King Lear’s Three Deaths: Triumph, Nihilism, and Revision

March 6, 2019 by Essay Writer

If Shakespeare penned two King Lears, he created three King Lears. There is the Quarto’s hero, the Folio’s hero, and the hero who exists somewhere in the interplay. The last of these is not the same Lear who emerges variously in various conflated editions. That Lear is an editor’s creation. The Lear I refer to contradicts himself at one and the same moment, could never be seen on any stage, and dies two very different deaths.In an essay on Hamlet’s textual problems, Stanley Urkowitz wrote that comparing Q1 to Q2 is “rather like [perusing] a museum or a gallery showing the variant states of the great Rembrandt etchings… Each can stand alone, but when viewed side by side they show how the work grew and altered, and we can better appreciate the particular virtues of each trial.” At this hypothetical Rembrandt exhibit a visitor to the museum might also concern himself with the question of what the differences between the etchings mean in themselves. A mole on an attractive woman’s nose that grows bigger from etching to etching suggests something about Rembrandt’s conception of beauty. The revisions might say as much about Rembrandt’s art as his discreet productions.There are many important differences between The History of King Lear of the 1608 Quarto and The Tragedy of King Lear of the 1623 Folio. As every critic who has written on the matter has pointed out, the Folio “lacks some 285 lines and contains some 115 not found” in the Quarto. The mock-trial scene of 3.6 is entirely missing from the Folio. Albany and the Fool’s parts are substantially cut. Edgar’s character is often argued to be given more importance. The emphasis on the war between France and Britain in F shifts to the civil war between Albany and Cornwall in Q. As the tide of criticism has tilted, since the publication of Gary Taylor and Michael Warren’s Division of the Kingdoms in 1983, to the belief that these differences represent an authorial revision, high-ranking commentators like Urkowitz, E. A. J. Honingman, and Stanley Wells find Q and F each to be consistent and coherent in its own right. R. A. Foakes, under the “general editorship” of David Kastan, attempts both to conflate and to preserve the two versions in his Arden edition. “Words and passages found only in the Quarto are framed in this edition by superscript Q, and words and passages found only in the Folio by superscript F.” This half-hearted contrivance hides the problem cleverly enough – until Lear dies in 5.3.What I wish to do in this essay is to take a closer look at Lear’s two deaths, and to speculate on what they mean taken as an incongruent whole. From the criticism I have encountered, it seems that most scholars content themselves to argue that, indeed, Lear’s two deaths put two different Shakespearean spins on the play, that these spins are to a greater or lesser degree incompatible, and that therefore there are two different plays. All this is important, and I will attempt to deal with it on firm textual grounds, but what appears to me to be most exciting – and, maybe, a tad original – is the idea of this third death, this third Lear, and this third King Lear. I will suggest a possible reading of such a Lear, if only to open up an interesting (and perchance new?) way of looking at the King Lear and the King Lear that every reader senses living and dying behind these veils of text.In both Q and F, Albany delivers his ignorant proclamation of poetic justice just moments after Lear walks in carrying Cordelia’s dead body: “All friends shall taste / the wages of their virtue and all foes / the cup of their deservings” (5.3.301-3). Having assumed a greater authority, he feels that it is within his power to meet out grace and perdition. This would be laughable, if only the audience could laugh. “All foes” have already tasted “the cup of their deservings.” Edmund, Goneril, and Regan each died a violent death. And certainly Cordelia’s corpse indicates that at least one “friend” shall never “taste the wages” of her “virtue,” especially in a pagan world devoid of Christ’s heavenly shadow. Besides showing Albany to be an idiot, the line strikes the most painful of contrasts with what Albany presumably points at when he shrieks, “O see, see!” (5.3.304)There, Lear says in both texts, “And my poor fool is hanged” (5.3.304). The “And” conjoins Lear’s declaration and Albany’s foolishness for the audience. It also hints at the possibility that Lear is directly “and” consciously refuting Albany. This sarcasm would hardly be out of character for the bereaved father, who now more than ever is a man “more sinned against than sinning.” The reference to the “poor fool” is usually taken as Shakespeare’s (as opposed to Lear’s) allusion to the real fool who disappears in 3.6, as “poor fool” is also a term of endearment. But it seems plausible, given Lear’s mental state, that he is actually suffering from a momentary hallucination. Lear hallucinates many times over the course of his madness, most notably in Q’s mock-trial scene, and there are tens of references to faulty vision. Shakespeare has also prepared us for how deeply Lear would grieve over his fool’s death, when Lear says at the heath, “Poor fool and knave, I have one part in my heart / That’s sorry yet for thee” (3.2.72-73). This line jives nicely with Lear’s last line in Q, “Break, heart, I prithee break” (Q 5.3.303), of which more will be said later.* A hallucination here would paint Lear as in part ignorant of his own miserable state. It would be much the worse to lose his daughter than his jester. Though F and Q share the ambiguous line, the question of Lear’s ability to grasp how low is his lot and how terrible are the gods that made his world is answered differently in the two original texts.”No, no life” are Lear’s next words in Q, and “No, no, no life” in F. The Folio echoes the extra “no” later with two extra “never[s],” the cumulative effect of which is to make Lear a little less in control of his language. “No, no life” is an assertion, implying in part some resignation to the fact; “No, no, no life” sounds more like the defensive cry of a lunatic. If I appear to exaggerate the distinction, it may help the reader to say the words aloud. In any case, Q’s three nevers against F’s five should make the point clear. The two variations, each consistent in itself, together suggest a dramatist revising his text for the clear purpose of imbuing a dying king with the final touches of an insanity he has suffered from for the last three acts. “Why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life / And thou no breath at all?” asks Lear of Cordelia’s corpse (and probably of the gods as well) in both Q and F. This is a good question, to which Lear never receives a reply. Technically speaking, the answer most likely lies in Albany’s forgetfulness. “Great thing of us forgot!” (5.3.235) he said, some 60 lines earlier, Lear and Cordelia having strangely slipped his (and Edgar’s) mind. Had he remembered earlier, he might have gotten Edmund to confess his sinister order for the heroes’ deaths in time to save them, which might well have been the premise of Nathum Tate’s infamous and popular rewrite. In a sense then, Albany and Edgar deserve Lear’s overanxious condemnation in F: “A plague upon you murders, traitors all” (5.3.230). In another and more important sense, nobody really does. To borrow Deepak Chopra’s definition for synchronicity, “a conspiracy of improbabilities” is responsible for the tragedy that is 5.3. A thousand little things, a thousand coincidences, all came together to kill off Cordelia. Why was she captured? Why was the hangman on hand so willing to carry out his task? What in the stormy world of the play necessitated this inexplicable end to Lear’s only love. Just as Shakespeare made it rain “too rough / For nature to endure” (3.4.2-3), it is as if Shakespeare, above any of his characters including Edmund, has sent Cordelia off to die. The very absence of a compelling reason becomes the reason. It is a gratuitous death in the most disturbing sense of the phrase. It has no meaning other than the one that Lear will – or will not – bring to it.”O thou wilt come no more,” Lear says in Q (and similarly in F), without attempting an answer to his question. “Never, never, never. Pray you, undo / this button. Thank you, sir” (also in F). There is only one other use of the word “undo” in King Lear. It comes as blind Gloucester pontificates to his disguised son on the material inequalities of the world. He asks the gods to “Let the superfluous and lust-dieted man… feel your power quickly: / So distribution should undo excess / And each man have enough” (4.1.72-74). At the moment Lear utters the word, he stands as a once “superfluous and lust-dieted man” (no longer, for sure), who by his politeness and deference to an inferior (be it a servant, Kent, or Edgar) does to a certain extent “undo excess.” Lear has learned the lesson of respecting inferiors as equals. But the application of the lesson is out of all proportion to the circumstances. Whoever does or does not undo his button would probably interpret Lear’s deference as the rambling of a king who has lost all sense of self. The request itself is also a little insane. Shakespeare is clearly referring back to the storm, during which Lear tries to throw off his “lendings.” This connection makes sense inasmuch as first, we assume it refers to Lear’s button and not one on Cordelia, and second that we read into it the idea that Lear is once again exposing himself to the harsh rain of the gods. Perhaps Lear is making the connection in his own (unconscious or conscious) mind.This last line of thought holds much better for the Quarto, in which Lear ends the verse with, “O, O, O, O!” This is the first obviously significant difference between the two death scenes. “O, O, O, O!” might give an audience a way to understand the button request; Lear may simply need more air to fully feel and air his grief, just as he needs to be naked to fully feel the wrath of the Heavens. What emerges from this reading of Q is a mature Lear, mostly in control of his faculties, capable of understanding that his loss is permanent, inexplicable, and beyond words. “O, O, O, O!” resonates with the fool’s first act jibe that Lear is an “O without a figure; I am better than thou art now. I am a fool, thou art nothing” (1.4.183-5). Lear realizes he is an “O,” if you will. He has become the man who can answer his own haunting question: “Who is it who can tell me who I am?” (1.4.221). Putting aside for the moment the fact that, in his awful and aware grief, Lear is literally reduced to “nothing” (zero, 0, O), an audience at a performance of the Quarto’s play gets to see a Lear who has come to terms with himself, and just like Shakespeare’s other great tragic heroes will die at the point where he knows he has reached the end of his journey.In this context, Lear’s very last line before his death in Q, “Break, prithee, heart break,” reads and plays like the last willful command of a dying king who is somehow, against all odds, still in control of himself. If the gods haphazardly rule over the world in spite of kings, then a king asserts himself against the gods by ruling over himself. An ornery Lear had said to Regan, “I have full cause of weeping, but this heart / Shall break into a hundred thousand flaws / Or e’er I’ll weep” (2.2.473-75). Now, Lear has lost control of his weeping (“O, O, O, O!’) but gained control of his heart. As Lear himself puts it, in the Quarto he “die[s] bravely, like a bridegroom,” (“smug bridegroom in F”)(Foakes, 4.6.194). A bridegroom, one assumes, faces marriage like a man.*This triumphant death is the more triumphant in counterpoint to Gloucester’s unsuccessful suicide attempt. “This world,” he says, thinking himself atop a cliff that Edgar has laid out in his imagination, “I do renounce and in your [the gods’] sights / Shake patiently my great affliction off” (4.6.42). An audience that has never before seen King Lear will learn in a few moments that these lines are, to put it crudely, pathetic. Gloucester fails in the most “wretched” and absurd way, mocked by his son and the gods for his pride and his blindness. By an implied contrast, Lear deserves what pride he has left – or, to pick a better word than pride: dignity – and can see clearly at the moment of his death.What Lear sees in the Folio, at this same moment, is false. “Look on her, look, her lips, / look there, look there!” Earlier in the scene, Lear held a real or imagined feather to Cordelia’s lips and said in both Q and F:This feather stirs. She lives. If it be so,It is a chance which does redeem all sorrowsThat ever I have felt. (5.3.262-4)This suggests that what Lear sees on Cordelia’s lips is exactly what Lear wants to see on Cordelia’s lips. If earlier in his insanity Lear erroneously claimed in the Folio that he “ha[s] the power / to seal th’accuser’s lips,” (4.6.164), now in F his imagination claims for him the power to make move again the lips of a dead innocent. As Cordelia says, “restoration hang / thy medicine on my lips,” (4.7.26) Lear looks to her lips for the antidote to his agony when he says five times “never.” Although “it is a chance which does redeem all sorrows / That ever I have felt,” it is an illusion. This is the last moment Shakespeare, in F, gives us of his great fallen king. To redeem all of Lear’s sorrows by a hallucination is to suggest that the greatest of our sorrows are transcended only by the comforting contrivances of the imagination.Many have argued that Lear’s last utterance in F serves much the same purpose as his last in Q, that by drawing attention to Cordelia’s lips Lear shifts the focus from himself and, in full recognition of the tragedy of the moment, dies an even nobler death of greater awareness. If it is true that Lear fully understands Cordelia is dead in F, it seems clear, however, that this is hardly triumphant. Shakespeare has already told us in no uncertain terms that Lear is capable of the most profound pathos. To label his dying words as a miserable reiteration of that fact would be to deprive Lear of what Shakespeare only tells his audience about him in Q: the ability to lay claim to his own self, even in, or perhaps as a result of, grasping the full horror of the world. Also, Lear’s last words in F prohibit both Lear’s audience on stage and Lear’s audience in the bleachers from watching him stride valiantly to his end; we are told to “look there,” to look elsewhere, at the bleakest image of a paradise lost.The argument that Lear knows Cordelia to be dead falls short as well. In a scene where Lear is constantly alternating between sanity (“My poor fool is hanged” is true) and insanity (“My poor fool is hanged” is hallucinatory), the jerky and grammatically confused line “Look on her, look, her lips, / look there, look there!” certainly seems like the last blurting out of a man who has given over into a wish-fulfilling madness. Furthermore, the play provides a model for the joyous death we may assume Lear passes through, if as I am arguing he believes Cordelia alive again in F. According to Edgar’s account, Gloucester’s “flawed heart, / Alack, too weak the conflict to support, / Twixt two extremes of passion, joy and grief, / Burst smilingly” (5.3.195-197). Notably, this is upon discovering that his once lost and ever beloved son Edgar is alive and well.There is another example of a heart “Twixt two extremes of passion, / joy and grief,” which might be argued to imbue Lear’s death with a beauty of its own. Upon receipt of Kent’s letter, Cordelia apparently took on the following aspect, as reported by an unbiased gentleman:You have seenSunshine and rain at once, her smiles and tearsWere like a better way. Those happy smiletsThat played on her ripe lip seemed not to knowWhat guests were in her eyes, which parted thenceAs pearls from diamonds dropped. In brief,Sorrow would be a rarity most belovedIf all could so become it. (4.3.17-24)Rain figures so prominently in Lear, while sunshine bursts through the clouds explicitly only here, that to find the two reconciled together in Cordelia’s face underscores the unbearable horror of Lear’s loss. The pretty passage also suggests that Shakespeare somehow believes the sheer poetry of Lear’s hallucination of “breath” on Cordelia’s “ripe lip” might transcend the void her loss creates. Only an audience could validate such a Shakespearean hypothesis; a critic will always have a near impossible time forcing his clumsy apparatuses around these lofty vapors. But even if Lear’s final “sorrow would be a rarity most beloved / if all could so become it,” his death in F is, at best, insanely beautiful in a play that only once, only in the gentleman’s passage above, contains the idea that beauty can somehow compensate for purposeless misery. Unless, of course, the entire Folio edition of King Lear is supposed to be so beautiful that it should compensate us for our misery. In either case, Shakespeare’s art becomes the locus of all values, subverting the possibility of any real redemption or any reality-based happiness in a real world. The meaning of the Folio edition becomes the meaninglessness of the Folio edition. Cordelia lays dead and Lear stupidly follows her into nothingness for no other reason than that “sorrow” can be gorgeous. This is Shakespeare the nihilist, engaging in his art to trick his audience, as he does Lear, into looking at something so beautiful that we forget there is nothing “there,” upon silent lips.If Shakespeare, as the new revisionists argue and hopefully my analysis in some small way supports, thoughtfully turned Q’s draft into the work we know as F, at least so far as Lear’s death is concerned, he has resolved in two distinctly different ways the problems the story of King Lear presents. In Q, Lear dies as Gloucester wishes to; in F, Lear dies just as Gloucester does. The problem with this analogy – besides the fact that Shakespeare never intended for anyone to make it – is that when Gloucester attempts to jump from a cliff that does not exist, he is still under the illusion that Edgar may be dead and gone, whereas in Q, Lear dies with the full knowledge that Cordelia is truly no more. And when Gloucester’s heart finally does “burst,” it bursts from the knowledge of Edgar’s healthy presence, whereas in F, Lear dies under the illusion that Cordelia lives yet again. In Q, Shakespeare counterbalances the ridiculousness of Gloucester’s suicide attempt with the power and triumph of a decisive Lear deciding he has had enough. In F, Shakespeare denies both men any power over their respective fates, leaving the absurd suicide attempt as the paradigm of man’s power over himself. Gloucester in the Folio would be inarguably correct when he says famously, “As flies to wanton boys, so are we to the gods. They kill us for their sport” (4.1.41-2), if only there were proof of his assumption of some form of divinity anywhere in Lear’s divided Britain. That Shakespeare changes his mind on the matter, while managing in either case to produce a coherent and convincing piece of drama, shows first how tenuously King Lear holds on to its ethos of the regenerative power of suffering, and second how flimsy the distinction is in Shakespeare’s mind between the nature of tragedy and the tragedy of nature.The question of the validity of that distinction occupies the whole of King Lear, be it in Q or F or both together or in some hodgepodge critical conflation. Lear knows full well by act three that both he and Gloucester are characters in an Oedipal-like tragedy:Nothing could have subdued natureTo such a lowness but his unkind daughters.Is it the fashion that discarded fathersShould have thus little mercy on their flesh?Judicious punishment: Œtwas this flesh begotThose pelican daughters. (3.4.66-71)It would take Hamlet, Macbeth and Othello, not to mention Oedipus, the entire length of their respective plays before being able to conceive of the idea that their lot was a “Judicious punishment” for their own faults. The label that Lear assigns to his particular fault, “this flesh [that] begot / Those pelican daughters,” may seem to dodge any real responsibility, but given Lear’s later rambling that “But to the girdle do the gods inherit, / Beneath is all the fiend’s: there’s hell, there’s darkness…” (4.5.121-2) it is clear he really does hold it a terrible sin, worthy of the punishment of an earthly damnation (“hell”), to have had sex with his daughters’ mother. So if Lear has a firm grasp of his own tragedy, what then is the purpose of continuing on with the play, other than to show that the world itself is tragic? This rhetorical question is especially penetrating if Lear correctly holds fecundity accountable for all the wrongs that fall on his head; fecundity is life itself, the endless cycle of nature. While Q suggests that the purpose of tragedy is to overcome it, F’s vision seems an infinite bleakness, moderated only by illusion. The tension between Lear’s death in the Folio and his death in the Quarto is the same tension that drives King Lear, as a single play, forward.Putting Q and F next to each other sheds an interesting light on what Shakespeare hopes to accomplish in Lear. At the very least, it elucidates the meaning Shakespeare makes of illusion, both within King Lear and with King Lear. When Edgar leads Gloucester to a cliff that isn’t there, Gloucester thinks he is going to jump into a void. Instead, he jumps into nothing at all, not even the nothingness of the chasm in his mind. This seems to me to be the primary distinction between Lear’s death in the Quarto and Lear’s death in the Folio. In the first case, Shakespeare creates an imaginary void only for the audience, in the second both for his characters and the audience. Together, the two contradictory versions of the void make for an all-encompassing void. They lead to the idea that we can never be quite sure whether or not the void Shakespeare seems to assume we are all standing over is really ever there, or if when we fall we land on a ground that is neither solid nor shifting, a place that is only and purely theatrical. Worse than nihilism is the uncertainty of it all.

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