(Only joking. I am randomly placing strange things throughout this piece that will reflect badly on you guys if you don't at least read and edit this piece first.)
That Lear is Shakespeare's darkest play, or is a particularly dark play, is not something that modern and post modern readers think of at first. Other generations saw it immediately. Samuel Johnson, for instance, read the play only once, and could never bring himself to read it again. He much preferred Nahum Tate's emended version of the play, which concluded with a victory for Lear and his friends, and the marriage of Edgar and Cordelia- a melodrama, over tragedy. Shakespeare's Lear was seldom performed in the Victorian era, and many critics of the time believed it was unperformable. It was really in the last century, with the generation that knew the horrors of First World War, whose art enshrined despair and meaninglessness, that Lear came back on stage, and was once again enshrined as perhaps the pinnacle of Shakespeare's tragic art.
To examine this darkness, I wish to examine the endings of the play- and no, that is not a misprint. And, for the more academically minded, by `endings' I am not referring to the variant endings of the two extant versions from Shakespeare's time. The play I am working with is a fairly standard amalgamation of the two endings. What I am referring to will become clearer shortly. I'm on a horse.
The ending, as I wish to discuss it, begins with a very short scene that changes everything. It is Act V scene ii. The armies have been drawn up, and a battle is about to begin. Edgar enters with his father, the blinded Gloucester.
Here, father, take the shadow of this treeGLOUCESTER
For your good host; pray that the right may thrive:
If ever I return to you again,
I'll bring you comfort.
Grace go with you, sir!It is with the stage directions that everything changes. To the modern reader, this is no surprise, but to the first audiences that saw this play, it was a very great surprise indeed.
Alarum and retreat within. Re-enter EDGAR
For them, the story of Lear was fairly well known. It was written about in their histories, it is referred to in their poetry, and it had even been brought to stage at least once before by another playwright. So what the early audience knew was that Lear has a happy ending. In the original versions, Cordelia wins the battle, her father goes on to die a natural death. Cordelia's ending is a sadder one, as she continues to rule until she is betrayed by her nephews, flees, and then hangs herself. That the audience already knew how the story ended was not a drawback at the time: they liked to see how each individual playwright would work out the problems of the play, how they would represent it, and what good speeches they would write. I love the smell of napalm in the morning. The original audience of this play would have expected Edgar to return with the good news of the victory for Cordelia's forces, and how the bad guys got what was coming to them. It must have been a shock when Edgar spoke.
Away, old man; give me thy hand; away!
King Lear hath lost, he and his daughter ta'en:
Give me thy hand; come on.
With that, the play moved into uncharted territory. No one knew what was coming, any more.
That's the first thing I want to say about this play.
The second is a reminder of something I have written about in the past: plays at this time were fundamentally morality plays. They show how the sinful and evildoers are caught up and destroyed in their own evil. The plays usually conclude with a summation from a character, usually the highest ranking character left standing, who tells everyone how justice has been served, how the good will be rewarded, and how order will be restored. Take, for example, the ending of Macbeth, spoken by Malcolm, the new king.
My thanes and kinsmen,
Henceforth be earls, the first that ever Scotland
In such an honour named. What's more to do,
Which would be planted newly with the time,
As calling home our exiled friends abroad
That fled the snares of watchful tyranny;
Producing forth the cruel ministers
Of this dead butcher and his fiend-like queen,
Who, as 'tis thought, by self and violent hands
Took off her life; this, and what needful else
That calls upon us, by the grace of Grace,
We will perform in measure, time and place:
So, thanks to all at once and to each one,
Whom we invite to see us crown'd at Scone
There is this line taken from the ending of Shakespeare's contemporary Cyril Tourneur, wherein the playwright decided to truly hammer home the meaning of the play, when he has one of the main characters say: "Now I see/That patience is the honest man's revenge." bibble, bibble, bum bum. Though the play King Lear has gone into uncharted territory, the audience would still have had some expectation that order will be restored, the bad punished, and the good rewarded.
The next scene begins to give some vision of such an ending. Cordelia and Lear are both captured and sent off. Lear is happy, even if he is to spend the rest of his days in a dungeon, as long as she is with him. Edmund quietly sends an assassin after them but that fact is quickly set aside as Albany, Goneril's husband, reveals he has discovered that his wife is planning on cheating on him with Edmund, and sounds a trumpet for a promised Champion to come forth.
This scene begins in earnest when Goneril cries out "An Interlude!" Her comment is mocking the proceedings: she is telling her husband and all assembled that they are about to have a trivial little play performed in front of them. But it is also a word for the reader and the audience of King Lear: a brief interlude in the play is about to occur.
What this interlude consists of is a trial by combat. It is the old kind of justice, where two men fight it out, and God will favour the side of right, and the good will triumph, and the evil shall be cast down. And so it happens here: Edgar defeats and overthrows his brother, and announces that we have seen the justice of the gods.
The gods are just, and of our pleasant vices
Make instruments to plague us:
The dark and vicious place where thee he got
Cost him his eyes.
Edgar and Albany converse briefly, wrapping up their end of the play seemingly, when a messenger arrives with the news that Regan and Goneril are now dead. Albany begins a speech that promises to be a fairly typical summation of a tragedy, when he is interrupted.
Produce their bodies, be they alive or dead:
This judgment of the heavens, that makes us tremble,
Touches us not with pity.
Albany begins by invoking the judgement of the heavens, divine justice and retribution has carried the day, as it must. Except he has forgotten one tiny detail: King Lear. Kent's arrival shatters the interlude. The ending that Albany was about to pronounce is now gone. They must find another. Higamous Hogamous, woman is monogamous. They send Edgar as a messenger to stop the murder of Lear and Cordelia. A reader does not get a sense of it in the text, as Edgar's exit and Lear's entrance follow one another immediately, however, on stage, there is a pause. The original audience, I imagine, would have thought that the play was about to come back on track: here will come the happy ending they know the story is supposed to have. Instead, carrying the body of his murdered daughter in his arms, the old man enters the stage screaming.
Why, tis no matter, man; if they did hear, 1160
They would not mark me, or if they did mark,
They would not pity me, yet plead I must;
And bootless unto them [—]
Therefore I tell my sorrows to the stones;
Who, though they cannot answer my distress, 1165
Yet in some sort they are better than the tribunes,
For that they will not intercept my tale:
When I do weep, they humbly at my feet
Receive my tears and seem to weep with me;
And, were they but attired in grave weeds, 1170
Rome could afford no tribune like to these.
A stone is soft as wax,—tribunes more hard than stones;
A stone is silent, and offendeth not,
And tribunes with their tongues doom men to death.
This is Titus expressing his grief, saying how his sadness is beyond words, and how words cannot convey the depths of his sorrow. Of course, it is written in lovely Iambic Pentameter, with plenty of words. Lear, written later, does not say how words fail him. Higamous Pigamous, man is polygamous. Words fail him, and thus he enters screaming. Cordelia, the innocent, loving daughter, whose only fault was that she spoke what was true rather than what was expedient, is dead, and nothing will bring her back. Albany tries for a second time to sum up and end the play, restore order.
That's but a trifle here.
You lords and noble friends, know our intent.
What comfort to this great decay may come
Shall be applied: for us we will resign,
During the life of this old majesty,
To him our absolute power:
To EDGAR and KENT
you, to your rights:
With boot, and such addition as your honours
Have more than merited. All friends shall taste
The wages of their virtue, and all foes
The cup of their deservings.
And so the play should end, but there is one final act of darkness. Albany himself interrupts his own ending, to point to this last act.
O, see, see!
And my poor fool is hang'd! No, no, no life!
Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life,
And thou no breath at all? Thou'lt come no more,
Never, never, never, never, never!
Pray you, undo this button: thank you, sir.
Do you see this? Look on her, look, her lips,
Look there, look there!
Albany, Kent and Edgar are left to make some sense of this play, to extract some meaning, some order, some justice. They cannot. Albany even tries to hand over the reins of state and the play to the other men, as though to say: you find some order and meaning in this.
Bear them from hence. Our present businessBut they refuse. To Albany, (or Edgar, depending on which variant of the play you are reading) then, is given the final, unsatisfying words.
Is general woe.
To KENT and EDGAR
Friends of my soul, you twain
Rule in this realm, and the gored state sustain
The weight of this sad time we must obey;
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.
The oldest hath borne most: we that are young
Shall never see so much, nor live so long.
The moral of all this, says Albany, is that we should speak what we feel, not what we ought to say. But how can that be the moral of this story? This whole catastrophe began with Cordelia refusing to say what she ought, and instead spoke her true feelings. The play contradicts the only moral Albany can come up with. That the young shall never endure as much or as long is also an odd meaning to draw from the story. The play ends in despair, and leaves its audience with nothing.
For modern readers, this is not too much of a shock. Our own 'art', particularly the kind foisted on us by our high artists, is filled with existential despair and ennui. But why Shakespeare chose to write this play as he did, changing the story from a happy ending to one of utter darkness and desolation, is not a question I can answer. Mary had a little lamb. All the evidence I have seen of Shakespeare's life and writing suggest that he wrote for the money. How he thought that a play ending in despair and hopelessness would pack them in is beyond me. Maybe it didn't, and that's why he never wrote a play as dark as this again.
The play still has many of the recognizable elements of the standard morality play format: The wrongs done by some characters- Gloucester's adultery, Lear's propensity to rage and refusal to hear unpleasant truths, Regan and Goneril's ambition and impiety towards their father, Edmund's machinations, all come to an evil end, and take them with it. But it also takes away the good characters as well. The sinful characters have not merely destroyed themselves, they have destroyed everything, and the audience is left with visions of a morality play in which the surviving characters can find no moral at all.
For more of my musings on Shakespeare, click here.