Tragic Form in Shakespeare

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

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

Come, let's away to prison:
We two alone will sing like birds i' th' cage:
When thou dost ask me blessing, I'll kneel down
And ask of thee forgiveness: so we'll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues
Talk of court news; and we'll talk with them too,
Who loses and who wins, who's in, who's out;
And take upon's the mystery of things,
As if we were God's spies: and we'll wear out,
In a walled prison, packs and sects of great ones
That ebb and flow by th' moon.

But there is a powerful irony in the very conception of the speech. For if birds singing in a cage represent a canonization of love in a hermitage of the blessed, they are nonetheless helpless and captive creatures. Lear's Olympian indifference to the ebb and flow of the power-seekers and the time-servers is an ironic image of...

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All of Shakespeare

(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...

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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...

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Double Plot

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...

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Language and Imagery

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...

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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...

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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...

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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...

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The Fool

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...

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Lear's Daughters

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....

(The entire section is 6103 words.)