King Lear (6)

Scene iv prepares us for the appearance of the mad Lear in Cordelia’s compassionate description of him, crowned, not with the emblem of kingship, but with weeds, the harmful superfluity of nature. She sends out a hundred soldiers (reminiscent of the hundred knights) to search for him and offers her entire wealth to whoever can restore his sanity. This respectful report and concern encourage the audience towards an attitude of pity and respect which helps the actor with a difficult portrayal. The beneficial aspect of nature lies in herbal remedies to aid sleep and the unnamed good doctor shows his altruism in practical ways, as did the servants of Cornwall and the other anonymous characters earlier. Cordelia’s tears symbolise her forgiving nature which holds no resentment for her ill-treatment by her father: the love she felt but could not express is now demonstrated through action as she fears his death. Her words: “O dear father!/ It is thy business that I go about” recall Jesus’ words in Luke ii 49 as she exemplifies Christian values and virtue (anachronistically if the play had a definite primitive dating) in a world where pagan Gods have been shown as malignant and hostile. She is ready for battle, not out of self-seeking but out of love and a desire for justice.

Scene v shows a contrasting and significantly juxtaposed parallel with Regan and servants in place of Cordelia and followers: Albany has arrived at the battle field after “much ado” and Regan wishes they had killed Gloucester since, alive, he draws “All hearts” against them. Her explanation of Edmund’s mission to murder his father “In pity of his misery” is deeply ironic as she is incapable of such altruism. Regan is also distracted by desire for Edmund and curiosity about the letter: the anacoluthon in her speech shows her disjointed purpose: “Belike,/Some things – I know not what.” Eyes are again seen as revelatory as she has noticed her sister looking significantly at Edmund with “strange oeillads” and she plots against her. Lust is divisive and she argues that she has more right to Edmund, now an attractive proposition as Earl of Gloucester, promoted, ironically, by her dead husband. She is unsettled and anxious as she can no longer assume that her will is paramount in the evolving of events.

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Scene vi shows the regenerative experiences themselves which were forecast earlier but begins with an incident which tests the actors’ powers of convincing the audience and making them regard it seriously. Edgar has to make a speech so evocative of height and perspective that his father will believe he is at the top of a cliff when he is only standing on a small mound and will throw himself harmlessly off with the intention of suicide. He explains away the lack of the sounds of the sea and refuses to accept that his manner has changed even though he now speaks with correct language and perfect sanity – as his father notices. The audience may become impatient for a revelation here and so the descriptive account must hold their attention by its constant comparisons of size and its leisured, expansive rhythms: the boat is like its cock (small extra boat) which is in turn like a buoy. The technique is masterly but may not seem wholly successful even when Edgar claims to experience vertigo himself. The scene described is orderly and removed from the petty chaotic strifes we have witnessed as these would be tiny or invisible to a distant viewer. Before his fall, Gloucester invokes the Gods with whom he would quarrel with their “great opposeless wills” if he lived longer and his rhetoric may involve the audience in his bizarre tumble: there is an element of the grotesque in the play and the comic side can threaten to destroy the atmosphere: Edgar’s refusal to reveal himself becomes especially hard to explain as his father ‘leaps’. He knows no harm will come but is subjecting the old blind man to further torment and using his disabilty to promote optimism. The morality is far from clear-cut as he, himself, worries that the shock alone might kill his father. In realistic drama his acts would be indefensible but we are not far from the Theatre of the Absurd at some points.

He now needs to assume yet another role and voice as a person at the foot of the cliff, convincing Gloucester that he has been miraculously saved after a prodigious fall “so many fathom down precipitating” but coming close to tormenting him with his ignorant command: “do but look up”, necessary to his pretence but cruel nevertheless. He also has to portray Poor Tom as seen from below as monstrous and semi-mythical to remove Gloucester to a new perception of life as a gift from “the clearest Gods.” It is also a lie as it is man’s cunning that has preserved him, not divine intervention, and these deceitful means may not seem justified by the outcome that Gloucester will now “bear/Affliction till it do cry out itself/’Enough, enough'”. Edgar’s injunction: “Bear free [happy, free from sorrow]and patient thoughts” seems wholly inadequate and his use of the word “father” (which can mean merely “old man”) at line 72 may relieve his own feelings by coming close to the truth but also may seem like teasing. Gloucester’s new-found patience in adversity is hardly a rewarding result of all this lying and suffering.

Lear’s entrance “fantastically dressed with wild flowers” has been compared to the May King emerging from winter and critics have tried to find word connections between his utterances, but the reader or audience may simply agree with Edgar’s choric comment: “The safer sense will ne’er accommodate/His master thus” [the sound man would never get himself up in such fashion] and concentrate on the speeches which do contain sane thoughts. He recognises the dangers of flattery which he failed to accept when in his right mind and acknowledges that it was the disobedient storm that made him realise that he was not all-powerful and that “To say ‘ay’ and ‘no’ to everything that [he] said” … “was no good divinity” [not good theology but not good for himself either]. Another mock-trial ensues with the stress on the pardoning stage of Justice: interestingly the sight of Gloucester makes Lear think of adultery and he dwells on the sexual theme, finding it at the same time innocently natural and necessary (to provide soldiers) yet repugnant.

There is dramatic irony at his assumption that Edmund is the kinder son and disgust at women’s hypocritical sensuality:”Whose face between her forks [legs or hair-pins] presages snow…” It is as though he still cannot believe that virgin daughters would have done him such wrongs. Only this can account thematically for the virulence of his sexual nausea: “burning, scalding/Stench, consumption” although it is a clinical symptom of madness. The old men meet and Gloucester feels that the world has collapsed along with Lear whilst he half-recognises his friend but, with terrible irony, his eyes only. They are both at their lowest point and the scene has potentially great poignancy if played sympathetically but Shakespeare feels the need to tune audience reaction to avoid humour with Edgar’s pre-empting comments as it approaches the grotesque in its black puns: “Your eyes are in a heavy case” [sad plight/sockets]; “light” [empty/merry/light as opposed to dark]; “I see it feelingly” [by my sense of feeling/keenly].

His phrase “handy-dandy” [take your choice] summarises much of the drama in which a world is turned upside down and things and people are no longer themselves, making choice a lottery: we are reminded of the Fool’s philosophy here. Lear is, ironically, wiser than he was and sees clearly the hypocrisy of Justice when the beagle whips a whore after whom he lusts. He recognises that wealth perverts the course of justice and pardons everybody: “None does offend, none I say” whilst advising Gloucester to get glass eyes and, like a Machiavellian, invent what is not. It is, perhaps, in accepting the enormity of his elder daughters’ sins that other wrongs seem trivial but he has also come to a wider acceptance of his own failures as ruler. “Matter and impertinency” [sense and nonsense] are mixed in his handy-dandy speeches and, in fully recognising Gloucester, he observes in memorable poetry: “When we are born, we cry that we are come/To this great stage of fools”, a metadramatic comment in that we are reminded that we are witnessing a play and thus become temporarily distanced from the sadness. He blames his sons-in-law (we recall the sexual theme) and uses a soldiers’ shout: “Kill, kill, kill … ” [no quarter] to threaten revenge whilst calling himself “The natural fool of Fortune” [born to be the sport of fortune]. The nameless gentleman offers him everything, in opposition to the daughters’ removing everything but Lear still has some self-pity, feeling that his case would make men weep. At last he is given the respect of a King and yet runs off with a hunting cry. The language used of Cordelia by the Gentleman is Christian as he compares her to Jesus redeeming Man from the curse of Adam and Eve (I disagree with the Arden note here) but also referring to Goneril and Regan as the “twain.” The armies are advancing rapidly and Gloucester resigns himself to his Gods-given fate as, ironically, he still fails to recognise the now well-spoken Edgar whom he blesses but who still does not reveal himself.

Edgar assumes yet another mode of speech on the entry of Oswald (a servant tainted by the evil of his mistress), a conventional stage dialect but, whilst adding to the language theme, it remains somewhat unconvincing and detracts from him as a consistent character and therefore as a moral demonstrator when he kills Oswald and opens Goneril’s letters. One shows her lust for Edmund and her plot to murder Albany; Gloucester wishes he could also go mad “distract” to escape his “huge sorrows”. Edgar rather incredibly has a nearby friend who will look after his father.

In direct opposition and powerfully contrasted by juxtaposition, scene vii shows the forces of good uniting and assembling. Kent describes his own speech as “the modest truth/No more nor clipp’d but so” and yet this cannot be taken as the ideal since more elaborate language is often needed for high emotion, although it can also conceal evil intent. Music and soft cadences of dialogue surround the waking of the “child-changed” [possibly a deliberate ambiguity meaning “changed to a child” or “changed by his children”] Lear and we are prepared for a gentle and recuperative movement in the mood. Cordelia, ironically, is at last able to express her love for him and also denounces her sisters: in doing so she invokes the storm so that we recall, in the midst of this serenity, its violence and the suffering Lear endured. Her role is curative and there is promise of some restoration but this is qualified by the sense that it cannot be complete. Lear’s claims as an old man deserving human dignity are stressed and we wait to see if he has any stature left. His first words express a sense of heavenly bliss and hellish torture as though he has been dead and is now awakened in the after-life: we note that he can weep, which is a step towards renewal. He now knows he is not entirely sane and asks, in simple language, what has happened to him: the rhetoric and curses have gone as has his simple self-pity as he states that he would feel compassion for someone else in his situation, thus distancing it. Positions are reversed in a solemn handy-dandy manner when he kneels for her blessing and she asks for his: she has now learned the true nature of love and can admit both a husband and a father into her heart without a division of the emotion.

The use of a half-line: “And, to deal plainly” draws attention to Lear’s moving recognition of his own deficiencies: the “foolish fond [also meaning “foolish] old man” half-recognises Kent (whose loyalty he never fully realises, one of the minor sadnesses in the play). Whereas, in his previous postition as powerful King, he had certainties even though they were wrong, he now has doubts, even though they are, ironically, right. When he identifies Cordelia, it is as a man, his basic denotation and the words are poignantly plain, mostly monosyllabic, as is hers

Do not laugh at me;
For, as I am a man, I think this lady
To be my child Cordelia.

He has come to see the truth in past events: “You have some cause, they have not” and she is utterly forgiving: “No cause, no cause.” When Kent re-offers him his kingdom, he feels he is being deceived as he now realises, ironically too late, that the restoration of a gift cannot be guaranteed and yet here he is incorrect as it is returned to him. The Doctor represents compassion and practical wisdom as do so many minor characters in the play and he advises that this calmer Lear should not “even o’er the time he has lost” [fill in the gaps in his memories]: again with painful irony Lear sees himself as Goneril and Regan saw him: “I am old and foolish” even though he is now wiser through madness and reconstitution. “Arbitrement” [battle] is forecast as “bloody” and yet the action at this moment is so much at the symbolic or allegorical level that we sense this will not be a conflict realised in military detail. Kent forcasts his own emblematic death once the war is over even though we did not believe him to be factually elderly (though his age on trying to enter Lear’s employment may have been a lie: “Years on my back forty-eight”).

Throughout Act IV it has been constantly suggested that the worst is over but Act V will have further tribulations in this bleak drama where spiritual redemption is set against violent physical and emotional tortures. Edmund has, until now, been the Machiavellian manipulator in the sub-plot but Edgar will come to the fore as an agent of Providence overall despite his somewhat unconvincing characterisation on the realistic level.