Commentaries on Shakespeare’s Tragedies
Shakespeare, William. King Lear. (Norton Tragedies, 2nd ed. 739-823).
Act 1, Scene 1. (739-46, Lear’s plan, daughters’ contest, Kent’s exile)
Kent and Gloucester agree that it seemed most likely the King would favor Albany over Cornwall. But now they aren’t so certain, so the play opens with a note of uncertainty that becomes ominous later when we realize how much better a person (739, 1.1.1-2, 740, 1.1.18-23) Albany is compared to Cornwall. This is a new, strange state of affairs, in which merit must demonstrate itself by means of rhetorical skill. Gloucester says his legal son is no dearer to him than the illegitimate Edmund. Lear enters, saying that he has decided to divide his kingdom into thirds, and “shake all cares and business” for the remainder of his life. His declared intention is to “prevent future strife” and to confer royal authority on “younger strengths” (740, 1.1.34-43). He means to assist the process of generational renewal, passing on matters of state to younger and more energetic kin while “preventing future strife” and leaving himself the private space necessary to practice the art of dying well, ars moriendi. Each daughter will receive a third; the only question is how opulent that portion will be.
The question of authority is a main item in King Lear. Kent may be responding in part to the King’s unwise disparagement of Cordelia on the spot, but his line “Reverse thy doom / . . . check / This hideous rashness” (742, 1.1.149-51) may owe something to his shock at the notion of an absolute king’s decision to divest himself of his unitary power, keeping only the name and perks of authority. I don’t know that there’s a coherent political theory during Shakespeare’s time; I would only suggest that Lear is confused because he goes off on a private mission while at the same time trying to retain symbols that he confuses with power itself. This is not to say that Shakespeare is criticizing monarchy per se, but I believe he’s always aware that no human system is perfect (not even one that claims divine sanction). The questions are, what are the consequences when things go wrong with social and political systems, and what happens when they go right?
It’s true that the King’s “natural body” is wearing down, and one can feel only empathy for him on that account, but what about the King’s political body, the one that isn’t capable of death? Can he actually abandon his responsibilities the way he does, without causing a disaster? What has he given up? He has given up the “power, / Pre-eminence, and all the large effects / That troop with majesty” (742, 1.1.130-32). Another way of stating this is that he has ceded the “sway, revenue, execution of the rest” (742, 1.1.137) aside from what he retains, which he specifies as “The name, and all the additions to a king” (742, 1.1.136), which additions are to be embodied in the person of the stipulated “hundred knights” (742, 1.1.133). Lear makes a distinction between the name and pomp of kingship and the executive, effectual power of a king. So we might ask, how does he expect to give away all his power and yet hold on to the “addition” of a king? Do the symbols, privileges and name mean anything, apart from the power wielded by those who claim them?
With respect to Cordelia, Regan and Goneril, what does Lear want? He wants a public declaration of their affection for him as a loving father. The public and private in Renaissance kingship were of course inextricable; royal absolutism of King James’ sort always made hay of the idea that the King was “the father of his people,” and James’ model was the scriptural patriarchs. He believed that his subjects owed him the reverence due to such a father. In practice, as I’m sure Shakespeare understood, the intertwining of public and private in powerful families makes for a great deal of coldness, sterility, and alienation, even in settings beyond the monarchy: read biographies of some of our presidents and the modern royal family of Great Britain, and you’ll hear a tale that is at times painful to read: mothers, fathers, sons, and daughters for the most part looking on at the spectacle of one another’s lives, never knowing what to consider acting and what to accept as real, and finding it difficult to sort out personal loyalties from official duties and the demands of power.
Well, Lear has no trouble demanding in the form of public spectacle what would for most families be a purely private display of affection. Perhaps this isn’t entirely unreasonable on his part. Neither are Goneril and Regan necessarily to be blamed for giving the old man what he wants; they know his nature, and this is the sort of thing they have come to expect from him. The point is that he’s the king, and he finds this public display of affection necessary. Why can’t Cordelia do something even better than did Regan and Goneril, bearing with her father and making a generous allowance for his weaknesses? Isn’t it sometimes acceptable to be a little insincere when regard for another person’s feelings requires it? But she won’t work at it, and even if there’s an austere beauty in the figure of Cordelia speaking truth to power, it’s fair to suggest that she is in her way as brittle and abrupt or absolute in her temperament as her frail old father: “Unhappy that I am, I cannot heave / My heart into my mouth” (741, 1.1.90-91). She can’t verbally express the genuine affection she feels for Lear. Cordelia isn’t capable of flattery; she lacks Prince Hal’s ability to say to a joker like Falstaff, “if a lie may do thee grace, / I’ll gild it with the happiest terms I have” (5.4 I Henry IV), at least for a while. Learning to be a good ruler involves a some play-acting and feigning to be what one is not. Cordelia sees both monarchy and marriage as consisting of specifiable bonds or reciprocal obligations. So when Lear demands that she declare her “love,” she understands the term in something like the sense of “obligation, duty, attention.” Obviously, a woman who marries must balance her duties as a wife with her duties as a loyal daughter; she cannot love her father altogether and spend all her time with him.
But it may be that Lear’s demand isn’t as all-encompassing as she supposes, and it’s fair to ask how someone like Cordelia could rule a kingdom if she is incapable of getting beyond the king’s simple request for affectionate flattery. As Regan later says, “‘Tis the infirmity of his age, yet he hath ever but slenderly known himself” (746, 1.1.291-92), and Goneril chimes in with “The best and soundest of his time hath been but rash” (746, 1.1.293); both daughters see that Lear is being somewhat absurd, but they aren’t surprised and are willing to gratify him, especially given the great reward he is offering for so little. But so as not to make them seem generous, which we know they aren’t, Goneril admits to knowing the King’s casting off of Cordelia is unfair; it shows, in her words, “poor judgment” (746, 1.1.289). Rashness is a charge commonly made against Lear, one made by Kent and two of his daughters. And those two daughters correctly recognize, I think, that the King’s unkindness towards Cordelia represents a threat to them as well: “if our father carry authority with such dis- / position as he bears, this last surrender of his will but / offend us” (746, 1.1.301-03). The King’s surrender, they understand, is not really a surrender but a shifting of responsibility, and he will continue to play the tyrant, taking his stand upon the privilege of majesty and great age.
As for the question of whether power can be divested and divided, well, I suppose a monarch can do these things, and there are historical precedents for it from ancient Rome onwards, but it seldom seems to work. Almost nothing goes the way Lear thinks it’s going to go, once he gives away what was formerly his power to wield alone: in the first place, he had thought Albany and Cornwall would be in charge of their respective thirds, but as it turns out, neither man can stand up to those two strong-willed daughters. It is Regan and Goneril who immediately take charge of state affairs. Moreover, Lear’s conduct after giving away power is anything but responsible: he charges about with his hundred knights behaving more or less like a “lord of misrule.” His presence with either daughter, it seems, would inevitably create a public perception that they are not in charge. Lear wants to retain far more authority than he has any business keeping, now that he has stepped aside to let those “younger strengths” do the hard work of governing and maintaining order.
Lear is partly a tragedy about the terrors of growing old, of feeling slighted, neglected, weak, and useless as you make way for the young. Knowing that you must do so doesn’t necessarily make doing it any easier. In this way, it’s true that in King Lear as in other of Shakespeare’s plays that involve monarchy, “a king is but a man.” This somewhat broader frame probably accounts for the fairy-tale quality of the play. We see the disintegration of a “foolish, fond old man” (802, 4.7.61) who evidently doesn’t understand the nature of genuine affection or the nature of the power he has been wielding for many of his eighty or so years. Cordelia, too, may appear as something like a Cinderella figure: surrounded by a pair of evil sisters, she cannot make her inner virtue known to the powerful, shallow authorities who determine her fate. Well, at least the King of France is able to discern the purity of Cordelia’s virtue, discounting her lack of Machiavellian wiles (745, 1.1.251-54).
Banished Kent will pursue his “old course in a country new” (743, 1.1.188). As it turns out, the “country new” is Britain. Lear’s refusal of responsibility has created a new dispensation of power, radically transforming the nation into a cauldron of anarchy and selfish desire for satisfaction and advancement.
Act 1, Scene 2. (746-50, Edmund: “Thou, Nature, art my goddess”; dupes father, brother)
This scene begins with Edmund’s soliloquy (746-47, 1.2.1-22), the upshot of which is that Edmund believes he has all the right qualities to rule his own house, and lacks only “legitimacy”; by contrast, the King has given all his power away and expects to hang on to his legitimacy. He stands upon rank as if it in itself constituted inner virtue or fitness to rule, whereas Edmund sees this legitimacy as a function of mere custom, of “the curiosity of nations” (746-47, 1.2.4). Yet as this same soliloquy reveals, Edmund is nearly obsessed with what others think of him; he repeats the word “legitimate” several times, and can’t seem to let it go. We will see that later on, his undoing will stem from this concern for that which he seems most to despise. A most unhealthy selfishness—”I grow; I prosper” (747, 1.2.21)—also drives him on first to victory and then to destruction. Edmund demands that the gods ally themselves not with custom but rather with natural qualities and ripeness for rule. Old Gloucester his been taken aback by the King’s strange behavior, which to him seems unnatural—this view makes him susceptible to the scheming of his illegitimate son. In a world turned upside down, what could make more sense than that a man’s legitimate son and heir should betray him without compunction, all appearances of goodness and history of virtue between the two notwithstanding? Edmund declares his father’s belief in astrology “the excellent foppery of the world” (748, 1.2.109) and insists, “All with me’s meet that I can fashion fit” (750, 1.2.168). He will trust in his dark vision of nature as a place that rewards the most savage and cunning predator. Tennyson (who before composing In Memoriam had become acquainted with the work of Sir Charles Lyell and other pre-Darwinian natural scientists) described this kind of nature as “red in tooth and claw.” Edmund is a human predator, and thanks to Lear, he now has an opportunity to use his predatory skill to remake a formerly stable, human order into one that suits him best. Lear hasn’t made him what he is, but he has given him an opening to thrive. If legitimate authority doesn’t know itself, this is what happens. Perhaps, in terms of political theory, Lear early in the play assumes too easily that there is an automatic connection or concordance between the two “bodies” of a king—the perishing and erring mortal one and the immortal and immaterial political or corporate one: he follows his desires, makes unwise decisions, and then is surprised to find that his decisions as an erring human being have deranged his kingdom. Others in this play see more clearly the Machiavellian point that the exercise of power generates an authority all its own.
Act 1, Scene 3. (750-750, Goneril grows impatient, sets Oswald to call Lear’s bluff)
Goneril is alarmed at the King’s disorderly conduct. At line six, she complains that “his knights grow riotous” (750, 1.3.6), and devises a stratagem whereby Oswald will make the King feel the weakness of his position by slighting him. Goneril gets to the heart of Lear’s error when she calls him an “Idle old man, / That still would manage those authorities / That he hath given away! (750, 1.3.16-18)
Act 1, Scene 4. (750-57, Kent; Fool judges Lear; Lear’s anger at Goneril, self-questioning)
Kent begins to serve the King, professing to the old man that he really is what he seems to be—a trusty middle-aged servant who knows authority when he sees it, which quality he says he “would fain call master” (751, 1.4.27). Evidently he sees this quality in the visage of Lear, even if Lear has lost command of himself. The Fool, we are soon told, has “much pined away” (752, 1.4.63-54) since Cordelia went to France. He is Cordelia’s ally. Kent earns his keep by giving Oswald a rough education in rank, or “differences” (752, 1.4.76). Lear’s own words begin to speak against him: he had said to Cordelia, “nothing will come of nothing,” and now the Fool responds to a similar utterance (“nothing can be made of nothing”), “so much the rent / of his land comes to” (753, 1.4.115-16). Lear has given away not only the executive function of his office, but even the title, according to the Fool, and now retains only the title of “fool” that he was born with. The Fool says the King split his crown in two and gave it to his daughters (754, 1.4.163-64); the implication of this remark is that power is indivisible and cannot be handled in this way. “[T]hou gavest them the rod and put’st / down thine own breeches” (754, 1.4.150-51), says the Fool, drawing a clear picture of Lear’s childishness. He applies the word “nothing” to the King (754, 1.4.169), and this application may remind us of Hamlet’s similar mockery—”the king is a thing,” says Hamlet, “of nothing” (394, 4.1.25-27). Like Lear, too, Hamlet is confronted with the inevitable downward slide of even the greatest to what is most common: “Imperial Caesar, dead and turned to clay, / Might stop a hole to keep the wind away,” as the Prince says (Norton Tragedies 412, 5.1.196-97).
Lear soon begins to ask key questions about identity. ”Are you our daughter?” he asks Goneril (755, 1.4.193), and she tells him to “put away / These dispositions which of late transport you / From what you rightly are” (755, 1.4.196-98). Finally, the exasperated Lear asks, “Who is it that can tell me who I am?” (755, 1.4.205) and is answered by the Fool with “Lear’s shadow” (755, 1.4.205). When Goneril tells him he ought to be surrounded by men who sort well with his age-weakened condition, Lear swears her off altogether, and suggests that Cordelia’s brittle response to his demand for love has deprived him of his proper judgment (756, 1.4.243-446). His judgment of Goneril that she should, as he does now, “feel / How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is / To have a thankless child” (756, 1.4.265-66) identifies what he believes to be the source of his troubles. But the question of proportion now comes into play because what Goneril has done far outstrips anything Cordelia may have done to offend the King.
The first mention of “plucking out eyes” occurs when Lear addresses Goneril as follows: “Old fond eyes, / Beweep this cause again, I’ll pluck ye out, / And cast you, with the waters that you lose, / To temper clay. Yea, is it come to this?” (756, 1.4.278-81) Lear now transfers his stock to Regan, and threatens to reassume the majesty he has cast off. At 341, Goneril refers to her husband Albany’s “milky gentleness” (757, 1.4.320) as ill-suited to the times; his sententiae, such as “Striving to better, oft we mar what’s well” (757, 1.4.325), don’t bode well for his ability to manage power, as far as she is concerned. They seem more like passive judgments than active principles by which a kingdom could be governed.
Act 1, Scene 5. (758-59, Lear begins to see his error, rages against Goneril, fears madness)
Lear sends Kent to Gloucester with letters. He begins to see that he has done Cordelia wrong (758, 1.4.20), and his anger shifts to Goneril and her “Monster ingratitude” (758, 1.5.33). The Fool points out something Goneril had said earlier: “Thou shouldst not have been old till thou hadst been wise” (758, 1.5.37). Lear is out of joint with the seven ages of man—he has never really attained to years of wise discretion and so is unprepared to practice the art of dying as he proclaimed at the play’s beginning, and now he fears madness (758, 1.4.38). His kingdom is paying the price.
Act 2, Scene 1. (759-61, Edgar driven out, Edmund in with Gloucester, Cornwall)
Edmund completes his villainy against Edgar, driving him away (759, 2.1.20-32), and by the end of the scene, Gloucester has made Edmund his heir (760, 85-86). Regan insinuates that Edgar was associated with the “riotous knights” in Lear’s service, a claim that Edmund seconds. Cornwall takes a liking to Edmund for his “virtuous obedience” (761, 2.1.111-17). The affinities of the wicked in this play are beginning to make themselves known, as if the bad characters come together by nature.
Act 2, Scene 2. (762-65, Kent abuses Oswald, gets stocked; Cordelia knows king’s distress)
This is a counterpoint-style scene in which Kent recognizes Oswald for the knave he is, unlike Gloucester with his evil son Edmund. Kent’s putdown “Nature disclaims in thee: / a tailor made thee” (762, 2.2.48) is a classic—Oswald is, after all, a man of artifice who gilds the ugly, base version of nature upheld by Edmund, Goneril, Regan, and Cornwall. But Kent as “Caius” gets himself into a bad fix in this scene when he finds it impossible to explain his hatred for Oswald to Cornwall (763, 2.2.64ff), who takes him for an arrogant and affected inferior, a man who has learned to get praise for his “saucy roughness” (765, 2.2.89). Cornwall for once takes the lead, ordering that the stocks be brought (764, 2.2.117). Gloucester can’t help (765). While in the stocks, Kent mentions that he has a letter from Cordelia—she is aware of the King’s distress (765, 2.2.156-58).
Act 2, Scene 3. (766-766, Exiled Edgar takes on “Poor Tom” disguise)
Here Edgar disguises himself as Poor Tom the Bedlam Beggar, who will “with presented nakedness outface / The winds and persecutions of the sky” (766, 2.3.11-12). For this role, he says, “The country gives me proof and precedent” (766, 2.3.13). His model of the natural man comes from neglected humanity in the English countryside; it is hardly a mere invention on his part. Poor Tom is not a mere negation when he says, “Edgar I nothing am” (766, 2.3.21), which means “I am no longer Edgar.” Poor Tom will be the “something” that rescues Edgar from the “nothing” forced upon him, and that serves as “precedent” to Lear in the storm.
Act 2, Scene 4. (766-73, Ineffectual Lear stripped of knights, shut out)
Lear is outraged when he sees Kent in the stocks, and becomes increasingly obsessed with this slight as the scene continues. He is sensitive to the shift in tone of his keepers—Gloucester’s ill-chosen remark that Cornwall has been “inform’d” of his demands drives him to an incredulous, “Dost thou understand me, man?” (768, 2.4.93) But his summons to Regan and Cornwall sounds pathetic by this point: “Bid them come forth and hear me, / Or at their chamber-door I’ll beat the drum / Till it cry sleep to death” (769, 2.4.111-13). This intemperance earns him only the Fool’s mocking tale about the cockney woman’s attempt to quiet live eels as she made them into pie (769, 2.4.116-19). Lear is at the mercy of his passions, which have no outlet in action. Suffering is inevitable, suggests the Fool’s wisdom.
Turning to Regan for comfort, Lear gets only the following counsel: O sir, you are old, / Nature in you stands on the very verge / Of his confine. You should be rul’d and led / By some discretion that discerns your state / Better than you yourself. Therefore I pray you / That to our sister you do make return” (769, 2.4.139-44). It would be difficult to strip an elderly man of his dignity any more cruelly than this, and already we may begin to sense the change in attitude that marks a leap beyond ordinary meanness to the “hard hearts” beyond anything we had thought possible in nature—the transition Lear asks about later (see 783, 3.6.70-72). For now, Lear still believes there is a world of difference between Regan and Goneril: “Thou better know’st / The offices of nature, bond of childhood, / Effects of courtesy, dues of gratitude: / Thy half o’ th’ kingdom hast thou not forgot, / Wherein I thee endow’d” (770, 2.4.171-75). The phrase “offices of nature” indicates that to Lear, nature is something civil and beneficent—it is to be identified with the properly functioning family unit.
But Regan’s request is along the same lines as her previous remark: “I pray you, father, being weak, seem so” (771, 2.4.196). Then comes the reverse bidding war between Regan and Goneril over the number of knights Lear is to be allowed, ending with Regan’s question, “What need one?” (772, 2.4.258) Lear offers them a remarkable comeback: “O, reason not the need! Our basest beggars / Are in the poorest thing superfluous. / Allow not nature more than nature needs, / Man’s life is cheap as beast’s” (772, 2.4.259-62). Humanity must not, he insists, be reduced to natural necessity; we are creatures of excess, artifice, and, symbol. Nature as a concept enfolds all of these qualities. It is not to be sundered from decorum, either. Then Lear offers a contradictory prayer to the gods, asking for both patience and anger. He is soon to rage in the storm (mentioned in the stage directions as “storm and tempest” after 772, 2.4.281), but for the moment he denounces his two present daughters as “unnatural hags” and declares almost comically, “I will do such things— / What they are yet I know not; but they shall be / The terrors of the earth!” (772, 2.4.273-78) Regan’s cruel sententia to worried Gloucester is her justification for exiling Lear into the storm: “O sir, to wilful men / The injuries that they themselves procure / Must be their schoolmasters. Shut up your doors” (773, 2.4.297-99).
It’s true enough that the unwise learn, if at all, only by sad experience—perhaps that is a fundamental point in Christian-based tragedy—but mere decency should have been enough to instruct Regan that this is not the time for such sententiousness. Her cruel excess (along with that of Edmund, Goneril, and Cornwall) is the demonic inverse of the generous excess Lear had invoked in exclaiming, “O, reason not the need!” The play affords scant opportunity for finding any middle ground between these two extremes—between that which is almost infinitely above nature and that which is a great deal more savage than nature. The patience and acceptance that Edgar will counsel Gloucester and that loyal Kent has been practicing goes some way towards building a bridge, but the outcome of their efforts is not heartening.
In Act 2, families are sundered, and like affines itself with like, both indoors and out of doors. Lear has brought up the issue of the heavens—which side will the gods take in this great confrontation between house and house, between one group of sinners (himself included) and another, far worse, group? (770, 2.4.184-87)
Diagram that may be useful for exploring the source of the tragedy that occurs in King Lear:
Lear’s “O, reason not the need!” outburst in Act 2, Scene 4 offers us an excellent opportunity to understand what goes wrong and why; the king may be telling us something that’s more important than he fully recognizes. Shakespeare seldom, if ever, sanctions reducing humanity to “need” (i.e. mere necessity) or some bedrock version of “human nature.” Humans are the artificial animals: there’s always excess to deal with, and that can be either a good thing or a bad thing. The decisions we make are mostly responsible for which path of excess we take. Here are the two tracks human nature can follow, as I draw them from general reading of Shakespeare:
Basic Tendency (familial ties, sympathy, acceptance) + generous excess >> sustainable society
excess = accommodation of others’ frailties & eccentricities & modes of insight, linguistic sophistication & play, fancifulness, adornment within reason, regard for decorum and civility, etc.
Basic Tendency (self-regard, dissatisfaction) + cruel excess >> unsustainable anarchy
excess = predation: taking advantage of the gentle or weak, intolerance, insistence on maintaining authority, linguistic impoverishment and literalism of imagination, disregard for decorum and civility of any kind, etc.
In King Lear, the initial mistake the king makes is to abandon the work of accommodation or mediation that makes it possible to keep the balance towards generous excess. Lear and Cordelia together generate the play’s tragic descent: Cordelia is fundamentally kind, but she is too brittle and earnest to flatter her father, and he in turn is too vain and shallow to understand why she cannot give him the public performance he requires; there’s nothing left in between, and we head straight down to anarchy, a cauldron of primal lust for sex, attention, and power in which only characters like Edmund, Goneril, Regan and Cornwall thrive while others are crushed. We could say that Cordelia’s basic failure to accommodate her father’s frailty and desire, her lack of linguistic playfulness, drives Lear to a response that borders on the cruel excess we find in the play’s much worse characters: disappointed to the point of mortification, he lashes out against Cordelia and disinherits her on the spot. His conduct is only excusable to the extent that it stems not from deep depravity or hatred but rather from ignorance of himself and those closest to him: Cordelia’s incapacity mirrors his own, but he can’t make the connection and, in his enfeebled, confused state, Lear’s most beloved daughter’s behavior frightens and enrages him.
Act 3, Scene 1. (773-74, Who’s tending Lear? Albany/Cornwall fall out)
Kent’s question when Lear is abandoned to the “fretful elements” (773, 3.1.4) isn’t about grand political theory or power, it is simply about who is attending the frail old man: he should not, thinks Kent, be left alone and at the mercy of the weather. The Gentleman informs him that only the Fool is with Lear, “labour[ing] to outjest / His heart-struck injuries” (773, 3.1.116-17). That is a generous way of describing the Fool’s job in this play—we know him to be a teller of discomfiting truths, sometimes in a bitter way. But then, it isn’t comfort that brings characters insight in this play—that would not suit its tragic mode. Albany and Cornwall have fallen out by this time (773-74, 3.1.19-25), and both are following events in France. Kent excuses the King’s fall into madness unnatural, attributing it to the “bemadding sorrow” (774, 3.1.38) caused by Lear’s two evil daughters.
Act 3, Scenes 2, 4, 6. (774-84, Lear in Storm, Edgar “Thing Itself”; Mock Trial; Fool goes)
In 3.2 and 3.4, the storm is clearly a metaphor for Lear’s internal discord, for the howling madness in the king himself. As the Fool has told him, he has turned his daughters into domineering mothers, and in a sense he has done the opposite of what he declared he wanted to do—recall that he said he was dividing the kingdom in part so he could go off and practice the art of dying well. His daughters were to exercise power while Lear would be free to “crawl towards death.” But instead the old man clings to life, trying desperately to maintain control and clinging to his dearest daughter Cordelia. Even after he has cast them all off, he remains obsessed with them. What we have in King Lear is in part the “tragedy” of growing old and being unable to deal with the changes and the loss that must come since, as Claudius in Hamlet says, reason’s constant law is “death of fathers” (343, 1.2.104) James Calderwood of UC Irvine, applying a philosophical thesis of Ernest Becker, wrote a book called Shakespeare and the Denial of Death. Lear is a death-denier in spite of his claims of willingness to accept his demise, and his daughters represent perpetuity to him. This denial may be in part what’s behind Lear’s raging in the storm, and even at the storm in a confused way, as he does in the utterance that begins, “I tax not you, you elements, with unkindness, / I never gave you kingdom, call’d you children …” (775, 3.2.15-23).
As his rage rolls onward and takes aim at the “great gods, / That keep this dreadful potherer o’er our heads” (775, 3.2.47-48), his insight is summed up in the sentence, “I am a man / More sinned against than sinning” (776, 3.2.57-58). This broad realization seems to go beyond a specific grievance involving his treatment by Regan and Goneril; it sounds more like an indictment of the universe than anything else. With these words, Lear claims that he feels his “wits begin to turn” (776, 3.2.65), and shows compassion enough for Poor Tom to accept the offer of shelter, though he won’t go in for some time.
But as Lear’s angry conversation with the elements (as quoted above) suggests, the storm is also a natural phenomenon not entirely reducible to the King’s inner disharmony. In this capacity, it is beyond his control, just as the decay of his body is. He calls the storm the “physic” of pomp (778, 3.4.34), the only event and setting that allows him, as a half-naked octogenarian, to make contact with what is common to all human beings. He has learned something in this storm that exceeds his inward tempest: as is said in other Shakespeare plays, “the king is but a man” (Henry 5, 4.1) no matter what the courtiers or the lore of kings or the theory of kingship may say. But Lear isn’t alone for long in the tempest—the Fool is with him for a time (776, 3.2.78-93), as is Kent, and it’s the place where he meets Poor Tom. Such weather isn’t to be endured long. Nature is outdoing itself for ferocity.
In 3.4, Poor Tom plays a significant role with respect to Lear, who says to him, “Thou are the thing itself: unac- / commodated man is no more but such a poor, bare, forked / animal as thou art” (779, 3.4.98-100), the very lowest level to which a man may sink. Poor Tom attests to the rightness of Lear’s baring himself to the effects of the storm, but it isn’t good for a human being to be “out in the storm” permanently—shelter must be sought, we must return to a more “accommodated” model of humanity where we can abide. Poor Tom has already learned this himself (780, 3.4.135), and Lear, when he calls Edgar “the thing itself,” is in fact looking at a man’s artistic construction, a willed madness that he has probably begun to cast off even by that point, as indeed we see him declare forcefully at the end of 3.6: “Tom, away!” (784, 3.6.103) Lear doesn’t seem to understand Tom’s situation fully, but he learns from this supposed madman nonetheless.
In 3.6 (782-84) comes the great “trial scene,” with Lear, the Fool, and Poor Tom serving as judge and jury against some hapless joint stools enlisted to substitute for Regan and Goneril. The causes Lear derives for his misery, his lines are confused but also genuinely moving. He had been told he was no less than a god, and in the storm he has found that he’s just a miserable old man. He abandoned his only true identity when he cast off Cordelia. He keeps coming back to Regan and Goneril, those willful daughters who, he thinks, have done nothing but indulge their shameful lusts and follow their primal hunger for power. What sort of justice now prevails but a system of spiraling oppression and hypocrisy, one that he has loosed upon himself and others? Virtue at present is nothing more than a device to facilitate the evil now afoot. Lear’s horror at a degree of cruelty beyond what he had thought possible shows in the question that wells up from the bottom of his being towards the end of the mock trial: “Then let them anatomize Regan; see what breeds about / her heart. Is there any cause in nature that makes these hard / hearts?” (783, 3.6.70-72) When we have renounced our limits, what, if anything, can reestablish them again, aside from exhaustion unto death?
Act 3, Scenes 3, 5. (777, 781, Edmund betrays Gloucester, becomes earl)
Edmund had said earlier, “Now Gods, stand up for bastards” (747, 1.2.22) He’s obsessed, understandably enough, with the distinction between baseness and legitimacy, between nature and convention. Now he seizes the opportunity Gloucester has given him for further betrayal—Edmund will tell Cornwall that Gloucester is going to help the king (777, 3.3.18-19; 781, 3.5.8-9). Lear unleashed Edmund upon the kingdom by his unwise actions and irrationality—indeed, Edmund is inevitable since, thanks to Lear, there seems to be nothing between anarchy and the generosity and tact that maintain human dignity and shore up the frailty of our nature. Shakespeare is apparently aware that human nature is not a given—it is something we must work at and maintain, and if we sink beneath it, we are worse than any violent predator in the animal kingdom since such predators don’t add superfluous cruelty to their bloody actions. Edmund is in full evildoer mode at present, but later he will find that he can’t permanently jettison the trappings of convention: security requires order, it requires something like a social contract.
Act 3, Scene 7. (784-87, Gloucester blinded and cast out, Cornwall wounded)
In this scene, Gloucester is interrogated and then blinded. Gloucester’s bold justification of his secret trip to Dover in aid of the king is, “Because I would not see thy cruel nails / Pluck out his poor old eyes” (785, 3.7.57-58). To Gloucester, the phrase represents the worst thing he can imagine, and is purely metaphorical. Gloucester can hardly imagine their disrespect: “You are my guests. Do me no foul play, friends” (785, 3.7.31). Not so for Regan, who has been interrogating him, or for Goneril, who, in the presence of Regan, had already uttered her preference even before the current exchange: “Pluck out his eyes” (784, 3.7.5). For them, the literal punishment seems entirely appropriate. Sophocles didn’t want his audience to see Oedipus blind himself with those pins from the dress of his wife Jocasta—it was reported to the audience, but not shown. Shakespeare, however, serves up the sickening spectacle along with the unforgettable lines, “Out, vile jelly! / Where is thy lustre now?” (786, 3.7.85-86) This is the lowest point in the play, the nadir of cruelty into which Lear’s initial mistake made it possible for others to descend.
Act 4, Scene 1. (787-88, Suicidal Gloucester asks Poor Tom the way to Dover cliffs)
Blinded Gloucester has abandoned any notion of a just moral order rooted in nature; he has understandably lost patience, and declares, “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods, / They kill us for their sport” (787, 4.1.37-38). Edgar, who believes that the gods are just, must bring his father round to patience again, to acceptance of the predicament that his own foolishness has at least in part created (788, 4.1.57-63). But at this point, Gloucester seeks only death (788, 4.1.73-78).
Act 4, Scene 2. (788-91, Albany asserts himself, vows to avenge Gloucester)
At last Albany asserts his own virtuous will against Goneril and her evil compatriots, telling her that she isn’t worth “the dust which the rude wind / Blows in your face” (789, 4.2.31-32). But Goneril doesn’t care what he thinks—she is too busy thinking passionate thoughts about her lover Edmund, the newly created Gloucester: : “O, the difference of man and man!” (789, 4.2.26). Albany is not to be gainsaid, however, and calls Goneril what she is: a “tiger” and a “fiend” (789, 4.2.41); he realizes that the anarchic violence she and her sister are participating must either be stopped or destroy the kingdom altogether: “Humanity must perforce prey on itself, / Like monsters of the deep” (790, 4.2.50-51).
Act 4, Scenes 3-4. (791-93, Kent muses, gathers info; Cordelia’s ready for battle)
Kent hears news from a Gentleman about Cordelia’s actions and frame of mind, and Kent asserts the traditional view that “The stars above us, govern our conditions” (792, 4.3.32). Else how could such differences be between three sisters of the same king? Cordelia, meantime, is ready to take on the British whom she knows to be marching against her (793, 4.4.23-30). Kent is moving towards casting off his “Caius” disguise (792, 4.3.52-53).
Act 4, Scene 5. (793-94, Regan enlists Oswald in pursuit of Edmund’s affection)
Regan shows her jealousy over Goneril’s desire for Edmund, and tries to enlist the fop Oswald on her side: “My lord is dead; Edmund and I have talk’d, / And more convenient is he for my hand / Than for your lady’s” (794, 4.5.31-33). Oswald is also told that he should, if possible, put the old “traitor” Gloucester out of his misery, lest he incite the people to compassion against her and her allies (794, 4.5.38-39).
Act 4, Scene 6. (794-800, Gloucester’s Fall; Lear’s insight: justice, authority, kill 6x! Gloucester affirms patience; Edgar kills Oswald)
Gloucester had abandoned his virtuous son Edgar at the bidding of a knave. He was too willing to suppose that the world had been turned upside down, and his fear of betrayal made him most susceptible to it. Now Gloucester’s attitude verges on unacceptable despair as he implores Edgar to lead him to a Dover cliff where he may end his life. Edgar, dressed as a rustic but still Tom, does for him what Cordelia would not do for her father: he graces Gloucester’s way forwards with a lie, telling him, “You are now within a foot / Of th’ extreme verge” (794, 4.6.25-26). Some may take Edgar’s long maintenance of his rustic disguise as somewhat excessive, but in this play, extreme actions are sometimes required as homeopathic remedy for states of extreme error. That’s the kind of remedy the king’s rash behavior has helped to make necessary, although we shouldn’t blame him too harshly for others’ downward spiral into utter depravity. Regan, Goneril, Cornwall, and their ilk are responsible for their own misdeeds. There is some comedy in this scene since, of course, Gloucester’s fall is only onto the bare planks of the stage (795, 4.6.34-41). The old man’s fake descent turns out to be a fortunate fall since it persuades him to have patience even in his almost unbearable condition (796, 4.6.75-77).
In this newfound patience, Gloucester is confronted with a flower-decked Lear, who apparently hasn’t recovered his wits as well as he had thought. Edgar calls him “a side-piercing sight” (796, 4.6.85), adding a Christ-like aura to our vision of Lear as a suffering, dying, universal man. Lear asks if Gloucester is “Goneril with a white beard” (796, 4.6.95), and reproves his former ministers for their flattery: “they told me I was every thing. ‘Tis a lie, I am not ague-proof” (796, 4.6.102-03). Everywhere he looks, Lear sees demonic sexuality as the base of things: “Let copulation thrive” (796, 4.6.112), he bellows, and declares of women, “Down from the waist they are Centaurs” (797, 4.6.121). This rant culminates in a dark vision of systemic injustice and hypocrisy, beginning “[A] dog’s obeyed in office…” (797, 4.6.153, see 153-59).
This is as strong a view as we find in William Blake’s “London”: “the chimney-sweeper’s cry / Every blackening church appals, / And the hapless soldier’s sigh / Runs in blood down palace-walls.” He has finally accepted the Fool’s old offer of the title “fool,” and his eloquence peters out in an exhausted, enraged repetition of the word “kill”: “And when I have stol’n upon these son-in-laws, / Then kill, kill, kill, kill, kill, kill!” (798, 4.6.180-81)
Gloucester has gained patience (799, 4.6.211-13). The sixth scene ends with Edgar putting an end to the rascal Oswald, who has stumbled upon Gloucester alone and tried to kill him for the prize Regan has offered (799, 4.6.241-45). In Oswald’s purse he discovers Goneril’s treasonous letter to Edmund, imploring him to kill her virtuous husband Albany (800, 4.6.257-58).
Act 4, Scene 7. (800-02, Lear’s recognition, subdued i.d.-recovery, Cordelia’s generosity)
Lear recovers his wits, and says to Cordelia, “Pray do not mock me. / I am a very foolish fond old man. . . . Methinks I should know you” (802, 4.7.61, 65). He fully understands the wrong he has done her—something he had begun to sense earlier, even as far back as (758, 1.5.20). Lear expects only hatred, but Cordelia mildly tells him there is “no cause” (802, 4.7.77) why she should hate him. Lear had to seek into the cause of his other daughters’ “hard hearts,” but for Cordelia’s loyalty, she is suggesting, he need not trouble himself to find the reason why. As Portia says in The Merchant of Venice Act 4, “The quality of mercy is not strained”— it is not to be sifted or parsed, or forced.
Act 5, Scene 1. (803-04, Ed/R/G struggle intensifies; Edmund using Albany; Edgar’s letter)
Edmund, Goneril, and Regan are locked in a struggle for erotic supremacy as they prepare to fight Cordelia’s French; Regan admits, “I had rather lose the battle than …” lose Edmund (803, 5.1.18-19). Edmund plays both women against each other (804, 5.1.55-58), and plans to use Albany while the fighting is on, and then dispose of him afterwards as a bar to his advancement (804, 5.1.62-69). Edgar in disguise delivers a letter to Albany—a challenge to be taken up if victory smiles (804, 5.1.40-46).
Act 5, Scene 2. (804-05, Gloucester again depressed, Edgar counsels endurance)
Edgar is disappointed to find his father abjectly depressed during the confusion of battle, and tells him, “Men must endure / Their going hence even as their coming hither, / Ripeness is all” (805, 5.2.9-11).
Act 5, Scene 3. (805-13, Lear/Cordelia prisoners, Edmund loses challenge, Lear dies lamenting Cordelia, Edgar inherits kingdom)
The worst of the worst win the day, and Lear and Cordelia are taken prisoner. Lear’s reconciliation with Cordelia is brief but supremely fine: “Come let’s away to prison: We two alone will sing like birds i’ th’ cage …” (805, 5.3.8-19). The old king predicts that he and Cordelia will participate in God’s mysterious knowledge of all things, knowing the ins and outs of his secret dispensation of affairs and men. But all this eloquence is too much for Edmund, who ends Lear’s words with a harsh command: “Take them away” (805, 5.3.19) Political and military events have outstripped the process whereby Lear has discovered his mistakes and recovered his identity and his affiliation with Cordelia. It is simply too late for a reconciliation of more than a few minutes’ time, and in the worst of circumstances. Edmund’s blunt order completes the triumph of literalism and matter-of-fact depravity over legitimate power, virtue, and (here) prophetic rhetoric. Lear is rehumanized and endowed with new insight into what is right and wrong, what is human and what is not. But he and Cordelia are crushed because they are a threat to Edmund, and he determines that they must go.
Things aren’t simple for Edmund, either. Albany has nothing but contempt for him, which bodes ill for his hopes to wield tremendous power in the new order of things. His presence in the army camp provokes a life-and-death struggle between Goneril and Regan for his hand (806-07, 5.3.62-82), and after he refuses to turn over the prisoners Lear and Cordelia (806, 5.3.42-45), Albany arrests him and Goneril for “capital treason” (807, 5.3.83). No sooner is this declared than Albany challenges him (807, 5.3.91-96) and Edgar shows up to fight him in single combat. Edmund, worshiper of animalistic nature and the Regan Revolution though he may be, is now trapped into securing his ill-gotten gains, his newfound legitimacy as bestowed upon him first by Gloucester and then by Cornwall after Gloucester’s blinding and exile. He must accept Edgar’s challenge, and ends up hearing the legitimate son’s pious declaration that “The gods are just, and of our pleasant vices / Make instruments to plague us: / The dark and vicious place where thee he got / Cost him his eyes” (809, 5.3.169-72). Regan, meanwhile, has been poisoned by Goneril, who then takes her own life when she sees Edmund gravely wounded (810, 5.3.225-26).
Edmund shows some insight: “All three / Now marry in an instant” (810, 5.3.227-28), and tries to redeem himself by revealing his condemnation of Lear and Cordelia (811, 5.3.242-45). Edgar has found time to reclaim the honor of his title and to avenge Edmund’s betrayal of their father, and to some extent he has reasserted the principle of a divine moral order. But the Gloucester and Lear plots do not come together: Lear and Cordelia have run out of time, and not even Edmund’s last-minute repentance can save Cordelia from being hanged or Lear from dying of grief over her lifeless body: “Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life, / And thou no breath at all?” (812, 5.3.305-07)
In later-C17-18 versions such as that of Nahum Tate’s 1681 revival of the play (http://andromeda.rutgers.edu/~jlynch/Texts/tatelear.html), Cordelia actually thrives as Queen, married by a beaming Lear to Edgar. Neoclassical critics and audiences found the actual Shakespearean ending an intolerable violation of representational ethics: the good must be rewarded, and the wicked must be punished. Here is Dr. Johnson’s pronouncement on the matter in Rambler #4:
In narratives where historical veracity has no place, I cannot discover why there should not be exhibited the most perfect idea of virtue; of virtue not angelical, nor above probability, for what we cannot credit, we shall never imitate, but the highest and purest that humanity can reach, which, exercised in such trials as the various revolutions of things shall bring upon it, may, by conquering some calamities, and enduring others, teach us what we may hope, and what we can perform. Vice, for vice is necessary to be shewn, should always disgust; nor should the graces of gaiety, or the dignity of courage, be so united with it, as to reconcile it to the mind. Wherever it appears, it should raise hatred by the malignity of its practices, and contempt by the meanness of its stratagems: for while it is supported by either parts or spirit, it will be seldom heartily abhorred. (http://andromeda.rutgers.edu/~jlynch/Texts/rambler4.html).
In Cordelia’s death, the justice of the heavens is not at all apparent. It is true that vice is thoroughly disgusting in King Lear, but virtue is by no means shown triumphant. We must endure the old king’s “going hence” in unbearable agony and near incoherence, as he bewails Cordelia’s death and laments, “my poor fool is hang’d” (812, 5.3.304), which may also refer to the Fool, who disappeared with the line, “And I’ll go to bed at noon” (783, 3.6.78). Nobody wants to rule this blighted kingdom anymore: neither Albany nor Kent will take the reigns of power, and all is left to Edgar. His concluding lines are oddly unsatisfying: “ The weight of this sad time we must obey, Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say: The oldest hath borne most; we that are young Shall never see so much, nor live so long” (813, 5.3.822-25).
If the play has been a quest for the restoration of authority, Edgar is hardly the quester who heals the Fisher King and makes the waters flow. But this play is, of course, a tragedy and not a romance. What it may have taught us, in the end, is that the deepest kind of insight into humanity does not accompany the workings of earthly power: as so often in tragedy, the cost of such insight is an untimely death. Edgar can’t do much more than repeat the stale “truism” of his father Gloucester: better days have been. There’s no easy accommodation, or magical reconciliation, no middle ground to occupy—just a pair of departed royal visionaries and a remnant of confused and disillusioned people repeating unconvincing truisms. Much of the play has been about trying different strategies of accommodation, recognizing the constrictions of nature, mortality, political power, and language, but no satisfying arrangements have emerged. No one has come to terms with what it means to be mortal and yet not identical with the workings of raw physical nature.
Finally, even though King Lear has pagan trappings, I treat it as tinged with Christian principles, and it seems that within this framework, tragedy is constituted by the enormous gap between wisdom and felicity. Much human suffering is preventable, but at the deepest level, sorrow and loss are the only true teachers. And at this level, even a great man like Lear is the “natural fool of fortune” (798, 4.6.185). All along, the Fool had helped prevent Lear from falling into a hopeless state of self-pity, and had helped the audience from over-pitying the king. The Fool had stood for the possibility of artistic redemption, with his playful songs and insouciance. He knew that Lear was willing to listen to him speak the truth in an eccentric form, unlike Regan and Goneril, whose stern authority he feared and whose disregard for his rhymes stemmed from their obscene literalism and savagery. But comfort is cold in this play—at a certain point, the Fool simply had to disappear, leaving Lear to face the impossibility of setting things right, even after his self-recovery and acknowledgment of error to his kind daughter Cordelia.
Edition. Greenblatt, Stephen et al., eds. The Norton Shakespeare. 2nd edition. Four-Volume Genre Paperback Set. Norton, 2008. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-93152-5.
Copyright © 2012 Alfred J. Drake