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King Lear

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King Lear, written circa 1605-06, is considered by many to be Shakespeare’s darkest tragedy. The play is set in the early history of Britain and centers upon the foolish and ultimately destructive actions of a delusional king. As the play opens, Lear demands a display of love from his three daughters before dividing his kingdom among them. His youngest daughter Cordelia, though loyal, refuses to take part in this empty ceremony and Lear banishes her. Cordelia's devious sisters, Regan and Goneril, plot to dethrone the king and drive him from the kingdom. In the end, Lear realizes his misjudgment and dies holding the body of Cordelia who has returned to fight for him. Likewise, Gloucester, who is the central figure in the play’s subplot, is betrayed by his illegitimate son Edmund who is attempting to oppose the legitimate heir Edgar. In the course of the play, Lear is driven mad and Gloucester blinded. Since it's introduction, King Lear has confounded audiences and scholars with its dark, seemingly hopeless conclusion. In fact, for more than a century an alternative version of the play, with a more uplifting ending, was often performed; it wasn't until the 1820s that Shakespeare's original version was restored to the stage. Modern scholarship on King Lear is typified by a focus on the meaning of Shakespeare's ending, the application of new gender theory, and the influence of social history.

Scholars have applied their emerging understanding of Elizabethan society aggressively to Shakespearian studies; the resulting scholarship on King Lear varies widely in focus. For instance, in her 1996 essay, Cristina León Alfar challenges the extensive body of existing gender theory on King Lear. Focusing on Goneril and Regan, Alfar maintains that rather than representing evilness and the antithesis of prescribed female attributes, Goneril and Regan look out for their own interests effectively in the patrilineal society in which they exist. She argues that critics would not find fault with these characters if they were male, thus reflecting a double standard in the academic community which Shakespeare did not necessarily share. David Margolies (see Further Reading) states that King Lear is about society and a new social order in which the individual played an increasingly powerful role. Margolies outlines the dichotomy between characters who represent traditional and conventional ways of thinking, such as Lear, Edgar, Kent, and Gloucester, and those who promote the emerging political philosophy of individualism and personal advantage, such as Goneril, Regan, Cornwall, and Edmund. Margolies argues that by exaggerating the differences between these two types, Shakespeare heightened the conflict and focused attention on changing roles. Considering King Lear's relation to the transfer of power from Queen Elizabeth to James I, William Zunder (1997) argues that Shakespeare was concerned with the politically troubling times of the early seventeenth century. Zunder believes that Lear's behavior is a commentary on aristocracy and the monarch and that the play spotlights the tension between the former feudal order, as represented by Gloucester and Lear, with the new social order characterized by Edmund. Jerald W. Spotswood (1998) addresses the play’s radical transition in social structure. He maintains, in opposition to earlier scholarship, that in King Lear Shakespeare did not describe, and thus promote, a society in which authority is subverted and the social order inverted. Rather, like other Renaissance drama, the play reflects a transition in which previously held beliefs about inheritance and elitism were questioned but class distinctions were maintained.

Other scholars have focused on the language and structure of King Lear. In his 1997 essay, Brian Crick writes candidly about the complexity of the play and its baffling conclusion. He admits that while attempting to explain King Lear to university undergraduates he suffered a crisis of faith, doubting his own mastery of the play. Through his exploration of the relationship between Lear and Cordelia, Crick attempts to regain his comprehension. Douglas Burnham (2000) studies the nature of narrative, theoretically outlining its characteristics and applying them to King Lear. He argues that the nature of narrative, which aims to create order from chaos, is essential to comprehending this play. Paul W. Kahn (2000) maintains that in King Lear, Shakespeare explored the mutually exclusive nature of love and power. He critiques the opening scene, arguing that the love trial is, in fact, a political trial. Such literary critics as William Zak (1984) and Thomas Kennedy (1999) are fascinated by the relationship of Shakespeare's version of King Lear to other sources. Both scholars contend that Shakespeare based his play on The True Chronicle History of King Leir (c. 1588). Zak states that Shakespeare demonstrated that suffering does not always lead to wisdom while Kennedy argues that Shakespeare placed spiritual values over material circumstances.

Cristina León Alfar (essay date 1996)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10138

SOURCE: “King Lear's ‘Immoral’ Daughters and the Politics of Kingship,” in Exemplaria, Vol. 8, No. 2, Fall, 1996, pp. 375-400.

[In the following essay, Alfar challenges feminist interpretations of Goneril and Regan as evil, maintaining that the characters are merely a reflection of the violence in their patrilineal society.]

Traditionally, King Lear's eldest daughters are labelled villains. Most critics dismiss them as stock characters, conventional representations of “evil,” and focus on the complexity of male characters or on Cordelia. Their “evil” is defined by acts of will, power, desire, sexuality—acts which disrupt both conventional morality and the patrilineal order's1 definition of “appropriate” femininity and consequently must be met with punitive consequences. However, the presumption that Goneril and Regan are “evil” reifies female subjectivity as stable and whole, rather than multiple and complex. While the sisters plot against their father, engage in extramarital affairs with the same man, and stand by as Gloucester's eyes are gouged out, I argue that these actions are not evidence of their innate “evil” but are symptomatic of the patrilineal structure of power relations in which they live and to which they must accommodate themselves. I also argue that the play interrogates that structure.2 Kathleen McLuskie contends that a

feminist reading of [King Lear] cannot simply assert the countervailing rights of Goneril and Regan, for to do so would simply reverse the emotional structures of the play, associating feminist ideology with atavistic selfishness and the monstrous assertion of individual wills. Feminism cannot simply take “the woman's part” when that part has been so morally loaded and theatrically circumscribed.3

On the contrary, I argue, it is the goal of feminism to interrogate the moral judgements which define Goneril and Regan as monstrous. To do otherwise is to fuse sex with gender, to condemn women's assertions of will while supporting those of male characters, such as Lear. My reading of King Lear, therefore, asks whether or not Goneril's and Regan's answers to their father's command that they publicly speak the degrees of their love is not so much calculatedly malicious as it is a formal response required by the ceremony of power being invested by a still-living king. In fact, their willingness to play Lear's game in order to attain political power is condemned by subsequent critics, I argue, because they are women who transgress the traditional expectations of their gender by desiring political power, by exercising and defending that political power rather than by behaving in putatively appropriate and moral forms of femininity. They rule not by conventional “womanly” virtues of amity, reconciliation, and mercy, but by the Hobbesian values of patrilineal authority: suspicion, deception, and violence.4 I want to suggest, in this sense, that Shakespeare exposes the violent nature of a patrilineal system by placing power in the hands of women. Rather than offering us an absolutist vision of good against evil, King Lear discloses the patrilineal tradition which limits female subjectivity, female assertions of power and opposition. My reading of King Lear, then, challenges traditional interpretations of Goneril and Regan as spoiled and ungrateful daughters and argues that they reject a separate and culturally defined feminine “morality” in order to make their actions conform to the brutal nature of kingship.5

Significantly, as Ann Thompson has noted, a great deal of criticism of the play remains fixated on fathers and “male power relationships, class and property … [and] the role of Edmund.”6 Only recently have a few feminist critics focused on the problem of the absent mothers in the play, but even this analysis is fixed primarily on Lear and Gloucester.7 Other criticism which might be called feminist ignores Lear's eldest daughters, attributing their “evil” to archetypal dimensions of the characters or to the misogyny of their creator.8 Perhaps some of the most disturbing analyses come from feminist critics who, unintentionally, reify the image of woman as either “good” or “evil” while contributing significant analyses of women in Renaissance drama. Lisa Jardine persuasively argues that women characters so often labeled “strong” by critics are really expressions of masculine anxiety about female power.9 However, she then sets apart from these women Lady Macbeth and Titus Andronicus's Tamora—and I would assume by association Goneril and Regan whom she later identifies as examples of “not-woman” (109) and “the devilish scolds” (110)—as

surreally-threatening female figures … [who] carry a good deal less actual dramatic weight than the “strong” women I have discussed. … [T]hey are not really intended seriously, they are too much in excess, even of the strongest patriarchal perception of “woman's place.”10

Janet Adelman, who acknowledges that Lear's behavior toward his children resembles “the rage of an abandoned infant,” nonetheless observes that

Goneril and Regan develop into monsters. … [They] become the principle of female autonomy run mad, playing out the logic through which female autonomy must mean annihilation of the male.11

Though Adelman argues that Goneril and Regan are “the cannibalistic witch-children which [Lear] has made,12 she never argues that Lear's rage engenders inevitable and even appropriate rage on the part of his daughters. On the contrary, her use of “cannibalistic” suggests that Goneril and Regan are, in fact, monstrous in their transgression against humanity. I submit instead that Shakespeare was no misogynist and that, in fact, as Jonathan Dollimore argues in regard to Edmund, Shakespeare's complex characterization of Goneril and Regan suggests that they are not necessarily “evil.”13 Rather, Goneril's and Regan's ruthlessness is motivated politically and psychologically by the brutal nature of kingship, and by Lear himself.

Because Goneril and Regan are often accused of acting in their own interest rather than in that of their kingdom, I want to emphasize what other critics have argued: Lear's reasons for splitting the monarchy, for stepping down from the throne, are presented by Shakespeare as personal as well as political. Lear's demand that his daughters measure their love for him in order to receive the largest portion of land is an exploitive use of his authority. His expectation that filial affection and gratitude will eclipse political ambition is at best naive; at worst, his command for public declarations of love breeds resentment by forcing his daughters to cement alliances with Cornwall, Albany and either France or Burgundy in a public performance. His plan fuses his daughters' value on the marriage market with a stabilizing of their positions within the monarchy. It is also evidence of his assumption that all three daughters will respond according to traditional definitions of womanhood, with love, compassion, and a desire to care for an aged father.14 While all three daughters' stability within the monarchy is seemingly secure, Lear stages a performance based on powerless and dutiful femininity which rings false before the two oldest daughters respond to his request. He miscalculates the responses of all three of his daughters, as we know, who answer first in order to achieve power and second to cement marital alliances. The scene which Lear so carefully choreographs with his opening speech disintegrates in the face of Cordelia's “Nothing.”15 As Cavell also notes, Lear's staged combination of political business and familial affection collapses because he forces one to depend on the other.16 Having set up the love contest not because he is too old to continue running the kingdom but because he desires a guarantee that Cordelia will always love him first, Lear's rage results from his realization that no such guarantee exits.17 I want to suggest that in King Lear the self-interest which Lear displays is systematic to power relations in a hierarchical, patrilineal state. Lear himself reveals that he never intended to give the largest portion of land to the daughter who said she loved him most, but to Cordelia. His admission betrays his interest in manipulating his kingdom, his power, and his daughters to satisfy his personal need for Cordelia's “kind nursery” (1.1.124); Lear's concern for the best interests of his nation, then, is suspect.18

Goneril and Regan, perceiving the conditions of their advancement to power, comply with Lear's demands, unlike Cordelia. Their replies, rather than exhibiting their insincerity, take their cue from their father's formality and tendency for hyperbole.19 Lear's opening speech sets the style, in fact, for the rest of the scene:

          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
Unburden'd crawl toward death.
.....          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?

1.1.37-41, 48-53

Lear's speech is significant for several reasons, not the least of which is his success at making the stakes absolutely clear. The political and economic power he offers is no small motivation for his eldest daughters' obedience when they speak. His method of utterance is also significant. Exaggerating his age and weakness, Lear approaches the ceremony he has arranged theatrically. Filled with kingly importance, his use of the royal “we” is practiced and ceremonial. His ego expands, fills the hall, and orders his daughters to feed it, unmasking the investment of ego and control of women and children in settling of money and power crucial to the maintenance of patrilineal power. Lear exaggerates his infirmity—he is hardly crawling toward death—partly because he wants Cordelia near him, but also because the grand style fits the awesome nature of his retirement. As he prompts his daughters to say “which loves us most,” he also seems to say, “Take your cue from me, and make your declaration of love as theatrical as you can.” As a model of kingship, he presents his court with a spectacle in which each movement, word, and purpose emphasizes his benevolence toward his daughters and their great love for him.

When Goneril and Regan accept his proposition and declare the depth of their love for him, they play by his rules, not their own. They obey their father's command and express their loyalty. In keen imitation of her father's capacity for exaggeration, Goneril answers that she loves her father

Dearer than eyesight, space, liberty,
Beyond what can be valued, rich or rare,
No less than life, with grace, health, beauty, honor;
.....A love that makes breath poor, and speech unable.

1.1.56-58, 60

And Regan, struggling to top her sister's answer, asserts that Goneril

          comes too short, that I profess
Myself an enemy to all other joys
Which the most precious square of sense possesses,
And find I am alone felicitate
In your dear Highness' love.


Using hyperbole as the expected manner of reply, Goneril and Regan comply with the conditions of their inheritance. Their exaggeration in this respect comes at the instigation of their father, not as most critics claim, as a result of their own “evil” and malicious natures. If, as most critics also admit, Lear's division of the kingdom is “a decision that violated the accumulated wisdom of Elizabethan statecraft,”20 why condemn his two eldest daughters for taking part? Instead, we must see their obedience to Lear not just as evidence of their political ambition, which it is, but also as performances which respond appropriately to the theatrics of Lear's ceremony. As Bruce Thomas Boehrer notes,

Lear's words seek to mediate between the expression of unforced loyalty and the imposition of rewards and punishments. On the one hand his daughters' love must be freely offered because … it is “beyond what can be valued” (1.1.57); yet on the other hand that very love is subject to an elaborate set of pressures and constraints.21

Because the contest is not meant, except superficially, to provide evidence of family love but to demonstrate Lear's power over his children, as their king as well as their father, the scene makes familial love an effect of power and the power differential Lear emphasizes.22 He uses love to satisfy his desire for control even as he relinquishes political power.

While Goneril and Regan clearly exaggerate their love for Lear, they are not yet actively hostile to him. Goneril's and Regan's brief exchange at the end of this scene further suggests that neither of the sisters intends any malicious plan in regard to Lear, but that, instead, like their father, they wish to protect their new authority:


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


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


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


Such unconstant starts are we like to have from him as this of Kent's banishment.


There is further compliment of leave-taking between France and him. Pray you let us hit together; if our father carry authority with such disposition as he bears, this last surrender of his will but offend us.


We shall further think of it.


We must do something, and i' th' heat.


This exchange is often read as evidence of Goneril's and Regan's malice toward their father, if not as an actual plot to do him harm. I have quoted it almost in its entirely, then, to propose that nothing of the kind is revealed or plotted. Because Lear has ensured that their “love” is a function of power, Goneril's and Regan's efforts to protect their power certainly have a potential to ride roughshod over their father. However, at this point, no active plot against him surfaces. Rather, the sisters agree that what they have witnessed is typical of his past behavior; the banishment of their sister and of Lear's closest adviser, Kent, is confirmation once more of his rashness.

Significantly, their conference acknowledges no more than what Kent himself attempted to show Lear. Banishing Cordelia and refusing her a dowry achieves nothing but heartache for Lear, who, as his elder daughters observe, does not seem to realize just how much he will miss his youngest daughter. Long-buried and just resentments come to the surface and reveal that Goneril and Regan understand that the public love test enacted a displacement of power with love. While their father may have surrendered his power to them, his actions against Cordelia betray his inability to separate power from his love for her. Having just been invested with monarchical power, if not the title, Goneril and Regan express concern over the likelihood that their father—who in his rashness has just banished the two people closest to him—will in similar displays of temper, exert the power he retains as the symbolic head of state, with no small retinue of knights, to retake political power. Therefore, having complied with the terms of inheritance which required them to act as dutiful daughters, Goneril and Regan begin to take control. They plan to forge a united front from which any attempts on Lear's part to regain the crown can be fought. Their “plot” is nothing more than an agreement to discuss further how to respond to their father's inconstancy of mind, an agreement which does not include a threat against his life. At the same time, their conversation exemplifies the suspicious nature of kingship. Just as their father refused to be undermined by Kent's objections to his acts, Goneril and Regan understand that power must ever be on guard against usurpation and subversion. They will rule, then, in a fashion similar to Lear's.

Conflict arises, however, in act one, scene four when Goneril asserts her new power over a Lear unwilling to submit to his daughter's authority. When Lear takes up residence with Goneril, it is with the understanding that, as he makes clear,

          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.


It is no surprise to Goneril, then, that Lear arrives with one hundred knights or that she is responsible for their up-keep. However, their behavior and Lear's evident unwillingness to control them or himself both surprises and angers her. Because Goneril has just become joint ruler with her husband of half the nation, her frustration in this scene is motivated by her desire to reflect that power. To do so, she must maintain an authoritarian position for her servants as well as for her subjects. When Oswald informs her that Lear is undermining that authority by chastising and physically assaulting her servants, she is understandably upset.

Did my father strike my gentleman for chiding of his Fool?
.....By day and night he wrongs me, every hour
He flashes into one gross crime or other
That sets us all at odds. I'll not endure it.
His knights grow riotous, and himself upbraids us
On every trifle.

1.3.1, 3-7

Goneril's speech illustrates legitimate motivation for her anger. Rather than focusing on court business, and just when she should be occupying a position of authority. Goneril finds herself distracted by petty disputes and expected to defer to her father's royal commands as if nothing has changed. She has not, then, been given the freedom of a monarch, nor has she escaped her father's control by becoming queen. The anger which Goneril feels results from her impotence as monarch so long as her father continues to usurp the control which is now rightfully hers. Two conflicts have arisen between Goneril and Lear, though many critics see only one. More than a domestic dispute between a father and a daughter, the struggle which begins in this scene is also political; Lear's demands and the behavior of his knights manifest themselves as a political threat in Goneril's mind, “set[ting] us all at odds.” She and her sister are of one mind “[n]ot to be overrul'd” (1.3.16), and her subsequent appeal to him is an attempt to maintain a hierarchical order in which Goneril rules and Lear respects her authority.

Significantly, Goneril contains her anger long enough to state her case to her father rationally. Not yet having fully adopted the ruthlessness of patrilineal forms of power, Goneril explains to her father the disruptive nature of his behavior:

I had thought, by making this well known unto you,
To have found a safe redress, but now grow fearful,
By what yourself too late have spoke and done,
That you protect this course and put it on
By your allowance.
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 disorder'd, so debosh'd 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 grac'd palace. The shame itself doth speak
For instant remedy. Be then desir'd
By her, that else will take the thing she begs,
A little to disquantity your train,
And the remainders that shall still depend,
To be such men as may besort your age,
Which know themselves and you.

1.4.204-9, 238-52

Goneril's speech is significant for two reasons. First, unlike Lear, who reacts explosively to Kent's and Cordelia's unexpected responses to his spectacle in act one, scene one, Goneril explains to her father the nature of her complaint and the resolution she hopes to achieve with him. Clearly, Goneril also asserts her independence, showing her father that she means to be more than a figure-head. As queen of her half of the kingdom, she argues that the inhabitants of her castle must behave with decorum and respect for the business of a court. She reminds Lear that he must set an example for the men in his train by respecting her position. Such persuasion suggests that Goneril has not yet entirely committed herself to the ruthlessness of her father's monarchical example. Second, while her request that he reduce the number of his knights comes only after Lear begins to lose his temper at her request for subduing his men, Goneril's attempt at negotiation is veiled none-too-subtly in a warning. She intends to reduce the number of his retainers whether he agrees or not. But that, as well, is evidence of the power she believes she is entitled to as queen. Like her father, who was, after all, her model for the exercise of monarchical power, she uses her power as an inducement for him to comply with her request “voluntarily.” Like her father, Goneril tinges her request with the shades of a threat. Nevertheless, the matter of her request is reasonable and posed in such a way that reflects her respect for her father's position as she appeals to his aged wisdom and his ability to control the men who are loyal to him. While she knows her father's temperament to be explosive rather than reasonable, Goneril humors her father rather than immediately making demands.

While traditionally critics have not believed Goneril's assessment of the situation, Lear succeeds in proving her version of events by his response. “Darkness and devils!” he explodes,

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


Predictably, Lear rejects his daughter and his paternity of her. Lear expects unquestioned obedience. Goneril wants respect and that request angers Lear because to give his daughter respect is to yield power to her. As far as Lear is concerned, Goneril's petition reflects only her disloyalty to him, reflects, in fact, that she cannot be his daughter. But Lear's power is limited; he cannot banish Goneril as he did Kent and Cordelia. As a punishment for stripping him of his power and identity, Lear assaults his daughter with his rage:

Hear, Nature, hear, dear goddess, hear!
Suspend thy purpose, if thou didst intend
To make this creature fruitful.
Into her womb convey sterility,
Dry up in her the organs of increase,
And from her derogate body never spring
A babe to honor her!


Lear spits a scorching curse at Goneril, giving his daughter the motivation which will fuel her response to him throughout the remainder of the play. Like his curse and banishment of Cordelia, his curse of Goneril reaches hyperbolic hysteria. His malediction makes Goneril into a monster. She is not only a “degenerate bastard” but a

marble hearted fiend,
More hideous when thou show'st thee in a child
Than the sea-monster.


Goneril's body shrinks, shrivels, and metamorphoses until she is no longer recognizably a woman. Instead, she is a “creature” devoid of femininity, devoid of reproductive and nurturing abilities because Lear believes that Goneril herself is devoid of conventional feminine—and obsequious—feeling. Lear's disfigurement of his daughter's body is symptomatic of his fear of the female body, which in his mind is a site of pollution and disease.23 As Lear progresses from a curse of his daughter's womb and its seed, to his own polluted state in having fathered this “creature,” this monster of a woman, the female body as the site of “evil,” what Edgar later calls, “the dark and vicious place” (5.3.173) becomes fearful and loathsome.

The effects of Lear's curse—sterility and the cutting off of the lineage—would effectively disrupt the patrilineal system. Gayle Whittier notes that “[s]ince the bonds of fatherhood are in large part nominal bonds, they can only be repudiated by cursing, specifically, through the womb itself.”24 Lear struggles with having fathered Goneril and simultaneously dehumanizes her by making her into a monster. His complicity in the conception of this woman reminds Lear of the sexual act, of the female body he entered at her conception. His rage against this daughter makes that act despicable and vile, culminating in a curse which slashes as deeply as a rape. Disassociating himself from the sexual act by disowning Goneril, Lear attempts to illegitimize her claim to the throne. Lear's curse not only mutilates his daughter's body but renders her valueless in a patrilineal order which marks women's worth through their patrimony and through their function as the bearers of children. Because the transmission of power in the kingdom depends on Goneril's inheritance of the throne and on her ability to have children, Lear could not have made a more stinging curse.

While Lear's misogyny is significant on its own, the humiliation and abuse which Goneril experiences in this scene motivate her subsequent ruthlessness and cruelty toward her father as she protects her power. Though Marjorie Garber has no lasting sympathy for Goneril, she notes of Lear's curse that “the parent, who should give life, devours; the womb becomes transformed into a consuming mouth, the vagina dentata of psychology and anthropology.”25 In this light, Goneril's anger and rush to send word to Regan about their father's unwillingness to see reason becomes understandable. Lear's blistering abuse makes her determined to find an ally in her sister. It is not that Goneril, like a child, wants sympathy from her sibling after a parent's anger, but that she knows the kingdoms which she and Regan have so newly begun to rule can be taken from them. Lear makes his intentions in that regard perfectly clear. “Thou shalt find” he threatens, “That I'll resume the shape which thou dost think / I have cast off forever” (1.4.308-10). Having threatened to retake the throne and resume his monarchical authority, Lear confirms in his daughters' minds the fear which until then is merely a possibility. Their rule is not necessarily permanent, but as transitory as the love which Lear felt for Cordelia and Kent.

Goneril's and Regan's alliance becomes calculated at this point in its effort to paralyze Lear's power in order to protect their own. Their united decision to reduce Lear to fifty, twenty-five, and then no knights at all is an attempt to strip him of feudal devotees and to render him powerless to retake the throne. The sisters reveal the fear his threat engenders as they struggle with him for power—cloaked in an argument over the number of men in his train:

What, fifty followers?
Is it not well? What should you need of more?
Yea, or so many? sith that both charge and danger
Speak 'gainst so great a number? How in one house
Should many people under two commands
Hold amity? 'Tis hard, almost impossible.
Why might not you, my lord, receive attendance
From those that she calls servants or from mine?
Why not, my lord? If then they chanc'd to slack ye,
We could control them. If you will come to me
(For now I spy a danger), I entreat you
To bring but five and twenty; to no more
Will I give place or notice.


The daughters' diminishment of Lear's train is clearly calculated, but not as a heartless attempt to humiliate their now powerless father. On the contrary, their calculations reflect their right to the political power with which Lear invested them. Their strategy also takes heed of Lear's actual power and reflects their grasp of the sincerity of his threats: with his men, he might be able to form a greater army to retake the throne. They attempt to lessen the threat which one hundred knights might pose against them.26 Despite Lear's retention of the title, in order to continue enjoying its privileges, he gave up the material power of kingship to his daughters and their husbands, retaining merely the symbolic power. And I argue that the material power which his daughters now possess never included the requirements of mercy. Because women rule, we cannot assume that their power will derive from traditional definitions of femininity. Judging from Lear's own example, kingship means ruthlessness—not just against strangers and traitors, but against family as well. His daughters rule in perfect imitation of their father, acting to preserve the power given them. Rather than assuming that Goneril and Regan disrupt the patriarchal order as Barbara C. Millard argues,27 we must see that Shakespeare exposes the violence of patrilineal structures of power by granting that power/authority to women who rule in a patrilineal fashion rather than according to naturalized gender distinctions.

While Lear, by himself, poses relatively little threat, the King of France, with Cordelia by his side and at the instigation of Kent, has invaded England, against Goneril and Regan, with the intention of reestablishing Lear on the throne. For all intents and purposes, then, the kingdom which Goneril and Regan inherited is under siege, and anyone caught acting in sympathy with Lear or France is a traitor. Certainly, any military action on France's part which threatens the stability of England's crown must be seen by those wearing that crown as an act of war.28 Similarly, any action on the part of English subjects which threatens those who wear the crown must be seen as treason and rebellion. Gloucester, by this logic, in possession of a letter which reveals France's imminent arrival and having arranged for the safe passage of Lear to those who represent Cordelia in Dover, has committed treason.29

Clearly, Cornwall, Regan, and Goneril view Gloucester as a traitor when Edmund makes his father's part in the letter known. Once Oswald confirms that Gloucester “hath convey'd [Lear] hence” accompanied by

Some five or six and thirty of his knights,
.....Who, with some other of the lord's dependants,
Are gone with him toward Dover, where they boast
To have well-armed friends,

3.7.15-16, 18-20

the will to survive both politically and physically motivates their torture of Gloucester. As a traitor to their government, Gloucester suffers no more than any other traitor30—in fact he does not suffer death because “the form of justice” (3.7.25), or a proper arraignment, has not been conducted and later because Regan thrusts him out of doors in her concern for the wounded Cornwall. If we want Regan to show mercy to Gloucester, we are imagining that her duties as ruler should be limited by the fact of her being a woman. Instead, we must acknowledge the requirements of her role as ruler in a kingdom under attack by invaders, which include the methods by which the stability of the nation can be preserved; in Renaissance England those methods are ruthlessness, torture, and cruelty. Filial ingratitude takes a secondary part in these actions, then, rather than a primary part, as Tennenhouse claims.31 A politics which requires those in power to survive in the face of military threats motivates the actions which dominate the last three acts of the play. Significantly, however, the scene works to deconstruct that ruthlessness rather than to justify it; Shakespeare's choice to set the blinding of Gloucester on stage illustrates the play's anxiety about the violence of kingship and its abhorrence of that violence. Gloucester's blinding enacts images of violent power in the name of political security which cannot be dismissed by an audience.32

The sisters' instinct for survival is also evident in their involvement with Edmund. Their affairs with him function in two possible ways. First, for many critics their liaisons testify to the sexual license which is symptomatic of female “evil.” The transgressions against putatively gender-appropriate conduct which make Goneril and Regan “evil” always include acts of unlawful desire.33 That Goneril pursues Edmund despite her husband's good health is a symptom of the same “evil” she exhibits as she chastises her father in her desire to maintain her power. Regan's contract with Edmund, though it takes place after Cornwall's death, makes her faithfulness while her husband lived suspect and further reinforces the “evil” she exhibits while helping Cornwall gouge out Gloucester's eyes. But I argue instead that their attraction to Edmund is symptomatic of the power which both women need in order to rule. As women, they do not possess power in any culturally constructed sense but are subject to their culture's definition of femininity as weak and subservient. While neither sister behaves in traditionally feminine terms, their interest in Edmund suggests that each of them feels the need of a powerful, and therefore masculine, ally. Goneril, erroneously, believes that her husband does not possess the violent power necessary for kingship; and Regan's husband, once quite effective in his ruthless hold on power, is now dead. Edmund, however, possesses the masculinist ruthlessness which Goneril and Regan need to rule. Goneril explains most effectively her objections to Albany's method of rule after Oswald describes his less than enthusiastic reaction to her return:

It is the cowish terror of his spirit,
That dares not undertake; he'll not feel wrongs
Which tie him to an answer. Our wishes on the way
May prove effects. Back Edmund, to my brother,
Hasten his musters and conduct his pow'rs.
I must change names at home, and give the distaff
Into my husband's hands.


Goneril ridicules her husband's manhood, describing him as feminine, weak, and forgiving. In her eyes, the very nature of rule is rigid, unforgiving, violent, and consequently masculine. Her reference to changing gender roles with her husband in order to take charge of the escalating conflict illustrates her masculinist conception of power. Realizing that her husband flinches at her mode of rule, she identifies him as feminine, discards him as an ally, and searches for a substitute who will stabilize her power.

Hungry for power, Edmund is willing to assume the ruthlessness which has now become a necessity for both women. Goneril looks to him to give her the power which her husband cannot: “My most dear Gloucester!” she confides to him as he leaves her to return to Cornwall,

          O, the difference of man and man!
To thee a woman's services are due,
A fool usurps my bed.


Sexual roles, in Goneril's mind, also conform to patrilineal interests. Edmund, because he is willing to sacrifice all for power, fulfills Goneril's definition of a sexually potent man. Her husband, however, deserves her infidelity. Similarly, Regan, now widowed, turns to Edmund as an ally who exudes the same power as her husband. Regan's claim to him is the more legitimate, she feels, because her husband is dead (4.5.30-32). In fact, he has already begun officially to represent her, as she informs Albany:

          He led our powers,
Bore the commission of my place and person,
The which immediacy may well stand up,
And call itself your brother.


Both sisters seize on Edmund as a symbol of masculinist power, as a means to legitimize their own desire and exercise of power, through an affiliation with the new Earl of Gloucester.

Goneril's and Regan's power collapses, however, despite their attempts to consolidate it. The feud over Edmund which separates the sisters intensifies as their attention is forced toward war and the forces which would reinstate Lear. Regan's public announcement of her marital and political alliance with Edmund seemingly checkmates her still-married sister. But Goneril determines not to allow her sister that victory, revealing in an aside that the monarchy takes second place to her fight for Edmund: “I had rather lose the battle, than that sister / Should loosen him and me” (5.1.18-19). But in the quickness of the last act's movement, Albany's confrontation of both Edmund and his wife with their plot against him forces the crisis. Before Regan can officially make her title Edmund's, Albany takes action against all three of them:

          Edmund, I arrest thee
On capital treason, and in thy attaint,
This gilded serpent [pointing to Goneril]. For your claim fair sister,
I bar it in the interest of my wife;
'Tis she is sub-contracted to this lord,
And I, her husband, contradict your banes.
If you will marry, make your loves to me,
My lady is bespoke.


Albany's sarcasm, compounded by accusations of treason and monstrosity, work their intended purpose. Edmund is taken off guard by Edgar; Goneril, also taken off guard, stays long enough to hear the allegations against Edmund, but exits in defiance of the indictment her husband makes against her. Regan, poisoned by her sister, is doubly paralyzed. The power which all three children sought to protect is taken away by Albany and Edgar with disarming swiftness.

Such an ending suggests that “evil” is righteously overcome by good. Certainly, the majority of critics argue such a thesis. However, in contrast with similar endings to tragedies written by Jacobean dramatists not long after King Lear, the re-establishment of order out of chaos is not so easily argued. First of all, neither Goneril nor Regan accept Albany's identification of themselves as monstrous, “serpent” women. Without a hint of the self-condemning speeches of Middleton's Beatrice-Joanna and Beaumont's and Fletcher's Evadne, or even the brief lines of Webster's Vittoria Corombona, Regan and Goneril die ever-defiant of Albany's moral righteousness. Goneril's exit, in particular, illustrates her refusal both to subscribe to her husband's evaluation of her as monstrous and to give up power and submit to the accusations which he brings against Edmund and herself:

Say if I do [know], the laws are mine, not thine;
Who can arraign me for't?
Most monstrous! O!
Knows't thou this paper?
Ask me not what I know. Exit.


As the last lines which she speaks, Goneril's continued scorn for the power structure which her husband now, and Lear earlier, represent, keeps her from internalizing his moral judgement of her as monstrous. Goneril's suicide is not like Evadne's in Beaumont and Fletcher's The Maid's Tragedy, who, as I have argued elsewhere, kills herself as a sacrifice to her husband, her brother, and the patrilineal order—and as a way to recoup her own honor;34 Goneril's suicide is an act of resistance to the punitive consequences which Albany plans. While suicide traditionally signifies religious despair, I would argue that if Goneril feels despair, it is not religious, but political, for she refuses to acknowledge Albany's claim to power or his control of the law. Catherine Belsey argues that “[s]uicide re-establishes the sovereign subject. … As an individual action, therefore, suicide is a threat to the control of the state.”35 In this light, Goneril's suicide is not enacted to reinsert herself into the “social body,” in Belsey's words, as is Evadne's. Instead, she acts to guarantee her self-definition as a monarch against the state which would control her by defining her uses of power as immoral.

Similarly, Regan's death, though instigated by her sister, is punctuated by neither apologies nor regrets on her part. Unlike so many “evil” women characters, particularly in Jacobean drama, Regan does not take an opportunity before her death to repent her “crimes.” In fact, even as she begins to feel the effects of Goneril's poison, she asserts her power, “creat[ing] [Edmund] here, / [Her] lord and master” (5.3.77-78). While she may not know she is dying, the lack of a self-deprecatory speech in the face of imminent defeat is significant.36 I would argue that both Goneril's and Regan's refusal to internalize patrilineal definitions of “moral” femininity suggests a refusal on Shakespeare's part to condemn them wholly for their actions.

As for their plot to kill Lear, I would note that we have no real proof that any such plot exists; Gloucester provides only hearsay in that matter. Though he tells Kent, “I have o'erheard a plot of death upon him” (3.6.89), we know that Gloucester's ability to overhear the truth is suspect. This is the man, after all, who heard Edgar plot against his own life in a conversation with Edmund. Further, Edgar does not accuse Goneril or Regan of anything; notably, his whole attention is dedicated to the betrayal he and Gloucester suffered at Edmund's hands. While Edgar's accusations against his brother seek justice, he does not appear interested in delivering the same justice to Lear's older daughters. Goneril and Regan, whose inheritance of the crown is legitimate, seem less immediately culpable than the bastard usurper. Finally, that Goneril kills her sister and then kills herself is important because no representative of Albany's or Edgar's “moral” order takes that action. While they seem to have internalized patrilineal dictates by asserting their monarchical power in violent fashion, neither woman allows patrilineal morality to define her identity or question her authority.37

It is Edmund, rather, who is made to face the wrath of the patrilineal system in the form of his brother Edgar, Edmund who internalized the structure's definition of his “nature” as “evil” (5.3.244-45). His wrongs seem to be greater because he had no legitimate claim to royal power. Yet we know that Edmund's illegitimacy is also a construct of the same patrilineal order which Goneril and Regan resist in their death. Edmund's “wrongs” are as constituted by patrilineal configurations of power as is Goneril's and Regan's “evil.” As Dollimore contends,

Edmund's scepticism is made to serve an existing system of values; although he falls prey to, he does not introduce his society to its obsession with power, property, and inheritance; it is already the material and ideological basis of that society.38

Edmund's putative betrayal of his father and brother is a response to old and deep-seated resentments, as is Goneril's and Regan's betrayal of Lear. As a bastard, Edmund is not entitled to power, to legal existence. Consequently, only attaining Edgar's inheritance will satisfy him, for verbal acknowledgment pales in comparison to legal acknowledgment. And we know the quality of acknowledgment this bastard receives from his father in act one, scene one—acknowledgment to which Gloucester is “braz'd” (1.1.11), crudely laughing off the “sport at his making” (1.1.23).39 Gloucester's reference to Edmund as his mother's son reveals his anxiety about the young man's paternity. Because a guarantee of paternity is of the utmost importance in a patrilineal order, Edmund can never be anything more than a source of irritation and anxiety. When Edgar, the legitimate, confronts Edmund as a traitor in the name of God, father, and brother, Edmund's skepticism and rebellion collapse:

What you have charg'd me with, that have I done,
And more, much more, the time will bring it out.


Like Evadne, Edmund accepts and internalizes the patrilineal order's condemnation of his desire as “evil.”

Edgar's entrance in act five, scene three, suggests Gillian Murray Kendall, begins the play's return to order.40 On the contrary, I would argue. As a victim of the patrilineal order's ruthlessness, perhaps Edgar promised the greatest potential for a modification in the structure of power relations. But instead he enters as the patrilineal system incarnate, armed, wielding a sword in the very name of vengeance against one who dared threaten the patrilineal order. He chooses to ignore his brother's youth, eminence, valor and heart because patrilineal morality accepts no excuses, admits no motivation for rebellion. The “moral” codes which relegated Edmund to illegitimacy support patrilineal interests and power. True to the structure which made him legitimate heir, Edgar cannot see beyond his brother's treason to that structure. Such treason can be answered only with the sword:

My name is Edgar, and thy father's son.
The gods are just, and of our pleasant vices
Make instruments to plague us.
The dark and vicious place where thee he got
Cost him his eyes.

5.3.170-74 (emphasis mine)

Displacing the responsibility of Edmund's act of rebellion onto the immorality and pollution of female sexuality, Edgar betrays his own anxiety about Edmund's illegitimacy.41 His anxiety discloses his inability to envision a new order and testifies to the efficiency of the patrilineal order's moral codes. As a product of those codes, Edgar, like his bastard brother and Lear's “immoral” daughters, functions within a ruthless and brutal structure of power. I cannot assert, then, with Morris Henry Partee that “the play, which began with Lear's coupling of irresponsibility and absolute power, concludes with Edgar's declaration of a new spirit of moderation and duty”42—because Edgar in fact returns to and in the spirit of vengeance against the bastard usurper. His moral duty lodges firmly with the patrilineal order which Lear and Gloucester founded on absolutist and unforgiving principles. The suffering and marginalization Edgar experienced might in some other play have taught him mercy, but such an opportunity is irrevocably lost as Edgar champions patrilineal moral authority with the violence of his sword.

I argue, therefore, that the brutality with which Lear, Gloucester, Goneril, Regan, and Edmund rule leads each of them to their annihilation.43 The play seems to suggest more than that ruthless uses of power lead to annihilation, that, rather, the nature of power itself demands violence and brutality, and leads, therefore, to annihilation. Thus, patrilineal forms of power are exposed as flawed and in need of revision, which, as I have argued, Edgar cannot enact. Yet as Dollimore argues,

In the closing moments of Lear those who have survived the catastrophe actually attempt to recuperate their society in just those terms which the play has subjected to sceptical interrogation. There is invoked first a concept of innate nobility in contradistinction to innate evil and, second, its corollary: a metaphysically ordained justice.44

Though Dollimore contends that the play resists that recuperation in the deaths of Cordelia and Lear (203), I would argue that Edgar's entrance enacts just such a recuperation. Absolute power is enacted through violence whether in the hands of men or women. In this light, the closing scene merely confirms the violent and resilient nature of power, evidencing Shakespeare's discomfort with a system of power relations for which even he cannot envision an alternative.

Like Dollimore's reading of Edmund, my reading of Goneril and Regan argues that their obsession with power is a symptom of the patrilineal tradition of brutal kingship. Arguments which contend that subversion of traditional gender performance equals monstrosity force the sisters to occupy an ideologically moral position in contemporary criticism as “evil.” Such arguments distort Shakespeare's portrayal of them, ignoring the possibility that a critical comment on patrilineal structures of power inheres in their characterization. The almost universal critical reaction against Goneril and Regan reifies the vision of woman as kind, nurturing, forgiving, and ignores the position in which these two women find themselves. Once the bidding is over and the kingdom is theirs, they are no longer just daughters or wives. They are queens, monarchs, in a system of power relations which values mercilessness, vengeance and cruelty to defend its interests. Goneril and Regan cannot, therefore, rule within the limitations of their gender. Instead, they must subscribe to the brutal nature of kingship. Consequently, Goneril and Regan do not “imperfectly replicate [Lear]” as Adelman argues;45 rather they replicate him quite perfectly. Dreher notes that “the logic of the [play] condemns them, not because they rebel against traditional feminine passivity, but because in so doing they become cruel and inhuman tyrants.”46 I would argue instead that the logic of the play requires Goneril and Regan to rebel against traditional feminine passivity to become cruel tyrants, to become monarchs. Significantly, however, the real, palpable violence does not begin until Lear curses Goneril, wishing her sterile, disowning her, and threatening to retake the throne in act one, scene four, establishing that Goneril and Regan have motivation for their desire to strip him of power. I would like to recoup King Lear, therefore, as a potentially feminist text which exposes the marginalization of women from acts of power and desire—as a text which interrogates the nature of patrilineal power and uncovers its brutality. Because power has been defined in traditionally masculine terms, we can see that King Lear exposes the masculinist structure of kingship as necessarily vengeful and destructive. In this respect, the “immorality” of Goneril's and Regan's choices can be read as symptoms of the patrilineal structure of power relations in which they live and as responses to the limitations placed on them, rather than as evidence of inherent “evil.”


  1. I use the term “patrilineal” in place of “patriarchal” to emphasize the materiality of masculinist interests putatively stabilized by peaceful transmission of property. The term “patriarchal” describes a male-dominated culture, but fails to account for the cause of women's oppression in that culture. “Patrilineal,” on the other hand, accounts for both male domination and women's oppression through women's position as property. As Constance Jordan has shown, women are exchanged through marriage, in part, to act as a “guarantee” of peaceful relations among families; see Renaissance Feminism: Literary Texts and Political Models (Ithaca, N. Y.: Cornell University Press, 1990), 47. But that guarantee is a phantasmic construction, rendering patrilineal interests continually insecure.

  2. There are several analyses which do not insist on Lear's or Cordelia's goodness, Goneril's and Regan's “evil,” and Shakespeare's misogyny. Only Stephen Reid attempts a full defense of Goneril and Regan based on Oedipal and sibling rivalries, “In Defense of Goneril and Regan,” American Imago 27 (1970): 226-44. Claire McEachern defends Shakespeare from accusations of misogyny, but centers her defense on Cordelia rather than the two elder daughters, “Fathering Herself: A Source Study of Shakespeare's Feminism,” Shakespeare Quarterly 39.3 (1988): 269-90. Thomas McFarland's analysis of family relations avoids delineations of good against “evil”; see “The Image of the Family in King Lear,” in On King Lear, ed. Lawrence Danson (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985), 91-118, especially 98. Paolo Valesio, in a rhetorical analysis of act one, scene one, argues that Cordelia, no less than Goneril and Regan, desires the kingdom, rejecting her father's rhetorical framework (flattery) to position herself, advantageously, against her sisters. Valesio's analysis deconstructs both Goneril's and Regan's “evil” and Cordelia's virtue; see his Novantiqua: Rhetorics as a Contemporary Theory (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1980), 41-60. Jonathan Dollimore notes that Lear's behavior with all of his daughters is based on a particularly brutal hierarchy, Radical Tragedy: Religion, Ideology and Power in the Drama of Shakespeare and His Contemporaries, 2nd ed. (Durham, N. C.: Duke University Press, 1993), 199.

  3. Kathleen McLuskie, “The Patriarchal Bard: Feminist Criticism and Shakespeare,” in Political Shakespeare: New Essays in Cultural Materialism, ed. Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield (Ithaca, N. Y.: Cornell University Press, 1985), 102.

  4. Stephen Greenblatt makes a similar argument in regard to the Henriad in Shakespearian Negotiations: The Circulation of Social Energy in Renaissance England (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), 20-65.

  5. Ann Thompson urges feminist critics not to “give up” on King Lear, “Are There Any Women in King Lear?” in The Matter of Difference: Materialist Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare, ed. Valerie Wayne (New York: Harvester, 1991), 117-28. In agreement with her, I argue that the play “dramatizes the material conditions which lie behind power structures within the family … and the threat posed to those structures by female insubordination” (126) and appropriations of power. I have attempted, therefore, to pose a materialist/feminist reading which highlights “the oppression of women within social and political structures” (127). Consequently, I have chosen to focus solely on the two sisters and not to extend my reading to Edmund, though clearly my argument applies to his culturally derived class as a bastard and as, according to Stanley Cavell, “the central evil character” of the play; see Disowning Knowledge in Six Plays of Shakespeare (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 76.

  6. Thompson, “Are There Any Women,” 119.

  7. On Lear's gendering of hysteria, see Coppélia Kahn, “The Absent Mother in King Lear,” in Rewriting the Renaissance: The Discourses of Sexual Difference in Early Modern Europe, ed. Margaret W. Ferguson, Maureen Quilligan, and Nancy J. Vickers (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986), 33-49. See also Janet Adelman's study of female sexuality as contamination, Suffocating Mothers: Fantasies of Maternal Origin in Shakespeare's Plays, Hamlet to The Tempest (New York: Routledge, 1992), especially 103-29; and Madelon Gohlke (Sprengnether), “‘I wooed thee with my sword’: Shakespeare's Tragic Paradigms,” in The Woman's Part: Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare, ed. Carolyn Ruth Swift Lenz, Gayle Green, and Carol Thomas Neely (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1980), 150-70.

  8. See Harry Berger, Jr., who establishes a dichotomy between “good” characters and “self proclaim'd knave[s],” in his “Text Against Performance: The Gloucester Family Romance,” in Shakespeare's “Rough Magic,” ed. Peter Erickson and Coppélia Kahn (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1985), 211; and Linda Bamber who argues that Lear is an example of Shakespeare's misogyny because Goneril and Regan, along with Lady Macbeth and Volumnia, are “nightmare females … not just women who are evil; their evil is inseparable from their failures as women,” Comic Women, Tragic Men: A Study of Gender and Genre in Shakespeare (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1982), 2. See also Marianne Novy who claims that “Few of [Goneril's and Regan's] lines carry hints of motivations other than cruelty, lust, or ambition, characters of the archetypal fantasy image of women as enemy,” Love's Argument: Gender Relations in Shakespeare (Chapel Hill: North Carolina University Press, 1984), 153; and Diane Elizabeth Dreher for whom Goneril and Regan are “Shakespeare's evil women … sociopaths, individuals without conscience or empathy, motivated only by power and appetite,” Domination and Defiance: Fathers and Daughters in Shakespeare (Lexington: Kentucky University Press, 1986), 105-6.

  9. Lisa Jardine, Still Harping on Daughters: Women and Drama in the Age of Shakespeare (New York: Columbia University Press, 1989).

  10. Ibid., 98.

  11. Adelman, Suffocating Mothers, 118.

  12. Ibid., 119; emphasis mine.

  13. Dollimore, Radical Tragedy, 198.

  14. On Lear's “stubborn reliance on the myth of the ‘eternal feminine’” see Claudette Hoover, “Women, Centaurs, and Devils in King Lear,Women's Studies 16 (1989): 349-59, at 88. Hoover's indictment of Lear's misogyny does not stop her, however, from labeling Goneril and Regan “evil” (93).

  15. King Lear 1.1.89, in The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974). All further references to King Lear will be to this edition and cited parenthetically in the text. However, I have deleted the editorial brackets used in this edition; the brackets remaining, which indicate modifications from the original quotations, are my own.

  16. Cavell, Disowning Knowledge, 67.

  17. Adelman, Suffocating Mothers, 116; Mark J. Blechner, “King Lear, King Leir, and Incest Wishes,” American Imago 45 (1988): 309-25; Kahn, “Absent Mother,” 33-49; Mark Taylor, Shakespeare's “Darker Purpose:” A Question of Incest (New York: AMS Press, 1982); and Kay Stockholder, “Sex and Authority in Hamlet, King Lear, and Pericles,Mosaic 23.3 (1985): 17-29, agree that Lear's “darker purpose” is a reflection of his desire to keep Cordelia under his control. For discussions of Lear's reaction to Cordelia's “Nothing,” see Jeffrey Stern, “King Lear: The Transference of the Kingdom,” Shakespeare Quarterly 41.3 (1990): 299-308; and McEachern, “Fathering Herself,” 269-90.

  18. Johannes Allgaier focuses on Lear's authority over his daughters in the love test to argue that Shakespeare wrote a play interrogative of patriarchal authority. While Allgaier's point is that Cordelia's refusal to obey the authority of her father places her in a position of virtue which her sisters cannot share, he seems to assume that a real choice not to obey exists for all of Lear's daughters—a choice which would not require them to taste of banishment and illegitimacy. Allgaier's analysis assumes both that Lear asserts tyrannical power and that Goneril and Regan are complicit with it, accusing Goneril and Regan of “allow[ing] themselves to be raped and … becom[ing] spiritual prostitutes in the process” (1035) because of their obedience to Lear's love test; see “Is King Lear an Antiauthoritarian Play?” PMLA 88 (1973): 1033-39. That King Lear is an anti-authoritarian play is my point; however, I hope to extend that argument from the authority of a father over his daughters to argue that the play as a whole uncovers authority in its uniquely patrilineal and monarchical form as destructive and violent in nature.

  19. See Valesio, Novantiqua, 41-60 passim.

  20. McFarland, “Family,” 102. Dreher argues that “[t]o Shakespeare's contemporaries, [division of the kingdom] would have been shocking, grievously contrary to primogeniture and the cosmic order” (Domination, 64). See also Leonard Tennenhouse, Power on Display: The Politics of Shakespeare's Genres (New York: Methuen, 1986), especially 134-42.

  21. Bruce Thomas Boehrer, “King Lear and the Royal Progress: Social Display in Shakespearean Tragedy,” Renaissance Drama (1990): 247.

  22. McFarland also notes that Lear “fallacious[ly] assum[es] that power and love are interchangeable. … Thus Lear's initial confusion as to what pertains to a king and what pertains to a father sets in motion the [play's] tragic descent” (“Family,” 100, 104).

  23. Hoover effectively illuminates Lear's misogyny, rooted in his fear and loathing of the female body and its sexuality. She reads Lear's reference to Goneril's copulation with a centaur as a symptom of Lear's associations of his daughters with sexual pollution-associations which also include references to Eve, witchcraft, and death. But Hoover's conclusion that Lear ultimately succeeds in rejecting that misogyny “as a necessary prelude to his reunion with his daughter Cordelia” reads that reunion with more optimism than I can; see “Women,” 349. Adelman's analysis of Lear's misogyny in this scene is more persuasive (Suffocating Mothers, 103-29).

  24. Gayle Whittier, “Cordelia as Prince: Gender and Language in King Lear,Exemplaria 1 (1989): 372. Whittier's article offers an important analysis of the spectre of the female body which haunts the play and exposes patriarchal nausea at female sexuality. Unlike my argument, however, hers maintains that nausea is evidence of Shakespeare's misogyny (367, 368).

  25. Marjorie Garber, Coming of Age in Shakespeare (New York: Methuen, 1981), 152.

  26. On the threat which Goneril and Regan perceive in Lear's retainers, Tennenhouse notes (Power, 136) that

    When Lear resigns the throne, the retainers operate only as the symbols of a power once located in Lear. Detached from the legitimate right to exercise power, they suddenly pose a potential threat to legitimate authority.

  27. Barbara C. Millard, “Virago with a Soft Voice: Cordelia's Tragic Rebellion in King Lear,Philological Quarterly 68.2 (1989): 150-53, passim.

  28. Valesio notes in regard to Cordelia's arrival with a French army (Novantiqua, 58), that

    we think we are wise and moral because we blame Goneril and Regan, because we “see through” their scheming. … [Yet] the bulk of the army has been lying in ambush … thus [we have not realized] that Cordelia's scheming has escaped us.

  29. Jay Halio has suggested that we should consider an argument which moves beyond attributing Gloucester's blinding to the malevolence of Regan and Cornwall. However, Halio favors a psychoanalytic analysis of Gloucester's blinding as symbolic of castration, “Gloucester's Blinding,” Shakespeare Quarterly 43.2 (1992): 221-23. I would like to pursue instead the suggestion that the immediate political situation in fact does—under patrilineal/monarchical configurations—demand ruthless treatment of anyone deemed a traitor.

  30. For accounts of treason and uses of torture in Renaissance England, see James Heath, Torture and English Law: An Administrative and Legal History from the Plantagenets to the Stuarts (London: Greenwood, 1982); and Elizabeth Hanson, “Torture and Truth in Renaissance England,” Representations 34 (1994): 53-84.

  31. Tennenhouse, Power; 138.

  32. See Robert Matz, who argues that “torture provides a response to King Lear's potentially subversive questioning of monarchic authority,” in “Speaking What We Feel: Torture and Political Authority in King Lear,Exemplaria 6 (1994): 223.

  33. On the intersection between adultery and women's transgressive agency, particularly murder of the husband, see Frances E. Dolan, Dangerous Familiars: Representations of Domestic Crime in England, 1550-1700 (Ithaca, N. Y.: Cornell University Press, 1994), especially 38-48.

  34. See Cristina León Alfar, “Staging the Feminine Performance of Desire: Masochism in The Maid's Tragedy,Papers on Language and Literature 31.3 (1995): 313-33.

  35. Catherine Belsey, The Subject of Tragedy: Identity and Difference in Renaissance Drama (New York: Routledge, 1993), 124-25.

  36. See Anne M. Haselkorn who argues that “patriarchal values” are reasserted through the penitent confessions of Jacobean adulteresses, “Sin and the Politics of Penitence: Three Jacobean Adulteresses,” in The Renaissance Englishwoman in Print: Counterbalancing the Canon, ed. Anne M. Haselkorn and Betty S. Travitsky (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1990), 119-36.

  37. It can be argued that Goneril and Regan resemble Cleopatra and Juliet in their refusal to submit to patrilineal structures of power which they do not themselves control. Cleopatra's suicide is certainly a response to the imminent arrival of Caesar, and Juliet's suicide is an act of resistance to her father's will; both women see death as a “power” they hold over themselves.

  38. Dollimore, Radical Tragedy, 198.

  39. See Cavell's analysis of Gloucester (Disowning Knowledge, 48-63) who, he argues,

    recognizes the moral claim upon himself … “to acknowledge” his bastard; but all this means to him is that he acknowledge he has a bastard for a son. He does not acknowledge him, as a son or as a person, with his feelings of illegitimacy and being cast out. … Gloucester['s] shame … is shown … by the fact that [he] has to joke about [Edmund]: Joking is a familiar specific for brazening out shame, calling enlarged attention to the thing you do not want naturally noticed.

    48, 49

    Cavell's sympathy with the bastard Edmund does not extend to Goneril and Regan, however. For Cavell, Regan is “evil” (53) and her “mind is itself a lynchmob” (63).

  40. Gillian Murray Kendall, “Ritual and Identity: The Edgar-Edmund Combat in King Lear,” in True Rites and Maimed Rites: Ritual and Anti-Ritual in Shakespeare and His Age, ed. Linda Woodbridge and Edward Barry (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), 241.

  41. See Dollimore, Radical Tragedy, 203.

  42. Morris Henry Partee, “Edgar and the Ending of King Lear,Studia Neophilologica 63 (1991): 175.

  43. See Valesio, who argues (Novantiqua, 59) that

    The tragedy is that none of the three factions (the king, Goneril and Regan, Cordelia) succeeds in its intent, and the scepter falls from their grip after all of them have scrambled in blood and desperation to conquer it.

  44. Dollimore, Radical Tragedy, 202.

  45. Adelman, Suffocating Mothers, 108.

  46. Dreher, Domination, 106.

William Zunder (essay date 1997)

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SOURCE: “Shakespeare and the End of Feudalism: King Lear as Fin-de-siècle Text,” in English Studies: A Journal of English Language and Literature, Vol. 78, No. 6, November, 1997, pp. 513-21.

[In the following essay, Zunder highlights Shakespeare's concern with the end of feudalism and the accession of James I.]

Shakespeare probably wrote King Lear in the years immediately following the death of Elizabeth and the accession of James I in 1603; and the play evinces a strong sense of an ending. There is, for example, Gloucester's speech in Act I, Scene 2, after the disastrous division—or, rather, non-division (I.1.126-38)—of the kingdom, Lear's banishment of Cordelia, and Edgar's supposed plot against his father. It is a speech in which Shakespeare connects a discourse of contemporary history with the discourse of the play. It is delivered partly to Edmund on an otherwise empty stage and partly to the early seventeenth-century London audience; it is part naturalistic exchange and part choric comment. And it immediately establishes a parallel, by displacement, between the action of the play, firmly placed in the British past, and the current times in which Shakespeare and his fellow Londoners were living. ‘These late eclipses in the sun and moon’, says Gloucester, probably referring to the eclipse of the sun on 2 October 1605 and that of the moon a month earlier on 27 September:

portend no good to us: though the wisdom of Nature can reason it thus and thus, yet Nature finds itself scourg'd by the sequent effects. Love cools, friendship falls off, brothers divide: in cities, mutinies; in countries, discord; in palaces, treason

—very likely a reference, among other things, to the Gunpowder Plot of November of the same year—

and the bond crack'd 'twixt son and father.

Then the connection with the play's discourse:

This villain of mine comes under the prediction; there's son against father: the King falls from bias of nature; there's father against child.

And a final choric comment to the audience on the predicament shared by playwright, actors, characters, and audience alike. They are all living through a moment of apocalypse:

We have seen the best of our time: machinations, hollowness, treachery, and all ruinous disorders follow us disquietly to our graves.


There is, in fact, a close intertextuality between this passage and the New Testament, which saw natural and civil disorder as a prelude to the end of the world and which would have been familiar to Shakespeare and his characteristically bourgeois and protestant audience.2 At the end of the play, the intertextuality is even more overt. Edmund's repentance comes too late; and as he is carried off, Lear enters with the dead Cordelia in his arms. His words are full of pathos and addressed to the assembled, and now triumphant, party round Albany:

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. 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.


The response by Kent, Edgar, and Albany himself, who by this stage of the play represent some kind of normality, constructs for the audience a reading of Lear and Cordelia—Lear still alive, but Cordelia definitely dead—as a representation of the end of the world. ‘Is this the promis'd end?’, asks Kent. ‘Or image of that horror?’, asks Edgar. Either way, at this particular moment, Albany wants the end to come: ‘Fall and cease’ (V.3.262-3).

More is involved, however, than a sense, perhaps a shared sense, that history has ended; more even than a momentary wish that history should end. There is a further sense that, instead of the new heaven and new earth promised by Revelation (XXI-XXII.1-5), the end of history will actually usher in a new age of unprecedented inhumanity. The millenarianism that was to nourish the middle, revolutionary decades of the seventeenth century is conspicuously absent from this text. In Act IV, Scene 2, after his change of heart, Albany confronts Goneril with her and Regan and Cornwall's cruel treatment of Lear:

                                                                                                    What have you done?
Tigers, not daughters, what have you perform'd?
A father, and a gracious aged man,
Whose reverence even the head-lugg'd bear would lick,
Most barbarous, most degenerate! have you madded.
Could my good brother suffer you to do it?
A man, a prince, by him so benefited!

The speech then shifts. And Shakespeare again draws on a convention of naturalism at the same time as a convention of choric comment; this time to allow the text to deliver a warning and a prophecy both to Goneril and to the audience. ‘If’, Albany continues, ‘that the heavens do not their visible spirits / Send quickly down to tame these vile offences’, then, he prophesies:

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


There is an irony here because, in terms of the play's narrative, the prophecy has already come true. Unknown to Albany (or Goneril), but known to the audience, Gloucester's eyes have just been plucked out on stage by Cornwall: a moment that functions in the drama as an archetypal instance of cruelty and inhumanity. And the prophecy is confirmed for both audience and characters alike when a few lines later, in a move highly characteristic of Shakespearean dramaturgy, a messenger enters and announces not only Cornwall's death, ‘Slain by his servant’ (IV.2.71), but also the blinding of Gloucester.

What is the origin of this double sense that Shakespeare's generation were witnesses not only to the end of history but also to the inauguration of a new world order of unparalleled rapaciousness; a sense that bears such an uncanny resemblance to our own, postmodern condition? It seems insufficient to invoke nostalgia at the death of Elizabeth or regret at the passing of the previous regime; or to point to the widespread prophecies current at the time that Elizabeth's death would provoke an apocalypse in the state.3 A more fruitful point of departure would seem to be the deeply fissured nature of the text.

Ever since A. C. Bradley at the head of the twentieth-century tradition of criticism of Lear, the text has been seen as radically divided.4 On the one hand is the group of characters centred on Lear, Gloucester, and Kent; and on the other, those centred on Edmund, Goneril, and Regan. For Bradley, writing from a position of late Victorian idealism, this was a largely allegorised opposition between selflessness on the one hand and selfishness on the other; an opposition that interrogated, and prompted the audience to interrogate, the nature of a universe divided between good and evil. A materialist criticism, however, while starting from the same recognition of a deep fissure in the text, is likely to view the two parties somewhat differently; and perhaps the first characteristic to note is that the parties are separated, in the first instance, by a difference of generations. Lear's great age is emphasised from the beginning; Gloucester is the father of both Edmund and Edgar; and Kent, though young by modern standards (he is 48), is presented as a man in the twilight of his years. Edmund, Goneril, and Regan are their children. Lear, then, and those around him, are a representation of the traditional, feudal order; while Edmund, supremely, and those around him are a representation of the current generation in the process of replacing them. Given the displaced nature of the text, they are Shakespeare's generation.

The representation of the traditional order is not, however, unmixed. At the outset of the play, Lear behaves like a feudal magnate, dividing the kingdom up into dowries for his daughters as if it were his personal property, without regard to the unity or welfare of the state or to the obligations of rule. The dowries, moreover, are—foolishly—unequal. Gloucester is similarly naive, and easily led by the nose by Edmund. Kent remains true to the old values, but is deeply betrayed by the king. He attempts to interrupt Lear as he is banishing Cordelia (I.1.119). When he is finally able to speak, the words Shakespeare gives him are a classic articulation of feudal ideology. ‘Royal Lear’, he says:

Whom I have ever honour'd as my King,
Lov'd as my father, as my master follow'd,
As my great patron thought on in my prayers,—

Lear is uncompromising: ‘The bow is bent and drawn; make from the shaft’. But Kent continues:

Let it fall rather, though the fork invade
The region of my heart: be Kent unmannerly,
When Lear is mad. What would'st thou do, old man?
Think'st thou that duty shall have dread to speak
When power to flattery bows? To plainness honour's bound
When majesty falls to folly. Reserve thy state;
And, in thy best consideration, check
This hideous rashness: answer my life my judgment,
Thy youngest daughter does not love thee least;
Nor are those empty-hearted whose low sounds
Reverb no hollowness.

Lear threatens him: ‘Kent, on thy life, no more’. But the articulation is completed:

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


More is involved here than the dismissal of one feudal lord—Kent, one remembers, is an earl—by his liege. Kent stands by the essential principle of feudalism: mutual obligation within hierarchical difference. In a sense, within the play's dramaturgy, he stands for it. Up to that moment, he has always represented the ideal for Lear to follow. As he says to Lear himself, ‘let me still remain / The true blank of thine eye’ (I.1.157-8). To banish Kent from Britain is to banish a whole way of life, a whole traditional culture; so that, from a traditional perspective, it is literally the case that, as Shakespeare makes Kent express it, ‘Freedom lives hence, and banishment is here’ (I.1.180). If the ‘old course’ has a future, it lies elsewhere; not in Britain, but a ‘country new’ (I.1.186).

More pregnant in this respect is the figure of Cordelia. Shakespeare actually gives Cordelia little to say or do in the drama. But what part she does play, and especially what is said about her, give her a luminous, ideal quality that has long been noted; an idealism quite compatible, in this text, with an at times superbly realised concrete naturalism.5 Cordelia complements the representation of feudal ideology embodied in Kent. She represents the inner humanity within feudal relations that rested upon the maintenance of mutual obligation. She is what Shakespeare in a later play was to call the ‘milk of human kindness’ (Macbeth, I.5.16). One can see this in her eventual protestations of love to her father in Act I, Scene 1. ‘I love your Majesty’, she says, ‘ / According to my bond; no more nor less’ (I.1.91-2), where the term ‘bond’ carries with it the full force of mutuality and an implication of the all-embracing range of human relationships it should inform: its all-inclusive signification within feudal discourse. She elaborates in her next speech:

                                                  Good my Lord,
You have begot me, bred me, lov'd me: I
Return those duties back as are right fit,
Obey you, love you, and most honour you.
Why have my sisters husbands, if they say
They love you all? 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.


Unlike her sisters, she is not motivated by material gain, but by obligation and love, which the text represents as ideally inseparable. As she declares much later in the play, after she has landed in Britain with a French army:

No blown ambition doth our arms incite,
But love, dear love, and our ag'd father's right.


Kent endorses her position on behalf of the text as he is about to leave the stage for exile in Act I, Scene 1. ‘The Gods to their dear shelter take thee, maid’, he says to her, ‘ / That justly think'st and hast most rightly said!’ (I.1.181-2). But it is France's eulogy of her later in the scene that contributes most powerfully to her idealisation so early in the play, to the luminosity that Shakespeare chooses to invest her in. France himself is an embodiment of the disregard for material gain that Shakespeare represents as characteristic of the old culture. He will marry Cordelia for love not wealth. And his words carry great authority in the text:

Fairest Cordelia, that art most rich, being poor;
Most choice, forsaken; and most lov'd, despis'd!
Thee and thy virtues here I seize upon:
Be it lawful I take up what's cast away.
Gods, gods! 'tis strange that from their cold'st neglect
My love should kindle to inflam'd respect.
Thy dowerless daughter, King, thrown to my chance,
Is Queen of us, of ours, and our fair France:
Not all the dukes of wat'rish Burgundy
Can buy this unpriz'd precious maid of me.
Bid them farewell, Cordelia, though unkind:
Thou losest here, a better where to find.


Lear's betrayal of feudal values involves a critique not only of the traditional aristocracy but also of the contemporary monarchy: of James I. To some extent, this is lessened—occluded, even—in the pathos of the representation of Lear in the later parts of the drama. But the precise direction of the betrayal is made clear in the first scene. In particular, there is Lear's final speech to Kent in which he banishes him. Kent is angry. And so is Lear. ‘Hear me, recreant!’, he exclaims, drawing on the discourse of feudal fealty, ‘ / On thine allegiance, hear me!’:

That thou hast sought to make us break our vow,
Which we durst never yet, and with strain'd pride
To come betwixt our sentence and our power,
Which nor our nature nor our place can bear,
Our potency made good, take thy reward.
Five days we do allot thee for provision
To shield thee from disasters of the world;
And on the sixth to turn thy hated back
Upon our kingdom: if on the tenth day following
Thy banish'd trunk be found in our dominions,
The moment is thy death. Away! By Jupiter,
This shall not be revok'd.


The direction the speech moves in is from the mutuality of feudalism—‘allegiance’ (I.1.166)—to the one-sidedness of royal absolutism: Kent has attempted to change Lear's mind, ‘Which nor our nature nor our place [as monarch] can bear’ (I.1.170). James I, of course, is a key figure in the European articulation of absolutist ideology.6 And the absolutist claims of the Stuart monarchy, especially of James's son Charles, were an important ideological precipitant of the English revolution. Here, Lear's words are clearly signalled as those of a tyrant. ‘Fare thee well, King’, Shakespeare gets Kent to respond, ‘sith thus thou wilt appear, / Freedom lives hence, and banishment is here’ (I.1.179-80). However problematically for Shakespeare himself, or for the acting company of which he was a sharer and which in May 1603 had come under the patronage of James himself, the text aligns itself, and seeks to align its audience, in favour of the traditional notion of limited monarchy, and against the developing notion of royal absolutism.

The critique of absolutism in the play is complemented dialectically by a critique, on the other side of the play's deep fracture, of individualism. Edmund is the supreme representative, indeed apologist, of this ideology in the play's discourse. The famous speech, perhaps significantly a soliloquy, in which he articulates the ideology, opens the action consequent on Lear's initial betrayal, at the beginning of Act I, Scene 2:

Thou, Nature, art my goddess; to thy law
My services are bound. Wherefore should I
Stand in the plague of custom, and permit
The curiosity of nations to deprive me,
For that I am some twelve or fourteen moonshines
Lag of a brother? Why bastard? Wherefore base?
When my dimensions are as well compact,
My mind as generous, and my shape as true,
As honest madam's issue? Why brand they us
With base? with baseness? bastardy? base, base?
Who in the lusty stealth of nature take
More composition and fierce quality
Than doth, within a dull, stale, tired bed,
Go to th'creating a whole tribe of fops,
Got 'tween asleep and wake? Well then,
Legitimate Edgar, I must have your land:
Our father's love is to the bastard Edmund
As to th'legitimate. Fine word, ‘legitimate’!
Well, my legitimate, if this letter speed,
And my invention thrive, Edmund the base
Shall top th'legitimate—: I grow, I prosper;
Now, gods, stand up for bastards!


Again the speech moves from the sanctions of feudal discourse—‘custom’, laws of ‘nations’ (I.2.3,4)—to a new position; in this case, one of unbridled rapacity. As Edmund says at the end of the scene, after the audience has witnessed the success of his resourcefulness, ‘Let me, if not by birth, have lands by wit: / All with me's meet that I can fashion fit' (I.2.180-end). Although not in any sense a direct representation of it—he is, after all, a member of the aristocracy like his brother—Edmund is, nevertheless, an embodiment of the new social order replacing the now defunct feudalism in Shakespeare's England. As Lear represents the new absolutism, so Edmund, and Goneril and Regan with him, represent the new capitalism.7

Edmund, of course, and Lear's two elder daughters are not the only members of the current generation. Nor is there an exact homology in the play between subject-position and generational difference. Cordelia, for instance, while clearly associated with Lear, is of the younger generation. And there is Edgar, only a year or so—‘twelve or fourteen moonshines’ (I.2.5)—older than Edmund. In Edgar one can see Shakespeare attempting to construct a position that will hold together the fractured and fracturing discourse of the text: a middle way between the absolutism of Lear and the acquisitive individualism of Edmund. To begin with, Edgar is like his father—gullible. Edmund, perceptive though ultimately disowned by the text, sums him up accurately:

                                                  a brother noble,
Whose nature is so far from doing harms
That he suspects none; on whose foolish honesty
My practices ride easy!


But as the play progresses, in particular as he is made to interact with his blinded and despairing father, especially in the suicide scene (IV.6), he comes to articulate the play's positive ideology. It is, in fact, first articulated by Gloucester under Edgar's tutelage. The false suicide is engineered by Edgar to counteract the death wish that surfaces at various points in the drama, and which we have already noted in Albany at the play's conclusion. As Edgar says of his father, ‘Why I do trifle thus with his despair / Is done to cure it’ (IV.6.33-4). Gloucester, unlike Lear, learns the lesson Edgar is attempting to teach him. And it turns out to be the lesson of stoicism: of endurance. After Edgar's tale of his miraculous (and false) preservation, Gloucester declares:

                                                  henceforth I'll bear
Affliction till it do cry out itself
‘Enough, enough,’ and die.


And Edgar restates the ideology at a crucial moment later in the action. Lear and Cordelia have been defeated by Edmund and the sisters. In a sense, good has been defeated: apocalypse looms. And the death wish resurfaces. ‘No further, sir’, says Gloucester, ‘a man may rot even here’ (V.2.8). To which Edgar replies, ‘What! in ill thoughts again?’; and, drawing on an emphatic, gnomic discourse, reiterates the play's position. ‘Men must endure’, he says:

Their going hence, even as their coming hither:
Ripeness is all.


To which Gloucester gives an endorsing assent: ‘And that's true too’ (V.2.end).

It is with this ideology that Shakespeare confronts the image of apocalypse at the play's end. When Lear appears on stage with the dead Cordelia in his arms, what is presented to the group round Albany—and through them to the London audience—is a representation, on the one hand, of a compromised and, however pathetic, deranged monarchy and, on the other, the end—the definite end—of all humane hope: the final end of feudalism. In the face of this, the actual historical alternative, capitalist endeavour, in which both Shakespeare and his audience were deeply and problematically implicated, is not even considered.8 Goneril and Regan have destroyed themselves, and Edmund has been killed by Edgar. Instead, there is an advocacy of endurance. No affirmation of hierarchy, no affirmation of monarchy, no affirmation of individualism: neither social nor individual hope. Simply the prospect offered to the audience through Edgar of a bleak and unstructured future:

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.



  1. Quotation of Lear is from King Lear, edited by Kenneth Muir, revised edition (London, 1985). I have also consulted The Tragedy of King Lear, edited by Jay L. Halio (Cambridge, 1992). All other quotation of Shakespeare is from William Shakespeare: The Complete Works, edited by Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor (Oxford, 1986). Quotation of the Bible is from the authorised version.

  2. See King Lear, edited by Halio, p. 117; John Holloway, ‘King Lear’ (1961), in Shakespeare: ‘King Lear’, edited by Frank Kermode, revised edition (Basingstoke, 1992), pp. 176-97; Mary Lascelles, ‘“King Lear” and Doomsday’, Shakespeare Survey, 26 (1973), 69-79; and Joseph Wittreich, ‘“Image of that Horror”: The Apocalypse in King Lear’, in The Apocalypse in English Renaissance Thought and Literature, edited by C. A. Patrides and Joseph Wittreich (Manchester, 1984), pp. 175-206, and ‘Image of that Horror’: History, Prophecy, and Apocalypse in ‘King Lear’ (San Marino, California, 1984). On Shakespeare's audience see Andrew Gurr, The Shakespearean Stage 1574-1642, second edition (Cambridge, 1980), and Playgoing in Shakespeare's London (Cambridge, 1987); and Walter Cohen, Drama of a Nation (Ithaca, New York, 1985), pp. 166-70.

  3. For a discussion of these prophecies see Wittreich, ‘Image of that Horror’, passim.

  4. Shakespearean Tragedy, second edition (1905; reprinted London, 1957), pp. 198-276. For an overview of Lear criticism in the twentieth century see my article, ‘King Lear’, in Reader's Guide to Literature in English, edited by Mark Hawkins-Dady (London, 1996), pp. 704-5. See also Ann Thompson, King Lear (Basingstoke, 1988), and ‘King Lear’: William Shakespeare, edited by Kiernan Ryan (Basingstoke, 1993).

  5. See, for example, G. Wilson Knight, The Wheel of Fire, revised edition (London, 1949), pp. 160-206; and John F. Danby, Shakespeare's Doctrine of Nature (London, 1949).

  6. See John Plamenatz, Man and Society, Volume I (London, 1963), pp. 155-208, and Renaissance Views of Man, edited by Stevie Davies (Manchester, 1978), pp. 150-78.

  7. On the transition from feudalism to capitalism in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries in England see Maurice Dobb, Studies in the Development of Capitalism, revised edition (London, 1963).

  8. On Shakespeare's bourgeois origins (he was the son of a Stratford glover) and his career as a writer engaged primarily in production for the commercial London theatre see S. Schoenbaum, William Shakespeare: A Compact Documentary Life, revised edition (Oxford, 1987), and Richard Dutton, William Shakespeare: A Literary Life (Basingstoke, 1989).

  9. For discussions which complement, and variously support, the argument articulated here see Danby, Shakespeare's Doctrine of Nature; Rosalie L. Colie, ‘Reason and Need: King Lear and the “Crisis” of the Aristocracy’, in Some Facets of ‘King Lear’, edited by Rosalie L. Colie and F. T. Flahiff (London, 1974), pp. 185-219; Paul O'Flinn, ‘Capitalism, Competition and King Lear’, in Them and Us in Literature (London, 1975), pp. 73-9; Paul Delany, ‘King Lear and the Decline of Feudalism’, PMLA, 92 (1977), 429-40; Alessandro Serpieri, ‘The Breakdown of Medieval Hierarchy in King Lear’, in A Semiotic Landscape, edited by Seymour Chatman, Umberto Eco, and Jean-Marie Klinkenberg (The Hague, 1979), pp. 1067-72; Cohen, Drama of a Nation, pp. 282-356; and Margot Heinemann, ‘“Demystifying the Mystery of State”: King Lear and the World Upside Down’, Shakespeare Survey, 44 (1992), 75-83.

Josée Nutys-Giornal (essay date 1998)

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SOURCE: “King Lear's Reflection in The Mirror of Nobody: An Iconographical Question,” in Cahiers Élisabéthains, Vol. 54, October, 1998, pp. 55-73.

[In the essay below, Nutys-Giornal traces references of the European Renaissance character Nobody to the character of Lear, and considers the relationship between verbal and visual communication in the play.]

Walter Ong and Frances Yates have already drawn attention to the curious interdependence that existed between the verbal and visual means of communication in the Renaissance. This short study proposes to look into some practical and factual interpretation possibilities based on this conception of an interaction between the visual, and the verbal in King Lear. The theatrical experience occupies a privileged position as it shares the ability to signify by means of visual signs with paintings or engravings; this however will only be treated as a secondary matter. In the first place, I wish to consider the common stock of signs and symbols used indifferently in literary texts or in pictorial expression, admitting from the outset possible links between visual images and “conceits intellectual”1. These links that might appear arbitrary to the twentieth century reader seem to have been exploited by writers of emblems and devices, engravers, painters, poets and even humanists, notwithstanding their general reluctance concerning the use of images2. Thus artists translated ideas and intellectual conceits into visual images, whether to suit intentions of mystification or edification. To that effect pre-existing popular imagery often became a vehicle for learned culture and a means to vulgarize the latter.

The Elizabethan spectator possessed a visual vocabulary enabling him to recognize the references made to pictorial types or conceits from popular engravings, emblem-books and shop or tavern signs. These references might have ranged from a simple pun creating a moment of complicity with the audience to the use of images as a leitmotif in relationship with the underlying mood of the play. I hope to show the entrance of a popular pictorial type in King Lear, and its possible use in the characterization of the main protagonist, even as its expressiveness of a certain symbolism which might disclose to us the meaning of the play.


Shakespeare officially introduces us for the first time to Nobody in The Tempest: “This is the tune of our catch played by the picture of Nobody” (III.2.127-8). The Arden edition gives some explanations concerning a character called Nobody and mentions a possible reference to a comedy entitled No-body and Some-body, published in 1606 by the printer John Trundle, who used the picture of Nobody as a shopsign. M. T. Jones Davies in the article “Ben Jonson et la satire sociale au théâtre: Anatomie et dislocation”, argues that the image used in The Tempest might refer to the sign of a tavern displaying a man having legs and arms but no trunk.4 She further links the motif to Jonson's imagery of dismemberment. A closer study of the character Nobody and its related set of themes has led me to establish a possible relationship with another of Shakespeare's plays.

Bruegel the Elder presents us with a complex character, that inherited from popular imagery as much as learned culture, wearing a fool's costume in the engraving Elck or Everyman (Plate I). This engraving brought to my notice of an article by Gerta Calmann “The Picture of Nobody”.5 The first part of the present paper, a survey of the most significative connotations of the character and its evolution throughout the sixteenth century, is largely indebted to this article, which examines the origin and related themes of the iconographical motif.

The literary history of Nobody begins in Odyssey IX, where Odysseus tricks Polyphemus by giving his name as “no-man”. When the Cyclop blames “no-man” for tormenting him, he is met with indifference. Widely diffused in folkore,6 Nobody re-emerges as an important literary theme in the Middle Ages. An angevin cleric called Radulphus dedicated a Sermo Neminis (c. 1290) to the future Pope Boniface VIII, which consisted in a collection of biblical, patristic, and liturgical references to Nemo, making up a sort of biography of the character (Nemo ascendit in coelum, John iii. 13; Deum Nemo vidit, John i. 18 etc.). As is explained in the additional notes in the Arden edition of The Tempest, this sermon, seriously intended or not, was elaborately refuted by Stephano de Sancto Giorgo in a work which condemns this new heresy of Neminianism. Even upon the seriousness of this work opinion is divided. Whatever the truth, the initial sermon later served as an example for mock-sermons in German, Dutch, French and English of which some survive. The German and Dutch humanists established “Nobody” as a satirical theme, making him a sort of universal scape-goat.

The “picture of Nobody”, was first represented in a woodcut illustrating a Sermo de Sancto Nemine (c. 1500), as an empty rectangle, “since nobody is depicted therein”. The popular figure of the ragged and bespectacled vagrant “Niemand”, is a German invention dating from the beginning of the sixteenth century. Georg Schann, a barber from Strasburg, wrote a broadsheet in which he adapts the old joke to suit his lesson in domestic morals. Niemand (Nobody), said to be responsible for all the transgressions that are committed in the household, is depicted as a vagrant wearing spectacles, a padlock on his mouth and a bird's wing in his cap, surrounded by broken household objects (Plate 2). This pictorial type was bound to become an iconographical motif that would survive for over a century. Artists like Hans Holbein and Bruegel the Elder would make use of it even as the humanists and the protestant reformers. The set of themes related to the iconographical motif will evolve along three important axes that are the popular image, the protestant image of the Welspoken Nobody and the humanist satirical theme.

The popular image of Niemand represents the lowest of mankind, a beggar and madman, one of those that experience most cruelly the want of pity. He is the vagrant wayfarer that in the literature of the Middle Ages played the part of the Fool. He is depicted as obviously destitute, ugly, with torn clothes and footwear that betrays the social status of the poor, and there's a hole in his bag. The padlock on his mouth, the bird's wing, and the spectacles denote folly.

The padlock was a symbol for silence. Plutarch, quoting Pythagoras, says that silence is a divine quality and he recommended keeping one's mouth closed as if with a key or padlock. In a woodcut, Cornelis Anthonisz depicts a wise woman with a padlock on her mouth, which signified that she knew how to be silent (Plate 3). Yet he also depicts Truth, with a padlock, threatened by a soldier, signifying that the world does not always appreciate the truth so that Truth lives in peril. Of course Nobody, in essence, is unable to tell the truth in defence against false accusations. This is why the padlock is also a sign of folly. In popular usage the person who could not speak was a fool. Later imitators of Georg Schann saw Nobody as an image of patience, silently enduring hardship.

Since their invention, spectacles had been regarded with distrust. Maarten van Heemskerck depicts Fraus (deceit) as a masked woman that sells spectacles.7 Spectacles are often used to ridicule their wearers by Bruegel the Elder, for example, and in the illustrations that accompany Sebastien Brants' Ship of Fools. They are a symbol of deceit and ignorance. The letter that Edmund tries to hide seems to be used as a pretext enabling Shakespeare to mention and/or to show Gloucester's spectacles, sign of his spiritual or intellectual blindness (King Lear I.2.32-42 and IV.1.19-21).

The bird's feathers or wings in Nobody's cap denotes folly. Cornélis Anthonisz depicts his Flighty Youth with bird's wings.8 In later portraits the birds' wing has been replaced by an owl. In popular imagery, the nocturnal bird was associated with the vagrant, travelling by night. The owl was supposed to be blind by daylight and to shun obstinately the clarity of the sun and as such it became a symbol for ignorance and error. In A Collection of Emblems, George Wither shows an owl wearing spectacles unable to see “the Rayes of Truth divine”.9 Today we are more inclined to associate the owl with Athena as a symbol of wisdom. Yet even in the sixteenth century, the bird, able to see in the dark and object of scorn to the vox populi, might also embody the idea of higher knowledge.

The character of Folly is ambiguous, as Erasmus demonstrates in his Praise of Folly. Those who treat the fool with scorn only for being an oddity do it for the wrong reasons and are laughed at in the end. Nobody's folly in the eyes of the world corresponds to the idea of the madman being wiser then the man of sense and the popular subject of the “wise fool”. The conviction that poverty was a virtue was strengthened in the sixteenth century through the influence of Spiritual Libertines like Paracelsus and Sebastien Franck. They proclaimed that God and the world are incompatible opposites; the patient poor whose very existence threw doubt on accepted worldly values, was at times identified with “God's fool”.10

It follows that Nobody is no common beggar-fool, his apparent simplicity is simply apparent, there is no doubt that Nobody is superior to his environment. We are invited to realize that he is innocent, the padlock stressing a stoic patience in the face of false accusations. He acquires the reputation of a defender of poor servants, by letting himself be accused of their small transgressions. When Holbein used the motif, he humanized Nobody by giving him a sad, melancholic attitude as he would do later with the figures of foolish persons in the margin of the Encomium Moriae of Erasmus.11 The heap of rubbish still surrounding the character comes to indicate the neglected state of the household in particular and of the world in general. As such the character appealed to humanist circles whose influence would strengthen the figure's social connotations.

Ulric Hutten, a German humanist, adapted the popular motif to his own ends. He assembled the three historical versions of Nemo or Nobody, the story from Odyssey IX, the mock-sermon on Nemo and the story of our domestic culprit, in one volume entitled Nemo published in 1510. Nemo II, a revised edition, was published in 1518. In this edition the three stories are worked into one poem. The part based on the mock-sermon serves as an outlet for his dissatisfaction with society or the world as it is and enables him to expound his humanist and religious ideas. Hutten exposes the abuses and injustice of his age for example when he exclaims: “virtue is considered nothing, and knowledge is declared ignorance”. Nobody is the only one to care:

Nobody emerges morally untainted who has tasted the poison of the courts;
Nobody liberates the city of Quirinal; Nobody comes to the rescue of suffering Italy;
Nobody wages war against the savage Turks or gladly prefers the public well-being to his own.(12)

The topsy-turviness of the world in general and of the household in particular allows the connection between these disjointed personifications and the domestic joke that follows. Among other things, Nobody seduces the wife, shares her bed and is the father of her child. Nemo II, a work commended to Erasmus and dedicated to Thomas More, amused the readers as much as it infuriated the clerks. It was translated into several languages. The poem belongs to the literary tradition which produced mock-encomia like Erasmus' Praise of Folly. These works set out to expose the essential nothingness of all temporal things and thus worldly values. Nobody or Nemo, an outlaw by conventional standards, is esteemed to be the only exception to the general madness. Robert Burton felt the need to introduce Nemo as such in his Anatomy of Melancholy:

They are a company of giddy-heads, afternoon men, it is Midsummer noon still and the Dog-days last all the year long; they are all mad. Whom shall I then except? Ulric Hutten saith, “Nemo is wise at all hours, Nemo is born without faults, Nemo is free from crime, Nemo is content with his lot, Nemo in love is wise, Nemo is good, Nemo's a wise man and perfectly happy and therefore Nicholas Nemo or Monsieur Nobody shall go free.”13

The woodcut illustrations that accompany the different editions of Nemo have altered slightly from the initial iconographical motif depicting Schann's Niemand. But Hutten was eager to exploit the popular pictorial type so that Nobody kept his main characteristics. In a Leipzig edition of 1518, Nobody is depicted as a ragged figure with a bird's nest on his head, trying to chase the hornets that fly around him. Hornets flying around the head of a person signified madness.


The Welspoken Nobody figuring on the Protestant broadsheet remains similar to the household Nobody. Still surrounded by broken houseware, wearing spectacles and birds' wings in his cap, he has however lost the padlock and his ragged garments recall those of a fool's costume (Plate 2). In 1533, Georg Schann adapted his character to serve his religious convictions. M. Hind indicates that this image of the Welspoken Nobody was known in England from 1534.15 The English version of the poem, probably printed by Wynkyn de Worde, is a bad translation of the German text. The woodcut to the English broadsheet is an exact copy of the German image. Gerta Calmann justly remarks that the protestant Nobody is proof of a close collaboration between religious reformers across national boundaries, much in the way of the humanists. The Welspoken Nobody, having lost the padlock, denounces papist idolatry and ceremony, and proclaims the truth of the new faith. Even though “All men can not abide to hear the truthe”.16

Bruegel the Elder is indebted to the popular tradition of the domestic Nobody and to the humanist satire for his adaptation of the complex image. Yet, his composition shares with the Welspoken Nobody a concern for mankind's ever-lacking wisdom. In the engraving, entitled Elck or Every man, executed after a drawing by Bruegel, (British Museum), Niemant or Nobody is gazing in a mirror. He appears in the middle background in a picture within a picture on the back wall. This time he wears a fool's costume but he is still surrounded with broken objects. A caption within the small picture, reads “Niemat-en-kent-he-selve”, translated “Nobody knows himself” (Plate I). Elck, “Chascun” or Everyman in front of the scene, is completely absorbed in his quest for riches, only concerned with private profit or “privatum commodum” as is mentioned at the top-right of the engraving.

Elck is bent under the weight of a huge bale. A similar motif is to be found in Sebastian Brant's a Ship of Fools, the illustration “Of Too Much Care” shows a fool supporting the weight of a world-globe. In the poem, Diogenes is esteemed a greater man than Alexander for “What profits it a man to win the world and loose his soul in sin?”17 Gerta Calmann indicates that Bruegel might have known an engraving by Hans Weiditz of which the composition is similar. The engraving, used as an illustration in a Dutch edition of De Officiis by Cicero, represents a merchant bent under the weight of a globe, a symbol of the worry and care of this world, in this particular case linked to the life of the merchant. Commerce on a small scale was considered an inferior occupation, to obtain salvation the merchant had to retire to the country.

The motif can also be found in Geoffrey Whitney's A Choice of Emblems (1586), the emblem with the motto “Nemo potest duobus dominis servire” in English “No one can serve two masters”, pictures a man carrying a globe on his shoulder and dragging behind him the tablets of the commandments, tied to his right ankle.18 Whitney essentially restates the conviction of the Spiritual Libertines that God and the world are incompatible opposites, the same underlying theme is present in the representations of Nobody. Thus Elck is shown bent under “Too Much Care” seeking private profit, oblivious of the smiling Nobody and significantly wearing a lamp in broad daylight—a symbol of his ignorance.

While Brant and Whitney's outlook seem still tinged with the Medieval De contemptu philosophy, Bruegel proposes a more subtle elaboration of the theme. He surpasses the vision of the villainous rich about to lose his soul and the virtuous poor promised to heaven. His representation of human folly is reminiscent of that of Brant, yet the latter had implied that man could order his life rationally inside the framework of the old church. Bruegel's observation of his fellow human beings inspired no doubt a more pessimistic message. However, Bruegel was not interested in only demonstrating a view of the world that he felt to be irredeemable. The words Nemo-Non on the bale indicate that Elck is not Nemo and that the latter is the clue to the picture.

Nobody or Niemant meditating before a mirror is a person of no importance, without possession or title, he can not be accused of self-love. In Bruegels' engraving he is dressed as a traditional fool because he is treated as such but his folly is virtue and he is wise. The mirror is an attribute of Superbia but of Prudentia also, and in Bruegel's time it had become the symbol of the means of self-knowledge—a means of introspection. This same self-knowledge recommended by Erasmus and later on by Montaigne. The motif eventually developed into an image of man's conscience as in an engraving by Maarten van Heemskerck (plate 6). In Richard II, we can find a similar set of images. The king, forced to give up the sceptre, exclaims:

Ay, no; no, ay; for I must nothing be;
[…] I give this heavy weight from off my head,
And this unwieldy sceptre from my hand,
The pride of kingly sway from out my heart;


This state of being nothing seems in a way the condition sine qua non that leads Richard II to a searching examination of himself in the following lines:

They shall be satisfied. I'll read enough,
When I do see the very book indeed
Where all my sins are writ, and that's myself
Give me that glass and therein will I read.


Commenting on the brittleness of treacherous glory he will smash the mirror to pieces. In the engraving after Maarten van Heemskerck, a man is represented holding a rod and a mirror. The caption at the bottom of the picture reads “self-knowledge inspiring the conscience with abhorrence”.19 Richard II sees himself obliged to “kiss the rod”, as the Queen contemptuously remarks, to “win a new world's crown” (V.1.24). The new world standing for life after death, Richard's humility is a pious one and not inspired by fear for Bolingbroke. Man's condition in this world is one of worry and care, be he beggar or king:

Nor I, nor any man that but man is,
With nothing shall be pleas'd till he be eas'd
With being nothing.


This seems to be what Bruegel is hinting at in his engraving, Nobody is pleased with what he contemplates in the mirror: nothing. It is interesting to consider the nature or “quality” of this nothing. (King Lear, I.2.33-4) Gerta Calmann explains that Elck and Nemo form part of man's paradoxical nature and are a picture of a psychological phenomenon:

His materialistic obsession isolates the individual, while the other part of his nature, divine reason, annihilates his isolation in the awareness of God. The reflection in the glass corresponds to the mystical conception of Nothing: not I, but God in me.20

Montaigne equally insists on this conception of man of no worth but for the reflection of God in him, and the need to extinguish human pride by privation. A woodcut by Cornelis Anthonisz conveys this mystical meaning of the mirror of self-knowledge on a more popular level. His wise woman is contemplating the image of Christ in the mirror she holds in her hand, which signifies that she has led a pious life (Plate 3). In the text accompanying the Welspoken Nobody, man's so-called perfection forms the link with God:

He hath made us perfect and therefore be glad,
For unto perfection nothing can be added.(21)

Yet the word nothing takes on a different meaning, namely quite the opposite. The author of the poem means to hint at the essential nothingness of appearances and worldly values. In the article “Much Ado About Nothing”, Paul A. Jorgensen gives an interesting account of the highly potential nature of the word. Theological treatises affirmed the original nothingness surrounding creation and the essential nothingness of all temporal things. These works shared the purpose of defending the importance of nothingness with the literary tradition of the mock encomia like Erasmus' Praise of Folly.22 The mock encomia were to a large extent related to the principle of the world upside down. Bruegel's Nobody partakes of the mystic quality of nothing and of a certain logic of nothing linked to the image of the world upside down, another favorite subject that he treated in his The Netherlandish Proverbs. In this world virtue is considered nothing and knowledge is considered ignorance. Gisèle Venet analyses the relationship between the theme of the world upside down and the universe of King Lear, in the preface to Le Roi Lear, a French translation by Jean Michel Déprats.23 Supported by her conclusions, I wish to consider the relations the play bears to a related theme, that of Nobody and his logic concerning “nothing”.


The protestant Nobody and the humanist Nemo were familiar in England in the sixteenth century and at the beginning of the seventeenth century. But Nobody is no longer the counterpart of Everyman but of Somebody, man in his social setting. Somebody is considered responsible for all the abuses of society as opposed to Nobody, a person of no importance, authority or social position. The English language permitted a pun on the form of his name which influenced his further development. By the seventeenth century, he is depicted as a little man with a head and limbs, and no trunk. This type gradually establishes itself as the dominant one. Nobody is pictured in this form for the first time in 1606 on the title page of a play called, No-body and Some-body, With the True Chronicle Historie of Elydure who was fortunately three several times crowned King of England. Printed for John Trundle and to be sold at his shop in Barbican at the sign of Nobody.

The engraving shows a bearded man with a small hat, holding what seems to be a crudely represented roll of papers in his left hand, suggesting the bonds, leases and petitions pulled out of his pockets at the end of the play. The most typical characteristic is his enormous trunk-hose, starting at his shoulders and reaching down to his knees. When Nobody first appears, his companion, the clown asks him “why do you go thus out of fashion”. Gerta Calmann states that the author of the play was familiar with Nobody the scape-goat as in his interlude he quotes almost word for word the words in the banderole above the Welspoken Nobody's head. No-body is accused of the false deeds committed by Some-body, he thus continues in his traditional role and retains his humanistic characteristics that make him defend the poor and denounce the abuses of society.

The commentators on The Tempest, mention the broadsheet of the Welspoken Nobody and the picture on the title page of the play.24 Gerta Calmann suggests that Shakespeare refers to the 1606 version, which was fresher in the people's minds when The Tempest was composed, though Shakespeare and his audience could have known either picture. It seems probable that Shakespeare thought the image appropriate as Ariel, playing the music, is invisible to Trinculo. The music thus seems played by nobody. There results an association of ideas between nobody and Nobody, an image or character known by the audience. I have not studied its implications throughout the play nor the link that might exist between the character and Caliban. Yet, the song sung by Stephano some lines above does seem to bear some relationship to Nobody:

Flout them and scout'em,
And scout'em and flout'em!
Thought is free. […]
This is the tune of our catch, played by the picture of Nobody.


These words certainly would have been appropriate in the mouth of the outcast Nobody flaying society's abuses.

Some commentators declare that King Lear was composed in 1606, at the time the comedy No-Body and Some-body, With the true Chronicle Historie of Elydure, was being published by John Trundle. Plays of this kind were popular in the 1580s and early 1590s, when histories of mythical English kings seem to have been in vogue.25 Thus the possible relationship between the history of a mythical king and that of Nobody seemed to have been an accepted one. Shakespeare must have known the figure Nobody as he refers to the “picture of Nobody” four years later in The Tempest. The other accepted date of composition is between 1604 and 1605. Yet even then a King Lear contemporary with No-body and Some-body remains possible if we consider that plays were represented before being published. The suggested date of composition for the comedy in question is 1592.26 The play was revived in 1602, and testimony to the popularity of Nobody as a comic character, can be found in Ben Jonson's Entertainment at Althorpe (June 1603), in which he introduced a character in the person of No-body'. Jonson assumed that his aristocratic audience would be amused by Nobody.27

It has been established that the protestant text, A Declaration of Egregious Popishe Impostures is an important source used by Shakespeare in King Lear. Thus Shakespeare's antipapist readings might have aroused his interest for the broadsheet, The Welspoken Nobody. Indeed some lines in King Lear are reminiscent of the Protestant text going with the picture.


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.

(King Lear, I.4.137-44)

The Arden edition of King Lear gives several suggestions in answer to the riddle of the Fool. A commentator puts forward that “That Lord” might refer to a nobleman, Lord Skalliger who gives advice to Leir about the division of the kingdom in the old play. Yet Kittredge thinks the Fool implies that nobody gave Lear such idiotic advice.28 Indeed, Lear depicted as forgetful and even senile in the first act, must have been able to devise the idiotic idea by himself.29 This is where Shakespeare, in a way, innovates on the complex tradition connected with the figure of Nobody, as Bruegel had done before him. It seems that Shakespeare chose to throw some light on the question of personal responsibility or free will. The Fool is not the only one to insist on this particular question. Edmund remarks with irony that men accuse the stars of the disasters brought about by their own behaviour. (I.2.115-30)30 This attitude amounts to accusing Nobody. Thus the Fool invites Lear to take the place of Nobody in order to attain the wisdom that he lacked as a king.

To portray Lear's predicament in the lines following the riddle, Shakespeare continues to give indications reminiscent of Nobody's essential characteristics. The Fool tells Lear that he is no longer in possession of a title, except that of a fool. As has been mentioned this is only title Nobody possesses:

Dost thou call me fool, boy?
All thy other titles thou hast given away; that thou wast born with.


The division of the Kingdom makes him lose all his former privileges, thus Lear has, socially speaking, become Nobody. When King Lear is preoccupied with the attitude of his daughter, the Fool takes care to remind him of his former position, and compares it to his present situation which makes him a mere nothing, another characteristic feature he shares from now on with Nobody: “Thou wast a pretty fellow when thou hadst no need / to 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.4.188-91). His royal title without royal power has become meaningless, a mere facade. No longer able to command, Lear depends on the mercy of his two affectionate daughters that excel in the art of false appearances. The image of man reduced to being nothing is echoed by what happens to Edgar, obliged to adopt and share the hardships of the beggar fool:

Poor Turlygod! poor Tom!
That's something yet: Edgar I nothing am.


Now that we may guess Nobody's presence under the King's robes,31 and before going deeper into the thematic links, I will consider the occurrences of motifs and symbols proper to the pictorial representation of the character in the play.

One of the attributes of Nobody, the spectacles, I have already mentioned. In fact, the image of Gloucester wearing a pair of spectacles permits Shakespeare to give a rapid and significant revelation of a character hitherto pictured as an upright man preoccupied by Lear's strange attitude. Beside the note of cruel dramatic irony, if we consider the fact that Gloucester is to lose his eyes, the audience would equate this failing eyesight with a failing sense of judgment.32 Lear's initial strange mental derangement is sufficiently commented on by Kent, his daughters and the Fool. Yet the motif of the bespectacled figure was a popular one in itself and not necessarily linked to Nobody.

Another instance of similar imagery, is that of the owl linked to the idea of the wandering vagrant or beggar. Lear decides to share the night with the owl and the wolf rather than beg shelter from his daughter, Goneril:

No, rather I abjure all roofs, and choose
To wage against the enmity o'th'air;
To be a comrade with the wolf and the owl


In the popular imagery at that time, the vagabond and the owl were companions. Lucas de Leyde depicted a family of wayfarers with a little boy wearing an owl on his shoulder. In an engraving by Jerôme Bosch, the sinister vagabond in a picture over the chimneypiece, has taken on the appearance of an owl. This particular image refers to people who go on pilgrimages and are blind to the true religion (plate 8). Shakespeare might have used this popular mental scheme to indicate that Lear starts to identify himself with the destitute vagabond, an identification that is subsequently confirmed by the King's tearing off his garments, once he is face to face with the mad beggar, Edgar.

The symbolic padlock Nobody shares with Lady Truth is only suggested in the play, treated according to its meaning. Cordelia and later on the Fool have some difficulty in seeing the truth admitted by the other protagonists. Cordelia, refusing to translate her filial love into mere words, initially remains mute. When she honestly expresses her feelings about the bonds that unite a father and daughter, she is immediately muzzled by banishment. Kent and the King of France alone admit her virtue:

The Gods to their shelter take thee, maid,
That justly thinks't and hast most rightly said!


Fairest Cordelia, that art most rich, being poor;
Most choice forsaken; and mos't lov'd, despis'd!
Thee and thy virtues here I seize upon:
Be it lawful I take up what's cast away.
Gods, gods! tis strange that from their cold'st neglect
My love should kindle to inflam'd respect.


Despite a pagan environment, this imagery recalls the Christian tenet of man disowned by his fellow men, the destitute fool of fortune but the chosen one by God. This mystic theme, similar to that of the outcast Nobody, explains the “inflam'd respect” expressed by the King of France. Cordelia is virtue and truth incarnate, as Shakespeare subsequently confirms (IV.4.16-17). Her character reminds that of manhandled or banished Virtues depicted in popular engravings. In a woodcut by Cornelis Anthonisz, Concord, Peace and Love, Concord is represented reclining at some distance of a partially ruined town. Peace, an old man, and Love, a woman bearing a cornucopia, are by her side. They wonder whether she is dead or simply sleeping. Concord answers: “Whether I be dead or sleeping, neither the clergy nor the laymen mind” (plate 7). Once Cordelia or Concord is exiled, the land falls a prey to internecine quarrels and the most horrid acts are committed. When Cordelia returns from her banishment, it is to save her father and not to wage a war.

In popular engravings personifications of Truth are often threatened or molested. In a woodcut by Cornelis Anthonisz, for example, she is being menaced by Hate (plate 4). Lady Truth is in bed, wearing a padlock, and at her side is a small child lying in a crib representing Knowledge. A man accompanied by a snail, Fear, will of course hardly be able to defend her against the soldier, Hate, and his dog. The soldier is wearing strange footgear, his left foot betrays the social status of the poor and his right that of the wealthy. An identical thematic arrangement can be found in a popular German woodcut. Here Lady Truth is manhandled by the representatives of a whole population, a farmer, a merchant, a scholar, and a monk, and they seem to get the better of her (plate 5). The same preoccupation is reflected in King Lear. The Fool complains that Truth is whipped and put in a cage:

Truth's a dog must to kennel; he must be whipp'd out when the
Lady's Brach may stand by th'fire and stink.


In these lines the antithesis seems to be between Truth and Flattery. Shakespeare quite often associates dogs with flatterers, in the way Hieronymus Bosch did in his paintings.33 This concern for Truth is translated in a similar image by the Welspoken Nobody:

The ladye truthe they have locked in cage
Sayeng that of her Nobodye had knowledge

(Welspoken Nobody, 21-2)

Kent proceeds by calling Goneril and Regan “dog-hearted daughters” (IV.3.45). Goneril, Regan, Edmund and the minor character Oswald, embody humanity in the way Elck or Everyman does in Bruegel's work; solely absorbed by their self-interest, higher spiritual values only seem to get in the way of their superficially sane pursuits. One does not doubt their “practical” sense, yet their lot is hardly enviable in the end.

In the engraving Elck, we find another motif which explains the imagery used by Shakespeare in King Lear. The symbolic meaning of the huge bale Elck seems to wear on his back is conveyed by approximately the same image in the theatrical text:

                              […] and it is our fast intent
To shake all cares and business from our age,
Conferring them on younger strengths, while we
Unburthen'd crawl toward death


The iconographical motif's signification remains the same in the Ship of Fools, in A Choice of Emblems and in Bruegel's picture. Thus Lear's choice to bestow his worldly worry and care on younger shoulders in order to prepare for death is in a sense praiseworthy. Yet this desire to be liberated from the weight that presses his shoulders does not bring with it the expected spiritual attitude to life. Lear on the contrary commits the error of too fond an attachment to the vain and worldly play of royal appearances:

Only we shall retain
The name and all the addition to a king


Falling a prey to his own desire for “physic” and “Pomp”, he will only regain his soul when he has been reduced to a state where appearances amount to nothing (III.4.32).

The representations of the ragged figure of Nobody or Nemo call to mind the image of the mad Lear raving in the field. In the play No-body and Some-body, Nobody is accompanied by a clown, a conceit that seems to be echoed by the couple made of Lear and the Fool.34 Yet these are likely mere coincidences. A study of the thematic links suggests possible parallels between the play and the philosophical ideas “Nobody” stands for.

The most important underlying theme in the play is that of the world upside down, brought into focus by King Lear as a vagabond-philosopher. The same symbolic idea of “reason in madness” governs Nobody. The Fool demonstrates that Lear's decision to divide his kingdom brings about the kind of confusion usually associated with the world upside down. Since this division he continuously breaks into enigmatic songs and rimes. When Lear enquires after his reasons, the Fool replies:

[…] e'er since thou mad'st thy daughters thy mothers; for when thou gav'st them the rod and putt'st down thine own breeches,
Then they for sudden joy did weep,
And I for sorrow sung,
That such a king should play bo-beep,
And go the fools among.


The child chastising the father is a commonplace example of the topsy-turvy world, and as such it can be found in an anonymous Dutch woodcut (plate 9). This is only one example among many others throughout this play in which the King is forced to go afoot.

This popular theme of the world upside down is used in a particular way by humanists, like Erasmus in his Praise of Folly or Ulric Hutten in Nemo. They give a satirical view of society's topsy-turvy values, in order to draw attention to the human virtues and spiritual values they esteem neglected. They manipulate the word “nothing” along the same lines. Shakespeare adopts Erasmus' ambiguous treatment of folly, and seems to use Hutten's conception of the world upside down, a world where virtue is considered nothing and where wisdom is called folly.

All the characters in the play that can boast of human virtues as honesty, uprightness or some kind of moral excellence are treated with contempt, are ridiculed or accused of madness. Kent is treated as a fool, while Edmund terms “foolish honesty” his brother's disposition. Goneril calls the Duke of Albany a “moral fool” or more simply still “a fool”. In the end, Lear calls his daughter Cordelia, “poor fool”. In this world, virtue only meets contempt and harsh reproof, as in the universe of Nobody; thus it is folly to be virtuous.

Shakespeare introduces us to this universe from the start. It follows from the exchange of lines between Kent and Gloucester that Lear used to make a difference between the Duke of Cornwall and the Duke of Albany, in favour of the latter. Yet in the opening scene, Lear no longer takes into consideration the supposed virtue of Albany. Since it is impossible to deduce the difference in moral quality between the Dukes from the division Lear wishes to impose:


I thought the King had more affected the Duke of Albany than Cornwall.


It did always seem so to us; but now, in the division of the Kingdom, it appears not which of the Dukes he values most; for equalities are so weigh'd that curiosity in neither can make choice of either's moiety.


The audience will only notice that Albany seems to have lost the favour of the King, yet Kent and the Duke of Gloucester, supposed to know the two Dukes better, may convey some distress in their attitudes. Indeed as Gloucester declares further on, Cornwall's perverse disposition “all the world well knows” (II.2.149-50). Gloucester's sound judgment as to Cornwall is lacking when it pertains to assess the moral excellency of his own children. He acknowledges with a certain proud feeling that his son Edgar “is no dearer in his account” than his bastard son Edmund. These two instances of fallacious equity hold the key to the tragedy that follows in the plot and the subplot of the play.

In the first act, Lear seems to have made a tabula rasa of past actions. Virtue no longer matters. Lear's silly demand for quantified affection produces a harvest of hollow words that he accepts as sincere and meritorious. Cordelia refuses to act in this comedy. She opposes her “nothing”, a nothing that represents nonetheless all her virtue, as in this absurd universe virtue and wisdom seem to amount to nothing:

Nothing, My Lord
Nothing will come of nothing: speak again.


Virtue is its own reward, and Cordelia receives it as her only dowry. Lear equates this “all her wealth” with nothing, being prisoner still of mere appearances. We recognize the ambivalent use of the word nothing, in accordance with the style of the mock encomia, that may denote the nothingness of worldly values or the mystic aura of original nothingness, but may also signify human virtues worth nothing on the scale of worldly values. We should consider the following lines in the light of these possibilities:

Can you make no use of nothing, Nuncle?
Why no boy; nothing can be made out of nothing


Gloucester's pun on the word thus attains a strange connotation: “The quality of nothing hath not such need to hide itself” (I.2.33-4).

In this topsy-turvy situation, the quality of nothing encloses all, as in the engraving by Bruegel. Which reminds us of some lines in Timon of Athens that may confirm this view:

[…] My long sickness
Of health and living now begins to mend,
And nothing brings me all things.


When Lear has become a mere shadow, and is urged to ask “is man no more than this”, discovering his own reflection in the naked wretch Edgar, he is ripe to attain that supreme wisdom that is hard to reconcile with reason. This wisdom he grants Edgar when calling him “philosopher”.36 This is associated with the theme of introspection and self-knowledge, recommended by Erasmus and Montaigne. Breugel's engraving deals with the dual aspect of self-knowledge which includes being aware of one's own folly and the folly of mankind, but also a mystic sense of being conscious of God (plate I). The first aspect should allow a just society, but in the engraving the opposite is shown in a satirical manner. Nobody observes and states the abuses of an unjust society.

Commentators have already drawn attention to a concern with self-knowledge in King Lear. Cordelia feels dismayed at having to leave her father with her sisters, for she knows them for what they are (I.1.268). When Regan comments on Lear's disposition and Cordelia's banishment, she points exactly to this problem of missing self-knowledge:

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


Even so in the first act, Lear complains that he no longer knows who he is. “Does any here know me? […] Who is it that can tell me who I am? (I.4.223-7). Could the answer be Nobody?

The fallen King given over to the elements is suddenly concerned with the lot of his fellow human beings and unjust society:

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.


Once Lear has drowned in madness, he indulges in drawing a bitter and satirical picture of an unjust world (IV.6.156-70). Lear shares this consciousness, or “reason in madness” with the humanistic Nobody. Lear considers the world a “great stage of fools”, a conception echoing Hutten's “comedy” which can also be found in Robert Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy.37 Nobody, or the “bitter fool”, brings the world to trial. In the trial scene at the end of the comedy No-body and Some-body, Nobody, guilty of small transgressions, goes free while Somebody, the real culprit responsible for abuses and injustice is punished. Nobody inherits his guilt in cases of broken houseware and bastard sons from the popular tradition. The initial broadsheet by Georg Schann served as a moral lesson in domestic and social affairs. Edgar seems to be raving about the same subject (III.4.78-95). This might be why Lear proclaims himself “More sinned against than sinning” (III.2.60).

The trial scene in King Lear recalls the image of Nemo passing judgment on the great and the powerful of this world. Both seem indebted to the biblical sentence “He hath put down the mighty from their seat, and hath exalted the humble and meek” (Luke i. 52). This principle had been amply commented on by Sebastien Frank and his disciples, which led to an identification of the poor man with “God's Fool”, the eternal victim of Fortune or “The natural fool of Fortune”. Even this mystic aspect of Nobody is present in Shakespeare's play. Thus Gloucester, who has not yet learned to be patient, exclaims that the gods are injust:

As flies to wanton boys, are we to th'Gods;
They kill us for their sport.


As a “pagan” observer he makes guilty of his personal disasters the gods or bad fortune and does not yet understand the need to suffer. Lear, however, after his passage in purgatory (IV.7.45-8) is able to interpret the mystic significance of suffering. When he is made a prisoner with Cordelia, he seems to rejoice at this new outrage of fortune:

Upon such sacrifices, my Cordelia,
The Gods themselves throw incense.


In prison they will both meditate on the mystery of things, as if they were Gods' spies. But at the same time Fortune's wheel keeps spinning, and Lear will have to recognise the “poor fool” in his own daughter, a poor fool of which this world is not worthy, a fool because it is folly to be wise.

The pagan Lear ardently hopes for a sign of life in the looking-glass he has asked for, yet the mirror reflects nothing. The mirror reflecting nothing in Nobody's hand stood for the presence of God. Likewise the Christian tenet would have that Cordelia's soul lives after death, which might mean so much as that she has been called to Heaven which in turn makes her death acceptable. It seems that Shakespeare wishes to hint at exactly this issue.39 Lear has to remain true to his pagan character and belief, this is why he cannot accept Cordelia's death in the first place. But on stage after having been declared “dead as earth”, to “come no more, never, never, never” for a short moment it is suggested that she lives (V.3.304-10). At this precise moment Lear dies, which could mean that he is finally “eas'd with being nothing” once he has seen his daughter live after death.

At the outset of the play, Lear's death has been alluded to as the King wishes to crawl “unburthen'd” toward death. Ironically, this is exactly what he is going to do. However, at the beginning of the play, Lear is not yet ripe to face this end. As Edgar states in the end “Ripeness is all” (V.5.11). I am willing to grant Lear's redemption in the Christian sense as a major argument in the play. This redemption is not called in doubt by Lear's indignation at Cordelia's death as W. R. Elton seems to argue, for the reasons I have already given. The Elizabethan audience would have been able to interpret the Christian message. Shakespeare provides a prelude to the Christian death of the two protagonists in the passage on life in prison, as Lear uses the image of two birds in a cage. The symbolic significance of a bird in a cage is that of the soul imprisoned in the body. Thus death may be seen as a liberation.


The popular pictorial type of Nobody with its related themes of the world upside down, reason in madness, social injustice, and the mystic significance of nothing, can be traced in many passages of King Lear. This imagery bridges the gap between the popular burlesque vision of the world upside down and the mystic tragedy inspired by Montaigne. At times, Nobody's characteristic traits support possible interpretations of the theatrical text. On account of this, the relationship between Nobody and King Lear seems undeniable, although circumspection remains necessary as to the parallels based solely on visual motifs.

Then the answer to the riddle given by the Fool would be “Nobody” in stead of “nobody”.

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.

(I.4. 137-44)


  1. Francis Bacon on the art of memory, “Emblem reduceth conceits intellectual to images sensible”, The Advancement of Learning, II,XV,5, 1957, first edition 1605.

  2. The purpose of the visual arts corresponded to the categories of rhetoric: delectare, docere, movere; to delight, to instruct and to move the public. The Elizabethans however, considered the rhetorical image as appealing to the intellect and the visual image as appealing to the senses.

  3. Appendix II to Gerta Calmann, “The picture of Nobody”, in The Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, XXIII, London, 1960, p. 102-04.

  4. M.T. Jones-Davies, “Ben Jonson et la satire sociale au théâtre: Anatomie et dislocation”, in M.T. Jones-Davies, ed., La satire au temps de la Renaissance, Colloque du S.I.R.I.R., Paris, Jean Touzot, 1986.

  5. Gerta Calmann, “The Picture of Nobody”, in Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, XXIII, London, 1960.

  6. Stith Thompson, Motive Index of Folklore, iv, 344.

  7. Two ways to get rich, Maarten van Heemskerck, in Leerrijke reeksen van Maarten van Heemskerck, by Ilja M. Veldman, Frans Halsmuseum, 1986, p. 28.

  8. Christine Megan-Armstrong, The Moralizing Prints of Cornelis Anthonisz. Princeton, New Jersey, 1990.

  9. George Wither, A Choice of Emblems, 1635, n. 253.

  10. Calmann, p. 70.

  11. Calmann, p. 72.

  12. Ulric Hutten, Opera, ed. Boecking, I, pp. 175-87 and III, pp. 107-18, qtd by Gerta Calmann, pp. 80.

  13. Anatomy of Melancholy, New York, 1951, p. 99, The first edition was in 1621, qtd by Gerta Calmann, pp. 93.

  14. Appendix II to Gerta Calmann, “The Picture of Nobody”, in Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, XXIII, London, 1960, p. 102-04.

  15. M. Hind, Engraving in England in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries. Part I, “The Tudor Period”, Cambridge, 1925, p. 8 plate 4.

  16. Appendix II to Gerta Calmann, “The Picture of Nobody”, in Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, XXIII, London, 1960, p. 102-04.

  17. Sebastian Brant, The Ship of Fools, translated by William Gillis, London, The Folio Society Limited, 1971, first edition 1494, pp. 62-3.

  18. Peter Daly, ed., The English Emblem Tradition, Index Emblematicus, part I, Van der Noot, Giovo, Domenichi, Whitney, University of Toronto Press, 1988, pp. 328.

  19. The New Hollstein, Dutch and Flemish Etchings, Engravings and Woodcuts ca. 1450-1700, Maarten van Heemskerck, Part I, II, Roosendaal 1991, engraving n°420.

  20. Calmann, pp. 92, Gerta Calmann remarks that this interpretation is supported by a symbol of cibus immortalis, two leaves of bread and a knife, which Bruegel has put in the centre of his composition, on top of the large bale.

  21. Appendix II to Gerta Calmann, “The picture of Nobody”, in Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, XXIII, London, 1960, (70-1).

  22. Paul A. Jorgensen, “Much Ado About Nothing”, Shakespeare Quarterly, volume V, 1954.

  23. Gisèle Venet, Preface to le roi Lear, translation by Jean-Michel Déprats, Folio Gailimard, Paris, 1994, pp. 11-17.

  24. A New Variorum Edition, ed, H. H. Furness, 1920, p. 171, qted by Gerta Calmann.

  25. R. A. Foakes, Illustrations of the English Stage 1580-1642, Scolar Press, London, 1985, pp. 94.

  26. Calmann, pp. 94.

  27. R. A. Foakes, pp. 62, 94-5.

  28. King Lear, The Arden Shakespeare, ed. Kenneth Muir, London, 1985.

  29. A pictorial tradition existed in the sixteenth century and the beginning of the seventeenth century in the Netherlands, that depicted the theme of Poor Parents, Rich Children; these often served as pendants to images of The Family saying Grace. Throughout Europe artists depicted stories of filial love and devotion, but in the North some prints exhibited quite the opposite. The engraving by David Vinckboons is one example (plate 11). Two biblical exhortations can be found in the inscriptions to the print; Honour thy father and thy mother (Exodus 20:12) aimed at the children, while three verses from Ecclesiasticus (33:19-23) speak to the parents. The latter urges a father to leave his property to his family only after his death. In the inscription the father is equally advised not to be a slave to his child, but rather to find the right balance between stinginess and generosity. The threat implicit in the fifth commandment, that children who do not honour their parents are fated to have a short life is less explicitly expressed here than in earlier prints. Catalogue of the exhibition, Dawn of the Golden Age, Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, 1993.

  30. In a subsequent study, I consider this passage and the lines concerning Edmund's worship of Nature as a goddess (I.2.1-22), in the light of an engraving by Cornelis Ketel, The Mirror of Virtue. (plate 10) This picture deals with ingratitude and free will. The Mirror of Virtue in B. A. Heezen-Stoll, ‘Cornelis Ketel, uytnemende schilder, van der Goude’: een iconografische studie van zijn ‘historiën’, Delft, 1987.

  31. Anne Owens has kindly reminded me of some lines in Henry V and Hamlet refering to the nothingness of kingship. “his ceremonies laid by, in his nakedness he appears but a man” (Henry V, IV.1.105-07). “a king may go a progress through the guts of a beggar” (Hamlet IV.3.30-1).

  32. François Laroque has drawn my attention to this case of dramatic irony.

  33. Hieronymus Bosch would place a dog beside the man guilty of vanity. Dirk Bax, Hieronymus Bosch, His Picture Writing Deciphered, Rotterdam, 1979.

  34. With regard to this question of the King and the Fool, Erasmus' development of his adage 201, “Il faut naître ou Roi ou bouffon” shares some interesting thematic problems with Shakespeare's play. Erasme, Oeuvres choisies, “Les Adages III”, Librairie Générale Française, 1991, pp. 340-52.

  35. The Elizabethans would have considered this line as absurd due to the pagan character's ignorance of ex nihilo creation. Paul A. Jorgensen, “Much Ado About Nothing”, Shakespeare Quarterly, volume V, 1954.

  36. Edgar knows himself to be nothing (II.3.20-1).

  37. Calmann, pp. 94.

  38. In this respect we should consider an emblem by George Wither, Man is deemed responsible for the misery and despair of man, and life is equated with a ball in a ball-game, yet “So, when men hurle us (with most fury) downe, Wee hopefull are to be advanc'd thereby: And, when they smite us quite unto the Ground, Then, up to Heav'n, we trust, we shall rebound”, A Collection of Emblems, 1635, A Scolar Press Facsimile, London, 1973, nr. 16.

  39. Providence, the Salvation of the ancients were important matters of debate in the Renaissance. From Lear's pagan point of view there is no life after death. William R. Elton, King Lear and the Gods, The Huntington Library, 1966.

Jerald W. Spotswood (essay date 1998)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6275

SOURCE: “Maintaining Hierarchy in The Tragedie of King Lear,” in Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, Vol. 38, No. 2, Spring, 1998, pp. 265-80.

[In the essay below, Spotswood challenges critical interpretations which maintain that the play represents a challenge to social structure, arguing that King Lear upholds class boundaries.]

In tracing the theater's role in eliciting social change in early modern England, many recent critics have focused upon King Lear as a central text, citing the breakdown of authority and service within the play as evidence of its subversive force. For John Turner, Lear portrays a world that “collapses beyond repair,” and presents a prehistory in which authority and service “melt mystifyingly into one another.”1 Even Stephen Greenblatt, a forceful proponent of the subversion-containment model, concedes that Lear is Shakespeare's greatest example of the “process of containment … strained to the breaking point.”2 Yet models dependent upon subversion and containment often present social change as an all-or-nothing affair, occluding Shakespeare's negotiation between the forces of change and stasis.3 Lear may have helped to bring about the “deconsecration of sovereignty”;4 it did not deconsecrate privilege, status, or hierarchy. Distinctions within the aristocracy and, more importantly, between aristocrats and commoners are enforced, both on stage and in public, through performance.5 “[D]ifferences” in clothing, language, and manners maintain hierarchy in a “diuided … Kingdome” (I.iv.593, I.i.38-9).6

Recent criticism of Lear, focusing on the crisis of authority and service in the play, has followed two distinct lines of thought. The first approach, most recently argued by Richard Strier, claims that Lear “can be seen, in part, as an extended meditation on the kinds of situation in which resistance to legally constituted authority becomes a moral necessity, and in which neutrality is not a viable possibility.” According to Strier, “the quality of normative or ideal courtliness is entirely missing from the world of this play.” In its absence, “touchstones of value” become “plain speech and conscientious breaches of decorum.”7 The second approach finds that Lear portrays the collapse of a feudal order founded upon the tenets of authority and service. Such readings necessarily present the sovereign as the emblem for hierarchical order. When “tragedy performs the degradation of the cultural image of the sovereign, it deprives the monarchy of its central bastion, its ultimate weapon,” according to Franco Moretti. Abdication is figured as a “tyrannical act” and one which unhinges all forms of authority. The former approach presents Lear as a moral corrective of authority, while the latter finds “the principle of authority is dissolved” altogether.8 Using Lear as a central text, both approaches assert that Renaissance drama, in subverting the relationship between authority and service, acted as a revolutionary force.

In contrast to such assertions, I argue that Renaissance drama reinforces symbolic boundaries between gentlemen and commoners, even as it reveals the performative aspects of both roles. That is, though the likeness of a gentleman could be imitated on stage by a common player, the attitudes voiced and performed through this stand-in gentleman tended almost by definition to assert the privileges of the gentry. Performance subverts authority; yet it also recuperates hierarchy, reproducing systematically structured distinctions through what Paul Connerton has described as a “choreography of authority.”9

Culturally determined and symbolically bound, gentility is reproduced by individuals trained in the intricacies of elite performance. While the accumulation of wealth and property represents the means to gentility, elite performance often takes generations to perfect, for there is quite a difference between “being able to recognise a code and being able to incorporate it,” as Connerton observes.10 Though yeomen and merchants sometimes accumulated large reserves of money and land, it was often their sons or grandsons, educated at universities, who learned to perform the roles of gentlemen. The extravagant public display of behavior, gesture, and dress marks the gentle status of the elite. For elites, as Norbert Elias has observed of the French aristocracy, performance is not superfluous, but determinate of rank:

In a society in which every outward manifestation of a person has special significance, expenditure on prestige and display is for the upper classes a necessity which they cannot avoid. They are an indispensable instrument in maintaining their social position, especially when … all members of the society are involved in a ceaseless struggle for status and prestige … Without confirmation of one's prestige through behavior, this prestige is nothing. The immense value attached to the demonstration of prestige and the observance of etiquette does not betray an attachment to externals, but to what was vitally important to individual identity.11

Gentility reflects and affirms its superiority through spectacle. Performance naturalizes elevated status through a stunning display of costume and intricately performed behaviors. The lavish daily performances of gentlemen define them against the masses while subtle alterations of costume and gesture create distinctions within the elite. Although the performers themselves may change, as they invariably do over time, symbolic qualities associated with gentility remain relatively stable. Elite performance depends not upon specific actors but on fidelity to a role.

Renaissance theater experimented with this performative aspect of social identity, setting itself apart from its medieval predecessor. Blurring the lines of distinction between audience and performer, the mystery plays had served a ritualistic communal function while reinforcing notions of a static and highly stratified society. Medieval drama, as Jean-Christophe Agnew notes, reflected its feudal origins, portraying social roles as divinely ordered and unalterable: “The mystery cycles had functioned, above all, as ceremonial enactments of religious and mythic charters, carefully designed to replicate governing patterns of social authority within the city and the larger society. Theirs was a relatively static tableau drama performed to propitiate a divine and unseen audience through the ritualized representation of widely held principles of ecclesiastical and social order.”12 By moving physically from the streets into the confines of the theater, Renaissance performers gained a perspective on society denied their medieval counterparts. “The stage-play was now a distinct cultural form, and playing was now a distinct social calling,” according to Louis Montrose.13 Performance was no longer a ritual designed to bring absent spiritual forces to the present; rather it became the calling of professional actors who, through story and spectacle, demonstrated, among other things, the theatrical and transitory nature of the self and of society. Renaissance drama began exploring the possibility that social roles are products of performance rather than of a divine author.

Sometimes assuming the part of a gentleman, sometimes taking that of a commoner, the Renaissance actor revealed, through the medium of drama, the performative nature of social roles. As Agnew notes, “the player was a little shop of characters. His extraordinary plasticity offered a living lesson in the mechanics of social mobility and assimilation.”14 However, despite the deconstructive force the Renaissance theater exerted on the perception of social roles, it did not subvert the social order. For while the medium incessantly disclosed the link between status and performance, the message of the theater, according to Robert Weimann, “was still largely dominated by traditional forms of consciousness that emphasized the very idea of hierarchy and authority as something immutably fixed to every form of social existence, from the family to the state, from apprentice to prince.”15 Whether impersonating a nobleman or a vagabond, the professional actor made alterations in dress, language, and behavior, modifying his character to conform to socially recognizable roles.16

In The Tragedie of King Lear individual characters challenge authority; yet systems of hierarchy are reinscribed performatively, especially in the actions of disguised characters like Kent and Edgar, whose essentialized aristocratic identities are maintained in their performance of an assumed identity. Kent's foray into the lower orders, like Edgar's, demonstrates not an alliance between gentry and commoners but the social distance between them. Banished and threatened with death, each disguises himself by stripping away the outward signs of status. Defined by newly adopted roles, each hides within the social order. Borrowing “other accents” and razing his “likenesse” (I.iv.504, 507), Kent becomes Caius. “[F]ull of labours” (I.iv.510), he is no longer recognized as “this Noble Gentleman,” “My Lord of Kent” (I.i.25, 27). G. K. Hunter asserts that “[i]t is the skill of the actor to remind us that the new Caius is the old Kent; but the writing seems designed to make him procure this effect by brittle virtuosity rather than ‘character study’. His roles remain effectively separate from one another as he shuffles one behind the other in the manner of a card-sharper; he is not invited to draw them together as facets of a single unifying personality, but to point outwards to the different social worlds he has inhabited.”17 The play carefully keeps the laboring Caius distinct from the noble Kent. Appearing before a gentleman as Caius, Kent contrasts his outward servile appearance with his essential aristocratic worth, assuring the gentleman that he is “much more” than his “out-wall” (III.i.1517-8). Kent's transformation is so complete that the gentleman requires “confirmation” of his noble status (III.i.1517). Caius's “saucy roughnes,” “plaine accent,” and lowly “weedes” are not “but furnishings” (II.ii.1108, 1122, IV. vi.2498, III.i.1515); rather, in reflecting a specific social role, they determine for others “who that Fellow is” (III.i.1521).

Edgar, who experiences the extremes of destitution and prosperity, demonstrates by his movement through the social order the performability of social roles; yet each role he enacts is clearly marked off from the others.18 The differences between a Bedlam beggar, a “Pezant” (IV.v.2437), and a gentleman are defined by changes in speech, dress, and demeanor. At one point in the play Edgar comically forgets which role he is playing, confusing Gloucester by his sudden dialect shift:

Me thinkes thy voyce is alter'd, and thou speak'st In better phrase, and matter then thou did'st. 
Y'are much deceiu'd: In nothing am I chang'd But in my Garments. 
Me thinkes y'are better spoken.


The moment emphasizes the importance of performance in establishing social roles, for the blinded Gloucester is not the only character who fails to see through Edgar's disguises.

As a Bedlam beggar, Edgar exists outside the social order: his lack of civility renders him invisible to those who formerly knew him. Taking the “basest, and most poorest shape / That euer penury in contempt of man, / Brought neere to beast” (II.ii.1183-5), Edgar erases all signs of his former self, griming his face with filth, blanketing only his loins, elfing his hair in knots, and enforcing charity “Sometime with Lunaticke bans, sometime with Praiers” (II.ii.1195). Edgar's nakedness is “social no less than physical,” as Hunter points out.19 Rid of all signs of status, the Bedlam beggar exists beyond the network of master and servant. Clothing himself in the “best Parrell” of Gloucester's tenant and amending his language (IV.i.2049), Edgar changes into a peasant, climbing back into the social order by visually displaying his low status. Edgar's tattered clothes and peasant dialect reintroduce him to the world of masters and servants, transforming his incomprehensible nakedness and madness into a body and mind fit for service.

Ironically, both Kent and Edgar distinguish themselves through servitude. As an earl in Lear's court, Kent had challenged rules within the aristocracy governing ceremony and decorum. As Caius, Kent becomes a staunch defender of status. Vowing to teach Oswald “differences” (I.iv.593), he attempts to uphold distinctions separating gentry from commoners. Later, Kent berates Oswald for dressing out of his station, a scene made comic since it is the servant Caius and not the Earl of Kent who rebukes him.20 In the “habit” of a peasant, Edgar serves as “guide” to his blinded father, leading him to Dover and begging in order to sustain them both (V.iii.2820, 2822). Like Ferdinand in The Tempest, both Kent and Edgar distance themselves from the play's social climbers, displaying their commitment to service and hierarchy by adopting the roles of common laborers. Duteous service earns them recognition as well as their traditional “rights, / With boote, and such addition” as their “Honours / Haue more then merited” (V.iii.2916-8).

While Caius, the Bedlam beggar, and the peasant are all presented as products of performance, Kent and Edgar are not. As noblemen, both characters are portrayed as having an essential identity antithetical to their performative roles. Kent's essential nobility is emphasized in The Historie of King Lear, when, disguised as Caius, he is recognized as a gentleman, though not as the Earl of Kent, by another gentleman in scene 17. In The Tragedie of King Lear, Edgar subsumes Kent's role in the last two acts of the play, shifting the dramatic focus onto the trial by combat scene and Edgar's subsequent return to the aristocracy.21

The trial by combat scene is neither “archaic” nor “semi-miraculous,” as Moretti claims;22 rather it is powerful precisely because it recalls and reflects feudal values upon which the aristocracy based their privilege. The “lore of the sword,” as Craig Turner and Tony Soper assert, “was still an accepted part of the culture in late-sixteenth-century England when other medieval signs of status—certain manners of dressing and living, wearing armor, carrying a sword—had disappeared.”23 The duel remained both a symbolic testimony of an aristocrat's martial superiority and a legal right, elevating him above common legal constraints, according to V. G. Kiernan:

Duelling provided a warrant of aristocratic breeding, increasingly threatened with submergence. It preserved to the entire class a military character, a certificate of legitimate descent from the nobility of the sword of feudal times, and of its title to officer the new mass armies. Duelling was in itself an assertion of superior right, a claim to immunity from the law such as a ruling class is always likely to seek in one field or another: it is for the common herd to submit to parchment trammels and shackles. For the man of noble birth it was all the more natural to put himself above the law because he, as seigneur, had been in command of justice in his own domain. On a reduced scale he was so still, in France down to 1789, in England as a JP far longer.24

The “courtization of warriors,” the internalization of violence and the centralization of force, was not a linear process, but one that moved in fits and starts, according to Elias.25 Though the trial by combat scene may confound “us with the poverty of its reflection”26—and even this remains a questionable assertion since the duel continues to hold sway in innumerable Hollywood action movies—it represented, for many in Shakespeare's audience, confirmation of aristocratic status.

Entering the stage nameless, the “vnknowne opposite” claims gentle status by invoking the “priuiledge” of his “Honour,” “oath,” and “profession” (V.iii.2784, 2760-1). His appearance, speech, and “Sword” attest to his claim (V.iii.2770), and, as Edmund testifies, reflect Edgar's nobility despite his anonymity:

In wisedome I should aske thy name, But since thy out-side lookes so faire and Warlike, And that thy tongue some say of breeding breathes, What safe, and nicely I might well demand, By rule of Knight-hood, I disdaine and spurne.


Edmund is taken in by Edgar's performance, finding his warlike exterior and refined language sufficient evidence of his nobility. He quickly learns, however, that noble performance is ultimately tested through martial acuity. Wearing the Gloucester armor and defending the Gloucester name, Edmund appears truly noble. Yet his defeat by Edgar shows the hollowness of his claim: “Despight … [his] victor-Sword, and fire new Fortune” (V.iii.2763), Edmund is proven a “most Toad-spotted Traitor” (V.iii.2769). Like Oswald before him, Edmund fails with the sword, showing that he is a product of performance rather than genuinely gentle. As Jonathan Dollimore suggests, “nobility is seen to be like truth—it will out.”27 Edgar's victory, which he quickly attributes to divine intervention, naturalizes his noble status and demonstrates that his refined behaviors are not performed but a true reflection of his inner nobility, a view quickly affirmed by Albany: “Me thought thy very gate did prophesie / A Royall Noblenesse” (V.iii.2806-7). Albany's words themselves prove prophetic, for at the conclusion of the play Edgar is given sovereignty over Cornwall's former dukedom.

Dismissing the centrality of the trial by combat scene, Moretti focuses instead on the last four lines of the play, which, he claims, undermine traditional categories of meaning and completely dissolve a “universal, ‘higher’ point of view”: “The close of King Lear makes clear that no one is any longer capable of giving meaning to the tragic process; no speech is equal to it, and there precisely lies the tragedy … In Lear, what scant reason remains has been not only defeated, but derided and dissolved by the course of events. If at the end it is allowed the last word, this is only by virtue of that archaic, semi-miraculous duel between Gloucester's two sons; and if it returns on stage, it is only with the object of confounding us with the poverty of its reflection.”28 Edgar's final speech not only fails to recuperate his society, but, according to Moretti, the “chilling stupidity” of his words and the “drastic banalization” they impose on the play “indicates the chasm that has opened up between facts and words.” Yet Edgar's inability to make sense of the tragedy befallen his kingdom is less important than the fact that he speaks the last lines of the play, and speaks them not only as a military hero but also as a ruler “in this Realme” (V.iii.2936).29 If Edgar's “four impeccably rhymed little verses, bright with monosyllables” speak to the “nobility's inadequacy,”30 Edgar's martial appearance and performance in the duel add weight to his words. An adept performance, as Moretti must know, can grant voice status.

Dollimore recognizes the significance of the trial by combat scene, finding that it invokes “first, a concept of innate nobility in contradistinction to innate evil and, second, its corollary: a metaphysically ordained justice.” Yet the unexpected deaths of Cordelia and Lear, according to Dollimore, subvert Edgar's and Albany's attempts to mark the deaths of Goneril, Regan, and Edmund as the workings of divine justice, rendering social recuperation impossible: “The timing of these two deaths must surely be seen as cruelly, precisely, subversive: instead of complying with the demands of formal closure—the convention which would confirm the attempt at recuperation—the play concludes with two events which sabotage the prospect of both closure and recuperation.” Lear's death subverts dominant values as well as the social order: “the two collapse together,” according to Dollimore.31

The deaths of Cordelia and Lear, as Dollimore rightly argues, are catastrophic. Yet social recuperation is not sabotaged by their deaths; on the contrary, it is facilitated by them. In portraying Cordelia's and Lear's deaths as more consequential, as more tragic than those of any other character in the play, Shakespeare constructs a hierarchy of death. Social norms do not “collapse” as Lear does at the end of the play, for Shakespeare consistently stratifies dead bodies in the same fashion as he does live ones. As Erich Auerbach observes, Shakespeare does not “conceive of ‘everyman’ as tragic.”32 A dunghill and a vicious eulogy are all that memorialize the deaths of low characters like the nameless servant and Oswald. A terse eulogy given by Albany similarly marks Edmund's death: “That's but a trifle heere” (V.iii.2911). While the bodies of Goneril and Regan are accorded more dignity, being covered after death, they are also brought on stage to allow Albany to represent their deaths as the “judgement of the Heauens” (V.iii.2846). The persistence of stratification and the beginnings of social recuperation take place even before the actors have left the stage, for the “dead March” that concludes the play solemnly memorializes the status and function of the sovereign, remembering Lear as king and warrior (V.iii).

The interdependent nature of court society and its dependence upon ceremony is displayed in the opening scene with the entrance of the king and his entourage. Lear leads the procession, followed on stage by the dukes of Cornwall and Albany, his three daughters, and his attendants. Lear quickly asserts his power, giving commands that are directly followed. Gloucester is dispatched to “Attend the Lords of France & Burgundy” (I.i.35), a map is ordered and quickly brought, and Lear directs his three daughters, by order of birth, to compete for his lands by announcing their love. Responding on command, Goneril and Regan publicly affirm Lear's munificence as king and father, matching his gift with absolute vows of their love. While the ceremony testifies to Lear's power, it also reflects Goneril's and Regan's high place within the social order. The privilege of attending to the king distinguishes them from others in the court.

Cordelia, unlike her elder sisters, refuses to act on command, frustrating Lear's celebration of his absolute power by denying the terms of his gift. As Strier has argued, Cordelia “insists on distinguishing herself from her sisters and from the terms of the ceremony.”33 Yet in distinguishing herself, Cordelia becomes indistinguishable, for in the highly stratified society of Lear, to refuse to participate in the ceremonies of the court means “forfeiting privileges, losing power, and declining relatively to others. In short, it [means] humiliation and, to an extent, self-immolation,” according to Elias.34 Cordelia's identity, as Lear reminds her, is inextricably bound to duty and service to king and father: “Better thou / Had'st not beene borne, then not t'houe pleas'd me better” (I.i.234-5). Stripped of her dowry as well as her claim to royal lineage, Cordelia becomes “that little seeming substance … And nothing more” (I.i.198-200). Publicly challenging Lear's authority as father, Cordelia suffers the consequences of a spurned courtier. Having “obedience scanted” (I.i.279), she is “cast away” from court society only to be “receiu'd … At Fortunes almes” by the king of France (I.i.254, 278-9).

The intra-elite crisis initiated in the opening scene spills over into the ranks of commoners in III.vii, as Cornwall's servant attempts to defend Gloucester, challenging Cornwall's authority. Cornwall's reaction, “My Villaine?” (III.vii.1979), as well as Regan's, “A pezant stand vp thus?” (III.vii.1981), demonstrate their indignation and surprise at having their commands questioned by a social inferior. Given the servant's social distance from Cornwall, his action is, as Strier rightly calls it, “one of the most remarkable and politically significant moments in the play.” Yet it seems excessive to call this brief moment “the most radical possible sociopolitical act,” or “the image of … peasant rebellion,” as Strier does,35 for the scene portrays not group rebellion, but individual action.

Collective action gave commoners some measure of political clout, yet rioting rarely produced lasting social change. Like the grain uprisings of the late sixteenth century, most riots were conservative in nature, attempting to enforce the gentry's paternalistic role when market forces had upset the traditional relationship between elites and commoners. As Buchanan Sharp points out, “rioters had clearly defined objectives and employed only that minimum amount of force or coercion necessary to achieve those objectives.”36 When more passive means of negotiation were exhausted, the threat of collective action often proved an effective tool. As John Walter observes, “[r]iot metamorphosed fear into fact. Fact dissolved into fantasy. In confirming popular threats, riot hinted at the darker nightmare of popular rebellion.” Once their grievances were redressed, the multitude typically disbanded: “Action by authority demanded inactivity by the people.”37 Yet toward “insurrection, an undeniable attempt to overturn the status quo, the Crown was quite merciless,” according to Sharp.38

Like many other playwrights and writers of the early modern period, Shakespeare frequently represents the “victory of the forces of property, order, and true religion over the many-headed monster,” as Greenblatt observes.39 In act III, scene vii of Lear, Shakespeare silences the threat of a “peasant rebellion” by reducing the multitude to a single adversary. While one servant boldly answers Gloucester's plea to “Giue me some helpe” (III.vii.1971), the other servants watch as Regan kills their fellow servant and as Cornwall finishes blinding Gloucester. Witnessing the consequences of defying authority, the servants silently follow their master's commands, thrusting Gloucester “out at gates” (III.vii.1994), and disposing of the body of their fellow servant.40 More importantly, Shakespeare blunts the radical potential of the moment by minimizing the servant's heroic actions. Unlike Edgar's later defense of his father against Oswald, the servant is unable to defend Gloucester. In addition, the servant's battle with Cornwall, in contrast to Edgar's duel with Edmund, earns him neither honor nor status. Although Cornwall has “receiu'd a hurt” from his sword (III.vii.1996), the servant is denied the glory of his victory. Cornwall's death occurs off-stage—he does not fall at the hands of a commoner. “[S]laine” from behind by Regan, the servant falls ignobly before us on stage (III.vii.1982). Thrown “Vpon the Dunghill” (III.vii.1998), the body of the dead servant serves as a reminder to other peasants who dare to “stand vp thus” (III.vii.1981).

The first servant's “rebellion” is echoed later in the play, according to Strier, when Edgar, disguised as a “most poore man, made tame to Fortunes blows” (IV.v.2427), defends Gloucester against the fortune-seeking Oswald: “They fight, and Edgar's peasant cudgel defeats Oswald's sword. This scene is clearly meant to recall the intervention of the other, actual ‘bold peasant’ of act 3, scene 7. The language—‘peasant … slave … dunghill’—is filled with echoes of the earlier scene. The effect is to reinforce the image of this sort of peasant rebellion as a paradigm of moral action.”41 While this scene may “recall the intervention of the other, actual ‘bold peasant,’” the echoes Strier detects are not the stirrings of “rebellion.” Rather, the figure of the dunghill reminds us of the futility of a “real” peasant uprising. In addition, though the language of this scene recalls the earlier one, the visual dimension is clearly different. While Oswald identifies Edgar as a commoner, calling him “bold Pezant” (IV.v.2437), the audience, who has followed Edgar's movement through the social order, is clearly meant to recognize him as a gentleman disguised. The audience knows that the “peasant cudgel [that] defeats Oswald's sword” is wielded by a gentleman, not a commoner. Instead of reinforcing the image of “peasant rebellion as a paradigm of moral action,” the scene, in fact, reinscribes authority along traditional lines. Defeating Oswald with an inferior weapon, Edgar reduces the scene to comedy, making the upwardly mobile Oswald's claim to gentle status seem ridiculous while reinforcing Kent's earlier outrage that “such a slaue … should weare a Sword, / Who weares no honesty” (II.ii.1085-6). Further, Oswald's elevated speech is shown to be as unnatural for him as Edgar's overdone Somerset dialect:

Steward. (to Edgar)
Wherefore, bold Pezant, Durst thou support a publish'd Traitor?
Hence, Least that th'infection of his fortune take
Like hold on thee.


The peasant in this scene, despite Edgar's dress and speech, is Oswald. His sword, like his language, is worn merely for ornamentation. Bearing a sword yet unable to defend himself against a cudgel, Oswald is shown to lack the qualities of true gentility. In fact, Oswald's inability to use the sword effectively reveals him to be not of the blood, not gentle. Far from the “remarkable” and “significant” action of the first servant in act three, Edgar's “rebellion” is both predictable and conservative. Appropriately, Edgar reverts to a more elevated dialect when announcing his judgment over the fallen Oswald:

I know thee well.
A seruiceable Villaine,
As duteous to the vices of thy Mistris,
As badnesse would desire.


The effect is to naturalize the status of Edgar while marking Oswald as a social inferior whose elevated status is monstrous and more the product of a “Taylor” than of “nature” (II.ii.1066).

Depicting both good and bad dukes, earls, and gentlemen, the play preserves the master-servant relationship by keeping social roles distinct. Oswald quickly makes it clear that he serves Goneril, not his “Ladies Father” (I.iv.581). Showing sympathy toward Lear, Gloucester is clearly aware that his “Master,” his “worthy Arch and Patron” (II.i.941-2), is now Cornwall, not the former king. Sent to “Fetch” Cornwall and Regan and tell them that Lear “commands, tends, seruice” (II.ii.1278, 1288), Gloucester returns having “inform'd them so” (II.ii.1284). Predictably, he fears not the orders from a king “Confin'd to exhibition” (I.ii.333), but the “fiery quality of the Duke” (II.ii.1279). Although Gloucester later “incline[s] to the King” (III.iii.1637), he comes to the aid of his “old Master” (III.iii.1642), in part, because he knows a “Power [is] already footed” against Albany and Cornwall (III.iii.1637).

Checking Edmund's growing power following the war, Albany, too, relies upon distinction to maintain hierarchical order:

Sir, by your patience,
I hold you but a subject of this Warre, 
Not as a Brother.


Albany's need to remind Edmund of his place within the social order certainly reflects a crisis of authority within the aristocracy, and it is a crisis that will continue, we can assume, until authority is again centralized under a single figure. The fact that allegiance is divided, however, does not imply that hierarchy has fallen or that authority and service are dissolved in the play.

If Lear plays a role in effecting social change in early modern England, it is not the wholly subversive or revolutionary role described by recent critics. The “diuision of the Kingdome” decentralizes the realm (I.i.4), fracturing allegiance among Albany, Cornwall, and Lear; yet the social order remains intact. Authority is not destroyed but split between those with the greatest claims to land and wealth.42 Although the play grapples with problems of succession and inheritance and tests the borders of elite society, portraying the meteoric rise of outsiders like Edmund and Oswald, it also carefully protects status distinctions. The “historical ‘task’” accomplished by Lear was not the “destruction of the fundamental paradigm of the dominant culture.”43 On the contrary, The Tragedie of King Lear maintains hierarchy by validating and reproducing the “studied and elaborate hegemonic style” of the gentry.44


  1. John Turner, “The Tragic Romances of Feudalism,” in Shakespeare: The Play of History, ed. Graham Holderness, Nick Potter, and John Turner (London: Macmillan Press, 1988), pp. 83-154, 116-7.

  2. Stephen Greenblatt, Shakespearean Negotiations: The Circulation of Social Energy in Renaissance England (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1988), p. 65.

  3. For models based on negotiation, see Theodore B. Leinwand, “Negotiation and New Historicism,” PMLA 105, 3 (May 1990): 477-90; and Peter Stallybrass and Allon White, The Politics and Poetics of Transgression (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1986).

  4. Franco Moretti, Signs Taken for Wonders: Essays in the Sociology of Literary Forms, trans. Susan Fischer, David Forgacs, and David Miller (New York: Verso, 1988), p. 42. David Scott Kastan makes similar historical claims for Shakespeare's history plays. See Kastan's “Proud Majesty Made a Subject: Shakespeare and the Spectacle of Rule,” SQ 37, 4 (Winter 1986): 459-75.

  5. For discussion concerning the use of costuming and speech to highlight status distinctions on the Renaissance stage, see G. K. Hunter, “Flatcaps and Bluecoats,” E&S, n.s. 33 (1980): 16-47; Jean MacIntyre, Costumes and Scripts in the Elizabethan Theatres (Edmonton: Univ. of Alberta Press, 1992); and Peter Stallybrass, “Worn Worlds: Clothes and Identity on the Renaissance Stage,” in Subject and Object in Renaissance Culture, ed. Margreta de Grazia, Maureen Quilligan, and Peter Stallybrass (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1996), pp. 289-320. For discussion of behaviors and manners marking status distinctions within the elite, see Norbert Elias, The Court Society, trans. Edmund Jephcott (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1988); and Power and Civility: The Civilizing Process, Volume II, trans. Edmund Jephcott (New York: Pantheon Books, 1982). In addition, see Frank Whigham, Ambition and Privilege: The Social Tropes of Elizabethan Courtesy Theory (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1984).

  6. William Shakespeare, The Tragedie of King Lear. The Folio Text, in The Complete Works: Original-Spelling Edition, ed. Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986). All references to Shakespeare are from this edition and will appear parenthetically in the text. My focus is specifically on The Tragedie of King Lear, the Folio text of King Lear, as opposed to the quarto text, The Historie of King Lear. For discussion of the distinct nature of the two plays and arguments against the standard editorial practice of conflating the two texts, see the collection of essays in The Division of the Kingdoms: Shakespeare's Two Versions of King Lear, ed. Gary Taylor and Michael Warren (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983).

  7. Richard Strier, “Faithful Servants: Shakespeare's Praise of Disobedience,” in The Historical Renaissance: New Essays on Tudor and Stuart Culture, ed. Heather Dubrow and Strier (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1988), pp. 104-33, 104, 115, 114. Other critics who find the “theme of proper disobedience” central to Lear include Jonas A. Barish and Marshall Waingrow, “‘Service’ in King Lear,” SQ 9, 3 (Summer 1958): 347-55; and Maynard Mack, (“King Lear” in Our Time (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1972).

  8. Moretti, pp. 44, 51, 56. Other critics who see Lear as a radically subversive force include Jonathan Dollimore, Radical Tragedy: Religion, Ideology and Power in the Drama of Shakespeare and His Contemporaries (Brighton, Sussex: Harvester Press, 1984); Richard Halpern, The Poetics of Primitive Accumulation: English Renaissance Culture and the Genealogy of Capital (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1991); and Turner. Critics arguing from a Marxist perspective and claiming that Lear portrays the destruction of a feudal order and the rise of a bourgeois one include Paul Delaney, “King Lear and the Decline of Feudalism,” PMLA 92, 3 (May 1977): 429-40; and Julian Markels, “King Lear, Revolution, and the New Historicism,” MLS 21, 2 (Spring 1991): 11-26.

  9. Paul Connerton, How Societies Remember (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1989), p. 74.

  10. Connerton, p. 90.

  11. Elias, The Court Society, pp. 63, 101.

  12. Jean-Christophe Agnew, Worlds Apart: The Market and the Theater in Anglo-American Thought, 1550-1750 (New York: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1986), p. 110.

  13. Louis A. Montrose, “The Purpose of Playing: Reflections on a Shakespearean Anthropology,” Helios, n.s. 7, 2 (1980): 51-74, 52.

  14. Agnew, p. 122.

  15. Robert Weimann, “Society and the Uses of Authority in Shakespeare,” in Shakespeare, Man of the Theater: Proceedings of the Second Congress of the International Shakespeare Association, 1981, ed. Kenneth Muir, Jay L. Halio, and D. J. Palmer (Newark: Univ. of Delaware Press, 1983), pp. 182-99, 184.

  16. See Hunter; and MacIntyre, especially chaps. 2 and 3.

  17. Hunter, p. 37.

  18. For a detailed discussion of Edgar's movement through the social order, see William C. Carroll, Fat King, Lean Beggar: Representations of Poverty in the Age of Shakespeare (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1996).

  19. Hunter, p. 33.

  20. Kent's harassment of Oswald parallels Hamlet's mocking of Osric. Osric's only claim to gentility, according to Hamlet, is that he is “spacious in the possession of durt” (V.ii.3356-7), making him fit to be a “Lord of beasts” (V.ii.3355)—not a courtier.

  21. For a discussion of Kent's changed role from quarto to Folio, see Michael Warren, “The Diminution of Kent,” in The Division of the Kingdoms, pp. 59-73.

  22. Moretti, p. 53.

  23. Craig Turner and Tony Soper, Methods and Practice of Elizabethan Swordplay (Carbondale: Southern Illinois Univ. Press, 1990), p. xxii.

  24. V. G. Kiernan, The Duel in European History: Honour and the Reign of Aristocracy (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1988), p. 53. For further discussion of the duel as a “corporate privilege” of the aristocracy, see M. L. Bush, The English Aristocracy: A Comparative Synthesis (Manchester: Manchester Univ. Press, 1984).

  25. Elias, Power and Civility, pp. 258-91.

  26. Moretti, p. 53, my emphasis.

  27. Dollimore, p. 202.

  28. Moretti, p. 53.

  29. In the Historie of King Lear the final speech is credited to Albany, the highest ranking figure remaining in the kingdom. In The Tragedie of King Lear, Shakespeare underscores the symbolic importance of the trial by combat scene by giving Edgar the final lines of the play.

  30. Moretti, pp. 55, 53, 52.

  31. Dollimore, pp. 202-3.

  32. Erich Auerbach, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, trans. Willard R. Trask (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1953), p. 314.

  33. Strier, p. 112.

  34. Elias, Court Society, p. 88.

  35. Strier, pp. 119, 122.

  36. Buchanan Sharp, In Contempt of All Authority: Rural Artisans and Riot in the West of England, 1586-1660 (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1980), p. 32. For further discussion of the “scripts” of peasant uprisings and the conservative nature of collective action, see Natalie Zemon Davis, “The Rites of Violence,” in Society and Culture in Early Modern France: Eight Essays by Natalie Zemon Davis (Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 1975), pp. 152-87; Peter Stallybrass, “‘Drunk with the Cup of Liberty’: Robin Hood, the Carnivalesque, and the Rhetoric of Violence in Early Modern England,” in The Violence of Representation: Literature and the History of Violence, ed. Nancy Armstrong and Leonard Tennenhouse (London: Routledge, 1989), pp. 45-76; and E. P. Thompson, “The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century,” Past and Present 50 (February 1971): 76-136.

  37. John Walter, “A ‘Rising of the People’?: The Oxfordshire Rising of 1596,” Past and Present 107 (May 1985): 90-143, 92, 131.

  38. Sharp, p. 44. For further discussion of responses by authorities to popular uprisings, see Paul Slack, Poverty and Policy in Tudor and Stuart England (New York: Longman, 1988).

  39. Greenblatt, “Murdering Peasants: Status, Genre, and the Representation of Rebellion,” in Representing the English Renaissance, ed. Greenblatt (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1988), pp. 15-29, 15.

  40. In The Historie of King Lear two additional servants are given speech, but they speak only after Cornwall and Regan have left the stage, offering aid and assistance to “the old Earle” once the Duke of Cornwall's will has been done (xiv.2024).

  41. Strier, p. 122.

  42. de Grazia, “The Ideology of Superfluous Things: King Lear as Period Piece,” in Subject and Object, pp. 17-42.

  43. Moretti, p. 42.

  44. E.P. Thompson, “Patrician Society, Plebeian Culture,” Journal of Social History 7, 4 (Summer 1974): 382-405, 389. For discussion of the persistence of elite authority, see Bush; and Richard Lachmann, From Manor to Market: Structural Change in England, 1536-1640 (Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1987). I am grateful for the support provided, in part, by a Hudson Strode research scholarship from the University of Alabama. I wish to thank David Lee Miller, Sharon O'Dair, Gary Taylor, Mathew Winston, and the anonymous reader at SEL for their criticism on this paper.

William Dodd (essay date 1999)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 18640

SOURCE: “Impossible Worlds: What Happens in King Lear, Act 1, Scene 1?,” in Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 50, No. 4, Winter, 1999, pp. 477-507.

[In the following essay, Dodd attempts to bridge dramatic readings of King Lear with historical interpretations of the play in order to more fully understand Shakespeare's intent.]


It is now widely recognized that the earthquake provoked by Cordelia's “Nothing, my lord” (1.1.87)1 has its origin in a deep, pre-existing fissure within the social, political, and economic substratum of the King Lear world. Historicist and especially materialist critics have for some time been laboring to map this substratum, which for so long was overlaid by narrowly familial or ethical-humanist readings.2 One of the most thoroughgoing recent studies in this respect is Richard Halpern's brilliant essay “Historica Passio: King Lear's Fall into Feudalism.”3 It sets up an ideological and sociopolitical framework capable of accounting for much of the dramatic energy released by this tragedy and for the precipitating effect of the opening scene. It also confirms absolutism as an inescapable issue for any historically informed reading of the play.

Since I wish to use Halpern's essay as a kind of backdrop for my own argument, let me summarize the author's main theses. Halpern argues that while many historical readings of Lear equate the collapse of the play's social order with the collapse of feudalism, the play in fact “collapses back into feudalism,” into “a ‘gor'd state’ … stripped of all consumption-signs but ruled by a newly remilitarized aristocracy.”4 At the same time Lear “quite explicitly engages the transition to capitalism” but does so “through the perspective of ruling-class ideology and, moreover, narrates it ‘backward.’ The play is, in effect, a fantastic but nonetheless coherent account of the transition from capitalism to feudalism.”5 The beginning of Lear presents absolutism in a pure form, depicting “a world in which royal will is restrained neither by Parliament nor by God and thus relies on nothing but its own faculties of prudence—faculties that fail disastrously in the opening scene.”6 Cordelia's response to the love test triggers the disaster because it

disrupts the perfection of the order-word by reinjecting it with the contingency of the present (it is Lear's foolishness not to have understood the meaning of this gesture as a critique of his plan to divide the kingdom). This is not to say that Cordelia does not love her father; it is only to say that what she does poses a fundamental challenge to his authority and, moreover, means to do so.7

Thus “Cordelia's feelings and reactions [which Halpern sees as “more than honest” and “at least a little cruel”] … are fully coherent if understood as an assault on Lear's absolutist order-word.”8

The question I want to raise is whether we could reasonably imagine Cordelia conceiving her response in such terms (historical differences of metalanguage apart). It seems to me that Halpern offers a plausible post factum political explanation but does not, though usefully alluding to the “contingency of the present,” fully come to grips with the personal logic of Cordelia's response in the ongoing exchange or show exactly how we get from that response to the political level. However, he shows his awareness of this theoretical problem when he asks

how can drama, which by its nature focuses on persons rather than transpersonal institutions, possibly represent historical processes (either as the conscious goal of authorial design or as the unwitting effect of ideological and literary practices)? … we speak of Kent as embodying certain feudal “values,” by which we mean that his expressed beliefs, his actions, his manner of expression and quite possibly his costume recall those of the feudal knightly class. What drama has at its disposal as a means of historical representation is primarily a repertoire of such gestural manifestations of value. And insofar as drama manages to embody a historical vision of some sort, it does so largely by substituting these gestural manifestations for the social production of value. Historical and cultural formations exist through or are signified by dramatic persons; historical actants—collective or impersonal—designate themselves through dramatic agents, generally in an overdetermined fashion.9

Halpern and other materialist critics are obviously right to stress the need to look through or beyond the dramatic persons in order to discern the transpersonal or historical processes informing them. There is, however, a risk that the personal and interpersonal dimension of drama will be diminished to a kind of shadow theater of coded gestures, in which what characters are doing and saying as represented people may seem to bear little relation to what they are supposed to be doing and saying as manifestations of historical forces.

One of my aims is to suggest that to look at dramatic characters as fictional persons and to dwell on the logic of their interaction need not be an ahistorical or conservative undertaking. If we tease out the implications of these interactions, we can still come face to face with history without having to disown our commonsense notion that characters in Renaissance drama stand for persons in interaction before they stand for historical processes.10 By exploring the interpersonal behavior of Cordelia and Kent in King Lear's crucial opening scene, I hope to help bridge the gap between “deep” historical readings and the “surface” phenomenology of dramatic action. Part of my justification for doing so is a conviction that Shakespeare's extraordinary ability to simulate the complex dynamics of interpersonal interaction (evidently encouraged by an intense public demand) enabled him to give local habitations and names to the less tangible forms and pressures of the time. By so often allowing the logic of interlocution and of the negotiation of personhood to develop its own momentum (to the point where it strains against the narrative logic of his plots), he fashioned a powerful tool for identifying and evaluating the collective forces at work in early modern society.11 If this is true, then we must take care not to underplay the role of personhood and interlocution when attempting to supersede traditional character study and delve into subterranean historical processes.

There is no reason why late-twentieth-century problematizing of the subject should discourage us from investigating the way characters in plays are—often, if by no means always—presented as interacting persons, provided we do not make the mistake of totalizing the personal and eliding the systemic.12 While the concept of a fully autonomous subject as “the complex but nonetheless unified locus of the constitution of the phenomenal world”13 (usually ascribed to “liberal humanism”) has generally been discarded, the poststructuralist concept of the subject as decentered, heterogeneous, subjected, oppressively determined by language, institutions, or ideologies has also been seriously challenged.14 Alternative intellectual sources are available for a criticism that is willing neither to exalt the individual subject as a unique source of decision and action nor to diminish the subject to a mere effect of super-personal forces. Here I will use the concept of person rather than subject or self, since, as the French philosopher Francis Jacques has shown, it has primacy over the other two. For Jacques persons are constituted by interlocution, which is a primum relationis:

It is a relation that grabs hold of individuals; that happens to them and, as a result, makes them into persons. We could say that the individuals exist before the relation that grows up between them. But the same cannot be claimed for their personal identity. The relation of mutuality takes hold of individuals, but only in order to make them into agencies capable of communicative speech, so that they may then acquire personal identity, sui generis. This identity can therefore be regarded as a secondary consequence of a primary reality, the relation of mutuality.15

Persons are continually created and recreated through allocution (speaking to others and being spoken to) and delocution (being spoken of by others) in the triadic relationship of I/you/he-she.

If interlocution is not a bridge for connecting two insular speakers but is constitutive of speakers as persons, then the possibility of “true” communication, of mutuality, is intrinsic to dialogue, despite the distorting effects of power. Pierre Bourdieu has berated linguists for abstracting language from its power-riddled contexts of use and “ignoring its social laws of construction,” thereby creating “the illusion of linguistic communism.”16 He sees verbal interaction as a linguistic market in which “the different agents' linguistic strategies are strictly dependent on their positions in the structure of the distribution of linguistic capital.”17 However accurate a picture this may be of the way language is often used in complex societies, it does not follow that the “market” is always the bedrock of language. Francis Jacques implicitly refutes such an assumption when he argues that the object of a science of personal relations is “not the type of social relations that are established around the production or exchange of things, but interpersonal relations which sustain social relations and keep their system open, maintaining our co-referential relationship to things.”18 In what follows I use personal and interpersonal to refer to the sphere in which persons come into being through interlocution, one logically distinct from and anterior to the sphere of political relations. It coincides more or less with the space of Jürgen Habermas's “lifeworld,” usefully defined by Hugh Grady as “a socializing, customary society founded on a logic of communicative competence with a telos of intersubjective understanding,” arguing that in the early modern period we can already see signs of reified systems' encroachment on the lifeworld—an encroachment which Habermas believes to be characteristic of modernity.19


Before rereading Lear, 1.1, from this perspective, I want, first, to delineate some of the tensions that existed between personal and political in the governmental theory and practice of Elizabeth and James and, second, to suggest how Lear's love test is relevant to these tensions. Doing so will help to explain why Shakespeare's heightening of the political dimension of the Lear story also serves to enhance the special, differential role of the personal.20

After the rise of bourgeois realism in the eighteenth century, the love test was often dismissed as little more than a conventional, folktale-like device for getting the plot under way. But now that much of the political topicality of Lear's opening scene has been retrieved, the love test itself seems resonant with the specific modes and gestures of Elizabethan and Jacobean monarchic politics. Shakespeare's reworking of this episode reflects and refracts some typical political behaviors of both the old queen and the new king at the turn of the century.

As Perry Anderson has remarked, English absolutism was the weakest and shortest-lived in western Europe.21 Elizabeth had no standing army, few financial resources, and a recalcitrant nobility; what was worse, she was a woman in a man's world. She was obliged to make a strength of her weakness and did so by constructing for herself a personal myth—that of the Virgin Queen, a woman but an exceptional one. Christopher Haigh has described how she presented herself through a series of roles: as mother to her people and the church, as wife to her realm, as cousin to the peers, as seductress of her courtiers.22 The common denominator of these roles is that they are noninstitutional and activate personal emotion—love or, failing that, anger—in order to exploit it for political ends.23 In many respects Elizabeth's reign was quite literally a long-drawn-out love test, with the queen alternating between examiner and examinee. As Haigh comments:

Queen Elizabeth made her emotions a tool of politics. She attempted political intimidation by her anger, and political seduction by loving words. But in using her emotions to manipulate others, she made her feelings means by which others could manipulate her. … The Queen's mood was a crucial fact of political life. … Elizabeth's affection was a major political prize: he who had it became a powerful figure, able to influence government decisions and the distribution of rewards. … By making affection and sexuality pronounced features of political relationships, she raised the emotional temperature of the Court to a dangerous level. … Elizabeth had created a system of emotional engagement, in which political leaders had to behave like lovers and lovers became leaders.24

If in public speeches the queen endlessly rehearsed her love for her people, in the business of the court and council she more often gave vent to rage in order to intimidate her servants: in face-to-face interaction faces might be hit by flying slippers, as Francis Walsingham learned to his cost. By the last decade of her reign, however, even the public image of the queen as a loving person had ceased to function, as reality and myth went their separate ways:

Elizabeth died unloved and almost unlamented, and it was partly her own fault. She had aimed for popularity and political security by projecting herself as the ever-young and ever-beautiful virgin mother of her people, bringing them peace and prosperity; she ended her days as an irascible old woman, presiding over war and failure abroad and poverty and factionalism at home.25

The opening line of King Lear—Kent's “I thought the King had more affected the Duke of Albany than Cornwall”—thus immediately evokes the personalized politics of Elizabethan absolutism.26 And when, a minute later, Lear announces the love test, he would surely have been seen by a Globe audience as exploiting a now-threadbare mode of government. The verbal and rhetorical forms deployed by Lear's three daughters in their responses are thick with resemblances to the language of court politics. Just how far the language of the love test in Lear (and its dramatic source, The True Chronicle History of King Leir) resonates with the rhetorical strategies typical of Elizabeth's rule will be appreciated if we set the following passage alongside it:

I do assure you, there is no prince that loveth his subjects better, [or] whose love can countervail our love. There is no jewel, be it of never so rich a price, which I set before this jewel; I mean, your love: for I do more esteem of it, than of any treasure or riches; for that we know how to prize, but love and thanks I count unvaluable.

… neither do I desire to live longer days, than that I may see your prosperity; and that's my only desire. …

Of myself, I must say this, I was never any greedy scraping grasper, nor a straight, fast-holding prince, nor yet a waster. My heart was never set on worldly goods, but only for my subjects' good. What you do bestow on me, I will not hoard up, but receive it to bestow on you again: yea, my own properties I count yours, and to be expended for your good. … Therefore, render unto them from me, I beseech you, Mr. Speaker, such thanks as you imagine my heart yieldeth, but my tongue cannot express.27

The resemblances between these words and those used in Act 1, scene 1, by Goneril and Regan, as well as by Cordelia, are surely striking. They form part of parliamentarian Hayward Townshend's transcription of a well-known performance of Elizabeth's—the so-called “Golden Speech” of 30 November 1601. Delivered at Whitehall before the Commons, the speech was swiftly published as an example of the queen's great devotion to her people, albeit in an authorized version that is more sober than Townshend's.28 But it was actually, as Haigh notes, “an enforced attempt to reestablish herself as a caring ruler after the débâcle over monopolies.”29 The eloquent opening declaration of love is typical of the queen's manipulative technique. Like Lear's daughters, Elizabeth sees herself as called on to perform in a love test. And, like them, she is divided between hyperbole and reticence. I am not claiming that Elizabeth's speech (in one or other of the contemporary versions) is a “source” for Lear's love test. But Shakespeare's vigorous repoliticizing of The True Chronicle History of King Leir does give special salience to rhetorical modes typically employed or enforced by the late queen. The task that Lear's daughters are obliged to perform not only resembles the one Elizabeth set herself; it also resembles the task she set her courtiers and councilors to speak “the rhetoric and ritual of devotion.”30 We know from an anecdote of Sir John Harington's that Elizabeth was fully conscious of ruling by emotional manipulation. After Harington's wife had confided to Elizabeth that she kept her husband's good will and love by insisting on her own affection for him, the queen commented: “after suche sorte do I keepe the good wyll of all my husbandes, my good people; for if they did not reste assurede of some specyal love towarde them, they woud not readilie yeilde me suche goode obedience.”31 The first scene of Shakespeare's play can in part be read as a meditation on the human cost of such practices and their inadequacy in a world where the systemic dimension of state and society is rapidly growing more complex. But it also emblematizes the contingency to which political action is exposed when it appropriates the modes of personal interaction. For just as Lear is manipulated by Goneril and Regan, Elizabeth was manipulated by powerful subjects who turned her emotional strategies to their own advantage. We know, for instance, that the Privy Council's “men of Business” led Parliament to pressure the queen by “taking advantage of her oft-expressed desire to rule with the love of her people.”32

Lear is, however, also “studded with references to James's policies and predilections.”33 Generally speaking, James saw himself as more his subjects' schoolmaster than their lover. He had a distaste for physical contact with curious crowds and as a mode of interaction with councilors and courtiers preferred intellectual discussion to emotional role-playing. (Of course he was later to become highly dependent emotionally on his favorites.) He was taken more with the theory of royal government than its day-to-day business. Much of his communication with his subjects was thus mediated through his writings—published treatises such as The Trew Law of Free Monarchies and the Basilicon Doron—and his major political speeches, all of which were eventually collected in his Workes. Yet, as Curtis Perry has recently emphasized, he styled himself the bountiful “nourish-father” of his people, subsuming male and female roles in a way that is reflected in the “self-abnegating royal largess” of Shakespeare's monarch: “Not only is Lear the quasi-maternal ‘nourish-father,’ he is first presented as if he were the sole progenitor of his children as well.”34

Above and beyond such exploitations of familial affect, James's mode of conceiving government and politics shared with Elizabeth's the tendency to divorce the symbolic or theoretical dimension of royalty from the material realities of rule. Nowhere is this so evident as in his view of the powers of kings and in his project for the union of England and Scotland. James seized every opportunity to proclaim his absolute prerogatives (though promising to abide by English common law and customs), but he was often driven to bargaining with an unruly Parliament in order to obtain much-needed subsidies. To this theorist of absolutism, union with Scotland seemed practically a fait accompli: “as Honour and Priuiledges of any of the Kingdomes could not be diuided from their Soueraigne, So are they now confounded & ioyned in my Person, who am equall and alike kindly Head to you both.”35 But the Privy Council was not enthusiastic and Parliament was hostile. Where the Scottish king saw symbolic apotheosis, the English Parliament saw only economic and political disadvantages. Many interpreters of King Lear, from Marie Axton to Richard Halpern, have read the play as a meditation on the perils of divorcing symbolic from material power. And although the divider of the kingdom ought to be the antitype of the would-be uniter of Britain, disconcerting parallels can be discerned between the two monarchs, especially in the Quarto.36 In this respect the opening scene reads more like a cautionary tale against the risks of absolutist posturing than a pro-Jamesian meditation on the evils of disunion.

The love test, with its devastating political and personal consequences, starkly spells out the risks inherent in the absolutist mix of the dynastic and the familial. In so doing, it responds to the kind of assumptions and attitudes embodied in James's writings on this topic. In the Basilicon Doron the transmission of monarchic power is modeled on the “natural” relationship of father and son, and the “natural law” underwriting parental authority is used to secure the power of kings. The monarch's absoluteness is incomplete if it cannot be projected onto the future through the vehicle of a first-born son—if one is available. James's treatise written in 1598 thus takes the form of a battery of precepts whose theoretical function is to ensure that his successor is properly incorporated into his mystical body (though no doubt it was also, more concretely, a move in James's bid for the English crown). In this respect the Basilicon Doron is a didactic version of a logic of transmission that receives symbolic expression in Lear's love test and pragmatic evaluation in its catastrophic outcome. It is significant that Shakespeare's reworking of the love test greatly exacerbates the clash between the king and his youngest daughter as compared to the prose and poetic sources, which simply report that the father is much angered by her response. Only in the chronicle play does he actually disown Cordella: “Peace, bastard Impe, no issue of King Leir” (TLN 312).37 In none of the earlier texts does the king give way to such violent rage as Shakespeare's Lear does or curse his youngest daughter, reversing a ceremony of testation and benediction into a malediction of the best-loved child. Disturbingly we do find a protocol for just such a reversal, right at the beginning of what James calls his “Testament and latter will”—the Basilicon Doron—in the epistle “To Henry my dearest sonne, and natvral svccessovr”:

To conclude then, I charge you, as euer yee thinke to deserue my Fatherly blessing, to follow and put in practise, as farre as lyeth in you, the prœcepts hereafter following. And if yee follow the contrary course, I take the Great god to record, that this Booke shall one day bee a witnesse betwixt mee and you; and shall procure to bee ratified in Heauen, the curse that in that case here I giue vnto you. For I protest before that Great god. I had rather not bee a Father, and childlesse, then bee a Father of wicked children.38

In 1606, three years after the king's book had become a bestseller in London, a pre-Christian monarch at the Globe would call upon the sun and Hecate to witness his curse as he dispossessed Cordelia for what he saw as her disobedience. In one respect, of course, Lear is functioning here as an antitype of James. James warns Henry to leave his eldest son all his kingdoms and not to divide them as Brutus had done among his sons Locrine, Camber, and Albanact, sowing “the seed of diuision and discord”; and if he has no heir, Henry is enjoined to “defraud neuer the nearest by right, whatsoeuer conceit yee haue of the person: For Kingdomes are euer at Gods disposition,” and it lies neither “in the Kings, nor peoples hands to dispossesse the righteous heire.”39 However, comparison of the opening epistle with a passage in Book II complicates matters. Insisting on Henry's obligation also to show humility and obedience to his mother, James stresses the potency of parents' blessings or curses and censures children who dare unnaturally to judge them:

Neither deceiue your selfe with many that say, they care not for their Parents curse, so they deserue it not. O inuert not the order of nature, by iudging your superiours, chiefly in your owne particular! But assure your selfe, the blessing or curse of the Parents, hath almost euer a Propheticke power ioyned with it: and if there were no more, honour your Parents, for the lengthning of your owne dayes, as god in his Law promiseth.40

It is clear why James does so: natural law is held to be the foundation of the authority of kings just as much as of fathers. When one bond snaps, so does the other.41Lear constructs a situation in which a royal parent blesses his daughters by offering them shares of his kingdom in return for an act of loving obeisance. The youngest daughter inverts the order of nature by implicitly passing judgment on her father's request. But the play shows that it is the father's curse rather than the daughter's judgment which is tragically misplaced and that disobedience may have a higher authorization than obedience. The one breaching natural law turns out to be the cursing father, not the judging daughter.

The publicity given to the Brutus theme in 1603 at the time of James's accession, as well as at the inaugural celebrations for the new mayor of London in the autumn of 1605, meant that almost any spectator would be able to contemplate Lear as the new king's antitype.42 At the same time, given the extraordinary impact of James's book in England and the critical scrutiny from elite and commoners alike to which the Scot was exposed in the early years, it would not have been difficult for an audience to perceive troubling likenesses between the two monarchs as the play's absolutist ceremony unfolds.43

The first scene of King Lear, then, thrusts central features of contemporary monarchic principles and practices into the arena of interpersonal relations and, as we shall see, allows them to reveal their deep-rooted contradictions. If, as Halpern suggests, Shakespeare's tragedy conducts its investigation of absolutism under laboratory conditions by vastly simplifying its environment, the love test explores the risks inherent in the confusion of the political with the personal. The experimental conditions enable Shakespeare to highlight not only how damaging such confusion can be to the persons involved but also how it backfires on the system itself.44 By plunging the transactions of absolutism directly into the sphere of personal interaction, Lear exposes absolutism to the contingency of face-to-face encounters. Shakespeare was extraordinarily skillful at simulating this kind of contingency and the turbulence that goes with it. As a result, we sometimes get the sensation that his dialogues break ground not fully mapped out in the overall narrative.

The rest of this essay looks at how Shakespeare sometimes imagines dialogues—in this case between Lear, Cordelia, and Kent—as what I define below as sites of emergence. In such emergences personal interaction suddenly comes to the verge of a breakthrough, or a breakdown, or simply and tragically loses its thread.45 Recent discussions of dialogue, especially in ethnography, have shown increasing awareness of its contingent or emergent character. The principle of emergence, which first appeared in nineteenth-century biology and natural philosophy, states that “When two entities are combined at a higher level of integration, not all the properties of the new entity are necessarily a logical or predictable consequence of the properties of the components.”46 Hence “systems almost always have the peculiarity that the characteristics of the whole cannot (not even in theory) be deduced from the most complete knowledge of the components, taken separately or in other partial combinations.”47 By virtue of this principle we can expect personal interactions to give rise to outcomes that are not predictable on the basis of the separate knowledge and intentions of the individual actors. Speakers, of course, can use their power to try to control or distort an interaction, but they can never completely remove its contingency, since the production of meaning and reference is always a shared activity. Anthony Giddens clarifies why this is so in his discussion of Talcott Parsons's idea of the “‘double contingency’” of social interaction. According to this concept, “the reactions of each party to a process of interaction depend upon the contingent responses of the other or others: the response of the other(s) is thus a potential sanction upon the acts of the first and vice versa.”48

David Aers and Gunther Kress have argued that in Lear, Shakespeare was unable “to imagine any real alternative beyond the disintegrating traditional order and the utterly destructive individualism which emerges from it.”49 Certainly the plot gives no inkling of the shape an alternative system might take. But in the dialogue we can catch fleeting glimpses of worlds that may seem politically impossible or unthinkable in the emergences of interlocution between the imagined persons.50 It is to these beleaguered Edens of mutuality that my title “Impossible Worlds” alludes. While Max Horkheimer held that art “since it became autonomous, has preserved the utopia that evaporated from religion,” Theodor Adorno was careful to point out that “A successful work … is not one which resolves objective contradictions in a spurious harmony, but one which expresses the idea of harmony negatively by embodying the contradictions, pure and uncompromised, in its innermost structure.”51 If this is so, an exploration of emergences in dialogue can contribute to our understanding of how historical processes are embodied in drama.


What actually triggers the disaster in Lear is neither the monarch's division of the kingdom nor his abdication nor his attempt to cling to symbolic authority while relinquishing the material basis of his power. It is the fact that he chooses to introduce a love test into a ceremony concerned with succession.52 Lear's political decisions are major premises of the events in 1.1, but they are not the causes of the dramatic agon. As commentators have pointed out, nobody in the king's entourage initially seems perturbed by his intention to partition the kingdom or to abdicate. That these political issues are central themes in the play does not mean, however, that they generate the catastrophe. The conflict between Lear and Cordelia (and subsequently Kent) actually develops as an unpredictable emergence deriving from the love test. If we take love as referring to the interpersonal relationship in its most pristine, democratic form,53 it will be clear that any love test is bound to run into trouble, especially during a crucial political ceremony. By attempting to politicize the personal, Lear rashly exposes the political to the contingency of the personal.54 In demanding professions of love from his three daughters, not only does he try to use them as means instead of interacting with them as persons,55 but he also reifies his daughters' relationship with him by commanding them to formulate it. As if this were not enough, he commits an act of symbolic violence by seeking to impose an irredeemable debt of gratitude on his daughters: their declarations of love could never “buy” their share of the kingdom.56 But why, in Shakespeare's fashioning of this episode, does the king introduce the love test at all? Stanley Cavell's explanation locates Lear's decision primarily at the level of individual psychology, in Lear's “attempt to avoid recognition, the shame of exposure, the threat of self-revelation”:

He feels unworthy of love when the reality of lost power comes over him. That is what his plan was to have avoided by exchanging his fortune for his love at one swap. … Lear knows it is a bribe he offers, and—part of him anyway—wants exactly what a bribe can buy: (1) false love and (2) a public expression of love. That is, he wants something he does not have to return in kind, something which a division of his property fully pays for. And he wants to look like a loved man—for the sake of the subjects, as it were.57

From a political standpoint, however, this means that Lear wishes to sugar the pill of absolutism by mystifying it as a system based on love rather than coercion. He needs to provide a public demonstration that his “darker purpose” (which I take as alluding to his solitary, absolutist decision to favor his youngest daughter) is the right one: the evidence of Cordelia's superior love is to be his irrefutable argument.58 The source of the catastrophe should thus not be sought in Lear's individual psychology as such but at the frontier between the political and the personal. It arises from undiluted absolutism's incompatibility with human relations. Lear does not dare deliver his absolutist word without seeking to reinforce it by (a charade of) personal affect. Only later does Lear fully grasp that the alternative is exclusion from all human intercourse.

The rapid narrative logic of the chronicle versions of the Leir story easily conceals the monstrousness of this love test—imagine a father even then holding such a contest in a real family. The theatrical situation, however, with animated characters present to each other on the stage, foregrounds its perverseness. This is immediately hinted at in Lear's curious phrasing of his request:

                                                  Tell me, my daughters—
(F)Since now we will divest us both of rule,
Interest of territory, cares of state—(F)
Which of you shall we say doth love us most,
That we our largest bounty may extend
Where nature doth with merit challenge.
[Where merit doth most challenge it.]

(1.1.48-53, emphasis added)59

With “shall we say” Lear reserves a very special interlocutive position for himself. The phrase (together with his rapid return from the familial “I” to the royal “we”) hints from the start that the quality of love expressed is not expected to be a meaning produced jointly by speaker and listener but something decided by himself alone. To put it in Francis Jacques's terms: he arrogates the right to say, whereas a single participant in a dialogue can claim only the right to speak.60 We may read this as an unconscious admission that the competition is to have a preordained outcome. More importantly, however, the phrase implies that Lear intends to use his power in order to impose a unilateral interpretation on whatever meanings his daughters try to stake out for their words. He is preempting the right to answer his own question through the agency of his daughters.

When it is Cordelia's turn to make a discourse of love, she, unlike her sisters, takes the invitation literally, as personal rather than as merely exploitative. In other words, she subjects Lear's utterance to a joint “saying,” thereby siting it in the interlocutive space where speakers mutually construct meaning and reference. She thus exposes his words to the contingency of “true” communication.61 The unforeseen emergence occurs, then, not because Cordelia opposes her father's desire but, more radically, because she makes his question a serious one. She takes it as personally addressed to her, as a genuine request for love.62 At the same time (as her previous asides imply), she realizes that the situation Lear has constructed will tend to impose a political meaning on the discourse of love. She is shown as aware that Lear is exercising power over her by requiring her to place her agency at his service. But if she sacrifices her autonomy, she can no longer produce a discourse of love and vice versa. We might imagine that if Lear had simply settled her dowry and chosen her husband, the problem would not have arisen. From her personal standpoint the best way out of her predicament, given her father's manipulative use of discourse, is to use her right to silence—the right of the person to withhold her/himself from an interaction. Jacques's account of this option—“the ability to call the relation of communicative mutuality into question in certain crisis situations”—is particularly relevant here:

The speaking subject shows itself able to appeal against an instituted, official communication regime within which it regards itself as partially (or totally) alienated, in the name of a different regime in which speech would be full, rather than curtailed, and communication free, complete, and direct.63

Cordelia tries to avoid collapsing Lear's utterance and ritual by attempting not to respond though continuing to cling to her rights as a person.

Her two asides warn us exactly what is at stake:

What shall Cordelia speak? [doe] Love, and be silent. …
                                                  Then poor Cordelia,
And yet not so, since I am sure my love's
More ponderous [richer] than my tongue.

(ll. 62, 77-79)

Significantly, in each aside she is made to name herself, unlike all her forebears and her counterpart in Leir. One aside would have sufficed if Shakespeare's purpose had simply been to identify her for the audience. As it is, the repetition of her name has the effect of foregrounding her person. To cite Jacques once more:

Whereas the subjective self is properly unnameable, and the individual is a purely referential reality, part of being a person is having a name. … As a means of designating persons, the specificity of proper names is a pragmatic one; my name only denotes me in so far as it carries the memory of the different self-presentations by which I have already declared myself as a speaking subject in a communicational universe.64

Repetition draws attention to the mode of personhood as primary to her dramatic identity in this phase. Yet there is something pragmatically very anomalous, even in inner discourse or soliloquy, in a person's replacing the self-referring pronoun I with her name and thus casting herself in the third person. It involves a precarious splitting of the internalized self from the relationally constructed person out of which it is born by differentiation.65 Lear's love test, then, has already begun to produce alienation in his best-loved daughter.66 The dilemma implicit in Cordelia's oblique locution is how to remain true to her own “person” as the product of an endlessly negotiated interlocutive relationship of I, you, and he/she.67 For the audience “What shall Cordelia speak?” serves to create a rather special kind of alignment with the youngest daughter: it is as if this locution invites the spectator to assist in determining her strategy and to share responsibility for her decision.68

None of the chronicle or poetic versions of the Leir story that might have come Shakespeare's way allows us a glimpse into Cordelia's mind as she listens to her sisters' adulation of their father. It was the Leir playwright who first took this crucial step, introducing two asides that formally echo and invert the delighted response of the flattered king:

O, how thy words reuiue my dying soule!
O, how I doe abhorre this flattery! …
Did neuer Philomel sing so sweet a note.
Did neuer flatterer tell so false a tale.

(TLN 253-54, 273-74)

This innovation owes much to the semiotics of the Elizabethan-Jacobean theater, since asides could obviously play an important role in organizing an audience's viewpoint and in setting up its evaluative criteria. Yet in Leir Cordella's asides are essentially subservient to the thematic-ethical function of labeling her elder sisters' speeches as flattery. Shakespeare maintains the timing of the asides but inverts their referential direction, making them inward-pointing and thus shifting the thematic balance of the episode. By making Cordelia hesitant and vulnerable rather than censorious, he now places the audience in a position to participate in her dilemma as she becomes aware of the challenge to her status as person. Her asides are richly revealing of the radical nature of this dilemma. Yet, given their parentheticity and brevity, the audience at this point knows far less about where she is speaking from than it does about the other characters involved in the ongoing interaction. The audience can infer only that she is the king's youngest daughter. The effect of this syncopated presentation is that we have to construe her existential position from the manner in which she begins to envisage and evaluate the imminent exchange with her father. In other words, we are present at her becoming a person, as she prepares and fashions herself in a relational sense for this exchange. We become aware of her similarity to ourselves as we listen to her inner voice preparing itself for exposure to the problematic interaction to come.

Our first contact with Cordelia, then, is organized so that we can construct only what Jacques calls “personal predicates” to define her: rather than reifying her as an individual who is socially situated or as a self who possesses qualities, we are led to know or judge her primarily in terms of her relational style.69 What we call her sincerity is a way of naming her ability to remain open even to a manipulative interaction that she knows will be damaging to her and to trust that the quality of her own interactional honesty, her love, will speak—in the very emergence of that interaction—to this king, her sometime father. If an audience's response is something like what I am suggesting, then it will not only be closely aligned with Cordelia's point of view in the forthcoming clash, but it will also tend to share her personal mode of construing the exchange. We will come to regard Lear's attempt to impose his predetermined political reading on the exchange as a usurpation of the mutual construction of meaning in dialogue. Whatever an audience thinks of Lear's politics or good intentions, it will surely find him dialogically perverse. In the theater, where dialogue is reality, this is obviously damning and may be one of the reasons why many Lear actors report having trouble regaining the audience's sympathy for the king later in the play.

By preparing the audience for her “Nothing, my lord,” Cordelia's asides ensure that the obstacle to the king's plan cannot be read simply as a hitch in the machinery of absolutism or as a willful act of political defiance. The personal pragmatics of Cordelia's asides embed her in a narrative completely different from that of Lear's power ritual. At the same time, their theatrical semiotics drive a wedge between king and audience, moving Cordelia into a platea relationship with the latter and detaching her from the locus of the king's represented authority. Spectators are invited to draw on their own practical consciousness of the pragmatics of interpersonal relationships, which is the seat of their authority to judge Lear's political ceremony and personal behavior.70 The audience is thus forced to construe the exchange between Lear and his daughter as a clash between two conflicting modes of interaction—the manipulative and the truly interlocutive—that is, as an exchange that generates incompatible meanings. The fact that the dice are loaded so that, in the midst of a strictly political ritual, we will have to choose Cordelia's personal meanings opens a fissure in the play that has to be read both on the systemic level (the political disaster of a mismanaged succession produced by an interference of the personal with the workings of institutions) and on the relational one (the human disaster of personal relations disrupted by institutionalized power). Neither can be subsumed in the other and neither can be excluded.71 In a regime of absolutism, turmoil in the one not only implies but is turmoil in the other.

When Lear turns to Cordelia, he addresses her not only more lovingly than Goneril and Regan but uses what seems to be the you of parity and respect instead of the thou of paternal and kingly authority he has just used with her sisters.72 Now that the audience—unlike the Leir audience—has been prepared for Cordelia's reticence (so that it will both comprehend the king's dismay and respect Cordelia's silence), Shakespeare is able to render Cordelia's answer more shocking than in the earlier play and chronicles. Her “Nothing, my lord” brings the systemic and the personal into instant collision. The value Cordelia attaches to her rights as a person, her right “to call the relation of communicative mutuality into question in certain crisis situations” is absolute: she is prepared to risk her dowry for it (“Then poor Cordelia …” [1.1.76]).73 The asides depict her as aware that her answer will be read as an incapacity or refusal to conform to situational expectations, yet she does not immediately volunteer reasons for it. Her “Nothing, my lord” is thus realized as anomalous within the represented interaction of the fictional world, whereas for the audience it is motivated. This gives rise to another contingency. Lear is compelled to take further initiatives to keep the exchange going:

Nothing, my lord.
(Q)How,(Q) nothing will come of nothing. Speak again.
Unhappy that I am, I cannot heave
My heart into my mouth. I love your majesty
According to my bond, no more nor less.

(ll. 87-93)

At a critical moment in a public ritual, he has to adapt his agency to Cordelia's, thereby suffering what from his perspective is a diminution of power (which the Folio emphasizes by redoubling the “Nothing” exchange). The contingency of the personal thus brings turbulence into the sphere of the systemic independently of either speaker's intentions. If, as Anthony Giddens maintains, “Power relations are always two-way; that is to say, however subordinate an actor may be in a social relationship, the very fact of involvement … gives him or her a certain amount of power over the other,”74 then absolutism, with its investment of power in a single person, is peculiarly vulnerable to the hazards of interlocution.

A further consequence of Cordelia's reticence is that both the onstage and the real audience's attention is riveted on the motivation she supplies when pressed. The syntax of the first part of her answer, “Unhappy that I am, I cannot heave / My heart into my mouth,” clearly owes something to the first reply of the chronicle-play Cordella: “I cannot paynt my duty forth in words, / I hope my deeds shall make report for me” (TLN 277-78). Yet Shakespeare alters both metaphor and meaning. The implications of this alteration can also be clarified by Jacques's framework. Cordelia cannot heave her heart into her mouth because it cannot be done: if the heart is a metaphor for true personal identity, then she cannot utter this because no person can ever properly define her own personhood unilaterally.75

The implications of the rest of Cordelia's answer (“I love your majesty / According to my bond, no more nor less”) have been much discussed, but attention has been paid more to the significance of her appeal to her bond than to the interlocutive stance and effects of her answer. While her words are actually more deferential than those of her forebears (most of whom set out to challenge and test their flattery-prone father), the brevity of this reply is again construed by Lear as disobedience or impertinence rather than moral reticence. Against the ceremonial backdrop and after the elder sisters' protracted discourses of flattery, this is a predictable interpretation of her utterance. Cordelia herself perceives the risk, as is clear from her attempt to attenuate the threat to Lear's “face”: “Unhappy that I am. …” The formula presents her as unfortunate yet apologetic and ready to take responsibility for her behavior. This, as she partly anticipated, is insufficient. But she cannot go any further and be true to her own person. Lear, instead of seeking to identify with her pragmatic difficulties and assuming a more egalitarian stance, is angered at having to repeat the request (“Mend your speech a little …” [l. 94]). The brevity of her response thus triggers a further contingency. What from within his political framework Lear sees as his right, namely to receive a properly formulated declaration of love upon request, is apparently being challenged by Cordelia. To be forced to utter this request three (Q) or four (F) times in a public ceremony, Lear feels, is demeaning to his absolute authority. He tries to offset the inflation of repetition by a corresponding inflation of vehemence, passing rapidly from request to injunction to threat. But for a king to have to threaten is no less humiliating. In trying to save face, Lear loses it. Worse than this, he is driven to take on the behavior conventionally associated with a tyrant, as he sets out on the road to wrath. This in its turn will produce an exponential increase in imponderables, rage being inseparable from rashness and unpredictability, as well as being the emotion that most threatens the rights of others.76

There is a little more to be said about the interlocutive implications of Cordelia's reply. In the whole of the Leir tradition, only Shakespeare's Cordelia addresses the king at this point as “your majesty.” The earlier narrative versions, in which Cordelia's answer is nearly always given in direct speech, seem to frame this exchange as primarily a family interaction. The provocative pertness of the youngest daughter thus appears less shocking there.77 The chronicle play, on the other hand, substitutes “my gracious Lord”: the theatricalization of the story clearly has the effect of foregrounding the monarchic context. In Shakespeare's tragedy, Cordelia's “your majesty” is thus symptomatic of the pressures placed on her by the markedly absolutist protocol of Lear's ceremony. But apart from foregrounding the situational dominance of the dynastic over the familial-affective (together with Cordelia's awareness of this), the appellation also interestingly shifts Cordelia's interlocutive relationship with Lear. Shakespeare's replacement of the rather more intimate first-person possessive of the chronicle play (“my gracious Lord”) by the distancing second person (“your majesty”) reveals the increased complexity of Cordelia's predicament.78 It suggests a hint of dismay as she encounters her father in his most forbidding role, together with a desire to accommodate the demands of Lear's own discursive perspective even while struggling to maintain the encounter as one between persons. At the same time, it keys the semantic definition of her relationship, introducing another element of imponderability into the interaction. Compelled to address Lear in his kingly role, she can express her own position only in terms of her bond, that is, in terms of role relations as opposed to personal relations. Our sense of how embarrassing a genuine expression of affection would have sounded in this ceremonial context is a measure of Cordelia's predicament.79 As it turns out, Cordelia's answer has the undesired but inevitable consequence of exposing the radically destructive paradox at work in Lear's love test: it is logically impossible to harness an interaction based on mutuality to one based on the exploitative use of power. Lear's “How, how, FCordeliaF” [“Goe to, goe to”] (l. 94) shows how his perverse logic backfires, giving rise to yet another contingency. For with his barking tone he dislodges himself from the discourse of majesty (his body political), moving not so much into that of indignant parent as into that of irascible old man (his body natural). The political, both in spite of and because of Lear's efforts, is undermined by the personal.80

Bullied to mend her speech a little, Cordelia does so in the only way now available to her, by expounding the meaning of her bond as she sees it:

                                                  Good my lord,
You have begot me, bred me, loved me. I
Return those duties back as are right fit,
Obey you, love you and most honour you.

(ll. 95-98)

Caught in a double bind in which her love is demanded but cannot be enacted, Cordelia tries to preserve their personal communication by thematizing the structural definition of their relationship and declaring her acceptance of the role it prescribes. In other words, she resorts to metacommunicational discourse, which, as Jacques notes, “provides for a certain freedom in the social contract” because it enables us “to switch out of our place in an instituted communicational community, into the position of an ideal speaker-listener in a canonical communication regime.”81 Her predecessors did this in order to test or punish their father, but for Shakespeare's Cordelia it remains the only way she can both obey and be sincere. If her father could grasp the interlocutive purpose as well as the semantics of her answer, then he might still open himself to a personal recognition of her difficulties. But to do so, he would have to relinquish, on the instant, the king's role at this crucial moment in a power transaction. Of this impossibility tragedy is born.

The rest of Cordelia's speech shows that patriarchal power cuts both ways and that her sisters' answers have in fact travestied their institutional relationship with their father:

Why have my sisters husbands, if they say
They love you all? Haply when I shall wed,
That lord whose hand must take my plight shall carry
Half my love with him, half my care and duty.
Sure I shall never marry like my sisters
(Q)To love my father all.(Q)

(ll. 99-104)

She brings absolutism face to face with its dependence on patriarchalism, which, precisely by mapping out the itinerary of a woman's servitude, sets limits to the paternal role. Since the woman's life is divided neatly into two halves with no remainder, the first leased to the father and the second to the husband, it ought not to surprise a patriarchal monarch that an acquiscent woman's affections will have to be likewise apportioned. But it shocks Lear. Unlike the forewarned audience, he is trapped in the political frame of his ceremony, which prevents him from jointly constructing Cordelia's bold thematizing of this truth as an appeal to restore personal communication. Such negotiation is excluded by the ritual. His dismay and rage are symptomatic of the intrinsically contradictory nature of absolute monarchy: it embodies the hierarchical principle in its purest form but concentrates its power in a lonely individual, subject, as is everyone, to emotional needs that can be fully satisfied only by a relationship of mutuality. Lear's distraught “But goes thy heart with this?” (l. 105), with its focus on the personal and its shift to a pronoun that here seems torn between prepotency and intimacy, is emblematic of this paradox.

The close of this exchange, before Lear dispossesses Cordelia, confirms the king's vulnerability to the personal:

But goes thy heart with this?
Ay, my good lord.
So young and so untender?
So young, my lord, and true.

(ll. 105-8)

In so far as he accepts the rules of interlocution, he must accept the possibility of being proved wrong. Although Cordelia mitigates each of her responses (“my good lord,” “my lord”), her final anaphora caps and disqualifies Lear's rhetorical question, vesting her truth with theatrical authority just as she is being stripped of her rights in the fictional world.

In Halpern's reading of this episode, Cordelia's “Nothing” substitutes “a zero-sum economy for the illusion of inexhaustible riches” presented by Lear's “cornucopian rhetoric.”82 The effect of her action is to “break the monopoly of the absolutist order-word and thereby release an aristocratic game of challenge and counterchallenge, expense and counterexpense.”83 Later she will become “a feudal military commander” who loses a campaign but “still wins the contest of expenditure” and finally triumphs in a “total victory over her father.”84 The problem here is that Halpern, in order to make his overall historical reading hold, obliges the character as person to take responsibility for her unintended doings and for the unintended consequences of her action.85 Furthermore, if spectators or readers are to interpret Cordelia as enjoying a “delicious moment of emotional triumph” over her humbled father, they must disown, or revise, their personal relationship with Cordelia as established during the love test. It may be possible to see Cordelia later as failing to maintain the standards she initially sets herself, but to see her in the crucial opening phase as intending to hurt or compete with or rebel against her father means to accept Lear's definition of the context as the only valid one. Various critics have argued that by contemporary norms Cordelia's response would have been seen as a definance of traditional authority.86 But such readings tend to subordinate the personal to the political and to under-estimate the way the dynamic authority of theatrical performance casts her response in a radically different perspective. It seems to me that this problem is a consequence of failing to distinguish between the general narrative logic of the plot and its dialogic logic. The plot as a whole fits fairly well into Halpern's description of absolutism collapsing back into feudalism. But that Cordelia's behavior “releases an aristocratic game of challenge and counterchallenge” does not mean that she is responsible for this and can therefore be grouped with the contentious feudal aristocrats in spite of herself. We might describe her as challenging Lear to open himself to the contingencies of personal communication (though I hear her rather as inviting or pleading), but to say that she thereby intends to enter a feudal competition is to grant that the political entirely subsumes the personal, an assumption this essay resists.

Can we historicize Cordelia without annihilating her personal perspective? Can we retrieve this perspective without dehistoricizing her into “a utopian figure of idealized but impotent goodness”?87 I think we can. If we look at the mode of her interaction as well as its contents, it appears that Cordelia belongs to a world entirely different from that of Edmund and her sisters, a world, as we shall see shortly, to which only the feudal Kent has partial right of access. But her narrative is overwhelmed by the backward march of political events. It is adumbrated in the logic of her interaction but cannot be accommodated to the movement of the plot. When Cordelia is forced to try to negotiate a space for her person in the middle of a contradictory absolutist ceremony, she is driven to appeal to her “bond.” I see this as a distinctly early modern patriarchal bond (counterposed to a paternalistic imposition) rather than a feudal one.88 But even more important than the content of her motivation is Cordelia's choice of interlocutive mode, as she seeks, by metacommunicational framing, to negotiate meaning and to reach agreement through respect of the pragmatic rules of egalitarian dialogue. The latter may be a timeless ideal,89 but the possibility of appealing to it during a ceremony of absolutism is contingent on specific historical conditions.

For an early Jacobean audience brought up on the idea that filial disobedience is a breach of natural law, what contemporary discourse could authorize this particular dimension of her speech? Cordelia's interlocutive behavior is rooted not in nostalgically idealized feudalism but in a more contemporary and more complex discourse: that unstable compound of the religious, the personal, and the political, begotten by Lutheran Protestantism, which on the one hand endorsed “secular law and the sword” and on the other insisted that “there is no secular authority which ‘shall and can command the soul.’”90 Given its intrinsic dualism, this doctrine could be used to authorize dissidence as well as submission. Its seditious potential can be glimpsed, for instance, in the background of Essex's complaint to Egerton after Elizabeth had cuffed him violently for deliberately turning his back on her during a Privy Council meeting in July 1598:

When the vilest of all indignities are done unto me, doth religion force me to sue?
Or doth God require it? Is it impiety not to do it? What, cannot princes err?
Cannot subjects receive wrong? Is an earthly power or authority infinite?(91)

Essex chooses to stress the limits that Lutheran political-religious doctrine set on monarchic power, whereas Cordelia, in spelling out her bond, leans more toward its prescription of obedience to authority. At the same time, in Lutheran fashion she makes it clear that she chooses to submit to established powers. Thus, rather than expressing political opposition, she is asserting the essential autonomy of the personal sphere and hoping her father will recognize this.92 Nevertheless, by declaring her willingness to obey as the system requires, she inadvertently unmasks Lear's own ambiguity in the love test—his request for both love and submission. Her response reveals that on the one hand he is instrumentalizing love to endorse the system, and on the other he is exploiting the power of the system to try to obtain love.

The emergence of Protestantism as a principle authorizing the behavior of the youngest daughter can be traced in the evolution of the love test during the sixteenth century. In Geoffrey of Monmouth she addressed her father familiarly as pater mi, but she now uses increasingly deferential forms, accompanied by the “you” of respect in Higgins (1574), Holinshed (1577), and the Leir play—a reflection of the strengthening of paternal authority during the period. Her disobedience thus requires correspondingly stronger legitimation. In Holinshed this is partly supplied by her appeal to “conscience.” Although at this point Holinshed is simply copying Fabyan's pre-Lutheran chronicle (completed c. 1493, printed 1516), it is likely that for his readers the word had by now been incorporated into the Protestant worldview. Protestantism certainly provides legitimation in the Leir play, where Shakespeare would have found: “I cannot paynt my duty forth in words, / I hope my deeds shall make report for me.” Behind this phrasing lies Spenser's Faerie Queene (1590), where the connotations are even more explicit:

But Cordeill said she lou'd him, as behoou'd:
Whose simple answere, wanting colours faire
To paint it forth, him to displeasance moou'd. …(93)

This Protestant principle in its turn found support in the public theater, which, as Robert Weimann has pointed out, provided a “new cultural space for dialogic and performative activities.”94 There “the nature of authority, its social uses and abuses, have to be negotiated each time, with the outcome variable and uncertain, involving—in this unique theatrical institution—the principles of dialogue, ‘genuine exploration and struggle rather than … the unfolding of doctrinal formula.’”95 As Edward Burns has shown, the Elizabethan-Jacobean commercial theater constructed its spectators as godlike judges (by that very fact problematizing hierarchical power relations).96 The evidence on which these spectators reached their verdicts is largely that of the verbal behavior of the enacted characters. If in the variegated audience of the Globe a fair number of spectators would have under-written Cordelia's stance, it is because this kind of theater at least partly enshrined a (usually counterfactual) ideal of egalitarian communication. The traditional principle of decorum, with its hierarchical discrimination between high and low style, continued to generate significant dramatic effects—though perhaps more honored in the breach than the observance. But it was now upstaged by an emerging criterion of interlocutive transparency. Unlike characters in contemporary narrative, early modern characters were not experienced as good or evil primarily on account of their given qualities, the social and ethical status ascribed to them by their rhetorical style and by the way they were represented (whether by themselves or others). They won, or lost, their colors above all according to the way they engaged dialogically with one another. And they engaged the audience positively to the extent they opened themselves to the interlocuting give-and-take. Characters may gull each other, but they rarely gull spectators for long. By repeatedly showing the negative consequences of power-distorted interactions, the theater connoted unmanipulative dialogue more positively than any form of external authority could, be it late-feudal, absolutist, or even Protestant.

How, then, might we interpret Cordelia's subsequent devotion to Lear if it is not to be seen, as Halpern suggests, ultimately as a triumphing over him? My guess is that it voices post-Reformation social aspirations that have not yet been channeled into the values of middle-class capitalism and which Lutheranism ultimately sanctions rather than inhibits—aspirations for a consensual, disarmed image of political authority. At the time that Cordelia was responding to her father, sections of the Commons were beginning to compel King James to define his prerogatives dialogically in relation to their increasingly explicit claims to inalienable, time-honored rights.97

Critics resistant to the sanctification of Cordelia have usually tried to show that her actions are as politically motivated as those of the rest of her family and/or contested her claims to personal virtue. Here I have tried to steer a third course. As I see it, Cordelia's clash with Lear is sparked by her fidelity to the personal as a sphere distinct from the political and can be construed as an intentional act of political defiance only if we totalize Lear's political perspective, something which Cordelia's asides prevent a theater audience from doing. Clearly, her behavior has political implications and consequences. Later it may even become less than irreproachable on the moral plane (it is possible to discern hints of resentment and retaliation as the clash with her father escalates). Nevertheless, I believe that its initial impetus lies in a striving toward an ideal of true interlocution. What makes it possible to valorize the personal sphere in a public context is, as I have tried to show, the political and cultural authority of Lutheran Protestantism.


Kent in many respects is the summation of a long tradition of worthy, plain-speaking counselor figures. Among his forerunners in relevant earlier plays are Eubulus (Gorboduc, 1561), Thomas of Woodstock (Woodstock, c. 1592-93), Shakespeare's own Gaunt and York (Richard II, 1595), and of course Perillus (Leir). His eruption—

Think'st thou that duty shall have dread to speak,
When power to flattery bows? To plainness honour's bound
When majesty falls [stoops] to folly.


—seems emblematic of his function in the opening scene.98 And yet, interlaced with Kent's political-thematic role is a personal role that I would like to explore in what follows, since it is intimately bound up with the clash between Cordelia and Lear.

When the ceremony began, none of the three could have foreseen that Kent would need to intervene, his intervention itself being an outcome of the emergence I have been tracing. Kent is silent throughout the announcement of abdication and the first two sequences of the division. What spurs him to speak is Lear's repudiation 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. The barbarous Scythian,
Or he that makes his generation messes
To gorge his appetite, shall (F)to my bosom(F)
Be as well neighboured, pitied and relieved,
As thou my sometime daughter.

(ll. 114-21)

Kent intervenes—and surely any audience must instantly make him their champion—when Lear in his rage tries to cancel Cordelia both as daughter and as person. His act is thus caught up in the complex interpenetration of personal and political that I have been trying to unpack. How will become clearer if we observe the way Shakespeare's presentation of counsel compares with that found in Leir, which in this respect follows the pattern established by Gorboduc (the first of the Brutus-line plays dealing with the division of the kingdom).

By dispensing with a preliminary scene in which good and bad counselors address their monarch in a more or less formal gathering, Shakespeare isolated Kent and placed him in the dramatic situation of having to intervene belatedly while the enraged autocrat is carrying out the most disastrous of his decisions. It is impossible to be really sure whether Lear is supposed to have taken advice about the division prior to the ceremony. In any case Kent does not seem to be among those likely to have been consulted, since, despite his rank, it is clear from the opening lines of the play that he lacks the kind of firsthand knowledge Gloucester apparently has.99 He thus has to try to gain the king's ear against all odds, at a critically tense moment. It is a situation that heightens the personal dimension of the counselor, for it will take a dynamic interlocutionary style, not merely courage, to halt the king's headlong rage and induce him to take the role of a listener. Kent has to be able to play the king rather like an angler with a whale on his hook. That this is seen or heard to be what is required makes a point of some importance for my argument: namely that to be the effective adviser of an absolute ruler is to succeed in talking to him, momentarily, as an equal and hence as a person. The counselor must say (in the sense of “jointly make meaningful”) things that demand equality to be said—above all, and here is the rub, when they conflict with the king's own wishes. But can an absolute ruler listen as a person? Not easily, it seems. Kent's first attempt is smothered:

Good my liege—
Peace, Kent,
Come not between the dragon and his wrath!

(ll. 121-23)

As his choice of appellation makes clear, his political stance is a distinctly feudal one and challenges the autocracy of the king by reminding him of his reciprocal responsibility toward his vassals. That Lear should instantly cut him off dramatizes vividly the tension between absolutism and feudalism. We may guess that the dragon here is the emblem of the British kings. As such it is a figure for the righteous anger of offended monarchs, usually represented by the roaring of lions.100 But the wrath of rulers, for Elizabethan and Jacobean audiences, was not only the “natural,” and therefore justified, roaring of the king of beasts. As the blustering Herod of the mystery plays testifies, it could easily turn into the rage of tyrants. And when restyled as the wrath of dragons, it would for many evoke the Apocalypse, the wrathful dragon being one of the devil's incarnations at doomsday.101 At this crucial moment Lear's behavior is thus connoted as diabolically tyrannical.

Kent does not succeed in breaking into the dialogue, and before he can speak again, Lear has divided Cordelia's share between Cornwall and Albany. It is only by elaborate attenuation, by reeling off all of Lear's titles, that Kent is able to snatch a hearing. At the same time, by the very act of listing these titles, he lays claim to the reciprocity of the feudal relation. They become his credentials for entering into dialogue, for being able to speak to the person of the king.

Royal Lear,
Whom I have ever honoured as my king,
Loved as my father, as my master followed,
As my great patron thought on in my prayers—
The bow is bent and drawn; make from the shaft.

(ll. 140-44)

Prevented by the obduracy of absolutism from obtaining the right even a “successfully adapted” feudal counselor must claim,102 Kent now has no option but to shed all hierarchical distinctions and defy the king as a man:

Let it fall rather, though the fork invade
The region of my heart: be Kent unmannerly
When Lear is mad. What wouldst [wilst] thou do, old man?

(ll. 145-47)

Like Cordelia in her aside, he names himself, but he does so publicly. By seizing his name for first-person locution, he rejects Lear's use of it as a rank token for an inferior. By naming his “I,” he demands Lear's recognition of his personhood, whose interlocutive history is compacted within that name. He asks the king not merely to look on him as a “you,” but to recognize his interactionally acquired personhood that cannot be defined or annulled even by a monarch. “Others have made Kent a person, so must you,” he seems to be claiming. What is more, he places his own personhood on a par with Lear's (“be Kent unmannerly / When Lear is mad”) by stripping the latter's name, too, of its rank. He thus lays claim to a mutually conferred social identity in which one man is potentially as valuable as another. This metamorphosis through naming to some extent prepares for the outrageousness of that word “mad,” which rhythm and alliteration render particularly salient. It also prepares for Kent's temerarious shift to the second-person singular pronoun (“What wouldst thou do, old man?”) as he brushes aside the king's body political and upbraids the natural man. I stress these details not only to throw into relief the complex interpersonal confrontation occurring between counselor and king but also to suggest that this is crucial to the way the audience is constructed and involved at this point of crisis. The audience is in fact being induced to judge a king and find him wanting, to look through the robes of his mystical body at the aging, erring man beneath. Thanks to Shakespeare's meticulous pragmatic and stylistic preparation, spectators are swept irresistibly into what by the standards of high Tudor and Stuart doctrine is an attitude bordering on sedition. And Kent is its alibi.103 When Kent asks “Think'st thou that duty shall have dread to speak, / When power to flattery bows?” he seems now to be claiming the adviser role ostensibly endorsed by James himself in the Basilicon Doron when counseling Henry: “Loue them best, that are plainnest with you, and disguise not the trewth for all their kinne. …”104 Yet Kent's focusing of flattery seems oddly lopsided here, since Lear, unlike his predecessor in Leir and the various chronicles, shows no sign of being intoxicated by Goneril and Regan's praise.

The Folio version of his next half-line—“Reserve thy state” (l. 150)—is the only point where Kent draws attention to the division of the kingdom or abdication as a political error. Throughout the Quarto and the rest of the Folio his single-minded concern is for Cordelia's and Lear's personal fate.105 These hints of an unresolved friction between the counselor role and Kent's dynamic interlocutive behavior offer a glimpse of the intrinsically creative emergent nature of Shakespeare's production of dialogue as it leads him to move his narrative chess pieces in directions not contemplated by the conventions that generated them. Kent's forebears served above all to highlight the risks of political error inherent in absolute monarchy; they thus tended to be spokesmen for the attitudes of the upper nobility or the gentry.106 But Kent's function in Lear goes well beyond that of traditional good counselors who risk their necks to protect the king from the endemic perils of flattery. He becomes the vehicle of a more radical exigency, embodying the audience's desire to see justice preserved and persons valued as persons, a desire initially planted by Cordelia's asides. But the dynamics of his role in this scene lead him to elicit a more extensive demand in the audience, namely that the ruler accept the burden of his common humanity regardless of the political consequences.107 In moments such as this one, represented authority is exposed to judgment by the newly acquired dynamic authority of the audience.

As Shakespeare's dramaturgy increasingly interrogates the ideology of monarchy both from inside and outside its own framework, the socially heterogeneous audience is placed in a position to criticize the king which is quite different from that allowed by official doctrine or assumed by aristocratic factions. Its desire is freed from the shackles of absolutist and feudal ideology, allowing it to glimpse other parameters, other worldviews. And although an alternative literary perspective on monarchy—one politically acceptable because easily adapted to its ideology—was readily available in the source play, namely that of (pastoral) romance, Shakespeare rejected it.108 Opting for tragedy, he not only discarded the safety net of romance but replaced its sentimentalizing of the personal with a skeptical exposure of the widening rift between sociopolitical roles and personal identity. By eliminating the council scene and isolating Kent as an individual nobleman rather than presenting him formally as a counselor, Shakespeare, as we have seen, induces the audience to engage in an evaluation of the king as person (“What wouldst thou do, old man?”). Once this simple but crucial step is taken, the monarch's role is shown as ultimately contingent on its production and reproduction in social practices.109 The way is thus open to a rejection of what Weimann calls the “pre-ordainedness” of power itself. Shakespeare's exploration of the counsel function has burst the seams of the aristocratic-monarchic negotiation within which it was born, inviting the spectators as individual persons to take the position formerly occupied by the discourses of elite factions (and occasionally usurped by the prince himself, as in the Basilicon Doron). Moreover, the audience's engagement with Kent does not enmesh it in the idealized feudal values he often voices since here and in the rest of the play these are so clearly shown to be nostalgic and obsolete. What it retains is the spirit of justice and judgment that informs his indignation—“whilst I can vent clamour from my throat / I'll tell thee thou dost evil” (ll. 166-67)—and its personalizing effect. Like Cordelia, Kent appeals to a timeless ideal of undistorted communication. But the possibility of his doing so is similarly mediated by history. The cultural authority underlying Kent's assertion of the personal is again that of Protestant political discourse. In this case, however, it is a more radical strand, one, as Strier has shown, “that intensified nonobedience into resistance rather than diminishing it into endurance” and that derives from the doctrine of radical political theorists such as Ponet, Knox, and Buchanan (as well as the later Luther).110 It is left to the audience to fantasize new institutional expressions, new systemic equivalents for such challenging interpersonal standpoints. On the shape they might take, Shakespeare is, necessarily, silent.

My reading of Kent, then, somewhat complicates Halpern's interpretation. For Halpern, Kent is, like Edmund, a contradictory construction, pointing both backward and forward in history. By focusing on the personal dimension of his interaction, I hope to have shown that Kent not only embodies class-conscious feudal nostalgia but also, paradoxically, that his relationship with the audience in this scene voices a newer, more pragmatic and egalitarian social outlook that for the moment finds more space in the interlocutive liberties of the commercial theater than in contemporary social or political formations.

From here the play proceeds in a headlong sequence of clashes that work out the consequences of Lear and Cordelia's interaction, constantly interweaving the two dimensions that I have explored and further problematizing their relationship. Cordelia and Kent will continue to “seek” Lear in various ways. But he will never quite become the person each hopes to find in him. Even after Cordelia's death Lear reveals a patriarchally tinged nostalgia for the silent woman—“Her voice was ever soft, / Gentle and low, an excellent thing in woman” (5.3.270-71)—which is not the quite same thing as recognizing the suffering behind her earlier reticence. At the same time, he desperately tries to cling to her personal life. It is up to the audience to choose on the basis of its experience of their consequences between absolutist-feudal values and the democracy of personal relations. As for Lear, he cannot quite grasp the nature of Kent's need for recognition—

I am the very man—
I'll see that straight.
That from your first of difference and decay
Have followed your sad steps—
You're welcome hither.

(ll. 284-87)

—a final glimpse, perhaps, of the deep contradiction in the traditional system's claim to found relations of dominance and subordination on mutual love as well as respect. It is left to the closing speech of Albany (Q) or Edgar (F) to voice a faint hope that the personal may yet be creatively integrated with the systemic:

The weight of this sad time we must obey,
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.

(ll. 322-23)

If in the opening scene Lear had paused to hear Cordelia speaking what she felt instead of exploiting his institutional power, we might have had a breakthrough into just such an “impossible world”—one that is not the “monological city of goals, but the city of dialogue.”111 As it is, only traces of an “open-ended dialogic” prospect are preserved in the ephemeral happy conclusions of “the two family romances of sibling rivalry,” where, as Hugh Grady puts it, “radical, familial privacy is being valorized and validated as a shard from a devastated lifeworld which constitutes a locus of resistance against an otherwise all-devastating reified power system.”112 By uncompromisingly representing the objective contradictions of a disenchanted reality, Shakespeare ensures that the value we attach to this elusive interpersonal utopia will be proportionate to our sense of the desolation wrought by its loss.


  1. Unless otherwise noted, quotations of King Lear follow R. A. Foakes's edition for the Arden Shakespeare (Walton-on-Thames, UK: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1997).

  2. See especially Marie Axton, The Queen's Two Bodies: Drama and the Elizabethan Succession (London: Royal Historical Society, 1977); Franco Moretti, “‘A Huge Eclipse’: Tragic Form and the Deconsecration of Sovereignty” in The Power of Forms in the English Renaissance, Stephen Greenblatt, ed. (Norman, OK: Pilgrim Books, 1982), 7-40; Jonathan Dollimore, Radical Tragedy: Religion, ideology, and power in the drama of Shakespeare and his contemporaries (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1984); Walter Cohen, Drama of a Nation: Public Theater in Renaissance England and Spain (Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1985); James Kavanagh, “Shakespeare in ideology” in Alternative Shakespeares, John Drakakis, ed. (London and New York: Methuen, 1985), 144-65; Leonard Tennenhouse, Power on Display: The politics of Shakespeare's genres (New York: Methuen, 1986); John Turner, “King Lear” in Shakespeare: The Play of History, Graham Holderness, Nick Potter, and John Turner, eds. (London: Macmillan, 1987), 89-118; Annabel Patterson, Shakespeare and the Popular Voice (Cambridge, MA: Basil Blackwell, 1989); Richard Wilson, Will Power: Essays on Shakespearean Authority (Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1993); Hugh Grady, Shakespeare's Universal Wolf: Postmodernist studies in early modern reification (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996). By the time I came across Grady's important book, this essay was nearing completion, with the result that it was too late to give its main theses the prominence they deserve.

  3. See Richard Halpern, The Poetics of Primitive Accumulation: English Renaissance culture and the genealogy of capital (Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1991), 215-69.

  4. Halpern, 242 and 247.

  5. Halpern, 240 and 247.

  6. Halpern, 228.

  7. Halpern, 249.

  8. Halpern, 249.

  9. Halpern, 217-18.

  10. Peter B. Murray, in Shakespeare's Imagined Persons: The Psychology of Role-playing and Acting (Lanham, MD: Barnes and Noble Books, 1996), has recently argued for the usefulness of a psychological approach to dramatic characters as persons. His approach, unlike that of the present essay, is based on behaviorist psychology.

  11. Lars Engle, in Shakespearean Pragmatism: Market of His Time (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1993), attributes to Shakespeare “both a view of social interaction as an economy, a diffuse network of discursive transactions which hang together according to humanly established (and thus mutable) patterns of exchange, and a tendency to treat truth, knowledge, and certainty as relatively stable goods in such an economy rather than gateways out of it” (3).

  12. The words systemic and system are used throughout this essay in the sense given them by Anthony Giddens in The Constitution of Society: Outline of the Theory of Structuration (Berkeley: U of California P, 1984): “Reproduced relations between actors or collectivities, organized as regular social practices” (25).

  13. Paul Smith, Discerning the Subject (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1988), xxvii.

  14. For critiques of the concept of subject and agency propounded by Louis Althusser, Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Claude Lévi-Strauss, etc., see Brian Vickers, Appropriating Shakespeare: Contemporary Critical Quarrels (New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 1993), 109-15; and Anthony Giddens, Central Problems in Social Theory: Action, structure, and contradiction in social analysis (Berkeley: U of California P, 1979), 38-48, 71-72, and 120. For a critique of Althusser's deterministic view of the subject, see John B. Thompson, Studies in the Theory of Ideology (Berkeley: U of California P, 1984), 92-96. For critiques of poststructuralist hypostatizations of “supersubjects,” see Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1989), 99-102 and 525n; and Pierre Bourdieu, Outline of a Theory of Practice, trans. Richard Nice (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1986), 72. Within Shakespeare criticism of the past decade, a number of writers have begun to argue for what Engle calls “a qualified reemergence of agency as a valorized category” (63). See, for example, Walter Cohen, “The Subject of Shakespeare and the Subject of History,” Shakespeare Jahrbuch (East) 126 (1990): 60-64; James R. Siemon, “‘Subjected thus’: Utterance, Character and Richard II,SJ (East) 126 (1990): 65-80; Christy Desmet, Reading Shakespeare's Characters: Rhetoric, Ethics, and Identity (Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1992); Alan Sinfield, Faultlines: Cultural materialism and the politics of dissident reading (Berkeley: U of California P, 1992); and Linda Charnes, Notorious Identity: Materializing the Subject in Shakespeare (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1993). See also my “Destined Livery? Character and Person in Shakespeare,” Shakespeare Survey 51 (1998): 147-58.

  15. Francis Jacques, Difference and Subjectivity: Dialogue and Personal Identity, trans. Andrew Rothwell (New Haven, CT, and London: Yale UP, 1991), 118.

  16. Pierre Bourdieu, Language and Symbolic Power, ed. John B. Thompson, trans. Gino Raymond and Matthew Adamson (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1991), 44 and 43.

  17. Bourdieu, 64.

  18. Jacques, 332.

  19. Grady, 138. Unlike Habermas, however, Jacques does not see “communicational activity … as an interaction mediated by symbols”; for him “[t]he interlocutive relation is primary; it is not blind and has no need to invest itself in a secondary manner in signs” (348n).

  20. In Geoffrey of Monmouth, Robert Wace, William Caxton, Robert Fabyan, Polydore Vergil, John Higgins, Raphael Holinshed, and Edmund Spenser the love test does not appear to be embedded in an official ceremony or even necessarily to take place on a single occasion. It is only in Shakespeare's dramatic source, The True Chronicle History of King Leir (c. 1594, printed 1605), that monarchic ritual begins to acquire prominence. However, the play's political content is overdetermined by a conventionalized form of the personal common in romantic or pastoral tragicomedy, where “love” is typically absolutized as a metaphysical force. For want of a substantive political reality in Leir, paradoxically, the personal cannot mark itself off by its specific contingency.

  21. See Perry Anderson, Lineages of the Absolutist State (London: New Left Books, 1974), 113.

  22. See Christopher Haigh, Elizabeth I (London and New York: Longman, 1988), 20-21 and 106.

  23. As Susan Frye points out in her book Elizabeth I: The Competition for Representation (New York and Oxford: Oxford UP, 1993), “Elizabeth responded to the social and political relations expressed in the discourses of both Petrarchism and Neoplatonism by using their codes—especially their definition of love—to assert both her interconnection with her subjects and her supremacy and isolation” (111).

  24. Haigh, 98-100 and 102.

  25. Haigh, 164.

  26. Moreover, as Annabel Patterson has pointed out in Censorship and Interpretation: The conditions of writing and reading in early modern England ([Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1984], 70), the opening lines of Lear show a striking resemblance to a passage in James I's November 1606 speech to Parliament pressing for the union of England and Scotland.

  27. Elizabeth I, “The Golden Speech,” quoted here from Elizabeth I, Joseph M. Levine, ed. (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1969), 142-43.

  28. See HER MAIESTIES most Princelie answere, deliuered by her selfe at the Court at White-hall, on the last day of Nouember 1601 … (London, 1601). Townshend's manuscript (BL MS Stowe 362) is one of three substantive surviving records of the queen's speech as delivered. A detailed comparison of these unofficial versions (to be published elsewhere) has convinced me that they offer a reliable account of the way the queen actually played her love games in public and thus that the passage quoted above is typical. When Lear questions Cordelia's sincerity in using the heart-mouth/love-tongue motif, this may reflect the fact that the trope was often bandied about during real political love games. In Townshend's account of the subsidy-monopolies debate and speeches it is ascribed twice to Elizabeth, twice to Speaker Crooke, and once to an MP; it was the queen who started the ball rolling. More recently, it had been used by James I in his March 1604 speech to Parliament; see Patterson, Censorship, 67.

  29. Haigh, 166. Elsewhere Haigh writes: “She appears to have worked on the assumption that if she boasted of her devotion often enough, she would never have to do anything about it—and if she told her people often enough how much they loved her, they would actually do it” (152-53).

  30. Haigh, 95. Foakes quotes a letter written by Princess Elizabeth to her father, James I, before leaving England in 1613 (38). It is in much the same style as the speeches of Goneril and Regan. Absolutism and patriarchalism continue to impose the same demands on personal behavior as under Elizabeth.

  31. Sir John Harington, Nugœ Antiquœ …, ed. Henry Harington, 2 vols. (London: Vernor and Hood, 1804), 1:178. Harington also reports that the queen “woude saye, ‘hir state did require her to commande, what she knew hir people woude willingely do from their owne love to hir’” (1:356).

  32. Haigh, 114.

  33. Halpern, 219.

  34. Curtis Perry, The Making of Jacobean Culture: James I and the renegotiation of Elizabethan literary practice (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge UP, 1997), 130.

  35. James I, “A Speach, as it was delivered in the vpper hovse of the Parliament … on Monday the xix. day of March 1603 …” in King James VI and I: Political Writings, ed. Johann P. Sommerville (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1994), 136.

  36. On Lear's oscillations between type and antitype of James, see Halpern, 219-20; Patterson, Censorship, 59; and Leah Marcus, Puzzling Shakespeare: Local Reading and Its Discontents (Berkeley: U of California P, 1988), 148-53.

  37. Quotations and through-line numbers follow The History of King Leir, ed. W. W. Greg, Malone Society Reprints (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1907).

  38. James I, Basilicon Doron, in Sommerville, ed., 3 (emphasis added). Sommerville's text is based on that in the Workes of 1616, itself copied from the 1603 Edinburgh edition or one of its London derivatives.

  39. James I, Basilicon Doron, in Sommerville, ed., 42. It is interesting to note that James takes a somewhat different line in his speech to Parliament of 21 March 1610 when likening his absolute authority over his subjects to that of a father over his children: “Now a Father may dispose of his Inheritance to his children, at his pleasure: yea, euen disinherite the eldest vpon iust occasions, and preferre the youngest, according to his liking: make them beggers, or rich at his pleasure; restraine, or banish out of his presence, as hee findes them giue cause of offence, or restore them in fauour againe with the penitent sinner. …” However, he then concedes (shades of Lear?): “So were hee a foolish father that would disinherite or destroy his children without a cause …” (James I, Basilicon Doron, in Sommerville, ed., 182-83). The speech testifies once more to the instability of the political-familial nexus in absolutism. The reference to Brutus and his sons was added to the 1603 edition of Basilicon Doron that appeared in Edinburgh in March—just before Elizabeth's death. James was clearly already thinking of union.

  40. James I, Basilicon Doron, in Sommerville, ed., 47 (emphasis added).

  41. Cf. Robin Headlam Wells, Shakespeare, Politics, and the State (Houndmills: Macmillan, 1986), 144-45. This assumption, however, is exposed to multiple ironies when voiced by the superstitious Gloucester at 1.2.108-9: “in palaces, treason; and the bond cracked 'twixt son and father.”

  42. Anthony Munday celebrated James as a “second Brute” in the pageant The Triumphes of Re-United Britania, performed at the mayoral inauguration on 1 November 1605.

  43. “Dr Peter Blayney has shown that at least nine versions [of Basilicon Doron] came out in London in 1603, perhaps totaling some 12.000 copies” (Sommerville, ed., 268n). The population of London at the time was about 200,000. There is little space here to discuss how the elaborate political symbolism associated with Elizabeth and James relates to their personal sphere. I will simply suggest that the royal mystique—whether the virginity cult of Elizabeth or the political/natural body dualism so dear to James—tends to bridge the gap between the personal and the systemic by “translating” the individual monarch so that her/his person is taken as directly embodying the institutionalized authority of the system. In Richard II Shakespeare had already begun to demystify such identifications in a pragmatic exploration of how easily the political and natural bodies of a king can come unstitched. Richard claims that God will mobilize a glorious angel to combat each of Bolingbroke's rebel soldiers on behalf of the anointed king. What debunks Richard's claim, theatrically speaking, is the fact that he fails to convince either his supporters or himself. Thus even before he is materially defeated, he is defeated interpersonally. He cannot make his meaning hold even in a dialogue with his allies. At the same time, he is portrayed as acutely aware of the difficulty of making his absolutist pretensions pass the test of interlocution. That he can hear himself in this way must mean that Shakespeare knew how spectators would hear him: i.e., against the yardstick of true communication. The way the theater promotes this criterion is discussed on pages 500-501 of this article.

  44. Actual examples of this kind of backfiring can be found in the way Elizabeth's love-games exacerbated factionalism at the end of her reign. This contributed to the widespread desire for her replacement by a male ruler, since it was felt she had weakened the foundations of the throne.

  45. As ethnographers remind us, “a given dialogue is always, potentially, headed towards harmony or order, and, potentially, towards disorder or chaos; chaos always lurks beneath order, and vice versa” (John Attinasi and Paul Friedrich, “Dialogic Breakthrough: Catalysis and Synthesis in Life-Changing Dialogue” in The Dialogic Emergence of Culture, Dennis Tedlock and Bruce Mannheim, eds. (Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1995), 33-53, esp. 35.

  46. Ernst Mayr, Toward a New Philosophy of Biology: Observations of an Evolutionist (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard UP, 1988), 34.

  47. Ernst Mayr, The Growth of Biological Thought: Diversity, Evolution, and Inheritance (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard UP, 1982), 63. On the compatibility of the concept of emergence with dialectical materialism, see Maurice Mandelbaum, History, Man, and Reason: A study in nineteenth-century thought (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1971), 22-28.

  48. Giddens, Central Problems in Social Theory, 86.

  49. David Aers and Gunther Kress, “The Language of Social Order: Individual, Society, and Historical Process in King Lear” in Literature, Language, and Society in England, 1580-1680, David Aers, Bob Hodge, and Gunther Kress, eds. (Totowa, NJ: Barnes and Noble, 1981), 75-99, esp. 98-99.

  50. Actually, Richard Strier has recently demonstrated in Resistant Structures: Particularity, Radicalism, and Renaissance Texts (Berkeley: U of California P, 1995) that radical political ideas were by no means unthinkable to Shakespeare and some of his contemporaries.

  51. Quoted here from Martin Jay, The Dialectical Imagination: A history of the Frankfurt School and the Institute of Social Research, 1923-1950 (Berkeley: U of California P, 1996), 179.

  52. Cf. Strier, 178 and 180.

  53. Cf. Jacques: “The notion of person must be made compatible with that privileged interpersonal relation (we might even call it the interpersonal relation par excellence) which is love. … The predilection relation, just like the relation that is constitutive of full speech, basks in the warmth of reciprocity. … full and pacific speech, and love, are entirely comparable in that both derive from the interlocutive relation” (75 and 87). Above and beyond the historical variations of its semantic content, I shall assume that the word love is ultimately synonymous with the most highly valued interpersonal relation.

  54. Stanley Cavell, in Disowning Knowledge In Six Plays of Shakespeare (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge UP, 1987), notes in passing that Lear “is about the interpenetration and confusion of politics with love” (67). Gary Taylor, in Moment by Moment by Shakespeare (London: Macmillan, 1985), argues that various Folio changes in 1.1 “intertwine the political and the personal,” giving “personal motives for political acts, and political for personal” (179-80). F's greater emphasis on the political thus tends to highlight a tension that is nevertheless already present in Q.

  55. On this point, see Alasdair C. MacIntyre, After Virtue: A study in moral theory (Notre Dame, IN: U of Notre Dame P, 1981), 23.

  56. Cf. Halpern, who says: “the grandiose gesture of dividing the kingdom, an act of aggressive generosity that cannot be matched, which reduces everyone else to the inferior and passive position of recipient” (249). For the concept of symbolic violence, see Bourdieu, 51-52 and 209-13. Both Hugh Grady and Terence Hawkes view Lear's quantification of love, together with his irrational division of the kingdom, as acts of instrumental reason that introduce reification into the world of the play. See Grady, 147 and 154; and Terence Hawkes, William Shakespeare: ‘King Lear’ (Plymouth: Northcote House, 1995), 23-31.

  57. Cavell, 58 and 61-62.

  58. Charles Spinosa, in an original study of the relationship between legal practices and personal identity in this play, sees Lear's introduction of the love test as part of an “enactment ceremony” aimed at making “a grand appeal to the memories of men so that they could be expected to recall both the reasons given for the enactment and the precise terms of the enactment. … The love test … tests precisely whether his daughters are willing to treat him not as the man he is but as the father-figure, the authority figure, he aspires to become. He seeks for them to relate themselves to him more as to a cultural figure that gives meaning to their lives than as a man, an actual father, or an actual king” (“‘The name and all th' addition’: King Lear's Opening Scene and the Common-Law Use,” Shakespeare Studies 23 [1995]: 146-86, esp. 160-61 and 165).

  59. The present argument applies, with minor exceptions, to both Folio and Quarto texts. To enable readers to check divergences easily, I have followed R. A. Foakes's practice of framing variants with superscript F or Q in his conflated Arden edition. I give significant Q variants these in square brackets.

  60. For Jacques, communication involves a “rule that when I speak, it is actually we who say” (298). A central thesis of his book is that meaning and reference are always subject to a negotiation or pooling that “rules out the ego's narcissistic claim to being the sole instigator of meaning” (xiv). “No one can have speech to him or herself … no one can make him or herself its master or its owner, and take sovereign control over the institution of meaning” (297).

  61. My reading of Cordelia follows a different, partly antithetical logic to that of Harry Berger Jr.'s recent study of the Lear family romance in Making Trifles of Terrors: Redistributing Complicities in Shakespeare (Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 1997). For Berger “Although [Cordelia] seems for the most part to nest deeply and securely within a benign representation of her motives and actions, her language is more troubled than she is. Discourses of victimization, justification, and retribution complicate her investment in a discourse of filial love that is seasoned by occasional infusions of the discourses of the truthsayer and the saint” (305). While there may be something to be said for a more suspicious reading of Cordelia's later behavior, it seems to me that Cordelia's response up to the point when Lear disowns her can be read in an essentially positive light as that of a character struggling to preserve her dialogic right of access to the world of personhood, to which stereotyped role discourses are alien, and that the relationship established with the audience tends to underwrite this. Such an account of this episode does not rule out the possibility that she will gradually be contaminated by the very processes she here tries to resist. A person defending the rights of dialogic openness against unequal odds might well seek refuge in the discourse of the victim's role in order to reconstruct her/his damaged self-image.

  62. Cf. Cavell: “All her words are words of love; to love is all she knows how to do. That is her problem, and at the cause of the tragedy of King Lear” (63).

  63. Jacques, 231.

  64. Jacques, 242-43.

  65. See Jacques, 249-311.

  66. Berger suggests that Cordelia “self-consciously observes herself” (42). Carol Rutter is more severe: “the asides make Cordelia the hypocrite … positioning her in the theater to play out the stereotype of devious femininity” (“Eel Pie and Ugly Sisters in King Lear” in “Lear” from Study to Stage: Essays in Criticism, James Ogden and Arthur H. Scouten, eds. [Madison: Fairleigh Dickinson UP, 1997], 172-225, esp. 184-85).

  67. See Jacques, xv.

  68. Stephen Greenblatt, in Learning to Curse: Essays in Early Modern Culture (New York: Routledge, 1990), remarks of Cordelia's first aside: “Her words have an odd internal distance, as if they were spoken by another, and more precisely as if the author outside the play were asking himself what he should have his character say and deciding that she should say nothing” (97).

  69. See Jacques, 101-4.

  70. Following Giddens, I use practical consciousness to refer to “tacit knowledge that is skilfully applied in the enactment of courses of conduct, but which the actor is not able to formulate discursively”; it involves “‘knowing a rule’” in Wittgenstein's sense, i.e., knowing “‘how to go on’” (Central Problems in Social Theory, 57 and 67). There is normally enough resemblance between the verbal behavior of characters in drama and our own for us to attribute this kind of consciousness spontaneously to characters in drama, thereby taking an important step toward imagining them as persons.

  71. Cf. Jacques: “Note that as a social phenomenon even the smallest language act stands at the crossroads of a double determination. Its value is defined on two different relational registers: on an interactional level, it involves interlocutive reciprocity, while in its institutional aspect it derives from the speaker's belonging to a community” (256).

  72. See Aers and Kress, 79.

  73. According to Berger, Cordelia here “senses the value of the victim's role” (42).

  74. Giddens, Central Problems in Social Theory, 6.

  75. Foakes points out that Shakespeare's spelling of her name (perhaps derived from Spenser) is an anagram of the Greek cor (heart) and ideal (31 and 155).

  76. Our sense that an irresistible logic is triggered by Lear's loss of face is effectively accounted for by Thomas J. Scheff's description of the workings of the “honor, insult, and revenge” sequence in Microsociology: Discourse, Emotion, and Social Structure (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1990). Lily B. Campbell had already pointed out that this sequence was widely recognized in Shakespeare's day: “pride or self-esteem is the condition in which anger takes its rise, vengeance becomes its immediate object, and some slight, real or imagined, is its cause” (Shakespeare's Tragic Heroes [New York: Barnes and Noble, 1966], 181-82). Cavell, who cites this passage (59), inverts Campbell's sequence, finding shame to be the originating emotion in Lear. As a result, although he stresses that shame is a social as well as a private emotion, he is ultimately driven back onto Lear's individual psychology in order to ground it.

  77. The love test in its evolution seems to oscillate between two opposed stereotypes of the youngest daughter, one with features of the scold, the other (which became dominant in the later sixteenth century) with features of the silent, patient Griselda. In Geoffrey of Monmouth, Cordeilla responds sharply, using a riddle to chide her father for his susceptibility to flattery (The History of the Kings of Britain, trans. Lewis Thorpe [Baltimore: Penguin, 1966], 81-82). Holinshed (1577) copies Fabyan (1516) in making Cordeilla a more obedient daughter who carefully attenuates her reply, and the chronicle play similarly presents a respectful daughter. However, the normalizing of Cordeilla ends up depriving Leir of a real motive for his rage. Shakespeare fills this motivation gap by opening onto the sphere of the personal, thereby radically shifting the ground of the conflict.

  78. She will soften her next reply with the formula “Good my lord” (l. 95)—an attempt to parry Lear's attack by appealing directly to their familial relationship.

  79. Spinosa interprets Cordelia's move more severely: “Cordelia's claim that she loves Lear only according to general customarily established bonds is a notorious lie. … She has an affection for Lear that exceeds all duty” (166).

  80. In Jacques's scheme the familial is subsumed under the personal: “the content and identification of our empirical subjectivity are given by personal predicates, some of which qualify and describe our particular status as persons, while others situate persons in their personal status within the community (‘son of,’ ‘sister of’)” (241).

  81. Jacques, 257.

  82. Halpern, 252.

  83. Halpern, 250.

  84. Halpern, 250.

  85. On the importance of distinguishing between intentional actions, unintended doings, and unintended consequences of actions, see Giddens, The Constitution of Society, 8-14.

  86. See, for instance, Aers and Kress, 87-89. David Farley-Hills, in Shakespeare and the Rival Playwrights, 1600-1606 (London: Routledge, 1990), goes even further: “Cordelia's blantant defiance of propriety [i.e., the “startling rudeness” of her first reply] serves to excuse the King's explosive reaction …” (185). However, Cordelia's words easily lend themselves to an accommodating intonation.

  87. Halpern, 248.

  88. Cf. Wilson: “For the action of Shakespeare's play is predicated on an insight that patriarchy and paternalism are so incompatible that the ascendency of the father must be at the expense of open lineage. This is the message Cordelia drives home to Lear when she rehearses the ‘divided duty’ of the early modern heiress in response to testamentary blackmail” (226).

  89. It does not follow, however, that it is purely utopian, if we accept Jacques's view of the primacy of the personal: “while history may determine the content of human relations, it is definitely not responsible for their existence; rather, the reverse is true: what makes possible the constitution of a group or society is the permanent presence of human relations at any moment in history” (115).

  90. Robert Weimann, “History and the Issue of Authority in Representation: The Elizabethan Theater and the Reformation,” New Literary History 17 (1985-86): 449-76, esp. 458-59. Weimann points out the relevance of Protestantism to Cordelia's behavior in the love test in his article “The Authority of Emblems versus the Emblems of Authority in King Lear” (Aligarh Critical Miscellany 3 [1990]: 1-16): “The contrast between Regan's and Goneril's ceremonial behaviour and the truthful Cordelia's asceticism of feeling leads to a contradiction, through which opposing norms of authorization in social actions are introduced into the play. … While Lear goes into the severe crisis of dignity of the declining feudal order, where the relation between the emblem and its meaning is treated as a mere formality, he encounters the principle of protestant inward-looking, where the relation between word and feeling has already become incommensurable” (14-15).

  91. Robert Devereaux, second earl of Essex, quoted here from Anne Somerset, Elizabeth I (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1991), 519.

  92. Strier describes Cordelia's behavior in terms of the principled nonobedience ligitimated by some strands of Protestantism, though, like Bradley, he feels “that some honorable form of compliance would have been possible” (182).

  93. Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queene in The Poetical Works of Edmund Spenser, ed. J. C. Smith and E. de Selincourt (London and New York: Oxford UP, 1948), 121 (2.10.28). Spenser's metaphor probably finds its cultural authority in the unadorned authenticity of post-Reformation churches (with which, implicitly, the allusion to the face-painting of prostitutes is contrasted). Not surprisingly, Milton later makes the Leir story yield an even more explicitly Protestant reading. In his History of Britain he radically condenses Geoffrey's British history but finds time to interlard the love test with revealing comments: “But Cordelia the youngest, though hitherto best belov'd, and now before her Eyes the rich and present hire of a little easie soothing, the danger also, and the loss likely to betide plain dealing, yet moves not from the solid purpose of a sincere and vertuous answer. Father, saith she, my love towards you, is as my duty bids. … Two waies only, saith she, I have to answer what you require mee; the former, Your command is, I should recant; accept then this other which is left mee; look how much you have, so much is your value, and so much I love you” (The Works of John Milton, ed. F. A. Patterson, 18 vols. [New York: Columbia UP, 1931-38], 10:18-19). Compare Cordelia's words here with Luther's declaration before the Diet at Worms in 1521: “I cannot and will not recant anything, for to act against our conscience is neither sage for us, nor open to us” (quoted here from Richard H. Popkin, The History of Scepticism from Erasmus to Descartes [Assen: Van Gorcum, 1960], 2).

  94. Weimann, “History and the Issue of Authority in Representation,” 470.

  95. Robert Weimann, “Shakespeare (De)Canonized: Conflicting Uses of ‘Authority’ and ‘Representation,’” New Literary History 20 (1988): 65-81, esp. 79-80.

  96. Edward Burns, Character: Acting and Being on the Pre-Modern Stage (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1990), 128. David S. Kastan, in “Proud Majesty Made a Subject: Shakespeare and the Spectacle of Rule” (Shakespeare Quarterly 37 [1986]: 459-75), remarks that “on stage the king became a subject—the subject of the author's imaginings and the subject of the attention and judgment of an audience of subjects” (461).

  97. Grady, who points to “the power in this play of the idea of a communal solidarity which forms the main means of resistance against the impersonal power of the new regime,” suggests that Cordelia at the end “concentrates and expresses the utopian element of the play's subaltern resistance but generalizes it, perhaps allegorizes it, putting under erasure, as it were, its specific social markings …” (171 and 175). Cohen sees Cordelia as having “covert linkages with the lower classes” and suggests that the play “acknowledges the mediating role between elite and popular culture often played by such women” (Drama, 337).

  98. On this aspect of Kent's role, see Kenneth J. E. Graham, “‘Without the form of justice’: Plainness and the Performance of Love in King Lear,SQ 42 (1991): 438-61.

  99. Harry V. Jaffa (“The limits of Politics: King Lear, Act I, Scene I” in Shakespeare's Politics, Alan Bloom and Harry V. Jaffa [New York: Basic Books, 1964], 113-45, esp. 119) assumes, without providing evidence, that Kent is a “fellow-councilor” of Gloucester's—an assumption fraught with consequences for his interpretation of the scene.

  100. The Basilicon Doron, needless to say, provides an authoritative example: “The wrath of a King, is like to the roaring of a Lyon” (James I, Basilicon Doron in Sommerville, ed., 47). This biblical proverb appears just before the section warning Henry to show humility to his mother.

  101. An association that could hardly have escaped James, who had published a commentary on Revelation in the Armada year and republished it in 1603. If Shakespeare read it, he would have found the following words: “The Dragon therefore or the diuel, became more wrathfull and enraged against the woman, or the Church …” (James I, A Fruitfull Meditation … and Easie Exposition … of the 20. Chapter of the Revelation … [London, 1603], 39).

  102. Cohen, Drama, 329.

  103. This remains true even if a spectator sees Lear primarily as an antitype of James at this point: James was even firmer than the Tudors about the principle that no divinely appointed ruler, no matter how bad he was, could be challenged or judged by his subjects.

  104. James I, Basilicon Doron in Sommerville, ed., 38.

  105. Q has: “Reuerse thy doome.” Foakes notes that “in Q Kent is thinking of Cordelia, in F of Lear, and F is more consistent with the general drift of the speech” (168n). He sees F's later replacement of Q's “Reuoke thy doome” with “Revoke thy gift” (l. 165) as reinforcing “Kent's concern to stop Lear from abdicating …” (169n). See also Gary Taylor, Moment by Moment, 180-81; and MacDonald P. Jackson, “Fluctuating Variation. Author, Annotator, or Actor?” in The Division of the Kingdoms: Shakespeare's Two Versions of King Lear, Gary Taylor and Michael Warren, eds. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983), 313-45, esp. 337-38. But it is Q's “Reuerse thy doome” rather than F's “Reserve thy state” that is more consistent with the rest of Kent's first speech (ll. 152-55), which continues to focus on Lear's misjudgment of Cordelia rather than on his political error. The effect of the Folio revision is to play down Kent's emergent personal role and give salience to his political one, but this only confirms the tension between the two, since it receives no further support in the play.

  106. See, for example, David M. Bevington, Tudor Drama and Politics: A critical approach to topical meaning (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1968), 141-55.

  107. Spinosa, who is less concerned with Kent's relationship with the audience, observes that “to follow Kent's advice here, Lear would have to shunt aside his absolute glamorized figure and commit himself to precisely the kind of thoughtful give and take he has abjured in favor of playing the part of the pure authority figure” (169).

  108. Halpern usefully notes that Lear has a “generic allegiance to the ‘timeless’ realm of romance” as well as being deeply concerned with contemporary problems of kingship (218-19). However, unlike Leir, it stresses the illusory nature of the romance solution to the problem of the relation between the personal and the political. All that survives of the King of Gallia's important actantial role as Donor is the brief, consolatory intervention of France in 1.1.

  109. Giddens argues that social life is essentially recursive in the sense that “structure is both medium and outcome of the reproduction of practices” (Central Problems of Social Theory, 5). Human agency thus plays a crucial role in his model because “the norms implicated in systems of social interaction have at every moment to be sustained and reproduced in the flow of social encounters” (Central Problems of Social Theory, 86).

  110. Strier, 172.

  111. Jacques invokes this as the radical political program of tomorrow (333).

  112. Grady, 176-77. Michael Holahan, in “‘Look, her lips’: Softness of Voice, Construction of Character in King Lear” (SQ 48 [1997]: 406-31), detects the emergence of reciprocity in Lear at the end of the play: “In imitating and characterizing the voice of Cordelia, Lear returns that voice to her in desperate gift and compliment” (425).

Tamise Van Pelt (essay date 1994)

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Last Updated on February 5, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4749

SOURCE: “Entitled to be King: The Subversion of the Subject in King Lear,” in Literature and Psychology, Vol. 42, Nos. 1-2, 1996, pp. 100-12.

[In the essay below, originally published in 1994, Van Pelt applies the theories of Jacques Lacan to King Lear.]

Lacan, like Freud before him, continually finds in Shakespeare those revelations which invigorate theory. In this spirit, then, the following study explores not only what the Lacanian idea of the dynamics of desire can tell us about Shakespeare's King Lear, but also what Shakespeare can tell us about the theory of signification. King Lear invites the theoretical reading of kingship as signification because Lear's dynamics of mad desire and prodigious suffering derive from the discovery that his own kingly signifier signifies nothing. As a drama of signification, Lear implicates all its characters in the construction of the madness that the foolish, fond old king enacts.

No one, not even the fool, is innocent of language; no one, not even the king, escapes the effects of language in the construction of desire. ‘Desire’ states Freud's idea of the ‘wish’ more forcefully, for the German Wunsch like the English ‘wish’ connotes “individual, isolated acts of wishing” (Sheridan viii). Lacan's term désir “has the much stronger implication of a continuous force. It is this implication that Lacan has elaborated and placed at the centre of his psychoanalytic theory” (viii). Thus, though biological needs come and go, amenable to satisfaction, desire—because it is constructed by language—is implacable, “excentric and insatiable” (viii).

Lear's impossible, insatiable desire to “retain / the name, and all th' addition to a king” while dividing “the sway, revenue, execution of the rest” between Albany and Cornwall (1.1.135-7) separates the name of King from the power of kingship, separates the signifying “addition,” glossed as “honors and prerogatives” (1257), from the imposition of the law and separates the nom (the signifier which encodes the law) from the non (the phallic prohibition which enforces the law). To the horror of his court, Lear performs linguistic self-castration. When Lear gives up the phallus, he reveals to everyone the gap between the chain of signification and the chain of drive on which castration locates itself in the unconscious. This gap, once sutured by Lear's kingship, now yawns wide with the loss of the king as a phallic referent.

Lear's division between the name and the source of its power is, like Lear's parting of his coronet, metaphorically innocuous but literally destructive. To make of the circular crown two pieces is to make a nothing into nothing—the very blunder against which Lear has counseled Cordelia:

What can you say to draw
A third more opulent than your sisters'? Speak.
Nothing, my lord.
Nothing will come of nothing, speak again.


Though both Lear and Cordelia err in their understanding of the power of language, they err in opposite directions—he by attributing to the signifier a power it does not have, she by resisting the very real power of making words. “From her voiced ‘Nothing’ to her mute voice as ‘an excellent thing,’ Cordelia's discourse traces a circle of absent presence. She is the queen of silence, reciprocating Lear's tragic stature as the king—‘every inch’—of nothing” (Willbern 247). Consequently, as daughter/subject of a king, Cordelia is as much the incarnation of Absence as Lear is of Presence. Throughout the play, these absolutes persist, signifying the nothing and the king, the castration and the phallus. Lear's demand to signify confronts Cordelia's reciprocal demand for truth as reference. Their mutually negating desires clash powerfully, violently, lacerating the familial bond between them and constructing Lear's madness as a profound resistance to the discovery that he is empty of significance.


Though Lacan speaks of Hamlet's tragedy, he might equally well be speaking of Lear's when he indicates that “there is a level in the subject on which it can be said that his fate is expressed in terms of a pure signifier, a level at which he is merely the reverse-side of a message that is not even his own” (“Desire” 12). “They told me I was / everything” (4.6.104-5) Lear will rage when he confronts the tragic realization that he does not—can not—construct his own kingship, but the opening scenes of the play, by contrast, explicitly demonstrate that Lear does not know this. When Lear says “by the marks of sovereignty, / Knowledge, and reason, I should be false persuaded / I had daughters (1.4.231-34), he indicates that the marks of sovereignty even before knowledge or reason have the power to signify, to persuade.

Kingship is, indeed, on the order of common sense for Lear. From Lear's position, his kingship, provides the illusion of perfect presence, and self-presence constitutes Lear's méconnaissance, his “failure to recognize, [his] misconstruction.”1 Lear's presence, his misconstruction, springs from a crucial inversion: the permanence of Lear's desire for honor transfers itself to his intermittent ego; thus, the illusory kingly ego, rather than the desire, appears permanent. Conversely, desire now seems intermittent, the mirroring reversal of the ineffable kingship. Since Lear's desire rather than his self-designation appears to come and go, the king gains and loses according to external acknowledgments or frustrations of his majesty; insulted by Cordelia, he will turn for satisfaction to Goneril and Regan.

Moreover, Lear's ‘addition’—his honor and prerogative—is a desire acceptable to both him and his loyal subjects. As Juliet Flower MacCannell writes of monarchy, “a real hierarchy at least allows universal participation for all those whose lives it organizes, and also … allows for the potential of any of its participants to rise or fall within it” (921). Consequently, the cast of characters surrounding Lear enact the fiction of kingship as reference because this referential kingship conceals desire's true nature as a gap in each of them, a yawning chasm of impossibility. Lear, his friends, his family, his foes—all believe themselves sufficiently complete and capable of getting from others what they demand. Hence, the countless specific satisfactions that kingship supports as attainable.

Lear alone, however, comes by his méconnaissance legitimately. He alone experiences the unity of the phallic signifier ‘king’ with his person. Through the linguistic paradox of kingship, Lear knows no difference; the king is subject only to himself—fusing the registers into a whole where symbolic, imaginary, and real seem one. This unity provides a referential world of power for Lear and truth for Cordelia; hence, it is a world which both resist losing.

Tragically, the ultimate unity of subjectivity with law that kingship designates robs King Lear of himself even as it names him. Even the king cannot be the phallus, and the phallus is, as Lacan points out, “our term for the signifier of his alienation in signification” (“Desire” 28). Accordingly, Lear's relationship to his own kingship alienates him from his life, and it is to get back a sense of liveliness, a jouissance, that he attempts to unbind himself from rule—from the exercise of the phallus. But the alienating phallus—the phallus which distances him from the daughter he most loves (but cannot have) cannot be got rid of while Lear still bears the signifier ‘king.’ The alienation he attempts to bridge through self-castration drives Lear to make special demands on the others who become renewed objects of desire—his daughters. Lear's error is not that he goes too far in abandoning the phallus, but that he does not go far enough in abdicating his demand to signify.

The paradox of kingship's signification and its particular meaning for Lear also arises from the relationship of desire to the Law. Relevant here is Lacan's translation of Freud's family drama into the venue of language and the crucial re-situation of roles and terms this translation provides. A Legislator—a subject who claims to lay down the law in order to close the gap opened by desire—must be an impostor even though, “there is nothing false about the Law itself, or about him who assumes its authority” (“Subversion” 311). Though the cultural codes deployed from a vast variety of impostor positions and those ‘legislators’ who would deploy them are fictional constructs, they still define positions of agency from which very real authority may be exercised. So it is in Lear—with one exception. In the monarch, as in no other, the legislator and the Law merge in a vision of perfect referentiality.

Kingship in Lear's case is even more complex because the king is also a father, because the role of authority belongs to the Father, and because the Father's authority is sustained by a “privileged mode of presence” (“Subversion” 311) beyond the subject. Hence, King Lear, so long as he is king, provides—in addition to perfect reference—absolute presence. Is it any wonder, then, that Lear's sense of omnipotence is infantile and unbounded? Is it any wonder, as well, that Cordelia sees in perfect reference and absolute presence a place for absolute, unproblematic truth?


Cordelia's nothing, her refusal to speak anything that is not truth, betrays her naive insistence on a reference that cannot be and on a discourse which does not fictionalize. Language itself denies the merger of heart and speech which she cannot generate any more than can her sisters. Any speech that presents itself as truth is doubly distant—nothing and nothing—Lacan points out, for it arises out of pretense (the theater of life) dislocated via the other (the witness or audience). To be capable of truth one must be capable of lying, thus “it is from somewhere other than the Reality that it concerns that Truth derives its guarantee: it is from Speech” (“Subversion” 305-6). To resist speech in lieu of some idealized whole of heart and mouth is thus to make a nothing of Truth. Cordelia's nothing is the vehicle through which she demands to limit speech's power, and to deny Truth's construction.

Signification and action—speech and law—will separate for Cordelia no more easily nor harmlessly than for Lear. She demands that Lear operate in the theater of action, in the space of the law he most wants to abdicate. Consequently, Cordelia's speechlessness forces Lear into the realm of action, into law and banishment. Lear's command is the familial Other by which Cordelia is empowered as daughter and subject: “In the normal form … of the Oedipal situation … the Father … is the expected source of the sanction from the locus of the Other, the truth about truth” (“Desire” 44). So long as Lear continues to rule, he supports Cordelia in a referentially unified world in which word and deed mesh unproblematically—a world in which truth is, quite simply, truth. Cordelia commits what Lacan sees as the essentialist error implied by “the deceptive accentuation of the transparency of the I in action at the expense of the opacity of the signifier that determines the I” (“Subversion” 307). She locates truth in action in resistance to the power of speech.

The issue of Cordelia's speech—of Cordelia's nothing—is made even more complicated by the fact that she waxes thoroughly articulate in her own defense. Here, Cordelia explicitly situates the family disagreement at the level of action, making it clear that she has not transgressed the paternal non in any way. Thus, she begs Lear to affirm that she has not actually done anything to lose his favor:

It is no vicious blot, murther, or foulness,
No unchaste action, or dishonored step,
That hath deprived 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.

(1.1. 227-33)

For Cordelia, actions speak louder than words. Speech, conversely, is just an object, something people have. What Cordelia does not understand is that, “the Father must be the author of the law, yet he cannot vouch for it any more than anyone else can, because he, too, must submit to the bar, which makes him, insofar as he is the real father, a castrated father” (“Desire” 44). Lear can not give to Cordelia the untroubled referential world of perfect truth any more than she can heave her heart into her mouth. His action is no less problematic than her speech. And so he really fails her—as he must—because the Father is, after all, only a father and the King only a king, truths Lear's madness will unveil.

Signification resisted and desire denied, nothing comes of nothing with inexorable destruction. This deeper, violent, castrating nothing in Cordelia's defense—the nothing to which Lear seems so pathetically vulnerable—also has a place in Cordelia's deepest reality. It is absence, the deferral, the delayed arrival of the wished for unions—familial and marital and symbolic—that Cordelia's imagery so well depicts. David Willbern concludes that, “through its imagery of licentiousness denied and organs deprived, the language of Cordelia's defense alludes to the hidden genital significance of her ‘Nothing’” (246). As a symbol of Lear's own castration, Cordelia signifies, at the level of desire, Lear's self-castrating self-division. Therefore she must be repressed. If her legal penalty is the loss of her dowry and banishment from Lear's kingdom, her linguistic penalty is that she loses the name of daughter, for as Lear royally notes, “We / have no such daughter, nor shall ever see / That face of hers again” (1.1.263-4). Absent from both the symbolic and imaginary realms of Lear's construction, she must absent herself from the real as well, must “be gone” in every register—Lear's repression of Cordelia's nothing is total.

King Lear's “nothing will come of nothing” negates Cordelia's negation, delaying the recognition of his own self-castration through his erasure of Cordelia from his kingdom of signification. To concentrate his anger against Cordelia's nothing is to locate that nothing within her and to prolong the linguistic name game of his kingship. Consequently, Lear's repression signified by Cordelia's banishment is mirrored by Cordelia's inability to recover what Lear lacks—the nothing cuts both ways. The cruelty of this mutual mutilation will not become completely clear until the play's opening is mirrored in its conclusion—until Lear and Cordelia are restored to each other in their final double gesture of mutual destruction.


The drama unfolds itself as a series of confrontations between the man who would be King Lear and those who either affirm or deny his titular significance. More deeply, the subject Lear attempts to affirm a phallic potency against the onslaught of the nothing shown in those mirroring others who replace the absent Cordelia. Foremost among those others is the Fool, the stand-in for the repressed Cordelia whose nothing he takes up in all its forms. Thus it is with the Fool that Lear replays the nothing of nothing speech:

Can you make no use of nothing, nuncle?
Why, no, boy, nothing can be made out of nothing.


As the Fool continues to enunciate Cordelia's nothing, he makes its bloody, bawdy latent meanings clear, meanings that constantly point to the nothing his ‘nuncle’ now signifies for the Fool.

Inexorably, the Fool's nothing undercuts Lear's speaking game, reaching beneath the level of the chain of signification to the chain of desire itself, where—as the voice of the repressed—it decrees a gap in the real, pointing out that nothing is “really” there. The lack is not merely symbolic, for as Willbern notes, “Shakespeare's overdetermined language typically includes bawdy meanings, and there is a specific, though latent, bodily sense of Cordelia's ‘nothing’—as no thing” (245); this is the sense the Fool so blatantly invokes. Over and over, the Fool enunciates Lear's castrated status.“Thou hast par'd thy wit o' both sides, and left / nothing i' th' middle” (1.4.187-8), he observes, and follows almost immediately with “now thou art an O / without a figure” and, yet again, “thou art nothing” (1.192-3;1.194). Ironically, all the nothings that the Fool and Lear exchange, amount to nothing. Lear succeeds in enforcing the theory he deploys—nothing is made of nothing, and even though Lear rants to Goneril, the detested kite, of her power to shake his manhood, he is unable to hear himself name the site of the damage.

Why doesn't the Fool's persistent nothing have some therapeutic value for the tormented king? The Lacanian dynamics of Lear's position seem convincing. If the unconscious is the discourse of the Other, and the discourse of the Other is nothing, then the cruel hoax the other's discourse perpetuates is the illusion of presence—the negation (nothing) of nothing (the unconscious awareness of the castration). Consequently, the Fool as Cordelia's stand-in who delights to remind the King of his nothing unwittingly draws out Lear's double-blind impotence by reinstating Lear's status as a referent.

As the ensuing acts display the castration Lear's nominal kingship so imperfectly conceals, Lear fights back the realization of his feminization. Though he can generalize regally, “we are not ourselves” (2.4.107), Lear exclaims “O me, my heart! my rising heart! But down!” (1.121) to the unwanted feminizing forces within him. The feminine so persistently threatening to Lear is immediately masculinized by the Fool's phallic jibes and cries of “Down, wanton, down!” (ll. 123-5) which translate Lear's heart into a bawdier organ. Preferring madness to feminization with its attendant acknowledgment of castration, Lear disintegrates himself as referent.

Fantasies irrupt into Lear's speech—fantasies “hooked up on the circuit of [Lear's] unconscious” (“Desire 14) which is not the same as the circuit commanded by the signifier ‘king’; the latter is the locus of demand, the former of perverse wishes. It is just such perverse images that haunt Lear's mad scenes, scenes in which demand becomes an infantile, omnipotent command of the very elements of nature. Once his imagistic, orgiastic rant filled with the pounding masculine magnificence of “oak-cleaving thunderbolts” (3.2.5) is spent, Lear becomes, before the wet, raging storm, a “slave, / a poor, infirm, weak, and despis'd old man” (ll. 19-20). In an apostrophe, Lear diagnoses his psychological condition: “Tremble thou wretch / that hast within thee undivulged crimes / unwhipt of Justice!” (ll. 51-3) and follows immediately with specific images of castration: “Hide thee, thou bloody hand; / thou perjur'd, and thou simular of virtue / that art incestuous!” (ll. 53-4).2 Still, Lear cannot own his condition: “I am a man / More sinn'd against than sinning” (ll. 59-60) he concludes.

At the peak of his madness, aswim in a chaos of images and shattered elements of his former rule, Lear comes to the secret of the Other: “They are not men o' their words” (4.6.104)—but neither is he the man of their words: “they told me I was / every thing” (l. 105) he mourns. This realization unleashes the contents his unconscious; images of the vile, repugnant thing named woman erupt from Lear in a torrent of accusation culminating in a disgust so deep it can only be expressed in sounds. Thus Lear, every inch a king, finally descends into the very memory of birth, of coming crying hither, of coming to the world made false by the necessity to act one's part with borrowed lines. Enraged, his response is archetypal and murderous “kill, kill, kill, kill, kill, kill!” (l. 187). His rage thus depleted, Lear can die restored, can end it “bravely, like a smug bridegroom” (l. 198) knowing that, though subjectively decentered and no longer the absolute referent, he is yet a king (l. 199). It is in this state that Cordelia and the doctor find him.


The stage directions suggest that Cordelia's return is appropriately military; she enters “with drum and colors.” She has already seen the mad Lear, crowned with flowers, but trusts in the doctor's assurances that herbal “simples” (4.4.15) and rest, the “foster-nurse of nature” (l.12) will restore him.

In an apostrophe to the clearly symbolic Father, she announces her intentions:

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


Bent upon restoring her father's dignity, not simply his sanity, Cordelia frames restoration in terms of arms wielded in the defense of Lear's right. Thus the vengeance Lacan observes in the action of Hamlet plays—through Cordelia—a similar function in Lear: “lead[ing] us to ask questions about retribution and punishment, i.e., about what is involved in the signifier phallus in castration” (“Desire” 44). Thus guilt must be assigned, and punishment meted out—damages must be paid, and restoration compensate lack.

The restoration of Cordelia to Lear in the final scene of the fourth act is the moment when interpretations stressing Lear's fantasy of the care of Cordelia's kind nursery seem fully realized. However, Cordelia's language clearly expresses her attachment to the Law embodied in Lear, and the kiss she gives him is to repair the “violent harms” that her sisters have made in Lear's “reverence.” Cordelia's military metaphors stress that she remains as bent upon action as ever:

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 lightening? to watch—poor perdu!—
With this thin helm?]


Cordelia turns Lear's impotent confrontation with the elements—the moment in which he comes to realize his own powerlessness—into a battle scenario; utterly helpless, Lear still seems armed by her discourse.

Once Lear is able to affirm his manhood, “(as I am a man) I think this lady / to be my child Cordelia” (4.7.68-9), Cordelia adopts her role as daughter “And so I am” (l.69) and at this moment (each agreeing to be the linguistic construction of the other's desires) both seal their fates. Both insure the double negations to follow—for Lear can no more be the king of action, leading the forces Cordelia has provided, than Cordelia can be his mother. Only the Doctor, from his therapeutic distance, recognizes in the enormous tenuousness of the moment that “it is danger / To make him even o'er the time he has lost” (4.7.78-79).

Thus, the real tragedy in Lear may well be that at the moment of intervention, nothing happens. In response to the doctor's admonitions, those who enable Lear are unable to support the dismantling that has taken place through his privation and his madness. Resistant to the instability of the moment, they rush to put back in place the original condition—making the final act an inversion of the first, acting out their speech in the cut, the void, the wound of Lear's original demand.

What we see of the actual battle is (appropriately, since it manifests Cordelia's trust in the truth of action over speech) a dumb show. The stage directions suggest, “Enter, with Drum and Colors, [the Powers of France] over the stage, Cordelia [with her Father in her hand,] and exeunt” ( Cordelia's brief reconstitution of her father's martial agency has tragic consequences: “King Lear hath lost, he and his daughter ta'en,” (5.2.6) Edgar reports to the blind Gloucester as the troops retreat.

Following a brief penultimate scene depicting the failure of Cordelia's desire to place Lear in the theater of action, the consequences rapidly emerge. Together again, father and daughter reinstate the original paradox of kingship—the fusion of law as regulation of desire with desire that is complex and double: kin(g)ship. This linguistic duplicity contaminates the regressive stop time fantasy of Lear and Cordelia “two alone” singing and telling tales, blessing and forgiving, in womb-like resistance to an outside world where mutability rules with its winners and losers, its ins and outs, its ebbs and flows. “Have I caught thee?” (5.3.21) Lear asks ingenuously and to her tears of response he offers a last, clearly infantile fantasy of protection: only the gods can part them in their fusion. Yet almost immediately Cordelia's murder parts them forever, her death by strangulation a repetition of her first act choking off of speech. Even in her death, she makes of Lear once more a man—the man who “kill'd the slave that was a-hanging thee” (l. 274). But gone are the day's when Lear's falchion sword made his enemies skip, and gone is Cordelia's demand for truth as reference.

Others, however, rush in to voice their demands. Having acknowledged that Lear, holding the dead Cordelia, “knows not what he says” (5.3.293), Albany nevertheless restores to Lear his power, “For us, we will resign, / during the life of this old majesty, / to him our absolute power” (5.3.299-301). This pathetic human fable, this attempt to restore what military defeat has taken away, seems less an elevation to former glory than a demonstration of the cruel insufficiency of Lear's castrated state. Lear will make no more daughters; he will die without issue. And for the first time in the play, he will make a request where before he issued commands: “Pray you undo this button” (l. 310). Lear wants to breathe, for he is, as Janet Adelman writes, suffocating, returning to the first moment where breath and the cry are the only stuff of existence—the moment of merger of action and speech. And thus he dies.

The problem of King Lear's drama of signification is laid bare in Kent's forthright assessment of Lear's tragedy: “He but usurp'd his life” (5.3.318). The play that begins with the division of the kingdom, ends with the same, and in the most disheartening moment of the play's politics of signification, Albany—who minutes before unified absolute power in Lear—divides the kingdom between Kent and Edgar. Kent declines, it is true, but the repetition of Lear's error so hard upon his death suggests that nothing has been learned from his tragedy. The double negation of phallic signification needs only the return to Law over speech to complete itself. Thus the enormous—potentially infinite—regress suggested by Edgar's horrifyingly simplistic conclusion as it repeats Cordelia's original error:

The weight of this ad time we must obey,
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say



  1. Sheridan points out that Lacan's concept of méconnaissance is “central … since, for him, knowledge (connaissance) is inextricably bound up with méconnaissance, xi.

  2. For a reading of the phallic associations of the various body parts that persistently litter Shakespeare's stage, see Frankie Rubenstein, “Persistent Sexual Symbolism: Shakespeare and Freud.” The eyes and hands as phallic images persist in King Lear; Rubenstein, having already noted that the hand is frequently a phallic symbol “linked to masturbatory and copulatory images,” 7, uses Edgar's advice to the mad Lear as an example: “‘keep thy foot out of brothels, thy hand out of plackets['] (hole or slit in a petticoat, hence the pudendum,” 22. In fact, the bloody hand is a persistent castration image throughout Lear's central three acts.

  3. Both Quartos one and two have a similar stage direction at 5.7: “Lear, Cordelia, and Souldiers, over the Stage.” The military victory, too, is emphasized by Scene III stage directions “Enter in conquest, with Drum and Colors, Edmund, Lear and Cordelia as prisoners, Soldiers, Captain,” 1291.

Reprinted with permission of BELL, Belgian Essays on Language and Literature, English Department, University of Liége, Belgium (1994): 126-134. Citations of King Lear are from The Riverside Shakespeare, Ed. G. Blakemore Evans (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974).

Works Cited

Adelman, Janet. Suffocating Mothers. New York: Routledge, 1992.

Casey, Edward S. and J. Melvin Woody. “Hegel, Heidegger, Lacan: the Dialectic of Desire.” Interpreting Lacan. Eds. Joseph H. Smith and William Kerrigan. New Haven: Yale U P, 1983. 75-112.

Lacan, Jacques. “Desire and the Interpretation of Desire in Hamlet.” Trans. James Hulbert. Literature and Psychoanalysis. Ed. Shoshana Felman. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1989. 11-52.

———. “The Signification of the Phallus.” Trans. Alan Sheridan. Écrits. New York: Norton, 1977. 281-291.

———. “The subversion of the subject and the dialectic of desire in the Freudian unconscious.” Trans. Alan Sheridan. Écrits. New York: Norton, 1977. 292-325.

———. The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book I, Freud's Papers on Techniques, 1953-1954. Trans. John Forrester. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. New York: Norton, 1991.

MacCannell, Juliet Flower. “Oedipus Wrecks: Lacan, Stendhal, and the Narrative Form of the Real.” Lacan and Narration: The Psychoanalytic Difference in Narrative Theory. Ed. Robert Con Davis. MLN 985 (1983): 910-40.

Rubenstein, Frankie. “Persistent Sexual Symbolism: Shakespeare and Freud.” Literature and Psychology 34 (1988): 1-26.

Shakespeare, William. King Lear. The Riverside Shakespeare. Ed. G. Blakemore Evans. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974.

Sheridan, Alan. “Translator's Note.” Écrits. New York: Norton, 1977. vii-xii.

Willbern, David. “Shakespeare's Nothing.” Representing Shakespeare. Eds. Murray M. Schwartz and Coppelia Kahn. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1982. 244-263.

Brian Crick (essay date 1997)

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Last Updated on February 5, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10026

SOURCE: “Lear and Cordelia's Tragic Love Revisited,” in Critical Review, Vol. 37, 1997, pp. 61-80.

[In the follow essay, Crick attempts to regain his comprehension of King Lear by considering Lear and Cordelia's relationship.]

I know of no more heartrending reading than Shakespeare.

Nietzsche, Ecce Homo

As a ‘form of life’ literary criticism is ever in danger of becoming a version of Horatio's singing gravedigger: ‘custom hath made it in him a property of easiness.’ I recently caught myself at it while teaching the first scene of King Lear yet again. It was an especially painful disclosure because I had long harboured the conviction that my grasp of this astounding opening—surely the most masterful in Shakespeare's dramas—was secure, and that the two lectures I was in the habit of devoting to it were the most insightful things I had to offer in an undergraduate course devoted solely to his work. My sense of this had a history to it extending back even further than the twenty-three years Yorick's skull had mouldered in the grave. It was during the teaching of this scene that I first dared to entertain the notion that there were any grounds at all for my lecturing in a university. When this memory recurred in the intervening years, triggered by subsequent encounters with King Lear, I hastened to recast it. I reminded myself how misplaced my self-satisfaction and pride were, and set about cherishing the old realization under a new guise. I told myself, and sometimes the students, that my experience was a testimony to Shakespeare's incomparable power to teach us to attend and to imagine with greater care and steadfastness than we knew we possessed.

It is difficult at the best of times to keep your critical bearings as you grope your way through a major Shakespeare play, but when the long-cherished conviction that you know something others do not know collapses at a stroke, the horror of going on regardless, and of ‘forcing ourselves to say things we cannot fully mean’ is hard to endure.1 The shame is especially galling when all the characters in the very scene in which you have lost your way seem driven to say what they cannot mean and mean what they cannot say. This essay is written in the tenuous hope of recovering from critical vertigo, and out of a suspicion that this desperate experience is all-too common, and may even be a defining feature of literary-critical activity which we are inclined to edit out of our lectures and publications.

The familiar opening line of Shakespeare's Sonnet 129, ‘Th' expense of spirit in a waste of shame’, may well have a wider bearing on the state of our souls than the overtly sexual experience the poem specifies. When a ‘guiding intuition’ one has been tracing out for three decades comes under threat our avowed love of Shakespeare comes to look very like ‘lust in action’. As the penultimate line of the poem warns us, ‘All this the world well knows, yet none knows well’ enough to avoid the pitfalls of what I am about to encounter yet again. The recovery process is as fraught with uncertainty as the attempt to trace the unfolding of forgetting and forgiving in Shakespeare's Romances, The Winter's Tale and The Tempest. I intend to go on reminding myself of the risks incurred even as I now turn to pointing out lapses and deflections I sense in the commentary of others, knowing that I cannot hope to avoid the same fate.

In so many respects Stanley Cavell's The Claims of Reason exemplifies what it feels like to be forced to radically reconstitute the way one thinks, but it is too intimidating a record of that effort and my hold on it far too shaky for it to guide me out of my predicament. I have as Cavell would say ‘rummaged’ in it, and his work shadows this essay throughout, but I must turn to performances more accessible and more comparable to my own.

In his preface to Shakespeare's Tragedies of Love, H. A. Mason sets out to explain a ‘damaging truth’ akin to my experience. He began, he says,

with a very clear scheme of considering the role of love in Shakespeare's plays and of distinguishing the circumstances in which we could describe the treatment as tragic.2

But while giving public lectures on selected plays he found ‘the projected book’ ‘undermined’ by his interaction with the student audience. The book he published purports to be the upshot of that dialogue, and the inclusion of those negotiations as an intimate part of the reading story Mason realizes may seem irksome:

When the reader's evidence is all of pain and difficulty overcome and none of visible undergoing and suffering, it may seem gratuitous to harp on the reluctance with which these chapters were embarked on, save that when I have completed my say it will be found that my ‘something’ is as nothing compared with what I am unable to face and grapple with.

(Mason, 165)

I certainly sympathize with the essayist's anxiety to avoid exposing himself to the charge of staging a plunge into the unknown difficulties he already has well in hand. But this temporal balancing of process and product is not, as it turns out, the crucial critical issue Mason actually encounters in the dramatic framing of his argument. It is precisely where he is most insistent on his feelings of ‘distress, pain and bewilderment’ that Mason (appropriating a phrase from a letter of Henry James’) asks his reader, ‘Do we think Shakespeare could stand a stiff cross-examination here?’ (Mason, 206, 208.) There is no good in coming the stern schoolmaster over Shakespeare at exactly the moment where you are ostensibly representing yourself as unable to figure out ‘what Shakespeare ought to have been doing’ (Mason, 206). The wording gives the game away. How, after all, could anyone but a university lecturer accustomed to getting away with murder presume to think the normal state of affairs would be one in which we could venture to say what Shakespeare ought to be doing? The title of the chapter from which I have selected these brief excerpts is ‘Radical Incoherence?’ ‘Shakespeare's or Mason's?’ is the inevitable retort. Despite my irritation I am compelled to realize how even our most determined efforts are likely to end in reversing Lafew's advice (from All's Well That Ends Well, II. iii. 4-6): ‘when we’ try to ‘submit ourselves to an unknown fear’, we end up ‘ensconcing ourselves in seeming knowledge’.

My second illustration of the dire predicament with which King Lear presents Lafew's modern philosophical person comes from a book I have enjoyed and am indebted to: Graham Bradshaw's Shakespeare's Scepticism. I will restrict my comments to the opening two chapters, ‘Nature and Value’ and ‘Framing Perspectives’, in which Bradshaw introduces his way of reading Shakespeare before he turns to a more detailed consideration of four plays. Bradshaw's general thesis is a quintessentially post-modernist one. With ample illustration from a variety of texts, he sets out to demonstrate a familiar critical orthodoxy: Shakespeare's art is exploratory or interrogative, and the ‘dynamic clash of different perspectives … produces in us the sense of being pulled in different, and even contrary directions’.3 The worst mistake one could make in reading Shakespeare, it follows, would be to be to attempt to extrapolate a ‘single view’ of a given play, and Bradshaw offers numerous examples of partial interpretations being mistaken for a grasp of the whole. ‘Understandable’ Bradshaw allows; but ‘reprehensible’ nevertheless (Bradshaw, 64). My difficulty or unease arises when I try to move from Bradshaw's savouring of elaborate ‘ironic perspectives’ to a series of passages in which he uses the same verb, ‘impales,’ to express his, or our, responses to Shakespeare's ‘dynamic perspectivalism.’ (Bradshaw, 44, 55.) I am told that a play such as Antony and Cleopatra, for instance, ‘impales us on the opposed terms of a more momentous contrast and judgemental dilemma’ (Bradshaw, 36). The trouble with this brand of scepticism lies in the doubt it perpetuates. One doesn't doubt Samuel Johnson's or Hazlitt's feelings when they utter their distress on reading King Lear, but I am never really convinced that Bradshaw feels what the recurrent use the word ‘impaled’ should convey. The closest he comes to being ‘impaled’ is in the way he responds to Cordelia's death:

The triteness of either kind of answer aggravates our distress at an ending which requires both kinds of answer: I take it that my own suggestions are uncomfortably close to platitudes because we are being impaled on a contradiction which is all the more horrible for being so simple and elementary.

(Bradshaw, 87)

The really distressing question is how can we tell whether it is Shakespeare's representation of Cordelia's death or the discovery that one is reduced to mouthing platitudes that constitutes the impalement? Of course no one who seriously proposes to honour Edgar's directive to ‘speak what we feel, not what we ought to say’ is exempt from the possibility of being immured in platitudes. Nevertheless, attempting to discuss the shock of Cordelia's death by re-deploying the concept of ‘reflexivity’ (for that is the framing perspective in this segment of Bradshaw's book) can hardly answer to S. L. Goldberg's challenge:

try to judge it in relation to one's deepest sense of human possibilities, and who can tell what disquieting moral capacities or incapacities might reveal themselves?4

It is to Goldberg that I now turn in making my way, crab-wise, towards an encounter with the disquieting human possibilities aroused by Lear's declaration of a ‘darker purpose’.5 The danger for me is no longer holding on to the cherished illusion of being the proud possessor of a unitary insight, but rather how one faces the ‘flat common sense’ question Colonel Assingham poses his wife in the fourth chapter of The Golden Bowl: ‘What's the good of asking yourself if you know you don't know?’ It seems to me we find it all too easy to side with her (doesn't James?) in their marital-philosophic fencing. We assent to her retort: ‘One can never be ideally sure of anything’, but not to his counter: ‘Then, if we can but strike so wild, why keep meddling?’ It is only a reading or misreading (strong or weak) we say, brazening it out, and dismiss his dogged resistance as ‘a want, alike, of moral and of intellectual reaction, or rather indeed … a complete incapacity for either’. Goldberg reveals a deeper awareness of these problematics of literary-critical engagement than either Mason or Bradshaw, and a more responsive capacity for the concomitant moral (in the largest sense of the word) life which they, and more importantly Lear and Cordelia's love, demand of us.

Given the already distended nature of my introductory remarks I must reluctantly concentrate on but one in a series of Goldberg's profoundly moving realizations of Mason's ostensible subject: love as tragically conceived. I have chosen Goldberg's commentary on Adam's reactions to Eve's fall rather than his responsiveness to Cleopatra's question. ‘Think you there was or might be such a man / As this I dreamt of?’ for reasons that will become immediately clear:

Like King Lear's love for Cordelia at the very end of Shakespeare's play, Adam's is entirely concentrated on seeing and responding to its object, attending to that with his entire self, and loving it in the very anguish of his attention. In short, I think we see Adam's ‘resolution’ as what I call a life moral one, and in the most literal sense of ‘life’. He both discovers and commits the whole of his being—or to speak more accurately, the whole of his being commits itself—to what he sees standing before him: this particular person in these particular circumstances, to whom and to which he must answer with all of himself. … But probably the most profoundly right thing about the passage is the way Milton imagines the resolution coming to Adam. It comes, that is, before Adam is conscious of having reached a decision, before he is aware of reasons for and against it, let alone weighing those reasons and exercising his famous free will. The resolution comes unheralded and yet somehow as inevitable, as if it has somehow formed itself, almost unwilled, as the answer to reality that Adam, being what he is, discovers he had to make.

(Goldberg, 56-7)

In this passage and the one I am about to quote, Goldberg develops persuasive analogies between Milton's and Shakespeare's representation of tragic love which I am strongly tempted to rely upon. Here is the way he formulates the second analogy:

There is nothing contingent about the grounds of such a ‘resolution’ as Adam's—or, in a situation not unlike Adam's, the ‘resolution’ of another unfortunate lady, Shakespeare's Cleopatra. Nor is such a resolution simply an act of will. In such situations as theirs, the resolution is a discovery-and-confirmation of the shape of their whole being and experience—the unfolding shape, as it were, that forms their existence into the life they now find, make, wish and accept as their own. The resolution defines the distinctive identity and fate each has been given and then chooses.

(Goldberg, 58)

My hesitation stems from two sources. Though all three relations are certainly ‘almost insupportable both to heart and mind’, and though each bears the mark of ‘strange and enigmatic’ experience Goldberg identifies as the tragic (Goldberg, 62), Milton's art seems to lend itself more readily than Shakespeare's to Goldberg's conceptualization as an opposition between ‘conduct morality’ and ‘life morality’. In this dialectic the second term is the dominant one, and Goldberg's most impressive illustrations all turn on the priority of latter over the former. In Shakespeare's case I find the distinction much harder to preserve or even to make.

Whether one sides with Goldberg in rejecting the conclusion such a dialectic might well have produced in less subtle hands—that Paradise Lost is a ‘deeply flawed’ poem, since Milton's theological premises are so utterly at odds with the life morality that generates the poetic realization of Adam's love—isn't the issue, unless Mason's charges of radical incoherence prove more substantial than I find them to be. My deepest concern lies in the essential kinship implicit in Goldberg's comparison of the love of father and daughter to the love of husband and wife. Here is where Shakespeare's capacity to unsettle any and all judgements is felt most nakedly and profoundly.

Before plunging into the first scene of King Lear and then marching to Dover there is one further anxiety to declare. Though the past few pages prove, if nothing else, I have read some Shakespeare criticism, the critical intent was most definitely not to establish my credentials as a Shakespeare expert, let alone a drama or a Renaissance scholar. I have spent most of my adult life in the university teaching the history of literary criticism, and major English novelists such as Austen, Dickens, George Eliot, Henry James, Conrad, and D. H. Lawrence: in short, ‘the great tradition’ as F. R. Leavis called it. I can only hope that the mention of the man and the book will not cause the reader to fear that my evident doubts and fears at tackling King Lear have turned suicidal. Nothing I have written thus far betrays a wide acquaintance with or dependence upon contemporary theory, but I am sufficiently in the know to realize that a respectable academic need not have read the book in question to treat its very title as a short-hand dismissal of our scandalously conservative critical past. Despite the all but universal contempt in which such a conception of tradition is now held, I believe Leavis's detractors have done nothing to controvert the essential truth of his conclusion, that these ‘great novelists are the successors of Shakespeare’.6 While I have no desire to downplay his placing the emphasis squarely on the issue of how ‘the poetic strength of the English language’ is to be found in the genre, I am bent upon drawing comparable attention to a continuity of human concern. Much of Leavis's essay on Little Dorrit is devoted to the painful comic seriousness of the inquest Dickens conducts into the state of his culture, but ‘the particular situation … central to Little Dorrit’ he makes a point of calling ‘horrible and tragic’ (Dickens the Novelist, 251, 250). What Leavis means, of course, is Dickens' portrayal of the ‘intimate’ relation ‘between father and daughter’ which Leavis praises for its ‘boldness, penetration and delicacy’ of ‘insight into the human soul’ (Dickens the Novelist, 250-1). I note with apprehension Leavis's determined refusal to enforce his ‘calling the art of the great Dickens Shakespearian’ with an appeal to even a single particular from Shakespeare's writing (Dickens the Novelist, 248); so I am probably ignoring a warning sign when I find myself drawn irresistibly to ponder the analogies between Lear's fantasy withdrawal into 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’ (V. iii. 9-11)—and several strange and pathetic moments in the lives of the Father and Daughter of the Marshalsea. In pursuing the tempting analogies—the daughter's tears, the kneeling, the poignant need for forgiveness, the father's mental dissolution—I will try to respect one of the too easily ignored first principles of The Great Tradition:

What one great original artist learns from another, whose genius and problems are necessarily very different, is the hardest kind of ‘influence’ to define, even when we see it to have been of the profoundest importance.7

Jane Austen's Mansfield Park will perhaps serve my purposes just as well, without offering the risk of over-stating my thesis, since the relation of Fanny and her uncle or adopted father, Sir Thomas Bertram, does not constitute the core of the novel. I do think Shakespeare's presence plays across Austen's mind as she veers towards and then away from the tragic—or as the novel phrases it in the final chapter, ‘guilt and misery’. After capturing the heroine's attention by a spirited reading of a Shakespeare play in Chapter 34, and despite Fanny's determination to resist his performance, Henry Crawford receives his audience's approval with the following remark:

Shakespeare one gets acquainted with without knowing how. It is part of an Englishman's constitution. His thoughts and beauties are so spread abroad that one touches them every where, one is intimate with him by instinct.—No man of any brain can open at a good part of one of his plays, without falling into the flow of his meaning immediately.

The obvious discrediting of Crawford through the choice of the particular text (Henry VIII) should not distract the reader from the author's acknowledgment of Shakespeare's ubiquitous presence, evident in the suggestive wording, ‘intimate with him by instinct’. The trace of the potentially tragic and, I hope to argue, the Shakespearean peculiar to Mansfield Park is uttered with an unparalleled directness by this most discreet of authors (Chapter 24):

An advantage this, a strengthener of love, in which even the conjugal tie is beneath the fraternal. Children of the same family, the same blood, with the same first associations and habits, have some means of enjoyment in their power which no subsequent connections can supply; and it must be by a long and unnatural estrangement, by a divorce which no subsequent connection can justify, if such precious remains of the earliest attachments are ever entirely outlived. Too often, alas! it is so.—Fraternal love, sometimes almost everything, is at others worse than nothing.

Substitute paternal for fraternal and you find yourself confronting the ‘unnatural estrangement’ and ‘divorce’, and the ‘sometimes almost everything’ and ‘worse than nothing’ which constitute the opening scene of King Lear.

The resistance I anticipate is not merely a matter of the contrast between the primitivism of the play and the civility of the novel, or even the crossing of generic boundaries. Ultimately it is Nietzsche's smashing of what he called ‘the wretched bell-jar of human individuality’, and his scream of near-pathological derision for the ‘bourgeois mediocrity’ of writers like Jane Austen, who are fools enough to pride themselves on ‘having portrayed mundane, commonplace, every day life’ that governs the academic intellectual's automatic repudiation of the connection I seek to establish.8 Nietzsche has taught us to seek for the ‘secure and sacred primal site’ of the tragic in the mythic, the visionary, and the metaphysical, not in puerilities of domestic life.9 It is the force of this general critical sentiment rather than the possible bearing of any particular novel or novelist that I am most anxious to meet head-on. The best illustration of this entrenched objection I can offer comes, significantly enough, from the author of The Characters of Love, who, needless to say, shows no hesitation about shuttling back and forth between fiction and poetic drama. Here is a key passage from John Bayley's lengthy discussion of the nature of the tragic as he finds it in King Lear:

All we can conclude is that the core of the tragic material—a family situation—made a deep, a very deep, appeal to Shakespeare's temper and convictions. So much so that it unconsciously began to form areas and depths of effect, independent of the tragical events contrived and enacted.

A family situation, the fate of ‘whatever is begotten, born and dies’, is in one sense all the tragedy human beings know or need. But that doesn't get us far. A tragedy addressed solely to this fact would be merely pretentious, or at best starkly reductive, as so many modern plays have been. The clue may be the unadmitted an undefined contrast in King Lear between the necessities of family behaviour and the aesthetics of play behaviour. … Families may play at being fathers and mothers, sons and daughters, and this may be beneficial, but it never goes very far. Family life reveals the natures and drives of the participants in a manner so predictable as to be usually merely boring. And in a way Cordelia and her sisters are boring: their natures as they are, and as the family situation reveals them, would make no sort of play without external help.10

I never cease to be amazed by the gall and the effrontery of successful academics. How do they do it? To be so knowing as to detect Shakespeare's ‘unconsciousness’, and then to rescue Shakespeare from himself by handing us the ‘aesthetics of play behaviour’ so as not to bore us all to tears. What a formula for tragedy! And what thin beer Nietzsche turns into when cold-filtered through the nervous system of received opinion!

I close this preamble to a detailed reading of the first scene of King Lear by appealing to Stanley Cavell, whose stature as a philosopher and critic will, I hope, lend a corroborating weight to my common reader's diagnosis of an endemic critical bias. Where literature in general and Shakespearian tragedy in particular is concerned, Cavell articulates the possibility of holding together (if only in a trembling balance) the strange and the sublime, and the ‘mundane, commonplace, every day life’ to which Shakespeare gave voice. I quote not from ‘The Avoidance of Love’, his still-essential essay for anyone really open to the power of King Lear to move us to wonder, but from the introduction to his more recent collected Shakespeare essays, Disowning Knowledge:

In recent years I have identified what philosophy thus calls the ordinary or everyday with what in literature is thematized as the domestic, or marriage; and hence I look for the cloaking of scepticism in literature as what attacks the domestic, namely in what forms tragedy and melodrama.11


My opening remarks on King Lear itself are intended to be cleansed of even the slightest hint of the controversial. I want to try to mole my way in by remarking on a distinctive feature of the language which I feel draws the audience into recognizing the design of the action. Before the family contest begins, before Lear even sets foot on the stage, Shakespeare sets up a pattern of grammatical constructions so elementary to all language acts that Yvor Winters could have used it to enforce his dogmatic championing of ‘rational form’. Both the conversations between Kent and Gloucester turn upon the words we call comparatives or superlatives: ‘more affected’, ‘values most’, and then ‘who yet is no dearer in my account’. The challenge to discrimination might be intimated by the question of true and ‘false compare’, to take a tip from the conclusion of that too well-known but rarely carefully read Sonnet 130. How dear is his good son Edgar if, as Gloucester states, he is no dearer ‘than this’, the bastard whom the father has kept away from home, and who he is about to pack off again, and whose very existence he can only acknowledge as a lame joke? The syllogistic spine of the dialogue enables one to anticipate the father's readiness to believe the worst of Edgar when the other son presents him in the ‘character’ of a patricide in Act One, Scene Two.

The answer to how well Shakespeare loves his mistress when he tells us, ‘I think my love as rare / As any she belied with false compare’ rather depends upon whether you have taken in the bearing of the shifting and mutually incompatible terms found elsewhere in the sonnet upon which you are required to render your verdict: ‘nothing like’, ‘far more’, ‘no such’, ‘in some’, or the final ‘as rare as’. The overall effect leaves you reeling under the onslaught of conflicting meaning much as the final lines of Blake's ‘The Fly’ hurl you back through the philosophic inquisition you only thought you had emerged from with your reasoning powers intact.

The oh-so-terribly-familiar sense of our individual portion in life, whether in the public or private domain, never feeling adequate to our deserving, is locked in by Shakespeare's hooking Regan's declaration, ‘I find she names my very deed of love; / Only she comes too short’ (I. i. 97-8) back into Albany and Gloucester's worrying away at how to cope with the baffling appearance of ‘equalities’ and ‘moiety’ when they just know there has to be an advantage somewhere. Even when, or perhaps especially when, things seem evenly divided, ressentiment is sure to follow. The grammar and syntax of these less challenging sets of ‘mores’ and ‘equals’ point the reader to the most disturbing usage in the pattern, Lear's ‘darker purpose’. Darker than what, we must timorously wonder? And how much more do we recognize in that darkness than does the strange being who utters himself in this purposefulness? But to ask the question that way is to squeeze the ‘darker’ into the simplification, darkness. I feel sure that it is precisely here in this bit of ordinary language that this particular expression of the tragic originates. Even after innumerable readings this questionable shaping holds answers in abeyance.

I have often seen Cordelia's ‘no more nor less’ (I. i. 93) phrasing of her love for Lear canvassed as evidence of an angry retort or a want of warmth or tact, but I have never noticed a single reference to the ‘most’ in the equally vital declaration, ‘Obey you, love, and most honour you’ (I. i. 98). I couldn't see it for looking at it. And has anyone pondered the implications of the word ‘better’ Cordelia and France each speaks on their departure: his ‘Thou losest here, a better where to find’ (I. i. 261) tensely poised against her ‘I would prefer him to a better place’ (I. i. 274)? Dwelling on the way such unexceptional words reach out to one another, often with contradictory impulsions, may not conform to traditional notions of dancing attendance on Shakespeare's poetry, but only by dwelling in them can we even identify the problems Shakespeare poses.

The second mode of entry the first scene solicits may be traced all the way back to Aristotle's distinction between simple and compound actions. I am not referring here to the standard sub-plot vs main-plot view of King Lear but to the simultaneity of Lear's abdication of kingship, the announcing of his daughters' respective dowries, and the marriage of Cordelia to one of her two suitors. Lear's ‘darker purpose’ speech lines them up more or less in that order, leaving us to work out the possible relations between them. In capping Lear's several public declarations with his desire to stage a bizarre contest—‘Which of you shall we say doth love us most?’ (I. i. 51)—Shakespeare ensured our awareness of their relative importance as well as the explosive conflict between the various actions. We may recognize a source of grievance when it dawns on us that Goneril and Regan, who have been married for some indeterminate length of time, must await their favoured youngest sister's marriage before receiving their dowries. Lear could give all three daughters the most generous of dowries without having to shake off the cares of kingship; but I assume Shakespeare expects us to see Cordelia's imminent marriage as the cause of Lear's feeling so old and frail as to present himself as ready to ‘Unburthen'd crawl toward death’ (I. i. 41). As we work through the causal relations and the dramatic priorities in this scene, we are lead to the inevitable conclusion that it is the bond of love between Lear and Cordelia that informs the whole. This I assume to be a minimal inference we can all assent to.

The transition from history play to tragedy owes more to the shift from kingship and the troubled relation between father and son (in the Henry plays, say) to the love of parent and child of the opposite sex (as in Hamlet and King Lear) than any other factor. One of the profoundest shocks for the audience is experienced when we realize how Hamlet's revulsion from his mother's marriage cuts deeper into his soul than even the knowledge of his father's having been murdered by his uncle. This precedent has a vital bearing on the way we imagine Lear's and Cordelia's love.

To put the case as bluntly, not to say reductively, as Kent might had it presented itself to him, there are two alternate ways of responding to what transpires in the first scene. The predominant reading sees the tragedy as motivated by Lear's disclaiming his ‘paternal care’ (I. i. 113), insisting against nature ‘we / Have no daughter, nor shall ever see / That face of hers again’ (I. i. 262-4), and thereby banishing the meaning of his life. This reading of the play presents the central relationship as a denial of love similar in kind to Dickens' Dombey repudiating his daughter's unselfish yearning for affection. The minority reading—the one I favour—considers Lear and Cordelia's relation as bordering on the incestuous. (Once again Hamlet is a relevant text.) The savagery with which Lear casts Cordelia off has effectively masked the deeply disquieting nature of the bond between them, which persists despite the apparent breach. Shakespeare's art compounds the two horrifying realities; the more familiar response to Cordelia's banishment acts as a cover story, blinding us to a far more harrowing truth.

Lear deliberately begins his contest before Gloucester can return with France and Burgundy, whom Lear summons in the first words he utters in the play. ‘Meantime’, Lear says, ‘we shall express our darker purpose’. No one who has ever read or seen the play has the slightest doubt as to how Lear's ‘Which of you shall we say doth love us most?’ is to be answered. At the very least I assume we are to imagine an old man reluctant to give his daughter away in marriage who wants to enjoy a last opportunity to express his love for her as his daughter, and not as someone's wife. The thought that ‘Great rivals in our youngest daughter's love, / Long in our court have made their amorous sojourn, / And here are to be answered’ (I. i. 46-8) weighs heavily on his mind, and the contest is his way of saying, ‘but not yet, not until I am confirmed in her love for me.’ Even someone who finds the thesis I am developing offensive and perverse has to admit that Lear does everything he can to get rid of her suitors in the second half of the scene. He cannot endure the thought of Cordelia's marriage, even when he has banished her from his life.

My major misreading of the scene, a piece of sentimentality I persisted in for years, was to want Cordelia's response, ‘You have begot me, bred me, lov'd me’ (I. i. 96) to stand as a normative check on the ‘barbarous Scythian’ Lear talks of, compelled to ‘gorge his appetite’ on the child he loves with such unappeasable passion. The two fragments from Cavell's interpretation of this speech—‘the heart which is shuddering with confusion’, and ‘this speech, said in suppression, confusion, abandonment’12—convey more truth about her state of mind than all the moralistic measuring out of her responsibility for the ensuing disaster which has too often dominated critical debate.

The dramatic inflection Cavell gives the crisis has more to do with private intimacies being forced into the public gaze than the way ‘suppression, confusion, abandonment’ in Cordelia's voice strikes my ear. She tries to shrink from Lear's demand by rounding on her sisters, as a child so often does when pressed by a parent. The second half of her speech is tossed in their direction, but what she says inadvertently touches the raw nerve in her father. The very last thing Lear can endure to be reminded of is the consequences for him of his favourite daughter's imminent marriage. The portion Cordelia fixes on in Regan's blatantly false performance I now find myself reading in horrified surprize as reflecting back on Cordelia's own condition. Regan had just claimed (I. i. 70-76):

In my true heart
I find she [Goneril] names my very deed of love;
                                                  … that I profess
Myself an enemy to all other joys
Which the most precious square of sense possesses,
And find I am alone felicitate
In your dear highness' love.

The contrast is not, as the good servant Kent and his critical followers believe, a simple opposition between flattery (how can you flatter someone, after all, who isn't listening?) and sincerity. Instead Shakespeare administers a lethal jolt we may learn later in the play to identify as the operation of Lear's ‘handy-dandy’ place changing (IV. vi. 155). No wonder Cordelia's first impulse is to say nothing. (I am not proposing to dwell on the sexual puns associated with the word ‘nothing’ as so many of the modern radical breed of Shakespearean commentators are wont to do.) You have only to make a cursory comparison of Cordelia's speech to the decisive answer Desdemona makes to her father (Othello, I. iii. 181-8)—

I do perceive here a divided duty:
To you I am bound for life and education,
My life and education both do learn me
How to respect you, you are the lord of all my duty,
I am hitherto your daughter: but here's my husband:
And so much duty as my mother show'd
To you, preferring you before her father,
So much I challenge, that I may profess,
Due to the Moor my lord.

—to see how inept my previous reading was. ‘Happily, when I shall wed’ (I. i. 100) is spoken as if Cordelia had no awareness at all of the ‘when’ being upon her. Her uttering a disordered version of the marriage vow (see my earlier reference to the ‘most’ modifying ‘honour’) to her father as evidence of returning the duties of child to parent as ‘are right fit’ is the purest moment in the play of the uncanny sensation of everything being hidden and yet wholly exposed to our view. The only thing close to Cordelia's declaration of love for her father that I can think of is Maggie Verver's reunion with her beloved father in The Golden Bowl. Here is the queer way Maggie registers the emotional consequence of her marrying the Prince in conversation with her father in Chapter 9:

She thought a minute, as if it were difficult to say, yet as if she more and more saw it. ‘Well, whatever it was that, before, kept us from thinking, and kept you, really, as you might say, in the market. It was as if you couldn't be in the market when you were married to me. Or rather as if I kept people off, innocently, by being married to you. Now that I'm married to someone else you're, as in consequence, married to nobody.’

It goes on like this for several more lines without Iago to ask the obligatory question, ‘Are you fast married?’ (Othello, I. ii. 12)—and I must confess I can't tell, even after four hundred odd further pages of ‘indirectness and tortuosities of application and effect’ James considered appropriate to the treatment of love.13

Lear's violent recoil answers in kind. It is as if you are overhearing people you know to be wide awake speaking as if in a dream state. Two of Lear's responses, ‘But goes thy heart with this?’ (I. i. 104) and ‘Here I disclaim all my paternal care’ (I. i. 113), constitute an unconscious (I wish there was a better word) enactment of the father's proper place in the marriage ceremony. The exchange I contend amounts to nothing less than a strange disturbing shadow ritual we think of in our common language as marriage. What else does the coronet stand for but daughter-wife and Queen?

I pause for breath here before plunging ahead to trace out the ramifications of imagining the disturbing nature of the love revealed in the rupturing of the father's and daughter's relations in this strange fashion to remind myself how insidiously our arguments fasten themselves on us and we on them. The sting of my insistent misreading of this matter reminds me to go warily in urging others to share my conviction. Many will no doubt have already turned away, feeling ‘There are some follies which baffle argument; which go beyond ridicule; and which excite no feeling in us but disgust’,14 but against the run of Burke's admonitory prose I pursue thoughts I would rather not harbour.

Stanley Cavell speaks movingly of the ‘rush of gratitude toward France, one's almost wild relief as he speaks his beautiful trust’ (Cavell, 293). I, too, have felt the urge to welcome this appealing generosity of spirit, but then I assumed France's passionate speech (I. i. 250-61) to be the worthy answer to what I wrongly wanted to hear as Cordelia's readiness to receive a loving husband—‘Happily, when I shall wed’. I still find myself disarmed in listening to the string of superlatives—‘most rich’, ‘most choice’, and finally, ‘most lov'd’—that accent this moving declaration, by the realization that such a voice will never be heard again in the play. But then that was precisely Shakespeare's way of situating father and daughter's tragic bond. ‘Be it lawful’, indeed! As in Cordelia's earlier wedding vow addressed to her father, the meaning of the key speeches depends upon the reader's capacity to re-assign them: that is to see their implications for someone other than the speaker has in mind. Cordelia remains silent. She doesn't even have an aside this time. She makes no reply to France's proposal (I. i. 250-61):

Fairest Cordelia, thou art most rich, being poor;
Most choice, forsaken; most lov'd, despis'd!
Thee and thy virtues here I seize upon:
Be it lawful I take up what's cast away.
Gods, gods! ’tis strange that from their cold'st neglect
My love should kindle to inflam'd respect.
Thy dowerless daughter, King, thrown to my chance,
Is Queen of us, of ours, and our fair France:
Not all the dukes of wat'rish Burgundy
Can buy this unpriz'd precious maid of me.
Bid them farewell, Cordelia, though unkind:
Thou losest here, a better where to find.

Her unresponsiveness is as revealing as Othello's shrinking from Desdemona's marvellously passionate giving of herself in the public proclaming of her devotion (Othello, I. iii. 248-54):

That I do love the Moor, to live with him,
My downright violence, and scorn of fortunes,
May trumpet to the world: my heart's subdued
Even to the utmost pleasure of my lord:
I saw Othello's visage in his mind,
And to his honours, and his valiant parts
Did I my soul and fortunes consecrate.

What Desdemona did not see in her unqualified commitment to that visage is evident in her bewildered silence later at what must seem to her an incomprehensible invitation (Othello, II. iii. 8-10):

                                                  Come, my dear love,
The purchase made, the fruits are to ensue,
The profit's yet to come ’twixt me and you.

Cordelia cannot, as even Cavell insists, be described as ‘protected in France's love’ (Cavell, 292), however much one yearns to think so. Her being is so utterly rooted in and derived from the bond with her father that she cannot acknowledge France or his love. The aptness of France's diagnosis of the family predicament, his other major speech, must also be denied (I. i. 213-24):

                                                  This is most strange,
That she, whom even but now was your best object,
The argument of your praise, balm of your age,
The best, the dearest, should in this trice of time
Commit a thing so monstrous, to dismantle
So many folds of favour. Sure, her offence
Must be of such unnatural degree
That monsters it, or your fore-vouch'd affection
Fall into taint; which to believe of her,
Must be a faith that reason without miracle
Should never plant in me.

Of course I did the same. In my misplaced sympathy for France I adopted his false alternative. I accepted the either/or construction, assenting to part of the logic of his propositions because it corroborates my earliest and my present judgement that Lear's ‘fore-vouch'd affection’ does indeed ‘fall into taint’ (I. i. 220-1), while denying completely the possibility of Cordelia's participation in anything ‘monstrous’ or ‘of such unnatural degree’. It took a prospective bridegroom to intuit such a frightening possibility and simultaneously to deny its psychological corollary. The taint in Lear's love is pointedly attached to affection for the child of his blood that preceded his ostensible repudiation of her. Naturally France's love for Cordelia blinds him to her pre-eminent concern with her father's ‘grace and favour’ (I. i. 229). Even here the ‘better place’ for her remains her father's arms, not those of an ardent suitor. In his last major speech in the play France strives to appropriate the crucial rhetoric of superlatives, but the antithesis he would construct between his ‘fairest Cordelia’, ‘most loved’, and a Cordelia ‘despised’ and called ‘unkind’ won't hold. The phrase ‘most loved, despised’ runs the two worlds together, so that we hardly know which is which—and when we come to the syntactically shaky final couplet the parenthetical qualifier ‘though unkind’ should remind us of Hamlet's sardonic play on kin and kind. France cannot possibly realize (but we must) how his proposal threatens to ‘un-kin’ Cordelia from the father who she loves, ‘most honours’, and obeys.

I used the word ‘natural’ a moment ago, conscious that all the interminable intellectual debate concerning the large philosophic questions of what constitutes nature, civilization, the monstrous and the humane, float round the specific horror Shakespeare dares us to wrestle with. In this emotional force field it is France's proposal ‘here I seize upon: / Be it lawful’ that feels like the violation of the normative, the sane and the healthy, and as this wording suggests he may have half sensed the frightening truth of the inversion. How are we to find out the ‘better’? It is the knowledge of the way Cordelia and Lear's relation is revealed to us through France's desire that we come to suffer what Bradshaw spoke of as impalement.


If these scattered remarks about King Lear pass the Johnsonian standard for literary-critical argument, that they convey something preponderantly true, then certain consequences follow for the balance of the play. I will try sketch these in as economically as possible. Even those who declare their belief in Lear's and Cordelia's relation standing at the dramatic centre of the play are hard pressed to keep their conviction in operation throughout Acts Two and Three, where Cordelia is literally absent. I think we should read the twin clashes with Goneril and Regan in Act One, Scene Four, and Act Two, Scene Four, as Lear irrationally demanding of these two daughters satisfaction of needs only Cordelia could gratify. The violent clashes are a direct prolonging of the family life we have been given in the first scene. The daughters are inured to his exclusive love for Cordelia and his refusal to admit their existence, and thus Lear's demands that they act Cordelia's part add insult to injury. They pay him in kind. He wanders inconsolably back and forth in the void between them seeking the absent daughter: ‘I should be false / Persuaded I had daughters’ (I. iv. 241-2) and ‘Yet have I left a daughter’ (I. iv. 263).

To follow Lear's anguished progress through this nightmarish suffering as if Shakespeare was following a Socratic or Sophoclean trajectory is to make the miserable mistake Nietzsche railed against throughout The Birth of Tragedy or, in effect, to know Lear's life through the eyes of Goneril and Regan. The old man ‘hath ever but / Slenderly known himself’ (I. i. 293-4) they inform us at the outset. They also repeatedly recommend wisdom as something he should learn through the suffering he deserves. I have made lectures out of sliding along in such brutal grooves. Perhaps we take revenge on Lear by insisting he know fully what Shakespeare has revealed to us.

The most disturbing embodiment of Lear's anguished crawl towards death is surely his ferocious outbreaks of sexual revulsion. The Cambridge critics, A. L. French, Harold Mason, and (I am sorry and surprized to report) J. C. F. Littlewood, are torn between dismissing these rages as oddly intense but finally irrelevant and/or construing them as symptoms of some obscure psycho-sexual disablement in Shakespeare himself.15 Trying to attach Lear's obsessive screams of sexual revulsion to Goneril and Regan competing for Edmund's favour—a man who incidentally shows little or no inclination for sexual lust—is to make moral nonsense of the play. I assume Lear's diseased imagination expresses his own pathological recoil from the hideous prospect of imagining the detested bride-groom, ‘the hot-blooded France’ (II. iv. 213), enjoying his beloved daughter. Such unendurable thoughts may also carry him to the brink of becoming conscious of the forbidden sexuality of his own need to possess Cordelia's person. To shrink from these realizations is an essential part of leaving oneself open to Shakespeare's power to move us to pity and fear. Lear virtually tells us how to read him. The ‘close pent-up guilts’ (III. ii. 57) and the ‘undivulged crimes’ (III. ii. 52): these are the real sources of the frantic rant against sexual sins. That it is ‘thou simular of virtue / That art incestuous’ (III. ii. 54-5) is as close as Lear can come to confessing. Who would wish more knowledge upon him?

The closer I get to Cordelia's re-appearance, and especially her touching reunion with the ‘foolish fond old man’ (IV. vii. 60), the more painful it becomes to insist on the way the first scene continuously shapes the action. Hard as the struggle to redeem my understanding of the play has been, I want to do my utmost to avoid the ever-present temptation to find fault with Shakespeare's art (à la Harold Mason) wherever maintenance of my thesis is threatened. Like most critics, I consider Shakespeare's packing Cordelia's husband off with the set up line, ‘Why the King of France is so suddenly gone back know you no reason?’ (IV. iii. 1-2) a clumsy piece of stage business. What really concerns me is the veil Shakespeare casts over Cordelia's marriage. It may be the inveterate novel reader in me that leads me astray, but then I admit to also feeling justified in wanting more access to Gertrude's inner life subsequent to Hamlet forcing her to see her marriage with his extreme revulsion. Instead of exploring the impact on her of this extraordinarily distressing encounter between mother and son, Shakespeare frustrates my desire by keeping the focus on the far less compelling matter of Claudius' manipulation of Laertes. Am I wrong to object?

If comparing the first scene of the play to Act Four, Scene Seven were merely a question of contrasting curse, rage, estrangement, and hatred to blessing, acceptance, forgiveness, and unselfish love, and were that all Shakespeare demands of us, then all my fussing would be beside the point. But in the other plays of this period—Hamlet, Measure for Measure, and Othello—true and false compare is anything but a stark contrast. Shakespeare incessantly structures the crucial sequences in his dramas so as to make the identical seem antithetical, and complementarity look like opposition. There is one tantalizing moment in the lead into Shakespeare's restoring of the father and daughter to one another where we can just about catch a glimpse of what her lines ‘when I shall wed, / That lord whose hand must take my plight shall carry / Half my love with him, half my care and duty’ (I. i. 100-2) have come to mean. I refer of course to this exclamation (IV. iv. 23-9):

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

You don't have to be overly ingenious in suggesting the presence of a syntactical wriggle of ambiguity about these tears. Are they shed for father or husband or both? Can the ‘love, dear love’ be stretched to include France, or must we pity and mourn his exclusion? I certainly cannot detect the law of life Fanny Assingham rests her faith on in the twenty-fourth chapter of The Golden Bowl:

‘I quite hold’, Fanny with characteristic amplitude parenthesised, ‘that a person can mostly feel but one passion—one tender passion, that is—at a time. Only, that doesn't hold good for our primary and instinctive attachments, the ‘voice of blood’, such as one's feeling for a parent or a brother. Those may be intense and yet not prevent other intensities—as you will recognise, my dear, when you remember how I continued, tout bêtement, to adore my mother, whom you didn't adore, for years after I had begun to adore you.’

Perhaps the difference is that the ‘voice of blood’ speaks in the love of daughter for mother and not father. In a novel in which James tosses the word ‘perverse’ about with gay abandon we can never be sure, however, about Maggie Verver's balancing the claims of husband and father. In this work it is the father's consciousness we are shut out from, not the daughter's. But I cannot postpone facing the scene so many hard-hearted academics have proclaimed the most moving in Shakespeare a minute longer.

Shakespeare gives primacy to Lear's agony, representing his journey with the full dramatic continuity not afforded Cordelia. Discussions of their mutual recognition often pay too little regard to Shakespeare's preparing the way by showing us Lear's running away in panic and shame at the bare mention of his ‘most dear daughter’ (IV. vi. 191) As far as I know, Cavell is the only critic who isn't hampered by a will to display his tenderness and who shows the requisite courage to insist that it is Lear's shame at ‘the nature of his love for Cordelia’ that makes him so frantic (Cavell, 299). To give way to what he longs for is in his blurted words ‘No rescue? What! a prisoner?’ (IV. vi. 192.) In the extremity of his conflict Lear envisages himself dying ‘bravely, like a smug bridegroom’ (IV. vi. 199-200). Cavell is surely right again when he identifies the last two words of the line ‘Methinks I should know you and know this man’ (IV. vii. 64) as a case of Lear mistaking the disguised Kent or the doctor for France (Cavell, 299). The distance travelled between this ‘should know’ and the ‘shall we say’ of ‘Which of you shall we say doth love us most?’ (I. i. 51) is as nothing and everything—the play itself. The unendurable pain comes in the final lines of this speech (IV. vii. 68-70):

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

Though I am drawn to both S. L. Goldberg's and J. C. F. Littlewood's generous accounts of the father's acknowledgment of Cordelia's existence as more than an answer to his need,16 I think in his extremity Lear strives even more agonizingly against his nature to accept ‘this lady’ as the Queen of France. The exchange immediately following this speech is an astonishing compound of all-pervading denial and naked meeting of two people who love one another utterly. I dread sounding like Dickens' Mrs. Clennam in her life-denying insistence that the past can never be forgotten, but Shakespeare will not let us rest easy in Cordelia's ‘No cause, no cause’ (IV. vii. 75). This isn't to imply that she should react to her father's view of his conduct as Hamlet does to his mother. (I for one don't know how to receive his ‘Forgive me this my virtue’; Hamlet, III. iv. 154.) I feel rent in two by the demand their love makes upon me to ‘see as’ and ‘see in’ simultaneously. Here is Goldberg's exposition of the vital distinction:

we speak of ‘seeing in’, not ‘seeing as’; and we do so because we know that although love sometimes is ‘blind’ in the sense that it is only the cause or the effect of a delusion, it sometimes is ‘blind’ in another sense: that it involves a trust, a faith, not just in the existence and value and strength of certain potentialities in the other person, but also in one's own need, capacity and commitment to appreciate those potentialities and thereby perhaps help them realize themselves. This is why the blindness of love sometimes sees a person, and the course of time, far more deeply than the wisest spectator.

(Goldberg, 97)

Shakespeare takes no pity on us; he burdens us with knowledge that dooms us to spectatorship even as he compels our emphatic participation. Who dares to judge?

Lear cannot maintain the effort, and he slips back in the final scene. The word fantasy is often applied to his desire to live alone with Cordelia. The prison he feared is now a paradise. But Lear isn't the play. Shakespeare drives on unrelentingly. Lear's ‘Have I caught thee?’ (V. iii. 21) cruelly recalls the memory of France's ‘Thee and thy virtues here I seize upon’ (I. i. 252). There is no escape. Even in Edmund's summary of his actions we find ‘the old and miserable King’ (V. ii. 47) paired with ‘With him I sent the Queen’ (V. iii. 52), as if they were married royalty, not, as the last two lines of the speech remind us—‘The question of Cordelia and her father / Requires a fitter place’ (V. iii. 58-9)—parent and child.

I have seen too many fine critics pace round and round the final scene in King Lear, reminding me of a neurotic polar bear I once saw pacing his cell in the Winnipeg zoo, to want to sum up the play myself. Anthony Eden's verdict on the Katyn massacre—‘Let us think of these things always. Let us speak of them never’—probably is cowardice,17 but who at Cordelia's death feels up to answering Zarathustra's command:

Let us speak of this, you wisest men, even if it is a bad thing. To be silent is worse; all suppressed truths become poisonous.

And let everything that can break upon our truths—break!18

Having misread the play when I was so sure I had it right ought to ensure my sympathy with Tate or Bradley in their impulse to revise the ending, but it doesn't. What could they imagine as Cordelia and Lear living together happily ever after? ‘If there be more, more woeful, hold it in’ (V. iii. 202), I say with Albany, for how could anyone imagine marrying Cordelia to that lethal moralizer Edgar? That surely is revenge disguised as tenderness, and it is monstrous and beyond forgiveness to answer Lear's anguished cry of love by providing him with any son-in-law, let alone that one. It is to find yourself immured in an affirmative answer to the nightmarish question: ‘Could there be people who could never achieve the spirit in which words about another (mind) are meant?19

As for Shakespeare's bequest to the novel, Dickens found the ‘darker purpose’ in the shadow of the Marshalsea. He grappled with it by creating Arthur Clennam, whose dearest wish is to be a father to Little Dorrit. In Book One, Chapter 35, Clennam rescues her from the prison: and Dickens portrays his carrying her out into the world beyond so:

As he kissed her, she turned her head towards his shoulder, and raised her arm towards his neck; cried out ‘Father! Father! Father!’ and swooned away.

After the father of the Marshalsea dies, Clennam is permitted to replace him, but he can only do so by being locked in the same cell. ‘Dozing and dreaming’ as he sits in her father's chair, the nearly broken Clennam is rescued by his Cordelia: Little Dorrit returns to nurse him just as she had nursed her father.

‘Who [indeed] can tell what disquieting moral capacities or incapacities might reveal themselves’ when we answer Shakespeare's call? (Goldberg, 252.) And even those who would never dream of judging Shakespeare ‘in relation to [their] deepest sense of human possibilities’ cannot escape, for Emerson was right:

Character teaches above our wills. Men imagine that they communicate their virtue and vice only by overt action, and do not see that virtue or vice emit a breath every moment.20

We emit that breath in everything we say and everything we write about Shakespeare.


  1. Stanley Cavell, Themes out of School (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988), 192.

  2. H. A. Mason, Shakespeare's Tragedies of Love: An Examination of the Possibility of Common Readings of ‘Romeo and Juliet’, ‘Othello’, ‘King Lear’, and ‘Antony and Cleopatra’ (London: Chatto and Windus, 1970), vii; referred to below as Mason.

  3. Graham Bradshaw, Shakespeare's Scepticism (Brighton: Harvester, 1987), 63; referred to below as Bradshaw.

  4. S. L. Goldberg, Agents and Lives: Moral Thinking in Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 252; referred to below as Goldberg.

  5. King Lear, I. i. 36; all quotations are from the Arden edn., ed. Kenneth Muir (London: Methuen, 1961).

  6. F. R. and Q. D. Leavis, Dickens the Novelist (London: Chatto and Windus, 1970), 29; referred to below as Dickens the Novelist.

  7. F. R. Leavis, The Great Tradition (New York: New York University Press, 1964), 9.

  8. Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy, trans. R. J. Hollingdale (London: Penguin, 1993), 101, 56.

  9. Ibid. 110.

  10. John Bayley, Shakespeare and Tragedy (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1981), 63.

  11. Stanley Cavell, Disowning Knowledge in Six Plays of Shakespeare (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 29.

  12. Stanley Cavell, Must We Mean What We Say?: A Book of Essays (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976), 292; referred to below as Cavell.

  13. I have quoted this passage from a letter James sent to H. G. Wells, quoted in Dorothea Krook, The Ordeal of Consciousness in Henry James (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1967), 290.

  14. Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France (London: Penguin, 1986), 369.

  15. A. L. French, Shakespeare and the Critics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1972), 180-3, 194-5, 201; Mason, Shakespeare's Tragedies of Love, 203-4, 214; and J.C.F. Littlewood, ‘Thoughts on King Lear’, The Gadfly, 7: 4 (Aug. 1984), 23-4.

  16. S.L. Goldberg, An Essay on ‘King Lear’ (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1974), 27-30, 83-6; Littlewood, ‘Thoughts on King Lear’, 16-18.

  17. I quote Eden's remark from Cavell, Themes out of School, 118.

  18. Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, trans. R. J. Hollingdale (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1969), 139.

  19. Stanley Cavell, The Claim of Reason: Wittgenstein, Skepticism, Morality, and Tragedy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979), 379

  20. I quote this passage of Emerson's from Stanley Cavell, In Quest of the Ordinary (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988), 25.

Douglas Burnham (essay date 2000)

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Last Updated on February 5, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6464

SOURCE: “King Lear, Narrating, and Surprise,” in Yearbook of English Studies, Vol. 30, 2000, pp. 21-33.

[In the essay below, Burnham applies his theories on the nature of narrative to King Lear in order to explain the reason for Cordelia's death.]


On his first day of prison, a man joins a group of long-term prisoners talking in the mess. One of them says, ‘tell us a joke, somebody’. There is silence for a second, and then another prisoner says, ‘17!’. All of the long-term prisoners instantly burst out laughing. The new prisoner is confused by this, but pretends to laugh anyway. Suddenly, another prisoner calls out ‘29!’. This is greeted by floods of laughter.

The new prisoner turns to a short man in spectacles standing next to him and, discretely, asks why everyone is laughing at mere numbers. ‘Well’, is the reply, ‘we've all been here so long that we have given numbers to all the jokes we know. Now we only have to call out the number.’

‘Oh’, says the new prisoner. When the laughter has quieted a little, he blurts out ‘21!’ picking a number at random. The whole cafeteria is dead silent, not even a chuckle. The short man in spectacles turns to him woefully and says, ‘Sorry, mate, but it's how you tell them’.

The ‘how you tell them’ signals the irreducibly temporal aspect of joke-telling or, more generally, of any affective speech. A comedian has ‘good timing’, or is not a comedian. The joke never coincides with the punch line, or with a summary of whatever logical twists it ‘consists’ of, and certainly not with a numerical marker. Analogous, then, to Levinas's famous distinction between the saying and the said is, perhaps, telling and told. This is still more the case in that most obviously temporal of discourses, narrative. (And of course many jokes, like the one above, are miniature narratives.)

I wish to investigate the experience of narrative with respect to the specific question of its relation to some form or other of understanding. My thesis is that such experience necessarily (although most often obscurely) reveals an openness which is genuinely transcendent with respect to understanding. The various sections of this paper will break down into three parts: first, a critical discussion of the phenomenon of narration as a type of understanding; the second part, relating the problem of narration to the ethical idea of ‘virtue’, including a discussion of the revealing notion of ‘surprise’; finally, a corresponding reading of Shakespeare's King Lear.


At minimum, a narrative is a sequence of events which forms a ‘figure’, or at least an abstract pattern. This figure has at least three varieties. First, the narrative as a whole can provide a concept of a type or genre of character or adventure. The story can be a detective story, a bitter-sweet romance, a tragedy, a bawdy comedy, and so on, and the character can be a heroine, a rogue, a tempter, a sacrifice-maker, and so on. In such cases, the type of figure dominates the narrative. In the second variety, the narrative figure (again, as a whole) has no sense on its own, but refers to something beyond itself which is its proper meaning: the moral of the fable, the real in realism. This meaning, however, is transportable. The moral fable, or the realistic fiction, does not need this particular narrative to explicate its ultimate referents. For these two, as each event is narrated, a fuller and fuller picture of, say, a character and of that character's world is revealed. The more details we have, the more we can anticipate with confidence what will happen next. The narrative thus functions as a device for understanding, for describing the unity of a multiplicity.

In the third variety, the narrative provides a unity to events simply by their being a part of that narrative. This happens even if (perhaps especially if) it breaks down genres and character patterns in some new way, or contains deep thematic or moral ambiguities. Such a narrative simply brings things together as things which ipso facto belong together. The figure itself, and such as it is, dominates, and for the first time is unique, rather than being one of many possible instances of a type, or one of many possible vehicles of a meaning.

However, all these ways of experiencing narrative are external, and stand back and treat the narrative as a whole. Of course, the internal experience of narrative may be one of being on the way towards one of these three: for example, we may sense a moral tale unfolding, and are on the look-out for narrative details which will reinforce this sense, and fill in details of the referent. However, there is a fourth way of experiencing narratives which belongs ‘natively’ to narrative but, I claim, is uniquely internal and thus no longer strictly speaking a mode of understanding. Here, we experience nothing other than the eventhood of the event. Such an event does not however present itself as random or simply without place. It demands (but does not offer: indeed, it refuses) its own significance within the narrative. This event may, perhaps, belong to a narrative figure of one of the above types; but we learn this, or even construct it as an interpretation, only afterwards.

In the first two cases at least, and perhaps the third, narrative belongs under the more general heading of understanding. It is a particularly temporal kind of understanding, to be sure, a way of grasping as a unity a multiplicity of events laid out across time. It is a way of grasping a particular event as something, part of a story.1 The third is interesting for the notion of uniqueness; the fourth for the notion of event. The question is, do we actually encounter these latter two forms in some (or perhaps all) narratives, and if so, what is their relation to the more obvious function of narrative as a form of understanding? This very question may be explored by way of a discussion of ethics.


Up until the present century, narratives, whether biblical stories, folk tales, fairy tales, or heroic literature, were almost universally conceived, justified, praised, or arraigned as in some way edifying, as part of an education in virtue, spirituality, morality. In this century, however, the production of narratives is conceived as an aesthetic phenomenon, or as entertainment, as the impersonal transmission of ideology, or even as ethically subversive. It is at least worth asking in what way, previously, narratives were supposed to have this value. If narratives were seen simply as dramatizations of already existing moral norms, or well-known models of behaviour, then the question is no great problem, and similarly, for so-called ‘problem plays’ or the equivalents in other genres. The question is interesting only if we take the edifying function as belonging to the internal experience of the narrative. What would this mean?

Here, Aristotle is most relevant. Virtue, he argues, is not a precise science. Being virtuous does not mean knowing universal conceptual laws about what is good and what is evil. Rather, being virtuous is above all a type of wisdom in evaluating particular situations. How does one acquire this wisdom? An important element involves what we might call the absorption of role models. ‘How does one act virtuously?’ Aristotle asks, and the answer is: by acting with the wise man; and to the question how does even the wise man act? the answer is again, by acting with the wise man.2 For Aristotle, my response to the ethical other proceeds laterally, through my education in virtue. But virtue remains a property of my ethos or character: thus, even in deliberation virtue is not strictly speaking mediated through necessary, particular examples, discussions, or rules. Virtue, then, is unmediated, but not uncultured.3 Again, the movement from exemplar to application cannot be inductive, proceeding through a mediating generalization about wisdom or virtue, for the rule must be known in order to pick out instances for induction. Nor, I claim, is this movement even representative, that such-and-such virtuous or wise action stands in for or imitates some other action; that is, I see this (present) situation as that (remembered) situation. The ecstatic imagination which Aristotle describes in the Poetics is not a presentation of images, the copy of an original: rather, an ‘as if’, not the copying of real or imagined events, but the construction or projection of a fictional world.4

Accordingly, the Poetics is not just an isolated account of the nature of comedy, epic, and above all tragedy. Rather, it is a central inquiry into the functioning of an important tool for the education of virtuous citizens. Through catharsis, tragedy teaches us how to feel and act properly. Tragic narrative is particularly useful as opposed to other types of narratives, such as history, because it is universal. But what does this mean? The plot and characters are presented as particulars, to be sure, but are structured universally, Aristotle says, making them (we can surmise) ideal as role models or anti-role models of virtuous lives (as opposed to virtuous incidents). But this cannot be the whole story: again, virtue is not imitation, even if it were the case that tragic heroes were unambiguously virtuous. And we already know that it cannot be universal in the sense of a code or law that is separable from the concrete models. This universality is rather that which is, so to speak, contextually mobile: a singular instance, but one which reverberates, claiming me, developing and culturing me and my life as virtuous, here and now.5 The poetic narrative must be genuinely dislocative in this way for there to be poeisis as a making, and for there to be catharsis. Catharsis is not just emotional response, but affective attunement: an affection together with a demand that the affection be taken up as ethically proper. The key property of such ethical narratives is that the demand upon me, and the content of that demand, are simultaneous and inseparable (unlike a categorical imperative, which demands without content, or a moral rule, which has content without any self-legitimization). This will henceforth be termed a ‘narrative argument’.

The Poetics is primarily a taxonomically organized set of observations on the best ways of constructing plots. The ‘best’ comes from Aristotle's primary insight: that tragedy has a purpose in producing catharsis. That is best which tends to (this is not a law) serve this purpose. So plot as narrative cannot, despite appearances, be understood as principally a form of understanding in either the first or second senses above. Certainly, narrative elements are ‘parts’, and their connections are comprehensible (if at all) only through their ends. Consequently, they are comprehensible only from the point of view of the whole plot and the whole movement of the plot. But this wholeness is not of the order of either generic structure or meaningfulness, but is in the service of the internal function. Similarly, it follows that the logic of probability or necessity in the way events follow on from one another is quite different from formal logic. Aristotle, who might be said to have invented both the idea of literary genre and (in the Topics) something like semiotics, also realized that genre in itself or a mere reduction to codes was never the point; but neither is a separable meaning or theme. In catharsis, tragic narrative transcends its particularity in the direction of its audience, and yet also remains immanent to that particularity.

The point here is that even the conventionally educative or formative narrative is to be understood as an argument, but of a completely different type: an argument about how we ought or ought not to run our lives and give them meaning. Or (particularly in the case of tragedy) it is an argument about how humans can and ought to deal with the unspeakable, with what lies beyond the limit of their comprehension and their conventions.


One way of grasping this claim is through the notion of surprise. Narratives are rarely orderly. Aristotle, for example, makes much of the importance of reversals, recognitions, and other unexpected events. The narrative, he is claiming, must be both predictable and unpredictable at the same time: the predictability is at best retrospective. The question asked above was about the internal experience of narrative, whether it is always oriented towards the final figure. Here, though, is a new phenomenon, which belongs uniquely to narrative: the events are not random, but with each new stage of the narrative, the figure changes. Shakespeare is particularly masterful in this: now a political and now a domestic or romantic drama; now a tragedy, now a comedy. This can be called epistemological terror, which is distinct from epistemological confusion, and therefore must be the trace of something else. My argument here is that this ‘something else’ will turn out to be an openness residing at the heart of the being of narrating. If this is correct, then the fourth way of experiencing narratives—the eventhood of internally experienced events—turns out to be irreducibly central. It can be said that surprise (or at least the possibility or expectation of surprise) is precisely the condition of possibility of narratives. Without surprise, the temporality seems to drop away, just as in the joke with which I began. What this means is that there must be an inner link between surprise and cathartic, or ethical, function.

The end of the narrative is reached when the figure stops changing, and surprising events stop happening. The end does not encompass the whole, it only marks an infinitesimal point from which the whole has been experienced, and is now past (and even that may be uncertain). The end does not control throughout: only afterwards, when there is at least the possibility of forgetting. This new external view corresponds only to the third way of experiencing narratives, and is still on the border of understanding.

In order to make my case more plausible, I will dwell a little on the notion of ‘the end’. This can have several meanings, such as, simply, the halting of the narration, as in a rambling picaresque narrative; that point at which all the motivating engines of plot have been resolved or neutralized, as in the mystery genre, when the mystery is solved; the point at which the meaning of the story becomes clear; end in the sense of purpose or function, as in catharsis. For a given narrative, end might mean several of these at once (certainly, always the first).6

One might argue against my reading of surprise and epistemological terror by claiming that all narratives have ends in the second sense. Even the picaresque tale will have at least subordinated ends. Thus, it might seem all events are part of the narrative by virtue of their orientation towards-the-end which functions as the horizon throughout, and which thereby makes the narrative a narrative at all. In my previous classification, this is a claim that all internal experiences of narrative are essentially oriented towards one of the three (and especially the first two) types of external experiences. By virtue of this horizon, narrative is thus a form of understanding, and has no ‘heterogeneous heart’.

However, because of surprise, the horizon for events is an end, not the end, and this difference is important. Being oriented toward an end, and being at the end, are radically different narrative experiences. In fact, the end in the second sense above as resolution of plot often comes as itself a disappointment, notwithstanding the quality of the whole. This is because the richness of possibility within the fictional world has been closed down. Similarly, one's favourite story is reread not just to get to the end again. One reads again, at the very least, for the miracle that is the end, and that is only possible if the end is the end of a narrative which was never entirely towards-an-end. There is also the omnipresent experience of hope or dread that (miraculous possibility) this time, the end will not be the same. The end, however right it feels, falsifies. The end tells us that, for the end, the narrating did not matter, did not have to pass. The end forgets the happening. Experiencing the narrative means not forgetting the embeddedness of the end, and that an end is only an end because of a movement, a passing of time, a sequence of delays, rhythms, rushes, energized stillnesses, surprises. Conceiving the end in this way, however, does not entail that it must appear random, as if the rest of the story had been torn from the binding. But its non-randomness is not a function of the thematic survey that it affords, nor of the last event itself; rather, it is a gift of the passing experience which has just passed. That is, here is a towards-an-end which is not organized by, and can never be surveyed from, the end.7

However, does not even this provisional horizon which is orientation towards an end still imply that narrative is a function of understanding, of bringing unity and order to original multiplicity? In the progression of the narrative, every new event appears as a confirmation, or more-or-less dramatic modification, or suspenseful delay of confirmation or modification, of the contour of the horizon. Only thus can there be disorientation, or a sense of complacency, or of fate, or even, speaking more broadly, any notion of genre. Otherwise narrative is simply a random sequence of events. However, this contour, even at its most definite (in the closing pages of a Greek tragedy, for example), must remain open in ambiguity, open to a sudden twisting of the contour. Without this, after the reversal or recognition, we would not be able to say ‘now I see’: that is, grasp the new contour as both completely different and entirely continuous. Every narrative, though perhaps at a particular contour, is also towards its dis-figuration. Surprise, therefore, is not just a super-added feature of narrative moments. What is the nature of this ambiguity, then?

Certainly, it appears to be epistemological in character. One is simply not in possession of all the facts which are subsequently narrated, especially the surprising fact which will catalytically reshuffle the others into a new contour. But this very metaphor of a catalyst reveals that this is a strange epistemology, just as epistemological terror was not mere confusion. It will be helpful to look at the problem transcendentally.8 What if the ambiguity were not a result of a deficiency in the contour, but the opposite: what if it were the condition of possibility for any contour's taking form? This may be understood by considering two very brief arguments.

Consider first of all that a particularly ideal reader is assumed above in talking of the horizon-contour. There is a methodological plausibility about this notion, but in fact and of necessity, there is the one reader, me. The multiplicity of readers is a horizonal ambiguity intrinsic to the text. The narrative's construction of horizons has to account for this: it has to guide the reader, place her on its ‘orient’ (to use a favourite phrase of Ricoeur's) again and again. This requires an over-provision of clues to this orient. But such a surplus of message is always responding to noise on the line, where the line and its noise are prior to the message.9 The very figure of the message presupposes the necessity of that which originally dis-figures.

Secondly, the narrative passes. I have been treating the horizon as belonging to discrete moments or events of the narrative. Rather, there must be a continuous change, of blending, of re-reinforcing or dis-figuring. This constant motion is part of the experience of narrative. Without it, the horizonal contour would not be that of a narrative. Functionally, this passing is equivalent to ambiguity: that is, it is the possibility of the figure disfiguring. But, just as the passing is at least as primordial to the narrative as the existence of an identifiable moment within the narrative, so the ambiguity (and with it, surprise) must be as primordial as the static contour. Indeed, one can go one step further: the contour cannot do without the distinction between past configuration and future expectation. Except from the false position of the end, the contour of the narrative has to be fundamentally and radically temporal. The temporal passing of a narrative is prior to its logic; that is, its ambiguity (the passing itself) is its condition of possibility. As I have shown, the experience of narrative is not primarily oriented towards a definite end, but at best only towards the expectations which it creates by first differentiating, in ambiguity, between what has happened and what is to come. That is, the orientation towards an end is also secondary to the disruption that is temporal differentiation.

This is not a claim simply about time in general. Rather, it is specific to narrative, because the specific ambiguity which allows contours to form, deform, and pass is of the order of what Ricoeur calls the ‘as if’. This is the meaning of the notion of ‘ecstasy’ or ‘dislocation’ mentioned above, which was discovered as the condition of possibility of the educative or formative function of traditional narrative. Narrative demands ecstasy not only epistemologically (in terms of a present dislocation toward future possibilities) but ontologically (in terms of worldliness). Thus occurs the epistemological terror, which is a terror striking not at this or that entity, but at one's world itself and in its entirety, and which is made possible by ambiguity and surprise.

It would seem plausible to suppose that narrative is a way of making sense of time: of giving (or finding in) temporal events meaning, identity, purpose, direction, morality; of forming patterns that have been, or can be, or ought to be repeated. Behind narrative, if that were possible, time would be experienced as not only meaningless but even chaotic and continually heterogeneous to itself. But the above arguments demonstrate that if narrative can be a form of understanding, it is not because narrating rescues meaning from chaos, but rather because it constructs the latter into the former.


King Lear is an ideal example of what I have been discussing. Certain key features of it do not make sense either as a narrative illustration of an idea, nor as a idea which could be made plausible in some way outside and other than the narrative. To understand the play, I claim, requires adopting the above notion of a narrative argument.

Ultimately, the issue is what imaginative literature can do that logical, expository prose cannot do. It is to be expected that one sign of narrative's doing its proper work is where there is a contradiction, when the plot and its images are viewed logically or in view of realism. Consider Oedipus the King. What is extraordinary about the end of that play is the combination of humility and nobility that Oedipus achieves. He is fully conscious of being the helpless, utterly broken target of the most horrible destiny, and yet he is still at moments heroic, insisting upon his immediate exile (i.e. the carrying out of his highest obligations against himself), though at the same time without defiance. These are contradictory impulses: humility and transcendence. One might think it impossible for Oedipus to respond in this way without being insane (and there is no suggestion of this). Such philosophical and moral points can hardly be stated without self-contradiction, and certainly not made worthy of belief. The drama functions as a demonstration of a uniquely narrative truth.10

Similarly, the death of Cordelia has worried commentators, actors, and writers for centuries. In a nutshell, the problem is that her death does not make sense in terms either of the conventions of tragedy or of morality. It just seems senseless, and yet any imagined or real re-working of the end of the play is still more manifestly absurd. How can this be? The plot of King Lear, viewed as a conventional tragedy, is in many ways the most improbable of plots. Lear, for his stubborn foolishness, and for the political and cosmic injustice of giving away the kingdom, must be punished. The moral balance of tragedy demands it, and Gloucester, similarly, must be punished. But Cordelia, one feels, did not deserve her death: it cannot be understood as somehow a punishment, either on the human level, nor upon the divine level. Where there is punishment without crime, as in Cordelia's death, it indicates a moral world out of kilter on both the human and the divine levels. Lear's lines ‘Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life / And thou no breath at all?’ (v. 3. 308-09)11 show a deep understanding of this senselessness, from someone able to see sense in preferring prison to a palace. But the lines immediately preceding this last speech of Lear's are Albany's overly optimistic, but stock-tragic ones:

All friends shall taste
The wages of their virtue, and all foes
The cup of their deservings.

(v. 3. 304)

The close conjunction points up the futility of Albany's neat and tidy summing up. The play thus presumes to jest with the very sense of justice upon which high tragedy is premised. King Lear is philosophically and logically self-contradictory, and morally unrealistic. One can perhaps say, structurally, how the incident of Cordelia's death fits in, how it fulfils certain dramatic requirements. But that is not yet an answer: it would only mean that Shakespeare was not much of a playwright, to have backed himself into a corner such that dramatic demands were in irreconcilable conflict with other, no less important, imperatives.

Cordelia's death is wrong from the point of view of a moral world-view; this could mean that King Lear is attempting to show something about that world-view. The plot of the play is organized around the failed expectation of justice. There is, therefore, a vacuum of proper justice in the play, even at the end. For example, Edmund attempts to redeem himself, but is not allowed to learn that he has failed, he is carried off just as Lear enters with Cordelia. That is to say, the play does not allow him to be punished. Moreover, the play itself conceives of its action in terms of justice: the just deserts of king, father, brother, sister. No one ever fully merits their tragedy: in the economy of tragedy, one always pays too much, but not for nothing. Tragedy is a world of the run-away inflation of suffering, but conventionally never of infinite inflation. Cordelia's death is not right in the sense of violating the closure, the sense of ending. The moral world of King Lear does not make sense. The eventual triumph of Edgar and Kent goes some way towards filling this void. But how does this triumph come about? Kent is a passenger in the play; and Edgar's transformation from being on the run for four Acts to a man of action, countering Edmund's letter with one of his own and issuing an anonymous challenge, is sudden and rather easy to say the least. Whatever reservations one may have about the last scenes, however, Tate's infamous rewriting of Lear is judged less ‘right’ still.

Cordelia's death is only senseless if we add up the incidents in the play and ask where the justice is in that. Of course it could be that Shakespeare's vision of the moral world, both human and cosmic, is that desire and chance govern all, not exchange, justice, or fairness. But this just sounds like the ravings of a misanthropic old cynic. And even if true, this is only half an explanation, because it fails to make such a moral vision assert itself, fails to demonstrate its validity. King Lear is thus a play with no redeeming features, nothing to teach us.

My claim is that this senselessness is recuperated by the ‘narrative argument’ of the play. Perhaps the play is not pessimistic at all. Cordelia says,

We are not the first
Who with best meaning have incurred the worst.
For thee, oppressèd King, I am cast down;
Myself could else out-frown false fortune's frown.

(v. 3. 3)

This parallels almost exactly her earlier lines:

It is no vicious blot, murder, or foulness,
No unchaste action or dishonoured step,
That hath deprived me of your grace and favour;
But even for want of that for which I am richer,
A still-soliciting eye, and such a tongue
That I am glad I have not, though not to have it
Hath lost me in your liking.

(I. 1. 229)

Cordelia affirms her actions, would do it all again, though she and Lear have been defeated, and there is no reason to believe she would falter knowing death awaited her, for her character has shown no lack of moral courage thus far. Lear tells her ‘Upon such sacrifices, my Cordelia, / The Gods themselves throw incense.’ (v. 3. 20-21). Indeed, if her character has a flaw, it is precisely in a surplus of such courage, but in none of the conventional ways does the play acknowledge the fact. Indeed, the last lines, in their echo of the action of the opening scene, affirm the contrary. Cordelia's words:

If for I want that glib and oily art
To speak and purpose not, since what I well intend
I'll do't before I speak.

(I. 1. 226)

find echo in Edgar's:

The weight of this sad time we must obey,
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.

(v. 3. 326)

It is necessary that Cordelia die, so that what she affirms is not just another truism, not just a moral rule of thumb or code of feminine virtue. This is a play about affirmation, about huge lives of mythic status that are worth the living regardless of the return on investment, about heroic endurance in the face of irredeemable pain. What other meaning can the last lines have, spoken by Edgar, immediately after those just quoted:

The oldest have borne most; we that are young
Shall never see so much, nor live so long.

(v. 3. 328)

Virtue leads forthrightly to destruction, and yet is demanded of us morally, is goodness itself.

That, of course, is foolishness. No logic can demonstrate the value of absolute loss; no moral philosophy face me with a plausible demand for virtue unto destruction. However plausible the above may be as a reading of the necessity of the death of Cordelia, as an interpretation and moral insight which is separable from the play, it will never move or inspire anyone, or make them think ‘how true’, when separated from the play. There must be the dramatized narrative, irreducible to the structural or semiotic moments which make it up, which does not simply work to hold paradoxes together in a kind of meaningless if exciting tension, but transforms and transcends them.

If the play could be read unambiguously as ‘false fortune’ or, in more modern terms, as a moral tale, then its orientation towards its end must indeed be a mode of understanding. In addition to the death of Cordelia, which I have already treated, consider the profound ambiguity of fate in this play. Fate or Fortune is a common enough stand-in for a higher hand guiding events into intelligible patterns. Certainly, the final scenes are rich with allusion to fate, fortune, the gods, and so forth. One might be forgiven for taking all this at face value. However, the fool's topsy-turvy ‘prophecy’ of Albion's ‘confusion’ at the end of III. 2 sets the tone for a set of games Shakespeare plays with his audience. The fool's speech is not a prophecy, both because part is already true, and because part will never be true (if cutpurses do not cut purses then they would not be cutpurses), and the evocation of Merlin is similarly paradoxical. The point seems to be that it is madness and true confusion to try to see grand patterns of progress or decay in events.

Gloucester's evocation of eclipses as evil portents works similarly:

These late eclipses of the sun and moon portend no good to us. Though the wisdom of Nature can reason it thus and thus, yet Nature finds itself scourged by the sequent effects.

(I. 2. 112)

That an eclipse should be reasoned ‘thus and thus’ (that is, predicted and explained by astronomers) and yet should also ‘portend’ is not strictly speaking impossible. But it at least changes the nature of such signs, and certainly makes Edmund's subsequent claim that it is ‘excellent foppery’ highly plausible. There were no mention of eclipses at the beginning of the play. Portents are seen when the portended is already present.

In addition, consider Edmund's point in the ‘excellent foppery’ speech:

This is the excellent foppery of the world, that when we are sick in fortune, often the surfeits of our own behaviour, we make guilty of our disasters the sun, the moon, and stars; as if we were villains on necessity.

(I. 2. 128)

He goes on to assert that his ‘rough and lecherous’ nature (his fixed disposition) should be what it is ‘had the maidenliest star in the firmament twinkled on my bastardising’. Interestingly, true to his ‘psychological’ analysis of fate, Edmund indeed credits fortune with any real significance only at the precise moment when events blow against him: ‘The wheel is come full circle’ (v. 3. 176). Similarly, he subsequently even reaffirms that he has a ‘nature’, but in exactly the same moment as acting ‘despite’ it, to try to save Cordelia:

I pant for life: some good I mean to do,
Despite of mine own nature.

(v. 3. 245)

Finally, as we have already seen, there is a patent ludicrousness about the neat balancing of justice in Albany's summing up speeches. Thus, the play refuses to allow its reader or audience to settle down to an interpretation of its basic cosmology. King Lear is continually surprising us at a more radical level that any mere plot twist. That both Lear (on a literal reading of the text) and Gloucester, who lived through the most terrible sorrows, should die both in and (at least in one case) of joy is a final perverse irony. It is an almost grotesque parody of the conventional ritual of the cosmically decreed dispensation of justice in the final scenes of tragedy.

However, all this makes sense if we read the play as a cathartic, singular affirmation of and by Cordelia. For were there an unambiguous pattern of fate, then that affirmation would be pointless,12 and the reverse: if the language of fate were entirely discredited, then Cordelia's actions and end would present no problems at all. The play as a whole would be easily assimilable to those interpretations which would like to take away from it a straight-forward dramatization of and commentary on political or social issues. The deaths of Lear and Gloucester can finally be seen as powerful symbols of the play's cathartic and redemptive power. This is very explicit in the language at v. 3. 200-04 and 314, where the Aristotelian language of pity is evoked precisely with respect to that apparently cruelly ironic joy.

If the analysis of King Lear is convincing—if its very integrity appears logically as non-sense, then the orientation-towards-an-end exhibited by this tragedy is available only internally. Such a drama is providing something like a philosophical ‘argument’ in narrative form, an argument which, for the above reasons, can only be provided in this form. We can just about understand the result of the argument separately from the narrative, but not feel its force, not be convinced by it. That is, it is possible for there to be what we have called a ‘narrative argument’ if and only if the traditional interpretation of the teleology and internal structure of narrative is shown to have as its condition of possibility a certain disruption of teleology and structure, which we have discussed here using concepts such as ‘event’, ‘surprise’, and ‘original ambiguity’. In this way literature can be uniquely philosophical.


  1. This is apparently how Emmanuel Levinas is using the idea of narrative at the beginning of ‘Language and Proximity’, in Collected Philosophical Papers, trans. by Alphonso Lingis (Dordrecht: Kluwer, 1993).

  2. Nichomachean Ethics, 1105b 5-10.

  3. Compare Kant's discussion of ‘culturing’ in Critique of Judgement, §50, which similarly does not deny immediacy (trans. by J. C. Meredith (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1952), p. 183).

  4. This ‘as’ which is not mere similitude is a constant theme in Paul Ricoeur, The Rule of Metaphor, trans. by Robert Czerny, Kathleen McLaughlin, and John Costello (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1977). Ricoeur develops his thesis, as I do here, through a phenomenology of reading in Time and Narrative, trans. by Kathleen Blamey and David Pellauer, 3 vols (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988); see III, Chapter 7.

  5. An historically minded philosopher such as MacIntyre would claim that such a universality is possible within the Greek world because of an already shared sense of the virtues, rooted in communal life. Thus, there is no claim on me as a member of the audience, because I am already claimed, already, that is, convinced. Thus my reading of Aristotle is, at best, anachronistic. But at least in Oedipus the King, I claim, something quite different is happening. There, Sophocles seems to be writing about the new virtues of what was for him a fairly recent Greek humanism. In that play, the goal cannot be merely to fine tune an audience's virtue, but to create it.

  6. Even this claim is complicated by, for example, Burroughs or Cortazar as novelists, and Lynch (in Lost Highway) as a film-maker.

  7. Most clearly now, the third concept of narrative is influenced by Kant's Endlichkeit ohne Ende in the Critique of Judgement, (see in particular, §10-11). See my papers discussing these points: ‘The Buck Stops Here: Deconstruction and the Regression of Authorisation’, Pli: The Warwick Journal of Philosophy (Summer 1997), 96-110; and ‘Aura and Sublimity in Kant’, Art, Criticism and Theory, forthcoming.

  8. Here, this paper is most clearly and unapologetically neo-Kantian, although its results could not be less Kantian.

  9. Obviously, one ought to think here of Plato's Phaedrus and the dissemination of the text among readers for whom it was never intended, and for whom it was always impossible for it to be intended. Speech too might be overheard, or passed on. This is not defect of language, rather its condition and purpose.

  10. Christ's Passion is a similar narrative, involving similar paradoxes and analogous moral truths.

  11. King Lear, Arden Shakespeare, third series, ed. by R. A. Foakes (Walton-on-Thames: Nelson 1997).

  12. Although see my ‘Time as Chaos: Nietzsche and Mann in the Mountains’, in Proteus, or Metamorphosis (Leicester: Scolar Press, forthcoming in 2000) for a Nietzschean reading of the conjunction of necessity, affirmation, and chance.

Paul W. Kahn (essay date 2000)

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Last Updated on February 5, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 13274

SOURCE: “Love's Trials,” in Law and Love: The Trials of King Lear, Yale University Press, 2000, pp. 1-28.

[In the following essay, Kahn posits that at the center of King Lear is a treatise on the exclusivity of love and political power.]

Love and political power are central themes of King Lear. In the course of the play, Lear moves from power to love and back to power. The tragic action of the play is brought on by efforts to breach the separation between love and power, to mold power by love, or to infuse love with power. But what is appropriate for love is inappropriate for power, and what is appropriate for power is inappropriate for love. Man must die to power if he is to love purely. Or he must restrain love if he is to rule effectively. This, in the most abstract and summary form, is the philosophical and moral vision that the play explores.1

Lear's plan as the play opens reflects an ambition to unite love and power. He will accomplish this union by means of a public trial of his daughters' love. Each daughter must stand before the whole of the court and give a public proclamation of the extent of her love for her father. If she proves her love, she will be rewarded with a part of the state. The two older daughters succeed and receive their allotted portions. Cordelia, whom Lear loves most and for whom he has planned the finest share of the kingdom, fails. She wants to love silently, to say “nothing” at her trial. When Lear forces her to speak, she speaks poorly by the king's measure. She tells him that she loves “according to her bond” and that he cannot be the sole object of her love. This is not enough for the king. He banishes her and distributes her third to his other daughters. The king of France, who finds himself enthralled by Cordelia, saves her from Lear's effort to render her nothing.

The opening scene of the play, which has given rise to so many puzzles of interpretation, is not fully understood if it is described only as a “test” of the daughters. Such a test seems not only inappropriate but offensive. Why would Lear do it? This question, however, is usually asked from a perspective that sees Lear only as a father, not as a king. Every father may want to have his daughters proclaim the fullness of their love, but most are insightful enough to see this ambition as psychologically immature and potentially destructive. If, however, we keep in mind that Lear is not just a father but also a king, we see that the opening scene represents the paradigmatic legal act: a trial. Understanding this scene as a trial may not make Lear's actions seem more appropriate—it is not an excuse for his behavior—but it opens up a complex set of problems around which the play is organized.


The question of love's relationship to law is foreshadowed in the brief banter between Kent and Gloucester that opens the play. Kent is Lear's most faithful and loving subject. He more than anyone should know the measure of the king's love. His opening line speaks of the appearance of Lear's love: “I thought the King had more affected the Duke of Albany than Cornwall.” But if kings love, they nevertheless should not let the scale of love's affection affect their deployment of power. And Lear has not. Gloucester answers Kent that while this might be true of Lear's love—“It did always seem so to us”—that fact did not enter into Lear's proposed division of the kingdom. Under this division, “it appears not which of the dukes he values most.” For a wise king, equality at law trumps affection.2 Already we see that love cannot be directly translated into law. Lear may love Albany more than Cornwall, but to express that inequality in law would be to ignore law's own necessities.

Gloucester and Kent turn from a consideration of Lear's children's inheritance to that of Gloucester's own children. Gloucester too is trying to bridge the gulf between law and love. His bastard son, Edmund, is by his side; Edgar, his absent son, is nevertheless present through law: “I have a son, Sir, by order of law, some year elder than this” (I, i, 18-19). Gloucester says he loves his two sons equally: Neither is “any dearer in my account.” Law's order, however, grants Edgar the exclusive right to inherit within the House of Gloucester. Which—law or love—is the basis upon which an account is to be made?

Gloucester concludes that “the whoreson must be acknowledged.” But what kind of a “must” is this? Gloucester, the loyal subject, has no power to make new law. He says that he has previously overcome shame to “acknowledge” Edmund as his son. He has done this so often that he is now “brazed” to it. This is the public display of a father's private affection. Yet, we suspect that this acknowledgment has been less than Gloucester claims, for Edmund has not been present: “He hath been out nine years, and away he shall again” (31-32). Gloucester must acknowledge his legal son, Edgar, even in his absence. Does he similarly acknowledge Edmund in his absence? Would Gloucester even speak of equal entitlements were Edgar present? Given what we are about to learn of Edmund's hatred for his father, we imagine that banishment—much more than acknowledgment—has been Edmund's fate.

Law can make present those who are absent. Law's presence is inscribed in property, which can be seen by all even in the absence of the owner.3 Indeed, law's power over property extends beyond death. Thus, both Lear and Gloucester are contemplating a use of law to order relations among their children after their deaths. Love has substantially less power to make the absent beloved visible. Love is not inscribed in property. Sacrifice, not ownership, makes love visible.4 Gloucester may be unwilling to sacrifice much for Edmund. When Edmund is absent, he may lack presence both in law and in his father's affection.

Gloucester does not know how to solve the problem created by the “whoreson.” He can acknowledge Edmund's presence by affirming his affection for him, but he has no means of acknowledging him at law. Edmund is deeply aware of the conflict within which his father labors. Hence his chilling response to Kent's polite profession of love: “I shall study deserving” (30). Indeed, he will. He “knows” that he deserves no less from his father than Edgar deserves. He must reorder the public scale—law's valuation of the whoreson—to make it match the order of affection. Father and son seem to agree on this need for reevaluation. Nevertheless, Gloucester would send him away again, out of the public realm. This is exactly expressed by Gloucester: “Away he shall again. The King is coming” (31-32). When Lear enters, Edmund must exit. He can have no presence before the legitimate source of law: Lear. When he is next in Lear's presence, it will be to order the King's murder. (See V, iii.)


Lear, no less than Gloucester, wants to reorder the public scale of deserving. He too seeks to bridge law and love. That Lear may have a king's power to work toward accomplishing this end does not make it any less problematic. Thus, on entering the stage, Lear immediately announces his “darker purpose.” It is darker not because it has been hidden. Indeed, it was immediately visible to Gloucester and Kent at the play's opening. What he intended to do, including the exact divisions he planned, was public knowledge. It is “darker” because it violates the principles of public order. In it we “smell a fault,” to use Gloucester's vivid expression about his own relationship to Edmund (I, i, 15).

Lear, we must not forget—although he seems to—is the king. In his person he embodies the whole of the state. His body is the mystical corpus of the state.5 Because he is one and indivisible, so too is the state. Yet, immediately after speaking of his “darker purpose,” Lear asks for the map and pronounces: “Know that we have divided / In three our kingdom” (36-37). Not only would he divide the kingdom geographically among his daughters, he would also divide the office of the king with his sons-in-law.

If kings embody the geographic, temporal, and political unity of the state, then Lear is a problematic king from the very beginning of the play. The map is a divisible representation of the kingdom in a way that the king's body is not.6 Projecting the kingdom onto the map, Lear attempts to depoliticize his own body. No longer the mystical political body of a unitary king but the singular body of a beloved father is to hold together the divided kingdom.

Love forms a unity out of a plurality within a family. A father can love and be loved by all of his children. Lear would project this unity of familial love onto the geography of his kingdom. Loving him, each daughter is to be satisfied with her allotted portion of the realm. But if love for the father is to keep the political divisions of the kingdom from falling into conflict, what will sustain the unity of the state once Lear dies?7 We have already seen that love without physical presence is a very weak political force.

Yet, in the end Lear does not entirely depoliticize himself. He does not abdicate; he retains the title of king.8 He cannot wholly shed his position as king and be just a father. By holding onto his title, Lear establishes a competition between two very different representations of the kingdom: the king's body and the map. The conflict is present in the very sentence he utters: “We have divided … the kingdom.” The unity of the royal “we” purports to divide the whole, which is itself. After Lear's death, the divided whole will be held together only by the unity of the map. A map, however, can always be redrawn.

To seek to divide the kingdom is indeed to pursue a “darker purpose.” It threatens multiple injustices. The kingdom is denied the unitary king that it needs if it is to avoid civil war. The eldest child is not getting the whole that she deserves by law. Finally, Lear is being unjust to himself as king.9 By denying himself the power to rule, he undermines the kingship. All of these injustices stem from a common source: Lear's love of his daughters. Determined to do what Gloucester could not do—acknowledge at law his feelings of paternal love—he creates confusion over who and what he is. Is he a loving father or a ruling king? He wants to be both at once, but instead he quickly ends up a king in name but without rule, and a father in name but without love.

Lear's plan of succession and division is hatched out of anticipation of his own death. Even a king must die. But how does a king die? In part, he dies like anyone else, leaving behind his children. Like all parents, Lear seeks in his children both the peace of old age and the continuation of himself. Seeing that he must soon die, he sees himself a mere man. He would “crawl toward death,” having stripped himself of “all cares and business” (38-40). He hopes to find a father's solace in his most loved and loving daughter's “kind nursery.” Lear's capacity to imagine his own death disrupts his idea of himself as the deathless monarch.

Yet kings cannot simply crawl toward death, shedding power as nature renders them helpless. If death is natural, then kings lead unnatural deaths, just as they live unnatural lives. The mystical corpus that is simultaneously the king and the state never dies. Lear is not yet dead in his person, but already he is dividing the kingdom as if the deathless king had died. If love and death form a pair, then so do law and deathlessness. As the timeless corpus of the state, the king cannot love. Lear loves too much.10

If men dream of being kings, perhaps kings dream of being men. Lear would reorder the public scale—law's valuation of the eldest child's claim—to make it match the love he feels toward each of his daughters. A father's heart, however, is not the stuff out of which to create the public order of law. Just as Gloucester's family disturbance comes from loving the whoreson and the legal son equally, Lear's comes from loving the youngest even more than the eldest.11

Lear's ambition makes sense only if law and love can form a unity. Is a law founded on love any more possible than a love founded on law? We have reason to doubt this, even before the play explores the question in any depth.12 Law cannot command love. Lear can marry his daughters to dukes and kings, but he cannot command them to love them. It is just our worry about this incompatibility of law and love that makes us uneasy with Lear's public trial of his daughter's love. We feel the public command directed at love is self-contradictory: it destroys its own object. Conversely, can love command law? A law infused with love would, we suspect, not be law at all. Law, for example, can allow mercy to extend only so far before the legal order is wholly undermined.

Lear can be king or he can be loving father. He cannot be both at once. To those wholly within the grip of law, a loving king looks mad. To a loving king, law looks mad.13 By the end, we will experience Lear's madness from both of these perspectives. Nevertheless, Lear is not mad at first. He would occupy this position between law and love willfully—that is, as king. He is driven mad by the necessities of a situation that he brings upon himself.

Lear's tragedy is rooted, then, in his effort to align his private and public selves, his identity as loving father and royal sovereign. He wants to make the public order of the realm reflect his private order of love. Lear is not just a troubled father; he is always “every inch a king” (IV, vi, 107). What is at stake is not psychology but political psychology: the soul of man in its political necessities.14


The transition from private experience to the public order is always dangerous. The transition is often protected by ritual—for example, the traditional coronation ceremony, through which the private body becomes the corpus of the state.15 More commonly, the place and manner of transition is the trial. Every trial is a process/ritual through which a private event, act, or person is made to show itself publicly so that it may be subject to law's order. The trial gives a public meaning of law to what appeared at first to be merely private. Trials extend the domain of law within the kingdom, just as war extends the external borders of the kingdom.

The transitional function of the trial accounts for the multiple trials that occur throughout the play.16 In the opening scene, Lear commands his daughters' participation in a public trial. The power of the state puts on trial their love of their father. Gloucester will shortly sit as judge in a trial of Edgar's love. A mad Lear will later retry Goneril and Regan. Gloucester will suffer a trial at the hands of Regan and Cornwall. The ambition of each trial is to reorder the public domain—literally to reconfigure public space—by taking up into itself a “prepolitical” nature that is revealed in the course of the proceedings. The play ends with a trial by combat in which the “true” natures of Edmund and Edgar are revealed and brought within the reconstituted order of the state.

We might think of these trials today as various forms of “show trials.” They do not satisfy our belief that the aim of a trial must be the discovery of truth through the application of neutral rules of evidence. Nevertheless, the show trial makes vivid the transitional function of every trial. When we derogate its quality as merely “show,” we mean that the political ideology on display is not our ideal of law's rule and that the trial performance is different from that which operates in our own trials. Yet we, too, want our trials to show forth the character of our political space. We, too, expect, at the end of a trial, a reevaluation of private interests and private actors in light of our political values.17

In King Lear, love initially appears to be natural. It arises before law and independently of it. A trial is to reveal the truth of nature to the power of the state and so allow the alignment of love and law. Lear expresses this ambition quite precisely:

                                                  Tell me my daughters
.....Which of you shall we say doth love us most?
That we our largest bounty may extend
Where nature doth with merit challenge.

(I, i, 47-52)

Lear poses the issue as one of public speech. His speech as king must be made to match the daughters' natural love, and thus depends upon the making public of the daughters' private natures. This speech will be both the conclusion and the consequence of the trial. It will transform the nature revealed at trial into a permanent, public display of law's order, objectified in the distribution of property—literally the kingdom itself.18

Lear would create a public law that is the visible expression of his love for his daughters and of their love for him. But before law can express love, love must express itself to law. This is the point of the trial: to force a public appearance of love's order, which is the order of the soul. Lear does not look to his own soul to accomplish law's end. He looks to the public display of a trial. He is still the king, not merely a father. As king, he is bound to the trial, even as he watches it fail his ambition as loving father. The tools of state—in particular, the trial—are not capable of mapping love onto the public order of law.

A trial is never a spontaneous act of speech. It is always speech directed by, and infused with, political power. The trial assumes that there is a fact of the matter, which will be revealed in the course of the proceedings. It is intended to be a showing-forth of that which has been hidden from public perception. Its hope is to reveal nature to power, if we understand nature to be that which exists before the application of the public order of law. But just by virtue of the fact that the trial is always power reaching out to cross the divide between itself and nature, it can never see nature pure. What it sees already reflects the power of law itself.

A trial, therefore, can mislead just as much as it can reveal. Indeed, the trial creates an opportunity for false representations to have a political impact. Despite the fact that we are aware of this—an awareness brought home to Lear by Kent—law is bound to the appearance. It has no independent way of measuring what is said. Lear cannot stage yet another trial to measure the truth of the appearances brought forth in the first trial. A trial ordinarily does not begin until after a commitment has been made to abide by its conclusion. Once it is set in motion, there is no way to reject its outcome without undermining the public order.19

Cordelia and her sisters may create false appearances of love within the circumscribed space of the trial. Yet Lear as king cannot penetrate the boundaries of the trial. Law would see nature, but in the end it cannot see further than the appearance of nature it commands: that is, the testimony at trial.

Having staged the trial, Lear is bound to its results. He can encourage Cordelia to “mend [her] speech a little,” but he cannot turn away from public speech to what he already knows as a loving father.20 Lear is passing sentence on the characters that appear in the trial. He is not rewarding the children for a lifetime of devotion to their father. He can warn Cordelia: “Nothing will come of nothing: speak again” (89). But he cannot save her from the judgment of law. From the king's point of view, Cordelia failed at trial. She must endure law's response. And so must he.

The trials begin with Goneril announcing the tension between public speech and love: “Sir, I love you more than word can wield the matter” (54). She understands that speech is a poor substitute for love. But this creates an opportunity, as well as a problem. The love—or its absence—is hidden. Goneril is playing the part that Lear has cast for her. In the drama that is the trial, she is asked by Lear to hold up an appearance of love. She does so. Hearing what he wants to hear, Lear need go no further in order to make a disposition.

To ask whether Goneril's words represent the truth of her love is to make a category mistake. Since these are the first words spoken by Goneril in the play, we cannot really know whether they are true or false. Indeed, this distinction may not even be apparent to the trial participant. For this reason, we should not think that Lear's trials somehow fail their purpose because they lack an opportunity for cross-examination. At every point in a trial, the problem of speaking to power re-creates itself. No procedural innovation can assure a coincidence of language and nature. Asking more of Goneril would not get us closer to the truth. Would Lear have been happier with a more “truthful” report that denied love and thus undermined his plan for the division of the kingdom? The king must hear what the king would hear.

Just as the audience knows about these characters only what the play reveals, so Lear's vision is limited by the appearances of the trial. Neither he nor the audience can go behind it. A trial is a play staged by the politically powerful, in which the judge's sentence at the end bridges the little drama of the trial and the larger drama of the state.21 Indeed, Lear's power as judge becomes more ferocious the less he sees. To see again, he will have to overcome law through his own experience of love outside of law.22

Kings must speak in order to rule. Speaking, they can only react to what has already been said. This creates the risk inherent in every trial. The more powerful the authority, the less it will open a space for risk. The show trial and the plea bargain both minimize risk. But if power is to be extended, not all risk can be eliminated. A trial is a speaking by others in order to determine what the king should say. The king, however, can never know whether he is acting on true or on false speech. Because the players in the trial are themselves autonomous subjects, they can turn the trial process to their own ends. For this reason, power's display at trial is always a moment of vulnerability.23 Lear would use his daughters, but perhaps his older daughters are using him. They seize the opportunity that the trial creates.

Accordingly, the stability of political rule cannot be rooted in its correspondence with a nature beyond the domain of law. That nature cannot appear directly to law. Law can only construct for itself an image of nature. Law's stability, if it is to exist at all, must be built from within the domain of political power. By juxtaposing law and love, the play throws into question any assumptions we may have had about a natural order of politics. What is natural to the state is not a prepolitical nature, but the demands of political necessity.

Goneril's words are false as a representation of herself but not of love. They, in fact, provide a fair representation of Cordelia. Words are detachable from their referent in just this manner. This is the point that Regan makes immediately after hearing Goneril's speech. She states: “In my true heart / I find she names my very deed of love” (69-70). Whatever we may think of her “true heart,” she is pointing out that the relationship between names and the objects named is never carried on the surface of the words themselves. Just as Goneril told us that love is beyond speech, Regan tells us that the words of speech have an indeterminate relationship to the object named. If law is dependent upon the spoken word, then it is incapable of really seeing the “true heart.”

“Sir, I love you more than word can wield the matter.” Goneril says this; Regan claims it. It is, however, precisely Cordelia's problem. Cordelia sees this immediately and follows Goneril's speech with an aside: “What shall Cordelia speak? Love, and be silent” (61). Cordelia's voiced silence announces that she will not take the first step from love into law's ordering. When Cordelia does finally speak, she offers only an empty image of what law seeks to discover. She says “I cannot heave / My heart into my mouth: I love your Majesty / According to my bond; no more nor less” (90-92). But exactly how much is this? Her speech reveals nothing; it provides no prepolitical nature for law to judge.

Goneril continues her speech with a description that appears in retrospect to set out a fair approximation of what lies ahead for Cordelia:

Dearer than eye-sight, space and liberty;
Beyond what can be valued rich or rare;
No less than life, with grace, health, beauty, honour;
As much as child e'er lov'd, or father found;
A love that makes breath poor and speech unable.


Cordelia will be exiled from this space, she will be disinherited; and in the end, she will lose her life. Her love for her father is “dearer” than all of this. It endures despite these losses. Of course, to read Goneril's speech in this way is to approach it with hindsight. We know none of this yet. But this is just the point. From the words themselves, we cannot tell anything about their truth as representations.

Understood as a trial, the opening scene introduces a familiar problem. We may know what words are required at trial—what should be said—without knowing whether they are said by or about the right person or action. A trial can dissolve into a “swearing match” in which the parties agree on the description that is a predicate to a legal right, while each makes opposing claims to be the bearer of that description. The trial becomes a set piece—a predictable discourse—that may be impenetrable to the truth. This is not just the problem of trials, but the problem of power generally. How does a king know whom to trust? How can he tell who is just mouthing the words of loyalty and who is really loyal? Knowing what they are expected to say, all who approach the king appear equal. They say the same things. Some, however, are only flatterers and sycophants; some would sacrifice everything for the king.24 With Kent's introjection, this problem is introduced into the very midst of the trial.


Kent's description of himself tracks almost exactly Cordelia's description of her love for her father.25 Kent says:

Royal Lear,
Whom I have ever honour'd as my King,
Lov'd as my father, as my master follow'd,
As my great patron thought on in my prayers.

(I, i, 138-41)

Cordelia had just said of her own relationship to her father: “Obey you, love you and most honour you.” Obedience, love, and honor link them both to Lear: one as child, the other as subject. The subject is like a child to his ruler; the king is father to his subjects. Nature and law are parallel and reinforcing. Of course, just as there are good and bad children, there are good and bad subjects. Not surprisingly, Lear has the same problem identifying the good subject that he has in seeing the good daughter.

Despite their common love for Lear, there is a fundamental difference between Kent and Cordelia. The private love of a daughter is not the public love of a subject. Indeed, one seems incapable of a public performance, while the other seems without a private life. Kent is the only person in the play who is wholly and completely a public person. He has no competing private domain of family. When he takes up a secret life, disguised as Caius, the life he pursues is the same public service to Lear that he has always pursued. Banished by Lear, he cannot leave him. He must remain attached to Lear, even if it means his death: “My life I never held but as a pawn / To wage against thine enemies” (154-55).

Kent is the model of the trustworthy subject. Loving only Lear, he is incapable of malevolent deceptions. At the very end of the play, when Lear dies, Kent says he must follow. He has no life apart from Lear. Kent's presence and the parallel between him and Cordelia make an important point: Love is possible within the public domain. Lear's ambition to bring love into the public order is not simply a mistake of confusing what should be private with what must be public. Indeed, at the end of the play we will see that love of the father has a critical role to play in providing support for a stable political order. Nevertheless, the tools of law—trial and judgment—are not themselves capable of discovering, creating, or managing love.

The opposition of love and power is not quite so sharp as we might expect, then, if we saw only Cordelia and Lear. It may be possible to live with love, and therefore to live wholly and completely, within the state. Kent's love for Lear fills his life. It gives all of his actions their meaning. A state constituted wholly by Kents would be entirely secure against internal revolt. It would, nevertheless, be short-lived. It would not reproduce itself.26 Kent has no family. Were he to have one, his complete love for Lear would no longer be possible.

Kent speaks spontaneously and directly out of his love. This is not speech directed by power, but speech directed at power. Nevertheless, Lear perceives it not as a warning and disclosure of his own error, but as an insult to power. Kent says “Think'st thou that duty shall have dread to speak / When power to flattery bows?” (146-47). Again, the problem is not quite so easy as it appears to Kent, who believes he knows the truth and can speak plainly.

How is Lear to tell the difference between flattery and duty, between the deceptive appearance of love and love itself? Having staged the trial, Lear is no longer free to label the public proclamations of love by Goneril and Regan mere flattery and Cordelia's silence true love. Just as he cannot distinguish flattery from love, he cannot distinguish arrogance from honesty. Is Kent honest or merely arrogant? Flattery is endemic to the circumstances of those who wield power, just because false speech does not announce itself as such. Does arrogant speech similarly disguise itself as honesty?27

To speak honestly to a king, one must be a “fool.” This is, indeed, the Fool's role. But if the Fool would speak honestly, he cannot speak “plainly.” Kent speaks plainly, and thus foolishly, to Lear. The result is that he is banished.

Lear cannot see Kent plainly because plain seeing is not in the nature of a king. He sees only what he can and must see. Kent pleads, “See better, Lear; and let me still remain / The true blank of thine eye” (157-58). But if Lear were to see only as Kent sees, he would no longer be king. The king holds forth a different world in which he creates what can and cannot be seen. Thus Lear says to Kent, “Out of my sight.” The king's sight is a product of his power, not the source of it. He does not simply see what is. He sees only what he allows within his domain. This is the world built by power and maintained by law.28

The Fool alone is allowed to exist at the border of that realm and remind the king that there is a world on the other side. The Fool's position, however, remains a privilege granted by the king. If the Fool's spoken truths appear as mere arrogance, the privilege will be withdrawn.29

Kent would be Lear's physician: “Kill thy physician, and the fee bestow / Upon the foul disease” (162-63). But is Lear ill? He is in one sense, because he is trying to use power in a way that power cannot be used. His illness is, in other words, political. This, however, is just the kind of error for which we have no physicians. There is no expert in the care of the state, as there may be in the care of the body. There cannot be, because there is no way to measure, before the fact, the difference between flattery and love, arrogance and honesty, or false appearance and truth. Watching this opening display for the first time, we cannot know who loves and who does not, who is honest and who is not. We cannot know because political power can create its own truths. Politically, the flatterer may serve the king as well as the lover does.

Lear, therefore, rejects the would-be physician, identifying precisely the problem with Kent's pretension. It is, he says, “pride” on the part of Kent to try to “come betwixt our sentence and our power” (169). For a king pronouncing judgment after a trial, what is important is that words match power, not that power match some prepolitical truth.

Indeed, truth appears to be “nothing” at all. Lear says to the recalcitrant Cordelia, “thy truth then be thy dower” (107). This statement follows upon his pronouncement that “Nothing will come of nothing.” Truth is not the coin of this realm.30

In itself, truth is as nothing in the domain of power. A king cannot announce that he has not been serious about the process of law whenever he does not like the outcome.31 The king's truth is only that which is sustained by the power of his law. Before Lear can deal in a prepolitical truth, he must be stripped of his power. The heath, not the castle, is the domain of truth. Sight will replace speech on the heath. Lear will see more and more, until at last the power of his speech is reduced to the expression of forgiveness.

Both Cordelia and Kent appear to Lear to be acting from pride when they resist his commands. Love cannot appear other than prideful to Lear, because it claims its own completeness. Having no need of power, it can speak—or remain silent—at its own direction. To see this refusal to speak as independently valuable, rather than as an offense to power, requires seeing outside of the political. This is true even for the one who is the object of this love.

It is the arrogance of love to take no offense from the abuses of power. Love and law are complete opposites here. A king must measure the subject's words and actions. Love, as even Goneril knew, is beyond speech and indifferent to action. Thus, Cordelia and Kent are both indifferent to their mistreatment by Lear. Their love endures because it is already complete. This cannot but appear as a sin of pride to those in the grip of power.32 Accordingly, Goneril, the oldest sister, lectures Cordelia: “You have obedience scanted.” And Regan tells Cordelia “Prescribe not us our duty.” Both of them purport to know their duty. They tell Cordelia: “Let your study / Be to content your lord” (275-77). Cordelia, who has just said that when she marries, “That lord whose hand must take my plight shall carry / Half my love with him, half my care and duty” (100-101), is being told that she does not know how to act as a wife—or, for that matter, as a daughter. She knows love, but not duty.33

Goneril and Regan, the successful participants in the trial of love, view Cordelia as Lear views Kent. They believe that Cordelia has failed in a duty prescribed by political power. Both Cordelia and Kent failed to speak as power demanded. The conflict here is not between good and evil but between love and power. Love can be foolish: Gloucester's love for Edmund, for example, or, later, the sisters' competitive love for Edmund. Power can be good: Lear's reign before this trial produced a kingdom represented as a virtual Eden. (See 63-64.) The antinomies in the play are never simple, because, fundamentally, a person spans both worlds. We can abandon neither law nor love. But can we put the two together and live a single life, whole and complete? Can love inform law? The trial's effort to reach such an end fails. At its conclusion, love is banished from the kingdom.

Lear's power—the power of a king—is a power to name. At the end of a trial, the king names the guilty and the innocent. This is a power to call things not as they are in themselves, but as they will be seen within the state. Lear claims this power for himself: “Only we shall retain / The name, and all th'addition to a king” (134-35). Holding on to the name of king is a metonym for holding on to this power to name. This is what Lear refers to when he links, just a little later, “our sentence and our power.” The king's power makes real within the political order that which he names. But love is beyond the king's power to name. What cannot be named, cannot be controlled by law.

With the introduction of Cordelia's suitors—France and Burgundy—we see the full fury of this battle between a silent love and a naming power. Lear, who cannot force love to speak, claims the power of law to destroy. He tells Burgundy of Cordelia's new state: “by the power that made me, / I tell you all her wealth.” He then goes on to describe Cordelia as “a wretch whom Nature is asham'd / Almost t'acknowledge hers” (206-12). By naming her “as a stranger,” he claims the power to make nature itself ashamed of her. No longer his daughter by law, she is not to appear as his natural daughter either.

The extent of Lear's power to name and thus to make real is immediately exposed in the contrasting reactions of France and Burgundy to Cordelia's new state of “nothing.” Burgundy and France represent two kinds of love, both of which have already made an appearance in the play. For Burgundy, love is only an element within the construction of political power. He has come to Lear's court not as a private suitor but as himself a king. He has relied on Lear's representations that he will dower his daughter. Burgundy wants no more but no less “than hath your Highness offered.” This, he believes, is rightful: “Nor will you [Lear] tender less” (193-94). This is a “love” well within the power of a king to name and unname. Lear's words are the truth for him. He sees Cordelia only as Lear names her. Without dowry, she is without interest.

Lear was, of course, aware of Burgundy's intent. He introduced the trial scene with the comment that Burgundy and France, “Long in our court have made their amorous sojourn, / And here are to be answer'd” (46-47). This “amorous sojourn” is an affair of state. Marriage, from this perspective, is a linking of kingdoms that has little, or nothing, to do with the love of individuals for each other. This is love under the aegis of power: love as political duty. Offending Burgundy's expectations, Lear exposes himself politically. He, therefore, substitutes himself for Cordelia: “I would not from your love make such a stray / To match you where I hate” (208-09).

The product of such a political marriage is duty under law. This, we suspect, is the sort of marriage into which both Goneril and Regan have already entered. They see Cordelia's behavior from this perspective when they say, “You have obedience scanted.” But Cordelia seems not to understand this form of marriage as an arrangement of law and a disposition of political power. She tells her father in her speech on love that she would extend “half” her love to her husband (101). “What has love to do with marriage?” is effectively Lear's response.

Lear cannot face the fact of divided love. We can interpret this two different ways, corresponding to Lear's double nature as king and father. Cordelia's declaration creates a serious political problem for Lear as king. What will hold the kingdom together if Cordelia loves a foreign prince? Love for the father—Lear—was the principle that would bind each of the daughters—with their individual allocations—to a single unified kingdom. Cordelia's promise of love for her husband threatens to become support for a foreign contender for the throne. The marriage cannot go forward under such conditions. Again, we see here that Lear's political judgment is not clearly worse—and may be better—than Kent's.

Of course, this political reading misses the power of the psychological drama that is simultaneously presented. Lear exacts a familiar fee for approving of his daughters' marriages: They must speak only of their undivided love for him. Cordelia refuses to do this. Her insistence on stating that she will love her husband as much as her father drives Lear's rage. On this condition, he is not willing to give her away at all. By revoking the dowry, he hopes to prevent her marriage. If Lear is attempting to use love as a principle for the operation of political power, he is also attempting to use power as a way of negotiating this inevitable frustration of a father's love.

To be displaced by a husband may be a father's inevitable fate, but Lear wants it on his own terms. Marriage will be a loveless, public affair that does not reach the love of daughter for father. Cordelia sees that this is just what Goneril and Regan have declared: “Why have my sisters husbands, if they say / They love you all?” (98-99). She does not see that they have husbands in order to unite the kingdom. In their speeches on filial love, there has been no mention of their husbands, nor even of the possibility of children of their own. To Cordelia, this will not do: “Sure I shall never marry like my sisters, / To love my father all” (102-03). If so, responds Lear, you shall not marry at all. His dispossession of her is intended to have just the effect it has on Burgundy: “I am sorry, then, you have so lost a father / That you must lose a husband” (245-46). The surprise is that it does not have this same effect on France.

France is transfixed by an experience of love pure, unmixed with politics. This love finds its fulfillment in a silent Cordelia. What Cordelia is by nature—beyond Lear's power to name—France appears to become in a moment of transcendence. Like Burgundy, he too had been a king pursuing a political relationship with England. Yet he suddenly becomes wholly and completely a lover. He does not quite understand what is happening: “Gods, gods! 'tis strange that from their cold'st neglect / My love should kindle to inflam'd respect” (253-54). France is experiencing an epiphany of grace.

Grace always comes unexpectedly and literally from nowhere. It is beyond words, including those of a king. France thus finds himself using the most Christian language—the language of paradox—to describe his reaction to Cordelia, who has been stripped of all the possessions that power could bestow:

Fairest Cordelia, that art most rich, being poor;
Most choice, forsaken; and most lov'd despis'd!
Thee and thy virtues here I seize upon.


France experiences the conversion to a purity of love in the presence of Cordelia. His relationship to Cordelia comes as unexpectedly as that of Paul to Christ. Cordelia will be “Queen of us, of ours, and our fair France” (256). Yet, already we must wonder whether political power in France is more easily reconciled with love than has been the case in Lear's England.

Lear's anger at France's frustration of his plan is extraordinary:

Thou hast her, France; let her be thine, for we
Have no such daughter, nor shall ever see
That face of hers again; therefore be gone
Without our grace, our love, our benison.


With this, France really is gone. He takes Cordelia away from Lear's power to name her identity, and thus establish her value.

Lear's anger registers a twofold failure. He fails as king, because he has allowed an alliance with a foreign power that is beyond his control. He can exile Cordelia and send France away, but he cannot prevent their return at the head of an invading army. He fails as father, because the marriage of love goes forward without him. Love is simply beyond his power to control.

Remarkably, while Cordelia is unique to France, he is not unique to her. Cordelia has already announced that she will love her husband, but she seems quite indifferent to who her husband will be: Burgundy or France. She has no ill feelings toward Burgundy, whom she blesses even after he rejects her: “Peace be with Burgundy!” (246). Even her sisters, whom she has good reason to suspect, she leaves with a blessing: “Well may you prosper!” (281). Cordelia's love is ecumenical. She loves each as she should, which, in part, means that she loves all. She is daughter, sister, spouse; she loves within each relationship. She says as much to Lear. She loves “according to [her] bond, no more nor less.” Cordelia is not some natural force standing wholly outside of convention. But the source and power of her love do not come from those conventions.35

Cordelia's love resists the direction that power would impart to it. Yet this resistance is not that of a revolutionary. Cordelia does not stand on her love to overthrow political power. Neither, however, is she subservient to that power. She can quietly suffer the effects of power, because she is already complete within herself. She loves not in order to fill a need but as an expression of her own fullness. When she later returns to contest the power of the state, she is no longer full and complete in her love. Participation in political power corrupts her love. By the time of her return, Lear will be the better lover. He will have completely abandoned the state and its law.

To say that the play is largely organized around the themes of love and power is not to say that love and power are viewed as essentially and necessarily in conflict. They come into conflict when the king insists on naming love. Nevertheless, the play rejects rigid dichotomies. Love, nature, truth, and the private family are loosely aligned at the play's opening, just as power, law, false appearances, and public order are loosely aligned. But from the very beginning family is also a structure of law, nature can produce deceptive appearances, and love can inhabit the public order. By the end of scene one, we have already lost the ordinary markers of conceptual order and stability.

Nature first appears in the form of Edmund—the “whoreson”—as opposed to Edgar, the son “by law.”36 Gloucester poses the problem of extending law's recognition to his natural son. Lear's trial elaborates this same theme of natural equality among children. Law must recognize the natural, familial order of love. Nature is simultaneously the object and the measure of law. But, in the course of the trial, we see a reversal of this relationship. Lear's rage, as he disowns Cordelia, makes law the measure of nature.

Nature stands on the other side of law. Yet, the concept is so unstable that we do not learn whether it precedes law or follows upon it.37 We cannot know whether conventional relationships and expectations are natural or unnatural. Lear's family, for example, seems the domain of a private, already-complete love. This family is to be the nurse to Lear in his old age. Yet, the family is also a political device, a line of political power and rule that is perpetual. Lear makes his grants not just to his daughters, but also to his sons-in-law and to their “issues” for all time. (See 65, 78.) Is family then natural or conventional? Is it a structure of love by nature, or a deployment of political power? Can the House of Lear encompass in a single unity both love and power, or must they always split apart?


This confusion brought about by the effort to bridge the double loci of love and law is again the theme of scene two. There, we find the House of Gloucester facing the same problems as the House of Lear. Again, a trial of a child's love for the father is planned: Edgar must be made to testify to his love for Gloucester. Now, however, the force behind the trial is not a loving Lear, but a hating Edmund. As Edmund tells us, though in the false voice of Edgar, fathers rule their children not by virtue of their own power, but because the children willingly suffer that rule. Edmund will suffer no longer. He reminds us of what we already suspect of Lear's older daughters: In their public performances at trial, they may be using Lear as much as he is using them.

Edmund left scene one promising “to study deserving.” He enters scene two reflecting on the relationship of age and legitimacy to legal inheritance. In both respects, he concludes, law is not in accord with nature: “Thou, Nature, art my goddess; to thy law / My services are bound” (I, ii, 1-2). He is equally deserving of an inheritance from his father, because the “father's love is to the bastard Edmund / As to th'legitimate” (17-18). Gloucester acknowledged this equal love in scene one but was not about to disturb the order of law. Edmund will. Indeed, he seeks not the equality of love's natural order—as Lear proposed—but the inversion of the conventional order of law: “Now, gods, stand up for bastards!” (22).38 If he would inherit nothing under the existing law, then Edgar, the son by law, shall inherit nothing under the new-made order.

Edmund's appeal to nature's law over what he calls “the plague of custom” reminds us of Lear's effort to reorder law to match his idea of the natural family. But just as law and nature were rendered ambiguous in scene one, so they are in scene two. Edmund's opening soliloquy is balanced by an ending soliloquy, in which we see an inversion of his original alignment of himself with nature. Now it is Edgar who is described as somehow natural: “a brother noble, / Whose nature is so far from doing harms / That he suspects none” (176-78). Edgar has his lands “by birth,” while Edmund must earn his by “wit.” Thus, Edgar, not Edmund, stands on a correlation of nature, birth, virtue, and property. Edmund would reorder this natural order: “All with me's meet that I can fashion fit” (181). There are, in short, no natural limits to his scheme. He stands on a correlation of wit, willfulness, and power. We cannot tell who is natural: the self-interested Edmund or the innocent Edgar.39

The legal order, just like Edmund's will to power, can be seen as either natural or unnatural. By the end of the play, whatever Edgar had by nature at the beginning, he must win again by wit. Similarly, by the end of the play, Edmund comes to believe that what he took to be natural self-interest was wholly unnatural. Yet a third soliloquy of Edmund's, in between the other two of this scene, gets this just about right:

This is the excellent foppery of the world, that, when we are sick in fortune, often the surfeits of our own behaviour, we make guilty of our disasters the sun, the moon, and stars; as if we were villains on necessity.


Just as we claim our fortunes to be natural—and so legitimate—we blame our misfortunes on nature. Edmund takes responsibility for himself. Whether he calls this self-creation “natural” or calls upon the gods to stand with him, there is only Edmund making himself. “I should have been that I am had the maidenliest star in the firmament twinkled on my bastardizing” (128-30). Nature has nothing to do with who he is.

Edmund, therefore, cannot blame nature for what follows, anymore than Edgar can claim his inheritance by nature. Nature is not a set condition, but rather a range of possibilities. The same can be said of law. No one can simply rely on law—not a king and certainly not an eldest child. Edmund, no less than Lear, has set out to change the order of law. No one is what he or she is merely by law, even if law would make birth itself legitimate or illegitimate. Law is as changeable as nature. If law is to continue, it must be upheld through acts of will.

As the play progresses, we see that those most constant in their character—even if not in their appearance—are Cordelia and Kent. Everyone else in the play is changing.40 Lear moves from king to a “foolish old man.” Gloucester is blinded and stripped of his position and his possessions. Edgar loses his innocence through becoming the innocent, Poor Tom. Edmund would make himself the son-by-law—the child of Cornwall—and the son-in-law—the husband of Lear's two eldest daughters. Goneril and Regan move from dutiful daughters to rulers. Albany becomes a more virtuous figure, while Cornwall becomes more vicious.

What marks Cordelia and Kent as different from the others? Each knows him or herself in and through love. Each can be true to a self that is constituted by this love. Love is indifferent to what is nature and what law. Kent had already suggested, in scene one, that we are what we love—he had identified wholly with Lear—but the larger theme may be that we are only when we love. Identity apart from love is uncertain and changeable. Neither law nor nature can overcome this instability; rather, they are the terms within which this instability appears.

Love's antithesis on the political level is power, but on the psychological level it is will. This connection of political power and psychological will links Lear to Edmund. Both stage trials; both would use trials to reorder the political domain. And, of course, Edmund will advance in political power as Lear declines.

Edmund, who is without love as the play begins, embodies pure will. Both power and will pursue self-creation: the former through the creation of law; the latter through the creation of what we might call individual character. All efforts at self-creation are bound to nature and convention. The individual will, like political power, can take as its measure either nature or convention. It can imagine some ideal of the natural self against which to measure “the plague of custom.” Conversely, it can imagine an ideal convention—law—against which to measure the natural self. Indeed, these turn out to be reversible terms, as we see in their uncertain application to Edmund and Edgar. Love locates a self beyond the possibilities of will—beyond, therefore, either nature or law.

Edmund, in scene two, shows us that he has not only studied the nature of deserving; he has studied well the manner in which deserving is displayed. In an ironic miming of the performance commanded by Lear, Edmund has created a false appearance of Edgar by drafting a letter that looks as if it were written by Edgar. Is there really much distance between words spoken on the law's command—a set speech—and words written in a letter ascribed to another? In neither case are the words “really” those of the speaker. Edmund's letter replicates the problem of false naming that we saw with respect to Goneril's and Regan's declarations. The letter is false because it purports to describe the sentiments of Edgar, when they are really those of Edmund. Gloucester, like Lear, sees only what the words show him.

What the letter shows is not just an accurate description of Edmund; it is also a subtle reference to Lear himself. Edmund has Edgar writing: “This policy and reverence of age makes the world bitter to the best of our times; keeps our fortunes from us till our oldness cannot relish them” (45-47). Or, as Edmund puts it a little later, falsely describing his brother's views: “Sons at perfect age, and fathers declin'd, the father should be as ward to the son, and the son manage his revenue” (69-71). This was just Lear's thought, when he attempted to distribute his kingdom to his children. He would not hold on to power into his old age, but would “creep toward death,” an old man who has seen his own dependence upon the young. Indeed, Edmund's line reminds us of Lear's injunction to Cornwall and Albany: “the sway, / Revenue, execution of the rest, / Beloved sons, be yours” (I, i, 135-37).

This is hardly a shocking sentiment, yet it is too much for Gloucester. He immediately turns against Edgar. No wonder Gloucester had entered on the scene stunned that the king had “prescribed his pow'r” and confined himself “to exhibition.” When he hears these views ascribed to Edgar, he breaks out: “O Villain! … Abhorred villain! Unnatural, detested, brutish villain!” (I, ii, 72-74). What or who, exactly, is “unnatural” here?

This is a complex question that arises just a few moments into the play. On the one hand, Gloucester is saying that Lear and Edgar have acted in a most unnatural manner. He compares their actions with “eclipses in the sun and moon,” and warns of continuing disturbances (100). On the other hand, can Gloucester claim his own actions are based on a natural order? He began the play by affirming his equal love for his two sons, yet he is incapable of acting on that natural love in the face of a contrary convention. What appears natural to him—and so also what appears unnatural—is really only convention. Gloucester's perception of the king's unnaturalness is only his view of Lear's violation of the existing legal order.

Edmund knows his father well. He paints for him a picture of Edgar's “unnaturalness” by showing him a violation of convention. The whole thrust of this scene is to question what is natural. Edmund ascribes what he takes to be natural inclinations to Edgar—indeed they are his own inclinations and Nature is his goddess—knowing that his father will view the expression of such views as wholly unnatural.

The perverse image of scene one that Edmund creates is continued in his suggestion to his father of how to resolve the question of what Edgar really is. Edmund tells Gloucester that he must “suspend [his] indignation” until he can “derive from him [Edgar] better testimony of his intent” (77-79). Just as Lear sought oral testimony as proof of his children's love, so will Gloucester. Edmund makes this connection explicit when he refers to his father as a judge: “If your honour judge it meet, I will place you where you shall hear us confer of this” (87-88). Gloucester, who comes into the scene amazed at what Lear has done in the trial of his daughters' love, is manipulated into conducting a trial of his own son.41 Gloucester, like Lear, must have “auricular assurance” of his child's love. He too will be unable to distinguish true from false appearances at a trial. At both trials, the speech perceived reflects not a prepolitical nature—love—but only the power that can demand the speech.

Edmund manipulates his father into a trial by appealing to Gloucester's sense that honor must control emotion: “If you violently proceed against him, mistaking his purpose, it would make a great gap in your own honour, and shake in pieces the heart of his obedience” (79-83). Edmund is reminding Gloucester not of his private love for Edgar, but of his public position. Honor is the sentiment of conventionality; it supports the structure of law. Accepting Edmund's plan, Gloucester can now describe himself as Edgar's “father, that so tenderly and entirely loves him” (93-94). Having just seen Gloucester's easy rage, we have reason to doubt this. He follows with, “I would unstate myself to be in a due resolution”—an entirely false statement. When he thought he was threatened with being unstated, he was ready to act violently toward Edgar. Only now that he has been cast in the reassuring and entirely conventional role of judge can he give expression to his love.

This is the same Gloucester that we saw in the play's opening. There, he affirmed his love for Edmund, while simultaneously following the convention of sending him away. We are reminded of France's prophetic statement to Burgundy: “Love's not love / When it is mingled with regards that stand / Aloof from th' entire point” (I, i, 237-39). There is something shallow in Gloucester's love for his two sons. He says he loves Edmund, but he will not overcome conventional disapproval of him. He says he loves Edgar, but he is quick to turn on him.

Gloucester's love for both his sons is bound by convention. The unsettled relationship between law and nature makes him insecure in his position. Because he knows that there is something true about the views ascribed to Edgar in the counterfeit letter—and secretly acted on by Edmund—he fears his position is insecure even with respect to the son who stands to inherit under law. And because he knows he has failed the “natural” son, Edmund, he knows he is vulnerable there as well.

Again we see here a confusion of nature and law. Is it natural, or merely conventional, that fathers rule until their death? Gloucester thinks that what Lear has done is most unnatural. But Edmund's letter speaks instead of the very unnaturalness of this rule by the aged. Such a regime is not natural, but rather an “idle and fond bondage” sustained only by a willingness to suffer. Rule by the aged, then, is only a matter of law, not nature. Does law sustain the natural authority of age or undermine the natural power of the stronger?

To overthrow Edgar, Edmund will have to overthrow Gloucester as well, because Gloucester's power reflects the same mix of convention and nature as Edgar's privilege. If it is natural for the eldest son to inherit, it is natural for the father to rule. If it is only a convention that the eldest and the legitimate inherit, then it is only a convention that the father rules. Edmund intends to rewrite the familial relationship as a structure of law, by bringing to it a different—but no less unstable—sense of what is natural. Rule by the weak and old will now appear unnatural.

How does Edgar appear in all of this? He is a mere innocent, who will nevertheless inherit his father's position. He is well-meaning but not particularly deserving. Edmund describes Edgar's initial entrance as “like the catastrophe of the old comedy” (I, ii, 131-32). Edgar falls right into the role required in the play/trial that Edmund is directing. Edmund, always a fine judge of human character, aptly describes his brother as one “on whose foolish honesty / My practices ride easy!” (178-79).

Law and nature are bound together in Edmund and Edgar. The play opens with Edgar standing within law and Edmund within nature, but they quickly change places. Exiled, Edgar will have nothing but nature on which to rely. As Tom, he will appear virtually naked. He will reconstruct himself by passing through a complete absence of any value at law. Edmund will step into the place of Edgar—and even of Gloucester—in the new order of law that emerges under the reign of Goneril and Regan.

The two Eds can switch places, but neither is any more deserving in himself than the other. Law and nature are competitive standards for judgment. Each brother appeals to these standards to judge the other. We have no easy way of judging between them. Theirs is a fight that has no proper answer. They can circle around each other until the end of time. The gods will always “stand up for bastards,” but then again they will not. Neither can rely on half of the equation alone—nature or law. What is natural for one is merely conventional for the other and vice versa.

If we ask what we are to feel toward these characters at this point, Gloucester may appear the lowest in our estimation. Edmund, after all, is responding to law's injustice by appealing to a natural order. He wants what has so far been unfairly given only to Edgar. Gloucester merely speaks of love without the ability to act on it. He would not legally disable Edgar for the sake of Edmund; he turns too quickly on Edgar. Gloucester is the most conventional, and thus unnatural, of men. He has had to acknowledge Edmund: “I have so often blush'd to acknowledge him, that now I am braz'd to't” (I, i, 8-10). At heart, however, he remains caught by the question he asks Kent in the opening scene: “Do you smell a fault?” Gloucester smells that fault about himself and is ashamed.

Gloucester is concerned only with appearances. This is why he focuses from the beginning on shame, an emotion determined by our sense of how we appear to others. To overcome appearances, he will have to be blinded. Lear is not concerned with ordinary conventions. He is already at battle with those conventions when he announces his ambition to reconstruct the legal order. He believes he has a rational plan to reorder law in a way that simultaneously secures political stability and familial love. He reasons about the need to avoid future strife, the need to transfer power to the young, and the need to tend to his own approaching death. If Gloucester must go blind, then Lear must go blind, then Lear must go mad.


  1. On the tension between love and power in Renaissance ideas of king and father see the discussion of “nursing fathers” in Debora K. Shuger, Habits of Thought in the English Renaissance: Religion, Politics, and the Dominant Culture (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990), 218-49.

  2. Lear himself proposes a different resolution of this conflict in the scales of love and law. He says he will divide the kingdom equally among the daughters, but still would give the most “opulent” third to his favorite, Cordelia. Difference within equality is a mystery of love well known within the family.

  3. Property, in the context of the play, includes Gloucester's title of duke. Edmund will later obtain that title over both his father and brother. See III, v, 16.

  4. Sacrifice is discussed in detail in chapter 8.

  5. The classic work on this conception of the sovereign is Ernst Hartwig Kantorowicz, The King's Two Bodies: A Study in Mediaeval Political Theology (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1957).

  6. See Francis Barker, The Culture of Violence: Essays on Tragedy and History (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1993), 3-7 (discussing the play's representation of land and the map).

  7. Harry Jaffa argues that conflict itself is to provide the principle of unity, in a sort of medieval anticipation of the modern balance of powers doctrine. Harry V. Jaffa, “The Limits of Politics: King Lear, Act I, Scene i,” in Allan Bloom, Shakespeare's Politics (New York: Basic, 1964), 113, 121-27. Given the failures of the division—unleashing civil war and invasion—this claim seems rather anachronistic.

  8. We do not know if this was an original part of his plan or an abrupt change brought about by Cordelia's failure at the trial of love.

  9. See Stephen S. Booth, King Lear, Macbeth, Indefinition, and Tragedy (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983), 48-49 (Booth labels the audience's expectations of consequences of division as “the domino theory of Elizabethan politics”); and Irving Ribner, “The Gods are Just: A Reading of King Lear,Tulane Drama Review 2 (1958): 34, 36 (“Lear's division of his kingdom and resignation of his throne would have been regarded by a Jacobean audience with a horror. … for these acts constituted a violation of the king's responsibility to God”). On primogeniture generally in seventeenth-century England see Robert Filmer, Patriarcha and Other Political Works, ed. Peter Laslet (New York: Garland, 1984), 21-27; Ralph Houlbrooke, The English Family, 1450-1700 (New York: Longman, 1984), 234-38.

  10. Lear has no spouse. His love is directed wholly toward his children and thus wholly within the temporal, intergenerational dimension of the family. In The True Chronicle History of King Leir and His Three Daughters (c. 1594), Shakespeare's main source for the story, Lear's “wife has died just before the play begins, and he is thinking about resigning his kingdom to his daughters so that he can prepare his own soul for death.” Edgar Schell, Strangers and Pilgrims: From The Castle of Perseverance to King Lear (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983), 151.

  11. On the conflict between the legal rights of the eldest child and the father's love of younger sons generally see Houlbrooke, The English Family, 180.

  12. See Stephen Greenblatt, “The Cultivation of Anxiety: King Lear and His Heirs,” Raritan 2, no. 1 (1982): 92, 113. (“There can be no division for Lear between authority and love. But as the play's tragic logic reveals, Lear cannot have both the public deference and the inward love of his children.”)

  13. The Fool can see the first form of madness, but not the second. When Lear moves to the second form of madness on the fields of Dover, he will be all alone—no longer accompanied by even the Fool.

  14. I disagree with Stanley Cavell's reading of Lear's opening scene in his essay, “The Avoidance of Love: A Reading of King Lear,” in Stanley Cavell, Must We Mean What We Say? A Book of Essays (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1976), 267-353. Cavell believes the play to be about shame and the impossibility Lear feels of showing his love. This is to make of Lear merely a man. It is to pursue psychology. To understand a king, we must turn from psychology to political psychology—a move Cavell specifically declines to take. See ibid., 295. The play's opening scene is better understood to be about what law can hear, and, having heard, what it can do. Lear begins by wanting to hear more than he can as king. When the trial fails, he must choose between himself as king and himself as loving father. A similar psychological interpretation of the opening is offered in S. L. Goldberg, An Essay on King Lear (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1974), 7-33. He too sees Lear and Cordelia as struggling with a problem of acknowledging their own relationship to their natural love.

  15. See Fritz Kern, Kingship and Law in the Middle Ages, trans. S. B. Chrimes (Oxford: B. Blackwell, 1939).

  16. The centrality of trials in the play was noted forty years ago in a short essay by Dorothy Hockey, “The Trial Pattern in King Lear,Shakespeare Quarterly 10, no. 3 (Summer 1959): 389. (“The action pattern [of the play] is that of a trial, suggesting justice, and the quality being weighed is love.”) Despite her suggestion, the connection of law and love in the play has not been the focus of subsequent study. Moelwyn Merchant, in an interesting essay on “the Jacobean dramatist's preoccupation with legal matters,” notes that “the structure of the third and fourth acts [of King Lear] depend[s], to a degree insufficiently recognized, on the formal pattern of trial in a court of justice.” “Lawyer and Actor: Process of Law in Elizabethan Drama,” in English Studies Today: Third Series; Lectures and Papers Read at the Fifth Conference of the International Association of Professors of English Held at Edinburgh and Glasgow August 1962, ed. G. I. Duthie (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1962), 107, 121.

  17. See Owen Fiss, “The Supreme Court, 1978 Term—Foreword: The Forms of Justice,” Harvard Law Review 93 (1979): 1.

  18. On the “material power” of a king's speech see Terry Eagleton, William Shakespeare (New York: Basil Blackwell, 1986), 8-9.

  19. Of course, it is not literally impossible for Lear to reject the trial process in midstream. That claim would be nonsense in the context of a work of fiction. Rather, we can understand how a public figure can find himself “bound” in Lear's situation.

  20. That he knew this prelegal truth is given visible representation in the map, upon which he had already marked the divisions of the kingdom before the trial began.

  21. For a modern inquiry into this theme see Milner S. Ball, The Promise of American Law: A Theological, Humanistic View of Legal Process (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1981), 42-68.

  22. There is here an intimation of one of the most vivid metaphors from late in the play, when Lear and Cordelia have lost everything but love. Lear proclaims then that they will be “God's spies” in their prison cell. This is a vision beyond eyesight, no longer bound to the appearances that power commands. The image of the self as God's spy stands in direct contrast to Lear's mad proclamation to Gloucester that all life is performance on a stage. To become only audience and not an actor requires abandoning all action and reaching a pure love in which all is simultaneously seen and forgiven.

  23. See Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Vintage, 1979), 59-65.

  24. See Jaffa, “Limits of Politics,” 131.

  25. What was inadequate as a description of a daughter's love is more than adequate as a description of the subject's love. The issue at trial was Cordeli's “natural” love for Lear. Kent's love, on the other hand, is wholly within the political space. To say “I love you as a father” is one thing for a daughter and quite another for a subject.

  26. Kent is as close a dramatic figure as we can imagine to Plato's guardian class. See The Republic, Books 2-3. Guardians are completely denied a private life, but are infused with a public love of the state. Plato's state falls apart when the guardians are allowed to have families.

  27. See Cornwall's reproach of Kent: II, ii, 92-101.

  28. See Jonathan Dollimore, Radical Tragedy: Religion, Ideology and Power in the Drama of Shakespeare and His Contemporaries, 2d ed. (New York: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1989), 197. (“King Lear is, above all, a play about power, property and inheritance. … Human values are not antecedent to these material realities but are, on the contrary, informed by them.”)

  29. Goneril will banish the Fool along with Lear, describing him as “more knave than fool” (I, iv, 313).

  30. See IV, iv, on king's coinage, discussed in chapter 8.

  31. In Sophocles' Oedipus the King, having announced his judgment on the unknown killer of King Laius, Oedipus is bound to the judgment, even when it turns out that he is himself the object of punishment.

  32. Consider the appearance of Christian martyrs who would not yield to Roman power. See Elaine H. Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels (New York: Random House, 1979), 78-89; Peter Robert Lamont Brown, The Body and Society: Men, Women and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988).

  33. Cordelia and Edmund are reverse images of each other here. Edmund's last line had been, “I shall study deserving.” Both have been placed outside of law's domain by their identification with the natural family. Both have confused love and desert: Cordelia as lover, Edmund as the object of love. Both need to study deserving “by order of law.” Neither is a rightful heir by law. The problems begin in each case with their father' desire to violate that order by making them equal heirs.

  34. His next line shows him still within the domain of law to some degree: “Be it lawful I take up what's cast away” (I, i, 252). The Arden edition cites Richard Noble, Shakespeare's Biblical Knowledge and Use of the Book of Common Prayer (New York: Octagon, 1970), comparing these lines to 2 Corinthians 6:10. See also Rosalie L. Colie, “The Energies of Endurance: Biblical Echo 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), 117, 125.

  35. As many have noted, there is a Christlike character to this love. See Robert G. Hunter, Shakespeare and the Mystery of God's Judgments (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1976), 185; John Cunningham, “King Lear, the Storm, and the Liturgy” (1984), in Shakespeare's Christian Dimension: An Anthology of Commentary, ed. Roy Battenhouse (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994), 463-69; Harry Morris, Last Things in Shakespeare (Tallahassee: Florida State University Press, 1985), 147-62. See also John D. Cox, Shakespeare and the Dramaturgy of Power (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1989), on Christian realism in the plays. On Cordelia's character combining love and duty see John F. Danby, Shakespeare's Doctrine of Nature: A Study of King Lear (London: Faber and Faber, 1949), 126-33.

  36. See Dollimore, Radical Tragedy, 200 (“nature is represented as socially disruptive, yet … as the source of social stability”); Robert Speaight, Nature in Shakespearian Tragedy (London: Hollis & Carter, 1955), 95-97; Danby, Shakespeare's Doctrine of Nature, 44-46; Robert B. Heilman, “The Two Natures in King Lear,Accent (Autumn 1947): 51.

  37. See Eagleton, William Shakespeare, 90 (“Shakespeare deconstructs this binary opposition [of nature and culture], showing how each term inheres in the others”).

  38. Compare Lear's later invocation of the gods, “If you do love old men” (II, iv, 188).

  39. The classic analysis of nature in King Lear is that Danby, Shakespeare's Doctrine of Nature, arguing that the play juxtaposes a newly emerging conception of a mechanical nature against the classical and medieval conception of nature as a normative order that includes man. No doubt these conceptions are at work in the play, but I view nature as a far more fluid and ambiguous concept than is represented in Danby's somewhat rigid structure.

  40. Too often the characters of the play are seen as mere markers of character types, e.g., good or evil children. See, e.g., Maynard Mack, King Lear in Our Time (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1965), 70. (“The characters are pure states of being, unmixedly good and bad.”) It is true that the play focuses little attention on the internal sources of character development, compared, for example, with the soul's struggle in Hamlet. See ibid., 91-93. Change in King Lear comes about from the effects of the circumstances of power upon the individual.

  41. The parody here is almost comic; it is surely pathetic. See G. Wilson Knight, “King Lear and the Comedy of the Grotesque,” in The Wheel of Fire: Interpretations of Shakespearian Tragedy with Three New Essays (London: Methuen, 1949), 160-76.

William F. Zak (essay date 1984)

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Last Updated on February 5, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 11929

SOURCE: “The Player King,” in Sovereign Shame: A Study of King Lear, Bucknell University Press, 1984, pp. 118-46.

[In the following essay, Zak contrasts Shakespeare’s King Lear with the anonymously written The True Chronicle History of King Leir, and examines Lear’s self-destruction.]

The king's a beggar, now the play is done.

Epilogue, All's Well That Ends Well

Shame would have it hid.

Gloucester, King Lear

From a study of the contrasts between the first scenes of The True Chronicle History of King Leir and Shakespeare's spare, truncated adaptation of them in the first half of scene one in King Lear, we can better inspect several related elements in Shakespeare's design. For one thing, it appears Shakespeare took great care to keep Lear's psyche cloaked, unavailable to immediate inspection, as if our bewilderment—a sense of something hidden in Lear's motives—was a necessary first step toward understanding him. In Shakespeare's source both the abdication and the love test are far more comprehensibly motivated than in Lear. In the old play the death of Leir's beloved wife, his impotent old age, his lack of a son for heir, his own death which he imagines imminent, and, above all, his self-sacrificial concern for the safety of his nation are all discussed before his counselors as elements in his decision and combine to convince him he must reluctantly “resign these earthly cares” to his daughters and “thinke upon the welfare of my soul” (1.1.28).

Leir dreads having to shift the heavy burden of rule onto daughters he would prefer to dote upon; but because he cares so much for the future welfare of Britain, he decides he must divide the kingdom impartially among his daughters and marry each to a “neyghbouring King” so that the “State / May be protected 'gainst all forrayne hate” (1.1.55), an idea conveniently encouraged by the fact that neighboring Cornwall and Cambria have already “motion[ed] love” toward Gonorill and Ragan. The king is not suspicious of any of his daughters nor does he seem to have a favorite. He does not reveal any fear of dissension among his daughters, let alone the prospect of civil strife. The only difficulty he seems to consider is a Cordella who wishes to marry for love but who fancies none of her suitors. The love test—whatever private psychological purposes it may also serve—is consciously and clearly designed as a public, politically motivated trick, a practical “stratagem” (1.1.78) by which the king can manipulate Cordella into a patriotic marriage of his choosing with the king of Brittany as a proof of her anticipated verbal claims to outdo her sisters in love for the king. Though the trick is obviously wrong-headed, it is nonetheless a comprehensibly motivated gambit that explains the love test in a way nothing in Shakespeare's Lear explains Lear's.

In King Lear, on the other hand, with no prior discussion or even mention of the political wisdom of Lear's decision, no considered rejection of other alternatives or doubts expressed about the dangers of abdication and succession without a male heir, Lear makes but a brief public announcement of what he has already decided to do. Lear may “express” his “darker purpose” (1.1.36) straightforwardly enough; but we who must try to understand it without any sense of familial or political context or familiarity with Lear's character do not thereby find the darkness grow luminous. Not only does the only prior reference to Lear's political decision—Kent's introductory exchange with Gloucester—fail to enlighten us about the political thinking underlying the decision; but because Lear's plan, even in its details, is indicated to be general knowledge at court,1 the reasons why Lear would therefore stage the seemingly empty, ritualistic love auction are even more puzzling. In Shakespeare, of course, there is no hint that this love test is any kind of stratagem to trick Cordelia into subordinating personal happiness to political necessity. Nor in the source, conversely, are there previously outlined maps or imperial claims to have already “divided / In three our kingdom” (1.1.37-38) to call into question the seriousness with which that love test may be taken. In fact, the pretense that there is to be a connection between the love test and the allotment of portions of the kingdom is itself a Shakespearean departure from the source. In the earlier play, the audience is aware from the outset that Leir's “zeale is fixt” (1.1.40) to be impartial and divide the kingdom into three equal portions. He does not even mention the division of the kingdom at the love test when he hopes merely to

Resolve a doubt which much molests my mind,
Which of you three to me would prove most kind;
Which loves me most, and which at my request
Will soonest yeeld unto their father's hest.


He is not aware that Gonorill and Ragan have meanwhile been willfully misinformed by his messenger who told them there would be a quid pro quo relationship between flattery and reward. His daughters thus find it an easy matter (since they, like Cordella, are as yet unmarried) to place Cordella's anticipated refusal in a bad light by insinuating into their praise of Leir the promise that “should you appoynt me for to marry / The meanest vassayle in the spacious world, / Without reply I would accomplish it” (1.3.248-50; cf. 1.3.269-72).

Whereas the earlier play, which concentrates our attention upon Leir's well-intentioned political concerns, creates for us the sense of Leir as a very good man and king who makes a foolish mistake, but who, once he has learned a simple lesson, can very likely recoup his losses and recover both his moral dignity and stability, Shakespeare's treatment of Lear assures far less. The absence of carefully defined and presented political motivation in Lear is only one element of our confusion about the king. Though Lear presumably loves his children, when he expresses his darker purpose he does not express any reluctance to burden them with the cares of state. In the source, by contrast, the central psychological crisis in deciding upon abdication explicitly involves the conflict between the king's desire to favor his children and indulge their protected lives of ease on the one hand and the nation's need for orderly succession and responsible rule on the other (1.3.202-211). If Leir is utterly unsuspicious of his children, Shakespeare's Lear is apparently troubled by doubts. He does not even mention foreign invasion or the need for a Britain united against its enemies without; but he does say he wishes

                                                  to publish
Our daughters' several dowers, that future strife
May be prevented now.


The decision to initiate the “challenge” that the love test involves would seem to undermine his purpose by encouraging his daughters to think of conflict as a proper means of settling questions of jurisdictional power (if we take what he says about “future strife” seriously). In any case, Lear seems rather boldly to allude to the fearful possibility that his own daughters or their husbands could be brought to attack one another. That same fear may also be intimated by the scrupulous equality of the portions, despite the likelihood Lear “more affected the Duke of Albany than Cornwall” (1.1.1-2); it may be hinted at again when Lear addresses Cornwall before Albany and the assembled court, despite the fact that Goneril is his eldest child.

When Shakespeare's Lear speaks of an “unburthen'd crawl toward death” (1.1.41), he seems momentarily to recall Leir's spiritual turn to the contemplative from the active life; but by the end of act 1 it has become clear from Shakespeare's portrait of the king as a holiday-licensed lord of misrule that his turn is more spirited than spiritual,2 his retirement more a luxury and an impatience (in the modern and corrupted sense of the word “retirement,” implying alienation from our labors) than a traditional reflective submission to a solitude that aids us in engaging life more fully and meaningfully. By contrast, the only “reservation” Leir makes for himself in the source is to “take me to my prayers and beads.” The offense that results in his allowance being halved and then halved again by Gonorill is, ironically enough, nothing more than his occasional counsel to her against extravagance. Even before turning to seek Cordella's forgiveness, Leir bears up patiently under the adversities imposed by his other daughters, including an attempt on his life. On the other hand, Shakespeare's Lear—never a model of patience under siege—rushes to his complete undoing with frightening rapidity in acts 1 and 2 before daughters much more indifferently disrespectful to him than Leir's menacing and violent offspring. Unlike his predecessor, Lear cannot nobly right himself after his initial mistake in moral judgment because his folly in abdication and the banishments is not a simple error but a symptom that both manifests and conceals a more profound disease. The inexorability we come to see in Lear's deteriorating sense of self intimates a more deep-seated problem than any one or all of his accumulated acts speeding him to madness and ruin themselves communicate.

When we analyze in what specific ways Shakespeare's Lear proves himself less readily sympathetic than his model with regard to the specific acts he performs, the curious result is that even as we name and catalogue his acts of apparent bribery, his self-indulgences, his repeated impatience and petulance, and his cursing rages we do not feel satisfied that we have identified the motive for his behavior. A survey of the history of the play's criticism confirms that no attempt to “explain” Lear by any one or more of his vices has even begun to satisfy a majority of readers as an adequate delineation of the man. It would, of course, be unfortunate were that to encourage us to settle for equally unsatisfactory alternatives: ignoring the riddle Lear represents by assuming he is either mad or senile from the outset or holding that the first scene is merely a spectacular dramatic donnée setting the play in motion.3 Rather, it should invite us to explore the intuition that the essence of Lear's character lies below the surface of his whining and cursing vices. What Richard claims of himself is equally true of Lear, though it is Lear's special curse that he does not know it.

'Tis very true, my grief lies all within,
And these external [manners] of laments
Are merely shadows to the unseen grief
That swells with silence in the tortur'd soul.
There lies the substance.

(Richard II 4.1.295-99)

Though Lear's alternately vicious and abject “laments” are real enough and certainly an operative force in furthering the surface drama of the play, in the final analysis they hide more than they reveal about the man. Something more significant about him will emerge when we discern the inner urgencies that seem diametrically opposed to the outer man's behavior in the first scenes. In his willful, even wantonly senseless imperiousness at the love auction we will discover hints of the most pathetic dependency; in the arbitrary power of kingship unleashed upon Kent and Cordelia, the fear of impotence; in his subsequent and irrevocable commitment to an embattled path of action, a paralyzing fear that there may be no help for it—all of this in a man unaware of the paradoxical complexity of his acts.

In the first scene Lear places his nation and, more important (relative to the subject at hand), himself at the mercy of daughters he apparently fears. We wonder why anyone would do that, especially a king, a man with every opportunity to act arbitrarily, to exercise power, and to escape censure or humiliation. We know that as ordinary people we grow subconsciously adept at manipulating others, at subtly bribing them to do our bidding, to affirm our value; and we do so with shameful frequency. But, whenever possible, we do so without risking the humiliation of public exposure should the gambit fail or the appearance of brazenness should it succeed. Viewed in the light of our ordinary, self-protective fears, what Lear does makes no sense at all. In fact, it seems utterly foolhardy. In the glaring light of the public eye and without the serpent's subtlety he tries to purchase declarations of love, declarations that, in the very giving and receiving, reveal suspicious hints that even the parties involved may not take the transaction seriously. We may well be shocked by this display of obsessive egoism, by the prostituted nature of Lear's solicitation; but we are also shocked—though not for moral reasons—by its brazenness. We are not ordinarily either so desperate or so honest that we will risk making such solicitations openly in public and in the unflattering light of day—at least not consciously. This would be madness. But this is, as we shall see more clearly in a moment, precisely the form of madness we sense in Lear and that sets him apart even as he condemns himself by behaving as the rest of us ordinarily do. Consciously, and yet unknowingly, Lear lives out before his court and us what we, in our blindness, would like to believe is something that can only occur in our nightmares: our foolhardy exposure of self, naked in its weakness and need, before a world ready to mock us. There is, then, something openly absurd and incommensurable in what Lear does in the abdication and love test, but there is also something that in its very absurdity suggests that Lear's vices are anything but ordinary. Ordinary vice, however shameless, is seldom brazen; it is, in fact, most often quite subtle, so subtle that it knows enough to mask its deceitfulness as sincerity. But Lear's behavior here, as we shall see, is the complete opposite of such duplicity, not because it is forthright or even brave but because Lear's apparent disingenuousness both disguises and reveals a pathetic ingenuousness. His brazenness suggests no simple, self-serving egocentricity but a buried sense of vulnerability and shame for himself. Though Lear may appear to be overtly manipulative and vain in act 1, scene 1, there is nothing trivial or mean about his soul. Only excruciating misgivings about himself, not efforts to patronize or demean others, drive him to act as he does. The unacknowledged but nonetheless desperate suffering we sense in him forbids the release of laughter that his childish behavior here and throughout the first acts otherwise invites.

In the anguished need for love that Lear suffers privately in the “silence” of his “tortur'd soul” but exposes publicly in “speech” that “purpose[s] not,” he transcends the mean self-protectiveness that has the seeming wisdom of the snail and knows enough to “put's head in” his shell. The distinctiveness of Lear's journey to ruin could not be made clearer than in the juxtaposition of his last speech to his daughters in act 2 before his banishment to the heath and Cornwall's quintessentially “ordinary” reaction to it. The end of act 2 marks a minor structural climax in the play. Lear “will not trouble” these daughters again except in his imagination; the external conditions of his suffering will sink no lower. He began in a full display of regal power by banishing one daughter; now he finds himself stripped of all external tokens of civilized position and respect by daughters he feels have banished him. His last plea to them, the “reason not the need” speech (2.4.264-86), is a pathetic and yet powerfully moving outburst despite the fact that, as we shall see, its wisdom is misconceived. The sympathy the speech's rhetoric inspires has nothing to do, however, with the truth or falsehood of what Lear says. In fact, it is not even bred of what he says but of what he cannot say—his tortured silence. His inability to speak what he will do to avenge his injuries pathetically transforms a once powerful king into an impotent old man stammering his rage.4 But even more powerful is the silence following his declaration that he will announce his “true need,” one that presumably lies beyond superficial material needs. However, about this true need, we discover, Lear can say nothing at all. It is conceivable, of course, that he can say nothing because he suddenly realizes he does not really know what his true spiritual need is. But it could also be that he cannot speak the true need he feels because he cannot, without a cloaking mediation, declare the humiliating desperation of his need for love. In either case, his silence speaks the agony of the incapacitation he is suffering.

Against that incapacitation and his childish attempt to punish his daughters and awaken their pity for him by fleeing, we must place Cornwall's abrupt shift of subject to the wisdom of the snail: “Let us withdraw, 'twill be a storm” (2.4.287). It would obviously be a mistake to deny that Lear's entering the storm is as much a self-protective act, however unconsciously so, as Cornwall and his daughters' conscious withdrawal from the storm within Gloucester's castle; but to rest content with this likeness without discriminating the torments Lear voluntarily undergoes in his misguided but noble quest for love from the petty fears and mean self-regard of his daughters and Cornwall would be an even more serious error. Though Lear repeatedly behaves with petty spitefulness and disproportionately offended rage, we do not feel he is a mean or petty man because we are always intuitively aware that he consistently chooses to remain heroically open to undergoing an ever-widening and deepening experience of agonized crisis in his quest for love. Irving Ribner has rightly claimed that by the end of act 2 Lear could expect sympathy for nothing he has done. But, paradoxically, Harley Granville-Barker, who feels quite differently about Lear as he enters the storm, is equally correct in his more favorable assessment: “All his errors … have partaken of nobility; he has scorned policy.” The two seemingly contradictory critical verdicts actually complement one another in enriching our sense of the complexity of the man.5

Norman Rabkin's observation that the first scenes of King Lear establish several fundamental likenesses and thus force the spectators to “make sense of the play” by analyzing the “principles underlying … (these) analogies” is a rich, if unexplored intuition.6 The symbolic analogies generated by the juxtaposition of character, situation, and plot in the three playlets constituting act 1 confirm that Lear's initial behavior is not beyond comprehension or explanation,7 though it will become clear that the explanation both begins and ends well below the surface manifestations of Lear's whims and vices. Given Shakespeare's virtual silence about the political considerations and motivations that dominate his source and his seeming dissociation of the love test from the political arena, the most helpful clue for resolving our bewilderment about Lear may lie buried in the extent of the parallel between the two old fathers who so radically mistake their children. Gloucester's conversations with Kent and, later, with Edmund do, after all, serve to frame Lear's initial appearance on stage. Moreover, the second scene is obviously written to invite comparison between Gloucester and Lear's folly. Edmund's response to Gloucester's first speech to him is Cordelia's “nothing,” and Gloucester's immediate rage at innocent Edgar baldly mimics Lear's sudden cursing of Cordelia.

Gloucester enters in the second scene of act 1 registering his shocked alarm at the king's erratic behavior in the opening scene. If there had been any doubts in the audience's mind about whether Lear had acted mistakenly or not there, Goneril and Regan's frank remarks at its conclusion about his “poor judgment” (1.1.291) dispelled them. Consequently, as soon as Gloucester laments

Kent banish'd thus? and France in choler parted?
And the King gone to-night? Prescrib'd his pow'r,
Confin'd to exhibition? All this done
Upon the gad?


our first reaction is to suppose that here is a man of some good sense and moral sensitivity. Though he is openly anxious (whereas Lear had initially appeared calm before his court), the favorable first impression Gloucester makes is not unlike the one Lear made on us by virtue of his seemingly egalitarian division of the kingdom and care to avoid the appearance of favoritism in his opening speeches. But there is a false note, however, in Gloucester's surprised lament. He is fearful that the king's most faithful counselor has been exiled, that a foreign king has left Britain angered, that the king has suddenly given over power to live in dependent status; but he has nothing to say about the central moral issue—the sin against Cordelia. That it is undoubtedly but an oversight does not make it any the less revealing. All the issues Gloucester remarks upon in consternation concern the king's imprudent exposure of himself to the vulnerability to attack, as if Lear's exposing himself was what was shocking and disturbing to him. The king and Gloucester, as one of the king's chief supporters, are both now imprudently endangered and exposed. Wisdom bids fear.

However, we have no reason to believe that Gloucester is afraid for Cordelia or even chagrined about the offense against her. But then, only fathers, not children, have ever been at the center of Gloucester's reckonings, at least if we take his earlier remark to Kent about Edgar as truthful: “But I have a son, sir, by order of law, some year elder than this, who yet is no dearer in my account” (1.1.19-21). If Gloucester's claim is for the impartiality of his love for his sons, it is impartiality toward strangers, more indifference than virtue. A bit later he unaccountably fails to recognize his own son Edgar's handwriting; and as for Edmund, he “hath been out nine years, and away he shall again” (1.1.32-33). What is more, for the short while we see Gloucester with Edmund initially, the father thinks nothing of making a series of lewd jests at his son's expense.

When banishing Cordelia, Lear speaks of her as “a stranger to my heart and me / … from this for ever” (1.1.115-16). That statement not only speaks the truth about the past and future of his relationship to his daughter with profound dramatic irony, but it also identifies the essence of Gloucester's relationship to his sons. Only with a stranger could one's distrustful fears be so overwhelming that one would cry villain and ultimately try to execute without trial (as Gloucester would Edgar) instead of “suspend[ing] your indignation … till you can derive from him better testimony of his intent” (1.2.80-82) than a rumored threat upon one's life. Edmund can probe so penetratingly into the wound of Gloucester's subconscious fear that his sons do not love him because the bastard knows so intimately the distant nature of his father's relationship to his sons. When he falsely attributes to Edgar the declaration of an “idle and fond bondage in the oppression of aged tyranny, who sways, not as it hath power, but as it is suffer'd” (1.2.49-51), he is not merely inventing a falsehood. Edgar has not made the statement, but it is true in the sense that it accurately describes the only seemingly “normal” dramatic interaction between Gloucester and Edmund that we have seen. Gloucester's “idle and fond” treatment of Edmund before Kent does, in fact, sway only “as it is suffer'd.”

If that one moment can be taken as a paradigm, it is a profound indictment of Gloucester's fatherhood. When Kent asks, “Is not this your son, my lord?” Gloucester cannot simply and straightforwardly acknowledge Edmund. Instead he calls distracting attention to himself with a jest, a smug admission that he is guilty as charged.

His breeding, sir, hath been at my charge.
I have so often blush'd to acknowledge him, that now
I am braz'd to 't.


“The quality of nothing hath not such need to hide itself.” His speech confirms that Gloucester's sin is not an isolated, fondly remembered act of lust but a brazenly dissolute attitude of being that dogs his every step and reenacts its shame again in this pretense of shamelessness. Gloucester treats his son shamelessly here, as if Edmund were not there before him absorbing the brutality of his “fondness” for him. Knowing little else but this callous, self-absorbed insensitivity, Edmund has found it easy to harden into shamelessness himself, the shamelessness of his outrage. When Gloucester claims—even if with conscious honesty—that the habit of admitting his paternity has inured him to his shame over the sin of Edmund's conception, we are tempted to quote the Fool to him.

The man that makes his toe
                                                  What he his heart should make,
Shall of a corn cry woe,
                                                  And turn his sleep to wake.


It is indeed true that Gloucester has become “braz'd” to the necessity of acknowledging Edmund; but far from being the positive development beyond the need for shame he would like to think it is, the very declaration unwittingly reveals him flaunting shameful unconcern for his son.

To have chosen the alternative he has rejected—to have made his heart rather than his toe his instrument of feeling—would have meant acknowledging Edmund as son, not merely “whoreson” and “knave.”8 When he admits to Kent that Edmund's “breeding, sir, hath been at my charge,” he does not realize that he is transforming his shame into a pastime. His jesting may cloak his shame for himself from himself and even from Kent well enough, but it also nakedly exposes his most serious crime to us. If Gloucester could hear himself properly he would be mortified to realize that his easy bravado in acknowledging the sinful “charge” of the bastard's idle and fond conception unknowingly flees its weightier “charge”—Gloucester's responsibility as a parent to make of Edmund's “breeding” a fully human affair by laboring to harmonize his natural affection for the boy with all the arts and graces of civilization in order to deliver a well-bred and gentle man, not a maimed and outraged cripple, to his adulthood. Of that responsibility he has been criminally negligent. Gloucester's self-indulgent failure to assume the burden of fatherhood reveals that his life has been ordinary until now, an unburdened crawl toward death, in which the shame originally attached to his own sinfulness has been conveniently transferred to Edmund and, with him, pushed out of sight. Having known the occasional twinges of anxiety we soon bury, wondering when the piper will be paid for our self-absorbed living and our failures to act upon our good intentions, we can appreciate the menace lurking in Gloucester's unknowing prophecy that the “whoreson must be acknowledg'd” (1.1.24). The latent irony in this statement extends even beyond the fact that the name of bastard will necessarily give way in Gloucester's reckoning to the unmasking of a more substantive bastardy in Edmund. The most dreadful sense in which it is fair to say that Gloucester does not know what he is saying is that he should come to acknowledge (though, in fact, he never does so) that Edmund has become a bastard in the moral sense of that word largely because Gloucester has been one in that same sense all along. Like Lear with Goneril and Regan, Gloucester never fully confronts the fact that the Edmund he has helped to create is in a very real sense a projection of his shame for himself: a “disease that's in my flesh,” which, though he should, he never does “call mine” (2.4.222-23).

The similarities between the two fathers so unknowingly estranged from their children that they do not recognize them and, so, banish their better parts “upon the gad” are too extensive to be insignificant. The crucial likeness, however, the one that informs and unites these other parallels into a meaning that begins to clarify Lear's enigmatic behavior remains to be discussed. Stanley Cavell's intuition about Gloucester's initial jest has even greater relevance to Lear's more formal address to the court: “Joking is a familiar specific for brazening out shame, calling attention to the thing you do not want naturally noticed.”9 In Lear's first speech to the court announcing both the abdication and the love test there appear to be a series of self-conscious attempts at humor and jest, though in some instances the levity is difficult to prove with any conclusiveness because it is so much a matter of inflection and delivery rather than any inevitable contextual sense of the lines. Perhaps the most difficult and debatable instance is Lear's expression of his hope that “future strife / May be prevented now” (1.1.44-45). If this remark is delivered unleavened by cajolery or a coaxing, somewhat whimsical half-seriousness, it clearly risks direct insult to his daughters and their husbands as a bald expression of the king's distrust. Nothing forbids the possibility of such directness, of course, or even of a righteously severe royal warning; but several related considerations would seem to make a severity of tone less likely. Were Lear to be severe or even merely serious here, his tone would depart jarringly and without warning from the obviously warmhearted and openly affectionate manner immediately preceding and following these words. Lear has just finished a familiar address to Cornwall as his “son” and to Albany as “our no less loving son” (1.1.41-42); and he also seems eager to present the division of the kingdom in a benign context of paternal largesse (“our daughters' several dowers”) in which his only hesitation or mock-hesitation is, as we soon discover, to whom shall be given his “largest bounty” (1.1.52). Moreover, the remarks that follow regarding France and Burgundy's “long … amorous sojourn” (1.1.47) at his court clearly bespeak a tone of high-spirited bemusement in the king. If we take Lear's hope that “future strife / May be prevented now” with complete seriousness, it also becomes difficult to reconcile that admonitory charge against conflict with his hope to resolve the possibility of future tensions with the present strife of his daughters, even if Lear might only be speaking of “challenge” metaphorically. It would seem at least possible as an alternative that both the remark about “future strife” and the present “challenge” are complementary parts of a jest Lear makes in order to brazen out his anxieties. Perhaps Lear is aware that the possibility of future strife cannot truly be “ruled out” of existence by his last royal edict in the present, that if anyone conceives of dominion over the others that person could give birth to strife. But perhaps he may feel pacified by speaking lightly of it, as if by making a symbolic mock conflict “now” in the love challenge he can treat the very real possibility of future conflict as something ridiculously remote and unnecessary since each daughter will have already contested for her fair share.

Fortunately, the two more crucial instances of Lear's jesting—one a remark about his abdication, the other about the love test—are not nearly so questionable in tone. Each definitely, if subtly, reveals Lear as at least marginally aware and embarrassed about the absurd figure he may be cutting; and each reveals a man, like Gloucester, who tries to pretend he is not ashamed in order to put both himself and others off his track. Lear's unacknowledged shame, unlike Gloucester's shame regarding Edmund, is not related to any sense of wrong-doing, however; it is, instead, a shame at his need for love and, beyond that, a shame for himself that makes him feel undeserving of the love he feels compelled to seek. In the absence of any evidence for a true spiritual turn to the contemplative life or any indication of aged debilitation, given his later spirited pranks, Lear's remark about an “unburthen'd crawl toward death” (1.1.41) urges us, with Lear's implicit approval, to skepticism. Lear uses the phrase as a daring bluff, a jest meant to fool everyone by fooling no one. If the statement results in his hearers making light of what he says—taking his jest in jest, refusing to concur in his confession of imminent weakness and incapacity, and protesting the opposite—Lear would not, of course, be displeased. But neither would he be anything but superficially annoyed were the statement greeted merely as a self-indulgent pretense of weakness from a still vigorous and capable old man cajoling special treatment from his subjects—as long as those same subjects tolerated his bidding. What he could not abide is that the others or he suspect that he is telling the truth. His jest is a pretense made to convince others and himself that he has faced and accepted what in fact he feels is too dreadful and shaming for speech: his abject status, the wormlike crawl he is making toward death, and his need for support and expressions of love.10 Though he never can admit to himself that this is his condition, he imagines himself “the basest beggar in poorest thing superfluous” who nonetheless feels compelled by his needs to seek alms and loving tribute for his nothing. Lear jests about himself, the part of himself he is most ashamed of and most fears, so that he will not have to take its reality seriously.

A similarly unconscious masquerade informs Lear's remark about the love auction a bit later:

(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?


The last line is a curious circumlocution. It awkwardly, but completely, omits any reference whatever to the demand that he is imposing on his daughters, avoids any direct indication, in fact, that he is now requesting that they outdo one another in speaking the extent of their love for him. Instead, his words glide past all that to construe his role as that of the noble and impartial judge who resolves disputes equitably after they have occurred. What he avoids saying or cannot bring himself to say is some indication of the embarrassment and hidden shame Lear feels at himself. The circumlocution thus helps him ignore what he considers his shameful need for love. Moreover, if we shift the emphasis of the sense and delivery of the final line from the imperial “we” to the word “say,” we uncover what may be an even more intolerable embarrassment in Lear. Certainly Lear would not mean to imply by the words “we say” any openly cynical distrust of his daughters' honesty; but he might suddenly feel compelled to make light of the whole contest at the last minute out of sheer embarrassment at what he is doing now that he is actually doing it. By jesting at himself, lamely insinuating that the whole thing is a joke they may share together, he sanctions speech that purposes not. Only then—when they need not really believe what they say any more than will he necessarily—can Lear find the psychological wherewithal to continue the artifice. Needing their love so desperately he will bribe for it, he cannot bear to face the fact that he is at their mercy begging them; so he sanctions words that are idle and swallows without comment fulsome praise so hyperbolic it contradicts itself in the telling when Goneril declares that she loves him “more than [words] can wield the matter” (1.1.55), with a love that makes “speech unable” (1.1.60), and Regan suggests that Goneril's words only “name my very deed of love” (1.1.71).

Both Gloucester and Lear then are alike in that we first see each of them openly admitting improprieties involving the prostitution of the love relationship (Gloucester's lust for Edmund's mother; Lear's buying his daughters' declarations of love) in order like brazen beggars to enforce charity for themselves (Gloucester from Kent; Lear from his distrusted daughters). To us, their jesting reveals the truth of their shame; but because they prefer to avoid their shame rather than accept it, they merely trifle with the truth. The apparent openness with which they speak about intimate matters is but a “presented nakedness” (2.3.11), a self-deceiving cloak that hides their abiding shame at themselves from themselves.11

The estrangement Lear reveals to us is complete. “He hath ever but slenderly known himself” (1.1.293-94), and, indeed, perhaps as a direct consequence, he has ever but slenderly known his children. By merely doting upon the daughter whose love has innocently fostered whatever well-being he feels, a self-absorbed Lear has for so long neglected his daughters' emotional needs and his paternal responsibility to lead them out of themselves that now Goneril and Regan's distrust of him has matured into a familial likeness of his estranged fear of them. If he, in advance of anticipated difficulties, demands from them a contractual assent to their obligation to deliver services for which he will pay in advance, then Goneril, too, can make special arrangements to “take away the harms I fear” (1.4.329). If, in effect, Lear makes fools of his daughters by asking them to compete over their portions of the kingdom when the division has already been made, he should not be so shocked and outraged to find that Goneril has been speaking with him to purpose not about her request to reduce his train when she has already dismissed “fifty of my followers at a clap” (1.4.294). And when, following Lear's threat to “resume the shape which thou dost think / I have cast off for ever” (1.4.309-10), we hear a smugly vindicated Goneril tell Albany, “What he hath utter'd I have writ my sister” (1.4.331), we also recognize her as her father's daughter, hoping that by acting in advance of anticipated difficulties “future strife / May be prevented now” (1.1.44-45). Finally, in the absence of pressing political demands arguing the need for abdication, Lear's resignation of kingship implies an alienation from his public identity as well. His speech and actions in act 1, scene 1, suggest that he has not lived his reign as a sacred bond of devoted service to his people but as a superficial burden of “cares and business” that have kept him occupied and distracted while his hidden self has stood aloof from the performance of his duties, no matter how conscientiously he may have performed them.

The most explicit intimations of Lear's buried sense of himself and his superfluous condition reveal themselves indirectly in his own words to Regan and then to Goneril and Regan in the scene just previous to his exit into the storm. In a theatrical gesture before Regan, as he kneels in mock penitence to an absent Goneril, Lear makes a very real if unspoken plea not to be humiliated by Regan in the way he feels he has been humiliated by Goneril. Although protected by the cover of his mocking pretense and the ulterior motive in this “unsightly trick,” Lear nonetheless confesses to us as to his daughter Regan his secret sense of his true condition.

“I confess that I am old; [Kneeling.]
Age is unnecessary. On my knees I beg
That you'll vouchsafe me raiment, bed, and food.”


The same despairing sense of his own helpless contingency is symbolically suggested again later when Lear, the beggar-king, speaking of “basest beggars” as if there could be no human creatures further from his royal station, dismisses their needs with contempt.

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.


Despite the a fortiori appeal Lear makes here for better treatment than basest beggars receive or deserve, his argument is not as self-evidently compelling as he would like to think it is. Lear counts on impressing his daughters with a clear sense of the distinction between his majesty and the abject lowliness of beggars, but the sense of his own words indicates he is dimly aware that there is no intrinsic or logically necessary difference between king and beggar. Lear's peremptory claim for special treatment subtly exposes his suppressed awareness of identity with the most contemptible beings. Moreover, when we realize what Lear does not—the “basest” beggars are not the ragged, maimed, and helpless creatures whose very appearance makes us ashamed of our not helping them, but those idle men who, like Lear before Goneril and Regan, though capable of giving succor instead demand it from those less capable of giving it—we also realize it is not poverty or even nature but not listening to shame itself that makes life “cheap as beast's.”

If there were any question that Shakespeare wishes us to ponder the oxymoron of king as basest beggar, it is resolved by the symbolic import of Lear's disgust with the lackey, Oswald. When Oswald irreverently remarks to Lear that he is “my lady's father” (1.4.79), Lear flies into a rage, striking him and calling him “slave” and “cur” (1.4.81). Then, later, when he realizes that Oswald's earlier arrival may have soured his welcome at Regan's and then Gloucester's, he claims that his disgust with “this detested groom” (2.4.217) is exceeded only by his hatred for Goneril. He cannot stand to look at the self-important valet:

This is a slave whose easy-borrowed pride
Dwells in the [fickle] grace of her he follows.
Out, varlet, from my sight!


One can understand why Oswald inspires disgust. He is as despicable as Kent's litany of abuse indicates: he is a “brazen-fac'd varlet,” a “superserviceable, finical rogue,” a “bawd in way of good service” (2.2.18-20). But such abuse is only fair to the “codpiece” half of his story. Like the rest of us, Oswald has his “grace” too. His devotion to Goneril mitigates the hatefulness of his very real vices, just as the same virtue mitigates the same vices in his self-righteous accuser, Kent.

It is true that Oswald behaves shamefully in his first meeting with Lear. Yet Shakespeare symbolically hints at the residual “grace” Oswald will later manifest when he refuses to betray Goneril's trust to Regan. In the first section of act 1, scene 4 (111-94), Shakespeare has designed a curious parody of the initial love test. It is curious especially because, against the grain of our expectations, he has cast Kent in Goneril and Regan's role as flatterer and Oswald in Cordelia's role as truthteller. Shakespeare's calling up Cordelia's likeness in Oswald's reply to Lear seems a puzzling generosity to Oswald, even if we acknowledge that his and Cordelia's motives in truthtelling differ radically. But let us return to that later. For the moment, let us examine the relevant segment of dialogue depicting a still-soliciting Lear and Kent as a flatterer.

Dost thou know me, fellow?
No, sir, but you have that in your countenance which I would fain call master.
What's that?


Here, as earlier, Lear openly seeks a public recognition of his worth; and when he receives in reply a speech that flatters his sense of himself, even if it clearly seems to strain credulity, he rewards it with an indifferent and therefore nearly insulting approval not very different from the silence with which he had paid Goneril and Regan. “Follow me, thou shalt serve me. If I like thee no worse after dinner, I will not part from thee yet. Dinner, ho, dinner!” (1.4.40-42). But when Oswald replies without flattery to the same sort of question—“Who am I, sir?” (1.4.78)—a question whose tone commands reverence or at least the appearance of it, he is cursed and banished like Cordelia. By identifying the king with insulting carelessness as “my lady's father” (1.4.79) Oswald confirms for Lear what the rogue's first refusal to acknowledge Lear's call had indicated: a valet feels he can insult a king with impunity, can speak of the king as if he were nothing. In his fury Lear is no more capable of responding consciously to the reverberations Oswald's statement carry any more than he was able in his rage to bring to consciousness the hidden depths of Cordelia's “nothing.”

But having called up the image of Cordelia in Oswald's reply to Lear, Shakespeare surprises us yet again. Once Oswald has unknowingly delivered his oracle, the symbolic parallel to Cordelia breaks down. Shakespeare is not, however, finished with correspondences. After Oswald has been cursed and attacked for truth telling, he does not react in the way Cordelia had but, surprisingly enough, in exactly the way Lear reacts to his daughters whenever they slight his dignity—with self-righteous but impotent protest: “I'll not be strucken, my lord” (1.4.85). Oswald's pleas of protest, like Lear's before Goneril and Regan, only serve to produce more severe humiliations and then flight. It is little wonder, therefore, that Lear cannot bear the sight of Oswald: to look at Oswald would force him to see himself in the “slave whose easy-borrowed pride lives in the fickle grace of her he follows.” As Lear moves from daughter to daughter, his shame wears its easily borrowed pride only so long as the daughters he depends upon are willing in their fickle turns to grant it.

Were Lear truly to recognize his identity with Oswald as the basest sort of beggar, the ultimate effect would mean, as one might suspect, a fall into the depths of despair; but that very process could also lead to healing. To suggest how, we must reconsider Shakespeare's seemingly arbitrary, if glancing, reminiscence of Cordelia in Oswald's part in the parody of the love test. When Oswald calls Lear “my lady's father,” Lear takes his remark merely as an unforgiveable insult. It is certainly true that Oswald's speech is meant to insult Lear and that the valet does not love the king. But if Lear could “stand for” Oswald lovingly enough to come to understand him more fully, he would realize that Oswald is, nonetheless, genuinely devoted to Goneril. The basest beggar is capable of love. Consequently, his calling Lear “my lady's father” could never be merely an insult. In a symbolic sense at least, it is a gesture of praise or tribute: the old king is not a vile nobody, but the father of Oswald's beloved queen. The only virtuous transcendence of shame begins with its acceptance. It is a curious paradox that as long as we attempt to flee shame in order to maintain the pretense of our own purity and virtue we can never overcome our self-absorption. But if, in despair, we admit our shame we may also begin to transcend it because we will have given up the lonely exile of the fugitive's flight from his crime and, consequently, will be permitted to enter a community in which reciprocity and love are possible.

If we try to write a synopsis of the first two acts of King Lear in order to integrate the scattered observations we have been making about various scenes in this chapter and the last, we could say that acts 1 and 2 are a series of mirroring encounters between Lear and other characters punctuated only by scenes in the subplot involving Gloucester with Edmund and Edgar in soliloquy.12 Even these scenes from the subplot do not, however, finally divert us from our ever-deepening and more certain sense of Lear in hiding. They, too, like the mirroring encounters, ultimately serve by means of symbolic correspondences to intimate depths beyond the surface of Lear's acts. The juxtaposition of Gloucester and Lear jesting to brazen out their shame and enforce charity prefaces Lear's oracular encounters with Cordelia and Oswald. Then the Fool lovingly confronts Lear with a sweet and bitter image of himself before Lear flees that door to freedom only to rage, like a caged bird, at his own image in the person of Goneril while Albany's repeated offers of mediation go unheard. Edgar's “disguise” soliloquy also emblematically defines the nature of Lear's self-disguise in exile. And, finally, when Lear unknowingly beholds the mirroring humiliation of Kent stocked, we see in small what awaits him before his daughters in the final scene of act 2.

Such a synopsis suggests the bifurcated effect of the play to this point. The difference between the overtly dramatic and the more obscure symbolic effects of the encounters and juxtapositions in these two acts is so marked that it seems as if we are speaking of two different plays simultaneously. Were it not for the more important and serious drama we sense silently developing below the surface, the literal drama would legitimately prove Lear a character unable to sustain sympathy and concern. For in it Lear plays an arrogant, self-important, willfully impatient and resentful part in a ludicrous series of follies and comeuppances until, by the end of act 2, what Cornwall says of Kent's humiliation can appropriately describe Lear as well: “His own disorders / Deserv'd much less advancement” (2.4.199-200).13 Lear strikes us as more than the sum of his disorders, however, because we sense that he is also the protagonist in the tragic dumb show we have just summarized.14 The “external [manners] of laments” nearly alienating us from Lear never fully mask from us the strangling shame that “swells with silence in [his] tortur'd soul.” Not the security and distance that laughter provides, but only compassion and dread can comprehend the drama of silence enacted on the symbolic plane of Lear's otherwise ludicrous encounters with others (even those we have yet to discuss: one involving Edgar in act 3, the other, Gloucester in act 4). Our compassion for Lear as a figure of tragic stature grows despite the foolish willfulness with which he may behave at any particular moment. At one point, for example, because he is outraged that half his train has been dismissed, Lear threatens to reascend the throne. The threat may seem more foolish than terrible, but in the final analysis that does not undermine a certain tragic grandeur in the man. We know there is little likelihood that Lear will attempt to make good on his threat to “take't again perforce” (1.5.40) from Goneril, but not because Lear is afraid of the attempt or because he does not, realistically speaking, have the power to do so. Lear shows no fear in facing the storm or attacking Cordelia's hangman. Moreover, if he really desired to, Lear could very likely rally enough support in his kingdom to mount a realistic challenge, especially given the way Goneril has repaid his apparent generosity. We sense, rather, that actual violence upon his daughters is unlikely because we know that no matter how imperiously and manipulatively Lear may act, his is not a rage for domination but a rage for acceptance. And because we are at least intuitively aware that beneath Lear's brittle facade of dignity confirmed or denied lies a nearly unthinkable and certainly unspeakable void, we must take these pleas for acceptance with a seriousness they do not seem to warrant, since in repeatedly making them he can tolerate no slight to his superficial but desperately maintained sense of self-esteem.

If recognizing these hidden needs and avoidances arouses pity in us, the way Lear responds to the frustration of his need for acceptance awakens fear at his titanic agony. Like Oedipus, that other great stranger to himself and his people, once Lear's tenuously maintained self-respect has been jeopardized, he, too, commits himself with extraordinary determination to a quest to discover the reality and meaning of his condition, no matter how degrading and convulsive that condition may be for him or what suffering it may demand. Though every action Lear performs reveals him foolishly demanding that his daughters and then the heavens honor and express love for him on his terms, his folly does not efface the terrible strength with which he greets the repeated refusals of daughters and gods to satisfy him. With an ever-broadening and deepening comprehension of his insecure position in the world, he chooses to keep before himself, without mitigation or trivial distraction, what he understands to be the misery he suffers—the deprivation of love. He shuns nothing that threatens to deepen this sense and experience of his or man's condition. He would, in fact, rather “abjure all roofs” than stop attempting to make sense of his experience or passively accept and live on someone else's trivialized terms.

Perhaps the clearest indication of the unrelenting nature of this quest can be seen if we contrast Lear's attitude toward and experience of suffering with Gloucester's after his blinding.15 In most ways, Gloucester acts as Lear's double, even to the extent that, like the king, he radically mistakes the source and meaning of his misery, though suffering greatly. But when we compare their fates, Gloucester shows himself the king's foil—playing a suicidal Jocasta to Lear's Oedipus. If we consider the reversals that repeatedly humiliate the blind earl's desires, first to redeem his “abused” life by asserting a commanding dignity in death and then, when his suicide attempt misfires, his hope for his own murder or madness as a delivery from the insulting consciousness of his own fallibilities and degradation, we come to realize that Edgar is not the only member of his family who “must play fool to sorrow / Ang'ring itself and others” (4.1.38-39).16

Amplifying too much in the consistently contradictory and therefore essentially ironic sequence of “philosophical” remarks he suddenly begins making to a disguised Edgar now leading him, blind Gloucester also “tops [the] extremity” of the sorrow he has already suffered. Based on the things Gloucester says and does after his mutilation by Cornwall, it would certainly be difficult to defend a claim for any significant growth in his understanding of himself and his condition. Indeed, in his last major speech in which he expresses his envy of the distracted king and, thus, a curious self-pity (given the grotesque condition of the king he and we have just witnessed), Gloucester seems anything but wise.

The King is mad; how stiff is my vild sense
That I stand up, and have ingenious feeling
Of my huge sorrows! Better I were distract,
So should my thoughts be sever'd from my griefs,
And woes by wrong imaginations lose
The knowledge of themselves.


Gloucester's unconscious method here—deflecting attention from the king's greater grief to evoke sympathy for his own lesser one—is not significantly different from that in his previous encounter with a distracted Lear before his blinding. There, we recall, a Gloucester similarly absorbed in his own grief had begged Caius for sympathy while the king raved:

Thou sayest the King grows mad, I'll tell thee, friend,
I am almost mad myself. I had a son,
Now outlaw'd from my blood; he sought my life,
But lately, very late. I lov'd him, friend,
No father his son dearer; true to tell thee,
The grief hath craz'd my wits.


Clearly we should not minimize the heroism in Gloucester's decision to risk himself to aid the king in act 3, nor his very real and unselfish expression of sympathy for the king in their encounter in act 4, especially since by then Gloucester has found torture his only reward for his troubled efforts to help Lear. Nor should we underestimate or patronize the mental torments urging Gloucester to make the kind of remarks quoted. But these considerations do not finally prevent Gloucester's calling attention to himself before Caius and Lear in act 3 from striking us in context as somewhat melodramatic and less than generous. Nor does his earlier generosity diminish the foolish and self-pitying delusion of this speech in act 4. Gloucester is surely no worse off now than the raving king is. In fact, the dramatic irony in his words reveals he is more like the distracted king than a man too sane for his own good. Even after his blinding, Gloucester's “thoughts” remain “severed from [his] griefs,” his woes proving a distraction in which they “lose / The knowledge of themselves” by “wrong imaginations.” As in Lear's case, his “grief lies all within”; and his philosophical curses and prayers to the gods—“these external [manners] of laments”—are merely “shadows to the unseen grief” in himself he still has not fathomed. Even blind, he is so ashamed of his shameful acts that he flees from an acknowledgment of their shamefulness. Because he cannot, like Cordelia, “become” his sorrow, he only compounds it. In the face of his humiliation—the shame at having mistaken his sons and the vulnerability his mutilation keeps before him constantly—Gloucester imagines he can yet see his dignified way clear to victory. To shield himself from his own misery, he holds to a fanciful and delusive hope (as against true and generous hope), speciously imagining he can triumph over the vulnerability he suffers and the catastrophic mistake he has so clearly made. These are the “wrong imaginations” that forbid knowledge of himself and his true grief. Whether wrongly fancying he possesses the unhindered imperial power to execute himself with a dignity and impunity his life has not provided him (and thus tyrannize over heaven's tyrannical will), or wrongly calling for murder or madness to hasten his abdication from the community of man and the hidden reality of his shame, Gloucester persists in trying to “enforce [the] charity” of oblivion for himself rather than accepting charity for himself and giving it to others.

This last contrast between giving and enforcing charity is the burden of the irony in Gloucester's foolish lament about his remaining sane. Regretting the sensitive capacity of “ingenious feeling” clearly undermines any positive metaphorical sense in which we may have been tempted to take Gloucester's earlier remarks about how the “lust-dieted man … will not see / Because he does not feel” (4.1.67-69) and how he himself now “see[s] … feelingly” the way the world goes (4.6.149). For here, presumably at the end of his spiritual journey, Gloucester openly condemns any value in feeling. Distraught by his agony and filled with self-contempt, the blind earl's “other senses” do indeed “grow imperfect / By [his] eyes' anguish” (4.6.5-6). No more precious to him now that he is blind, he condemns them as “vild,” ironically concurring in this assessment with Cornwall's horrifying contempt for his eyes as “vild jelly” (3.7.83). The most profound irony in Gloucester's words, however, is the truth that he unknowingly speaks: “The King is mad. How stiff is my vild sense, / That I stand up and have ingenious feeling / Of my huge sorrow!” (4.6.279-81) Gloucester “stiff(ly),” that is, stubbornly sins against generous love for the king in his own self-regarding grief. Love is not love that “stands up” for itself to stand aloof from the entire point. He could yield and bow to active care for Lear and himself, not envy the king his madness in contempt for his own suffering, just as he could have sought reparation and atonement rather than suicide after the blinding.

In Gloucester unacknowledged shame itself speaks for the instant remedy of death, not to secure atonement with the community but as a secure abdication from it. Initially it might appear that his remarks to the old man guiding him, his gift of his purse to Poor Tom, and his speech about distribution undoing excess imply a significant new generosity of spirit in the earl; but that first impression will not bear scrutiny. Gloucester may feel that banishing the old man from his sight is a generous gesture made for the servant's own good (“Thy comforts can do me no good at all; / Thee they may hurt” [4.1.16-17]; “Do as I bid thee, or rather do thy pleasure; / Above the rest, be gone” [4.1.47-48], but the tone of his dismissal, imperious and subtly insulting, hints just the opposite—that the banishment is really for Gloucester's wrongly imagined benefit, not his servant's. In the first place, despairing insistences condemn his servant to impotence by forbidding him the moral dignity of his choice in the matter. Banishing his servant to stand apart allows Gloucester, even in despair, to nurse the pretense of his own power. Alone but for a madman, he can subtly anesthetize his painful shame before others—his sense that he is utterly at their mercy, weak, vulnerable, and, despite his protestations to the contrary (4.1.77-78), desperately in need of someone to lead him who can discern his state better than he himself does.

When Gloucester blindly claims, “I have no way, and therefore want no eyes; / I stumbled when I saw”, (4.1.18-19), we realize that even his despair is a defense against his experience of fallibility and weakness. He does “want eyes” because, as Shakespeare's symbolic staging of his suicide attempt confirms, “our mere defects” are no “commodity” in that sense. Blindness will not protect us from blindness.17 Edgar's ruse proves Gloucester can “stumble” when he is blind as well. As for his speech about “distribution”—

Here, take this purse, thou whom the heav'ns' plagues
Have humbled to all strokes. That I am wretched
Makes thee the happier; 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 pow'r quickly;
So distribution should undo excess,
And each man have enough.


—the obvious irony bred of the fact that Edgar is the man whom Gloucester's first two declarations wrongly describe should awaken suspicion about the remainder. What Gloucester does not realize in beseeching the gods to punish on is that he is only calling further punishment on himself and those close to him. The difference between the “lust-dieted” man and the loving one is the difference between willful self-gratification and real generosity. His attempted suicide is no generosity to himself or to others but a willful “excess,” a superfluous misery conceived to gratify his self-contempt. When Gloucester is dead, or even when all the “lust-dieted” men suffer as he has suffered, each man will not have enough. That kind of distribution is not pastoral's sharing of the good and goods in common joy; it is torture that tops the extremity of woe.

The way in which Gloucester greets his failed suicide attempt—

Is wretchedness depriv'd that benefit,
To end itself by death? 'Twas yet some comfort,
When misery could beguile the tyrant's rage,
And frustrate his proud will.


—gives the lie to his pretense of patience and renunciation in the suicide prayer made moments earlier.

                                                  O you mighty gods!
This world I do renounce, and in your sights
Shake patiently my great affliction off.
If I could bear it longer, and not fall
To quarrel with your great opposeless wills,
My snuff and loathed part of nature should
Burn itself out.


It is no accident that the latter quotation should so remind us of Lear's abdication speech, his decision to “shake all cares … from our age,” renounce the world, and crawl toward death. Each, pretending dignity, holds himself in contempt. Except for his genuine belief that his is but the “snuff and loathed part of nature,” all other claims Gloucester makes here are merely a bewildered pretense.18 Contrary to his claim, and though suffering mercilessly, there is no question of whether or not he can “bear it longer,” but only whether his stiff, unwavering refusal to live since his blinding can imply anything but that he has not been able to bear it at all. Even later, in a seemingly more resigned mood, Gloucester reveals he has never fully internalized his suffering and, in loving pity, learned to tolerate it.

                                                  Henceforth I'll bear
Affliction till it do cry out itself
“Enough, enough,” and die.


This is not patience, but an unyieldingly painful confrontation with his own misery in which he will wrestle his way to victory even as he dies, just as previously in his suicide attempt he continued to “quarrel” with gods he did not truly believe “opposeless” at all since he felt that he could “beguile the tyrant's rage / And frustrate his proud will.”

The true penitent's renunciation would involve sacrificing something he has wrongly loved; Gloucester only wishes to crush his “snuff and loathed” life to spite his blind eyes. The failure of the attempt does not give him a discerning pause. It is true that he comes to realize he was living in illusion when, first blinded and immediately thereafter, he found life “all dark and comfortless” (3.7.85). Now, he recognizes “'twas yet some comfort, / When misery could beguile the tyrant's rage, / And frustrate his proud will.” (4.6.62-64) Not being the worst stands in some rank of praise to be longed for. The unknowing irony in his words, however, shows that Gloucester is taking paltry comfort from the presumption he will have none. Gloucester intends to speak of the “tyrant's rage” and “proud will” of the gods, but his is the more demonstrably tyrannical and unyielding will at work in the play. His miseries once held “some comfort”; but even after the failure of his suicide has again “frustrated” his “proud will,” the resulting misery seduces him into the lonely and vain comfort of this new form of despair. His failure has at least temporarily beguiled his tyrannical rage, but it has not “fooled” him enough to put him at his or pastoral's ease in bearing's fellowship. Without generosity toward himself or another, and thinking himself the “worst and most dejected thing of fortune,” he cannot yet, like Cordelia and the Fool, take ease's comfort, “Stand still in esperance,” and, like them, “return to laughter.”

Lear may ultimately suffer no more wisely than Gloucester does, but he does so much more grandly and terribly as we shall see. If, in the final analysis, Lear's growing miseries, like Gloucester's, are endured in an unconsciously defensive and self-defeating attempt to avoid even greater misery, Lear's avoidance is a far more subtle matter than Gloucester's suicidal flight to oblivion. If Lear flees himself he does so bravely attempting to confront himself. If he persists in abdicating from the community of man, he does so even as he involves himself experientially and conceptually in man's suffering in more profound terms than he had previous to the division of the kingdom. As we watch Lear's miseries deepen and broaden, physically, emotionally, and intellectually, right up to the end, what builds in us is a terrible pity for him as a man who in seeking what he assumes to be the highest good does only evil, who in relentlessly seeking the truth always falls short of it. Watching Lear undo himself and die in agony over Cordelia makes us aware that even the greatest suffering need not purify or make us wise. Because the avoidances he lives are so subtly tempting to us all, the Tantalus vision his fate embodies gives us an inkling of the frightful meaning of Kent's riddle: “Nothing almost sees miracles but misery.”


  1. Cf. Van Laan, “Acting as Action in King Lear,” in Some Facets of “King Lear,” p. 59.

  2. As Soji Iwasaki, “Time and Truth in King Lear,” in English Criticism in Japan, p. 67, states: “To have the nominal authority of a king and a hundred knights for hunting and banqueting, however, is in fact to be a holiday king, or a Lord of Misrule.”

  3. Both William Frost, “Shakespeare's Rituals and the Opening of King Lear,” reprinted from The Hudson Review in Shakespeare: The Tragedies, pp. 190-200 and Elliott, “The Initial Contrast in King Lear,” pp. 235-50, argue that the first scene is a spectacular dramatic introduction about which we need not raise questions regarding the central characters' motives.

    The problem with the ingenious analysis of the first scene made by John R. Dove and Peter Gamble, “Our Darker Purpose: The Division Scene in Lear,Neuphilologische Mitteilungen 70 (1969): 306-18, is that if, as they maintain, Lear's coronet for Cordelia is to be a surprise bequest in exchange for her marrying neither of her suitors, then they cannot logically argue that her replies to Lear are clipped because she realizes that to express her love would be to sacrifice herself to Lear. If his plan is a surprise, she cannot know that.

  4. Cf. Goldberg, Essay on “King Lear,” p. 112: “His speech about ‘need’ significantly breaks off when it brings him face to face with the utter impotence of his will to make the external world yield satisfaction.”

  5. Ribner, Patterns in Shakespearean Tragedy, p. 118, and Granville-Barker Prefaces to Shakespeare. Vol II. (Princeton, N. J.: Princeton University Press, 1946), p. 30. See also Sigurd Burckhardt, Shakespearean Meanings (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1968), p. 247.

  6. Shakespeare and the Common Understanding (N.Y.: Free Press, 1967), pp. 32-33; Cf. Champion, Shakespeare's Tragic Perspective, pp. 156-57.

  7. Cf. Van Laan, “Acting as Action in King Lear,” p. 64.

  8. Cf. “Avoidance of Love,” p. 276. Cavell's entire discussion of the Gloucester-Edmund relationship is a profound one.

  9. Ibid., p. 277.

  10. It is difficult to agree with Cavell (ibid., pp. 288-90) that what Lear really wants is “false love” or that he has a “terror of being loved.” If those are his desires and fears, he does not require a love test to gain the former and avoid the latter.

  11. If Shakespeare were seriously interested in suggesting that unacknowledged incestuous desires were the cause of Lear's behavior in act 1, scene 1, he would not have found it necessary to develop a subplot. The extensive number of parallels we have just seen between Gloucester and Lear would appear to argue that Shakespeare's vision of things is embodied in the behavior of both old men. For claims that an incest theme exists, see Arpad Pauncz, “Psychopathology of Shakespeare's King Lear,” AI 9(1952): 57-58; John Donnelly, “Incest, Ingratitude, and Insanity: Aspects of the Psychopathology of King Lear,” Psychoanalytic Review 40(1953): 149-53; F. L. Lucas, Literature and Psychology (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1957), pp. 62-71; Mark Kanzer, “Imagery in King Lear,AI 22(1965): 3-13; Jorgensen, Lear's Self-Discovery, pp. 128-29; S. C. V. Stetner and Oscar B. Goodman, “Lear's Darker Purpose,” L&P 18 (1968): 82-90; William Chaplin, “Form and Psychology in King Lear,L&P 19(1969): 31-45; Simon O. Lesser, “Act One, Scene One, of Lear,CE 32 (1970-71): 155-71; Leslie Fiedler, The Stranger in Shakespeare (N.Y.: Stein & Day, 1972), pp. 209-15; Cavell, “Avoidance of Love,” p. 296. Both Stephen Reid, “In Defense of Goneril and Regan,” AI 27 (1970): 238 and Alan Dundes, “To Love My Father All: A Psychoanalytic Study of the Folktale Source of King Lear,SFQ, 40 (1976): 361, even argue that Cordelia is the one with the hidden incestuous desires!

  12. Speaking of the tragedies in general, Mack, “Jacobean Shakespeare,” p. 43, insightfully identifies the structural practice in King Lear: “During the hero's journey, or at any rate during his over-all progress in the second phase, he will normally pass through a variety of mirroring situations … (though it will be by us and not him that the likeness in the mirror is seen).” Cf. Reibetanz, “Theatrical Emblems in King Lear,” p. 39 and Fly, “Beyond Extremity,” p. 109.

  13. Margaret Webster, Shakespearean Tragedy (London: J. M. Dent, 1957), pp. 216-17; Jones, Scenic Form in Shakespeare, p. 181; McFarland, Tragic Meanings in Shakespeare, p. 128—all seem to agree with Schucking, “Character and Action: King Lear,” p. 61, when he claims that until act 3 Lear shows a lack of judgment and immoderation like that in act 1, scene 1. “Nevertheless, the poet evidently does not wish him to forfeit thereby the sympathy of the spectator, though it is put to a very severe test.” Cf. Edward A. Block, “King Lear: A Study in Balanced and Shifting Sympathies,” SQ 10 (1959): 499-512.

  14. Cf. Stockholder, “Multiple Genres of King Lear,” 46-47.

  15. Both Jorgensen, Lear's Self-Discovery, pp. 92-93, and Norman Council, When Honour's at the Stake: Ideas of Honour in Shakespeare's Plays (N.Y.: Barnes and Noble, 1973), p. 153, argue that Gloucester functions as a foil to Lear because of his defeatism.

  16. Bridget G. Lyons, “The Subplot as Simplification in King Lear,” in Some Facets of “King Lear”, p. 31, uses act 2, scene 4, 146-50 as an effective emblematic motto for Gloucester's suicide; but I cannot agree with either her or John Danby, “King Lear and Christian Patience,” in Poets on Fortune's Hill (Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat Press, 1966), p. 126, that Gloucester finally gains patience and fulfillment.

  17. Cf. Rosenberg, Masks of “King Lear”, p. 242.

  18. Cf. Enright, Shakespeare and the Students, p. 54.

Thomas C. Kennedy (essay date 1999)

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Last Updated on February 5, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6641

SOURCE: “Lear: Plot and Theme,” in Studia Neophilologica, Vol. 71, No. 1, 1999, pp. 51-61.

[In the following essay, Kennedy contrasts the happy ending of The True Chronicle History of King Leir with Shakespeare's version of the play, arguing that Shakespeare’s ending is essential to establishing the theme of King Lear.]

When Shakespeare wrote his version of the Lear story, he changed the ending. In all the previous versions, Cordelia and Lear won the battle, and Lear was restored to his throne, but Shakespeare transformed victory into defeat, restoration into death.

Explanations as to why Shakespeare changed the ending have tended to be circumstantial. Thus Kenneth Muir argues that Shakespeare had to condense the loosely connected events of the chronicle into a tighter time frame for stage presentation, a circumstance of genre.1 The deaths of father and daughter, occurring three and seven years after their victory in Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniœ2 are precipitated by Shakespeare abruptly after the battle, and all other changes in plot including the outcome of the battle are, according to Muir, the result of this one difference in the time frame. Irving Ribner argues from a different circumstance: international relations. According to Ribner, from at least 1588 on, a foreign invasion was too threatening to Shakespeare's audience, and therefore Shakespeare changed the ending.3

Nevertheless, an anonymous play with the traditional happy ending, The True Chronicle Historie of King Leir and his three daughters, was performed in London at about the same time as Shakespeare's King Lear and served as Shakespeare's immediate source.4 Since a dramatic version with a happy ending thus already existed, a play that did not include the deaths of Lear and Cordelia, a play in which a foreign army invaded and triumphed, and since this play, although written a few years earlier,5 was performed at about the same time, it follows that a play with a happy ending was at least possible in spite of the circumstances cited by Muir and Ribner. In the article that follows, I shall argue that the ending of Shakespeare's Lear is determined not by circumstances of genre or politics, but by theme, that because Shakespeare chose to express a different theme, therefore he changed the ending, and that because the ending of Shakespeare's version is thus radically different from all previous versions, therefore this ending is essential to the meaning of Shakespeare's play as perceived by the playwright and his audience.

In the Cinderella variants from which Geoffrey of Monmouth derived the Lear story and in the Lear-story tradition following Geoffrey, the heroine's verbal response at the love test generates the conflict of the narrative and expresses the theme of the story.6 In the earliest versions this statement of theme takes the form of a riddle.

In the Cinderella variants, for example, the youngest daughter, when asked how much she loves her father, replies that she loves him as much as salt. As Wilfred Perrett points out, the folktale heroine reverses the love test and poses a riddle to her father.7 The father, thinking that salt is worth nothing, fails the reversed test and disinherits his daughter. Later, invited to her wedding, he is served a meal without salt, realizes his error and is reconciled with his daughter. Thus, in the folktale, salt is a metaphor: the father considers salt to be nothing of value, and his failure to value salt corresponds to his failure to value love itself rather than the expression of love.

In Shakespeare's more immediate source, The True Chronicle Historie of King Leir and his three daughters, the heroine responds to the love test by expressing her distaste for flattery, thus explicitly stating the play's theme:

Speak now, Cordella, make my joyes at full,
And drop downe Nectar from thy hony lips.
I cannot paynt my duty forth in words,
I hope my deeds shall make report of me:
But looke what love the child doth owe the father,
The same to you I beare, my gracious Lord.


Shakespeare paraphrases this passage at 1.1.91-93, but he does not use the paraphrase as his heroine's initial response. Instead he interposes a very different sort of dialogue between father and daughter:

… what can you say to draw
A third more opulent than your sisters? Speak.
Nothing, my lord.
Nothing will come of nothing. Speak again.


In The True Chronicle Historie, the heroine later remarks of her father that “He loved me not and therefore gave me nothing” (653).10 Thus, the heroine's “nothing” in The True Chronicle Historie refers to the canceled inheritance and is the same as the first “nothing” in Shakespeare's “Nothing will come of nothing” (1.1.90). This may have been a starting point for Shakespeare. Beyond this, however, neither the form nor the content of Shakespeare's dialogue is derived from The True Chronicle Historie. For the form, for the brevity and ambiguity of Cordelia's response, Shakespeare seems to have reached back beyond the anonymous play to earlier sources, the Lear-story's original version by Geoffrey of Monmouth and versions of the Cinderella variants.11

The initial response of Shakespeare's heroine, “Nothing,” is similar to the folktale response in its brevity. And like the daughter of the folktale, Shakespeare's heroine tests her father, presenting him with an answer that could have several meanings: (1) I can not speak at all, (2) I can say “nothing,” (3) No matter what I say, it does not really make any difference anyway because you have already decided how you are going to divide the kingdom.12

The stated intention in the first aside was to remain silent: “What shall Cordelia speak? Love and be silent” (1.1.62). Cordelia's aside expresses a radical iconoclasm, a complete denial of language, of the possibility of any verbal communication with her father. Cordelia's stated intention to remain silent is seemingly motivated by the corruption of language in the society around her. Since her sisters have appropriated the rhetorical forms by which love might be expressed, Cordelia is left with nothing that could clearly distinguish her true from their false love. Language has been so debased as to become, in her eyes, nothing of value. Only a complete denial of language can suggest something beyond language, a truth that language reports rather than a fiction that language creates and tries to palm off as truth.13 Ironically, however, Cordelia must think, must formulate her own intentions, must communicate to herself and thus to the audience, in language. She must deny the value of language in language.14

Instead of remaining silent Cordelia chooses to speak, offering her father a riddle. Saying that she can not say anything is itself a paradox since she does say something, the word, “nothing.” Like his folktale original, Lear fails to appreciate the true value of his daughter's response and thus fails the reversed test, losing this opportunity offered to him by his daughter. Cordelia's riddle, like the folktale heroine's riddle, offers her father the opportunity to discover a new meaning, to see the familiar in a new way. Moreover, Cordelia's “nothing” corresponds to the value that the folktale father places on his daughter's response, “salt.” In other words, Cordelia's answer corresponds to the folktale father's misunderstanding. And her riddle is just as difficult or even more difficult because it is as abstract and metaphysical as the folktale daughter's answer is material and concrete.

Dissatisfied with his daughter's initial response, Shakespeare's king asks her to “Speak again” (1.1.90), apparently expecting a revision, an answer more like that offered by the elder sisters. Rather than giving Lear what he wants, Cordelia offers the paraphrase of the initial response from The True Chronicle Historie as an explanation of why she said what she said:

Unhappy that I am, I cannot heave
My heart into my mouth. I love your majesty
According to my bond, no more nor less.


After she explains her response with this paraphrase from The True Chronicle Historie, Cordelia's meaning is as clear in Shakespeare's version as it is in The True Chronicle Historie, and the conflict that ensues cannot be due to the misunderstanding of a riddle as it is in the folktale. Thus, Cordelia offers Lear the opportunity of the riddle, but once he fails the reversed test, she explains it for him. The explanation, however, is of no use to Lear. Only the riddle, not the explanation, could provide Lear with a new way of seeing the world and jar him loose from his fiction.15 But instead of responding to this opportunity, he reacts directly to Cordelia's refusal to play along with his game, her assertion of a will independent of his own.

In the first version of the Lear story, from Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniœ, the heroine's response is more complex than the folktale heroine's “salt.” Geoffrey's version has essentially two parts.16 Cordeilla tells Leir that (1) “ego dilexi te semper ut patrem”17 [“I have ever loved thee as a father”18], and (2) “quantum habes. tantum vales. tantumque te diligo.”19 [“So much as thou hast, so much art thou worth, and so much do I love thee”20]. The first part is echoed by the heroine of The True Chronicle Historie, “what love the child doth owe the father,” (279) and by Shakespeare's heroine, “According to my bond” (1.1.93). The idea corresponds to the love for which the folktale heroine's “salt” is a metaphor. What is enigmatic in Geoffrey's version is the second part of the heroine's response.

In the second part of her response, “So much as thou hast … so much do I love thee,” Geoffrey's heroine seems to be describing the false affections expressed by her sisters, not her own love for her father. As Geoffrey's story demonstrates, Cordeilla, unlike her sisters, still loves her father when he arrives a destitute exile in France. In this sense, Cordeilla is warning her father about the hypocrisy of her sisters. If, however, we read “quantum habes” as ambiguous, then Cordeilla might actually be describing her own love for her father. In the course of Geoffrey's narrative, as Leir is stripped of his retinue, he learns that his material wealth is transitory, not really a possession at all, and what he really “has,” all that he can really count on, is Cordeilla's love. Thus, by implication, “quantum te deligo … tantum habes” [“So much as I love thee … so much dost thou have”]. The two terms imply each other.21

In Geoffrey's version, then, the second part of the heroine's response has two meanings: (1) the apparent and cynical meaning by which “quantum habes” refers to material wealth, and (2) the meaning revealed in the course of the narrative according to which “quantum habes” refers to love. In this second meaning, the two parts of the response become identical, the second, enigmatic part, “quantum habes,” restating the first part, “I have ever loved thee as a father.”

In Shakespeare's play, Lear's response to Cordelia, “Nothing will come of nothing” (1.1.90), corresponds, with a reversal in perspective, to the cynical meaning of the second, enigmatic part of the heroine's response in Geoffrey's version. In the immediate context of the love test, Lear's statement, “Nothing will come of nothing,” implies that a failure to make an explicit statement of love (nothing said) will result in a failure to inherit the king's wealth (nothing inherited). This is the fiction that the father in every version has constructed for the love test. What Geoffrey's heroine does is reverse the cause and effect of the fiction. In the apparent, cynical reading of her response, she points out, quite rightly, that it is the inheritance that is causing the explicit statements of love, not the love that causes the inheritance.

In reading Holinshed's The Historie of England, Shakespeare would have found the heroine's response to be essentially the same as it is in Geoffrey's Latin version.22 Nevertheless, there is evidence that Shakespeare was directly influenced by Geoffrey's version.23 Only in Geoffrey's version, for example, does the king repeat the dialogue later in the narrative. Geoffrey's king has a moment of recognition on shipboard crossing the English channel to seek refuge with his disinherited daughter:

O cordeilla filia quam uera sunt dicta illa quæ mihi respondisti quando questui a te quem amorem aduersum me haberes? Dixisti enim quantum habes tantum uales. tantumque te diligo. Dum igitur habui quod potui dare. uisus fui ualere eis qui non mihi set donis meis amici fuerant.24

[O Cordelia, my daughter, how true were the words wherein thou didst make answer unto me, when I did ask of thee how much thou didst love me! For thou saidst, ‘So much as thou hast, so much art thou worth, and so much do I love thee.’ So long, therefore, as I had that which was mine own to give, so long seemed I of worth unto them that were the lovers, not of myself but of my gifts.25]

Remembering the second part of his youngest daughter's response, Geoffrey's king recognizes that it is, in one of its meanings at least, its apparent and cynical meaning, an apt description of the elder sisters' supposed love. At this moment of recognition, Geoffrey's king is at the nadir of his fortunes, and the refrain is an expression of his despair. He still seems to read “quantum habes” as referring to material circumstances, but he now realizes that the elder daughters loved him only for his wealth.

Shakespeare may have been influenced by this repetition when he had the dialogue between Lear and Cordelia repeated between Lear and the Fool, a role that could have been doubled throughout the middle of the play by the actor who played Cordelia:

Sirrah, I'll teach thee a speech.
Mark it, nuncle.
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.
This is nothing, fool.

Then ’tis like the breath of an unfee'd lawyer—you gave me nothing for't. Can you make no use of nothing, nuncle?

Why, no boy. Nothing can be made out of nothing.
Fool [to Kent]

Prithee tell him, so much the rent of his land comes to; he will not believe a fool.

A bitter fool.


The repetition of “nothing” throughout the play has been much noted,26 but only in this passage does Lear repeat the full form of his response to Cordelia. Moreover, in this passage, “nothing” refers to both sides of the love-test fiction, language and wealth. Like the folktale heroine and Geoffrey of Monmouth's Cordeilla, the Fool uses riddles to try to help Lear see the truth.27 Kent plays along with the Fool by offering an ambiguous response: (1) “this” can refer either to the difference between “two tens” and “a score,” that is, nothing, or (2) “this” can refer to the whole speech.28 Thus “nothing” can refer to either wealth or language. The Fool responds to the second meaning, equating the value of language with wealth when he compares his own language to “the breath of an unfee'd lawyer.” Finally, the Fool poses once again Cordelia's reversed test, restating it as a question: “Can you make no use of nothing, nuncle?” We have seen Lear fail this test, the “salt” test, once already. He fails again, giving the same answer, but this time the Fool glosses his answer, equating “the rent of his land” with “nothing.” In the Fool's gloss, Lear's response corresponds exactly with the cynical meaning of Geoffrey's version, “quantum habes.”

This dialogue between Lear and the Fool comes just after the Fool has entered the stage for the first time. The repetition is not, as it is in Geoffrey's narrative, the moment of recognition. It comes, instead, near the beginning of the first scene in which Lear begins to realize that one of his daughters, Goneril, loved him only for his wealth, the beginning of a long process of recognition. In repeating the earlier dialogue between Lear and Cordelia, Shakespeare connects the Fool to Cordelia, making the doubled role into a personification of Truth.29 Thus, just as Kent and Edgar literally survive in disguise throughout the middle of the play, so also allegorically Cordelia in the disguise of the Fool continues to speak to Lear. At the same time, Shakespeare amplifies the theme of the dialogue, allowing the Fool to gloss Cordelia's elliptical response. The Fool's professional cynicism is similar to the apparent cynicism expressed in the second part of Geoffrey's version. As in Geoffrey's version, there is a contradiction between the stated cynicism and the behavior of the character who expresses it. Like Geoffrey's heroine, the Fool remains faithful to Lear.30 In effect, Shakespeare has divided the two parts of the response in Geoffrey's version so that Cordelia expresses the first, “According to my bond,” and the Fool expresses the cynical interpretation of the second, “the rent of his land.”

While the form of Cordelia's response is thus derived from the folktale riddle of the Lear-story tradition, the content is derived from two quite different sources, one rhetorical and the other theological. The verbal wit with which first Cordelia and then the Fool play with the word “nothing” originates in Shakespeare's Petrarchan rhetoric.

Already in The Comedy of Errors (1590-4?), we find a variation of the figure:

Dromio S.

Was there ever any man thus beaten out of season,

When in the why and the wherefore is neither rime nor reason?

Well, sir, I thank you.

Antipholus S.

Thank me, sir, for what?

Dromio S.

Marry, sir, for this something that you gave me for nothing.

Antipholus S.

I'll make you amends next, to give you nothing for something.


The beating is a payment, something, that Dromio of Syracuse has received for nothing, that is, for no apparent reason.

A few years later (1595-7?), Shakespeare uses the same rhetorical figure with considerably more complexity of meaning. In Richard II, the queen complains that “nothing hath begot my something grief” (2.2.36), implying a present foreboding, a state of depression (something) inspired by an unknown cause (nothing), a cause that is to be revealed in the future. Dromio's physical pain becomes psychological in Richard II, and the unknown cause is transformed from a theatrical trick to the unfolding of history.

In Romeo and Juliet, the hero looks over the scene of the recent streetfighting and exclaims:

O brawling love, O loving hate,
O anything, of nothing first create!


In all three of these examples, something vividly experienced in the present is caused by an apparent “nothing,” an unknown or hidden cause.

According to a widely accepted reading of Romeo and Juliet, any Petrarchan flourishes that Romeo employs before meeting Juliet are to be dismissed as “mere rhetoric” without any real feeling.31 This reading has been challenged by Robert O. Evans and others who have noted that oxymora are characteristic of Juliet's language as well as Romeo's, and that these paradoxes express the lovers' emerging individuation, their recognition of contradictions within the accepted mores of their society, and thus their growing alienation from that society.32 Evans and others have pointed out that the Petrarchan style extends throughout the play, and that it is a complex display of playfulness and seriousness, wit and feeling, that resists any simplistic reduction. In contrast to Romeo's oxymoron, Lear's materialistic tautology, “Nothing will come of nothing,” suggests exactly the opposite spiritual condition: a mind unable to transcend social customs and material appearances, unable to transcend the apparent logic of its own fictions.

To the Petrarchan rhetoric of this figure, Shakespeare in King Lear, adds a distinctively theological meaning, Lear's proverbial response being an implied denial of the traditional Judeo-Christian doctrine that God created the universe ex nihilo, “out of nothing.” The influence of this theological theme on Spenser and Shakespeare is outlined in some detail by Frank Kermode in The Sense of an Ending. Kermode traces the theological discussion back to the thirteenth century “when Christian philosophers grappled with the view of the Aristotelians that nothing can come of nothing—ex nihilo nihil fit—so that the world must be thought to be eternal.”33 Thus Shakespeare casts Lear in 1.1.90 as a pre-Christian, Aristotelian materialist, and Cordelia's riddle provides Lear with an opportunity to discover through love a spiritual force transcending that materialism.

The two sides of this conflict have separate sources, classical and Biblical. For the classical source, Lear's Aristotelian formula, T. W. Baldwin in William Shakespeare's Small Latine and Less Greeke cites Persius's third satire. Baldwin argues that Shakespeare would have been familiar with Persius from his grammar school education.34

The satirical context is “an appeal to the young and well-to-do, against sloth and for earnestness.”35 In that context, an anti-intellectual centurion, one of the targets of Persius's satire, ridicules philosophy students for wasting their time worrying about such topics as “gigni de nihilo nihilum, in nihilum nil posse reverti” [“Nothing can come of nothing, nothing can go back to nothing.”]36 John Conington notes that this was “the first principle of the Epicurean philosophy, according to Lucr. 1.150; but it was common to various schools.”37 The important point, however, in relation to Shakespeare's text is that in the context of the third satire, that is, in the mind of the anti-intellectual centurion as created by Persius, thinking about this materialistic formula stands for all of classical philosophy, is in effect therefore a defining theme of philosophical study. The conflict between Lear and Cordelia is thus expressed in part as a conflict between classical philosophy and Judeo-Christian theology.

It has long been recognized that a possible source for the implied contrary point of view, creation ex nihilo, is to be found in John Florio's 1603 translation of Montaigne's “An Apology for Raymond Sebond.”38 The “Apology” is an extended argument for Christian skepticism, summed up by Montaigne's question, “Que scais-je?” [What do I know?] In the passage in question, Montaigne constructs a brief “dialogue” with someone, perhaps an Aristotelian, who finds the ex nihilo doctrine to be a violation of human reason. Montaigne argues that human reason can not circumscribe divine power:

We will subject him to the vaine and weake appearances of our understanding: him who hath made both us and our knowledge. Because nothing is made of nothing: God was not able to frame the world without matter. What? hath God delivered into our hands the keyes, and the strongest wards of his infinite puissance? Hath he obliged himselfe not to exceed the bounds of our knowledge?39

In spite of the plentiful evidence that Shakespeare read and was influenced by Florio's translation, the direct influence of Montaigne on Shakespeare with regard to the ex nihilo doctrine is extremely limited. Montaigne does nothing to explain the theological doctrine. Instead, he assumes his reader already knows and agrees with the doctrine, and then based on that assumption, Montaigne makes a point about the limitations of human reason. A reader, to understand Montaigne, must derive a knowledge of the ex nihilo doctrine from some other source. Montaigne's text thus clearly demonstrates that the ex nihilo doctrine was a commonplace of 16th century thought.

An idea that could be assumed by Montaigne to be so generally known could perhaps not be said to have any specific textual source. Nevertheless, for Shakespeare and his audience, certain texts would have been particularly authoritative, namely, 2 Maccabees 7:28, Romans 4:17 and St. Augustine's Confessions.40 Of these three, St. Augustine has the clearest explanation of the theological doctrine. Augustine argues, against the Manichæans, that God created the earth from nothing. For Augustine, a universe created from something would have been created from God since nothing else existed. A universe created from God would be, like God's son, one with God, and by implication would preclude alienation from God, the fall, and the redemption. Thus, for Augustine, creation ex nihilo is implied by the human condition.41

Although St. Augustine's text provides a clear explanation of the ex nihilo doctrine and could be a source for Shakespeare's understanding of that doctrine, it seems to have little direct bearing on the text of King Lear. Certain details in 2 Maccabees 7:28 and Romans 4:17, on the other hand, may be directly related to Lear. Unlike either Montaigne's text or St. Augustine's, both 2 Maccabees 7:28 and Romans 4:17 provide an explicit application of the ex nihilo doctrine to human experience, and more specifically, to human experience in a pre-Christian context. Shakespeare would be familiar with English translations of both 2 Maccabees and Romans in the Geneva Bible, first published in 1560.42

2 Maccabees was included in the Geneva Bible along with other apocrypha, works that although not considered Holy Scripture, were nevertheless believed by the Elizabethans to be expressions of wisdom and devotion.43 2 Maccabees 7 describes the persecution of a Jewish woman and her seven sons at the hands of the Seleucid king, Antiochus IV. Even after six of her sons have been tortured and executed, the mother still encourages her youngest son to be true to his religious beliefs:

28 I beseche thee, my sonne, look vpon the heauen and the earth, and all that is therein, and consider that God made them of things that were not, and so was mankinde made likewise.
29 Fear not this hangman, but shewe thy self worthie suche brethren by suffering death, that I may receiue thee in mercie with thy brethren.(44)

In context, the mother presents the ex nihilo doctrine as an argument for the omnipotence of God and the wisdom, therefore, of remaining loyal to the Creator. The text also implies here and at 2 Maccabees 7:14 that this loyalty will be rewarded by resurrection. The text is evidence that the ex nihilo doctrine originates in Hellenistic Judaism.

Like Cordelia, the seventh son is promised material rewards if he will say what the king wants him to say. Like Cordelia, the seventh son refuses to make a false statement in return for material rewards and therefore suffers the punishment of the wrathful king. In 2 Maccabees 7:28, the mother offers the ex nihilo doctrine as an argument for telling the truth. For Shakespeare's pre-Christian British characters, the ex nihilo doctrine is not a part of their metaphysical beliefs, so Shakespeare reverses the perspective and makes Lear's denial of the ex nihilo doctrine an argument for disinheriting Cordelia. Lear parallels Antiochus as a wrathful pagan king, but perhaps even more important from an Elizabethan perspective, Cordelia parallels the seventh son as a pre-Christian example of spiritual virtue.

This Christian perspective on a pre-Christian text, the Elizabethan interpretation of 2 Maccabees, becomes explicit in Romans 4:17. In his letter to the Romans, St. Paul does not actually discuss or explain the ex nihilo doctrine, but instead he mentions it parenthetically while considering whether or not the righteousness of Abraham is to be attributed to works or to faith. Thus, the letter itself discusses the virtue of a pre-Christian from a Christian perspective. Paul argues that the righteousness of Abraham is based on faith:

13 For the promes that he shulde be the heire of the world, was not given to Abraham, or to his seed, through the Law, but through the righteousnes of faith.
14 For if they which are of the Law, be heires, faith is made voyde, and the promes is made of none effect.
15 For the Law causeth wrath: for where no Law is, there is no transgression.
16 Therefore it is by faith, that it might come by grace, and the promes might be sure to all the seed, not to that onely which is of the Law: but also to that which is of the faith of Abraham who is the father of vs all,
17 (As it is written, I have made thee a father of many nacions) even before God whome he beleued, who quickneth the dead, and calleth those things which be not, as though they were.(45)

The inheritance from Abraham to future generations and the wrath resulting from the transgression of the law suggest the inheritance and wrath of King Lear. By implication, Lear is demanding works rather than faith from his daughters, Lear rules by law rather than by grace, and his wrath is the response to the violation of the law.

Of particular influence on readers of the Geneva Bible were the marginal notes supplied by the Calvinist translators.46 These notes may have influenced Shakespeare's reading of the passage. For example, the 1560 edition supplies the following note to “dead” in verse 17: “Abraham begate the circumcised even by that vertue of faith and not by that power of nature, which was extinguished; so the Gentile which were nothing are called by the power of God to be of the nomber of the faithful.”47 The note makes a clear distinction between “the virtue of faith” and “the power of nature,” a distinction reflected in Shakespeare's treatment of the Lear story. On the side of nature, Shakespeare places the king with his materialist tautology: “Nothing will come of nothing.” By implication, Cordelia embodies “the virtue of faith.” As pre-Christian Britons, they are both “the Gentile which were nothing.” Thus, Cordelia's response to the love test, “Nothing,” identifies the metaphysical condition prior to being “called by the power of God.” In both the main plot and the subplot, fathers who are incapable of distinguishing between faith and nature, between spirit and letter, between love and the outward expression of love, are, as a consequence, easily deceived by the evil machiavels.

In the 1599 edition, the logical connection to the ex nihilo doctrine is made somewhat more explicit by the following note to “calleth those things which be not” in verse 17: “With whom these things are already, which as yet are not in deed, as he that can with a word make what he will of nothing.”48 The implication is that rewarding an outward obedience to the law is responding to a material cause, making something from something. Thus, Lear's “Nothing will come of nothing” implies that only works can be rewarded. Conversely, the ex nihilo doctrine implies grace, the free gift of God's love.

Shakespeare extends the ex nihilo doctrine to human relations by analogy. Denying that he could make something from nothing, Lear rejects the possibility of his own spontaneous action, a gift of inheritance to Cordelia as an expression of his love for her irrespective of what she does or does not say. Shakespeare implies, by analogy, that human love, like God, can create something out of nothing and is not limited by the logic of material cause and effect.

The theme of Shakespeare's immediate source, The True Chronicle Historie, is, in contrast, a straightforward opposition to flattery. The plot of the anonymous play then goes on to imply that one who, like Cordella, tells the truth may suffer in the short run, but will surely triumph and be rewarded before the end of Act V.

Shakespeare's contrasting theme requires a different plot. For Cordelia to win the battle and restore her father to the throne would contradict the stated theme because then she would receive “something” in return for her love, a material reward. Shakespeare's play would then seem to affirm a moral smugness, as The True Chronicle Historie tends to do. As the mother in 2 Maccabees 2:28 explains to her son, the reward for telling the truth is to be found not in this life but in the next.

The difference between Shakespeare's version and his immediate source, The True Chronicle Historie, is thus a further secularization of the morality play. The morality play concluded with Everyman's spiritual salvation, and was therefore a “divine comedy” in allegorical form. In The True Chronicle Historie, the happy ending of the morality play becomes a material reward in this life for virtuous behavior.49 In King Lear, however, the final rewards for virtue and vice remain spiritual rather than material and remain beyond the scope of secular drama.50

Shakespeare did not, however, simply reverse the ending. If he had done so, the plot would have implied the exact opposite, that those who tell the truth are necessarily victims, that spiritual values always lead to misfortune. There would still be a correlation between love and reward, but a negative one. Instead, Shakespeare added a second plot, the story from Sidney's Arcadia, a mirror image of the main plot, but a romance, a story in which the hero is triumphant. Shakespeare uses the juxtaposition of main plot and subplot to divorce spiritual values from material circumstances. By juxtaposing the main plot and the subplot, Shakespeare implies in King Lear that the material circumstance, the outcome of battles, is a matter of fortune, and that the only permanent values are spiritual.


  1. Kenneth Muir, Shakespeare's Sources (London: Methuen, 1957), pp. 143-4.

  2. The Historia Regum Britanniœ of Geoffrey of Monmouth, ed. Acton Griscom (London: Longmans, Green and Co.: 1929); Geoffrey of Monmouth, History of the Kings of Britain, tr. Sebastian Evans, rev. by Charles W. Dunn (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1958).

  3. Irving Ribner, The English History Play in the Age of Shakespeare (Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1957), pp. 247-253. Although comparisons with King John confirm the importance of this theme to Shakespeare and his audience, nevertheless, if the theme were of central importance to King Lear, then the play would contradict the implied thesis by demonstrating that “patriotism” in an immoral cause results in tragedy, the deaths of Cordelia and Lear. At most, the theme is ambiguous in King Lear since Albany, in keeping with variations in the Lear-story tradition, is not a heroic character but a good character with questionable judgment.

  4. Geoffrey Bullough, ed., Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare (London and Henley: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1978), vol. 7, pp. 337-402.

  5. Martin Mueller, “From Leir to Lear,” Philological Quarterly 73 (1994), pp. 202-5, argues that The True Chronicle Historie influenced Shakespeare in his writing of Richard III. If so, then Shakespeare knew the play in 1592, but there is no evidence for the play's existence prior to this date. Thus, the play may not have been written prior to Ribner's point of historical reference for objections to a successful foreign invasion, the Spanish Armada in 1588.

  6. Wilfred Perrett, The Story of King Lear from Geoffrey of Monmouth to Shakespeare, Palaesta 35 (Berlin: Mayer and Müller, 1940), p. 9.

  7. Perrett, pp. 9-11.

  8. Bullough, p. 344.

  9. All references to Shakespeare's plays are to William Shakespeare, The Complete Works, ed. Alfred Harbage (New York: Viking Press, 1969).

  10. Bullough, p. 353.

  11. The evidence that Shakespeare read Geoffrey's version is summarized by Perrett (pp. 279-289). Alan R. Young, “The Written and Oral Sources of King Lear and the Problem of Justice in the Play,” Studies in English Literature 15 (1975), pp. 309-319, suggests that Shakespeare's audience could have been familiar with versions of the folktale. Both Perrett (pp. 9-13) and Young (pp. 310-313) summarize the folktale versions.

  12. Perrett (pp. 168-181) notes that granting each daughter her portion of the inheritance immediately after her statement and before all three daughters have spoken precludes any competition and implies that the apportionment has already been determined. A. C. Bradley, Shakespearean Tragedy 3rd ed. (1904; rpt. New York: St. Martin's, 1992), p. 213, follows Coleridge in reaching the same conclusion from the opening remarks of Kent and Gloucester.

  13. John F. Danby, Shakespeare's Doctrine of Nature (London: Faber and Faber, 1968), p. 104.

  14. Compare Romeo and Juliet 2.4.24-34. Asked to give expression to her love, Juliet, like Cordelia, refuses, using rhetorical devices, metaphor, personification and paronomasia, to point beyond rhetoric.

  15. Perrett (pp. 235-237) sees the misunderstood riddle as a folklore motif replaced in Shakespeare's version by more fully developed characterization. Although in Shakespeare's version the conflict is no longer due to the misunderstanding of the riddle, Perrett fails to recognize that in her initial response, “Nothing,” Cordelia has offered her father the opportunity of the riddle.

  16. Perrett (pp. 228-229) gives a more comprehensive division of the response into six parts. Some of these, however, are parenthetical phrases and comments. The two parts analyzed here are the direct responses to Leir's question.

  17. The Historia Regum Britanniœ, p. 263.

  18. History of the Kings of Britain, p. 37.

  19. The Historia Regum Britanniœ, p. 264.

  20. History of the Kings of Britain, p. 37.

  21. A conventional theological reading might interpret “quantum habes” as Leir's soul. However, Geoffrey of Monmouth never directly suggests such a reading.

  22. Bullough, p. 317.

  23. Perrett, pp. 279-289.

  24. The Historia Regum Britanniœ, p. 268.

  25. History of the Kings of Britain, p. 40.

  26. Kenneth Muir, ed., King Lear (New York: Random House, 1964), p. 9; W. B. Drayton Henderson, “Montaigne's Apologie of Raymond Sebond, and King Lear,The Shakespeare Association Bulletin 14 (Oct. 1939), pp. 217-218.

  27. Compare Romeo and Juliet 3.5.75-103 and Hamlet 3.2.89-94 where ambiguity and riddles express a disguised truth in the confrontation between generations.

  28. The response is Lear's in the quarto. John Kerrigan in “Revision, Adaptation, and the Fool in King Lear”, The Division of the Kingdoms: Shakespeare's Two Versions of King Lear, ed. Gary Taylor and Michael Warren (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983), pp. 218-219, argues that giving the response to Kent in the folio makes Lear less directly engaged in the Fool's dialogue, increasing Lear's alienation.

  29. Perrett (pp. 300-303). Details in the text supporting Perrett's view are discussed by Richard Abrams, “The Double Casting of Cordelia and Lear's Fool,” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 27 (1985), pp. 354-368. This doubling is a structural element of the play and is of course not necessary in any particular production. Thus the doubling as a structural element is independent of the historical question of whether the roles were doubled in any particular production, including productions during Shakespeare's lifetime.

  30. John F. Danby, p. 113.

  31. The arguments are summarized by Edgar Mertner, “‘Conceit Brags of His Substance, Not of Ornament’: Some Notes on Style in Romeo and Juliet,Shakespeare: Text, Language, Criticism, ed. Bernard Fabian and Kurt Tetzeli von Rosador (Hildesheim: Olms-Weidmann, 1987), pp. 106-121.

  32. Robert O. Evans, The Osier Cage (Lexington, KY: University of Kentucky Press, 1966), pp. 21-41; Joseph S. M. J. Chang, “The Language of Paradox in Romeo and Juliet”, Shakespeare Studies 3 (1967), pp. 22-42; Jill L. Levenson, “The Definition of Love: Shakespeare's Phrasing in Romeo and Juliet”, Shakespeare Studies 15 (1982), pp. 21-36; Kiernan Ryan, “Romeo and Juliet: The Language of Tragedy”, The Taming of the Text: Explorations in Language, Literature and Culture, ed. Willie van Peer (London: Routledge, 1991), pp. 106-121.

  33. Frank Kermode, The Sense of an Ending (New York: Oxford University Press, 1967), p. 68.

  34. T. W. Baldwin, William Shakespeare's Small Latine and Less Greeke, 2 vols. (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1944), 2, pp. 542-543.

  35. John Conington, tr., The Satires of A. Persius Flaccus, 3rd ed. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1893), 50n.

  36. Conington, tr., 3.83-4, pp. 66-67.

  37. Conington, tr., 67n.

  38. W. B. Drayton Henderson, “Montaigne's Apologie of Raymond Sebond, and King Lear”, p. 217.

  39. Michel de Montaigne, The Essays of Montaigne, tr. John Florio (London: Gibbings, 1603; reprinted, The Museum Edition, 1906), Vol. 4, Bk. 2, Ch. 12, p. 92.

  40. I wish to express my appreciation to my colleague, Prof. Barry S. Crawford, for helping me identify these sources.

  41. St. Augustine, St. Augustine's Confessions, The Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, MS: Harvard UP, 1979), vol. 2, pp. 298-299.

  42. F. F. Bruce, The English Bible: A History of Translations (New York: Oxford University Press, 1961), p. 92.

  43. F. F. Bruce, pp. 89-90.

  44. 2 Maccabees 7: 28-29, The Geneva Bible: A Facsimile of the 1560 Edition (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1969).

  45. Romans 4: 13-17, The Geneva Bible: A Facsimile of the 1560 Edition.

  46. F. F. Bruce, p. 90.

  47. Romans 4: 17, note p, The Geneva Bible: A Facsimile of the 1560 Edition.

  48. Romans 4:17, note o, The Geneva Bible: A Facsimile of the 1599 Edition (Ozark, MO: L. L. Brown, 1955).

  49. David Bevington, From Mankind to Marlowe (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1962), analyzes the transition from morality play to romance (pp. 190-195) and to history play (pp. 213-217). He argues that the morality-play tradition continued to influence the form of 16th-century drama after the content became secular (pp. 231-233, 261-262).

  50. This distinction is central also to Hamlet since it defines the hero's hubris when he attempts to go beyond the limitations of human justice and inflict on Claudius a punishment in the afterlife (3.3.73-96).

Further Reading

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Adelman, Janet. “Suffocating Mothers in King Lear.” In Suffocating Mothers: Fantasies of Maternal Origin in Shakespeare's Plays, Hamlet to The Tempest, pp. 103-29. New York: Routledge, 1992.

Illustrates the theme of maternal sexuality and its resulting conflict in King Lear.

Battenhouse, Roy, ed. Shakespeare's Christian Dimension: An Anthology of Commentary, pp. 462-69. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994.

Reprints two essays on the religious aspects of King Lear.

Cox, Catherine S. “‘An excellent thing in woman’: Virgo and Viragos in King Lear.Modern Philology (November 1998): 143-57.

Contends that Shakespeare's representation of females reflected both the Christian and secular assumptions of his time.

Gardner, Helen. “King Lear (1967).” In King Lear: Critical Essays, edited by Kenneth Muir, pp. 251-74. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1984.

Outlines the distinctive characteristics of King Lear in relation to Shakespeare's other works.

Hawkes, Terence. “Reason and Madness: Male and Female.” In William Shakespeare: King Lear, pp. 32-40. Plymouth, United Kingdom: Northcote House Publishers, 1995.

Compares rationality and insanity with gender, stressing that concepts of gender play an essential role in King Lear.

Holahan, Michael. “‘Look, her lips’: Softness of Voice, Construction of Character in King Lear.Shakespeare Quarterly 48, No. 4 (Winter 1997): 406-31.

Evaluates the construction and evolution of character, particularly Cordelia's.

Kallendorf, Craig. “King Lear and the Figures of Speech.” In Landmark Essays on Rhetoric and Literature, edited by Craig Kallendorf, pp. 101-16. Mahwah, N.J.: Hermagoras Press, 1999.

Maintains that Shakespeare's formal and conscious use of rhetoric in King Lear has not been studied adequately.

Margolies, David. “King Lear.” In Monsters of the Deep: Social Dissolution in Shakespeare’s Tragedies, pp. 14-42. New York: Manchester University Press, 1992.

Examines Shakespeare’s depiction of society in King Lear and its significance to the play’s central thesis.

Martin, William F. “Irony in King Lear.” In The Indissoluble Knot: King Lear as Ironic Drama, pp. 55-68. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1987.

Argues that irony plays a persistent and paramount role in King Lear.

Rudnytsky, Peter L. “‘The Darke and Vicious Place’: The Dread of the Vagina in King Lear.Modern Philology 96, No. 3 (February 1999): 291-311.

Reconsiders King Lear from a feminist perspective.

Thompson, Ann. “Part One: Survey.” In King Lear, pp. 11-58. London: Macmillan, 1988.

Surveys sources of King Lear as well as twentieth-century criticism of the play.

Weiss, Theodore. “As the Wind Sits: The Poetics of King Lear.” In On King Lear, edited by Lawrence Danson, pp. 61-90. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981.

Theorizes on the extravagant nature of King Lear.

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