King Lear – Highlight Reel I

Okay, so as you may or may not know, I’m on a quest to read all of Shakespeare’s plays.  It’s a goal years in the avoiding (slow reading speed + 16th century English = procrasti…….nation.) But over the last few years have read the histories (recommend King John, played for farce with an imagined cast of the Pythons in drag), and now am going back and forth between comedy and tragedy.

I only knew the sketchiest of details about King Lear.  He howls at the weather.  He does Cordelia wrong.  It’s a tragedy.  But had never read it or seen the play, and so up to the last page was remaining hopeful, thinking ‘hey, this might not end so ba— oh.’

I remember a teacher discussing the symbolism in Lear.  The once powerful king relinquishing control and shortly after his sanity –  echoing aging man’s struggle with accepting mortality, and the loss of control (or at least conceding it was illusory to begin with).  And so out onto the rainswept moors they go to rail against fate and dwindling stamina and sodium restrictions.

But I confess I’m not much into symbolism – it might reach the level of ‘hey, that’s nifty’ excitement. The real joy for me is inferring what daily life was like from the text.   And the language.  The lost word, or the familiar word in a strange setting.  The visceral hit of a phrase.   Often in Shakespeare a line will grab me by the collar long before I’ve worked out the meaning.

So that’s what I’m going to do here, go over the phrases that stopped me in my tracks, and the random thoughts attached to them.  Because I have to think someone enjoys Shakespeare in the same, not-terribly-professorial way I do.  And more selfishly, it would be nice to remember what I’ve read.  The histories have already dissolved into a blur of contested reigns, swordfights, and gauntlets thrown.

ACT 1. Sc 1
… this knave came somewhat saucily into the world before he was sent for
Gloucester somewhat saucily introduces his illegitimate son.

ACT 1. Sc 2
Upon the gad
Meaning – to do something on impulse.  e.g. ‘I banished Kent upon the gad.  For his countenance pleased me not.’  A gad is a goad or spur –  nice visual metaphor.  This phrase sounded almost modern – subsititue ‘upon’ with ‘on’ and wouldn’t surprise me to overhear it on a London street.

ACT 1. Sc 5
If she must teem
Create her child of spleen, that it may live
And be a thwart disnatured torment to her.
Let it stamp wrinkles in her brow of youth,
With cadent tears fret channels in her cheeks,
Turn all her mother’s pains and benefits
To laughter and contempt, that she may feel
How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is
To have a thankless child
Wedding toast.   I kid, I kid…  Btw – the target of Lear’s vehemence is Goneril  – is that not a great name for a villainess?  Goneril.  Not only could the ‘Gon’ go in a completely different direction, the word is so flat – it has absolutely no lyrical quality.  Not like ‘Cordelia’.  Nice.

Like all good Shakespearean smack-downs, it provides embedded mini-insults.  Especially like ‘disnatured torment’.

ACT 1. Sc 5
Explained in notes as ‘chilblains, sores resulting from exposure to cold’.  Really?  As in frostbite?  Very happy to live in a time where this occurs so rarely the words have left the vernacular.

Alrighty, onto Act 2 next time, when Kent lets loose with what has to be Shakespeare’s longest list of insults, including:  ‘an eater of broken meats’.

Oh no he di’int.


1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. dsgetch
    Jan 31, 2011 @ 17:12:59

    And now I get to start collecting little gems from one of my favorite writers. As in:

    “And so out onto the rainswept moors they go to rail against fate and dwindling stamina and sodium restrictions.”

    Nice finish, too.

    “Oh no he di’int”


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