The mental disintegration of Lear in Shakespeare’s King Lear is marked, in much of Lear’s dialogue from the play’s latter three acts, by madness interspersed with moments of lucidity. Yet, just before that madness becomes dominant, one can see a pivotal moment in the dramatic action at once figuring and presaging Lear’s breakdown by examining the final scene of the play’s second act.
More particularly, this pivot can be witnessed by paying close attention to the portion of Act II Scene iv which features Lear’s last speech prior to his passionate invocation of the storm on the heath. This speech, delivered in response to the final stripping of his attendant knights by Goneril and Regan, showcases a Lear concerned with dignity, identity, and sanity.
Rather than madness interspersed with lucidity, this speech comes across instead as lucidity tinged with madness. A motion can be traced from logic toward passion and from sanity toward madness via attention to the speech’s employment of poetic techniques.
While grief encroaches on the logical concerns and addresses of the speech’s content, the precise metrical and musical constructions of Shakespeare (much like the constructions of Robert Browning that I have previously covered in this series) reflect the motion of the content—both in the moments when Lear is in total control of his faculties, as well as when he feels his mental control slipping.
Repetition and Sound in Act II Scene iv of King Lear:
Two of the musical attributes of the speech, both centering on repeated word-groups, exemplify the movement of the speech from courtly reason toward passionate emotion.
Even as the first line negates an application of the calculating reason employed by Goneril and Regan, it sets up a rhetorically powerful consideration of the difference between social, dignified necessity and pure, animal necessity. Through this consideration, Shakespeare has Lear dwell on a repetition of the words “nature” (II.iv.266, 269) and “need” (II.iv.264, 266, 269-271).
These concepts, linked by consonance, draw together the idea of social expectations with the idea of the minimum existing state of humanity, looking forward to the presentation of “the thing itself; unaccommodated man” (III.iv.101). By tying nature to necessity, and in doing so parsing the meanings borne by each word, Lear seems cognizant of his earlier inability to separate courtly, feigned emotion from true emotion.
This forced clarification, an apparent self-aware breakdown in Lear’s linguistic knowledge, nevertheless fails to prevent Lear from suffering a deeper breakdown of his rational consciousness. This attention to what is necessitated and what is natural presents itself as a consequence of Lear’s betrayal by two of his daughters.
The speech then turns to a plea directed at potentially malevolent deities, where this notion of betrayal is elucidated directly as Goneril and Regan are addressed as diametrically opposed to nature and natural order: “you unnatural hags!” (II.iv.278).
With this shift in the speech’s audience and content comes a shift in sound. Lear begins imploring the gods, whatever hand they may have had in the affairs thus far, to feed his rage rather than his sorrow. Consonance on ‘w’ takes over the repetition: “women’s weapons, water [. . .] world [. . .] What [. . .] weep [ . . .] weep [. . .] weeping [. . .] weep” (II.iv.277, 280-284, 286).
This overriding wetness parallels the mounting storm outside with the mounting storm within Lear. After all, it is the storm itself, after Lear has turned back to his address of his daughters, which fills the gap left by the three metrical feet omitted from line 283. As opposed to the rational distinction between different kinds of need, this section focuses on the effusive emotion repressed within Lear’s obsession with weeping.
This unique position of King Lear at this moment as thoroughly lucid and gripped by powerful, raging emotions—makes all the more stirring his prophetic proclamation that he “shall go mad!” (line 286). The sounds of Shakespeare’s writing, however, do not operate alone in underscoring this key emotional moment in King Lear.
Meter and Rhythm in Act II Scene iv of King Lear:
Another poetic element driving the dramatic force of this speech’s progression from reason toward madness is its use of meter. Paring of Lear’s lines marks the reserved reason of the opening exhortation on need and nature:
O reason not the need! Our basest beggars
Are in the poorest thing superfluous.
[. . .]
If only to go warm were gorgeous,
Why, nature needs not what thou gorgeous wear’st (II.iv.264-265, 268-269).
The extra syllable in the first line contrasts with the clean iambic pentameter line that follows, highlighting the superfluity that can be shaved off even in conversation regarding beggars. Similarly, the missing foot of line 268 contrasts in the opposite direction with the iambic pentameter line that follows, again showing that even the least can yet sacrifice more. This latter maneuver also points to his daughters’ vanity, as the minimum they are willing to accept is shown to be more than is necessary both literally and metrically.
This demonstration of mental acuity—this restrained paring down of the meter in the first portion of the speech—is met almost immediately by two jarring sets of trochees on hexameter lines in the speech’s middle portion: “patience, patience [. . .] noble anger” (II.iv.271, 276). That these long lines come just after the earlier restraint makes immediate the excessiveness of their employment, pointing to an outpouring of emotion as Lear addresses the heavens.
These particular metrical caesuras tellingly contain two qualities with which Lear ever struggles.
First, patience is provided twice by Lear as he states that it is what he lacks. This subtle metrical irony is another instance of Lear’s self-knowledge seeming to be complete and incomplete simultaneously; he understands that his quickness to emotion was a source of his present predicament, yet he is not able to prevent this oratorical outpouring of emotion in light of that awareness.
Second, anger, the emotion which, above all others, has torn King Lear asunder, is given as possessing nobility. This confusion of a vice for a virtue makes it clear that the old king has not quite reached the plane of understanding at which he will arrive upon his reunion with Cordelia.
Moreover, that he summons rage from the heavens foreshadows the total madness and explosive expression of his subsequent appearance out in the storm. Clearly, the dramatic intent of this pivotal speech suffuses every line as much rhythmically and connotatively as it does explicitly and denotatively.
Shakespeare’s poising of this moment in the fourth scene of King Lear‘s second act—between the self-maligned Lear of the first two acts and the pitiful, largely mad Lear of the later three—is mirrored by the passage’s musicality, both in its sound and in its prosody.
Lear’s logical turn away from the courtly, couched terms which Goneril and Regan are using against him—toward a reasoned appeal—begins in earnest, then melts as his grief causes him to cry for vengeance from above rather than lamentation.
At last, Lear turns back to his daughters, now venomously and carelessly issuing curses far afield from the slowly spun curse at Goneril which earlier ends the first act. The repetitions of abstract conceptions (nature and need) are replaced by the repetition of a physical, emotive topic (weeping).
Similarly, a careful, restrained meter is replaced by a messy, indulgent meter. As careful attention to the speech’s musical attributes demonstrates, Lear’s words in this scene are crafted at every turn to reflect back on the betrayals which lead up to them and to look forward to the torrid path ahead.
Such dramaturgical care and such totality of effect are characteristic of Shakespeare’s verse, as I have previously discussed more broadly in regard to the social attitudes of Othello, and are utilized here in Act II Scene iv of King Lear with subtle mastery.
Music be the Food of Madness: