David Bruce: William Shakespeare’s KING LEAR: A Retelling in Prose — Act 1, Scenes 2-3

— 1.2 —

Holding a letter while alone in a room in the Earl of Gloucester’s castle, Edmund said to himself, “You, Nature, are my goddess; to your law my services are bound. The laws of Nature are better than the laws of Civilization. Why should I stand in the midst of pestilential customs and permit the finely and curiously detailed laws of nations to deprive me of what I want just because I am some twelve or fourteen months younger than Edgar, my brother.

“Why am I a bastard? Why am I therefore regarded as base? My proportions are as well put together, my mind as noble and refined, and my appearance as like my father’s as is Edgar’s, who is the son of my father’s wife. Why do they brand people like me with the words ‘base,’ ‘baseness,’ and ‘bastardy’? They call me base, but am I base?

“I am a person who, having been created as the result of lusty stolen natural pleasure, aka adultery, has acquired more beneficial qualities, which are both physical and mental as well as energetic, than a whole tribe of fools who were created in a dull, stale, tired bed — the result of a long marriage — in between bedtime and morning.

“Well, then, legitimate Edgar, I must have your land and other inheritance. Our father’s love is the same for the bastard Edmund and for the legitimate Edgar — that’s a fine word: ‘legitimate’!

“Well, my legitimate Edgar, if this letter I have forged succeeds, and if my plot thrives, Edmund the base shall overtop and surpass Edgar the legitimate.

“I grow; I prosper. Now, gods, stand up for bastards!”

The Earl of Gloucester entered the room. Upset by recent events, he talked to himself.

“Kent has thus been banished! And the angry King of France has departed! And King Lear left last night! He has limited his power! He is now confined to an allowance! All this was done suddenly, as if he had been pricked by a gad — a spear!”

Seeing his illegitimate son, he said, “Edmund, how are you? What is the news?”

“If it please your lordship, there is no news.”

He hastily put away the letter he had forged — and looked as if he had a secret reason for putting it out of sight.

“Why are you so eager to put away that letter?” the Earl of Gloucester asked.

“I know no news, my lord,” Edmund replied.

“What letter were you reading?”

“I was reading nothing, my lord.”

“No?” the Earl of Gloucester said. “Why then did you need to put it in your pocket with such a terrible display of haste? By definition, nothing has no need to hide itself. Let me see it. Come, if it really is nothing, I shall not need spectacles to read it because it is nothing rather than something.”

“Please, sir, pardon me,” Edmund said. “It is a letter from my brother, and I have not read it all, but judging from the part that I have read, I find it not fit for you to read.”

His curiosity aroused, the Earl of Gloucester said, “Give me the letter, sir.”

“I shall offend, I see, whether I keep it or give it to you to read. The content of the letter, judging from the part I read, is offensive.”

“Let me see it! Let me see it!”

“I hope, for my brother’s sake, that he wrote this letter only as a trial or test of my virtue,” Edmund said.

The Earl of Gloucester read the letter out loud:

This policy of reverence for old age makes bitter the best years of our lives, keeps our fortunes from us until our own old age cannot relish and enjoy our fortunes. I begin to find useless and foolish bondage in the oppression made by aged tyranny, which holds command over us, not because it has power, but because we allow it to. Come to me so that I may speak more about this. If our father would sleep until I waked him, you would enjoy half of his income forever, and live the beloved of your brother, EDGAR.”

The Earl of Gloucester said, “Ha! This is conspiracy! He wrote about my death: ‘If our father would sleep until I waked him, you would enjoy half of his income.’ My son Edgar! Did he write this? Does he have the heart and brain that this thought bred in?”

The Earl of Gloucester said to Edmund, “When did you get this letter? Who brought it to you?”

“It was not brought to me, my lord,” Edmund said. “There’s the cunning of it. I found this letter in my bedroom — it had been thrown through the window.”

“Do you know whether the handwriting is your brother’s?”

“If the content of the letter were good, my lord, I would swear that it was his handwriting, but because of the content, I would prefer that the handwriting were not his.”

“It is his handwriting,” the Earl of Gloucester said.

“True, my lord,” Edmund said. “It is his handwriting, but I hope his heart is not in the content.”

“Has he ever before tried to find out what you think about this business of taking my income and making me a ward?”

“Never, my lord, but I have heard him often maintain that it is fitting that, when sons are at a mature age, and fathers are declining, the father should be a ward to the son, and the son should manage the father’s income.”

“Oh, he is a villain — a villain! This is the same opinion that he expressed in the letter! He is an abhorrent villain! He is an unnatural, detestable, brutish villain! He is worse than brutish! Go and find him. I’ll arrest him — that abominable villain! Where is he?”

“I do not know for certain, my lord,” Edmund said. “If it shall please you to suspend your indignation against my brother until you can get from him better testimony and evidence of his intent, you shall run a safe course; whereas, if you violently proceed against him, mistaking his purpose, it would make a great gap in your own honor, and shake into pieces the heart of his obedience. I dare bet my life that he wrote this letter to test my affection for you, and that he had no more dangerous intention than that.”

“Do you really think so?” the Earl of Gloucester asked.

“If your honor judges it fitting, I will place you where you shall hear us talk about this, and with your own ears you shall learn for yourself what his intention was in writing the letter. This can be done without any further delay — we can do it this evening.”

“He cannot be such a monster —”

“I am sure that he is not,” Edmund said.

“— to his father, who so tenderly and entirely loves him. Heaven and Earth! Edmund, seek him out. Find him, and worm yourself into his confidence for me, please. Find a way — whatever way you think is best — to do this. I would give anything — including my own wealth and rank — to know the truth.”

“I will look for him, sir, immediately,” Edmund said. “I will carry out the business as I shall find means and let you know what I find out.”

“These recent eclipses of the Sun and Moon portend no good to us,” the Earl of Gloucester said. “Although human reason can explain these recent eclipses in various ways, yet all of Humankind finds itself scourged by the devastating consequences that follow the eclipses: Love cools, friendship falls off and declines, brothers divide, mutinies and riots occur in cities, discord occurs in countries; treason occurs in palaces, and the bond between son and father is cracked. This villain of mine — Edgar — comes under this prediction: the son goes against the father, the King falls away from his natural temperament, and the father goes against the child.

“We have already seen the best years. Now machinations, emptiness, treachery, and all ruinous disorders follow us disquietly and disturbingly to our graves.

“Edmund, find this villain — Edgar! You shall lose nothing by it; do it carefully.

“And the noble and true-hearted Kent has been banished! What is his offense? It is honesty! Strange!”

The Earl of Gloucester exited.

Alone, Edmund said to himself, “This is the excellent foolishness of the world, that, when bad things happen to us — which are often due to the excesses of our own behavior — we avoid taking responsibility. Instead, we regard the Sun, the Moon, and the stars as guilty of causing our disasters. We think that we were villains by necessity; fools by the compulsion of astrological stars; knaves, thieves, and traitors because of the predominance of astrological planets; drunkards, liars, and adulterers because of an enforced obedience to astrological planetary influence; and all that we are evil in we say was caused by supernatural astrological compulsion.

“What an admirable evasion of responsibility is made by a lecherous man when he says that a star caused his lusty disposition! My father had sexual intercourse with my mother under the Dragon’s Tail — the constellation called Drago. And my nativity took place under Ursa Major — the constellation called the Big Bear, in which Mars is predominant but in which Venus has influence. According to astrology, it follows that I am warlike and lecherous.”

He thrust his tongue between his lips and blew a raspberry, and then he added, “I would have been what I am even if the maidenliest star in the Heavens had twinkled on my bastardizing. Edgar —”

At this moment, Edgar entered the room.

“— and right on cue here he comes like the conclusion of an old comedy. Now I need to act with villainous melancholy, and heave a sigh like Tom o’Bedlam — an insane beggar — would.”

He said more loudly, so that Edgar would hear him, “Oh, these eclipses predict divisions and conflicts!”

Then he hummed to himself and pretended that he did not know that Edgar had entered the room.

“How are you, brother Edmund?” Edgar asked. “What serious contemplation are you engaged in?”

“I am thinking, brother, of a prediction I read the other day about what will follow these eclipses.”

“Do you concern yourself about that? Is that really something you want to waste your time on?”

“I promise you that the astrologer writes of very bad consequences, such as unkindness between the child and the parent; death, dearth, dissolutions of friendships that have lasted a long time; divisions in state, as well as menaces and maledictions against King and nobles; needless suspicions and distrusts, banishment of friends, loss of supporters, breaking up of marriages, and I know not what else.”

“How long have you been a devotee of astrology?”

“Come, come; when did you last see my father?”

“Why, just last night.”

“Did you speak with him?” Edmund asked.

“Yes, for two hours.”

“Did you part on good terms? Did you notice any displeasure in him by his words or in his countenance?”

“None at all,” Edgar replied.

“Think about how you may have offended him, and at my entreaty please stay away from him until some time has passed and lessened the heat of his displeasure, which right now so rages in him that his doing physical harm to you would not stop his anger.”

“Some villain has done me wrong and has been spreading malicious lies about me,” Edgar said.

“I think that you are right,” Edmund said. “Please, stay away from him and keep your emotions under control until the intensity of his rage lessens. Also, I ask you to go with me to my quarters, from whence I will bring you at the appropriate time to hear my lord speak. Please, go now. Here’s my key. If you need to be outside my quarters, go armed.”

“Armed, brother!” Edgar said, astonished.

“Brother, I advise you the best I know how. Arm yourself. Carry weapons. I am not an honest man if I know of any good intention toward you right now. I have told you what I have seen and heard, but only faintly. I have told you nothing like the horrible reality of our father’s anger toward you. Please, go now.”

“Shall I hear from you soon?”

“I will do what I can to help you.”

Edgar exited, and Edmund said to himself, “I have a credulous father! And I have a noble brother, whose nature is so far from doing anyone harm that he thinks that no one would do him harm. On his foolish and honest nature my deceptions work well! I see the treachery ahead of me that I need to do. Let me, if not by birth, have lands by wit. All with me is meet that I can fashion fit. If I cannot get lands through inheritance, I will get them through treachery. I am willing to do whatever it takes.”

— 1.3 —

King Lear was now staying with Goneril in the palace of her husband, the Duke of Albany. In a room of the palace, Goneril was talking to her steward, Oswald.

“Did my father strike my gentleman because he scolded his Fool — his court jester?” Goneril asked.

“Yes, madam.”

“By day and night he wrongs me; every hour he bursts out into one gross offense or other that sets us all at odds and throws us into tumult. I’ll not endure it. His Knights grow riotous, and he himself upbraids us about every trifle. When he returns from hunting, I will not speak with him; tell him that I am sick. If you slack off your former services to him, you shall do what I want you to do. I will take responsibility for your slothful service to him.”

“He’s coming, madam,” Oswald said. “I hear him.”

Horns sounded.

“Be as casually disobedient to him as you please — you and your fellow servants,” Goneril said. “I want this to come up for discussion. If he dislikes the servants’ behavior, let him go to my sister, whose mind and mine, I know, are in agreement that we will not be ruled by him. He is a foolish and idle old man, who still wants to exert the authority that he has given away! Now, by my life, old fools are babes again; and they must be treated with rebukes in place of flatteries — when they abuse those flatteries. Remember what I tell you.”

“I will, madam.”

“And let his Knights have colder looks from you and the other servants. The consequences that develop from it do not matter. Tell the other servants that. I want to cause a confrontation so that I can tell my father what I think. I’ll write immediately to my sister to tell her to do the same things that I am doing.

“Go, and prepare for dinner.”

***

Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

***

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