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King Lear

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King Lear is widely regarded as one of Shakespeare's finest artistic achievements. Set in ancient Britain, the dark tragedy centers upon the foolish and ultimately destructive actions of a delusional king, who demands a display of love from his three daughters before dividing his kingdom among them. When his youngest daughter Cordelia refuses to take part in this empty ceremony, Lear banishes her, leaving her devious elder sisters Goneril and Regan to plot his overthrow. In the end, Lear realizes his misjudgment and dies holding the body of Cordelia, who has returned from France to fight for him. Since its introduction, King Lear has confounded audiences and scholars with its seemingly hopeless conclusion. For more than a century an alternative version of the play, with a more optimistic ending, was performed in its place. Shakespeare's original version was restored to the stage in the nineteenth century, and has since been widely performed and studied. Critics such as Helen Gardner (see Further Reading), who called King Lear “the most universal and profound of Shakespeare's plays,” have continued the process of explicating this complex drama. Others have attested to the extraordinary magnitude of scholarly interest in the work, including Richard Levin, whose 1997 study surveys recent feminist, new historical, and Marxist critical approaches to the play.

Shakespeare's delineation of character has long been a central component of scholarship regarding King Lear, with a majority of interest directed toward Lear and his daughters, especially Cordelia. Focusing on Lear and the subject of his madness, Josephine Waters Bennett (1962) demonstrates how Shakespeare deepened and intensified his tragic theme by shifting attention toward the internal conflict of the play's protagonist as he loses his sanity. Arthur Kirsch (1988) focuses on religious, specifically Christian, elements in the characters of King Lear. Kirsch concentrates on the figures of Lear and Cordelia, and examines their relation to motifs of love, suffering, and death. Michael Holahan (1997) focuses his inquiry on Cordelia, observing the ways in which she contributes to the process of “aesthetic closure” in the drama and analyzing her significant role in effecting change in the figure of Lear. In a break from more traditional criticism, feminist critic Carol Rutter (see Further Reading) looks to the expanded possibilities of character interpretation of Lear's daughters offered by stage performance. Rutter observes that conventional understandings of Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia have been constrained by patriarchal assumptions that generally fail to allow these figures more than stereotypical and superficial qualities.

Although not well-received in Shakespeare’s day, King Lear has gained popularity on the stage, especially since the twentieth century. In a review of the 2001 production of King Lear at the Globe Theatre, Heather Neill admires director Barry Kyle's directness and clarity in presenting the drama in both its bleak and humorous dimensions. Studying the same production, Stanton B. Garner, Jr. contends that the outdoor venue was quite detrimental to the production, which he faults for overemphasizing the comic effects and blunting the tragic atmosphere of Shakespeare's drama. In contrast, Richard Hornby calls Kyle's production the “salvation of the 2001 Globe season,” and offers complimentary assessments of both Julian Glover's robust Lear and Kyle's seamless direction and elegant use of theatrical space. Bruce Weber evaluates the 2001 international, multilingual, and deconstructive production of King Lear by the Belgian troupe Needcompany in Brooklyn. Weber finds director Jan Lauwers's energetic obliteration of theatrical conventions in regard to language and character compelling, if not completely satisfying. Matt Wolf comments on Jonathan Kent's 2002 staging of the drama at King's Cross for the Almeida Theatre in London. Wolf contends that the roaring aural effects and expressionistic lighting threatened to unbalance the production, but praises the cast, especially Oliver Ford Davies as King Lear. Critic Katherine Duncan-Jones also examines Kent’s production and praises the cast, including Davies's sympathetic if thoughtless Lear, but found Kent's design choices sometimes excessive. Overall, Duncan-Jones deems the “fast-moving” production, despite minor flaws, a significant one. John Stokes concurs, citing the emotional rendering of Lear's collapse into insanity as a central component of Kent's modern, yet “deeply humane” stage interpretation.

Thematic criticism of King Lear in the late twentieth century suggests a confluence of new and old critical traditions. Many recent commentators have continued to explore the drama in terms of A. C. Bradley's influential, early twentieth-century analysis, which privileged themes of suffering and redemption in the drama. Others have sought to apply contemporary poststructuralist and new historical methods to the work by uncovering ambiguities embedded in its rich, evocative language and archaic sources. In line with Bradley, Michael Goldman (1972) highlights a pattern of accumulated suffering in King Lear. Similarly, Edward Pechter (1978) analyzes the role of punishment, vengeance, and pain in the drama's subplot involving Gloucester, a nobleman loyal to Lear who suffers the cruelty of his bastard son Edmund just as Lear endures the wickedness of Goneril and Regan. Far from recapitulating Bradley's assessment, however, Pechter questions whether Gloucester and Lear achieve redemption in the drama. Considering the related topics of source material and theme, F. D. Hoeniger (1974) comments on the stark, primitive, and brutal form and meaning of King Lear, while Howard Felperin (1977) contends that the drama defies reductive analysis precisely because it manipulates the traditional models of tragedy that preceded it. James L. Calderwood (1986) remarks on the principal of “uncreation”—the movement from order to chaos—in King Lear, and contends that those seeking traditional closure or a cathartic resolution to the play are unlikely to find it. Finally, Lyell Asher (2000) studies the motif of lateness in King Lear, maintaining that Shakespeare's use of this motif compounds the tragedy and sense of hopelessness in the play.

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10770

SOURCE: Levin, Richard. “King Lear Defamiliarized.” In “Lear” from Study to Stage: Essays in Criticism, edited by James Ogden and Arthur H. Scouten, pp. 146-71. Cranbury, N.J.: Associated University Presses, 1997.

[In the following essay, Levin summarizes critical approaches to King Lear from 1960 to 1984, citing Marxist, feminist, and new historicist—as opposed to formalist—interpretations of the play.]

We exist, it turns out, within a single broad universe of discourse and we now have some assurance that the [King Lear] each of us sees is, in some important particulars, the same play.

—Lawrence Danson (1981) 3

Greenblatt's King Lear is, in many ways, perfectly recognizable: good and evil are not in question; … nor is there any question of the human desires that the play engages.

—Jonathan Goldberg (1987) 243

Someone who has not kept up with current critical trends may have to be told that the statement in my second epigraph is meant to be an attack on Stephen Greenblatt's reading of King Lear. There was a time, not so long ago, when the most devastating thing one could say about an interpretation of a literary work was that it rendered the work unrecognizable, but now this is considered a very desirable or even essential thing to do, as evidenced by the number of recent critics who announce that their purpose is to “defamiliarize” or “estrange” the text (no longer a work) by reading it “against the grain” or words to that effect.1 It follows, therefore, that any interpretation that leaves the text perfectly recognizable has failed to do its job.

This complete reversal of the grounds of praise and blame is the result of a revolution in the assumptions about literature and criticism that has taken place in the British and American academy. Before this revolution the field was dominated first by what are now called the old historicists and then by the formalist New Critics, and while these two groups disagreed on many things, they inhabited what Danson, in my first epigraph, refers to as “a single broad universe of discourse” and shared certain basic beliefs: that the meaning of a work is determined by the author's intention; that authors usually want their intended meaning to be grasped by the audience and the audience usually can grasp it; and, therefore, that when a consensus has developed over the years about the meaning and effect of a work, it is probably right and radical departures from it are probably wrong. These assumptions underlie Danson's statement, which is taken from his introduction to a collection of essays on King Lear; he is pleased, and thinks the other contributors will also be pleased, that despite the differences in their interpretations, the play that emerges from them is still recognizable as “the same play”. Since then, however, the newer critical approaches have, in their own terminology, “put in question” these assumptions, which means putting them out of the question, and this has shattered the old “universe of discourse” and led to the opposite viewpoint represented by Goldberg, who censures interpretations that give us “the same play.” The fact that his statement appeared only six years after Danson's is some indication of how fast and how far we have traveled.2

We should not overstate the homogeneity of the period before this revolution, which is a common tendency found both in those who long to return to it and therefore idealize it and in those who reject and demonize it. Although the mainstream of literary criticism was dominated by the old historicists and then the New Critics, there were always some other schools, such as the Freudians and Marxists, operating in the margins. Moreover, in Shakespeare studies (and in other fields as well) each of the two dominant schools had within it an approach—I name them the “ideas-of-the-time” approach and the “ironic” approach, respectively—that opposed the consensus on many plays, usually by arguing that the apparently sympathetic characters are really meant to be unsympathetic.3 We must also remember that no consensus ever developed on the meaning or effect of some of his plays, such as the so-called “problem comedies” (which is why they are so called). But for most of them we did have a general agreement on the two basic points that Goldberg foregrounds: the judgment of “good and evil” in the play and the emotions that “the play engages.”

This was certainly true of King Lear, where the moral status of the characters and the emotions they are meant to evoke seemed perfectly obvious (in fact some critics complained that these are too obvious). Everyone recognized that Cordelia, Edgar, Kent, and the Fool are good people who are supposed to win, and do win, our complete sympathy; that Goneril, Regan, Edmund, Cornwall, and Oswald are wholly evil and wholly antipathetic; and that the protagonists of the two plots, Lear and Gloucester, are not evil but make terrible mistakes and as a result must undergo great suffering, which again evokes our sympathies. The anthologies and surveys of Lear criticism published between 1960 and 1984 show that this basic moral ground of the play was never “in question,” as Goldberg puts it.4 This does not mean that there was no disagreement among the critics. They argued about the motivation of Albany (which involves the problem of the two texts) and the disappearance of the Fool, about the interpretation of difficult scenes such as the initial love test and Gloucester's attempted suicide, about the roles of imagery and allegory, and many other aspects of the play; thematic critics differed on the identity of its “central theme”; and there was a prolonged debate between those who felt that the play presents a redemptive, often Christian, view of the world and those who felt that its view is bleak or even nihilistic, with various intermediate positions. But these disagreements seemed so important at the time only because they occurred within a general agreement on the basic moral values of the play. The “ideas-of-the-time” critics did not claim that the Jacobean judgment of the characters was radically different from our own; Harold Goddard and Roy Battenhouse, probably the foremost ironizers of Shakespeare, did not find any ironic subtext here that subverted this judgment; and Jan Kott's “King Lear or Endgame,” which created such a stir when it appeared, only argued for an extreme nihilistic view of the play's world, at the opposite pole from Goddard and Battenhouse, without questioning the definition of good and evil characters or our emotional engagement with them.

A comparison of Kiernan Ryan's anthology and Ann Thompson's survey of Lear criticism with those published up to 1982 demonstrates that we no longer have this consensus, but we must not assume that all the new readings of the play reject it completely or that they form another consensus. Our present critical scene is even less homogeneous than the old one, since there is no single dominant school. The new hegemony in Shakespeare studies is divided among three major schools of criticism—Marxism, or cultural materialism; feminism; and new historicism—and the situation is further complicated because of overlapping and because some of these schools have gone through important changes or subdivisions, even within the brief period of their ascendency.5 For that reason I will not generalize about the new interpretation of Lear but will focus instead on a number of individual readings selected to represent the most significant trends. I should add that, while I try to present the main points of each reading accurately, it will obviously not be possible in my brief summary to take account of every aspect or nuance of the critic's argument.

The Marxist school of criticism, as I noted, was on the scene long before the recent revolution. During this earlier period, most Marxist Shakespeareans accepted the mainline assumptions about literature and criticism that I described but attempted to relate the plays to what they regarded as the major socioeconomic change of the time, the transition from a declining feudal society ruled by the landed aristocracy to the nascent capitalist society of the rising bourgeoisie. This approach is exemplified in Arnold Kettle's study of Lear, published in an anthology that was the Marxists' contribution to the quatercentenary festivities. He argues that the play presents two opposing concepts of nature—one expressed by Lear and Gloucester that sees nature as an organic whole of interdependent parts, operating on the human level in a “natural” network of reciprocal obligations; and one expressed by Edmund that sees an atomistic nature of warring individuals and regards the obligations of the other view as “unnatural” restraints imposed by convention on our “natural” drive for self-aggrandizement. These two views really are in the play, and Kettle's claim that they correspond to the opposing ideologies of feudalism and capitalism is quite convincing,6 much more convincing than his further claim that Lear's speeches about the plight of the poor and corruption of justice in 3.4 and 4.6 represent a “breakthrough” to a third alternative or “better way” that he calls “humanism” and identifies with “the democratic content of the bourgeois-democratic revolution” (168), which is embodied in Cordelia and affirmed at the end of the play in “a kind of utopian promise” (168, 170).

Someone whose knowledge of criticism is limited to the current trends may be surprised to find a Marxist praising “humanism,” since it is a dirty word in the new Marxist vocabulary, as we will see, but Kettle is following the orthodox line of his day. Aleksandr Smirnov's book on Shakespeare, for example, which bore the imprimatur of what was then the only Marxist regime, asserts that “bourgeois humanism” was a “progressive” or “revolutionary” force and that Shakespeare was the “champion of [its] heroic ideals” but denounced the bourgeoisie when they departed from them, thereby demonstrating “the correctness of [his] basic ideology” (26-27, 92-93).7 Kettle goes him one better by arguing that the “humanism” of Lear “leads him to question the validity of property itself,” so that his “development is not at all unlike that of later seventeenth-century radicals like Winstanley” (167). Thus, although he denies that he wants to “present Shakespeare as some kind of ‘unconscious’ precursor of Engels” (166), that is what he does. But the attempt to co-opt Shakespeare by proving that his beliefs coincide with the critic's was not limited to Marxism, for most of the mainline critics during this period also engaged in it. Thematists found that each play's attitude toward its “central theme” was the same as theirs, ironic critics found that each play's subversive subtext embodied their own values, and this tendency can also be seen in the arguments about King Lear mentioned above: critics like Goddard and Battenhouse who claimed that it presented a Christian, redemptive view of the world clearly shared this view, and Kott saw in it his own skeptical nihilism. Indeed, Kettle's reading is like those of the redemptive critics, except that he gives Lear a Marxist rather than a Christian redemption.

A notable exception to this widespread tendency is Paul Delany's reading of the play. Like Smirnov and Kettle, he bases his analysis on the conflict between feudal and bourgeois values, but he comes to the opposite conclusion, for while he recognizes (unlike them) the complexity of Shakespeare's attitude toward this conflict, he argues persuasively that in Lear the “feudal-heroic values” are espoused not only by Lear and Gloucester, but also by Cordelia, Edgar, Kent, and all the other sympathetic characters, and that the play reveals its author's “nostalgia” for those values and his inability “to reconcile himself with the emerging bourgeois forces” represented by all the unsympathetic characters (439). He also demonstrates that Lear's speeches on poverty and injustice, which Kettle relies on to construct a third alternative, either “view social inequality from the traditional perspective” of an organic, feudal state or else revel in a nihilistic version of society, and therefore do not point toward bourgeois democracy, much less toward socialism (435-36). That presents Delany with a problem of evaluation, since Smirnov and Kettle and almost all other Marxist critics of this period find the value of the play in its “progressive” endorsement of the right (that is, left) side of this conflict, the side of the future; but he confronts this too and argues, in Marx's own terms, that a powerful tragic effect can be evoked by the representation of a declining social order (437). It is an impressive performance, marked by a sophistication and honesty that make it, I believe, the best Marxist interpretation of the play to appear before the critical revolution.

As I already noted, we must not expect that all readings produced after this revolution will break completely with earlier criticism or evolve from it in a simple chronological sequence. Kiernan Ryan's essay, one of the latest we will examine, follows the same basic scheme as Kettle's: he finds that Lear presents the “rival ideologies” of the declining feudal aristocracy and the rising bourgeoisie and a third egalitarian alternative (68), located again in Lear's speeches in 3.4 and 4.6. There are, however, significant differences. Unlike Kettle and Smirnov, he does not relate this third position to progressive elements of the bourgeoisie or to any other contemporary force, but insists instead that it “reject[s] both the waning and the waxing world-views,” since both are grounded in a “class-divided” society (68, 71), and also insists that the evil effects of class division depicted in the play underlie “our own predicament” (66), so his analysis seems to float free of history. He also differs from them in claiming that the “causes” or “main-springs” of the tragedy are these “injustices of a stratified society” (71-73) and that the play gives us a “compelling dramatisation” of this causal connection that “leaves us no choice” but to “seek the implied solution” in the third alternative, a classless society (66, 72). But in fact all the tragic actions involve relations between members of the ruling class, so it is hard to see how they can be caused by class divisions, and it is even harder to see how the play's lesson on the evils of class division can be so compelling when Ryan complains that previous critics failed to notice it (66-67), which looks like a paradox. Actually no one has noticed this lesson except Marxists who already know it and bring it with them to the play. Ryan praises Lear for its educational value, but apparently this is limited to preaching to the converted.

At first glance Margot Heinemann's essay seems to be more historically specific, for much of it is devoted to the relationship of Lear to the conflict between King James and Parliament and to other contemporary issues. But her conclusion is similar to Ryan's, since she states that “the causes of disaster lie” in “the horror of a society divided between extremes of rich and poor,” which is the “central focus” and “central concern” of the play, and that the basic features of this “unjust society” are the same in Lear's world and Shakespeare's and in the England of 1990 (78-79), so they are just as unspecific as Ryan's “injustices of a stratified society.” Her account of the action is just as inaccurate as his, for the initial mistakes of Lear and Gloucester and the suffering resulting from them are not caused by, or even related to, the presence in the society of extremes of rich and poor. Her view of the play's effect, however, is different from his: she denies that it “propound[s] an ideal, simplified, harmonious solution for [its] conflicts” (76), which he claims it does in its “implied solution” of a classless society. Yet this turns out to be only a difference in degree, for she goes on to explain that the play is “demystifying the mystery of state” and so “empowers ordinary people in the audience to think and judge for themselves” about these matters, encourages the “resistance” of “the common people” to injustice, and even suggests “a justified popular rising” against it, through the “subversive” use of the “world upside down” trope (76, 80), so the play is teaching a Marxist lesson after all, although her version of it is vaguer than Ryan's.

My last two examples make a clearer break with earlier Marxist criticism, since they are influenced by the ideas now known as “poststructuralist theory” (or simply “theory”) that reject the old assumptions about literature. Thus in these readings Shakespeare virtually disappears and his activity is taken over by the play or “text,” whose meaning is not determined by his intention and does not reflect his view of society. The critic's focus, moreover, is not on that society but on “ideology” as redefined by revisionist Marxists like Louis Althusser, which means that the play does not simply affirm a set of conscious beliefs but does “ideological work” through strategies of which the audience may not be conscious. James Kavanagh, like most other Marxist critics, sees Lear as a “clash” between the feudal “hierarchical ideology” and the bourgeois “individualist ideology” (156-57), but unlike most of them he places the play on the side of feudalism, which was Delany's view. His analysis, however, is very different from Delany's. He does not account for the play's stance in terms of Shakespeare's feelings, which are irrelevant. More important, he sees the “egalitarian” ideas that emerge in Lear's speeches in Acts 3 and 4 (which Delany, we saw, had to explain away) as an “ideological move” to elicit sympathy for him and to make a “sharp criticism of the anarchic world of isolated, calculating egos that is the feudal ideology's image” of the “bourgeois ethic,” so that the play “appropriates egalitarianism,” which is an “element of bourgeois ideology,” in order to “incorporate” it as a “dominated element of a transformed aristocratic ideology” (157-58). He faces the same problem of evaluation as Delany, since he too locates Lear on the side of the past, but he solves it in a different way by praising the play's “fearlessness in representing … such opposed ideological elements” (159), which is a pretty daring “move” on his part (though he never explains how an inanimate object can be fearless, or why this is a virtue) that helps to make this, in my view, the most interesting of these new Marxist readings.

Jonathan Dollimore's essay also focuses on the play's dominant ideology, but he defines it as “essentialist humanism,” which is the “mystified” belief in an intrinsic and universal human nature. According to him, this is the ideology of the bourgeoisie and is closely related to “Christian essentialism,” the equally “mystified” ideology of feudalism (155-56, 194), so these two world views are not opposed in the play. The real opposition is between any form of essentialism or humanism and “materialism” (that is, Marxism), which is not an ideology, presumably because ideologies involve a “mystification” or “misrecognition” of reality, whereas materialism sees the truth.8 He claims that the play uses the materialist perspective to subject essentialist humanism “to skeptical interrogation” that “demystifies” or “repudiates” it by revealing that “human values” like kindness are “dependent upon” and “operate in the service of” the “material realities” of “power and property” (197-98, 202). Thus his version of Lear also teaches a Marxist lesson, though it is very different from the lesson found by earlier Marxists (in fact, we have come full circle from Smirnov and Kettle, who saw “humanism” as the hope of the future). The problem is that Cordelia, Edgar, and Kent never learn this lesson but go on being kind to Lear and Gloucester after these two men lose all their power and property (Gloucester also risks his life to help the powerless and property-less Lear), while the lesson is already known by Goneril, Regan, and especially Edmund, whose “revolutionary insight” leads him to reject essentialist humanism and so makes him the chief spokesperson for the truth (198, 201). This reading, then, seems to meet the criteria stated by Goldberg in my epigraph: it makes the play virtually unrecognizable by reversing our moral judgments, since the apparently good characters are wrong and the apparently evil ones are right, and by negating our emotional engagement, since we cannot sympathize with those reactionary essentialist humanists (Dollimore stops short of saying we should sympathize with Edmund, who is guilty of a “misuse of revolutionary insight” because he fails to “liberate himself from his society's obsession with power [and] property”—201). In his review of this book, however, Goldberg criticizes it for another reason; he says its analysis is ahistorical since the materialist “revolutionary” anti-essentialism it finds in Lear (and other plays of the period) is “unmoored” from the social context of Jacobean England or even of the succeeding bourgeois hegemony, so “the only revolution” it points to is “the one that Marx predicts and which has yet to arrive” (74-75). And he is right.

Although these new Marxist readings differ in many ways, we can note some general tendencies that most of them share. One is a tension (contradiction?) between their need to be “historically specific” by relating Lear to the conflicts of its own time and their need to be “relevant” by making it convey a message for our time.9 This accounts for the insistence in many of these readings that the social problems presented by the play are still with us, and that the solution for them recommended by the play is still the only solution for our problems—that is, socialism. Most of them, in other words, make Shakespeare or his text a proto-Marxist. They also locate the cause of the tragic actions “beyond the conscious culpability of individuals in the iniquitous structures” of society, as Ryan puts it (72).10 This in itself, we saw, need not seriously alter our judgments of and feelings toward the characters, although it tends to weaken those feelings and our sense of the play as a tragedy.11 Moreover, it confuses a necessary condition with a sufficient cause. The society of the play, where kings and fathers have absolute power, property is inherited, and so on, makes the tragic actions possible, since they could not occur (at least in the same way) in another kind of world, but it does not cause those actions, since other people living in this society do not act in this manner; indeed all the witnesses to Lear's rejection of Cordelia view it as a shocking departure from the norms of their society. Finally, these essays tend to be highly selective in citing evidence. Goldberg complains that Dollimore “raids Renaissance texts; he does not read them” (75), and this is more or less true of the other critics, who seize on those elements of the play that fit their thesis and ignore the others (which is also more or less true of most non-Marxist critics). For example, they discuss at length Lear's attack on the corruption of justice in 4.6 but do not mention his attack on women a few lines earlier, which is apparently not relevant to the Marxist approach, although it is very relevant to the next one we will examine.

Unlike Marxism, the feminist approach entered the critical scene at the beginning of, and as a major cause of, the revolution I described at the outset. Many of the early feminist critics of Shakespeare adopt the methods of New Critical thematism in which they were trained; thus Marianne Novy sees Lear as a conflict between “patriarchy” and “mutuality” that serves the same function as the old New Critical “central themes” like “reason vs. passion.”12 The play presents an “exploration of some behavior that patriarchy fosters in men and women” and an “implicit criticism” of it (150) by showing that it is responsible for Lear's mistakes and by having him learn, through suffering, the lesson Shakespeare is teaching—not a Marxist lesson on the evils of private property and the need for socialism, but a feminist lesson on the evils of patriarchy and the need for mutuality, which is embodied in Cordelia. This analysis leads to some real insights into Lear's psychology, especially his desire to be mothered by his daughters (152-53), and to an explanation of his misogynistic outburst in 4.6 (which the Marxists ignored) in terms of “patriarchal society's split of human qualities” into “masculine and feminine” and his urge to deny and project the feminine in himself by “scapegoating” women (156). Yet her attempt to blame patriarchy for his initial mistakes involves the same confusion of necessary condition with sufficient cause that we found in the Marxists and is open to the same objection—that all the witnesses see his actions, not as normal patriarchal behavior, but as a shocking deviation from it. While her reading does not violate our feelings for the characters, it dilutes them by focusing on the abstract thematic lesson. Indeed she herself shows a concern for this problem that is very rare in thematic criticism:

There is so much sympathy with Lear at the end that it seems cold to turn from feeling with him to any further analysis of the play in terms of sex-role behavior, but … part of the effect of the play is to impress on us the suffering created by these behavior patterns … in a patriarchal society.


Coppelia Kahn's reading marks a further development of the psychological side of feminist criticism found in Novy. It utilizes the feminist revision of Freudianism, associated primarily with Nancy Chodorow (1978), that like Freud locates the basic cause of adult neurosis in a childhood trauma, but shifts the site of this trauma from Oedipal relations with the father to pre-Oedipal relations with the mother, which are responsible for men's distorted “patriarchal” attitudes. From this it follows, according to Kahn, that “the imprint of mothering on the male psyche, the psychological presence of the mother in men … can be found throughout the literary canon” in the “maternal subtext” in male-authored texts and the repressed or “hidden mother in the hero's inner world” (35, 37). Her choice of King Lear to exemplify this theory is astute (like Ernest Jones's choice of Hamlet to exemplify Freud's Oedipal theory) since many facts of the play fit it, and so it enables her to explain, in greater detail than Novy, important aspects of Lear's psychology such as his infantile fantasies, his feeling of dependence on his daughters and need to repress this, and his rage when they fail him, although some of her accounts are strained, as we would expect of any attempt to find a single cause for complex human behavior.13 Another kind of problem is posed by her concept of Shakespeare's role, for he has apparently escaped unscathed from the trauma of being mothered and has no “hidden mother” in his psyche. He seems to be fully conscious of the unconscious operation of this male malady and is praised for his remarkable “insight” into how it damages the psyches of other men in his (and our) society (37), and how that damage can be repaired, which he demonstrates in “Lear's progress toward acceptance of the woman in himself” (46). Thus her Shakespeare, like Novy's, is teaching Lear and us a feminist lesson: the play becomes the “tragedy of masculinity … in a patriarchal world” (36) and the real cause of that tragedy is, once again, patriarchy itself.

Janet Adelman carries this approach a step further by applying it not only to King Lear but also to King Lear and Shakespeare. The basic term in her analysis is “fantasies,” specifically the infantile fantasies generated by “the immense fear and longing of a son's relationship with a mother” (103), but unlike Kahn, who finds these fantasies only in Lear, she insists that they “give emotional coloration to the entire play” because “they are not localized in (and hence limited to) any single character” (104). Thus, she can account for the role of Gloucester and the relationship between the two plots (106-8), which Kahn virtually ignores, and can also probe, at a deeper psychological level than Kahn, the significance of many aspects of the main plot, such as Lear's initial love test, the storm, and especially Lear's reunion with Cordelia and her death—all in terms of a “pattern of repression and return” of the fantasized mother (109). It is an impressive achievement, too complex to be summarized here, but the connections it establishes between the play and the fantasy are necessarily metaphorical rather than literal. To take one typical example, she argues that Goneril and Regan are “psychically generated by Lear's rage at Cordelia” because “they play out her abandonment of him” (118), yet that is only true in her fantasy logic of post hoc ergo propter hoc. The result is that most of the characters are seen not as individuals but as “representations” or “projections” of the fantasy. This also raises the problem of agency, since the psyche that generates or projects them cannot be Lear's and must be Shakespeare's. Kahn, we saw, never confronts this problem but Adelman does: she claims, like Kahn, that Shakespeare is criticizing the fantasy, but she also acknowledges that he is “complicit” with it (115-17, 124-25), which causes some confusion since at times we cannot tell if she is referring to Lear's fantasy or the play's or Shakespeare's, but it means that her Shakespeare, unlike Novy's and Kahn's, need not become a protofeminist teaching Lear the evils of patriarchy. It also creates a problem of evaluation for a feminist, but she confronts this as well by arguing that women can be deeply moved by the play since they too are complicit in the pre-Oedipal fear of separation from the mother, which is “prior to gender” (125-26). Because she is able to integrate so many aspects of the play in her interpretation while honestly facing the problems that it poses, I think her essay is the best example of the feminist psychological approach to King Lear.

Kathleen McLuskie represents the other major trend in feminist criticism—the “materialist” or Marxist approach. She begins by attacking feminist Shakespeareans on two fronts that she wants to connect: they adopt a “mimetic model” of criticism that treats the play as the expression of Shakespeare's view of life, which they “co-opt” to make him a feminist14; and they are liberals who think the feminist cause can be advanced without “fundamentally changing the material circumstances” of our economic system (89-91). She announces that she, in contrast, will “refus[e] to construct an author” behind the play and will examine the “strategies which construct [its] meanings” in its “treatment of gender relations” and the material circumstances underlying them (92). Despite this introduction, the reading of Lear that follows is in many ways perfectly recognizable, as Goldberg would put it, and even conventional. Her study of the play's strategies yields a perceptive account of its “tragic power” and the “emotional, moral, and aesthetic satisfaction” and “pleasure” it produces by evoking our “sympathies” and “complete engagement with the character,” so that in the final scene “the most stony-hearted feminist could not withhold her pity” (98-102). But she breaks from conventional criticism by insisting that we must “resist” or “deny” this pleasure because it “endorses” the play's patriarchal ideology and also prevents us from making a “dispassionate analysis” of the “real socio-sexual relations” in it (100).15 Thus, although she believes, like Dollimore, that the “material circumstances” of property and power are the “real” basis of human relations here, she does not claim that Lear is teaching us this Marxist lesson. Instead she constructs the play as the enemy of Marxism and feminism, since it conceals the truth through its “emotional power,” and she concludes by discussing ways of defeating it in performances that could make it “reveal” this hidden truth by “subverting rather than co-opting” Shakespeare and so “offer the pleasure of understanding in place of the pleasure of emotional identification” (103-6).

Ann Thompson is also a materialist feminist and also begins by attacking recent criticism16; but she limits herself to criticism of King Lear, and her principal targets, unlike McLuskie's, are male Marxists and new historicists, especially Dollimore, Greenblatt, and Tennenhouse, whom she accuses of “displacing and marginalising the feminine” in this play because they are “obsessed with power and property (120-22). When she turns to the feminists she criticizes both Novy and McLuskie, the former for her “apologist” defense of the play and the latter for her “radical” rejection of it (123). She praises Kahn's strategy of excavating the “maternal subtext” since it reverses that of the male Marxists and new historicists: “where they erase the women who are present in the text, [it] seeks out and reinstates the woman who is absent”: but she objects that, while “women are clearly present … politics and economics are largely absent,” as they are from the readings of Novy and French (124-25). What she wants is a “materialist feminist reading” that bridges the division between feminist readings focusing on the play's “personal level” and materialist readings focusing on its “political level” (125). She finds suggestions of such a bridge in Erickson's attempt to link his theme of “male bonding” to “paternal” concern for the poor, for here, very briefly, “a gender-conscious reading makes contact with a materialist or economics-conscious reading”; and in McLuskie's call for performances that would “subvert” the play by making it reveal the “material conditions” and “power structures” that determine family relationships (126), though we saw in examining Dollimore's essay that this “materialist” revelation only applies to the unsympathetic characters and is denied by the sympathetic ones. Yet this is all she can produce in her refutation of the idea that, in the criticism of Lear, “‘feminism’ and ‘materialism’ are mutually exclusive categories” (127).

Although she does not get very far, Thompson points to a major problem in feminist criticism of Lear (and of Shakespeare in general), the fact that much of it tends to fall into two opposing schools. The division she discusses between “feminism” and “materialism” is also a division within feminism itself—between the feminist psychological approach, which is mainly American and followed after the initial (also mainly American) thematic phase, and the feminist materialist approach, which is mainly British. The problem is not that feminist criticism is divided, for there is no reason why it should be monolithic, but that these two schools cannot relate to each other, because both the Chodorowians (like their Freudian precursors) and the Marxists claim to have found the one basic cause of all behavior, including the treatment of women, either in unconscious conflicts within the individual (male) psyche or in class conflicts within the socioeconomic formation. They are both totalizing systems, and there is no way to negotiate a compromise or reconciliation between them. Thus, it is not feminism and materialism but Chodorowian Freudianism and Marxism that are the “mutually exclusive categories,” and as long as feminist criticism is hung up on them it will be bogged down in this unproductive contest. Another major problem of this criticism involves its relation to Shakespeare's world. The thematic and psychological feminists ignore this, except for Kahn's brief historical digressions that seek to connect her reading to the alleged “reinforcing [of] patriarchy” and generational conflict in this period and the practice of wet-nursing (38, 41, 44),17 which will not work since Chodorow's theory of mothering is supposed to apply to any period. Marxist feminists have a similar difficulty: McLuskie also tries to historicize her reading by invoking Jacobean generational conflicts (103), but she is committed to the theory that superstructural conflicts of this sort are always determined by conflicts in the material base and that these “real” causal connections transcend history, for the laws of Marx, like those of Chodorow and Freud, are supposed to be universal.18 That is why nonfeminist Marxists asserted that the play's lessons about class and injustice are just as relevant today, and the same rationale underlies McLuskie's call for subversive performances of the play that will reveal its concealed truth about “real socio-sexual relations,” since she would not call for them unless she believed that this truth applied to our society as well as to Shakespeare's.

The relation of Lear to the society of its time is the main concern of our third school, the new historicists. They are called “historicists” to distinguish them from the ahistorical New Critical formalists, and “new” to distinguish them from the old historical critics, who viewed the history of the period as a factual context that is prior to and determines the meaning of the problematic literary text (which is related to McLuskie's “mimetic model” of criticism), whereas these new ones, at least in theory, place history and literature on the same level as equally problematic texts that construct each other. They must also be distinguished from the “materialists” since they do not accept the Marxist political agenda or the base-superstructure causal scheme (nationality is involved here again—most new historicists are American and most Marxists are British). Like the feminists (and unlike the Marxists) they entered the critical scene as part of the revolution described earlier; in fact their entrance is often dated by the publication of Stephen Greenblatt's Renaissance Self-Fashioning in 1980. It seems appropriate, then, to begin with his essay on Lear (1985), which Goldberg attacks in my epigraph.

The essay takes off from Samuel Harsnett's Declaration of Egregious Popish Impostures, an exposure of Catholic exorcisms performed in 1585-86 that is the source of a few passages in Lear. Greenblatt is not interested, however, in using it for a source study or a study of topical allusions to this event in the play (two typical concerns of the old historicism), though he notes a “resemblance” between Edmund's persecution of Edgar and the Protestant persecution of Catholics (118). He is concerned instead with showing how the relation between Harsnett's book and Shakespeare's play figures in the “crucial institutional negotiations and exchange” attendant on the major conflict of the period, which he defines as a “sustained struggle” over the “central value system” and especially “sacredness” (103-4)—unlike the Marxists, who locate the major conflict in the economic base. He finds this exchange in Harsnett's treatment of exorcism as a theatrical fraud and the theater's appropriation of religious functions; but no “struggle” is involved here (Harsnett's struggle is with Catholicism) and the connection to Lear, when we come to it, is not clear. Edgar's demonic possession is fraudulent, as in Harsnett, but despite Greenblatt's claim that the Dover Cliff scene “stages” an exorcism and his references to unidentified “rituals” in the play, there is in fact no exorcism or any other religious ritual in Lear—indeed the staging of such rituals was apparently prohibited.19 He is more convincing when he moves to a more general level to argue that the play, especially the ending, is “emptying out” any “redemptive hope” in the supernatural (120). But this is, as Goldberg says, “perfectly recognizable;” it is the old nihilistic reading, exemplified by Jan Kott, which was ahistorical, and I do not see what historical basis it has in Greenblatt's concept of “institutional exchange” and “struggle” since no contemporary institution promoted such a view or benefited from it. He does return to this exchange at the end, but only to argue that the play still moves us today and makes us “love the theater” because it “creates in us the intimation of a fullness” of an age of religious faith “that we can only savor in the conviction of its irremediable loss” (122-23). It is an interesting idea, but it is not specifically tied to a historical period, since he never explains how this reaction differs from that of the original audience, or even to Lear, since it could be said of many other tragedies. It may be unfair, however, to fault the essay on these grounds, for its real subject seems to be not any particular period or play but the “power of the theater” (122).

Greenblatt wrote another essay on Lear (1982) that also begins with a historical event, Francis Wayland's account, published in 1831, of how he broke the will of his infant son by cultivating in him what Greenblatt calls “salutary anxiety,” but this has an even more tenuous connection to the play than Harsnett's book. He first notes the “crucial differences” between Wayland's society and Shakespeare's (96), and when he comes to the “significant continuities” between them in child-rearing, he first relates these to “the mode” of Renaissance drama or the “practice of tragedy” then, “quite apart from any specific content” (103, 106). When he reaches the specific content of Lear, he focuses on the love test, but this test, unlike Wayland's will-breaking, does not “cultivate” any “salutary anxiety” in Lear's daughters, so his discussion shifts to the anxiety in Lear himself that generates the test, although this anxiety is neither “cultivated” nor “salutary” and is not related to Wayland. The historical connection that Greenblatt makes instead is to the conflict between generations in Renaissance England as it is reflected in the “maintenance agreements” that anxious fathers drew up before transfering property to their children (110),20 but even this presents problems because he recognizes that these agreements are “very far from the social world of King Lear” (111). Then in his final section he enters that world to give us a fascinating analysis of the love test in terms of the interplay of power, the need for love, and the limits of verbal representation—an analysis that leaves Wayland and those maintenance agreements far behind and is worthy of comparison to Adelman's ahistorical treatment of this same episode.21

The other new historicist readings we will examine are more history-specific and play-specific. Leonard Tennenhouse begins by defining the basic principles of Jacobean ideology—patriarchy, primogeniture, “the metaphysics of blood” (which confers “legitimate authority”), and the preservation of the purity of “the aristocratic body” from “pollution”—and then tries to connect them to King Lear. From this perspective it turns out that Lear's initial error is not in misjudging his daughters (this is not even mentioned) but in “dividing up the monarchy” and violating the “principle of primogeniture,” which is “the most serious assault on the principle of patriarchy” (137).22 (He never explains what Lear should have done instead, but presumably if he had given the entire kingdom to his oldest daughter, Goneril, all would have been well.) Similarly, Gloucester's initial error is not that he misjudged his sons' characters (this again seems to be irrelevant) but that he “disowned his legitimate son and declared the bastard legitimate,” for this introduces “pollution” into “the aristocratic body” and so is a “crime against patriarchy which explicitly challenges the metaphysics of the blood,” and which he expiates by losing his eyes, this being a “ritual punishment” wherein he “purifies the aristocratic body” (138-39). Apparently it does not matter that his purifying punishers are allies of the polluting bastard, or that they punish him, not for his crime against patriarchy but for helping Lear, which seems like a very patriarchal thing to do. According to Tennenhouse, this purification ritual leads to the resolution Shakespeare wants; namely, “the reassertion of patriarchy as a metaphysical principle” (140), which also requires Cordelia's death, since if she survived she would inherit the crown in violation of this Jacobean principle (141). (He admits that the resolution violates the Jacobean principle of the metaphysics of blood because the new ruler “is not, strictly speaking, a blood relation” of Lear, but his gender is more important since power must revert to “the patriarchal principle itself” regardless of “the individual who wields it” [142], so long as it is not a woman.) Thus he has the play teach a lesson that is the exact opposite of Novy's: for her it demonstrates the evils of patriarchy, while for him it demonstrates the evils of violating patriarchy. He also differs from her in rejecting our moral and emotional engagement with the suffering and deaths that teach the lesson, so in this respect his reading meets Goldberg's criteria. The justification for this, he assures us, is that our tragic response to the characters is a modern anachronism and that the response of the Jacobean audience (who viewed the play exclusively in political terms) coincided with his own reading, which was also a standard claim of the old historicist “ideas-of-the-time” critics.

Annabel Patterson begins with an even more specific historical connection of the play to James: she claims that the depiction of Lear in Act 1 “comes perilously close to presenting a fictional portrait of the king himself,” and that Lear's division of the kingdom is a topical allusion (in a “reversed mirror”) to James's attempt to unify England and Scotland (106-7), an idea associated with Glynne Wickham, who was an old historicist. She also claims that Act 1 “includes a critique of the authoritarian, patriarchal … theories of James himself” (107), which is the opposite of Tennenhouse's contention that the play endorses these theories. According to her, however, Shakespeare then “extend[s] topicality's range from the narrowly specific to the broadest and deepest of contemporary concerns” through “a critique of the socioeconomic system of Jacobean England” (108), which becomes a “structural analysis of power and class relations” (112). She rejects the view that this involves the transition from feudalism to capitalism and focuses instead on “the clash of human with economic values” (108), the conflict between the oppressive socioeconomic system and the “popular voice” of lower-class resistance to it, which she locates primarily in Edgar, who presents “the radical analysis that Shakespeare performed, in disguise, on the economic structure of his own society” (115), and in Lear, whose progress to this radical position culminates in his speeches in 4.6 (111-13). Thus her concept of the “popular voice” serves the same function as Kettle's “humanism” (in fact she connects it to “humanist values”—113), Ryan's “classless” alternative, Heinemann's “world upside down,” and Dollimore's “materialism” in enabling the play to convey the right political message. Like them she insists that this message applies today, since the injustices it opposes are “still at the heart” of our society (117). She differs from them, however, in finding that at the end Lear and the play “retreat” from this radical position “into the domestic and familial, as a shelter from sociopolitical awareness,” which is Shakespeare's tactic to “baffle” the enemy (116). She therefore has no coherent overall view of Lear, but gains an advantage over many of the Marxists since she does not have to distort the beginning to make it the result of economic injustice, or distort the ending to make it promise the elimination of this injustice.

Leah Marcus's reading is the most historically specific, since it claims that Lear was written for, and so is explicable in terms of, the court performance that took place on St. Stephen's Night, 1606. It thus belongs to the occasionalist approach, an extreme form of topicalism that also flourished under the old historicism, despite the absence of evidence that any play in this period was designed for a special occasion or a special audience.23 Her case rests on two alleged connections between Lear and James that Patterson also touched on: he embodies some of James's faults and his division of the kingdom alludes to James's attempt to unify England and Scotland. For Marcus, however, this Project for Union is the focus of what she calls the play's “local” meaning, which she also connects to the Feast of St. Stephen because of its emphasis on “hospitality” and “charity.” In this context, she finds, the actions of Goneril and Regan would be seen as a violation of the festival and would associate them with English opponents of the Union, who were “hard-heartedly denying the nation's obligatory hospitality to the needy Scots,” represented by Cordelia, Edgar, and Lear himself, so that the play becomes “an extended political exemplum promoting charity toward the Scots” and “enforcing the king's arguments” for union with them (153-54, 156).24 This could present a problem since Lear is also supposed to portray James's faults, but Marcus disposes of it in two ways: James's “tolerance of the play's critique” of these faults (which Shakespeare presumably foresaw when he wrote it for this court performance) is a “kind of forgiveness” of his enemies enjoined by the festival, and the faults are caused by his subjects' “inhospitality toward the Union,” which provides “an explanation of all manner of royal failings” (156-57), though it is hard to see how this explains Lear's division of the kingdom that James wants to unite. Her view of the play, then, is even less coherent than Patterson's; it is fragmented into a collection of separate and sometimes conflicting “local” allusions that are themselves questionable, for while she refers to the play's “insistent Stuart referentiality” and “intense Stuart topicality” and “striking localization” that are “almost inescapable” (151-52), she admits that all this could escape people seeing Lear at other performances (158-59), leaving us to wonder what “unlocal” meaning or survival value the play might have independent of the special occasion that is supposed to explain it. But that is a problem inherent in the occasionalist approach.

One conclusion we have to draw from these new historicist readings is that they are, in some basic respects, not very new. Although I said earlier that these critics regularly claim that history and literature must be viewed on the same level as equally problematic, they regularly contradict this claim in their practice (as seen in the essays examined here) by beginning with certain facts in the historical context and then applying them to the play.25 In their own terminology, they “prioritize” and “privilege” history over literature, like the old historicists. We also saw that in this operation they often draw on the same facts—such as the nature of the Jacobean court, or King James's personality and ideology, or his attempt to unify England and Scotland—as their predecessors, which is not surprising since there are only a limited number of these historical facts to draw on, especially if one's concept of history is limited to the workings of “power.” Indeed this concentration upon (some call it an obsession with) the contemporary power apparatus is a well recognized trait of the new historicists, and may in part account for their tendency, pointed out by Thompson, to ignore or minimize the role of the women in Lear.26 Finally, it should be noted that even though all these readings are intentionalist, they do not find any coherent design that shapes the play; indeed we saw that as the readings become more historically specific, the view of the play that emerges from them becomes more fragmented.

It is much easier to see the break with New Critical formalism, and this applies not only to the new historicists but also to the Marxists and feminists. The practitioners of these three approaches insist that they are opening up questions about the relationship of the literary text to the external world that were closed off by the formalist attempt to isolate the work-in-itself. They clearly have done this, since all the readings we examined seek to “contextualize” King Lear in terms of class or gender conflicts or other social or psychological forces outside the play. What is not so clear is how much this has enhanced our understanding and appreciation of the play, and on that point I have not tried to conceal my disappointment. Part of the problem, I think, is that while these approaches open up new questions about the play, they also tend to close off many of the old formalist questions concerning its coherence and our ethical and emotional engagement in it—the kind of questions that Goldberg disparages. This, of course, is the nature of any critical approach; it focuses on certain aspects of the work and neglects others, which is why we need a plurality of approaches. Thus, the Marxists, feminists, and new historicists could respond, with some justification, that I am disappointed because I expected them to enhance a formalist understanding of the play, which is not their purpose. Another explanation could be that these approaches have not yet realized their full potential—that they succeeded in the essential preliminary task of enlarging the area of critical discourse, which is in itself no small achievement, but that the fruits of their breakthrough are still in the future. I believe we should always remain open to this possibility and search for the merits as well as the faults in each new reading we encounter, being careful to avoid a blanket condemnation of these recent approaches as well as a nostalgic idealization of the good old days that so often accompanies it.


  1. Greenblatt's essay appeared in an anthology titled After Strange Texts. Since all the essays in it deal with well-known texts, the title must mean that they are trying to make the texts seem strange to us—but obviously not strange enough to satisfy Goldberg.

  2. I am not suggesting that this revolution began after 1981. The essays in Danson's collection were presented as lectures in 1978-79 by members of the Princeton faculty, who may have been regarded even then as somewhat old fashioned. It is also an all-male assemblage, which does not seem to bother them.

  3. I discuss these two approaches in New Readings, chaps. 3 and 4.

  4. These anthologies and surveys are listed at the end of this essay.

  5. Another prominent recent approach is performance criticism, which I omit because it is discussed elsewhere in this anthology. I also omit the deconstructive approach since it has not been very important in Shakespeare studies, though it has produced a few readings of Lear—see Cope, Felperin, and Goldberg (1984).

  6. One does not have to be a Marxist to recognize this; Kettle notes that it was pointed out by Danby.

  7. His division of the cast is similar to Kettle's: Lear represents “the feudal-aristocratic system” but is “regenerated,” Goneril, Regan, and Edmund embody the new forces of “primary accumulation,” and Cordelia and Edgar are “progressive characters” who have “poorly delineated class characteristics” but are “profoundly humanist” and give us “hope for a better future” (69-71).

  8. This is the old Marxist distinction between “ideology” and “science”; many revisionist Marxists disown it, but it keeps cropping up in their work.

  9. This reflects the two faces of Marxism, which claims to be both a science for understanding society and a political program for changing it. Jameson tries—unsuccessfully, I think—to reconcile them.

  10. Ryan objects to humanist critics who make “schematised abstractions” the “real protagonists of the play” (66), but he and other Marxist critics do the same thing with different abstractions such as “class division” or “ideology.”

  11. This point is made by McAlindon.

  12. Some other early feminist thematic critics analyze the play as a conflict between “male bonding” and “male-female relations” (Erickson) or between the “masculine principle” and the “feminine principle” (French).

  13. Other feminist critics have extended this approach to discover much less convincing “hidden mothers” in many other plays of Shakespeare. (In her 1989 book Chodorow qualifies her earlier claim that she has found the one basic cause of behavior.) There are also some feminist psychological critics, such as Asp, who apply a more orthodox Freudian approach to King Lear.

  14. Her targets include earlier studies by Kahn and Adelman; we saw, however, that this “mimetic model” applies to Kahn (and Novy) but not to Adelman. We also saw that there is no necessary connection between this “mimetic” mode of criticism and political liberalism, since it is practiced by many Marxists.

  15. This is related to Bertolt Brecht's argument for an “alienation effect” to subvert our emotional involvement in the action so that we can perceive its underlying causes (i.e., capitalism), but this distrust of the emotional power of art goes back to Plato's Republic. Adelman presents her evaluation of Lear as a third alternative between the earlier critics' acceptance of the emotional effect and McLuskie's complete rejection of it (310).

  16. She also wrote a survey of Lear criticism listed at the end.

  17. Thompson objects that this is only “social history” rather than political and economic (i.e., “materialist”) history (125).

  18. Chodorow and Marx, however, differ from Freud in insisting that their universal laws can be repealed, either by a feminist revolution that ends the gender division of labor in the family (so that “mothering” is no longer relegated to women) or by a socialist revolution that ends all class divisions in society. (See also note 13 on Chodorow's later amendment to her law.)

  19. There are nonreligious exorcisms in The Comedy of Errors and Twelfth Night, which Greenblatt cites (111), but they are too farcical for his purpose. Shakespeare avoids staging any religious ritual—see, for example, his treatment of the wedding of Romeo and Juliet, the coronation of Henry V, the funeral of Ophelia, and the baptism of Elizabeth.

  20. Kahn (44) and McLuskie (103) also refer to the conflict, as I noted. Kahn cites the title of Greenblatt's essay as “Lear's Anxiety” (328), which is incorrect but actually closer to his subject than the correct title.

  21. The main difference, I think, is not that he is historical and she is not, but that she slights the problem of representation while he slights gender—he notes the absence of Wayland's wife and Lear's, but it does not seem to matter to him that Wayland is dealing with a son and Lear with daughters.

  22. He admits that this view of Lear's error is never stated by anyone in the play (135). Some old historicist “ideas-of-the-time” critics also advanced this view, which I dispute in New Readings 149-51.

  23. I criticize this approach in New Readings, chap. 4. (Patterson also refers to the court performance [115] but it is unimportant in her reading, which is not occasionalist.) Marcus's reading is even more specific since it is limited to the quarto version, which, she claims, contains material written for this occasion that disappears in the folio version (149-52). This is the only interpretation examined here that relies upon the two-text theory, though it is also mentioned by Heinemann, Adelman, and Patterson.

  24. She even suggests that Gloucester's blinding is a punishment for “passively allow[ing] the holiday violation” of denying hospitality to Lear (155), but the fact is that he is blinded for trying to help Lear. Compare Tennenhouse's claim that it is a punishment for legitimizing Edmund.

  25. Pechter gives examples of this discrepancy between new historicist theory and practice. There is a more striking one in Goldberg's essay (1987) from which my epigraph is taken; he criticizes Greenblatt for opening his discussion of Lear (1985) “with a characteristic gesture toward the unquestioned reality of dates and facts, the local event that locates the Shakespearean text within a cultural economy” (244), but then opens his discussion of a Latin entertainment with the same gesture: “On August 27, 1605, in the course of a visit James and his family made to Oxford, they were welcomed to St. John's College by a learned show” (257).

  26. Tennenhouse explicitly states that he will “dissolve the sexual theme” into themes of “state power” (123, 142); see also note 21 on Greenblatt.


Adelman, Janet. “Suffocating Mothers in King Lear.Suffocating Mothers: Fantasies of Maternal Origin in Shakespeare's Plays, “Hamlet” to “The Tempest,” New York: Routledge, 1992, 103-29.

Asp, Carolyn. “‘The Clamor of Eros’: Freud, Aging, and King Lear.Memory and Desire: Aging—Literature—Psychoanalysis. Edited by Kathleen Woodward and Murray Schwartz. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986, 192-204.

Battenhouse, Roy. “Moral Experience and Its Typology in King Lear.Shakespearean Tragedy: Its Art and Its Christian Premises. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1969, 269-302.

Chodorow, Nancy. Feminism and Psychoanalytic Theory. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989.

———. The Reproduction of Mothering: Psychoanalysis and the Sociology of Gender. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978.

Cope, Jackson. “Shakespeare, Derrida, and the End of Language in Lear.Shakespeare and Deconstruction. Edited by G. Douglas Atkins and David Bergeron. New York: Peter Lang, 1988, 267-83.

Danby, John. Shakespeare's Doctrine of Nature: A Study of “King Lear.” London: Faber & Faber, 1949.

Delany, Paul. “King Lear and the Decline of Feudalism.” PMLA 92 (1977): 429-40.

Dollimore, Jonathan. “King Lear and Essentialist Humanism.” Radical Tragedy: Religion, Ideology and Power in the Drama of Shakespeare and his Contemporaries. Brighton: Harvester, 1984, 189-203; 2nd ed. 1989.

Erickson, Peter. “Maternal Images and Male Bonds in … King Lear.Patriarchal Structures in Shakespeare's Drama. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985, 103-15.

Felperin, Howard. “Plays Within Plays: … King Lear …” Shakespearean Representation: Mimesis and Modernity in Elizabethan Tragedy. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1977, 87-106.

French, Marilyn. “King Lear.Shakespeare's Division of Experience. 1981. New York: Ballantine, 1983, 219-42.

Goddard, Harold. “King Lear.The Meaning of Shakespeare. 2 vols. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951, 2.136-71.

Goldberg, Jonathan. “Dover Cliff and the Conditions of Representation: King Lear 4:6 in Perspective.” Poetics Today 5 (1984): 537-47. Reprinted in Shakespeare and Deconstruction. Edited by G. Douglas Atkins and David Bergeron. New York: Peter Lang, 1988, 245-65.

———. Review of Dollimore, Radical Tragedy. Modern Philology 84 (1986): 71-75.

———. “Speculations: Macbeth and Source.” Shakespeare Reproduced: The Text in History and Ideology. Edited by Jean Howard and Marion O'Connor. New York: Methuen, 1987, 242-64.

Greenblatt, Stephen. “The Cultivation of Anxiety: King Lear and His Heirs.” Raritan 2 (1982): 92-114. Reprinted in Learning to Curse: Essays in Early Modern Culture. New York: Routledge, 1990, 80-98.

———. Renaissance Self-fashioning: From More to Shakespeare. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980.

———. “Shakespeare and the Exorcists.” After Strange Texts: The Role of Theory in the Study of Literature. Edited by Gregory Jay and David Miller. University: University of Alabama Press, 1985, 101-23. Other versions appear in Shakespeare and the Question of Theory. Edited by Patricia Parker and Geoffrey Hartman. New York: Methuen, 1985, 163-87; and Shakespearean Negotiations: The Circulation of Social Energy in Renaissance England. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988, 94-128; earlier version in Genre 15 (1982): 239-42.

Heinemann, Margot. “Demystifying the Mystery of State: King Lear and the World Upside Down.” Shakespeare Survey 44 (1991): 75-83.

Jameson, Fredric. “Science versus Ideology.” Humanities in Society 6 (1983): 283-302.

Jones, Ernest. Hamlet and Oedipus. New York: Norton, 1949.

Kavanagh, James. “Shakespeare in Ideology.” Alternative Shakespeares. Edited by John Drakakis. London: Methuen, 1985, 144-65.

Kahn, Coppélia. “The Absent Mother in King Lear.Rewriting the Renaissance: The Discourses of Sexual Difference in Early Modern Europe. Edited by Margaret Ferguson, Maureen Quilligan, and Nancy Vickers. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986, 33-49; earlier version: “Excavating ‘Those Dim Minoan Regions’: Maternal Subtexts in Patriarchal Literature.” Diacritics 12 (1982): 32-41.

Kettle, Arnold. “From Hamlet to Lear.Shakespeare in a Changing World. Edited by Arnold Kettle. London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1964, 146-71.

Kott, Jan. “King Lear or Endgame.” Shakespeare Our Contemporary. Translated by Boleslaw Taborski. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1964, 87-124.

Levin, Richard. New Readings vs. Old Plays: Recent Trends in the Reinterpretation of English Renaissance Drama. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979.

McAlindon, Tom. “Tragedy, King Lear, and the Politics of the Heart.” Shakespeare Survey 44 (1991): 85-90.

McLuskie, Kathleen. “The Patriarchal Bard: Feminist Criticism and Shakespeare: King Lear and Measure for Measure.Political Shakespeare: New Essays in Cultural Materialism. Edited by Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1985, 88-108.

Marcus, Leah. “Retrospective: King Lear on St. Stephen's Night, 1606.” Puzzling Shakespeare: Local Reading and Its Discontents. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988, 148-59.

Novy, Marianne. “Patriarchy, Mutuality, and Forgiveness in King Lear.Love's Argument: Gender Relations in Shakespeare. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984, 150-63; earlier version in Southern Humanities Review 13 (1979): 281-92.

Patterson, Annabel. “‘What Matter Who's Speaking’: … King Lear.Shakespeare and the Popular Voice. Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1989, 106-19.

Pechter, Edward. “The New Historicism and its Discontents: Politicizing Renaissance Drama.” PMLA 102 (1987): 292-303.

Ryan, Kiernan. “King Lear: ‘men / Are as the time is’.” Shakespeare. London: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1989, 66-73.

Smirnov, Aleksandr. Shakespeare: A Marxist Interpretation. Translated by Sonia Volochova. New York: Critics' Group, 1936, 68-71; reprinted 1970, 1977.

Tennenhouse, Leonard. “The Theater of Punishment: Jacobean Tragedy and the Politics of Misogyny.” Power on Display: The Politics of Shakespeare's Genres. New York: Methuen, 1986, 102-46.

Thompson, Ann. “Are There Any Women in King Lear?The Matter of Difference: Materialist Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare. Edited by Valerie Wayne. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991, 117-28.

Wickham, Glynne. “From Tragedy to Tragi-Comedy: King Lear as Prologue.” Shakespeare Survey 26 (1973): 33-48.

Anthologies of Criticism

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

Bloom, Harold, ed. King Lear. Major Literary Characters. New York: Chelsea House, 1992.

———. William Shakespeare's “King Lear.” New York: Chelsea House, 1987.

Bonheim, Helmut, ed. The “King Lear” Perplex. San Francisco: Wadsworth, 1960.

Colie, Rosalie, and F. T. Flahiff, eds. Some Facets of “King Lear”: Essays in Prismatic Criticism. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1974.

Danson, Lawrence, ed. On “King Lear.” Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981.

Harrison, G. B., and Robert McDonnell, eds. “King Lear”: Text, Sources, Criticism. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1962.

Kermode, Frank, ed. Shakespeare: “King Lear”: A Casebook. London: Macmillan, 1969; revised edition 1992.

Muir, Kenneth, ed. “King Lear”: Critical Essays. New York: Garland, 1984.

Muir, Kenneth, and Stanley Wells, eds. Aspects of “King Lear”: Articles Reprinted from “Shakespeare Survey.” Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982.

Ryan, Kiernan, ed. “King Lear,” New Casebooks. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1992.

Shakespeare Survey 13 (1960) and 33 (1980).

Surveys of Criticism

Champion, Larry, ed. “King Lear”: An Annotated Bibliography. 2 vols. New York: Garland, 1980.

Everett, Barbara. “The New King Lear.Critical Quarterly 2 (1960): 325-39.

Harbage, Alfred. “The Fierce Dispute.” Conceptions of Shakespeare. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1966, 77-98.

Hibbard, George. “King Lear: A Retrospect, 1939-79.” Shakespeare Survey 33 (1980): 1-12; reprinted in Muir-Wells anthology.

Ray, Robert, ed. Approaches to Teaching Shakespeare's “King Lear.” New York: Modern Language Association, 1986.

Thompson, Ann. “King Lear.” The Critics Debate. London: Macmillan, 1988.

Josephine Waters Bennett (essay date spring 1962)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 11409

SOURCE: Bennett, Josephine Waters. “The Storm Within: The Madness of Lear.” Shakespeare Quarterly 13, no. 2 (spring 1962): 137-55.

[In the following essay, Bennett interprets Lear's internal struggle with insanity as it shapes and defines his character in King Lear.]

An understanding of Lear's madness is essential to any serious interpretation of the play and to any understanding of its structure. Yet critics have not agreed about when Lear goes mad, and almost no attention at all has been given to the dramatic function of his madness. Some put the onset of madness at the entrance of Edgar as Poor Tom of Bedlam in III. iv.1 Others would have it at the end of that scene.2 Coleridge thought that this scene ended “with the first symptoms of positive derangement”, but that Lear does not appear in “full madness” until III. vi.3 Granville-Barker agrees with Coleridge that III. vi, “the lunatic trial of Regan and Goneril”, is the high point of Lear's madness, but he describes, Lear's encounter with Gloucester, as “another scene of madness for him, and one which lifts the play's argument to a yet rarer height.”4 Recently Dr. Sholom J. Kahn has gone a step further and singled out the stage direction, “Enter Lear mad”, (Quarto text) as the earliest manifestation of full madness. He says of his article, “Briefly, we shall contend that Lear in Acts II and III is not yet fully mad, but rather on the way to that condition; and that III. vi shows him in a state which alternates between a kind of pathetic sanity and growing fits of lunacy; and that the full portrayal of the mad Lear is reserved for, as indicated by the Quarto stage directions, the style of printing in both Quarto and Folio (chiefly prose, rather than verse), and by the nature of Lear's speeches themselves.”5

Determination of the beginning of Lear's madness is a necessary first step in any understanding of Shakespeare's use of it in this play, but that onset must be determined by observation of all the evidence furnished to the audience by the dramatist, and not merely by such superficial and uncertain indications as stage directions, the use of prose, or even the degree of incoherence of Lear's speeches.

I believe that Dr. Kahn is mistaken in his initial assumption. He says (p. 311), “It is obvious that the central acts of King Lear portray the progressive stages of his growing madness” (the italics are mine), and that “the relation among these three scenes (III.iv and vi, and, with respect to Lear's madness and all that this implies for the dramatic structure and meaning of the tragedy, is climactic” (p. 313; the italics are his). It is this assumption which leads him to argue that Lear is fully mad only in IV. vi. But why must Lear's madness be progressive? Why must he be more mad in one than in another of the three short scenes in question? The assumption that he must seems to stem from an assertion of Granville-Barker's which Dr. Kahn quotes with approval, that “You cannot continue the development of a character in terms of lunacy … nor can a madman well dominate a play's action.”6 If this is true it follows that Lear should not be fully mad until the third of the scenes in question.

At first glance Granville-Barker's statement looks like an obvious truism, but the word “development” is ambiguous. If it refers to Lear's character as a real entity, we might agree that Lear cannot achieve truth and grow in understanding of himself while he is insane. But the dramatist had an expository problem of probing and exhibiting to his audience the cause and nature of Lear's insanity (for it is not his daughters' ingratitude, but Lear's reaction to their ingratitude which produces the insanity). The process by which Shakespeare exhibits Lear's reaction, the conflict in Lear's mind, might very well be described as “the development of a character in terms of lunacy”.

Interpretation of the play has been distorted by too much emphasis on the external conflict, on Lear's helplessness and the inhumanity of his ungrateful daughters; there has been too little attention to Lear's struggle with himself, to the storm within. In the process of intensifying, clarifying, and interpreting that struggle, Shakespeare has made use of the Gloucester plot, the Fool, and madness. Let us begin with the latter, and with the three short scenes which exhibit Lear's insanity, its cause in his own character, and its effect on him.

The first of these scenes is III. iv. Like any competent dramatist, Shakespeare makes obvious those matters which an audience must understand in order to follow the play. A mere reader, going at a much slower rate, referring back when he is in doubt, needs no such obvious guidance and even fails to see it in his attention to some less important detail. An audience, sitting at a play, must be told in advance what to expect and what to look for, since the spectator must get his information chiefly by ear, and must understand clearly and immediately or not at all. For this reason the auditor must be warned, so that he will recognize the significant event when it arrives, and the desired interpretation of each event must be adequately suggested. The audience must never be fooled, misguided, or bewildered. These things are for the characters on the stage to simulate so that the audience can enjoy its superior wisdom, but the audience's business is to understand what is going on. Gloucester must be mistaken about the character of Edgar, but the audience must know the truth. Olivia must mistake Viola for a man, but it would ruin Twelfth Night if the audience should be in any doubt at any time about her sex. In order that they may fully relish Falstaff's lies about the robbery, the audience must hear Poins and Hal plan to rob the robbers. Then they must actually see them do it; and then they must be told that Falstaff will tell incredible lies. Only then are they properly prepared to appreciate his report of how he was robbed by two, four, seven, nine, eleven, and three more—not to mention “a hundred upon poor four of us”.

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

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

(ll. 40-41)

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

I have full cause of weeping, but this heart
Shall break into a hundred thousand flaws
Or ere I'll weep. O fool, I shall go mad! Exeunt.(7)

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

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

The statement, “My wits begin to turn”, is a cue to the audience, and it is full of irony because it is more true than the speaker realizes; but Lear is still sane, as he is a moment and one short scene later when they reach the hovel and he hesitates to enter. To Kent's urging he replies, “Wilt break my heart?” (III. iv. 4). He is using the storm and his physical misery to counter and control the storm within his mind, fighting grief and rage with physical suffering,8 and the prospect of shelter threatens to destroy the balance, as indeed it does. He explains to Kent,

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

(III. iv. 8-25)

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

                                                  The tempest in my mind
Doth from my senses take all feeling else
Save what beats there. Filial ingratitude,
.....                                                            But I will punish home.
No, I will weep no more. In such a night
To shut me out! Pour on; I will endure.
In such a night as this! O Regan, Goneril,
Your old kind father, whose frank heart gave all—
O, that way madness lies; let me shun that.
No more of that.

(ll. 12-22)

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

Poor naked wretches wheresoe'er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm, …

(ll. 28 f.)

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

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

(ll. 32-36)

He is the king, thinking charitably of others, and then, suddenly, one of those “wretches”, Edgar disguised as Tom o'Bedlam, appears, and Lear, just controlling his own sanity by thinking of others, suddenly confuses the Bedlam beggar with himself, and he is over the brink.9

His first words to Tom, “Didst thou give all to thy daughters? And art thou come to this?”, might, by themselves, be taken as no more than bitter irony, but they are in prose and therefore suited to one whose wits are jangled, or fallen out of tune.10 More important for the audience, however, because more obvious, is Lear's obsessive reiteration, his insistence in the next three speeches on “his daughters”, “thy daughters”, and when Kent protests, “He hath no daughters, sir”, Lear retorts hotly, “Death, traitor! Nothing could have subdued nature to such a lowness but his unkind daughters.” This obsession, or idée fixe, is one of the most easily recognized exhibitions of insanity. Lear's four references to Tom's “daughters”, in four successive speeches, could hardly fail to convince listeners seeing the play for the first time, that what had been predicted repeatedly as about to happen has now happened: Lear has gone mad. The aimless babble of Tom's attempt to simulate madness contrasts effectively with Lear's fixed idea. However, just to be sure the point is not missed, the Fool is made to remark, “This cold night will turn us all to fools and madmen” (III. iv. 75).

Lear's next speech, “What hast thou been?” invites Tom's caricature of a serving man, which ends incoherently and in turn produces Lear's “Is man no more than this? …” This speech ends with the second and most striking exhibition of insanity. Modern admiration for this bit of profound [sic] philosophizing has obscured its dramatic significance. Dr. Kahn says (p. 316) that Lear's “observations about ‘the thing itself; unaccomodated man’ seem eminently sane, though they conclude with the somewhat hysterical: ‘Off, off, you lendings: come, unbutton here’.” The action indicated by this speech is Lear's attempt to tear off his clothes. The Fool remonstrates, “Prithee, nuncle, be contented: 'tis a naughty night to swim in.” Lear's attempt to strip is an action which would be recognized by almost anyone as evidence of violent insanity. Who has not heard tales of people suddenly exhibiting this sign of madness? Today we would promptly put in a call to the nearest mental hospital. While this is not the most common manifestation of mental derangement, it is the most dramatic and easily recognized. Following upon the “eminently sane” “Is man no more than this?” and as an eminently logical conclusion, it exhibits just that “matter and impertinency mixed” (IV. vi. 171) which is characteristic of much insanity and which Lear exhibits in all three of his mad scenes.11

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

In this scene the dramatist is telling us, and showing us, as clearly and emphatically as he can, that Lear has gone mad. We see him exhibit three easily recognized signs of insanity and we are repeatedly told, by Kent, by Gloucester, and even by the Fool (l. 75), that Lear is mad. How could this point have been missed by so many modern critics? The reason is partly their close and too often dogmatic reading of what was intended to be heard and seen as a play,12 partly a theoretical conviction that the madness of Lear should somehow be progressive and climactic, and partly lack of the familiarity with insanity which Shakespeare took for granted in his audience. Today we treat all insane people as potentially dangerous, either to themselves or to others, as “cases” to be treated, or at least put out of sight in hospitals. But in Shakespeare's time the insane were taken care of at home by their families, or became wards of someone paid to give them food and shelter, or were sent to Bedlam, a hospital which seems to have provided them with a bed, but from which they were allowed and expected to go out and beg for food. Bedlam beggars were a familiar sight in the streets of London, and, in all probability, those who put food or pennies in their begging bowls also asked them questions or drew them out to see what they would say and so get a little amusement for their money. The modern critics' notion of the talk of the insane seems to fit Edgar's pretended, rather than Lear's real, madness, since the degree of incoherence rather than delusion and irrational action is used as the measure.

In spite of the preparation for Lear's madness by his own and others' suggestions of it, and in spite of the three clear symptoms of derangement in III. iv, no critic, so far as I can find, has observed that the chief function of this scene at the hovel is to establish that Lear is mad. Even Coleridge, who does not seem to have felt that the madness must be progressive, says that “this scene ends with the first symptoms of positive derangement”, and that Lear appears “in full madness in the sixth scene”. Those who feel that the insanity must be climactic emphasize Kent's apologetic, “His wits begin t'unsettle” (iv. 153), and Gloucester's reply, “Thou say'st the king grows mad”,13 but at the opening of scene vi, only twenty-five lines later, Kent says, “All the power of his wits have given way to his impatience.” If we are to weigh words and tenses, we cannot ignore Kent's all and have given while emphasizing begins and grows.

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

                                                  I am a man
More sinned against than sinning

(III. ii. 58-59)

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

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

To have a thousand with red burning spits
Come hizzing in upon 'em—

(ll. 15-16)

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

In the play-within-a-play which follows,14 the Fool and Edgar humor Lear by acting the parts he assigns to them, but they also comment, in asides, on the pity of Lear's insanity; as when Edgar says, “Bless thy five wits!” and “My tears begin to take his part so much / They mar my counterfeiting” (i.e. acting the part of judge). Lear's mind fluctuates from excitement over the imagined escape of Goneril to the abyss of self-pity in which he imagines his dogs behaving like his daughters,

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

(ll. 61-62)

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

This scene gives us, not a further degree of insanity, but a clear exposition of the internal cause of Lear's madness. Balked pride, humiliation, impotence, and self-pity have worn him out and in the midst of this scene he falls asleep out of sheer exhaustion. We do not see him again until IV. vi. Before we turn to that scene it seems necessary to consider for a moment the function of the Fool.

Because of the nature of Lear's internal conflict, his stubborn resistance to the humbling forces unleashed against him, the devices of self-revelation so commonly used by Elizabethan dramatists—soliloquies, asides, and conversations with a confidant—are not open to Shakespeare in this play. Lear cannot debate within himself nor surrender his pride so far as to confide in anyone. The condition of his ordeal is that he cannot recognize his own weakness and dependence on others, and so he cannot admit the self-doubt and soul-searching and regret which Hamlet and Macbeth give voice to. Shakespeare was, therefore, faced with the technical problem of giving dramatic expression to one side of the internal conflict in Lear. Kent's vigorous protest is effectively silenced in the first scene. Lear himself could not express regret or self-reproach until the tempest within was over, until the struggle of his will against all the forces of life had passed its crisis and he had come to know himself.

It is the solution of this problem of how to keep before the audience Lear's guilt and folly that produced the Fool, perhaps Shakespeare's boldest stroke of genius. The tradition of the allowed Fool made him possible. Because of his unique position he could serve as a chorus representing the voice of wisdom.15 He has been described as a kind of external conscience,16 but it is not Lear's injustice but his folly that the Fool harps on. He does, however, in some respects, act not only as a reminder, but as a representative of Cordelia, appealing to Lear's affections by his doglike devotion, depending on him for protection, and so keeping Lear human in that part of the play where Cordelia cannot appear, keeping the audience reminded of her and of Lear's capacity for love.

The Fool appears in the first scene in which we see Lear after he has disowned Cordelia, and just as his conflict with his two ungrateful daughters begins, and he accompanies his master to the mad climax of his struggle (III. vi) and then is seen no more. It is strange that so stage-conscious a critic as Granville-Barker saw the Fool only as “feeble, fantastic, pathetic, a foil to Lear, a foil to the storm … a piece of court tinsel so drenched and buffeted. …”17 Even Coleridge (p. 184), though he defended the Fool as “no comic buffoon to make the groundlings laugh”, sees in him only “his wild babblings and inspired idiocy” which, he says, “articulate and gauge the horrors of the scene.” Bradley (pp. 314-315) concerns himself with the problem of the Fool's sanity, concluding that he is neither sane nor wholly insane, but that he mediates between the madness of Lear and the pretended madness of Edgar in the storm scene. He can make no more of the disappearance of the Fool than one of the “many marks of haste and carelessness in King Lear”. On both these points he seems to me to be mistaken.

The Fool's remarks are not “inspired idiocy”, but rather the indiscretions of a boy (as Lear calls him) whose mind is sane but has failed to develop into maturity. He is full of riddles, like a ten-year-old with a craze for “moron” jokes. He is child-like, unsophisticated, and uninhibited, rather than insane.18

His first appearance connects him with Cordelia. In I.iv, Lear appears for the first time after his abdication, calling for his dinner and for his Fool. After three demands, “Where's my Fool?” to get the audience's attention, an attendant explains, “Since my young Lady's going into France, sir, the fool hath much pined away.” Lear replies, “No more of that; I have noted it well.” This devotion to Cordelia makes him a silent reproach to Lear for his harshness, and his speeches constantly harp on Lear's folly in dividing his kingdom between his other two daughters. These are the truths which Lear will not face.

Sometime in Lear's encounter with Oswald, when Kent trips him, the Fool enters and offers Kent his coxcomb “for taking one's part that's out of favor”. In the same speech he quips at Lear, “this fellow hath banish'd two on's daughters, and did the third a blessing against his will.” The jest is so pointed that Lear threatens to have him whipped. Yet he keeps steadily to the point of Lear's folly through the rest of the scene, until Goneril calls him “more knave than fool”, and sends him after his master. The next scene shows him ringing changes on the same theme. His conundrums all have the point that Lear is a fool. His bitter jests counter and balance Lear's bitter thoughts. Where Lear blames his daughters, the Fool blames Lear. He is at it again in II.iv, though he has little to say after Regan appears. It is not until the storm scenes of Act III that he “labors to outjest” Lear's “heart-struck injuries” (III.i.16-17). When Lear's wits have fallen out of tune, the Fool speaks seldom and sanely. With Lear's madness in competition with Edgar's impersonation of Poor Tom o'Bedlam, the only possible course (pace Bradley) was to make the Fool the sanest of the three. It is he who comments, “This cold night will turn us all to fools and madmen.” A little later he takes a protective attitude toward Lear, restraining him with the gentle admonition, “Prithee, nuncle, be contented; 'tis a naughty night to swim in.” He is at his conundrums again at the opening of the farmhouse scene ( and takes a small part in the mock trial, but his purpose has been served, and his “I'll to bed at noon” sweeps him from the stage.19 Lear has just asked his great question, “Is there any cause in nature that makes these hard hearts?” The storm within has reached its crisis. Immediately Lear makes his first surrender—to physical exhaustion so great that he postpones his supper, and falls asleep. The Fool has served his purpose and is no longer needed. He would actually be in the way thereafter, an impertinent intrusion into the duet between Lear and Cordelia.

The next we hear of Lear is Kent's report that he has reached Dover, and

                    sometime in his better tune, remembers
What we are come about, and by no means
Will yield to see his daughter. …
A sovereign shame so elbows him; his own unkindness,
That stripped her from his benediction, turned her
To foreign casualties, gave her dear rights
To his dog-hearted daughters—these things sting
His mind so venomously that burning shame
Detains him from Cordelia.


The dramatist no longer needs the Fool's bitter voice steadily driving home the truth of Lear's injustice and folly. He has begun to admit it for himself, though only “sometime”.

Act IV, scene vi, the third and last of the “mad” scenes, opens with Gloucester's attempted suicide at Dover cliff, and his assertion that he has learned his lesson of patience. Then, in the Quarto, we have the stage direction, “Enter Lear mad.” This is the scene which Dr. Kahn thinks exhibits the climax of Lear's madness.

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

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

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

(ll. 96-104)

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

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

(ll. 109-115)

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

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

(ll. 135-146)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A sight most pitiful in the meanest wretch,
Past speaking of in a king!

(ll. 200-201)

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

Critics with a taste for the sententious and the bitter have extravagantly admired the string of commonplaces on the world's injustice and on human weakness which Lear utters in this scene.20 The significance of the scene lies, however, not in the truth of Lear's biting satire, his “Reason in madness”, but in his state of mind—his generalization of the injustice he has suffered (of his daughters' cruelty) to include all humanity, at the same time that he is exhibiting his own injustice and cruelty toward the pitiful blind Gloucester. The Freudian interpretation of Lear's words, which finds in Lear's comments on lechery and women's appetites indication of his own incontinence, is happily out of fashion; but there is still a tendency to see unvarnished truth in his remarks. But Shakespeare was writing for an audience which had a very different conception of the source and significance of the utterances of the insane. The ancient notion of “possession” by evil spirits, supported by Biblical authority, was still current. That conception, reflected in the treatment of Malvolio, and in the concern of Edgar's pretended madness with the “foul fiend”, should warn us that Lear's mad accusations against mankind are not Shakespeare's sane judgment of humanity. Lear's madness is a more penetrating analysis of the overthrow of reason by forces within—and they are evil forces. Lear's bitter speeches are a part of the exposition of his madness, they are not sane comments, Lear's or Shakespeare's. The sins of others are not, at this point, his concern. He must recognize and repent his own sins.

We must try to get some perspective on this scene by looking at it as a whole, and not through a reading-glass, phrase by phrase. It begins with Edgar's gentle deception of his father, the pretended fall from Dover cliff, and Edgar's denigration of himself in order to make his superstitious old father believe that it was the fiend who had led him to the edge of the precipice. Gloucester has just uttered his new resolution,

                                                                      Henceforth I'll bear
Affliction till it do cry out itself
“Enough, enough,” and die.

(ll. 75-77)

Then “Enter Lear mad”, to make his unfeeling remarks to Gloucester and to go into a tirade against mankind.21 It is true that Lear is mad in this scene and therefore unaccountable for what he says; but his pride and willfulness in his treatment of Kent and Cordelia have brought him to this madness, and brought Gloucester to this pass also. Shakespeare had the problem of recalling to his audience that first scene in this painful, and painfully beautiful, play. He could hardly cause Lear to reenact that blindness and hardness of heart; but he could repeat that hardness and blindness (albeit softened and excused by Lear's pitiable condition), by bringing the blind of eye and the blind of understanding into direct comparison by this encounter of the mad Lear with the blind Gloucester.

This is the nexus of the double plot—the point at which the Gloucester plot is brought into juxtaposition with Lear. The blind of eye and the blind of heart meet, and physical blindness is made to illuminate and help the audience to interpret Lear's tragic flaw.

As I remarked at the beginning of this paper, in the process of intensifying, clarifying, and interpreting Lear's struggle with himself, Shakespeare makes use of the Gloucester plot, the Fool, and madness. The use of the Gloucester plot is the most obvious of the three. The parallelism between the two plots, the contrast between the “sensual man robbed of his eyes, and the despot, the light of his mind put out”,22 is a commonplace of criticism. However, I cannot find that it has been observed that the events in the Gloucester plot regularly precede and serve as interpretive preparation for parallel events in the Lear plot in a way which is a refinement of the old dumb-show technique, as exemplified by the preliminary dumb-show in Hamlet's Murder of Gonzago. In the very first scene, Gloucester's crass boasting of his adultery and crude introduction of his bastard son prepare for Lear's equally unperceptive treatment of his youngest, gentlest, emotionally tongue-tied daughter.23 So at each step in the action, save one, we see the crude, externalized ordeal of Gloucester before the more inward, and therefore more difficult to represent, parallel ordeal of Lear. Edmund's plot against Edgar gets under way (I. ii) before Goneril instructs Oswald to offend her father (I. iii). Edgar's life is put in danger (II. i) and he is driven out to play the madman (II. iii) in preparation for Lear's turning out and their encounter in the hovel, where Edgar's acting counterpoints and heightens the picture of Lear's madness.

On the other hand, the blinding of Gloucester follows, not precedes, the scene in which Lear goes mad, for obvious reasons. A reversal of the two scenes would be anticlimactic and unnecessary. Gloucester's ordeal is not needed to interpret Lear's ordeal in the storm. Gloucester must be blinded as preparation for the encounter in IV. vi, and this act of savagery is used adroitly to remove Cornwall and set going the rivalry of Goneril and Regan for Edmund. But the scene in the storm (III. iv) culminating in Lear's madness, while it is violent and spectacular enough to make a climax to the action of the play, evidently did not seem to the dramatist sufficiently to clarify the meaning of Lear's madness. For that, he needed a further scene in which to probe the conflict in Lear's mind and bring it to the climax of exhaustion which prepares the way for a return to sanity. But a climax of emotion ending in exhaustion does not make a suitable climax of the action. That reaches its peak of horror after Lear has asked his question and fallen asleep. The reversal comes in the same scene, when, instead of getting the needed sleep, Lear is snatched up for flight. With dramatic immediacy his passionate desire to punish his daughters turns into urgent need to escape lest they punish him.

But this is not so spectacular a scene, even with the mock-trial, as the blinding of Gloucester, where the death of Cornwall is the true climax of the action since it prepares the way for the rivalry of the sisters leading to their deaths and the defeat and death of Edmund—necessary actions if Albany and Edgar are to be left to rule a purged and chastened state. The blinding of Gloucester prepares for Edgar's tender care and instruction of his father, which precedes and illuminates Cordelia's care for and teaching of Lear. Both fathers are saved by a child's love, Gloucester first. Both learn patience, Gloucester first. Both die happy in the love of a devoted child, and Gloucester's death interprets Lear's. Gloucester's

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

(V. iii. 197-200)

And so Lear, torn between false hope and extreme grief, imagines that Cordelia breathes, and dies in that belief.

However, it is Lear's madness which centrally intensifies and clarifies the meaning of the play. We see Lear go mad in III. iv. We see the clash between his almost superhuman will and his impotence in the mock-trial scene, which begins with his burning desire for revenge and ends with the double-edged query, “Is there any cause in nature that makes these hard hearts?” Finally, in IV. vi, in the mad Lear's inhumanity to the blind and humble Gloucester—which he extends to a general satire on mankind—we see an exhibition of the lack of sympathetic understanding, of fellow-feeling, which is the basic cause of Lear's tragedy. It is his want of insight, his “blindness of heart”, which constitutes his tragic flaw.24 In this scene Shakespeare has dramatized it more clearly than has any playwright since Sophocles, not only by contrasting Lear's blindness with Gloucester's, but by contrasting the patient understanding and tenderness which the disinherited and banished Edgar shows to his father with Lear's lack of sympathy with his devoted vassal and distrust of the help which his equally wronged daughter is trying to give him. We have been prepared from the first scene of Act III for her rescue of Lear, but it is in IV. vi that her love and forgiveness of extreme injury are first brought into direct contrast with Lear's unyielding pride. Edgar and Cordelia shed the clear, warm light of sanity and love on the bitter tirade of the mad Lear.

This tirade is the logical culmination of Lear's tragic flaw. Beginning with the rejection of the human condition, in “Off, off, you lendings! Come, unbutton here!” we are made to witness the probing of a mind blinded by hate and resentment which, unable to “punish home”, loses the power to distinguish reality from phantasy, friend from foe, becomes obsessed with self-pity (“O, that way madness lies”, III. iv. 21), and, in the meeting with Gloucester, exhibits alienation from all humanity, refuses help, and distrusts the whole world.

Meanwhile we have been shown signs of a return to sanity. First Kent reports that he has moments when he “in his better tune, remembers”. Then we see him actually recognize Gloucester. These are necessary preparations for the scene (IV.vii) in which he is awakened to sanity. Without them the awakening scene would be abrupt and incredible.

If we focus our attention on the external conflict, on the cruelty of his children and the pitiable fate of the helpless old man,25 we fail to see how deeply the play probes into the nature of man and the experience of life: and if we do not see these things we miss the greatness of the tragedy. In the opening scene we are shown, not only that Lear does not know his children, but that he does not know himself, his responsibilities and his own best interests. Thereafter we see the tragedy of old age and ungrateful children, but this is the outside only. The core of the play is not what happens to Lear but what happens within Lear. As Regan coldly remarks at the end of the opening scene, “'Tis the infirmity of his age; yet he hath ever but slenderly known himself.” In the course of the play, Lear, like Oedipus, comes through a Laocoönian struggle to a knowledge of himself. This struggle begins with his plan to give up his duties and responsibilities but to retain his honors and dignities. This is the universal problem of age—the wish to lighten one's burden without relinquishing the honor which bearing it has won. In order to see this opening scene clearly we must view it with fresh eyes, and not through the tearful blur of sympathy with his later suffering. We must see Lear's behavior in the first scene in its full enormity, as an Elizabethan audience would have seen it. It begins with the plan to divide England. Such a plan could only be looked upon as preface and prelude to civil war, as Gorboduc; or Ferrex and Porrex had been written to show. Civil war was implicit in any division of England, and Shakespeare assumes that his audience would expect it. In the opening of Act II, Curan asks Edmund whether he has heard any rumors of civil war, and predicts that he will, in time (II.i.6-13). The threat of civil war hangs over the whole play and erupts in the last act.26 No sympathy for the “poor old man” of the later scenes should blind us to the fact that in the beginning Lear commits, and has deliberately and selfishly planned, a division of the kingdom which could only lead to fratricidal strife. When Shakespeare wishes to make clear the consequences of Hotspur's rebellion, he gives us a scene in which the rebels begin to quarrel over their shares of the kingdom before they have won them. Lear begins with a display, on a grand scale, of selfish lack of concern for others in the division of his kingdom.

In a modern audience his treatment of Cordelia more readily evokes disapproval. He is not merely harsh in his punishment of her, he is positively vindictive. She is to have not the worst third, but nothing. He even tries to dissuade her suitors from taking her (ll. 189-266), and finally denies his paternity, “we have no such daughter” (ll. 262-263). Kent's determined protest shows the enormity of Lear's crime—for it is not just a mistake blundered into by an old man used to having his way.27 Lear has duties as well as Cordelia, he is the source of justice for his kingdom and for his children. Kent calls his rejection of Cordelia a “foul disease” and is rewarded with banishment, and that on the shortest notice. Lear has accused Cordelia of pride (l. 129), but his own exhibition of pride reenforced by power is fearful. It produces a hardness of heart which deprives him of those who love him best, but when Goneril and Regan are equally unfeeling, Lear threatens,

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

(II. iv. 274-281)

This is both prophetic and self-revelatory. Only a hard heart could shatter into “a hundred thousand flaws”. It is in the light of Lear's own unyielding pride and hardheartedness that we should read his query at the end of the mad trial scene, “Is there any cause in nature that makes these hard hearts?” It is a two-edged and most significant question.

Lear had pitted his will against the two who loved him, and less successfully against the two who did not. He will not yield, and so he will go mad. In the ecstasy of his willfulness he pits himself against the very elements of nature. Here is a man so full of self-will that he commits the grossest injustices, and yet so blind to his own fault as to invoke justice and satirize all mankind for injustice. It is the disciplining of this willful man by all the conditions of life that we witness—by the consequences of his own deeds, by age and physical weakness, and by the power of nature embodied in the storm. He is brought to seek the barest necessities of food, shelter, and rest, so that he may learn his own limitations and the true values of life—not pride and justice, but humility and love.

Overemphasis on the physical suffering, the elemental evil, obscures the interior struggle, which is of primary importance. To the Elizabethans it was a commonplace that the world is a battle ground between good and evil;28 and a commonplace is not a suitable theme for the profound interpretation, or rather reinterpretation, of human experience, which makes literature great. It is the ground, the datum, on which the drama is built, not the building. The storm within Lear's mind goes beyond good and evil, beyond the narrow world of preceptoral morality, to the imponderable realities of cause and effect, of man's ignorance, his weakness, his blindness, and his blundering and suffering through life to his release from “the rack of this tough world”. The struggle between good and evil is present, but if we pay as much attention to Lear as to Goneril and Regan, we see that it is a complex, not a simple struggle, and that the more important part of it is within Lear, who begins his ordeal in power and pride and ends it in love and humbleness. In the process of this transformation the conflict is so sharp that his reason gives way for a time, and the period of his madness makes possible the dramatization of the inner struggle, the pride driven by futility and frustration to intense hate expressed in a burning desire to torture and to kill. First Kent and then his Fool point out to Lear his injustice and folly, but it is the storm, physical exhaustion, and the shame induced by Cordelia's loving solicitude, which finally teach him to know himself.

Just as Gloucester, abandoning himself to despair, falls (so he believes) from Dover cliff and is saved by a miracle created by Edgar's love, so Lear, blinded by his own self-love, falls into the abyss of madness and is saved by a miracle of love. The shame induced by recognition of his own hateful treatment of Cordelia is the balm which restores sanity on a new level of self-knowledge, humility, and gratitude (“I am a very foolish fond old man. … Pray you now, forget and forgive: I am old and foolish”, IV. vii. 60, 84).

The great flaw in Bradley's interpretation of the play is his failure to see the importance of Lear's fault (see pp. 280 ff). He does not see that the whole tragedy is as much the result of Lear's pride and willfulness as is Macbeth's of uncontrolled ambition. His excess of sympathy for Lear, the old man, blinds him to the scope of Lear's tragedy, which begins in a particular situation but widens and deepens into something much grander and more awe-inspiring, the tragedy of man.29King Lear is as much a tragedy of old age as of ungrateful children—of man's failing vitality, his longing for release from work and responsibility, and his unwillingness to surrender, along with his duties, that part of himself which is his dignities. Lear stipulates,

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

(I. i. 136)

It is this natural pride, and the stubborn will, developed by the responsibilities of life (heightened by making them the duties of kingship), which give Lear his significance, intensifying and universalizing his tragedy. The poet has added another dimension, in the storm scenes, in Lear's defiance of the elements and his defeat by them. Here Shakespeare has given “a local habitation and a name” to the human condition vis-a-vis nature. He has shown us Man, who pits himself against all the forces of this world (including time and weather), and who achieves wisdom only in resignation (patience) and love.

The meaning of the tragedy goes deeper than the conflict of good and evil, into the more fundamental problem of wisdom and folly, of the values of human life. Lear's story, as the story of Man's life, is much more universal than the theme of Everyman. It is the struggle of a man to retain the self, the stature and dignities he has achieved—“Ay, every inch a king”—against the grasping hands of the next generation and the very forces of nature. These things come to all (in varying degrees) who live to be old. Shakespeare has dramatized the struggle by giving Lear the power of absolute kingship, by making it a struggle between a man and his own children, reenforced and universalized by the underplot, and between man and nature, represented by age and storm. He has intensified the struggle by making the children wickedly ungrateful, and by making Lear stubborn to the point of insanity and beyond.

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

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

(V. iii. 293-294)

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

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

(ll. 277-280)

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

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

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

It has been pointed out that in the first of these lines “poor fool” is a term of affection for Cordelia. It has also been suggested that Lear is here confusing the Fool and Cordelia.30 Surely this is a deliberate ambiguity on the part of the poet, intended to recall the Fool and Lear's madness to the audience in a way which is psychologically perfect in its association of the Fool and Cordelia, its recall of the earlier insanity of Lear, and its suggestive preparation for a return to insanity. Shakespeare plays upon his audience as a great musician plays an organ—he knows its stops and reeds, and he knows how to develop his themes so that, at the end, when brevity is required, he can recall a whole movement by a single word.

Much curious question has been raised about the interpretation of “Pray you undo this button.” Bradley (p. 293) saw in it only “bodily oppression asking for bodily relief”. That is there, but much more, also. The line and a half which follow clearly voice a return to delusion, which has been prepared for by Lear's behavior throughout this scene, so that at the end, three lines are enough to suggest to the audience that his mind has given way again. The full significance and utter pathos of “Pray you undo this button. Thank you sir”, is largely missed if it does not recall to the auditor that earlier imperious, “Off, off, you lendings! Come, unbutton here.”31 The act of a madman, performed with violence in Act III, is repeated in gentleness and humble gratitude. Lear is no longer a king, for a king does not ask, he commands. He does not address his subjects as “sir”. Lear, who in his pride and frustration would reject these “lendings” in defiance of the whole world, is now a king no longer, even to himself, but simply a heart-struck old man.

His mind and body fall out of tune together, and Kent makes the interpretive comment,

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

The tuned string which is sanity in Elizabethan idiom, and the thread of life of classical myth, have been metamorphosed by the magic of this poet's gift for concrete image into the figure of a man stretched by an instrument of torture. There is “bodily oppression asking for bodily relief” in Lear's “Pray you undo this button”, but there is much, much more. There is a humble welcoming of death as relief from a life which, without love, has become an unsupportable burden. Lear dies because he cannot bear life any farther; and Edgar speaks a hope which is a benediction,

                                                  We that are young
Shall never see so much, nor live so long.


  1. A. C. Bradley, Shakespearean Tragedy (London, 1949), p. 287n. says, “at sight of Edgar, in a moment something gives way in Lear's brain, … Henceforth he is mad.” Kenneth Muir, King Lear (The Arden Shakespeare, London, 1955), p. liv, says, “Yet Lear, on the appearance of Poor Tom, does go mad.” Norman Maclean, “Episode, Scene, Speech, and Word: The Madness of Lear”, in Critics and Criticism: Ancient and Modern, ed. R. S. Crane (University of Chicago Press, 1954), pp. 608-615, gives an elaborate analysis of Lear's reaction at his moment of encounter with Poor Tom.

  2. Joseph Wharton, The Adventurer (1753) finds Lear's calling Edgar a “learned Theban” at the end of III. iv, “the first plain indication of the loss of his reason.”

  3. Coleridge's Shakespearean Criticism, ed. T. M. Raysor (Harvard University Press, 1930), I, 66. Coleridge says of scene iv, “The scene ends with the first symptoms of positive derangement—here how judiciously interrupted [by the fifth scene] in order to allow an interval for Lear in full madness to appear” in scene vi.

  4. H. Granville-Barker, Prefaces to Shakespeare (Princeton, 1952), I, 274, 294 ff., treats IV. vi as the high point in Lear's madness. Maclean, p. 606, says, “By many signs Lear's final scene in Act III is the final scene in Lear's way to madness”; but he calls IV. vi the scene “where his madness is complete” (p. 604).

  5. “Enter Lear Mad”, Shakespeare Quarterly, VIII (1957), 311-329.

  6. Kahn, p. 312; Prefaces, I, 294; and see R. B. Heilman, The Great Stage (Louisiana University Press, 1933), p. 16, where he calls IV. vi, the “climactic mad scene”. See also pp. 298-299, note 28; and p. 194.

  7. II. iv. 279-281. I quote the most recent carefully edited text, King Lear, ed. Alfred Harbage (Penguin Books, 1958). For a survey of comments on Lear's madness see Irving Ribner, “Lear's Madness in the Nineteenth Century”, Shakespeare Association Bulletin, XXII (1947), 117-129.

  8. This is a natural and common phenomenon. People suffering from extreme grief or pain beat themselves, wring their hands, tear their hair, etc.

  9. This is Maclean's conclusion, but his analysis (p. 610) is more concerned with the reaction of the audience to the events on the stage than with the explanation of Lear's psychology.

  10. On the prose of madness see Milton Crane, Shakespeare's Prose (Chicago, 1951), pp. 160-161, 163 ff. Maclean, pp. 612-615, calls Lear's first question to Edgar, “The question asked in consternation and commiseration”, qualities hardly applicable to a madman.

  11. These are popular, not necessarily clinical, signs of madness. Shakespeare is writing for a popular audience, and these indications are in the same class with popular stories about people who think they are Napoleon or Julius Caesar, or who suddenly kick a sympathetic visitor downstairs, “Lest you forget.” However, Shakespeare's representation of madness was highly praised by medical students of insanity in the nineteenth century; see Ribner, passim, J. S. H. Bransom, The Tragedy of King Lear (Oxford, 1934), provides a more recent study. The New Variorum Edition of King Lear, ed. H. H. Furness (Philadelphia, 1908), pp. 412-417, excerpts four of these medical opinions. Dr. Carl Stark (pp. 416-417) admires Shakespeare's preparation for madness in the physical and mental exhaustion of Lear. Dr. I. Ray, speaks of “delusions and gross improprieties of conduct” as characteristic of insanity. Most of the doctors classify Lear's as a case of senile dementia and center on the early scenes as symptomatic—an interpretation which stultifies the whole tragedy and cannot represent the author's intention.

  12. The debate, opened by Charles Lamb, as to whether King Lear is an actable play, still goes on. Granville-Barker, Prefaces, I, 261 ff., defends its stage-worthiness. R. W. Zandvoort, “King Lear: the Scholars and the Critics”, surveys the trends in criticism since 1930, in Mededelingen der Koninklijke Nederlandse Akademie van Weltenschappen, afd. Letterkunde, Nieuwe Reeks, Deel 19, No. 7 (Amsterdam, 1956), pp. 229-246.

  13. Kahn, pp. 321-325.

  14. Of the 38 lines omitted in the Folio, 20 are devoted to Edgar's irrelevant babble and the Fool's comments. The remaining 18 lines, spoken by Lear, come between his expression of a will to torture, “To have a thousand with red burning spits / Come hizzing in upon 'em—” (ll. 15-16), and the self-pity of “The little dogs and all”, etc. (ll. 61-63). These, with the proposal to “anatomize (i.e. dissect) Regan” to see “Is there any cause in nature that makes these hard hearts?” (ll. 74-79), are the key speeches in the scene. Lines 17-55 can be omitted without omitting any part of Lear's revelation of his hate, self-pity, and blindness to his own fault.

  15. Muir, p. lxiii, suggests that he stands for “worldly common sense”.

  16. W. B. C. Watkins, Shakespeare and Spenser (Princeton, 1950), p. 96-97, sees the Fool as “a dramatization of what really goes on in Lear's mind”, a symbolization.

  17. Granville-Barker, p. 291. It is curious that Granville-Barker, pp. 311-312, should so vehemently deny to the Fool the prophecy which ends III. ii. Lear and the Fool are alone in the storm. Kent finds them and offers to bring them to a hovel. Lear consents and exits with Kent while the Fool turns back to make the prophecy which interposes between the exit of Lear and the entrance of Gloucester and Edmund in III. iii. In this short scene of 23 lines Gloucester confides to Edmund that he is going to disobey the Dukes and relieve Lear. He is still at home, while Lear is wandering in the storm. Obviously an interval of some kind is needed to make a pause between the two scenes, not only for the change of place, but to separate the tone of the two scenes—the pathos of Lear's sufferings and the intellectually perceived irony of Gloucester's betrayal of himself into the hands of his treacherous son. The keys in which the two scenes are written are so different that some few notes of transition are needed and the Fool's prophecy, with its conundrum quality serves admirably to lead the audience from pity and sympathy to a state of mind where they will grasp intelligently the implications of III. iii.

  18. Bradley, pp. 312-315, argues that he is a boy or a frail, boyish man. For children's love of riddles, see Iona and Peter Opie, The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren (New York, 1960); and W. H. Canaway's letter in the Times (London) Literary Supplement Dec. 25, 1959.

  19. This is his last line, although, in the Quarto, Kent apparently addresses him later, “Come, help to bear thy master. Thou must not stay behind,” a speech which suggests that the part was played by a man, not a boy (no doubt Armin).

  20. Bradley does not discuss this passage. Granville-Barker, pp. 296-297, calls Lear's indictment of mankind “compassion for sin as well as suffering”, since Lear says, “none does offend, none, I say, none.” Heilman, pp. 209-210, speaks of Lear's revelation of the world's evil, and calls it (p. 198) “a very penetrating insight”, “devastating insight into the moral reality of the world.” See also pp. 95, 298-299, note 28, and 211, 220-221. G. Wilson Knight, The Wheel of Fire (Oxford, 1937), pp. 210-211, thinks that “Lear's mind in madness is penetrating below the surface shows to the heart of human reality.”

  21. See Kahn, especially pp. 311-313. It does not, of course, follow, as Dr. Kahn's argument assumes, that because Lear enters mad in IV. vi, he cannot have been fully mad earlier. The stage direction is not evidence of the beginning of the derangement.

  22. Granville-Barker, p. 295.

  23. Cordelia's inability to “tell her love” is partly a youthful modesty and reticence in regard to emotion. See her aside in I. i, and her monosyllabic half-lines in IV. vii, especially her incoherent protest, “no cause, no cause”. She is not in general tongue-tied, but rather quick-witted and sharp in her observations, see I. i. 95-104. E. A. Block, “King Lear: A Study in Balanced and Shifting Sympathies”, Shakespeare Quarterly X (1959), 499-512, provides a useful study of Shakespeare's manipulation of the old stories and especially of the part of Cordelia, in order to create the human and credible relationships which make the action intelligible and significant.

  24. See On the Art of Poetry, an amplified version of Aristotle's Poetics, by Lane Cooper (New York, 1913), pp. 40-41. In the Loeb Classical Library ed. of the Poetics, W. Hamilton Fyfe, the translator renders hamartia simply “some tragic flaw in him” and “some great flaw”, see pp. 46-47.

  25. See Bradley, pp. 273-279, and passim. Muir, pp. lii-liii, in discussing the tragedy of parent-child relationship and of kingship, mentions the conflict between youth and age, but he does not analyze the struggle by which Lear learns humility and “patience”.

  26. Granville-Barker, p. 273, n. 6, sees in the references to civil war in II. i. 10-11, and III. i. 19-21 (he misses Gloucester's “There is division between the Dukes” in III. iii. 7-8, and ignores the civil implications of the struggle over Edmund in IV. ii, v, etc.) as the remnant of an older plan, meaningless in the present context.

  27. Bradley, pp. 315-322, presents a sympathetic discussion of Cordelia's refusal to humor Lear, but he does not see it as inability of a young girl of intelligence but emotional inexperience to “heave her heart into her mouth”. G. L. Kittredge, The Tragedy of King Lear (Boston, 1940), p. xiii, sees her refusal as simply a necessity of the story. Granville-Barker, pp. 303-305, sees pride answering pride. Others blame her as an undutiful child and thankless subject. G. Wilson Knight, p. 176, interprets Cordelia's refusal as sincerity which forbids pretense, but he comments, “It is, indeed, curious that so storm-furious a play as Lear should have so trivial a domestic basis.” Surely the failure of understanding in Lear, and of communication in Cordelia are not “trivial” at so important a juncture.

  28. Bradley, pp. 262 ff., and 298-330. Heilman, passim. Recently Carolyn S. French, “Shakespeare's ‘Folly’: King Lear”, Shakespeare Quarterly, X (1959), 253-259, attempts to interpret the play in terms of natural versus spiritual wisdom.

  29. R. W. Chambers, King Lear: The First W. P. Ker Memorial Lecture (Glasgow, 1940), sees the play, not as “the redemption of Lear,” not as a purgatory, or “wheel of fire” but as “a vast poem on the victory of true love.”

  30. Bradley, p. 314; Watkins, p. 96.

  31. Heilman, pp. 79-83, discusses Lear's three attempts to undress, in III. iv, IV. vi, and V. iii, but does not comment on the significance of the contrast.

Arthur Kirsch (essay date summer 1988)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9543

SOURCE: Kirsch, Arthur. “The Emotional Landscape of King Lear.Shakespeare Quarterly 39, no. 2 (summer 1988): 154-70.

[In the following essay, Kirsch focuses on religious, specifically Christian, elements in the characters of King Lear. Kirsch concentrates on the figures of Lear and Cordelia, and examines their relation to motifs of love, suffering, and death.]

The tragedy of King Lear raises large religious, as well as political and social, questions, and there is a disposition in recent scholarship to treat the play as if it were an argument that gives unorthodox, if not revolutionary, answers to them. Prominent critics have contended that Lear is locked in combat with Elizabethan conceptions of Providence and order,1 and one influential Marxist critic has maintained that the play constitutes both a specific criticism of Elizabethan ideology and a denial of what he calls “essentialist humanism,” the belief that, with respect to tragedy, assumes “a human essence which by its own nature as well as its relation to the universal order of things, must inevitably suffer.”2

The current popularity of such views makes it urgent, I think, to reassert the less fashionable position that though Shakespeare is “the soul of [his] age,” as Ben Jonson wrote, he is also “not of an age, but for all time,” and that, as Dr. Johnson argued, his plays have “pleased many, and pleased long,” because they are “just representations of general nature,” “faithful mirror[s] of manners and of life.” Shakespeare's tragedies are, above all else, plays of passions and suffering that we eventually recognize as our own, whatever their social, political, or religious contingencies may have been in the Renaissance. However we may interpret the particular ideological questions King Lear seems to pose, it is the universal human anguish that gives rise to them upon which Shakespeare primarily focuses and to which audiences have responded for nearly four hundred years.

The experience of feeling—physical as well as emotional feeling—is at the core of King Lear, as the enlargement of our own capacity to feel is at the core of any persuasive explanation of why we can take pleasure in such a tragedy. The word “heart” resonates in the play, describing the extremes of the play's characterizations, from the “honest-hearted” Kent (I.iv.19) to the “marble-hearted” ingratitude and “hard-hearts” of Goneril and Regan (I.iv.237; “Heart” is the metonym for Lear himself in the storm—“poor old heart, he holp the heavens to rain” (III.vii.60)—and it is the primary register of Lear's experience. He rejects Cordelia because she cannot heave her “heart” into her “mouth” (I.i.92), and he pronounces her banishment as the divorce of her heart from his own: “So be my grave my peace as here I give / Her father's heart from her” (I.i.125-26), an uncanny line that predicates his eventual reunion with her in death. The heart is physically palpable to Lear. He says he is “struck … upon the very heart” by Goneril's “tongue” (II.ii.333-34), and the same tactile sense of the heart emerges in the synapse between physical and emotional pain that prompts the first movement of fellow-feeling in him:

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

(III.ii.67-69, 72-73)

As Lear moves toward madness, he recognizes that his rage against Cordelia drew from his “heart all love” and “wrenched” his “frame of nature / From the fixed place” (I.iv.247-48); he then repeatedly identifies his incipient madness with his heart: “O, how this mother swells up toward my heart! / Histerica passio down, thou climbing sorrow” (II.ii.231-32); “O me, my heart! My rising heart! But down” (II.ii.292); “But this heart shall break into a hundred thousand flaws / Or ere I'll weep” (II.ii.458-59).

The breaking of the heart “into a hundred thousand flaws” defines the point towards which most references to the heart in King Lear eventually move, and suggests the extremity of pain and suffering that is the play's peculiar concern. In his most famous soliloquy Hamlet speaks of the “heartache” of human existence. In King Lear we hear of and then see hearts “cracked” (II.i.89) and “split” (V.iii.168). Edgar tells us that his father, Gloucester, died when his “flawed heart … / 'Twixt two extremes of passion, joy and grief, / Burst smilingly” (V.iii.188, 190-91), and at the moment of Lear's death, Kent says, “Break, heart, I prithee break” (V.iii.288), a line that corroborates the truth of what we have just witnessed, whether it refers to Lear's heart or to Kent's own.

The dramatization of the metaphor of a breaking heart and its association with the extremity of dying are central to King Lear, for though, again like Hamlet, King Lear is essentially concerned with the anguish of living in the face of death, it does not look beyond the grave. It focuses instead, and relentlessly, upon the shattering of the heart and upon actual human deterioration—the physical “eyes' anguish” (IV.v.6) of Gloucester's maiming, the emotional “eye of anguish” (IV.iii.15) of Lear's madness. Nor does the Fifth Act of the play bring relief, as it does in Hamlet. There is no recovery from sorrow and grief at the end of Lear, and there is no suggestion of the “special providence” that Hamlet, in his luminous reference to Matthew, sees in the fall of a sparrow. The agonized question that Lear asks over Cordelia's lifeless body, “Why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life, / And thou no breath at all?” (V.iii.282-83) is not answered in the play, certainly not by his own few succeeding words; and among those words the ones that are most unequivocal and that we most remember are: “Thou'lt come no more. / Never, never, never, never, never!” (V.iii.283-84). These lines express the immediate, “essential,” feeling of all of us in the presence of the death and dying of those we love, but they have an acute and governing power in King Lear.4 They occur at the very end, they occur after protracted suffering, they violate the hopes that appear to be raised by the reunion of Lear and Cordelia, and they occur over the dead body of a character who has seemed to symbolize the heart's undying resources of love in the play. There is no scene in Shakespeare that represents the wrench of death more absolutely or more painfully; and the scene is not merely the conclusion of the action of the play, it is its recapitulation, the moment in which the whole of it is crystallized.

In this regard, as in others, King Lear is very reminiscent of Ecclesiastes. The depiction of suffering in King Lear has often been compared to the Book of Job,5 which, of course, focuses upon the suffering of an individual; and the protraction of Job's suffering as well as his protests against it do indeed suggest the magnitude of Lear's heroic characterization. But there is no Satan at the beginning of King Lear, nor a whirlwind from which God speaks at the end to make the play's extraordinary sense of heartfelt pain even intellectually explicable. In its overall conception as well as in much of its ironic texture, King Lear is closer to Ecclesiastes, the book of the Old Testament that is most nearly pagan in its outlook and that treats human life almost exclusively in terms of the immanence of its ending.

The Preacher in Ecclesiastes speaks over and over again of the heart, occasionally of the “heart of the wise” or “of fooles” (7:6),6 but most often of his own: “And I haue giuen mine heart to search & finde out wisdome” (1:13); “I thought in mine heart” (1:16); “And I gaue mine heart” (1:17); “I said in mine heart” (2:1); “I soght in mine heart” (2:3). The Preacher's experience of the heart suggests many of the major motifs as well as the specific language of King Lear. His announced theme is “vanity,” a word whose principal connotation (and whose translation in the New English Bible) is “emptiness,” and he speaks of man's identity in this life as “a shadow” (7:2) and his achievements as “nothing” (5:14; 7:16). He likens men to beasts:

For the condition of the children of men, and the condition of beastes are even as one condition vnto them. As the one dyeth, so dyeth the other: for they haue all one breath, and there is no excellencie of man aboue the beast: for all is vanitie.


He describes man's nakedness: “As he came forthe of his mothers belly, he shal returne naked to go as he came, & shal beare away nothing of his labour, which he hathe caused to passe by his hand” (5:14). He talks repeatedly of the paradoxes of wisdom and folly and madness:

And I gaue mine heart to knowe wisdome & knowledge, madnes & foolishnes: I knewe also that this is a vexacion of the spirit.

For in the multitude of wisdome is muche grief: & he that encreaseth knowledge, encreaseth sorowe.


He relates such paradoxes to kingship: “Better is a poore and wise childe, then an olde and foolish King, which wil no more be admonished” (4:13), and he relates them as well to eyesight: “For the wise mans eyes are in his head, but the foole walketh in darkenes: yet I knowe also that the same condition falleth to them all” (2:14). He also associates “The sight of the eye” with “lustes” (6:9), and he speaks of how men are killed like fishes in a net and birds in a snare (9:12). And he is preoccupied with the paradoxes of justice and injustice:

I have sene all things in the daies of my vanitie: there is a iuste man that perisheth in his iustice, and there is a wicked man that continueth long in his malice.


There is a vanitie, which is done vpon the earth, that there be righteous men to whome it cometh according to the worke of the wicked: and there be wicked men to whome it cometh according to the worke of the iuste: I thoght also that this is vanitie.


The premise as well as the conclusion of all these experiences is that

All things come alike to all: and the same condition is to the iuste and to the wicked, to the good and to the pure, & to the polluted, & to him that sacrificeth, & to him that sacrificeth not: as is the good, so is the sinner, he that sweareth, as he that feareth an othe.


The “olde and foolish King” is perhaps the most inescapable of the resemblances between these verses and King Lear, but many others are equally suggestive: the painful paradoxes of folly and wisdom that are the subject of the Fool's speeches and songs; the realization of the metaphors of sight in Gloucester's building; the nakedness of birth and death and of man's whole condition that is lamented by Lear and acted out by both Lear and Edgar; the random wantonness of death of which Gloucester complains; the comparisons of men and beasts that suffuse the language of the play and that are especially prominent in Lear's speeches, including his last; the vision of the confluence of the just and the wicked that consumes Lear on the heath and that leads him to conclude, not unlike the Preacher, that “None does offend, none, I say none” (IV.v.164).

Ecclesiastes, of course, is not the only source from which Shakespeare could have inherited such preoccupations. Most of them are prominent in Montaigne's “Apologie of Raymond Sebond,” a work that clearly lies behind the play,7 and they are present as well in other parts of the Bible itself, especially its depictions of the end of the world.8 The vision of the Apocalypse in Mark 13, for example, virtually describes the central action of King Lear:

For nacion shal rise against nacion, and kingdome against kingdome, and there shalbe earthquakes … the brother shal deliuer the brother to death, and the father the sonne, and the children shal rise against their parents, and shal cause them to dye.

(13:8, 12)

But if the Apocalypse suggests that general social and political outline of Lear, the large number of evocations of Ecclesiastes (and many more could be cited) give that outline its emotional definition. The Preacher's lament that “he that encreaseth knowledge, encreaseth sorowe” is a line that the Fool could sing: it evokes the cadence as well as the substance of his characterization and its relationship with Lear's. The Preacher's repeated references to the anguish of his own heart suggest the pain of protest as well as of resignation, a combination of feelings that King Lear eventually also elicits—in us, if not also, at the last, in Lear himself. And perhaps most important, if most obvious, vanitas, the theme that echoes endlessly in Ecclesiastes and that King Lear catches up in its preoccupation with the word “nothing,” leads not just to the idea of emptiness, but to its paradoxically full feeling, the feeling to which Edgar refers at the end when he says that we should “Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say” (V.iii.300). This feeling has a far greater amplitude and richness in the play than in Ecclesiastes, but its roots are the same.

Subsuming all of these motifs is the focus upon death as the universal event in human existence that not only ends life but calls its whole meaning into question. The Preacher in Ecclesiastes at one point asks, “Who is as the wise man? and who knoweth the interpretacion of a thing?” (8:1), and the burden of the question is that given the transience and mutability of human life, who can know? As in King Lear, which also poses this question insistently, there is no satisfying answer, and certainly no consoling one. But again like Lear, Ecclesiastes does offer a characteristic perception of human existence in the face of death, if not an interpretation of it. For the Preacher's anguished sense of the dissolution of all things in time almost necessarily impels him to think of those things in terms of polarities—the polarities of beginnings and endings especially, but also of their cognates in creativeness and destructiveness—and to think of life itself as a composition of extremes that have individual moral definition, but that are not necessarily morally intelligible as a whole. He suggests this understanding in the passage already quoted in which he says that “All things come alike to all,” to the just and the wicked, the good and the pure, and that “as is the good, so is the sinner,” and he does so strikingly in the passage for which Ecclesiastes is now best known and which is regularly cited in liturgies for the dead, the passage that speaks of a time to be born and a time to die, a time to slay and a time to heal, to weep and to laugh, to seek and to lose, to keep and to cast away, to be silent and to speak, to love and to hate (3:1-8).

This polarized landscape suggests the most profound of the affinities between Ecclesiastes and King Lear, for the kingdom of Lear too is defined by the antinomy of “coming hither” and “going hence” (V.ii.10) and by corresponding oppositions of human states of feeling and being. The association of such oppositions with the experience of death is adumbrated earlier in Shakespeare's career in Richard II, a play that is also concerned with an abdication that is a prefiguration of death:

What must the King do now? Must he submit?
The King shall do it. Must he be deposed?
The King shall be contented. Must he lose
The name of King? A God's name, let it go.
I'll give my jewels for a set of beads,
My gorgeous palace for a hermitage,
My gay apparel for an almsman's gown,
My figured goblets for a dish of wood,
My sceptre for a palmer's walking staff,
My subjects for a pair of carvèd saints,
And my large kingdom for a little grave,
A little, little grave, an obscure grave. …

(Richard II, III.iii.142-53)9

Richard's itemization of these oppositions is melodramatic, but the contrasts nonetheless do characterize his sensibility, because once his mind is focused on death there is no middle ground in which he can live. In King Lear these meditative antitheses are not only acted out by Lear himself but also inform every part of the play's action. For like Ecclesiastes, King Lear is composed of oppositions, oppositions between weeping and laughing, seeking and losing, being silent and speaking, loving and hating. The characters embody such contrasts: Cordelia is schematically opposed to Goneril and Regan, Edgar to Edmund, Kent to Oswald, Albany to Cornwall.

Some of these oppositions are combined in single characterizations, especially those of the Fool and Cordelia, but also those of Gloucester and Lear. The Fool's embodiment of the paradoxes of wisdom and folly that run through Ecclesiastes is of course obvious. He incarnates these paradoxes in his traditional role, in his dress, and in his speech; and he does so with the bias toward the broken heart that is characteristic both of Ecclesiastes and of the play. Enid Welsford remarks that “the Fool sees that when the match between the good and the evil is played by the intellect alone it must end in stalemate, but when the heart joins in the game then the decision is immediate and final. ‘I will tarry, the Fool will stay—And let the wise man fly.’” She adds that this “is the unambiguous wisdom of the madman who sees the truth,” and that it “is decisive” because it reflects the way that normal human beings see the world feelingly.10 I think that though this is perhaps true, the Fool's “whirling ambiguities” carry a burden that is further reminiscent of Ecclesiastes and less comforting. The Fool tells Lear that when Lear made his daughters his mothers,

Then they for sudden joy did weep,
                    And I for sorrow sung,
That such a king should play bo-peep
                    And go the fools among.


Besides providing the keynote of his own characterization, this particular condensation of emotions is also eventually associated with the moment of death itself in the play. The paradoxical fusion of the extremities of joy and sorrow was often noted in Renaissance commentaries on the passions,11 but its identification with death is peculiar to Lear. The correspondence between the two is suggested in the old ballad that the Fool seems to be adapting:

Some men for sodayne ioye do wepe,
          And some in sorrow syng:
When that they lie in daunger depe,
          To put away mournyng.(12)

It is that shadow of mourning in the Fool, the association of the Fool with Death that is always incipient in his traditional role as the teller of the truths of human vanity and mortality, that makes particularly appropriate Lear's conflation of him with Cordelia at the end of the play, when he says, “And my poor fool is hanged” (V.iii.281).

The combination of opposites is especially profound in Cordelia's characterization, but the play's most manifest combinations of the extremes that are traced in Ecclesiastes occur in the actions as well as characterizations of Lear and Gloucester, the two aged and dying protagonists who participate in the being of all of their children, the loving and the hateful, the legitimate and the illegitimate. Indeed a large part of the action of the play consists of Lear's and Gloucester's oscillation between extremes that are never ameliorated, that tear at them, and that ultimately break their hearts.

Gloucester's initial arrogance in his talk of Edmund's bastardy yields very quickly to the demoralizing thought that his legitimate son seeks his death; and the “good sport” (I.i.22) of the scene of Edmund's conception is eventually contrasted with the malignant horror of the scene in which Gloucester is blinded. Edgar, who makes the latter contrast explicit, also tries to treat it homiletically: “The dark and vicious place where thee he got / Cost him his eyes” (V.iii.163-64); but the symmetry of Edgar's formulation does not dispel our own sense of the gross disparity between the two scenes. And the same is true of Gloucester's states of mind on the heath, after his blinding. Edgar's sententious efforts to preserve his father from despair finally only intensify our sense of the alternations between despair and patience that punctuate Gloucester's feelings, alternations that continue to the point of his death, and that actually constitute it. Near the end Gloucester, in his anguish, says to Edgar that “A man may rot even here” (V.ii.8). Edgar's famous response, “Men must endure / Their going hence even as their coming hither. / Ripeness is all” (V.ii.9-11), might well be a verse in Ecclesiastes. (The exhausted tone of Ecclesiastes is generally apposite to the Gloucester plot.) “Ripeness” is a metaphor not for the fullness of life, but for the need to be resigned to the arbitrariness of its ending. As the context itself suggests, Edgar is evoking a traditional image of ripe fruit dropping from a tree and then rotting.13 “Ripeness is all” is Gloucester's epitaph.

Similar stark contrasts of feeling, on a far more massive scale, inform Lear's movement toward death, and in his case there is not even the patina of moral commentary. The Fool's comments, which are the analogues of Edgar's, are almost always morally equivocal, and they are entirely absorbed with the paradoxical oppositions that compose Lear's condition. In the second childhood of age, Lear is at the same time “every inch a king” (IV.v.107); and though he sometimes enacts these roles simultaneously, he cannot mediate between them: they remain in opposition until the play's end. His sense of humility grows, but it alternates with his wrath, never replaces it. He rages in his last appearance in the play, as he did in his first. His increasing apprehension, early in the play, of the wrong he did Cordelia is balanced by his excoriations of his other daughters and by the fury of his madness, just as later in the play the joy of his recovery of Cordelia is balanced by the desolation of his loss of her. In a wonderful speech, he imagines kneeling and humbling himself as a child before Cordelia:

                                        Come let's away to prison.
We two alone will sing like birds i'th' cage.
When thou dost ask me blessing, I'll kneel down
And ask of thee forgiveness; so we'll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
At gilded butterflies. …


But the childlike humility of this speech is a function of its childlike presumption, for Lear also tells Cordelia that they will “take upon” themselves “the mystery of things / As if we were God's spies” (V.i.16-17).14 And the yoking of such disparities continues until his death, and in the very moment of it. His very last words express the hope—or delusion—that Cordelia is alive. They join with, they do not transform, the knowledge that she will never return.

It is tempting to see in Lear's movement towards death an image of the homiletic journeys of the protagonists of the earlier morality plays, particularly because those plays seem similarly composed of radically contrasting states of feeling and being—virtue and vice, despair and hope, good and evil, angels and devils. But the resemblances only highlight the profound difference. In the moralities, the summons of death is not ultimately an end but a beginning that retrospectively gives meaning to the large contrasts of human existence. In King Lear, as in Ecclesiastes, the summons is to an absolute ending whose retrospect of existence is not morally comprehensible. Edgar tries to make it so for his father's death, and there is perhaps a moral, if barbaric, decorum in Gloucester's destruction by his bastard son. But the Gloucester plot is not the primary plot of King Lear. That plot is Lear's, and even Edgar cannot moralize Lear's story. He says of the spectacle of Lear's meeting with Gloucester on the heath, “I would not take this from report; it is, / And my heart breaks at it” (IV.v.137-38). The verb is in Edgar's comment suggests that Lear's suffering presents us with the world of unmediated existential extremes we find in Ecclesiastes, where “as is the good, so is the sinner.” The growth in Lear's understanding itself suggests this world. Lear does change on the heath. His own suffering allows him to feel, almost literally to touch, the pain of poor Tom and of the Fool and of poor naked wretches everywhere. This compassion is important and deeply moving. The sympathetic experience of pain establishes a human community in a play that otherwise seems to represent its apocalyptic dissolution, and it informs our sense of Lear's heroic stature. But his compassion should also not be misconstrued in a Romantic fashion, for the knowledge of human frailty that his suffering brings him increases his sorrow to the point of madness. Critics sometimes talk of the “privilege” of Lear's madness, but if we examine our own experience of mentally infirm human beings, we will, like Edgar, know better. It is a horror, and an anticipation of “the promised end … Or image of that horror” (V.iii.238-39) that we witness in Cordelia's death.15

Cordelia's death is, typically, preceded by her reunion with Lear after he awakens from his madness, a scene that has often been treated as if it were the climax of the action and that has frequently been compared with the reunion of Pericles and Marina. The two scenes have many elements in common: both show old and exhausted fathers, discomposed by suffering, reunited with daughters from whom they have long been separated and who seem to bring them back to life. In both, the recognitions are luminous; and both have verse of extraordinary lyric intensity. But the two scenes are also profoundly different in their immediate and eventual effects as well as in their generic contexts. Pericles's recovery of Marina is at once a recovery of his identity and an acknowledgement of its definition in the stream of time. For though, “wild in [his] beholding” (V.i.221),16 he draws Marina to himself and embraces her, he also immediately dreams of his eventual reunion with his wife and anticipates giving Marina away in marriage. In addition, he hears the music of the spheres, a music that helps give Marina's nurture of him the cosmic sense of the intelligibility, if not miracle, of rebirth: “O, come hither,” he tells her, “Thou that beget'st him that did thee beget” (V.i.194-95). The scene invokes the combination of joy and pain that is habitual in King Lear, but with a diametrically different accent. As Pericles recognizes Marina, he says:

O Helicanus, strike me, honour'd sir!
Give me a gash, put me to present pain,
Lest this great sea of joys rushing upon me
O'erbear the shores of my mortality,
And drown me with their sweetness.


Pericles's mixture of joy and pain is a guarantee of renewed life rather than an expression of its ending; and he later discriminates the pattern of the fortunate fall in all his suffering, suffering that is the prelude to joy and that heightens it: “You gods, your present kindness / Makes my past miseries sports” (V.iii.40-41).

The pattern, as well as the texture, of Lear's experience is the reverse. Lear tells Kent at the outset of the play that he had “thought to set [his] rest / On [Cordelia's] kind nursery” (I.i.123-24), and it is the peculiar nursing, rather than rebirth, of Lear that we witness in the scene in which he is reunited with Cordelia. For Cordelia ministers not only to an aged father but also to a man transformed by age into a child again. The metaphor of age as second childhood pervades the sources of King Lear, and as G. Wilson Knight suggested long ago,17 Shakespeare himself tends to give it a harsh, if not grotesque, inflection in the play. The Fool speaks of the king putting down his breeches and making his daughters his mothers (I.iv.153-55), a metaphor that is painfully acted out as Lear kneels to Cordelia and says,

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


That Lear should have to kneel and confess the infirmity of age to his evil daughters is “terrible,” but that he should do so to Cordelia as well “has also something of the terrible in it. …”18 The Fool repeatedly rebukes Lear for giving away his power and turning his family relationships upside down, and Lear's behavior in the opening scene would seem to justify those rebukes. But there is a sad irony in the Fool's speeches, for as Montaigne suggested,19 and as the play itself eventually shows, human beings of “fourscore and upward” usually cannot do otherwise. There is often no choice for us but to become the parents of our parents in their old age and to treat them as children, and it is painful because whether our motives verge toward Cordelia's or toward Goneril and Regan's (and they may do both) the nursing of parents is not nurture for future life but the preparation for death. It is directly so for Lear. The music he hears in his reunion with Cordelia suggests no larger life into which he can be incorporated, and his recovery of her is the immediate prelude to his excruciating loss of her as well as to his own death. In the manner of the whole play, it is a joy that heightens sorrow, that makes it heartbreaking.

As is well known, Dr. Johnson found Cordelia's death both bewildering and unendurable, and like many later critics, he wished to deny it. He protested that “Shakespeare has suffered the virtue of Cordelia to perish in a just cause, contrary to the natural ideas of justice, to the hope of the reader, and, what is yet more strange, to the faith of chronicles.” He added, “I was many years ago so shocked by Cordelia's death, that I know not whether I ever endured to read again the last scenes of the play till I undertook to revise them as an editor.”20 As Johnson's commentary suggests, there is an inner logic to adaptations of King Lear, like Nahum Tate's, that left Cordelia and Lear alive and united at the end of the play. All of Shakespeare's own sources—the old play of King Leir, Holinshed, Spenser, and others—end (in the short term, at least) by giving life and victory to Cordelia and Lear.21 Only Shakespeare does not, and his insistence on Cordelia's death and Lear's final agony, as Northrop Frye remarks, is “too much a part of the play even to be explained as inexplicable.”22 Lear's and Cordelia's union in death is at the heart of Shakespeare's rendition of the Lear story. It is prepared for by every scene in which they appear together, including their earlier reunion, and is the event that not only concludes the tragedy, but wholly informs it. We cannot deny it, however much we wish to and however much the play itself makes us wish to.

A modern understanding of the psychology of dying can help illuminate this phenomenon.23 Freud's discussion of King Lear is especially pertinent. He argues that the choice among the three daughters with which King Lear begins is the choice of death. Cordelia, in her muteness, he says, is the representation of death and, as in the depiction of such choices in the myths and fairy tales that King Lear resembles, her portrayal as the most beautiful and desirable of the three women expresses the inherent, often unconscious, human wish to deny death. “Lear is not only an old man: he is a dying man,” and this reality subsumes both “the extraordinary premise of the division of the inheritance” in the opening scene and the overpowering effect of the final scene:

Lear carries Cordelia's dead body on to the stage. Cordelia is Death. If we reverse the situation it becomes intelligible and familiar to us. She is the Death-goddess who, like the Valkyrie in German mythology, carries away the dead hero from the battlefield. Eternal wisdom, clothed in primaeval myth, bids the old man renounce love, choose death and make friends with the necessity of dying.24

Freud's identification of Cordelia with Lear's death suggests the kind of allegorization that often exasperates literary critics, but in this instance, at least, it seems just. Shakespeare's characterization of Cordelia is very luminous, but it is also very sharply focused. She is from first to last a function of Lear's character, a part of him to which we know he must return. She is clearly the person who counts most to him, and in the extremely crowded action of the play it is his relation to her that we most attend to and that most organizes our responses. Their relationship is the emotional as well as structural spine of the play. Cordelia is the absolute focus of Lear's attention, and ours, in the opening scene; it is Lear's rejection of her that initiates the tragic action; and during that ensuing, often diffuse, action neither he nor we can ever forget her. The Fool, who is Cordelia's surrogate, does not allow us to, both because he keeps her constantly in Lear's mind and because the combination of love and sorrow that he brings to Lear prepares us for a similar combination in Cordelia's final role. The collocation of her reunion with Lear and his loss of her is of a piece with all the words of the Fool that weep for joy and sing for sorrow, and it constitutes the same paradox of heartbreak and death.

Lear himself momentarily associates Cordelia and death in the opening scene of the play, when he says, “So be my grave my peace as here I give / Her father's heart from her,” and the association is apparent in the scene's literal action as well. Freud contends that Cordelia's silence directly connotes death, as muteness often does in dreams.25 But Cordelia also speaks in the scene, and what she says indicates clearly enough that Lear's rejection of her is precisely his denial of the impending death that he ostensibly acknowledges in the very act of dividing his kingdom and in his explicit announcement that he wishes “To shake all cares and business from our age,” and “Unburdened crawl toward death” (I.i.39, 41). Cordelia tells her father that she loves him “According to [her] bond, no more nor less.” She goes on to say, in a speech that is akin to Desdemona's defiance of Brabantio:

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

(I.i.93, 95-103)

Cordelia exhibits not a little of Lear's own stubbornness in this speech, but though that trait may explain the manner of her speech, it does not account for what, as Kent remarks, she “justly think'st, and hast most rightly said” (I.i.182). What she declares quite clearly in these lines is not only that she must have the freedom to love a husband, but also that it is in the nature of things for parents to be succeeded by children and for her to have a future that Lear cannot absorb or control. Her peculiar gravity in this scene, the austerity of her insistence on the word bond as well as her reiteration of the word nothing, reflects more than her temperament. It also suggests, even this early in the play, the particular sense of the nature of things that is evoked in Ecclesiastes—the sense of human vanity that comes with the awareness of the ultimate bond with death. At any rate, it is to the natural realities given expression in Cordelia's speech that Lear responds. His rage against her, like his cosmological rage throughout the play, is his refusal to “go gentle into that good night,” his unavailing, as well as heroic, attempt to deny death and hold on to life.

Shakespeare's portrayal of this rage and denial is intelligible in Renaissance as well as modern terms. Montaigne's discussion of death and dying in “Of Judging of Others Death,” for example, is remarkably apposite to Lear. In an argument that has analogies with Freud's, Montaigne remarks that a dying man “will hardly beleeve he is come to [the] point” of death and that “no wher doth hopes deceit ammuse us more. …” “The reason,” he says,

is, that we make too much account of our selves. It seemeth, that the generality of things doth in some sort suffer for our annullation, and takes compassion of our state. Forsomuch as our sight being altered, represents unto it selfe things alike; and we imagine, that things faile it, as it doth to them: As they who travell by Sea, to whom mountaines, fields, townes, heaven and earth, seeme to goe the same motion, and keepe the same course, they doe. … We deeme our death to be some great matter, and which passeth not so easily, nor without a solemne consultation of the Starres; Tot circa unum caput tumultuantes Deos. So many Gods keeping a stirre about one mans life. … No one of us thinkes it sufficient, to be but one.26

Shakespeare's depiction of Lear is clearly informed by such ideas. His portrait is more sympathetic than Montaigne's, but similarly ironic. Rage and cosmological pretension characterize Lear throughout the play. These feelings reach their apogee during the time when his denial of what Cordelia stands for is literalized by her absence from the play. Her return in Act IV heralds his significant recognition that he is “but one”—“They told me I was everything; 'tis a lie, I am not ague-proof” (IV.v.104-5)—and permits him to recover from his madness when he is physically reunited with her. But his inescapable attachment to her, his bond with her, always remains a prefiguration of his death. It is often difficult in our experience of King Lear to understand that Lear's denial of death is represented as much in his love for Cordelia as in his rage against her. It is even more difficult, but crucial, to understand that Cordelia's own love is itself a function of this denial, that the expression of her love at the end of the play is as much a signification of Lear's death as is the muteness of that love at the start. Granville-Barker hints at such a meaning as well as at Cordelia's general symbolic properties in his comments on her characterization. He observes that she does not change in the play, and that her cry of “No cause, no cause” to Lear at their reunion is essentially of a piece with her earlier declaration of “Nothing, my lord.” He remarks that though “it is no effort to her to love her father better than herself, … this supremest virtue, as we count it, is no gain to him,” and he asks, “Is there, then, an impotence in such goodness, lovely as we find it? And is this why Shakespeare lets her slip out of the play … to her death, as if, for all her beauty of spirit, she were not of so much account?”27 The questions Granville-Barker asks and the paradox he discriminates are central to Cordelia's characterization and are at the center of most of the play's other paradoxes as well. They are best explained, I think, in terms (which Granville-Barker himself does not use) of the phenomenon of the denial of death, what Montaigne calls “hopes deceit.”28

In all the myths of the choice among three sisters that Freud finds analogous to Lear, the woman representing the power of death is transformed into a woman representing the power of love. Contradictions and contraries of this kind are characteristic of the process of condensation in dreams, but Freud relates such contradictions in King Lear primarily to the human disposition to make use of the imagination “to satisfy wishes that reality does not satisfy” and to deny what cannot be tolerated. The profound human wish to deny “the immutable law of death” is represented both in the identification of the most beautiful sister with death and in the presence of choice itself:

Choice stands in the place of necessity, of destiny. In this way man overcomes death, which he has recognized intellectually. No greater triumph of wish-fulfilment is conceivable. A choice is made where in reality there is obedience to a compulsion, and what is chosen is not a figure of terror, but the fairest and most desirable of women.29

In the old chronicle play of King Leir, the king has an explicit political motive that is associated with his testing of his daughters' love as well as with the division of the kingdom, and the two wicked daughters are forewarned of it while the good one is not. All three daughters, moreover, are unmarried, and the issue of their marriages is related to the love test and to politics. Shakespeare almost entirely shears away such surface motives and rationalizations for Lear's action in order to make its underlying motive of denial more stark and more compelling.30 The whole of the scene echoes with negations and contradictions. Its sense of high order and ceremony is prefaced by Gloucester's casual talk of ungoverned instinct. The ceremony itself is a decoronation, deeply reminiscent of Richard II's undecking of “the pompous body of a king” as well as of Richard's ambivalence: “Ay, no; no, ay; for I must nothing be” (Richard II, IV.i.240, 191). The pun is not only on “Ay” for “I,” but also “no” for “know.” Richard knows no “I” and sees that he is to be no “I.”31 He thus seems to indicate and accept, more clearly than Lear ever does, that the loss of his crown also constitutes the loss of his life, that “nothing” is death. This meaning of the word becomes unmistakably plain in his final speech in prison when he says,

Thus play I in one person many people,
.....                                                            But whate'er I be,
Nor I, nor any man that but man is,
With nothing shall be pleased till he be eased
With being nothing.

(V.v.31, 38-41)

Lear himself does not acknowledge the ambivalence that Richard exhibits in resigning the throne, but he unquestionably acts it out. He invests Cornwall and Albany with his “power, / Pre-eminence, and all the large effects / That troop with majesty,” but he wishes at the same time to “retain / The name and all th'addition to a king” (I.i.130-32, 135-36). Richard II also cleaves, unavailingly, to the “king's name,” and in his case the implications of that wish are explicitly related to the Renaissance concept of the mystical union between the king's two bodies, between the body natural that is subject to time and death, and the body politic that is divine and immortal.32 Richard's repeated invocations of his name (“Arm, arm, my name!” [III.ii.82]) signify the imminent severing of this union and his growing consciousness of death. Even though the universe of King Lear is not Christian, Lear's wish to “retain / The name and all th'addition to a king” would probably have been understood in the same context of ideas and have suggested the same implicit focus upon mortality. But in any case, his wish, even on its face, contradicts his ostensible desire to resign the “sway,” “revenue,” and “execution” of the king's power (I.i.136-37), and that contradiction governs his manner, his speech, and his actions throughout the opening scene.

The contradictions that govern Cordelia in the scene are less obvious, but more profound and more moving. What is compelling about her from the outset is that she continuously represents both sides of the process of denial: the heart's sorrow as well as its joy. She represents the vanity of denial but also its animating power, the love of life as well as the inescapability of death, the mother that nurtures us, as Freud suggests, as well as the Mother Earth that finally receives us.33 She tells Lear the truth of his dying in the opening scene: “Nothing, my lord.” She stands in mute rebuke to the folly of his attempt to deny it. And she eventually becomes that truth when she lies lifeless in his arms. But at the same time the very telling of that truth is replete with love—“What shall Cordelia speak? Love and be silent” (I.i.62)—which is what makes Lear's rejection of her seem unnatural on the literal as well as the symbolic level. As the play progresses she comes more and more to represent everything that binds Lear most nobly to life and that makes his protest against death at once heart-breaking and heroic. Freud speaks of the resistance to death as essentially a reflex of the ego's wish to be immortal. But he undervalues human love, for another reason that we do not wish to die and see those close to us die, even the very old, is that we are capable of cherishing and loving others. Cordelia is an incarnation of this capacity.

Shakespeare endows Cordelia's representation of such love in King Lear with religious, and specifically Christian, overtones, and perhaps the greatest pain of her death, and of her tragic embodiment of the futility of the denial of death, is that the promise of these overtones also proves empty. Cordelia's counterpart in the chronicle play of King Leir is, like the whole of that play, explicitly homiletic and Christian. When she is rejected by her father, she turns to “him which doth protect the iust, / In him will poore Cordella put her trust,” and later, as she acknowledges her sisters' “blame,” she prays for God's forgiveness both of them and of her father:

Yet God forgiue both him, and you and me,
Euen as I doe in perfit charity.
I will to Church, and pray vnto my Sauiour,
That ere I dye, I may obtayne his fauour.

(ll. 331-32, 1090-93)34

Cordella's trust in God is fully vindicated at the end of the play when she and Leir are triumphantly reunited and he is restored to love and dignity.

Shakespeare intensifies, at the same time that he transmutes, the old play's association of Cordella with Christianity. There are unmistakable New Testament echoes in King Lear, and most of them cluster around Cordelia. They start in the opening scene, when France uses the language of miracle and faith to question Lear's judgment of Cordelia (I.i.220-22) and when he takes her as his wife:

Fairest Cordelia, that art most rich, being poor;
Most choice, forsaken; and most loved, despised:
Thee and thy virtues here I seize upon.


The allusion to 2 Corinthians 6:10 is clear—“as poore, and yet [making] manie riche: as hauing nothing, and yet possessing all things”—and it resonates with the deepest preoccupations of the whole scene. The allusions and associations intensify at the end of the play. When Cordelia returns from France she says, “O dear father, / It is thy business that I go about” (IV.iii.23-24; cf. Luke 2:49); and shortly afterwards, the Gentleman who is sent to rescue Lear says,

                                                  Thou hast a daughter,
Who redeems nature from the general curse
Which twain have brought her to.


At the very end Cordelia's death is associated with the Last Judgment (V.iii.238-39), and Lear himself wishes for her revival in language that seems to echo the most profound of Christian beliefs:

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


But Cordelia does not live, and Lear, whether he dies thinking she does or not, is not redeemed by her. For in the pagan world of King Lear the New Testament's conception of death, and life, is the denial; the reality is that of Ecclesiastes, the pilgrimage of the heart in the Old Testament that insists above all else that death cannot be denied. Shakespeare, in all the plots of King Lear, at once summons up and denies the most profound energies of the comic and romantic impulses of the chronicle play of Leir, as well as of his other sources.35 We expect and wish, for example, for Gloucester to recognize his good son Edgar, but he does so only at the very moment of his death and off-stage, and we wish, as Kent does, that Lear will recognize him as his faithful servant Caius, and he never does. The most painful of these denials of our romantic expectations, however, is the treatment of Cordelia. By associating her role with the Christian hope of redemption (an association that is strengthened by the play's simultaneous evocation and frustration of the generic expectations of the morality play as well as of romance36), Shakespeare deliberately violates, as Dr. Johnson perceived, not only “the faith of the chronicles” but also the profoundest “hope of the reader.” We ourselves are thus compelled not just to view the process of denial, but to undergo it and endure it. There is no deeper generic transformation of a source in the canon, and it is the wellspring of the sense of grotesqueness as well as of desolation that is so peculiar to this tragedy.37

Such an understanding of the Christian evocations in the pagan world of King Lear can help clarify the religious issues that continue to vex criticism of the play, but it should not be interpreted to suggest that King Lear is thus either an argument against Providence or a homily on the inadequacy of pagan virtue.38 Nor does it suggest that the play's conception of death is unique among Shakespeare's tragedies. The tragic sense that death informs as well as ends human life, and that after it, in Hamlet's last words, “The rest is silence” (V.ii.310), is as germane to Hamlet, Othello, and Macbeth, which have manifest Christian settings, as it is to King Lear. Christian belief does give a providential perspective to death in those plays, most strongly in Hamlet, where the intimations of another world of being become a part of the hero's consciousness; but such a perspective, even in the case of Hamlet, cannot absorb or fully explain the hero's actual suffering. Nor can it finally mitigate the effect of that suffering on us. We can spend much time gauging the level of irony in the endings of the tragedies, but when we see or read these great plays we do not construe the endings, we feel them, and what we feel is a paramount sense of suffering and loss. The distinction of King Lear is that the death of Cordelia compounds that feeling and focuses it. All of us are pagan in our immediate response to dying and death. The final scene of King Lear is a representation—among the most moving in all drama—of the universality of this experience and of its immeasurable pain.


  1. See, e.g., William Elton, King Lear and the Gods (San Marino: Huntington Library Press, 1968), and Stephen Greenblatt, “Shakespeare and the Exorcists,” After Strange Texts, eds. Gregory F. Jay and David L. Miller (Birmingham: Univ. of Alabama Press, 1985), pp. 101-23.

  2. Jonathan Dollimore, Radical Tragedy: Religion, Ideology and Power in the Drama of Shakespeare and his Contemporaries (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1984), p. 157. His discussion of Lear is on pages 189-203. See also Walter Cohen, Drama of a Nation (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1985).

  3. All references to King Lear are to the Folio text in William Shakespeare: The Complete Works, eds. Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986).

  4. Significantly, Dollimore's attack on the humanist assumption that in tragedy men must suffer never really comes to terms with the suffering that is produced by death, the one event in human life, besides birth, that is ineluctable and universal.

  5. See especially John Holloway, The Story of the Night (Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1961), pp. 85-91. For a suggestive survey of biblical echoes in the play, which includes but does not give particular emphasis to Ecclesiastes, see Rosalie L. Colie, “The Energies of Endurance: Biblical Echo in King Lear,” in Some Facets of King Lear, eds. Rosalie Colie and F. T. Flahiff (Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Press, 1974), pp. 117-44.

  6. All quotations from the Bible are from The Geneva Bible, A facsimile of the 1560 edition (Madison, Milwaukee, and London: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1969).

  7. See Thomas McFarland, Tragic Meanings in Shakespeare (New York: Random House, 1966), pp. 149-71.

  8. See Holloway, pp. 75-80; and Joseph Wittreich, “Image of that Horror”: History, Prophecy, and Apocalypse in King Lear (San Marino: Huntington Library Press, 1984).

  9. Allan Bloom comments on this speech in his fine essay on Richard II in Shakespeare as Political Thinker, eds. John Alvis and Thomas G. West (Durham, N.C.: Carolina Academic Press, 1981), pp. 55-56.

  10. The Fool: His Social and Literary History (London: Faber and Faber, 1935) p. 267.

  11. For thorough discussions of these commentaries, see Elton, King Lear and the Gods, pp. 270-72.

  12. Cited in the Arden King Lear, ed. Kenneth Muir (London: Methuen and Co. Ltd., 1952), p. 45. For a discussion of the ballad, see Hyder Rollins, “‘King Lear’ and the Ballad of ‘John Careless,’” Modern Language Review, 15 (1920), 87-89.

  13. See J. V. Cunningham, Tradition and Poetic Structure (Denver: Alan Swallow, 1960), pp. 135-40.

  14. See Elton, pp. 249-53.

  15. For the argument that Lear's suffering and madness are purgatorial, see Paul A. Jorgenson, Lear's Self-Discovery (Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 1967).

  16. All references to Pericles are to the New Arden edition, ed. F. D. Hoeniger (London: Methuen and Co. Ltd., 1963).

  17. King Lear and the Comedy of the Grotesque,” The Wheel of Fire (London: Methuen and Co. Ltd., 1949), pp. 160-76.

  18. Barbara Everett, “The New King Lear,” Critical Quarterly, 2 (1960), 325-39, esp. pp. 334-35.

  19. See especially “Of the Affection of Fathers to Their Children,” Montaigne's Essays, trans. John Florio, 2 vols. (London: The Nonesuch Press, 1931), Vol. I, 437-59. Montaigne's assumption is that fathers not only often have to give up power to their children, but should do so.

  20. The Yale Edition of the Works of Samuel Johnson: Johnson on Shakespeare, 15 vols., Vol. VIII, ed. Arthur Sherbo (New Haven and London: Yale Univ. Press, 1968), 704.

  21. In the longer term, in the chronicles, Cordelia commits suicide after Lear's own death. Shakespeare's stress, of course, is on Lear's experience of Cordelia's death.

  22. Fools of Time: Studies in Shakespearean Tragedy (Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Press, 1967), p. 115.

  23. The ground-breaking study on this subject is Susan Snyder's “King Lear and the Psychology of Dying,” Shakespeare Quarterly, 33 (1982), 449-60. My own analysis places more emphasis upon Freud's insight into the play, but I remain much indebted to her article.

  24. “The Theme of the Three Caskets,” Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, ed. James Strachey, 24 vols. (London: Hogarth Press, 1953-74), Vol. 12, 301.

  25. Works, Vol. 12, 295.

  26. Montaigne's Essays, Vol. I, 694-95.

  27. Prefaces to Shakespeare, 2 vols. (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1952), Vol. 1, 305.

  28. I think this is the phenomenon Stanley Cavell is really touching upon in “The Avoidance of Love,” Must We Mean What We Say? (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1976), pp. 272-300, for in King Lear the avoidance of love (as well as the embrace of it) is fundamentally the avoidance of death.

  29. Works, Vol. 12, 299.

  30. For an interesting, if highly inferential, insistence on the political motives of the opening scene of Lear, see Harry V. Jaffa, “The Limits of Politics,” in Shakespeare's Politics, eds. Allan Bloom and Harry Jaffa (New York: Basic Books, 1964), pp. 113-38.

  31. See Molly Mahood, Shakespeare's Wordplay (London: Methuen and Co. Ltd., 1957), p. 87.

  32. See Ernst Kantorowicz, The King's Two Bodies (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1957), pp. 24-91.

  33. Works, Vol. 12, 301.

  34. The History of King Leir 1605, gen. ed. W. W. Greg (Oxford: The Malone Society Reprints, 1907).

  35. For a discussion of the generic expectations of romance in King Lear, see Leo Salingar, “Romance in King Lear,English, 27 (1978), 5-22.

  36. See Edgar Schell, Strangers and Pilgrims: from The Castle of Perseverance to King Lear (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1983).

  37. See G. Wilson Knight, “King Lear and the Grotesque”; and Susan Snyder, The Comic Matrix of Shakespeare's Tragedies (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1979), pp. 137-79.

  38. Cf. Thomas P. Roche, Jr., “‘Nothing Almost Sees Miracles’: Tragic Knowledge in King Lear,” in On King Lear, ed. Lawrence Danson (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1981), pp. 136-62.

Portions of this argument appeared in abbreviated form in William Shakespeare: His World, His Work, His Influence, 3 vols., ed. John Andrews (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1985), Vol. II, 524-31.

Michael Holahan (essay date winter 1997)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 13044

SOURCE: Holahan, Michael. “‘Look, Her Lips’: Softness of Voice, Construction of Character in King Lear.Shakespeare Quarterly 48, no. 4 (winter 1997): 406-31.

[In the following excerpt, Holahan studies the treatment of literary character in King Lear, stressing the construction and function of Cordelia in relation to Lear.]


Slack and sleeping senses must be addressed with thunder and heavenly fireworks. But the voice of beauty speaks gently: it creeps only into the most awakened souls.1

Twentieth-century theorists have been severe with the notion of literary character. It does not speak strongly to post-Victorian souls—to this century's skepticism toward moral and mimetic constructions. The New Criticism set character aside for finer patterns of imagery and wit or paradoxical structures of ironical tone. Myth criticism subsumed it in the more powerful archetype. Deconstruction, new historicism, and the related specialties of poststructural critique have viewed an obviously figurative construct with alert suspicion. It has seemed a rallying point for essentialist notions of the self, reinforcing a superficial moralism and commonsense psychology while all along remaining just rhetoric: ethos and pathos meeting in prosopographia. Nevertheless, the artifice of character is hardly a postmodern discovery. The notion is central to most rhetorical traditions, although not entailing in every case the reduction of character to rhetoric.2 In drama the issue is moot: there, within a constructed environment, the rhetoric of character is allowed to take on guises of truth because spectators can willingly—and consciously—suspend degrees of disbelief. It needs to be added that suspending disbelief is not the same thing as becoming credulous.

Although no more than a literary device, composed of rhetorical elements, character has shown such persistence in literary and critical practice that it may well outlast theories that diagnose its death. The idea that literary character might remain one of the textual pleasures we seek out may be tested in the relentless assault on character we find in King Lear, which goes beyond character but uses the device itself to do so. Indeed, the play constitutes itself by dramatizing meanings and values that arise from various nodal locations set between literary devices of character. The play's disguising, for example, seems to flaunt such knotted intervals by calling attention to character put on, then off.3 “Poor Turlygod! poor Tom! / That's something yet: Edgar I nothing am” (2.3.20-21).4 Another example, and one central to my purpose of reconfiguring character here, involves the voicing-over of one character upon another: a juxtaposition and joining of two distinct figures—one with “something yet” in speech, the other with “no breath at all” (5.3.306). The interval comes down to this shifting, barely perceptible space between speech and silence, between one voice and an invoked voice no longer there. Topoi of speech, voice, and breath disclose an uncertain space between characters and suggest some moral arguments of acknowledgment that arise within it. These arguments extend from acknowledgment by a dramatic character to the particular kinds of acknowledgment offered in literary response.

This essay presents an interpretation of the value of one character, Cordelia, and the final relation of that value to Lear's last speeches over her body. My concern lies with a relation between characters at or near points of death and the issue of aesthetic closure. I find Cordelia's value located in her soft voice and “ripe lip” (4.3.20), and I wish to link these descriptions to Lear's final summons to our close attention: “Look on her, look, her lips” (5.3.309). This essay raises issues of stability of character, considering changes in the dying Edmund as preliminary to changes that occur for Lear. In my argument Lear changes by looking for and imitating Cordelia's soft voice; his character change is not solely a development of internal depth but is also an acquired responsiveness to another character. Character evolves not as a formation around a void but as a progressive delineation of spaces between or beyond distinct figures onstage. Instability in this case is no hindrance to character as meaning; it is a groundwork for varied effects of meaning. My goal is to emphasize this interpretation but also to keep in view a theoretical proposition concerning subjectivity. This holds that to term character “constructed” strips it of signifying value and reveals an emptiness of meaning in matters of subjectivity. Since character is nothing but marks on a page, such arguments run, it must be silent, seen but not heard. This claim is not so much a theorized objection to character as it is an evasion by reduction of the issue of meanings (and knowledge) generated by literary constructions.5

Against this reductive claim I try to find within Lear's speech to the dead Cordelia a discourse that is dramatic in its concern with character, ethical in its judgment of value, and constructed in its establishment of a perspective not original to Lear. My purpose is not to offer a theoretical defense of literary character; it is, rather, to test the possibility that a traditional literary device has been set in an unusual construction and, in so doing, to articulate patterns of achieved bonds more than those of developed interiority. My concern is to detach subjectivity from an exclusive identification with inwardness and to attach it to forms of ethical perception that resist categorical explanation. I aim at a description of character, ethical value, and shaped perspective that is “thick” in the sense that it plaits these different languages into an “anthropology” of Lear's change.6 His character is complete, defined by death and the play's close, in moments of final change and construction that embrace other characters. This is the antithesis to disguising, for Lear becomes most himself as he becomes more like his daughter—or, more precisely, like her only in the briefest of dramatic moments and in the delicate sharing of a single trait as he takes on her voice. This taking-on is contingent, tangential, yet so marked that it may well elude theory's finest rigors. That is, precisions of a theoretical skepticism may not be the best way to recognize brief and delicate points of closure in King Lear.7 Moral inquiry, with its concern for the particular nature of exchanges between persons, is better able, I believe, to represent those qualities that summon, shape, and puzzle our attention.

Such an occasion of brevity and delicacy gains dramatic resonance within a large architecture that continually repositions eyes and voices in significant meetings of image, theme, and situation. The father finds himself by means of his child, for this least daughter's voice has already taught him how to recreate certain bonds amid a ruin of doubt. The achievement in Act 5 depends upon an exchange in Act 4, where this poor sinner, once a king, claims nothing for himself except the name of his child. Yet his terrible weakness finds recompense in Cordelia's immediate response as she enacts without hesitation the difference between laughter and gentle acknowledgment.

… Methinks I should know you and know this man;
Yet I am doubtful: for I am mainly ignorant
What place this is, and all the skill I have
Remembers not these garments; nor I know not
Where I did lodge last night. Do not laugh at me;
For, as I am a man, I think this lady
To be my child Cordelia.
                                                                                                    And so I am, I am.


An effective brevity, Erasmus considered, is “so full of meaning that much more is understood than is heard.”8 The brevity of this lady/child makes up an affirmation that is richly understood, and her two qualities—simplicity and affirmation—constitute the “I,” also constructed, who identifies in gentle reverberation the family relationship and the proper name. Confirming herself, she confirms this abused “man” as father and king, a confirmation of identities and roles that will be brutally tested until simple assertions of existence can no longer be uttered. Yet Lear will recall Cordelia's voice and proclaim its general excellence, joining two crucial inflections—distinction and type—in the value of character: “Her voice was ever soft, / Gentle and low, an excellent thing in woman” (5.3.272-73, emphasis added). The close of King Lear projects drama's rich interrogations about being and presence. What does it mean to hold and consider such excellence? to recollect her saying “I am, I am” or “No cause, no cause” (4.7.75), only to listen and watch her die, unable to speak? The shock to Dr. Johnson is well known and was not endured again until he subjected the play and himself to editorial discipline.


Finis coronat opus.(9)

The play has other patterns of character development to examine beyond those of disguising, personal confirmation, or spherical predominance. Edmund uses (without perhaps believing) a notion of historical conditioning or shaping. “[M]en / Are as the time is,” he notes to his captain after the British victory: “to be tender-minded / Does not become a sword” (5.3.31-33).10 He then sets his executioner a task that leads to rope and his own death from the old king's sword. This is one of the many turns to the sword that mark the violence of this play. We never hear, and perhaps do not expect to, whether the captain had his own moment of tendermindedness as Cordelia's death conjoined with his. Since all characters are not equally important, by extension, what is offstage and out-of-text need not exist for speculation. It is different for Edmund. He is attractive (as Harold Bloom assures us), desired by both evil sisters, and distinctive; the time conspires to grant him, before death at his brother's hand, a final and surprising shift to kind intention.11 Moved by Edgar's “brief tale” of their father's end (5.3.181-99), he thinks of enacting a good. He reveals his “writ … on the life of Lear and on Cordelia,” offers his sword as a “token of reprieve,” and urges all to “send in time” (ll. 243-51). Time does expire for the queen. But what of her executioner, turned by voice, tale, and timing into a would-be savior: is his conversion legitimate or out-of-character? Is the problem one of ethics or aesthetics? What is the “time” of this character which leads him to this last effort at ineffective charity?

Does Shakespeare as well as Nature stand up for Edmund? Should we? Does it make a difference to condemn him for a writ on these two lives if he then goes on to mean well, despite his own nature? Cannot the end crown the work, the bastard speaking for, not against, Cordelia? Edmund's attractiveness, for me, is theoretical in that he illuminates problems of stability and alteration in matters of character and ethical judgment. After 3.7 who could have thought that this young man had so much good in him? His Act 5 conversion is astonishing not only in itself but also as a prelude to more remarkable changes in Lear. They do share extremes of attitude toward Cordelia, even if last judgments on the two should not rest there. Nonetheless, an ultimate Edmund, unexpectedly tender, introduces a “new King Lear,” who brings his silent daughter to the stage and once again asks for her speech.12 As the play concludes, King Lear raises basic issues of character, acknowledgment, and exchange. In my sense of the play, change of character is directly related to processes in which characters gain or lose acknowledgment as their voices contend within dramatic time.13

We like to view human character as stable, as fixed somehow in nature. Yet we know that it is not. It grows, or is constructed and reconstructed, to follow the signs of our time. In either case, a character must alter if ethical judgment is to do more than report on disjunct moments from the past when this or that agent performed well (or ill). That is, notions that a character can change yet retain a distinct identity are crucial to ideas of responsible freedom and their representation in literature. As Paul Ricoeur has remarked, one can distinguish between identity as sameness and as selfhood (a site for significant change) and in this distinction find occasions to weigh elements that do and do not change.14 In this sense, character is not at all an unequivocal formation but the name for certain continuing negotiations between stability and alteration. In turn, an ethical judgment must be supple over time as well as tolerant of the sudden changes that can come to one as attractive as Edmund. Literary interpretation is not alien to such latitudes of judgment, for this practice encourages varied readings rather than a unitary law. Here, ironically, an attractive traitor is reduced to a character function and his dying affords an aesthetic perspective on the royal characters whom he tries to murder, then fails to save. Edmund's good serves the literary plot before any argument of ethics; he is neither center nor circumference of this work. He can usurp many things but not King Lear. It has its own way with a “ficelle” so winningly brutal. He is borne offstage toward his man, to die—“a trifle” (5.3.295)—as his victims return to the center with a specifically dramatic power. This aesthetic shaping of dismissal and return does carry some relish of ethical value. Poetic justice remains a kind of justice, at least for Edmund. Conversion to a good only earns him Albany's final contempt and alerts us to more striking transformations for Lear. The endings of the two men are quite different yet not unrelated, for each comes to a voicing of ethical perception as a sign of altered character. Such signs should not be mistaken; they may very well bring us to a deep sense of the continuity of characters within the play. This can be said in another way: that judgments made about one character are not made in isolation from judgments about other characters. To note the irrelevance of Edmund, even in his last muster of an ethical voice, is to register the final power of Lear and Cordelia. Appeals to aesthetic qualities cannot, of course, forestall other judgments, even as acts and performances said to be ethical can still be evaluated aesthetically. One language of judgment cannot preempt the other. Nonetheless, King Lear asks for both and torments our professional efforts at a strict discrimination of issues. We may deny “Edmund” any benefit from his conversion even as we appreciate its aesthetic virtues. Acting always as an end unto himself, he ends up as a device of the play.15

Literary critics as different as Harley Granville-Barker and Stephen Greenblatt have noted an odd circling in King Lear.16 Its action opens and closes with Cordelia's silence, and it is the ethical value of those silences that I want to consider now, especially and obviously in their effects on Lear. The two silences are radically different, yet we know that difference to be the point of the dramatic action, language, and scene as these coalesce intensively at the end in general patterns of speech and sight.17 The old man bends over his daughter's body, desperate to prove any signs of an invisible speech or breath. Now his concern is less what she says than that she says, and he dies in the act of acknowledging something intended but unspecified—except for location—about Cordelia. Beholders are asked to see what may not exist, for this is and is not Cordelia. Her character now appears only in an actor's body's mimicry of a past life—a striking union of death and theatrical illusion. Yet the rhetorical effect is one of intense concentration on “her”—by the king and, with him, by the watching armies. Lear ends in a passion of seeing and commanding sight, with his own mortal period and point of exclamation: “Do you see this? Look on her, look, her lips, / Look there, look there! [Dies.]” (5.3.309-10).18 As before, he desires her speech and gains nothing. Shakespeare reconstructs his design so that this last question and command extend from the stage groupings to us as readers or spectators. We are asked to see and told to look. To do so, we must read Cordelia's lips, her father's anguish, and our own capacity for compassion. Ethical judgment is contextual; it must include the object of value, the affect of those interested, and the skills of the judge. Lear can be held to these standards, for he comes to a profound revision of the value of his daughter and her gender as he asks her not to go. In Act 1 he bribed Cordelia to speak her love; then, when she would not (or could not), he ordered her to go. Here, as the circle closes, he utters a plea of love that asks only for softest speech—speech he must then recreate himself. We could say that Lear mistakes silence in a new way. Or perhaps we are struck by his belief that speech remains possible. In either case, the process is one of naming, address, and characterization with an intensity that few works match. The old king's voice has changed.19 An imperative “stay” begs. The original command—“Speak” (1.1.85)—is here a gentle question, although he himself is certainly not gentle in stopping Edmund's man. Nonetheless, he has learned to plead with silence—the figure he now holds, addresses, and describes. His language becomes briefly a caress, softness itself.

Cordelia, Cordelia! stay a little. Ha!
What is't thou say'st? Her voice was ever soft,
Gentle and low, an excellent thing in woman.
I kill'd the slave that was a-hanging thee.


Edmund was wrong about the time. Here a sword has indeed become tenderminded, for Lear has not always spoken so well of this woman, let alone all women.20 The rack of the world has cracked his darker purpose as well as the misogyny in his own hangman impulses: “the great rage, / You see, is kill'd in him,” the doctor told Cordelia as she bent over her father (4.7.78-79). That rage was an exiled, exposed man's frenzied madness. It followed and enlarged the earlier rages of an angry father and monarch. The arc of those emotions brought Lear to his own silence, an exhaustion between sleep and death. A medical diagnosis, however, was hardly enough to represent this condition or its outcome.

The play's circle travels from and toward Cordelia by way of the king. Plot movement suggests an inner circle of characters bound together. We cannot understand the silence of the daughter without understanding the state or speech of the father. Lear's health now rests with his daughter's return and manner of identification. She must sweeten his imagination of “the sulphurous pit” (4.6.130), extending the motif of royal medicine by inverting archetypes of lost children and searching parents.21 Her character seeks out his—to say in Act 4 what could not be commanded in Act 1, and with a gentleness that can repair the “high-engender'd battles” of his storm and night (3.2.23). It may strike some viewers that Cordelia mingles qualities of passivity and power to such a fine degree that the first quality must enhance (not diminish) the second. Cordelia's gentleness can be understood etymologically as a joining of social or family status and of personal qualities—a royal birth as well as a private sense of loving duty. The difference between Act 1 and Act 4 concerns a divergence, within this patriarchal system, between royal commands and paternal appeals to a complex gentleness.

An ethics without an objective standard must be trivial. In King Lear that standard—one concerning the worth of speech—is embodied in Cordelia, especially in her lips and voice. They both form the shape and sound of value in this kingdom and suggest its vulnerability. Ironically, the injury to value begins in the command to speak. Lear is not wrong to want to hear Cordelia's love; he is wrong to command its expression as a condition of inheritance. Commodifying love is not a way to recognize this daughter's worth. “She is herself,” France chides Burgundy—and Lear—“a dowry” (1.1.241). Since this wealth lies in a silent character, the real challenge is a difficult discrimination between softness and emptiness. Kent puts the matter negatively to the king, but he only begins a terrible process in which Lear learns to distinguish “low sounds” from the “hollowness” of least loving: “Thy youngest daughter does not love thee least; / Nor are those empty-hearted whose low sounds / Reverb no hollowness” (ll. 152-54). Kent's “plainness” (l. 148) has no effect but to send Lear's hand to his sword, while “low sounds” are indeed concealed by “hollowness.” A statement of Cordelia's value is assigned to France, a monarch-suitor who provides a formal set of loving paradoxes (ll. 250-61).22 We in turn may decide that, if Cordelia is a center of value, her “low sounds” have yet to be constructed in an adequate rhetoric. The speech on duty which rings so coldly in Act 1 (ll. 95-104) requires later events to bring out its full tonalities.23 Her exile heralds a terrible void in Britain, one that is figured by chaotic sites and acts of terror—a wild heath, a blinding storm, plucked eyes. The challenge for ethical inquiry is to complete a circle, to redraw that map of hollowness, to call a soft voice home. An acoustics of true reverberation is tested severely by the longest absence from the stage of a major Shakespearean character.

The construction finally occurs in 4.3, a scene omitted from the Folio and often dropped in performance, perhaps because its technique is indirect yet highly mannered in the fashion of the reporting scenes in the late romances.24 The scene may also seem irrelevant if one is unconcerned with Cordelia speaking or spoken about, with indeed the play's reverberations of her presence and absence. But 4.3 does reverberate the scene in which Kent, while stocked, takes out Cordelia's letter and prays for a “warm sun” to read by (2.2.162). In 4.3 Kent, turned auditor, listens to an unnamed gentleman describe Cordelia's reading of letters about Lear.

                                        … it seem'd she was a queen
Over her passion; who, most rebel-like,
Sought to be king o'er her.
                                                                                O! then it mov'd her.
Not to a rage; patience and sorrow strove
Who should express her goodliest. You have seen
Sunshine and rain at once; her smile and tears
Were like, a better way; those happy smilets
That play'd on her ripe lip seem'd not to know
What guests were in her eyes; which parted thence,
As pearls from diamonds dropp'd. In brief,
Sorrow would be a rarity most belov'd,
If all could so become it.
                                                                                Made she no verbal question?
Faith, once or twice she heav'd the name of “father”
Pantingly forth, as if it press'd her heart. …

(ll. 14-27)

Both scenes contain rebellions—Kent's enraged attempt to punish Oswald, Cordelia's better self-control. The gentleman's language traces elaborate conceits of thematic bearing and a ceremonial description that offers itself as a part of its own gentleness. It is lettered artifice: a flourish of metaphors, an effort to state Cordelia's full worth as ruler and woman while underscoring her absence.25 Here understanding is achieved by courtliness, not suffering, and by a language that asserts a virtue in surplus as King Lear's plainest speaker listens. Although rhetoric, this is the antithesis of hollow speakers at court or of unaccommodated man, whimpering his folly before the elements. It is a revelation in figured meaning of what “play'd on her ripe lip” (l. 21).

The anonymous gentleman restates the Stoic ideal of self-government in a language of courtly richness. France's metaphor of the self as dower is extended to issues of rule. This new rhetoric shows rebellion subdued by queenly patience, nature's “sunshine and rain” bettered in the true daughter's ripe lips and pearl tears. Her qualities still speak to this gentleman's eye of recollection as he tries to convey to Kent the wonder of her presence. Here the power of her subjectivity is so well controlled that, in governing itself, it can lay claim to govern others, this unnamed gentleman or a would-be king of passion. The masculine title of “king” suggests that the implicit model may be Lear's earlier usurping rage. A gentle microcosm suddenly takes shape in Cordelia's rich sorrow, as if Act 3's storm should be replayed now in precious miniature.

In addition to self-government, the gentleman describes an act of heavy lifting that Cordelia could not perform in Act 1: “Unhappy that I am, I cannot heave / My heart into my mouth” (1.1.91-92). (In Act 5 that verbal action will pass to Lear in the literal burden of a dead daughter.) Here, before Cordelia returns to the stage, her authority in two bodies—as queen and as subjective person—is confirmed.26 Her majesty is not that of Lear's raging nor that of her husband's cool faith. She can project her heart in the name of her father. In the next scene she will begin a process of healing, advised by the doctor to “close the eye of anguish” (4.4.15). A court ceremony of bestowing jewels will be translated into a deeply emotional spending of attention and care. From Cordelia's heart and eyes (as imaged by the gentleman), a royal progress travels by tears and lips to Lear's own sight (as witnessed by the audience). A ripeness of language and spectacle is all in both plots of the play; acts of jeweled pathos—the queen's touch in language—will reach an untender brother in Edgar's words about their father's “bleeding rings, / Their precious stones new lost” (5.2.11; 5.3.189-90). This iconic language gradually rules even Regan's “sweet lord,” who absented himself from ring-pulling and delegated murders so attractively.

Cordelia's “ripe lip” closes the eye of anguish to enable better seeing. She is “rare” not only because of her absence but also because of her own verbal translation of the gentleman's jewel metaphors into healing medicines. Act 4 moves from Cordelia described to Cordelia present (yet without her father) and finally to her moment of awakening him onstage.

Please you, draw near. Louder the music there!
O my dear father! Restoration hang
Thy medicine on my lips, and let this kiss
Repair those violent harms that my two sisters
Have in thy reverence made!


The simples of music and embrace lift him “out o' th' grave” and soothe the “molten lead” of his tears (ll. 45, 48). Act 1's expulsion is under repair: having learned for himself to “say nothing” (3.2.38), the old man is reborn, recast. The natural relation of father and child is reconstructed as a relation of art. The void fills with gentle sounds. A counterpoint of music and the queen's voice calls Lear from “the heaviness of sleep” to a restored vision of her as soul (4.7.21, 46). “[W]here did you die?” he asks her (l. 49), believing her to be the one transformed rather than the agent of his transformation. His phrase in Act 1 for a future with Cordelia could not have meant this scene, yet the scene does ironically reveal “her kind nursery” (1.1.124). Salving the hollow sisters' “fangs” (3.7.57), the child brings the father to himself in a scene of waking and second birth as she heals a prodigal parent with an artful medicine of lips.27 The intimations of a romance recovery are strong but not strong enough to overcome the swords, writ, poisons, noose, and quick savagery of Act 5.

The gentleman's account was static, ornamental; Cordelia's address is dynamic, performative. “Restoration” is allegory, desire, and event. The paired speeches are complementary, not antithetical; both hang on her lips as she returns to her nation and to language. “Love, and be silent” was the first resolve (1.1.62); now her lips can be act and speech act, the kiss and the gentle speech of kissing. Fragile and gracious, she is the real physician-antagonist to nature's fearful storms. Such complementarity fits other relationships. If royal authority is patriarchal, it still requires this daughter's healing; the “reverence” she anoints is that of the unkind father and the injured monarch at once. It is both reconciliation and recoronation: “How does my royal Lord? How fares your Majesty?” (4.7.44). The construction of Cordelia's value passes to her own speech and to the verb “repair” issuing in speech and kiss from her ripe lip; ripe in the senses of rich, red, full, yet ready for the reaping.28 The play sets the construction of value in the lady, dramatizing a worth to her objective presence in stages of absence, reported return, and actual appearance. It then reveals the force of her value and presence in the repair of Lear, which will survive further losses, including that of the lady herself. She returns to go about her royal father's business and reapplies Luke 2:49 by subsuming in her “simples” the work of ideology in family, state, and belief (4.4.14, 23-24). Her character is at once value and value's instrument.29

A new power in that healing shows in the aftermath of defeat as feudal chivalry is put to one side. We are left to wonder whether Shakespeare's feudalism works as a sign of bourgeois progress or as a dramatic frame for tragedy. We may even conclude that historical approaches, whether that of a history of ideas or that of a new cultural materialism, overvalue not the fact but the role of feudalism in the play.30 There may be some sense in following the lead of the characters. Lear does not regard this lost battle as he once did the loss of his knights, and we attribute the difference not just to the reductions experienced on the heath but also to the mingled strengths and tenderness given by Cordelia's love: her emotions fill the spaces opened and exhausted on the heath. He has been—and will be again—“child-changed” (4.7.17). There may be traces of escapism in the lyrical speech beginning “Come, let's away to prison” (5.3.8). Its assertive energies and purpose, however, stand in contrast to the weak, uncertain questionings in 4.7. Not so much distracted as prudent, it is the oblique, coded speech necessary before triumphant power.31 One of “Gods' spies” (l. 17), distinct from Oswald, Tom, and Kent, Lear can speak to divine methods with an assurance that is resonant and vernacular, finding strange virtues in this necessity. Most kings enjoy a power over prisons; this one enjoys his power within and against the cage.32

Upon such sacrifices, my Cordelia,
The Gods themselves throw incense. Have I caught thee?
He that parts us shall bring a brand from heaven,
And fire us hence like foxes. Wipe thine eyes;
The good years shall devour them, flesh and fell,
Ere they shall make us weep: we'll see 'em starv'd first.

(5.3.20-26, emphasis added)

One can set Lear's two earlier speeches banishing and recognizing Cordelia against this farewell to power that invites new bonds of intimacy constructed in speech. Even programmatic skeptics toward large claims for language might allow that one could speak for two here. A new authority in the king emerges in this speech to Cordelia. Something is “caught” in his discourse, despite defeat and prison. What it means to win and lose is now in process of reconfiguring.

The failure of public speech and understanding in Act 1 is past. These two begin to share an imagination of sacrifice that ranges from heaven to fox burrows and across the good years that devour. The point is tone, not prediction; an uncanny poise of force and gentleness in which, although she says nothing—a strange prolepsis—we may hear the lady's silent acceptance shaped in the address to her. Along with 4.3's Gentleman, Lear also talks for two. The king's speech is a harbinger—not the end but closer to the end than the plot is yet. Character effects—a rhythmical shifting of singular pronouns to plural—impart a sense of Lear's stand against the cosmos. Invoked sacrifices lead to mysterious images of our triumph in providentia edax: “the good years shall devour them.” We are left uncertain, as we are later in the scene, of the exact referents of pronouns and thus of the vocalized space that is set for us. Lear's language no longer divides the kingdom for others; it establishes a special space for his and his daughter's understanding. Feudalism establishes bonds of service that carry authority due to an ordering of classes and property by means of kinship hierarchies and personal dependence. King Lear explores sacrificial transformations that disclose through subjectivities of speech a new and objective authority. Lear's power rests in his speech, not in “champains rich'd” (1.1.64). His tones claim a vernacular emphasis quite new to him, although the accent took hold gradually in Acts 3 and 4. On seeing Gloucester in 4.6, he offered advice that seemed to amalgamate the experiences of both men: “What! art mad? A man may see how this world goes with no eyes. Look with thine ears” (ll. 151-52). Lear takes his own advice in Act 5. His eyes and voice disclose together, beyond the pain of loss, the rough shapes of sacred violence.33 Yet this play does not allow private reconstructions to go unchallenged. However we may understand any testing agency ourselves, one appears in this play with terrifying economy and precision. This couple has been caught and shall be parted. An attractive character has had his own timely thoughts about the devouring to be done. As Lear and Cordelia exit under guard, Edmund signals to his captain and, by echoing “the old and miserable King” (5.3.47), extends the metrical line that Lear began: “Come hither, captain; hark. / Take thou this note” (ll. 27-28). The time is ripe for a brief lecture on tendermindedness and men who are swords—but it is delivered to a mercenary who is willing to hang a young woman in front of her father. Charity will later extend itself quite differently to Edmund. Here the postwar executions begin with an unattractive, banal exchange on postfeudal service—an administrator's act of passing on a letter and a chore.


And the truth is, one can't write directly about the soul. Looked at, it vanishes. …34

King Lear does not advance a single or unitary notion of literary character. It allows us to see characters made and unmade. A king is maddened but restored, only to face defeat, imprisonment, release, and stages of dying. The unmaking can be done verbally or violently, as a function of cultural practice or of physical assault. Cordelia's place in Britain goes as quickly, as savagely, as Gloucester's eyes. Throughout the play, we need to recall that Lear is the first to presage her death. In disowning her, his imagination inaugurates horror.

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 to my bosom
Be as well neighbour'd, pitied, and reliev'd,
As thou my sometime daughter.


We can read the Marlovian simile one way before syntax adjusts sense to make Cordelia, not Lear, the savage cannibal. We may further note the peculiar form of high speaking that is involved in this citation of a helpless daughter for her supposed savagery. It is not simply that an error is made here. Lear's speech reveals him as fully capable of evil—the evil of Tamburlaine, lord of “these barbarous Scythians,” who made his own child nothing, and who is present here as an allusive, usurping voice that reverberates, against historical time, within the British king's words.35

Lear will be held to account for this disfathering voice that invokes, if only by simile, the monsters to come. He must know the force of “disclaim” in the feudal vocabulary of renouncing lordship, although he cannot know the parallel between what he does to Cordelia and what he is doing to himself. The irony in his speech is that the behavior attributed to Cordelia seems, in the gender and violence of his chosen figure, all the more his own. In one or another reading of “generation,” Lear seems determined to interrupt and unmake his creation.36 The simile of the “barbarous Scythian” seems at first to align him with the man who “makes his generation messes.” A surprise lies in turning from the three verbs of kindness to the brutal equation of Cordelia with that barbarity—the rhetorically dramatized consequence of being disclaimed by the king. The primitive fury stated here with deliberate and measured pace, Latinate diction, and calculated simile is—and ought to be—frightening. The voice is that of the savage father, wrathful beyond cause, demolishing all of the shelters of law and civilized existence as he learnedly denies his own child and, of course, himself. The agent of horror can be legitimate authority or not, a dragon or a dog in office. It makes little change: bodies, like kingdoms, were made to be torn apart, and other bodies are there to do what the captain terms, with brutal casualness, “man's work” (5.3.40).37

There is a large difference, to be sure, between bodies and characters. This is clear with Gloucester, who does not begin to see until after his eyes have been put out. Lear, in turn, is thrust into the “eyeless rage” of the storm (3.1.8), but his eye of anguish can discover a new vision of Cordelia. Yet there should be no quick assumption that new visions are necessarily desirable. Lear must move relentlessly from seeing the child restored as a royal lady to viewing the strangled woman “dead as earth”—Cordelia's character reduced to no more than the body of his sometime daughter (4.7.70; 5.3.261). At the end, he is beyond all issues of feudalism—not because society does not matter but because, as society's head, he has already broken the bonds of blood, neighborliness, and pity. Feudalism ceases to operate as an image for social structure at his own behest. All come crying hither, and no one in King Lear can alter this condition of birth beyond tears that part, like guests or jewels, from eyes of anguish.

Lear can anticipate madness. He can imagine a long imprisonment, provided Cordelia is there. Her actual death is another matter. His imperious temperament still expresses itself in absolute judgment: “I know when one is dead, and when one lives; / She's dead as earth” (5.3.260-61). But temper is now swayed by an intense love—one reconstructed from fury, madness, and exhaustion. Lear searches for Cordelia's life with things as slight as a looking glass, a feather, or his own dull eyes, hoping for “a chance which does redeem all sorrows / That ever I have felt” (ll. 66-67). We must be struck by such contrasts of frailty and subjective intensity, as Lear does find a woman whose value has been repaired and restored at a cost not less than everything. She is now everything but alive, and his judgment wrestles with this disproportion of all and nothing, juggling in his words a hierarchy of queen and missing fool.38

And my poor fool is hang'd! No, no, no life!
Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life,
And thou no breath at all? Thou'lt come no more,
Never, never, never, never, never!


What value could come to something poor, absent, dead? How can so little earth on a map be worth so much?—no less than all the sorrows of an antic majesty, redeemed perhaps but not yet ended. His speech contracts from “no life” to “no breath at all” and then to “no more.” It is destitution's language; all ceremonies of distinction vanish with Cordelia's last absence, and what remains is ordinary or worse—dog, horse, rat. This is an agony of dying, one of such force that the negations, augmented in the Folio, are simultaneously denials and acceptances of “no life” and “Thou'lt come no more.” The half-brothers' struggle—a feudal contest of trial by sword and combat—is completely outdone, and within seconds the questions asked of Cordelia will apply as well to this speaker. Set in climactic position, the deaths of these two characters are given a greater significance than the conflicts of national armies or the ritual contests of the brother-knights. Historical events and institutions, all arbitrations by sword, are subordinated to privileged characters and character relationships—everything that the new historicism argues is off-center in such literature. Should constructed characters of royalty so center and command the field of history? The daughter speaks with “no breath” to her anguished father; Kent declares that he “must not say no” to a silent call heard only in his ear of loyal service (l. 322). Can meaning's “something yet” ever come from so near nothing? Can history simply declare itself a privileged form of new or old interpretation and tell us what he might have heard? Now as then, Cordelia speaks only to awakened ears as the soundless voice of gentle ways, the softest mystery in all things. Her silence is not the feminine submissiveness that Catherine Belsey hears, for the quality of her voice has passed to Lear as an authoritative sign of her rule in his ethical growth. To trace the limits on individual character in this play, we must study the interplay of its characters and not just the paradigms of social structure.39

Ethical judgment in King Lear arises from and returns to literary character. Each is matrix to the other. It is not a matter of a moral allegory or a Greek etymology but a view of dramatic action. Drama allows us to watch a process in which the construction of character cannot be separated from the judgments made by the characters about one another. Plot is not the only binding; we see that ethos is ethics. Lear's first address to Cordelia concerns his “joy” in her, but that is a love understood according to elements of hierarchy, competitions of kingdoms or sisters, and the property wealth of nations. He stages spectacles—first for the British court, then for neighbor rulers—as his desires interess the presumed greed of all.40 He can mention love, but Cordelia must speak for opulence, for rich lands in Britain and in France or Burgundy. As king and father, Lear defines her character as a subject-daughter: she must, in nature, want what his speech dictates. His pride swells as he gauges the worth of his “last” and “least” to fertile nations elsewhere. The command to speak introduces what should astonish all: that when this British king divides, more is created. It is no simple weighing of dukes and their moieties. His least is indeed most, as the powers of France and Burgundy await the verbal aptitude of a youngest daughter. Her speech is supposed to delight Lear, then re-map Europe. We watch a royal father who gives away his kingdom but tries to control the gift, who gives away his last daughter but makes that gift contingent on his command over her. The treatment of Cordelia replicates the treatment of the kingdom, as the use of heraldic crops and geographical titles to identify her two suitors makes clear.

                                                                                                                                  … Now, our joy,
Although our last, and least; to whose young love
The vines of France and milk of Burgundy
Strive to be interess'd; what can you say to draw
A third more opulent than your sisters? Speak.


The nothing of Cordelia's silence reveals the failure in Lear's speech, which has demanded that her voice fulfill ideological purposes. Imperial calculations like these are absent from Lear's last speeches, although kingdoms remain at stake and the speaker can show his old temper. Cordelia no longer stands before and against him; she is nearer yet more distant. From her, still his center, he asks little: nothing formal, a short stay, a soft voice before the return to killing thoughts. The sequences of impotence and power in his address are rapid, intense.

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


As if beyond hearing him, “Cordelia” seems to move away. The effect rests in a turn from “thou say'st” to “Her voice” in line 272, as the dead body holds mimetic place onstage. Spaces open from his gestures of language, as intimacy suddenly generates—where no one is—a tiny dialogue of I and thou across a linguistic distance to death. Does one invoke Buber or Bakhtin here: the dialogue as a structure of intense, intimate relationships or as a structure of radical differences conjoined?41 The gentle speaker and the murdered hangman join in the king's sentences: one death easily given, the other impossible to tell. Yet both figures have crossed to an undiscovered country whose nearest border is mapped by this final juncture of bent age and a least body. It is obvious to say that the play replaces Act 1's literal map with one that must be intuited, less obvious to urge that the second map is one of language, one that can chart the spaces between the ferocity of the finite verb in line 274 and the desperate tendermindedness of the last personal pronoun of renewed address to the hanged woman.

This point concerns Lear no less than Cordelia, his own lips as well as hers, and the way he speaks about her “now she's gone for ever.” The fate of the hangman reminds us—and Lear—of the persistent, violent energies of the warrior-king. Edmund's sense of the times is not distant from this “good”: “I have seen the day, with my good biting falchion / I would have made them skip” (ll. 276-77). All the more remarkable, then, is the juxtaposition of another ethical character within the dramatic character's speech. This character is also Lear, but it has been constructed in the course of the play, as if being follows on speech. It has emerged after a natural schooling—in wild weather and in the abyss of madness. Howlings of storm and man still to a deep quiet. In this new character and experience, Lear can speak yet listen for the softest of gentle and low voices. Cordelia's asides in Act 1 would be marked now. Her softness is not the king's tonic register, but he has learned to speak within it and to hear it.42 He seeks Cordelia's voice in his question, glosses her silence as her custom, and deflects the fact of her hanging into his execution of Edmund's “sword.” In Lear's own voice we find the changes worked by this child who can speak no more, as Lear performs her voice before “her” body. A strange dialogue across existential spaces and times joins two different characters, preserving a difference in speech yet folding the two voices into the one body of the king.

This is not, though brief, an event without context. In 4.7, when Cordelia bent over Lear's exhausted face, she could see there, despite her absence and a reported reliance on letters, the storm and heath of Act 3.

                                                                                          … Was this a face
To be oppos'd against the warring winds?
To stand against the deep dread-bolted thunder?
In the most terrible and nimble stroke
Of quick, cross lightning? to watch—poor perdu!—
With this thin helm?


Oddly, her gentle voice reproduced his voicing of the winds: the characters reunite in shared speech. A stylistic joining of epithets, battle imagery, and a foreign term allows us to register the presence as well as the absence of the lady at the play's center. It must be a British princess and now a French queen who joins these two languages to lament her unconscious father—lost, then seen in marks on a page, now found in sleeping ruin: “poor perdu.” From his face she seems to read and hear the terrible sights and sounds of cosmic battle. Her gentleness and absence form no obstacle to understanding his great loss, which is summoned from the past in a near-Marlovian echo of a more distant struggle and a very different face.43 In 5.3 positions reverse as Lear scans his daughter's face. Others tried to interpret Cordelia for him in Act 1; he assumes that role here as his right, whether as father or as king. His reiteration of “ever” transmutes his loss (“gone for ever”) into her enduring excellence (“ever soft”). The first silence is no longer “nothing”; what the angry father then disclaimed he now gives back in gentleness, her voice plaited within his own. Near death himself, yet still on watch within his thin helm, he completes a circle begun in Act 4, preserving in his speech the ever-soft voice of the absent-present dead, the character who is and is not there either at the play's center or at its end.44

The ethical value of Lear's speech is located in three emergent traits of dramatic character. The first is flexibility. An otherwise inflexible man assumes another voice radically different from his own. In the process, he alters his violently expressed opinions about his least daughter and her sex. He racks himself into tolerance, stretching his character by taking hers on. The second is acknowledgment. At the moment of death, Cordelia's presence is recognized as a value of utmost worth. Her body must be returned to the stage by the old man himself. After howling, he must bend over, cajole her into speech, and acknowledge the fact of her death and the equal fact of his passionate need for her life. The third is reciprocity. It presupposes the first two but goes beyond them while twining them together. In imitating and characterizing the voice of Cordelia, Lear returns that voice to her in desperate gift and compliment. Her ripe lip repaired and restored him to social exchange. His deictic rhetoric concentrates final attention on her: “Do you see this? Look on her, look, her lips, / Look there, look there!” (5.3.310-11). “[T]his” is “there” in all ripe presence and reverberation, much more than can be said; and the corollary of such ripeness, now “autumn's dust” (4.6.199), is a last reaping on a site anciently named a seeing place.45 The mysteries of entwined lives meet in this accounting of eyes and voices, opening the terrible spaces in a dialogue of one. He looks, speaks, to her lips, there, “there.”

Shakespeare phrases Lear's words so that no one shall see as much as the king commands. We are told to look, and we are left. We can, however, see what he says and read there the values in a committed attentiveness that bonds ethics and character in the play's eponymous construction. The ethical point of real importance is not whether Lear is deluded as he dies.46 It is rather the register and quality of his voice as he attends his daughter before he dies, his voice sinking toward hers as toward a shelter. No theory or law, however powerful, gives access to this site. There is no hovel or vault that stage or film can show us. It is the verbal space between characters that separates as it bonds them on a terrain of meanings. It is the unnerving sense in Shakespearean drama of an intense subjectivity showing its back above the language that it lives in. A gesture of direction is made, “Look there,” and we reach it—there is no other way—by means of the ripe lip, simples, and soft voice of interpretation.47 Death may end the lady but not other locations for her voice. The value of Cordelia is now a function in Lear's speech, a last “trick of that voice” (Gloucester's phrase at 4.6.109), as if dramatic language could show, well beyond both bodies and characters, a transpersonal soul or (in terms less metaphysical) an ethical bond to a remembered voice. It is, as the gentleman said of the absent Cordelia, a becoming sorrow, “a rarity most belov'd.” Subjectivity is sensed most sharply not inside one character but in the intervals disclosed by the verbal response of one character to another's silence. H. P. Grice coined the term implicature to refer to the influence of context on formations of unstated meaning. In King Lear, implicature locates subjectivity powerfully within the spaces between speech and dead silence.48 Context allows us to hear Cordelia in King Lear, and that response from us completes the protagonist-king's command.

Characters mean marks and subjects of difference. Shakespeare constructs and positions them to reveal the palpable gaps in between—joining; interessing; investing as though with rights, values, being—those same literary constructions that remain different yet so remarkably combined in dramatic speech, death, and closure. It is not that any one character per se defines meaning but that characters, stable or changing, have agencies to perform in constructing those complex meanings that plays supply. They are agencies that audiences do and theories should aim to read.49 The notion of an essential self may well be delusory. It may also be a red herring. There is no cognate relation between the philosophical concept and the literary construction, and the former's powers of delusion only increase if invoking them can direct attention away from Shakespeare's inventions of character and the extraordinary relations between their sustaining words. We repeatedly watch characters start out as données yet end as achievements, and such achievements only heighten the interplay of pattern and distinction in structures of language, character, and drama. When King Lear describes Cordelia as a voice—soft, gentle, low—he also redescribes himself, binds a constant of her character to his own, and enacts some small measure of the freedom to complete change at King Lear's ending. In the midst of “general woe” (5.3.319), a cracking and tearing of all given bonds, he performs something remarkable yet next to nothing, a shift of phrase and tone in four lines: “Few words, but, to effect, more than all yet” (3.1.52). The achievement may be slight in various schemes of judgment, including some within the play, but interpretations of it can still reward the effort.50 “Look with thine ears” was Lear's mad counsel to the blind earl (4.6.152), and the end of the play shows the king observing his own advice. What would it mean if we did not or could not listen? That the voice was not there? Or too soft for sleepers to hear? Even Nietzsche—the notable thunderer of my epigraph—knew to listen for soft sounds and a gentle voice. …


  1. Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra: A Book for All and None, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: The Modern Library, 1995), 93.

  2. Christy Desmet situates character in the context of theory; see Reading Shakespeare's Characters: Rhetoric, Ethics, and Identity (Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1992), 3-58. See also J. Leeds Barroll, Artificial Persons: The Formation of Character in the Tragedies of Shakespeare (Columbia: U of South Carolina P, 1974); and Lawrence Manley, Convention 1500-1750 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1980), 106-33. Richard Lanham defines the rhetorical terms in A Handlist of Rhetorical Terms, 2d ed. (Berkeley: U of California P, 1991), 111 and 123.

  3. Maynard Mack treats an opposite arrangement: “umbrella speeches, [under which] … more than one consciousness may shelter” (“The Jacobean Shakespeare” in Jacobean Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon Studies 1 [London: Edward Arnold, 1960], 26). Mack states his purpose modestly as a revision of Bradley, but his notion of speech as a shelter for multiple consciousnesses suggests a new view of language rather than a revision of ideas about character. One should note that New Criticism and postmodern theory do share some views: e.g., on the limits of character criticism. My italicized phrase notices the somewhat different qualities of density (knotted) and emptiness (intervals) that concern me.

  4. Quotations of Lear follow the Arden Shakespeare King Lear, ed. Kenneth Muir (London: Methuen, 1952). Muir's is a composite text, based on the Folio with additions from the Quarto. I am grateful to the publishers of the Arden Shakespeare Third Series, who allowed me to see bound proofs of Reginald Foakes's forthcoming edition, King Lear (Walton-on-Thames, UK: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1997). Bringing to bear a thorough knowledge of the textual issues, Foakes has chosen to present a conflated text's “possible versions” (128). Quotations of all other Shakespeare plays follow the Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974).

  5. The classic case against nothing-but arguments is William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1985), 11-50; the reduction he counters: that religion is nothing but sexuality displaced. To say that character is nothing but marks on a page reduces an idea to its material display. William H. Gass offers the grammatical reduction: “Polonius, that foolish old garrulous proper noun” (“The Concept of Character in Fiction” in Fiction and the Figures of Life [New York: Knopf, 1970], 34-54, esp. 37). On the beholder's share that lets a noun age and talk foolishly, see E. H. Gombrich, Art and Illusion: A Study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation, rev. ed. (New York: Pantheon, 1965), 181-241. Bernard Harrison comments on Lear while discussing postmodern theory and kinds of truth in literature; see Inconvenient Fictions: Literature and the Limits of Theory (New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 1991), 54-61.

  6. Character is usually viewed as a literary device that represents effects of consciousness—senses of coherent interiority and depth. Harold Bloom declares Shakespearean inwardness canonical; see The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1994), 70-75. I do not deny such representation or its importance in Lear. I consider an awareness that seems to move among characters and not within one alone. “Thick description,” a term coined by Gilbert Ryle, is associated with Clifford Geertz's “Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture” (in Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays [New York: Basic Books, 1973], 3-30) and indicates accounts that are circumstantially specific and interpretive. By “an ‘anthropology’ of Lear's change,” I mean that change in Lear's character is best understood as a function of his bonds to others, especially Cordelia. I use the term more narrowly than Louis Adrian Montrose does in “The Purpose of Playing: Reflections on a Shakespearean Anthropology” (Helios n.s. 7 [1980]: 53-74) to refer to a dramatic refinement of kinship relations. His concern is with larger implications of ritual and symbol in theater and society.

  7. Paul de Man, for example, makes fragmentation a theoretical principle in his essay on Shelley's Triumph of Life; see “Shelley Disfigured” in Deconstruction and Criticism, Geoffrey Hartman et al., eds. (New York: Seabury, 1979), 39-73. De Man's closing abstractions assert a program of radical skepticism (68-69); in contrast, Shelley's richly figured terza-rima stanzas lead to a break-off question. The distinction lies between unfolding a theoretical argument of skepticism and a poetic rhetoric of interrogation.

  8. Desiderius Erasmus, On Copia of Words and Ideas, trans. Donald B. King (Milwaukee, WI: Marquette UP, 1963), 104. Kent likewise notes the value of brevity: “Few words, but, to effect, more than all yet” (3.1.52).

  9. Cf. “The end crowns all” (Troilus and Cressida, 4.5.224).

  10. According to Jonathan Dollimore's materialist reading of Lear, the play confirms the dictum that men are determined by the time; see Radical Tragedy, 2d ed. (Durham, NC: Duke UP, 1993), 196. He does not put the theory in any qualifying context: e.g., Edmund's own deviation from that time. At 1.2.124-40, Edmund mocks his father's sense of heaven's agency, as he would, no doubt, any similar dependence on history as an agent.

  11. Harold Bloom suggests that Edmund is attractive because he is at ease in the world and able to articulate it as his own; see Ruin the Sacred Truths (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1989), 77-79. Shakespearean character, Bloom argues, has come to model human nature; developing Chaucer, Shakespeare stages “the representation of change by showing people pondering their own speeches and being altered through that consideration” (54).

  12. Barbara Everett, “The New King Lear,” Critical Quarterly 2 (1960): 325-39. Her title takes in two meanings: a change in the king's character and a shift in interpretations of that change. She spots tendencies to Christianize Lear's suffering, opposing to them her vitalist sense of “forms of intense life” (338).

  13. S. L. Goldberg emphasizes “acknowledgement” and the limits to meaning in An Essay on King Lear (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1974), 30-34, 174, and 190. I admire this account but find a greater possibility for meaning in Lear's sense of Cordelia's voice than Goldberg's essay allows. See also Emmanuel Levinas, Outside the Subject, trans. Michael B. Smith (Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 1993), 121-25 and 34. Levinas adopts tropes of “the face” and “face-to-face” encounters to express issues of subjectivity and intersubjectivity.

  14. See Paul Ricoeur, “Self as Ipse” in Freedom and Interpretation: The Oxford Amnesty Lectures, 1992, Barbara Johnson, ed. (New York: Basic Books, 1993), 103-19.

  15. It is formally neat as well as ethically appalling that Edmund is responsible for the deaths of all three daughters. Stephen Booth finds the proper end of the play in the deaths of Edmund, Goneril, and Regan (the end in poetic justice?) and declares the deaths of Cordelia and Lear to be “culminating events of [Shakespeare's] story” that take place “after his play is over” (King Lear, Macbeth, Indefinition, and Tragedy [New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 1983], 11). I am uncertain about the value of distinguishing between play and story.

  16. See Harley Granville-Barker, Prefaces to Shakespeare I (London: Sidgwick and Jackson, 1927), 133-231; and Stephen Greenblatt, Learning to Curse: Essays in early modern culture (New York: Routledge, 1990), 98. For a severe circularity that omits Act 4's reunion, see Jonathan Goldberg, “Shakespearean Inscriptions: The Voicing of Power” in Shakespeare and the Question of Theory, Patricia Parker and Geoffrey Hartman, eds. (New York: Methuen, 1985), 116-37.

  17. Paul J. Alpers offers an interesting critique of the New Criticism; see “King Lear and the Theory of the ‘Sight Pattern’” in In Defense of Reading, Reuben A. Brower and Richard Poirier, eds. (New York: Dutton, 1963), 133-52. Alpers argues that treating metaphors as primary data (in place of characters and actions) yields unwarranted equations; images of sight (a function of metaphor) are made to represent insight (a function of character). Patterns of imagery intensify instead character bonds, “man's actual dealings with other men” (138). Postmodernists, however, might question any designation of character as primary with respect to other uses of literary language. The issue is whether literary study can accept categories other than those of language, whether hierarchies of categories are possible or useful.

  18. These lines appear in F only (without exclamation point). They concentrate Lear's attention on Cordelia and move forward the moment of his death. Kent's reference to “the rack [“wracke”] of this tough world” (l. 313) follows as choral commentary. In Q the death and choral commentary coincide, turning attention from Lear and Cordelia to Lear and Kent. Q thus lacks the intensity of structure in F. The treatment of death as a visual or theatrical experience is established by the managed suicide in 4.6.

  19. Beginning with Alpers's distinction between language and character, Stanley Cavell argues that King Lear avoids recognitions and thus love. A subargument treats character change; another considers what it means to acknowledge a person. Cavell treats character experience atomistically; he discusses Lear's recognition of Cordelia but not, as a part of that experience, Cordelia's response to her father. Cavell's general view of the play excludes responsiveness and exchange; see “The Avoidance of Love” in Must we mean what we say? (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1976), 267-353.

  20. F gives woman; Q, women. It is worthwhile to consider both words in competition for textual space and the differences they suggest about general character. Editorial selection on display yields a richer end than does strict separation—here a generic, not a plural, term, marking Cordelia's constitutive power. Such work with a conflated text and its apparatus can show the text to be more than marks on a page yet not mystify its origins.

  21. Maud Bodkin's well-known treatment of archetypes emphasizes a pattern of heroic suffering in the father, an emphasis that obscures Cordelia's role in returning to vary the pattern of paternal suffering; see Archetypal Patterns in Poetry: Psychological Studies of Imagination (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1934), 15-17 and 272-76.

  22. For Elder Olson, France's sketch of Cordelia as a value in herself anticipates Lear's final intuition; see Tragedy and the Theory of Drama (Detroit, MI: Wayne State UP, 1961), 207-9. The conflict between Lear and Cordelia, he argues, lies between a feudal lord's asking for one kind of love and a family member's understanding of love not as formal pledge but as unspoken trust. Cordelia dies so that Lear can learn familial love; he dies in sign of the lesson learned. At 1.1.160, Rowe added the stage direction that has Lear reach for his sword.

  23. Cordelia's death enacts Kent's point and turns her sisters' early lies to her late truths. Goneril asserted “A love that makes breath poor and speech unable”; Regan claimed that Goneril names her deeds: “In my true heart / I find she names my very deed of love; / Only she comes too short” (1.1.60, 70-72). The older sisters' speeches are validated by the youngest's silence. Cf. Harry Berger Jr., “King Lear: The Lear Family Romance” in Making Trifles of Terrors: Redistributing Complicities in Shakespeare (Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 1997), 25-49, esp. 46-49.

  24. Such reporting scenes include Pericles, 1.4; Cymbeline, 1.1, 2.4, and 5.3; and The Winter's Tale, 1.1 and 5.2. Sidney's Arcadia is a source for this passage in Lear (see Muir, ed., 161n).

  25. Sheldon Zitner dislikes the high style's “emptiness” and “pasteboard prettiness” (“King Lear and Its Language” in Some Facets of King Lear: essays in prismatic criticism, Rosalie L. Colie and F. T. Flahiff, eds. [Toronto: Toronto UP, 1974], 6). These qualities—under other names perhaps?—are relevant to dramatic function in a sequence from description to appearance to act. Patricia Fumerton, for example, links uses of adornment to “the rise of the self” (Cultural Aesthetics: Renaissance Literature and the Practice of Social Ornament [Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1991], 28). Marianne Novy traces an imagery of tears to develop themes of pity, mutuality, and forgiveness and comments acutely on Lear's description of Cordelia's voice in relation to issues of femininity and patriarchy; see Love's Argument: Gender Relations in Shakespeare (Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1984), 158-63.

  26. Ernst H. Kantorowicz shows not only the constructedness of character but a full awareness and use of the issue in medieval discourse. He traces distinctions between the monarch's political and natural persons or bodies, beginning his influential study of medieval political theology with Richard II; see The King's Two Bodies: A Study in Medieval Political Theology (Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1957). In The Poetics of Primitive Accumulation: English Renaissance Culture and the Genealogy of Capital (Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1991), Richard Halpern approaches the issue through a neomarxist economics, studying “the divorce between the signs and the material realities of royal power” (220). Constructedness, one concludes, is not an unconditioned idea; to own significance, it needs a specified historical context. To point out that an entity is constructed cannot by itself fix (or unfix) meaning, since construction is precisely the manner of creating meaning.

  27. There is a marked orality to family relations in King Lear. One can give, deny, withhold, or destroy love by acts of voice, mouth, or lips. On fantasies of passivity and sadism in the oral phase of development, see Norman N. Holland, The Dynamics of Literary Response (New York: Oxford UP, 1968), 34-38. F makes Cordelia the medical figure, replacing the Doctor with a Gentleman; see Foakes's Arden edition, 349n.

  28. The etymology of ripe includes Old English rip (harvest) and ripan (to reap, harvest). Cordelia describes Lear “crown'd” with weeds and sends a search party to “the high-grown field” (4.4.3, 7). For repair and rich, see Gloucester to Tom/Edgar (4.1.76-77). Spenser's account of King Leyr (reprinted in Muir, ed., 237-38) traces patterns of restoration, ripeness, and death; it ends, after the king's death, with Cordelia's overthrow and suicide by hanging. Redemptive readings of the Lear story antedate not only Bradley and New Criticism but also Shakespeare's tragedy.

  29. Muir, ed., cites Luke 2:49 (166n). Cordelia's shift of reference to an earthly father is one part of her mediating work. Harold C. Goddard studies Cordelia's work of repair in The Meaning of Shakespeare (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1951), 522-57, esp. 541-49. For a compressed account of materialist ideology in Lear, see Terry Eagleton, William Shakespeare (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1986), 76-83.

  30. Studies of the play have treated feudalism variously. For a valuable contrast between the history of ideas and the new historicism, see Rosalie L. Colie, “Reason and Need: King Lear and the ‘Crisis’ of the Aristocracy” in Colie and Flahiff, eds., 185-219; and Halpern, 215-69. We may debate whether Shakespeare's feudalism works primarily as a historical topic or as an artistic device to image historical settings of character. Is chivalry put aside a sign of bourgeois progress, a dramatic frame for tragedy, or some admixture? On the problems of using Foucault and Stone in commentary on Shakespeare, see David Cressy, “Foucault, Stone, Shakespeare and Social History,” ELR 21 (1991): 121-33.

  31. Annabel Patterson shifts the study of censorship from a censor's work to the author's mediation of living with censorship; see Censorship and Interpretation: The Conditions of Writing and Reading in Early Modern England (Madison, WI: U of Wisconsin P, 1984). The point extends to characterization. Censorship becomes an issue in the play if one takes Lear's speech as imagining a new life within conditions of imprisonment.

  32. Marlowe provides a model for powerful helplessness. Bajazeth gains rhetorical power within Tamburlaine's cage, where he is held with his wife for the spectacle of two onstage imperial suicides; see Tamburlaine I in Christopher Marlowe, The Complete Plays, ed. J. B. Steane (Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1969), 4.4 and 5.2. Lear redirects atrocity in Act 5 toward the savaged emotional bonds between father and daughter, suggesting that the real prison and torture are a world without Cordelia: “he hates him,” Kent states, “That would upon the rack of this tough world / Stretch him out longer” (5.3.313-15).

  33. René Girard's work on the relationship of violence to the sacred bears importantly on King Lear; see Violence and the Sacred, trans. Patrick Gregory (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1979). A complex rite of sacrifice, the play reveals bewildering, abrupt acts of substitution and violent displacement. Lear's language shows him at last to be ripe for a true ceremony of surrendering the kingdom in death. On the use of the pronouns thou and you in Lear, see Randolph Quirk, “Shakespeare and the English Language” in A New Companion to Shakespeare Studies, Kenneth Muir and S. Schoenbaum, eds. (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1971), 67-82, esp. 70-72; and Alessandro Serpieri, “Reading the signs: towards a semiotics of Shakespearean drama,” trans. Keir Elam, in Alternative Shakespeares, John Drakakis, ed. (London: Methuen, 1985), 119-43.

  34. Virginia Woolf, A Writer's Diary: Being Extracts from the Diary of Virginia Woolf, ed. Leonard Woolf (London: The Hogarth Press, 1953), 85.

  35. Marlowe heightens the cruelty of his barbarous Scythian in Tamburlaine II. The captured Olympia utters this phrase while killing her son to preserve him from worse tortures (3.4.19); Tamburlaine kills his first son for failing the father's heroic standards (4.1.105-39). On earlier dramatic forms in Shakespeare, see Howard Felperin, Shakespearean Representation: Mimesis and Modernity in Elizabethan Tragedy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1977), 12-43.

  36. Muir, ed., gives examples of usages in which generation can mean parents rather than offspring (11n). Lear may intend a shock at the emergence of the former meaning.

  37. If one considers the work of Goneril and Regan, an irony attends the phrase “man's work.” Elaine Scarry's discussion of the body in pain offers valuable reading beside King Lear; see The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1985). See also Caroline Spurgeon, Shakespeare's Imagery (Boston: Beacon Press, 1958), 338-39. On the range of Lear's voice in the physical space of the theater, see Daniel Seltzer, “King Lear in the Theater” in On King Lear, Lawrence Danson, ed. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1981), 163-85, esp. 178-85.

  38. Muir summarizes various speculations about Lear's use of “fool” for Cordelia; e.g., Armin, playing the Fool, may have doubled as Cordelia (see Muir, ed., 217n). Sidney objected to kings and fools on the same stage; see Sir Philip Sidney, An Apology for Poetry, ed. Geoffrey Shepherd (London: T. Nelson, 1965), 135. Lear's king is called a fool by a fool; later, with a new tone and meaning, the king directs the term to his daughter.

  39. A principal aim of new-historicist critique is to “decenter” the subject, to remove it from an unfounded place of privilege in the interest of redressing power. New historicism's understanding of a work is thus frequently shaped by ideologies of power and victimization. Alvin Kernan offers a “Whitehall” reading of divine-right theory in King Lear, a sly marriage of the often-anathematized Tillyard to new historicism; see Shakespeare, the King's Playwright: Theater in the Stuart Court, 1603-1613 (New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 1995). On the softness of Cordelia's voice as a sign of feminine submissiveness, see Catherine Belsey, The Subject of Tragedy: Identity and Difference in Renaissance Drama (London: Methuen, 1985), 178. The issue of literary centering (e.g., on constructed characters) returns us to what Aristotle might mean by his observation that literature is more philosophical or universal (not simply abstract but putative, counterfactual, speculative) than history; see Poetics, trans. W. Hamilton Fyfe (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1927), 34-39.

  40. The Latin term interesse acquired technical meanings in property law: to invest someone with a right to or share in something; to admit to a privilege. The word occurs in F (1623) but not in Q (1608).

  41. See Martin Buber, I and Thou, trans. Ronald Gregor Smith (New York: Scribner's, 1958), 1-11; and Mikhail Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination, ed. Michael Holquist, trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist (Austin: U of Texas P, 1981), 259-422.

  42. Clifford Geertz points to the ethical dilemma of the anthropologist when recording yet thereby appropriating another's voice; see After the Fact: Two Countries, Four Decades, One Anthropologist (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1995), 128-30. Literature generally, and drama in particular, offer significant violations of this code. Lear's appropriation of Cordelia's voice, however, seems to carry the significance of ethical perception rather than asserted power.

  43. Cordelia echoes Lear's language on the heath. The letters referred to in 4.3 lead one to expect her knowledge of wind, thunder, and lightning, but she adopts as well his epithets (3.2.1-9) and compound epithets (3.1.11, Q only). We are shown the storm as a continuing function in Lear's mind that Cordelia can read, speak, and calm. Perdu entered English in the French phrase sentinelle perdue—an exposed or forward and hazardous sentinel post (or the sentinel himself). Such a post was the position of a scout or spy; hence the link of “poor perdu” to “God's spies” (5.3.17). Cordelia's use holds the military sense as well as the sense of exposure to the elements. For Marlowe's Faustus and Helen's face, see Doctor Faustus in Steane, ed., 5.1.97-103. René Weis notes the allusion and F's abbreviation of this speech in King Lear: A Parallel Text Edition (London and New York: Longman, 1993), 269n.

  44. Marjorie Garber discusses the equation of silence with death and Freud's use of Shakespeare; see “Freud's choice: ‘The Theme of the Three Caskets’” in Shakespeare's Ghost Writers: Literature as uncanny causality (New York: Methuen, 1987), 74-86. Freud understood Lear's entrance carrying Cordelia as his act of carrying death to himself; I understand it as Lear's qualification of death by love. Cordelia is thus carried in an opposite direction to dying Edmund, an emblem with ethical and theatrical significance.

  45. Theater, from Greek théatron, a place for seeing, a theater; from theáomai, to view, gaze at, behold. On deictic rhetoric—language that articulates “the situation and … the space in which it is pronounced”—see Serpieri, 122.

  46. Muir asserts a complicated emotional process for Lear in which joy over seeming life in Cordelia causes his death, a belief that we can see as delusion (liii). Joseph Summers, in a line of argument near mine, revises this Bradleyan point, arguing that what Lear sees and what has life is what Cordelia has taught him about love; see “‘Look there, look there!’ The Ending of King Lear” in English Renaissance Studies, John Carey, ed. (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1980), 74-93. Summers traces convincingly the emotional rhythms of this discovery (92). Muir's view is seconded by Maynard Mack in King Lear in Our Time (Berkeley: U of California P, 1965), 114; Barroll, 250; and recently by R. A. Foakes in Hamlet versus Lear: Cultural Politics and Shakespeare's Art (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1993), 218-19. For criticism of this view, see Ian J. Kirby, “The Passing of King Lear,” Shakespeare Survey 41 (1989): 145-57.

  47. Getting the world right—and not merely interpreting it—is a traditional way of defining knowledge and philosophy. Considering the limitations of philosophy for ethical thought, Bernard Williams suggests analogies for similar limitations of other forms of theory in relation to interpretation; see Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1985). The point is not to deny theory—it is a strong form of interpretation—only to question claims of governance over all methods of interpretation, as if theory somehow stood outside or above interpretation.

  48. In arguing against Bradley's notion of a deceived joy, Kirby suggests that what Lear sees is not an illusion of renewed life but a departing-yet-summoning spirit (156-57). Susan Snyder studies the play in terms of Kübler-Ross's stages of dying; see “King Lear and the Psychology of Dying,” Shakespeare Quarterly 33 (1982): 449-60. She concludes that Lear and Cordelia die together and not as individuals; that the time lapse “allows Lear to do the impossible, to experience his own death and cry out against the terrible wrongness of it” (459). Roger Fowler introduces Grice's term, summarizes his argument, and provides a bibliography; see Linguistic Criticism, 2d ed. (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1996), 135-36 and 159.

  49. Jonathan Goldberg urges “the radical instability of character as a locus of meaning in the Shakespearean text” (“Textual Properties,” SQ 37 [1986]: 213-17, esp. 215). This claim may be true if one attempts to align particular meanings with particular characters. If one views a variety of characters as engaged in a process of constructing thick or clustered meanings, the case may seem less desperate, as Goldberg's discussion of Malvolio suggests.

  50. In view of such slightness, an objection might be put that I describe less than a change of character—merely a new element added to an existing character. Such an objection might encourage a review of basic terms—character, person, body, voice, change, event—and what we might expect of them in literary discussions of constructedness. I have found Bernard Williams especially helpful on physical qualities of a voice as mediations between body and character; see Problems of the Self: Philosophical Papers 1956-1972 (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1973), 11-12. Roland Barthes remarks on pleasures in “the grain of the voice” and “the articulation of the body, of the tongue”; his remarks suggest character's presence in the physical or material voice (The Pleasure of the Text, trans. Richard Miller [London: Jonathan Cape, 1975], 66-67).

Heather Neill (review date 1 June 2001)

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SOURCE: Neill, Heather. Review of King Lear. Times Educational Supplement, no. 4431 (1 June 2001): S24.

[In the following review of director Barry Kyle's King Lear at the Globe, Neil admires the “clarity” of the staging and highlights themes of family and political disintegration in the production.]

The Globe is transformed for this first production of the theatre season. A rough plank facing hides the familiar decorated back of the stage, and swags of fairy-lit leaves and twigs are looped around the galleries. The latter add to a sense of occasion, but not perhaps the right one, being too reminiscent of a high street shop window at Christmas. The rough boards are, however, in keeping with the directness of Barry Kyle's production.

The interlinked stories of the two families of Lear and Gloucester provide a means of exploring wider disintegration, the breakdown of authority and accepted sexual morality, madness and civil strife. In Kyle's interpretation, there is more than a hint that Lear's action in breaking up the kingdom and attempting to divest himself of responsibility merely reveals the canker within. Kyle has said (not in the programme notes) that he would like people to guess from their looks that each of Lear's daughters has a different mother. Gloucester's only reference to the two women who gave birth to his sons, legitimate Edgar and bastard Edmund, is that there was sport at Edmund's conception. The sexual chaos which is the corollary of the political disintegration is expressed in the changing behaviour of Lear's elder daughters, Goneril (Patricia Kerrigan) and Regan (Felicity Dean), both intent on seducing Edmund, as they change from buttoned-up respectability to bosom-revealing temptresses. For them, the spiral of death, torture and betrayal also represents a perverse liberation from the constraints of their father's household.

Julian Glover's Lear is a vigorous authoritarian, young for his 80 years. His performance is well crafted rather than moving. His clear verse-speaking serves the production well, clarity being its virtue.

The Globe has an effect on the play; the audience is such a presence there. Some critics have made much of the intervention of one voice which endangered concentration during the final scenes—an American woman who suggested that Edmund could have both mistresses—but for the rest of the time, young and old were focused on the action, helped by a judicious use of the yard.

When Edmund talks about his baseness he involves the groundlings around him and makes them complicit in his machinations. There is genuine humour in the play, which the production shows to advantage. John McEnery as the Fool, a wise, raddled figure who speaks with the voice of experience, is outstanding.

Bruce Weber (review date 2 November 2001)

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SOURCE: Weber, Bruce. Review of King Lear. New York Times (2 November 2001): E6.

[In the following review, Weber evaluates Jan Lauwers's 2001 experimental interpretation of King Lear, noting the production's deconstructive approach to language and summarizing individual performances.]

If poetry is crucial to your appreciation of Shakespeare, you can pass on the King Lear by the Belgian theater troupe Needcompany, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Harvey Theater through Sunday.

In fact, those who harbor expectations of any theatrical conventions at all would do well to abandon them before buying a ticket, lest the deconstructionist vision of the director, Jan Lauwers, drive them to the exits prematurely. Dozens of people at Wednesday night's opening performance obviously would have benefited from the warning.

With a trimmed script (the show runs just short of two and a half hours without intermission) and a cast of only 11 (two roles are doubled, with Josse De Pauw as Kent and the Fool and Dick Crane as Cornwall and Albany), the famous narrative of grueling parallel strife in a family and a kingdom is broken into barely recognizable shards.

That said, even accepting the counteraesthetics of deconstructionism, this Lear seems long on stridence and short on revelation. Speeches are sometimes declaimed at the audience, sometimes shared with other characters; scenes are staged to melt into each other or else merely end, with actors abruptly walking offstage or the lights blacking out.

Performed on a largely empty stage with a small, low platform front and center that is primarily a podium for Lear (Tom Jansen), the play is presented in three languages, mostly Dutch and intermittent English, though Cordelia (Carlotta Sagna, who is also the show's choreographer), in particular, is partial to French. English surtitles pass electronically overhead. The diminishment of language is purposeful, of course (though a poke in the eye nonetheless), and it is furthered by other factors. It isn't clear, for example, that all the actors who deliver their lines in English actually know what they're saying, and Gloucester (Simon Versnel), who spends most of the play seated in a chair at the front of the stage, is a mumbler.

In place of language and conventional character portrayal, which is also undermined, are other kinds of artifice. The show signals its nonverbal intentions with an introductory dance, and intermittent intervals of mere movement persist throughout; the silences in the production are striking. Ms. Sagna's choreography is full of repetitive body undulations that can grow so whippingly fierce that it appears the dancer is trying to separate her head from her neck; it is, in any case, abstract work.

Mr. Lauwers occasionally overlays the action with recorded music of an egregiously anachronistic ilk (an arch cover of “My Baby Does the Hanky Panky,” for example) and other effects; electronic static accompanies Lear's raging on the heath. The costumes have elements of the realistically modern. (In their dark suits, tieless, Lear and Kent look like a couple of paunchy executives after a wearying workday.) But they also include oblique signifiers.

Many of the characters, for example, wear layers of bright necklaces, and at the height of his madness, Lear dons a headdress of flowers and lowers his trousers. And should anyone not yet get the idea that disbelief should not be suspended, just before Gloucester is blinded by Cornwall, Hannibal Lecter-style with his teeth, Mr. Crane steps out of character, turns to the audience and says, “This next bit is impossible onstage,” incorporating an obscenity for good measure.

In such a production, assessing the performances is troublesome, to say the least, though I found myself paying close attention to Mr. Jansen, whose mien is authoritative, his anger fierce and his anguish terrifying. The lissome Ms. Sagna makes a calmly fetching Cordelia, a blonde, of course, against the dark-haired and angular witchiness of Regan (Anneke Bonnema) and Goneril (Grace Ellen Barkey). Mr. De Pauw, who seems ubiquitous onstage, donning and removing a jester's coxcomb to go along with his business suit and knit shirt, is appealing in his formality and understatement. Gloucester has a rather inactive role in this production; Mr. Versnel, a burly actor, purposely makes him into something of a potato sack, weary of life, a dead weight awaiting disposition. Mr. Crane plays the rival husbands of Regan and Goneril as disdainful twin punks. Wearing a kilt, Hans Petter Dahl makes a not terribly charismatic Edmund, and Misha Downey as a soft-spoken Edgar delivers his lines as if he had never studied acting and didn't understand why he should.

In such a production, you wait for resolving chaos, and in this, at least, there is no disappointment. Act V begins with an announcement by Mr. De Pauw, who shouts “Act Five” and then takes on the role of a stage prompter.

Seated at a table, he cries out the names of characters who are supposed to speak, but the lines remain unspoken as they flash by overhead. Meanwhile, amid cacophonous noise, an enveloping cloud of smoke and a hail of flashing lights, the other performers create a pastiche of apocalyptic riot, a fiercely angry ensemble dance that evokes a battlefield, a backstage rehearsal hall and an underground S-and-M club.

That the tragedy of King Lear evolves outward from family agony and that its widening gyre of enmity is world-threatening are not new ideas, but there is some satisfaction in this scene. Its energy is compelling, its ugliness esthetically pleasing and not just unruly. Indeed, its vision of humankind as being at the mercy of itself and its passionate divisions seems particularly appropriate now. After all the puzzling, impatient-making and willfully unbeautiful stagecraft that comes before, it at least makes sense.

Richard Hornby (review date winter 2002)

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SOURCE: Hornby, Richard. Review of King Lear. Hudson Review 54, no. 4 (winter 2002): 657-63.

[In the following review, Hornby comments on Barry Kyle's 2001 staging of King Lear at the Globe, acknowledging its excellent use of design and blocking, as well as Julian Glover's dynamic Lear.]

The salvation of the 2001 Globe season was the production of King Lear, starring Julian Glover, and directed by Barry Kyle, a former associate of the Royal Shakespeare Company who understands the principles of staging and knows a thing or two about Shakespeare. Designs were by Hayden Griffin, another distinguished professional in his Globe debut. His costumes—modern with antique variations—were particularly effective. This was not a reconstruction of what the original 1605 production might have been like—the idea of having one such production each season at the Globe fell by the wayside a few years ago—but a vigorous, contemporary rendering that used the Globe in imaginative, intelligent ways.

The opening love contest immediately showed Kyle's ability to seize the essence of a scene. It is, of course, yet another Shakespearean ceremony, made all the more poignant when it all falls awry. If it is staged casually, then Cordelia's loathing of the artificiality of the ritual will have no impact; she will just seem like a spoiled child sneering at her nice old dad. Kyle placed a large model of Britain (in place of the map mentioned in the text) at stage center, always an unwieldy place on any stage. (The term “dead center” expresses our feelings about central positioning in general.) It dominated the scene, heavy, ungainly, hard to get around, a constant reminder that the proceedings were off kilter.

Kent and Gloucester entered the stage first, talking to Edmund, who was perched on a high post out in the yard, dressed in rough modern work clothes. Both costume and staging thus established him as literally an outcast, different from the rest, and reveling in the differences. Describing this in words may make the staging sound too obvious, but in the flesh it worked, it spoke, especially for a scene that is itself highly conventional.

Lear then entered in military garb, plus a crown, and a robe decorated with feathers and fur. There was no doubt who was king here! (And when he cried “Take physic pomp!” in a later scene, we could remember what he was talking about.) Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia came in wearing lovely gray, silver, and white gowns. This again may sound obvious, but the play itself has the simple iconography of a fairy tale. (“Once upon a time, there was an old king with three daughters. The older two were wicked pretenders, but the youngest was loving and good.”) Furthermore, Cordelia wore glasses. The play is famous for its eyesight imagery; here, she is the sister who sees through Lear's affectations. Devices like this were not some kind of semaphore code, but simple, effective images that we could easily respond to.

Kyle continued to use the stage in an effective manner, using the two pillars supporting the heavens, the post in the yard, and simple mobile props, to articulate the space. Actors took positions rather than wandering aimlessly, so that places onstage took on meaning, like the outcast area of the post. Dead center stage was a static place, but upstage center became a frequent power point. Any position within the box formed by the back wall and the two pillars became private and distant, while any position outside became public, a place for interacting with the audience. Movements had purpose, as when Lear moved back and forth from Goneril to Regan in the scene where they are stripping him of his knights. All in all, the remarkable space of the Globe was not the neutral stomping ground it has been for most of its directors, but a series of places that spoke to us and moved us emotionally.

Julian Glover played Lear as relatively young, well under seventy, muscular, vigorous and powerfully spoken. The “fourscore and upward” line had to be cut, but the choice had beneficial effects. A modern audience, seeing an aged Lear, can only sympathize with his desire for retirement. Of course, in Shakespeare's day, the very idea of a monarch retiring was anathema; God appointed kings for life. But as far as we are concerned, retirement is the norm. Why shouldn't the old boy spend his few declining years enjoying himself, while his offspring take over the work? But Glover's Lear was still dynamic, fully capable of continuing to rule, and all too ready to throw his weight around. The love contest was depicted as clearly rigged. This Lear was not truly retiring from office, but was instead planning to rule through his daughters as puppets, with Cordelia as his favorite. He was like a modern CEO or politician, hand picking a successor to take over the tiresome burdens of office, while retaining all the real power for himself.

Where Glover fell off was in the gentler later moments—the mad scenes, the stripping, the reconciliation with Cordelia. He did not have the poignancy of, for example, Ian Holm, who played the role a few years ago at the Royal National Theatre, a small man who looked much older. But all in all, this was an intelligent, affecting performance, supported by a generally strong cast.

Matt Wolf (review date 18 February 2002)

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SOURCE: Wolf, Matt. Review of King Lear. Variety 386, no. 1 (18 February 2002): 42-3.

[In the following review, Wolf finds Jonathan Kent's 2002 modernistic staging of King Lear at King's Cross generally well-realized, and praises the performance of Oliver Ford Davies as Lear.]

There comes a time in any worthwhile production of King Lear—and Jonathan Kent's largely stirring Almeida production is certainly that—when the sorrowful heart of this mightiest of plays bursts wide open. That moment arrives relatively early in this final Kent staging after a decade co-running (with Ian McDiarmid) the Almeida, to generally thrilling results. (The pair step down in July.) In one of his many spasms of rage, Oliver Ford Davies' Lear smashes the elongated mirror by his desk, returning to it soon after in fearful recognition of the damage he has wrought “O let me not be mad,” he says prayerfully, the shattered glass offering its own silent rebuke. By then, the die is cast and Lear's decline is clear, his downward journey a march toward chaos that gets tempered too late by love.

Kent planned his farewell production around Ford Davies; this is their fifth collaboration. The playhouse is perhaps best known internationally for its visiting stars (Cate Blanchett, Juliette Binoche, Kevin Spacey), but it has been no less crucial for allowing British actors—whether Oscar nominees (Ralph Fiennes) or otherwise (Richard Griffiths)—repeated chances to shine. In the past, Ford Davies has specialized in a bemused quizzicality of an achingly moving sort: His doubting cleric in David Hare's Racing Demon won him an Olivier Award a decade ago and remains one of the most unaffectedly anguished perfs in my experience. And his last line in that play—“Is everything loss?”—could equally be asked by Lear, who ends Shakespeare's tragedy “a ruined piece of nature” embodying what the Duke of Albany calls “this great decay.”

The question was whether so apparently gentle and genial a presence as Ford Davies could summon from within the fury that starts Lear on his momentous fall. The answer is mostly yes, given a Lear who is at his best once he ceases to bray. Making a near-incantatory song out of “and my poor Fool is hanged,” or uttering the closing litany of “never-s” as a wounding decrescendo, this is a Lear that Racing Demon's Lionel Espy would recognize (and not just because of the actor's inimitably hangdog posture): However animated he seems by anger, his mad monarch is fueled by loss.

It's somewhat surprising, then, that the production finds what humor it does, much of it of the spiky, barbed sort sounded by Anthony O'Donnell's altogether first-rate Fool. A squawking chicken one minute, his bottom a drum for Lear to beat out a tune on the next, this Fool fully abets Lear in what Goneril refers to as the king's “new pranks.” At the same time, there's a cautionary slant to the Fool's tricks here, as if they exist merely to divert attention away from a one-time ruler turned “poor, infirm, weak, and despised.” Similarly redefining a key supporting role is Suzanne Burden's ravishingly rapacious Goneril, a sleek and sexually charged malcontent whose elegant coiffeur—both she and Lizzy McInnerny's able Regan have Princess Diana hair—conceals a cold, most likely absent heart.

Not all the production operates at this high level, with even Ford Davies succumbing at times to the generalized high-decibel wash that can afflict Kent's stagings of Shakespeare (cf. his Richard II two seasons ago but not his Coriolanus). Ford Davies isn't helped by a vocal timbre that makes it sound as if he is gargling the verse—on that front, he's shown up by David Ryall's faultlessly spoken Gloucester though virtually anyone would have trouble shouting down a clangorous storm scene that makes for some pretty amazing spectacle: Paul Brown's elegantly paneled contemporary set—in visual terms, the play could be taking place in Gosford Park—collapses in bits and pieces even as the rain sweeps in (audience members in possession of their own porous country manse may well get a particular fright).

Elsewhere, the modernism of the staging is sufficiently reined-in not to irk the purists while audacious enough to suggest that Peter Sellars might have lent an assist. (Lear delivers his opening partition of the realm before TV cameras until his querulousness gets the better of him and the plug, quite literally, is pulled.) Cast out onto the heath, the floral-crowned, fallen monarch enters into a timeless physical landscape, accompanied by a Gloucester whose earlier loss of his eyes found him seated alone on stage, his head encased in a lampshade, like some absurdist figure out of Magritte.

One could wish for an Edmund who is a shade less casual toward the language than a newly close-cropped James Frain (though Tom Hollander, after an all too typically petulant start, deepens beautifully into the contrasting part of Edgar). And some may find the scenic wizardry—Mark Henderson's near-expressionist lighting included overwhelms the import of the play rather than informing it. But listening to Lear speak of “this great stage of fools,” one feels the ever-primal pull into darkness of a play that dares say and show the most terrible things only to achieve a paradoxical cleansing by which you feel better about being alive.

Katherine Duncan-Jones (review date 25 February 2002)

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SOURCE: Duncan-Jones, Katherine. Review of King Lear. New Statesman 131, no. 4575 (25 February 2002): 42, 44.

[In the following review of Jonathan Kent's production of King Lear for the Almeida Theatre, Duncan-Jones praises the combined performances—including Oliver Ford Davies's Lear and those of the supporting cast—but laments weaknesses in setting and design.]

King Lear, with which the Almeida Theatre's run at King's Cross is coming to a close, gives the company a last opportunity to showcase the theatrical potential of an old bus depot. Two possibilities must have presented themselves: a primitive Lear, or an explicit “bus depot” one. The first would have permitted use of the deep, dark spaces of the huge playing area to represent the uncultivated tracts of pre-Christian Britain, in which “For many miles about / There's scarce a bush.” In the second, a 1950s bus shelter could have figured as the hovel in which Lear and his fellow outcasts spend an uncomfortable night: you shout for ages in the rain and then three madmen turn up at once. Either of these settings would support Lear's essentialist belief in his own kingly status, whether as feudal lord or beneficiary of post-coronation popularity.

Interestingly, Jonathan Kent and the set designer, Paul Brown, have taken a third way, choosing to alter the space radically rather than draw attention to it. The whole interior has been reductively enclosed within dark wooden panelling. A lounge-suited Lear stands behind a big desk like a pompous managing director. Perhaps the ritzy set is meant to suggest a sinister dictatorship, but to me it looked more like a pretentious hotel. Although the all-enclosing panelling is gradually dismantled in the course of the play, after receiving a thorough soaking from far, far too much rain, it continues to draw attention from the text. The same is true of the overloud sound effects and music, which force the actors to deliver their lines with unsubtle stridency. Video screens above the auditorium serve no particular purpose other than to distract our view from the events onstage.

Fortunately, the company's energy and talent make this an exceptionally high-impact production, if not a deep or moving one. Oliver Ford Davies is in all ways so strong as Lear that his death comes as a real surprise, for there has been little sense of his mental or physical frailty. Davies plays Lear as Old King Cole, an affable, boisterous but thoughtless man who craves constant companionship and affection. His egotism works particularly well in the scene where he clasps an embarrassed Regan (Lizzy McInnerny), quite sure that she must be the devoted daughter his fancy has painted; and better still in the scene where he is so much beguiled by the “philosopher” Poor Tom that he neither actually listens to what Poor Tom says nor ever notices that his previous favourite companion, the Fool (an excellent and tough performance by Anthony O'Donnell), has been left out in the cold. Davies's Lear is mad almost from the outset, in the Elizabethan or the modern American sense of “mad”: he is furiously angry, sometimes comically so. Yet he is always good company, and it is this, rather than any underlying sense of kingship, that lends credence to the unswerving loyalty of Kent and Gloucester.

Amid the breathless hurtle of Jonathan Kent's fast-moving production, certain details emerge particularly well: the unholy alliance between an icy Cornwall (David Robb) and an oleaginous Edmund (James Frain); the needy dependence of an unusually sensitive Edgar (Tom Hollander) on his bluff father; the pastoral beauty and moral authority of Cordelia (Nancy Carroll) as she stands framed high up against greenery at the very back of the deep stage. But it is regrettable that the large cast of 18—the same number that it is thought Shakespeare's company needed for this sprawling historical-tragical chronicle—includes not a single non-white performer. Yet, despite all its excesses (too many gimmicks and gadgets, too much noise, water and furniture moving), this is an important production. Don't miss the Almeida's last bus.

John Stokes (review date 1 March 2002)

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SOURCE: Stokes, John. Review of King Lear. Times Literary Supplement, no. 5161 (1 March 2002): 20.

[In the following review of Jonathan Kent's staging of King Lear at King's Cross for the Almeida Theatre, Stokes lauds the production's “high aesthetic” style and Oliver Ford Davies's Alzheimer's-informed Lear.]

The actor Tim Pigott-Smith said on the radio recently that one of the greatest strengths of the Almeida Theatre while it has been under the artistic control of Jonathan Kent and Ian MacDiarmid is that it has remained “an actor's theatre”. The word “actor” here was probably in silent opposition to “accountant”, rather than to director or to designer, since Kent and McDiarmid have constantly enlarged their theatrical ambitions, often in expensive ways, so that their company might give the best of itself. There has been a consistency of prioritles that amounts to something like a style. Of course, the plays themselves have had a lot to do with it. Unlike Sam Mendes's Donmar, the Almeida has shown little interest in American musical theatre; unlike the Royal Court, its sense of the contemporary has only occasionally got beyond Friel, Hare, Barker and Pinter; unlike the Young Vic, it hasn't relied on visitors. The repertoire has been uncompromising: Racine, Pirandello, Molière, O'Casey, Shaw, Marivaux, Euripides and Wedekind, a serious and largely European canon. The Almeida has been a theatre of the highest aesthetic standards. Perhaps that is as close as one can get to defining its achievement under the celebrated joint direction.

Deep in the black interior of the Victorian theatre in Islington or circling among the caryatids of the Hackney Empire, where the company took its Hamlet in 1995, not so pungently as at the Bouffes du Nord or Wilton's Music Hall but unmistakable none the less, an aura of past performances has hung in the air. But the Almeida's more recent forays, undertaken while the Islington theatre is being refurbished, have been to temporary homes where no ghosts walk, the emptied spaces of “urban renewal” and post-industrialism. At the deserted Gainsborough Studios off the City Road, where they played Coriolanus and Richard II, and now in a former coach depot at King's Cross, there is no obvious connection between play and place. Here, on the contrary, theatre becomes an intruder on somebody else's defunct business, distinctly non-site-specific.

In and around such buildings, borders become arbitrary, like the temporary partitions that mark out a playing area from the surrounding shell. And, in the way that urban spaces often do, they seep into one another. The boundary between the world of the Caledonian Road and the world of the High Aesthetic is marked by a liminal theatre bar, vast and noisy. Beyond, the theatre area is itself malleable, permeable, able to take on the colour and the mood of the play in question. For Chekhov's Platonov, more than three hours long, Kent and his designer Paul Brown provided an extraordinarily broad stage that accommodated a river, a railway, a country house and part of its estate, a vista of the unintegrated community on which the play's meaning depends; for Neil LaBute's The Shape of Things, the environment, largely aural, was a cavernous rave, filled with ear-tormenting contemporary rock; for Brian Friel's The Faith Healer, chilly vacancies around a focal point, occupied in turn by the three monologists, evoked the bleak village halls that the healer, his wife and his manager had encountered on their bitter tours around the country.

It must surely have been an awareness of the varying potential of the space, as well as their usual ambition to engage with greatness, that made Kent and MacDiarmid choose King Lear as the production that would mark their retirement as the Almeida's artistic directors. Lear would apply the High Aesthetic style to the close observation of intimate breakdown—since, as Jonathan Kent has gone on record as saying, the production would also draw on his own experience of watching an aged relative suffer from Alzheimer's.

We begin, though, with prestige and the trappings of a public world. This time, Paul Brown has enclosed both audience and actors in the same dark wood panelling, an official stateroom which looks as if it might have been furnished by Harrods in the 1930s, that will serve throughout for the homes of the king and his daughters. The division of the kingdom is a kind of televised press conference, and we see the filmed result simultaneously on the several monitors above our heads. Confessing their devotion, Goneril and Regan preen before the cameras, while Lear tries to look dignified before the screen goes fuzzy as the action gets messy. It's a neat enough comment on the media, but soon dropped, returning only at the very end of the play when the monitors, again full of blurred interference, fail to show us the off-stage battles we can certainly hear.

The determining moment comes a little later in Act One, Scene One, when Goneril and Regan, in slinky cocktail dresses, express their particular version of a more domestic experience. “You see how full of changes his age is”: “He hath ever but slenderly known himself”: “The unruly waywardness that infirm and choleric years bring with them”; it is not hard for actresses as confident as Suzanne Burden and Lizzy McInnery to give these familiar lines a new tilt that hints strongly at our sanctimonious insistence on “age concern”. Throughout the production, the relatively modern dress encourages modern delivery and modern gestures. Consumed by rage, Goneril will sweep a cluster of family photos off an official-looking desk; before the blinding. Gloucester is strapped down with electric flex; afterwards, his abused head is stuck inside a lampshade.

Whereas in 1999, at the Barbican, Nigel Hawthorne's brave experiment of making Lear ironic throughout never gave audiences the emotional battering they have come to expect from the role, Oliver Ford Davies's collapse into dementia touches universal chords very quickly indeed. Too quickly, perhaps. In his memoir of Iris Murdoch's last years, when she was sick with Alzheimer's, John Bayley has written of the worry, frequent among friends and relatives of an invalid, that in the course of decline a unique identity might become “lost in the common symptoms of a clinical condition”. It is an unease as appropriate to this deeply humane interpretation of Shakespeare's tragedy as it is natural to life. But, like Murdoch, Ford Davies doesn't give in that easily. While conscious of what the novelist called “sailing into darkness”, he is still resistant. Jonathan Kent has him first gaze at his reflection in a rectangular mirror and then, appalled at what he sees, smash the glass. The new self goes unrecognized by the old. Indeed, Lear's journey from “Let me not be mad” to “Oh Fool. I shall go mad” (as Ford Davies stresses it) might now be seen as Shakespeare's dramatic elaboration of the awful question asked by Judi Dench in the film of Bayley's book: “We all worry about going mad. How would we know?”

Madness is truly “a disease in my flesh”. Ford Davies rumbles and snarls, sometimes gabbling so quickly that he loses the listener. Gathering speed like a steam engine, he does at least slow down to deliver the terrible curse “into her womb convey sterility” with an implacable, piston-like intensity. Worries that his voice, with its disconcerting sibilance, might not last the evening are relieved in the second half (following the blinding of Gloucester), which has a more subdued mood. At the peak of his crisis a wild old man in vest and socks, he is by the end confined to wheelchair and pyjamas, sad candidate for the old folks' home.

Ford Davies's demented Lear is surrounded by performances which indicate modernity in other, more allusive, ways. Anthony O'Donnel's Fool, a small man in an even smaller suit, is fond of imitating W. C. Fields; James Frain's Edmund is wryly confident and sexy; Tom Hollander's initially boyish Edgar regresses even further as a childish Poor Tom; Paul Jesson's Kent shifts his social class by changing hairstyle and accent; David Ryall's Gloucester is a complacent politician who discovers reality the hardest way and, following the Folio text, is given the half-line “And that's true too” to deliver with dismal resignation.

A basic spatial movement of invasion from outdoors allows Kent's stocks to be set up rather incongruously in the all-purpose interior room where Lear's knights have already made mayhem. The motif soon becomes over-whelming. Jonathan Kent's fondness for the unbounded qualities of water, already indulged with the lagoon he created with Brown for his production of The Tempest two years ago, takes over completely. The rain it raineth for more than twenty minutes, relentless, at first beyond the boundaries of the state room but eventually soaking the padded furniture, drenching the wooden floor, forcing down the walls, collecting in pools and threatening to flood out into the front row of an audience which is already feeling chilly and damp. All barriers dissolve. Later, in the closing moments of the play, we see through the sodden ruins of the set to the brick walls and rickety metal ladders of the external wall of the coach depot. Cordelia (played quietly by Nancy Carroll) appears framed by some broken panes of dirty glass. The picture is simple, affecting—and cheap.

That's the trouble with the High Aesthetic style: it usually costs more money than accountants think reasonable, it flaunts its right to take its time and, in the end, often appears to come to nothing, discarding the very world it has so laboriously constructed. The question any audience must ask itself is whether the shared experience of great drama is helpfully served by such expenditure. Will something come of that unaccommodated nothing? In this case, the answer, unquestionably, is yes. The grandeur of Shakespeare's play lies in its insistence that unaccommodated lives are not trivial, and the Almeida's High Aesthetic style helps us to locate that dignity near King's Cross Station on an exceptionally wet night.

Stanton B. Garner, Jr. (review date 2002)

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SOURCE: Garner, Stanton B., Jr. Review of King Lear. Theatre Journal 54 (2002): 139-66.

[In the following excerpted review of Barry Kyle's Globe Theatre production of King Lear, Garner observes that the Globe stage is not well-suited to the tragic elements of the drama, and cites a number of weak individual performances within the drama's main plot.]

Presented with Macbeth and Cymbeline as part of the Globe's “Celtic Season 2001,” Kyle's King Lear is a starkly theatrical interpretation of Shakespeare's vast tragedy. The Globe stage is reduced to its forestage playing area, and the backdrop of its set is built out of weathered boards. In keeping with the production's scenic severity, what few props there are contribute to the effect of roughness and plainness. Lear's kingdom has a totalitarian feel to it: the men of his retinue are clad in boots, and their clothes (a mixture of the Jacobean and the modern) are neo-fascist in appearance. Carousing on stage, kicking a soccer ball as they make their way through the audience, they resemble a gang of thugs.

Julian Glover's Lear, the presiding authority of this world, is a stern and volatile figure, assured in his power over his kingdom while given to outbursts of rage and violence. When Cordelia refuses to gratify his ego, he hurls her roughly to the stage floor. As the consequences of his decision to partition his kingdom and disinherit his youngest daughter play themselves out, Lear becomes increasingly volatile; Glover delivers his 2.4 tirade at Goneril (“Dry up in her the organs of increase”) with sadistic fury. At the same time, impressive though his performance is, Glover's is not among the most commanding Lears of recent decades. In truth, it is hard not to feel that the production works against him in some ways. The storm scene, so crucial to our understanding of the King's inner turbulence, is staged with minimal dramatic impact. Lear and his Fool stagger across the stage, joined by a rope, but their physical gestures are the primary scenic evidence of the force of the storm they are combatting. The scene is given minimal sound accompaniment (unlike the final battle scenes, which are staged with drums and other noise resonating from different parts of the building). Glover's Lear is also not helped by Tonia Chauvet, who gives a verbally awkward, physically inhibited performance as Cordelia. Chauvet's inability to establish a human moral presence and to convey any convincing claim to her father's affection makes clear how much an audience's perception of Lear depends on his relationships to those who love and care for him.

The occasional mutedness of the play's central plot owes something, of course, to the Globe environment itself and the fact that the performance I attended took place on a bright (and hot) Wednesday afternoon. Such conditions mitigate against the modes of audience absorption that we are accustomed to in the controlled environments of modern theatre buildings. Spectators mill about, come and go, and talk to one another—the poetry of inner breakdown of Lear takes place within a broader urban soundscape comprised of airplane engines, sirens, and general noise. In the end, the overall strength of the Globe Theatre's King Lear results from the ways it exploits this performance environment, exploring the theatricality intrinsic to this darkest of Shakespeare's tragedies.

There are the usual entrances and exits through the audience, as well as theatrical elements that exist inside and outside the field of drama (a female vocalist sings, in view of the audience, above the dramatic action). But nowhere is this theatricality more evident than in the plot involving Edmund, Edgar, and Gloucester. Michael Gould's Edmund, who is first seen watching the events of the first scene from a pole to the front right of the stage, delivers his bastard's soliloquy from the yard. Playing the crowd like the Vice figures of morality drama, Edmund is outrageous in the intimacies he establishes with the audience. At one point, he took a water bottle from one of the spectators and had a drink, and during the soliloquy in which he debates whether he will take Goneril or Regan, members of the audience called out their opinions. The result of this bond with the audience is, not surprisingly, that Edgar comes off as even more of a “catastrophe of the old comedy” than he typically does. As the play goes on, however, the histrionic balance shifts, and Paul Brennan's Edgar acquires his own performative power. As with Kent (robustly performed by Bruce Alexander), disguise allows Edgar to express himself through multiple personae; as he plays mad with Lear and leads his father to the heights from which he wishes—in his despair—to jump, Edgar becomes a powerful presence on stage, a rival histrionic center to the natural dissembler Edmund.

Though Kyle's King Lear was considered by many of its London reviewers to be one of the Globe's more successful productions, there was a concern in the press that it emphasized the comic over the tragic. Behind this verdict one sensed a deeper critique: that, like other Globe shows, the production played to the audience rather than to a cultural tradition of which tragedy remains the most prestigious emblem. The performance environment of the restored Globe, it continues to be claimed, is more suited to comedy than to tragedy. It is hard not to hear condescension here toward the spectators who patronize the Globe and enjoy its fare. But despite the fact that different staging and casting choices might have given the production more conventionally “tragic” resonance, one of the accomplishments of the Globe King Lear may be to point to a different experience of the tragic, a more populist appreciation of tragedy's affective and interactive possibilities, and a deeper sensitivity to the ways in which performance conditions influence and complicate tragic response.

Michael Goldman (essay date 1972)

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SOURCE: Goldman, Michael. “The Worst of King Lear.” In Shakespeare and the Energies of Drama, pp. 94-108. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1972.

[In the following essay, Goldman argues that King Lear is essentially a play about suffering.]

At the end of IV, i of King Lear, Gloucester directs Edgar to take him to Dover. His words, like so many in the play, seem to have a wide and rich application to its entire action:

There is a cliff, whose high and bending head
Looks fearfully in the confined deep.
Bring me but to the very brim of it,
And I'll repair the misery thou dost bear
With something rich about me.


Taken by themselves, these lines constitute a little poem on the nature of tragedy. Like Lear, in whom Nature stands on the verge of her confine, Gloucester is made to see (in spite of his blindness) deep into the fearful abyss (“How fearful / And dizzy 'tis, to cast one's eyes so low”). We do not accompany Lear beyond the edge. (We cannot, for example, tell what his last glimpse of Cordelia's lips has shown him.) Indeed we are frequently made to feel how hard it is to follow him as far as we do, but we sense that by accompanying him, with effort, in his trip to the brink, we are given “something rich about him” that is somehow related to the misery we bear.

Of course the misery we bear most immediately in the play is the pain of watching it, and the punishing aspect of the play—the indignities, tortures, and violations the actors' bodies suffer, and through them our own—cannot be overemphasized in our reading of the play or even, I believe, in production; at any rate, they are easily underemphasized.

The history of Lear in the theater has been a continuing search for new ways to make the play easier for actors and audience to take. To an extent this is a part of its design. Even those productions that mean to “bring Lear home” to the audience seem always to involve fresh bluntings and blurrings of the full effect. Peter Brook's mounting of the play, for example, was heavily indebted to Jan Kott, the author of Shakespeare Our Contemporary and a critic particularly alert—often with valuable results—to violence and “cruelty” in Shakespeare. But the production scarcely came to grips with the play's full unpleasantness. The idea was to emphasize that Shakespeare is as contemporary as Samuel Beckett, which is a little like emphasizing that Mozart is as contemporary as Satie. The suffering of King Lear was planed down to affectlessness;1 and though this passed as a very immediate and close-to-the-bone version of the play, the reason it was so acceptable is that it was—compared to the full King Lear—so painless. Brook's interpretation had the great virtue of being manageable; it was under control as productions of Lear seldom are. It succeeded in giving us the impression of going through a great deal of horror without having to digest it. Paul Scofield was able to emerge from his performance relatively unscathed. (I say “relatively” since Scofield makes a specialty of looking scathed; he seemed no more so at the end than at the beginning.) Now, affectlessness is a revealing mood and it has its place in King Lear, especially toward the end when the more ordinary characters begin to cave in before the spectacle of Lear's suffering. Endgame, which according to Kott and Brook is the play's modern analogue, makes unrelieved affectlessness illuminating by turning it into elegant and varied, if black comedy. But this is not the method of Shakespeare's play.

It is perhaps only natural to look at King Lear and decide that since it contains so much horror its dominant mood must be beaten numbness and monotony. Certainly the response tells us something true about the play. There is more pain in it than we easily know what to do with. In an age of the knowledge of extreme pain, which is for most of us knowledge of the extreme pain of others, it is comforting to believe that affectlessness is the worst pain. It allows us to think that our sympathies are really adequate to our full experience while at the same time saving us from total disintegration in the face of the daily paper and the T.V. news. Gifted comedians like Beckett may probe our affectlessness by brilliant imitations of monotony, but the danger is that we are all too ready to believe that monotony itself is the deepest truth pain knows. Monotony may be the final condition of the suffering body and as such a blessed release, but it is not the worst suffering nor the truth of suffering. The victims of torture may be allowed the escape into affectlessness, if they can find it—but not artists or their audiences.

King Lear is designed to confront torture, not numbness. It is also deeply aware of our desire to escape. Take for example simply what we see in the scene already referred to, the physical atrocity of the tableau of Gloucester and Edgar. Gloucester is not only recently blinded, humiliated, and suicidal—his eyes are bleeding. Edgar too is a horrible sight, a fact easily overlooked in reading and largely missed in productions, where he is usually a well set-up jeune premier in a blanket. His father tells us that when he first saw him on the heath he “made me think a man a worm,” and Edgar has explained in some detail exactly how he proposes to transform himself:

I will preserve myself, and am bethought
To take the basest and most poorest shape
That ever penury, in contempt of man,
Brought near to beast. My face I'll grime with filth,
Blanket my loins, elf all my hairs in knots,
And with presented nakedness out-face
The winds and persecutions of the sky.
The country gives me proof and precedent
Of Bedlam beggars, who, with roaring voices,
Strike in their numb'd and mortified bare arms
Pins, wooden pricks, nails, springs of rosemary;
And with this horrible object, from low farms,
Poor pelting villages, sheep-cotes, and mills,
Sometimes with lunatic bans, sometimes with prayers,
Enforce their charity.(2)

(II, iii, 6-20)

There is no reason not to take him at his word. On the stage Edgar must be filthy, grotesque, very nearly naked, and bear on his body evidence of horrible mutilation. He is the kind of beggar who enforces charity—so repellent, nasty, and noisy that you pay him to go away. We have all seen beggars of this type, though they are infrequent in American cities because the mode is not profitable. Edgar is not the ingratiating panhandler, or the collapsed wino, or the pitiable orphan of the storm, and certainly not the decent young man down on his luck that actors frequently portray him to be. He is the kind that sticks his stump in your face. He does not set out to inspire feelings of benevolence, pity, or human solidarity. We give to him because we cannot stand him, because his body is a fearful reminder of the deformity that life may visit upon us at any instant.

Why, then, do we so seldom find Edgar played this way? One important reason is that it would make things very hard for the actor who has to play Lear. Edgar is usually presented as a kind of masquerade-party madman so as to contrast with Lear's genuine madness. The contrast of course is just the point, but Edgar's masquerade is a horrible and convincing affair; his life depends on it. The primary effect of the contrast is not to show up the artifice of Edgar's madness but to drive home the intensity of Lear's. Unfortunately the actor playing the King still has ahead of him the Dover scenes, the adultery speech, and the death of Cordelia; his problem is how to endure his part. Full loathsomeness for Edgar means added impossibilities for Lear. And this technical problem reflects our larger experience of the play. We say of Lear, “How can he go on? How much more is he—are we—to suffer?” Just as the characters in Hamlet keep asking questions about the meaning of action, the characters in King Lear keep inquiring about suffering: how much more there is to endure and what they are to conclude from it.

The audience quickly recognizes how cautious it must be about resolving on the “meaning of suffering” in King Lear—or at least about finding a single meaning—because it is a subject on which so many pronouncements are made in the play, only to be undercut by the continuing action. When Albany learns that Cornwall is dead he cries, “This shows you are above, / You justicers,” and one of our impulses is to agree. But it is scarcely five minutes since we have had to sit through the excruciating scene of Gloucester's blinding, and in the interim Gloucester has appeared once more, with bleeding eyes. Whatever our convictions as to justice and divinity, be they Elizabethan or existentialist, our immediate response is to add another, conflicting feeling to the one we share with Albany. And Albany's mind follows the same oscillation—a characteristic one in the play—from summing up the meaning of sorrow to feeling it anew:

                                        This shows you are above,
You justicers, that these our nether crimes
So speedily can venge! But, O poor Gloucester!

(IV, ii, 78-80)

It is no wonder that two of the most familiar quotations from King Lear cancel each other out:

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

(IV, i, 38-39)

The gods are just, and of our pleasant vices,
Make instruments to plague us.

(V, iii, 170-71)

Edgar in particular has a gift for confidently formulating some principle about the uses, limits, or significance of suffering only to have it shattered by succeeding events. At the end of III, vi he has said:

When we our betters see bearing our woes,
We scarcely think our miseries our foes.
… But then the mind much sufferance doth o'erskip,
When grief hath mates, and bearing fellowship.
How light and portable my pain seems now.


But his next scene will show the fallacy of this comforting reflection; Edgar's grief will only be increased by the “fellowship” of his father. In IV, i he establishes another familiar principle—when things are at the worst they can only get better—which again he quickly has to abandon. (“The worst is not / So long as we can say ‘This is the worst.’”)

Gloucester shares the family weakness for half-baked moral observations. In the same scene he says to Poor Tom:

Here, take this purse, thou whom the heavens' plagues
Have humbled to all strokes. That I am wretched
Makes thee the happier.


Gloucester is wrong on both counts. Edgar is not inured to all strokes, and there is no closed economy of misery: Gloucester's purse does not make him happier.

This constant return to the theme of what is the worst and to the uses of suffering is of course part of the large pattern of accumulation and reduction which has often been noted in the play. In Hamlet the characteristic of the action is variety—new stimuli, changes of direction, pirates, players, ghosts, Hamlet as courtier, Hamlet as punster, Hamlet as bitter satirist, Hamlet as near-suicide, Hamlet as cunning revenger, etc. Appropriately in the language of Hamlet the tendency is toward groups of words that distinguish, vary, multiply distinctions (“dead waste and middle of the night,” “tempest, torrent and whirlwind of your passion,” “to show the very age and body of the time his form and pressure”). In King Lear on the other hand the characteristic of the action is more of the same, rejection by one daughter and then another, the putting out of one eye and then the other. We go not simply from bad to worse, but from worst to worse. Likewise, in the language of Lear, the tendency is to repetitions that accumulate intensity (“Speak. Nothing, my lord. Nothing! Nothing. Nothing will come of nothing. Speak again.” “Howl, howl, howl!” “Never, never, never, never, never!” “Kill, kill, kill, kill, kill, kill!”). The method of the play is to expose us to more than we thought we could take, and thus to make us acutely aware of all the phenomena associated with taking it, including physical exhaustion and the coining of platitudes.

In a sense Lear is a play of competitions. Consider the number of times when characters are presented trying to outdo each other in extreme or strange activities. There is a very formal competition in filial affection at the play's beginning, as well as Lear's competition with the storm, in which he is seen “contending with the fretful elements,” striving “to out-scorn / The to-and-fro-conflicting wind and rain.” Lear competes with Edgar in nakedness as well as madness. There is a sexual competition between Regan and Goneril over Edmund. The two daughters also have a habit of competing in bloody-mindedness:

We shall further think of it.
We must do something, and i' th' heat.

(I, i, 311-12)

What need you five and twenty, ten, or five? …
What need one?

(II, iv, 264-66)

Hang him instantly.
Pluck out his eyes.

(III, vii, 4-5)

The chivalric trial-by-combat in the last scene is another formal competition, of a more conventional type—even disconcertingly so. Suddenly we are in the presence of Spenserian, fairy-tale, happy-ending-style combat (with Edgar, having advanced through a series of improvements in dress, now “fair and warlike” in armor). And at the very end one has a sense that a terrible endurance contest is going on. Gloucester's heart bursts between extremes of joy and grief. Under the same stress Kent's heart is cracking too, but he hangs on gamely, while everyone seems to agree with Edgar that Lear has borne the most—none of these sufferers (nor, we are assured, any future competitors) will be able to match him.

The last twist of the accumulative pattern is of course the moment which Bradley3 quite correctly singles out as containing the most likely “moral” of King Lear:

The gods defend her! …
Enter Lear with Cordelia dead in his arms.

(V, iii, 256)

At this point Kent raises the question that perplexed Tate and the eighteenth century editors: “Is this the promis'd end?” Now, there is nothing that makes us feel more superior to this era than its “improvements” of King Lear. But Tate's version and Johnson's approval of it show that they at least felt the play's essential quality: that it is nearly or perhaps wholly unbearable. We may well ask ourselves whether our eagerness to perform the full text represents openness to its pain or rather a superior capacity to be untouched by it. Black comedy is a grim vision of life, but it is no substitute for black tragedy. Samuel Johnson apprehended the power of blackness as deeply as any man, and that is why he could not bring himself to reread the last act for years. If the play is presented with anything like its true horror, Kent's question should become our own. He is referring to the promised end of Doomsday, of course, but since we have clearly reached the final scene, the other meaning is present too. Is this the way the play is supposed to end?

It is perhaps especially shattering for Kent, because he has been promising us a different end, or at least part of an ending, for a long time. He gets a lot of dramatic play out of the fact that he intends to stay in disguise until the right moment. He makes frequent allusions to his real identity. This to the Gentleman:

                    I'll bring you to our master Lear,
And leave you to attend him. Some dear cause
Will in concealment wrap me up awhile.

(IV, iii, 52-54)

This to Cordelia when she urges him to change out of his servant's garb:

                                                  Pardon, dear madam;
Yet to be known shortens my made intent.
My boon I make it, that you know me not
Till time and I think meet.

(IV, vii, 8-11)

And he then goes on to reply gnomically to the Gentleman's rumor that he, Kent, is in Germany (90-92).

Now what is this dear cause that he has in mind? It can't be attending on Lear, since he leaves the Gentleman to do that. It can't be his political mission to Cordelia because he has completed it. As far as we can tell he spends his time after his last speech to Cordelia wandering around the battlefield … but such speculation is an exercise in the wrong kind of Bradleyism. As members of the audience we know exactly what his dear cause and made intent is—he wants to reveal himself to his master as part of the grand finale. He encounters unexpected difficulties, however, because Lear has other things on his mind:

                              O my good master!
Prithee, away.
                              'Tis noble Kent, your friend.
A plague upon you, murderers, traitors all!
I might have sav'd her.

(V, iii, 267-70)

Lear soon recognizes him, but it is not a “recognition” in the technical dramatic sense:

                                                                      Who are you?
Mine eyes are not o' th' best. I'll tell you straight.
… Are you not Kent?


Lear does not realize that Kent has been masquerading as Caius. Kent makes an effort to establish the connection, but fails to produce the expected theatrical surprise. Lear blankly accepts the news:

                                        The same,
Your servant Kent. Where is your servant Caius?
He's a good fellow, I can tell you that;
He'll strike, and quickly too. He's dead and rotten.
No, my good lord; I am the very man,—
I'll see that straight.
—That, from your first of difference and decay,
Have follow'd your sad steps—
                                                            You are welcome hither.


It is as if Orestes should reveal himself to Electra and she should say, “Oh, hello Orestes.” The tragedy has outstripped Kent's scenario. He really can't accompany Lear here, no matter how he tries. The end he has promised us has to be scrapped. It is all yet another device (like Edgar's precise description of the abyss for Gloucester's benefit) for giving us a sense of having gone further than we could have expected and, consequently, as far as we can go.

The scene is designed, as the play has been, to make us feel that we are seeing the worst. Edmund's effort to save Lear and Cordelia, for example, should not be slighted in production. It provides a very important little arc of activity. At this point all the evil characters have been expelled from power. They are either dead or dying, and the dying Edmund is no longer malign. For the first time in the play, no one means any harm. Yet the suffering of the good continues to increase. We may remember that the whole sequence has been preceded by Edgar's triumphant announcement, “The gods are just.”

The question of what is worst naturally reflects the question of what is bad. All bad or unpleasant experiences reawaken our primitive disappointment at the discovery that we are not identical with nature. Cordelia's fault in the first scene is precisely this. She insists, very simply, that she is not identical with what Lear wishes her to be. Her father believes that “nature” (“where nature doth with merit challenge”) will express itself in a declaration of total love. Cordelia's refusal smashes this root conviction, one that a childish and flattered ruler might well retain—one that in some measure we all do. It is a belief that dies hard and painfully because it exempts us from suffering:

They told me I was everything.

(IV, vi, 106)

The early scenes of the play keep this idea of totality active in our minds almost as much as the idea of “nothing”:

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

(I, i, 56-62)

Sure, I shall never marry like my sisters
To love my father all.

(I, i, 105-106)

I gave you all.

(II, iv, 253)

One question the play probes is, what are we if we are not all? Lear rapidly experiences worse things than Cordelia's rejection, but it is a movement from worst to worse. The very beginning of the play has plunged him from all to nothing.

The drama advances us deeper and deeper into nothing, but we experience moments of remarkable illumination along the way, of “feeling,” to use another word the play stresses at crucial moments. At its end, the state is exhausted, it can only be “sustained” like so much misery or a wounded body. The remaining characters are exhausted too. Kent is dying. The final image must be of Albany and Edgar helping him from the stage, “sustaining” him between them. All they have left is the memory of what they have seen and felt, and by this time seeing and feeling are words charged with meaning for us.

Albany has made an effort to play the role of the conventional leader who mops up capably and efficiently at the end of a tragedy. He attempts the familiar concluding message of a Fortinbras or a Malcolm: “Let's get this nation moving again”:

                                                            you, to your rights,
With boot, and such addition as your honours
Have more than merited. All friends shall taste
The wages of their virtue, and all foes
The cup of their deservings.

(V, iii, 300-304)

But this too is a promised end that has to be scrapped. Once more the play moves from a summing up to insistence on the unbearable. Albany breaks off and cries, “O, see, see!” It is this kind of contrast that Edgar has in mind when he says:

Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.
… We that are young
Shall never see so much, nor live so long.


Lear at the end is seeing and feeling with a peculiar intensity, asking questions we cannot answer and seeing things we cannot see. Just as with Edgar's description of the abyss, we cannot quite see all—“the deficient sight” fails. “Look on her, look, her lips, / Look there, look there!” We have gone as far as we can go; we almost see but we can't see. Nothing, as Kent has said, almost sees miracles but misery.

Cordelia has defined her relation to her father as a bond:

                                                            I love your Majesty
According to my bond; no more nor less.

(I, i, 94-95)

Her statement has a richness that dominates memory. On the one hand it is a simple plain proposition that has the ring of truth and common sense, standing out with its “no more nor less” against the all-or-nothing absolutes of the first scene. But it also resists and teases our understanding; it is a line that the rest of the play must make clear. “Bond,” whether in its legal or material sense (and both are present here), is a word of double significance; a bond brings things together, but it sets up limits too. At the moment Cordelia makes her pronouncement, bonds seem to start breaking all over the stage. Lear curses his daughter, and Kent's voice is heard calling his king mad and blind. (“See better, Lear.”) It is Cordelia's suggestion that people are held together by bonds which are necessarily not limitless that starts Lear on the course that eventually leads him to call on Nature to destroy all bonds. But Cordelia's love, if it is less than all, is more than nothing. Under the extreme pressures of reduction, Lear explores the “needs” of humanity, the bonds that the art of our necessities throws into sharp relief.

From the audience's point of view Lear is what Cordelia at one point calls him, a “perdu,” a sentry posted in an exposed position, a lost man, but one on whom we depend to hold and patrol our furthest advances into threatening territory. And this helps to explain and define what both actors and audience must undergo if they are to possess the play. By its end we should have been made to see and feel a succession of competing shocks, tortures, and degradations whose rhythm we recognize as bound up with our own abiding misery, which we make every effort to ignore or to convert into something less troublesome: our experience of the nothing that comes of not being all.

Cordelia's death has kept us from the last temptation to falsify, to believe that because goodness exists life is essentially good. Pain remains in spite of endurance, in spite of grace. But what we have seen and felt remains, too. Cordelia has loved Lear according to her bond, and we have been made to see and feel that bond, and the bond between Lear and the Fool, between Edgar and Gloucester, between Lear and the naked wretches who endure the storm, between ourselves and, through the bodies of the actors, the suffering body of humanity.


  1. For accounts of Brook's production (pro and con) that reinforce this impression, see Charles Marowitz, “Lear Log,” Tulane Drama Review (Winter, 1963), pp. 103-121; and Robert Speaight, “Shakespeare in Britain,” Shakespeare Quarterly, XIV (1963), 419-21. The exact sense of affectlessness conveyed may have resulted not simply from Brook's approach but from its interaction with the peculiar strengths and weaknesses of Scofield's performance. (See Marowitz, pp. 118-19.) Interestingly, Scofield seems not to have felt particularly influenced by the analogy with Beckett, indeed to have considered it limiting. (See Carol Carlisle, Shakespeare from the Greenroom: Actors' Criticisms of Four Major Tragedies [Chapel Hill, 1969], p. 291.)

    Though I differ with Peter Brook over King Lear, I would be sorry to leave the impression that I have anything but the highest regard for him as a director of Shakespeare. He is a remarkable artist, and shows us more of Shakespeare's meaning when he is wrong about it than most of us do when we are right.

  2. I follow the Quarto reading for “bare” in 1. 15; Folio omits.

  3. Shakespearean Tragedy (New York, 1955), p. 260.

F. D. Hoeniger (essay date 1974)

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Last Updated on February 5, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6051

SOURCE: Hoeniger, F. D. “The Artist Exploring the Primitive: King Lear.” In Some Facets of “King Lear”: Essays in Prismatic Criticism, edited by Rosalie L. Colie and F. T. Flahiff, pp. 89-102. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1974.

[In the following essay, Hoeniger concentrates on archaic sources and themes associated with nature in King Lear.]

There may once have been a King Lear in ancient Britain after whom the city of Leicester was named, and perhaps he had three daughters. But the story about him which Shakespeare retells, both in the form in which he found it and the form into which he cast it, is highly unreal, utterly remote from any familiar history. King Lear lived, according to Tudor historians, at some vague time during the era of the Kings of Judea. Of the mocking prophecy which the Fool recites at the end of 3.2, he says that it will be made by Merlin, ‘for I live before his time.’ The events of the play are as unreal as its chronology: no king within reliably recorded history, we may be sure, ever performed as Lear does in the opening scene. Nor do we believe that any young sixteenth-century nobleman, cast out by his father, ever disguised himself as Tom of Bedlam—and it is difficult to think of Edgar's encounters with the mad king and his own blinded father as anything that could ‘really’ happen. And what of Gloucester's jump, on the level stage, from what he has been persuaded are the cliffs of Dover, that most improbable episode in any of Shakespeare's tragedies? By comparison with the world and action of King Lear, those of Hamlet and Othello seem very real. All the same, Shakespeare's Lear comes intensely home to us. This we know, as many before us have known it the world over. The utterly unreal becomes profoundly real.

I still remember how when I saw King Lear for the first time on the stage, I was intensely absorbed by it though I certainly did not understand what it was all about. I was fourteen. I had tried to read the play before the production but found it too difficult a task, yet I went to see it because it was, after all, by the great Shakespeare. I remember how overcome I was by an acute sense of strangeness and unreality mixed with awe, the latter no doubt encouraged by the majesty of Lear, by his white beard, and by the astonishing energy of the old man; and I remember feeling keenly that all this was important, that it had bearing on life, on my life, though I could hardly fathom why. To use another term, which I will come back to later, the play seemed to reach down to the very sources of the primitive, and at the same time hold some, however obscure, wisdom for the audience and me in the twentieth century. This sense of the primitive and profound reached its climax in the mad scenes of the third act, with Lear, the Fool, and Edgar, where the strangeness itself was awesome. It must, I think, have been an extraordinarily good production though I remember no details of it, no name of producer or actors. Lear's folly is not balanced by his majesty in every production: he should be ‘royal Lear’ in the first scene and royal still when he casts off his garments. Now, over thirty years later, my need to grapple with the strangeness and primitiveness of the play is as acute as ever. Like all great art, King Lear has a mysterious core beyond explanation which we yet strive to approach and to apprehend more closely. But with King Lear this urge is particularly strong in our time, perhaps because modern man has experienced with a new intensity both the lure and the terror of the primitive. Can it be that the play has become even more vitally relevant to us than it was to previous generations?

In the opening paragraphs I have used the terms ‘unreal’ and ‘primitive,’ and the reader may well wonder in what sense or senses I use the term ‘primitive.’ It is part of this essay's strategy to leave the word's connotations and reverberations to the reader himself; at the moment he may want to involve even moral connotations, though my concluding section clearly points in a different direction. So far, I have suggested that the term fits not only the story of Lear as Shakespeare found it in his sources but also, in far wider connotations, the immense play which Shakespeare developed from it.

As we read the story of King Lear or Leir, apparently first written by Geoffrey of Monmouth in 1136, whence it reached the authors of A Mirror for Magistrates, Spenser, Holinshed, and the anonymous third-rate dramatist of The Chronicle History of King Leir, we realize that we are not reading history in the modern sense at all, but versions of the same simple story. Whether Holinshed believed his account of Lear to be factually true does not much matter. What is important is that Shakespeare in King Lear is not in the least concerned with history, but with his redramatization and reinterpretation of an old story. In his history plays we know that Shakespeare sometimes took great liberties with historical facts, for instance by making Hal and Hotspur of roughly the same age. Yet essentially 1 Henry IV is a history play, while King Lear is not what the Quarto title suggests, a chronicle-history, but the dramatization of what Ben Jonson called, referring to Pericles, ‘a mouldy tale.’ Some critics have questioned the Shakespearean authorship of the Fool's prophecy in King Lear at the end of 3.2, regarding it as a later actor's interpolation; but while it may make its point with a bluntness that does not suit the subtlety of the Fool's characterization in the rest of the play, his joke about the prophecy that ‘Merlin shall make’ amounts to Shakespeare winking at his audience: ‘we all know by now, don't we, that whatever this play is, it is not a chronicle history.’

Further, it is by no means certain that Shakespeare first became acquainted with the Lear tale through his reading. We cannot be certain that he first heard it told over a winter's fire by his mother or a grandam, by a friend or schoolmaster, but this seems to me highly probable, once we associate the following facts and considerations: Geoffrey of Monmouth surely did not invent all or even most of his chronicle history of ancient Britain, but wrote down what had been passed on from mouth to mouth; a ballad based on the Lear story from the seventeenth or eighteenth century has survived; folk tales of the story of a king and his three daughters, in many versions, have been told in many parts of the world for centuries, and are still told today in some parts of Sicily and Latin America; no English folk tale of the Lear story from any age has survived, but if none from the Middle Ages passed down to Elizabethan England, then it is highly probable that the very story so often repeated in chronicles and poems of the time gave rise to oral or folk versions. Is it unreasonable to conjecture that almost every Englishman of Shakespeare's time, whether he read widely or could not read at all, knew the tale of Lear and his three daughters? And if that is granted, then the likelihood is strong that Shakespeare became acquainted with the story early in his life, long before he came to read Holinshed. The first version of the story that Shakespeare heard, it seems probable, was either a folk tale that had been passed from mouth to mouth for generations, or a more recent tale derived from literary sources. In either case, the version would have been a simple, unsophisticated, pure story. If I am right about this, then the significance does not depend on the precise version that Shakespeare may have heard; that may have been quite close to the version in the Mirror for Magistrates or in Holinshed, or it may have taken the moralizing form, directed to children, familiar in many parts of Europe: Cordelia answers her father's question with ‘I love you as much as salt.’ Some time after Lear has been cast out by his elder daughters, he is discovered by Cordelia's soldiers wandering about in rags, is dressed again in royal garments, and is invited to a banquet where magnificent dishes are served, but without salt. And so Lear, and through him the children listening to the story, learn the simple moral. What matters is not whether Shakespeare became first acquainted with that version or one closer to Holinshed's chronicle, but that he thought of the story as an old tale of the folk about primitive Britain.

As his imagination dwelt on it for his play, it penetrated, as I will argue later, into the very origins of the story of the deep past. At present I wish to enlarge on the point previously made: that it is not just the kind of story which Shakespeare chose to dramatize, with its obscure setting in pre-Roman, pre-Christian Britain, that accounts for those elements in the play that seem so ‘primitive’ to us. Shakespeare reinforced those elements in several ways, one of which was by bringing the major characters very close to nature. Take Lear himself: in his most intimate scenes in the first half of the play, Lear is in the company of his natural, his Fool. Near the end of the scene in act 2 with Goneril and Regan, when the propriety of his keeping even a single retainer is questioned, he explains:

Allow not nature more than nature needs,
Man's life is cheap as beast's.


We are aware, though, that Lear has not yet learned from nature, that he does not yet know what his own ‘nature’ needs most. We begin to sense the complex intermingling of the meanings of the word ‘nature,’ as Lear rushes out into nature at its most inhospitable, into the storm on the heath. There he meets Edgar, the ‘natural philosopher,’ of whom he asks, among other things, ‘the cause of thunder.’ In these gaunt surroundings, Lear learns slowly and fitfully. It is not the storm in nature that drives him mad, but the storm in his mind, produced by his sense (so frequently commented on by the Fool) that the world has been turned upside-down, and by his awareness of his own folly, of ingratitude and injustice, of the daughters' cruel exercise of power against their own kin. His exposure and suffering teach him his kinship to ‘Poor naked wretches’ and to Edgar-Tom, although his own self-concern makes him believe that only Tom's daughters, never his father, could have brought him to such a pass. Lear learns about ‘unaccommodated man’ whose ‘life is cheap as beast's.’ He learns that he is not ague-proof. When he is later awakened from his madness in Cordelia's presence, his experience has prepared him for this encounter, so that he knows at last that his real need is for love, not for power.

In the play, Lear begins by taking it for granted that his power is absolute—which means not merely that he can do anything he wishes in his state, but that he can control even love and nature. I need not comment here on his illusion that love is subject to power, but only on his illusion, which persists until the middle of the play, that he has power over nature. When thwarted in his plan by Cordelia in act 1, he swears:

For, by the sacred radiance of the sun,
The mysteries of Hecate and the night,
By all the operation of the orbs
From whom we do exist and cease to be,
Here I disclaim—


all sorts of things, including propinquity and property of blood, with the ironic conclusion that ‘The barbarous Scythian, / Or he that makes his generation messes / To gorge his appetite’ (1.1.116-18) shall be as close to him as his ‘sometime daughter.’ It is not its cannibalism alone, but the sheer, crude assertion of power, that makes this speech so fundamentally primitive. One might object that the speech is merely naïve, that very soon we will see Lear powerless and beginning to face his folly, and that blind assertions of power are not confined to primitive men. But we must perceive that one of the basic causes of Lear's blindness is that as king he assumes that he is also a magician: that not only his subjects but also the sun and the orbs, ‘The mysteries of Hecate and the night,’ will follow his bidding.

Later in act 1, after his experience with Goneril, Lear invokes the goddess Nature:

Suspend thy purpose, if thou didst intend
To make this creature fruitful!
Into her womb convey sterility!


Nowadays when a man tries to exercise such power, he does not invoke ‘Goddess Nature,’ he applies it directly—the difference, really, between an age of black magic and an age of black science. In 3.2, on the heath, Lear still believes that he can command the thunder, even to ‘Crack Nature's moulds.’ But as Lear is brought closer to nature itself, this attitude gradually disappears. The primitivism of his mind has started a series of reactions, culminating in Lear's reduction to a totally primitive state of body and mind, where he must learn painfully what nature and human nature are really like.

For this aspect of the theme of nature, Shakespeare found hardly a hint in his sources, and it is pertinent that this view of nature informs the subplot of Gloucester, Edmund, and Edgar as much as it does the main plot. It is often said that the subplot, with its parallel action to the main plot, helps us accept the Lear plot because its characters are closer to average experience; that Lear and his daughters belong in ancient Britain, while Gloucester and his sons are somehow Elizabethan. This may be so, up to a point, but, as I stressed at the very opening of this essay, improbabilities dictate the action of the subplot characters quite as much as those of the main plot. Moreover what I have called ‘the primitive’ involves them deeply, too. Gloucester has a primitive's superstition, as is clear from his speech on ‘These late eclipses,’ as well as from his ready acceptance of Edgar's contrived miracle at Dover—that a fiend lured him to commit suicide but that ‘the clearest Gods’ (note the plural) preserved him. Edmund is, like Lear, a worshipper of power; significantly enough, he too is given a speech on goddess Nature:

Thou, Nature, art my goddess; to thy law
My services are bound.


What is that law? It is a law that frees him from what he calls ‘the plague of custom’ and ‘The curiosity of nations,’ by which others are bound. ‘Custom’ amounts to the laws of human society. ‘Curiosity of nations’ Kittredge has glossed as ‘The nice distinctions which the laws of nations make in defiance of nature and common sense’—by which he meant Edmund's interpretation of nature and Edmund's view of common sense. He himself was created, Edmund says, ‘in the lusty stealth of nature,’ and he asks the gods (for Nature is only one of the gods in his world, as in Lear's) to ‘stand up for bastards.’ More, he asks ‘the gods’ to allow him to triumph by his wits and his strength. In other words, Edmund's goddess Nature presides over the jungle where only the strong and crafty can survive. Edmund will apply the laws of the lion and the fox, exercising thereby absolute power for himself alone. What this amounts to is a variation on Lear's blind worship of power, one equally primitive but, paradoxically, also more obviously modern. I say ‘more obviously modern,’ since Edmund is a representative of the new man in the Jacobean age whose descendants flourish among us, but we have also seen men in our century whose blind trust in their absolute power reminds us more of Lear. In our age of power acquired with the help of machines devised by science, magic has made itself felt by entering through the back door. Drugs have magic attributes by which they can even transform human nature.

But Shakespeare's most interesting treatment of nature and the primitive in the subplot involves Edmund's first victim, his brother Edgar. With Gloucester's help, Edmund's actions reduce Edgar to a primitive condition; and as if this were of itself not enough, Edgar grotesquely selects his shape and place in society as a disguised outcast from that society in such a way as to make his condition seem even more primitive than it objectively is. The disguise he chooses for himself is that of Bedlam beggar, that is to say, he presents himself not only as self-deprived of all human possessions, but also as a natural, a man not in thorough control of his wits but innocent enough, like the Fool, to be allowed his freedom. Here is a response to injustice and tyranny that is remarkably unfamiliar in this present-day world, in the West at least, whatever the Edgar-like garments donned by youngsters of rich families on our main streets. The place to which Edgar retires as Tom is barren nature, the heath. There, as he says in his monologue, he will

                    take the basest and most poorest shape
That ever penury, in contempt of man,
Brought near to beast.


This ‘baseness’ that Edgar assumes is in counterpoint to Edmund's reaction to the ‘baseness’ of his bastardy, and it prefigures as well the condition to which Lear is brought. As Edgar says, he will ‘with presented nakedness outface / The winds and persecutions of the sky’ (2.3.11-12), and will strike in his ‘numb'd and mortified bare arms / Pins, wooden pricks, nails, sprigs of rosemary’ (15-16). Later, in a terrifying emblem of these words, Lear will seek for reassurance that the world to which he awakes in Cordelia's presence is real: ‘let's see; / I feel this pin prick’ (4.7.55-6).

Important as all this is to interlink the various disparate parts of the play, it is not all there is to Edgar's adopted role. On the heath, he pretends to believe that the foul fiend follows and possesses him, and he performs his possession-act so convincingly that the Fool runs from him, shouting ‘here's a spirit. / Help me! help me!’ (3.4.39-40). Nor is the Fool the only one in the play to believe in fiends: when Edgar changes his role after Gloucester's imagined fall at Dover, he persuades him that ‘poor Tom’ was none other than a fiend.

As I stood here below methought his eyes
Were two full moons; he had a thousand noses,
Horns whelk'd and wav'd like the enridged sea:
It was some fiend.


But this is all an act: we know very well, just as Edgar does, who are the real fiends in this play.

In giving Edgar the role of enforced primitive and natural, Shakespeare made him react in an extreme but entirely logical way to the blows he must endure from the differently primitive world about him. It is only one step from Gloucester's gods and from Lear's and Edmund's goddess Nature, both linked to the exercise of bare unmitigated power, to the belief that a man can be possessed by fiends. Driven into a barren nature, Lear too becomes a natural, a madman. Edgar, the other outcast, goes of his own will into the same inhospitable nature, there to take on the role of a natural haunted by fiends. It is a measure of Lear's growing insight that he sees through that mime of possession, and turns to Edgar for counsel as his ‘natural philosopher,’ for Edgar's insights into both man and nature have by then begun to make him indeed the play's ‘philosopher.’

I have said that in seeking refuge as a victim of power, Edgar's instinct makes him assume a role and a place which anticipate Lear's role and place after he flees from his daughters, that is, a madman's, exposed to barren nature and its fierce storm. Judging by the naïveté with which he falls into Edmund's trap early in the play, Edgar like Lear has much to learn about the world he inhabits. His experience during his stay in primitive nature is, in at least three ways, different from Lear's. First, though he is like Lear in being one of power's victims, he is a young man who has never exercised power, as Lear has. Second, Edgar only acts the role of natural or madman, though in doing so he shows an extraordinary understanding of the madman's mind, while in direct touch with the Fool and with Lear himself, then going mad. Third, far more acutely than Lear, Edgar is distracted from his personal suffering by experiencing the havoc which suffering has played with others—and knows these others to be no ordinary men, but his king and his father. Edgar recognizes the plight of others; it is an important part of Lear's experience, too, that he becomes aware of the suffering, first of his Fool, then of poor naked wretches like the Tom he meets on the heath, then of what ‘his daughters’ have done to Tom-Edgar, and, later, of what blindness, lust, and the brutality of others have done to Gloucester. Since his mind is far too preoccupied with himself, Lear's outgoing sympathy toward them comes only in brief snatches. Sleep, medicine, music, and Cordelia's love are needed to rescue Lear from his descent into the primitive world of chaos which we recognize as both his own disordered mind and his recognition of the disorder about him. Edgar, on the other hand, first learns how to endure ‘worse,’ then the worst—by which he is roused to action. He rescues his father from despair; he casts off his role of poor Tom, the natural; he slays the villainous Oswald: but all these deeds he does still in disguise. Only after successfully asserting the integrity of his name in his challenge to Edmund does he reveal himself.

Now, as Edgar is shown to undergo these stages of development and to realize himself through action, we in the audience experience a like uplift, for we are more and more drawn to identify ourselves with Edgar. Not with Edgar only, of course, for we have come to identify with Lear as well, as he endures and changes, in the process never entirely losing his royal integrity. How important a part of Lear's need that integrity is, Cordelia well knows. In the scene of their reunion she enquires: ‘How does my royal Lord? How fares your Majesty?’ (4.7.44). Shortly before his end, with Cordelia dead in his arms, Lear still exclaims:

A plague upon you, murderers, traitors all!
I might have sav'd her …
I kill'd the slave that was a-hanging thee.

(5.3.269-70, 274)

Upon acknowledgment by the officer, he says,

                                                  Did I not, fellow?
I have seen the day, with my good biting falchion
I would have made them skip.


With Edgar, we endure the worst that the world of King Lear has in store. We rise with Edgar from the descent into nature and the primitive, and we reach with him, as we do with Lear, a new sense and assertion of integrity. The ending of the play departs sharply from that of the folk tale; the world at the end of the play is no longer primitive. After Lear departs, Edgar (at least in the more reliable Folio text) is fittingly given the last speech.

Basically what I have so far tried to show is first that the story which reached Shakespeare was not only primitive in its setting but also primitive in origin; second, that in transforming the simple story into a complex and powerful drama, he explored the primitive in all its depths and terror, as the story in the form it reached him certainly did not, but leaves us in the end (again quite unlike the story) with Edgar, Kent, and Albany as the civilized witnesses to the conclusion of a stark tragedy. The heath in the storm with its hovel; Lear, the Fool, and Edgar as outcasts enduring it by probing the deepest recesses of their minds, even to madness; interrupted by scenes of crazy power leading up to the episode of the gouging out of Gloucester's eyes by Cornwall: that is a primitive world entirely of Shakespeare's creation.

Creation certainly, but, amazingly enough, also recreation. So at least I will argue in the concluding section of this essay. The sense of story rather than history in the play seldom leaves us, as I said earlier, and the hypothesis that will now be developed is reconcilable with Maynard Mack's interesting suggestion that the play has many archetypal elements of a folktale—the play as it is, not merely its source.1

About forty years ago, the Italian ethnologist Giuseppe Cocchiara collected versions of the Lear folktale from many different countries; in his book2 (which hardly any Shakespeare scholar seems to have looked at), after narrating many versions, Cocchiara developed a thesis of the primitive origins and meanings of the tale. He argues that the Lear story is related to other stories of fathers and banished children, sometimes daughters, sometimes sons, and that these stories all have their ultimate origin in tribal initiation rites. The book is written in Italian, and copies of it are hard to find; I came upon one by accident in the Widener Library at Harvard. Cocchiara was no Shakespearean scholar and only barely mentions the existence of the play, and his subject, initiation rites, is calculated to make most Shakespeareans say, ‘oh, that nonsense again.’ But as a student of Shakespeare reads his book, he cannot help noticing features in some of Cocchiara's retellings common to those folk tales and King Lear; even when the parallels are not precise, they suggest things in the play which are not found in any of Shakespeare's known literary sources.

The first striking point is that Cocchiara insists upon a close family resemblance between versions of the Lear story and folk tales that deal with fathers and their good and evil sons;3 for Shakespeare chose to combine two such stories in King Lear. The kinship between these two kinds of folk tales is supported by the existence of occasional versions of the Lear tale with both daughters and a son, as Cocchiara points out. The majority of the Lear-type tales collected in this volume include the moral point about the value of salt, mentioned earlier. But what are we to make of the version from Corsica which Cocchiara narrates as follows?

The demand the father makes of his daughters to know how much they love him is changed. And so the heroine replies: ‘Only as much as a devoted daughter can and should love her father.’ Banished from the house, taking with her only her embroidered clothes, the heroine encounters on the road a dead ass whose skin she takes, and thus disguised, she is employed in the home of a nobleman. One day, nostalgia for her own home overtakes her; she guides her flock into a secluded place and dresses herself in her old garments. Suddenly she is discovered by the king's son, but she flees, leaving behind a shoe that fits only her. [On being caught,] she is asked to marry [the prince] but will not consent without first seeing her father again. Messengers sent to the other kingdoms find that his remaining children have imprisoned him in an underground cell, into which no one can penetrate and where he is almost mad. His throne regained and the other children, a male and a female, banished, the king takes part in the marriage of the heroine, whose care restores him to his reason.4

For the Shakespearean, the most remarkable aspect of this tale is that it dwells on the king's madness and that the heroine's care ‘gives him back his reason.’ A second element, which the story shares only with Shakespeare's play and not with his acknowledged sources, is the motif of disguise assumed by the banished person, although Shakespeare of course applies it to Kent and Edgar, not to Cordelia. Much less, I think, should be made of the fact that the heroine's disguise in the tale is an ass's skin, although this detail suggests folly and the Fool, and animal and garment imagery plays such an important part in King Lear. The themes of madness and disguise are encountered in the Corsican tale and in Shakespeare, but in no literary version that Shakespeare knew, unless Mack is right in hinting that Shakespeare knew a version of the story of King Robert of Sicily. As he points out, this story includes the theme of madness and ‘in the finest of all the retellings of this archetype, the repudiated king is not driven out but made the court Fool and compelled to take his food with the palace dogs.’5

No other Lear-type story retold by Cocchiara is of quite the same interest as this one, but two other versions deserve mention. In one, from Cosenza, about a king of Turkey and his three daughters, the king is abandoned by the elder daughters and left to wander about without companions, ‘blind, nothing remaining of him’. We note the parallel to the story of the Paphlagonian king in Sidney's Arcadia, the source of Shakespeare's subplot, where the king is similarly treated by his bastard son; but also how in Shakespeare's play the two elder daughters are directly implicated in Gloucester's blinding; it is Goneril who first suggests it—‘Pluck out his eyes’ (3.7.5); and ironically, Gloucester, when forced to explain to Regan why he sent Lear to Dover, answers: ‘Because I would not see thy cruel nails / Pluck out his poor old eyes.’ (3.7.55-6). In the other tale, from Calabria, the abandoned king is thus described: ‘the poor king, torn, with bleeding feet, his skin scratched by thorns, is reduced to sleeping in haystacks or in stalls with animals, or in shepherds' hovels made with branches.’ Even though it is the motifs rather than their exact relation that strike us, we cannot help recalling Edgar's lines:

Strike in their numb'd and mortified bare arms
Pins, wooden pricks, nails, sprigs of rosemary;
And with this horrible object, from low farms,
Poor pelting villages, sheep-cotes, and mills …


as well as Lear in 4.6, ‘fantastically dressed with wild flowers,’ his speech on the ‘Poor naked wretches,’ the hovel and the heath, and the beast imagery of the mad scenes.

So far we seem to be on fairly safe ground, but Cocchiara takes a further step in his seventh chapter, where a mere literary critic untrained in ethnology fears to tread with him. Having found in many versions of this tale of an old king or father whose youngest daughter or son is banished the common theme of apparent death and rediscovery or revival, Cocchiara traces them back to initiation ritual among primitive tribes, specifically a ritual of puberty. In some of these initiation rites, boys are made to believe that they will either be swallowed up or otherwise killed by a phantom or demonic spirit, and afterward brought back to life. In others (for example from the west of Ceram), the ceremony itself takes place around a hovel in the depth of the forest. When the boys to be initiated have gathered in front of the hovel, the chief priest calls loudly to all the demons, and immediately a terrible uproar is heard from inside the hovel, made by men with bamboo trumpets who have secretly entered from behind. The women and children believe that demons are present, and are full of terror. The priest then enters the hovel, followed by each boy in turn; as soon as a boy has disappeared into the enclosure, a frightful cry is heard and a lance, dripping with blood, is thrown across the roof of the hovel. This causes the onlookers to believe that the boy's head, which the demon wants to carry into the subterranean world and transform, has been cut off. Can we help recalling Edgar in the hovel, haunted by the fiend, and the Fool's calling him ‘a spirit,’ when he finds Edgar inside?

To invoke initiation rites of primitive tribes in an essay on King Lear may seem preposterous, but let us look at Edgar's lines at the very end of the third scene on the heath:

Child Rowland to the dark tower came,
His word was still: Fie, foh, and fum,
I smell the blood of a British man.


In the Arden edition, Kenneth Muir warns us not to associate Rowland, who comes from a well-known ballad about Charlemagne's nephew, with the giant who cries ‘fee, fie, foh, fum’ in the story of Jack the Giant-Killer, for the giant's words are intentionally incongruous with the heroic Childe Rowland. Incongruous they are, of course; still, Harry Levin points to a more profound link between them: ‘As the pair enters the hovel, Edgar's snatches of balladry and fairy-tale transform it into a legendary dark tower, where a young squire is undergoing a ritual of knightly initiation while nameless giants objurgate: “Fie, foh, and fum.”’6 There is a great distance between Levin's ritual of knightly initiation and Cocchiara's primitive rites, but both rites fundamentally involve initiation, and the one is clearly the origin of the other; furthermore, Edgar does become a knight. The squire is in a dark tower, the primitive boy at puberty in a hovel in a dark forest, and by his words, Edgar associates the two, metaphorically transforming the hovel into a dark tower.

The critical reader will find much to question in this material. But even if he rejects parts, the data point to some amazing correspondence between Shakespeare's play and folk tales and the rituals from which they may derive, correspondences which could hardly have been known to Shakespeare, even if he heard a version of this tale in his youth.7 We have noted the parallels to the hovel in the wilderness and to fiends and giants, the hints in some versions of madness and blindness, the allusion to garments and animals, the use of disguise by a banished person, and the links between stories about fathers and a banished young man and those with a banished daughter. Because several of these motifs are very common, a single such correspondence might be dismissed as accidental; indeed hovels, madness, beasts, disguise, are all met in several other folk tales which may have influenced local versions of the Lear tale. Cumulatively, though, they suggest nothing less than that Shakespeare's imagination, dwelling on the significance of the Lear story and reshaping it into a play of profound dramatic impact, recaptured elements from the primitive past that at some time were a fundamental part of its shape and meaning.8 Of course he not only recaptured, he transformed as well, to make of primitive horror and brutality the highest kind of art. To us in an age fearful that primitive forces might utterly overwhelm us, King Lear should be a work of very special meaning and some comfort.


  1. King Learin Our Time (Berkeley 1965) 49-51.

  2. La Leggenda di re Lear (Studi di etnologia e folklore 1) (Torino 1932). I wish to acknowledge assistance from Miss Peggy Bridgland for reading a microfilm of Cocchiara and translating passages from Italian.

  3. But Maynard Mack refers to a story of a king and his two brothers who, when the king travels to them seeking assistance, fail to recognize him (49, n4).

  4. Translated from Cocchiara, who found the tale in J. B. Ortoli Les contes populaires de l'ile de Corse (Paris 1883).

  5. See note 1, above.

  6. In his lecture on ‘The Heights and the Depth: A Scene from King Lear’ in More Talking of Shakespeare ed. John Garrett (New York 1959) 87-103.

  7. Though, again, see Maynard Mack.

  8. I think we can safely say this even though we have no evidence that a folk tale of Lear as such existed long before Shakespeare's time.

Howard Felperin (essay date 1977)

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Last Updated on February 5, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6677

SOURCE: Felperin, Howard. “Plays within Plays: Othello, King Lear, Antony and Cleopatra.” In Shakespearean Representation: Mimesis and Modernity in Elizabethan Tragedy, pp. 68-117. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1977.

[In the following excerpt, Felperin suggests that Shakespeare's King Lear defies both simple moral and absurdist readings—the two principal modes of mid-twentieth century critical interpretation of the drama.]

The ways in which a play's central interpretive problem arises from specific changes Shakespeare has wrought on his traditional models are particularly clear and traceable in the case of King Lear. At least as early as Samuel Johnson's pained observations on the ending of the play, interpretation has concerned itself with what to make of Shakespeare's alteration of the traditional story of Lear and Cordelia away from poetic justice and toward unprecedented suffering. As everyone knows, all of Shakespeare's immediate sources—the old play King Leir, Holinshed's Chronicles, Spenser's Faerie Queene, and A Mirror for Magistrates—present Lear and Cordelia triumphant at last, with virtue rewarded and vice punished. Though some versions return Cordelia to prison, the victim of further rebellion and finally her own suicide, these events occur after Lear's vindication and peaceful death. Moreover, Shakespeare has made other changes which would seem to redouble the deliberate violence of this basic change. For one thing, he has omitted the wealth of consoling Christian and Biblical parallels that interlace the play of Leir, as well as most of the Christian atmosphere that permeates the other versions. Then too, he has included the parallel subplot of Gloucester and his sons, derived from Sidney's Arcadia, and apparently serving to universalize and underscore the cruelties of the Lear action. As if this were not enough, he adds the ordeal of madness to Lear's other afflictions. It is not difficult to see how these changes encourage the two basic possibilities of response I have termed pious and romantic, each of which informs a school of criticism on the play. A neo-romantic or modernist response oriented toward the result of Shakespeare's alterations of his Christian sources rather than the sources themselves has stressed the godless secularity of the play, the paganness of its world, and the unredeemed or “absurd” nature of its suffering. To a more allegorizing and archeological school, however, it remains possible to see through or past Shakespeare's alterations of his Christian sources in order to reconcile the play with them. “Only to earthbound intelligence,” writes one critic, “is Lear pathetically deceived in thinking Cordelia alive. Those familiar with the Morality plays will realize that Lear has found in her unselfish love the one companion who is willing to go with him through Death up to the throne of the Everlasting Judge.”1

These are of course the extreme possibilities of response to the play. But there is a third possibility, more problematic and interesting in that it combines elements of both the modernist and pious approaches to the play in uneasy suspension. This is the view most fully articulated by A. C. Bradley, who represents the culmination of the romantic approach and sees the implications of Shakespeare's changes in their full horror, yet who also cannot resist suggesting that the play might be piously retitled “The Redemption of King Lear.” In his ambivalence Bradley anticipates what has perhaps become the dominant approach to the play, an approach that is not explicitly Christian but that displaces the older Christian meanings into the terms of a secular humanism, the Christian origin and structure of which are still clear. Lear changes, grows, gains wisdom, even a kind of redemption as the result of his suffering, madness, and death. Though Cordelia may not be the incarnate principle of Faith or Love, she is the human mediator of those virtues. Through strenuous exegesis along these lines, a critic such as Maynard Mack can argue for the modernity of the play and at the same time re-assimilate it to the vision of redemption offered in its sources, Shakespeare's departures from them serving only to humanize and deepen that vision by making it harder-earned and by that token more valuable:

If there is any “remorseless process” in King Lear, it is one that begs us to seek the meaning of our human fate not in what becomes of us, but in what we become. Death, as we saw, is miscellaneous and commonplace; it is life whose quality may be made noble and distinctive. Suffering we all recoil from; but we know it is a greater thing to suffer than to lack the feelings and virtues that make it possible to suffer. Cordelia, we may choose to say, accomplished nothing, yet we know it is better to have been Cordelia than to have been her sisters. When we come crying hither, we bring with us the badge of all our misery; but it is also the badge of the vulnerabilities that give us access to whatever grandeur we achieve.2

Quite apart from the statement itself, Mack's conclusion recalls in its rhetoric of contrast and compensation—“Death … life”; “Suffering … a greater thing”; “nothing … better”; “misery … vulnerabilities”—nothing in the play so much as Edgar's own summing-up: “Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say. / The oldest hath borne most: we that are young. …” Of course it also recalls the homiletic rhetorical mode of Shakespeare's own Christian sources, not only the old Leir and A Mirror for Magistrates but the medieval dramatic and visionary tradition that Mack himself discovers behind the play. In the effort to argue the play's modernity, its special relevance for “our time,” Mack draws our attention, stylistically and substantively, to its most conventional and Christian elements.

What is it, then, in the structure of King Lear that moves such critics as Bradley and Mack to reach conclusions manifestly at odds with their own critical premises, the one employing a romantic approach in the service of Christianizing the play, and the other an archeological approach in the name of its presumed modernism? Such paradoxes of critical response can be traced directly to one of the major changes Shakespeare has worked on his sources, the introduction of the story of Gloucester as a reflection of the story of Lear. Bradley was, in fact, among the first to explore the implications of this parallelism, and most commentators since have followed him in seeing its effect as one of mutual reinforcement. The Gloucester subplot, that is, works “to enact and express a further aspect of the Lear experience.”3 It now becomes clearer how the Christianity Shakespeare has apparently taken pains to remove from King Lear finds its way back into its interpretation. For the Gloucester action embodies an essentially Christian structure, or at least a concerted attempt on the part of its principal actors to discover or recreate such a structure:

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


This shows you are above,
You justicers, that these our nether crimes
So speedily can venge. But, O poor Gloucester!
Lost he his other eye?


It was some fiend; therefore, thou happy father,
Think that the clearest gods, who makes them honors
Of men's impossibilities, have preserved thee.


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.


Each of these expressions of belief in divine justice and providential purpose—the most explicit in the play—occurs at a major turning point in the plot, but in each instance it is the Gloucester plot that is involved. If the Gloucester plot is supposed to exist in a mirroring or parallel relation to the Lear plot, it becomes not only possible but inevitable that the Christian structure and sentiment expressed through the former will be transferred to the latter, whatever critical premise we start from.

Yet it is precisely the pervasive Christianizing of the subplot that puts into question its supposed parallelism with the main plot. It is almost as if the older Christian structure deliberately dismantled in the story of Lear is just as deliberately reconstructed in the story of Gloucester, which had been only implicitly Christian in Sidney. With its black-and-white contrasts of good and bad, lawful and illegitimate, “natural” and “unnatural” sons, its clear symmetries of cause and effect, sin and retribution, moral blindness and physical blinding, the Gloucester action is basically as simple and homiletic in structure as any of the neat little “tragedies” of A Mirror for Magistrates and the long medieval tradition of the falls of illustrious men that lies behind it. The Gloucester action, like the medieval and morality-derived models of the Lear action, is not “tragic” at all in the sense we have been exploring. It offers none of the fatal discrepancies between form and experience, role and self, sign and significance that we have seen beset Hamlet and Othello, no heroic casting about for roles and forms to define present experience, and no ironic awareness of their inadequacy even as they are played out. In this respect, the Gloucester-Edgar-Edmund subplot in Lear resembles nothing in the earlier tragedies so much as the Polonius-Laertes-Ophelia subplot in Hamlet, with which it shares the common function of re-enacting a recognizably conventional “tragedy” that throws the more intractable experience of Hamlet and Lear into stark relief. Just as the Polonius subplot turns out to be a simple revenge melodrama with the stock revenger Laertes as protagonist, as latter-day Nemesis, so the Gloucester subplot turns out to be a simple dramatic exemplum illustrating the educative abasement of the complacent sinner. Its essential Christian structure is foreshadowed as early as Kent's casual reply to Gloucester's tasteless jokes over Edmund's bastardizing: “I cannot wish the fault undone, the issue of it being so proper” (I.i.17-18). The action, that is, illustrates a fortunate fall and issues in redemptive suffering, a sadder but wiser man, and a happy death: “his flawed heart … 'Twixt two extremes of passion, joy and grief, / Burst smilingly” (V.iii.198-201). The Gloucester action at no point puts into question its initial assumptions concerning the origin of evil or the meaning of suffering, for in its fulfillment of a conventional Christian design those questions are answered in advance and those answers only confirmed by its outcome. Something always comes of something, evil of illegitimacy and good of legitimacy. The universe of the Gloucester action operates by strict and transparent laws of cause and effect, which are at no point challenged, though of course they can be disobeyed: “I stumbled when I saw.” The assumption here is that he now sees “feelingly” and truly. Just as his “pilgrimage” to Dover has an attainable goal, though it is not the one he intended, so experience has an ascertainable meaning, though it may not be ascertained until the end.

The Gloucester action is designed throughout to illustrate that meaning, negatively and positively, through the theatrical endeavors of Edmund and Edgar. For their histrionics, though morally contrasting, are always of a distinctly programmatic and emblematic kind. Their role-playing, that is, is only skin-deep. In Edgar's appearance as Poor Tom and later as unnamed challenger, there is nothing of the groping toward self-definition we associate with Shakespearean tragic role-playing. His roles are as easily and completely put on and off as the costume or vizor they depend on: “Edgar I nothing am” (II.ii.21). They are mere expedients contrived for the temporary purpose of preserving himself, bringing Gloucester through despair to repentance, and recovering his own legitimate rights, and once they have successfully achieved those purposes they are shed as the mere disguises they are. Edmund's role-playing is equally superficial. There is none of the mystery behind his Vice-like plot of ambition and intrigue that there is in the case of Iago, with whom he is often misleadingly equated. Edmund's “motivation” is only too clear from the patronizing treatment we see him receive at Gloucester's hands and from his own soliloquy on his status as bastard. To be a bastard is, as Edmund makes clear, to be superfluous, to have no rightful or legal place within the social structure. He therefore attempts to legitimate himself in the name of an amoral nature that exists prior to social forms, to create a rival structure proceeding from and centered on the self. All this is perfectly logical, as Richard III's “And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover … / I am determined to prove a villain” (Richard III, I.i.28-30) is logical. But in neither case is it psychological; it points to no hidden depths. Edmund has in fact more in common with such early and morality-derived Shakespearean villains as Aaron the Moor, Don John, and Richard III, who carry around with them an external sign or stigma that serves as badge and pretext for their villainy, than he does with Iago, whose alienation goes deeper and carries no badge, who is at some level a mystery to himself, and whose cultivation of a Vice-like evil can be neither fully explained nor fully demystified. For unlike that of Iago, Edmund's role can be put off as easily as it was put on: “Yet Edmund was beloved … some good I mean to do / Despite of mine own nature” (V.iii.241-246). Of course the scene of Edmund's “reformation” is no less naturalistic, no more openly homiletic in conception and derivation, than the scene of Gloucester's “suicide” and “salvation” stage-managed by Edgar. But then, these moments are not to be regarded as lapses on the part of a Shakespeare aiming at naturalistic consistency but here and there falling short of his mark. For it is within the Gloucester action that these “lapses,” which are part and parcel of its homiletic structure, moral emblematization, and allegorical motivation, are largely confined.4 The air of contrivance that hangs about the Gloucester action is pervasive, and it smells of morality.

Why, then, is the Gloucester action not more generally recognized to be deliberately archaic and artificial but is discussed instead as if it possessed or ought to possess a naturalistic coherence comparable to that of the Lear action? Here again the presupposition of a mutually reinforcing parallelism between the two plots is the source of potential misinterpretation. Just as the assumption of parallelism tempts us to expect from the Lear action a Christian allegorical coherence it does not have, so too it tempts us to expect from the Gloucester action a naturalistic coherence and dimensionality it does not have. Edgar's rhyming conclusion to the play, for example, in which he enjoins all present to “speak what we feel, not what we ought to say,” is often cited and discussed as if it constituted a deep and authentic response to the play's tragic experience and confirmed Edgar's wisdom and humanity. This is particularly ironic and revealing in so far as the speech may well belong to Albany—only the folio assigns it to Edgar—and it would make little difference if it were spoken by Albany. For quite apart from its choric conventionality familiar from previous summings-up by the likes of Horatio and Fortinbras, Cassio and Lodovico, the speech actually indicts its own speaker and its own idiom for having consistently done just the opposite. Edgar and Albany, who serve within the play as interpreters of Gloucester's experience, have throughout traded in a consoling and instructive morality with an unself-questioning assurance and an easy credulity that puts into question what it is they feel and whether they feel at all. Albany's assertions, for example, of divine justice—“This shows you are above / You justicers … But, O poor Gloucester! / Lost he his other eye?”—or his re-assertion at the end of its secular counterpart—“All friends shall taste / The wages of their virtue, and all foes / The cup of their deservings. O, see, see!” (V.ii.304-306)—are dramatically undermined by events that would seem blatantly to contradict them: the loss of Gloucester's other eye, the death-pangs of Lear. But when faced with the choice between revising their Christian vision in the face of adverse experience and simply reasserting that vision, such characters as Albany and Edgar invariably choose the latter course, persist in speaking what they “ought to say” at the expense of what they “feel.” Or perhaps for such determined moralists there is finally no consciousness of a gap between saying and feeling, since their action is shaped by them precisely to do away with all such discrepancies by containing, in the manner of medieval allegory, its own interpretation within it. The temptation to which many, if not most, commentators on the subplot have succumbed has been to follow their example and suppress their own sense of difference between the voice of convention and the voice of feeling—that is to say, between the subplot and the main plot.5

This is not finally to suggest, as up to now I may have seemed to be doing, that Shakespeare has indeed purged the Lear action of all remnants of older Christian dramatic convention. On the contrary, the main action often turns toward conventions of emblem and allegory not essentially different from those that govern the subplot, despite the fact that Shakespeare has in the end denied the poetic justice of his Christian sources. The very first scene of the division of the kingdom, for example, with its emblematic map and ritualistic speeches has struck many as archaic and antinaturalistic, a scene out of fairy-tale. In fact it recalls, in its stylized presentation of kingly pride and folly, the opening scene of one of the oldest extant moralities, The Pride of Life (1425) or, closer to home, the opening scene of Gorboduc (1562). Like his prototypes, Lear persists, against the admonitions of his wise counselors, in a course that proves disastrous, and, like them too, lives to repent of his actions. Given this initial and basic resemblance between the structure of the play and such models as these, a resemblance that has clearly survived Shakespeare's reworking of his immediate sources, it is little wonder that Bradley and others have glimpsed a vision of redemption in the play. Nor are these resemblances confined to the opening scene or the overarching structure of the Lear action. They reappear in many of its local details: in the banishment and stocking of the forthright Kent as the figure of Justice in several moralities had been banished and stocked; in Lear's homily on charity on the heath; in his mock trial of his daughters and indictments of earthly justice; in his madness itself, for which there are precedents in pictorial and morality tradition if not in the play's actual sources; in the vision of redemption Lear superimposes on Cordelia at his reunion and again even amid the shambles of the closing scene. And given this wealth of archaic reference within the Lear action, the question arises: why does all that has just been said of the gross conventionality of the Gloucester action not apply to it as well? What is it that makes the one modern, mimetic, and tragic and the other conventional and pseudo-tragic?

What distinguishes the main plot from the subplot is not the extent to which but the manner in which these older conventions are employed. In fact, the opening scene of the Lear action is much closer to the moralities in its ritual stylization than is the more domesticated and fluent opening scene of the Gloucester action. For that opening scene, staged by Lear himself, proceeds from and reflects his absolute confidence in the sacred authority of his role of king and the perfect correspondence among the natural, moral, and linguistic orders that supports it. In the security of this traditional vision of the world, Lear cannot imagine any possible disjuncture between role and self, appearance and reality, “sentence and power,” signum and res. Hence his surprise at Cordelia's unprogrammatic response of “nothing” and Kent's irreverent rejoinder to “see better.” It is against this initial morality vision of sacred unity that Lear's descent into a more modern and secular perception of ironic discontinuity is defined. The movement of the Lear action away from a morality vision thus opposes and crosses that of the Gloucester action toward a morality vision. Of course Lear does not abandon his original mode of vision immediately or willingly. He clings to his former way of seeing himself and his world, curses his daughters with a residual belief in the magical efficacy of his word, and calls down “plagues that in the pendulous air / Hang fated o'er men's faults” (III.iv.65-66). But these invocations of a morality scheme of divine justice inherent in the natural order now ring increasingly hollow even to him and almost as he utters them: “What is the cause of thunder?” (III.iv.146); “Is there any cause in nature that makes these hard hearts” ( The change that Lear undergoes in the course of his play is not a change from one moral state to another, such as from pride to charity, but a change away from self-definition in terms of moral categories altogether and toward a new sense of existential indeterminacy, the very opposite of Gloucester's change. For whereas Gloucester is increasingly allegorized within his action, Lear is increasingly humanized within his, though not in the sense of becoming more humane—witness his cruel greeting of the blinded Gloucester and his accusations of the reassembled court as “murderers, traitors all” (V.ii.271)—but in the sense of becoming more fully and merely human.

This is not to suggest that he does not continue to fall back on moral categories of self-definition, but that he recognizes them to be somehow inadequate even as he does so. His set speech on charity toward the “poor, naked wretches,” (III.iv.28-36), for example, is right out of morality tradition and often cited as the beginning of Lear's moral re-education. But its imperative mood (“Take physic pomp”) gives way by the end of the homily to the subjunctive and optative mood (“That thou may'st shake the superflux to them / and show the heavens more just”). Man, by practicing charity, can only hope to show the heavens more just; he cannot make them so. Similarly, his mad reenactments of the forms of justice on the heath work to undermine the morality vision they represent. In that older drama, the satiric castigation of judicial corruption deals in such negative exempla as Lear offers, but only on the way to establishing a vision of true justice. Lear's recourse in his madness to this strain of morality rhetoric and imagery, however, works to strip away these social and religious legitimations to the emptiness and arbitrariness of the idea of justice itself, its fundamental disjuncture from a human nature that exists beneath or beyond moral and legal categories. Vice and guilt do not exist—“Die for adultery? No … None does offend” (—and neither does virtue and innocence: “Behold yond simp'ring dame … / The fitchew nor the soiled horse goes to 't / With a more riotous appetite” ( Lear's view of the discrepancy between social forms and the human nature to which they are supposed to correspond is not at this point very far from Edmund's. The difference between them is not in moral outlook but in mimetic realization. Edmund holds his views lightly and complacently as a means of justifying himself and his actions; Lear comes to his reluctantly and painfully, after a lifetime of believing the opposite and against his present interests. Uniquely in the play, Lear's adoption of morality forms leads in each local instance and within his larger itinerary to a desperate fluctuation between his maddening perception of their inadequacy and a wishful retreat into the shelter they provide, however momentary.6

This breakdown of the morality forms by which the social order and the individual mind maintain their stability conditions not only Lear's madness in particular but Shakespearean madness in general. For the roles and forms of morality convention, as we have repeatedly seen, are employed by Shakespeare's characters as a protection against the confusion of raw experience, a screen that selectively permits only that which can be made sense of within a predetermined order to reach the perceiving mind. But it is an inflexible screen, whose very rigidity renders it breakable, exposing the self to that which it can no longer process. It is only Shakespeare's protagonists—Hamlet, Othello, Lear, and Lady Macbeth—as characters whose role-playing is precarious and whose naked humanity is therefore most vulnerable, who are capable of true madness. Their foils are immune to madness, precisely because they are too thoroughly engrossed in their protective roles for an underlying self ever to be exposed in its naked frailty. Lear in his madness thus stands in contrast to Gloucester, who naively wishes he could go mad like Lear, mistaking madness for a protection against pain when it is in fact an exposure to it:

The King is mad: how stiff is my vile sense,
That I stand up, and have ingenious feeling
Of my huge sorrows! Better I were distract:
So should my thoughts be severed from my griefs,
And woes by wrong imaginations lose
The knowledge of themselves.


Like his nakedness—to which it is the psychological correlative—Lear's madness also stands in contrast to Edgar's stagy and conventional madtalk of “sin” and “foul fiends.” Edgar's “madness,” as a role based upon a wholly traditional and external view of madness as demonic possession, is actually the antithesis of the true madness of Lear, since the latter arises from the breakdown of roles whereas the former is itself a role and therefore a protection against a maddening overperception. Like Edgar's mock-beggary, also deriving from a long tradition of moral iconography, his mock-madness is thus a shadow or parody of “the thing itself.” It has the status of a sign emptied of its significance and divorced from the realities of nakedness and madness to which it refers, the absent referent in both cases being supplied by Lear. Within the universe of Shakespearean tragedy, madness is thus the opposite pole to morality, a vision of undifferentiated anarchy as opposed to one of a wholly mapped-out order.

The temptation at this point is to grant this vision of madness and absurdity a privileged status and equate it with the meaning of the play. But this tendency is only the modernist counterpart of the archeological tendency to do the same with the earlier vision of morality, and is no more valid. Because Lear's vision of madness is an inversion of his vision of morality, it remains dependent on it, derives its terms from it, and is capable of being turned back into it. This is exactly what happens, for neither morality nor madness constitutes a resting-point for Lear or Shakespeare, and both are left behind on the way to a truer, more austere mimesis. The fact is that Lear is able to maintain neither the complacent vision he shared with his society at the beginning nor the painful counter-vision he comes to in his alienation, though he tries desperately to maintain each in turn. For when he awakens from his ordeal in the presence of Cordelia, he would seem to have renounced his restless probing for a demystified and naturalistic explanation of his world. Cordelia seems to him “a soul in bliss,” his madness the infernal or purgatorial punishment of “a wheel of fire,” and his recovery nothing less than a resurrection wrought by this “spirit” to whom he now kneels and prays for benediction. Not only has Lear renounced his maddening effort to explain the world, to find out its true causes, he has renounced the world itself. In a spirit of contemptus mundi, he resigns all interest in the vindication he had formerly tried to call down on his persecutors, leaving them to “The good years” (V.iii.24) of plague and pestilence to be devoured in due course. He welcomes his life with Cordelia in prison with a religious joy, as if it were a posthumous or monastic existence removed from the mutability of earthly life. Indeed, Lear has awakened to find himself, like several converted morality protagonists before him, clothed in the fresh garments traditionally emblematic of an inner and spiritual reaccommodation.7 Nowhere in the play is the return to an older morality vision so pure and complete, so strenuously and extravagantly reenacted—for we are still in the realm of histrionic recreation—as it is by Lear himself at the start of the final act. The play has all but reunited with its prototype, the wheel of interpretation come full circle.

If King Lear had ended here, we should still have had to say that Shakespeare has altered his sources significantly and, in so doing, achieved a representation of human depth and complexity quite beyond them and very much of the order of displaced Christian vision ascribed to the play by Bradley and Mack. But the final stage in the process of mimetic realization toward which the play moves consists in a still more radical putting into question of all prior visions—the vision of morality taken over from its sources and the counter-vision of madness introduced by Shakespeare alike—and that process has at this point only begun. For when Lear reenters shortly afterward with Cordelia in his arms, he no longer speaks in the recovered language of morality but in his earlier language of madness: “Howl, howl, howl, howl … / I know when one is dead and when one lives; / She's dead as earth” (V.iii.259-263). Yet by the end of this speech, he is calling for a looking-glass in the hope of life, which he then discovers in the very terms of Christian mystery: “This feather stirs; she lives. If it be so, / It is a chance which does redeem all sorrows / That ever I have felt” (V.iii.267-269). Again, the play might well have ended here on this act of recuperation, however tentative, of the older vision. But it does not: “A plague upon you, murderers, traitors all! / I might have saved her. …” Or it could have ended soon afterward with Albany's assertion, however muted, of a restored justice of rewards and punishments. But it does not:

And my poor fool is hanged: no, no, no life?
Why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life,
And thou no breath at all? Thou'lt come no more,
Never, never, never, never, never.
Pray you, undo this button. Thank you, sir.


Lear's fluctuation between the visions of morality and madness, meaning and absurdity, accommodation and disaccommodation becomes dizzying in its intensity. But still it seems to go on: “Do you see this? Look on her. Look, her lips, / Look there, look there.” These parting lines might well be interpreted as another and final access of faith or delusion, yet they are themselves remarkably free of the mythologizations of either morality or madness, which have been only preludes to this moment and are now left behind. Lear's language and gesture now proceed not out of a convention of vision but out of a depth and fullness of feeling that is unquestionably “there” but unfathomable in its inwardness. His last lines merely point to a form that has also been “there” all along, though repeatedly misconstrued and overlooked, with no longer any attempt to define it. In the end, the play renounces its own mediations of morality and madness alike and redirects our attention to an undetermined reality that exists prior to and remains unavailable to both.

In the play that has come to be regarded as the definitive achievement of Shakespearean tragedy, Shakespeare has certainly not made things easy for us. For he leaves us in the end with not a choice of either morality and meaning or madness and absurdity, but more like an ultimatum of neither morality and meaning nor madness and absurdity, an ultimatum that becomes inescapable as a result of Lear's own strenuous and futile effort to remain within the realm of choice. Lear enacts in advance our own dilemma as interpreters, alternating between antithetical visions of experience, only to abandon both in favor of a pure and simple pointing to the thing itself. Interpreters of the play, like Albany, Kent, and Edgar within it, have been understandably reluctant to follow him into this state of aporia, of being completely at a loss, so peremptory is the human need to make sense of things, to find unity, coherence, resolution in the world of the text and the text of the world. Yet the aporia toward which not only Lear, but Shakespeare's other great tragedies, move represents the very negation of the possibility of unity, coherence, and resolution, of the accommodation that all our systems of explanation provide, be they pious or modernist, consoling or painful, older or newer. In his dizzying fluctuation between contradictory meanings, Lear reenacts the intense shifting between demystification and remystification of the self we saw in Othello's closing speech, which also ends with an act of pointing. We saw a similar movement in Hamlet's division between a last-gasp impulse to shape and tell his story—“O, I could tell you!”—and his equal and opposite impulse to repudiate self-mythologization altogether and return his play to the status of the most inexplicable dumb-show of all—“The rest is silence.” Yet this very process of casting off inherited forms and imposed meanings to point to the thing itself only invites their reimposition. Like Horatio and Fortinbras, Cassio and Lodovico, Edgar and Albany, we feel we still can and must report Hamlet's story to the world and tell Othello and Lear who they are, even though they themselves, possessed of larger, tougher, and finer minds than we, have anticipated our attempt and thrown up their hands. The characters we can denote truly—Laertes, Cassio, Gloucester—do not ask to be told who they are, for such characters are content to remain within the defining forms that tradition provides and that society, with the wisdom of self-preservation, maintains as “true.” Unlike his interpreters and his own choric commentators, however, Shakespeare never succumbs to the rhetorical pressure of the traditional forms he employs, to their built-in claim to have made sense of the world, but keeps them always in brackets and puts them ultimately into question. The Shakespearean text remains a step ahead of its critics, even at the very moment we think we have caught up with it. …


  1. O. J. Campbell, “The Salvation of Lear,” ELH, XV (1948), p. 107. A useful review of Christian and existentialist, optimist and pessimist readings of the play is provided by William R. Elton in the opening chapter of his study of its renaissance theological content and context, King Lear and the Gods (San Marino, 1966).

  2. King Lear in Our Time (Berkeley, 1965), p. 117.

  3. L. C. Knights, “The Question of Character in Shakespeare,” in More Talking of Shakespeare, ed. John Garrett (London, 1959), p. 66. Quoted with approval by Maynard Mack, p. 71. The locus classicus of this view within Shakespearean criticism is to be found in A. C. Bradley: “The secondary plot fills out a story which would by itself have been somewhat thin. … This repetition does not simply double the pain with which the tragedy is witnessed: it startles and terrifies by suggesting that the folly of Lear and the ingratitude of his daughters are no accidents or merely individual aberrations, but in that dark cold world some fateful malignant influence is abroad, turning the hearts of the fathers against their children and of the children against their fathers, smiting the earth with a curse, so that the brother gives the brother to death and the father the son, blinding the eyes, maddening the brain, freezing the springs of pity, numbing all powers except the nerves of anguish and the dull lust of life.” Shakespearean Tragedy (New York, 1904, reprinted 1955), pp. 210-211. Like Mack and most others, Bradley transfers the superstitious or pious view of moral causality expressed by Gloucester onto the Lear action and proceeds to expound that view in the rhetoric of Christian homiletic.

  4. Bradley, for example, lists a number of “improbabilities” and “inconsistencies” in the play: Edmund's ruse of writing a letter when he and Edgar live in the same house; Gloucester's journey to Dover to destroy himself when he might have done it closer to home; Edgar's unexplained decision not to reveal himself to his father; and so on. Bradley does state, however, that the improbabilities he lists are “particularly noticeable in the secondary plot.” Shakespearean Tragedy, pp. 207-208.

  5. Despite the pervasiveness of the critical tendency to assimilate the two actions to one another, a nagging sense of tonal and structural difference is expressed by some critics. Bradley himself qualifies his assertion of a mutually reinforcing parallelism by stating that the subplot “provides a most effective contrast between its personages and those of the main plot, the tragic strength and stature of the latter being heightened by comparison with the slighter build of the former.” Shakespearean Tragedy, pp. 210-211. See, for example, Alvin B. Kernan, “Formalism and Realism in Elizabethan Drama: The Miracles in King Lear,Renaissance Drama IX (1966), pp. 59-66; Sigurd Burckhardt, Shakespearean Meanings (Princeton, 1968), pp. 237-259; and Richard Levin, The Multiple Plot in English Renaissance Drama (Chicago, 1971), pp. 12-13. The “grotesque awkwardness,” “mediacy,” and “externality” which these critics respectively find in the subplot are all a function of its deliberate archaism and conventionality in contrast to the main plot.

  6. In contrast to the easy volubility and willing credulity with which the characters of the subplot express and accept a moral for all occasions, Lear repeatedly displays a problematic relation to language itself almost from the beginning:

    Who is it that can tell me who I am?


    I can scarce speak to thee. Thou'lt not believe
    With how depraved a quality—O Regan!


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


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


    These failures of speech, stammerings, outcries have no counterpart among the characters of the subplot, who are never at a loss for words. They point to the larger frustration and failure on the part of the principals—for Cordelia has foreseen the condition Lear discovers—to find an expressive form for feeling and action in the dramatic language of morality convention. By contrast, even Gloucester's “despair” is cogently expressed, and his own wavering between despair and faith is more a parody than a parallel of Lear's fluctuations. The “ill thoughts” he falls into after Edgar has indoctrinated him at Dover may correspond to Lear's own relapses into incoherence after his recuperation in the presence of Cordelia, but whereas Gloucester's wavering “'twixt joy and grief” is finally and happily resolved into joy as his heart bursts “smilingly,” Lear's desperate fluctuation between morality and madness, as we shall see, goes too deep to achieve resolution.

  7. In the early morality, Wisdom, Who Is Christ (1425), for example, the regeneration of the protagonist Anima is marked by the following stage direction: “Here entrethe ANIMA, wyth the Fyve Wyttys goynge before, MYNDE on the on syde and WNDYRSTONDYNGE on the other syde and WYLL followyng, all in here fyrst clothynge. …” The Macro Plays, ed. Mark Eccles (E.E.T.S., Oxford, 1969), p. 149. On the significance of changes of costume in morality tradition, see T. W. Craik, The Tudor Interlude: Stage, Costume, and Acting (Leicester, 1967), pp. 49-92. Shakespeare calls attention to the fresh garments worn by his protagonists in similar moments of reunion and restoration in Pericles and The Tempest.

Edward Pechter (essay date summer 1978)

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Last Updated on February 5, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8636

SOURCE: Pechter, Edward. “On the Blinding of Gloucester.” ELH 45, no. 2 (summer 1978): 181-200.

[In the following essay, Pechter elucidates a pattern of vengeance, punishment, and suffering in King Lear.]

We are in the midst of a revolution in Lear criticism. Only six years ago A. L. French declared:

I can confidently say that there is a received reading of Lear—‘received’ in the sense that pretty well everyone seems to accept it. It is a reading that reached full explicitness in Bradley … [who] proposed that we should change the title to “The Redemption of King Lear”, because the intention of the gods was ‘neither to torment him, nor to teach him a “noble anger,” but to lead him to attain through apparently hopeless failure the very end and aim of life’. In the Bradleyan context, ‘redemption’, and … ‘purification’ … don't have any specifically theological overtones; but in his successors such overtones become deafening and are generally associated with a sort of unctuous religiosity which I, for one, find most distateful in itself as well as absurdly inappropriate to the spirit of Shakespeare's play.1

French writes more in prophetic anger than in sorrow, but he is no longer prophetically alone. A large number of powerful articles and books in the last few years have turned the voice crying in the wilderness into a chorus. The “new King Lear,” as Barbara Everett called the Redemptivist reading in a pioneering essay in 1960, has become instant old.2

What has replaced it is a view that emphasizes the play's power to inflict suffering, both on its characters and on its audience. In this sense the current King Lear constitutes—and in many cases quite consciously—a return to the frank and famous admission of Samuel Johnson: “I was many years ago so shocked by Cordelia's death that I know not whether I ever endured to read again the last scenes of the play till I undertook to revise them as an editor.”3 We have come to repossess Johnson's anguish as our own. We have ceased to smile at his qualified endorsement of Tate's happy ending and have come to recognize that the Redemptivist reading is simply a sophisticated re-Tatification of the play. Though Cordelia loses the battle and dies, and though Lear dies, their spiritual transcendence is all that matters, her love and forgiveness remain the most fundamental reality of all, despite everything, at the burning core. All of which is to say that she does indeed “retire … with victory and felicity,” as Johnson described Tate's happy ending, after all.

What Tate and the Redemptivists (and in their own way the Absurdists) attempt to do is to protect us from the play, render us invulnerable—whether through plot changes or through the imposition of systems of meaning—to the extraordinary power of King Lear to make us suffer. Through them we can speak what we ought to say, not what we feel—indeed, not even feel it. No wonder Edgar so often emerges as an authorial mouthpiece in the Redemptivist view; his endeavour throughout the play is to control experience by reorganizing it into “patterns” of significance. (And no wonder, incidentally, that Edgar has fared so badly in the contemporary reevaluation of the play.)

There are, of course, two notorious instances of the play's brutality towards us: the blinding of Gloucester (or more precisely our being made to witness Gloucester's blinding), and the crushing of our hopes at the end with Cordelia's murder. But the play's violence pervades generally and inheres deeply in the way it presents its characters and involves its audience. Shakespeare usually unfolds character gradually; as Bernard McElroy puts it, “We get to know a fair amount about him [the protagonist] before he performs his most crucial actions.”4 But in this play we are confronted with sudden and inexplicable eruptions of savage will. I am thinking of the beginning, of course, but the whole play is like that—as pervasively in the imperative mood, Maynard Mack tells us, as Hamlet is in the interrogative: “In King Lear we are not permitted to experience violence as an externalization of a psychological drama which has priority in time and significance, and which therefore partly palliates the violence when it comes.”5 When at the end of the first scene Regan says about the threat Lear represents, “We shall further think of it,” Goneril's rebuke describes a model for nearly all the characters throughout the play: “We must do something, and i' th' heat.”6

And so must we, so we are made to feel—that's the point I would emphasize. Of course as spectators we can't do anything, not physically in any event, or no more than the “very pretty lady” in Pepys's Diary who “called out to see Desdemona smothered.”7 In the main our range of response is limited to mental action—sympathy, antipathy, perhaps judgment; and no other play of Shakespeare's—no other play, to my knowledge—involves an audience so directly and so deeply with its characters.8

This may help to explain the quasi-allegorical strain in much of the Redemptivist criticism from Bradley onwards, the tendency to see the play's characters in terms of antithetical absolutes. To take a minor example, but one I shall want to come back to, when Maynard Mack comments about Kent's violent attack upon Oswald that “the ‘gentleman of blood and breeding’ puts Goneril's ‘gentleman’ to rout by power of nature” (105), he is one among many critics who detect an ethically symbolic significance in the encounter between the two servants. Kent himself is the source of this view in this scene; “No contraries hold more antipathy / Than I and such a knave,” he tells Cornwall and the others. And Kent is the source of a similar kind of interpretation later in the play when he distinguishes between the good and evil among Lear's daughters:

It is the stars,
The stars above us, govern our conditions,
Else one self mate and make could not beget
Such different issues.

This kind of response to King Lear is inevitable, both for the characters within the play and for us watching it. It is totally false to pretend that we stand aloof from this kind of impassioned utterance, clucking about dramatic irony. There is something absolutely natural (to use a term of some importance in King Lear) about wanting to justify intense feelings in terms of a larger structure of objective reality. We see Kent (or Lear or Albany or Edgar elsewhere), driven by the violent stress of their experience to presume a knowledge of supernatural powers that seems to give coherent meaning to their agony, and we too answer to the genuine human need—a need too deep for reason—and find ourselves requiring some kind of intellectual control within which to locate our response—our sympathy for Kent, our revulsion from Oswald, say—if we are not to be overwhelmed.

In this respect at least, the play is better served by the Redemptivists than it is by the current Revisionists, or by those Revisionists who, for example, turn the confrontation between Kent and Oswald into so subtle an exercise in dramatic ambivalence that it is impossible to determine whose side we're on, if either.9 Yet the allegorical reading does, finally, wither under analysis. If the play invites and even necessitates such a view, it does not allow us to sustain it. On the contrary, like Edgar, welcoming what he thinks is the worst and then meeting his blinded father, we are never permitted by the play to rest secure in the philosophical or ethical or theological shelters we have built to preserve ourselves. If there is a single pattern in the play it is this: first the provocation of a passionately direct response, then the felt need to justify that response, finally the awareness of deep-seated error in this justification. We are made to pay for our mistakes in King Lear, and it hurts, over and over again, to have to beat at this gate that lets our folly in.

Recent critics have been concerned not only to describe the play's power to hurt us, but to demonstrate that this effect proceeds from a willful, intentional strategy of the play, its “method” or “design.”10 The ending is the most obvious case in point. As many critics have pointed out, the notion of a happy ending figured forth in the images of Cordelia and Dover is insistently hammered into the audience's consciousness. In an article called “Cordelia's Return in King Lear,” Waldo MacNeir counts “six distinct references to this theme between II.ii and III.vii … suggesting stability, repose, and relief from torment if the protagonists … can reach the sanctuary offered by Cordelia.”11 As Nicholas Brooke puts it, commenting on Kent's meeting with the Gentleman at the beginning of Act III:

Dover re-echoes through the next two Acts as an emblem of renewal, towards which everyone moves as towards the light at the end of a tunnel. It functions, effectively enough, as an arbitrary symbol derived simply from the facts of the story, and given significance by its context, and by the harmonious rhythms that go with it (though it may also carry associations of a ‘port in a storm’, together with its traditional place as ‘home’ to English travellers abroad). Thus a regenerative movement is set going (developing from Kent's soliloquy in II. ii) before the storm reaches its full violence. That violence will not, we are assured, be the play's final comment; an impulse towards tragi-comedy (implying a happy ending) is felt already here, and it will grow strongly in Act IV.12

But the play develops these expectations only to shatter them, and this leads to the fundamental question about King Lear: Why do we tolerate it, even value it, in its capacity to cause us pain? Do we seek pain? For Johnson it was unreasonable to do so, and we have our own clinical terms to describe such a pathology. Yet as French points out, once we recognize as illusory the Redemptivist view, which always involves one version or another of the suffering-builds-men topos, it is not clear what is left.13 Most of the current Revisionists, by ignoring or evading the question, seem to imply that suffering is in itself a good experience, and in some cases this is made explicit in the name of such evidently fashionable counters as Reality, Absurdity, our-inhabiting-an-imbecile-universe, the Theater of Cruelty and the like. These terms can point to some quantity of truth about the play, probably no less (and no more) than their sentimental counterparts, love, forgiveness, renewal; but they too remain vague, evasive and anesthetic. In contrast let me propose a remark of Lionel Trilling's, that “whenever the characters of a story suffer, they do so at the behest of their author—the author is responsible for their suffering and must justify his cruelty by the seriousness of his moral intention.”14 Whatever may seem fusty in this, at least it raises in a general form the question that has to be asked about King Lear, a question that S. L. Goldberg alone among modern critics tries seriously to answer: “Cordelia's death shatters Lear, of course; but as Johnson saw, it shatters the emergent pattern we have glimpsed, which gradually aroused and then seemed about to satisfy our desire for some vindicating design. And as Johnson quite fairly asked, why should Shakespeare do that?” (8).

Goldberg's answer is a complicated one, worked out in detail throughout his demanding and tremendously impressive book, and it involves recognizing a complicity between audience and character that makes us come to accept the punishments to which this play submits us as somehow right. “It may perhaps be,” Goldberg says, “that the last scene is so unbearable not because it denies us the justice we want, but because it gives it to us” (14). This is fundamentally how I see the play, and I should like to record an enormous debt to Goldberg's book; but even he, it seems to me, finally fails to perceive how literally and deeply complicit the play makes us in its developing action, and one measure of this is the way in which the justice he speaks of at the end is abstracted from the immediacy of our involvement with that part of the play, Cordelia's death remaining, in his view, arbitrary, our sense of responsibility for it limited to the way in which we had responded only to earlier parts of the play.

I keep returning to the ending as if I have forgotten that it is Gloucester's blinding which is my subject. But the two are inseparable, and not only in being the climactic, definitive examples of the play's power to make us suffer. For the blinding itself achieves its full power only in the context of our developing expectations about the play's conclusion—our “sense of an ending,” to use Frank Kermode's punning phrase. Although these expectations surrounding Cordelia and Dover are only “gradually aroused,” and although they “grow strongly in Act IV,” they have already been aroused to substantial strength by the end of the third Act. The brutal repetition of the question, “Wherefore to Dover?” is central to our experience of the scene, for it is addressed by the play to us as well as by Gloucester's torturers to him; and in having to answer it, we are made not only to share Gloucester's agony, but perhaps to accept it as, for its horrendousness, something unambiguously like justice itself.

We first hear about Cordelia from Kent at the end of II.ii. He is speaking from the stocks, and the humiliating position accounts for a great deal of the power of his speech, not only because of where he is but how he got there. The speech, in other words, grows out of the experience of the whole scene, whose pattern I should like to trace.

The scene begins with Kent's jabbing insults to Oswald, moves quickly to a sustained tongue lashing and climaxes with an actual beating. It is a wonderfully exhilarating few minutes, for us as well as for Kent, the more so in contrast to the preceding scenes which have perplexed, pained and frustrated us, denied us anything like a full release of feeling. As Helen Gardner remarks, “The scene of Kent's quarrel with Oswald … always arouses delighted laughter in the theatre and affords genuine relief to the audience's feelings.”15 The play has established Kent as a reliable, choric figure from the very beginning, and despite the judgments on his violence here in the contemporary Revisionist view, it seems to me clearly central to this scene's strategy that we trust him unambiguously, participate with him in his triumph. In the face of Oswald's astonished retreat, “Why dost thou use me thus? I know thee not,” Kent's answer, “Fellow, I know thee,” has an irresistible authority, especially in its echo of Cordelia's assertion at the end of the first scene, “I know you what you are,” and the contrasting echo of Lear earlier, not in assertion but in question, “Does any here know me? … Who is it that can tell me who I am?” Though Kent has descended from the metastases and couplets that had characterized his style (like Cordelia's and France's) at the beginning of the play, his voice is still rich with rhetorical ethos, resonant with the authoritative tone that we fain call master. If as I pointed out the scene is consistently allegorized (nature vs. nurture, nature vs. art, good servant vs. bad servant, good vs. evil), it is the scene itself that encourages such a response, even demands it. At the very least we feel that Kent strikes blows for justice, and the thrill of moral rectitude contributes substantially to the easy fullness of our laughter here.

The scene changes when Edmund, Cornwall and the others enter, descending gradually from the climax of Kent's triumph, sinking finally into his humiliating disgrace. For a time Kent maintains his tone of violent rebuke, but he is reduced systematically, first to irony, then to a kind of apology, a kind of pleading, at last to silence and an acceptance of his punishment. As Kent's power diminishes, Cornwall's is consolidated. It is Cornwall's turn now to say, “These kind of knaves I know.” We may with Mack and other Redemptivists declare the point to be that the evil forces have the power and that a dog is obeyed in office; but if Shakespeare wanted to furnish us with such a comforting (because uninvolving) sense, he has gone about it very oddly. Cornwall is made no dog here. On the contrary, the scene presents his interposition as temperate and remarkably tolerant. “What is your difference? speak,” Cornwall asks, but Kent's righteous indignation can manage first only more threats of violence and finally an evasively general denunciation of Oswald. Gloucester then intervenes and re-asks Cornwall's question, “How fell you out? say that.” (That sympathetic Gloucester, as ever the cautious peace-maker who “would have all well,” is seconding Cornwall's role here, incidentally, is one indication how wrong the Redemptivists are about this part of the scene.) Kent's answer to Gloucester is the one I have already noted: “No contraries hold more antipathy / Than I and such a knave.” A fine affirmation of the moral order, this, of the instinctive abhorrence of Good for Evil: Impossible to think that one self make and mate could have begotten such different issues as the King's and Goneril's servants. But if it strikes us as hollow here, it is because we are growing detached from Kent, sensing in his evasiveness not so much a righteous refusal to answer to Cornwall as an inability cloaked in self-righteousness. His invocation of the allegorical is made in the absence of much literal substance. “Why dost thou call him knave?” Cornwall asks reasonably enough. “What is his fault?” Kent's answer, “His countenance likes me not,” is embarrassingly empty. It is around this point in the scene (though not before) that the Revisionists are right to insist on our sense (though only a retrospective sense) of Kent as the unprovoked aggressor who, in Goldberg's words, “evidently feels free to let his aggression loose … as if his moral responsibility for it were actively subsumed by a larger authority outside himself” (70-71). Yet to stand in judgment of Kent is to judge ourselves, who in the earlier part of the scene had felt free to let our own aggression loose, and for the same reason; as if the simplistically moralistic, symbolic structure felt to exist in the drama absolved us from any responsibility for constraining or even examining the nature of our own response.

To generalize now about the scene's strategy, the shape of its experience for us: It is a simple shape, an arc, up and down. We are made to respond and then punished for our response, like Kent himself. “Anger hath a privilege,” Kent says, and the word suggests our deeper involvement, not just with Kent but with Lear himself. Anger is Lear's way, the instinctive rage against a hostile, ungrateful, unjust universe, and this scene makes it clear that it is our way as well. We are often piously assured of a moral superiority to Lear, but our active involvement with Kent in this scene, our own felt need to strike, or at least to enjoy Kent's striking (“He'll strike, and quickly too,” as Lear says about Caius-Kent at the end), makes such a stance difficult to justify. If we are not Lear (“the most inaccessible and unknowable hero of all the central tragedies,” as E. A. J. Honigmann rightly calls him16), this is less a matter of our exquisite refinement than of our caution. None of us would dare to face experience with such resolute and unambiguous directness in asserting the demands of the self. Yet the scene in a way validates our caution as well, shows what's wrong with Lear's response. This is less a question of ethics than of effectiveness. The demands of Lear or Kent play precisely into Goneril and Regan's hands. Before long we shall see with increasing clarity how Lear's felt need to attack injustice becomes a violent rage for revenge that is self-lacerating, maddening, suicidal. Self-assertion is self-destruction. In an epigonic way, we sense in this scene how our own active involvement has deeply betrayed us, left us vulnerable to a humiliation like Kent's. “We'll teach you,” Cornwall says with a sadistic relish as he calls for the stocks. “Sir, I am too old to learn,” Kent says. Whether Kent can learn here or not (“I'll teach you differences,” he had said before tripping up Oswald earlier in a scene anticipating this one), whether Lear can learn elsewhere or not, it is we who have the choice of profiting from error. And if only on the basis of the simplest kind of prudence—once burned, twice shy—the effect of the scene is a chastening one; having paid once for a foolishly and nakedly direct involvement, we shall be wary indeed of imposing once again our own needs, our own sympathies, our own structures of significance and value—our own selves—upon the material of the dramatic action.

And it is precisely at this point, in Kent's soliloquy, that the play begins to involve us again, now and for the first time with the question of the ending.

Good King, that must approve the common saw,
Thou out of heaven's benediction com'st
To the warm sun!
Approach, thou beacon to this under globe,
That by thy comfortable beams I may
Peruse this letter. Nothing almost sees miracles,
But misery: I know 'tis from Cordelia,
Who hath most fortunately been inform'd
Of my obscured course; and shall find time
From this enormous state, seeking to give
Losses their remedies. All weary and o'erwatch'd,
Take vantage, heavy eyes, not to behold
This shameful lodging.
Fortune, good night; smile once more; turn thy wheel!

For all the bitterness (or is it resignation?) in Kent's last line, the speech offers a kind of promise here: What goes down must come up. The speech may be felt to refer back to the arc of experience we have been made to travel in the earlier part of the scene, and the restrained optimism is in a way reinforced by Edgar's self-preserving stripping in the next scene. The richest source of hope, of course, is in the sentence that introduces Cordelia: “Nothing almost sees miracles, / But misery,” powerful in its sententious generality and bearing an astonishingly compressed charge of feeling in terms of the play's developing conceptual and imagistic patterns. Yet in the next lines, the miraculous nature of Cordelia is left tantalizingly vague, aborted in an incomplete predication. We have a clear notion of Cordelia's intention in the gerundive phrase; she is seeking to give losses their remedies. But how does intention become action? She “shall find time,” but time to do what? By itself the finding of time implies a kind of passivity, or at best a preliminary to action. The limitations of the phrase are perhaps inevitable, at least to judge from the opening lines of 1 Henry IV, where every rhetorical effort made by the King to transform the phrase into an assertion of active power to control experience is doomed to failure, bootless. We have no basis here, of course, to anticipate any failure on Cordelia's part. What we do have, however, is a problem in determining the terms of her hoped-for success. In context the most powerful word of her introductory line turns out to be the one which is always ignored: Nothing almost sees miracles, but misery.

There is, in short, a problem in Kent's soliloquy, and the occasional supposition of textual corruption, for which there is no real evidence, merely acknowledges its existence. Directorial bits of advice that Kent is sleepy, or that he needs more light to see clearly, or that he is reading pieces of a letter at random, may solve the problem from an actor's point of view, but they do not help an audience. On the contrary, they make the soliloquy's vagueness only the more tantalizing. It is as if the scene deliberately withholds information, promising us something willfully indefinite. It is like waiting for one of Henry James's late verbs, except in terms of dramatic action rather than syntax. While we wait, of course, we anticipate, imagine possible completions, like Marvin Rosenberg who speaks about “the letter from Cordelia, already coming to her father's rescue” (150). Cordelia is already doing nothing except in our minds; it is we who are made to jump to a conclusion, project the sense of an ending.

I am insisting upon this problem, but I do not mean to exaggerate its seriousness. Audiences in the theater can live with a lot more uncertainty than readers, teachers, critics and editors, and as it turns out, the uncertainty is quickly enough clarified. The scene with Kent and the Gentleman at the beginning of Act III is almost exclusively rhetorical, functional in terms of our expectations and needs; and specifically it solves the problem of vagueness in Cordelia's agency. We find here what she will find the time to do—indeed, has already (for the word is justified now) found the time to do: She is leading a military invasion.

The scene should be quite satisfying, both in terms of clarifying our uncertainty and promising us relief. It begins promisingly with the reaffirmation in familiar terms of Kent's authority, as he informs the Gentleman, “Sir, I do know you, / And dare, upon the warrant of my note, / Commend a dear thing to you.” But what follows is far from wholly satisfying, and it is worth asking why.

                                                                      There is division,
Although as yet the face of it is cover'd
With mutual cunning, ’twixt Albany and Cornwall;
Who have—as who have not, that their great stars
Thron'd and set high?—servants, who seem no less,
Which are to France the spies and speculations
Intelligent of our state. What hath been seen,
Either in snuffs and packings of the Dukes,
Or in the hard rein which both of them have borne
Against the old kind King; or something deeper,
Whereof perchances these are but furnishings—
But, true it is, from France there comes a power
Into this scatter'd kingdom; who already,
Wise in our negligence, have secret feet
In some of our best ports, and are at point
To show their open banner.

We begin with the Albany-Cornwall division. MacNeir notes how frequently Shakespeare associates the French invasion with the “dissension among those whose business it was to resist any foreign invasion, thus arousing a false hope for Lear's cause” (174). Yes and no, I think. The fact is, the Albany-Cornwall division is rumor only, for which we have no real evidence. Not that we distrust Kent when he tells us that it is covered with mutual cunning, but it is not the sort of thing on which one is invited to build substantial hopes. This is especially so if we remember the earlier evocation of this presumed division, the ear-bussing argument that Curran provides Edmund with in II.i, and which Edmund immediately uses to his advantage with Edgar. Rumor is opportunity for Edmund (and Regan and by extension their group); he weaves it into his purposes; he thrives upon it, master of intrigue.

Even if we forget the details of the earlier scenes, we are made aware of a problem in this scene itself in the astonishingly clumsy writing that follows. First (22-25) we hear a stutter of interrupting and qualifying relative clauses, culminating in an awkward redundancy (is the abstract “speculations / Intelligent” meant to gloss over the hard reality of “spies”?). What follows (25-29) is a noun phrase (though for a moment we probably think we are hearing the beginning of a question), with an appositive range of three alternatives that is perplexing, to say the least, in the latter two (have both Dukes borne a hard rein against Lear? what could be deeper?). Before we can determine whether these alternatives are exclusive (the really crucial factor is …) or cumulative (all contribute to …), Kent breaks off altogether: “But, true it is …” The words are a great relief; at last we'll get something indubitable. And we do; there is already a French force landed, at Dover and elsewhere. But even the truth of this is problematical. The image of a foreign invasion is ambiguous, and it requires, if we are allowed to associate ourselves with it in an unqualified way, precisely the sort of explanation and background motivation that we seemed to be getting in the earlier sentence, before Kent decided to break off. In retrospect the relief of that interruption turns out to be illusory.

If we dismiss the French invasion as merely a problem that Shakespeare inherits from his sources, we ignore the fact that Shakespeare does pretty much what he pleases with his sources (consider the violence he does them one and all at the end of the play). Moreover, to judge from the way the foreign invasion is treated here and later on, the play, far from trying to cover up an awkwardness, seems on the contrary to want to keep it consistently in front of us. In the same way the clumsiness in the earlier part of the speech seems to me a willful contrivance, or at least part of a consistent effect. One result of all the relative clauses earlier was to make it unclear for a time just on whose side the spies were working; but that is the kind of irony that runs throughout the speech. Though the lines between the sides are, as always in this play, decisively drawn, there is a disturbing similarity of visage and tone on either one. We hear about their cunning, but devious Kent is showing his. We hear of the Dukes' packings, but who is indulging in intrigues if not Kent himself? We hear of furnishings for something deeper, but we see Kent himself giving pretexts for the French invasion that may be entirely irrelevant and deceptive. I noted earlier how Kent's evocation of the division between the Dukes may suggest a momentary likeness between him and Edmund. Do we not detect as well, in the awkward evasiveness of these lines, with their invitations to the actor to indulge in whispers and perhaps even an anxious glance or two to the rear, something of Goneril and Regan's tone, hints of their fear, traces of their self-protective eruptions into action?

Such similarities might be argued to form the basis of some profound moral critique of the mode of action which Kent embodies in this scene. In such a context there may well be something disturbing in the little movement by which Kent establishes his reliability to the somewhat doubtful Gentleman:

I will talk further with you.
                                                                                                                                  No, do not.
For confirmation that I am much more
Than my out-wall, open this purse, and take
What it contains. If you shall see Cordelia,—
As fear not but you shall—show her this ring,
And she will tell you who that fellow is
That yet you do not know.

Is the ring taken from the purse or is it given in addition to the purse, whose contents, we must then assume, are money? Especially in the latter case, we are invited to think back over Kent's beating of Oswald to his tripping of Oswald earlier, and to Lear's response: “Now my friendly knave, I thank thee: there's earnest of thy service. Gives Kent money,” and back even further, through some indefinite but insistent echo, of the love-auctions at the very beginning, an echo located in the way the cash nexus defines and measures service, fellowship, love. These resonances are, I think, sensed but remain less definite than my description or any description indicates. Probably the similarity between Kent and his enemies suggests nothing more than a foreboding about the enterprise on which we see him embarking here, the sense that Kent is adopting the enemies' rules and thus conceding to them the advantage of their own mastery. In any event, I do not mean to exaggerate the importance of this kind of shadow in the scene, though there is in fact more than what I have pointed to. I am describing only undertones that suggest dissonances but by no means destroy the dominant. None of this prevents the scene from achieving its primary purpose of raising our hopes, of getting us in imagination to join with Kent in his enterprise. All it does is to integrate an element of doubt and hesitancy into our choice. That is enough, however, to take away any defense we might have of ignorance when the play turns brutally to punish us for the folly we commit.

It is through the figure of Gloucester that we are punished, and through him that the lines in the play converge in the third Act. In the next scene but one, it is he, like Kent earlier, who is committed to helping Lear:

Go to; say you nothing. There is division between the Dukes, and a worse matter than that. I have receiv'd a letter this night; 'tis dangerous to be spoken; I have lock'd the letter in my closet. These injuries the King now bears will be revenged home; there is part of a power already footed; we must incline to the King. I will look him and privily relieve him; go you and maintain talk with the Duke, that my charity be not of him perceiv'd. If he ask for me, I am ill and gone to bed. If I die for it, as no less is threaten'd me, the King, my old master, must be reliev'd. There is strange things toward, Edmund; pray you, be careful.

Though Gloucester's short, simple, complete sentences suggest a rhetorical antithesis to Kent's awkwardly incomplete and hypotactic style, we may well detect some echo in the felt anxiety of secret conspiracy that underlies both. In any case, there are unmistakable verbal echoes (“a power … who … have secret feet,” “a power already footed”), and both endeavours are predicated upon the presumed Albany-Cornwall division and the French invasion. No wonder if it is sometimes assumed that the letter Gloucester received “this night” is from Kent, though this is never verified in the play, and we are dealing really with a more general kind of continuity. Not just a letter, it is Kent's mantle that Gloucester inherits. He replaces Kent as the choric figure, the intermediary between us and the action, the character through whom our involvement with the play is experienced, defined and finally understood. He “helps to give us,” as L. C. Knights puts it in a wonderful though presumably unintentional pun, “our bearings.”17

There are deeper continuities between Gloucester here and Kent earlier. If we had sensed a foreboding of self-defeat in the scene with Kent and the Gentleman, such a sense is confirmed here, for it is obvious that Gloucester's plot is simply strengthening his enemies. At the end of the scene, Edmund hastens away gayly to inform Cornwall, so to thrive. A more complicated sense of foreboding is raised in Gloucester's assertion that, “These injuries the King now bears will be revenged home.” The word, like Kent's anger earlier (“Anger hath a privilege”), evokes a profoundly disturbing resonance and reaches out to establish a relationship between Gloucester and Lear himself, whose own need for vengeance is at the source of his own torture. A few moments later, at the beginning of the next scene, Lear says of filial ingratitude, “Is it not as this mouth should tear this hand / For lifting food to 't? But I will punish home.” By punishing home, Lear means punishing to the full, of course, but it is impossible to resist the secondary sense that points to the radical integrity of the family, as in the memorable metonymy of Lear's savagely ironic kneeling to Regan earlier, “Do you but mark how this becomes the house.” Does it matter, if father and child is one flesh, whether the mouth tears the hand or the hand crushes the mouth? In the face of Edgar-Tom later in the scene, on whom he projects his own situation (“What! has his daughters brought him to this pass?”), Lear says, “Judicious punishment! 'twas this flesh begot / Those pelican daughters.”

We have to wait to hear these words, but we have had enough experience of the play prior to and including the scene of Gloucester's involvement not only to anticipate the self-lacerating consequences of his decision, but to sense some deep ambivalence at its very center. Knights abstracts a single sentence from the scene, “If I die for it, as no less is threaten'd me, the King, my old master, must be reliev'd,” as the essence of a “decision” that is “deliberate and heroic” (107). But such a sentimentalization (though it is typical of critical response to Gloucester) is precisely what the scene will not allow. Even in the sentence Knights quotes, the echo of “must” from a few lines earlier leaves the question of motivation profoundly in doubt: “These injuries the King now bears will be revenged home; there is part of a power already footed; we must incline to the King.” This is a single utterance, and it is over-simplifying to speak about Gloucester's pity, charity, relief, without acknowledging the element in it of self-protectiveness as well. The French force has already landed (“a worse matter than” the Albany-Cornwall division, Gloucester had called it, and the phrase may suggest that the Earl wishes to gloss over a problem, but it can scarcely be cited as evidence for the play's allowing us to do so), and Gloucester has chosen the side he assumes will ultimately conquer. Even without putting too much emphasis on the ambivalence in Gloucester's motivation, there is something too exclusively instinctive in his must's, too uncomplicated by anything like a full consideration of the meaning as well as the consequences of his action, to justify “heroic” as an epithet. The commitment flows smoothly into the characteristic cautiousness of “If he asks for me, I am ill and gone to bed,” or “pray you, be careful.”

Gloucester is not a hero. Gloucester is l'homme moyen sensuel—as Francis Schoff points out, the phrase has an extraordinarily literal applicability here.18 My point is not to diminish Gloucester; on the contrary, it is precisely his essentially unheroic, prudential reactiveness that makes Gloucester important for us at this point. For we come to this scene chastened by past experience, by our rash participation in the clamour-venting, angry mode of Kent in his confrontation with Oswald, full of wariness about future involvements. But there is a point at which even recessiveness must assert itself, passivity act, and Gloucester embodies that point for us now. Even as he finally ignores all the danger he senses, so do we all the danger and ambivalence we sense. So must we—incline to the King, do something, and i' th' heat.

Punishment comes in the blinding at the end of the Act. “Wherefore to Dover?” Like Kent earlier (“What are your differences? speak.”), Gloucester cannot or will not answer the question, and in his case the evasion registers fear as well as guilt. But when he finally does answer to the third asking, he reaches for the first (and last) time in the play a stature that is unqualifiedly heroic in the traditional sense:

Because I would not see thy cruel nails
Pluck out his poor old eyes; nor thy fierce sister
In his anointed flesh rash boarish fangs.
The sea, with such a storm as his bare head
In hell-black night endur'd, would have buoy'd up,
And quench'd the stelled fires;
Yet, poor old heart, he holp the heavens to rain.
If wolves had at thy gate howl'd that dearn time,
Thou should'st have said “Good porter, turn the key.”
All cruels else subscribe: but I shall see
The winged vengeance overtake such children.

The elements of recoiling self-protectiveness here disappear altogether and not, one senses, because he calculates their ineffectiveness only; it is as if he recognizes their inadequacy. The voice that delivers these lines must be strong, assured, rich in alliteration, inversion, suspension of predication, Latinate and archaic diction—an assumption of the high style which, given his tendency noted earlier to short bursts of anxious declaration, like so many reactive cries of pain, is quite astonishing here, but completely convincing as well. The extravagant descriptions of Lear's suffering and of the storm are felt to be hyperbole in the service of truth, and they leave no room for self-pity on Gloucester's part. But to speak exclusively of Gloucester's heroic compassion, a difficult over-simplification in connection with the scene of his nascent involvement earlier, becomes absolutely impossible here. However we may have glossed over “revenged home” and the like in III.iii, we are not allowed to ignore the expression of vengeance at the end of this speech, in the way in which it dictates both the moment and the nature of his torture (the vengeance cry is the predication of the blinding), and in the insistent repetition, “See't shalt thou never,” “If you see vengeance.” As Gloucester evokes retribution, the intense images in his speech of Regan's physical cruelty assume another dimension of significance, not just a measure of Gloucester's compassion, his ability to feel sufferingly with, but also of his own active violence, his desire to inflict upon. However one understands the last lines of the speech, the syntax implies a distinction not just between Regan's group and the chastened sadism of “all cruels else”; it is Gloucester, too, who refuses in his own way like Regan and the others to call back the willed thunder. Do we not sense that he would raise his fist at this point, but that his corky arms are fast bound; that he would do such things, what they are he knows, and they would be the terrors of the earth?

In the face of this, we cannot see the blinding as simply the representation of a horrible world in which the machinery of power is vested in the hands of the ruthless. Gloucester powerless has his own violently vindictive instincts as well. Gloucester and Regan are mighty opposites, but one self make and mate begot them. To put it another way, within Gloucester himself the compassionate and vindictive instincts are inseparably part of the same human nature. Goldberg notes “the kinship between the love of justice and the love of cruelty. Both ‘loves’ are clearly fascinated and made restless by other people's vulnerability, the one to compensate it, the other to exploit it” (110). The hand that reaches out to help another is—inevitably, it seems—the same hand that would crush that other's torturors, and—whether it would or no—that crushes the self. At this crucial point, strictly speaking in the very midst of the blinding, the play makes us witness the episode of the loyal-disloyal servant, as if to confirm our terrible awareness. The episode is typically sentimentalized and allegorized, cited as Shakespeare's evocation of natural instincts of kindness amidst brutality—“a disinterested gesture of human pity” or “the voice of nature, simple and unspoiled, against the corrupt representatives of a sophisticated civilization.”19 Certainly we do feel the servant's decency, in his reluctance to raise a hand against his master, and in the language by which he refuses to implicate Regan. Yet something as deeply natural as pity provokes the servant's action here: “Nay then, come on, and take the chance of anger.” It is the enemy's nature, the complex, spoiled, corrupt and sophisticated Cornwall's motivation that the word most immediately recalls (“yet our power / Shall do a court'sy to our wrath”), but of course it relates to Lear and Kent and even Gloucester as well. As the servant dies, his “disinterested pity” points not to tears but blood. “O! I am slain. My Lord, you have one eye left / To see some mischief on him. Oh!” His compassion for Gloucester expresses itself in the offering of at least part of the winged vengeance the Earl had sought. Like all instances of clamour-venting in the play, the effect here is not to protect against brutal punishment, but to instigate its inexorable exaction: “Lest it see more, prevent it. Out, vile jelly! / Where is thy lustre now?”

Gloucester is still demanding vengeance, calling upon Edmund to “enkindle all the sparks of nature / To quit this horrid act.” But after Regan's news (“Thou call'st on him who hates thee”), Gloucester's “walking fire” is at last extinguished. “O my follies” is an expression of guilt about his treatment of Edgar, but in the larger context of the scene it may well be sensed as an acceptance of his torture, his recognition of a kind of justice in it. In any case, whatever the meaning of the experience for Gloucester, the importance of the scene is primarily in what it makes us come to feel, recognize, understand. Goldberg says about Gloucester's line, “I am tied to th' stake, and I must stand the course”: “And so must we—which is surely the crucial dramatic point of the blinding scene” (82). He goes on to talk about our ambivalent feelings about justice, all of which is relevant enough but too general. “Wherefore to Dover?” is in a very specifically pointed way a question that we must answer as well as Gloucester, for the Dover plot represents a commitment of ours as well as of his. What do we think during the agonizing seconds of the question's hanging there, or rather of its increasingly brutal threat: “Wherefore to Dover? … Wherefore to Dover? Let him answer that. … Wherefore to Dover?” The pause and intensification allow for—indeed, demand—a specificity of response, which in fact Gloucester provides. Do we not have to recognize in the violence of Gloucester's response some kindred element in ourselves that has contributed to our own expectations? What is our anticipation of Cordelia's military victory except Kent's violent assault writ small, as it were, suitably modified to our own reduced and chastened demands, but no different in kind? Was this the warning in the Fool's apocalyptic prophesy in the middle of the third Act, where by anaphora and parallel syntax good and bad actions become indistinguishable, both contributing to (or reflecting) equally the primal chaos? Is every action, every involvement, physical or mental, inevitably the chance of anger?

Or to put it another way, where can we go from here? We could detect in the way the play had involved us with Kent and then punished us for our involvement a sort of turning point, an educational experience if you will, however painful. But it is unclear what we can learn from the experience that culminates in the blinding, whose climactic quality we sense rather as a terminal point. After Lear and Kent, Gloucester's frightened and circumspect involvement had seemed the least in response to the worst, the point at which even deeply ingrained caution must incline towards action. But now the servant, moved to act in the face of this unconscionable brutality, redefines both worst and least to what seem to be—as they had never earlier quite seemed to be—the absolute limit. We have been made systematically to reduce our expectations, no less than has Lear, but reduction still implies something, and we find ourselves now face to face with the quality that has echoed throughout the first three acts, the quality of nothing. “O Regan, Goneril! / Your old kind father, whose frank heart gave all,” Lear says, but he hasn't and we haven't and it seems we must. But how? Do we not already sense the irony that awaits Edgar's horrified awareness in the next scene, that the worst is not so long as we are alive to say this is the worst? What new terrors may threaten to provoke new engagements on our part, engagements meant to preserve but doomed to destroy the self? Disengagement, then? renunciation? Bradley's coda was right in a way; this is a play about the need for renunciation. But again, how? For Empson was right too; this is a play about the foolish impossibility of renunciation.20 Can Lear, or Kent, or Gloucester, or any of the characters in the play renounce totally the felt need to perceive “differences” (to recall Cornwall's question to Kent, Kent's assertion to Oswald after tripping him), whether moral differences, or social, or ontological, accepting experience in complete passivity, denying themselves that last, least and most fundamental action of mind, the aggressive imposition of significance onto the external world? And how can we divest ourselves, denude ourselves similarly of the felt need to order the experience we confront, a need manifested in that apparently irreduceable core of involvement, the anticipation of where it is going, the sense of its ending? In what way can we sense an ending that will not, yet once more, tie us to the stake? Yet in Regan's final, brutal repetition, thrusting Gloucester out at gates, the play reminds us that an ending we must surely have, and at the same place too. But blinded now, we have to smell our way to Dover.


  1. A. L. French, Shakespeare and the Critics (Cambridge, 1972), p. 144.

  2. Barbara Everett, “The New King Lear,Critical Quarterly, 2 (1960), 325-39; Paul J. Alpers, “King Lear and the Theory of the ‘Sight Pattern,’” in Reuben A. Brower and Richard Poirier, eds., In Defense of Reading (New York, 1963), pp. 133-52; Nicholas Brooke, Shakespeare: King Lear (London, 1963), and “The Ending of King Lear,” in Edward A. Bloom, ed., Shakespeare 1564-1964 (Providence, 1964), pp. 71-87; John D. Rosenberg, “King Lear and His Comforters,” Essays in Criticism, 16 (1966), 135-46; John Shaw, “King Lear: The Final Lines,” Essays in Criticism, 16 (1966), 261-67; Stanley Cavell, Must We Mean What We Say? (New York, 1969), pp. 267-353; H. A. Mason, Shakespeare's Tragedies of Love (London, 1970); Michael Goldman, Shakespeare and the Energies of Drama (Princeton, 1972); Marvin Rosenberg, The Masks of “King Lear” (Berkeley, 1972); S. L. Goldberg, An Essay on “King Lear” (Cambridge, 1974); Robert Egan, Drama Within Drama (New York, 1975), pp. 16-55.

  3. Dr. Johnson on Shakespeare, ed. W. K. Wimsatt (Penguin Shakespeare Library, 1969), p. 126.

  4. Shakespeare's Mature Tragedies (Princeton, 1973), p. 164.

  5. “King Lear” In Our Time (Berkeley, 1965), p. 91.

  6. All quotations are from the New Arden edition of King Lear, edited by Kenneth Muir (London, 1964).

  7. Mynors Bright, ed., The Diary of Samuel Pepys (3 vols.; London, 1906), I.102. The entry date is 11 October 1660.

  8. Stanley Cavell argues at length for the unique intensity of our involvement with King Lear in the latter part of his chapter in Must We Mean What We Say? Cavell, in addition to two very recent writers on the phenomenology of performance, also points to the limitations of an audience's participation in the action of a play. See Michael Goldman, The Actor's Freedom: Towards a Theory of Drama (New York, 1975), pp. 3-51; and Helen Keyssar, “I Love You. Who Are You? The Strategy of Drama in Recognition Scenes,” PMLA, 92 (1977), pp. 297-306.

  9. See Rosenberg, The Masks, p. 146; Goldberg, An Essay, pp. 70-71.

  10. See Goldman, Shakespeare and the Energies of Drama, p. 100; Egan, Drama Within Drama, p. 18.

  11. “Cordelia's Return in King Lear,ELN, 6 (1969), 172-76, 175.

  12. Shakespeare: King Lear, p. 32.

  13. Shakespeare and the Critics, pp. 193-94.

  14. A Gathering of Fugitives (Boston, 1956), p. 32.

  15. “King Lear” (London, 1967), p. 8.

  16. Shakespeare: Seven Tragedies: The Dramatist's Manipulation of Response (London, 1976), p. 108.

  17. Some Shakespearean Themes (London, 1959), p. 107.

  18. “King Lear: Moral Example or Tragic Protagonist?” SQ [Shakespeare Quarterly], 13 (1962), 157-72, 170.

  19. Derek Traversi, “King Lear (II),” Scrutiny, 19 (1952-53), 126-42, 142; Paul N. Siegel, Shakespearean Tragedy and the Elizabethan Compromise (New York, 1957), p. 166.

  20. William Empson, The Structure of Complex Words (London, 1951), pp. 125-57.

James L. Calderwood (essay date spring 1986)

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Last Updated on February 5, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8864

SOURCE: Calderwood, James L. “Creative Uncreation in King Lear.Shakespeare Quarterly 37, no. 1 (spring 1986): 5-19.

[In the following essay, Calderwood remarks on the principal of “uncreation”—the movement from order to chaos—in King Lear.]

Throughout his career, from the saintly Henry VI sitting on his molehill during the battle of Towton to Prospero breaking his staff and drowning his book, Shakespeare was apparently fascinated with the concept of abdication and truancy. Prince Hal plays truant from his royal studies, Hamlet from his revengeful duties, and Antony from his Roman wars. The academicians in Love's Labor's Lost retreat from the world and women, King John tells the Bastard Faulconbridge “Have thou the ordering of this present time,” Richard II deposes himself with histrionic relish, Duke Vincentio retreats into dark corners, and Lear formally abdicates. Perhaps we may sense in these depictions of royal withdrawal an impulse on Shakespeare's part to abandon not necessarily London for the rusticity of Stratford, but his own responsibility as playwright exercising authority over his theatrical subjects. In any event, on at least one occasion, when he composes the choruses of Henry V, we find him explicitly renouncing his authority as sole creator and regarding the play as issuing from the cooperative imagination of his audience as well. What then of King Lear, where the formal abdication of the hero might suggest a similar abdication on the part of the playwright? Examining the play from this standpoint suggests, I think, that Shakespeare is engaged in a kind of creative uncreation.

First, some qualifications. Obviously Shakespeare can never wholly abdicate from his role as creative authority. Since forms and meanings do not fall from the sky, not even from an intertextual sky, he remains responsible for his art and for what it does to us. We are inevitably his subjects in the Globe—subjects, not slaves, as Brecht would have it—obliged by our “bond” to honor his authority and by an act of poetic faith to endow his illusions with an air of reality. Hence when I say that Shakespeare uncreates King Lear I can hardly mean that, swept up by a passion for entropy, he abandons his play to disorder, and us to early sorrow. The patterns of imagery, the double plot, verbal echoes, and structural parallels, all the Biblical allusions, proverbs, aphorisms, sententiae, and other suggestions of communal wisdom testify to Shakespeare's ordering presence. Still, while remaining within the bounds of artistic form, Shakespeare manages, I suggest, both to unmake as well as to make King Lear.


Whether you simply create or creatively uncreate depends on whether you begin with order or disorder. The traditional procedure is assumed to begin, like God in Genesis, with disorder, which is then ordered into art. “Life,” Samuel Beckett says somewhere, “is a mess,” and it is the writer's business to clean it up. Or if life or nature is not entirely a mess, still it can profit from artistic “gilding,” as Sidney believed, or from being “methodized” in the approved neoclassic manner. On the other hand, you can begin with order and “disorder” it into art. When a culture reaches the point where reality has been definitively charted—when fluid forms have petrified into institutions, and live meanings have deadened into clichés—the artist may feel it is high time for turbulence, in which case he will seek to “defamiliarize” with the Russian Formalists, to “alienate” with Brecht, or in other ways to liberate the energy of what Morse Peckham calls “man's rage for chaos.”1

With this in mind, let us glance again at Lear's act of uncreation, his division of an ordered (even well-mapped) kingdom in which the differences that plague men have been incorporated into the hierarchical chain of societal being under the unified rule of a king. Lear's uncreating act of division may remind us of God's creative divisions in Genesis when, beginning with chaos, he divided the land from the sea, the sky from the earth, the day from the night, Sunday from the week, and eventually Eve from Adam's rib cage. Shakespeare's upsidedown glance at the Creation is repeated from a different angle in the opening scene if we recall that God did not think or craft but rather spoke the world into being with the magical utterance “Let there be.” Surprisingly, in the mouths of Goneril and Regan speech has a similar creativity as their flattering words materialize into acreage. Here in parodic accord with the doctrine ex nihilo, which William Elton labels “a keystone of the accepted theology of Shakespeare's day”2—and despite Lear's announcement to Cordelia that “nothing will come of nothing”—from the nothing of flattery issue “shadowy forests … with champains riched,” “plenteous rivers and wide-skirted meads,” and other signs that like Osric the ladies have become spacious in the possession of dirt.

Something frequently comes of nothing in King Lear. From the nothing of his lies and forged letter in I.ii, Edmund gradually creates himself Duke of Gloucester and head of the armies of England. And if lies and flattery are unreferential nothings, so are disguises. When Edgar assumes his disguise he says “Edgar I nothing am.” From that nothing emerges Poor Tom. But by the same token, remove the rags of his disguise and Edgar would have to confess “Poor Tom I nothing am.” Thus Edgar leaves various non-identities behind as he creates new somethings—Poor Tom, the “fiend” at the top of the cliff, the gentleman at the bottom, the “most poor man” who aids Gloucester after the meeting with Lear, the thick-spoken peasant who cudgels Oswald to his grave, and the knight who kills Edmund. Each is a kind of nothing or “not this” from which at last the real Edgar magically issues as prospective king. But Edgar's most spectacular creation of something from nothing is at “Dover Cliffs,” where his empty, unreferential words miraculously create one of the steepest and most dizzying heights in literature. Moreover, if we back away from this precipice, we see that Shakespeare is far more inventive than Edgar in fashioning out of nothing the heights and depths, not of Dover, but of King Lear itself. He ushers us into the “wooden O” of the theatre and seats us in front of a barren stage, he brings forth two men, has one of them say “I thought the King had more affected the Duke of Albany than Cornwall”—and before we can say ex nihilo the world of pagan England stands before us.

My theme, however, is uncreation—not the something that comes of nothing but the nothing that comes of something. As everyone knows, “nothing” is a kind of vortex that draws the ordered world of King Lear downward, reducing Lear to nakedness and madness and Gloucester to blindness.3 However, Shakespeare does not merely divest Lear of his clothing; he also strips his own theatrical art to a kind of nakedness. As various critics have shown,4 he forces his language down the great chain of stylistic decorum from a richly appareled high style to an honest kersey plainness, and then by means of repetition—e.g., “Kill, kill, kill, kill, kill, kill,” “Sa sa sa sa,” “Help, help, O, help,” “Run, run, O, run,” “Howl, howl, howl,” “No, no, no life,” “Never, never, never, never, never”—obliges it to descend one further step, to the point at which words are shorn of meaning and become again merely savage cries, the wild phonic stuff of which we suppose speech to have been originally formed. Clearly this is an aesthetic dead end. The play can go no further in this direction unless the entire cast begins to howl, transforming Shakespeare's Globe into Artaud's theatre of cruelty.

At this extreme of verbal nothingness, where words run together in a jumble of undifferentiated noise, we reach a point of maximum entropy, a black hole of speech from which no meaning can emerge. However, language is merely one, albeit a major, instance of how Lear's uncreating act causes ordered differences to collapse into chaotic undifferentiation. His line “They told me I was everything; 'tis a lie, I am not ague-proof” illustrates his own fall from an eminence conventionally created (“They told me”) to that ague-prone condition which comes all too naturally to everyone. To be meaningful in language or in culture generally, difference must be arbitrarily ordered—a fact of which Lear was formerly oblivious but which he now registers most painfully:

… See how yond justice rails upon yond simple thief.
Hark in thine ear: change places, and, handy-dandy, which is the justice, which is the thief? Thou hast seen a farmer's dog bark at a beggar?
Ay, sir.
And the creature run from the cur? There thou mightst behold the great image of authority; a dog's obeyed in office.


Remove the distinctions, subtract necessity from luxury, and on the heath all are “poor naked wretches,” “none does offend,” king and beggar shiver alike, and the bastard is as rich in dirt as the legitimate. As Edmund's leveling “dear goddess” Nature implies, when difference falls from its ordered vertical hierarchy onto a horizontal plane, it becomes the random “differences” of creatures governed only by a common need to devour. As Albany puts it,

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


This entropic Hobbesian state ruled only by appetite cannot be said to mean; it simply is. The distinction between meaning and “is” is frequently made in this play, most notably perhaps by Edgar when he witnesses the grievous meeting of his blind father and the mad king: “I would not take this from report; it is, / And my heart breaks at it” ( Edgar's term “report” is convenient to my purpose here since as a secondary verbal account it may be contrasted with the primary “it is” of direct experience. These two modes might be regarded as dividing up King Lear itself, or any play—the mediated re-presentation of past affairs, the “there and then” mode we call narrative, and the immediate present-ation of the “here and now” we think of as dramatic. Edgar is no doubt right to suspect report, which in its “re-carrying” of events in speech may subtract from them for easier portage or add to them to increase their value. It is rare indeed when one can truly say with Kent, “All my reports go with the modest truth, / Nor more nor clipped, but so” (IV.vii.5-6). But in all cases, whether more or clipped or so, reports are interpretations—verbal orderings of immediate experiences that in themselves do not “mean” but simply “are.”

In this broad sense of interpretation we might argue that in subjecting King Lear to a state of entropic uncreation Shakespeare is stripping it of “report” en route to the naked “it is” of immediate experience. It is almost as though, abdicating from his task of presenting his audience with made meanings and fashioned forms, he were requiring us to return with him to a point of creative origin, the unshaped, meaningless stuff with which he began. If so, then this regressive undoing of the play seems to accord with its historical regression to ancient England—to a primitive period before Christianity imposed its forms and meanings on the presumed chaos of pagan times.6 For Shakespeare's Jacobean audience Christianity would have constituted a Kent-like true report of the condition of man, a redemptive supplement to paganism. Even within the play, which is explicitly pagan, Christian values are often expressed—repentance, expiation, humility, patience, forgiveness, the sin of despair and suicide, the recurrent hope that the “heavens,” like a just and merciful God, will send down “visible spirits” to tame offenses before it is too late. But men's hopes count for very little in this play. Lear cries “O, let me not be mad, not mad, sweet heaven!” and subsequently goes mad (I.v.45), or he calls to the heavens “Make it your cause; send down, and take my part” and has his soldiers reduced to zero (II.iv.191).7 Our own hopes of mercy seem happily fulfilled when with Lear and Cordelia reunited a spirit of grace appears regnant. We are prepared to accept such a Christian report as “so” and to rejoice in the gentle conquest of pagan suffering. But within two hundred lines Lear makes his dreadful entrance with Cordelia dead in his arms, and we are compelled to agree with Edgar on seeing his father blind:

… Who is't can say “I am at the worst”?
I am worse than e'er I was.


The consolations of Christian philosophy are temptingly offered but cruelly withdrawn.8

Edgar follows his remark about the evolution of “the worst” with another even more significant:

And worse I may be yet. The worst is not
So long as we can say “This is the worst.”

(ll. 27-28)

It is fitting that Edgar should present this brief report on the relation of report to the grievousness of “it is” inasmuch as he is himself so given to reportage. In fact, as Bridget Gellert Lyons suggests,9 the subplot of which Edgar is a part can be regarded as a report on the mainplot. Of course the mainplot has its own reporter, the Fool. But whereas Edgar judges men by moral standards, the Fool measures them against his own role. His critique of Lear, Kent, and all “lords and great men,” is that they imitate what he appears to be (“they will not let me have all the fool to myself” [I.iv.152]), instead of what he is, a wise fellow. Yet the wise fellow is foolish enough himself to follow Lear to kennel in the storm instead of having the good sense to stand by the fire like Lady Brach and stink (I.iv.109-11).

The Fool's report, which yields a world of undifferentiated foolishness, tells the truth, but tells it slant and incomplete. If the same actor doubled as Fool and Cordelia, then we may see each character embodying merely part of the truth. In the opening scene Cordelia's truth is not “allowed” and she is banished. But she returns later in the role of the Fool, now “allowed,” and tells Lear the abrasive truth about his own folly. But the Fool cannot tell Lear the whole truth. When the King's wits begin to turn in earnest, passing beyond the range of mere folly, the Fool's fooling pales by comparison. Lacking employment, he grows more and more concerned with practical affairs—the coldness of the night and lack of shelter (III.iv)—says less and less, and at last abdicates his fool's cap by disappearing from the play. His disappearance, however, makes foolish sense. When Lear has absorbed the Fool's truths and begins to utter them himself, the Fool becomes redundant.

After all, the Fool's function is to tell subversive truths to a court society foolish enough to think its own truths are the truth. Thus he is the “outsider-within,” living at the borders of accepted reality, issuing alternative reports on “what is.” When Lear crosses those borders he enters uncharted regions of mind where much madness is divinest sense and the Fool has no business. The Fool can tell the court that much sense is the starkest madness, but it is a violation of foolish function to tell the starkly mad Lear the redundant truth that he is mad. Perhaps that is why the Fool, in an early forecast of his later abdication, said “I would fain learn to lie,” only to have Lear insist that he stay true to his calling: “An you lie, sirrah, we'll have you whipp'd” (I.iv.177-78). Unable in the storm either to lie or to tell the truth, the Fool appropriately falls silent and disappears. Or, if the doubling theory is true, he metamorphoses into Cordelia, representing what Lear now needs more than the truth—love. But not even love can save him in this harsh world. Ultimately he must announce “my poor fool is hang'd”—both his poor fools. Perhaps in “The Phoenix and the Turtle” Shakespeare found the right requiem for this doubly sad hanging: “Truth and beauty buried be.”

Even with this complex Fool, then, the mainplot still calls for interpretation, for report. The subplot on the other hand tends to supply its own. Lear's dying moments, for instance, are harrowing to an audience in part because they are presented as immediate, uninterpreted experience. We must make of them what we can. But Gloucester's death comes to us more comfortably because its rawness has been filtered, ordered, and endowed with meaning by Edgar's long report of it (V.iii) which “structures the event in terms of known forms by which life and literature pattern themselves.”10 That is true also of the two most implausible incidents in these plots, Lear's abdication and Gloucester's “fall” at Dover. Since close study will not answer our questions about the abdication scene, in which decisions and actions issue full-blown from a motivational vacuum, we are obliged to accept its artificiality as a dramatic “given.” In contrast, in a scene of even greater implausibility at Dover, Edgar more than satisfies our need for explicable form by casting the action into a morality play framework, confiding his motives and intentions to us in asides, and summing up what is to be learned from it all afterwards.

As in this episode, the marked coherence of the subplot makes a kind of paradigmatic comment on the otherwise uninterpreted immediacy of the mainplot. But not, unfortunately, a very creditable comment. Indeed, even its reports on its own actions clip a good deal from the modest truth of Kent's “so.” For instance, kindly as Edgar's intentions may be, his saving of Gloucester from despair at Dover has been justly called a “pious fraud.”11 Denied the comfort of ending his suffering (, Gloucester is made to believe himself miraculously rescued by the “clearest gods,” presumably so that the entrance of the mad Lear—“O ruined piece of nature!”—can be inflicted on him a few moments later. Gloucester's experience in general is given the reassuring form of a Christian tragedy. His moral blindness about the begetting of Edmund and the betrayal of Edgar leads to a physical blinding which is spiritually compensated for by his inner illumination—“I have no way, and therefore want no eyes; / I stumbled when I saw” (IV.i.18-19). Then at Dover redemptive faith, inspired by miracle, makes a conquest of despair. However, this providential pattern is not merely irrelevant to Lear's experience but, like Edgar's charade at Dover, is a kindly cruel misrepresentation of what Gloucester himself has suffered. In its large way it is as trivializing as Edgar's moralistic remarks attributing the blinding of his father to his dark and vicious begetting of Edmund.

Edgar, though himself a victim of Edmund's spurious reports, is nevertheless the principal reporter in the play. Everything is grist for his moral mills. He witnesses the most appalling things—the bleeding fact of his blinded father, his father's attempt at suicide, Lear mad on the heath, the meeting of the two old men, his father's death, the deaths of Cordelia and Lear—and through it all he marches steadily forward behind a shield of sententia and aphorism. In his reportorial role he specializes in secondhand experience in a way somewhat like that of the poet. That is, his suffering is not direct but at a slight remove, mediated by his suite of disguises; and his reports recapitulate the experience of others—Lear, Gloucester, Kent. As a poete manqué, however, he settles too readily for conventional forms and ideas. Like the Fool, he cannot accompany Lear into what Conrad calls the heart of darkness, though like Marlow he can return to tell us about it in words we know are incommensurate to their subject. Lear does Edgar's living for him, as Kurtz does Marlow's for him. Because Lear is truly mad, Edgar need only pretend to be. Lear says “I am bound upon a wheel of fire” and is entitled to believe it true. For Edgar it could never be anything but metaphor.

In the final lines of the play Edgar uncharacteristically says “Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say”—thus saying both what he ought to say and presumably also what he feels.12 More often, however, he simply says “what we ought to say”—what is prescribed by moral decorum and makes sense within known frames of reference. Not that Edgar lacks feeling. After all, it is he who says of Lear, “My tears begin to take his part so much / They mar my counterfeiting” (, who speaks of the horrors of “the worst,” and who concludes his remarks about not taking the meeting of Lear and Gloucester from report by saying “And my heart breaks at it.” It is not that Edgar doesn't respond to painful situations but that he keeps his pain in place. For ultimately he is more a man of action than an artist. However inadequately he may account for things, he does evade a sentence of death, protect Lear on the heath, save his father's life from both suicide and the ambitious Oswald, fight in battle and survive, kill Edmund in combat, and stand ready at the end to rule England. Edgar cannot afford to think, or feel, too precisely on the event; he must keep an eye out for hovels and cudgels, roots, berries, bounty hunters, malevolent brothers, and propitious moments. We might even take the incommensurateness of his reports as an index to his competence and resourcefulness as a man. Edgar will not create a new order or discover the previously unapprehended relations of things, but he will keep the world intact for one more day.

It goes without saying that Shakespeare's art is a far cry from Edgar's. Edgar makes practical use of conventional forms, employing the morality play to save his father and the chivalric romance to kill his brother. Shakespeare begins with conventional forms also: the chronicle play of King Leir, Sidney's pagan romance Arcadia, and of course, more broadly, the form of tragedy. However God may have accomplished his Creation, the doctrine of ex nihilo has no place in the artistic practice of Shakespeare, who throughout his career relies on prior textual somethings to generate a greater intertextual something. Nevertheless, “nothing” has its role in this process. Unlike Edgar, who preserves conventional forms, Shakespeare warps and undermines them. The plots of King Leir and of Sidney's episode in the Arcadia may supply the framework of Shakespeare's action, but their original import is nullified as much as their form is displaced. To construct his main plot Shakespeare divests King Leir of its Christian trappings, and to lend his subplot a morality structure he erases the paganism of Sidney's story.13 And finally, as Stephen Booth emphasizes, he brings the tragic form of the play to an apparent conclusion only to turn the rack a bit further.14

In other words, Shakespeare's treatment of prior forms is analogous to his treatment of language, which he puts on the rack to compel it (by troping) to forge its conventional lies and tell the truth. Less figuratively, although we know language is differential, the poet, like the rest of us in our ordinary dealings with it, experiences signifiers and signifieds as naturally bound together within the sign. Thus the first act of the poet will be to decompose this unity, breaking words free from their conventional significations in order to endow them with new and greater meanings. This process is suggested in Shakespeare's treatment of Lear, whom he portrays at the beginning as a man caught up in the supposed naturalness of speech when he honors the apparent bond of signifier and signified in the flattery of Goneril and Regan. Though Lear divides his kingdom, he unites words and meanings. Then, having empowered flattering words, he gradually discovers that there is no natural bond between what is said and what is meant. The result for him, as for the poet who consciously breaks this bond, is chaos—a breakdown of all familiar meanings and expectations. This period of chaotic nothingness, in which the old meanings have been abandoned and new ones not yet formulated, constitutes the poet's storm, the confusions and discomforts of which he must endure as he makes his way toward a new order, the forging of new bonds between words and meanings.

It is this stormy interim of creative madness that the Fool cannot endure or Edgar suffer at first hand. So the Fool escapes madness by disappearing, and Edgar by holding tight to the prefabricated forms and artificial truths of his social order. Only Lear confronts this storm wholly unaccommodated, and it kills him. Lear's madness is not the poet's madness. Lear does not return from madness with words of illumination; he knows only that he does not know, for “to deal plainly,” he says, “I fear I am not in my perfect mind” (IV.vii.64-65). He entertains fantasies of a safe withdrawal from suffering for him and Cordelia, and thinks “the gods themselves throw incense” on “such sacrifices” as they (V.iii.19-20). After all he has experienced, we feel at this point like demanding as Kent did in the opening scene, “See better, Lear!” Perhaps at the very end, when he cries “Look there, look there!” after his five “nevers,” we are meant to think he does see somewhat better. Not that he sees Cordelia's living breath but that he registers the sheer human necessity of continuing to insist on life in the process of dying, for without this he and she and we are already dead.

Only Shakespeare enters the storm and (in the most meaningful sense of the phrase) lives to tell about it. To be sure, it was he who created the storm in the first place, willfully disjoining the form and content of texts he might have preserved intact had he been Edgar, and dissolving the “something” of prior words into “nothing” by fragmenting the sign. Still, it requires more courage to volunteer for storm duty than to be conscripted to it like Lear; the winds are no less cold and mind-numbing. But the poet must leave the palace of received meanings and enter the uncharted heath, to bare his mind and shiver and chatter like the thing itself, before he can frame chaos into shapes of sense accessible to us in the theatre. In a large act of metaphoric naming he abuses and violates language, rips words from their meanings, scatters sense in all directions, lets signifieds be ravened up by signifiers, until the deconstituted stuff of his art, like humanity itself in Albany's prediction, “must perforce prey on itself, / Like monsters of the deep” (IV.ii.49-50). Yet out of this madness and nothingness Shakespeare at last emerges, unlike Lear, in even more than his right mind, indeed so marvelously “mad in craft,” as Hamlet put it, that he can write King Lear as a play that dramatizes this very experience.


In King Lear Shakespeare not merely puts his creative materials on the rack but employs a mode of development that is itself racklike as well. As Michael Goldman and William Matchett have shown, Edgar's remarks when he sees his blinded father—

O gods! Who is't can say “I am at the worst”?
I am worse than e'er I was.
.....And worse I may be yet. The worst is not
So long as we can say “This is the worst.”


—underscore a basic rhythm of defeated expectation in the play.15 The audience, no less than the characters, is obliged to pass from one painful “it is” to another even more searing. Punctuating this degenerative movement are the interpretive reports—e.g., “This is the worst”—that issue periodically from various characters but most often from Edgar, who seems to speak for everyone including the audience in voicing the hope that we have come to the end.

Edgar's word “report,” as I mentioned earlier, is useful since it helps us score a basic rhythm of the play as it first presents and then records experience. Edgar records his own response to the sight of Lear and Gloucester meeting on the heath by saying “I would not take this from report; it is, / And my heart breaks at it” ( The immediate “it is” of King Lear is often, as here, heartbreaking. “Report”—narration, interpretation, representation—is by comparison, Edgar implies, more comforting. It cushions the impact of immediate experience because it re-presents it at some distance in time, but also because, however scant it may be, report is still a made meaning, a transformation of rawness into the once-remove of speech, and hence of coherence, sequence, order, and form.16 Even a stark depressing statement like Edgar's “This is the worst” voices small the large institutionalized sayings of culture without which we hear nothing but William James's blooming, buzzing confusion.

In the context of King Lear these periodic sayings constitute moments of arrest within a current of worsening. At their simplest they do no more than register the “it is” of pain, as in the extraordinary emphasis on “hearted” feeling:

O, madam, my old heart is crack'd, it's crack'd!


O, how this mother swells up toward my heart!


O me, my heart, my rising heart!


Wilt break my heart?


[It is,] And my heart breaks at it.


O, that my heart would burst!


Break, heart, I prithee, break!


In addition to these bare recordings of pain, so thinly separated from pain itself, characters make gestures toward meaning that range from Lear's baffled questionings—“Is there any cause in nature that makes these hard hearts?” (—to his mad trial in search of truth and justice, and his random pronouncements on the heath about the human plight. As Lear's search for sense returns to fundamental states of nakedness, homelessness, helplessness, and madness, the sense he madly discerns makes fewer and fewer distinctions: all are wretched, all go to it, none is guilty. On the other hand, the subplot begins with generalities—Gloucester's astrological determinism, his claim to make no distinction between his sons, Edmund's leveling goddess Nature—and proceeds toward greater specificity of form as it takes on the character of a morality play at Dover Cliffs, a chivalric romance in the trial by combat and, finally, a definitive report when Edgar moralizes his father's blinding and narrates his death.

There is a suggestion then that the two plots, though parallel, are moving in opposite directions—the mainplot toward maximum entropy, madness, and the unspeakable “it is,” the subplot toward order, meaning, and the mediations of report; the one broadly uncreating, the other creating. Thus the overall thrust of the play is a rack-like intensification of pain briefly arrested by moments of report that differ from plot to subplot. All the transient reports by characters participate in the overall report that is the developing form of King Lear, a form we begin to sense as the play proceeds on its painful way.

That way of putting it implies that report is comforting, a haven of order and meaning amid a world of suffering—and in some degree it is. Unfortunately, however, the form that is taking shape is that which is identified by Edgar's statement, “The worst is not / So long as we can say ‘This is the worst.’” The act of saying “This is the worst” offers some slight consolation inasmuch as it re-presents rather than presents us with the worst; yet it is merely a verbal anesthetic for a pain that, as the saying itself guarantees, will recur and deepen. Thus report shields us from present pain with, paradoxically, a promise of worse suffering in the future.17


Shakespeare honors this paradoxical principle to the end of his play. With the chivalric combat over and Edmund dying, he spares us the immediate experience of Gloucester's death and of Kent's arrival by having Edgar narrate both events. Edgar speaks with self-conscious formality. “List a brief tale,” he says, and tells how his father died. Then Edmund says “But speak you on; / You look as you had something more to say” (V.iii.204-5). Albany demurs:

If there be more, more woeful, hold it in,
For I am almost ready to dissolve,
Hearing of this.


In other words, let this saying of the worst be the worst, for by this point “saying,” which shields the audience from the immediacy of the deaths it tells of, also becomes a destructive, or at least for Albany, a “dissolving,” agent. Nevertheless, Edgar proceeds with his story, telling how he encountered Kent, who “having seen me in my worst estate, [i.e., as Poor Tom] / Shunn'd my abhorr'd society” (V.iii.213-14), but who then, recognizing him as Edgar, “fastened on my neck” and wept, then cast himself on the dead body of Gloucester and told so piteous a tale of him and Lear on the heath that “the strings of [his own] life / Began to crack” (ll. 220-21). By now the fact that Edgar can “say” he was formerly in his “worst estate” should set him and us both wincing. Sure enough, he is brought to a worse state yet—in part by what he has said. For Edgar's report of these affairs, though it moves Edmund to order a reprieve for the condemned Lear and Cordelia—“This speech of yours hath moved me, / And shall perchance do good” (V.iii.203-4)—at the same time defers the reprieve until it is too late to save Cordelia. Edgar's disastrously time-consuming reportage of “the worst” helps bring on the “worser worst” as Lear makes his howling entrance with Cordelia's body.

Thus the next-to-last act of uncreation in King Lear is Shakespeare's stripping the play of report and forcing us to confront its final moments in their naked immediacy. We are not compelled to see Cordelia hanged, as we saw Gloucester blinded, but that is small comfort, since Shakespeare inflicts a worse experience upon us: Lear's pathetic struggle to understand that most arbitrary of all differences—

Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life,
And thou no breath at all?


—as he seeks to discover in Cordelia the breath that represents both the immediacy of life and the mediacy of human speech. Lear's frantic searching of Cordelia's face for signs of life—the face he once said he would never see again (I.i.265)—suggests the emphasis given in these final moments of the play to uninterpreted seeing. In the last forty-five lines, amid other references to the visual, the words “sight,” “see,” and “look” appear eleven times. Even Edgar, inveterate interpreter though he is, ends the play with the words “we that are young / Shall never see so much, nor live so long.”

The audience is similarly reduced to the status of onlookers obliged to make what sense they can of what they only see. Because Shakespeare refuses to exercise his authority by making meanings manifest, our questions hang in the air. At what point should we realize that Cordelia is dead? Or, rather, at what point should we interpret the unspoken behavior of the other characters as indicating that what we actually see—a boy actor's breathing body—is the arbitrary theatrical sign of a dead Cordelia? Who does Lear mean when he says “And my poor fool is hanged”? Whose button—his or Cordelia's—does he want undone? Does he die from the knowledge that Cordelia is dead or from a surging belief that she lives? And does the departing Kent intend suicide or does he merely know that he is dying? These questions would have troubled Shakespeare's original audience more than they do us, since we know what is coming. Stripped of interpretation, immediate experience would randomly arouse fear, pity, grief, and hope as they attempt to discover what they should feel. The notion that what we feel is prior to what we say (“Speak what we feel”) is confused here by the fact that the Jacobean audience could not know what to feel until it knew what was happening, until some rudimentary act of interpretation had taken place. Thus for much of this latter part of the scene the audience's feelings are in painful suspension as it attempts to interpret the naked “it is” of drama. This unenviable plight of the audience is analogous to that of the playwright who, having uncreated the familiar meanings of his linguistic and literary sources, is left with the raw unformed materials with which he creates King Lear.

We look in vain, then, for closures of form and meaning, and cathartic consolations. The irresolution and Manichaean conflict that characterize for Murray Krieger the “tragic vision” are not reassuringly contained by the austerity of tragic form but burst through it and persevere to the end.18 Or, rather, to the un-end—because in a sense the play has not ended but merely stopped. When Lear enters with Cordelia, Kent's anguished “Is this the promised end?” not only calls up apocalyptic images, but also underscores the failure of the play to fulfill its implicit promise of a just and satisfying conclusion in keeping with the religious character of the old King Leir. Earlier in the scene, with Edgar triumphant over Edmund, the evil daughters dead, and Lear and Cordelia about to be rescued, the Apollonian form of tragedy has seemed on the verge of enclosing the Dionysiac turmoil. Edmund says, “The wheel is come full circle,” and Albany fills in the just details:

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


At a similar moment in Hamlet the hero is reconciled to heaven and the playwright to his generic form, the one honoring his father by revenge, the other honoring the form of revenge tragedy by depicting that revenge. But now the playwright ostentatiously subverts his generic form. Edmund's wheel of fulfilling form becomes Lear's wheel of fire: the theatrical screw is given another twist, Lear stumbles on stage with Cordelia, and we are worse than e'er we were.

The play “un-ends” on the same theme of abdication with which it began. Albany says “you twain / Rule in this realm”; Kent demurs, “I have a journey, sir, shortly to go”; and Edgar becomes king by default, thereby earning the right to deliver the perfunctory four-line closing speech, which he places on the play like a band-aid on a gaping wound.


When Edgar ends the play by saying “Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say,” we can hardly help hearing an echo of his earlier statement “The worst is not / So long as we can say ‘This is the worst.’” It is the “saying” that counts. Whether Edgar sincerely says “what we feel” or more properly “what we ought to say,” he must still “say.” So must Shakespeare. Despite the intensity of his concern with immediacy in King Lear, his play remains unavoidably a saying—not the agonizing “it is” itself but a mediated representation of the worst. Perhaps, in reminding us of this, Shakespeare offers us a kind of catharsis in which our anxiety is relieved by his placement of fictional brackets around our suffering. If so, would that not mean that this painful play is in the last analysis merely a play and thus unreal? Precisely. Reality is worse.

From one perspective Shakespeare has done all he can do to us: the worst is over, we are released from his theatrical rack. From another, however, the worst he can do to us is to inform us that this is not the worst after all, only a saying of the worst. By this time we should know what that entails. There are other racks.

The principle on which King Lear proceeds, that “the worst is not,” implies that the play is not mimetic in the usual sense of that term. It does not hold the mirror up to nature, as Hamlet recommends. Instead of beginning with nature and adding art, it begins with art—with the ordered, ritually stylized, word-dominated world of its opening scene and, before that, with the created forms of King Leir and the Arcadia—and subtracts from it towards nature as the chaotic immediate, the nothing to which the verbal artist reduces all prior forms and meanings in order to begin again. Thus if the play begins with an uncreating act of abdication, it ends with another—uncreating its own fictional reality by abdicating to a sterner successor outside. Setting the audience free from the theatrical rack of this tough world is, however, no act of kindness by this unkind playwright. What we had been led to regard as the worst is seen now as merely a temporary shelter against hard weather. We are thrust out of the Globe onto an even greater stage of fools, where thunder is not made by rolling cannon balls and the cold rain raineth every day.

However, this despairing vision does only partial justice to Shakespeare's dramatization of “The worst is not / So long as we can say, ‘This is the worst.’” For the saying is as incorrigibly ambiguous as the play itself. In the sense in which Edgar means the lines, “saying” always heralds a greater worseness to come. And that is surely the case. Repeatedly we see that “saying” or “report” is not as discretely secondary to immediate experience as we might think, for immediate experience can be, and very often is in this play, a commentary on prior sayings. When Albany cries “The gods defend her!” Lear's howling entrance with Cordelia's body is a visual report on the mediations not only of the gods but of Albany's statement about the gods. Or, to reverse the order, Edmund's protracted story about his father's death is not merely a verbal report but an immediate and primary event in its own right. As such it consumes time, and hence contributes to Cordelia's death by postponing her rescue. In both instances “saying the worst” forecasts a worser worst, and in the latter case it helps create it. Report then is not necessarily, as we tend to think of it, an ending, a formal narrative closure of a primary experience.

Still, we cannot fail to see another meaning coexisting in Edgar's lines about saying the worst: that the act of saying transcends and staves off the worseness it announces. King Lear says “This is the worst” at great and unrelieving length. That means, as I've said, that it forecasts a greater worseness awaiting us outside the theatre. But it also means that so long as the play can say the worst we have not reached the worst. Thus the lines have something of the self-annulling quality of the statement “I cannot speak.” As long as saying is possible, “the worst is not,” for the act of saying presupposes an existing order and a community of meaning, however diminished and naked to the world it has become. If King Lear has returned very nearly to the nothing of its own origin, it has done so by employing words and theatrical forms that inevitably imply a hierarchy of values and acts of ordering. Shakespeare's divestiture of his theatrical art is itself artful. That is, after all, the only way the worst can appear in the theatre. Outside the theatre we will all experience the worst in its special forms, customized to our individual sufferings. But if we are to encounter the worst itself, Shakespeare tells us, it will be because we shall have lost the capacity to say, with King Lear, “This is the worst.” When that time comes—and these late eclipses in the sun and moon portend no good to us—wheels of fire will not be metaphors, and those whose tears do scald like molten lead will not cry “Howl” but howl in earnest.


  1. Man's Rage for Chaos (Philadelphia and Toronto: Chilton Co. and Ambassador Books, 1965).

  2. King Lear and the Gods (San Marino, Calif.: The Huntington Library, 1966), p. 181.

  3. See Sigurd Burckhardt “King Lear: The Quality of Nothing,” in Shakespearean Meanings (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1968), pp. 237-59. I should record my general debt to Burckhardt's brilliant analysis and, as well, to Robert B. Heilman's consistently insightful observations on the role of “nothing” in a book to which all students of the play are indebted, This Great Stage (Baton Rouge: Univ. of Louisiana Press, 1948), pp. 255-75. In this connection see also another fine article, “Shakespeare's Nothing,” by David Willbern in Representing Shakespeare, eds. Murray M. Schwartz and Coppélia Kahn (Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1980), pp. 244-63. Thomas McFarland documents the pattern of “reduction and renewal” in his chapter of that title in Tragic Meanings in Shakespeare (New York: Random House, 1966). For a brilliant analysis of this reductive process as a compromising of the tragic by comic conventions see Susan Snyder's chapter on King Lear in The Comic Matrix of Shakespeare's Tragedies (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1979), pp. 137-79. For perceptive studies of language and mediation in the play, see Terence Hawkes, Shakespeare's Talking Animals (London: Edward Arnold, 1973), pp. 167-78; Lawrence Danson, Tragic Alphabet (New Haven and London: Yale Univ. Press, 1974), pp. 163-97; and Richard Fly, “Beyond Extremity: King Lear and the Limits of Poetic Drama” in Shakespeare's Mediated World (Amherst: Univ. of Massachusetts Press, 1976), pp. 85-116.

  4. Sigurd Burckhardt; Emily Leider, “Plainness of Style in King Lear,Shakespeare Quarterly, 21 (1970), 45-53; Anne Barton, “Shakespeare and the Limits of Language,” Shakespeare Survey, 24 (1971), 19-30; see also Jill Levenson, “What the Silence Said: Still Points in King Lear,Shakespeare 1971: Proceedings of the World Shakespeare Congress, eds. Clifford Leech, J. M. R. Margeson (Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Press, 1972), pp. 215-29; and Lawrence Danson, Tragic Alphabet.

  5. These and all subsequent Shakespeare quotations are taken from The Complete Works of Shakespeare, ed. David Bevington, 3rd ed. (Glenview, Ill.: Scott, Foresman, 1980).

  6. See F. D. Hoeniger's “The Artist Exploring the Primitive: King Lear,” in Some Facets of King Lear: Essays in Prismatic Criticism, eds. Rosalie L. Colie and F. T. Flahiff (Toronto and Buffalo: Univ. of Toronto Press, 1974), pp. 89-102.

  7. Robert B. Heilman briefly catalogs the references to Christian values (p. 331 note); and William H. Matchett traces the rhythm of dashed hopes in his perceptive article on “Some Dramatic Techniques in King Lear” in Shakespeare: The Theatrical Dimension, eds. Philip C. McGuire and David A. Samuelson (New York: AMS Press, 1979), pp. 185-208.

  8. For an excellently conducted discussion of how the play appears to, but then does not, complete its morality “pilgrimage,” see Edgar Schell's chapter on the play in his Strangers and Pilgrims: From The Castle of Perseverance to King Lear (Chicago and London: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1983), especially pp. 181-95. See also Robert G. Hunter, Shakespeare and the Mystery of God's Judgments (Athens: The Univ. of Georgia Press, 1976), and Howard Felperin, Shakespearean Representation (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1977), both of which contain fine analyses of the role of the morality play and its relation to “existential” issues in King Lear.

  9. Lyons, “The Subplot as Simplification in King Lear,” in Colie and Flahiff, pp. 23-38.

  10. Lyons, p. 24.

  11. Harry Levin, “A Scene from King Lear,” in More Talking about Shakespeare, ed. John Garrett (London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1959) and reprinted in Shakespeare and the Revolution of the Times (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1976), p. 180. Burckhardt, Matchett, and especially Robert Egan (Drama Within Drama [New York and London: Columbia Univ. Press, 1975]) and Walter C. Foreman, Jr. (The Music of the Close [Lexington: Univ. Press of Kentucky, 1978]) stress the fraudulence of Edgar's “miracle.” On the other hand in “Text as Theatricality in King Lear and Macbeth” in Tragedy and Tragic in Western Culture (Montreal: Determinations, 1982), Judd Hubert argues that Edgar “requires no justification, for only such dramatic trifling has the power to effect cures and restore order” (p. 92).

  12. I follow the Folio in attributing the final speech to Edgar, as David Bevington does in the text I am using.

  13. Shakespeare's divestiture of Christianity from the pious King Leir is analogous to Montaigne's deconstruction of the “Natural Theology” of Raymond Sebond in his famous “Apology for Raymond Sebond.” Montaigne's discursive indictment of human reason unaided by divine grace is virtually dramatized in King Lear as Shakespeare demonstrates what man and his life become without God. Hamlet, one could argue, dramatizes a similar plight. But there, at the end, Shakespeare calls on a “divinity that shapes our ends” and “a special providence” to suggest what Montaigne declares in the final lines of the “Apology”:

    Nor can [fallen man] raise himself above himself and humanity; for he can see only with his own eyes, and seize only with his own grasp. He will rise, if God lends him his hand; he will rise by abandoning and renouncing his own means, and letting himself be raised and uplifted by divine grace; but not otherwise.

    (The Completed Works of Montaigne, trans. Donald M. Frame [Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 1958], p. 457)

    In King Lear, however, Shakespeare omits this final palinode. (See William Elton, pp. 34-71 and Howard Felperin, pp. 87-106 for perceptive discussions of Shakespeare's modifications of his sources.)

  14. King Lear, Macbeth, Indefinition, & Tragedy (New Haven and London: Yale Univ. Press, 1983), p. 11. Booth stresses the “impossibility of finality in the play” (p. 13) as one aspect of an indefiniteness that characterizes the whole (or the not yet whole!). Several critics have found a similar quality about the language of the play, particularly its striving toward the inexpressible. See Norman Maclean, “Episode, Scene, Speech, and Word: The Madness of Lear,” in Critics and Criticism, ed. R. S. Crane (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1952), esp. p. 614; Anne Barton; and especially Richard Fly, pp. 87-115.

  15. See Michael Goldman's excellent “The Worst of King Lear,” in his Shakespeare and the Energies of Drama (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1972), pp. 94-108; and William H. Matchett, “Some Dramatic Techniques in King Lear.

  16. See Sigurd Burckhardt, pp. 253-54.

  17. This principle of the “worst” is a dreary perversion of Jacques Derrida's concept of the “supplement,” which paradoxically adds onto and replaces or fills up an apparently full presence (cf. Derrida, Of Grammatology, trans. Gayatri C. Spivak [Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1976], pp. 144-45; and Derrida, “The Supplement of Copula: Philosophy before Linguistics,” in Textual Strategies, ed. Josue V. Harari [Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1979], pp. 82-120). The most obvious reason for the supplement is need or desire, and thus the supplement may attempt to replace the prior “presence,” as culture replaces nature for Levi-Strauss. That is the case in King Lear, but with a difference. “The worst” is repeatedly represented as lacking, but it is supplemented not by something better but by something worse. What it is lacking is “worseness.” Thus the “worsening” process is a progressive degeneration—a perverse pursuit of the full presence of worseness that finally takes us beyond the play itself.

  18. Murray Krieger defines “the tragic vision” in his book of that title (Chicago and London: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1960), pp. 1-21. In effect, the experience of the tragic visionary is characterized by an absence of Derrida's transcendental signified—a world temporarily given over to the free play and conflict of values, forms, and meanings. But whereas Derrida sees this absence everywhere in “discourse,” Krieger regards it as encompassed by the (illusory) presence of the form of tragedy. In speaking of the Nietzschean balancing of the Dionysian with the Apollonian, Krieger says:

    But what if we should find the Dionysian without the Apollonian? Here we would have life unalleviated, endlessly unendurably dangerous, finally destructive and self-destructive—in short, the demoniacal. In effect it would be like tragedy without that moment in which the play comes round and the cosmos is saved and returned to us intact. It would be, in other words, the tragic vision wandering free of its capacious home in tragedy.

    (p. 10)

    As my foregoing remarks on the play suggest, I find this an apt description of King Lear. However, as Krieger would no doubt observe, if the tragic vision in King Lear breaks free of its bondage within tragedy it does not break free of all form. As a self-anulling assertion that “This is the worst,” the play simultaneously creates form while insisting it is but the illusion of form. Such a view is in accord with Stephen Booth's observation that

    The glory of King Lear as an experience for its audience is in the fact that the play presents its morally capricious universe in a play that, paradoxically, is formally capricious and also uses pattern to do exactly what pattern usually does: assert the presence of an encompassing order in the work (as opposed to the world it describes).

    (King Lear, Macbeth, Indefinition, & Tragedy, p. 27)

Lyell Asher (essay date 2000)

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Last Updated on February 5, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9957

SOURCE: Asher, Lyell. “Lateness in King Lear.Yale Journal of Criticism 13, no. 2 (2000): 209-28.

[In the following essay, Lyell analyzes Lear's tragedy as it is delineated and compounded via the motif of lateness.]

If I voyage back to the fatherland I love,
my pride, my glory dies …
true, but the life that's left me will be long,
the stroke of death will not come on me quickly.

—Achilles, in The Iliad

Foolish the friends who called me happy then
Whose fall shows how my foothold was unsure.

—Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy

—Bad enough! The same old story! When one has finished building one's houses, one suddenly realizes that in the process one has learned something that one really needed to know in the worst way—before one began. The eternal distasteful “too late!”
The melancholy of everything finished!—

—Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil


It is an axiom of Shakespearean tragedy, and perhaps of tragedy generally, that knowledge always arrives, if it arrives at all, belatedly. When Diomedes brings news to the dying Antony that Cleopatra is in fact alive, he could be speaking for knowledge itself when he says “I am come, / I dread, too late.”1 In the context of the scene, Diomedes simply means that he is too late to prevent Antony's suicide, but such portentous lagging behind puts him in the company of a whole class of such latecomers—Emilia in Othello, for example, Friar Laurence in Romeo & Juliet, and a number of characters in King Lear, where there is a plethora of missed appointments: Gloucester's delayed discovery of his true and false sons, Lear's of his true and false daughters, Edgar's delayed recognition of his brother Edmund's treachery, Edgar's and Kent's delayed recognition of one another in their journey with the king, and most conspicuous of all, the two deadly delays in the final scene—Edmund's death-bed conversion to kindness and Lear's last-minute dispatch of Cordelia's hangman, both of which occur too late to do anyone any good. The powerlessness of all such characters to have been anything other than late is remarked by Friar Laurence when he says “A greater power than we can contradict / Hath thwarted our intents” (5.3.153-54), thus making lateness a near necessity of the genre, as if being late in a tragedy were to be right on time.

But there is a more delicate form of lateness in King Lear that might not be noticeable at all except for the fact that it is so strangely recurrent. It subtly haunts the first scene, making its initial appearance in the opening lines of the play. Gloucester introduces the bastard Edmund to Kent, and in the course of their exchange puns on the intellectual and sexual senses of conception. One of the differences implicit in the exchange has to do with the difficulty of one kind of conception and the ease of the other: “I cannot conceive you,” Kent says to Gloucester, who quips, “this young fellow's mother could” (1.1.11-13). The flippancy of the reply notwithstanding, a basic, even elemental distinction is being set out here between creating something and signing your name to it, between knowing something in the sexual sense and knowing it in the intellectual sense, between conceiving your child and conceiving of your child—that is, conceiving of it as your own. The ease of the former and the difficulty of the latter account for the time lag between the two kinds of conception, between sexually knowing and intellectually acknowledging. Gloucester says of Edmund that “I have so often blush'd to acknowledge him, that now I am braz'd to it” (1.1.9-10) and a little later that “there was good sport at his making, and the whoreson must be acknowledg'd” (1.1.23). A curious pattern: first the deed, then the naming of the deed; first the sexual knowing then later, much later in this case, the acknowledging.

The pattern repeats itself in the scene's central action, the division of the kingdom. Lear asks for the map and says “Know that we have divided / In three our kingdom” (1.1.37), yet according to the premise of the auction, the divisions will be made in proportion to the expansiveness of each daughter's praise. Thus Lear claims he will do in this scene what he has already done. One could argue of course that the kingdom has already been divided into graded parcels, and that the question to be decided is who gets the largest one. But even then it seems clear that whoever speaks first is bound to get the smallest portion and whoever speaks last the largest, as Regan demonstrates when she easily one-ups Goneril by saying “she comes too short” (1.1.72). However one looks at it, everything seems to have been decided before the auction begins.2 All of this led Dr. Johnson to open his commentary on the play with an avowal that “[t]here is something of obscurity or inaccuracy in this preparatory scene. The king has already divided his kingdom, and yet when he enters he examines his daughters, to discover in what proportion he should divide it.”3 Coleridge noticed the same problem, but made the confusion an important part of Shakespeare's intentions: “It was not without forethought, and it is not without its due significance, that the triple division is stated as a thing already determined in all its particulars, previous to the trial of professions, as the relative rewards of which the daughters were to be made to consider their several portions.” The function of the redundancy, on Coleridge's account, is to expose Lear's psychological state. He calls it “a silly trick,” hatched in the rookery of “the anxiety, the distrust, the jealousy, which more or less accompany all selfish affections.”4

Putting Lear's divestment together with Gloucester's opening exchange, however, helps us see a pattern here and not just a pathology: Lear divides his kingdom first and then later says he will divide it, just as Gloucester conceives a child first and then, much later, conceives of it. Edmund is himself, we might say, a thing “already determined in all its particulars,” previous to Gloucester's explicit acknowledgments of him. No less than Lear's land, he is already a divided parcel of Gloucester's legacy, and he is so long before Gloucester belatedly says so. But I have suggested that such lateness is a structural feature of tragedy as a whole, a subtle but common component of its DNA. The very idea of “discovery”—Aristotle's anagnoresis, which he placed at the center of the complex tragic plot—depends on it, since what is discovered is necessarily some antecedent fact or condition which comes belatedly to light. If this is so, then what is it that distinguishes the lateness of King Lear from that of Oedipus, say, or of Dr. Faustus, or of tragedy generally?

In addition to the instances of lateness that we have just looked at, there is one thing that serves to reinforce them all: Lear's chronological lateness, his very conspicuous old age. At “fourscore and upward” (4.7.61) he is by far the oldest of Shakespeare's tragic subjects, and along with the old Shepherd in The Winter's Tale, Justice Shallow in Merry Wives, and the old tenant who accompanies the blinded Gloucester, among the four oldest characters in the Shakespearean corpus. It is partly on the basis of that agedness that Harold Bloom has hypothesized a model for Lear in the old Solomon, both kings “in their eighties.”5 But as we know, Shakespeare only increases Lear's age, he does not invent it. In all of the legend's variations it is a decidedly old king who decides to parcel out his kingdom. For a good many versions of the tale, in fact, the king's advanced years are invoked to account for the rashness of that decision. Holinshed's Historie of England, for example, describes what had been “a prince of right noble demeanor, governing his land and subjects in great wealth,” who then began “to waxe unweldie through age” and “thought to understand the affections of his daughters towards him.” Likewise, John Higgins' The Mirror for Magistrates has Cordelia say, “Once olde and twice a childe, tis said with you, / Which I affirme by proofe, that was definde: / In age my father had a childishe minde.” Lear's impetuous actions, in other words, are symptoms of the mental and physical decrepitude that besiege him as the sun sets on his life.

Of course Shakespeare himself was not above invoking the conventional association between old age and mental decline. In the famous speech from As You Like It on the seven ages of man, Jacques echoes Higgins' Cordelia by equating the last age with “second childishness and mere oblivion” (2.7.165), and one hears versions of this sentiment throughout King Lear itself. But as happens so frequently in his plays, no sooner has Shakespeare taken up a simple explanatory thread than he begins to fray it. Consider the exchange between Goneril and Regan at the end of the first scene.

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 judgment 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 condition, but therewithal the unruly waywardness that infirmity and choleric years bring with them.


Much of what is said here sustains the suggestion of the source plays that Lear's recklessness and bellicosity are the bitter fruits of his longevity. The passage begins and ends with remarks about the changes that the years have brought, and Regan states flatly, “'Tis the infirmity of his age.” In the midst of such conventional diagnoses of Lear's behavior, however, Shakespeare inserts suggestions of a more longstanding obtuseness: that “he hath ever but slenderly known himself,” and that “the best and soundest of his time hath been but rash.” The King's rancorousness does not evidence some entirely new dementia, but brings to the fore congenital failings, those “imperfections of long-ingraff'd condition.”

Should we believe what his daughters say? In most circumstances Goneril and Regan are characters too treacherous to trust. But it is worth noticing that they are speaking in confidence here and that the rest of what they say in this exchange is noticeably frank and forthright. Earlier in the scene, for example, Goneril had publicly reprimanded Cordelia for having “obedience scanted,” openly exclaiming that “[you] well are worth the want you have wanted” (1.1.275-78). Privately to Regan, however, she speaks the truth: “He always lov'd our sister most, and with what poor judgment he hath now cast her off appears too grossly” (1.1.288-91). When he adapted the play in 1691, Nahum Tate thought so much of the diagnosis of Lear's poor judgment as a long-standing debility that he made it the testimony of a more reliable witness, transferring it from Goneril and Regan to Gloucester. “Alas!” he has the earl say to Kent, “'tis the infirmity of his age.” Then he remembers it as a pre-existing condition:

Yet has his temper ever been unfixed,
Choleric and sudden. …(6)

Probably the central reason for Tate's crediting the idea of Lear's having been purblind long before the love test is the fact that so much in the rest of the play vouches for it. The Fool remarks in act 1 that “fool” is a title Lear “wast born with” (1.4.147), complaining in the next scene that “Thou [Lear] shoulds't not have been old till thou hadst been wise” (1.5.42). And Lear himself in the “Poor naked wretches” speech is surely recognizing a fixed, rather than fleeting blindness to the sufferings of the destitute when he castigates himself for having “ta'en / Too little care of this” (3.4.32-33), just as he is confessing a constitutional condition when he acknowledges Goneril as a “disease that's in my flesh …” (2.4.220). The stylized, archaic quality of the love test itself suggests not only the ancient setting of the play, I would say, but the inveterateness of the king's demand for flattery—as if this compulsory ritual of awe were a distillation of the entirety of Lear's reign. The Shakespearean director John Barton has been quoted as having always felt that “the first scene of Lear was actually the last scene of some other play.”7

Exactly—the opening seems as much a recapitulation of something old as a launch of something new. I would only add that this “other play” might be thought of simply as King Lear, Pt. 1, in which the genealogy of Lear's susceptibility to flattery is laid bare. Lear himself alludes to the abiding character of this susceptibility in act 4, when he speaks of those who “told me I had the white hairs in my beard ere the black ones were there,” who said “‘ay’ and ‘no’ to everything that I said,” and “who told me I was everything” (4.6.97-105). This presumably alludes to the entirety of Lear's reign, and not just to the blarney-mongering of the opening scene.

Yet all of this brings us to a conundrum. On the one hand, Shakespeare actually exceeds the source plays by making Lear not simply old but, at fourscore and upward, excessively old, a man who has lived more than a decade beyond the seventy years traditionally allotted to us (“The days of our years are threescore years and ten” [Psalms, xc. 10]). On the other, Shakespeare downplays the very thing that we might have presumed this emphasis to be in service of—namely, the onset of the king's senility. For with each indictment of Lear's senescence as something new, there is a qualification that makes it old. What are we to make of this? If Lear's extreme old age is not there to account for a sudden decline into dotage, if indeed Shakespeare intimates that Lear's folly is as much an age-old infirmity as an infirmity of old age, then why does Shakespeare amplify Lear's agedness? Why in a genre whose dramatic force often turns on its protagonists being cut down in the prime of life would a playwright push a figure so far past his prime?

If we cannot speak confidently about intentions, we can nevertheless say something about effects, and a signal effect of endowing Lear with eighty and some odd years is to turn his attention so resolutely backward, toward the past. Shakespeare takes Lear to the extreme limit of his existence, to the very verge of nature's confine, as Regan says, and only then, when the mainspring of the old man's life is all but unwound, starts the play. This sets up the possibility of Lear's coming to know something doubly, if not triply or even quadruply late: not only too late to save Cordelia and himself, and not only late in the play and late in life, but late in a conspicuously distended life—in a life, we could say, that is itself late. A man who is always already too late: this is the circumstance that marks Lear's distinction as a dramatic character. No matter how fated their ends may seem, after all, for each of Shakespeare's other tragic protagonists we can at least imagine various futures, hypothetical horizons against which we judge the trajectories that their lives actually take. Very often, the plays themselves offer incidental sketches of these futures. Think of Volumnia's warning Coriolanus that he must either be led as a “foreign recreant” or “Triumphantly tread on thy country's ruin” (5.3.116); Macbeth's thinking about committing regicide, oscillating between “I dare not” and “I would” (1.7.44); Cleopatra's thinking about being led back to Rome and having to see “Some squeaking Cleopatra boy my greatness / In the posture of a whore” (5.2.219-20); not to mention Hamlet's musings on whether to “suffer” or “take arms” (3.1.57-59). Defunct as at least half of these potential futures turn out to be, they nevertheless pitch things forward; they draw the protagonists toward horizons ahead, allowing them to consider present actions from the standpoint of times to come. It matters little whether these futures are realized. The way these characters think about what they might do becomes part of who they are.

But if Shakespeare leaves his other tragic protagonists to reckon what they will do, he leaves Lear to reckon only what he has done—not just what he has done earlier in the play, as Macbeth does, but earlier in the more than eighty years of his life. With the single exception of his initial act of divestiture, the forking paths of possibility have all been decided before the opening scene. The high ceremony of that scene emphasizes this fact, dramatizing as it does not only the momentousness of his decision, but its lateness, its grand finality. Those arresting dilemmas that rack his younger counterparts—the sort of quandaries epitomized by Hamlet's “To be, or not to be,” and Othello's “If I quench thee flaming minister”—thus have no parallel in Lear's experience, or if they do, it is a parallel that demonstrates a difference. Take for example that resonant question that he asks in act 1, scene 4: “Who is it that can tell me who I am” (227)? Stripped from its context, the question bears all the marks of a more or less youthful crisis, a move from adolescence to adulthood, say, or from young adulthood to middle age. Looking forward as much as backward, it asks not only “Who am I?” but “Who shall I be?” When posed by a man at the very end of a very long life, on the other hand, the question turns exclusively, and brutally, to the past. For with the future so entirely foreclosed, “Who am I?” can only mean “Who have I been all of these years?” Deprived of such a future, Lear is faced with a frozen past which he is powerless to change yet forced to contemplate. At fourscore and upward, it is a past as massive as it is irrevocable.

Soon after the Berlin wall came down and the East German government collapsed, a radio interviewer asked a seventy-five-year-old veteran of Stasi, the secret police, whether he felt he owed his fellow citizens an apology for being the instrument of a totalitarian regime which had ultimately come to naught. The man answered, memorably, “I am an old man, and that would mean erasing my entire life. No one can be asked to do that.” By making Lear a man of fourscore and upward who has ever but slenderly known himself, and then, at the last moment, discovering to him that fact, Shakespeare asks Lear to do precisely that. We typically construe Hamlet as the dramatic archetype of thought prevailing over action, and rightly so. Yet Hamlet's delay, however palpably featured it may be in Hamlet's own musings and in the play as a whole, shrinks in comparison to the glacial stillness of Lear's lost time, to his being forced to think of action as a possibility that has long since past, to face the fact that any action taken now is already too late.


Let me bring these reflections to bear on the play as a whole by hazarding this surmise: that in compounding lateness, King Lear compounds tragedy in the way that a bank compounds interest, and in so doing, the play can be thought of as giving us a kind of metatragedy, the tragedy of tragedy itself. The lateness within the play, on this view, would be raised to the next level, to the lateness of the play, and would thus betoken something like the lateness of tragedy as a genre. There is something at least partly familiar about this suggestion. Tragedies have frequently been understood to mark the lateness of certain things, to negotiate the demise not merely of individuals, but of paradigms of value, of systems of thought. To cite some recent examples of this view, gleaned more or less at random: Jean-Pierre Vernant and Pierre Vidal-Naquet have described Greek tragedy as confronting “heroic values and ancient religious representations with the new modes of thought that characterize the advent of law within the city-state”; Renaissance tragedy, says Timothy J. Reiss, helped to make possible “a new class of discourse … that functions on the basis of analytical and referential truth”; and Jonathan Dollimore suggests that Jacobean tragedy marshals “a positive rejection of ‘order’—in the universe, society and the human subject—as ideological misrepresentation.”8 Distinct as these ideas are, the common thread among them probably goes back to Hegel's suggestion that tragedy enacts a collision not simply of individuals or aims, but of whole systems of value and thought.

Shakespeare's work has frequently been placed at the nexus of just such collision between medieval and modern, and for at least the last fifty years, King Lear has become exhibit A in such placements. In a lecture he delivered at the University of Glasgow in 1946, Edwin Muir distinguished Lear from the rest of the tragedies by calling it “the only one in which two ideas of society are directly confronted, and the old generation and the new are set face to face, each assured of its own right to power.”9 Though Muir's thoughts are drawn more readily in 1946 to the conflicts in modern than in Renaissance Europe, he lightly sketches a fault line in the play between the medieval “communal tradition” and “modern individualism.” A few years later, John Danby's Shakespeare and the Doctrine of Nature fleshed out this claim that Lear is historically Janus-faced, putting forward the view that the King, Kent, and the Fool look backward toward the hierarchical view of nature and society espoused by Hooker and Bacon, while Goneril, Regan, and Edmund, the quintessential New Man, look forward to Hobbes. Since then, a substantial seam of writing on Lear has developed around the idea that the play is on the cusp of a paradigm shift, though notions about what these paradigms are, and who or what represents them in the play, fill a broad spectrum. Common to most is a sense that we are witnessing in Lear a eulogy to some passing form, be it political, sociological, economic, or a combination of the three. Lateness in Lear is, in this respect, a venerable topic.

I allude to this current of interpretation, though, in order to mark the more limited scope of my own, which has less to do with Lear's marking the lateness of a social formation per se, than with its marking the lateness of a certain notion of tragedy itself. It may be, as Muir and others suggest, that Lear has one foot in a world dying and another in a world being born. But if this is so, then the way in which the play might be reconceiving the very idea of tragic decline ought to be a central concern. What was this idea? Here is Harry Levin's simple but convenient formula for the pattern that is supposed to have come down to Shakespeare, a pattern that Levin sees exemplified in King Lear. “Downfall was the formula for tragedy that Shakespeare inherited and elaborated, not only in plot and characterization but in language and staging as well. The dying fall is its traditional posture.”10 This is from an essay called “Heights and Depths,” and surely a vertical geometry has always been the spine of tragedy's conceptual frame. In Oedipus the chorus sings of the insolent tyrant who “mounts to the topmost cornice and is forced to leap from a steep pinnacle into sheer constraint where its feet can do it no service.”11 Chaucer describes the tragic tale as treating “Of hym that stood in greet prosperitee, / And is yfallen out of heigh degree. …” And nowhere are the references to this fall more pronounced or more plentiful than in King Lear. Of all Shakespeare's tragedies, it is the one that most fully enlists the medieval topos of topsy-turveydom, both verbally and visually. While the Fool tells us in countless ways that we are witnessing a “great wheel run[ning] down hill” (2.4.69-70), Lear's precipitous descent from kingship to beggary is made evident on the stage in the exchange of a castle for a hovel, and the regalia of royalty for a crown of weeds and flowers. By far the most striking physical corollary to Lear's decline is of course Gloucester's fall from those imagined cliffs of an imagined Dover, a declension which Levin, in the essay quoted above, likens not only to Lear's fall but to tragic falls generally.

But it is just here, in the very scene in which the form of tragic descent would seem to be most concretely figured, that Shakespeare sets the whole structure trembling. We know that Gloucester's fall is a blind man's hallucination—he can at most fall forward. So how can it be understood to represent the cataclysmic collapse that is Lear's? What would seem to be a parody of tragic downfall has nevertheless been interpreted as an indirect reinforcement of it: the bathos of Gloucester's fall, it is often argued, serves to emphasize by way of contrast the pathos of Lear's. Bridget Lyons epitomized this view when she said that Gloucester's decline helps to feature Lear's, first by “simplifying the central action, and translating its concerns into familiar … verbal and visual patterns,” and then by “help[ing] to reveal the nature of Lear's experience by being so obviously inadequate to it.”12 There is clearly something to such a reading, and most would admit to feeling that Lear's protracted demise exerts an incomparable emotional torque. At the same time, no play makes us more suspicious of invidious comparisons than King Lear, especially in the love auction in the opening scene, and the vaulting of the Lear plot over the Gloucester plot at times can seem strangely reminiscent of the zero-sum games at the heart of this play in which one person's gain is necessarily and unjustly another's loss. In this instance, such a comparison obscures the very real possibility that Gloucester's fall may actually decipher Lear's directly—that is, explain it by means of continuities rather than contrasts.

To be sure, a good many of the continuities between the plots are clear and broadly assumed. We readily identify the two aged patriarchs, tally their several blindnesses, and align their respective malevolent and benevolent children. We accept that Gloucester's calamities offer compelling, if sometimes oblique variations on Lear's own. Yet it seems to me that when Shakespeare composed this scene on the cliff, his imagination was working even more directly and profoundly on tracing the peculiar trajectory of Lear's fall, on revealing precisely that aspect of Lear's decline that cannot be contained in the traditional pattern of vertical descent. But how, we might well ask, can a fall such as Gloucester's offer a clarification of something as grand and emotionally resonant as Lear's? And what does any of this have to do with what I have been calling Lear's lateness?

Let me address these questions by considering something which, to my knowledge, has not been remarked before: namely, the way in which this scene with Gloucester standing at the edge of an imaginary Dover Cliff takes us back to the beginning of Lear's decline, specifically to the opening scene of the play in which Lear, standing at the edge of his own abyss, portions out his land. To begin with, my insistence on their mutual cliff-hanging is not simply a matter of indulging a metaphor; there is, in fact, a curious parallel in the visual geometries of the two scenes—the fact that both men are surveying imaginary landscapes from above. Lear looks down at his map and sees in miniature the “shadowy forests with champains rich'd, / With plenteous rivers and wide-skirted meads” (1.1.63-64) set out before him. With a gesture of his hand he can mark off a third of his kingdom, “from this line to this” (1.1.62). Gloucester likewise is looking down at a representation of a landscape, as Edgar takes him to the edge of an imaginary cliff and unfolds for him the Lilliputian scene below:

The crows and choughs that wing the midway air
Show scarce so gross as beetles. Half way down
Hangs one that gathers sampire, dreadful trade!
Methinks he seems no bigger than his head.
The fishermen that [walk] upon the beach
Appear like mice; and yond tall anchoring bark,
Diminish'd to her cock; her cock, a buoy
Almost too small for sight.


By itself, no doubt, the parallel seems inconsequential, the merest happenstance. But when we recall how it is that the two men have gained their respective altitudes in these scenes, the affinities are harder to ignore. When the blinded Gloucester meets Tom at the beginning of act 4, he insists that the poor beggar “take this purse” (4.1.63), asks if he knows the way to Dover, and promises to recompense him further once they reach the Cliff. “Bring me but to the very brim of it,” he says,

And I'll repair the misery thou dost bear
With something rich about me; from that place
I shall no leading need.


Once Edgar has described the vast descent of the precipice and led his credulous father to “within a foot / Of the extreme verge” (4.6.25-26), Gloucester makes good on his promise. In what he imagines will be his last act before plummeting to his death, he hands his escort another purse, one which contains a jewel “well worth a poor man's taking” (4.6.29). In having Gloucester mention these payments on three separate occasions, Shakespeare is making more of them than we would have expected. Why? Why this inordinate interest in what would seem to be trivial remunerations? We probably connect them first to Lear's own recognition during the storm that he has neglected the poor, and to his pledge to “feel what wretches feel” and “shake the superflux to them” (3.4.34-35). Gloucester himself had concluded his first charity to Tom with the maxim, “So distribution should undo excess / And each man have enough” (4.1.69-70).

But a more significant parallel emerges when we note that Gloucester's distribution of excess to this particular beggar is also an unwitting bequest to his son. We need not dwell on the specifically patrilineal associations that accrue to Gloucester's pursed jewel (“purse” being a nickname for scrotum) to make the point that a man who, on what he imagines to be the brink of his own demise, bestows a gift on his child, repeats the central action of the opening scene in which Lear bestows his kingdom on his daughters so that he may “unburthened, crawl toward death” (1.1.40). Moreover, in connection with what we said earlier about the vertical qualities of both scenes, it is worth noticing that Lear is promising to reward his daughters according to their professions of love, and they no less than the disguised Edgar exalt their father to the heights with their stratospheric rhetoric. Goneril accounts him “Dearer than eye-sight, space, and liberty; / Beyond what can be valued rich or rare” (1.1.56), and Regan raises him still further, claiming that her sister “comes too short” (1.1.71). Just as Gloucester unwittingly pays Edgar for a make-believe elevation, Lear pays his two daughters for much the same. As if to enforce this parallel, Shakespeare has Lear enter the vicinity of the cliff scene immediately after Gloucester's fall, complaining of his daughters' deceit: “Go to, they are not men o' their words. They told me I was everything, 'tis a lie …” (4.6.103-105).

Now it is true of course that we normally associate Edgar with Cordelia rather than with Goneril and Regan, and in fact he is never closer to Cordelia's stern solicitude than he is here in the cruel kindness that he shows to his father. “Why I do trifle thus with his despair,” he remarks in an aside, as Cordelia might have said in the opening scene, “Is done to cure it” (4.6.34). Yet the cure that Edgar effects here requires not only playacting, but an assumption of different roles according to where he is in the scene. When he escorts his father to that rhetorical precipice, I want to suggest, he takes on the duplicitous but pleasing grandiloquence of Goneril and Regan, a transformation that Gloucester himself seems to notice when he compliments his consort on the beauty of his inflections: “Methinks thy voice is alter'd, and thou speak'st / In better phrase and matter than thou didst.” Though Edgar protests that he has only changed his garments, Gloucester insists that “Methinks you're better spoken,” and it is at that point that Edgar begins his ecphrastic description of the cliff and coast, elevating Gloucester in the same way that Goneril and Regan had elevated Lear—with words. Even Edgar confirms this association with the two grasping sisters when, once at the bottom of cliff, he describes the “beggar” that had led Gloucester to the precipice:

As I stood here below methought his eyes
Were two full moons; he had a thousand noses,
Horns whelk'd and wav'd like the enridged sea:
It was some fiend. …


If this monster is, as is often argued, a version of Edgar's own unpurged anger, it has still more direct associations with Goneril and Regan. Apart from Tom O'Bedlam's constant railing against the “foul fiend” that bites his back, up to this point in the play the word “fiend” has been attached exclusively to the two sisters—first by Lear who speaks of “ingratitude” as a “marble-hearted fiend, / More hideous, when thou show'st thee in a child, / Than the sea-monster” (1.4.257-59), and next by Albany, who tells Goneril that though a woman's shape shields her, “thou art a fiend” (4.2.66).

But where in the midst of Edgar's rhetorical elevation is there a counterpart for the momentous comedown we witness in the opening scene, when Cordelia says “nothing”? It comes at the end of Edgar's panoramic description, in lines which I have yet to quote. Accounting for the fact that Gloucester cannot hear the ocean down below, Edgar explains that

                                                                                          The murmuring surge
That on th' unnumb'red idle pebble chafes,
Cannot be heard so high.


From its opening scene, King Lear is rife with contrasts between heights and depths, speech and silence, the poetic and the prosaic. The exalted eloquence of Lear's opening speech makes the ribaldry between Gloucester and Kent that precedes it seem that much lower, just as Regan's florid panegyric to her father is designed to make Goneril's encomium seem flat. With the rhetoric of the opening scene thus ratcheted up to such a height, a height given a spatial dimension by Lear's poring over a map of his kingdom, Cordelia's truth can only seem lowly and mute by comparison. In stark contrast to her loquacious sisters who praise Lear to the skies, she mumbles her love in an aside, and says “nothing.” Like the murmuring surge, she cannot be heard so high.

This is enough to let me say what I take to be the significance of these correlations. Whether by conscious design or unconscious association, Shakespeare's representation of Gloucester's fall gives us the Lear plot in an encapsulated form: a blind man descends to the depths, having been deceived by his offspring into thinking he had attained the heights. The sheer profusion of likenesses that the cliff scene generates suggests that Gloucester's fall does not feature Lear's by means of antithesis but shadows it by way of analogy, and my aim in fleshing out these likenesses in such detail has been to drive that point home with regard to one thing in particular: the fact that Gloucester falls from an illusory height. But how, except ironically, does a ludicrous pratfall such as Gloucester's bear on the sublimity of Lear's travail? And what, in any case, might this have to do with lateness?

This is where my argument rejoins what was said in the previous section. One of the things I emphasized there is the necessarily retrospective cast of Lear's reflections. Beginning as the play does at the very end of its protagonist's very long life, at the end of the life, moreover, of a man who has ever but slenderly known himself, King Lear magnifies both the longevity of its hero's misperception as well as the implacable endurance of a truth which he has always misperceived. Hence Shakespeare's emphasis on Lear's extreme old age and his relative de-emphasis of his dotage: the king's more than fourscore years are not invoked to explain his folly so much as to extend its persistence. Deprived of a future, and endowed with so abundant a past, Lear is belatedly to understand what has always, and emphatically always—that is, for fourscore years and upward—been the case: not that he is no longer everything, but that he never was.

The scene of Gloucester tumbling from those imaginary cliffs exactly represents the logic of this state of affairs by depicting someone who only falls to where he already stands. It thus helps to decipher Lear's peculiar take on tragedy's downward trajectory. Has Lear fallen from the height at which he stood at the beginning of the play, before he had parsed his kingdom? Has he lost genuine love or real authority in a tragic decline? Shakespeare portrays Lear as someone who has always misperceived the flat plain on which he has been standing. Putting the two scenes together, we could say that the graphic proposition of the play is that while there is such a thing as falling, and such a thing as loss, neither Lear nor Gloucester can fall from where he never actually stood, or lose what he never really had.13

To adapt Coleridge's line one last time, Lear's decline along with Gloucester's fall are, no less than Lear's division of his kingdom and Gloucester's bastard son Edmund, “thing[s] already determined in all [their] particulars.”

Familiar as it may seem, this strikes me as a unique circumstance for a tragic character to find himself in. Consider Othello by way of contrast. From the outset of the play he is exalted in Venetian society for a military prowess that is at once so remarkable and so necessary to the state that neither the stigma of his race nor his clandestine marriage to Desdemona can threaten it. His most implacable enemy, Iago, never once questions it. Or Macbeth, whose bravery in battle against the rebels occasions both the praise showered upon him in the opening scene and his promotion to Thane of Cawdor. And the seductive power of Cleopatra and the martial conquests of Antony are not only recounted but enacted in Antony and Cleopatra, as is Caius Martius' single-handed defeat of the city that will give him his name in Coriolanus. In the end, though all of these figures will suffer tragic decline, the bases of their original elevations stand intact. At the close of the play Coriolanus will still have taken Corioles on his own, a fact which he tauntingly underscores in his penultimate speech: “If you have writ your annals true, 'tis there, / That like an eagle in a dove-cote, I / Flutter'd your Volscians in Corioles. / Alone I did it” (5.6.113-16). Likewise, even as Othello faces up to his horrific crime in the last scene, he can cogently separate the man he was from the man he has become—“That's he that was Othello; here I am” (5.2.285)—and remind the Venetians that what he did for the state is undiminished: “I have done the state some service,” he says, “and they know't” (5.2.340). Even in Antony and Cleopatra, a play which seems to mark not only the decline of its protagonists, but the end of the epoch in which their magnificence could be registered, the reality of their earlier grandeur is never questioned. Regardless of how far he has fallen, Antony can nevertheless claim a genuinely heroic past and thus legitimately complain of Octavius “harping on what I am / Not what he knew I was” (3.13.142). If Cleopatra has become all but invisible to the practical-minded Octavius (“Which is the Queen of Egypt?” he asks in act 4, unable to distinguish her from her attendants), not even he can fail to see the infinite attractions she held and still holds for others, even in death: “but she looks like sleep, / As she would catch another Antony / In her strong toil of grace” (5.2.344-46).

But Lear is unique among Shakespeare's mature tragic figures in being denied from the outset the possibility of such retrospective compensations. From its opening scene the play foregrounds nothing so much as the artificiality of Lear's stature: the daughters who elevate him are arch deceivers, while the daughter who levels him with her husband and her obligation (“That lord whose hand must take my plight shall carry / Half my love with him, half my care and duty” [1.1.100-101]) is the unaffected bearer of truth. If the love trial demonstrates that elevations of Lear are manifest cheats, the rest of the play, as we have seen, insinuates something more—that they always have been. It is remarkable, in fact, if one actually stops to think about it, how silent the play as a whole is on one of tragedy's compulsory topics—the past greatness of its protagonist. All that is said about Lear's judgment is that it is poor; about his wisdom, that it has not yet arrived. His authority? A beggar runs from the farmer's barking cur—“There,” says Lear, “thou might'st behold / The great image of authority: A dog's obeyed in office” (4.6.155-57). King Lear we might say is a tragedy about the impossibility of its own loss, and thus, in a certain sense, about the impossibility of its own tragedy.

If putting it this way seems to deny the tremendous pathos of this play, that may be because we have a diminished appreciation for what it means for Lear to see that he was never in genuine possession of what he feels himself to have been shorn of. He “cannot lose what he never had” was the way I phrased it above, and an accountant may see in such a formulation a set of neatly balanced books. Shakespeare himself knew better. In fact, I would venture to say that it is by means of this preemptive deprivation that Shakespeare is able to make King Lear his experiment in exposing a character to the dimensions of total loss—a loss that stretches not only forward, devastating his future, but backward, devastating his past. All of Shakespeare's tragedies, Lear included, subject their central figures to the first sort of devastation, and there is doubtless a special poignancy that attaches to youthful protagonists like Hamlet, Romeo, and Juliet, who have so much of their futures to forfeit. Only in Lear, though, does Shakespeare force a character to experience the second devastation, the destruction of everything that is behind him, which for Lear means the destruction of nothing less than the whole of his life.


Outside of Shakespeare's oeuvre, only Sophocles' Oedipus approaches this kind of retrospective nullification, and the parallel is instructive. Oedipus learns that he has murdered his father and slept with his mother: this revelation does not simply destroy his happiness now and in the future, it lays waste to his past. But isn't this what is implied by the final chorus, the well-known maxim attributed to Solon, telling us to count no man happy till he has passed his final limit free from pain? Not exactly. This saying, a commonplace in Greek tragedy, emphasized the tenuousness of human felicity. Only in death is one protected from misfortune, because only then is one protected from change; as long as one draws a breath, mischance waits in the wings. A good example: in his Saturnalia Macrobius recounts the story of one Laberius, a very prominent Roman who in his old age was asked by Caesar to take to the stage and play a part in one of the mimes that Caesar had written. This was a degrading task, but as Laberius explains in a prologue, it was an offer he could not refuse:

The Goddess of Necessity—from the shock of whose unexpected course many have sought to escape, and few successfully—to what depths has she thrust me down, now all but at the ending of my life? … For how could I, mere mortal, have been suffered to say no to him to whom the gods themselves could naught deny? For twice thirty years I have lived without reproach and left my household gods today a Roman knight; I shall return home—a mime. In very truth, today I have lived a day too long.14

This gets at the heart of Solon's saying. Noble for his entire life, a man engages in something contemptible near the end. This final misfortune tarnishes his life in the same way that a faltering note in the coda can tarnish an aria. Fine up to this point, we say, then the unfortunate blunder.

Yet Oedipus' case is different from Laberius' in precisely the same way that Lear's is, and though Solon's maxim certainly applies, it fails to capture that difference. I take my cue from a remark that Oedipus himself makes toward the end of the play. Thinking back on his adoptive father Polybius, king of Corinth, he says: “[H]ow beautiful was the veneer with which the care you gave me veiled my secret sickness” (1395-96)! His fitness, that is to say, was not simply ephemeral, it was illusory. Oedipus could not say, with Laberius, that for all these years he has lived without reproach, or that he has lived (only) one day too long. On the contrary, he realizes that his heroic past has been corrupt from the beginning, since he came to power having already murdered his father and reigned as king married to his mother. More pertinent than the ready-made Solonian chorus with which the play ends, then, is the chorus that directly follows Oedipus' discovery of his parentage.

But now whose story is sadder to hear, who dwells amid more cruel torments, more cruel labours through the reversal of his life.


The word “reversal” translates a form of the Greek allasso, which means not only “to alter,” but “to exchange,” according to Liddell and Scott, “to take one thing for another.” That gets at something essential: what Oedipus assumed was a heroic life has in fact been, all the while, a monstrous one. R. C. Jebb's translation of the line gets at precisely this sense of a life devastated in toto. “Who is a more wretched captive to fierce plagues and troubles, with all his life reversed?”

The relevance of this to King Lear is plain enough. Both Oedipus and Lear discover about their lives something that has always been the case. So the plays' reversals do not merely change their lives from here on out; they also change them, so to speak, from here on back. And it is this retrospective nullification that distinguishes the two plays from Sophoclean and Shakespearean tragedy generally—from Ajax and Antigone, Othello, Coriolanus, and Macbeth.

But it is in this connection too that we notice something that distinguishes Lear still further: the fact that there is nothing uncovered in Lear's past that is so formidably concrete and ghastly as Oedipus' patricide and incest. In fact, it is just the revealed blankness of Lear's past, the absence of what had seemed to be present in the way of love and authority that makes Gloucester's fall such an uncompromisingly accurate rendering of Lear's own. It isn't that Lear has all the time been abominably low, as Oedipus was; it's just that he was never genuinely high. Indeed, the play's obsessive iteration of “nothing,” about which so much has been written, may have this as its most profound source: Lear's life is not just ending, it's being retrospectively emptied, scraped of its content like a “sheal'd peascod” (1.4.197), the meatless “two crowns of the egg” (1.4.156), or an “O without a figure” (1.4.89-90).

Now we probably assume that a life backfilled with the worst conceivable transgressions represents a darker destiny than a life simply evacuated of its content. If faced with the choice, most of us would choose Lear's self-deception over Oedipus' incest and patricide as the lesser of two evils. But it is worth noting that in Sophocles' interpretation of the myth, Oedipus is as extraordinary in his conquests as in his crimes, and he is so because both have a common source. For the same aggressive confidence that brings him unwittingly to kill his father also allows him to solve both the riddle of the Sphinx and the mystery of the Theban plague. Indeed, there is for Sophocles an important connection between the abominations ascribed to Oedipus in Oedipus Rex and his elevation to the status of a savior in Oedipus at Colonus. For in the very extremity of his transgression there is a sign of divinity; the gods who anticipate his fall also effect his elevation. Ismene says: “… for now the gods are lifting you up, though earlier they destroyed you” (394) and a late chorus echoes that sentiment: “For after many futile troubles have beset him, once more a just god would be exalting him” (1565-67). Bernard Knox sees the germ of this consolation in Oedipus Rex itself. “The hero's discovery of his own unspeakable pollution,” he writes, “is made tolerable only because it is somehow connected with the gods. The man who was the archetype of human magnificence self-sufficient in its intelligence and action has now only one consolation in his lonely shame—the fact of divine prescience demonstrated by the existence of the original prophecy.”15

Lear's fate, on the other hand, is purely privative. He discovers not so much what he has been as what he has not been, and there is no sign of the gods, and thus no shred of divine consolation, in that. His having to face the nothingness of his past unconsoled is in fact emphasized by way of contrast in the comfort that Gloucester takes from the illusion foisted on him by Edgar, who convinces his father that surviving the fall is a sign of his being favored by the gods, and that his “life's a miracle.” If Lear begins the play cultivating a similar illusion of privilege, in a few scattered moments of clarity toward the end he endures the recognition that there never was, to adapt a line of Edgar's, an “altitude” from which he “perpendicularly fell” (4.6.53-54). He endures the recognition, we might say, that this has not even been a tragedy in the strict sense, only the illusion of one.

But it is precisely the endurance of that thought, ironically enough, which becomes the stuff of tragedy again, though it is tragedy redefined. The geometry of this redefinition is set out for us in the play's familiar last lines, Edgar's closing couplet:

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


The pluck of the past and the delicacy of the present: the sentiment can seem too familiar to warrant a second glance. Notice, though, that even here Lear's greatness is figured as a temporal—and one might even say, horizontal—achievement. In the course of Edgar's speech, emphasizing as it does age and longevity, to have borne most is to have persisted, to have sustained oneself over the longest period of time, a sense prepared for earlier in Kent's wonder at Lear's having “endured so long,” and in his rancor against those “That would upon the rack of this tough world / Stretch him out longer” (5.3.313-14). These are noticeably recumbent encomia. Indeed, in contrast to the nostalgic elevations, whether literal or figurative, given to so many of Lear's many tragic counterparts—“Give order that these bodies / High on a stage be placed to the view” (Hamlet, 5.2.383); “The soldier's pole is fall'n; young boys and girls / Are level now with men” (Antony and Cleopatra, 4.15.65); “Let him be regarded / As the most noble corse that ever herald / Did follow to his urn” (Coriolanus, 5.6.142-44)—the eulogies for Lear emphasize nothing so much as his tremendous extension in time, a kind of horizontal forwardness so advanced that, in the envoi of Edgar's quoted above, it takes from the surviving community the one consolation that this community has typically enjoyed over the heroic dead, namely longer, if less remarkable, life. Northrop Frye was alluding to this consolation when he wrote that “[t]ragedy often ends with the survivors forming a secondary or social contract, a relation among more ordinary men. …”16 But if Lear's singularity consists in his having endured the inordinately belated recognition that he himself has always, without knowing it, been participating in such ordinariness, then he may be the first in the play to have entered into this secondary contract—the first tragic protagonist to have lived longer than his survivors, and thus the first to have seen through the myth of his own tragic fall.

Not that he ever sees entirely through it. It comes to him in flashes, which are keenly felt and arduously subdued. Even in the play's final scene there remains enough willfullness in the man to bend the truth rather than succumb to it, to tell the truth but to tell it—in Dickinson's terms—slant. The slant for Dickinson is poetry itself, where poetry is understood in the widest possible sense as an oblique attitude toward being. In Lear's case it is most often a magnificently defiant lubricity, where each devastating glance at his poverty seems always to be followed by a glancing off, an impossible ricochet into more life. “Thoul't come no more,” he says in his final speech, and emphasizes the point with the five most downbeat trochees in all of English drama: “Never, never, never, never, never!” (5.3.307). But no sooner are those words out than he's tacking in the other direction with his last lines: “Do you see this? Look on her, look, her lips, / Look there! Look there!” (5.3.309-10). For the first time in the history of the genre, the tragic hero's achievement is largely a matter of hanging on. So it is fitting that Lear's final words, delusional as they are, should pay tribute to nothing more than a capacity to endure.

On the one occasion in which he muses about his future, his “birds i' th' cage” speech to Cordelia in act 5, Lear himself seems to grasp the significance of his staying power.

                                                                                                                        … so we'll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues
Talk of court news; and we'll talk with them too,
Who loses and who wins; who's in, who's out;
And take upon's the mystery of things,
As if we were Gods' spies: and we'll wear out,
In a wall'd prison, packs and sects of great ones
That ebb and flow by th' moon.


To be sure, there is considerable evasion in this reverie, echoing as it does Gloucester's own dream of having been saved by the beneficent gods, and reprising too Lear's earlier aspiration to retire with Cordelia and “to set [his] rest / On her kind nursery” (1.1.122-23). That said, there is also a reconciliation with the truth in these lines, an extraordinary acceptance of the ordinary hand he has been dealt. Let us be the spectators of a tragedy rather than the subject of one; let stamina, in other words, trump stature. It wouldn't take much to see in this fantasy of Lear's a belated identification with the playhouse audience itself, an audience whose members are themselves, at the moment these lines are uttered, bounded by a walled enclosure, listening to old tales, and indulging a spectatorial curiosity about the intrigues of court, about who's in and who's out. By definition, such spectators are themselves too late for a world of tragic grandeur, a world that has always already retreated into the bronze light of the past. But what they have lost in the brief grandeur of heroic life, they have gained in the protracted safety of a long one, and it is this same safety that Lear dreams might be his: to outlast the great ones rather than outdo them.


  1. Antony and Cleopatra, 4.14.126-27. My text for Shakespeare's plays is that given in The Arden Shakespeare: Texts and Sources for Shakespeare Studies on CD-ROM (Surrey, UK: Thomas Nelson, 1997). Subsequent references are to act, scene, and line number, and are cited parenthetically in the text.

  2. The redundancy has become an almost compulsory subject in Lear criticism. Two more recent responses to the seeming inconsistency suggest the stamina of this puzzle, especially where socio-political interpretations of the play are concerned. See Stephen Greenblatt, Learning to Curse: Essays in Early Modern Culture (New York: Routledge, 1990), 93; and Richard Halpern, The Poetics of Primitive Accumulation (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1991), 235-36.

  3. Samuel Johnson, vol. 2 of Johnson on Shakespeare, ed. Arthur Sherbo (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986), 226.

  4. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Coleridge's Writings on Shakespeare, ed. Terence Hawkes (New York: Capricorn Books, 1959), 178.

  5. Harold Bloom, Shakespeare and the Invention of the Human (New York: Riverhead Books, 1998), 479.

  6. Nahum Tate, The History of King Lear, ed. James Black (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1975), 1.1.53-55.

  7. J. W. R. Meadowcroft, “Playing King Lear: Donald Sinden Talks to J. W. R. Meadowcroft,” in Shakespeare Survey 33, ed. Kenneth Muir (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980), 81-87; 82.

  8. Jean-Pierre Vernant and Pierre Vidal-Naquet, Myth and Tragedy in Ancient Greece, trans. Janet Lloyd (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1988), 26; Timothy J. Reiss, Tragedy and Truth (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1980), 2; Jonathan Dollimore, Radical Tragedy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984), 6.

  9. Edwin Muir, The Politics of King Lear (Glasgow: Jackson, Son & Co., 1947), 7-8.

  10. Harry Levin, “Heights and the Depths: A Scene from King Lear,” in More Talking of Shakespeare, ed. John Garrett (New York: Longmans, Green and Co., 1959), 96.

  11. Sophocles, Ajax, Electra, Oedipus Tyrannus, ed. and trans. Hugh Lloyd-Jones, vol. 20 of the Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1994), ll. 873-79. Subsequent references are to this edition (or to the next volume in the same series [Sophocles, Antigone, Women of Trachis, Philoctetes, Oedipus at Colonus, ed. and trans. Hugh Lloyd-Jones, vol. 21 of the Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1994)]) and are cited parenthetically in the text.

  12. Bridget Gellert Lyons, “The Subplot as Simplification in King Lear,” in Some Facets of King Lear: Essays in Prismatic Criticism, ed. Rosalie Colie and F. T. Flahiff (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1974), 25.

  13. Though she puts the observation in service of a different—one might even say opposite—point, Margreta de Grazia has noticed that the play consistently frustrates Lear's attempted disbursements: “Both plot and subplot dramatize the impossibility of the severance Lear attempts. Persons and things cannot be alienated from one another. Lear's kingdom cannot be given away; Gloucester's estate cannot be taken away. The land seized from Edgar returns to him; so too the kingdom given away by Lear comes back” (Margreta De Grazia, “The Ideology of Superfluous Things: King Lear as Period Piece,” in Subject and Object in Renaissance Culture, ed. De Grazia, Maureen Quilligan, and Peter Stallybrass [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996], 25). De Grazia is suggesting that the play as a whole, like the 16th-century sumptuary laws, fastens “identity onto materiality.” On the interpretation I'm offering, these returning lands might instead vouch for the principle that one cannot give away what is never properly one's own to begin with.

  14. Macrobius, The Saturnalia, intro. and trans. Percival Vaughan Davies (New York: Columbia University Press, 1969), 2.7.

  15. Bernard Knox, Oedipus at Thebes (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1957), 43.

  16. Northrop Frye, Fools of Time: Studies in Shakespearean Tragedy (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1967), 5.

Further Reading

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Bennett, Susan. “Godard and Lear: Trashing the Can(n)on.” Theatre Survey 39, no. 1 (May 1998): 7-19.

Evaluates Jean-Luc Godard's celluloid adaptation of King Lear in the contexts of postmodern film and literature.

Buechner, Frederick. “Part 4.” In Speak What We Feel (Not What We Ought to Say): Reflections on Literature and Faith, pp. 125-54. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001.

Offers a reading of King Lear that is particularly informed by themes of love and mercy.

Danson, Lawrence. “King Lear.” In Tragic Alphabet: Shakespeare's Drama of Language, pp. 163-97. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1974.

Offers a thematic analysis of King Lear from the perspective of the drama's language, and additionally assesses structural patterns associated with ritual, madness, and suffering.

Davis, Nick. “‘These Late Eclipses’: Reason's Primal Scene.” In Stories of Chaos: Reason and Its Displacement in Early Modern English Narrative, pp. 121-58. Aldershot, England: Ashgate, 1999.

Poststructuralist assessment of King Lear based upon motifs of written communication and mathematical calculation in the drama.

de Grazia, Margreta. “The Ideology of Superfluous Things: King Lear as Period Piece.” In New Casebooks: Shakespeare's Tragedies, edited by Susan Zimmerman, pp. 255-84. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1998.

Marxist-materialist reading of King Lear that analyzes the play in terms of the dynamics of commodity and luxury.

Dodd, William. “Impossible Worlds: What Happens in King Lear, Act 1, Scene 1?” Shakespeare Quarterly 50, no. 4 (winter 1999): 477-507.

Closely concentrates on the dramatic exchanges between Lear and Cordelia in the opening scene of King Lear in order to highlight the dramaturgical and historically representative functions of these characters.

Edwards, Michael. “King Lear and Christendom.” Christianity & Literature 50, no. 1 (autumn 2000): 15-29.

Valorizes a Christian, but not a reductive Christian-allegorical, interpretation of King Lear.

Elliott, G. R. “The Initial Contrast in Lear.” In Dramatic Providence in “Macbeth”: A Study of Shakespeare's Tragic Theme of Humanity and Grace with a Supplementary Essay on “King Lear,” pp. 235-50. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1960.

Suggests that King Lear should be understood in terms of the Renaissance dramatic contrast between reason and passion.

Fly, Richard. “Beyond Extremity: King Lear and the Limits of Poetic Drama.” In Shakespeare's Mediated World, pp. 85-115. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1976.

Argues that King Lear pushes the ordinary boundaries of drama in order to intensify its internal and emotional conflicts.

Gardner, Helen. “King Lear.” In “King Lear”: Critical Essays, edited by Kenneth Muir, pp. 251-74. New York: Garland Publishing, 1984.

Surveys the plot, characters, language, and setting of King Lear, contrasting the drama with Shakespeare's other tragedies, and concluding with a summary of its major themes.

Grady, Hugh. “What Comes of Nothing: Reification and the Plebeian in King Lear.” In Shakespeare's Universal Wolf: Studies in Early Modern Reification, pp. 137-80. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996.

Postmodern analysis of King Lear that provides an understanding of the ideological, social, and power structures depicted in the play.

Hunter, Robert G. “Conclusion—King Lear.” In Shakespeare and the Mystery of God's Judgments, pp. 183-96. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1976.

Probes issues of suffering and divine judgment in King Lear with regard to theological arguments of the Protestant Reformation.

Jackson, Esther Merle. “King Lear: The Grammar of Tragedy.” Shakespeare Quarterly 17, no. 1 (winter 1966): 25-40.

Explores the perennial critical question of whether Shakespeare's tragedies—particularly King Lear—are suited to stage performance in addition to study as written literature.

Jayne, Sears. “Charity in King Lear.Shakespeare Quarterly 15, no. 2 (spring 1964): 277-88.

Views charity in human relations as the chief emotional theme of King Lear.

Knowles, Richard. “Cordelia's Return.” Shakespeare Quarterly 50, no. 1 (spring 1999): 33-50.

Endeavors to explain the mysterious offstage events that lead up to Cordelia's return in Act IV, scene iv of King Lear.

McEachern, Claire. “Figures of Fidelity: Believing in King Lear.Modern Philology 98, no. 2 (November 2000): 211-30.

Utilizes Reformation conceptions of faith in a study of the female figures in King Lear.

Muir, Kenneth, and Stanley Wells, eds. Aspects of “King Lear.” Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982, 95 p.

A collection of nine essays that originally appeared in Shakespeare Survey between 1939 to 1979. The essays cover topics such as madness, catharsis, and costume in King Lear.

Ross, John Munden. “A Therapist's View of Lear.Shakespeare Newsletter 49:3, no. 242 (fall 1999): 65-66, 74.

Psychoanalytic study of Lear's character, highlighting his dramatic “regression.”

Rothwell, Kenneth S. “In Search of Nothing: Mapping King Lear.” In Shakespeare, The Movie: Popularizing the Plays on Film, TV, and Video, edited by Lynda E. Boose and Richard Burt, pp. 135-47. London: Routledge, 1997.

Concentrates on the metonymic significance of Lear's call for a map of his kingdom in the opening scene of King Lear as portrayed in various cinematic and theatrical productions of the drama.

Rutter, Carol. “Eel Pie and Ugly Sisters in King Lear.” In “Lear” from Study to Stage: Essays in Criticism, edited by James Ogden and Arthur H. Scouten, pp. 172-225. Cranbury, N.J.: Associated University Presses, 1997.

Considers Lear's daughters in performance, and observes that conventional understandings of Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia have been constrained by patriarchal assumptions that generally fail to allow these figures more than stereotypical and superficial qualities.

Schell, Edgar. “The Skeptical Traveler: King Lear and the End of the Pilgrimage.” In Strangers and Pilgrims: From “The Castle of Perseverance” to “King Lear,” pp. 151-95. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983.

Contends that the central interpretative problem of King Lear is found in the relationship between Lear and Cordelia, and concludes that the tragedy is essentially an epistemological rather than a moral one.

Schoff, Francis G. “King Lear: Moral Example or Tragic Protagonist?” Shakespeare Quarterly 13, no. 2 (spring 1962): 157-72.

Argues against didactic assertions regarding King Lear and maintains that Lear himself is a tragic figure.

Siegel, Paul N. “Adversity and the Miracle of Love in King Lear.Shakespeare Quarterly 6, no. 3 (summer 1955): 325-36.

Emphasizes Christian thematic elements in King Lear.

Snyder, Susan. “Between the Divine and the Absurd: King Lear.” In The Comic Matrix of Shakespeare's Tragedies: “Romeo and Juliet,” “Hamlet,” “Othello,” and “King Lear,” pp. 137-79. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1979.

Appraises underlying religious tensions in King Lear that are conveyed through the use of incongruity, humor, and the grotesque.

Spinosa, Charles. “‘The Name and All th' Addition’: King Lear's Opening Scene and Common-Law Use.” Shakespeare Studies 23 (1995): 146-86.

Draws upon historical common-law theory and practice to destabilize cultural materialist and new historicist understandings of King Lear.

Spotswood, Jerald W. “Maintaining Hierarchy in The Tragedie of King Lear.Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 38, no. 2 (spring 1998): 265-80.

Contends that King Lear, while representing the potential for a subverted social hierarchy, ultimately dramatizes the symbolic boundaries between nobles and commoners.

Stern, Jeffrey. “King Lear: The Transference of the Kingdom.” Shakespeare Quarterly 41, no. 3 (fall 1990): 299-308.

Psychological study of love, desire, and loss in the relationship between Lear and Cordelia.

Wells, Stanley. Introduction to The History of King Lear, by William Shakespeare, edited by Stanley Wells, pp. 1-94. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2000.

Presents detailed information on the composition, sources, language, and performance history of King Lear.

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