King Lear: The Tragic Disjunction of Wisdom and Power
Paul A. Cantor, University of Virginia
What is the price of Experience do men buy
it for a song
Or wisdom for a dance in the street? No it
is bought with the price
Of all that a man hath his house his wife
—William Blake, The Four Zoas
Many critics regard King Lear as the greatest of Shakespeare's plays and also as his most tragic. Indeed, many would claim that it is the most tragic play ever written. And yet, curiously, in most critical accounts of the play it is difficult to see why we should even regard it as tragic at all, whether we are using an Aristotelian or a Hegelian definition of tragedy. In the view of most critics, Lear is basically a pathetic old man, vain and foolish, rash in his judgment and incapable of controlling his emotions—and he is all these things from the very beginning of the play.1 This characterization seems to preclude viewing Lear on the Aristotelian model of a tragic hero, as someone raised above the ordinary level of humanity, except in the most conventional sense of his social status. Moreover, in the view of the majority of critics, the play charts the growth of Lear's wisdom, as he learns the emptiness of worldly glory and comes to embrace the love of his daughter Cordelia as the one true value in his life.2 As consoling as this vision of Lear's education through suffering may be, it leaves us with a sense that the dramatic issues of the play can in the end be fully resolved. But if that is the case, then Lear cannot be in a tragic situation as Hegel defines it, that is, he is not caught in the clash of two legitimate principles, a situation from which there is no simple escape, no matter how much he learns. In concrete terms, critics generally do not view Lear as caught between genuinely conflicting loyalties, his political and his personal obligations; on the contrary, in their reading of the play, Lear would simply be right to abdicate the throne and retire into private life.
In short, in the view of most critics, at the beginning of the play Lear is simply mistaken in both his attitudes and his actions, and the course of the drama should in effect teach him the. error of his ways.3 This reading of King Lear makes it an edifying play, but it drains it of its tragic power by oversimplifying Shakespeare's understanding of the complexities of political life. Ultimately, this kind of reading threatens to reduce King Lear to a form of melodrama, a story of the straightforward conflict of clearly identifiable and separable forces of good and evil, in which the outcome is tragic only in the sense of being disastrous for the main characters. Above all, many critics end up undermining the stature of King Lear as a tragic figure by suggesting that with a little more wisdom he could have avoided the catastrophes in his life. Critics may go on speaking of the grandeur of Shakespeare's achievement and of Lear as a character, but if the standard readings of the play were correct, a more honest reaction would resemble that of Groucho Marx, when, in a meeting almost as improbable as Lear's encounter with Tom o' Bedlam, he was attempting to explain the play to T. S. Eliot:
I said the king was an incredibly foolish old man, which God knows he was; and that if he'd been my father I would have run away from home at the age of eight—instead of waiting until I was ten. .. . I pointed out that King Lear's opening speech was the height of idiocy. Imagine (I said) a father asking his three children: Which of you kids loves me the most?4
I am sure that most critics would, as Eliot evidently did, reject this characterization of King Lear, but the question remains: is there anything in their readings of the play that would allow them to counter this view of its hero? As convinced as critics are of the greatness of King Lear as a work of art, they evidently have a hard time giving an account of the play that explains that greatness. In the delightfully insouciant way in which Groucho projects himself into the world of King Lear, he...
(The entire section is 8,026 words.)