Previously on King Lear – A man decided to cut a crown into three pieces and divide it amongst two people, because that made sense at the time. The King of France is a baller who managed to pick up a free woman, and Burgundy is a tosser. Kent disagreed with Lear being disagreeable so he got banished for being so disagreeable because we can’t have people being disagreeable about others being disagreeable. And Edmund the bastard who has been told he is a bastard and will always be a bastard acted like a bastard and tricked his dad, who is an actual bastard, and his brother, who at this point is just an idiot, to hate each other. Make sense?
We left at Act 1 Scene III, where Goneril and her ‘steward’ (read prison bitch) Oswald are having a discussion about how obnoxious her dad, the former King of, you know, everything they know, is being. Weird that, someone with power acting obnoxiously. Anyway she uses one of the single worst weapons in the bitch’s handbook – The Silent Treatment. Basically she fucks off to bed and tells Oswald to tell Lear she’s sick and can’t be arsed with him. She’s basically trying to piss him off enough that be fucks off to her sister’s, who’ll continue to piss him off until eventually they can strip him naked, geld him and keep him in the corner of the room on a bed of straw like a little pet. They want his power and whilst he’s gallivanting about with his knights he retains at least a portion of it, which they find annoying.
At this point our dear Kent returns, but apparently with a disguise (it’s assumed he just shaved or ‘razed’ his likeness although I believe later there is a reference to his ‘grey beard’ so who the hell knows) and puts on a silly accent. Much like his namesake, Clark Kent, he somehow gets away with a shitty disguise. Their whole exchange is interesting and I recommend a read and read of it. But one of the most interesting is three very terse lines.
What art thou?
A very honest-hearted fellow, and as poor as the king.
If thou be as poor for a subject as he is for a
king, thou art poor enough…
What’s so interesting about this? Kent was banished for disagreeing with the King committing a rash action when it would have been his job to advise the king. Here he is almost outright insulting the king, calling him poor and Lear has the self-awareness and self-deprecation enough to play along.
There’s a lot of self-deprecation in Lear’s dialogue, which contrasts heavily with how seriously he took himself at the dividing of the Kingdom. He also, as we shall soon find out, suffers fools, or rather a Fool, gladly. Is there something guarded about Lear? Could he not accept Kent before, fearing Kent’s challenge to his authority, fearing Kent may try to usurp the crown whereas disguised as little more than a peasant seeking to earn a role in service to the king Lear perceives no threat? Does he perceive no threat from the flattery of his daughters, finding in them a comfort? Yet a threat in Cordelia’s honesty? The latter I certainly believe, and the threat is death, or fear thereof. The king must guard his kingdom, the king must guard his life and yet he is in the process of dealing with having to give both of them away and not necessarily knowing to whom.
So then Oswald comes in, Lear asks where his daughter is and he acts like a complete twat – at the request of his lady, of course. Lear simply wants his Fool, for a bit of cheering up, but Oswald is determined to act like a twat, even going so far as to address his king as “My lady’s father.” Which pisses Lear right off, so him and Kent slap him about a bit. Kent even calls him a ‘base football player’ which is arguably better than being a foot baseball player.
After all of that the Fool comes out and the Fool, like Edmund, is a character whose entire dialogue I wish I could just paste verbatim.
In my opinion the Fool is Shakespeare’s, indeed to an extent the audience’s, voice in this play. He sees through every dramatic irony we know of. Here’s his first dialogue with Lear, after Lear offers Kent money for his service;
Let me hire him too: here’s my coxcomb
Offering Kent his cap
How now, my pretty knave! How dost thou?
Sirrah, you were best take my coxcomb.
Why, for taking one’s part that’s out of favour:
nay, an thou canst not smile as the wind sits,
thou’lt catch cold shortly: there, take my coxcomb:
why, this fellow has banished two on’s daughters,
and did the third a blessing against his will; if
thou follow him, thou must needs wear my coxcomb.
How now, nuncle! Would I had two coxcombs and two daughters!
Why, my boy?
If I gave them all my living, I’ld keep my coxcombs
myself. There’s mine; beg another of thy daughters.
Where to fucking start? For one, the offering of the coxcomb to Kent is calling him a fool, and then he explains that it is because he is “taking one’s part that’s out of favour…” now, many people interpret this, along with the next lines, as suggesting that he is siding with the wrong side. That essentially Lear is a waning power and in choosing to side with him he’s a fool. But something about the ‘taking one’s part that’s out of favour’ makes me think the Fool recognises that it’s Kent. He’s Disguised Kent trying to fill in for Out of Favour Kent. The next two lines are definitely a warning about the troubles ahead, though. He then goes on to explain that Lear has banished two of his daughters and did the other a blessing against his will which is, effectively, summarising that entire fucking arc so far. Goneril and Regan are doomed to fight for power whilst Cordelia can disappear to France.
A line earlier on mentions that the Fool has been moping since Cordelia went off to France so we can suppose they got along and, knowing how no-nonsense both characters are it is easy to see why. When one sees truth so blindingly bright as she does, it is good to have another, even if a Fool, to share it with.
BUT WAIT! There’s more – because then he goes on to say he’d rather have two coxcombs and two daughters to Lear. Why? The coxcomb is effectively the crown of a jester, of a fool. If he had two he could give one to his daughters and keep one himself. Otherwise he is ‘giving them all my living’ – giving up his power, his possessions, his livelihood, dare we say his life and ‘beg another of thy daughters’ is almost a dare. The Fool knows Goneril and Regan would take, take, take and wouldn’t give a coxcomb back. There is repeated use, by the fool, of the idea of giving away a coxcomb which is clearly a reference to Lear giving up his crown and I think on every occasion the Fool notes just how stupid it is to give away one’s coxcomb.
It’s fucking masterful.
The Fool has come in and demolished the entire opening act and continues to do so. He sings a little song and then we get this;
This is nothing, fool.
Then ‘tis like the breath of an unfee’d lawyer; you
gave me nothing for’t. Can you make no use of
Why, no, boy; nothing can be made out of nothing.
[To Kent] Prithee, tell him, so much the rent of
his land come to: he will not believe a fool.
If this were a rap battle the Fool dropped the mic ten fucking minutes ago, by this point it’s lyrical fucking torture. Not only does it tear into Lear’s nihilistic ‘nothing from nothing’ schtick, but he tears into it by effectively telling Kent to tell Lear “better remind your matey here that nothing is all the rent he’s going to get from his land because he gave it away to his daughters”.
He even outright calls Lear a fool. Lear asks “Dost thou call me fool, boy?” and the Fool replies “All thy other titles thou has given away…”
I could go on and pull a love-fest for all the Fool’s lines here but it continues until Goneril comes in all pissed off because of her father and his rowdy ‘retinue’. Basically, as planned, they slapped her steward about a bit, she’s annoyed, the Fool keeps slaying it, Lear and Goneril argue, the upshot of it is he’s pissing off to her sister’s because she’s a bitch, a slut, a tart, a slag, a harpy, a cunt, he wishes barrenness upon her womb, you know, as you do. I told you there’s a lot of Lear just being a pure misogynist in the play. What can we say? He came from a different time, when men wore tights, women wore petticoats and saying;
“Create her child of spleen; that it may live,
And be a thwart disnatured torment to her!”
was perfectly reasonable. Or not, and she’s a bitch and he’s demented. Who knows? I wasn’t there.
Karl’s margin notes, though – Just before he leaves Lear says “That thou hast power to shake my manhood thus;” and I have written ‘wank him off’ in the margin. I don’t think that’s the intended meaning and I think Lear is actually contemplating his emasculation at the hands of his daughter rather than…you know…that…But, again, who knows? I wasn’t there.
We need to have a discussion about Lear’s curses. A lot of them are particularly misogynist but that’s not the reason I don’t put them in my text here. They’re actually very good, and very lyrical but they’re a bit like Juliet’s chthonian, pre-poison-taking soliloquy. They lean heavily on the pagan side of things – in fact due to the sensitive nature of religion (read: effective civil war between catholics and protestants) Shakespeare tended to use a lot of classical pagan imagery so as not to offend any particular sect, or queen or king devoted to any particular sect, and end up dead.
They’re much of a muchness in context, though. There’s some great imagery in there but it’s just an angry old man shouting. I have enough of angry old men shouting in real life. I live in the South East, our politics is dominated by angry old men shouting. The things he says to his daughters, they don’t reach me because I see so much reality, so much hate, so much misogyny of today still in them. There’s a rant he’ll go on later that I’m putting verbatim because I love it but the shit he says to his daughters is just so…bleurgh. I’d say ‘grow up’ but I think the whole point is this infantile regression. Earlier on the Fool has a line about Lear having made his daughters his mothers and I think that’s the problem. I guess they don’t hit me in the inspiration because of that.
I’ve seen, first hand, the effects of senescence, of aging, of decline, of dementia. I’ve seen and heard nonsensical cursing and arguments over nothing but the fragile life and soul of a person leaving their mind, leaving their body and leaving this Earth. It’s tremendously fucking sad, and I hope it never happens to you. If you have seen it, if you have experienced it, then you have my deepest, sincerest sympathies even if you’re my worst enemy. Seeing a human turn into a ghost before your eyes is terrifying, saddening and humbling and these speeches represent that to me. They are strong, they are worth reading, they are worth seeing in performance but they’re not worth me repeating.
After that Goneril does some more conspiring, making me wonder whether or not she has earned some of her father’s curses and her husband Albany councils her in some restraint. Albany is an interesting character who begins effectively as a cuck (literally, at one point) but grows into someone whose integrity shines through. We see the seeds of it here, and wonder if he is not perhaps suspicious of his wife’s intentions.
Next up we have the Fool taking off his rap battle coxcomb and putting on a sort of witty therapist’s hat. Lear sends Kent on ahead to alert Gloucester of his imminent arrival with them and Lear and the Fool are left together. Again, this whole scene is beautiful, poignantly funny and I recommend reading or watching it. We also get a glimpse of Lear’s regret for his treatment of Cordelia, after the Fool asks him a riddle about why one’s nose stands in the middle of one’s face. It’s to keep one’s eyes either side of one’s nose so that what a man cannot smell out he may spy into. Lear’s response is;
“I did her wrong –“
And I assume this is in reference to Cordelia, the nose that he has cut off to spite his face, as the idiom goes.
There’s also a bit about why a snail has a house, to put his head in and not to give it away to his daughters and leave his horns without a case.
The Fool earlier was being very abrupt, very cruel, very sharp of wit and driving his rapier wit deep into the heart of matters. His wit here is no less sharp, he just chooses not to stab as deep. Then we have the bittersweetest exchange of the lot
If thou wert my fool, nuncle, I’ld have thee beaten
for being old before thy time.
Thou shouldst not have been old till thou hadst
O, let me not be mad, not mad, sweet heaven
Keep me in temper: I would not be mad!
It is the first recognition of decline that we see from Lear. It’s no coincidence it comes, what? No more than a scene or two after the Fool’s introduction. As far as I understand it a Fool, in an old court, was a privileged position. Because of the debased nature of the very position you were permitted to speak your mind, speak out of turn, even speak rudely. Our Fool, though called Fool, speaks nothing but sense, and is the one most capable of opening Lear’s eyes to the truth.
His daughters are not forced to emasculate him, by dividing his crown he put his meat-and-two-veg on the chopping block himself and merely hoped they had the heart, the love, not to cut ‘em off! He is now a man with no income, no official role, no home to call his own, no welcoming, loving child to retreat to, and of the only people to have ever loved him the only one capable of providing him sanctuary he banished to France with her new husband – cursing her on the way out. The other two people are a lowly Fool and the Duke of Kent pretending to be someone else, both as downcast as Lear himself.
It takes a Fool to show Lear he has been one, and in recognising the foolishness of his actions he starts to recognise the decline of his faculties. And he fears.
The silver-tongued words of his daughters earlier, once a comforting blanket against the thought of his own mortality, they are being shown for the vanity they are. His retinue, the knights he keeps, being undermined and slowly eroded by the power of his daughters, another comfort, another illusion of potency and strength, are soon to disappear like the phantoms of power, the remnants, the wisps of smoke from a dying candle flame, that they were. Lear has given away his very immortality, or at least the fantasy of it. In so doing all he is left with are his fool, his friend and his fear.
As someone who has struggled with mental health, with developmental disability and with existential crises all my life (and yes, I mean all of it – I had my first major existential crisis when I was 7!) “O, let me not be mad, not mad, sweet heaven keep me in temper: I would not be mad!” are words that punch me right in the brain. I’ve been there all too recently, mercifully what I don’t suffer from (as far as I am aware, and touch-wood) is dementia. My conditions may be lifelong, but they are not degenerative. My worries about being mad are in the moment. Lear doesn’t get that respite.
I told you, it’s funny at times, darkly comical in places but King Lear is a true tragedy – not like that romantic imposter Romeo and Juliet. There is an extent to which Lear cannot help himself. Romeo and Juliet could have if they tried. Lear is degenerating; Romeo and Juliet are just degenerates! YES! I’M STILL USING THIS AS A PLATFORM TO SLAG OFF ROMEO AND JULIET!
Next up we have Edmund being all about that base, ‘bout that base, and trouble. He catches word of the incoming guests, and also a little grapevine talk of war between Cornwall and Albany (Regan and Goneril’s husbands, respectively). He then tells his brother to leg it, because their dad is coming and he is very angry, at which point he cuts himself, claims Edgar did it, Edgar is now a wanted man etc. etc.
Regan arrives, has a natter with Gloucester and Edmund, Cornwall turns up – It’s basically Gloucester being blind (irony…) to the fact that the other three are acting like complete pricks only one of whom has any justification for it. Regan begins plotting how she could upset her father because poking the old angry bear is always the best course of action.
Then Kent and Oswald meet up, Oswald doesn’t remember Kent gave him a trip-and-kicking because he’s stupid or something. One can only imagine. Kent calls him every name under the sun and draws his sword on him. This sparks a kerfuffle that ends up with Kent in the stocks (you know those big wooden clampy-things that have holes for legs and/or arms to go into). Gloucester rightly points out that this won’t go down well and Kent has a little bit of a lament to himself and, interestingly, speaks of contact with Cordelia in France.
There’s been enough run-of-the-mill drama for now, something interesting must this way cometh. Well you’re right, because we have a scene with Edgar in the woods. Now Eddie is a dull git to start with, in my opinion, but his arc is actually very interesting and, like Albany, his character grows over time. You see, in order to escape ‘the hunt’ as he puts it he “Will preserve myself; and am bethought to take the basest and more poorest shape…” He ends up disguising himself as the mad beggar, Tom O’ Bedlam but the interesting thing is that he uses the word base. He must take on the ‘basest’ shape. Now I wonder if there is anyone in Edgar’s life who’d have a word or two about what it means to be considered ‘base’?
By the time the play is done I will have more to say on this, because I think there is something of a mirroring in Edmund and Edgar that doesn’t get mentioned enough, so predisposed are people to counting one a villain and one a hero, that they don’t see how they both end up in the same place.
Then Lear arrives at Gloucester’s castle, where Gloucester, Regan and Cornwall all had their to-do with Kent previously and Lear cannot believe Kent is in the stocks. He asks who did it, Kent says your daughter and her pet cuck Cornwall, Lear says no, Kent says yes, Lear Says no, Kent says yes, Lear swears NO, Kent Swears YES and I’d like to say it’s tedious but it’s actually a pretty funny scene contrasting Kent’s open-book sincerity and Lear’s denialism. Lear describes it as ‘worse than murder…’ which is a little bit hyperbolic if you ask me but maybe that’s why I’m no king. The situation is explained, Lear goes off to have another misogynist rant and leaves Kent and the fool alone which means, yup…It’s the segment of this I’m going start calling Verba-TIME! Like verbatim time…maybe I won’t.
So Kent has explained the entire situation, Goneril’s messenger turned up meaning to do a mischief, offered to have him out, Lear goes off leaving a ‘Gentleman’, Kent and the Fool.
Made you no more offence but what you speak of?
How chance the king comes with so small a train?
And thou hadst been set i’ the stocks for that
question, thou hadst well deserved it.
We’ll set thee to school to an ant, to teach thee
there’s no labouring i’ the winter. All that follow
their noses are led by their eyes but blind men; and
there’s not a nose among twenty but can smell him
that’s stinking. Let go thy hold when a great wheel
runs down a hill, lest it break thy neck with
following it: but the great one that goes up the
hill, let him draw thee after. When a wise man
gives thee better counsel, give me mine again: I
would have none but knaves follow it, since a fool gives it.
That sir which serves and seeks for gain,
And follows but for form,
Will pack when it begins to rain,
And leave thee in the storm,
But I will tarry; the fool will stay,
And let the wise man fly:
The knave turns fool that runs away;
The fool no knave, perdy.
Where learned you this, fool?
Not i’ the stocks, fool.
It is, undoubtedly, more mic-dropping, scenery chewing and self-damning insight from our dear fool. By this point he has made enough references to the tune of “this ship is sinking, GTFO!” – and that’s what half his speech is here. Lear is a fading power and will take any followers down with him. His train grows smaller because people are abandoning him.
But what I most like, besides the mic-drop moment at the end is the final few lines of his little poem at the end of his speech. “But I will tarry; the fool will stay, and let the wise man fly: The knave turns fool that run away; the fool no knave, perdy.” This might be our first bit of outright moralising by the fool. He’s aware of the danger he is in, and acknowledges that it is the wisest choice to run away. But that’s a shitty thing to do, and he’s a fool, not a knave. It’s poignant. To an extent it may be the third character outside of Cordelia and Kent to demonstrate a true love for Lear. Cordelia’s act of love is to speak true when flattery is the wise choice – a fool no knave, perdy. Kent’s act of love is to disguise himself such that he might follow and protect Lear – a fool no knave, perdy. The fools act of love is no different from Kent’s, except somewhat stronger still because, like a seer, the Fool knows his this ends. “Let go thy hold when a great wheel runs down a hill, let it break thy neck…”. He’s a fool no knave, perdy. (Perdy just means ‘indeed’, basically.)
Of course we’re all really here for when he says “Not i’ the stocks, fool.” To Kent, because that’s just the sass we love in our Fool.
Then we get some discourse between Lear, Gloucester, Regan, Cornwall, Goneril turns up – it’s all the same shit, two horrible women trying to gaslight their own father into relinquishing anything which might be perceived of as power or control so they can eat each other’s throats for it. He says some stuff about wombs and genitals and how all women are bitches, he gets moody because Cornwall put Kent in the stocks and they’re all basically trying to rile him up and then soothe him and tell him he’s all riled up because he’s old when actually they’re all actually conspiring against him.
Amidst all this misogyny, elder abuse and gaslighting Goneril and Regan try to convince Lear that he has no need of all his followers and what have you and it leads to a response that I have never forgotten. I can recite these words, verbatim. I’ve got poems of my own I can’t recite a line from but;
“O, reason not the need: our basest beggars
Are in the poorest thing superfluous:
Allow not nature more than nature needs,
Man’s life’s as cheap as beast’s…”
Is something I will always remember. Before I get on to the wider philosophical implications I want to point out the use of the word ‘base’ again and how ‘our basest beggars are in the poorest thing superfluous’ is literally, from the perspective of these characters, a fucking Twitter bio for Edmund. He is so superfluous, i.e. has so much of, those things basest beggars are so poor in – lack of respect, lack of dignity, lack of legitimacy – he has had to fight, tooth and claw his way to those things. This ties in to everything I’ve talked about before with Edmund. He is using the tools he has (his baseness) to get what he wants and that, ultimately, he deserves. It was not by his circumstance, not by his action, not by his choosing that he should be born a base bastard. Society decided that, and gave him those tools to work with. It is, in my opinion, another justification from our author that Edmund is villain in an anthropomorphic context only. In the sense of nature and society – the two main villains in this play – he is just as much a victim, his situation just as much a tragedy, as everyone else.
Onto the wider point. ‘Reason not the need’. We often, in our lives, talk of our needs and our wants. Necessities and desires. Humans are unique among animals in that, at least as far as educated, Lear-reading, mostly-Western audiences are concerned, for most of us those basest needs are taken care of. We have shelter, water, food in our bellies. If we didn’t, though, well then “man’s life’s as cheap as beast’s.” Lear is arguing that he does not ‘need’ his followers because without them he will die, although, given the directions Goneril and Regan are going, were I Lear, I would say that would be a concern – but were I Lear I’d have kept my crown and split my daughters.
He is arguing that he ‘needs’ his followers in the way a human with shelter, warmth or food ‘needs’ anything. Without them, he’s just an animal. Later on Lear will become seemingly at peace with this concept but for the once-and-former King, his power eroding, buffeted by the sands of time, his mind regressing, retreating to infantile tantrums and inevitable decline, to lose that which he ‘needs’ is to lose his humanity, his identity, itself.
I, for my sins, once studied biology. I never obtained any formal qualifications, autistic burnout put paid to that. But I learned enough to develop a healthy respect for animal behaviours. My personal life, my psychological life, then set me on a journey to learning enough to know that humans fear those animal behaviours in themselves. At least the supposedly ‘civilised’ ones do. It’s why we dress our language of war up in tarty clothing, why we turn lust to romance (FUCK YOU ROMEO AND JULIET!) and why we have entire bio-psychological mechanisms devoted to denying the fact that we’re going to die.
“Reason not the need…” the beginning part of that speech, means that to me. It is Lear begging his daughters to let him keep his veil, let him keep his denial, do not let him be the beast he knows he is, do not let him be just another animal, he has a mind, he was a king, do not let him be just another mad animal, do not let him die – he begs. Do not let me grow old, grow mad and die.
For the same ends I reason not the need I spent far too many years drinking, the basest beggar but in those poorest things superfluous, drowning myself stupid, I reason not the need for those years wasted to marijuana, I reason not the need that I am a grown man with a stuffed-animal avatar of my dead black-and-white-cat in my bed, I reason not the need that when I am upset, angry, scared or confused I hug that stuffed cat, I reason not the need that I find comfort in watching the same episodes of the same shows or the same movies, I reason not the need for me to go to the supermarket and buy ingredients I don’t need to cook a dish I’ve never made that I might not like, I reason not the need to write, to think and to write about what I think. REASON NOT THE NEED! Because once you do, once you reason that need the only conclusion you can come to, the only reason you can say any person does anything besides eat, sleep and fuck is because if we didn’t all we’d be is animals with an awareness of mortality.
That world is either a compassionate heaven or the worst, most immoral hell depending on whether the animal part or the human part of our brain is stronger. You don’t even need to have studied biology as long as I did to answer that question.
And I don’t think we get a stronger outro than that in the next 1,000 words so I think I’ll wrap it up there.
This has been King Lear Part 2: Reason Not the Need
Coming Up – Old man shouts at cloud, muck-covered Prince pretends he’s a madman, someone doesn’t learn from their mother and has someone’s eye out and Edmund fucks.