June 16, 2005

by Joe Sobran

     I recently watched Laurence Olivier as King Lear 
again, and apart from the excellence of all the 
performances I was most struck by the strangeness of the 
language. KING LEAR is Shakespeare's greatest play, but 
it has never been among his most popular -- or his most 
quoted. And the reason goes beyond its grim subject and 
painful ending.

     The old king divides his kingdom between his two 
evil daughters, Goneril and Regan, who soon turn on him; 
while he banishes his youngest daughter, Cordelia, who 
returns to rescue him when he is insane, almost alone, 
and desperate. But this seeming fairy-tale comes to a 
crushing conclusion. It combines the bleakest suffering 
with the most ineffable joy in literature. Watching the 
scene in which Lear asks Cordelia to forgive him is like 
witnessing a miracle.

     Except for MACBETH, few of Shakespeare's later plays 
have been staged or filmed very often. The popular plays 
tend to be comedies or earlier tragedies. Their plots are 
easier to follow, and their language lends itself to 
they are, don't challenge either the ear or the 
understanding as LEAR does.

     Of course Elizabethan English was so different from 
ours that most of us need footnotes in order to follow 
any of these plays. But footnotes don't help very much 
with LEAR. The play must have been nearly as hard for its 
first audiences to grasp as it is now.

     The general outline of the story is clear, but the 
language is constantly perplexing. Many of the words are 
rare, and the sentences hardly parse. It's as if the 
playwright were inventing a new language, with a new 
grammar of his own -- one that makes JULIUS CAESAR or 
HAMLET seem to be written in epigrammatic prose.

     But Shakespeare's "later" style, like Beethoven's, 
is famous for its knotty, dense, sometimes almost 
impenetrable quality. Here is a sampling from the first 
half of LEAR:

     "In the tender of a wholesome weal ... Woe that too 
late repents! ... With cadent tears fret channels in her 
cheeks ... But let his disposition have that scope / As 
dotage gives it ... enguard his dotage with their pow'rs 
... very pregnant and potential spirits ... constrains 
the garb / Quite from his nature ... And with presented 
nakedness outface / The winds and persecutions of the sky 
... Infirmity doth still neglect all office / Whereto our 
health is bound ... Dwells in the fickle grace of her he 
follows ... Strives in his little world of man to 
outscorn / The to-and-fro conflicting wind and rain ... 
the thick rotundity o' th' world ... thou simlar of 
virtue ... Rive your concealing continents ... Your 
looped and windowed raggedness."

     You can make some sense of such phrases, and in the 
study their obscurity may almost disappear, but nobody, 
however sophisticated, could ever follow them perfectly 
at first hearing. On the other hand, their dramatic force 
is never wholly lost, in their context.

     Why would Shakespeare make things so difficult for 
his audience? Because he wanted to. It was part of the 
effect he was seeking, a sense of life's swirling 
mysteries that we can only comprehend in part. The 
language, like the story itself, overwhelms us. And yet 
the play's most unforgettable passages are written in the 
simplest English.

       Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life,
       And thou no breath at all?

     The critic Stephen Booth has written of 
"indefinition" as an essential quality of Shakespeare's 
mature tragedy. Even the seeming loose ends of the plots 
-- the quiet, unexplained disappearance of Lear's Fool, 
for instance -- may have a purpose. When Lear laments, 
"And my poor fool is hanged," we don't know whether 
"fool" means the Fool or is an endearment for Cordelia.

     A.C. Bradley, one of the greatest of all Shakespeare 
commentators, has two lectures on this tremendous play, 
wherein he deals with its many puzzling difficulties, 
which make it hard to present adequately on the stage, 
yet still somehow intensify its tragic power. One thing 
is sure: there is no danger of overpraising KING LEAR.


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