King Lear: Part 3 – Gimme Your Best Shot!

Lear and the Fool in the storm – by Ary Sheffer, 1834. Any fans of Bloodborne will note that Lear is performing the ‘make contact’ gesture, clearly trying to invoke the power of the Old Ones. (Credit: Folger Shakespeare Library)

We left, of course, on ‘Reason not the need…’ which I think is as apt a subtitle for King Lear as anything else. In my opinion the entire play is a group of savage apes playing at civilisation in a desperate attempt to stave off acknowledging the fact that they are all the ‘basest beggar’. But that’s just me.

The upshot of that scene is Lear fucks off, he takes all the king’s horses and all the king’s men and fucks off from one of his daughters again. Gloucester shows concern about Lear riding off into a hell of a storm, for the weather has turned foul and, for want of a less nationalist term, British. This causes suspicion of Gloucester and his loyalties from Regan and her cucksband Cornwall.

For anyone wondering why I refer, constantly, to Albany and Cornwall as cucks it’s not just to be edgy like so many far-right wankers who think calling any man a ‘cuck’ is the greatest insult. It is because they are literally about to be, to Edmund, cuckolded but also the women are exceptionally powerful in their relationships. It is remarkable to think that a couple of generations prior the notion of a royal and powerful woman would have been unthinkable, but the Virgin Queen herself, Elizabeth I, who at the time of King Lear’s writing and performing would have not long passed and handed the throne to King James I, had rather changed the perception of the power of women.

Of course status played heavily into it, there’s a difference between the daughter of a King and the daughter of a washerwoman, but either way I do look at the characters of Goneril, Regan and Cordelia as somewhat an extension of the liberation of the female that was occurring around the late Tudor period – especially in terms of their potency, or capacity for potency, within a narrative. The Faerie Queene by Edmund Spenser would have been released during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I and, to an extent it was a work in honour of her. I think much can be said for the advancement of strong female characters in plays and literature as a result of the longest tenured Tudor on the throne and I see her legacy in Lear’s daughters.

We then get some exposition between a Gentleman and Kent. We are informed, further, of the divisions between Albany and Cornwall that had been mentioned before but we also hear more about Kent’s contact with France and that they also have designs on protecting the Kingdom. Kent gives the gentleman a ring and tells him if he sees Cordelia to give it to her and she will know who it is from. He’s in disguise, remember? Fake moustache, big putty-nose, silly accent. Legit spy.

Now it’s VERBA-TIME! …I’m making it a fucking thing, I don’t care if you hate it. If you had to ask me my favourite passage of Shakespeare then this is possibly it. It’s a new scene, upon an exposed heath, in a howling storm.

King Lear

                Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! Rage! Blow!
                You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
                Till you have dench’d our steeples, drown’d the cocks!
                You sulphurous and thought-executing fires,
                Vaunt-couriers to oak-cleaving thunderbolts,
                Sing my white head! And thou, all-shaking thunder,
                Smite flat the thick rotundity o’ the world!
                Crack nature’s moulds, an germens spill at once,
                that make ingrateful man!

Fool
                O nuncle, court holy-water in a dry
                house is better than this rain-water out o’ door.
                Good nuncle, in, and ask thy daughter’s blessing:
                here’s a night pities neither wise man nor fool.

King Lear
                Rumble thy bellyful! Spit, fire! Spout, rain!
                Nor rain, wind, thunder, fire, are my daughters:
                I tax not you, you elements, with unkindness;
                I never gave you kingdom, call’d you children,
                You owe me no subscriptions: then let fall
                Your horrible pleasure: here I stand, your slave,
                A poor, infirm, weak, and despised old man:
                But yet I call you servile ministers,
                That have with two pernicious daughters join’d
                Your high engender’d battle ‘gainst a head
                So old and white as this. O! O! ‘tis foul!

To me we finally get a confrontation with the true villain of King Lear. Time, Earth, the universe, life, the elements. What is more we get a perfect metaphor for societies, buildings, technology, medicine – everything that humans have worked hard to achieve to close ourselves off from that time, the earth, the universe, life and the elements. An old man, dressed in his Kingly finery, standing in the pissing rain, and a howling gale, begging for more. That is humanity in a nutshell.  

It is one of my favourite passages of Shakespeare because I think there is something universal to this. We have all been caught in an atrocious storm, a pissing shower, sleet, snow, a high, piercing wind when shit in our life is not where we want to be and we all feel the same thing. Fuck you, universe. I have a hard enough time as it is and you have to conspire against me too. Fuck you. That is what Lear is doing here. People talk of this as his peak of madness, him cresting the insanity but he’s about to walk into a decrepit old shed and have a pretend court with a fool, a madman and Kent. He’s not even touched the sides of his madness yet. If I had to say anything I would call this his final moment of true clarity before the real madness sets in.

He is one man, a King no less, and yet the weather has no consideration of his position. The Fool tries his best to get Lear to snap out of it but he’s in full on ‘old man shouts at cloud’ rant mode and – I get it. I’ve been there. What’s more he begins to humble himself. We’ve seen it before, but most of the time he’s doing it sarcastically to his daughters because they’re treating him like shit. He’s indulged a bit with Kent-in-disguise, and a bit with the fool but there’s a closeness there and another person with whom he is forging a bond. Guards need to come up or down depending on the formation of that bond. Here is Lear telling the universe he is a grey-haired old man, weak and despised. ‘Your slave’. It is an acknowledgment of that which Lear has denied since he first got to ‘our darker purpose’ – The darker purpose is that he’s soon to be worm food. The darker purpose is the life, kingdom and world he has helped build will soon have to carry on without him but even in that continuation he tried to have a hand, he tried to keep some power. His calling himself ‘your slave’ to nature, to the storm and the hurricanoes – I love it because it is a man, a beaten man, bloodied, battered and bruised, disgraced, ‘despised’, old, slave of a man and he calls nature his ‘servile ministers’ (basically saying nature serves him), accuses nature of having conspired with his daughters, and basically says “Fuck you, then – gimme your best shot.”

It is the first admirable act of King Lear. It is the first time we see majesty from him. There’s something of a religious motif, of a Moses on the Mountain about this scene. It’s a man staring into the face of god, bloody-nosed and barely standing and saying “Is that all you’ve got?” and it’s ballsy, brazen and the first explicit demonstration of how Lear got to be a King in the first place. His actions to this point have had us wondering. Lines like “He hath ever but slenderly known himself” make us believe that he’s always had an uncertainty, an instability but it’s here where we see that when the chips are down, when life punches him in the face, Lear is a man who steps up. Which is ironic because it is a very animal reaction, survival instinct is common, and in that regard ‘man’s life’s as cheap as beast’s’. There’s such beautiful irony, so much exceptional strength, the defiance of all humanity, summed up in the image of a storm-battered Lear shouting at the Gods.

It is stuff like this that makes Shakespeare worthwhile. Even if you cannot suffer to read it, the words, the format, the language, the dialect, whatever it may be – you can watch this scene and it is hard to not feel it. It could be in a gibberish, a foreign language or even just well mimed and you’d feel it.

The advent of film and television made drama so much more personal and subtle that these grandiose set-pieces have become slightly old fashioned. Theatre is a different art now than it was when Shakespeare was writing and, I joke, but Shakespeare persists because of more than just a few posh twats shoving him down our throats. He persists because of Lear ranting at the weather, because of Mercutio cursing both houses, because of Hamlet’s vivid poetic soliloquy on depression, because of Othello’s tearful, humane regret at the bestial murder he has committed in the name of jealousy, and because, like Macbeth, we all want to murder our boss and take their position – Shakespeare persists because of the drama – the real human experience – in every one of his best works. There are some duds, I’ll never give up on that one. But Shakespeare at his best has been making other playwrights look like amateurs for centuries. He, like Lear, stood up and shouted, and raged against the storm, he defied the Gods and do you know what? He won, because he still lives.

So carrying on, the fool’s trying to get Lear into a nearby hovel and Kent arrives to much the same. Lear has another little speech that ends with the line “I am a man more sinn’d against than sinning.” It’s an interesting one because in the immediate moment it may very well be true. His daughters, and apparently the weather, are conspiring to the ends of his ruin and his allies are a nobleman dressed as ‘the help’ and a man in a jester outfit. He’s about to meet ‘Poor Tom’, Edgar dressed as a madman, too. His entourage has gone from being hundreds of nights to a ragtag bag of misfits and yet he is King. In the moment it would seem like he is more sinned against.

But how did we get to this situation? I said early on that one of the greatest tragedies in Lear is that the events seem to carry themselves, that those who attempt to influence events to a better outcome find themselves sidelined, ignored or banished and, ultimately, most people end up dead. Lear is the one person who could have behaved differently to change the entire outcome.

The butterfly effect is a metaphor used to describe the influence of chaos on our world. The notion is that a butterfly flapping its wings in one location can cause a disruption enough in the air that it could cause a hurricane in another location. Chaotic systems can be described as having a sensitive dependence on initial conditions. Take the butterfly effect. If the butterfly flaps its wings in another direction does the hurricane occur elsewhere? Does the turbulent air whipped up by the butterfly disperse into a wall and cause no hurricane at all? Does it cause a gust somewhere down the road that blows a wig off a man’s head embarrassing him. These are all potential outcomes.

Lear introduces the chaos into his system. He is the stability – the lynchpin. By dividing his kingdom he flaps his butterfly wings. At that point the hurricane is not inevitable. Then, however, despite clearly having a plan for the division of his kingdom, he makes his daughters beg for it with flattery – another flap of the wings. Unfortunately it causes a shift in the mood of his favourite, youngest daughter Cordelia who, because of the initial conditions – i.e. faking flattery to appease her father, causes his ire by being honest. She flaps back. Lear does not have to react and can just do what he was going to do anyway, but he doesn’t. He flaps back. At no point, either, did Lear ever have to divide his Kingdom. He doesn’t have to flap his wings. Say he doesn’t divide his Kingdom, Cordelia marries the King of France, his other two daughters, though elder, are only married to Dukes or Earls so the Kingdom goes to France. Wahoo, stability. Maybe on his deathbed he makes France, Albany and Cornwall play rock, paper, scissors for it. There are so many ‘sensitive dependencies’ caused by Lear, caused by his actions, his inactions, his assumptions and his misdirected ire. Lear, in the moment, is more sinned against – but there is the ‘original sin’ if you will, and that is Lear’s.

Ooh! It’s big-talk episode, this one, innit? The scene ends with a sung prophecy from the Fool

                “This is a brave night to cool a courtesan.
                I’ll speak a prophecy ere I go:
                When priests are more in word than matter;
                When brewers mar their malt with water;
                When nobles are their tailors’ tutors;
                No heretics burn’d, but wenches’ suitors;
                When every case in law is right;
                No squire in debt, nor no poor knight;
                When slanders do not live in tongues;
                Nor cutpurses come not to throngs;
                When userers tell their gold i’ the field;
                And bawds and whores do churches build;
                Then shall the realm of Albion
                Come to great confusion:
                Then comes the time, who lives to see’t,
                that going shall be used with feet.
                This prophecy Merlin shall make; for I live before his time.”

Again the Fool has gone from being the biggest-dick pimp-on-the-block to being the most poignant, emotionally astute satirist and it is why he is such a character. The whole song-prophecy is a mess of contradictions and warns that when they come true Albion, England essentially, is fucked. I think there’s a touch of contemporary social commentary from Shakespeare in this, if not a full-blown critique of early Jacobean society then a warning, and given that not too far down the road from his time was the English Civil War we have to ask how often priests were more in word than matter in the Kingdom of England. The Arthurian reference at the end, too, invoking Merlin, is a brilliant touch. It lends a mystical, legendary legitimacy to the whole thing, disguising the satire and cultural commentary that it is as merely a prophecy of the past.

Anyway then Edmund does some bastardry. Gloucester is unhappy with the situation, you know Regan and her husband effectively stealing his castle and kicking his mate, the actual fucking king, out. He stupidly consults Edmund about this who, having no great love for the man who mocked his manufacture, talked about fucking his mum as ‘great sport’ and gave his daft legitimate son so many more kudos and opportunities than his bastard one, decides “fuck him!” and goes to tell Regan and Cornwall all about it.

Then we go to Lear, Kent and Fool entering the hovel and meeting Poor Tom, Edgar-in-disguise.

Lear actually says something here that, as a mental health sufferer, really stands out. “The tempest in my mind doth from my sense take all feeling else save what beats there.” I know that feeling. Most people with depression or anxiety troubles know that feeling.

Then we get some slapstick! Because after all this mortality-confronting, cloud-shouting, god-slapping, Edmund conniving, misery what we really need is Edgar covered in muck upsetting a man dressed as a jester.

Fool initially thinks Poor Tom is ‘a spirit’ and needs comfort from Kent which is adorable. Edgar rages on pretending to be mad, putting underpants on his head, sticking pencils up his nose and saying “Wibble” whilst Lear opines that he is probably this way because he gave everything to his daughters too. Again, it’s all grimly comical, the disgraced Prince talking with the disempowered King, one pretending to be mad, the other actually going mad and yet they’re on some level understanding one another.

The fool says “This cold night will turn us all to fools and madmen” and it’s just such a line. It’s the kind of line you cut with a credit card on a nightclub toilet and snort up with glee because he could have said that at the first line of Act 1, Scene 1 and we wouldn’t need a fucking play. Said here it is just enough comical observation of what has been, and just enough teaser of what’s to come that it’s just perfection.

Edgar as Poor Tom has a few more lines – there’s a lot I’d like to dissect but I’ll probably do it later. I might do a whole article on the Edgar/Edmund situation because I think it’s very interesting but the gist of it is he fucks devil women and now he’s a mad man, halloo, suuum, nonny na etc. etc. He does his best madman impression, as a ‘foul Flibbertigibbet’.

There’s also some insight from Lear. His experience with ‘Poor Tom’ is possibly his first experience with the hardships of some within his kingdom. He asks “Is man no more than this?” and calls him a ‘forked animal’ – keep in mind the importance I give to his ‘reason not the need’ speech and you realise perhaps his ideas on the basest beggars being superfluous in things was a bit wrong. He sees that here.

Then Edgar’s dad turns up! Gloucester finds them at their hovel and there’s some chitter-chatter about how he knows Lear’s daughters want him dead, he doesn’t like it, the world’s gone to shit, he loved his son but his son wanted him dead, he doesn’t have a fucking clue what’s going on, Kent was right, he wishes he could tell him when he’s speaking to Kent – still wearing one of those face-nose-moustache-glasses combos from the joke shop – It’s expositional – stuff happens.

Then we go to Edmund speaking with Cornwall, giving him the letter from Gloucester about Cordelia and France, yadayada it would all be tremendously story-driving exposition but for one aside from Edmund where he says “I will persevere in my course of loyalty, though the conflict be sore between that and my blood.”

What does he mean by this? To me, by my interpretation of Edmund, not as villain of villains but victim of circumstance, it means he’s going to grass his father up but he doesn’t necessarily want to. He has to in order to gain legitimacy. I keep using that word ‘legitimacy’ because I feel this is what drives Edmund. It drives Edmund to become his father’s favourite, to betray his father, to become Earl of Gloucester, to fuck Goneril and Regan – let’s be honest, he’d throw his hot-dog up Cordelia if he thought it would earn him legitimacy. Of course once he sets his path in motion undoing it is pointless and he may as well double down for more advantage. He is sore in blood because he is betraying his family but to steal a line from Macbeth he is ‘in blood stepped in so far, that, should he wade no more, returning we as tedious as go o’er.’  There are actually quite a few parallels between Edmund and Macbeth, that itself would be interesting to explore.

“Off, off, you lendings…” King Lear tears his shirt off like a pro-wrestler to give it to Poor Tom, whilst sheltering in the hovel against the storm. (Credit: The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Next up Lear puts on a mock trial of his daughters in a hovel using Kent, a madman and a fool. Gloucester is also milling about, and eventually he tells Kent to take Lear to Dover where he should get protection. The implication being that by the time they get there Cordelia and he French lot will be there. Everyone sleeps or leaves and we get Edgar’s change.

For one, he is alone, so he can change from ‘Poor Tom’ back to Edgar, but he also appears to have grown somewhat. He says;

                “When we our betters see bearing our woes,
                we scarcely think our miseries our foes.
                Who alone suffers suffers most i’ the mind,
                Leaving free things and happy shows behind:
                But then the mind much sufferance doth o’er skip,
                when grief hath mates, and bearing fellowship.
                How light and portable my pain seems now,
                When that which makes me bend makes the king bow,
                He childed as I father’d! Tom, away!
                Mark the high noises; and thyself bewray,
                When false opinion, whose wrong thought defiles thee,
                In thy just proof, repeals and reconciles thee.
                What will hap more to-night, safe ‘scape the king!
                Lurk, lurk.”

Edgar, barely a man, a Prince effectively, cast out by machinations of his sibling is met by his King, aged and grey in hair and beard, cast out by machinations of his daughters. He feels all the stronger knowing his ‘betters’ suffer pains similar to his, indeed his feel ‘light and portable’ having seen the pain of others. He feels empowered to know that “that which makes me bend makes the king bow”.  This is Edgar’s coming of age, essentially and he had to debase himself to do it. He sympathises with Lear, now a pathetic figure, and talks of their similarity of their situations by saying “He childed as I father’d.” I was taught that this basically meant his father treated him as Lear’s daughters treated him but there’s more to it than that. Again the choice of wording is very deliberate. This is Edgar’s coming of age, as I said, and I have also mentioned many times that a senescent slip into dementia is a regression, a return to a childlike mind. Edgar is becoming the father as Lear is becoming the child. He childs as he fathers. It’s not just about their family situations but their stage of growth and development as human beings. At this point Edgar is determined, for now he will hide, or ‘lurk’ but he will reveal himself when ‘proof’ is there. At this point Edgar is determined to undo the villainy done, he just needs the legitimacy to do it…

…Legitimacy…

I know you’re gagging for me to finally push the button on the Edmund/Edgar shit but come on, the clues are all there, man!

Anyway, Cornwall and Regan now being well aware of the plots against them, France’s forays into Dover and the attempts to steal the king away they decide to do the only thing logical to do and pluck out Gloucester’s eyes. Not, however, before a servant loyal to Gloucester comes in, says to Regan “If you were a bloke I’d fucking duff you up!” wounds Cornwall and then dies. Regan also decides at this point, rubbing salt into his open-eye-wounds, to tell him that it was Edmund who betrayed him and he realises, then, that ‘Edgar was abused’.

…It takes him being blinded to see the truth…

WHAT! I don’t like it as a fucking metaphor any more than you do but you know when I said “Shakespeare’s great but he ain’t all that and a bag of crisps!” well there’s why! Sometimes he’s so obvious it hurts. In a play where the journeys of Gloucester’s two sons are effectively the hero’s journey mirrored, flip reversed and countering one another the whole “he had to become blind to truly see…” trope is fucking dogshit. Maybe it was fresh back in 1606 – I don’t know. I wasn’t there. It’s okay, we’ve got the reunification of Edgar and Gloucester coming up and both get some good shit there.

Gloucester is being led by an old man, conscientious sort who decides that since Gloucester would rather be alone, but he has conscience enough not to leave him so, he should leave him in the reliable hands of the local, neighbourhood mad beggar. Gloucester says he saw such a man the previous night that made him think of his son. Maybe because it was. The more important thing he says is “As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods. They kill us for their sport.”

Two things, one, is once again the theme of Man v. Nature. Of people being, ultimately, at the mercy of a cruel universe seemingly determined to play with them. Secondly ‘their sport’ brings us all the way back to the beginning when he himself described some ‘good sport’ and perhaps the bumbling blind fuck is getting a little karmic comeuppance.

Gloucester desires to be led to near Dover, where a cliff ‘Whose high and bending head looks fearfully in the confined deep.” I’ve walked it! It’s called Shakespeare’s cliff and at the rate we’re seeing coastal erosion of the chalk cliffs around there it won’t be there long so if you feel like an amble I’d go there soon.

Then we have a scene of thirsty Goneril, Oswald talking about how Albany thinks everything’s shit because he doesn’t like their evil scheme, and Edmund being a fuckboi. Albany enters and vents spleen at his wife. It is clear he is loyal to Lear and wants no part in the sordid scheme to disempower and basically kill him. Goneril attacks him back for being ‘milk-liver’d’ and essentially questions his manhood – the topic of slightly abusive women utilising sexual insults and weaponry in order to make their husbands perform wicked deeds will be covered more in Macbeth. Needless to say there are shades of it here. We also find out that Cornwall is dead, to which Albany is like “How’d that happen?” and the messenger says Cornwall was busy plucking out Gloucester’s eyes and a servant stabbed him to which Albany’s response of ‘O poor Gloucester’ is, I think, priceless.

We have, to this point, been given hints that there would be war between Cornwall and Albany, despite Goneril and Regan’s plans it seems Albany was ever of a mind to protect what he could of Lear’s legacy and this was going to lead him into direct conflict with Cornwall who is happy to be his lady’s lapdog, Goneril and Regan both being the blood-thirsty driving force for change in the kingdom. His dismissal of the death of Cornwall and pity for Gloucester tell us everything we need to know of his character and how it is much changed.

In life, politics, management, we are in the habit of letting those who speak loudest have the biggest platform. Albany is initially very quiet, not because he is meek but because he is attentive. At that time his services were not required. His voice becomes all the louder, his auctoritas, his innate authority, becomes all the more obvious the closer the play reaches to its crescendo. Essentially he doesn’t unleash his power and authority until it is needed, preferring situations to sort themselves out. This is not weakness, meekness or bad leadership – far from it. Albany does not necessarily ‘grow’ into a leader, more so that his leadership qualities begin to shine through by necessity. He’s an interesting character and a demonstration of how someone who seems so passive and ordinary can be prepared to take over when the situation calls for it.

Kent then meets with the Gentleman at a camp near Dover. We find out the King of France has gone back, leaving their forces in the hands of Marshal La Far. We also find out that Cordelia got Kent’s letter. The Gentleman says;

                “Ay, sir; she took them, read them in my presence;
                and now and then an ample tear trill’d down
                Her delicate cheek: it seem’d she was a queen
                Over her passion; who, most rebel-like,
                Sought to be king o’er her.”

How like Act 1, Scene 1. The rebel-like king, flying into fits of fury over her steadfast and stoic truth, could not topple the Queen. No matter her upset, no matter the problem, she was strong.

The image of Cordelia as some kind of ‘womanly’, saintly, nurturing presence is fucking bullshit. Goneril and Regan are scheming skanks compared to her, for she is authority personified. She is rational and logical without being unemotional, she merely doesn’t let her emotions dominate the correct course of action. Cordelia is not a victim in this play. She was not a victim of her father at the start, finding a husband, as she did, who knew her for the fair woman she was and loved her more for it. Goneril is a victim of her husband, who disagrees with her, and her base desires for power and lust. Regan is a victim of her base desires for power and lust. Cordelia is never a victim. In that, to an extent, she stands alone.

Apologies if this has been a bit more slap-dash or error-strewn than the others. I’ve been busy the last couple of days and haven’t had a chance to really put the hours in editing.

But we are moving towards the climax, so things should get exciting. What shall we subtitle this one?

How about;

King Lear: Part 3 – Gimme Your Best Shot!

Coming upWAR! A man tries to throw himself off a meter high cliff to his death, Lear becomes a hippy, Cordelia returns and Edmund fucks some more.

Found your way here without looking at our earlier parts. Head back a step to part 2 – Reason Not the Need here.

Or else move on to part 4 – “It Smells of Mortality.”

Published by Karl Anthony Mercer

An overly curious lovechild of Grumpy of the Seven Dwarfs and the kitsch pen section of Paperchase. Karl is on a mission to expose the seedy underbelly of academia, and thus making it appealing to wrong 'uns.

2 thoughts on “King Lear: Part 3 – Gimme Your Best Shot!

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