home contact

Difficult Passages in King Lear

From Shakespearean Tragedy by A. C. Bradley. London: MacMillan and Co.

The following are notes on some passages where I have not been able to accept any of the current interpretations, or on which I wish to express an opinion or represent a little-known view.

1. Kent's soliloquy at the end of II. ii.

(a) In this speech the application of the words 'Nothing, almost sees miracles but misery' seems not to have been understood. The 'misery' is surely not that of Kent but that of Lear, who has come 'out of heaven's benediction to the warm sun,' i.e. to misery. This, says Kent, is just the situation where something like miraculous help may be looked for; and he finds the sign of it in the fact that a letter from Cordelia has just reached him; for his course since his banishment has been so obscured that it is only by the rarest good fortune (something like a miracle) that Cordelia has got intelligence of it. We may suppose that this intelligence came from one of Albany's or Cornwall's servants, some of whom are, he says (III. i. 23),

     to France the spies and speculations Intelligent of our state.
(b) The words 'and shall find time,' etc., have been much discussed. Some have thought that they are detached phrases from the letter which Kent is reading: but Kent has just implied by his address to the sun that he has no light to read the letter by1. It has also been suggested that the anacoluthon is meant to represent Kent's sleepiness, which prevents him from finishing the sentence, and induces him to dismiss his thoughts and yield to his drowsiness. But I remember nothing like this elsewhere in Shakespeare, and it seems much more probable that the passage is corrupt, perhaps from the loss of a line containing words like 'to rescue us' before 'From this enormous state' (with 'state' cf. 'our state' in the lines quoted above).

When we reach III. i. we find that Kent has now read the letter; he knows that a force is coming from France and indeed has already 'secret feet' in some of the harbours. So he sends the Gentleman to Dover.

2. The Fool's Song in II. iv.

At II. iv. 62 Kent asks why the King comes with so small a train. The Fool answers, in effect, that most of his followers have deserted him because they see that his fortunes are sinking. He proceeds to advise Kent ironically to follow their example, though he confesses he does not intend to follow it himself. 'Let go thy hold when a great wheel runs down a hill, lest it break thy neck with following it: but the great one that goes up the hill, let him draw thee after. When a wise man gives thee better counsel, give me mine again: I would have none but knaves follow it, since a fool gives it.

That sir which serves and seeks for gain,
And follows but for form,
Will pack when it begins to rain,
And leave thee in the storm.
But I will tarry; the fool will stay,
And let the wise man fly:
The knave turns fool that runs away;
The fool no knave, perdy.
The last two lines have caused difficulty. Johnson wanted to read,
The fool turns knave that runs away,
The knave no fool, perdy;
i.e. if I ran away, I should prove myself to be a knave and a wise man, but, being a fool, I stay, as no knave or wise man would. Those who rightly defend the existing reading misunderstand it, I think. Shakespeare is not pointing out, in 'The knave turns fool that runs away,' that the wise knave who runs away is really a 'fool with a circumbendibus,' 'moral miscalculator as well as moral coward.' The Fool is referring to his own words, 'I would have none but knaves follow [my advice to desert the King], since a fool gives it'; and the last two lines of his song mean, 'The knave who runs away follows the advice given by a fool; but I, the fool, shall not follow my own advice by turning knave.'

For the ideas compare the striking passage in Timon, I. i. 64 ff.

3. 'Decline your head.'

At IV. ii. 18 Goneril, dismissing Edmund in the presence of Oswald, says:

     This trusty servant
Shall pass between us: ere long you are like to hear,
If you dare venture in your own behalf,
A mistress's command. Wear this; spare speech;
Decline your head: this kiss, if it durst speak,
Would stretch thy spirits up into the air.
I copy Furness's note on 'Decline': 'STEEVENS thinks that Goneril bids Edmund decline his head that she might, while giving him a kiss, appear to Oswald merely to be whispering to him. But this, WRIGHT says, is giving Goneril credit for too much delicacy, and Oswald was a "serviceable villain." DELIUS suggests that perhaps she wishes to put a chain around his neck.'

Surely 'Decline your head' is connected, not with 'Wear this' (whatever 'this' may be), but with 'this kiss,' etc. Edmund is a good deal taller than Goneril, and must stoop to be kissed.

4. Self-cover'd.

At IV. ii. 59 Albany, horrified at the passions of anger, hate, and contempt expressed in his wife's face, breaks out:

     See thyself, devil!
Proper deformity seems not in the fiend
So horrid as in woman.

Gon. O vain fool!
Alb. Thou changed and self-cover'd thing, for shame,
Be-monster not thy feature. Were't my fitness
To let these hands obey my blood,
They are apt enough to dislocate and tear
Thy flesh and bones: howe'er thou art a fiend,
A woman's shape doth shield thee.
The passage has been much discussed, mainly because of the strange expression 'self-cover'd,' for which of course emendations have been proposed. The general meaning is clear. Albany tells his wife that she is a devil in a woman's shape, and warns her not to cast off that shape by be-monstering her feature (appearance), since it is this shape alone that protects her from his wrath. Almost all commentators go astray because they imagine that, in the words 'thou changed and self-cover'd thing,' Albany is speaking to Goneril as a woman who has been changed into a fiend. Really he is addressing her as a fiend which has changed its own shape and assumed that of a woman; and I suggest that 'self-cover'd' means either 'which hast covered or concealed thyself,' or 'whose self is covered' [so Craig in Arden edition], not (what of course it ought to mean) 'which hast been covered by thyself.'

Possibly the last lines of this passage (which does not appear in the Folios) should be arranged thus:

To let these hands obey my blood, they're apt enough
To dislocate and tear thy flesh and bones:
Howe'er thou art a fiend, a woman's shape
Doth shield thee.
Gon. Marry, your manhood now--
Alb. What news?
5. The stage-directions at V. i. 37, 39.

In V. i. there first enter Edmund, Regan, and their army or soldiers: then, at line 18, Albany, Goneril, and their army or soldiers. Edmund and Albany speak very stiffly to one another, and Goneril bids them defer their private quarrels and attend to business. Then follows this passage (according to the modern texts):

Alb. Let's then determine
With the ancient of war on our proceedings.
Edm. I shall attend you presently at your tent.
Reg. Sister, you'll go with us?
Gon. No.
Reg. 'Tis most convenient: pray you, go with us.
Gon. [ Aside ] O, ho, I know the riddle.--I will go.
As they are going out, enter EDGAR disguised.
Edg. If e'er your grace had speech with man so poor,
Hear me one word.
Alb. I'll overtake you. Speak.
[ Exeunt all but ALBANY and EDGAR.
It would appear from this that all the leading persons are to go to a Council of War with the ancient (plural) in Albany's tent; and they are going out, followed by their armies, when Edgar comes in. Why in the world, then, should Goneril propose (as she apparently does) to absent herself from the Council; and why,

still more, should Regan object to her doing so? This is a question which always perplexed me, and I could not believe in the only answers I ever found suggested, viz., that Regan wanted to keep Edmund and Goneril together in order that she might observe them (Moberly, quoted in Furness), or that she could not bear to lose sight of Goneril, for fear Goneril should effect a meeting with Edmund after the Council (Delius, if I understand him).

But I find in Koppel what seems to be the solution (Verbesserungsvorschläge, p. 127 f.). He points out that the modern stage-directions are wrong. For the modern direction 'As they are going out, enter Edgar disguised,' the Ff. read, 'Exeunt both the armies. Enter Edgar.' For 'Exeunt all but Albany and Edgar' the Ff. have nothing, but Q1 has 'exeunt' after 'word.' For the first direction Koppel would read, 'Exeunt Regan, Goneril, Gentlemen, and Soldiers': for the second he would read, after 'overtake you,' 'Exit Edmund.'

This makes all clear. Albany proposes a Council of War. Edmund assents, and says he will come at once to Albany's tent for that purpose. The Council will consist of Albany, Edmund, and the ancient of war. Regan, accordingly, is going away with her soldiers; but she observes that Goneril shows no sign of moving with her soldiers; and she at once suspects that Goneril means to attend the Council in order to be with Edmund. Full of jealousy, she invites Goneril to go with her. Goneril refuses, but then, seeing Regan's motive, contemptuously and ironically consents (I doubt if 'O ho, I know the riddle' should be 'aside,' as in modern editions, following Capell). Accordingly the two sisters go out, followed by their soldiers; and Edmund and Albany are just going out, in a different direction, to Albany's tent when Edgar enters. His words cause Albany to stay; Albany says to Edmund, as Edmund leaves, 'I'll overtake you'; and then, turning to Edgar, bids him 'speak.'

6. V. iii. 151 ff.

When Edmund falls in combat with the disguised Edgar, Albany produces the letter from Goneril to Edmund, which Edgar had found in Oswald's pocket and had handed over to Albany. This letter suggested to Edmund the murder of Albany. The passage in the Globe edition is as follows:

Gon. This is practice, Gloucester:
By the law of arms thou wast not bound to answer
An unknown opposite: thou art not vanquish'd,
But cozen'd and beguiled.
Alb. Shut your mouth, dame,
Or with this paper shall I stop it: Hold, sir;
Thou worse than any name, read thy own evil:
No tearing, lady; I perceive you know it.
[Gives the letter to Edmund.
Gon. Say, if I do, the laws are mine, not thine:
Who can arraign me for't?
Alb. Most monstrous! oh!
Know'st thou this paper?
Gon. Ask me not what I know. [Exit
Alb. Go after her: she's desperate: govern her.
Edm. What you have charged me with, that have I done;
And more, much more; the time will bring it out.
'Tis past, and so am I. But what art thou
That hast this fortune on me?
The first of the stage-directions is not in the Qq. or Ff.: it was inserted by Johnson. The second ('Exit') is both in the Qq. and in the Ff., but the latter place it after the words 'arraign me for't.' And they give the words 'Ask me not what I know' to Edmund, not to Goneril, as in the Qq. (followed by the Globe).

I will not go into the various views of these lines, but will simply say what seems to me most probable. It does not matter much where precisely Goneril's 'exit' comes; but I believe the Folios are right in giving the words 'Ask me not what I know' to Edmund. It has been pointed out by Knight that the question 'Know'st thou this paper?' cannot very well be addressed to Goneril, for Albany has already said to her, 'I perceive you know it.' It is possible to get over this difficulty by saying that Albany wants her confession: but there is another fact which seems to have passed unnoticed. When Albany is undoubtedly speaking to his wife, he uses the plural pronoun, 'Shut your mouth, dame,' 'No tearing, lady; I perceive you know it.' When then he asks 'Know'st thou this paper?' he is probably not speaking to her.

I should take the passage thus. At 'Hold, sir,' [omitted in Qq.] Albany holds the letter out towards Edmund for him to see, or possibly gives it to him.2 The next line, with its 'thou,' is addressed to Edmund, whose 'reciprocal vows' are mentioned in the letter. Goneril snatches at it to tear it up: and Albany, who does not know whether Edmund ever saw the letter or not, says to her 'I perceive you know it,' the 'you' being emphatic (her very wish to tear it showed she knew what was in it). She practically admits her knowledge, defies him, and goes out to kill herself. He exclaims in horror at her, and, turning again to Edmund, asks if he knows it. Edmund, who of course does not know it, refuses to answer (like Iago), not (like Iago) out of defiance, but from chivalry towards Goneril; and, having refused to answer this charge, he goes on to admit the charges brought against himself previously by Albany (82 f.) and Edgar (130 f.). I should explain the change from 'you' to 'thou' in his speech by supposing that at first he is speaking to Albany and Edgar together.

7. V. iii. 278.

Lear, looking at Kent, asks,

Who are you?
Mine eyes are not o' the best: I'll tell you straight.
Kent. If fortune brag of two she loved and hated (Qq. or), One of them we behold.
Kent is not answering Lear, nor is he speaking of himself. He is speaking of Lear. The best interpretation is probably that of Malone, according to which Kent means, 'We see the man most hated by Fortune, whoever may be the man she has loved best'; and perhaps it is supported by the variation of the text in the Qq., though their texts are so bad in this scene that their support is worth little. But it occurs to me as possible that the meaning is rather: 'Did Fortune ever show the extremes both of her love and of her hatred to any other man as she has shown them to this man?'

8. The last lines.

Alb. Bear them from hence. Our present business
Is general woe. [To Kent and Edgar] Friends of my
soul, you twain
Rule in this realm, and the gored state sustain.

Kent. I have a journey, sir, shortly to go;
My master calls me, I must not say no.

Alb. The weight of this sad time we must obey;
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.
The oldest hath borne most: we that are young
Shall never see so much, nor live so long.
So the Globe. The stage-direction (right, of course) is Johnson's. The last four lines are given by the Ff. to Edgar, by the Qq. to Albany. The Qq. read 'have borne most.'

To whom ought the last four lines to be given, and what do they mean? It is proper that the principal person should speak last, and this is in favour of Albany. But in this scene at any rate the Ff., which give the speech to Edgar, have the better text (though Ff. 2, 3, 4, make Kent die after his two lines!); Kent has answered Albany, but Edgar has not; and the lines seem to be rather more appropriate to Edgar. For the 'gentle reproof' of Kent's despondency (if this phrase of Halliwell's is right) is like Edgar; and, although we have no reason to suppose that Albany was not young, there is nothing to prove his youth.

As to the meaning of the last two lines (a poor conclusion to such a play) I should suppose that 'the oldest' is not Lear, but 'the oldest of us,' viz., Kent, the one survivor of the old generation: and this is the more probable if there is a reference to him in the preceding lines. The last words seem to mean, 'We that are young shall never see so much and yet live so long'; i.e. if we suffer so much, we shall not bear it as he has. If the Qq. 'have' is right, the reference is to Lear, Gloster and Kent.


Footnote 1: The 'beacon' which he bids approach is not the moon, as Pope supposed. The moon was up and shining some time ago (ii. ii. 35), and lines 1 and 141-2 imply that not much of the night is left.

Footnote 2: 'Hold' can mean 'take'; but the word 'this' in line 160 ('Know'st thou this paper?') favours the idea that the paper is still in Albany's hand.]

How to cite this article:

Bradley, A. C. Shakespearean Tragedy. London: MacMillan and Co., 1919. Shakespeare Online. 20 Aug. 2009. (date when you accessed the information) < >.


Related Articles

 How to Pronounce the Names in King Lear
 King Lear Overview
 King Lear Summary
 King Lear Analysis by Act and Scene
 King Lear Character Introduction
 King Lear Study Questions
 Sources for King Lear
 King Lear: FAQ
 Famous Quotations from King Lear