Charles Lamb on reading King Lear

Did you miss me?    ;-)

I have been consumed with getting the Readers’ Edition of King Lear to press in time for the next close read and also an Actors’ Edition for the cast of our September performance, thus I missed sending out this mini-newsletter for several weeks.

In the process of producing the King Lear edition, I again ran across a statement from Charles Lamb about reading Lear as opposed to seeing it performed. Charles is co-author of Tales from Shakespeare, published in 1807, a book that has never been out of publication since that time. The original Tales from Shakespeare was actually not co-authored, but written by Charles’ sister, Mary Lamb, under the pseudonym Thomas Hodgkins. Mary could not put her name on the book not only because she was a woman, but because she was in and out of mental institutions for stabbing her mother to death with a kitchen knife (although when you read her actual story of what led her to that, it’s difficult not to sympathize a bit; check out Mary Lamb at Wikipedia for the short version of her story).

Anyway, Charles Lamb has this to say about Shakespeare’s play of King Lear. He writes during a time of popular consensus that Shakespeare was best enjoyed on the page instead of the stage, showing how different the interaction with Shakespeare’s works was at the time.

So to see Lear acted—to see an old man tottering about the stage with a walking-stick, turned out of doors by his daughters in a rainy night, has nothing in it but what is painful and disgusting. We want to take him into shelter and relieve him. That is all the feeling which the acting of Lear ever produced in me.

But the Lear of Shakespeare cannot be acted. The contemptible machines by which they mimic the storm which he goes out in, is not more inadequate to represent the horrors of the real elements, than any actor can be to represent Lear; they might more easily propose to personate the Satan of Milton upon a stage, or one of Michael Angelo’s terrible figures.

The greatness of Lear is not in corporal dimension, but in intellectual: the explosions of passion are terrible as a volcano: they are storms turning up and disclosing to the bottom that sea, his mind, with all its vast riches. It is his mind which is laid bare. This case of flesh and blood seems too insignificant to be thought on even as he himself neglects it.

On the stage we see nothing but corporal infirmities and weakness, the impotence of rage; while we read it, we see not Lear, but we are Lear—we are in his mind, we are sustained by a grandeur which baffles the malice of daughters and storms; in the aberrations of his reason, we discover a mighty irregular power of reasoning, immethodized from the ordinary purposes of life, but exerting its powers, as the wind blows where it listeth, at will upon the corruptions and abuses of mankind.

—Charles Lamb, 1811, “On The Tragedies of Shakespeare Considered with Reference to their Fitness for Stage Representation” 

If you’ve read King Lear and also seen it on stage, what do you think about the difference? Of course both options, reading and watching, have strengths and weaknesses, but what are they, in your opinion?