The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 13.0640 Monday, 4 March 2002
Date: Monday, 4 Mar 2002 04:50:05 -0800 (PST)
Subject: Inconsistencies and Shakespeare's Writing Process
Among the numerous amusing inconsistencies in KING LEAR is this one, my
The banished Kent, who has "raz'd" his "likeness" (shaved off his beard)
in order to establish a disguise, later confronts Osric with a memorable
torrent of verbal abuse, and challenges him to draw. The cowardly Osric
refuses to unsheath his sword, and later, in a craven lie constructed to
impress Cornwall and Regan, explains that he has spared his would-be
assailant's life "at suit of his grey beard."
Bradley argues that KING LEAR'S extremely intricate story occasionally
got the best of Shakespeare the plotmaster, who, he claims, here left
more loose ends and contradictions than in most of his other plays.
It's certainly true that there are a whole lot of these kinds of
problems in KING LEAR; they suggest to me that WS may have made a habit
of writing "in the heat," without going back and checking important
details he had set down earlier in his "foul papers." Perhaps this was
his usual method of working; if so, how did he keep track of big plot
issues as he went along?
My late professor Jim Clay always argued that he "must have outlined
like crazy," and that the outlines focused on the theatrical
"happenings" of each of the scenes, not necessarily on questions of
consistency. That opinion came back to me recently as I watched the
Olivier video production of KING LEAR (in which Kent has grown a bit of
stubble by the time he lays into Osric, thus maintaining his disguise
and justifying the "grey beard" line).
What do people think of the theory that WS developed an OUTLINE DOCUMENT
of some kind -- a general plot summary, perhaps visual in nature -- that
he could have posted on a wall, say, and used to check quickly what was
supposed to happen next as he wrote?
Such a document would have included BASIC SCENE INFORMATION ("Kent
abuses and draws on Osric, and is eventually put in the stocks for doing
so") but would not, of course, have included ALL the relevant
information about the characters involved (for instance, it would not
have contained a reminder that Kent had shaved off his beard.) As WS
used this document, he would have "improvised" striking, theatrically
effective lines (like the "grey beard" line) as he saw fit.
I'm not suggesting we could reconstruct this hypothetical outline
document; I am interested, though, in what people think of the
possibility of its having existed.
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