The perfect remedy for Spring Break coma? A barrage of rehearsals.
King Lear goes up in less than a month, which means our production class will be attending rehearsals, and we’ll be using more class time to run scenes. Today, we did a line through of various scenes, including Act 4 Scene 6, when Lear enters “fantastically dressed with wild flowers.” Two scenes earlier, Cordelia lamented over her father’s state of madness and described a scene to the Doctor:
“Alack, ’tis he! Why, he was met even now/ As mad as the vexed sea, singing aloud,/ Crowned with rank fumiter and furrow-weeds,/ With hardocks, hemlock, nettles, cuckooflowers,/ Darnell, and all the idle weeds that grow/ In our sustaining corn. A century send forth” (IV.iv.1-6).
Cordelia is explaining what that famous crown of flowers is composed of, and also gives a hint of where the characters are; Lear has apparently found his way into a corn field, or at least a field where those types of weeds grow.
Jason asked me to research flowers, and here are my results:
Fumiter: Taken from the name of a family of weeds, the fumitory family. Its name originally came from the Latin term for “smoke of the earth,” because it springs “out of the earth in great quantity” (OED). It has floppy, pink, tubular petals.
Hardocks: Or burdocks; “A coarse weedy plant…common on waste ground, bearing prickly flower-heads called burs, and large leaves like those of the dock” (OED).
Hemlock: A poisonous plant, “having a stout branched stem with purplish spots, finely divided leaves, and small white flowers; it is used medicinally as a powerful sedative” (OED).
Nettles: A family of dozens of types of plants, most common of which is the stinging nettle. The stinging nettle is a common wildflower with needles on its stem and leaves that inject chemicals into the skin, giving a stinging sensation. You’ve probably fallen victim to one of these plants before.
Cuckooflower: Also known as ladies’ smock. Although it’s not poisonous or a weed like most of the others listed, cuckooflowers were apparently used by Ancient Greeks and Romans as cures for mental illnesses (1984 New Cambridge King Lear).
Darnel: A common grass that sometimes grows as a weed in corn crops. It’s pretty rare now, but it would have been common in Shakespeare’s time.
So the basic trend: Cordelia is talking about weeds and poisons, plants that one probably wouldn’t stop to gather while traipsing through a field. Some of them are pretty — the cuckooflower and fumiter — but they’re useless, even dangerous. Lear was so mad that he wasn’t only picking unconventional flowers and weeds; he was gathering poison.
Lear wandering onstage with his crown of flowers is a very iconic image from the play. Nature plays a major role in the story — the King is cast off into the storm and forced to fend for himself after a life of pampering in a castle. Clothing is also a significant concept in the play, particularly as a way of demonstrating how far the King has fallen. It’s quite a contrast; Lear in his beautiful robes and crown early in the play next to him as a half-naked madman wearing a crown of weeds.
Bonus: “How fearful and dizzy ’tis to cast one’s eyes so low!/ The crows and coughs that wing the midway air/ Show scarce so gross as beetles. Halfway down/ Hangs one that gathers samphire — dreadful trade” (IV.vi.15). Edgar’s description of samphire alludes to an aromatic herb. Today, its leaves are used for making pickles (OED). Its ashes were once used for making soap.