David Bruce: William Shakespeare’s KING LEAR: A Retelling in Prose — Act 1, Scene 4

— 1.4 —

In a hall in the castle of the Duke of Albany and his wife, Goneril, Kent stood. He was in disguise.

He said to himself, “If I can disguise my voice with an accent, I may succeed in that purpose for which I razed my likeness by, for example, taking a razor to my beard. Now, banished Kent, if you can serve where you stand condemned, it may happen that your master, whom you respect, shall find you working hard to help him.”

Some horns sounded, announcing that King Lear had returned from his hunt. King Lear, his Knights, and some attendants entered the hall.

“Let me not wait even a moment for dinner; go and get it ready,” King Lear ordered.

An attendant exited.

Seeing the disguised Kent, King Lear asked, “How are you? And what are you?”

“A man, sir.”

“What do you profess? What do you want from us?” King Lear asked.

By “profess,” King Lear meant “profession” or “special calling,” but the disguised Kent interpreted it as meaning “claim.”

He said, “I profess to be no less than I seem. I will serve the man truly who will put me in trust, I will respect a man who is honest, I will converse and keep company with a man who is wise and says little, I will fear the judgment of my god, I will fight when I cannot avoid fighting, and I will eat no fish.”

By “eat no fish,” the disguised Kent meant that he was a Protestant and so did not have to eat fish on Friday, that he was a meat-eater and so a hearty man, and that he did not consort with prostitutes, aka “fish.”

“Who are you?” King Lear asked.

“A very honest-hearted fellow, and as poor as the King,” the disguised Kent replied.

He took a chance in making that particular joke. King Lear had given his wealth to his two oldest daughters, and he was poor, especially for a King, but he took the joke well, replying, “If you are as poor for a subject as he is for a King, you are poor enough. What do you want?”

“Service,” the disguised Kent said. “I want a job.”

“Who would you serve?”


“Do you know me, fellow?”

“No, sir, but you have something in your countenance that makes me want to call you my master.”

“What’s that?”


“What services can you do?” King Lear asked.

“I can keep an ethical secret, ride, run, mar an excellent tale when I tell it, and deliver a plain message bluntly. I can speak plainly, but do not expect me to speak like a courtier. That which ordinary men are fit for, I am qualified in, and my best quality is diligence.”

“How old are you?”

“I am not so young, sir, as to love a woman for singing, nor so old as to dote on her for anything. The years on my back number forty-eight,” the disguised Kent said.

“Follow me; you shall serve me,” King Lear said. “If I like you no worse after dinner, I will not part from you yet. You will stay in my employ for a while at least.”

He then called, “Dinner, ho, dinner! I ordered my dinner a while ago! Where’s my knave? My Fool? Go, one of you, and call my Fool hither.”

An attendant exited.

Oswald, who was loyal to Goneril, entered the hall.

King Lear said, “You, you, fellow, where’s my daughter?”

Oswald said, “Excuse me, sir,” and exited without answering King Lear’s question. This was no way to treat a King.

Perturbed, King Lear said, “What did the fellow there say to me? Call the blockhead back.”

A Knight left to get Oswald.

“Where’s my Fool?” King Lear shouted. “I think the world’s asleep.”

The Knight returned.

“Where’s that mongrel?” King Lear asked, referring to Oswald.

“He says, my lord, that your daughter is not well,” the Knight said.

“Why didn’t the slave come back to me when I called him?”

“Sir, he answered me in the rudest manner that he would not.”

“He would not!”

“My lord, I don’t know what the matter is, but in my opinion, your Highness is not being treated with that ceremonious affection that used to be shown to you,” the Knight said. “I have noticed that a great lessening of kindness appears in the servants in general as well as in the Duke himself and your daughter.”

“Do you really think so?” King Lear asked.

The Knight replied, “Please, pardon me, my lord, if I am mistaken. My duty is to speak up when I think your Highness has been wronged.”

“You have simply reminded me of what I myself have thought. I have perceived a very faint neglect recently, which I have rather blamed on my own possible over-scrupulousness about how I am treated rather than a deliberate intent on their part to be unkind to me. I will look further into it. But where’s my Fool? I have not seen him these two days.”

“Since the young lady Cordelia has gone to France, sir, the Fool has much grieved.”

“Tell me no more about that,” King Lear said. “I have noted it well.”

He ordered an attendant, “Go and tell my daughter I want to speak to her.”

The attendant exited.

King Lear ordered another attendant, “Tell my Fool to come here.”

The attendant exited.

Oswald reentered the hall.

King Lear said to him angrily, “Come here, sir. Who am I, sir?”

“My lady’s father,” Oswald replied.

Wrong answer.

“‘My lady’s father’! That’s like calling me ‘my lord’s knave’! You misbegotten dog! You slave! You cur!”

“Begging your pardon, I am none of these things, my lord,” Oswald said, staring King Lear in the face.

He was treating King Lear as an equal.

“Do you bandy looks with me, you rascal?” King Lear said, hitting him.

“I’ll not be hit, my lord,” Oswald said.

“Nor tripped neither, you base football player,” Kent said, tripping him.

In this society, members of the upper class played tennis and bandied the ball back and forth, while members of the lower class played football, aka soccer.

“I thank you, fellow,” King Lear said to the disguised Kent. “You serve me well, and I’ll treat you well.”

The disguised Kent yelled at Oswald, “Come, sir, get up and go away! I’ll teach you to recognize differences in rank! Get out! Get out! If you want to be thrown on the floor again so you can measure your clumsy length again, stay for a moment, but it will go better for you if you leave! Wise up, and get out of here!”

The disguised Kent threw Oswald out of the hall.

King Lear said, “Now, my friendly fellow, I thank you. Here is a down payment on the money you will earn by being in my service.”

The Fool entered the hall as King Lear gave the disguised Kent some money.

A Fool is not a fool. Many Fools are quite wise.

The Fool said, “Let me hire him, too. Here’s my coxcomb.”

The Fool offered the disguised Kent his Fool’s hat, which was designed to look like the coxcomb of a rooster.

“How are you, my fine fellow?” King Lear asked his Fool.

The Fool said to the disguised Kent, “Sirrah, you had best take my coxcomb.”

“Sirrah” was a title used when addressing a person of inferior social status.

“Why, Fool?” the disguised Kent asked.

“Why, for taking the part of a person who is out of favor,” the Fool said. “If you can’t smile as the wind sits, you will catch cold shortly. If you can’t curry favor with the people in power, you will find yourself out in the cold. So there, take my coxcomb. Why, this fellow has banished two of his daughters, and did the third a blessing against his will; if you follow him, you had better wear my coxcomb because you will be a fool.”

King Lear had banished, in a way, his two older daughters. When he had possessions and power, they had shown respect to him. Now that they had his possessions and power, they no longer needed to show respect to him. King Lear had “banished” his two older daughters out of his intimate circle of family. He had also given Cordelia a blessing — although unintentionally — by disinheriting her and not giving the dowry to her husband that he had promised to give. Because of this, Cordelia had not married the materialistic Duke of Burgundy; instead, she was now Queen of France.

The Fool said to King Lear, “My uncle, I wish that I had two coxcombs and two daughters!”

“Why, my boy?” King Lear asked.

“If I gave my two daughters all my other possessions, I would keep my two coxcombs for myself. There’s my coxcomb; beg another one from your daughters.”

The Fool was calling King Lear twice the fool the Fool was.

“Take heed, sirrah,” King Lear said. “Remember the whip.”

Fools made jokes and entertained Kings; they had much leeway in what they could say, but if they went too far, they could be whipped. Right now, the Fool was calling the King a fool. The Fool was speaking truth to power — or former power — and King Lear did not like what he was hearing.

The Fool said to him, “Truth is a dog that must go to kennel outside; he must be whipped out of doors. In contrast, Lady the flattering bitch is allowed to stand by the fire and stink.”

“This pains me!” King Lear said. He was beginning to wonder whether what the Fool said was true.

“Sirrah, I’ll teach you a speech,” the Fool said.

“Go ahead.”

The Fool said, “Listen to it carefully, my uncle.”

He sang this song:

Have more than you show,

Speak less than you know,

Lend less than you owe,

Ride more than you walk,

Learn more than you hear,

Don’t stake all on a single throw.

Leave your drink and your whore,

And keep indoors,

And you shall have more

Than two tens to a score.”

The Fool gave wise advice in the beginning of the song, but the conclusion was nonsensical. The hearers expected the song to end up something like “And you shall have more / As your net worth becomes more.” However, sometimes we can do the right things and yet suffer a bad result.We can also do things for good reasons and yet suffer a bad result.

As an octogenarian, King Lear wanted to pass his power and possessions on to his daughters because he sincerely believed that they sincerely loved him. Much could be said in support of his decision, but the consequences of it were turning out not to be what he expected and he was beginning to suspect that he had acted wrongly, both in giving all his wealth and power away and in how he had treated Cordelia. In many cases, as when an elderly parent is beginning to show signs of senile dementia, the elderly parent ought to become the ward of his or her children, but King Lear, although he was an octogenarian, was vigorous enough to go hunting with his Knights.

“This song is nothing, Fool,” King Lear said.

“Then it is like the breath of a lawyer who has not received a fee,” the Fool said. “Lawyers will not do good work until they are paid, and you have paid me nothing for my song. Can you make any use of nothing, my uncle?”

“Why, no, boy,” King Lear said. “Nothing can be made out of nothing.”

The Fool said to the disguised Kent, “Please, tell him that nothing is the amount the rent of his land comes to. He will not believe a Fool.”

King Lear had given away all his land — and all the income that his land had formerly brought him. Now he had no income; he had only the allowance his two older daughters were supposed to give him — an allowance that was supposed to include the pay of a hundred Knights to attend him.

“This is a bitter and sarcastic Fool!” King Lear said.

“Do you know the difference, my boy, between a bitter fool and a sweet fool?” the Fool asked.

“No, lad,” King Lear replied. “Teach me.”

“That lord who counseled you to give away all your land, place him here by me,” the Fool said. “You can stand for him. The sweet fool and the bitter fool will immediately appear.”

He pointed to himself and said, “The sweet one is the one in motley here.”

He pointed to King Lear and said, “The bitter one is the one found there.”

No lord had counseled King Lear to give away all his land; it had been the King’s own idea.

“Do you call me fool, boy?” King Lear asked.

Speaking truth to former power, the Fool said, “All your other titles you have given away; the title of ‘fool’ is the one you were born with. You cannot give it away.”

The disguised Kent, who was another man who had spoken truth to power, said to King Lear, “This is not altogether fool, my lord.” He meant that what the Fool was saying was not altogether foolish, but instead included much sense.

The Fool deliberately misunderstood the sentence as saying that the Fool did not have all the foolishness of the world. He said, “No, truly, for the lords and great men will not let me have all the foolishness. Even if I had a monopoly on foolishness, they would have part of it. And this is true of ladies, too — they will not let me have all the foolishness to myself; they’ll be snatching foolishness away from me.”

The Fool paused, and then he added, “Give me an egg, my uncle, and I’ll give you two crowns.”

Crowns are coins, and they are the headwear of a King, and they are the tops of heads.

“What two crowns shall they be?” King Lear asked.

“Why, after I have cut the egg in the middle, and eaten up the egg, what will remain will be the two halves of the eggshell — the two crowns of the egg.”

King Lear had given away his valuables: his land and his income. He had kept the title of King, but that was getting him little respect now.

The Fool continued, “When you split your crown in the middle, and gave away both parts, you behaved as foolishly as if you carried your donkey on your back as you trod over the dirt — you had as little wit in your bald crown when you gave your golden crown away. If I speak like myself — a Fool — in saying this, then let the person who first finds it true be whipped. Such a person is a Fool, and Fools are whipped, and such a person tells the truth, and people who tell the truth in this society are whipped.”

The Fool sang this song:

Fools had never less wit in a year;

For wise men are grown foolish,

They know not how their wits to wear,

Their manners are so apish.”

The Fool’s song stated that fools were not much needed now because wise men were acting like fools — the wise men were imitating, aka aping, fools.

King Lear asked, “Since when have you been so full of songs, sirrah?”

“I have made a habit of singing, my uncle, ever since you made your daughters your mothers, for when you gave them the whip, and pulled down your own pants —”

The Fool sang this song:

Then they for sudden joy did weep,

And I for sorrow sung,

That such a King should act like a child,

And go among the fools.”

The Fool added, “Please, my uncle, keep a schoolmaster who can teach your Fool to lie: I would like to learn to lie.”

“If you lie, sirrah, we’ll have you whipped,” King Lear said, using the royal plural.

“I wonder how you and your daughters are related,” the Fool said. “They’ll have me whipped for speaking the truth, you will have me whipped for lying, and sometimes I am whipped for holding my peace and saying nothing. I had rather be any kind of thing than a Fool, and yet I would not be you, my uncle — you have pared your wit on both sides, and left nothing in the middle.”

A Fool is supposed to be a half-wit, but King Lear had given away all of his wits along with everything else.

The Fool looked at the door and said, “Here comes one of the parings.”

Frowning, Goneril entered the hall.

“How are you, daughter!” King Lear said. “Your frown looks like a frontlet — a band going across your forehead. I think that you have been frowning too much lately.”

The Fool said to King Lear, “You were a fine fellow when you had no need to care about her frowning; now you are a zero without a number in front of it to give it value. I am better than you are now; I am a Fool, but you are nothing.”

Angry, Goneril frowned at the Fool.

The Fool said to Goneril, “Yes, indeed, I will hold my tongue; so your face orders me to, although you say nothing. Mum, mum.”

He sang this song:

He who keeps neither crust nor crumb,

Tired of everything, shall want some.”

Crust and crumb referred specifically to a loaf of bread, but metaphorically to everything. The Fool was saying that King Lear had given away all he had, and that he would find himself wanting to have some of his wealth and power back.

The Fool pointed to King Lear and said, “That’s a shelled peapod.”

A shelled peapod is empty of peas, the valued part of the peapod; the shelled peapod itself is worth nothing.

Goneril said to King Lear, her father, “Not only, sir, this your all-licensed Fool, who is permitted to make fun of everyone and everything, but others of your insolent retinue hourly carp and quarrel, breaking forth in rank and gross and not-to-be-endured riots. Sir, I had thought, by making this well known to you, to have found a sure remedy; but now I grow fearful, because of what you yourself have spoken and done only recently, that you protect this kind of behavior and encourage it by being permissive. If this is true, you are committing a fault that will not escape censure. Remedies for this misbehavior must be found, although in order to get a wholesome and healthy society, these remedies might be thought to be an offence to you and cause me shame, except that the necessity for such remedies will silence such criticism and instead be praised as a sensible course of action.”

The Fool said to King Lear, “For, you know, my uncle, the hedge-sparrow fed the cuckoo so long that it had its head bit off by its young. So, out went the candle, and we were left in the dark.”

The cuckoo bird lays its eggs in the nests of other birds such as the hedge-sparrow, which rears the cuckoo’s young, which grow larger than the hedge-sparrow and become a danger to it. The Fool’s point in telling this story was that King Lear was in danger from his ungrateful daughter — who might not even be his biological daughter. At the very least, Goneril was not treating King Lear with the devotion that a biological daughter ought to feel for her father.

Shocked at this treatment from his daughter, King Lear asked, “Are you our daughter?”

He was pointing out that Goneril ought to treat him with the respect due a father.

“Come, sir,” Goneril said, “I wish that you would make use of that good wisdom, of which I know that you have plenty, and put away these moods that recently have transformed you from what you rightly are.”

The Fool said, “May not an ass know when the cart draws the horse?”

The Fool was pointing out that things were backwards here. The father can criticize a daughter, but the daughter ought not to criticize the father.

He sang, “Whoop, Jug! I love you.”

“Jug” was a nickname for “Joan,” and “Joan” was a generic term for “whore.”

King Lear asked sarcastically, “Does anyone here know me? This is not Lear. Does Lear walk like this? Does he speak like this? Where are his eyes? Either his mind weakens, or his faculties are paralyzed — am I awake? It is not so. Who is it who can tell me who I am?”

The Fool answered, “Lear’s shadow — you are the shadow of King Lear.”

“I would like to know who I am because by the signs of sovereignty, knowledge, and reason, I should be falsely persuaded I had daughters.”

The Fool added, “— who will make you an obedient father.”

King Lear asked Goneril sarcastically, “What is your name, fair gentlewoman?”

“This pretense of amazement, sir, is much of the savor of your other new pranks,” Goneril said. “I ask you to understand my purposes correctly. As you are old and reverend, you should be wise. Here you are keeping a hundred Knights and squires; these men are so disordered, so debauched and bold, that our court, infected with their manners, looks like a riotous inn. Their pursuit of pleasure and lust makes our court more like a tavern or a brothel than a palace graced with the royal presence. This shame requires an immediate remedy; therefore, I ask that you — and if need be, I will forcefully take the thing I ask for — a little to reduce in number your train of followers. And let the remaining Knights, who shall still serve you, be such men as are suitable for your age, and know their own place and yours.”

“Darkness and devils!” King Lear shouted. “Saddle my horses; call my train of followers together!”

He shouted at Goneril, “Degenerate bastard! I’ll not trouble you any longer. I still have a daughter left.”

Goneril said, “You physically strike my servants, and the members of your disordered rabble make servants of their betters.”

The Duke of Albany, Goneril’s husband, entered the hall.

King Lear said, “Woe to the person who repents too late.”

He then said to the Duke of Albany, “Oh, sir, have you come? Is it your will? Speak, sir.”

He ordered his followers, who were shocked and were still standing still, “Prepare my horses.”

He then said to Goneril, “Ingratitude, you marble-hearted fiend, you are more hideous than a sea-monster when you show yourself in a child!”

“Please, sir, be patient,” the Duke of Albany said to King Lear. “Control yourself.”

King Lear said to Goneril, “Detested kite — you bird of prey! You lie! My train of followers are men of choice and rarest abilities who know all the particulars of their duty and exactly what they are to do, and they are very careful to live up to their excellent reputations.”

He then said to himself, “Oh, very small fault, how ugly did you seem to be in Cordelia! That very small fault, like an engine, wrenched the frame of my nature from its fixed foundations like a building being pried up — it drew from my heart all love for Cordelia and added to my bitterness.”

He hit himself in the head and shouted, “Oh Lear, Lear, Lear! Beat at this gate that let your folly and foolishness in and let your dear and considered judgment out!”

He said to his train of followers, “Let’s go; go, my people.”

The disguised Kent and the Knights left. The Fool remained.

The Duke of Albany said, “My lord, I am as guiltless as I am ignorant of what has upset you.”

“That may be true, my lord,” King Lear said.

He then cursed his daughter: “Hear, Nature, hear; dear goddess, hear! Suspend your purpose, if you intended to make this creature fruitful! Into her womb convey sterility! Dry up in her the organs of increase and birth and from her dishonored body never allow a babe to spring and honor her! If she must teem with an infant, create her child of spleen, so that it may live and be a perverse and unnatural torment to her! Let it stamp wrinkles in her youthful brow. Let it fret channels of falling tears in her cheeks. Let it turn all her mother’s pains and beneficial care of her child to mocking laughter and contempt so that she may feel how sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless and ungrateful child!”

He shouted, “Away! Away! Let’s leave!”

He exited.

The Duke of Albany asked his wife, Goneril, “Now, by the gods whom we adore, what is the cause of this?”

She replied, “Never afflict yourself by knowing the cause; instead, let his disposition have the scope that dotage gives it.”

King Lear returned; he was crying with anger.

He shouted, “What! Fifty of my followers released in a single moment! Within a fortnight of my giving you wealth and power!”

“What’s the matter, sir?” the Duke of Albany asked.

King Lear replied, “I’ll tell you.”

He said to Goneril, “Life and death! I am ashamed that you have the power to shake my manhood like this. I am ashamed that you can cause these hot tears, which break from me involuntarily. I am ashamed that you are worth the tears of a King. May pestilential gusts and fogs of unhealthy air fall upon you! May the very deep wounds — too deep to be probed and cleansed — of a father’s curse pierce every sense you have and cause you pain!”

He shouted, “Old foolish eyes, if you weep because of this cause again, I’ll pluck you out, and cast you, with the tears that you shed, on the ground to mix with clay.

“Has it come to this? Let it be so. I still have a daughter left who, I am sure, is kind and will offer comfort to her father. When she shall hear this about you, she’ll flay your wolvish visage with her fingernails. You shall find that I’ll resume the Kingly appearance that you think I have cast off forever. You shall — that I promise you!”

King Lear exited again. The Fool remained again.

Goneril said to her husband, “Did you see that, my lord?”

Preparatory to criticizing her, he said, “I cannot be so partial, Goneril, to the great love I bear you —”

“Be quiet, please,” Goneril said.

She called, “Oswald, come here!”

She said to the Fool, “You, sir, are more knave than Fool. Follow your master.”

The Fool called, “My uncle Lear, my uncle Lear, tarry and take the Fool with you.”

He sang this song:

A fox, when one has caught her,

And such a daughter,

Should surely be sent to the slaughter,

If my Fool’s cap would buy a halter, aka a noose,

And so the Fool follows after his master.”

The Fool exited.

Goneril said sarcastically, “This man has had ‘good’ counsel.”

She meant that this man — her father — had NOT received good counsel from the Fool.

She added, “A hundred Knights!”

She said sarcastically, “It is ‘politic’ and ‘safe’ to let him keep armed and ready a hundred Knights. Yes, that way on every dream, each rumor, each fancy, each complaint, and each dislike, he may protect his dotage with their powers, and hold our lives at his mercy.”

She shouted, “Oswald, I say!”

The Duke of Albany said, “Well, you may be fearing something that will not happen.”

“That is safer than being too trustful,” she replied. “Let me always take away the harms I fear; that is better than always fearing to be taken by harms. I know my father’s heart. What he has uttered, I have ordered to be written to my sister. If she should sustain him and his hundred Knights after I have showed their unfitness —”

Oswald entered the hall.

“How is it going now, Oswald?” Goneril asked. “Have you written that letter to my sister?”

“Yes, madam.”

“Take with you some company, and ride away on horseback and deliver the letter to my sister. Inform her in full of my particular fears, and add to them such reasons of your own as may strengthen it more. Go now, and quickly return.”

Oswald exited.

Her husband was looking at her. He was not pleased.

Goneril said to him, “No, no, my lord, your mild and gentle way of acting — although I myself do not condemn it — yet, begging your pardon, other people much more criticize you for lacking wisdom than praise you for your harmful mildness. Your leniency can result in danger.”

He replied, “How far your eyes may pierce the future I cannot tell; however, when we strive to make something better, often we mar what’s already well.”

Goneril started to speak: “No, because —”

He cut her off: “Well, we will see what the result of your actions will be.”


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved




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