King Lear – When we are born we cry that we are come to this great stage of fools

What a great line. Perfectly captures the mood of the disillusioned, weary King. It’s Act IV, he’s nearing the end, he’s ready to leave the stage.

But there’s still a little fight left in our unhinged friend – Lear follows the quote with a suggestion they put felt on their horses’ hooves so he can sneak up on his son-in-laws and ‘kill kill kill kill’. Sure, he goes a bit off the rails at the end, but it struck me as a pretty good idea, muffling horse hooves for some kind of tactical advantage, and I wondered if it had ever been tried… could only find one reference – Cortes tried to escape the Aztec town he was being held in by muffling horses hooves (although this proved unsuccessful, it was small pox which seemed to be a deciding factor in eventual Spanish victory –establishing a tragic theme of Spanish – Indian relations). Cortes’s attempted escape occurred in 1520, about 80 years before Shakespeare presumably wrote Lear – long enough for the story to circulate. Does make you wonder. Okay, makes me wonder.

So Lear meets his end – his heart stops soon after he’s brought the lifeless Cordelia: ‘Why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life, but thou no breath at all?’ And while one of his loyal band tries to urge him back to life, Kent-No-Longer-In-Disguise says ‘O let him pass! He would hate him that upon the rack upon this tough world stretch him out longer’. A few pretty perfunctory sounding lines later the curtain descends (i.e. the play ends, not being symbolic here). Pretty dark. Have to wonder what the first few generations of playgoers thought of this. The majority of modern audiences are prepared for the ending – but maybe those early audiences left the theater and took to their ale angrily with a ‘what the hell was the point of that?’ History suggests maybe so. During the late 1600s for a while it was performed with a re-written happy ending. Can understand the impulse – only have to change a few lines on the last page or so and the groundlings could leave whistling. But not a great idea – if Lear goes off reunited with daughter and sanity, all that wailing and fate-bemoaning comes off as an unroyal bout of histrionics. Eventually audiences were able to cope with the ending – and gravitas was restored.

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