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King Lear

Comments on Act 4 Scene 6

Modern productions which may use realistic settings fail to portray the daring theatricality of Gloucester’s “suicide.” For instance, the Lawrence Olivier video (which otherwise boasts excellent performances) uses an outdoor setting created on a sound stage, with sparse grass and shrubs. The flat ground in this scene clearly reveals Edgar’s deception to the viewers; when Gloucester falls on his face to the ground, my classes always chuckle in an understandable, if inappropriate, response.

On a bare stage as in the original Globe theater, the audience would have no idea that Gloucester was not indeed plummeting to his death from the edge of the cliff, because without scenic elements, only Edgar’s words would give an indication of location. As Shakespeare wrote the scene, the audience as well as Gloucester is fooled by Edgar’s deception, and is pleasantly surprised and relieved to realize what has actually occurred once Edgar explains after the event.

Lear’s mad logic:

In his madness Lear’s mind wanders but not aimlessly; his statements made strange sense. At the beginning he plays the role of king, coining money, paying soldiers, advising archers how to shoot straight. But his experience in the storm taught him that the king cannot command nature; “the thunder would not peace at my bidding.” At the sight of Gloucester, whose horrible looks remind him of his daughter, Lear muses on the courtier’s art of flattery and how he was taken in by their lies, reminding us of the first scene in the play where Lear demanded flattery from his daughters: “They told me I was everything.”  Lear’s present condition derives as much from his own vanity as from the cruelty of his children.

Thoughts of their deceptions lead him to contemplate the hypocrisy of society. Those who inflict justice are often more guilty than the ones they punish: “Which is the justice, which is the thief?” In his madness Lear realizes the truth he has missed in earlier life, that those in authority are not by nature superior to others but share their human limitations and faults. The social and political hierarchy which characterizes Lear’s entire world lacks any foundation in nature; no person has the natural or divine right to rule over or judge another.

Lear refuses to sentence the adulterer for an act in which all nature engages. Lear encourages copulation in order to create more soldiers for his armies and to allow him opportunity for revenge. But he also thinks the problem lies ultimately with women, monstrous centaurs, who deceive men to satisfy their lust for sex and for power.

Production notes:

Shakespearean scholar Granville-Barker’s notes for John Gielgud (1940) suggest that he enter as “happy king of nature, no troubles, tremendously dignified,” carrying a branch as if it were a royal scepter. With Gloucester he continued his wild mood swings, first speaking softly to him in private confession then roaring out “Let copulation thrive!” swinging his staff over his head.

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