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A Question, an Answer, and a Death

By (June 1, 2011) No Comment

Stage director and sometime actor Peter Sellars once (allegedly) disclosed to a film critic that Jean-Luc Godard had never actually read King Lear at the point at which he was directing a film with the same title. What Godard had read, according to Sellars, were the first three and last three pages of Shakespeare’s play; if the film could be said to be about anything, it was, as Sellars put it, about Godard “trying to get to page four.” Whether this account of Godard’s reading practices is true or not is somewhat beside the point, but what parts of the play inhere in Godard’s infamously fraught and fractured take on Lear are in fact largely drawn from the first and final scenes. Two questions arise: why, for Godard, King Lear, and, if King Lear, why these two scenes in particular?

Before we dive in, however, a quick review of Lear. Shakespeare reworks some Anglo-Saxon historical chronicles, and there are actually two distinct published versions of the play (a History of King Lear, 1608/1619, and a Tragedy of King Lear, 1623), and an eighteenth-century adaptation tacks on a happy ending, but the basic plot is this: the aging Lear decides
to divide his kingdom (i.e., England) amongst his three daughters, Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia. To receive their shares, however, the daughters must first answer Lear’s question, the famous love test: “Which of you shall we
say doth love us most?” Goneril and Regan out-rhetoric
one another, but when Cordelia must answer she finds
she can say nothing. Lear, in a rage, banishes her (along
with his advisor Kent, who takes Cordelia’s side) before
settling in with Goneril and her husband Albany for a month (though Kent returns, disguised, to follow his master’s progress).

Lear, his Fool, and his hundred-knight entourage quickly try Goneril’s patience, however; to Lear’s disgust, she, Regan,
and Regan’s husband Cornwall attempt to reign him in (Albany, on the other hand, aligns himself with Lear). Meanwhile, the Earl of Gloucester is tricked by his bastard son Edmund into believing his legitimate (fine word, legitimate) son Edgar is plotting against him. Edmund’s too-close alliance with Goneril and Regan eventually leads to the blinding of Gloucester (in perhaps the single most horrific scene of onstage violence in all of Shakespeare). Meanwhile, Lear has gone mad. News of the former king’s predicament reaches Cordelia, now queen of France; she leads French forces in an invasion of England to restore her father to power, but she and Lear are taken prisoner by Edmund, who orders their deaths before seeing Goneril and Regan kill each other for his love and then being himself killed in a duel with Edgar. Albany, Kent, and Edgar are left to watch as Lear laments over a hanged Cordelia before he himself succumbs to death.

For our purposes – and for Godard’s and Sellars’ – the “first three” pages of Lear can roughly be taken to mean the opening scene of the love test and banishment of Cordelia. The last three pages amount to Lear’s final wrenching scene with the dead Cordelia. What amounts to a stripping-away of everything in between leaves us with what is arguably the emotional core of the play – though such a paring is not without its discontents.

One might expect, for a director so painstakingly conscious of the disconnect (if not outright war) between word and image, a fixation on Act 4, Scene 6, in which Edgar leads the recently-blinded Gloucester to the top of a cliff which can only be said to exist through Edgar’s language and the resilience of Gloucester’s image-hungry imagination:

Come on, sir, here’s the place. Stand still: how fearful
And dizzy ’tis to cast one’s eyes so low.
The crows and coughs that wing the midway air
Show scare so gross as beetles. Half-way down
Hangs one that gathers samphire, dreadful trade;
Methinks he seems no bigger than his head.
The fishermen that walk upon the beach
Appear like mice, and yon tall anchoring barque
Diminished to her cock, her cock a buoy
Almost too small for sight.
I’ll look no more,
Lest my brain turn and the deficient sight
Topple down headlong.

Edgar’s speech here overwhelmingly deals with the construction of a visual perspective Gloucester cannot access: His descriptions depict the seaside landscape as a miniature of itself, an illusion that refines its elements almost out of existence. A barque becomes a row-boat, the row-boat a buoy, and the buoy “almost” invisible – to the degree that the very (imagined) sight imbues the viewer with fear and dizziness. The final lines of Edgar’s account close down the conceit by collapsing the brain that conjures it with the sight that ostensibly perceives it and tumbling both headlong over nothing.

The scene has long been read as meta-theatrical commentary on the capacity of language to create something of nothing; as such it would seem fine fodder for a film so seriously invested with the interplay between word and image, thing and nothingness. Why remove it? Because in leaving such a void in his treatment of such an academically worked-over text and in shucking away the play’s political context, Godard actually winds up emphasizing what is vital about King Lear.

So, after all the omissions, what do we encounter in Godard’s King Lear? The film begins in frustration: we hear a telephone conversation between Godard and his producer Menahem Golan at Cannon Films, while we see repeated scenes of Norman Mailer and his daughter meeting in a hotel room to discuss Mailer’s Mafia-style adaptation of Lear for Godard’s film. “Don Kenny?” asks Kate Mailer in some confusion as she pages through her father’s script. “Don Gloustro? Don Learo?” Mailer replies that the Mafia is “the only way to do King Lear.” Golan, meanwhile, is anxious that the film be ready in time for the 1987 Cannes Film Festival (at which its eventual premier was, to put it mildly, ill-received). Mailer – or as Godard, in voiceover, rather contemptuously calls him, “The Great Writer” – vanishes from the project in what the director calls “a ceremony of star behavior” (though Mailer and his own producer Tom Luddy would later claim that the split was, in part, because Godard’s script implied an incestuous relationship between Mailer and his daughter). Godard observes, twice, “Words are one thing, and reality is another thing, and between them there is nothing,” an argument that takes on greater importance as the film progresses. Interspersed with this opening sequence are a series of titles: KING LEAR: A PICTURE SHOT IN THE BACK. KING LEAR: FEAR AND LOATHING. KING LEAR: A STUDY. KING LEAR: AN APPROACH. A CLEARING: NO THING. VIRTUE VERSUS POWER.

And then the actual film seems to begin. The plot, such as it is, unfolds after “the time of Chernobyl,” after an apocalypse of unspecified inception has caused everything to disappear and then to return – everything, that is, except culture. One William Shakespeare, Jr., The Fifth (Sellars), has been tasked, by the Cannon Cultural Division and the Royal Library of Her Majesty the Queen, with recapturing “what had been lost,” notably the works of his famous ancestor. Shakespeare, Jr., having finished a trip to Denmark where he “rediscovered” the “To be or not to be” speech, encounters Learo (Burgess Meredith) and Cordelia (Molly Ringwald) at a hotel restaurant; there, he overhears them, as they engage in everyday conversation intertwined with snippets of King Lear. After wandering the woods, Shakespeare, Jr. is led to Professor Pluggy (Godard), who articulates his theory of the image, insofar as it can be understood between Godard’s nearly-incoherent grumbling and the palimpsest of acoustics comprising the film’s soundtrack. Portions of Shakespeare’s play – specifically, bits of the first and final scenes – echo and resound as part of this sonic layering. Eventually, after “ninety-nine percent of the play” has been rediscovered by Shakespeare, Jr., we wind up in an editing room where Mr. Alien (Woody Allen, who was originally meant to play the part of the Fool) patiently sews together celluloid. The film ends with a kind of cacophony of various referents: Lear, Virgina Woolf’s The Waves, Joan of Arc, St. Paul, images from Goya to Doré.

Through Shakespeare, Jr.’s restless pulling-together of words and images from the film, Godard presents us with a parable – or, perhaps more properly, a cautionary tale – about memorial reconstruction. The Lear that we know can only ever be fragmentary, the film seems to say, reclaimed from shreds and patches of a reality that was always already lost. More recent studies in book history have, of course, produced a plethora of theories to account for the differences in the various versions of the play: compositors misread Shakespeare’s “foul papers,” or the editions represented performed or written drafts, or one was an illicit bootleg taken in shorthand during a performance. Yet there is something persistently appealing about the notion that some play or part thereof owes its existence to an actor’s recollection. After all, as Hamlet notes, players are “the abstract and brief chronicles of the time. After your death you were better have a bad epitaph than their ill report while you live.”

And in Godard’s film we witness the reconstruction of the play not only from the minds of actors, but from a fascinatingly diverse array of origins – from the lived experience of Meredith’s Learo and Ringwald’s Cordelia, to Professor Pluggy’s discourse on the primacy of the image, to the very earth as Edgar and his “never there” girlfriend traverse the desolate seaside of Nyon, Switzerland. The language of the play reverberates throughout the film; the result is a fever dream of the beginning and end of Lear, fragmented, recurring, hypnotic, obsessive, and thoroughly fetishized.

Even in Godard’s use of the first and final three pages of Lear, what’s left unsaid is still as important as what is said (and pathologically repeated). The map, the division of the kingdom – the sense that a kingdom exists to be divided in the first place – the squabbling between the houses of Goneril and Regan, the trouble with Gloucester, Edmund’s attack on Edgar – all these elements of the play are missing or misplaced, despite Shakespeare, Jr.’s claim that “ninety-nine percent of the play had now been rediscovered.” Their collective absence, and the silence attendant upon it, creates a play focused almost entirely on a question, an answer, and a death. The speeches Goneril and Regan (here “Gloria” and “Regina”) deliver in answer to Lear’s love test here arrive as telegraphs well after the fact. Learo has asked his question and Cordelia has answered first, or possibly he has only asked his question of her; either way, she must do without the backdrop of excessive protestation on the parts of her sisters the actual play provides for her to frame her reply.

Godard deprives us even of Lear’s map, which he tears up in the opening scene to set in motion the play’s tragedy. Learo does ask for a map, but none is forthcoming. Cordelia and various disembodied voices ask, early on in the film, what country they now find themselves in; Shakespeare, Jr., too, appears not to know where he is and as such must ask a fisherman, who replies that he is in “Goodwater” (the name of the hotel in which Shakespeare, Jr. first encounters Learo and Cordelia is Beau-Rivage).

Really, as my scattered relation of the film’s plot should make clear, it’s next to impossible for even an informed and engaged viewer to make such a map. The orientation that has been lost, or rather confiscated by Godard, is one of context. At the same time, what seems to be the play’s heart has actually becomes superfluous, which renders Godard’s remainder all the more important. Interestingly, it is in the 1623 Folio that Lear asks for the map: “Give me the map there.” In the first and second Quartos (1608 and 1619), he simply refers to “the map there.”

Such a removal of apparently key elements is an example of reductio ad absurdum: without the significance of the kingdom waiting to be divided, and without the comparatively something-filled speeches of the other sisters, the question Learo asks of Cordelia has no other purpose than the ascertaining of the simple fact of her love for him. Thus her reply of nothing and the film’s constant toying with that very word becomes even more poignant and horrifying: when nothing is at stake, nothing is returned, save for the lines themselves. (Nothing will come of nothing, after all.) In Godard’s film, Lear has been relieved of the burden of its backdrop of politics, but the film does acknowledge the absent presence by spiraling its images, sounds, and language around this void. Shakespeare, Jr. is trying to reconstruct the play; the one percent that remains lost constitutes both the everything and the nothing of both play and film.

Hauntingly, Lear’s key question, along with its context, hovers at the edges of the film. Portions of Lear’s first speech emerge during Shakespeare, Jr.’s initial encounter with Learo and Cordelia in the hotel restaurant:

[Learo] Give me the map there. Meantime we shall express our darker purpose.

[Cordelia] Yes, father.

[Learo] Know that I have divided in three my empire. It is my fast intent to shake all cares of business from my age, conferring them on younger strengths, while I, unburdened, crawl towards death. Are you listening? Now, my joy, although my last and least, speak!

[Cordelia] What shall Cordelia speak? Love, and be silent.

The conversation then turns to one abandoned strand of Godard’s film, a story that has to do with gangsters (Bugsy, Lansky, Meyer); Learo and Cordelia read out some words of Lansky’s which are written on a card. The dialogue continues:

[Learo] Answer me! Eh?

[Cordelia] I don’t have my heart in my mouth.

[Learo] You mend your speech a little. You may mar your dollars.

[Cordelia] As you wish.

Shakespeare, Jr. then seems to catch and ponder a Shakespearean strain: what is the title he searches for? As You Wish? As You Which? As You Watch? He throws down his pen and returns to his soup in frustration. Finally he hits upon the right answer: As You Like It. He thanks Cordelia for her help, but she and her father continue their dialogue while the camera fixes itself on her face.

[Cordelia] Sure, I shall never marry like my sisters, to love my father all.

[Learo] But goes thy heart with this?

[Cordelia] Aye, my good lord.

[Learo] So young, and so untender?

[Cordelia] So young, my lord, and true.

Shakespeare, Jr. lights Cordelia’s cigarette and thanks her for saving his life; Learo then punningly asks, “Are you trying to make a play for my girl?”

For those familiar in any way with the play, this scene is nearly impossible to read without thinking of its context. In the play, Lear’s initial speech is thus:

Give me the map there. Know that we have divided
In three our kingdom; and ’tis our fast intent
To shake all cares and business from our age,
Conferring them on younger strengths, while we
Unburdened crawl towards death.

Yet Learo stops short of explaining the relationship between his division of the kingdom and his desire to crawl unburdened towards death. Then, too, Godard’s Cordelia is allowed to say to her father what in the play has been read as an aside, namely, the line “What shall Cordelia speak? Love, and be silent.” Peter Brook’s bleak 1971 film rendition of the play was one of the earlier productions to bar this aside; Trevor Nunn’s celebrated 2007 RSC theatrical production performed a similar excision. Godard does more than simply restore this aside: he allows Cordelia to speak it to her father, in the absence of any contextualizing speeches from her sisters. “Love, and be silent” thus becomes the direct answer to Learo’s insistence that his youngest daughter speaknothing or no thing, as words belonging to Cordelia, only enter the picture much later.

But, as well we know, saying nothing is not equivalent to remaining silent, hence Godard’s assertion that Cordelia’s is a “violent silence,” one that rends with what it refuses to say rather than simply signaling an absence. Kent knows this:

Answer my life my judgment,
Thy youngest daughter does not love thee least,
Nor are those empty-hearted, whose low sounds
Reverb no hollowness.

And this lesson Shakespeare’s Lear learns too late, when he notes of his youngest daughter, “Her voice was ever soft, / Gentle and low, excellent thing in woman.” This lowness, played by Godard as merely a strand of the panoply of sounds accosting the filmgoer, nevertheless signals not an absence but a presence, some thing rather than no thing at all. One of the few repeated lines in the film drawn not from the first or last scene but from the middle of the play is Lear’s assertion that “No, I will be the pattern of all patience, / I will say nothing.” (The next line, which is Kent’s, is “Who’s there?” That this is the first line of the second Quarto and the Folio versions of Hamlet was probably not lost on Godard who, for all that critics assume he could not be bothered with actually reading King Lear, appears well-versed in Shakespeare.) In the play this line, which falls during the dramatic storm scene, indicates Lear’s fleeting awareness of the correctness of Cordelia’s response. In Godard’s film, the line suggests that a growing consciousness that duty, patience, and love are bound up with the inability to say something and rather must find their expressions in no thing.

The end of Godard’s Lear is heralded with one of the title cards, repeated from earlier in the film, which reads


and then another, later, which announces (again) NO THING. We as viewers of Godard’s Lear are bombarded ceaselessly with the proposition that nothing and no thing both are and aren’t equivalent, and it is on this refusal to rest on one reading or the other that Godard’s film ends. The final image of the film is of Cordelia in a white gown laid across a rock in the foreground, while Learo sits looking away from the camera and towards the ocean:

The final lines, spoken over this image and opened and closed with the derisive laughing of gulls, are not the promised end but a step towards it. First there’s Learo, voicing a refrain from Act 4, Scene 6, when the blind Gloucester encounters Lear:

[Learo] They are not men of their word. They told me I was everything. ’Tis a lie.

If it is a lie that Learo is not everything, then consequently it is not a lie that Learo is nothing, no thing, reduced to such absent presence by the death of his daughter. In the film as in the play, there can be no exactitude in the final cause of Cordelia’s death: she might have been killed by Edmund or Edmund’s lackeys, Lear might have hanged her, she might even have killed herself. To end the film with a line from one of Lear’s “mad” scenes is to force a reading of the play in which the end signifies madness.

Then, the unnamed female voice overlaps Learo’s for Lear’s speech in Act 5, Scene 3:

[Female voice] She’s gone forever

[Learo] She’s gone – forever

[FV] I know when one is dead and when one lives

[L] I know when one is dead and when one lives

[FV] She’s dead as earth

[L] Hand me a looking-glass

[FV] She’s dead as earth

[FV] If that her breath will mist or stain the stone, why, then she lives.

Godard’s film ends with the refusal to end. Lear, at this point in the play, can still cling to some shred of hope: “Why, then she lives.” The patently ambiguous shot above, paired with these lines which will not resolve themselves, together allow the viewer to cling to that hope as well – yet, with the true end of the play in mind, for the reader that hope can only extend so far.

Lianne Habinek is an Assistant Professor of English at Bard College and a frequent Open Letters Monthly contributor.