King Lear, Act 1

February 5, 2011

Considered by many scholars and laypeople alike as Shakespeare’s best tragedy, King Lear is a powerful play that is a retelling of a story considered historical in England of a king who divides his lands between his three daughters. I have read the play before and found it beautiful, although it still always pales in comparison with Hamlet to me, but perhaps that is a function more of my personal position and feelings in life than a reflection of Shakespeare’s art and craft.

The first act of King Lear begins with a conversation between the Earl of Kent, the Earl of Gloucester, and Edmund, Gloucester’s bastard son. The two earls are discussing the division of King Lear’s kingdom between the Duke of Albany and the Duke of Cornwall, married to Goneril and Regan, respectively, the eldest two daughters of King Lear. The conversation eventually turns to Edmund, who Gloucester admits was born illegitimately although conceived with ardor. King Lear abruptly enters the scene, declaring that he has divided his kingdom into three. Nevertheless, he asks his three daughters to make bombastic professions of their love to him in order to secure their territorial portions. Goneril and Regan comply, and King Lear gives them each a third of his kingdom. Cordelia, however, says that her love is in her actions and not her words. She points out the hyperbole of her sisters’ speeches and refuses to try to outdo them, incurring Lear’s wrath. He decides to give her none of his kingdom, and her predetermined third of the kingdom is split between Goneril and Regan. Kent, an outspoken advisor to the king, tells him of the folly of his action, but Lear will hear no one oppose him and therefore banishes Kent from England. The two suitors that had been courting Cordelia, the Duke of Burgundy and the King of France, next decide who will marry Cordelia. Burgundy does not desire her if she doesn’t come with a third of the kingdom, so France, who loves Cordelia for the woman she is, marries her and takes her to his kingdom.

Meanwhile Edmund, the bastard son of Gloucester, has forged a letter in the handwriting of his legitimate brother, Edgar, that indicates that Edgar believes that Gloucester’s lands should be divided between the two sons. Edmund makes sure that Gloucester reads the letter, and Gloucester is incensed and afraid of the supposed machinations of his eldest son, likely because he has just seen King Lear deposed by similar longings of the younger generation. Edmund warns Edgar that Gloucester is angry with him, and Edgar flees the house on the advice of Edmund, who notes that his plots are succeeding perfectly because of the credulity of his family members.

Lear, after abdicating the throne, maintains a bevy of one hundred knights and spends alternating months at the estates of his eldest two daughters. His first tenure is with Goneril, though she grows tired of Lear, his loud fool, and the revelries of his one hundred attendant knights. Goneril tells Lear of these offenses, and he is gravely offended. He disowns her, curses her womb not to be fecund, and decides to go spend time with Regan, his second daughter. Throughout all of the scenes with Lear, Lear’s witty and brilliant fool mocks him for having rent his kingdom and banished his best daughter.

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The reeve, a wealthy landowner, is upset after the miller tells his tale of a cuckolded carpenter. The reason for this, of course, is that the reeve himself is a carpenter. Determined to get back at the miller, the reeve decides to tell his own tale of a miller being deceived and cuckolded. The reeve, however, worries that his age makes him weak and unable fully to get back at the miller.

In the Reeve’s Tale, a wealthy and sly miller has a beautiful wife, a twenty-year-old daughter, and a baby son. Two scholars from Cambridge come to the miller asking him to grind their grain. The miller decides to help them but, being the deceptive man that he is, he unties their horse, which runs intractably wild, and takes back half of the grain that he ground for them. When the two scholars finally catch the horse, they come back to the miller’s house and ask if they can lodge there for the evening. The miller agrees and sets up a bed for them in the same bedroom where he sleeps with his family. The miller gets drunk and goes to bed. One of the scholars, Alayn, goes to where the daughter sleeps and has sex with her. John, the other scholar, is jealous of Alayn’s pleasure and therefore goes and has sex with the miller’s wife. When Alayn is done having sex with the miller’s daughter, he whispers in what he believes is John’s ear (though it is actually the miller’s) that he has just had amazing sex with the miller’s daughter and that he now wants to take back the stolen grain and flee. The miller wakes up hearing this, is enraged, and starts strangling Alayn, who strangles him back. The wife wakes up, notices the commotion, and hits her husband on the head with a staff, thinking it is Alayn. The two scholars beat up the miller, steal back all of their grain, and escape.

The Miller’s Tale

February 2, 2011

The Miller’s Tale is written in the genre of the fabliau, a medieval French tale that is generally bawdy in nature and that tends to involve the lascivious doings of a member of the clergy. Chaucer’s tale is a loose adaptation of one particular fabliau, though it certainly contains the scatological humor and sexual infidelity characteristic of the fabliaux.

The Miller’s Tale centers around an elderly carpenter, John, who is described as being nescient and overly protective of his young wife, a beautiful and lustful woman named Alison. Though John tries indefatigably to keep his wife contained, she manages to meet a clerk, or scholar, at Oxford named Nicholas with whom she falls in love. Nicholas, an attractive, intelligent young man skilled in astrology and music, falls in love with Alison and begs her to have sex with him. She initially declines the offer and proffers the excuse that her jealous husband would learn of the tryst. Eventually, however, through flattery, Nicholas convinces Alison to have sex with him.

Meanwhile, a parish clerk named Absolon also discovers Alison’s pulchritude and becomes enamored with her. Absolon comes to the carpenter’s house daily and nightly to sing a song of love to Alison, but he is ignored both by her and her husband until later in the story.

Meanwhile Nicholas, believing himself much more perspicacious than the dim-witted John, decides to beguile John so that he (Nicholas) may spend a whole night with Alison. To do this, Nicholas pretends to be ill at home because of an astrological omen he witnessed telling him that the earth is to be flooded again as in the time of Noah. John’s knave, a squire who does his bidding, hears from Nicholas that to prevent being swallowed in the inundation, John must prepare three tubs for his household to sleep in, fill them with food and wine, and tie them up to the rafters in the roof. John does this diligently, being a god-fearing and ignorant man. While John is sleeping in the rafters on the appointed night, Nicholas and Alison have sex. However, they are interrupted by Absolon who, on false information from a cloistered monk, believes that John is out-of-town and that Alison will be free to have sex with him. Absolon begs for a kiss at Alison’s window, and she sticks her hairy butt-hole out the window for him to kiss, which he does. Upset that he kissed an anus and not lips, Absolon acquires a hot poker from a smith and returns to Alison’s seeking retribution. He asks again for a kiss, and Alison instructs Nicholas to stick his butt out the window this time. When Nicholas farts, Absolon inserts the hot stick into Nicholas’s anus, burning him and causing him to shout out for water. John awakes at this, thinks the shout for water is an announcement of the flood, cuts his tub from the rafters, breaks his hand from the rough landing, and becomes the laughingstock of the entire city, all of whom believe he is insane for having believed in the flood.

The Miller’s Prologue

February 2, 2011

After the beautiful tale of the knight, which adhered in many ways to the generic conventions of both the chivalric epic and the courtly romance, the host who is serving as judge declares the tale an excellent beginning to the competition and invites the monk to present his tale next. The miller, a stout and homely man who is drunk on ale, rudely interrupts and declares that he has a tale to tell. The host asks him to wait and declares him inebriated, but the miller threatens the host and the company and his wish to give the next tale is granted. The miller then gives us a taste of what is to come: the miller’s tale will concern itself with a carpenter who is made a cuckold when his wife cheats on him with a clerk, a student at Oxford. The reeve becomes upset at this idea of a tale because of the aspersions it will cast on wives and women generally. The miller assures the reeve that there are many good wives out there and also declares that he believes his wife is faithful to him, although he doesn’t probe the answer to the question with much depth or sincerity and recommends a similar course of action to all men. Lastly, Chaucer the poet warns us that the miller’s tale will be bawdy and that we should not blame Chaucer for reprinting it, which is his rightful job as the honest and accurate reporter of the Canterbury pilgrimage.