Advice to King Lear Themes
by Turner Cassity

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Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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The Arneson River Theatre is almost too good a creation to be true for a poet like Cassity. He recognized the possibility of exploiting its unique setting in order to expand the choices for a more spontaneous solution to the tragedy of King Lear. In the first stanza, the reader is introduced to the connection between the desertlike setting of the theater and the gloomy weather conditions that must be artificially generated. The poem opens up at this point to be more than merely contrast; it is also about what it takes to stage the play and keep the financial backers from worrying about “foreclosure.” By the end of the first stanza, the reader has been introduced to the difficulty of staging a tragedy that is occurring on the heath, both logistically and financially.

Cassity, by writing about the staging of a Shakespeare play, also suggests the playwright’s habit of occasionally having the characters step outside their roles to make offhand remarks about being in a play. Cassity does this himself in “Advice to King Lear.” By the middle of the second stanza—after the “Pleasure craft” have already appeared—the poet inserts the line “Outdoors or in, a mummer’s still a mummer,” which refers to the fact that actors are merely playing roles; if the situation presents itself, actors can step out of their written characters and expand plot solutions. The narrator of the poem speaks to Lear and presents the mounting evidence for him to act on his own, for him to reject his gloomy end. The narrator mentions that his “fool can only grow forever dumber” and that his heirs will “march one to their different drummer.” Since this is the case, the passing of a pleasure craft is a wonderful opportunity for Lear to follow the narrator’s advice: “Get on the boatand go to summer.” The boat becomes a marvelous theatrical prop. Whereas the wind machines were used to impose a prescribed set of circumstances, the local boat serves to make King Lear—the dusty old tragedy—new and alive in the present. The situation is liberating not only for the players, but also for the viewing audience. In witnessing the staging of King Lear at this particular theater in San Antonio, the audience must rely on illusion for the play to seem comprehensible, but the river between the stage and the seats has allowed the unusual to happen. “Advice to King Lear” is a fine example of Cassity’s poetic gifts: Structure and content work together to make the poem wholly balanced in terms of tone, which allows Cassity’s wit to shine through.