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.


King Lear – One Word Wonders


Peace, Smulkin! (Ac3, Sc4, L148) The word comes from Harsnett’s Declaration, a tract written by the Archbishop of York that casts a skeptical eye over belief in witchcraft and devils – not The Devil, but those devils with a lowercase d he dispatched to create mischief on earth.  Enter Smulkin.

(Aside To Those Who Care: First two lines from the Declaration: Seduced and Divided Brethren, There be two grand witches in the world, that seduce the soul of the simple and lead them to perdition: Lying wonders, and Counterfeit Zeale. Love that.  Hey seduced simpletons.  Listen up.  Gonna drop some wisdom on your pointy-hatted heads. Kudos to the Schoenberg Center for Electronic Text and Imaging for providing that.  I wonder – does anyone ever get used to reading those f’s as s’s??)

Smulkin  – gotta say, that’s some smart branding, your archbishopship, the very sound of it scoffs at any claim to evilness.  Peace, Smulkin! Sounds like someone scolding an over-amorous poodle.

Not surprised that Shakespeare passed over the other devils’ names on offer from Harsnett: Modo, Mahu.  They just don’t hold a candle to skulkin’ Smulkin.   It’s the ‘kin’ syllable that seals its fate as cutesy.  Which leads us to:


This time perfect collusion between sound and meaning.  Thy minikin mouth (Ac3, Sc6, L47).  Minnikin means dainty, small – a pretty little thing.  It’s mini + kin, what else is there to say?   It just begs to be said through pouted lips.


The wrathful skies gallow the very wanderers of the dark (Ac3 Sc2 L45)

We English speakers are famous, or infamous, amongst other language-speaking peoples for turning nouns into verbs.  ‘He bicycled to the store’, ‘She googled it’.  They think we’re weird.

And somewhere around 1400s that just what happened to gallow – it started to be used as a verb… and wow, what a goody, I want it back in the common lexicon, stat.  It means to terrify, and of course that whole line is nifty, but it’s gallow that provides the perfect chill.  And completely makes the case for our tendency to verbize (oops I did it again).


It means useless. Very bootless (Ac5  Sc3 L357)  Initially I liked this one because it provides an image which gives a specificity that useless doesn’t.  Bootless.  Can’t walk very far, especially not in the winter, can’t kick someone without breaking a toe – what good are ya?

Then I consulted the OED and found out it doesn’t derive from the modern meaning of boot at all. It comes from the boot (or bote) which means ‘profit, advantage’ – think pirate booty.  So bootless means without advantage, and saying something’s bootless means there’s no profit in doing it.  Someone ‘getting the boot’ was not always such a bad thing…

King Lear – O, That Way Madness Lies… whatever.

Most people who love the English language have a similar intensity of feeling for the word ‘whatever’.  They hate it. Not me. Just say it – the initial wuh, the trailing ‘ever’ –it’s a calming exhalation.  Add in the meaning, it’s a zen mantra.  Cutting the mind off from the unproductive routes it was heading down, the regrets, the anger, the ‘what-ifs’ and ‘if onlys’.   It’s an instant perspective shift, disguised as a slacker credo.

King Lear finds his ‘whatever’ in Act 3, with ‘O, that way madness lies’, when he’s trying to work out the reasons for Regan and Goneril’s ‘filial ingratitude’.   How many times have you driven yourself crazy trying to figure out someone else’s motivations?  It’s those pattern seeking minds of ours, with a bit of rationality tucked in at the front.  Keeps tasking us with trying to translate emotional muck into logical bullet points.   Sometimes you just have to raise your shoulders and let them drop: whatever.  I use one expression or the other depending on scale and gravitas:

Wait – did the barista just scowl at me? I’m here every other day and always tip and – Oh, whatever.

Wait – did the supreme court just decide to hand over unprecedented influence to corporations in a blatantly partisan, screw-the-people, why not complete the transition of democracy to a billionaire’s club kind of plutocra  – O, that way madness lies.

Not that you should use these in place of action.  Protest.  Vote.  Seek vengeance on that father-killing uncle. But when you’re focusing on something that’s just stoking destructive behavior – whether it’s staring into a beer and sighing, howling at the weather, or going on your third extended rant of a Facebook status, well then, mes amis, I believe it is time to summon your personal whatever mantra whichever it is.

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.

King Lear – Highlight Reel II

Act II

One of my favorite parts.  Kent has been banished by Lear but remains loyal, takes up a disguise and stays in England.  He comes across Oswald (a steward of Goneril’s that treated Lear poorly) and pummels him verbally and physically.

On to the  insults:
Oswald: What dost thou use me for? I know thee not.
Kent: A knave, a rascal, an eater of broken meats; a base, proud, beggarly, three-suited, hundred-pound, filthy, worsted-stocking knave; a lily-livered, action-taking, whoreson, glass-gazing, superserviceable, finical rogue; one-trunk-inheriting slave; one that would be a bawd in way of good service, and art nothing but the composition of  a knave, beggar, coward, and the son and heir of a mongrel bitch; one of whom I will beat into clamorous whining if thou deny’st the least syllable of thy addition.

These insults can be sub-divided into three main thrusts:

  1. You ugly because you poor.
  2. You ugly because you an affected toady.
  3. You ugly because <standard, timeless insults>

Obviously, for a noble like Kent, what could be more condemning than being unlanded nongentry?

Eater of Broken Meats
Broken meats were the cast offs after the good bits have been taken up, which generally, superserviceable whoresons could not afford.  Wonder if there were broken meat stalls?  Wrens’ livers, etc etc.  So much of Shakespeare begs for a Python interpretation.

Folger glossary tells me that servants were given three suits a year, hence the three-suited slam.  Servitude is another strike against Oswald. He is ‘not-one-of-us’.  Of course, Kent can’t reveal that he’s one of the us that Oswald’s not one of.

Worsted – i.e. he wears wool as opposed to the more elegant silk, another strike against the working man.  And a quick lookup in the OED tells me ‘worsted’ was also used in Shakespeare’s time to mean defeated.  Picture sad, sagging wool stockings.

One-trunk inheriting slave
The glossary says this means all he possesses could fit in one trunk.  I think this cuts a little deeper, indicating that all his parents could bequeath fit in a trunk.  Imagine, during the time of primogeniture what a heated subject inheritance must have been . He’s saying not only does Oswald have nothing he was left nothing… There’s probably a whole ‘yo mamma’ element here (and of course ‘yo papa’ element).

In Shakespeare’s will he infamously left Anne Hathaway his ‘second-best bed’.  I think the man who was concerned enough about status to buy himself a noble title, very likely thought about inheritance, and the implication behind what was left to heirs.


Proud, superserviceable, glass-gazing, finical rogue

Superserviceable meaning way too solicitous, and finical meaning – I like this OED description: ‘over-scrupulously finished’ – these words do a great job of conjuring up a smarmily obsequious servant, who devotes off hours to preening.  Oily is the word I keep thinking of, if not by sight by nature.


coward, knave, son of a bitch, lily-livered, whoreson, hundred-pound etc

While maybe not as fun as ‘finical rogue’ there’s no denying the impact of a classic.  Then again, lily-livered, (which I tend to associate more with John Wayne than Shakespeare), was not a classic in Shakespeare’s time.  The OED attributes its first use in ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’.   Instant classic, then.

Had to investigate – why ‘liver’?  Well, here’s why: the liver was considered the epicenter of passions and love – so a liver drained of blood – would indicate someone who was all around passive and milquetoast, and well, bloodless.  As a pretty gruesome aside, it’s not hard to imagine why they would think so, the liver has that deep red color, full of blood – if I didn’t know much about anatomy, that’s where I’d think the drama was happening.

And btw ‘bitch’ would have more of a connotation of a loose, lascivious woman, not the domineering, bossy connotation it has today.  So just expanding on the whoreson theme, in case anything was left unclear.

Okay, ‘knave’ may not qualify as timeless, but it was a classic in its day, and it’s surprising how many of these have a place in our culture, or something very close to it does – like that hundred-pound reference. ’98 pound weakling’ was used to sell body-building equipment back in the not-so-long-ago.  Body issues will always provide an easy target.

Anyway, after the onslaught,  Regan and Cornwall swoop in, stop Kent and demand to know Oswald’s getting such a dedicated thrashing.  Kent basically just shrugs and says: ‘eh, I don’t like his face’.

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.

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