Download King Lear Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Tragic Form in Shakespeare

(Shakespeare for Students)

(From Tragic Form in Shakespeare by Ruth Nevo. © 1972 Princeton University Press. Reprinted by permission of the publisher.)

. . . Lear expresses his complete conviction of the power of love renewed in reconciliation to redeem all sorrow, to compensate for all loss, to sweeten all adversity, and to confer blessedness upon the most meager and wretched of material conditions. For Lear the fullness of time is identical with the fullness of the spirit:

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 walled prison, packs and sects of great ones
That ebb and flow by th' moon.

But there is a powerful irony in the very conception of the speech. For if birds singing in a cage represent a canonization of love in a hermitage of the blessed, they are nonetheless helpless and captive creatures. Lear's Olympian indifference to the ebb and flow of the power-seekers and the time-servers is an ironic image of the indifference to remote, frail, and petty life of the heavenly powers to whom Lear had thundered his demand for care, concern, and justice. For himself, he possesses all that his soul desires, therefore he has become godlike; Cordelia's sacrifice is the object of the obeissance of the gods themselves; and they, God's spies, are within ecstatic sight of the very mystery of things. So he consigns the world to the devil and embraces eternity. The unreconstructed hubris of the speech, the unextinguishable vitality of the spirit, is the most necessary prelude to the death blow to follow. It is his heroic distinction, this resilience, this capacity for renewal, which has survived unheard-of trials, and risen triumphant like the phoenix from the ash heap of affliction.

But if it is in Lear's imaginative compass to be king of infinite space in an eternity of blessedness, it is Lear's irreversible tragic destiny to suffer the loss of the life upon which that blessedness solely depends, to suffer the finitude of the human condition in the bitterest and highest degree. It is unaccommodated man who enters with his beloved child dead in his arms. In the play's final mirror-image Lear hangs upon Cordelia's lips in death as he did once in life, but all that was concealed from him then has emerged into the clearest light. Cordelia's death hurls Lear back into his Jobian posture of irreconcilable, inconsolable protest against the arbitrary and inexplicable slaughter of innocence.

All of Shakespeare

(Shakespeare for Students)

(From All of Shakespeare by Maurice Charney. ©1993 Columbia University Press. Reprinted by permission of the publisher.)

Shut out on the heath during a wild storm, the mad Lear is preoccupied with justice:

Tremble, thou wretch,
That hast within thee undivulged crimes
Unwhipped of justice.

He is exploring one of the fundamental themes of Shakespearean tragedy. In the moral audit he is "a man/ More sinned against than sinning" (59-60). Fundamental to his vision of a more just society is his invocation of "poor naked wretches, wheresoe'er you are,/ That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm" (3.4.28-29). This is what he has taken "Too little care of" (33) when he was King, and we seem to see a transformation of Lear on the heath. He is now exposed to "feel what wretches feel" (34), and the pomp of majesty (so brilliantly displayed, for example, in Henry V) must now "Take physic" (33), or a cathartic purge, in order to cure itself.

It is only a short step from this point to Lear's overwhelming attraction to Poor Tom, who is "the thing itself; unaccommodated man" (3.4.109-10), and Lear tears off his clothes and tries to imitate the Bedlam beggar: "Off, off, you lendings! Come, unbutton here"...

(The entire section is 59,259 words.)