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For those of you reading this post before the summary of the play, and especially if it's been a while since you've read Lear or if you haven't read the play at all, there is no character named "Alfie" in the play. There's an Albany, and nobody tells us the Fool's name, but still, there's no Alfie. However, the theme song from the movie Alfie turned up unbidden in my brainradio as I tried to sort out what the meaning of the play is.

"Alas, poor fool, how have they baffled thee!"

As it turns out, I find a lot of phrases from Twelfth Night to come in handy when thinking about Lear. This section is about, well, bafflement. As Harold Bloom says in Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, "Madness, blindness, love, and tragedy amalgamate in a giant bewilderment."

King Lear is riveting, now that I finally got around to reading it and thinking about it. And here's the thing: it baffles people. Nearly everyone, in fact. The first round of people to be baffled by it were Shakespeare's first audiences - there's evidence that the play was put on in 1606, although which version of the play is in dispute. That's right - there are two distinct versions. Mostly you wouldn't know that, because they are usually conflated into one play, and have been for centuries. However, there were two separate quarto versions and the Folio version, and they reflect distinct differences involving hundreds of lines and thousands of individual words, including which character gets to be king at the end (Edgar or Albany) and more. However, the essence of the plot lines involving Lear and Gloucester and their offspring remains pretty much the same. But I've digressed.

The first audiences to see this play would have been familiar with the story of King Lir/Leare/Lear/Llyr, a Breton king from ancient history. He was succeeded in history by King Edgar, who has the dubious honor of being the king credited with destroying the wolf population of the British Isles. Lear's story was being told in the late 1500s, and everyone knew it. Versions of Lir's story can be found in Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles, which formed the basis for others of Shakespeare's histories and tragedies as well. Some of the audience would also have been familiar with the story line involving the Duke of Gloucester and his progeny, which appears related to a story about a blind king found in Philip Sidney's Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia, a collection of stories written by Sidney to amuse his sister. The thing is, nobody would have thought of those two stories as being intertwined prior to Shakespeare's play, really, so they'd have instantly noticed that he was up to something there - something important. Also? In the version of the story of Lear that they knew, neither Lear nor Cordelia died at the end. In fact, Cordelia was supposed to live to assume the throne after Lear lived to a ripe old age as king, dying happily of natural causes (as opposed to unhappily of grief and oppression). (Sure, Cordelia was also supposed to be deposed eventually, but let's not go there.)

So when Shakespeare took the two stories and started interweaving, you can bet the audience paid careful attention - and wondered about it. You can also bet that when Lear comes howling onto the stage carrying a very dead Cordelia, a susurrus swept the audience: what was Shakespeare playing at? Not long after that, Shakespeare's Lear dies, broken-hearted, with Kent vowing to go off and kill himself so he can follow Lear to the afterlife (more or less). At that point, I'm guessing that the susurrus expanded to a full-fledged murmur as folks tried to make sense of what they saw. Why did everyone but Albany and Edgar die?

How do I know what I've just asserted is true? This play was not often played as written by Shakespeare. Lots of times it was "improved" by allowing Lear and Cordelia to live, sometimes with Cordelia being married off to Edgar. In fact, according to Bloom, "Dr. [Samuel] Johnson said that he could not bear Act V of the play because it outraged divine justice and so offended his moral sense"; he is reported to have only seen the play staged once, and then never to have read past Act IV after that. Later, during the reigns of George III and George IV, the play was suppressed in England by the monarchy, for obvious reasons: with a mad King alive (or in recent memory), they didn't want to undermine the sitting Regent/king by depicting a mad monarch on the stage.

I'd like to talk about what it is that's so baffling.

"Is there no respect of place, person, or time in you?"

My guess is that this question (which comes from Twelfth Night, Act II, scene 3) is one of the questions that viewers of the play asked of Shakespeare, then and now. Consider what he's done: he's taken the king and made him foolish, insane, and ultimately ruined; he's taken a great lord (Gloucester) and rendered him blind and suicidal; he's taken a bastard son, who should have known not to expect anything great out of his lot in life, and made him a seductive social climber; he's taken a noble son, Edgar, and had him play a person of the lowest possible social caste - for the mentally ill were pretty much as low in society as one could get back then.

Of course, the biggest question is WHY? Why torture all these people so? What is the point? What is the message?

Man, I wish I knew the answers to those questions. I suspect that the folks who think Shakespeare was examining whether (to bastardize a quote from his Julius Caesar) men are masters of their own fate; whether our fate or destiny is in our stars, or in ourselves were correct. (Actual quote by Cassius: "Men at some times are masters of their fate. The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings." Act I, scene 2.) Throughout the play, Edmund is a "master of the universe" sort of character. No, I do not believe he's like He-Man or Skeletor; I think he stands for the proposition that men make their own destinies. Born a bastard, he decides not to accept the estate (or lack thereof) that comes with that characterization, but instead does what he can to get ahead. In a Machiavellian way, perhaps, but really, Edmund is a mover and a shaker, a member of the coffee generation. This isn't to say that he doesn't believe in the gods. After all, when we first meet him, he's outside hollering "Now, gods, stand up for bastards!"

But check out what Edmund says about people trying to use "fate" to explain away their bad behavior a bit later in Act I, scene 2:

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 whore-master man, to lay his goatish disposition to the charge of a star!

Edgar, on the other hand, is all about Fate and Fortune throughout the play; so are most of the other characters, including Lear, Kent, and Gloucester, all of whom make reference to fate, fortune and/or the gods throughout the play.

Here's my theory, and you're welcome to it. Or to disregard it. I think the play was in part a response to King James I's assertion of the doctrine of the divine right of kings, which was incorporated into the King James version of the Bible (that first appeared in 1611). The play's resolution, which includes Edmund dying, during which Edmund says "The wheel has come full circle; I am here" - an indication that the Wheel of Fortune (then used not to indicate "big money", but as a metaphor for the vagaries of fate - a goddess named Fortuna spun the wheel to determine outcomes for particular events) had spun around, resulting in his predicament. The line has a double meaning of referring to the circle of life (cue the Lion King music), in an "ashes to ashes, dust to dust" sort of way. If there's a divine right of kings, then kings are subject to the vagaries of fate (as are the rest of humankind), and so they'd better watch themselves and the choices they make, lest they be brought low, like Lear was. (I suppose it could be a riff on the old "power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely" thing, or else more a karmic sort of "what comes around, goes around" kind of take.)

I think there's also a warning contained in the play about abuses and abdications of power, and what happens when a monarch's (or a parent's) power is ill-spent. First, Lear abuses his power by making his children win their portions through (false) flattery, then he abuses it again by disinheriting Cordelia. Then he abdicates his power by dividing his kingdom between Regan's and Goneril's husbands, whom he expects to care for him. (The Fool's comment in Act I, scene 4 about the birds is a point well-made, if ill-taken: "The hedge-sparrow fed the cuckoo so long,/That it had its head bit off by its young.") Having misapplied and/or abdicated his power, the king - no longer in command - loses command of his mental faculties as well as of his children and his kingdom. Cordelia, by still respecting her father as a king, restores to him his rightful place in the hierarchy - he's the father, the king, and recovering those roles restores to him some semblance of his mental acuity. The death of Cordelia, resulting in the complete loss of anyone to prop him up (poor Kent - he just doesn't count as much to Lear as he deserves), removes his support entirely, and he dies.

Also? It is obvious from Shakespeare's decision to pair two similar stories that he was trying to make a point. You've got Lear who favors the lying children and disowns the good child, only to discover that he's lost everything of worth paired with Gloucester, who - figuartively blinded - favors the lying child and disowns the good child, only to end up literally blinded and wandering destitute on the heath. Both men are offered succor and support by their castoff "good" children, and come to repent their earlier actions and decisions. Both men end up dead at the end of the play - Gloucester dies torn between joy at his reconciliation with Edgar and grief over Edmund's treachery (and possibly concern over the imminent confrontation between Edgar and Edmund); Lear dies after his reunion with Cordelia from a combination of old age, stress, and sorrow. None of Lear's three daughters live. Only one of Gloucester's sons - the one who is Lear's godson - makes it.

Is Shakespeare trying to say that neither female nor male children are trustworthy? (Or that 2/3 of females are duplicitous, but only half of the men?) I'm not so sure. I think that Lear's kids were all females because otherwise, under the rights of primogeniture, the entire kit and caboodle would necessarily have gone to his first son, and no division would be possible. Shakespeare's decision to cast Edmund not just as the younger son, but as a bastard, was decidedly a conscious choice. First, it played on a common fallacy at the time that bastards were all, well, bastards, in the slang sense of being not particularly nice. (Remember Don John from Much Ado About Nothing? Yeah - evil, all because he was illegitimate.) Second, it challenged ideas of primogeniture. Considering that James I, who replaced Elizabeth I as monarch when she died childless, was the son of Mary, Queen of Scots (whom Elizabeth had beheaded), you can see how a play where the good guy ends up king at the end even though he isn't descended from the departing king was a good idea, yes?

Also-also, I think that this play is about Edgar just as much as it's about Lear. In Hamlet, Horatio is the last man standing, there only to tell Hamlet's story to Fortinbras. In King Lear, Edgar is one of the last men standing, but he's there to pick up the crown and rule. He's got the second largest number of lines in the play, and is in some ways the hero of the play. By abasing himself in his disguise as a madman, he learns a lot about himself and about the true nature of character - something that Lear and Gloucester and even Edmund learned too late to be of use to them. I consider it as akin to his 40 days in the wilderness (if you really want to get all "divine right of kings" about it). And now, the reluctant savior monarch is ready to assume his crown and get down to business. Take that, Harold Bloom - bet you're wishing you'd thought of that rather than your somewhat weak King Solomon comparison, huh? (As if he'd ever read this or care about my ramblings.)

"Conceal me what I am"

The title for this section comes from something Viola says in Act I, scene 2 of Twelfth Night. There are a lot of people in disguise in this play: Kent, disguised as a servant to help Lear and Edgar, disguised first as a madman (to elude capture by his father's men, and then to help his father) and later as a different man are obvious choices, but Goneril and Regan both qualify - they are disguised as good and faithful daughters, but they are not. Further, Goneril is quite the black widow - she poisons Regan, then schemes with Edmund to kill Albany, eventually killing herself offstage via a dagger to the heart. And speaking of Edmund, he's disguised as a faithful brother (to Edgar) and a faithful son (to Gloucester) at the start, but he's a wolf in sheep's clothing. In England. Because, after all, it's not until Edgar's reign that the wolves were eradicated from the British Isles. His full treachery isn't revealed until his deathbed (deathfloor?) confession, in fact.

More is concealed in this play that people's identities, however. Motivations and actions are hidden as well - something that Cordelia remarks on in the first scene of the play:

Time shall unfold what plighted cunning hides:
Who cover faults, at last shame them derides.

That second line? It's a killer. Pretty much literally. Lear fall subject to the sin of vanity: he craves his daughters' adulation so much that he makes faulty decisions based on their willingness (or not) to protest their love aloud. As Mr. Knightley would say centuries later in Jane Austen's Emma "Vanity working on a weak mind produces every kind of mischief." Having handed over his power to his sons-in-law, he ends up out in the cold (literally) for a while, raging mad (again, literally), and even when he is somewhat restored on both counts, he suffers the further loss of Cordelia - retribution, I believe, for his misapplication of his parental responsibility in the first place. I don't think that Cordelia dies because she had it coming in her own right (although in fairness to the time in which the play was written, I suspect that her refusal to honor her father's request for flattery might have constituted disobedience, it was of a minor sort) - I think she dies to punish Lear and to deepen his loss and grief. The semi-happy reunion they have prior to her death makes her loss that much worse, really. No wonder the ending of this play, even more than Hamlet, leaves people stunned. So very much loss is hard to compass. One might even call it baffling.

"And thus the whirligig of time brings in his revenges."

Feste's statement from Act V, scene 1 of Twelfth Night rings true in this play, I think. The true emphasis of King Lear is on the wheel of fortune's ability to wreak revenge; it is not at all about justice. While Fortuna, the goddess who spins the wheel, is, like Justice, frequently protrayed as being veiled or blindfolded, Fortuna is not constrained by issues of fairness and legality; she is capricious. So while all the "bad guys" in this play got what they deserved, the good guys don't necessarily end up happy. (Think of poor Gloucester, who loses his eyeballs and then ends up dead, or Kent, waiting for his own death.)

LATER (I hope): My maunderings on why this play isn't necessarily sexist.

Tomorrow and Tuesday: A Midsummer Night's Dream! Get the Puck out of here, you say! But no! We will have our revels! Get ready to talk fairies and lovers and actors and lions, people. (You remember the lion in Pyramus and Thisbe, yes?)

Plus a reminder: THIS WEEK'S CONTEST is open until midnight on Tuesday. Please participate. Pretty please?

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( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
Jun. 29th, 2009 01:16 pm (UTC)
I <3 your reading of Edgar. The "40 nights in the desert" thing, especially, as a divine cue. It also makes me think of Arthurian stories where knights (like Lancelot or Gawain or Tristan, I think, depending on the version) go nuts in the forest and live as wild men for a while, before returning to their place at Camelot the wiser and purer for it.
Jun. 29th, 2009 03:58 pm (UTC)

I <3 my reading of Edgar, too. And the more I think about it, the more "right" it felt that Edgar was supposed to correlate to James I (who, prior to being James I of England, was already James VI of Scotland, and had had some ups and downs in that position anyhow, if memory serves, all of which contributed to who he was when he became King of England). In fact, I've gotten to a place where I'm so certain I'm right, I'm shocked that I didn't find commentary about it all over the place.
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