David Bruce: William Shakespeare’s KING LEAR: A Retelling Prose — Act 3, Scenes 3-4

— 3.3 —

The Earl of Gloucester and his illegitimate son, Edmund, spoke together in a room in his castle.

“It’s sad, Edmund. I do not like this unnatural treatment of fathers. When I asked for permission from the Duke of Cornwall, Regan, and Goneril to show pity to and help King Lear, they took from me the use of my own house and they ordered me, on pain of their perpetual displeasure with me, not to speak of him, entreat for him, or in any way sustain and help him.”

“This is very savage and unnatural!” Edmund said.

“Quiet!” the Earl of Gloucester said. “You must say nothing about that; it’s dangerous. In addition, there’s a division between the Dukes, and a worse matter than that. I have received a letter tonight; it is dangerous to speak about that, too. I have locked the letter in my private room. These injuries the King now bears will be fully revenged. Part of an army has already landed; we must be on the side of the King. I will leave and seek him, and secretly help him. You go and talk with the Duke of Cornwall to keep him occupied so that he does not learn about my charity. If he asks for me, tell him that I am ill and have gone to bed.

“Even if I die because of it — and they have threatened to do no less to me — the King my old master must be helped.

“Strange things are happening, Edmund; please be careful.”

He exited.

Alone, Edmund said to himself, “This act of charity, which you have been forbidden to do, I shall immediately tell the Duke of Cornwall about, and I will tell him about that letter, too.

“These acts will deserve a reward from the Duke of Cornwall, and I will win what my father loses — that will be everything. The younger rises when the old does fall.”

— 3.4 —

On the heath in front of the hovel stood King Lear, the disguised Kent, and the Fool. The storm continued to rage.

The disguised Kent said, “Here is the place, my lord. My good lord, enter the hovel. The tyranny of the night in the open air is too roughfor human nature to endure.”

King Lear replied, “Let me alone.”

The disguised Kent repeated, “My good lord, enter the hovel.”

“Do you want to break my heart?”

“I had rather break my own,” Kent replied. “My good lord, enter the hovel.”

“You think it is much that this contentious storm invades us to the skin with wind and water,” King Lear said. “So it is much to you, but wherever the greater malady is fixed, the lesser is scarcely felt. You would prefer to run away from a bear, but if your flight lay toward the raging sea, you would face the bear head-on. When the mind is free and unburdened, the body’s delicate. The tempest in my mind takes all feeling from my senses — except for the tempest beating there. Because of the mental pain I feel for my daughters’ ingratitude, I cannot feel any physical pain brought by this storm. Filial ingratitude! Is it not as if this mouth should bite this hand because it lifts food to it? But I will punish them thoroughly.”

He hesitated and said, “No, I will weep no more. On such a night they shut me out of doors! Pour on the pain and the rain; I will endure them. On such a night as this! Oh, Regan, Goneril! Your old kind father, whose generous heart gave you everything — oh, that way madness lies, so let me not think of that. No more of that.”

Worried about King Lear, the disguised Kent again said, “My good lord, enter the hovel.”

“Please, go in yourself,” King Lear replied. “Seek your own comfort. My being outside in this tempest will not allow me to think about things that would hurt me more. But I’ll go in.”

He said to the Fool, “In, boy; you go in first.”

He thought about other poor people outside on this night and said, “You homeless poor —”

Then he said to the Fool, who was waiting for him, “No, you go in first. I’ll pray, and then I’ll sleep.”

The Fool went inside the hovel. The disguised Kent stayed outside with King Lear.

King Lear said, “Poor naked wretches, wherever you are, who endure the pelting of this pitiless storm, how shall your homeless heads and unfed bellies, and your ragged clothing filled with holes defend you from weather such as this?”

He then blamed himself for not caring more about the poor when he had wealth and power: “Oh, I have been too little concerned about this! Take this medicine, pompous people: Expose yourself so that you feel what poor wretches feel, and you will learn to give the excess of your wealth to them, and show the Heavens how wealth can be more fairly distributed.”

Edgar, now disguised as a Tom o’Bedlam, said in a disguised voice from inside the hovel, where he had taken shelter, “Fathom and a half! Fathom and a half! Poor Tom!”

A fathom is six feet of water. The disguised Edgar was speaking as if he were a sailor taking soundings — measuring the depth of water — in a sinking ship.

The Fool ran out of the hovel.

“Don’t go in there, my uncle,” he cried. “There’s a supernatural spirit inside. Help me! Help me!”

The disguised Kent said, “Give me your hand. Who’s there?”

The Fool replied, “A spirit — a supernatural spirit. He says his name’s poor Tom.”

The disguised Kent yelled, “Who are you who mumbles there in the straw? Come outside.”

Edgar, disguised as a mad man, came outside. He was naked except for a blanket around his waist. He was dirty and his hair was matted, and he had pushed thorns into his arms.

The disguised Edgar, pretending to believe that the Devil tormented him, said, “Stay away! The foul fiend follows me! Through the sharp hawthorn blows the cold wind. You are cold — go to your beds, and warm yourselves.”

King Lear asked him, “Have you given everything to your two daughters? Is that why you have come to this?”

The disguised Edgar replied, “Who gives anything to poor Tom? He is the man whom the foul fiend has led through fire and through flame, and through ford and whirlpool and over bog and quagmire. The foul fiend has tempted poor Tom to commit suicide. He has laid knives under his pillow, and put hangman’s ropes in his church pew, and set rat poison by his soup. The foul fiend has made him proud of heart, and the foul fiend has made him ride on a bay trotting-horse over four-inch-wide bridges in order to chase his own shadow as if it were a traitor. May God bless your five wits! Tom’s a-cold.”

The disguised Edgar shivered and said, “May God bless and protect you from whirlwinds, the influences of evil stars, and infection! Do poor Tom some charity — poor Tom whom the foul fiend vexes.”

The disguised Edgar pretended to fight an invisible demon, saying, “There could I have him now — and there — and there again, and there.”

The storm continued to rage.

King Lear asked, “What, have his daughters brought him to this distress?”

He asked the disguised Edgar, “Couldn’t you save anything and keep it for yourself? Did you give them everything?”

The Fool said, “No, he reserved a blanket, else we had been all embarrassed at seeing his bare butt.”

King Lear had reserved for himself the services of a hundred Knights.

In this society, people believed that diseases hung in the air, waiting until they were poured out to inflict pain on human beings.

King Lear said, “Now, may all the plagues that in the pendulous air hang fated over men’s faults fall and alight on your daughters!”

The disguised Kent said, “He has no daughters, sir.”

“Death to you, traitor!” King Lear shouted. “Nothing could have brought this human to such lowness but his unkind daughters. Is it the fashion that discarded and cast-off fathers should have thus little mercy on their flesh?”

He was looking at the thorns in the disguised Edgar’s arms, but he could also have been thinking of the thorns in his own mind.

He said, “Judicious punishment! It was this flesh that begot those pelican daughters.”

In this society, people believed that the young of pelicans would bite the breast of their parents and feed on the blood that flowed from the wound.

Hearing the word “pelican,” the disguised Edgar said, “Pillicock sat on Pillicock-hill.”

A ‘Pillicock” was a cutesy name for a penis, and a “Pillicock-hill” was a cutesy name for a vulva.

The disguised Edgar then sang, “Halloo, halloo, loo, loo!”

The Fool said seriously, “This cold night will turn us all to fools and madmen.”

The disguised Edgar said, “Take heed of the foul fiend. Obey your parents. Keep true to your word. Do not swear. Do not commit adultery with a man’s sworn spouse. Do not set your sweet heart on fancy clothing. Tom’s a-cold.”

King Lear asked him, “What have you been?”

The disguised Edgar replied, “A serving-man, proud in heart and mind. I was a courier. I curled my hair. I wore gloves — favors from my mistress — in my cap. I served the lust of my mistress’ heart, and I did the act of darkness with her. I swore as many oaths as I spoke words, and I broke them openly in the sweet face of Heaven. I was a man who dreamed of lustful acts as he slept and then woke up and did them. Wine I loved deeply, dice and gambling I loved dearly, and when it came to women I had more mistresses than the Turkish Sultan. I was false of heart, light of ear and ready to believe malicious gossip, and bloody of hand. I was like a hog when it came to sloth, a fox when it came to stealth, a wolf when it came to greediness, a dog when it came to madness, and a lion when it came to hunting of prey.

“You may be tempted by the creaking of fashionable shoes and the rustling of the silk clothing of a woman as she meets a lover in a secret assignation, but do not betray your poor heart to that woman. Keep your feet out of brothels, keep your hands out of the openings of petticoats, keep your signature away from contracts in which you borrow money, and defy the foul fiend.”

The disguised Edgar then sang these words:

Still through the hawthorn blows the cold wind:

Says suum, mun, ha, no, nonny.

Dauphin, my boy, my boy, sessa! Be quiet! Let him trot by.”

The Dauphin was the son of a King of France, and Edgar was singing a combination of an old ballad and nonsense syllables. In the old ballad, the King of France wanted the Dauphin to be safe and not gain a reputation for valor by combating a notable opponent during wartime. Every time a notable opponent rode by, the King of France would tell his son, the Dauphin, “Be quiet! Let him trot by.” In Edgar’s version of the ballad, the Dauphin was not even allowed to combat the cold wind because it was too dangerous.

The storm continued to rage.

King Lear said to the disguised Edgar, “Why, you would be better off in your grave than to confront with your naked and uncovered body this extreme severity of the skies.”

He then said to the disguised Kent and to the Fool, “Is man no more than this? Look carefully at him.”

He said to the disguised Edgar, “You owe the worm no silk, the beast no hide, the sheep no wool, the cat no perfume.”

The disguised Edgar was naked. He did not wear silk or leather or woolen clothing. He also did not wear perfume made from the musk of the civet cat.

King Lear continued, “Ha! The three of us — my servant, the Fool, and me — are wearing clothing. We have disguised our nakedness. You are the natural man himself: a man without the trappings of civilization is no more than such a poor bare, forked-legged animal as you are.”

He started to tear off his clothing, saying, “Off, off, you trappings of civilization! Come! I will unbutton my clothing here.”

The Fool said, “Please, my uncle, control yourself; it is an evil night to go swimming in. Now a little fire in a wild field would be like an old lecher’s heart: a small spark — all the rest of his body would be cold. Look, here comes a walking fire.”

The Earl of Gloucester, carrying a torch, walked up to them.

The disguised Edgar said, “This is the foul fiend Flibbertigibbet: he begins at curfew, and walks till the first cock; from dusk to dawn he walks. He gives the web and the pin, aka eye cataracts. He makes the eye squint, and he makes the harelip. He mildews the white wheat that is almost ready for harvest, and he hurts the poor creatures of Earth.”

He then sang this song as protection against the “evil spirit”:

Saint Withold footed thrice the wold,

In other words, Saint Withold went three times around the upland plains,

He met the nightmare, and her nine-fold,

In other words, he met the demon called the nightmare, which sits on the chests of sleeping people and makes it hard for them to breathe, and he met her nine followers,

Bid her alight,

In other words, he ordered her to get off the chest of the sleeper,

And her troth plight,

In other words, and swear to do no more harm,

And, ‘Aroint you, witch, aroint you!’

In other words, and said, ‘Leave, witch, leave!’”

The disguised Kent said to King Lear, “How is your grace?”

King Lear asked about the man with the torch, “Who is he?”

“Who’s there?” the disguised Kent said. “What is it you want?”

The Earl of Gloucester asked, “Who are you there? What are your names?”

The disguised Edgar replied, “Poor Tom, who eats the swimming frog, the toad, the tadpole, the wall-lizard, and the water-newt. Poor Tom, who in the fury of his heart, when the foul fiend rages, eats cow-dung for salads, swallows the old rat and the dead dog in the ditch, drinks the green scum of the stagnant pond. Poor Tom, who is whipped from parish to parish, who is put in stocks, and who is imprisoned. Poor Tom, who used to have three suits to his back, six shirts to his body, a horse to ride, and a weapon to wear. But mice and rats, and such small animals, have been Tom’s food for seven long years. Beware the demon who follows me. Peace, Smulkin; peace, you fiend!”

“What, has your grace no better company?” the Earl of Gloucester asked King Lear.

The disguised Edgar said, “The Prince of Darkness is a gentleman. Modo he’s called, and Mahu.”

The Earl of Gloucester said, “Our flesh and blood, aka children, are grown so vile, my lord, that it hates what begets it.”

The disguised Edgar said, “Poor Tom’s a-cold.”

The Earl of Gloucester said to King Lear, “Go inside one of my buildings with me. I must do my duty; I cannot endure to obey all of your daughters’ hard commands. Although they have ordered me to bar my doors and let this tyrannous night take hold upon you, yet I have ventured to find you and bring you where both fire and food are ready.”

King Lear said to the Earl of Gloucester about the disguised Edgar, whom the Earl of Gloucester did not recognize as being his own son, “First let me talk with this natural philosopher.”

He asked the disguised Edgar, “What is the cause of thunder?”

In his madness, King Lear thought that the disguised Edgar was an educated man and a natural philosopher, aka a person who investigated Nature.

The disguised Kent said, “My good lord, take his offer; go into the house.”

King Lear replied, “I’ll talk a word with this same learned Theban.”

The ancient Greeks, including those from Thebes and Athens, were thought to be wise.

King Lear asked the disguised Edgar, “What is your main area of study?”

The disguised Edgar replied, “How to thwart the fiend, and to kill vermin.”

King Lear said, “Let me ask you one word in private.”

The disguised Kent said to the Earl of Gloucester, “Importune him once more to go, my lord. His mind has begun to become unsettled.”

“Can you blame him?” the Earl of Gloucester replied.

The storm continued to rage.

The Earl of Gloucester continued, “King Lear’s daughters seek his death. Ah, I remember the Earl of Kent! He was a good man. He, poor banished man, predicted it would be like this! You say the King grows mad; I’ll tell you, friend, I am almost mad myself. I had a son, who is now an outlaw whom I have disinherited. He sought my life just recently — very recently. I loved him, friend; no father ever loved his son dearer. I tell you the truth: The grief has crazed my wits. What a night’s this!”

He said to King Lear, “I do beg your grace —”

King Lear interrupted and said, “I beg your pardon,” and then he went back to talking to the disguised Edgar, “Noble philosopher, I desire your company.”

The disguised Edgar replied, “Tom’s a-cold.”

The Earl of Gloucester, who did not intend to help the Tom o’Bedlam, said to him, “Go in, fellow, there, into the hovel. Keep yourself warm there.”

King Lear said, “Come, let’s all go in.”

The disguised Kent said, “This way, my lord.”

He wanted King Lear to go away from the hovel and to the building that the Earl of Gloucester had offered as shelter.

King Lear put an arm around the disguised Edgar’s shoulders and said, “I will go with him. I will stay always with my philosopher.”

The disguised Kent said, “My good lord, humor the King; let him take the fellow with him.”

“You accompany the fellow,” the Earl of Gloucester said.

The disguised Kent said to the disguised Edgar, “Sirrah, come on; you can go along with us.”

King Lear said to the disguised Edgar, “Come, good Athenian.”

The Earl of Gloucester said to King Lear, “No words, no words. Hush.”

Edgar sang these words:

Child Roland to the dark tower came,

His motto was always this — Fie, foh, and fum,

I smell the blood of a British man.”

A “child” was a candidate for Knighthood, and child Roland was the nephew of Charlemagne and the hero of the epic poem The Song of Roland. The disguised Edgar was pretending to confuse Roland with the giant in the fairy tale “Jack and the Beanstalk.” Much real confusion was happening in Britain.


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


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