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King Lear

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

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

Lear and Cordelia have also generated considerable criticism. Each have been studied individually, but critics are equally concerned with the relationship of Lear and Cordelia, as well as their relationships to other characters in the play. Alexander Leggatt (1988) and Phoebe S. Spinrad (1991) are, like many critics, particularly interested in Lear's death and how it should be interpreted. Leggatt has used Gloucester's experience as a way, through contrast, of understanding Lear's own situation. While demonstrating Lear's resistance throughout the play to new knowledge, Leggatt has observed that in the Folio edition of the play, Lear is centered on Cordelia as he dies, suggesting, perhaps, that Lear has indeed learned...

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how much he loves his daughter. In contrast, Spinrad has found little evidence that Lear has learned or demonstrated growth. Despite this lack of evidence, Spinrad has argued, audiences grieve at the end of the play. After stressing that Lear's death defies explanation through traditional dramatic or philosophical theories, Spinrad has concluded that the emotional response of audiences to Lear's death is perhaps generated by compassion. Cordelia's role in the play is often examined in its relationship to the Fool's. Richard Abrams (1985) has examined the theory that Cordelia and the Fool were played by the same actor in early productions ofKing Lear. Abrams has cited the theatrical benefits of such a doubling of the parts, as the two characters both serve as Lear's "truth-tellers." Mark Berge (1994) also has linked Cordelia to the Fool, arguing that both characters illustrate the play's theme of dramatic irresolution. Lear and Cordelia, as well as Goneril and Regan, are also studied together in another manner—as a family. Harry Berger, Jr. (1979) has explored the psychological motivation behind the rivalry between the sisters and Lear's division of his kingdom and his subsequent treatment of his children. Similarly, Thomas McFarland (1981) has examined the dynamics of the Lear family. McFarland has noted that in contrast to the family situation in Hamlet, Lear's situation is not "flamboyant or unique." McFarland has argued that in many ways, Lear's emotional attitude toward his children is an amplified version of similar emotions other parents might at one time feel toward their offspring. Additionally, McFarland has maintained that the tragic situation is sparked by the tension Lear feels between his role as father and as king.

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


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David Lowenthal (essay date 1994)

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

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

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

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

The Setting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fathers, Gods and Kings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On approaching the hovel, Lear still hesitates to enter, claiming that the "tempest in my mind" over his daughters' ingratitude keeps him from feeling the tempest of the storm battering his body. "Filial ingratitude! Is it not as this mouth should tear this hand for lifting food to't?" He is struck by what an inversion of nature is to be found in such ingratitude, but he will "punish home," suggesting that their punishment lies in his own hands and not in those of the gods. Meanwhile, urged by Kent to enter the hovel, Lear makes sure the fool enters first and then utters a prayer, as he calls it, for the houseless and unfed poor "that bide the pelting of this pitiless storm." He himself, he confesses, had not thought enough of the sufferings of the poor. He goes so far as to command those in "pomp"—the wealthy and powerful—to expose themselves to what poor wretches feel and bestow their surplus on them in order to "show the Heavens more just." With this reflection, Lear has taken his mind off himself and ceased thinking of the storm as a divine means of detecting or punishing criminals and sinners. Storms cannot be conceived as moral instruments, since their victims are the innocent even more than the guilty. Those mainly hurts are the poor, best helped not by prayer to the gods but by pleas to the wealthy, who in helping the poor "show the heavens more just."

At this point the almost naked Edgar, disguised as Tom o' Bedlam, is discovered in the hovel. Raving like a devout man, he speaks as if the world is ruled not by a good god or gods but by the "foul fiend," and even gives his own counterpart of the Ten Commandments. He tells Lear he has led a life of sinful pleasure, but Lear seems not to hear and to be considering only Tom's uncovered body. At first he thought Tom's penury must have been caused by the ingratitude of unkind daughters, like his own misery: "Could thou save nothing? Wouldst thou give 'em all?" Perhaps it was even a "judicious punishment" (without saying by whom) for having begotten such "pelican" daughters. But now Lear is struck by the contrast between naked Tom and the "three of us" (Lear, Kent, and fool) who are clothed and therefore "sophisticated." "Thou," Lear says to Tom, "are the thing itself; unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor, bare, forked animal as thou art"—whereupon he starts to strip off his own clothing (these "lendings"), obviously to make himself like Tom.

Let us try to reconstruct the unspoken movement of Lear's thought here. Why am I suffering the ingratitude and injustice of my daughters? The storm is not an instrument of the gods for punishing the wicked. In fact, the cause of human wickedness is in men themselves, for they have departed from nature. Man is essentially, or by nature, a simple animal without clothing, possessions or power—unsophisticated—and hence without the possibility of having unkind daughters. The source of human unhappiness and evil is what man adds to his nature, complicating and corrupting it, and, of these inventions and conventions, clothing is the perfect symbol. Stripping himself of his clothing—for now Edgar's being close to nakedness is a sign not of poverty but of natural purity—is Lear's way of regaining nature and undoing the evil man himself has caused.

So after Edgar gabbles about assorted evils caused by the foul fiend, about the awful things he eats and about the prince of darkness—thus presenting a view of the world as dominated by evil rather than good powers—Lear responds to Kent's "How fares your Grace?" with "What's he?"—i.e., by dismissing "your Grace" as a merely conventional title that has no place among natural things. And when Gloucester, acting against Lear's daughters' commands, seeks to bring his king out of this "tyrannous night" to a place where food and shelter are ready, Lear speaks the most amazing lines in the play: "First let me talk with this philosopher. What is the cause of thunder?"

It is to Tom that Lear turns when he speaks these lines, for he has mistaken him for a philosopher. Why? And what does his question signify? Again we must seek the unspoken train of thought. Tom is natural man—man prior to the influence of inventions, conventions and traditions. Philosophy is the exercise of human reason, challenging all accepted beliefs as such and seeking knowledge of nature—of the nature of all things, and the causes of them all. What is more plausible than to believe that this natural man would be in touch with nature or have a natural understanding of nature? For it is nature that Lear himself has discovered in his question, since simply asking the cause of thunder is to doubt what he and his society have always believed—that Jupiter is the cause of thunder, that both lightning and thunder are the "thought-executing" effects of a god, or that beings mentally akin to human beings are the directing causes of all things. It is to attribute the cause of thunder to forces inherent in or natural to the material world. Thus, when a few moments later Lear says to Tom, "Let me ask you one word in private," we can guess what that word must be, and why the question must be private. In all likelihood, Lear will ask whether the gods exist or, better, just what the fundamental cause of things really is. It is a question that cannot be asked openly or publicly if religion is essential to ordinary human life. And to show that introducing the idea of philosophy at this point was hardly accidental, Shakespeare has Lear invoke its Greek origins by his references to Tom as "this learned Theban" and "good Athenian," and identifying him twice more as a philosopher.

If one had to choose a single place in Shakespeare's plays that proves he wrote more for the study than the stage, for serious private reflection than theater viewing, this is it. Here we find no dramatic interest whatsoever. Nothing happens, no action, passion or perception: the plot stands absolutely still. For this reason, the critics (apart from Harry Jaffa, the first to draw attention to this point) have produced practically no commentary on the lines, which simply baffle them. But if King Lear is a play about Lear's mind and soul, as everyone has to admit, a failure to note the importance of these lines, and what has been happening inside Lear to cause them, is to miss and misunderstand the heart of the play. By making Lear grow increasingly rational as he grows increasingly mad, Shakespeare has him reenact the coming into existence of philosophy in sixth-century Greece.

Earlier in the play Shakespeare had even pointed us back toward the earliest philosophy of nature by twice citing playfully the fundamental maxim of these pre-Socratic philosophers, as we call them. When Cordelia first tells Lear that she will say nothing to express her love for him, he replies: "Nothing will come of nothing," meaning, in the context, that she will receive no dowry if she speaks no words. Later in Act I, when the fool asks Lear whether any use can be made of nothing, he replies: "Why, no, boy; nothing can be made of nothing." If the Harvard Concordance is right, this principle is mentioned in no other play, so Shakespeare must have appreciated its unique importance to the rational search for the natural causes of things which was and is philosophy. As Empedocles put it at about 450 B.C.:

From what in no wise exists, it is impossible for anything to come into being; and for Being to perish completely is incapable of fulfillment and unthinkable . . .

This basic idea—that something must come from something and not from nothing, and cannot in turn become nothing—has often been regarded, quite properly, as the premise of all natural investigation, whether we call it philosophy or science. Rational inquiry into the cause of thunder can only proceed after the idea of its originating with Zeus has been discarded. In the play, natural philosophy as an undertaking seems already to have been known in Britain, just as the word "nature" was known and had even become part of common parlance there. Gloucester actually refers to and rejects the "wisdom of nature" (meaning this very natural philosophy) that can "reason it thus and thus" about solar and lunar eclipses—a wisdom, in short, that refuses to believe them to be the omens of imminent human disorders that (as he thinks) they really are. Privately, Edmund makes fun of his father's superstitious belief that the heavenly bodies determine our character and fate, but in front of Edgar he acts as if their father's belief is also his own, drawing from Edgar the criticism implied in the question, "How long have you been a sectary astronomical?" (we would say "astrological").

So, while Lear was probably expressing the generally accepted religious view when he spoke of the "operation of the orbs from whom we exist and cease to be," it does not seem to have been customary at the time to extend this view, as Gloucester does, into an overall deterministic astrology. The gods were expected to influence and intervene into human affairs, but it did not necessarily follow that their role as heavenly bodies or orbs determined the whole course of every life. And it is Gloucester's credulously taking recent eclipses as omens of disorder and divisions in human life that makes him susceptible to Edmund's lies about his brother's hostility to him. Gloucester remains pious and credulous throughout, but Lear leaves his piety far behind.

Having entered the farmhouse provided by Gloucester, Lear is still preoccupied with his bad daughters: "To have a thousand with red burning spits come hissing in upon 'em. . . ." He is thinking of how he might bring about their suitable punishment, but he will now rely on armed men rather than on the gods, which seem to be the only recourse left to him. Then some-, thing must tell him that it would be unjust to punish his daughters without a trial, and his next words are: "It shall be done; I will arraign them straight." So, guided by what looks like an inherent or natural sense of justice, but relying on the conventional device men have invented to administer justice, Lear appoints a bank of judges consisting of Tom, the fool and Kent. He arraigns Goneril first, charging her with kicking the poor king, her father—an apt physical metaphor for her mistreatment of him and very similar to an action Aristophanes attributes to the influence of Socrates in The Clouds. But Lear imagines that Regan escapes, due to corruption in the court—i.e., to a weakness in human institutions for enforcing justice, and after this comes his pathetic reflection, "The little dogs and all, Tray, Blanch and Sweetheart—see, they bark at me." Not only do his daughters, failing to recognize him as their father and king, treat him with such cruelty, but even his own little dogs (he imagines) fail to recognize him as their old beloved master and bark at him, baring their fangs as they would at a stranger.

Lear's final remark in the farmhouse returns to the theme of natural philosophy: "Then let them anatomize Regan; see what breeds about her heart. Is there any cause in nature that make these hard hearts?" This presumes that Regan's hardness of heart has a physical cause not endemic to civilized life itself, as his pondering of the appearance of Edgar (as Tom) had led him to conclude before, but peculiar to her own body. Thus, in place of explanations given in moral or religious terms, Lear looks for a natural cause in the most physical sense. He seems to have replaced the notion of mind and soul, divine or human, with that of matter, dismissing the idea of a divine superintendence of the world for the sake of justice. On the other hand, he still seems to harbor the belief that "these hard hearts" are an exception to the general rule of nature, which favors softer hearts or justice.

Before proceeding further, we should comment on the connection between Lear's mental wanderings and the physical circumstances surrounding him. A great storm is taking place in nature, and amid this storm Lear is losing his mind: two similar occurrences, both showing a departure from the harmony of nature. Lear tries desperately not to go mad. He has always been in control of himself, patient in the face of sorrow and suffering. But the majesty of his character, combined with the magnitude of his mistreatment by his daughters (and perhaps with his own awareness of having mistreated Cordelia) derange his mind. The chaos of this storm of unparalleled proportions matches the chaos of his mind, or so it seems, and together they absorb us so completely as to make us forget that the normal human condition is one of sanity and the normal condition of nature one of good, or at least non-stormy, weather. The harmony of nature—this goodness of nature—seems difficult to upset and plunge into a great storm, and the human mind even more difficult to render irrational, its proper nature being to remain in control of itself. In this respect, philosophy, by its attainment of truth, may be said to bring the mind into its fullest and most stable possession of itself and thereby to provide its natural perfection or greatest health. It is, intrinsically, the very hallmark of sanity, not madness.

"Reason in Madness" at Dover: Act IV

As Lear is about to fall asleep in the farmhouse, Gloucester comes urging him to flee for his life and providing him with a litter to take him to Dover, where Cordelia's army has landed. "Oppressed nature sleeps, says Kent. "This rest might yet have balmed thy broken sinews. . . ." But Lear is permitted no rest, and, subjected to the further motion of flight, not only remains mad but extends his reason-in-madness when we see him at Dover. The first report of his presence there comes from Cordelia. Having evidently escaped from Kent and his litter-bearers, Lear has fashioned himself a crown of weeds to show he is a king by nature and not merely by convention, for unlike flowers or grains, weeds grow spontaneously without cultivation by man.

The scene in the storm outside Gloucester's castle had ended with Lear's giving up on the gods, turning to original nature as his principle, realizing that his wicked daughters must be brought before the bar of human justice to receive their punishment, and then wondering whether there are physical causes of evil itself. At Dover, conceiving of himself as a natural and not merely conventional king, Lear begins by saying: "No, they cannot touch me for coining; I am the king himself," adding "Nature's above art in that respect." What he means is something like this: wearing an ordinary crown makes a merely conventional king guilty of counterfeiting ("coining"), since he is counterfeiting being a king, but he, Lear, is a natural king, a real king, and hence superior to any artificial or conventional king whatsoever. Nature is above art in that respect!

His next series of disconnected remarks form a pattern by their reference to activities he associates with kingship, and, except for one, pertain to the practices, attitudes and skills of war. They take it for granted—so obvious must it have seemed to Lear—that the defense of society against attack is the first requirement of political life. This priority of the military also accounts for his symbolic attachment to his knights, his continuing to hunt, even at the age of eighty, and his proud claim toward the end of the play that were he younger he would have done more than kill Cordelia's executioner: "With his good biting falchion" he would have made him skip. The only break in the military pattern of these remarks comes with the mystifying "Look, look, a mouse! Peace, peace, this piece of toasted cheese will do't." Is this meant to show Lear's gentler side—perhaps reliving a child's surprise at seeing a mouse and wanting to lure it out—or are his quieting call of "Peace, peace" and the toasted cheese just clever ways of catching a mouse? We do not know, but this is the only context in which he mentions peace.

Next Lear dwells on the flattery to which a king is exposed, even from his youth. He now knows, he says, that he could not really have been wise when he was young (as they told him), that he has no control over nature's great events, and that he himself is not "ague-proof." He recognizes his limits, and of course is a better man—and king—for doing so. In this way Lear seems to be continuing his reflection on kingship: a true and wise king—a natural king—would have to be aware of his own limitations and realize he is not a god.

A moment later, when the blind Gloucester recognizes Lear's voice and asks, "Is't not the King?", Lear replies "Ay, every inch a king!" and goes on to picture the king in his domestic role as the fearful dispenser of criminal justice—of punishment and pardon. But the picture he now presents constitutes a radical break from the ordinary. He will not, he proclaims, have adulterers killed, since lechery and copulation are the rule of nature for all animals, and for women even more than men, despite their outward modesty: "Let copulation thrive." Let appetite be followed and pleasure sought!

Nor are some men truly just and others unjust: no, in the desire to commit crime there is no difference between the justice and the thief, the beadle and the whore. Moreover, the system of justice is always unjust in its application, allowing the wealthy and powerful to elude its net while wreaking full vengeance on the poor. This is why Lear can find in a beggar running away from a farmer's barking dog the "great image of authority": authority has its foundation in fear alone, not justice. And it is also why this natural king, crowned with weeds of his own picking, can draw the grand and most radical conclusion that "None does offend, none, I say, none; I'll able 'em." What better place to have Edgar characterize Lear's utterances as "matter and impertinency mix'd; Reason in madness"?

About this high point of Lear's thinking the commentators have nothing to say. His claim is stated in the most general form—i.e., philosophically: there are no offenses, no crimes, in the strict sense, no crimes by nature, and he himself will so testify in defense of those accused of crimes. But if all crimes are merely conventional, the laws against them must be devised not out of a devotion to justice but—as we may conjecture—because each individual has a selfish interest in protecting himself from crimes, even though his own natural inclination is to commit them if he could do so with impunity. The general teaching expressed here by Lear in this odd manner is so old that it is traceable to some of the earliest natural philosophers—the ones who discovered nature and relied on "ex nihilo" as their first principle.

Shakespeare has already alerted us to that background in the play. He may have known of an expression by Heracleitus to the effect that "To God, all things are beautiful, good and just; but men have assumed some things to be unjust, others just." Heracleitus means that the distinction between just and unjust acts is not in the nature of things but assumed or devised by men: justice is conventional. Almost immediately after this point in the text, Lear imagines a chimerical stratagem to steal upon his sons-in-law and "kill, kill, kill, etc.," presumably killing all in sight, including his daughters. But the stratagem raises two questions: Do his sons-in-law deserve to be killed, even if his daughters do? What about innocent members of their households? Would that be just? Is it not more than a conventional rule to refrain from punishing the innocent? And—so basic to the play—is not Lear's sense, and ours, of the guilt of his daughters an indication that some justice is indeed by nature and not simply conventional? Lear's theoretical understanding, in the manner of Heracleitus, seems curiously at odds with the facts of the play.

It was also Heracleitus who declared that all things are in flux, but Shakespeare distinguishes between harmony and chaos, rest and motion in the natural constitution of things. With rest, Lear's mind can recover its normalcy—while of course losing the unnatural ability with which Shakespeare endows it to philosophize in madness. But nature, and the nature of each thing, consists in the control of motion by rest, of matter by form, and, in men, of matter by mind. The world is a cosmos more than a chaos, and so are the natural beings in it. As Lear sleeps still, Cordelia calls upon the gods to cure this "great breach in his abused nature! The untun'd and jarring senses, O, wind up of this child-changed father!" More conventional than her disturbed father, Cordelia relies on the gods to restore the harmony inherent in our nature by which we are rendered normal and sane. Nevertheless, quite appropriately, it is to the harmonies of music that Lear awakens, restored, from his rest.

Let us see the consequences of mad Lear's having adopted the conventionalist view of justice. According to that view, all men have the same, essentially selfish desires bereft of any concern for others, and unrestrained by any natural sense or understanding of justice. But in that case there are no natural crimes, no natural punishments, no nature-based systems of justice, and—no natural kings! It makes no sense to think of a king as one devoted to the public good and acting justly in the public's behalf—i.e., as a king by nature—if there is no natural basis for his activity. What Lear has done, through his thinking, is to undermine entirely his thought about himself and his daughters. And what Shakespeare has done is to confront us with these philosophical alternatives. If justice is natural, there are natural crimes, natural punishments and rewards, perhaps natural kings as well, and the fundamental injustices and virtuous actions of the play are themselves rooted in nature. If justice is conventional, the distinction between the selfish and the unselfish will prove unfounded, and all apparent justice and virtue will dissolve into selfishness of one sort or another. In that case, the internal foundation of the play itself, and Lear's entire being as a man in pursuit of justice, will collapse and leave no mark. The good and bad characters will fade into each other, and there will be nothing glorious left. But is this what happens in the play?

The Last Act

In no other play of Shakespeare's are the good and bad characters so starkly distinguished as in this one. Goneril, Regan, Cornwall, Edmund (until the very end) and Oswald are rotten to the core. Lear, Edgar, Cordelia, Kent, Gloucester, Albany are essentially good, whatever their faults. Now it is obvious that Shakespeare does not stand neutrally between these two groups. He makes the good as lovable and admirable as he can, the bad as detestable as he can. But on what is this distinction based? Are the good more natural than the bad? Are the bad to be understood as a falling away from or corruption of the good, or the good as a falling away from or corruption of the bad?

For one thing, it is plain that the principle of selfishness, as it operates in the play, not only wantonly destroys others but destroys oneself. Edmund is directly responsible for his father's blinding, for the death of Cordelia, for his father's mortal pursuit of Edgar, for the mutual jealousy of Goneril and Regan, and, finally, for Goneril's poisoning of Regan. Selfishness is inconsistent with the love and loyalty required in social relationships. But this is far from all. Provoked by Shakespeare's presentations, we in the audience love the good characters and despise the bad: there is something in us to which the poet appeals, and which had already to be there in order for him to make such an appeal in the first place. We are angry with Lear for dismissing Cordelia and Kent, while remaining concerned about his future. We too feel how sharper than a serpent's tooth is filial ingratitude. We suffer with Gloucester when Cornwall sets his foot on his face. We love Kent for his selfless service to a worthy master. We ache with Lear as he painfully loses his mind, and delight in the touches of love and sympathy he expresses in the midst of his misery. And as his plight worsens, and his daughters grow more repulsive, we wonder desperately with him what support justice has in the world.

We have these reactions because there are natural experiences in life which we particularly identify with being human. Love, friendship, the recognition of human greatness, pity, reflection occur, to some degree, in us all. Despite the constant truggings of self-interest, good people do not surrender the distinctive content of these experiences. We admire the loyalty of Edgar, Kent and Gloucester, realizing not only that their loyalty is well directed but that it costs them much to be loyal. We recognize a fault in Gloucester when we learn of his having kept Edmund abroad and wince at his credulousness in swallowing Edmund's traducing of Edgar. We see that this weakness in his character should not be there. This judgment derives from the fact that our relationships place requirements on us from within themselves. It is a very warped human being who has no friend or does not love someone and who fails to realize that sacrifice will at times be required of him, even great sacrifice. Are we to abandon our friends and loved ones at an instant? Will it be easy to find friends and loved ones again? Will we think well of ourselves? Would we ourselves wish to be so abandoned? Something similar can be said of ingrates and especially of ungrateful children, who receive benefits without wanting to thank their benefactors and help them in turn, but instead give slights, contempts or harms in return for affection and assistance.

It is to these elementary relationships of parent and child, brother and brother, sister and sister, master and servant, ruler and ruled, husband and wife that Shakespeare turns in this play for his material. While exhibiting some of the complications of ordinary morality, he is anxious to demonstrate its dignity, ground and necessity. By showing both injustice and justice at work, he traces them to their source, and reveals their basis in human nature. In consequence, far from demonstrating the meaninglessness of the universe, and its resistance to justice, the play shows why justice must have a lasting and secure place in the minds and hearts of men. Founded in the social nature of man, justice is conventional only in its forms, while its substance remains fixed and universal. This principle is perfectly consistent with acknowledging that the actual accomplishment of justice is difficult and elusive. Injustice receives its power from the selfishness that resists and thwarts the call of our better natures. Keeping it down depends on the wisdom, justice and power of rulers, who preserve an order in which justice thrives and injustice weakens. When the wicked gain the upper hand, not the principle of justice but its enforcement suffers, with untold consequences for the just and the innocent.

In the last scene of Act IV, when Lear awakens to the strains of music, he cannot believe he is before Cordelia herself, and takes her to be a soul in bliss while he is bound, suffering, to a wheel of fire—for treating her so badly. He want to kneel to her, but she wants him to bless her. He will take poison if she desires him to. He thinks she does not love him, and admits she has some cause to do him wrong, unlike her sisters. To which, in what may sound like a contradiction of the root principle of natural philosophy, she says, "No cause, no cause"—meaning only that she has no cause to harm him. Lear asks her to forget and forgive. Obviously, he has forgotten and forgiven the obstinacy on her part that had occasioned his rage, and she, having forgiven his rage, only wishes for his blessing again. Forgiving the errors of otherwise good people seems, in fact, to be a general trait of good people in the play. Cordelia and Kent both forgive Lear; Lear forgives Cordelia; Edgar forgives Gloucester. This forbearance cements the good people to each other, and either prevents, softens or terminates the harms they sometimes do inadvertently, influenced by passion or error.

In the last Act both Lear and Cordelia are captured by the native forces of Edmund, Albany and Regan. Lear wants only to live in prison with Cordelia, blessing and kneeling to each other, praying, singing, discussing those at court and trying to penetrate their motives, "as if we were God's spies." Even in seclusion Lear cannot help thinking about politics, though now the rise and fall of "great ones" is of little direct importance to him, their fall being as apparent as their rise. His private relation to Cordelia, which he seems to regard as never-ending, has replaced political life in his mind. On being ordered by Edmund to prison, however, Lear's old fighting spirit reappears. As they are led off he tells Cordelia to wipe her eyes: "We'll see 'em starv'd first," before they shall make us weep.

In the interim, with the help of a letter from Edgar, Albany discovers Edmund's and Goneril's deceit, and Edmund is mortally wounded when challenged to personal combat by Edgar, whose identity is then unknown to him. In revealing himself to Edmund, Edgar tries to vindicate the justness of the gods, who "of our pleasant vices make instruments to plague us. The dark and vicious place where thee he (Gloucester) got cost him his eyes." But we may doubt whether this was Edgar's serious view, since he had tricked his father into believing, falsely, that it was the gods rather than himself who saved him from death at the cliffs of Dover. We are entitled, however, to infer from this combat that, without Edgar's success defeating Edmund, the whole story might have had a very different conclusion. Moral superiority is not enough: the good must also be physically more powerful than the wicked. Edgar goes on to tell Albany and Edmund of his and Gloucester's sufferings, and of how Gloucester died after Edgar reveals his true identity, whereupon his heart, "Twixt two extremes of passion, joy and grief, burst smilingly." Edgar also tells of learning from Kent "the piteous tale of Lear and him," and seeing the "strings of life" begin to crack in Kent just as he leaves to fight his brother.

A peculiarity of this part of the play concerns Edmund, who, dying but not dead, is unexpectedly moved by his brother's account of his own and Gloucester's travails to promise that some good will come out of it, but unaccountably waits to act until urged by Albany a considerable number of lines later. Only then, on declaring: "Some good I mean to do, despite of mine own nature," does he tell of his order to kill both Lear and Cordelia, the latter by hanging. "The gods defend her," exclaims Albany, but too late, as Lear enters with the limp Cordelia in his arms, calling upon them all to howl against the heavens to protest her death. "Is this the promised end?" Kent asks, as if there had been a divine promise of a good end to life here on earth. Albany simply exclaims, "Fall, and cease!"—wishing, it seems, that the heavens would fall, and all things come to an end. Kent tries to identify himself one last time to Lear, but his master can think only of Cordelia and himself. For he had just killed the man who was hanging Cordelia, and recalls the much greater military prowess of his earlier days. Not even Kent's news of his other two daughters' death disturbs Lear's concentration on Cordelia. He cannot understand why his "poor fool" should be dead while dogs, horses and rats live on. She'll come no more—never, never, never, never, never. "Pray you, undo this button"—Lear probably means on his own tunic, feeling pressure in his chest—and thanks a man (perhaps imaginary) for doing it. For a moment, he thinks there's some sign of life on Cordelia's lips, only to faint himself and finally expire. Edgar calls upon Lear to look up, but Kent wants him to leave "the rack of this tough world," and prepares to follow his master.

There is nothing so tragic in Shakespeare's tragedies as this scene. To no other hero are we so attached as to Lear—not to Hamlet, or Othello, not to Cleopatra and Antony, not even to Romeo and Juliet, to name only those who exercise the greatest attraction for us. In no other case is the protagonist so admired and beloved by the end of the play, his original fault forgotten, his sufferings so prolonged, and with so remarkable a final display of his virtue. Other good people in the play die too—Gloucester, Cordelia and Kent soon enough—so that the ending has the net effect of producing not only the single going down of an excellent man but a collective going down of the good, thus demonstrating the truth of Kent's calling this the tough world on the rack of which Lear must be spared further suffering. Such is the dramatic impact of the play, but is it its deeper philosophical message?

The picture at the end is bleak indeed, but not without promise, for the succession to the throne has been determined, and Edgar—wise and good Edgar—will be the next king, and of a reunited Britain. As the sole surviving son-in-law on whom Lear had bestowed his power, Albany, in the final moments of the play, returns this power to the shattered Lear for as long as he will live. But on Lear's death seconds later, Albany—without explanation—removes himself from consideration by directing Kent and Edgar together to "rule in this realm." Was it in recognition of their greater service and suffering or of the blemishes he himself bore from his connection with Goneril? In any case, Kent expresses his intention to follow his master into death soon, and Edgar is left to accept the "weight of this sad time" and have the last word, remembering the sufferings of the old: ". . . we that are young shall never see so much, nor live so long."

While it is true that Lear's own dying picture of the world is as bleak as can be, is it Shakespeare's too? Or is it meant to provoke in us a reaction in terms of the play as a whole that goes beyond what the dying Lear can feel and see? Lear accuses the world of injustice: his wonderful daughter, Cordelia, is dead, gone forever, never to return. He wants heaven's vault to be cracked by the howls of men—though without specifically mentioning the gods—and even calls everyone else murderers and traitors for not helping to save her. Why should dogs, horses and rats have life but not Cordelia? But is it against her being murdered or against her mortality itself that Lear rails? He obviously feels there is no moral superintendence of the world, whether divine or natural. Life seems irrational: it doesn't care about men as compared to rats, or good men as compared to bad. But Lear's complaint goes too far, for if the world deserves blame for not preserving the life of Cordelia, it must get credit for producing her in the first place. And if men must die while rats still live, it is nevertheless true that the statement itself assumes, and testifies to, the lasting superiority of men to rats. Even so, would the world be improved if all horses and rats were to die before or along with Cordelia? And while every being is unique, will there not be other Cordelias, just as the case of Edgar shows there can be other Lears?

Moreover, the very sense of injustice by which Lear and we are gripped at the end testifies to the goodness with which we are endowed by nature, for it is nature itself that cries out at those features of the world allowing injustice, or failing to sustain the good. Praise arises out of our very condemnation, for the world that kills a Cordelia unjustly has given us the means of recognizing this injustice, and sometimes of averting or punishing injustice, and must therefore be weighed accordingly. As for our mortality, and hence the perishability of all good things and bad, this sad fact is a condition of nature that we must learn to accept, for without it nature is impossible, and therewith all the good things nature produces, as well as its sad and often anguishing limitations. What makes it possible for Edgar to face the prospect of ruling Britain if not a reflection such as this? As he had said earlier to his life-weary father: "Men must endure their going hence even as their coming hither; ripeness is all" (V.2).

Edgar's final remarks in the play also seem designed to recognize the prejudice in favor of the old that wisdom must encourage, not because the old are necessarily wiser, but because that prejudice keeps us from experimenting—even in the name of nature—with elements of society that cannot be directly drawn from nature. For Lear had wrought an innovation in the name of natural justice in his original succession plan, hoping to favor Cordelia, even at the cost of dividing the kingdom, for the sake of merit. And what else does the play demonstrate but that there is such a natural principle, that Cordelia is far worthier of rule than her sisters, that Lear—in the completion of his powers—is indeed a natural king, just as Kent is the natural servant of such a king? Even so, the principle of merit, more fundamental than that of age or any other consideration, must—for the sake of justice itself—bow to other more conventional principles that guarantee continuity and stability.

The play calls forth our sense of natural justice particularly by the fate of innocent and good people in it, or of people whose faults are in no way commensurate with the sufferings they are forced to endure. It is fitting and just that Goneril and Regan suffer for the evil they do their father, and Edmund as well. Cornwall should suffer for having blinded Gloucester. But Gloucester's loyalty to Lear did not deserve such treatment; Edgar did not deserve to be traduced by his brother and hunted by his father; Cordelia did not deserve to die by hanging. The play does not try to explain what makes particular people wicked, except perhaps in the case of Edmund and his bastardy. Goneril and Regan seem not to have been abused or badly neglected—they themselves have no complaints on this score—and of Cornwall's background we learn nothing. From these examples—all the more frightening when they have no apparent explanation—wickedness, it seems, can show itself anywhere. The only lesson the good can draw is that they must be constantly on the alert against it and show an ability to outsmart or overpower it whenever it comes to light.

The world is certainly not the kind of place where justice triumphs automatically or independently of man's own effort to sustain it. Neither is it the domain of just gods or—as Tom would have it—of the foul fiend: while engendering virtue and justice, nature cannot help also engendering vice and injustice and an unending struggle between them. Nevertheless, nature generally is conceived in the play as a kind of harmony or rest that encourages the best elements in man in the midst of disharmonies, motions and conflicts it can never completely contain. Its essential character is shown more by good weather than by storm, by normalcy and rationality than madness, by health than by illness, by self-control than by anger or profligacy, by fellowship than by selfishness, by philosophical comprehension than by ignorance, by justice than by war. It is closer to the understanding of nature in Plato and Aristotle than in Heracleitus or the materialists.

We do not know why Edmund suddenly decides to do a good deed in his dying moments, and it is even harder to understand why Shakespeare has him wait so many lines before acting to save the lives of Lear and Cordelia from the death he has already ordered for them. Jaffa believes this has a political explanation—that Edmund's good deed consisted precisely in waiting and letting Cordelia be killed as the head of a French force invading Britain, thus preventing all similar foreign designs in the future. But does this correspond to our sense of retributive justice? And why have Edmund want to do any good at all? Why not simply have Cordelia killed without introducing this complication?

If Shakespeare means to use Edmund to show the redemptive powers of goodness, even in the wicked, he seems not to have prepared the way sufficiently. Nothing in Edmund's past (except, perhaps, his adherence to the standard of power) would indicate this possible improvement on his part, any more than on Goneril's or Regan's. As for his delay, he has already heard of Edgar's devotion to Gloucester and now hears Edgar continue about Kent and Lear, immediately after which we learn the fate of Cordelia's sisters. Plainly, Edmund understands that his father and Lear had both been beloved and envies them for it, thus being led himself to exclaim, on seeing the bodies of the sisters: "Yet Edmund was belov'd! The one the other poison'd for my sake, and after slew herself." Quite a tribute to love from one who before had abused it as he wished!

Less obscure than Edmund's reason for delaying is the advantage Shakespeare gains in the play by it. Once we realize all that is at stake in the delay, we wonder nervously whether the forces of good will be in time to prevent the death of Cordelia and Lear. The partly fatal effect of the delay forces us to admit the role of accident in human affairs, for to frustrate an evil already ordered, a good desire must be activated in time, otherwise it is almost useless. Minutes, seconds can make all the difference between success and failure, and, as they go ticking by, human lives hang in the balance. Neither god nor nature can intervene to save these good people: it all depends on human action and hence to some extent on chance, as does the efficacy of justice generally. This at least accounts for both the reader's dramatic experience in these passages and the meaning they take on within Shakespeare's reflections on justice as a whole.

Standing back, now, we can say that this play about justice tries in fact to demonstrate that it has a natural base in our social nature, and that, even when we perceive the delicate ways in which self-interest tends to intermingle with our love of others, this attachment is still real. It is a concern for others that lies at the bottom of justice—a wish to see them properly treated, and an abhorrence at their being mistreated. This concern normally and naturally shows itself in both paternal and filial love, friendship, admiration and sexual love, and broadens out from them to a general concern for all men of the kind the best men, like Shakespeare himself, have always felt. The good feel a special kinship for each other, and it is in the spirit of this fellowship of the good that Albany finally addresses Kent and Edgar as "friends of my soul" and relinquishes to them his own claim to the throne.

It can therefore be said that Shakespeare emphatically disagrees with Lear's conclusions—and Kent's—at the end of the play. The examples of love he sets before us are far more impressive than the examples of wickedness, and even at the end, when all seems bleak, Lear's heroism, the devotion of Kent, Gloucester and Edgar, Albany's self-abnegation stand out more luminously than the acts of the wicked and help to counteract the sufferings of their victims. In short, we are only capable of discerning and judging wickedness because of our prior understanding and love of justice and the good. The wicked may triumph, and the good perish, but the separate character of each is set in the nature of things. Injustice derives from an inability to love others, and this insufficiency of the social element in us constitutes a distortion or defect of our nature.

What is the connection between this social foundation of justice and the idea of natural kingship? Assuming that men are naturally inclined toward justice, are they also equipped with a natural power capable of bringing justice about? Just as the family must be subject to some parental authority, so groups of men, living in society, must obey some authority that will protect them militarily from external attackers and from their own criminals as well. They need a system of justice, wisely wrought and wisely guided at the helm. In the best case, this justice would be implemented by natural leaders of outstanding virtue and wisdom who love justice and can be entrusted with such responsibility. The idea of the natural king is an extension of the idea of natural justice. Shakespeare is under no illusions as to the difficulty of finding such a king. Lear begins by being a very good but hardly a perfect king. He does not understand his daughters. He is imprudently attracted by the claim of natural merit in choosing his successors. He flies into a rage at both Cordelia and Kent. Nevertheless, his love of virtue and his devotion to the common good are joined to a majesty of body and soul that stamps the presence of royal authority in him, winning the respect, admiration and loyal service of men like Kent and Gloucester. Under the impact of his daughters' ingratitude and the storm, he becomes juster and wiser still—more aware of the plight of the poor, the abuse to which systems of justice are prone, and the limitations of political life generally. In the final scene he seems to join together the perfections of king, father and man all at once: then he is King Lear in the fullest sense.

King Lear and The Tempest both borrow the theme of the wise and just king from Plato and Aristotle but deal with it from different points of view. Unlike Prospero, Lear is not a student of the liberal arts, not directly or naturally a philosopher, and he does not have an Ariel to obtain the effects he seeks to have on political life. Spiritedness is not something that comes naturally to Prospero, and his physical prowess is nothing like Lear's. Lear is a political man from the outset, forced to reflect and philosophize in his madness, whereas Prospero is a philosopher turned king by the necessity of having to return Miranda to society. The absolutely perfect king—even more unlikely than either Prospero or Lear taken separately—would unite the essential natures of the political and the philosophical man.

A word must be said, finally, about the role of philosophy in King Lear. In no play of Shakespeare is more explicit attention given to the origin and import of philosophy (remembering that the term is neither used about nor by Prospero in The Tempest), but in such a way as to conceal or minimize that very fact. Moreover, in no Shakespearean play is a course of philosophizing followed more relentlessly than in Lear's passage from belief in the justice of the gods to the conventionalism of the natural philosophers, yet almost invisibly. This must tell us something about Shakespeare's understanding of philosophy and its relation to his poetry. Philosophy occupies for Shakespeare the kind of place that it occupies for Plato and Aristotle. It is the most important of all human activities, the source of our natural understanding of nature and right, the guide of life in all respects, and the basis for a poetry that teaches as well as entertains in the highest sense of the term. But, while undoubtedly the peak and greatest glory of human nature, it must remain hidden from public view because it can easily do harm and be harmed.

What could have led Shakespeare to this conclusion? Clearly, philosophy can do harm by undermining the necessary opinions of society that philosophy necessarily questions—which must be the reason why Lear takes Edgar (as Tom) aside to ask him a question Shakespeare conceals from us. Making philosophy public can also bring harm to the philosopher (and his writings), as it did to Socrates. But it can also lead to the institutionalization and hence the ossification and dogmatization of philosophy itself, and therewith to its political abuse—as it had during the Middle Ages. It must be for reasons such as these that Shakespeare, unlike Plato and Aristotle, conceals philosophy and disguises his own philosophizing so skillfully in all his plays, only rarely permitting a direct glimpse of it. How ironic but consistent, then, that he should conceal Lear's philosophizing within the ravings of a madman! The play shows the depth of Shakespeare's philosophical penetration into the problem of justice, and the way in which he resolved it in favor of natural right and against conventionalism. This teaching, in its philosophical form, is for the studious and reflective few, while the dramatic impact of the play on the stage allows the poet to influence the public at large in behalf of the good.

Lear's Fool

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Glena D. Wood (essay date 1972)

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

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

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

Critics have noted the many ways in which the Gloucester subplot adds overtones and complexity to the main plot and theme. Some hold that Gloucester's story illustrates not so much a less subtle and more physical level of the Lear tale as another dimension of the Lear character and theme. The role of the Fool, too, though complex to unravel, may reveal still another dimension of the King.

Those attempting analyses of the function of the Fool in King Lear have expressed divergent, sometimes self-contradictory views, at times misrepresenting or misinterpreting both the Fool's character and function. Nor have I found a complete analysis. This failure to see clearly what the Fool contributes leaves unprobed a significant tragic depth; for to examine fully the Fool's role is to go deep into the heart, mind, and soul of Lear and into the tragi-comic structure of the world's most complex tragedy.

One cannot, I think, dispose of the Fool by saying, "Here is a wise man acting the part of a fool." Nor does the inversion, "Surely, this is a fool acting the part of a wise man," explain his function. Both are over-simplifications. Hazlitt's contention that the Fool is essential for three apposite reasons—to serve as a "grotesque ornament" to the heathen setting, to provide comic relief in circumstances which might otherwise strain pity and fear to the breaking point, and to carry pathos to its highest possible level—is one sort of over-simplification. Rümelin's scoffing at the three fools on the heath—one really crazy (Lear), one pretending madness (Edgar), and one a professional fool (Lear's Fool)—satisfying the Elizabethan craving for the ridiculous and madness in the "finest style," is a grosser sort of over-simplification.

Diverging almost every direction on many levels of simplicity and complexity from those two opposite views are the most commonly held critical opinions, ranging from the contention that the Fool's constant jibes are mere trivia to which Lear pays not the slightest heed to the judgment of Franz Horn and Oechelhaüser that he is the grandest, the most intellectual, and the most tragic of Shakespeare's rich gallery of fools.1 Indeed, Ernest Schick praised the Fool as the chief person in the tragedy.2

To add problematical complexity, the Fool's identity, like that of other characters in the tragedy (notably Lear's), is ambiguous. Some critics have identified the Fool and Cordelia, stressing Lear's deep love for both and the empathy between the two, illustrated by the Fool's pining away during the two days of Cordelia's absence from court. Such critics stress also the facts that only the Fool and Cordelia speak unvarnished Truth, that they never appear together on the stage, and that after the Fool goes "to bed at noon," Cordelia arrives shortly to finish the task the Fool had so bravely and foolhardily begun—that of restoring Lear to sanity and to an acceptable, livable sort of self-knowledge. If one accepts this identification of the Fool and Cordelia, Lear's pitiful cry at the end, "And my poor fool is hang'd" possesses ambivalent and representational significance, like almost every other line of dialogue and episode of this highly complex play.

At times, Lear has even been identified with his Fool, a particularly pertinent viewpoint if one accepts Maynard Mack's contention that folk and medieval versions of the archetypal theme of the "Abasement of the Proud King" are formative source materials. In the best-known version of the archetypal theme of humbling the proud and exalting the humble—that of "King Robert of Sicily"—the ruler who is debased is deprived neither palace nor kingdom but is made the court Fool and is forced to eat with the "palace dogs."3

Finally, the single identity of the Fool is multiplied by that of every other character; for before King Lear arrives at its conclusion, every character is called a fool (and acts like some sort of fool), either by the Fool himself or by some other character in the play.4

When the many views are juxtaposed, one is struck by the wide range of ideas regarding the character, function, age, ultimate fate, and identity of Lear's Fool. To unravel or piece together the puzzle promises new insights. I propose, therefore, to analyze the function of the Fool in the tragedy of King Lear. Simultaneously, I shall relate his role first to the growth in Lear's character and second to the ironic tone the Fool makes us aware of and to the tragicomic structure which results from the Fool's collision with characters responsible for the tragic events which ensue. I hope that such an analysis and approach will throw light on the Fool's identity and reveal a significant tragic theme.

Just as Lear takes the disguised Kent into his service, the Fool runs on the stage, ready and willing to serve Lear too. In almost the same breath Lear has ordered one attendant, "Go you, and tell my daughter I would speak with her" (I.iv.83 & 46) and another servant, "call hither my fool" (I.iv.46).5 Lear's reply to the knight reminding (or informing) him that since Cordelia's departure his Fool has "much pined away," (I.iv.80) shows that he recognizes a close attachment between Cordelia and the Fool and shows also considerable irritation regarding some details of the division of his kingdom and his banishment of Kent and Cordelia, already too painful to discuss. "No more of that; I have noted it well," (I.iv.81) he remonstrates; and then calls for Goneril and his Fool, unaware of why he needs the Fool during the first interview with Goneril since the parceling out of his kingdom. But the knight's planting the suggestion of a "faint neglect of late," which Lear had attributed to his own "jealous curiosity," rather than to purposeful or willful neglect or ingratitude, indicates that he senses, at least subconsciously, why he needs the Fool. He may already see dimly the willfulness of his whim in dividing his kingdom on the basis of public protestations of love and the monstrousness of his banishing from his kingdom those who love him best—Kent and Cordelia. He has, of course, to date very little insight and has had no time to consider or to recognize that those acts were occasioned in part not only by the unexpected turn of dialogue and events, but also by many other factors, not the least of which is his own rash and adamant nature.

In some clever concentrated dialogue prior to Goneril's entrance, the Fool proceeds to label Kent, Lear, Goneril and Regan, and himself fools, and introduces an ironic tone. First, he proffers Kent his coxcomb, insisting he needs to hire him, too, and that if Kent chooses to follow Lear, he must wear coxcombs; for only a fool would follow a "great wheel" as it rolls down hill. Having called Kent a fool, he adds, thoughtfully, that he wishes he had two coxcombs and two daughters. Lear asks why, and he replies (labeling Lear a fool), "If I gave them all my living, I'd keep my coxcombs myself (I.iv.120-121). Then throwing his coxcomb to Lear (rather than to Kent to whom he had first offered it), he audaciously says, "Beg another of thy daughters" (I.iv.121-122). And that statement takes in Goneril and Regan—as fools.

The ironic tone becomes increasingly apparent as Lear threatens to have the Fool whipped for overstepping his "unlicensed" license. "Truth's a dog, must to kennel" (I.iv.124) the Fool replies. Though Lear is not yet ready to listen to or to believe truth, the Fool forces it upon Kent by insisting that anyone who takes the part of someone out of favor is a fool immediately establishing an ironic tone, pervasive until the Fool vanishes from the tragedy and influencing the remaining action. We recognize the irony because Kent as faithful and true counsellor has chosen to cast his lot with Lear, who he knows will need his services, despite the King's scorning his advice and banishing his person. To make clear the tone, the Fool insists, "Why this fellow has banished two on's daughters and did the third a blessing against his will; if thou follow him thou must needs wear my coxcomb" (I.iv.114-116). The Fool perceives that Lear has banished Goneril and Regan and blessed Cordelia, both literally and metaphorically; for he knows the two older daughters will not live up to the trust Lear has placed in their hands. And Lear has saved Cordelia from the mercenary Duke of Burgundy, but such interpretation extends, rather than limits, the ironic tone.

The literal contrast between the Fool's words and Lear's acts distills the ironic tone. The Fool's assessment, moreover, precedes the first bitter scene between Lear and Goneril and demonstrates prophetic insight. Indeed, only protestations of enduring filial love have been expressed. Apparently, the Fool is aware of the previously expressed and potential hypocrisy of Goneril and Regan as is Cordelia. According to station he is a fool, but in reality he is not so great a fool (as the world views such matters) as is his master.

More concentrated than the way Shakespeare establishes tone is his method of creating an ironic tragicomic structure. Lear's command, "Tell my daughter I would speak with her" and "call hither my fool" initiates that structure by bringing Goneril and his Fool into collision. For Lear has begun the interweaving of events simultaneously both comic and tragic and has converted King Lear into both a Commedia and a Purgatorio.

In dialogue designed, in part at least, to give Lear additional insight before Goneril appears, Kent, Lear, and the Fool use the word "nothing" in literal, ironic, and tragic contexts. Kent's remark that the Fool's platitudes, "Have more than thou showest, / Speak less than thou knowest, / Lend less than thou owest / Ride more than thou goest," (I.iv.131-134) mean nothing elicits the Fool's clever retort that they are, then, like the breath of an "unfeed lawyer / You gave me nothing for't" (I.iv.142-143).6 Kent's insistence that the Fool has said nothing and the Fool's conviction that Lear now possesses noting lead the Fool to ask Lear the tantalizing and pointed question, "Can you make no use of nothing, Uncle?" (I.iv.143-144). For the Fool is puzzled by Lear's mistakes and capriciousness and poignantly aware that much will come of Lear's "nothing."

In answer, Lear unwittingly repeats (except for change in tense) the devastatingly ironical condemnation of Cordelia in the first scene, "Nothing will come of nothing," when he falls into the Fool's trap by replying "Why, no boy; nothing can be made out of nothing" (I.iv.145-146).7 Part of the intense irony of the first "nothing" is that Cordelia's naivety and truth stand naked and bare before the cunning hypocrisy of her sisters; part of the irony of the second "nothing" is that Lear will shortly be stripped of all retainers and will stand naked and bare before the universe. But in neither case does Lear seem aware of the metaphorical, ironical, and tragic meanings he has attached to the word—"nothing." And he glimpses but faintly, if at all, the ironical circumstances in which he has placed himself. The fool, wishing Lear to define his situation clearly, now chooses to place the word in literal context, bidding Kent tell the King that the rent of all his lands now comes to precisely "nothing." For Lear will not "believe a fool," though he will listen to no one else.

Lear lashes out, "A bitter fool!"

Fool. Dost thou know the difference, my boy, between a bitter fool and a sweet one?

Lear. No, lad; teach me.

Fool. That lord that counsell'd thee To give away thy land, Come place him here by me, Do thou for him stand; The sweet and bitter fool Will presently appear; The one in motley here

[pointing to himself]

The other found out there.

[pointing to Lear]

Lear. Dost thou call me fool, boy?


Apparently Lear has ignored (or failed to note) when the Fool has previously called him a fool. The clever ironical reply the Fool now makes—that all other titles Lear was born with he has given away—unites tone and structure in the Fool's recognition of the types of Fool he and Lear represent—the Fool "sweet," Lear "bitter." The Fool's antics and words are comic with tragic overtones and insight; Lear's are tragic, with comic undertones and blindness. Those facts are acutely dramatized by Lear's giving away his land and titles, reducing him to Fool in deed and position. Again, allusion to the medieval tale of Robert of Sicily may be pertinent. King Robert repents only after following the usurping angel's retinue to Rome where neither the Emperor nor Pope, though former fellow rulers, recognize him but call him a "mad fool."8

With his egg analogy, the Fool then points out to Lear the kind of crown he now wears and the sort of power he now exercises. Cut in two and the meat devoured, only two eggshells remain. The shells represent Lear's empty, impotent crown and power since he divided his kingdom and gave the "meat" to his elder daughters—Goneril and Regan. He has upset the order of privilege: the chain of being, the relative position of man and beast. Instead of majestically straddling his ass (as a king should), Lear has placed the ass on his own back and dragged it over the dirt. Lear totally lacked wit in his bald crown when he gave his golden one away.

So summarizes the Fool and sings out sadly the ironical humor of Lear's tragic predicament: when wise men lose their wits and act like fools, what can one expect of a mere fool? A king, reduced to nothing, reduces a Fool to less than nothing, unless the total order of the universe has been reverted. The Fool says that it has indeed been partly reverted (and by Lear himself), for he is better off than Lear. At least he knows what he is and where he stands and what kind of fool he is and what kind of fool Lear is. But Lear is "nothing," and by his own deeds, and unaware that he is nothing.

Sensing part of the truth of the Fool's bitter-sweet accusations and song, Lear asks the Fool how long he has been so full of songs. The Fool replies, I have been singing, sadly and ironically, ever since you made your daughters your mother. When you gave them rule, you put "down thy breeches" and

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.


The paradox of each line—weeping for joy, singing for sorrow, a king, such as Lear, playing "bo-peep" and placing himself by his words and acts among fools—is related to the self-knowledge the Fool knows Lear must eventually gain and to the tragic episodes through which Lear will arrive at that knowledge.

The jibes of the Fool and the services of the disguised Kent constantly set before Lear truths which are very difficult for him to accept. The Fool wishes, given the situation he finds Lear and himself in, that he could lie. Truth is bitter, not sweet, in a realm upset by Lear's capriciousness, his unwillingness to rule, though king. "Thy truth shall be thy dower" (I.i.110), Lear had threatened Cordelia when she replied she loved him neither more nor less than a daughter should love her father. Ironically, Truth is all the dower Cordelia needs to reveal her worth, and Truth is all the dower Goneril and Regan need to reveal their hypocrisy and potential viciousness. And bitter Truth is the dower the "sweet Fool" gives. Lear and that which the "bitter Fool"—Lear himself—is forced to accept, having given everything else away. Ironically, Lear does not realize that his rash acts have made Truth and Love the only dower for every character in the play. Ironically, too, "bitter Truth" ultimately sends the "bitter Fool" sanely mad.

At this early point in the play, truth is Lear's only possession; unlike crown and kingdom and Cordelia's love, he has never fully possessed it. Sweet lies, prior to Cordelia's bitter truth, have helped initiate a tragic situation for Lear, Cordelia, and her siters. Ironically, the first scene (probably unwittingly on Lear's part) had been a test of Truth and Love, with property, according to Lear's initial plan, to be apportioned on those bases. His plan had gone awry in his own royal court, and only sweet lies prevailed in an intensely realistic dramatic situation.

Lear's next admonition—that he will have no lying in his kingdom—is especially ironical. The Fool, in particular, he will have whipped, if he lies. The King can, however, but dimly distinguish truth from lies and is having much difficulty accepting the truth which the Fool constantly reminds him of.

The Fool wonders by what stretch of imagination the King and his elder daughters could be called "kin," (a matter which will soon cause Lear to marvel). Note, in particular, the Fool says, how Goneril and Regan will have him whipped for telling the truth, but how Lear threatens to have him whipped for lying, and sometimes he is whipped for holding his peace. He says he would rather be anything than a fool. "And yet I would not be thee, uncle; thou hast pared thy wit o' both sides, and left nothing i' the middle: here comes one o' the parings" (I.iv.199-206). Too subtly for Lear's present perception, the Fool has informed him that Goneril and Regan have lied in their protestations of love, that they will scourge those who tell the truth. At that moment Goneril—one of the "parings"—arrives and jolts Lear into the recognition that all is not well in the kingdom he has given away.

Lear as "nothing"—juxtaposed between the Fool (less than nothing but aware of what he is and how he arrived at his position) and Goneril (unaware that she is a "paring," rapidly to degenerate to "nought")—touches precariously every facet of life, ranging from sweetness to bitterness, from truth to falseness, from comedy to tragedy. That juxtaposition begins with Goneril's stunning Lear with bitter, vituperative words.

We are in part prepared for the Fool's multiple function when Goneril questions Oswald, "Did my father strike my gentleman for chiding of his fool? (I.iii.1-2) We know at that moment that antipathy exists between Goneril and the Fool, between Lear and Oswald, between Kent and Oswald, in fact among all characters as they line up in the two camps of Lear and Oswald, or, if you prefer, Lear and Goneril. For Oswald is a bitter, ironical, foolish counterpart of his mistress, as the Fool is a bitter, ironical, foolish counterpart of Lear, what Lear is when he put down his breeches to become child of his daughters, what he is when he put aside his scepter but hoped to retain the power which the scepter represents, what he is as the proud king humbled, what he is when he becomes a fool.

The Fool has entered the stage of this great tragedy, a smile at his lips, a quip on his tongue. Goneril enters, scene four, a frown on her face, bitter, unnatural words on her lips. Lear cares not, he says, for the "frontlet" Goneril puts on and observes that of late (the last two days) she has been too much "i' the frown."

The tragi-comic structure becomes intense when Goneril and the Fool collide with his words to Lear, "Thou was a pretty fellow when thou hadst no care for her frowning. Now thou art an O without a figure. I am better than thou art now. I am a fool, thou art nothing" (I. iv. 210-215). And from this point onward in the tragedy, both Goneril and the Fool help Lear to arrive at self-knowledge through bitterness and sweetness, evil disloyalty to kin and faithful loyalty to a former master, with the recurring frowns and smiles, quips and scathing words.

The Fool, despite what some have called his cynical social views, always has a firm faith and hold on reality, blended with the ideal. And he tries, with every word he utters, to help Lear gain a comparable hold; for he knows Lear will need it desperately throughout the tragedy he himself has initiated. Part of the Fool's knowledge of real life lies in his recognition that man is secure if he does not have to ingratiate himself with other men, if he is self-sufficient in goods, in love, in affection, and if he does not have to lean on others or court their favor. Those are the few advantages of being an absolute monarch, such as Lear must have been three days before this episode.

Shooting daggerous frowns at the Fool for his latest comment about his now being better off than Lear, Goneril bids the Fool hold his tongue—a thing the Fool simply cannot do when something needs to be said or when a situation becomes too tense. So, despite his promise, the Fool proceeds to sing another ditty.

"Mum, mum He that keeps nor crust nor crumb, Weary of all, shall want some."

(I, iv, 216-218)

In more innocuous form, he has sung the jist of what he has just said. Pointing to Lear, he adds, "That is a shealed peascod" (I. iv. 219), (a shelled peapod), not substantially different from the analogy of the two crowns of meat Lear had given away, but more direct and more "all-licensed." Clearly, Goneril has spoken a smattering of truth when she maintains that the Fool is entirely unrestricted as to what he may say.

The Fool's primary and most obvious function to this point in the tragedy is repeatedly to show Lear the willfulness of his whim in dividing his kingdom on the basis of public declarations of love and the monstrousness of his banishing Kent and Cordelia. While reminding Lear of those truths, the Fool constantly introduces an ironical tone, shifting between humor, satire, and cynicism, but remaining basically ironical. That tone and his quips and quirks in the most tragic situations place the comic and the tragic alongside until the climactic scene of the third act, at which point the Fool disappears from the tragedy. Thereafter, an ironical tone is interwoven with pathos and brutal tragedy. Both Edgar and Cordelia in their relations with their fathers add pathos to the irony, and that addition tends to soften the tragedy, as in the first three acts the Fool's humor and pathos and irony soften and concentrate it. Bitter irony, however, is dominant in the scene at the end in which Edgar and Albany become so preoccupied with the punishment of evil characters, specifically Edmund (but Goneril and Regan also) that they forget all about the good characters—Cordelia and Lear—causing Albany, when he remembers, to cry out, "Great thing of us forgot!" (V. iii. 237) That pre-occupation with the punishment of evil results in Cordelia's being hanged and Lear's dying of a broken heart, ironical happenings as in life itself. So is Lear's dying, just as he may think he has faint indication that Cordelia breaths and lives.

Hereafter I shall illustrate additional ways in which the Fool contributes to Lear's growth. In order to eliminate repetition of episodes and dialogue, I shall retain my original organizational pattern, and point out how almost everything the Fool does and says not only aids Lear's character development but also adds to the ironic tone and in increasingly excruciating intensity places the comic and tragic alongside, at times to a degree very nearly unbearable.

The Fool's initial function, we have seen, was to make Lear fully aware of what he has done, what the probable results of his actions will be, what kinds of daughters he truly has fathered, what sort of kingdom he now lives in but no longer rules over, and what kind of men and social order are found in that kingdom. In others words, his function as an "all-licensed" Fool is to tell truth, the dower which Lear, unwittingly and angrily, has bequeathed every character, including himself, and which is, moreover, the only dower which any character possesses from the first to the last scene of Shakespeare's greatest tragedy.

The Fool has held up before Lear's eyes a mirror of the crown he wears; the power his two eldest daughters wield; the social and economic order and disorder in his kingdom (in reality no longer his); the way a wise, but not necessarily good, man should treat a person out of favor. A good man, the Fool insists, should maintain a position which renders him immune to the buffetings of fate and above currying favor from daughters. A wise man should not follow a great man, rolling down hill. The Fool's ditties and platitudes often express expedient ways of getting along with a minimum of friction in a corrupt (or amoral) society. At the same time, he questions the ethics of his own axioms and even more profoundly, the ethics of his social world. So almost every assertion he makes contains double or triple-edged irony.

Angered at Goneril's sudden shift from smiles to frowns, from praise to blame, from fawning to fuming, Lear cries out that he has another daughter who will respect and honor him, as should a daughter to whom her old father has given his all. We recognize the irony of Lear's words, even before the humiliating scene with Regan is enacted our eyes, because of the tone the Fool has injected into the play We likewise recognize the irony of Goneril's contentions that Lear's retainers have proved unruly, that she fears Lear himself condones their actions, and that his retainers are rapidly converting her "graced palace" into a tavern, or a brothel. The double-edged irony is that neither Lear nor Goneril knows it is she who is fast converting her own palace into a brothel, but that we and the Fool realize Goneril has unwittingly spoken a partial truth. When Lear shrilly shouts that he has another daughter who will not reduce the number of his retainers, we suspect, and the Fool knows, that Regan will reduce them from fifty to twenty-five, and from twenty-five to none.

Goneril, moreover, has scarcely concluded her hypocritical, smooth-sounding, "gracious" insults when the Fool observes, "For you know nuncle, / The hedge sparrow fed the cuckoo so long, / That it had it head bit off by it young. / So out went the candle, and we were left darkling" (I. iv. 234-237). The second and third lines are an old adage, but so true of Lear's predicament: he is left "darkling," his head dangerously close to being bitten off by his own offspring. But the Fool stands in pure light, revealing to the King his ultimate fate and the fate of all old men, throughout all time who do too much for ungrateful and unloving children.

Between the two most tragic questions which Lear asks, questions saturated with pathos, lie the Fool's most flippant statements. Appalled at the audacity and hypocrisy and disrespect of Goneril, Lear doubts his paternity of such an "unnatural hag." He doubts, moreover, the evidence of his own senses, and his own identity. So the tortured questions, "Are you our daughter?" and "Doth any here know me . . . Who is it that can tell me who I am?" (I. iv. 238, 246, & 250) reveal a search for a legitimate explanation for Goneril's existence and, more importantly in this context, for Lear's own self-identity. Between those two soul-searching questions, emphasizing and complicating them, are the Fool's sardonic and flippant question and exclamation, "May not an ass know when the cart draws the horse?" and "Whoop, Jug! I love thee" (I. iv. 244-245). Obviously, from the Fool's point of view Lear has sunk below the level of a fool to that of an ass (as in archetypal tales), and again he reminds Lear how disastrously he has upset the usual and prevailing order of the universe by making his daughters his mother. The Fool, moreover, has an instant reply to Lear's probing for identity. The King is but "Lear's shadow."

With uncanny insight, the Fool anticipates both questions and answers: Lear thus is but a shadow, standing in utter darkness. Only the Fool attempts to answer Lear's question, and his answer strikes closer to the heart of the King's tragedy than any assertion yet made.

Goneril, as anxious to rid herself of the Fool as to rid herself of Lear and his hundred knights, sends him after the King who has left in great haste (and "heat") for Regan, his devoted daughter—(so he thinks), with the command, "After thy master . . . thou more knave than fool" (I. iv. 237-38).9 Calling "Nuncle Lear, nuncle Lear," take thy Fool and folly with thee, the Fool runs after Lear, singing another ditty—ironical, amusing, and tragic in content—about a fox and a daughter, sure to go to slaughter if my cap (with coxcombs) "would buy a halter" (I. iv. 337-343). Thus ends the first collision of comic and tragic elements.

The second such collision begins with the Fool's being present when Lear confronts Regan for the first time since the division of his kingdom. First, however, the Fool must prepare Lear for this meeting with Regan, as he had tried to prepare him for what to expect from Goneril. Consequently, the Fool says that if Lear's brains were reverted to his heels (as Lear has reverted order and privilege), he would need no slippers to preserve his brains from chilblains. He simply has no brains, no perception.

In the former scene, the Fool had made Lear half aware of what he had forfeited. Goneril had made him but half afraid he could never regain it. As yet, he feels not totally impotent, for he has still another daughter whom he has not rejected and who he hopes has not rejected him. Whereas Lear has high hopes for a cordial reception of his hundred retainers and himself at Regan's, the Fool "can tell what he can tell: Regan is as much like Goneril as a "crab is to a crab" (I. v. 18-19) Lear needs to know that before he confronts Regan, and the Fool warns him; still the significance of the warning does not dawn upon Lear until he arrives at Gloucester's palace with but half his retinue (the other fifty—wise in the way of the world—have deserted him enroute) and finds Kent in the stock. Then the fact dawns but dimly.

The Fool feels impelled to forewarn Lear before each encounter with Goneril and Regan so that he will survive the shock. The fact that the Fool is present at both initial encounters illustrates again the tragi-comic structure. It is, of course, a moot question which of the "parings" ultimately proves more vicious. Goneril first tells Regan they must "do something i' the heat" (I. 1. 312), but it is Regan who wants to know why Lear needs even one retainer; it is she who says during the night of the awful storm that her father may enter Gloucester's palace, but without a single follower.10

The Fool does not, however, want Lear to endure more pain than he can bear: he is merely trying to prepare and help him to endure pain. So when the King alludes to his having done "her [Cordelia] wrong," the Fool deftly switches topics to how an oyster makes his shell and to the timely discovery that he knows why a snail has a house. When Lear would know why, he says, "Why to put's head in, not to give it away to his daughters and leave his horns without a case" (I. v. 33-34). As Lear grieves over the "Monster ingratitude" of Goneril, the Fool says if Lear were his fool, he would have him whipped for "being old before he was wise," indirectly telling Lear again the sort of reception Regan will give him.

To divert Lear's attention away from himself and his misery, the Fool startles him with the ridiculous remark, "The reason why the seven stars are no more than seven is a pretty reason." Lear's reply, "Because they are not eight" (I. v. 37-40) pleases the Fool, convinces him he has achieved his objective. He tells Lear he would make a good fool.

Arriving with his reduced retinue at Regan's, Lear is stunned, more than he was by Goneril's bitter words, to find Kent in the stocks. But the Fool is not surprised. He knows too much of life, of privilege and lack of privilege, of those who control purse strings, and of those who are penniless. He tries to jest about Kent's predicament, alludes to his "cruel garters"; but Lear is beginning to awaken from the daze he has been in and demands an explanation. The Fool is willing to provide one, long before Cornwall and Regan do. He attributes Lear's reversal in treatment to his reversal in fortune, "Fathers that wear rags / Do make their children blind; / But fathers that bear [money] bags / Shall see their children kind." (II. iv. 48-51). He who controls fortune controls the affections, he has found. And Lear's experience verifies the Fool's words.

When Kent asks why Lear comes with so few followers, the Fool characteristically remarks that had Kent been placed in the stocks for that question he had well deserved to be. Kent, as usual, would know why. And the Fool's reply is the most expedient advice he ever gives:

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 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.

(II. iv. 68-77).

To that metaphorical prose counsel the Fool adds still another ditty which sums up what he has just said:

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. 79-86).

Both ditty and advice probe Lear's problems, the very basis of his society with its misplaced values. The Fool knows something must be wrong with a world in which a man is loved only so long as he has "money bags," only so long as he is on the uphill road, only so long as he possesses power. What more expedient advice could he give Kent and himself? He asks for his advice to be returned when a wise man supplies something better.

The Fool's experience has showed him that when a man is rapidly slipping, those who remain faithful and loyal to him are fools. Yet those who forsake him are knaves. The Fool confesses himself to be a fool of that sort, perhaps because he prefers being fool to knave.11 One feels strongly that if the Fool were not in his position forced to follow Lear, he would still be one of the faithful disguised followers, as Kent is. Can it be that the Fool has already learned through suffering, through the scorn of the world, not just that inflicted by two ungrateful daughters, the lessons Lear is being forced now to learn about his kingdom, his daughters, and himself? Already, those followers, wise in the way of the world, have deserted Lear, but the Fool's insistence that those who follow the way of the world are knaves condemns the moral basis of that social world.

It is debatable which of the two scenes after the division of kingdom—the first with Goneril or the one with Regan—is more tragi-comic in structure. The second, however, possesses an ironic intenseness which compels the Fool to indulge in fewer amusing or satirical aphorisms and ditties. The first possesses an unexpectedness which causes Lear to exhaust the resources of language in cursing. The second scene, in which Goneril soon joins her sister in usurping the "meat" of Lear's crown, eclipses the Fool's attempts at sad humor or ironical satire and stops the curses in Lear's throat. There are fewer of the Fool's quips because Lear has exhausted the welcome of both unrejected daughters. Humbled, Lear kneels before Regan begging for gratitude and love.

And the Fool's feeble attempts to stay Lear's passion with poorly timed jests of "cockney and eels and buttered hay" do not permit us to forget that the irony of the play is becoming increasingly bitter. Under the new glaring light of double ungratefulness, the Fool's humorous quips, fulfilled, have become fundamentally tragic.

Powerless to further entertain or distract and enlighten or disillusion his King, helpless to shield him longer from pain and suffering, unable to teach him further how to endure, aware of the futility of jesting or shielding Lear, the Fool stands silently by pitying his master, until Lear, utterly exhausted emotionally and spiritually, appeals to him with the agonizing cry, ". . . this heart / Shall break into a hundred thousand flaws / Or ere I'll weep. O fool, I shall go mad!"

And indeed, Lear does go mad in that climactic scene in which the three fools—the professional (Lear's Fool), the assumed (Edgar), and the real (Lear)—"figure away in fine style on the heath,"12 while the very elements of the universe go mad. Every facet of life, as represented by the witless King and the witty Fool, the disguised beggar and the disguised friend, is uprooted and repositioned by rain, wind, thunder, and fire.

The Fool's function in relation to Lear also shifts. I have showed that after Lear's first willful whim he needed to become acutely aware of what he had done and of the inexorable results. And the Fool performs that function. Later, Lear needed both additional warning and comfort, but more especially he needed a silent participator in his grief. That service, too, the Fool provides. At the crisis, when Nature collaborates with two unnatural hags to scourge Lear, he must have comfort, protection, companionship and love. We are told that throughout the mad heath scene the Fool has tried in vain to "outjest Lear's heart-struck injuries." Even the companionship and love he provides prove inadequate.

Internal and external convulsion of man and cosmos is Shakespeare's most magnificant imaginative tragic conception. Nothing could be more painful than Lear's Blow, winds and crack your cheeks! Rage Blow!

You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout . . . You sulphurous and thought-executing fires, . . . Singe my white head! And thou, all-shaking thunder, Smite flat the thick rotundity o' the world

juxtaposed to the Fool's "O Nuncle, Court holy water in a dry house is better than this rain water out o' door. Good Nuncle, in, and ask thy daughter's blessing. Here's a night pities neither wise man nor fool!" Nor does any dialogue illustrate more painfully the tragi-comic structure (III. ii. 1-13).

The elements of the universe continue "rumbling their bellyful," spitting fire, spouting rain. Meanwhile Lear rejects the Fool's suggestion that it is better to flatter those in high places, those with "money bags," than to suffer so, houseless and bareheaded. The King does not tax the raging elements with unkindness: he never gave them kingdom, called them daughter. Still, he accuses rain, wind, thunder, and fire of collaborating with "two pernicious daughters" in "high-engendered" battle against a head as old, and bare, and white as his, and concludes, "Oh, oh! 'Tis foul!" And, indeed, "'tis foul" (III. ii. 15-24).

Simultaneously trying both to entertain Lear (incapable now of being entertained) and to remind him why he faces the violent storm without a "good headpiece" (a house to put his head in), the Fool sings an indecent ditty about unmarried men who beget children before they have a home to put them in. Gloucester and Lear's predicaments are thus summed up. Lear had truly made "his toe / What his heart should make" (III, ii. 25-35) with the inevitable woe and sleepless nights.13

At the very height of the storm, in reply to Kent's question regarding the identity of Lear and him, the Fool asserts, "Grace and a codpiece—that's a wise man and a fool." But at that point, Lear is dangerously close to madness, and the Fool close to being a wise man; so which is "grace," which "codpiece" is ambiguous, like so much else in the tragedy. Shocked that his master whom he has never seen without a golden crown on his white head could have endured such a night bareheaded, Kent leads the King to a hovel.

Lear agrees to seek the shelter, not for himself, but for his Fool, "Poor fool and knave, I have one part in my heart / That's sorry yet for thee" (III. ii. 73-74). At the hovel entrance, Lear, who has probably never before given way for any one to pass, bids his Fool proceed before him out of the storm into shelter. The Fool apparently objects and remonstrates against his King's latest Christian reversion of privilege; but Lear insists, "In, boy, go first. You houseless poverty / Nay, get thee in. I'll pray, and then I'll sleep" (III. iv. 26-27).

The ingratitude of natural daughters, the scourging of the elements, but more than all else, Lear's Fool and Gloucester's son, disguised as fool—gradually teach the pagan Lear two fundamental Christian virtues—compassion and charity.

From the scourging of unnatural men (daughters) and natural elements (rain, wind, thunder, fire) in the presence of the thing itself—Edgar—unaccomodated man—Lear gains a virtue and sees a vision never seen nor possessed before, certainly not in the pre-tragic days as imperious absolute monarch. Looking beyond the blanket without which they would all have been shamed,14 Lear perceives for the first time in more than eighty years—the thing itself—man reduced to the lowest and exalted to the highest levels. The almost completely mad Lear identifies himself and generic humanity with the assumed mad Edgar to answer the heart-rendering question he had asked in Act I—"Who is there who can tell me who I am?" Lear's probing tragic questions, together with the Fool's quip about Edgar's blanket saving them from shame, combine, as so often in the play, the height of comedy and depth of pathos. Clearly, the tragi-comic structure is becoming increasingly bitter. For Edgar's deceived father has forced him to use his madman's disguise.

Of all cries in the tragedy, the most ironic and penetrating is Lear's tragic acknowledgment, "Thou art the thing itself." Here at the climax his immediate reaction—"Off, off, you lendings! Come unbutton here" (III. iv. 112-113) corresponds to his very last beautiful, ironic, tragic words which release his life, "Pray you undo this button" (V. iii. 308). Self-identity here is basically a social gesture—an attempt to become one with the lowest forked animal—shedding all gowns and furr'd robes. The last "unbuttoning" unites self with the cosmos; but both involve and "undressing" to release and find the real self.

Lear's most profound discovery and the Fool's witty retort, "Prithee, Nuncle, be contented, 'tis a naughty night to swim in;" (III. iv. 114-115) juxtapose the tragic and the amusing to a degree almost too painful to endure. Kent has been shocked to find Lear in the storm—bareheaded. Despite the cleverness of his retort, the Fool would be shocked to see his King, customarily robed in furred gowns, swimming naked in the rain. The Fool adds another tone to the ironic when he says of Gloucester, coming toward them bearing a torch, "Now a little fire in a wild field were like a lecher's heart, a small spark, all the rest on's body cold. Look, here comes a walking fire" (III, iv. 115-119). In view of Gloucester's past lechery, his future blindness, and his present loyalty to Lear, the Fool's comment is comic, lewd, symbolic, and ironically prophetic.

More than any other character in the play, the Fool has helped Lear to arrive at self-discovery in Edgar— the unaccomodated man, who borrows no silk from worms, no furs from beasts, no wool from sheep. "Robes and furr'd gowns" which "hide all" had in the past kept Lear from arriving at self-knowledge, self-fulfillment, self-identity; more tragically, they have kept him from learning compassion, charity, and love. Lear sees Cordelia in the mad Edgar—the rejected daughter, the rejected son—and he goes beyond that vision to self-knowledge: the reason for the rejected Lear.

From his very first appearance with quips and coxcomb, the Fool has been trying to help Lear strip away all falsity all superfluity to discover the thing itself. Lear has just discovered what the Fool apparently has known all along that on a literal level natural man is but a "poor bare forked animal"; but it is also unaccommodated man who embodies those virtues and qualities which make the human predicament livable or bearable. Edgar owes no commodity to Nature; the Fool owes nothing to Society. Lear has but recently discovered that the Fool is "houseless poverty," as Edgar is "poor, bare, forked." From those two "unaccommodated men" Lear learns some Christian virtues and perceives that which reduces man to the level of animals and exalts him to the level of the gods.

Part of the power of episodes which I have analyzed derives, as I have showed, from the juxtaposition of disparate elements: Nature "rumbling its bellyful," weak humanity, a King and a Fool, whose roles have been interchangeably interwoven, the highest and lowest of mankind—at its mercy. The tragic knowledge Lear is forced to accept alongside the bitter tragicomic jests of a motley clown: a witty Fool, and at this point in the tragedy, an almost witless King. The comic and the tragic, the amusingly ironic and the highly serious are interwoven so skillfully that one is scarcely aware of the many ambiguities and contradictions and complexties until he tries to isolate them for purposes of analysis.

Before following Kent into the hovel, the Fool makes a final comment about the nasty night which has tried to destroy both King and Fool and which has, indeed, helped destroy Lear's wits, making Fool and King intellectually equal as Lear's first act had placed them on equal social and economic levels. The Fool sings out that such a night will turn all men to fools and madmen, that it is indeed a "brave night to cool a courtesan," and that men with little wit must be contented with "fortune fit," for "the rain it raineth every day" (III. ii. 74-77). In his present madness with but little wit and less property and overabundant rain, Lear heartily grants the Fool's assertions. And he prays heaven never to have to suffer such violent contact with any of those elements again.

Nor can the Fool resist making one final prophecy before leaving the storm for the protection Lear is demanding that he accept. The first lines are ironical comments about hypocritical priests who preach endlessly but provide no spiritual uplift and about brewers who enrich themselves by adding water to their malt, thus decreasing its quality. The rest of the prophecy is so far removed from real-life situations, so idealistic that the Fool knows no such social and spiritual Utopia will ever be attained "in Albion." They are these:

When nobles are their tailors' tutors, No heretics burned, but wenches suitors, When every case in law is right, No squire in debt, nor no poor knight, When slanders do not live in tongues, Nor cutpurses come not to throngs, When usurers tell their gold i' the field, And bawds and whores do churches build— Then shall the realm of Albion Come to great confusion.

(III. ii. 79-92)

Since these lines sum up the Fool's social philosophy and are his final assessment of the world which has dealt such cruel blows to Lear, we need to examine them closely. The total view seems harmonious with the Fool's digs and quips to and about Goneril and Regan.

It is realistic, without biting cynicism; critical, without damning sarcasm. If the Fool is severe in his comments about every moral and social strata from whores, to cutpurses, to nobles, the episodes of the tragedy corroborate his views. Nor is he as severe as Lear in his assessment of the world, and he is more right. Wiser than a Fool has a right to be, he knows his proposals will never be realized: thus the prophetical statement. If Eden or Arcadia or Utopia existed, truly England would be in great confusion. If an old man could even trust the public expressions of love made by his own daughters, such devastating chaos and tragedy would not ensue. King Lear provides a penetrating criticism of Shakespeare's social world and of its hypocrisy, of the discrepancy between public declamations and private acts, of a world in which words are separated from acts. And Shakespeare's most succinct and ironical, at times most amusing, expression of those social evils are to be found in the Fool's dialogue.

I have already dealt with the climactic episode in which the Fool plays such a significant role: the point at which Lear arrives at self-identity. But the denouément, so far as the Fool's role is concerned, follows immediately thereafter and consists of the trial scene, conducted by the three great fools of the play, and arraigns Goneril and Regan before the final bar of judgment. In that Day-of-Doom scene, Edgar serves as judge, the Fool as jury, Lear as arraigner. The mad Lear accuses Goneril of having "kicked the poor King her father" and anatomizes Regan to find the "cause in nature that makes these hard hearts" (III. vi. 49-50; 81-82). The Fool asks the defendant if she is Goneril; Lear insists she cannot deny it. The Fool's reply, "Cry you mercy, I took you [Goneril] for a joint stool" ( reaches the height of tragedy and depth of comedy in a single stroke. The more intense the situation, the more ludicrous are the Fool's comments. This trial in which all major participants are mad becomes the maddest tragi-comic scene ever enacted before men.15

In the storm the Fool had cried out that the cold stormy night would turn all men to fools and madmen. By the time of the simulated trial of Goneril and Regan, one is forced to concede the night has done its worst. Knowing Lear is mad but wanting him to recognize his own condition, the Fool asks, "Prithee, Nuncle, tell me whether a madman be a gentleman or a yeoman" to which Lear replies that a madman is "A king, a king!" (III. vi. 10-12).

The Fool has barely called Goneril "a joint stool" when Lear madly strikes out against Regan "whose warped looks proclaim" what her heart is made of. Lear cries for arms, sword, and fire to fight the corruption in this hall of justice, threatening the ultimate rendition of God's justice in the Day of Doom itself; and he calls Edgar a "false justicer" to permit the vile Regan to escape (III. vi. 56-59)

In vain Kent attempts to convince Lear to lie down to rest so that his frenzy may pass away, but Lear cannot rest until justice has been restored in his kingdom. Throughout the trial scene, Lear's comments to Edgar suggest mental empathy if not identification with his Fool. For example, he wishes to "entertain" Edgar as one of his hundred retainers but dislikes the "fashion of his garments. You will say they are Persian attire, but let them be changed" (III. vi. 84-86). The ludicrous statement reminds us of the Fool's comment that had Edgar not retained a blanket they would all have been shamed; it reminds us that all Lear's retainers have forsaken him; it reminds us that "rob'd and furr'd gowns hide all" but that Lear apparently still prefers them to a blanket.

Lear, at last induced to lie down, bids Kent "draw the curtains so, so," thus closing the curtain on the role of his Fool with the words, "We'll go to supper i' the morning," to which the Fool adds the contradiction, "And I'll go to bed at noon" (HI. vi. 89-92). Kent tells us that the Fool must help bear his master to Dover and cannot, therefore, be left behind; but after saying he will go to bed at noon, Lear's Fool speaks not another word. With the reappearance of Cordelia, his services are not needed, and the tone shifts to the ironically pathetic. With the villainies of Goneril, Regan, and Edmund, the tone shifts to the ironically tragic. But irony is one of the dominant tones from beginning to end of the tragedy. And more than any other character, the Fool contributes that tone.

Before summarizing the total effect of the Fool's role in King Lear, I should like to suggest precisely how contagious it is, for it spreads to every character. First, the Fool calls Kent a fool for entering the service of Lear, who has banished two daughters and blessed the third against his will. Throughout the remainder of Acts I and II, he repeatedly calls Lear a fool, insisting that the King could easily get another coxcomb from Goneril and Regan, strongly labeling them fools. In the third act, Lear himself becomes a mad fool. Meanwhile, Edgar, disguised as madman, is added to the Fool's list of fools for being faithful to the deceived Gloucester, who had threatened Edgar's life. And he calls himself a fool for following Lear, a "great wheel going down hill." But he reminds us he would rather be that sort of fool than a knave.

Kent, moreover, upon arriving at Gloucester's palace, calls Oswald a vicious pompous ass—the worst of fools and knaves—and insolently adds Cornwall to the list with the words, "None of these rogues and cowards / But Ajax is their fool" (II. ii. 132-133).

Both Goneril and her husband, the Duke of Albany, call each other fools. Goneril's "My fool usurps my body" and "O vain fool" are mild alongside Albany's "See thyself, a devil / Proper deformity seems not in the fiend / So horrid as in woman /. . . Thou changèd and self-covered thing, for shame." (IV, ii, 28-64) Threatening in his disillusionment and fury, should he lose control, to tear Goneril's flesh from her bones, Albany's words are mild compared with Goneril's foolish evil acts.

Edmund, moreover, calls both Regan and Goneril fools and plays them, like fools, one against the other. He obviously considers every character but himself a fool, particularly his father, the Duke of Gloucester, whom he dupes, deceives, betrays, and causes to be blinded. In the trial by combat, however, Edgar proved Edmund to be the most villainous fool of all. And Lear himself calls his dearly beloved Cordelia "my poor fool."

So the entire tragedy is one in which the fools of this world enact their respective roles, not the least of which is the dominant role of court fool, often assigned a proud King when he is debased. One becomes poignantly aware in analyzing the Fool's role of the "emblematic and Morality-based dimension as a meditation or oration in the tradition of De Contempu Mundi," which concludes with its dramatic illustration of man's miseries, "We came crying hither . . . When we are born, we cry that we are come to this great stage of fools."16 One also becomes very much aware of the psychic distance which separates individualized characters from their homiletic and morality functions and from their emblematic and symbolic roles.17

In this paper, I have not attempted to relate the Fool with homiletic or morality functions; I have not directly attempted to analyze his emblematic or symbolic roles. Primarily, I have analyzed the Fool's role as it affects the development of Lear's character and as it contributes to the ironical tone and the tragicomic structure. But it would be difficult to select a character in King Lear who touches more complexly and deeply the tone, the structure, and the emblematic quality than Lear's Fool.

Is the Fool a man or a symbol? Is he a fool or a wise man? Is he himself, or some one other than what he purports to be? Is he a wise man clothed in motley and coxcomb? Or is he a fool gifted with a wise man's words and insight? Is he significant in the tragedy, or can his role be dropped without altering the meaning? What is his purpose? Does it change in the different scenes in which he appears? Why does Shakespeare drop him from the dramatis personae at the end of the sixth scene of the third act? Precisely what does he contribute to Lear's growth, precisely what does he contribute to the tone and structure of the tragedy?

The most tangible and unambiguous of these questions is what the Fool contributes to Lear's development. Still, even that is just about as intangible and ambiguous as anything can be. As I have showed in my analysis, Lear's first act endows all characters with Truth and Love as their sole doweries, thus forcing each to cast aside his customary hypocrisy to become what he truly is. As constant companion to Lear, that forces the Fool to speak only Truth, as ugly as it may be to the King. Because he speaks Truth and expresses what may have been Lear's attitude and what must have been Shakespeare's, the Fool becomes perhaps in part a mirror of the King's pagan society which is in fact Shakespeare's Elizabethan world, universalized as the cosmos.

To tell truth is merely one of the Fool's offices. Besides pointing out to Lear the irrationality of his initial acts in a society resting on an amoral hypocritical basis and besides drawing out for Lear his many other blunders, the Fool must teach Lear some basic lessons in human sympathy and Christian charity, qualities which an autocratic pagan monarch should not be expected to have acquired. Certainly Lear had not.

At times the Fool's function is to offer understanding and sympathy and to alleviate, after he has warned Lear he must suffer and told him why, Lear's suffering. He has showed Lear that he must suffer; he has partly showed him how and why, though Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia have performed that task more thoroughly. Having done those things, the Fool must save Lear from suffering too intensely. In this function, the Fool is not entirely successful, fundamentally because Lear has set in motion certain wheels of fire over which neither the Fool, nor Lear, nor any other character exercises control. When Lear goes mad, there is little the Fool can do for him. When he regains sanity, and a degree of wisdom, and Cordelia, he no longer needs his Fool.

The Fool sets up a mirror in which Lear can see himself and his acts, can see his daughters and their words which contradict their acts. And he helps Lear to grow immensely in wisdom and humility and in human kindness Imagine the pre-tragic Lear pitying his Fool, "I have one part in my heart / That's sorry yet for thee" or bidding him go before his king to seek shelter. Probably the pre-tragic Lear had never once thought of his Fool as a human being.

More importantly, the Fool must help Lear arrive at self-understanding and at self-identity so that he may answer his own tragic questions. The Fool with the disguised Edgar helps Lear to see behind robed and furred gowns to discover the thing itself—Man—a poor, bare forked creature, a worm, an animal, but gifted with the words, aspirations, and ideals of the gods. Even the lowliest of men—Edgar, a madman, who owes nothing to Nature, and a Fool, who owes nothing to Society, have within them that paradoxical reality and potential. Finally, in the trial scene, the Fool, again with Edgar, must help Lear arrive at an acceptable workable sense of justice among men which comes short of the justice of God but which still makes the life experience bearable and, at times, noble.

Those, then, are perhaps the major ways the Fool helps Lear to arrive at insight and wisdom.

But the Fool has a larger function in the tragedy than pointing out to Lear his mistakes, than suggesting the mediums of his punishment, than alleviating Lear's suffering when it becomes too intense to endure. He has other functions than serving as a mirror for Lear and his daughters and than speaking as a mouthpiece of Truth. He has another function besides helping Lear arrive at a balanced sense of justice and at self-recognition and self-identity.

King Lear, more than Shakespeare's other tragedies, speaks with many voices about the total human experience, and one of its major voices is its social outcry. In Triolus and Cressida (and elsewhere), Shakespeare expresses the generally accepted view of his age that in the universe there is a "place for everything, and everything is in its place." In King Lear, he questions that view and seriously doubts that everything is in its place. Lear's Fool cogently expresses Shakespeare's views regarding the social world, a world, if not topsy-turvy, at least with many misplaced values, worse than that, a world with many evil social conditions. Indeed, the Fool is the chief medium of Shakespeare's social protest. And on one very significant level, King Lear is a social protest.

For example, why cannot Lear take his daughters at their word? Is it not because there are too many hypocritical office seekers and crown grabbers? There are so many squires in debt, so much slander in the tongues of men, too many cutpurses among human throngs, so few whores who build churches, so few cases in law which are just.18 Should those conditions be righted, then indeed would confusion reign in Albion. For men in a world in which only righteousness and justice and truth prevailed would not know how to live. Note the havoc resulting from Lear's making just one of these virtues—Truth—prevail in his kingdom.

It is the Fool who calls our attention to the evils prevalent in our social world, to its conniving and hypocrisy, to its lust for place and position, and gold. It is he who says a man is a fool (in the eyes of the world) if he follows a man whom the world has rejected. But he, who does not, is a knave. Being more "all-licensed" than any other character, he is also more all-knowing. And he knows most about society to which he owes nothing and by which he is not even recognized as existing. He knows truly that primitive unsophisticated man suffers intensely if forced to live in a civilized hypocritical society.

Lastly, the Fool creates a pervasive ironic tone and a basic tragi-comic structure, dominant in the tragedy, until the putting out of Gloucester's eyes. That is not to say that the tragi-comic is the sole structure,19 but it is very important; and it possibly enables Shakespeare to make more penetrating comments about the human predicament than any other he may have used. It also made possible Shakespeare's Commedia and Purgatorio in the same scene, using identical episodes and dialogue, as in life itself.

The Fool's first words make one aware of the ironic tone. Thereafter he injects, extends, and intensifies that tone. I have suggested that is one reason Cordelia must die. As we in life forget about rewarding the good in our overlasting pre-occupation with punishing the wicked, so Edgar and Albany forget about Lear and Cordelia. Ironically, too, Lear must die just as he may have faint hope that Cordelia lives. The ironic tone begins, then, with the Fool's throwing Kent his coxcomb and telling him about Lear's having banished two daughters and having done the third a blessing.20 Thereafter irony pervades the dialogue and major episodes, even those in which the Fool does not directly participate and together with the tragi-comic structure reaches, at times, an almost unbearable intensity, and lends the tragedy multiple contradictions, both realistic and idealistic, innumerable ambiguities, and much of its power and grandeur.

In a literal sense, one must grant that the Fool is what he purports to be—Lear's court fool; but, emblematically, considerable evidence could be presented, though it would be beyond the scope of this paper, to show that he pre-figures every character in the play, particularly every character embodying the virtues of Truth and Love, but especially Cordelia, and more fundamentally and truthfully Lear himself.

I agree with Hazlitt that King Lear is Shakespeare's greatest tragedy. He thought it Shakespeare's greatest work because in it "he is the most serious." I think it Shakespeare's greatest work because in it he is the most comic and tragic at the same moment and from the same point of view. And no character in the tragedy is more tragi-comic than Lear's Fool.


1King Lear, in The Variorum Shakespeare, ed. Horace Howard Furness (Philadelphia, 1908), pp. 452, 464.

2 Ibid., p. 453. (Throughout the long footnote which follows, I shall refer to the Variorum edition as VE.) Some critics have held that the chief function of the Fool is to serve, when all others save Kent have abandoned Lear, as his closest friend and wisest counselor. Hudson thinks it inconceivable that Shakespeare, without the Fool, could have effected the desired growth in Lear's character (VE, pp. 436-437). Hense thinks the Fool holds up a mirror in which Lear can see himself as he really is (VE, p. 460). Others think that the chief function of the Fool is to speak Truth which Lear will accept only from the mouth of his "all-licensed" Fool; others say his role is to divert Lear's attention from his own suffering, to stave off madness, while still others hold that both Edgar's assumed madness and the Fool's professional role actually contribute to Lear's sanity. Some note that he adds to the total confusion of the play or stress his satisfying the cravings of the Elizabethan age for madness and horror, others that he gives the play unity and balance. (See VE, pp. 430-464).

Contradictory as are those views of function, there is even less agreement as to the Fool's ultimate fate. His last words, "And I shall go to bed at noon" (III. vi. 92) have been, among others things, interpreted to mean that he recognizes approaching death and must "breathe out his life in a play of thought" (VE, p. 437) or that he vanishes from the stage as fools did in life, as mere objects, without claim to personal interest (VE, p. 464). Others say that he disappears "of causes mysterious." Frederick Warde likes to think that Lear's cry, "And my poor fool is hang'd" (V. iii. 304) literally refers to the Fool. See Frederick Warde, The Fools of Shakespeare (New York, 1913), p. 189. See also other critical views in the Variorum Edition of King Lear, pp. 430-464; The Tragedy of King Lear, ed. Virginia Gildersleeve (New York, 1933), p. xv; Shakespeare's Tragedy of King Lear, ed. William J. Rolfe (New York, 1890), p. 23; "Introduction," The Tragedy of King Lear, ed. Kenneth Muir, 8th ed. (Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1952); John Leslie Palmer, Comic Characters of Shakespeare (London, 1946), pp. vii & xiii; John W. Velz, "Division, Confinement, and the Moral Structure of King Lear," Rice University Studies, LI (Winter, 1965), 97-108; Harriet Dye, "The Appearance-Reality Theme in King Lear," College English XXV (April, 1966), 514-517; and Maynard Mack, King Lear in Our Time (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1965), pp. 40-53 & 66-69.

Nor has there been agreement as to the Fool's age. He has been said to be anywhere from twelve to eighty (and all ages in between). In the Macready production (1838), the first after Tate to restore the Shakespeare text, the Fool was even a woman. See Huntington Brown, "Lear's Fool, a Boy, Not a Man," Essays in Criticism, XIII (April, 1963), 164-171; Warde, pp. 188-189; and The Variorum Shakespeare, p. 464.

3 Mack, pp. 49-50. See also Middle English Romances, ed. W. H. French and C. B. Hale (New York, 1930), pp. 937 ff. I agree with Professor Mack that the archetypal theme is significant source material; and I think, moreover, that in many ways it accounts for the important role assigned the Fool.

4 According to the Fool, we have a kingdom of Fools—Kent, Lear, Goneril and Regan, and the Fool himself. Lear will add Cordelia. And everyone knows how foolish it was, as the world views matters, for the King of France to accept Cordelia—dowerless—and what a fool the Duke of Burgundy was, as the gods view such matters, not to recognize Cordelia's worth, though dowerless.

5 All references to King Lear are from Shakespeare The Complete Works, ed. G. B. Harrison (New York, 1952) and will be cited in the body of the essay.

6 The Fool's words mean more than Kent grants. Taken as a whole, they constitute sound pragmatic advice and, if followed, would place a man in a safe, if not admirable, position in a dramatic situation reverberating with social implications, crossing and upsetting every social strata. Lear, of course, had violated all the maxims, Kent a good portion.

7 Italics are mine. Ironical and multiple meanings of "nothing" combine with the Fool's role to establish more than other aspects of the tragedy, its tone and structure. Indeed, the entire tragic action grows out of Cordelia and Lear's "nothing." And, too, the Fool (as a human being) is nothing.

8Middle English Romances, pp. 937 ff.

9 Italics are mine.

10 Apparently Regan has left her own palace to show Lear how inconvenient it is for her to receive him. That Lear is forced into the storm from Gloucester's palace; that Gloucester is blinded by Lear's daughter and her husband in his own palace; that Regan wishes to usurp that palace in union with the bastard Edmund as queen and king of Lear's realm—all these are tragically ironical.

11 As her last insult to the Fool, Goneril had called him more knave than fool; but note, how by his acts, he has given her the lie. The court fool needed, of course, to be a man of learning, wisdom, quick observation and understanding. But he must constantly entertain and do the bidding of his master. Accordingly, the jester's life was lonely and subject to the whims and caprices of his master, "contemned above the board, hated below it, yet feared by all." See Warde, p. 2.

12 Rümelin's comment regarding the heath scene, a scene which he calls "horrible" but lacking "in the wonderful" and lacking magnificence. See The Variorum Shakespeare, p. 462.

13 The Fool's ditty is somewhat cryptic, but he apparently is reminding Lear that he had entered Goneril and Regan in the regions of his heart, when he should have placed them at his toe and that he should have placed Cordelia in his heart instead of trodding underfoot and banishing.

14 When Lear, noting the nakedness of "poor Tom" asks if his daughters have brought him to his pass, if he could save nothing, the Fool facetiously remarks, "Nay, he reserved a blanket, else we had been all shamed" (III. iv. 64-67).

15 This great scene is Shakespeare's tragic version of the great comic scene between Prince Hal and Falstaff in Henry IV, Part I.

16 Mack, p. 69.

17 Indirectly, I have had to touch on the Fool's emblematic and symbolical roles though detailed analysis of those roles is beyond the scope of this paper.

18 I'm roughly paraphrasing the Fool's soliloquy—his prophesy (see III. ii. 80-92). Shakespeare's social comment contains double-edged irony. For example, he does not condone Lear's foolish notion that he can retain the name but not the responsibilities of kingship.

19 Mack points out (p. 70) that the dominant structure of the Gloucester sub-plot is homiletic. I find other structural patterns also, but the dominant structural pattern of episodes in which the Fool appears is tragicomic.

20 Actually, the ironic tone begins with the first scene between Kent, Gloucester, and Edmund and with Lear's division of his kingdom on the basis of public declarations of love. But an audience does not become aware of the ironic tone until the first words of the Fool.

Allan R. Shickman (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: "The Fool's Mirror in King Lear," in English Literary Renaissance, Vol. 21, No. 1, Winter, 1991, pp. 75-86.

[In the following essay, Shickman maintains that Lear's Fool was most likely intended to carry a mirror on stage in order to reinforce such concepts as "folly, prudence, and self-knowledge," with which the play is concerned.]

At the height of the storm in which King Lear finds himself drenched and humiliated, and during which he begins to learn of mortal limitation and human responsibility, the faithful Fool labors to outjest his heartstruck injuries. Soaked to the skin himself, he urges Lear to recant and beg of his daughters the blessing that children would ordinarily be expected to ask of their fathers: "in, ask thy daughters blessing. Here's a night pities neither wise men nor fools" (3.2.12-13).1 He versifies on the value of a roof over one's head, and then utters a problematic line, problematic because it seems to start so wildly from the previous one: "For there was never yet fair woman but she made mouths in a glass" (3.2.35-36).

Although attempts have been made to explicate this sudden sally,2 it strikes many readers with its abruptness and incongruity, which is best explained as the product of a fool's vacillating wit or else his imperfect mental processes, for such capricious turns of thought recur in his speeches. What he is saying is that women in their vanity practice smiling before a mirror; literally, that they make faces—"mouths"—in front of a looking-glass.3 The outlandishness of this court image when delivered on a rain-swept heath is magnified by the likelihood that the Fool of Shakespeare's stage actually demonstrated what he was talking about by making a few "mouths" of his own, timed so that the audience would laugh in the face of Lear's grief and pain. Making mouths was a function of fools, and indeed an occasional source of complaint. Thomas Lodge, referring to an old tradition of the fool as devil incarnate, wrote around 1596:

giue him a little wine in his head, he is cōtinually flearing and making of mouthes: he laughes intemperately at euery little occasion, and dances about the house, leaps ouer tables, out-skips mens heads, trips vp his companions héeles, burns Sacke with a candle, and hath all the feats of a Lord of misrule in the countrie . . . it is a speciali marke of him at the table, he sits and makes faces.4

The Praeludium to Goffe's Careless Shepherdess records a different reaction to similar clownish propensities:

l'ave laughed Untili I cry'd again to see what Faces The Rogue will make: O it does me good To see him hold out's chin, hang down his hands, And twirle his Bauble.


And Pilgrimage to Parnassus remarks on "fine scurvy faces," while Dromo advises the clown to "draw thy mouth awrye . . . I warrant thee theile laughe mightilie."6

Although Shakespeare does not rely heavily on such crude buffoonery for comic effect, it is highly unlikely that Lear's Fool or any fool would talk about funny faces without making some. Nor would a skillful fool require props to imitate a woman simpering at her reflection. The palm of his hand would suffice as a looking-glass, and Lear's tragedy could, for a moment, be turned to hilarity. But it is the purpose of this essay to demonstrate that Shakespeare's Fool, in all probability, actually is meant to carry a mirror on the stage, not only in this section, where it clearly would be useful, but in others as well. In so doing, he presents emblems of folly, prudence, and self-knowledge, consonant with the tragic polarities of the play.


That the Fool holds a glass in this and other passages is not mere speculation. The association of the fool and the looking-glass is thoroughly established in the iconography of the period. Sometimes it is raised up to the face of the fool, as is the case in an engraving of about 1450-1460 by Master E.S., where an allegorical Luxuria presents the blithesome sinner7 with his own fool's face. . . . Sometimes the fool holds it for himself, as in Alexander Barclay's 1509 translation of The Ship of Fools8 . . . , where he admires his reflection, and actually appears to be practicing "mouths." Or he might hold the mirror up to others, as an ass-eared jester does in another of Barclay's woodcuts . . . , so that a sinner might see his folly, in this instance the vanity of fashionable dress. The last of these illustrations is especially pertinent, as we shall see, for the Fool in King Lear holds his mirror to Lear's folly in much the same way, although for different reasons.

The fool of medieval and Renaissance art has a mirror because in the metaphorical sense he is one. This attitude is revealed in the literature of fools, which typically introduces an encyclopedic catalogue of folly and sin with a mirror metaphor or simile, as in James Locher's prologue of Barclay's publication: "Therfore let euery man beholde and ouerrede this boke: And than I doute nat but he shal se the errours of his lyfe of what condycyon that he be. in lyke wyse as he shal se in a Myrrour the fourme of his countenaunce and vysage."9 Clearly the comparison is important, for it is repeated in Barclay's own introduction: "this our Boke representeth vnto the iyen of the redars the states and condicions of men: so that euery man may behold within the same the cours of his lyfe and his mysgouerned maners, as he sholde beholde the shadowe of the fygure of his visage within a bright Myrrour."10

Nigellus Wireker's Speculum stultorum, or Mirror of Fools, a much older book (1160, but republished many times, as late as 1669), is introduced with a similar declaration:

The title of this book is Speculum stultorum. It has been given this name in order that foolish men may observe as in a mirror the foolishness of others and may then correct their own folly, and that they may learn to censure in themselves those things which they find reprehensible in others. But even as a mirror reflects only the outward appearance and the form of those who look into it, but never holds the memory of a past image, so is it with fools. Seldom, and then only with difficulty, are they drawn away from their folly, no matter how much they may have been taught by the foolishness of others.11

The frontispiece of Speculum stultorum predictably illustrates a fool in cap and bells holding a mirror up to the hero of the story, Daun Burnel the Ass, whose reflection in it is clearly visible. . . .

Also, there is the example of the trickster-fool Eulenspiegel, known in England as Howleglas (owl-glass), whose very name declares his function. The frontispiece of the book of his adventures, written in 1500 by the anonymous N., shows him with an owl in one hand and a mirror in the other. . . .12 The message is always the same: here is the glass wherein you may behold your own folly.


Yet the reasonable suggestion that Lear's Fool also carries a mirror has not been examined by Shakespeare scholars, perhaps because of a certain disagreeable redundancy in the conception. In other words, if the Fool is himself the King's mirror, the "glass" in which his follies are reflected, why should he need to hold one too? To the modern audience, the device might seem repetitious or naively obvious, although evidently it was acceptable to the original viewers precisely because it evoked a readily recognizable tradition. Playgoers were formerly much more comfortable with emblemata than we are today, and considerably more receptive to the signals they provided. But the Fool's mirror conveys to us, too, a potent purpose beyond its specific emblematic import. It is this object which sets him apart as an iconic and didactic presence in a play of elementary proverbial wisdom and instruction on the most fundamental of lessons. We are intended to share in Lear's education—"set to school to an ant"—that we might learn, as a child does, from what is familiar, very plain, and, if need be, often repeated. A mirror in the hand of Lear's Fool produces something of this naive instructional effect, although the perception would be altogether insufficient to make the case if the lines in King Lear did not also give evidence.

It is remarkable that there are several unnoticed sections that do provide such evidence, but before citing them, it is necessary to mention other meanings of the mirror well established by the time of Shakespeare. I do not refer here to the ubiquitous use of the metaphor so thoroughly outlined in Professor Grabes' The Mutable Glass,13 where it means "model" or "exemplar," (as in The Myrrour of Magistrates), but to specific iconographic associations. It was also understood as the standard attribute of the personages of Truth and Prudence, and of self-knowledge. . . . These virtues (or the egregious lack of them) are immediately recognizable as basic themes of the tragedy,14 so that one would hardly be surprised to see a modern production that somehow introduced an on-stage looking-glass for its symbolic value.

The hypothesis here is that Shakespeare intended Lear's Fool to carry this complex emblem, thus prompting a re-examination of the lines. A surprising number would seem to reward the examiner, for they do assume significance and resonance in the light of the hypothesis, and enrich the important themes just named. The most notable of these passages is the "sweet and bitter fool" rhyme:

Fool: That lord that counsell'd thee To give away thy land, Come place him here by me, Do thou for him stand. The sweet and bitter fool Will presently appear: The one in motley here, The other found out there.Lear: Dost thou call me fool, boy?


Textual footnotes almost always agree that upon his last verse the Fool points to King Lear; Lear is the "bitter fool."15 The troubling weakness of this interpretation is that it is undramatic, not very funny, nor does it really make sense. Is it worth the effort for the jester to set Lear up elaborately as the foolish lord and then point to him as a fool? Lear's response, "Dost thou call me fool, boy?" seems a superfluous question considering the thinness of the disguise. It is also awkward and implausible to "place him here by me" and then immediately say that the bitter fool, Lear, is "found out there." But with the prop of a mirror, this very oddity reveals a significant meaning.

Consider this interpretation: The Fool gives his mirror to Lear, instructing him to "stand" for the counsellor, who, mirror in hand, becomes a mock-Prudence, ostensibly the opposite of Folly. The Fool declares himself the "sweet" fool and then points, not at King Lear, but into the mirror. The "bitter fool" will presently appear within the looking-glass. The old man credulously looks where the Fool points, and sees—himself. "Dost thou call me fool, boy?" he demands, perhaps still uncertain of the Fool's intent.

This explication of the rhyme surely makes more dramatic sense than the generally accepted interpretation. It is at once comic and painful when the King is led (as a child might be) to peer curiously into the glass, realizing after a brief but crucial moment that the joke is on him.16 Moreover, in discovering that he is the bitter fool, Lear presents familiar emblems. First, holding the glass, he seems the prudent counsellor, taking on the iconography of Prudence herself (who, in addition to bearing a glass, often wears the mask of an old man behind her head to signify the wisdom of years with its ability to look both backward and forward . . . ); but then we recognize the iconography of the fool shown his folly. . . . This is not Prudence after all. Lear's petulant response indicates that he is not yet ready to learn from his errors, that he lacks the Socratic self-knowledge symbolized in Ripa's Iconologia by a mirror in the hand of Instruction. . . . Although a venerable figure similar to Ripa's, King Lear—too foolish, too stubborn, too old to learn—becomes, in this vignette, a negative example of introspection and the anti-type of Instruction.

In the same scene, the Fool very likely makes didactic use of his mirror a second time when he interjects that Lear is "Lear's shadow" (1.4.231). The word is sometimes synonymous with "reflection," as in the quotation from Barclay cited above, with the usage occasionally found in Shakespeare, as in Richard II: "The shadow of your sorrow hath destroy'd / The shadow of your face" (4.1.292-93); or in Richard III: "Shine out, fair sun, till I have bought a glass, / That I may see my shadow as I pass" (1.2.262-63). Understanding "Lear's shadow" in this sense, it is reasonable to suppose that the Fool might augment the words with Lear's actual reflection by raising a mirror to his master's face.17

This seems the more likely if we consider that at that very moment the King has briefly closed his eyes:

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


The enraged king can hardly believe that the insulting events of the scene are happening to him: he must be asleep. As he speaks his astonishment, he feigns a sleep-walker's lethargy. He shuts his eyes: "Where are his eyes?"; and opens them with the words "Ha! waking?" Thus the Fool has time to position himself while Lear staggers absurdly as a somnambulist about the stage.18 The tragic "Who is it that can tell me who I am?" from one who so slenderly knows himself is dramatically answered not only by the Fool's words, "Lear's shadow," but by the presentation of the appropriate emblem of self-knowledge and of folly. Perhaps the jester has another purpose as well. According to Stoic theory well known to Shakespeare, an angry man—as Lear certainly is at this moment—might mitigate his rage, and avert its consequences, if confronted with his reflection in a mirror.19


It becomes almost problematic to explain the absence of an on-stage mirror in King Lear, so well does this symbol accord with the fundamental themes already mentioned: truth, prudence, folly, instruction, and self-knowledge. Other factors also suggest its place in the iconography of the play. For example, although Lear's jester may be identified by his coxcomb and motley, which are mentioned several times, there is no reference at all to the characteristic "bauble," nor any evidence that he owns one. When he would confer on Caius the status of fool (for following one who is "out of favor"), he offers only his coxcomb. Could it be that he does not have a bauble to offer because he has a mirror in his hand instead?20 Moreover, the looking-glass symbol operates with several glass and mirror images: "I shall not need spectacles," "glass-gazing," "Get thee glass eyes," "see thyself," "Lend me a looking-glass." Its very shape—round, convex, and globe-like in most of our illustrations—repeats the circular figures of the play: coronet, "operation of the orbs," "true blank of thine eye," "O without a figure," "wheel of fire," "wheel come full circle."21 And, as the attribute of Prudence placed in the hand of a motley fool, it restates one of the most persistent motifs in King Lear, that of "the world turned upside-down," in which fathers beg blessing of daughters, "the cart draws the horse," "old fools are babes," one "goes to bed at noon," and an aged father outlives his children contrary to the way of nature.

But the Fool's mirror makes an appearance of another kind in Act 3, Scene 2 when, prior to his exit, he declares, "I'll speak a prophecy ere I go." His glass now becomes a magic mirror as he delivers a prophecy in "pseudo-Chaucerian"22 lines:

When priests are more in word than matter; When brewers mar their malt with water; When nobles are their tailors' tutors; No heretics burn'd, but wenches' suitors; Then shall the realm of Albion Come to great confusion. When every case in law is right; No squire in debt, nor no poor knight; When slanders do not live in tongues; Nor cutpurses come not to throngs; When usurers tell their gold i' th' field; And bawds and whores do churches build; Then comes the time, who lives to see't, That going shall be us'd with feet. This prophecy Merlin shall make; for I live before his time.


Although there is no definite indication of a glass here, the presence of one would change for the better the delivery of this long speech. Instead of facing the audience, the Fool would gaze prophet-like into his mirror, intoning the lines with appropriate antics.23

What makes this interpretation more likely is that the magic mirror is the usual tool of prognosticators in the art and literature of the period. Magic glasses are discussed in Reginald Scot's Discouerie of Witchcraft and in comparable literature.24 One appears in Beaumont and Fletcher's The Bloody Brother, in Greene's Frier Bacon, and in Chaucer's "Squire's Tale":

This mirour eek, that I have in myn hond, Hath swich a myght that men may in it see Whan ther shal fallen any adversitee Unto youre regne or to youreself also, And openly who is youre freend or foo.


Shakespeare himself refers to one who "like a prophet / Looks in a glass" (Measure for Measure 2.2.94-95), and he places a prophetic mirror in the hand of Banquo's eighth king to show Macbeth the future Stuart line. Most important, the magician Merlin employs an enchanted mirror in Spenser's Faerie Queene (a known source for King Lear) through which the whole world can be seen and the future foretold. The Fool's mention of Merlin at the close of his "prophecy" confirms the likelihood that a prognostic glass was intended in Lear also.26 Indeed, the Fool fantastically declares that he is acting the part of Merlin "before his time."


The hypothesis that Lear's Fool was intended to carry a mirror on the stage is strengthened by accumulation. The supposition that the Fool makes mouths in an actual glass becomes more credible because he appears to have a mirror in three other instances ("Lear's shadow," "The other found out there," and "I'll speak a prophecy"). One naturally looks for other citations which would verify further, and some possibilities deserve mention in closing. For example, the Fool might be entertaining himself with his glass in this passage:

Fool: Shalt see thy other daughter will use thee kindly, for though she's as like this as a crab's like an apple, yet I can tell what I can tell.

Lear: What canst tell, boy?

Fool: She will taste as like this as a crab does to a crab. Thou canst tell why one's nose stands i' th' middle on's face?


The play on "crab" (meaning crab apple, but with the implication of a "crabby" face); the talk of exact likeness; the emphatic use of "this" in both lines 15 and 18, which may signal sour faces grimaced for the benefit of the audience; the "telling" of things to come; and the riddle about the location of one's nose together indicate, or at least strongly suggest, that the Fool is regarding himself in a mirror as he speaks.27

Finally, there is an instance at the end of the play which, although also uncertain, could dramatically modify our perception of that pitiful and terrible scene. Enter Lear with Cordelia in his arms. Frantically he calls for a looking-glass, hoping she might yet be alive: "If that her breath will mist or stain the stone, / Why then she lives" (5.3.263-64). The heart-rending sorrow of this scene replicates the ending of The Rape of Lucrece, for there, too, "children predecease progenitors" (1756), leaving a father to lament a daughter's death. In these strikingly similar denouments, the identical image, that of the mirror, is evoked. Lucrece becomes for her sorrowing father a "Poor broken glass" in which he sees reflected the face of death (1758-61).28 Lear, lacking a glass, desperately tries a feather, which does not stir. Is the mirror ever brought as he commands?29 No stage direction indicates that it is, but if it is, surely it would be the long-absent Fool's own mirror, cracked now to signify his death, but recognizable to all, and a pathetic reminder of a "great thing of us forgot." Perhaps it is the sight of this very object which suggests to King Lear the remarkably ambiguous "And my poor fool is hang'd" (5.3.306), for it would be as if the body of the Fool were carried onto the stage. At this insupportable moment, Fool and daughter actually seem confused in Lear's failing mind. Moreover, because the Fool apparently is played by the same actor that boys Cordelia, the Shakespearean audience would respond in a similar way to their gradually merging identities, associating both together at last with the same transcendent principles of truth and selfless love.30 And then, the dead Fool mystically present, a new and final truth would be told. Held to the lifeless mouth of Cordelia, but clair-voyantly reflecting the forgotten Fool, the mirror would become in the hand of the expiring king a symbol of the ultimate truth of death and of the ultimate self-knowledge.


1 Shakespeare quotations are taken from The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans (Boston, 1974).

2 For an example, see C. Herbert Gilliland, "King Lear III.ii.25-36: The Fool's 'Codpiece' Song," English Language Notes, 22, no. 2 (1984), 16-19.

3 Cf., The Winter's Tale (1.2.116-17): "making practic'd smiles, / As in a looking-glass"; or A Midsummer Night's Dream (3.2.238): "Make mouths upon me when I turn my back." A fair lady with a fool at her feet regards her visage in a glass in Brosamer's engraving, "Le Fou et la Femme," reproduced in Raimond van Marie, Iconographie de l'art profane au moyen-age et a la renaissance (New York, 1971), II, p. 453, fig. 485.

4 "Wits Miserie, and the Worlds Madnesse," in The Complete Works of Thomas Lodge, ed. E. W. Grosse (New York, 1963), IV, p. 84.

5 Quoted in Olive Mary Busby, Studies in the Development of the Fool in the Elizabethan Drama (London, 1923), p. 66.

6 Busby, p. 41. Other complaints of "scurvey" and "Mimik" faces "match't with monarchs, and with mighty kings" are noted in Leslie Hotson, Shakespeare's Motley (New York, 1952), pp. 86-87.

7 William R. Elton, "King Lear" and the Gods (San Marino, Calif, 1966), p. 303, notes: "The Renaissance secularization of folly increasingly transformed it from a context of sinfulness to one of imprudence."

8 Sebastian Brant, Shyp of Folys of the World, trans. Alexander Barclay (1509); also see T. H. Jamieson's edition of Barclay's The Ship of Fools (Edinburg, 1874).

9 Jamieson Vol. I, p. 10.

10 Jamieson p. 17.

11 Nigellus Wireker, The Book of D aun Burnel the Ass: Nigellus Wireker's "Speculum stultorum, " trans., intro. and notes by Graydon W. Regenos (Austin, Texas, 1959), p. 23.

12 Although the owl is often associated with wisdom, it is also frequently used as a symbol of folly, stupidity, ignobility, and drunkenness. In Troilus and Cressida (2.1.90), Ajax calls Thersites a "vile owl." See Seymour Slive, "On the Meaning of Frans Hals' 'Malle Babbe,'" Burlington, 105 (1963), 432-36; also, Enid Welsford, The Fool: His Social and Literary History (London, 1935), p. 223 illustrates fools with their owl.

13 Herbert Grabes, The Mutable Glass: Mirror-imagery in Titles and Texts of the Middle Ages and English Renaissance, trans. Gordon Collier (Cambridge, Eng., 1982).

14 To expand on these themes, or to cite the scholarship, would prove a monumental task, far beyond the scope of this essay. Truth differs in appearance from Prudence in that the former is frequently nude and holds a balance. For an examination of the iconography of truth, see Ivan Gaskell, "Vermeer, judgment and truth," Burlington, 126, (1984), 557-61. The mirror of Prudence also signifies self-reflection. Socrates was remembered to have exhorted his pupils to "know" themselves, and indeed to view themselves each day in a looking-glass to reflect on their deportment. See Grabes, pp. 137-39, for the "Socratic" mirror as the way to self-knowledge and self-correction. The mirror symbolizes self-knowledge in Julius Caesar (1.2.51-70), e.g., "And since you know you cannot see yourself / So well as by reflection, I, your glass, / Will modestly discover to yourself / That of yourself which you yet know not of."

15 E.g., The Riverside Shakespeare, p. 1262, n. 147; the Arden King Lear, ed. Kenneth Muir (London, 1972), contains a similar gloss.

16 Perhaps "sweet fool" refers to the one who holds up the mirror, while "bitter fool" means the one who is obliged to see himself reflected there. The expression, "found out there," contains a clever play on words: "Found out" means "discovered," while "out there" refers to the world within the looking-glass.

17 Marvin Rosenberg, The Masks of King Lear (Berkeley, 1972) p. 107, states parenthetically, "A mirror in Fool's hand would multiply ironies. He is Lear's looking-glass. Does Lear himself carry a mirror?" Elsewhere (pp. 118-19) Rosenberg suggests that the Fool may hold a mirror up to show Lear "who he is." In the Quartos, the words "Lear's shadow?" are spoken in the interrogative by Lear, not the fool, and although this is not the widely accepted version, it is possible that Lear himself utters these words in response to the mirror thrust before him.

18 The crux of this interpretation is that "walk" means "sleepwalk." See Lawrence Rosinger, "Shakespeare's King Lear, I.iv.226-230," Explicator, 41, no. 4 (1983), 8; and Macbeth, 5.1.2-3: "When was it she last walk'd?" (my italics).

19 Grabes, p. 139.

20 In Renaissance illustrations of fools, their baubles sometimes are graced with a carved fool's face, so that the clownish holder might confront or converse with his own image. To replace this with a mirror is consistent and plausible.

21 See Rolf Soellner, "King Lear and the Magic of the Wheel," Shakespeare Quarterly, 35 (1984), 274-89. He states, "The play of Shakespeare in which the figures of circle and wheel are most prominent is King Lear," and notes that most of the circular images in Lear are vertical, like the Wheel of Fortune, rather than horizontal, like the coronet. Elton, pp. 135-36, discusses cyclic themes and wheel imagery. The Fool's advice to Kent about a great wheel rolling down a hill (2.4.71-77) could be demonstrated with the round mirror, another "vertical" circle, serving as the wheel. Imagine how he would use its handle to pantomime "lest it break thy neck."

22 As glossed in the Arden edition, the style of the lines quoted "are a parody of some pseudo-Chaucerian verses to be found in Puttenham, Arte of English Poesie." Busby, pp. 69-70, points out that mock prophecy speeches of this kind are not unusual for clowns, and cites examples. Cf. Regan's words, "Jesters do oft prove prophets" (5.3.71). The "prognostic fool" theme occurs earlier. Gulled into believing in Edgar's perfidy, Gloucester finds confirmation of astrological prophecies: "This villain of mine comes under the prediction" (1.2.109-10).

23 For example, upon "Then shall the realm of Albion / Come to great confusion," the Fool might turn the glass upside-down, figuring the "topsy-turvy world," which his speech essentially describes.

24 For a discussion of the magic mirror, see Grabes, pp. 125-30.

25The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, ed. F. N. Robinson (Boston, 1957), p. 129.

26 See Roland M. Smith, "King Lear and the Merlin Tradition," Modern Language Quarterly, 1 (1946), 153-74. The author notes that the many references to Merlin literature in Lear argue that the Fool's "prophecy" lines are authentically Shakespeare's (154).

27 It is remarkable that in The Taming of the Shrew (2.1.225-33), "crab" is associated not only with a sour face, but with a fool's coxcomb and a mirror.

28 The father's lament over his dead daughter at the end of The Rape of Lucrece (1751-76) bears other comparisons with King Lear: "If children predecease progenitors, / We are their offspring, and they none of ours" (1756-57) is a monde renversé idea comparable to many in King Lear. Lucretius "counterfeits to die with her" (1776), as Lear actually does with Cordelia. See also 1812-13 and 1819-20 for fool motifs resembling King Lear. Cf. Truth's mirror in plate 6, which also reflects "a bare-bon'd death by time outworn" (Lucrece, 1761).

29 Rosenberg, pp. 313-14, calls this looking-glass "a grim metaphor for the whole search for identity," but believes that both feather and glass are figments of Lear's disordered imagination. In Richard II (4.1.265ff), a king calls for a glass which is brought, and which he turns to a symbol of vanitas by dashing it to the ground.

30 See Richard Abrams, "The Double Casting of Cordelia and Lear's Fool: A Theatrical View," Texas Studies in Literature and Language, 27 (1985), 354-68, which shows how audience awareness of double casting "heightens the play's pathos by inducing an ironic consciousness." E. A. J. Honigmann, Shakespeare: Seven Tragedies: The Dramatist's Manipulation of Response (London, 1976), p. 116, believes that at the end of the play, "Cordelia and the Fool have become one in Lear's mind."

Bente A. Videbæk (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: "Lear's Fool in King Lear," in The Stage Clown in Shakespeare's Theatre, Greenwood Press, 1996, pp. 123-35.

[In the essay below, Videbœk explores the dimensions of the Fool's character and states that the Fool understands the "human condition" and pities the characters in the play who suffer under the harsh conditions of Lear's world. Furthermore, Videbœk contends that the function of Lear's Fool is extended further than that of the clowns in Shakespeare's other plays.]

In Troilus and Cressida, Thersites' continuous exertions to create and maintain distance between house and stage through caustic commentary shows us a clown whose lack of compassion and empathy makes the comedy work. The audience needs this distance not to become distracted from the main points of the play. In King Lear, the Fool's biting jests result from the very opposite. Lear's Fool is a creature whose whole being is founded on understanding of the human condition and pity for those who cannot cope with the harsh realities of Lear's world. Where Thersites willingly isolates himself from human contact and does his best to ensure that bonds are broken and illusions rent, Lear's Fool, though biting, is always loyal, caring, and compassionate.

Lear's Fool in is the only clown in a major part found in a tragedy, and this fact adds new dimensions to him. Apart from this instance, Shakespeare has employed clowns only in minor parts in tragedies, and mainly used them to illuminate a turning point in the action. Lear's Fool certainly helps focus our attention on crucial turning points, but he has a much more expanded function, if not easy to pinpoint. In the great comedies where we find the other court jester clowns, their function is straightforward and not far different from that of the minor clowns. The mere sight of the clown is a signal to the audience, and we are ready to laugh before we even know what the jest will be, or at whom it will be directed. The nimble tongues of these clowns never bring them trouble more serious than a remote threat of banishment. Their mobility is great and fascinating, and they are welcome and enjoyed anywhere.

Not so Lear's Fool. He is so glued to Lear that he becomes an added dimension of Lear himself, and both he and Lear seem aware that this is so, if only unconsciously. Nimble though the Fool may be in body and tongue, his is not an unproblematic existence, and he is repeatedly threatened with whipping.1 On the background of these repeated threats and his worsening circumstances, our laughter becomes constricted and may even disappear. Indeed, the Fool more often than not has to labor to extract laughter even from his master. Yet there is no doubt of Lear's attachment to him and our need for his presence. Lear's Fool is a court jester, and his essential function is no different from that of the court jesters in the comedies; he too brings forth the aspect of human folly and holds it up to ridicule. In the comedies, however, the target is broad and includes general ideas, but in the tragedy of King Lear the King's folly is the main target, and our involvement with the King becomes so close that laughter at him will be perceived as directed at ourselves also. Growing old and being unable to sound the depths of our fellow human beings are both conditions common to us all. Our understanding of these plights, and our involvement in Lear's fate which stems from it, can easily make us incapable of objectivity. Though we may feel uncomfortable about the Fool, we need him to keep our perspective on King Lear. The Fool as mediator between stage and audience is not always welcome to us, and though he is loved, the Fool's comments are not always welcome to Lear either; but as the real world fades from Lear's view and his sight is directed inwards in madness we come to see the Fool in a different light.

It can be debated whether the Fool is present in the first scene of the play, where Lear divides his kingdom and banishes Cordelia. The Fool does have many periods of silent presence on stage throughout the play, and it may be argued that this whole scene is one of them; if so, the bond between Lear and his Fool can be forged from the very beginning. But the Fool can serve a better purpose as a voice of reason rather than as an outcropping of Lear only, and therefore should not come on stage until he is called for. In the first scene, Cordelia herself serves the purpose of distinguishing reasonable from unreasonable and truth from lies, a function the Fool will take over once she departs for France. The clown-as-truth-teller is no new thing with Shakespeare, but the genuinely and deeply sad clown is.

The Fool is mentioned before we meet him: "Did my father strike my gentleman for chiding of his Fool?" asks Goneril, and labels this as another "gross crime" of her father's (I.iii.1-2, 5). Again in I.iv the Fool is mentioned before he appears. He is called for no less than four times, and the link between him and Cordelia is strongly pointed out:

Lear. But where's my Fool? I have not seen him this two days.

Knight. Since my young Lady's going into France, Sir, the Fool hath much pined away.

Lear. No more of that; I have noted it well.


Apparently the mention of dinner triggers Lear's wish to see his Fool, presumably to be entertained during the meal, but the skirmish between Kent and Oswald makes both him and us forget the Fool momentarily. Therefore the effect is one of great surprise once the Fool comes up and makes himself "visible." Lear praises Kent and makes a kingly gesture of bestowing his favors on him and hiring him, but the Fool puts things back in perspective:

Lear. Now, my friendly knave, I thank thee: there's earnest of thy service.

Fool. Let me hire him too: here's my coxcomb.

Lear. How now, my pretty knave! how dost thou?

Fool. Sirrah, you were best take my coxcomb.

Kent. Why, Fool?

Fool. Why? for taking one's part that's out of favour.


The Fool glides up unnoticed and, ignoring Lear and his friendly question, proceeds to demonstrate the lie of the land for Kent. Only when this is accomplished does he do the same for Lear:

How now, Nuncle! Would I had two coxcombs and two daughters!

Lear. Why, my boy?

Fool. If I gave them all my living, I'd keep my coxcombs myself. There's mine; beg another of thy daughters.

Lear. Take heed, sirrah: the whip.

Fool Truth is a dog must to kennel.


The Fool implies, not untruthfully, that he has more to give away than Lear, if only his one coxcomb. Lear has decided to keep the outward show of kingship, but has given away the regal power to his daughters. The Fool offers to give away only the mark of his profession, his hood, and yet will keep his essence. The same sentiments are voiced later (189-191), when the Fool says: "[N]ow thou art an O without a figure. I am better than thou art now; I am a Fool, thou art nothing." He also keeps a firm grasp on the necessity to remain frugal in order to prosper, a piece of advice suited equally well to a pauper and a king:

Have more than thou showest, Speak less than thou knowest, Lend less than thou owest, Ride more than thou goest, Learn more than thou trowest, Set less than thou throwest; Leave thy drink and thy whore, And keep in-a-door, And thou shalt have more Than two tens to a score. . . . Can you make no use of nothing, Nuncle?Lear. Why no, boy, nothing can be made out of nothing.


These three uses of "nothing" clearly recall the exchange between Cordelia and Lear in I.i (85-89). The echoes of Cordelia's speech in the Fool's lines serves to forge a bond of continuity between the two. The truly loving daughter is no longer with her father; his Fool, whose love is also great, has taken it upon himself to try to save Lear. The Fool's advice comes belatedly, however, as Lear has already sinned against all the commandments of rationality set up therein.

During this whole scene the Fool, in spite of threats of the whip, continues to press up to the fine line of Lear's tolerance. He calls Lear "Nuncle" and "my boy" (134), the same terms of endearment Lear uses for him, but in the same breath he also indirectly calls him a fool in one of the jingling rhymes he uses to get his points across (137-144). There is no doubt that of the two, Lear is the bitter fool.

The Fool also implies that Lear has entered into second childhood. He has "mad[e his] daughters [his] mothers" (168-169), and in the parallel of the egg and its two crowns (152-162) the Fool equates Lear with the meat of the egg, that which would become the chicken, but which is eaten here before its fulfillment. Lear's "bald crown" which used to bear the golden one, is the home of nothing; he has "pared [his] wit o'both sides and left nothing in the middle" (183-184). This continual prodding of Lear apparently pains the Fool: "I had rather be any kind o'thing than a fool; and yet I would not be thee, Nuncle" (181-183).

When Goneril enters, the Fool waxes daring and exploits her comments to further stress his point. Goneril is "the cuckoo" (213) which bit off the hedge-sparrow's head when there was no more need of food, and she is the one who blew out the light and left them "darkling" (215). She is also "the ass" (221), who sees the cart draw the horse. And to Lear's question: "Who is it that can tell me who I am?" the Fool replies: "Lear's shadow" (227-228). None of these parallels are flattering ones, and by his prodding the Fool fans the tempers of both father and daughter. Lear, insulted, leaves her house, and he forgets his Fool, both when he storms from the stage and finds half his knights gone and when he finally leaves in anger. Goneril sends him away:

You, sir, more knave than fool, after your master.Fool. Nuncle Lear, Nuncle Lear! tarry, take the Fool with thee. 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.


When present, the Fool easily dominates the business on stage, making himself the center of the audience's attention because of the truths he delivers, and certainly also because of his physical agility.2 This is the only Shakespearean court fool who stays attached to one master, and it would be a mistake not to let him make use of the court fool's traditional acrobatics, at least while he is still at court. Many of his speeches, particularly the rhymed ones, can be underscored by nimble skipping and jumping, especially once Goneril comes on stage, when he can hide behind Lear or Kent and pop out for a quick verbal salvo. His power of repartee is strongly linked to this physical aspect of his stage presence. When Lear and Goneril have their thunderous confrontation, the Fool has a span of almost one hundred lines of silence before he is literally thrown out. He could make use of this time by gradually becoming immobile as the confrontation sharpens, finally to cower in real fear when Lear leaves him, and then regain his mobility when he exits.

The short doggerel he uses as his exit line is a theatrically interesting thing. The Fool makes the entire action freeze while he steps out of the play, but not of his role, and addresses the audience directly. He has a similar effect in III.ii, where he ends the scene alone with the audience and delivers Merlin's prophecy (81-96). In both instances he serves as a lull, an eye of the storm, and creates an instance of breathing space before the next onslaught. In the third act we are in the midst of the actual storm scenes, but the tempest of tempers in the first act is a necessary prelude, an end to the Fool's comfortable existence and the beginning of his efforts to keep together the tattered remnants of Lear's reason.

The Fool of the first act is still a court jester, but the storm Goneril and Lear create between them forges him so close to Lear as to make them almost one. William Willeford says of the court fool:

The fool enriches the king as a symbol of the self by making a constant game of our tendency to take the symbol for granted. And when the king loses his power to symbolize an experience of the self, that experience is available by way of compensation through the fool and the dissolution of consciousness that he effects.3

Such is the expected relationship between king and jester, and that is what we encounter in King Lear when we first see the Fool in action. But after Lear's fortunes truly begin to slide, the change is obvious. This must be very clear from the Fool's bearing. His court jester nimbleness may surface from time to time, but the audience has to see the change between Lear the King and Lear the husk of the King, and one efficient way to make this come across is in the physical behavior of the Fool. The Fool will disappear from the play when the question of Lear's kingship is no longer as urgent as that of Lear's fundamental humanity, that is at the true turning point, the lowest point of Lear's fortunes, where he takes over from the Fool and begins to make fundamental discoveries about himself and his relationship to his world. Therefore the Fool may describe a downward curve like his master's, may dwindle before us like Lear's reason, and finally fade from the play when Lear's madness takes him over.

I.v is a short scene of transition. Lear is preoccupied and has begun to fear for his sanity. The Fool labors mightily to keep his attention fixed, but has so little success that he changes tactics, only to find Lear even less cooperative. At the beginning of the scene the daughters are still the focus of the Fool's jibes (14-24), and his first reference is directed at Goneril and Regan, but Lear does not rise to the bait; the second one is more subtle, but Lear does not even hear. It is as if his responses are triggered more by the Fool's tone of voice than his actual words. Lear should move about the stage in thought, and the Fool try to engage his attention by following close, sometimes even blocking his way only to be brushed absentmindedly aside. When he finally gets a true response from Lear, it is no credit to his fooling; the King steals the Fool's punch line from him:

The reason why the seven stars are no mo than seven is a pretty reason.Lear. Because they are not eight?Fool. Yes, indeed; thou would'st make a good Fool.


The Fool exits on another of his little vignettes to the audience: "She that's a maid now, and laughs at my departure, / Shall not be a maid long, unless things be cut shorter" (48-49). He reminds the audience forcibly that though he is still trying to wring a smile from Lear by his jesting, he is cruelly aware of the seriousness of the situation, and the tragic implications of Lear's journey. The Fool has few of these moments completely devoted to the audience. Though he is our teacher and the clown of the play, his teaching is much less pleasant than that of the other court jesters. He teaches us much as he teaches Lear, and that can be caustic at times.

When Lear and the Fool come upon Kent in the stocks (II.iv), we see the same pattern. The Fool again attempts to catch Lear's attention, but now he gets even less response. We see a declining curve; Lear hears the Fool's words subconsciously, and reacts with a comment about his daughters, then about his impending madness, and finally not at all:

Fool. Ha, ha! he wears cruel garters. Horses are tied by the heads, dogs and bears by th'neck, monkeys by th'loins, and man by th'legs: when a man's overlusty at legs then he wears wooden nether-stocks.

Lear. What's he that hath so much thy place mistook To set thee here?

Kent. It is both he and she, Your son and daughter.

Lear. No.

Fool. Fathers that wear rags Do make their children blind, But fathers that bear bags Shall see their children kind. Fortune, that errant whore, Ne'er turns the key to th'poor. But for all this thou shalt have as many dolours for thy daughters as thou canst tell in a year.Lear. O! how this mother swells up toward my heart;Hysterica passio! down, thou climbing sorrow! Thy element's below.

Lear. O me! my heart, my rising heart! but, down!

Fool. Cry to it, Nuncle, as the cockney did to the eels when she put 'em i'th'paste alive; she knapp'd 'em o'th'coxcombs with a stick, and cried 'Down, wantons, down!' 'Twas her brother that, in pure kindness to his horse, buttered his hay.

(II.iv.8-14; 46-56; 118-123)

The Fool tries his best but never reaches his master, who probably does not even notice his presence. In all three cases the Fool makes use of traditional techniques: he equates man with animals; he delivers a bit of doggerel and puns; finally he ridicules human stupidity. But no matter how pointed the Fool's observations may be to the audience, Lear is oblivious to them. It should come as a relief to the Fool when Kent reacts to his joking in the expected manner and answers him in prose as a contrast to Lear's verse (61-83). But during Lear's absence and his bout with Kent, the Fool also manages to express his unswerving loyalty to Lear (79-82). It is to the Fool, all he has left, that Lear cries: "O Fool! I shall go mad" (284).

During Lear's confrontation first with Regan, then both daughters, we have another of the Fool's long periods of silent presence. He is given no Exit in the Folio, but Quarto Two gives him one with Lear between lines 284 and 285, leaving him on stage without speaking for about 160 lines. His behavior now should echo that of the first act, where he was in a similar situation. We have just seen him hard at work to reach Lear, and it has been a sad affair for the Fool. More than ever he is predisposed to shrink back behind the fighting giants and finally cower close to Lear, probably even cling to his robe, as the Folio's Storm and Tempest is heard at line 282. Shakespeare employs the traditional and moving image of the fool cowering under the mantle of the defiant king, which shows us, as it were, two aspects of the same thing simultaneously, but Lear and his Fool are no mere image. The mighty clashes between Lear and his daughters, and between Lear's inner and outer man, leave less and less room for the Fool as jester, even the Fool as critic. The Fool is becoming more a symbol than a clown; he always was a symbol of Lear's court that was, now he begins to signify Lear's dwindling powers of reasonable action and reaction.

There is little room for laughter in King Lear, and what there is, is different from our unrestrained response to the comedies. The nature of the tragic mode prevents us. In a comedy we are interested in the outcome, but we remain in a position from where we may regard the proceedings with some superiority. In tragedy, however, we easily lose such a perspective because of our great personal involvement in the target of the jokes, here Lear himself. The stage clown in the guise of the Fool does trigger some amused response in the audience periodically, but when he first comes on stage the tragedy has already advanced too far to allow him free play. Even his remarks directed to the audience alone are more moralistic than amusing. We have been prepared for such behavior in the Fool, who has "much pined away" and is not his true self even when we first meet him. From the beginning of our relationship with this clown, he comes to stand as a mirror for Lear's decline; but where Lear's outward show and just cause for anger may periodically divert us from the downward curve, the Fool's behavior helps refocus our attention. The mirroring becomes ever more significant as we move into the third act. While the storm is raging, we are prepared for our next encounter with Lear and his Fool. Lear is alone in the storm, striving "in his little world of man to out-storm / The to-and-fro-conflicting wind and rain," and with him is "None but the Fool, who labours to out-jest / His heart-strook injuries" (10-11, 16-17). The pattern we have become used to will continue.

Not until III.ii does the Fool truly begin harping on sexuality:

The cod-piece that will house Before the head has any, The head and he shall louse; So beggars marry many . . . . For there was yet never fair woman but she made mouths in a glass.

Kent. Who's there?Fool. Marry, here's grace and a cod-piece, that's a wise man and a Fool.


Sexuality, indeed, becomes greatly important later in the play, when Lear in his madness confronts the blinded Gloucester:

What was thy cause? Adultery? Thou shalt not die: die for adultery! No: The wren goes to't, and the small gilded fly Does lecher in my sight. Let copulation thrive;

(IV. vi. 109-114)

Sexuality and the resulting issue is the strongest link between Lear's and Gloucester's tragedies. Gloucester is first to draw attention to a sexual transgression. In I.i he presents his bastard son Edmund to Kent, and freely admits that he was begotten out of wedlock. Lear has committed no such violation, but his view of love is clearly warped; he accepts his daughters' professions that they love him above everything else, but Cordelia is aware that something is wrong: "Sure I shall never marry like my sisters, / To love my father all" (I.i. 102-103). The Fool's sexual allusions are comparatively few; but like every remark the Fool makes, these comments reach out to encompass a large problem within the play and create echoes of things past and hints of things to come.

When Kent comes to offer Lear shelter in a hovel, Lear becomes truly aware of his Fool for the first time since I.iv, but as a fellow human being rather than his jester. The Fool answers with a song to fit them both:

Lear. My wits begin to turn. Come on, my boy. How dost, my boy? Art cold? I'm cold myself. . . . Poor Fool and knave, I have one part in my heart That's sorry yet for thee.

Fool. He that has and a little tiny wit,With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,Must make content with his fortunes fit,Though the rain it raineth every day.


Lear's anguish in combination with the storm has finally opened his eyes to the misery of the Fool, the one being more miserable than himself because he is more aware of Lear's decline. Lear's wits are slowly becoming extinguished, and when we meet him again after the storm is over, he must make do with what fortune has left him, nothing.

Merlin's prophecy, with which the Fool ends the scene, points in the same direction. When the world is turned upside-down, England shall "[c]ome to great confusion" (92). There is much truth to this prophecy. Lear's England, as well as Lear the microcosm, are both in great confusion, and the cause is to be found within Lear himself. Lear's idea that the essence and the show of kingship can be divided is as absurd as most elements in the prophecy "Merlin shall make" when his time comes. Only for Lear there is no hope of an Arthur to put things to rights. Though the Fool has this moment alone with the audience, he does not make use of it to solicit our laughter. Much of the prophecy can be seen as ridiculous and amusing when separated from its context of the storm scenes, especially the bits of social criticism and the fantastically Utopian ideas presented. But though the Fool steps out of the play and plot proper and creates an anachronism by drawing in Merlin, the prophecy is so well related to Lear's condition and its conclusion so apt to become true that the effect is one of sadness rather than mirth.4 The Fool may not be a bitter fool, but he is a miserable one, and his handling of his misery does him credit.

The Fool as an extension of Lear is even more an object of our pity in III.iv. His court jester image has undergone a complete change. Though his jokes were unsuccessful, he constantly tried to amuse Lear in the past, but in this scene we hear no word from him till line 39. Lear is still concerned for him above himself: "In, boy, go first. You houseless poverty,—/ Nay, get thee in" (26-27), and it is a measure of the Fool's misery that he does go in first. What he meets is not shelter, however, but Edgar disguised as Poor Tom. Edgar already has created a close intimacy with the audience, who has witnessed his transformation into Poor Tom. Our closeness with him allows him to put on and use several of the clown's characteristics, though he is no clown himself.5 In certain ways his antics as Poor Tom are not unlike the Fool's efforts, but the underlying tragedy, which provokes most of the attempts at clowning, is an overwhelming presence and turns possible laughter into deep pity.

The Fool's first reaction to Edgar is fright: "Come not in here, Nuncle; here's a spirit. / Help me! help me! . . . A spirit, a spirit: he says his name's Poor Tom" (39-42). Lear's first reaction to this "spirit," however, is identification, not fright:

Dids't give all to thy daughters? And art thou come to this?

What! has his daughters brought him to this pass? Couldst thou save nothing? Wouldst thou give them all?


In Edgar-as-Poor-Tom, Lear sees a mirror image of himself, a being reduced to nothing except what he was born with, and his indentification will progress so far that he strips himself in order also to become "a poor, bare, forked animal" (105-106). But the Fool's courage and control rise for a moment as Lear's wane. When Lear sees Tom as another who has given his daughters "all," the Fool replies to Lear, but certainly more to the audience: "Nay, he reserv'd a blanket, else we had all been sham'd" (64-65), and shortly afterwards: "This cold night will turn us all to fools and madmen" (77). The first comment has an ironic distance, which the audience needs at this point not to become totally overwhelmed; we see a glimmer of the traditional stage clown in action. The second comment has great truth to it. The horror of the night has been created mainly by Lear's madness, which is pitifully real. Poor Tom's madness is an act put on to save life itself. Of the three, the Fool is the most rational-seeming creature, though he too has felt his world slipping away from under him. They are all three suspended in the storm with no well-known frame of reference; the storm itself has taken over the world as we know it, raging within Lear as well as outside of him. Neither Lear nor Edgar has anything left of what they formerly used to define themselves. The Fool, however, still has his coxcomb, though the rest of his old life is lost. The Fool's remnants of control surface again when Lear strips himself. The Fool gentles him as if he were a little child, a "fool": "Prithee, Nuncle, be contented; 'tis a naughty night to swim in. Now a little fire in a wild field were like an old lecher's heart; a small spark, all the rest on's body cold. Look! here comes a walking fire" (108-111). The Fool still does his best to help Lear and make his way smoother, but his misery is growing as can be seen from another of his long silences. His jester's function becomes suspended when Lear and he are not more or less alone together. When anything even remotely threatening occurs, he fades into the background and into his sorrow. When Lear walks off with Edgar he excludes the Fool, who feels it keenly. At this point in the action, where the Fool's role is almost played out, his physical action should be limited to an absolute minimum. There should be no sprightliness left; in its stead we should see the Fool shivering, hugging himself to regain a little of the warmth a house and friendship provides man with, except when he attempts to comfort Lear; then he should become almost protective. But by now he is his own greatest resource, and he is almost spent.

The Fool, however, does not represent the element of sanity the audience needs to cling to; Kent provides this point of stability and calm. All his attempts at comforting and calming Lear, however, come to nought. In, the Fool's last scene, Lear passes judgment on his daughters with the help of Tom and the Fool. In this company the Fool resumes his joking, but he is still more the commentator than the court jester, and his subject is still Lear's problematic kingship:

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. . . . He's mad that trusts in the tameness of a wolf, a horse's health, a boy's love, or a whore's oath.


Even now, when the Fool gets Lear's full attention as he jokes, his jest goes awry. Lear, always afraid of madness, now readily sees it in himself. The true madman here is indeed a King, but that was not one of the original choices. Still the Fool, mostly to the benefit of the audience, goes through with first his joke, then his bit of moralizing. It seems as if the Fool gradually becomes separated from Lear after their meeting with Poor Tom; Lear in his present state identifies more readily with him. The Fool feels deeply that he is cut adrift. However, when the trial of Goneril and Regan is to commence, the Fool is probably the one Lear addresses as "most sapient sir" while Tom is the "most learned justicer" (22, 21). As the trial progresses, Tom is the one in close contact with the audience, and the one who diverts Lear when total breakdown threatens:

[Aside] My tears begin to take his part so much, They mar my counterfeiting.

Lear. The little dogs and all, Tray, Blanch, and Sweetheart, see, they bark at me.

Edgar. Tom will throw his head at them. Avaunt, you curs!


During the whole trial Kent hovers in the background, but his attention is riveted on Lear, and he has none to spare for the audience. When Lear has reached a point of exhaustion he persuades him to rest, and Lear lies down:

Lear. Make no noise, make no noise; draw the curtains: so, so.

We'll go to supper i'th'morning.

Fool. And I'll go to bed at noon.


This is the Fool's last remark before he leaves with the party bearing Lear from the stage. Poor Tom is left to address the audience. Seven more or less credible meanings have been read into this one line,6 but when we consider how the Fool's role has developed in relation to Lear, the meaning must be very simple. Lear, in need of sleep more than food, decides to sleep now and eat Gloucester's promised supper later. In the Fool this sparks one last remark about his topsy-turvy world: if Lear can eat supper at breakfast, the Fool can end his day at high noon and go to bed.

Of course there must be connotations of ending and death connected with the Fool's idea of going to bed, especially since the Fool has dwindled so drastically before our very eyes, but at this point there has been no warning that this is his last appearance. Lear himself disappears from our sight for a long time, and when he reappears his conditions are so changed and so many things have happened to shake us fundamentally that we most likely will have forgotten about the Fool. The triangle of Lear, Tom, and the Fool in the storm is appropriate for its place in the play, but the Fool would have made an awkward third at Dover Cliff, where none of the connotations he must carry with him qua his stage clown status would be appropriate. Moreover, his counterpart Cordelia will shortly reappear at Lear's side and take the Fool's place as truth-teller and healer of her father.

There may be one more reference to the Fool in the play. In V.iii.304 Lear says: "And my poor fool is hang'd! No, no, no life!" We know from line 273 that Cordelia was hanged. Lear is desperately and unsuccessfully trying to find the tiniest sign of life in her, so it seems most likely that the "fool" referred to is Cordelia, not the Fool, even though Lear's thoughts may also encompass the other person who truly loved him. This is very appropriate. The Fool, the court jester, is an intrinsic part of Lear-the-King, and his main focus concerns issues of kingship and Lear's wrongful idea that its outward show can be divided from its substance. In this connection the Fool becomes almost symbolic, the way the King's crown is. The crown stands for the totality of kingship, but the only one Lear has left is bald (I.iv.159), the "meat" itself is gone. The Fool comes to represent the idea of rationality, that which binds society together and gives meaning to existence, and his voice is always harping on the foolishness of deviating from the accepted patterns of human life and organization. His bauble and coxcomb are, after all, a mocking copy of the king's scepter and crown. Once Lear has left these patterns completely, he enters another dimension of existence and proceeds to examine his inner man, and there is no more need for the Fool's voice. The Fool as symbol disappears when his purpose is served.

Lear's Fool is a creature apart from the ordinary stage clown we encounter in Shakespeare's plays. He is bound to one other character, and therefore bereft of the volatility, freedom, and mobility lent the others of his kind. In Shakespeare's source play, King Leir, there is no court fool, and the conclusion of the play is happily romantic. Shakespeare changed his source into a tragedy, and the addition of the character of the Fool makes a great contribution toward this transformation. The Fool as an aspect of Lear's own tragedy makes many restrictions on his clown character, but the gain is immense in terms of the audience's understanding of events and characters. Where the stage clown usually remains personally aloof and unaffected by the other characters in the play, Lear's Fool is deeply touched by Lear's tragedy and shares in it himself. The stage clown will usually appear with a certain unexpectedness and say and do surprising and delightful things, but here we are prepared for the arrival of Lear's Fool as well as for his sadness. Still he is the audience's teacher and interpreter, possibly to a degree that surpasses any other stage clown, but his teachings are single-minded. He may be seen as more critic than clown, and the amusement he provides is always tinged with sorrow.7 The Fool is the only major clown's part in a Shakespearean tragedy, and his function is eminently fitting to his role.

Thersites and the Fool share the role of the critic in a noncomedy, and they have much to say about the shortcomings of their respective worlds, but the way in which they use the critic's tools is widely different. Thersites is aggressive to the point of disgusting the audience, and this makes us doubt his value as truth teller. We tend to believe in likable people and go along with their ideas more readily. He is still our interpreter, though, only we have to interpret him as well as his comments, and our final views of the play may well be colored by our doubt of Thersites. Lear's Fool, on the other hand, is a lovable creature, and the failure of his efforts in his court jesterly role only endears him to us further. We soon recognize that his caustic comments spring from his deep love of Lear, and so his critical attitude serves to convince us of his value as commentator. He is a true guide and interpreter, whom we readily trust, and we feel for him all the more because his actions often go against his comments. He sees Lear's shortcomings and is critical of him, but his love prompts his every action.

Thersites and the Fool are both bitter fools, and their environments are hostile to human life and human feelings and therefore inviting of criticism, even satire; but where Thersites creates distance, the Fool invites closeness; where Thersites' bitterness is all-encompassing and inimical, the Fool's serves to deepen our understanding of Lear, indeed, he creates sympathy and even love from bitterness. Still, both clown characters are eminently well suited for the play in which we find them, and in both cases the audience stands well served by their commentary.


1 Marvin Rosenberg, in The Masks of King Lear (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972), makes much of these threats.

2 I am aware that the Fool has often been played by an old man. The effect desired is the creation of Lear's Doppelgänger, old and wise beyond Lear himself.

3 William Willeford, The Fool and His Scepter (Chicago: Northwestern University Press, 1969), 173.

4 "Albion" could well be used to mean Lear; in Hamlet, Claudius and the Elder Fortinbras are referred to as Denmark and Norway respectively.

5 It is interesting to see that, in the facsimile of the Quarto, the title page of King Lear (page 663) mentions "the unfortunate life of Edgar, sonne and heire to the Earle of Gloster, and his sullen and assumed humor of Tom of Bedlam. ." The Fool is not mentioned.

6 See note to in the Arden Edition of the play.

7 The combined Quarto edition of King Lear has fewer lines for the Fool than the Folio; the Quarto play reads as if the Fool is more of a clown and less of a critic, but he is certainly no fountain of laughter and merriment in the Quarto either.


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Richard Abrams (essay date 1985)

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

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

Proposed near the turn of the past century, the hypothesis that the actor playing Cordelia doubled as the Fool in early productions of King Lear accords with our best knowledge of Shakespeare's theatrical practice and has rarely been contested. Strictly speaking, of course, the theory remains unprovable without external evidence; yet it rests on two fairly firm supports: that the two characters never meet on stage and that during Cordelia's absence the Fool takes over her function of telling Lear the painful truth about himself. In addition, such a theory strengthens various line readings, for example, the play on "nothing," Lear's description of the Fool as a "houseless poverty" after driving Cordelia from her home, "And my poor fool is hanged." But though critics have noted verbal ironies produced by double casting, the sustained theatrical impact of this device on spectators cognizant of the actor's role shift has yet to be explored. Only recently have critics advanced beyond a naive conception of double casting as a necessary evil in small Elizabethan acting troupes, recognizing the potential production values of this technique which enabled Shakespeare "to inform, comment on, and, perhaps, augment the events enacted."1 In this essay I discuss the theatrical benefits of doubling the parts of Lear's two "truthtellers," showing how audience awareness of the actor's change heightens the play's pathos by inducing an ironic consciousness.

Past work on doubling in Lear focuses on Cordelia's and the Fool's relationship to the protagonist. Here, however, I concentrate less on their relation to Lear than on their common relation to Lear's third truthteller, his servant Kent, also in disguise for most of the play, hence presenting an analogy with the actor of Cordelia/Fool in his doubled role. If we accept the double casting hypothesis, two scenes can be defined as reunions: the actual reunion of kent and Cordelia in act 4, scene 7; but also, and less obviously, the Fool's great scene (I.iv) which reunites the actors formerly playing Cordelia (now the Fool) and Kent (now Caius) soon after their initial exit. Viewed as a pseudoreunion, act 1, scene 4, resolves expectations set up by the play's first scene, to which we turn.

Twice in parallel actions in act 1, scene 1, Kent is presented as the befriender of outcast children. Mildly in the case of Edmund slighted by the callous Gloucester, and then more boldly in Cordelia's case, he succors underdogs aggrieved by parental tyranny. Yet while Edmund thanks Kent for his kindness and promises to "study deserving," Cordelia neglects to do so.2 Needless to say, no blame attaches to this omission; her hands are full at the moment of Kent's departure. Still, the opening scene's parallel fatherchild disturbances obviously function to establish a behavioral norm which Cordelia, for all that is right in her position, fails to satisfy. This failure is emphasized on her eventual return from France in act 4. Reunited with kent, she makes immediate amends fox her minor fault by expressing gratitude and a keen desire to repay service (IV.vii.1-3). But even earlier, if Cordelia returns recast as the Fool in act 1's pseudoreunion scene, s/he displays a sense of obligation. As the actor reenters, he ignores the king who has been calling for his fool and heads directly for Kent, his coxcomb extended in token of a greater payment.

Superficially, the Fool offers prepayment to hire Caius, who displays the folly of "taking one's part that's out of favor" (I.iv.94). Lear is currently out of Goneril's favor; therefore, Caius, volunteering to serve such a master, deserves to be costumed as a fool. But meanings proliferate in the Fool's first witticism. Having changed his appearance by shaving his beard (cf. Kent's "razed . . . likeness," 1.4), Kent himself is "out of his old "favor" (face), yet essentially unchanged, still recognizable as the same principled fool who earlier took Cordelia's part when she was "out of favor" (disliked). By the same token, Kent-as-Caius, volunteering to resume his old service, seeks to take his own part—that is, the part of a man out of favor, since Kent, banished from his former master's presence, is now out of Lear's favor. All these meanings can be signaled in performance. A brief pause and nod of recognition before slow, knowing delivery of the phrase "out of favor" would indicate that the Fool recognizes Caius as the man who previously took Cordelia's part, and the audience would then read the Fool's act of extending his coxcomb as a gesture of gratitude on his former mistress's behalf. Moreover, in a double cast performance, the grateful gesture would be read as proceeding not just from Cordelia's representative but from Cordelia-reincarnate to Kent-reincarnate. What we see (that the actor-Cordelia has returned) colors what we hear (that the Fool wants to "hire" Kent). As Cordelia-revenant, the Fool pays Kent not only for services to come ("hire") but for services already rendered.3

Viewing the Fool's payment of Kent as an expression of the recostumed Cordelia's gratitude to a former benefactor, the audience can now see deeper meaning in the coin of that payment: an article of the actor's latest apparel. In his exit lines of act 1, scene 4, Lear speaks of resuming "the shape" he has apparently "cast of f forever (11. 300-01). Shape, Maurice Charney reminds us, "is a theatrical term, meaning the whole make-up and appearance demanded by a specific role."4 Hence, Lear's final phrase recalls the beginning of the scene in which the casting off of shapes figures prominently on levels of both story and staging. Kent opens act 1, scene 4, by calling attention to his razed appearance. Audiences know that the actor does not grow a beard between performances but simply removes a false beard, and on the Fool's entry, which is also the actor-Cordelia's reentry, this knowledge is activated by parallelism, for if one of Lear's truthtellers returns minus a prop beard, the other presumably reenters stripped of the item of theatrical disguise which most readily turns a man into a woman, a long-haired wig.5 Indeed, because both have cast off their richer costumes, the Fool offers to dress Kent against the cold. Knowing what it is to feel cold himself (since he is played by the newly stripped actor-Cordelia), the Fool hands the shorn Kent, exposed for Cordelia's sake and in danger of "catchfing] cold shortly" (11. 95-96), his coxcomb.6 Of course, a fool's cap barely covers the wearer. But that in effect is the Fool's point, carried forward in rich wordplay on a snail's shell as a "house" to "put's head in" (I.v.24-27, also III.ii.25) and on a hovel as "a good head-piece" in a storm (III.ii.25-26)—that the art of our necessities is strange and can make vile things precious. By giving his coxcomb, the Fool asserts that, for taking the disinherited Cordelia's part and now Lear's part, Kent deserves at least a fool's minimal protection against the cold, a cap "to put's head in"; and he asserts this in a manner alluding to his own recent costume change.

One passage of Lear's much-studied clothing motif strongly foreshadows the actor-Cordelia's costume change. France protests to Lear, "This is most strange, / That she whom even but now was your best object . . .";

should in this trice of time Commit a thing so monstrous to dismantle So many folds of favor


—phrasing echoed by Cordelia in her exit lines when she indicts her "plighted" (Q: "pleated," heavily draped) sisters whose cunning time will "unfold" (I.i.280-81). The theme of stripping down will resonate, of course, both in dialogue (Poor Tom's change from court finery) and stage imagery (Lear's unbuttoning), first recurring, after Cordelia's exit, in Kent's return in the rough, durable clothing of a country servingman. yet if France's metaphorical description of the dismantled Cordelia is ever visually applicable to Cordelia herself, it must be in the actor-Cordelia's return as the unaccommodated Fool, for when next we meet Cordelia in propria persona she is dressed presumably as a queen or general and tries to make a change for the better in Kent's costume (IV.vii.7-8) as well as reoutfitting her father in fresh raiment. But in act 1, scene 4, the audience can appreciate the literal propriety of France's metaphor of a stripped Cordelia when the actor reappears as the ill-clad Fool. Moreover, the recostumed Cordelia's (Fool's) sympathetic gesture of sharing "her" clothing to protect the exposed Kent can then prefigure Lear's charity on the health when, cold and wet, he sympathetically bids the drenched Fool enter the hovel before him.

Before I stray too far from a discussion of theatrical dynamics toward larger interpretive questions, let me try to distinguish the insights of the study from those of the playhouse, noting the different ways in which meaning is generated on page and stage. A passage in a text possesses potentially infinite resonance; interpretation must allow for its capacity to play off of any other passage in the mind of a hypothetical reader. But a theatrical event, such as the doubling of Cordelia and the Fool, is at the mercy of onrushing events. Reentering in a period of confused stage action when it is unclear "who is who, who is being sent for, and who answers,"7 the recostumed actor-Cordelia sets off a shock of recognition. However, the tremors soon subside when fresher events such as the Fool's baiting of Lear and Lear's quarrel with Goneril compete for our attention. This is not to deny that spectators, tickled by suggestive dialogue, may flash back to the actor's role change at any moment. For instance (Stephen Booth's example, p. 164, n. 20), "If the actor who played Cordelia in I.i is a maid no longer—is now playing the Fool—then the Fool's exit speech, 'She that's a maid now, and laughs at my departure, / Shall not be a maid long, unless things be cut shorter' . . . reverberates in yet another extravagant direction." But very quickly the actor formerly playing Cordelia gains acceptance in his new role, so that by the end of a busy scene like act 1, scene 4, Lear's exit line about resuming his cast-off shape is presumably glossed by our recollection of the actor-Cordelia's role change rather than serving as a retrospective gloss on what we have already comfortably accepted.

But if the actor rapidly gains credibility in his new role, on another level the audience remains permanently shocked. When Cordelia returns transformed, the floodgates of bizarre possibility open, for nothing can be sacred in King Lear if Cordelia's person is not. Bradley's view of Lear's youngest daughter as "a thing enskied and sainted" could scarcely have survived a production in which Cordelia, leaving the stage with dignified forbearance in the first scene, comes back in an antic mode three scenes later. One knows that this silly chatterbox is not Cordelia, only her Fool; yet the feeling persists that it is Cordelia. Our two impressions vie for authenticity, like the teasing "natural perspective" of "is and is not" at the end of Twelfth Night. And more than shattering complacency, Cordelia's transformation conditions our expectations; it builds tension into the Fool's part from the beginning. Aware that the Fool's actor will eventually be needed to play a more important role, we sense that the character himself is living on borrowed time. Our first definite news of Cordelia's impending return comes in act 2 (II.ii.161 ff.); yet probably we guess we shall see her again even at her initial departure—an awareness that brings the Fool's exit speeches under morbid scrutiny. Although he is never seriously menaced onstage, the Fool's partings generally leave it uncertain whether this expendable character will return. For example, act 1 scene 4, features a running exit, while his exit lines in the next scene ominously conclude the act: "She that's a maid now, and laughs at my departure, / Shall not be a maid long, unless things be cut shorter" (I.v.45-46). If, as Booth recognized, the actor playing the Fool is himself "a maid no longer," then the double entendre in "unless things be cut shorter" underscores in a distressing manner the possibility of the actor changing back to Cordelia. The "thing" in danger of being cut shorter is both the Fool's traditionally outsized tool and his hour on the stage.8 Indeed, these two meanings harmonize, since, according to the infantile fantasy of woman as a castrated man, the Fool's phallic truncation implies the curtailment of his present dramatic incarnation. Castration anxieties recur throughout the Fool's speeches, reminding us of his secret sharing in the identity of a character of opposite gender. If the Fool's "thing" is cut shorter, then the actor's stage life as a man will also come to an end. He will become a maid again, resuming Cordelia's cast-off shape.

Other passages play off our awareness that the Fool's character is unstable since his actor will be needed to play Cordelia again. The song on the heath, echoed from Feste, suggests that Lear's Fool is not specific to this time and place but floats through the King's Men's repertory—an impression heightened by Shakespeare's failure to provide a history for the Fool who mysteriously originates in Cordelia, so that her act 1 departure robs him of vital substance, causing him to pine away.9 Then too, the Fool's odd scene-closing prophecy of Merlin prophesying ratifies our impression of his doubleness, since, as well as sharing his being with Cordelia, Lear's Fool exists both in the audience's present (hence confidently alluding to the historical Merlin) and in a distant past before Merlin was heard of.10 And finally, of course, the exit line most powerfully intensified by our awareness of double casting is the Fool's actual last line of the play, "And I'll go to bed at noon" as a riposte to Lear's "We'll go to supper i'th' morning ( 82-83). By now the Fool's function has been drastically reduced by Lear's revival of conscience and by Poor Tom's usurpation of the Fool's place in Lear's counsel. So "I'll go to bed at noon" signals the disappearance we have long awaited, to which many dramatic signs are now pointing. In the recent Olivier television production of King Lear, the director, Michael Elliott, cut Kent's final remark which cues the Fool's exit ("Come, help to bear thy master. / Thou must not stay behind"), and the audience was then shown the shivering Fool stranded in the hovel. Everyone grasped that the Fool's end was at hand. But in a production doubling the roles of the Fool and Cordelia, the Fool's jeopardy need not be telegraphed in this obvious manner. The audience's awareness that Cordelia is returning to resume her cast-off role already creates an air of crisis in the Fool's part. Anticipating Cordelia's return, we read dark meaning into "And I'll go to bed at noon" at the moment of the line's delivery.

Cordelia returns in act 4 scene 4, accompanied by her retainers. Lear has been sighted, and Cordelia shows selfless concern for her father's welfare but fails as yet to reunite with her loved ones. Her next scene, however, features both reunion and cognitio. Cordelia enters speaking with Kent and is presently joined by Lear, brought in sleeping. Thus, act 4, scene 7, is a retake of the actors' reunion scene (I.iv), which brought Kent, Lear, and the actor-Cordelia together as a trio "out of favor"; the major antagonists of the play's opening are finally reconciled in their own persons. The two scenes (I.iv and IV.vii) are linked by significant echoes; we have already noted the parallelism of the Fool hiring Kent with a coxcomb and Cordelia "paying" gratitude for service. Similarly, in her first words of act 4, scene 7, Cordelia's short time remaining is foreshadowed in an ironic mode made familiar by the ever-departing Fool:

Cordelia: 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.Kent: To be acknowledged, madam, is o'erpaid.

(IV.vii. 1-4)

Cordelia begins where her alter ego left off; she takes up the Fool's refrain of curtailment ("unless things be cut shorter," "And I'll go to bed at noon"), announcing her tragic fate in the same way that the Fool's prophecies announced his early departure. Then too, Cordelia introduces the subject of clothing—the Fool's topic ("coxcomb"), along with payment for hire, in his first exchange with Kent. "Be better suited," she begs Kent, "These weeds are memories of those worser hours. / I prithee put them off (11. 6-8). Her request goes unheeded and is the more curious in that, in all probability, we would never have noticed Kent's "failure" to change back to his former costume had not Shakespeare reminded us.11 It appears, then, that Shakespeare is prodding us with various echoes to remember act 1's blurred reunion the better to appreciate act 4's satisfying resolution.

By firmly reestablishing Cordelia in her role before bringing in Lear, Shakespeare operates from the surest of theatrical instincts, safeguarding the tenderness of his great recognition scene. Identity already seems confused elsewhere in act 4, scene 7: Stanley Cavell shows that Lear probably takes the doctor accompanying Cordelia for the king of France,12 and one tender moment is played perilously close to comedy (Lear [to Cordelia]: "You are a spirit, I know. Where did you die?"). A delicate balance could be upset if, even for a moment, Lear, wincing to make out his daughter ("Methinks I should know you"), was suspected of glimpsing her physical resemblance to the Fool. To clear a space for the returning Cordelia, then, the memories of Cordelia's "worser hours" in the Fool's role must be effaced. But once Lear has recognized Cordelia, the Fool may slip back in. "I am a very foolish fond old man" (1. 60), Lear confesses, preparing to enunciate what he fears is the derisible theory that the angelic lady standing before him is his favorite daughter. And again on exiting he tells Cordelia, "You must bear with me. / Pray you now, forget and forgive. I am old and foolish" (11. 83-84). There is no likelihood here that Lear is thinking of his Fool, but Shakespeare no longer minds if we recall the Fool. "I am old and foolish" is what John Meagher, in connection with another line ("And my poor fool is hanged"), calls an "unrecognizing recognition,"13 and as such it constitutes Lear's tribute to his most patient schoolmaster, acknowledging that the Fool's great lesson ("Dost thou call me fool, boy?") has finally penetrated. Thus, the scene that began with Cordelia repaying Kent appropriately ends (at least in the Folio version; Quarto follows Lear's and Cordelia's exit with a dozen lines of dialogue, presumably deleted in revision) with Lear's indirect payment of tribute to the Fool's wisdom. Already deeply moving if addressed only to Cordelia, Lear's admission of folly gains poignancy if directed also to the actor formerly playing the Fool's role. For then, in the mode of an "unrecognizing recognition," Lear attests that he himself is willing to undergo the low transformation he forced on his daughter. As the actor-Cordelia was obliged to play the Fool, so Lear as a "child-changed father" (IV.vii. 17) is prepared to repay in kind: to be cast down, indeed, re-cast in the selfsame role he forced on his beloved.

Along with his two descriptions of himself as "foolish" in act 4, scene 7, Lear uses the noun "fool" three times near the end of the play, twice metaphorically ("great stage of fools," "natural fool of fortune") and the third time either metaphorically or in distant allusion to the absent Fool himself ("And my poor fool is hanged"). No one but Lear uses the word or a derivative in the latter part of the play, and all five of Lear's later uses are probing, compared to his earlier literal-minded usage of "fool" in direct address, response, and immediate reference to the Fool himself.14 The shift from other characters' control of the word fool's metaphorical extensions before Cordelia's return (e.g., Goneril's four applications of "fool" to Albany in IV.ii) to Lear's exclusive later control is revealing. Verbal distribution studies of individual Shakespearean plays such as S. L. Bethell's study of Othello, documenting the gradual transfer of the language of deviltry from Iago to Othello, reveal subterranean character resemblances.15 Similarly, Lear's shifting "fool" references suggest how deeply the Fool has marked his master. Though initially associated with, and in a sense emanating from, Cordelia, the Fool is finally absorbed back, not into Cordelia, but into Lear himself, who not only cherishes his companion's memory but strangely perpetuates his being. Lear's commemoration of the Fool is touching. The Fool's offstage pining convinces us of his genuine affection for Cordelia, but we question his feeling for Lear. We recall, for instance, that the Fool would have remained contentedly in Goneril's house if not driven thence, and we wonder why he continues to nag after Lear shows repentance. Yet despite our ambivalence, Lear asks no questions but returns pure for impure (or uncertain) love. Whereas in the opening scene he insisted that Cordelia provide verbal assurance of her love, he gives her alter ego the benefit of the doubt and finally reveals a revived paternal instinct by keeping the Fool alive with elegiac allusions after his mysterious disappearance.

In addition to evidencing moral growth, Lear's absorption of the Fool points to larger shifts in the play's ontological or representational premises. The king's relation to his Fool as a false other, a projection of conscience, is paradigmatic of his many ambiguous object-relations throughout the drama. Several critics comment on this aspect of Lear; for instance, Richard Fly discusses Lear's relation to his hundred knights on analogy with Talbot's shadow-substance bond with his army in 1 Henry VI, observing that "in a manner that possibly defeats analysis much of King Lear exists as reflecting shadows of Lear's central experience."16 However, these studies ignore the irony whereby Shakespeare's adaptation of the action to Lear's inner life follows from Lear's own early insistence that his daughters mirror his self-love. Again, the Fool's status is focal. "[A] screen on which Shakespeare flashes . . . readings from the psychic life of his protagonist,"17 and by tradition a motley imitation of royalty, Lear's Fool becomes precisely what he calls Lear, "Lear's shadow" (I.iv.221), destined to be reabsorbed by his master—hence, going to sleep at noon like a shadow—when Lear has learned all that the Fool can teach. Indeed, Lear himself defines the Fool's pedagogic method vis-à-vis their overlapping identities. Just before the Fool's first appearance, Lear tells his Knight (the only one of the shadowy hundred we meet), "Thou but rememb'rest me of mine own conception" (I.iv.64). The remark's real thrust carries beyond its immediate circumstance, however; rather, it serves to introduce the Fool, who, as Lear's externalized conscience, can influence his master only by reminding him of what he already knows. Thus, the Fool lives the life of an echo, unlike Cordelia, who refuses to reflect in flattery her father's conception of how much love she owes him. But if Cordelia's initial refusal to be reduced to a mere reflector of Lear's self-love results in the advent of her mirrory or shadowlike alter ego, whose function is precisely to "rememb[er Lear] of [his] own conception," then the situation changes on her return to England. In act 1 Cordelia is stubbornly independent; yet in act 4 she returns compliant, Lear's satellite, never again recovering her former integrity. To put the case for this change provocatively, we may say that, on her return, Cordelia's role is remodeled on the part her actor has been playing ever since she went to France.

Let me step back to explore this proposition in a broader perspective. As often noted, events in Lear seem to occur in mocking fulfillment of Lear's fantasies. This is true not only of the appearance and disappearance of emanated "subcharacters" like Poor Tom and the Fool, but of the sudden blowing up of the storm and the behavior of otherwise realistically conceived major characters. The same pattern constantly repeats itself. First, a fantasy strikes Lear, then it is realized in the narrative, so that the event appears to owe its dramatic occurrence to Lear's anticipation of it. Take the way in which Lear's sorrow "holp the heavens to rain" (III.vii.62). If, in the self-characterizing phrase of Kent's anonymous Gentleman-interlocutor, Lear is a man "minded like the weather" (III.i.2), then by the same token the weather is minded like Lear; it owes its disorder, on an artistic level, to pathetic fallacy and, on a magical level, to the sacred bond uniting king and kingdom. But that bond has been severed—at least Lear himself fears it has been—so that what happens is inexplicable to him. "I'll not weep," he maintains (II.iv.278), and an instant later, pat on cue, nature weeps for him; stage directions call for sounds of "Storm and tempest. " The whole sequence leaves him suspicious; "What is the cause of thunder?" ( is the first question he asks his "philosopher," Poor Tom. It is as though the character-Lear cannot rest complacently in the audience's overview of the storm as an instance of pathetic fallacy but, committed to the reality of the play-world, must wrestle with the paradox that these events nonetheless seem theatrically contrived.18 Thus, the storm simultaneously shakes Lear's solipsism, making him feel small, and reinforces it by encouraging the delusion that he is the cruel gods' cynosure, that the weather centers on him. "They told me I was everything," he complains about his daughters, "'Tis a lie"; "When the thunder would not peace at my bidding; there I found 'em, there I smelt 'em out" ( Yet the lie that he is everything contains a truth dramatically supported by the thunder's responsiveness to his bidding. Even when, exposed to violent nature on the heath, he ought to be learning the lesson of his own insignificance, Lear enjoys the illusion of solipsistic centrality, imagining that he matters enough for the gods to find and punish.

Other events follow Lear's fantasies; for example, Goneril's and Regan's murderous competition for Edmund's sexual favors gathers momentum soon after Lear's most cynical pronouncements on women's lust. But Lear's main fantasy-come-to-life is the returning Cordelia, who materializes in a form consistent with his desires and hovers dreamlike over her "scarce awake" father as he gradually regains consciousness (IV.vii.51). A virtual personification of filial love, Cordelia on her return seems faded in verisimilitude, more idealized than before, much in the way that an initially assertive Desdemona, purged of attributes in the course of Othello, becomes the ideal sacrificial victim by shedding her particularity.19 No new pressure to conform comes from Lear, who moderates his early insistence on obedience, prefers to kneel before his wronged daughter, and begs forgiveness. But Shakespeare remembers and grants Lear's original, now unstated desire for absolute love. Whereas initially Cordelia, refusing to flatter, stood alone on principle, the returned Cordelia, echoing Christ, defines herself entirely in relation to her father ("O dear father. / It is thy business that I go about," IV.iv.23-24). Led off to prison, she no longer cares to puncture Lear's pleasant fantasy of their quasi-connubial withdrawal ("We too alone will sing") by reminding him, merely for truth's sake, that she did not marry like her sisters to love her father all.

More a creature of her father's desires than her independent spirited act 1 prototype, the returning Cordelia paradoxically gains pathos by taking on a tinge of insubstantiality, even as the Fool gained pathos by our anticipating the actor's eventual abandonment of the Fool's role. Cordelia's prophetic comment to Kent, "My life will be too short," barely noticeable in the text registers with strange force on an audience theatrically rehearsed in watching the Fool's prophecies of a foreshortened life ripen to fulfillment. Alert for clues as to the direction the plot will take, "Oh no," we say in effect, "first the Fool; now her!" Indeed, the theatrical logic behind the killing off of Cordelia extends the logic of bringing her back in a form responsive to her father's wishes. For if Shakespeare fulfills Lear's unstated lingering desire for absolute love, he also recalls and fulfills Lear's unrealized parental threat to revoke his daughter's being. At the height of his anger, Lear intemperately spoke of reabsorbing the child who displeased him ("Better thou / Hadst not been born than not t'have pleased me better") in terms barely more civilized than "The barbarous Scythian, / Or he that makes his generations messes / To gorge his appetite" (I.i.116-18). This imagery recurs in the Fool's childlike obsession with being eaten (e.g., I.iv.206-08), which proves prophetically accurate; the fate of reabsorption into Lear, from whom he emanated as a voice of conscience, overtakes him in his noontime or midplay retirement when he goes to bed like Lear's shadow. But after the Fool's final exit, the threat of ingestion or reabsorption, from which Shakespeare spun out her surrogate's fate, is visited on Cordelia herself. Returning briefly, Cordelia vanishes again as though, from the time she reappeared to her half-sleeping father, she were only Lear's dream, "Too flattering-sweet to be substantial" (Romeo and Juliet, II.i.141). Thus, despite retracting his curse (or more precisely, superseding it with a blessing), Lear must at last endure the indecent horror of a parent outliving his own child. Initially reducing his daughters to flattering mirrors of his own vanity, he must ultimately stand alone, experiencing the pain of being "everything." Cordelia becomes unreal again, incapable of misting a looking glass, of sending forth new projections of her now-canceled being, as Lear pronounces over her corpse the words that bid simultaneous farewell to both his daughter and her double: "And my poor fool is hanged."

Theatrical doubling, as we have studied it in Lear, is more than an expedient permitting a small acting company to stage a large play, and finally even more than a means of commenting on the similar functions of two temperamentally dissimilar characters. By upstaging Cordelia's and the Fool's actions at key moments through the mobility of the double cast actor, Shakespeare exposes Lear's largely impenitent solipsism, his desire to be "everything," which entails other people becoming less real than himself. In a fine essay on the play, E. A. J. Honigmann writes of the overarching realness of King Lear's titanic protagonist vis-à-vis a host of necessarily dwarfed side characters:

Lear seems to have a genetic relationship with almost everyone else. . . . Thus Cordelia, Kent and the Fool sympathise and obscurely communicate with one another, and in a sense melt into one another: Kent not only talks of Lear as one whom he has "lov'd as my father" . . . as the Fool calls him "nuncle," but we hear that since Cordelia's going into France, "the Fool hath much pined away". . . that Kent and Cordelia are secretly in touch and admire each other, and finally that Cordelia and the Fool have become one in Lear's mind ("And my poor fool is hang'd"). All three, Cordelia, Kent and the Fool, exist separately and yet partake of one another's identity, and all three are refracted images of Lear, or of his better nature.20

Honigmann then discusses the characters who reflect Lear's selfish nature but never mentions double casting which, along with the plot devices he does mention, controls an audience's impression that side characters "melt into one another" or "are secretly in touch [with] each other," finally disposing these characters to incorporation in the king. Viewing a double cast performance of Lear, an audience witnesses the dramatic illusion decomposing and reforming in rhythms intensifying our grasp of the action. Of course, other Shakespearean plays also feature double casting, and one wonders whether, in those plays too, illusions break up and reform in characteristic ways. In an interpretive era like the present when performance-centered criticism is flourishing, research into "Shakespeare's art of doubling," as Giorgio Melchiori has recently called it, offers a fascinating field for conjecture, potentially valuable both to theatrical and textual studies.


1 Stephen Booth, King Lear, Macbeth, Indefinition, and Tragedy (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983), p. 134. Booth's illuminating essay, "Speculations on Doubling in Shakespeare's Plays" (App. 2, pp. 127-55), questions the "hard scholarship" of such studies as that of William A. Ringler, Jr. ("The Number of Actors in Shakespeare's Early Plays," The Seventeenth-Century Stage, ed. Gerald Eades Bentley [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968], pp. 110-34), sagely noting that "even the hard evidence on Renaissance doubling practices is soft." For specific discussion of Cordelia and the Fool, see Booth, pp. 33-34, 129, 134-46, 153-54, 163-64. Giorgio Melchiori ("Peter, Balthazar, and Shakespeare's Art of Doubling," Modern Language Review [1983], pp. 777-92) discusses "doubling by function" in Romeo and Juliet, a concept clearly relevant to Cordelia and the Fool.

The double casting hypothesis's first proponents are Alois Brandi, Shakspere (Berlin: Hoffman, 1894), p. 179, and Wilfred Perrett, The Story of King Lear (Berlin: Mayer & Muller, 1904). Thomas Stroup ("Cordelia and the Fool," Shakespeare Quarterly, 12 [1961], 127-32) makes some interesting points (e.g., Lear's reduction of Cordelia to a "houseless poverty" is his), but his article suffers from a strong textual bias masking as theatrical consciousness. Noting that the Fool appears 357 lines after Cordelia's first exit and that Cordelia reappears 356 lines after the Fool's final exit, Stroup argues, "Time [sic] is exactly meted out for some reason, probably for the change in costume and make-up" (p. 127). Even setting aside the possibility of an interlude between acts 3 and 4, the stage business surrounding Gloucester's blinding takes longer than the relatively uneventful action separating Cordelia's exit and the Fool's first entry; also, the costume change can be effected in a matter of moments, as Booth shows; it hardly requires the "exact measure" of some twenty minutes of performance time. Even less plausible, in my view, is H. L. Anshutz's argument that the character Cordelia herself, not just the actor playing her, returns disguised as the Fool, "Cordelia and the Fool," Research Studies (Washington State University), 32 (1964), 240-60.

2King Lear, I.i.28, 30; all Shakespearean citations are from The Complete Works, gen. ed. Alfred Harbage (Baltimore: Penguin, 1969). For a discussion of changes in the Fool's part in the apparent F revision of Q Lear, cf. John Kerrigan, "Revision, Adaptation, and the Fool in King Lear," in The Division of the Kingdoms: Shakespeare's Two Versions of King Lear, ed. Gary Taylor and Michael Warren (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983), pp. 195-245. Kerrigan's essay, though excellent, fails to take up the question of double casting. Several F changes (the reattribution of "Lear's shadow," the inclusion of "And I'll go to sleep at noon," the deletion of the dialogue following Lear's and Cordelia's exit in IV.vii), discussed in my text, offer enrichment of the ironies associated with double casting; that would not mean, however, that the stage production reflected in the Q version separated the two roles. In the same volume Beth Goldring argues cogently that at I.i.162 Cordelia (rather than Cornwall) intervenes with Albany to prevent Lear's violence against Kent, "Cor.'s Rescue of Kent," Division, pp. 143-51; Cordelia's gesture does not change the fact, however, that the ceremony of thanking Kent remains unfulfilled.

3 Hence the ambiguities of the Fool's gesture line up with Lear's overdetermined act of hiring Kent, which cues the Fool's entry. "There's earnest of thy service" (I.iv.88-89), Lear tells Caius, meaning that he definitely plans to hire him (removing the earlier condition of "If I like thee no worse after dinner") and simultaneously paying him for service already rendered in tripping Oswald. Compare Caius's double hiring by Lear and the Fool to the Fool's own double employment by Lear and Cordelia.

4 Maurice Charney, "'We Put Fresh Garments on Him': Nakedness and Clothes in King Lear," in Some Facets of King Lear: Essays in Prismatic Criticism, ed. Rosalie L. Colie and F. T. Flahiff (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1974), p. 80.

5 No reference to Cordelia's or the Fool's relative hair lengths occurs in KL; for the routine strategem of a girl cutting her hair to look like a boy, see however TGV, II.vii.42-44. For the motif of "undressing the part" in KL, cf. James Black, "King Lear: Art Upside-Down," Shakespeare Survey, 33 (1980), 35-42, esp. 36-37. Regarding actual costume, there would perhaps not have been much change in length from Cordelia's robes to the Fool's petticoat, taken by Lear for the long robe of a man of justice in the hovel (cf. Leslie Hotson, Shakespeare's Motley [1952; rpt. New York: Haskell House, 1971], pp. 69-70).

6 The usual gloss for "catch cold shortly," cited in the Variorum and Arden Lear, gives "be turned out of doors and be exposed to the inclemency of the weather." However, this meaning is read back into the line by editors familiar with Lear's and the Fool's fate of being driven into the cold; spectators viewing the play for the first time have not yet seen this happen. Cordelia, of course, was threatened with exposure (of sorts) yet found warm shelter in France (hence the Fool's immediate qualification about Lear doing his third daughter "a blessing against his will"). Thus it is the actor-Cordelia, more than the character-Cordelia, who illustrates the sense in which Kent is in danger of catching cold. The Fool's words look to the past and the future, but his stripped appearance makes an immediate visual statement about chilliness.

7 Booth, p. 154; cf. Stroup, pp. 128-29; Anshutz, p. 244.

8 Feste's "A foolish thing was but a toy" is verbally similar. For the priapic fool, cf. Leslie Hotson, The First Night of Twelfth Night (New York: Macmillan, 1955), chap. 7.

9 If Robert Armin played both Fèste and Lear's Fool, the song about -the wind and the rain becomes still more haunting; cf. Julian Markels, "Shakespeare's Confluence of Tragedy and Comedy: Twelfth Night and King Lear," Shakespeare Quarterly, 15 (1964), 75-88; William A. Ringler, Jr. ("Shakespeare and His Actors: Some Remarks on King Lear," Proceedings of the Comparative Literature Symposium, 12 [1981], 183-94), challenges the traditional assumption that Armin played the Fool on the grounds that he would therefore have been too old to double as Cordelia. However, his strongest argument is undercut by Doris Adler, whose Ohio Shakespeare Conference paper on "Robert Armin: Cordelia and the Fool?" is abstracted in Shakespeare Newsletter, 27 (1977), 30.

10 For the fool's doubleness of being, William Willeford, The Fool and His Scepter (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1969), chap. 3, "The Fool and Mimesis," also chap. 4; for the scattering of the seeds of folly, hence of the Fool's being, throughout the play, John Reibetanz, The "Lear" World: A Study of King Lear in Its Dramatic Context (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1977), pp. 80-107.

11 The best discussion is Hugh MacLean, "Disguise in King Lear: Kent and Edgar," Shakespeare Quarterly, 11 (1964), 49-56. Rachel Massey points out to me that the principal "good" characters—Edgar/Poor Tom, Kent/Caius, Cordelia/Fool—all prove themselves by their willingness to undergo costume changes.

12 Stanley Cavell, "The Avoidance of Love: A Reading of King Lear," in his Must We Mean What We Say? (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976), chap. 10.

13 Cf. John C. Meagher, "Economy and Recognition: Thirteen Shakespearean Puzzles," Shakespeare Quarterly, 35 (1984), 18.

14 Similarly, the first metaphorical use of "fool" in the main plot is Goneril's "Old fools are babes again" (I.iii.19), so if the Fool is absorbed into Lear, he may also be said to originate in Lear. As an instance of direct response to the Fool's accusations, Lear's "Dost thou call me fool, boy?" produces the delayed response in the same scene, "Beat at this gate that let thy folly in" (I.iv.262). This leaves only II.iv.270 (Lear's "fool me not so much") as a gratuitous use of "fool" early in the play, compared to Lear's five gratuitous allusions toward the end. The classic study of "Fool in Lear" is William Empson, The Structure of Complex Words (Norfolk, Conn.: New Directions, 1951), chap. 6. For another illustration of Lear's continuation of the Fool's role, cf. E. A. J. Honigmann, Shakespeare: Seven Tragedies: The Dramatist's Manipulation of Response (London: Macmillan, 1976), pp. 118-19: "The extraordinary oneness of the two [the Fool and Lear] continues after the Fool has dropped out of the play, for in IV.6 Lear echoes the Fool's voice and personality, continuing his riddling (e.g., 'your eyes are in a heavy case, your purse in a light'), his Schadenfreude, his sex obsession and, probably, his 'fantastic' general demeanour."

15 S. L. Bethell, "Shakespeare's Imagery: The Diabolic Images in Othello," Shakespeare Survey, 5 (1952), 62-80.

16 Richard Fly, Shakespeare's Mediated World (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1976), p. 113. Cf. text for n. 20, below.

17 Maynard Mack, "The Jacobean Shakespeare: Some Observations on the Construction of the Tragedies," in Essays in Shakespearean Criticism, ed. James Calderwood and Harold Toliver (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1970), p. 33.

18 Cf. Leontes's "unrecognizing recognition" of the theatrical falseness of the "real" world in WT, I.ii.291 ff.: "Is this nothing? / Why, then the world and all that's in't is nothing," etc.

19 I owe this view of Desdemona to Irving Massey's brilliant unpublished essay, "The Ethics of Particularity: Leibniz and Literature." Massey writes, "Like all sacrificial victims, Desdemona must be pure; but, as the special kind of sacrificial victim she is, what she must be pure of is attributes, other than the attribute of innocence itself."

20 Honigmann, p. 116.

Mark Berge (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: "'My Poor Fool is Hanged': Cordelia, the Fool, Silence and Irresolution in King Lear," in Reclamations of Shakespeare, Editions Rodopi B. V., 1994, pp. 211-22.

[In the following essay, originally written in 1992, Berge maintains that the theme of dramatic irresolution is represented in the play first by Cordelia, then by the Fool, and finally by Lear himself Berge observes that Cordelia serves as Lear's model of truth and self-knowledge.]

In the chaotic world of King Lear, resolution of character seems remote and veiled from an aged king bent on denying the unspoken truth. Dramatically speaking, his enemies fare conventionally better. Philip McGuire concludes that when the mortally wounded Edmund declares that "The wheel is come full circle", his words serve as an explicit statement of dramatic fulfilment.1 Accordingly, Edmund, Goneril, and Regan move towards a dramatic consummation in which their deaths bond them in malevolence. However, Lear, Cordelia and the Fool seem divided, separated, and never allowed a mode of completion like their three counterparts. Lear's hopes of union with Cordelia are never realized, and are portrayed as unnatural: "We two alone", as the king puts it, "will sing like birds i'th'cage" (5.3.9). Cordelia's final line, "Shall we not see these daughters and these sisters?" (5.3.7), echoes Lear's wish for dramatic union, but she is silenced before it can be fulfilled. In the Folio addition to the play, the Fool reiterates this attitude on union when he utters, in despair of common sense, a contradictory disunity: "And I'll go to bed at noon" (3.6.41); John Kerrigan aptly stresses that this line "expresses the Fool's determination to leave King Lear with its course half run".2 The Fool's intentional silence marks the end of his usefulness to the king in madness, and Cordelia's silence would appear to function in a similar way. Their removal from speech deprives Lear of their supporting influence and drives him farther into self-examination. However, fulfilment remains elusive for Lear. McGuire's argument that the play's final scene presents silences which deny our certainty of a single "promised end" seems to point directly to the dramatic elusiveness Shakespeare tried to cultivate.

Shakespeare portrays this theme of irresolution through Cordelia, the Fool, and finally of Lear. When Shakespeare imposes a silence on Cordelia and the Fool, effectively halting their fulfilment, he denies Lear the chance to gain the dramatic completion which Regan, Goneril, and Edmund enjoy. The Fool's disappearance leads to a shift towards Lear's madness, and Cordelia's speechlessness allows Lear to deny the reality of their imprisonment. Lear imagines a captivity of companionship:

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.


Lear is dependent on Cordelia and the Fool for support. Questions of stability and independence are raised by the need of these characters. For this reason, it is necessary to examine exactly how the Fool and Cordelia influence Lear, and what they take with them when they are removed from speech and action.

The question of Cordelia's character has been an issue of criticism for some time. Samuel Johnson could not bear the treatment of Cordelia and the painful ending of King Lear. John Danby explains Johnson's reaction as a product of the prevalent attitude towards Cordelia at the time: "It was intolerable to the moral optimism of the eighteenth century that such transcendent goodness should not be taken care of in the human universe."3 Harley Granville-Barker stated the contrary in his conception of Cordelia: "It will be a fatal error to present Cordelia as a meek saint."4 William Elton conceptualizes Cordelia as the model of self-sacrificing and healing virtue: "Cordelia is devoted to curing division. Strife between North and South [ . . . ] has its antithesis in Cordelia's healing and restoring forgiveness."5 What all three critics acknowledge concerning Cordelia is her strength of character and silent resolve. Her courage in standing up to Lear and his demands while wrapped in the mantle of his power emanates from what Elton describes as her "argumentum ex silentio" (Elton, 25), and what Granville-Barker sees as her enduring "without effort, explanation or excuse" (303). This strength of character, the ability to stand with full certainty, is one of Cordelia's main personality traits and functions. She is fully aware of her abilities and her own qualities, as she firmly states: "I am sure my love's / More ponderous than my tongue" (1.1.72-73). Cordelia's silent determination and faith in what she believes to be true give her the strength to remain constant to her principles of love and order.

The inception of a character such as Cordelia, whose nature is more prevalent than her words, and, as Elton notes, whose constancy to order is unwavering, creates a force which is directly opposed to the half-meanings and wild uncertainty of Lear (Elton, 75). Lear's words illustrate his selfish and confused personality as he remarks to Kent early in the play: "I loved her most, and thought to set my rest / On her kind nursery" (1.1.117-18). The real problem which Cordelia faces seems captured by Harry Berger's hypothesis that Cordelia embodies the young woman of virtue attempting to break away from the paternal bondage and filial duty that are exploited by Lear.6 Her values suddenly come into conflict with Lear's "darker purpose" (1.1.31), which is illustrated by an image of confusion expressed by Gloucester: "but now in the division of the kingdom, it appears not which of the dukes he values most" (1.1.3-4). The aim for which Lear seems to be exploiting Cordelia is stated unequivocally when Lear expounds: "and 'tis our fast intent / To shake all cares and business from our age" (1.1.33-34). This introduces a grievous wound both to society and to order:

Beneath the surface, then, his darker purpose seems to be to play on everyone's curiosity, stir up as much envy and contention as he can among the "younger strengths" with the aim of dominating and dividing them, humbling and punishing them

(Berger, 355).

Lear's fear of weakness and need to dominate may lead to self-deception and reliance on the quantity of words rather than their quality. Regan and Goneril act as the dispensers of this excessive and formless language which offers much but provides little substance. It is in this vein of empty praise that Goneril states: "Sir, I love you more than word can wield the matter" (1.1.50). Regan reasserts these words, notably with her own version of Goneril's shadowy sentiment:

I am made of that self-mettle as my sister And prize me at her worth. In my true heart I find she names my very deed of love.


They are directly opposed to Cordelia, who avoids such formlessness and remains silent in truth.

Recent criticism has placed much emphasis on the Cordelia of the opening scenes as a speaker and performer of truth. Marion Perret rightly points out that "The opening scene asks us to balance good words and the deeds that should verify them [ . . . ] . The test of goodness becomes action."7 Cordelia personifies the virtue that both action and truth form together. Her short and terse "Nothing, my lord" (1.1.82), which is repeated, answers Lear's demands for verbal opulence and self-justification. The nakedness of such a statement, compared with the utterances of Regan and Goneril, draws attention to itself and becomes a challenge for action on Lear's part. It goads Lear into making a choice between truth and self-deception. Cordelia's style of speech, operating as a challenge, emphasizes her rejection of the meaningless style her sisters use and Lear's insistence on quantity instead of quality.

In Lear's lack of judgement he insists on the quantity of language as he reverbalizes his demand for Cordelia's mended speech. The Folio version of the tragedy enhances this aspect of Lear with an added imperative: "What can you say to draw / A third more opulent than your sisters? Speak" (1.1.80-81). Further on he becomes insistent: "Nothing will come of nothing, speak again" (1.1.85). Finally he issues a threat to procure his need for quantity of speech: "How, how, Cordelia? Mend your speech a little, / Lest you may mar your fortunes" (1.1.88-89). In this way he demands an opulence of Cordelia which she is unwilling, and, according to Sophia Blaydes, is unable to provide: "She has not her sister's eloquence to express the nature and breadth of her love, but she is secure that Lear knows of her love; yet, she is puzzled at his request."8 Cordelia's assurance of her position as speaker of truth never falters, even in reply to Lear's accusation: "So young, and so untender?" (1.1.100). She answers with another short reply typical of her character: "So young, my lord, and true" (1.1.101). This simple exchange embodies all that is contradictory between Lear's psychological bearing and Cordelia's certainty of mind and speech.

Lear recoils from Cordelia's certainty of mind like a wounded lion. Her certainty forces him to gaze at his own fears and weaknesses, which he is intent on denying. In epic proportions he renounces Cordelia in a speech which is self-damning as well as revealing:

For by the sacred radiance of the sun, The mysteries of Hecate and the night, By all the operation of the orbs From whom we do exist and cease to be, Here I disclaim all my paternal care, Propinquity and property of blood, And as a stranger to my heart and me Hold thee from this forever. The barbarous Scythian, Or he that makes his generation messes To gorge his appetite, shall to my bosom Be as well neighboured, pitied, and relieved, As thou my sometime daughter.


Lear's reaction to Cordelia's assurance in her role as the speaker of truth serves to portray his denial of guilt. His ironic use of the "barbarous Scythian" and the cannibalistic image which he advances only recoils upon himself. Lear goes to great lengths to deny his guilt throughout the play, which leads to a revealing process of self-exoneration. Berger sketches Lear's method of self-justification with insightful accuracy: "In the first scene, Lear seems on the verge of forcing others to make him acknowledge not so much what they really think about him, but what he has always thought about them, and therefore—by a kind of recoil—about himself." And as Berger also mentions, Lear will not let self-knowledge interfere with his false conception of self and "spends the rest of the play trying continually to regain the sleep of self-deception".9 Lear spends most of the play denying the truth of his guilt in the "division of the kingdom", but Shakespeare gives King Lear a model of truth and self-knowledge to aspire to in the character of Cordelia. It is this choice of following Cordelia's model which serves as a crux for further development.

Lear's growth to self-knowledge is constantly based on his iamge of Cordelia, which changes as he changes. Lear first conceptualizes Cordelia as a creature who seemed substantial but, in fact, was nothing: "Sir, there she stands. / If aught within that little seeming substance" (1.1.191-92). He soon changes his thoughts after Goneril chastises him for the riotous behaviour of his knights:

O most small fault, How ugly didst thou in Cordelia show! Which, like an engine, wrenched my frame of nature From the fixed place, drew from my heart all love, And added to the gall. O Lear, Lear, Lear! Beat at this gate that let thy folly in And thy dear judgment out.


Lear's image of Cordelia is now further from the empty, hollow concept he had. He acknowledges that there is something in Cordelia which to him is ugly. In addition, he seems to separate the "small fault" and Cordelia by personifying the ugliness, giving it a separate existence outside of Cordelia.

In the storm scene Lear separates Cordelia even further from the cause of his anger. Raging against Regan and Goneril, he assigns to them the role of persecutors, yet forgets to mention Cordelia. In his growing madness he excludes Cordelia in an attempt to avoid his guilt over his denial of her:

Here I stand your slave, A poor, infirm, weak, and despised old man; But yet I call you servile ministers, That will with two pernicious daughters join Your high-engendered battles 'gainst a head So old and white as this.


His exclusion of Cordelia from his fury is a telling sign of his changing conception of Cordelia. This change comes at a crucial moment in Lear's development as he leaves selfish concern for a moment to tend to the fool: "Come on, my boy. How dost, my boy? Art cold? [ . . . ] Poor fool and knave, I have one part in my heart / That's sorry yet for thee" (3.2.66 and 70-71). Harvey Birenbaum remarks that in the fourth Act, Lear "finds relief from self-awareness but only by complete submission into the truth of his pain".10 His own violence, deception and mortality are made clear to him. He can now see Cordelia in the role of victim as he states: "Take that of me, my friend, who have the power / To seal th'accuser's lips" (4.5.161-62). Lear's awareness of his own guilt expresses itself in his madness and reveals a soul tormented by his own denial of truth. Lear tells Gloucester:

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


Lear's removal of his boots—his "lendings"—symbolizes rejection, and perhaps the disgust and guilt Lear harbours in regard to his treatment of Cordelia. His view of Cordelia's silence has changed drastically from an ugly blemish to an abused strength. It is through this perception of Cordelia that Lear is able to make crucial changes in his character. He now understands his fault in relying on the quantity of language and not the unspoken truth. What remains to be discussed is whether or not Lear follows her example of constancy in the face of her uncertainty and despair of the "kind gods" (4.6.14) as she is removed from speech and action.

Cordelia's conception of truth lies beyond the realm of opulent speech and perhaps speech itself, as suggested by Anne Barton: "In Cordelia's case, the declaration of the inadequacy of language happens to express a true state of feeling. Her love for her father does indeed make her breath poor and speech unable."11 Her resolve not to taint her love prompts her to remain taciturn: "What shall Cordelia speak? Love, and be silent" (1.1.57). Cordelia's conception of truth also lies in her pious and reverent belief in providence and divine justice, the "kind gods" (Elton, 76). This is certainly true of the beginning of the play, but does it remain true when civil war, the manifestation of the collapse of justice and order, breaks out?

The reappearance of Cordelia in Act 4 is substantially altered in the Folio version by the cutting of an entire scene from the Quarto. In the Quarto scene, a gentleman relates to Kent a dynamic and emotional Cordelia rather than the simply anxious leader of the Folio. When asked how Cordelia was moved by her father's fallen situation, the gentleman portrays a struggle between patience and sorrow in Cordelia, using contrary images:

Not to a rage. Patience and sorrow strove Who should express her goodliest. You have seen Sunshine and rain at once; her smiles and tears Were like a better way; those happy smilets That played on her ripe lip seemed not to know What guests were in her eyes; which parted thence As pearls from diamonds dropped. In brief, Sorrow would be a rarity most beloved, If all could so become it.

(Quarto, 4.3.13-21)

The gentleman's attempt to romanticize Cordelia's distress does not mask the struggle between the patience needed to accept fate and the sorrow of despair. This conflict alters Cordelia's attitude towards the "kind gods" and her behaviour. Indeed, the gentleman further relates that Cordelia's sorrow turns her terse, firm language into broken exclamations of deep doubt:

Pantingly forth, as if it pressed her heart; Cried "Sisters, sisters! Shame of ladies! Sisters! Kent! Father! Sisters! What, i'th'storm? i'th'night? Let pity not be believed!" There she shook The holy water from her heavenly eyes, And, clamour-moistened. Then away she started To deal with grief alone.

(Quarto, 4.3.24-30)

Cordelia's surprise and shock are not only confined to the actions of her sisters, but are extended towards the storm and the night, symbolic embodiments of the gods (Elton, 232). This is a crucial revelation for Cordelia, whose perceptions of justice and truth have thus far been based upon her faith in the "kind gods". This episode, according to Anne Barton, is similar to the opening scenes in that Cordelia cannot give linguistic shape to her intentions (Barton, 25). However, Cordelia's broken and panting words attempt to give shape to her shock and despair and emphasize a frightening rejection of pity and Cordelia's conception of the benevolent gods.

The strong and emotionally upset reaction of Cordelia in the gentleman's report may be the very reason why this scene is not included in the later Folio version of the play which is generally considered superior. Ian J. Kirby has noted the elusiveness with which Shakespeare wrote, agreeing "that in King Lear Shakespeare frequently frustrates his audience".12 The Folio conforms to this elusiveness by removing the gentleman's careful observations and by presenting Cordelia as "much more the active exponent of her father's rights".13 The inner struggle, which is so prominent in the Quarto version, is modified to appear less obvious, more evasive. This allows Cordelia a more self-confident reentrance to the play, and thus a stronger effect is achieved once Cordelia begins to doubt the benevolence of fate. Her few lines in Act 4, scene 3 echo the shock found in the Quarto concerning the fate of King Lear: "Alack, 'tis he: why, he was met even now, / As mad as the vexed sea, singing aloud" (4.3.1-2). She questions not only her own but also mankind's ability to cope with Lear's madness: "What can man's wisdom / In the restoring his bereavèd sense?" (4.3.8-9). The elements of doubt are present in the Folio as they are in the Quarto, but are made less potent by the omission of the gentleman's remarks.

In either case, Cordelia's prayer becomes far more than a plea for Lear's good health:

O you kind gods, Cure this great breach in his abusèd nature; Th'untuned and jarring senses O wind up Of this child-changed father!


This prayer becomes a final wish for the gods to remain kind, a hope for divine justice. Her gods confound her by remaining, as they have ever been, silent.

The result of the confusion in Cordelia's mind concerning her faith in the benevolent gods leads to a striking manifestation of despair and consequently to her removal from the world of King Lear. Her very last lines are uttered in captivity:

We are not the first Who with best meaning have incurred the worst. For thee, oppressèd king, I am cast down, Myself could else outfrown false fortune's frown. Shall we not see these daughters and these sisters?


Cordelia's "best meaning" intentions are devalued horribly by her having "incurred the worst". The awareness that the gods' justice is not based on the merit of the individual, reveals a changed Cordelia. The devaluation of divine justice may be an indication that Cordelia is bitter. In coldly addressing Lear as "oppressèd king" rather than "father" or "dear Lord"—a mode of address to which she is accustomed—she gives her last speech an accusing tone which shows the strained imbalance in her character. It is also unlike her to view fate, fortune, and the effects of time in negative terms. Yet, she says: "Myself could outfrown false fortune's frown" (5.3.6). Earlier Cordelia saw a positive view of time and fate: "Time shall unfold what plighted cunning hides; / Who covers faults, at last with shame derides" (1.1.274-75). Her last line further illustrates an attitude of despair with a powerless wish on Cordelia's part to see her sisters. It is perhaps feelings of distressing isolation which prompt her to call for the sight of her tormentors. Cordelia ends her life with these words, which are strange, unstable and bitter.

Like Cordelia, the Fool is also removed from speech and action at a crucial point. In a Folio addition, the Fool's last line, "And I'll go to bed at noon" (3.6.41), expresses his despair in watching his master succumb to the seeming madness of the heath. Lear's preceding utterance emphasizes the inversion of values in his world: "We'll go to supper i'th' morning" (3.6.40). The Fool echoes this sentiment with the surrender of his final line. Uttering in despair of common sense his anguish over the deflation of a King to a madman, the Fool complains: "This cold night will turn us all to fools and madmen" (3.4.72). His final silence serves the play's action by illuminating the polarity between reason and madness in Lear. The Fool attempts to provide, unsuccessfully, a support for Lear with his replies of common sense:

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.


In his delusion, Lear ignores the advice and common sense of the Fool and goes on to voice a frightening hatred aimed at Goneril and Regan. His madness is so powerful that Edgar remarks: "My tears begin to take his part so much / They mar my counterfeiting" (3.6.18-19). The Fool becomes so overwhelmed by Lear's madness that he imposes a self-induced silence, effectively suppressing common sense and truth.

The Fool, in his privileged role as Lear's verbal antagonist, is very like Cordelia in regard to the unspoken truth. The Fool presents the truth much like Cordelia, in precise terms but with all the problems of speaking truth in the deceptive world of King Lear. The Fool's first discussion with Lear points directly to Lear's denial of truth, but in allegory: "Truth's a dog must to kennel. He must be whipped out, when the Lady Brach may stand by th'fíre and stink" (1.4.97-98). Arthur Davis remarks that: "The fool is of no practical help to the King, and his value as a companion is severely limited by the nature of his running commentary."14 If Lear were able to accept his denial of the truth, the Fool would indeed become a valuable companion. However, Lear's denial and his stubborn lack of common sense deny him the Fool's unique rarity as a speaker of truth. In fact, according to John Kerrigan, the Folio additions to the text enhance this distance between the two characters:

Still more strikingly, F emphasizes the Fool's hard-headedness. The new lines resemble the 1.4 quips about unfee'd lawyers and rent. Only whereas such observations were then to the point, they now seem distressingly irrelevant. The Fool's first few jokes may not have helped Lear recover his kingdom, but they did make him "See better" what he had done when he gave his crown away. At TLN 1322-7, by contrast, the Fool's sallies are disengaged from the king. The two characters no longer speak the same language, because Lear is losing touch with the way things are (220).

To buttress his theme of irresolution further, Shakespeare forbids Lear the common sense of the Fool. The Fool's silence seems self-imposed but this is more because Lear has gone beyond his help. As a result, the Fool despairs of his own common sense and succumbs to the topsy-turvy values of Lear's madness in his last line: "And I'll go to bed at noon" (3.6.41). The Fool completes his action and speech in the play much like Cordelia, in opposition to his perceived values. The sense of uncertainty, however, is far more prevalent in the Fool's case because his confusion is mirrored in the disorientation of Lear's madness.

When Shakespeare imposes a silence on both Cordelia and the Fool, these two characters are in despair of their personal views of the world. The Fool despairs of common sense while Cordelia surrenders to feelings of bitterness. Shakespeare purposely does this to allow for a lack of dramatic fulfilment or resolution for Lear. Through doubt of their own principles, Lear is denied the Fool's common sense and Cordelia's pristine goodness as vehicles for fulfilment. Lear's denial of truth is finally acknowledged late in the play, but even this has a tone of misunderstanding. Lear still does not fathom Cordelia's love for him: "If you have poison for me, I will drink it. / I know you do not love me" (4.6.70-71). Even near the end of his play, Shakespeare denies the audience any form of completion.

The irresolution of the final scene is the conclusion of Shakespeare's tragic vision in King Lear. The Folio again enhances the already elusive Quarto in terms of dramatic completion and points in the direction Shakespeare was exploring.15 The debate over whether or not Lear dies happily or in anguish testifies to Shakespeare's ability to leave in question the meaning of his play. If we take into consideration the role of the Fool and Cordelia as discussed, we can see a definite pattern of refusal of any form of resolution in the play. Uncertainty on the part of Cordelia and the Fool creates a rich substructure of shifting values, attitudes and hopes. The spoken truth becomes just as uncertain as Cordelia's "Nothing", as Lear realizes too late. He demonstrates his grief with howling:

Howl, howl, howl, howl! O, you are men of stones. Had I your tongues and eyes, I'd use them so, That heaven's vault should crack.


Anne Barton states: "At the very end, entering with Cordelia dead in his arms, Lear will find that the howl of an animal is the only possible response to the situation" (27). Lear's howls are the closest he comes to any form of resolution between himself and the spoken truth, and they are cries of inarticulate disorder. He is denied dramatic union with the Fool because of his madness, and Cordelia's doubt and death leave him to face his own death and spiritual fulfilment or non-fulfilment alone.


1The Tragedy of King Lear, ed. Jay L. Halio, New Cambridge Shakespeare, Cambridge, 1992, 5.3.164. Philip McGuire, Speechless Dialect: Shakespeare's Open Silences, Berkeley, 1985, 151.

2 John Kerrigan, "Revision, Adaption, and the Fool in King Lear", in The Division of the Kingdoms: Shakespeare's Two Versions of King Lear, eds Gary Taylor and Michael Warren, Oxford, 1983, 229.

3 John Danby, Shakespeare's Doctrine of Nature: A Study of King Lear, London, 1969, 114.

4 Harley Granville-Barker, Prefaces to Shakespeare, Princeton: N. J., 1946, 303.

5 William Elton, "King Lear" and the Gods, San Marino: Calif., 1966, 77.

6 Harry Berger, Jr., "King Lear: The Lear Family Romance", The Centennial Review, 23 (1979), 368.

7 Marion D. Perret, "Lear's Good Old Man", Shakespeare Studies, 17 (1985), 89.

8 "Cordelia: Loss of Insolence", Studies in the Humanities, V/2 (1976), 15.

9 Harry Berger, "King Lear: The Lear Family Romance", 358.

10 Harvey Birenbaum, "The Art of Our Necessities: The Softness of King Lear", The Yale Review, LXXII/4 (1983), 591.

11 Anne Barton, "Shakespeare and the Limits of Language", Shakespeare Survey, 24 (1971), 24-25.

12 Ian J. Kirby, "The Passing of King Lear", Shakespeare Survey, 41 (1989), 147.

13 Jay L. Halio, King Lear, 4.3, note to SD "Enter . . . CORDELIA".

14 Arthur G. Davis, The Royalty of Lear, New York, 1974, 85.

15 Thomas Clayton, "'Is this the promis'd end?': Revision in the Role of the King", in The Division of the Kingdoms, 129.

The Family

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Thomas McFarland (essay date 1978/79)

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

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

King Lear develops its action along a pattern supplied simultaneously by poetic fantasy and by historical reality. In the main plot, the relationship between Lear and his daughters is prefigured in the record of a distressed family situation of the late Elizabethan period. Brian Annesley, who for many years had been a gentleman pensioner to Queen Elizabeth, had three daughters. As he grew old, Annesley's mind began to give way, and two of his daughters, Christian, who was the wife of Lord Sandys of the Essex Rebellion, and Lady Grace Wildgoose, petitioned to have the old man declared insane and his estate placed in the care of Lady Wildgoose's husband. Annesley's third daughter, who was named Cordell or Cordelia, opposed the action and in October 1603 sent a letter to Cecil on behalf of her "poor aged and daily dying father." History does not inform us of the ending of this family turbulence, other than that, when Annesley died in 1604, Lady Wildgoose unsuccessfully challenged his will. Some scholars think that when the Fool comments on the alliance of Regan and Goneril in the second act of the play, he is obliquely alluding to the Annesley affair in the line "Winter's not gone yet, if the wild geese fly that way" (2.4.45).

To this prototype for the main plot of King Lear drawn from the quotidian reality of family life in Shakespeare's milieu we may add a fictional prototype for the subplot, drawn from the furthest reaches of Elizabethan familial fantasy. For the story of Gloucester and his two sons is taken from what Sidney called "this idle worke of mine," "this child, which I am loath to father," this "trifle, and that triflinglie handled," that is, The Arcadia. Here, in 1590, in the tenth chapter of the second book, we read of

an aged man, and a young, scarcely come to the age of a man, both poorely arayed, extreamely weather-beaten; the olde man blinde, the young man leading him: and yet through all those miseries, in both these seemed to appeare a kind of noblenesse, not sutable to that affliction. But the first words they heard, were these of the old man. . . . feare not, my miserie cannot be greater than it is, & nothing doth become me but miserie; feare not the danger of my blind steps, 1 cannot fall worse than I am. And doo not I pray thee, do not obstinately continue to infect thee with my wretchedness.

The young man then tells the observers how this doleful scene came about:

This old man (whom I leade) was lately rightfull Prince of this countrie of Paphlagonia, by the hard-harted ungratefulnes of a sonne of his, deprived, not onely of his kingdome (whereof no forraine forces were ever able to spoyle him) but of his sight, the riches which Nature graûts to the poorest creatures. Whereby, & by other his unnaturall dealings, he hath bin driven to such griefe, as even now he would have had me to have led him to the toppe of this rocke, thêce to cast himselfe headlong to death: and so would have made me (who received my life of him) to be the worker of his destruction.

The "toppe of this rocke" in this passage becomes, in Shakespeare's imaginative expansion, the powerful evocation by which Edgar deludes his blinded father (and more than one modern critic) into thinking he stands on the cliffs of Dover:

Come on, sir; here's the place: stand still. How fearful And dizzy 'tis to cast one's eyes so low!

Half way down Hangs one that gathers sampire, dreadful trade! Methinks he seems no bigger than his head. The fishermen that walk upon the beach Appear like mice; and yond tall anchoring bark Diminished to her cock; her cock, a buoy Almost too small for sight. The murmuring surge That on th' unnumb'red idle pebble chafes Cannot be heard so high.


Shakespeare's conception of what Edgar immediately afterward calls "the extreme verge" is thus directly linked to Sidney's fantasy, as we can see again in the play's expansion of the blind king's lament as formulated by Sidney: "my miserie cannot be greater than it is, & nothing doth become me but miserie. . . . I cannot fall worse than I am." For Edgar in effect supplies a commentary: "Who is't can say, 'I am at the worst'? / I am worse than e'er I was. . . . And worse I may be yet: the worst is not / So long as we can say, 'This is the worst'" (4.1.25-28).

King Lear, to take up Edgar's rhetoric of descent, is both a drama of "the extreme verge" and an extended trope of things getting worse. We might indeed say of its depiction of life that "This is the worst," except that to say so would be to turn us to Edgar's wisdom and make us realize that Hamlet may descend beyond even that description. Certainly over both plays there broods Hamlet's disbelieving realization "That it should come to this." In this statement, the sense of moving from hope to horror is accentuated by the stunning virtuosity of Shakespeare's rendering of happy past and terrible present by the pain-blurred pronouns of "it" and "this."

Both plays augment their pain by fostering it in the matrix of family life. After this initial congruence, however, the familial similarities diminish. The family situation in Hamlet follows the model of Senecan tragedy, which in its turn had its eye upon Greek tragedy, especially the familial horrors of the house of Atreus. Seneca, who is a much more considerable dramatist than is at present fashionable to believe (Scaliger, who did not take these things lightly, ranked him with Euripides), considered human life to be hell on earth.1 In this line of genesis, the family situation in Hamlet, to adopt a modern perspective, can be not inappropriately summed up in the vision of R. D. Laing: "A family can act as gangsters, offering each other mutual protection against each other's violence. It is a reciprocal terrorism." Or again:

From the moment of birth, when the Stone Age baby confronts the twentieth-century mother, the baby is subjected to those forces of violence, called love, as its mother and father . . . have been. These forces are mainly concerned with destroying most of its potentialities, and on the whole this enterprise is successful. By the time the new human being is fifteen or so, we are left with a being like ourselves, a half-crazed creature more or less adjusted to a mad world.2

The latter part of Laing's formula for modern youth, "a half-crazed creature more or less adjusted to a mad world," might serve as a rough description of the situation of Hamlet himself.

The model of the family in King Lear is different. The play itself might be seen as an exalted version of the "domestic tragedy" of the period—as an elevated form of such structures as A Woman Killed with Kindness or even Arden of Feversham. The situation in Hamlet, by contrast, is almost flamboyant; it has the specialness of things that happen only once, in the realm of the hypothetical, and to others than ourselves. It is significant that the play has been approached through such pairings as "Hamlet and Orestes" and "Hamlet and Oedipus." When Freud first discerned the outline of the Oedipus complex, which he was forced to see as a flaw at the very root of human nature, he immediately illustrated it by reference to Hamlet. And the form of our contemplation of such shattering familial pain as that represented by Orestes and Oedipus is the aesthetic distancing described by Kant, whereby we take pleasure in catastrophic events such as hurricanes and erupting volcanoes provided we are simultaneously secure from their consequences. A shipwreck happens to others, not to us; and Oedipus, Orestes, and Hamlet find themselves in unthinkable situations that accentuate our own security as spectators. In this same context, we may note that of all Freud's insights into human nature, none has more fiercely engaged our protective mechanisms of resistance and denial than has his formulation of the Oedipus complex. It was not merely Malinowski who professed to find no such complex in the primitive societies he studied; almost every soi-disant rectifier of Freud begins by denying the universality of the Oedipus complex. It is as though we think it suitable for Oedipus, but not for us. We are not Prince Hamlet, nor were we meant to be.

The situation in King Lear involves a different model of experience, an image of family life that is neither flamboyant nor unique. On the contrary, it is in significant respects almost commonplace. Lear's pain and outrage are larger versions of the pain and outrage that almost all parents at some point and to some degree experience because of their offspring. Lear's agonized realization that "Age is unnecessary" is encountered again and again by aging parents and grandparents faced with loss of prestige and function, and possibly with transportation to homes for the elderly. Goneril's impatience with Lear's residing in her own domicile is an immensely larger version of a commonplace experience, that of the strains resulting when an aged parent takes up residence with a married child. "Let me not stay a jot for dinner; go, get it ready" (1.4.8-9), orders Lear imperiously, after the audience has just been informed of Goneril's instructions to "prepare for dinner" (1.3.27). This embryonic family clash, the experience of untold numbers of housewives and aging parents writ large, is the antipode of the poison coursing like quicksilver through the porches of ears that we find in Hamlet's context. "By day and night he wrongs me," flashes Goneril, her very accents being those of the harried and hateful, but by the same token those of the commonplace and oft-repeated:

I'll not endure it. His knights grow riotous, and himself upbraids us On every trifle. When he returns from hunting, I will not speak with him. Say I am sick. If you come slack of former services, You shall do well; the fault of it I'll answer.


The same tone of quotidian exasperation permeates Goneril's spiteful references to her father's Fool:

Not only, sir, this your all-licensed Fool, But other of your insolent retinue Do hourly carp and quarrel, breaking forth In rank and not-to-be-endurèd riots.


Unlovable though she is, Goneril here speaks in tones with which many with numerous and long-staying guests can sympathize, and we do remember that previously she has taken care to ascertain at least one of the facts: "Did my father strike my gentleman for chiding of his Fool?" "Ay, madam," comes the answer (1.3.1-3). Moreover, in the early part of the play's action she speaks in tones that at least attempt to justify her conduct:

I do beseech you To understand my purposes aright. As you are old and reverend, should be wise. Here do you keep a hundred knights and squires, Men so disordered, so deboshed, and bold, That this our court, infected with their manners, Shows like a riotous inn. Epicurism and lust Makes it more like a tavern or a brothel Than a graced palace.


Lear reacts like many a parent, and entirely like his own self-indulgent early self; we do not here have his later "O, I have ta'en / Too little care of this," but rather instant righteousness and thunderbolts:

Darkness and devils! Saddle my horses; call my train together. Degenerate bastard, I'll not trouble thee: Yet have I left a daughter.


In this instance, Lear's manipulation of the dynamics of family favoritism, which repeats the fatuity with which he had offered Cordelia "a third more opulent than your sisters" (1.1.86), elicits from Goneril the shrill and wonderful rejoinder—wonderful because it endures in the common situations of human experience:

You strike my people, and your disordered rabble Make servants of their betters.


It is because of the repeated projection of such exquisitely nuanced appeals to the sensus communis (Kant says that "by the name sensus communis is to be understood the idea of a public sense, i.e. a critical faculty which in its reflective act takes account [a priori] of the mode of representation of every one else, in order, as it were, to weigh its judgment with the collective reason of mankind") that the situation between Lear and his daughters cannot rewardingly be described in terms of the rhetoric of good and evil. Thus Maynard Mack's reference, in his King Lear in Our Time, to "the unmitigated badness of Goneril and Regan" seems somewhat beside the point. Moreover, his belief that the two sisters represent "paradigms of evil" leads in my opinion to a subtle misconception of the play's meaning. In the rudimentary morality dramas that in some sense form an adumbrative basis of King Lear, such figures would indeed be paradigms of evil; in the two-dimensional fairy-tale motif of Lear's processional entrance at the beginning and his arbitrary dividing of his kingdom into three (an action of the same order as Old King Cole summoning his fiddlers three), Goneril and Regan do assume the roles of wicked elder sisters to the Cinderella-like good third sister. But these are lower layers and starting points, not the profound process of the play itself. In that process, as I have elsewhere urged, good and evil are conceptions with little purchase.3

If we persist in using the conventional rhetoric of good and evil, we should, of course, certainly have to stigmatize Goneril, Regan, and Edmund as evil. But by that same schematism we should also be forced to think of Lear and Gloucester as good. How unfitting this latter conception would be can perhaps be indicated in brief by returning to the source of the subplot. In The Arcadia the son who is helping his blind father says: "noble Gentlemen . . . if either of you have a father, and feele what deutifull affection is engraffed in a sonnes hart, let me intreate you to convey this afflicted Prince to some place of rest & securitie." What Sidney next writes should prompt our reflection on its probable function in Shakespeare's work: "But before they could make him answere his father began to speake, Ah my sonne (said he) how evill an Historian are you, that leave out the chief knotte of all the discourse? my wickednes, my wickednes."

In the movement of the play, as opposed to the source, the wickedness of the father is finally no more relevant than the evil of the child. What we are presented instead is an image of the family in dynamic interaction, an image intensified and underscored by being doubled into parallel plots. The process of things getting worse is coordinate with a process of progressive deterioration and dereliction in family relationships. After all, the source of the play found in Geoffrey of Monmouth specifically includes the allegedly evil Goneril and Regan in the original unity of love: "He was without Male Issue," says that source for King Lear, "but had three Daughters whose Names were Gonorilla, Regan, and Cordeilla, of whom he was doatingly fond, but especially of his youngest Cordeilla." It is hardly an exaggeration, indeed, to say that the subject of the play is, not the agony of the king, but the agony of the family; and in a very real sense the protagonist of the play is not Lear alone, nor even Lear and Gloucester in tandem, but the two fathers as the center of family relationships and the service relationships that pertain to them. Any impact on any strand of this web of relationships perturbs the whole; when Gloucester suffers, a nameless serving man lays down his life in sympathetic response.

The protagonistic function is thus dispersed, and the dispersal is both welcome and in a sense necessary because of the unattractiveness of age. Although the fact that Lear is a man standing on the outer edge of existence—"O, sir, you are old," notes Regan, "Nature in you stands on the very verge / Of his confine" (2.4.143-145)—gives him immense tragic authenticity and the play immense leverage at the tragic intersection of being and nonbeing, by the same token, his standing at the verge of nature's confine makes it difficult for us to identify with him. For an aged man is but a paltry thing, and Lear's prospects on his very verge are as bleak as those of Gloucester on his own extreme verge. The motifs of "very verge" and "extreme verge," though emphasized by the aged fathers, actually pertain to all the characters and in truth to all human existence: in this life we all stand on the razor's edge, and death has a thousand doors. But it is Lear's definition as father that connects him with younger life and its attendant hope. His fatherhood draws him back into our common ken; his familial identity ropes him to the others as he teeters on the edge of the abyss.4 Indeed, even Regan's heartless remark quoted above would not have been made were he not her father.

The tension between Lear's two roles in life, one as king with its patina of symbolic paternalism, the other as father to a specific family, generates the tragic situation that arises in the play. Or more exactly, it makes up the tragic abscissa that, along with the tragic ordinate constituted by being's straining against nonbeing, delimits King Lear's tragic space.

Lear pervasively assumes at the outset that his status as king and his status as father are the same, and this initial confusion leads him into the fallacious assumption that power and love are interchangeable.5 It is not merely that he mistakenly believes that so much love can equal so much land, or that he carries the confusion between love and power into the further quantification of the hundred knights, appurtenances necessary to a king but irrelevant to a father. Rather, it is that he believes that the attributes he gives up as king are ones he can retain solely as father: "I do invest you jointly with my power, / Preeminence, and all the large effects / That troop with majesty," he says to Goneril and Regan and their husbands:

Ourself, by monthly course, With reservation of an hundred knights, By you to be sustained, shall our abode Make with you by due turn. Only we shall retain The name, and all th' addition to a king.


As Lawrence Stone observes, from a vantage ground atop a mass of sociohistorical data: "Shakespeare's interpretation of King Lear merely underscores the moral that a father who gives up real power, in the expectation of obtaining the love and attention of his children instead, is merely exhibiting a form of insanity. His inevitable disappointment would have come as no surprise to an Elizabethan audience."6 Nor to a modern one either, we might append.

We see the same confusion of Lear's conception of himself as king and as father in his decision to divide his kingdom into three, a decision that violated the accumulated wisdom of Elizabethan statecraft. As Sir Thomas Elyot said in 1531, in The Boke Named the Gouernour:

Lyke as to a castell or fortresse suffisethe one owner or soueraygne and where any mo be of like power and authoritie seldome cometh the warke to perfection. . . . In semblable wyse doth a publike weale that hath mo chiefe gouernours than one.

He goes on to say that "if any desireth to haue the gouernance of one persone proued by histories let him fyrste resorte to the holy scripture; where he shall fynde that almyghty god commanded Moses . . . gyuynge onely to hym that authoritie without appoyntynge to hym any other assistence of equall power or dignitie." After many examples of the ills attendant upon divided rule, he says,

But what nede we to serche so ferre from vs sens we haue sufficient examples nere vnto us? . . . After that the Saxons by treason had expelled out of Englande the Britons whiche were the auncient inhabitantes: this realme was deuyded in to sondry regions or kyngdomes. O what mysery was the people then in: O howe this most noble Isle of the worlde was decerpt and rent in pieces.

Elyot's political admonitions find confirmation in 1561 in Sackville's and Norton's Gorboduc, where the choric counselor warns:

To part your realm unto my lords, your sons, I think not good for you, ne yet for them, But worst of all for this our native land. Within one land one single rule is best. Divided reigns do make divided hearts, But peace preserves the country and the prince.


In 1599, finally, to trace the unanimity of opinion into Shakespeare's own day, King James VI wrote to his son in the Basilikon Doron:

Make your eldest sonne ISAAC, leauing him all your Kingdomes, and prouide the rest with priuate possessiones: otherwayes by deuiding your Kingdomes, yee shall leaue the seede of diuisione and discorde among your posteritie.

Lear, in short, is behaving like a father and not like a king when he divides his kingdom. The inadequacy of his action purely as that of a father, as opposed to its patent folly as the decision of a king, is attendant, not upon the division as such, but rather upon the inequality of the division, that is, the doting promise to Cordelia to give her "a third more opulent than your sisters," a third that directly validates Goneril's once resentful but by now matter-of-fact realization that "he always loved our sister most" (1.1.290).

An even more damaging result of Lear's confusion of kingship and fatherhood is his feeling that, like a monarch, but not like a father, he can abrogate the ties of kinship. But the family has its deep-rooted sanctities. The original sin of this dark cosmos is constituted by Lear's denial of family relation in his rejection of Cordelia:

Here I disclaim all my paternal care, Propinquity and property of blood, And as a stranger to my heart and me Hold thee from this for ever.


Thus Lear's action, not in becoming angry with Cordelia, who has herself acted with some of the old man's willfulness, but in disclaiming paternal care, propinquity, and property of blood, is, if we like the rhetoric of good and evil, the beginning of the evil in the play's progression of events; it is an action of the same order as those of Goneril and Regan. Lear's own violation is eventually redeemed, and its purgation begins with his dawning realization that "I did her wrong" (1.5.24); whereas Goneril and Regan cannot escape their own selves and eventually begin to prey upon each other, in Albany's phrase, "like monsters of the deep." Albany's terrifying image, which is the nadir of the play's animal references and alludes to the unspoken, dreaded boundary situation of possible descent from true human relation, is prefigured by Lear's violation at the beginning of the play. Thus France observes that Cordelia, as "the best, the dearest," could not "commit a thing so monstrous" (1.1.217) as Lear's reaction suggests; and he refers to her "offense" as being of "unnatural degree / That monsters it" (1.1.218-220) if Lear is to be thought justified. The same misconception and foreshadowing attend also on Gloucester's early self-indulgence: "He cannot be such a monster," he exclaims of Edgar; "Nor is not, sure," replies Edmund smoothly (1.2.97-98). Still again, the image is refocused when Lear speaks of Goneril's ingratitude as more hideous "in a child / Than the sea-monster!" (1.4.262-263).

Thus Lear's initial confusion as to what pertains to a king and what pertains to a father sets in motion the tragic descent. That he does confuse these roles points us to a truth about the structure of the family as presented in this play. That structure, as we have suggested, is fundamentally different from the Senecan flamboyance of the family in Hamlet. The tradition there is one in which Titus Andronicus can at the very outset of his play execute Tamora's son Alarbus ("Alarbus' limbs are lopped," report his sons matter-of-factly), despite her piteous pleas to spare him. Shortly thereafter Titus imperiously slays his own son Mutius. The play, adding the horrors of Ovid to those of Seneca, proceeds from this bloody beginning into a bizarre sequence of massacres along family lines. To reinvoke the phrase of R. D. Laing, this conception of the family exhibits on its face the contours of "reciprocal terrorism"; and it is this conception, though immensely refined, that obtains in Hamlet.

The family image in King Lear is much more like a different kind of ancient paradigm: that serene structure of mutual regard revealed in Plutarch's letter to his wife on the death of one of their children. Or to summon a modern reference to counterbalance Laing, the family image in King Lear is what in Christopher Lasch's rubric is termed "haven in a heartless world." It is to seek a haven that Lear gives up his crown:

Know that we have divided In three our kingdom; and 'tis our fast intent To shake all cares and business from our age, Conferring them on younger strengths.


"I loved her most," he says of Cordelia, "and thought to set my rest / On her kind nursery" (1.1.123-124).

That the family here is conceived of as a haven in a heartless world is not contradicted by the fact that the horrors later perpetrated within that family vie with and in certain senses even surpass those in Hamlet. For what we are talking about is, not the reality of family life, but merely the proffered image of the family. In truth, the conception of family as a haven in a heartless world can in certain respects lead to greater even though less visible destructions than can less affecting images, even as an explosion of dynamite is augmented if the explosive is covered. The offices of psychoanalysts are thronged with tormented patients who bear witness to this truth, and its dimensions are cogently revealed by the nineteenth-century diarist Amiel:

Oh, the family! If the pious, traditional superstition with which we envelop this institution would let us tell the truth about the matter, what a reckoning it would have to settle! What numberless martyrdoms it has required, dissemblingly, inexorably! How many hearts have been stifled by it, lacerated and broken. . . . The family may be all that is best in this world, but too often it is all that is worst. . . . The truth is that the family relation exists only to put us to the proof and that it gives us infinitely more suffering than happiness.

In this context we see Goneril, Regan, and Edmund all as victims of the family situation. Their inadequate action is somewhat like that of Joseph's brothers, rendered envious and malicious by their father's favoritism, or even like that of another family victim named Cain.

Despite their differences in image and provenance, the family structures in King Lear and in Hamlet both generate tragic intensifications. In one way, moreover, the two structures are identical. For both are broken families at the outset, and broken in complementary ways. In Hamlet there is no father, in King Lear no mother. We think of correlates everywhere in Shakespeare, so quickly, indeed, that we are overwhelmed by the intuition that a very substantial portion of Shakespeare's literary energy was discharged through varying apprehensions of the dynamics of family structures. Almost all these families are also broken. We think of Bertram and his mother the Countess Rousillon, with their situation, as well as that of Helena, depending on a dead father. We think of Coriolanus and his mother, Volumnia, again with a dead father. We think yet again of Brabantio and Desdemona, with a dead mother, of Polonius and Ophelia, again with a dead mother, and, perhaps most compellingly of all and most germane to the situation in King Lear, of Prospero and Miranda, still again with a dead mother.

These relationships are for Shakespeare typically charged with the most electric emotions. It is perhaps not entirely accidental that his series of passionate sonnets to a young friend involves a recognition of the emotional bond between the youth and his mother, with apparently no father to consider: "Is it for fear to wet a widow's eye," he asks in the ninth sonnet, "That thou consum'st thyself in single life? / Ah, if thou issueless shalt hap to die, / The world will wail thee like a makeless wife; / The world will be thy widow and still weep." But possibly the most unmistakable index of the centrality of family kinesis in Shakespeare's concern is the scene in the fourth act of King Lear where Lear is reunited with Cordelia. Such a theme of reunion, and especially of the reunion of a family—or, as here, the living heart of a family—mines the deepest and richest lode of Shakespeare's affirmation of life; and that truth is apparent in other places than King Lear. In the vast tropes of reunion and reconciliation that conclude the action of Shakespeare's last comedies, the most intense themes of joy appear, and they are invariably generated by the resurgence of a family relationship.7 Thus Leontes, having seemingly destroyed both his wife and his daughter, finds his daughter again in the lost Perdita and his wife again in the statue suddenly come to life. The language of joy in the familial reconstitution is almost overpowering; it is presented as a climax beyond even the reunion of friends as celebrated by the meeting of Leontes and Polixenes:

Did you see the meeting of the two kings? . . . Then have you lost a sight which was to be seen, cannot be spoken of. There might you have beheld one joy crown another . . . their joy waded in tears. . . . Our king, being ready to leap out of himself for joy of his found daughter . . . then asks Bohemia forgiveness.

(The Winter's Tale, 5.2.41-54)

As the almost orgiastic description continues, the final points of reference are familial. For the clown says:

The king's son took me by the hand and called me brother; and then the two kings called my father brother; and then the prince, (my brother) and the princess (my sister) called my father father.

(The Winter's Tale, 5.2.143-147)

This joy is confirmed and if possible even surpassed in the familial reconstitution of Pericles. First Pericles is reunited with his daughter Marina:

O Helicanus, strike me, honored sir! Give me a gash, put me to present pain; Lest this great sea of joys rushing upon me O'erbear the shores of my mortality, And drown me with their sweetness. O, come hither, Thou that beget'st him that did thee beget; Thou that wast born at sea, buried at Tharsus, And found at sea again!


I embrace you. Give me my robes. I am wild in my beholding. O heavens bless my girl!


The reunion with the daughter Marina is followed by reunion with the wife Thaisa:

This, this! No more. You gods, your present kindness Makes my past miseries sports. You shall do well That on the touching of her lips I may Melt and no more be seen.


And yet not even in these outpourings of joy and wonder is the emotion as powerful as in the awesome reconciliation scene between Lear and Cordelia. Lear's awakening from madness into rationality is, on the literal plane, a moment of restoration, reconciliation, and reunion. But on the anagogical plane it is more; it is the reawakening of the dead into paradise. Lear's confused words on regaining consciousness reverberate with the sweetest topoi of Christian hope:

You do me wrong to take me out o' th' grave. Thou art a soul in bliss.


When Cordelia asks, "Sir, do you know me?" Lear's answer is "You are a spirit, I know. Where did you die?" (4.7.48-49). Shakespeare's astonishing evocation of the varieties of human tears in the remainder of the passage achieves a finality that suggests the supervening state of paradise, which, in the words of the Book of Revelation hauntingly taken up by Milton, will wipe the tears forever from our eyes. Lear first speaks of tears:

I am bound Upon a wheel of fire, that mine own tears Do scald like molten lead.


The connection between scalding past and paradisal renewal is sealed by tears of watering restoration, as revealed by the virtuosity (never enough admired) of Cordelia's tear-choked replies "And so I am, I am," and "No cause, no cause":

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

CORDELIA. 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.

CORDELIA. No cause, no cause.


Art can hardly go beyond this. Both the literal and the anagogic planes are superintended by the Doctor, who naturally would stand by a sick man recovering consciousness (even though this doctor's sudden prominence is mysterious). But as I have elsewhere pointed out, this sudden figure takes up the function of the doctor from the English folk play or mummer's play, who, as E. K. Chambers records, abruptly appears to restore the slain duelist to life.

But doctors also assist at childbirth, and that additional function leads us to still another level of meaning in this supreme scene of reconciliation. For Lear is not merely the sick and confused man regaining consciousness and rationality. He is here not restricted even to the deeper motif of devastated mortal reborn to heaven's bliss. He is also, in palpable respects, the child entering the world for the first time; and Cordelia, hovering over his bed, is, in awesome psycho-dramatic recapitulation, the eternal mother brooding over the infant's crib. Earlier in the play age was equated with infancy in the statement "Old fools are babes again" (1.3.20), and just before the reconciliation scene there is insistent reference to our entrance into the world:

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.


These images subliminally join with the tears of the restoration scene, for Lear's tears that scald like molten lead, though unforgettably part of the agony and guilt through which he has passed, are no more scalding than the infant's tears at birth. And the very indications by which we see Lear purged of his madness and spleen are also coordinate with the sense of infant joy and calm. The doctor informs us that "the great rage . . . is killed in him" (4.7.78-79). A "very foolish fond old man" who reiterates that "I am old and foolish," who asks others to "bear with me," to "forget and forgive" (4.7.60, 83-84), is a man who in essential respects resumes the relationships of his earliest life.

I have dwelt on this one supreme scene to make clear the enormous charge of emotion with which it is invested. Its recapitulation of the earliest family situation of mother and child, which receives additional emphasis from the absence of Cordelia's mother and Lear's wife throughout the play, leads us to understand how the scene can plumb such psychic depth. At the same time, we realize that the recreation of the child's union with the parent is precisely, in Freud's description, the impelling origin and ultimate goal in the sexual development of every human being.

This aperture of understanding provided by the third or recapitulative plane of the reconciliation scene reveals to us another aspect of the play's meaning as well. For it occurs to every careful critic that there is at least a surface anomaly in the play: King Lear, which is arguably the greatest of all human documents, largely dispenses with the sexual relationships of mankind. There is no proper vehicle here for love between the sexes. It is not simply that the nominal protagonist, Lear, is eighty years old; it is also that such interest seems deliberately to be evicted. The king of France, for instance, speaks in the idealistic language of Sonnet 116, paralleling its insistence that "love is not love / Which alters when it alteration finds" with "Love's not love / When it is mingled with regards that stands / Aloof from th' entire point" (1.1.238-240). But after thus displaying his own true understanding of love, the king of France withdraws to his own country, taking love with him. The possibilities for love thenceforth largely devolve on Edmund, and they become, not an index of idealistic intensification, but a grotesque badge of deterioration: "To both these sisters have I sworn my love; / Each jealous of the other, as the stung / Are of the adder" (5.1.56-58). This seething sexuality is further removed from the nobly human by Lear's searing hallucination:

I pardon that man's life. What was thy cause? Adultery? Thou shalt not die: die for adultery! No: The wren goes to't, and the small gilded fly Does lecher in my sight. Let copulation thrive; for Gloucester's bastard son Was kinder to his father than my daughters Got 'tween the lawful sheets. To't, luxury, pell-mell! for I lack soldiers. Behold yond simp'ring dame, Whose face between her forks presages snow, That minces virtue, and does shake the head To hear of pleasure's name. The fitchew, nor the soilèd horse, goes to't With a more riotous appetite. Down from the waist they are Centaurs, Though women all above: But to the girdle do the gods inherit, Beneath is all the fiend's. There's hell, there's darkness, there is the sulphurous pit, burning, scalding, stench, consumption; fie, fie, fie! pah, pah! Give me an ounce of civet; good apothecary, sweeten my imagination.


And when Gloucester then comments, "O let me kiss that hand!" Lear's reply reverberates with sublime disgust: "Let me wipe it first; it smells of mortality."

The disgust with which the horizontal and procreative activities of man are here viewed tends to strengthen the urgency of the vertical and familial affections. The same disgust is expressed by Shakespeare in other places: in his Sonnet 129, for instance, or in the poisoned imaginations of Leontes and Othello; most of all, perhaps, in Hamlet's interview with his mother:

Nay, but to live In the rank sweat of an enseamèd bed, Stewed in corruption, honeying and making love Over the nasty sty.


And when Gertrude asks, "What shall I do?" Hamlet answers that she should not

Let the bloat king tempt you again to bed, Pinch wanton on your cheek, call you his mouse, And let him, for a pair of reechy kisses, Or paddling in your neck with his damned fingers, Make you to ravel all this matter out, That I essentially am not in madness, But mad in craft.


This vividly expressed sexual disgust functions in similar ways in both Hamlet and King Lear; it tends to displace Gertrude as paramour of Claudius and reinstate and emphasize Gertrude as wife of the father, as matron of the family, as mother of the son. The sexual disgust of King Lear, in the same way, should be seen as not merely a profound expression of something in the man Shakespeare himself, although I have no doubt that it is that as well, but also as a deliberate eviction from the play of the only force that in both common experience and psychological observation challenges the satisfactions and securities of the family. For whatever Shakespeare's idiosyncratic disgust with human sexuality (as we see, for instance, in Sonnet 94), he was also capable of depicting sexuality in the most radiant terms, as Romeo and Juliet and Antony and Cleopatra attest. We are reminded, nevertheless, that in both these plays the apotheosis of sexuality occurs explicitly at the expense of family solidarity. Yet by the same token, the fact that sexual disgust appears with jolting power in King Lear tends to reassert the primary importance of the ties of the family relationship.

If in King Lear the sexual interest largely devolves on Edmund and thereby becomes an insignia of deterioration, Edmund's position as bastard both threatens the normative structure of the family and reveals him as the initial legatee of family pain. He thereby becomes the leader, as it were, the first in line, of those who descend toward the disintegrative bleakness of the world of storm and night. But in his descent he is unable to purge himself and forge a new being. Hence Edmund also, like Goneril and Regan, is less rewardingly viewed as evil than as inadequate. Indeed, he is a figure invested with deep pathos.

Here again an examination of the two sources to which I referred at the beginning of this lecture is revealing.

For the Annesley prototype differs from the other sources in that it alone presents the old man as infirm of mind (his daughter Cordell writes Cecil that her father's "many years service to our late dread Sovereign Mistress" deserved better than "at his last gasp to be recorded and registered a Lunatic"); it thereby enlists our universal or public sympathy with the plight of the old man and our outrage at the callousness of Lady Wildgoose. In the source for the subplot, however, something is absent rather than present; there is no bastard, and this fact paradoxically makes the figure of Edmund seem somehow more important in Shakespeare's design.

If, as I have been tacitly assuming and sometimes hinting, Shakespeare's almost obsessive preoccupation with dramatic structures of the family takes its enormous emotional force from his own family experience—however little the details of that experience may actually abide our question—then we will find interest in J. H. Padel's recent speculations about the relationship of the sonnets to the death of Shakespeare's son.8 Whatever the truth may be, it is intriguing that Shakespeare had a brother named Edmund, who also became an actor, and who fathered a bastard son named Edward. This is one of a number of nagging similarities, such as that between the names Hamlet and Hamnet, or between the maiden name of Shakespeare's mother and the forest of Arden where all troubles are healed, or still again the rumor, reported by Rowe, of a gift of a thousand pounds from Southampton to Shakespeare, which Empson thinks must somehow pertain to the thousand pounds owed Falstaff by Prince Hal. These nagging similarities do not constitute evidence, but we are somehow reluctant to put them out of our minds. My visceral feeling is that the presence of Edmund and Edward, brother and bastard, in Shakespeare's familial awareness somehow pertains to his creation of Edmund and Edgar, brother and bastard, in his most familial play.

The figure of Edmund stands in starkest tension to the hegemony of the family in the play itself. If we think of the processional entry of Lear and his retainers at the beginning as having some of the formulaic depthlessness of royalty on playing cards, or perhaps even more appropriately as possessing the depthlessness of some grouped and resplendent representation of royal appearances on a late medieval tapestry, then we can think of Edmund as an unwanted thread dangling from that tapestry, a thread that, when tugged at by the play's action, comes out, not alone, but rather begins to unravel the frozen hierarchies of the tapestry itself. The pregnant encounter that opens the play establishes both the frozen hierarchies and the unwanted thread, for there we see two friends, who happen to be earls, exchanging courtesies from their hierarchical security, and one bastard, introduced with unintentional callousness and condescension. The bastard stands outside the haven represented by the family, apparently fully accepting the situation as laid down by his inattentive and carelessly joking father. But when we see the bastard alone, we understand how little those grouped hierarchies actually answer to the structure of human need.

Edmund's pathos lies in his exclusion from significant human attention. Nowhere is this more apparent than in a single line that, standing in the very midst of his plain-dealing villainy, nonetheless reverberates as a universal cry of agony. At the beginning of the second act, having involved Edgar in their father's suspicions, Edmund says, "I hear my father coming" (2.1.29). We pause at Edmund's use of the adjective "my." Edmund next tells Edgar to "draw, seem to defend yourself; and then, as Edgar flees, Edmund says, "Some blood drawn on me would beget opinion / Of my more fierce endeavor." He next calls out (the words now beginning to reverberate beyond the immediate situation): "Father, fahter! / Stop, stop! No help?" Gloucester enters, the torches he brings with him ironically prefiguring not only the torch of the foul fiend Flibberti-gibbet but also that darkness of the evolving situation in which no torch will avail him. By torchlight he sees nothing: "Now, Edmund, where's the villain?" The deprivation of a lifetime is in Edmund's answer: "Look, sir, I bleed" (2.1.42). But here, as elsewhere, Gloucester looks past his son into the miasma of self-preoccupation: "Where is the villain, Edmund?" is his only answer to the poignant cry. Small wonder, then, when he is blinded in act 4 and the Old Man says, "You cannot see your way," Gloucester's answer seems to be the voice of justice: "I have no way and therefore want no eyes; / I stumbled when I saw" (4.1.17-19).

The pathos of Edmund's "Look, sir, I bleed" constitutes an emotional nadir for the play, and it erupts from the family situation, as does an opposite but complementary emotional zenith: Lear's eulogy of the dead Cordelia: "Her voice was ever soft, / Gentle and low, an excellent thing in woman" (5.3.274-275). The power of the specification lies in its diminuendo of observation contrasted with its crescendo of emotion; but its substance comes from the repeated observations of family interaction, the attention paid to Cordelia by her father. And this attention is starkly opposed to Gloucester's inattention to Edmund.

In largest description, indeed, the opposites that generate the play's moral movement can be viewed as the struggle between attention and inattention ("O, I have ta'en / Too little care of this!"). The truth, both of the play and of human life, is that human inattention destroys the family as haven. But the family as haven, though it undergoes vicissitudes that reveal it to be largely illusion and absolutely so in terms of the insubstantial positings of the play's beginning, complements the idea of a heartless world. The bleakness of the King Lear cosmos stands in ironic tension to the posited security of family concern:

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.


The storm that harrows Lear compounds the irony of his familial illusion:

Rumble thy bellyful. Spit, fire. Spout, rain! Nor rain, wind, thunder, fire are my daughters. I tax not you, you elements, with unkindness. I never gave you kingdom, called you children, You owe me no subscription.


The storm is only the bleakest intensification of the idea of an uncaring cosmos, a heartless world. The play throughout exists in what I have elsewhere called "a nightmare corner of thought."

We may note, finally, that the mighty process by which familial haven is dissipated into heartless world results in the almost inconceivable power of the trial scene in the stormswept hovel, where the family is virtually turned inside out. The vast dialectical movement of the play's imagery and emotion is from insubstantial something toward and into nothing itself and out again to renewed and substantial something. The insubstantial something is the familial relationships and political and social hierarchies posited at the beginning; the nothing, brought alive by the repeated invocations of the word in the play's fabric of discourse and represented by repeated tropes of divestiture, from shelter to storm, from castle to hovel, from fine raiment to rags to nakedness itself, and, finally, from reason to madness, begins to reemerge as substantial something in the awesome trial scene. There the family situation is reversed. Cordelia is absent, having been replaced by the Fool. Goneril and Regan, the two other members of the family, are on trial on the mad but wonderful familial charge of having "kicked the poor king her father" (3.6.47-48). But Goneril and Regan are actually as "be-nothinged" as Cordelia, for Goneril is a joint stool, and Regan another, "whose warped looks proclaim / What store her heart is made on."

From this point the often noted wonder ensues. The worldly situation of Lear and Cordelia, except for the momentary calm of their reconciliation, grows worse and worse, but their spiritual situation becomes better and better, until it rises to the transcendent heights of gilded butterflies, purged to the ultimate relationship of "We two alone." All the sources concur in saying that Lear and Cordelia defeated their enemies and that Lear reigned once again over Britain. But in this play we have instead the choric cry of Edgar at the final battle: "King Lear hath lost, he and his daughter ta'en."

For worldly success would have worked against Shakespeare's final distillation of human meaning into the heavenly quintessence of family relationship. Father and daughter are more truly family than even husband and wife; and the familial nucleus of "We two alone" persists, in this greatest of Shakespeare's visions, beyond life into death itself.


1 Commentators have said little on this matter, although the cumulative testimony of the plays is almost overwhelming. But compare a philosophical analyst's recent observation with respect to Seneca's statement that it is wrong to hate life too much: "The remark gives him away; his own view is based on a hatred of life. . . . Fundamentally Seneca's wise man is in love with death. He is looking out for a tolerable pretext to die." J. M. Rist, Stoic Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1969), p. 249. For Scaliger's judgment of Seneca, see J. W. Cunliffe, The Influence of Seneca on Elizabethan Tragedy (1893; reprint ed., Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1965), p. 7.

2The Politics of Experience (New York: Pantheon, 1967), pp. 59, 36. The reciprocal terrorism can be physical as well as mental, and it is certainly not limited to twentieth-century realities. Thus, for a single emphatic instance, Augustin Thierry records in his Récits des temps mérovingiens that, "in the year 561, after an expedition against one of his sons, whose rebellion he punished by having him burned at the stake together with his wife and children, Lothar, perfectly at ease in mind and conscience, returned to his house at Braine." (I have used the translation by M.F.O. Jenkins.)

3 "Reduction and Renewal in King Lear," in Tragic Meanings in Shakespeare (New York: Random House, 1966).

4 Compare, for example, William R. Elton: "Paralleled by Edgar's quest for identity, Lear demands his own identity of daughters, his retainers, his Fool, and himself. . . . From one point of view, indeed, Lear may be said sequentially to dissociate into his children, Goneril and Regan (selfish willfulness) and Cordelia (courageous adamancy), as Gloucester may be seen successively to dissolve into his components, Edmund (lust) and Edgar (pathos). Here, fatherhood, as in Dostoievsky's Karamazov family, involves not only the problem of identity but also that of identity in multiplicity. Thus, through self-alienation and division, characters generate proxies for themselves, as well as analogues of each other." "King Lear" and the Gods (San Marino, Calif: Huntington Library, 1968), p. 280.

5 Underlying the whole structure of Elizabethan attitudes about the nature of kingship was the implicit analogia of king with father (and of both with God). Thus, for instance, James VI composes his Basilikon Doron in the dual role of father counseling son and of king instructing subject (as we can see from the subtitle of the 1603 edition: His Maiesties Instructions to his Dearest Sonne, Henry the Prince). Furthermore, though the analogy of king and father was so taken for granted that explicit statements are infrequent, oblique alignments abound, e.g. "A good King (thinking his highest honour to consist in the due discharge of his calling) employeth all his studie and paines, to procure and mainteine (by the making and execution of good lawes) the well-fare and peace of his people, and (as their naturall father and kindly maister) thinketh his greatest contentment standeth in their prosperitie, and his greatest suretie in hauing their hearts." Or again: "Ye see nowe (my Sonne) how (for the zeale I beare to acquent you with the plain & single verity of al things) I haue not spared to playe the baird against all the estates of my kingdome: but I protest before God, I do it with the fatherly loue that I owe to them all, onely hating their vices, whereof there is a good number of honest men freed in euery estate." Basilikon Doron, reprint of 1599 edition, pp. 29 (sig. E3), 64 (sig. 14). But however much, under the most benign interpretation of their possibilities, the roles of king and father may be thought to coincide, in actual fact the absolute power of a king ill accords with the loving flexibility of a father. The dynamics of the contrast are existential, not historical or time-bound by Elizabethan convention. Thus a prominent modern psychiatrist prefaces a well-known study of the genesis of schizophrenia within a family by a description of the father that timelessly describes Lear's own preoccupation with his appurtenances as a king: "The father . . . thought of himself as a great man and expected his family to support his narcissistic need for admiration. He was unable to recognize the needs of others or even realize that they viewed the world differently than he did." Theodore Lidz, Preface to A Mingled Yarn: Chronicle of a Troubled Family, by Beulah Parker (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1972), p. xi. In this context, it is interesting to remind ourselves that James, unlike the Lear of the play's opening, insists that a king should be humble, because a king is simply an ordinary man called to eminence by God: "Foster true Humilitie in banishing pride," and "when ye ar there, remember the throne is Gods and not yours, that ye sit in." Basilikon Doron, pp. 115 (sig. Q2), 109-110 (sig. P3). In brief, whatever the identity of kingship and fatherhood in static conception, the formula that describes their functioning interaction is this: the more king, the less father; the more father, the less king.

6The Family, Sex and Marriage in England, 1500-1800 (New York: Harper and Row, 1977), p. 97.

7 Though Stanley Wells has pointed out that the joyous reconciliation scenes in the last comedies are pre-figured by such scenes in the Greek romances that lie behind them, we may take it as an axiom of Shakespearean interpretation that what Shakespeare chooses to retain from his source materials is as truly representative of his intent as are themes created by his imagination ex nihilo.

8 "Shakespeare's Sonnets—Sonnet 146," in Times (London) Literary Supplement, Oct. 21, 1977.

Harry Berger, Jr. (essay date 1979)

SOURCE: "King Lear: The Lear Family Romance," in The Centennial Review, Vol. XXIII, No. 4, Fall, 1979, pp. 348-76.

[Below, Berger examines the relationship Lear has with his daughters by analyzing the psychological motivations for Lear's and his daughters' actions. Berger observes that the characters in the play tend to downplay their own contributions to their problems while intensifying the role of others.]


This reading of some aspects of King Lear's relationship to his daughters is one of a series of reinterpretations of Shakespeare motivated by an interest in returning to a modified character-and-action approach—the approach for which A. C. Bradley is famous or nefarious. The chief differences between my version and his are as follows:

  1. I have no interest in, for example, how many children Lady Macbeth had. But I do have an interest in her interest in, and fear of, children as these affect and illuminate her relationship with Macbeth. And I have an interest in the abiding nature of that relationship as it reveals or betrays itself to us in the language they speak. That relationship antedates the opening of the play. When Lady Macbeth comes onstage reading Macbeth's letter and soliloquizing, we are asked to attend to the shifting nuances of a settled relationship, and asked at the same time to wonder whether it is, in this very moment, on the verge of being permanently unsettled. We are therefore expected to assume, and so to reconstruct, a generalized past as the locus of stable or settled relationships. We are asked to deduce and to evaluate these relationships at least in enough detail to enable us to respond both to their contribution to the present conflict and to the jeopardy with which it threatens them.
  2. I look for themes and forms of action which are centrally psychological and ethical, and are so in a way that enables us to use the resources of the thought and experience of our time. At the same time I think it is important to avoid succumbing to system-bound language, to systematic terminology such as that of psychoanalysis, and to try for a mix between ordinary language and the terminological suggestions offered by the language of any particular play.
  3. I look for those themes and forms of action not only in individual characters but in the community or "group" of the play as a whole. By "community" or "group" I mean not only an aggregate of individuals but also the structured social and political relationships in which they find themselves as members of families, dynasties, courts, age groups, sex groups, kingdoms, etc. I think the institutions and structured relationships depicted in any play compose into a coherent and identifiable image of an institutional order specific (but not necessarily unique') to that play.
  4. Putting items 2 and 3 together indicates the general orientation of this enterprise: I want to examine the way Shakespeare depicts the interaction of psyche with society in order to explore questions of the following kind: What are the social resources available to self-deception? How do characters use the roles and relationships of love, courtship, and marriage, of family, court, and kingdom, of race, religion, and gender, to validate their pursuits of power or pleasure or pain or self-interest or love?
  5. Behind the particular themes and questions instanced above lurks a more abstract or pervasive question. Do the plays dramatize the thesis that individuals are not passive victims or servants of traditional arrangements, or of a divine order, but that they actively conspire with their institutions to re-create their world and society? And a correlative thesis: in so conspiring, do they jeopardize basic "natural" relationships?—relationships between parent and child, sibling and sibling, king and subject, leader and follower, woman and man, lover and lover, friend and friend?
  6. My central interest, and one that integrates the previous items, is in a theme which I call "redistributing complicities," and in the way Shakespeare's language carries the burden of redistribution. The ethical donnée of any play includes a range of characters from bad through mixed to good. Generally, characters come onstage displaying their particular ethical affiliation, after which two different kinds of things can happen. The characters may shift position on the ethical spectrum; and the play may offer the audience a model of the ethical range that differs from any particular character's version of it. It is the second of these with which I am especially concerned. Between the native's and the observer's models, the basic differences will be those of contrast and placement: the character's model will have more intense lights and darks than our model; and the character will tend to locate himself/herself closer to one pole or the other. This does not mean that the audience is asked to condone duplicity, betrayal, or murder. It only means that the roots of such actions are not confined to the shallow plots of individual characters but spread down and out through the whole community or group of the play. Don John the Bastard, in Much Ado About Nothing, offers a paradigm case. His name is clearly Villain, or Trouble: his magnificent brother, the good Don Pedro, is wise enough to entrust him with a clog and muzzle and drag him along wherever he goes. "Never," says Leonato to Pedro, "never came trouble to my house in the likeness of your grace"; and that is because he comes in the likeness of Don John, who seems eager to claim even more culpability than he deserves. Such characters, like ethical vacuums, suck the guilt out of their social environment. But for the character labelled Villain to succeed, everyone has to collaborate in helping him on with his wickedness. And this is especially true of a figure like Don John, who can hardly twirl his moustache without scratching his eye; whose watchword might well be, "Thou, Bumbling, art my goddess."

At the ethical poles of King Lear are two scenarios: the mixed and good characters try to make others and themselves believe, "I am more sinned against than sinning." The bad characters try to make others and themselves believe, "I am more sinning than sinned against." My hypothesis about the play is that while any character pledges allegiance to one of these two scenarios, his language also betrays the presence of the second challenging the first. The language reveals the complementary pressures of a self-justifying function and a scapegoating function. It shows us that characters tend to avoid recognizing their own contributions to the difficulties they face, while magnifying the complicity of others. Their scenarios are frequently cast in the simplistic mode of folklore, fairy tale, or parable: for example, the Good and Bad Sibling, the Outcast and Usurping King, the Terrible Father and Helpless Child (or Helpless Father and Terrible Child). These parabolic conceptions often reinforce the character's sense of the inevitability of his/her plight, and they seem to have the effect which Freud ascribed to dreams in that their displacements and condensations enable the dreamer/character to go on sleeping, to delay re-entry into a world or knowledge or self whose reality is feared. Such themes and issues provide a background for my reading. I shall deal with some of them only incidentally and indirectly, but it will help to keep them in mind as we turn to the play's first scene and its first family.


The play opens with Kent and Gloucester showing mild surprise at the fact that although they always thought "the King had more affected the Duke of Albany than Cornwall, . . . now, in the division of the kingdom, it appears not which of the Dukes he values most." Then Gloucester utters a tortuous phrase which will bear looking at: "for equalities were so weigh'd that curiosity in neither can make choice of either's moiety." Kenneth Muir, the Arden editor, brings out the uneasiness in his paraphrase: "the most careful scrutiny of either share could not induce either of the dukes to prefer his fellow's portion to their own." The weight of the phrase falls on the word curiosity, which Muir glosses as "the most minute and scrupulous attention or examination." Edmund later speaks of the inheritance laws covering primogeniture and bastardy as "the curiosity of nations." And in I. iv Lear chooses to blame the "faint neglect" of Goneril's household on "mine own jealous curiosity." Here Steevens' gloss suggests the force of the term applied by Gloucester to the two Dukes: "a punctilious jealousy, resulting from a scrupulous watchfulness of his own dignity."

Gloucester's phrase implies that each duke is scrupulously on the lookout for the chance to have his sense of his own merit injured. But it implies more than that, because it states Lear's perception of the case and his intention regarding it. Lear assumes that both dukes are anticipating an unequal distribution and waiting to start something—against each other or against him. And he will frustrate that impulse, deny them the satisfaction of injured merit. We learn, of course, that Lear is wrong, that Albany is more loyal, and that Lear's affecting Albany may have something to do with Corn wall's quick disaffection and Albany's weakness. We also learn that Gloucester appears to have been ognorant of Lear's darker purpose, to give the dukes equal thirds smaller than Cordelia's. But Gloucester's phrase prepares us to see that Lear views the political situation confronting him primarily under the aspect of a potential conflict which threatens his own future. And since he is about to give his youngest daughter more than the wives of the two dukes, there is no reason why he should not view it in this light.

When Lear addresses the dukes directly, his careful rhetoric betrays the same concern:

Know that we have divided In three our kingdom; and 'tis our fast intent To shake all cares and business from our age, Conferring them on younger strengths, while we Unburthen'd crawl toward death.

Note the articulated tension between the vigor implied by "our fast intent to shake" and the exaggerated weariness of "unburthen'd crawl toward death." The former warns his auditors not to underestimate his manhood in spite of their younger strengths while the latter prepares them to indulge in the weaknesses of age. Lear continues:

Our son of Cornwall. And you, our no less loving son of Albany, We have this hour a constant will to publish

Our daughters' several dowers, that future strife May be prevented now. The Princes, France and Burgundy, Great rivals in our youngest daughter's love, Long in our court have made their amorous sojourn, And here are to be answer'd.

Lear does not say, "no less beloved," but "no less loving"; not, "I love you both equally," but, "each of you loves me equally." This is a way of reminding them that they are—or should be—contending with each other in loving Lear. The epithet, "no less loving," is reserved for Albany as a qualifier which applies to Cornwall only retroactively, making the first vocative ("Our son of Cornwall") a little terse or brusque by contrast. Yet as a qualifier, it is only mildly commendatory ("not less loving" than Cornwall; but perhaps not more). Since we have been told Lear affects Albany more than Cornwall, we may feel that his difference of phrasing shows a bias in the very act of disclaiming it, and that both his language and strategy are working to set the dukes against each other even as he proclaims his intention to keep peace between them: strife now between duke and duke may indeed prevent future strife between the united dukes and Lear.

Lear's reference to France and Burgundy adds a new set of rivals. As the succeeding action shows, they are rivals not only with each other but also with him, and—so far as land is concerned—with the husbands of Goneril and Regan. There is a certain bite in the phrase "amorous sojourn" which reflects back on "no less loving." The old king divines that none of them is there for love of him, that the princes are probably not even there for love of the daughter he loves, and that they would deprive him of her for the land and power she symbolizes. But he can take pride in having kept them all waiting—the dukes for their doweries, the princes for his answer—until the moment when he can beat them at their own game, using their various desires and interests to effect his darker purpose. Part of this purpose seems to be to unburden himself of obligations by loading them on "the younger strengths" in this final burst of beneficence. He will show them once more how kind a father he is, how dear they are to him, by giving them all. I say "once more" because in subsequent scenes Lear's angry thoughts turn often to the gratitude owed a father merely as his children's genitor: to give them birth is automatically to be kind and literally to be generous in an absolute sense which establishes a permanent inequity in the relationship. His children must always be diligent in honoring their bond to their creator, must say "ay" and "no" to everything he says, and tell him he is everything (4.6.100, 106). He, on the other hand, can rest on his laurels as their only begetter, can maintain that first advantage at little cost to himself, though it may be useful to remind them occasionally of the sacrifices he has made for them. This seems to be the sense of the paternal prerogative which Lear has carried with him through life and into the play. Now, as the play opens, he, finds himself in the position of having to give them all more strenuously and conspicuously than usual. He inflicts his generosity upon them with a show of power which betrays his sense of the weakness of his position.

We can feel this in the tortuous politics of his darker purpose, and in the tactical impulse behind the words with which he calls into play a third set of rivals.

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? That we our largest bounty may extend Where nature doth with merit challenge.

Not, "which of you doth say you love us most," but "which of you shall we say doth love us most?"—the judgment and the reward will be his to confer, and will be arbitrarily determined by what he decides to say. Furthermore, their expressions of love are compromised in advance by the nature of his request, since he is asking them to show how amorous they are, not so much for him as for his land. Again, the rivalry cuts two ways: his daughters are to compete with each other, and he is now competing with them. If they want to strip him of his power, they will have to pay for it by risking a humiliating posture—sitting up and begging, crowing for cheese. And the bargain he offers is so unequal—all that land and power for a little rhetorical fluff—that they will suffer the wound of his vigorous charity for years to come. The terms of his divestiture are therefore in the nature of a challenge thrown down to his children.

For Goneril and Regan the psychological outlook is more hopeless than for Cordelia, because Lear's challenge to them is more specious. Why are their doweries withheld until after their marriages, while Cordelia's is to be given before hers? Kittredge and the Cambridge New Shakespeare editors tell us this means the older daughters must have been recently married. This may be so, but later, when Lear says "I gave you all," Regan replies "and in good time you gave it" (2.4.252). Setting aside the Fool's favorite theme—the folly of giving away his land—the question posed by his preferential treatment is, why did he do it in this particular manner? On the face of it, his darker purpose was to give Cordelia the most opulent third of the kingdom and then, should that draw in exchange the vines of France or milk of Burgundy, move in with Cordelia so as to take advantage of his largest bounty combined with that of his new son-in-law: "I loved her most and thought to set my rest / On her kind nursery." Stanley Cavell suggests that part of Lear's strategy may have been "to put Cordelia into the position of being denied her dowry, so that he will not lose her in marriage."1 But even if he cannot prevent her marrying, he can give her in such a way as to get her back again by competing with her husband for her attention, and conferring on her the offices of the nursery—becoming his own grandson, outwitting death, i.e., making her his mother during his second childhood. None of this, however, required the particular strategy unfolded during the first scene. Having flaunted his power by withholding their dowries, Lear with gratuitous cruelty plans to use, deceive, and humiliate Goneril and Regan in order to accentuate Cordelia's triumph and his partiality. Beneath the surface, then, his darker purpose seems to be to play on everyone's curiosity, stir up as much envy and contention as he can among the "younger strengths" with the aim of dominating and dividing them, humbling and punishing them.

Lear's behavior in this scene displays an ambivalence which is barely under control, and of which he can scarcely be unaware. Consider, for example, the words with which he reassigns Cordelia's portion to the other two sons-in-law:

Cornwall and Albany, With my two daughters' dowers digest the third; Let pride, which she calls plainness, marry her. I do invest you jointly with my power, Pre-eminence, and all the large effects That troop with majesty. Ourself, by monthly course, With reservation of an hundred knights By you to be sustain'd, shall our abode Make with you by due turn. Only we shall retain The name and all th 'addition to a king; the sway, Revenue, execution of the rest, Beloved sons, be yours: which to confirm, This coronet part between you.

His act of giving quickly turns into a new imposition when the power and large effects that troop with majesty materialize in the next sentence as his hundred knights. What he bestows in one line he takes away in another. His beloved land-hungry sons are first invited to gorge their appetites on Cordelia's portion. At the end Lear invites them to part—and thus, no doubt, to fight over—the coronet.

In this scene, then, he formally renounces power and property primarily with the intention of keeping informal control over them. As if afraid that the slow crawl toward death will inevitably leave him helpless, he tries to divide others, and lay them under obligation, against the time when he will no longer be able to deploy the political and psychological resources of kingship and fatherhood. By diversting himself of power he can hope to forestall or inhibit the more absolute divestiture he fears at the hands of others.


Lear's darker purpose is complicated and confused by an unruly range of feelings, but Shakespeare does not let the truth of his situation escape the old king any more than it escapes us. There is a still darker purpose under Lear's arbitrary and willful behavior, dark even to him but certainly not absent from his consciousness. As I said, he can hardly be unaware of the implications of his behavior—unaware that his giving was a form of taking; his paternal kindness a form of hostility; his renunciation an effort to retain his power; his retention of power a response to the terror of the impotency of old age. Cavell observes that Lear felt unworthy of love, and S. L. Goldberg agrees that he "needs others' respect in order to respect himself," and that "the very urgency of this need betrays the fear behind it—-which is a form not of self ignorance, but rather of self-mistrust, as if he cannot believe . . . in his mere self as worth the love and respect it needs."2

To this insight I add one qualification: the source of his fear and need must lie in patterns of feeling, behavior, and relationship that pre-date the opening scene of the play. This is implicit in Goldberg's fine appraisal of Goneril, though he does not make enough of it. When Goneril says "let me still take away the harms I fear, / Not fear still to be taken" (1.4.339-400), she may be merely rationalizing, but the confidential remarks she and Regan exchange at the end of the opening scene would support the thesis that in her case apprehension genuinely cuts both ways: apprehension as the desire to take (ap-prehend) is a function of apprehension as the fear of being taken. I agree with Goldberg that Goneril is more than "a hypocritical ingrate." She knows Lear's heart, he argues, "in the only terms in which he has given it to her," and his behavior partly justifies her fears. Her response to the world is primarily defensive: "the control visible in Goneril's speech is the kind necessary to keep the world at bay, as though she could not cope with her experience of it otherwise." She "can see personal relationships only as power-relationships" (pp. 104-106). Since he is describing Goneril's "moral outlook" and its expression in her speech patterns—in tone, imagery, and rhythm—Goldberg would seem to be dealing with relatively stable aspects of her character, which raises the question he never quite asks, "how did she get that way?", a question leading directly to Lear. For isn't her defensiveness ultimately the mirror and consequence of his? It must be an index to his habitual, not merely his recent, behavior; an index to a chronic rather than a critical problem of relationship. Goneril reveals Lear's basic approach to his children, to paternity and filiality, by her reflection of it. If he too has always treated "personal relationships . . . as power-relationships" from some basic fear, and has at the same time proclaimed his love and generosity, then he must be more the cause of her reaction to him than he is willing to admit. Where he differs from her is that the harm he fears comes as much from within himself as from others. "He has it in him so much nearer home, to scare himself with his own desert places," to paraphrase Robert Frost's description of the feeling. Even the weakest twinge of recognition, the dimmest sense of his complicity, could have brought home to him the reason for, the justness of, his suspicion that he was unloved—the sense, that is, that he had never truly loved his children, that he had always used his paternal authority to command, demand, tease, and humiliate, that the hypocrisy of Goneril and Regan only reflected his own ambivalence in wanting to be flattered while having no respect for, no trust in, the flatterers. I find him quite openly showing contempt for his daughters and behaving otherwise in a manner calculated to make his court and family despise him. I think that in hurting and punishing Cordelia he is trying to hurt and punish himself, as if he finds out too late that he is the one who should have studied deserving and who, if he is genuinely loved, is under an obligation he could never, given his paternal premises, repay. Some of these feelings, in all their confusion, press into the flamboyant statement with which he unfathers Cordelia at 1.1.116:

The barbarous Scythian Or he that makes his generation messes To gorge his appetite, shall to my bosom Be as well neighbor'd, pitied, and reliev'd, As thou my sometime daughter.

Commentators point out that "generation" can mean either parents or children; both are potentially cannibalistic: in the Scythian mode of relationship each generation views the other apprehensively as a source of danger and of food. Against Lear's intention to liken Cordelia to the Scythian, the phrase likens the Scythian to Lear. It works as unintended self-caricature, and its hyperbolic quality measures the pressure of displacement. Doesn't Lear neighbor, pity, and relieve himself in doing and saying this to Cordelia? And doesn't he, equally, hate himself for it? In turning his hate outward toward Cordelia and the Scythian, he goes on doing precisely the thing that will feed self-mistrust, the suspicion of his own unworthiness.

In the first scene, Lear seems on the verge of forcing others to make him acknowledge not so much what they really think about him, but what he has always thought about them, and therefore—by a kind of recoil—about himself. The darkest purpose, the one he keeps deflecting outward, can only be called self-retribution and self-wounding; the impulse to suffer the pain he obscurely but deeply feels he deserves, to bring on himself the judgment which alone "can tell me who I am" (1.4.238). If successful, the urge to self-retribution would have made this scene an awakening toward genuine, though possibly unbearable self-knowledge. But Lear cannot let this happen, and he spends the rest of the play trying continually to regain (or remain in) the sleep of self-deception which the darkest purpose continually impels him to renounce. He cannot bring himself to be his own judge or to risk facing the punishment he feels he deserves. Suppose that in his confusion of darker purposes he sets up the scene with Cordelia partly to encourage self-wounding through mutual rejection. In the single act by which he could keep her from a husband and lose her himself, he would both prove his jealousy to himself and punish it. But when he commits his future to his other two daughters and their husbands, he shies away from the harder task of self-judgment to the easier task of self-justification. This provides what I think is a better alternative to the conventional reading, which accedes to Lear's perspective in viewing him as the foolish victim of his two cruel daughters.

Lear knows that it is safer to make Regan and Goneril his chastisers, than Cordelia. He can more easily goad them into treating him shabbily. At the same time he can evade arousing his guilty awareness of the extent to which he has already victimized them, and he can do this by making himself their victim and making them his scapegoats. We can, then, distinguish in his speech and behavior the working-out of two purposes additional to his own consciously proclaimed "darker purpose"—by which he means dark to the others but not to him. The two I have in mind are initially both dark to him, and I shall speak of them as darker and darkest: the darker purpose moves him to aggression against others; the darkest purpose moves him to aggression against himself. The darker purpose justifies itself according to the logic of the victim's formula, "more sinned against than sinning"; the darkest purpose justifies itself according to the logic of "more sinning than sinned against." Lear quickly discovers the presence within him of the darker purpose, and its usefulness; and he puts it to work. Among its uses are its effectiveness against the efforts of the darkest purpose to make itself known. It is the darker purpose, of course, which counsels madness. At the same time, to the degree that the darker purpose is effective in this policing function, it exacerbates the darkest purpose. Aggression against others, the projective distortion of guilt feelings, is the bad faith which creates, intensifies, and festers the darkest purpose. Finally, though the darker and the darkest are cross-purposes, they may lead to the same practical effect. In Acts One and Two, Lear is moved by both together to get himself locked out of doors.

We should note, especially in 1.4 and 2.4, the extent to which Lear provoked Goneril and Regan into their aggressive and mean behavior. Not that they are blameless—far from it—but that he shares in their complicity more than he seems willing to admit. From the beginning, he makes himself an unwelcome guest, flaunts his willfulness, and in all but words dares Goneril not to throw him out. When he inflicts himself prematurely on Regan, he specifies precisely the condition which he knows will make her balk: "I can stay with Regan, / I and my hundred knights" (2.4.323). They owe him all, and he is going to do his best to demonstrate that they can't and won't pay it back; by acting unreasonably he will test their gratitude and prove it inadequate. Being turned out in the storm becomes, for him, a triumph. His decision to reject their grudging hospitality ratifies their monstrous ingratitude: "No, rather I abjure all roofs, and choose / To wage against the enmity o' th' air" (2.4.210).


In Lear's experiences on the heath and at Dover—in Acts Three and Four—the conflict of purposes grows keener, and its terms vary, as the darkest purpose presses against constraint and cries for justice. Both purposes increase their force by moving Lear to assimilate the storm to his torn state as a kind of metonymic amplifier. When Lear exhorts the great gods that run the thunderstorms to "find out their enemies now," we should try to imagine that he dimly conceives himself to be their true target, and that he is addressing himself:

Tremble, thou wretch, That hast within thee the undivulged crimes, Unwhipp'd of Justice; hide thee, thou bloody hand, Thou perjur'd, and thou simular of virtue That art incestuous; caitiff, to pieces shake, That under covert and convenient seeming Has practis'd 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.


This may be felt as a generalized apostrophe to such wretches as his daughters and sons-in-law, yet the details reflect Lear's own condition more accurately. The image is melodramatic, hyperbolic, and simplistic, reducing the figure of evil to an outright stage villain, but this is partly because Lear is displacing its reference from himself to the world at large. With that crude form, he can avoid too close a fit. It is, so to speak, a systematically distorted communication to himself, at once thrusting in and fending off the sharp sword of justice. Only the subterranean pressure of self-retribution pushing up through layers of self-avoidance can account for the magnificence, the volcanic power, of "close pent-up guilts, / Rive your concealing continents, and cry / These dreadful summoners grace." But the power spends itself, or he rushes from it in terror toward the safety of the victim's plight: "I am a man / More sinn'd against than sinning." In his next utterance, after saying "My wits begin to turn," he urges the Fool into the hovel, thinks of straw to avert the cold, and muses, "the art of our necessities is strange, / And can make vile things precious." I read this according to the logic of the darker purpose: the necessities are those of self-avoidance; the art by which we keep our guilts pent-up can make these vile or base (lower-class) discomforts important to us as diversions from more terrible thoughts. The stormy heath is the immediate provider of these diversions, but only as an extension of the monstrous ingratitude of Lear's daughters. For it is by targeting on their cruelty to him that he can divert himself from his cruelty to them.

This process continues in the second heath scene, 3.4. Kent has been badgering Lear to take shelter in the hovel, and Lear's responses initially betray a certain confusion in his attitude toward the meaning of the storm. First he protests that it does not bother him, "is scarce felt," and in fact provides a distraction from the "greater malady" of "filial ingratitude," the tempest in his mind that "doth from my senses take all feeling else." Weathering the storm is an alternative to this, the lesser of two evils: "if thy flight lay toward the roaring sea, / Thou 'ldst meet the bear i' th' mouth."

Yet even as he pauses to define filial ingratitude at line 15, his language betrays itself: "Is it not as this mouth should tear this hand / For lifting food to 't?" The immediate impulse of meaning comes from Lear's sense of himself as the victimized feeder. But the deeper impulse shapes an image in which feeder and fed are one, and thus in which filial ingratitude is the projected or displaced version of self-inflicted suffering. As if in response to this, the darker purpose pushes the punitive impulse outward:

But I will punish home: No, I will weep no more. In such a night To shut me out? Pour on; I will endure.

Here the relation between inner and outer storms changes—they become functionally related complements rather than alternatives: since exposure to the storm is the result of his daughters' ingratitude, enduring the elements only intensifies his sense of their cruelty. The elements and his daughters converge; to brave the weather is to stand up to Regan and Goneril and prove to himself that they have not yet deprived him of manliness or potency. Yet this feeling is immediately challenged at line 19 by the self-image of the helpless undeserving victim:

In such a night as this? O Regan, Goneril! Your kind old father, whose frank heart gave all,— O! that way madness lies; let me shun that; No more of that.

Madness will be induced by dwelling on his plight as victim and dotard rather than on his power and endurance, but in either case the tempest in the mind feeds on the physical storm. Hence Lear's confusion (and ours) takes still another turn when he refuses Kent's fourth prompting to "enter here" with

Prithee, go in thyself; seek thine own ease: This tempest [the physical storm] will not give me leave to ponder On things would hurt me more. But I'll go in.

The storm deepens the wound caused by filial ingratitude. What things would hurt him more? The answer is not difficult, and Lear's next speech contains it in distorted form.

Lear delays entering the hovel, sends the Fool ahead of him, begins a meditation with a personifying apostrophe ("You houseless poverty,—"), and interrupts it to urge the Fool in, while he explains, "I'll pray, and then I'll sleep." This is his prayer:

Poor naked wretches, whereso'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.

On the face of it, this is an attempt to shun the madness self-pity might bring on by abjuring the victim's role, converting wretchedness to fellow feeling, and imagining a scenario in which suffering will lead to wisdom and improvement when (presumably) the king regains his power. But the lines of connection between this scenario and Lear's past and future are tenuous in the extreme. We suddenly hear that Lear has neglected the poor, which has comically little to do with what has been going on since the play's opening; and we hear him making what sounds like a suggestion for better housing and other economic reforms. Except for the echo of the theme of land distribution, these reflections are conspicuously irrelevant, and also reductive—to define his problem in terms of poverty and bad weather makes it both impertinent and easy to deal with. Pomp and Poverty are personifications in a morality play which ends happily with the triumph of poetic and political justice. Does all this mean that Lear is only—as T. S. Eliot once said about Othello—cheering himself up? Does he really imagine he can reassume the power of Pomp and redistribute goods as energetically as he had tried to "shake all cares and business from our age"?

It may seem that Lear is losing his grip on reality, but in a certain sense he is tightening it, trying to keep reality under control and out of sight. If we ask ourselves what persons or situations in the play this "prayer" calls to mind, two candidates present themselves: the effects, invoked and desired by Lear, of his banishment of Cordelia and Kent. In its evasive manner the prayer takes account of sentiments and phrases uttered in the anger of the first scene, e.g.: "Here I disclaim all my paternal care" (114); "The barbarous Scythian . . . shall . . . be as well neighbor'd, pitied, and reliev'd" (116-19); "now her price is fallen" (197); "Dower'd with our curse and stranger'd with our oath" (204); "a wretch whom Nature is asham'd / Almost t'acknowledge hers" (212-13); also the epithets Lear heard France apply to Cordelia—poor, forsaken, despis'd, cast away (250-53).

With this scene in mind, the conspicuous irrelevance of Lear's prayer comes to seem more like conspicuous evasion. The prayer is a skewed reference to the plight he wished for Cordelia—to his "little care"—and a skewed acknowledgement that he is ultimately responsible for his own houselessness as well as hers; it is also a muffled expression of hope that, by inflicting a similar physical punishment on himself, he will somehow be in the position to undo the wrong, and redistribute his land according to his original plan. "Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel" may merely command a new view, ex post facto, a new rationalization of the lockout Lear goaded his other daughters into imposing on him. But the degree of distortion or displacement in the prayer is an index of the pressure of guilt. His apostrophe, with its pluralizing, generalizing, and personifying force, and his focus on houselessness rather than homelessness, register both the effort of avoidance and the self-accusing truth from which he flinches.

Lear tries by verbal magic to grasp the power he feels deprived of, yet at the same time, as additional insurance, he keeps open the option of stepping into the role of wretched victim. "Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel" can mean two things: either (1) expose yourself to the feelings of wretches, share their feelings, or (2) expose yourself to the storm in order to feel what wretches feel, i.e., stay out of doors and get pelted, a course of action which by occasioning wretchedness would sustain his wrath against his daughters and keep him from pondering on things which would hurt him more. And this is in fact the exposure he courts. He does not "pray, and then . . . sleep" in the sense of going into the hovel to retire. But his prayer seems figuratively to be an effort to put his guilt to sleep. His displacement of guilt with respect to Cordelia seems to me to be fairly obvious. Does he also feel uneasy about Regan and Goneril? H. A. Mason thinks we cannot be sure whether Lear in this scene "had begun to see himself as in some way responsible for their treatment of him."3 Yet we should not rule out the possibility that the intensity and extraordinary richness of the rhetoric of displacement is meant to alert us to the continual regenerating of the darkest purpose—this is the boomerang or backlash effect. If in these scenes Lear is—in Mason's words—"play-acting humility," "enjoying the spectacle he imagines he is offering," "posturing" and "spouting" (p. 159), he must also be uncomfortably aware of this—aware of the pressure if not the nature of the darkest purpose of genuine self-condemnation beneath his facile, misdirected "I have ta'en / Too little care of this." "In a ghostly way," as Mason nicely puts it, "Lear's evil now begins to confess" (p. 159).

The evil, the darkest purpose, confesses in less ghostly fashion in 4.6. In his diatribes against hypocrisy, lechery, woman, authority, and justice, he re-aims once again from his own complicity to the corrupt world where an egregious good man like himself is the victim of usurers, cozeners, and flatterers. But self-reproach keeps pushing up toward the surface: "Ay, every inch a king" gives way to "a dog's obey'd in office." After having verbally whipped "yond simpering dame" for her "riotous appetite," he tells the "rascal beadle" to hold his hand: "Why dost thou lash that whore? Strip thine own back." Having re-cast its aggression in the form of cynical philosophizing, the darker purpose defends against such efforts at self-judgment by distorting them to self-pity (a dog in office), or merely by its generalizing context. "None does offend, none, I say, none; I'll able 'em" (4.6.170). Like the Savior, Lear in his crown of weeds will protect the adulteress (John viii.3-11) by daring sinners to throw the first stone. "Take that of me, my friend, who have the power / To seal th' accuser's lips." But his next words come dangerously close to being a critique of his own performance in this scene—a critique of the darker purpose which has made Lear the world's accuser: "Get thee glass eyes; / And, like a scurvy politician, seem / To see the things thou dost not." Extricated from its concealing continents, the sub-text would read something like this: "I cannot cast the first stone since, looking within myself, I know myself sinful; playing the critic, the savior, only magnifies the sin. Rather than be my own accuser, I would prefer to seal my lips and blind myself by pretending to see deep flaws in human nature and society. In this way I can escape from the conscience that hunts me down." Lear then says, "Now, now, now, now; / Pull off my boots; harder, harder; so." He goes on to offer Gloucester his eyes "if thou wilt weep my fortunes," and to preach the patience that comes from knowing the world is a place for tears, a "great stage of fools." "Pull off my boots" has been glossed as the command of one who imagines he has come from hunting, and it also echoes the impulse worded in 3.4 as "off, off, you lendings"—the impulse to strip himself of what he has borrowed and owes in order to free himself from his conscience. So, in the effort to stop hunting himself down, he offers Gloucester his glass eyes, solicits his sympathy, and advocates the patience needed to tolerate the sins and follies of others.

The effort, however, does not quite succeed:

This' a good block! It were a delicate strategem 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!

"This' a good block!": "this is a good hat" is the commentators' first choice for an adequate translation, and their second is, "this is a good mounting block," that is, for a horse. He might want to put his boots back on so he can pursue his sons-in-law instead of himself, or keep them off so he can sneak up on them. But I think a third translation also makes sense here: "this is a good execution block." He takes off his crown of weeds to offer his head to the ax. The three blocks converge: he is, confusedly, the murderous avenger, the sacrificial victim of an unjust world, and—taking off his crown—the sinner acknowledging the justice of his punishment (a good block); and perhaps he also longs wearily to have done with it—"off, off, you lendings." But Cordelia's men intervene to rescue him from that escape. He is cut to the brains, but not dead. He is the prisoner of friends who are yet his enemies because they represent the accuser within ("Your most dear daughter"). Elbowed by a sovereign shame, he flinches toward the victim's role ("the natural fool of Fortune") and asks for help. He tries to diminish the threat Cordelia poses by imagining that she is capturing him simply to get ransom money—coming not to do him any kindness but to claim what is rightly hers, what he owes her and withheld. And if that is the case, he can at least use her surgeons to cure his cut brains and restore him to a stronger state of self-delusion.

This mutual exchange will free them both of obligation. But Cordelia's spokesman thwarts this game: "You shall have any thing"—she will give him all; and after he gave her nothing. "No seconds? all myself?"—an unequal fight. Let him die rather than live on in torturing self-accusation, the captivity imposed by Cordelia. Let him confront her, fight her, make her kill him. Let her be, not the daughter he has injured but the bride who comes to unman him, corrupt him, betray him, if he lives beyond the first night. Let him finish the ax-cut by dying in a manly act, a jovial incestuous attack that will flaunt his worthlessness. Cordelia's spokesman agrees—"we obey you"—and twists him forcibly back toward life and consciousness, denying him the accusation or the death he wants. Lear runs away to escape from Cordelia but runs away to make her capture him again; fleeing yet calling the hounds ("sa, sa, sa, sa"), he demands once more to be hunted down.


It is to be expected that when Lear faces Cordelia the darker purpose will recoil from its pole of aggression to the pole of helplessness in order to defend against the power of the darkest purpose which her presence energizes. In 4.7 the darker purpose tries to manage Cordelia's responses in this manner. "You do me wrong to take me out o' th' grave," he begins; "thou art a soul in bliss; but I am bound / Upon a wheel of fire": "I am already dead and being punished for my sins, while you are no longer suffering from the wrong I've done you." He continues to appeal to her pity for his precarious condition: "I am a very foolish fond old man"; "I fear I am not in my perfect mind." It is as if, fearing he deserves more stringent punishment, he shrinks away from it, tries to forestall it. On the verge of facing the truth and giving up all claims on his daughter, he divests himself of manhood and becomes the childish dotard so as to maintain or regain mastery of the relationship, to re-impose the bond which his action in 1.1 had canceled.

But what about Cordelia in this scene? Has she no darker purpose? Is she as pure a redemptive figure as those about her believe? Does she entirely escape the play of darker purposes circulating through the Lear community? I think not, and I approach her performance in the first scene with a purely speculative hypothesis. This is, that the thought of Lear's setting his rest on her kind nursery (a heavy phrase! a heavy rest!) must surely be oppressive to her, though she is not likely to admit it to herself; that she would like to break free of the parental bondage, get out from under, though she is not likely to admit that to herself either; that if she could find a way to do it which wouldn't jeopardize her self-respect and her sense of obligation to Lear, she would be likely to take it; and that she does find a way, and does take it.

Cordelia's first two speeches are interesting in that both are asides, and both reveal by their use of the third person that she self-consciously observes herself—possesses a strong theatrical sense of her image and role. After Goneril's speech "What shall Cordelia speak? Love, and be silent." And after Regan's:

Then poor Cordelia! And yet not so; since I am sure my love's More ponderous than my tongue.

The first aside may be construed as a stage direction to herself: given this overblown rhetoric of Goneril's, how shall / respond. I shall do the opposite of Goneril, hide my love, and say nothing ("nothing, my lord"). The decision is made partly on competitive grounds. But something more clearly defined emerges after Regan's speech: "Then poor Cordelia." Already she senses the value of the victim's role. "And yet not so; since I am sure my love's / More ponderous than my tongue." In some better world than this, her virtue might be rewarded, but here it will have to be its own reward, her only riches, for Cinderella is sure to go unappreciated when Father listens to her wicked sisters. Glancing critically at Regan's heavy tongue, Cordelia displays a concern for style, and especially for her own style, her own presentation of self, in this difficult moment. She competes not only with her sisters—"unhappy that I am, I cannot heave / My heart into my mouth"—but also with her father: "I love your Majesty / According to my bond; no more nor less." And in exposing the extravagance of her sisters' answers she also exposes her father to ridicule.

Some of the pressure which works on her is apparent in the following remark:

Happily, 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.


Bradley observes that this statement "perverts the truth when it implies that to give love to a husband is to take it from a father."4 But this tells us that Cordelia has somehow accepted her father's view. Even as she distinguishes the role of daughter from that of wife, she slips into the marriage formula. She acknowledges the father's right to compete with the husband but feels it oppressive and strains away from it; she will have to wrest her love away from her father. This is her plight.

From line 223 until the royal entourage leaves the stage, Cordelia is caught in a losing struggle to sustain her dignity. "Make known," she says to Lear, "publish the fact," that it is no "vicious blot," no wickedness, "that hath depriv'd me of your grace and favor, / 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." Lear's renouncing his paternity only proves to her how faulty his judgment is, and how genuine her virtue. He should have recognized that she is much better than her sisters, and she wants him to publish this truth, tell everyone he has undervalued her. Much later, at 4.4.16, there is a displaced echo that reminds me of this sentiment and suggests how deeply Cordelia has been troubled by Lear's failure to make her virtue known: "All you unpublish'd virtues of the earth, / Spring with my tears." She will be able, she hopes, to cure him, and with the very virtues he refused to acknowledge.

When Burgundy rejects Cordelia, she responds with spirit, and saves face by acting as if she had a choice in the matter; "Peace be with Burgundy! / Since that respect and fortunes are his love, / I shall not be his wife." But France immediately diminishes her by dwelling on his largesse and her good fortune, indulging nice antitheses at her expense: Cordelia is "most rich, being poor, most choice, forsaken, and most loved, despised." France will lawfully seize upon "what's cast away," no doubt invoking the law of salvage. We may feel that Cordelia has brought this on herself by her commitment to the victim's role; that like Lear she wants to renounce, without really renouncing, the name and additions of daughter. But surely France's condescension must rankle. This is what Lear has brought her to. And so, when she bids her sisters farewell, we not only feel an edge of bitterness, we also hear a trace of vindictiveness:

I know you what you are; And like a sister am most loth to call Your faults as they are named. Love well our father: To your professed bosoms I commit him; But yet alas! stood I within his grace, I would prefer him to a better place.

In asserting her moral superiority Cordelia is not entirely accurate, for she has already, and publicly, called their faults as they are named: "that glib and oily art / To speak and purpose not," "A still-soliciting eye, and such a tongue / That I am glad I have not" (224ff). Knowing what her sisters are, Cordelia nevertheless commits her father to them. It is, after all, his own fault and folly that he has deprived himself of "a better place." And then she utters the couplet which I find all the more chilling for its aphoristic bite: "Time shall unfold what plighted cunning hides; / Who covers faults, at last with shame derides." Cordelia is predicting the inevitable results to follow from her sisters' evil dispositions. But the gnomic form of the statement generalizes it, and increases its sense of predictive certainty: whoever cover his own faults, refuses to acknowledge his complicity, is finally exposed and shamed—not only to and by others, but to and by himself: when he finally acknowledges his own guilt he will deride and hate himself, be ashamed. In generalized form this is applicable to Lear. And what Cordelia's words imply is that by their bad treatment her sisters will bring him to uncover his faults and be exposed to shame. Whatever she consciously intends, her action commits Lear to his other daughters for the punishment he deserves. Cordelia will ultimately be vindicated by the effects of their punishment, without herself having any hand in it. They will do the bad things that will bring Lear to realize how he has mistreated and misprized the daughter who loved him most.

As I read her performance in this scene, then, Cordelia, for reasons of her own—not all of them available to her—accepted Lear's challenge, asserted her merit over against his nature-in-her, and by her stonewalling helped him bring on her plight. At the same time she helped Lear commit himself to her sisters' professed bosoms, after which Lear (with Kent's aid) worked with Regan and Goneril to bring out the worst in them. Yet nowhere in the play does Cordelia—or do her words—show the slightest recognition of her complicity in this skewing of relationships. When she returns in the fourth act her language remains—unlike Lear's—pure of conflicting voices, although there may be a touch of uneasiness in the way she carefully rehearses her good intentions in 4.4.23: "O dear father! It is thy business that I go about . . . No blown ambition doth our arms incite, / But love, dear love, and our ag'd father's right." This seems to me to be part of her persistent habit of publishing her unpublished virtues, and I find it disarmingly ingenuous that she has to protest she was not blown across from France by political ambition. But I also find a touch of smugness in her echoing the words of Christ (my father's business), and this is of a piece with other indications in her Dover scenes that she is here as a merciful redeemer, one who was more sinned against than sinning but has forgiven her tormenters and now returns to restore them from their crimes and woes. She joins others in viewing herself this way, and she also joins Lear in harping on the violent wrongs her two sisters did by throwing him out of doors into the terrible storm. In blaming her sisters for their treatment of him, she effectively blames Lear for bringing his misery on himself by failing to acknowledge her unpublished virtues.

With this background, Cordelia's performance in 4.7 and 5.3 takes on a more complex quality. To begin with S. L. Goldberg's good insight about the partial nature of her response:

However deeply moving and necessary is the truth of Cordelia's "no cause, no cause" . . . this is still not the whole of the truth . . . What happened in the first scene and has happened since is . . . also real. Lear has something to feel guilty about . . . Nor, for that matter, is he wholly a "poor perdu," a victim, as Cordelia supposes. His face was not just "oppos'd against the warring winds," it was urging them on. (pp. 32-33)

In the speech Goldberg alludes to, Cordelia reviles her two sisters for the violent harms they have made in his reverence, and she does so in the most Lear-like language she uses:

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? To stand against the deep dread-bolted thunder? In the most terrible and nimble stroke Of quick, cross-lightning? to watch—poor perdu!— With this thin helm? Mine enemy's dog, Though he had bit me, should have stood that night Against my fire.


This speech forgets, or at some level denies "To your professed bosoms I commit him"; it shelters under the rhetoric which characterized Lear's aggressive darker purpose on the heath. A sentinelle perdu, according to G. K. Hunter, "was an especially daring soldier who was placed . . . so close to the enemy that he was considered lost."5 If Regan and Goneril are the enemy, who placed him there? Lear, all by himself? I think 4.7 is so poignant partly because of Cordelia's moving concern for Lear, the love she shows him in her careful tendance of his "reverence." At the same time, I think she has triumphantly refined the victim's role to a Christ-like perfection, and she has done this by denying, by rising above, the cause: "I know you do not love me . . . You have some cause." "No cause, no cause." But she did have a share in the cause he gave her; ignoring what he did is ignoring what she did. And this may be the only way the reunion can take place—its condition; its cost. And in Act 5, her one brief speech indicates that the cause is not simply forgotten, but still there to be denied, for both of them.


"The Final scene," writes Stanley Cavell, "opens with Lear and Cordelia repeating or completing their actions in the opening scene: again Lear abdicates, and again Cordelia loves and is silent."6 Her words are oddly formal, aphoristic, remote—and these are her last words in the play.

We are not the first Who, with best meaning, have incurr'd the worst. For thee, oppressed King, I am cast down; Myself could else out-frown false Fortune's frown. Shall we not see these daughters and these sisters?

She moves into couplets with the old consolation (more sinned against than sinning) but by now we may be able to hear the sub-text more clearly in the active shading of "incurr'd": "we aren't the first who have made the worst happen—brought it on ourselves and others—while intending the best." "Oppressed King" in the next line has the force of a tactful oxymoron—balancing his dignity against his plight—yet Cordelia's practice of addressing Lear only by his royal titles in the reunion scene seems less positive and affectionate here, a little too cool. She might have ventured something warmer, like "Dear Father." And the sentence reverbs an unintended sentiment. She means to say, "I'm sorrier for you than for myslf," but the phrase also incurs a worse meaning: "I have been cast down on your account, defeated and imprisoned because I came to relieve your oppression." And her question about seeing her sisters adds a specific sense to the previous line. She wants to outface her false sisters' frowns; she would remind the jewels of her father that she knows what they are, and that, as she predicted, time did unfold what plighted cunning hid. Her lines reveal the same competitive impulse we saw in 1.1, and we remember that she was competing then with Lear as well as her sisters. Now, as Cavell suggests, she wants to repeat or complete that episode and bid her sisters a morally triumphant farewell before going once more into a kind of exile from the world.

Lear prevents this reunion and banishes her again, this time to the cell of the smug bridegroom, giving her a share in his latest renunciation. The oppressed king becomes oppressive, and imposes his old fantasy on her (Cavell, p. 297), but in a more constraining form, now that he has finally succeeded in displacing France: "We two alone will sing like birds i' th' cage," fulfills the hope expressed in "I lov'd her most, and thought to set my rest / On her kind nursery." (1.1.123). His touching description of the life he projects for them betrays his awareness of the life she'll be deprived of: we'll 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 thus, as God's spies, "we'll wear out . . . packs and sects of great ones." He promises to repeat the propitiating gesture of 4.7—kneeling and asking forgiveness—but that will only be part of the ritual by which he forgives himself for preempting her from life. "Upon such sacrifices, my Cordelia, / The Gods themselves throw incense. Have I caught thee? / He that parts us shall bring a brand from heaven, and fire us hence like foxes." Edmund had just said, "Take them away," but Lear's "He that parts us" embraces friend and foe indifferently, and by no means excludes France. The sacrifices he enjoins have been, are, and will be mostly hers. He has caught her by running away from himself and making her run after him. And he is still running away, yet still urging on the hounds of heaven.

We never learn how Cordelia feels about being caught. Edmund tells us that he ordered the captain to hang her and "lay the blame upon her own despair" (5.3.253), but this does not quite reassure us that though she didn't hang herself she was not in despair. When Lear comes onstage with Cordelia's body immediately after, all these considerations bear in on us, as they do on him. It has been said that in this final scene he is caught between his knowledge that she is dead and his inability to accept it. Yet this does not quite square with the fluctuations his words express, nor is it adequate to the complex weight of feeling and responsibility he must now be suffering under. What he does is to make sure she is dead before bringing her back to life; he controls her return, and he sends her back again to death:

She's gone for ever. I know when one is dead, and when one lives; She's dead as earth. Lend me a looking-glass; If that her breath will mist or stain the stone, Why, then she lives.

This feather stirs; she lives! if it be so, It is a chance which does redeem all sorrows That ever I have felt.

A plague upon you, murderers, traitors all! I might have sav'd her; now she's gone for ever! Cordelia, Cordelia! stay a little. Ha! What is't thou say'st? Her voice was ever soft, Gentle and low, an excellent thing in woman. I killed the slave that was a-hanging thee.

"She's gone for ever" looks back toward Lear's proscription in the first scene: "Thou hast her, France; let her be thine, for we / Have no such daughter, nor shall we ever see / That face of hers again" (1.1.262). To have banished her to France was the first step in her banishment from life, and to have caught her in prison was the second step. He forgets this for a brief instant to grasp at "a chance which does redeem all sorrows," but Kent's interruption brings him back to himself, and also back, confusedly, to the first scene to listen again to Cordelia's "nothing, my Lord." Now his defenses return, he curses the sinners who might have helped him save her, puts her back to death, and revives her just long enough to reinterpret, or misinterpet, her "nothing" with a tonally bizarre statement, a statement which is at once an evasive explanation of his failure to hear her, and a courtly epitaph: "Her voice was ever soft, / Gentle and low, an excellent thing in woman"—as if to say, "the reason I misunderstood her was that she spoke softly and gently when I was asking for loud and clear protestations of love, and she could have given me that, or you traitors could have helped save her by speaking up for her. But no; the blame is mine, not hers; an excellent thing in woman." This touch of connoisseurship returns him to the role of her manly protector, which dissolves at once into self-protection: "I killed the slave that was a-hanging thee"—partly a brag, but partly also a defensive response to the accusing presence he imagines: "I did the best I could, and if it wasn't good enough, it's because I'm old"—which evokes the "I am old and foolish" of 4.7. Lear cannot shake the presence off, as the third person gives way to the second, and the past tense to the present. He can exorcise her, consign her to oblivion, only by dying. "Thou'lt come no more, / Never, never, never, never, never": is it a cry of pained recognition? or is it a judgment, a doom, a command? "Pray you, undo this button." Hearing this I think of the smug and incestuous bridegroom, but also of Lear's earlier "off, off, you lendings. Come; unbutton here" (3.4.111); another terrible effort to disencumber himself and make his conscience free, to shake all cares from his age and crawl unburdened toward death. But she will not let him. "Do you see this? Look on her, look, her lips, / Look there, look there!" What if she should wake before he dies? And waking, speak? And speaking, accuse? "For thee, oppressed King, I am cast down." And so are we.


1 "The Avoidance of Love: A Reading of King Lear," in Must We Mean What We Say? (New York: Scribner's, 1969), p. 295.

2An Essay on "King Lear" (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1974), p. 113.

3King Lear (II) Manipulating Our Sympathies," Cambridge Quarterly, 2 (1966-67), 160.

4Shakespearian Tragedy, 2nd edition (1905; rpt. New York: Macmillan, 1949), p. 321.

5King Lear, ed. G. K. Hunter (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1972), p. 298.

6 "Avoidance of Love," p. 296.


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Alexander Leggatt (essay date 1988)

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

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

One of the principal ways in which critics have sought consolation for the ending of King Lear is to note that, however much Lear has suffered, he has also learnt. Walter Stein puts it succinctly: 'The world remains what it was, a merciless, heart-breaking world. Lear is broken by it, but he has learned to love and be loved'.1 Lear in the storm, according to Robert Bechtold Heilman, 'feels compassion, acknowledges his own failures, and lessens himself in terms of divine justice; like Gloucester, he has come to a new insight'.2 The idea of Lear's progress is given a religious dimension by A. C. Bradley's suggestion that 'this poem' might be renamed 'The Redemption of King Lear',3 by G. Wilson Knight's description of the play as 'purgatorial'4 and by Irving Ribner's reference to Lear's 'spiritual rebirth'. Other critics have resisted this view.5 In the storm sequence, where Heilman finds growing wisdom, Jonathan Dollimore hears 'demented mumbling interspersed with brief insight'. Passages that for some critics are prophetic wisdom are for Dollimore 'incoherent ramblings'.6 Combatting the view that Lear learns selfessness, Barbara Everett refers to his 'love of the "pride of life" that is involved in his first mistake, and that never leaves him up to his death. He fights passionately, at his noblest, against . . . the death of self .7 In her reading, Lear is not so much reformed or redeemed as intensified. This question is bound up with the question of whether Lear's experience is the full experience of the play. In the heath scenes in particular, according to L. C. Knights, the voices of the other characters are 'part of the tormented consciousness of Lear'.8 For S. L. Goldberg, on the other hand, 'although [Lear] is at the centre of the play, neither his consciousness nor his experience comprehends all of its meaning'.9 If Lear's experience is redemptive, and is the experience of the play, we can read the play as a whole through his redemption, and take a more hopeful view of it. But if Goldberg is right, we need to remain aware of the limitations of Lear's experience, and this will prevent us from seeing even his most positive insights as the play's ultimate statements.

Shakespeare has given us a point of reference to guide our reading of Lear, in the character of Gloucester. The use of a fully developed subplot is one of the features King Lear shares with Shakespeare's comedies, and one that separates it from his other tragedies. The parallels in the experience of the two old men are obvious enough: each misjudges his children, and is betrayed where he placed his trust; each is cast out, left to wander, and finally tended by the rejected child. But Gloucester always seems to operate at a different level. While Lear, in his first scene, is guilty of 'hideous rashness' (I.i. 151), Gloucester reminisces in a jocular way about an ordinary sexual lapse. Lear grandly divides a map; Gloucester is fooled by a letter. In the confrontation between Lear and his daughters, Lear storms and rages while Gloucester tries, ineffectually, to temporise: 'I would have all well betwixt you' (II.ii. 291 [II.iv]). Under pressure his resistance to evil grows, as does Albany's; but at first there is an unstable mixture of genuine, dangerous loyalty and ordinary time-serving: 'These injuries the King now bears will be revenged home. There is part of a power already footed. We must incline to the King. . . . If I die for't—as no less is threatened me—the King my old master must be relieved' (III.iii. 11-18). We can hear his resolution growing in that speech, from the cautious 'incline' to the final 'must'. When he is tied to a chair, and set upon by Cornwall and Regan, he tries to temporise at first, then throws away his caution and attacks his tormentors with exciting courage:

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. . . .But I shall see The wingèd vengeance overtake such children.

(III.vii. 54-6, 63-4)

His own words give Cornwall his cue; Gloucester's reward for courage is to have his eyes plucked out. Even here, his experience is at a different level from Lear's. Both men suffer physical and mental torment, but the physical is uppermost in Gloucester's case, the mental in Lear's. Gloucester's mind is always clear, and once he is blind he sees a path ahead of him. For the rest of the play he seeks for death, a thought that never once enters the mind of Lear.

Gloucester himself clarifies, and moralises, his experience. In the first moments of his blindness he learns the truth about his two sons, and declares, 'O, my follies! Then Edgar was abused. / Kind gods, forgive me that, and prosper him!' (III.vii. 89-90). He is unquestionably learning, and the equation of blindness and insight could hardly be plainer. But it works, we note, at a fairly simple narrative level: he learns that Edmond has deceived him. Later, he generalises his experience as Lear does, but in a more flat and prosaic way:

I stumbled when I saw. Full oft 'tis seen Our means secure us, and our mere defects Prove our commodities.

(IV.i. 19-21)

According to Northrop Frye, 'Gloucester's is a morally intelligible tragedy' in which 'Everything can be explained'. He adds, 'But the fact that Gloucester's tragedy is morally explicable goes along with the fact that Gloucester is not the main character of the play. If we apply such formulae to Lear they give us very little comfort.'10 The deaths of the two characters are strikingly different. Lear's occurs on stage and, as we will see, none of the witnesses can think of anything adequate to say about it. Gloucester's is off stage, and Edgar can describe it in a neat paradox with no stage reality to contradict or complicate it:

his flawed heart— Alack, too weak the conflict to support— 'Twixt two extremes of passion, joy and grief, Burst smilingly.

(V.iii. 188-91)

Lear's death resists analysis, resists language itself. Gloucester's death exists for us only as an analysis, a formula created by Edgar's words.

In Gloucester, then, we see a tragedy that can be moralised, analysed, explained; and we see a figure who unquestionably learns, and who moves from blindness to pained insight and finally to joy.11 Does Gloucester's experience give us a simple and clarified version of Lear's to guide us through its greater complexity, or is it there essentially as a contrast? Those who want to see the main story as Lear's redemption will prefer the former reading. But the contrasts are so striking, and so thoroughly sustained, that we should probably look to them for a key to the relationship of the plots, and guide our reading of Lear accordingly. From the beginning, Gloucester is passive, worked on by Edmond as he will later be by Edgar. Lear is active, and precipitates his fall on his own initiative. While we first see Gloucester in an amiable man-toman chat with Kent, Lear is not just centrally placed on his throne but self-enclosed, self-absorbed. His 'Know that we have divided / In three our kingdom' (I.i. 37-8) is Lear's fiat; this is the voice of a man who is used to having his words create reality. The lovetest has a superficial air of ceremony but, whereas in a true ceremony the values of a community are expressed in a recurring occasion and a set form of words, this 'ceremony' expresses the needs and desires of one old man, the occasion is unique, and the speeches have to be made up on the spot. The principles of ceremony, and the communal stability they imply, are violated by the demands of Lear's will. As in the deposition scene in Richard II, we see the instruments of the state being untuned by the King himself. His surrender of power, however, is more apparent than real. Harry Berger, Jr, has argued that the terms of his bargain with his daughters are so one-sided—'all that land and power for a little rhetorical fluff'—that they will feel in his debt for the rest of his life; and Cordelia will have the extra burden of being 'his mother during his second childhood'.12 Lear wants, as Alan Sinfield has pointed out, something it is very difficult for an absolute monarch to have: the assurance 'that he matters personally.13 And he intends to matter politically as well. While the hero of King Leir imagines genuine retreat—'My selfe will sojorne with my sonne of Cornwall, / And take me to my prayers and my beades' (vi. 556-7)—Lear's train of a hundred knights will mean that he is always surrounded by an image of power. Even his division of the kingdom has been seen by Ralph Berry as a clever strategy of divide and conquer.14

From the beginning there is a tension in Lear between the desire to surrender—'while we / Unburdened crawl toward death' (I.i. 41-2)—and the desire to cling to power, authority and love. Yet in clinging to these things Lear violates them. Richard II gives away his office; Lear splits his down the middle, separating 'The name and all th'addition to a king' from 'The sway, / Revenue, execution' (I.i. 136-7). He is not, we should notice, abdicating. He will be a king without acting like one, leaving his sons-in-law to act like kings without being kings. He breaks the integrity of his office, not giving away his crown, like Richard, but ordering his sons-in-law, 'This crownet part between you' (I.i. 139), leaving us to wonder how such a symbol can be divided. And of course he violates the integrity of love by making it a matter of bargaining. Kingship and love both demand some capacity for surrender: of the man to the office, of the lover to the beloved. Lear, instead, demands to be king on his terms, and to be loved on his terms. Susan Snyder has compared Lear's development to the psychology of dying, which begins with denial: he 'is by no means psychologically ready to yield up power, whatever he says. . . . When he banishes Kent for defending Cordelia, he is exercising automatically, unconsciously, the royal authority he has just supposedly handed over to others'.15 Even in his act of controlled surrender, Lear in the first scene gives the impression of massive, undisciplined power. But it will not quite do to see him as 'more a magnificent portent than a man'.16 Beneath the titanic arrogance Lear is vulnerable, anxious, needing to be assured of his future, with the contradictory wants of a child: ease and power, love that is given and love that is secured by being bought. Behind his arrogance lies the simple human fear, Old Adam's fear in As You Like It of 'unregarded age in corners thrown' (II.iii. 43). And behind that in turn lies the fear of loneliness and neglect, a fear that can be felt at any age. Lear is not just a foolish old man with everything to learn: some things he knows already, though his way of reacting to that knowledge may be grotesque: that the world is a harsh place even for the powerful, that nature plays vile tricks even on kings, and that the answer is to be found in the nurture and support one gets from other people. Lear enacts, through his contrived drama of surrendering power and finding love, a grotesque parody of the experience he will undergo more seriously in the rest of the play. Monstrously foolish though it is in its context, Lear's question, 'Which of you shall we say doth love us most' (I.i. 51), is not an idle one, and the play will take some pains to give it a proper answer.

But Lear's phrasing is interesting: 'Which of you shall we say doth love us most'. The final appeal is to his own judgement. And he seems to have made up his mind already, for he expects Cordelia to give the best speech. The arithmetical logic of the first scene is that once Goneril and Regan's portions have been given out, Cordelia's is already determined. Cordelia's refusal to play the game is the first in a series of moments in which Lear's expectations are frustrated and he has a hard time finding the right reaction. Kent and France try to make him 'See better' (Li. 158), but they fail. This remains a salient feature of Lear's character throughout: not his openness to new knowledge but his titanic resistance to it. The Leir of the older play is a gentle, mild old man: 'But he, the myrrour of mild patience, / Puts up all wrongs, and never gives reply' (viii. 755-6). When his older daughters turn against him he slips away quietly, unnoticed, in a manner very different from the stormy exits of Shakespeare's Lear. As Shakespeare seems to have created his play's theology (such as it is) by reacting against the sentimental piety of the earlier play, so he seems to have created his hero by reversing the earlier one. Lear's manner in the early scenes is tough and ironic. He appreciates the gruff, self-deprecating humour of the disguised Kent and matches it with his own: 'If thou be'st as poor for a subject as he's for a king, thou'rt poor enough' (I.iv. 21-2). The exchange between the two men displays a style of masculine plain dealing in which Lear is relaxed and self-assured. Above all, he seems to enjoy the speed of their exchange. He likes fast decisions, for he does not like to dwell on a subject. It is the slow oily politeness of Goneril that drives him frantic.

At first he simply refuses to see what is happening. The 'great abatement of kindness' his knight perceives becomes in Lear's mind 'a most faint neglect' (I.iv. 58, 66). When he cannot reinterpret, he denies. Confronted with the sight of Kent in the stocks, he refuses to believe it has happened: 'They durst not do't, / They could not, would not do't' (II.ii. 199-200 [II.iv]). In a variation on the play's own technique of visual contradiction, Lear simply refuses to believe what his eyes, and ours, see all too plainly. When he cannot deny the facts he still has trouble learning from them. The way Goneril and Regan have turned against him should have told him something about the quantifying of love that has brought him to this pass; but he will not learn. Trying to assure himself of Regan's love, he puts his clinching argument last:

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 endowed.

(II.ii. 350-4 [II.iv])

His first appeal is to the established and natural connections of the family, which Cordelia invoked in the first scene: 'I love your majesty / According to my bond' (Li. 92-3). In this view, to violate family ties is to violate a fixed arrangement that should not depend on individual wills. But Lear, in the first scene, was not willing to let his daughters' love rest on that basis: he needed a guarantee he had devised himself. And it is to that guarantee, 'Thy half o'the kingdom', that he finally appeals. We see him not advancing towards insight but retreating from it. As he clings desperately to the quantifying, bargain-striking view of love, his expression of it becomes increasingly grotesque: 'Thy fifty yet doth double five and twenty, / And thou art twice her love' (II.ii. 43-4 [II.iv]). It is as though Lear is trying to prove to himself that his system works, by stating it in its most absurd form and continuing stubbornly to believe in it.

When he tries to debate with his daughters, Lear's argument breaks down just as it is approaching its climax:

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— You heavens, give me that patience, patience

I need. (II.ii. 438-45 [II.iv])

The first part of the speech moves confidently, but when Lear tries to define 'true need' he breaks off and veers away from his point. He is in fact defending the superfluity, the trappings that deck unaccommodated man, which he himself will reject when he sees Poor Tom. As he describes Regan's garments his actual contempt for this superfluity begins to show through, and he seems about to distinguish between material need and a need for something extra that is not frivolous, but runs deeper than the material. A need for what? Presumably something in relations between people: courtesy, love or respect. But his own thinking is still so bound by the material, so committed to measuring his daughters' love by how many knights they will allow him, that he cannot get this next stage of his argument organised; and so he breaks off and changes the subject, not to what he needs from Goneril and Regan but to what he needs from the heavens.

At times he hovers on the edge of absurdity:

I have another daughter Who, I am sure, is kind and comfortable. When she shall hear this of thee, with her nails She'll flay thy wolvish visage.

(I.iv. 285-8)

Lear defines kindness as kindness to him; he does not notice the incongruity this leads to. Rather than building a coherent train of thought, he tries out reactions moment by moment, and again this leads to incongruity:

Thou art a boil, A plague-sore or embossèd carbuncle In my corrupted blood. But I'll not chide thee.

(II.ii. 396-8 [II.iv])

Yet these moments of absurdity are shot through with moments of insight, some of which are powerfully simple: 'I did her wrong' (I.v. 25). Lear's mind, like the play itself, is constantly on the move, in a dynamic pattern of advance and retreat, surrender and resistance. It is as characteristic of him to fight his feelings as to express them directly.17 Part of King Lear's overall tension is that while the play as a whole is constantly moving towards new insights, new discoveries, the central character is fighting a tremendous battle against knowledge, a battle in which, paradoxically, every loss is an advance.

A related tension is that between Lear's awareness of the world around him and his preoccupation with himself. Goneril's treatment of him leads him to an ironic questioning of his own identity, and the phrasing of his question is revealing:

Does any here know me? This is not Lear. Does Lear walk thus, speak thus? Where are his eyes? Either his notion weakens, his discernings Are lethargied—ha, waking? 'Tis not so. Who is it that can tell me who I am?Fool Lear's shadow.

(I.iv. 208-13)

We have seen already how problematic identity is in this play, and how the Fool's reply alerts us to the problem. Lear's sense of his identity depends on how other people treat him. If Goneril is not behaving like Lear's daughter, then he must be someone other than Lear. His question is not, who am I, but who is it that can tell me who I am? Identity is socially constructed, depending not on oneself but on other people. If Lear is about to start a journey of self-discovery, as his question implies, it will of necessity involve the discovery of other people. And the process works two ways: Lear's view of the rest of the world will be bound up with his sense of himself. As we watch him over the next few scenes, we may wonder whether these two lines of investigation, of the self and of the world, are helping or hindering each other.

One of Lear's achievements is his sudden pity for the Fool in the middle of the storm:

My wits begin to turn. (To Fool) 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.

(III.ii. 67-73)

This is the first time Lear has expressed this kind of feeling for the Fool, indeed the first time in the storm scene that he has noticed him at all. The language is touchingly simple, in stark contrast to the magnificent tirades that have preceded it. The moral he draws about learning to love vile things may refer to the Fool as well as to the hovel. But Lear has discovered pity for the Fool through noticing that he is cold himself, just as he later sympathises with houseless poverty because he himself is houseless, and with Poor Tom because, he insists, his daughters brought him to his pass. In fact, it was not 'Tom's' daughters who brought him to this pass; it was his father. Beneath Tom is Edgar, who has suffered the fate Lear wished on Cordelia. Lear is still better at seeing his sufferings than his offences. His pity for others is real, but it is also a projection of his pity for himself. By the same token, Lear's denunciation of the wickedness of man in the storm scene, though wide-ranging, is focused on one idea: 'all germens spill at once / That makes ingrateful man' (III.ii. 8-9); the centre of humanity's wickedness is what has been done to him. His view of the storm is erratic: he calls on it to aid his curses; he denounces it for joining with his daughters against him. The common factor is that he relates the storm to his own plight. And he can still declare, 'I am a man / More sinned against than sinning' (III.ii. 59-60). In what follows it is the sin of others that continues to preoccupy him.

The treatment he has suffered and the jolting image of humanity Poor Tom presents lead him to ask, as the play itself does, large questions about man and society. His scene with Gloucester is full of broken images of his royal function: we see the king reviewing his troops, receiving homage, dispensing justice. But beneath the trappings of society is the vulnerability Lear has proved in himself:

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. Go to, they are not men o' their words. They told me I was everything; 'tis a lie, I am not ague-proof.

(IV.v.100-5 [])

In the face of this brute reality all offices are absurd: 'change places and, handy-dandy, which is the justice, which is the thief?' (IV.v. 149-50) []). In his attack on his daughters Lear could not quite bring himself to denounce the superficial trappings of society, for he depended on them himself. Now he sees those trappings not just as superfluous but as deceptive:

Through tattered clothes great vices do appear; Robes and furred gowns hide all. Plate sin with gold, And the strong lance of justice hurtles breaks; Arm it in rags, a pygmy's straw does pierce it.

(IV.v. 160-3 [])

Lear also recalls Edgar's interpretation of Poor Tom. The animal beneath the robes is not just vulnerable but wicked, and his wickedness is sexual. He begins with a half-recognition of Gloucester:

I pardon that man's life. What was thy cause? Adultery? Thou shalt not die. Die for adultery! No, the wren goes to't, and the small gilded fly Does lecher in my sight. Let copulation thrive, For Gloucester's bastard son Was kinder to his father than my daughters Got 'tween the lawful sheets. To't, luxury, pell-mell, For I lack soldiers. Behold yon simp'ring dame, Whose face between her forks presages snow, That minces virtue, and does shake the head To hear of pleasure's name. The fitchew nor the soilèd horse goes to't With a more riotous appetite. Down from the waist They're centaurs, though women all above. But to the girdle do the gods inherit; Beneath is all the fiend's. There's hell, there's darkness, there is the sulphurous pit, burning, scalding, stench, consumption. Fie, fie, fie; pah, pah! Give me an ounce of civet, good apothecary, sweeten my imagination.

(IV.v. 109-27 [])

Gloucester's offence was adultery, and Lear begins with that. While Edgar will later see this as a crime deserving the punishment of blindness, Lear excuses it with ironic tolerance: man is simply doing what the animals do. Why should one expect him to be different? Besides, the world must be peopled; for one thing, Lear's supply of knights is low: 'I lack soldiers'. But then the thought of the animal in man produces a sudden wave of disgust, in the image of the simpering dame. Initially, her offence seems to be not sexuality but the desire to conceal it. Even that degree of tolerance breaks, as sexuality itself becomes disgusting. We may have no glimpse of heaven in this play, but we do have a glimpse of hell: it lies, in Lear's imagination, between a woman's legs. Then Lear seems to decide that the fault lies not in humanity, but in his way of looking at humanity: it is his imagination, not the body, that is corrupt. Gloucester the adulterer, who began this train of thought, becomes the apothecary who must end it by curing Lear's diseased imagination. Gloucester tries, not to cure Lear, but simply to honour him: 'O, let me kiss that hand!' The fact that the gesture is physical recalls Lear's insight that beneath the trappings of society is the reality of the body, and leads to his final statement of the body's corruption: 'Let me wipe it first; it smells of mortality' (IV.v. 128-9 [IV.iv]). We go from the stench of sex to the stench of death. The general impression of the speech is not of secure insight but of a restless probing, excited and urgent, attacking and recoiling, moving through a series of self-contradictions, as the mind shrinks from the unbearable, then dares itself to face it, then turns away again.

Lear's insights into the corruption of justice and the foulness of sexuality fuse into a single image:

Thou rascal beadle, hold thy bloody hand. Why dost thou lash that whore? Strip thine own back. Thou hotly lusts to use her in that kind For which thou whip'st her.

(IV.v. 156-9 [])

In this, one of Lear's most dreadful images, lust and cruelty seem to operate not just beneath the system of justice but through it. Yet this leads Lear not to a universal denunciation of man, like the one heard in the storm scene, but to a universal tolerance: 'None does offend, none, I say none' (IV.v. 164 []). He has passed beyond his casual tolerance of sex as something the animals do, to a bitter equivalent of Cordelia's 'no cause, no cause'. This forgiveness comes not through wiping out offences but through seeing them as universal. None does offend, because all are equally guilty. From this wide general insight Lear's mind suddenly snaps back to the particular: he recognises the old man who is clumsily pulling off his boots and crying like a baby. As Gloucester has said to Edgar, 'Take my purse', Lear makes a more basic offer:

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's the first time that we smell the air We waul and cry.

(IV.v. 172-6 [])

Universal sin has become universal suffering; we are back from the wicked animal to the naked one. The first symptom of life is a cry. And as the image of the weeping old man fuses with that of the crying baby, the whole of human life becomes a circle of pain that closes in a moment.

In much of this Lear's mind seems to have gone well beyond his own personal misfortunes. He is looking out at the world. But he offers his eyes to Gloucester on condition: 'If thou wilt keep my fortunes, take my eyes'. He is still bargaining, and his bargains still have reference to himself. We may wonder why he is so concerned with sex, since—unlike Troilus or Othello—he has not suffered betrayal in this area of his life. The answer may lie back in the storm sequence: 'Judicious punishment: 'twas this flesh begot / Those pelican daughters' (III.iv. 70-1). As a king exiled in his own land, Lear sees through the systems of power and justice that he used to administer. As a betrayed father, he sees beneath parenthood the sulphurous pit from which we all spring. Broad though it is, his vision is finally bordered by what has happened to him. Throughout his scene with Gloucester, from 'every inch a king' to 'None does offend . . . I'll able 'em' (IV.v. 107, 164 []), Lear insists on his own authority. And his view of universal corruption, as I have already suggested, finds no place for what we see all round him: images of loyalty and love, a son helping a father, an old blind courtier trying to honour a fallen king, an army led by his daughter coming to his rescue. Lear himself participates in this kindness, showing that there is more to parenthood than propagated curse. Comforting the crying Gloucester, he is like a parent tending a child. As the two old men cling together, all Edgar can do is stand back and comment lamely, 'O, matter and impertinency mixed—/ Reason in madness' (IV.v. 170-1 []), as though to emphasise that no commentary can do justice to this picture of the human bond. Yet this achievement is not fixed, any more than earlier ones have been. In a moment the old cursing, vengeful Lear is back: 'when I have stol'n upon these son-in-laws, / Then kill, kill, kill, kill, kill!' (IV.v. 182-3 []). We are right back to the Lear of the first two acts, who could think of nothing better to do than get even; and his vengeance is pointlessly misdirected, for one son-in-law is dead and the other is on his side.

It is at this point that Cordelia's attendants come to rescue him. Lear runs away from them. Waking in Cordelia's tent, he gets what he wanted in the first scene: 'I . . . thought to set my rest / On her kind nursery' (I.i. 123-4). Yet once again he resists, fighting off comfort as he had fought off knowledge. Cordelia addresses him with titles of respect, 'How does my royal lord? How fares your majesty?', to which he replies by trying to put as much distance between them as he can:

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.

( 37-41 [IV.vii])

What we see is a daughter tending a father, a basic image of human kindness that echoes Lear's comforting of Gloucester and the Fool, and Edgar's taking Gloucester by the hand. What Lear sees is the unbridgeable gulf between heaven and hell. And while he is offered new life, in images of restoration (music and fresh garments) that will be used again in Shakespeare's final romances, his first reaction is resentment at being brought out of the grave.18 Even as he gropes to understand his new experience, old ways of thought cling to him. He still imagines a scheme of retribution, the difference being that he is the offender who must be punished: 'If you have poison for me, I will drink it' ( 65 [IV.vii]). He seeks physical guarantees of the reality of this experience, and they are images of suffering: 'I feel this pin prick'; 'Be your tears wet? Yes, faith' ( 49, 64 [IV.vii]). He cannot accept this experience as real unless there is some pain in it.

Cordelia has a moment of shyness at Lear's waking. As he sleeps she kisses him, and speaks eloquently of her pity and her desire to restore him. but when he wakes her first impulse is to ask her attendant to speak to him, and he has to tell her, 'Madam, do you; 'tis fittest' ( 36 [IV.vii]). We go for a moment back to the first scene, to Cordelia's reluctance to speak, her fear that her language cannot match the occasion. But this time her presence—for when she speaks, her words are few and simple and Lear never replies to them directly—is enough to guide him out of the abyss. We return to the first scene in another respect: this time Lear really does give away his kingship. He refuses to acknowledge the titles she uses, and when told he is in his own kingdom replies, 'Do not abuse me' ( 71 [IV.vii]). And he has, at last, an answer to his question, 'Which of you shall we say doth love us most'. He gropes for an answer to his other key question: 'Who is it that can tell me who I am?' His own attempts to establish his identity are fumbling. Having seen the body as the essential reality of man, he now finds his own body unfamiliar: 'I will not swear these are my hands' ( 48 [IV.vii]). The body is not, perhaps, our final reality after all. The fresh clothes, which in Geoffrey of Monmouth and Holinshed are given to him so that he will make a respectable appearance before Cordelia's husband, and which here are images of restoration and new life, not designed to impress in a worldly way—these clothes are simply disorientating: 'all the skill I have / Remembers not these garments' ( 59-60 [IV.vii]). As before, clothing seems unnatural; but while previously Lear could denounce it as superfluous or deceptive, now it is simply puzzling. In his earlier tirades, he was grandly unaware of his own absurdity. Now, with nothing absurd about him, he asks shyly, 'Pray do not mock'; 'Do not laugh at me' ( 52, 61 [IV.vii]). The old self-assertiveness is gone.

The difficulty of fixing an identity, which is part of our experience of responding to the play, is now embodied in Lear, who seems to himself, perhaps for the first time, to be truly Lear's shadow. He never does succeed in naming himself. In fact, for the rest of the play he never speaks his own name. The identity he finds for himself is both a plain but generalised recognition of present reality and a startling change from the proud, raging Lear of the earlier scenes:

I am a very foolish, fond old man. Fourscore and upward, Not an hour more nor less; and to deal plainly I fear I am not in my perfect mind.

( 53-6 [IV.vii])

Shy and apologetic, trying to kneel before his daughter, he seems more the meek Leir of the earlier play than Shakespeare's hero. In his confrontation with Goneril he affected not to recognize her—'Your name, fair gentlewoman?' (I.iv. 214)—as part of his ironic questioning of his own identity. Now he is genuinely unsure of himself, and when he finally gropes to an act of recognition, of naming, it is not himself he names:

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

( 61-3 [IV.vii])

From this point he remembers what has happened to him, and what he has done; and some of his old habits of mind, particularly his view of human relations as a matter of bargaining and exchange, begin to reassert themselves:

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.

( 66-8 [IV.vii])

'I know you do not love me' shows him in some danger of repeating his old mistake about Cordelia; but at least he is re-establishing some sense of his identity, not through counting up the number of knights he is allowed, or noting gestures of respect (he rejects those) but simply through an awareness that he has a relationship with Cordelia. In a tentative way, he learns something from her. His reply to her 'No cause, no cause' is a non sequitur, 'Am I in France?' ( 68-9 [IV.vii]). But the idea of forgiveness has been planted in this mind, and he returns to it at the end of the scene, asking her to do what she has already done: 'You must bear with me. Pray you now, forget / And forgive. I am old and foolish' ( 76-7 [IV.vii]).

In the way it seems to resolve questions raised in the first scene, and to give a true image of what was parodied there—Lear shedding his kingship, to be tended by his youngest daughter—Act 4 Scene 6 could be an ending. Lear's achievement of humility seems a final breakthrough. So does his critical awareness of himself, based on his recognition of Cordelia ('You have some cause') and leading to his simple plea for forgiveness. But this is not altogether a new Lear. Part of what makes the scene convincing, and therefore moving, is that Lear is still, as he has always been, a slow learner. He gropes reluctantly towards his new life, trying at first to cling to the old certainties of pain and punishment. His expressions of new insight are tentative and incomplete. This includes his insight into himself: 'old and foolish' does not quite sum up the character we have seen or the reasons he needs forgiveness. And from this point in the play his mind contracts as sharply as it had expanded. He ceases to care about kingship, justice or power. Only one thing matters: Cordelia. Not even love, as an idea, matters; simply Cordelia. He is beyond abstractions. His entire life now hinges on one person. And about her he has one thing left to learn.

In watching the reunion, we hardly notice the acute contraction of Lear's mind, for his new experience seems so complete in itself. But when he next appears we are bound to notice. Lear is quite happy to have lost the battle and to be sent to prison so long as Cordelia is with him:

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.iii. 8-19)

Questions like 'Who loses and who wins, who's in, who's out' were once of vital importance to him, for he was in the thick of such action himself. Now, in line with his rejection of kingship in his previous scene, he views the whole of public life with detached amusement. Even the notion of being God's spy does not imply judgement or insight; merely the detachment of a god who finds his creatures laughable—not unlike Gloucester's gods, who kill men for their sport. Yet we know that Lear cannot live like this. Cordelia's question, 'Shall we not see these daughters and these sisters?' (V.iii. 7) shows her awareness of political reality; and that reality, in the form of Edmond and his army, is on stage with Lear even as he speaks, theatrically contradicting his words. Who loses and who wins is not an idle question, but a question of life and death: Edmond has announced his intention of having Lear and Cordelia killed if they lose the battle, and in a few moments he will give the order.

Barbara Everett has noted the childlike, unreal quality of Lear's vision,19 and W. F. Blissett observes the irony that Lear 'has not resigned the joys of resignation'.20 Perhaps the most insidious danger in the speech is the way Lear turns his own relations with Cordelia into a childlike game of make-believe, kneeling and forgiving as they did at their reunion. We cannot blame Lear for wanting to hold on to that scene, but the cost of repeating it instead of letting it go is to devalue and trivialise it. As so often, Lear wants to hold back while the play moves on. As he imagined the gods aiding his curses, he now imagines them giving their blessing to his life with Cordelia. But his own imagination starts to send out warning signals:

Upon such sacrifices, my Cordelia, The gods themselves throw incense. Have I caught thee? He that parts us shall bring a brand from heaven And fire us hence like foxes.

(V.iii. 20-3)

The reference to incense implies a sacrifice on an altar, Lear and Cordelia going through a kind of death. It is a sanctified death, in which they will go together to a new life. But one worry still haunts him: they could be parted. Picking up the image of the sacrifice on the altar, he insists that only fire from heaven could do it. For a moment we glimpse an image of frightened, tortured animals, taking us back to the play's middle scenes. Lear insists that he is describing an impossibility, something that cannot happen. Yet we see in a moment that it will not need fire from heaven to part them; it needs only Edmond giving an order to his captain. The ordinary world, that Lear finds so comically distant, closes in and destroys him.

And so we return to the death of Cordelia. Lear resists it, as he has always resisted new knowledge. He kills the captain who is hanging her, and throughout his last moments he alternates between stark recognition—

She's gone forever. I know when one is dead and when one lives. She's dead as earth.

(V.iii. 234-6)

—and refusal:

This feather stirs. She lives. If it be so, It is a chance which does redeem all sorrows That ever I have felt.

(V.iii. 240-2)

Whatever we may have felt about Lear's earlier resistance to knowledge, we are with him here. His struggle between acceptance and refusal of this unbearable fact is our struggle as well. Lear's knowledge has never been the full knowledge of the play: we have always been able to see more than he does. But Lear's experience, of struggling bewildered through shock after shock, has been like our experience of the play, and here we are close to being one with him. We have already seen how many readers have in their own ways refused to accept the death of Cordelia.

But we feel its inevitably, not just in the way the last scene echoes and completes the first, but in the way images from all over the play come crashing down on us in Lear's last speech:

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. (To Kent) Pray you, undo this button. Thank you, sir.

(V.iii. 281-6)

The Fool, the animals of the middle scenes, Lear's attempts to strip, the service he gets from his attendants, all find echoes here. It is as though the whole play is bearing down on him, and on us. Yet Lear's actual death seems to have given Shakespeare trouble, for it is at this point that we have the most striking and significant change between the Quarto and the Folio. Here is the Quarto version:

Lear . . . Pray you, undo This button. Thank you, sir. O, O, O, O!

Edgar He faints. (To Lear) My lord, my lord!

Lear Break, heart, I prithee break.

Edgar Look up, my lord.

Kent Vex not his ghost. O, let him pass.

(Q.xxiv. 303-8)

Lear seems to will his heart—the 'rising heart' of his exchange with the Fool (II.ii. 292-6 [IV.iv])—to break. His death is centred on his own feeling, his own pain; he is terribly aware of that pain, and consciously uses it to bring on death. If this were the only version of the scene we had, we would accept its terrible logic as a fitting end for Lear. But the Folio goes beyond it:

Lear . . . Pray you, undo this button. Thank you, sir. Do you see this? Look on her. Look, her lips. Look there, look there. He dies.

Edgar He faints. (To Lear) My lord, my lord!

Kent (to Lear) Break, heart, I prithee break.

Edgar (to Lear) Look up, my lord.

Kent Vex not his ghost. O, let him pass.

(V.iii. 285-9)

Lear does not even know he is dying;21 his focus is on Cordelia. Once again our experience corresponds to his: the death that preoccupies us in the last scene is not the death of the hero: it is Cordelia's death, to which he is 'hardly more than a needful afterthought'.22 As he found his identity in her, he finds his death in hers. It is the play's last and most painful image of the human bond. Less directly than Edgar, but just as decisively, Cordelia has killed her father.

Yet this does affirm something about Cordelia, and about humanity. Certainly not in any hope of immortality; there is no suggestion of that.23 Nor, I think, in Bradley's notion that Lear thinks he sees returning life on Cordelia's lips. If he dies of joy it is at best a merciful delusion, a cheat like Gloucester's fall. More to the point, we do not know what Lear sees on Cordelia's lips: we register instead the fact of his concentration on them. The range of his mind has narrowed all through the last scenes, from humanity to Cordelia, and now it contracts to a single intense point: Cordelia's lips. The lips that kissed him as he slept, from which he wanted eloquent words in the first scene, from which he now wants merely breath. We do not know whether he sees life or death there; it is the concentration that matters. An actor could play unbearable joy, or unbearable grief, and be true to the scene either way. Lear's commitment to Cordelia is so intense that it ends his life, demonstrating her value to him with terrible decisiveness, and countering Lear's savage view of man in the middle scenes. If man were just a bare forked animal or a wicked animal, it would not matter, as it so painfully does, that a dog, a horse or a rat should live and that Cordelia should die.24 Lear has learnt not just how much Cordelia loves him but how much he loves her, and this knowledge kills him. If this is an affirmation, it is an affirmation that comes not in spite of pain, but through it.

The survivors try for other kinds of affirmation. Albany wants the Tate ending:

What comfort to this great decay may come Shall be applied; for us, we will resign During the life of this old majesty To him our absolute power. . . . All friends shall taste The wages of their virtue, and all foes The cup of their deservings.—O see, see!

(V.iii. 273-80)

Albany's words break off as he confronts the sight of Lear with the dead Cordelia; it is as though he can make this speech only by turning away from the reality on which our own eyes are fixed, and when he turns back he breaks down. Edgar's 'Look up, my lord' (V.iii. 288) recalls his attempt to comfort Gloucester at Dover, and earns Kent's rebuke. Comfort is not just irrelevant but cruel; Lear needs to die. And the play's last speeches are shaken, feeble, deliberately inadequate, as though in the end 'language as literature, therefore language at the top of its bent, declares itself inadequate for the task it has just performed':25

Albany . . . Friends of my soul, you twain Rule in this realm, and the gored state sustain.Kent I have a journey, sir, shortly to go: My master calls me; I must not say no.Edgar 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. 295-302)

There is no Fortinbras or Malcolm here to order the state and see that life goes on. The kingdom that Lear grandly sliced in three, and then in two, now lies in ruin, and no one feels like picking through the rubble. Albany wants no part of worldly power; Kent wants no part of life. Edgar seems prepared to confront only the present experience, feels that something ought to be at least said about it, but does not know what to say. He ends the play with what sounds like a lame tribute to the endurance and longevity of the old, and a fear that his own life may be shorter. (This may touch on the belief current in Shakespeare's time that the world was in its last days, one evidence for this being that modern men did not live as long as the patriarchs.) But what Edgar's halting words really convey, through their sheer inarticulateness, is an admission that Lear's experience, and to a lesser extent Gloucester's, have been larger and deeper than his own thoughts can compass. We cannot, finally, cope with this ending through discursive language any more than Edgar can. We have to face instead the thing itself, embodied in the stage picture of Lear with the dead Cordelia.

Lear is not so much a character who has been saved or educated as a character who has been through an intense experience, one that has presented him—and us—with basic images of the human condition, hurled at us with brutal speed and impact: the naked madman, the crying baby, the soul in bliss, the dead child. His death is the completion of a life lived at the extreme. That sense of extremity has been created by collisions between language and experience, as the characters confront an intractable world. If Lear seems the grandest of them, it is because he puts up the most titanic resistance to that world. But this final experience, Cordelia's death, is so intense that it kills him. For us that experience is the play's final reality, after which the efforts of language fade and die. But the image, as stubborn and intractable as Lear himself, survives to haunt us. Asserting his power over his own life, Lear began the play by asking his daughters to say how much they loved him. He ends by demonstrating his own love, and our mortal helplessness, in a manner beyond words.


1Criticism as Dialogue (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1969), p. 113.

2This Great Stage: Image and Structure in King Lear (reprint University of Washington Press, Seattle, 1963), p. 270.

3Shakespearean Tragedy (Reprint Macmillan, London, 1957), p. 235.

4The Wheel of Fire, 4th edition (reprint Methuen, London, 1960), p. 179.

5Patterns in Shakespearean Tragedy (Methuen, London, 1960), p. 116.

6Radical Tragedy (Brighton, Harvester; and Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1984), pp. 193, 195.

7 'The New King Lear', Critical Quarterly 2 (1960) 325-39 (p. 335).

8Some Shakespearean Themes (reprint Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1966), p. 80.

9An Essay on King Lear (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1974), p. 68.

10Fools of Time: Studies in Shakespearean Tragedy (University of Toronto Press, Toronto, Buffalo and London, 1967), pp. 113-14.

11 On the relationship between the two plots, see Bridget Geliert Lyons, 'The Subplot as Simplification in King Lear', in Some Facets of King Lear: Essay in Prismatic Criticisim, edited by Rosalie L. Colie and F.T. Flahiff (University of Toronto Press, Toronto and Buffalo, 1974), pp. 23-38.

12'King Lear: The Lear Family Romance', Centennial Review 23 (1979) 348-76 (pp. 354, 355).

13 'Lear and Laing', Essays in Criticism 26 (1976) 1-16 (p. 3).

14 'Lear's System', Shakespeare Quarterly 35 (1984) 421-9 (pp. 422-6).

15'King Lear and the Psychology of Dying', Shakespeare Quarterly 3 (1982) 449-60 (p. 455).

16 Harley Granville-Barker, Prefaces to Shakespeare, I (reprint Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1952), p. 285.

17 See Michael Goldman, Acting and Action in Shakespearean Tragedy (Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1985), p. 77.

18 Marvin Rosenberg, in The Masks of King Lear (University of California Press, Berkeley, Los Angeles and London, 1972), reports John Gielgud's playing of this scene: he 'was bewildered, troubled, he was fretful—even at first 'a bit sulky,' as per Granville-Barker's direction' (p. 286).

19 'The New King Lear', p. 332-3.

20 'Recognition in King Lear', in Some Facets, pp. 103-16 (p. 113).

21 See F.T. Flahiff, 'Edgar: Once and Future King', in Some Facets, pp. 221-37 (p.232).

22 Maynard Mack, King Lear in Our Time (University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1965), p. 84.

23 See William R. Elton, King Lear and the Gods (Huntington Library, San Marino, 1966), pp. 54-5.

24 See Paul A. Jorgensen, Lear's Self Discovery (University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles; and Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1967), p. 124.

25 Sheldon P. Zitner, 'King Lear and Its Language', in Some Facets, pp. 3-22 (p. 4).

Phoebe S. Spinrad (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: "Dramatic 'Pity' and the Death of Lear," in Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature, Vol. XLIII, No. 4, Summer, 1991, pp. 231-40.

[In the essay below, Spinrad analyzes the death of Lear, contending that this event resists explanation by dramatic or philosophical theories and fails to provide the audience with a sense of closure.]

Despite centuries of the keenest critical analysis, there has been no real consensus on whether the death of King Lear is cathartic in the classical sense, redemptive in the medieval sense, retributive in the Renaissance sense, or futile in the modern sense. Audiences in the theater, however, reach a fairly simple consensus: they cry. Indeed, many of us may have experienced this anomaly at a performance of Lear: if not crying ourselves, then at least hearing the surreptitious sniffles of people around us—some of whom may just have spent a hard day in the classroom or at the keyboard examining the death of Lear as an academic exercise. In this essay I examine those academic exercises; and in seeming to dismantle each of them, I hope to show that they may be valid for other parts of the play, but not for what we cry over; that Shakespeare has denied us our expected forms of closure so that we may reach a kind of catharsis not covered by our standard dramatic theories.

Here I should note that when I speak of dramatic theories, I am addressing the elemental explanations that we normally use as teachers of and commentators on Lear itself: those theories, in other words, that may be heard in almost any classroom or read in any review. Indeed, if I am correct in my interpretation of what is happening in the play, analysis in terms of formal critical theory is counterproductive, since even modern theories of "indefinition" or lack of closure do not apply to a play that confirms and upsets several forms of expectation at once. As in Shakespeare's other great tragedies, there is always a "yes, but" to anything we can say about Lear, including the fact that there is always a "yes, but."

No matter which dramatic or philosophical theory we attempt to explain the play by, we will find that we must discard part of the play in order to make the theory fit. In the classic Aristotelian formulation, for example, we expect to see a man like ourselves, a mixture of good and bad, make a tragic mistake, gradually come to anagnorisis (self-knowledge), and die or at least undergo a symbolic maiming and exile in a kind of expiation of his error. Note that I have used the term "tragic mistake" rather than "tragic flaw." Aristotle himself puts it this way:

[P]ity is aroused by someone who undeservedly falls into misfortune, and fear is evoked by our recognizing that it is someone like ourselves who encounters this misfortune. . . . This would be a person who is neither perfect in virtue or justice, nor one who falls into misfortune through vice and depravity; but rather, one who succumbs through miscalculation. (Poetics, xiii, 21-22)

In this sense, as O. B. Hardison points out, katharsis itself may be translated as "clarification" as well as "purgation" (Poetics, vi, 116). In the Renaissance, of course, this meaning was often overlooked, and the tragic hero was seen to have a flaw in the generally accepted sense (Montano, 55-56, 73). Whatever the translation of hamartia, however, Aristotelian "pity" is predicated on the hero's anagnorisis; and we all too often give King Lear credit for more enlightenment than is justified by the text, in order to justify the "pity" of the audience.

Does King Lear learn anything? Maybe—but he quickly forgets it again if he does. The moments put forth by Aristotelian critics as Lear's enlightenment are usually his remarks about his subjects during the storm, his concern for Kent's and the Fool's well-being at the doorway to the hovel, and his reconciliation with Cordelia. W.F. Blissett, indeed, refers to Lear's "charitable concern for the Fool as fellow creature" as a "heavenl[y] alchemy," suggesting a more than natural transformation pleasing to the gods (see Blissett 109 and Andresen 145-68). And Lear's words about his subjects seem to carry this transformation from the private to the public sphere as well:

Poor naked wretches . . . How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides, Your looped and windowed raggedness, defend you From seasons such as these? O, I have ta'en Too little care of this!


His words to Cordelia, too, "Pray you now, forget and forgive. I am old and foolish" (4.7.84), seem to acknowledge his fault and accept forgiveness. But these are, in truth, isolated incidents, and even in their own contexts may not be as unequivocal as we try to make them.

Certainly, Act 3, scene 4 (the scene of the "poor naked wretches") is the only time Lear evinces any sympathy with the unfortunate. By the time he meets the blinded Gloucester in 4.6, he is more callous than when he began, making horrifying jokes about Gloucester's empty eye-sockets: "I remember thine eyes well enough. Dost thou squiny at me? No, do thy worst, blind Cupid; I'll not love" (4.6.135-37). The pity we feel in this scene is for both old men, each blind in his own way—and the pity is fostered by the horror at what Lear is saying. Although it is true that Lear uses the images of blindness as an introduction to his satire on the moral blindness of a badly governed society, the satire neither invites Gloucester to participate in it nor implicates Lear in the bad governance. Furthermore, the references to adultery, whores, and tattered clothes in the satire are perhaps too pointed toward Gloucester's background and present condition to give him comfort. In short, this scene rather undercuts than supports any idea about Lear's new compassion for his subjects; Gloucester, after all, is one of those subjects, and in fact has come to his sorry condition partly because of the division of loyalties forced by Lear's only nominal abdication. Whatever self-knowledge Lear seemed to have before, it is gone now.

As for Lear's reconciliation with Cordelia, we must remember that each time he has left one daughter, he has tried to see more good in the next; he glosses over Regan's flaws after he has cursed Goneril, and he may very well be following a pattern of increasing attempts to see good in any one of his daughters who will protect him from the others. What we may be seeing, in other words, is more wish-fulfillment than real recognition. But at any rate, his impulse toward reconciliation does not survive this scene. At his death, there is no recognition of anything—not the fact of Cordelia's death, not his own faults, not even poor Kent, who has undergone so many hardships for his old master. Twice people try to tell Lear that his faithful servant Caius is his equally faithful servant Kent; and twice Lear ignores them. He does not ask Kent's forgiveness as he asked Cordelia's; he does not thank Kent for his help; he simply does not register Kent's existence at all.

In response to critics of the pessimist school, who see in this dual and final lack of recognition the futility of a blind universe2 Maynard Mack points out that self-delusion in the face of loss is one of nature's palliatives to pain:

Lear's joy in thinking that his daughter lives (if this is what his words imply) is illusory, but it is one we need not begrudge him on his deathbed, as we do not begrudge it to a dying man in hospital whose family has just been wiped out. Nor need we draw elaborate inferences from its illusoriness about the imbecility of our world; in a similar instance among our acquaintances, we would regard the illusion as a godsend. (Mack, 69)

But no matter how many excuses we may make for Lear in his final grief and madness, the fact remains that there is no classic "recognition" here in any sense of the word. The Aristotelian formula simply does not hold up.

Purists may object that Renaissance authors did not follow the classic formula, that in fact Othello (say) and Macbeth do not know themselves any more than Lear does at the end. To a certain extent, this is true. But in the Renaissance formula, the death of the tragic hero takes on a retributive note, with other characters describing the faults of the hero in explanation of why he must die. And in the concluding lines, order is carefully restored to the society that has been torn asunder by the mistake or flaw of the protagonist. Does this happen in Lear? Again, not really. The surrounding characters make no mention of Lear's original errors, and although Albany claims that "All friends shall taste / The wages of their virtue, and all foes / The cup of their deserving" (5.3.303-05), the surviving good people on whom the restoration of order must devolve seem curiously unwilling to take on the responsibility. Kent declines, hinting that he soon must die in order to follow his master; and Edgar gives a short speech odd in more ways than one:

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.


Looked at objectively, this is an equivocating speech, neither accepting nor rejecting the call to duty; following as it does on Kent's refusal, it implies a second unwilling ruler; and the fact that it is given to Edgar rather than to Albany in most editions, flies in the face of the Renaissance convention of having the highest ranking person give the final words. Furthermore, what Albany has just proposed ("Friends of my soul, you twain / Rule in this realm, and the gored state sustain" [5.3.320-21]) is exactly the kind of divided rule that caused all the trouble in the first place. The only real restoration has been that all the worst villains are dead; the hope for the future, in terms of Renaissance dramatic convention, is rather undercut than stated—although the hope is there.

Some critics who seek closure in Renaissance dramatic terms try to brush away this uncertain ending, either by ignoring the second split of the country or by giving the last speech to Albany and insisting that it says more than it really does. Others try to minimize the nature of Lear's original mistake so that reconciliation is not required here, having been accomplished earlier. Rocco Montano, for example, sees Lear as "a generous, impulsive person" whose breaking up of the kingdom would not have been perceived as all that bad, and whose misfortunes come entirely from the evil of his daughters rather than his own faults (ch. 11). What such a view does (and perhaps Montano's is more extreme than others in the group but is certainly representative) is to move the retribution and recognition back into previous scenes, so that the villains' deaths and the reconciliation of Gloucester and Edgar carry out the expected closure. Lear's death, then, becomes a sort of epilogue to the real ending.

But this will not do. If closure has been achieved before Lear's death, in dramatic terms we should not be required to cry at an epilogue. Furthermore, Lear's relative guiltlessness can be defended only if we look solely at his folkloric casting off of Cordelia. But there is more to Lear's fault than harsh treatment of a daughter. Renaissance audiences, contra Montano, would probably have been just as horrified to see Lear dividing the map of Britain and breaking his crown in half at the beginning of this play as they were during similar scenes in other plays—for example, Hotspur dividing up the kingdom in 1 Henry IV or the tug of war over the crown in Richard II. And it cannot be denied that this division of the kingdom causes many of Gloucester's problems as well as Lear's. The blinding of Gloucester, we must remember, stems from the dilemma of conflicting loyalties that he is thrown into by the divided rule of his land. So the Renaissance formula will not work either.

Shall we try, next, to fit the ending into a Christian formula?—the redemptive death that atones for everyone's sins and brings on the providential restoration of order? We have already seen that order has not been restored with the usual closure; but more to the point, what does Lear's death add to what has already happened? Long before Lear dies, the villains have destroyed themselves; and Edmund has undergone a deathbed repentance that would be more dramatically effective if his dying words had managed to save Cordelia after all. Furthermore, in order to maintain the pattern of the innocent who dies for everyone else's sins, Cordelia rather than Lear must be the victim—and sad to say, neither we nor the on-stage audience focus on Cordelia's dead body in the last scene, but rather on what effect that dead body has on Lear. Her death certainly does not redeem him; as we have seen, he breaks down into denial and despair over it rather than coming to recognition and repentance through it. So the Christian formula does not entirely work either.

But now, I have seemingly dismantled every attempt that critics have made to bring some closure to an excruciatingly painful scene. The assumption must be that I agree with those moderns who see the world of Lear as a futile and meaningless one, whose every good impulse is destined for disaster, and whose every note of hope is undercut by futility. Unfortunately, pessimistic critics must leave out just as many parts of the play as must the optimistic ones.

Despite my quibbles over the restoration of order at the end of the play, the fact remains that the villains are dead; that Edmund has repented; that at least Albany will be left to rule, with Edgar as his good counselor. And as Rolf Soellner points out, "Edgar's general capacity for feeling and his strength to translate it into sympathetic action make him the most conspicuous learner and teacher" (Soellner 298. See also Calderwood 12).3 But there is more to look at hopefully than the physical defeat of evil and the physical survival of a few good men. Something very important has been happening to people on stage throughout the play, something that is supposed to happen as well to the off-stage audience at the end of it.

Critics often note the action of the nameless servant who leaps to Gloucester's defense during the blinding scene; Kenneth Muir, indeed, sees this action as "the turning point of the play. The killing of Cornwall brings into the open the sex-rivalry of Goneril and Regan and so leads to their destruction and that of their lover" (120). But there is more import to the servant's action than the turning of the plot, and he is not the only servant who takes action. Notably, directors who want to emphasize the supposed absurdity of Lear's universe almost uniformly omit one short but significant scene: the aftermath of Gloucester's blinding, when the two remaining servants "fetch some flax and whites of eggs / To apply to his bleeding face" (3.7.106-07). Without this scene, despite the first servant's act of heroism, we bridge directly from the act of cruelty into Edgar's plunge from what he thinks the worst into still worse—the sight of his blinded father: "The worst is not / So long as we can say 'This is the worst'" (4.1.27-28). Gloucester's despair, then, seems natural; aside from the rash act of a servant who may be an anomaly in this dark world, the world contains nothing but oppressors and victims. And if Cornwall is dying (a fact that the audience does not know yet), the man who has wounded him is dead as well, and has not kept him from gouging out Gloucester's other eye.

True, the two servants who assist the blinded Gloucester are absent from the First Folio as well as from pessimistic productions of the play. However, the scene is generally accepted by most modern editors as one of the genuine Shakespearean passages in the two Quarto editions and is accordingly included in the text of the play (albeit in square brackets) rather than in appendices of variants or corruptions. At any rate, choosing a version of a scene can be as much of an ideological decision as making a deliberate omission, addition, or transposition; and modern directors can hardly be termed slavish followers of the text, whether Folio or Quarto. The point is that in order to maintain a predominantly pessimistic atmosphere in King Lear, the scene with the two servants must be omitted.

Unless such an omission is deliberately chosen, then, there are those other two servants between the blinding and the meeting with Edgar, the servants who, if they cannot save Gloucester, will at least try to help him in his pain. Like the First Servant, they have probably gone along with miscellaneous cruelties for years—perhaps out of fear for their lives, perhaps out of fear for their jobs, or perhaps, like too many of us, out of the thoughtlessness about such things that being around them all the time leads to. And yet they act at this point, at no profit and some danger to themselves, to help a wounded man. Where such impulses exist, the world cannot be utterly lost. What those impulses are, I will address in a moment.

It is probably fruitless, and counterproductive as well, to try to impose dramatic closure on the scene of Lear's death, even if the closure we impose is a statement about absurdity. Not only do all the attempts belie the text, but they also belie the very unclosed pain that we feel in the theater. (Remember, people cry.) Nor, for that matter, should we categorically deny the play any closure at all, a denial which is an absolute itself and therefore a form of closure. We do have conventional forms of closure provided for us, but they are provided for other parts of the play. Gloucester is the Aristotelian hero who errs, undergoes suffering for his error, comes to anagnorisis, and dies reconciled (also see Perret 89-102). Edgar is the Christian hero who is taught and strengthened by suffering, and who then both saves and is saved by his father, whose redemptive death he narrates almost like a homily. Renaissance retribution overtakes Goneril, Regan, Cornwall, Oswald, and Edmund, whose very evil is shown to be self-defeating—with the added Christian hope that even the most evil (Edmund) may repent at the end. And the example of Cordelia shows that it is possible to remain good, even when provoked by evil. But the old King wanders through the play in contrast to all these proper workings-out of dramatic convention, and when he dies, we are left, dramatically speaking, with nothing. Will nothing come of nothing? Or is something left after all, something so conventional indeed that we have forgotten the convention?

To answer this question, let us go back to the blinding of Gloucester, and specifically to the two servants who lead Gloucester offstage and try to ease his pain. Significantly, these are not Gloucester's servants but Cornwall's, as we learn from the First Servant's cry to Cornwall:

Hold your hand, my lord! I have served you ever since I was a child; But better service have I never done you Than now to bid you hold.


They are not defending their master in helping Gloucester, nor are they seeing Cornwall's character for the first time; in fact, as Cornwall's servants, they may indeed view Gloucester's actions as treasonable. It should be noted, too, that they are taking risks in helping Gloucester—the same risks that Gloucester took in helping Lear. They are, in fact, as heroic as their partner who tried to stop Cornwall, if perhaps with a different kind of heroism. What, then, prompts such moral outrage in them that they risk their lives for a virtual stranger? I should like to suggest that their initial emotion is something nobler than pity; it is compassion—the sorrow we feel even for someone who does not deserve it, simply because he is in pain. Pity may lead us to shake our heads sadly; it may cause us to moralize on the cruelty of the world or the retribution that people bring down upon themselves; but compassion makes us want to do something, whether the person for whom we are doing it deserves it or not.

And there is a suggestion later in the play that even these servants are not anomalous in this supposedly cruel universe; in 4.5, Regan's reason for wanting to find Gloucester and have him killed is not simply gratuitous malice; it is a recognition that people are indeed capable of compassion:

It was great ignorance, Gloucester's eyes being out, To let him live. Where he arrives he moves All hearts against us.


Will all these hearts that are moved have any bearing on the outcome of the last battle between the forces of good and evil in the play? Maybe; maybe not. We do not know whether any of them join Cordelia's forces, and at any rate Cordelia's forces are defeated. But what we do know is that they are having the same reaction to Gloucester's suffering that the servants of Act 3 have had; and they were moved to heroism of one kind or another.

This, then, is why we must leave Lear's death alone, as his friends do on stage, and as we do off stage in the theater. To explain it away by dramatic convention is to falsify it and to deny ourselves the new kind of catharsis that it provides. Whether we see the disappointments and futilities at the end of the play as the sign of an absurd universe that annihilates all our efforts, a call to action in despite of a cruel universe because only the virtues work to ameliorate that universe in any way (Colie, "Energies" 119, Muir, 139), a stoic hardening of ourselves to give up even the "joys of resignation" in order to find perfect resignation to pain,4 or a Christian reaffirmation of the survival of the good—whatever we choose to find is essentially a circular argument: the thing we were prepared to find in the first place. As Derek Peat points out, "the decision we make about [the final scene] finally determines the 'direction of the whole movement' of the play," and few of those decisions actually inform our behavior in the theater. Audiences do not behave with optimism, pessimism, resignation, or even "relative detachment" (45-46). As we have had occasion to note before, audiences cry. No explanations we may bring to bear on the play change that observable fact.

And yet, we cannot blame ourselves for wanting an explanation; the sight of suffering makes us, like the on-stage audience, want to do something about someone's pain. We cannot and perhaps would not draw a sword and jump to Lear's defense, as the First Servant does for Gloucester; we cannot and perhaps would not even risk our lives to bring him medicine, as the other two servants do for Gloucester; we do not need, I hope, to have our hearts hardened against evil as those citizens do who watch the passage of the blinded Gloucester. But perhaps we need to be shaken out of our dramatic expectations at the end; to weep for a poor, bare, forked creature who has not earned our tears; to weep without explaining our tears. If we can do that, we do have closure. We have learned a new kind of heroism so old that we have perhaps forgotten it: love not just for friends, but for enemies, and for the battered stranger at the side of the road: the heroism of compassion.


1 Rocco Montano claims that Renaissance playwrights had only a limited sense of Aristotle, as filtered in a secondary descent from Euripides through Seneca, and that Elizabethan theater "developed on bases of its own . . . very distant from the Aristotelian system." I think it closer to the observable truth to say that the Aristotelian system was incorporated into those other systems than to assume it was tacked on or misappropriated.

2 William R. Elton is part of this school, and cites Stoll, Orwell, Leech, G. B. Harrison, Holloway, Kott, and others as being in agreement with him; for a complete summary, see ch. 1, pp. 6-8.

3 James Calderwood thinks slightly less of Edgar: "Edgar will not create a new order or discover the previously unapprehended relations of things, but he will keep the world intact for one more day." Despite his low opinion of Edgar's lack of aesthetic perception and heroism, the fact remains that when the world is falling apart, we need people to hold it together, even if only "for one more day."

4 An idea advanced by Blissett in what I am tempted to call the euthanasia school of criticism. As Blissett describes Lear's "captivity" speech to Cordelia, "Lear has one last, hidden attachment to life: it is detachment, contentment of mind. He has not resigned the joys of resignation"—and so has to go through the horror of the death scene to accept lack of resignation as the ultimate resignation.

Works Cited

Adelman, Janet, ed. Twentieth Century Interpretations of King Lear. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1978.

Andresen, Martha. "'Ripeness Is All': Sententiae and Commonplaces in King Lear." Colie and Flahiff 145-68.

Blissett, W. F. "Recognition in King Lear." Colie and Flahiff 101-116.

Calderwood, James L. "Creative Uncreation in King Lear." Shakespeare Quarterly 37 (1986): 5-19.

Colie, Rosalie L., and F. T. Flahiff, ed. Some Facets of King Lear: Essays in Prismatic Criticism. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1974.

Colie, Rosalie L. "The Energies of Endurance: Biblical Echo in King Lear." Colie and Flahiff 117-44.

Mack, Maynard. The World of King Lear. Exerpted in Adelman 56-69.

Montano, Rocco. Shakespeare's Concept of Tragedy: The Bard as Anti-Elizabethan. Chicago: Gateway Editions, 1985.

Muir, Kenneth. Shakespeare's Tragic Sequence. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1979.

Peat, Derek. "'And That's True Too'" 'King Lear' and the Tension of Uncertainty." Shakespeare Survey 33 (1980): 43-53.

Perret, Marion D. "Lear's Good Old Man." Shakespeare Studies 17 (1985): 89-102.

Soellner, Rolf. Shakespeare's Patterns of Self-Knowledge. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 1972.

Politics And The Law

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Margot Heinemann (essay date 1992)

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

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

King Lear is very much a political play—that is a play concerned with power and government in the state, with public and civil life, and not solely with private relationships and passions. Of course it is not only political; but it seems necessary to restate the point because recent productions so often try to make it a purely personal, familial, and psychological drama (much in the manner of A. C. Bradley, though a Bradley who has read Freud, Laing, and Foucault). However, even if this is intended to render the play acceptable to modern audiences (who are assumed to be very simple-minded), it is still a distortion, and makes much of the action unintelligible. As Peter Brook put it, the fact that the play is called King Lear does not mean that it is primarily the story of one individual1—or, one may add, of one family. Shakespeare himself, by introducing the Gloucester parallel plot from quite another source, seems concerned to generalize the issues, to show that Lear's personal psychology or 'character' is not the only force at work.

There was a period, of course, when an exclusively timeless, ahistorical way of reading was more or less taken for granted. It was a great illumination for me, then, to read studies like John Danby's Shakespeare's Doctrine of Nature (1949), and the chapters by Kenneth Muir and Arnold Kettle in Shakespeare in a Changing World (1964), which attempted to read the play in the light of its contemporary historical and political significance, whatever reservations one may now have about some of their particular interpretations. Many years later, when my own highly intelligent and dominating mother reached the age of eighty-six, my sister and I discovered in ourselves marked Goneril and Regan tendencies. In one sense, as Goethe has it, 'an old man is always a King Lear'. The frustrations of old age ('I will do such things / What they are yet I know not, but they shall be / The terrors of the earth!'); the pain of confusion and weakness, are superbly given. The play needs inescapably to be seen both as an individual's loss of power and control and as the breakdown of a social and political system: that is indeed its point.

Why, for instance, some critics ask, does not Cordelia humour her old father, in the opening scene, by telling him what he wants and expects to hear—that she loves him above everything? If he were only her father, that could perhaps be a reputable argument. But he is also the King, he wields absolute power in the state, and for Cordelia to join in the public competition of flattery and cadging would be to collude with the corruption of absolute power—a matter which preoccupied many of James I's most politically thoughtful subjects in 1604-7. This she cannot do, as Kent cannot do it, and we admire their courage, come what will. If we take it only as a personal story (which the legendary history of course does not), it becomes plausible to imagine Cordelia as culpably stubborn, opinionated, self-righteous and selfish, the inherited mirror-image of Lear's personal failings. But one cannot play it like this without destroying the force of the legendary narrative and the interaction in the theatre.

Demystifying the Mystery of State

The main political thrust is not, of course, to propound an ideal, simplified, harmonious solution for conflicts and contradictions that were genuinely insoluble in the society of the time. Shakespeare is not writing Agitprop. School pupils and students who ask: 'What is Shakespeare putting over?' can be given only a negative answer—some things he is clearly not putting over.

The political effect is, rather, sharply to represent the complex conflicts of interest and ideology in his own world; to dramatize them as human conflicts and actions, not ordained by fate; to present images of kings and queens, statesmen and counsellors as simultaneously holders of sacred office and fallible human beings who may be weak, stupid, greedy or cruel (in itself a central contradiction). Hence the drama empowers ordinary people in the audience to think and judge for themselves of matters usually considered 'mysteries of state' in which no one but the 'natural rulers'—the nobility and gentry and professional élites—should be allowed to meddle. Sir Henry Wotton commented after seeing Henry VIII at the Globe that it was 'sufficient in truth within a while to make greatness very familiar, if not ridiculous'. If this was what he thought about Henry VIII, the most spectacular and ceremonious of Shakespeare's history plays, what would he have said of King Lear, which produces this effect in its extremest form?

Reinforcing Dominant Ideology?

It has been argued that the dramatists necessarily reinforce the dominant ideology which holds the society together, within which institutions such as the theatre function and provide them with a living, so that on balance criticism is safely 'contained'. In the early seventeenth century, however, it becomes increasingly evident that no single dominant ideology or consensus is capable of holding the society together. The existence of different ideologies and of deep ideological and political conflicts over the nature and limits of monarchic power and prerogative, and the rights and liberties of subjects (however masked by the pervasive censorship), has been clearly demonstrated and documented for the years 1603-40 by younger historians, notably J. P. Sommerville, Richard Cust, and Peter Lake.2 The Essex circle, where so many contesting ideological viewpoints were articulated and discussed in the 1590s, was a marvellous seedbed for Shakespeare's multivocal historical and political drama. But that complex clash of ideologies—bastard-feudal, politique, scientific-Machiavellian, republican, radical-Puritan crusading and anti-clerical—ended in the disaster of the Essex revolt. In the drama, optimistic confidence in political and military action to fulfil national destiny gave place to a sense of history as tragedy, and modern English history became for the time being a banned subject.

What the Politics of King Lear Cannot Be

The politics of the play cannot then be the assertion of absolute monarchal power, prerogative, and magnificence against mean-spirited Parliamentary attacks on royal expenditure and pleasures, symbolized allegorically in Goneril and Regan, though this has been seriously argued. The Parliament of 1604 was certainly no flatterer of the monarch. Neither does the play show that any interference with or diminution of the King's absolute power is unnatural and must lead to chaos: for it is Lear's refusal to listen to wise counsel, his insistence on his own will as paramount and absolute, that opens the way to chaos and disintegration. The patriarchalist view of monarchy, that equates kingly power with the power of the father within the family, is strongly present in the play, above all in the mind of Lear himself. Patriarchalism does not, however, necessarily entail an absolutist view of kingly power; the importance of paternal power was supported by many anti-absolutist and even some revolutionary and Leveller political thinkers.3 Yet Cordelia, who challenges her father's use of absolute power, retains the audience's sympathy in so doing. To read the play as unequivocally patriarchalist is to read against the grain.

The assertion of the traditional and necessary rights and privileges of Parliament against government by royal prerogative was not something invented in the 1620s and 1630s, just in time for the Civil War, but goes back to the moment of King Lear and beyond it. James I was confused and annoyed by the institution of Parliament as he found it in his new kingdom, and the loyal Commons tried to explain to him that their right to be consulted and to criticize Crown policies did not imply disloyalty. The 'Apology of the Commons' in 1604 expressed their fears, based on what was happening to elected assemblies elsewhere in Europe:

What cause your poor Commons have to watch over our privileges is manifest in itself to all men. The prerogatives of princes may easily and do daily grow: the privileges of subjects are for the most part at an everlasting stand. They may be by providence and good care preserved, but being once lost are not recovered but with much disquiet.4

The Apology itself (never finally passed through parliament or officially presented) was drafted by Sir Edwin Sandys, MP, thereafter a close associate of Shakespeare's former patron the Earl of Southampton, with other surviving Essexians (such as Sir Thomas Ridgway) taking an important part. Sandys himself, one of the foremost exponents of anti-absolutist thinking in Jacobean times, claimed that the King's power had originally been introduced by popular consent; he declared in Parliament that now 'it is come to be almost a tyrannical government in England'.5 The tension between King and Parliament was indeed to continue throughout James's reign.

We do not know very much about Shakespeare's later connections with Southampton and his circle, but there is no evidence that they were broken off. Shakespeare apparently celebrated his former patron's release from the Tower with a congratulatory sonnet (No. 107), and continuing links with his circle are demonstrated by G. P. Akrigg.6The Tempest, begun around the time when Southampton (with Sandys) helped to found the Virginia Company, shows continuing cross-fertilization, and revolves (though sceptically) the colonialists' dream of creating a juster empire in the New World.7

In the context, it seems that Goneril, Regan, and Edmund were likely to be identified by the audience not with the Parliamentary oppositionists, but with what they saw as contemporary flatterers, cadgers, and upstarts at the Jacobean court, who were being rewarded for their obsequiousness with land, monopolies, offices and gifts—people like James's unpopular Scottish favourites. The land and the peasants who live on it are given away by Lear as if they were his private property. The decay of the old social order, with an alternative not yet ready to be born, gives rise to such morbid growths—as Gramsci expresses it.

Nature of the Political Interest

The heart of the political interest is not in the division of the kingdom or the issue of unification with Scotland, though there may well be allusions to this. The division as such does not in fact cause the war and barbarity that we see. The sole rule of Goneril, the eldest, would scarcely make for peace and harmony, and the single rule of Cordelia could only be secured if primogeniture were ignored. The causes of disaster lie deeper than that. The central focus is on the horror of a society divided between extremes of rich and poor, greed and starvation, the powerful and the powerless, robes and rags, and the impossibility of real justice and security in such a world. Lear himself, like the faithful Gloucester, discovers this only when his own world is turned upside down, when he himself is destitute and mad, and at last sees authority with the eyes of the dispossessed. Central to the language as well as the stage images is the opposition between 'looped and window'd raggedness', utter poverty, and the 'robes and furred gowns' that hide nakedness and crimes. All the difference lies in clothes and ceremony: 'a dog's obeyed in office'.

This crazy world is directly the responsibility of the King and of the rich and powerful in general, and the verse continually underlines this: 'You houseless poverty', cries Lear on the heath,

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.


And Gloucester, blind and helpless, echoes this conclusion:

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 is a note not struck in the earlier Histories, and certainly not in the other 'deposition play', Richard II.

The indictment is still, for us, very direct and near the bone. Audiences going to the South Bank to see in 1990 King Lear at the National Theatre passed by Cardboard City, the modern equivalent of Edgar's hovel, where the homeless shelter in cardboard boxes on the pavement. Mother Teresa of Calcutta, visiting London, said on television that she had seen such sights in the Third World, but in a rich country like Britain she could not understand it. Many of those sleeping rough are the mentally disturbed and the old, made homeless by the closing of mental hospitals and old people's homes, the cuts in home helps, the lack of funds for care in the community. Lear bitterly tells Goneril, 'Age is unnecessary'. It still is.8

This interest, and the rôle-reversal of riches and poverty, power and powerlessness, is stressed in Quarto and Folio alike, despite the many alterations. Nor is it just our modern prejudice that leads us to focus on this as a central concern. It is surely significant that so many of what are now widely believed to be Shakespeare's own revisions relate to this aspect of the play—the inverted world, the counterposing of king and clown, wisdom and madness, insight and fooling. Clearly he was particularly anxious to get this right. He has two goes at presenting the 'upside-down' view of monarchy and absolute power. Once this appears as a powerful stage image, the 'mock-trial' of the Quarto text, in which the very possibility of securing justice in such an anjust and unequal society is parodied and mocked. This scene can be much more effective on the stage than it looks on the page (pace Roger Warren),9 since the parallel with Lear dispensing 'justice' from his throne in the opening scene can be made visually much sharper and more shocking.

In the Folio text the upside-down view of justice is presented purely in language, in the extended speech of Lear to Gloucester, which, after the brilliant images (already in Quarto) of the dog obeyed in office and the beadle lashing the whore he lusts for, adds the explicit general moral:

Plate sin with gold, And the strong lance of justice hurtless breaks; Arm it in rags, a pygmy'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.


The 'upside-downness' is emphasized and made more explicit verbally in Folio—extended from Quarto but not amended. 'None does offend' suggests that no one has the right to accuse or judge since all are sinners, or that no one will dare to accuse if the king opposes it and has the power to silence the accusers and pardon the offenders. But there may also be an echo of antinomian discourse, implying that our categories of right and wrong, sin and righteousness, are meaningless and evil. The dreams of persecuted underground Familist groups at the time when King Lear was written surface again in the revolutionary years in the antinomian vision of Abiezer Coppe:

Sin and transgression is finished and ended . . . Be no longer so horribly, hellishly, impudently, arrogantly wicked, as to judge what is sin, what not.10

Although I understand Roger Warren's point about the difficulty of staging the 'mock-trial', which may have prompted the revision, it has (as he concedes) been successfully done, for example in our time by Peter Brook, and it is difficult to accept that by cutting it Shakespeare made a better play. For the 'mocktrial' vividly makes the case not against a particular legal injustice or the corruption of individual judges (as Middleton does in, say, The Phoenix), but against the whole intrinsically ridiculous pretence of justice in an unjust society.

Warren criticizes the scene as ineffective on the grounds that the Fool and Edgar as Poor Tom, seated on the farmhouse bench alongside Lear, fail to keep to the legal-satirical point, though Lear himself does so.11 But this is surely the essence. The entire set up is absurd—the rich and respectable are no more qualified to dispense justice than the whores and thieves, or the fools and madmen. To make this strike home and shake our complacency, the speech of madness and folly at this moment needs to sound truly mad, wild and disorganized, not the coherently composed discourse of a satirist in disguise. The image flashes on us as a moment of dreadful insight—enough, one might say, to drive the beholder mad.

Christopher Hill perceptively notes that many prophets of the upside-down world in the seventeenth century were thought by contemporaries to be mad, and some probably were—the vision was too much for their sanity.12 But in some cases madness was a useful protection for the expression of opinions dangerous to the social order. There can be no doubt that the Ranter Thomas Webbe was being prudent when he called himself Mad Tom in a pamphlet foretelling the downfall of Charles II in 1660.13

This reversal of degree finds no easy resolution in the play. Edgar's final speech provides no strongly felt reassurance that the world is now once more firmly the right way up. It is deliberately quiet and bleak.

Resistance Upside Down

The resistance to evil too has an 'upside-down' dimension, coming first from the weak, the oppressed lower orders, the peasants and servants. This is highlighted in the first violent check to tyranny, when the Nazi-type brute Cornwall, about to put out the other eye of Gloucester, is defied and wounded by his own servant. In the few lines he speaks this unnamed man declares himself a lifelong servant of the Duke, not a casual hireling; but the bonds of feudal loyalty and rank cannot hold in face of such dishonourable cruelty:

I have served you ever since I was a child, But better service have I never done you Than now to bid you hold.


This echoes Kent's justification of his insubordination to Lear. A 'villein' of Cornwall's draws on his lord as an equal, and Regan screams out the indignation of the 'natural rulers':

A peasant stand up thus!


She kills him, running at him from behind. But the resistance has started, and Cornwall will not be there to help crush it.

For the audience, this action—quite unprepared—by one of the stage 'extras' is startling, and evidently meant to be so. It is followed, in Quarto, by the sympathy and indignation of the horrified servants, who despite their terror do their best to help Gloucester and bandage his wounds. This first tentative rallying of humane forces against the tyrants was cut in the Folio text, and also in a famous production by Peter Brook, who said he wished to prevent reassurance being given to the audience. One wonders why. The reassurance provided in these depths of agony hardly seems excessive. Was the suggestion of a justified popular rising against despotic power perhaps felt to be going too far? However that may be, Edgar when he kills Oswald is disguised as a peasant, wearing the 'best 'parel' provided by the honest old man, Gloucester's tenant, and talking stage country dialect. His peasant cudgel beats down the gentleman's sword and his fancy fencing:

I's' try whether your costard or my baton be the harder . . .' Chill pick your teeth, sir. Come, no matter vor your foins.


Ordinary countrymen were of course forbidden to wear a sword, which was the exclusive privilege of gentlemen.14 Hence this victory must register in the theatre as symbolic of the common people defeating the hangers-on of court and wealth, though since Edgar is really a nobleman in disguise, and the audience knows this, the effect is less subversive than it might be. However, if we compare this fight with the concluding duels between Hamlet and Laertes, Prince Hal and Hotspur, or Coriolanus and Aufidius, this image is strikingly a contest of social unequals, in which the plain but righteous man wins against the odds. It may also have suggested a further symbolic meaning for some in the audience. The Surrey group of Familists, whose pacifist principles forbade them to bear arms, found that this made them too conspicuous, and therefore compromised by carrying staves (cudgels).15

Lear's Fool is of course the most obvious source of upside-downness in both texts, speaking wisdom in the proverbial idiom of the people, often coarsely, in contrast to the hypocrisy and folly of formal and ceremonial utterance by the great. (The distinction that has been suggested between a 'natural' Fool in Quarto and an 'artificial', skilful courtier-Fool in Folio has to my mind been greatly overstated.) The Fool's jokes and aphorisms are consistently in the irreverent upside-down style, often literally so, and some as old as Aesop:

e'er since thou madest thy daughters thy mothers . . .

and puttest down thine own breeches . . .


May not an ass know when the cart draws the horse?


When thou clovest thy crown i'th' middle and gavest away both parts, thou borest thine ass o'th' back o'er the dirt.


This echoes the images of the topsy-turvy world in scores of songs and broadsides,16 such as the popular ballad, 'Who's the fool now', favoured by James's own provocative Fool Archy Armstrong (and still in use at folksong festivals to this day). Textual revision has not substantially changed this effect. The King himself reduced to a fool is a key image in both texts. The main difference may be in the greater emphasis given to it in the Quarto:

LEAR Dost thou call me fool, boy?

FOOL All thy other titles thou hast given away. That thou wast born with.


And one may note also the obviousness of the topical application in Quarto, which it is suggested the censor may have jibbed at.17 Among the lines excised is the Fool's jingle:

That lord that counselled thee To give away thy land, Come, place him here by me; Do thou for him stand. The sweet and bitter fool

Will presently appear, The one in motley here, The other found out there.


So too is the Fool's complaint that he has failed to secure a monopoly of folly, because:

lords and great men will not let me. If I had a monopoly out, they would have part on't, and ladies too, they will not let me have all the fool to myself—they'll be snatching.


There is indeed a double topical reference here (1) to the land given away by the King to his favourites, and (2) to anti-monopoly pressure by the Commons, culminating in the Apology of 1604.

The Fool stands in a direct theatrical tradition from Tarlton, appearing as Simplicity in the 'medley' plays of the 1580s. Even his jokes are traditional.18 The clown as prophet appears in The Cobbler's Prophecy (printed 1594) where the poor cobbler, endowed with prophetic gifts by the gods, denounces the rich and foresees the world turned upside down at the Day of Judgement, when widows and starving children will be avenged. The most direct analogy, however, is with Rowley's comic-historical presentation in 1605 of Henry VIII and his famous jester Will Summers, who in this rendering is an iconoclastic, egalitarian, anti-Popish clown and a champion of the poor. It would be better, he says, if Henry had their prayers rather than the Pope's, for the Pope is at best St Peter's deputy, 'but the poor present Christ, and so should be something better regarded'—an old anti-clerical aphovism traceable back to the Lollards.19

Not Only 'Carnivalesque'

The upside-down discourse here is not simply 'carnivalesque', if by that we mean providing a recognized safety-valve for the release of tensions in a repressive society—a temporary holiday from hierarchy which enables it to be reimposed more effectively afterwards, as we see in the Feast of Fools, the Lords of Misrule, or the iconoclastic Christmas entertainments customary to this day in the London teaching hospitals.

The deriding of accepted categories of sin, adultery, property and officially enforced law echoes Utopian ideas which survived in a serious and organized form, more or less underground, in late-Elizabethan and Jacobean times, among radical religious sects such as the Family of Love, and were to surface again forty to fifty years later in the revolutionary years, first with the Levellers, and after their defeat with Ranters and Seekers. A Presbyterian divine, denouncing the sect under Elizabeth, had emphasized the 'topsy-turvy' aspect of Henry Niclaes' teaching as especially subversive of order:

To be brief in this matter of doctrine, H.N. turneth religion upside down, and buildeth heaven here upon earth: maketh God, man; and man, God; heaven, hell; and hell, heaven.20

The existence of such ideas was topical knowledge about the time when King Lear was first produced. In Basilikon Doron King James had particularly attacked Familists as an example of dangerous Puritanism:

their humours . . . agreeing with the general rule of all Anabaptists, in the contempt of the civil magistrate, and in leaning to their own dreams and revelations.21

The Familists, replying to this, petitioned King James for toleration, disavowing any intent to overthrow the magistrate and place themselves in his seat: an appeal almost certainly drafted by Robert Seale, one of a group of Familists in the royal Guard.22 They, did not obtain the toleration they sought. In 1606 a confutation of their Supplication was printed (together with the text) and thereafter little is known about the sect as such. The ideas, however, were in the air, and theatre people could have picked up their acquaintance with them around the court as well as in artisan circles (often no doubt in distorted form).

Not Mad From the Beginning.

The 'world upside down' effect in the play is easily destroyed, though, if the King is played (as has happened in some recent productions) as deranged, undignified and in senile dementia from his first entrance. Dramatically, no fall or reversal is then possible, and 'Let me not be mad, not mad, sweet heaven!' loses all its agonizing force. No moral or political point can then be made, except perhaps that kings ought to be retired early, so that they can be replaced by sane people like Goneril and Regan.

It is not a question of the sacred untouchability of the text. As Brecht once said, 'I think we can alter Shakespeare if we can alter him'; but wrong alterations will 'mobilise all Shakespeare's excellences against us'. This particular one seems to me the kind of alteration that distorts the original to the point where the chemistry of the play no longer works. A successful production has to convince us that a King, however grand and mighty he has been, is a fool anyway, and mortal anyway. Lear's fearful experience makes him and the audience aware of this. Hence the need of any king for wise and courageous advisers prepared to tell him the truth and set limits to his power—the role played by Kent here, and in the contemporary political context, unevenly but increasingly, in their own mind at least, by some opposition elements in Parliament.

Censorship and the Reception of the Play

Direct censorship (as distinct from cautious self-censorship) has been argued as possibly accounting for some of the differences between the two texts—notably the omission of several of the Fool's speeches in Scene 4. It was a tricky moment to write in this tone about a British Court and Crown, even if legendary ones. But it may just have been that the bitter jokes against royalty did not please, and some were therefore cut by the dramatist and the players in a revised acting version. That, however, may not have been enough. No London revival of Lear after 1606, which might have used a revised text, is actually known, though there were many repeats, at court and elsewhere, of Othello, Hamlet, Richard II, and the late romances. The chances are that this play, directly representing a King as foolish, the rich as culpable, and the poor as victims, may have been felt as altogether too disturbing and subversive.

There is indeed evidence that the company was in political trouble with the Court around this time. The King's Men had, it seems, displeased James by a play performed 'in their theatre' reported to him as containing many 'galls', 'dark sentences / Pleasing to factious brains,' with 'every otherwhere a jest / Whose high abuse shall more torment than blows'. The company made their peace with a Court performance of the old romantic-heroic popular favourite Mucedorus, including a specially rewritten Epilogue, in which the characters appealed on their knees to the 'glorious and wise Arch-Caesar on this earth' to pardon 'our unwitting error'.23 The references to the offending play in this Epilogue (attributed by several scholars to Shakespeare) sound more appropriate to King Lear than to anything else recently performed by the King's Men. However that may be, the company had certainly been warned; and the marked change of tone in Shakespeare's later plays—Pericles and Winter's Tale, Cymbeline and Tempest—may in part reflect this.


1 Peter Brook, The Empty Space (London, 1968), p. 91.

2 See in particular the chapters by these authors in Conflict in Early Stuart England, ed. R. Cust and A. Hughes (London, 1989); and J. P. Sommerville, Politics and Ideology in England, 1603-1640 (London, 1989).

3 Sommerville, Politics and Ideology, pp. 28-32.

4 From 'A Form of Apology and Satisfaction', drawn up at the end of the 1604 session by a Committee of the House. Cited Conrad Russell, The Crisis of Parliaments (London, 1971), p. 270.

5 Cited Derek Hirst, Authority and Conflict in England 1603-1648 (London, 1986), p. 117.

6 G. P. Akrigg, Shakespeare and the Earl of Southampton (London, 1968), pp. 264ff.

7 Other links with Parliamentarian circles can be traced through the Digges brothers, who are connected in various ways with Shakespeare and later with anti-absolutist opposition trends. Their stepfather, Thomas Russell, was overseer of Shakespeare's will. Leonard Digges published eulogies of Shakespeare in 1623 and 1640. (Shakespeare, Complete Works (Oxford, 1986), pp. xlvi and xlviii). Dudley Digges, who is believed to have shown Strachey's confidential report on the state of Virginia to Shakespeare (see The Tempest, ed. Frank Kermode (London, 1964), pp. xxvii-xxviii) was a prominent anti-absolutist MP, and in 1629 drafted the Petition of Right.

8 During the year to October 1990 London local au thorities had to place over 31,000 families in temporary accommodation (a new high), and 8,000 in bed and breakfast accommodation. (Chairman of Association of Local Authorities Housing Committee, the Guardian, 12 October 1990). Even in prosperous Cambridge, 307 homeless families had to be rehoused in the year 1990-1, an increase of 44 on the previous year and the highest number on record. For England as a whole official statistics show homeless households have increased by 131 per cent in 1979-89 to a total of 122,680: recent research (by Professor John Greve) shows that in 1990 some 170,000 households were accepted as homeless by Local Authorities, amounting to about half a million people. Estimates of single homeless (who are not entitled to be rehoused) in London vary between 65,000 and 125,000: according to the housing charity Shelter, about 3,000 are currently sleeping rough in London.

9 Roger Warren, 'The Folio Omission of the Mock Trial: Motives and Consequences', in Gary Taylor and Michael Warren, eds., The Division of the Kingdoms (Oxford, 1983), pp. 45ff.

10 Abiezer Coppe, A Fiery Flying Roll, pt 1, ch. 8 (London, 1649).

11 R. Warren, p. 46.

12 Christopher Hill, The World Turned Upside Down (London, 1972), p. 224. The whole chapter 'The Island of Great Bedlam' is illuminating on the relation between lower-class prophecy and accusations of madness.

13 Hill, p. 227.

14 Oswald, as Kent points out earlier, while technically allowed to wear a sword, is too dishonourable to have a right to it.

15 See Janet E. Halley, 'The Case of the English Family of Love', in Representing the English Renaissance, ed. Stephen Greenblatt (London, 1988), pp. 319-20. See also John Rogers, The displaying of an horrible sect of gross and wicked heretics (London, 1578).

16 See Peter Burke, Popular Culture in Early Modern Europe (London, 1978), especially the illustrated broadsides of the mice burning the cat; the woman with the gun and the man with the distaff; and the peasant riding on the nobleman's back (between pp. 98 and 99).

17 See Gary Taylor in The Division of the Kingdoms, pp. 104-9.

18 The Fool's joke about the cockney's brother who, 'in pure kindness to his horse, buttered his hay' (Lear 2.4) is anticipated by Tarlton's story about the inn where they greased the horses' teeth to prevent them eating, and so saved the cost of the fodder (Three Ladies of London, Dodsley's Old Plays (London, 1874), vol. 6, p. 255).

19 Samuel Rowley, When You See Me You Know Me (London, 1605) (Malone Society Reprint, 1952, line 1568).

20 John Knewstub, A Confutation of Monstrous and Horrible Heresies (London, 1579). Preface.

21 Cited by Halley.

22 Seale was briefly imprisoned on suspicion of Familism in 1580, but was still in a position of trust at court as clerk of the Cheque of the Guard in 1599, a position which he continued to hold in 1606. In the reply confuting the Familists' Supplication (which includes their text) the editor refers (p. 18) to leading Familists 'receiving yearly both countenance and maintenance from her princely coffers, being her household servants': and on p. 28 states that the Elizabethan Familists are 'yet living and in Court', with 'their children in right ancient place about his majesty'. The Familists included both an educated élite and an organized popular following, mainly of artisans, in such areas as Wisbech, Surrey, Suffolk, and Cambridge. See Alastair Hamilton, The Family of Love (1981), especially Chapter 6 on the Family in England.

23 I am grateful to Richard Proudfoot for drawing my attention to the Mucedorus Epilogue and its significance. The revised Epilogue, first printed in the 1610 edition, is included in The Shakespeare Apocrypha, ed. C. Tucker Brooke (1908), from which all the above phrases are quoted. The matter is discussed in The Comedy of Mucedorus, ed. K. Warnke and Ludwig Proeschold (1878); and by R. Simpson in Academy, (29 April 1876). The play is described in the Epilogue as a 'comedy' but this does not rule out a reference to Lear: Hamlet, after all, referred to The Murder of Gonzago as a 'comedy'.

Janet M. Green (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: "Earthy Doom and Heavenly Thunder: Judgement in King Lear," in The University of Dayton Review, Vol. 23, No. 2, Spring, 1995, pp. 63-73.

[In the essay that follows, Green studies the references to both secular and divine law and judgement in King Lear, arguing that through such intimations, Shakespeare heightens the experiences of cruelty, hopelessness, and pain in the play as well as intensifies the force of the play's final tragic scene. Green examines in particular how Shakespeare's audiences may have perceived such dramatic events.]

In King Lear (1605-1606) Shakespeare refers to the law and to judgment, both secular and divine, again and again, heightening the pressure and force of the tragic outcome. The repeated legal situations, rather than offering hope of a fair judicial decision or a merciful reprieve, intensify and mirror the characters' experiences of heavenly wrath, human cruelty, and hopeless pain.

It is illuminating to recapitulate as much as possible the ways in which Shakespeare's audience might have perceived these situations, concentrating on what Shakespeare might reasonably have expected the ordinary playgoer to know and understand. Almost certainly this ordinary playgoer had not read all the contemporary materials which modern critics have perused—nor, one suspects, had Shakespeare—yet we can posit a certain community of knowledge of some legal situations and terms that occur and re-occur in Lear. These can be grouped under two kinds of judgment: secular doom and divine thunder—jacobean law courts and the Christian Last Judgment.1

Shakespeare's choice of legal situations demonstrates that the play's most powerful single dimension for spectators is "the nature and significance of human society" (Mack, King Lear in Our Time), for people's relations and responsibilities are set forth clearly in the law. Kiernan Ryan, while acknowledging that it is obvious Shakespeare's plays "have their historical basis in the social reality of his age," reminds us that more important is "ascertaining how that reality is perceived by the play, and how we are induced to perceive the play's representation of that reality" (26-27).

One of the realities is the highly litigious nature of Shakespeare's time. Going to law was common and frequent, as Shakespeare, and his father too, themselves demonstrated. An elaborate system of secular courts and legal entities with wide purposes and powers rendered judgments, not only to protect life and property, but to preserve the ranked structure of society and to encourage uniformity (Williams 217; Powell and Cook 41). Punishments were brutal, the range of felonies was wide, it was easy to bring prosecutions, and malicious litigation was widespread (Williams 248, 252).

Shakespeare's audience, like Lear himself, would condemn many things in such a legal system. Local justice was mostly in the hands of the much-criticized Justices of the Peace, who had both great responsibilities and great powers to enforce the law, which they did not always use with integrity. Sometimes, they might advocate clemency (as Lear does in the mock trial scene of 3.6 where he acts as a justice). Trial juries were known to be capricious, the attitude towards evidence often arbitrary, corruption and bribery prevalent, and haste could mar all procedure (Williams 231). A person could be—and often was—convicted one day and executed the next. Even the condemned ones making their farewells from the scaffold might be bidden by officials to make haste. The speed of resolutions in tragic drama resulting in the rapid heaping up of corpses which often seems artificial to us would not, perhaps, seem as contrived to Jacobeans.

Even more disliked than the secular courts, officials, and processes, were their ecclesiastical counterparts, which handled most matters of morality. Their autocratic approach and financial exactions "were resented and even hated by laymen" (Powell and Cook 86).

There was much to resent, fear and hate in both of these Jacobean legal systems, yet surely Shakespeare's audiences must have found the many highly dramatic renderings of judgment as fascinating as we do. The news-loving, lively Jacobeans were intensely interested in secular and religious trials, judgments and punishments, especially those with bizarre or gruesome details, or those involving the sad—perhaps satisfying—fall of great ones. John Foxe's Book of Martyrs still helped to feed the insatiable human appetite for gore, holy or otherwise. Accounts of trials were often printed for sale. Judgments (and their more interesting punishments) were enacted in the theatre. Public executions were common, often preceded by the condemned person's agreement with the judgment that had brought him (or her) to that dismal place. Secular judgment was a powerful reality to Shakespeare's audiences.

We see this consciousness in other works of Shakespeare, for example, Measure for Measure, Much Ado About Nothing, and The Merchant of Venice. It is most intensely mirrored and repeated in King Lear. In this tragedy, as in Jacobean life, legal terms and situations abound. In fact, they form an important framework for the action, from Lear's willful disposition of his kingdom in the first scene—that "trial of love"—until the end (Mack, Everybody's Shakespeare 162). When Lear summons his three daughters, it is to testify in a courtroom atmosphere.2 In this scene, the royal judge metes out rewards and punishments like an overblown, arbitrary, powerful Jacobean magistrate, a character which would have been familiar to the audience. They would also have been aware of how contemporary laws of inheritance were violated by both Lear and Gloucester, and of how greed was threatening family ties (Kenneth Muir, The Great Tragedies 26). Many also would know the sensational story of Sir Brian Annesley. In 1603 when his eldest daughter and her husband sought to get him declared mad so they could gain his estate, Cordell, his youngest daughter, appealed to Sir Robert Cecil on his behalf.3

Other matters relating to law occur throughout Lear, almost too many to recount. For example, successful flight to avoid prosecution was then common (Williams 232) and, in 4.6 we see Lear running off to be pursued on the heath by Cordelia's people. Some allusions to legal matters in the drama are almost glancing, like Goneril's arrogant pronouncement to her disgusted husband Albany that "the laws are mine, not thine" (5.3.158-59).

However, it is fitting that the most powerful, sustained, and effective images of judgment should center on the doomed king. The legal situations progress from the ceremonial disposition scene which opens the play, in which King Lear has all the power, and none of the understanding, to the mock trial scene (3.6) in which mad Lear has no real power but much better understanding. In this scene, he sets up his "courtroom" with Edgar (as poor Tom), the Fool, Kent and himself as justices. Cued by the Fool, Lear opens the proceedings:

Fool: He's mad that trusts in the tameness of a wolf, a horse's health, a boy's love, or a whore's oath.

Lear: It shall be done; I will arraign them straight


So he does, arraigning Goneril, represented by a joint stool, on charges that she kicked him. "Let us deal justly," the Fool remarks (41).

This exhibition of the demented King presiding over a mad, surrealistic legal system must have pleased the original audiences, many of whom we can safely assume had had direct experiences with secular or ecclesiastical law and, very probably, not happy ones. Though the King in the play is insane, the arbitrariness and inconsistency of his legal pronouncements ring true. The apparent reversion to some kind of order in this scene—the structure of a law trial—is really a reversion to chaos and insanity, a point the audience could well appreciate. The mirror image effect not only increases the impression of Lear's weakening capacities, but reveals the marred nature and impaired truth of society itself. By all his incisive and telling words, Lear describes not only problems which the characters in the play face but problems in Jacobean life where legal judgment, like the fates of the drama's characters, could be arbitrary, inconsistent, brutally swift or hideously slow, crooked, unjust. The play's setting disguises the contemporary references somewhat, and the privilege of madness has allowed Lear, like Hamlet, to criticize the corrupt Jacobean social system without incurring punishment from the drama's other characters—or stimulating punishment of the playwright by authorities.

As the play goes on, the images of judgment become even more serious. As Lear goes increasingly mad, he becomes increasingly cogent as a social critic. Shakespeare skillfully enables us to recognize both states but trust the latter more. Lear, wandering about, continues to discourse in a seemingly disjointed manner but with penetrating acumen on injustice (4.6). Like George Eliot's famous pierglass image in Middlemarch (182), his egoism begins to organize random memories and experiences into a pattern of awareness, as a candle held close organizes the meaningless scratches on a metal pierglass into concentric circles. When Lear characterizes a barking dog who makes a beggar run away as the "great image of Authority: / A dog's obey'd in office" (4.6.160-61), we think of his own misused authority, as evidently he does also.

His scope widens to include other wrongs besides his own, but he characterizes the officer of the law (the punisher) as the real sinner, once again a reflection of his own crucial fault in disposing of his kingdom. The "rascal beadle," though he lusts for the whore, nevertheless lashes her back. The usurer, a magistrate guilty of lending money at usurious rates, hangs the cozener, only a petty cheater (Muir 180n; 4.6.162-65). Money protects the sinful from discovery and prosecution, and rich clothes disarm justice:

Plate sin with gold, And the strong lance of justice hurtless breaks; Arm it in rags, a pigmy's straw does pierce it


The audience must have realized, as Maynard Mack points out, "that it was listening to an indictment far more relevant to its own social experience than to any this king of ancient Britain could be imagined to have had." Lear, a king of the realm like their own King James, had "registered for all to hear the bankruptcy of the very body politic (and body moral) of which he was representative and head. . . . Even the most casual playgoer, who had looked about him reflectively in Jacobean England, must have experienced a shudder of self-recognition as Lear's 'sermon' proceeded" (107-08).

After indicting hypocrisy, Lear imitates an impossibly ideal magistrate, or perhaps the hoped-for merciful Christ at the Last Judgment, when he says, "None does offend, none, I say, none: I'll able 'em ("vouch for them"; 170). (He seems to revert to his old arrogance, however, when he adds the sinister reminder that he has "the power / To seal th' accuser's lips" (171-72)). But he has reversed the procedure usual in any court of judgment—in fact, destroyed its basis—by pardoning an offense before he knows what it is. Human mercy can do no more, nor can divine.4

Once Lear is reunited with Cordelia, the madman's judging ceases. The action quickens. The King, now restored to his wits but weak, and his adored Cordelia must suffer Edmund's unjust and extreme judgment upon them. Before this comes to pass, Lear, reunited with his darling, has one last happy moment. His eloquent address to her, "Come, let's away to prison," (5.3.8-19) may sound fanciful to us—and has had, like almost every passage in Lear, myriad interpretations—but the audience might have found it not a piece of deluded, senile, or symbolic imagination, but an anachronistic reflection of possibility. The legal system often granted surprising leniency to prisoners in Shakespeare's time, even to "traitors," if of high rank. Lear does not live to enjoy the kind of imprisonment with Cordelia he describes, but it was not unreasonable for a king to expect it.

Shakespeare's use of such frequent allusions to secular judgment and to the legal systems must have deepened the playgoer's understanding of the tragedy and widened its meaning to include not only awareness of pagan Britain but of Jacobean England. And perhaps of life itself, for earthly judgments prefigured and mirrored in part God's final one.

Now we find in Lear more allusions to the judgment of the law than to Christianity's Last Judgment, even though religion was more pervasive in Jacobean daily life, but these Doomsday references reverberate powerfully, like the sounds of approaching thunder. They are fewer, of course, partly because Lear has a pagan setting, but also, it is likely, because overt references to religion could be dangerous. Prudent writers did not allude to religious matters except with great circumspection. The situation in Shakespeare's time resembled somewhat the circumstances surrounding the composition of most apocalyptic literature. Because it was often seditious and contemporary references dangerous, it was cryptic—as is Shakespeare's resolution of Lear. The consequences of offending the authorities could be severe. We cannot assume that Shakespeare stood aloof from the state religion of his time, for had he not conformed, S. Schoenbaum convincingly argues, he would have been noticed by authorities who were already hostile to the theatre on religious grounds (59-60).

The concept of the Last Judgment was one of the important ideas of Shakespeare's time (Weittrich 91). Queen Elizabeth had movingly referred to it in her Golden Speech in 1601.5 King James, fascinated by theology, was obsessed with the Book of Revelation and his meditations on it were published in 1588 and 1603. Revelation pertained to the last age and would be fulfilled "in very short space," he wrote. Inspired by the King's concern, his subjects studied the subject enthusiastically (Weittrich 29-31). Besides the common verbal allusions to the Last Judgment were the common visual representations, like the paintings in churches (Lascelles 59-60). It seems reasonable to assume that the concept of the Last Judgment was as familiar to the ordinary playgoer as the creation of the world or the life of Jesus.

In church, sermons were preached on the Last Judgment, and in the liturgy Jacobeans heard and uttered references to it again and again. Church attendance was not optional, and the order of service, the creeds, and Scriptural readings were fixed. The use of and worship according to the Book of Common Prayer was enforced by statue, "and offenders were punishable by law," as described in "An Act for Uniformity of Common Prayer" (BCP 6-13; 372). The vision of judgment in all its scarifying power was set before Shakespeare's contemporaries frequently in the Scriptural selections appointed to be read in particular Morning and Evening Prayer services and in the less frequent Holy Communion service (such as Matthew 13:47-50 and 25; and Luke 21).6

Judgment appears also in the Apostles' Creed used in Morning Prayer (and said in common by the whole congregation), and the Nicene Creed: "And He shall come again to judge both the quick and the dead." The Athanasian Creed which was said in common at the end of Evening Prayer on selected high feast days describes the Last Judgment in more detail: ". . . he shall come to judge the quick and the dead. / At whose coming all men shall rise again with their bodies: and they shall give account for their own works. / And they that have done good, shall go into life everlasting: and they that have done evil, into everlasting fire. / This is the catholic faith: which except a man believe faithfully, he cannot be saved" (64-67). The Apostles' Creed was used in Baptism (273) and several other services, and references to the Last Judgment appear in many places, even in the marriage ceremony: "I require and charge you (as you will answer at the dreadful day of judgment, when the secrets of all hearts shall be disclosed) . . ." (291). And of course the concept appears frequently in the Order for the Burial of the Dead, along with hope of mercy (309-13).

Many briefer, but still relentless, reminders of the same cataclysmic final day were contained in other portions of the church services. Two of the most important seasons of the church year, Advent and Lent, emphasized the individual's preparation for the fulfillment of God's ordinances.

There are not only reflections in King Lear of the general assumption that everyone knew about the Last Judgment, but there are echoes in it of the Book of Common Prayer. One service even reads like program notes for the villains in Lear. In the colorful and dramatic Office of Commination Against Sinners . . ."To Be Used Divers Times in the year," drawn chiefly from Deut. 27, the minister leads the congregation in denouncing various kinds of sinners (BCP 316-23). These kinds could describe characters in Lear.

Cursed is he: "that curseth his father" (a description fitting Edmund); "that lieth with his neighbor's wife" (Edmund); "that smiteth his neighbor secretly" (Edmund, Goneril the poisoner); "that taketh reward to slay the soul of innocent blood" (the Captain-hangman, Oswald); "that maketh the blind to go out of his way" (Cornwall, Regan); "Cursed are the unmerciful" (fits Edmund, Goneril, Regan, Cornwall, Cornwall's servants, and Oswald. Gloucester and Lear, also, begin without the quality of mercy but advance towards it).

In this service of Commination, after the minister exhorts the congregation to return to God, "remembering the dreadful judgment hanging over our heads, and being always at hand," he reads a bloodcurdling description of that final day of wrath and vengeance, which it might have done even Edmund some good to hear.

It is well to remember in this discussion, though, that the Christian God is not possessed entirely by flaming judgmental wrath. It is also His property to have mercy. Mercy like the mercy Lear showed in the mock trial scene (3.6) when he forgave the sin before he knew the crime.7 It was certain God accepted the repentance of the dying. So Shakespeare's audience might well have felt a sense of completion, of satisfaction, of justice, when even the villainous Edmund acknowledges a power greater than his own. Dying, he says, "I pant for life; some good I mean to do / Despite of mine own nature" (5.3.243-44).

The belief that God judges people on earth but also finally and dramatically—and not without mercy—in the life to come is so enshrined in the key protestations of Christian faith and Scripture that it must have affected the way in which Shakespeare's audience beheld their lives and his plays. What Joseph Weittrich terms "the apocalyptic myth" appears in other works, for example, Anthony and Cleopatra and Macbeth (6; Lascelles 56), and the comic murderes jest about Doomsday with perfect familiarity in Richard III (1.4. 101ff). But it is in Lear that the concept is used most powerfully. The resemblances of Lear's world to the world of Shakespeare's audiences were obvious. They would see more easily what modern critics so often quote, Keats's "fierce dispute betwixt damnation and impassioned clay" (380, lines 5-6). David Kranz writes that Shakespeare and his audience, "being Christian, would clearly see the pagan tragedy and the hidden Christian insights more easily than we do," though the insights are perhaps not so hidden as that statement implies (140). Even in a play with an undoubtedly pagan setting, says Bruce Young, "Shakespeare draws freely on the Christian idea of the Apocalypse, the era of tribulation and judgment that will accompany the end of this fallen world" (103).

Shakespeare knew the Geneva Bible, which with the Book of Common Prayer and the Homilies "profoundly nourished his imagination," concludes S. Schoenbaum (57). René Fortin goes further: "an ear attuned to Scripture would discern in Lear's ordeal resonances of the Book of Revelation" (119). In Lear Shakespeare is particularly obsessed with the Doomsday idea (Weittrich 9-10). He seems to have before him, not the brief, flat statements of the Apostles' and Nicene Creeds, but the more terrifying vision of the Athanasian Creed (BCP 67):

At whose coming all men shall rise again with their bodies: and shall give account for their own works.

And they that have done good, shall go into life everlasting: and they that have done evil, into everlasting fire [the second death].

Apocalyptic events (as just described, and in Revelation and Daniel) take place, like the major events of King Lear, in a certain kind of time. Ordinary measured time ("chronos") is replaced by a period of massive change and danger, in which the sense of time is concentrated, quickened, and heightened because of the dramatic and important events that happen within it. This "chairos" (related to our term "crisis") brings change, good or bad, but always it brings anxiety and fear. In Lear we experience as the play progresses a growing sense of urgency, change, danger, and fear in which time is indeed heightened and rushes with unusual speed and force to the final destruction.

The effect is achieved not only by plot events but by the general atmosphere and by specific references. The quality of apocalyptic finality has occurred throughout the play—in trumpets, in thunders, in tempest. The hideous din of wind and rain on the heath seems to be at war "as if it were indeed Armageddon. . . . And everywhere "run tides of doomsday passion that seem to use up and wear away people, codes, expectations, all stable points of reference, till only a profound sense remains that an epoch, in fact a whole dispensation, has forever closed" (Mack, King Lear 85-86). In Keats's "vale of soul-making," the characters must make final choices, and in noise, chaos, madness, flight and battle their fates come upon them swiftly. "The wheel is come full circle," Edmund says. "I am here" (5.3.174).

Reference to another wheel has already brought to mind specific last things—Hell and punishment following Judgment. Lear seems to refer to a medieval torment in Purgatory (which the Protestants had abolished) when he wakes from his madness to behold above him the face of Cordelia:

Thou art a soul in bliss; but I am bound Upon a wheel of fire, that mine own tears Do scald like molten lead


Though the Established Church had rejected the doctrine of Purgatory, it could still linger in the minds of the audience and in the poetry of the playwright. Cordelia has bent above her suffering father in one pietà; now at the end he bends above her in another (Barber 119).

The most obvious specific indication of the Last Judgment occurs at the end of the drama after Lear has expired over Cordelia's body. Commentators still dispute whether the ending is "Christian" or not, whether Lear is redeemed by his suffering or dies uselessly, and they variously interpret Lear's last words, "Look on her, look, her lips, / Look there, look there!" (5.3.310-11). Some say Lear actually thinks Cordelia revives, and his heart, like Gloucester's, bursts in joy, not anguish. Even if he dies in this happy belief, we know he is horribly mistaken and our pity is not diminished. Perhaps it is even increased. The reversal of the happier ending in the old Lear story could itself be authorized by the implications of Apocalypse (Weittrich 12). But whatever the interpretation, the deliberately evoked resonances of Doomsday, our sense of "chairos," magnify the sorrow of the scene. The audience's understanding of apocalyptic possibilities makes the deaths of Lear and his Cordelia more believable, more horrible.

The comments of the three remaining "good" characters seem to refer to a Christian Last Judgment:

Kent: Is this the promised end?

Edgar: Or image of that horror?

Albany: Fall and cease


Albany's enigmatic imperatives have been interpreted as "let heavens fall and all things cease" (Bevington 132n).

However, the above lines could also refer to the end of time ("eschaton"), which encompasses cataclysmic events like warning signs and disasters, the destruction of the world, the Last Judgment, and the final defeat of evil and death. Thus the possibility that Lear and Cordelia's tragic fate may be a sign that this end of time is near (is beginning?) makes Edgar ask, "Or image of that horror?"8

The final reference in the tragedy to a legal system returns to secular law. The meaning of Lear's suffering deepens into almost unbearable intensity when Kent uses the word "rack" as a figure for his sufferings. When Edgar tries to revive the dead King with "Look up, my Lord," Kent protests (as we do):

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


The infamous rack connoted pain and suffering which must be endured, sometimes relieved only by death. It was known that the state used routine unwarranted, sometimes enthusiastic torture to get information, to ensure the veracity of the victim as a later witness whether yet brought to trial or not, to serve on occasion "to the example of others" (Williams 393). It was used to punish and to gain a confession—sometimes in that order.

Who would disagree with Kent's passionate plea, "O! let him pass"? The rack of Lear's sufferings has done too much to him. His mind has been dislocated as the rack might have maimed his body. In fact, in Caroline Spurgeon's famous words, through verbs and metaphors the drama's references to violence and bodily agony have finally created the image "of a human body in anguished movement, tugged, wrenched, beaten, pierced, stung, scourged, dislocated, flayed, gashed, scalded, tortured and finally broken on the rack" (339). Lear's pain has, it is true, yielded him greater compassion for his fellow beings and greater understanding of himself. He had long ago confessed his chief error—"I did her wrong," he had said flatly about Cordelia (1.5.24). But the price of gaining such knowledge has been too high. There can be no recompense. Kent says, "If Fortune brag of two she lov'd and hated, / One of them we behold" (5.3.280-81). Lear's increased sensitivity does show in his courteous dying request, "Pray you, undo this button: thank you, Sir" (5.3.309). Still it cannot redeem his suffering which had made him like a condemned soul to roam the earth in mad anguish. At the end, he is like a corpse tied to the gibbet for warning. True, Kent, Albany, and Edgar remain alive at the end of the play, but their virtue is pale and insufficient comfort for the sorrow and evil the audience has seen, the judgments—just and unjust—that have been implied and given.9

The unspoken connotative meanings of these judgments must have increased the powerful impression of the drama. As the audience left Shakespeare's theatre, their impression of the entire tragedy must have been undergirded by their knowledge, perhaps fear, of secular law, and as they dispersed, the thunder of the Last Judgment must have resonated in their minds.


1 In this paper, acts, scenes, and line numbers refer to The Arden Shakespeare edited by Kenneth Muir, Methuen, 1963. The terms "Last Judgment," "Day of Judgment," and "Doomsday" (Old English "doom" meant "judgment") were in Shakespeare's time more or less synonymous and referred to a time when all people, the living and the dead, would be judged by God, after the world is destroyed and before a New Kingdom is created.

2 René Girard in A Theatre of Envy says what Cordelia rejects in this scene is "mimetic rivalry" with her sisters (182). This is an interesting point, since rivalry so often precedes violence. Rivalry is also the essence of litigation.

3 Annesley died not long after Cordell's appeal, and the eldest daughter contested his will. Mack, King Lear In Our Time (45-47) and Muir in his edition of King Lear (xliii) summarize the details.

4 A frequent New Testament idea is that sin and law reinforce each other, as in "for by the law is the knowledge of sin" (Rom. 3:20); "the strength of sin is the law" (1 Cor. 15:56); and "sin is not imputed when there is no law" (Rom. 5:13).

5 To members of Parliament Elizabeth said: "I have ever used to set the Last-Judgment Day before mine eyes, and so to rule as I shall be judged to answer before a higher Judge, to whose judgment seat I do appeal, that never thought was cherished in my heart that tended not unto my people's good" (Neale 390).

6 The 1559 edition of the Book of Common Prayer (hereafter BCP) was in constant use until 1604, when minor changes only were made. Further changes were not made until 1661-1662 (Booty, "History of the 1559 Book of Common Prayer" in BCP 329).

Some of the appointed Scriptural readings which included descriptions of the Last Judgment were: Acts 17:31; 2 Peter 3:9-13; 2 Cor. 5:10; 1 Cor. 4:4-5; 2 Thess. 1:7-10; and Jude 1:6-8 ("Proper Lessons To Be Read" and "An Almanac for Thirty Years," BCP 27-47).

7 Cordelia, like Edgar, embodies Christian constancy; she gives especially eloquent voice to the doctrine of mercy when she hears how her deadly sisters had locked their doors against their father in the apocalyptic storm: "Mine enemy's dog, / Though he had bit me, should have stood that night / Against my fire" (4.7.36-38). The shining thread of mercy is interwoven in Lear with the harsh poetic justice described in these famous lines: "The Gods are just, and of our pleasant vices / Make instruments to plague us" (5.3.170-71).

8 Yet another reading of these much discussed lines concludes that the three characters may refer to death itself. Kent laments the death of good people like Lear and Cordelia in such terrible circumstances ("Is this the promis'd end?"). Edgar adds that the horrible scene they behold is the first of many deaths ("Or image of that horror?"). Albany's remark reinforces that despair; once you die, there is nothing more ("Fall and cease"). For this interpretation I am indebted to Pastor Elizabeth Eaton and Father Conrad Selnick of Ashtabula. Ohio.

9 Eaton and Selnick have conjectured that several apparently Christian references in the last scene may not be chance occurrences; Shakespeare may have deliberately chosen them to soften the bleakness of the final events. (A pre-Christian setting did not require exact theology.) Edmund repents, providing the audience with a sense of resolution. Albany promises punishment and reward like the Christian God of the Last Judgment, thus providing a sense of justice and completion.

Some vocabulary has rich Christian connotations. Referring to the dead Goneril and Regan, Albany says, "This judgment of the heavens, that makes us tremble, / Touches us not with pity" (5.3.231-32). Lear says that if Cordelia lives, "It is a chance which does redeem all sorrows / That ever I have felt" (266-67). And Kent speaks of his imminent death as a journey he must undertake: "My master calls me" (322. Above italics mine).

Works Cited

Barber, C. L. "On Christianity and the Family: Tragedy of the Sacred." Twentieth Century Interpretations of King Lear: A Collection of Critical Essays. Ed. Janet Adelman. Englewood, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1978. 117-19.

The Book of Common Prayer, 1559: The Elizabethan Prayer Book. Ed. John E. Booty. Folger Documents of Tudor and Stuart Civilization 22. Washington: Folger Shakespeare Library, 1976.

Eliot, George. Middlemarch. 1871-72. Ed. Bert G. Hornback. New York: Norton, 1977.

Fortin, René. "Hermeneutical Circularity and Christian Interpretations of 'King Lear,'" Shakespeare Studies: An Annual Gathering of Research, Criticism and Reviews 12 (1979): 113-25.

Girard, René. A Theater of Envy: William Shakespeare. New York: Oxford UP, 1991.

Keats, John. "On Sitting Down to Read King Lear Once Again" (sonnet). Poetical Works. Ed. H. W. Garrod. London: Oxford UP, 1969.

Krantz, David L. "'Is This the Promis'd End?': Teaching the Play's Conclusion." Approaches to Teaching World Literature 12 (King Lear). Ed. Robert H. Ray. 1986. New York: MLA, 1992. 136-141.

Lascelles, Mary. "King Lear and Doomsday." Aspects of King Lear: Articles Reprinted from Shakespeare Survey. Eds. Kenneth Muir and Stanley Wells. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1982. 55-65.

Mack, Maynard. Everybody's Shakespeare: Reflections Chiefly on the Tragedies. Lincoln, NE: UP of Nebraska, 1993. Chapter 8 ("We Came Crying Hither: King Lear") uses material published earlier in his King Lear in Our Time.)

——. King Lear In Our Time. Berkeley: UP of California, 1965.

Muir, Kenneth. The Great Tragedies. 1961. London: Longmans Green, 1963. 25-32.

Neale, John E. Elizabeth I and Her Parliaments: 1584-1601. 1958. New York: Norton, 1966.

Powell, Ken and Chris Cook. English Historical Facts: 1485-1603. London: Macmillan, 1977.

Ryan, Kiernan. Shakespeare. Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities P Intl., 1989.

Schoenbaum, S. William Shakespeare: A Compact Documentary Life. New York: Oxford UP, 1977.

Shakespeare, William. King Lear. Ed. David Bevington et al. 1980. New York: Bantam, 1988.

——. King Lear. Ed. Kenneth Muir. The Arden Shakespeare. London: Methuen, 1963.

Spurgeon, Caroline F. E. Shakespeare's Imagery and What It Tells Us. 1935. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1966.

Weittrich, Joseph. "Image of that Horror": History, Prophecy, and Apocalypse in King Lear. San Marino, CA: Huntington Library, 1984.

Williams, Penry. The Tudor Regime. 1979. Oxford: Clarendon P, 1983.

Young, Bruce W. "Shakespearean Tragedy in a Renaissance Context: King Lear and Hooker's Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity." Approaches to Teaching World Literature 12 (King Lear). Ed. Robert H. Ray. 1986. New York: MLA, 1992. 98-104.

Further Reading

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

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

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

Analyzes the relationship between Lear and his daughters using Freud's conception of family obligation.

Boehrer, Bruce Thomas. "King Lear and the Royal Progress: Social Display in Shakespearean Tragedy." Disorder and the Drama. Renaissance Drama, New Series, edited by Mary Beth Rose, Vol. XXI, pp. 243-61. Evanston: Northwestern University Press and The Newberry Library for Renaissance Studies, 1990.

Maintains that the concept of "royal progress" (the extended entertaining of a monarch undertaken by visiting castle after castle) underlies the structure of King Lear, and that the tragedy ensues when Lear presumes to separate this royal privilege from his role as king.

Brown, John Russell. Introduction to King Lear, by William Shakespeare, edited by John Russell Brown, pp. viii-xx. New York: Applause, 1996.

Offers an overview of the play, discussing early performances, plot, later theatrical history and criticism.

Cox, Catherine S. "'An excellent thing in woman': Virgo and Viragos in King Lear." Modern Philology 96, No. 2 (November 1998): 143-57.

Studies issues of gender identity in King Lear, examining in particular the ambiguous characterization of Lear's daughters. Cox maintains that the play both "valorizes" and "denigrates" women and that ultimately it rejects what it considers to be "'unnatural' gender."

Foakes, R. A. "Textual Revision and the Fool in King Lear." In Lear from Study to Stage, edited by James Ogden and Arthur H. Scouten, pp. 109-22. Madison: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1997. Reprinted from Trivium 20 (1985).

Explores contradictory interpretations of the Fool based on differences between the Fool's role in the Quarto and Folio versions of the play.

Gardner, Helen. "King Lear (1967)." In King Lear: Critical Essays, edited by Kenneth Muir, Garland Publishing, Inc., 1984, pp. 251-74.

Emphasizes the unity of action, characterization, and language of King Lear and notes the qualities of the play that distinguish it from Shakespeare's other tragedies.

Matz, Robert. "Speaking What We Feel: Torture and Political Authority in King Lear." Exemplaria VI, No. 1 (Spring 1994): 223-41.

Maintains that throughout the entire play, King Lear presents the audience with images of torture, both literal and figurative. Matz suggests the link between these scenes of torture and the fears of treason and torture during the end of Queen Elizabeth's reign.

McAlindon, Tom. "Tragedy, King Lear, and the Politics of the Heart." Shakespeare Survey: An Annual Survey of Shakespeare Studies and Production 44 (1992): 85-90.

Examines the image of the heart in King Lear, arguing that the play "appeals more profoundly both to the heart and the mind than any other play of Shakespeare's."

McEwan, Neil. "The Lost Childhood of Lear's Fool." Essays in Criticism 26 (1976): 209-17.

Studies references in King Lear to the Fool in order to determine the Fool's age and suggests that the part might appropriately be played by a youth.

Oyama, Toshiko. "The World of Lear's Fool—The Dramatic Mode of His Speech," in Shakespeare Studies, Vol. 2, 1963, pp. 10-30.

Studies the language and rhetorical style of the Fool, arguing that the Fool's use of logical argumentation and his dialogue with Lear heightens the tragic mood of the play and intensifies the ambiguity of Lear's situation.

Reid, Stephen. "In Defense of Goneril and Regan." American Imago 27 (1970): 226-44.

Argues that Goneril and Regan accurately appraise Lear's condition at the beginning of the play as weak and feeble and demonstrate a normal (as opposed to evil) reaction to Lear's favoring of Cordelia. Reid demonstrates that only through the course of the play are the two sisters corrupted by power.

Smith, Donald M. "'And I'll go to bed at noon': The Fool in King Lear." Essavs in Arts and Sciences V, No. I (May 1976): 37-45.

Reviews the role of the Fool in King Lear in order to determine the Fool's effects upon the play.

Stern, Jeffrey. "King Lear: The Transference of the Kingdom." Shakespeare Quarterly 41, No. 3 (Fall 1990): 299-308.

Explores the psychological and personal motivations for Lear's division of his kingdom, arguing that the public and political implications of this division are less crucial.

Whitehead, Frank. "The Gods in King Lear." Essays in Criticism: A Quarterly Journal of Literary Criticism XLII, No. 3 (July 1992): 196-220.

Analyzes references to superhuman powers in King Lear, arguing that the characters in King Lear seem to accept that no such forces control the world or human destiny.

Willeford, William. "The Sovereign Fool: The Tragedy of King Lear." In The Fool and His Scepter: A Study of Clowns and Jesters and Their Audience, pp. 208-25. Chicago: Northwestern University Press, 1969.

Maintains that the Fool highlights the disintegration of Lear's kingdom and that other elements of "clowning," such as Lear's mock trial, point to this disintegration as well.


From Leir to Lear


King Lear (Vol. 61)