Lear’s lessons from the lines (scansion)

As I wrap up discussion of the plays, I like to take a quick look back on some of the more noteworthy clues I’ve noticed in the lines of the play. Not necessarily the words within the lines, mind you, not the diction, but rather the syntax, the scansion, the pauses. King Lear is no different.

Some of these are–to borrow a phrase from a blog entry earlier in the month–apropos of nothing..but still of interest (to me at least) nonetheless.

I’ve discussed in the past (on a number of occasions, more often than I thought, really), the concept of why rhyming sometimes appears in the verse of Shakespeare’s plays. And there are a number of reasons:

  • singling out an entire body or block of content
  • singling out a couplet of content (for emphasis, particularly at the end of a speech)
  • content from outside the play itself–poems, songs, even entire plays that are performed within the context of the scene
  • portrayal of other worldly-entities
  • rhyme as answer

For a play so filled with the Fool’s songs and rhyming speeches, King Lear has surprisingly few other rhymes. Sure, there are the rhymed couplets in the concluding speeches at the close of the play (as would be expected); of the twenty-four other scenes, however, only four scenes end with a non-sung rhyming couplet (and three of those are by Edmund).

Curiously, though, in the first scene, we get two extended rhymed sections: the first by Kent as he is leaving (the first couplet to Lear, the second to Cordelia, the third to Goneril and Regan, and the fourth to all as he says goodbye); the second by France as he receives Cordelia (with a two couplet response from and exit by Lear). The only non-song, non-poem rhyming sections come from the two men most closely aligned to Cordelia’s re-entry into England, both in the same opening scene. Coincidence? Maybe, but if so, a pretty interesting one.

Later, when Kent (under the guise of Caius) attempts to explain to Cornwall and Regan why he has attacked Oswald, he is upbraided by Cornwall for bluntness and inability to flatter. In response, Kent speaks in flowery, heightened verse:

KENT
Sir, in good faith, in sincere verity,
Under th’ allowance of your great aspect,
Whose influence, like the wreath of radiant fire
On flick’ring Pheobus’ front–
  • II.ii.104-07

Heightened diction (“sincere verity”, “wreath of radiant fire”) and classic allusions (alliterative ones at that–“flick’ring Pheobus’ front”) act to make the speech less blunt and more “silly-ducking” (II.ii.102). Only his mocking shines through not only in that same overdone language but in the scansion:


/ / / / / / / / ~ /

Sir, in good faith, in sincere verity,
/ ~ ~ / ~ / ~ / / /

Under th’ allowance of your great aspect,
~ / -~- / ~ / ~ / -~- /

Whose influence, like the wreath of radiant fire
~ / ~ / ~ /

On flick’ring Pheobus’ front–

The over-stressed meter of the speech’s first line is a clue: to stress the “in” before “sincere” makes the words read more like “insincere” than “in sincere.” The as-written eliding of “th’ allowance” and “flick’ring” are supplemented by the as-spoken elisions of “infl-wence” and “ra-dyent” (necessary to make the iambic pentameter scan). The words may be pretty but Kent can’t get them out of his mouth fast enough. Scansion of the lines reveals the mocking beneath the surface extravagance of language.

At the other end of the spectrum of full, overstuffed heightened poetry, are something else I find endlessly fascinating: short poetic lines, the ones that obviously call out for some kind of pause either before or (usually) after the line in question.

When Lear leaves Goneril, and Albany arrives in time only to watch the old king leave, the exchange between Albany and Goneril is comprised of two short, staccato lines:

ALBANY
Well, you may fear too far.
GONERIL
Safer than trust too far.
  • I.iv.310-11

The pause after Albany’s line gives the actress playing Goneril time to have some kind of visible, non-verbal reaction; and the pause after her line (and before she continues with full blank verse lines) affords her the opportunity to hold Albany off from making any response. This shows to the audience how the balance of power is tipped in their marriage.

Another interesting short line comes during Act Two, Scene Two, as Cornwall is interrogating Kent/Caius and Oswald over their argument. Cornwall asks, “What was th’ offense you gave him?” (II.ii.113), to which Oswald replies, “I never game him any” (II.ii.114), a three beat sentence; his speech, however, does not end there–it goes on for nearly another ten lines. This short line must prompt some kind of non-verbal cue from Cornwall (or Regan perhaps) giving Oswald the impetus to continue his response.

One last scansion example shows the power that meter can have in conveying a character’s sense of self-worth. When Edgar/Poor Tom leads Gloucester to what the old blinded father thinks are the cliffs of Dover, Gloucester delivers a “goodbye, cruel world” speech:

GLOUCESTER
 O you mighty gods!
This world I do renounce, and in your sights
Shake patiently my great affliction off.
If I could bear it longer, and not fall
To quarrel with your great opposeless wills,
My snuff and loathèd part of nature should
Burn itself out. If Edgar live, O, bless him!—
Now, fellow, fare thee well.
  • IV.v.34-41

What I find interesting is that in these five lines, first person pronouns are used four times, and not once is the pronoun stressed within the scansion of the lines.


 / ~ / ~ /

 O you mighty gods!
/ / ~ / ~ / ~ / ~ /

This world I do renounce, and in your sights
/ / ~ / ~ / ~ / ~ /

Shake patiently my great affliction off.
/ ~ ~ / ~ / ~ / / /

If I could bear it longer, and not fall
~ / ~ / ~ / ~ / ~ /

To quarrel with your great opposeless wills,
~ / ~ / ~ / ~ / ~ /

My snuff and loathèd part of nature should
/ / / / / / ~ / / / /

Burn itself out. If Edgar live, O, bless him!—
/ / ~ / ~ /

Now, fellow, fare thee well.

Gloucester has negated his own existence–at least poetically.

I love this kind of thing.

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