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Boot and shtick.

"God sure wasn't no da Vinci: My feet are nice but my shoes are pinchy."

--Traditional rhyme

Toward the end of the Catalogus historiarum particulanum, the daunting list of future scientific projects appended as part of his Instauratio Magna of 1620, Francis Bacon called for histories 123 and 124: a "Historia Ludorum omnis generis" and a "Historia Praestigiatorum et Circulatorum." (1) This essay might be a fragment of both histories, a sketch in exploration of Shakespeare and "shtick." "Shtick"--Yiddish for "bit," a synonym for it--refers in modern comedians' lingo both to distinctive pieces of short comic action, like the "lazzi" of the commedia dell'arte, and to the larger, defining routines carried across a comedian's career. Shtick is a staple of modern comedy--it brings into being a particular structure of relations between performer and audience through the use of a trademark routine or persona: Jack Benny's cheapness, Grock's violin playing, Phyllis Diller's cackle. Early modern clowns too seem to have had their shtick. Richard Tarlton's recorded habit of sticking his face through the arras to announce his entrance is an instance. (2) Records of other regular bits have largely disappeared, but it seems highly likely they were part of the repertory of performance and the skill set of the comic player. Tarlton's other well-recorded habit of improvising jokes and insults suggests as much, and the first Quarto Hamlet complains at length about the predictability of shtick itself in a very shtick-like way in rebuke of unruly clowns:

And then you haue some agen, that keepes one sute of ieasts, as a man is knowne by one sute of appareil, and gentlemen quotes his ieasts downe in their tables, before they come to the play, as thus: "cannot you stay till I eate my porrige?" and "you owe me a quarters wages" and "my coate wants a cullison" and "your beere is sowre" and blabbering with his lips and thus keeping in his cinkapase of ieasts, when, God knows, the warme clowne cannot make a iest unlesse by chance, as the blinde man catcheth a hare. [Hamlet, Q1, TLN 1210-19)

Here I want to focus on one particular area of comic business that early modern clowns seem--like modern clowns--to have cultivated: the gags of the foot.

Feet are unusually prominent, in all senses, among the shticks of clowning. As extremities, they are constantly emphasized, and constantly causing trouble. Boots are too big or too small, laces get tangled, shoes get stuck in mud, molasses, glue, oil, etc., leaving telltale marks across floors, roads, expensive carpets, and the like. They are weapons, talismans, burdens, objects of exchange. In a pinch they can even be food, as in Chaplin's famous scene in The Gold Rush. The feet within the shoes are likewise unruly, vulnerable to sprains, stubbings, nails, stones, dogs. Clowns notoriously make a big production out of using feet correctly. Even standing, for a clown, can be a complex exercise. And of course walking with them is the basis of a whole branch of the profession. A clown has his or her walk, as distinctive as a laugh--think of Chaplin's bandy waddle, Keaton's agitato shimmy. Feet are livelihood, at the heart of a clown's world: Charlie at his most captivating turns a pair of bread rolls into miniature feet and improvises a table dance, his luminous face between his forks. (3)

Early modern clowns seem also to have cultivated footwork, and such images of them as we have agree in showing legs and feet. John Scottowe's manuscript image of Tarlton has him stepping purposively forward on his right leg, in rhythm to the tabor and pipe he is playing. Will Kemp leaps from a pointed toe in his Nine Days' Wonder, calves belled and slops ballooning. Even Robert Armin, whose routines were less physical, seems to tap his heel as he stands, arms akimbo, on the title page of his Two Maids of Moreclacke. These images are all full-length, the clown's whole body on display. By contrast, the images of Burbage, Lowin, Jonson, Field and so on that we have are half-portraits, emphasizing head and hands. Even the full-length portrait of Alleyn at Dulwich puts him in a black gown on a dark background, his legs hidden in cloth, his feet perfunctory globs. But for the clowns, skilled feet were key professional accoutrements. Tarlton was an accredited master of fence, Kemp famous for his jigging in Chamberlain's Men afterpieces in addition to his voyager dances. Of Armin's feet we shall speak more later.

Nevertheless, and somewhat surprisingly, the action of the comic foot is in some ways harder to pin down than its tragic counterpart. What seems to have been a conventional "tragic style" in the period included a specific kind of walk--what Tiffany Stern has discussed as tragic "strutting," "stalking," or "jetting." (4) This suggests a certain decorum of height, a loftiness of gait and gesture, shoulders high, head erect. It may have had a deliberate association with notions of the dignity of antiquity, including the use by classical tragedians of the cothurnus or "buskin"--the high-heeled boot of the tragic actor, which gave literal superiority of step and posture. Roman comic actors, on the other foot, wore the soccus, a low-heeled or loose-fitting slipper, which presumably also defined a gait, with ease and nimbleness of movement compared to the slower--and more precarious--stalk of the cothurnus. (5)

For the early modern stage, the nearest we can come to a similar vocabulary of gait for clowns is the not-surprising term "jig," associated at once with verse movement and physical movement in Marlowe's dismissal of his predecessors for their "jigging veins of rhyming mother wit/ And such conceits as clownage keeps in pay," in contrast to "the stately tent of war" containing Alleyn's Tamburlaine, famous for his tragic stalking. For the clownish, then, there was not a stately lateral motion, but a bouncing up-and-down, a leaping rise and fall of energetic action, requiring athletic skill no doubt, but suggesting also the indecorous and rude, the socially low.

In fact, it is rather hard to tell what the clowns in surviving illustrations are wearing on their feet. Tarlton seems to have some sort of boot, which Scottowe's accompanying verses helpfully describe as "startups": what the OED defines "a kind of high-low or boot, worn by rustics." (6) A 1613 ballad probably based on the same woodcut makes the boot's height and lacings clearer. The woodcut of Kemp is too generic to be of much use, though again his footwear seem more like boots, if perhaps light ones, than slipper-like socci. Armin's feet seem to sport low shoes rather than boots, perhaps nearest to a standard sort of Tudor shoe with a strap.

But if we can't be sure whether there was a standard comic footwear for clowns, the semiotics of the clownish foot fit squarely into a set of oppositions that maps status onto body part. Clowns being socially and generically "low," the "lower strata" of the body are their particular playground and clowns and clown characters are consistently associated, and preoccupied, with their legs and feet. A Shakespearean list would have to include:

* the endlessly running "Dromios" (their name as their nature) who keep being "spurned" back and forth until one complains he is turning into a football;

* Launce, whose wonderful shoe-shtick in Two Gentlemen of Verona distinguishes his shoe-mother from his shoe-father because it "hath the worser sole";

* Launcelot Gobbo, whom the fiend tempts to "use your legs, take the start, run away"; (7)

* Sir Toby Belch, who invites Viola to "taste your legs," considers his boots "good enough to drink in," and warns Sir Andrew that he will be run through "as surely as your feet hit the ground they step on";

* Touchstone, who cares not for his spirits "if my legs were not weary";

* Autolycus, who like to "jog on, jog on, the footpath way"

* Caliban-Trinculo who, flat out, are taken together for "some monster of the isle with four legs."

And so on. This is all unsurprising. But where feet and their fortunes move to the center of the action for other reasons, the clown's expertise in footing may become an instrument for wider dramatic exploration, as though pondering and podiatry were cognate in clown philology. (8)

Their betters also tend to associate clown characters with their feet. Hotspur puts down Hal by dubbing him "the nimble-footed madcap Prince of Wales"--he himself being addicted to horses. And when Hamlet imagines the disruptive social advancement of the peasant, in response to the grave--digging clown's resistance to his philosophizing, it is the uppity foot that serves as his synecdoche:
   How absolute the knave is! We must speak by the card, or
   equivocation will undo us. By the Lord, Horatio, these three years
   I have taken a note of it; the age is grown so picked that the toe
   of the peasant comes so near the heel of the courtier, he galls his
   kibe. (5.1.140-45)

The fat knight, Sir John Falstaff, as we might expect, is an especial exponent of the comic lower limb. Simply getting him onto his feet is a Herculean labor, requiring "levers to lift me up again being down" (2.2.36). In mock repentance for "this life," he offers an alternative vocation to "sew netherstocks and mend them and foot them too" (2.4.120-21). And his description of his fight at Gadshill is punctured by Poins by directing attention comically downwards:

FALSTAFF. These nine in buckram that I told thee of--

PRINCE HENRY. So, two more already.

FALSTAFF. Their points being broken--

POINS. Down fell their hose!

FALSTAFF.--began to give me ground. (2.4.220-24)

Losing one's pants inopportunely is an elementary piece of clowning shtick. Sir John's own runaway use of his feet is the point of a series of jokes in the scene, and he is later disappointed to be given not a troop of cavalry but only "a charge of foot." A comic routine of "putting on the boot" may also underlie his exhortations to Shallow when he hears of Hal's accession at the end of Henry IV, Part Two:

FALSTAFF. Master Shallow, my Lord Shallow,--be what thou wilt; I am fortune's steward--get on thy boots: we'll ride all night. [...] Boot, boot, Master Shallow. (5.2.134-36)

And when Sir John at last begins to die, he goes into death, like Socrates, his great precursor, feet first.

Another comic rush to don boots--with perhaps the difficulty of doing so in a hurry--turns the Duke of York in Richard II into a figure of comic fun almost as soon as footwear becomes an issue:

DUKE. God for his mercy, what treachery is here!

DUCHESS. Why, what is it, my lord?

DUKE. Give me my boots, I say; saddle my horse. Now, by mine honour, by my life, by my troth, I will appeach the villain. [...]

AUMERLE. Good mother, be content; it is no more Than my poor life must answer.

DUCHESS. Thy life answer! Enter Servant with boots

DUKE. Bring me my boots: I will unto the king.

DUCHESS. Strike him, Aumerle. Poor boy, thou art amazed. Hence, villain! never more come in my sight.

DUKE. Give me my boots, I say. (5.2.93-96)

The arrival of the boots is specifically noted in both the Quarto and Folio texts, and there follows an on-stage struggle over them, with the Duchess first urging Aumerle to drive away the servant and then trying to do it herself. One can easily imagine further comic business in which she attempts to withhold his boots from York--his command to "Give me my boots" might even be addressed to her.

Boots and feet as incidentals are thus almost invariably comic and lowering. But, as so often in Shakespeare, this opposition is capable of a striking dialectical reversal, in which feet and their fortunes move to the center of the action. In King Lear, Shakespeare's richest exploration of the foot, Armin's feet are mobilized for just such poetic purposes.

King Lear is unusually preoccupied with footwear and feet, both in vocabulary and in narrative. It includes an unusual amount of road traffic, as the action moves from Lear's court--wherever we imagine it--to Albany's, to Gloucester's, to Dover, and to the unknown scene of the final battle, presumably in South England somewhere. This dramatic movement is not just a skipping point-to-point, but the route and the effort required to get there, or anywhere in Lear's Britain, is made much of (compare Antony and Cleopatra, where people seem to teleport from place to place). Everyone in King Lear seems to be in motion across the landscape, "threading dark-eyed night" (2.1.140) by "both stile and gate, horseway and footpath" (4.1.64). Lear's means of transport across his kingdom are noted with some care. When he leaves Albany's house, he orders servants to "Saddle my horses! Call my train together!" (1.4.261). But by the time he storms out of Gloucester's, he is on foot. Conveyed from the weather-beaten hovel towards Dover in "a litter" (3.6.95), he escapes to haunt "the high-grown field" (4.4.7) where he can only "get it by running" (4.6.223).

Meanwhile, Edgar and Gloucester make their way thither on slow feet. Throughout, the play invokes in the background the ancient image of human life as a journey, the "pelerinage de la vie humaine" which ends in the grim necessity of each individual's "crawl towards death" (1.1.43). On these various journeys, feet, their wear and their actions are often invoked. Indeed, footwear looms large. Feet, toes and heels all get their due, and at one time or another, characters refer to, or don, shoes, boots, slippers, worsted stockings, garters, and netherstocks. The footed body's precariousness in its upright posture seems a regular part of the awareness the play generates, until, finally, the stage is littered with people lying down, and even those still on two feet seem barely able to hold themselves up.

In this play, by extension, what happens to the one end of the body seems to have strong resonances for what is going on at the other end. There is a recurrent pull to an allegory of the feet and their actions as the starting place for any mode of life. In the pursuit of harsh, but also clarifying, rigor, the reduction of the "grounds" of thought or of living to the "ground" on which one stands, or falls, is a repeated tactic, and the skilled footing of the clown becomes repeatedly the place to consider larger journeys.

Peter Stallybrass has drawn attention to the interest King Lear has in "the precariousness of balance, the vulnerability of the body to the unlearning of that most simple and mysterious of human capacities: walking." (9) But, as we have seen, clowns have always known about "the mystery of walking"--it is one of the first things they practice, learning its ins and outs in all their rich eccentricity. Walking, and its failed counterpart, falling, are all over the place in the play, in a way that suggests how the play is interested in the postures of the body--upright, prone, supine--as sketches for a taxonomy of human fate. When Edgar attempts to cure Gloucester of his desire to turn stumbling into the high calling of tragedy, the moment of greatest tenderness and astonishment is when, still in his disguise, he invites his father to resume his feet: "Give me your arm: Up: so. How is't? Feel you your legs? You stand." "Too well, too well" (4.6.79-81). Simply standing on the ground, solidly if fallibly upright, is a kind of miracle, as if the scene, and perhaps the play, were focused on a single text: "The Lord upholdeth all that fall, and lifteth up all that are ready to fall" (Psalms 145:14).

Let me explore a few instances where I see this sort of "revenge of shtick" in the play, where the foot seems to rise up and take on the life of some other body part. Here is one, a riddle or parable from the Fool to Lear in the storm:
   The man that makes his toe
   What he his heart should make
   Shall of a corn cry woe,
   And turn his sleep to wake.

There seem to be two ways of understanding this; either "The man who puts what should be at his heart into the exposed place of his toe will find that he suffers much more from the accidents of the world and ruins his happiness," or (reading the syntax a bit more loosely) "The man who makes his toe into the most vital part of his body will suffer etc ... But perhaps these come to more or less the same thing. The point is: toes and hearts need to be kept in their places in the body's hierarchy, just as daughters and fathers ought to keep their places in the social body. The foot is a degraded and lowly implement, subject to ridiculous and all-too-frequent accidents, which shouldn't be promoted to life-shattering afflictions. One doesn't send the general over the top with the privates, as it were. The standard fool's shtick of topsy-turvy is at work here, but the upside-downery also opens a question we might see as turning to pointedly skeptical ends: how does one tell one's toe from one's heart? And what if one makes a mistake about this? The Fool's local wisdom is that things should stay in their places, one should be able to tell one's toe from one's heart (or one's ass from one's elbow), and keep one's feet properly on the ground. But the Fool's own darker purpose may be to insist that this is not easy to do, that one may be mistaken, or deluded, or self-deluded.

In this parable, the foot gets misplaced, as a Fool's foot so often does, say, into his mouth. But finding the right place for parts of the body (and returning errant ones to their place) is a challenging task in King Lear: hearts are heaved into mouths, and pushed back down (like the cockney's knapped eels); the proper relation and function of eyes and noses must be construed--and sometimes parts go bad, become "hard hearts," or go missing altogether ("where are his eyes?"). Feet are prominent in this mis-anatomy of bodies natural and politic: the right use of them even caps the rueful Utopia of the Fool's Merlin-prophecy: "Then comes the time, who lives to see't,/ When going shall be used with feet" (3.3.100-101). Rather than with coaches, or litters, one might say, simply. But in this world, simple walking is a Cockaigne miracle, like honest usury and pious bawdry.

Here is an earlier exchange on a similar subject, before disaster has irremediably struck:

Enter LEAR, KENT [in disguise], Gentleman and Fool LEAR. Go you before to Gloucester with these letters. Acquaint my daughter no further with anything you know than comes from her demand out of the letter. If your diligence be not speedy, I shall be there afore you.

KENT. I will not sleep, my lord, till I have delivered your letter. Exit

FOOL. If a man's brains were in's heels, were't not in danger of kibes?

LEAR. Ay, boy.

FOOL. Then, I prithee, be merry; thy wit shall ne'er go slip-shod.

LEAR. Ha, ha, ha! (1.5.1-10)

What is the Fool thinking of here? These are not easy lines. Is he watching Kent's "diligence" (4) in action, perhaps in a running exit, to do Lear's bidding? His first remark might then be a rueful reflection on Kent's hope that his devoted foot-service will somehow be sufficient to save the day. Kent, says the Fool, thinks with his feet, or perhaps on them--which is to say he barely thinks, but leaps in, boots and all, when he sees something that needs doing--scolding Lear or attacking Oswald or insulting Cornwall is all one. That he ends up with his feet in the stocks is, the Fool might say, just his deserving: "He wears cruel garters." (2.4.10). Those whose brains are in their heels suffer badly from exposure, like those who make their toes their hearts. The Fool's later critique of Kent for not keeping a prudent footing ("Let go thy hold when a great wheel runs down a hill" [2.4.78]) is along just these lines. But perhaps this is too subtle. Perhaps the Fool is merely massaging his own sore feet.

The Fool's next remark ("thy wit shall ne'er go slipshod") is even more puzzling. Why will Lear's wit not suffer from chilblains and have to wear slippers? It looks as though this ought to mean that Lear's brains are NOT in his heels, but in their right place, in his head. Lear, after all, doesn't think with his feet, but, if anything, with his heart. Body parts seem to be wandering again. What are feet for? A brain for? A heart? How do they divide walking, thinking, feeling? Perhaps this explains why Lear laughs. But this is not the Fool's usual way with Lear, which is sharper, more apt to poke at chilblains than salve them.

Surely relevant here also, as Stanley Wells points out, is the proverbial lore that "a fool's brains were in his heels." (10) Dent on this proverb cites "John Serranus" (Jean de Serres), a French theologian, on Ecclesiastes 2:14; "For the eyes of a wise man are in his head, but the foole walketh in darknes" (Geneva), itself an urgently relevant verse for the play. Serranus contrasts the ocular perspicacity of the wise man with the fool who:
   walketh in darknes, that is to say, doth all things uncircumspectly
   and rashly ... [so that he can only] order things confusedly and
   unwisely, according as they come to hand. So the Greeks do speak of
   a fool, that he hath his mind in his heels.

Although the underlying Biblical proverb suggests that a fool's eyes are at fault, not his brains, Serranus attributes the migrating brain to the Greeks, where indeed it can be found, and quite widely. Its lineage seems to go back to Demosthenes, from whom it became a commonplace. (11) Eyes, brains and feet are all in the mix here, and earlier Lear too has juxtaposed feet and eyes in his small, infuriating charade before his daughter: "Doth Lear walk thus? Speak thus? Where are his eyes?"

If all this is relevant, as seems likely, the Fool's riddle may be saying to Lear something like: "At least we fools know where our brains are, but I'm not so sure about you." The remark is, then, a version of his earlier "I am better than thou art now; I am a fool, thou art nothing" (1.4.148-49). Does nothing have a brain? Where does he keep it? Not in his head, since he gave his crowns away--his gold one and then his bald one to his daughters. He has an empty eggshell on his shoulders. (12)

And finally here is a later Lear, stalking mad and "every inch a King"--as though now up on his cothurni--suddenly aware of his feet and doing his own version of the boot-trick:
   Take that of me, my friend, who have the power
   To seal the accuser's lips. Get thee glass eyes;
   And like a scurvy politician, seem
   To see the things thou dost not. Now, now, now, now:
   Pull off my boots: harder, harder: so.

Eyes and feet meet again, as they have before in Gloucester's lament: "I have no way, and therefore want no eyes./ I stumbled when I saw" (4.1.19-20). (13) While Gloucester weeps from his "case of eyes" (4.6.159), Lear is attending to his feet. As Empson commented, this is Lear "feeling at home with the universe and relaxed, so that he pulls off his boots" a perception that Cavell rightly called "beautiful and compassionate," though he also noted that Lear doesn't pull off his own boots, but orders a servant--is it Gloucester or Edgar?--to do it for him. (14) Once the boots are off "so," Lear's experience of his bare feet seems to induce a sharpened sense of the world he is in, including of the stage he is on. He notices Gloucester's tears and confesses he knows his name. He takes in the air. He declares "This' a good block" (4.6.201) though whether he means a hat or the earth (that is, the flooring of the stage) is unclear. And perhaps putting these alternatives together with his bare feet, he conceives the "delicate stratagem" (4.6.202) of cavalry shod with felt--once more mixing up heads and feet--and is off on his wild ride again. Just for a moment, he comes back to earth, barefoot in the world, in contact with the life of those around him. His feet become briefly a kind of sensory organ for contact with reality, for "seeing it feelingly," (4.6.164) like the clown.

What seems to be in play all through such instances is a kind of minimal functional anatomy of what we might call knowing the world that involves three cardinal elements--eyes, brains and feet. Eyes to sense, brains to reason, feet to get about. In this scheme, feet come before hands, which are superfluous rhetorical devices--"amphitheatres in the body" yes, instruments of speech and selfhood, but not necessities. (15) Just so, feet come before mouths, according to the logic of absolute poverty, absolute need that the play wants to deal in. When Lear disgustedly imagines himself begging a pension from "the hot-blooded France" it is "to keep base life afoot." As Primo Levi puts it: "he who has shoes can search for food." (16) But in the Fool's universe of King Lear, this bare forked triad keep refusing their functions, switching places: heels that think, brains that walk, feet that stamp out eyes. In rapid succession, when faced with Cordelia's servants, Lear switches from complaining he is "cut to the brains" to calling his eyes "garden waterpots" to making an "exit running." Brains, eyes, and feet once more, each in its own kind of extremity.

And along with a concern for what these lines mean, we should attend to the opportunities they open for performance, to the way they marshal certain kinds of energy and attention on stage. I am hardly the first to suggest that clowning looms large in the set of acting tasks that underpin the staging of King Lear. The explicit notion goes back at least to Kott, or perhaps Wilson Knight, and, as Kott knew, is implicit in almost all of Beckett as a reading of King Lear [Waiting for Godot begins, after all, with a displaced tramp trying to pull off his boot). Contemporary performances of the play too have drawn successfully on clowning to frame the relation of Lear and his Fool. In the 1982 RSC production Antony Sher, dressed to recall Grock (complete with tiny violin), became a ventriloquist's knowing dummy for Michael Gambon's Pozzo Lear. In the National Theatre production of 1997, Michael Bryant's Fool did a little shuffle for each of his jokes, which Ian Holm as Lear fed back to him. Here the shtick of the foot marked equivocation and irony, but also an unspoken understanding between Lear and Fool.

Is it going too far (but clowns always do) to propose a clownish etymology somehow operating in King Lear between footwear and advantage? Consider the following:

ALBANY. He knows not what he says: and vain it is That we present us to him.

EDGAR. Very bootless.

Edgar without boots has been a common enough sight in the play, a creature of what he has recently called "the descent and dust below thy foot." Is it only the withering away of "boot" as a word for goods of all sorts, that makes this anachronistic joke stick out like a sore toe? Can we not still envision the adjective as "boot," "better," "best"? (17) Such comic intrusions are the very stuff of the clown's life. Shakespeare himself was happy enough to make the pun in other places. In Two Gentlemen of Verona, Valentine accuses Proteus of being:

over boots in love, And yet you never swum the Hellespont.

PROTEUS. Over the boots? nay, give me not the boots.

VALENTINE. No, I will not, for it boots thee not. (1.1.25-28)

And the same pun occurs twice in Henry IV, Part One, the first time when Gadshill and the chamberlain are discussing "their saint, the commonwealth" on whom they prey:

GADSHILL. for they ride up and down on her and make her their boots.

CHAMBERLAIN. What, the commonwealth their boots? will she hold out water in foul way?

GADSHILL. She will, she will; justice hath liquored her. (2.1.87-91)

And later, when Glendower boasts of having thrice driven King Henry "Bootless home and weather-beaten back," Hotspur mocks amazement: "Home without boots, and in foul weather too!/ How 'scapes he agues in the devil's name?" (3.1.71-72).

So perhaps there is a strange and foolish overtone amid Edgar's apocalyptic despair. The end of the world comes complete with missing boots. Against decorum, no doubt, but surely part of the point is that here, at the end of this play, decorum has failed, has revealed itself as the mask for almost untellable savagery and pain. As Estragon and Primo Levi both know, the bootless have little to look forward to.

The business of the foot, generically comic and semiotically low, becomes in King Lear a key part of a radical inquiry into the ground of human being. A basic clown skill is taken up and dialectically affirmed to open serious philosophical work--becomes a shtick to beat the world with. But why should such a concern disclose itself in this play in the form of clowning? Or, to put it another way, what is the relation between the Fool's clowning and his love? Is it perhaps that the true ground of Lear's being, and the truth of the Fool's love, are just too painful to stand on, so that they can only be occupied in the mode of clowning? That would explain the particular quality of the Fool's jesting, at once evasive and piercing. What does the foot do, fundamentally? It touches, reliably--that is its only job. But in a world gone mad--in Lear's mad world that denies the foundational character and value of Cordelia's love--touching that ground is unbearable. It is like touching a wound, or like being wounded in the foot, like Philoctetes. So, for this play, the foot becomes an appendage in crisis, looking for the ground, keeping (or refusing) faith with it, enduring its unavailability, galled and kibed and sore and bootless. The Fool and his fancy footwork are both symptom and therapist of Lear's sense of being ungrounded--which may be why he doesn't appear until after Cordelia has gone, and why, in his last line in the play, he offers to "go to bed at noon" worn out from having been kept on his feet, or on his toes, all night.


(1.) "History of every kind of games" and a "History of Jugglers and Strolling Performers." See STC 1162. I thank Peter Anstey for drawing my attention to Bacon's proposal at a colloquium at the University of Otago where a version of this essay was read.

(2.) See the contemporary accounts cited by Andrew Gurr, The Shakespearean Stage 1574-1642; 3rd ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 88.

(3.) Compare the account of the foot by Carlo Mazzone-Clemente, the great practitioner and teacher of commedia: "And what of the foot? How does it function? Walk quickly with short steps, slower with long strides, on the heels, on the toes, the insides, the outsides. By exploring extremes of articulation, we learn to extend our physical range in the same way that a singer extends vocal range. A walk develops one step at a time. The walk is the base that supports the top (eventually, the mask). In the walk we learn to, literally, understand the character. The nature of any tree begins at the roots. The body must adjust to the foot. There is no choice." Carlo Mazzone-Clementi, "Commedia and the Actor," TDR 18.1 (1974): 59-64, 61.

(4.) See Tiffany Stern, "Tragedy and Performance" in The Oxford Handbook of Shakespearean Tragedy, ed. Michael Neill and David Schalkwyk (Oxford: Oxford University Press, forthcoming).

(5.) For the soccus as a "soft, low-heeled or loose-fitting slipper," see Goldman, "Roman Footwear" in The World of Roman Costume, ed. Judith Lynn Sebesta and Larissa Bonfante (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2001), 125.

(6.) An image of a reproduced pair of startups can be found at the website of shoemaker Kevin Garlick:

(7.) The best Launcelot Gobbo I have seen was a tall student actor (Simon Hughes by name) who appeared first as a pair of feet thrust from the bottom of the large compost bin in which he was hiding. His head then emerged from the top of the bin, sporting the lid as a hat, so that for most of his monologue he appeared only as a head and a pair of feet, the rest being bin.

(8.) They are not, of course, being from the roots *spen and *pod respectively.

(9.) Peter Stallybrass, "The Mystery of Walking," JMEMS 32, no. 3 (2002): 571-80, 578.

(10.) See Stanley Wells, ed. The History of King Lear (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 142.

(11.) According to the Thesaurus Linguae Graecae, after Demosthenes the notion is found in Plutarch (in a slight variant), Hermogenes Rhet. (c.2 CE), Athanasius and Libanius (c.4 CE), three times in the late Neoplatonists, then also among Byzantine theologians. Demosthenes's formulation seems to have been canonical, and most later writers evoke it. Longinus may treat it as an example of ineffective hyperbole (the text is defective at the citation). I thank my colleague Dr. Dougal Blyth for his help with this genealogy. Rather surprisingly, the proverbial idea does not appear (as far as I can see) among Erasmus's Adagia.

(12.) "Never trust anything that can think for itself if you can't see where it keeps its brain," says Mr, Weasley to his daughter. I suspect Lear's Fool would agree. (See J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets [New York: Scholastic Press, 1999], 329.)

(13.) The connection between fault and falling here recalls that "peccavi" originally denoted stumbling and is related to "pedem," as also is "pessimus," which links to Edgar's nearby claim that "The worst is not/ So long as we can say 'This is the worst.' " Shakespeare may not have known this.

(14.) William Empson, The Structure of Complex Words (1951; rpr. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1985), 145; Stanley Cavell, Disowning Knowledge in Seven Plays of Shakespeare (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997, 2003), 77.

(15.) See Michael Neill, "Amphitheaters in the Body: Playing with Hands on the Shakespearean Stage," Shakespeare Survey 48 (1996): 23-50.

(16.) Primo Levi, The Truce, trans. Stuart Wolf (London: Abacus, 1979), 244, quoted in Peter Stallybrass, "The Mystery of Walking," 578.

(17.) "Boot" in the latter sense comes from the I-E root *bhad-= good. *bhad survives in the comparative and superlative in Germanic languages, but the positive has been replaced there by "good" and its cognates, which may derive from Old Germanic *gad = gather, unite. "Boot" as footwear, meanwhile, is from Old French "bote" (<med. Latin "botta").
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Title Annotation:early modern clown gags about feet; Forum: Skill
Author:Bishop, Tom
Publication:Shakespeare Studies
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jan 1, 2015
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