Crowned with rank fumiter and furrow-weeds

The perfect remedy for Spring Break coma? A barrage of rehearsals.

Charles Kean as King Lear in 1858. Although the image is obviously very staged, it's worth noting the emphasis on nature and flower; he's even holding a bouquet of vegetation as if it were a sceptre.

Charles Kean as King Lear in 1858. Although the image is obviously very staged, it’s worth noting the emphasis on nature and flower; he’s even holding a bouquet of vegetation as if it were a sceptre.

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.

Burdock (or "hardock")

Burdock (or “hardock”)

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” ( 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.


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A serviceable villain

Our Oswald challenging Gloucester and Edgar during rehearsal.

Our Oswald challenging Gloucester and Edgar during rehearsal.

I’m blogging in defense of Oswald, whom I consider to be the most undervalued, underrated, ignored, misrepresented character in the entire play. Goneril, Regan, Edmund — they’re rightfully condemned by readers and audiences. Sure, in some adaptations they’re more human or understandable than others, but they are undeniably the villains of the play. For some reason, though, Oswald is always lumped in with them. And I want to correct that once and for all.

I like to think of Oswald as Goneril’s Kent; he’s just as unwaveringly loyal as Lear’s servant, just as devoted to servitude and just as in love with his employer. He just happens to be employed by the “bad guy.” In another life, Oswald could just as easily been serving the King or Cordelia. His only fault I can find, the only one supported by the text any way, is cowardice; in Act II Scene II, he runs away from Kent’s challenge, screaming “Help, ho! murder! help!” And when Cornwall, Regan and Gloucester come to his rescue, he puts on a facade of heroism, claiming that “This ancient ruffian, sir, whose life I have spared at suit of his gray beard” attacked him without provocation. Oswald was exaggerating the life sparing, certainly, but he wasn’t lying when he accused Kent of attacking him without reason. Kent’s argument for attacking Oswald? “His countenance likes me not.”

In Act I Scene IV, Kent trips Oswald to win the King’s favors, calling the undeserving servant a “base football player.” Here, Kent is acting like a playground bully toward Oswald, who was simply following his mistress’ orders by ignoring the King. The only differences between Kent and Oswald is luck and physical strength; in terms of loyalty, the trait by which servitude is judged, Oswald is equally, if not more devoted to his employer.

Our Oswald with King Lear in Act I Scene IV.

Our Oswald with King Lear in Act I Scene IV.

So I’d like to briefly examine where Oswald came from. As detailed in my Sources page, King Lear was, like many of Shakespeare’s plays, an adaptation. It wasn’t a completely original story about a king and his three daughters; this was a story that audiences were very familiar with, especially with the anonymous 1605 play, The True Chronicle of King LeirThere wasn’t an Oswald in this version of the story, but there was someone whom many have considered to be a precursor to Shakespeare’s character. His name was Skalliger.

Skalliger disappears from the play after a while, but he’s incredibly important in the first few scenes. In fact, it’s he who plants the love test idea in Lear’s head. Then, establishing himself as a selfish, corrupt antagonist, he warns Goneril and Regan of the plan, giving them the chance to prepare their speeches of love. Later, Goneril complains to her new servant about her father’s unmannerliness. Skalliger advises her to cut the King’s train in half; Goneril takes his advice even further and decides to dissolve her father’s train entirely. In his final lines, Skalliger displays a moment of regret, a recognition of his mistakes:

“Go, viperous woman, shame to all thy sex:
The heavens, no doubt, will punish thee for this:
And me a villain, that to curry favor, … [9.40]
Have given the daughter counsel ‘gainst the father.
But us the world doth this experience give,
That he that cannot flatter, cannot live. “

And then, in a rather Fool-like fashion, Skalliger disappears from the play. There’s a lot to consider when comparing the two versions of Lear (check out a great blog post recommended to me by our very own Oswald actor, a comparison of Skalliger, Oswald and the Fool) but here’s what I take away from all of it: no matter which version you prefer, this character is not just some slimy, simpering brown-noser. He, like every other character in the play, is more complex than that. Depending on an actor’s interpretation, he can be any or all of the following: Cruel, cowardly, devoted, lustful, selfish, selfless, regretful, uncaring, stupid, silly. After all, the actor has to explain Oswald’s strange, dying moments:

Oswald: Slave, thou hast slain me: villain, take my purse:/ If ever thou wilt thrive, bury my body; And give the letters which thou find’st about me/ To Edmund earl of Gloucester; seek him out/ Upon the British party: O, untimely death!

Where does this moment of apparent morality come from? Why does he decide to, in his last breaths, hand Poor Tom his letters? In the end, I think Edgar’s response sums up Oswald just perfectly:

Edgar: I know thee well: a serviceable villain;/ As duteous to the vices of thy mistress/ As badness would desire.

Oswald brings up a whole crop of questions about servitude, loyalty, and what makes a person “good.”

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Most choice, forsaken

So my idea of procrastination this semester is finding amusing King Lear tidbits, videos and images online. Most of the silly ones I share with my class on Facebook, but I found something really illuminating on youtube just now, and it’s definitely blog-worthy:

The video examines James Earl Jones, Ian McKellen and Nesbitt Blaisdell perform Act III Scene ii, otherwise known as The Storm Scene. What I love about the clip is that it includes visual commentary on the choices the actors are making: Why is “spout” a special word? Covering face effect on audience? Crying in speech? Why here? Quick, relatively uninflected speech — effect? Volume/emphasis on “singe.” Why? And my favorite: Pelvic thrust reaction to lang? Important?

These are three drastically different Lears. James Earl Jones’ is one of my all-time favorites (the entire video is online, by the way. If you want to watch a Lear from your computer, this is the one) and during this speech, he’s furious, strong, pantomiming the storm himself. Ian McKellen is more battered, and he’s raging against an actual downpour (I wasn’t a fan of McKellen’s performance until I saw the live recording in Stratford. The film version doesn’t do it justice. It’s not worth watching, but for the record: McKellen played a mean Lear). And then Nesbitt Blaisdell, which I was totally unfamiliar with, delivered the speech without a single movement until the end, focusing on the words themselves.

What I really admire about this video is that all the comments are in the form of QUESTIONS. What a great lesson in dramaturgy. A pretty big misconception, and one I had only a few months ago, is that dramaturgs are supposed to answer questions. It’s true, we do plenty of answer-hunting (Ree-gan versus Ray-gun anyone?) but our biggest job isn’t to make the director’s life easier; it’s to challenge him or her, to ask those difficult questions that would just be easier to ignore. We’re supposed to make parallels between the play and the “real world” to force the cast and crew to see the play in new lights, and we ask questions to help them rethink the choices their making.

I also love this video because it’s a beautiful glimpse into the many challenges of performance. The greats make it look so easy, but there are countless tiny choices they have to make, and each makes an enormous difference. For those non-actors following this, hopefully this will make you really appreciate the performances you’re going to see this spring.

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What is your study?

Between yesterday’s workshop and today’s lesson, the 40-ish King Lear students can speak, move, even fight Shakespeare. Or at least we know a bit more about how to do those things well.

Last night, we all attended a two hour workshop with members of Psittacus Productions (one of whom is an ’06 WC Drama alum) and worked through a couple of scenes and speeches as a class. We didn’t look at any of the text from King Lear — we’ll have plenty of time for that later — but discovered and tested some helpful acting tools that our actors can experiment with in rehearsals.

Two of our actors staging a scene from "The Comedy of Errors." (Please excuse the horrible quality of my iphone photography skills)

Two of our actors staging a scene from “The Comedy of Errors.” (Please excuse the horrible quality of my iphone photography skills)

After we warmed up our bodies, voices and concentration skills, the class sat in a circle on the stage and collectively worked through Hamlet’s ‘To be or not to be’ speech. We tried it multiple times, each a bit differently: we overemphasized the iambic pentameter and took notice of when the verse became irregular; we paid attention to the last word of each line; we ran through the speech line by line, then punctuation mark to punctuation mark, then period to period. Some things we noticed:

  • Breaks in iambic pentameter tend to indicate a shift in thought or mood
  • The last word of each line is useful for determining how the speech moves; reading only the last word of each line tells a story of its own
  • It’s useful to note when there are long stretches of verse without punctuation and when it’s interrupted with commas and semicolons; these details can indicate thought process and development. When we had to read the lines from period to period (without taking a breath, mind you) we discovered that in the middle of the speech, Hamlet has a giant chunk of verse without a single ending punctuation mark. As actors, we need to ask what that means.
  • When moving through a scene, it helps to consider status; how do differences in rank affect how two characters interact?
  • Instead of just walking aimlessly through a scene, actors need to consider where and why they’re moving towards and away from each other. How can you track the scene based on how two characters are moving around each other?

Edmund and Edgar walking through their Act V Scene III fight sequence. Again, apologies for the quality. They look really badass, I promise!

This afternoon, we switched gears entirely and spent our class time observing our Edmund and Edgar in a fight rehearsal. Our fight choreographer, a member of the one and only Society of American Fight Directors, let us watch as he coached the two brothers in their final, epic fight to the death. They haven’t actually fought to the death yet, but they worked through the first two phrases of the fight, and it already looks pretty epic.

(And while I have the chance, here’s a video I’ve wanted to post for a while.  It’s a clip of stage combat professionals from the Globe Theater:

Anyway, here are some pretty awesome facts we learned from our fight director:

  • There are no “good guys” or “bad guys.” That’s just boring. Edmund thinks he’s doing the right thing, so he can’t just be the villain.
  • The swords our actors are using are REAL swords. They aren’t sharp, but they weight 3.5 pounds, and getting hit with one can really do some damage.
  • Fight choreography takes quite a long time; it takes about five hours of practice to stage one minute of fighting.
  • Our goal is to give the illusion of hurting each other; the actors look like they’re near each other, but they actually maintain a safe distance throughout the fight. Our fight choreographer described it as “ugly ballet with dangerous props.”
  • Part of staging a fight is to entertain the audience (we all love a good, violent fight scene) but there’s another important element: Telling a story. Edmund and Edgar would have been trained swordsmen, and their duel was a battle of power, not just brawns. The winner of this kind of judicial duel proved that God was on his side, so the stakes were pretty high.
  • A fight is a story about the exchange of power. In this final fight, for example, Edmund begins with a higher status (he’s the nobleman in this situation, has the hearts of two princesses and has killed everyone else in his way). But as the fight continues, Edgar gains control, and by extension, status.

So even if you’re not a Shakespeare fan, here’s a little incentive to come see King Lear this  Spring: Epic fight scenes. Trust me, it’s going to be awesome.

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William Hazlitt on King Lear, 1817

We wish that we could pass this play over, and say nothing about it. All that we can say must fall far short of the subject; or even of what we ourselves conceive of it. To attempt to give a description of the play itself or of its effect upon the mind, is mere impertinence: yet we must say something.—It is then the best of all Shakespear’s plays, for it is the one in which he was the most in earnest. He was here fairly caught in the web of his own imagination. The passion which he has taken as his subject is that which strikes its. root deepest into the human heart; of which the bond is the hardest to be unloosed; and the cancelling and tearing to pieces of which gives the greatest revulsion to the frame. This depth of nature, this force of passion, this tug and war of the elements of our being, this firm faith in filial piety, and the giddy anarchy and whirling tumult of the thoughts at finding this prop failing it, the contrast between the fixed, immoveable basis of natural affection, and the rapid, irregular starts of imagination, suddenly wrenched from all its accustomed holds and resting-places in the soul, this is what Shakespear has given, and what nobody else but he could give. So we believe.—The mind of Lear, staggering between the weight of attachment and the hurried movements of passion, is like a tall ship-driven about by the winds, buffeted by the furious waves, but that still rides above the storm, having its anchor fixed in the bottom of the sea; or it is like the sharp rock circled by the eddying whirlpool that foams and beats against it, or like the solid promontory pushed from its basis by the force of an earthquake.

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Conferring them on younger strengths

I would be a terrible dramaturg if I didn’t post about Pope Benedict XVI’s groundbreaking decision to retire (we even talked about it briefly in class today). Its impact on the public’s perception of leadership, politics, and in this case, religion, is much  more resounding than the two retirements I blogged about last weekend, so it’s something of a shame that I didn’t just wait a tad bit longer to commentate on those stories.

Pope Benedict XVI this December.

Pope Benedict XVI this December.

But writing Benedict his own, belated blog post gives me the chance to talk in more detail about some topics I glazed over in my last commentary. Namely: How does a leader’s mental and physical health affect his position? How does it impact the public’s perception of him or her? And how self aware should a leader be? Is Benedict to be admired for admitting his shortcomings and passing his title to someone more capable? Or will breaking a 600-year-old tradition have more of a negative than positive impact? So in an attempt to streamline all the Lear-Pope connections I could make, here are some bullet points:

  • The last pope to resign was Pope Gregory XII in 1415. His abdication was an effort to end the “Great Western Schism,” a rivalry over the papal throne. In other words, the last time a pope stepped down was for political reasons. And yes, those reasons were about a DIVISION, a power-struggle that antagonized groups of individuals. For centuries since, the papacy was considered a life-long commitment, regardless of sickness, infirmity or mental instability. Just imagine how many popes since then were probably unfit for their position…

    Pope John Paul II with then-Cardinal-Bishop Ratzinger, who will now be stepping down as Pope Benedict XVI.

    Pope John Paul II with then-Cardinal-Bishop Ratzinger, who will now be stepping down as Pope Benedict XVI.

  • Benedict was fitted with a pacemaker 10 years ago while he was still a close advisor for his predecessor, Pope John Paul II. The media pounced on this revelation, and there are blogs and responses galore about how it was evidence that he was already unhealthy at the start of his papacy. But John Paul had his share of problems as well. He suffered from Parkinsons and a series of other ailments that left him debilitated during his last, ailing years. Some speculate that working with John Paul so closely and observing his mental and physical deterioration influenced Benedict’s decision to let go.
  • There wasn’t any specific ailment given as reasoning for his resignation. Instead, Benedict simply said the following:

“After having repeatedly examined my conscience before God, I have come to the certainty that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry.”

So Benedict is going to unburdened crawl toward death, but he emphasizes that his decision is for the good of the church, not for his own benefit. Lear, on the other hand, does admit to shaking all “cares and ages” and “conferring them on younger strengths,” but it’s dubitable how sincere this act of humility is.

  • What now? Vatican spokesmen have reported that Benedict will be absolved of any responsibilities,  whether administrative or otherwise. Benedict said he intends “to also devotedly serve the Holy Church of God in the future through a life dedicated to prayer.” Quite a contrast to Lear’s retirement ideal, a permanent vacation of feasts and hunting at his daughters’ expenses. 

And finally, it’s worth noting what the public’s reactions have been to the Pope’s resignation. John Paul II was showered with praise after his death, and he’s well on his way to sainthood. And it’s a widely-shared ideal that when a person dies, suddenly all misgivings are forgotten and he or she is loved by everyone (just look at Michael Jackson. No offense, of course). But how do we react when a leader retires? Is he or she still lauded and praised? Or do we consider it an act of weakness? Looking over the Catholic Review website, blogs and comments are mixed; some consider it a breach in tradition, others are using this moment as a chance to disapprove of papal term, and still others hold him in admiration for his decision.

In other news, I sat in on my first rehearsal last night, and although we have quite a ways to go, here’s a message for anyone who has King Lear written in her planner: You’re going to be in for a treat.



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Sisters, sisters, shame of ladies, sisters!

Thursday’s class was devoted to the three sisters, particularly their interactions in scene one (Cordelia’s farewell) and act two scene four (Goneril and Regan uniting against Lear). We posed and, in some cases, answered a number of questions about staging, motivation and characterization. And, as usual, tackling those questions only left us with more: What is the nature of Goneril and Regan’s relationship? What about their relationship with Cordelia? Are they all evil? Is Cordelia all good? What is France doing while the sisters talk in act one? Where is their mother? What does Kent’s punishment signify for Lear? Why do his daughters turn against him at this moment? Why not sooner? Did he really care for Goneril and Regan? Did they ever love him?

But before I go into dramaturgy land, I think this video is necessary (in part because the song’s been stuck in my head since class):

It’s actually kind of eerie how relevant that song is (Lord help the sister who comes between me and my man, anyone?)…Anyway, one of the biggest questions we addressed was how to differentiate the two “evil” sisters. I feel a little hypocritical lumping Goneril and Regan together in one post after we established differences in their characters and the importance of giving them distinct personalities and motives (adding Cordelia to the mix would just open up a whole extra can of worms, so I’m saving her for another post). As much as I want to avoid talking about them as GonerilandRegan, looking at their characters side-by-side is the most helpful way of discovering where the differences lie.

We had a particularly enlightening conversation in class about how birth order may have influenced their development. I’ve seen dozens of Gonerils and Regans in performance, but for some reason, I never stopped to think: What does it mean that Goneril is the older sister? What about Regan being the middle child? So we discussed stereotypes about birth order for a while (the bossy oldest, invisible middle, spoiled youngest) and then staged the two scenes, keeping those ideas in mind.

I’ve seen some pretty wild sisters — deranged, childlike, terrifyingly angry, sadistic, guilty, sexually frustated, lustful, pompous — but what I really enjoyed about our exploration was how our Goneril and Regan are nothing like any I’ve seen before. You’d think that there are only so many ways to characterize two villianous sisters, but tiny choices in speech and movement can create major distinctions. I’ve never considered, for example, that Goneril may have actually been sincere with her advice to Cordelia: “Let your study/ Be to content your Lord, who hath recieved you/ At Fortune’s alms” (I.i.321). Or that she may have been addressing Cornwall. Or if Cordelia’s “Love well our father” was said in anger, sincerity or as a warning (I.i.314).

There are endless ways of characterizing the sisters, as evidenced by how we ran over class time talking, but I think the bottom line is this: They can’t just be “evil.” The motivation behind their cruelty, whatever that motivation may be, needs to be clear so that the audience isn’t just watching yet another play about bad people doing bad things. In many productions I’ve seen, Goneril and Regan are the most colorful, exciting characters in the play. As an audience member, I loved looking forward to how each pair of actresses reinterpreted the roles. Time and again, I was struck by how much the sisters evolve over the course of the play. Shakespeare’s villains are so delightful to watch because of how they have as involved (if not moreand complex character arcs as the heroes (oftentimes even more). The Lear sisters, Regan especially, actually grew into their villiany in many stagings I watched. Regan was turned on by Gloucester’s blinding a few times, taking a primal, almost sexual joy in her newfound sense of power. The sisters’ relationships with their husbands can be opportunity for character development as well: How does Regan feel toward Cornwall? (I saw one staging where she was genuinely distraught after his death, another where she passionately kissed him as he bled to death)

As further proof of just how many ways an actress can characterize her role, here are some images of the sisters from other productions. There are some pretty inventive interpretations, but I’m excited to see how our Goneril and Regan will come into their own.

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