David Bruce: William Shakespeare’s KING LEAR: A Retelling in Prose — Act 2, Scene 4

— 2.4 —

King Lear, the Fool, and a gentleman who served King Lear arrived at the courtyard of the Earl of Gloucester’s castle. They were close to the disguised Kent, King Lear’s messenger, who was still in the stocks.

King Lear said, “Itis strange that the Duke of Cornwall and Regan should depart in this way from their home, and not send back to me my messenger.”

The gentleman said, “I learned that the night before they moved they had no plan to move.”

They had not seen the disguised Kent, but now he said, “Hail to you, noble master!”

Seeing that the disguised Kent was in stocks, King Lear asked him, “Are you doing this for your own amusement? Is this a joke?”

“No, my lord.”

The Fool said, “He is wearing cruel garters.”

The Fool was punning on “crewel,” which was a thin worsted yarn that was used to make stockings.

The Fool continued, “Horses are tied by the heads, dogs and bears by the neck, monkeys by the waist, and men by the legs. When a man’s over-lusty at legs — a vagabond — then he wears wooden stockings.”

King Lear asked the disguised Kent, “Who is the man who has so misunderstood your position as my messenger that he has placed you here in the stocks?”

“It is both he and she: your son-in-law and daughter.”

Horrified, King Lear said, “No!” To deliberately stock his messenger — knowing that he was his messenger — was a major insult to him as a King and as a man and as a father and father-in-law.


“No, I say.”

“I say, yes.”

“No, no, they would not.”

“Yes, they have.”

“By Jupiter, I swear, no.”

“By Juno, I swear, yes.”

King Lear said, “They would not dare to do it. They could not, would not do it; it is worse than murder to do such violent outrage to a person whom they ought to respect because of whom he serves. Tell me, as quickly as you can tell me clearly, in which way you might deserve, or they might legitimately impose, this treatment on you, knowing that you are my messenger.”

“My lord, when at their home I delivered your Highness’ letter to them, before I rose from the place I was kneeling to show them respect, there came a steaming messenger, soaked in sweat because of his haste, half breathless, panting forth the salutations that came from Goneril. He delivered a letter, although he was interrupting me, which they read immediately. Because of the contents of that letter, the Duke of Cornwall and Regan summoned up their retinue of servants, immediately took to horse, and then commanded me to follow them and wait until they had leisure to answer your letter. They gave me cold looks.

“Meeting here in this place the other messenger, whose welcome, I perceived, had poisoned mine — he was Oswald, the very fellow who had recently been so saucy to your Highness — and having more courage than intelligence about me, I drew my sword.

“He aroused the people in the house with his loud and cowardly cries. Your son and daughter found this trespass worth the shame that here it suffers in the stocks.”

The Fool said, “Winter’s not gone yet, if the wild geese fly that way.”

He meant that bad times were going to continue. If the wild geese were still flying south, winter was coming. Regan was acting the way that Goneril had acted.

The Fool then sang this song:

Fathers who wear rags

Do make their children blind;

But fathers who bear moneybags

Shall see their children kind.

Fortune, that arrant whore,

Never turns the key to the poor.”

When a father is poor, his children will be blind to his needs because providing for his needs will cost them money. But when a father is rich, his children will be kind to him in hopes of receiving a good inheritance. Fortune, aka luck, is a whore who will not open her door to a poor man who cannot afford to pay her for her services.

The Fool added, “But, for all this, you shall have as many dolors — by which I mean griefs, not dollars — on account of your daughters as you can speak of or count in a year.”

Feeling ill, King Lear said, “Oh, how this mother swells up toward my heart! Hysterica passio, go back down, you climbing sorrow. Your element’s below!”

The illness hysterica passiowas also called “the mother.” The affliction involved a sense of choking and suffocation that began low and then went higher in the throat. It was thought to begin in the womb for women and in the abdomen for men.

King Lear asked, “Where is my daughter?”

The disguised Kent replied, “With the Earl of Gloucester, sir. She is within.”

King Lear said to the gentleman and the Fool, “Don’t follow me. Stay here.”

He exited.

The gentleman asked the disguised Kent, “Did you commit any offense other than the one you spoke of?”

“None,” Kent replied. “How is it that the King comes with so small a train of followers?”

The Fool said, “If you had been set in the stocks for asking that question, you would have well deserved it.”

“Why, Fool?”

The Fool gave a cynical answer: “We’ll send you to be educated by an ant, to teach you there’s no laboring in the winter.”

The Fool was saying that men do not work when they receive no profit. Ants work hard in the summer because food can be collected then, but they do not work in the winter. Similarly, many people were willing to serve King Lear when he had wealth and power, but many people were not willing to serve him now.

The Fool continued, “All who follow their noses are led by their eyes except blind men; and there’s not a nose among twenty but can smell a man who is stinking.”

The Fool was saying that it was obvious that King Lear lacked wealth and power. A sighted man could readily see his poverty, and a blind man could readily smell his poverty, which stank.

The Fool continued, “Let go your hold when a great wheel runs down a hill, lest it break your neck as you follow it, but when a great wheel goes up the hill, let it draw you upward.”

In other words, hitch your wagon to a rising star, but when a star falls abandon it. Watch how your master’s Wheel of Fortune is turning: Is it bringing him higher or lower?

The advice was cynical, but the Fool did not think that good people would, or should, follow it.

The Fool continued, “When a wise man gives you better advice than I have just given you, give my advice back to me. I want no one but knaves to follow this advice, since a fool gives it.”

The Fool sang this song:

That sir who serves and seeks for gain,

And follows but for form,

Will pack when it begins to rain,

And leave you in the storm.”

The word “form” meant “appearance.” The Fool was saying that many men abandon the person they serve when the going gets rough.

He continued to sing this song:

But I will tarry; the Fool will stay,

And let the wise man fly:

The knave turns fool who runs away;

The Fool is no knave, by God.”

The Fool was saying that he would continue to serve King Lear. Abandoning him would be a knavish thing to do, the kind of thing a fool would do, and the Fool was no knave and no fool.

The disguised Kent asked the Fool, “Where did you learn this, Fool?”

The Fool replied, “Not in the stocks, Fool.”

This was a compliment. The Fool was saying that the disguised Kent was a faithful follower of King Lear and that the disguised Kent would not abandon him — the disguised Kent was no knave. If the disguised Kent had abandoned King Lear, he would not now be in the stocks.

King Lear returned with the Earl of Gloucester.

King Lear said, “They refuse to speak with me? They are sick? They are weary? They have travelled all night? These are mere excuses, tricks, and pretenses. These are signs of revolt and desertions. Go back to them and bring me a better answer.”

The Earl of Gloucester replied, “My dear lord, you know the fiery quality of Duke Cornwall and how stubborn and fixed he is in his own course. He wants to have things his own way.”

Angry, King Lear shouted, “Vengeance! Plague! Death! Destruction!”

He then shouted, “Fiery? What quality? Why, Gloucester, Gloucester, I wish to speak with the Duke of Cornwall and his wife.”

“Well, my good lord, I have informed them so.”

“Informed them!” King Lear said. “Do you understand me, man?”

“Yes, my good lord.”

“The King wishes to speak with the Duke of Cornwall; the dear father wishes to speak with his daughter, and he commands her service and is waiting for her. Have they been informed of this? My breath and blood! Fiery? The fiery Duke? Tell the hot Duke that — no, do not tell him yet. Maybe he is not well. Illness always makes us neglect our duties that we would do if we were well and healthy. We are not ourselves when we are afflicted by illness that commands the mind to suffer with the body. I’ll restrain myself, and I am angry that my headstrong impulse makes me mistake an indisposed and sickly man for a sound and healthy man.”

His eyes happened to fall on the disguised Kent, who was still in the stocks, and he immediately grew angry again: “Death on my state! Why should he sit here? This act persuades me that this move of the Duke of Cornwall and Regan from their palace to here and their refusal to speak to me is a deliberate scheme and insult. Set my servant free. Go tell the Duke and his wife that I will speak with them now — immediately. Tell them to come here and listen to me, or at their chamber-door I’ll beat a drum and kill their sleep.”

“I would have all well between you,” the Earl of Gloucester said as he left to carry out the errand.

Suffering another attack of hysterica passio, King Lear said, “Oh, me! My heart, my rising heart! Down!”

The Fool said, “Cry, my uncle, as the cockney cook did to the eels when she put them alive in the cooking dish; she rapped them on the heads with a stick, and cried, ‘Down, playful creatures, down!’”

If the cockney cook had killed the eels before putting them in the cooking dish, she would not have had this problem.

If King Lear’s heart had stopped and he had died before his wealth and power were distributed, he would not now be having this problem. And if Goneril and Regan had died earlier, King Lear would not now be having this problem.

The Fool added, “It was her brother who, in pure kindness to his horse, buttered its hay.”

Her brother had wanted to be kind, but horses do not eat grease. The brother’s kindness had a bad result: It rendered the hay inedible.

King Lear had wanted to be kind when he gave away his wealth and power as dowries for his daughters, but his kindness was having bad results.

The Duke of Cornwall, Regan, the Earl of Gloucester, and some servants arrived.

“Good morrow to you both,” King Lear said to the Duke of Cornwall and Regan.

“Hail to your grace!” the Duke of Cornwall replied.

The servants set the disguised Kent free.

Regan said to her father, “I am glad to see your Highness.”

“Regan, I think you are,” King Lear said. “I know what reason I have to think so. If you should not be glad to see me, I would divorce your mother, who is in a tomb, because the tomb would be sepulchering an adulteress.”

A biological daughter ought to be glad to see her father.

King Lear looked at the disguised Kent and said to him, “Oh, are you free? Some other time we will address that.”

He then said, “Beloved Regan, your sister’s evil. Oh, Regan, her sharp-toothed unkindness has stabbed me, like a vulture tied to me, here.”

Overcome with emotion, he pointed to his heart, and then he said, “I can scarcely speak; you will not believe with how depraved a manner — oh, Regan!”

“Please, control yourself,” Regan said. “I hope that you are mistaken. I hope that you are undervaluing Goneril’s good qualities rather than that she is failing in her duties as a daughter to you.”

“What do you mean?”

Regan replied, “I cannot think my sister in the least would fail in her obligations to you. If, sir, perhaps she has restrained the riotous behavior of your followers, it is on such grounds, and for such a wholesome end, as would clear her of all blame.”

King Lear shouted, “My curses on her!”

Regan replied, “Oh, sir, you are old. Nature in you stands on the very verge of her limit — you have nearly reached the end of your life. You should be ruled and led by some discreet person who discerns your state of mind — and your social position — better than you yourself do. Therefore, I ask you to please return to our sister and say that you have wronged her, sir.”

“Ask her for her forgiveness?” King Lear said. “Do you think that this would suit my position as King and father?”

He knelt and said, “Dear daughter, I confess that I am old. Old people are useless. On my knees I beg that you’ll give me clothing, bed and shelter, and food.”

Regan said, “Good sir, no more of this. This is an unsightly trick. Return to my sister.”

King Lear stood up and said, “Never, Regan. She has deprived me of half of my train of followers. She has looked black upon me, and she struck me with her tongue, very like a serpent, upon the very heart. May all the stored vengeances of Heaven fall on her ungrateful head! Strike her young bones, you infecting airs, with lameness!”

“Sir!” the Duke of Cornwall said.

King Lear shouted, “You nimble lightnings, dart your blinding flames into her scornful eyes! Infect her beauty, you swampland fogs, drawn by the powerful Sun; fall upon her and blast her pride!”

Regan said, “Oh, the blest gods! You will wish the same things on me when you are in another rash mood.”

“No, Regan, you shall never have my curse,” King Lear said. “Your tender-hearted nature that is set in a woman’s body shall not give you over to harshness. Goneril’s eyes are fierce; but your eyes comfort and do not burn. It is not in you to begrudge me my pleasures, to reduce in size my train of followers, to exchange hasty words with me, to scant my allowance, and in conclusion to draw the bolt and lock the door to prevent me from coming in. You know better than Goneril the duties of natural affection, the bond of childhood, the good manners of courtesy, and the dues of gratitude — you have not forgotten the half of the Kingdom that I gave you.”

“Good sir, get to the point,” Regan said.

“Who put my servant in the stocks?” King Lear asked.

A trumpet sounded some distinctive notes.

“What trumpet is that?” the Duke of Cornwall asked.

“I know it,” Regan said. “It is my sister’s. In her letter to me, she wrote that she would come here.”

Oswald, Goneril’s courtier, entered the courtyard.

“Has your lady come?” Regan asked.

King Lear said about Oswald, “This is a slave, whose easy-borrowed pride dwells in the fickle grace of the woman he serves. He has done nothing to deserve pride; he has no rightful pride.”

He said to Oswald, “Out, varlet; get out of my sight!”

Oswald stayed in the courtyard.

“What does your grace mean?” the Duke of Cornwall asked.

“Who put my servant in the stocks?” King Lear asked. “Regan, I hope that you did not know about it.”

Goneril entered the courtyard.

King Lear said, “Who comes here? Oh, Heavens, if you love old men, if your sweet rule approves of obedience — the obedience daughters owe to their fathers — if you yourselves are old, make my cause your cause; send down the stored vengeances of Heaven, and take my part!”

He said to Goneril, “Aren’t you ashamed to look upon this beard?”

His white beard was a sign of old age and the respect that ought to be accorded to old age.

Regan and Goneril held hands.

King Lear said, “Oh, Regan, will you take her by the hand?”

Goneril replied, “Why shouldn’t she take me by the hand, sir? How have I offended you? Not everything is offensive that poor judgment and senility believe to be offensive.”

“Oh, sides, you are too tough,” King Lear said. “Will you continue to hold my breaking heart inside my chest? How came my servant to be put in the stocks?”

The Duke of Cornwall said, “I set him there, sir, but his disorderly conduct deserved much less good treatment. He should have been punished much more harshly.”

“You!” King Lear said. “Did you?”

Regan said, “Please, father, you are weak, and I wish that you would act that way. Return with and stay with my sister until the expiration of your month, and then, after dismissing half your train of followers, come and stay with me. I am now away from home, and I do not have what is needed to take care of and entertain you.”

“Return with her to her home, with fifty of my men already dismissed?” King Lear said. “No, rather I abjure all roofs, and choose to wage war against the enmity of the air; to be a comrade with the wolf and owl — to endure the sharp pinch of necessity! Return with her to her home?

“Why, think about the hot-blooded King of France, who took as a wife Cordelia, our youngest born, even without a dowry. I could as well be brought to kneel before his throne, and, like a humble servant, beg for a pension to keep base life afoot. Return with her? Persuade me instead to be a slave and packhorse to this detested servant.”

King Lear pointed at Oswald.

“As you choose, sir,” Goneril said.

“Please, daughter, do not make me mad,” King Lear said. “I will not trouble you, my child. Farewell. We’ll meet no more, see one another no more. But yet you are my flesh, my blood, my daughter — or rather you are a disease that’s in my flesh, which I must call mine: You are a boil, a plague-sore, a swollen carbuncle, in my disease-corrupted blood. But I’ll not criticize you; let shame come to you when it will, I do not call it upon you. I do not bid Jupiter, the thunder-bearer, to shoot bolts of lightning at you, nor do I tell tales of you to Jupiter the highest judge. Mend when you can; be better at your leisure. I can be patient; I can stay with Regan, I and my hundred Knights.”

King Lear’s Knights had already been reduced to fifty, but he hoped that Regan would honor the agreement made when he gave her dowry to her and allow him to have once more a hundred Knights.

Regan said, “Not so fast. I had not expected you to visit me yet, nor am I prepared with what is necessary to give you a fit welcome. Listen, sir, to my sister. Rational people who listen to your passionate complaints must come to the conclusion that you are old, and so —”

She hesitated and then said, “But she knows what she is doing.”

“Is this well spoken?” King Lear asked. “Do you really mean to say this?”

“I dare to say that it is true, sir,” Regan replied. “What, fifty followers? Isn’t that a good number? Why should you need more? Yes, or so many, since both expense and danger speak against so great a number? To maintain fifty Knights costs much money. And how, in one house, should so many people, under two commands, stay friendly? It is hard, almost impossible, to maintain the peace under such conditions.”

Goneril asked, “Why can’t you, my lord, be served by those whom she calls her servants or by my own servants?”

“Why not, my lord?” Regan asked. “If then they chanced to slack off while serving you, we could control them. If you will come to me — but now I see danger in you having so many Knights serving you — I entreat you to bring only twenty-five Knights. To no more than that will I give place or recognition.”

King Lear said, “I gave you everything —”

“And about time, too,” Regan said.

“I made you my guardians and my trustees,” King Lear said, “but I reserved some rights. We made an agreement that I would be allowed to have a hundred Knights serving me. What! Must I come to you with only twenty-five Knights, Regan? Don’t you remember?”

King Lear had reserved the right to have a hundred Knights serve him as a symbol of his social status. He was a King, not a servant or a beggar.

“If you say that again, my lord, you will have nothing more to do with me,” Regan said.

King Lear said, “Wicked creatures look good when they are compared to other creatures that are even more wicked. Not being the worst deserves some praise.”

He said to Goneril, “I will go with you. You allow me fifty Knights, and that is double the twenty-five Knights that Regan will allow me to have; therefore, you must love me twice as much as she does.”

Goneril said, “Listen to me, my lord. Why do you need twenty-five, ten, or five Knights to serve you in a house where twice so many are commanded to take care of you?”

Regan asked, “Why do you need one Knight?”

King Lear replied, “Oh, reason not the need. Don’t ask why they are needed. Even our basest beggars have something more than is absolutely needed. If you were to allow a man no more than what a man absolutely needs, that man’s life would be as cheap as a beast’s.

“You are a lady, and you wear gorgeous clothing. The purpose of clothing is to keep you warm, and if you have only the clothing that is needed to keep you warm, you would not need the gorgeous clothing you are wearing, which barely keep you warm. You can keep warmer with a plain cloak.

“But, for true need —”

Some things cannot be quantified. King Lear had tried to quantify love by the number of Knights his daughters would allow him, and he had tried to quantify love earlier when before he gave his daughters their dowries he asked them to tell him how much they loved him.

Also, some needs are social. They may not be necessary to keep one alive, but they are nonetheless needs. Such needs include gorgeous clothing and the services of a hundred Knights. They also include love and respect.

King Lear said, “You Heavens, give me patience — the ability to endure pain — that’s what I need! You see me here, you gods, a poor old man, as full of grief as of age, and wretched in both!”

He then changed his mind about what he needed: “If you gods are the ones who are stirring these daughters’ hearts against their father, don’t make me so much a fool that I endure it meekly. Touch me with noble anger, and don’t let women’s weapons — drops of water, aka tears — stain my man’s cheeks!”

He said to Goneril and Regan, “No, you unnatural hags, I will have such revenges on you both, that all the world shall — I will do such things — I don’t know what they are yet, but they shall be the terrors of the Earth! You think I’ll weep. No, I’ll not weep. I have full cause to weep, but this heart shall break into a hundred thousand pieces before I’ll weep.”

Thunder sounded.

He then said to one of his few supporters, “Oh, Fool, I shall go mad!”

King Lear, the Earl of Gloucester, the disguised Kent, and the Fool left.

The storm started in earnest.

“Let us go inside,” the Duke of Cornwall said. “There will be a storm.”

Regan said, “This house is little. The old man and his people cannot be well accommodated here.”

“It is his own fault,” Goneril said. “He has put himself out in the storm and away from shelter, and he has made his mind unrestful and disturbed. He needs to suffer from his folly.”

“I’ll receive him and take care of him gladly,” Regan said, “but not even one of his followers.”

“I am resolved to do the same thing,” Goneril said. “Where is my lord of Gloucester?”

“He followed the old man,” the Duke of Cornwall said. “Here he comes.”

The Earl of Gloucester entered the courtyard and said, “The King is in a high rage.”

“Where is he going?” the Duke of Cornwall asked.

“He is calling for his horses, but I don’t know where he is going.”

The Duke of Cornwall said, “It is best to give him his way and let him go. He insists on having his own way.”

“My lord, do not ask him to stay,” Goneril said.

“The night is coming, and the bleak winds are getting very strong,” the Earl of Gloucester said. “There is scarcely even a bush for many miles around here.”

Regan said, “Oh, sir, willful men such as my father must learn from the injuries that they inflict on themselves. Shut and lock your doors. My father is served by a desperate train of followers, and since he allows himself to be manipulated by them, wisdom tells us to be afraid of what they may incite him to do.”

The Duke of Cornwall, who outranked the Earl of Gloucester, said, “Shut and lock your doors, my lord; it is a wild night. My Regan has given you good advice; come out of the storm.”

The Earl of Gloucester did as he was ordered.


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved





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