Friday, December 5, 2008

King Lear: When, "F*** You!" Just Won't Get the Job Done

Prepping for tomorrow's Brit Lit class, I was reviewing Samuel Johnson's, "Preface to Shakespeare," and had to restrain my pen, lest I underline the whole thing. But this in particular struck me tonight:

Shakespeare has no heroes; his scenes are occupied only by men, who act and speak as the reader thinks that he should himself have spoken or acted on the same occasion; even where the agency is supernatural, the dialogue is level with life.
I had my students read King Lear this past semester. I love that play. One of my fondest things to do with it, in an attempt to point out to them how much the language really has lost in our drive to abbreviate everything to the size of a text message, is to ask them to sally forth with their most vicious curse, no holds barred. I needn't tell you that "F*** you, you motherf***ing SOB," is about as eloquent as it gets. And then, I tell them this true story.

Back around 1996, a suitor rejected by one of the women I claim some relation to decided that a potential avenue back into her good graces lay through my intervention on his behalf. The first time he called, I politely told him that this was his battle to fight, sorry, I couldn't help. I was kind. I didn't tell him I thought dumping his sorry butt was among the smartest things she'd ever done. Then I learned he was stalking her. Then I learned he was harassing my parents. Then I learned he'd filed charges against a member of my family for offering to perform a random rearrangement of a number of his joints if he didn't leave the entire family alone. Then he called me again. Idiot.

This time, I didn't mince words. I didn't even have the right words. But I knew where to find them. As soon as he'd finished with "Hello," I said, "Hold on a minute," and reaching over my shoulder to the bookshelf behind me, I pulled down my copy of the Riverside Shakespeare. I turned to King Lear. I turned to act 2, scene 2, to be precise, lines 13-22, Kent expressing to Oswald the exact sentiment I needed. Picking up the phone, I said, "I don't think I did a sufficient job of conveying to you what I really think of you the last time we spoke. Let me be more clear. I think you are:
A knave; a rascal; an eater of broken meats; a base, proud, shallow, beggarly, three-suited, hundred-pound, filthy, worsted-stockign knave; a lily-livered, action-taking knave; a whoreson, glass-gazing, superserviceable, finical rogue; one-trunk-inheriting slave; one that wouldst be a bawd in way of good service, and art nothing but the composition of a knave, beggar, coward, pandar, and the son and heir of a mongrel bitch; one whom I will beat into clamorous whining, if thou deniest the least syllable of thy addition.
Clear enough?" I asked. Silence at the other end. He never called again. Go figure.