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Episode, Scene, Speech, and Word

The Madness of Lear

Norman Maclean


A River Runs Through It and Other Stories

“Episode, Scene, Speech, and Word: The Madness of Lear” is referenced in O. Alan Weltzien’s introduction to The Norman Maclean Reader.

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Maclean’s essay was first published in 1952 in Critics and Criticism: Ancient and Modern, edited by R.S. Crane.

it would, of course, be an exaggeration to say that the history of the story of King Lear is a history of art. Far back of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia regum Britanniae, in which Lear’s story makes its first appearance in literature, is a folk tale of a daughter who angers her father by telling him that she loves him as much as salt, 1 but this story already has shape, although the shape of art in embryo. It is a narrative riddle, depending upon the double meaning of a word, and when the real meaning is recognized by the father, through some device such as serving him a feast without salt, both the anger of the father and the story dissolve. That the story appears in many variants indicates the universality of its appeal, but the emotions it aroused must have been limited largely to common curiosity in verbal puzzles and the pleasure, not confined to children, of discovering that children are more subtle than their parents. A narrative riddle, then, such as might be added to the collections of the Grimm brothers is the prototype of the story that Shakespeare transformed into a tragedy. That the history of the Lear story concludes in a consummation of art is testified to by another kind of history—the history of men’s literary affections: tragedy, on the whole, has proved to be the most moving of literary forms, and to most critics King Lear, although not the most flawless, is the most tragic of Shakespeare’s tragedies.

The problem of artistic consummation, being the problem of magnitude in the highest degree, is imperiled by its own scope, but fortunately there is a part of King Lear that by assent is its most tragic region, the region where suffering takes on such dimension that even Shakespeare could find no better word than “madness” to contain it. Furthermore, since the madness of Lear is almost entirely Shakespeare’s invention 2 and is crucial in the transformation of the many stories of King Lear into the only Tragedie of King Lear, it brings us face to face with both the tragic art and the tragic artist. Now, to speak of a consummate poetic accomplishment is to imply that the kind of criticism which views all a writer’s problems as unique has overlooked a part of the whole of truth. For, to speak of an artistic attainment as possessing magnitude in the highest degree is to imply the existence of attainments somewhat analogous and in this and that common respect somewhat inferior; it implies either this or the existence of a critic who has some a priori conception of a poem more wonderful than any yet written, in which case the critic should change to a more wonderful profession and contribute its culminating splendor. For us at least, it is certainly easier and wiser to say that every writer in each particular act of composing faces problems that have various levels of universality, and, if this were not so, we could not recognize any uniqueness in his achievement; the chances are we could not even recognize what he had written. In only certain senses, then, does Shakespeare forever elude us and refuse to “abide our question,” for, if there are general problems confronting every writer, we should be able to ask questions that Shakespeare of all men made no attempt to elude.

At a high level of universality, to write anything well, whether it be intellectual or imaginative, is to assume at least two obligations: to be intelligible and to be interesting. Intelligibility, too, has its levels of obligation, on the lowest of individual statements, and even on this level the obligation is never easy to fulfill and perhaps even to genius could be a nightmare if what the genius sought to represent was “madness.” Only to a limited degree, however, can individual statements be intelligible—and in many instances and for a variety of reasons the individual statements are meant to be obscure, as in “mad” speeches. Since full intelligibility depends upon the relations of individual statement to individual statement, the concept of intelligibility, fully expanded, includes order and completeness; for a fully intelligible exposition or poem having relations has parts, and all the parts ought to be there and add up to a whole. The second major obligation, that of being “interesting,” includes unexpectedness and suspense, for expository as well as imaginative writing should not be merely what the reader expected it would be—or why should it be written or read?—and the unexpected should not be immediately and totally announced (in other words, expository and imaginative writing should have suspense), for, if the whole is immediately known, why should the writer or reader proceed farther?

But the accomplished writer gives his selected material more than shape—he gives it proper size. For a piece of writing to have its proper size is an excellent thing, or otherwise it would be lacking in intelligibility or interest or both. Thus, if Lear’s anger had been transformed into madness in a single scene, all the odds are that such a transformation would seem beyond belief, and it is just as certain that the play would have died in the memory of men for want of suspense. On the other hand, the madness of Lear could have been drawn at such length that the spectator, like Kent, could not continue to view the suffering or, worse still, until the spectator began to suspect an author was manipulating suffering for suspense—and in either case the spectator would feel that he had seen too much. Moreover, the size of any literary particle is not a matter of quantity only. Every art has ways of making a thing seem bigger or smaller than the space it occupies, as Cordelia is more wonderful by far than the number of lines she utters and is even tragically present when she is tragically absent, and as Lear becomes more gigantic when he can utter only a few lines or broken lines or none at all.

We have come close to the special realm of imaginative or poetic writing, with its special obligations, two of which we shall refer to as vividness and probability. As poetic writing is the representing or “making” of human experience, so the poet is the writer who possesses the powers and devices that transfer “life” from flesh to words. These possessions of a poet are not merely a knowledge of “life”; Machiavelli knew much about successful and unsuccessful rulers and wrote The Prince, and analysts know much about madness and come no closer to King Lear than case reports. Shakespeare “made” many rulers, successful and otherwise, and one he “made” mad. In so far, then, as a poem possesses “life,” it has vividness. A poem, however, makes not “life” only but a “world.” Hence any of its parts, when related to the others, must seem probable. Not any living being may enter Lear, and the few who may are severely limited in freedom of thought, speech, and action. What may happen in a poem must be compatible with the general conditions of “existence” as postulated by the poem; and what actually does happen and the order in which it happens must appear as adequately caused by the constitution of the individual characters and by the circumstances in which they are placed. The same legendary figure may enter two worlds and in the early Elizabethan play may spell his name “Leir” and survive his misfortunes, but, having ventured upon the thick rotundity of Shakespeare’s world, he cannot be saved, and certainly not by the alteration of any neoclassical poet.

In certain ultimate senses the world that is each poem is bound together so that it binds the hearts of those who look upon it, of whom the poet is one. To look upon a poem, then, as distinct from looking upon much of the succession of life, is to be moved, and moved by emotions that, on the whole, attract us to it and are psychologically compatible. All of us, therefore, seem to be asking for less than we expect when we ask that poems have emotional unity; but this is so commonly the language of the request that we shall assume it means what we expect it does—that the emotions aroused by any good poem should be psychologically compatible and also of a kind out of which attachments are formed. We may ask for many other things from poems—biographical information, or political or theological wisdom—but, in making any of these further requests, we should recognize that we are asking for what only certain good poems give, and then generally not so well as something else. What is here taken as ultimate in poetry is what is true of all good poems: they give a high order of distinctive pleasures, and it may be said summarily of high and distinctive pleasures that no man seems in danger of exceeding his allotment.

In a way a poet is untroubled about all this—about writing or writing poetry, for these are abstractions that cannot be engaged in, and he is trying to find the first or next word, and after “thick rotundity” he listens to “of” and is troubled, and then hears “o’ ” and so moves on to other troubles, leaving behind him “the thick rotundity o’ th’ world.” In a way, then, even in a long life a poet never writes poetry—just a few poems; and in this sense a poet’s problems do not begin until he closes in upon a piece of paper with something less abstract in mind than writing or writing poetry. He may wish, as many lyric poets have wished, to write a drama or a novel, but the story is so distinct from the lyric that few poets, despite a tendency of poets to be expansive in their ambitions, have been eminent in both poetic arts. Shelley and Keats had a maximum of aspiration but hardly a minimum of gift for plot and character, and even Browning, with his surpassing delineation of men and women in dramatic monologue, could not make anything happen in a drama. Coming closer to the paper on which King Lear was written, we also know that to have the characters tell their own story on a stage raises problems very distinct from those required for putting the story between the covers of a novel. It may seem that the distinction between manners of presenting a story is largely classificatory; yet stories are so locked artistically to those selected to tell them that great novels seldom remain great when they are strutted upon the stage, and vice versa. Particular manners of presentation are particular artistic problems, and particular artistic gifts are needed to solve these problems, and, if not, who are those who are both great novelists and great dramatists? And, more particular still, who among dramatists wrote both great comedies and great tragedies, although tragedy is only drama that moves certain emotions in us? Yet these two dramatic arts are so distinctive that Shakespeare is the single answer to the question of what dramatist eminently possessed both the tragic power and the power of moving to laughter. Even more specialized, personal, and unique are the problems to be focused on in this study—what confronted Shakespeare and Lear, who stood outside when a storm arose and a daughter ordered a door shut. Mind you, before this particular moment Lear had been a successful king and Shakespeare had written great tragedies, but neither had ventured far into madness.

This was a lonely moment in art; yet the moment that is the poet’s moment is not his alone, and his problems that seem highly unique would not even occur if he were not concerned, however secretly and for whatever reasons, in loading each particular vein with what can generally be recognized as ore. It is true that he would have no poetic problems at all if each particular moment of art did not have to enter the general world of art, for unattended self-expression is another occupation, altogether lonely.

We propose to follow Lear and Shakespeare across the heath to the fields of Dover on what for both was a unique experience, and then to be even more particular, considering the individual scenes leading to this meeting of Lear and Gloucester when in opposite senses neither could see. And, for smaller particulars, we shall consider an incident from one of these scenes, a speech from this incident, and, finally, a single word. In this declension of particulars, our problems will be some of those that were Shakespeare’s because he was attending Lear and at the same time was on his way toward a consummation in the art of tragic writing.


At the end of Act II night has come, an external storm threatens, and an external door is shut; in Act IV, scene 6, Lear, “fantastically dressed with weeds,” meets Gloucester and Edgar upon the tranquil fields of Dover, the tempest now a tempest of the mind and at its worst. To view this large expanse of suffering as a single dramatic unit is also to see that, in the form of organic life called a poem, “parts” are “parts” and in certain senses “wholes.” By the end of Act II the major external causes of Lear’s madness have occurred; by Act IV, scene 6, they have brought Lear to “the sulphurous pit” and unrestrained madness, from which, even in the next scene, he is somewhat “restored.” For a variety of reasons we shall state the unity of this dramatic episode in terms of a change that it brings about in Lear’s thoughts and beliefs concerning man, the universe, and the gods, a change in thought that is both a cause and a projection of his madness.

Prior to this episode (and presumably always before it), Lear believed in a universe controlled by divine authority, harmoniously ordered and subordinated in its parts, a harmony reflected in the affairs of men by the presence of political and legal institutions, and social and family bonds. Men were the most divinely empowered of divine creations, and the special power of kings was a sign of their special divinity. At the end of this episode (Act IV, scene 6), the world that Lear tells Gloucester he should be able to see even without eyes is one in which man is leveled to a beast and then raised to the most fearful of his kind: the source of man’s power, as with the beast’s, is sex and self, but above the girdle which the gods inherit is the special gift of reason; only it is a kind of sadistic ingenuity by which man sanctifies his own sins—the universally inevitable sins of sex and self—by declaring them anathema for others (“Thou rascal beadle, hold thy bloody hand! / Why dost thou lash that whore? Strip thine own back”). Therefore, as king, Lear dismisses the phantom of the adulterer arraigned before him, because, all offending, “none does offend, none—I say none!”

The moment we imagine Shakespeare’s pen in our hand and Act III unwritten, we begin to sense the immensity of the problem that arises merely from the first general requirement of all good writing, intelligibility. For the problem is to make clear that the mind of Lear progressively loses its clarity and comes at last to a moment everyone will recognize as “the worst” and be willing to take as “madness.” Analogically, what is needed are recognizable circles of the inferno descending to the pit and ways of knowing when the pit has been reached. To present a character becoming more and more disintegrated emotionally, therefore, is fundamental but not enough, since emotions under pressure lack outline and precision, with the result that the best of lyric poets know their task is to find “objective correlatives” for what otherwise would remain in prison or confusion. In the next section, dealing with the scenes leading to Lear’s madness, we shall see how Shakespeare uses actions, which are more discernible than emotions, to mark the descent into the pit; here we are concerned with the fact that Shakespeare added “thought” to action and emotion, and “thought” in many ways is more precise than either of the other two. In solving this problem of intelligibility, then, Shakespeare was “abundant,” utilizing the maximum of means, and one way we have of knowing at what circle Lear is stationed for the moment is to learn what Lear for the moment believes is the nature of men, beasts, and gods.

When intelligibility was first discussed, it was expanded to include the concepts of “order” and “completeness.” Order, being a matter involving all the parts, is a matter for later consideration, but we may already observe that the change in Lear’s thought during this large episode is a complete change. Lear does not have merely different thoughts about the nature of the universe and of those who crawl upon it; the beliefs he has about the universe at the end of Act II are philosophically opposite to those he expresses upon the fields of Dover, and a complete change is one that goes as far as it can. Thus, because the change in Lear’s thought is so bitterly complete, we recognize the pit when Lear has reached it. Shakespeare also took care that we should know where Lear started. Lear’s last speech in Act II is the first one he gives in which thought of a general nature is directly expressed; it is appropriate to his character and the accumulated situation that at this moment he should say man is not man without some gorgeous possessions not needed to keep his body warm, and the speech is also a location point before the heath by means of which we can more easily see what a falling-off there was.

Ultimately, however, it is only of secondary importance that Lear’s thoughts clarify our understanding; they lack the power of poetry if they are not moving. Let us begin less intensely, and therefore with the second requirement of all good writing, to be interesting, for, if we are not interested, we surely will not go farther and be moved. Until his last speech in Act II, Lear’s thoughts have all been particular and have been concentrated upon the indivdual natures of his daughters and their husbands. This is appropriate to the circumstances and Lear’s character, which is driven rather than given to philosophical speculation; yet, partly as a result, Lear is a character, even by the end of Act II, with whom we have only slight bonds of identification; he is an old man over eighty years, who, so late as this, is in the process of discovering that two of his daughters are nonhuman and that the one who could say “nothing” was alone worthy of all his love. In contrast to Hamlet and Othello, King Lear is a tragedy in the course of which the protagonist becomes worthy of being a tragic hero, and one dimension that Lear takes on is the power of thought. Moreover, his thoughts upon the heath and upon the fields of Dover are of universal significance and therefore “interest” us, for the question of whether the universe is something like what Lear hoped it was or very close to what he feared it was, is still, tragically, the current question.

Earlier we said that material of general, human interest could be handled by an artist in such a way as to take on an added interest—the interest of the unexpected or surprising. It is surprising in life or in literature for a serious man to reverse his philosophical beliefs about the common human problems, but Lear’s change in thought is dramatically as well as philosophically unexpected, for the beliefs that have become the protagonist’s by Act IV, scene 6, are his antagonists’—Goneril’s, Regan’s, and Edmund’s—who also hold that sex and self are the sole laws of life. Lear has indeed “veered around to the opposite”; it is as if the tortured came to have the same opinion of the rack as the inquisitors.

There is, finally, the contribution that this change makes to the special emotional effects produced by tragedy. Now the tragic writer is also upon the rack, pulled always two different ways, for the deep emotions he stirs he also alleviates. A certain alleviation of fear and pity is necessary to make the emotional effect of tragedy one that we are consumed rather than repelled by; and proper tragic alleviation excludes any supposed consolation that might come from the avoidance of disastrous consequences after we have been asked to suffer emotions such as are aroused by clear premonition of disaster.

By the time that we and Edgar are confronted with the “side-piercing sight ” upon the field of Dover, the grounds are many for fearing that Lear and all that is admirable are condemned by some hopelessly formidable perversity of power ultimately beyond challenge. Othello’s fate was his own—at least many of us could have escaped it; but Lear’s tragedy comes to a point where it threatens what we should wish to be with inevitable inclusion. As a very minimum, we know suffering such as the sufferer can account for only by believing the worst that can be thought of everything, including himself. The minimum, therefore, has some kind of maximum of fear and pity—we are almost certain that such suffering will leave him without the power to better his fortune and without the mental resources needed to gain a clear picture of what is the truth, if this is not it. And, indeed, in the end Lear is deprived of Othello’s modicum of consolation—that of seeing the situation as it was—for he is not even permitted to believe that he and Cordelia can be God’s spies (pitiful, imprisoned spectators of a conspiratorial universe), since in the same scene the role of a nonparticipant in the universe proves to be nonexistent, Cordelia is murdered, and the mind and body of Lear are asked to suffer no further vexation.

We perhaps do not think sufficiently of the other task of the poet who makes intense emotions—the task of constantly taking away something from them lest they become intolerable or change to some other emotions not intended or desirable, just as the unrestrained grief of Laertes at the grave of Ophelia produced contempt and indignation and not compassion in the heart of Hamlet. Our fear and pity for Lear are both magnified and mitigated. These terrifying thoughts are held by him when he is mad, and their validity is further denied by all those in the play who are intelligent, loving, and somewhat disengaged—their complete validity is called into question by even the existence of people such as Kent, Edgar, and Albany. In addition, the action is arranged from beginning to end (that is, from the beginning of Act III to Act IV,scene 6) in such ways that fear does not become horror, or pity some kind of excruciating anguish. In the first scene in Act III, before we see Lear on the heath we are given subdued assurance that friends are organizing to rescue him and the kingdom. This scene can be criticized for its execution, because it is a scene merely of talk between Kent and a Gentleman, whose talk is obviously directed to us as much as to themselves, but the intention to save us from horror is right. Moreover, throughout the scenes leading to Lear’s madness there are continuing preparations to remove him to Cordelia, and, oppositely, the intervening actions of the antagonists do not make their complete success probable, for Cornwall is killed, Albany becomes disillusioned, and jealousy turns Goneril and Regan upon themselves. And, finally, although scene 6 is constructed to magnify our fear and pity by confronting us with both Gloucester and Lear and their combined anguish, it is also designed to alleviate our suffering and serves as a superlative example of the paradoxical task of the tragic artist. The thoughts to be expressed by Lear upon the fields were Gloucester’s as he approached the cliffs of Dover (“As flies to wanton boys are we to th’ gods. / They kill us for their sport”), but Gloucester has been purged of these thoughts just prior to Lear’s expression of them, and, since Lear and Gloucester have been made parallel in so many ways, one might assume that Shakespeare had constructed this scene to assure the beholder that the beliefs he is about to hear from Lear are not the final beliefs of either. We must recognize, however, that a certain number of critics read King Lear in such a way that Gloucester’s lines are taken as a condensation of Gloucester’s and Lear’s and Shakespeare’s ultimate “philosophy,” although this seems to me to be an interpretation of another book, possibly one written by Hardy. Surely, though, by the end of the scene, if our feelings and the creator do not deceive us, the world is such as to make a man a man of salt—but for purposes more magnificent than the laying of autumn’s dust.


So far our view of King Lear has been both panoramic and confined. In looking upon the large expanse of lines from the end of Act II to Act IV, scene 6, we have confined ourselves to the reversal in Lear’s thoughts and feelings that occurs therein and makes it a single, though large, tragic episode. Lear and Shakespeare had conceptions of the tragic that mark them as men who saw “feelingly,” but, as a dramatist, Shakespeare had his own set of dismaying problems—the dramatic problems of objectifying tragic thoughts and feelings into commensurate actions and then of dividing and arranging these actions into parts which would be themselves little tragedies and yet stations on the way to some more ultimate suffering. In making these problems ours, we become more particular and yet, in certain ways, closer to the general qualities of great writing which, in order to have a name, must also have a local habitation.

Many a tragic drama has itself met a tragic ending for lack of drama, and the odds increase that this will be the case when the tragedy in some central way involves internal changes, changes in thoughts and states of mind. Byron, too, wished to depict a soul in torment, and he produced Manfred, but, despite the subtitle, “A Dramatic Poem,” it is largely a series of soliloquies addressed to the Alps in inclement weather. Drama is movement, and, in the four scenes depicting the increasing tempest in Lear’s mind, the stage is also in flux—the actors on it move naturally and interestingly, and other characters enter mysteriously and leave on secret missions. Moreover, these actions are designed not merely to keep the stage from becoming static while everything else is dynamic; they are in a higher sense dramatic actions, actions involving an agon, “objective correlatives” to the conflict in Lear’s mind. Lear challenges the storm; he arraigns his daughters before a justice so perverted that it is represented by the Fool and Edgar disguised as a madman; he imagines impotently that he is raising an avenging army and is distracted by a mouse; and he assumes he is judging a culprit guilty of adultery and finds no sin because he finds the sin universal. Such are the inventions of a dramatic poet, and by them he makes the passage of Lear’s tortured soul intelligible, probable, and tragically moving. Scholars are still in search of the exact meaning of certain speeches in each of Shakespeare’s great tragedies—and we should like to assume that those who saw these plays for the first time did not have perfect understanding of all of the lines—but so great was Shakespeare’s power to conceive of action from which thought and feeling can be readily inferred that all of us know Lear, Hamlet, and Macbeth more intimately than we know many men whose remarks we understand perfectly.

Yet a master of tragic drama would also sense that, in scenes depicting a great change in thought and state of mind, action should be kept to a certain minimum, lest too much outer clangor obscure the inner vibrations and tragedy pass over into melodrama. He would sense, too, that language suggesting madness, if sufficiently understood, would put tremendous demands upon our powers of concentration. Three scenes lead to the madness of Lear and are alternated with three leading to the blinding of Gloucester. Unlike the “internal” Lear scenes, the other three are action cut to the bone; and unlike the clogged language of Lear, the Fool, and Poor Tom, the speech of the conspiracy is lean, bare, and cruel. Removing us momentarily from Lear, these scenes relieve both our understandings and our feelings, but tragic “relief” quickly becomes tragic illusion, when the master-touch is upon it. We turn our eyes away from an old man seeking in suffering to discover the final cause of suffering, only to have it dawn on us that we have turned to a horrible replica of the action that was the immediate cause of this suffering, another old man tortured by his offspring and by Lear’s as well. Suffering, then, as it works out its lonely and final course upon the heath, is combined with action such as initiated it. Moreover, in another way the two tragedies are one—Gloucester’s attempts to rescue Lear from his suffering are the immediate cause of bringing on his own. Thus the interplay of these two tragedies gives to both more than either singly possesses of intelligibility, suspense, probability, and tragic concern.

But, although Gloucester’s tragedy is also Lear’s, our concentration is upon those scenes in which Lear goes mad and which collectively make intelligible the scene upon the fields of Dover, where his madness is complete. It is not enough, therefore, that action in these scenes is kept at a certain minimum and within this guarded minimum is maximal, or that the action also is dramatic, involving conflict. It has also to be action everywhere suggesting “madness,” and, secondly, it has to be arranged in such a way as to lead Lear to “madness.” Let us consider first the materials and then the order out of which such disorder is made.

Certainly, Shakespeare’s choice was right in introducing no totally new material in these scenes that center in the depth of Lear’s mind; they are made out of materials already in the play—Lear’s Fool, Edgar who previously had decided to disguise himself as a madman, and the storm. Distraction that is great and is not the general confusion of a battle but centered and ultimately internal is rightly made out of a certain minimum of material that can be assimilated and out of material already somewhat assimilated. Moreover, such a reduction of material not only helps our understanding at a moment in literature when it stands most in need of help; actually, art attains the maximum of unexpectedness out of restricted sources (as a good mystery story limits the number of possible murderers) and out of material already introduced and about which we have expectations (as the best mystery stories are not solved by material that has been kept from us by the detective and the writer until the end). While on the heath, Lear might have been attacked by a gang of robbers and, in culminating suffering, have thought this some symbolic act, signifying that all men are beasts of prey; surely, it is much more surprising that it is the legitimate son of Gloucester, counterpart of Cordelia, who makes him think this.

Out of a proper economy of material, then, a maximum of madness is made, and everyone who has read King Lear has sensed that the heath scenes are composed of complex variations upon the theme of madness—a noble man going mad, accompanied by a character professionally not “normal,” meeting a character whose life depends upon his appearing mad, amid a storm such as makes everyone believe that the universe and even the gods are not stable. We add that Kent, too, is present in these scenes and that a point constantly calm is useful in the art of making madness.

The musical analogy of a theme with variations must be used only up to a certain point and then dropped lest it stop us, as it has stopped some others, from going farther and seeing that these scenes are a part of a great poem and that in this part a noble man goes mad, which is something more than orchestration, although orchestration has its purposes. Ultimately, we are confronted with a poetical event; and the storm, the Fool, and Poor Tom are not only variations on madness but happenings on the way which collectively constitute the event. That is, the setting and two characters, all previously somewhat external to Lear, successively become objects of his thought, and then become himself transubstantiated. The storm becomes the tempest in his mind; the Fool becomes all wretches who can feel, of whom Lear is one, although before he had not recognized any such wide identity; and then a worse wretch appears, seemingly mad, protected against the universe by a blanket, scarred by his own wounds, and concentrating upon his own vermin. He is “the thing itself,” a “forked animal,” with whom Lear identifies his own substance by tearing off his clothes, which are now misleading. We know Lear, then, by Lear’s other substances, which are dramatically visible.

There is another substance present with Lear, for the madness that comes upon him is more terrible than the madness that translates everything into the ego; in the mind of Lear, when his madness is complete, all substances—the universe, man, and Lear himself—have been translated into the substance of his daughters, and perhaps something like this is what is technically meant by a “fixation.” Although actually never appearing, Lear’s daughters are the central characters in the inverted and internal pilgrim’s progress that occurs upon the heath, and ultimately we know the stage of Lear’s progress by his daughters’ presence. In the first appearance of Lear upon the heath (Act III, scene 2) the daughters are already identified with the storm and the underlying powers of the universe, and Lear dares to defy them and to confront the universe, even though he now sees what he began to see at the end of Act II, that the ultimate powers may be not moral but in alliance with his daughters. Either possibility, however, he can face with defiance: in his first great speech to the storm, he calls upon it, as he had called upon the universe before, to act as a moral agent to exterminate even the molds of ingratitude; his second speech is one of moral out rage (“O! O! ’tis foul!”) against universal forces that may have joined “two pernicious daughters” in a conspiracy against his head. In the beginning of his next scene (scene 4), he has still the power of defiance, but it is only the storm as a storm that he can confront; he knows that he no longer dares to think of his daughters, for “that way madness lies.” Almost at that moment Poor Tom emerges from the hovel, and with him in Lear’s mind another substance (“Hast thou given all to thy two daughters, and art thou come to this?”). The shattering of the resolution not to think on this substance leads Lear down the predicted way, and first to a complete identification with a mad beggar; then his mind, rapidly disintegrating, leaves equality behind and, in deferential hallucination, transforms the mad beggar into a philosopher of whom he asks the ancient philosophical question, “What is the cause of thunder?” At the end of this scene, then, Lear’s thoughts return to the storm, but it is no longer a storm that he might possibly endure. By many signs Lear’s final scene in Act III is the final scene on Lear’s way to madness. Poor Tom places Lear’s mind in the underworld with his opening speech : “Frateretto calls me, and tells me Nero is an angler in the lake of darkness. Pray, innocent, and beware the foul fiend.” With this speech, Lear’s thoughts literally enter the pit, and here he finds the forbidden women. What he knew at the opening of the earlier scene that he must avoid now becomes his total occupation, and the mind now revels in what the mind once knew it could not endure. Elaborately and in elation Lear arraigns his daughters upon the shores of the lake of darkness, 3 and, just before drawing the curtain, he asks the final philosophical question, “Is there any cause in nature that makes these hard hearts?”

It is later, properly much later, when we see Lear again, since by then he has found in madness an answer to the questions that led him there. Then, looming upon his mind, is a universe the basic substance of which is female:

Down from the waist they are Centaurs,
Though women all above.
But to the girdle do the gods inherit,
Beneath is all the fiend’s [Act IV, scene 6, II. 126-29]. 4

In the opening of this section we promised to say something about these scenes as being tragic wholes as well as parts of a fearful and pitiful event, and already a good deal has been said indirectly about their separate natures. But their natures are not only separate; they are tragic, each one arousing and then to a degree purging the emotions of fear and pity. In the first of these scenes, our immediate fear and pity for Lear as we see him trying to outface the elements are intensified by his second address to the storm in which he realizes that the universe may be allied with his daughters “‘gainst a head / So old and white as this!” But, shortly, Kent enters, and that makes things somewhat better; then Lear has an insight into the nature of his own sins, and although his sins are pitifully small by comparison, still self-awareness of sin is a good no matter the degree or the consequences—and it is a good to Lear, purging his feelings so that at the end of this little tragedy he turns to the Fool in new tenderness and in a new role, for the first time considering someone else’s feelings before his own (“How dost, my boy? Art cold? / I am cold myself”). And such, in a general way, is the emotional movement of the other two scenes in which Lear appears in Act III—they begin with Lear alarmingly agitated; the agitation mounts (with the appearance of Poor Tom or with the prospect of arraigning his daughters in hell); but in the enactment of the enormous moment he (and we) get some kind of emotional release for which undoubtedly there is some clinical term, not, however, known to me or to the Elizabethans or to most people who have felt that at the end of each of these scenes both they and Lear have been given mercifully an instant not untouched with serenity on the progress to chaos. “Draw the curtains. So, so, so.”

There are many tragedies of considerable magnitude the effects of which, however, are almost solely macrocosmic. The greatest of tragic writers built his macrocosms out of tragedy upon tragedy upon tragedy.


The third time that we shall consider Lear upon the heath will be the last, for the full art of tragedy has three dimensions, like anything with depth. The tragedy with depth is compounded out of a profound conception of what is tragic and out of action tragically bent, with characters commensurate to the concept and the act—and, finally, it is composed out of writing. The maximal statement of an art always makes it easier to see how many lesser artists there are and why; and thus the author of The American Tragedy could not write—a failing not uncommon among authors—and the author of Manfred, although a very great writer in many ways, was so concentrated upon his personal difficulties that he could form no clear and large conception of the tragic, and his tragic action is almost no action at all.

In addition to the remaining problem of writing, one of the general criteria introduced early in this essay has not yet been dealt with directly—vividness, or the powers and devices that make a literary moment “come to life.” For a consideration of both, we need units smaller even than scenes, and so we turn to what may be regarded as a small “incident” in one of the scenes and, finally, to a speech from this incident and a single word from the speech. It is easy to understand why the moments of a drama usually singled out for discussion are those that are obviously important and splendid with a kind of splendor that gives them an existence separate from their dramatic context, like passages of Longinian sublimity; but this study is so committed to the tragic drama that it will forego the sublime—although few dramas offer more examples of it and concentrate, instead, upon an incident and a speech, the importance and splendor of which appear largely as one sees a tragic drama unfold about them.

On a technical level, this incident is a unit because it is a piece of dramatic business—in these lines, Shakespeare is engaged in the business of introducing a character:

KENT: Good my lord, enter here.
LEAR: Prithee go in thyself; seek thine own ease.
This tempest will not give me leave to ponder
On things would hurt me more. But I’ll go in.

[To the Fool]

In, boy; go first.—You houseless poverty—
Nay, get thee in. I’ll pray, and then I’ll sleep.

Exit [Fool]

Poor naked wretches, wheresoe’er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your loop’d and window’d raggedness, defend you
From seasons such as these? O, I have ta’en
Too little care of this! Take physic, pomp;
Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,
That thou mayst shake the superflux to them
And show the heavens more just.
EDG.:[within] Fathom and half, fathom and half! Poor Tom!

Enter Fool [from the hovel]

FOOL: Come not in here, nuncle, here’s a spirit. Help me, help me!
KENT: Give me thy hand. Who’s there?
FOOL: A spirit, a spirit! He says his name’s poor Tom.
KENT:What art thou that dost grumble there i’ th’ straw? Come forth.

Enter Edgar [disguised as a madman]

EDG.: Away! the foul fiend follows me! Through the sharp hawthorn blows the
cold wind. Humh! go to thy cold bed, and warm thee.
LEAR: Hast thou given all to thy two daughters, and art thou come to this?
EDG.: Who gives anything to poor Tom? whom the foul fiend hath led through
fire and through flame, through ford and whirlpool, o’er bog and quagmire; that
hath laid knives under his pillow and halters in his pew, set ratsbane by his porridge,
made him proud of heart, to ride on a bay trotting horse over four-inch’d bridges, to
curse his own shadow for a traitor. Bless thy five wits! Tom’s acold. O, do de, do de,
do de. Bless thee from whirlwinds, star-blasting, and taking! Do poor Tom some charity,
whom the foul fiend vexes. There could I have him now—and there—and there again and there!

[Storm still (Act III, scene 4, ll. 22-64)].

Now, the business of introducing a character can be transacted quickly in brackets—[Enter Edgar, disguised as a madman]—and when the character is some straggler in the play or not so much a character as some expository information, like a messenger, then the introduction properly can be cursory. But in the drama of Lear’s madness, Poor Tom becomes “the thing itself,” and the mere size of his introduction is a preparation for his importance. And artistic size, as we said earlier, has qualitative as well as quantitative aspects.

From the time Poor Tom first speaks until the end of this passage, his name is given five times, and it is given the first time he speaks. Yet a complete introduction does more than fasten on a name, especially if the person is distinctive and we should be warned about him. Three times before Poor Tom appears, he is said to be a “spirit,” and after he appears he says three times that “the foul fiend” is pursuing him, so that, leaving out for the moment his confirmatory actions and speeches, we surely ought to be forewarned by his introduction that he is “mad.” It is not always needful to be so elaborate and repetitive, even when introducing a character of importance, but when, in addition, the moment of introduction is tense emotionally and the character is abnormal, we are grateful, even in life, to have the name repeated. Or, if confirmation is sought from literature, we may turn to the opening of the first scene of Hamlet and note how many times in the excitement the names of Bernardo, Marcellus, and Horatio are called back and forth and how often the ghost is referred to before he appears. This introduction, then, has one of the qualities of all good writing, intelligibility, and in circumstances not favorable to understanding.

Moreover, this is an introduction achieving a maximum of unexpectedness and suspense, effects desirable in themselves as well as qualitative signs that the character being introduced is dramatically important. The king is about to escape from the storm into the hovel, but, before doing so, he turns to the heavens with a prayer in behalf of all “poor naked wretches.” Nor from above but from within the hovel a supernatural voice cries out, “Fathom and half!” If a lesser pen had turned Poor Tom loose upon the stage at this moment with no further identification, we would have been dismayed, and, furthermore, the suspense latent in the unexpected would not have been realized. When he does come forth, we have identified and awaited him, but unexpectedly and in consternation Lear identifies him—identifies him as himself. Then, surely, it is unexpected that the alter Lear goes into the singsong of a mad beggar whining for a handout.

As merely unexpected, the entry of Poor Tom is a diversion and serves a purpose: that of momentarily affording us much needed relief. The art of tragic relief is itself worth a study, although all its highest manifestations are governed by two conjoined principles—the moment of relief should be psychologically needed, but the moment of relief should be a momentary illusion which as it is dispelled, only deepens the tragedy. Mere unexpectedness thus becomes consummate unexpectedness, with what seems to be a turning from tragedy an entry into darker recesses; and the entry of Poor Tom, viewed first as a piece of technical business, is the appearance of greater tragedy. Lear’s prayer, among its many dramatic reasons for being, is preparation for the appearance of something worse. The audience, after it becomes confident in its author quietly assumes that, when something big is said and something big immediately follows, there is a connection between the two, although not too obvious as Shakespeare himself said earlier in King Lear, the entry should not be so pat as “the catastrophe of the old comedy” (Act I, scene 2, 11. 145-47). The prayer comes out of suffering which has identified Lear with the Fool and with a whole class whose feelings before were unknown to Lear, “poor naked wretches, wheresoe’er you are.” And “wheresoe’er” might unexpectedly be within the hovel at hand, which was to be a refuge from suffering, and the wretch who emerges, poorer and more naked than the Fool, might be fraught with greater suffering. “Fathom and half, fathom and half!” he has called from within, and this is certainly a mysterious cry and, in the circumstances, not a rational utterance, but it is also a sounding of depth. Of the two tragic emotions, it is fear that is aroused by this cry, and it is fear that sends the Fool running out of the hovel, and it is at least in alarm, a diminutive of fear, that Kent commands the “spirit” to come forth. Then Lear’s tragic complement appears, and almost in the next moment the pity aroused by the sight of unprotected madness is transposed to the object about which all pity should be centered in a tragedy—the tragic protagonist, who in startled compassion asks the new thing if the two of them are not identical in substance. Poor Tom’s answer to the tragic question on the surface and at first seems no answer at all, but what nevertheless might be expected of a mad beggar, a routine whine for alms, a routine that one of the most ancient professions has invariably divided into two parts—first a self-commiserating account of the beggar’s own suffering and then a prayer that the possible giver be spared any such suffering, the prayer being, as it were, anticipatory repayment which, by implication, can be taken back and changed to a curse. Surely, the art of panhandling here comes to life, and literary moments that come to life have been called “vivid.” But it is Shakespeare’s art, referred to by so many as “abundant,” to make two moments come to life in one, and, from a mad beggar’s routine emerges an answer to Lear’s question and hence a moment filled with tragedy and latent with tragedy to come. As Poor Tom’s account of himself proceeds, it becomes apparent, although not to Edgar, that he is describing Lear and his own father. At first the multiple identification is scarcely noticeable, since it depends only upon similarity in immediate and outer circumstances—others besides Poor Tom are led through fire and flood. Then the similarity becomes both more inclusive and deeper as tragic flaws and tragic courses of action become parallel—Lear and Gloucester, in pride of heart, are also trotting over four-inched bridges and coursing their own shadows for traitors. And, since the prayer for the possible almsgivers that immediately follows (“Bless thy five wits! … Bless thee from whirlwinds, star-blasting, and taking!”) approaches the tragic ultimate in vain request, perhaps enough has been said about the introduction of “such a fellow” as was to make both his father and Lear think “a man a worm.”


Given the confines of this paper, the speech to be considered must be short, for the focus finally is upon the smallest unit of drama, a speech, and the smallest unit of speech, a single word. Moreover, given our other commitments, the speech should also be in essence dramatic and tragic. Let us take, then, the speech in which Lear first recognizes his identity with unprotected nakedness scarred with self-inflicted wounds:

Hast thou given all to thy two daughters, and art thou come to this? 5

This is not one of those speeches, somewhat detachable as sententious utterances or lyric poems from which are collected The Beauties of Shakespeare; yet upon the heath it is one of the great moments. It is tragic drama contracted to its essences—fear and pity. The question is asked in consternation and commiseration; and it arouses in us, who are more aware of implications than Lear, fear and pity in some ways more enormous than his.

These two qualities of the speech—its shortness and its enormousness—at the outset may be considered as somewhat separate and paradoxical qualities. The speech is short not only in over-all measurement but in the individual words composing it, for all of them, with the exception of “given” and “daughters,” are monosyllables, and all of them are short qualitatively, being ordinary, colorless words. Of conceivable adjectives that could be attached to the daughters who had brought Lear to this place, none could be more simple, neutral, or needless seemingly than the number “two.” What, if anything, can be said of such a complete contraction of language? Well, as a simple beginning, it is easy to understand, and the moment demands understanding. Then, too, just as language, it is unexpected. In forty-odd lines called an “incident,” there are the “superflux” of prayer, the eerie cry of Poor Tom, the scurrying prose of the Fool and Kent, the singsong and shivering rhythms of Poor Tom that rise into an actual line of song—and then this, to be answered by a long beggar’s whine, colorful but seemingly confused, since the speaker, as announced, is from Bedlam. This is a great deal of dramatic dialogue for forty lines, and perhaps might be contrasted to certain modern schools of writers who have found the essence of drama and reality to be iteration and reiteration of monosyllables. But Shakespeare’s contractions are not exhaustions of his language, which was almost limitless in its resources. Ultimately, the kind of verbal contraction here being considered is right because the immediate moment of tragic impact is a contraction—abdominal, in the throat, in the mind impaled upon a point. The vast tragic speeches of Shakespeare are anticipations of impending tragedy or assimilations of the event after its impact, like scar tissue after the wound. Thus every appearance of the ghost in the first act of Hamlet, being awaited, is immediately preceded by a long, imaginatively unbounded speech; but, when the ghost reveals his tragedy, his son, who makes many long speeches, can only exclaim, “O my prophetic soul! / My uncle?” Othello enters Desdemona’s chamber with a culmination of tragic resolutions, and his opening speech (“It is the cause,” etc.) has the magnitude of his fears and his resolutions; but he has no speech, not always even complete sentences, with which to answer the prayers of Desdemona; and her last prayer, that she be allowed to pray, he answers with the ultimate words, “It is too late.” In Shakespeare, as in life, the instances are many that the enormous moment, precisely at its moment, contracts body, mind, and utterance.

From life, however, come only the suggestions for art’s patterns, not art’s final accomplishments. Specifically, life makes it right that Lear’s speech at this moment is not a “speech” ; yet art demands that no moment of such import call forth, as it often does in life, some truly little, inadequate response. It is the task of the artist to give the enormous its proper dimensions, even if, as in this instance, the illusion has to be preserved that only some little thing was said. Our task, therefore, is to look again at these few, short, ordinary words to see how they add up to what our feelings tell us is something very big. Here, as elsewhere, there can be but the suggestion of a complete analysis; and, in respect to words, the accomplished writer lifts this one and this one and this one and listens to both sound and significance.

Rhythmically and metrically, Lear has asked a tremendous question. Its return to iambic rhythm after seven lines of mad cries and scurrying conversation should in itself encourage the actor to add some dimension to its delivery, and metrically it is seven feet, for, although there is a pause after the fourth foot (“two daughers”), it is all inclosed within a question, and the second part (“and art thou come to this?”) mounts above the first. A seven-foot mounting question is a big question. Moreover, the fact that the words, with two exceptions, are monosyllables gives them collectively a pounding effect, especially when they are blocked by so many dentals, only three of the fourteen words being with out d, t, or th, and these (“given all” and “come”) stand out as it were by their phonetic displacement, two of them being the verbs and “all” being probably more important than either. The fourth foot (“two daughters”) has also properly been lengthened, “daughters” being terminal to the first half of the question and being, in addition, the largest word uttered. Rhythm, too, makes this foot speak out, for only a schoolboy would scan it as a foot with a feminine ending (“two daugh ters”), although no one seemingly can be sure how “daughters” was pronounced at this time, anyone ought to be sure that in this place the second syllable of “daughters” gets as much emphasis as the first and the whole foot is as long roughly as this scansion (“two daugh ters”).

Grammatical mode of utterance brings us closer to significance. Some dimension, some significance, goes out of the speech if it is not a question but a declaration: “Thou gavest all to thy two daughters, and now art come to this.” Gone is some of the immediacy of the moment, too big at its occurrence to be believed and recorded as fact. To a degree, then, fear and pity are made out of grammar, and, if we say that each point so far discussed is a little matter and singly is no great accomplishment, then all we have said is that much of art is composed of little brush strokes and that this is especially true when what is being composed is “the seemingly simple.”

Yet there is one big word within this speech—the one right word, the one word that is not a touching-up of another word which could itself have remained with out the notice of aftertimes. The right word is also in the right place; it is the last word, “this.” Perhaps we are accustomed to thinking of the mot juste as a word giving a definite, irreplaceable image, and certainly the right word should be irreplaceable and in some sense definite; only there are moments so tremendous that their exact size is without any definite boundary. There are moments, moreover, which have a size that is unmentionable, moments which cannot, at least at the instant, be fully faced or exactly spoken of by those who must endure them. Poetry may make a perfection out of what would be an error in exposition, and moments such as these may set at naught the rule of composition teachers that “such,” “it,” and “this” should not be used with out a definite, grammatical antecedent. Likewise, what has been said about “this” has a relevance to “all” in the first part of the question that is for this moment the exact question:

Hast thou given all to thy two daughters, And art thou come to this?

There is always a test that should be made of such matters—can we, after searching, find something at least as good? The test does not always lead to humiliation, and always it should lead to some improvement of ourselves, but the most rigorous test of Shakespeare is Shakespeare himself. Marcellus’ first question to Bernardo, both of whom have twice seen the ghost, is the forced mention of the enormous and unmentionable: “What, has this thing appear’d again to-night?” The ghost of Hamlet’s father, as it is awaited, is “this thing,” “this dreaded sight,” “this apparition,” sometimes “it,” more often “’t,” but never the ghost of Hamlet’s father. In the first soliloquy Hamlet’s thoughts move past the canons of the Everlasting, past the general unprofitable uses of the world, until they come to the loathsome point focal to his whole universe: “That it should come to this! / But two months dead! Nay, not so much, not two.” So a second time in Shakespeare we have “come to this.” And at the end Hamlet comes to his own tragic moment which he believes cannot be avoided: “If it be now, ’tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come: the readiness is all.” In themselves, “it,” “to come,” “be,” “will,” and “all” are some of the smallest, least precise and colorful words in our language; but words are so important that from the least of them can be made the uttermost in meaning and emotion—the suffering of man triumphed over by some slight touch of serenity. “Let be.”


1. Wilfrid Perrett, The Story of King Lear from Geoffrey of Monmouth to Shakespeare (Berlin, 1904), pp. 9 ff.

2. “Lear’s madness has no place in the old story; it is Shakespeare’s own invention” (George Lyman Kittredge, The Complete Works of Shakespeare [Boston, 1936], p. 1196). According to Perrett, certain versions of the story contain suggestions of madness (op, cit., pp. 225-26), but the suggestions, as Perrett says, are remote and are limited to phrases (such as “crazed thoughts”) and, moreover, they are probably stereotypes not intended to suggest actual madness, just as we speak only in figurative cliché when we say, “He was mad with rage.”

3. In the Folio Lear’s arraignment of his daughters is omitted (II. 18-59 in Kittredge). The Folio also omits Edgar’s soliloquy concluding the scene. The Folio is far more accurate in editorial detail than the Quarto but is considerably shorter, most scholars surmising that it represcnts a version of the play that had been cut for acting purposes. As dramatic magnifications of states of mind and feelings already embodied in the play, both Lear’s arraignment of his daughters and Edgar’s soliloquy are made of material that is often cut if a cutting has to be made for stage purposes. Certainly, it is not difficult to understand the omission of the soliloquy, but the deletion of the trial upon the edge of hell removes from the scene at tremendous amount of its drama and tragedy.

4. All quotations from Shakespeare, unless otherwise specified, are from Kittredge’s The Complete Works of Shakespeare.

5. The Folio reads: “Dids’t thou give all to thy Daughters? And art thou come to this?” We shall analyze the speech as it is given in our text and as it appeared in the first Quarto. Although in several particulars the Folio has contracted the first half of the question, an analysis of either version of the speech would be substantially the same.

Norman Maclean
The Norman Maclean Reader
Edited and with an Introduction by O. Alan Weltzien
©2008, 284 pages, 190 halftones
Cloth $27.50 ISBN: 9780226500263

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