Paul A. Cantor, University of Virginia
What is the price of Experience do men buy
it for a song
Or wisdom for a dance in the street? No it
is bought with the price
Of all that a man hath his house his wife
—William Blake, The Four Zoas
Many critics regard King Lear as the greatest of Shakespeare's plays and also as his most tragic. Indeed, many would claim that it is the most tragic play ever written. And yet, curiously, in most critical accounts of the play it is difficult to see why we should even regard it as tragic at all, whether we are using an Aristotelian or a Hegelian definition of tragedy. In the view of most critics, Lear is basically a pathetic old man, vain and foolish, rash in his judgment and incapable of controlling his emotions—and he is all these things from the very beginning of the play.1 This characterization seems to preclude viewing Lear on the Aristotelian model of a tragic hero, as someone raised above the ordinary level of humanity, except in the most conventional sense of his social status. Moreover, in the view of the majority of critics, the play charts the growth of Lear's wisdom, as he learns the emptiness of worldly glory and comes to embrace the love of his daughter Cordelia as the one true value in his life.2 As consoling as this vision of Lear's education through suffering may be, it leaves us with a sense that the dramatic issues of the play can in the end be fully resolved. But if that is the case, then Lear cannot be in a tragic situation as Hegel defines it, that is, he is not caught in the clash of two legitimate principles, a situation from which there is no simple escape, no matter how much he learns. In concrete terms, critics generally do not view Lear as caught between genuinely conflicting loyalties, his political and his personal obligations; on the contrary, in their reading of the play, Lear would simply be right to abdicate the throne and retire into private life.
In short, in the view of most critics, at the beginning of the play Lear is simply mistaken in both his attitudes and his actions, and the course of the drama should in effect teach him the. error of his ways.3 This reading of King Lear makes it an edifying play, but it drains it of its tragic power by oversimplifying Shakespeare's understanding of the complexities of political life. Ultimately, this kind of reading threatens to reduce King Lear to a form of melodrama, a story of the straightforward conflict of clearly identifiable and separable forces of good and evil, in which the outcome is tragic only in the sense of being disastrous for the main characters. Above all, many critics end up undermining the stature of King Lear as a tragic figure by suggesting that with a little more wisdom he could have avoided the catastrophes in his life. Critics may go on speaking of the grandeur of Shakespeare's achievement and of Lear as a character, but if the standard readings of the play were correct, a more honest reaction would resemble that of Groucho Marx, when, in a meeting almost as improbable as Lear's encounter with Tom o' Bedlam, he was attempting to explain the play to T. S. Eliot:
I said the king was an incredibly foolish old man, which God knows he was; and that if he'd been my father I would have run away from home at the age of eight—instead of waiting until I was ten. .. . I pointed out that King Lear's opening speech was the height of idiocy. Imagine (I said) a father asking his three children: Which of you kids loves me the most?4
I am sure that most critics would, as Eliot evidently did, reject this characterization of King Lear, but the question remains: is there anything in their readings of the play that would allow them to counter this view of its hero? As convinced as critics are of the greatness of King Lear as a work of art, they evidently have a hard time giving an account of the play that explains that greatness. In the delightfully insouciant way in which Groucho projects himself into the world of King Lear, he unwittingly reveals the problem with many interpretations of the play. In our eagerness to identify with Shakespeare's characters, we run the risk of bringing them down to our own level. The Lear described in many critical essays sounds less like Shakespeare's monarch than the middle-class recreations of Lear in the nineteenth-century fiction of writers like Balzac and Turgenev.5
From this perspective, the turning point in the criticism of King Lear was Harry Jaffa's brilliant analysis of the opening scene of the play, in which he shows that Lear has a sophisticated scheme in mind for dividing up his kingdom, one in which he hopes to secure the bulk of his land for Cordelia, together with an alliance with the House of Burgundy.6 As Jaffa shows, Lear's plan, far from being the product of senility, is, if anything, too clever for his own good. I will not go over the details of Jaffa's subtle analysis; suffice it to say here that he points the way to understanding Lear as a tragic figure. The king is not behaving like a doddering old fool in the opening scene, but attempting a remarkable political feat: to pass on his royal inheritance in a way that will avoid the defects of following the conventional rules of primogeniture. Lear fails in his plan, but in Jaffa's view, he fails nobly and hence tragically. Jaffa's reading is true to the text of the play and also to the impression Lear in fact makes on stage in the opening scene. Far from coming across as a pathetic old man, Lear projects a commanding presence in his first appearance, dominating the action and, for all his errors, towering over the other figures on the stage.
In another essay on King Lear, I have tried to extend Jaffa's analysis, analyzing the process of education the king undergoes when he loses power.7 Like Jaffa, I try to show that Lear's errors are not, so to speak, vulgar errors; they do not simply proceed from stupidity or lack of thought. I argue that, in tragic fashion, Lear's failings are bound up inextricably with his greatness. Precisely what makes him powerful as a king incapacitates him for seeing the truth about himself and his kingdom. In part this outcome results from his being surrounded by hypocrites and flatterers, who reinforce his self-image and his confidence in the justice of his rule. But as Shakespeare presents it, the problem runs deeper. Lear's errors are a kind of occupational hazard of his kingship. In order to exercise command, he must project an aura of authority, and this need in turn dictates that he have a high opinion of himself, thus fatally tempting him to overestimate his capabilities in such tasks as disposing of his kingdom.
The powerfully tragic vision of King Lear is rooted in Shakespeare's understanding of political life, its limitations and its demands. The play turns on what I will call the disjunction of wisdom and power. When Lear is in command as king, he is tragically cut off from the wisdom he needs to rule justly. He gains access to this wisdom only when he loses power, but that process in turn incapacitates him for further rule. In this essay, I will examine largely the second half of King Lear, and trace what happens to Lear when he learns the truths to which his position as king initially blinded him. Acts 4 and 5 are crucial to a full understanding of Lear as a tragic figure, but most critics fail to follow the subtle turns Shakespeare portrays in the king's attitudes, because they do not think through the implications of Lear's radically changed view of the world. In many accounts of the play, Lear's education is presented as an unequivocal good, as if there were nothing problematic about his experience. These accounts in effect present private life as simply superior to public life, suggesting that Lear has everything to gain and nothing to lose when he is thrust out of power. Without questioning Lear's legitimate gains in wisdom in the course of the play—indeed I have discussed them at length elsewhere—I want to explore here the possibility that King Lear is tragic precisely because of the complexity of the process Shakespeare is portraying in the king's development. Lear's gains in wisdom come at the expense of his initial grandeur and hence his ability to rule. In the unsettling logic of the world of Lear, the characters pay a terrible price for the wisdom they gain, and none more so than Lear himself.
Lear's process of education reaches its crisis in act 3, especially with his encounter with Edgar disguised as Tom o' Bedlam, and the insights he gains and even articulates as a result are indeed remarkable. It is tempting but far too simplistic to treat Lear's shattering experience in act 3 as a kind of civics lesson or a seminar at a school of public administration. However much Lear grows in wisdom in act 3, he could not simply translate that wisdom back into a form of rule. For one thing, the wisdom Lear gains in act 3 has a questionable character. In trying to articulate what Lear learns, it is easy to distort the nature of his experience, presenting in an organized and coherent form insights that in fact come to Lear in fits and starts. Lear gains many insights in act 3, but we cannot grasp what he is going through if we do not see how deeply unsettling and disorienting these truths are for him, shattering his self-image and his whole view of humanity. However disturbing it may be to admit, the Lear of act 3 is in no condition to walk back into the court and resume command of his kingdom. What is precisely characteristic of Lear in act 3 is that he cannot hold together the two images of human nature he observes in Edgar as first Tom o' Bedlam and then as the "noble philosopher" (3.4.172), and that is the deepest reason why his experience on the heath at least momentarily unfits him for rule. Lear is agonizingly wrenched back and forth between images of the lowest degradation of the human body and images of the highest development of the human soul. Obsessed with his insights into the extremes of humanity, Lear understandably loses sight of the middle range, but that is precisely the realm where politics ordinarily takes place.8
Shakespeare repeats this pattern in Lear's appearances in act 4. The juxtaposition of scenes 6 and 7 shows Lear recapitulating his encounter with the lower and higher sides of human nature, and once again he is unable to integrate his widely diverging images of humanity. Encountering the blind Gloucester in act 4, scene 6, Lear dwells obsessively on the animal side of man and above all woman:
Behold yond simp'ring dame,
Whose face between her forks presages snow;
That minces virtue, and does shake the head
To hear of pleasure's name—
The fitchew nor the soiled horse goes to't
With a more riotous appetite.
Down from the waist they are Centaurs,
Though women all above;
But to the girdle do the gods inherit,
Beneath is all the fiends'.
This vision is the equivalent of Lear's earlier view of the "bare, fork'd animal" in Tom o' Bedlam (3.4.107-8), as he effaces the distinction between human being and beast. Because Lear is convinced that all human beings are consumed by sexual appetites, he refuses to see anyone punished anymore for violating the conventional rules of sexual conduct:
I pardon that man's life. What was thy cause?
Thou shalt not die. Die for adultery? No,
The wren goes to't, and the small gilded fly
Does lecher in my sight.
In Lear's refusal to support conventional marriage contracts, we see what the political consequences would be of the new doctrine of natural justice he learns during the storm on the heath. As ruler he would no longer have any legitimate basis for punishing any of his subjects or enforcing any law. Once Lear views all human beings as alike in their animal urges, for him the difference between legally constituted authorities and criminals dissolves: "see how yond justice rails upon yond simple thief. Hark in thine ear: change places, and handy-dandy, which is the justice, which is the thief?" (4.6.151-54). Though Lear once embodied the majesty of the law in his own person, he loses faith in all authority once he concludes that conventional appearances hide an inner corruption:
Thorough tatter'd clothes small vices do appear;
Robes and furr'd gowns hide all. Plate sin with gold,
And the strong lance of justice hurtless breaks;
Arm it in rags, a pigmy's straw does pierce it.
None does offend, none, I say none.
Speeches such as this continue Lear's impulse in act 3 to reject a conventional view of political reality in the name of what is natural to human beings. In particular he displays the same hostility to clothing because it hides the truth about humanity.10
Lear's speeches in act 4, scene 6 are very powerful and express some fundamental truths about politics; Edgar is moved to comment on the king's words: "O, matter and impertinency mix'd, / Reason in madness" (4.6.174-75)." But before we are tempted simply to equate Lear's viewpoint here with Shakespeare's, we need to look more critically at what the king says. Shakespeare deliberately builds an error into Lear's reflections in this scene: "Let copulation thrive; for Gloucester's bastard son / Was kinder to his father than my daughters / Got 'tween the lawful sheets" (4.6.114-16). These lines should give us pause; Lear's preference for the natural over the conventional child is clearly as mistaken as his earlier tendency to accept conventional professions of love over his true daughter's natural feelings. Like Lear's two auditors at this moment, Edgar and Gloucester, we know how misguided the king's praise of Edmund is. Modern interpreters seem disposed to follow Lear in his thoroughgoing disillusionment with politics and human nature in this scene,12 but Shakespeare took pains to prevent us from wholly identifying with Lear's one-sided view of man as beast. Even Lear momentarily recognizes the diseased character of his imagination in this scene (4.6.130-31).
Indeed, Lear's jaundiced view of women as all "centaurs" is immediately contradicted by Cordelia's appearance in the next scene. Lear's reunion and reconciliation with his true daughter is one of the most beautiful and moving scenes Shakespeare ever wrote. Act 4, scene 7 provides the dreamlike answer to Lear's nightmare vision of humanity in act 4, scene 6. From his obsession with human carnality in act 4, scene 6, Lear moves to a vision of human spirituality. He is barely aware of his own body in this scene ("I will not swear these are my hands," [4.7.54]) and in his eyes Cordelia has transcended the physical level: "You are a spirit, I know" (4.7.48). By trying to kneel to Cordelia, Lear is finally willing to reverse their relative positions of power. In act 1, scene 1, Cordelia could not express her true love for her father because his power over her stood in the way, threatening to obliterate the distinction between a sincere profession of devotion and the hypocritical and self-serving flattery of her two sisters. Now that Lear has lost his power and admits to being nothing but "a very foolish fond old man" (4.7.59), Cordelia can no longer be accused of any base motives in her love for her father. In rallying to his cause, she, like Kent and the Fool, has nothing to gain and everything to lose. Free of the conventional political roles that complicated and distorted their relationship earlier, Lear and Cordelia are finally able to be simply father and daughter.
Indeed in view of the reversal of their customary positions in this scene—the fact that Lear is willing to kneel to Cordelia—it is arguable that they are liberated even from the conventional roles of parent and child, and face each other as human being to human being in a condition of equality.13 Lear and Cordelia move beyond any kind of conventional moral accounting, as she rejects his seemingly justified assumption of guilt for their breach:
Lear: I know you do not love me, for your sisters
Have (as I do remember) done me wrong:
You have some cause, they have not.
Cordelia: No cause, no cause.
In act 4, scene 6, Lear rejected conventional morality out of contempt for human nature and on the basis of the lowest possible view of human beings as indistinguishable from beasts. In act 4, scene 7, Lear and Cordelia rise above conventional moral considerations just as they appear to rise above the level of their bodies.
Shakespeare's juxtaposition of act 4, scene 6 and act 4, scene 7 conveys a deeper wisdom than Lear is able to encompass in either scene alone: the two scenes embody alternative and complementary visions of what is natural to humanity. It is a sad commentary on our times that we are all too eager to acknowledge that Lear is talking about what is natural to the human condition in act 4, scene 6. But on reflection, we can appreciate that in some sense of the term the behavior of Lear and Cordelia in act 4, scene 7 is also a paradigm of nature, now thought of in terms of human perfection, rather than some kind of lowest common denominator of humanity. The simplicity of their dialogue in this scene, the fact that they speak in brief, declarative sentences, above all, the fact that they are finally speaking to each other, no longer at each other, lends what can be called a natural quality to their interaction here. Neither act 4, scene 6 nor act 4, scene 7 tells the whole truth about the human condition, and to accept one at the expense of the other is to risk falling prey to an overly cynical or an overly idealistic understanding of human nature. Shakespeare was guilty of neither.
However contradictory the images of humanity presented in act 4, scene 6 and act 4, scene 7 may be, the two scenes have one thing in common: in both Lear effectively rejects political life. In act 4, scene 6 his cynical view of humanity undermines all claims to legitimate authority by political figures. In act 4, scene 7 his idealistic view of the human condition leaves all ordinary political considerations far below. The juxtaposition of these two scenes thus points to an important truth about politics. In act 4, scene 6 Lear talks about human beings as if they were all body and no spirit; the result of this view of human nature as purely animal is to eliminate every possible justification for political action. In act 4, scene 7 Lear talks about himself and Cordelia as if they were all spirit and no body; the result of this contrary view of human nature as purely spiritual is to eliminate every need for political action; Lear and Cordelia pass beyond the world of good and evil. The conjunction of these two scenes suggests that either of these views is one-sided and hence incomplete. As the bifurcation of vision throughout acts 3 and 4 of King Lear suggests, man is a composite being, a perplexing mixture of body and spirit. It is precisely for this reason that human beings require political life: to deal with the problems created by the tension between body and spirit. Neither animals nor angels require politics.
We can now see more fully why Lear's gains in wisdom in acts 4 and 5 come at the expense of his ability to rule. At the beginning of the play Lear is the captive of many illusions about himself and his world, but his very overestimation of his own powers is what gives him the aura of authority he needs to command his subjects. The Lear of act 4, scene 6 has learned a great deal about his own limitations, but the result is that he has developed a universal contempt for political authority. He has lost all faith in the ability of political action to improve the human condition, or even to control its worst excesses of passion. The Lear of act 4, scene 7 is simply indifferent to politics; having achieved a spiritual communion with Cordelia in an intensely private moment, he no longer has any interest in public life. Failing to integrate his antithetical visions of humanity in act 4, scene 6 and act 4, scene 7, Lear is unable to grasp the fundamental truth that the political authority he despises and rejects in act 4, scene 6 would be necessary to protect the fragile spirituality he comes to cherish in act 4, scene 7.
Lear's loss of his ability to rule is not simply to be traced to the change in his opinions about politics in acts 3 and 4. Shakespeare also focuses on the matter of Lear's temperament. The Lear of act 1, scene 1 is headstrong and rash; those are not the virtues of a philosopher, but they are the qualities of the kind of man who often succeeds in getting other men to obey his will. When we say that Lear has a kingly temperament, we mean in part that he is a spirited man, capable of what he himself calls "noble anger" (2.4.276). His capacity for indignation is one of the forces that attaches him to political life and fuels his ability to get things done. Lear's tendency to identify his personal cause with justice pure and simple is unphilosophic and leads to many of his errors in judgment. Nevertheless, his pride and titanic overestimation of himself are also what makes an admirable man like Kent say that he can see authority written on Lear's face (1.4.26-30).
Thus the more Lear comes to think of himself as an ordinary man, sharing the weaknesses of his fellows, the less capable he becomes of inspiring their awe and hence their obedience. To be sure, Kent, the Fool, and Cordelia come to love Lear more in his defeat and humiliation, but that is precisely a private reaction on their parts and not the same as political loyalty. The Lear we see in the second half of the play has become temperamentally unfit to rule England. We must realize that Lear's learning in the play is not a purely intellectual process; it is not a matter of Lear picking up a textbook in political science and calmly reading about what went wrong with his administration. Lear's education in self-knowledge is a soul-wrenching experience. It rips asunder the deepest fibers of his being. For Lear's titanic ego to be shaken, he must be painfully humiliated, and that is the terrifying process we witness in acts 1 and 2, as his wolfish daughters strip away every shred of dignity he has left. With all his pride, Lear resists this process:
You see me here, you gods, a poor old man,
As full of grief as age, wretched in both.
If it be you that stirs these daughters' hearts
Against their father, fool me not so much
To bear it tamely; touch me with noble anger,
And let not women's weapons, water-drops,
Stain my man's cheeks!
Lear realizes that nothing less than his manhood is at stake in this scene, and he futilely wishes that he had the power to act like a manly king and take vengeance on all those who have slighted his dignity. When Lear is confronted by the cruelty of his daughters, he is torn between the contradictory emotions of anger and grief. His anger is rooted in his pride as a king, and makes him ashamed of the grief he feels as an ordinary human being. As Lear himself recognizes, the tension he experiences between wanting to express his grief as a wronged father and the need he feels as a king to suppress any such public display of weakness eventually causes his mind to snap: "O Fool, I shall go mad" (2.4.286).
As much as we are moved by seeing what Lear gains in the process of his education, we should not blind ourselves to what he loses. The Lear of act 4, scene 7 is a broken man, his pride in himself and in his regime shattered. He is a wiser man in this scene, more capable of love, and in many important respects this Lear is preferable to the one we saw in the opening scene of the play. But not in all respects. Unlike the Lear we saw in act 1, scene 1, the Lear of act 4, scene 7 could not walk into any room and just by his regal bearing command the instant respect of any human being in range of his voice. A king who expects to be obeyed cannot go around proclaiming: "I am old and foolish" (4.7.84). We may admire Lear for this frank admission of his weakness, but we must also recognize its consequences for his ability to rule in the future as anything other than a figurehead. The Lear of act 4, scene 7 is completely without anger; as the Doctor says: "the great rage, / You see, is kill'd in him" (4.7.77-78). It may be a relief for us as audience to see this calm descend upon Lear, but we must recognize that with his rage, something else is for the moment killed in Lear: his pride. And, bound up as it is with his spiritedness, Lear's pride was the source of his greatness as well as of his failures as a king. Up to this point in the play, even in his madness, Lear has displayed an acute awareness of everything going on around him. If anything, he has been too ready to see affronts to his dignity in his subjects' actions, but that hypersensitivity has been profoundly linked to Lear's concern for justice. In act 4, scene 7, he ceases to be aware of his surroundings; he even has to be reminded that he is in Britain (4.7.75). With Lear's "great rage" goes his "noble anger," and with that, his ability and even his desire to govern his kingdom.
In short, we must realize that Lear cannot absorb the kind of unnerving truths he learns about himself and remain the same man. The Lear we see in act 4, scene 7 is profoundly changed from what he was in act 1, scene 1. His newfound wisdom and self-awareness are purchased at the price of his original grandeur.14 We may ultimately judge the result worth the exchange, but we should not deny that Shakespeare is confronting us with a kind of choice. Shakespeare's tragic world is profoundly disturbing to us. We do not like to think about the tragic disjunctions he presents. We would like to think that it is possible to be a powerful ruler and a wise man at the same time. Perhaps it is possible, and in the case of Henry V Shakespeare offers an example of a man who seems to unite wisdom and power (Prospero is another such case).15 But even if it is possible, the conjunction of wisdom and power is surely not easy to achieve, and in King Lear Shakespeare most fully explores the problems of bringing the two together. When Lear is in power, he is blind to his own limitations, not just out of stupidity, senility, or simple error, but because, as Shakespeare shows, there is something in the very nature of kingship that blinds even and perhaps especially a successful ruler to fundamental truths about his situation. When Lear finally gains access to those truths, it is only through a process that disillusions him about politics in general and shatters the very spirit that made him a commanding figure. That is why King Lear is such a tragic play, perhaps the most profound of all tragedies. It offers no easy way out of Lear's dilemma. Shakespeare uncovers a deep and abiding tension between the preconditions of power and the preconditions of wisdom.
The Lear we see in act 5 has recovered his sanity, but he is still a far cry from the regal figure we first saw in act 1. He has become totally absorbed in his private bond with Cordelia:
Come, let's away to prison:
We two alone will sing like birds i' th' cage;
When thou dost ask me blessing, I'll kneel down
And ask of thee forgiveness. So we'll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues
Talk of court news; and we'll talk with them too—
Who loses and who wins; who's in, who's out—
And take upon's the mystery of things
As if we were God's spies; and we'll wear out
In a wall'd prison, packs and sects of great ones,
That ebb and flow by th' moon.
This is a beautiful speech, and we want to rejoice in Lear's newfound happiness with his daughter. But Lear here betrays his complete indifference to conventional politics; what once was his greatest concern has been reduced to the level of gossip, a mere matter of "who loses and who wins; who's in, who's out." Lear now looks down upon politics as a realm of merely transitory triumphs. He seems to have achieved a kind of philosophic detachment from life, which allows him to see human affairs as if from a contemplative height. But Lear's indifference to politics extends even to an indifference to his own freedom, and hence he seems happy to endure what formerly would have struck him as the ultimate humiliation: to be imprisoned by his enemies. Lear is now content to live like a bird in a cage; as attractive as this image may seem, there is something demeaning about it as well: the majestic lion of a king has been reduced to a tame house pet.16 As if to remind us that Lear may be indifferent to politics but cannot escape its power, Shakespeare punctuates the king's lyrical fantasy with Edmund's curt and peremptory order: "Take them away" (5.3.19). We may applaud Lear's rising above his earlier conventional devotion to political life, but the fact is that his indifference to power in this scene is about to lead directly to the death of Cordelia. If basically decent men like Lear renounce political life, however justified they may be in their contempt for corruption in high places, no one will be left to defend the Cordelias of this world. Thus if Lear comes to understand the supreme worth of Cordelia, he cannot simply abandon political life to men like Edmund, who will ruthlessly stamp out all that Lear legitimately has come to value in the realms that transcend politics.
It is thus characteristic of the complexity of the movement of King Lear that Shakespeare has Lear at least partially rediscover the value of political life just before his death. Lear does not go to the grave still believing that there is no difference between a human being and an animal; on the contrary, he powerfully asserts the superiority of Cordelia to other forms of life: "Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life, / And thou no breath at all?" (5.3.307-8).17 Recapturing his sense of human excellence, the man who in act 4 could see no reason to punish any malefactor, returns in act 5 to his role as judge and executes the subordinate sent by Edmund to eliminate Cordelia: "I kill'd the slave that was a-hanging thee" (5.3.275). With his unique grasp of psychology, Shakespeare chooses just this moment for Lear to recapture a bit of his old pride and anger, and at the same time to recall his youth, as he responds to the confirmation of his surprisingly valiant deed: "I have seen the day, with my good biting falchion / I would have made them skip" (5.3.277-78).
This is a fascinating moment, as we finally get the briefest glimpse of the young King Lear. Nearing the end of his life, Lear thinks back presumably to the earliest days of his political career, remembering what he forgot in his plan for dividing the kingdom, that the ability to do justice must ultimately be backed up by the sword. Lear's execution of the man who killed Cordelia tells us as much about the nature of justice as his speeches about the hollowness of authority back in act 4, scene 6. It is not that his final act cancels out the truths he articulated earlier; it is only that his deeds bring out the partiality of his speeches. To get at Shakespeare's understanding of justice, we cannot identify it with any single statement by his characters, but must take into account the pattern of the whole play, both deeds and speeches.
The fact that Lear thinks back to his youth at the conclusion of the play provides a clue to its structure; as Edmund's line "The wheel is come full circle" (5.3.175) suggests, the end of King Lear harks back to the beginning. At the start of the play the British regime, like Lear himself, has grown old. At the end of the play, the regime renews itself. Like Lear recalling the powerful sword strokes of his youthful arm, the regime must get back in touch with its foundation in the ultimate guarantor of political right: military force. At the beginning of the play, as a result of Lear's peaceful reign and his unquestioned authority, his regime has lost touch with political reality and he himself thinks that he can maintain control even while turning military power over to his children. Act 5 takes us back to the brute facts of political life and reminds us that in the end the deepest political divisions can be settled if not healed only by war.
This consideration explains why the trial by combat of Edmund and Edgar figures so prominently in act 5. Edgar has an airtight legal case against Edmund and one might imagine that their conflict would be settled in a court of law, where a juridical process could establish Edmund's guilt unequivocally. But Shakespeare shows a more primitive form of justice, trial by combat, because the thrust of act 5 is to keep reminding us that angels may dispense with violence in settling their disputes, but human beings cannot. The point is not that might makes right; we have seen the limitations of that savage principle in the destruction of Cornwall, Regan, Goneril, and now finally Edmund, whose careers in evil all go to prove the self-defeating and self-destroying character of a purely low-minded conception of justice.18 But what Edgar's resort to the sword shows is that right cannot be entirely divorced from might. It is not that the good cause always triumphs in battle, only that if the good cause is to triumph, it ultimately must be in battle (recall that Lear must resort to force in this scene as well).
Edgar has had to learn how to turn some of the weapons of evil men and women against them in order to protect what he values in life.19 Starting the play as a naive young man, untutored in the deceptive ways of the world, Edgar has had to don one disguise after another in the course of the play to come to terms with the evil in the world. Though he remains almost comically scrupulous in dealing with his enemies,20 the Edgar at the end of the play can at least no longer be called naive. When Edgar kills Edmund in combat he establishes his right to rule in the realm, and seems to have absorbed whatever was best in his enemy, much as Prince Hal does when he defeats Hotspur.
The fact that Edgar can stake out a claim to rule only with a sword reminds us of the violence at the basis of politics, and we have more confidence in the capacity of this temperamentally mild man to maintain political order once we have seen that he can answer the savagery of evil antagonists with some brute force of his own. But it would be a mistake to fall into a totally cynical reading of the end of King Lear, arguing that the good party has had to become as savage as the evil in order to overcome it. The Edgar at the end of the play is not the same Edgar we saw at the beginning, but he has not become an Edmund. In general, in the end the good characters maintain their distinction from the evil, in part because they have been spared the necessity of descending to the barbaric level of their antagonists by the fact that the evil characters have largely destroyed each other. Edgar and Albany never display the lust for power that is the hallmark of their counterparts Edmund and Cornwall. At most they have learned the need for political action to counter the machinations of their enemies, but that means that they resort to morally dubious actions with a marked reluctance. Unlike Edmund, Edgar never takes pleasure in deceiving others, and he never glories in evil deeds. Hence the end of the play forms a sharp contrast to the beginning:
Albany: Friends of my soul, you twain
Rule in this realm, and the gor'd state sustain.
Kent: I have a journey, sir, shortly to go:
My master calls me, I must not say no.
Edgar: The weight of this sad time we must obey,
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say:
The oldest hath bourne most; we that are young
Shall never see so much, nor live so long.
At the beginning of King Lear we are in a world where many of the characters, though not all, are hungry for power; at the end we see characters who apparently cannot wait to hand over power to others. The course of the action has evidently been a sobering experience for decent men like Albany, Kent, and Edgar. No one of them is Plato's philosopher-king—Edgar perhaps comes closest—but they have developed some of his reluctance to rule. As Edgar acknowledges in the final lines, even his experience cannot match the journey Lear went through in the course of the play,21 but the way in which he accepts rule as a duty imposed on him and not something he eagerly sought shows that he has come to share some of Lear's doubts about political life. Because of his consciousness of the limits of power, Edgar will presumably rule more moderately.
After a period of political chaos, we see a regime refounded at the end of King Lear. Like all regimes, its foundation may ultimately be traced back to an act of violence, but given the character of its founders, we may reasonably expect that it will not be a violent regime. All signs in fact point to the inevitability of entering a diminished and tamer world. The precondition for refounding the regime has been the elimination of the evil extremes of humanity who threatened all conventional order. But the extremes of good in Britain have been destroyed as well; Lear, Cordelia, and the Fool are dead, and Kent apparently does not have long to live. A political regime tends to compress the range of humanity, trying to force people into conventional molds, to moderate their passions, to move them toward a comfortable center. The world Edgar will rule will be a safer world, but it will be a world without Lear's grandeur or Cordelia's beauty. That is another way of saying that it will no longer be a heroic or a tragic world. The moderation—one might even say the mediocrity—of the characters left standing at the end of the play is the truest measure of the greatness of King Lear and the tragic nature of his story. No ending of a Shakespeare play captures more perfectly the fundamental contrast at work in tragedy between the ordinary human beings who are content to stay within the limits of the conventional world and the heroic souls who try to go beyond them.
1 In his Shakespeare Our Contemporary, trans. Boleslaw Taborski (Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Books, 1966), 130, Jan Kott makes explicit what many critics assume about Lear: "He does not see or understand anything. . . . Lear is ridiculous, naive and stupid."
2 The classic statement of this view is to be found in A. C. Bradley, Shakespearean Tragedy (1904; rept. New York: Meridian Books, 1955), 258-60. See especially Bradley's attempt to state the moral of the play on p. 260: "The good are seen growing better through suffering. . . . The judgment of this world is a lie; its goods, which we covet, corrupt us. . . . Let us renounce the world, hate it, and lose it gladly. The only real thing in it is the soul, with its courage, patience, devotion. And nothing outward can touch that." For a similar view of King Lear, see G. Wilson Knight, The Wheel of Fire (1930; rept. New York: Meridian Books, 1957), 195-201, and Reuben A. Brower, Hero and Saint: Shakespeare and the Graeco-Roman Heroic Tradition (New York: Oxford University Press, 1971), 415. For a more recent statement of this position, see Barbara Everett's essay, "King Lear: Loving," in her Young Hamlet: Essays on Shakespeare's Tragedies (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989), 59-82.
3 See, for example, Knight, who speaks of "the absurdity of the old King's anger" in the first scene, describes him as "cutting a cruelly ridiculous figure" and as "selfish, self-centered," and characterizes him as "a tremendous soul . . . incongruously geared to a puerile intellect" (Wheel of Fire, 161-62).
4 Letter to Gummo Marx, June 1964, in Groucho Marx, The Groucho Letters (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1967).
5 Knight says that King Lear "resembles a Hardy novel" (Wheel of Fire, 202). Shades of Groucho, Knight remarks: "It is, indeed, curious that so stormfurious a play as King Lear should have so trivial a domestic basis" (161). So curious that one might question whether the basis is really trivial or domestic.
6 Harry V. Jaffa, "The Limits of Politics: King Lear, Act 1, Scene 1," in Allan Bloom, Shakespeare's Politics (New York: Basic Books, 1964), 113-45. This essay was originally published in The American Political Science Review 51 (1957): 405-27. Briefly stated, Jaffa's thesis is that the intent of Lear's original plan was to give Cordelia the bulk of his kingdom (the middle portion), while giving Goneril the extreme northern and Regan the extreme southern portion, regions their husbands already controlled as feudal lords. Lear intends to marry Cordelia to the Duke of Burgundy, a foreign power strong enough to give her support but not strong enough to conquer and absorb Britain (as the King of France might). Jaffa is the only critic of the play to have articulated the strategy of Lear's original plan, but he was not the first to note that Lear enters act 1, scene 1 with a division of the kingdom already worked out (after all, maps have been drawn up and Lear's counselors Gloucester and Kent are evidently already aware of the details when the play opens). See Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Shakespearean Criticism, ed, Thomas Middleton Raysor (London: J. M. Dent, 1960), 49-50, Bradley, Shakespearean Tragedy, 202-3, and Kenneth Muir, Shakespeare: King Lear (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1986), 32, 55. For a further elaboration of Jaffa's analysis of Lear's plan, see David Lowenthal, "King Lear, " Interpretation 21 (1994): 393-96.
7 "Nature and Convention in King Lear," to be published in Joseph Knippenberg and Peter Lawler, eds., Poets, Princes, and Private Citizens: Literary Alternatives to Postmodern Politics (Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 1996).
8 Compare Apemantus's criticism of Timon of Athens: "The middle of humanity thou never knewest, but the extremity of both ends" (4.3.300-1).
9 All quotations from Shakespeare are taken from G. Blakemore Evans, ed., The Riverside Shakespeare (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974).
10 On the significance of clothing in act 3, see Lowenthal, "King Lear," 403.
11 For a similar analysis of Lear's speeches in act 4, scene 6, see Lowenthal, "King Lear," 407-9.
12 See, for example, Knight, who speaks of Lear "penetrating below the surface shows to the heart of human reality" here (Wheel of Fire, 192), or Derek Traversi, An Approach to Shakespeare (Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Books, 1969), vol. 2, 164, who sees Lear revealing "the true state of man" in this scene.
13 The idea of breaking with the conventional parentchild relationship and replacing it with something more "natural" is presented earlier in the play in demonic form when Cornwall tells Edmund after he betrays Gloucester: "thou shalt find a dearer father in my love" (3.5.24-25). Here the conventional bond between father and son is replaced by a bond of pure self-interest between villains; in the case of Lear and Cordelia, the conventional bond is replaced by a higher bond of spiritual love.
14 One must be very careful in formulating one's estimation of King Lear. Even as perceptive a critic as Bradley, who has a better feel for what is tragic in King Lear than almost anyone else who has written on the play, gets carried away with his own rhetoric: "there is no figure, surely, in the world of poetry at once so grand, so pathetic, and so beautiful as [King Lear]" (Shakespearean Tragedy, 228). It is very difficult to be grand and pathetic at once. What is precisely characteristic of Shakespeare's portrayal of King Lear is that he shows a grand political man at the beginning of the play, who becomes a figure of great pathos in his reunion with Cordelia. The dramatic movement of King Lear is so extraordinary, the contrast between Lear at the beginning and at the end of the play is so great, that we must be wary of making statements that conflate what I might refer to as the public and the private Lears.
15 See my essays "Shakespeare's The Tempest: The Wise Man As Hero," Shakespeare Quarterly 31 (1980): 64-75 and "Prospero's Republic: The Politics of Shakespeare's The Tempest," in John Alvis and Thomas West, eds., Shakespeare as Political Thinker (Durham, N.C.: Carolina Academic Press, 1981), 239-55. For a brief but insightful comparison of King Lear and The Tempest, see Lowenthal, "King Lear," 416.
16 Bradley is aware that a change has occurred in the Lear of act 5; of his utterances toward the end of the play, Bradley writes: "We feel in them the loss of power to sustain his royal dignity" (Shakespearean Tragedy, 234). But Bradley blurs the issue by trying to redefine magnanimity in Christian terms: "what remains is 'the thing itself,' the soul in its bare greatness" (234).
17 On this point, see Lowenthal, "King Lear," 413.
18 This outcome fulfills Albany's ominous prediction at 4.2.49-50. For the self-destructive character of evil, see Lowenthal, "King Lear, " 409.
19 For a different view of what Edgar learns in the course of the play, see Joseph Alulis, "The Education of the Prince in Shakespeare's King Lear," Interpretation 21 (1994): 373-90.
20 Consider, for example, Edgar's hesitation in opening the letter from Goneril to Edmund when it falls into his hands (4.6.259-61).
21 I take "the oldest" in Edgar's speech to refer to Lear; some critics feel the words refer to Kent. This suggestion seems unlikely; usually at the end of a Shakespearean tragedy, the highest-ranking character surviving speaks of the tragic hero of the play. In any event, the closing lines round out the play effectively. The play opens with a discussion of how the difference between two men has been obscured in a political settlement. It closes with lines stressing the way in which one man is distinguished from his fellows; moreover the criterion by which he is distinguished is the depth of his experience, more specifically how much he has been able to "see." Edgar's respect for wisdom is reflected in the fact that he values age (with its greater experience) over youth; at the beginning of the play, Edmund spoke out for youth over age. (On the issue of youth vs. age in the play, see Lowenthal, "King Lear, " 399.) Finally, in the first scene of King Lear hypocrisy governed the court; at the end Edgar is calling for a new honesty when he enjoins: "Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say." In sum, Edgar's final words manifest a new re gard for truth.
Source: "King Lear. The Tragic Disjunction of Wisdom and Power," in Shakespeare's Political Pageant: Essays in Literature and Politics, edited by Joseph Alulis and Vickie Sullivan, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 1996, pp. 189-207.