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King Lear's Wife

(To T.S.M.)


LEAR, King of Britain.
HYGD, his Queen.
GONERIL, daughter to King Lear.
CORDEIL, daughter to King Lear.
GORMFLAITH, waiting-woman to Queen Hygd.
MERRYN, waiting-woman to Queen Hygd.


[The scene is a bedchamber in a one-storied house. The walls consist of a few courses of huge irregular boulders roughly squared and fitted together; a thatched roof rises steeply from the back wall. In the centre of the back wall is a doorway opening on a garden and covered by two leather curtains; the chamber is partially hung with similar hangings stitched with bright wools. There is a small window on each side of this door.

Toward the front a bed stands with its head against the right wall; it has thin leather curtains hung by thongs and drawn back. Farther forward a rich robe and a crown hang on a peg in the same wall. There is a second door beyond the bed, and between this and the bed's head stands a small table with a bronze lamp and a bronze cup on it. Queen HYGD, an emaciated woman, is asleep in the bed; her plenteous black hair, veined with silver, spreads over the pillow. Her waiting-woman, MERRYN, middle-aged and hard-featured, sits watching her in a chair on the farther side of the bed. The light of early morning fills the room.]


Many, many must die who long to live,
Yet this one cannot die who longs to die:
Even her sleep, come now at last, thwarts death,
Although sleep lures us all half way to death ...
I could not sit beside her every night
If I believed that I might suffer so:
I am sure I am not made to be diseased,
I feel there is no malady can touch me -
Save the red cancer, growing where it will.

[Taking her beads from her girdle, she kneels at the foot of the bed.]

O sweet Saint Cleer, and sweet Saint Elid too,
Shield me from rooting cancers and from madness:
Shield me from sudden death, worse than two death-beds;
Let me not lie like this unwanted queen,
Yet let my time come not ere I am ready -
Grant space enow to relish the watchers' tears
And give my clothes away and calm my features
And streek my limbs according to my will,
Not the hard will of fumbling corpse-washers.

[She prays silently.]

[KING LEAR, a great, golden-bearded man in the full maturity of life, enters abruptly by the door beyond the bed, followed by the PHYSICIAN.]


Why are you here? Are you here for ever?
Where is the young Scotswoman? Where is she?


O, Sire, move softly; the Queen sleeps at last.

Lear (continuing in an undertone):

Where is the young Scotswoman? Where is Gormflaith?
It is her watch ... I know; I have marked your hours.
Did the Queen send her away? Did the Queen
Bid you stay near her in her hate of Gormflaith?
You work upon her yeasting brain to think
That she's not safe except when you crouch near her
To spy with your dropt eyes and soundless presence.


Sire, midnight should have ended Gormflaith's watch,
But Gormflaith had another kind of will
And ended at a godlier hour by slumber,
A letter in her hand, the night-lamp out.
She loitered in the hall when she should sleep.
My duty has two hours ere she returns.


The Queen should have young women about her bed,
Fresh cool-breathed women to lie down at her side
And plenish her with vigour; for sick or wasted women
Can draw a virtue from such abounding presence,
When night makes life unwary and looses the strings of being,
Even by the breath, and most of all by sleep.
Her slumber was then no fault: go you and find her.


It is not strange that a bought watcher drowses;
What is most strange is that the Queen sleeps
Who would not sleep for all my draughts of sleep
In the last days. When did this change appear?


We shall not know - it came while Gormflaith nodded.
When I awoke her and she saw the Queen
She could not speak for fear:
When the rekindling lamp showed certainly
The bed-clothes stirring about our lady's neck,
She knew there was no death, she breathed, she said
She had not slept until her mistress slept
And lulled her; but I asked her how her mistress
Slept, and her utterance faded.
She should be blamed with rods, as I was blamed
For slumber, after a day and a night of watching,
By the Queen's child-bed, twenty years ago.

She does what she must do: let her alone.
I know her watch is now: get gone and send her.

[MERRYN goes out by the door beyond the bed.]

Is it a portent now to sleep at night?
What change is here? What see you in the Queen?
Can you discern how this disease will end?


Surmise might spring and healing follow yet,
If I could find a trouble that could heal;
But these strong inward pains that keep her ebbing
Have not their source in perishing flesh.
I have seen women creep into their beds
And sink with this blind pain because they nursed
Some bitterness or burden in the mind
That drew the life, sucklings too long at breast.
Do you know such a cause in this poor lady?


There is no cause. How should there be a cause?


We cannot die wholly against our wills;
And in the texture of women I have found
Harder determination than in men:
The body grows impatient of enduring,
The harried mind is from the body estranged,
And we consent to go: by the Queen's touch,
The way she moves - or does not move - in bed,
The eyes so cold and keen in her white mask,
I know she has consented.
The snarling look of a mute wounded hawk,
That would be let alone, is always hers -
Yet she was sorely tender: it may be
Some wound in her affection will not heal.
We should be careful - the mind can so be hurt
That nought can make it be unhurt again.
Where, then, did her affection most persist?


Old bone-patcher, old digger in men's flesh,
Doctors are ever itching to be priests,
Meddling in conduct, natures, life's privacies.
We have been coupled now for twenty years,
And she has never turned from me an hour -
She knows a woman's duty and a queen's:
Whose, then, can her affection be but mine?
How can I hurt her - she is still my queen?
If her strong inward pain is a real pain
Find me some certain drug to medicine it:
When common beings have decayed past help,
There must be still some drug for a king to use;
For nothing ought to be denied to kings.


For the mere anguish there is such a potion.
The gum of warpy juniper shoots is seethed
With the torn marrow of an adder's spine;
An unflawed emerald is pashed to dust
And mingled there; that broth must cool in moonlight.
I have indeed attempted this already,
But the poor emeralds I could extort
From wry-mouthed earls' women had no force.
In two more dawns it will be late for potions ...
There are not many emeralds in Britain,
And there is none for vividness and strength
Like the great stone that hangs upon your breast:
If you will waste it for her she shall be holpen.

Lear (with rising voice):
Shatter my emerald? My emerald? My emerald?
A High King of Eire gave it to his daughter
Who mothered generations of us, the kings of Britain;
It has a spiritual influence; its heart
Burns when it sees the sun ... Shatter my emerald!
Only the fungused brain and carious mouth
Of senile things could shape such thought ...
My emerald!

[HYGD stirs uneasily in her sleep.]


Speak lower, low; for your good fame, speak low -
If she should waken thus ...


There is no wise man
Believes that medicine is in a jewel.
It is enough that you have failed with one.
Seek you a common stone. I'll not do it.
Let her eat heartily: she is spent with fasting.
Let her stand up and walk: she is so still
Her blood can never nourish her. Come away.


I must not leave her ere the woman comes -
Or will some other woman ...


No, no, no, no;
The Queen is not herself; she speaks without sense;
Only Merryn and Gormflaith understand.
She is better quiet. Come ...

[He urges the PHYSICIAN roughly away by the shoulder.]

My emerald!

[He follows the PHTSICIAN out by the door at the back. Queen HYGD awakes at his last noisy words as he disappears.]


I have not slept; I did but close mine eyes
A little while - a little while forgetting ...
Where are you, Merryn? ... Ah, it is not Merryn ...
Bring me the cup of whey, woman; I thirst ...
Will you speak to me if I say your name?
Will you not listen, Gormflaith? ... Can you hear?
I am very thirsty - let me drink ...
Ah, wicked woman, why did I speak to you?
I will not be your suppliant again ...
Where are you? O, where are you? ... Where are you?

[She tries to raise herself to look about the room, but sinks back helplessly. The curtains of the door at the back are parted, and GONERIL appears in hunting dress, - her kirtle caught up in her girdle, a light spear over her shoulder - stands there a moment, then enters noiselessly and, approaches the bed. She is a girl just turning to woman-hood, proud in her poise, swift and cold, an almost gleaming presence, a virgin huntress.]


Mother, were you calling?
Have I awakened you?
They said that you were sleeping.
Why are you left alone, mother, my dear one?


Who are you? No, no, no! Stand farther off!
You pulse and glow; you are too vital; your presence hurts ...
Freshness of hill-swards, wind and trodden ling,
I should have known that Goneril stands here.
It is yet dawn, but you have been afoot
Afar and long: where could you climb so soon?


Dearest, I am an evil daughter to you:
I never thought of you - O, never once -
Until I heard a moor-bird cry like you.
I am wicked, rapt in joys of breath and life,
And I must force myself to think of you.
I leave you to caretakers' cold gentleness;
But O, I did not think that they dare leave you.
What woman should be here?


I have forgot ...
I know not ... She will be about some duty.
I do not matter: my time is done ... nigh done ...
Bought hands can well prepare me for a grave,
And all the generations must serve youth.
My girls shall live untroubled while they may,
And learn happiness once while yet blind men
Have injured not their freedom;
For women are not meant for happiness.
Where have you been, my falcon?


I dreamt that I was swimming, shoulder up,
And drave the bed-clothes spreading to the floor:
Coldness awoke me; through the waning darkness
I heard far hounds give shivering aery tongue,
Remote, withdrawing, suddenly faint and near;
I leapt and saw a pack of stretching weasels
Hunt a pale coney in a soundless rush,
Their elfin and thin yelping pierced my heart
As with an unseen beauty long awaited;
Wolf-skin and cloak I buckled over this night-gear,
And took my honoured spear from my bed-side
Where none but I may touch its purity,
And sped as lightly down the dewy bank
As any mothy owl that hunts quick mice.
They went crying, crying, but I lost them
Before I stept, with the first tips of light,
On Raven Crag near by the Druid Stones;
So I paused there and, stooping, pressed my hand
Against the stony bed of the clear stream;
Then entered I the circle and raised up
My shining hand in cold stern adoration
Even as the first great gleam went up the sky.


Ay, you do well to worship on that height:
Life is free to the quick up in the wind,
And the wind bares you for a god's descent -
For wind is a spirit immediate and aged.
And you do well to worship harsh men-gods,
God Wind and Those who built his Stones with him:
All gods are cruel, bitter, and to be bribed,
But women-gods are mean and cunning as well.
That fierce old virgin, Cornish Merryn, prays
To a young woman, yes and even a virgin -
The poorest kind of woman - and she says
That is to be a Christian: avoid then
Her worship most, for men hate such denials,
And any woman scorns her unwed daughter.
Where sped you from that height? Did Regan join you there?


Does Regan worship anywhere at dawn?
The sweaty half-clad cook-maids render lard
Out in the scullery, after pig-killing,
And Regan sidles among their greasy skirts,
Smeary and hot as they, for craps to suck.
I lost my thoughts before the giant Stones ...
And when anew the earth assembled round me
I swung out on the heath and woke a hare
And speared it at a cast and shouldered it,
Startled another drinking at a tarn
And speared it ere it leapt; so steady and clear
Had the god in his fastness made my mind.
Then, as I took those dead things in my hands,
I felt shame light my face from deep within,
And loathing and contempt shake in my bowels,
That such unclean coarse blows from me had issued
To crush delicate things to bloody mash
And blemish their fur when I would only kill.
My gladness left me; I careered no more
Upon the morning; I went down from there
With empty hands:
But under the first trees and without thought
I stole on conies at play and stooped at one;
I hunted it, I caught it up to me
As I outsprang it, and with this thin knife
Pierced it from eye to eye; and it was dead,
Untorn, unsullied, and with flawless fur.
Then my untroubled mind came back to me.


Leap down the glades with a fawn's ignorance;
Live you your fill of a harsh purity;
Be wild and calm and lonely while you may.
These are your nature's joys, and it is human
Only to recognise our natures' joys
When we are losing them for ever.


But why
Do you say this to me with a sore heart?
You are a queen, and speak from the top of life,
And when you choose to wish for others' joys
Those others must have woe.


The hour comes for you to turn to a man
And give yourself with the high heart of youth
More lavishly than a queen gives anything.
But when a woman gives herself
She must give herself for ever and have faith;
For woman is a thing of a season of years,
She is an early fruit that will not keep,
She can be drained and as a husk survive
To hope for reverence for what has been;
While man renews himself into old age,
And gives himself according to his need,
And women more unborn than his next child
May take him yet with youth
And lose him with their potence.


But women need not wed these men.


We are good human currency, like gold,
For men to pass among them when they choose.

[A child's hands beat on the outside of the door beyond the bed.]

Cordeil's Voice (a child's voice, outside):

Father ... Father ... Father ... Are you here?
Merryn, ugly Merryn, let me in ...
I know my father is here ... I want him ... Now ...
Mother, chide Merryn, she is old and slow ...

Hygd (softly):

My little curse. Send her away - away ...

Cordeil's Voice:

Father... O, father, father... I want my father.

Goneril (opening the door a little way):

Hush; hush - you hurt your mother with your voice.
You cannot come in, Cordeil; you must go away:
Your father is not here ...

Cordeil's Voice:

He must be here:
He is not in his chamber or the hall,
He is not in the stable or with Gormflaith:
He promised I should ride with him at dawn
And sit before his saddle and hold his hawk,
And ride with him and ride to the heron-marsh;
He said that he would give me the first heron,
And hang the longest feathers in my hair.


Then you must haste to find him;
He may be riding now ...

Cordeil's Voice:

But Gerda said she saw him enter here.


Indeed, he is not here ...

Cordeil's Voice:

Let me look ...


You are too noisy. Must I make you go?

Cordeil's Voice:

Mother, Goneril is unkind to me.

Hygd (raising herself in bed excitedly, and speaking so vehemently that her utterance strangles itself):

Go, go, thou evil child, thou ill-comer.

[GONERIL, with a sudden strong movement, shuts the resisting door and holds it rigidly. The little hands beat on it madly for a moment, then the child's voice is heard in a retreating wail.]


Though she is wilful, obeying only the King,
She is a very little child, mother,
To be so bitterly thought of.


Because a woman gives herself for ever
Cordeil the useless had to be conceived
(Like an after-thought that deceives nobody)
To keep her father from another woman.
And I lie here.

Goneril (after a silence):

Hard and unjust my father has been to me;
Yet that has knitted up within my mind
A love of coldness and a love of him
Who makes me firm, wary, swift and secret,
Until I feel if I become a mother
I shall at need be cruel to my children,
And ever cold, to string their natures harder
And make them able to endure men's deeds;
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Submitted on August 03, 2020

16:15 min read

Gordon Bottomley

Gordon Bottomley was an English poet, known particularly for his verse dramas. He was partly disabled by tubercular illness. His main influences were the later Victorian Romantic poets, the Pre-Raphaelites and William Morris. more…

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