William Shakespeare – King Lear Act V

Edmund and Regan are getting ready for the battle, waiting for Albany and Goneril. Regan is jealous about Goneril. Albany finally arrives and he is not particularly keen on fighting Cordelia and Lear – he fights them only as an invading force, but he thinks they were wronged. Edgar arrives and gives Albany Goneril’s letter, asking him to read it. After the battle, if Albany’s side wins, he should order the heralds to sound the trumpet and Edgar (who does not reveal his real identity) will arrive to take up the challenge. If Albany loses, then presumably he won’t be interested in his wife’s adultery anymore, being dead or imprisoned. But Cordelia and Lear lose and Lear reacts with a surprising joy about the prospect of prison, saying that he and Cordelia are going to be there like two birds in a cage. But Edmund gives secret orders to murder them.

Goneril and Regan start to quarrel over Edmund, but Albany cuts this short, ordering the arrest of Edmund as a traitor and ordering to sound the trumpet. Edgar arrives, but does not disclose his identity. Edmund is mortally wounded. Goneril seeing this storms off. Edgar tells his whole story – he did reveal himself to Gloucester, but his father’s heart burst with joy and pain. They are interrupted by a courtier coming on stage with a bloody knife and informing them it comes from Goneril’s chest – but he does not make clear who put it there, herself or her sister, who by this time is already dead from poison Goneril has given to her. Edmund in the last attempt to do one good thing before he dies calls off his orders, but it is too late. In a famous (and as we know from The Dresser, notoriously taxing for older actors) scene, Lear enters carrying Cordelia’s body and wailing over her. In the legends recorded by Holinshed and Geoffrey of Monmouth, Cordelia actually survived, so Shakespeare plays very cleverly with his audience’s expectations – whenever raving Lear exclaims “She lives!” they thought they were going to see the story they knew. But no, Cordelia is dead. Never never never never never, as one of the most famous lines in Lear declares, will she come back. Lear expires. Albany, depressed with the general situation, wants to hand over his power to Kent and Lear, but as Kent indicates obliquely, he does not intend to live any longer either.

At the end NAEL prints the comparison of the two versions of Act III scene 1 from the older version (Quarto) and the newer (Folio). The discussion about which version should be the definitive one is still open and most publishers use a kind of collated version combining the two variants. Some scholars prefer Folio, arguing it is the version the author finally decided on, but who says older Shakespeare should be smarter about it than the younger one? If we assume that the Folio version is Shakespeare’s final say on it, unencumbered by the demands of production, I find it interesting that Folio version is actually the shorter one. Usually “director’s cuts” are much longer than the original versions. In the Folio the long description of the storm and the raging king delivered by Gentleman is omitted, and the emphasis is on the impending civil war between Cornwall and Albany rather than the invasion from France.

Does it make me a horrible person to admit that I find a lot of extenuating circumstances for Regan and Goneril, at least at the beginning? (William Hazlitt, the nineteenth-century critic, hated them so much he didn’t even like to write their names.) Cordelia was clearly Lear’s favourite from the start, making them compete in public in declarations of love is humiliating, and Lear’s one hundred armed knights do seem excessive. Of course they knew what they were getting into when they accepted the conditions and of course right from the beginning they don’t intend to keep up their end of the bargain. In Shakespeare’s time the respect for the elderly was a very strong social norm and the mistreatment of Lear was even more shocking for the Jacobean audience.


William Shakespeare – King Lear Act IV

It’s a long act, full of twists (and twists of the knife in the wound). Edgar tries to comfort himself  with the thought that it possibly can’t get any worse, but then he sees his blinded father being led by an old retainer and he realizes that in fact it can get worse. Gloucester does not want Old Man to accompany him, lest he should also be punished for helping him; instead he asks Edgar (who goes back to his persona of Poor Tom) to lead him to Dover.

Goneril returns home and learns from Oswald that her husband seems to be sympathizing with Lear. She sends Edmund (whom she now calls Gloucester, since he took his father’s title) back to Cornwall, declaring her love for him. Albany appears, reproaches her for her behaviour and is horrified when he hears from a messenger about the blinding of Gloucester. Goneril, on the other hand, is not so happy about hearing Regan is a widow now, as she suspects her of having her eye on Edmund.

In a scene which is a rather clunky example of telling instead of showing, Kent learns from Gentleman that the King of France went back to his country because he thought he had left the iron on. OK, Gentleman does speak of “something he left imperfect in the state…which imports to the kingdom so much fear and danger”, but the point is Shakespeare has to explain why Cordelia is left alone to lead the army and he apparently doesn’t feel like coming up with a convincing reason. Kent also learns that Cordelia pities her father, but Lear won’t come to see her because he is ashamed. Cordelia indeed tries to find him and hopes that rest (as Doctor tells her) will restore his senses.

Regan in conversation with Oswald says it was a mistake to let Gloucester live, as his appearance will turn the popular feeling against her. She suspects Goneril of loving Edmund and tries to talk Oswald into letting her read her letter, but he demurs. She tells him to talk some sense into Goneril and also promises him a reward for killing Gloucester.

Edgar pretends to lead Gloucester to the cliff of Dover, describing to him in a wonderfully evocative language how terrifying it is. Gloucester rewards him with a jewel and then jumps to, as he thinks, his death, but only swoons instead. Edgar, now pretending to be a random guy who’s found Gloucester at the foot of the cliff, tells him that he was brought here by a fiend and must have been miraculously saved by gods. Enter Lear in his “mad Ophelia” stage, but apart from nonsense he also talks a lot about compassion and forgiveness of people’s sins. Cordelia’s servants finally manage to catch him. Oswald comes in and can’t believe his good fortune when he sees Gloucester. He tries to kill him, but Edgar, now posing for some reason as a Somerset peasant, kills Oswald who with his dying breath asks him to take his purse, bury him and carry the letter from Goneril to Edmund. Edgar reads the letter in which Goneril incriminates herself, declaring her love for Edmund and encouraging him to kill her husband, and he decides to hide it for the time being in a safe place.

In probably the most touching scene in King Lear, Lear wakes up from restorative sleep and he and Cordelia are reconciled, but Lear is still not sure of his senses and his mind. Doctor hopes he may still get better after more rest.


William Shakespeare – King Lear Act III

This is probably the most famous and most terrifying part of King Lear. It begins with a bit of exposition, when Kent sends off Gentleman to Dover to meet Cordelia’s army. Then we get into all the stuff Lear is known for. Lear rages against the elements while the storm rages on. (“Storm still”, as the stage directions remind us.) Lear, Kent and Fool meet Edgar, posing as a mad beggar who believes he is followed by devils and speaks in riddles, snatches of traditional songs, mixing them with the bits from Samuel Harsnett’s Declaration of Egregious Popish Impostures, a treatise against Catholic exorcisms which provided Shakespeare with much demonological material. Gloucester finds them and manages to bring them to some shed near his castle. It takes some cajoling because Lear took to Edgar and won’t leave him, so Edgar has to accompany them. Then Edmund informs on his father, who has received some incriminating letter about the planned invasion, and Gloucester in a gut-punching scene is blinded by Cornwall. One of the servants who protests is killed by Cornwall, but he manages to wound Cornwall seriously. Other servants won’t dare to do more than speak on the side about their terror and disgust, as well as dress his wounds.

William Shakespeare – King Lear Act II

Act ii takes place in and around Gloucester’s castle. Edmund completes his plan of framing Edgar, seizing the opportunity brought about by the announced visit of Cornwall and Regan. He asks Edgar whether he has spoken against Cornwall, implying it might be the cause of his visit, then fakes a duel with him and advises him to run away. Then Edmund tells Gloucester that Edgar wanted him to conspire with him to kill their father and drew his sword on him when Edmund refused (Edmund has hurt himself to give credibility to his story.) The angry Gloucester swears to put the ungrateful son to death and orders a countrywide search. Kent, following Regan, meets Oswald at the gates of Gloucester’s castle, abuses him with a series of finest Shakespearean abuses and beats him up when Oswald won’t duel with him. He is put in stocks for that by Cornwall, although Gloucester tries to remonstrate. Edgar, fleeing the pursuit, decides to disguise himself as a mad beggar.

Lear finally arrives and is very angry on seeing his servant in stocks. He demands to see Regan and Cornwall, but is blown off by the excuses of their being tired after the journey and not feeling well. Finally Regan and Cornwall appear, but when Lear complains of his treatment at the hands of Goneril, she advises him to go back to her sister and agree to her terms of reducing his retinue. At this point Goneril arrives; much to Lear’s dismay, Regan greets her cordially and continues that she is not ready to accept more than twenty-five of Lear’s followers. Lear then decides Goneril’s fifty is still better than Regan’s twenty-five, but then Goneril argues he doesn’t need any personal retinue at all – aren’t all her servants at his command? Lear tries to argue that even poorest people have their small luxuries and we need something more in life than just bare necessities – if clothes are just to keep us warm, why does Goneril dress so fine? Finally, in a fit of anger he storms off with his small retinue into the night – and approaching storm. The daughters comment coolly “Well, that’s his choice”. Honestly, the whole discussion seems pointless, since we could learn from the dialogue between Kent and Fool at the beginning of this scene that Lear’s followers have been dropping off, sensing the king’s fortunes have fallen low. But maybe Lear in his distraught state failed to notice that.

William Shakespeare – King Lear Act I

What can I write about the mighty Lear, about which so many much more discerning critics than I have written? In Act I Lear divides his kingdom between his daughters, but the condition of receiving his portion is that each daughter should speak volubly about her love for her father. The youngest, Cordelia, won’t play the game and is banished dowry-less from England. Fortunately for her, King of France her loves her enough to marry her without a dowry. It occurred to me that there is an interesting similarity between this and Sonnet 130, “My mistress’ eyes”, where Shakespeare refuses to play the game of describing the beloved’s beauty in trite hyperboles. The honest courtier Kent, who tries to speak sense into Lear, is banished too, but returns in disguise and enters Lear’s service. Lear’s plan to stay in alternating months at one of his daughter’s soon goes awry, when Goneril can’t stand his retinue and suggests reducing it. I know Goneril turns out to be a horrible person, but this strikes me as not wholly unreasonable – having additional one hundred armed men at your court, who serve another master than you, is asking for trouble. I hope thinking so doesn’t make me as horrible as Goneril and Regan.

In a parallel plot, the illegitimate son of Earl of Gloucester, Edmund, hatches an intrigue against his older legitimate brother Edgar. He fabricates a letter from Edgar in which he asks Edmund to conspire with him to murder their father, and then tells Edgar to stay away from his father because Gloucester seems to have a grudge against him. Ironically, Gloucester inveighs against Lear’s blindness while he can’t see the intrigue in his own home – and of course this is a foreshadowing of his later horrible blinding.

The Fool tells a lot of rather complicated jokes, which make me think the recent, much decried decision of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival to translate Shakespeare into modern English is not altogether so foolish.


Christopher Marlowe – Hero and Leander (the end), The Passionate Shepherd

I could not update the blog yesterday because I ran into some problems with the computer, so I am doing two posts in one. As Neptune keeps on hitting on Leander, Leander rather naively tells him that he must be mistaken because he is not a woman. Neptune, amused, tells him a story about a shepherd loving young shepherd who was so beautiful that he could not drink out of a river for the fear the water nymphs would drag him in. But before he manages to get to the punchline, Leander notices the sun is about to rise and starts to swim with increased speed. Neptune is angry that Leander does not pay attention to him (why? a moment ago he seemed very happy to help him get to his lover) and throws his trident at him. But he repents and turns it back midway, so that it hurts his own hand. Leander gets pale, seeing that, and Neptune mistaking compassion for love (“Love is too full of faith, too credulous”) goes back to the bottom of the sea to look for treasures for him.

Leander reaches the shore, and knocks at Hero’s door. Hero runs to the door and opens it just in her shift, but seeing Leander naked she screams and runs away (“Such sights as this to tender maids are rare”). Leander begs her to let him at least rest in her bed and she acquiesces. What follows is a highly problematic – from the 21st century point of view – description of seduction, where Leander uses both persuasion and force, and Hero resists, but not quite (“In such wars women use but half their strength”). In the end they spend the night making sweet love. At dawn the ashamed Hero wants to slip away, but Leander catches her in time, and her blushing face is like the dawn in her chamber before the actual dawn. And here the poem ends, left unfinished by Marlowe. After his death, a minor poet called George Chapman completed it, but the editors of the NAEL decided not to include it.

“The Passionate Shepherd to His Love” makes a more interesting reading after Hero and Leander. It has the same overheated atmosphere and like in Hero and Leander Marlowe pays much attention to the woman’s clothes. The shepherd is trying to woo his beloved, presenting her with highly idealized image of pastoral lfe. Of course Marlowe knows and his readers know it is nothing like real country life. He mingles the “rustic” elements, listing the shepherd’s gifts – “a belt of straw and ivy buds/with coral clasps and amber studs”) The poem has a deceptively simple quality – the sing-song iambic rhythm of the relatively short 8-syllables lines stands in contrast with all the jewellery the shepherd (somewhat unespectedly) has to offer. The poem provoked many responses many Elizabethan poets, including the one by Sir Walter Ralegh I read a few weeks ago.

I am breaking the regular order of reading in order to jump forward nad read King Lear, since I am going to discuss it with my students and I haven’t read it for a long time.


Christopher Marlowe – Hero and Leander (ctd.)

The parting of the lovers is so sorrowful that even the sun, seeing it, creeps back a little behind the horizon, to give them more time. Leander goes home to Abydos but he makes no effort to hide his love: he is wearing Cupid’s myrtle on his hat, the purple ribbon which tied Hero’s hair on his arm and Hero’s ring, which in fact symbolized her vow of chastity (like with some Catholic nuns) on his finger. So the news of Leander’s being in love reach Abydos even before him. Leander being far away from Hero is even more violently in love with her than being close to her, like the Sun, which when is in its zenith and apparently farthest from the earth, gives off more heat that when it is near sunset. His father tries to remonstrate with him, but it makes Leander even more passionate.

So one day Leander, not being able to stand the separation any longer, jumps into the Hellespont in order to swim back to Hero. Neptune takes him for Ganimed who has been expelled from the Olympus, falls in love with him and drags him down to his wonderful underwater palace. However, he soon realizes his mistake, seeing that this man can’t breathe underwater and so is apparently a mere mortal. He gets him back to the surface. Leander gasps “Let me get back to Hero before I die!” and Neptune, like a gay best friend in a rom-com, puts Helle’s bracelet on his arm as a talisman (Helle was a little girl who drowned in the Hellespont, giving it its name, so I am not sure it’s a good choice as a safeguard against drowning) and vows he is going to help him. Which he does, but copping a feel every now and then.