King Lear (1606)Lecture Notes
Experience of King Lear
* Keats: burn through fierce dispute betwixt damnation and impassioned clay; like Dante's Inferno and Purgatorio--life in total extremis
* Spectacle of violence, ferocity and pain-- suffering, disorder, madness, cruelty on mass scale, torture is central metaphor, poverty, social disorder; allusion to vast disturbances and sufferings; in the stars, nature, the state, the family, the self--a tragedy, invoking woe and wonder, pity and fear
* quote Gloucester--I ,ii, 112 ff (p. 55)
* These horrors continually remind us of our modern-day universal tragedies: of what Northrope Frye calls "nuclear-bomb desolation" (On Shakespeare 112) of Amnesty International interrogation scenes; with sufferings of the homeless; Bosnia, Haiti, Somalia
* Kent bound in stocks; Gloucester bound in chair, his eyes pulled out; Lear bound on Wheel of Fire; "He hates him/ That would upon the rack of this tough world/ Stretch him out longer." (181)
* "Basest and most poorest shape that ever penury, in contempt of man, brought near to beast" --II, iii, 8-9--Poor Tom a Bedlam in the storm; cold, crazy; poor naked wretches along with him (p. 89)
* Raises issue of what is the human being--"the thing itself" (115)with all the trappings stripped away--what we have in common with both the victims and the executioners in this world; and what is human life; living on a wheel of fire? cannon fodder? garbage? masquerade? or pearls of redemption?
* Also raises issue of the problem of evil, of justice or injustice of universe, and affiliated with it, as with these horrors of our own time, the questions of the existence of god, or gods, and more unnerving, of their benevolence, malevolence or indifference (123)
Question of Suicide--life worth living? Value of life--148-9, 153, 167
Issue of Redemption: pp. 88, 108,112, 154,179
* characters themselves continually question and swear by and try to make sense of their experience or rationalize it or heal themselves by reference to tentative, confusing and sometimes absurdly pathetic concepts of divinity
* Now by Apollo--/Now by Apollo King,/ Thou swearst thy gods in vain. I,i, 163 (45)
* The gods to their dear shelter take thee maid/ That justly thinks and hast most rightly said I, i , 1--Kent (46)
* Nature art thou my goddess II, i, 1--Edmund. (51)
* O heavens, if you do love old men, if your sweet sway/ Allow obedience, if you yourselves are old/ Make it your cause. Send down and take my part. II, iv, l89 (98)
* As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods,/ They kill us for their sport--Gloster, IV, i, 36 (132)
* wanton boys--youth; inbuilt cruelty of youth
* This shows you are above/ You justicers, that these our nether crimes/So speedily can venge --Albany IV,ii, 80 (139)
* The stars above us govern our conditions--Kent IV, iii ,33 (141)
* O you kind gods-- Cordelia IV, vii, 14 (159)
* The gods defend her-- Albany V,ii, 258 (178)
* This is big philosophic question of this play--succeeding and including the ones we've considered previously--theology: Why?
339: A tragedy of old age
* one way to answer: by reference to large schema of ages; questions of divinity, though always relevant, seem particularly appropriate to old age
* Shakespeare's treatment of the final ages of life, moving toward death--the endgame, payoff, reckoning; die in earnest, that's no jest
* Ein Alter Mann ist stets ein Konig Lear...
* an old man is always a king Lear/ Effort and struggle have long passed him by/ And love and leadership are pledged elsewhere/ And youth must work out its own destiny/ Come on old fellow, come along with me.
* Quote Jaques--The sixth age shifts to the lean and slippered pantaloon/ With spectacles on nose and pouch on side/ His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide/ For his shrunk shakn, and his big manly voice/ turning again to treble, pipes/ And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all/ That ends this strange eventful history/ Is second childishness and mere oblivion,/ Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything
* stripping away; image of stripping away from superflux to nothing; word and idea of nothing echoes through the play (42)
* I,i,40: Tis our fast intent
To shake all cares and business from our age
Conferring them on younger strengths, while we
Unburthened crawl toward death. (40)
* stripping Cordelia of her dowry (47)
* stripping Lear of his retinue--end Act II (100)
* stripping of clothes in storm (115)
* stripping superflux to naked wretches (112)
* stripping down to basic need: Lear and daughter in cage (167)
* Double protagonists are two old men, Lear and Gloucester; their age is continually alluded to.
* Like every other play we consider, this is about passage: into the condition following maturity and rule--kingship--and preceding death.
* unburdened creep toward death as he gives up position that Othello strives so hard to maintain
* threats to identity through change from activity to passivity (patience)= retirement and death; virtu vs. acceptance of fate
* conflicts of that position
* Erikson--wisdom vs. despair; acceptance and affirmation vs. disgust ; I, v 44: Fool: "Thou shouldst not have been old till thou hadst been wise."
* egoism vs. detachment
* petulance and anger vs. patience
* denial of death vs. fear of death vs. desire for death vs. acceptance of death--NB: "Men must endure their/ Their going hence, even as their coming hither/ Ripeness is all... Come on"--V, iii, 9
* central relationships--no longer of love, marriage, collegiality, but with children; age vs. youth; ethical issues center around fifth commandment: honor father and mother.
* generational strife: Edgar, Edmund, Cordelia (the bond) what is natural; vs. neglect, abuse, jealousy, rivalry, exploitation
* the family; deepest bond; strongest social institution; most painful, threatening and unnatural when it breaks down.
Historical background of play
* why issue of "the gods" and piety--pietas-- so central and pressing. Pietas is obligation to parent, state, gods--all conceived as father--pater, patria, god the father. Crisis of Authority; strong individuals; virtue vs. virtu (54-61)
* General scientific Scepticism and relativism (Machiavelli, Galileo, Vespucci); Humanism (Ancients); Breakdown of Catholic Church; Reformation-Counterreformation; Religious war; Nationalism; Intense Piety; overall crisis of authority; Edmund vs. Gloucester : Machiavelli vs. Chaucer's Friar--Youth particularly sensitive toward and rebellious against parental hypocrisy; aspiring minds of younger generation
* Situation in Elizabethan and Jacobean England; class and religious tensions; coming civil war; crisis of aristocracy; pessimism and devotionalism; role of theatre as marginal and supportive; great popularity; multi-class; royal patronage; Shakespeare as artists-entrepeneur; modern media; conservative support of authority; also critical--loyalist children; marginal location; theatres closed by puritans.
Structure of Double plot
Act I : Sin and Foolishness of old age; a "Fall"-- nothing will come of nothing.
Act II: Brutal punishment and beginnings of learning process
Act III: touching bottom; the thing itself--madness and blindness; wisdom through suffering; Greek tragic concept; Christian affliction; reversal of direction; something coming of nothing; Lear's compassion--misery loves company; servant's rebellion; decency reemerges, contradicting Machiavelli; getting to the essence
Act IV: pushing off from rock bottom; Evil confounded; Albany, Edgar, Cordelia appear with doctor, music, love, gentility; Gloucester and Lear repent; see and become sane and patient--i.e. release grip on events--ripeness is all; relinquish it to younger generation.
Act V: damnation and redemption balanced against one another. Evil wins battle; loses single combat; destroys itself and also destroys the good; the three old men die stretched between joy and despair; the new generation inherits. (The king is dead; long live the king)
Discussion of Scenes
I,i: Double plot: two old authorities who are stupid and bad, typical of older generational vices; who misplay their adult leadership roles
Gloster 7-25; Lear/ Cordelia/ Kent 81-189 [cast and read out scene]; 190-203; France 251-260
I,ii; Younger generation; naturalist; Machiavellian values and methods; new vs. hereditary kingdoms ; Iagolike ability to mimic his victims and project his own onto others; Edgar needs to learn this very ability of dissimulation; the pattern of the wheel; Bastards arise; The wheel is come full circle.
1-22; 48-55; 128-144
I, iv: rough summons of Goneril; confrontation over knights; excessive curse--244-317
II, iv--Lear and Regan confrontation--98-310
III,ii--Lear roaring on heath
seeking to give losses their remedies--II, ii, 173
O dear father it is thy business that I go about --IV, iv, 22
She is Christ figure; redeems nature from the general curse, but only in tragic sacrifice; pieta
The unconscious inner non-flattering voice; the conscience; the inner mocker and critic; why is he absent? no longer needed when King becomes wise-foolish; what Lear tries to keep down; hysterica passio
Imagery and Metaphor
Binding; torture--Kent bound in stocks; Gloucester bound in chair; Lear bound on Wheel of Fire--learning to take it
Blindness and sight--I stumbled when I saw--Oedipus; invisible values
Music, restoration, sleep, doctor--physick pomp; flax and egg whites
Clothes, pomp, nakedness
Wisdom and foolishness; reason and madness
Shutting doors on Lear and the poor in the storm--end II
Extremity and Affliction and Endurance
Nothing almost sees miracles but misery-- Kent II, ii,168
The art of our necessities is strange/ that can make vile things precious/ Come your hovel poor fool and knave. III, ii, 70--Lear on Heath
When we our betters see bearing our woes/We scarcely think our miseries our foes./ Who alone suffers suffers most in the mind. --Edgar III, vi, 103
Thou must be patient; we came crying hither/ Thou know'st, the first time that we smell the air/ We wawl and cry, I will preach to thee: mark..../When we are born, we cry that we are come / To this great stage of fools--Lear IV, vi, 180.
Self-knowledge; Wisdom: I am a man more sinned against than sinning--III,ii,58
Justice (vs. Mercy)
Allow not nature more than nature needs/ Man's life is cheap as beasts' III, iv 265
On old age
Age is unnecessary -- Lear sarcastic II, iv, 154