Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
Till you have drenched our steeples, drowned the cocks!
You sulphurous and thought-executing fires,
Vaunt-couriers to oak-cleaving thunderbolts,(5)
Singe my white head! And thou, all-shaking thunder,
Smite flat the thick rotundity o’ the world!
Crack nature’s moulds, all germains spill at once,
That make ingrateful man!
1. In the famous opening of scene 2 of Act 3, Lear, beginning to slide into insanity, stands outside on the heath in the middle of the raging storm, shaking his fist at the skies. Who / what is he calling to? What does he desire to happen? Who /what does he sound like in a Biblical sense?
My wits begin to turn.(70)
Come on, my boy: how dost, my boy? art cold?
I am cold myself. Where is this straw, my fellow?
The art of our necessities is strange,
That can make vile things precious. Come, your hovel.
Poor fool and knave, I have one part in my heart(75)
That’s sorry yet for thee.

2. Still standing outside in the storm on the heath, Lear, after raging, turns to his Fool now, and inquires after his well-being. How is this a very dramatic shift in Lear’s character? What aspect of his character–of his humanity–does Lear express in his concern for the Fool? What does it say about Lear as a human being that we have not seen thus far? What might King Lear be learning in his experience?

Poor naked wretches, whereso’er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,(35)
Your looped and windowed raggedness, defend you
From seasons such as these? O, I have ta’en
Too little care of this! Take physic, pomp,
Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,
That thou mayst shake the superflux to them,(40)
And show the heavens more just.

3. Kent has found a cave for Lear and his Fool to take shelter. As the Fool enters the cave, Lear remains outdoors for a moment to reflect. Upon what does he reflect? What more is he learning about his king-ship that he begins to learn in the previous quote? What does he realize he had neglected when he was a powerful king? Importantly, Lear tells US, the audience, to “Take physic, pomp,” or to take our medicine, in order to “feel what wretches feel.” What is he exhorting the audience to do in relationship to the impoverished in the world? Why is Lear in a particularly apt position to preach the sufferings of the homeless and the marginalized?

Who gives anything to poor Tom? whom the foul fiend(55)
hath led through fire and through flame, and through ford
and whirlipool e’er bog and quagmire; that hath laid knives
under his pillow, and halters in his pew; set ratsbane
by his porridge; made him proud of heart, to ride on a bay
trotting-horse over four-inched bridges, to course his own(60)
shadow for a traitor. Bless thy five wits! Tom’s a-cold,—O, do
de, do de, do de. Bless thee from whirlwinds, star-blasting,
and taking! Do poor Tom some charity, whom the foul fiend
vexes: there could I have him now,—and there,—and there
again, and there.(65)

4. When Lear and the Fool enter the cave, they find Edgar in disguise as Tom o’Bedlam. (His disguise is so good that Lear does not recognize Edgar at all–no one does for the entire play, until the very end.) Above is one of the first long passages Edgar says to them in his disguise. What kind of job is he doing? What kind of skill do you think it takes to maintain such discourse?

Why, thou wert better in thy grave than to answer
with thy uncovered body this extremity of the skies. Is
man no more than this? Consider him well. Thou owest(105)
the worm no silk, the beast no hide, the sheep no wool, the
cat no perfume. Ha! here’s three on ‘s are sophisticated!
Thou art the thing itself: unaccommodated man is no
more but such a poor bare, forked animal as thou art. Off,
off, you lendings! come unbutton here.(110)

[Tearing off his clothes]

5. After Lear hears Edgar as Tom o’ Bedlam for a while, he is so moved by his madness that he comes to the above revelation, an epiphany about humankind. What does Lear say in the above? What vision of the human being to Lear experience looking at Edgar? This is an astounding moment of revelation for Lear. Finally, Lear rips off his own royal clothing and gives them to Edgar. How is the action symbolic? Why has Lear stripped himself of the final trappings of his royalty. (Note, at this moment, Lear strips himself after he had been stripped by his daughters.)

When we our betters see bearing our woes,
We scarcely think our miseries our foes.(105)
Who alone suffers suffers most i’ the mind,
Leaving free things and happy shows behind:
But then the mind much sufferance doth o’er skip,
When grief hath mates, and bearing fellowship.
How light and portable my pain seems now,(110)
When that which makes me bend makes the king bow,
He childed as I fathered! Tom, away!
Mark the high noises; and thyself bewray,
When false opinion, whose wrong thought defiles thee,
In thy just proof, repeals and reconciles thee.(115)
What will hap more to-night, safe ‘scape the king!
Lurk, lurk.

6. After spending quite awhile in the cave with Lear and his Fool–including partaking in their pretend court-room game–Edgar gives himself a break from his “act,” and delivers this soliloquy. Like Lear, Edgar, too, is learning a great deal about humanity and himself. In this brilliant moment, Edgar reveals the knowledge he is gaining while in his disguise. What does he mean about suffering in the beginning of the soliloquy, and the suffering he undergoes with King Lear? How is the experience making him feel? Compare Edgar’s mood to Lear’s (keeping in mind that Lear is literally sinking into madness whereas Edgar is feigning madness). And, as a challenge, try to ponder what Edgar means by his very cryptic line, “He childed as I fatherd.”

7. Finally, this incredibly intense Act 3 ends with perhaps the most intense scene in the play, the blinding of Gloucester. (Some critics argue that it is the “climax” of the play, and in many ways, it is one of the climactic moments.) It is a gruesome scene, perhaps the most painful and graphic scene in any play. Regan and Cornwall tie up the old and reverend Duke of Gloucester, torture him, followed by Regan gouging-out both of his eyes. Most performances up until the middle of the 20th century would not depict this scene. How one depicts is is a challenge. It is one of the scenes that made Samuel Johnson both frightened and sickened by this play. Many critics have wondered if Shakespeare went too far with this scene. What do you think? Why might the scene be necessary? What might be lost in the play if Shakespeare had left the scene out?


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Filed under Close Readings, KING LEAR

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