“King Lear remorses…”

First of all, Happy Birthday, William Shakespeare. You changed my life!

And now…

One of Shakespeare’s most far-reaching contributions to the English-speaking world was the vigorous stretching of the language. At least as far as written English goes, we can attribute to him numerous coinages and repurposings (although we cannot blame him for the verb “to repurpose”!) that enlarged the lexicon and made it more supple. Working with nuanced ideas by way of fresh images within the constraints of iambic pentameter is bound to stimulate verbal creativity. We can’t know how many of the words he introduced or used in new ways were already current in the spoken language, but the level of sophistication in his usage suggests that he was the prime mover at least most of the time.

So, to celebrate, I offer a verbal repurposing by one of my students.

It lacks true Shakespearean felicity, at least on the surface. Maybe beneath the surface, though?

“Remorse” is, as almost all of us know, a noun. It is not a verb. It comes from Latin via Middle French and then Middle English, and at base it means “the act of biting again.” Webster’s says when we use it we mean “a gnawing distress arising from a sense of guilt for past wrongs.”

It’s certainly true that Lear eventually does feel remorse: for valuing the wrong daughters at their word; for abnegating his humanity before abdicating his throne; for being stupid. His “remorse” seems particularly apt when we recall that he himself expressed his disappointment in his daughters as a kind of biting: “sharper than a serpent’s tooth,” he styled it, “to have a thankless child.” Two thankless children = two bites. Regan bites; Goneril bites again. King Lear has remorse.

For my student, though, Lear’s guilt is not a thing but a process: King Lear remorses. But in that structure, considering the word’s origins, wouldn’t we have to interpret the statement to mean that LEAR bites again? He doesn’t experience a thing, a re-biting; he bites.

This is not how my student used it; she wrote that he remorses over how badly things have turned out.

But if we do a little speculating, we might be able to make things come out right, after all:

Perhaps like Othello, Lear bites his own “nether lip.” Othello does it in anger (and possibly in frustration and anguish), and in fact the same phrase is used by other, later, writers to denote the same act and motive. (I have always liked this gesture, so suggestive of self-devouring—and Prof. Steve Cohen of Central Connecticut State University demonstrates with great clarity and persuasion the presence of a substantial pattern of images of devouring in Othello, in an article the draft of which he was kind enough to share with me a couple of months ago.) If Lear follows suit as he fumes over the consequences of his folly, we might very well say that he “remorses”!

Unorthodox use of language, but on Shakespeare’s birthday, who am I to complain about that?

About RAB

Teacher of English writing and literature (college-level); academic-freedom activist; editor and copy editor; theater director, costumer, actress, playwright. View all posts by RAB

6 responses to ““King Lear remorses…”

  • philosophermouseofthehedge

    Enjoyed the post – and the birthday reminder. I remember being really tiny and sitting on my dad’s lap as he read from a big book of Shakespeare he got as a gift. We would go to all the summer Shakespeare productions we could find – the ones on the weekends at Williamsburg were my favorites. We sat on the grass – Dad said the real Shakespeare had audiences standing in the dirt, groundlings – so it seemed appropriate. He loved literature…considering he was a poor dirt farm child who walked barefoot to the one room school, some teacher did a good job – and proof Shakespeare has something for everyone. Thanks, Bard.

    • RAB

      When you read some of the letters of Civil War and World War I soldiers you realize your father’s experience was once the experience of many–in fact, lots of Americans in the 19th and even early 20th century, particularly rural folk and laborers, could say with perfect truth that the only books they had read were the Bible (King James) and the Works of Shakespeare. A pretty good education, I’d say, and a good way to listen to the music of language.
      I don’t mean to imply that your father read only two books!
      Some decades ago I visited relatives in southern Germany, in a small town with a lot of farmers. I was surprised to hear that everyone was excited that an opera company was going to be performing in a small city nearby, and that everyone (it seemed, anyway) was planning to go. Farmers and Opera? asked my snobbish teenaged self. The love of beauty is a human trait and should be universally encouraged and supported.
      Glad to tap into such lovely childhood memories, Phil!

      • philosophermouseofthehedge

        Those 2 highly underrated books pretty well cover all bases: vocabulary, sentence structure, imagery, culture, history, universal themes, tolerance, how to behave – and cause and effect if you didn’t…and more. A true classical foundation. It used to be a big joke: the not so country bumpkin from backwoods Texas. Might be a good idea to go back to that. Always enjoy your posts

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