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 The Language of Lear 

June 16, 2005 
I recently watched Laurence Olivieras King Lear again, and apart from the excellence of all the performances I was most struck by the strangeness of the language. King Lear is Shakespeare’s greatest play, Today's column is "The Language of Lear" -- Read Joe's columns the day he writes them. but it has never been among his most popular — or his most quoted. And the reason goes beyond its grim subject and painful ending.

The old king divides his kingdom between his two evil daughters, Goneril and Regan, who soon turn on him; while he banishes his youngest daughter, Cordelia, who returns to rescue him when he is insane, almost alone, and desperate. But this seeming fairy-tale comes to a crushing conclusion. It combines the bleakest suffering with the most ineffable joy in literature. Watching the scene in which Lear asks Cordelia to forgive him is like witnessing a miracle.

Except for Macbeth, few of Shakespeare’s later plays have been staged or filmed very often. The popular plays tend to be comedies or earlier tragedies. Their plots are easier to follow, and their language lends itself to memorization. As You Like It, The Merchant of Venice, Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar, and Hamlet, great as they are, don’t challenge either the ear or the understanding as Lear does.

Of course Elizabethan English was so different from ours that most of us need footnotes in order to follow any of these plays. But footnotes don’t help very much with Lear. The play must have been nearly as hard for its first audiences to grasp as it is now.

[Breaker quote for The Language of Lear: Shakespeare's new grammar]The general outline of the story is clear, but the language is constantly perplexing. Many of the words are rare, and the sentences hardly parse. It’s as if the playwright were inventing a new language, with a new grammar of his own — one that makes Julius Caesar or Hamlet seem to be written in epigrammatic prose.

But Shakespeare’s “later” style, like Beethoven’s, is famous for its knotty, dense, sometimes almost impenetrable quality. Here is a sampling from the first half of Lear:
In the tender of a wholesome weal ... Woe that too late repents! ... With cadent tears fret channels in her cheeks ... But let his disposition have that scope / As dotage gives it ... enguard his dotage with their pow’rs ... very pregnant and potential spirits ... constrains the garb / Quite from his nature ... And with presented nakedness outface / The winds and persecutions of the sky ... Infirmity doth still neglect all office / Whereto our health is bound ... Dwells in the fickle grace of her he follows ... Strives in his little world of man to outscorn / The to-and-fro conflicting wind and rain ... the thick rotundity o’ th’ world ... thou simlar of virtue ... Rive your concealing continents ... Your looped and windowed raggedness.
You can make some sense of such phrases, and in the study their obscurity may almost disappear, but nobody, however sophisticated, could ever follow them perfectly at first hearing. On the other hand, their dramatic force is never wholly lost, in their context.

Why would Shakespeare make things so difficult for his audience? Because he wanted to. It was part of the effect he was seeking, a sense of life’s swirling mysteries that we can only comprehend in part. The language, like the story itself, overwhelms us. And yet the play’s most unforgettable passages are written in the simplest English.
Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life,
And thou no breath at all?
The critic Stephen Booth has written of “indefinition” as an essential quality of Shakespeare’s mature tragedy. Even the seeming loose ends of the plots — the quiet, unexplained disappearance of Lear’s Fool, for instance — may have a purpose. When Lear laments, “And my poor fool is hanged,” we don’t know whether “fool” means the Fool or is an endearment for Cordelia.

A.C. Bradley, one of the greatest of all Shakespeare commentators, has two lectures on this tremendous play, wherein he deals with its many puzzling difficulties, which make it hard to present adequately on the stage, yet still somehow intensify its tragic power. One thing is sure: there is no danger of overpraising King Lear.

Joseph Sobran

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