King Lear: Part 4 – “It smells of mortality.”

A Painting of Cordelia attending Lear in her tent, with Kent at his side. By Benjamin West, 1793 (Credit:
Folger Shakespeare Library)

Previously on King Lear Daughters are bitches, man loses eye, Poor Tom’s-a-cold, Edmund has fucked, may be fucking and will fuck again, Lear went mad, shouted at the weather that’s how Shakespeare lets us know it’s set in England and how we have any of this without Shakespeare having stained his pages with his own tears and blood from his self-harming I haven’t a fucking clue. Now everyone’s going to Dover, for some fucking reason, it’s a shithole, and Gloucester lost his eyes in a poker game or something. All caught up? Good.

We open with Cordelia in a military tent and she says, of, we presume, Lear;

                “Alack, ‘tis he: why, he was met even now
                As mad as the vex’d sea; singing aloud;
                Crown’d with rank fumiter and furrow-weeds,
                With bur-docks, hemlock, nettles, cuckoo-flowers,
                Darnel, and all the idle weeds that grow
                In our sustaining corn…”

I told you this gets heavy when the opening lines of our new part are playing on the natural themes again. Shakespeare was a country-bumpkin at heart and it tells in his imagery. I’ve mentioned before he used pagan imagery partly as a cover, using any kind of Christian imagery at the time could get you killed such was the discord between catholic and protestant factions. It just reads more than that, and performs so much more than that.

My favourite version of King Lear that I have seen was, funnily enough, the one we watched as part of my loathed AS Level classes. It was a 1983 TV Movie directed by Michael Elliott and it featured Laurence Olivier as the titular King (It’s available on Youtube, go give it a watch if you’ve got close to three hours). Olivier is enough of a reason to see it, never mind having a stellar cast including Robert Lindsay, Diana Rigg, Brian Cox, David Threlfall and John Hurt – all exceptional actors. Robert Lindsay’s Edmund is one of the reasons I interpret him as I do, because he plays such a loveable rogue you can’t help but wish him well. Of course, Olivier as Lear is profound. It would also be Olivier’s last performance ever in a Shakespeare play and there’s a truth, a brutally beautiful method-acting to his performance, as far as I am concerned this is Olivier’s shouting in the storm performance. To me his Lear in this performance will be the one against all others shall have to stand, playing it both strong and frail, wise and mad, every contradiction of the character, with finesse.

The point I’m trying to make is when it comes to seeing Olivier ‘singing aloud, crown’d with rank fumiter’ in that 1983 performance we do not see a man ‘mad as the vex’d sea’ but a man at peace. To an extent Cordelia’s very speech here betrays the truth. It is mad only because she does not expect it. Lear would never allow himself to become captive to such paganry, such nature, such misery, he’d shout and rage against it as he did the squall those nights before. If he is crowned with flowers and weeds it is because he has accepted the chthonian, he is at peace with the dirt in which he shall soon rest and, again, in Olivier’s version, what an infantile, gloriously curious peace it is. He plays a Lear only scenes ago screaming against nature yet now learning about it, cradling it and toying with it. Toying with it in a way it toyed with him not so long ago.

I recommend watching that version of Lear, it’s an excellent cast – slightly hammy in its production but it’s TV-Theatre, not high-budget period drama and as with any good play you soon forget the scenery or paucity of it, once the actors are chewing through it in their performances. Moving on…

Then we get Regan and Oswald.he basic gist of most of what goes on between Regan, Goneril, Oswald and Edmund at this point is a big game of who’s fucking who – and I’m not 100% sure Edmund hasn’t been fucking Oswald. Because Cornwall is now dead Regan feels she has first dibs on Mr. Lover, Lover Edmund the Fucker, but she knows Goneril’s grasped him in her lusty bower so essentially these two sisters are about to kill each other over Edmund’s cock.

I skip over these parts because the language isn’t particularly flowery or colourful, the plot not particularly intense or relevant but actually there is one thing.

Again, Edmund is the base one. He’s the bastard of all bastardy, high lord bastard of bastardy baseness, right?

So why is it that these two prim and proper princesses be actin’ like hoes up in here?

There’s commentary here. Shakespeare is making a point that Edmund is as Edmund does. You taught him to be a base bastard, gave him the base bastard’s tools to work with and boy can he bastardly base. He is the ultimate dastardly bastard of bastardly buttery biscuit bases. But aren’t these two daughters, of good breeding, of legitimacy, supposed to behave better? Yet no sooner does one’s husband disobey her and the other’s dies in an hilarious eye-plucking accident are they throwing themselves over the nearest base bastard with a cock willing to stand to attention for a sniff of power and legitimacy. If the world made Edmund a bastard, Goneril and Regan are bitches of their own design and there’s a moral imperative there. Even today we have the same standards. The white-collar criminal caught skimming millions of dollars gets a slap on the wrist whilst the dad stealing a loaf of bread for his starving family for the third time goes to prison. One’s a bastard and is judged as so, the other is not. If I were Edmund, I’d do as Edmund does too. “Now, gods, stand up for bastards!” Edmund had said earlier, and if their righteous here on Earth are no better than Goneril and Regan, they may as well. At least the bastards have drive, initiative, ingenuity and creativity.

Next up is one of the most poignant and darkly comical scenes in all of Shakespeare not to take place in a Capulet tomb. Gloucester and Edgar, who is still pretending to be someone else lest his dad discover him, are climbing up to the tall cliff near Dover that Gloucester had asked the madman, Poor Tom, to take him to.

Of course Edgar being a kind soul he hasn’t taken him to the top of a cliff. They’re in a field. Edgar plays some tremendous make-believe that they’re incredibly high on a cliff, Gloucester asks him to place him on the edge and then says, kneeling;

                “O you mighty gods!
                This world I do renounce, and, in your sights,
                Shake patiently my great afflication off:
                If I could bear it longer, and not fall
                To quarrel with your great opposeless wills,
                My snuff and loathed part of nature should
                Burn itself out. If Edgar live, O, bless him!
                Now fellow, fare thee well.”

And so Gloucester dies throwing himself the distance of one man’s knee to the floor, around one metre.

Except obviously he’s not dead, he’s just fallen over and, Edgar, assuming some other new persona, acts shocked at how such a man could have survived the fall!

The contrast between Lear, beaten, cursing the gods and begging for more, and Gloucester, betrayed and de-eyed, immediately wanting to throw himself off a cliff is an obvious comparison to make. What makes one man more capable of suffering than another? What makes one decide when it is time to ‘give up’? Who knows? But given the dramatic irony here, that one of the reasons Gloucester is so downhearted is he fears his beloved son, Edgar, is wronged, betrayed by him, and possibly come to harm and it is that very son overseeing his father’s rehabilitation – It’s funny and very tender.

I’m a sufferer. My life’s a piece of shit, it’s never been easy and you fuckers make sure it stays that way. At the same time I have come to recognise that it is grim humour, small mercies, the many small acts of love, that make life worth living. Sure a big gesture is nice once in a while, but those aches, those pains, every morning’s palpitation and every night’s scream is worth it if in the course of the day I can have one smile. It’s what this scene does, it is what Edgar does for his father, it is – I think – the point Shakespeare is trying to make.

                “Henceforth I’ll bear affliction till it do cry out itself ‘enough, enough’ and die.”

Is what Gloucester says after having been spared his life. Now that’s very Lear-in-the-Storm, and yet I would not have begrudged the poor bugger giving up.

Luckily he didn’t, though, because he bumps into his old mate, the King and they have a little chat, Gloucester recognises his voice and for once we’re going to take some of Lear’s misogyny and…STOP! VERBA-TIME!…

                “Ay, every inch a king:
                When I do stare, see how the subject quakes.
                I pardon that man’s life. What was they cause? Adultery?
                Thou shalt not die: die for adultery! No:
                The wren goes to ‘t, and the small gilded fly
                Does lecher in my sight.
                Let copulation thrive; for Gloucester’s bastard son
                Was kinder to his father than my daughters
                Got ‘tween lawful sheets.
                To ‘t, luxury, pell-mell! For I lack soldiers.
                Behold yond simpering dame,
                Whose face between her forks presages snow;
                That face minces virtue, and does shake the head
                To hear of pleasure’s name;
                The fitchew, nor the soiled horse, goes to ‘t
                with a more riotous appetite.
                Down from the waist they are Centaurs,
                Though women all above:
                But to the girdle do the gods inherit,
                Beneath is all the fiends’;
                There’s hell, there’s darkness, there’s the
                sulphurous pit,
                Burning, scalding, stench, consumption; fie,
                fie, fie! Pah, pah! Give me an ounce of civet,
                good apothecary, to sweeten my imagination
                There’s money for thee.”

It’s the first time I’ve got to give kudos to Lear for being a misogynist because of his creativity, wit and insight in doing so. This is not so much a diatribe against women as much as it is against sex and sexuality. He begins by pardoning a man of adultery and talking up how Gloucester’s bastard is a decent sort – whilst we are busy being drenched in the dramatic irony of him saying this to Gloucester. He gets to the meat-and-two-veg…or rather the opposite of his speech which is an astute observation on the cunt.

This whole bit, it’s about cunts. The ‘forks’ with a face between are a woman’s legs, so you can only imagine what ‘face’ he is referring to, but the ‘presage of snow’ would indicate frigidity. This whole bit is basically saying women will pretend not to be into a bit of the down-and-dirty but actually ‘the fitchew’ an archaic word for a polecat but also slang for a prostitute, ‘nor the soiled horse’ go at it more.

“Down from the waist they are centaurs” – women are beasts below. “To the girdle do the gods inherit, beneath is all the fiends’” mens God only gets the top half and the bottom half is all the devil’s! So when Lear is saying “There’s hell, there’s darkness, there’s the sulphurous pit…” that sulphurous pit, ladies? That’s ya minge! That’s your ladybits. A sulphurous pit! Then he talks about ‘stench’ and ‘give me an ounce of civet’ – a perfume derived from the animal, the civet – and we get to wondering what kind of stanky skanks Lear was cavorting with! Chances are none and he’s just being a misogynist. Either way it’s a hell of a speech to give about, basically, vaginas.

To follow up we get one of the most cutting gags of gallows humour in all Shakespeare, Gloucester asking to kiss Lear’s hand and Lear protesting saying;

                “Let me wipe it first; it smells of mortality.”

It’s an interesting one, this return of Lear, because in many ways he is madder than he has ever been and in many ways his mind has a clarity. It is paralleled with Gloucester who is now blind and yet sees more clearly than he did previously. It parallels so much with Edmund who, once base, is now elevated and ennobled. It parallels so much with Edgar who, once so naïve, through debasement, has become wizened. The transformations we see throughout this play are that someone gains from having lost something. In many cases that something is part of the fundamental fabric of their identity.

Lear and Gloucester chat some more and Edgar notices the glorious contradictions “O, matter and impertinency mix’d! Reason in madness!” – Even he sees that Lear has a greater clarity of mind, sounder reason in his madness than he has certainly possessed throughout the play up until this point. He then makes some points about humans being little more than crying babes about Gloucester’s tears before he’s abducted by agents of Cordelia.

I’ve glossed it over, for sure, because there’s little to be read here. But to be acted? This is one of the scenes that will separate a good Lear from a shit Lear. The bittersweet reunion of the farseeing blindman and the reasonable madman is one of those exceptional Shakespearean experiences that should touch you. If you are not of an age to recognise the beauty in the scene you should have had parents, uncles, grandparents, elderly relatives and friends in whom you have seen this comforting of mutual pains through little more than an exchange of trivia, with so few words said but so much knowingly meant.

So with Lear off to join Cordelia, Edgar and Gloucester get left behind to chat with a Gentleman about how far off the other party at Dover is. Turns out not far, so they make their way only to be intercepted by Oswald!

For some reason, at this point, Edgar puts on a French accent, and has a fight with Oswald and it doesn’t end well for him because he dies, saying on his death that he’s got some money and letters and get them to Edmund. Edgar replies;

                “I know thee well: a serviceable villain;
                as duteous to the vices of thy mistress
                as badness would desire.”

It Is far too great a eulogy. I would have just said “Obedient bitch – Remember when Kent tripped him on his arse?”

So Gloucester and Edgar read the letters…well Edgar reads the letters, and it turns out there’s a plot to kill Albany so that Edmund can stick it up Goneril – with a heavy implication he’s already stuck it up Goneril. Needless to say Edgar’s a little more than miffed because he has a sense of decency, he doesn’t like that the brother who wronged him is involved and, presumably, he’d like to stick it up Goneril.

So having explored the true love of a son for his father, through action, in Edgar and Gloucester we move on to an exploration of true love for Lear. A scene with Cordelia and Kent in a tent. Kent in a Tent sounds like a shit music festival.

                O thou good Kent, how shall I live and work,
                to match thy goodness? My life will be too short,
                And every measure fail me.

                To be acknowledged, madam, is o’erpaid.
                All my reports go with modest truth;
                Nor more nor clipp’d, but so.

                Be better suited:
                These weeds are memories of those worser hours:
                I prithee, put them off.

                Pardon me, dear madam;
                Yet to be known shortens my made intent:
                My bon I make it, that you know me not
                Till time and I think meet.

It’s a gorgeous exchange between two people of the same end. The love and protection of Lear. Cordelia is humbled before Kent’s adoration of her father that he would endanger himself, debase himself, disguise himself, after having been banished, to protect him. He is so admiring of her tenderness for her father, and her humility at his actions that acknowledgement is payment enough for him. She then asks him to stop pretending to be something he’s not, as it is a reminder of the hardships gone and he suggests that for now it’s better and safer he remains unknown. There’s a mutual love, a mutual respect, between Kent and Cordelia and – we must remember – it was Kent who stood up for her in the very first scenes.

Court life can be a strange thing and, I don’t want to drag this down the romantic root because there’s nothing to suggest otherwise. We know Kent to be old, perhaps not so old as Lear but not far off – so that would be odd even for a post-Tudor courtliness. No, I don’t wonder if perhaps Uncle Kent used to pay little Cordelia a visit from time to time, maybe they developed a fondness for one another, a mutual respect outside the bounds of this tale because they are very at ease being open with one another. It is something we might well have expected from the unguarded Cordelia, who lets truth be her cuirass, but Kent has shown himself a canny spy, a hot-tempered warrior and a deft politician. He feels open with Cordelia beyond just this experience.

The scene of Lear awakening, which I would verba-time, I will choose not to. For no other reason than it is truly, heart-meltingly sad. Lear himself rues his awakening, praying only to remain dead, and I have awoken in a bed with much the same feeling, though not through age and infirmity. What’s more his recognition of Cordelia is…It reminds me of visiting my granddad when my mum was there and he would have brief flashes of recognition of who she was and suddenly his heart would lift, his eyes would come back to life, like shining a torch into them. Only you knew it would not last. His regret, his sadness, his insistence that if his other daughters have treated him as they have then Cordelia must have worse designs and her pure, loving comfort of him.

I said I would talk of love in this play because people think love is one of the central themes of Romeo and Juliet and they do not think love is a central theme of King Lear. Love is THE central theme of King Lear, love is the PUNCHLINE in Romeo and Juliet. Love is not some erectile posho standing under a balcony saying “Yoohoo, Juliet, I wuv you!” Llove is not some poison swigging emo-teen. Love is an act, love is action. It is the act, mostly, of suffering for another because you know they do not deserve to feel that pain.

King Lear has love as one of its central themes, what love is, what love should be, and how love manifests. On an individual level, the love of Cordelia, Kent and Fool for Lear, the love of Lear for Cordelia, his fool and himself. On a social level, the love of Oswald for Regan due to subservience, the love of the knights for Gloucester who die protecting his eyes, the love of the armies that fight at the end for the causes they fight for. It is also a demonstration of love as it should not be. The bawdy illegitimate love creating a bastard, society’s lack of love for that bastard, loving the legitimate more than the illegitimate, the elevated more than the base.

King Lear is about love, and love is about acts. Romeo and Juliet dressed lust up in love’s clothing, but it’s little more than the ‘powder and fire’ that Friar Laurence talks to Romeo of. Love, in that play, is a joke. In King Lear love is a hearth, it is an ever-burning warmth, a special place in the home where you can find comfort no matter how hard your day, no matter what you’ve done and love kindles that hearth. It’s not always roaring, sometimes there’s barely an ember, but if there’s even an ember a little puff of oxygen, a little tending and love will fire again. King Lear is more about love than it is about nature, than it is about bastardy, than it is about hubris, than it is about power, lust or revenge it is about love. These scenes are the proof of that. These scenes of love are the most powerful scenes and, also, the ones that make the play a tragedy.

What if Lear ended here? It’d be little more than a dark family comedy. No, tragedy is incoming and we can only feel the true weight of that tragedy once we’ve felt the full force of love.

Sadly King Lear doesn’t end here. It continues to inevitable tragedy.

We get a scene of Edmund and Regan having a chat about how the Royal-We are very thirsty, but fear their sister may be trying to have a sip. There will be no sisterly sharing arrangement for Edmund. Goneril enters and gives an aside that shows how stupid combinations of hormones creating lusts that we believe to be love (the plot of Romeo and Juliet) are more important than actually conscious human plans when she says “I had rather lose the battle than that should loosen him and me.”

She’d literally rather lose a war than her relationship with Edmund become a little less close because Regan wants a poke from Edmund’s pike?

Well luckily Albany is there his speech;

                “Our loving sister, well be-met.
                Sir, this I hear; the king is come to his daughter,
                with others whom the rigor of our state
                Forced to cry out. Where I could not be honest,
                I never yet was valiant; for this business,
                it toucheth us, as France invades our land,
                Not bolds the king, with others, whom, I fear
                Most just and heavy cause make oppose.”

That’s a kingly speech. It somehow says something and nothing at once and motivates you. He knows that Lear is now with Cordelia, in the French camp, with other former high-ups in the state. That makes their faction all the more dangerous because they have grudges against certain people. He makes clear that he ‘could not be honest’ and ‘never yet was valiant’ –essentially his was of saying “If I’d spoke up sooner maybe we wouldn’t be in this mess.” But in this mess they are. He also does not say “attack!” or “Murder them all!” because these are his friends, his former king, his former allies. It is quite clear that Albany will sue for peace at the soonest opportunity but due to the nature of the invasion, there may have to be fighting. It’s an incredible speech, not necessarily in its language but contextually and for the character of Albany.

To make matters more complicated, Edgar-in-another-disguise (possibly a mime, we just don’t know but that’s a lot of disguises) gives Albany a letter and says;

                “Before you fight the battle, ope this letter.
                If you have victory, let the trumpet sound
                For him that brought it: Wretched though I seem,
                I can produce a champion that will prove
                What is avouched there. If you miscarry,
                Your business of the world hath so an end,
                and machination ceases. Fortune love you.”

Basically open this letter before the battle. If you win, sound a trumpet and I’ll appear in another disguise to tell you why your allies are also your enemies. If you lose it doesn’t matter anyway because you’ll be fucking dead, mate.

Before we’re done with this scene though, we get another speech from Edmund! This scene really does spoil us.

                “To both these sisters have I sworn my love;
                Each jealous of the other, as the stung
                Are of the adder. Which of them shall I take?
                Both? One? Or neither? Neither can be enjoy’d
                If both remain alive: to take the widow
                Exasperates, makes mad her sister Goneril;
                And hardly shall I carry out my side,
                Her husband being alive. Now then we’ll use
                His countenance for the battle; which being done,
                Let her who would be rid of his devise
                His speedy taking off. As for the mercy
                Which he intends to Lear and to Cordelia,
                The battle done, and they within our power,
                Shall never see his pardon; for my state
                Stands on me to defend, not to debate.”

Now it might not seem it at first but there’s a little redemption for Edmund here. He debates which of the ladies he should take, essentially for a wife. He entertains both, but quickly throws that idea out, same with neither since they are his path to legitimacy. Regan is a widow so he’d have no quarrels except him choosing her would irritate Goneril, whom he’d have trouble sticking it in since her husband is alive. He basically then reveals his whole plan which is to say he’d rather choose Goneril, but she has to murder Albany, who is only being used for his military expertise at this point. He’ll have Lear and Cordelia executed once captured and at that point he and Goneril have the power and might and he can become King.

From bastard to King, – it’s the kind of rags-to-riches tale we love to hear. It’s the kind of thing every gutter-trash, working-class, illegitimate, bastard, whoreson, council-house dwelling, unemployed, unemployable and disabled person aims for. It’s what we’re taught to emulate and aim for. Why is Edmund such a bastard? Why does he do all these things? For the same reason inner-city kids become drug dealers, because it gets them power, respect and status. Things denied to them by birth. If Edmund is a snake then more fool the legitimate for letting him into their houses for him to bite them. But if Edmund is a person, whose venom derives from experience, from the bitterness of rejection, the mocking of his mother, the rights of birth denied to him because he is not ‘legitimate’ when that term itself is arbitrary and nonsensical…well then more fool society for creating such an intelligent, ambitious and ruthless person as Edmund. Gods, stand up for bastards.

And there shall I leave it for today!

Another slap-dash effort so I apologise for any errors I will hasten to correct myself anon…

…I always ended up chatting Shakespearean when I’ve been busy reading or watching it.

Any this was King Lear: Part 4 – It Smells of Mortality

Coming upThirsty women, Edmund’s nemesis, Albany’s elevation and lots, I’m talking heaps, barrels full of sad.

Missed the previous part, part 3 – Gimme Your Best Shot! – well then click here.

Otherwise move on to our grand finale – Part 5 “Exaunt, with a Dead March”


Published by Karl Anthony Mercer

Karl Anthony Mercer is a writer, poet, author, musician and part-time dandy. He can often be found squatting in fields looking at insects (he is an unapologetic wasp fanatic), wandering around museums over-dressed, or hiding in a dank corner singing sad songs on a small guitar. His writing on WordPress consists of MercersPoems - an outlet for his poetry often using natural imagery, gothicism and decadence to explore the struggles of living as an autistic person; and We Lack Discipline - Where he writes about factual, often academic topics he has learned and is interested in (e.g. biology, psychology, Roman history etc.) with an inimitable, often light-hearted and irreverant style. You can support Karl by; Subscribing to the We Lack Discipline Patreon - Or buying him a coffee (he loves coffee!) -

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