Dealing with the theme of music in King Lear does not simply mean noting the various musical references in the text, or the songs, or the theme of concord and discord, it implies considering the whole play as a musical construction, as a vocal score which, of course, it is in the theatre. More than in any other play by Shakespeare, the characters’ voices of King Lear have an equal share in the polyphony: Lear, Gloucester, Goneril, Regan, Edmund, Edgar, Albany, Cornwall, Kent, even the silent voice of Cordelia relayed by the fool’s voice which calls her back to our minds . Lear’s voice appears to dominate the polyphony only because the play is named after him, and because the storm scene, in particular, foregrounds his vocal line; yet, his voice disappears from the text for a long time, thus making room for other voices in an ever changing polyphony, which also retains the effects of echo and imitation. It is, therefore, essential to first note the musical references in the text, explain them in their context, and then to look at the vocal score and see how it is constructed as polyphony which sometimes may reach the point of cacophony with sound and fury, but which, all being told, is always perfectly mastered.
The musical references
Shakespeare is not the first playwright of the time to have introduced a musical element in his plays. In fact, he makes capital out of a tradition well and truly anchored in 16th century drama in England, a tradition which draws on diverse functions of music in dramatic composition, such as the use of the musical vocabulary and the polysemic potential of its technical terms, or the treatment of concepts usually connected to music to express the notions of agreement (harmony), or disagreement (discord), or else the very presence of instrumental and/or vocal music on stage or off stage. Yet, we must note that the multiplicity of references does not impair the fundamental coherence of the text since the link between these references and the context is always retained, and since the musical element, whatever form it may take, is never used as mere ornamentation or illustration, but constitutes a meaningful part of a whole. For instance, if we can say that the change from prose to verse always conveys a dramatic meaning, the same applies to the change from spoken to sung text.
In some of Shakespeare’s plays the musical references are numerous; this is the case, for example, with A Midsummer Night’s Dream; in others, like King Lear, and this may seem surprising, they are rather sparse. Some terms may be used to evoke the musical element, for instance “discord” (Gloucester, I, ii, 108) or “consort” (Edmund, II, i, 97) a term which calls to mind Mercutio’s pun in Romeo and Juliet when he answers Tybalt’s remark:
Tybalt Mercutio, thou consortest with Romeo
Mercutio “Consort”! What, dost thou make us minstrels? An thou make minstrels of us, look to hear nothing but discords.
“Note” is used twice in a context which also suggests music (Gloucester, II, i, 83; Kent, III, i, 18). The group “tune” (Kent, IV, iii, 40), “untuned”, “jarring” (Cordelia, IV, vii, 16) which in its last instance announces some stage music ‘louder the music there’, IV, vii, 25), not only refers to the theme of harmony and discord, but also to the dramatic and theatrical use of the musical element. Finally, the term “division” occurs several times (Gloucester, I, i, 4; Edmund, I, ii, 137 and 146; Kent, III, i, 19; Gloucester, III, iii, 8), and is sometimes associated with music, as in the second and fourth occurrences.
“Discord”, “consort” are explicit enough, and there is no need to explain their meaning. However, it is worth noting that in Renaissance music the notions of orchestra and of chorus, as we know them now, do not exist. The term “consort” is used to describe a small instrumental or vocal ensemble organized in such a way that voices or/and instruments match according to specific criteria, and produce the intended harmony. When Edmund says: ‘Yes, madam, he was of that consort”, he associates his brother to the ‘riotous knights’ in Lear’s train, as is suggested by Regan (‘Was he not companion with the riotous knights / that tended upon my father?’, II, i, 94-95). The term “consort”, with its musical connotation, is then perfectly ironical since “riotous” used by Regan to qualify the knights, implies noise and discord, as, indeed, is made clear by Goneril:
Goneril Here do you keep a hundred knights and squires,
Men so disordered, so debauched and bold,
That this our court, infected with their manners,
Shows like a riotous inn. Epicurism and lust
Makes it more like a tavern or a brothel
Than a graced palace. (I, iv, 232-237)
She suggests also that we should expect harmony (“consort”) in this “graced palace”, instead of discord.
The term “division” deserves our particular attention for it has a musical connotation in two of its occurrences. In Kent’s speech, it is associated with “note”, the two words occupying the same place in their respective line:
Kent Sir, I do know you
And dare upon the warrant of my note
Commend a dear thing to you. There is a division,
Although as yet the face of it is covered
With mutual cunning, ‘twixt Albany and Cornwall. (III, i, 17-21)
Naturally, here “note” refers to the notion of observation, but also, like a note on the stave, to the esteemed position where Kent places his interlocutor, the Knight. The word “division” is explained by R. A. Foakes, the editor of the play for the Arden Shakespeare, when it occurs for the third time (I, ii, 137): ‘divisions: discords (see 106-114); and in music, variations on, or accompaniments to, a theme’. The editor gives this explanation in the notes at this particular moment because the word is associated to a series of musical notes in Edmund’s cue:
Edmund O, these do portend these divisions. Fa, sol, la, mi.
(I, ii, 136-137)
Strictly speaking, the word “division” implies a diminution in the value of the notes for the same musical subject or theme. Indeed, this embellishment technique is also often called “diminution”, both words being equal in meaning. In his treatise on music published in 1597, Thomas Morley defines “diminution” in these terms: ‘Diminution is a certain lessening or decreasing of the essential value of the notes and rests by certain signs or rules.’ The method consists in repeating a subject or theme and breaking down their note values. This technique of variation will eventually give rise to a specific instrument in 17th century England: the “division viol”. Kent’s use of the term refers to the conflict between Albany and Cornwall: this conflict is expressed by the word “division” and represents a variation on the division of the realm, a further breaking down of the unity of the realm first introduced at the beginning of the play (I, i) and which had set off the tragic process. This theme of the division of the realm undergoes a series of variations and diminutions : from the division of the realm, to the division of power, and the division of brothers and sisters. The “values” can be expressed in terms of rank or political and social levels: to start with, the theme concerns kinship and the unity of the realm, then it affects the princes who represent an inferior value in the divided kingdom, then fathers and sons, brothers and sisters, husbands and wives who represent the domestic divisions which reflect the political divisions.
The association of the word “division” with a series of musical notes in Edmund’s speech point to a connection between the general sense of the word and its musical meaning. But the series of note is not mentioned randomly. The explanation given by R. A. Foakes (Arden Shakespeare) and G. K. Hunter (Penguin edition) is not clear since the sequence given by R. A. Foakes does not, in fact, correspond to the musical reality. This is what he says: ‘Edmund sings, as if unaware of Edgar’s approach, in order, the fourth, fifth, sixth and third notes of the scale of C major, a discordant motto’ (I, ii, note 137). One may wonder why, and according to what convention or system this sequence is “discordant”. In fact, the modern system of scales does not really apply here, and we must turn to the system used in the early music of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance to understand why this sequence was indeed considered as discordant. The diatonic scale is perceived as a succession of two tetrachords forming the octave, but it is also based on an hexachord: ut re mi fa sol la. Nowadays, we use the sequence “do re mi fa sol la si do” to cover the octave of the diatonic scale, but in early music a combination of hexachords and tetrachords could be used, bearing in mind that the two tetrachords covering the octave have the same structure and can be expressed with the same note names: ut re mi fa / ut re mi fa, the name then correspond to the identical intervals between the notes, with a tone between ut and re, a tone between re and mi, and a semi-tone between mi and fa:
Ut re mi fa (tetrachord)
Ut re mi fa sol la (hexachord)
In this system the sequence becomes “ut re mi fa sol la mi fa” , in which the second “mi” is not the third degree of a C Major scale, but the equivalent of “si”, since the interval “mi-fa” is a semi-tone and equivalent to “si-do” . When Edmund sings this sequence, starting on “fa”, he naturally moves from the hexachord to the second tetrachord: “fa sol la mi”, this “mi” being the equivalent of our “si”. He then produces a discordance by introducing a tritone in the sequence. This succession of three tones is mentioned by G. K. Hunter in his edition of the play : ‘He thus moves across the interval of the augmented fourth, called diabolus in musica (the devil in music).’ Since the Middle Ages, this interval was proscribed and the inflection of the last note tacitly added by the singer or instrumentalist if it did not appear on the musical sheet. This was part of a system called musica ficta.
In Act IV, scene 7 Cordelia invokes the gods so that Lear may be cured of his foly:
Cordelia O you kind gods!
Cure this great breach in his abused nature;
Th’untuned and jarring senses, O, wind up
Of this child-changed father. (IV, vii, 14-17)
The musical reference bears on what is usually called speculative music. This concept is based on the notion of the music of the spheres, or celestial music, and on the correspondence between macrocosm and microcosm. Three degrees are distinguished: musica mundana , or the music of the Universe produced by the movement of the planets on their spheres; musica humana, which represents the harmony in man, between body and soul; and musica instrumentalis, that is to say the music played by human voices and/or instruments. In Lear, the proper balance of musica humana has been disrupted (“this great breach”), and this disruption of harmony is due to the discord in the realm, as well as to the elemental forces of a raging cosmos symbolized by the storm. The role of musica instrumentalis is to imitate as closely as possible the celestial harmony of the spheres, and in that scene, it is called forth to help restore the proper balance of musica humana: “Gentleman: Please you draw near; louder the music there.” (IV, vii, 25). This healing function of musica instrumentalis is found elsewhere in the Shakespearean corpus, in particular in Pericles in which two scenes of “resurrection” make use of music. Thus, Thaisa, thought to have died in labour during a storm at sea, is thrown overboard in a chest which is cast by the sea on the shores of Ephesus, and is restored to life by Cerimon, with the help of music:
Cerimon The still and woeful music that we have,
Cause it to sound, beseech you [Music]
The viol one more; how thou stirr’st, thou block!
The music there! [Music] I pray you, give her air.
Act V, scene 1 in Pericles is analogous to the restoration of Lear and his return, however brief, to reason and to the world of the living. Pericles thinks that his daughter, Marina, is dead, and he travels from port to port in total despair. He has not spoken a single word for three months when Marina is called to try and make him whole again. She, of course, does not know who he is. With a song she stirs him out of his prostrate condition (V, i, 80), and the ensuing dialogue eventually leads to a recognition scene between father and daughter. When finally he comes back to life, the proper balance of his musica humana being restored, he enters a state of grace which allows him to hear the music of the spheres (musica mundana) (V, i, 222-228). The scene in Pericles is longer than the scene in King Lear, but it makes use of the musical element in the same way.
Thus, speculative music is present in King Lear, but songs also constitute an important part of the musical element. They are all sung either by the Fool, or by Edgar as “Poor Tom”, so that they are associated with folly and madness. In a note concerning a snatch of ballad sung by Edgar (“Come o’er the bourn, Bessy to me”, III, vi, 25), R. A. Foakes rightly reminds us of a song sung by another theatrical “fool”, Moros, in W. Wager’s play, The Longer Thou Livest, The More Fool Thou Art (c. 1559) . According to a particularly detailed stage direction, Moros comes on stage singing snatches of ballads:
Here enter’th Moros, counterfeiting a vain gesture and a foolish countenance [and] singing the foot of many songs as fools were wont
Everything marks Moros as a fool: his attitude, his name (he is announced as “Moros” in the Prologue), and the fact that he sings “the foot of many songs”. This representation may have been inspired by the observation of reality, the important thing here is that Moros contributes to a stage tradition in the representation of the fool as “natural fool”, or “madman”. Shakespeare continues this tradition in the way he represents Ophelia’s madness in Hamlet, or in his staging of the fool as “jester”. The fact that Robert Armin, the actor who supposedly took the parts of Touchstone (As You Like it), Feste (Twelfth Night) and Fool (King Lear), was an excellent singer did probably much to amplify a convention already at work long before the creation of these characters .
Several attempts have been made by critics to locate the songs in Shakespeare’s plays . As far as King Lear is concerned, the critic must first decide which passages were sung, which may have been sung, and which are merely spoken. Indeed, there are no stage directions, such as “Song”, or “he sings” in the text, neither in the 1608 quarto, nor in the First Folio of 1623. How, then, is it possible to know what was actually sung ? The question is raised every time the Fool or Edgar moves from one mode of speech to another, in particular when they shift from prose to rhymed verse with three or four stresses, or combinations of trimetres or tetrameters. The dialogue may provide some indication: for instance in Act I, scene 4, Lear exclaims: ‘When were you wont to be so full of songs, sirrah?’ (162). Occasionally, a line, or the beginning of a well-known ballad sets us on the right track: “Come o’er the bourne, Bessie”, is one such example (III, vi, 25). Shakespeare also often quotes his own plays and at least one song in King Lear is a quotation from another play, Twelfth Night; thus the Fool echoes Feste’s final song:
He that has and a little tiny wit
With heigh-ho, the wind and the rain,
Must make content with fortunes fit,
Though the rain it raineth every day. (III, ii, 74-77)
It is also a song which brings together the character Fool, as jester, and Edgar, as Poor Tom, in the trial scene where Lear passes judgment on his daughters:
Edgar Look where she stands and glares! Want’st thou eyes at trial, madam?
Come ov’er the bourne, Bessy to me.
Fool Her boat hath a leak,
And she must not speak
Why she dares not come over to thee.
Edgar The foul fiend haunts Poor Tom in the voice of a nightingale. Hoppedance cries in Tom’s belly for two white herring. Croak not, black angel, I have no food for thee. (III, vi, 23-32)
According to the convention of the fool, Edgar starts singing the “foot” of a well-known ballad. The Fool, in keeping with his character, mocks Poor Tom, or at least makes fun of his inviting Bessie to “come” to him, with images full of sexual innuendo: “leak” refers to menstruation or to a venereal disease, and the impossibility to speak about it (“speak”) gives weight to the sexual connotation contained in “her boat hath a leak”. Edgar sticks to his mask as a possessed man, and throws the ball back at the Fool, mocking him as the demon who possesses him. Edgar’s response retains a musical connotation since his retort progresses from “nightingale” to “Hoppedance”, and then to “croak”. He uses a double metaphor; on the one hand the voice of the nightingale which, being degraded, becomes the voice of the crow (“croak”); and on the other hand, the demon (“foul fiend”) musically marked as Hoppedance (Hoberdidance is a demon associated with the morris dance) becomes a toad (“croak”) and then a “black angel”. “Croak” can be applied to the toad, usually associated with the devil, as well as to the crow in an implicit criticism of the Fool’s voice. Edgar-as-Poor Tom’s last words here, ‘I have no food for thee’, express a rejection of both the demon and the Fool. The image calls to mind the cuckoo which occupies another bird’s nest. We may notice that after this cue, the Fool no longer mocks Poor Tom, whereas the latter sings again twice in the rest of the scene. Indeed, from then on, the Fool hardly contributes to the dialogue until his final cue: ‘And I’ll go to bed at noon’ (82).
A lot has been said about the Fool’s disappearing from the stage after that scene. Several hypothetical suggestions have been made. What R. A. Foakes says about it concerns the relationship between the Fool and Poor Tom:
In Act 1 Lear and the Fool maintain in their dialogue something like the cross-talk act of the music-hall tradition, in which one partner in a double act plays the ‘feed’ or straight man to the other; as he goes mad, and is engrossed by Poor Tom in Act 3, Lear loses this close relationship with the Fool; and 4.6 establishes a new cross-talk in which Gloucester has become the ‘feed’ to Lear, who effectively takes over something of the role of the Fool, though not, of course, his function as professional entertainer.
In order to understand better what is happening, we should talk of dramatic functions and voices, rather than of characters. When the Fool’s voice mingles with Poor Tom’s their duologue replaces the usual exchanges between the Fool and Lear, thus indicating a fading away of the Fool’s voice. This shift also concerns a new direction in the plot. The vocal relationship between the Fool and Lear, already undermined, as R. A. Foakes suggests, by the new vocal duet Poor Tom/Lear, undergoes a further transformation in the duologue established between Poor Tom and Gloucester, and ends up in the duet Gloucester/Lear, when the latter reappears on stage. For the Fool’s disappearing from the stage coincides with Lear’s who comes back on stage without the Fool he no longer needs. Lear, Gloucester, the Fool and Poor Tom represent the four voices of Folly exhibited in “the foolish man” (Gloucester and Lear), “the jester” (The Fool), “the natural fool” (Poor Tom) and the “madman” (Lear). But all these voices can be subjected to modulations and variations: the foolish man becomes the madman (Lear), the natural fool is a counterfeit voice which, occasionally rings of its true nature, and which sometimes strains to maintain a false relation . Thus in Act IV, scene 1:
Edgar [aside] How should this be?
Bad is the trade that must play fool to sorrow,
Angering itself and others. [to Gloucester] Bless thee, master.
Gloucester Sirrah, naked fellow.
Edgar Poor Tom’s a-cold. [aside] I cannot daub it further –
Gloucester Come hither, fellow.
Edgar [aside] And yet I must. [to Gloucester] – Bless thy sweet eyes, they bleed.
The play on voices and their transformations, as well as the use of musical terms, encourages us to address the play as a polyphonic score which unfolds according to a complex pattern of voices entering into a false concord which, for a while, conceals the dissonances which little by little pervade the score to eventually reach an orchestrated or at least organized cacophonic pitch. As this cacophony seems to have reached its peak, an underlying harmony is being reconstructed, however largely put to the test and challenged by the coda which concludes the play.
The polyphonic structure
The royal voice which expresses its power through imperatives at the beginning of the play (“attend” 33; “Give” 36; “Know” 36) is immediately divided. This division, in the musical sense of the word, is ternary and should represent a perfect tempus in the system of musical proportions. But this perfection is soon transformed into imperfection by the eradication of Cordelia’s voice which reduces the division to a binary proportion . The royal voice represents the tenor (or cantus firmus) in the polyphonic composition, and withdrawing this fundamental voice implies the collapse of the whole structure. Thus, when Lear declares that he will only keep the name of “king” (“Only we still retain / The name, and all th’addition to a king” I, i, 136-137), the tenor is emptied of its musical content, a content divided and dispersed between the other voices. When Goneril’s and Regan’s voices are heard, they are not solidly based on a cantus firmus since the tenor has been deconstructed. Their voices are mere descants fighting for the highest position, based on an absence, a void, a “nothing” which they try to make up for with an overprofusion of words. Cordelia’s “silence” expressed in her “Nothing”, signals the emptiness of the other voices, marking them as false notes. The fundamental voice is reduced to a silence which speaks volumes as Kent suggests:
Thy youngest daughter does not love thee least,
Nor are those empty-hearted, whose low sounds
Reverb no hollowness. (I, I, 153-155)
Kent’s image recalls the resonance chamber which resounds all the more because it is empty, for it is, in fact, full of sounds. The word “low” refers to a low voice, with a double meaning: “low” because it is hardly heard, “low” because it is the bass or fundamental voice in the polyphony. Once Lear’s and Cordelia’s voices are withdrawn from the composition, we are left with the “divisions”, disconnected from the theme or subject from which they were issued. The voices regroup according to their affinities, but the consonance of their polyphony is circumstantial and the false relations proliferate. Thus in the consort formed by Albany, Cornwall, Regan and Goneril, Edmund’s voice creeps in to create a false relation, since it plays on two chords at the same time. After Cornwall’s death, the note produced by Edmund in the chord is “natural”, non-inflected , since, as Regan puts it:
My lord is dead; Edmund and I have talked,
And more convenient is he for my hand
Than for your lady’s. (IV, v, 32-34)
But, because of his agreement with Goneril, his voice produces an inflection which affects the other voices and induces a dissonance which tears the polyphony apart. First, Albany’s voice is threatened, as Goneril’s letter to Edmund, discovered by Edgar, shows; talking about Albany, Edmund says: “He is full of alteration / And self-reproving” (V, I, 3-4). The words “natural” and “unnatural” are often repeated in the scenes concerning Gloucester, Edmund and Edgar. The play opens with the voices of Gloucester and Kent which already foreshadow the forthcoming discrepancy in the polyphony. Kent notes an alteration in the balance of voices: “I thought the King had more affected the Duke of Albany than Cornwall” (I, i, 1), while Gloucester’s speech on his sons is perfectly equivocal: on the one hand he insists on their difference, since one is the result of a fault (“Do you smell a fault?” I, i, 15) thus clearly marking Edmund as a bastard with such terms as “knave” (20) or “whoreson” (22), and Edgar as legitimate (“by order of law” 18); on the other hand, he also insists on their equality in his affection (“no dearer in my account” 19). Edmund is what is usually called “a natural child”, yet by a process of inversion, the term “natural” is associated to “loyal” in Gloucester’s speech, thus turning Edgar into a “villain”:
Gloucester O strange and fastened villain,
Would he deny his letter, said he? I never got him.
Hark, the Dukes’s trumpets; I know not why he comes.
All ports I’ll bar, the villain shall not scape;
The Duke must grant me that. Besides, his picture
I will send far and near, that all the kingdom
May have due note of him; and of my land,
Loyal and natural boy, I’ll work the means
To make thee capable. (II, I, 77-85)
“due note” can also be understood in its musical sense. As the “true note”, but here it is rendered false by the way Edmund “notes” Edgar, the illegitimate younger son falsely becoming the true pitch. The word “unnatural” then refers to Edgar as the false note, whereas we expected him to be termed “legitimate”:
Gloucester O villain, villain! His very opinion in the letter. Abhorred villain! Unnatural, detested, brutish villain! Worse than brutish! Go sirrah, seek him. I’ll apprehend him. Abominable villain, where is he? (I, ii, 75-78)
The term undergoes such variations as “unnaturalness” (I, ii, 144), “unnatural purpose” (II, I, 50), then it moves from one voice to the other when Lear calls his daughters “unnatural hags” (II, ii, 467).
The vocal polyphony, with its consonances and dissonances reaches a unique complexity for it knots the two plots together: Gloucester and his sons on the one hand, Lear and his daughters on the other. Even though we may have the impression sometimes that the two plots develop in alternate sequences, they work in a pattern of imitation echoing each other, and the voices which make up their polyphonic fabric come into consonance or dissonance. Thus Edmund’s voice joins the quartet of Lear’s daughters and their husbands, whereas Edgar-as-Poor Tom’s voice joins the voices of Lear and his unfortunate companions. Gloucester’s voice oscillates for a while, producing a false relation which the consort hostile to Lear will soon silence. When he declares his intentions to Edmund, he reveals the false relation in the agreement Edmund has reached with the quartet:
Gloucester Go to, say you nothing. There is a division between the dukes, and a worse matter than that; I have received a letter this night – ‘tis dangerous to be spoken – I have locked the letter in my closet. These injuries the King now bears will be revenged home. There is part of a power already footed; we must incline to the King. I will look him and privily relieve him. Go you and maintain talk with the Duke, that my charity be not of him perceived. If he ask for me, I am ill and gone to bed. If I die for it – as no less is threatened me – the King my old master must be relieved. There is strange things toward, Edmund: pray you, be careful. (III, iii, 8-19)
False relations are passing dissonances which, do not permanently affect the harmony of a polyphonic composition. For example, they do not lead to a modulation but produce a strange effect which eventually highlights the harmonic resolution. However, in the polyphony fabric of King Lear, the false relations are transformed into real false notes inducing dissonances which can only find a resolution in the dissolution of the voice responsible for them. The transformation occurs when masks fall and when the harmony artificially maintained by counterfeit voices disintegrate to such an extent that the polyphony verges on cacophony. Thus, Edgar, who could have revealed himself much earlier to his father, keeps up his counterfeit voice for too long, and the false relation which he maintains instead of dispelling it as soon as possible, becomes a fatal false note as regards Gloucester:
Edgar Never – O fault! – revealed myself upon him
Until some half-hour past, when I was armed,
Not sure, though hoping of this good success.
I asked his blessing and from first to last
Told him our pilgrimage. But his flawed heart,
Alack, too weak the conflict to support,
Twixt two extremes of passion, joy and grief,
Burst smilingly. (V, iii, 191-198)
In their own way, Edgar’s “fault” and Gloucester’s death signal the impossible return of harmony. Indeed, even the “true” voices cannot be heard, and their “trueness” adds, in fact, to the dissonances. Thus, Cordelia’s and Kent’s voices, in Act I, scene 1, jar with the other voices and are marked as discordant. Kent puts on a disguise so that his voice may be heard, and eventually opposed to Oswald’s. Yet, the immediately perceived artificiality of Oswald’s voice, in particular in his joust with Kent (II, ii), must not hide the fact that both characters are lumped together in the same rhetorical use of exaggeration. Oswald’s bombastic rhetoric and chosen terms (II, ii, 113-122) is as extreme as Kent’s deliberate straightforward style which he loudly claims as his own. Moreover, Kent’s voice fluctuates between several styles since he demonstrates that he can speak different “dialects”, easily shifting from prose to verse, using far-fetched images as well as clichés:
Kent Sir, in good faith, or in sincere verity,
Under th’allowance of your great aspect,
Whose influence, like the wreath of radiant fire
On flickering Phoebus’ front –
Oswald What mean’st thou by this?
Kent To go out of my dialect, which you discommend so much. I know, sir, I am no flatterer. He that beguiled you in a plain accent was a plain knave, which for my part I will not be, though I should win your displeasure to entreat me to’t. (II, ii, 103-111)
Exaggeration is also present in his invective and the accumulation of insults (II, ii), and when he reiterates some words like a leitmotiv (“knave”, four times, 14-23). His voice eventually sounds as artificial as Oswald’s, and reveals its total inadequacy in the restoration of the true polyphony, or even in the efficient service of his master’s voice.
Using Kent’s question “is this the promised land” as a point of departure, R. A. Foakes takes up Stephen Booth’s argument in a chapter entitled “The Promised end”
When Lear enters howling in the last moments of the play, Shakespeare has already presented an action that is serious, of undoubted magnitude, and complete; he thereupon continues that action beyond the limits of the one category that no audience can expect to see challenged: Shakespeare presents the culminating events of his story after his play is over.
The demonstration which follows is brilliant, although one might question the difference made between “action” and “play”. The notion of “inconclusiveness” (Booth, 26) which is Stephen Booth’s basic argument in his analysis is perfectly appropriate. In his own analysis of the end of the play, R. A. Foakes rejects any apocalyptic vision or any fulfillment of a promise of restoration:
What we see is not so great a horror as apocalypse; nor is it the end promised by the pattern I have been describing, which points rather to restoration and a hopeful conclusion, like most other versions of the story Shakespeare knew. (Foakes, 73)
However, what I find disturbing here is the very notion of restoration and of “hopeful conclusion”. First of all, it is not the first time Shakespeare distorts his sources, then several clues in Act V point to a “all is not well and will not end well” conclusion. But the idea that the play is formally over whereas the action of the play continues is worth examining in the light of a musical analogy hinted at by Stephen Booth himself:
The easy readiness of Edmund’s agreement (“Th’hast spoken right; tis true”, 174) combines with the brothers’ exchange of charity (164-165) to give their dialogue a quality comparable to that of the resolution at the end of a piece of music. (Booth, 19)
In musical composition, we learn that cadences may be false cadences, suspended or interrupted cadences, and the beginning of Act V foreshadows a cacophonic ending rather than the restoration of harmony. All the voices have entered into a false relation. Thus, Albany cannot define the nature of the conflict; he tries to differentiate Lear and Cordelia from the foreign forces, a conflict of nations from a domestic conflict, and his voice cannot restore a harmony which seems impossible to attain:
Albany For this business,
It touches us as France invades our land,
Not bolds the King with others whom I fear
Most just and heavy causes make oppose.
Edmund Sir, you speak nobly.
Regan Why is this reasoned?
Goneril Combine together ‘gainst the enemy,
For these domestic and particular broils
Are not the question here. (V, I, 24-31)
Act V is a suspended cadence, which implies some elements of concord (“restoration”), but also voices which leave the cadence in the expectation of a final resolution. The suspended cadence makes room for a coda which starts with Edgar’s speech (V, iii, 180): this coda repeats and revisits some past elements, but also announces the final cadence with developments which link the past to the near future of the conclusion. Edmund’s and Kent’s voices, like so many passing notes, prompt Edgar’s voice to reintroduce a subject which had been set aside for a while, Kent, and with him Lear. The entrance of Kent’s voice, then Lear’s voice, is delayed by the report of Regan’s and Goneril’s deaths. Naturally, the dissolution of the discordant voices (Regan, Goneril and Edmund) and the entrance of voices which could restore harmony (Edgar, Kent, Lear and Cordelia) gives us a brief glimpse at a possible final harmony when joined by Albany’s voice. But as Edmund’s voice is silenced, and his corpse taken away, his false note resounds in Lear’s howling: “Howl, howl, howl, howl!” (V, iii, 255), and the polyphony becomes a lamentation. Lear’s funeral oration on Cordelia’s corpse is reduced to the praise of a voice which could never sound above the brazen voices of her sisters: “her voice was ever soft / Gentle and low” (V, iii, 270-271). The score disintegrates, the voices disappear one after the other, confirming the idea of an impossible harmony. Whether we accept the quarto reading with Edgar’s voice as concluding the play, or the folio in which Albany has the last word, the play ends on a sense of collapse, a harmonic vacuum, intensified by the fact that the voices finally give way to a funeral march.
Retour page Théâtre Tudor et ElisabéthainFrancis Guinle,
Université Lumière-Lyon 2