I finished reading King Lear over the weekend. I can definitely say I enjoy reading it before seeing it acted best. Having read the first three acts before seeing the play and the final two after, I find that my play viewing experience interfered with my reading in a negative way. I was surprised by that and can only compare it to the experience of seeing the movie before reading the book it was based on.

When you get to the book, everything is colored by the movie. And so as I was reading the final two acts, I kept trying to remember how it was acted in the production, tried to read the words as if the actors were speaking them. This does not work at all. And then of course, I noticed that the production was slightly different in places than the text. Nothing big, only small changes that made the play work better on the stage. I’m sure there were probably differences between the text and the way the first three acts were produced too but I didn’t notice what they might have been while I was watching the play. Curious how text and production interact and the timing of reading affects it all so much.

That said, I very much like King Lear. I read it once before in a college class. I have underlinings and penciled notes in my creased Signet Classic paperback. I must say I found myself laughing at some of the notes. I probably wrote them during class discussion. Some of them make no sense whatsoever, though at the time they probably did. Still others are such obvious statements that I wonder why I even felt the need to write them down. It was all very amusing.

One of the big plusses of reading a play, a text that is meant to be performed, is the ability to stop, to linger, to puzzle out, turn back, reread, and simply pause to appreciate. Live performances don’t have pause or rewind buttons and you can only go barreling along in one direction. But as a reader I am in control. That control allowed me to really enjoy what is a most excellent insult made by Kent to Oswald:

A knave, a rascal, an eater of broken meats;
a base, proud, shallow, beggarly, three-suited,
hundred-pound, filthy worsted-stocking knave;
a lily-livered, action-taking, whoreson, glass-gazing,
superserviceable, finical rogue; one-trunk-inheriting
slave; one that wouldst be a bawd in
way of good service, and art nothing but the composition
of a knave, beggar, coward, pander, and
the son and heir of a mongrel bitch, one whom I
will beat into clamorous whining if thou deniest the
least syllable of thy addition.

That just flies by on stage and my only reaction was wow, what that was an insult. But in reading it I can get the full flavor which leads to a deep appreciation. I know there are books of Shakespearean insults. I hope this one is included.

And then there is the scene where Gloucester loses his eyes. Loses his eyes? As if they fall out of their own accord and roll about on the floor. No, they are gouged out and Cornwall has this glorious, gruesome line:

Out, vile jelly. Where is they luster now?

And then there are the lines that, because they are in a version of English we no longer speak, bounce off and leave no impression. But when you come upon them in reading, there is a helpful footnote to assist in puzzling it out. Like Regan late in the play telling Edmund:

I am doubtful that you have been conjunct
And bosomed with her, as far as we call hers.

I don’t even recall this line in the play. But reading it, Regan reveals she is concerned that Edmund and her sister Goneril are doing some hanky-panky but she is trying to be contemptuous and reassure herself at the same time, Edmund loves her, Regan, he and Goneril would never. Then there is the delightfully helpful footnote:

I fear that you have united with her intimately, in the fullest possible way

More than Shakespeare’s line I love this footnote! It makes me laugh every time I read it. Hey footnote writer, just come out and say it, Regan is worried Edmund and Goneril had sex! Shakespeare can be pretty raunchy so the delicacy in explaining this line is hilarious. Of course, there isn’t much in the way of ribaldry in Lear, but still.

I believe next time I pick up a Shakespeare play it will be Coriolanus, one I have neither read nor seen acted before. But before that happens I have Euripides’ Medea to look forward to.

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