Make a Donation

Consider making a donation to support SHAKSPER.

Subscribe to Our Feeds

Current Postings RSS

Announcements RSS

Home :: Archive :: 2005 :: June ::
New and Improved Lear
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 16.1037  Wednesday, 1 June 2005

From:           John Reed <
 This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it
 >
Date:           Wednesday, 01 Jun 2005 04:40:19 +0000
Subject:        Re: New and Improved Lear

I know you all are just waiting for another idiosyncratic thought from
me.  So here it is.  Tate: he rewrote it as he saw fit.  And although
this procedure of rewriting Shakespeare's play may have been somewhat
radical, those responsible may also have been on the right track.  We
unhappily do not know the action that originally took place in this
scene (the final scene).

When referring directly to Shakespeare's written version of the final
scene many readers may be struck by a tension between what Lear
initially sees (Cordelia dead) and what he wishes to see (Cordelia
alive).  One influential interpretation of the relationship between the
two thoughts goes back to A. C. Bradley who wrote that Lear died in a
fit of ecstasy believing Cordelia lived.  In this view the climax is
perceived as being heavily ironic.  Although this interpretation has
merits it may not go far enough: one wonders how much irony could be
packed into the scene, should there be a need.

Half a century later Harold C. Goddard concluded King Lear, dying indeed
as Bradley suggested in a fit of ecstasy, was not mistaken about
Cordelia living.  Goddard stressed the spiritual elements of the scene,
and from his discussion it is difficult to determine whether he thought
King Lear ultimately saw her as an apparition or rather as a normal
human being who has revived after merely seeming dead (somewhat
analogously to Desdemona in Othello).  But the latter explanation would
seem to be indicated, as supported by his description of the final moments:

"[T]he daughter breathing reconciliation in a voice so low that no one
in the theater can hear -- the only evidence to auditor or reader of its
existence being its reflection in the voice and face and gestures of him
who bends over her, when, though he cannot hear, he sees the movement of
Life on her lips."

Although plausible and pleasing, this train of thought still may not go
far enough.  It does, however, have the advantage over the Tate
variation in that it does not rewrite the existing text, depending for
effect on supplementary action.  Yet it is hypothetical action with
which I cannot agree: Cordelia is definitely dead.  If she revived it
would be so spectacular there would be some indication from either the
reaction of the other characters present (as Emilia and Othello react to
Desdemona) or possibly a notation in the Stage Directions.  As it is,
the other characters do not react.  As for the Stage Directions the
early editions are tantalizingly ambiguous on the point: both the Quarto
and the Folio have 'Enter Lear with Cordelia in his armes.'  The Arden 2
edition adopts Theobald's more definite verdict and runs, 'Re-enter Lear
with Cordelia dead in his arms; Officer.' (V.iii.255).  Yet even with
Cordelia dead it may still be possible to construe a happy ending out of
this scene after all.

Sight is a motif in King Lear.  The story upon which the play is based
derives from a Celtic environment, and in Celtic thought there is the
concept of Second Sight.  Gifted individuals may see what is normally
hidden, either because it is far off in time, or space, or is part of
the world of Faerie.  In modern times the concept not only lingers in
folktale but is present in certain serious stories in the genre of
fantasy.  For instance there are numerous references to what may be
termed Second Sight, or something very closely related to it, in J. R.
R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings.  Nor has the quality been totally
ignored in modern drama.  In Ingmar Bergman's film The Seventh Seal one
of the characters -- Jof (Nils Poppe) -- has this gift.  His wife
ridicules him concerning his 'visions,' but early in the film he is
depicted as seeing what he thinks is the Virgin Mary.  Later he sees
Death playing chess with the Knight.  Lastly, he sees the dead souls
being dragged off by Death.  The Knight also sees Death, but the other
characters do not until the very last moments preceding their doom.  So
in this story Second Sight is represented as a property of the gifted,
and also of non-gifted individuals who are near death.  If Second Sight
is shown in some modern stories it is not unlikely it would have been
even more acceptable to both audiences and playwrights in
pre-Enlightenment philosophy times.  Something of the same may even have
occurred in the original performances of King Lear.

As there are no stage directions at the crucial moment, so there are few
clues concerning where King Lear is looking when he says, 'Look there,
look there!' just prior to expiring.  He has been harping on Cordelia so
a natural supposition is he is continuing to regard her mortal body.
But since he is close to death it is possible he acquires Second Sight,
apart from any other consideration.  Then what does he see?  Looking in
a different direction (Up in the sky!) he might see Cordelia's spirit
body.  In this interpretation he then dies in a fit of ecstasy truly
knowing she has eternal life.  Then he joins her beyond death.  A happy
ending.  The other characters in the scene, not being gifted and not
being near death, do not see her.

Not only is sight a motif in the play, but King Lear sees odd things on
more than one occasion.  Among them is what might be termed a
hallucination of both Goneril and Regan (III.vi.46-55).  And as he wakes
from madness he says to Cordelia, 'You are a spirit, I know; where did
you die?' (IV.vii.49; a point noted by Goddard).  So this earlier
'vision' might be a foreshadowing of his final vision where it is an
authentic occurrence of Second Sight (and not a hallucination).

In an essay on the play John Cunningham wrote, "For Joseph Summer, the
lines ["Look there,..."] suggest that Lear experiences, with more than
his earthly 'eyes [which] are not o' th' best,' a vision through the
grave, beyond the grave, of the Reality he is even then coming to see
face to face.  Goddard also alludes to this possibility: "[King Lear]
also exhibits and demonstrates something else.  It shows that  there is
a mode of seeing as much higher than physical eyesight as physical
eyesight is than touch, an insight that bestows power to see 'things
invisible to mortal sight' as certainly as Lear saw that Cordelia lives
after her death...and so...humanity did not devour itself, and King Lear
and his child were lifted up into the realm of the gods."  Whether he
meant this literally or figuratively is hard to tell.  I understand C.J.
Sisson had a similar idea, but I have not seen that paper.

An incident demonstrating the belief in the appearance of a spiritual
harbinger at death is related by Peter Brown for Gertrude, abbess of
Nivelles in 658.  Fearful of impending death, she was counseled that St.
Patrick (along with 'God's elect and his angels') would come to her at
the moment of her death in order to lead her to heaven.  That
Shakespeare was at least aware of the notion is indicated by Horatio's
lines at the conclusion of Hamlet: 'Good night, sweet Prince,/And
flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.'

The scene could have been depicted in this fashion on the original stage
by the use of a mechanism (similar to what is described for Jupiter
descending in Act V of Cymbeline) or in a more mundane way by having a
spirit-Cordelia enter on the second floor.  It could also have been
accomplished by the use of a puppet -- either rising or dropping.  In
the nineteenth century there actually was a scene presented in a format
similar to what I am suggesting: in a renegade version of Othello
Desdemona's 'ghost' was shown rising from her body.

I just finished reading The Virgin Martyr, and I was astonished to
arrive at the climax and find these lines:
"Enter Dorothea in a white robe, a crown upon her head, led in by
Angelo: Antoninus, Calista, and Christeta following, all in white, but
less glorious: Angelo holds out a crown to Theophilus."  I believe all
these characters are dead at this point.  Something similar has even
occurred in our own day: Star Wars 6.  Dead warriors appear luminously,
reconciled.

At any rate King Lear strikes me as the opposite of Hamlet.  In Hamlet,
Hamlet spiritually degenerates and, presumably, ends up in hell.  King
Lear has the opposite trajectory, and it could have been the case that
action, not surviving in F, showed this in the original performance.  If
the ultimate scene in King Lear was originally portrayed in this way, it
is evident the degree of irony impacting the audience would have been
very, very large.  'In King Lear, as in so much of Shakespeare, we can
always see above the darkness the sheen of the everlasting light.'

John Reed

_______________________________________________________________
S H A K S P E R: The Global Shakespeare Discussion List
Hardy M. Cook, 
 This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it
 
The S H A K S P E R Web Site <http://www.shaksper.net>

DISCLAIMER: Although SHAKSPER is a moderated discussion list, the
opinions expressed on it are the sole property of the poster, and the
editor assumes no responsibility for them.
 

©2011 Hardy Cook. All rights reserved.