David Bruce: William Shakespeare’s KING LEAR: A Retelling in Prose — Act 4, Scenes 1-2

— 4.1 —

The disguised Edgar was alone on the heath.

He said to himself, “It is better to be like this and know that I am despised than to be still despised and yet have people flatter me. To be the worst, the lowest, and the most rejected by Fortune means to always live in hope and not in fear. Since the worst has already happened, any change will be for the better. It is the people who are at the top of the Wheel of Fortune who will suffer a lamentable change. Welcome, then, you insubstantial air that I embrace! Let you winds blow against me! The wretch that you have blown unto the worst owes nothing to your blasts. Everything has been taken from me, and so I owe you winds of ill fortune nothing.”

He saw someone coming toward him and asked himself, “But who comes here?”

An old man was leading Edgar’s father, the blinded old Earl of Gloucester.

Edgar said to himself, “My father, with bloody eyes and led by a poor man? World! World! Oh, world! Except that your strange changes make us hate you, life would not accept old age. Because of the hateful changes we suffer in life, we accept old age and death.”

The old man said to the old Earl of Gloucester, “Oh, my good lord, I have been your tenant, and your father’s tenant, these fourscore — eighty — years.”

The old Earl of Gloucester replied, “Away, get away from me, good friend. Be gone. Your comforts can do me no good at all; you may be severely punished for trying to help me.”

“Alas, sir,” the old man said, “you cannot see to make your way anywhere.”

“I have nowhere to go, and therefore I need no eyes,” the old Earl of Gloucester replied. “I stumbled when I saw. When I could see, I did not see that my legitimate son Edgar was loyal to me, and I did not see that my illegitimate son, Edmund, was disloyal to me. Very often it is seen that our possessions make us overconfident, and all of our disadvantages prove to be advantages.

“Oh, my dear son Edgar, you were the object of your deceived father’s wrath! If I could only touch you again and know that you are my son, I would say I had eyes again!”

The old man saw the disguised Edgar and asked, “Hey! Who’s there?”

The disguised Edgar thought, Oh, gods! Who is it can truly say, “I am at the worst”? I just said it, but seeing my father like this makes me worse than ever I was.

The old man looked closely and then said, “It is poor mad Tom.”

The disguised Edgar thought, And worse I may yet be: The worst has not happened as long as we can say, “This is the worst.” As long as we are alive, something worse can happen to us.

The old man asked the disguised Edgar, “Fellow, where are you going?”

The old Earl of Gloucester asked, “Is he a beggar?”

“He is a madman and a beggar, too.”

“He has some reason left; otherwise, he could not beg. In last night’s storm, I saw such a fellow who made me think that a man is a worm, the lowest of creatures. I remembered my son although I thought badly of him at that time. I have heard more about my son since then. As flies are to cruel boys, so are we to the gods. They torment and kill us for their entertainment.”

The disguised Edgar thought, How can this be? How did my father come to be blinded and in such circumstances that he thinks that the gods are out to torture us? But I must play Tom o’Bedlam in front of my father. Bad is the trade that must play fool to sorrow, angering itself and others. The person playing a fool resents it, as well as the sorrowful man and the bystanders.

He said out loud, “Bless you, master!”

The old Earl of Gloucester asked the old man, “Is that the naked fellow?”

The disguised Edgar was still wearing only a blanket.

“Yes, my lord.”

“Then please leave. If, for my sake, you will catch up with us, a mile or two from here, on the road toward Dover, do it out of the love and respect that you have had for me, and bring some covering for this naked soul, whom I’ll entreat to lead me.”

“Alas, sir, he is insane.”

“It is the plague of the times, when madmen lead the blind,” the old Earl of Gloucester replied. “Our leaders are insane, and they lead their blind and ignorant subjects. Do as I order you, or rather, do what you please since I cannot order anyone anymore to do anything. Most important of all, leave. You ought not to be seen with me.”

The old man said, “I’ll bring him the best apparel that I have, no matter what happens as a result.”

The old man exited.

The old Earl of Gloucester said, “Sirrah, naked fellow —”

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

He thought, I can’t do this any longer —

“Come here, fellow.”

— and yet I must.

The disguised Edgar said, “Bless your sweet eyes, they bleed.”

“Do you know the way to Dover?”

“Both stile and gate, bridle-path and foot-path. Poor Tom has been scared out of his good wits. May the gods bless you, good man’s son, and protect you from the foul fiend! Five fiends have been in poor Tom at once: Obidicut, fiend of lust; Hobbididence, fiend of dumbness; Mahu, fiend of stealing; Modo, fiend of murder; and Flibbertigibbet, fiend of grimacing and making faces, who has since possessed chambermaids and waiting-women. So, bless you, master!”

The old Earl of Gloucester said, “Here, take this wallet, you whom the Heavens’ plagues have humbled so that you endure all strokes. My wretchedness makes the Heavens happy. Heavens, continue to afflict the well-off! Let the man with excess wealth who eats excess food, who treats what gods’ decrees have given him as his just due, who will not see the needs of the poor because he does not feel the needs of the poor, use your power quickly — make him suffer the needs of the poor. If you do that, those who have too much shall give to those who lack enough, and each man shall have enough.

“Do you know Dover?”

The disguised Edgar replied, “Yes, master.”

“At Dover is a cliff, whose high and bending head looks fearfully at the sea it overhangs and holds back. Bring me to the very brim of it, and I’ll repair the misery you endure by giving you something costly that I have with me. You shall not need to lead me away from that place.”

“Give me your arm. Poor Tom shall lead you.”

— 4.2 —

Having finished their journey, Goneril and Edmund stood in front of the Duke of Albany’s castle.

Using the royal plural, Goneril said to Edmund, “Welcome, my lord. I marvel that our mild husband did not meet us on the way.”

Oswald walked up to them.

Goneril asked him, “Now, where’s your master?”

Oswald replied, “Madam, he is within the castle, but I have never seen a man so changed. I told him about the French army that has landed, and he smiled. I told him that you were coming, and his answer was ‘So much the worse.’ I told him about the old Earl of Gloucester’s treachery and about the loyal service of his son Edmund. After I informed him, he called me a fool, and he told me that I had turned the wrong side out. What he should most dislike seems pleasant to him; what he should most like seems offensive to him.”

The Duke of Albany was able to see the true character of people. He knew that the old Earl of Gloucester was a good man and that the Earl’s illegitimate son, Edmund, was a bad man. He also had learned and was angry about the treatment and insanity of King Lear.

Goneril said to Edmund, “Then you shall go no further. You shall not enter the castle. My husband’s spirit is like a cow’s; he is cowardly. He will not undertake any great endeavor. He will ignore insults that require him to retaliate. The things we talked about and hoped for on our journey may come true.”

Goneril had fallen in love with Edmund.

She continued, “Go back, Edmund, to my brother-in-law; make him call up his troops quickly and then escort his armies to the place of battle. I must change arms at home, and give the woman’s distaff into my husband’s hands. I will be the man and wear the sword, and he shall be the woman and do the spinning and weaving. This trustworthy servant shall pass messages between us. Before long you are likely to hear, if you dare to risk action in your own behalf, a mistress’ command.”

She was hinting that she would ask him to kill her husband so she could be his wife.

She took off a necklace and gave it to him, saying, “Wear this; don’t speak. Bow your head.”

She kissed him and said, “This kiss, if it dared to speak, would raise your spirits up into the air. Conceive — understand what I mean — and fare you well.”

Her words had a sexual undertone. She meant that something other than spirits would also rise into the air.

Edmund, the new Earl of Gloucester, replied, “Yours in the ranks of death. I am yours until I die.”

His words also had a sexual undertone. In this society, the phrase “to die” was a euphemism for “to have an orgasm.”

Goneril pretended to be shocked: “My very dear Gloucester!”

Edmund exited.

Goneril said to herself, “Oh, the difference between one man and another man! Edmund, a woman’s services are your due. My fool of a husband usurps my body.”

Although Goneril had said that her husband would not react to insults, she had not wanted her husband to see Edmund wearing her necklace; therefore, she had sent Edmund away as soon as they arrived at her husband’s castle.

Oswald said, “Madam, here comes my lord.”

He exited.

The Duke of Albany, Goneril’s husband, walked over to her.

Goneril said, “I have been worth the whistle.”

She was alluding to the proverb “It is a poor dog that is not worth whistling for.” She was saying that at one time her husband would have ridden his horse to meet her as she journeyed back to their castle.

The Duke of Albany had once loved Goneril, but he did not like the way that she had treated her father. He had not been present during King Lear’s treatment at the Earl of Gloucester’s castle, but he had since been informed about it.

“Oh, Goneril! You are not worth the dust that the rough and rude wind blows in your face. I fear your character. That nature, which condemns its own origins and father, cannot be trusted to stay within the bounds of morality and of good behavior. By cutting yourself away from your father, you are like a branch that has cut itself away from its tree. You, like the branch, have cut yourself off from the nourishing source and must necessarily wither and come to a bad end.”

“Say no more; the text of your sermon is foolish.”

“Wisdom and goodness seem vile to vile people. To filthy people, everything seems filthy. What have you done? You and your sister are tigers, not daughters. What have you done? You have made insane a father, a gracious man whose age and reverence even a captive bear enraged by being worried by dogs would lick. You are very barbarous and degenerate! Could my good brother-in-law permit you to do it? The Duke of Cornwall was a man, a Prince, whom King Lear has much benefited! If the Heavens do not quickly send down their spirits in visible form to tame these vile offenses, it will necessarily happen that Humanity prey on itself and become cannibals like monsters of the deep sea.”

“You are a milk-livered man!” Goneril replied. “You are a coward! You turn your cheek so it can be hit with blows, and your head is filled with wrong ideas.”

In Matthew 5:39 Jesus said, “But I say unto you, Resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.” This was one “wrong idea” that Goneril had accused her husband of having.

Goneril continued, “You do not have in your brows an eye that can tell the difference between the wrong to your honor against which you must retaliate and the lesser wrong that you can endure. You do not know that only fools pity criminals who are punished before they have done their crimes. Where’s your military drum? Why aren’t you out raising troops? The King of France spreads his military banners in our quiet and peaceful land where no British military drums can be heard. With a plumed helmet your slayer begins to threaten you, and all you, a moralizing fool, do is to sit still, and cry, ‘Oh, no, why is he acting like this?’”

“Look at yourself, Devil! Your evil shows in your appearance. Such deformity is proper for the fiend, but it is horrible in a woman.”

“Oh, you vain fool!” Goneril replied.

“You have changed and that change shows in your appearance. You should be ashamed,” the Duke of Albany said.

“Be-monster not your appearance. Do not look like a monster. If it were appropriate to me to allow these hands to obey my anger, they would be ready to dislocate and tear your flesh and bones.

“Although you are a fiend, your woman’s shape shields you from my anger. Continue to appear in the shape of a woman, or I will hurt you, you fiend.”

“By God, you mention your manliness!” Goneril replied. “You compared to a real man are like a kitten compared to a tiger!”

A messenger arrived.

The Duke of Albany asked, “What is the news?”

“Oh, my good lord, the Duke of Cornwall’s dead,” the messenger replied. “He was slain by his servant as he was about to put out the other eye of the Earl of Gloucester.”

“Gloucester’s eye!”

“A servant that the Duke of Cornwall bred, stirred to action by pity, opposed the act, turning his sword against his great master, who, enraged by this, flew at him, and among the other people present struck him dead, but first he received that harmful stroke that a little later killed him — he followed the servant in death.”

The Duke of Albany said, “This shows you are above, you Heavenly judges, who so speedily can avenge the crimes people commit on Earth! But, poor Gloucester! Did he lose his other eye?”

The messenger replied, “He lost both eyes — both, my lord.”

The messenger then handed Goneril a letter and said, “This letter, madam, craves a speedy answer; it is from your sister.”

Goneril thought, In one way I like this news well. However, now that my sister Regan is a widow, and my Edmund, the new Earl of Gloucester, is with her, all the things that I have been daydreaming about — all the castles that I have built on the clouds — may crash to the ground and leave me only the hateful life I now lead. But in another way, the news is not so sour — Edmund may yet be mine and we will not have to worry about the Duke of Cornwall as a rival to our controllingallof my father’s kingdom.

She said out loud, “I’ll read the letter, and answer it.”

She exited.

The Duke of Albany asked the messenger, “When they blinded his eyes, where was his son Edmund?”

“He was coming here with my lady, your wife.”

“He is not here.”

“No, my good lord; I met him on his way back to Regan’s castle again.”

“Does Edmund know about this wicked act?”

“Yes, my good lord; it was he who informed against his father,” the messenger said. “He left his father’s castle on purpose, so that they could freely inflict their punishment on his father.”

Referring to the old Earl of Gloucester, the Duke of Albany said, “Gloucester, I live so that I can thank you for the love you showed to the King, and to revenge the loss of your eyes. Come with me, friend. Tell me what else you know.”

***

Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

***

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