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King Lear, pt. 1 - the short form

King Lear, now an old man, decides to retire and divvy up his kingdom among his three daughters: Goneril, Regan and Cordelia (his favorite). Goneril (falsely) declares her bootlicking love the king and is rewarded with a spouse (the Duke of Albany) and some land. Regan (falsely) declares her bootlicking love for the king and is rewarded with a spouse (the Duke of Cornwall) and some land. Cordelia, who actually loves her father, decides not to flatter him excessively. Instead, she tells him simply that she loves him as she should. Lear reacts by giving her no land at all. When the Duke of Kent urges Lear to reconsider, Lear banishes Kent.

The Earl of Gloucester turns up towing the Duke of Burgundy and the King of France. Cordelia was supposed to marry Burgundy, but what with Lear stripping Cordelia of her land, Burgundy wants none of her. The King of France, however, likes her sassy ways and marries her. Cordelia heads off to France with her sporty new husband. Meanwhile, back in England, Lear passes the reigns (ha! I kill me!) to Cornwall and Albany, and declares that he's going to live with them each in turn. "Oh, by the way," he says, "it won't just be me. I'd like to keep 150 or so of my knights around, too." To which Goneril and Regan say "no worries," then promptly agree that the old man is out of his flipping mind if he thinks they're going to put up with him and his retinue. I'm about to take a bit of a detour into the "Eds", but before I skip off, let me say that Cornwall and Albany? Yeah - they're not really going to play nice either.

So, what's this about the Eds?

Remember the Earl of Gloucester? Yeah, well he was a happy sort of farmer, by which I mean that he liked to sow his oats. And both of his sons were "Eds": There's Edmund, the evil bastard (and I mean both of those terms at face value). And there's Edgar, Gloucester's older legitimate son, who of course gets most-favored son status, which comes with bonuses such as land.

Sneaky snaky Edmund forges a letter that he shows to Gloucester, saying it's from Edgar. Gloucester? Not happy. Edmund, borrowing a page from Iago, runs to alert Edgar that their dad's pissed at him and pretends to help Edgar. You and I know that this sibling rivalry is unlikely to end well. We'll be back to the Eds in a while. First, let's check in on Lear and his daughters.

Goneril's house

Goneril, sick of dealing with her father (who is a bit of a handful, btw), tells Oswald-the-steward to deal harshly with Lear. Lear? Doesn't take kindly to the word "no". Neither did Kent, but in a somewhat different respect: Kent refused to stay banished. Instead, out of loyalty to Lear, he disguises himself as a servant named Caius and comes back to work for Lear. Goneril tells Lear to behave himself and to cut the size of his pack. Lear's own Fool gives him a huge ration of crap. Lear, sick to death of Goneril and the way all the servants have been treating him, storms out of her house. On his way out, the Fool (who serves the role of truth-speaker in this play, as Fools are wont to do) again mocks him for the way he split up his land among his daughters.

The Eds redux

Over at Gloucester's house castle, Edmund tells Edgar to run away, assuring him that Gloucester has it in for him. Edgar runs away, after which Edmund injures himself, then tells Gloucester that Edgar attacked him. Gloucester, believing that Edmund was acting to defend him, praises Edmund and vows to hunt Edgar down like a dog. But wait! Someone's at the door! It's Regan and Cornwall! They're trying to sort out what to do about Lear. Kent turns up in advance of Lear and gets into a fight with Oswald, there in advance of Goneril, for which Kent (as Caius) ends up in the stocks.

Lear turns up and protests about Caius being in the stocks. At first, Regan refuses to see him. After Goneril arrives with Albany, Regan and Goneril gang up on Lear. Lear becomes so enraged that he rushes off into a storm, leaving his daughters happy, but Gloucester worried.

On the stormy heath

A little explanation of the scene from the third season of Slings and Arrows, with William Hutt explaining much of this scene:

Enter Lear, along with his trusty Fool (eventually followed by Kent as Caius, who wants to protect Lear). Lear, off ranting in the rain about his ungrateful daughters and the weather: "Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!" Kent, ever thinking of Lear, sends someone off to France to get a message to Cordelia, asking her to come to her father's aid, then convinces Lear to get out of the foul weather and wait out the storm inside a cave, but when they get there, Edgar, dressed as a madman, emerges. Lear takes a liking to him, as it turns out. Gloucester, under the belief that not enough people are already out on the heath getting wet, turns up - but before he leaves his castle, he of course tells Edmund that the French are coming, the French are coming.

This being Shakespeare, when Gloucester gets to Lear, he recognizes neither Kent nor his own so. He does, however, take all of them to a farmhouse. Meanwhile, back at the castle, Edmund tells Cornwall that the French, they are coming, and the jig, she is up. To reward Edmund for his treachery and ingratitude honesty and loyalty, Cornwall vows to hunt down and arrest Gloucester, and to elevate Edmund to king of the world Duke of Gloucester.

At the farmhouse of doom

Lear, who started to lose it on the heath, continues to spiral into madness. He begins to hold a trial for Regan and Goneril, who have betrayed him. Edgar, seeing true madness before him, finds it difficult to keep up his own pretense. Gloucester busts in and tells everyone to flee, because Cornwall has it in for them. Lucky for them, they flee. Unluckily for Gloucester, he doesn't. Cornwall catches up with him and with his awful wife not just looking on, but cheering for him, he gouges out Gloucester's eyeballs with his fingers. He is interrupted by Gloucester's servants, one of whom attacks and seriously injures Cornwall before Regan manages to kill the servant. She tells Gloucester that Edmund betrayed him and shoves him out onto the heath. Another servant rescues poor Gloucester and leads him toward Dover, where the French are. Along the way, a still disguised Edgar meets them and leads his father the rest of the way (although he does not take his father to a cliff so he can jump to his death, as Gloucester asks).

At Goneril's house

As you may recall, Goneril married Albany. But Albany, as it turns out, actually is cursed with a conscience. He feels badly for how Lear has been (mis)treated, and he really doesn't want to get involved in any battle with the French. Goneril is all about the crazy and the testosterone, which may be why she decides she prefers that evil bastard, Edmund, to Albany. A messenger arrives with the news that Cornwall has died of the wounds inflicted by Gloucester's servant (and with word of the eyeball-plucking-out conduct of Cornwall). Albany, aware of Edmund's betrayal of his own father and his dalliance with Goneril, denounces Goneril and vows revenge.

Meanwhile, the now-widowed Regan has sent Oswald along to propose to Edmund on her behalf. Because evil is drawn to evil, evidently. Also, at this point in the play, Edmund may be forgiven if he's wondering what the likelihood of a three-way involving a pair of sisters is.

At Dover

The French! Ils sont la! Cordelia sends out sentries to try to find her father. Kent (still dressed as Caius) has brought Lear toward Dover; Lear is now a combination of crazy and crazily embarrassed about his past decisions. Meanwhile, somewhere near those white cliffs, Edgar and his poor mutilated blind father are roaming around. (Edgar - as crazy Tom - pretended to allow his father to jump off a cliff, then turned up pretending to be someone else more sane so he could continue to help his father.) Lear turns up, rants about how the world is a horrible place (he's crazy, but also correct), then rushes off. He may not have reached Cordelia yet, but he's made it all the way to crazytown.

Cordelia's scouts find Lear and take him to Cordelia. When he wakes, thanks to the ministrations of Kent and Cordelia (and possibly thanks to sleep and food and whatnot), his madness has mostly passed, and he has recognized Cordelia.

In the meantime, Oswald (who works for Goneril, notwithstanding his conversation with Regan) has been sent off to deliver correspondence to Edmund, with a "P.S., kill Gloucester if the chance arises" to send him on his way. As luck would have it, Oswald comes across Edgar and Gloucester. (Of course he does.) Oswald tries to kill Gloucester, but Edgar runs him through, then finds the incriminating correspondence in Oswald's pocket. "Dear Edmund, I love you. For serious. There's just this bitty problem of my husband. How 'bout we kill him and then get married? XO, Goneril." For those of you keeping score at home, that's two marriage proposals for Edmund, one from Regan and another from Goneril.

The two sisters, Albany and Edmund meet up with their forces in order to rebuff the French. Albany is all for defeating the French, but he insists that no harm come to Lear or Cordelia. Edmund, still intent on his sibling three-way, plots to kill Albany, Lear and Cordelia. Edgar, in disguise, delivers Goneril's letter to Albany.

At the battle

Britain wins. Of course. Lear and Cordelia are captured alive, and Edmund secretly issues orders for their executions. Regan, flush with the triumph of victory, declares her intention to marry Edmund. Albany, just plain flushed by now, declares that Edmund is a traitor, and rats out his relationship with Goneril. Regan is unable to flush at all, since Goneril has poisoned her. Well done, Goneril. Albany and Edmund get set to duel, when disguised Edgar swoops in over the ramparts on a rope turns up and engages Edmund himself, fatally wounding Edmund. Well done, Edgar. Albany pretty much literally rubs Goneril's nose in her own treacherous letter, and she runs off in shame (to stab herself, as it turns out). Edgar shakes back his cloak and reveals his identity. Edmund, who is not quite dead yet, reveals that he's given an order to kill Lear and Cordelia.

Lear enters, carrying a very dead Cordelia. Lear got himself sane enough to kill her murderer, and is now sane enough to recognize Kent. Albany is in favor of Lear resuming his rule, but old Lear - now adding sick and heartbroken to his list of descriptors - dies instead.

Tomorrow: Thoughts on Lear. MEANWHILE, I hope that you will enter this week's contest!

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( 11 comments — Leave a comment )
Jun. 28th, 2009 01:01 pm (UTC)
Now stars, stand up for bastards!
My senior Shakespeare paper in high school had the thesis: Edmund is not evil.

I got an A, because my teacher said I convinced her. :D
Jun. 28th, 2009 03:53 pm (UTC)
Re: Now stars, stand up for bastards!
Bring it, sister.

Knowing your tremendous powers of persuasion, you might be able to convince me that he's not actually evil. And, after all, there is a bit of redemption (too little, too late) in him at the end, which I LOVE, by the way, because when Iago is led off, mute and mutinous, he is the bad guy being led off to a highly probable bad end. But when Edmund dies after hinting that all he ever wanted was a little love (at least that's how I read his comment about the sisters) and owning up to what he set in motion with Cordelia and Lear (thereby giving an outside chance that they might be saved), I suppose he shows that he's not rotten to the core.

But I do not believe I can see him as a good guy.
Jun. 28th, 2009 05:06 pm (UTC)
Re: Now stars, stand up for bastards!
If I were writing the paper now, I'd definitely talk about the difference between my modern pov and Shakespeare's. His audience probably would have viewed Edmund as unnatural for his fighting against his station, whereas for me at 17 he was rightly furious as being shafted because of birth (similar to the different way we as modern viewers see Malvolio).

I also agree that he's definitely a villain, and possibly the main villain in LEAR. But I argued that Edmund was a very superstitious man, and that he welcomed his punishment because he realized that fate was not on his side - he says something in the end about the Wheel of Fortune, I think, about fortunes rising and then falling...

I'm sure I was influenced by how much I thought the actor who played him in the old BBC version we watched in class was amazing - the bastard speech caught me up and he never let me go. Especialy when the "good guys" were so lame and (to me at the time) passionless. :)
Jun. 28th, 2009 05:15 pm (UTC)
Re: Now stars, stand up for bastards!
He definitely references the wheel at the end (not quite an echo of "the whirligig of time brings in his revenges", but close), but throughout the play, he stands for the idea that man is in charge of his own destiny, and that "fortune" is bollocks. (That is, of course, an overstatement/oversimplification on my part, and I do not believe he actually says the word "bollocks". So.)
Jun. 28th, 2009 05:17 pm (UTC)
Re: Now stars, stand up for bastards!
It would have been grand if he HAD said it. BOLLOCKS!
Jun. 28th, 2009 05:13 pm (UTC)
Re: Now stars, stand up for bastards!
I looked up what Edmund says "The wheel is come full circle: I am here." Meaning, he recognizes that he's basically back exactly where he began. The stars betrayed him, etc.

I got into a huge debate with another girl it he class about whether he was really "moved" by Edgar's speech and that's why he tried to "do some good." She said he was just trying to make nice, and I said he was superstitious/aware of fate and knew that his time was over. There was no reason for him to pretend to care or be nice.
Jun. 28th, 2009 05:17 pm (UTC)
Re: Now stars, stand up for bastards!
I think that part of why he threw them a bone with the Cordelia comment has to do not with Edgar, but with him thinking about Regan and Goneril, both of whom "loved" him (if by love you count lust and obsession, and I think Edmund did). So his change comes from finally realizing that people loved him, despite his bastard status, and not from listening to Edgar speak.
Jun. 28th, 2009 05:19 pm (UTC)
Re: Now stars, stand up for bastards!
That makes sense. It would be nice if he died with a little peace from thinking he was "loved."
Jun. 28th, 2009 05:27 pm (UTC)
Re: Now stars, stand up for bastards!
Yeah - even if it was by the messed up sisters, although it's not hard to feel a little sorry for them, too: After all, Lear's favorite was Cordelia, and one might imagine that he'd "neglected" his other daughters as a result. (And experience talking to my mom, one of 4 daughters, shows that kids will imagine that they've been slighted in favor of a sibling even if there isn't an actual favorite, let alone where there is.)
(Deleted comment)
Jun. 28th, 2009 08:28 pm (UTC)
Truth be told, I think this play exceeds Richard III for discontent. I've been trying to sort out another post about it, but it's been slow going. Hopefully I'll manage it soon.
( 11 comments — Leave a comment )

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