Blog Post

Where did you die?

But it was all a mystery.  Here we are,
And there we go:--but where?

                                       (Byron, Don Juan V.39)

Look there, look there, King Lear implores, pointing to the dead Cordelia.  We know she's dead, but he wants her to "stay a little," which is so much less to ask, in this final scene, than his icy, impossible demand in the first scene that she "mend her speech a little."

 But still more impossible is her staying a little now

: here is no longer stay (to allude to Richard II, which adumbrates Lear in multiple and fascinating ways).  Look there, look on her lips, he says: he now wants any breath at all from lips whose clear and audible speech he had dismissed as too before.  But she cannot stay, and has not stayed.  The moral of blind Gloucester's fable, imagining himself at the verge of the cliffs of Dover, had seemed to be that you can't just step out of the world.  Its boundaries -- between castle and heath, France and England, Dover and the sea, life and death -- are sharply defined and strictly confining. But now Cordelia is (to quote Blanchot) here and nowhere, present in her corpse and absent as the Fool who doubles her and who has disappeared from the play --  though Lear recognizes the death of Cordelia as the death of the Fool also: "And my poor fool is hanged."

Be there, where I look: this is what Lear is pleading.  How different from his earliest imperative: "Give me the map there."  His command of space, like Richard's, has suffered a reduction from the size of the kingdom to that of the bare stage just large enough to fit the characters we see: Richard's prison ("I have been studying how I may compare / This prison where I live unto the world"), the men of stone surrounding Lear.  In scene 1, there, where the map is, is a place to consider what happens elsewhere, in the division of the kingdom.  In the last scene, there, where Cordelia is, is all that matters.

John Berryman says that literary critical judgment ("taste") is essential to textual editing.  I agree.  (Essentialism, For The Win!)  So I note these echoes between Lear's first and last scenes -- "a little" "there" -- to make an argument about another textual crux in Lear.  (Well, as cruxes go, this is not a big one.  Maybe not a crux at all for most editors.  But there are those to whom it matters.  And I think it should.)

The crux: When Lear wakes up from his restorative sleep, he sees Cordelia but cannot believe it's her, or perhaps wishes not to want to believe that he must face her.  "You are a sprit, I know" he says, and then, according to most editions of Lear, he asks "When did you die?"  Such a question, I guess, would evince a sort of guilty acknowledgement of the crime he has committed in banishing her (even if France takes her up).  The question "When?" recognizes her death as contingent on her banishment.  It had to happen, once Lear set this in motion.  And so he girds himself to the guilt and the judgment that inevitably follow the death he thinks he has caused.  The words would be a full if oblique acknowledgement of how he's sinned against her.

I think this is wrong.  I think that to read the moment that way is to turn the tragedy into a mistake.  If only Lear hadn't misjudged, she'd be alive!  But she is alive, and so the question becomes a little farcical.  Or at least a little more farcical than the parallel the scene where, newly blinded, Gloucester also thinks of and yet fails to recognize Edgar:

I' the last night's storm I such a fellow saw;
Which made me think a man a worm: my son
Came then into my mind; and yet my mind
Was then scarce friends with him: I have heard more since.

(I think this is where Freud gets his wonderful phrase, in his essay about Lear, that it's a play about having to "make friends with the necessity of dying.")  Edgar is right there, as Edmund had been in the parallel opening scene, but Gloucester recognizes him even less, even as he makes the connection.

Anyhow the non- or repressed-recognition sets up Lear's non-recognition of Cordelia.  And what matters is that in both scenes child and father are together but not together.  They share the space but they are not present to each other.

In the First Folio and in the First Quarto, the question Lear asks is "Where did you die?"  Editors are puzzled by that question, though it makes as much sense as the Second Quarto's no more authoritative "When did you die?"  Lear's question, with its suggestion of unconscious recognition, could ask whether Cordelia died in France or in England, a question whose answer would also go to his own part in her death.  But I think that the reason editors tend to reject this reading (on the basis of taste only: there's really no reason to prefer a Second Quarto reading when First Quarto and Folio agree on "where" except because "when" seems to editors to make more sense) -- I think editors reject this reading because the question is just a little too spooky.

It imagines Cordelia alive and dead at the same time.  She is somewhere in the world and yet nowhere.  She is placed and displaced at once.  She would die (she will die) where time abdicates to space.  Her time is over (when did you die?) and what's left only is where, a space or place which is bare and barren and nowhere.  That transfiguration of time into empty space is the spooky and terrible event that Lear attempts to face in assuming that Cordelia is only a hallucination, and that the real Cordelia has died, somewhere, where she was and where she is not.  Compare Antony's "I am so lated in the world that I / Have lost my way forever."

Overreading a minor textual question?  Maybe, but it's worth noticing that on at least two other occasions Shakespeare has a character asks this apparently senseless question (the nineteenth century Alexander Dyce, for example, comments that "Where is all but nonsense.")  When Gertrude breaks the news to Laertes that Ophelia has drowned, his instantaneous first question is "Drown'd? O where?"  And when a messenger comes to tell Antony that his wife Fulvia has died, his first question is, "Where died she?"

I think these questions were natural to Shakespeare as tragedian -- maybe as comedian too -- and they show the intensity of his thinking about what theater is.  The definition of a scene in Shakespeare (as is well known) is the interaction of one group of people.  Scenes end when a second group displaces the first, after the stage has been empty for a moment.  Being in the world, being alive in Shakespeare, is being present to another.  A universal form of anxiety in Shakespeare is wondering where an absent person is: that unassuming question is asked all the time in Shakespeare.  But it's a question brought to its extremest significance when someone dies.  What's left then is the pure place of their death, the stage itself.  Hamlet cannot get away from the Ghost -- "Hic et ubique?"  It won't die.  It's always somewhere, here, and everywhere.  But this is a parody of life, of what's ended when we can say where someone died, but only that -- they were there; they are nowhere.

William Flesch's picture
William Flesch is the author, most recently, of Comeuppance: Costly Signaling, Altruistic Punishment, and Other Biological Components of Fiction (Harvard, 2008), and The Facts on File Companion to 19th Century British Literature.  He teaches the history of poetry as well as the theory of poetic and narrative form at Brandeis, and has been International Chair Professor at the National Taipei University of Technology (2012) and Old Dominion Fellow of the Humanities Council and Visiting Professor at Princeton (2014-15).