Study Guide

King Lear

by William Shakespeare

King Lear Essay - King Lear (Vol. 46)

King Lear (Vol. 46)


King Lear

See also King Lear Criticism (Volume 31) and King Lear Criticism (Volume 61).

Frequently described as the most tragic of Shakespeare's tragedies, King Lear relates the tale of a father and a ruler who loses his family and his kingdom. The play's ending in particular fascinates audiences and critics alike, who can reach no consensus on whether the final scene, in which Lear follows his daughter Cordelia in death, is meant to impart a sense of hopelessness, chaos, and despair, or affirm the existence of love and hope in the world. First performed in 1606 for the court of King James I, critics speculate that there were public performances of King Lear prior to this date. It was not performed again in London, in court or elsewhere, unlike many of Shakespeare's other tragedies. The reason for this lack of revival is unknown, although some scholars suggest that the play's depiction of a foolish king and its presentation of the poor as victims of the rich was viewed as too subversive. Although the play was popular enough to be published in 1608, it is also possible that the reason it was not performed again was that the wholly tragic and disheartening ending displeased audiences. In 1681, Nahum Tate wrote a new version of the play which included a romance between Cordelia and Edgar and a happy ending for King Lear. It was Tate's version of the play, not Shakespeare's, that was performed for more than 150 years. By the 1820s, however, Shakespeare's version was restored and in 1838, William Charles Macready reintroduced the character of Lear's Fool, which had been omitted from performances for years.

In fact, the role of Lear's Fool has been the subject of critical debate, especially in the twentieth-century. Unlike the fools and clowns in Shakespeare's other plays, the Fool in Lear is more clearly drawn, possessing an emotional depth foreign to Shakespeare's other fools. Bente A. Videbaek (1996) has observed that Shakespeare's other clowns mainly serve to indicate and illuminate a turning point in the play's action. In contrast, Lear's Fool not only serves as "truth-teller" but also is a truly and deeply sad clown. The critic has further characterized Lear's Fool as "a creature whose whole being is founded on understanding of the human condition and pity for those who cannot cope with the harsh realities of Lear's world." Other critics study the way in which the Fool enhances the tragic mood of the play, or his relationship with Lear. Glena D. Wood (1972) has observed the ironic juxtaposition between Lear's actions and the Fool's words. Wood has demonstrated that the Fool's words and actions precipitate Lear's growth and at the same time increase both the irony and the tragic-comic effect in the play. In analyzing the rhetoric of the Fool, Toshiko Oyama (1963) has maintained that through the Fool's use of logical argumentation in his conversations with Lear, the Fool increases the ambiguity of the play's events and thereby heightens the tragic atmosphere and tension.

Lear and Cordelia have also generated considerable criticism. Each have been studied individually, but critics are equally concerned with the relationship of Lear and Cordelia, as well as their relationships to other characters in the play. Alexander Leggatt (1988) and Phoebe S. Spinrad (1991) are, like many critics, particularly interested in Lear's death and how it should be interpreted. Leggatt has used Gloucester's experience as a way, through contrast, of understanding Lear's own situation. While demonstrating Lear's resistance throughout the play to new knowledge, Leggatt has observed that in the Folio edition of the play, Lear is centered on Cordelia as he dies, suggesting, perhaps, that Lear has indeed learned how much he loves his daughter. In contrast, Spinrad has found little evidence that Lear has learned or demonstrated growth. Despite this lack of evidence, Spinrad has argued, audiences grieve at the end of the play. After stressing that Lear's death defies explanation through traditional dramatic or philosophical theories, Spinrad has concluded that the emotional response of audiences to Lear's death is perhaps generated by compassion. Cordelia's role in the play is often examined in its relationship to the Fool's. Richard Abrams (1985) has examined the theory that Cordelia and the Fool were played by the same actor in early productions of King Lear. Abrams has cited the theatrical benefits of such a doubling of the parts, as the two characters both serve as Lear's "truth-tellers." Mark Berge (1994) also has linked Cordelia to the Fool, arguing that both characters illustrate the play's theme of dramatic irresolution. Lear and Cordelia, as well as Goneril and Regan, are also studied together in another manner—as a family. Harry Berger, Jr. (1979) has explored the psychological motivation behind the rivalry between the sisters and Lear's division of his kingdom and his subsequent treatment of his children. Similarly, Thomas McFarland (1981) has examined the dynamics of the Lear family. McFarland has noted that in contrast to the family situation in Hamlet, Lear's situation is not "flamboyant or unique." McFarland has argued that in many ways, Lear's emotional attitude toward his children is an amplified version of similar emotions other parents might at one time feel toward their offspring. Additionally, McFarland has maintained that the tragic situation is sparked by the tension Lear feels between his role as father and as king.

It is this dual dimension of Lear's character—the fact that he is a king as well as a father—that fuels another area of critical commentary. Margot Heinemann (1992) has stated that too often, King Lear is presented only as a personal, family drama. Heinemann has emphasized the political nature of the play, demonstrating that it is as much about a personal loss of power as it is about the fractured social and political affairs in Lear's kingdom. Janet M. Green (1995) also has focused on a more public, civil aspect of this play, discussing its references to legal issues and to judgement, both secular and divine. Green has observed that the repeated references to legal situations in the play tend to heighten the experiences of "heavenly wrath" and "human cruelty" rather than creating the hope for justice or mercy, thus reinforcing the themes of the play.


David Lowenthal (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: "King Lear," in Interpretation: A Journal of Political Philosophy, Vol. 21, No. 3, Spring, 1994, pp. 391-417.

[In the essay that follows, Lowenthal reviews the setting, plot, language, characterization, and themes of King Lear, maintaining that in the last scene, the "perfections of king, father, and man" are fused together in Lear.]

King Lear may be the most tragic of Shakespeare's tragedies. Nothing exceeds in pathos the final spectacle of Lear bending over his dead Cordelia, looking for life in her and then expiring himself. But what should we think of Lear generally? Is he the vain, irascible and doddering old man his critics make him out to be—a view quite close to the one held by his two bad daughters? Why, then, at the end, do we not only pity but admire him as a man of very great soul, a much greater man than the loyal Earl of Gloucester, his lesser counterpart in the play? Is the play named after him only because he was in fact a king or because Shakespeare wanted us to think of him as a king par excellence, a true king, a natural king? Hamlet is called the Prince of Denmark in the title to that play, and Pericles the Prince of Tyre in another, but—apart from the history plays—Shakespeare names no other king but Lear in his titles. What did he mean by this? And is the play, as often remarked about its ending, ~ intended to convey a sense of hopeless despair in a universe devoid of purpose or meaning? How can we square this interpretation with the admiration we feel for Lear, Cordelia, Edgar and Kent: Do they not qualify the universe in the direction of meaning and goodness?

Along with Hamlet and Macbeth, King Lear is one of the three tragedies set in northern countries. All the other tragedies are set in the south of Europe: the four Roman, the two Italian (Othello and Romeo), and Timon of Athens. And of the northern tragedies, it alone, like most of the tragedies generally, is pre-Christian in its setting. It may also be the earliest play dealing with Shakespeare's own country, followed by Cymbeline and then the history plays themselves.

The Setting

Shakespeare tells us nothing about how Lear became king, about his parents, his wife and past accomplishments, or about events and conditions in other European powers at the time. Whether Britain is geographically the same or different from the later England is not made clear. It is a country at peace with all its neighbors, and of such repute that France and Burgundy have come to court Lear's youngest daughter. It is also without the slightest sign of internal commotion or even dissension—such is the respect Lear has won for his rule.

The religion Lear shares with his society is polytheistic and astral: he swears by the gods of pagan antiquity, like Jupiter and Apollo, and seems to associate them with heavenly bodies. Yet some of the states in the play—France, Burgundy—in actual history arose only after the coming of Christianity and the collapse of the Roman Empire. Similarly, the British aristocracy, with its titles, entailed estates and primogeniture, was linked historically during the feudal period with Christianity rather than with the paganism of the play. For reasons unknown to us, therefore, Shakespeare has mixed together unrelated historical elements, with the consequence that Lear's Britain seems both modern and ancient at one and the same time. As such a composite, it is much more the poet's own fabrication than the Roman plays or the English history plays.

As the play begins, the reader is struck by the parallel—and contrast—between the situations of the old king and young Edmund, Gloucester's bastard son. By law Edmund is Gloucester's second son and would not inherit his father's title and estate. By law he is also condemned, as a bastard, to ignominy, so that Gloucester sends him away for nine years at a stretch, despite claiming to love both his sons equally and, this time, bringing Edmund with him to the court. Edmund challenges these laws and customs keeping him down as merely conventional and against the dictates of nature. His bold soliloquy appeals to nature as superior to human laws and customs. By nature he is equally Gloucester's natural son. By nature, by his natural endowment, he is his brother Edgar's equal or superior. Edmund will therefore use deception, and later force, to remedy the artificial injustice of law and custom. He will scheme to get Edgar's lands: "I grow; I prosper. Now, gods, stand up for bastards!"

The play actually opens not with this raucous invocation but with quiet references by Kent and Gloucester to Lear's imminent division of the kingdom, switching to the subject of Edmund only after their brief introductory remarks on this subject. Subsequently, the actual division of the kingdom takes place, though hardly as Lear planned it, and only then does Shakespeare return us to Edmund and have him give the amazing soliloquy quoted above. In this way the play can be said to open with two related topics, the inheritance of Lear's daughters, and the inheritance of Gloucester's sons. But there are also striking differences between the two cases. Gloucester has two sons, one older and legitimate, the other younger and illegitimate. Lear has three legitimate daughters and no sons.

The play gives us no direct indication of how the succession to the throne would normally take place. Was the eldest son expected to inherit, paralleling Edgar's situation? Could a daughter inherit? And why was Lear able to divide the kingdom in three, as if it were his own to do with as he pleases? One gets the impression that law or custom governed the inheritance of Gloucester's land and titles much more definitely. For neither Kent nor Gloucester seems surprised at the kingdom's division, and when Kent later objects to Lear's actions, it is not to the division of the kingdom as such but to his treatment of Cordelia and his surrender of power to her sisters and their husbands. Even the daughters—all of them—express no shock whatsoever at the division. Goneril, for example, never says or hints that it should all be hers: not one of them ever takes Lear to task for violating law or custom in any part of what he did.

Perhaps Shakespeare wants us to understand Lear's situation, in contrast to Gloucester's, as one not bound by law, thus leaving his discretion regarding the succession well-nigh absolute. Does this mean Lear could have bestowed the kingdom on whomsoever he pleased? Could he have given it to someone outside his family, like Kent or Edgar? Yet his attention seems to be wholly and exclusively riveted on his daughters, as if there were no other alternative. Moreover, he treats the lands as dowries—i.e., as traditionally obligatory wedding gifts from parents to marrying daughters to bring into their marriage, and he plainly vests political power (after his original plan for a tripartite division breaks down) in the Dukes of Albany and Cornwall rather than in Goneril and Regan. This makes it unlikely that any one of the daughters, whether Goneril, the eldest, or Cordelia, the best loved, could have herself been designated queen of all Britain. It suggests a traditional opinion or unwritten custom favoring maleness in the ruler, thus qualifying the seeming absoluteness of Lear's discretion in arranging the succession. And the priority plainly given by the law to one of Gloucester's sons over the other shows that age usually was the ground of priority in inheritance. Could Lear therefore have given all to Goneril, his first-born, much as Gloucester was expected to give all to Edgar?

Let us piece together the plan for the succession that the aged Lear has formed. Having already divided the kingdom into three parts, he tells the assembled court that he intends to give each daughter a dowry consisting of a part of the kingdom proportionate in worth to the love she expresses for him in a speech. This idea makes Lear look exceedingly vain and not a little dotty. To show how mistaken this impression is—Harry Jaffa was the first to do it in Shakespeare's Politics, many years ago—we must take note of a few simple facts. First, as Lear begins to express what he calls "our darker purpose"—i.e., a concealed purpose—the map of Britain he brings in and employs has already been divided into three parts, just as he said. Second, he does not wait for all the daughters to speak before making his allocations but does so one at a time, after each has spoken. Third, it is Lear who sets the order of speaking by asking his eldest daughter to speak first—i.e., by using the order of seniority in which society would usually grant preference. This leads to his giving substantially equal portions to the two elder sisters, who follow one another, leaving what Lear calls "a third more opulent than your sisters" to his favorite, Cordelia. By the time Cordelia speaks, no other part is available to her: she has to get the best third. To this way of treating the elder daughters, Gloucester and Kent had both given testimony at the very beginning of the play. It seems they were shown the map by Lear and expressed surprise only at the equality with which he had treated the two dukes in his division of the kingdom, since they agreed that up to then "the King had more affected the Duke of Albany than Cornwall."

This means that, contrary to the standard interpretation, Lear did not devise the love speeches as a test of his daughters' desert: he had already decided upon the allocations before setting up the contest and hearing the speeches! We are not told where these territorial thirds lay, but it is very likely that the third given to Regan and Cornwall was in the south, near Cornwall itself, and the part given to Goneril and Albany near Albany in the north. The "more opulent" third reserved for Cordelia must therefore have lain in the center, between these two. In an earlier move, before the play's action begins, Lear had in a most unusual action postponed giving Goneril and Regan their dowries at the time of their marriages. This implies that he had devised this scheme for the succession, entailing a "darker purpose," some time before. But the scheme could not be brought to fruition until Cordelia also married—an event now at hand—thus enabling the eighty-year-old Lear to put into place his momentous and much-needed settlement.

Both the Duke of Burgundy and the King of France are there because both wish to marry Cordelia, but the evidence (again per Jaffa) indicates that Lear intended Burgundy, not France, to be her husband. Only Burgundy was told in advance what dowry to expect with Cordelia, and it is to Burgundy that Lear first turns in offering Cordelia's hand. Why should this be, if the King of France was obviously the better catch? Marriage to the more powerful France would have threatened to make Britain a dependent subordinate of France politically. Lear seems to have thought that the danger of placing Cordelia's third between those of her sisters would be sufficiently offset by her link to Burgundy. And he himself would aid Cordelia's cause by residing for the remainder of his life with her alone, rather than shuttling from one daughter to the other, as he ended up doing with two of them: "I lov'd her most, and thought to set my rest on her kind nursery."

The language used by Lear throughout leaves no doubt (here I depart from Jaffa) that what he had in mind was an actual division of the kingdom, and not a temporary or merely apparent division. He explicitly says that he is shaking "all care and business from our age," giving up all "rule, interest of territory and cares of state." He implies that something like a tripartite council of state would give unity to the rule of Britain. When Cordelia herself thwarts his purpose and he disowns her, he divides her intended portion between the other two and invests his sons-in-laws, the two dukes, jointly "with my power, preeminence and the large effects that troop with majesty," keeping little more than his title and a hundred knights for himself. To these "beloved sons" he gives the "sway, revenue and execution of the rest. . . ." It is unlikely that, in this emergency, Lear would give the two dukes more power than he had originally intended to give the three dukes together (including the Duke of Burgundy, whose place in Britain was symbolized by the coronet Lear had on hand for the occasion). We can only conclude that Lear's plan really envisioned the tripartite division of a Britain that under him was entirely united, and that these three parts, as he says, were intended for the perpetual possession of the dukes and their heirs.

What drove Lear to this peculiar scheme? In what way did it necessitate his having a "darker purpose?" What were the alternatives he faced? The evidence in the play seems to warrant four premises: (1) that there was in Britain a presumption in favor of hereditary monarchy or keeping the crown within the family; (2) that women would not have been wanted to take the helm directly; (3) that—as in the case of Gloucester's sons—there was a social presumption in favor of the rule of the eldest, though without any binding authority at the level of the crown itself; (4) that Britain was regarded as a possession of the king's which he could even divide up into separate dowries or inheritances. On the basis of these premises taken together, it would appear that the most socially consistent, if not expected, alternative was leaving all to Goneril, the eldest, or rather, through her, to her husband, Albany. This would mean disinheriting both Regan and Cordelia, just as was to occur in the case of Edmund and does occur, as a matter of course, in all hereditary monarchies. But what if Lear's "darker purpose" and his foremost objective was to pass on the greatest share of his power to Cordelia, whose conventional claim, as the youngest, was weakest of all? Perhaps this is why he chose to avoid the problem of succession directly and instead to couch all decisions in terms of giving dowries to all three daughters.

Lear had no personal craving for public expressions of affection from his daughters. As he himself announces, what he wants to do is extend his largest bounty (in distributing the parts of the kingdom) "where nature doth with merit challenge." Merit is his concern, and it is the challenge or claim to the crown posed by nature in the form of merit—i.e., natural merit—that seems to have moved Lear to the conclusions embodied in his divided map of Britain. It is Cordelia's merit that he wanted to find a way of acknowledging in the allocation, and the "love speeches" were the secret means he had devised to do so. They are set up in such a way that the two elder sisters first praise him effusively and thereby inadvertently commit themselves to the more favorable treatment of Cordelia that he saves for last.

This solution, however, is already a compromise with convention: if merit is the natural standard for choosing kings, why should the choice be confined to his offspring? The compromise Lear arranges is that, among his children, merit should receive its due. Those that have descended from his body (his wife, their mother, is never mentioned in the play) will be treated in accordance with their merit, ability to rule, or excellence of soul. Loving Cordelia, Lear thinks he has found in her a person of exemplary virtue like himself, and he wants her to have the largest and most decisive share in ruling Britain. Dividing the kingdom was the only way of achieving this objective.

This means that Lear preferred dividing the kingdom and giving the best third to Cordelia over keeping it intact and giving it all to Goneril—and this long before he began to think badly of Goneril. But why? Shakespeare seems to have him engage in this radical and highly improbable action in order to indicate the full impact a natural principle is likely to have on the social order. Making Goneril (or Albany) his successor would have had the advantage of strengthening the social presumption in favor of the eldest and thereby bolstering social reliability and stability in the succession generally. This would have been even more important to consolidate on the political level of the monarchy than on the level of the individual aristocratic family like Gloucester's. Historically, the practical alternatives facing monarchies are either hereditary rule ör chaos, but Lear does not do what he can to shore up hereditary monarchy and instead undermines it in the name of the principle of merit.

It turns out, therefore, that both Lear and Edmund appeal to nature—to a natural as distinguished from a merely legal or conventional or manmade claim. In Edmund's case, the legal rule working against him is already firmly and formidably established: he tries to break it down. In Lear's case, the legal rule governing succession exists only in an inchoate form and hence is much more open to the impress of what a king of his stature actually decides to establish. Lear can help form the tradition guiding royal succession; Edmund must undo the effect of a tradition already established. Moreover, both appeal to a principle of natural desert rather than age, though with Edmund this principle is understood to be based on manly strength or power, with Lear, on moral virtue in the broad sense. Or—since age can itself be thought of as a natural rather than a conventional principle—we find two natural principles in conflict. Whatever the defects of age as a principle, it has the advantage, for society, of being definite and clear cut. Once cast aside, many more Edmunds will make self-interested claims than Lears. The result will be to encourage injustice and lose all dependability at one and the same time.

Thus, the great question animating this play is whether human justice and political life have a foundation in nature or are merely conventional, and it is this question—applied to the problem of succession—that Shakespeare introduces at the beginning of the play and resolves in the rest. Neither Lear nor Edmund had to invent the term "nature" in the play, for they found it already at hand in their society. But someone had to discover "nature" in this sense. When Edmund exclaims, "Thou, Nature, art my goddess," and ends by exhorting the gods to "stand up for bastards," it is unclear whether he really retains any of the polytheistic beliefs of his society, or is rather clothing his radically untraditional beliefs in the traditional garb of religion. For nature is not a goddess in the ordinary meaning of that term. Nature means the necessary working of things due to their own internal makeup or composition, and it can apply either to particular things, like the nature of men or horses, or to the sum of all such things in Nature. It is distinguished from what men artificially establish, but also from the external will of the gods—from both human making and divine making.

The independent force of nature, taken in this specific sense—and the very word "nature"—had to be discovered by someone at some point: nature is not known to men by nature. In his chapter "The Origin of the Idea of Natural Right" (in Natural Right and History), Leo Strauss describes how philosophy itself comes into existence through the discovery of nature, so that the first philosophers were all natural philosophers. Their innovation was to insist on using only man's natural capacities—his senses and his reason—to discover the ultimate causes of things: their nature. This could not occur without a radical rejection of the traditional authority of both religion and society—of their claim to supply the authoritative account of these causes already. Philosophy, when it arises, challenges all authority as such in the name of the truth it discovers about nature, and in the play Shakespeare actually has Lear recapitulate this radical break with the belief in the gods that is presupposed by the discovery of nature through philosophy.

In the play Lear is first shown believing in a combination of the traditional gods and nature. It is to nature that he appeals as he searches for political merit in his successors; it is by the gods that he swears when punishing his "untender" daughter, Cordelia, and then again it is to nature now understood as a goddess (just as in the case of Edmund) that he appeals to bring sterility to his thankless and cruel daughter, Goneril. He seems to be able to believe in both nature and the gods because, in keeping with the tradition of his society, he looks upon the gods as supporting human justice, particularly through their power of punishing injustice. Thus, the gods seem to be both the source of nature and its rulers, and are capable of interfering with its normal working for the sake of sustaining the cause of justice. This dual belief makes it possible for Lear to address Nature herself as a goddess who can interfere with her own natural effects. Edmund appeals to a goddess he calls by the same name but she is really very different. Lear thinks of the gods as making up for weaknesses or defects in human justice, punishing where human justice cannot reach. Edmund, on the other hand, wants to oppose human justice in the name of a natural order centering on his own interests. He believes justice itself to be an artificial or conventional idea, since its concern for others or for the common good goes against the selfishness natural to us all.

By depicting Britain as a place where there is already knowledge of nature and philosophy, and combining this with a religion based on the identification of the heavenly bodies with personal deities, Shakespeare creates a situation something like the combination of biblical and classical elements that characterized medieval society all the way through to his own day. What Shakespeare sets forth in King Lear is a continuous reflection, primarily occurring in Lear's own mind, on the relationship of justice to the gods and nature. As Lear goes mad under the impact of his elder daughters' ingratitude and injustice, Shakespeare shows him preoccupied with the subject of justice and following a course of philosophical reasoning. He reaches the radical conclusion that justice is lacking not only in support from the gods but in support from nature as well: it is entirely conventional. This agrees with the position taken by Edmund from the beginning, and the absence of cosmic justice that it teaches seems to receive its final demonstration in the deep pessimism of the final scene, where Cordelia is needlessly murdered and Lear dies over her. But is this what Shakespeare sought to convey in the play? Is it even what the last scene teaches? Does Shakespeare agree with Lear in thinking justice conventional? If not, on what basis can he think otherwise, and why does the play seem to reach a conventionalist conclusion?

Fathers, Gods and Kings

To compromise his brother, Edmund writes himself a letter, claiming it came from Edgar, in which he calls for the overthrow of their father's "aged tyranny." He tells his father that he has even heard Edgar maintain "that sons at perfect age and fathers declin'd, the father should be as ward to the son, and the son manage his revenue." In a parallel to this, shortly after Lear has begun his visit with Goneril, she determines to be severe with him:

. . . Idle old man,
That still would manage those authorities
That he has given away! No, by my life,
Old fools are babes again, and must be us'd
With checks as flatteries, when they are seen abus'd.

Shortly afterward, the fool tells Lear that he has made his daughters his mothers by giving them the rod and pulling down his own breeches.

All these instances involve an overturning of what seems to be the most obvious order of nature, whereby parents raise and rule over their children and are owed grateful obedience. This overturning puts all of society at risk, since the family is the original seat of authority and perhaps the archetype of political authority as such. In the play, Edmund makes it seem that his brother Edgar wishes to end his father's rule and even his life, whereas it is really he who, beginning with an effort to get his brother's inheritance, betrays his father and makes possible his cruel blinding by Cornwall. Similarly, Lear, having rashly and wrongly disowned Cordelia, finds himself cruelly mistreated by his two elder daughters, using the power he has relinquished to them and their husbands. They shuttle him back and forth between them, reduce his company of knights from one hundred to none, humiliate him further by putting his man in the stocks, and, finally, shut him out in a terrible storm.

Filial disobedience and ingratitude have always existed, but as an unfortunate aberration in human affairs and without receiving justification from abstract views. Shakespeare has Edmund express such views, with Goneril and the fool contributing concrete variations of their own. The reason for this is that the coming of philosophy, with its distinction between nature and convention, represents a challenge to even the most sacred and most self-evident authorities, including that of the father. Once philosophy enters the picture, it must be demonstrated why it is that the gratitude and obedience traditionally owed by children to parents are deserved, and other possibilities—including the rule of mature children over aged parents—must be considered dispassionately. The philosophical conclusion may end up supporting tradition—in deep conservativism—but its ground must now be rational proof rather than traditional reverence.

Reverence for parents and reverence for the gods have a clear link to each other. Just as parents create and care for their offspring, the gods, by their operation—Lear calls them "orbs"—generally cause us to "exist and cease to be." They are the first causes of things, and the things they cause are intrinsically dependent on them. Together, parents and gods introduce into society a marked disposition to favor the old—not only older parents but old people, older generations, and old ways generally. Both Lear and Edmund challenge this domination of the old—challenge Lear's own authority as an old father, an old man and an old king—when they appeal to nature and natural merit as against tradition and convention. According to the principle of natural merit taken by itself, Lear's view of it would indicate that perhaps an intelligent young son should rule over his old and foolish father, just as Edgar does when he undertakes to guide the blind Gloucester. He should do so for his father's good, and Edgar does so far more wisely than Gloucester could have, left to himself. But by Edmund's view of nature and merit, the young should rule over the old for their own good, as he attempts to do throughout. In the play as a whole, the overall change that occurs in Britain from beginning to end is a change from the rule of the very old—Lear is an octagenarian—to the rule of Edgar, a young man of the highest quality, who can be expected to reign justly and wisely and who wisely begins his reign by paying apt tribute to the old: "The oldest hath borne most; we that are young shall never see so much, nor live so long."

Between the customary authority of fathers or parents and the authority of the gods stands the authority of kings or rulers. Lear's conception of kingship does not emerge all at once in the play, but his original plan for dividing the kingdom is designed to give as much authority as possible to merit—i.e., to Cordelia. This effort for Cordelia is in turn predicated on the notion that a ruler must, above all, be just and virtuous, and so she is, even if lacking somewhat in prudence. It presumes that political rule is for the benefit of the ruled, not of the ruler—in this respect resembling paternal power. It requires of the ruler a nature that commands respect and is capable of command generally, all directed toward the common good. This is why the play takes an interest in the question whether there are any kings by nature—i.e., whether human life is well provided for not only through punitive justice but through just rule and proper authority of all kinds. As part of this interest, Kent, in disguise, tells Lear that "you have that in your countenance which I would fain call master," and upon being asked by Lear what that is, replies "Authority." To him, Lear is a natural king and deserves to be not only obeyed but admired and served. As Lear's madness and his understanding simultaneously deepen, he pursues this question of natural kingship further, at one point affirming that he himself is "every inch a king," yet immediately contradicting this idea by denying that royal authority amounts to anything more than a farmer's dog barking at a beggar. Which view is true?

When Lear is mistreated by his elder daughters, his reactions vary in adopting the different perspectives of father and king. It is as their father ("So kind a father!") that he feels the greater sorrow and anger, unable to comprehend their cruel ingratitude after he treated them so well and had just given them all. But he is almost equally sensitive to derogations from his majesty, marks of disrespect, having to plead where before he could command. Over the issue of the conduct and number of his knights, he curses Goneril and sets out for Regan's, perhaps with less hope than he expresses. By the end of Act I, helped by the fool's bitter jests, he has already regretted surrendering his power to these daughters, and recognized that his disowning Cordelia was the originating point of this folly: "O' Lear, Lear, Lear! Beat at this gate, that let thy folly in and thy dear judgment out!" Already, so early in the play, he fears going mad and begs "sweet heaven" to keep him from going mad. By the end of Act II he has been confronted and humiliated by both daughters together in Gloucester's castle. Again he appeals to the gods: "O heavens, if you do love old men, if your sweet sway allow obedience, if you yourselves are old, make it your cause; send down, and take my part!" Torn between wanting to be patient and wanting vengeance, he begs the gods as a "poor old man" for patience, yet also wonders if they have caused his daughters' ingratitude. He asks to be touched by "noble anger" and helped to avoid weeping. Refusing to weep, and threatening to avenge himself on these "unnatural hags," he again fears losing his sanity: "O, Fool! I shall go mad!"

By appealing to the gods as a poor old man and father, rather than as a king, Lear chooses what he must instinctively sense to be the firmer ground. Being an old father is a natural and enduring condition, whereas being a king is something that can happen and unhappen. While retaining the title of king, Lear had in fact given up his royal power, but he did not and could not give up his status as a father and what was owed to him by his daughters. And this, of course, is the bond that most affects the audience—one they have all experienced and sense to be both natural and of the greatest moment. Nevertheless, something of Lear's case is lost when he forgoes arguing as a king and even, at times, as a progenitor, for these functions liken him more fully to the gods than the "oldness" he stresses. Symbolically, however, the challenge to "oldness" mounted by Edmund, Goneril and Lear himself—a challenge to all old things, including custom and tradition—provides the setting for the philosophizing Lear himself soon engages in as he descends into madness. In short, something like the original birth of philosophy is enacted before our eyes, but in a disguise that keeps us from recognizing it as such. It is amazing to discover how much of the play parallels Strauss's account of how the idea of natural right originated.

By the beginning of the great storm scene in Act III, Lear has more than regained whatever moral ground he had lost at the beginning of his rash and cruel dismissal of Cordelia and Kent. The depth of his love for Cordelia has not yet shown itself full force, but he plainly regrets his injustice to her. We are impressed, moreover, by Kent's returning in disguise to serve his master, and all the more because of Kent's independence of mind: it is a deed that speaks as well of his master as of himself. We begin to cringe at the fool's almost merciless sarcasm at his master's expense, and cannot but wonder how Lear can tolerate it and preserve his attachment to the fool throughout. Of course we sympathize most strongly with Lear's suffering at the hands of his elder daughters and begin to appreciate the grandeur, as well as the confusion, of his soul. Thinking back, we realize that his explosion at Cordelia was not simply the result of egotism or even irascibility. It was caused by great love combined with sudden frustration at seeing his elaborate scheme—itself animated by preference for her—destroyed by her unanticipated obstinacy.

By the end of Act II, then, we are prepared to concede, from watching Lear in action, what the situation in Britain originally implied. Far from being a man of selfish vanity, feeble intelligence and uncontrollable anger, Lear is cast in the heroic mould. He is usually not impulsive, not even given to anger, and certainly not vain. Until then he has combined wisdom with power, and that is why he has no enemies at home, is so well loved and respected by all those who count, and enjoys such standing abroad. His misfortune stems as much from the artificial complication of his scheme and his misunderstanding of his daughters as it does from his inordinate anger at Cordelia. "He always lov'd our sister most," is all that Goneril and Regan can hold against him, but they do not complain of abuse or neglect. They concealed their vices so long as their father had gifts to give and power to awe; Cordelia, whose virtue he had recognized and loved, had perhaps not yet had occasion to show the contempt she had for her sisters and her inclination to push virtue itself to an imprudent extreme.

"Reason in Madness": The Storm Scene of Act HI

Let us now follow Lear's words in the storm at night, as he thinks about his daughters' injustice and his own suffering. First he urges the wind, rain, lightning ("thought-executing fires"—i.e., lightning that executes the thought of Zeus) and thunder to put an end to "ingrateful man." Unlike his children, these elements owe nothing to him and so can subject him to what they will without doing injustice. Yet they seem also to be in alliance with his daughters against him, despite his age and weakness, and are therefore unjust, since the daughters, after all, are safe inside Gloucester's castle while he is made to feel the full brunt of the storm outside.

Lear calls upon himself to be patient, without complaining, and then finds another way of justifying the gods: they must be using this dreadful storm to terrorize undetected criminals and make them beg for mercy. But in that case Lear himself need not fear: "I am a man more sinn'd against than sinning." At this point he turns sympathetically to the fool—"my boy"—and worries about his feeling cold, showing this innate concern for others, just as Kent tries to get him...

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Lear's Fool

Glena D. Wood (essay date 1972)

SOURCE: "The Tragi-Comic Dimensions of Lear's Fool," in Costerus: Essays in English and American Language and Literature, Vol. 5, 1972, pp. 197-226.

[Below, Wood examines the Fool's function in King Lear, demonstrating the relation of the Fool to Lear's personal development.]

For a century and a half—1681-1838—Nahum Tate's version of King Lear pre-empted the stage in preference to Shakespeare's text. Tate's version restored Lear his throne, betrothed Edgar and Cordelia, and omitted the Fool as indecorous to tragedy. The rich texture and meaning of the drama suffered as much, perhaps, from...

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Richard Abrams (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: "The Double Casting of Cordelia and Lear's Fool: A Theatrical View," in Texas Studies in Literature and Language, Vol. 27, No. 4, Winter, 1985, pp. 354-68.

[In the essay that follows, Abrams explores the hypothesis that in early productions of King Lear, the characters of Cordelia and Lear's Fool were played by the same actor. Abrams emphasizes the theatrical benefits of such "doubling," noting that Cordelia and the Fool both serve as Lear's "truth-tellers."]

Proposed near the turn of the past century, the hypothesis that the actor playing Cordelia doubled as the Fool in early productions of...

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The Family

Thomas McFarland (essay date 1978/79)

SOURCE: "The Image of the Family in King Lear" in On King Lear, edited by Lawrence Danson, Princeton University Press, 1981, pp. 91-118.

[In the following essay, originally presented at Princeton University in 1978/79, McFarland maintains that the play focuses not on King Lear's personal suffering, but on "the agony of the family." The play's tragic situation, the critic argues, stems from the tension between Lear's role as king and his role as father.]

King Lear develops its action along a pattern supplied simultaneously by poetic fantasy and by historical reality. In the main plot, the...

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Alexander Leggatt (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: "Lear," in Harvester New Critical Introductions to Shakespeare: King Lear, Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1988, pp. 69-95.

[In the following essay, Leggatt focuses on Lear's death, contending that it is "the completion of life lived to the extreme," and examines the parallels in the experiences of Lear and Gloucester.]

One of the principal ways in which critics have sought consolation for the ending of King Lear is to note that, however much Lear has suffered, he has also learnt. Walter Stein puts it succinctly: 'The world remains what it was, a merciless, heart-breaking world. Lear is broken by it, but...

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Politics And The Law

Margot Heinemann (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: "'Demystifying the Mystery of State': King Lear and the World Upside Down," in Shakespeare Survey: An Annual Survey of Shakespeare Studies and Production, Vol. 44, 1992, pp. 75-83.

[In the following essay, Heinemann argues that King Lear is a play as much concerned with government and politics as it is with personal, familial issues. The critic stresses that the play should be interpreted in terms of a personal loss of power and as the collapse of social and political structures. Additionally, Heinemann suggests ways in which the political implications of King Lear might be related to the politics of...

(The entire section is 11150 words.)

Further Reading

Alfar, Cristina Leon. "King Lear's 'Immoral' Daughters and the Politics of Kingship." Exemplaria VIII, No. 2 (Fall 1996): 375-400.

Argues that Goneril and Regan are not innately "evil" but rather that their deeds are reactions to the "patrilinial structure of power relations in which they live and to which they must accommodate themselves."

Asp, Carolyn. "'The Clamor of Eros': Freud, Aging, and King Lear." In Memory and Desire: AgingLiteraturePsychoanalysis, edited by Kathleen Woodward and Murray M. Schwartz, pp. 192-204. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986.


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