Mapping King Lear1
Kenneth S. Rothwell
Nothing will come of nothing. Speak again
Nothing almost seems miracles
In William Shakespeare's King Lear, the old king begins his spiritual odyssey with a “map” (1.1.37), 2 and ends it with a “looking-glass” (5.3.262). The way in which these two non-verbal elements frame the narrative suggests they are more than casual but have some kind of metaphorical significance.
At the beginning of the play, to illustrate his “darker purpose” (an ill-advised scheme for dividing the kingdom among his daughters), King Lear calls for a visual aid: “Give me the map there” (1.1.37). In the imperative mood, the terse words challenge an actor to wring them dry of meaning through the “paralinguistics” of pitch, loudness, tempo, timbre, etc. 3 How exactly should they be uttered? Which word should be stressed? Unstressed? “Give?” “Me?” “Map?” The 1623 Folio text capitalizes “map” while the 1608 Quarto lower cases it. Does this slight alteration imply not so much indifference in the printing house as an authorial revision that latently privileges “map” over the other four words? (Urkowitz 1980: passim). As the possibilities multiply, the actor runs the risk of becoming like the obsessed student of Stanislavsky who found forty-four different ways to say “Good evening” (Elam 1980:82).
Actors playing King Lear have recorded on film and tape widely different strategies for uttering this single line. There've been a bombastic Orson Welles, inscrutable Paul Scofield, powerful Michael Gambon, cherubic Laurence Olivier, testy Yuri Yarvet, irascible Michael Hordern, and introspective Burgess Meredith. The brusque king who bellows and snarls at underlings has not yet been exposed “to feel what wretches feel” (3.4.34). If the actor emulates Michael Hordern, he stresses “there, ” which makes the reading especially harsh and