King Lear: “A time to keep and a time to cast away”
For legendary King Lear, if he ever heard of or read Ecclesiastes, he must have missed or misinterpreted the line “a time to keep and a time to cast away.” If he’d understood it, the pagan ruler might not have been in such a hurry to divest himself of his kingdom and thus his power. It would have saved him a storm of trouble and shorted us a great play.
His rush to throw off the responsibilities of his kingdom gave us a play where misery, injustice, vindictiveness slosh about. Fathers and sons and daughters! All the misery stems from the infidelity of daughters and sons (biological and in-law). It would leave us each suspicious of our offspring, but for Lear characters: faithful yet disinherited Cordelia, humiliated and hunted Edgar, and unexpectedly valiant Duke of Albany. This threesome reminds us that though treachery and ingratitude surround us, there are those moral ones (perhaps few?) who will stand to their duties in gratitude.
The small-souled Edmund captures the heart of the play when he proclaims, “I promise you . . . unnaturalness between the child and the parent; death, dearth, dissolutions of ancient amities; divisions in state, menaces and maledictions against king and nobles; needless diffidences, banishment of friends, dissipation of cohorts, nuptial breaches….”
Plot and Subplot
Two intertwining plots weave together to condemn children of both genders. The play begins as King Lear, tired of the weight of his office, declares he is going to immediately divide his kingdom between his three daughters. But first, he wants to hear their declarations of love for him. Oldest sister Goneril (surprised that name hasn’t caught on) praises him highly. Daughter two Regan does her best to top her sister. Sister three, the most loved, Cordelia does not or cannot compete with her sisters’ empty rhetoric, and she admits it, offering words of a dutiful love for the king.
The king loves the empty flattery of the first two, and angers at Cordelia’s heartfelt but direct words of affection. He rebuffs Cordelia, disinherits her and divides his kingdom between his two oily-words daughters. Cordelia is taken away by the king of France for love—he weds her knowing that she brings no dowry.
Goneril, already married to the seemingly weak Albany, begins to abuse her father. She is in league in this disrespect with her sister Regan, married to the nasty Duke of Cornwall. The two sisters force the aged king into a horrific nighttime rain storm where he meets a “madman” whom he treats as a philosopher.
The madman is actually Edgar, the legitimate son of the Duke of Gloster, a long-time friend and servant to the king. Gloster has banished Edgar because the duke’s bastard son, Edmund, claimed Edgar plotted to kill Gloster. Thus, a good and dutiful son of a duke and loving daughter of a king are falsely accused and condemned, forced from family circles, while conniving sisters and son are left at home to abuse their fathers.
Evil Edmund has further betrayal (and the benefits that will accrue to him) in mind, and reveals his father’s support for the king to Cornwall and Regan, who promptly punish Gloster by poking out one of his eyes. Cornwall’s faithful servant (loyalty and honesty are not quickly or readily rewarded in this play) attempts to stop the Cornwall from the wickedness of tearing out the second eye. They sword fight a bit, and the servant stabs the Cornwall. Regan stabs the servant who dies. Cornwall’s on his way to death, but has just enough strength and time to extinguish Gloster’s remaining physical sight.
The good Regan doesn’t have time to mourn beloved dead husband Cornwall, for she must campaign quickly to marry Edmund for whom she carries the dimwitted candle of lust. Regan’s passion for the treacherous man competes with Goneril’s attraction to Edmund. This sisterly partnership rests on a rapidly collapsing bridge.
In the end, good son Edgar and his sightless father are reunited briefly before Gloster’s death. The King flees to Dover where good daughter Cordelia has come with French troops to rescue her father. The two nations fight, and England conquers under Edmund’s and Albany’s leadership. Albany now knows of his wife’s infidelity, but that is unimportant to Goneril for she has already told us “I had rather lose the battle than that sister should loosen [Edmund] and me.”
The sisters quarrel over Edmund. Goneril poisons Regan, then stabs her own heart. The king and Cordelia are captured and sent to prison by Edmund with instructions to execute them. Edgar, still disguised, challenges Edmund and kills him, but not before Edmund admits to being pledged to both dead sisters and to sending orders to have the king and Cordelia murdered.
Albany is loyal to the king and wants them brought back and the king placed in his rightful place as monarch, and rushes aid to them. But too late: Cordelia is dead, and the king dies shortly thereafter of grief.
A few random observations
I found Edgar a fine actor, feigning lunacy, but varying his madness and language to the occasion and the role he was playing at the time.
Tangentially related to Edgar, Lear does what many of us do: projecting onto Edgar his own problems. When he first meets Edgar in his madman disguise, the king sees his sorrows as only possible through treachery of daughters, even though Edgar has no daughters. Lear asks of him, “What, have his daughters brought him to this pass? Couldst thou save nothing? Didst thou give ‘em all? …Nothing could have subdu’d nature to such a lowness but his unkind daughters.”
Interesting to see Shakespeare reuse a part of the song that closed Twelfth Night as a fool’s song in King Lear. Highlighted lines are shared between the two plays. The fool here sings “He that has and a little tiny wit, with heigh, ho, the wind and the rain, must make content with his fortunes fit, though the rain it raineth every day.”
You can watch a 2009 production of King Lear on the Great Performances website at PBS. The site also includes other interesting background and information on the play and Shakespeare.
King Lear reminded me of the destructive power of ingratitude, lust, ambition, cruelty and smooth but devious praise.
Quotes I liked:
Kent: Think’st thou that duty shall have dread to speak when power to flattery bows? To plainness honour’s bound when majesty falls to folly.
Cordelia: That glib and oily art to speak and purpose not
Cordelia: Time shall unfold what plaited cunning hides: Who cover faults, at last shame them derides.
Gloster: We have seen the best of our time: machinations, hollowness, treachery, and all ruinous disorders, follow us disquietly to our graves.
Edmund: This is the excellent foppery of the world, that, when we are sick in fortune,–often the surfeit of our own behavior,–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.
Edmund: A brother so noble, whose nature is so far from doing harms that he suspects none
Fool: I had rather be any kind of thing than a fool
Albany: Striving to better, oft we mar what’s well.
Fool: Fathers that wear rags do make their children blind; but fathers that bear bags shall see their children kind.
Lear: O, how this mother swells up toward my heart! Hysterica passio,—down, thou climbing sorrow, they elements below!
Fool: 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.
Lear: Infirmity doth still neglect all office whereto our health is bound; we are not ourselves when nature, being oppress’d, commands the mind to suffer with the body
Lear: You heavens, give me that patience, patience I need!
Regan: O, sir, to willful men the injuries that they themselves procure must be their schoolmasters.
Lear: I will be the pattern of all patience; I will say nothing.
Lear: I am a man more sinn’d against than sinning.
Lear: Where the greater malady is fix’d, the lesser is scarce felt.
Lear: When the mind’s free, the body’s delicate: the tempest in my mind doth from my senses take all feeling else save what beats there.
Lear: That way madness lies
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: Who alone 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.
Old Man: You cannot see your way. Gloster: I have no way, and therefore want no eyes; I stumbled when I saw.
Albany: Wisdom and goodness to the vile seem vile. Filths savour but themselves.
Albany: If that the heavens do not their visible spirits send quickly down to tame these vile offences, it will come, humanity must perforce prey on itself, like monsters of the deep.
Gloster: Henceforth I’ll bear affliction till it do cry out itself ‘Enough, enough,’ and die.
Lear: A man may see how this world goes with no eyes.
Lear: Through tatter’d clothes small vices do appear; robes and furr’d gowns hide all. Plate sin with gold, and the strong lance of justice hurtless breaks: arm it in rags, a pigmy’s straw does pierce it.
Lear: Get thee glass eyes; and like a scurvy politician, seem to see the things thou dost not.
Lear: If you have poison for me, I will drink it. I know you do not love me; for your sisters have, as I do remember, done me wrong: You have some cause, they have not. Cordelia: No cause, no cause.
Cordelia: We are not the first who, with best meaning, have incurr’d the worst.
Regan: Jesters do oft prove prophets.
Edgar: The gods are just, and of our pleasant vices make instruments to plague us
Edmund: I pant for life: some good I mean to do, despite of mine own nature
Lear: Howl, howl, howl, howl! O, 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!
Lear: A plague upon you, murderers, traitors all! I might have saved her; now she’s gone for ever! Cordelia, Cordelia! stay a little.
Albany: All friends shall taste the wages of their virtue, and all foes the cup of their deservings.
Kent: Vex not his ghost: O, let him pass! he hates him much that would upon the rack of this tough world stretch him out longer.
Albany: The weight of this sad time we must obey; speak what we feel, not what we ought to say. The oldest hath borne most: we that are young shall never see so much, nor live so long.
Next Up: Romeo and Juliet