Polyphony in the “King Lear” Mock Trial

March 22, 2014 § 1 Comment

For fun, I asked myself, what are the ineluctable advantages music has over literature, as far as technical elements? I came up with two:

  • Silence
  • Counterpoint, i.e. multiple simultaneous voices

Other elements of music, like timbre or tempo, can be approximated via the musical elements of language itself, but silence and counterpoint are structurally incompatible with a string of words.

Shakespeare tried, though, and there’s a great famous mock trial in King Lear, Act 3, Scene 6, where Lear and his posse of followers put his daughters Regan and Goneril on trial for forsaking him. It’s a sort of literary counterpoint: there are four voices of madness or oddness in the scene — Lear, his court Fool, Edgar posing as a mad beggar, and Kent posing as a servant — all speaking in rapid succession, almost at once over each other and to each other and alongside each other. I always figured writing plays would be too restrictive, being purely dialogue, but Shakespeare takes that limitation as a premise and uses the dialogue as voices.

When the four of them first enter, each of their voices is introduced in turn: Kent considerate, Edgar raving, Fool jesting, and Lear frothing:

All the power of his wits have given way to his impatience: the gods reward your kindness!

Frateretto calls me; and tells me Nero is an angler in the lake of darkness. Pray, innocent, and beware the foul fiend.

Pr’ythee, nuncle, tell me whether a madman be a gentleman or a yeoman?

A king, a king!

Sometimes they talk to themselves, each in their voices:

To have a thousand with red burning spits
Come hissing in upon ’em, —

The foul fiend bites my back.

He’s mad that trusts in the tameness of a wolf, a
horse’s health, a boy’s love, or a whore’s oath.

And sometimes two different voices are focused on a single subject. Here’s Fool’s playful directness set against Lear’s bluster:

Come hither, mistress. Is your name Goneril?

She cannot deny it.

Cry you mercy, I took you for a joint-stool.

This is a great bit because between Lear and the Fool, each character, in his own voice, is being similarly direct yet wildly different.

There are also various meters used among the voices. Iambic pentameter is less common here. There’s just as much of prose and of Fool’s and Edgar’s various singsong rhythms. Sometimes Lear manages iambic pentameter and it’s a send-up of the psuedo-lucidity of his bluster:

It shall be done; I will arraign them straight.
Come, sit thou here, most learned justicer;
Thou, sapient sir, sit here. Now, you she foxes!

Compare this to one of the more truthful bits in the scene, where Fool sings a song directly mocking Lear.

So these few examples illustrate, I hope, how Shakespeare uses different dimensions of the notion of a “voice” — content, form, mood and tone, rhythm — some musical, some literary, to organize the chaos of a scene with four liars and/or madmen, each with his own aims. I think the attention paid to Shakespeare’s supposed breadth of understanding of humanity — his ability to understand drinkers and bards and lords and serfs — is a pointless kind of scorekeeping when applied across his work. To see him bring very different literary/musical voices — creative manifestations of individual characters — to bear within a single scene is much more interesting.

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