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King Lear’s Buttons

Phil Daniels (Fool) Ian McKellen (Lear) Sinead Cusack (Kent) Chichester Festival Theatre 2017 production. Credit: Manuel Harlan

“Pray you, undo this button: thank you Sir” is probably not the most memorable line in the play although it’s a neat example of Shakespeare tucking his stage directions into the script as usual. Lear is at the very end of his life and physically weak. So he asks Kent and Edgar for a tiny bit of practical assistance.

I first saw King Lear when I was about 15, performed by quite a talented sixth form cast at Alleyn’s School. It was the nearest comparable boys’ school to my girls’ grammar and most of our brothers and boyfriends were pupils there. I read the play at about the same time in a fairly perfunctory way. I don’t think I noticed the button line.

Two or three years later, though, by then at teacher training college with English as my main subject I read it properly and studied it in detail with the excellent Miss Hiller (if I ever knew her first name I’m afraid I’ve long since forgotten it) as a set work. I still have the pencilled notes in my old Arden copy from those generally pretty enlightened sessions.

The button was commented on and we were told that Shakespeare is highlighting Lear’s regal status and remoteness from ordinary life. He would always have had a valet and never had to deal with buttons. Well it didn’t ring quite true to me even then. It’s hard to believe that anyone, however elevated, would be unable to push a button through a hole, It’s a bit like that (apocryphal, I’m sure) story about the young George VI not knowing how to turn the lights on and being too nervous with his stammer to summon a servant to do it. It just doesn’t add up. And after all in Lear’s case, he’s quite recently been able to rip off all his own clothes – “off ye lendings –  in the storm and his madness.

Fast forward nearly half a century (I know, I know …) from when I was puzzling over Lear at college and I have a problem in my thumbs, especially the left one. I assume it’s arthritis, which my mother had quite badly years before she reached the age I am now. It doesn’t show on X-Ray, though, and I’ve been referred to a rheumatology consultant for scans etc. The effect of it is that it hurts to move my thumb laterally across my fingers which makes lots of every day things painful and difficult – turning pages, pulling sticky tops off jars and bottles, carrying anything heavy and, worst of all, doing up buttons. Every time I struggle to button a blouse or fasten those fashionable sleeves which hook up on a tab to make them shorter I think of poor old Lear.

I know now for certain why Shakespeare’s saddest geriatric protagonist needs help with that button. He has arthritis in his thumbs and the treatment and exposure he has undergone by this stage in the play has made it worse. Fastening a button really hurts if you have arthritic thumbs and sometimes you need several stabs at it. Cold and damp, of which Lear has had plenty, exacerbates the problem.

King Lear was written at some point between March 1603 and Christmas 1606, according to Kenneth Muir who edited the original Arden edition. Shakespeare would have been somewhere between 39 and 42. In an era when people aged faster and died younger he could well have had arthritis in his own hands by then. And if he hadn’t, well he would have observed it plenty of others. This is the man, after all, who wrote Jacques’s speech in As You Like It. He understood the ageing process.

And come to think of it, what about Macbeth and those “weird women” and their “pricking in my thumbs”? More arthritis besetting older women living rough and probably desperately undernourished? What a perspicacious writer he was. He still makes me gasp aloud quite often.

Well, there’s no rule of thumb (sorry) or right or wrong answers as I used to tell my students.  Insights into Shakespeare’s work – and possibly even his life – come from unlikely sources sometimes. And they go on coming irrespective of how well you know a play, how many times you’ve seen or read it.  That, I think, is one of the things which makes Shakespeare unique

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Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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