David Bruce: William Shakespeare’s KING LEAR: A Retelling in Prose — Act 4, Scene 6

— 4.6 —

In a field near Dover, Edgar, who was now dressed like a peasant, was leading his blinded father, the old Earl of Gloucester, who wanted to be taken to a cliff near Dover so that he could commit suicide. Edgar, however, did not want his father to die, and he had not led him to the cliff.

The old Earl of Gloucester asked, “When shall we come to the top of the hill at Dover?”

“You are climbing up it now,” Edgar lied. “See how hard it is to climb this hill.”

“I think that the ground is even.”

“It is horribly steep. Listen, do you hear the sea?”

“No, truly I don’t.”

“Why, then, your other senses grow imperfect now that your eyes are blind.”

“That may be true, indeed,” the old Earl of Gloucester said. “I think that your voice has changed and that you speak more articulately and with better content than you did.”

“You’re much deceived,” the disguised Edgar lied. “I am changed in nothing except that I am wearing different clothing.”

“I think that you are better spoken now.”

“Come on, sir; here’s the place,” the disguised Edgar said. “Stand still. How dreadful and dizzy it is to cast one’s eyes so low! The crows and jackdaws that wing the midway air seem scarcely as large as beetles. Halfway down the cliff hangs a man gathering samphire, an herb used in pickling — his is a dreadful line of work! I think that from here he seems to be no bigger than his head. The fishermen, whom I see walking upon the beach, appear to be the size of mice; and yonder I see a tall ship at anchor that seems to be the size of its small rowboat; the small rowboat itself seems to be the size of a buoy — it is almost too small to be seen from here. The murmuring waves that chafe innumerable useless pebbles cannot be heard so high. I’ll look no more lest my brain grow giddy, and my deficient sight cause me to topple headlong from the cliff!”

The old Earl of Gloucester said, “Set me where you are standing.”

“Give me your hand,” the disguised Edgar said, moving his father into position. “You are now within a foot of the edge. I would not jump up and down for all that lies beneath the Moon because of fear of falling.”

“Let go of my hand. Here, friend, is another wallet; in it is a jewel well worth a poor man’s taking. May fairies and gods help you to prosper with it! Go farther away, tell me farewell, and let me hear you going.”

“Now fare you well, good sir.”

“With all my heart.”

The disguised Edgar thought, I seem to be trifling with my father’s despair, but I am doing this to cure it. My father now thinks that the gods are like cruel boys who tear the wings off flies; he thinks that the gods torment and kill us for their entertainment.

The old Earl of Gloucester knelt and prayed, “Oh, you mighty gods! This world I renounce, and, in your sights, I shake off my great affliction patiently. If I could bear my great affliction longer, and not fall and quarrel with your great wills that cannot be opposed, my last remaining and loathed part of life should burn itself out naturally. If Edgar is still alive, gods, bless him!”

He then said to the disguised Edgar, who was far enough away not to stop him from jumping, “Now, fellow, fare you well.”

He fell forward. He was not at the cliffs of Dover, so he did not die.

The disguised Edgar said out loud, “Gone, sir. Farewell.”

He thought, And yet, although I do not know how, imagination may rob the treasure of life, when life itself consents to the theft. He may be dead simply because he wants to be dead, although he did not fall from a great height. Had he been where he thought he was, on the cliffs of Dover, he would have been past thought by this time — he would be dead. Is he alive or is he dead?

Edgar changed his voice and said, “Ho, you sir! Friend! Can you hear me, sir! Speak!”

He thought, My father might very well be dead indeed, yet he revives.

He asked out loud, “Who are you, sir?”

His father said, “Go away, and let me die.”

The disguised Edgar said, “Had you been anything but gossamer, feathers, air, falling precipitously so many fathoms down, you would have smashed into pieces like an egg, but you are breathing, have a heavy body, are not bleeding, speak, and are sound and healthy. Ten masts stacked vertically end to end would not reach the altitude from which you have perpendicularly fallen. Your being alive is a miracle. Speak once more.”

“But have I fallen, or not?”

“You fell from the dread summit of this chalky cliff that forms a boundary of the sea. Look up at the height; the shrill-voiced lark cannot be seen or heard so far from here. Look up.”

“I grieve because I have no eyes. Is wretchedness deprived of that benefit: to end itself by suicide? It was yet some comfort when a miserable man could cheat the tyrant’s rage and frustrate his proud will by committing suicide rather than bending to his will.”

“Give me your arm. Let me help you up. Good. How are you? Can you feel your legs? You are standing.”

“Too well, too well,” the old Earl of Gloucester said.

“This is the strangest thing that I have ever seen. Upon the crown of the cliff, what thing was that which parted from you?”

“A poor unfortunate beggar.”

“As I stood here below, I thought his eyes were two full Moons; he had a thousand noses, his horns were curved and waved like the furrowed sea. It was some fiend; therefore, you fortunate old man, think that the gods who are most clearly known by men to be gods, who get honor for themselves by performing miracles that are impossible for men to perform, have preserved you and saved your life with a miracle.”

In this society, people who committed suicide were thought to end up in Hell. Demons were thought to tempt discouraged men to commit suicide so that they would be eternally damned.

“I remember the correct way to think about the gods now; henceforth, I’ll bear affliction until it itself cries, ‘Enough, enough,’ and then I will die. That thing you speak of, I took it for a man; often it would say, ‘The fiend, the fiend.’ He led me to that place.”

“Think correctly. Do not engage in self-despair. Be patient and engage in self-control,” the disguised Edgar said. “But I see someone coming here. Who is it?”

King Lear, still insane, was dressed in odd, fantastic clothing, and he was wearing a crown of weeds.

The disguised Edgar thought, No one in his right mind would dress like that and wear a crown like that.

King Lear said, “No, they cannot arrest me for counterfeiting coins; I am the King himself and I have the right to coin money.”

“What a pitiful and heart-rending sight!” the disguised Edgar said.

“Nature’s above art in that respect,” King Lear said. “You can see more pitiful and heart-rending sights in real life than you do in art.”

Thinking about money made King Lear think about soldiers and paying them.

To an imaginary soldier, he said, “There’s your money for being impressed into the army.”

About another imaginary soldier, he said, “That fellow handles his bow like a scarecrow. Draw the arrow back as far as it will go.”

Military combat on a grand scale made him think of another combat on a small scale: “Look, look, a mouse! Peace, peace; this piece of toasted cheese will tempt the mouse so that I can kill it.”

Combat with a mouse made him think of a grander combat: “There’s my gauntlet; I have thrown it on the ground as a challenge. I’ll defend my case and prove myself in the right even if I have to defeat a giant.”

He thought about other kinds of soldiers: those who carried pikes and those who were archers: “Bring up the brown bills — those who carry pikes painted brown to prevent rust. Oh, well flown, bird and arrow! In the bull’s-eye! In the bull’s-eye! Thud!”

Seeing Edgar, he said, “Give me the password.”

The disguised Edgar replied, “Sweet marjoram.”

This was an herb used to treat insanity.

“Correct!” King Lear said.

The old Earl of Gloucester said, “I recognize that voice.”

Seeing Gloucester’s white beard, King Lear thought that he was seeing one of his daughters in disguise: “Ha! Goneril, wearing a white beard! They flattered me as if they were fawning dogs, and they told me I had white hairs in my beard before the black ones were there — they said I was wise even before I grew a beard. They said ‘yes’ and ‘no’ to everything that I said ‘yes’ and ‘no’ to — this was bad theology.”

These verses are II Corinthians 18-19 (King James Version):

18 But as God is true, our word toward you was not yea and nay.

19 For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, who was preached among you by us, even by me and Silvanus and Timotheus, was not yea and nay, but in him was yea.”

King Lear remembered the storm that he had endured: “When the rain came to wet me on one occasion, and the wind came to make my teeth chatter; when the thunder would not stop at my order; there I discovered that these people were flatterers — I smelled them out. Believe me, they are not men of their words: they told me I was everything and all-powerful; it is a lie, for I am not fever-proof.”

“I well remember that distinctive voice,” the old Earl of Gloucester said. “Is it not the King?”

King Lear replied, “Yes, I am every inch a King. When I stare at a subject, see how the subject quakes.”

Looking at the old Earl of Gloucester, he said, “I pardon that man’s life. What was your crime? Adultery? You shall not die. Die for adultery! No. The wren goes to it and fornicates, and the small gilded fly fornicates in my sight. Let copulation thrive. Why? Because Gloucester’s bastard son, Edmund, was kinder to his father than my daughters have been to me even though I fathered my daughters between lawful sheets with my properly married wife. Go to it, lechery, go to it hot and heavy! I lack soldiers, and fornication will bring me many soldiers.”

King Lear then stated his current opinion of women: “Behold yonder simpering dame, whose face between her hair-combs seems to be a sign of snowy chastity and who seems to be fastidiously virtuous. She shakes her head if she merely hears the name of pleasure, but neither the polecat-like whores, nor the frisky and lecherous horses go at it with a more riotous appetite. Down from the waist women are lustful Centaurs, although they are women all above the waist. What is above the waist belongs to the gods, but what is beneath belongs to the foul fiends. There’s Hell, there’s darkness, there’s the sulfurous pit, burning, scalding, stench, consumption. Wham! Bam!”

Hell was a word sometimes used in this culture to refer to the vagina.

King Lear then spoke to the old Earl of Gloucester as if the Earl were a pharmacist: “Give me an ounce of perfume, good apothecary, to sweeten my imagination. Here’s some money for you.”

The old Earl of Gloucester said, “Oh, let me kiss that hand!”

King Lear replied, “Let me wipe it first; it smells of death and human mortals.”

The old Earl of Gloucester said, referring to King Lear, “Oh, ruined piece of human nature! This great world shall likewise wear out to nothing. Do you know me?”

King Lear replied, “I remember your eyes well enough. Are you squinting at me? No, do your worst, blind Cupid! I’ll not love.”

In this society, brothels used a depiction of a blind Cupid as their sign.

King Lear said, holding an imaginary document, “Read this challenge; see the way that it is written.”

“Even if all the letters were Suns, I could not see even one.”

The disguised Edgar thought, I would not believe this if someone told me this, but it is real, and my heart breaks because of it.

King Lear said, “Read this document.”

The old Earl of Gloucester replied, “How? With my eye sockets?”

King Lear said, “Oh, ho, are you there with me? Are we similar? Are we both blind? No eyes in your head, and no money in your wallet? Your eyes are in a heavy and serious situation because your eye sockets are empty. Your wallet is in a light and serious situation because it is empty. Yet you can still see how this world goes.”

“I see the world feelingly. I see the world keenly through my sense of touch.”

King Lear replied, “What, are you insane? A man with no eyes may see how this world goes. Look with your ears. See yonder how a judge scolds a common thief. Pay attention with your ears. Let the judge and the common thief change places, and — make a guess — which is the justice and which is the thief? Have you seen a farmer’s dog bark at a beggar?”

The old Earl of Gloucester replied, “Yes, sir.”

“And have you seen the creature run away from the cur?” King Lear asked. “There you can behold the great image of authority: a dog is obeyed when it is in office.”

Imagining that he saw a parish constable punishing a prostitute by whipping her, King Lear said, “You rascal constable, hold your bloody hand! Why do you lash that whore? Strip your own back and stripe it with lashes. You hotly lust to use her in that kind of sin for which you are whipping her.”

He then said, “The usurer hangs the cozener. The big thief hangs the small thief. Through tattered clothes small vices can be seen; the robes and furred gowns of the great hide all their sins. Cover the sinner with gold-plated armor, and the strong lance of justice breaks against it without causing hurt to the sinner. But if the sinner’s armor consists of rags, a pigmy’s straw is able to pierce it.

“No one offends and commits sins — no one, I say, no one. I’ll vouch for them and give them immunity from prosecution. Take it from me, my friend — I have the power to close the accuser’s lips. Get yourself glass eyes, and then, like a scurvy schemer, pretend that you see the things you do not.”

He then said to the old Earl of Gloucester as if he were his valet: “Now, now, now, now. Pull off my boots. Pull harder, harder. Good.”

The disguised Edgar said, “Oh, the King’s speech is a mixture of sense and nonsense! Reason in the midst of madness!”

King Lear said to the old Earl of Gloucester, “If you will weep over my fortunes, take my eyes. I know you well enough; your name is Gloucester. You must be patient and have self-control; we came crying hither. You know that the first time that we smell and breathe the air — when we are born — we wail and cry. I will preach to you. Listen.”

“This is too sad,” the old Earl of Gloucester said.

King Lear stood on a stump and said, “When we are born, we cry because we have come to this great stage of fools. This stump is a good mounting-block to stand on to mount a horse. It is a neat stratagem to shoe military horses with felt to deaden the noise their hooves make. I’ll give it a try, and when I have stolen upon these sons-in-law of mine, then kill, kill, kill, kill, kill, kill! No quarter!”

A gentleman arrived, accompanied by some attendants.

He said, “Oh, here he is. Lay your hands upon him.”

He said to King Lear, “Sir, your most dear daughter —”

King Lear, who had just thought about attacking his sons-in-law, now thought that he had been captured. He said, “No rescue? What, am I a prisoner? I was born to be the plaything of Fortune. Treat me well; I am a King, and you shall receive much ransom for me. Let me have surgeons to treat my injury; I am cut to the brains.”

King Lear’s brains were vexed; the physical head wound he thought that he had received was imaginary.

The gentleman said, “You shall have anything you need.”

“No supporters? I am all by myself?” King Lear said. “Why, this would make a man a man of salt tears — he could use his eyes for watering pots to tend the garden and to wet the streets so that the dust of autumn would not rise in the air.”

The gentleman said to King Lear, “Good sir —”

“I will die bravely, like a bridegroom,” King Lear said. “What! I will be jovial.”

He was punning. One meaning of “die” was “to have an orgasm.” “Bravely” could mean “courageously” or “finely dressed.”

He added, “I am a King, my masters; you need to know that.”

“You are a royal one, and we obey you,” the gentleman said.

“Then there is still hope,” King Lear said. “If you get your prize — take me captive — you shall get it with running.”

He ran away. As he did so, he cried, “Sa! Sa! Sa! Sa!”

These were words used by hunters to encourage their dogs to track their prey.

The attendants of the gentleman ran after him, but the gentleman stayed with the disguised Edgar and the old Earl of Gloucester.

The gentleman said, “This sight would be extremely pitiful if the meanest wretch were acting this way, but to see a King acting this way is past speaking of! You, King Lear, have one daughter who redeems human nature from the universal curse that two — Goneril and Regan, and maybe even Adam and Eve — have brought her to.”

“Hello, gentle sir,” the disguised Edgar said.

“Sir, may God make you prosper,” the gentleman replied. “What do you want?”

“Have you heard anything, sir, of an upcoming battle?”

“The battle, as is commonly known, will surely take place. Everyone who can understand sound and words has heard that.”

“Please tell me how near the other army is.”

“It is near and marching quickly. We think that the main part of the army will arrive any hour now.”

“I thank you, sir. That’s all I have to ask you.”

“Although Cordelia, the Queen of France, is here for a special reason, her army has moved on.”

“I thank you, sir.”

The gentleman departed.

The old Earl of Gloucester said, “You ever-gentle gods, take my breath away from me. Let not my worse spirit, aka bad angel, tempt me again to die — by suicide! — before you gods please!”

The old Earl of Gloucester still wanted to die, but he did not want to commit suicide.

“That is a good prayer, father,” the disguised Edgar said.

In this society, “father” could mean “biological father,” or it could simply mean “old man.” Edgar had not yet revealed his identity to his father, so he was using the word “father” to mean “old man.”

“Now, good sir, who are you?” the old Earl of Gloucester asked.

“I am a very poor man, made submissive by Fortune’s blows. Because I have both known and felt sorrows, I am capable of feeling pity. Give me your hand, and I’ll lead you to some resting place.”

“I give hearty thanks to you. May you receive the bounty and the blessing of Heaven in addition to my thanks.”

Oswald arrived. Seeing the old Earl of Gloucester, he said, “There is a bounty on his head that has been proclaimed throughout the land! This is very fortunate for me!”

He said to the old Earl of Gloucester, “That eyeless head of yours was first made flesh in order to raise my fortunes and make money for me. You old unhappy traitor, briefly remember your sins and pray for forgiveness. The sword that must destroy you is out of its scabbard.”

The old Earl of Gloucesterreplied, “Now let your friendly hand put strength enough in the thrust of your sword to accomplish your goal.”

Because he wanted to die, he called Oswald’s hand friendly.

The disguised Edgar stood in between his father and Oswald.

“Why, bold peasant,” Oswald asked, “do you dare to support a man who has been proclaimed to be a traitor? Get out of here lest the infection of his fortune take a similar hold on you. Let go of his arm.”

Edgar was disguised as a peasant, and so Oswald was not afraid of him because peasants were unlikely to know how to fight against a man who was trained in swordsmanship. In addition, peasants did not carry swords. The disguised Edgar was armed with a cudgel.

Oswald had called him a peasant, and so the disguised Edgar adopted a peasant’s rustic language.

“Ch’ill not let go, zir, without vurther ’casion.”

[“I will not go, sir, without further reason.”]

“Let go of his arm, slave, or you die!” Oswald shouted.

“Good gentleman, go your gait, and let poor volk pass. An chud ha’ bin zwaggered out of my life, ’twould not ha’ bin zo long as it is by a vortnight. Nay, come not near th’ old man. Keep out, che vor ye, or ise try whether your costard or my ballow be the harder. Ch’ill be plain with you.”

[“Good gentleman, go on your way, and let poor folk pass. If I could have been bullied out of my life, I would not have lived as long as I have by a fortnight. No, do not come near the old man. Keep away, or, I promise you, I will find out whether your head or my cudgel is harder. I am telling you the plain truth.”]

Oswald shouted, “Go away, you dunghill!”

“Ch’ill pick your teeth, zir. Come; no matter vor your foins.”

[“I’ll use your sword to pick your teeth, sir. Come on and fight; I am not afraid of your fencing thrusts.”]

They fought, and the disguised Edgar gave Oswald a mortal wound.

Oswald fell. Dying, he said, “Slave, you have slain me. Villain, take my wallet and money. If you want to thrive, bury my body and give the letter that you will find on me to Edmund, the Earl of Gloucester. Seek him. He is on the British side. Oh, untimely and early death!”

He died.

The disguised Edgar said, “I know you well. You are a villain who helps your mistress do evil deeds; you are as duteous to the vices of your mistress as badness would desire.”

“What, is he dead?” the old Earl of Gloucester said.

“Sit down, old man, and rest. Let’s see what’s in this fellow’s pockets. The letter that he spoke about may have useful information. He’s dead; I am only sorry that he had no other executioner than myself. Let us see. I beg your pardon, gentle wax that seals this letter. Manners and etiquette, do not blame us. To know our enemies’ minds, we would rip their hearts; to rip their letters open is more lawful.”

He read the letter out loud: “Remember the vows we made to each other. In the battle, you will have many opportunities to cut down his life; if your will is not lacking, the time and place for committing murder will be plentifully offered. If he returns as the conqueror of the battle, then I am his prisoner, and his bed is my jail; from the loathed warmth of his bed deliver me, and in return for your labor take his place in my bed. Your — I would like to say wife, but I have to say for now — affectionate servant, GONERIL.”

The disguised Edgar said to himself, “Oh, how vast and without limits is the lust of a woman! This is a plot upon her virtuous husband’s life; she wanted to exchange her virtuous husband for Edmund, my illegitimate half-brother!”

He said to Oswald’s corpse, “Here, in the sands, I’ll bury you, the unholy messenger of murderous lechers, and at the right time I will show this ungracious letter to the Duke of Albany, whose death his wife plotted. For him it is a good thing that I can tell him about your death and the errand you were running.”

The old Earl of Gloucester said, “The King is insane. How obstinate is my vile sense that remains sane and will not allow me to escape from my sorrows by lapsing into madness. Instead, I stand up, and I have conscious feeling of my huge sorrows! It would be better if I were insane. That way, my thoughts would be severed and divorced from my griefs, and my woes would lose the knowledge of themselves because I would see delusions.”

“Give me your hand,” the disguised Edgar said.

Military drums sounded.

He said, “From far away, I think, I hear the beaten drum. Come, father, I’ll leave you with a friend.”


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


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