King Lear Fourth lecture
Endings • Strange to say, King Lear hasn’t always ended with the almost unbearable ending Shakespeare assigned it. • In the late 17th cent. Nahum Tate, a poet and theater director, produced a version of the play that ended happily, with a romance-like conclusion. • He cut the King of France from the first scene, and instead suggested a potential love between Cordelia and . . . • Edgar! • And at the end of his text of the play (extensively revised throughout), he had Lear save Cordelia from hanging. • Edgar and Albany enter and in turn save Lear. • Lear is returned to his kingship. • Cordelia becomes queen and agrees to marry Edgar. • Gloucester survives, and he, Kent, and Lear retire together, while Cordelia and Edgar take over the kingdom. • Obviously Tate had to write a new final scene. • Fool is also cut. • And this is the version of King Lear that played throughout the 18th century.
Nahum Tate’s ending • Tate’s ending seems a travesty to us. • (Of course we also need to acknowledge what we do the text of Shakespeare’s plays – the cuts and rewriting of contemporary productions – and wonder how those will look a century or two hence.) • But does the trajectory of the plot demand tragedy? • Samuel Johnson (“Dr. Johnson”), who was used to the Tate version on stage, said he could never bear to read Shakespeare’s actual ending until he had to edit the play. • Lear’s “journey” from a foolish decision, rejection, madness, insight in madness, recovery and finally his return to Cordelia might seem a narrative pattern that could lead to a romance ending. • From a purely narrative point of view, Tate’s ending may not seem entirely inappropriate.
The meeting with Cordelia • There was a climactic scene in the old morality plays when the penitent protagonist was given a “garment of repentance” by the saving Virtue character. • IV.7: Lear brought in, freshly clothed, asleep in chair. • Cordelia slowly wakens him with music, kisses him. • Lear’s “true” delusion: “Thou art a soul in bliss . . .” • And in kneeling plays the part in old the morality play. • And slowly recovers a sense of himself. • But only in a relational sense to Cordelia? “as I am a man, I think this lady/ To be my child Cordelia.” • His guilt? “No cause. No cause.” • And then in V.3 he imagines a contented life in prison with Cordelia. • The meeting and penitence would be the denoument of the morality play.
“Justice” in the Gloucester plot • Edgar’s “miracle” scene analogous to Cordelia’s meeting with her father. • But despair is cured abstractly, by the staged “miracle”? • “Bear free and patient thoughts.” • Reiterated at V.2: 9-11: “Ripeness is all.” (Cf. Hamlet’s “the readiness is all.”) • But still Edgar doesn’t reveal himself. • After the battle, Edgar and Edmund “exchange charity.” • And Edgar holds to a sense of absolute justice: “The dark and vicious place where thee he got/ Cost him his eyes.” • But seems to admit his own fault in concealing himself from his father: ll 193ff. • The circumstances suggest a dark and rigid justice playing itself out: Edmund and Gloucester both die. • And Edgar, the just son, survives. • But how does it compare to the Lear story?
Irrelevance of justice in the Lear plot? • By contrast, everything seems excessive in Lear story. • Lear’s anger at Cordelia, his utter rejection by older daughters, his suffering. • And clearly “justice” seems irrelevant. • The loss of Lear’s kingdom to the evil forces. • And finally the terrible stage direction: “Enter Lear with Cordelia in his arms.” • The play gives us no hint that this will happen. • And no “poetic justice” in the death of the one “redeeming” daughter: • A nameless gentleman had said of Cordelia: “Thou hast one daughter/ Who redeems nature from the general curse/ Which twain have brought her to” (IV.6.204-06). • If death had indeed been implicit in the first scene, it was not for this death.
“Enter Lear . . .” • Lear enters with one long sustained cry of anguish: the text’s “howl, howl, howl!” are more a stage direction, I suggest. • “O, you are men of stones” is as much directed to the audience as to those on stage. • And Lear’s words tell the audience what they need to know about the actor’s body he carries on stage. • Kent’s, Edgar’s, and Albany’s words speak also for the audience: is this an image of the terror of the Last Judgment? • Lear’s words and actions try to verify Cordelia’s death: “She’s gone forever.” • Or is she, “What is’t thou say’st?” • But the feather apparently doesn’t stir. • Can we imagine a more heart-breaking scene on the stage – or a more sustained stage meditation on the fact of death?
“All’s cheerless, dark, and deadly” • Kent’s despairing words. • Lear attends only to the dead Cordelia. • At l. 311 Albany cries out “O, see,see!” • What are we to see? What does the actor playing Lear do? • Lear’s lines heart-breakingly focus on the lifelessness of Cordelia and the finality of death. • So if death was implicit in the opening scene, we get an uncompromising vision of it. • The gesture of the help with the button: where have we seen this before? • And finally Lear’s insistence that we see Cordelia’s lips. • Does he think they’re moving, that she’s saying something? • Clearly he’s deluded. • Or does he see something we can’t see?
Stage – and audience -- reaction • Kent encourage’s Lear’s death: for him the world is a “rack,” an instrument of torture. • And Kent seems to envisage his own death: “I have a journey shortly to go . . .” • Edgar’s final formulation: what we feel, not the usual comforting words. • Gloucester’s earlier words about the world: “I see it feelingly.” • He meant the need for touch in his blindness, but the word has resonance. • Will Edgar ever be the same after these experiences? • Will the audience?