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King Lear


King Lear First lecture Lear in the 21st century After all the warfare, bloodshed, genocide of the 20th cent., not to mention what we ve already achieved in the ... – PowerPoint PPT presentation

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Title: King Lear

King Lear
  • First lecture

Lear in the 21st century
  • After all the warfare, bloodshed, genocide of the
    20th cent., not to mention what weve already
    achieved in the fledgling 21st, Lear has come to
    seem Shs most profound tragedy.
  • A dark, almost hopeless tragedy, lots of cruelty
    and suffering, even absurdity.
  • The death of Cordelia, and maybe of Lear too,
    may seem almost gratuitous.
  • And what could be worse to witness onstage than
    the blinding of Gloucester?
  • Theater of Cruelty of Antonin Artaud.
  • But a play that has depths that open further
    every time one reads or sees it.
  • It starts out with the theme of families, but
    quickly becomes more . . .
  • . . . and reaches a strangely symbolic character.

Lear in 1606
  • First recorded performance of the play is St.
    Stephens day, 26 December, 1606, before King
  • Mind-boggling to think that a play that shows a
    king giving up his rule . . .
  • . . . going mad and thrown to the mercy of the
    elements . . .
  • . . . and learning about the completely arbitrary
    nature of all human authority (a dogs obeyed in
    office) . . .
  • should be played before the King of England and
  • A play that shows the dark side of the world over
    which James ruled.
  • There was a recent case in law, in 1604, of the
    eldest daughter of Brian Annesley, a wealthy
    gentleman pensioner of Queen Elizabeth, who tried
    to have her father declared a lunatic, so she and
    her husband could control his estate.
  • His youngest daughter, Cordell, protested and
    appealed (successfully) to Robt. Cecil (Jamess
    minister). Annesley left his estate to Cordell
    at his death in 1604.
  • And from June, 1604, to June 1606, a well
    publicized case in Star Chamber saw Sir Robert
    Dudley, bastard son of Robt. Dudley, earl of
    Leicester (Elizabeths favorite), trying
    (unsuccessfully) to have his bastardy overturned.
  • He lost, partly because of Jamess intervention.

Texts of Lear
  • A quarto was published in 1608.
  • And a quite different text in the folio of 1623.
  • Quarto has almost 100 lines not in the folio.
  • And folio has almost 300 lines not in the quarto.
  • So essentially two different versions of the
  • Our text conflates the two, as has usually been
  • We get the folio text with the quarto additions
    in square brackets.
  • The folio may have been the playing text.

Performance and source
  • Richard Burbage played Lear in the original
    performances, the actor who had played Hamlet and
  • And Richard Armin played the fool. He had played
    the fool in Twelfth Night (which he quotes at
    III.2.75-78), and the grave-digger in Hamlet.
  • The setting of the play is very generalized
    pre-historic, pre-Christian Britain. The story
    in Holinsheds Chronicles goes back to 800 B.C.
  • Actual source of play is an old play, King Leir,
    which had been performed in 1594 (by another
    company), and apparently staged again in 1605,
    when it was printed.
  • Shakespeare clearly knew the text of that play
    and used it in his version.

The strange, fairytale-like opening of the play
  • Clip of the Olivier film (1984).
  • The opening with Gloucester and Kent insists on
    Edmunds bastardy, and a violation of a taboo
  • If realism were the mode of the play, wed
    wonder why Lear is doing this . . .
  • . . . and why Cordelia cant simply tell Lear
    what he wants to hear.
  • Lear speaks of our darker purpose.
  • He wishes to retire, conferring royal duties to
    younger strengths, while we/ Unburdened crawl
    toward death.
  • The highly ornate, rhetorical flourish of
    Gonerils speech, I.1.55-61.
  • Which Regan tops!
  • And of course the exercise is all symbolic, since
    Lear has already determined the shares.
  • Do we feel some sort of taboo is being violated?
    Lear was obviously intending to favor Cordelia
    over the others what can you say to draw/ A
    third more opulent than your sisters? Speak.
  • So why does Cordelia say, Nothing, my lord?
  • And goes on to a non-rhetorical, flat statement
    of what daughters owe their fathers and their
  • Why is Lear doing this? And why wont Cordelia
    play along?
  • Lears rage 109ff.

Kents banishment
  • Kents intervention begins ceremoniously l.
  • But Lear demands plainness.
  • So Kent lets him have it Be Kent unmannerly/
    When Lear is mad. What wouldst thou do, old man?
    Note the familiarity of thou.
  • And his rhyming at 185ff seems to round off the
  • The play is dividing characters according to
    their language and rhetoric.
  • The Burgundy/France test Cordelia becomes more
    desirable to France because of her dowerless
  • When Kent returns in disguise in 1.4, plainness
    becomes his middle name.
  • And this defines his quarrel with Oswald, whom he
    calls a base football player (1.4.85)
  • And his opposition to Oswald at II.2 his
    wonderfully inventive list of insults at l. 13ff.
  • No contraries hold more antipathy/ Than I and
    such a knave.
  • And even to Cornwall Sir, tis my occupation to
    be plain./ I have seen better faces . . .
  • Characters seem to run to the moral poles of the
    world of the play Cordelia vs. her sisters, Kent
    vs. Oswald, Edgar vs. Edmund.

The moral poles of the play
  • Goneril and Regans opposition to Lear at first
    seems commonsense.
  • Their brief dialogue at the end of I.1.
  • Gonerils objections to the Fool, her problems
    with the hundred knights (1.4.195ff).
  • Her desire that he a little to disquantity your
  • Lears terrible curse of Goneril 1.4.271.
  • But Albanys reaction complicates.
  • Regans sympathy with Goneril, II.4
  • And they whittle down his 100 knights.
  • Oh reason not the need! What gives us our grip
    on life?
  • By this point their opposition seems moral.

Moral poles (cont.)
  • Edmund and Edgar
  • Edmunds role as a sort of renaissance new man
    his soliloquy at 1.2.
  • With a new sense of Nature almost Darwinian?
  • His opposition to Edgar and Gloucester.
  • And his eventual alliance with Goneril and Regan.
  • Edgars choice of disguise Poor Tom
  • Why? Hes the son of an earl.
  • His feigned madness in stark contrast to Edmund?

The Fool
  • One of the most wonderful conceptions, and
    wonderful roles, in the play.
  • Hes a jester, Lears all-licensed fool, whos
    allowed to say anything.
  • Court jesters were sometimes mental defectives,
    retarded adults.
  • But sometimes professional entertainers,
    comedians allowed to enliven court proceedings.
  • King James had a jester, Archie Armstrong, who
    was well known for an impudence verging on
  • Lears fool has an almost filial relation with
  • Calls Lear nuncle, uncle Lear calls him boy
    (even though Armin was in his early 40s).
  • His strange link with Cordelia the Fool has
    grown sad after Cordelia went to France Since
    my young ladys going into France, the fool hath
    much pined away.
  • And my poor fool is hanged, Lear says in the
    last scene he seems to mean Cordelia, but speaks
    of the fool?
  • Its the Fool who needles Lear mercilessly about
    the foolishness of what he has done in giving up
    his kingdom.
  • And the fool disappears from the play after Act
    II, scene 6.