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Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Remonstrance (1)—King Lear

Click here for the introduction to Round and Square's series on remonstrance.

[a] Lear's wrath
              Remonstrance 1                Remonstrance 2                 Remonstrance 3
              Remonstrance 4                Remonstrance 5                 Remonstrance 6
              Remonstrance 7                Remonstrance 8                 Remonstrance 9

I will be posting a methodical introduction to the concept of remonstrance in a few days, but let's start this series of posts about a very important topic with the best example of "focused critique" in Western literature. King Lear is a major role on the stage, and experienced actors understand that a peculiar kind of "pacing" is required of them. There is so much drama in Act 1, Scene 1, that lesser actors howl with fury at the court official, Kent (see below), only to have spent their thespian rage by the time the deepest of the later scenes take place.
You see, King Lear has the idea that he can divide his kingdom between his daughters and their new husbands, shuttling back and forth between their mini-kingdoms in a kind of royal semi-retirement (keeping a hundred knights in tow). All he asks is for his daughters to tell them how much they adore him. Two do so in fawning terms, but the young'un (the little apple of Lear's eye) decides to be honest. Cordelia tells Lear that she loves him according to their bond—as a daughter to a father.  When she marries, she says, she will bring half her love to her husband.

[c] Kent remonstrates
Honesty is a dangerous policy.  Lear doesn't like it, and flies into a rage (read the rest of the first scene for the brilliant depiction of the daughters hovering between the realms of truth and deception). As we enter the part of the scene I have quoted (I,i 108-181), Lear has decided to cut off Cordelia from her inheritance. His trusted adviser, Kent, cannot believe what he is hearing, and decides to speak up. That is the very heart of the idea of remonstrance. The junior person in a hierarchy speaks up against the senior's actions. Lear is "senior" and Kent is "junior." That is what remonstrance is all about. The critique comes from the bottom up, often in a last-ditch effort to save a tottering kingdom (or almost-lost mind, as Kent notes, below).

I will have much more to write about this often-forgotten but absolutely critical concept in the coming weeks.  As I like to do with "first posts" on a major theme, though, the scene will do most of the speaking for itself.  I have put Kent's words in bold type to emphasize their significance in one of the best scenes in one of the best plays by the best dramatist in English literature.  Remonstrance.  Think about these lines, in particular (the heart of the remonstrance ideal). The dutiful must speak when a leader acts rashly, endangering the very state itself. That is remonstrance.

                           Think'st thou that duty shall have dread to speak,
                           When power to flattery bows? To plainness honor's bound,
                           When majesty stoops to folly.

And exile (or worse) is the price to pay for words that go unheeded.

Watch it first or last—but watch it and read it.  The "public access" options are limited, but I am almost always surprised by the slightly different "reads" of the situation when acted...anytime, anywhere.

[d] Citizen Lear

King Lear
Act 1, Scene 1
[Regan and Goneril fawn; Cordelia tells the truth;
"Why have my sisters husbands if they say they love
you all?" This makes Lear very unhappy, and he says so.]

Let it be so; thy truth, then, be thy dower:
For, by the sacred radiance of the sun,
The mysteries of Hecate, and the night;             110
By all the operation of the orbs
From whom we do exist, and cease to be;
Here I disclaim all my paternal care,
Propinquity and property of blood,
And as a stranger to my heart and me
Hold thee, from this, for ever. The barbarous Scythian,
Or he that makes his generation messes
To gorge his appetite, shall to my bosom
Be as well neighbour'd, pitied, and relieved,
As thou my sometime daughter.                        120

Good my liege,—

Peace, Kent!
Come not between the dragon and his wrath.
I loved her most, and thought to set my rest
On her kind nursery. Hence, and avoid my sight!
So be my grave my peace, as here I give
Her father's heart from her! Call France; who stirs?
Call Burgundy. Cornwall and Albany,
With my two daughters' dowers digest this third:
Let pride, which she calls plainness, marry her.
I do invest you jointly with my power,                           130
Pre-eminence, and all the large effects
That troop with majesty. Ourself, by monthly course,
With reservation of an hundred knights,
By you to be sustain'd, shall our abode
Make with you by due turns. Only we still retain
The name, and all the additions to a king;
The sway, revenue, execution of the rest,
Beloved sons, be yours: which to confirm,
This coronet part betwixt you.

Giving the crown

[e] Focused Lear
Royal Lear,                                                           140
Whom I have ever honored as my king,
Loved as my father, as my master followed,
As my great patron thought on in my prayers,—

The bow is bent and drawn, make from the shaft.

Let it fall rather, though the fork invade
The region of my heart. Be Kent unmannerly
When Lear is mad. What wilt thou do, old man?
Think'st thou that duty shall have dread to speak,
When power to flattery bows? To plainness honor's bound,
When majesty stoops to folly. Reverse thy doom;
And, in thy best consideration, check                 150
This hideous rashness. Answer my life my judgment,
Thy youngest daughter does not love thee least,
Nor are those empty-hearted whose low sounds
Reverb no hollowness.

Kent, on thy life, no more!

My life I never held but as a pawn
To wage against thine enemies; nor fear to lose it,
Thy safety being the motive.

Out of my sight!

See better, Lear; and let me still remain
The true blank of thine eye.

Now, by Apollo,--

Now, by Apollo, king,
Thou swear'st thy gods in vain.                        160

O, vassal! miscreant!

Laying his hand on his sword

[f] Lear Beginnings
Dear sir, forbear.

Kill thy physician, and thy fee bestow
Upon thy foul disease. Revoke thy gift;
Or, whilst I can vent clamor from my throat,
I'll tell thee thou dost evil.

Hear me, recreant!
On thine allegiance, hear me!
Since though has sought to make us break our vow,
Since thou hast sought to make us break our vow,
Which we durst never yet, and with strain'd pride
To come between our sentence and our power,          170
Which nor our nature nor our place can bear,
Our potency made good, take thy reward.
Five days we do allot thee, for provision
To shield thee from diseases of the world;
And on the sixth to turn thy hated back
Upon our kingdom: if, on the tenth day following,
Thy banish'd trunk be found in our dominions,
The moment is thy death. Away! by Jupiter,
This shall not be revoked.

Fare thee well, king. Sith thus thou wilt appear,   180
Freedom lives hence, and banishment is here.

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