Shakespeare's use of the three-part-line in Act I of King Lear
Act I of King Lear is full of caesura. It is, after all, a play about things splitting up. Within one line, Lear begins to talk in caesured poetry.
Give me the map there. Know that we have divided
In three our kingdom: and 'tis our fast intent To shake all cares and business from our age...
As he divides the land allotted to Goneril, he speaks entirely in lines with caesuras in the middle, until he gets to the end of his speech, when he uses a three-part-line.
Of all these bounds, even from this line to this, With shadowy forests and with champains rich'd, With plenteous rivers and wide-skirted meads, We make thee lady: to thine and Albany's issue Be this perpetual. What says our second daughter, Our dearest Regan, wife to Cornwall? Speak.
That final word, a solitary command, is so typical of Lear. By hiving it off on its own at the end of the line, Shakespeare makes Lear unquestionable cruel. He did not have to break the line like that. But, having written it that way, he makes it difficult for any actor to deliver it a way that isn't harsh, or even cruel.
Cordelia's reply uses three-part-lines to underline her sincerity and the impossible position she has been put into:
You have begot me, bred me, loved me: I Return those duties back as are right fit. Obey you, love you, and most honour you. Why have my sisters husbands, if they say They love you all? Haply, when I shall wed, That lord whose hand must take my plight shall carry Half my love with him, half my care and duty: Sure, I shall never marry like my sisters, To love my father all.
How lonely that personal pronoun is, out on the end of the line. And that 'Haply', breaking up the line with intensity, verges on being sardonic.
The exchange between Cordelia and Lear relies on three-part-lines to wring intensity out of hugely concise dialogue.
Lear: So young, and so untender? Cordelia: So young, my lord, and true. Lear: Let it be so; thy truth, then, be thy dower...
Those two three-part-lines, back to back, require a slightly slower pace. They emphasise the shifting nature of their relationship that is changing so quickly: 'my lord', 'then'. The potential for cruelty that the three-part-line provides:
Let pride, which she calls plainness, marry her.
The parenthesis offers a chance for Lear to swipe at his daughter, underlined by the third-person pronoun. Again, the line can only be that concise by being in three-parts. The signature nature of Shakespeare's best poetry is just how condensed it can be. The three-part-line is a key technique to achieve that.
Lear's scuffle with Kent has similar parenthesis effects, showing how the king's real power is already shifting:
Kent, on thy life, no more.
Thus Kent, O princes, bids you all adieu.
Three-part lines are also used to accelerate the natural pace of speech. Here the King of France has an abrupt half-line start, followed by a long slow whole line, then by a caesured line (with internal rhyme, another intensity mechanism), and then a three part line that has his speech up almost stumbling towards his disbelief that Lear could act so rashly, in 'trice of time' (another internal rhyme).
This is most strange, That she, that even but now was your best object, The argument of your praise, balm of your age, Most best, most dearest, should in this trice of time Commit a thing so monstrous, to dismantle So many folds of favour.
The end words of this speech sum-up the whole scene: strange, object, age, time, dismantle, offence... But the word at the end of the three-part-line is what the play is all about: time. Lear is running out of it, uses it badly, and in the end, Cordelia's death is a matter of bad timing, which is what makes this play so unbearable.
The middle word of that three-part-line, should, sum-up Cordelia's perceived failure, Lear's mistake, and Kent's bravely playing the fool when the Fool, mysteriously, was nowhere to be seen. Should the Fool have been there? If so, would there even have been a play?
Lear respond's to the King of France's apology for Cordelia's virtues ('she is herself a dowry'), with a three-part-line of defiance:
Nothing: I have sworn: I am firm.
Burgundy has asked for money. Lear will give none. 'Nothing will come of nothing.' France then makes another romantic speech in Cordelia's defence ('Fairest Cordelia, that art most rich, being poor.') This provokes another three-part-line of scorn from Lear, so angry he fragments his lines more and more:
Thou has her France, let her be thine, for we Have no such daughter.
He could easily have said, 'Thou has her France, we have no such daughter.' A simple caesura to make the break. The three-part-line is better. It allows a repetition, a rephrasing, a distancing. Caesura shows us his anger; a three-part-line shows us his heart breaking up like his kingdom.
Edmund's opening speech in scene II shows a similar use of a three-part-line to illustrate stubborn character, in denial of reality:
For that I am some twelve or fourteen moon-shines Lag of a brother? Why bastard? wherefore base?
Anger builds across that line. Each part brings more tension. Similarly, when Gloucester comes in, fretting about the events of scene I he summarises them, appropriately, in caesured lines, until he reaches the end of his speech:
Kent banish'd thus! and France in choler parted! And the king gone to-night! subscribed his power! Confined to exhibition! All this done Upon the gad! Edmund, how now! what news?
To move on from summary of the past to the future action of the play, Shakespeare cannot go back to the more leisurely complete line. He has to ramp up to a three-parter. Later on Lear does the same thing, using a three-part-line to show his astonishment at the world around him:
Doth any here know me? This is not Lear: Doth Lear walk thus? speak thus? Where are his eyes?
Madness is creeping into that line. Lear is fragmenting. Further signs of his emotional breakdown come with a three-part-line when Albany confronts him:
Albany: What's the matter, sir? Lear: I'll tell thee: Life and death! I am ashamed That thou hast power to shake my manhood thus;
The first break is Lear switching from Albany to Goneril, an anacoluthon. The grammar breaks down as Lear does. The exclamation in the middle is not a parenthesis so much as a wild intrusion, the sort he will struggle to contain later on. Only a three-part-line can convey so much of this to the audience. To drive the point home, six of the next seven line have caesuras, followed by another three-part-line:
Old fond eyes, Beweep this cause again, I'll pluck ye out, And cast you, with the waters that you lose, To temper clay. Ha! Let it be so.
Act I ends with the Fool trying to make Lear see sense. Too late, too late. Lear's famous exhortation to himself is a three-part-line, followed by a line with a caesura.
O, let me not be mad, not mad, sweet heaven Keep me in temper: I would not be mad!
We know what will happen. It is inevitable. Repeating the phrase 'not mad' in the middle of the line only emphasises that.
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