Notes on Act III, scene ii
crack your cheeks: the image of personified clouds blowing, with their cheeks puffed out.
cocks: weathervanes shaped like roosters on top of buildings
thought-executing fires: lightning swift as thought
vaunt-couriers: heralds who go before the army (as lightning goes before thunder)
oak-cleaving: tree splitting
rotundity: roundness, also may allude to pregnancy; Lear curses the world to be barren.
moulds: as if men were formed in molds into which the seeds (germains) of life are poured; that is, destroy the means to make more men.
court holy-water: slang for flattery; it would be better to flatter your daughters than to stay outside in this storm.
subscription: submission, or allegiance, support
servile ministers: agents who serve my daughters, taking their side against me
pernicious: deadly, poisonous
codpiece ... many: the codpiece was clothing that covered the crotch. The fool says that the man who thinks more about "housing his codpiece" (having sex) than where he will live, will soon be poor and full of lice.
many: many lice (see above explanation)
makes his toe: someone who overturns the normal order of things, elevating his toe above the status of his heart. Lear has brought this trouble on himself by turning his power over to his daughters.
glass: mirror, commenting on Lear's vanity
Marry: By the virgin Mary
enemies: sinners; Lear warns murderers, liars, those committing incest, who have gotten away with their crimes thus far, to hide or beg the heavens for mercy.
practiced: plotted against
Rive: split open, thus revealing the contents
summoners: the gods who summon them to judgement
sinning: although many men deserve heaven's wrath because of their sins, Lear believes that his punishment is greater than his crime, resulting from others' sins against him.
hard by: close by
harder: play on words; hard as in nearby, but also hard as in harsh, lacking compassion
demanding: asking about the king
art: alchemy which sought to turn base metals into gold. A common thing like warm, dry straw can become precious, even to a king, at times like this.
fortunes fit: he that has little wits must be content with little fortune. This song is also found in Twelfth Night, Act V.
cool a courtesan: such a night would cool off the hot passion of a whore
word than matter: don't practice the holiness they preach
mar: dilute the beer
tutors: when noblemen know more about fashion than the tailors, being concerned more with looking good than with ruling well
burned: heretics escape punishment, but lovers "burn" with venereal disease. These first four "prophesies" have already come to pass, describing the world as it is now (hypocritical priests, cheating brewers, ineffective rulers, heretics on the loose). The following prophecies, however, are all too good to be true, and will never happen.
tell their gold in the field: count money in the open
confusion: if these last six Utopian prophecies ever come to pass, England won't be recognizable, nothing will be as it is now.
going shall be used with feet: men will walk upright, as they ought (suggesting that they don't do that now).
Merlin: the wizard of King Arthur legend, supposedly lived after Lear's time.
Back to Act III, scene ii
Table of contents