King Lear: Examining Albany

We’re now exploring Act 5, and one of the characters we’ve looked at recently is Albany. He’s a character I find interesting, because of the way he grows in stature during the play, and he’s also a useful character to use as the basis for an exploration of how the OpenSourceShakespeare website can be used to develop students’ understanding.

If you’ve never used OpenSourceShakespeare before, it’s brilliant. You can search Shakespeare’s whole canon for individual words – there are 307 references to horses in Shakespeare’s works, but no donkeys – or use the Advanced Search to look for particular words in one play. Thus you can find out that the word ‘nothing’ appears 34 times in King Lear, and that Lear himself uses it more than anyone else, 10 times in total. You can also search for all the speeches by a particular character, and that’s really useful if you want a quick way of looking at something like how a character’s lines are distributed throughout the play, or how many soliloquies are spoken by a particular character. It enables you to check hunches. You can even come up with some surprising observations, such as the fact that Goneril and Edmund only actually speak to each other in one scene, Act 4 Scene 2, where Edmund declares himself ‘Yours in the ranks of death’. Give it a go! But be prepared to waste hours of your time.

Costume design for the Duke of Albany, John Seymour Lucas, C19th. (Source: Creative Commons)

So, Albany. He’s a bit of an odd character, isn’t he? If you do an image search for ‘King Lear Albany’, you’ll get a real mess of characters, but none of them recognisably Albany. Nobody gets famous for playing Albany, in the way they get famous for playing Gloucester or Edmund or even the vile eye-gouging Cornwall. I doubt Albany’s a role that actors aspire to play. What does Albany actually do? For the first half of the play, he’s barely there, such an unsubstantial presence that it’s not surprising that Goneril treats him with such contempt. But he’s one of only three characters to survive at the end of the play, and in one version – the 1608 quarto – he speaks the final lines. How does he get there?

We first meet Albany in Act One Scene One, where he is mentioned in the very first line, ‘I thought the King had more affected the Duke of Albany than Cornwall.’ James Shapiro points out that this line would have had a deeply contemporary resonance for Shakespeare’s audience: King James’s older son, Henry, was the current Duke of Cornwall, and his younger son, Charles, was Duke of Albany. But there’s no clear reason for Lear to favour Albany, whose role in this scene is essentially to be his wife’s silent partner. In production, he’s often presented as nervous, on edge. Richard Clothier, in Sam Mendes’ 2014 production for the National Theatre, plays him as hesitant and solicitous, gazing up at Goneril as she delivers her speech to Lear. Albany only speaks twelve lines altogether in Act 1, and none of his speeches is longer than two lines. His first two lines are ‘Dear sir, forbear!’ and ‘Pray, sir, be patient’, urging Lear to think more carefully as he denounces first Cordelia and then Goneril. In general, in this first act, he’s a bit bewildered, constantly wanting to know what’s happening and what’s wrong. He wants people to calm down and not get quite so worked up. It’s quite telling, I think, that he makes no comment whatsoever about Lear’s riotous knights. You’d think he’d be a bit hacked off.

It’s even more striking that Albany doesn’t appear at all during Acts 2 and 3. He is entirely absent from the scenes of conflict at Gloucester’s castle, including Act 2 Scene 4, when Goneril and Regan carry out their callous reduction of Lear’s right to his hundred knights, and when Cornwall – who has already put the disguised Kent in the stocks – insists on barring the gates of the castle, shutting Lear out in the storm. He doesn’t appear again, in fact, until Act 4 Scene 2, but when he does return, it’s with a line that is one of my favourite insults in the whole world:

O Goneril,
You are not worth the dust which the rude wind
Blows in your face.

Isn’t it brilliant? And he continues in the same vein. He might have been absent, but he knows exactly what’s been going on. There are two emotions that dominate his lines: contempt, and an appalled, visceral horror:

Wisdom and goodness to the vile seem vile;
Filths savour but themselves. What have you done?
Tigers, not daughters, what have you perform’d?

Goneril, now, is ‘most barbarous, most degenerate’, a ‘devil’, a ‘fiend’. Her actions against her father are such that if the heavens do not rain down punishment upon her, then there is surely no hope:

Humanity must perforce prey on itself,
Like monsters of the deep.

Goneril dismisses him as a ‘milk-liver’d man’, a ‘vain fool’, but by now, we’re firmly on Albany’s side. And when a gentleman arrives with the news of Cornwall’s death, Albany himself takes heart that the heavens are on his side too: ‘This shows that you are above, / You justicers.’

In Act 5, we see Albany increasingly acting like a statesman, rather than shuffling his feet on the sidelines. You can get students to track this as they read the play, but it’s interesting to get them to confirm it by looking at Albany’s lines on OpenSourceShakespeare. He is respectful, but assertive. He arrests Edmund on a charge of capital treason, orders the sick Regan to be taken to his tent, and takes charge when Edgar, in disguise, presents himself to challenge his brother. His scorn for Goneril continues to be abundantly clear: her refers to her as a ‘gilded serpent’, and orders her to ‘shut [her] mouth’. As the play reaches its end, he vows to resign his powers to Lear ‘during the life of this old Majesty’, ensuring that the frail and grief-stricken king receives a measure of the dignity to which he is entitled.

Then there are those last lines, speaking of sadness, honesty, and lessons hard learned. In the Quarto version, they’re spoken by Albany. In the Folio, they’re spoken by Edgar. Arguably, it’s more appropriate to give them to Albany, as the highest-ranking survivor. He’s grown enormously during the course of the play. Would we ever have expected it, from his behaviour in Act 1? Probably not.

An interesting observation. Apart from Act 1 Scene 1, Albany and Cornwall are never on stage together. Have they ever got along, these sons-in-law? Some productions cast actors who differ markedly in appearance and physique, playing on the difference between the characters. In the 2014 National Theatre production, Albany is neat and grey-suited, Cornwall broad-shouldered in a maroon shirt and flashy striped tie. You can imagine them at an awkward family party, Cornwall insisting on taking over the barbecue, Albany sipping wine and wanting to make an early getaway.

And an enormous irony. The real-life Duke of Albany, just six years old when King Lear was first performed, would later become Charles I. We’ll never know what he was doing on Boxing Day 1606, when his dramatic equivalent was finding his feet, standing up to his wife, and witnessing the death of his king. I’m imagining him watching through the banisters, wondering what was going on, with no idea of what the future had in store.

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