Shakespeare on Tor.com

King Lear: The Syntax and Scansion of Insanity

Maybe it’s because I have this facial recognition problem that makes it tough for me to tell the difference between Robert De Niro and Al Pacino, but I don’t think fictional character is a question of faces. Or bodies. Or clothes. Or even actions, actually. Those things are important, but I’ve become pretty convinced that the hot beating heart of character is language. If you know how a character talks, you know how she thinks, and if you know how she thinks, you know how she acts.

This isn’t my idea. It’s the whole premise of theater. A play’s script is a record of spoken language. The task of those producing the play is to translate that language into character and scene. Sometimes there are stage directions, but stage directions are secondary. You can imagine performing a play stripped of its stage directions, but cut out the dialogue and you’ve got nothing.

Nowhere is this more evident than in Shakespeare, who was sparing with his stage directions and brilliant with his language. We can take, as one of the innumerable examples, the case of King Lear. We can look at how this horrible, tragic figure is built up from a series of syllables set on the page, one after the other.

I want to take a look at a series of Lear’s speeches, five of them, one from each act of the play. All involve Lear at a moment of extreme rage or sorrow, but his rage and sorrow change dramatically from the first act to the last. The character is the language, and what we see over the course of the play, is the utter destruction of that character.

Let it be so, thy truth then be thy dower!
For, by the sacred radiance of the sun,
The mysteries of Hecate and the night,
By all the operations of the orbs
From whom we do exist and cease to be,
Here I disclaim all my paternal care,
Propinquity, and property of blood,
And as a stranger to my heart and me
Hold thee from this forever. The barbarous Scythian,
Or he that makes his generation messes
To gorge his appetite, shall to my bosom
Be as well neighbored, pitied, and relieved,
As thou my sometime daughter.

I.1.109-121

Let’s start with a speech from the first scene. Here, Lear is leveling his curse upon his youngest and most loyal daughter, Cordelia, who has failed to play along with the idiotic farce he’s hit upon to divide his kingdom. This is, to put it broadly, royal speech. Lear’s verse is weighed and measured. The pentameter never strays far from the iambic, and yet what kind of pentameter are we talking about here? It’s not the blunt, sledge-hammer, monosyllabic pentameter we recognize from Tennyson’s Ulysses, when he declares his final intention “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to fail.” If Ulysses’ line is one of blunt, military exhortation, Lear’s language is the pentameter of legal kingship, strung as it is with polysyllabic Latinate gems like “operations” and “propinquity.” His syntax, too, suggests a supple mind. The subject of that second sentence is buried five lines in, behind a prefatory wall of prepositional phrases that evokes both the rhetoric of ritual and the careful legalistic hedging we might expect from a courtroom. Lear’s demands for praise from his daughters might be crazy, but his language here indicates a mind that is still fundamentally whole, unbroken.

You see me here, you gods, a poor old man,
As full of grief as age, wretched in both.
If it be you that stirs these daughters’ hearts
Against their father, fool me not so much
To bear it tamely; touch me with noble anger,
And let not women’s weapons, water drops,
Stain my man’s cheeks.

II.4.272-277

Once again, Lear is angry, angry with his daughters Regan and Goneril this time—they’re trying to whittle away his royal entourage—instead of Cordelia. And again, beneath that anger a deep emotional wound is festering, the sorrow of a father who feels (rightly or wrongly) that he has been betrayed by his children. But this speech is obviously different from the first. For starters, there’s a change in idiom. The formal invocation of Hecate in Act I, that careful language calling upon the “sacred radiance of the sun” and the “operation of the orbs” has been ground down to simpler, more basic cry for help to “the gods.” In fact, the entire lexicon is starting to shift away from the Latin and toward the Germanic. The sentences are shorter and the relationship between the clauses clearer, as though he can’t quite sustain the legalistic formulae of the opening act, as though he’s starting to have difficulty keeping track of his ideas. On the flip side, the pentameter is even stronger, more bald, thrown up like a desperate bulkwark against his own incipient madness.

Is man no more than this? Consider him well. Thou ow’st the worm no silk, the beast no hide, the sheep no wool, the cat no perfume. Ha! Here’s three on’s are sophisticated. Thou art the thing itself; unaccomodated man is no more but such a poor, bare, forked animal as thou art.

III.4.103-108

Now we’re out in the storm, wandering on the heath. Lear has just encountered Edgar, who is naked and filthy, cavorting about in the guise of Poor Tom. The king has abandoned verse, so we can’t make much of the meter, although it’s worth nothing that the passage is heavily iambic, at least as much as the one we just looked at from Act II. Those thudding iambs, however—the beast no hide, the sheep no wool—are a world away from the fluid handling of terms like “propinquity” in the first speech, and when Lear hits on a word like “unaccomodated” here, it jars, shattering the rhythm of what comes before. He’s relying less on complex syntactical arrangements, too, leaning more eagerly on simple lists—a poor, bare, forked, animal—which comprise almost half of the passage. It’s all made more pathetic by the fact that he’s reaching for high-minded philosophical discourse, a disquisition on the nature of man. Given this language, though, “reaching” isn’t the right word. More like blindly groping.

When I do stare, see how the subject quakes.
I pardon that man’s life. What was thy cause?
Adultery?
Thou shalt not die. Die for adultery? No.
The wren goes to’t, and the small gilded fly
Does lecher in my sight.
Let copulation thrive; for Gloucester’s bastard son
Was kinder to his father than my daughters
Got ‘tween lawful sheets.
To’t, luxury, pell-mell, for I lack soldiers.

IV.6.108-117

Lear is talking to the blinded Gloucester here, and by this point in the play, he’s utterly busted. We’re back in verse, but it’s a mangled, monstrous verse. Some lines are perfectly iambic but way too short, others run to extra feet, while still others lack any metrical signature at all. If he was aiming for philosophy with his last speech, he’s groping for the language of law here, casting himself as the magistrate, and yet this is a monstrous magistracy, veering between pseudo-proclamation—Let copulation thrive – and a sort of bizarre naturalist’s focus on the sexual habits of birds and bugs, as though these could set precedent for human law. He’s also starting to repeat himself, even within the same line: Thou shalt not die. Die for adultery? No. Really, you don’t even need to understand this speech (and most of my students find themselves baffled by this entire scene) in order to hear the mental breakdown in the language.

And my poor fool is hanged: no, no, no life?
Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life,
And thou no breath at all? Thou’lt come no more,
Never, never, never, never, never.
Pray you undo this button. Thank you, sir.
Do you see this? Look on her! Look, her lips,
Look there, look there—

V.3.312-318

We’ve come, finally, to the King’s heart-wrenching final words. What do we find? A fractured, interrupted syntax comprised of questions, exclamations, and fragments. Unlike those that come before, this speech isn’t leaning on any rhetorical tradition: it’s not trying to be regal, or philosophical, or legal. Lear is beyond rhetoric here, beyond any learned forms of language. The only shape we find is a return to the iambic rhythm of his early speeches—lines 313 and 314 are nearly perfect—but then look what happens. Those two rhythmically reassuring lines are only there to set us up for what has to be the most brutal ten syllables in the English language: Never, never, never, never, never. It’s a perfect inversion of the natural order, an unrelenting line of trochaic pentameter coupled with an abdication of any attempt at syntax. This line looks like it is comprised of words; it is not. The language breaks here, revealing something older, darker, mere sound, rage, pain, loss, brute confusion beyond the power of any words to heal.


After teaching literature, philosophy, history, and religion for more than a decide, Brian Staveley began writing epic fantasy. The Providence of Fire, the second installment in the Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne, is available now from Tor and Tor UK. He lives on a steep dirt road in the mountains of southern Vermont, where he divides his time between fathering, writing, husbanding, splitting wood, skiing, and adventuring, not necessarily in that order. He can be found on Twitter at @brianstaveley and also on his blog.

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