Monday, July 20, 2015

Re-reading King Lear, Layers of Marginalia

91º ~ feels like 103º ~ heat advisories from now 'til Christmas by the feel of it

The other day, C. came inside and found me with my gigantic Riverside Shakespeare sprawled across my lap and asked, "What's that?"

I answered and added, "I'm reading King Lear." 

"For school?" he asked.

"No," I answered and mumbled something about my own reference, feeling slightly embarrassed and unable to explain that the play might offer insight into some of the new poems I'm writing, or not. The truth is, once I started re-reading it, interested in the opening scene of the division of the estate, I ended up needing to read it all. Sucked in, again.

This is probably the third or fourth time I've read King Lear. The first would have been when I acquired my Riverside as an undergraduate at the College of St. Benedict / St. John's University. The price tag is long since gone, and I've lugged the weighted thing across the country and back several times, but it's always been worth the price. I read the play again as a graduate student in Dr. Candido's class at the University of Arkansas, and now again in my mid-40s. Somewhere in between those student days, I must have read it again because I can detect distinct layers in my annotations. I love that I have layers of marginalia that record not only key themes and passages, but also who I was as a reader each time I came to the play. Also, given that I've never been a snap reader of Shakespeare's language, the marginal comments have eased each subsequent reading, allowing me to sink more fully into the text.

And this is why I'll always advocate for annotation, which at the moment also means printed text, given the limitations of the technology to date (yes, I've tried most of the electronic annotation programs and found them wanting).

As for why this play at this time, that peer reader I mentioned in my most recent post brought up King Lear in reference to my draft. It's an easy leap to make as Lear has three daughters, and I am one of three sisters (no brothers, though our mother is alive and well contrary to Queen Lear, long dead). My recent poems are touching on my father's Alzheimer's and the onset of dementia (Lear's madness), as well as my relationship with my sisters.

So, I was reading the play again and it brought up some interesting thoughts on empathy and how we look for ourselves in literature, but often only in the best characters. I am the youngest child, by rights that would make me Cordelia, the loyal, steadfast daughter; alas, that is in fact my oldest sister who lives next door to my parents and helps in the caregiving every single day. There's also the fact that my father is no Lear. He amassed no estate and there is no quibbling over who will inherit his non-existent wealth, but still I read trying to figure out what the play could offer me.

For the most part, I found myself reading the passages of Lear's madness much more carefully and deeply. There's no surprise there, as my entire family now ripples with the effects of my father's Alzheimer's. I copied out several dozen quotes from the play with the idea that they might inform new drafts, and this works well with my focus on the colloquial baroque. This is not to mean that I want to imitate Shakespearean language per se, but there are phrases that have come down to us as part of our colloquial language that still echo the richness of a more complicated syntax, and sometimes the most authentic thing to say is:

"Break, heart, I prithee break!" (V.iii. 313).

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