David Bruce: William Shakespeare’s KING LEAR: A Retelling in Prose

— 3.5 —

In the Earl of Gloucester’s castle, the Duke of Cornwall and Edmund, the Earl of Gloucester’s deceitful and illegitimate son, were talking. As Edmund had promised himself he would do, he had informed the Duke of Cornwall that the Earl of Gloucester, Edmund’s father, had — against orders — gone to help King Lear. Edmund had also searched for and found the letter that his father had received about the invasion of the French army.

The Duke of Cornwall said, “I will have my revenge before I leave his house.”

Edmund replied, “My lord, I am afraid to think of how I may be criticized because my natural affection for my father is thus giving way to my loyalty to you, my lord.”

The Duke of Cornwall said, “I now realize that it was not altogether your brother Edgar’s evil disposition that made him seek your father’s death. Also a factor was the Earl of Gloucester’s own evil disposition that deserved to be punished with death. That and your brother’s evil disposition made your brother want to kill your father.”

Edmund said, “How malicious is my fortune, that I must repent my being just! I did the right thing when I informed you about my father’s evil, but I feel bad because I informed against my own father. This is the letter he spoke about, which proves that he was a spy who sent information to France. Oh, Heavens! I wish that this treason had never occurred, or that I was not the person who detected it!”

“Go with me to the Duchess Regan,” the Duke of Cornwall said.

Edmund replied, “If the content of this paper is true, you have mighty business at hand.”

“True or false, it has made you the new Earl of Gloucester. You now take your father’s title. Find out where your father is, so that he can be arrested.”

Edmund thought, If I find him comforting the King, it will make the Duke of Cornwall even more suspicious.

He said out loud to the Duke of Cornwall, “I will persevere in my course of loyalty, although the conflict between my loyalty to you and my loyalty to my father is sharp.”

“I will trust in you, and you will find me to be a dearer father than your biological father in my love for you.”

— 3.6 —

In a room in a farmhouse near the castle were the old Earl of Gloucester, King Lear, the disguised Kent, the Fool, and Edgar, who was still disguised as a Tom o’Bedlam. The old Earl of Gloucester did not yet know that his illegitimate son, Edmund, had become the new Earl of Gloucester.

“This place here is better than the open air,” the old Earl of Gloucester said. “Take it thankfully. I will supplement the comfort with what additions I can. I will do what I can to make this place more comfortable for you. I will not be long away from you.”

The disguised Kent replied quietly, “All the power of King Lear’s wits have given way to his suffering and his anger. He is insane.”

He then said loudly to the old Earl of Gloucester, “May the gods reward your kindness!”

The old Earl of Gloucester departed.

The disguised Edgar said, “Frateretto calls to me, and he tells me that the Roman Emperor Nero is an angler in the lake of darkness.”

He then said to the Fool, “Pray, innocent, and beware the foul fiend.”

The Fool said to King Lear, “Please, my uncle, tell me whether a madman is a gentleman or a yeoman.”

A gentleman has a higher social status than a yeoman. A gentleman has a coat of arms; a yeoman owns land but has no coat of arms.

King Lear replied, “A King! A King!”

The Fool replied, “No, a madman is a yeoman who has a gentleman as his son because he’s a mad yeoman who sees his son become a gentleman before he does.”

This was a cynical view. Loving fathers are happy to see their sons do better than they themselves did and advance in society and in life, but in the Fool’s joke this father was not happy to see his son do better than he did.

Of course, in loving families, family members are happy to see other family members do well, but Goneril and Regan were happy to see their aged father combat the storm although they could easily shelter him.

King Lear thought about the punishment his two daughters deserved, and he said out loud, “To have a thousand with red burning spits come hissing in upon them —”

The thousand could be devils if the two daughters were punished in Hell.

The disguised Edgar said, “The foul fiend bites my back.”

The Fool said, “He’s a madman who trusts in the tameness of a wolf, a horse’s health, a boy’s love, or a whore’s oath.”

This was more cynicism from the Fool. Yes, a “tame” wolf may bite, a horse’s health may decline or be lied about, and a whore may lie. But is a father a madman if he believes that his son loves him? Are all sons like Edmund?

King Lear, still lost in a fantasy world, came up with the idea of putting Goneril and Regan on trial.

He said, “It shall be done; I will immediately bring them to trial.”

He said to the disguised Edgar, “Come, you sit here, most learned justice.”

He said to the Fool, “You, wise sir, sit here.”

He then said to the air, “Now, you she-foxes!”

The disguised Edgar said about King Lear, “Look, where he stands and glares!”

He then said to the air, “Do you want eyes looking at you at your trial, madam?”

He sang, “Come over the bourn, Bessie, to me—”

The word “bourn” meant “stream.”

The Fool sang these words:

Her boat has a leak,

And she must not speak

Why she dares not come over to you.”

The Fool’s words had a double meaning. The woman’s period had started, and she did not want to tell her lover why she would not cross the stream to be with him.

The Fool’s jokes, if you can call them jokes, were now usually about breakdowns or difficulties in personal relationships. This time, the difficulty was not nearly as serious as two daughters wishing their father to be killed. However, the Fool’s song did involve sex between unmarried partners. A husband tends to know when his wife is on her period.

When things go wrong at the top — when a King is badly treated — things go wrong at other levels of society.

The disguised Edgar said, “The foul fiend haunts poor Tom in the voice of a nightingale.”

The disguised Edgar was pretending that the foul fiend was the Fool, who had a good singing voice.

He continued, “Hopdance cries in Tom’s belly for two white unsmoked herring. Croak and rumble not, black angel. I have no food for you.”

His belly was growling from hunger.

The disguised Kent was more concerned about King Lear than about the disguised Edgar’s hunger and said to King Lear, “How are you, sir? Don’t stand there looking so dumbfounded. Will you lie down and rest upon the cushions?”

King Lear said, “I’ll see their trial first. Bring in the evidence.”

He said to the disguised Edgar, “You robed man of justice, take your place.”

To King Lear, the disguised Edgar’s blanket was now a judicial robe.

King Lear then said to the Fool, “And you, his partner in justice, sit on the bench by his side.”

He said to the disguised Kent, “You are on the judicial commission, so you sit down, too.”

The disguised Edgar said, “Let us be just.”

He sang this song:

Are you asleep or awake, jolly shepherd?

Your sheep are in the corn;

And if you give just one blast of your delicate mouth,

Your sheep shall take no harm.”

Enterotoxemia is a severe and sometimes fatal disease of sheep that is caused by a sudden increase of grain in the sheep’s diet. Grain is good for sheep when eaten in the right amount, but too much grain can kill sheep.

In Edgar’s song, the shepherd needs to take care of his sheep and not allow them to eat too much grain. If the shepherd blows on his horn, help will arrive to get the sheep out of the field of grain. This is good for the sheep and good for the owner of the grain. Moderation is important.

King Lear had given his older daughters too much power and wealth too quickly. It had changed and harmed them. He had been a bad shepherd.

The disguised Edgar then said, “Purr! The cat is gray.”

He may have been referring to a demon in the form of a grey cat that he pretended to see.

King Lear said, “Arraign her first; bring Goneril here before the court to answer a criminal charge.”

He then said, “I here take my oath before this honorable assembly and say that she kicked the poor King her father.”

The Fool said, “Come hither, mistress. Is your name Goneril?”

King Lear said, “She cannot deny it.”

The Fool said, “I beg your pardon. I mistook you for a stool.”

Of course, Goneril was not present — just the stool that she would have been sitting on.

King Lear then said about Regan, “And here’s another, whose warped and distorted looks proclaim what kind of material her heart is made of. Stop her there! She is trying to escape! Arms! Arms! Sword! Fire! Corruption is in the place! She bribed someone to allow her to escape!”

He said to the disguised Edgar, “False justice, why have you let her escape?”

Shocked, the disguised Edgar replied, “Bless your five wits!”

The disguised Kent said, “I feel pity.”

He said to King Lear, “Sir, where are your patience and self-control now, which you so often have boasted to possess?”

The disguised Edgar thought, My tears begin to trickle because I pity King Lear so much — they will ruin my disguise.

King Lear said about imaginary dogs, “The little dogs and all — their names are Tray, Blanch, and Sweetheart — see, they bark at me.”

He imagined that even small pet dogs had turned against him.

The disguised Edgar said, “Tom will throw his head back like a howling dog and yell at them:

“Avaunt, you curs! Get out!

“Whether your mouth be black or white,

“Tooth that poisons if it bite;

“Mastiff, greyhound, mongrel grim,

“Hound or spaniel, brach-bitch or him,

“Whether bobtail short or very long tail,

“Tom will make them weep and wail:

“For, with throwing back thus my head and howling,

“Dogs leap over the bottom piece of a two-piece door, and all are fled.”

He yelled and then said, “Sessa! Quiet! Come, march to wakes and fairs and market towns. These are good places for begging. Poor Tom, your begging horn is empty.”

The disguised Edgar was hungry, but everyone was concerned about King Lear, not Tom o’Bedlam. King Lear was insane and unable to recognize that the disguised Edgar was hungry.

King Lear said, “Then let them dissect Regan to see what grows about her heart. Is there any cause in nature that makes these hard hearts?”

He said to the disguised Edgar, “You, sir, I employ as one of my hundred Knights; however, I do not like the fashion of your garments. You will say that they are luxurious Persian attire, but let them be changed for something more to my liking.”

The disguised Kent said to King Lear, “Now, my good lord, lie here and rest awhile.”

King Lear, thinking that he was in a four-post bed with curtains, said, “Make no noise, make no noise; draw the curtains. So, so, so. We’ll eat our evening meal in the morning. So, so, so.”

He needed rest more than he needed food.

The Fool said, “And I’ll go to bed at noon.”

The old Earl of Gloucester entered the room and said to the disguised Kent, “Come here, friend. Where is my master the King?”

“Here, sir, but do not bother him; his wits are gone and he is insane.”

“Good friend, I beg you, take the King in your arms. I have overheard a plot of death against him. A vehicle and a stretcher are ready; lay him in the vehicle, and drive him to Dover, friend, where you will find both welcome and protection. Pick up your master, put him in the stretcher, and carry him to the vehicle. If you should delay even half an hour, his life, and your life, and the lives of all who offer to defend him, will certainly be lost. Pick him up! Pick him up and follow me. I will quickly take you to the vehicle, which has provisions for your journey.”

The disguised Kent said, “The King’s oppressed brain sleeps.”

He then spoke as if he were speaking to the sleeping King, “This much-needed rest might yet have healed your broken senses, which, if circumstances will not allow you to continue to rest, it will be difficult to cure.”

The disguised Kent said to the Fool, “Come, help to carry your master. You must not stay behind.”

The old Earl of Gloucester said, “Hurry! Hurry!”

Everyone left the disguised Edgar, who would not go with King Lear to Dover.

Alone, the disguised Edgar said, “When we see our betters bearing the same kind of woes we have, we scarcely think our miseries are our foes. A person who suffers by himself suffers most in the mind, leaving carefree things and happy scenes behind. But when grief has fellow sufferers, it skips over much suffering. How light and bearable my pain seems now, when that which makes me bend makes the King bow — he suffers much more than I do. He suffers unjustly because of his children; I suffer unjustly because of my father. Tom o’Bedlam — that is, me — let’s go away! Listen to the rumors of differences between those in power. Tom o’Bedlam can reveal himself to be Edgar when misconceptions, which now greatly defile you, are proven to be wrong. At that time, your status as an outlaw will be repealed and you will be reconciled to your father. Whatever else will happen tonight, may King Lear escape safely! In the meanwhile, I must stay hidden.”

***

Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

***

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