The Observer, that grand old insomniac of Maple Street, was kicking around The Observatory the other night at 2 a.m. when we happened across our old copy of the Riverside Shakespeare in the bookshelves. We've had that book longer than almost anything else we own. It's a doorstop, five inches thick, strainer of backs and backpack zippers of semesters long ago. Even at that, we wouldn't take a truckload of Kindles for one of its onionskin pages.
Like any other lover of ol' Will, we've got favorite lines, favorite passages, favorite scenes, but our go-to play is King Lear, that black chest full of war, intrigue, arrogance, lightning-lit hurricanes and love. That was the one we opened to in the quiet house.
Scene one of Lear, in addition to being a stunning masterwork, contains what we think is the most beautiful passage in all of Shakespeare. It takes a bit of set up to get there, so bear with us.
For those who dozed through high school English, you'll remember that's the scene in which old, puffed-up King Lear, wishing to divest himself of responsibility if not power, schemes to divide his kingdom between his three daughters: Regan, Goneril and the youngest, Cordelia. It's the way he decides to do it that's the rub: a "Love Test," in which the three daughters are to kiss his kingly keister, with the most thorough brownnoser getting the biggest chunk of the kingdom.
As it happens, while all this is going on, there are two royal suitors in court — the Duke of Burgundy and the King of France — both seeking Cordelia's hand.
Goneril is first to the plate, and proceeds to make a complete ass of herself, telling her conceited fool of a father that she loves him better than freedom, riches or the eyes in her head. Regan comes next, and basically says: "What she said, plus one!"
Then comes poor Cordelia, who has been wringing her hands the whole time, sharing with the audience her horror that she loves her father so much that she cannot put it into words. When the Love Test turns to her, and Lear asks Cordelia what she can say to prove her love for him, she simply says: "Nothing."
"Unhappy that I am," she tells him, "I cannot heave my heart into my mouth."
Lear, befitting one of literature's great narcissists, is enraged. In response, he tells his daughter he wishes she'd never been born and strips her of the rich, vast dowry which had presumably drawn royal gold- diggers to the court for years. Marriage in those days was almost always a matter of property and combining allegiances, and almost never for love. A dowry was the difference between a queen's throne or life in a convent.
"Thy truth, then, be thy dower," Lear mockingly tells her.
The Duke of Burgundy and the King of France are ushered into the throne room in the midst of that mess, and Lear makes a show of auctioning off his daughter, basically saying that if one of them is interested in marrying a peasant, she stands there before them. After trying to haggle a bit with Lear, Burgundy backs out.
Meanwhile, the King of France has been watching all this. In my mind's eye, he's a resplendent figure, clothed in gold brocade and rich silks, dark-haired and handsome. Lear goes so far as to try to talk him out of even giving Cordelia a chance.
"For you, great king," Lear tells him, "I would not from your love make such a stray, to match you where I hate; therefore beseech you to avert your liking a more worthier way than on a wretch whom nature is ashamed."
At that, Cordelia speaks, risking Lear's wrath to tell the King of France the real reason she has been stripped of her dowry and soon to be shipped off to a nunnery. The great king considers, and then delivers what, to The Observer's eye, is the single most beautiful line in all the plays:
"Love's not love," the king says, "when it is mingled with regards that stand aloof from the entire point ... She is herself a dowry." Soon thereafter, he takes her hand, asks her to be his queen, and walks with her from the stage — not happily ever after, not in a tragedy, but at least happy for the moment.
She is herself a dowry.
The Observer has known some women like that down through the years — is married to one, in fact. You probably know a few yourself: not much money in her checking account, but a king's cache of treasures nonetheless.