Week 10 afterthoughts

It was very interesting, was it not, to be interrupted by Aynsley’s invitations to reflect on our bodies, postures, comfort and discomfort etc. over the first half of class? I’d like to keep that alive in our final two sessions. I think it’s so interesting for all of us as teachers, to pay attention each of us to our own bearing and also that of everyone else in the room—I wonder, too, how it might be more integrated into the thinking and talking we do together. Lord knows there is plenty for us to do in the last two weeks, but let’s not forget that.

As for King Lear, Jessica has us now (after Eli’s initial coup) on a two-week streak of choosing the perfect passage for our opening exercise in description. Not least for its variety: Lear’s railing, Kent’s plain rebuke, Edgar’s tetrameter charm against the barking dogs of Lear’s imagination. The play’s constant collision of levels and kinds of style seems important. That’s a Shakespearian trick from the beginning (think of Antipholus and Dromio), but here it is so much more various and chaotic, and the kinds of speech acts involved are so different. There were some interesting comments about the meter (the difficulty accommodating that line “Arms, arms! sword! fire! Corruption in the place!” to iambic pentameter). The Frenchness of the passage struck Whitney, maybe having to do with Edgar’s pose as a maddened courtier? Will had a crazy theory about “sweetheart” and Coeur-delia; we expect to find him on the heath before long. (But I love such theories! And there are some deep sound-plots in these plays; I made a note to look out for other instances of this one.) The interruption of the play’s action by the folk-spell was striking. And a proliferation of r’s. I’ll repeat John Porter Houston’s observation, which I cited in class, that there is in Lear more of “the principle of parallel accumulation common to many Elizabethan playwrights rather than the syntactic complexity peculiar to Shakespeare.”

Maddy then brought us to consider Kent’s unexpected rant at 2.2.64ff., and especially all the animals. That’s particularly interesting in a play so preoccupied with the nature of “nature” (of which there are at least four varieties: a total order that includes and sponsors hierarchies of family and state; a vital impulse that is the opposite of culture [Edmund’s goddess]; the self, one’s own nature, as a guarantee of the quality and consistency of actions; and the human minimum, man as a poor bare forked animal, whether as a mode of suffering or of escape from aristocratic pain.) Maddy put this in the general context of excess, and we talked some about the plain style, how it is torn between decorum and honesty—one of many potential contradictions exposed by the collapse of patriarchal authority in the play. We compared Kent to Falstaff; does he bear comparison with other out-of-control speakers in plays we have read, even the nonsensical ones like Elbow? He says some weird things, like the Sarum Plain bit or “Lipsbury Pinfold,” whatever that means. The failure of the plain style is a question we could well follow into Antony and Cleopatra, especially with Enobarbus. We wondered what to make of the grammar of the animals and the apparent confusion of their traits with one another, whether this might be a signature of the play’s approach to figuration, a kind of illicit transfer of attributes (in keeping, perhaps, with the free movement of authority in the play, all the disguise, etc.). And all of this, Maddy suggested, circling around “knowing naught”? Cordelia’s nothing, Edmund’s “nothing, my lord,” so many others.

We might have spent more time with the passage, as with Jessica’s: Lear’s reckoning with the plight of his people on the heath. Her basic question was how we get from a Lear who cannot feel the storm on his skin for the storm in his mind, to the Lear, a few lines later, who prays, it would seem, to the poor wretches who bear the pelting of the pitiless storm. I’ve been thinking about it since: is this sympathy another mode of escape from his particular, aristocratic and paternal pain, an escape into the general from the self? (Which brings me back to the curious observation in class, about Edgar’s dog-charm, that he turns particular names to general breeds.) Or is his epiphany the common need for more than nature gives us? How exactly does he get from one to the other—is it the speech act of prayer itself? Hmmmm. We talked some about the hectic self-interrogation of the early lines, the internalization of dialogue. And yet, none of it is really soliloquy, or at least not the way we know it from Hamlet, is it? Why does Lear never get a proper soliloquy? It seems important to the language of the play that it will not accommodate such a speech. (Do Edgar and Edmund have them? An interesting question—certainly, they talk to themselves…)

The play does seem like the right one for thinking about body, given the physical reductions in this scene—to the minimum, the poor bare forked animal; and the general interest in pain and the evasion of pain. Those are questions usually and appropriately referred to the embodied actor. I thought that the exercises rose to the challenge of how choreography might get at other registers of the play. Mary N’s tap-dancing made her lines sound ritualistic and a little hypnotic, and the capacity simultaneously to capture verse rhythm, phrase rhythm, and to suggest the recurrence of semantic motifs was an impressive surprise. (Jackie’s twirling, which we did not see in class, had a similar impact on me; and both are modes of display in a play that is so concerned with performance, self-dramatization, disguise, unmasking etc.) The sign-language of Mary P’s exercise parsed things differently, with the peculiarity that ASL is a language, but 1) a language that no one in the room knew and 2) that borrows some of its signs from a repertory of iconic gestures, which can look like ritual to the untrained eye. I was fascinated by how it cut up the words of the speech, with units of its own. Aynsley’s suggestion to decouple the signs and words was strange and powerful. Almost anti-acting? And that seemed to fold the speech in on itself in ways that made its figurations denser. Eli’s minimal scripts picked out particular knots of body-position and affective experience (the confinedness of the cell, the hope for a kind of free sociability there, etc.) in ways that brought out the ambivalences of the “We two alone” speech, such a dream for Lear, perhaps such a nightmare for Cordelia. And then Jeewon’s storm-duet, amazing in its analysis of the complex interdependence of storm and king, Lear’s attempt to outshout and even puppet the winds and the rains, and the resistance of nature. (And then the revelation of the storm as the Fool, the “natural”—another meaning of that complex word.)

We didn’t talk much about Johnson, but I thought his book was helpful, and it’s valuable I think to add his account of meaning to the two basic paradigms (referential and relational) that we’ve been working with so far. That is, words mean, for Johnson, not by virtue of their reference to things, or their relation to other words, but their grounding in basic somatic experience, in lifting, twisting, and so on, the unreflective body. A couple of people, in exercises, pointed out what a strangely asocial account of meaning resulted—but that limitation may pick up something in the play. At all events, I was moved by what we discovered.

So, special thanks to Aynsley; and we’ll benefit next week from another new expertise, Majel Connery’s work as composer and singer. She and her group Oracle Hysterical did a setting of The Passionate Pilgrim, which you may remember from Week 2, worth a listen here.

Leave a Reply