Friday, September 22, 2006

Subtext – The Dying Words of King Lear

Over at Slate Magazine, Stephen Metcalf and Ron Rosenbaum were having a discussion about Ron’s new book, The Shakespeare Wars. On page 2 (of 4 pages), Ron describes a “virtual civil war” amongst scholars about King Lear’s dying words. Apparently, there are two different early texts of King Lear and there’s a raging debate as to whether Shakespeare wrote his final line as we now know it.

To set the stage, King Lear has fallen on his knees and he’s leaning over the dead body of his beloved daughter Cordelia. He puts a feather in front of her lips to see if she’s breathing. In the older, 1608 version, King Lear finds no hope and cries out, “Break heart, I prithee, break.”

Then he dies.

In the later version, which was published in 1623 (about 7 years after Shakespeare’s death), Lear’s line is given to another character. Instead, King Lear puts the feather in front of her lips and utters:

Do you see this? Look on her. Look,
her lips! Look there, look there!

Then he dies.

Whether or not Shakespeare wrote the revised line or it was touched-up by an actor or penned by another writer in his company, I would not dare speculate. I will say this – the first version is on-the-nose and the second is filled with mysterious subtext.

Here’s what Ron said of the second version:

“…it seems as if he has a vision of the breath of life stirring on Cordelia's lips. He has a final, real or imagined, momentary communion with her before he dies. He dies thinking she lives. To some, this suggests a note of redemption absent from the earlier version. To others, it can suggest an even deeper bleakness: a delusion that betokens the recurrence of his madness at the moment of death, his damaged mind playing a bleak joke on the foolish old man.

“The second version of the last words at the very least opens up fascinating, if unanswerable, questions: Did Shakespeare add them to offer a hint of redemption, a suggestion that Lear's suffering is not without some recompense? Or was it a final twist of the knife? Different final words offer us different Lears, and different Lears offer us different Shakespeares.”

What a world of difference one line filled with subtext can make.


Anonymous said...

Mend your speech a little,
Lest it may mar your fortunes.
-Act I, scene 1

Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.
- Act V, scene 3

benny said...

A play is a composite work: penned by the playwright and staged and performed by others; To break the knot of the last line would be as much easy as the line that goes before.'Pray you undo this button. Thank you, sir.'it will seem bathos but when spoken in that final outburst it can work like a whiplash, a lull before the storm spenting itself. The genius of Shakespeare I think, is not a whit diminished by the ambiguity of his plays.
Lastly but not the least a play as it is read is like Lazarus, and when played it is like being called to life.

Anonymous said...

Ah, the debates over Shakespeare rage on. You know the man was a great writer when he can inspire arguments about his work almost 400 years after his death. Oh, that any of us should be so revered.

His plays are full of subtext upon subtext upon subtext. We should probably call on him again during our study on character depth.

Mystery Man said...

Ross - Those are contradictions, aren't they? Mend your speech, say what you feel? I say, say what you ought to say and... fill it with subtext. Or say what you ought to say in such a way as to convey what you feel. That sounds like a Dr. Suess poem.

Hey, look, it's Benny, the sixtie-something Indian architect. Welcome, man! I couldn't agree more with ya.

Miriam - I agree!