Teaching King Lear: changes, connections, and lessons in life

One thing that can often be difficult, if you’re studying a play as huge as King Lear, is to maintain a sense of the whole play in students’ minds. It can easily become atomised, chopped up: a scene here, a speech there, and the overall trajectory is lost. We reached the end of Act Two earlier this week, and I’ve been getting the students to revisit aspects of Lear’s tragic journey and looking at key overarching themes, so they don’t lose sight of the big picture.

Act Two Scene Four is a good place to pause and look back at the journey Lear is making, since it marks a number of significant changes since the beginning of the play. One of these is the final breakdown of his relationship with Goneril and Regan. In the love trial of Act One Scene One, both were very keen to profess their love for Lear, whose plan was to visit each of them for a month in turn, with his train of a hundred knights in tow. Later in Act One, Lear’s knights cause chaos in Goneril’s castle: when Goneril refuses to house more than fifty of his knights, Lear leaves in high dudgeon. By the end of Act Two, his daughters have questioned why he needs any knights to accompany him at all:

Goneril:
What need you five-and-twenty, ten, or five,
To follow in a house where twice so many
Have a command to tend you?
Regan:
What need one?

It’s a clear demonstration, in numerical form, of how far Lear has fallen since the beginning of the play, when he stated his determination to retain ‘The name and all th’ addition to a king’. The fact that his daughters are prepared to work so closely together to deprive him of his knights is a devastating moment for Lear. They told him that they loved him, and he believed them. And now, they won’t let him have what he wants. His ‘O reason not the need!’ speech shows very clearly that need, in Lear’s eyes, is irrelevant: he might not need any of his knights, but he certainly wants them, to convince himself that he is still as important as he once was. From here, there really is no way that his relationship with Goneril and Regan can be salvaged. (And let’s face it, if your father cursed you with sterility and called you a boil and an embossed carbuncle, I think you could be forgiven for crossing him off your Christmas card list).

Howl of anguish: Head VI, after Velasquez’s portrait of Innocent X, by Francis Bacon (1949)

There’s also a neat physical opposition between the start of the play and the end of Act Two. In Act One Scene One, Lear’s first entrance is a ceremonial one. His arrival is heralded by a sennet, and he is accompanied by Cornwall, Albany, Goneril, Regan, Cordelia and his attendants. On stage, this entrance is often used to heighten the king’s status, as in the 2016 RSC production when Anthony Sher’s Lear was borne aloft in a glass box in a quasi-religious ceremony, or the 2018 National Theatre production when Ian McKellen’s Lear was surrounded by deferential guards and took up his place in front of a giant portrait of himself. But by the end of Act Two Scene Four, he has been very unceremoniously shut out of Gloucester’s castle. He exits, in a rage as high as the winds, and his daughters and Cornwall decide that the gates should be barred, on a wild night with no shelter for miles around. So, another demonstration of Lear’s peripeteia: his fall from ‘high estate’ to ‘low degree’ could not be illustrated more clearly.

The third change that I want to talk about is a more subtle one. It concerns the breakdown of Lear’s speech and his increasing lack of fluency – ‘the ‘glib and oily art’ that Cordelia refers to in Act One Scene One when taking leave of her sisters. At the beginning of the play, Lear dominated not just in his physical and symbolic presence, but in his language. His first speech is long, measured, and gives the impression of having been carefully planned. He also directs the speech of others. Notice his use of imperative verbs: ‘know’, ‘tell’, ‘speak first’, ‘speak’, ‘speak’, ‘speak again’, ‘mend your speech a little’. But as Lear’s mental state begins to deteriorate, so too does his command of language. Sentences trail off, exclamations and self-contradictions become more frequent, and the King is sometimes reduced to an incoherent splutter, as when Gloucester informs him that Regan and Cornwall are refusing to speak to him:

“Fiery”? The “fiery” duke? Tell the hot duke that—
No, but not yet. Maybe he is not well.

The addressees of Lear’s speech also change. Within just one speech, he can jump from addressing another character on stage to speaking to the gods, himself, a different character, and various abstract entities: it’s as if the contents of his mind are becoming increasingly and messily exposed to us. This is particularly apparent in his final speech in Act Two Scene Four. Look at how Lear’s argument about need breaks down as he reflects on his growing inability to regulate his emotions. He swerves from speaking to his daughters, to pleading with the heavens. He asks the gods to make him angry, rather than letting him cry. He goes back to speaking to his daughters – the ‘unnatural hags’ – and issues the most impotent of threats. I get my students to put these lines into their own words. I’m going to do something really awful to get my own back on you. I don’t know what it is that I’m going to do, but it’s going to be really, really bad. He pauses, mid-line. Is he out of breath, choking back tears, gathering himself? And then he tells the Fool, his trusted companion, that he shall go mad. (This in itself is a change from Act One Scene Five, when pleads with the heavens: ‘Let me not be mad, not mad, sweet heaven, / Keep me in temper, I would not be mad!’ At that point, he was desperate to retain his sanity: by now, he senses that madness is increasingly inevitable.)

O reason not the need: our basest beggars
Are in the poorest thing superfluous:
Allow not nature more than nature needs,
Man’s life’s as cheap as beast’s. Thou art a lady;
If only to go warm were gorgeous,
Why, nature needs not what thou gorgeous wear’st,
Which scarcely keeps thee warm. But, for true need, –
You heavens, give me that patience, patience I need!
You see me here, you gods, a poor old man,
As full of grief as age; wretched in both!
If it be you that stir these daughters’ hearts
Against their father, fool me not so much
To bear it tamely; touch me with noble anger,
And let not women’s weapons, water-drops,
Stain my man’s cheeks! No, you unnatural hags,
I will have such revenges on you both,
That all the world shall – I will do such things, –
What they are, yet I know not: but they shall be
The terrors of the earth. You think I’ll weep
No, I’ll not weep:
I have full cause of weeping; but this heart
Shall break into a hundred thousand flaws,
Or ere I’ll weep. O fool! I shall go mad.

There are some further interesting discussions that you can have with students at this point. One is to use an analysis of Lear’s speech as a springboard to get students to think about each character’s relationship to language. Cordelia cannot ‘heave [her] heart into [her] mouth’; Goneril, Regan and Edmund use language to flatter, scheme and manipulate. Kent is known for his plainness of speech, and is put in the stocks for it. Edgar seems almost pitifully tongue-tied when he is on stage with Edmund. The Fool’s language is, of course, notoriously playful and slippery, but even he has to operate within certain limits, for fear of the whip. Another – at a point in the play where questions of ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ are particularly acute – is to get them to consider which characters are insiders, which are outsiders, and which have changed their status, physically or metaphorically, since the beginning of the play. Lear was the most important insider at the beginning, but now he’s on the outside. Goneril and Regan are on the inside, as is Cornwall: Albany has expressed his doubts about what Goneril is doing, but hasn’t yet made his allegiances completely clear. Cordelia, Kent and Edgar were insiders, but now they’re on the outside. And Edmund, of course, was very definitely on the outside, but is now inside, as a result of his ability to dissemble.

A couple of years ago, one of my students pointed out that the insiders in the play are all those who can manipulate language to secure their own interests. The outsiders can’t. We paused, and another student said, ‘That’s like life, really, isn’t it?’ Never say that Shakespeare isn’t relevant, and that his plays don’t still have things to tell us.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s