A good recent Louisville production of King Lear sent me back to my handily small Yale edition to reread this most poignant of Shakespeare’s tragedies. Its title character is the hardest of his rulers to play, after Leontes—because Lear is so changeable, so affectionate and then so vindictive, so mad and then in an instant sane again. But what a beautiful play. Is there a better king’s man than the blunt and loyal Kent, who serves Lear in disguise after being banished, and who at the end refuses a crown and resigns himself instead to following his lord into death? Is there a more moving scene than the one in which young Edgar, disguised as a mad and filthy Tom o’ Bedlam, brings his blinded father Gloucester to the cliff of his despair and then back to life again? (Wendell Berry has written about that scene in particular in the fine essay “The Uses of Adversity.”)
And what an angry and violent play this is, with its Titus Andronicus-moment of the on-stage tearing out of eyeballs, its bitterly libidinous Regan and Goneril, and the pitiable final scene in which a despondent Lear carries in the body of his beloved Cordelia. When you read that scene as a 20-something you will feel some of his grief. But read it as a middle-aged parent and your heart, with his, cracks.
Like all Shakespeare’s tragedies (and like life) Lear has its blackly comical moments. Surely every teenager suffering from inarticulate rage should memorize Kent’s long verbal blasting of Goneril’s steward Oswald (Act II, scene 2). It’s a speech the Bowdlers would have taken a red pen to, and in general I’m for euphemism myself, but–what relief this could offer a generation hog-and-tongue-tied by colorless txting:
A knave, a rascal, an eater of broken meats; a base, proud, shallow, beggarly, three-suited, hundred-pound, filthy, worsted-stocking knave…
And on and on Kent goes in vivid fusillade. The Elizabetheans delighted in insult and the Swan of Avon had his own ear for invective—as do most swans. In its coarse but justifiable fury this attack is as satisfying to the audience to hear as it must be for Kent to bellow. Yes: it is definitely on my list of Shakespearean speeches worth memorizing, along with Benedict’s “oh, she misused me past the endurance of a block,” Armado’s “I do affect the very ground,” Phebe’s “Think not I love him,” and Dogberry’s “write me down an ass”–though it is more bitter than any of these others, and from a darker play. Draw, you rogue, or I’ll so carbonado your shanks! Who among us has not gazed out across the Internet and wanted to cry that? I can’t be alone.