King Lear : Act Three
The Story So Far: The full implications of renouncing his powers as king have come crashing down upon Lear, as he finds that both his elder daughters, Goneril and Regan, are determined to strip him of his entourage of a hundred knights. Infuriated at their perceived ingratitude and betrayal, Lear figuratively storms out into a literal storm, accompanied only by his Fool.
Meanwhile, Edgar, the legitimate son of the Earl of Gloucester, finds himself a hunted man after his bastard brother Edmund convinces their father that Edgar was plotting to murder him. On the run, Edgar decides to disguise himself as a madman called Poor Tom.
A short, mostly-expository scene today, after all the excitement of Act 2. The fellow with the impressive mustache is the aptly-named "Gentleman". I used to ignore this character completely, but then I read actor David Weston's diary on his year spent playing the Gentlemen (and serving as understudy) to Ian McKellen's King Lear. Titled Covering McKellen, it is a deliciously revealing look at what goes into and behind-the-scenes of a major RSC production. Unlike many such publications, which err on the side of professional diplomacy, this really is no-holds-barred. I highly recommend it.
This is the Big Storm Scene, featuring the Big Storm Scene speech! "Blow winds and crack your cheeks" is a classic speech, and I promise will get around to putting together a video compilation of Notable Lears bellowing it to the heavens, because it's worth seeing how they each tackle it.
Spare a thought for the poor Fool, who just wants to get somewhere dry, while his master seems determined to drown himself in a very inefficient manner.
Poor old Gloucester. He doesn't realize that telling Edmund about the top-secret letter is kind of like telling a small child not to press the giant red button that has the words "DO NOT PRESS" printed on it. Edmund, meanwhile, steps up the villainy. It's possible to sympathize with his actions against Edgar: he's been deprived of any legal and social status by society's preoccupation with arbitrary marital status, so it makes sense for him to want to secure what he feels is his birthright. However, he's moving into full-blown villain mode now.
Here we finally meet Edgar, in his role as Poor Tom, in all his muddy, half-naked glory. In order to escape his father's misplaced wrath, Edgar has chose to disguise himself as a beggar. That's all well and good, but the lengths to which Edgar goes in his disguise are rather extraordinary. He throws himself whole-heartedly into his part and comes up with HUGE rambling "mad" speeches. I worry about Edgar sometimes.
This scene also features the famous "Off, off, you lendings!" bit where Lear takes off his clothes in the middle of a storm. It's one of the directorial flashpoints of King Lear - just how many clothes does Lear take off? Several acclaimed productions in recent memory, notably Ian Holm's 1997 production and Ian McKellen's 2007 production, have had Lear drop his trousers in a most emphatic and thorough manner, revealing literally all to the elements.
I was fortunate enough to see Ian McKellen perform Lear while on tour in Singapore. For better or worse, nudity on the stage was not permitted, and thus I never got to see Sir Ian's bare, forked animal.
Dear old Gloucester. He always tries to do the right thing, but he's sometimes as thick as a brick wall. Here he bumps into not one but two disguised acquaintances - his friend Kent and his son Edgar - and, despite being reminded of them enough to bring them up in conversation, he totally fails to recognize either of them.
Get some glasses, Gloucester! You clearly have bad eyesight. For the moment, anyways.
I'm pretty sure the Duke of Cornwall isn't fooled by Edmund's protestations of regret for one moment. Cornwall is figuratively a bastard, so he probably knows one when he sees one.
You have to feel sorry for Kent. The guy is just trying to do the right thing and look after his king, and where does he end up? Stuck in a shack with a crazy old man, a mud-covered madman, and a jester who keeps spouting apparent non sequiturs at random. I'm always surprised that Kent doesn't go insane. I certainly would.
This scene, incidentally, is generally presented as a composite between the Folio text and the Quarto text. As I've mentioned before, the text I'm working with is based on the Folio, which excludes the mock-trial of Goneril the Joint-Stool, but I edited it back in here because it's too fun to miss.
There are many references to eyes in King Lear, and they all lead up to this infamous scene. This is one of the scenes that gets waved around when people say "Oooh, Shakespeare is boring." Boring, is it? Boring? How about a nice old man getting his eyes gouged out on stage? ARE YOU STILL BORED?
There are many massively quotable lines in King Lear: "How sharper than a serpent's tooth it is to have a thankless child", "Blow winds and crack your cheeks", etc. However, the one I always like to quote is Cornwall's "Out, vile jelly! Where is thy lustre now?" If you're creative, you can find lots of uses for it, the most obvious being when you're making a sandwich and run out of spreadable fruit preserves.
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