King Lear: mind-blowing midpoint

Using Professor Rodes’ midpoint theory, let’s take a look at King Lear.

There are 2960 lines in in the play, which means the midpoint is at line 1480, or at Act Two, Scene Four, line 285. According to Dr. Rodes’ theory, you could find at this midpoint (or within twenty lines either way) a speech that perfectly sums up a major theme of the play. The 20-line leeway was to help remove the differences in prose line lengths between individual editions.

This midpoint takes place toward the end of the scene at Gloucester’s estate when Lear has arrived, attempts to complain about Goneril to the visiting Regan, only to have the sisters team up against him.

Lear exits the scene into the storm just before line 280. The exact midpoint comes during the discussion between Cornwall and the two sisters about how to go forward dealing with the old king. Important, but not ground-shaking. The twenty lines following the midpoint encompass the remainder of the scene where we see Regan and Gloucester begin to assert their control over Gloucester. No big shakes there, either, as far as I’m concerned.

But the preceding twenty lines? Well, we get the back half of Lear’s “O reason not the need speech” to his daughters. Here’s the speech from line 265 onward:

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, waterdrops,
Stain my man’s cheeks! No, you unnatural hags,
I will have such revenges on you both
That all the world shall—I will do such things—
What they are yet I know not; but they shall be
The terrors of the earth. You think I’ll weep.
No, I’ll not weep.
I have full cause of weeping, but this heart
 [Storm and tempest.]
Shall break into a hundred thousand flaws
Or ere I’ll weep.—O Fool, I shall go mad!
  • II.iv.265-279

The speech had begun directed at the daughters, but by the time this section starts, he’s appealing to his gods. He wants nobility in his anger, not womanish tears. Seven lines in, however, he turns back to the daughters, and the shift is lightning quick: there’s no caesura in the line:

/ ~ / / / / ~ / -~- /

Stain my man’s cheeks! No, you unnatural hags,

It may not be iambic (far from it, in fact, with only the last two feet being iambic, and even then the last two syllables of “unnatural” have to be elided into a non-stressed one for the line to work), but it is pentameter. Why is this important? Well, without a pause after the exclamation point, this shows how scattered and quickly changed his thoughts are. This is a perfect set-up to his shifts in subject and thought that come just two lines later. Then we get the wonderfully short line, “No, I’ll not weep.” The pause that follows allows the actor playing Lear to begin to compose himself before he launches into his next line. Of course, at the end of that line (“this heart”), he is interrupted by the sound of “storm and tempest.” It’s almost as if without nature’s interruption, his line might have continued with a stronger and more positive message, but he now sees the gods tii have turned against him. He speaks of his heart breaking, but he fears worse, much worse: “O Fool, I shall go mad!”

“I shall go mad.”

Within the 20 line leeway of the exact midpoint of the play. Rodes does it again.

Of course, that all is the Folio (The Tragedy of King Lear text). Things are a little different in the Quarto (The History of King Lear), where there are 3133 lines, with a midpoint after 1567 lines, or at Act Three, Scene Two, line 38. But what of that? It’s apropos of nothing… because the line at that exact point in the play is Lear’s follow-up to his own line, “No, I will be the pattern of all patience” (Quarto, III.ii.37):

“I will say nothing.”

[gesture of explosions at both ears]

Mind. Blown.