Artwork – Leigh MacRae
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Welcome Brawlers to the Bard Brawl’s recording of the first act of this, our fifth play.
And what a play it is! This is no Taming of the Shrew or Henry VI, part 1, scrappy dramatic undercards who hang in there on pure grit and desire despite their faulty technique and poor conditioning.
No. This is the main event, ladies and gentlemen.
Along with such plays as Hamlet, Julius Caesar and Othello, this one is a serious contender to the title of best play ever written, folks.
Get ready for King Lear!
Without further ado, then, let’s ring the bell!
The play opens in act I, scene 1 with Gloucester and Kent – two nobles of Lear’s court – talking about Kent’s son Edmond. There’s a lot of wordplay centering on the fact that Edmond is Gloucester’s bastard son (and no one seems to care that he’s standing right there listening to the whole thing). More importantly, we learn that King Lear’s about to do something completely nuts: he’s going to abdicate the throne, turn over the lands to his daughters and ‘retire’ with a hundred knights, which the daughters will be responsible for upkeeping. This is already a little sketchy but here’s the really crazy part: he decides to give the biggest or best portion of his kingdom to the daughter who loves him most. And so he has them take part in a ‘sucking-up-to-dad’ competition. Goneril and Regan jump right into it but Lear’s youngest daughter Cordelia refuses to play the game. Despite being Lear’s favourite, the old man misinterprets her silence as ingratitude and decides to deny her any land at all. He redistributes that portion between his two other daughter. Kent, his most loyal retainer, tries to reason with him but he is banished for his honesty in a fit of range in which lear speaks on of the most famous line of the play: “Peace, Kent! / Come not between the dragon and his wrath.” (Sends shivers down my spine, that line. We should all start using it in daily speech. Just saying.) After Kent is banished, Lear calls in Cordelia’s suitors, the Duke of Burgundy and the King of France. After they learn that Cordelia has been stripped of her dowry (a third of Lear’s lands), Burgundy rejects her. The King of france, however, recognises the value of her honesty and agrees to marry her. Whew – it’s on!
Actually, does this remind you of anything a little more recent, too?
As the first and legitimate son, his brother Edgar is in line to inherent all of Gloucester<s lands and titles. Of course, Edmund is not about to just take that lying down and t the start of scene 2, we surprise Edmond musing to himself and plotting to get his brother out of the picture. The world think’s a bastard is a bastard? Well, then he’ll show them a bastard they won’t soon forget. He forges a letter which is supposed to be written by Edgar and which discusses a plot for the two brothers to team up and kill dad. Then, the letter adds, when dad’s out of the picture and Edgar inherits everything, he’ll cut Edmund in for half. He fakes hiding the letter which just makes it irresistible to Gloucester who buys into the whole thing. Part two of the plan involves getting rid of Edgar so he can<t go to dad and say his jerk of a bastard brother made the whole thing up. So, Edmund takes Edgar aside and makes up some story that their father wants him dead because he suspects that Edgar is trying to kill him. Edmund tells him to run the hell away and that he’ll try to dead with Gloucester for him. Edgar runs off.
See how all this talk of bastards and inheritance is mirrored in the two main plotlines? Shakespeare gets to be really good at this stuff by this point in his career. Moving right along.
Act I, scene 3 is short but vital. Lear mentioned earlier that not only would he have a hundred knights in his entourage at all times but that he would split his time living with each of his daughters in turn. However, when Goneril hears that Lear has apparently hit her servant, she decides that she’s had enough of Lear and his rowdy knights. When she hears that they are making their way to her castle, she instructs her servant Oswald to be negligent in serving Lear. this way, she can trick Lear into giving her justification for reducing the number of his entourage. Lot of clever people in this play.
Despite being banished by Lear earlier, it’s clear from the start of scene 4 that he has no intention of abandoning the old king now. He disguises himself and offers his services to Lear who accepts. Oswald arrives and informs lear that Goneril and her husband Albany will not be greeting him because they are sick. One of Lear’s knights points out that they’ve totally been dissed. Lear hits Oswald who takes issue with that but Kent steps in and shows Oswald out of Lear’s presence. Lear calls his fool to him and as soon as he arrives on the scene, the fool lays into Lear. All of his arguments basically come down to this: “You crazy old coot! By splitting your crown and kingdom into pieces, you’ve left yourself with nothing. Even I’m better off than you are because while you’re not a king anymore I’m still a fool.” Something like that. After quite of bit of this between Lear, Kent and the fool, Goneril shows up and she’s pissed. She asks Lear to reign in his entourage and to wisen up. He of course refuses and gets insulted, but of course there’s nothing he can do about it now. She tells him he;ll have to downsize his entourage to fifty knights. Not happy at all about any of this, he says ‘the hell with this’ and decides to go see Regan who he hopes will treat him with a bit more respect. Goneril, however, has already sent off a letter to her sister and they’ve both agreed that they’ve had enough of their father and his buddies watching the Habs game and getting drunk on their dollar. I think we can see where this is going.
In the final scene of the act, Lear sends Kent to Gloucester with a letter explaining what has happened at Goneril’s and telling him to expect Lear shortly. (Seems that Regan and her husband Cornwall are staying at Gloucester’s castle at the moment.) The rest of the scene is an exchange between Lear and his fool. While Lear hopes that Regan will give him a warmer welcome, the fool predicts that she’ll be just like Goneril. Then, for a brief moment, Lear seems to realize how much he has wronged Cordelia when he stripped her of her share of his lands and banished her to France. The fool interrupts him and rubs a little salt in the wound by reminding Lear that it was a really dumb move to give up his house as now he has to live at the mercy of merciless daughters.
We’ll get into the succulent barbecued meat of King Lear in our next post but in the mean time, as always, here’s a list of some of the main characters appearing in King Lear:
- King Lear: The aging King of England. He has no sons so decides instead to retire and split the kingdom between his three daughters.
- Goneril: Lear’s eldest daughter. She is married to the Duke of Albany.
- Albany: Goneril’s husband. A bit of a pushover with a good heart. Nowhere near the ruthlessness of Cornwall.
- Regan: Lear’s second daughter and arguably the meanest of the bunch. She is married to the Duke of Cornwall.
- Cornwall: Regan’s husband. Like her, he’s a ruthless and sadistic.
- Cordelia: Lear’s youngest daughter. While she loves him the most, she is disowned by her father because she refuses to indulge in flattering him.
- Kent: One of Lear’s oldest and most loyal advisors, he continues to serve Lear in disguise after he is banished. Stephanie points out in the show that Kent’s kind of like a Mr. Carson from Downton Abbey. You know, this guy –
- Fool: This is Lear’s fool or court jester. One of Shakespeare’s best fools.
- Oswald: A servant to Goneril and Regan.
- Gloucester: A nobleman of Lear’s court, and the father of Edgar and Edmund. While loyal to Lear, he’s unable to help him and pays a high price for trying to do so.
- Edgar: Gloucester’s legitimate son who is being framed by Edmund. He is loyal to his father and like Kent with Lear, he disguises himself to stay near Gloucester.
- Edmund: Gloucester’s bastard son. He plots to overthrow his father and eventually tries to play the two sisters against each other in the hopes of being king.
You might have noticed that a crap ton of stuff happens in this act? Well, get used to that pace because the intensity’s about to get ramped way up for act II.
Check out Jessica Winter’s article on Lear for Slate Magazine that was mentioned in the podcast.
Bonus sonnet 19 read by Kayla Cross.
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