Lear Woodcuts at Denison

I’m back with more material from Denison Special Collections today.Along with the extra-illustrated Shakespeare works, one of my favorite items was this series of woodcuts from Claire van Vliet. They’re in a 1986 printing, The Tragedie of King Lear, that replicates the spelling, punctuation, lineation, and italics from the First Folio of 1623. There were too many good cuts for me to post, so I’ve included some of my favorites below (click to enlarge the images).

Here we see the height of the storm in Act 3, followed by a cowering, mad King Lear:
I find this cut especially interesting because of Lear’s animalistic features–they seem to mimic the Fool’s lines, “[Wise men] know not how their wits to wear, their manners are so apish.” The portrayal of Lear as being animalistic recently got attention from Michael Clody, who brings up numerous instances where the King himself evokes animal features. They ultimately form a sort of primal cry at the point of Cordelia’s death, as Lear shouts “Howl, Howl, Howl, Howl!” The scene is portrayed below, in van Vliet’s most dramatic image:


Clody writes that this scene fundamentally merges the man and animal within Lear, as the “Howl” also evokes the question, “How?” The cries of “Howl” or “How” are not answered (nor, if we take “Howl” to be a command, is it followed); Clody says Lear trades an “objective communal truth” to explain what has just happened. for simply the “experience that the cry is.”
Here we have Lear (right) and the blinded Gloucester (left), posed symmetrically in a way that highlights their similar persons and situations. Lear’s plot and Gloucester’s subplot echo each other in more ways than we could discuss here. This moment comes in Act 4, Scene 6, when Gloucester and Lear meet after the storm. Both have, as Stanley Cavell observes, given into destruction–Lear to the storm, and Gloucester to the cliffs of Dover at his attempted suicide. Gloucester cries, “O ruined man! This great world/ Shall so wear to nought,” implying that Lear’s fate is not only Lear’s, but that of the world (or perhaps just the kingdom) around him. But of course, it is Gloucester’s fate as well; both come to their demise by the end of the play. The symmetrical image above, then, shows Lear seeing a reflection of himself in Gloucester (we can quite easily imagine a mirror between them). And while Gloucester sees no mirror, “O ruined man!” could just as easily refer to himself, such that Lear indeed acts as a reflection.
Lastly, we have the reconciliation of Lear and Cordelia in Act 4, Scene 7. Lear in this image seems to have worn down even further since the scene prior, further resembling the weakened Gloucester.

Reading with Extra-illustrated Shakespeare

This past week, my fellow CCEPS-SURPers and I went to Denison Library at Scripps College to plan for an exhibit they will be housing in the spring. The collection at Denison has some truly impressive artwork, including a book of surreal Lear woodcuts that particularly caught my attention. Today, though, I want to show you the extra-illustrated Henley Shakespeare, which is absolutely stunning.
The Henley Shakespeare works were commissioned by Ellen Browning Scripps for publication over the first five years of the 20th century. Twenty-six copies were commissioned–one for each letter of the alphabet. Denison has “S,” for Scripps (naturally). The editions on their own are quite a sight, bound with red goatskin and featuring silk endpapers. Each book has two plays (besides the sonnets), with a portrait of one heroine each on the front and back inside covers.
But what’s most striking about these editions is, surprisingly, not the beautiful bindings, but rather the artwork that’s inside inside. Most notably, at some time in this copy’s history (we don’t know when), an unknown artist (or unknown artists) went through each play and added their own art nouveau illustrations, right on the page. Take a look at this title page for Measure for Measure:


If the woman above is a character from Measure for Measure, it’s not obvious who it is–it seems to be meant more as an eye-catching embellishment. The gold painted on, found on each play’s title page and the start of many acts and scenes, is particularly attractive. Another gold-painted embellishment from this play bears mention:
Here the artwork has quite clearly taken precedence over the text, as a number of words on the left-hand page are obscured by the opaque gold. The fact that the illustration is in the middle seam would seem to indicate that the illustrations (or at least this one) were actually drawn and painted before this copy was bound. This illustration again doesn’t seem to relate directly with the text, but I thought it was worth displaying simply for its extravagance. 
Some of the other illustrations are more directly related to the scenes at hand, and are perhaps more intellectually interesting, as they constitute interpretive acts on the page itself–the artist and the playwright interacting within the text observed by the reader. Take a look at this watercolor of Cordelia from Act I, Scene I of Lear:
The frustration on Cordelia’s face is particularly striking. It’s not obvious which line her glare is linked with. If we take it to be an illustration from the first line, it lends a not-so-subtle sarcasm to her first farewell. Referring to her sisters as “the Jewels of our father” is certainly not a genuine line, but whether her spite is forward or veiled is a rather large difference; is Cordelia trying to call out her sisters as fakes, or is she trying to save face as she leaves by appeasing them? Either way, after the coldness of Regan and Goneril, Cordelia is by no means trying to save face; her prophecy is scathing, such that the painting could just as well illustrate her “Well may you prosper.” 
I would find it more interesting if the painting were of the first line, simply because it would constitute an interpretative decision of a more ambiguous feature of the scene. The text leaves open whether Cordelia’s initial farewell is outwardly bitter or attempting sincerity; but this ambiguity cannot so easily be displayed in a realization of this text, whether on stage or in art. The ambiguity gives way to an interpretation that represents primarily one, rather than all, of the text’s possibilities.

Nahum Tate’s Redesigned Lear

In 1681, Nahum Tate published his The History of King Lear, an adapted and revised version of Shakespeare’s play. It became the standard performance edition of Lear in England for over one and a half centuries, and yet it is infamously a radically different play; Tate took a number of liberties with the plot and characters to make the play more suitable for stage, and critics since the mid-19th century have widely panned his version as a result.
Special Collections has an edition from 1689, which I’ve been fortunate enough to start working with. Some of the text is faded at the corners, but overall it’s in great condition and is a fascinating (if perhaps frustrating) read.
This edition begins with an “Epistle Dedicatory” from Tate. It begins with reverence and (perhaps disingenuous) apprehension: Tate had “the difficult Task of making the chiefest Persons speak something like their Character, on Matter whereof I had no Ground in my Author. Lear’s real and Edgar’s pretended Madness have so much of extravagant Nature…as cou’d never have started but from out Shakespeare’s Creating Fancy.”
While Tate dubs Lear and Edgar’s madnesses “extravagant” and praises their author’s singularity, he is in fact saying that he could have written their actions a bit better. He goes on: “‘Twas my good fortune to light on one Expedient to rectifie what was wanting int he Regularity and Probability of the Tale, which was to run through the whole, a Love betwixt Edgar and Cordelia.” Tate says this was necessary to render “Cordelia’s Indifference, and her Father’s Passion in the first Scene, probable.” Moreover, it would give “Countenance to Edgar’s Disguise, making that a generous Design that was before a poor Shift to save his Life.” 
What Tate is really saying about the “extravagant Nature” of the character’s actions is that they were unrealistic or unreasonable. Edgar’s disguise is to be more understandable as a young man watching over his lover’s father; Lear’s rage is towards a stubborn daughter who won’t doesn’t wish to honor her house, through words or marriage. For Cordelia to show her father such disrespect (“Indifference”), he seems to imply, would require her to have a problem with being married off. The problem here, though, is that Cordelia isn’t actually indifferent; her original response is about modes and settings of expression, not substance; “Love, and be silent,” and “My hear’ts more richer than my tongue.” Tate strips these line from his edition, perhaps to make her indeed seem indifferent. But he has not solved the problem of her indifference through a love affair with Edgar. Rather, he attempts to create an indifference or bitterness towards Lear , changing her behavior entirely.


My personal favorite, the Fool, is missing from Tate’s version; part of my study of Tate will be to investigate how the Fool’s function of prophet and commentator is taken up by others in this version. The Irving Shakespeare indicates that directors found the Fool an unseemly character in the 1830s when the original was being revived. Perhaps Tate felt similarly, or perhaps he simply felt the Fool unnecessary. 
Tate makes one most significant change: famously, Edgar and Cordelia are married instead of the bloodbath of the original play; Tate writes that he did not want to “incumber the State with dead Bodies, which Conduct makes many Tragedies conclude with unseasonable Fests.” For, he writes, “’tis more difficult to save than to Kill: The Dagger and Cup of Poison are always in Readiness; but the bring the Action to the last Extremity, and then by probably Means recover All, will require the Art and Judgement of the Writer, and cost him many a Pang in Performance.” As with Lear and Edgar’s madness, Tate invokes probability as an important guiding factor in his process. But again we should ask: is a happy ending the most “seasonable” or likely result, or truly the more “difficult” resolution to Shakespeare’s original text? Or is it more reasonable only with Tate’s alterations? Tate does seem to ignore that he has created something wholly new; what is probably or seasonable in his text says nothing about what is probable or seasonable in Shakespeare’s.

The Fool

I’ve spent a good chunk of my time with King Lear pondering (or maybe just being weirded out by) the king’s Fool. I’m not the first reader to feel the Fool is a bit off. Nahum Tate’s infamous “happy ending” Lear left the character out entirely. The Irving Shakespeare, the same series from which I posted images when I wrote on Measure for Measure, tells us that the Fool was nearly kept out of the revival of Shakespeare’s original plot in 1836. Illustrations of the Fool from that edition, housed in Special Collections, are below:
The Fool is often described as a prophetic voice, one that speaks for the play to the audience. I think this plays into what makes the Fool unsettling, at least for myself: the Fool functions in a variety of ways on stage, but it is difficult to ascribe him personal motives at all (whereas other characters certainly have some motive, disputable though it may be). And it isn’t clear that the Fool has emotional responses to what takes place on stage, instead simply providing commentary. 
The Arden Shakespeare’s introductory comments on the Fool, for example, characterize the Fool as “shrewd, witty, and very much a conscious entertainer.” These are, on the one hand, descriptive of a human personality; on the other hand, they do not indicate at all what the Fool cares about, and the Arden commentary does nothing to attempt to answer this. A more emotive description says he “breaks out of every category in which might be fixed. Young or old, humble or aggressive, sad or merry, sensitive or acerbic, most representations of the Fool tend to emphasize his strangeness, his difference from others…”
The “difference” between the Fool and the other characters is that the Fool is performing–not merely is he played by an actor, but he is of course an actor, and his job is to play a part while the other characters go about their “real” lives. What disturbs me, then, is that we never see him break character. But I use “see” in the sense of the reader, and perhaps the Fool on stage is a different experience–can he really be played as constantly in jest? The above illustration shows a Fool fearful of the looming storm,perhaps suggesting the answer is no.
Is the Fool really “strange” then? It’s difficult to say. Since he’s always acting, we never know how he really acts on his own time. His behavior is strange in the sense that, as Cavell discusses so enjoyably, theater is rather strange behavior. To make an analogy of it, someone might observe and find us to be creatures with emotional depth. But when we went to the theater, that person might wonder why the actors on stage created such an unsettling effect, why they were producing such strange and inaccessible renditions of our own behavior. So it is with us and the Fool; we come to expect a certain kind of theatrical model in which characters, particularly in tragedies, have clear desires and schemes. When one character simply wants to play-act and editorialize, we feel strange indeed.

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Experiencing tragedy in King Lear and Luther’s writings

            “The play [King
],” writes philosopher Stanley Cavell in his essay on the play, ‘The
Avoidance of Love’, “can be said to be Christian–not because it shows us
redemption–it does not; but because it throws our redemption into question, and leaves it up to us.” What
is Cavell referring to, exactly? We see Lear take the Gods’ names in vain, to
no avail; it is Lear, not the Gods, that is responsible for throwing his world
into chaos through his cruelty to his subjects and the rejection of his
daughter Cordelia, who ultimately is killed as a result. Placing ownership of
wrongdoing in Lear’s hands, and giving Lear the opportunity, if he so chooses,
to be redeemed from this, is what one might view as a Christian setup.

            I said one might;
but another might find the label Christian here quite problematic. If it was
truly in Lear’s hands to choose, one way or the other, to redeem his kingdom or
to perish, we must essentially ‘blame’ Lear for having chosen the former.
Cavell asks: “And what room is there for blame? Is he to blame for being human?
For being subject to a cosmic anxiety and to fantasies which enclose him from
prefect compassion? Certainly blame is inappropriate, for certainly I do not
claim to know what else Lear might
do.” Which is to say that it is rather difficult to look at this play, and its
characterization of Lear’s suffering, and say that it was his ‘fault’ he acted
in this way, or that audience members would have acted differently. (As Cavell
notes, we are confident that we know what Lear should have done when Cordelia did not ‘heave her heart into her
mouth.’ But that does not mean that we would have acted more prudently than

            “And yet,” Cavell writes, I cannot deny that my pain at
Lear’s actions is not overcome by my knowledge of suffering.” The inability to
hold Lear accountable coupled with the “pain at Lear’s actions” leads to what
Cavell calls “unplaceable blame…like blaming heaven.”

            What I would like to do is play around with this in
theological terms. If we were to view
Lear’s failure as a theological illustration (which Cavell believes it ultimately
is not, despite the above discussion of redemption), what would we see? If we
agree that it is difficult to really blame Lear for his actions in light of his
suffering, but he nonetheless suffers for them greatly, we can view Lear’s
suffering as parallel to an important theological concept of the time, the
draconian determinism of Martin Luther’s writings. In 1525, Luther wrote The Bondage of the Will, in response to
criticism from Desiderius Erasmus: “with regard to things pertaining to
salvation and damnation, man has no free will, but is a captive, a bond-slave,
either to the will of God, or to the will of Satan.” I think here, too, our
reaction might be a feeling of “unplaceable blame.” Erasmus asked in 1524: “What
will be the origin of merits where there is perpetual necessity and where there
never was free will?” And without a method for assessing ‘merit,’ how can God
justly damn his subjects eternally? And in the same vein, how can we (or the
universe) damn Lear for actions that seem beyond his power to avoid?

            Cavell writes of this dilemma in Lear that the feeling of
“unplaceable blame” is “not inappropriate as an experience of tragedy, of what
it is for which tragedy provides catharsis.” I think we could say the same of
the story Luther writes for mankind; God and demons damning or saving people,
outside their own control, sounds indeed a bit like dramatic tragedy.

            As noted in Cavell’s essay, some have conceived of Lear,
when he is cast out from his daughter’s house and faces the storm, has arrived
at “the naked human condition.” Cavell wants to say that he is something
different–he is not “simply a man,” but is in fact a scapegoat for viewers. And
as Lear tells us the world is a “stage of fools,” Cavell says Lear insists that
it is routinely human to make scapegoats of one another, to throw around blame
(as one might do to Lear). Perhaps it is precisely when we don’t do this, when
blame is put aside, that we see tragedy–in Lear
or in Luther’s vision of predestined salvation.

An introduction and some thoughts on “Measure for Measure”


My name is Pieter, and I’m part of this summer’s CCEPS-SURP program. (SURP stands for Summer Undergraduate Research Program, which is Pomona College’s primary summer research program for students). A little about me–I came to Claremont from the East Coast, and I’m a Religious Studies major with a particular interest in intersections of Christianity and political theory (and politics in general), out of which I will likely form a concentration.
I am one of three students spending the majority of our summers working in Special Collections’ vast expanse of Shakespeare materials, particularly in the Philbrick Collection. We could post about anything from major Shakespearean directors’ handwritten letters to curiously censored 19th-century editions of Shakespeare’s plays. 
I spent most of last week studying Measure for Measure and searching for any interesting materials housed in Special Collections that might shed some light on this play and its history. Today I want to share with you to some of the work of John Philip Kemble, an important 18th-century actor and manager. I found my way to Kemble’s work through an edition of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure that Kemble published in 1803. Kemble’s edition has his own cuts and changes for stage, as it was performed at Drury Lane in London in the 1790s. It allows a unique opportunity, then, to see just how this production handled what can be a rather opaque character, the Duke of Vienna. 
Measure for Measure centers on the impending execution of Claudio, who is guilty of fornication on something of a technicality. He has been condemned by Angelo, the Duke of Vienna’s deputy, as the Duke has supposedly left town. Claudio’s sister Isabella goes to Angelo to plead for Claudio’s life; he tells her that she can have her wish if she will give him her virginity. Isabella, a nun-to-be, decides to let her brother die rather than sacrifice her chastity. Angelo’s power over the situation, however, is a farce, as the Duke never left Vienna to begin with, and instead disguises as a friar and plays a few tricks to make sure the story comes to a happy end. 
Through the Duke’s machinations we learn that Angelo is even more a villain than we thought, and when the Duke returns in the final act and pretends to hear of the situation for the first time, he deigns it best that Angelo be executed for his wrongdoing. But Isabella and Angelo’s betrothed Mariana (to whom Angelo has done much wrong) plead for his life, and the Duke instead decides that Angelo will simply marry Mariana.
This easy way out for Angelo is surprising given the nature of Angelo’s offenses and the rather brief development of his repentance, and gives the play what some describe as a “disturbing effect.” Moreover, it is unclear at first glance why the Duke didn’t simply exert his powers as Duke from the start rather than using subterfuge.
How does this involve Kemble? I spent some time looking at a facsimile of Kemble’s own promptbook, which was a printing of his edition with handwritten notes giving stage directions and diagrams. Here, I found some stage directions that may have attempted to explain the Duke’s motives.  The Duke, in both the original text and Kemble’s, asks for Isabella’s hand in marriage at the end of the play, after Claudio is revealed alive and Angelo and Mariana renew their betrothal. But in Kemble’s edition, an early scene between the Duke (disguised as a friar) and Isabella are made to foreshadow this event. Kemble writes that the Duke is “much struck at the sight of Isabella” from the moment he first sees her. 
In this production, then, it is established from the beginning that the Duke is interested in Isabella. Perhaps the heightened drama that the Duke’s slow manipulation of events provides is not only to increase audience tension, but serves to swoon Isabella. This fits well with the Duke’s strategy in Shakespeare’s text: 
                              “I will keep her ignorant of her good [Claudio’s survival],
                               To make her heavenly comforts of despair
                               When it is least expected.” (Act IV Scene 3)
This plan has no romantic connotation, but if one wants to interpret the Duke as Isabella’s suitor all along, it would serve as an effective guiding principal for the Duke’s actions. The Duke’s advice to Isabella that she not “stain [her] gracious person” when Angelo makes his offer takes on a perhaps more selfish tone (though I would not suspect that is what Kemble intended), as the Duke is essentially asking Isabella to preserve her chastity for himself at Claudio’s mortal expense. Indeed when Isabella chastises Claudio for asking her to give herself up to Angelo, Kemble’s stage directions have the duke enter between them, as if shielding Isabella from her brother’s crude plea.
That’s all for this week! I leave you with the gorgeous 1889 cover of The Henry Irving Shakespeare, vol. V from which the above illustration was taken: