means Edmund knows what he is doing and why he is doing it. This is his admittance of that. To this point in the play the only person he shares this with is Cordelia. What makes one a saint and one a sinner? What makes us pure and righteous enough to judge?
“A credulous father! And a brother noble,
Whose nature is so far from doing harms,
That he suspects none: on whose foolish honesty
My practises ride easy! I see the business.
Let me, if not by birth, have lands by wit:
All with me’s meet that I can fashion fit.”
Edmund says before exiting. His dad deserves it, his brother’s too naïve to know better and nature, legitimacy, it can go fuck itself, Edmund’s going to earn his. For people like him successes are not inherited or gifted, they must be taken. So he works hard to take them. Would this be necessary if bastards had rights?
That, I think should wrap up Part I. Yes, this is going to be a long-haul. I cannot be as quickly dismissive of Lear as I was with Romeo and Juliet. The problem is one is a serious tragedy covering actually relevant topics and the other is literally a satire of romance. Convince the rest of the world to think like me about Romeo and Juliet and I’ll give that a fucking six part series breaking it down.
What I have done, in the process of writing this part, is come up with the perfect subtitle for this analysis of King Lear.
King Lear – In Defence of Bastards.
Coming up – Goneril and Regan act like bitches, Kent’s a sentimental old fool, Edgar covers himself in muck, we’re introduced to one of the smartest characters in all of literature – Fool, and Edmund sets his plans in motion which, for the most part, at this point, involves fucking the Queens-elect.