Tragic Form in Shakespeare

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 477

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

Illustration of PDF document

Download King Lear Study Guide

Subscribe Now

. . . 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

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 706

(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" (111). But Poor Tom is actually Edgar in disguise, who is playing the role of Bedlam beggar with consummate skill. In a sense, Lear is still deceived by false appearances as he always was. It is interesting how completely Edgar as Poor Tom displaces the Fool, who disappears from the play with the line: "And I'll go to bed at noon" (3.6.84).

. . . King Lear's preoccupation with justice is the leading theme of his madness, and by justice is meant the inner truth that will be revealed by stripping off false appearances. Thus, "Robes and furred gowns hide all" (4.6.167), whereas Truth in its emblematic representation is naked. The "rascal beadle" is lashing the whore that he "hotly lusts to use . . . in that kind/ For which thou whip'st her" (164-65). The image of the world in this scene, with the blind Gloucester as an almost mute witness to Lear's imaginings, is very bleak. This is a low point for Lear in the play, and his homicidal frenzy mixes with more general images. There is wild energy in his "delicate stratagem, to shoe/ A troop of horse with felt" and steal "upon these son-in-laws,/ Then, kill, kill, kill, kill, kill, kill!" (188-89). The frenzy of these six repetitions of kill look forward to the five repetitions of never at the end of the play (5.3.310).

The redemption of Lear, his recovery from madness, and his reconciliation with Cordelia take place in the next scene (4.7), which may be the most tender and moving in the play. The old King believes that he is a soul in hell, and he needs to be convinced that he is alive and that his daughter Cordelia is speaking to him:

You do me wrong to take me out o' th' grave:
Thou art a soul in bliss; but I am bound
Upon a wheel of fire, that mine own tears
Do scald like molten lead. (45-48)

This scene comes closest in Shakespeare to fulfilling the criteria of Aristotelian tragedy because Lear's return from madness brings with it an intense recognition of his fallible humanity: "I am a very foolish fond old man,/ Fourscore and upward, not an hour more nor less" (60-61).

His acknowledgment of Cordelia is done with extraordinary simplicity; Shakespeare seems to avoid any sense of writing up this powerful scene in which the dramatic pressures are so acute. Lear says modestly:

Do not laugh at me,
For, as I am a man, I think this lady
To be my child Cordelia.

Cordelia replies with a triumphant gush of emotion that echoes her father's "as I am a man": "And so I am, I am" (70). This could all seem simplistic if the dramatic action were not so keyed up and highly wrought. Lear and Cordelia exit with a line that seems deeply religious: "You must bear with me. Pray you now, forget and forgive. I am old and foolish" (84-85). This is so different from anything in the first scene of the play that it marks the radical transformation of Lear.


Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8169

Northrop Frye
[In this informal, almost conversational, essay on King Lear—developed from his lectures to undergraduate students over many years—Frye ranges widely across many aspects of the play as he outlines its tragic vision. He describes the Elizabethan concept of order or hierarchy in nature and the different levels of existence in King Lear: the supernatural, the human, physical nature, and the demonic world. Frye also discusses the association of the word "nothing" with loss of identity and remarks on the various meanings of the word "fool" in the play. As he takes up each of these thematic issues, he also offers commentary on Lear, Cordelia, Goneril and Regan, Edmund, and Edgar.]

The story of Lear is one of a series of legends about the ancient history of Britain, legends that in Shakespeare's day were thought to be genuine history. How they got to be that makes a curious story, but we just have time for its main point. A Welsh priest living in the twelfth century, called Geoffrey of Monmouth, concocted a fictional history of early Britain modelled on Virgil, and according to this Britain was settled by Trojan refugees led by one Brutus, after whom Britain was named. There follows a long chronicle of kings and their adventures, mostly, so far as we can see, gathered out of Welsh legend and historical reminiscence. This is where the story of Lear and his three daughters came from: Lear was supposed to have lived somewhere around the seventh or eighth century before Christ. So, except for Troilus and Cressida, which is a very medievalized version of the Trojan War, King Lear is the earliest in historical setting of all Shakespeare's plays. It's true that we notice a tendency to mix up various historical periods increasing as Shakespeare goes on. In Hamlet, for instance, we seem to be most of the time in Denmark of the Dark Ages, but Hamlet is a student at Wittenberg, a university founded around 1500, and Laertes appears to be going off to a kind of Renaissance Paris. In King Lear we find Anglo-Saxon names (Edmund, Edgar, Kent) and Roman ones (Gloucester), and we also have contemporary allusions, including religious ones, of a type that the audience was accustomed to. But still there does seem to be a roughly consistent effort to keep the setting pre-Christian.

There are a lot of advantages here for what is perhaps Shakespeare's biggest dramatic design. First, with a setting so far back in time, the sense of the historical blurs into the sense of the mythical and legendary. The main characters expand into a gigantic, even titanic, dimension that simply wouldn't be possible in a historical context like that of Henry IV. Then again, there are certain tensions between a tragic structure and a framework of assumptions derived from Christianity. Christianity is based on a myth (story) which is comic in shape, its theme being the salvation and redemption of man. You can see what I mean by comic: when Dante wrote his poem about hell, purgatory and paradise he called it a commedia because it followed the central Christian story, which ends happily for all the people who matter. Tragedy needs a hero of outsize dimensions: you can get this easily in Greek tragedy, where some men can really be descended from gods, and where there's very little distinction between history and legend anyway, but in Christianity there's no hero except Christ who has a divine dimension of any kind. Also, tragedy raises some disturbing questions about what kind of power is in charge of the universe. Christianity has prompt and confident answers, but the more emotionally convincing the tragedy, the more we may feel that the answers sometimes are a bit too pat. We can see this feeling reflected in what people say who are assumed to be living before the coming of Christ.

The very little evidence we have seems to indicate that Shakespeare took more time over King Lear than over most of his plays, and the freedom with which he handled a story familiar to his audience is extraordinary. No previous account of Lear suggests that he went mad, or that Cordelia was hanged by her enemies; and the incorporating of the Gloucester-Edgar subplot, as a counterpoint to the main, Lear-Cordelia one, is entirely Shakespeare's. The material seems to have come from Sir Philip Sidney's Arcadia, but the source doesn't seem significant. Neither do the books he consulted for the names of the devils inhabiting Poor Tom and the like. There's a Quarto text as well as a Folio one, but the relations between them that an editor has to deal with are just too complex to go into.

When you start to read or listen to King Lear, try to pretend that you've never heard the story before, and forget that you know how bad Goneril and Regan and Edmund are going to be. That way, you'll see more clearly how Shakespeare is building up our sympathies in the opposite direction. The opening scene presents first Gloucester and then Lear as a couple of incredibly foolish and gullible dodderers (Gloucester's gullibility comes out in a slightly later scene). Gloucester boasts about how he begot Edmund in a way that embarrasses us as well as Kent, and we feel that Edmund's treachery, whatever we think of it, is at any rate credibly motivated. Even at the end of the play, his simple phrase "Yet Edmund was beloved," meaning that Goneril and Regan loved him at least, reminds us how intensely we can feel dramatic sympathy where we don't necessarily feel moral sympathy.

As for Lear and his dreary love test, it's true that Goneril and Regan are being hypocrites when they patter glibly through the declarations of love they are required to make, but we shouldn't forget that it's a genuine humiliation, even for them, to have to make such speeches. At no time in the play does Lear ever express any real affection or tenderness for Goneril or Regan. Of course loving Goneril and Regan would be uphill work, but Lear never really thinks in terms of love: he talks about his kindness and generosity and how much he's given them and how grateful they ought to feel. He does say (publicly) that Cordelia was always his favourite, and that certainly registers with the other two, as their dialogue afterward shows. But they don't feel grateful, and nobody with Shakespeare's knowledge of human nature would expect them to. Then again, while they're not surprised that Lear acts like an old fool, even they are startled by how big a fool he is, and they realize that they have to be on their guard to stop him from ever having the power to do to them what he's just done to Cordelia. The hundred knights Lear insists on could easily start a palace revolution in such a society, so the hundred knights will have to go.

In the first two acts, all Lear's collisions with his daughters steadily diminish his dignity and leave them with the dramatic honours. They never lose their cool: they are certainly harsh and unattractive women, but they have a kind of brusque common sense that bears him down every time. A hundred knights would make quite a hole in any housekeeper's budget, and we have only Lear's word for it that they're invariably well behaved. If we look at the matter impartially, we may find ourselves asking, with the daughters, what all the fuss is about, and why Lear must have all these knights. When Regan says:

This house is little: the old man and's people
Cannot be well bestow'd.
(II. iv. 290-91)

what she says could have a ring of truth in it, if we forget for the moment that she's talking about Gloucester's house, which she and Cornwall have commandeered. Every move that Lear makes is dramatically a flop, as when he kneels to Regan, intending irony, and she says "these are unsightly tricks," which they assuredly are. The same thing is true of some of Lear's allies, like Kent and his quarrel with Oswald that lands him in the stocks. It is not hard to understand Kent's feelings about Oswald, or his exasperation with the fact that Goneril's messenger is treated with more consideration than the king's, but still he does seem to be asking for something, almost as though he were a kind of agent provocateur, adopting the strategy of Goneril's "I'd have it come to question."

It is not until the scene at the end of the second act, with its repeated "shut up your doors," that our sympathies definitely shift over to Lear. Regan says, "He is attended with a desperate train," meaning his fifty (or whatever their present number) knights, but they seem to have sloped off pretty promptly as soon as they realized that they were unlikely to get their next meal there, and Lear's "desperate train" actually consists only of the Fool. When we catch her out in a lie of that size we begin to see what has not emerged before, and has perhaps not yet occurred to them: that "his daughters seek his death," as Gloucester says. It is during and after the storm that the characters of the play begin to show their real nature, and from then on we have something unique in Shakespeare: a dramatic world in which the characters are, like chess pieces, definitely black or white: black with Edmund, Goneril, Regan and Cornwall; white with Lear, Cordelia, Edgar, Gloucester, Kent and eventually Albany.

Perhaps the best way of finding our bearings in this mammoth structure is to look for clues in the words that are so constantly repeated that it seems clear they're being deliberately impressed on us. I'd like to look at three of these words in particular: the words "nature," "nothing" and "fool."

To understand the word "nature," we have to look at the kind of world view that's being assumed, first by Shakespeare's audience, then by the characters in the play. The opening words of Edmund's first soliloquy are "Thou, Nature, art my goddess," and later in the first act Lear, beginning his curse on Goneril, says: "Hear, Nature, hear; dear goddess, hear." It seems clear that Edmund and Lear don't mean quite the same thing by the goddess Nature, but I think Shakespeare's audience would find this less confusing than we do.

At that time most people assumed that the universe was a hierarchy in which the good was "up" and the bad "down." These ups and downs might be simply metaphors, but that didn't affect their force or usefulness. At the top of the cosmos was the God of Christianity, whose abode is in heaven; that is, the place where his presence is. The lower heaven or sky is not this heaven, but it's the clearest visible symbol of it. The stars, made, as was then believed, out of a purer substance than this world, keep reminding us in their circling of the planning and intelligence that went into the Creator's original construction.

God made a home for man in the garden of Eden, which, like the stars, was a pure world without any death or corruption in it. But Adam and Eve fell out of this garden into a lower or "fallen" world, a third level into which man now is born but feels alienated from. Below this, a fourth level, is the demonic world. The heaven of God is above nature; the demonic world of the devils is below it; but the important thing to keep in mind is that the two middle levels both form part of the order of nature, and that consequently "nature" has two levels and two standards. The upper level, the world symbolized by the stars and by the story of the garden of Eden, was man's original home, the place God intended him to live in. The lower level, the one we're born into now, is a world to which animals and plants seem to be fairly well adjusted: man is not adjusted to it. He must either sink below it into sin, a level the animals can't reach, or try to raise himself as near as he can to the second level he really belongs to. I say "try to raise himself," but he can't really do that: the initiative must come from above or from social institutions. Certain things—morality, virtue, education, social discipline, religious sacraments—all help him to raise his status. He won't get back to the garden of Eden: that's disappeared as a place, but it can be recovered in part as an inner state of mind. The whole picture looks like this to the audience:

1. Heaven (the place of the presence of God), symbolized by the sun and moon, which are all that's left of the original creation.

2. Higher or human order of nature, originally the "unfallen" world or garden of Eden, now the
level of nature on which man is intended to live as continuously as possible with the aid of religion, morality and the civilized arts.

3. Lower or "fallen" order of physical nature, our present environment, a world seemingly indifferent to man and his concerns, though the wise can see many traces of its original splendour.

4. The demonic world, whatever or wherever it is, often associated with the destructive aspects of nature, such as the storm on the heath.

When we speak of "nature" it makes a crucial difference whether we mean the upper, human level of nature or the environment around us that we actually do live in. Many things are "natural" to man that are not natural to anything else on this lower level, such as living under authority and obedience, wearing clothes, using reason, and the like. Such things show that the proper "natural" environment for man is something different from that of animals. But when Edmund commits himself to his goddess Nature, he means only the lower, physical level of nature, where human life, like animal life, is a jungle in which the predators are the aristocracy. When Lear appeals to the goddess Nature to curse Goneril, he means a nature that includes what is peculiarly natural to man, an order of existence in which love, obedience, authority, loyalty are natural because they are genuinely human; an order in which "art," in all its Elizabethan senses, is practically indistinguishable from nature. Goneril is being cursed because her treatment of her father is "unnatural" in this context.

But we shouldn't assume that Edmund knows clearly that he is talking about a lower aspect of Nature, or that Lear knows clearly that he is talking about a higher one. Such categories aren't clear yet in a pre-Christian world. In the Lear world there is no actual God, because there is only the Christian God, and he has not revealed himself yet. Very early, when Kent stands out against Lear's foolish decision, Lear says, "Now, by Apollo—" and Kent answers:

Now, by Apollo, King
Thou swear'st thy Gods in vain.
(I. i. 160-61)

Lear retorts by calling him "miscreant," unbeliever. A parody of this discussion occurs later, when Kent is in the stocks. And just as the divine world is hazy and mysterious, so is the demonic world. King Lear is in many respects the spookiest of all the great tragedies, and yet nothing explicitly supernatural or superhuman occurs in it: there is nothing to correspond to the Ghost in Hamlet or the witches in Macbeth. Five fiends inhabit Poor Tom, but we don't believe in his devils, and wouldn't even if we didn't know that Poor Tom is really Edgar. To Shakespeare's audience, the Lear world would look something like this:

1. World of impotent or nonexistent gods, which tend to collapse into deified personifications of Nature or Fortune.

2. Social or human world with the elements the more enlightened can see to be essential to a human world, such as love, loyalty and authority. In particular, the world represented by Cordelia's and Edgar's love, Kent's loyalty, Albany's conscience, etc.

3. World of physical nature in which man is born an animal and has to follow the animal pattern of existence, i.e., join the lions and eat well, or the sheep and get eaten.

4. A hell-world glimpsed in moments of madness or horror.

As an example of what I'm talking about, notice that one of the first points established about Edmund is his contempt for astrology. If we ignore the question of "belief" in astrology, for ourselves or for Shakespeare or his audience, and think of it simply as a dramatic image revealing character, we can see that of course Edmund would dismiss astrology: it has no place in his conception of nature. Astrology was taken seriously in Shakespeare's day because of the assumption that God had made the world primarily for the benefit of man, and although the original creation is in ruins, we can still see many evidences of design in it with a human reference. The stars in the sky are not just there: they've been put there for a purpose, and that's why the configurations of stars can spell out the destinies of men and women.

Similarly, there are links, however mysterious and fitful, between natural and human events, at least on the top social level. Comets, earthquakes and other natural disturbances don't just happen: they happen at crucial times in human life, such as the death of a ruler. Not necessarily a Christian ruler: there were . . . such portents at the time of the murder of Julius Caesar. So Lear has some ground for expecting that the order of nature around him might take some notice of his plight and of his daughters' ingratitude, considering that he's a king. But one thing the storm symbolizes is that he's moving into an order of nature that's indifferent to human affairs. His madness brings him the insight: "They told me I was everything: 'tis a lie; I am not ague-proof." With his abdication, whatever links there may be between the civilized human world and the one above it have been severed.

It should be clear from all this that the question "What is a natural man?" has two answers. On his own proper human level it is natural to man to be clothed, sociable and reasonable. When Goneril and Regan keep asking Lear why he needs all those knights, the first part of his answer, in the speech beginning "Oh, reason not the need," is a quite coherent statement of the fact that civilized life is not based simply on needs. But in this storm world that Lear is descending into, what is natural man like? Lear has hardly begun to formulate the question when Poor Tom appears as the answer to it. "Didst thou give all to thy two daughters?" Lear asks, still preoccupied with his own concerns. But we're getting down now to the underside of the Goneril-Regan world:

Poor Tom, that eats the swimming frog, the toad, the tadpole, the wall-newt and the water; that in the fury of his heart, when the foul fiend rages, eats cow-dung for sallets, swallows the old rat and the ditch-dog; drinks the green mantle of the standing pool . . .
(III. iv. 132ff.)

The imagery creates a world more nauseating than Hamlet ever dreamed of. "Is man no more than this?", Lear asks. In a way Poor Tom is a kind of ghastly parody of a free man, because he owes nothing to the amenities of civilization. Lear is reminded that he still has at least clothes, and starts tearing them off to be level with Poor Tom, but he is distracted from this. He says in a miracle of condensed verbal power: "Thou art the thing itself." He has started at one end of nature and ended at the other, and now his downward journey has reached a terminus. Perhaps one of Edgar's motives in assuming his Poor Tom disguise was to provide a solid bottom for Lear's descent. Below or behind him is the chaos-world portended by the storm: the world of the furies and fiends that Edgar is keeping Lear protected from, just as he protects Gloucester later from the self-destructive "fiend" that wants to hurl him over a cliff.

The word "nothing" [also appears in] Richard II, where it [is] connected with the conception of the king's two bodies [that is, his dual nature as both an individual and an office of state]. In both plays "nothing" seems to have the meaning of being deprived of one's social function, and so of one's identity. A king who dies is still a something, namely a dead king; a king deprived of his kingship is "nothing," even if, or especially if, he still goes on living. That is one thing that the issue of the train of knights is about. They represent, for Lear, his continuing identity as king, even though he has abdicated his powers and responsibilities: he wants both to have and not have his royalty. His daughters do not, at least not at first, want to kill him: they want him to go on living without power, once he has renounced it. Regan says, and may well mean it at this point:

For his particular, I'll receive him gladly,
But not one follower.
(II. iv. 293-94)

Such treatment of him is, at least symbolically (and symbolism is immensely important here), what Lear says in another connection is "worse than murder." To kill him would be murder; to let him survive without his identity is a kind of annihilation. Similarly Edgar says, when assuming his Poor Tom disguise: "Edgar I nothing am." He's still alive, but his identity as Edgar is gone, or at least in abeyance.

There is another context, easier to understand, in which the conception of nothing is of great significance. What is the cause of love, friendship, good faith, loyalty or any of the essential human virtues? Nothing. There's no "why" about them: they just are. In putting on his love-test act, Lear is obsessed by the formula of something for something. I'll love you if you love me, and if you love me you'll get a great big slice of England. When Cordelia says that she loves him according to her "bond," she of course doesn't mean anything like Shylock's bond [in The Merchant of Venice]: the word for her has more the modern sense of "bonding." Love and loyalty don't have motives or expectations or causes, nor can they be quantified, as in Lear's "Which of you shall we say doth love us most?" Much later in the play, when Cordelia awakens Lear and he finally realizes he is still in the same world, he says:

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.
(IV. vii. 73-75)

Cordelia's answer, "No cause, no cause," is one of the supreme moments of all drama. And yet when Cordelia says that, she is saying precisely what she said at the beginning of the play: she will have nothing to do with these silly conditional games. It is characteristic of such relationships that sooner or later they come to focus on some anxiety symbol, which for Lear is the issue of the hundred knights. Pursuing this anxiety drives Lear toward the madness he so much fears, and forces him into those dreadful bargaining scenes that we can hardly bear to reread:

Thy fifty yet doth double five and twenty,
And thou art twice her love.
(II. iv. 261-62)

As for "fool," we have first of all Lear's version of the common phrase, used several times by Shakespeare, "all the world's stage":

When we are born, we cry that we are come
To this great stage of fools.
(II. iv. 184-85)

The word "fool" is in course of time applied to practically every decent character in the play. Those who are not fools are people like Goneril and Regan and Edmund, who live according to the conditions of the lower or savage nature they do so well in. But Albany is called a "moral fool" by Goneril because he is unwilling to accept such a world; Kent is called a fool for taking the part of an outcast king. As for the Fool himself, he is a "natural," a word that again evokes the sense of two levels of nature. As a "natural" in this world, he is deficient enough, mentally, to be put in a licensed position to say what he likes. In his kind of "natural" quality there is a reminiscence of a still coherent and divinely designed order of nature, a world in which no one can help telling the truth. In our world, there is the proverb "children and fools tell the truth," and the Fool's privilege makes him a wit because in our world nothing is funnier than a sudden outspoken declaration of the truth.

There is another sense of the word "fool" that seems to be peculiar to Shakespeare, and that is the "fool" as victim, the kind of person to whom disasters happen. Everyone on the wrong side of the wheel of fortune is a fool in this sense, and it is in this sense that Lear speaks of himself as "the natural fool of fortune." . . . [When] Gloucester says:

As flies to wanton boys are we to th' gods,
They kill us for their sport.
(IV. i. 36-37)

he certainly hasn't forgotten that his own plight is the quite understandable result of his own folly, Edmund's treachery and Cornwall's brutality; it doesn't need any gods to explain it. Some nineteenth-century commentators felt that this remark displayed an atheistic pessimism which Shakespeare himself believed in (because they did) and was keeping up his sleeve. I don't know what Shakespeare believed, but he knew what his audience would buy, and he knew they wouldn't buy that. Gloucester is no atheist: he postulates gods, divine personalities, and if he replaced them with a mechanism of fate or destiny he couldn't ascribe maliceto it. What he feels is that there is some mystery in the horror of what's happened to him that goes beyond the tangible human causes.

Edgar and Albany, on the other hand, are moralists: they look for human causes and assume that there are powers above who are reacting to events as they should. Albany is a decent man, and Goneril a vicious woman, and yet in Goneril's world Albany looks weak and ineffectual. He produces his great melodramatic coup, the letter proving Goneril's intrigue with Edmund, which should overwhelm her with shame and confusion. But Goneril isn't listening: in her world, of course anyone of her social rank who despised her husband would take a lover. It's true that she kills herself when Edmund is fatally wounded, but that too is part of the Goneril ethic. Albany's demonstrations of the workings of providence also get undercut pretty badly. When he hears of the death of Cornwall he says it shows that "justicers" are above, passing over the fate of Gloucester himself and of Cornwall's servant. He sees a "judgement of the heavens" in the deaths of Goneril and Regan: at once Kent enters, inquires for the king, and Albany says, "Great thing of us forgot!" It looks almost as though the memory of the "heavens" had slipped up along with Albany's. Finally, he tries to set up a scene of poetic justice in which:

All friends shall taste
The wages of their virtue, and all foes
The cup of their deservings.
(V. iii. 302-304)

What follows this is Lear's terrible lament over the dead body of Cordelia, and in the nuclear-bomb desolation of that speech, words like "wages" and "deserving" fade into nothingness. It may be, as some say, that Lear thinks Cordelia is alive again at the end of the speech, but we know that if so he is being mocked with another illusion.

Edgar too, for all his prodigies of valour and fidelity, gets some curiously limp things to say. At the end of the heath scene he makes a chorus comment (which is not in the Folio):

When we our betters see bearing our woes,
We scarcely think our miseries our foes.
(III. vi. 105-106)

and so on for another dozen sickening lines. After he strikes down Edmund in the final duel, he remarks that the gods are just, and that Gloucester's blindness was the inevitable result of going into a whorehouse to beget Edmund. (I feel very sorry for Edmund's mother, who seems to me to get a quite undeservedly bad press.) Even though Edmund agrees with the statement, it doesn't make much of a point, as we're explicitly told that Goneril and Regan were "got 'tween lawful sheets." In fact, the whole relation between Gloucester and the Lear tragedies seems to have something of a contrast between an explicable and an inexplicable disaster. The Gloucester tragedy perhaps can—just—be explained in moral terms; the Lear tragedy cannot.

There is a lot more to be said about both Albany and Edgar, and I shall be saying some of it myself in a moment. They are not in the least ridiculous characters, but, like all the virtuous people, they are fools in the sense that a fool is a victim: they utter the cries of bewildered men who can't see what's tormenting them, and their explanations, even if they are reassuring for the moment, are random guesses. In this dark, meaningless, horrible world, everyone is as spiritually blind as Gloucester is physically: you might be interested in looking at the number of references to blindness in the play apart from those connected with Gloucester. The moral for us, as students of the play, is clear enough: we have to take a much broader view of the action than either a fatalistic or a moral one, and try, not to "explain" it, but to see something of its dimensions and its scope.

Many critics of Shakespeare have noticed that there often seem to be two time clocks in the action of his plays, the events in the foreground summarizing slower and bigger events in the background that by themselves would take longer to work out. It's a little like looking at the scenery from the window of a car or train, with the weeds at the side of the road rushing by and the horizon turning slowly. In the foreground action the scene on the heath seems to take place in the same night that begins with Regan and Cornwall shutting Lear out. In the background we pick up hints that Albany and Cornwall are at loggerheads, but are forced to compose their differences and unite against a threatened invasion from France, partly encouraged by Cordelia, although in the foreground action nothing has yet happened to Lear that would justify such an invasion. At the end of Act II we still don't feel that Gloucester's statement "his daughters seek his death" is quite true yet, though they certainly don't care if he does die. But within an hour or two Gloucester's concern for Lear becomes strictly forbidden, and his action in helping the king to get to Dover is, from Cornwall's point of view, the basest treachery. It's not difficult to get all this from the indications we're given. I think there's also a third rhythm of time, if it really is time, in a still larger background.

Before the play begins, we are in roughly the upper world of human nature; not a paradisal state, of course, but a world where there is authority, social discipline, orders of distinction, and loyalty: the conditions regarded as the central ones in the Tudor world. Then the dreaded image of the map appears, with a proposal to carve up the country. . . . By the end of the scene we have the feeling of sliding into a different world, and when Edmund steps forth with his "Thou, Nature, art my goddess," we feel that he's the first person to have recognized this new world for what it is. He's Gloucester's "natural" son, and on this level of nature he's the kind of person who will take command. When the storm begins in Act III it's described in a way that makes it clear that it's more than just a storm. It's an image of nature dissolving into its primordial elements, losing its distinctions of hierarchies in chaos, a kind of crossing of the Red Sea in reverse.

One of the central images of this descent is that of the antagonism of a younger and older generation. "The younger rises when the old doth fall," says Edmund, and Goneril, speaking of Lear, issues a blanket denunciation of old people generally: "The best and soundest of his time hath been but rash." On the other side, Lear appeals to the gods, "If you do love old men," and Gloucester, with a still more futile irony, appeals for help, during the blinding scene, to any "who will think to live till he be old." The principle that made hereditary succession so important in the history plays seems to be extended here, in a world where the honouring of one's parents is the most emphasized of all virtues. Albany regards Goneril's treatment of her father as the key to everything else she does that's wrong:

She that herself will sliver and disbranch
From her material sap, perforce must wither
And come to deadly use.
(IV. ii. 34-36)

The connection between honouring one's parents and long life is, of course, already present in the fifth commandment, though the characters in King Lear are not supposed to know that. In any case the principle doesn't work in the post-storm world: Cornwall's servant feels that so wicked a woman as Regan can't possibly live out her full life, and Regan does get poisoned, but then Cordelia is hanged, so that again doesn't prove or explain anything. Wherever we turn, we're up against the ambiguity in all tragedy: that death is both the punishment of the evil and the reward of the virtuous, besides being the same end for everybody. Our moralists, Edgar and Albany, the survivors of the play, actually speak as though the length of human life had been shortened as a result of the play's action. The last four lines, spoken by Edgar in the Folio and by Albany in the Quarto, are:

The weight of this sad time we must obey,
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say:
The oldest hath borne most; we that are young
Shall never see so much, nor live so long.
(V. iii 323-26)

The second line, incidentally, seems very curious. If it's a vindication of the conduct of Cordelia and Kent in the opening scene, it's a bit late in the day; and as a general principle it covers too much ground. When Edmund says, "Legitimate Edgar, I must have your land," he is saying what he feels, and certainly not what he ought to say. Nonetheless, I think it's a very central comment: it points to the fact that language is just about the only thing that fights for genuine humanity in this blinded world.

Let's go back to the conception of the king's two bodies. Lear gives up his second body when he surrenders himself to the power of Goneril and Regan, and consequently, as we said, he no longer has any identity as a king. His loss of identity troubles him, and he says to Oswald: "Who am I?" The question is rhetorical, but Oswald's answer, "My lady's father," has the unusual quality of being both the exact truth and a calculated insult. The next time he asks the question it is the Fool who answers: "Lear's shadow." There follows the expulsion and the storm on the heath, and before long things begin to change in Lear. We notice the point at which he is suddenly conscious of the misery of the Fool, and an even more significant moment when he says: "I'll pray, and then I'll sleep." The prayer is a strange prayer, not addressed to any deity, but to the "poor naked wretches" of his own kingdom. What is happening is that he has lost his identity as a king in the body peculiar to a king, but is beginning to recover his royal nature in his other body, his individual and physical one; not just the body that is cold and wet, but the mind that realizes how many others are cold and wet, starting with the Fool and Poor Tom. To use religious terms, his relation to his kingdom was transcendent at the beginning of the play; now it is immanent. Whatever his actual size, Lear is a giant figure, but his gigantic dimensions are now not those of a king or hero; they are those of a human being who suffers but understands his affinity with others who suffer.

In the mad scenes (which would have to be very carefully staged in Shakespeare's day because there was a tendency to think mad people funny), we get a negative aspect of Lear's new sense of identity with his subjects. He speaks of the endless hypocrisies in the administering of justice, of the sexual pleasure with which beadles lash whores, of the prurience lurking under the prude, of the shame of living in a society where "a dog's obeyed in office." These things are not exactly news to us, but they are new sensations to him. All Poor Tom's fiends of lust and theft and lying sweep through him, but they are not in possession of him: he is . . . absorbing the good and bad of the human nature in his kingdom. He is at the opposite pole from the deposed king who had half expected the storm to take his part:

Tremble, thou wretch,
That hast within thee undivulged crimes,
Unwhipp'd of Justice; hide thee, thou bloody hand . . .
(III. ii. 51-53)

We can summarize all this by saying that Lear has entered a world in which the most genuine language is prophetic language: that is, language inspired by a vision of life springing from the higher level of nature. Albany's providence and Edgar's divine justice make sense as a part of such a vision, though as prophecy in the sense of predicting what is going to happen it may fail. Kent, again, is often prophetic; his fury against Oswald is really a prophetic vision of the kind of thing that such people as Oswald do in the world:

Such smiling rogues as these,
Like rats, oft bite the holy cords a-twain . . .
(II. ii. 74-75)

The "holy cords" may be parental or matrimonial: in either case he's dead right about Oswald, as the rest of the play shows. Again, he is someone possessed by a need to have a "master" who represents genuine "authority," as he says to Lear. At the end of the play, when he comes in to "bid my king and master aye good-night," he of course means Lear; when he repeats this a few lines later, a second or two after Lear's death, he may have some intuition about a bigger master who nonetheless includes Lear:

I have a journey, sir, shortly to go;
My master calls me, I must not say no.
(V. iii. 321-22)

I don't mean that he is moving toward a specific religious belief, Christian or other; I mean only that his vision of the source of authority and mastery is expanding from its exclusive focus on King Lear.

The audience is apparently expected to recognize a number of Biblical allusions that the characters who make them do not know to be Biblical. Cordelia speaks of going about her father's business, echoing a phrase of Jesus in the Gospel of Luke: had she known of the resemblance she would hardly have made the remark in quite those words. A gentleman says of Lear:

Thou hast one daughter,
Who redeems nature from the general curse
Which twain have brought her to.
(IV. vi. 206-208)

He could, theoretically, mean Goneril and Regan, or he could mean Adam and Eve. I'd say that he means Goneril and Regan and has probably never heard of Adam and Eve. At the same time it would be true to say that Adam and Eve brought a general curse on nature, and a bit overblown to say it of Goneril and Regan, except insofar as they are participating in a "second fall of cursed man," [Henry V]. The statement is unconsciously prophetic, and the audience picks up more than the speaker is aware of.

Lear on the heath, again, is attended by two bedraggled prophets, the Fool and Poor Tom. The Fool is introduced in the somewhat ambiguous role of keeping Lear amused by repeating incessantly, "You are nothing, nothing, nothing." However unhelpful, it is prophetic enough: it tells Lear the outcome of his journey to Regan and what the next stage of his life will be. Goneril, no devotee of either humour or truth, believes that he is "more knave than fool," because the Fool is a "natural" allied to a level of nature that she does not know exists. On the heath the Fool's role is largely taken over by Poor Tom, although the idiot doggerel that he recites (in the Folio text only) at the end of Act III, Scene ii is still called a "prophecy." As for Poor Tom, a ballad on "Tom o' Bedlam" was collected in the eighteenth century, and may well go back to something very similar extant in Shakespeare's time. The last stanza of the ballad goes:

With an host of furious fancies
Whereof I am commander,
With a burning spear, and a horse of air,
To the wilderness I wander.
By a knight of ghosts and shadows
I summoned am to tourney
Ten leagues beyond the wide world's end,
Methinks it is no journey.

This kind of imagery reminds us of certain primitive poets and magicians, like the "shamans" of central Asia, who go through long initiations that involve journeys to upper and lower worlds. We are now in a world where all knowledge of anything "spiritual" or otherworldly has been degraded to Poor Tom's fiends, his nightmare with her ninefold, his dark tower of Childe Roland, and other phantasms linked to the night and the storm.

Edgar says explicitly that he is trying to "cure" Gloucester's despair, and to lead him to feel that "ripeness is all," that man does not own his life, and must wait until it concludes of itself. Lear has told Gloucester the same thing earlier, and the fact that the mad Lear is in a position to do so says a good deal about the essential sanity of Lear's madness. What Edgar expects to do for Lear by producing his Tom o' Bedlam act is more difficult to say. He seems to be acting as a kind of lightning rod, focussing and objectifying the chaos that is in both Lear's mind and in nature. He's holding a mirror up to Lear's growing madness, somewhat as, to refer to a very different play, Petruchio tries to cure Katharina's shrewishness by showing her in his own behaviour what it looks like [The Taming of the Shrew].

The action of the play seems to be proceeding to a conclusion that, however sombre and exhausting, nonetheless has some serenity in it. But just as we seem about to reach this conclusion, there comes the agonizing wrench of the hanging of Cordelia and the death speeches of Lear. Naturally the stage refused to act this down to the nineteenth century: producers settled for another version that married Cordelia off to Edgar. We act the play now as Shakespeare wrote it, but it's still pretty tough even for this grisly century. I said that in the course of the play the characters settled into a clear division of good and bad people, like the white and black pieces of a chess game. The last of the black pieces, Goneril, Regan and Edmund, have been removed from the board, and then comes the death of Cordelia. Part of this is just the principle that the evil men do lives after them, Edmund's repentance being too late to rescind his own order. But there seems to be a black king still on the board, and one wonders if there is any clue to who or what or where he is.

I [have] said [in an earlier lecture] that Hamlet was the central Shakespeare play for the nineteenth century; in the twentieth century feelings of alienation and absurdity have arisen that tend to shift the focus to King Lear. All virtuous or evil actions, all acceptances or rejections of religious or political ideology, seem equally absurd in a world that is set up mainly for the benefit of the Gonerils and the Cornwalls. A generation ago this statement would have stimulated arguments about ways and means of changing such a world, but such arguments are not only irrelevant to Shakespeare's play, but avoid one of its central issues. . . .

Perhaps it takes a madman to see into the heart of tragedy, the dark tower of Lear's fury and tenderness, rage and sympathy, scorn and courtesy, and finally his broken heart. I've often come back to the titanic size of Lear, which is not a size of body or ultimately even of social rank, but of language. This seems to put him at an immense distance from us, except that he is also utterly human and recognizable. Perhaps Lear's madness is what our sanity would be if it weren't under such heavy sedation all the time, if our senses or nerves or whatever didn't keep filtering out experiences or emotions that would threaten our stability. It's a dangerous business to enter the world of titans and heroes and gods, but safer if we have as a guide a poet who speaks their language.

To speak of a black king, however metaphorically, is to make an assumption, and to ask what or who it is makes secondary assumptions. Another step takes us into the blind-men-and-elephant routine, where we "identify" the source of tragedy as the consequence of human acts or divine malice or fatality or cosmic absurdity. I also spoke of three important words in the play, "nature," "fool" and "nothing": perhaps I could have mentioned a fourth, "fortune." Fortune in Shakespeare's day . . . was symbolized by a wheel, and there are several powerful images of wheels in this play. In some rural areas at certain times of the year a wheel was made of straw, rolled to the top of a hill, then set on fire and let roll down: the Fool seems to be using this image about Lear's fall from one level of nature to another. Lear himself, waking out of sleep and seeing Cordelia, speaks of himself as bound on a wheel of fire, a spirit tormented in hell, though he soon discovers he isn't. Edmund accepts Edgar's view of him as the nemesis of Gloucester's folly in the phrase "The wheel has come full circle," after which he suddenly changes character. The image is inexact in one essential respect: wheels turn, but they remain wheels. Whatever is turning in King Lear also keeps turning into other things. The language of definition is helpless to deal with this: the language of prophecy can come closer, because it's more nearly related to the language of madness. At the beginning of the play Lear is technically sane, but everything he says and does is absurd. In his mad scenes his associations are often hard to follow, but his general meaning is blindly clear. The language is a counter absurdity: that is what the play leaves for us, a sense of what we could release if we could speak what we feel.

I keep using the word "prophetic" because it seems to me the least misleading metaphor for the primary power of vision in human consciousness, before it gets congealed into religious or political beliefs or institutions. In the final scenes particularly, we see both what's in front of us, where "all's cheerless, dark and deadly," and the power of language that will not stop expanding, even when it starts to press into the mystery that's blocked off from us by death. We don't know the answers; we don't know that there are no answers. Tragedy forces on us a response of acceptance: we have to say, "Yes, this kind of thing is human life too." But by making that response we've accepted something much deeper: that what is defined or made finite by words becomes infinite through the power of words.

SOURCE: "King Lear," in Northrop Frye on Shakespeare, edited by Robert Sandier, Yale University Press, 1986, pp. 101-21.

Double Plot

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5934

Ian W. O. House
[House emphasizes the dynamic relation between the main plot and the subplot in King Lear, proposing that the differences as well as the similarities between them unsettle and illuminate our understanding of the principal story. As the critic explains, the double plot universalizes the action by shifting emphasis away from individual characters and situations; the effect is more like that of a prism than a mirror, multiplying images rather than giving back a single one. Further, House analyzes the notorious implausibility of dramatic events in Lear, arguing that the absurdity is purposeful and heightened by the changes in the humorous tone of the subplot "from farce to melodrama, from domestic tragedy to surrealism." In the course of discussing these issues, the critic provides extended evaluations of Gloucester, Edmund, and, especially, Edgar.]

Does the subplot of King Lear do more than provide parts for actors who would otherwise have been out of work? Why pad out a play with a plot that merely repeats, with whatever incidental variations, the events and themes of the main plot? The two plots are closely similar but have no narrative connexion; Gonerill's opportunism is independent of Edmund's intrigue. . . .

[A. W.] Schlegel, the first critic to comment on the subplot, says: 'Were Lear alone to suffer from his daughters, the impression would be limited to the powerful compassion felt by us for his private misfortune. But two such unheard-of examples taking place at the same time have the appearance of a great commotion in the moral world,' [Lectures on Dramatic Art]. Is Schlegel right? Surely we do not share Gloucester's view that the divisions spring from eclipses in the sun and moon. Isn't the effect, rather or also, that this evil, of flesh tearing itself ('Is it not as this mouth should teare this hand/For lifting food too't?' (III.4.15)), is a permanent feature of life. . . . ? The universalizing effect happens not only because, statically, we see links between the two plots but because, dynamically, our attention is continually switched. Wherever we turn, whatever the individual characters and circumstances, the same underlying truth is to be discerned. In this way our interest is focused on the situation and is not totally absorbed by the welfare of individual characters. The double plot gives a sense of largeness and completeness, of a world and of time passing rather than the selective events of a cautionary tale.

This cannot, however, in itself be an adequate answer to the charge of redundancy. The effect of something universal—something that is not parochial, transitory, accidental, unrelated to the sorry scheme of things entire—can be achieved by plays that have a single plot. Do not the Oedipus of Sophocles or the Misanthrope of Molière far transcend the particular circumstances of their protagonists? The principle of artistic economy justifies the subplot only if the universalizing effect in this case could not have been achieved by a single plot.

Some hostile critics suggest that, in King Lear, our minds are burdened by plot complications and our emotions are fatigued by an excess of horrors. Margaret Webster, drawing on her large experience as a director, says [in Shakespeare Today] that the characters are 'too fierce and full for the space within which they are confined'; they interrupt the main plot and distract us from it. On the other hand, [A. C] Bradley who agrees in essence with this complaint, far from finding all the characters 'fierce and full', thinks that Gloucester is neither interesting nor distinct [Shakespearean Tragedy].

Some reply that the subplot does not distract us but, by being on a more human scale, makes the main plot more credible and engages our sympathy more readily. Its victims are not 'every inch a king' but ordinarily decent men, however flawed; the hardheartedness of its villain is neither uncaused by anything in nature nor untinged by repentance. The greatness of Lear, the scope and depth of his mind in its many phases, is never more sharply felt than by contrast with the stumblings of Gloucester, l'homme moyen sensuel [the average nonintellectual man].

These defences of the subplot as universalizing and human are not wrong, but they tend to be couched in an unilluminatingly general way and they too often involve a reductive approach to the play. It ceases to be a changing experience in which subplot and main plot continuously interact with each other and with us (a dynamic reading) and becomes a static thing in which points of correspondence and divergence can be noted.

As the subplot unfolds, its similarities and differences from the main plot at all levels (narrative, character, theme, genre, tone) shape our response to the main plot and form an integral part of our experience of the play as a whole. Until the blinding of Gloucester the subplot lags behind the main plot, offering at each point an oblique, and even comic, reflection of it. Thereafter the subplot takes the lead, stepping into the uncharted darkness. However grim its story, we are to learn that no worst there is none; Lear's agonies, though also, perhaps, his joys, however transitory or delusive, will outtop Gloucester's.

The subplot is sometimes claimed to simplify the main plot, often converting what is archetypal or philosophical in the Lear plot into physical situations (blindness rather than madness), or morality play (the didactic journey of Gloucester and Poor Tom) or 'medieval' ritual (the fratricidal combat at the end). It seems to me that . . . the Gloucester plot makes the Lear plot look both odder and more normal, makes it more appalling and more affecting.

The subplot both unsettles and clarifies our understanding of the main plot. The fall of Lear and the rise of Edgar are not only two different ways of responding to adversity but also, as we shall see, and linked with that, two different kinds of drama. Shakespeare's detailed craftsmanship in forging links and contrasts and parallels, in exciting our interest and then in switching to another strand of the play, is matched by our sense of a generosity, almost a casualness, in the co-existence of the two stories. They are so different, however similar, in narrative line, in characters and in tone that their relationship is bound to generate a hundred impressions in us. Each goes its way—sometimes with urgent intention, not staying a jot; sometimes labouring and stumbling, inevitably, but for no compelling reason—to Dover. . . .

No doubt for many in the original audience the effect was enhanced by the fact that they knew the broad development of one of Shakespeare's sources, The True Chronicle History of King Lear (though, as it turned out, that knowledge would mislead them), while the narrative of the Gloucester plot was unknown. Yoking the familiar story of Lear with the unfamiliar story of the Paphlagonian King is to put a wild card into the deck. As one story proceeds on its appointed way, modifying its original, another meets it in unpredictable counterpoint until, crushingly, Lear and Cordelia are denied the happiness that would have kept faith with the chronicles and, with qualified optimism, a new ruler emerges from the doom-laden underplot. The play's recurrent concern with recognition ('Do'st thou know me, fellow? (I.4.26), 'Does any heere know me?' (I.4.223), 'Your name, fair Gentlewoman? (I.4.233), the whole relationship of Gloucester and Edgar, Lear's reunion with Cordelia, . . . ) is matched by the fact that the two plots and their characters barely recognise each other. Crucially, in the great meetings between Lear and Edgar, and between Lear and Gloucester, there is ignorance, or shocking disparity between recognition and action, or recognition with heartbreaking indifference: 'I know thee well enough, thy name is Glouster' (IV.6.175). The characters in each story are as deeply mistaken about the significance of the events in the other as they are about the events in their own. Lear is not, as Edgar thinks, 'childed as I fathered' (Q1:III.6.108), for Gloucester's cruelty towards him springs not from malevolence but from ignorance. Similarly, Lear is mistaken when he says:

'for Glouster's bastard Son was kinder to his Father,
Then my Daughters got 'tweene the lawfull sheets.'
(IV. 6. 114)

The unpredictability of the relationship between the two stories is increased by the fact that Lear is, by contrast with, say, Macbeth and Othello, a play without plot, a causally determined sequence of events. Once Lear has been driven out into the storm and Edmund's intrigues have dispossessed Edgar, almost anything might happen and almost nothing actually does happen. In the background, conventional stage armies are conventionally assembled, but in the foreground of our attention, they are all fools and madmen, absorbing punishment, punchbags, not doers. Indeed, one important function of the subplot is to provide some narrative impulse for a play that would otherwise be devoid of incident for two or three acts. Lear has glimpsed the truth about his daughters before the end of Act I: 'O most small fault, / How ugly did'st thou in Cordelia shew?' (I.4.264-5). Once he knows that, he can experience deeper suffering and, possibly, widening circles of enlightenment, but the play does not allow him to act upon his knowledge. It leaves him to howl and to 'crawle toward death'. . . .

The unpredictability, the sense that each plot appears to take its own chances, does not mean that the two plots are not linked with extraordinary craftsmanship. In his first appearance we may think that Gloucester is no more significant than one of those bystanders commonly used at the beginning of plays to create an impression of the main characters before they enter. We cannot notice until the next scene the economy with which Shakespeare unites his two plots by making a principal figure in one an attendant lord in the household of another. Gloucester is created with exactness of implication both about his character and about his fate: 'It did alwayes seem so to us' (3). He is a member of the inner circle, one of the 'gilded Butterflies' who 'Talke of Court newes . . . Who looses and who wins', but he has been kept in the dark about Lear's change of plan and also, as we shall learn, about Lear's 'darker purpose'; he is rooted in a world of 'seemes' and 'appeares' (4); he is behind the times. Edmund, too, is an outsider: a bastard who has been 'out nine years' (31) and who is barely known to Kent. By the end of the scene Kent will have been banished and Cordelia, 'stranger'd with our oath', will have left for France. Almost all the characters of the play are, at some time and in some sense, outsiders, cut off from society by the cruelty of others or by their own folly or inhumanity. But we can have no premonition of the nightmare that awaits the genial courtier, polished in his manners and coarse in his attitudes, or of how soon the language of compliment that is used between the three men will be called into question as 'a glib and oylie Art'.

Gloucester, it seems, is no more than one called upon to do his master's bidding and attend the lords of France and Burgundy: one who will do 'to swell a progress, start a scene or two; / Advise the prince, . . .' But later, when, like Edmund, he is gathered up into the affairs of Regan and Cornwall and then sees the king's servant thrown into the stocks, he reveals a kindliness and prudence that make him more than 'an easy tool; / Deferential, glad to be of use, . . .' A personality is added to a role. This concern for others, whatever the motive, will be his undoing and it is appropriate that it is at this moment that he should begin his transition from comic dupe to tragic victim.

The relationship between the two plots is not only material but also causal and analogical. Causally, Edmund owes his promotion to the lust of Lear's daughters and to the ambition of one of their husbands, while Gloucester's downfall is caused by his care for Lear and by his desire to keep a foot in that camp and, in its turn, provides the opportunity for Edgar's reconciliation with him. The blinding of Gloucester turns all hearts against those who have also wronged the king. Edgar's assumed madness precipitates Lear's final descent into the madness of obsession: 'Did'st thou give all to thy Daughters?' (III.4.48). Edgar's defeat of Edmund restores the possibility of the right governance of the country.

Analogically, the position is more complicated. Obviously, Lear is like Gloucester in that he suffers for failing to understand the true nature of his children. But he is also like (as well as unlike) Edgar in being mad, naked and an outcast, and he is also like Edmund in that he proposes a redistribution of property on unorthodox lines: 'Where Nature doth with merit challenge' (I.1.52). This last similarity is not farfetched. Edmund's blasphemous invocation of Nature as his goddess links him to Lear, who will call upon the same goddess in his great curse on Gonerill and who has already invoked 'the sacred radiance of the Sunne' (I.1.108). Equally, Edgar is like Cordelia a wronged child and sibling, though he is the victim of intrigue rather than of opportunity and his response ('which makes me bend' (Q1: III.6.107)) is the opposite of her inflexibility. Then again, on his first appearance, it is Edmund who is, for us, similar to Cordelia, the truth-teller. Am I the only person ever to have wondered, on first acquaintance with the play, whether Cordelia would turn out to be a villain, harbouring in her plainness 'more craft, and more corrupter ends'?

The subplot begins to seem not like a looking-glass but like Sir Epicure Mammon's hall of mirrors 'cut in more subtle angles to disperse/ And multiply the figures' [Ben Jonson, The Alchemist]. For example, it is often pointed out that whereas Lear's folly receives the mental punishment of madness (ira furor brevis), Gloucester's physical sin brings the physical and conventional retribution of blindness. That, however, is not a point to be stressed too heavily, since Gloucester feels fear and despair and the dullness of Lear's sight is not only metaphorical: 'Mine eyes are not o'th'best' (V.3.278). In both plots, as [Ann] Thompson puts it [in "Who Sees Double in the Double Plot?"] ideas about distributive justice in families lead to ideas about distributive justice in society. Here again, there may be a difference between Lear's large expressions of concern for the poor naked wretches and Gloucester's practical attempt to relieve the poverty of one beggar; he says, 'Here take this purse' (IV. 1.63), before launching into his reflections on distribution and excess. [William R.] Elton invites us to contrast the genuine supernatural of the thunder's 'rumble' with the fraudulent demons of Edgar's 'grumble' in the straw or Cordelia's fidelity to objective truth with Edgar's fidelity to subjective feeling [King Lear and the Gods]. It has also been suggested that, while Lear combines Gonerill's selfish wilfulness with Cordelia's courageous advocacy, Gloucester unites Edmund's lust with Edgar's pathos. And so one could go on. These correspondences arise, I think, as two rich plots take their ways; they are important but they do not really show us how our experience of one unfolding plot shapes our experience of the other.

It may be useful, therefore, to show how, in one scene, one aspect of the secondary plot shapes our experience of the play. In the play's second scene, what is this ridiculous business with a letter, and the terrible dispatch of it into Edmund's pocket, and the plan of 'Auricular assurance'? Is this plot going to be comic: Gloucester the foolish senex [old man], full of idle and fond superstitions, reflecting Lear's 'infirmity' and 'waywardnesse'? Gloucester's sudden taking against Edgar seems like a broadly comic parallel to Lear's taking against Cordelia, itself a decision so abrupt and startling as to be, at least potentially, comic. Like Lear, too, he believes that we exist and cease to be by the operation of the orbs. Once one knows the play, however, there are terrible premonitions peeping out everywhere in the comedy: 'Let's see: if it bee nothing, I shall not neede Spectacles' (34-5).

Edgar enters. Not merely is it a comedy, however serious, but the stage manager knows it is a comedy: 'Pat: he comes like the Catastrophe of the old Comedie: my Cue is villainous Melancholly with a sign like Tom o' Bedlam' (131). We are encouraged to see Edgar as a pasteboard figure in a low farce, to see him as we shall see him for a great deal of the play, someone who is plasticine in his brother's hands and then a gibbering idiot.

The comic tone of this scene offers relief from the intensity of the Lear scene (audiences always warm to Edmund at this point), throws it into relief, makes us aware of its comic potential, lulls us with the false promise of comfort (our hearts will not be wrung by this plot) and, as comedy always does, sharpens our intellectual awareness (of resemblances and differences). Later we shall know the serious issue of this fooling, when we know that our laughter at 'Nothing like the image, and horror of it' (172) was but a faint glimpse of the 'image of that horror' (V.3.263) of the apocalyptic ending. Edgar's later development needs to be read not only as the flowering of a personality but also as the passage from one genre to another or, perhaps better, to many others.

In the rest of Act I, which is essentially serious, the humour constantly shifts in emphasis and kind: the bluntness of Kent, the derisory subservience of Oswald (whom audiences love to hate), the farcical tripping of Oswald, the corrective satire of the Fool. In this play, comedy and tragedy are sometimes related by appalling juxtapositions but often by constant modulation and interpenetration.

The broadly humorous tone of the subplot is maintained through the spurious duel with its swirl of servants and torches, Edmund's hyperbolic description of his brother's devilry ('Mumbling of wicked charmes, conjuring the Moone') and his histrionic appeal to his father's attention ('Looke Sir, I bleed'). The comedy of Edgar as an evil magician points forward to his later association with devils. On the heath his talk will be full of devils; when his father enters with a torch, he cries, 'This is the foule Flibbertigibbet' (III.4.112); later he will again appear to Gloucester's mind's eye as 'The Fiend, the Fiend' (IV.6.79). This association of Edgar with the devil works partly by contrast; no man is less devilish than Edmund's 'Brother Noble' (I.2.176) with his 'foolish honestie' (I.2.178). But there is another, darker dimension to it that becomes apparent in the storm scenes.

As the links between the two plots multiply, the subplot becomes ever more serious, its humour ever darker. We can no longer enjoy Edmund's satirical hyperbole, which now itself seems 'most savage and unnaturall" (III.3.7), for we know how truly appalling are the events to which he is reacting. . . . From now on, Edmund and his words do not, on the whole, engage our interest. The banality of evil is in his language. We might contrast his resounding boast at the halfway point ('The yonger rises, when the old doth fall' (III.3.25)) with the puzzled and puzzling words with which his brother closes the play:

The oldest hath borne most: we that are yong
Shall never see so much, nor live so long.

Edgar has a bruised sense of the limitations of the young and of the suffering implicit in the fall of the old; his lines respond to the experience we have lived through. Edmund's words reverb a hollowness. This is a degeneration not merely from the braggadocio of his first soliloquy but from its quieter depths. There even his use of 'us' was pregnant: 'Why brand they us/ With Base?' Not a merely self-pitying 'me', but a compassionate and angry 'us'. Edmund knows that there is a whole 'tribe' of people like him. Lear will need a storm to know that he has taken too little care of the poor naked wretches, but Edmund experiences fellow-feeling or solidarity already. There is self-pity here and selfishness too but, implicitly, other possibilities, some ground from which, at the end, he can mean to do good.

Only in the corners and implications of the play do we continue to find an Edmund who is more than an appetite for power and an object of desire. When, with the blinding, the Lear plot reaches out to appropriate the Gloucester plot, Edmund is, in a sense, banished from his own plot. Cornwall says to him: 'the revenges wee are bound to take uppon your Traitorous father, are not fit for your beholding' (III.7.7). Later, Regan says:

Edmund, I thinke, is gone
In pitty of his misery, to dispatch
His nighted life: Moreover to descry
The strength o'th'Enemy.

We do not know whether we discern, through the disingenuousness of Cornwall and his wife, the lineaments of pity.

As Edmund withers, Edgar grows in interest. The stages of his dark journey of the imagination to Dover with his father are marked by many different kinds of comedy from the black farce of the 'fall' from the cliff-top to the chillingly boisterous Mummerzett [a pseudo-rastic dialect] with which Oswald is dispatched, the cheerful melodrama of Edgar's description of the fiend with a thousand noses, and the Beckettian comedy of Lear's boots. Edgar's failure to reveal himself to his father is as comically cruel as Launcelot Gobbo's [in The Merchant of Venice]. The comedy does not trivialize, diminish or attempt to dispel human suffering. In some ways it throws it into relief. But it does make us alert to see the absurdity inherent in it and in the pathos of man's punily fist-shaking reactions to it:

I will do such things,
What they are yet, I know not, but they shalbe
The terrors of the earth?

The comedy offers us also, as does his disguise to Edgar, a relief for our feelings and even a way of concealing them. But our own laughter may also seem to us outrageous and forbidden; King Lear persuades us of the unplumbed darkness of the human mind not least by showing us the unpredictability and strangeness of our own reactions. A blind old man attempts to commit suicide: we laugh. A man is killed: we laugh. The king is mad: we laugh. It's a mad world, my masters, and a frightening one. The laughing, leering faces of [the French painter Honore] Daumier rise, unbidden, in my mind.

The comic incongruities of the subplot and its chameleon transformations from farce to melodrama, from domestic tragedy to surrealism, are linked to the implausibility of which it has frequently been accused. How can a father believe that one of his sons would write an incriminating letter to the other while they are living in the same house? Why does Edgar, when on the run, return to the neighbourhood of his father's house? Why does he adopt so many bizarre impersonations? Why does he not reveal himself to his father? . . . Realistic answers to these questions are likely to be helpful in each case and unsatisfying for the totality. The improbabilities of this plot arise from the madness of its world and also from the multiplicity of its dramatic genres; the stuff of many of these genres is, typically, disguise or 'business' with letters.

To think about the impact of implausibility and lunacy it will be helpful to look at a climax where Lear, Gloucester and Edgar come together: all three marry in an instant. Edgar's great cry 'Fathom, and halfe, Fathom and halfe; poore Tom! (III.4.37) is not in the Quarto. It is part of the Folio's systematic tendency to build up the character of Edgar. Edgar's cry here from within the hut, the voice of the storm and of someone wrecked in it, and, therefore, of the tempest in Lear's mind, is chilling. The Fool identifies him straightaway as a 'spirit'. His appearance as the dispossessed madman that Lear has dreaded becoming, with the bitter irony of 'Humh, goe to thy bed and warme thee' (46), turns the King's wits. Lear's obsession now governs him: 'Did'st thou give all to thy Daughters?' (48). The moment is unbearably moving and is also comically grotesque: 'Nay, he reserv'd a Blanket, else we had bin all sham'd' (64). Primal nakedness and civilized prudery about nudity are jarred together. We measure simultaneously the artifice of society and the distance the great king has travelled towards the merely animal. It is a further savage irony that it is the harmless Edgar who pushes Lear over the cliff. The harmless Edgar is the most deadly of the play's characters: the murderer of Oswald, the slayer of his brother, the lethal narrator to his father.

Poor Tom makes Lear seem both odder, because Lear is genuinely mad, and relatively normal; we can understand how Lear has been brought to this condition, but why should Edgar have adopted this disguise and why does he enter upon it so wholeheartedly and with, apparently, such appalling indifference for the consequences to others? Why are his speeches about lust and devils so long, so vigorous, so vile? Surely they far exceed the demands of the part he needs to play. In the energy of these speeches, their driving rhythms, their disgusted relish of lubricity, we feel, I think, some release for Edgar and for ourselves. This is the darkness in all of us, even in the best of us. Children and actors know the freedom and confidence and excitement that come from working with a mask. The role of unaccommodated man, which is Edgar's mode of accommodation to this harsh world, protects him but also lays him bare. His nakedness is, and is not, the thing itself; it is both mask and revelation. At some level he knows about 'the sulphurous pit; burning, scalding', and this knowledge may be part of what fits him to be king. . . .

At this profound moment the plots are linked not only by cause but by analogy (and, of course, disanalogy). We have seen Lear as Edmund and still see him as Gloucester; now we see him, he sees himself, as a reflection of Edgar: the demented outcast. Consideration of Edgar's nakedness leads Lear to his insight into the nature of man: 'Unaccommodated man, is no more but such a poore, bare, forked Animall as thou art' (103). This insight, like his later insights into injustice and hypocrisy, is not in itself extraordinary. What makes it extraordinary is the intensity of the language and the fact that it occurs to this man in whom absolute power has given way to absolute need; it is not an intellectual idea but the vision of the whole man. Lear now treats Edgar as his philosopher; the man who has been through the sharpest of all adversities and who expresses in his own body the nature of man must know the cause of thunder and of its moral equivalents, madness and the hard-heartedness of daughters.

The presence of Gloucester makes this a great non-recognition scene as moving as the reconciliation between Lear and Cordelia. If Edgar recognises his father, he does not know the truth about his conduct; Gloucester does not recognise his son and is still misled about his nature; Lear recognises neither of them; no-one recognises Kent. It is the world's midnight, full of 'absence, darknesse, death; things which are not'. In the darkness Gloucester sees: 'Our flesh and blood, my Lord, is grown so vilde, that it doth hate what gets it' (142-3). But his sight is as dull as Lear's. He does not see his loving son, heart-broken: 'Poore Tom's a cold' (144). Like Lear, 'I am almost mad my selfe' (163). At the end he cares for Edgar without recognising him: 'In fellow there, into th' Hovel; keepe thee warm' (171). In its concern for the anonymous other, outcast by madness, it is as touching as Lear's 'Come, let's in all' (172). Edgar has precipitated not only madness but also, through the insight he provokes into the condition of man, fellow feeling.

From now until the end of the play, Edgar will comment frequently, almost like a chorus, upon his own situation or that of others. His continual, and sometimes long-winded, reflections upon his experience can make him seem, despite his lively lunacy, rather priggish. Sometimes his soliloquies seem too naively optimistic or too simple to capture the bitterness and complexity of what we see. . . . Edgar is whistling in the dark; his words demonstrate the inadequacy of language in the face of experience—this experience, which is entirely the creation of words. His use of words to define and contain 'the horror, the horror' is part of his admirable resilience and perseverance. The words in which he represents his situation to himself are as important in his life's struggle as the masks he wears to meet the faces that he meets.

Through his eyes, untainted by guilt and unclouded by heroics, we can measure the bizarreness of what we see and hear:

My teares begin to take his part so much,
They marre my counterfeiting.

I would not take this from report,
It is, and my heart breakes as it.

O matter, and impertinency mix'd
Reason in Madnesse.

Most breathtaking of all in its simple enormity is his explanation of his extraordinary attempt to cure his father of his suicidal urge:

Why do I trifle thus with his dispaire,
Is done to cure it.

Seldom can a confidence have seemed so unconvincing. We contrast this . . . indirection with Cordelia's straightforwardly loving treatment of Lear and we see to what indirect and crooked paths even a cheerful and frank rationalist (such as the Edgar of his first scene; such as ourselves?) may be driven by the wickedness of the world. It can seem that Edgar is a glutton for his father's punishment, as though

he hates him
That would upon the wracke of this tough world
Stretch him out longer.

It is too easy to say that this concern to preserve his father from suicide is prompted by religious considerations. His attitude towards the prospect of his own death is given by his words to Albany:

(O our lives sweetnesse,
That we the paine of death would hourely dye,
Rather than die at once!)

He may even begin to seem like the fiends who fill his conversation and imagination in Acts III and IV. Edgar's warped deeds and words are the converse of, and the necessary response to, the facile words of Gonerill and Regan. Edgar's speeches and conduct are forced from him by the weight of the sad time. In such a time, to speak and act as one feels and as one needs to do in order to survive is to appear a villain and a fool.

On the other hand, Edgar's longer reflections ('When we our betters see bearing our woes (Q1, not in F: III.6.100-13); 'Yet better thus, and knowne to be contemn'd (IV.1.1-9); 'By nursing them my Lord' (V.3.180-220)) seem oddly inadequate to the situations they describe or by which they are provoked. When Lear's words fail to rise to the situation, their failure is transparent; he is reduced to howls or iterations; his aphasia is magniloquence. But the thinness of Edgar's language is the thinness of ours; in the face of the experience that is King Lear we feel that he feels as inadequate as we do. In both cases, Shakespeare's own rhetoric, which creates both the experiences and the inability of the characters to match them with words, is triumphant. . . .

Edgar's imperative . . . is survival: 'Whiles I may 'scape/ I will preserve myselfe' (II.3.5). His method . . . is disguise: as Poor Tom, as the man who goes to the foot of the cliff to rescue Gloucester, as the bumpkin who kills Oswald, as the messenger to Oswald and as the disguised challenger of Edmund. (To this list we might add, parenthetically, his two appearances as a fiend: in Edmund's description of him to Gloucester at the time of his flight and in his own description of Gloucester's cliff-top companion.) His most effective disguise is to be quite openly part of the heath on which he lives; his language is full of ford and whirlpool, of bog and quagmire, of the hawthorn through which the cold wind blows. . . .

Cordelia told the truth openly. Defenceless, she has 'nothing'; she has death. Edgar knows that as himself he is nothing. Only by playing Poor Tom, a part far less openly heroic than Cordelia's, can he be 'something'. To be something, to be able to say 'come on' (V.2.11), is not much, but it may be another quality that fits him to be king.

Although, as he leads his blind father around in Acts IV and V, he may seem to be worse than ever he was, we can also feel that his curve of fortune is beginning to rise. For one thing, he knows the truth about his father. (He would have known it earlier if he had listened: 'I had a Sonne,/ Now out-law'd from my blood; he sought my life' (III.4.163). But children rarely hear what their fathers are saying.) For another, when Gloucester is puzzled about Edgar's changing voice or Edgar calls him 'father', we sense a growing bond between the two. Also, he is now wearing some clothes.

He has learnt to adapt. . . . But he has done so without losing [the] ability to respond to the sufferings of others: 'Who, by the Art of knowne and feeling sorrowes,/Am pregnant to good pitty' (V.6.219), Edgar unites the plighted cunning of the villains with the human compassion of the good; by sacrificing his identity and by concealing his tears he safeguards his life and, perhaps, some part of his personality. He can emerge in the last scene, triumphant in arms, authoritative and humble. But to bend, however necessary, is to be, to some degree, warped. We sense this deviation from normal human decency in the impassioned play-acting of his mad scenes, in the bizarre treatment of his father, in his own knowledge that he maintained his disguise too long ('Never (O fault!) reveal'd my selfe unto him' (V.3.191)), and in the unyielding judgements he makes as an exchange of charity with his dying brother.

Like history, King Lear repeats itself first as tragedy and then as farce. The subplot's comic, domestic, bizarre and didactic transformations of the main plot throw that into relief, show us more clearly what it is, but they also indicate the absurdity latent in the extremism of tragedy. Implausibility or melodrama are placed, incorporated into the strengths of the play. The play gives us two outcomes. We that are young may draw some fragile comfort from the story of Edgar, who found 'the happy hollow of a tree' (II.3.2). Bent, he strengthened, warped by his experience, he survives. The cheerful and charming Edgar of his first scene was a passive victim. Now he has killed his father by accident and, in killing his brother, has committed the act that has the primal eldest curse upon it. But he is the man best fitted to be king. He has done what we all need to do: obeyed the weight of the sad time.

SOURCE: "'I know thee well enough': The Two Plots of King Lear" in English, Vol. 41, No. 170, Summer, 1992, pp. 97-112.

Language and Imagery

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6389

George W. Williams
[Williams focuses on Act III, scene ii of Lear, pointing out the correspondence of the storm with Lear's disordered mind, disrupted families, and the divided kingdom. The storm has a restorative effect on Lear, the critic declares, and he must live through it in order "to be cured of evil." Williams reads the language of Lear's speeches evoking the destructive elements in terms of the Old Testament flood and the New Testament concept of the Last Judgment. He also demonstrates the relation between images of animals and warring elements, harsh diction, and the theme of disordered nature.]

The lines opening the second scene of Act Three of King Lear, comprising the king's remarks on the storm, often quoted and admired, and admittedly some of the most important in the play, have never been examined in detail. They are, however, climactic in the play and fundamental to the character of the king, and they exhibit that combination of dramatic and poetic genius which one expects to find in Shakespeare in critical passages. They are, in short, "the very heart of the organism" [G. Wilson Knight in The Shakespearean Tempest]. The late Harley Granville-Barker has pointed out [in A Companion to Shakespeare Studies] the fusion of the storm in nature and the storm in the protagonist:

Lear—striving (we are given the hint) ". . . in his little world of man to outscorn the to-and-fro-conflicting wind and rain," matching himself against the storm, echoing it in defying it—becomes for us, without ceasing to be himself, a very image of it. He creates it dramatically; but not by detached description, which would merely let us see it through his eyes. He is endued, and he endues, us, with the very spirit of it. He, for the crucial moment, is at one with it, and we with him, and he is to us Lear and the storm too.

This dramatic presentation of the storm without identified and equated with the storm within and, it may be added, with the disruption in the kingdom, requires writing of the highest intensity.

The first speech in the second scene is Lear's (III. ii. 1-9). It is the crowning speech of the first part of the play—in a sense the keystone. Only a few lines later, Lear says, "My wits begin to turn." His speeches in scene ii show the last traces of his already vanishing sanity, and in scene iv he is "far gone, far gone." His prayer in scene iv (28-36) concluding:

Take physic, pomp;
Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,
That thou mayst shake the superflux to them
And show the heavens more just

is the first step in the regenerative process, showing as it does a sympathy towards man and an incipient willingness to admit an error, but it is also the last sane utterance, if not indeed an expression of a mentality already deranged, and it follows the height of the storm.

The storm of the Third Act is prepared for with the greatest care. At the conclusion of the Second Act there are several references to its approach.

Cornwall. Let us withdraw; 'twill be a storm. (290)
Gloucester. Alack, the night comes on, and the bleak winds
Do sorely ruffle. For many miles about
There's scarce a bush. (303-305)
Regan. Shut up your doors. (307)
Cornwall. Shut up your doors, my lord; 'tis a wild night.
My Regan counsels well. Come out o' th' storm.

In scene i of Act Three the clouds continue to gather.

Kent. Who's there, besides foul weather?
Gentleman. One minded like the weather, most unquietly.
Kent. I know you. Where's the king?
Gentleman. Contending with the fretful elements;
Bids the wind blow the earth into the sea,
Or swell the curled waters 'bove the main,
That things might change or cease; tears his white hair,
Which the impetuous blasts, with eyeless rage,
Catch in their fury and make nothing of;
Strives in his little world of man to outscorn
The to-and-fro-conflicting wind and rain.
This night, wherein the cub-drawn bear would couch,
The lion and the belly-pinched wolf
Keep their fur dry, unbonneted he runs,
And bids what will take all. (1-15)
Kent. Fie on this storm! (49)

This descriptive speech is extremely important to the great storm speech of the following scene, for it suggests in advance the wildness of the night (not realized fully until it appears in Lear), it anticipates the themes he is to develop (the violence of the wind and water, destruction and annihilation), and it emphasizes significantly the unnaturalness of nature. The animal imagery is here, as typically in Lear, very revealing: the implication is clear that the animals mentioned in this passage—wild, ravening, and scavenging at best and here urged by abnormal causes to a state beyond their characteristic wildness—are reacting more reasonably to the storm than is the king. Edgar's lines, "False of heart, light of ear, bloody of hand; hog in sloth, fox in stealth, wolf in greediness, dog in madness, lion in prey" (III. iv. 95-97), may serve as a useful gloss to these allusions. Thus the lion is not the royal figure (is without the majesty and ceremony of kingship) so much as he is the beast of prey; the wolf, by nature greedy, is belly-pinched, almost starving; and the bear dam, having nursed her cubs—who like Lear's daughters have taken all from her and yet clamor for more—hungers to feed herself and them. An association is evidently intended. These wild animals in spite of their roughness are, after all, out of the weather under cover from the storm in the same way that Lear's daughters have found shelter from its violence, closing their doors to him as they went. Lear himself points the significance of these references to wild animality in his earlier lines:

No, rather I abjure all roofs, and choose
To wage against the enmity o' th' air,
To be a comrade with the wolf and owl—
Necessity's sharp pinch!
(II. iv. 211-214)

The wolf, symbol of greed, and the owl, of malevolence, are the evil companions the king expects to meet on the heath. Actually even the most irrational animals have left the barren heath to seek protection, while the king, unbonneted, and abandoned by every creature, stands alone against animal nature, human nature, and, as he discovers, cosmic nature, attended only by the pricking wisdom of the Fool.

The unnaturalness and wildness of nature are further indicated in the very winds and seas themselves, which are urged to reverse the order of things prescribed in the creation of the world: "God said againe, Let the waters under the heauen bee gathered into one place, and let the drie land appeare: and it was so" [Genesis i. 9-10]. But the reversion and madness of the elements are equated with the chaotic condition of the king at odds with himself and are described in terms of human physiology to heighten the identification. The impetuous blasts are in a state of eyeless rage just as Lear is in high rage; the image of sight instantly recalls the frequent references to Lear's spiritual blindness and to Gloucester's physical blindness. The correspondence between Lear and the world, the microcosm and the macrocosm, is indicated in the line "striving in his little world of man" and affirmed by Gloucester: "O rum'd piece of nature! this great world/Shall so wear out to naught" (IV. vi. 137). This anthropomorphic description of the storm winds emphasizes another parallel which is inherent in the Lear-cosmos relation. The correspondence between the microcosm and the macrocosm, macrocosmic violence in terms of the microcosm, suggests additional and amplifying correspondences; the kingdom and the family, the body politic and the body domestic, are caught up in this mesh of interlocking connotations. That these correspondences form an intended extension of relevance Gloucester explains: "These late eclipses in the sun and moon portend no good to us. Though the wisdom of nature can reason it thus and thus, yet nature finds itself scourg'd by the sequent effects. . . . Love cools, friendship falls off, brothers divide. In cities mutinies; in countries, discord; in palaces, treason; and the bond crack'd 'twixt son and father. . . . We have seen the best of our time. Machinations, hollowness, treachery, and all ruinous disorders follow us disquietly to our graves" (I. ii. 112-125). The assimilation of the body politic into the equations between the body domestic or the family, the microcosm, and the macrocosm is suggested in the imagery borrowed from political warfare describing military operations: to-and-fro-conflicting and

But yet I call you [elements] servile ministers,
That will with two pernicious daughters join
Your high-engender'd battles 'gainst a head
So old and white as this!
(III. ii. 21-24)

The eclipses, the jarring elements, the divided kingdom, the disordered family, the demented Lear are firmly linked together in the system of correspondences. At the same time, however, it must be noted that the storm, a perversion of nature, is yet disorder within order and actually presupposes an order. "The storm suggests, on one level, the victory of a nature hostile to humanity; yet the storm is regularly regarded as a convulsion of nature—a disorder which interferes with but does not destroy an essential order which still is. There is chaos in the world; but tragedy sees chaos in perspective; it measures chaos by order. Chaos is irreparable only when it is mistaken for order; when it is felt as disorder, there is still hope. . . .

"The tragic world is a kind of chaos: the disorder within the soul is projected into the larger world" [R. B. Heilman, This Great Stage]. The storm is thus the disorder or purgative necessary to the order or health of the king. It can only be meaningful if taken in this sense and understood to be a necessary evil through which he must live so as to be cured of evil.

In the first nine lines of scene ii the storm and the style rise to their greatest pitch. It is in fact only through the rise in the style that the audience comes to feel the full extent of the storm. In these lines Shakespeare reaches the point for which he has been preparing in the preceding two scenes. The report which the Gentleman makes in scene i first announces the condition of the king, at war with himself and the elements. This is followed by a digression of thirty-five lines during which the conversation shifts to the fortunes of Cordelia and the activities of the British dukes. Kent recalls the storm hastily before his exit and immediately in the person of the king it breaks in full fury.

Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
Till you have drench'd our steeples, drown'd the cocks!
You sulph'rous and thought-executing fires,
Vaunt couriers to oak-cleaving thunderbolts,
Singe my white head! And thou, all-shaking thunder,
Strike flat the thick rotundity o' th' world,
Crack Nature's moulds, all germains spill at once,
That make ingrateful man!

The phonetics in these lines is especially remarkable. Most notable is the frequency of fricatives and stops in clusters of onomatopoetic vernacular words chosen to suggest the roughness and harshness of the weather:

blow, crack, cheek, blow, cataract, spout, drench'd, steeples, drown'd, cocks, thought-executing, oak-cleaving thunderbolts, singe, shaking thunder, strike (in the Qq, smite), thick, crack, spill, make.

The pattern of nasals—

winds, huricanoes, drench'd, drown'd, vaunt, cleaving thunder, singe, thunder, rotundity, nature's moulds, germains, make, ingrateful man—

and the pattern of the sibilants—

winds, cheeks, cataracts, hurricanoes, spout, steeples, cocks, sulph'rous, executing, fires, couriers, bolts, singe, shaking, strike (in the Qq, smite), nature's moulds, germains, spill, once—

while not so spectacular are equally present. The combination of a low vowel with a nasal, honored from classical times, occurs most effectively in

Vaunt-couriers to oak-cleaving thunderbolts
Singe my white head! And thou, all-shaking thunder,
Strike flat the thick rotundity o' th' world.

Here the -und- group links the three lines inextricably together, providing the equivalent of the continued rumbling of thunder. But after the hissing, the crashing, and the thundering, the passage comes to rest as far as that is possible on the liquids, moulds, all, spill, ingrateful. . . .

It is not inappropriate to examine the relationship of the king and the elements at this point as it is revealed in these nine lines and in the following eleven. This tremendous nine-line speech can not be regarded as an accurate though frenzied meteorological report on the state of the weather. Such has already been given by the two faithful retainers at the opening of the Act. These lines are not the statement of one resigned to his fate, for the king is not yet in the purgative stage. If they are regarded as a prayer to the great gods for retribution, serious difficulties are encountered in resolving the imprecations hurled at the elements in the second part of the speech, following the lines of the Fool, and including "I tax you not, you elements, with unkindness. . . ." and "But yet I call you servile ministers. . . ." If these lines again form a prayer they differ strikingly from the more easily recognized prayers, "O heavens, if you do love old men" and "Poor naked wretches." They are in fact much closer to the curses of barrenness which they parallel in thought as well as in tone and mood. The Gentleman explains finally the nature of the king's speech: "Bids the wind blow the earth into the sea,/ Or swell the curled waters 'bove the main" (III. i. 5-6). This bidding can only be equivalent to the command of the king, as when he says: "bid them [Regan and Cornwall] come forth and hear me,/ Or at their chamber-door I'll beat the drum/ Till it cry death to sleep" (II. iv. 118-120). These wild lines then must be understood as direct orders to the winds, the waves, the thunder, and the lightning. Such an interpretation accords well with what has been seen of the character of the king. The commands of the first nine lines recall those given throughout the earlier part of the play; they are in the same vein. King Lear regards himself still as every inch a king, and shouting his orders to his subordinates, he reveals clearly his proud, arrogant, and stubborn authority. The elements are Lear's servants. But he has given to them, as to Cordelia, Kent, and the Fool, nothing. Here at last the reckoning is made: nothing comes of nothing. From these unfee'd servants Lear no longer receives toadying flattery, he no longer receives even obedience. To a royal philosophy of quid pro quo (or quid pro nihilo) [something for something (or something for nothing)], the basis of Lear's erroneous sense of values, comes the awakening: "You owe me no subscription." Nihil pro nihilo [nothing for nothing]. The first lines of the speech command general destruction in which Lear's white head must perforce be singed. The second group of eleven lines is anti-climactic; the destruction does not occur. The tempest continues, however, to beat down on Lear's unprotected head. The realization develops that the elements are no longer his servants; they are in fact his masters, now servilely and venally colleagued with his daughters. He is no longer a king. He discovers at this moment when the elements do not obey him that they, allies of his ungrateful daughters, have also thrown off the imperial yoke. Instead of responding to his commands immediately, as he remembers later, they turn on him. "When the rain came to wet me once and the wind to make me chatter; when the thunder would not peace at my bidding; there I found 'em, there I smelt 'em out" (IV. vi. 102-105). It is the remarks of the Fool between the two sections of the speech that make this clear: "O nuncle, court holy-water in a dry house is better than this rainwater out o' door." That is to say, voluntary submission to your rebelling daughters is to be preferred to enforced submission to the rebelling or nature, which evidently has no longer any intention of obeying you.

Furthermore, in giving these orders to the elements, Lear is acting in conformity and parallel with Roman and Celtic tradition. These mythologies both state the ancient position of the king as the creator of the weather, especially of the stormy weather. Numa, an early king of Rome, for classical precedent, is recorded to have been able to call on the elements at will. An interesting expression of this tradition is seen earlier in Edmund's deception of his father: "I told him the revenging gods/ 'Gainst parricides did all their thunders bend" (II. i. 47-48). Though Edmund utters this threat as a means of inciting his father's superstitious nature to action against Edgar, it becomes a "bloody instruction" which with typical Shakespearian irony returns to plague him. Edmund, the parricide, like Lear's daughters, is finally stricken down by the forces that league with the gods. Paradoxically, it is his own head which is eventually "singed."

This power of calling on the thunderbolt, which is granted to the king, exalts him to a position equal to that of Jupiter and identifies him with the Thunderer, the Rain-god, and the Hurler of the Lightnings. As Gloucester says, "He holp the heavens to rain" (III. vii. 62). The king-god Lear demands from the heavens, as is his right, a storm, the violence of which can be paralleled only by the turbid violence of his own mind.

The extent of the storm must be absolute and final. This is made clear in the imagery first of cataracts and hurricanoes in the quotation. The waters loosed on the land are to be poured from the heavens and raised from the deeps: are to be heavenly and earthly. . . . Cataracts are descending waters, of the heavens, and hurricanoes are rising waters, of the earth.

By pouring down, the cataracts of heaven will cause the steeples to drink: by inundation the rising waters of the sea will cover the cocks. Lear orders a return of the Hebraic deluge with a covering of the land by the water, a return to a state of near chaos, of elemental confusion. The works of man are to be destroyed and even the works of God are to be annihilated. The words of Jehovah announcing the Flood before the building of the ark similarly describe the destruction of His own work: "And I, Beholde, I will bring a flood of waters upon the earth to destroy all flesh, wherein is the breath of life, from under the heauen: and everything that is in the earth shall perish" (Genesis vi. 17).

As the imagery of cataracts and hurricanes has evoked connotations of destruction comparable to that at the time of the Deluge, so the concluding images suggests the ruin of the Last Judgment. Bolts of thunder and lightning are to flatten out the roundness of the earth, Nature's moulds are to be cracked and shattered until they are useless, all germains are to be spilled. Such imagery can indicate only eschatological destruction. [A. C] Bradley has suggested [in his Shakespearean Tragedy] that the theme of the latter day may have been in Shakespeare's mind during the writing of this play, and Lear himself threatens to do undescribable things, the "terrors of the earth." Bradley cites specifically the passages in Matthew and Mark generally titled "the little apocalypse," and it may not be irrelevant to point out that in both these scriptural predictions there are descriptions of the time of the Final Judgment which would set in within the time scheme of this play: "the brother shall deliuer the brother to death, and the father the sonne, and the children shall rise against their parents and shall cause them to die" (Mark xiii. 12). It is not improbable in the light of the importance of the themes of justice and injustice in the play that Shakespeare was thinking in the king's hectic speech in terms of the Day of Judgment when justice shall finally be accomplished in the world. . . .

The reason for this mad ruin is not hard to find: ingrateful man. This is a destruction which like the Noachic Deluge and the Final Judgment is sent as a punishment for filial ingratitude, to overcome all "unnaturalness between the child and the parent." Its thunderbolts must destroy and abrogate utterly; its lightnings must eracinate all germens lest they, grown up sinners and ingrates like Goneril and Regan, might make another generation of ingrateful creatures.

Lear's command to Nature in these tremendous lines is for complete destruction and primordial chaos. Miss [Edith] Sitwell has pointed out [in "King Lear," Atlantic Monthly, May 1950] that "Lear . . . in his prayer to Nature to kill the sources of life in his daughters, struck at the very heart of Nature, disturbing that lake of Darknesse, the original chaos from which all being arose." In his command he wills that all creation tumble again into that lake of chaos in a cataclysmic eruption with the characteristics at once of the original Deluge and of the "abomination of desolation" at the Latter Day.

SOURCE: "The Poetry of the Storm in King Lear," in Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. II, No. 1, January, 1951, pp. 57-71.

John C. McCloskey
[McCloskey examines the association of images from the world of "animals, insects, and the more repulsive denizens" of the seas with the shifts in Lear's emotions. The king's selfishness and moral blindness, together with his inability to understand others, lead him into a world of disordered nature, the critic maintains. McCloskey notes that as Lear moves from resentment in Act I to indignation in Act II, and, finally, rage in Act III, the imagery changes to reflect the increasing intensity of his moods and to underscore the theme of unnaturalness.]

It has been said that we must accept the passionate, irrational King Lear, with his plan for dividing his kingdom, and the devoted yet strangely reticent Cordelia as data not to be inquired into but taken on poetic faith. Yet Lear's "retirement" is a sensible thing in itself. What makes it fraught with tragedy is his misreading of human nature. Had all his children been like Cordelia, things might have turned out well. And here is the irony—that what is sensible in itself is made a foolish, senseless thing to do by the characters of those involved. Or to put it another way, imperfect, selfish human nature again wrecks ideals.

Consider that Lear is a king who loves his daughters and out of his egoism expects love in return, a king who believes simply that generosity begets gratitude, that children revere and honor their parents, that obedience is of the nature of the filial relation. A king who "hath ever but slenderly known himself", he has not known his courtiers either, for example, Kent. A king who is curiously naive in the ways of human nature, who has no subtlety in human relations, who does not even suspect that power may corrupt and that old age rendered helpless is a thing for contempt. A king who is not wise enough to protect himself but of his own volition throws himself upon the untender mercies of the evil, whom he does not even recognize as evil.

Yet Lear embodies the idealism of fatherly love as Cordelia and Edgar are emblems of filial devotion, Kent of loyal service, the Fool of conscience, and France of true love. But Lear's idealism is tainted by evil, by the moral corruption of self-deluding egoism, while the idealism of the others is not, and the proper end for Lear is, therefore, tragic disaster.

In the chaotic and hostile world into which Lear is precipitated by his acts of misjudgment, self-will, and wrath, the tragic disaster toward which he proceeds and which culminates in madness and death in a world against which he cannot contend, a world wild and ferocious, a world of negated values, moral blindness, and unnaturalness, is expressed to a remarkable degree by images from the padding, stalking, creeping, crawling, slithering world of animals, insects, and the more repulsive denizens of the waters, and the images are evoked to express or to intensify his anger, rejection, indignation, wrath, and vengeance.

The imagery of the lower animals, which suggests the moral derangement of the world in which Lear has hitherto thought himself secure, begins with the cooling of his reception in Goneril's home, when her servant Oswald neglects to answer Lear's question as to the whereabouts of his daughter. This breach of decorum and respect and reverence for authority stirs a mild resentment in Lear, the first stage of the emotional turmoil which brings him at length to madness. His resentment and, perhaps, a touch of proper contempt, the genesis of which is Lear's instinctive awareness of the social disparity between his kingly state and the lowly status of a servant, are expressed in his epithet "mongrel", an image general, colorless, and uncommitted, since the offence is not at the moment identifiable with the attitude of the daughters or the moral problem of the play. When Oswald describes Lear as not the king but "My lady's father", Lear's indignation is spurred, and the imagery becomes more intense and particularized in its connotative derogation as "whoreson dog" and "cur". It is significant that Lear thinks in terms of such lowly, though commonplace images, since he has himself already entered upon his own descent, with the result that eventually his state is reduced as low, in the storm scene on the heath particularly, as that of the animal world in terms of the imagery of which his mind constitutionally reacts.

From the evocation of mere resentment and indignation the imagery becomes grimmer, more serious, and more vividly suggestive of Lear's destitute moral condition and the frightful eventualities of the future. The Fool's bitter statement,

For you know, nuncle,
The hedge-sparrow fed the cuckoo so long,
That it had it head bit off by it young.
(I. iv. 234-236)

is not only a sharp and crude image of ingratitude, but it is also an image of Lear's own foolishness, his misjudgment, his improvident helplessness, and his egoistic blindness. The imagery implied in the verb "bit off" is by transference an image of human decapitation and a darkly prophetic forewarning of what Lear is to experience from his children. In the image is implicit the lack of gratitude and love and even common humanity which already are Lear's destiny. The image is so proper and so apt in its context that though Lear seems to ignore it, it succeeds immediately in condensing the whole moral problem which enmeshes Lear in its inevitable consequences.

As Lear enters the incipiency of his rage, irritated by Oswald and shocked by the callousness of Goneril, who desiring to teach him what is properly conventional to age refers to his actions as pranks, thus suggesting his senility, and demands that he be shorn of his knights, the imagery changes to correspond with his emotional state—his indignation and his anger at the filial ingratitude of Goneril, this "degenerate bastard". Since the natural order of things is here disturbed, the expression of this state of affairs, which is quite monstrous, receives its correspondency in its figurative presentment of ingratitude as a "hideous seamonster". This is reinforced by an appropriate shift in the imagery, though the correspondence of destructive intent and power is maintained, to "detested kite". For a kite is a falcon-like bird which preys on small quarry, such as is Lear without his kingship, without his power, moving down the scale from greatness.

Shifting from the image of the kite, Lear intensifies his emotion of frustration and rage, which seethes in him against his unnatural daughter Goneril, whom he has just cursed unnaturally, praying nature to make her sterile, by objectifying his rising obsession of ingratitude in the figure of a serpent's tooth. In thus juxtaposing images from the sky and from the crawling earth he suggests, perhaps, his subconscious awareness that both heaven and earth are against him. Having employed the images of sea-monster, kite, and serpent to vivify his referent, he gives further extension to the notion of Goneril's cruelty and sly, cunning nature by additional images from the animal world, "wolvish visage" and "fox", and these images for the first time blend with anger the passion of vengeance, for Lear wrathfully states that when Regan hears of this she will "flay" Goneril's wolvish visage and the Fool states that had one caught a fox like this daughter it would soon to the slaughter.

Now the imagery sinks below the animal stratum to the mollusk, thus intensifying the sense of the moral depths in which Lear, not yet pessimistically, helplessly wanders. The imagery of the snail and the oyster carries to the lowest pitch of figurative expression the blindness of Lear, his lack of judgment, the low order of the ratiocination from which proceeded his initial error. Then the image of the foolishness of Lear is carried upward to the animal stratum once again by "assess". If in this connection it is recalled that the animal stratum is often referred to as "the animal kingdom", the irony of Lear's position is painfully apparent.

Just as Goneril has been reduced in the area of imagery to a correspondence with animals that sting, bite, and destroy, organisms which are feral and inhuman, so her servant Oswald is dehumanized as a rat, a dog, a goose, the latter image being peculiarly appropriate to Oswald, who is remarkably consistent in the traits implicit in this figure.

With the momentary resurgence of Lear's old imperious attitude in his indignation at the stocking of his messenger Kent, the scale of the animal imagery rises from the stupid and compliant goose to horses, dogs, bears, and monkeys, thus suggesting the greater degree of the culpability of Cornwall and Regan by creating imagery belonging to animals on a higher ratiocinative plane and thereby rendering their guilt less excusable. Now again irony is blended explicity with the imagery which sets forth Lear's moral problem. His imperious indignation, in terms of the imagery, is as cogent as learning secured from an ant. His intensified anger becomes adulterated with helplessness, and his orders to Regan and Cornwall to come forth are as ineffective as the cockney crying to the eels when she put them alive in the pastry. While anger is often imaged forth in feral terms, blindness, stupidity, weakness, and helplessness are presented in images from the still lower stratum of animate things, that of the snail, the oyster, and the eel, and in the appropriateness of the imagery is apparent once again its integral relation to the total structure of the play.

When Lear, having fled to his "Beloved Regan", reflects upon his love and generosity to his daughters which proceeded from his heart and upon the unnatural ingratitude paid him by Goneril in return, the image which externalizes his emotional state of outraged paternal affection mingled with surprise and shock appears in the form of sharp-toothed unkindness, like a vulture, tearing at his heart, and in his rising anger at Regan's rejection of his claims and her injunction to ask Goneril's forgiveness and return to her, this image is reinforced in the collateral one of being struck with a serpent's tongue upon the very heart. In the psychological application of the imagery as expressive of Lear's emotive states at various stages of his mounting tragedy, the images of the wounding of his heart by vultures and serpents mark a crisis in the rising action, for after this there occurs, eventually in the storm scene, the loss of his wits, in other words, an ironic reduction of Lear himself to that unnatural state which is so essential a theme of the entire tragedy. His estrangement from normal human relations, consonant with the above, is further marked, in passionate reaction to Regan's rejection of him, by his refusal of her demand to dismiss fifty of his knights and by his determination, instead, to abjure all roofs and be a comrade with the wolf and the owl. Throughout the imagery runs an intensification of the theme of unnaturalness, the basis of which is, of course, filial ingratitude. Even the Gentleman discussing with Kent the storm on the heath uses imagery similar to Lear's as an atmospheric reinforcement of the psychological mood into which Lear has been precipitated; the stormy night into which Lear has emerged from the previous rejection scene is one from which the cub-drawn bear, the lion, and the belly-pinched wolf flee. Contending with the frightful elements, tearing his hair, striving to outscorn the wind, rain, and night, Lear is pursued by his heart-struck injuries. Also the unnatural cruelty of his pitiful state and the savagery of the night are figured forth, to some degree, in the aforementioned famished bear, fierce lion, and hunger-driven wolf.

The lowly imagery of the louse employed by the Fool, that of a small, wingless, blood-sucking insect, is an ironic image presenting a vivid, concrete manifestation of the contrast between Lear's impotent state and his rather imperial, though helpless, arraignment of the elements which have with his two pernicious daughters joined their battles against so old and white a head as his. The image of the louse is implicative of a descent from elevation, a contrast with the soaring evil of the vulture, and a descent from size, the massive evil of the sea-serpent; considered in its context it is also, in contrast with "head", indicative of a lack of intelligence and is, therefore, a further indictment of Lear's original irrationality. The imagery of the louse is both a presentment of Lear's impotency, the louse being on a lower level than that of the feral animals, a small wingless thing, almost insignificant though painful, and also a prefiguring of the pelican image which soon intensifies it, the image of a blood-sucking animate thing, implicit in the figure of the louse, having for its referent the daughters who have taken all and, draining his blood from him, seek his death. And in an extension of this idea and a logical transmutation of it, that of flesh feeding on the flesh that begot it, Lear's emotions express themselves in the metaphor of the pelican daughters. So admirable a consistency is there in the images and so vivid a reflection of Lear's psyche that it is evident that the imagery is of the very texture of Lear's psyche itself. Habitually and spontaneously his mind expresses itself in imagery, and when his mind is in a disturbed state the imagery is that of the animal world, or at least the world of animate, sub-human things.

The notion of descent, which inheres in the animal figures, is made explicit by Lear in his assertion that in Edgar's case nothing could have subdued nature to such a lowness but his unkind daughters. Expressive of this and showing the partial correspondency of Edgar's state with that of Lear on the stormy heath are the images employed by Edgar:

. . . hog in sloth, fox in stealth, wolf in greediness, dog in madness, lion in prey
(III. iv. 96-98)

With Lear's climactic statement:

Ha! here's three on's us are sophisticated! Thou are the thing itself: unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor, bare, forked animal as thou art. Off, off, you lendings!
(III. iv. 110-14)

the descent is accomplished, and the correspondency of Lear to the animal stratum toward which his psychic tragedy has been tending and in terms of images from which he has characteristically expressed himself is complete. Bereft of reason, mad, tearing off his clothes, Lear is now little better than the beasts. He has reached the bottom of the scale which his imagery has prefigured. The climax of descent in terms of animal imagery, if this is not too paradoxical a statement, coincides with the climax of the play.

When Lear appears at Dover mad, fantastically dressed with wild flowers, some of his imagery corresponds to his state of mind: crow-keeper, mouse, bird, gilded butterflies; this is the innocent, naive imagery of childhood or senility, a harmless, neutral, non-evocative imagery proper to one whose wits are gone. Yet in the subsequent imagery begins his reascent into partial rationality, his progress upward from the animal state with which in the climax he had identified himself. His memory, in the area of his emotions, reasserts itself and with it a reminiscent indignation and anger which bring into prominence once again his obsession of filial ingratitude: "They flattered me like a dog" (IV. iv. 98). Blended with it, too, is a critical bitterness which is an image of his renascent awareness of his fallen state. The wren and the gilded fly, the fitchew and the soiled horse become images of copulation and adultery, and in the extension of causes into a relative complexity is suggested not only the advance of Lear's mind in a tentative way toward humanity once again but the substitution of cynicism for the violated and outraged affection which throughout the play had so obsessed him.

Lear's reascent to reason and, therefore, to humanity is arrested by a resurgence of tragedy—the death of Cordelia. The irony of his apparent moral victory in self-recognition, in his awareness of good and evil, and in at least a rudimentary sense of equity and of the real victory of the malevolence of his enemies, carries the essential tensions of the play through to the very end. Lear's reaction against the injustice of Cordelia's death, the needless waste of goodness in the world, his questioning of the why of things, are expressed through his characteristic imagery which presents his skepticism in regard to the moral system of the cosmos, an act of ratiocination which is, of course, on a human rather than an animal level:

Why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life,
And thou no breath at all?
(V. iii. 306-07)

And on the curve of his partial reascent toward reason and humanity, presented in terms of animal imagery to the last, Lear dies.

SOURCE: "The Emotive Use of Animal Imagery in King Lear" in Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 13, No. 3, Summer, 1962, pp. 321-25.


Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7555

Marilyn Gaull
[Gaull argues that King Lear depicts two kinds of love: divine love, associated with universal order, and erotic love, associated with chaos and destruction. When Lear abdicates his royal responsibilities, the critic asserts, he plunges his kingdom into a state of spiritual and emotional disorder. Gaull suggests that Lear's choice of corrupt, erotic love over divine love results in a transference of sexuality; the king becomes emasculated as he is gradually stripped of the symbols of his traditional role, while at the same time Goneril and Regan increasingly assume masculine attitudes. By contrast, the critic declares, Cordelia adheres to the principle of domestic and political hierarchy, and thus she becomes an agent of divine love in the play.]

Placing King Lear in the intellectual climate in which the play was conceived, one finds a conflict on the thematic level between two kinds of love: divine love, expressed in an ordered cosmic, social, and spiritual hierarchy, and erotic love, a kind of subterranean energy which is the source of chaos, disorder, and destruction. Specifically, when King Lear assumed he could divest himself of responsibility, retiring as any lesser mortal to the obscurity of an "unburdened" old age, he committed an offense against universal order and thereby denied divine love. Then, when he allowed himself to be seduced of his kingdom by Goneril and Regan, he exchanged his role as king for that of love goddess, suffering all the consequences of a submission, however tacit, to the illegitimate order of eros. . . .

[By] appropriating the privileges of position without the responsibilities, by preferring private interest to public obligation, by investing an inordinate amount of power in inferior indivduals, Lear created the conditions for rebellion by those whom he was enjoined to control. By extension, through his failure to be ruled by reason, he alienated himself from divine love and forfeited his sovereignty over his own baser passions. His abdication of responsibility released the destructive energies of eros in the social and political sphere and delivered him and all those upon whom his life impinged into psychological and spiritual chaos.

It is the three exiles in the play, Cordelia, Kent, and Edgar who, by maintaining the three basic relationships of an ordered society, express divine love. Displaced by the collapse of the social and political hierarchy, they are the most evident victims of Lear's truancy. Nonetheless, they continue to articulate and perform the services demanded by universal order. Thus Cordelia demonstrates woman's subordination to her husband; Kent, a subject's subordination to his king; and Edgar, a son's subordination to his father. . . .

Gloucester and Albany may also be considered victims of Lear's truancy, more helpless than the exiles insofar as their fulfilling their roles in the universal order depends upon circumstance rather than a capacity for divine love. But because they are basically good and adapted, however passively, to their roles in the legitimate hierarchy, they cannot survive in the alternative and subversive hierarchy of eros. The gentle and ineffectual Albany allows his wife to dominate him, creating the conditions for his own cuckolding. And Gloucester, who suffers a defect of vision long before his blindness, was never able to distinguish between the legitimate and the subversive order. His acknowledgment at the opening of the play of the position he allowed Edmund, the product of an adulterous union, is an ominous concession to the order of eros which will ultimately betray him. He admits to Kent: "But I have a son, sir, by order of law, some year elder than this, who yet is no dearer in my account: though this knave came something saucily to the world before he was sent for, yet was his mother fair, there was good sport in the making, and the whoreson must be acknowledged" (I, i, 19-26). The desolating consequences of this emotional generosity are summed up by Edgar in the same speech in which he reveals his identity:

The gods are just, and of our pleasant vices
Make instruments to plague us:
The dark and vicious place where thee he got
Cost him his eyes.
(V, iii, 172-175)

If the three exiles, Gloucester, and Albany are victims of Lear's truancy, Goneril and Regan are villains for the same reason. In their mismanaged attempts to fill the vacuum created by Lear, they are simply fulfilling another principle of natural law. The chaos which surrounds them arises from the appetitive or erotic instincts by which they are dominated. But, after all, it was these very instincts to which Lear appealed when he invited his daughters' declarations of love, declarations which he made the qualification for possessing his kingdom. A comparison between Lear's overtures and Cleopatra's at the opening of Antony and Cleopatra suggests rather strikingly the role Lear had assumed. Like Lear, she asks, "If it be love indeed, tell me how much" (I, i, 14). And this Egyptian love goddess is admonished by Antony in terms peculiarly reminiscent of Cordelia's: "There's beggary in the love that can be reckon'd" (I, i, 15). What I am suggesting is that not only did Lear disregard divine love in favor of the profane but also that it was a profane love which was essentially perverted. This idea seems to be enforced by a fascinating transference of sexuality which gradually emerges in the interaction of Lear and his daughters. Lear's emasculation begins when he places himself in the custody of his daughters thereby forfeiting along with his kingdom his masculine role as superior, ruler, protector, and provider. After Goneril has abused her power over him, he begins to conceive of her as a man, calls her a "degenerate bastard," claims that he is ashamed of her "power to shake [his] manhood," and finally in his madness accuses both her and Regan of not being "men o' their words" (I, iv, 260, 304; IV, vi, 106). Simultaneously, Goneril and Regan assume increasingly masculine attitudes, particularly in their competition for Edmund's affection. Regan's masculinity is most evident in the passage in which, expressing decidedly female jealousy of Goneril, she adopts the spare terms of the battlefront: "I am doubtful that you have been conjunct/And bosomed with her, as far as we call hers" (V, i, 12-13). Goneril, on the other hand, like an intriguing courtier contrives to have her husband murdered so that she might better pursue Edmund. Her attitude reveals the destructive consequences of investing the political power of a legitimate hierarchy in female figures who are adapted to rule only in the subversive hierarchy of eros: "I had rather lose the battle than that sister/Should loosen him and me" (V, I, 18-19).

The Fool and Edmund, initially vagrants or aberrations in the official hierarchy, function as vocal adversaries in the debate between the two major opposing forces of order and chaos. The Fool with his detached and uncompromisingly literal perspective shrewdly if instinctively predicts and interprets the consequences of Lear's action, measuring it against the norms of hierarchy. For example, when Lear asks him "When were you wont to be so full of songs, sirrah?" The Fool replies:

. . . e'er since thou mad'st thy daughters
thy mothers; for when thou gav'st them the rod, and
put'st down thine own breeches,
Then they for sudden joy did weep,
And I for sorrow sung,
That such a king should play bo-peep
And go the fools among
(I, iv, 175-182)

The Fool's musical association is a significant one since it is an indication of his affinity with cosmic order, his instinctive harmony with natural law and divine love. Cordelia similarly uses music to restore Lear's rationality, to bring him back in tune with the divine principles of the universal hierarchy.

Finally, Edmund, the child of eros, serves not only as the voice of the anarchical group but also as the source of its daemonic energy. His superior rationality adapts him to his role of leadership, but his abuse of this faculty for self-advancement marks him as the most culpable. His is the only purely volitional offense against natural law. An unregenerate individual with an insight superior to Lear's, Cordelia's, Edgar's, indeed to that of any of the major candidates for heroic stature, Edmund ranks among the great literary villains who before their defeat contrive to express and to expose the great sanative values of the drama. As an illegitimate son, Edmund has no position in the social and political hierarchy, but this same condition eminently qualifies him to lead the subversive hierarchy of eros, chaos, and destruction. Having been indiscriminately admitted to the hierarchy by Gloucester, Edmund becomes an incipient threat to it, manipulating and exploiting it with a dashing expertise. . . .

Ironically, it is by emulating the King that Edmund becomes the ruler of his illegitimate kingdom. He formulates his legal code on the authority of Lear's distortion of natural law: the prerogatives of youth and private interest over age and public responsibility. By the time Edmund articulates the rationale for his treason, he is only interpreting what has been empirically demonstrated by Lear: "The younger rises when the old doth fall" (III, iii, 26). This statement with its Machiavellian disregard of human feeling, its frigid recognition of what the modern temper regards as the inevitable pattern of social evolution, acquires its barb from the ethos of Lear's world. Although cosmic hierarchy illustrated and natural law proclaimed that age and the fullness of experience were the supreme virtues for wielding power, Lear voted for his own retirement, disqualified himself, relinquished the protection of a position he held by divine right. Then, he appealed to the very order which he had violated:

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.
(II, iv, 188-191)

The corrective, the re-assertion of natural law in the development of generations, is offered as an admonition by Edgar to his suicidal father:

A man must endure
Their going hence, even as their coming hither:
Ripeness is all.
(V, ii, 9-11)

The battle lines between the forces of chaos, a grotesque paradox of the legitimate hierarchy, and the forces of order, assembled in the costumes of fools, beggars, and madmen, are clearly defined when Gloucester moves from the castle, now ruled by Edmund, to the moor, the storm, and the insane court of Lear. It is a powerful confrontation, for Gloucester is appealing to the very source of chaos when, disheartened by what he thinks is Edgar's treachery, he laments to Lear:

Our flesh and blood, my Lord, is grown so vile
That it doth hate what gets it.
(III, iv, 148-149)

But in this kingdom of the absurd, even this multiple truth is an untruth, or at best a half truth. Fidelity is everywhere evident—in an anonymous retainer, a mad beggar, and an oracular fool. The central and compelling truth distorted beyond recognition is flung at a raging and primordial world by the alienated and insane symbol and minister of virtue, reason, and justice:

I am the King himself. . . .

Nature's above art in that respect.
(IV, vi, 84, 86)

Lear's insanity involves his recognition of the emotional basis of his relationship with Goneril and Regan, a love professedly filial but essentially corrupt, profane, erotic. Thus he passes from a fixation on filial ingratitude to one on lechery and adultery. This change is initiated when he meets Edgar disguised as Tom o'Bedlam and hears his factitious autobiography. Tom attributes his madness, the "foul field" which pursued him, to his life as a foppish courtier seduced by his mistress and corrupted by his passions:

A servingman, proud in heart and mind, that curled my hair, wore gloves in my cap; served the lust of my mistress' heart, and did the act of darkness with her; swore as many oaths as I spake words, and broke them in the sweet face of heaven. One that slept in the contriving of lust, and waked to do it. Wine loved I deeply, dice dearly; and in woman out-paramoured the Turk. . . . Let not the creaking of shoes nor the rustling of silks betray thy poor heart to woman. Keep thy foot out of brothels, thy hand out of plackets, thy pen from lenders' books, and defy the foul fiend.
(Ill, iv, 85-99)

Lear's response suggests the essential bestiality which he senses he shares with Tom, both exiles from the protective order of society:

Thou art the thing itself; unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor, bare, forked animal as thou art.
(III, iv, 108-110)

The "foul fiends" for Lear are Goneril and Regan who become more explicitly identified with lust and appetitive excess in the mad scenes of Act IV. Vainly grasping the remnants of his royal position, it is with crushing pathos that he confuses the blinded Gloucester with the pagan god of eros: "No, do thy worst, blind Cupid; I'll not love" (IV, vi, 139-140).

It is divine love, the love which created and maintained the cosmic order, embodied in Cordelia, which restores Lear both to his rationality and to his royal position. "Thou has one daughter," says her emissary to the nearly disabled king.

Who redeems nature from the general curse
Which twain have brought her to
(IV, vi, 208-210)

Although her success in restoring Lear will be limited, since the "curse" was essentially self-inflicted, Cordelia is eminently qualified for her task. She comes from a politically ordered kingdom, suggested in the text by France's deserting her to fulfill his first obligation, the reparation of a breach in his own kingdom (IV, iii, 3-6). Her reason for invading England, not "blown ambition" but "love, dear love, and our aged father's right" (IV, iv, 27-29), is one of the only two motives for war sanctioned by natural law. Self-defense, the other motive, is expressed, ironically enough, by her temporary opponent, Albany, exonerating him from a violation of natural law but creating an almost insoluable conflict (V, i, 20-27). While both causes are just, because Lear is too feeble to defend his right and because in the absence of France there is no military leader qualified to defend it for him, Albany with the advantage of strength succeeds. It is a facet of natural law which modern revolutionaries have espoused: force until right is ready.

Psychologically and emotionally, Cordelia exhibits the internal order of faculties which she expressed in her speech on proportion in the first act. Her response to the news of her father's suffering is described in appropriately political terms, suggesting the correspondent hierarchies in the internal and external kingdom:

It seemed she was a queen
Over her passion, who most rebel-like,
Sought to be king o'er her. . . .

There she shook
And clamor moistened: then away she started
To deal with grief alone.
(IV, iii, 14-16, 30-34)

Concomitant with this inner control, proportion, and order are Cordelia's clear perspective, her immediate apprehension of the sources of Lear's madness, and her unsuspected power to restore his sanity, his political identity, and his spiritual harmony with the order of the spheres. Thus she prays:

O you kind gods!
Cure this great breach in his abused nature.
Th' untuned and jarring senses, O, wind up
Of this child-changed father.
(IV, vii, 14-17)

The cure is affected by three means, each symbolic of one of the major categories in the chain or order of being: sleep induced by herbs, suggesting the subjugation of nature; music, appealing to rationality and the sense of balance; and Cordelia's kiss, symbol of transcendent love.

O my dear father, restoration hang
Thy medicine on my lips, and let this kiss
Repair those violent harms that my two sisters
Have in thy reverence made.
(IV, vii, 26-29)

Considering, therefore, Cordelia as symbol of the entire range of hierarchy and order, one ought, it seems to me, to be able to interpret Lear's awakening as a return to a proper relationship with that hierarchy and divine love. But he continues to challenge Cordelia, confessing thereby his failure to recognize the immutable cosmic bonds involved in the familial relationship.

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.
(IV, vii, 72-74)

Cordelia's response, "No cause, no cause," is less a volitional expression of Christian charity than the acquiescence of a sane and virtuous individual to the very sources of sanity and virtue, an affirmation of what Kent had described as "the holy cords . . . / Which are too intrinse t'unloose" (II, ii, 76-77).

But there is only a momentary stasis, a temporary suggestion of supernal peace before the violence with which the drama concludes. I would like to suggest several reasons why at the end of the drama Lear is subjected to such apparently unaccountable suffering, why he is unable to reclaim his kingdom, and why Cordelia must become the final though potentially most meaningful sacrifice. First, because Lear is redeemed not by the purgatorial experience of his madness but rather by Cordelia's intervention, he acquires only a passive immunity to further suffering. Secondly, he fails to recognize that his previous suffering was self-inflicted, a miscalculation of the responsibilities of his position which allowed the betrayal of Goneril and Regan. Thirdly, his instincts remain escapist, regressive, expressed in his rationalization of their prospective imprisonment. The pastoral withdrawal, the edinic vision which he depicts so lyrically is the ideal of the courtier rather than the vision of a king; it is a return to a lower order of nature, uncorrupted but outside the pale of human achievement:

. . . 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.
(V, vi, 8-19)

Once more Lear disregards that he is by birth and by divine ordination king, God's minister, and executor of law and order in the secular sphere. In his sanguine willingness to adapt to his environment, to adjust to his surroundings, Lear reveals his decidedly terrestial inclinations. Since Cordelia's existence in the political order depends upon Lear's assuming command of himself and of his kingdom, she is for the second, and final time, a victim of his weakness.

Finally, the kind of love relationships into which Lear entered and the emotional bases on which he entered them suggest a kind of constitutional defect which prevented him from entering the transcendent emotional realm which Cordelia opened to him. This defect is perhaps best formulated in a statement from Saint Augustine's City of God, XI, in which appear many of the orthodox principles of cosmic order: we are "endowed with a kind of attraction for our proper place in the order of nature. The specific gravity of a body is, as it were, its love, whether it tends upward by its lightness or down-ward by its weight."

It is somewhat by natural selection that Edgar not simply survives but prevails at the end of the play. On a plane productively human he resolves the major conflict between eros and divine love, between chaos and order. If the sins of the father are truly visited upon the son, as Edgar's suffering at the hands of Edmund would suggest, then he frees himself and his kingdom of the "foul fiend" when he vanquishes his bastard brother, the ruler of the illegitimate order of eros. Moreover, in his guise as Tom o'Bedlam he has been purged in a preventive fashion of both the vice and the consequences of erotic love. But unlike Cordelia he is a terrestial creature committed to a human sphere, the only sphere in which a human being to remain human may work out his salvation. This salvation, earthly perfection, "ripeness" if you like, is made possible by the emotional affinity he shares with Cordelia, divine or transcendent love, and is the basis for the creation of a new and more stable order.

SOURCE: "Love and Order in King Lear," in Educational Theatre Journal, Vol. XLX, No. 3, October, 1967, pp. 333-42.

Simon O. Lesser
[Lear desperately seeks reassurance that his daughters will allow him to carry out his plans for his final years, Lesser maintains, and so he stages a "play" in the opening scene that will draw out this response. The critic notes that the king looks chiefly to his favorite, Cordelia, for love and praise. The extraordinary intensity and possessiveness of his love for her makes Lear more vulnerable to disappointment, Lesser argues. In the critic's judgment, Lear's possessiveness has its source in an unconscious sexual desire, which Cordelia is aware of—even as she guards herself against expressing her own excessive, incestuous feelings toward him. Lesser contends that Cordelia resents the hypocrisy of the love-test, is overwhelmed by hatred of her sisters, and is too angry in this first scene "to think clearly or to serve her own interests."]

What is basically being enacted in Act I, Scene 1, of Lear is an unwritten play. The play has no function in terms of the political purposes of the ceremony. The division of the Kingdom, the redistribution of power and Lear's own plans, have all been decided upon in advance. The intention of announcing all these decisions in the course of a play is evidence of the assurance felt by its author, Lear, that it would be performed as planned, that everyone would accept and enact the role assigned him—or, more accurately, her. Other than Lear himself, the only characters in the drama he has composed in his mind are his daughters. Kent is an unwelcome intruder.

In terms of state purposes the play is a foolish way for Lear to make his decisions known. But for Lear himself the play has functions of the utmost importance. The King is an old man who, as he himself points out, is preparing for death. As part of that preparation he is doing something which at some level he knows to be dangerous: he is surrendering his power, wealth and state functions to his daughters and their husbands, retaining for himself only the title and honors of a King and a small retinue of Knights to attend him. He is in effect throwing himself on the mercy of his daughters and their husbands. Moreover, there is every reason to believe that he knows two of these daughters to be cold-blooded, calculating and untrustworthy. As the first speech of the play tells us, he also has, or has had, reservations about the Duke of Cornwall, Regan's husband. Lear is a frightened man. The despotism he displays later on may be in part a way of denying this and proving to himself that he still has authority and power. It is certain that he desperately needs the reassurance his play has been planned to elicit. We of course, whether readers or spectators, can see as Kent does that it is a poor way of eliciting reassurance upon which he can depend.

Intermixed with this need is an equally powerful desire for praise and love. They are of course the proofs Lear seeks that though he is surrendering his prerogatives he need not be afraid—reassurance against feared or already-present feelings of impotence and defenselessness. But we should not overlook his quasi-independent need to be flattered. This need too is understandable. We speak of extreme old age as a second childhood, and it is in childhood that narcissism is strongest. The regressive influence of age adds to Lear's need to be admired.

The burden of satisfying all of these needs—for reassurance, praise and love—falls almost entirely upon Cordelia. She is the heroine of Lear's play. She is given the climactic position in it, and is clearly intended to give a speech which outshines her sisters' speeches in substance and eloquence, a speech which is at once sincere, yet warm, even extravagant, in its declaration of love and approbation. The thirds into which the kingdom is divided are not exactly equal, any more than the halves into which a grapefruit is cut usually are. Cordelia's portion, Lear suggests, is "more opulent" than her sisters'—and really superior to theirs in some small way, I would suspect. It should be stressed, however, that the superiority of her portion is slight. We have every reason to believe Lear's statement that he is making and announcing the division of the kingdom at this time to prevent future strife; and the opening lines of the scene tell us that the portions going to Albany and Cornwall are so well equalized that neither Duke will have cause for envy. We can assume that Lear would not jeopardize his goal of avoiding future war by giving Cordelia a portion notably superior to the others.

The early parts of Scene 1 prepare us for the recognition that Cordelia is Lear's favorite, if not the only daughter he loves. Though he calls his second daughter "Our dearest Regan," both his charge to her to speak and his earlier charge to Goneril are matter-of-fact. There is scarcely a wasted word. Moreover, though both daughters praise him fulsomely, his responses are perfunctory; indeed, both responses give the impression of having been memorized, or composed in a general way, before the ceremony. The text does not support [Samuel Taylor] Coleridge's view that Lear was "duped by [Goneril's and Regan's] hypocritical professions of love and duty. . . ." On the contrary, it is evident—probably even to Goneril and Regan— that Lear is gliding over this part of the ceremony as quickly as possible to get to the part for which the rest is preparation: his favorite's avowal of admiration and love. From "our joy" at the beginning to the hardly impartial suggestion at the end that Cordelia speak in such a way as to merit a "more opulent" third than her sisters, the invitation to her to avow her love has a different ring than the preceeding ones.

Though we may be no better prepared than Lear to recognize it, the very fact that his expectations are focussed so completely upon Cordelia has its dangerous side. She is the daughter whose avowals can quiet his fears, but by the same token she is the one who can disappoint and hurt him most.

This obvious danger is compounded by two others. The first stems from the fact that Cordelia is Lear's youngest—and because he does not want to be reminded of his age may be thought of as more of a child than she is. Though Lear's bid to Cordelia to speak is longer than the bids to Goneril and Regan taken together, it is only three and a half lines in length. Yet in this brief speech Lear twice refers to Cordelia's youth. We may sense that his emphasis on this causes him to think of Cordelia as more obedient and pliant then her sisters, thus heightening the expectations based upon love and his assurance that the love is returned.

The very intensity of Lear's feeling for his youngest daughter is the second factor that makes his situation so dangerous. Unconsciously we may have already sensed that there is a not wholly desexualized—a repressed incestuous—element in Lear's feeling for Cordelia. There is additional evidence of this incestuous element later in the opening scene and elsewhere in the tragedy. For the light it throws upon this element and other feelings of Lear's, what he says when he is most enraged—disappointed and angry at Cordelia and further infuriated by Kent's intervention in her behalf—is particularly revelatory.

Most significant are some blunt words at the very beginning of his tirade against Kent:

I loved her most, and thought to set my rest
On her kind nursery.

"Set my rest" may mean not only "find my rest," but also, on the basis of usage in an Elizabethan card game, "stake my all." These words confirm some of the things we have sensed about Lear's feelings toward all three of his daughters. They tell us of course that Cordelia was his favorite and that he wanted to spend all his remaining days with her, but they just as clearly show that he had no confidence in the kindlines of his older daughters. We may feel that if Lear had been in better control of himself, he probably would have spoken less frankly. But the decision referred to shoukd not be dismissed as the product of anger: it was evidently made when Lear was thinking carefully and objectively about his future course. . . .

Later in this outburst there is another remark which in indirect fashion suggests the strength of Lear's love for Cordelia:

So be my grave my peace, as here I give
Her father's heart from her!

The words "So be my grave my peace" seem to imply a comparison—probably to some such words as "and not my stay in my youngest daughter's 'nursery'." The pessimism of the words tells us again that Lear had never expected any kindness from his older daughters.

Considered closely, Lear's rage at Cordelia's refusal to accept the part assigned her in his play and his disinheritance of her are also evidence of his love: his fury and punitive behavior stem chiefly from the frustration of hopes too dear to be renounced. More technically, Cordelia's unanticipated behavior thwarts a whole cluster of unconscious, or at any rate unacknowledged, desires. Lear has evidently not even faced his dependency on his youngest daughter, much less specified the needs he expected her "performance" to satisfy. As we shall see, moreover, some of the things Cordelia says in her third and, ironically, most conciliatory speech give it the character of a sexual rejection. A metaphor Lear uses a little later in this outburst suggests that he has understood the speech, or perhaps the entire pattern of her behavior, in this way: "Let pride, which she calls plainness, marry her."

After disinheriting Cordelia Lear speaks harshly about her to the King of France. However, the opening words of France's reply provide further evidence of the intensity of Lear's affection for his youngest daughter just before this turnabout:

This is most strange,
That she whom even but now was your best object,
The argument of your praise, balm of your age,
The best, the dearest . . .

The exchanges between Lear and Burgundy and Lear and France dramatically expose the incestuous element in Lear's love. It is perfectly clear that he no longer wants either Burgundy or France to marry Cordelia. His anger is certainly a factor, but his attitude also suggests that, while he was willing to share his favorite daughter with a husband, he is reluctant to let another man possess her to the exclusion of himself. His position is hardly consistent with his disinheritance of his daughter, but he is now dominated by a part of the psyche little concerned with consistency. . . .

Later in the play, when Lear has been subjected to the cruelty or his older daughters and is experiencing the fury of the storm, he speaks again in passion—passion born not only of his anger toward them but also, it may be surmised, toward himself. His last speech before his wits begin to turn shows that incest is very much on his mind. It is the second crime he specifies, and its placement gives it more emphasis than the one mentioned first.

Let the great gods
That keep this dreadful pudder o'er our heads
Find out their enemies now. Tremble, thou wretch,
That hast within thee undivulged crimes
Uinwhipped of justice. Hide thee, thou bloody hand,
Thou perjured, and thou simular of virtue
That art incestuous.
(III. ii. 49-55)

When Lear and Cordelia are briefly reunited late in the play, his love—their love—reappears in its original intensity, if not in heightened intensity. . . . Lear's speech to Cordelia in V. iii., after their capture by the victorious British forces, is more like the speech of a lover to his beloved than that of a father to his daughter.

Why does not Cordelia, who loves her father, give him the praise and assurances he so obviously needs and is so obviously beseeching? We can perceive several interlocking factors that combine to inhibit her and set her on a mistaken course she can never correct, though she clearly feels a mounting need to assure her father of her love. She is furiously angry at him, we realize, for staging this farcial pageant, which puts a premium on hypocrisy. More obviously she is overcome by hatred of her unscrupulous sisters. She feels that she cannot compete with them in lying and does not want to participate in such a competition. She is revolted by play, players, and author—this last despite her love for her father. She is too completely in the grip of anger and revulsion to think clearly or to serve her own interests. Her initial refusal to say anything when it is her turn to speak is not simply a rebuff but a reprimand, and intended as one.

Her hatred of her sisters noticeably influences her behavior. Her tendency throughout to understate, to confine herself to minimal statements of her love, is clearly born in part of her desire to disassociate herself from her sisters, to show how different she is from them, and, by so doing, to convey her disapproval of them. But her course—it cannot be called a strategy since it is not rationally decided upon—hurts herself, not her sisters. As Lear perceives her behavior, her over-scrupulousness must make her seem dutiful at best, and patently unloving.

Indeed, everything Cordelia does here turns out wrong. Despite her rejection of the part she senses her father wants her to play, she does try to communicate with him. In particular, she tries to remind him of the cold-bloodedness and insincerity of Goneril and Regan, though this is neither necessary nor an acceptable substitute for what Lear wants from Cordelia. Probably because she is angry at him, moreover, her efforts are half-hearted and not well calculated to succeed. In responding to her father's second effort to induce her to speak, she makes a fugitive attempt to explain her recalcitrance. But the very placement of the words, "Unhappy that I am," causes them to be glided over and robs them of emphasis. She hopes that her tight understatements will call attention to the fulsomeness of her sisters' avowals of love. But such comparisons as Lear is capable of making are all to her disadvantage. Her speeches—in particular her "I love your Majesty/According to my bond, no more nor less"—seem meager and devoid of affection.

To be sure, her next speech (97-106) is longer and warmer. Moreover, she is here directly comparing herself with her sisters and more openly trying to warn her father of their hypocrisy. Though she couches what she says about her sisters in interrogative form, she all but declares: "They don't mean what they say. Their protestations to you aren't even consistent with their marriage vows." Cordelia's decision to bring up the conflict between a daughter's obligations to husband and father is not accidental. It is of course on her mind since she senses that she will suffer more than ordinarily from this conflict because of the unspoken demands her father makes upon her. The main determinant of her allusion is her unconscious awareness of the excessive, incestuous element in her father's love. Her fear is intensified, the entire pattern of her behavior suggests, by a more deeply buried realization that she must also be on guard against her love for him. The need she feels to defend herself against the over-strong attachment to her father has a pervasive influence upon her behavior. It is a major cause of her initial refusal to speak and all her subsequent mistakes. Unfortunately, no consideration she could have advanced to explain and justify her behavior could have been more detrimental in its effects. The point she is driven to insinuate does not escape her father. On the contrary, it has a greater impact upon him than is objectively warranted. The way she words her point must also wound Lear. The idea that the man she marries "shall carry /Half my love with him, half my care and duty" is intolerable to him. The word "half" is probably not meant literally, but this makes no difference: Lear cannot brook the idea of there being any limit on his favorite's love for him.

It is inappropriate to appraise Cordelia's conduct in moral terms. On the other hand, it can and should be noted that, allowing for the stress she is under, she behaves like a child, even a spoiled child, during her father's play. If we did not sense this, if we did not perceive that at times both she and Lear act like infants, we could not accept the suffering which they, and we, are later called upon to endure. That Cordelia is capable of acting more maturely and defending her own interests is shown a little later in this scene (225-234) when, while apparently asking her father to limit and specify the offenses responsible for his disfavor, she very effectively clears herself. Here she is buoyed by France's spirited defense and avowal of confidence in her. Earlier her poise had been undermined by the behavior of her father and sisters. When she acts childishly, she is in the grip of such primitive emotions as anger, resentment, and fear—and, what is perhaps more disturbing still, anxiety born of the feeling, in which her own love is a factor, that her father is making inappropriate demands upon her. Nevertheless, the sulkiness and recalcitrance she displays under these pressures are a part of her too and cannot be disregarded. Had she been more comfortable about her own feelings for her father, which however strong were under firm control, and had she been able to face his love for her consciously and calmly, she would have realized that it would never lead to demands she could not readily and guiltlessly satisfy. What her father needed was to be bathed in a protective affection which would obliterate the feeling that he was old and powerless. Cordelia could have avowed her love—avowed it as extravagantly as she sensed her father wanted her to. Facing her own repugnance for the ceremony, and even any slight hypocrisy of which she might be guilty, she could have given Lear the reassurance he so desperately needed. But of course if tragic characters were as rational and controlled as this, and as capable of compromising, they would not be tragic characters and there would be no tragedy.

Lear's daughters know him no less well than he knows them. There is no reason to doubt some of what Goneril and Regan say about him in private. We feel no disposition to question either Regan's statement that he has never sought to know himself or their judgment that what he has just done shows how old age is exacerbating his natural rashness. They are referring specifically to Lear's disinheritance of Cordelia and banishment of Kent, but what they say applies to the whole of his behavior, including his generosity to them. Lack of self-understanding is the key to everything Lear feels and does after Cordelia disappoints him and is a principal cause of the disappointment itself. Lack of self-control is also a factor in his behavior, but if he had had a fuller awareness of his own feelings, he would have had a much better chance of controlling them.

It seems unlikely that Lear ever acknowledged how much fear and anxiety he felt about giving up his power and prerogatives and going forth bare-handed to meet death. It is still less likely that he apprehended the purposes of the play he had written in his mind. He seems blind to the intensity of his need for love and reassurance—and to the fact that the satisfaction of the need hinges almost entirely upon Cordelia. True, he has tried to be fair and has given all of his daughters roles in his play. But he is listening for one voice, one asseveration of love and esteem.

There is no indication that the speeches of Goneril and Regan have any emotional effect upon Lear. Paradoxically, it would have been better for Cordelia if they had buoyed his confidence: there would have been some diminution of the demands upon her. But what Lear wanted was an extravagant affirmation of esteem from Cordelia. We may suppose that he had composed innumerable speeches for her, each more satisfying than the one before in its affirmations of affection and approval.

Cordelia's actual behavior frustrates Lear's desperate need for love, praise and reassurance. The very real dangers of Lear's external situation do much to explain that need, but it is increased by unconscious factors. As has been mentioned, he is more frightened than he is willing to acknowledge—subject to innumerable vague and protean worries. An important function of the Fool—a splinter of Lear himself—is to name many of the anxieties, fears, and insights too painful for Lear to face. The Fool disappears when Lear himself begins to see more fully.

Cordelia denies her father the very things the ceremony was planned to provide. The impact of this is aggravated by other implications and effects of her behavior. First, it is experienced by her father as a rejection of his love. The distinction she draws between the love she owes father and husband is probably perceived as a bitter criticism of his love. Whereas acceptance of love, any kind of love, seems momentarily at least to justify it, rejection calls it into question, makes it seem dubious or evil. Cordelia's words and conduct probably make Lear subliminally aware of the not wholly desexualized nature of his feeling for her—and arouse guilt as well as anger. He feels that she is both scolding and rejecting him.

The independence and fastidiousness she displays hurt him for a second reason. They compel him to recognize that she is no longer baby or girl but grown woman. This in turn forces him to face something else he would prefer not to be reminded of, the fact that he is an old man. Her guardedness may also be wounding because it is the first sign of ambivalence he has permitted himself to recognize in someone he has thought of as loving him without reservation. Finally, as A. C. Bradley points out, Cordelia's behavior subjects Lear to public humiliation: he may feel that everyone present, Kent excepted, is aware of the lack of warmth and the criticism he senses in her words. His rage and need to lash out at her is fully understandable.

All the mistakes which account for Lear's later suffering are made while he is in the grip of this rage. He behaves like a child in a tantrum, striking out against those he loves, against his own self-interest, and against anyone who would remind him of the calamitous errors he is making.

Yet Lear knows that he has only one daughter who has a warm and generous nature and loves him. The fact that as he disowns her he invokes not only the sun but Hecate and the night suggests that he half realizes he is doing something evil. His refusal even to listen to Kent when he first tries to speak suggests even more forcibly that subliminally he knows that he is making a mistake.

We have seen how many constituents of Lear's next speech, the one which interrupts Kent's attempt to defend Cordelia, betray Lear's knowledge of the character of his daughters, of their feeling for him, and of his feeling for them. Yet in this very speech he proceeds to divide Cordelia's third of the kingdom between Cornwall and Regan, Albany and Goneril. His prerogatives are also divided between his sons-in-law. He retains only the titles and honors of King and a hundred knights, whom Cornwall and Albany, not he, must sustain. And he announces that he and his knights will divide their time between his older daughters and their husbands, moving monthly from one castle to the other.

His harshness to Kent once he is given a chance to criticize his sovereign's decisions shows us how determined Lear is not to acknowledge what on some level he assuredly realizes—that he has made a whole series of grievous mistakes. We may assume that Lear knows Kent almost as well as he knows his own daughters and is well aware that Kent has served him loyally and zealously and spoken sincerely. At this point Lear is astonishingly like Oedipus—determinedly blind and overcome by fright and anger when anyone tries to tell him what unconsciously or even preconsciously he already knows.

SOURCE: "Act One, Scene One, of Lear," in College English, Vol. 32, No. 2, November, 1970, pp. 155-71.


Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6658

Kenneth Muir
[Muir discusses the theme of "reason in madness" in King Lear and outlines the king's descent into insanity. Goneril's sharp complaints, Lear's discovery of Kent in the stocks, and Regan's rejection progressively disorder his mind, the critic argues, and the sudden appearance of Edgar as Poor Tom pushes him over the edge. Muir maintains that Lear's subsequent attacks on hypocrisy and worldly justice "show profound insight" into the human condition. However, the critic cautions readers against assuming that these speeches represent Shakespeare's own point of view.]

There is no madness in the old play of King Leir, none in the story of Lear as told by Holinshed, Spenser, in The Mirror for Magistrates, or in any other version before Shakespeare's time, and none in Sidney's story of the Paphlagonian King. . . . [M.] Maeterlinck believed that Shakespeare deliberately unsettled the reason of his protagonists, and thus opened

the dike that held captive the swollen lyrical flood. Henceforward, he speaks freely by their mouths; and beauty invades the stage without fearing lest it be told that it is out of place. [Life and Flowers]

[George] Orwell, on the other hand [in his Selected Essays], regarded Lear's madness as a protective device to enable Shakespeare to utter dangerous thoughts. . . .

Against Maeterlinck's view it must be objected that the mad scenes of King Lear are no more lyrical than the rest of the play; and against Orwell's view of Shakespeare as the subversive sceptic without the courage of his own convictions it must be pointed out that none of his characters should be taken as his own mouthpiece. Ulysses' views on Order [in Troilus and Cressida] are shared by Rosencrantz [in Hamlet], whom Shakespeare treats with scant sympathy, and considerably modified by the King in All's Well that Ends Well. We cannot even be certain that the Sonnets are autobiographical. We cannot tell whether Shakespeare was a cowardly sceptic or a natural conformist. His acceptance of the 'establishment' and his criticism of it are equally in character. This is not to say that no point of view emerges from each play and from the canon as a whole; but the point of view is complex, subsuming both the anarchical and the conformist. The Shakespearian dialectic is not a reflection of the poet's timidity but of his negative capability.

In the dialogue with Gloucester in IV, vi, Lear's invective has a double target—the hypocrisy of the simpering dame and the hypocrisy of the law. There is no evidence to show that Shakespeare was sheltering behind a mask. The attack on lechery can be paralleled in the diatribes of Timon [in Timon of Athens] and the attack on authority and law is no more extreme than that of the eminently sane Isabella or that of the praying Claudius [both in Measure for Measure] who knew that

In the corrupted currents of this world
Offence's gilded hand may shove by justice,
And oft 'tis seen the wicked prize itself
Buys out the law.

Lest the audience should be tempted to dismiss what Lear says as mere raving, Shakespeare provides a choric comment through the mouth of Edgar:

O, matter and impertmency mix'd!
Reason in madness!

Lear's mad speeches, moreover, are all linked with other passages in the play. The revulsion against sex, besides being a well-known symptom of certain forms of madness, is linked with Lear's earlier suspicion that the mother of Goneril and Regan must be an adultress, with Gloucester's pleasant vices which led to the birth of Edmund and ultimately to his own blinding, and to Edmund's intrigues with Goneril and Regan. The attack on the imperfect instruments of justice, themselves guilty of the sins they condemn in others, is merely a reinforcement of Lear's speech in the storm, before he crossed the borders of madness:

Let the great gods,
That keep this dreadful pother o'er our heads,
Find out their enemies now. Tremble, thou wretch,
That hast within thee undivulged crimes,
Unwhipp'd of justice: hide thee, thou bloody hand;
Thou perjur'd, and thou simular man of virtue
That art incestuous: caitiff, to pieces shake,
That under covert and convenient seeming
Hast practis'd on man's life: close pent-up guilts,
Rive your concealing continents, and cry
These dreadful summoners grace.

Here, as in the mad scene, the justice of the gods, from whom no secrets are hid, is contrasted with the imperfections of earthly justice. One of Lear's first speeches after his wits begin to turn consists of a prayer to 'houseless poverty':

Poor naked wretches, wheresoever you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your loop'd and window'd raggedness, defend you
From seasons such as these? O, I have ta'en
Too little care of this! Take physic, pomp;
Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,
That thou mayst shake the superflux to them,
And show the heavens more just.

It has not escaped notice that Gloucester expresses similar sentiments when he hands his purse to Poor Tom:

heavens, deal so still!
Let the superfluous and lust-dieted man,
That slaves your ordinance, that will not see
Because he does not feel, feel your power quickly;
So distribution should undo excess,
And each man have enough.

This repetition is of some importance since [Levin L.] Schücking has argued [in his Character Problems in Shakespeare's Plays] that it is not really consistent with Shakespeare's philosophy to see in the play a gradual purification of Lear's character. Shakespeare, he argues, nowhere associates compassion for the poor 'with a higher moral standpoint'. The point is not whether Lear's pity was intended to arouse the audience's sympathy for him, nor even whether Shakespeare himself agreed with Lear's sentiments, but whether the audience would understand that his newly aroused concern for the poor was a sign of moral improvement. Here, surely, there can be no doubt. Shakespeare's audience was not so cut off from the Christian tradition as not to know that charity was a virtue; and the fact that similar sentiments are put into Gloucester's mouth is a reinforcement of Lear's words. If Lear were mad at this point—and he has not yet crossed the frontier—he would be expressing reason in madness. Even Schücking is constrained to admit that Lear's later criticisms of society show profound insight; but he claims that this does not exhibit a development of Lear's character, because it is dependent on a state of mental derangement. The Lear who welcomes prison with Cordelia

is not a purified Lear from whose character the flame of unhappiness has burnt away the ignoble dross, but a nature completely transformed, whose extraordinary vital forces are extinguished, or about to be extinguished.

But . . . the three moments in the play crucial to [A. C] Bradley's theory of Lear's development—his recognition of error, his compassion for the poor, and his kneeling to Cordelia—occur either before or after his madness; and Schücking seems insufficiently aware of the 'reason in madness' theme so essential to the play's meaning. . . .

Lear is driven insane by a series of shocks. First, there is the attack by Goneril (I, iv). This makes him angrily pretend not to know her, or to know himself, but at this point it is still pretence:

Doth any here know me? This is not Lear:
Doth Lear walk thus? speak thus? Where are his eyes?
Either his notion weakens, or his discernings
Are lethargied.—Ha! waking? 'Tis not so.—
Who is it that can tell me who I am?

Later in the same scene he begins to realize that he has wronged Cordelia:

O most small fault,
How ugly didst thou in Cordelia show! . . .
O Lear, Lear, Lear!
Beat at this gate, that let thy folly in,
And thy dear judgement out!

In the next scene he comes to a full recognition of his folly: 'I did her wrong.' All the Fool's remarks in both scenes are designed, not to distract Lear's attention from Goneril's ingratitude, but to remind him of his foolishness in dividing his kingdom and banishing Cordelia. It is arguable that the Fool's loyalty to Cordelia helps to drive his master mad. At the end of the Act Lear has his first serious premonition of insanity:

O, let me not be mad, not mad, sweet heaven!
Keep me in temper: I would not be mad!

The second great shock comes in the second act when Lear finds Kent in the stocks. This causes the first physical symptoms of hysteria, which were probably borrowed by Shakespeare from [Samuel] Harsnett's pamphlet on demoniacs or from Edward Jorden's Brief Discourse of a Disease Called the Suffocation of the Mother (1603), which shows 'that divers strange actions and passions of the body of man, which in the common opinion, are imputed to the devil, have their true naturall causes, and do accompanie this Disease'. But the symptoms would now be described as 'racing heart' and 'rising blood pressure':

O, how this mother swells up toward my heart!
Hysterica passio, down, thou climbing sorrow,
Thy element's below. . . .
O me, my heart, my rising heart! but, down!

The third shock, the rejection by Regan, follows immediately. Lear prays for patience; he threatens revenges—the terrors of the earth—on the two daughters; his refusal to ease his heart by weeping is accompanied by the first rumblings of the storm which is a projecting on the macrocosm of the tempest in the microcosm; and he knows from the thunder that what he most feared will come to pass: 'O fool, I shall go mad!' Exposure to the storm completes what ingratitude began.

Lear's identification with the storm is both a means of presenting it on the stage and a sign that his passions have overthrown his reason. He contends 'with the fretful elements';

tears his white hair,
Which the impetuous blasts, with eyeless rage,
Catch in their fury, and make nothing of;
Strives in his little world of man to out-storm
The to-and-fro-conflicting wind and rain.

But when Lear makes his next appearance, invoking the storm to destroy the seeds of matter, urging the gods to find out their hidden enemies, or addressing the poor naked wretches, he is not yet wholly mad, though he admits that his wits are beginning to turn. What finally pushes him over the borderline is the sudden appearance of Poor Tom who is both a living embodiment of naked poverty and one who is apparently what Lear had feared to become. Edgar, in acting madness, precipitates Lear's.

What! have his daughters brought him to this pass?
Could'st thou save nothing? Didst thou give 'em all? . . .
Is it the fashion, that discarded fathers
Should have thus little mercy on their flesh?
Judicious punishment! 'twas this flesh begot
Those pelican daughters.

The Fool comments:

This cold night will turn us all to fools and madmen.

It is in fact the exposure and the physical exhaustion which prevents Lear's recovery from the shocks he has received. He is soon trying to identify himself with unaccommodated man by tearing off his clothes.

The madness of the elements, the professional 'madness' of the Fool, the feigned madness of Edgar, and the madness of the King himself together exemplify the break-up of society and the threat to the universe itself under the impact of ingratitude and treachery. When Gloucester appears, confessing that he is almost mad and that grief for his son's treachery has crazed his wits, only Kent is left wholly sane.

Poor Tom compares himself with emblematic animals—hog, fox, wolf, dog and lion—and Lear contrasts the naked Bedlam, who does not borrow from worm, beast, sheep and cat, with the sophisticated people who do. Man without the refinements of civilization is 'a poor, bare, forked animal', as man without reason is no more than a beast. But Lear, who has lost his reason, is anxious to discuss philosophical questions with the man he takes for a learned Theban. His first question, 'What is the cause of thunder?', had been a stock one ever since the days of Pythagoras, who had taught, Ovid tells us [in Metamorphoses],

The first foundation of the world: the cause of every thing:
What nature was: and what was God: whence snow and lyghtning spring:
And whether Jove or else the wynds in breaking clowdes doo thunder.

The storm suggests the question to Lear. . . .

Lear returns again and again to the thing which had driven him mad—his daughters' ingratitude. He asks if Poor Tom's daughters have brought him to this pass; he exclaims:

Now, all the plagues that in the pendulous air
Hang fated o'er men's faults light on thy daughters!—

declares that nothing but his unkind daughters 'could have subdu'd nature / To such a lowness'; and inveighs against the flesh which 'begot / Those pelican daughters'.

Just before he was driven out into the storm Lear had declared that he would avenge himself on his daughters:

I will have such revenges on you both,
That all the world shall—I will do such things,—
What they are, yet I know not; but they shall be
The terrors of the earth.

In the refuge provided by Gloucester Lear begins to brood on his revenge. . . .

Poor Tom in his blanket, and the Fool in his motley, suggest to his disordered mind two robed men of justice, and he imagines—this is his first actual illusion—that he sees Goneril and Regan. When we remember Lear's later attacks on the operations of justice because the judges are as guilty as the criminals they try, the justices in the mock trial of Goneril and Regan—a Bedlam beggar, a Fool, and a serving-man—are at least as likely to deal justly as a properly constituted bench, even though Lear accuses them of corruption in allowing the criminals to escape.

Shakespeare hits on two characteristics of certain kinds of mental derangement—the substitution of a symbolic offence for a real one ('she kick'd the poor King her father') and the obsession with a visual image. Lear thinks of the 'warped looks' of Regan, though in an earlier scene he had spoken of her 'tender-hefted nature' and of her eyes which, unlike Goneril's, 'do comfort and not burn'. It was the contrast between her beauty and her behaviour when she, like Goneril, put on a frowning countenance, that impressed Lear with her warped looks; and the same contrast makes Lear ask:

Is there any cause in nature that makes these hard hearts?

The question is an appropriate introduction to the next scene in which we see the tender-hearted Regan assisting at the blinding of Gloucester.

When the imaginary curtains are drawn on the sleeping Lear we do not see him again for nearly 500 lines—about half-an-hour's playing time—but we are prepared for the development of his lunacy by the two short scenes in the middle of the fourth Act. In one of these Kent reveals that Lear refuses to see Cordelia:

A sovereign shame so elbows him: his own unkindness,
That stripp'd her from his benediction, turn'd her
To foreign casualties, gave her dear rights
To his dog-hearted daughters, these things sting
His mind so venomously, that burning shame
Detains him from Cordelia.

It is significant—though I do not remember that anyone has called attention to it—that after the admission at the end of Act I 'I did her wrong', Lear makes no further reference to Cordelia until he recovers his wits at the end of Act IV. The reason for this is partly, no doubt, that the ingratitude of Goneril and Regan drives everything else from his mind; but we may suspect, too, that Lear's sovereign shame prevents him from facing his own guilt. In the other scene (IV, iv) Cordelia describes her mad father,

singing aloud;
With burdocks, hemlock, nettles, cuckooflowers,
Darnel, and all the idle weeds that grow
In our sustaining corn.

The significance of this picture is that Lear has reverted to his childhood. The Doctor . . . prescribes rest for the lunatic king.

Our foster-nurse of nature is repose,
The which he lacks; that to provoke in him,
Are many simples operative, whose power
Will close the eye of anguish.

In the scene in which the mad Lear meets the blinded Gloucester there is a wonderful blend of 'matter and impertinency'. Even the impertinency has the kind of free association which is often found in the utterances of certain types of lunatics; and precisely because he is mad Lear is freed from the conventional attitudes of society. He is able, at moments, to see more clearly and piercingly than the sane, because the sane buy their peace of mind by adjusting themselves to the received ideas of society. Lear recognizes the way he has been shielded from reality by flattery. He also sees the hypocritical pretensions of society with regard to sex and with regard to its treatment of criminals. And, finally, he sees that human life is inescapably tragic:

Thou must be patient; we came crying hither;
Thou know'st the first time that we smell the air,
We wawl and cry . . .
When we are born, we cry that we are come
To this great stage of fools.

When we next see Lear he is awakening from a drugged sleep. The Doctor has given him the repose he needs. The second part of the cure consists of music which . . . was a means of winding up the untuned and jarring senses. The third part of the cure is Cordelia's love. It is characteristic of her that she is eloquent so long as Lear is asleep, and that she falls back into her natural reticence when he awakens. The cure is completed when he kneels to the daughter he has wronged and begs her forgiveness.

SOURCE: "Madness in King Lear," in Shakespeare Survey: An Annual Survey of Shakespearean Study and Production, Vol. 13, 1960, pp. 30-40.

Josephine Waters Bennett
[Bennett focuses on three scenes—III.iv,, and—where, in her estimation, Lear shows unmistakable signs of insanity. She sees the king's obsessive references to daughters, his attempt to tear off his clothes, and his delusion that Poor Tom is an ancient philosopher as clear indications of madness. The chief causes of Lear's insanity, Bennett observes, are his bitter resentment toward his daughters and his inability to put up an effective defense against repeated humiliations. The critic argues that Lear's delusion at the close of the play—that Cordelia is not dead—is an expression of love and hope rather than a sign of madness.]

An understanding of Lear's madness is essential to any serious interpretation of the play and to any understanding of its structure. Yet critics have not agreed about when Lear goes mad, and almost no attention at all has been given to the dramatic function of his madness. . . .

Interpretation of the play has been distorted by too much emphasis on the external conflict, on Lear's helplessness and the inhumanity of his ungrateful daughters; there has been too little attention to Lear's struggle with himself, to the storm within. . . . Let us begin with . . . the three short scenes which exhibit Lear's insanity, its cause in his own character, and its effect on him.

The first of these scenes is III.iv. Like any competent dramatist, Shakespeare makes obvious those matters which an audience must understand in order to follow the play. . . .

Shakespeare's preparation had to be particularly thorough, because this is an innovation, not to be found in any earlier version of the story, and so the audience would not expect it if they were not prepared. Kent plants the idea in the first scene (line 146) when he implies that Lear is mad for disinheriting Cordelia. We see him in a furious rage in I.iv, and at the end of I.v, he expresses the fear,

O, let me not be mad, not mad, sweet heaven!
Keep me in temper; I would not be mad!
(ll. 40-41)

We do not see him again until II.iv, when he comes upon Kent in the stocks. Here his rising rage, his "hysterica passio" (l. 55), is countered by a real struggle for patience in his interview with Regan. But his daughters are pitiless in their contest to reduce his retinue, and as he goes out into the gathering storm Lear utters what proves to be a prophecy,

I have full cause of weeping, but this heart
Shall break into a hundred thousand flaws
Or ere I'll weep. O fool, I shall go mad!

With the opening of Act III, the suggestions of approaching insanity grow more frequent. In the first scene Kent speaks of Lear's "unnatural and bemadding sorrow" (l. 38). In the second scene, after his invocation of divine justice, when Kent urges him to take shelter in the hovel, Lear replies, "My wits begin to turn" (l. 67). He goes on, however, to speak gentle and sane words to his Fool,

Come on, my boy, How dost, my boy? Art cold?
I am cold myself. . . .

The statement, "My wits begin to turn", is a cue to the audience, and it is full of irony because it is more true than the speaker realizes; but Lear is still sane, as he is a moment and one short scene later when they reach the hovel and he hesitates to enter. To Kent's urging he replies, "Wilt break my heart?" (III.iv.4). He is using the storm and his physical misery to counter and control the storm within his mind, fighting grief and rage with physical suffering, and the prospect of shelter threatens to destroy the balance, as indeed it does. He explains to Kent,

But where the greater malady is fixed,
The lesser is scarce felt. . . .
This tempest will not give me leave to ponder
On things would hurt me more, . . .

His mind is on the brink, wavering between concern for physical suffering, and for others who share it, and self-pity, bitter hate, and longing for revenge, as he has made clear in the same two speeches:

The tempest in my mind
Doth from my senses take all feeling else
Save what beats there. Filial ingratitude, . . .

But I will punish home.
No, I will weep no more. In such a night
To shut me out! Pour on; I will endure.
In such a night as this! O Regan, Goneril,
Your old kind father, whose frank heart gave all—
O, that way madness lies, let me shun that.
No more of that.
(ll. 12-22)

This is the storm within, which he is controlling precariously with the help of physical suffering inflicted by the cold. But he is on the brink of madness, as the audience has been repeatedly warned. He pauses for a moment to pity those

Poor naked wretches wheresoe'er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm, . . .
(ll. 28 f.)

He is not mad while he can pity others, and even blame himself:

O, I have ta'en
Too little care of this! Take physic, pomp;
Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,
That thou mayst shake the superflux to them
And show the heavens more just.
(ll. 32-36)

He is the king, thinking charitably of others, and then, suddenly, one of those "wretches", Edgar disguised as Tom o'Bedlam, appears, and Lear, just controlling his own sanity by thinking of others, suddenly confuses the Bedlam beggar with himself, and he is over the brink.

His first words to Tom, "Didst thou give all to thy daughters? And art thou come to this?", might, by themselves, be taken as no more than bitter irony, but they are in prose and therefore suited to one whose wits are jangled, or fallen out of tune. More important for the audience, however, because more obvious, is Lear's obsessive reiteration, his insistence in the next three speeches on "his daughters", "thy daughters", and when Kent protests, "He hath no daughters, sir", Lear retorts hotly, "Death, traitor! Nothing could have subdued nature to such a lowness but his unkind daughters." This obsession, or idée fixe, is one of the most easily recognized exhibitions of insanity. Lear's four references to Tom's "daughters", in four successive speeches, could hardly fail to convince listeners seeing the play for the first time, that what had been predicted repeatedly as about to happen has now happened: Lear has gone mad. The aimless babble of Tom's attempt to simulate madness contrasts effectively with Lear's fixed idea. However, just to be sure the point is not missed, the Fool is made to remark, "This cold night will turn us all to fools and madmen" (III.iv.75).

Lear's next speech, "What hast thou been?" invites Tom's caricature of a serving man, which ends incoherently and in turn produces Lear's "Is man no more than this? . . ." This speech ends with the second and most striking exhibition of insanity. . . . Lear's attempt to strip is an action which would be recognized by almost anyone as evidence of violent insanity. Who has not heard tales of people suddenly exhibiting this sign of madness? Today we would promptly put in a call to the nearest mental hospital. While this is not the most common manifestation of mental derangement, it is the most dramatic and easily recognized. Following upon the "eminently sane" "Is man no more than this?" and as an eminently logical conclusion, it exhibits just that "matter and impertinency mixed" ( which is characteristic of much insanity and which Lear exhibits in all three of his mad scenes.

Lear has given two obvious symptoms of mental derangement, but the rule of the theater is that the audience must be told three times anything that it must know and remember in order to understand what is to follow. Shakespeare seldom violates this rule. Immediately after the Fool has restrained Lear's effort to tear off his clothes, Gloucester appears to lead Lear to a better shelter. And now he develops the delusion that Tom in his blanket is an ancient philosopher. Beginning with the lines, "First let me talk with this philosopher. What is the cause of thunder?" (l. 145), he speaks of nothing else. In six speeches he five times calls Tom his philosopher, a "learned Theban", a "good Athenian". Neither Kent nor Gloucester can get his attention, and Kent explains (to Gloucester and the audience), "His wits begin t'unsettle." Gloucester echoes the thought (to make sure, among other things, that the audience does not miss it), "Thou sayest the King grows mad. . . . I am almost mad myself. . . . Grief hath crazed my wits" (ll. 156-161). . . .

In spite of the preparation for Lear's madness by his own and others' suggestions of it, and in spite of the three clear symptoms of derangement in III.iv, no critic, so far as I can find, has observed that the chief function of this scene at the hovel is to establish that Lear is mad. Even [Samuel Taylor] Coleridge, who does not seem to have felt that the madness must be progressive, says that "this scene ends with the first symptoms of positive derangement", and that Lear appears "in full madness in the sixth scene". Those who feel that the insanity must be climactic emphasize Kent's apologetic, "His wits begin t'unsettle" (iv.153), and Gloucester's reply, "Thou say'st the king grows mad", but at the opening of scene vi, only twenty-five lines later, Kent says, "All the power of his wits have given way to his impatience." If we are to weigh words and tenses, we cannot ignore Kent's all and have given while emphasizing begins and grows.

Whatever readers of the play, and criticism based on reading, may contend, it seems obvious that Shakespeare intended his auditors to understand that Lear goes mad in III.iv and is mad when he appears next in scene vi. If the play is a properly constructed Elizabethan tragedy, the climax, or point of no return in the struggle which makes the plot, should come in this scene. Scenes iii, v, and vii bring the Gloucester plot to its climax of horror. Scenes ii, iv, and vi are concerned with Lear. Scene ii shows us his defiance of the storm and his self-pity:

I am a man.
More sinned against than sinning

and his premonition of madness: "My wits begin to turn." In the next scene in which he appears we see him go mad, and in the opening of scene vi Kent says that "All the power of his wits have given way to his impatience." The problem is not, therefore, whether he is mad in III.iv, but why he is mad, and what dramatic purposes are served by the two further exhibitions of his madness.

Kent's clear and emphatic assertion that Lear is now completely mad prepares the audience for the uninhibited exhibition of Lear's inner conflict, and in successive speeches we are shown his pride, his furious desire for revenge, his attempt to use "justice" to get that revenge, and his self-pity. When the Fool proposes his conundrum, "Prithee, nuncle, tell me whether a madman be a gentleman or a yeoman?" Lear understands that the quip is aimed at him and replies proudly, "A king, a king." The Fool supplies the correct answer, but Lear's mind is obsessed with his passionate desire for revenge:

To have a thousand with red burning spits
Come hizzing in upon 'em—
(ll. 15-16)

This furious desire to "punish home", to torture, is as shocking as Lear's earlier cursing of Goneril. It is, in fact, as savage in wish as the blinding of Gloucester is in deed. This is the cause of Lear's madness, his bitter, futile resentment, his frustrated will which has driven him to insane hatred.

In the play-within-a-play which follows, the Fool and Edgar humor Lear by acting the parts he assigns to them, but they also comment, in asides, on the pity of Lear's insanity; as when Edgar says, "Bless thy five wits!" and "My tears begin to take his part so much/ They mar my counterfeiting" (i.e. acting the part of judge). Lear's mind fluctuates from excitement over the imagined escape of Goneril to the abyss of self-pity in which he imagines his dogs behaving like his daughters,

The little dogs and all,
Tray, Blanch, and Sweetheart—see, they bark at me.
(ll. 61-62)

The next moment he is ready to anatomize Regan to find out, "Is there any cause in nature that makes these hard hearts?" Then, forgetting what he is about, he tells Tom, "You, sir, I entertain for one of my hundred; only I do not like the fashion of your garments. You will say they are Persian; but let them be changed." This is an echo of his grievance (my hundred), and of his delusion that Tom is an ancient philosopher (end of sc. iv). It serves to remind the audience that he is mad. The reminder is reenforced, a few lines later by Kent's words, "trouble him not; his wits are gone."

This scene gives us, not a further degree of insanity, but a clear exposition of the internal cause of Lear's madness. Balked pride, humiliation, impotence, and self-pity have worn him out and in the midst of this scene he falls asleep out of sheer exhaustion. We do not see him again until . . .

Act IV, scene vi, the third and last of the "mad" scenes, opens with Gloucester's attempted suicide at Dover cliff, and his assertion that he has learned his lesson of patience. Then, in the Quarto, we have the stage direction, "Enter Lear mad." . . .

Lear's first speech is somewhat incoherent. He is under the delusion that he is in command of troops, for his first words are, "No, they cannot touch me for coining: I am the King himself. Nature's above art in that respect. There's your press money" (ll. 83 ff.). He imagines himself handing out coins to pay recruits. The King born (and so a manifestation of nature) is above the art of the coiner. The speech wanders on to the training of recruits to shoot, to the luring of a mouse within range with a piece of cheese, to a challenge to a duel, to an order of battle; finally he approves a soldier's shot and addresses himself to Edgar, "Give the word" (i.e. password). Edgar replies, "Sweet marjoram" and is told, "Pass."

Lear is in a world of his own imagining, and yet he vaguely senses and reacts to the military bustle around him. The blind Gloucester recognizes his voice, but Lear sees only "Goneril with a white beard". This is cruel, coming from the king for whom Gloucester lost his eyes, but there is worse to follow. Lear is still mad and cannot tell his friends from his enemies, yet he has learned one part of his lesson. He has been brought to recognize his physical limitations, for he goes on to say,

They flattered me like a dog, and told me I had the white hairs in my beard ere the black ones were there. . . . When the rain came to wet me once, and the wind to make me chatter; when the thunder would not peace at my bidding; there I found 'em, . . . They told me I was everything. 'Tis a lie—I am not ague-proof. (ll. 96-104)

This is Lear's second long speech in this scene, and it marks the beginning of his recognition of his true place in the world—his human frailty; so it marks the beginning of his return to sanity. But he is not through with pride yet. Gloucester asks, "Is't not the King?" and Lear replies promptly, "Ay, every inch a king!" He knows himself, and yet, in a deeper sense, he does not "know himself". In a vague way he has recognized Gloucester, but he speaks without pity or sympathy, not about Gloucester's loyalty and service to his king, but about his youthful fault:

Thou shalt not die. Die for adultery? No. . . .
Let copulation thrive; for Gloucester's bastard son
Was kinder to his father than my daughters
Got 'tween lawful sheets.
(ll. 109-115)

This is cruel. Gloucester owed his blindness not only to the treachery of his bastard son, but also to his loyalty to Lear. He had been punished for his adultery, though Lear in his mad state did not know it—but even if we must assume that he did not know of Edmund's treachery, even if he did not know of Gloucester's loyalty, it was unfeeling of Lear to twit his old liegeman on his blindness—a fact which he did see. Gloucester asks, "Doest thou know me?" and Lear replies,

I remember thine eyes well enough. Doest thou squiny at me? No, do thy worst, blind Cupid; I'll not love. Read thou this challenge; mark but the penning of it. . . . O, ho, are you there with me? No eyes in your head, nor no money in your purse? [i.e. you are a blind beggar.] Your eyes are in a heavy case, your purse in a light one; yet you see how this world goes. (ll. 135-146)

Beginning with the next speech he launches into a tirade against the world, its hypocrisy and injustice, ending,

Get thee glass eyes
And, like a scurvy politician, seem
To see the things thou doest not. Now, now, now, now!
Pull off my boots. Harder, harder! So.

The action suggested by this speech is that Lear pulls off his boots (the act of disrobing again). A few lines later he has evidently taken off his hat, for he says,

This' a good block.
It were a delicate stratagem to shoe
A troop of horse with felt. I'll put't in proof,
And when I have stol'n upon these son-in-laws,
Then kill, kill, kill, kill, kill, kill!

His hat is not only off, but the lines suggest that he is trying to put it on his bootless foot. The terrible reiteration of "kill" proves to be the last thunder-peal of the storm in Lear's mind. He is certainly mad from his first speech where he imagines that he is with his army, to his exit, running, followed by the attendants Cordelia has sent to find him. Yet he is not so completely insane as he was in the scene where he attempted to try Goneril and Regan before the Bedlam beggar and the Fool as two judges. In IV. vi, even in his first and most incoherent speech to imaginary soldiers he seems to be aware of the military bustle around him, although he misinterprets it. His second speech recalls the storm and shows that he has at least learned that "I am not ague-proof". A little later, when Gloucester asks to kiss his hand, he replies, "Let me wipe it first; it smells of mortality." In lines 173-177 he speaks sanely,

If thou wilt weep my fortunes, take my eyes.
I know thee well enough; thy name is Gloucester.
Thou must be patient. . . .

But he is not yet ready to be patient himself. His resentment breeds distrust and he mistakes Cordelia's officers for enemies and exhibits the typical cunning of a madman in pretending to yield to them, and then suddenly running. One of these gentlemen makes the interpretive comment,

A sight most pitiful in the meanest wretch,
Past speaking of in a king!
(ll. 200-201)

By this simple act of running away (in his stocking feet?), Shakespeare invokes our deepest pity for this proud, willful, stubborn, yet helpless old man. . . .

We cannot leave the subject of Lear's madness without considering one more scene. There has been question of whether Lear returns to insanity just before he dies. His delusion that Cordelia still lives, that he can prove it by a looking-glass, a feather, that she has spoken—these things are not evidences of insanity, but of hope and love. Lear is dazed and stunned by his loss. He cannot accept it. His mind struggles against the unbearable truth. Cordelia is the whole world to him now. He replies to Kent at random, and Albany finally says,

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

It is not that he is insane, but that he has completely forgotten self in his concentration on Cordelia. Nothing else enters his consciousness. When he is told that his two wicked daughters are dead, he replies (sadly, looking at Cordelia), "Ay, so I think". His daughters are all Cordelia. He has forgotten hate and revenge. When he speaks of killing "the slave that was a-hanging thee", there is a flash of the old pride, but it is only in retrospect,

I have seen the day, with my good biting falchion
I would make them skip. I am old now,
And these crosses spoil [i.e. impair] me. Who are you?
Mine eyes are not o'th'best. I'll tell you straight.
(ll. 277-280)

Here he recognizes Kent, but he has forgotten his servant Caius who served him in his madness. He is preoccupied, and inattentive, rather than insane. He pays no attention to the messenger who announces Edmund's death, nor to Albany's plan for ruling the state (a piece of business which convention required). Albany breaks off, directing attention to Lear, with his "O, see, see!"

Here Lear makes his last speech, which is sane down to the last three lines, and then reason and life slacken the string together:

And my poor fool is hanged: no, no, no life?
Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life,
And thou no breath at all? Thou'lt come no more,
Never, never, never, never, never.
Pray you undo this button. Thank you sir.
Do you see this? Look on her! Look her lips,
Look there, look there—He dies.

SOURCE: "The Storm Within: The Madness of Lear," in Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 13, No. 2, Spring, 1962, pp. 137-55.


Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10908

William Rosen
[Rosen demonstrates how the focus of dramatic interest in King Lear shifts from concern with a particular man to such universal issues as justice, order, and meaning in the world. Initially Lear is imperious, vain, and unwilling to consider any perspective other than his own, the critic notes. In subsequent scenes, Rosen asserts, his notions of himself are no longer valid, for the natural order of society has been subverted and Lear's stature has been stripped away. The critic asserts that on the heath, Lear's suffering becomes universalized: his search for justice in a world where there is none is the dilemma we all must face. Although ultimate knowledge and certainty cannot be achieved, Lear's personality is completely transformed, Rosen concludes, for he develops compassion and comes to understand the ties that bind all humanity together.]

Apart from action, there are two major devices that delineate character on the stage: direct self-characterization—what the hero says of himself—and the characterization of the hero by others. Often Shakespeare anticipates and prefigures the entrance of the tragic hero by having characters talk about him before he actually comes onto the stage; and such a technique is used notably in Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar, Othello, Antony and Cleopatra and Coriolanus. By prefiguring the hero the dramatist imposes upon the audience a certain angle of vision: the playwright provides the audience with a dramatic attitude towards the central figure by having others preview his traits or impart value judgments on him. Thus we actively entertain certain emotions towards the hero before meeting him; and when he does appear, his words and actions are inevitably compared to the brief portrait already sketched for us.

In King Lear, though the king's character is not sketched before he appears on stage, he nevertheless comes immediately into a certain frame of reference, not through the technique of prefiguring, but through his own exalted status. For an Elizabethan audience particularly, his figure would expand in minds to encompass a whole context of values. The person of Lear is from the very beginning associated with great honor, for he can be viewed as the highest human embodiment of all the elements which give order and dignity to society: he is king of his family, and he an old man. Hence the respect which he should command is triply compounded. . . .

Certainly "kingship" had an evocative power for Elizabethans. There is divinity that hedges a king—we find this idea reiterated in much of the writing of the age. Furthermore, the correspondence between the power of the king and that of the father was an Elizabethan commonplace illustrating the order of a universe in which, as God governed all, so kings ruled states, and fathers, families. . . . [The] ordered family, the private life of a nation, is a mirroring in miniature of the ordered hierarchy of public society; and analogies between the king and his subjects and the father and his children prevailed.

It is within such a context that we first see King Lear: his figure activates in the minds of an audience patterns of value of which he is the embodiment. His formal entrance highlights all the dignity and authority associated with kingship. The set of notes sounded, the "sennet," ushers in the concrete symbol of royalty, "enter one bearing a coronet"; and the stage directions give the precise order of entrance which accords with the prerogatives of rank: "King Lear, Cornwall, Albany, Goneril, Regan, Cordelia, and Attendants." On the Elizabethan stage this would be a stately procession of splendor, Lear the central figure in a crowded scene. All are Lear's subjects, dependent on him.

Lear's stature is even further magnified in his first extended pronouncement in which he tells of his intentions to divest himself of "rule/ Interest of territory, cares of state" (I.i.50), for we see him in the role of public and private figure at one and the same time. Because he is king, his actions in dividing the realm have public consequences affecting the destiny of the state; as benefactor to his children in this division, his actions affect the private life of the family as well. And yet, though the figure of the king bodies forth the ideal, the highest good of family and nation, it is important to see that in this scene Shakespeare presents his central character as an ironist would; and in this way: that the audience does not fully engage its sympathies with Lear or those who oppose him since the dramatist supports the values which Lear represents while revealing the king's misguided position.

Lear's character is objectively dramatized at the beginning. And in situations that are dramatized rather than narrated, the task of projecting states of mind devolves upon the language itself. In Lear's first lengthy speech, which is balanced and regally formal, Shakespeare has the king dramatically reveal himself as proud, authoritative, at the height of his power, wishing to hear not truth, but flattery:

Tell me, my daughters,—
Since now we will divest us both of rule,
Interest of territory, cares of state,—
Which of you shall we say doth love us most, . . .

Lear's abdication is thus the occasion for a pageant of flattery: each daughter is to vie with the other in a public display of love. Goneril fulfills his expectations:

Sir, I love you more than word can wield the matter;
Dearer than eye-sight, space, and liberty;
Beyond what can be valued, rich or rare;
No less than life, with grace, health, beauty, honour;
As much as child e'er lov'd, or father found;
A love that makes breath poor, and speech unable:
Beyond all manner of so much I love you.

Shakespeare makes it obvious that Lear already has in mind the kind of answer he expects from his daughters. It is significant that after Goneril's fulsome protestations of love Lear does not evaluate or praise her remarks. He makes no comment at all on her speech. He has heard what he has wanted to hear, and he immediately bestows upon her a share of the kingdom. It is interesting to note that in The True Chronicle History of King Leir, when Gonorill proclaims her love for him, Leir comments, "O, how thy words revive my dying soul" (I.iii.54).

Shakespeare reinforces this imperious characteristic of Lear. Again, after Regan's testimony of love, Lear makes no reference to her speech; in The Chronicle History he says, "Did never Philomel sing so sweet a note" (I.iii.74). He allots her portion and calls on Cordelia to "Speak." And it is important to observe that in the three instances where Lear asks the daughters to proclaim the extent of their love, he imperiously concludes with the curt, monosyllabic, "Speak." (The Folio omits the concluding "Speak" addressed to Regan.)

Thus, when Cordelia refuses to follow her sisters in answering with "glib and oily art," the stage has been dramatically set for Lear's wrathful indignation.

Lear. what can you say to draw
A third more opulent than your sisters? Speak.
Cordelia. Nothing, my lord.
Lear. Nothing!
Cordelia. Nothing.
Lear. Nothing will come of nothing. Speak again.
Cordelia. Unhappy that I am, I cannot heave
My heart into my mouth. I love your Majesty
According to my bond; no more nor less.

Lear's real attitude comes out when in thwarted rage he revealingly says to Cordelia: "Better thou/ Hadst not been born than not t' have pleas'd me better" (I.i.237).

The situation presented here is the problem of any human relationship: shall we attempt to understand another, really understand another person, or will we accept him only on our own terms? Shakespeare presents Lear as a powerful king, wilful and unyielding, a man who has no desire to understand others or communicate with them. He has not here the humanity of thinking beyond himself. He hears only what he wants to hear, tinting everything with the color of his own mind. When Cordelia speaks these words:

Good my lord,
You have begot me, bred me, lov'd me: I
Return those duties back as are right fit,
Obey you, love you, and most honour you.
Why have my sisters husbands, if they say
They love you all? Haply, when I shall wed,
That lord whose hand must take my plight shall carry
Half my love with him, half my care and duty.
Sure, I shall never marry like my sisters,
To love my father all.

Lear, expecting an entirely different answer, the kind of satisfying flattery given by the politic Goneril and Regan, makes no attempt to understand what Cordelia is really trying to say, and casts off the person dearest to him.

Though Lear acts in wrathful haste and blindness, his actions are analyzed, his motivation unfolded, that the audience may see and understand his character fully and unambiguously. Lear even explains himself, like an onlooker unfolding the psychology of action. When he shouts to Cordelia, "Better thou/ Hadst not been born than not t' have pleas'd me better" (I.i.237), he is, in a way, impartially describing himself as one who values love only as a means of adding to his own vanity. And in Kent's banishment there is the same self-revelation. In violent outburst Lear says that Kent must be banished because he sought to make the king break his vow and reverse his sentence which "nor our nature nor our place can bear" (I.i.174). Yet such statements cannot be taken as indications of a high degree of self-awareness on the part of the protagonist. They are best viewed as a mode of partial narrative which S. L. Bethell has described as "appropriate to poetic drama, since it renders the psychological situation clear without transferring attention from the verse to the process of naturalistic induction" [Shakespeare and the Popular Dramatic Tradition].

One can say that in the beginning Lear equates "nature" with his own "conception" of himself; that for Lear the natural rights inherent in majesty, fatherhood, and age demand—or, rather, take for granted— the unquestioning and undivided love of children for parent, benefactor and king; the respect of youth for age; and the complete obedience of subject to ruler. Thus, when Cordelia refuses to conform to Lear's own conception of what is natural, the king arbitrarily casts her off as unnatural, disclaiming all "paternal care,/ Propinquity and property of blood" (I.i.115). He banishes Kent because his "nature" allows not the breaking of vows. For Lear, then, nature is not the external world, or reason, but his own image; and he looks out onto a world which must mirror back his own conceptions of loyalty, love, justice, perfection. Proudly independent in the omnipotence of self, he is detached from all, and in his isolation feels no responsibility and kinship towards others. Lear's folly, like that of Oedipus, is one of blindness, the overweening belief in the infallibility of one's own being, the failure to recognize the limitations of mortality. . . .

[This] view is substantiated for us by Lear's friend, Kent, and by his future antagonists, Goneril and Regan. These three appraise him and reach the same conclusions. Kent slightingly calls him "old man," characterizes his actions as "folly" and "hideous rashness." At the end of the scene, when Goneril and Regan review the happenings in businesslike prose, their final judgment of the king, shrewd and incisive, has already been dramatized as truth:

Goneril. You see how full of changes his age is; the observation we have made of it hath not been little. He always lov'd our sister most; and with what poor judgement he hath now cast her off appears too grossly.

Regan. 'Tis the infirmity of his age; yet he hath ever but slenderly known himself.

Goneril. The best and soundest of his time hath been but rash; then must we look from his age to receive not alone the imperfections of long-engraffed condition, but therewithal the unruly waywardness that infirm and choleric years bring with them.

The speeches of Goneril and Regan at the end of this exposition scene attune us to their later treatment of Lear by arousing a state of expectation, of speculation as to how they will curb their father and king, who has given up his power and yet would, as Goneril fears, still "manage those authorities/ That he hath given away!" (I.iii.17)

In analyzing the way in which Shakespeare portrays Lear at the beginning of the play it becomes evident that the audience sees and understands events not primarily through Lear's eyes, thus becoming one with him, sympathizing with his actions, but through the eyes of Kent and Goneril and Regan who interpret him for us. Friend and foes, by agreeing on the folly which impels Lear, formulate a dramatic attitude towards the character.

When next we encounter Lear there begins a shift in the audience's point of view because there is an attendant change of focus. . . . Lear suddenly moves precipitously from an old world of his own conception into a tough new world which stretches him upon its rack. In this new world Lear finds himself a stranger, rejected, and his is a continual battle to maintain self-respect; to hold desperately to the vision of the man he once was. His values—true values—are no longer recognized; and it is this sudden shift into a new world that drastically changes the dramatic point of view towards Lear.

In Lear's act of dividing the kingdom we saw him at the height of his power. From this high point begins a fall which culminates in the stripping of Lear to the very bone in the storm scene on the heath, a stripping of the respect and honor due him as king, father, and old man. And it is this profound respect which he should command, which is his natural and inherent right, that comprises the informing context of values and determines the audience's point of view towards Lear. . . .

The stripping process is the major movement of the first part of King Lear. It begins when Lear disinherits himself. With a pointing of a finger to the map before him he divests himself of his lands and retains only the name and honor of king without responsibility or power. Next Lear strips from himself Cordelia, then Kent. We note the further fall of the king and his further dismantling in the colloquy between Goneril and Oswald. When Goneril learns that Lear struck her gentleman for chiding his fool, she tells Oswald that when the king returns from hunting she will not speak to him; Oswald is to tell the king that she is sick. Furthermore, she even instructs the servant to show disrespect to her father and king:

Put on what weary negligence you please,
You and your fellows; I'd have it come to question.
If he distaste it, let him to my sister,
Whose mind and mine, I know, in that are one,
Not to be over-rul'd. Idle old man,
That still would manage those authorities
That he hath given away!

Goneril, evincing this attitude to Oswald, triply compounds her felony: she is disrespectful to kingship, fatherhood and old age.

The relentless stripping of the king continues. When Lear asks Oswald where Goneril is, Oswald does not answer; he merely departs. And when Lear asks his knight why Oswald did not return when called, the knight reports, "he would not" (I.iv.59). Such an answer is given to the king, and we must remember that he still commands the respect owing to a king, and that here a servant has given him insult. The knight feels impelled to speak out: "to my judgement, your Highness is not entertain'd with that ceremonious affection as you were wont. There's a great abatement of kindness appears as well in the general dependants as in the Duke himself also and your daughter" (I.iv.61). Lear's reply, "Thou but rememb'rest me of mine own conception," is a poignant recognition of what is beginning to take place. And immediately after this, when Lear and Oswald meet, and Lear commandingly asks Oswald, "Who am I, sir?" (I.iv.85), Oswald replies with what can only be considered a deliberate insult: "My lady's father." Here the superiority of degrees so central to the Elizabethan conception of an ordered hierarchic society is completely overthrown and the position of king is subverted.

In this same scene the Fool, acting as chorus, focuses attention on these aspects of overturned degree. It is the Fool who gives the king a lesson in government, pointing out his folly in dividing the kingdom: "When thou clovest thy crown i' th' middle, and gav'st away both parts, thou bor'st thine ass on thy back o'er the dirt. Thou hadst little wit in thy bald crown when thou gav'st thy golden one away" (I.iv.175). "Thou art an O without a figure," the Fool tells Lear, "I am better than thou art now; I am a Fool, thou art nothing" (I.iv.212). It is natural that a king should rule a kingdom; it is unnatural for him to give it away. It is natural that a man should ride an ass; it is unnatural that he should carry the ass on his back. This is the complete overturning of what is natural. . . . [An] undivided kingdom symbolized order and due subordination in the realm; with the division of kingdom comes the breaking of all natural bonds, and chaos ensues.

The Fool holds up before Lear the mirror of his follies that he might clearly see his actions and their consequences. In the beginning of the play Kent, Goneril and Regan framed Lear's figure by objectively analyzing him. Now the Fool's utterances help frame the king, and the audience, seeing Lear in terms of the Fool's remarks, quickly perceives the relations between the two. While the Fool is certainly the disinterested truthteller, the "punctum indifferens" of the play, as Enid Welsford tells us in her social and literary history The Fool, his truth narrows upon the folly of a king who would give away his titles; of a father who would allow the child to rule him; of a man who deserves to be beaten for being old before his time. The Fool is, as it were, a mirror for magistrates and fathers. But it is to be noticed that Lear does not seem to recognize his own figure in the Fool's mirror. It is we, the audience, who see it far more clearly than Lear. Thus, the audience is drawn into sympathetic participation with Lear because it can see, Lear cannot; it shares the Fool's superior knowledge, unintelligible to Lear for the most part, and recognizes in Lear the collision of opposites: a man who would still cling to the conception of proper place, the values taken for granted before; yet now, in a new world, put in his improper place. And once having entered into Lear's perspective we are forced to look on the world with his eyes.

Though Kent has said to Lear concerning the Fool, "This is not altogether fool, my lord" (I.iv.165), Lear will not recognize the significance of the Fool's wisdom until later, and it will be a self-recognition, not the result of another's explanation, but gained through his own suffering. In Act I, scene iv, Lear does not realize the significance of the Fool's statement: "thou mad'st thy daughters thy mothers; for when thou gav'st them the rod, and puttest down thine own breeches. . . ." No sooner does the Fool say this than his statement is demonstrated: Goneril, the daughter, comes in and reproves the king for what she considers to be his insolent retinue. Here we have an example of the daughter instructing the father. Again we see the stripping of Lear—in this instance, of the dignity and respect which a daughter owes him. Again, the Fool acts as chorus: "May not an ass know when the cart draws the horse?" (I.iv.244)—another reference to the inversion of order: the cart drawing the horse; the daughter applying the rod to the father.

And when the daughter, Goneril, wants to diminish the king further, when she suggests that he reduce the number of his retinue, he breaks forth in impassioned anguish, calling her degenerate bastard, and goes off to his other daughter, Regan, who he thinks will not, could not, be so unkind.

The whittling away of the king's stature continues unabated. When the disguised Kent becomes a messenger for the king and is put into the stocks by Cornwall for striking Oswald, it is a further insult to Lear, and this is pointed out by both Kent and Gloucester. . . . [When] Lear sees his messenger in the stocks, this insult against kingship is the first thing to come to mind: "What's he that hath so much thy place mistook/ To set thee here?" "They durst not do't," he cries out. "They could not, would not do't. 'Tis worse than murder/ To do upon respect such violent outrage" (II.iv.12).

But the outrage proceeds. Lear now learns that Cornwall and Regan refuse to speak with him. He still has not attuned himself to the realities of his new world where the inversion of which the Fool speaks has become the norm; and he tries to rationalize and minimize the affront. . . . But when he looks upon Kent in the stocks there can be no doubt of the insult being done himself; and he passionately commands that his servant be released and that Cornwall and Regan be immediately summoned.

In this scene Lear is further degraded. After Regan finally comes, she says to Lear:

I pray you
That to our sister you do make return;
Say you have wrong'd her, sir.

And Lear replies:

Ask her forgiveness?
Do you but mark how this becomes the house:
"Dear daughter, I confess that I am old;
Age is unnecessary. On my knees I beg
That you'll vouchsafe me raiment, bed, and food "

The king actually kneels before Regan in enacting the shame that would be his were he to return to Goneril, forced to beg her forgiveness and favors. Here we have a picture of the grandeur that was king, now plundered of dignity, bent at the knees.

A further reminder of his ignominy comes when the trumpet heralds not a person of eminence, but, ironically, Oswald, who brought galling shame upon him. The indignities against Lear are compellingly, mordantly dramatized when, in a stylized manner, the king is forced to turn from one daughter to the other as they relentlessly reduce the number of his followers. What began as a retinue of one hundred for the king is halved to fifty by Goneril; halved to twenty-five by Regan (here Lear cries out, "I gave you all"). And when Lear turns to Goneril with the words:

I'll go with thee.
Thy fifty yet doth double five and twenty,
And thou art twice her love.

the number is further reduced, until Regan divests him of all—"What need one?"

The daughters have finally stripped him of everything: honor, respect, filial devotion, retainers. The dismantling of the king is almost completed; its culmination is to come in the scene on the heath. When Regan says to Lear, "What need one?" he replies in words which show a turning point in his characterization:

O, reason not the need! Our basest beggars
Are in the poorest thing superfluous.
Allow not nature more than nature needs,
Man's life is cheap as beast's. Thou art a lady;
If only to go warm were gorgeous,
Why, nature needs not what thou gorgeous wear'st,
Which scarcely keeps thee warm. But, for true need,—

If man is stripped of that which gives him dignity— his true need, if he is judged solely by his basic needs, is he no more than an animal? Is it only clothes which make a man, which separate him from the beast? Deprived of the last vestige of outward dignity, Lear asks questions about the status of human values. His speech is an address not only to Regan, but to the world, an agonizing attempt to find universal meaning, universal justice. His particular fate therefore becomes the fate of mankind, and the audience can no longer take an objective view of Lear. To see a man fall from greatness and be reduced to nothingness is an awful spectacle. But when Lear universalizes his particular experience in his address to the world the dignity of all men is at stake. . . . Sympathizing with Lear's values and his precarious position, through his speech we move into his consciousness; we see the world with his eyes, we are committed to his point of view. . . .

The particular experience of Lear achieves its universality when in his speech to Regan he attempts to pierce through superficialities to the realities they disguise, to expose the real as it should be; for in this he presents the universal human desire to find in the world meaning and order. Waging a heroic battle to preserve his self-control and dignity in the face of the abuses which his daughters have heaped upon him, Lear, in his great agony, turns to address the heavens themselves:

You heavens, give me that patience, patience I need!
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!

Isolated, forsaken, despairing of men on earth, Lear can only call upon cosmic powers for help. This sense of isolation, of alienation from society, is characteristic of the tragic hero. Lear, like Job, has had his values and beliefs shaken, and finding no comfort or understanding in men of his own society, turns to the heavens. So Job, understood neither by his wife nor the comforters, had only one recourse: he carried on a monologue directed not so much to the comforters as to the heavens above, pleading to see and reason with God.

In this climactic speech Lear's thoughts focus upon the respect due to age and fatherhood. In a previous speech he poignantly summarized all the respect and honor which should have been his by right: "'Tis not in thee," he told Regan,

To grudge my pleasures, to cut off my train,
To bandy hasty words, to scant my sizes,
And in conclusion to oppose the bolt
Against my coming in. Thou better know'st
The offices of nature, bond of childhood,
Effects of courtesy, dues of gratitude.
Thy half o' th' kingdom hast thou not forgot,
Wherein I thee endow'd.

Lear therefore bodies forth the traditional values which give order and cohesion to society: the offices of nature, bond of childhood, effects of courtesy, dues of gratitude. No longer, as in the opening scene of the play, is a balanced point of view maintained towards Lear, where the audience is put in the position of his opponents, seeing the events primarily through their eyes. All the former tensions and conflicts are viewed in a new light because they are seen in a new intellectual and emotional perspective: the ideal of objective values, the order and civilized decency which Lear represents. When Goneril and Regan degrade their father, more than an individual is threatened; the civilized values of humanity are imperilled.

The gulf between the real and the ideal, between what Goneril and Regan actually do and what they should do, is so enormous that it tears Lear's reason to shreds, pitching him into insanity. Lear has come to recognize fully what his daughters are doing to him; and after appealing to the gods, he turns upon his daughters in bitterness. Stripped of his authority to command respect, his appeal to natural courtesies unheeded, the broken rhythms and thoughts of his speech reflect his impotency and aching bewilderment:

No, you unnatural hags,
I will have such revenges on you both
That all the world shall—I will do such things,—
What they are, yet I know not; but they shall be
The terrors of the earth You think I'll weep:
No, I'll not weep.
I have full cause of weeping; but this heart
(Storm and tempest.)
Shall break into a hundred thousand flaws,
Or ere I'll weep. O, Fool! I shall go mad!

The oncoming storm in the macrocosm, indicated by the Folio stage direction, "Storm and tempest," coincides with the storm which is beginning in the microcosm, the seething conflict within Lear's own mind. Driven to the edge of madness, Lear flees to an inhuman nature which is on the very edge of the civilized world. This nature to which he flees is a nature of chaos corresponding to the chaos in himself. Both the macrocosm and the microcosm are rent and in discord, no longer an expression of cosmic harmony and reason. . . .

At the end of Act II the powerful members of the new order retreated "out o' th' storm" and the "wild night" and the doors of the castle were shut behind Lear. At the beginning of Act III, when the action moves to the heath, we feel that we have reached the end of the human world. Nature's bounds are broken. When Kent asks, "Where's the king?" a gentleman paints in words the picture for the audience:

Contending with the fretful elements;
Bids the wind blow the earth into the sea,
Or swell the curled waters 'bove the main,
That things might change or cease; tears his white hair,
Which the impetuous blasts with eyeless rage
Catch in their fury, and make nothing of;
Strives in his little world of man to out-scorn
The to-and-fro-conflicting wind and rain.
This night, wherein the cub-drawn bear would couch,
The lion and the belly-pinched wolf
Keep their fur dry, unbonneted he runs,
And bids what will take all.

What does the gentleman's speech, which prefigures Lear, stress? We see all civilization a place of storm, with Lear at the center, raging thundering defiance. The king, once regally confident in his own conception of what constituted nature, now is a prey to the elements. Lear—the gentleman emphasizes—would impose upon nature his puny will; but nature is indifferent. Lear contends with the elements, "That things might change or cease." And the extremes of these two demands—change or complete destruction—give a most revealing insight into the king's condition. His present situation is so intolerable that it must either be temporary or give way to the end of the world.

We are concerned, then, with personality in conflict with the existing universe. Because of this monumental struggle, Lear's spiritual stature is greatly magnified; and because he represents civilized values which are threatened, all men are endangered. If we concentrate on the remarks made about Lear, we see that these form a significant pattern. Kent talks of the "hard rein" which Albany and Cornwall have "borne/ Against the old kind king" (III.i.27); of "how unnatural and bemadding sorrow/ The King hath cause to plain" (III.i.38). Gloucester predicts to Edmund that "These injuries the King now bears will be revenged home" (III.iii.12). To Regan's demand to know why Gloucester sent the king to Dover, he replies, "Because I would not see thy cruel nails/ Pluck out his poor old eyes; nor thy fierce sister/ In his anointed flesh stick boarish fangs" (III.vii.56). Going beyond Act III, we find Albany indicting Goneril:

Tigers, not daughters, what have you perform'd?
A father, and a gracious aged man,
Whose reverence even the head-lugg'd bear would lick,
Most barbarous, most degenerate! . .

Cordelia explains her military expedition in this way:

O dear father,
It is thy business that I go about;
Therefore great France
My mourning and importun'd tears hath pitied.
No blown ambition doth our arms incite,
But love, dear love, and our ag'd father's right.

And later, in the French camp, Cordelia speaks these impassioned words in reviewing Lear's experience on the heath:

Had you not been their father, these white flakes
Did challenge pity of them. Was this a face
To be oppos'd against the warring winds? . . .
'Tis wonder that thy life and wits at once
Had not concluded all.

[All these] references to Lear's misfortune direct our attention to the king's value, and this value remains constant; it does not shift according to the point of view of the onlooker. The accidents of personality recede, and we confront not particular man or ideal man, but the image of Lear embodying institutions and obligations necessary to the continuance of a moral society. The opposition between moral systems has brought about this plight of values. While the conscienceless fail to remember obligations, Lear and Gloucester vainly invoke that memory. Instead of holding to the bonds of gratitude, the leaders of the new amoral world greedily batten on others, their abuse finally turning into horrors. And this clash of opposing worlds brings into focus the overriding concern of players and audience alike: once man is free from memory and responsibility, can there be any limits to presumption? At stake is the most pertinent question of all: from this conflict what mode of life will finally prevail? . . .

In his speeches Lear continually refers his own situation to the problem of universal justice. The particular repeatedly gives way to the universal. At one moment he would seek personal recognition from nature's forces, calling upon them to obliterate the world. In this he would find satisfying retributive justice. At another moment he would find the seat of justice, search out the meaning of the universe—but in this too he is thwarted: he can only envision corruption festering everywhere, for his degradation is testimony of a lawless universe:

Let the great gods,
That keep this dreadful pudder o'er our heads,
Find out their enemies now. Tremble, thou wretch
That hast within thee undivulged crimes,
Unwhipp'd of justice! Hide thee, thou bloody hand;
Thou perjur'd, and thou simular of virtue
That are incestuous! Caitiff, to pieces shake,
That under covert and convenient seeming
Has practised on man's life! Close pent-up guilts,
Rive your concealing continents, and cry
These dreadful summoners grace. I am a man
More sinn'd against than sinning

Whenever Lear calls attention to the concern of the moment, it is only briefly; he is continually seeing in the particular a higher meaning. Even when he thinks of simple things, when he asks the Fool, "Where is this straw?" he proceeds to translate the immediate concern into a recognition of values: "The art of our necessities is strange/ And can make vile things precious" (III.ii.70). On the heath Lear continually pushes his thoughts beyond his present moment to universal questions. He is concerned with the reason, the justice of an event. His terror, for example, is for that which is out of time:

Thou think'st 'tis much that this contentious storm
Invades us to the skin—

he tells Kent;

so 'tis to thee;
But where the greater malady is fix'd,
The lesser is scarce felt. . . .

Serving as a perfect contrast to Lear is the Fool, for the Fool feels terror for that which is in time, for the immediate occasion:

O nuncle, court holy-water in a dry house is better than this rain water out o'door. Good nuncle, in; ask thy daughters' blessing. Here's a night pities neither wise men nor fools.

For Lear the storm and his own physical hardship are significant only because they reveal the spiritual chaos of the time. The Fool, ever practical, sees only the bare facts.

That Lear now sees more meaning in things than the Fool is a significant reversal of what had previously taken place. Before the heath scene the Fool served as raisonneur [reasoner], continually pointing out the significance of happenings of which Lear was hopelessly unaware. Before, the Fool asked questions of Lear; now it is Lear who asks many questions. He wants to know whether Edgar's daughters have reduced him to the level of a beast. He would talk with the disguised Edgar, calling him "philosopher," "learned Theban," "good Athenian" (III.iv). He asks Edgar, "What is the cause of thunder?" (III.iv.160) and "What is your study?" (III.iv.163) And when the Fool sings out the moral of an occasion:

"He that has and a little tiny wit,—
With heigh-ho, the wind and the rain,—
Must make content with his fortunes fit,
For the rain it raineth every day."

Lear replies, "True, boy"—a remarkable change from his previous reactions to the Fool's utterances. Before the heath scene Lear never recognized the Fool's pointed moralizing. He either threatened to whip the Fool for his words or paid them no heed.

All this points to the significance, in dramatic terms, of Lear's wanderings on the heath. His is a quest for knowledge and certainty, a journey to find, somehow, a way back to order and civilization. While many critics have treated Lear as the study of the unstoical man, Lear's unstoical conduct must be related to the dramatic movement of the play—his search for justice. Lear repeatedly tries to reconcile himself to the rending occasions. He strives for stoic endurance, for this would lead to freedom from pain and suffering. "You heavens, give me that patience, patience I need!" (II.iv.274) he cries out when his daughters would deprive him of all his retainers. "No, I'll not weep" (II.iv.286) he steadfastly maintains. On the heath, overwhelmed with grief and on the edge of self-pity, he steels himself with these sentiments: "No, I will be the pattern of all patience; I will say nothing" (III.ii.37). "I will endure" (III.iv.18) is his continual resolve.

That Lear does not unalterably continue in these stoic thoughts is to be explained in terms of the dramatic concern of the action: his main preoccupation is with justice, not his physical condition. To accept a stoic morality would involve a hardening to suffering, an attainment of peace through withdrawal and indifference. It would mean the acceptance of Marcus Aurelius' counsel: "When you are grieved about anything external it is not the thing itself which afflicts you, but your judgment about it. This judgment it is in your power to efface" [Meditations]. Lear can not do this, for Shakespeare has focused all attention on the problem of man who seeks justice in a world that has no justice. And this is the basis of the dramatic conflict. To argue that Lear is completely unstoical is to give the impression that Shakespeare is advocating in the play a support for stoic conduct: that Lear brings on his misfortunes because he has not the discernment of a stoic. Such analysis neglects dramatic structure and technique and turns drama into moral and philosophical formulas.

Lear's search for values and justice on the heath is also an attempt to regain his identity and once again recognize his former figure. "Who am I?" Lear insistently repeats this question in various ways, endeavoring to clutch at the shadow of his former being. Does this not explain his repeated references to himself as king even in his most desperate moments of madness? When, completely deranged, he makes his appearance late in Act IV, his first words are: "No, they cannot touch me for coining;/ I am the King himself" ( The blind Gloucester recognizes him by his voice, "The trick of that voice I do well remember./ Is't not the King?" And Lear replies with great majesty in his madness:

Ay, every inch a king!
When I do stare, see how the subject quakes.
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.

Completely isolated, alone with himself, speaking to himself, Lear creates his own world where none are guilty, for all are guilty. Yet he must have justice; and in Act III, scene vi, he sits as judge of all humanity. Before the Fool, Edgar, and Kent he arraigns Goneril and Regan in a mad judgment day where he can still demand justice and assert the prerogatives of kingship. Finally, his pathetic statement, "Come, come, I am a king,/ My masters, know you that?" ( is a desperate attempt to hold on to his identity. . . .

At the beginning of the play Shakespeare portrays Lear as a proud man who lacks the humanity of thinking beyond himself; he even values love only as a means of adding to his own vanity. On the heath there comes to Lear an emotion which has not shown itself in him before: a concern for others. We first see this in Lear's words to the Fool:

My wits begin to turn.
Come on, my boy. How dost, my boy? Art cold?
I am cold myself. Where is this straw, my fellow?
The art of our necessities is strange
And can make vile things precious. Come, your hovel.
Poor Fool and knave, I have one part in my heart
That's sorry yet for thee.

For the first time Lear reaches out to touch another human being. Seeing the Fool's suffering, he makes a sympathetic connection, "I am cold myself." He notices the Fool's adversity first; and through sympathetic identification he comes to recognize his own condition. In spite of innumerable outward differences, in one respect Lear and the Fool are equals: they share a common fate; and in their humanity they are kin. No longer do we see Lear as proud and vain. He recognizes other human beings and shows compassion for them. When Kent bids him seek refuge in the hovel, Lear would torture himself further by remaining out in the storm; but he shows concern for Kent, counselling him, "Prithee, go in thyself; seek thine own ease" (III.iv.23). And when he does decide to go into the hovel, he bids the Fool enter first, "In, boy; go first." There follow significant statements which show his concern for the sufferings of "poor naked wretches" everywhere:

Poor naked wretches, wheresoe'er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm.
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your loop'd and window'd raggedness, defend you
From seasons such as these? O, I have ta'en
Too little care of this! Take physic, pomp;
Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,
That thou mayst shake the superflux to them,
And show the heavens more just.

Lear's whole personality undergoes a complete transformation. From a desire to find personal vindication and personal recognition, his thoughts turn to sympathy for each individual being. He approaches the view that a moral society depends on the recognition of each man's value. This stress on the responsibility of one man for all makes Lear one with all humanity and binds all humanity into oneness. In his speech he strips away all thoughts of comforts and superficialities to lay bare basic truth, the human condition which underlies the world of fleeting appearances. In an unforgettable moment on the heath Lear translates his verbalization of this necessity for bare truth into a physical act as he asks the tormenting question:

Is man no more than this? Consider him well. Thou ow'st the worm no silk, the beast no hide, the sheep no wool, the cat no perfume. Ha! here's three on's are sophisticated! Thou art the thing itself; unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor, bare, forked animal as thou art. Off, off, you lendings! come, unbutton here.

And he tears off his clothes.

Two interpretations may be offered for Lear's action. First, consider Lear's statement to Regan when she argued that he had no need of any retainers:

O, reason not the need! Our basest beggars
Are in the poorest thing superfluous.
Allow not nature more than nature needs,
Man's life is cheap as beast's.
Thou art a lady;
If only to go warm were gorgeous,
Why, nature needs not what thou gorgeous wear'st,
Which scarcely keeps thee warm. But, for true need,—

If man's life is as cheap as beast's, if it is only clothes which make a man, which separate him from the beast, then it is unnecessary for man to borrow from animals the clothes which cover his nakedness. Thus, one can say that in stripping off his clothes Lear dramatically acts out his words to Regan. Casting off his lendings, he makes a radical return to nature, becoming one with the beasts. And we can only ask: is this the bare truth about man? Is this reality, naked man, man as beast?

One can also view Lear's trearing off his clothes as the stripping away of all the superfluous values by which fhe has lived. One can say that he is acting out his words,

O, I have ta'en
Too little care of this! Take physic, pomp;
Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,
That thou mayst shake the superflux to them,
And show the heavens more just.

If one views this act of the stripping of clothes as an act of purgation, a return to essential man, then a new Lear will emerge from such torments.

These two interpretations have equal validity, for one is part of the other. What we are concerned with now, it is quite obvious, is more than the personality of a particular king; it is a confronting of the universe, and in that crisis, a questioning and a recasting of one's vision of reality. Previous to the division of kingdom, reality for Lear consisted of the values in his mind, and these he imposed upon the external world. As long as he had power to control nature, he could project his expectations, and, with a high degree of success, have them realized. But the will to believe does not constitute reality. Power is accidental and temporary; things can appear to be what they are not; man can seek more justice in the world than there is. Consequently, the most urgent problem— the concern of the greatest works of art—is to learn to see reality as it is. In tearing off his clothes Lear divests himself of the husks of appearance, the accidents of power and rank. The reduction to unaccommodated man puts him on an equal basis with all men; he is, therefore, akin to all men. . . .

Lear's recognition of his kinship with all men makes him see more sympathy and understanding in the world than before. Through sympathy he discovers himself. We have a moral reorientation, a shift from individual power to the principle of universal justice. We have a different vision of society, which is now seen as organic. Each individual is so intimately united to another that the misery of all is the misery of one. And we approach a recognition that the most important bonds of society are inner and spiritual, not merely the external and the formal.

The stripping of Lear suggests even more levels of significance. It is the culmination of his daughters' stripping him of honor and dignity, the final dismantling of the king. It suggests that man by himself, against nature's forces, is insignificant; that he is not . . . the measure of all things; that he derives his strength from his dependence on his fellow men. It is a suggestion that all men, at one time or another, are outcasts and wanderers. It is a recognition that man's worth is independent of rank and power. . . .

Nevertheless, Lear's insight into truth and happiness is not negotiable in this tough world. He cannot convert his experience into saving advantages. To give the play a Christian interpretation and make of it a divine comedy is to distort the work. By the end of the play Lear's world has narrowed to Cordelia, but she is dead in his arms. "Is this the promis'd end?" (V.iii.263) Kent cries out in anguish; and Edgar joins in, "Or image of that horror?" "Fall, and cease!" is Albany's tortured utterance. Evil is in the world and there is no escape. It is much better, says Kent, that Lear die:

Vex not his ghost; O, let him pass! He hates him
That would upon the rack of this tough world
Stretch him out longer.

In King Lear Shakespeare takes us to the edge of the human world to front the terrors of life and the viciousness of man's brutality. He offers no solution to the ungraspable phantom of life. However, in the midst of terror we see the nobility and greatness of man's spirit. Keats gives us one of the most illuminating insights into the nature of tragedy: "The excellence of every art is its intensity, capable of making all disagreeables evaporate, from their being in close relationship with Beauty and Truth. Examine 'King Lear,' and you will find this exemplified throughout . . ." [a letter to George and Thomas Keats]. From the time of Aristotle, men have maintained that great art has a civilizing function: it tells us, like history or science, what is; but even more, it can tell us what ought to be. Lear's suffering, his search for justice and identity, is a facing of the fearful elements of the world. His vision of truth and his complete change of character give us a sense of the nobility of spirit which can transcend the confinements of man's condition. "There lies within the dramatic form," Arthur Miller tells us with great conviction, "the ultimate possibility of raising the truth-consciousness of mankind to a level of such intensity as to transform those who observe it." ["The Family in Modern Drama"].

SOURCE: "King Lear," in Shakespeare and the Craft of Tragedy, 1960. Reprint by Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1967, pp. 1-51.

Judd Arnold
[Arnold asserts that although other characters in the play—including Edgar, Gloucester, Albany, and Cordelia—are transformed, Lear's own progress toward self-knowledge and spiritual regeneration is never completed. The king is certainly more sinned against than sinning, the critic admits, and he doesn't deserve to suffer as he does. However, Arnold maintains, Lear's self-righteous, self-pitying temperament is evident throughout the drama, and he never fully apprehends or acknowledges that his egoism and passion for vengeance have contributed significantly to his plight. The critic also shows how the speeches of Lear's "comforters," especially Kent and the Fool, heighten our understanding of the king; and he argues that Goneril and Regan, before their shrewd rationality becomes excessive viciousness, are reasonably concerned about their father "disrupting the order he is supposed to embody."]

As [William] Hazlitt said [in Characters of Shakespeare's Plays], final judgments about King Lear, its protagonists, or its "effect upon the mind" are "mere impertinence." But we can say something definite about the way Lear is viewed in the play, especially by those who love him best—Cordelia, Kent, the Fool, Gloucester, Edgar, Albany. All come to agree that Lear's spiritual renewal depends on his learning to see himself as more than simply a victim of a loveless universe. Not one of these comforters ever expresses the conviction that Lear achieves such saving insight. Their sense of frustration seems justified by what happens in the play and particularly by the carefully developed contrast between the resolutions of the Lear and Gloucester plots.

Lear's comforters provide a well-developed set of reliable perspectives that are unique in Shakespearean tragedy. . . .

Focusing on these perspectives may not yield any startling new conclusions about the larger meaning of the Lear story. But a full appreciation of what these characters observe and achieve makes some old conclusions questionable. Obviously they lend little support to the view that Lear, through a spiritual regeneration, reveals a purposeful, triumphant providential order. But neither do they illustrate nor declare the "decay and fall of the world" felt in Lear by Professor [Jan] Kott [in Shakespeare Our Contemporary], nor the "grim pagan universe annihilating faith in divine justice" that is so painstakingly defined by William Elton [in King Lear and the Gods]. Lear's onstage observers would tend to support that critical camp which sees in Lear's story a painful problem. As Richard Sewall puts it: ". . . though the good cannot be said to triumph, neither can evil. . . . If the play denies the comforts of optimism, it does not retreat into cynicism." [The Vision of Tragedy]. A more recent critic urges, even though he sees signs of an amoral, even malignant universe in the play, that Lear is primarily a "savage and beautiful confrontation of the ambiguity of human experience" [John Rosenberg, in "King Lear and His Comforters"]. In learning the offices of love, Lear's servants are ennobled and transfigured and reveal the beauty of the Lear universe. In the dashing of their love-borne hopes for Lear's spiritual rebirth we learn of its terrors.

The problem of perspective in Lear challenges us as soon as the king broaches the love test as an instrument for deciding the division of a kingdom. Should we judge the king by the literal absurdity of the test, and the division itself from the point of view of a conservative Elizabethan who has just lived through the uneasy years prior to the accession of James? Or do we respond to it as to some strange fairy tale existing beyond historical or "realistic" perspectives? . . .

The opening exchange between Kent and Gloucester reveals that the partitioning of the kingdom is already the subject of court gossip. Though Lear is later told by Kent and the Fool that he has made an extraordinary political blunder, everyone seems at least resigned to Lear's retirement. But the immediate response to his subsequent behavior, from the broaching of the love test to the exiling of Cordelia and Kent, is astonishment and outrage. Even Goneril and Regan, who initially maintain their composure and flatter the king, reveal, in their first private moment, surprise and concern:

Gon. You see how full of changes his age is; the observation we have made of it hath not been little: he always loved our sister most; and with what poor judgment he hath cast her off appears too grossly.

Reg. 'Tis the infirmity of his age; yet he hath ever but slenderly known himself.
(I, i, 288-94)

The sisters are also disturbed by the treatment of Kent. If we can shed 300 years of viewing Goneril and Regan as simply demonic figures in a morality pattern—the Evil Sisters—we could better appreciate, if not the kindliness of their remarks, at least the sanity of them. They are rationally concerned with preventing an unpredictable old man from courting invasion or in any other way disrupting the order he is supposed to embody. If we view them only as monsters we become less sensitive to the drama of their spiritual disintegration and the extent of Lear's responsibility for it. More important, we feel less strongly the validity of their pointed analysis. Lear's behavior causes it; all other witnesses to his public performance anticipate it. Burgundy, who is in attendance only to exploit opportunity, makes no overt statement of anger. He does, however, make a hasty and politic withdrawal from the uncomfortably strange scene. France speaks directly of the "strange," unnatural behavior of the king and violates diplomatic decorum by chiding his host. Cordelia and Kent lecture Lear at length about his failures as a king, a father and a friend. Cordelia is caught off guard by Lear and fumbles at first. Her first words, uttered as an aside, reflect her confusion and dismay: "What shall Cordelia speak? Love, and be silent" (I, i, 62). Later she expresses a peculiar mixture of love for her parent and contempt for his wayward behavior. Kent leaps to Cordelia's defense and to an impassioned assessment of Lear's "hideous rashness." Kent must be "unmannerly / When Lear is mad" (I, i, 145-46). He is no more impressed with Lear's grandeur than Cordelia. His self-sacrificing opposition to the king is testament to his love, but his opposition is not to any heroic frenzy but to heart-breakingly shrill, willful senility. His childing, loving question—"What would'st thou do, old man?"—strips Lear of his official dignity and stands as a plaintive rebuke, sadly forced when "majesty falls to folly" (I, i, 146-49).

The opening scene then is strange and unrealistic. But the "realistic" perspectives of Kent, Cordelia, France, Goneril and Regan remove the scene from the world of fairy tale or wooden allegory and make it a painful, shocking exhibition of the moral and emotional condition of the declining king. The degree to which we surrender to the literal scene and to the harshest judgments of Lear makes, I think, an extraordinary difference in our response to the meaning and dramatic effect of the story which ensues. Ironically, the meanly irrelevant love test Lear contrives out of his self-indulgent folly is, by the very nature of that folly, transformed into the desperately real test of love and service that the rest of the play records. Lear's irresponsibility, his imperviousness to reason, his vicious abuse of Cordelia and Kent make him difficult to love. His performance makes clear that he can be served only by the most selfless devotion. The very order that Lear represents as king depends now on the strength of others to grant it under the most trying circumstances.

The love Lear needs is not easily granted. Obviously, Goneril and Regan are incapable of giving it. They judge, condemn and reject Lear. Cordelia, at the outset, presents a minor problem. She has been held a rendering of moral perfection in an allegorical mold. The psychologizing [Samuel Taylor] Coleridge, however, detected in her "some little faulty admixture of pride and sullenness" and his point has recently been remade by Sears Jayne who calls attention [in "Charity in King Lear"] to her lack of charity. How severely we ought to judge Cordelia is perhaps a moot point. Her refusal to humour her father can be read not only as a measure of sound moral judgment, but also, by what it presupposes about Lear's capacity to heed reason, as a mark of respect. On the other hand, we cannot ignore the well-developed contrast between the responses of Kent and Cordelia to Lear. Cordelia's major speech prior to her departure is full of self-justification and self-congratulation:

I yet beseech your Majesty,
(If for I want that glib and oily art
To speak and purpose not, since what I well intend,
I'll do't before I speak), that you make known
It is no vicious blot, murther or foulness,
No unchaste action, or dishonored step,
That hath depriv'd me of your grace and favour,
But even for want of that for which I am richer,
A still-soliciting eye, and such a tongue
That I am glad I have not, though not to have it
Hath lost me in your liking.
(I, i, 223-33)

Kent, however, leaves no doubt that his sole concern is the well-being of the man he has "ever honour'd as my King, / Lov'd as my father, as my master follow'd" (I, i, 140-41). His words are full of astringent instruction, but instruction borne of compassion. He courts death and banishment because

My life I never held but as a pawn
To wage against thine enemies; nor fear to lose it,
Thy safety being motive.
(I, i, 155-57)

Perhaps Shakespeare gives Cordelia no lines in support of Kent—not even a thank you—to heighten the contrast between the responses of the two. Or perhaps we are to understand that she has been rendered heartbreakingly inarticulate by a flood of emotion. Yet after Kent's departure she seems almost grimly composed, makes her self-justifying claims, cooly and bitterly consigns her father to her sister's care and sweeps off to France. All we can note with certainty is that when Cordelia reappears in Act Four, her language suggests that she has arrived at a larger understanding of the selfless offices of love and she says to Kent then: "O thou good Kent! how shall I live and work / To match thy goodness? My life will be too short, / And every measure fail me" (IV, vii, 1-3).

To feel what nearly every character in the play, except Goneril and Regan, comes to learn about the trials of love and service we must continue to feel how severely Lear tests them. Maynard Mack raises the problem of perspectives on Lear by complaining of a number of productions which "rationalize" the treatment given him by Goneril and Regan [in "King Lear" in Our Time].

Something like a climax in this rationalizing mode was reached in Peter Brook's [Royal Shakespeare Company] production [featuring] Paul Scofield in 1962. There in I, iv, evidently to justify Goneril's complaints about her father's retinue and thus motivate her insolence to him, Lear's knights literally demolished the set, throwing plates and tankards, upending the heavy table on which presumably the king's dinner was soon to be served, and behaving in general like boors—as if the visible courtesy of their spokesman earlier (I, iv, 54-78), Albany's significant unawareness of what Goneni is complaining about, and Lear's explicit description of his knights:

My train are men of choice and rarest parts,
That all particulars of duty know, . . .
had no existence in the play.

Mack then accuses the production of depending on "what is called in today's theatrical jargon, the subtext."

The most obvious result of subtextualizing is that director and (possibly) actor are encouraged to assume the same level of authority as the author. The sound notion that there is a life to which the words give life can with very little stretching be made to mean that the words the author set down are themselves simply a search for the true play, which the director must intuit in, through and under them. Once one has done so, the words become to a degree expendable.

Yet there is a good deal of evidence in the words of the text to justify Brook's approach. Time passes between I, i and ii. In that time Lear has apparently been granted his retirement on his own terms. Gon-eril has apparently had cause to complain that "His knights grow riotous, and himself upbraids us / On every trifle" (I, iii, 7-8). Why should we not believe her? In spite of what Mack says about Albany, the Duke does not seem unaware of a problem. Later he only cautions his wife that she "may fear too far," and to her accusation of his "milky gentleness," "want of wisdom" and "harmful mildness" he responds only with the timorous suggestion that in "Striving to better, oft we mar what's well" (I, iv, 338-56). Lear himself, in such acts as striking Oswald, shows he is at least capable of indecorum. The manner in which he adopts the services of the disguised Kent is suspicious. Earlier he had failed to heed the wisdom of Kent. Now he is cool to the simple offer of honest service. Not until Kent plays Lear's games is he accepted. Oswald enters and is again slapped by Lear. Kent enters the sport and trips Oswald. (It is perhaps to such antics that Edgar later refers when he recounts how Kent "in disguise / Follow'd his enemy king, and did him service / Improper for a slave" (V, iii, 219-21). Only after Kent's delightfully crude gesture does Lear embrace him and then, I suspect, with a schoolboyish glee. My use of the term schoolboyish may be my response to an imaginary subtext. But in the light of the succeeding observations of the Fool it is at least defensible. Precisely at this point the Fool begins to lecture the unheeding Lear on his childishness—on his having made his daughters his mothers, on his having put down his own breeches and given them the rod. Lear's on-stage observers at least make credible Goneril's declaration that Lear is "an idle old man, / That still would manage those authorities / That he hath given away. Now by my life, / Old fools are babes again!" (I, iii, 17-20).

It is not surprising that there has been less critical attention given to Lear's errors than to his suffering. His anguish is overwhelming. Goneril's and Regan's rational, self-serving shrewdness quickly gives way to gratuitous viciousness. Their savagery reaches an early climax as they mockingly subject him to public humiliation by stripping him of his remaining privileges and allowing him to flee into the storm. Nothing Lear has done deserves this. So at this stage in the drama those most sensitive to Lear's condition emphasize his undeserved plight. Albany's cautious criticism of his wife gives way to bitter anger. Gloucester is moved to risk his life to solace his king. Kent turns from instructing Lear to anatomizing Lear's tormentors—the "smiling rogues" who "bite the holy chords a-twain" (II, ii, 74-75).

But the more judgmental perspectives on Lear are maintained chiefly by the Fool who knows that Lear's regeneration and his achievement of patience must begin with his understanding of his own guilt, understanding that he must expect neither to exercise an authority he has

The Fool

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6360

Enid Welsford
[In this excerpt from her classic study of the social and literary tradition of the Fool figure, Welsford describes Lear's Fool as both a commentator on dramatic events and a tragic figure in his own right. He is a "sage-fool" who intuitively knows the truth and doesn't hesitate to speak it, the critic observes, and his focus on the connection between a wise man and a fool underscores Lear's tragedy. In Welsford's judgment, the Fool disappears from the play when the king, in his madness, becomes a "wise fool" himself. Having lost his rational wits, she contends, Lear now sees the truth: that patient acceptance is the only possible response to a world in which there is no guarantee of divine or human justice.]

[When] Shakespeare made Lear and his Fool companions in misfortune, he may have broken the canons of classical art, but he certainly was not destroying verisimilitude. On the contrary, if he was catering for the popular taste for clownage, he was doing so by creating a figure who was sufficiently life-like to be tragically convincing. The human truth and pathos of the situation is indeed so appealing that it has sometimes distracted attention from the deeper purpose of the dramatist in this juxtaposition of King and Clown. Lear's Fool is not merely a touching figure who might easily have been drawn from life, he is also the fool of the sottie [Satirical farce], and, although evidently half-witted, is endowed with a penetration deeper and more far-reaching than that superficial sharp-wittedness and gift for smart repartee which went to the making of a successful court-jester. He is in fact the sage-fool who sees the truth, and his role has even more intellectual than emotional significance. For King Lear is not merely a popular play. If it offends against classical decorum, it is nevertheless true to a definitely intellectual tradition and makes use of the conventions of 'fool-literature' which were . . . clerical rather than popular in origin, and were used as the vehicle for a reasoned criticism of life. The Fool, therefore, as I shall endeavour to prove, is here used both as a commentator whose words furnish important clues to the interpretation of a difficult play; and also as a prominent figure caught up into the drama, whose role and nature form a vital part of the central tragic theme.

Lear's Fool, like Touchstone [in As You Like It] and Feste [in Twelfth Night], is an 'all-licensed' critic who sees and speaks the real truth about the people around him. His business, however, is not to deal out satirical commonplaces, but to emphasize one peculiarly dreadful instance of the reversal of position between the wise man and the fool; indeed he labours this point with a maddening reiteration which is only excusable because his tactless jokes and snatches of song spring so evidently from genuine grief. The sorrow underlying his shrewd sarcasm rises to the surface when he interrupts Goneril's plausible scolding to give us a sudden glimpse of the horror lurking behind an apparently ludicrous situation:

For, you trow, nuncle,
The hedge-sparrow fed the cuckoo so long,
That it had its head bit off by its young.
So, out went the candle, and we were left darkling.

When King Lear made his daughters his mothers he committed an act of indubitable folly of which his fool is only too ready to remind him; but the same fool comments on folly of a very different order, when the disguised Kent offers his services to his helpless master:

Fool. Sirrah, you were best take my coxcomb.
Kent. Why, fool?
Fool. Why, for taking one's part that's out of favour.

The same point is made even more forcibly when the Fool finds Kent in the stocks:

Kent. How chance the king comes with so small a train?
Fool. An thou hadst been set i' the stocks for that question,
thou hadst well deserved it.
Kent. Why, fool?
Fool. We'll set thee to school to an ant, to teach thee there's no labouring i' the winter. All that follow their noses are led by their eyes but blind men; and there's not a nose among twenty but can smell him that's stinking. Let go thy hold when a great wheel runs down a hill, lest it break thy neck with following it; but the great one that goes up the hill, let him draw thee after. When a wise man gives thee better counsel, give me mine again: I would have none but knaves follow it, since a fool gives it.

That sir which serves and seeks for gain,
And follows but for form,
Will pack when it begins to rain,
And leave thee in the storm.
But I will tarry; the fool will stay,
And let the wise man fly:
The knave turns fool that runs away:
The fool no knave, perdy.

Kent. Where learned you this, fool?
Fool. Not the stocks, fool.

This whole passage proved so puzzling to [Samuel] Johnson—whose mind was not attuned to the nuances and complex ironies of fool-literature—that he wished to straighten out the reasoning by emendation, and in particular to alter the last two lines of the song into:

The fool turns knave who runs away;
The knave no fool perdy.

This version does, perhaps, make better common sense, but then is it common sense that the Fool is trying to convey? Dr Johnson might have been saved from his bewilderment if he had used [Erasmus's] The Praise of Folly as a commentary; for, in his conversation with Kent, the Fool is being as subtle, ambiguous and volatile as Erasmus himself in his play upon the various meanings and relations of the words 'fool' and 'knave'. Folly is the opposite of wisdom, how unwise it is to pursue a policy which in this world of ours must lead you to the stocks. I am only a Fool, but I can teach you better than that. But after all, do I want you to follow my advice? No, let it be followed only by knaves, for it is the advice of a fool—a contemptible vicious being, as all men acknowledge. But who is this Fool who not only desires none but knaves to follow his advice, but also defiantly proclaims that he will himself disregard it:

I will tarry, the fool will stay
And let the wise man fly.

After all which is which? The knave who runs away, comes out into the open, and is at once seen as the abject contemptible ludicrous creature that he has always really been. The fool is at least true to himself. He has never professed to be wise, he will not now act as though he were worldly wise. If Dr Johnson's reading is accepted the meaning of the passage remains much the same, only it closes with a shrug and a wink instead of on a note of exalted defiance. In both cases the Fool suggests that there is ambiguity in the words 'wisdom' and 'folly', but that at any rate the Fool would seem to be a man devoid of worldly wisdom. Here the Fool is hinting at thoughts beyond the range of Feste and Touchstone, thoughts which are vitally connected with the central theme of the tragedy.

In treating the Fool as the disinterested truth-teller, the punctum indifferens [neutral commentator] of the play, Shakespeare was not making any new departure from his earlier comic method as shown in the handling of Touchstone; and, as a piece of realistic character-drawing, Lear's 'Good boy' with his lovable, sympathetic qualities is only a profounder study of a type already exemplified in the jester of Twelfth Night. Nevertheless, Shakespeare's tragic fool differs very profoundly from his comic brethren. In Arden and Illyria [the dramatic settings of As You Like It and Twelfth Night] it is regarded as a sufficiently good joke that the madman should be the spokesman of sanity, that the ostensible fool should find it so easy to draw out the latent folly of the wise. But Lear's Fool goes further than this. Like others of his profession he is very ready to proffer his coxcomb to his betters, but in doing so he does not merely raise a laugh or score a point, he sets a problem. 'What am I? What is madness?' he seems to ask, 'the world being what it is, do I necessarily insult a man by investing him with motley?'

With this apparently comic question the Fool strikes the keynote of the tragedy of Lear. . . .

It has often been pointed out that Lear has a more passive role than most of Shakespeare's tragic characters. Nevertheless he is involved in an event, and his relationship with the Fool is no mere static pictorial contrast, but part of the tragic movement of the play; the movement downwards towards that ultimate exposure and defeat when the King is degraded to the status of the meanest of his servants. We watch the royal sufferer being progressively stripped, first of extraordinary worldly power, then of ordinary human dignity, then of the very necessities of life, deprived of which he is more helpless and abject than any animal. But there is a more dreadful consummation than this reduction to physical nakedness. Lear hardly feels the storm because he is struggling to retain his mental integrity, his 'knowledge and reason', which are not only, as he himself calls them, 'marks of sovereignty', but the essential marks of humanity itself:

O, let me not be mad, not mad, sweet heaven!
Keep me in temper, I would not be mad! . . .
O fool, I shall go mad!

Lear's dread is justified, 'sweet heaven' rejects his prayer, and the central scenes on the heath are peopled by a blind, half-crazy nobleman, guided by a naked beggar supposed to be mad, and by an actually mad King served by a half-witted court-jester. . . .

But now that the worst has happened, now that Lear has lost his sanity, he has enlarged his vision. As his wits begin to leave him, he begins to see the truth about himself; when they are wholly gone he begins to have spasmodic flashes of insight in which, during momentary lulls in the storm of vengeful personal resentment, he sees the inner truth about the world. 'Thou wouldst make a good fool', said the Fool to his master at the beginning of his misfortunes, and he spoke as a prophet. In his amazing encounter with the blind Gloucester, the mad Lear has something of the wit, the penetration, the quick repartee of the court-jester. From the realistic point of view it is no doubt a dramatic flaw that Shakespeare does not account more clearly for the fate of the real man in motley; but his disappearance was a poetic necessity, for the King having lost everything, including his wits, has now himself become the Fool. He has touched bottom, he is an outcast from society, he has no longer any private axe to grind, so he now sees and speaks the truth.

And what is the truth? What does the mad Lear see in his flashes of lucidity? . . . Certainly his vision is a grim one. He sees not one particular event but the whole of human life as a vast sottie:

Lear. What, art mad? A man may see how this world goes, with no eyes. Look with thine ears: 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? Thou hast seen a farmer's dog bark at a beggar?

Gloucester. Ay, sir.

>Lear. And the creature run from the cur? There thou mightst behold the great image of authority: a dog's obeyed in office. . . .

. . . 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; I'll able 'em:
Take that of me, my friend, who have the power
To seal th' accuser's lips. Get thee glass eyes;
And, like a scurvy politician, seem
To see the things thou dost not.

Already we have watched king and noblemen turned into fools and beggars, now the great reversal of the Saturnalia is transferred from the action of the tragedy into the mind of the tragic hero, who discovers in his dotage, what the evil have known from their cradles, that in this world there is no poetic justice:

When we are born, we cry that we are come
To this great stage of fools.

. . . [The] blind Gloucester and mad Lear have come to know that to see truly 'how the world goes' is to 'see it feelingly'. And when the world is seen feelingly, what then? Why then we must be patient. That is all.

'Patience', like 'wisdom', 'folly', 'knavery', 'nature', is one of the key words of this tragedy. As soon as Lear begins to realize the nature of his misfortune, he begins to make pathetic attempts to acquire it, and when his mental overthrow is complete he recommends it as the appropriate response to the misery of life:

If thou wilt weep my fortunes, take my eyes.
I know thee well enough; thy name is Gloucester:
Thou must be patient; we came crying hither:
Thou know'st, the first time that we smell the air,
We wawl and cry.

Edgar takes the same point of view:

What! In ill-thoughts again? Men must endure
Their going hence, even as their coming hither:
Ripeness is all.

What is meant? Something different from tame submissiveness or cold stoicism, but completely opposed to that restless activity in pursuit of our own ends which Edmund thinks so preferable to passive obedience to fortune or custom. Patience, here, seems to imply an unflinching, clear-sighted recognition of the fact of pain, and the complete abandonment of any claim to justice or gratitude either from Gods or men; it is the power to choose love when love is synonymous with suffering, and to abide by the choice knowing there will be no Divine Salvation from its consequences.

And here, I think, is the solution of the problem set by the Fool; the problem of apparent moral relativity, 'Wisdom and goodness to the vile seem vile, filths savour but themselves', so that Albany and Goneril have not even sufficient common ground to make a real argument possible. Nevertheless, Shakespeare does not allow us to remain neutral spectators of their debate, he insists that although Goneril's case is as complete and consistent as that of Albany it is not equally valid, not equally true. In the first place Shakespeare's poetry persuades and compels us to accept the values of the friends rather than of the enemies of Lear. Secondly, Shakespeare makes the fullest possible use of the accepted convention that it is the Fool who speaks the truth, which he knows not by ratiocination but by inspired intuition. The mere appearance of the familiar figure in cap and bells would at once indicate to the audience where the 'punctum indifferens', the impartial critic, the mouthpiece of real sanity, was to be found.

Now the Fool sees that when the match between the good and the evil is played by the intellect alone it must end in a stalemate, but when the heart joins in the game then the decision is immediate and final. 'I will tarry, the Fool will stay—And let the wise man fly.' That is the unambiguous wisdom of the madman who sees the truth. That is decisive. It is decisive because, so far from being an abnormal freakish judgment, it is the instinctive judgment of normal humanity raised to heroic stature; and therefore no amount of intellectual argument can prevent normal human beings from receiving and accepting it, just as, when all the psychologists and philosophers have said their say, normal human beings continue to receive and accept the external world as given to them through sense perception. 'They that seek a reason for all things do destroy reason', notes the judicious [Richard] Hooker [in The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity]; our data, our premises, we must simply receive, and receive not only through our heads but also through our senses and our hearts. To see truly is to 'see feelingly'.

It would seem, then, that there is nothing contemptible in a motley coat. The Fool is justified, but we have not yet a complete answer to his original query: 'What is folly?' Which is the wise man, which is the fool? To be foolish is to mistake the nature of things, or to mistake the proper method of attaining to our desires, or to do both at once. Even Edmund and Edgar, even Goneril and Albany, could agree to that proposition. But have the perfectly disinterested made either of these mistakes and have not the self-interested made them both? The evil desire pleasure and power, and they lose both, for the evil are mutually destructive. The good desire to sympathize and to save, and their desires are partially fulfilled, although as a result they have to die. Nor have the good mistaken the nature or 'mystery of things' which, after all, unlike Edmund, they have never professed either to dismiss or to understand. It is, indeed, as we have seen, the good who are normal. Lear, in his folly, is not reduced, as he fears, to the level of the beasts, but to essential naked humanity, 'unaccommodated man', 'the thing itself'. It is the evil who 'be-monster' themselves, it is the sight of Goneril which makes Albany fear that

It will come,
Humanity must perforce prey on itself,
Like monsters of the deep.

In this connection it is not without interest that the Elizabethan playwrights made conventional use of the inherited belief in thunder as the voice of the Divine Judge, and that the Divine inspiration of madmen has always been a widespread and deeply rooted popular superstition.

Not that I would suggest that this great tragedy should be regarded as a morality play full of naïve spiritual consolation. That Shakespeare's ethics were the ethics of the New Testament, that in this play his mightiest poetry is dedicated to the reiteration of the wilder paradoxes of the Gospels and of St Paul, that seems to me quite certain. But it is no less certain that the metaphysical comfort of the Scriptures is deliberately omitted, though not therefore necessarily denied. The perfectly disinterested choose loving-kindness because they know it to be intrinsically desirable and worth the cost, not because they hope that the full price will not be exacted. It is Kent's readiness to be unendingly patient which makes him other than a shrewder and more far-calculating Edmund. If the thunder had ceased at Lear's bidding, then Lear would not have become a sage-fool. What the thunder says remains enigmatic, but it is this Divine ambiguity which gives such force to the testimony of the human heart. Had the speech of the gods been clearer, the apparently simple utterances of the Fool would have been less profound:

Fool. He that has a little tiny wit,
With key, ho, the wind and the rain,
Must make content with his fortune's fit,
For the rain it raineth every day.
Lear. True, my good boy.

And so we reach the final reversal of values. 'Ay every inch a king', says Lear in his madness, and we do not wholly disagree with him. The medieval clergy inaugurated the Saturnalia by parodying the Magnificat: Shakespeare reverses the process. Lear's tragedy is the investing of the King with motley: it is also the crowning and apotheosis of the Fool.

SOURCE: "The Court-Fool in Elizabethan Drama," in The Fool: His Social and Literary History, Farrar & Rinehart Incorporated, 1936, pp. 243-70.

Robert Hillis Goldsmith
[Goldsmith calls Lear's jester a "wise fool" and distinguishes him from traditional fools known principally for being half-witted or cunning, satirical or ironical. The Fool's chief characteristic is devotion to the king, the critic declares, and in this steadfastness he demonstrates the virtues of "patience, humility, and love." Goldsmith notes that this devotion sometimes clouds the Fool's reason, a paradoxical situation since the Fool's principal task is to help Lear clarify his own judgment. But nursing the mad king back to sanity is beyond his skills, the critic asserts, and when it becomes apparent that others will take on this responsibility, the Fool departs.]

The Fool in King Lear has become so enmeshed in the play's meaning that it is difficult to disentangle him. Several recent critics have approached the play's theme through the character of the Fool and the concept of wise folly which he brings into the play. One of these . . . critics, William Empson, refers to Lear's Fool as a lunatic ["Fool in Lear"]. But is this fool mentally defective? If the Fool and his "folly" are so important to our full understanding of King Lear, then the question is not academic. Except for the bizarre diagnoses of a few scattered writers, the consensus of the critics is that Touchstone, Feste, and Lavache [in As You Like It, Twelfth Night, and All's Well That Ends Well] are clever artificial fools, not naturals; that they are conscious humorists, not unwitting instruments. However, when they come to examine Lear's Fool, the critics are far from agreed on the state of his mind. The preponderant opinion since the beginning of the nineteenth century seems to have been that this fool is a naive natural or even a half-wit boy. . . .

There is some justification for this reading of the Fool's character in the light of a confused popular tradition. [The court fool] Triboulet was little more than a babbling idiot who belonged successively to two French kings, yet he was endowed by the folk imagination with wisdom and intelligence far beyond the reach of his reason. Popular fancy is constantly distorting and disregarding the facts of history when building its legends. Shakespeare went not to history but to the popular and literary tradition (or to [the Elizabethan Comic actor Robert] Armin, which was the same thing) for the stuff of which he created Feste and Lear's Fool, but the poet refined upon the fool of tradition. Even in conceiving his most ambiguous characters, Shakespeare was ever firm and dramatically sure. Can we say then that in his conception of Lear's Fool the dramatist abandoned his usual methods, that his fool wavered between an unconscious simpleton and a penetrating, ironical commentator? Since the best and only reliable arbiter in all such matters of interpretation is the text itself, let us turn to it.

Midway through the play, the disguised Edgar addresses the Fool as "innocent" (III, vi, 8). There is little to be gleaned from the context in which the term appears. However, in a passage which closely follows, there are speeches which strikingly contrast the Fool, the crazed King, and the feigned madman:

Fool. Prithee, nuncle, tell me whether a madman be a gentleman or a yeoman.
Lear. A king, a king!
Fool. No, he's a yeoman that has a gentleman to his son; for he's a mad yeoman that sees his son a gentleman before him.
Lear. To have a thousand with red burning spits
Come hizzing in upon 'em—
Edgar. The foul fiend bites my back.
Fool. He's mad that trusts in the lameness of a wolf, a horse's health, a boy's love, or a whore's oath.
(III, vi, 10)

Of the three, the Fool alone speaks to the point, and he speaks the language of proverbial wisdom, the language of [the satirical fool] Marcolf. Edgar has as much and no more reason for calling Lear's Fool an "innocent" as Rosalind has for terming Touchstone a "natural." Both gentlefolk accept the gold coin for a copper penny, for so it passes current. As with the ambiguous title "Fool," the names "Innocent" and "Natural" seem to have been titles of office as frequently as they were descriptive epithets. . . .

Paradoxically, Lear's Fool is nobody's fool. He seldom lapses into nonsense or irrelevance; when he does, he does so to save himself from a beating. The Fool obliquely taunts Goneril: "The hedge-sparrow fed the cuckoo so long / That it had it head bit off by it young" and then skips off into quasi-nonsense: "So out went the candle, and we were left darkling" (Lear I, iv, 235). This seemingly irrelevant last line may echo several verses from Spenser's version of the tale of Lear: "But true it is that, when the oyle is spent, / The light goes out, and weeke is throwne away; / So when he had resigned his regiment, / His daughter gan despise his drouping day, / And wearie wax of his continuall stay" ([Faerie Queene] II, x, 30). The similarity can hardly be coincidental when both passages refer to Goneril's treatment of Lear. A little further on the Fool makes another sharp thrust at Goneril but immediately blunts its effect with what sounds like the refrain from an old song: "May not an ass know when the cart draws the horse? / Whoop, Jug, I love thee!" (I, iv, 244). If we remember that "Jug" was not only a diminutive variant for Joan or Jane but was also a cant term for a common trull, we are not at all sure that the exclamation is really pointless. Can it not be that the Fool uses this mock declaration of love and loyalty to Goneril merely to deride those turncoats and time-pleasers who, like Oswald, shift and veer with every wind of favor? Such an interpretation would fit some later speeches of the Fool as well. Certainly he does not expect the loyal Kent to heed his cynical advice to "Let go thy hold when a great wheel runs down a hill, lest it break thy neck with following it" (II, iv, 72). The Fool habitually hides his meaning in metaphor.

Another passage which has troubled the explicators combines paradox, metaphor, and a bit of proverbial lore:

The codpiece that will house
Before the head has any,
The head and he shall louse:
So beggars marry many.
The man that makes his toe
What he his heart should make
Shall of a corn cry woe,
And turn his sleep to wake.
(III, ii, 27)

Commentators have noted the obvious reference in the first stanza to the imprudent behavior of beggars and its logical consequences, but they have not always remarked on the relevance of the Fool's gibe to Lear's plight. Furness explains that Lear in preferring Regan and Goneril to Cordelia is like the man who covers the meaner members of his body and leaves his head and heart unprotected and as a result suffers pinching and pain in those very parts he sought to protect. A careful reading of this verse is not only rewarding in itself but will help to throw light upon a sequent passage. As Kent enters, the Fool remarks, "Marry, here's grace and a codpiece; that's a wise man and a fool" (III, ii, 40). Grace is, of course, a gentleman, the King in this instance. Or has he, the wise man, by his irrational behavior toward Cordelia changed places with the Fool? Has he not acted the part of a codpiece covering and protecting those baser parts—his lecherous and ungrateful daughters, Goneril and Regan? The Fool suggests that it may be the King who is the real fool.

So well does he disguise his thoughtful comments in the veiled language of imagery and old songs that he has misled some observers into actually taking him for a fool. Such a misunderstanding does not disturb him any more than it troubles Touchstone. To Kent's grudging admission that "This is not altogether fool, my lord," the Fool responds with characteristic insouciance: "No, faith; lords and great men will not let me. If I had a monopoly out, they would have part on't. And ladies took, they will not let me have all the fool to myself; they'll be snatching" (I, iv, 166). Critics have been led astray not always by an unperceptive literal-mindedness but sometimes by a desire to superimpose their own patterns on Shakespeare's design. Coleridge speaks of "the overflowings of the wild wit of the Fool" [Coleridge's Shakespearean Criticism], and [A. C.] Bradley complains that regarding the Fool in Lear as wholly sane "destroys the poetry of the character" [Shakespearean Tragedy]. But whose poetry are we here considering—Coleridge's, Bradley's, or Shakespeare's? Shakespeare's conception of the timid but faithful fool, torn from his natural element—the banquet hall—and thrust shivering upon the wild, stormy heath is poetic enough for our imagination, particularly when we remember that the Fool follows his King against the promptings of his own common sense. He gives shrewd advice to others but does not heed it himself. . . .

Many of the Fool's comments betray a shrewd knowledge of the world, not what one would expect from a brilliant half-wit:

Fool. O nuncle, court holy water in a dry house is better than this rain water out o' door. Good nuncle, in, and ask thy daughters blessings! Here's a night pities neither wise men nor fools.
(III, ii, 10)

The Fool has wit enough to come out of the rain but is restrained by a stronger power—loyalty to his sick King. Which of his five wits does the Fool lack? Certainly he has abundant store of fantasy and imagination—else he would not be constantly speaking in metaphor. His memory is long as we may see from his continual harping upon Lear's past ana his injustice to Cordelia. The Fool does not lack common sense. His urging the King to come to terms with his daughters and the shrewd but cynical advice he gives Kent prove that he sees the world as it is. The only one of his faculties about which there may be any doubt is his judgment. We have already noted how his loyalty gets the better of his common sense. That lapse may be construed as a weakness in judgment—if we adopt the point of view of Goneril.

What about the Fool's heckling the King into madness? An anonymous Gentleman tells Kent and us that the Fool "labours to outjest his [Lear's] heart-struck injuries" (III, i, 16). But, these very jests are neither wise nor psychologically sound when applied as remedy for Lear's malady. Nay, even more; they are downright harmful. Professor [Oscar James] Campbell observes that the Fool's "jests, far from mitigating his master's woes, intensify them by forcing the King to realize the depth of his folly" [The Living Shakespeare]. The Fool then bears some of the responsibility for driving Lear mad. From this observation, one might argue that Lear's Fool is either malicious or stupidly naive. What then are we to say of the behavior of Kent? No one has seriously questioned his loyalty to his King or his sanity. And yet Kent's rash and headstrong righteousness is equally unwise and injudicious as a physic for Lear's choleric temper. Bradley notes that it is Kent who brings Lear's quarrel with Goneril to a head, and in falling upon the detestable Oswald and beating him, "he provides Regan and Cornwall with a pretext for their inhospitality." Kent therefore must share with the Fool any responsibility for hurrying Lear out of his wits. If Kent demonstrates by his loyal-hearted blundering that he has "more man than wit" (II, iv, 42) about him, then the Fool shows by his probing metaphors that he has no less of either quality. Both the Fool and the loyal Kent are too emotionally attached to the King to be good physicians to his sick mind.

About the Fool's doglike fidelity to Lear, a few further words are needful. Much has been written in praise of his utter, blind devotion to his master. Perhaps, we ought to recall, parenthetically, that the Fool wavers in his loyalty for a long moment and only hurries after his King when commanded by Goneril: "You, sir, more knave than fool, after your master!" Immediately afterwards he throws off all prudence and sings:

A fox, when one has caught her,
And such a daughter,
Should sure to the slaughter,
If my cap would buy a halter.
So the fool follows after.
(I, iv, 337, 340)

The incident should temper but not destroy our belief in the Fool's loyalty. Whether he follows Lear, at first, out of faithfulness or merely from necessity matters little. He follows and stays with his master until forced to drop out of the play. And in remaining by Lear, the Fool violates his own sense of prudence. If this is not devotion, it is the next best thing. Walking clear-eyed into the stormy night and to his probable death on the heath, he comes as close as any fool ever does to the heroic.

With the prophetic sense so often attributed to fools and madmen, Lear's Fool sings a stave and makes a prediction:

That sir which serves and seeks for gain.
And follows but for form,
Will pack when it begins to rain
And leave thee in the storm.
But I will tarry; the fool will stay,
And let the wise man fly.
The knave turns fool that runs away;
The fool no knave, perdy.
(II, iv, 79)

The first part of this jingle is a clear forecast of the course of the play and of the Fool's relation to it. The last two lines, however, have caused some confusion. That eminent rationalist, Dr. Samuel Johnson, solved the problem by emending the text to read: "The fool turns knave, that runs away; / The knave no fool,—." But, although his revision makes easier reading, it is too pedestrian for the Fool's meaning. Johnson's changed reading not only alters the words but rudely violates the character and spirit of Shakespeare's wise fool. . . . The ironical fool is playing ambiguously with the term "fool." The knave who runs away from a friend in adversity is accounted prudent, even wise, in the eyes of the world and such worldings as Goneril, Regan, and Edmund. But he is no more than a fool in the eyes of God, for, as Saint Paul says, "the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God" (I Cor. iii, 18). The Fool emphatically declares that he is no such knave, and we are left to infer that he may be truly wise in the sight of God.

This fool has come a long way from the railing Marcolf and the scheming Cacurgus [in the anonymous Misogonus]. How far he has progressed beyond his shrewd ancestors and his cunning contemporaries may be seen in the almost contemptuous twist which he gives to the prudential wisdom of Solomon. When he cynically advises Kent: "We'll set thee to school to an ant, to teach thee there's no labouring i' th' winter" (II, iv, 68), he is echoing:

Go to the ant, thou sluggard;
Consider her ways, and be wise:
Which having no chief,
Overseer, or ruler,
Provideth her bread in the summer,
And gathereth her food in the harvest.
(Prov, vi, 6)

But he does not really wish Kent to follow his advice, for as he remarks a little later, "I would have none but knaves follow it, since a fool gives it" (II, iv, 77). He has become a wise fool in the Erasmian or Pauline sense.

The Fool has also become Lear's alter ego, his externalized conscience, or, as he puts it himself, "Lear's shadow" (I, iv, 251). In this role he chides the King:

Fool. If thou wert my fool, nuncle, I'ld have thee beaten for being old before thy time.
Lear. How's that?
Fool. Thou shouldst not have been old till thou hadst been wise.
(I, v, 44)

It is his task with his probing, sometimes caustic comments to cut away the cataracts of illusion which cloud Lear's eyes. What though the process be painful! What though the Fool, and later Edgar, must lead the old King through the darkness of unreason! The cure begun by the Fool is completed by Edgar and Cordelia, and Lear sees better through the eyes of a chastened spirit. The Fool's manner grows gentler as the King's madness increases. But it is not his business, nor has he the skill, to nurse the old man back to mental health. And so he goes to bed at noon in the play.

[Harley] Granville-Barker justly warns that the Fool ought not to be "all etherealized by the higher criticism." The actor who plays the role must still "sing like a lark, juggle his words so that the mere skill delights us, and tumble around with all the grace in the world" [Prefaces to Shakespeare]. Such is the professional duty of the court and stage fool. But he must be so portrayed that we may perceive the Fool's real wisdom and the central position he takes in the meaning of the play. Shakespeare, by giving him another stanza to sing from Feste's old song, links this fool with the wise fool of comedy but at the same time points up the difference between the two. Lear's Fool has had to learn patience in adversity.

He that has and a little tiny wit—
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain—
Must make content with his fortunes fit,
For the rain it raineth every day.
(III, ii, 74)

Although it would be a mistake to regard Shakespeare's fools as mere personifications of wisdom, it is nevertheless true that each possesses his special virtue. Touchstone, by the air of realism which he breathes into the antique forest of romance, may be said to embody the Aristotelian virtue of truthfulness. Feste, by his advocacy of moderation in loving and laughing, adds to truthfulness the virtue of temperance. He lives in and expresses the golden mean. Lear's Fool, however, transcends his fellows in the quality of his wisdom. He is the supremely wise fool who expresses in his heartfelt devotion to Cordelia and to his king the Christian virtues of patience, humility, and love.

SOURCE: "Shakespeare's Wise Fools" in Wise Fools in Shakespeare, 1955. Reprint by Michigan State University Press, 1963, pp. 47-67.

Lear's Daughters

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6103

A. C. Bradley
[Bradley's remarks about Cordelia have been frequently cited by subsequent critics, even by those who profoundly disagree with his perspective on Lear's youngest daughter. He views her as a superlative figure who combines many of the individual virtues of Shakespeare's other heroines: a loving nature, a tender heart, resolution, and dignity. In Bradley's judgment, Cordelia ought not to be blamed for her imperfections—touches of pride and personal antagonism, an inability to speak of love, and her insistence on telling the truth rather than showing compassion—for these are all part of Shakespeare's unalterable tragic situation. The critic finds some degree of reconciliation in Cordelia's death. Bradley suggests that although she is an innocent victim, in her spiritual perfection she is beyond the reach of the evils committed by others; she seems not so much deprived of life as liberated from it.]

The character of Cordelia is not a masterpiece of invention or subtlety. . . . [She] appears in only four of the twenty-six scenes of King Lear; she speaks—it is hard to believe it—scarcely more than a hundred lines; and yet no character in Shakespeare is more absolutely individual or more ineffaceably stamped on the memory of his readers. There is a harmony, strange but perhaps the result of intention, between the character itself and this reserved or parsimonious method of depicting it. An expressiveness almost inexhaustible gained through paucity of expression; the suggestion of infinite wealth and beauty conveyed by the very refusal to reveal this beauty in expansive speech—this is at once the nature of Cordelia herself and the chief characteristic of Shakespeare's art in representing it. Perhaps it is not fanciful to find a parallel in his drawing of a person very different, Hamlet. It was natural to Hamlet to examine himself minutely, to discuss himself at large, and yet to remain a mystery to himself; and Shakespeare's method of drawing the character answers to it; it is extremely detailed and searching, and yet its effect is to enhance the sense of mystery. The results in the two cases differ correspondingly. No one hesitates to enlarge upon Hamlet, who speaks of himself so much; but to use many words about Cordelia seems to be a kind of impiety.

I am obliged to speak of her chiefly because the devotion she inspires almost inevitably obscures her part in the tragedy. This devotion is composed, so to speak, of two contrary elements, reverence and pity. The first, because Cordelia's is a higher nature than that of most even of Shakespeare's heroines. With the tenderness of Viola [in Twelfth Night] or Desdemona [in Othello] she unites something of the resolution, power, and dignity of Hermione [in A Winter's Tale], and reminds us sometimes of Helena [in All's Well That Ends Well], sometimes of Isabella [in Measure for Measure], though she has none of the traits which prevent Isabella from winning our hearts. Her assertion of truth and right, her allegiance to them, even the touch of severity that accompanies it, instead of compelling mere respect or admiration, become adorable in a nature so loving as Cordelia's. She is a thing enskyed and sainted, and yet we feel no incongruity in the love of the King of France for her, as we do in the love of the Duke for Isabella.

But with this reverence or worship is combined in the reader's mind a passion of championship, of pity, even of protecting pity. She is so deeply wronged, and she appears, for all her strength, so defenceless. We think of her as unable to speak for herself. We think of her as quite young, and as slight and small. 'Her voice was ever soft, gentle, and low'; ever so, whether the tone was that of resolution, or rebuke, or love. Of all Shakespeare's heroines she knew least of joy. She grew up with Goneril and Regan for sisters. Even her love for her father must have been mingled with pain and anxiety. She must early have learned to school and repress emotion. She never knew the bliss of young love: there is no trace of such love for the King of France. She had knowingly to wound most deeply the being dearest to her. He cast her off; and, after suffering an agony for him, and before she could see him safe in death, she was brutally murdered. We have to thank the poet for passing lightly over the circumstances of her death. We do not think of them. Her image comes before us calm and bright and still.

The memory of Cordelia thus becomes detached in a manner from the action of the drama. The reader refuses to admit into it any idea of imperfection, and is outraged when any share in her father's sufferings is attributed to the part she plays in the opening scene. Because she was deeply wronged he is ready to insist that she was wholly right. He refuses, that is, to take the tragic point of view, and, when it is taken, he imagines that Cordelia is being attacked, or is being declared to have 'deserved' all that befell her. But Shakespeare's was the tragic point of view. He exhibits in the opening scene a situation tragic for Cordelia as well as for Lear. At a moment where terrible issues join, Fate makes on her the one demand which she is unable to meet. . . . [It] was a demand which other heroines of Shakespeare could have met. Without loss of self-respect, and refusing even to appear to compete for a reward, they could have made the unreasonable old King feel that he was fondly loved. Cordelia cannot, because she is Cordelia. And so she is not merely rejected and banished, but her father is left to the mercies of her sisters. And the cause of her failure—a failure a thousand-fold redeemed—is a compound in which imperfection appears so intimately mingled with the noblest qualities that—if we are true to Shakespeare—we do not think either of justifying her or of blaming her: we feel simply the tragic emotions of fear and pity.

In this failure a large part is played by that obvious characteristic to which I have already referred. Cordelia is not, indeed, always tongue-tied, as several passages in the drama, and even in this scene, clearly show. But tender emotion, and especially a tender love for the person to whom she has to speak, makes her dumb. Her love, as she says, is more ponderous than her tongue:

Unhappy that I am, I cannot heave
My heart into my mouth.

This expressive word 'heave' is repeated in the passage which describes her reception of Kent's letter:

Faith, once or twice she heaved the name of 'Father'
Pantingly forth, as if it press'd her heart:

two or three broken ejaculations escape her lips, and she 'starts' away 'to deal with grief alone.' The same trait reappears with an ineffable beauty in the stifled repetitions with which she attempts to answer her father in the moment of his restoration:

Lear. Do not laugh at me;
For, as I am a man, I think this lady
To be my child Cordelia.
Cor. And so I am, I am.
Lear. Be your tears wet? yes, faith. I pray, weep not;
If you have poison for me, I will drink it.
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.
Cor. No cause, no cause.

We see this trait for the last time, marked by Shakespeare with a decision clearly intentional, in her inability to answer one syllable to the last words we hear her father speak to her:

No, no, no, no! Come, let's away to prison:
We two alone will sing like birds i' the 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. . . .

She stands and weeps, and goes out with him silent. And we see her alive no more.

But (I am forced to dwell on the point, because I am sure to slur it over is to be false to Shakespeare) this dumbness of love was not the sole source of misunderstanding. If this had been all, even Lear could have seen the love in Cordelia's eyes when, to his question 'What can you say to draw a third more opulent than your sisters?' she answered 'Nothing.' But it did not shine there. She is not merely silent, nor does she merely answer 'Nothing.' She tells him that she loves him 'according to her bond, nor more nor less'; and his answer,

How now, Cordelia! mend your speech a little,
Lest it may mar your fortunes,

so intensifies her horror at the hypocrisy of her sisters that she replies,

Good my Lord,
You have begot me, bred me, loved me: I
Return those duties back as are right fit,
Obey you, love you, and most honour you.
Why have my sisters husbands, if they say
They love you all? Haply, when I shall wed,
That lord whose hand must take my plight shall carry
Half my love with him, half my care and duty:
Sure, I shall never marry like my sisters,
To love my father all.

What words for the ear of an old father, unreasonable, despotic, but fondly loving, indecent in his own expressions of preference, and blind to the indecency of his appeal for protestations of fondness! Blank astonishment, anger, wounded love, contend within him; but for the moment he restrains himself and asks,

But goes thy heart with this?

. . . Cordelia answers,

Ay, good my lord.
Lear. So young, and so untender?
Cor. So young, my lord, and true.

Yes, 'heavenly true.' But truth is not the only good in the world, nor is the obligation to tell truth the only obligation. The matter here was to keep it inviolate, but also to preserve a father. And even if truth were the one and only obligation, to tell much less than truth is not to tell it. And Cordelia's speech not only tells much less than truth about her love, it actually perverts the truth when it implies that to give love to a husband is to take it from a father. There surely never was a more unhappy speech. . . .

Cordelia's hatred of hypocrisy and of the faintest appearance of mercenary professions reminds us of Isabella's hatred of impurity; but Cordelia's position is infinitely more difficult, and on the other hand there is mingled with her hatred a touch of personal antagonism and of pride. Lear's words,

Let pride, which she calls plainness, marry her!

are monstrously unjust, but they contain one grain of truth; and indeed it was scarcely possible that a nature so strong as Cordelia's, and with so keen a sense of dignity, should feel here nothing whatever of pride and resentment. This side of her character is emphatically shown in her language to her sisters in the first scene—language perfectly just, but little adapted to soften their hearts towards their father—and again in the very last words we hear her speak. She and her father are brought in, prisoners, to the enemy's camp; but she sees only Edmund, not those 'greater' ones on whose pleasure hangs her father's fate and her own. For her own she is little concerned; she knows how to meet adversity:

For thee, oppressed king, am I cast down;
Myself could else out-frown false fortune's frown.

Yes, that is how she would meet fortune, frowning it down, even as Goneril would have met it; nor, if her father had been already dead, would there have been any great improbability in the false story that was to be told of her death, that, like Goneril, she 'fordid herself.' Then, after those austere words about fortune, she suddenly asks,

Shall we not see these daughters and these sisters?

Strange last words for us to hear from a being so worshipped and beloved; but how characteristic! Their tone is unmistakable. I doubt if she could have brought herself to plead with her sisters for her father's life; and if she had attempted the task, she would have performed it but ill. Nor is our feeling towards her altered one whit by that. But what is true of Kent and the Fool is, in its measure, true of her. Any one of them would gladly have died a hundred deaths to help King Lear; and they do help his soul; but they harm his cause. They are all involved in tragedy.

Why does Cordelia die? I suppose no reader ever failed to ask that question, and to ask it with something more than pain,—to ask it, if only for a moment, in bewilderment or dismay, and even perhaps in tones of protest. These feelings are probably evoked more strongly here than at the death of any other notable character in Shakespeare; and it may sound a wilful paradox to assert that the slightest element of reconciliation is mingled with them or succeeds them. Yet it seems to me indubitable that such an element is present, though difficult to make out with certainty what it is or whence it proceeds. And I will try to make this out, and to state it methodically.

(a) It is not due in any perceptible degree to the fact, which we have just been examining, that Cordelia through her tragic imperfection contributes something to the conflict and catastrophe; and I drew attention to that imperfection without any view to our present problem. The critics who emphasise it at this point in the drama are surely untrue to Shakespeare's mind; and still more completely astray are those who lay stress on the idea that Cordelia, in bringing a foreign army to help her father, was guilty of treason to her country. When she dies we regard her, practically speaking, simply as we regard Ophelia [in Hamlet], or Desdemona [in Othello], as an innocent victim swept away in the convulsion caused by the error or guilt of others.

(b) Now this destruction of the good through the evil of others is one of the tragic facts of life, and no one can object to the use of it, within certain limits, in tragic art. And, further, those who because of it declaim against the nature of things, declaim without thinking. It is obviously the other side of the fact that the effects of good spread far and wide beyond the doer of good; and we should ask ourselves whether we really could wish (supposing it conceivable) to see this double-sided fact abolished. Nevertheless the touch of reconciliation that we feel in contemplating the death of Cordelia is not due, or is due only in some slight degree, to a perception that the event is true to life, admissible in tragedy, and a case of a law which we cannot seriously desire to see abrogated.

(c) What then is this feeling, and whence does it come? I believe we shall find that it is a feeling not confined to King Lear, but present at the close of other tragedies; and that the reason why it has an exceptional tone or force at the close of King Lear, lies in that very peculiarity of the close which also—at least for the moment—excites bewilderment, dismay, or protest. The feeling I mean is the impression that the heroic being, though in one sense and outwardly he has failed, is yet in another sense superior to the world in which he appears; is, in some way which we do not seek to define, untouched by the doom that overtakes him; and is rather set free from life than deprived of it. Some such feeling as this—some feeling which, from this description of it, may be recognised as their own even by those who would dissent from the description—we surely have in various degrees at the deaths of Hamlet and Othello and Lear, and of Antony and Cleopatra and Coriolanus. It accompanies the more prominent tragic impressions, and, regarded alone, could hardly be called tragic. For it seems to imply (though we are probably quite unconscious of the implication) an idea which, if developed, would transform the tragic view of things. It implies that the tragic world, if taken as it is presented, with all its error, guilt, failure, woe and waste, is no final reality, but only a part of reality taken for the whole, and, when so taken, illusive; and that if we could see the whole, and the tragic facts in their true place in it, we should find them, not abolished, of course, but so transmuted that they had ceased to be strictly tragic,—find, perhaps, the suffering and death counting for little or nothing, the greatness of the soul for much or all, and the heroic spirit, in spite of failure, nearer to the heart of things than the smaller, more circumspect, and perhaps even 'better' beings who survived the catastrophe. The feeling which I have tried to describe, as accompanying the more obvious tragic emotions at the deaths of heroes, corresponds with some such idea as this.

Now this feeling is evoked with a quite exceptional strength by the death of Cordelia. It is not due to the perception that she, like Lear, has attained through suffering; we know that she had suffered and attained in his days of prosperity. It is simply the feeling that what happens to such a being does not matter; all that matters is what she is. How this can be when, for anything the tragedy tells us, she has ceased to exist, we do not ask; but the tragedy itself makes us feel that somehow it is so. And the force with which this impression is conveyed depends largely on the very fact which excites our bewilderment and protest, that her death, following on the deaths of all the evil characters, and brought about by an unexplained delay in Edmund's effort to save her, comes on us, not as an inevitable conclusion to the sequence of events, but as the sudden stroke of mere fate or chance. The force of the impression, that is to say, depends on the very violence of the contrast between the outward and the inward, Cordelia's death and Cordelia's soul. The more unmotived, unmerited, senseless, monstrous, her fate, the more do we feel that it does not concern her. The extremity of the disproportion between prosperity and goodness first shocks us, and then flasnes on us the conviction that our whole attitude in asking or expecting that goodness should be prosperous is wrong; that, if only we could see things as they are, we should see that the outward is nothing and the inward is all. . . .

SOURCE: "King Lear," in Shakespearean Tragedy: Lectures on "Hamlet," "Othello," "King Lear," "Macbeth", Macmillan and Co. Limited, 1905, pp. 280-330.

Edwin Muir
[In the following excerpt from a lecture delivered at the University of Glasgow in April 1946, Muir discusses Goneril and Regan as representatives of a new political order. In the early 1600s, when the play was written, the medieval concept of communal traditions was giving way to modern notions of political rule—ones that emphasized effectiveness rather than principles, the critic observes. With their unconcern for traditional values or customs, Muir explains, Goneril and Regan embody the amorality of Realpolitik (politics based on practical factors rather than ethical or moral considerations) and the unscrupulous emphasis on power associated with Machiavellianism (the theory that the attainment of political power is justified by any means). The critic points out their lack of individuality and argues that they are like impersonal forces, beyond human appeal or understanding.]

King Lear was written round about 1605-6. . . . In the interval between the first and the last of these dates the medieval world with its communal tradition was slowly dying, and the modern individualist world was bringing itself to birth. Shakespeare lived in that violent period of transition. The old world still echoed in his ears; he was aware of the new as we are aware of the future, that is as an inchoate, semi-prophetic dream. Now it seems to me that that dream, those echoes, fill King Lear and account for the sense of vastness which it gives us, the feeling that it covers a far greater stretch of time than can be explained by the action. The extreme age of the King brings to our minds the image of a civilization of legendary antiquity; yet that civilization is destroyed by a new generation which belongs to Shakespeare's own time, a perfectly up-to-date gang of Renaissance adventurers. The play contains, therefore, or has taken on, a significance which Shakespeare probably could not have known, but could only have felt, and without his being aware, he wrote in it the mythical drama of the transmutation of civilization. . . .

Of the great tragedies King Lear is the only one in which two ideas of society are directly confronted, and the old generation and the new are set face to face, each assured of its own right to power. Macbeth is a drama of murder and usurpation and remorse; it changes the succession of the crown and brings guilt upon the offender, the guilt showing that the old order is still accepted, and the old laws still valid, since Macbeth feels that he has done wrong, both as the killer of a man and the supplanter of a king. But Regan, Goneril and Cornwall never feel they have done wrong, and this is because they represent a new idea; and new ideas, like everything new, bring with them their own kind of innocence. Hamlet, although it deals with a dynastic and therefore a political problem, is essentially a personal drama, perhaps the most personal of them all: there is no relationship in King Lear so intensely intimate as that of Hamlet to his mother. Lear's own relation to his daughters is most nearly so; yet Goneril and Regan are curiously equal in his estimation, indeed almost interchangeable; he is willing to accept either if she will only take his part against her sister; and as if his rage had blotted out their very names, he confounds them indistinguishably in his curses upon his daughters; so that we feel that daughters have become to him some strange and monstrous species. To Goneril and Regan, on the other hand, he is hardly even a father, but merely an old man who thinks and feels in a way they cannot understand, and is a burden to them. The almost impersonal equivalence of the two women in their father's eyes gives a cast to the play which is not to be found in any of the others, and makes us feel, indeed, that Lear is not contending with ordinary human beings but with mere forces to which any human appeal is vain, since it is not even capable of evoking a response. He, the representative of the old, is confronted with something brand new; he cannot understand it, and it does not even care to understand him.

There is something more, then, than ingratitude in the reaction of Lear's daughters, though the ingratitude, that "marble-hearted fiend", strikes most deeply into his heart. This something more is their attitude to power, which is grounded on their attitude to life. It is this, more than the ingratitude, that estranges Lear from them. His appeals cannot reach them, but, worse still, his mind cannot understand them, no matter how hard he tries. As this attitude of his daughters violates all his ideas of the nature of things, it seems to him against nature, so that he can only cry out against them as "unnatural hags". "Unnatural" is the nearest he can come to a definition of the unbridgable distance that divides him from them; his real struggle is to annihilate that distance, but he never succeeds; in his most intimate conflict with them he never comes any closer to them. When Regan shuts him out in the storm her action is symbolical as well as practical. His daughters are inside; he is outside. They are in two different worlds.

The story of King Lear tells how an old man parts his kingdom between his daughters when he feels no longer able to rule. He retains to himself only

The name and all th' addition to a king,

and leaves to them and their husbands

The sway, revenue, execution, of the rest.

His daughters, having got what they want, that is the power, and not caring much for the name or the addition, turn against him. As daughters, their act is one of filial ingratitude; as princesses and vice-regents, it is an act of "revolt and flying off". These two aspects of their policy are inseparable; in turning against their father they subvert the kingdom; by the same deed they commit two crimes, one private and one public.

But there is a complication. For Goneril and Regan's idea of rulership is different from their father's and so on the anguish caused by their ingratitude is piled the bewilderment of one who feels he is dealing with creatures whose notions are equally incomprehensible to his heart and his mind. In the later stages of the conflict it is the tortures of his mind that become the most unbearable, since they make the nature of things incomprehensible to him, and confound his ideas in a chaos from which the only escape is madness. The note of Lear's tragedy is to be found in another play [Othello]:

Chaos is come again.

The note of the play itself, the summary judgment on the whole action, is expressed in Albany's words:

If that the heavens do not their visible spirits
Send quickly down to tame these vile offences,
It will come,
Humanity must pertorce prey on itself,
Like monsters of the deep.

Yet this is the world which Lear's two daughters and Cornwall and Edmund and Oswald freely accept as theirs; it is their idea of a brand new order; and the play therefore deals not only with a conflict between two daughters and their father, and two vice-regents and their king, but with two conceptions of society.

In the new conception of society, that of Goneril and Regan, Nature plays an important part; the number of references to Nature in the play, almost always as images of cruelty or horror, has often been commented upon. [A. C.] Bradley in his book on Shakespearean Tragedy tries to make a list of the lower animals which are mentioned in the drama. . . . "These references are broadcast through the whole play", he says, "as though Shakespeare's mind were so busy with the subject that he could hardly write a page without some allusion to it. The dog, the horse, the cow, the sheep, the hog, the lion, the bear, the wolf, the fox, the monkey, the polecat, the civet-cat, the pelican, the owl, the crow, the chough, the wren, the fly, the butterfly, the rat, the mouse, the frog, the tadpole, the wall-newt, the water-newt, the worm—I am sure I cannot have completed the list, and some of them are mentioned again and again. . . . Sometimes a person in the drama is compared, openly or implicitly, with one of them. Goneril is a kite; her ingratitude has a serpent tooth: she has struck her father most serpent-like upon the very heart: her visage is wolfish: she has tied sharp-toothed unkindness like a vulture on her father's breast: for her husband she is a gilded serpent: to Gloster her cruelty seems to have the rangs of a boar. She and Regan are dog-hearted: they are tigers, not daughters; each is an adder to the other; the flesh of each is covered with the fell of a beast. . . . As we read, the souls of all the beasts in turn seem to us to have entered the bodies of these mortals; horrible in their venom, savagery, lust, deceitfulness, sloth, cruelty, filthiness" [Shakespearean Tragedy].

After looking on this picture of nature, turn to the first speech of Edmund, the mouthpiece of the new generation:

Thou, Nature, art my goddess; to thy law
My services are bound. . . .
Well then,
Legitimate Edgar, I must have your land:
Our father's love is to the bastard Edmund
As to the legitimate. Fine word, 'legitimate'.

Goneril and Regan and Cornwall, though they do not have Edmund's imaginative intellect, worship Nature in the same spirit. For it gives them the freedom they hunger for, absolves them from the plague of custom, justifies them when they reflect that their dimensions are well-compact and their shape true, as if that were all that was needed to make human a creature in human shape. They rely confidently on certain simple facts of nature: that they are young and their father old, strong while he is infirm, and that their youth and strength give them a short-cut to their desires. They are so close to the state of nature that they hardly need to reflect: what they have the power to do they claim the right to do. Or rather the power and its expression in action are almost simultaneous. When Lear pleads with Goneril she replies:

Be then desir'd
By her that else will take the thing she begs
A little to disquantity your train.

Regan says a little later:

I pray you, father, being weak, seem so.

After Cornwall puts out Gloster's eyes, and Regan stabs the servant who tried to prevent it, he says:

Turn out that eyeless villain; throw this slave
Upon the dunghill.

And Regan adds,

Go thrust him out at gates, and let him smell
His way to Dover.

The most repulsive thing about these words, apart from their cruelty, is their triteness. The two daughters ignore all the complexities of the situation, and solve it at once by an abominable truism. They are quite rational, but only on the lowest plane of reason, and they have that contempt for other ways of thinking which comes from a knowledge of their own efficiency. As they are rational, they have a good conscience, even a touch of self-righteousness; they sincerely believe their father is in the wrong and they are in the right, since they conceive they know the world as it is, and act in conformity with it, the source of all effective power. They do not see far, but they see clearly. When they reflect, and take thought for the future, their decisions are rational and satisfactory by their own standards. When Goneril wants an excuse for reducing her father's retinue, she instructs her servant Oswald how to behave towards him:

Put on what weary negligence you please,
You and your fellows: I'd have it come to question . . .
And let his knights have colder looks among you;
What grows of it, no matter: advise your fellows so:
I would breed from hence occasions, and I shall,
That I may speak.

This is a technique which we have seen much practised in our own time.

The members of the new generation are bound together by common interest, since they all wish to succeed in their individual ambitions, which they cannot achieve without help; but their most immediate bond is a common way of thinking, a spontaneous intellectual affinity resembling that of a chosen group to whom a new vision of the world has been vouchsafed. They feel they are of the elect and have the sense of superiority which fits their station. They are irresistibly driven to choose as confederates men and women of their own stamp, even though these are likely in the long run to thwart or destroy them. Having renounced morality as a useful factor in conduct, they judge others with a total lack of moral discrimination, being confined irretrievably to the low plane of reason on which they move. Accordingly Cornwall can say to Edmund:

You shall be ours;
Natures of such deep trust we shall much need;
You we first seize on.

And of honest Kent:

This is some fellow,
Who, having been praised for bluntness, doth affect
A saucy roughness, and constrains the garb
Quite from his nature: he cannot flatter, he;
An honest man and plain, he must speak truth:
An they will have it, so; if not, he's plain.
These kind of rogues I know, which in this plainness
Harbour more craft and more corrupter ends
Than twenty silly-ducking observants
That stretch their duties nicely.

Lear could not have made these mistakes, for he had some knowledge of the moral nature of men; but Cornwall and Goneril and Regan can and do; for while they have worked out the equation of life with complete satisfaction to themselves, they have done so by omitting the moral factor.

The new generation may be regarded then as the embodiment of wickedness, a wickedness of that special kind which I have tried to indicate. . . .

Shakespeare was acquainted with the Renaissance man, and . . . his plays abound in references to "policy", which stood in his time for what the Germans dignify by the name of Realpolitik, that is political action which ignores all moral considerations. . . . It was an age in which Italian princes, and others too, permitted themselves a liberty of action which one would have expected to disrupt or destroy the state; yet it did not. Instead, the subject conformed to a rulership which itself seemed impossible because antisocial; he conformed by becoming the mere instrument of his ruler. The Macchiavellian became a stock figure in later Elizabethan drama; Shakespeare must have met many a man like Edmund who refused to be deprived by the plague of custom. Bradley calls Edmund a mere adventurer, yet afterwards describes him as a consummate politician in the new style. "He acts in pursuance of a purpose", says Bradley, "and if he has any affections or dislikes, ignores them. He is determined to make his way, first to his brother's lands, then—as the prospect widens—to the crown; and he regards men and women, with their virtues and vices, together with the bonds of kinship, friendship, or allegiance, merely as hindrances or helps to his end. They are for him divested of all quality except their relation to his end; as indifferent as mathematical quantities or mere physical agents.

A credulous father and a brother noble, . . .
I see the business,

he says, as if he were talking of x and y" [Shakespearean Tragedy].

To regard things in this way is to see them in a continuous present divested of all associations, denuded of memory and the depth which memory gives to life. Goneril and Regan, even more than Edmund, exist in this shallow present, and it is to them a present in both senses of the word, a gift freely given into their hands to do with what they like. Having no memory, they have no responsibility, and no need therefore to treat their father differently from any other troublesome old man. This may simply be another way of saying that they are evil, for it may be that evil consists in a hiatus in the soul, a craving blank, a lack of one of the essential threads which bind experience into a coherent whole and give it a consistent meaning. The hiatus in Lear's daughters is specifically a hiatus of memory, a breach in continuity; they seem to come from nowhere and to be on the road to nowhere; they have words and acts only to meet the momentary emergency, the momentary appetite; their speech is therefore strikingly deficient in imagery, and consists of a sequence of pitiless truisms. Bradley complains of the characters in the play that, "Considered simply as psychological studies few of them are of the highest interest." This is true of Goneril and Regan, for the human qualities of highest interest are left out of them. But this was Shakespeare's intention; he had to interest us in two characters who were both evil and shallow. Their shallowness is ultimately that of the Macchiavellian view of life as it was understood in his age, of "policy", or Realpolitik, whichever we may choose to call it. The sisters are harpies, but as rulers they act in the approved contemporary Macchiavellian convention.

SOURCE: The Politics of "King Lear", Jackson, Son & Company, 1947, 24 p.

Unlock This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-hour free trial

Sample Essay Outlines


Critical Evaluation

Explore Study Guides