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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2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. dsgetch
    Feb 07, 2011 @ 08:28:19

    I get the sense of sixteenth century Archie Bunker complaining into his ale. “We pay good money for this play and then everybody dies at the end? What the hell was that?”

    Nowadays Shakespeare is gospel, so we don’t change it. No matter how flashy we make Romeo and Juliet, neither of them gets up at the end. That would be wrong.

    But I don’t think we’ve grown beyond the need to have our stories packaged sweetly for our consumption. Sure, Bruce Willis dies at the end of Armageddon, but 6,000,000,000 other people live. Plus he gets a major self-indulgent death scene, too boot.

    If Shakespeare were working in Hollywood today, he would have to add something sweet to send us home with. Downer endings are risky to the bottom line. I think I’ve even noticed that leaking into the independent film market as well. Which is probably evidence that the independent film market isn’t quite as independent as the label would suggest.

    For me, personally, look at how traumatized I was by the unhappy ending of a movie made nearly 80 years ago:

    “Well, Denham, the airplanes got him.”
    “Oh no, it wasn’t the airplanes. It was beauty killed the beast. ”

    Bummer.

    Reply

  2. Sue
    Feb 07, 2011 @ 17:02:52

    Okay this sent me on quite a hunt – I read that last line and thought it sounded Shakespearean – it’s that absence of ‘who’ or ‘that’. All you need do is replace ‘it was’ with a ’twas. I watched the original scene on youtube – but he definitely says ‘it was’.

    So I started wondering – that’s an odd grammatical structure for the 30s – was it a quote? Maybe from The Hunchback of Notre Dame? Not that I can find. All searches point back to Kong.

    Then I searched on ’twas beauty killed the beast’ – and wow, I’m not alone, this quote has been reflexively Shakespearized by the masses.

    Agree with your thoughts on film. And confess I’m pretty much that way with the visual medium – there are rules I want met before I invest my time. I want it to conform to my intrinsic sense of – maybe not fairness, but at least a balance of some sort – and I don’t think I put those same constraints on novels.

    With film, like you were saying, I’m fine with tragedy if there’s some kind of ameliorating causality at work – like, yes, we’ve lost Bruce, but that’s compensated by those 6,000,000,000 lives saved (or just about… I really liked Moonlighting). (This, btw, is why Titanic didn’t work for me – the Kate/Leo story was just not a strong enough offset for the tragedy – that, and it was cheesy as hell – storyline should have followed Molly Brown). Strikes me the most well-known remake of Romeo and Juliet and my fave musical, ends with Maria alive, and the Sharks and Jets uniting in grief.

    Maybe because film can be so affecting and immediate, and the brain interprets it as an actual event on some level – it can definitely leave traces of trauma like an actual event – maybe that’s why it faces more constraints and expectations from the audience. We’re protecting ourselves. I mean, you’re still grieving the ape, if you’d read King Kong the book do you think this would be the case?

    I can’t remember which script doc said it, but always comes to mind, especially with certain films: “People don’t mind being told life is tragic, but they don’t want to be told life is shit.”

    Reply

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