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

— 3.1 —

The storm raged on the heath. The disguised Kent and the gentleman, who was another of King Lear’s followers, met. The disguised Kent had been separated from King Lear by the storm.

“Who’s there, besides foul weather?” the disguised Kent asked.

“One whose mind is like the weather — very unquiet.”

“I know who you are,” the disguised Kent said. “Where’s the King?”

“Struggling against and competing with the raging elements of the storm. He orders the winds to blow the land into the sea or to swell the curled waves above the mainland so that the entire world might change or cease to exist. He tears his white hair, which the impetuous blasts, with blind rage, catch in their fury and show no respect for. He strives in this little world of man to out-scorn the to-and-fro-conflicting wind and rain. In this night, in which the she-bear, whose milk has been emptied by her cubs, would lie in a cave, and in which the lion and the belly-pinched and starving wolf keep their fur dry, he stays outside without a hat and cries out with desperate defiance like a gambler who is betting all he has left.”

“But who is with him?” the disguised Kent asked.

“None but the Fool, who labors to outdo the King’s heart-struck injuries with extravagant wit.”

“Sir, I know your good character, and I dare, because I know that you are a good man, to entrust an important task to you. There is disagreement, although the two are cunning enough to conceal it, between the Duke of Albany and the Duke of Cornwall. They have — and which enthroned great men do not? — servants, who seem to be no other than servants, but who are spies who send to the King of France information about our state. This information includes the quarrels and plots of the two Dukes, or the harsh treatment both Dukes have borne against old and kind King Lear, or something deeper than these things, of which perhaps these other things conceal the truth of what is really going on.

“But it is true that from France an army comes into this divided Kingdom. This army, taking advantage of our negligence, has already gained a secret stronghold in some of our best ports, and the French soldiers are ready to openly show their military banners.

“Now let me tell you what I want you to do. If you trust me enough to dare to speed to Dover, you shall find men there who will thank you for giving an honest report of the unnatural and maddening sorrow that afflicts the King.

“I am a gentleman by birth and education, and because of some reliable information and confidence, I offer you the opportunity to do this service.”

The gentleman knew the disguised Kent only as a servant, and so he was skeptical and wanted further information before undertaking this task.

He said, “I will talk further with you.”

The disguised Kent knew that the gentleman was skeptical, but he needed the gentleman to quickly go to Dover, and so he needed to quickly give the gentleman enough assurance so the gentleman would quickly leave and do the task.

He said, “No, do not. But for confirmation that I am much more than my outward appearance of a servant suggests, open this wallet, and take the money and ring it contains. If you shall see Cordelia — as you will, don’t worry— show her this ring, and she will tell you who your servant — me — is, whom you yet do not know.

“Damn this storm! I will go seek the King.”

The gentleman was convinced that the disguised Kent was of a good and high-ranking family. He was willing to undertake the mission.

The gentleman said, “Let’s shake hands. Do you have anything else to say to me?”

“Only a few words, but they are more important than all the other words. We need to find the King. You go that way, and I’ll go this way. Whoever first finds the King will shout to the other that the King has been found.”

— 3.2 —

In another part of the heath, with the storm still raging, stood King Lear and the Fool.

King Lear shouted into the storm, “Blow, winds! Puff up your cheeks and blow! Rage! Blow!You cataracts — you flood gates of Heaven — and hurricanes, spoutwater until you have drenched our steeples and drowned the weathercocks!You sulfurous lightning that flashes as quickly as thought, forerunners of thunderbolts that split mighty oaks, singe my white head! And you, all-shaking thunder, smite flat the thick rotundity of the world! Crack Nature’s molds and spill all seeds that make ungrateful Humankind!”

The Fool said, “Oh, my uncle, court holy-water in a dry house is better than this rainwater out of doors.”

Court holy-water was flattery, something that many courts are known for.

The Fool continued, “My good uncle, go inside, and ask for your daughters’ blessing. Here is a night that pities neither wise man nor fool.”

The Fool was concerned about the King and wanted him to be somewhere dry and safe, even if it meant apologizing to his daughters.

Ignoring the Fool, King Lear shouted into the storm, “Rumble your bellyful! Spit, fire! Spout, rain! Not rain, nor wind, nor thunder, nor fiery lightning are my daughters. I do not charge you, you elements, with unkindness toward me. I never gave you a Kingdom, and I never called you my children. You owe me no allegiance, and so let fall on me your horrible pleasure. Here I stand, your slave: a poor, infirm, weak, and despised old man. But yet I call you servile agents that have with two pernicious daughters joined your Heavenly armies against a head as old and white as this. Oh! Oh! It is foul!”

The Fool said, “He who has a house to put his head in has a good head-piece.”

The compound word “head-piece” meant both a helmet and a brain.

The Fool sang this song:

The cod-piece that will house

Before the head has any,

The head and he shall louse;

So beggars marry many.”

The compound word “cod-piece” meant “penis” in this context.

The Fool was saying that a penis that sought a home — vagina — before the head had a home would suffer. Both the head hair and the pubic hair would be infested with lice. Someone who was impudent and sought sex rather than love would end up a beggar and would “marry” — be joined with — many lice.

The Fool then sang this song:

The man who makes his toe

What he his heart should make

Shall of a corn, aka bunion on a toe, cry woe,

And turn his sleep to wake.”

This meant that the man who treasures something trivial such as a toe rather than something precious such as his heart would end up hurting and unable to sleep at night.

King Lear had done this. He had valued Goneril and Regan more than he had valued Cordelia.

The Fool was not trying to cheer up King Lear. Instead of being funny, the Fool’s words were wise. King Lear was in the process of learning from his mistakes, but he had not learned all that he needed to learn. He had learned that Goneril and Regan were bad daughters, but he still needed to learn to value Cordelia, although he had started the process of doing that.

The Fool then said, “For there was never yet a beautiful woman who did not make mouths when she looked in a mirror.”

The phrase “make mouths” meant to “make faces.” A beautiful woman could smile when she looked in a mirror to make herself more beautiful, but to “make a mouth” could also mean to make a contemptuous smile, such as the one that Oswald gave the disguised Kent before the disguised Kent was put in the stocks.

Cordelia might smile pleasantly when she looked in a mirror, but Goneril and Regan were very capable of making contemptuous smiles when looking into a mirror — looking at the face of a close relative can be like looking into a mirror. In fact, they smiled when they recently took their father’s Knights away from him. It is possible to infuriate an old father by saying hurtful words in a soothing voice.

King Lear calmed down and said, “No, I will be the pattern of all patience and self-control. I will say nothing.”

The disguised Kent came out of the darkness and asked, “Who’s there?”

The Fool replied, “Here’s grace and a cod-piece; that’s a wise man and a fool.”

The Fool did not say who was the wise man and who was the fool.

The disguised Kent said to King Lear, “Alas, sir, are you here? Things that love night do not love such nights as these; the wrathful skies frighten the very wanderers of the dark and make them stay in their caves. Ever since I became a man, I cannot remember ever experiencing such a storm as this: such sheets of fire, such bursts of horrible thunder, such groans of roaring wind and rain. Man’s nature cannot endure the affliction of the storm or the fear it inspires.”

King Lear said, “Let the great gods, who keep this dreadful tumult over our heads, find out who are their enemies now. Tremble, you wretches, who have within you secret crimes, unpunished by justice. Hide yourselves, you bloody murderers, you perjurers, and you incestuous men who pretend to be virtuous. Tremble, wretches who under secret and convenient appearances have plotted against the lives of men. Well-concealed criminals, burst out of your concealing hiding places, and cry for mercy from these dreadful summoners who wish to see you punished.”

A summoner was a man who took an accused person to an ecclesiastical court to be tried.

King Lear paused and then added, “I am a man who is more sinned against than sinning.”

The disguised Kent said, “I am sorry to see you bare-headed in this storm! My gracious lord, nearby here is a hovel; it will lend you some friendship and protection against the tempest. Rest there while I go to this hard house, the inhabitants of which — your daughters — are harder than the stones of which the house is made. Just now, your daughters, when I was asking about you and your whereabouts, refused to let me in. Let me return there and force them to show some courtesy to you, their father.”

King Lear said, “My wits begin to turn.”

His mind was changing; he was growing and beginning to be empathetic. Just a while ago, he had been calling for the extinction of Humankind, but now he began to be concerned about the man — or perhaps boy — who was his Fool. He wanted shelter for the Fool.

He said to the Fool, “Come on, my boy. How are you doing, my boy? Are you cold? I am cold myself.”

He said to the disguised Kent, “Where is this straw, my servant? Necessity has strange powers and can make vile things — such as warm straw in a hovel — precious. Come, take us to the hovel you have found.”

He said to his Fool, “Poor Fool and knave, I still have one part in my heart that is alive and feels empathy for you.”

The Fool sang this song:

He who has a little tiny wit —

With hey, ho, the wind and the rain —

Must make happiness with his fortunes fit,

For the rain it rains every day.”

This song meant that a person who is not very intelligent — a description that applies to all of us — must find a way to be happy with life despite the rain, aka evil, that falls upon each of us continually.

King Lear said to the Fool, “True, my good boy.”

He then said to the disguised Kent, “Come, take us to this hovel.”

King Lear and the disguised Kent departed, and the Fool said this to you, the reader:

“This is a splendid night to cool the lust of a courtesan — on such a night she won’t be horny.”

He paused and then added, “I’ll tell you a prophecy before I go:

“When priests are more in word than matter,

“In other words, when priests talk more about sin than actually commit sin,

“Or perhaps, in other words, when priests talk more about leading an ethical life than actually try to lead an ethical life,

“When brewers mar their malt with water,

“In other words, when brewers water their beer and make it healthier and decrease alcoholism,

“Or perhaps, in other words, when brewers ruin their beer by watering it down,

“When nobles are their tailors’ tutors,

“In other words, when nobles know how to do the work of the common people,

“Or perhaps, in other words, when nobles think they know more than the real experts know,

“When no heretics are burned, except wenches’ suitors,

“In other words, when no heretics are burned, except for women’s suitors, who are properly punished as they burn from venereal disease because they did not obey the word of God,

“When every case in law is right,

“In other words, when no innocent people are convicted and no guilty people remain unpunished,

“When no squire is in debt, nor no poor Knight,

“In other words, when people stay out of debt,

“When slanders do not live in tongues,

“In other words, when people do not spread malicious gossip,

“Nor cutpurses come not to throngs,

“In other words, when pickpockets do not go among crowds of people and steal,

“When usurers tell their gold in the field,

“In other words, when moneylenders count their money in the open,

“And bawds and whores do churches build,

“In other words, when panderers and whores turn to God and build churches,

“Then shall the realm of Albion

“In other words, then shall the realm of England

“Come to great confusion,

“In other words, England shall be troubled,

“And then comes the time, who lives to see it,

“In other words, and then comes the time, whoever lives to see it,

“That going shall be used with feet.

“In other words, then walking shall be done with feet.”

This prophecy stated that England would always be troubled — even if it were a utopia.

Of course, a utopia will never happen in the real world, and because it will never happen (and even if it did happen), England will continue to be troubled.

What is a sure way to tell that England is troubled? If men walk with their feet, then you know that England is troubled.

It does not matter whether you are an optimist or a pessimist, England is troubled.

The Fool then said, “This prophecy Merlin shall make; for I live before his time.”

The Fool and King Lear lived centuries before the time of Merlin and King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, but the prophecy was true at the time that King Lear lived, and it was true at the time that Merlin lived.

It is still true today.

It will always be true until Humankind becomes extinct.

What the prophecy says about England is true of the world as a whole.

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Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

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