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King Lear

Comments on Act 3 Scene 2

The outbreak of the storm confirms Lear’s suspicions of the injustice of the natural world. He accuses the elements of conspiring with his daughters in punishing the innocent and helpless. This uncaring universe mirrors the callous treatment of the powerful toward the downtrodden of society (see speech below).

Like most tragic protagonists of great stature, Lear is accustomed to thinking that the world revolves around him. If he now suffers, the universe must suffer as well. In his rage he commands floods to cover the steeples, and lightning to flatten the earth and destroy all possibility of future life. Yet, in his dire predicament, he begins to notice those around him who share his plight: “Come on, my boy: how dost, my boy? art cold? … Poor fool and knave, I have one part in my heart that’s sorry yet for thee.” In his next scene (3.4), he reflects on his neglect of the less fortunate in his kingdom:

Poor naked wretches, whereso’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.

At his lowest point, Lear begins to identify with those who have always known misery as a companion, and wishes by his benevolent actions to “show the heavens more just.” Unfortunately for him and his kingdom, his conversion towards pity comes too late.

King Lear was performed before the court of James I on St. Stephen’s Night, Dec. 26, 1606, a feast day on which the noble and wealthy were to pity those less fortunate. Perhaps Shakespeare added these lines with this performance date in mind.

Jonathan Dollimore comments: “For the humanist the tragic paradox arises here: debasement gives rise to dignity and at the moment when Lear might be expected to be most brutalized, he becomes most human.” However, for Dollimore Lear’s sympathy for the poor does not redeem him: “Far from endorsing the idea that man can redeem himself in and through an access of pity … [the tragedy suggests that]  in a world where pity is the prerequisite for compassionate action, where a king has to share the suffering of his subjects in order to ‘care,’ the majority will remain poor, naked, and wretched.”  (Radical Tragedy: Religion, Ideology, and Power in the Drama of Shakespeare and his Contemporaries, Harvester Press, 1984)

Interesting note: although Lear dominates the stage with long speeches in this scene, Shakespeare never gives him a soliloquy, addressing his inner thoughts directly to the audience, as he does all his other major tragic heroes.

On staging:

During the late 19th century British and American productions of Shakespeare’s plays became lavish spectacles. Whereas Shakespeare wrote for an essentially bare stage, the Victorians and their colonial counterparts had a fondness for pictorialism, and envisioned a specific and detailed location for each scene in Shakespeare’s plays. Elaborate sets required complicated technical changes, but Shakespeare tends to shift locations rapidly. To avoid changing at every scene break in the text, producers would reorder and run several scenes together, such as the storm scenes in 3.2, 3.4, and 3.6. Unfortunately, this practice placed tremendous strain on the actor playing Lear, leaving him onstage for such a long time during his most demanding scenes. In the text Shakespeare alternates indoor and outdoor scenes, allowing the performer to have needed breaks during the storm sequence.

Too often in modern productions, special effects take center stage with elaborate rain, sound and light displays unimagined by Shakespeare. In the Olivier video, we can barely understand the actor over the thunder and rain. All these pyrotechnics obscure the point of the scene, that the real storm is in Lear’s mind (3.4).

“The dialogue between Lear and the storm needs to be just that — a dialogue, not a competition in decibel levels.” (Leggatt 8)

John Gielgud considered that he was inadequate for the storm scene. “Lear has to be the storm” (Leggatt 8). Gielgud considered his prayer for the “poor, naked wretches” to be a turning point for Lear, a brief insight into the human condition; then with the entrance of Tom, he was frightened back into madness.

In Peter Brook’s 1962 production rusted metal thundersheets were lowered onstage for an openly theatrical storm effect. When Paul Scofield  shouted defiantly to the heavens, “I am a man more sinned against than sinning,” the heavens retorted with a loud clap of thunder at which he staggered backwards, nature itself challenging this claim of innocence (Leggatt 47).

In the 1997 National Theater production with Ian Holm, the audience sat on either side of a long narrow stage with massive walls on either end. The storm scene began with the two walls crashing to the floor, prompting gasps from the spectators seated just a few feet away. Rain spraying down the back wall of the stage suggested the storm without overwhelming the actors.

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