Academic journal article Samuel Beckett Today / Aujourd'hui

"WORST IN NEED OF WORSE": King Lear, Worstward Ho and the Trajectory of Worsening

Academic journal article Samuel Beckett Today / Aujourd'hui

"WORST IN NEED OF WORSE": King Lear, Worstward Ho and the Trajectory of Worsening

Article excerpt

This essay examines the thematic, structural and stylistic import of Beckett's use of Edgar's lines from Shakespeare's play King Lear in the framing of his prose piece Worstward Ho. It also seeks to consider if Beckett's text can be seen as an oblique commentary on Shakespeare's play, opening up questions of intertextual appropriation, generic transformation of tragedy and Beckett's project of linguistic critique.

en face

le pire

jusqu'à ce

qu'il fasse rire


the worst


till you burst

Beckett, Mirlitonnades

Shakespearean intertexts are not rare in Samuel Beckett. Neither are they ill-documented. Be it Jan Kott's reading of King Lear (1623) and Endgame (1958) together, Peter Brook's 1962 Beckettian production of Lear or Harold Bloom's essay on Beckett in The Western Canon, The Beckett-Shakespeare interface has been a recurrent reference point in Beckett studies. As Beckett's later texts became more and more minimalistic and terse, with the references more and more veiled, intricate and indirect, the presence of Shakespeare nevertheless persisted. The opening line of Come and Go echoes Macbeth: "When did we three last meet?" (2003, 354).1 There is another Macbeth allusion in Ohio Impromptu: "What he had done alone could not be undone. Nothing he had ever done alone could ever be undone. By him alone" (2003, 446) .2 Additionally, there are multiple Shakespeare references in both Company and III Seen III Said. Almost all these Shakespeare allusions are deviant, if not subversive. Whether it is the change of tense from future to past in the Come and Go opening line or the addition of the word "alone" in the Ohio Impromptu text, these variations have a pattern of building a surplus layer of meaning on top of the texts they echo. These are as good as interpretations of the source that they almost inevitably tweak.

My purpose in this article is to analyze the thematic, structural and philosophical impact of a number of lines from King Lear on Beckett's short prose text Worstward Ho. Beckett copied Edgar's lines on the theme of the "worst" from act 4, scene 1 into his "Sottisier" Notebook under the date "28.12.80." These lines gave him the fundamental framework for Worstward Ho:

The lamentable change is from the best

The worst returns to laughter - Act IV, Scene I

Who is't can say, I am at the worst - Act IV, Scene I

- The worst is not

So long as one can say, This is the worst - Act IV, Scene I


Of the many critical commentaries on Beckett's Worstward Ho, some make passing comments on its connection to King Lear, but they do little more than point out Edgar's lines or the presence of shared vocabulary, such as the word 'pox' (Knowlson 1996, 593-94; see also Brater, 135-44 and Conn, 375). French philosopher Alain Badiou's 1998 article on Worstward Ho, "Being, Existence, Thought: Prose and Concept," has inspired a series of purely philosophical readings of the text (see Dowd, 201-23 and Weiler, 187-98), but in these commentaries, the philosophical issues are not related to the Shakespearean intertextual structure that founds the philosophical enquiries in Beckett's text. In their genetic study, "Worsening in Worstward Ho: A Brief Look at the Genesis of the Text," Adriaan van der Weel and Ruud Hisgen point out the critique of representation that is central to the text, but once again they are silent on the possible connections between this critique and the Lear intertext. This connection is precisely what I propose to investigate in this article.

The Trajectory of Worsening

In the first of the three quotations in Beckett's notebook, Edgar muses philosophically on the complementarity of the "best" and the "worst." In this Shakespearean formulation, the movement from "best" to "worst" is a circular one where, once the "worst" point is reached, there is a return toward the "best" in the form of a "return" to "laughter. …

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