I have read this play five times already, but when my finger pointed to it, I became very excited. Especially because it’s January. I want to introduce this play with a poem by John Keats.
O golden-tongued Romance with serene lute!
Fair plumed Syren! Queen of far away!
Leave melodizing on this wintry day,
Shut up thine olden pages, and be mute:
Adieu! for once again the fierce dispute,
Betwixt damnation and impassion’d clay
Must I burn through; once more humbly assay
The bitter-sweet of this Shakespearian fruit.
Chief Poet! and ye clouds of Albion,
Begetters of our deep eternal theme,
When through the old oak forest I am gone,
Let me not wander in a barren dream,
But when I am consumed in the fire,
Give me new Phoenix wings to fly at my desire.
When one of my professors taught us this play, this was exactly how she opened it. Because we read it in January, it was a cold, glum, winter day (the ones where leaving your room sounds worse than having a root canal) and truly, what a more fitting time to read King Lear.
These entries may be longer than my others, only because I have studied this play, but through re-reading it, I’m still finding new things.
To begin with–the very beginning. This play does not wait to become extremely intense, but the introduction with Kent and Gloucester, making jokes about Edmund’s being a bastard right in front of him. How inappropriate. Or, very appropriate, because the “stuff” of this play is centered around the inappropriate relations between fathers and daughters/sons. I had another professor once say that you could tell what Shakespeare was “getting at” within the first few lines of the play. The tone set by these few lines? Perhaps that faults are not being treated seriously?
Moving on to the “darker purpose.” Here are a few things to be said of Lear’s fault in the very beginning:
- He’s doling out his land before he’s dead. Before he’s dead. What on earth is an inheritance unless you inherit it after the person no longer is using it. He’s completely going against the natural way that land is inherited. Score against him on upsetting the social-structure.
- To quote the fool: “thou madest thy daughters they mothers.” The inversion of the natural order I previously pointed out was merely a political one–but the family? He’s given them all, but he’s made it so he must rely upon them like they were his parents. The inversion of his family matches the subversion of his kingdom.
- Here there is a map. Maps measure distances, much like Lear is going to use it to measure how his daughters love him. Quantity versus quality–he wants to measure love like a mathematical problem.
- He refuses council. What good king refuses council.
Now, when I read the play the first time, I kept thinking, “Why is he doing this? Is it because he’s old, mad, stupid?” I was seeking out the fatal flaw of Lear’s person. During this reading I thought, “Does it matter?” The fact is, the play is beginning on a note of inversion of the natural order. The point is, there are severe ramifications for it, regardless of what is wrong per se with the king himself.
I will wait a little bit to say more about Edmund, but for now all I will say is that it is interesting that he claims to be able to make his own nature, but really…he’s kind of a bastard.
Lastly, a quick point about Kent. After his banishment, it is through his disguise that he is actually revealed to the blind king. When asked what he is by Lear in Scene VI, he reveals that he is a man to give council honestly and plainly–the same reason the the undisguised Kent banished. Disguises, when the character is masked from “who” they truly are, reveal “what” they truly are. I’ll say more about this regarding Gloucester and Edgar later.
Well, this play is a big one to conquer, and I will not do it through this reading alone. It’s one that a person spends their life with. Until tomorrow.