Come not between the dragon and his wrath
Come not between the dragon and his wrath.
I loved her most, and thought to set my rest
On her kind nursery. Hence, and avoid my sight!
So be my grave my peace, as here I give
Her father’s heart from her! Call France; who stirs?
Call Burgundy. Cornwall and Albany,
With my two daughters’ dowers digest this third:
Let pride, which she calls plainness, marry her.
I do invest you jointly with my power,
Pre-eminence, and all the large effects
That troop with majesty. Ourself, by monthly course,
With reservation of an hundred knights,
By you to be sustain’d, shall our abode
Make with you by due turns. Only we still retain
The name, and all the additions to a king;
The sway, revenue, execution of the rest,
Beloved sons, be yours: which to confirm,
This coronet part betwixt you.
(Giving the crown)
Adopting a Dragon
One thing I like about Shakespeare is the way some lines can be adapted for personal use. “Come not between the dragon and his wrath” is me, as a young adult, unhappy about getting up for work in the morning. I needed two alarm clocks to wake myself up – one had to be out of reach so I couldn’t hit the snooze.
Today I could use “come not between the dragon and his wrath” in mock seriousness while fumbling over getting the morning coffee started. The cat welcomes my early morning stumbles with an invitation to joust. He arches his back, challenges my ankles to a duel, and runs for cover. By the time my coffee is brewed, Mr. Kitty and I have played peekaboo chase and I no longer feel like the dragon in today’s picture.
Taken in Shakespeare’s context, “Come not between the dragon and his wrath” is no playful growl.
Here we are in Scene I, Act I, and Shakespeare has already given us cause to love one sister and mistrust the others.
Old King Lear is getting ready to retire. He’s asked each of his three daughters to tell him how much they love him, telling them the one who loves him most will inherit the most. Any parent (or sibling) knows this is a wonky idea, but the King is the King.
Tell me, my daughters,–
Since now we will divest us both of rule,
Interest of territory, cares of state,–
Which of you shall we say doth love us most?
That we our largest bounty may extend
Where nature doth with merit challenge. Goneril,
Our eldest-born, speak first.King Lear
Goneril is a scheming brown-noser. She says she loves the king “more than words can wield,” and on, and on, and on. Daughter number two is a manipulator who piles on more of the same, puts down her older sister and asks Lear to “find I am alone felicitate in your dear highness’ love.”
The youngest daughter is a peach. Cordelia is brave and moral enough to refuse to play the game – “my love’s more richer than my tongue,” she says. The King doesn’t like it. Never mind that she is the dedicated one who would refuse to marry, because she wants to be dedicated to her aging father – “Sure, I shall never marry like my sisters, to love my father all.”
In today’s excerpt Lear has just listened to his three girls and made up his mind, saying “With my two daughters’ dowers digest this third.” Yes, he disinherits Cordelia. Any doubts about Lear’s mental competence kick into high gear. The old guy is unreasonable, probably senile.
It took me a while to get around the linguistic pastry of Elizabethan English, but the first time I heard King Lear and understood it, Act I, Scene I was the point where I wanted to run in and rescue Cordelia. Shakespeare caught me. Without giving away much at all, in the first few pages of the play’s script, Shakespeare has woven an introductory tapestry-web of character relationships.
Now that’s context.