David Bruce: William Shakespeare’s KING LEAR: A Retelling in Prose — Act 1, Scene – Act 2, Scene 1

— 1.5 —

In the courtyard of the Duke of Albany’s palace stood King Lear, the disguised Kent, and the Fool.

King Lear said to the disguised Kent, “Go ahead of us to Gloucester with this letter. Acquaint my daughter no further with anything you know than comes from her questions about the letter. Do not volunteer information. Be diligent in your journey; otherwise, I shall be there before you.”

“I will not sleep, my lord, until I have delivered your letter,” the disguised Kent said.

He exited.

The Fool said, “If a man’s brains were in his heels, wouldn’t it be in danger of suffering from chilblains?”

A chilblain is a painful and itchy swelling on skin that has been exposed to cold and then rapidly warmed up.

King Lear replied, “Yes, boy.”

“Then you ought to be merry because your wit and intelligence shall never go slipshod.”

King Lear laughed at the joke. He would not have to wear slippers — be slipper-shod — because he would not have chilblains on his brains. And it was good news that his brains would not be slipshod — characterized by disorganization and a lack of thought.

But why wouldn’t his brains be in his heels? One possible answer that was consistent with other things that the Fool had said was that King Lear had no brains. He had lost his brains — his wits — when he gave away his wealth and power.

The Fool said, “You shall see that your other daughter will treat you kindly because although she’s as like this daughter — Goneril — as a crab is like an apple, yet I can tell what I can tell. I know what I know.”

The Fool did not think that Regan would treat King Lear better than Goneril had treated him — he was punning. Regan would treat her father “kindly” — after her “kind.” Unfortunately, her kind was not good.

The Fool also thought about King Lear’s daughters Goneril and Regan that one daughter was as like the other daughter as a crab is to an apple. That may sound like the two daughters are very different, but the “crab” that the Fool was referring to was a crabapple.

“Why, what do you know, my boy?” King Lear asked.

“She will taste as like this daughter as a crab tastes like a crab.”

In other words, the two daughters are exactly alike. Unfortunately, crabapples are small and sour.

The Fool then asked, “Do you know why one’s nose stands in the middle of one’s face?”


“Why, to keep one’s eyes on either side of his nose so that what a man cannot smell out, he may spy into.”

In other words, the Fool was advising King Lear to stay alert and learn something. He did not yet know the true nature of his daughter Regan.

Thinking about Cordelia, King Lear said, “I did her wrong —”

The Fool asked him, “Do you know how an oyster makes its shell?”


“Neither do I, but I know why a snail has a house.”


“Why, to put his head in it; that way, he will not give it away to his daughters, and leave his horns without a case.”

This was in part an indecent joke. Readers should already know what a man’s “horn” is, and the word “case” in this society could refer to a vagina. The Fool could also have been referring to a cuckold’s horns — a man with an unfaithful wife was depicted in pictures as having horns. Again, the Fool was hinting that Goneril and Regan were not legitimate — the assumption being that a legitimate daughter would love and respect and honor her father.

“I will forget my paternal nature,” King Lear said. “Fathers are supposed to have a kindly nature when it comes to a daughter. I have been so kind a father! Are my horses ready?”

“Your asses have gone to get them ready,” the Fool said.

He added, “The reason why the seven stars — the Pleiades — are no more than seven is a pretty fine reason.”

“Because they are not eight?” King Lear said.

“Yes, indeed,” the Fool said. “You would make a good Fool.”

A good Fool should know what is obvious, even when it is not obvious to other people.

King Lear said to himself, thinking about Goneril, “Maybe I should take my Kingdom back by force! She has shown monstrous ingratitude to me!”

“If you were my Fool, my uncle, I would have you beaten because you are old before your time,” the Fool said.

“How’s that?”

“You should not have become old until you had become wise.”

A gentleman walked over to them and King Lear asked him, “Are the horses ready?”

“They are ready, my lord.”

“Come, boy,” King Lear said to the Fool.

The Fool said, “She who’s a virgin now, and laughs at my departure, shall not be a maiden long, unless things be cut shorter.”

A young virgin who laughed at the Fool’s departure was very foolish, in the Fool’s opinion, because the Fool knew — based on his knowledge of Regan — that bad things were going to happen very soon. Such a virgin was too foolish to remain a virgin for very long unless men’s things — the dangly longish sexual part under the front of their waist — should be cut very short.

— 2.1 —

Edmund and the courtier Curan met in a room of the Earl of Gloucester’s castle. They were close to where Edmund had hidden Edgar.

Edmund said, “May God save you, Curan.”

“And you, sir. I have been with your father and have informed him that the Duke of Cornwall and Regan, his Duchess, will be here with him tonight.”

“Why are they coming here?”

“I don’t know. Have you heard of the news going around — I mean the whispered news, for it is so far only ear-kissing gossip?”

“No, I haven’t heard it yet. What are people whispering?”

“Have you heard anything about a probable war between the Duke of Cornwall and the Duke of Albany?”

“Not a word,” Edmund replied.

“You may hear something, then, soon. Fare you well, sir.”

Curan exited.

Edmund said to himself, “The Duke of Cornwall is coming here tonight? This is better than I could imagine! This is the best thing that could possibly happen! His coming here weaves itself necessarily into my plot — I can take advantage of this! My father is ready to accuse and arrest my brother, and I have one thing, of a queasy question, aka sensitive nature, that I must do. May speed and good fortune be on my side and help me!”

He called, “Brother, may I have a word with you? Descend, brother, I say!”

Edgar entered the room.

“My father is still awake and watchful. Oh, sir, flee from this place; my father has been given information about where you are hiding. You have now the good advantage of the night so you can escape unseen. Haven’t you spoken against the Duke of Cornwall? He’s coming here, now, in the night, hastily, and Regan is with him. Have you said nothing about supporting his side against the Duke of Albany? Think.”

“I am sure that I have not said a word,” Edgar replied.

“I hear my father coming,” Edmund said. “Pardon me. As part of a deception, I must draw my sword upon you. Draw your sword; seem to defend yourself; now act as if you were fighting me fiercely.”

Edmund said loudly so that his father would hear, “Surrender! Appear before my father. Light! Bring light here!”

He said softly, “Flee from here, brother.”

Then he shouted, “Torches! Bring torches!”

He said softly to Edgar, “And so, farewell.”

Edgar exited.

Edmund said softly to himself, “Some blood drawn from me would help create the opinion that Edgar and I have really been fiercely fighting.”

He used his sword to lightly wound and bloody his arm.

He said softly, “I have seen drunkards do more than this in sport.”

Young men of the time would sometimes wound themselves so that they could drink a toast of blood and wine to their beloved.

He shouted, “Father! Father! Stop! Stop! Won’t anyone help me?”

The Earl of Gloucester entered the room, along with some servants who were carrying torches.

“Now, Edmund, where’s the villain?” the Earl of Gloucester asked.

Edmund, who wanted Edgar to get away lest their father’s questions reveal the truth about what had happened, delayed answering the question. He said, “Here he stood in the dark, his sharp sword out, mumbling wicked charms, conjuring the Moon to be his auspicious mistress and help him —”

“But where is he?” the Earl of Gloucester asked.

Still playing for time, Edmund said, “Look, sir, I am bleeding.”

“Where is the villain, Edmund?”

Pointing in the wring direction, Edmund replied, “He fled this way, sir. When by no means he could —”

The Earl of Gloucester ordered, “Pursue him! Go after him!”

Some servants exited in pursuit of Edgar.

He asked Edmund, “By no means what?”

“Persuade me to murder your lordship,” Edmund replied. “I told him that the avenging gods aim all their lightning and thunder against parricides — people who murder their own father. I spoke about the manifold and strong bonds that bind the child to the father. Sir, at last Edgar, seeing how I loathed and opposed his unnatural purpose, in one deadly motion thrust his drawn and ready sword at me and attacked my unprotected body and cut my arm. But when he saw my courage aroused as if in response to a battle cry — I was brave because I knew that I was in the right — and saw that I was ready to fight back, or perhaps because he was frightened by the noise I made, quite suddenly he fled.”

“Let him fly far,” the Earl of Gloucester said. “If he stays in this land, he shall be caught, and when he is found, he will be killed. The noble Duke of Cornwall, who is my master, my worthy and honorable overlord and patron, comes here tonight. By his authority I will proclaim that whoever finds Edgar shall deserve our thanks for bringing the murderous coward to the place of execution; the penalty for whoever conceals Edgar shall be death.”

Edmund said, “When I tried to convince him not to try to have you killed and found him completely determined to do it, with angry speech I threatened to reveal his plot. He replied, ‘You beggarly bastard who is legally prevented from inheriting his property, do you think, if I would oppose you, that any trust, virtue, or worth in you would make your words believed? No! I would deny everything even if you were to produce evidence in the form of a letter written in my own handwriting — I would say that everything was your suggestion, plot, and damned practice. You must think that everyone in the world is a dullard if they would not realize that you, Edmund, would greatly profit if I, Edgar, were to die: You would inherit our father’s property. That is an understandable and powerful motive for you to seek my death!’”

“He is an unnatural and hardened villain!” the Earl of Gloucester said. “Would he deny having written his letter? I never fathered him — he is no son of mine!”

Some trumpets sounded the distinctive notes that announced the arrival of the Duke of Cornwall.

The Earl of Gloucester said, “Listen, the Duke’s trumpets! I don’t know why he is coming here.”

He then said, “I’ll close all the seaports; the villain Edgar shall not escape; the Duke of Cornwall must grant me that privilege. In addition, I will send Edgar’s picture far and near, so that everyone in the Kingdom may have the information they need about him.

“And, Edmund, you loyal and loving boy, I’ll work the legal means that will make you capable of inheriting my land.”

The Duke of Cornwall, Regan, and some attendants entered the room.

The Duke of Cornwall said, “How are you now, my noble friend! Ever since I came here, which was just now, I have heard strange news.”

“If it is true,” Regan said, “all punishments are inadequate for the offender. How are you, my lord?”

“Oh, madam, my old heart is cracked! It’s cracked!” the Earl of Gloucester cried.

“What! Did my father’s godson really seek your life? He whom my father named? Your Edgar?”

“Oh, lady, lady, my shame would like this to be hidden and not known!”

“Wasn’t he the companion of the riotous Knights who serve my father?” Regan asked.

“I don’t know, madam,” the Earl of Gloucester said. “This situation is very bad — very bad!”

Taking advantage of an opportunity to further slime Edgar, Edmund said, “Yes, madam, he was one of that group.”

Regan replied, “It is no wonder this happened, then, even if Edgar were disloyal. It is those riotous Knights who have invited him to kill the old man — his father — so that they can spend and waste his income. I have this evening received a letter from my sister, Goneril, who has well informed me about these riotous Knights. She gave such warnings that I decided that if they come to stay at my house, I will not be there.”

“Nor I, I assure you, Regan,” the Duke of Cornwall said.

He added, “Edmund, I hear that you have shown your father the loyalty that a child owes a father.”

“It was my duty, sir,” Edmund replied.

“Edmund revealed Edgar’s plot, and he received this injury you see on his arm while striving to apprehend him,” the Earl of Gloucester said.

“Is Edgar being pursued?” the Duke of Cornwall asked.

“Yes, my good lord,” the Earl of Gloucester replied.

“If he is captured, you shall never again fear that he will do harm — he will be killed,” the Duke of Cornwall said. “Use my resources to do what you think needs to be done.”

Using the royal plural, he added, “As for you, Edmund, whose virtue and obedience that you have shown just now do so much to commend you, you shall serve us. Natures of such deep trust and loyalty we shall much need. We choose you to enter our service.”

“I shall serve you, sir, truly and loyally, above all else,” Edmund replied.

“For him I thank your Grace,” the Earl of Gloucester said.

The Duke of Cornwall began to say, “You don’t know why we came to visit you —”

Regan interrupted, “— thus out of season, threading dark-eyed night as we avoided obstacles as we traveled through the darkness. Matters, noble Gloucester, of some importance have arisen about which we must have your advice. Our father has written to us, and so has our sister, about quarrels between them. I thought it fitting and best to answer our father’s letter while we are away from our home. Several messengers are waiting to be sent back with our reply. Our good old friend, console yourself about Edgar’s disloyalty to you, and give us the advice we need about this matter, which needs to be taken care of immediately.”

The Earl of Gloucester replied, “I will help you, madam. Your graces are very welcome.”


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


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