Re-reading Shakespeare: King Lear

(1) Yes, Lear is more sinned against than sinning. But only just. Throughout the twentieth century critics started judging him more harshly, and that’s a turn we may not have seen the back of.

He really doesn’t start off well. We begin with an exercise in flattery, the pre-eminent sin of court life back then (whenever then was) as it is now. Today I think we may be less likely to feel sympathy for the old guy. Lear is a familiar type: enjoying living in a bubble of privilege maintained by his wealth, power, and celebrity. In olden days this was an exalted condition pretty much exclusive to royalty. The monarch or lord of the manor could surround himself with people who would only tell him what he wanted to hear. When, late in the play, Lear complains that “they told me I was everything: ‘tis a lie, I am not ague-proof,” he seems doubly shocked in a way that’s startling. Is he put out because his courtiers lied to him, or to find that he is not ague-proof? Either way, he must have been pretty far gone to have put any stock in such flattery. Admittedly he’s quite old, and has probably lived in this bubble his entire life, but still. I think today the lesson would be the familiar one (to us) that you’re in trouble when you start believing in your own publicity.

Then again, why not? If you have enough money you can afford to buy your own version of reality. Lear’s house, Lear’s rules. It’s wrong to think of Lear as being entirely foolish here. He has a plan for the succession, it’s just that he’s not used to being crossed. Then the problems start when the plan comes apart in a way he hadn’t anticipated. The illusion machine stops being greased and the posse of riotous retainers instantly disappears. This is the madness that Lear fears: not that the world will stop making sense but that his world will stop making sense, will indeed fall to pieces.

This strikes me as being a message that’s still very much relevant to our own time, and one that’s just as disturbing today to think about. Put simply: wouldn’t it be better to maintain the illusion, even knowing it to be all a lie, and self-awareness be damned? This is the lesson of Plato’s parable of the cave. We all live in a world of make-believe, after all. Cordelia is just ruining it for everyone, and upsetting Lear’s actually rather careful plans for the succession, by not playing along.

This gets to the question of how much Lear actually believes in all of this court bullshit. “Thy truth then be thy dower,” is how he condemns Cordelia. I wonder if “thy truth” is related to what we mean today when we say people speak “their truth.” In any event, he’s saying that if that’s the way she wants to play it then she doesn’t get a cookie. So much for the truth. Cornwall is even more cynical when faced with Kent’s plain speaking:

This is some fellow
Who, having been praised for bluntness, doth affect
A saucy roughness, and constrains the garb
Quite from his nature. He cannot flatter, he:
An honest mind and plain, he must speak truth!
And they will take it, so: if not, he’s plain.
These kind of knaves I know, which in this plainness
Harbour more craft and more corrupter ends
Than twenty silly ducking observants
That stretch their duties nicely.

This actually echoes something Lear says in the first scene where he refers to Cordelia’s “pride, which she calls plainness,” but takes it even further. I wonder what’s worse: to not believe that people can speak truth, or to rage against it when they do? Cornwall’s way of thinking is more dangerous to the social order because nobody can be trusted (except to lie out of self-interest), while Lear’s is more dangerous to himself because it leaves him exposed when reality comes knocking. Either way, I think Lear comes off looking worse. He’s a spoiled old fool in the first act, and even out on the heath seems a bit too much like a child having a tantrum. Someone who rides on a tiger can never dismount, and if you live in a bubble you can never leave.

(2) Why so much interest in sexual matters, expressed in such lurid terms? This doesn’t seem to me to be a play about sexual passion at all. The only lusty ones on stage are the “murderous lechers” Goneril and Regan, and their feelings toward Edmund are not reciprocated as he’s indifferent to which of them he’ll end up with. But then there’s Edgar. As Poor Tom he implies, I think, that he’s lost his mind to syphilis, his downfall the result of having lived a life of dissolution (one who “slept in the contriving of lust, and waked to do it”). This is also connected indirectly to Gloucester. When Edgar reveals himself to Edmund at the end he says that “The dark and vicious place where thee he got [that is, where Gloucester begot Edmund, presumably in a brothel] / Cost him his eyes.” This may be another indirect nod to syphilis but it’s also just Edgar being moralistic again and looking to find some way to interpret what happened to Gloucester as effect following cause. I don’t think we need to follow his lead and draw the conclusion that some critics do: that Gloucester’s blindness is the wages of sin (in his case the physical sin of lechery). But aside from Edmund having been begotten between unlawful sheets some twenty or more years earlier where else is Gloucester’s lechery in evidence? This isn’t Ibsen’s Ghosts. (Marjorie Garber is one critic who has it in for Gloucester, saying that he has “been established in the play as the ‘old lecher’.” But the words “old lecher” are only a bit of figurative language used by the Fool and are not necessarily directed at Gloucester.)

Lear is more direct and forceful in his language, raging right up to the end about animal lechery. Below the waistline there’s only hell: “there’s darkness, there is the sulphurous burning, scalding, stench, consumption. Fie, fie, fie! Pah, pah!” This reminds me of Hamlet always being distracted by thoughts of his mother and Claudius romping in incestuous sheets (he even repeats the “Fie on’t! O fie!”). Hamlet’s father has to warn him about tainting his mind in this way. But to return to what bugs me: we expect this kind of language from Othello given the kind of things Iago is whispering in his ear, and even to some extent Hamlet, but why does Lear go down this road?

Such imaginings are the ravings of an unbalanced mind. Hamlet and Lear are getting carried away and finding in the language of runaway lust a sort of mental release valve. Claudius, Goneril, and Regan are villains who need to get their comeuppance, but their greatest sins aren’t lechery (and there’s no indication Lear is aware of his daughters’ chasing after Edmund anyway). Hamlet thinks Claudius a satyr but there’s little to no evidence for that, and he even acknowledges that the heyday of his mother’s blood is tame and humble so that she isn’t being driven by her hormones. Hamlet’s the only one who sees things in these terms, just as Lear is. And in many ways I find Lear’s raging about sex even stranger. I saw an interview with Ian McKellen where he was talking about playing Lear and musing over the same thing. He likened it to his elderly mother-in-law’s fascination with sex just before she died, and found it to be true of other old people as well. Is there anything more to it than that? Perhaps not. In any event, I don’t think Shakespeare wants us to believe that bad people are all bad in the same predictable, bestial ways.

(3) In a footnote in his book on Shakespearean Tragedy A. C. Bradley dips a toe into the matter of linking Shakespeare’s biography to the writing of King Lear and draws the following tentative conclusion: “Shakespeare during these years was probably not a happy man, and it is quite likely that he felt at times even an intense melancholy, bitterness, contempt, anger, possibly even loathing and despair.”

Shakespeare changed his sources to give the play its unhappy ending, one that mocks the idea of poetic justice. This was so shocking and ahead of its time that for a couple of hundred years it had to be cleaned up. But it was obviously quite deliberate because that notion of poetic or divine justice is directly invoked only to be slapped down again and again. This really was a point Shakespeare was insisting on.

I don’t think Shakespeare believed in poetic justice outside of what would play well. He seems to have had a cynical view of how justice works. It crops up here in several places. Lear himself talks about how if “change places, and handy-dandy, which is the justice, which is the thief?” Only “Place sins with gold / And the strong lance of justice hurtless breaks.” Goneril has learned well from her father, and when confronted by Albany with proof of her own evil she can be dismissive: “the laws are mine, not thine: Who can arraign me for’t.” That’s not a question.

Justice, like truth, is something everybody expects can be bought.

Words, words, words

Over the years I’ve been posting on words I’ve come across that I didn’t know but found kind of interesting. Here’s a list (not alphabetical, but in order of posting) that I’ll keep updating as I go along:

Catena and Pulvinate
Equitation and Toxophilite

Raddle and hum

In Ben Macintyre’s A Spy Among Friends there’s the following description of the double agent Kim Philby gradually coming undone while stationed in Washington in the 1950s:

Philby was only thirty-eight but looked older. There was already something raddled in his handsome features. The eyes remained bright, but the bags beneath them were growing heavier, and the lunches at Harvey’s were taking a toll on his waistline.

At first blush I thought “raddled” must be a misprint for “rattled.” But somehow that seemed unlikely so I looked it up and found that there really is a word raddled that means old and worn-out or “confused . . . often associated with alcohol and drugs.” Since Philby was prematurely aged and drinking epic amounts at the time the word fit perfectly.

Nobody know where raddled comes from. Its first use in English may have come in a 1694 translation of Rabelais that described “a . . . fellow, continually raddled, and as drunk as a wheelbarrow.” Whatever that means. It may derive from “raddle,” which is a red ochre used for marking animals. From there, to be “raddled” came to refer to an overapplication of rouge. I don’t know how it then made the leap to meaning broken-down, confused and discomposed, but it blends in nicely with “addled” and “rattled.” Well played by Macintyre.

Words, words, words

DNF files: Doom

Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe

By Niall Ferguson

Page I bailed on: 140

Verdict: There was a time when Niall Ferguson was worth bothering with. I thought The Pity of War was really good. But latterly he’s just become a right-wing hack and propagandist. I don’t care for his politics, but leaving that aside, what’s worse is the fact that he’s just churning these books out now on schedule while seeming to have totally lost the ability to write. Doom was a COVID book and it’s nothing but a slapdash and glib collection of bits and pieces thrown at the reader only to let us know how widely Ferguson has read. Or browsed. Or had some research assistant browse. I wasn’t buying any of it. It just comes off as non-stop name-dropping and a cheap display of superficial learning in search of a coherent argument.

The DNF files

The DNF files

This is an index of my notes on books I tried to get through but did not finish (DNF). They’re not all bad books, or books that are all bad, but I had to pull the plug on them for various reasons.

Put another way: as I get older I’ve begun looking at the size of the to-be-read pile and realizing that the numbers don’t add up for reading everything I still want to. So here are some of the titles that got dropped along the way.

Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe by Niall Ferguson
Murder Book: A Graphic Memoir of a True Crime Obsession by Hilary Fitzgerald Campbell
Sandy Hook: An American Tragedy and the Battle for Truth by Elizabeth Williamson

Maigret: Maigret’s Madwoman

For a series that went on for so long, I’m actually a little surprised that Simenon didn’t attempt to tie the different stories together more with recurring characters aside from Maigret, his wife, his regular stable of lieutenants (Janvier, Lucas, Lapointe, Torrence), and the sad sack Lognon. There’s little mention made in any of the individual novels to things that happened years, or decades, earlier – things that regular readers might be expected to remember.

Maigret’s Madwoman bucks this just a bit. For starters, the plot borrows heavily from Cécile is Dead, with the “madwoman” (she’s elderly but perfectly sane) coming to visit Maigret at the Quai des Orfèvres because she’s sure someone has been rummaging through her apartment. She then winds up dead, like the similarly concerned Cécile. Along the way there are more direct nods to other books in the series than this, but they come with slight changes, as though Simenon was testing his committed readers. When Maigret asks his wife if she ever talks to the people she meets while sitting in the park she can only “think of one time. A mother of a little girl, who asked me to look after the child for a few minutes while she went to buy something on the other side of the gardens.” I take it this is a reference to the events of Madame Maigret’s Friend, but in that book it was a little boy who Madame Maigret was asked to watch. And later Maigret will travel to Toulon where he meets up with Chief Inspector Marella, who reminds him of the “Porquerolles affair” of ten or twelve years earlier. What he means, I think, is the case described in My Friend Maigret, only the investigator who is Maigret’s liaison in that book is named Lechat.

I enjoyed these fillips for fans, and thought Maigret’s Madwoman a good read. It isn’t much of a mystery though, with the most likely suspect – a kid with long hair who plays in a rock band called Les Mauvais Garçons at the Bongo Club – only being outdone by an even more disreputable type who’s dropped in out of nowhere. The MacGuffin is a stretch, and I had trouble believing the bad guys thought they were going to be able to make anything out of the item they stole from the apartment, but greedy dreamers are like that. And in the end this is another case where Maigret just has to sadly walk away. Not so much out of sympathy for the killer’s accomplice, though some of that’s implied, but because he figures there’s no point in going after them.

Maigret index

Maigret: The Little Restaurant near Place des Ternes

This story is the last, and much the shortest, of the three seasonal pieces collected in A Maigret Christmas (the others being the title novella and Seven Small Crosses in a Notebook). Maigret himself doesn’t appear (he stays at home all day solving the mystery of the secret Santa across the street from his apartment), but we are briefly entertained by Inspector Hard-Done-By, that sad Eeyore of the Paris police, Lognon. At least he doesn’t have the sniffles and isn’t being shot at this time, though he is stuck working on Christmas Eve, and it looks like it’s going to be a late night when a man kills himself in a bar.

That suicide doesn’t turn out to have anything much to do with the rest of the story, which instead leaves the bar behind as a prostitute named Long Tall Jeanne spends her evening keeping a younger woman out of trouble by starting some of her own. So not a mystery at all but “A Christmas Story for Grown-Ups.” Jeanne does have a bit of Maigret about her though in the way she tries to steer a young person away from danger. That’s what good people do in this world.

Maigret index

Maigret: Seven Small Crosses in a Notebook

There’s no “Maigret” in the title of this story/novella, because Maigret doesn’t appear in it. But it’s part of the A Maigret Christmas volume and takes place in the same universe since Janvier puts in an appearance, so I figured I should cover it.

In fact, the absence of Maigret is one of the less surprising aspects of the story. It’s entirely set in the police switchboard control room on Christmas day, with the staff on duty responding to calls coming in from all around Paris. Then a murdered body is found and one of the operators recognizes the name of the victim. It seems his brother may be involved.

It’s a clever idea to limit the action to the one room, with witnesses and reports being fed into that room bit by bit. You could imagine the thing being done on stage, or Hitchcock taking up the challenge of making something out of it on film. I’m not sure it works quite as well on the page, and the first chapter is a bit confusing, but it’s certainly a change-up for the series and I think it’s nicely done.

It’s a neat story too, with a sort of double-manhunt plot that has the brother’s son intent on catching a serial killer while Janvier and the rest of the police try to find them. Also interesting is the man who’s been laid off trying to keep up appearances by still going out to work every night with his lunch pail. He’s someone we’d meet again in the Michael Douglas movie Falling Down and the John Lanchester novel Mr. Phillips. Was this the first appearance of such a character? It may well have been, as Un Noël de Maigret was first published in 1951 and I don’t think we really understood the condition yet.

Maigret index

Maigret: A Maigret Christmas

A Maigret Christmas is a seasonal novella published in 1951, during a period when Simenon was toodling about the U.S. The action all takes place on Christmas Day, with Maigret only leaving his apartment once, and that just to go across the street. So it’s a tidy little drama as well as “a family affair” since Madame Maigret is always about, knitting or cooking and just generally helping out in any way she can.

The mystery starts out promising. A little girl in an apartment across the way is disturbed to find Santa Claus in her bedroom, tearing at the floorboards. Santa gives her a doll as a present, but apparently doesn’t find what he was looking for. Will he be back?

I was expecting, from such a set-up, that A Maigret Christmas would be something cute. A confection. But it’s actually a run-of-the-mill Maigret story with a melancholy overlay. The detective chief inspector even wakes up Christmas morning feeling depressed.

The Maigrets have no children of their own and their disappointment in this regard is sometimes lightly registered in the other novels. But here it is front and center. The little girl across the street has been basically adopted by her uncle and aunt because her father is a drunken wreck. But her aunt doesn’t want her. So you have a child who needs parents and the Maigrets needing a child. At the end they’ll take the girl in “on loan,” which is no consolation to Madame Maigret, who at the end breaks down in tears, not of joy. Making it a very Maigret Christmas indeed.

Maigret index

Books of the Year 2022

Another year where I have to preface this list with the observation that I didn’t read much literary fiction this year. To be sure, the last year has been rough, but even so I’ve more and more had the adage that “old men don’t read new fiction” brought to my attention. I do still spend a lot of time with the classics, and even more time with non-fiction. But outside of science fiction, a regular beat, I haven’t kept up with new novels and short story collections. And at this point I’m not sure I see that changing. Oh well.

Best fiction: As noted, I don’t have a lot of titles in this category to pick among. Cormac McCarthy’s The Passenger (and emphatically not its companion volume Stella Maris) was pretty good though. It’s written in his signature late style, which I find overdone, but that said, he’s one of the few really distinctive literary voices out there working at this level.




Best non-fiction: I was really impressed with Richard Overy’s Blood and Ruins: The Great Imperial War, 1931–1945 (which came out in 2021 in the U.K. but in 2022 over here). You wouldn’t think a single-volume history of the Second World War would be so thorough and include so much fresh thinking. Some subjects are just so large I’m sure we’ll never hear the last word on them.




Best SF: There was a lot of strong competition in this category again this year. I liked Dave Eggers’s The Every as a dark sequel to the already dark-enough The Circle, but for my pick of the year I’ll take Ned Beauman’s Venomous Lumpsucker for the way it handled a number of complicated ideas in a deft, intelligent, and playful way.