Tuesday / September 18
Written by Matt
Today we began to read the final scene of King Lear, which we anticipated would take us at least two sessions. After reading just the opening few lines and speeches, as Lear and Cordelia are taken off to prison, the group had a lot of thoughts. In addition to simply providing rich moments of character development to discuss, scenes in Shakespeare that deal with people in prison or waiting to go to prison often bring up a lot of thoughts and feelings from our members. Even before we were done, as one of the men was reading “No, no, no, no. Come, let’s away to prison:/We two alone will sing like birds i’the cage,” another took a breath, shook his head, and whispered, “Damn.”
“When we all first got arrested,” said one, “we all didn’t understand the scope of it--the scope of the time we were gonna lose.” “[Lear’s] not grasping the situation,” agreed another. “He’s talking like he’s in court, not headed to prison.” A third offered, “Sounds like he’s giving up, actually.” Some people agreed, and one even suggested that the speech is “still just a rant, like when he was yelling at the storm,” and that Lear has learned nothing. “To me,” said one new member, “it sounds like he’s coming to terms with it. He’s finding peace in it.”
One of the men said that he had memorized the speech to try to translate it into American Sign Language, and when he read it, “I didn’t see peace in it. I see the walls closing in.” The man who had read Lear’s part added, “As a king, he never had to experience [prison]. He don’t know what he’s getting into. It’s like, you see those people never been to prison talking about us and prison and stuff without understanding.” Another man reminded us that the speech does not exist in a vacuum. “If you take it alone, it’s just ranting,” he said, but said that, taken as a response to Cordelia’s line, it’s much more hopeful. “He’s finally realizing what he lost with Cordelia.”
One of the guys who has been quiet for a couple of weeks, put the moment in historical context. King Lear was written at a time of religious upheaval in Europe and England. “Historically, [the story of] King Lear was Christian,” he said, referring to Shakespeare’s sources. He talked about the Reformation and the conflict between Catholic and Protestant church factions in England during Shakespeare’s life, and then about how Shakespeare’s introduction of pagan elements into the text was controversial. This ensemble member had brought up the larger historical picture several times, and he has zeroed in on the subtextual, political elements of the play.
A little deeper into the scene, conversation turned to Edmund and Albany, as the extent of Edmund’s betrayal is made known. “Edmund feel like he’s on top of the world,” said one member, saying that his fall is even more ironic for this fact. At the same time, another member said, “[Albany] sees him as a subordinate,” and gets the last laugh.
Speaking of the sisters, two guys brought up their roles, now that they are either dead or close to death. “Goneril,” said one, “she pushed more buttons in this play than people realize,” and then went on to describe the many important plot points that Goneril put into motion. “I also feel like there’s some genuine infatuation with Edmund,” added another, countering the idea that her relationship with Edmund was all about power plays on both sides.
We focused on Edgar’s powerful speech to his brother before they fight for a while, and the man who read it went through it twice. Immediately, most of the group approached the clear logistical problem of the scene: that Edmund does not recognize Edgar until after the duel. “Did he ever really see his brother?” one man asked of Edmund, “I’ve known people who change completely when they’re mad.” Another reminded us that they have not seen one another in a long time, long enough for Edgar’s features to change. Yet another suggested that his voice could be altered purposely or from stress. At this point, we needed to return to the issues in the text--it can be fun to explore logistics and staging questions, and they can be important to the overall effect of the play in production, but those discussions can also too quickly become distractions from the main ideas. Frannie reminded the group that, sometimes, these plays just have a little bit of “Shakespeare Magic,” and two people will miraculously not recognize each other without needing to explain it rationally.
“To trick his brother, he had to really know his brother,” said one man, taking the cue. “Very rarely do you get into a fight where you get to [be right],” he mused. “Mostly, you get into a fight, and you lose your humanity.” Then he reminded us that Edgar eulogized Oswald after killing him--clinging to his humanity even after being forced to take a life. “This entire time,” said the man who had read his speech, “I feel like he’s been an arrow pointed straight in one direction.”
Next, the guys stopped on Goneril’s line, “the laws are mine, not thine,” as she asserts her authority. “She knows the laws, so she’s in charge,” translated one member. Another added, “It’s like everybody is trying to act like they’re the most important, but there’s always a comeback.”
Meanwhile, one member who had spent a lot of time with Edmund’s first speech noticed that Edgar’s lines here were echoing Edmund’s from Act I, scene ii. “It’s the contrast again,” he said. “The phrases are coming full circle.”
“But why did Edmund want to confess?” asked one man, raising a key question. “Because deathbed confessions mean something,” replied another, saying that it’s perhaps a final attempt to control the story or laugh at the others. The other man shook his head, “But that’s assuming he’s still cocky and arrogant,” he said, and explained that it would deny Edmund any hope of redemption, however small. “I think he is!” replied the other. “I think this is: ‘Yeah, I did it. So what?’”
Another of the guys quietly brought the discussion back to the words on the page, and he pointed to the evidence of Edmund’s genuine transformation. The man who read Lear observed that Edgar’s journey through the play is as important and powerful as Lear’s. “He’s about to kill the only sibling he has,” he noted, “so--yeah. That’s a lot.”
The same man brought up Gloucester’s death off-stage. “When [Edgar] revealed himself, [Gloucester’s] heart couldn’t take it. Oof… that’s heavy.” Another nodded and said, “How can a person suffer the same pain twice?”
Friday / September 21
Written by Frannie
After playing a couple of really silly games, we settled in to read the rest of our play! We began midway through 5.3, when a man enters with a bloody knife and the news that Goneril has killed herself. A couple of the guys did a quick recap of the first part of the scene, I reminded everyone that open vowels indicate strong emotion and don’t need to be said exactly as written, and then we went for it.
We paused just before Lear’s entrance to check in — things move very fast in this part of the scene. A couple of people were uncertain about what the bloody knife was all about — they hadn’t realized that was what Goneril used to kill herself. One of the guys mused, “I wonder why…” I asked him to explain what he meant, and he said, “I don’t think she cares about the fact that she killed her sister… I really don’t understand why she killed herself. Does anybody understand that?” Another man said he he thought she might actually care about her sister, in spite of everything. “My brother’s a [jerk], but I still love him. This is someone she grew up with, and she’s killed her.”
“I think she wanted to avoid the judgment,” said another man. “She finally realized she wasn’t gonna walk away scot-free.” Someone else brought up Edmund’s death, and another man shook his head, saying, “I don’t think she gave a shit about Edmund dying… I think it’s all about herself.” “Yeah,” said one of the guys, “she lost her only way out, and she’s going to be held accountable.” Another guy built on that. “The chase is over. I think Goneril was in it for the chase from the beginning… Every avenue that she was aiming for has now been stripped from her…” He continued, “I wonder if it wasn’t the lack of stimuli now… LIke I said, she didn’t give a shit if Edmund dies — as long as Regan didn’t get him.” Another man said, “She’s got nothing left to lose,” and the person to whom he was responding said, “It comes full circle. It’s just ‘do’, and it’s gotta stop somehow… Her atrocities finally caught up with her.”
One of the guys said he wasn’t sure that Goneril made the decision spontaneously. “I think she pre-planned this from the beginning… When a person loses control of what’s happening around them [they go to ] the last resort… I don’t know how many of you have been down that road, but it’s not something you do spur of the moment — you plan it out.” “Was this the last thing she had power over?” pondered another man. “Yeah,” replied the first man, “Now she just has power over herself.”
Another man reiterated his belief that Goneril’s suicide was a spontaneous reaction to the scene’s events, referring us to the aftermath of the 1929 stock market crash, when a number of people killed themselves, seemingly without planning to do so. “There’s different levels of suicide,” he said. He reminded us to try to take an objective view. “When I first read it, I judged the characters quick. I judged Edmund quick, I judged Goneril quick. But now I have to think them through again.”
“I think everybody’s right,” said a man who is quite insightful but generally pretty quiet. “She had it in her mind from the beginning that her situation was unbearable… She starts to see her plans come to fruition, and she can’t go back to where she was… The decision was already in the back of her mind that she’d rather die than go back… Maybe it was self-talk that she said over and over till it became a prophecy.” He continued, “She’s gonna go out on her own terms… She’s not gonna get locked up like Lear and Cordelia… She’s not gonna face others’ judgment.” He turned to a man who’d been a passionate participant in the debate about Edmund’s attitude after being wounded. “It’s like you said the other day about Edmund — like, ‘Fuck you. I’m out.’”
That man nodded and said that that was in line with what he interprets as Shakespeare’s wholesale assault on the double standards of his day, including one about women who were “doing things out of strict protocol and then chastised for it — or judged unfairly for it.” Another man agreed, “She’s not doing nothing else that the men don’t do. But she’s judged.” The first man looped back to whether Goneril’s suicide was premeditated. “I believe that she was a control freak… That string was always there to pull — it’s a question of whether or not you pull it… It’s a last resort… It’s an act of defiance.”
We got into a brief discussion about lechery as a running theme in the play; who suffers consequences for it and what those consequences are. The conversation began to meander. “What about Edmund?” asked one man. “What about Edmund?” I replied. The man looked around the circle, tapping the page with his index finger. “His deathbed change of heart.” He said he’d taken my advice and made lists of the ways he’s like Edmund and the ways he’s not like Edmund. “I think in blacks and whites and have no room for greys. I think he finally caught a shade of grey,” he said. “He realized that his actions affected so many people, that he wanted [to make up for it somehow]... It was dope — it was nice to see that vulnerable side of him again, just like the first monologue, where you can see his plight — you can feel empathy for him again.” He paused. “When people say they want to win at any cost, they don’t understand what ‘at any cost’ means.” He said he could identify with Edmund’s journey; that he had had “tunnel vision” in his addiction that didn’t allowed him to see the way his actions took a toll on his loved ones — he couldn’t see it till he came to prison.
“Wait, I have a question for you,” one man said to the group. “Does Edmund get what he wants?”
There was a pause, and then one man said, “It’s interesting how [Shakespeare] made the play… It’s like in the hood or in the bad neighborhood. But just because you come up in a bad hood don’t mean that everybody in the household come out bad.” He continued, “The culprits of this play are Lear, Gloucester, and Edgar, but [Edmund] makes them look like the good guys… but the bad guys are the products of these people. What happened to Edmund’s mother? All this came from somewhere.” In that way, he said, we can empathize with the bitterness that makes Edmund want to “take everyone out”. “Did he want to take everyone out, or did he want everyone to validate him?” asked someone else.
“You remember those first few conversations about masks?” asked one man. “I think we finally found the true Edmund… But — man, it sucks that he found that all out, found his compassion, right at the very end. If he had taken all of that energy and put it into something positive, it would have been a different story.”
We picked it back up just before Lear’s entrance. The man who’d volunteered to read Lear was clearly intimidated even just by reading the scene, and he took a little time to psych himself up. At the beginning of the season, he could barely bring himself to read aloud at all, but he’s pushed himself more and more, and we waited patiently. One of the guys had been distracted and asked, “Are we waiting for someone to say, ‘Action?’” The others shushed him and said we were just waiting for the other guy to be ready.
This was just a reading, and a first reading at that, so no one expected him to go as far with the howling and wailing as we know someone will need to go in performance. But I noticed that he allowed himself to open up more vocally than he has yet; to access the power in his voice and begin to let it come out. He speaks very softly — something it seems he’s been conditioned to do — but there is a deep, resonant voice in there, slowly making itself known. I hope he’ll let us keep working with him on it.
We reached the end of the play. There was silence for a few moments, broken by one of our most passionate members literally falling out of his chair onto the ground. “Auuuuuuugggghhhhhh,” he said, lying flat on his back. We all laughed a little — we know how in love with this play he is, and we understood. “Somebody get his shoes!” joked one of the guys. The ensemble member on the floor sat up, looked at me, and said, “Holy SHIT, Frannie!” I smiled and said, “I know. I know!”
I turned to the rest of the group. “Thoughts?” I said. “I’m confused,” said one of the men. “How did Lear die? Like, what happened?” One man said immediately that, although people say you can’t literally die of a broken heart, that’s what happened here. “Just when he thought he had the opportunity for reconciliation, it’s ripped away from him – irreconcilably so.” We went on a bit of a tangent, then, about the physiological things that could cause a heart to stop (i.e., an aneurysm). I eventually called a “ratatouille” and reminded everyone that the playwright likely wouldn’t have had an exact medical condition in mind, and that we probably don’t need to settle on a literal cause of death. That’s not the point the playwright was trying to make. What is the point?
The point, one person said, is that Lear has nowhere left to go — there’s nothing left for him to do but die because there’s no hope for him. I asked if there’s hope for anyone at the end of the play. One of the guys firmly said yes: there is hope for England itself in Edgar, who will likely be a much better king than Lear because he’s experienced so many walks of life and types of people. “He’s been through being Tom o’ Bedlam, and he’s been a peasant, and maybe he’ll be wiser.” Another man agreed, saying, “Edgar won’t make the same mistakes as his predecessors.”
Coffey asked why that necessitates Lear dying. Why does this have to be a tragedy?
“The very existence of Lear was tied to Cordelia,” said one man. “And when she dies, he dies… The death is the hope. He can finally be with her. When he was alive, he was tormented, he was imprisoned. Now he’s free.”
“We learn the most from when we fall, not when we ride the bike properly,” said one man. “Shakespeare wrote this as an allegory for the human psyche and how emotions play on it… The tragedies are necessary for comeback stories. They’re emotionally cleansing… When I read it, I don’t see it as something dark and depressing. It’s beautiful... It’s like a good thunderstorm… When you’re done reading it, you’re more alive for having experienced the tragedy.”
“The whole message of the play is about love,” said one man. “This living is so hard, how can we be anything but loving? The humanity that they all were lacking at the beginning, they learn in the end. If you read it right, you can even find empathy for the two sisters… [Lear] had to go through all this to see what his daughter really was saying. ” Another man pondered, “This thing that he’s looking for, which was in Cordelia — would he have found what he was looking for in Kent?” Opinions were mixed. “Cordelia said she saw him as ‘lord and father’, said one man, explaining that Kent couldn’t say the latter. But he sort of does, others pointed out. The two men are obviously very close. “I don’t know how many of us would have the capacity to be hurt as badly as Kent is hurt by Lear, and then still to come back,” mused one man.
“Everyone can relate to at least one character, at least at one time, right?” asked one man. “This has us reflect on our own lives, which we live, every day.” Another man said, “We as the audience have the opportunity to learn without living out the mistake ourselves.” And another added, “It’s easy for each individual to get caught up in our own ego… If I don’t know I have a fault, I’ll never know without reaching out and getting help. This play is about reaching out.”
One man said that the play has opened his eyes to the harm society does by attempting to constrain women into certain roles, and that his new perspective has positively impacted the way he sees women, and the way he’d like to raise a daughter someday. The play is a check on one’s ego, another man said.
“The human life is so fragile,” said one man. “It could vanish in an instant. And what we leave behind matters most.”