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ACT I, SCENE I
Just mention the words King Lear and an image springs to mind- the famous division of the kingdom among his daughters. It's one of the most memorable scenes in all of Shakespeare's works. It's also one of the longest opening scenes, loaded with important details that set up all the following events.
The play begins in a sort of "no-man's-land," but it soon becomes King Lear's court, when he enters and quickly establishes himself as the reigning monarch.
This opening scene introduces all the major characters of the main plot and even gives a quick preview of the subplot. There is nothing wishy-washy about these characters. What they say and what they do reveal a great deal about them, at least enough to start your impressions building.
NOTE: On stage, the characters seem to fall into vivid groupings. Throughout the play there will be many times when sides are drawn; it will be interesting to see which side has the greater weight.
The play begins with a casual conversation between two members of the court, the Earl of Kent and the Earl of Gloucester. They observe that the king has treated his two sons-in-law, Albany and Cornwall, inconsistently. Remember, nothing said by any character is ever a "throwaway." Even these first few lines have some bearing on what will occur later. Right at the start, they begin to paint a picture of an unpredictable monarch.
With no more said about that, they turn to a third character- Edmund, the Earl of Gloucester's bastard son. Listen to the way his father speaks about his origin, right in front of him. Put yourself in Edmund's position and think how you would feel if your father spoke that way about your less-than-respectable birth.
Gloucester is good-natured, but oblivious to a son's feelings. Look at the rude contrast he makes when he says:
...there was good sport at his making, and the
NOTE: The actor playing Edmund wouldn't have to make a spoken comment about his feelings on this subject. He would have to have a physical response that the audience could see. This early in the play, a brief moment like this should serve notice for us to watch carefully for reactions. Sometimes it will be easy to tell, such as a spoken "aside." Sometimes it will be silence. Sometimes it will be a violent physical response. They offer clues to what is happening inside the character's mind.
This introductory dialogue ends with Edmund, the "whoreson," and Kent, the "noble gentleman," making polite acquaintance. The sound of an offstage trumpet suddenly announces the arrival of the royal party.
The whole tone of the play now changes. We have been listening to characters speak in prose, loose and informal. Now verse takes over as the king enters in all his majesty, followed in precise order of rank by his court.
NOTE: THE NATURAL ORDER
The first breach comes when Lear announces that he intends to retire and will divide his kingdom equally among his three daughters- Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia. Making this announcement, he's firm and authoritative. Nothing suggests weakness or senility. Only his white hair reminds us that he is, after all, an aged man and king.
Before allotting their particular territories, Lear asks each daughter to make a profession of her love and devotion to him. Then he will decide who gets a larger and more advantageous share. Talk about sibling rivalry!
Is this capricious? Or has everything been already decided? Is Lear telling just a little fib? Maybe, but Shakespearean "fibs" have a way of growing and taking on a much bigger importance.
Besides playing with his daughters' affections, he's indulging himself, too, by putting on a show of his power. It's all a game, he seems to say.
Goneril and Regan know the rules. They can tell fibs, too. Their polished speeches certainly don't sound very sincere. How much truth is there in their vast professions of love and devotion? As they lay it on, one thicker than the next, Lear's youngest daughter, Cordelia, warns us in asides that there is trouble ahead.
Now it's Cordelia's turn, and the warning bears fruit. What can she say to gain a larger share than her sisters?
Lear has been judging his daughters on quantity, not quality. His whole idea of value appears to be bound up in this idea of "How much do you love me?" Cordelia's blunt inability to offer something, anything, is an affront to him. Father and daughter speak in short, staccato dialogue, underscoring the tense emotion of the confrontation.
But what really is Cordelia's problem? She could be completely honest when she says that she simply speaks the truth and performs her duty. Some might feel this is a stubborn streak coming out. Others might feel she's being a little feisty. Maybe she's gambling, taking a chance that her perverse honesty will trick Lear into giving her a larger portion. We haven't seen enough of Cordelia to form an impression of absolute goodness personified.
Lear, meanwhile, is not at all satisfied with her answer. A dramatic moment is building. Lear stalls. Has he really heard such an "unnatural" reply?
Lear: So young, and so untender?
A standoff. Neither side will compromise. It is all or nothing. That is unacceptable to Lear. Listen to his pronouncement of judgment. Rage and violence seem to pour forth way out of proportion as he exercises his absolute rights as a father and a king.
He calls on the gods above to witness his withdrawal of Cordelia's share. And then he goes further: he disowns her, he banishes her from his sight.
NOTE: The scales of justice have now tipped. This is our first demonstration of judgment, of crime and punishment. It will recur in many different forms as the play unfolds.
There's still a chance for reconsideration, but time is running on. And both sides are stubborn.
To provide a case for the defendant, Kent, the loyal attendant, steps forward. Drawing on his long and faithful service to Lear, he speaks thoughts that may well run through the audience's mind. He begs Lear to retract the sentence.
No, the king has spoken. Authority must be preserved even though he is giving it away in almost the next breath.
Only we shall retain
For himself, Lear will keep a retinue of one hundred knights who will accompany him on monthly visits to Goneril and Regan in turn. But all the rest he thrusts away with the parting gesture of the coronet, the symbol of rule.
NOTE: If there is any question of an inversion of the natural order, that settles it. He would no longer be king, on top, nor father, on top. It must lead to problems of real magnitude. It must lead to some form of "chaos."
Meanwhile, Kent persists. Again citing his past service as his support, he makes the first reference to Lear's madness in executing such a rash judgment. Moreover, he questions Lear's vision, the ability to see his own folly. But Lear rejects his plea.
Out of my sight!
In a last-ditch effort, Kent begs:
See better, Lear, and let me still remain
Lear will have none of this. Again, judgment and sentence are swift: Kent, too, is banished. The king is still in command.
In his parting words, Kent asks the gods to provide shelter for Cordelia, who has been, from his viewpoint, just in her behavior.
Gloucester, who left the stage with Edmund right after the royal party arrived, now brings in Cordelia's suitors, the Duke of Burgundy and the King of France. When he is offered Cordelia's hand without a dowry, Burgundy rejects it flatly. He's not interested in the maid without the money, so to speak.
Did Cordelia suspect this? Is this why she deliberately alienated Lear, so that she wouldn't be forced to marry the blunt Burgundy?
When the King of France is given the same offer, he questions the sudden change in Lear's affections. What could be the reason?
Sure her offense
Is Cordelia afraid that he will believe her guilty of some violent crime, and that she will lose him? Is there a suggestion of preference when she interjects a plea that Lear confirm her only sin to be a lack of "that glib and oily art / To speak and purpose not...." (lines 224-25)? She reminds Lear and all those on stage, as well as in the audience, that her disfavor stems from no criminal act.
France is not easily dissuaded. He sees the paradox of Cordelia's "richness" shining through her newly poverished situation. He loves her for her virtues, not her dowry. He accepts her despite her banishment.
What a contrast to Lear's quick judgment. Which of the two kings on stage, which of the two sides, do you think now has the audience's sympathy?
With nothing further to say, with no further consideration, no further reason applied, Lear turns his eyes away from his former favorite child and leaves the stage, followed in procession by his entourage.
Goneril and Regan have lingered behind. With her new protector at her side, Cordelia bids farewell to them. She states clearly that she knows what they are really like, but asks them to transcend their faults and take care of their father after she has gone. In terse replies that could have come straight out of any version of Cinderella, they tell her to mind her own business, to take care of her own prince, who has accepted her despite her poor fortune.
NOTE: The image of fortune- sometimes Fortune, and sometimes fortune's wheel- will appear throughout the play. To the Elizabethan audience it always suggested change: what is on top now will inevitably fall to the bottom later- and vice versa. Fortune and her wheel are never static.
After Cordelia and France have left, the tone changes again. Verse, poetry, and rhetoric are left behind as the two sisters speak plainly to one another. Looking back at Lear's rash and hasty behavior, they're obviously concerned. Who wouldn't be? They attribute his banishment of Cordelia and Kent to the weakness of old age, which they claim is not new in him. There's strength in unity, and they agree to consult and take joint action when the situation warrants.
As the stage clears, you have to start making up your own mind about these outspoken characters. Is Lear the intolerable tyrant he appears to be? Is Cordelia as sweet and good as she seems? And what of the two older sisters? What have they done but confirm a parent's image of his own goodness? Everyone has heard a mother or father, if not their own, ask a child, "How much do you love me?" But at Lear's obvious age, and in his position, the question comes a little late. And dangerously.
ACT I, SCENE II
NOTE: No curtain fell, no lights were lowered, but the Elizabethan audience knew the scene had changed when the stage cleared and a character or group entered. Perhaps a slight change of costume or a portable prop would help define the new place or circumstances.
Since Edmund had left the stage early in the previous scene, he had an opportunity to make some slight change in his attire to suggest that he was now "at home" in Gloucester's castle as he enters the stage alone.
Within moments he has revealed that he was not a dispassionate bystander to his father's naive insults. He calls on nature, whom he swears to serve. But what nature does he mean? Certainly not the nature of law and order. No, for Edmund, who is himself unnatural by birth, his nature is the law of might, of wit and cunning- the law of the jungle.
His illegitimacy is indeed a sore point as is his status as younger son. But why should he be subject to that order which would deprive him of his inheritance? Why should his brother, by the mere accident of his preceding birth, get it all? By design, Edmund wishes to overturn the other, the truly natural order, and through his cleverness take all. He cheerfully and boldly calls on his gods to witness his resolution and support him in his endeavors.
Gloucester walks in and Edmund immediately resumes the pose of the sweet and modest young man we saw in the first scene. Pretending rather obviously to hide a letter in his hand, he stimulates his father's curiosity. When asked what he is reading, Edmund replies: "Nothing, my lord" (line 31).
Where have we heard that before? But when another parent received that same reply, it stayed there, rooted. to its "nothingness." Here, it leads to "something." This father, at least, tries to demonstrate that he has some vision.
Let's see. Come, if it be nothing, I shall not need
NOTE: The recurring theme of vision and blindness grows heavier and heavier at this early stage. Remember, the Elizabethans considered the eyes the entrance to the mind, the intelligence and reason. If a person had vision, he could behave reasonably. Without it, passion ruled and folly usually followed.
But while Gloucester's intentions are proper and true, the object is false. Edmund hands him a forged letter from his brother Edgar, which starts out with a condemnation of the accepted order, the tradition that makes a young man wait for the death of an old parent to come into his inheritance. It goes on to scorn this policy and suggests that the two brothers take action to rectify the situation and thus share their father's property while they are young.
Gloucester, good-natured, affable soul that he is, questions the letter's authenticity. Again and again he asks questions, delaying a response as long as possible. When Edmund "reluctantly" swears that the handwriting is Edgar's, that he has even heard his brother make some suggestions that sons should replace fathers at a certain age, only then does Gloucester cry out that Edgar is a villain.
How easily is Gloucester gulled? The simple ruse of a forged letter is not much by intellectual standards, but dramatically it was a pretty well-established convention and the audience would not have been too harsh on him. Still, it represents a turning point in this subplot parallel to the main plot.
But rather than attribute it immediately to pure villainy on his son's part, Gloucester recalls that there have been outside influences at work. The signs have been the strange aberrations of "nature," which are omens of what has now happened.
This villain of mine comes under the prediction,
Gloucester does not pronounce sentence. He reserves final judgment as Edmund is ordered to provide further evidence.
Alone again, Edmund sneers at the old man's references to the celestial origins of earthly problems. So much for astrology. But can you dismiss it so easily? After all, look who is turning up his nose at the influence of "other powers."
Nevertheless, under any circumstances, Edmund makes the claim that will echo throughout literature and the performing arts for ages: I am what I am.
Edmund is in a lighthearted mood as Edgar enters, setting the plot against the unsuspecting older brother into motion. He sighs "like Tom o' Bedlam" (line 132) and continues to mock his absent father.
The double-dealing scoundrel soon convinces Edgar that he has aroused Gloucester's violent displeasure and has reason to fear his father's wrath. The trusting Edgar suspects nothing; he accepts Edmund's lies ever so easily. Edgar sends him to his chambers to await further news of the case against him and warns him not to go about unarmed.
With "A credulous father, and a brother noble" (line 172), Edmund is riding high on Fortune's wheel. He repeats his vow to gain by wit what he cannot have by birth.
Does it seem too simple? Does the execution of Edmund's villainy happen too easily? But haven't we all been "suckered" into some practical joke through something we saw as obvious only afterward?
ACT I, SCENE III
The major characters have now all made their appearance and you've had a chance to form an opinion of each. The principal conflicts that set off the action of the main plot and the subplot have been introduced, too. It's time to enlarge upon our greater interest- the story of Lear and his daughters- and move the action forward.
The scene shifts to a new grouping on the stage, and within a matter of moments we know that we are in the Duke of Albany's castle, where his wife Goneril is speaking to her steward.
NOTE: The fawning servant was a stock character in Elizabethan drama, just as we have stock characters today- the "best friend," the butler, and so on. The audience would expect Goneril's steward to be a groveling lackey, but Shakespeare makes special use of him.
We see him now complaining that he was struck for merely scolding the king's jester, the Fool. Goneril seizes on this to generalize on the abuse she and her household have suffered from Lear's knights and her father's rude behavior. She will retaliate by frosty behavior of her own and she encourages the steward, Oswald, to do likewise. For starters, Goneril will not be there when the king returns from hunting. Obviously, he is hale and healthy enough to enjoy that royal pastime. Goneril leaves to write to Regan, encouraging her to do likewise when Lear goes to her for his monthly visit.
People are forever making judgments in King Lear, usually hasty judgments at that. Goneril takes the word of a servant without hearing the other side. Is it because this suits her frame of mind? But what if the report is accurate? Can she be blamed for becoming angry at Lear's and his knights' raucous, abusive behavior? So we really don't know yet whether she is at fault for making a snap judgment that Lear's entourage is behaving badly. It's too soon to say who is the victim and who is the villain.
One slight clue is given, however. In the first scene Lear initiated the action, he set the wheels in motion. As he is spoken of in this scene, and as we shall see hereafter, he now responds to the actions of others. And his reactions, as we have seen, are usually passionate, to say the least.
ACT I, SCENE IV
Appearance and reality are not only thematic undertones; they actually surface purposefully in King Lear. We've already seen the appearance of geriatric humility and the reality of autocratic wrath, the two- faced behavior of the scoundrel Edmund, the false letter. Now we see actual disguise as Kent enters and announces that he has altered his appearance and taken on the trappings of a humble peasant in order to get close to Lear, to continue to serve his master.
Clothing obviously defines the wearer, and no aspect, from a single thread to a fully naked body, should be ignored. Is that any different from today? Don't we still judge people by what they wear?
For the second time in the play, Lear makes an entrance. This time he is in his "retirement" and is obviously enjoying it as much as any golden-ager who might have just returned from the golf course. As he meets up with Kent, he interrogates him as an executive might interview a job applicant. Kent comes up with the right answers, citing Lear's look of "authority" as the reason he wishes to serve him, and is accepted on a trial basis. No snap judgments here. Lear is a model of rational behavior if a little given to the enjoyment of flattery.
Still the spoiled autocrat, Lear claps his hands and demands his dinner and his Fool. And where is his daughter, who should be there to greet him? Oswald's brief dash across the stage provides no answers. Furthermore, a knight comes back with the information that not only is Goneril not well enough to do her duty, but he had received a curt reply from Oswald. His report of rudeness and poor treatment by the household staff prompts Lear to recall that he had observed similar behavior of late- "a most faint neglect" (line 65). Notice how mild this judgment is. Still, he is irritable because his fool is nowhere to be seen. This absence is attributed by the knight to the greater absence of another- Cordelia.
Since my young lady's going into France, sir, the
Cordelia's image is kept before us through obvious references such as this, and even slighter, brief mentions. In absence, the picture of her and her goodness grows.
But first, Oswald's rudeness is dealt with. For his insolence, Lear goes to slap him and Kent trips him, earning his master's thanks and a tip as the Fool makes his entrance.
With wit, verve, and dash the Fool interrupts the mounting tension while making his own points and actually adding fuel to the fire.
Haven't you thought it pretty foolish of Lear, who is obviously physically capable of executing his duties as king, to dispose of his kingdom- his job, his authority, his possessions- so unwisely? Well, here is the Fool to put your point of view across. Were it not for his special position, he couldn't get away with the barbs he levels at Lear. In short order, he tells the monarch that he became a fool himself when he gave away his crown. Lear himself reversed the natural order when he dropped his pants and handed his daughters the rod to beat him with. In fact, to certify that he has become a fool, the lowest level of the natural order, Lear gave away his title and stripped himself symbolically naked.
Why does Lear tolerate these cutting reproaches? Why should he, the ruler, put up with the Fool, the servant? Has the reference to the Fool's beloved mistress in France triggered a sense of repentance for his injustice in banishing her for a slight offense? Or has the mixture of nonsense spread a cover over the cutting edge of these barbs?
Harping on the substantive, the quantitative, the Fool asks Lear, "Can you make no use of nothing, Nuncle?" (lines 123-24), and Lear replies that "Nothing can be made out of nothing." No, Lear has not learned that lesson.
The Fool is threatened with a whipping as Goneril enters. But the Fool has a final word to say about "something" and "nothing": "I am a fool," he tells Lear, "thou art nothing" (lines 184-185) as he turns his attention and his taunts to Goneril.
She accuses Lear's knights of insolence and complain that he does nothing about it when she informs him of their abuse of her hospitality.
What is Lear's reaction? He mocks her with sarcasm. He poses rhetorical questions. Who is this person to whom she would speak so? He plays the fool, a fool so blind that when he asks again if anyone can tell him who he is, the Fool replies, "Lear's shadow" (line 221).
But Goneril will not put up with this. She tells him straight out to stop his pranks. "As you are old and reverend, should be wise" (line 230). She tells him that his knights treat her home as though it were a tavern or a brothel.
Does Lear pay attention to what she is saying? Hardly. Does he consider that her complaints may have some basis in fact? Not for a minute. Instead he uses high-flown rhetoric to shout her down, barely noticing Albany's arrival. He curses her in no uncertain terms: "Degenerate bastard," "detested kite." The invectives pour forth from his lips with the same fury he unleashed against Cordelia earlier.
Albany's attempts as peacemaker fail and Lear summons up his final curse. He now calls on nature, his goddess of righteous indignation, to take his part and make Goneril sterile so that she will never know the honor of a child. If she does bear, let the child turn against her so that she may know:
How sharper than a serpent's tooth it is
The question must be asked- Does Goneril deserve such a curse, the concentrated force of such hideous wishes?
Albany is bewildered by the scene he has witnessed, but Goneril remains calm. She can handle it. Lear returns with a mysterious reference to half his retinue, which we later discover Goneril has given orders to leave within two weeks.
His anger is almost uncontrollable, but he will contain himself. Venting his final curses on her, he vows to put out his own eyes if ever they weep as a result of Goneril's treatment. He tells her that he has another, kinder daughter, Regan, who will surely avenge him savagely when she hears what has happened. Furthermore, she will discover that he has not abandoned all the prerogatives of the monarchy.
Albany tries to insert a voice of reason, but Goneril has been too incited by Lear's curses. It's dangerous, she claims, to let him keep a hundred knights about him so that he may arm them against any imagined enemy. She summons Oswald and sends him to Regan with her side of the story, telling him to embellish it as much as he needs to produce the right effect. As for Albany, well, she can only overlook his mild manner and ignore his warnings.
Any doubts about Goneril's ability to take a firm stand are probably gone by now. Still, what has she really done? We have not seen the cause of their conflict, but have only the reports to consider, as well as their responses. The case for either side is still open.
We are beginning to have some feeling, some reaction to Albany. It should be interesting to see how the other son-in-law comes across compared to this one, who has not lined up that closely on his wife's side.
ACT I, SCENE V
Lear returns to the stage, still dressed as before, still very much the picture of a king, but without fanfare, with no royal trappings, with only Kent and the Fool at his side. He immediately sends Kent off with a letter to Regan. He, however, in striking contrast to the instructions Goneril gave to her messenger, tells Kent to stick strictly to the facts in the letter.
When Kent has departed, Lear is left alone with the Fool, who immediately tries to amuse Lear, but the turmoil is growing inside the old man. He is obviously not paying attention and his thoughts drift. When he comes out with comments such as "I did her wrong" (line 21), is he thinking of Goneril or Cordelia?
Prompted by the Fool's admonition that he had grown old before he had acquired wisdom, Lear cracks a little under the strain of holding his wits together and implores heaven not to let him be mad. Already he suspects and probably knows that this would be the worst fate of all.
This brief scene probably isn't enough to turn around your attitude if you feel that he has behaved badly up till now and really doesn't deserve much sympathy. But as Lear's defenses begin to weaken, you may start to react more favorably toward him after seeing this brief display of his humanity.
ACT II, SCENE I
If the last scene was essentially quiet and contemplative, despite the Fool's attempts at merriment, this scene will be a marked contrast. We are back at Gloucester's castle where Curan, a servant, is giving Edmund the latest news.
Curan reports that Gloucester has just been informed that Cornwall and Regan are en route and expected that evening. He passes along the gossip that there is already a growing unrest between the Albany and Cornwall factions. Edmund decides on the spot that this unexpected arrival will distract the old Earl and presents a great opportunity to cement his case against his brother. He calls the hidden Edgar to the stage.
As Edgar appears, Edmund is all urgency and warnings. The older brother is told that Gloucester has posted guards and has them searching for him. Moreover, is it possible that Edgar has spoken against Cornwall, who is heading for the castle right now? Or against Albany?
Claiming that Gloucester's arrival, which he has just heard, signals doom for Edgar if he doesn't make a convincing departure, Edmund prompts his brother to engage in a fake duel with him and flee. Edgar is convinced, does as he is told, and hurries away.
The sly Edmund then wounds himself and continues the fraud as Gloucester enters with servants carrying torches.
Edmund is really into his act now as Gloucester asks him three times where Edgar is. Stalling so that Edgar can get beyond reach and not contradict his story right away, he finally sends off the searching party. We can only guess that he pointed in the wrong direction.
He then sets about convincing Gloucester of his brother's villainy- shaping his own treacherous thoughts to fit his brother's profile- claiming he was asked to join but was opposed to Edgar's "unnatural purpose" (line 50). His refusal was the cause of the duel that just took place, he says.
Gloucester needs no further proof. He will search far and wide, but Edgar will be captured and punished. He is so taken by Edmund's fidelity and loyalty that he announces that this son will be "legitimized" and thus become the heir. Edmund's conniving has served him well, more quickly than he undoubtedly expected. But before he has a chance to exult, Cornwall and Regan make their entrance.
NOTE: With their attendants in tow, note the growing importance the Duke and Duchess have taken on. The very manner of their entrance should give an idea of how grand they have become.
They dispense with the ceremony of formal greeting. They have received a report of Edgar's supposed villainy and ask for more news. Regan finds a contact point with the main story of Lear and his growing problems when she asks:
What, did my father's godson seek your life?
She suggests that he had been keeping bad company, carousing with Lear's retinue, and Edmund quickly confirms this. He is remarkable in his ability to determine opportunities and take advantage of them.
Regan herself is no stranger to opportunity. She uses this meeting to express her complaints against Lear and his knights that reflect the news she has received from Goneril. In fact, this is one reason why she has left home. If Lear arrives there, he will find no welcome and no comfort.
As for Cornwall, why is he impressed with Edmund's "virtue"? He welcomes Edmund to his own company, commending his "Natures of such deep trust..." (line 115).
Regan then seeks to enlist Gloucester to their cause. She has heard from both her father and her sister and claims that she seeks his counsel in deciding a course of action for her response.
Is she credible? Hasn't she already announced that she has been "well informed" by Goneril and has closed the doors of her house? Despite the sweet talk and dripping expression of old friendship, can you see Regan's true colors peeking through?
ACT II, SCENE II
Outside Gloucester's castle the two messengers meet. During the few moments they are alone on stage, we get a better and broader picture of each. Hear what they say and watch what they do. Kent exhibits the courage, loyalty, and daring we've come to expect, and he also shows a command of rhetoric all his own. Oswald is just as true to type. As he runs from Kent's attack, you can probably picture the actor you would have playing this cowardly, sniveling role.
Oswald's cries bring the party from within the castle. Edmund draws his sword to stop Kent's onslaught, but it is Cornwall who assumes charge of the situation. As for Gloucester, he stands mute and defers to Cornwall.
Kent is identified as Lear's messenger, but Cornwall persists in trying to discover the cause of the quarrel with Oswald. Kent's replies produce nothing but a word picture of this lower-than-low creature. He defines Oswald as something made by a tailor, nothing in himself. Think of that: take away his clothes and what do you have?
What is Kent trying to do? Perhaps he thinks he can discredit Oswald's reliability as a messenger, knowing what Goneril surely would have sent to her sister.
The attempt, at any rate, fails, and Cornwall makes a decision, a judgment: Kent is to be put in the stocks for his transgression. Despite protests that he is the king's messenger and such a gesture would be disrespectful, the sentence will be executed.
Regan's vindictive disposition is heard when she echoes and adds to the sentence. Even Gloucester's plea, as he finally speaks up for mercy for the king's messenger, is put down by Cornwall, who states that he'll take that responsibility. Regan's concern is what Goneril will do when she hears that her messenger was abused.
When the Duke and Duchess of Cornwall, Edmund, and all attendants have left, Gloucester is alone with the now "stock'd" Kent, whom he does not, of course, recognize in disguise. How far they have come from the opening of the play when they were also alone on the stage.
Gloucester shows compassion for this stranger who has been harshly judged and treated, and he would go back and again ask for leniency. But Kent is stoic and claims he needs the rest! What's more, he recognizes the turns of Fortune's wheel.
Kent uses his moment of tranquility to add to our knowledge of what is taking place in the larger world. He reveals a letter from Cordelia that tells him that she is aware of the situation. (See how the image of that good creature is kept in our minds by such references. We actually haven't laid eyes on her since the very first scene.)
With a final sigh of resignation, Kent asks Fortune to smile on him and turn her wheel once more.
ACT II, SCENE III
NOTE: Obviously, Kent cannot walk offstage bound up in the stocks. But as he dozes, Shakespeare pulls our attention away from him by leading it to another commanding presence entering from an opposite side.
Edgar enters and, much like his brother before, confides in us, reveals to us his inner thoughts. Up until now he has been a pretty weak character, so easily duped that when his brother last deceived him, he could only mutter a few weak words, not even questioning what he heard.
Now he shows that he is not unimaginative and unresourceful. Having heard that he is being hunted, his picture sent about much like a "Wanted" poster today, he will do the clever thing and change his appearance, transform himself completely, at least until the heat is off.
Right before our very eyes he begins to change as he describes the lowly disguise he will assume. If Kent has turned into a peasant, Edgar goes one step further and turns into a vagrant lunatic, equivalent to the meanest hobo or "bag lady" found on the streets. They are searching for someone who is "something," but he will be "poor Tom" the beggar. He who was Edgar is now "nothing" (line 21).
ACT II, SCENE IV
As Edgar drifts away, outside the social order, on the very bottom of the pile, he who should be on top enters. Still dressed in royal garments, Lear arrives outside Gloucester's castle, accompanied by a member of his entourage and the Fool.
In his very first words, Lear lets us know that there has been an abortive journey to Regan's castle. He has traveled through the night and must show the signs of such a strain.
Seeing Kent in the stocks, he asks who has done this to his messenger. When told that it was Cornwall and Regan, he shows the old fire, the old hasty judgment and rage, calling such a deed "worse than murder" (line 22).
NOTE: In a previous scene we heard Oswald tell his version of the encounter. Now we hear Kent's. It's almost like reading two different newspaper reports of something we've seen ourselves. Watch carefully and you will discover repeated contrasts, not only between the main plot and the subplot, but in details, incidents, and characters.
We expect a passionate response from this easily provoked king, but now we hear reference to the inner part of his being that is touched by such an outrage. He will seek the source, and exits.
Lear's absence allows the Fool to sally with Kent, who wants to know why Lear's entourage has been reduced. But the Fool answers in riddles, giving a vague warning when he talks about the rain and the storm of what is to come. He reinforces our suspicion that it's not always easy to tell who is the wise man and who is the fool.
Lear returns with Gloucester, grumbling that he has had no success producing Regan and Cornwall. Gloucester's timid responses may be tactful, but they are just the thing to incite Lear's further rage. And that's exactly what happens. He spews forth curse after curse, and then- what's this?- he pauses for a moment and gives them the benefit of the doubt. For the first time we hear Lear consider an alternative. Perhaps they are ill, an acceptable excuse for not showing up when summoned.
But, wait. The old choler triumphs, and he is back fuming that he will not accept such a ruse. He will break down their door if they do not show up immediately. And he sends Gloucester off with that message.
With just enough of a pause for Lear to share the anguish of his heart, and the Fool to relieve the mounting tension with pointed nonsense, Gloucester leads the Duke and Duchess of Cornwall onto the stage, followed by their attendants.
NOTE: As the stage begins to fill now, it is important to keep in mind a picture of how the sides are being drawn and which has the greater weight. Remember, Lear entered this scene with one attendant and the Fool. When Kent is freed, he naturally goes to Lear's side, too. Watch the opposition build.
The greetings are formal and brief. Lear gets right to the heart of the matter and pours forth his tale of Goneril's mistreatment.
But he gets little sympathy from Regan, whose polite words barely conceal the frost underneath. She takes the party line established by Goneril and indicates that she has accepted the reports of "riots" by his entourage. Lear is old, she tells him, and should defer to wiser minds. She tells him to return to Goneril and apologize.
He mocks the suggestion by kneeling and asking sarcastic forgiveness of an imaginary daughter.
Regan virtually orders him to stop his nonsense and return to her sister, but his anger is mounting. He complains that the older sister has cut his following in half, abused him verbally, and behaved like a snake. His litany of curses on Goneril is interrupted by Regan. He will, she claims, say the same of her when he is being rash.
Lear denies that; he butters her up lavishly. A trumpet is heard offstage announcing an arrival.
Oswald's entrance reminds Lear that he has not received an answer to his question of who put Kent into the stocks. But Goneril's entrance delays an answer. She quickly aligns herself with Regan despite Lear's obvious displeasure.
Finally, Cornwall admits that he pronounced the sentence on Kent. No time is given for a real reaction from Lear, but he must guess which way the wind is blowing. Regan pours it on by suggesting again that he return to Goneril, but he will have none of it. In his fiery reply he gives us a preview of coming events.
I abjure all roofs, and choose
He will do anything but return to this wicked daughter who has already reduced his retinue by half. He bids Goneril an ultimate farewell, reflecting that she is nevertheless his own child, even though she has become corrupted. But he can do without her because he at least has Regan.
Does he? She argues that she is not ready for him, that she can't find provisions for his full entourage. Besides, what does he need with so many attendants? Why, in fact, does he need any, ask Regan and Goneril in turn. The quantitative bias is turned against him, but Lear has a broader view. He is at the lowest point of his fortunes as a monarch, defending himself to his own daughters, and he can see things clearer.
What does anyone need anything for? Why are they so richly dressed? he reminds them. Clothing defines them.
NOTE: Keep in mind this attitude toward attire. Costumes on stage could be very elaborate. They could also serve as "armor" against any form of opposition. And, conversely, the lack of garments meant exposure to any enemy or destructive force.
In a plea for sympathy, he points out his condition- "a poor old man, / As full of grief as age" (lines 267-68). Will the gods allow him to sit quietly and tolerate their mistreatment? No, he will find a way to have his way.
The sound of the storm offstage punctuates the answer to his own question. Despite his grievances, he vows in the future not to show his weakness. But with a final cry as he exits, Lear shares his fear of a mental breakdown from the anguish he has experienced.
Having seen the ease with which he has mocked Goneril and played the beggar of forgiveness in front of Regan, can you totally believe Lear's appeals for sympathy here? Is it perhaps overindulgence in self- pity? Or is it the real thing?
The stiff-lipped daughters show how determined they are after Lear has left. Gloucester tells them that a fierce storm is brewing outside, but they don't care. Let him stay out there and learn his lesson. He's brought it all on himself, they agree, as they order Gloucester to leave Lear outside, and Cornwall gives the order to bar the door.
Even if you grant that there is some truth in what they have said, how much can you sympathize with Goneril and Regan when you hear their version of the facts? The lines that draw their portraits grow heavier as their evil natures gradually emerge.
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© Copyright 1984 by Barron's Educational Series, Inc.