Prayers of King Lear

Rainer Maria Rilke quote of the day:

I know that God did not put us among the various things in order that we should make a selection, but so that we should undertake to receive so completely and utterly that in the end we are able to receive nothing but what is beautiful, in our love, in our watchful attention, in our unappeasable wondering.

…I ran into some old Ent friends at the public library. They reminded me that before Bilbo was Bilbo, he enacted a satisfyingly tedious Polonius in Mel Gibson’s Hamlet, and a distressingly short King Lear (among many other roles).

The thing about King Lear is: he prays.

He does not pray in a Christian manner; after all, the play takes place in the murky heathen past. Some of his prayers imprecate venemously.

But never has a character burst into prayer, mid-scene, with such panache. King Lear ministers like a High Priest of Aggrieved Fathers.

When Lear’s daughter Goneril refuses to house his train of knights (Act I, Scene 4):

Hear, nature, hear; dear goddess, hear!
Suspend thy purpose, if thou didst intend
To make this creature fruitful!
Into her womb convey sterility!
Dry up in her the organs of increase;
And from her derogate body never spring
A babe to honour her! If she must teem,
Create her child of spleen; that it may live,
And be a thwart disnatured torment to her!
Let it stamp wrinkles in her brow of youth;
With cadent tears fret channels in her cheeks;
Turn all her mother’s pains and benefits
To laughter and contempt; that she may feel
How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is
To have a thankless child!

…He adds in a subsequent scene (Act II, Scene 4):

All the stored vengeances of heaven fall
On her ingrateful top! Strike her young bones,
You taking airs, with lameness!

…You nimble lightnings, dart your blinding flames
Into her scornful eyes! Infect her beauty,
You fen-suck’d fogs, drawn by the powerful sun,
To fall and blast her pride!

…O heavens,
If you do love old men, if your sweet sway
Allow obedience, if yourselves are old,
Make it your cause; send down, and take my part!

…You heavens, give me that patience, patience I need!
You see me here, you gods, a poor old man,
As full of grief as age; wretched in both!
If it be you that stir these daughters’ hearts
Against their father, fool me not so much
To bear it tamely; touch me with noble anger,
And let not women’s weapons, water-drops,
Stain my man’s cheeks!

In Act III, Scene 4, Lear deludedly prays for vengeance upon Poor Tom’s supposed daughters:

…Now, all the plagues that in the pendulous air
Hang fated o’er men’s faults light on thy daughters!

Act III, Scene 2 presents Lear’s famous prayer on the heath:

Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
Till you have drench’d our steeples, drown’d the cocks!
You sulphurous and thought-executing fires,
Vaunt-couriers to oak-cleaving thunderbolts,
Singe my white head! And thou, all-shaking thunder,
Smite flat the thick rotundity o’ the world!
Crack nature’s moulds, all germens spill at once,
That make ingrateful man!

…Rumble thy bellyful! Spit, fire! spout, rain!
Nor rain, wind, thunder, fire, are my daughters:
I tax not you, you elements, with unkindness;
I never gave you kingdom, call’d you children,
You owe me no subscription: then let fall
Your horrible pleasure: here I stand, your slave,
A poor, infirm, weak, and despised old man:
But yet I call you servile ministers,
That have with two pernicious daughters join’d
Your high engender’d battles ‘gainst a head
So old and white as this. O! O! ’tis foul!

… Let the great gods,
That keep this dreadful pother o’er our heads,
Find out their enemies now. Tremble, thou wretch,
That hast within thee undivulged crimes,
Unwhipp’d of justice: hide thee, thou bloody hand;
Thou perjured, and thou simular man of virtue
That art incestuous: caitiff, to pieces shake,
That under covert and convenient seeming
Hast practised on man’s life: close pent-up guilts,
Rive your concealing continents, and cry
These dreadful summoners grace.

When Lear acknowledges of the raging elements that they “owe him no subscription”–in my book, that makes the grandest line in the history of literature.

The King does not pray in Act V. But when he and his honest daughter Cordelia are apprehended and threatened with execution, he comforts her by saying:

Upon such sacrifices, my Cordelia,
The gods themselves throw incense.

It does not rank with that of Melchizedek, surely. But the priesthood of King Lear nonetheless shakes the heavens.

Perhaps my previous analyses of “King Lear” will interest you: 1. King Lear is King 2. Reason Not the Need


One thought on “Prayers of King Lear

  1. Father Mark,

    Are you sure you want to go there?

    First: Ents versus Ian Holm ( tall vs. short may not be your idea of an eternal struggle (being tall, and all that); but it is to us short people (who “got no reason”). It is noteworthy that Holm claims Polonius in his bio, but not Bilbo.

    Second: Lear: Shakespeare (Macbeth and Lear) and Faulkner(The Sound And The Fury): “”Tis a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury; and signifying nothing.”: hardly prayer, possibly ranking with the prayer of Melchizedek in its obscurity, but not even close in its import.

    Third: especially applicable to Lear, “Be careful what you pray for, lest you get it.”

    Fourth: and, mercifully, final: be careful to whom you listen; if you hear back what your self-talk is saying, you’re usually being played. A multiplicity of counselors is of great benefit (and I have this on good counsel; Proverbs 15:22); but, ultimately, we have the God-given duty to make our own judgments, AND to act on them accordingly. To fail in either is to not live up to God’s purpose for our life.



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