In King Lear, Act II, scene 4, you can find one of my favorite quotable morsels of Shakespeare. A friend of mine recently blogged about truncations of Shakespeare that change the meaning, so I’ve been wondering if my delight in this little line is a similar sin. In the interests of full disclosure, I’ll put the full text of the speech, with my favorite bit in bold. I’m keeping my delight, though. I can’t help it.

[Having found his follower in the stocks, Lear is now also shorn of his retinue by his daughters.]

O, reason not the need: our basest beggars
Are in the poorest thing superfluous:
Allow not nature more than nature needs,
Man’s life’s as cheap as beast’s: thou art a lady;
If only to go warm were gorgeous,
Why, nature needs not what thou gorgeous wear’st,
Which scarcely keeps thee warm. But, for true need,—
You heavens, give me that patience, patience I need!
You see me here, you gods, a poor old man,
As full of grief as age; wretched in both!
If it be you that stir these daughters’ hearts
Against their father, fool me not so much
To bear it tamely; touch me with noble anger,
And let not women’s weapons, water-drops,
Stain my man’s cheeks! No, you unnatural hags,
I will have such revenges on you both,
That all the world shall—I will do such things,—
What they are, yet I know not: but they shall be
The terrors of the earth.
You think I’ll weep
No, I’ll not weep:
I have full cause of weeping; but this heart
Shall break into a hundred thousand flaws,
Or ere I’ll weep. O fool, I shall go mad!

Even in context, the bold line is, I’d maintain, funny. I snicker when I hear it said onstage. It’s also very unfunny — Lear has, after all, lost his power and is now losing his faculties. That’s terrifying and, for those lucky enough to grow old, inevitable. The form of the speech underlines this reading: it starts out rhetorically perfect and personally sharp – the stab at his daughters’ necklines is great. But by this point in the speech he can no longer name his threats. And of course, if he could, he would have no power to carry them out. His inability to name his revenge may be part of his failing mental powers, but also perhaps a realization or reflection of his relinquished secular powers.

For the audience, who are not failing monarchs, these words still have resonance: this is an all too familiar sensation – that feeling of being so angry that any coherent expression of it is beyond you. “You heavens, give me that patience, patience I need!” he says, in the first break in his fluency. That feeling is, if not universal, then incredibly accessible. That gives it a rueful humor, makes it a little sweet amidst all this bitterness.

I can’t help but also think of it as a rather writerly shorthand. “[Insert awful threats here]”, if you will. The truly fanciful might imagine Shakespeare running out of polemical gas here, scribbling a placeholder, then realizing how perfectly that would work in Lear’s fury.

And lastly, of course, it’s just damn funny. Because believe me, when I finally think of what I’m going to do, it’ll be awesome. It shall be the terror of the earth.


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