…for, once again, the fierce dispute
Betwixt damnation and impassioned clay
Must I burn through…
– John Keats
“Damnation and impassioned clay…” Keats certainly had a way with words! But impressive though those words are, I particularly love here his use of the word “must”. King Lear is a harrowing play: fierce disputes betwixt damnation and impassioned clay, even at best of times, are unlikely to be anything but harrowing. But no matter: those of us who are under its spell feel that they must keep returning to it. And no matter how many times one sees or reads this play, each new encounter overwhelms with its terror and its pity, and its savage power.
I was eleven years old when I first encountered this play. It was at the Assembly Halls in Edinburgh, during the 1971 Edinburgh Festival: Timothy West played Lear. I am not sure how much I took in, or even how much I was capable of taking in at that age: but I took in enough. I was so excited by what I had seen, that I could not get to sleep that night. There are few single instances that one could describe as “life-changing”, but I think I can with some confidence describe that evening in such terms: my Shakespeare mania can be traced back to that performance.
Timothy West was, I think, only in his forties when he played that role in Edinburgh. Some thirty or so afterwards, I saw Timothy West, now himself closer to Lear’s “fourscore and more”, play the role again, this time in an English Touring Theatre production directed by Stephen Unwin. I am afraid I cannot give a detailed account of how his interpretation had changed over the years, but his performance was every bit as overwhelming as I remember it to have been some thirty years earlier.
I am currently reading the play in two different texts. Last year, I read Hamlet in different texts – the two Quarto texts (the so-called “good Quarto”, and also the “Bad Quarto” for completeness), and the Folio – and convinced myself that when more than one legitimate text exists, then we must treat them as different versions of the work: no purpose is served in conflating them. So now, to King Lear: as with Hamlet there are two good texts – the First Quarto, of 1608, and the First Folio, printed after Shakespeare’s death in the 1623; and there are sufficient differences between the two texts to indicate significant revisions. I’ll try to compare the two texts once I have finished reading them, but for the moment, I am drawn once again into this fierce dispute betwixt damnation and impassioned clay. And there’s one scene in particular in this fierce dispute that, even after forty and more years of repeated reading and viewing, I find puzzling.
It occurs in Act 4, shortly before the famous scene in which the blind Gloucester encounters the mad Lear on the heath. Edgar, Gloucester’s exiled son, leads his eyeless father: the father is unaware of the identity of the man leading him, and, in despair, wants only to die. Edgar pretends that they are at the edge of a cliff, and delivers a magnificent vertigo-inducing description of what it is like to look down from the imagined heights. Gloucester, thinking himself to be on the edge, leaps forward, only to fall on the level ground. When he comes to, Edgar approaches him again, this time pretending to be another person; and he tells Gloucester that he is now at the foot of the cliff, having fallen from the top, and that, but by some miracle, has remained physically unscathed. He adds also that the person Gloucester had been with at the top of the cliff – himself of course – had appeared to him from the bottom as some sort of fiendish supernatural figure.
This episode has always struck me as bizarre. I frankly do not understand it. Edgar playing these games with his sightless father makes no sort of sense at all: what is he trying to achieve? He tells us that he is doing all this to cure his father from despair, but how all this tomfoolery could achieve such an end, or even why he thinks it could achieve that end, is far from clear. It is utterly bizarre.
And yet, it is a scene that haunts the mind. I do not understand it, and I cannot see how it fits with what I understand to be the themes of the play. But I would not even think of cutting it from performance. After all, Shakespeare did not remove it when he revised the work: he clearly thought it important.
Am I missing something here? Or is this scene – like Charmian’s “Ah, soldier!” – one of those Shakespearean miracles that defy analysis? I do not know. Analysis is important, certainly, but it is salutary perhaps to keep in mind that a work of this stature has about it a mystery; and that even the most trenchant of analyses cannot pluck out the heart of that mystery.