King Lear – The Fool’s Almost-Great Speech

The plot thus far: Lear starts off the play by basically firing a gun at his daughters’ feet telling them to dance pretty, then has a fit of pique when Cordelia stays rooted. She’s banished.  Married off to the King of France, who loves her just the way she is, unbowed and very recently undowered.  While marriage to a French guy is not explicitly part of the punishment… well, you could interpret how Shakespeare may have felt about the French by his treatment of Joan of Arc in Henry VI Part One.  She’s captured and about to meet the fate history is familiar with when her own father drops by and says  ‘yeah, burn the witch, beheading’s too good for her.’ Le ouch.

After Cordelia leaves, Lear takes aim at his own foot by dividing his kingdom between daughters Regan and Goneril, with nary a caveat such as: ‘but you’re not allowed to turn me out into the elements where I shall go howling mad’.  Quite the oversight, it turns out.

So cut to Act III.  Lear’s humiliation has been perfectly meted out. Bereft and betrayed, deserted by his regiment and reduced to just a fool and Kent-In-Disguise as his stewards, with the heavens turning against him and all his rage spent – the scene is set for a great speech.  Something about the cruel capriciousness of fate.   Something a little bitter.  Maybe a little of that ol’ Shakespeare ‘PSYCH!’  he does so well.

Consider the ‘What A Piece of Work is Man’ speech from Hamlet. It’s starts out such a crowd pleaser, you find yourself saying, yes, by golly, what a piece of work is man.  Infinite in faculties, paragon of animals!  Then he hits you: ‘Man delights not me’.  Psych!

Or the ‘Now is the Summer of Our Discontent’ speech from Richard III.  Yes, finally, his family rules!  All the struggles have borne fruit.  All is well.  And then he says something to the effect of: ‘peace, tranquility… can’t say I care for it.’

It’s a pattern Shakespeare employs again and again, and it’s so effective.  The elation makes the plummet that much more startling.  This would have been the perfect spot for the Shakespeare Psych.

Act III, Scene II, step up fool, let’s hear it:

I’ll speak a prophecy ere I go:

When priests are more in word than matter;
When brewers mar their malt with water;
When nobles are their tailors’ tutors,
No heretics burn’d, but wenches’ suitors;
When every case in law is right,
No squire in debt nor no poor knight;
When slanders do not live in tongues,
Nor cutpurses come not to throngs;
When usurers tell their gold i’ th’ field
And bawds and whores do churches build:
Then shall the realm of Albion
Come to great confusion.
Then comes the time, who lives to see’t,
That going shall be us’d with feet.

Basically he starts with:

When priests have more integrity in their speech than their acts, when brewers water down the brew, when nobles are better at tailoring than tailors, when decent men are burned instead of heretics… all these things go counter to what we’d expect or want – the priest should act with integrity not just talk about it, the brewers should produce undiluted malt, the tailor should know more about his craft than a noble, the heretic should burn, not the suitor…

Then the speech takes a turn counter to counter, it’s what we’d like: when every case in law is right (well, that sounds good), and no squire in debt (nice), no slander, no one stealing, usurers saving not lending, whores build churches.  All good.  Maybe a little duller.  But good.

Then shall the realm of Albion come to great confusion.
Albion = England, btw.  Are they confused that the first four lines of the prophecy don’t jive with the following six? Me too.

The prophecy ends with: Then comes the time to see’t, that going shall be us’d with feet.
I.e.: Then shall we all walk WITH OUR FEET. I love this type of absurdist tautology.  Like ‘all the trees were made of wood’ (Laurie Anderson) or ‘there is water at the bottom of the ocean’ (David Byrne).

But here it’s so anticlimactic.

And the glossary informs me this speech is based on the Prophecies of Merlin – which were the 2012 theories of Shakespeare’s time, spreading fear and forecasting all sorts of colorful apocalyptic doom (famine, downpours of blood, etc.)  So perhaps the absurdity was a way to undercut the scaremongering of the day.

And yes, I’m considering the source.  It’s not like the rest of the fool’s speeches aren’t full of contradictions and absurdities.

But I think here in the soggy depths of Lear’s despair, I was expecting the speech, and when I read ‘when priests are more in word than matter’ –  I thought ‘oooh, hang on, here it comes!’.  The dang fool fooled me.  And doesn’t it have the makings of a great speech?  If only it had been injected with a little vitriol instead of deflated with absurdity.  If only it had that edge, that Shakespeare Psych… I could see it silkscreened onto t-shirts, championed by the disaffected, referred to in hallowed halls as simply ‘The Fools Speech’.

But best not to dwell.  That way madness lies.

King Lear – Anger Hath a Privilege

Act II continued…

When Cornwall breaks up the one-sided brawl between Kent and Oswald he says ‘You beastly knave, have you no reverence?’

And Kent answers ‘Yes, sir, but anger hath a privilege‘.

Anger trumps propriety.  The language of Shakespeare may not translate seamlessly to today, but his insight into human nature – wow.   Doesn’t this sound familiar? The conviction that you have a right to act with impunity because you’re angry?  Throw a punch, name call, dominate the conversation.  His insights may not always speak favorably of us humans, but there’s no denying a persistent trenchancy.

Another few interesting quotes from Act II before heading into Act III and certain madness:

Lear: O, how this mother swells up toward my heart!
This mother?  Turns out ‘The Mother’ was the name given to hysteria.  And ‘hysteria’ translates literally to mean something like ‘diseased womb’.Does raise the modern feminist’s hackles.   But imagine PMS, postpartum depression, pregnancy mood swings  – conditions that these days we accept with a shrug ‘eh, hormones, what can you do?’ – what a mystery it all must have been in Shakespeare’s time.  All starting with menses, all amplified by pregnancy – all that crazy womb stuff.  And have to wonder – was there something in the diet/lifestyle/beliefs of Shakespeare’s era that heightened the effects of estrogen?

Lastly, Lear on why we should not disparage excess:
Allow not nature more than nature needs,
Man’s life is cheap as beast’s.
You know, the more I think about this, the more sense it makes.  Yes, yes, opposable thumbs, rational thought, all very noteworthy differences in the man v beast argument – but the ability to aspire – that may just be the clincher.

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