Sears Jayne (essay date spring 1964)

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SOURCE: Jayne, Sears. “Charity in King Lear.Shakespeare Quarterly 15, no. 2 (spring 1964): 277-88.

[In the following essay, Jayne advocates a pessimistic reading of King Lear, focusing on the lack of charity among the characters.]

In Christopher Morley's novel, The Haunted Bookshop,1 the proprietor of the shop, confessing that he has never read King Lear, gives as his reason, “If I were ever very ill, I would only need to say to myself, ‘You can't die yet, you haven't read Lear.’” The judgment implied in this remark is, of course, that of a man who has read the play, and is perfectly sound in its suggestion that King Lear belongs among the extremities of human experience. It is a play of the most shattering impact. Violent in language and even more violent in action, it staggers the sensibilities with a relentless torrent of quarrels, curses, stabbings, and a blinding. It is as though Shapespeare had herded his characters into a special corrall2 and set out to flay them alive. Lashing and raking them, he writes with a reckless fury rarely seen in his other plays.

What is the object of Shakespeare's rage in King Lear? The play has several important themes, including the dangers of political disorder,3 the infirmities of old age,4 conflicting conceptions of nature,5 and others.6 But the theme with the highest emotional temperature is the theme of charity in human relations: the desperate need which human beings have for each other, and their paradoxical inability to satisfy that need. The presence of this theme in the play has often been noticed,7 but rarely, I think, with sufficient emphasis. In this essay I should like to point out just three things about it: how crucial it is in the first scene of the play, how fundamental it is to the parallelism of the plots, and how powerful it is in determining the pessimistic tone of the play


What matters most in the first scene of the play is not the dissolution of the kingdom, but what happens to Lear himself, and this is that he is alienated from the person he most loves, and whose love he most needs, because he is unable at the critical moment himself to give the kind of love which he needs. The play begins with this alienation from Cordelia and ends with his reconciliation to her. This is the central incident, the main fable, the vehicular metaphor of the play.

The fault in the quarrel is partly Cordelia's. Had she been more mature, more experienced, she might have understood the dependence of human beings upon each other in general, and in particular the increased need for love which comes with old age. She might also have learned, incidentally, that one often has to do from motives of love things which one doesn't admire in others, and that different motives often produce the same results. Had she been older she might have understood that the situation called for a statement of love, not a statement of truth. But she is not older; truth seems more important to her than love, and she simply cannot say what she should say.

Still, the fault is mainly Lear's. He is old enough to have known better. It is usual to identify his fault with rashness. His own daughters say of him, “he hath ever but slenderly known himself” and “the best and soundest of his time hath been but rash” (I.i. 293-296). It is true that he lacks that serene wisdom and...

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sense of control which we so much admire in some older people, but his basic fault is lack of love. If Lear had loved sufficiently, his feelings would have guided him through the crisis. He would have realized the motives behind Cordelia's awkward disruption of his ritual. He would have sympathized with them, forgiven them. But lacking love, perhaps because he is too old, he gives way to the demands of self, and with that violence which characterizes the actions of people who are stung by a consciousness of their own guilt, he disinherits Cordelia and erects a foolish and impossible arrangement in place of the reasonable one which he had previously prepared. So daughter is alienated from father, man from woman, youth from age, ruler from ruled. Needing Cordelia in a thousand ways, Lear relentlessly cuts himself off from her by an act which he could have helped, but could not help. What matters most in the incident of Lear's alienation from his favorite daughter is his ironic inability to give love, even at the moment when he most needs and seeks it.

I have suggested that Cordelia could not love properly because she was too young, and that Lear could not because he was too old. But unripeness is not the only obstacle to love. The other characters all have different excuses, but they, too, fail the test of love. Like Lear they are all quick to complain of the heartlessness of others, “Is there any cause in nature that makes these hard hearts?” (III. vi. 78-9); and like Lear, when the demand is put to them personally, they reply, “No, do thy worst, blind Cupid, I'll not love” (IV. vi. 139).


The obvious parallel to Lear, of course, is Gloucester, and I shall come to him shortly, but there is another and less obvious parallel in Kent. I should like to review his career in some detail.

In the opening scene of the play Kent finds himself in the uncomfortable position of having to choose between Love and Truth. Like most idealists, he decides that he must defend what he takes to be the truth of Cordelia's position, as opposed to the hypocrisy of that of her sisters, and so he momentarily puts aside his love for Lear and springs to the defense of Cordelia. He is promptly exiled for his pains.

After his momentary lapse, Kent realizes at once that he cannot live apart from Lear, and his devotion drives him to risk entering Lear's service in disguise. He embarks on a life of hope that some day a moment of reconciliation will take place to heal the cruel separation. But he has learned nothing from his experience of being banished. He proceeds to repeat his earlier bluntness, this time with Oswald, and this time he is put in the stocks for his pains. Lear has him released from the stocks, but has no conception of the kind of release Kent really wants, release from alienation. Lear shows more sensitivity to Kent's position as his new servant than he had shown to Kent in court, and yet this new servant is Kent; this ironic complex of sensitivity and insensitivity, awareness and unawareness, is more than a matter of appearance and reality; it is, as Lear himself says it is, failing to know because of failure to feel.

When finally Cordelia restores Lear to sanity, and Kent's long-hoped-for moment of reconciliation arrives, he does not achieve it after all, for his first opportunity turns out to be also Cordelia's first opportunity, and Kent is ironically forced by his very love for Lear to remain silent, because this moment belongs properly to Cordelia. Kent has a second opportunity a few moments later, when Lear comes in with the dead Cordelia in his arms. Lear lays her down and tries to find some spark of life in her, first by holding a mirror to her lips, and then irrationally trying a less sensitive method, a feather. As Lear mistakes his nervous shaking of the feather for the breathing of Cordelia, Kent throws himself to his master's side, and Edgar explains to Lear who Kent is. But to Lear, this interruption of his effort to revive Cordelia is like murder, and he snarls,

A plague upon you, murderers, traitors all!
I might have sav'd her; now she's gone forever!

(V. iii. 269-270)

But a dislodged log of memory floats up toward the surface of Lear's mind, and he asks Kent a few lines later, “Who are you?” Then, “Are you not Kent?” Kent's life ambition seems about to be realized, but is dashed immediately when Lear's memory sinks back and he says to Kent with cruel, unknowing courtesy, “You are welcome hither” (V. iii. 289). When Lear dies, a few moments later, Kent realizes that the whole dogged purpose of his own life, to effect a reconciliation with his master, has failed, and that he, too, has “a journey to go”.

If Kent fails to solve the problem of relating himself to the rest of humanity because of a tactless lack of charity, Gloucester fails because he is insensitive. When Edgar, later in the play, heartlessly reminds his own brother of his illegitimacy,

The dark and vicious place where thee he got
Cost him his eyes

(V. iii. 172-173)

we are hearing a son's echo of his father's own insensitivity:

there was good sport at his making, …

(I. i. 23-24)

Because of Gloucester's blindness and Gloucester's own recognition of its metaphorical significance (“I stumbled when I saw” [IV. i. 19]) it is usual to think of Gloucester's defect as an intellectual one, a failure to understand, but he has failed not so much intellectually as emotionally. He himself makes this clear when he says “I see it [the world] feelingly” (IV. vi. 150) and calls down Heaven's vengeance on all such men as himself:

                                                                                          Heavens, deal so still!
Let the superfluous and lust-dieted man,
That slaves your ordinance, that will not see
Because he does not feel, feel your power quickly; …

(IV. i. 66-69; italics mine)

Because of his early insensitivity, Gloucester is totally unaware of the starvation for love which gnaws at Edmund, and so is unaware of Edmund's hatred of Edgar; innumerable critics have observed that this unawareness of Gloucester's is one of the serious improbabilities of the play, but surely one has only to look around to see that unawareness like Gloucester's is pitifully commonplace in human affairs.

The whole of Gloucester's career may be seen as a gradual and painful indoctrination in sensitivity and charity, partly under the loving tutelage of Edgar, partly under the brutal tutelage of experience. Gloucester's final joy when he learns Edgar's identity stems not so much from realizing that he is loved, as from feeling that he can now exhibit his own love for Edgar and so genuinely atone for his earlier non-love. But he is cut off by death from doing this; he has no opportunity to demonstrate such a love for Edgar. Gloucester learns that he is loved, but only when it is too late. Gloucester's career, like Kent's, is not so much the story of a redemption or of learning a lesson as it is the story of a man's hopeless effort to maintain an attitude of charity toward the rest of mankind. I shall not go through Gloucester's career in detail, but shall instead turn directly to the parallel and more important example of Lear himself.

After his division of the kingdom Lear goes first to live with Goneril, but his sense of guilt in having mistreated his youngest daughter makes him waspish and hateful to his eldest. He strikes one of Goneril's servants for “chiding of” the fool, and soon Goneril complains:

                                                                                                    himself upbraids us
On every trifle.
I will not speak with him; … say I am sick; …

(I. iii. 7-9)

When he returns from hunting, Lear peremptorily orders his meal: “Dinner, ho! dinner” (I. iv. 45), curses Oswald: “you whoreson dog! you slave! you cur!” (I. iv. 85-86), and calls Goneril “Degenerate bastard” (I. iv. 262). Within a few lines Lear is pronouncing a terrible curse on his own daughter:

Hear, Nature, hear! dear Goddess, hear!
Suspend thy purpose, if thou didst intend
To make this creature fruitful! …
Turn all her mother's pains and benefits
To laughter and contempt, that she may feel
How sharper than a serpent's tooth it is
To have a thankless child!

(I. iv. 284-298)

The new shame of having hurt Goneril as well as Cordelia makes it even more difficult for him to be agreeable when he goes to live with Regan. He makes an effort at first:

No, Regan, thou shalt never have my curse:
Thy tender-hefted nature shall not give
Thee o'er to harshness: her eyes are fierce, thine
Do comfort and not burn. …
                                                            thou better know'st
The offices of nature, bond of childhood,
Effects of courtesy, dues of gratitude; …

(II. iv. 172-181)

But within a few lines he is again raging:

Who put my man i' th' stocks?

(II. iv. 184)

Regan, on her part, is totally unable to “reason” the need for love which lies behind her father's desire to keep a retinue of one hundred knights, and this issue soon explodes.

Ultimately Lear has to give up his retinue as well as his family, and become an unaccommodated man, a man whose desires and needs are no longer supplied by other people. In the storm on the heath, which externalizes Lear's feeling of having the entire universe against him, Lear finally sees the depth of cleavage between the individual self and the rest of humanity. During the early stages of the whirlwind of self-revelation, he tries to ride the blast, using the normal human device of blaming humanity:

Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow! …
Crack Nature's moulds, all germens spill at once
That makes ingrateful man!

(III. ii. 1-9)

He also tries the expedient of self-pity, but he sees that that will not do, and he makes a visible turn from concern for self to concern for others:

                                                  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.
                                                  Good my lord, enter here.
Prithee, go in thyself; seek thine own ease:
This tempest will not give me leave to ponder
On things would hurt me more. But I'll go in.
In, boy; go first. You houseless poverty,
Nay, get thee in. I'll pray, and then I'll sleep.
Poor naked wretches, whereso'er you are
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides
Your loop'd and window'd raggedness, defend you
From seasons such as these? O I have ta'en
Too little care of this. Take physic, Pomp;
Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,
That thou mayst shake the superflux to them,
And show the Heavens more just.

(III. iv. 19-36)

For the first time Lear feels physical need and so becomes sensitive to the same needs in others. Lear's discovery of concern for “poor naked wretches” brings him to the brink of madness. The sudden appearance of Tom o' Bedlam pushes him over the brink by violently particularizing and emotionalizing his concern. From this point to the end of the play Lear's mind flaps wildly back and forth between his old concern for himself and his new concern for others. This alternation is in fact the principle behind Lear's “mad speeches”.

When Lear sees Gloucester's sunken and bloody eye-sockets, his self-motive speaks, first:

I remember thine eyes well enough. Dost thou squiny at me?
No, do thy worst, blind Cupid; I'll not love.

(IV. vi. 138-139)

A few lines later Lear's love-motive returns:

Thou rascal beadle, hold thy bloody hand!
Why dost thou lash that whore? Strip thine own back; …

(IV. vi. 162-163)

A few lines more, and the self-motive is reasserting itself:

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.

(IV. vi. 186-189)

From his distracted alternation between compassion and hatred Lear's wracked mind is temporarily rescued by the combined ministrations of Cordelia and the doctor, who between them bring accommodation for both soul and body. Under their care his tortured mind is restored to a few moments of sanity; in sanity the tired Lear is nothing but an old man; all the old pride is gone, only the need for love remains, and it is a humble need. Here is the sane Lear as he awakes from his madness and kneels before Cordelia:

                                                                                                              Pray do not mock me:
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.
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. …
                                                                                You must bear with me.
Pray you now, forget and forgive: I am old and foolish.

(IV. vii. 52-84)

A few hours later, when Edmund has captured Lear and Cordelia, and has sent them off to prison, Lear is still sane, and he welcomes the opportunity to go to a place where life can be all love and no struggle.

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

(V. iii. 8-19)

But a life of love, a life with all the protections and accommodations and none of the struggle, is a life away from man. The world of men is a world in which men think only of themselves, as we see moments later, when Kent comes looking for Lear, and Albany exclaims that he has forgotten all about the King, “Great thing of us forgot!” A few moment later Lear carries in the dead Cordelia. In Lear's returned madness in the final scene he resumes the old alternation between self and other; this time it takes the form of alternating between a fatherly concern for Cordelia and an old man's pride in his own prowess:

A plague upon you, murderers, traitors all!
I might have sav'd her; Now she's gone for ever!
Cordelia, Cordelia! stay a little. Ha!
What is't thou say'st? Her voice was ever soft,
Gentle and low, an excellent thing in woman.
I kill'd the slave that was a-hanging thee …
                                                                                                    Did I not fellow?
I have seen the day, with my good biting falchion
I would have made them skip: I am old now,
And these same crosses spoil me.

(V. iii. 269-278)

Lear's mad alternation between self and other is still pulsating in his very last speech, as he pays alternate attention to (a) Cordelia's need for breath and (b) his own:

(a) Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life,
And thou no breath at all? Thou'll come no more,
Never, never, never, never, never!
(b) Pray you, undo this button: thank you, Sir.
(a) Do you see this? Look on her, look, her lips,
Look there, look there!

(V. iii. 307-311)

Like Kent, Gloucester, and Lear, Edmund, too, is stretched on the rack of charity and uncharity. In Edmund's case the excuse is not age but bastardy.8 We need not review his case in detail to see that he, too, is best understood as a creature starved for love (“Yet Edmund was belov'd”, he boasts [V. iii. 239]) but incapable of giving love. Thus we may say that the key to the parallelism of all four of the major lines of action in the play is the theme of charity.


The third and perhaps most important influence of the charity theme upon King Lear is its influence on Shakespeare's objectivity in the play. Shakespeare's normal practice, regardless of genre, is to set up two poles of a value problem and let the reader generate his own imaginative spark across the gap. In King Lear, however, Shakespeare's own voltage is too high, and on the theme of charity his own lightning flashes out, throwing the whole play into an essentially pessimistic light.

The question of whether King Lear is optimistic or pessimistic has long been a major issue among critics of the play. Most critics regard the play as optimistic, and they emphasize the fact that both Lear and Gloucester achieve something positive in the course of the play, either a moral regeneration, or an intellectual enlightenment9 of some kind. But it does not seem to me that anyone really achieves anything very significant in the play. Every single character fails in his effort to re-establish a bond with society. Lear dies deluded, Cordelia dies, having failed to undo the damage which she has done. Gloucester recovers Edgar only to die; Kent goes off to die of disappointment; Oswald, Goneril, Regan, Cornwall, and Edmund all die unreconciled to man. Only Albany and Edgar are left, surviving for a life without love.

It is true that both Lear and Gloucester may be said to have learned something about man's need for love and about man's inability to provide love, but they both learn it too late. What Lear needs is the opportunity to love by way of atonement for his earlier non-love. But like Gloucester, he is cruelly not given this opportunity; Lear is cut off from it not by his own death but by Cordelia's. We should notice that Cordelia's dying before Lear is Shakespeare's own idea; in all the sources she dies after Lear. Like Gloucester, Lear experiences the joy of thinking that he has the opportunity at last to love; but after a lifetime of non-loving, that joy proves fatal to Lear, as it had to Gloucester. The great difference between Gloucester and Lear is that Gloucester's opportunity to love Edgar is a real one, whereas Lear's opportunity to love Cordelia is only an illusion. In Gloucester's lovelessness Shakespeare had left a spark of hope; in Lear's the absolute bottom of the world is scraped; it is empty all the way down. Man must have love, but is not allowed to give it.

In ordinary experience everyone can think of cases in which love does succeed in making tolerable the torture of man's inhumanity. It often happens that parental or filial devotion, or more often, marital devotion, can reach into the jaws of despair and pluck the lost soul out. But there is no such relief in King Lear; there is no compensating love anywhere in the world of this play. Shakespeare has ruthlessly suppressed it. Everyone in the play is isolated in some special way from everyone else. Lear has no wife; not even to serve that function which Bacon conceded to old men's wives: that of nursing; moreover Shakespeare has deprived him of even the little sympathy which he commanded in the source play, where his bad judgment is explained by the fact that he is grieving over the loss of his “late deceast Queen”. Gloucester has no wife. Kent has no family. Neither Cordelia nor Edmund at the critical moment has a mate. Behind Goneril's and Regan's hate lies the fact that Lear does not love them. Edmund feels alien in the whole world because of his illegitimacy. Gloucester is first isolated by his insensitivity, and then by his blindness. Cordelia is isolated by her disinheritance, Lear by his deliberate withdrawal from the throne. Edgar is driven into isolation by his fear of his father and brother, and assumes a position outside society as a mad beggar. Kent is banished the realm and dares not be himself. The Fool is isolated by his profession as well as by his natural intellectual superiority. Goneril and Regan are isolated, even from each other, by their rival sexual passions.

There are many instances in the play, of course, in which human beings in need try to help each other, but these efforts characteristically fail, so that even the most ordinary rituals of “refreshment of the bond”10 among human beings, such as dining together, talking together, holding of hands, writing letters, and sending messages all are commonly frustrated. I shall cite only a few examples. Notice how the men on the heath try vainly to comfort each other; Lear, for example, tries awkwardly to comfort the Fool:

Come on, my boy. How dost, my boy? Art cold?
I am cold myself. … I have one part in my heart
That's sorry yet for thee.

(III. ii. 68-73)

Notice that the servant who tries to save Gloucester's second eye is slain by Regan, and that the nameless Old Man, who generously promises to bring “the best 'parel that [he has]” to clothe Poor Tom, never succeeds. When Goneril and Regan meet in Act II, Regan takes her sister by the hand, but this gesture of affection ironically outrages their father, who complains, “O Regan, will you take her by the hand?” (II. iv. 196), and is ironic to us in a different way because one of the two sisters will later poison the other. Similarly, when Lear wishes to hurt Regan most, he kneels to her in mock submission, saying,

Do you but hark how this becomes the house:
“Dear daughter, I confess that I am old;
Age is unnecessary. …”

(II. iv. 154-156)

Thus the act of genuflexion itself is turned from a gesture of respect to a gesture of hate.

It is almost as if Shakespeare had drawn up a catalogue of all the forms which man's inhumanity to man can take. Fathers quarrel with children, husbands with wives, sisters with sisters and brothers with brothers, brother-in-law with brother-in-law, and nation with nation. A father disinherits one child, curses another, and swears revenge on another. Another father commits his child to illegitimacy. A man is exiled from his own country and then put in stocks before the public gaze. One brother kills another, one sister poisons another, and one man puts out the eyes of another. Rudeness, discourtesy, lying, suspicion, hypocrisy, deception, and insensitivity of all kinds are rife throughout the play.

The characters themselves comment upon it. So Gloucester says:

Love cools, friendship falls off, brothers divide: in cities, mutinies; in countries, discord; in palaces, treason; and the bond crack'd 'twixt son and father. This villain of mine comes under the prediction; there's son against father: the King falls from bias of nature; there's father against child. We have seen the best of our time: machinations, hollowness, treachery, and all ruinous disorders follow us disquietly to our graves.

(I. ii. 110-120)

And Edmund echoes his father in these sentiments:

I promise you the effects he writes of succeed unhappily; as of unnaturalness between the child and the parent; death, dearth, dissolutions of ancient amities; divisions in state; menaces and maledictions against King and nobles; needless diffidences, banishment of friends, dissipation of cohorts, nuptial breaches, and I know not what.

(I. ii. 150-156)

Albany, too, observes that

Humanity must perforce prey on itself
Like monsters of the deep.

(IV. ii. 49-50)

Thus with a slashing knife King Lear exposes the human cancer in all its livid and noisome horror. Man cannot live without love but cannot himself give it.

Finally, Shakespeare makes sure that there is no one else to give it, by keeping the play harshly pagan. The jungle of King Lear is a purely human jungle, without benefit of clergy, or deity, or of any other religious solace. It is a world in which unaccommodated man has no one to turn to11 but unaccommodating man, a world in which no one is any more “kind and comfortable” (I. iv. 314-315) than Lear finds Regan to be.

The ultimate measure of the horror of Lear's world is of course his own reaction to it. It is true that Lear is not an ordinary man; he is a poet, a man who (with the help of the Fool in the first part of the play) walks among men like one of God's spies, understanding and feeling too much. Still, he is not represented as a monster or freak of nature. He is a man; and the world he sees and deplores is the human world.

At first he sees his relation to Cordelia in narrow terms, blaming her “ingratitude”, but he soon begins to see that his daughters' lack of love is more than merely the reflection of his own nature (which all parents see in their children); it is in fact rather a manifestation of a universal human condition of lovelessness. It is not Goneril alone (or Cordelia) “that will sliver and disbranch / From her material sap” (IV. ii. 34-35), but every human being. It is man in general who is trapped in the paradox of requiring love but being unable to give it. Nor is there anyone else to give it. As soon as Lear understands this, he goes mad, paying the penalty of understanding too much.

In stressing the importance of the paradox of charity in King Lear, I do not mean to oversimplify the play or to ignore the many other themes which are woven through its marvelously complex fabric. I simply want to point out how much of the deepest emotion of the play is carried by this theme, how this theme illuminates individual parts of the play, such as Lear's mad speeches, how it clarifies the parallelism of the plots, especially in the case of Kent, and finally, how it explains the central issue in that amazing first scene, showing in what special sense the play is about King Lear, as the title shows. If I am right about this subject of the play, about the violence of Shakespeare's treatment of it, and about the pessimism of the play as a whole, perhaps Morley's timid shopkeeper is right in preferring to put off King Lear to the end.


  1. (New York, 1918), p. 182.

  2. Especially in Act III, where the good characters on the heath appear in scenes ii, iv, and vi, and the evil characters in the castle appear in scenes iii, v, and vii.

  3. E.g., Edwin Muir, “The Politics of King Lear,Essays on Literature and Society (London, 1949), pp. 31-48.

  4. As in Lily Bess Campbell, Shakespeare's Tragic Heroes: Slaves of Passion (Cambridge, 1930), pp. 175-207.

  5. See J. F. Danby, Shakespeare's Doctrine of Nature (London, 1949).

  6. The fullest recent bibliography of the criticism on King Lear is that in Helmut Bonheim, The King Lear Perplex (San Francisco, 1960), pp. 179-189. (A similar work, published in 1962 by G. B. Harrison and R. F. McDowell, has a skimpier bibliography.) Vol. 13 of Shakespeare Survey, though devoted to this play, does not include a review of Lear criticism, as might have been expected from the pattern of the earlier volume (7) devoted to Hamlet. Among the numerous articles and essays on the play which have appeared since the Bonheim bibliography, one should notice especially the series in Critical Quarterly, II (1960), 171-176 and 325-339, and III (1961), 67-75. Bonheim does not mention the book-length studies of the play by Salvatori Rosati, Il Giro della Ruota (Florence, 1958) and Russell Fraser, Shakespeare's Poetics (London, 1963); or the essays in the following books: Harold Wilson, On the Design of Shakespearean Tragedy (Toronto, 1957); L. C. Knights, Some Shakespearean Themes (London, 1960); John Lawlor, The Tragic Sense in Shakespeare (London, 1960); Olav Lokse, Outrageous Fortune (Oslo, 1960); Irving Ribner, Patterns in Shakespearean Tragedy (London, 1960); William Rosen, Shakespeare and the Craft of Tragedy (Cambridge, Mass., 1960); and John Holloway, The Story of the Night (London, 1961).

  7. A number of essays on King Lear have dealt with some aspect of this problem. Those most relevant are: J. Stampfer, “The Catharsis of King Lear,Shakespeare Survey 13 (1960), pp. 1-10; L. C. Knights, Some Shakespearean Themes, pp. 84-119; G. C. Williams, “Shakespeare's Basic Plot Situation,” SQ [Shakespeare Quarterly], II (1951), 313-317; Paul Siegel, “Adversity and the Miracle of Love in King Lear,SQ, VI (1955), 325-336; and J. A. Barish and Marshall Waingrow, “Service in King Lear,SQ, IX (1958), 347-355. The article by Terry Hawkes entitled “Love in King Lear,RES [Review of English Studies], X (1959), 178-181, is merely a linguistic note on the early meaning of the word love as “set a value on.” E. A. Block, “King Lear: A Study in Balanced and Shifting Sympathies,” SQ, X (1959), 499-512, deals mainly with Shakespeare's modification of his sources.

  8. The career of Edmund rather than that of Oswald constitutes the important obverse of Kent's career. Edmund's situation is normally seen in terms of his illegitimacy. See especially Danby, Shakespeare's Doctrine of Nature, pp. 31-43, 57-101; Johnston Parr, “Edmund's Birth under Ursa Major” and “The ‘Late Eclipses’ in King Lear,” in Tamburlaine's Malady and Other Essays (Tuscaloosa, 1953); and R. C. Bald, “‘Thou, Nature, Art my Goddess’: Edmund and Renaissance Free Thought,” Joseph Quincy Adams Memorial Studies (Washington, D. C., 1948), 337-349.

  9. See, for example, Winifred Nowottny, “Lear's Questions,” Shakespeare Survey 10 (1957), pp. 90-97. Another example of this kind of interpretation is R. B. Heilman, This Great Stage (Baton Rouge, 1948). By contrast, W. R. Keast, in “Imagery and Meaning in the Interpretation of King Lear,MP [Modern Philology], XLVII (1950), 45-64, asserts that Lear's problem is mainly moral, not intellectual. Duthie, in his Cambridge edition of 1960 (p. xx), says that Lear undergoes a “spiritual” regeneration.

  10. This phrase is a modification of one used by Stampfer in the article cited above (note 7); it deserves to be quoted in context:

    All men, in all societies, make, as it were, a covenant with society in their earliest infancy. By this covenant, the dawning human consciousness accepts society's deepest ordinances, beliefs, and moral standards in exchange for a promise of whatever rewards and blessings society offers. … But given the contingency of human life, that covenant is constantly broken by corruption within and without. A man's life and that of his family are at all times hostages of his limited wisdom, his tainted morality, the waywardness of chance, and the decay of institutions. Indeed, social ritual, whether religious in character, like confession or periodic fasting, or secular, like the ceremonial convening of a legislature, is an attempt to strengthen the bond of a covenant inevitably weakened by the attrition of evil and the brute passage of time. These are all, in a sense, acts of penance, that is, acts whose deepest intent is to purge us of guilt and the fear of being abandoned, to refresh our bond with one another and with our private and collective destiny.

  11. For Christian interpretations of the play, see especially O. J. Campbell, “The Salvation of Lear,” ELH, XV (1948), 93-109; and Irving Ribner, “‘The Gods are Just.’ A Reading of King Lear,Tulane Drama Review, II (1958), 34-54. Ribner stresses the morality-play aspects of King Lear.

Lawrence Rosinger (essay date December 1968)

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SOURCE: Rosinger, Lawrence. “Gloucester and Lear: Men who Act Like Gods.” ELH 35, no. 4 (December 1968): 491-504.

[In the following essay, Rosinger notes the parallel development of Lear and Gloucester in King Lear, pointing out that both characters initially treat others as a means of achieving self-gratification, but are able to express compassion for others by the play's end.]

One of the most debated passages in King Lear is the brief outburst in which Gloucester accuses the gods of wanton murder. Blind, homeless, and on the point of entrusting himself to an apparently half-mad beggar, he exclaims:

As flies to wanton boys are we to th' gods;
They kill us for their sport.(1)

(IV. i. 36-37)

Some writers have seen in this statement a proof of the darkly pessimistic spirit of the play, while others have marshalled arguments to show that the passage proves nothing of the sort. The fact that Gloucester's attitude is a very temporary one may be the decisive consideration in judging between these views. For it is only a few lines, and a short time, since he cried out, “O, my follies! … Kind gods, forgive me” (III. vii. 90-91). And within less than thirty lines of his accusation against the gods he prays to the heavens to punish lustful, unfeeling men of excessive wealth, as they have already punished him:

                                                  Heavens, deal so still!
Let the superfluous and lust-dieted man,
That slaves your ordinance, that will not see
Because he does not feel, feel your power quickly. …

(IV. i. 65-68)

If Gloucester so abruptly takes up and turns away from the idea that the gods are capriciously unjust, this does not seem likely to be the theme of his creator, Shakespeare.

It does not follow that Gloucester's protest is unimportant, but rather that his words may serve some immediate dramatic purpose and perhaps convey other meanings than appear on the surface. If the gods do not wantonly kill for sport, neither would Shakespeare wantonly cause his creature to lay charges against the gods. The key word in Gloucester's accusation is “sport.” He does not object to the idea that suffering can be a punishment for wrongdoing. What outrages him, or so he says, is the thought that superior powers may act irresponsibly, destroying us for their pleasure. He complains that the ruling forces of the universe wantonly abuse their human subjects.

This is not the first time Gloucester has spoken of “sport.” He uses the word at the beginning of the play, but the repetition appears not to have been noticed. King Lear opens with a conversation between Gloucester and Kent. After a few remarks about Lear, the following exchange occurs concerning Gloucester's illegitimate son Edmund, who is present:

Is not this your son, my lord?
His breeding, sir, hath been at my charge. I have so often blushed to acknowledge him that now I am brazed to 't.
I cannot conceive you.
Sir, this young fellow's mother could; whereupon she grew round-wombed, and had indeed, sir, a son for her cradle ere she had a husband for her bed. Do you smell a fault?
I cannot wish the fault undone, the issue of it being so proper.
But I have a son, sir, by order of law, some year elder than this, who yet is no dearer in my account. Though this knave came something saucily to the world before he was sent for, yet was his mother fair; there was good sport at his making, and the whoreson must be acknowledged. Do you know this noble gentleman, Edmund?

(I. i. 7-24)

Gloucester's remarks about Edmund are so crude that efforts have been made to explain them away or soften their impact. It has been suggested that his language would have been less surprising to the frank Jacobeans than to us. But there is no proof of this; and Gloucester's own statement, that he used to blush for what he now acknowledges callously through habit, indicates that his speech required an explanation in Shakespeare's day. It has also been suggested that Edmund stands in the background where he cannot hear Gloucester. But the text does not say or imply this, and Edmund's first speech in the next scene (I. ii. 1-22) refers to the general content and some specific details of Gloucester's conversation with Kent.2 Coleridge appraises the situation accurately, when he declares that Edmund “hears his mother and the circumstances of his birth spoken of with a most degrading and licentious levity.”3

We are left with the conclusion that Shakespeare intended the effects he produced: Gloucester's shocking speech shows the kind of man he is and prepares the way for Lear's shocking action toward Cordelia.

The word “sport” is crucial here, as in Gloucester's later statement against the gods. There was good sport at his making! In theology, birth is a major sphere of divine power. Specifically, the Old Testament begins with the creation of heaven, earth, man, and woman, and the New Testament with the supernatural conception of Jesus. Moreover, “the Creator” is a synonym for God, and a dead man can be said, in religious phraseology, to have gone to his Maker. Since “making,” as used by Gloucester, means the same as “creating,”4 he is really boasting: “I am a Creator. I made a man for my sport.” He acts and speaks as if he were a god—an irresponsible god who creates in order to satisfy his lust. What Gloucester exhibits here is the kind of pride, or hubris, that brings about a man's downfall.

It is worth noting that in the Old Testament the fall of man is connected with the desire to be like a god. For in attempting to persuade Eve to eat of the forbidden tree, the serpent says (Genesis, iii. 5): “But God doeth knowe, that when ye shal eat thereof, your eyes shalbe opened, & ye shalbe as gods, knowing good and euil.”5

King Lear frequently echoes Biblical phrases and ideas in its presentation of moral questions. Shakespeare may therefore have had the passage from Genesis in mind. This seems the more likely, since he suggests another parallel to the fall of man by indicating at the outset that both Lear and Gloucester have declined, and then swiftly involves both men in actions that will ensure their downfall.

The decline of Gloucester is implicit in his statement that he once “blushed to acknowledge” Edmund, but is now “brazed to 't.” Lear's decline is suggested more subtly in the opening lines of the play, immediately preceding the Kent-Gloucester passage already quoted:

I thought the king had more affected the Duke of Albany than Cornwall.
It did always seem so to us; but now, in the division of the kingdom, it appears not which of the dukes he values most, for equalities are so weighed that curiosity in neither can make choice of either's moiety.

(I. i. 1-6)

Since Cornwall develops as a wicked person, and Albany as a good one, these remarks intimate something that can only later be appreciated. When Lear preferred Albany to Cornwall, Lear's character presumably leaned more toward that of Albany. In the process of equating Cornwall with Albany, Lear's ability to discriminate between good and evil tendencies has deteriorated, and he has moved in the direction of Cornwall.6

Against this opening background, Lear's moral decline and fall are played out for us in the remainder of the first scene. He starts with the intention of giving a richer share of the kingdom to Cordelia, whom he prefers, than to her sisters, Goneril and Regan. Within the framework of Lear's foolishness, this intention shows a certain soundness of judgment—as did his original preference for Albany. But the conclusion of Lear's action, with Goneril and Regan receiving everything and Cordelia nothing, is a triumph of evil over good within Lear. In the same way Gloucester declares at the beginning that he loves his sons equally, but soon believes Edmund's lies and severs himself from Edgar.

Gloucester's conception of himself as a god among men also anticipates Lear's attitude. For Lear invokes the heavenly powers in support of his outrageous actions toward Cordelia and Kent, as if Hecate, Apollo, the sun, and the stars were his servants. He does not really petition them, but views their powers as his to command. When the realistic Kent warns him, “Now by Apollo, king, / Thou swear'st thy gods in vain” (I. i. 159-160), Lear is aroused to a height of fury.7

In the midst of this amazingly despotic performance Lear directs a self-revealing line of abuse at Cordelia: “Better thou / Hadst not been born than not t' have pleased me better.” (I. i. 232-233). Here, expressed with Shakespearian subtlety, is a parallel to Gloucester's “there was good sport at his making.” Lear, too, created his children to please himself, i. e., for his pleasure. In Gloucester's case the emphasis is on sexual pleasure at the time of creation; in Lear's, on the pleasure of domination afterward. More broadly, both characters are presented as belonging to those who control others through wealth and power.8

The picture of two men who regard the lives of fellow-humans as created for their own purposes is later filled in with supporting details. Falsely believing that his son Edgar has plotted against his life, Gloucester exclaims, “I never got him.” (II. i.78). And when Regan says she is glad to see Lear, the already enraged king tells her (II. iv. 126-128) that if she were not glad, he would consider her dead mother an adulteress. Apparently, neither Lear nor Gloucester can imagine himself as creating a life that would not serve his pleasure.

The possibility that Shakespeare is using the symbol of the fall of man to characterize the condition of man-gods such as Gloucester and Lear is strengthened by a New Testament resemblance to some of Cordelia's words in the opening scene. Cordelia has been called Christ-like because of her patient, loving behavior and the Biblical overtones of certain phrases used by Shakespeare in portraying her. In this connection there is a remarkable similarity, hitherto apparently unnoticed, between her answer as she is questioned and judged by Lear and Christ's answer as he stands accused before the priests and Pontius Pilate.

It will be recalled that in the first scene, when Lear reveals his plan to have his daughters publicly proclaim their love for him as the basis for receiving their shares of the kingdom, Cordelia says to herself, “What shall Cordelia speak? Love, and be silent.” (I. i. 61). After hearing the hypocritical avowals of Goneril and Regan, the deluded Lear asks Cordelia what she can say to draw a richer portion than theirs. This exchange follows:

Nothing, my lord.
Nothing will come of nothing; speak again.

(I. i. 86-89)

Thereafter, the word “nothing” runs through the play like a leitmotiv, appearing again in significant passages involving Gloucester, Edmund, Kent, Lear, the Fool, and Edgar.

With this passage the following lines from Mark (xiv. 56, 60, 61; xv. 3-5) should be compared:

For manie bare false witnes against him. …
Then the hie Priest stode vp amongs them, and asked Iesus, saying,
Answerest thou nothing? …
But he held his peace, and answered nothing. …
And the hie Priests accused him of manie things.
Wherefore Pilate asked him againe, saying, Answerest thou nothing? beholde how manie things thei witnes agaĩst thee. But Iesus answered no more at all, so that Pilate marueiled.

The omission of the connecting details in these quotations serves to emphasize Jesus' silence under accusation. Moreover, the Geneva Bible's marginal gloss (on the word “answered” in the last sentence above) is quite clear about the position Christ took: “He wolde not defend his cause, but presẽted himself willingly to be cõdemned.” Since this is, in general, the position Cordelia takes, the Bible's reiteration of the fact that Christ said nothing may well have provided Shakespeare with a model for Cordelia's answer to Lear, and also with a symbol of her holiness and purity.9

If the approach suggested here is sound, King Lear begins with a contrast between human beings who act as if they were gods and a godlike character who is a true human being. It is a contrast between men (resembling the earliest Biblical characters) who, in seeking their own pleasure, bring suffering on mankind, and a being who suffers and loves, in order to redeem others from this pain.

The Biblical allusions and the idea of “sport” dovetail neatly. At the outset of the drama Lear and his daughters, as well as Gloucester and his sons—like Christ's judges and Christ—epitomize the contrast between users and used, between wielders of power who play with the lives of others and those who are the objects of this game. Later, of course, some who were used at the beginning—Edmund, Goneril, Regan—become brutal practitioners of sport in a cruel reversal of roles.

That the Gloucester of the first scene has not ceased to use others for sport is clear from the conclusion of his opening conversation with Kent, already quoted in part. For when Gloucester asks Edmund whether he knows Kent, the following occurs:

No, my lord.
My lord of Kent. Remember him hereafter as my honourable friend.
My services to your lordship.
I must love you, and sue to know you better.
Sir, I shall study deserving.
He hath been out nine years, and away he shall again. The king is coming.

(I. i. 25-32)

These remarks, in their way, are more heartless than the previous references to Edmund's birth, since Gloucester is here disposing of Edmund's future, not merely commenting on his past. It is important to realize exactly what is happening. Gloucester's introduction leads Kent to expect to see something of Edmund in the normal course of events. In polite fashion Kent then expresses a desire to know Edmund better, and the latter responds by saying that he will do his best to deserve the “love” Kent has offered. Gloucester thereupon informs them bluntly that Edmund will not be around for this association, since he is to go away again after already spending nine years abroad. Evidently, Edmund is simply to “remember” Kent at a distance as Gloucester's friend, not his own.

The effect of these lines is to humiliate Edmund a second time, immediately after the first, and to show how despotically Gloucester deals with his dependents—a process soon repeated in the treatment of his other son. Not only was Edmund created for Gloucester's sport, but the course of Edmund's life is also determined at Gloucester's pleasure. The Edmund of the first scene is not a person in his own right, but merely the creature of his father's will.

Perhaps it is no accident that the mishandling of Edmund is followed at once by “The king is coming”: Shakespeare was skilled in the ironically meaningful introduction of characters. In any case, Lear immediately overshadows Gloucester as a “sportsman” by disposing of his kingdom, daughters, sons-in-law, loyal nobleman (Kent), and himself, as if he were engaged in a gigantic game.

To many readers Lear's actions must seem part of an absurd legend with which Shakespeare saddled himself—an unworthy starting-point for an awesome tragedy. But the concept of “sport” throws an interesting light on the scene, whose “gross improbability” was noted by Coleridge.10 What Shakespeare seems to have done is to deliberately accept at face value an unbelievable but well-known story of an old man playing games, in order to emphasize the fantastic irresponsibility with which Lear uses his authority.

With this material as background, we can return to Gloucester's accusation against the gods. By the time he levels his charge that they kill for sport, he is already changing from a selfish, sensual person into one who feels for his fellow-men. In fact, from the beginning of the play an element of good is evident in Gloucester, whatever his evil actions. When he says that both his sons are dear to him, there is no reason to doubt his emotion, even though his love is short-sighted and selfish. In the same outrageous way Lear loves his daughters. This ability to love is enough to distinguish Gloucester and Lear from the evil characters of the play, just as the use of others for sport or pleasure separates the two men from the good characters.

I have already referred to the swiftness with which Gloucester adopts and abandons the idea that the gods kill men for sport. But the process is psychologically true, although occurring suddenly. For the blind Gloucester passes through a series of phases of self-understanding, in each of which his attitude toward himself and the gods changes. The first phase11 begins immediately after his sight is destroyed, when he calls out for Edmund to revenge the act. Told that it was Edmund who reported his “treasons” to Regan and Cornwall, Gloucester exclaims:

O, my follies! Then Edgar was abused.
Kind gods, forgive me that, and prosper him!

(III. vii. 90-91)

In this first stage of guilt he understands that he wronged Edgar, but believes that the wrong can easily be corrected by the “kind gods”: Gloucester will be blind, but pardoned, and Edgar will be restored to his rightful station as if nothing had happened.

When we next meet Gloucester, he is led by an old man. In a mood that combines despairing neglect of self with concern lest his companion be punished for helping him, Gloucester asks the old man to leave. But the latter insists, because “You cannot see your way.” (IV. i. 17). Gloucester replies: “I have no way, and therefore want no eyes; / I stumbled when I saw.” (IV. i. 18-19). Remarking that wealth often imparts a false sense of security, while misfortunes prove an advantage, he declares that if he could only live to be with Edgar, he would feel that he could see again. Immediately—at this ironic signal—the old man becomes aware of the presence of “poor Tom,” Edgar in disguise. Our passage follows:

Is it a beggar-man?
OLD Man.
Madman, and beggar too.
He has some reason, else he could not beg.
I' th' last night's storm I such a fellow saw,
Which made me think a man a worm. My son
Came then into my mind, and yet my mind
Was then scarce friends with him: I have heard more since.
As flies to wanton boys are we to th' gods;
They kill us for their sport.

(IV. i. 29-37)

A reconstruction of Gloucester's mood is essential to an examination of his accusation against the gods. Deep in despair and conscious of guilt, he is aware that he is not a god and may even be no more than “a worm.” In fact, a new understanding of others leads him to defend the beggar against the charge of madness. When he says, “I have heard more since,” he has come to a point at which open confession is within reach; but he still desires to avoid facing what he has really been. His method of self-defense embodies, on Shakespeare's part, an act of the boldest imagination. For Gloucester's excuse is to charge the gods with a more irresponsible pleasure than he himself once displayed. He tries to set himself above the gods by rebuking them. Specifically, in asserting that the gods treat men like flies, he is implying that the gods are devils—for Beelzebub, one of the Devil's names, means, in Hebrew, “fly-lord,” i. e., lord of the flies. The reference is unmistakable, though not openly stated.

The use of the word “sport” suggests that Gloucester's earlier attitude, as expressed in “there was good sport at his making,” is in his mind, though unspoken. He who boasted of making a man for sport now imagines gods who might boast, “We kill men for sport.” The fact that he did wrong is implied, since actions that are wrong in the gods are not likely to be right in a man. When he speaks of human shortcomings, he refers objectively to certain “wanton boys,” as if he had nothing to do with them. But we know, and presumably he knows, that “wanton boy” might be a description of himself as he once was. He pretends, however, that he is sufficiently guiltless to stand in judgment on both men and gods.

What he intimates in his defense is that he was a petty offender, compared with the gods, and that there is a difference in the nature of the offense: they kill for sport, he gave life for sport. The emphasis in his guilty mind appears to be on their sport, contrasted with his; on kill, contrasted with making. Moreover, if “sport” is taken as a sexual reference, he is accusing the gods of killing, in order to satisfy their lust.12

Gloucester's outburst—essentially an attempt to resist the truth about himself—is followed by further progress in self-understanding. When he declares that he will ask the beggar to lead him toward Dover, and the old man comments, “Alack, sir, he is mad” (IV. i. 45), Gloucester answers with a searing comment on the way he and Lear acted in the heyday of their power: “'Tis the time's plague when madmen lead the blind.” (IV. i. 46). Referring to his desire that the old man bring some clothes for the beggar, Gloucester adds, “Do as I bid thee; or rather do thy pleasure.” (IV. i. 47). This is a subtle touch. Gloucester's older nature expresses itself in the command, “Do as I bid thee,” but the newer Gloucester quickly makes a correction, “or rather do thy pleasure.” He now knows that a pleasure exists besides his own, and that the wishes of others require recognition.

Within a few lines Gloucester reaches a turning-point as he says to the beggar, in a passage partly quoted above:

Here, take this purse, thou whom the heavens' plagues
Have humbled to all strokes: that I am wretched
Makes thee the happier; Heavens, deal so still!
Let the superfluous and lust-dieted man,
That slaves your ordinance, that will not see
Because he does not feel, feel your power quickly;
So distribution should undo excess,
And each man have enough.

(IV. i. 63-70)

The care with which Shakespeare develops Gloucester's complex character is evident from the fact that, even while giving away his money, Gloucester will not abandon his criticism of the gods. For his reference to “the heavens' plagues” has something of the same spirit as “They kill us for their sport.” Since he has just spoken metaphorically of the misrule of men like Lear and himself as “the time's plague,” he apparently has reached the point of feeling that human misrulers and murderous gods must share responsibility for the evils that plague the world. The partial nature of the change in him is also indicated by the very bitter charity of the phrase, “that I am wretched / Makes thee the happier.”

At this juncture—after a soul-searching pause, I assume—Gloucester finally shoulders his guilt: “Heavens, deal so still!” He now accepts his misfortunes as just punishment for his past behavior, rather than as the “sport” of the gods. He sees the entire range of his sins: not simply the specific evil acts mentioned in the play, but also the failure to feel for others. He recognizes the crime of acting like a god in his description of himself, “the superfluous and lust-dieted man, / That slaves your ordinance”—in short, the self-indulgent, sensual man of wealth who subordinates to his own pleasure the order created by the gods.

Gloucester's brief effort at self-justification parallels a phase of Lear's development. Exposed to the storm, and already well on the way toward madness, the old king cries out to the gods to punish men for their guilt:

                                                                                Let the great gods,
That keep this dreadful pudder o'er our heads,
Find out their enemies now. Tremble, thou wretch
That hast within thee undivulgéd crimes
Unwhipped of justice. Hide thee, thou bloody hand,
Thou perjured, and thou simular of virtue
That art incestuous. Caitiff, to pieces shake,
That under covert and convenient seeming
Hast practised on man's life. Close pent-up guilts,
Rive your concealing continents, and cry
These dreadful summoners grace. I am a man
More sinned against than sinning.

(III. ii. 49-60)

In developing this impressive catalogue of the evils of others, Lear is really troubled by his own wrongful actions. Otherwise, why should he conclude by excusing himself? He has already admitted the “folly” (I. iv. 272) of his mistreatment of Cordelia (“I did her wrong,” I. v. 25). He has also recognized that his evil daughter Goneril expresses one side of his own nature:

But yet thou art my flesh, my blood, my daughter—
Or rather a disease that's in my flesh,
Which I must needs call mine. Thou art a boil,
A plague-sore, or embosséd carbuncle
In my corrupted blood.

(II. iv. 217-221)

And he who considered himself above the gods has learned to say to the “elements” that rage in the storm:

                                                                                                                        Then let fall
Your horrible pleasure. Here I stand your slave,
A poor, infirm, weak, and despised old man. …

(III. ii. 18-20)

How incompletely he has changed becomes clear, however, when one realizes that “horrible pleasure” is virtually identical in implication with “They kill us for their sport,” and that the “slave … poor, infirm, weak, and despised” is a concrete description of one of the human “flies” Gloucester later accuses the gods of wantonly destroying. Moreover, Lear immediately reveals another aspect of his thought by adding:

But yet I call you servile ministers,
That will with two pernicious daughters join
Your high-engendered battles 'gainst a head
So old and white as this. O, ho! 'tis foul!

(III. ii. 21-24)

Although seemingly humble, Lear regards the gods as “servile ministers” of his daughters: the divine powers that once served him are now at the beck and call of Goneril and Regan! In his thinking, people of power are still the real gods, and he cannot accept the fact that he no longer belongs to this ruling circle.

In the passage beginning, “Let the great gods … Find out their enemies now,” Lear tries to make his own guilt seem unimportant by citing others who are more guilty than he is. He also apparently wants to show the gods that he is really on their side by telling them of their “enemies.” After listing the crimes of which “thou” and the unnamed “caitiff” are guilty, Lear reaches a point (paralleling Gloucester's “I have heard more since”) at which he could admit his own evil, when he urges: “Close pent-up guilts, / Rive your concealing continents, and cry / These dreadful summoners grace.” But suddenly, while admitting that he has sinned, he offers in defense the hollow, self-serving statement, “I am a man / More sinned against than sinning.”

At this point Lear is still a half-god, standing above his fellowmen, giving them orders to confess, and calling down on them the punishment of the gods in an effort to save himself from further punishment. In form Lear's excuse is quite different from Gloucester's: Lear seems humble toward the gods, Gloucester blasphemes them. But the king who claims to be more sinned against than sinning is in the same stage psychologically as the nobleman who feels that the gods have done worse things to him for sport than he ever did to others. Indeed, since Lear does not specify who has sinned against him, he is quite possibly blaming the gods as well as his daughters.

As it turns out, both men are offering a last defense before facing their guilt. Just as Gloucester drops his argument against the gods, so Lear does not again speak of being more sinned against than sinning. Just as Gloucester immediately begins to show compassion for the beggar, so Lear at once begins to pity his Fool. Just as Gloucester gives the beggar a purse, so Lear sees to it that the Fool takes shelter before him. And just as Gloucester admits his wrong-doing in lines addressed to the heavens, so Lear exclaims, in the midst of a prayer for the “poor naked wretches” of the world: “O, I have ta'en / Too little care of this!” (III. iv. 32-33) In Lear, as in Gloucester, these changes occur so quickly that it is clear the excuse was a temporary evasion, though an essential step in the character's development.

These considerations suggest that, although King Lear is a dark play indeed, Gloucester's charge against the gods is not offered by Shakespeare as a weighty judgment on life, but rather as an obstacle to be swept aside before regeneration can take place. “As flies to wanton boys” is a supremely dramatic phase of Gloucester's evolution toward understanding that it is a crime to use others for sport, or to act as a god toward fellow human beings. What Shakespeare has put before us is not some cynical view of his own, but an unforgettable aspect of Gloucester's psychology in ripening from a man-god into a man.


  1. Quotations from King Lear are from the edition of G. I. Duthie and J. D. Wilson (Cambridge, 1960).

  2. Edmund's entire speech revolves about the fact that he is illegitimate and is therefore considered inferior. This is also a prominent aspect of Gloucester's remarks to Kent, even though Gloucester claims no longer to be influenced by Edmund's birth. Specifically, Edmund's observation, “Our father's love is to the bastard Edmund / As to th' legitimate” seems based on Gloucester's statement that his legitimate son is “no dearer” to him than the illegitimate. Edmund's assertion that “more composition and fierce quality” enter into the creation of persons such as himself than can be found “within a dull, stale, tiréd bed” presumably reflects Gloucester's reference to “good sport.”

  3. Coleridge's Shakespearean Criticism, ed. T. M. Raysor (London, 1930), I, 56.

  4. Cf. A.Y.L., III. ii. 216, “Is he of God's making? What manner of man?” and the similar expression in L.L.L., V. ii. 529. All references to plays other than King Lear are based on The Complete Plays and Poems of William Shakespeare, ed. W. A. Neilson and C. J. Hill (Cambridge, Mass., 1942).

  5. All biblical quotations are from The Bible and Holy Scriptures Conteyned in the Olde and Newe Testament (Geneva, 1560).

  6. The resemblance between Lear and Cornwall is later emphasized, for Cornwall's action in ordering Kent to be stocked parallels Lear's earlier banishment of Kent. In both cases Kent's offense is his insistence on speaking plainly to a tyrant. Again, at II. iv. 89, Gloucester describes Cornwall's fiery unreasonableness in words that sound like a characterization of Lear.

  7. Significantly, Kent does not speak of “the gods” but of “thy gods”—as if Lear owned them. Kent's irony evokes from Lear the epithet “miscreant” (both “unbeliever” and “villain”). To Lear, a man who questions his ability to command the gods is an infidel.

  8. It is important to note the variety of Jacobean meanings of “sport” and “pleasure.” Definitions of “sport” in the O.E.D. include, among others: a diversion, a game, hunting as a pastime, a jest, and “amorous dalliance or intercourse.” The meanings of pleasure include: “one's will,” enjoyment, and “sensual gratification.” In short, both words are well suited to a drama in which a sport-pleasure theme is used to suggest the abuse of power by those who enjoy it.

    For Shakespeare's use of “sport” and “pleasure” in a sexual sense, see Oth., II. i. 229-230, “When the blood is made dull with the act of sport,” and Ham., III. iii. 90, “th' incestuous pleasure of his bed.” The close relationship of the two words is indicated by Iago's remark to Roderigo (Oth., I. iii. 375-376): “If thou canst cuckold him [Othello], thou dost thyself a pleasure, me a sport.”

  9. In the full account, of course, Jesus is not completely silent—nor is Cordelia.

  10. Raysor, I, 59.

  11. Shakespeare lays the groundwork for Gloucester's self-examination in two earlier developments: his aid to Lear in the storm and his confrontation by Regan and Cornwall, leading to the putting out of Gloucester's eyes. In this preliminary stage Gloucester begins to show some feeling for others, but remains quite unaware of shortcomings in himself.

  12. For language similar to Gloucester's, see Iago's remark about Othello and Desdemona (Oth., II. iii. 16-17): “He hath not yet made wanton the night with her; and she is sport for Jove.” Here, as in Gloucester's accusation, “wanton,” “sport,” and the gods are closely linked.


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King Lear

King Lear (c. 1605-06) is widely regarded as one of Shakespeare's finest artistic achievements and is also considered by many to be his darkest tragedy. Set in ancient Britain, the plot 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 the 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 dead body of Cordelia, who is killed after she returns from France to fight for her father. Gloucester, the central figure of the play's subplot, is betrayed by his illegitimate son Edmund, blinded, and sent into the wilderness to die. Since its introduction, King Lear has confounded audiences and scholars with its seemingly hopeless conclusion. Critics remain divided on Shakespeare's intended message: while some commentators view King Lear as representing a pessimistic vision of life, others contends that the play contains an explicit message of hope and redemption. King Lear was not popular on the stage in Shakespeare's day. 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 mid-nineteenth century, however, and it is now one of Shakespeare's most popular plays in performance.

Shakespeare's delineation of character has long been a central component of scholarship regarding King Lear, particularly the characterization of the title figure. Terence Hawkes (1995) focuses on verbal and non-verbal communication in King Lear, contending that the play reveals a significant change in Lear's character through his movement from understanding only “explicit verbal statement” at the play's beginning to his ability to note unspoken emotions and ideas in the play's final scene. Stephen Booth (1983) illustrates how the audience's original evaluations of the characters in King Lear are thrown into question by later events, a process that mirrors Lear's misjudgment of his daughters. Examining both Lear and Gloucester, Lawrence Rosinger (1968) notes their parallel development in King Lear, pointing out that both characters initially treat others as a means of achieving self-gratification, but are able to express compassion for others by the play's end. Richard Knowles (1999) attempts to uncover Cordelia's motivation to return from France to her native country, which causes her to “lose everything, including her life,” and suggests that Shakespeare left her unexplained return purposefully ambiguous in order to enhance the play's dramatic impact.

Critics have questioned whether King Lear can be successfully staged throughout its performance history. Various issues have made this play a challenge for the stage, including its vastness and complexity as well as the difficulty in representing such elements as the character of Lear, the blinding of Gloucester, and the storm scene. Nonetheless, the play continues to be produced on a regular basis and remains one of Shakespeare's most frequently performed plays in the twenty-first century. Jonathan Miller's 2002 Stratford Festival of Canada production of King Lear drew considerable attention because of the appearance of international film and theater star Christopher Plummer in the title role. John Bemrose (2002) contends that Plummer's portrayal of Lear was “the performance of his life.” Reviewing the same production, Ben Brantley (2002) compliments the clarity, intimate tone, and quick pace of the production, but also reserves his highest praise for Plummer's Lear. In his negative review of the 2000 Alabama Shakespeare Festival staging of the play, Craig Barrow (2000) maintains that the production was weak overall and faults Barry Boys's performance as Lear, noting that the actor was “unable to communicate Lear's painful journey through madness to wisdom.” Lois Potter (2002) favorably reviews the 2001 staging of King Lear at the Globe Theatre, commenting that the production “generally felt ‘right,’ both simple and to the point.”

The controversy over the meaning of the ending of King Lear—whether it represents a negative or positive vision of life—is a major source of critical commentary. Sears Jayne (1964) advocates a pessimistic reading of King Lear, focusing on the lack of charity among the characters. Jayne views the play as an expression of “the desperate need which human beings have for each other, and their paradoxical inability to satisfy that need.” Taking an opposite view, Michael Edwards (2000) disagrees with critics who view King Lear as an expression of a godless existence, contending that the play is “an eminently Christian work” that dramatizes human imperfection and the possibility of redemption. In another Christian reading of the play, Cherrell Guilfoyle (1990) finds a message of Christian redemption in King Lear and contends that several figures in the play assume Christ-like qualities. Jonathan Dollimore (1984) argues against both Christian and humanist interpretations of King Lear, noting that “the play concludes with two events [the deaths of Cordelia and Lear] which sabotage the prospect of both closure and recuperation.” Scholars have also studied the unique dramatic structure of the play's ending. Alan Rosen (2001) examines the unconventional dramatic form of King Lear, particularly the appearance of the climax early in the play instead of at the end, where it traditionally occurs. June Schlueter (1995) discusses the conclusion of King Lear, noting that the play “both embodies and disrupts” literary conventions.

Craig Barrow (review date 2000)

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SOURCE: Barrow, Craig. “The 2000 Alabama Shakespeare Festival's King Lear.Upstart Crow 20 (2000): 179-83.

[In the following review, Barrow contends that “of all the productions of King Lear done by the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, the 2000 production was the weakest.” In particular, the critic faults Barry Boys's performance as Lear, noting that the actor was “unable to communicate Lear's painful journey through madness to wisdom.”]

The day after King Lear opened at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, Kent Thompson, the Alabama Shakespeare Festival's Artistic Director and the director of King Lear, gave a lecture in the Theatre of the Mind series on his experience directing the play in 1992 and for this season. Since I was going to see the play later that day and had seen and reviewed Thompson's 1992 King Lear as well as all previous productions of King Lear that the ASF had done, I was curious about what he thought of the play and his shaping intent in determining his production's qualities. The lecture was given in the Octagon, a theatre that seats approximately 200 in a U-shaped configuration about a thrust where King Lear would be performed later that evening. This would prove handy, since Thompson could point out features on the stage throughout his hour-long talk.

The background of the stage was filled with a cloudy sky made larger than the room's physical limits by mirrors flanking the rear of the performing area. The air and clouds, said Thompson, were part of an emphasis in the production of the four classical elements of earth, air, wind, and fire. In coming to grips with the meaning of the play, Thompson narrated a personal experience about his father who had suffered a breakdown about the time that Thompson was directing the 1992 Lear. Nearly every weekend Thompson would visit him in Louisville. He had retired at that time because his wife was beginning to suffer from Alzheimer's disease. A Baptist minister with a Ph.D. from Edinburgh, Thompson's father's smallest church boasted five thousand parishoners, and in the last years of his career he had taught in a Baptist seminary in Louisville. His loss of position in the world and his own growing physical decline coupled with his wife's increasing illness precipitated a breakdown. This experience, which “marked the beginning of his decline toward death,”1 gave his son an insight into what Lear experiences when he renounces his kingdom. The experience, filled with “painful, contentious struggle,”2 also gave Thompson an approximation of what being the child of a Lear or a Gloucester would be like. Interestingly, although we sometimes think of Cordelia and Edgar as innately good, and Goneril, Regan, and Edmund as innately evil, Thompson asked his audience to imagine what it would be like to have a father as rash as Lear in his terrible curses of Goneril in I. iv and his judgment of Cordelia in I. i. or as crude as the Gloucester who cavalierly says to Kent that he “had good sport at his [Edmund's] making” (I. i. 23)3 when his son is standing in front of him. As Thompson imagines these characters, he speculates that Goneril, Regan, and Edmund may have become corrupted by the fathers' actions in the past. Thompson sees all the characters in the play as either ascending or descending fortune's great wheel; in keeping with this idea the costuming, designed by Christine Turbitt, is either simplified, stripped, or made more ornate as the play's action unfolds. The designs for the costumes are a combination of medieval and oriental, perhaps Japanese, and the scenic design of Karen Ten Eyck suggests an eastern minimalism, as do other elements of the staging, so that Lear's “Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks!” (III. ii. 1) speech during the storm is more mental than physical; no actor is shouting at the top of his lungs over the thunder of rippling sheet metal. In keeping with this economy, Don Tindall, the sound designer, and Maurice Arnaud-Benoir, the composer, render the sounds of the storm distortions of the voices of Goneril and Regan, while Cordelia is suggested by a simple, brief melodic movement at appropriate moments throughout the play. The bare stage itself, with so many characters journeying across it, seems a metaphor of the world itself.

More than an hour of the text was cut from the 2000 King Lear, with most of the omissions coming in the second half of the play, so that the production, with its two intermissions, took approximately three hours. Thompson sees the matter of the play as “Shakespeare's remarkable psychological and artistic insight into aging”4 accompanied by “the often destructive struggle over legacy within families, and the terrifying consequences of denial.”5 While Thompson appreciates the bleakness of the play, he thought that productions such as Peter Brook's in 1962, influenced by phenomena such as the Holocaust, Hiroshima, assassinations, and mass suicides, have overemphasized the theme of despair in the play. While the death of Cordelia is especially hard to bear, Thompson believes that “the painful journeys of Lear, Edgar, Cordelia, and Gloucester contain a redeeming element.”6 In the play of different kinds of qualities of love, friendship, and service, Thompson focuses on Edgar's struggles more than those of any other character, seeing him as the hero in the play, perhaps echoing Thompson's own response to his painful difficulties in dealing with his own father.

Sadly, of all the productions of King Lear done by the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, the 2000 production was the weakest. The problem for the play is Barry Boys who plays Lear. Although Lear is supposed to be in his eighties, Boys looks like a man in his sixties, and unlike Charles Antalosky in the ASF Lear of 1976 and 1983 and Philip Pleasants in the ASF Lear of 1992, Boys seems unable to communicate Lear's painful journey through madness to wisdom. Too often Boys' Lear seems merely crazy or infirm; the poetry of Lear's mad insights into his being and his world and its justice are too often omitted. With their loss, the loyalty of Kent and the love of Cordelia seem almost misapplied.

While the casting of Boys was unfortunate, particularly with Pleasants, successful as Lear in 1992, playing the Fool in the 2000 production, all the other major roles in the production were performed with distinction. Greta Lambert, the most forceful and accomplished actress in the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, was a strong and passionate Goneril in red, while Monica Bell, talented herself, was convincing in turquoise as the imaginatively cruel Regan. Her kiss of Oswald in IV. v in order to obtain Goneril's letter to Edmund—either her choice or the director's—seemed her only false move. It stunned the audience. Jennifer Tucker as Cordelia is attractive but emotionally cool. She is convincing in the play's first scene and in her reunion with Lear at play's end. John Preston as Edmund is capable, but too often he plays the role for comic effects and seems to miss Edmund's viciousness. Rodney Clark is effective as Kent, but he seems older than Lear in appearance, which is bothersome. Ray Chambers is a black presence as Cornwall, but someone with his talent should have played a more significant role. The same can be said for the talented Greg Thornton as Albany who handles the domination of Goneril well but still has convincing strength at play's end when both Goneril's and Edmund's evil is unmasked.

Paul Herron performs the role of Gloucester with imaginative control; upstaging Lear himself at times. Gloucester's movement from callousness, anger, and fatalism, to a modulated acceptance is nicely done. Philip Pleasants, looking old and frail as the Fool, gave his usual excellent performance, although a more responsive Lear would have better complemented the strengths of Pleasants' acting. Still, the lines and the wit were clear.

Brian Kurlander as Edgar wound up being the focus of the production, partly because of the weakness of Barry Boys, but also because of Kurlander's strength as Edgar. Gloucester's attempt at suicide could easily look laughable on stage if done inappropriately, but both actors are up to the task. With the future in Edgar's hands at play's end, the mild optimism that Kent Thompson seemed to be looking for is carried off by Kurlander who is drained but accepting of his new role in the world.

On the whole, I liked Kent Thompson's lecture better than I did the performance of King Lear. I agree with him that every time we experience King Lear, “we discover something new.”7 I suspect that the something new for Thompson was the experience of the children of Lear and Gloucester. With a weak Lear, the play seems, as Lisa Hopkins asserts, a history as much as a tragedy.8 What is clear is that the talented Mr. Thompson needs to make better casting choices for major roles such as Lear.


  1. Cast List: Alabama Shakespeare Festival (Montgomery, 2000), p. 6.

  2. Cast List, p. 6.

  3. Quotations accord with The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974).

  4. Cast List, p. 6.

  5. Cast List, p. 6.

  6. Cast List, p. 6.

  7. Cast List, p. 6.

  8. List Hopkins, “Lear, Lear, Lear!: Marlowe, Shakespeare, and the Third,” The Upstart Crow: A Shakespeare Journal, 16 (1996), p. 113.

Dean Frye (essay date March 1965)

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SOURCE: Frye, Dean. “The Context of Lear's Unbuttoning.” ELH 32, no. 1 (March 1965): 17-31.

[In the following essay, Frye examines the images of clothing in King Lear, noting the importance of clothing as an element of disguise in Shakespearean drama.]

Everyone feels that the moment when Lear begins to tear off his clothes on seeing Poor Tom is one of almost unlimited significance. The gesture is related to images of clothing that run throughout the play, so here action and poetry meet and reinforce one another. And they convey both emotion and idea in a way which makes the two inseparable. Here is one of the moments at which it is most clear, as clear as that Shakespeare is not a “dramatist of ideas,” that he is a dramatist of attitudes. In perfectly realistic fashion, passions in Shakespeare are regularly related, as cause or effect, to what Arthur Sewell calls “addresses to the world.”1 Generally, abstract formulations that are the equivalents of these attitudes exist in the history of ideas and may provide, not the meaning or cause of the passion, but a background to the attitude and perhaps a vocabulary for its expression. Elizabethan drama characteristically such a drama of attitudes, which gives it some of the quality that is called “universality,” not only the universality of the passions imitated, but also their tendency to point beyond themselves. Lear's passionate personal gesture relates to a system of attitudes in the play, sometimes expressed as ideas. In such a drama, the step into abstract language is always an easy one, and heroes can express their emotions through generalization without their seeming, and without the play's becoming, particularly intellectual. Iterative imagery picks up associations with ideas as well as with feelings and so becomes a vehicle for the expression of both at once.

As Robert Heilman in particular has shown,2 clothes are important in King Lear, as they are elsewhere in Shakespeare, who in fact makes constant use of them. One thinks first of all of disguise, which may blend metaphor and plot and has the great matter of appearance and reality always potential in it. Stage disguise—it is odd when you think of it—is far more often a stratagem of sympathetic characters than of villains. The disguises of the comic heroines as boys, of Portia as a judge, of the Duke in Measure for Measure as a friar, of Posthumus as a soldier, even of Feste as Sir Topas, are all for desirable ends. Villains use images of disguises to describe what they do: Iago will be only “trimmed in forms and visages of duty” (I. i. 50),3 and the Macbeths often talk about disguises and, especially, masks. But these characters do not actually dress up as anyone else. In King Lear, the villains force disguises upon characters of whom we approve, and these disguises are symptomatic of the disorder that has been let loose in the world.

In Elizabethan drama the ideal society is often pictured as one in which everybody wears the right costume, and the resolution of comedy means the end of all disguise, whether assumed for a good purpose like Florizel's or forced upon someone like Rosalind by evil circumstance, as well as the unmasking of impostors, actually disguised or not, and the relinquishing of inappropriate dress like Malvolio's cross-gartering. Perdita, Miranda, and Guiderius and Arviragus discover what dress properly belongs to them. Perhaps Isabella in Measure for Measure does too. The famous Elizabethan laws establishing relations between dress and rank point to the ease with which proper clothes may become a symbol for an ordered society, especially in the theater, where there is the reminder that an actor may become a king just by putting on the right costume. Such order as is restored at the end of King Lear naturally involves the return of Edgar to his proper clothes. “These weeds,” says Cordelia to Kent, “are memories of those worser hours: / I prithee, put them off” (IV. vii. 7-8).

The most extreme case in which the wrong clothes are a sign, even a cause, of social disruption is a special case, that of the robes and crown of a king. Caroline Spurgeon and Cleanth Brooks have called attention in Macbeth to the images of ill-fitting robes.4 Similarly, Falstaff's dagger and cushion are grotesque imitations of the scepter and crown, but his impersonation points to the danger that the genuine ones will be worth no more, and will really be his, when they come to Hal, who now dresses up in buckram for a joke. Claudius is a “king of shreds and patches” (III. iv. 102). But there are many other cases in which dress points at disorder. The antic disposition that Hamlet puts on, presumably indicated by his costume, is another disguise of sorts, and Antony's distance from the normal order of his world is never more striking than when we hear of his having changed clothes with Cleopatra. It is in this context that we think of the disruption that follows Lear's decision to divest himself of rule.

The hierarchical society in which everyone wears appropriate dress may be necessary to protect men from one another. “Blood hath been shed ere now,” says Macbeth, “i'the olden time, / Ere humane statute purged the gentle weal” (III. iv. 75-76). But Elizabethan clothes did more than help keep order, like a policeman's uniform. They were the costumes for a ceremonial society centered on rituals. C. S. Lewis, with his usual cogency, reminded us of how far we have come from such a world:

In an age when every one puts on his oldest clothes to be happy in, you must re-awake the simpler state of mind in which people put on gold and scarlet to be happy in. Above all, you must be rid of the hideous idea, fruit of a widespread inferiority complex, that pomp, on the proper occasions, has any connexion with vanity or self-conceit. A celebrant approaching the altar, a princess led out by a king to dance a minuet, a general officer on a ceremonial parade, a majordomo preceding the boar's head at a Christmas feast—all these wear unusual clothes and move with calculated dignity. This does not mean that they are vain, but that they are obedient; they are obeying the hoc age which presides over every solemnity. The modern habit of doing ceremonial things unceremoniously is no proof of humility; rather it proves the offender's inability to forget himself in the rite, and his readiness to spoil for every one else the proper pleasure of ritual.5

The ritual, like all the pageants and progresses of Elizabethan life, is an artifice which is meant to give human life dignity and measure. At the same time, there is an innocence about it, in the sense of a lack of self-consciousness. So Lewis stresses the courtesy in Milton's Eden against the usual association of innocence with the simple and unsophisticated.6 When Lear unburdens himself he not only endangers political order but also puts the claims of his personal desires above those of his role in the social pageant, though he will retain the additions of a king and wear the robes as a fiction.

If his decision is folly, however, it is also perfectly comprehensible and in keeping with the feelings of other Shakespearean monarchs. The crown may be part of ones proper dress, but that makes it no less heavy. Clothes may provide an indispensable social role, and may at times be thought of as providing a total definition of the man who wears them, especially if he is a king, but there is also the recognition that the man and his clothing are not finally identical. One cannot live entirely within a ritual. The kings in Shakespeare, at least in moments of depression, frequently share with Lear the desire to divest themselves of what sets them apart, of the “intertissued robe of gold and pearl,” as Henry V says (IV. i. 279), of “thrice-gorgeous ceremony” (283). Henry IV finds no sleep under “the canopies of costly state” (Part II, III. i. 13). At such moments there is a tension between the public and private selves such as we recognize when Brutus changes from public toga to private gown. In another sort of case, Coriolanus is almost totally defined by his soldier's uniform and laurels, and when custom demands that he put on the “napless vesture of humility” (II. i. 250), it is all but impossible for him. The customary and appropriate dress of social order is not an adequate definition of the individual.

Still, Lear begins with a belief in the artifice that sublimates life as necessary to man. The additions that he retains, his train of knights, are meant to define him to some extent, and he is shocked at the attempt to do away with them. His need of them is real, he says, because men need more than simply to sustain life:

O! reason not the need; our basest beggars
Are in the poorest thing superfluous:
Allow not nature more than nature needs,
Man's life is cheap as beast's.

(II. iv. 266-269)

There are, for instance, Goneril's clothes:

                                                                                Thou art a lady;
If only to go, warm were gorgeous,
Why, nature needs not what thou gorgeous wear'st
Which scarcely keeps thee warm.


I doubt that Heilman is correct in calling this an “accusation that his daughter is out of harmony with nature.”7 There is a paradox which the audience may appreciate, but the main point for Lear is a serious defense of the artificial and, strictly speaking, unnecessary additions that men have made to their natural state.

The simplest art of covering is necessary for survival, but men have gone far beyond this necessity to create gorgeousness, which becomes more important than warmth. For Goneril to wear a blanket would be the loss of something, of an art. George Puttenham relates clothing and poetry:

And as we see in these great Madames of honour, be they for personage or otherwise neuer so comely and bewtifull, yet if they want their courtly habillements or at leastwise such other apparell as custome and ciuilitie haue ordained to couer their naked bodies, would be halfe ashamed or greatly out of countenaunce to be seen in that sort, … euen so cannot our vulgar Poesie shew it selfe either gallant or gorgious, if any lymme be left naked and bare and not clad in his kindly clothes and coulours, such as may conuey them somwhat out of sight, that is from the common course of ordinary speach and capacitie of the vulgar iudgement, and yet being artificially handled must needes yeld it much more bewtie and commendation.8

The tone may be playful here, but the point is seriously enough meant. The “kindly” clothes that custom ordains for Goneril are gorgeous, as a sign of her rank and her part in a ceremonial world.

Yet ceremony as such fails Lear. He begins the play with his ritual of professions of love, and discovers that such ceremonies are worthless and only provide disguises for evil. Now reality is breaking through, as Cordelia predicted: “Time shall unfold what plighted cunning hides; / Who covers faults, at last with shame derides” (I. i. 280-281). Lear is gradually approaching a state of mind in which he will reject artifice as itself evil.

It is not only that the artificial can be deceitful, like customary suits of solemn black. Clothes are, after all, one consequence of the Fall of Man, as is the whole social fabric of which they are a symbol. Looked at in one way, all clothes are disguise. Satiric attacks on gorgeous gallants and extremes of affectation may begin as attacks on impostors like Spenser's ape in Prosopopoia who, when he became a courtier,

                    was clad in strange accoustrements,
Fashion'd with queint devises never seene
In court before, yet there all fashions beene:
Yet he them in newfanglenesse did pas.


Such thrusts as Philip Stubbes' lengthy and detailed indictment of affected fashions9 may be partly aimed at newly created courtiers whose backgrounds made them impostors of sorts. “King Stephano” rewards his courtier Trinculo for a jest: “here's a garment for 't. Wit shall not go unrewarded while I am King of this country” (Temp, IV. i. 241-243). The two are diverted from their revolt by the “glistering apparel” that they come upon, though even Caliban knows “it is but trash” (224). So, in more serious cases, Osric is one who has “only got the tune of the time and outward habit of encounter” (Hamlet, V. ii. 198-199); Kent says to Oswald, “a tailor made thee” (II, ii. 55). But it is an easy step to rejection of the court, the center of structure and ceremony, in its entirety, a step that Iden has taken in Henry VI, Part II (IV. x. 18-25).

Montaigne would not agree with C. S. Lewis, and uses a comparison with clothing to make a different point about style from Puttenham's:

I have sometimes pleased my selfe in imitating that licenciousnesse or wanton humour of our youths, in wearing of their garments; as carelesly to let their cloaks hang downe over one shoulder; to weare their cloakes scarfe or bawdrikewise, and their stockings loose hanging about their legs. It represents a kind of disdainfull fiercenesse of these forraine embellishings, and neglect carelesnesse of art: But I commend it more being imployed in the course and forme of speech.10

Fine clothes and all that they imply may, indeed, come to seem unnatural whoever wears them, just as gorgeous vestments may appear to introduce worldliness into religion. The proper dress for all men, the nakedness of Eden having practical difficulties about it, may seem to be the most anonymous, like the “sad” clothes of the Puritans. The robes of office, even for those who wear them legally, are a temptation for one to confuse his real identity with his clothes, and, as Isabella says, “Dressed in a little brief authority,” make the angels weep with his apish tricks (M for M, II. ii. 117-122). “'Twas never merry world,” say Pompey in a comic version of this view, “since, of two usuries, the merriest was put down, and the worser allowed by order of law a furred gown to keep him warm” (III. ii. 6-9). Lear, of course, comes to feel this way: “The usurer hangs the cozener. / Thorough tatter'd clothes small vices do appear; / Robes and furr'd gowns hide all” (IV. vi. 165-167).

The positive vision that lies behind this line of satire is less often the ordered society of political orthodoxy than the pastoral freedom from society and its affectations and inequalities. The shepherd's dress, which was sometimes said to have been universal in the Golden Age, could be seen as the only really appropriate dress for all men. Description of the Golden Age in Shakespeare's time, generally deriving from Ovid, often added simplicity of dress to the elements which made up a picture of a naturally virtuous society before man's pride brought on all the troubles of the world. The connection with satiric themes is natural enough, since such descriptions frequently function satirically, setting up a standard to which, implicitly or explicitly, the present is compared. Joseph Hall makes the satiric point clearly:

They naked went: or clad in ruder hide,
Or home-spun Russet, voyd of forraine pride:
But thou canst maske in garish gauderie,
To suit a fooles far-fetched liuery.(11)

But it is just as clear in William Browne's later description:

Such as their sheep clad, such they wove and wore,
Russet or white, or those mix'd, and no more:
Except sometimes (to bravery inclin'd)
They dyed them yellow caps with alder rind.
The Grecian mantle, Tuscan robes of state,
Tissue, or cloth of gold of highest rate,
They never saw.(12)

Dyes frequently come in for attack, following Boethius' lament for the Golden Age, as in Drayton:

The purest fleece then covered purest skin,
          for pride as then with Lucifer remaynd:
Deformed fashions now were to begin,
          nor clothes were yet with poysned liquor staynd.(13)

Rich dress goes naturally with the other artificial innovations by which man, never able to let well enough alone, led himself away from natural virtue. Little distinction may be seen among clothing, cannons, and unnatural sexual practices, none of which the beasts have. They are all part of the artifice that brought an end to the Golden Age. Another version of the same ideal is found in one idea of the natives of the New World, such as the “Brasilian Women” who, according to Stubbes, “esteeme so litle of apparell … as they rather chose to go naked (their secret partes onely being couered) then they wold be thought to be proud, or desirouse of such vanities.”14 A more famous case is that of Montaigne's cannibals, whose great natural virtues are less important to Europeans than the fact that they “weare no kinde of breeches nor hosen.”15

The shepherd's dress is frequent enough in Elizabethan comedy, often as a disguise, and it is obvious that there is often more to such disguises than a sign of disorder. The clothes that Rosalind and Perdita wear for a time are not finally their own, but they have another sort of appropriateness for characters of natural directness who, at the end, will carry something of the pastoral freshness back into the everyday world and so revivify it. These clothes fit their inner natures, though not their proper social roles, just as Perdita's costume as Flora seems to waken something in her and in any case has its own appropriateness, however uncomfortable it may make her on the level of common sense. She and Rosalind, returning to social reality, will know just what value to place on their rightful clothes, because they seem to have innately the naturalness which, for instance, the men in Love's Labour's Lost must learn. Berowne and the others must give up, not only the unnatural oath by which they have attempted to sublimate life, but also rhetoric, the art which seeks to heighten the expression of its passions, and they replace these with something both natural and anonymous. “Taffeta phrases, silken terms precise,” and all such “spruce affectation,” are replaced by “russet yeas and honest kersey noes” (V. ii. 406-413), and come to seem a “particoated presence of loose love / Put on by us” (776-777), the dress of a fool.

Outside the world of comedy, however, the possibilities are not the same. In the Golden Age, says Hall, “The kings pauilion, was the grassy greene, / Vnder safe shelter of the shadie treene.”16 Henry VI, at one point, would like to exchange the “rich embroidered canopy” of his royal state for the shade which the hawthorne bush gives to the shepherd (Part III, II. v. 42-45), but the unromantic world of the histories and tragedies does not offer this alternative. The Golden Age is gone, and this is the Iron Age, when, as Golding translated Ovid,

                                                                                the wandering guest doth stand
In daunger of his host: the host in daunger of his guest:
And fathers of their sonne in laws: yea seldome time doth rest
Betweene borne brothers such accord and love as ought to bee,
The goodman seekes the goodwives death, and his againe seekes shee.
The stepdames fell their husbands sonnes with poyson do assayle.
To see their fathers live so long the children doe bewayle.(17)

Cordelia, whose place in the story is rather like Rosalind's or Perdita's is not associated with pastoral, and in King Lear there is no promise of the revivification on a social level such as is the vision of a return of the Golden Age through the pastoral virtues.

The evils of this world run deeper than mere affectation and cannot be changed as easily as the usurping Duke Frederick can assume a hermit's dress. When Lear divests himself of power, and then is divested of the additions of a king, he is left without protection and, rather than finding himself, he discovers the extent to which his identity has depended upon things which he bore but which were not himself. He is now, says the Fool, “nothing” (I. iv. 213), just as Richard II finds that on resigning the crown “I must nothing be” (IV. i. 201), “I have no name” (255). “Who is it that can tell me who I am?” asks Lear (I. iv. 238). Poor Tom, not the shepherd, is the symbol of natural man, without clothes, without position or protection, outside the law. At the same time, his picture of himself before his downfall, which might be a description of Oswald, depicts the artificial alternative in the usual satiric way: “A servingman, proud in heart and mind; that curl'd my hair, wore gloves in my cap” (III. iv. 85-86), one “who hath had three suits to his back, six shirts to his body” (139-140).

In this tragic world, the appeal to nature against mere artificial custom is not pastoral but villainous. As Louis Bredvold long ago pointed out, an important strain in the libertine tradition developed from “a reversal of the theory of the Golden Age”18 which pictured it as a time of freedom from all restraint, including moral law. The state of nature is thus imagined in a way closer to the tradition of Lucretius and Hobbes, but the normative force of “nature” is retained, so that the Stoic injunction to follow nature becomes a certification of license and all moral law becomes not truth but “opinion.” R. C. Bald and John F. Danby have both related Edmund to this libertine line,19 showing that his first soliloquy is in the tradition:

                                                                      Wherefore should I
Stand in the plague of custom, and permit
The curiosity of nations to deprive me,
For that I am some twelve or fourteen moonshines
Lag of a brother?

(I. ii. 2-6)

Neither legal creations of order, like primogeniture, nor moral laws are binding, because all are artificial.

Such a line of thought is one that naturally appeals to a long line of Renaissance villains and tempters from Armida to Comus. In Prosopopoia, the fox and the ape argue their right to steal from the traditional communism of “the golden age of Saturne old” (51). Philosophical attacks on chastity are generally in the same class. Tasso's chorus on the Golden Age in the Aminta stressed sexual freedom:

          But therefore only happy Dayes,
Because that vaine and ydle name,
That couz'ning Idoll of unrest,
Whom the madd vulgar first did raize,
And call'd it Honour, whence it came
To tyrannize or'e ev'ry brest,
          Was not then suffred to molest
Poore lovers hearts with new debate.(20)

A series of temptresses, to whom Juliet's nurse is a first cousin, are in the tradition of La Vielle of Jean de Meung's continuation of the Romance of the Rose, whom Bredvold cites as an early example of libertinism in literature,21 and of the Nutrix of Seneca's Phaedra. In the Arcadia, for instance, Cecropia's temptation of her niece is of this kind:

it is manifest inough, that all things follow but the course of their own nature, saving only Man, who while by the pregnancie of his imagination he strives to things supernaturall, meane-while he looseth his owne naturall felicitie.22

So is the argument of the woman who tempts Daniel's Rosamund:

Then why should this respect of honor bound vs,
In th'imaginarie lists of Reputation?
Titles which cold seueritie hath found vs,
Breath of the vulgar, foe to recreation:
Melancholies opinion, Customes relation;
          Pleasures plague, beauties scourge, hell to the faire,
          To leaue the sweet for Castles in the aire.(23)

The emphasis here is upon what a courtly argument this is. Rosamund wishes she had never moved “From countrey safety, from the fields of rest” (541). Edmund's perversion of pastoral is a final step in courtly artificiality, the witty perversion of reason.

Edmund does not actually tempt anyone, even to the extent that Iago does. But in one way part of his function is the representation of a kind of temptation. His soliloquy lets his way of looking at nature and artifice loose into the play. It adds his to the attitudes which are recognized as possible, while identifying it as perverted by the actions for which it serves as a playful defense. This is not a matter of the truth of what he says; his view of the world of this play is accurate to a considerable extent. What is important is that it is related to what he does and is, and so defines for the play a dangerous and valueless view of life. At the time when he is undoubtedly mad, Lear comes to share this view. Raving desperately, he condones adultery by a perversion of the idea of the naturally sinless beasts:

Thou shalt not die: die for adultery? No:
The wren goes to't, and the small gilded fly
Does lecher in my sight.
Let copulation thrive; for Gloucester's bastard son
Was kinder to his father than my daughters
Got 'tween lawful sheets.

(IV. vi. 113-119)

The artifice of society is only a matter of power:

                                                                                Plate sin with gold,
And the strong lance of justice hurtless breaks;
Arm it in rags, a pigmy's straw does pierce it.


In his anguish, he adopts a cynicism worthy of Goneril: “No, they cannot touch me for coining; I am the king himself. … Nature's above art in that respect” (83-84, 86). Goneril talks this way later: “the laws are mine, not thine: / Who can arraign me for't” (V. iii. 158-159). Lear's nadir occurs when he accepts Edmund's view—which is a semi-philosophical equivalent for the attitudes of all the villainous characters—though his acceptance is a self-destructive gesture of despair, not a principle on which to act.

Lear's first reaction to the sort of truth that he is learning is not cynical in this way. In Poor Tom he confronts “natural” man to whom nothing is added, neither the pastoral shepherd nor the licentious beast of the cynical view, but the unprotected victim. Edgar has taken “the basest and most poorest shape / That ever penury, in contempt of man, / Brought near to beast” (II. iii. 7-9), or rather below the beasts. The image of man which he presents to Lear gets a famous expression in Pliny, who says that nature, who covers all the other animals for their protection, is more like a harsh stepmother to man: hominem tantum nudum et in nuda humo natali die abicit ad vagitus statim et ploratum.24 In Gelli's Circe, several of the animals whom Ulysses wants to turn back into men prefer to remain as they are because men receive so little from nature—neither warmth and protection without clothing nor food without agriculture.25 To the latter complaint Ulysses replies that in the Golden Age the earth produced food spontaneously for men as well, but the Mole replies that that is only an idle story.26

Such comparisons of man with the beasts are often primitivistic arguments for simplicity and the limitation of desires to the most fundamental, “natural” ones.27 Here is yet another “version of pastoral.” But the comparison points also to the need for at least some artifice. Man alone cannot exist just as he is born, but must create. What matters to the moralist is the degree of artificiality that is necessary and so may be regarded as natural, but Lear here rejects all additions. His belief in ceremony and artifice was founded on the idea that they provided manifest symbols of natural truths—of the love and respect of children for parents, of his own regality. Finding that children can be “unkind” and that he is nothing without his retainers, he seeks to become the reality he finds beneath the deceit:

Thou ow'st the worm no silk, the beast no hide, the sheep no wool, the cat no perfume. Ha! here's three on's are sophisticated; thou art the thing itself; unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor, bare, forked animal as thou art. Off, off, you lendings! Come; unbutton here.

(III. iv. 106-112)

He has thought just before of the need for charity towards “poor naked wretches” (28-36), a sharing of the products of artifice, but now, confronting such a wretch, he loses his faith even in this. The world is dark. If artifice is false, nature is anything but a pastoral idyll. “Wee call our bastards always our naturall issue,” said Donne in his Paradox, That Nature Is Our Worst Guide, “and we define a Foole by nothing so ordinary, as by the name of naturall.”28 Lear has lost his innocence, but at least, he thinks, he will have the truth, and live it.

The play does not leave us with this perception of Lear's, however, or with the cynicism of his later madness. Cordelia returns; Lear regains his sanity and fresh garments are put upon him. It is a mistake to ask whether this is optimistic or pessimistic. A play like King Lear postulates a frightening world in order to seek for possible values within it. “Suppose,” it says, “that the world is as bad as in our worst dreams we fear that it may be. What, if anything, can relieve the nightmare?” The answer, of course, lies in the compassion and love which many characters exhibit and which are summed up in Cordelia's “No cause, no cause” (IV. vii. 75). They are defined, in part, by Edgar, in his disguise as

A most poor man, made tame to Fortune's blows;
Who, by the art of known and feeling sorrows,
Am pregnant to good pity.

(IV. vi. 222-224)

They are practised by the old man who brings his “best 'parel” to clothe Poor Tom (IV. i. 49). And it is here that the opposition of art and nature breaks down.

In the moral sphere, that opposition comes close to a distinction between will and instinct. To be moral by instinct is to be perfectly innocent. The shepherds of the Golden Age sometimes sound like such innocents, as do the natives of the New World. Several of the animals in the Circe argue the superior morality of the beasts because they are virtuous naturally. The Dog claims that, as one prefers a naturally fertile field, so, in the matter of souls, “you ought to give the preference to such as, without study or labor, can produce of themselves good and perfect operations.”29 According to such a distinction, the good which operates in King Lear is what Edgar says it is, an “art of known and feeling sorrows.” It is man-made, not sent by the ambiguous gods. It is far different from ceremonial attempts to create something better than unaccommodated man. It is an art which draws on nature, like the art of the physician who is Cordelia's agent, which somehow taps the resources of natural order through music and the “bless'd secrets, / All you unpublish'd virtues of the earth,” which will spring with Cordelia's tears (IV. iv. 15-17). There is obviously a sense in which Goneril and Regan are unnatural daughters while she is natural. The natural Food shares with Cordelia the most important values of the play, as if there is a level of the soul at which virtue is instinctive. Yet these values are not on the whole a matter of instinct, but of choice. They are produced as additions to nature by the will, just as Cordelia practises arts of self-control, as when it “seem'd she was a queen / Over her passion; who, most rebel-like, / Sought to be king o'er her” (IV. iii. 14-16).

When Lear thinks about charity, he sees it in this way:

                                                                                Take physic, Pomp;
Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,
That thou mayst shake the superflux to them,
And show the Heavens more just.

(III. iv. 33-36)

That by a choice men may justify the heavens, that he may create justice, is an idea which raises the artificial to a special level. “Upon such sacrifices, my Cordelia,” says Lear, “The gods themselves throw incense” (V. iii. 20-21). Such moral artifice has a value that instinctive virtue does not, precisely the value of creativity. Discussing the men of the Silver Age, who still lived according to nature, Seneca denies that they were wise men:

Non enim dat natura virtutem; ars est bonum fieri. … Ignorantia rerum innocentes erant. Multum autem interest, utrum peccare aliquis nolit an nesciat.30

The final reply of Ulysses to the animals in the Circe is along the same lines.31 The reason that “a dog, a horse, a rat, have life” but Cordelia at the end has no breath at all (V. iii. 306-307) lies in choices she has made. The creation of value in the Iron Age is dangerous, but it is the art that redeems nature.


  1. Character and Society in Shakespeare (Oxford, 1951), pp. 1-37.

  2. This Great Stage: Image and Structure in King Lear (Baton Rouge, 1948), pp. 67-87.

  3. Quotations from Shakespeare, except those from King Lear, are from the Complete Works, ed. G. B. Harrison (New York, 1948). Quotations from Lear are from the new Arden edition, ed. Kenneth Muir (London, 1952).

  4. Caroline F. E. Spurgeon, Shakespeare's Imagery and What It Tells Us (Cambridge, 1935), pp. 324-327; Cleanth Brooks, “The Naked Babe and the Cloak of Manliness,” The Well Wrought Urn (New York, 1947), pp. 21-46.

  5. A Preface to Paradise Lost (Oxford, 1942), p. 16.

  6. Ibid., pp. 112-117.

  7. P. 86.

  8. The Arte of English Poesie, quoted from Elizabethan Critical Essays, ed. G. Gregory Smith (Oxford, 1904), II, 142-143.

  9. The Anatomy of Abuses, Part I, ed. Frederick J. Furnivall (London, The New Shakespeare Society, 1877-79), pp. 26-90.

  10. Essayes, John Florio's translation (New York, The Modern Library, 1933), p. 134.

  11. Virgidemiarum, Bk. III, Sat. I, 62-65, in Collected Poems, ed. A. Davenport (Liverpool, 1949).

  12. Britannia's Pastorals, Bk. II, Song 3, 307-313, in Poems, ed. Gordon Goodman (London, The Muses' Library, n. d.).

  13. Idea: The Shepheards Garland, eighth eclogue, 85-88, in Works, ed. J. William Hebel (Oxford, 1961).

  14. Anatomy of Abuses, Part I, p. 82.

  15. “Of the Caniballes,” Essayes, p. 171.

  16. Virgidemiarum, III, I, 28-29.

  17. Metamorphoses, I, 162-168, in Shakespeare's Ovid, ed. W. H. D. Rouse (London, 1961).

  18. “The Naturalism of Donne in Relation to Some Renaissance Traditions,” JEGP, XXII (1923), 485.

  19. R. C. Bald, “‘Thou, Nature, Art My Goddess’: Edmund and Renaissance Free-Thought,” Joseph Quincy Adams Memorial Studies, ed. James G. McManaway, Giles E. Dawson, Edwin E. Willoughby (Washington, 1948), pp. 337-349; John F. Danby, Shakespeare's Doctrine of Nature (London, 1949), pp. 31-43.

  20. Henry Reynolds' translation, from English Pastoral Poetry, ed. Frank Kermode (London, 1952), p. 81.

  21. 488-491.

  22. Complete Works of Sir Philip Sidney, ed. Albert Feuillerat (Cambridge, 1912), I, 406.

  23. The Complaint of Rosamond, 267-273, in Complete Works, ed. Alexander B. Grosart (London, 1885).

  24. Naturalis Historia, the Loeb Classical Library edition (Cambridge, Mass., 1942), II, 506.

  25. Giovanni Battista Gelli, Circe, trans. Robert Adams (Ithaca, 1963), pp. 14-16, 22-23.

  26. P. 22.

  27. On this whole subject see George Boas, The Happy Beast in French Thought of the Seventeenth Century (Baltimore, 1933).

  28. Paradoxes and Problems (Soho, The Nonesuch Press, 1923), p. 23.

  29. P. 126.

  30. Epistulae Morales, the Loeb Classical Library edition (London, 1930), II, 428.

  31. Pp. 175-176.

Stephen Booth (essay date 1983)

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SOURCE: Booth, Stephen. “On the Greatness of King Lear.” In William Shakespeare's King Lear, edited by Harold Bloom, pp. 57-70. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1987.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1983, Booth illustrates how the audience's original evaluations of the characters in King Lear are thrown into question by later events, a process that mirrors Lear's misjudgment of his daughters.]

To make a work of art—to give local habitation and nameability to an airy nothing or a portion of physical substance—is to make an identity. I have argued that King Lear both is and is not an identity—that our sense that it inhabits only its own mental space is countered by a sense that it and those of its elements that I have discussed are unstable, turn into or fuse into other things. The identities of the characters and our evaluations of them belong in the catalogue of elements that duplicate the simultaneously fixed and unfixed quality of the whole of King Lear. By way of transition from discussing an audience's experience of words in Lear and in support of the thesis that all the phenomena I talk about are of one general kind (that to relate an audience's conclusions about characters and events to the foregoing discussions of ends, limits, and terms is to do more than play on words), I will begin by talking about the likeness and difference of Goneril and Regan, a likeness and difference played out both in the large action of the play and in the following short exchange on the subject:

Shalt see thy other daughter will use thee kindly; for though she's as like this as a crab's like an apple, yet I can tell what I can tell.
What canst tell, boy?
She will taste as like this as a crab does to a crab. Thou canst tell why one's nose stands i' th' middle on's face?
Why, to keep one's eyes of either side 's nose, that what a man cannot smell out he may spy into.
I did her wrong.
Canst tell how an oyster makes his shell?
Nor I neither; but I can tell why a snail has a house.
Why, to put 's head in; not to give it away to his daughters, and leave his horns without a case.
I will forget my nature. So kind a father!


When the Fool says “Shalt see thy other daughter will use thee kindly,” the tone and context of the line make “tenderly” the primary meaning of kindly. Our knowledge of Regan's likeness to Goneril and of the Fool's opinion of both sisters makes that sense most inappropriate. As the speech continues, it moves toward explaining that to say Regan will act “kindly” is to say that she will act according to her own nature. But the speech does not move there directly: “for though” suggests that the sentence is about to confront our objections to the idea that Regan will behave tenderly, benevolently, or humanely; “for though she's as like this as a crab” confirms that suggestion, and “crab” probably suggests that both sisters are crabbed, are like pinching crustaceans; “for though she's as like this as a crab's like an apple” thus strikes us as a statement that the sisters are unlike (crustaceans are unlike apples), that the sisters are alike (crab apples are apples), and again that the sisters are unlike (crab apples are so called because they are sour and one thinks of apples as sweet). When the Fool completes his “although … but” construction with “she will taste as like this as a crab does to a crab,” we understand the whole sentence as an assertion of likeness, both because we know that Goneril and Regan are alike, and because the proposition x is like x is incontrovertible. On the other hand, both the construction (“thy other daughter will use thee kindly … though … yet …”) and the previously established versatility of the word crab make the completed statement seem to confirm the original assertion that Regan will be benevolent—an assertion we cannot believe the Fool would make. Our miniature mental decathlon is thereupon prolonged by a last incidental mental hurdle: the Fool gives up the topic of crab apples only to take up oysters and snails.

Something less complex but similar happens over our three-hour experience of the play. Shakespeare goes to some trouble to establish Goneril and Regan as a single evil force: Regan's first words are “I am made of that self mettle as my sister, / And prize me at her worth” (1.1.69-70); the first scene ends with a dialogue in which they agree to act together and which is constructed less as a conversation than as a monologue for two speakers. As the play progresses, they earn the joint title “unnatural hags,” but we come to recognize Goneril's superior intelligence and managerial skill and to see that Regan trails behind her, compensating for dullness with exaggerated brutality. By act 5, when their mutual antagonism has become the most virulent in the play, Goneril and Regan are surely no longer a single unit; but in their squabble over Edmund they again seem interchangeable to us (one has to think a moment to remember which sister is murdered and which is the suicide).

A pair of characters who are nearly indistinguishable and also at odds is no more unusual than a pun on crab is; consider Tweedledum, Tweedledee, Fafner and Fasolt. My point in bringing up the two equation problems is that they support the assertion that almost any pair of elements one looks at in this play will reveal the essential characteristic of art: like two rhymed words, two verse lines, two metric feet, or two syllables, they will be alike in at least one respect and different in at least one other. That characteristic exercises the mind; when a seemingly infinite number of its manifestations are superimposed on one another as they are in Lear, the mind senses that it has reached or perhaps passed the limits of its endurance. Moreover, likeness unifies like elements, isolates them from others, gives them an identity; difference divides. Like “crab” and “crab,” Goneril and Regan are a unit and are also detached elements free to relate with or oppose any others. All of which is to say that, as King Lear is a giant amplification of the principle of simultaneous likeness and difference, unity and division, its primary quality—the sense it gives both of defined identity and of limitless amorphousness—is only a variation on, and extension of, that principle.

As is always the case with Shakespeare, his techniques in Lear are unique only in their degree and density of manifestation. The practice of “rhyming” a pair of sharply contrasted characters by having them share some identifying characteristic is not unusual in literature and is common in Shakespeare; the juggernaut loquacity of Hotspur and Falstaff and Edmund's and Lear's prayers to nature are examples. The names Edmund and Edgar are disquieting variants on the same technique (I doubt that I am alone in the habit for forgetting which name goes with which brother and in feeling foolish even to have approached a confusion between such opposites). In a quite different way, Edgar's disguises make us uneasy about an identity of which we are certain; we are party to the disguises from the beginning, but as they proliferate and Edgar shifts from persona to persona we are simultaneously Edgar's confidants and as disoriented as Gloucester is when he observes (as audiences usually do not) that by 4.6 Edgar has ceased to talk like a Bedlam beggar: “Methinks thy voice is altered, and thou speak'st / In better phrase and matter than thou didst” (7-8).

A similar sense that we lack a hold on categories and that categories lack the power to hold reality results from the unexpectedly literal truth of “Edgar I nothing am” (2.3.21). Even though Edgar's asides to the audience remind us that this mad beggar is only Edgar in disguise, Poor Tom—perhaps the most thoroughly documented briefly assumed identity in literature—seems more Edgar's fellow character than his persona, and we usually think of him as such (witness the critics who talk about what Poor Tom does or says, but would never speak so of Caius, Cesario, Sir Topas the curate, Friar Lodowick, Old Stanley, or Mr. Premium).

As the identities of the characters in King Lear are both firm and perfectly fluid, so are the bases on which we evaluate them. The play asks us to value faithful service, but we are likely to be discomfited when—in 4.5 and at his death in 4.6—the contemptible Oswald turns out to be as selflessly faithful to Goneril as the Fool and Kent are to Lear, and when the peasant who lunges out of the background to act our will by trying to save Gloucester's eyes prefaces his fatal attack on Cornwall by announcing that he has served Cornwall ever since he was a child (3.7.73).

Values that an audience carries with it everywhere but that are not central to Lear are also baffled. Stop for a minute and ask yourself in simpleminded terms whether the battle in act 5 is won by the good side or the bad side. This is a battle between the French and the English. The French, whose “secret feet” have been ominously abroad in the land since 3.1, lose to our side, the English. This is a battle between the armies of Goneril and Regan, on the one hand, and Lear and Cordelia, on the other; our side loses. The whole problem is further complicated by Albany—of whom it is said that “what most he should dislike seems pleasant to him; / What like, offensive” (4.2.10-11), and who of all the characters in Lear is most like its audience, and who wrestles with and mires himself in the muddle of political and moral values (5.1.21-27): Albany simultaneously fights against and on behalf of Lear and Cordelia.

In the first few minutes of King Lear a Renaissance audience received signals from which it would have identified the kind of play to follow, predicted its course and the value system it would observe (indeed, Edgar and some critics hope that the play that does follow really is of the kind signaled). First, the audience meets a spiritually brutal old man who jokes boastfully about his past whoring. The Gloucester plot is poised to go the exemplary way of its source, Sidney's Arcadia (five hundred pages of lustful strawmen who are crippled by infatuation and brought to grief because they are governed by passion and forget the obligations and aspirations toward which reason beckons them in vain). Any member of a Renaissance audience would have been ready to see Gloucester's subsequent career as a demonstration that “the dark and vicious place” where Gloucester begot his bastard “cost him his eyes,” but Shakespeare gave his audience no chance to do so. Our sense of Gloucester's condition changes repeatedly: first we see him as a casually cruel old rake, then in 1.2 as a doddering fool, and finally as a pure victim. When Edgar accounts for Gloucester's fate by moralizing the dark and vicious begetting of Edmund, the comment is as insufficient and trivial a summary of what we have seen as it is inappropriate and flat in the dramatic situation in 5.3 at the moment Edgar speaks it.

Shakespeare so far expands the range in which the characters and their actions ask to be considered that no system for comprehending them can hold them. But he does not let us altogether abandon any of the frames of reference that the play overlays. In Edgar's desperate efforts to classify and file human experiences, Shakespeare tantalizes us with the comfort to be had from ideologically Procrustean beds to which he refuses to tailor his matter.

The strongest signal Shakespeare gave his audience of coming events and the evaluations appropriate to them is Lear's plan to give up rule and divide his kingdom: this play will be another Gorboduc. Lear's action will be the clear cause of clear results in which we will recognize another illustrated exposition of the domino theory of Elizabethan politics. The theory, now best known from Ulysses' lecture on degree (Troilus and Cressida, 1.3.125-34), got its most exhaustive theatrical exposition from Thomas Sackville and Thomas Norton, whose urgently homiletic Gorboduc appeared almost half a century before Shakespeare wrote King Lear.

The undeniable likeness between Lear and Gorboduc—in both of which the action is precipitated by a legendary English king who divides his kingdom and parcels it out to his children—has been scrupulously demonstrated by Barbara Heliodora Carneiro de Mendonca (“The Influence of Gorboduc on King Lear,Shakespeare Survey 13 [1960]: 41-48); she argues that Shakespeare had Gorboduc in mind when he wrote King Lear. Whether that is true or not, the beginning of King Lear would surely have reminded its audience of the kind of exemplum Gorboduc is. An audience's experience of an exemplum is relaxing. Each act of Gorboduc begins with a dumb show, an allegorical abstract of the ideas to be embodied in the ensuing action, and closes with a flatfooted and redundant choral interpretation of both the dumb show and the events of the story. The redundancy exists because every action clearly relates to the one frame of philosophical reference it was chosen to serve and because the authors provide characters to moralize the action as it unfolds. All three of the following sample quotations (from vol. 1 of Drama of the English Renaissance, ed. Russell A. Fraser and Norman Rabkin [New York, 1976]) appear within one short stretch of Gorboduc:

And oft it hath been seen where nature's course
Hath been perverted in disordered wise,
When fathers cease to know that they should rule,
The children cease to know they should obey.
And often overkindly tenderness
Is mother of unkindly stubbornness.


Only I mean to show, by certain rules
Which kind hath graft within the mind of man,
That nature hath her order and her course,
Which being broken, both corrupt the state
Of minds and things, even in the best of all.


Within one land one single rule is best.
Divided reigns do make divided hearts.


For an audience brought up to expect reference to chaos when degree is shaken (conditioned, much as American movie audiences once were to obligatory discussion of universal suffrage whenever any fiction came within hailing distance of political philosophy), Lear's abdication and the partition of his kingdom would have called for commentaries similar to these from Gorboduc; but Shakespeare does not provide them—at least he does not provide them in a way calculated to give an audience the comfortable irresponsibility of a secure point of view.

The philosophical platitudes a Renaissance audience learned in school and was ready to apply to King Lear are voiced—but only as the maunderings of a superstitious dodderer:

These late eclipses in the sun and moon portent no good to us. Though the wisdom of nature can reason it thus and thus, yet nature finds itself scourged by the sequent effects. Love cools, friendship falls off, brothers divide. In cities, mutinies; in countries, discord; in palace, treason; and the bond cracked 'twixt son and father. This villain of mine comes under the prediction, there's son against father; the King falls from bias of nature, there's father against child. We have seen the best of our time. Machinations, hollowness, treachery, and all ruinous disorders follow us disquietly to our graves.


Here are all the raw materials of the predictable catalogue of predictable aberrations set off by a violation of the natural hierarchy, but an audience in any period is readier to scorn an old wives' tale of astrological influence than it is to scorn the attribution of a similar chain of aberrations to a precipitating human action with which some of the ensuing events are in a demonstrable cause-and-effect relationship. Here Gloucester recognizes and articulates the repeating patterns that we ourselves have observed (Lear and his daughters, Gloucester and his sons; Lear and Kent; Lear and Cordelia, Gloucester and Edgar) and will perceive later (the storm will be to the order of physical nature as Lear was when he disarranged the order of society); but Gloucester's organization of our thoughts disorders them—makes us more, rather than less, uneasy mentally—because the kind of comment we expect to hear and the kind of thinking we ourselves are doing are so distorted by the focus and context Gloucester gives them that they function only as evidence of Gloucester's gullibility. Moreover, even that is not quite straightforward, because Gloucester joins us in recognizing Lear's blindness about Cordelia but is himself blind to Edmund's wickedness and Edgar's virtue. The only mental satisfaction we have in the scene comes from joining the villainous Edmund in the superiority given him by his perspicacity about the mental weakness of his victim—whose fuddled state and patterns of thought are parodies of our own.

An audience's experience with more purely local ideological stances—those evoked in the course of this particular play—is no easier. For example, consider the complexities of thinking about (1) Lear's retinue of knights; (2) Goneril's assessment of it as “riotous,” “insolent,” and a “disordered rabble” (2.3.6, 1.4.192, 246); and (3) the disguised Kent as one of its members. We know that Kent is noble-spirited; in fact, at the point in King Lear when he reappears in disguise to serve where he stands condemned (1.4.1-7), Kent is the one major character whom an audience can effortlessly accept as altogether admirable. We also “know” that Lear's hundred knights are unjustly maligned by Goneril; we know so because Goneril is wicked by generic definition, because she admits to Oswald that she seeks to stimulate culpable behavior in Lear's followers (1.3.22-25), because the reasons she gives Albany for dismissing the hundred knights have nothing to do with the knights' personal behavior (1.4.313-18), and—most importantly—because the one representative knight we meet while Lear is Goneril's guest fully justifies Lear's angry rejoinder to Goneril's accusations: “Detested kite, thou liest. / My train are men of choice and rarest parts” (1.4.253-54). The knight is not only notably civil and decorous himself but particularly sensitive to incivility and indecorum in others:

My lord, I know not what the matter is; but to my judgment your Highness is not entertained with that ceremonious affection as you were wont. There's a great abatement of kindness appears as well in the general dependants as in the Duke himself also and your daughter.
Ha? Say'st thou so?
I beseech you pardon me, my lord, if I be mistaken; for my duty cannot be silent when I think your Highness wronged.


The second of the knight's speeches quoted above is, in fact, a gracious and particularly mannerly restatement of the principle Kent put forward to justify the honorable insolence for which he was banished (1.1.145-49, 155-57). Kent himself, however, is—in his disguise as Lear's recruited retainer, Caius—the only one of Lear's retinue who displays the wonted behavior Goneril attributed to the others before Kent joined them. We applaud Kent when he trips Oswald, but the action we see is an example of just the kind of bluff, cheerful brutality that one would expect from the entourage Goneril describes—the entourage we know is otherwise than her malice would have it be. Later—before Gloucester's house—the admirable, honorable Kent picks a fight with the despicable Oswald. Oswald speaks politely; Kent responds with a gratuitous lie (he is not of Gloucester's house), and then with clumsy, contrived, and increasingly shrill abuse:

Good dawning to thee, friend. Art of this house?
Where may we set our horses?
I' th' mire.
Prithee, if thou lov'st me, tell me.
I love thee not.
Why then, I care not for thee.
If I had thee in Lipsbury Pinfold, I would make thee care for me.
Why dost thou use me thus? I know thee not.
Fellow, I know thee.
What dost thou know me for?
A knave, a rascal, an eater of broken meats; a base, proud, shallow, beggarly, three-suited, hundred-pound, filthy worsted-stocking knave; a lily-livered, action-taking, whoreson, glassgazing, superserviceable, finical rogue.


We, of course, know Oswald too: no henchman of Goneril's gets any sympathy from us. Moments later, moreover, Oswald earns the contempt that any fictional character evokes from any audience that sees him refuse to “fight like a man.” However—and even though Kent later explains why he was then freshly irritated with Oswald (2.4.26-44)—Oswald's local innocence of any crime to justify an attack on him makes our delight in his humiliation less easy to revel in than we would like.

Similarly contradictory responses make it similarly difficult for an audience to maintain its altogether just prejudices during the rest of the scene. We fully accept the justice of Kent's opinions, but what we hear is crude, childish, wilfully perverse insolence to Regan, to Cornwall (who—so far—is guilty only of being Regan's husband and who, like Albany in 1.4, is principally concerned to find out what all the fuss is about), and to the grandly villainous but here unexceptionable Edmund (who speaks only one line in the scene—“How now? What's the matter? Part!” [2.2.40], and is thereupon grandiloquently challenged by Kent, who shares none of our privileged knowledge of Edmund's villainy—“With you, goodman boy, if you please! Come, I'll flesh ye; come on, young master” [2.2.41-42]).

The incidental mental discomfort we feel when we see the virtuous Kent in the wrong in minor matters, see the malicious, lying Oswald wronged, and see isolated evidence that could seem to confirm what we took to be—and still must take to be—a slander on Lear's hundred knights gets its particular power from the very fact that it is incidental. The discomfort I have described disturbs our mental equilibrium but—because it is generated in relation to relatively minor particulars (and as an understandable by-product of the process whereby we become familiar with the purposefully un-Kent-like persona in which Kent disguises himself)—never threatens really to throw our thinking off balance and become a “problem” for interpreters of the play.

As commentators have often observed, perception of moral scale is an essential element in an audience's experience of King Lear. The conflict between the most vital responses the play evokes—the conflict between our response to the smug, petty autocrat Lear is in scene 1 and our responses to him thereafter—has a real but relatively inefficient likeness to the incidental conflicts the play evokes during Kent's first few scenes as Caius the bullyboy. We yearn to see Lear get his comeuppance, but his just deserts are followed by additional punishments out of all proportion to his crime. We cannot comfortably tell ourselves that “he brought it on himself”—even though he did. The need to reason the discrepancy between our feelings about Lear during scene 1 and those evoked by the subsequent action arises, I think, only when we look back at the play during a discussion of it.

As we read King Lear and as it passes before us in the theatre, the circumstances of our thinking shift gradually in response to the sequence of events. Lear leaves the stage at line 266 of scene 1. When he reappears at the beginning of scene 4, he is still confidently absolute (“Let me not stay a jot for dinner”), but, though nothing has happened to change Lear's view of his situation, a lot has happened to change ours: we have heard Cordelia's dire (and generically bolstered) predictions (1.1.268-75, 280-81); we have heard the wicked sisters conspire in the last lines of 1.1; and scenes 2 and 3 have focused on children scheming to undo their parents. By the time we see Lear's first frustrated confrontation with Oswald, we are ready to see Lear's situation from Lear's point of view.

The change in our estimate of Lear does not threaten us with mental crisis and therefore differs greatly from our experiences with the disguised Kent. Our effortless decision to ally ourselves with Lear is, however, enhanced by nervous energy generated by incidental and ultimately weak challenges to our justifiably firm general estimates of Goneril, Regan, and—especially—Cordelia. Those estimates are jostled by perceptions that could lead to contrary estimates but are evoked in a moral scale lesser than the one in which we have earlier assessed the sisters' motives and actions. We are pressed toward, but not to, the point of rethinking and justifying our evaluations.

We are similarly pressed by our experience of the disguised Kent and by comparably disquieting experiences that arise from the fact that the wicked Edmund (for whom we felt sympathy in the first moments of the play during a conversation that ignored his rights and needs and, in a different dimension, ignored ours as well) takes us into his confidence and is superficially but intensely attractive when he does so; and from the fact that the virtuous, philosophical, and equally confidential Edgar is so often so foolish in his easy, inadequate moralizing, and from the fact that he so inadequately explains his tactics in denying his father the comfort of knowing that one of his sons cares for him. But our best-grounded judgments on Kent, Edmund, and Edgar easily overwhelm the incidental static that complicates our perception of them.

The same is true of the interaction between our first and definitive moral verdicts on the three sisters and minor irritants to our mental comfort while we listen to them in scene 1. The irritants are too small to put our judgments of Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia in doubt but are sufficient to make us peripherally uneasy about our capacity to get and keep a fixed grip on things.

Consider the incidental awkwardness of listening to the conversation that concludes scene 1. Through most of the scene we have been ready for some summary comment more diagnostically precise than Kent's hyperbolic “Lear is mad.” When the observations we ourselves have made of “the unruly waywardness that infirm and choleric years bring with them” (1.1.297-98) are finally given voice, our spokeswomen are the two characters from whom we most wish to be disassociated: Goneril and Regan.

Earlier Cordelia has been our agent in labeling the two fairy-tale wicked sisters for what they are. Western culture is genetically incapable of producing an audience not conditioned to identify itself with the youngest of three sisters and to recognize transparent vessels of wickedness in elder sisters pleasing to their parent. In any case, Cordelia's first line, an aside, must inevitably fix her in the bosom of her confidants, the audience: “What shall Cordelia speak? Love, and be silent” (1.1.62). I am certain that no audience has ever genuinely changed its mind about Cordelia or felt really tempted to do so. That would be considerably simpler than what I believe does happen. When Cordelia's turn comes to bid in Lear's auction, she voices our contempt for the oily speeches of Goneril and Regan and for the premises behind the whole charade. We are relieved to hear the bubbles pricked, but Cordelia's premises do not present a clear antithesis to the faults in Lear's. Her ideas are only a variation on Lear's; she too thinks of affection as a quantitative, portionable medium of exchange for goods and services (1.1.95-104). Moreover, she sounds priggish. When she parries Lear's “So young, and so untender? with “So young, my lord, and true,” we share her triumph and her righteousness. We exult with her, but we may well be put off by the cold competence of our Cinderella. We agree with Kent when he says that she thinks justly and has “most rightly said” (1.1.183), but we are probably much more comfortable with his passionate speeches on her behalf than we were with her own crisp ones. Cordelia does not sound like a victim.

She is silent during Kent's criticisms of Lear; she does not speak again until the suitors are informed of her fall from grace. Shakespeare might then have had her say, I yet beseech your Majesty that you make known it is no vicious blot, murder or foulness, no unchaste action or dishonored step, that hath deprived me of your grace and favor. Instead, he laces the speech with gibes at the elder sisters and smug expressions of self-righteousness. Cordelia is justified in all that she says, but not lovable:

                                                                      I yet beseech your Majesty,
If for I want that glib and oily art
To speak and purpose not since what I well intend
I'll do't before I speak, that you make known
It is no vicious blot, murder or foulness,
No unchaste action or dishonored step,
That hath deprived me of your grace and favor;
But even for want of that for which I am richer—
A still-soliciting eye, and such a tongue
That I am glad I have not, though not to have it
Hath lost me in your liking.

(1.1.223-33; italics mine)

Our discomfort reaches a high point just before Cordelia begins her two-hour absence from the stage. France tells Cordelia to bid her sisters farewell, whereupon Shakespeare gives her two speeches (1.1.268-75, 280-82), that make Lear's peril vivid for us (“The jewels of our father, with washed eyes / Cordelia leaves you”) and make Cordelia sound cold, priggish in the extreme, and a bit cheap in the crudeness of her ironies. We find ourselves in perfect agreement with Cordelia's every action and word—and probably also sensible of sharing Regan's irritation when she says, “Prescribe not us our duty” (1.1.276).

As commonly in Shakespeare's plays, the characters in Lear apply theatrical metaphors to the events of the fiction in which they are actors in both that word's pertinent senses (see, for example, 1.2.130-31: “and pat he comes, like the catastrophe of the old comedy. My cue is villainous melancholy”; and 5.2.89, Goneril's scornful “An interlude!”). In King Lear the metaphors are especially appropriate because the play as play—as an event in the lives of its audience—is analogous to the events it describes. Many commentators have observed that Lear presents the love auction in scene 1 as a theatrical pageant, a ceremonial enactment of events already concluded: in the first speeches of the play, Gloucester and Kent already know the details of the division, and, when Lear invites Cordelia to speak, he has already assigned all of the kingdom but the opulent third reserved for her. But, like Shakespeare's play, Lear's pageant does not unfold as expected.

Moreover, Shakespeare's audience is like Lear. Even before Shakespeare displays the embryo of a Gorboduc-Cinderella hybrid, we have already begun to act like Lear. The first words of the play focus our attention on Albany and Cornwall; as the play progresses, a series of beckoning hints of a coming clash between the two dukes (2.1.10-11, 25-27; 3.1.19-29) misleads us down a path to nowhere and does nothing to prepare us for the conflict between the two duchesses. More obviously symptomatic of our Lear-likeness are the character assessments we make during the conversation about Edmund's bastardizing (1.1.7-32). A moment later an audience will instantly assess Lear and join him in evaluating his three children on the basis of a few words; the audience will evaluate the children correctly; Lear will evaluate them incorrectly. The audience will evaluate the father correctly but inadequately. And the audience will be contemptuous of Lear's faith in conclusions reached on such meager, arbitrarily limited evidence. What we see Lear do during the test is what all audiences do always; what is more, before this audience first meets Lear, it has already made character assessments as faulty as Lear's. The division scene echoes the details of the opening conversation in which a casually autocratic parent (“He hath been out nine years, and away he shall again”—1.1.31-32) evaluates his children (“I have a son, sir, by order of law, some year elder than this who yet is no dearer in my account”—18-19). Gloucester's early speeches invite their audience to register him as a brutal oaf (an accurate but insufficient estimate) and Edmund as the humbly patient victim of his father's insensitivity (as erroneous an estimate as Lear's of Goneril and Regan).

Even our evaluations of the play are unfixed. Whenever we find fault with something Shakespeare does in King Lear, the alternative turns out to be in some way less acceptable. The plotting of King Lear invites adverse criticisms, but what Lear says to Kent on the heath might well be said to anyone who accepts even the more obvious of the invitations:

                                                                                          Thou'dst shun a bear;
But if thy flight lay toward the roaring sea,
Thou'dst meet the bear i' th' mouth.


Take, for example, the usually disturbing behavior of Edgar, who seems to be torturing his father by not revealing his identity: when Edgar at last does reveal his identity, the news kills Gloucester instantly. The crowning example, of course, is the end of the play—where we wish events otherwise than they are and where remedy would give more discomfort than the disease.

King Lear turns out to be faithless to the chronicle accounts of Lear, but its perfidy is sudden; the movement of the plot is toward a happy ending. I expect that every audience has felt the impulses that drove Nahum Tate to give Lear its promised end and led Samuel Johnson to applaud the deed. But Tate, who called Shakespeare's play “a Heap of Jewels, unstrung, and unpolished,” made wholesale changes; after he had strung and polished the treasure he had seized, he had a new heap of jewels altogether. I doubt that many audiences could feel comfortable with a production that made sensible revision of the ending but left the play otherwise as Shakespeare wrote it. Rather than “rise better pleased from the final triumph of persecuted virtue,” such an audience would probably value finality over triumph, and echo Kent:

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


To allow Lear and Cordelia to retire with victory and felicity would be to allow more to occur, would be to allow the range of our consideration and of our standards of evaluation to dilate infinitely. It would be a strong man whose natural ideas of justice and hopes for a happy resolution could outweigh his more basic need—his simple need of an ending—if, instead of Tate, he had seen Shakespeare.

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

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SOURCE: Dollimore, Jonathan. “King Lear and Essentialist Humanism.” In William Shakespeare's King Lear, edited by Harold Bloom, pp. 71-83. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1987.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1984, Dollimore argues against Christian and humanist interpretations of King Lear, noting that “the play concludes with two events [the deaths of Cordelia and Lear] which sabotage the prospect of both closure and recuperation.”]

When he is on the heath King Lear is moved to pity. As unaccommodated man he feels what wretches feel. For the humanist the tragic paradox arises here: debasement gives rise to dignity and at the moment when Lear might be expected to be most brutalised he becomes most human. Through kindness and shared vulnerability humankind redeems itself in a universe where the gods are at best callously just, at worst sadistically vindictive.

In recent years the humanist view of Jacobean tragedies like Lear has been dominant, having more or less displaced the explicitly Christian alternative. Perhaps the most important distinction between the two is this: the Christian view locates man centrally in a providential universe; the humanist view likewise centralises man but now he is in a condition of tragic dislocation: instead of integrating (ultimately) with a teleological design created and sustained by God, man grows to consciousness in a universe which thwarts his deepest needs. If he is to be redeemed at all he must redeem himself. The humanist also contests the Christian claim that the suffering of Lear and Cordelia is part of a providential and redemptive design. If that suffering is to be justified at all it is because of what it reveals about man's intrinsic nature—his courage and integrity. By heroically enduring a fate he is powerless to alter, by insisting, moreover, upon knowing it, man grows in stature even as he is being destroyed. Thus Clifford Leech, an opponent of the Christian view, tells us that tragic protagonists “have a quality of mind that somehow atones for the nature of the world in which they and we live. They have, in a greater or lesser degree, the power to endure and the power to apprehend” (Shakespeare's Tragedies). Wilbur Sanders in an influential study argues for an ultimately optimistic Shakespeare who had no truck with Christian doctrine or conventional Christian conceptions of the absolute but nevertheless affirmed that “the principle of health—grace—is not in heaven, but in nature, and especially in human nature, and it cannot finally be rooted out.” Ultimately this faith in nature and human nature involves and entails “a faith in a universal moral order which cannot finally be defeated” (The Dramatist and the Received Idea).

Here as so often with the humanist view there is a strong residue of the more explicit Christian metaphysic and language which it seeks to eschew; comparable with Sanders's use of “grace” is Leech's use of “atone.” Moreover both indicate the humanist preoccupation with the universal counterpart of essentialist subjectivity—either ultimately affirmed (Sanders) or recognised as an ultimate tragic absence (Leech). The humanist reading of Lear has been authoritatively summarised by G. K. Hunter (he calls it the “modern” view of the play):

[it] is seen as the greatest of tragedies because it not only strips and reduces and assaults human dignity, but because it also shows with the greatest force and detail the process of restoration by which humanity can recover from degradation … [Lear's] retreat into the isolated darkness of his own mind is also a descent into the seed-bed of a new life; for the individual mind is seen here as the place from which a man's most important qualities and relationships draw the whole of their potential.

(Dramatic Identities and Cultural Tradition: italics mine)

What follows is an exploration of the political dimension of Lear. It argues that the humanist view of that play is as inappropriate as the Christian alternative which it has generally displaced—inappropriate not least because it shares the essentialism of the latter. I do not mean to argue again the case against the Christian view since, even though it is still sometimes advanced, it has been effectively discredited by writers as diverse as Barbara Everett, William R. Elton and Cedric Watts. The principal reason why the humanist view seems equally misguided, and not dissimilar, is this: it mystifies suffering and invests man with a quasi-transcendent identity whereas the play does neither of these things. In fact, the play repudiates the essentialism which the humanist reading of it presupposes. However, I do not intend to replace the humanist reading with one which rehearses yet again all the critical clichés about the nihilistic and chaotic “vision” of Jacobean tragedy. In Lear, as in Troilus, man is decentred not through misanthropy but in order to make visible social process and its forms of ideological misrecognition.


“Pity” is a recurring word in Lear. Philip Brockbank, in a recent and sensitive humanist reading of the play, says: “Lear dies ‘with pity’ (4.7.53) and that access of pity, which in the play attends the dissolution of the senses and of the self, is a condition for the renewal of human life” (“Upon Such Sacrifices”). Lear, at least when he is on the heath, is indeed moved to pity, but what does it mean to say that such pity is “a condition for the renewal of human life?” Exactly whose life is renewed? In this connection there is one remark of Lear's which begs our attention; it is made when he first witnesses “You houseless poverty” (3.4.26): “Oh, I have ta'en / Too little care of this!”. Too little: Lear bitterly reproaches himself because hitherto he has been aware of yet ignored the suffering of his deprived subjects. (The distracted use of the abstract—“You houseless poverty”—subtly suggests that Lear's disregard has been of a general rather than a local poverty.) He has ignored it not through callous indifference but simply because he has not experienced it.

King Lear suggests here a simple yet profound truth. Far from endorsing the idea that man can redeem himself in and through an access of pity, we might be moved to recognise that, on the contrary, in a world where pity is the prerequisite for compassionate action, where a king has to share the suffering of his subjects in order to “care,” the majority will remain poor, naked and wretched. The point of course is that princes only see the hovels of wretches during progresses (walkabouts?), in flight or in fairy tale. Even in fiction the wheel of fortune rarely brings them that low. Here, as so often in Jacobean drama, the fictiveness of the genre or scene intrudes; by acknowledging its status as fiction it abdicates the authority of idealist mimesis and indicates the better the reality it signifies; resembling in this Brecht's alienation effect, it stresses artifice not in the service of formalism but of realism. So, far from transcending in the name of an essential humanity the gulf which separates the privileged from the deprived, the play insists on it. And what clinches this is the exchange between Poor Tom (Edgar) and Gloucester. The latter has just arrived at the hovel; given the circumstances, his concern over the company kept by the king is faintly ludicrous but very telling: “What, hath your Grace no better company?” (3.4.138; cf. Cordelia at 4.7.38-39). Tom tells Gloucester that he is cold. Gloucester, uncomprehending rather than callous, tells him he will keep warm if he goes back into the hovel (true of course, relatively speaking). That this comes from one of the “kindest” people in the play prevents us from dismissing the remark as individual unkindness: judging is less important than seeing how unkindness is built into social consciousness. That Gloucester is unknowingly talking to his son in this exchange simply underscores the arbitrariness, the woeful inadequacy of what passes for kindness; it is, relatively, a very precious thing, but as a basis for humankind's self-redemption it is a nonstarter. Insofar as Lear identifies with suffering it is at the point when he is powerless to do anything about it. This is not accidental: the society of Lear is structured in such a way that to wait for shared experience to generate justice is to leave it too late. Justice, we might say, is too important to be trusted to empathy.

Like Lear, Gloucester has to undergo intense suffering before he can identify with the deprived. When he does so he expresses more than compassion. He perceives, crucially, the limitation of a society that depends on empathy alone for its justice. Thus he equates his earlier self with the “lust-dieted man … that will not see / Because he does not feel” (4.1.69-71; italics mine). Moreover he is led to a conception of social justice (albeit dubiously administered by the “Heavens,” 1.68) whereby “distribution should undo excess, / And each man have enough” (4.1.72-73).

By contrast, Lear experiences pity mainly as an inseparable aspect of his own grief: “I am mightily abus'd. I should e'en die with pity / To see another thus” (4.7.53-54). His compassion emerges from grief only to be obliterated by grief. He is angered, horrified, confused and, above all dislocated. Understandably then he does not empathise with Tom so much as assimilate him to his own derangement. Indeed, Lear hardly communicates with anyone, especially on the heath; most of his utterances are demented mumbling interspersed with brief insight. Moreover, his preoccupation with vengeance ultimately displaces his transitory pity; reverting from the charitable reconciliation of 5.3 to vengeance once again, we see him, minutes before his death, boasting of having killed the “slave” that was hanging Cordelia.

But what of Cordelia herself? She more than anyone else has been seen to embody and symbolise pity. But is it a pity which significantly alters anything? To see her death as intrinsically redemptive is simply to mystify both her and death. Pity, like kindness, seems in Lear to be precious yet ineffectual. Far from being redemptive it is the authentic but residual expression of a scheme of values all but obliterated by a catastrophic upheaval in the power structure of this society. Moreover the failure of those values is in part due to the fact that they are (or were) an ideological ratification of the very power structure which eventually destroys them.

In Lear, as we shall see in the next section, there is a repudiation of stoicism similar to that found in Marston's Antonio's Revenge. Yet repeatedly the sceptical treatment, sometimes the outright rejection, of stoicism in these plays is overlooked; often in fact it is used to validate another kind of humanism. For convenience I call the kind outlined so far ethical humanism and this other one existential humanism. The two involve different emphases rather than different ideologies. That of the latter is on essential heroism and existential integrity, that of the former on essential humanity, the universal human condition. Thus, according to Barbara Everett (in another explicitly anti-Christian analysis):

In the storm scene Lear is at his most powerful and, despite moral considerations, at his noblest; the image of man hopelessly confronting a hostile universe and withstanding it only by his inherent powers of rage, endurance and perpetual questioning, is perhaps the most purely “tragic” in Shakespeare.

(“The New King Lear”)

Significantly, existential humanism forms the basis even of J. W. Lever's The Tragedy of State, one of the most astute studies of Jacobean tragedy to date. On the one hand Lever is surely right in insisting that these plays “are not primarily treatments of characters with a so-called “fatal flaw,” whose downfall is brought about by the decree of just if inscrutable powers … the fundamental flaw is not in them but in the world they inhabit: in the political state, the social order it upholds, and likewise, by projection, in the cosmic state of shifting arbitrary phenomena called ‘Fortune.’” By the same criteria it is surely wrong to assert (on the same page) that: “What really matters is the quality of [the heroes'] response to intolerable situations. This is a drama of adversity and stance … The rational man who remains master of himself is by the same token the ultimate master of his fate.” In Lever's analysis Seneca is the ultimate influence on a drama (including King Lear) which celebrates man's capacity inwardly to transcend oppression.

If the Christian mystifies suffering by presenting it as intrinsic to God's redemptive and providential design for man, the humanist does likewise by representing suffering as the mysterious ground for man's self-redemption; both in effect mystify suffering by having as their common focus an essentialist conception of what it is to be human: in virtue of his spiritual essence (Christian), essential humanity (ethical humanist), or essential self (existential humanist), man is seen to achieve a paradoxical transcendence: in individual extinction is his apotheosis. Alternatively we might say that in a mystifying closure of the historical real, the categories of idealist culture are recuperated. This suggests why both ethical and existential humanism are in fact quasireligious: both reject the providential and “dogmatic” elements of Christianity while retaining its fundamental relation between suffering, affirmation, and regeneration. Moreover they, like Christianity, tend to fatalise social dislocation; its causes are displaced from the realm of the human; questions about them are raised but only rhetorically, thus confirming man's impotence to alleviate the human condition. This clears the stage for what really matters: man's responsive suffering and what it reveals in the process about his essential nature. Recognisable here is the fate of existentialism when merged with literary criticism as a surrogate or displaced theology; when, specifically, it was co-opted to the task most symptomatic of that displacement, namely the obsession with defining tragedy. It will be recalled that for the existentialist existence precedes essence, or so said Sartre, who later tried to develop this philosophy in the context of Marxism. In literary criticism the social implications of existentialism, such as they were, were easily ignored, the emphasis being instead on a modernist angst and man's thwarted spiritual potential. This is another sense in which existential humanism is merely a mutation of Christianity and not at all a radical alternative; although it might reluctantly have to acknowledge that neither Absolute nor Essence exist, it still relates man to them on a principle of Augustinian privation: man understands his world only through the grid of their absence.


More important than Lear's pity is his “madness”—less divine furor than a process of collapse which reminds us just how precarious is the psychological equilibrium which we call sanity, and just how dependent upon an identity which is social rather than essential. What makes Lear the person he is—or rather was—is not kingly essence (divine right), but, among other things, his authority and his family. On the heath he represents the process whereby man has been stripped of his stoic and (Christian) humanist conceptions of self. Consider what Seneca has to say of affliction and philosophy:

Whether we are caught in the grasp of an inexorable law of fate, whether it is God who as lord of the universe has ordered all things, or whether the affairs of mankind are tossed and buffeted haphazardly by chance, it is philosophy that has the duty of protecting us.


Lear, in his affliction, attempts to philosophise with Tom whom he is convinced is a “Noble philosopher,” a “good Athenian” (2.4.168, 176). It adds up to nothing more than the incoherent ramblings of one half-crazed by just that suffering which philosophy, according to the stoic, guards against. It is an ironic subversion of neo-stoic essentialism, one which recalls Bacon's essay “Of Adversity,” where he quotes Seneca: “It is true greatness to have in one the frailty of a man, and the security of a god” only to add, dryly: “This would have done better in poesy, where transcendences are more allowed” (Essays). … Bacon believed that poesy implies idealist mimesis—that is, an illusionist evasion of those historical and empirical realities which, says Bacon, “buckle and bow the mind unto the nature of things” (Advancement). He seems to have remained unaware that Jacobean drama was just as subversive of poesy (in this sense) as he was, not only with regard to providentialism but now its corollary, essentialism. Plays like Lear precisely disallow “transcendences”: in this at least they confirm Edmund's contention that “men / Are as the time is” (5.3.31-32). Montaigne made a similar point with admirable terseness: “I am no philosopher: Evils oppresse me according as they waigh” (Essays). The Fool tells Lear that is he “an O without a figure” (1.4.192); both here and seconds later he anticipates his master's eventual radical decentredness, the consequence of having separated “The name, and all th' addition” of a king from his real “power” (1.1.129, 135): “Who is it that can tell me who I am?” cries Lear; “Lear's shadow” replies the Fool.

After he has seen Lear go mad, Gloucester offers this inversion of stoicism:

                                                  Better I were distract
So should my thoughts be sever'd from my griefs,
And woes by wrong imagination lose
The knowledge of themselves.


For Lear dispossession and displacement entail not redemptive suffering but a kind of suffering recognition—implicated perhaps with confession, depending on how culpable we take this king to have been with regard to “the great image of authority” which he now briefly demystifies: “a dog's obey'd in office” (4.6.157; italics mine). Lear does acknowledge blame, though deludedly believing the power which made him blameworthy is still his: “Take that of me, my friend, who have the power / To seal th' accuser's lips” (4.6.169-70). His admission that authority is a function of “office” and “power,” not intrinsic worth, has its corollary: power itself is in control of “justice” (l. 166) rather than vice versa:

                                                            The usurer hangs the cozener.
Through tatter'd clothes small vices do appear;
Robes and furr'd gowns hide all. Plate sin with gold
And the strong lance of justice hurtless breaks;
Arm it in rags, a pigmy's straw doth pierce it.


Scenes like this one remind us that King Lear is, above all, a play about power, property and inheritance. Referring to Goneril, the distraught Lear cries: “Ingratitude thou marblehearted fiend, / More hideous when thou show'st thee in a child / Than the sea-monster” (1.4.259-61). Here, as throughout the play, we see the cherished norms of human kindness shown to have no “natural” sanction at all. A catastrophic redistribution of power and property—and, eventually, a civil war—disclose the awful truth that these two things are somehow prior to the laws of human kindness rather than vice versa (likewise, as we have just seen, with power in relation to justice). Human values are not antecedent to these material realities but are, on the contrary, informed by them.

Even allowing for his conservative tendency to perceive all change as a change for the worse, Gloucester's account of widespread social discord must surely be taken as at least based on fact: “These late eclipses in the sun and moon portend no good to us. … Love cools, friendship falls off, brothers divide, in cities, mutinies; in countries, discord; in palaces, treason … there's son against father; the King falls from bias of nature: there's father against child” (1.2.100-111). “'Tis strange,” concludes the troubled Gloucester and exits, leaving Edmund to make things somewhat less so. Significantly, Edmund does not deny the extent of the discord, only Gloucester's mystified sense of its cause. In an earlier soliloquy Edmund has already repudiated “the plague of custom … The curiosity of nations” which label him bastard (1.2.3-4). Like Montaigne he insists that universal law is merely municipal law. Here he goes further, repudiating the ideological process whereby the latter is misrecognised as the former; he rejects, that is, a way of thinking which represents the contingent as the necessary and thereby further represents human identity and the social order as metaphysically determined (and therefore unalterable): “When we are sick in fortune, often the surfeits of our own behaviour, we make guilty of our disasters the sun, the moon, and stars; as if we were villains on necessity, fools by heavenly compulsion … by a divine thrusting on” (1.2.122-31). Closely related to this refusal of the classical ideological effect is the way Edmund also denaturalises the theatrical effect: “Pat! He comes like the catastrophe of the old comedy. My cue is villainous melancholy” (1.2.128). Yet this revolutionary scepticism is discredited by the purpose to which it is put. How are we to take this? Are we to assume that Edmund is simply evil and therefore so is his philosophy? I want to argue that we need not. To begin with we have to bear in mind a crucial fact: Edmund's scepticism is made to serve an existing system of values; although he falls prey to, he does not introduce his society to its obsession with power, property and inheritance; it is already the material and ideological basis of that society. As such it informs the consciousness of Lear and Gloucester as much as Cornwall and Regan; consider Lear first, then Gloucester.

Lear's behaviour in the opening scene presupposes first, his absolute power, second, the knowledge that his being king constitutes that power, third, his refusal to tolerate what he perceives as a contradiction of that power. Therefore what Lear demands of Cordelia—authentic familial kindness—is precluded by the very terms of the demand; that is, by the extent to which the occasion as well as his relationship to her is saturated with the ideological imperatives of power. For her part Cordelia's real transgression is not unkindness as such, but speaking in a way which threatens to show too clearly how the laws of human kindness operate in the service of property, contractual, and power relations:

                                                                                I love your Majesty
According to my bond …


Return those duties back as are right fit,


Why have my sisters husbands, if they say
They love you [i.e. Lear] all?


Presumably Cordelia does not intend it to be so, but this is the patriarchal order in danger of being shorn of its ideological legitimation—here, specifically, a legitimation taking ceremonial form. (Ironically yet predictably, the “untender” (l. 105) dimension of that order is displaced onto Cordelia). Likewise with the whole issue of dowries. Prior to Lear's disowning of Cordelia, the realities of property marriage are more or less transmuted by the language of love and generosity, the ceremony of good government. But in the act of renouncing her, Lear brutally foregrounds the imperatives of power and property relations: “Here I disclaim all my paternal care, / Propinquity and property of blood” (1.1.112-13; cf. ll. 196-97). Kenneth Muir glosses “property” as “closest blood relation.” Given the context of this scene it must also mean “ownership”—father owning daughter—with brutal connotations of the master/slave relationship as in the following passage from King John: “I am too high-born to be propertied / To be a … serving man” (5.2.79-81). Even kinship then—indeed especially kinship—is informed by the ideology of property relations, the contentious issue of primogeniture being, in this play, only its most obvious manifestation. Later we witness Lear's correlation between the quantity of retainers Goneril will allow him and the quality of her love: Regan offers twenty-five retainers, upon which Lear tells Goneril: “I'll go with thee. / Thy fifty yet doth double five-and twenty, / And thou art twice her love” (2.4.257-59).

Gloucester's unconscious acceptance of this underlying ideology is conveyed at several points but nowhere more effectively than in act 2 scene 1; even as he is coming to terms with Edgar's supposed treachery he is installing Edmund in his place, offering in exchange for Edmund's “natural” behaviour—property:

                                                                      of my land
Loyal and natural boy, I'll work the means
To make thee capable.


Thus the one thing which the kind Gloucester and the vicious Cornwall have in common is that each offers to reward Edmund's “loyalty” in exactly the same way (cf. 3.5.16-18). All this would be ludicrous if it were not so painful: as their world disintegrates Lear and Gloucester cling even more tenaciously to the only values they know, which are precisely the values which precipitated the disintegration. Hence even as society is being torn apart by conflict, the ideological structure which has generated that conflict is being reinforced by it.

When Edmund in the forged letter represents Edgar complaining of “the oppression of aged tyranny” which commands “not as it hath power, but as it is suffered” (1.2.47-48), he exploits the same personal anxiety in Gloucester which Cordelia unintentionally triggers in Lear. Both fathers represent a challenge to their patriarchal authority by offspring as unnatural behaviour, an abdication of familial duty. The trouble is they do this in a society where “nature” as ideological concept is fast losing its power to police disruptive elements—for example: “That nature which contemns its origin / Cannot be border'd certain in itself” (4.2.32-33). No longer are origin, identity and action a “natural” ideological unity, and the disintegration of that unity reveals something of fundamental importance: when, as here (also, e.g., at 1.2.1-22) nature is represented as socially disruptive, yet elsewhere as the source of social stability (e.g., at 2.4.176-80), we see an ideological construct beginning to incorporate and thereby render visible the very conflicts and contraditions in the social order which it hitherto effaced. In this respect the play activates a contradiction intrinsic to any “naturalised” version of the Christian metaphysic; to abandon or blur the distinction between matter and spirit while retaining the basic premises of that metaphysic is to eventually construe evil as at once utterly alien to the human condition (unnatural) yet disturbingly and mysteriously inherent within it (natural) and to be purged accordingly. If deep personal anxiety is thus symptomatic of more general social dislocation it is also what guarantees the general reaction formation to that dislocation: those in power react to crisis by entrenching themselves the deeper within the ideology and social organisation responsible for it.

At strategic points in the play we see how the minor characters have also internalised the dominant ideology. Two instances must suffice. The first occurs in act 2 scene 2 where Kent insults Oswald. He does so almost entirely in terms of the latter's lack of material wealth, his mean estate and consequent dependence upon service. Oswald is, says Kent, a “beggarly, three-suited, hundred-pound, filthy, worsted-stocking … superserviceable … one-trunk-inheriting slave” (2.2.15ff; as Muir points out, servants were apparently given three suits a year, while gentlemen wore silk as opposed to worsted stockings). The second example involves the way that for the Gentleman attending Cordelia even pity (or more accurately “Sorrow”) is conceived as a kind of passive female commodity (4.3.16-23).

We can now see the significance of Edmund's scepticism and its eventual relationship to this dominant ideology of property and power. Edmund's sceptical independence is itself constituted by a contradiction: his illegitimate exclusion from society gives him an insight into the ideological basis of that society even as it renders him vulnerable to and dependent upon it. In this respect Edmund resembles the malcontents already encountered in previous chapters: exclusion from society gives rise both to the malcontent's sense of its worthlessness and his awareness that identity itself is dependent upon it. Similarly, Edmund, in liberating himself from the myth of innate inferiority, does not thereby liberate himself from his society's obsession with power, property and inheritance; if anything that obsession becomes the more urgent: “Legitimate Edgar, I must have your land” (1.2.16; italics mine). He sees through one level of ideological legitimation only to remain the more thoroughly enmeshed with it at a deeper level.

Edmund embodies the process whereby, because of the contradictory conditions of its inception, a revolutionary (emergent) insight is folded back into a dominant ideology. Witnessing his fate we are reminded of how, historically, the misuse of revolutionary insight has tended to be in proportion to its truthfulness, and of how, as this very fact is obscured, the insight becomes entirely identified with (or as) its misappropriation. Machiavellianism, Gramsci has reminded us, is just one case in point (Selections from Prison Notebooks).


Lionel Trilling has remarked that “the captains and kings and lovers and clowns of Shakespeare are alive and complete before they die” (The Opposing Self). Few remarks could be less true of King Lear. The notion of man as tragic victim somehow alive and complete in death is precisely the kind of essentialist mystification which the play refuses. It offers instead a decentring of the tragic subject which in turn becomes the focus of a more general exploration of human consciousness in relation to social being—one which discloses human values to be not antecedent to, but rather informed by, material conditions. Lear actually refuses then that autonomy of value which humanist critics so often insist that it ultimately affirms. Nicholas Brooke, for example, in one of the best close analyses of the play that we have, concludes by declaring: “all moral structures, whether of natural order or Christian redemption, are invalidated by the naked fact of experience,” yet manages in the concluding sentence of the study to resurrect from this unaccommodated “naked experience” a redemptive autonomy of value, one almost mystically inviolable: “Large orders collapse; but values remain, and are independent of them” (Shakespeare: King Lear). But surely in Lear, as in most of human history, “values” are shown to be terrifyingly dependent upon whatever “large orders” actually exist; in civil war especially—which after all is what Lear is about—the two collapse together.

In the closing moments of Lear those who have survived the catastrophe actually attempt to recuperate their society in just those terms which the play has subjected to sceptical interrogation. There is invoked, first, a concept of innate nobility in contradistinction to innate evil and, second, its corollary: a metaphysically ordained justice. Thus Edgar's defeat of Edmund is interpreted as a defeat of an evil nature by a noble one. Also nobility is seen to be like truth—it will out: “Methought thy very gait did prophesy / A royal nobleness” (5.3.175-76). Goneril is “reduced” to her treachery (“read thine own evil,” l. 156), while Edmund not only acknowledges defeat but also repents, submitting to Edgar's nobility (ll. 165-66) and acknowledging his own contrary nature (ll. 242-43). Next, Edgar invokes a notion of divine justice which holds out the possibility of rendering their world intelligible once more; speaking to Edmund of Gloucester, he says:

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.


Thus is responsibility displaced; but perhaps Edgar is meant to wince as he says it since the problem of course is that he is making his society supernaturally intelligible at the cost of rendering the concept of divine justice so punitive and “poetic” as to be, humanly speaking, almost unintelligible. Nevertheless Albany persists with the same process of recuperation by glossing thus the deaths of Goneril and Regan: “This judgement of the heavens, that makes us tremble, / Touches us not with pity” (5.3.230-31). But when he cries “The Gods defend her!”—i.e., Cordelia—instead of the process being finally consolidated we witness, even before he has finished speaking, Lear reentering with Cordelia dead in his arms. Albany has one last desperate bid for recuperation, still within the old punitive/poetic terms:

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


Seconds later Lear dies. The timing of these two deaths must surely be seen as cruelly, precisely subversive: instead of complying with the demands of formal closure—the convention which would confirm the attempt at recuperation—the play concludes with two events which sabotage the prospect of both closure and recuperation.

Lois Potter (review date spring 2002)

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SOURCE: Potter, Lois. “The 2001 Globe Season: Celts and Greenery.” Shakespeare Quarterly 53, no. 1 (spring 2002): 95-105.

[In the following excerpt, Potter favorably reviews the 2001 staging of King Lear at the Globe Theatre, noting that the production “generally felt ‘right,’ both simple and to the point.”]

It was something of a letdown to find that in 2001 “Shakespeare's Globe” was to be only “Shakespeare's Globe,” gesturing toward other dramatists only in playreadings that were fewer and less well-advertised than in previous years (at least, this is my explanation for my failure to get to any of them). Two thousand and one was also the year when, for some reason, the company apparently agreed not to treat the Globe as a set in its own right but to use it as if it were any other theater, apart from the fact that it happened to have a couple of big pillars on its stage. Perhaps they were tired of reading reviews that described their productions as antiquarian. At any rate, all the directors seem to have been encouraged to do whatever they liked to conceal the fact that they were performing on a reconstructed Renaissance stage. Barry Kyle, whose program note observes that King Lear does not seem much like a “Globe play,” converted the baroque tiring-house front into a stockade located in some outpost of empire. Mike Alpers's Cymbeline kept the set simple, apart from hanging the back wall with percussion instruments. … Macbeth (directed by Tim Carroll) used a descending platform that variously became a table and a place for staging tableaux as well as the sleepwalking scene. Although the three plays had three different directors and designers (in the case of Cymbeline only a “Master of Costumes and Props”), they shared music by Clare van Kampen. Her achievement was remarkable, since the three scores—lushly classical for Lear, new-age percussion for Cymbeline, and jazz/swing for Macbeth—were as prominent as they were varied. …

For reasons never explained, the theater's basic repertory of Lear, Macbeth, and Cymbeline was called the “Celtic season.” Although there are Celts in all three plays—the duke of Albany, the entire cast of the Scottish play, and (at least by adoption) the Cambrians of Milford Haven—nothing in any of the three productions looked or sounded particularly Celtic: the six actors in Cymbeline wore uniform white shirts and trousers …, King Lear vaguely evoked prerevolutionary Russia …, and the Macbeths and their friends wore tuxedos. … Accents were miscellaneous regional ones, not the woodnotes wild of the Celtic fringe. Some aspects of the décor, particularly the “foliage” hanging along the galleries, may have been meant to suggest the green world of the Celts; but the little electric lightbulbs among the leaves were more reminiscent of the Jacobean masque, with its garish lighting. … “Jacobean” would in fact have been a better description of the season, since England's Scots king, the first to advocate the adoption of the name Great Britain, did much to create the uneasy awareness of cultural diversity that dominates the present-day semi-united kingdom.

The earliest Jacobean play, King Lear, owed much of its success to the fact that it was the most audible production I've yet heard at the Globe. Sheer audibility is an underrated component of good acting, almost as important as the ability to make oneself listened to. Barry Kyle's cast completely disproved the widespread view that attention at the Globe must always be dispersed. The rich, almost filmic musical background, which gave intimations of Lear's approaching madness and supplied all the sounds of the storm, also enabled one to hear the characters against this background instead of drowning out their words. John McEnery's Fool, who carried a tiny banjo-like instrument, made one aware of how much music there is in this play, a fact that made his departure even more regrettable than usual. Curiously but effectively, the lush music illustrated a primitivist set and action, paralleling the text's disjunction between poetry and cruelty. The few props used in the production were hung on the wall, Shaker-style. They were large and crudely made. One was a throne, the symbol of Lear's position: the knights carried it with them on Lear's perambulations until, with his departure from Goneril's house, it became an encumbrance. Another was like a larger version of the stocks: a sort of bench with two holes in it, enabling Edgar to lead his father. Lear and the Fool were roped together in the storm; later, the Fool's hanging body was revealed behind the central doors at the end of the mad trial scene—one of the rare cases in recent productions where Lear's “my poor fool is hanged” turned out to be literally true. Goneril led a blindfolded Edmund onto the stage, either in mockery of Gloucester's blindness or as a gesture toward blind Cupid. The ties that bind were also the nooses that kill.

The costumes variously suggested Brueghel and Eastern Europe of about 1900; in the midst of the yard was a pole with a wheel on the top, resembling the strange gallows structures that dominate Brueghel's “Triumph of Death”. … If, as most audience members thought, this engine also represented the wheel of fortune, it was appropriate that Edmund and Edgar, who refer to it at the end of the play, were the characters who climbed it: Edmund at the beginning of the play and during his soliloquy on nature and Edgar at the point when he decided to play Poor Tom. Its positioning in the yard might also have been a reminder of more esoteric associations, since the audience could likewise be seen as the ultimate arbiters of fortune. It was thus appropriate that Edmund asked them which of the sisters he should take, though on the night I went no one gave him an answer, as apparently happened at some performances. People seemed genuinely involved in the story and reluctant to hold it up.

The production seemed, for all its accomplishment, rather dry at the beginning. This might have been simply because my concentration was disturbed by worries over whether the two small children in the row ahead were going to be traumatized by the blinding of Gloucester. But it was also built into the trajectory of the characters. Both Julian Glover's Lear and Geoffrey Whitehead's Gloucester were low-key and matter-of-fact at the beginning. They showed little grief at the discovery of their children's apparent betrayal, dispensing orders and punishments without hesitation; we felt equally little for them. During the second half (when I stood among the groundlings in the yard, away from the small children) these two old men appeared to develop a capacity to feel pain, something that seemed in this context like an achievement. This was a production that generally felt “right,” both simple and to the point. The Quarto text (sometimes supplemented with readings from the Folio on the basis of rehearsal experience) often worked much better than one would have expected, precisely because the actors clearly saw a meaning even in their oddest lines. …

The three “Celtic” productions were completely self-contained, played as they were by three different companies (Red, White, and Rose) with no cross-casting. There were probably financial and scheduling reasons for this arrangement. I have often found it enjoyable to see actors performing in several roles and to observe thematic links between plays, but I realize that most people don't see the entire season, and that there is little point in setting up a schedule for the benefit of English professors. Though the eclectic mix of production styles frequently made me feel that I might as well have been at the Royal Court or the Barbican, all the productions did retain one unique aspect of the Globe, its special relationship with the audience. Thanks to the improved audibility, it was a more focused relationship; it was also more controlled than in earlier years, which may not be a bad thing for the time being. I hope the theater made lots of money from its all-Shakespeare season—because then the artistic directors may decide that they can again afford to put on the unpredictable and unprofitable plays by non-Shakespearean dramatists.

Terence Hawkes (essay date 1995)

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SOURCE: Hawkes, Terence. “Something from Nothing.” In King Lear, pp. 52-7. Plymouth, U.K.: Northcote House, 1995.

[In the following essay, Hawkes focuses on verbal and non-verbal communication in King Lear, contending that the play reveals a significant change in Lear's character through his movement from understanding only “explicit verbal statement” at the play's beginning to his ability to note unspoken emotions and ideas in the play's final scene.]

That which is born out of Lear's experience takes us back to the play's beginning. Cordelia's refusal of his world of quantity and calculation had been met by the exasperated proposal that, ‘Nothing will come of nothing: speak again.’ But human beings never simply ‘speak’. Any utterance is always complicated, particularly in a pre-literate society, by the body. Its unignorable presence supplies a living and modifying context for the voice in all face-to-face communication. Drama is the art which is made out of that.

Lear's insistence upon explicit verbal statement, through words alone, thus confirms the reductive mode of his world-view—one which is utterly unable to cope with dimensions of experience lying beyond the reach of the straightforwardly expressible. In such a world, silence, or the use of non-verbal or ‘kinesic’ modes of communication as adjuncts to, or modifiers of, meaning, seems merely uncommunicative. Cordelia's sense that ‘my love's / More ponderous than my tongue’ (I. i. 77-8), that she cannot, accordingly, ‘heave / My heart into my mouth’ (I. i. 91-2), and her resolve to ‘Love, and be silent’ (I. i. 62) meet only blank incomprehension, and later fury, by comparison with her sisters' facile wordiness.

The play virtually insists on the point. Cordelia's silence is Shakespeare's own addition to the story. Part of its purpose is to demonstrate the limitations Lear imposes on language by his commitment to words as the sole carriers of meaning. Words, after all, can be slippery. To use the terms proposed by the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, the nature of the linguistic sign, or the word, depends upon the relationship between the two aspects of ‘concept’ and ‘sound-image’, or ‘signified’ and ‘signifier’, which constitute it. The overall characteristic of this relationship is that it is arbitrary. There is no essential or necessary ‘fitness’ in the connection between the sound-image made by the word ‘tree’ (i.e. the signifier), the concept of a tree (i.e. the signified), and the actual material tree which grows up out of the earth. Thus the linguistic sign ‘tree’ has no natural, or ‘tree-like’ qualities by which its efficacy can be judged, and there is no appeal open to a ‘reality’ beyond the structure of the English language in order to justify our use of it.

The result is that the ‘meaning’ of any word is not automatically stable, guaranteed by nature, or by the ‘way things are’, in what we like to call the ‘real world’. That only appears to be the case. The truth is that in the ‘real world’ words do not always transmit the same meaning for everybody and that any agreed meaning—certainly for important words—is always a matter of social, moral, or political negotiation. Final agreement may never be possible. Our newspapers tell us every day that this is currently the case with words such as ‘woman’, ‘democracy’, ‘freedom’, ‘family’, ‘terrorist’, ‘patriot’. We have seen the same process in operation in King Lear in respect of the negotiations around the very crucial word ‘love’. Lear's simplistic reduction of that word's manifold dimensions finally drags him into the tragically reduced equation by whose light his own punishment will be finally calculated: ‘Nothing will come of nothing.’ But only a mind which persists in linking ‘something’ with explicit verbal protestation—dependent on words alone—could see that as an adequate response to the different realities with which his daughters confront him.

The pun on ‘love’ with which King Lear begins thus has a crucial function in the play which continues—sometimes evidently, sometimes by implication—to operate throughout the whole of the text. This is true to such a degree that it is salutary to remind ourselves at this stage that punning has only relatively recently come to be regarded as a not particularly demanding or portentous form of wit. That, needless to say, is the prejudice of a modern, literate culture. In a pre-literate community, dependent on the sound of the human voice and the physical presence of the body, the pun enjoys considerable status, because it depends precisely upon face-to-face inflection or gesture to indicate the homonym, something which language in its written form cannot allow for. This pushes the potential ‘slippage’ between signified and signifier—always open to exploitation in any human situation—very firmly into the foreground.

Because it utilizes that slippage, because it foregrounds the signifying processes at large, and because this enables it to press ‘beyond’ the limits of the simple word which generates it, the pun seems almost to embody language's capacity to overleap itself, to subvert—and in so doing to enlarge—the ordinary business of ‘meaning’. In this sense, the pun exemplifies the signifying use language often makes of things that appear, to rational thinking, to be merely unfortunate, scandalous, or catastrophic. Puns, that is to say, like jokes, digressions, nods, winks, gestures, are a serious business, and any reader of the poems and sermons of the early modern period can confirm that the gravity of important matters was frequently reinforced by such means.

King Lear is no exception. And in fact it is hardly a surprise to discover that—like ‘love’—the crucial word ‘nothing’ has a capacity for serious punning which the play exploits. Its homonym is the term ‘noting’. Since ‘noting’ refers (via the sense of intense observation, or even that of musical sound) precisely to a range and mode of perception to which the non-verbal, non-discursive sign—beyond the reach of words—appeals, these homonyms seem almost to enact, even to affirm, the committed pre-literate orality on which they depend, and to which they are addressed. In King Lear's case, what is clearly at stake in the ‘nothing/noting’ nexus is the range of meaning that lies beyond the reach of explicit, rational words. The play looks, as it were, into that silence which Cordelia insists is a valid expression of her love. Were Lear able to ‘note’ that, it seems to say, he would indeed be capable of following Kent's injunction to him to ‘See better, Lear’, (I. i. 158).

Cordelia's verbal withdrawal in the division scene is, therefore, not the wholesale rejection of communication that Lear takes it to be. The body, after all, talks. In fact, it is of the essence of drama itself, as well as of oral communication at large, that we take up the responsibility to ‘note’ the body's ‘kinesic’ contribution as an adjunct to and a moderation of whatever words say. This aspect of language had already perhaps received one of its clearest definitions in an earlier play of Shakespeare's whose very title embodies the pun. In Much Ado About Nothing, the capacity to ‘note’ the silent dimensions of communication turns out to be crucial to the story. In fact, the inability of Hero's accusers to ‘note’ beyond the level of mere words is the basis of the false accusations that lead almost to tragedy. Only the Friar, who has ‘noted’ her correctly, observing, for instance, the kinesic import of her blushing, can save Hero from disgrace and death. As he says,

                                        I have only silent been so long,
And given way unto this course of fortune,
By noting of the lady. I have mark'd
A thousand blushing apparitions
To start into her face, a thousand innocent shames
In angel whiteness beat away those blushes,
And in her eye there hath appear'd a fire
To burn the errors that these princes hold
Against her maiden truth.

(Much Ado About Nothing, IV. i. 156-64)

The parallel with Lear's accusation of Cordelia is not exact. But when we move to the end of the play, and see him enter, finally, with Cordelia dead in his arms, he has very obviously outrun the limits of verbal communication, and similarities start to accrue. Cordelia's death, though ordered, was almost accidental and might have been avoided. Although he has ‘kill'd the slave that was a-hanging thee’ (V. iii. 274), Lear was unable to prevent the deed. He has cut down her body, and now piteously stalks the stage with it. As he throws back his head and howls (the text's ‘Howl, howl, howl!’ (V. iii. 257) is presumably a printer's sign hinting at the actor's extended, non-verbalized cries), he stresses the absence of linguistic forms appropriate to such a situation:

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

(V. iii. 257-9)

He looks beyond language now, for evidence of life: for breath, not words, to see if that will ‘mist or stain’ a glass, or stir a feather, and so communicate hope. In the event, Cordelia's inert body serves to stress her particular involvement with silence, her long-standing commitment to the sphere of the non-verbal, her intricate relationship with ‘nothing’ that has marked her—as, in the earlier play, it did Hero—from the beginning. Lear even seems to have begun to grasp that Cordelia's ‘nothing’—as always—might urgently communicate:

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.

(V. iii. 271-3)

Lear's final words follow within seconds and their direction seems clear. It is away from ‘nothing’ and towards ‘noting’. Following him, we can begin by noting that his announcement—made of Cordelia—that ‘my poor fool is hang'd’ (V. iii. 305) conclusively links the two thematically related functions noted above, and perhaps confirms that the parts of his daughter and the Fool may have been ‘doubled’ by the same actor. The rest of the speech deliberately draws attention to the body in his arms. Beginning with the unanswerable question

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

(V. iii. 305-7)

it moves towards a famously pounding line of verse that projects itself well beyond the level of rational meaning:

                                        Thou'lt come no more,
Never, never, never, never, never!

(V. iii. 307-8)

Like the howls that precede it, this teeters on the edge of rational, verbal statement, virtually entering the non-discursive sphere of music (T. S. Eliot called the line ‘sounding’, meaning ‘musical’). And then, as music does, the speech apparently inconsequentially draws us into itself and into the necessary final act of ‘noting’:

Pray you, undo this button: thank you, Sir.
Do you see this? Look on her, look, her lips,
Look there, look there!                    [Dies.]

(V. iii. 309-11)

The words are almost banal. Lear asks Edgar or Kent to undo a button on the actor's costume. Cordelia's head, perhaps because the button was restraining it, now lolls back, confirming her death and possibly also revealing the damage done to her larynx by the hanging noose. And then, as Lear directs our attention to her lips with increasing intensity, ‘Do you see this? Look on her, look, her lips, / Look there, look there!’ (V. iii. 310-11), perhaps her mouth falls open.

As we stare at it, in response to Lear's clamorous urging, her lips, in their deathly rigor, may even seem about to form words. But what emerges from them is—nothing. In this situation, it is a silence that weighs far more heavily than any speech could. In death, as in life, Cordelia manages to speak without words, and proves capable of venturing beyond them. She says everything by saying—literally at last—nothing. And Lear dies, certainly noting the wordless eloquence in which her ‘nothing’ consists and perhaps even understanding the finally unutterable ‘love’ of which it may be the ultimate expression.

He invites us to do the same: to ‘note’ the vast non-discursive regions that lie beyond mere words, and beyond an instrumental reason which claims to master them. Such ‘noting’, the play implies, as the world lies in ruins about the bodies of Lear and Cordelia, might even become the basis for creating something out of nothing.

John Bemrose (review date 9 September 2002)

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SOURCE: Bemrose, John. “Magical Monarch: Christopher Plummer is Superb in King Lear.Maclean's 115, no. 36 (9 September 2002): 43.

[In the following review of the 2002 Stratford Festival production of King Lear directed by Jonathan Miller, Bemrose contends that Christopher Plummer's portrayal of Lear was “the performance of his life.”]

When Christopher Plummer strode out as King Lear on the opening night of Stratford's much-anticipated new production of Shakespeare's tragedy, no one applauded as they so often do at the Festival when a celebrity appears. Never mind that at 72, Plummer remains one of Stratford's favourite alumni, an international film and theatre star whose career, after some decades in the doldrums, has recovered magnificently of late. Never mind that the crowd seemed poised to welcome him home to the stage where he'd first triumphed almost half a century ago as the valiant young king, Henry V. There was simply no Chris Plummer in sight. Right from the start, he'd disappeared so completely into his role that the audience was swept into marvelling silence by this weirdly intent, bearded figure who hunches over a map of his kingdom like a miser over his gold, prior to dividing his realm among his daughters. When, a few minutes later, he erupts in hair-raising fury at the apparent ingratitude of his youngest, Cordelia (Sarah McVie), it's clear we're in the presence of a great actor giving the performance of his life.

There is always something uncanny in the finest acting, something that transcends technique in a controlled blaze of intensity. The effect, for the audience, is electrifying because the character being portrayed seems not only real, but super-real. Plummer has this kind of stage presence as a natural gift, but in the current show it's magnified by his success in meeting Shakespeare's complexity with a performance as intelligent as it is intense. After that first outburst, he recedes a little, before breaking out in a later scene to level his chilling curse against his eldest daughter, Goneril (Domini Blythe). Then he recedes again, only to come on again, stronger than ever, like a surf attacking the shore. And so he goes on, rhythmically entering the depths of his madness in a way that never degenerates into monotonous roaring, but which comprises instead a terrible, gradual revelation. We are held spellbound by Plummer's Lear, because his agony has so many colours, such tonal variety. And because the man is so physically present. This is not a stiffly regal Lear, but one of almost leprechaunish vitality. He skips, he underlines his speeches with body English: this suffering old man is more alive than anyone else in his kingdom.

Too bad the same can't be said of the actors playing most of the ten or so major supporting roles. Because in many respects, this production is a major disappointment. Stratford veterans such as Blythe, Lucy Peacock, Benedict Campbell and James Blendick—all of whom have done outstanding work in other shows—simply go through the motions. Jonathan Miller, the English director who is famously easy on his actors in rehearsal, has not made them do the hard, detailed work of fully inhabiting their characters. Among the few exceptions amidst the barrage of frenetic but unconvincing speechifying are Barry MacGregor, who creates a bleakly petrified Fool with a voice that could cut coal, and Maurice Godin, who turns the murderous Edmund into a thrillingly precise (and often deeply humorous) study in the pitfalls of unbridled rapacity. Confiding in the audience like the villain of an old melodrama, he makes us uncomfortably complicit in his vicious ambitions.

And so Plummer is left largely alone to carry the greatness of Shakespeare's play. It's like watching your favourite player rack up a hat trick in the final game of the Stanley Cup—while his teammates let twice as many goals slip into their own net. How heart-rending to think what might have been had the others done their part. Yet this production will still shine in memory, thanks to Plummer and the few actors who actually showed up. Just before his final appearance and death, we hear Lear cry out offstage, over the body of his beloved Cordelia. Plummer makes the moment devastating—he pierces as few performers ever have to the stark yet mysteriously radiant vision at the core of this tragedy. The audience may not have applauded Christopher Plummer at his first entry. But when he emerged for his curtain call, the place went mad.

Joseph Wittreich (essay date 1984)

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SOURCE: Wittreich, Joseph. “The Reversal of All Histories.” In “Image of That Horror”: History, Prophecy, and Apocalypse in King Lear, pp. 14-46. San Marino, Calif.: Huntington Library, 1984.

[In the following essay, Wittreich suggests that King Lear is a veiled commentary on the actions of King James I, especially his attempt to unite England, Scotland, and Wales. The critic also emphasizes the influence of the New Testament's Book of Revelation on the play, particularly the idea of the Apocalypse.]

The darkness at first has shape, but … falls at last into that Chaos in which the world will end … Here … unrolls … the history of a great King … who, through the darkness of the mind, reaches the Night of the Soul (but not that which is known by the Saints)—and, through the Night of the Soul, reaches the light.

—Edith Sitwell

Consider the title page for the 1608 quarto edition of King Lear:

M. William Shak-speare: / HIS / True Chronicle Historie of the life and / death of King LEAR and his three / Daughters. / With the vnfortunate life of Edgar … and his / sullen and assumed humor of / TOM of Bedlam: / As it was played before the Kings Maiestie at Whitehall vpon / S. Stephans night in Christmas Hollidayes. / By his Maiesties seruants …

(Var. Ed., p. 354)

The initial words of this title and the text of the play itself pull against one another, at once joining King Lear to the tradition of chronicle history and disjoining it from all previous renderings of the Lear story, most notably the anonymous dramatized version published in 1605 but perhaps staged as early as 1594, The True Chronicle History of King Leir. The quarto title provided for Shakespeare's play is a nearly exact redaction of this one, but the play is a topsy-turvy version seeming to paganize a Christian story in much the same way that Hamlet had earlier Christianized a pagan story. Through this strategy, as William Elton has observed, Shakespeare blots out “the patent and ubiquitous Christianity”1 of a source play that occasionally reads like a set of cue cards for Shakespeare's players: “Stand thou up, it is my parte to kneel, / And aske forgiveness for my former faults” (2299-2300). But nowhere in Shakespeare's play is there the sentimentalized and pious Christianity so characteristic of its precursor:

… unto him which doth protect the just,
In him will poore Cordella put her trust.


God forgive both him, and you, and me,
Even as I doe in perfit charity.
I will to Church, and pray unto my Saviour,
That ere I dye, I may obtayne his favour.


In this anonymous play, man's reach never exceeds his grasp, and everyone submits to God's will; all occurrences are explained in terms of His will. If as F. J. Levy remarks, “The Elizabethan mind … tended to be divided between a pious underpinning and a realistic shell,”2 that split expresses itself sharply, stingingly, when the old and the new Lear plays are set side by side.

Deviations from received historical accounts are common in Shakespeare's histories and can be explained as dramatic necessities in the plays where they occur. But the “liberties” of the history plays become “license” in King Lear where “the overwhelming horror of the final scenes becomes immeasurably more significant when we realize,” as F. S. Boas does, “that it did not spring naturally out of the dramatist's materials, but that it is the result of a revolutionary alteration of them.”3 So striking was Shakespeare's revision of history that Nahum Tate altered the ending of the play for performance; and later Dr. Johnson complained that he was “so shocked by Cordelia's death” he could not endure “to read again the last scenes of the play till … [he] undertook to revise them as an editor” (Var. Ed., p. 419).

The common Christian notion that history is tragedy modulating into comedy appears to be turned on end in the cosmos of King Lear, hence the eighteenth-century's revision of the play in accordance with Dryden's suggestion that it is no trivial task to make tragedy end happily. Observing such a dictum, Tate had little more to do than bring Shakespeare's play back into line with its sources. Only Shakespeare can lay claim, as Tate would do, to presenting a “New modelling of this story” (Var. Ed., p. 467). More strikingly perhaps than in any other of his plays, we see in King Lear what Shakespeare would make of a diminished thing. However much that story may have appalled Johnson, it was applauded by Addison: “King Lear is an admirable tragedy … as Shakespeare wrote it; but as it is reformed according to the chimerical notion of poetical justice … it has lost half its beauty” (Var. Ed., p. 477), not to mention much of its meaning. As with the history plays so with King Lear: Shakespeare should be credited with “a moral and a political philosophy which motivated first the choice of story and second the plotting of that story.”4 Moreover, the plotting of that story, as we shall see, not only translates solemn comedy into grim tragedy but allows to slip into the consciousness of its audience what it never admits to the cosmos of the play—the comedic perspective of the Christian Apocalypse.

This chapter takes direction—indeed different directions—hinted at by the concerns of the quarto title page. The play's occasion, its performance at Whitehall before King James, opens upon a historical context, implies a secular typology as well as a courtly aesthetic. Not only must James's pet concerns and political attitudes come into play in interpretation, but such contextualization presses James's own conception of history, of apocalyptic history, upon a play-world that seemingly defies it by marking off the modulations of difference between two kings and hence two worlds. The discrepancies between their worlds, in turn, find an analogue in the similar discrepancies that exist between Shakespeare's rendering of the Lear story and its rendering by Shakespeare's sources. Still, however at odds these versions may be, they are always situated within an apocalyptic scheme of thought, and the Apocalypse itself becomes a sanction for Shakespeare's own historical revisionism. The title page, in this instance, affords alternative roads of access to King Lear; yet all such roads lead to a point of convergence: an encounter with apocalypse.


Whether or not the title page refers to the play's first performance, it makes clear that King Learwas played before the Kings Maiestie at Whitehall upon S. Stephans night” during the “Christmas Hollidayes” of 1606. The time—Christmas of 1606—and the reference to St. Stephen are equally significant. The day before the performance of King Lear—on Christmas day—Lancelot Andrewes delivered “A Sermon Preached before the Kings Maiestie, at White-hall.” His text was Isaiah 9.6; his subject, the nature of kingship; and his message, both that prophecies issue forth in times overcast by division and warfare and that in such times kings must bear their burden with patience and long-suffering even as they move, as Christ did, toward the goal of a universal concord.

As David Wilson has argued, “No ideal attracted … [James I] more strongly than that of unity, in the sense of universal agreement and concord”; indeed, the history of his reign in Scotland before 1603, Wilson continues, “gives ample proof that the Union of the Crowns was his constant preoccupation—and that it came as the culmination of many years of thought and effort.”5 Well before 1603, James referred to himself as the New Arthur who would reunite the realm; and in 1619, having determined that “the perfection of all things … [is] Peace and Union,” he declared that the time will come when “the Monarchall bodies of many Kingdomes … [would] be mutuall Christendome” and England would be the “gouernment of gouernments.”6 James's goal, then, is to create a little world out of the splintered nations and divided kingdoms that had come to mark, and mar, British history. Shakespeare's intention, in turn, may well be to write a play responsive to court interests and reflective, if only obliquely, of the liturgical event with which the play seems to be correlated.

King Lear may have been performed before the occasion of St. Stephen's Day stipulated on its title page; and if so, it should still be remembered, as Alvin Kernan urges, that public playing was “merely rehearsal for courtly performance.”7 It is possible certainly, as Charles Creighton long ago proposed, that plays like Othello and Lear, both performed at Whitehall—the first on All Saints' Day, 1604, and the second on St. Stephen's Day, 1606—“were commissioned for those occasions, for there is a certain propriety in their subjects to the respective festivals,” especially in the case of King Lear where “Cordelia, the plain truth, is the first martyr, and shall be the last.”8 There is also the plain fact that such correlations between plays and feast days are a way of emphasizing that the historical events, both those depicted and those being referred to, constitute a kind of turning point in history, the emergence of a new historical consciousness.

Within this context, the title page reference to the protomartyr Stephen gathers much of its point, Stephen finding in Shakespeare's play a prefiguration in the legendary characters of Cordelia and Lear and, in English history as related by John Foxe, a post-figuration in such a person as the twelfth-century King Stephen. This Stephen, vexed by wars, managed for a while to achieve peace with David King of Scots, but only for a while, since that peace was later broken by an obstreperous son who sought vengeance through the massacre of children. As if the antitype of both this precursor king and Lear, James would, by intention at least, create a durable peace between England and Scotland that, instead of eventuating in, would evade another catastrophe wherein sons rebel against fathers and perpetuate a massacre of innocents.

Here we should remember, as E. W. Heaton urges, that it is not just what the prophet or poet says that counts but, more important, is “the circumstance in which he says it”: “Because the theology of prophecy is fundamentally a theology of history, it is inescapably ‘situational’.”9 While we must postpone a discussion of Shakespeare's paralleling of secular and sacred history and prophecy, we should nonetheless observe that the implicit typological pairing of two kings—the one divisive, the other a restorer of harmony—is indigenous to both traditions. The Book of Merlin provides a secular sanction; and the Book of Revelation, through Joachim of Fiore's influential discussion of a new world-emperor, lends scriptural authority to this strategy.10

The very notion of typology, of course, derives from biblical exegesis going back to St. Augustine; it was from its inception a device for structuring history through juxtapositions of persons and events and, especially during the Renaissance, became a way of expanding history to include legend and myth. The typological premise is that history is reiterative in design; that the past speaks to, and of, the present and future. Episodes from biblical and, later, from mythological history are thus assumed to have some bearing upon contemporary existence, which they are invoked to explain. The Renaissance is furthermore a crucial period in the history of typology, which now reaches outside of biblical into secular contexts, producing a new order of “abstracted typology” through which poets and dramatists alike could assert a relationship, or at least imply one, between the fictive world and the reality it mirrors.11

Two particular developments affecting typology during the sixteenth century are worth recalling. First, earlier typology may have been devised to authenticate biblical narratives, but it was now being used to validate mythological histories currently under challenge (the very history out of which the Lear story was extrapolated was by some being discredited). Second, as typology took hold in the secular world—and invaded the arts—it proceeded to structure history thematically, not causally, and, in the very act of juxtaposing past and present, legend and reality, intertwined them in order to argue that archetypal fictions possess their own reality and are recreated when the old story has a pointed message for the present moment. Typology becomes a rhetorical, no less than a structural, device. In the case of the Lear story, the message was political, as well as ethical; the very history in which it was embedded, in conjunction with typology, became a political weapon used to advance James to the throne and to sustain his court.

We should also acknowledge (as Gary Schmidgall insists) the emergence of a new courtly aesthetic in the early years of James's reign (1604-05)—and also the possibility that the earliest and most interesting manifestation of its influence, in Shakespearean drama, is to be found in King Lear. There was, as this critic demonstrates, a widespread feeling that Elizabeth's death would desolate the state and reduce it to utter confusion, thus making England the breeding ground for horrible tragedies. If one assumes that Lear is intended to mirror James's England, it will follow that the play is a representation of that horror. On the other hand, if one assumes a disjunctive relationship between Lear's England, and James's, another conclusion presents itself: that James's peaceful transition proves the lie in that prophecy of desolation and confusion and that, quite pointedly, the Fool's prophecy is a parody of that prophecy and not prophecy generally. If the courtly concerns are represented by James's fascination with genealogy and the age's penchant for regarding him as the harbinger of a new world; if courtly ideas are formulated in terms of a healthy polis, the imperial themes of dynasty, a return to the golden age, deliverance and reconciliation; indeed if as Schmidgall says, “courtly art is the art of fathers and children,”12 then an essential text through which to examine such an aesthetic, as well as Shakespeare's attitude toward it, is King Lear. Here all the components of that aesthetic appear in curious concatenation, with Shakespeare's play interacting uneasily with those courtly ideals. There is traffic between monarch and this play, but it runs on a two-way street, suggesting that Shakespeare, for a time, was chafing at the bit of totally affirmative attitudes toward authority; that he delivered the Lear story from the institutional structure of its Renaissance sources; and that the play itself exhibits not an accidental but an intentionally antithetical relationship with those sources. Or to put this another way: originally used to prop up a degenerative theory of history, the Lear story, during the Renaissance and especially in the old Leir play, is netted within a providential scheme. This displacement of one ideology by another acts as a precedent for Shakespeare's further displacement of a providential with an evolutionary conception of history.

Allusion within the play suggests that composition commenced in 1603 and continued until at least 1605. King Lear thus belongs to the initial years of James's reign and contains an element of Stuart propaganda suggested by the emendation of the usual “I smell the blood of an Englishman” to “I smell the blood of a British man” (III.iv.187), as well as by the references to “The British powers” (IV.v.21) and, only in the 1608 quarto, to “The British partie” (1.2443;cf. When it is remembered that in October of 1604 James had been “proclaim'd King of Great Britain … that the Name of England might be extinct,”13 and that Shakespeare emended his sources so that, instead of France defeating England, France is vanquished by Britain, the strong possibility emerges that Shakespeare means to acknowledge James's efforts to unite England and Scotland and so to contrast his Britain with Lear's “scatter'd kingdom” (III.i.31). The troubled and divided court, the afflicted kingdom, the disjointed and destabilized world, Shakespeare implies, will become healthy and whole again under the aegis of James. Like The Faerie Queene, King Lear participates in a studied contrast between the dismal oscillations of past history and the happier circumstances of the present. The Elphin history in Spenser's poem, like the reign of James referred to implicitly by Shakespeare's play, is an idealization against which we are to view earlier history as it is represented by Lear. One of the primary uses of history in Shakespeare's day was to glorify the ruling house and to arouse patriotism, and an essential concern of such writing was the expression of a philosophy of history and the envisioning of a national destiny.

It has been suggested of King Lear—and rather more convincingly demonstrated of Macbeth—that “as the dramatist sat at his desk and wrote, he was conscious of the face of the king looking straight at him, so that his words formed themselves to fit this expected audience.” Whatever its emergent meanings may be, King Lear, like Macbeth, possesses historically determinate meanings, which we are invited to pursue as we are told that “to know when and how the play was written there must be examination of what the people of England and the dramatist and his king and court were doing and thinking about at the time.” We are thereupon invited “to put the play back into harmony with the thought of the king which obtained in the year 1606.” Henry Paul, from whom I am quoting, is speaking specifically of Macbeth, although he includes King Lear within the field of his speculation, claiming what may not in fact be the case with Lear, that there is a perfect harmony between Shakespeare's thinking and the king's. There is, more precisely, ground for agreement between playwright and monarch, with the difference of opinion being registered beneath the surface of this drama. On the one hand, plays like Lear and Macbeth, as Paul would have it, suggest “how closely Shakespearean plays conform to the kind of theater that serves an aristocratic audience by talking about its main interests and supporting its values, mirroring the courtly world in action, taking part in its festivals and great ritual occasions, and providing graceful compliments to its patrons.”14 On the other hand, as Alvin Kernan insists, “the more interesting question is how the players, and chiefly William Shakespeare, saw themselves in relation to the court.”15

Questions such as this one have generated a “new occasionalist vogue”16 in Shakespeare studies; and admittedly that vogue has produced a brand of historicism which, in its lapses, has proved inattentive to history, both cultural and literary. Lear and Gloucester may be portrayed as “hopelessly inept” readers of their children's characters and thus as representatives of “the fatal consequences of an incorrect ‘reading’” of texts;17 yet so depicting them, Stephen Greenblatt forgets that each character develops in acuity as the play proceeds even as he remains steadfastly inattentive to the shades of difference between the play and its sources. In the legend, though not in the play, the upside-downing of the world is permanent and the world's disintegration apparently irreversible; and any attempt like Greenblatt's to correlate this play with a crisis in Renaissance culture must account for the fact that the Lear story is not Shakespeare's own devising, nor is this story as rendered by Shakespeare simply a reiteration of signals or a redaction of attitudes from its sources. On the other hand, an argument against this new historicism (which rests its case on the fact that other characters in the play do not chastize Lear for abdicating the throne and that James himself would not object to this particular surrendering of royal prerogative) is not compelling either. For the issue focused by the first scene of the play is not abdication of prerogatives but the division of a kingdom, an issue on which James has much to say. If, as Richard Levin argues, abdication “is not relevant to King Lear, for the simple reason that it does not figure in the play,”18 what are we to say of the act of dividing a kingdom, represented in the initial scene of the play, the consequences of which the present understands in a way that those in the play world could not? What past history countenanced present history abhors. The ills of division, quietly illustrated by the story of Brute, are dramatized by the story of Lear, especially in the fate that, according to the chronicle histories, befalls Cordelia subsequent to her father's death. Shakespeare knew this history and in an unexpected way capitalized upon it—pluralized and punctuated it—by the introduction of the Gloucester plot. Standing squarely behind Shakespeare's play, no less than behind James's advice to his son, is the proposition that those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it.

In 1603, James had urged that British chronicle history be used as a guide to current history, even if sometimes it provides a negative example and functions as a warning prophecy—one issuing in the reminder that, while disunion sows the seeds of woe, unity is all that is wanting to set men free. “I would have you to be well versed in authenticke histories, and in the Chronicles of all Nations; but especialie in our owne histories,” he tells his son; for “by reading of authentick histories & Chronicles, yee shall learne experience by Theoricke, applying the by-past things to the present estate.” This counsel follows upon these words of warning: “… by deuiding your kingdomes, ye shall leaue the seedes of diuision and discord among your posteritie: as befell to this Ile, by the diuision and assignment therof, to the three sonnes of Brutu.”19

Moreover, as John Draper has demonstrated, between 1604 and 1607, “in speech after speech, … [James] was citing the misfortunes that division brought to early Britain”20 as part of his own effort to establish union in the realm—to join three into one as earlier Brute's survivors, then Lear, had divided one into three. The archetypical division into threes, begun according to Holinshed by the division of the world among the three sons of Noah, would persist through history, as is suggested by the plotting of Mortimer, Glendower, and Hotspur in Act III of Henry IV, Part I, where the kingdom, it appears, would again become fragmented. Brute's death instigated the process of fragmentation that Lear and others continued; indeed, the genealogical line extending from Brute to Lear and ending with Gorboduc is marked by division. In the family, brother kills brother, and a mother her son, and in the realm a civil war erupts and a monarchy becomes a triumvirate and eventually a pentarchy. Within such a context, Lear's own story, magnifying the evils of disunion, could be taken as a prophecy of history's dissolution which would come in Shakespeare's day and, more, as a warning prophecy to those who would fly in the face of providence, surrendering their appointed status in life.

Indeed, Sir Francis Bacon recalls a prophecy he heard in his childhood while Elizabeth was still in her prime: “When hempe is sponne / England's done.” By that prophecy, Bacon explains, “it was generally conceived, that after the princes had reigned which had the principal letters of that word hempe (… Henry, Edward, Mary, Philip, and Elizabeth), England should come to utter confusion; which, thanks be to God, is verified only in the change of the name; for that the King's style is now no more of England but of Britain.”21 Recalling the same prophecy, Thomas Rymer gives it another twist, revealing its “hidden Truth”:

When HEMPE is come and also gone,
Scotland and England Shall be all one.
Praise be God alone, for HEMPE is come and gone,
And left is Old Albion, by Peace joined in one.(22)

The hero of this union, the inaugurator of a newly achieved peace, is James I, a point made by Thomas Heywood as he explicates yet another version of this prophecy:

When HEMPE is ripe and ready to pull,
Then Englishman beware thy skull.(23)

Like these prophecies and the Fool's, the Lear story current in Shakespeare's day prognosticates a disaster that James would avert, projects a pattern of history that the new king would reverse. The Lear story was also regularly linked to that of Brute and implicated in Merlin's prophecy of a second Brute who would return and reunite the kingdom.24 That figure is identified as James I by Samuel Daniel, Thomas Dekker, Anthony Munday and also by William Herbert who thinks that, with Sidney and Spenser gone, James needs a poet comparable to them. And James finds one of sorts in Herbert who recalls Merlin's prophecy that turmoil abroad and civil war at home will be followed by a new concord: “Disioynted … by her first monarches fall,” Britain will be restored by a king who “Shall three in one, and one in three vnite.” With that king, the golden age will begin anew. James is thereupon heralded apocalyptically, as “Our second Brute like to the morning starre” who binds war in chains and inaugurates a reign of peace.25 Britain, apparently, is to be restored from her fall progressively, with Henry VII uniting the houses of Lancaster and York, with Elizabeth maintaining the union, thereby repairing the halving of the kingdom by the nephews of the legendary Cordelia, and with James now uniting the three kingdoms that Lear, and earlier Brute's survivors, had divided. James says as much in his 1604 Speech in Parliament where, crediting Henry VII with uniting the Houses of Lancaster and York, he contends that this feat is nothing in comparison with the union he now seeks between England, Wales, and Scotland.

It may be a coincidence that, like Lear, James had three children when King Lear was written but is probably no coincidence at all that Shakespeare juxtaposes, however implicitly, the reign of a king charged with restoring paradise with that of a king who, by legend, perpetuated the process of division by which paradise had been lost. The very hope for a world-emperor and renovator, says Marjorie Reeves, “contains within it a notion of return to pristine glory which made it possible in the Renaissance period for a Christian idea of renovatio to be married to the concept of the returning Age of Gold.”26 Such a marriage occurs in the newly emerging Stuart myth, which reveals the extent to which such themes are enmeshed in astrological prophecy and become grafted on to apocalyptic prophecy as well. Initially tailored to the interests of the French monarchy or the German empire, such apocalyptic prophecies eventually find a new national identity in England and a point of reference in its monarchs, especially James, about whom imperial legends begin to cluster. Apocalyptic prophecy has once again become politicized, its secular objectives resting upon religious values.27

The linking of biblical with national history, even of scriptural with secular prophecy, was common during James's reign—indeed had been fostered by the influential John Napier. In a sermon preached in 1624 Barten Holyday saw James's idea of the One Nation emanating from the prophetic text of Ezekiel, “I will make them one nation” (37.22), and allowed that, well acquainted with prophecy generally, and the Apocalypse in particular, James was uniquely capable of advancing those prophecies toward fulfillment. But Holyday also correlated British history from Brute to James with a phase of scriptural history extending from Adam to Noah: Adam is responsible for the splintering of nations that continues until, with Noah, those nations contract again into an Ark of Unity. Similarly, Albion divides upon the death of Brute and is marked by subsequent divisions, like those occurring during the reigns of Lear and Cordelia, until “The two Royall Houses of Yorke and Lancester were … vnited, yet not without diuision,” which it then fell upon James to bridge. And Holyday advances as yet another similitude for British history the antagonism between Judah and Israel followed by their union: “by a Nationall Metempsychosis … they are changed into Britanie,” which became divided under Brute and later was reunited by James. A man cannot be divided against himself nor against others, for therein lies the primitive unity that generates all other correspondent unities in the family, the city, the nation, and the One Nation composed of all others. “A kingdome by nature is but an enlarged family,” says Holyday, and the individual but a contracted world.28

The same linkage of biblical with national history is evident in such popular media as almanacs. “One of the most common features of the Stuart almanac,” reports B. S. Capp, “was the ‘chronology’ or brief history of the world.”29 The supposition was that all history could be gathered within a single ballad, or one chronological table, where events from biblical history were typically coupled with events from legendary history (usually drawn from Geoffrey of Monmouth); and both, in turn, were grafted on to known history. The particular topics of these chronologies changed, but not their overall shape and not their theme of progress and innovation in history. The method was fairly constant, too, of evoking the legend of Brute and listing sometimes all the legendary kings of Britain but, more often, figuring them all through representative listings, which regularly included the names of Bladud, Memprick, and King Lear.30 In such accounts, the failures of the past became the gauge by which to judge the successes of the present. Patterns of history, rather than simply repeating themselves, are shown to rhyme: the cycles of history, spiraling in a linear course, can be broken.

It is significant, then, that Shakespeare has Lear scan biblical history “apocalyptically”—in the words of Albert Cook, “in proper sequence and item by item, ‘Jephthah's daughter, who was sacrificed, and of the destruction of Sodom by a brand from heaven, of Samson and the foxes, of Pharoah's dream of the good and bad years’.”31 Moreover, Shakespeare retells the Lear story in such a way as to elucidate the political doctrine inherent in it and, in the process, accentuates the prophetic element so that in his retelling the story emerges as a warning prophecy.32 As one popular prophecy dating from the fifteenth century but much in vogue in the last half of the sixteenth century explains, the declaration that the end is at hand, the promise of plagues, wars, disasters of all kinds, “these are but warninges sent us, to mollifie our harde hearts, and to admonishe us from … detestable Pride.”33 Hidden in most such prophecies lies the promise of a good ruler who will restore his kingdom to union and peace. King Lear participates in this secular millennialism.

Various elements in the play—its interest in magic, demonology, and astrology, together with its supposed distrust, and occasional deprecations, of prophecies and visions—have been cited as evidence of the extent to which plays were now catering to James's pet attitudes and of the extent, too, to which playwrights like Shakespeare were inclined to represent James's interests, especially his opposition to superstitious excesses. James is even said to authorize the “Calvinist-inspired views of the Deity and related conceptions of providence” that darken the Lear universe.34 Surprisingly, though, the extent to which Shakespeare may be recalling, quite deliberately, James's advice to his son has gone unobserved: do not invert the order of nature, measure your love by its recipient's virtue, banish pride and foster humility; remember, too, that “the blessing or curse of the Parents, hath almost euer a Propheticke power ioyned with it”; that you should punish individuals for their offenses “not punishing nor blaming the Father for the Sonne, nor the brother for the brother”; and finally remember that you should be neither vindictive nor wrathful but “triumphing in … commanding your selfe to forgiue.”35 And more than this, the death scenes of Gloucester and Lear speak eloquently to one of James's aphorisms: “It is one of the miseries of Man, that when hee is full of dayes, and neere his end, that then hee should Loue life most.”36

The initial lines of King Lear pose the issues of order and value: “in the division of the kingdom, it appears not which of the Dukes he values most” (I.i.3-5). In what has been called “a politically daring and avant-garde” act, even for the early seventeenth century, and one smacking of the “left-wing Machiavellianism” figured within the play by Edmund,37 Lear will upset the order of things by shaking off all responsibility, divesting himself “of rule, / Interest of territory, cares of state” (49-50), then by bowing to the flattery of Goneril and Regan, dividing his coronet between them, and leaving Cordelia dowerless. Disclaiming Cordelia who is “most rich, being poor; … most lov'd, despis'd” (250-51), he leaves her virtue to be honored by others and only in their reconciliation scene to be acknowledged by himself. The scenes between those in which Lear disowns Cordelia and is reunited with her record the story of a king's banishing pride and discovering humility. They show the power of his and Gloucester's prophetic curses which would have “All the stor'd vengeances of Heaven fall” on their children (II.iv.163), and culminate in Lear's and Gloucester's discovery of the values of love and forgiveness.

Curse is piled upon curse in the play: Cordelia is “dower'd” with Lear's curse (I.i.204), “Blasts and fogs” are called upon to descend upon Goneril (I.iv.308), the “nimble lightnings” are asked to dart their “blinding flames” into Regan's scornful eyes (II.iv.166-67), “all the plagues that in the pendulous air / Hang fated o'er men's faults” are called upon to light upon Lear's daughters (III.iv.67-68)—and they do. At the same time, there is a harsh but equal distribution of justice in the play; and where there is a triumph of spirit, most notably in the reunion of Lear and Cordelia, it is attended by the revoking of a curse and the rejoicing in love manifesting itself in forgiveness. In this way, Shakespeare reveals his protagonists, in the words of Kenneth Muir, “groping their way towards a recognition of the values traditional in his society” and most precious to his king.38 Christianity, thrust on to the margins of the play world by its title page but never silenced, reasserts itself as an ethical nucleus in the play's coda where we are brought to the recognition, so finely formulated in The Tempest, that “The rarer action is / In virtue then in vengeance” (V.i.27-28).

However striking such parallels may be, what is more important still is that like James the Shakespeare of King Lear uses history polemically, subordinating it, much as the Tudor chroniclers had done, to a scheme, albeit different from theirs, the keys for which were nevertheless to be found in the Book of Revelation. If only Scripture were properly expounded, history could at last be understood, but that exposition and understanding were also dependent upon a decoding of Revelation. Such a project was undertaken by James himself; and largely because of the attention he accorded it, the Apocalypse acquired a new political identity in the early years of the seventeenth century—now was regularly read as a metaphor for British history.

Questions concerning the book's authenticity and canonicity had already been settled so that, for James, all that remained was to dispel the lingering doubts about the interpretability of a work “so obscure and allegorique.”39 The book obsessed James and was an obsession in England during his reign, in large part because commentators were stressing so insistently the political dimension of the Apocalypse, a dimension that, however muted, was construed as evidence of both St. John's interest in contemporary affairs and of the bearing of his prophecy on the current affairs of England. Of all the scriptural books, the Book of Revelation, for James, held the most meaning for “this our last aage, as a Prophesie of the latter times.”40 The apocalyptic myth, from its very inception, seemed to offer a perspective on contemporary history, suggesting ways of assuming a posture toward it; early Christian apocalyptic, furthermore, seemed to sanction the tendency of supporting the establishment in times of crisis.

The Apocalypse, it has been said, “was written in a time of crisis for a time of crisis about some time of crisis”;41 in this way events of the remote past, legendary and mythological, could be seen impinging upon and informing the present. Once seen as a retrospective prophecy, the Apocalypse was now being read as a prospective one that also had important bearing on the present which would make that projected future possible. Although it had not yet been incorporated into the Book of Common Prayer (except for a few select fragments), it was thought to possess the same rhythms as the prayerbook's liturgical calendar, full of a sense of national emergency and deliverance and expressing an urge for religious and political unity in a nation whose sovereign would secure and hold that unity. Unity is thus an apocalyptic idealism pressed upon a shattered and fragmented world that, as in the Fool's prophecy, seems to be tottering to its ruin.

In various plays during the sixteenth century, monarchs of England had become implicated, both to their credit and discredit, in the apocalyptic myth. In 1586, Ralph Durdeen predicted the downfall of the Tudor monarchy, which he identified as the Beast of Revelation, though more often Queen Elizabeth had been cast in the role of an apocalyptic angel. As early as 1593, James himself had become enveloped in the apocalyptic myth. John Napier, in a commentary issued six times between 1593 and 1607, explained that, by dedicating his book to James VI of Scotland, he is breaking with the prophetic tradition of “direct[ing] … admonitions generally to Kings, princes, and governors.” In this instance, Napier allows, the head of state is a good man, has had ennobling effects on his nation, and hence obliges today's interpreters “to encourage and inanimate Princes, … as also to exhort them generally, to remove all such impediments in their Cuntries and commonwealths, as may hinder that work, and procure Gods plagues.”42 In 1599, George Gifford argued that “while the Kings of England … in times past were once horns of the beast, and gave their power to him,” recent rulers “have pulled him downe … They have … made the whore desolate and naked.”43 James's own meditations on the Apocalypse, first published in 1588, were issued again in 1603; and by way of wrapping himself in the cloak of the Apocalypse, the king repeatedly set forth his desire of reunifying a divided kingdom, of consolidating the broken world of which the Lear story had become an emblem. Moreover, a prefatory note, intent upon enveloping James in such a myth, celebrated him for exposing the Whore and binding the Beast. Within two years, William Symonds would proclaim that, though the apocalypse may lie in the future, the first resurrection, a prelude to it, commences now.44

In strikingly particular ways, the Apocalypse seemed to speak to, and of, England with the result that it was appropriated by the king and converted into a national history. Remarking on James's Paraphrase on Revelation, Isaiah Winton makes the point elaborately:

GOD hath giuen him an vnderstanding Heart in the Interpretation of that BOOKE, beyond the measure of other men … Anciently Kings drempt dreames, and saw visions; and Prophets expounded them: So with King Pharoah and Joseph in Egypt; so with Nabuchodonosor and Daniel in Babylon. In this aage, Prophets have written Visions, and Kings have expounded them … God hath in this aage stirred up Kings to deliuer his People from a Scriptural Egypt and Babylon …

… though all the people of GOD are to lay hold on the promises of that Glorious Kingdome described in that Booke [of Revelation]; yet few are able to understand the Prophecies therein contained, comprehending in them a perfect History and State of the Church, euen from the destruction of Ierusalem, till the consummation of the whole world. Yet this I thinke, I may safely say; That Kings have a kinde of interest in that Booke beyond any other: for as the execution of the Prophecies of that Booke is committed vnto them; So it may be, that the Interpretation of it, may more happily be made by them: And since they are the principall Instruments, that God hath described in that Booke to destroy the Kingdome of Antichrist, to consume his State and Citie; I see not, but it may stand with the Wisdome of GOD, to inspire their hearts to expound it; into whose hands hee hath put it to execute, vntill the LORD shall consume both him and it with the Spirit of his mouth, and shall abolish it with the brightness of his comming: For from the day that S. John writ the Booke to this present houre; I doe not thinke that euer any King tooke such paines, or was so perfect in the Reuelation, as his Maiestie is …45

Promoting the Book of Revelation though two separate commentaries, James not only gave unprecedented official sanction to John's prophecy but used that prophecy as a test of loyalty to him. Enthusiasm for the king might be measured, then, by the extent to which one was engaged with the Apocalypse; and antipathy to him, by a desire “to assert the limitations—or impropriety—of appropriating apocalyptic terms to the politics of either of the two kingdoms of ‘Britain’.”46 James himself spoke of what would be “Tragedie to the Traitors, but Tragicomedie to the King and all his trew Subjects,”47 thereby deploying apocalyptic rhetoric as a political weapon and simultaneously emphasizing that history, conceived in terms of the Apocalypse, is at once tragic and tragicomic. The period of James witnesses a great explosion in apocalyptic interpretation and simultaneously exposes discrete strands of apocalyptic thinking, with the king at once instigating much of the eschatological excitement and representing the mainstream of interpretative activity. Given his preoccupations, men everywhere were lending their ears to what has been called “the whispers and roars of the Apocalypse—to its shattered worlds and terrible predictions”; as Paul Christianson observes, “no wonder his subjects turned with zest to unravel the mysteries of Revelation!”48

The attention Shakespeare fastens upon the apocalyptic drama in King Lear has its political aspect, then, and so may be construed as a part of the compliment the playwright pays to the king. Yet the play, like Napier's popular commentary, contains an anti-apocalyptic component as well or, better, it defines apocalypse in terms less of sovereigns than of subjects and in terms less of the history of the world than of the spiritual history of individual men. Shakespeare seems to be saying that a prophecy that held no significance for the pre-Incarnational world of King Lear holds great sway over and has vast implications for the world of King James and his subjects. Yet Shakespeare also withholds from the king the sort of idolatrous flattery that was currently enveloping him in the apocalyptic myth. In King Lear, values are acquired and a new vision attained by a king's putting off his social identity and moving beyond the traditional structures of his society. The implication is that the capacity for seeing and for both individual and societal renovation may be thwarted by such structures and the role-playing they encourage. This is a play, after all, in which a king becomes truly a king only after he has become first, and daringly, a man. Shakespeare seems, furthermore, to cast a dubious eye on apocalyptics and perhaps even on James's declaration that the Book of Revelation pertains to “this our last aage … in very short space it will be fulfilled.”49 Indeed, if apocalypse is viewed as a declaration of hope in man's darkest hour, as a proclamation that God rules history and will bring out of it, independent of human participation, a glorious future, then Shakespeare may be seen resisting apocalypse by withdrawing such promises. King Lear is much closer to the psychological focus of prophecy, which places responsibility on the present for a conditionally open future.50

The apocalyptic element in King Lear is understood best in terms of what Frank Kermode describes as a “readjustment of expectations in regard to an end which is so notable a feature of naive apocalyptic”—the brand of apocalypticism dominant in Shakespeare's own day.51 The apocalyptic vision of St. John contains both optimistic and pessimistic elements, although historically one or the other has prevailed often to the extent that one element obscures the other. In the sixteenth century, the bleak vision of the Apocalypse was on the ascendancy until 1588 when there was a great surge of optimism about England's future, an optimism that heightened during the early years of James's reign, and was fostered by both the king and his supporters. Shakespeare's play moves against this tide not to obliterate that optimism but clearly to moderate it. Apocalypse may be foregrounded at the conclusion of Shakespeare's play, but only to be subdued within a prophetic perspective. A deeply pessimistic reading of the Apocalypse holds that there is no hope for improving man's lot until the end of the world. While Shakespeare's play is not replete with optimism, it does have the effect of tempering such gloom by representing that which has been without canceling out dreams of what ought to be, or of what one day may be.

For all the suggestions of end-time that are to be found in King Lear, the play does not produce the promised end—defiantly resisting, instead, the expectations built by its apocalyptic reference, no less than those fostered by its historical sources. The play may appear to be organizing itself around the apocalyptic paradigm: “the abdication of temporal order, followed by chaos and the reign of Antichrist, culminating in [A]rmageddon and the foundation of a new order, temporal and spiritual”;52 but the last phase of such a pattern is withheld—the new order does not materialize within a play that aggressively denies us what we want. Yet even here Shakespeare is very much in keeping with a new tendency of his times; for “the excitement and disillusionment of the 1590's,” Richard Bauckham reports, “produced for the first time … voices which urged that … the End was not to be expected yet. When William Perkins … deliberately played down the concept of apocalyptic imminence he was breaking new ground.”53 So too was Shakespeare in King Lear—and in precisely the same way.

Shakespeare's strategy is to use apocalypse against itself, not to deny it as a possibility but to advance the consummation of history into the future. In King Lear apocalypse is not a certainty, nor even a likelihood, but only a perhaps—dependent not upon a divine hand to alter the course of history but upon individual men to transform themselves and then perhaps history. James may be seen as an agent in the reformation paving the way for eventual apocalypse, but he is no herald of the apocalypse itself; for that event and the transformation it implies depend not on what kings like James may do for their nations but on what people may do for themselves. The whole process of salvation involves an apocalypse of mind wherein man, instead of transcending his nature, improves himself through spiritual evolution. King Lear thus reflects something of the process discovered in it by Christopher Caudwell, “withdrawal from the Court … into oneself,” but without the corollary that the Court, “once the source of health, is now the source of infection.”54 It is that in Shakespeare's play but presumably not that in Shakespeare's England, James being a measure of how far men and civilizations have evolved and of how far they have yet to go. The quarto text stresses the former point, while the folio text advances the latter one. Once acknowledgement is made of the shifting accents in different texts, it still must be allowed that from the very beginning criticism of James, however finely measured, hides in the compliment Shakespeare pays to him.


The apocalypse in King Lear is a mind-transforming event that culminates in a king's redemption. As Napier had argued, even kings require renovation, and with them as with everyman apocalypse begins in the “inward minde.”55 “The weight of this sad time” (V.iii.323) allows for no apocalypse in the present. The play incorporates no messianic vision but does utilize the Lear story in altered form. This fact should remind us that “much of our difficulty with King Lear comes from having read about Shakespeare's sources, instead of having read Shakespeare's sources,” or from reading extracts from a source, a habit that “entirely perverts its drift.”56 In the very act of printing extracts from sources, editors and commentators have restricted attention to the detail of the Lear story and have thereby occasioned many false surmises about Shakespeare's management of his sources and even his interpretation of them.

Unlike the old Leir play, Shakespeare's drama telescopes the entire story while providing for it a new mythological shape. Shakespeare, that is, seems to give priority not to the content of the story but to the rhythm of history captured in it. And what holds true for the Lear story is equally true for the story of Gloucester derived, presumably, from Sidney's Arcadia account of the Paphlagonian king. The nineteenth century articulated a truth about this play that the twentieth century has affirmed: either of these stories “has scope enough for a great tragedy by itself”; yet here they are woven so closely together “in organic reciprocity and interdependence, as to be hardly distinguishable, and not at all separable; we can scarce think of them apart, or perceive when one goes out, and the other comes in.”57 Shakespeare is particularly cunning in his weaving of various strands of the Gloucester story into that of Lear: the storm and the retreat therefrom, the dignity of those reduced to misery, their precipitous spiritual fall and shame, the king's giving away everything except the name of king, the loyalty of a single child, the tears of both joy and grief, and the coronation of the kind son as well as the reunion with his bastard brother. Like Lear's story, this one is telescoped so that events such as the reunion of the brothers, which otherwise would lie outside the confines of the play, are included within its boundaries. But more cunning still is the manner in which Shakespeare has refashioned the Lear and Gloucester stories, both according to the same revisionist pattern. Both stories restored to the context provided by their respective sources show what happens when kings become prey to flatterers and how excesses and vices of individuals produce rebellion and disruption in the state. In both stories, a fragmented self separates families, divides nations, and produces a broken world. Superficial resolutions in each inherited story—the successive reigns of Lear and Cordelia, the reunion of the sons of the Paphlagonian king—are the prologues to renewed conflict with still more devastating repercussions: the sons of Goneril and Regan incarcerate Cordelia and later war for dominion; the sons of the Paphlagonian king achieve a false truce that when broken wreaks havoc in the world. By killing off Edmund and also Goneril and Regan, Shakespeare redeems history from this further tragedy. By excising this ultimate disaster from both stories, Shakespeare alters the whole pattern of history of which those stories were a reflection. Shakespeare's objective, very simply, is to wring from these stories, and from previously chronicled history, a higher truth. He plays with fictions as the child of truth.

The language of criticism requires a precision unavailable in formulations that refer to King Lear as “a fairy tale!”—or even to the story as it is rendered in previous accounts as “a simple old fairy tale” by Shakespeare “transmuted.”58 Similarly, it requires a precision lost in references to the Gloucester story as simply a derivation from pastoral romance. When analogies cease to be analogies, the language of criticism becomes debased and its perceptions disfigured. The Lear story and the Gloucester story undergo a sea change, to be sure; yet more than simply substituting an unhappy for a happy ending, or vice versa, Shakespeare's revisionism replots the whole course of imagined history, with earlier versions of the Lear and Gloucester stories serving here as only a base and point of reference for Shakespeare's symbolic expression.

Indeed, considerable confusion derives from the very notion that the Lear story, in its sources, is possessed of a happy ending eliminated by the necessity of Shakespeare's tragic form and by his concomitant “establishment of a relationship between the story and the world in general” and hence inclusion of a set of “political implications” allegedly absent from those sources.59 The relationship of the story to history and its political implications for history are emphatically a concern of all the sources especially when the Lear story is restored to their larger perspectives. The nonlinear construction of Shakespeare's new Lear story, its relative plotlessness, has the effect of turning attention away from the action of the story to Shakespeare's mythic shaping, or reshaping, of history and of simultaneously reminding us that “there is a difference between Shakespeare and the people who write Lear differently, saving Cordelia and making only consistent statements about the gods and justice.”60

Shakespeare's abstraction of history is different from that of the earlier chronicles: his strategy is to ambiguate history by complicating its patterns and by multiplying perspectives on it. What is new here is not the fact that the Lear story is invested with a political and historical significance, but the fact that the significance now attributed to the story is different from that ascribed to it in Shakespeare's sources. This holds true for both the Lear and Gloucester stories and serves as a reminder that one task of the artistic imagination is to re-form misshapen myths and legends. Wherever they may appear—in historical narratives sacred or secular, or embedded in poems and plays, myths and legends represent individual efforts to apprehend the truth of history, to compel ideas about history into their most nearly perfect shape. Earl Wasserman is speaking of Shelley but it could just as easily be of the Shakespeare of King Lear when he writes, “Such a conception of myth and of the function of the imagination entails an especially ambiguous relation between the traditional form of a legend or myth and the poet's use of it, and demands of the reader an equally ambiguous frame of mind.”61

From the beginning, the Lear story figured prominently in historical narratives—was illustrative of a view of history. In the Renaissance, that story, whether recalled by historians or poets, by Holinshed or Spenser, is an embedment in history. In King Lear, the situation is altered: history is now an embedment in the play. That history, though, is rife with political implications; and however often both have escaped the eye of criticism they remain very much within the eye of the play. The sources for that play are a rendering of history, and of a particular sense of history, that Lear itself revises and thereby questions. Here both the content of history and its form are modified, which should remind us of two propositions: first, that “every historical drama … calls upon our knowledge of some particular historical pattern against which the action can be read”; and second, that to qualify as history “an event must be susceptible to at least two narrations of its occurrence. Unless at least two versions of the same set of events can be imagined,” Hayden White explains, “there is no reason for the historian to take upon himself the authority of giving the true account of what really happened. The authority of the [new] historical narrative is the authority of reality itself.”62 History, Shakespeare seems to be saying, begs for a deliverance best achieved, first by rescuing it from the false shapings and flattening simplifications of Tudor historians, and then by returning it to the ambience of ambiguity and paradox, complexity and contradiction, where the true shape of history can be glimpsed.

King Lear thus presents history within a new literary structure, Shakespeare implying that elements in the play not found in tradition, or in the chronicles, may nevertheless belong to history. Cordelia may not have hanged herself; her alleged hanging may be only a public explanation and concealment of another's crime, a contrivance for obliterating what actually happened in history. Shakespeare knew as well as anyone that old narratives generate new ones; and in the Renaissance histories he may have read, he certainly witnessed the old chronicles being shaped into new histories by the intrusion of theology and ideology. Shakespeare's King Lear comes at the end of a tradition of progressive interpretation of the Lear story—comes out of a tradition “heavily censored … but also heavily interpreted” and should be accorded the status of what Frank Kermode calls an “interpretive fiction.”63 Such fictions, such fables can stand on the same footing as history, can be as moving as history, can even be in various ways more successful than history, because of the ideas they raise. Moreover, where there are silences in history there are often suspicions of censoring, and when interpretive choices have obviously been made there are opportunities, just as obviously, for reinterpretation—for historical revisionism.

The point is made neatly by Nahum Tate in the prologue to his History of King Lear where, having already described Shakespeare's play as “a Heap of Jewels, unstrung, and unpolisht, yet … dazling in their Disorder” (Var. Ed., p. 468), he represents himself not only as ordering the disorder of Shakespeare's play but as moralizing its history and as bringing out from concealment what was implicit in Shakespeare's story: “Why should these scenes lie hid” (I. 17)? Tate's Lear, interestingly, strikes the same relationship with Shakespeare's play as Shakespeare's Lear strikes with the anonymous Leir and, indeed, with the entire inherited tradition. When history is seen (as Shakespeare clearly sees it in Leir) as captive to the truth of a foolish world, history must be rewritten. Leir thus necessitates the writing of Lear where, as Artaud might say, history is immolated in the name of the future; where a new history is made in order to release mankind from the grip of a counterfeit past and stir him into new life and creation.

The Lear story, in its original telling by Geoffrey of Monmouth, is fixed between the reign of the prophets Elijah and Elisha, Isaiah and Hosea and, later by Holinshed, is particularized to the times of Joas, King of Judah. The latter detail takes on significance in terms of the foregoing discussion when we remember that Joas, “a descendant of David and a prefiguration of Christ, could provide the means for the restoration of the true line of kings.”64 That is, the implicit contrast between Lear and James lies in Shakespeare's Renaissance sources, in the paralleling of Lear's reign and Joas's. In Geoffrey's account, moreover, the Lear story involves the perpetuation of a pattern of division and dissolution commencing with the fragmentation of Albion and culminating in Albion's ruin. What Shakespeare's sources, medieval and Renaissance, delineate is an archetypal pattern: of families sparring, of kingdoms dividing, of factions warring, of history dissolving; what Shakespeare injects into the process, through his revision of those sources and by virtue of his own play's historical moment, is the possibility—and only the possibility—of the world's reconstituting itself and becoming whole again. There may even be a cunning irony in the implied contrast between Joas apostatizing and Lear now experiencing a personal redemption.

King Lear may not be principally a political play, nor even be organized around the details of the Darnley murder as Lilian Winstanley suggests. But it was then a habit of mind, as well as of writing, to think typologically, to observe correspondences and in them differences. Thus, commenting on Revelation 22.14, Thomas Adams can link kings with the heavenly company, proclaiming that “Heauen is the great White Hall, the court of the high King”;65 and chroniclers can regularly read out of the division of Lear's kingdom the stories of nations sparring, of families fragmenting—can read of commotions in the cosmos and in the human psyche itself. Winstanley locates not the sense, but a sense of King Lear when she finds in the play a “symbolic mythology” wherein “nations themselves are protagonists and in which ungrateful children mean the factions of a civil war, tearing their fatherland to pieces.”66 Even such critical reductionism, sometimes ludicrous in the extreme, makes a point about the play that must be accommodated by less preposterous historical readings.

Shakespeare's play begins with the theme of division—with Lear's unveiling his “darker purpose” to crawl “Unburthen'd” toward death (I.i.36-41). Calculated to prevent all future strife, Lear's act of division ensures ironically that strife will continue and culminate in war. The initial scenes of each of the first three acts, part of a reiterative pattern in the play, hint at division becoming warfare. Thus Curan asks Edmund, “Have you heard of no likely wars toward, 'twixt the Dukes of Cornwall and Albany?” (II.i.11-12); Kent tells the Gentleman, “There is division … 'twixt Albany and Cornwall” (III.i.19-21); Gloucester reports to Edmund, “There is division between the Dukes” (III.iii.8-9)—all this seeming to emanate from the play's opening scene where Lear divides his kingdom, setting his children at odds. Moreover, these portents of civil war open upon “a worse matter” (III.iii.9): France's invasion of Britain. By the end of the third act, the invading troops have already set foot on British soil; in Act IV, “the British pow'rs are marching hitherward” (IV.ii.4; IV.iv.21; War breaks out in Act V and by its last scene, in a notable revision of Shakespeare's sources, is won by the forces of Britain. Lear's divided self has divided the world. One can speak of the “brilliant conflation of personal, social, and political crises that … ‘rocket the mind’ in King Lear”;67 yet these conflations, appropriated by Shakespeare, are very much a part of the history of Albion as it is related by Geoffrey of Monmouth and later by Holinshed. Juxtaposed in a causal relationship by Geoffrey, division and warfare, in harness again, provide the overarching structure for Shakespeare's play where, as Alfred Harbage notices, the fissures in the legend and in history “widen infinitely” so that we see Lear at the center of a turbulence that wreaks havoc “in minds, in families, in nations, in the heavens themselves, interacting in dreadful concatenation.”68 We are not allowed to forget the biblical adage that every kingdom divided against itself shall become desolate.

On the other hand, in keeping with the political as well as religious content of the play, but also in violation of the detail provided by the sources, Shakespeare allows another structure, organized around the theme of unity, to rise up against and subdue the surface structure of division. The bonding between Lear and his Fool, Gloucester and Poor Tom anticipates the reunions of Lear and his “poor fool” (V.iii.305) Cordelia, of Gloucester and his son Edgar. If a divided self brings about division within and between kingdoms, a mended self effects reconciliation between warring parties both in the kingdom and in the world. Like the two contending structures of the play, the triumph of Britain in the war with France, whatever its historical veracity, makes an important symbolic point and, further, reinforces the typological play between two kings, two separate moments of history, while reminding us that typology itself was a popular way of writing history in the Renaissance—a way of abolishing past history except as a type-source for new history.69

Even if as in Geoffrey and the Elizabethan chronicles Lear has his kingdom restored to him and Cordelia later governs, that interval is but a calm before the storm wherein the sons of Goneril and Regan harass and later incarcerate Cordelia who thereupon slays herself. As R. W. Chambers was quick to recognize, “Cordeillia's suicide … contradicts painfully the promise to the children who honour their father and their mother, that their days may be long in the land”;70 and subsequent events scarcely encourage, much less authorize, the view that, whatever tragedy history may contain, it finally releases a comedic pattern. For following Cordelia's death, her portion of the kingdom is divided among the children who war for dominion. The fortunes of individuals, in the chronicles, are subordinated to a view of history that is cyclical and degenerative: history keeps repeating itself as it moves steadily toward dissolution; or as Gloucester puts it, “O ruin'd piece of Nature! This great world / Shall so wear out to naught” (

In the received legend, the good may prevail for a time but are eventually defeated, not so much by death as by the forces of evil in a world where death becomes a consolation. The Lear story was advanced not only as an example for, but as a prophecy of, the future when Britain would be hopelessly divided and engulfed by discord. At such a time the mind would become darkened, the place desolate; the end would be at hand. Contrary to the view of some critics, not King Lear but the legend behind it suggested that direction and purpose in history are lost; that history, wheeling backwards, will culminate in the triumph of evil. “This great decay” (V.iii.297) as Albany calls Lear and thereby represents his world, or the vision of the world implied in Edmund's lines, “The younger rises when the old doth fall” (III.iii.27)—such degenerative and cyclical conceptions of history are both deeply embedded in the Lear legend, yet are precisely the conceptions that Shakespeare's play, even while representing them, would overthrow.

Less overtly than Geoffrey of Monmouth but far more imaginatively, Shakespeare aligns the Lear story with scriptural history and, in a parallel move signalled by the allusion to Merlin in the Fool's prophecy, aligns secular with scriptural prophecy. Joining apocalypse to prophecy, Merlin had converted the tragedy of history into tragicomedy, using the Lear story and its view of history as a backdrop against which to place an alternative prophecy and a contrary vision of history. More than idle speculation, Merlin's prophecies—one of which promised a nameless king who would restore the shattered world to unity—were thought to have a distinct political and nationalistic hue and so to hold a special pertinence for the British kings. This is the way in which Geoffrey of Monmouth represents Merlin's prophecies and the way, too, in which he plots history moving out of tragedy into comedy. Indeed, Merlin's prophecies were instrumental in shifting the scene of history to England, making that nation not just a concern but the center of new historical accounts. Within this scheme, England emerges as a privileged nation with God bestowing a special light that “the British people should [not] lose their way utterly in the darkness of that dreadful night.”71 For Geoffrey, the Incarnation is the great divide between two phases of history, one set within the context of Old Testament prophecy and the other situated within the apocalyptic framework afforded by the New Testament. Its performance at Whitehall on St. Stephen's Day places King Lear within the orbit of the Incarnation, hinting at a liturgical context for the play; but Shakespeare is more tentative than Geoffrey had been—in the words of Paul Siegel, “leav[ing] unresolved whether the darkness of the time will gradually give place to light, as did the darkness of ancient Britain, or whether it will steadily deepen … [into] total darkness … [and] the extinction of humanity.”72 Nevertheless, hesitancy about a better future does not deny the possibility.

Such a context clarifies Shakespeare's strategies in King Lear: he alters a received legend so as to allow for the intrusion of an apocalyptic view of history which his play, designated by its title as “True Chronicle Historie,” will thereupon examine. If Dr. Johnson thought that King Lear ran “contrary to the natural ideas of justice … and, what is yet more strange, to the faith of chronicles” (Var. Ed., p. 419), Shakespeare, we may surmise, thought that the Lear story as reported in the chronicles ran contrary to history itself. The story was always, and preeminently, a mirror upon history, a reflection of its course, and so to modify the story was to alter the course of history itself. One of Shakespeare's revisions—his making England rather than France triumphant—if necessitated by the spirit of the age, still implies some flirting with the idea of England as elect nation. Another of his revisions, and one far more crucial to the play—his allowing Lear and Cordelia to die—has been the crux in a criticism concerned with the fate of individuals and not of nations, with the contours of a legend but not the history it recounted.

Shakespeare's new conception deepens the personal tragedy even as it lessens the burden of tragedy for history. The very fact that Shakespeare substantially alters chronicle history makes a point that has been lost upon his critics. Those alterations cannot be accounted for solely on aesthetic grounds; rather, they are so far-reaching as to affect the deep structure of the story and the view of history it had previously supported. Strict adherence to the chronicles is part and parcel of the tragedian's commitment to representing the sad realities of history; substantive revision of such received accounts exhibits an urge to deliver mankind from his own history—and history from its grimmer realities. Shakespeare's reshaping of the Lear story, then, is intended as a challenge to thought and can be explained further by a tendency, evident among Tudor historians certainly, to scrap an older version of a story for a remodeled one. This tendency is also evident in Shakespeare's Henry VIII, whose alternate title seems to invite a skeptical scrutiny of the history to which the play alludes. For Matthew Wikander, “The heart of Henry VIII's challenge to conventional expectations about historical plays lies in its subtitle, All is True,” a declaration that causes Wikander to wonder with Howard Felperin, “whether Shakespeare is not ironically hinting that we revise our conventional notions of historical truth, even of mimetic truth itself.”73

Joyce Carol Oates speaks for many readers of King Lear when she proposes that “Shakespeare deliberately alters the ending of the Lear story in order to defeat the very salvation that this work, from the inside, requires.”74 Shakespeare's revisionism, nonetheless, is open to another construction. Viewed in terms of its protagonists, the received story of King Lear is a conventional tragicomedy wherein disaster is averted by the reunion of Lear and Cordelia and the restoration of their kingdom; but viewed in terms of its true protagonist who is History, the story is a dark tragedy wherein the forces of evil, for a while restrained, are unleashed again and accomplish the annihilation of all good. The whole world is upset and eventually disintegrates.

As Shakespeare retells the story, the personal tragedy is accentuated by irony—there is a reunion without a restoration; but the tragedy of history is alleviated, the possibility for history as a tragicomedy is allowed for in a play where evil is self-consuming and goodness triumphant in the calm, if not secured, order at its end. Mythologies of history tend to be founded upon cyclical or linear patterns, the one pessimistic, the other optimistic. Shakespeare's remodeling of the Lear story shifts the shape of history which can now cast the beam of its light upon futurity. As in Antony and Cleopatra, there is “High order in this solemnity” (V.ii.364).

In King Lear, majesty may fall to folly; but the foolish king, though persisting in his folly, by the end of the play becomes wise. There is a resurrection; and even if there is death, death is a deliverance from the horrors of this life, is an escape not from truth but from despair, and, as the Doctor tells Cordelia, has the power of “clos[ing] the eye of anguish” on this world (IV.iv.15). In the world of King Lear, all of the evil perish, along with some of the good; but some of them survive and, under their aegis, history continues. It is in this sense that we may say with C. J. Sisson: King Lear contains “a happy ending of deeper truth than Tate's.”75 The play builds up the missing connective tissue between mythology and history: now mythology can become history, and prophecy masking itself as history can be fulfilled.

Shakespeare's reorganization of history thus fulfills a fundamental condition of prophecy: it makes plain what previously was dark and hidden and by omissions confused. It also makes plain that the Shakespeare of King Lear is like the Shakespeare of the history plays: as Robert Ornstein observes, “not … content to serve as the spokesman for an official version of history” and thus intent upon presenting “a personal mythic interpretation of England's history.”76 And yet, even more emphatically than in the history plays, Shakespeare seems now to be acknowledging that myths and legends require liberation from their reductionist past where their history is one of truncation and where abridgement substitutes for precision. When the myth or legend is liberated, as Shakespeare would do in King Lear, its jagged facets are restored: it is shown to be stubbornly irreducible, its contexts become an integral part of its meaning, and its narrative events are now seen as replete with social and political, psychological and religious significance.

In the Middle Ages, and up to Shakespeare's own day, existence was conceived as a cosmic drama, composed around a central theme and according to a master plan; and man was expected to accept the drama as written since he was powerless to alter it. A problem arose, though, when discrete and usually cohesive traditions of prophecy, sacred and secular, were at odds, and in such instances the former took precedence over the latter, becoming the instrument through which the two traditions could be made to mesh. It is not that Shakespeare chooses the occasion of King Lear to join a band of prophets; rather, through prophecy and apocalypse he converts legend into myth. Into his new myth, or countermyth, Shakespeare weaves images, ideas, and themes of apocalypse in such a way as to suggest that his play is as much a revision of secular as of sacred history.

It has been said by way of contrasting the old Leir play with Shakespeare's, first that “the most striking difference between the source-play and other versions of the story is that it is studded with religious references and biblical allusions,” and second that, while both plays are illuminated by biblical light, Leir has a predominantly Old Testament and Lear an emphatically New Testament emphasis.77 Both these observations require adjustment: what distinguishes the old Leir play, both from earlier sources and from Shakespeare's rendering of the story, is that it alone employs conspicuous biblical quotation and citation, while the sources, along with Shakespeare's play, employ strategies of biblical correlation and analogy. In King Lear, moreover, the emphasis is not only New Testament but, more precisely, apocalyptic. The Book of Revelation, itself a mythic history, provides the biblical counterpart, the apt analogy, for Shakespeare's play.

There is a particular propriety in Shakespeare's joining secular to sacred history through the Book of Revelation; for apocalypticism, whether pessimistic or optimistic, was not only “Western Christendom's habitual response to historical crisis,” but, as Richard Bauckham has documented, in Shakespeare's day it was thought that “the whole history of the world could be understood if … [the Apocalypse] were read alongside the chronicles.”78 Texts, sacred and secular, were thus bound together on the understanding that Revelation is a light to the chronicles and the chronicles a light to it; Revelation provides the framework for a prophetic understanding of history and, says Katharine Firth, was regarded as the book through which the English chronicles could be put in their “right shape.”79 In this, the heyday of prophetic history, “the whole structure rested on the conviction that prophecy was the most certain of all sources of historical information and that it could provide an assured framework for the whole course of history.”80 On suppositions like these, it appears, Shakespeare introduces prophetic and apocalyptic elements to his play and allows them to authorize his astonishing revision of a received tradition whose view of history is grimly pessimistic—indeed to legitimate the claim that King Lear is a presentation of “True Chronicle History” (my italics).

The play, we have seen, has its typological elements which, we should be reminded, are an aspect of prophecy and exist, as John Evans notes, “only in a universe in which the progress of events follows a discernible and meaningful pattern, in which prophecies come true and types are fulfilled.”81 Within the play, as the implicit Lear-James typology makes clear, there is also a conflict, characteristic of much secular prophecy according to Marjorie Reeves, wherein “the desire for a human triumph in history” is seen “struggling with the conviction that only divine intervention can overcome the inherent evil in man. From this conflict of ideas,” Reeves concludes, “emerges the figure of a human saviour … who achieves a partial triumph before the final onset of evil and the final spiritual intervention.”82 Yet, from this conflict of ideas in King Lear comes something more unsettling: the whole idea of a world-emperor seems finally scuttled and with it the notion of providential intervention. Even as the play accommodates secular history to the apocalyptic drama, it revises the very assumptions that had usually fostered that accommodation and, in the process, counters then current views of history, many of which were founded upon John's New Testament prophecy. King Lear is an emendation of history as it was related by both Renaissance chroniclers and scriptural commentators.

But more than allowing us to explain certain poetic strategies in King Lear, the Book of Revelation provides Shakespeare with both a perfect analogue to the problem of his play and an exact generic model for it. Lear confronts head-on the problem that the Book of Revelation was said to address: the horrors that characterize human existence when the wicked reign and the godly are oppressed. Shakespeare seems less certain than King James that, although God “suffereth the wicked to runne on while their cup be full: yet in the end he striketh them”—Judgment Day will follow this time of persecution and disaster.83 Gloucester direly questions this view of the cosmos in his declaration, “As flies to wanton boys, are we to th' Gods; / They kill us for their sport” (IV.i.36-37). And that declaration may seem far truer to the experience of the play than Albany's later proclamation, “This shows you are above, / You justicers, that these our nether crimes / So speedily can venge!” (IV.ii.78-80); or than Edgar's insistence, “The Gods are just, and of our pleasant vices / Make instruments to plague us” (V.iii.170-71). What renders all such perspectives inadequate to the play is the realization, finally, that while not being denied a place in the cosmos God is being written out of the world of King Lear. Its tragedy emanates from man's small faults and large ones which turn the world into a hell. As Lear states the case: “… to the girdle do the Gods inherit, / Beneath is all the fiend's: there's hell, there's darkness, / There is the sulphurous pit—burning, scalding” (

The world of the Apocalypse—the world “beneath”—is replicated in King Lear where “All's cheerless, dark, and deadly” (V.iii.290) and where, as Lear remarks, those “with best meaning, have incurr'd the worst” (V.iii.4). The world of the play is “a rack: a scene of suffering,” including within itself “a standing potentiality for progressive transformation into chaos”;84 yet the play never lets us forget, either, that Revelation's metaphor of purgation, of suffering to obtain purification and renewal, epitomizes its own idea of transformation, of man's metamorphosis in this life. The Apocalypse is an exhilarating book but not until its last chapters, pertaining to end-time, a joyful one; it is not a shield from but an encounter with the nightmare world of human history. There is consolation in it, but only for those who live through the horror and who thereupon can awaken into another reality. The Book of Revelation, then, authorizes in very specific ways the admixture of tragedy and comedy within history and allows for that history to be perceived as prophecy and to be plotted as an apocalypse.


  1. “King Lear” and the Gods (San Marino, Calif.: Huntington Library, 1966), p. 71.

  2. Tudor Historical Thought (San Marino, Calif.: Huntington Library, 1966), p. 241. Rene Fortin comments similarly: “Shakespeare carefully excises every overt trace of Christianity from an originally Christian story” (“Problem of Transcendence,” Shakespeare Studies 7 [1974], p. 316).

  3. On the liberties Shakespeare has taken in his history plays, see Peter Saccio, Shakespeare's English Kings: History, Chronicle, and Drama (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1977), p. 14; and on the license he takes with chronicle history in King Lear, see Boas's remarks as quoted by R. W. Chambers, “King Lear” (Glasgow: Jackson and Son, 1940), p. 11. Whether or not Shakespeare “began the play as a comedy, or … a romance,” the fact remains that King Lear is “the only case … where he changes a happy into an unhappy ending” (Janet Spens, An Essay on Shakespeare's Relation to Tradition [Oxford: B. H. Blackwell, 1961], pp. 50-51).

  4. Lily B. Campbell, Shakespeare's Histories (1947; repr., London: Methuen, 1964), p. 16. Irving Ribner makes the same point specifically of Lear: “As a good historian, Shakespeare read the account [of Lear] in every source he knew of, and retold the story … with a full awareness of the political doctrine inherent in it”; and later: “Shakespeare drastically changed the story … which he found in his sources. He made changes both to effect better his purposes of tragedy, and, in the orthodox tradition of Renaissance historiography, to effect better the political purposes of history” (The English History Play in the Age of Shakespeare [Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1957], pp. 248-49, 251). For an interpretation of Shakespeare's revisionism in some ways complementary to the one I offer in subsequent pages, in other ways divergent from it, see 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), esp. pp. 149-57. It is, of course, noteworthy that, as Jefferson Humphries remarks, “Johnson locates the exhaustion of his capacity to endure unpleasantness at precisely that point at which the play parts from the ‘facts’ on which it purports to be based” (“Seeing through Lear's Blindness: Blanchot, Freud, Saussure and Derrida,” Mosaic, 16 [1983], p. 29).

  5. “King James I and Anglo-Scottish Unity,” in Conflict in Stuart England, ed. William A. Aiken and Basil D. Henning (London: Jonathan Cape, 1960), pp. 43, 46. For Andrewes' sermon, see XCLI Sermons (London, 1629), pp. 11 ff. In “King Lear” and the Gods, Elton reports that “on August 27, 1605, at Oxford, with Shakespeare possibly present, Dr. Matthew Gwinn recited some Latin verses to James: ‘Hail thou whom Britain, now united though formerly divided, cherishes’” (p. 244). Elton also cites two titles that are pertinent here (pp. 244-45): Anthony Munday's The Triumphes of Re-united Britania (1605) and John Thornborough's A Discourse … Proving the … Necessitie of the … Union of … England and Scotland (1604).

  6. The Peace-Maker: Or, Great Brittaines Blessing (London, 1619), sig. A3, Bv.

  7. Alvin B. Kernan, “Courtly Servants and Public Players: Shakespeare's Image of Theater in the Court at Elsinore and Whitehall,” in Poetic Traditions of the English Renaissance, ed. Maynard Mack and George Lord (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1982), p. 106.

  8. An Allegory of “King Lear” (London: Arthur L. Humphreys, 1913), p. 19.

  9. The Old Testament Prophets (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1977), p. 105.

  10. See both Rupert Taylor, The Political Prophecy in England (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1911), pp. 42-47, and Marjorie Reeves, The Influence of Prophecy in the Later Middle Ages: A Study of Joachimism (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969), p. 311.

  11. See Paul Korshin, Typologies in England: 1650-1820 (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1982), pp. 101-132, and Leslie Tannenbaum, Biblical Tradition in Blake's Early Prophecies: The Great Code of Art (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1982), pp. 94-100.

  12. Shakespeare and the Courtly Aesthetic (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1981), p. 79.

  13. A portion of the proclamation is reprinted by John W. Draper, “The Occasion of King Lear,” Studies in Philology 34 (1937), p. 177. Draper asks, “could any well-informed person at that time have seen King Lear and not considered it as an exemplum most aptly fitted to the current situation” (p. 180); but then he leaves open the question of whether Lear was written “as a direct propaganda to develop public sentiment in favor of the union,” or rather more simply “as a courtly compliment to Shakespeare's patron” (p. 185). George Ian Duthie cities commentators from Malone onward who believe that Shakespeare wrote British man not because Lear lived in pre-Anglo-Saxon times and hence was king of Britain but because James was now king of Britain (Shakespeare's “King Lear”: A Critical Edition [Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1949], pp. 151-59). There are still other anachronisms in the play, such as the Fool's “I'd drive ye cackling home to Camelot” (II.ii.85; my italics), which tend to confirm such speculations.

  14. The Royal Play of “Macbeth” (New York: Macmillan, 1950), pp. 401, 25, 181.

  15. “Courtly Servants and Public Players,” in Poetic Traditions of the English Renaissance, ed. Mack and Lord, p. 106.

  16. New Readings vs Old Plays: Recent Trends in the Reinterpretation of English Renaissance Drama (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1979), p. 171.

  17. “The Cultivation of Anxiety: King Lear and His Heirs,” Raritan 2 (1982), p. 98.

  18. New Readings vs Old Plays, p. 150. Levin's argument, of course, must skid by contrary evidence such as Kent's advice: “Reserve thy state; / … check / This hideous rashness” (I.i.149-51). This moment in the first scene of the play is balanced by another in its last scene where Albany declares, “we will resign, / During the life of this old Majesty, / To him our absolute power” (V.iii.298-300).

  19. Basilikon Doron. Or His Maiesties Instructions to His Dearest Sonne, Henry the Prince (London, 1603), pp. 66, 73-74.

  20. “The Occasion of King Lear,” p. 179.

  21. “Of Prophecies,” in Francis Bacon: Selected Writings, ed. Hugh G. Dick (New York: Modern Library, 1955), pp. 96-97.

  22. See The Whole Prophecies of Scotland, England, Ireland, and Denmark (Edinburgh, 1718), p. 1. Rymer's prophecy was published in 1603 and 1615.

  23. Merlins Prophecies and Predictions (London, 1651), p. 361; see also pp. 362-63.

  24. See Glynne Wickham, “From Tragedy to Tragi-Comedy: King Lear as Prologue,” Shakespeare Survey 26 (1973), p. 35.

  25. A Prophesie of Cadwallader, Last King of the Britaines (London, 1604), sig. B2v, H-Hv. Though Richard Bauckham probably underplays the involvement of Queen Elizabeth in the apocalyptic myth, his remarks nonetheless accentuate the extent to which James I, much more than Elizabeth, comes to be wrapped up in that myth: “the restraint with which specifically apocalyptic images were applied to her is significant … Even in Elizabethan art apocalyptic imagery is used only occasionally to depict her in this role … The commentaries, the tracts, for the most part even the sermons on apocalyptic themes ignore her” (Tudor Apocalypse: Sixteenth-Century Apocalypticism, Millennarianism and the English Reformation [Appleford, G.B.: Sutton Courtenay Press, 1978], pp. 128-29). John Bale, of course, provides some sanction for identifying English monarchs with the protecting angels of the Apocalypse, identifying Elizabeth with the angel of Rev. 7.2. The tendency to make such identifications persists into the seventeenth century. Arise Evans, for example, maintains that with prophecy as his guide Henry VII “united York and Lancaster, redeemed Wales, and was the means to bring England and Scotland under one head” (A Rule from Heaven [London, 1659], p. 15). From the vantage point of King James, however, Henry VII merely commences the process that James himself compels to fulfillment. Looking backward over England's history, political and literary, Evans maintains that her “Bards”—including the Bard of Avon presumably—“were guided by prophesie” (p. 17).

  26. The Influence of Prophecy in the Later Middle Ages, p. 506.

  27. See Bernard McGinn, Visions of the End: Apocalyptic Traditions in the Middle Ages (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1979), p. 246.

  28. Three Sermons … Preached at Oxford (London, 1626), pp. 6, 31.

  29. English Almanacs, 1500-1800: Astrology and the Popular Press (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell Univ. Press, 1979), p. 215.

  30. Ibid., pp. 216-17.

  31. Shakespeare's Enactment: The Dynamics of Renaissance Theatre (Chicago: Swallow Press, 1976), p. 37.

  32. See Ribner's observation quoted in n. 4 above. Similarly, Grigori Kozintsev confides, “I wanted to see Lear in the midst of … the world of politics” (“King Lear”: The Space of Tragedy, trans. Mary Mackintosh [London: Heinemann, 1977], p. 39). More generally, Robert Heilman argues, “Political subject matter is everywhere in Shakespeare's tragedies and histories” (see “Shakespearean Comedy and Tragedy: Implicit Political Analogies,” in Shakespeare as Political Thinker, ed. John Alvis and Thomas G. West [Durham, N.C.: Carolina Academic Press, 1981], p. 27). This volume, however, makes only passing reference to Lear. What Lily Campbell says of the history plays generally would seem to have considerable bearing on King Lear: “Shakespeare chose for his histories kings who had already been accepted as archetypes and …, like all other writers who used history to teach politics to the present, … alter[ed] the historical fact … with current political situations in mind” (Shakespeare's Histories, p. 125). King Lear at once qualifies the notion that Shakespeare's plays are neither polemical nor ideological and confirms the proposition that they are deeply concerned with both political and historical issues.

    The prophetic element in Lear has been discerned and described eccentrically, even perversely, by Abraham Schechter, “King Lear”: Warning or Prophecy (New York: privately printed, 1956), and quite aptly by both Benjamin T. Spencer, “King Lear: A Prophetic Tragedy,” College English 5 (1944), pp. 302-08, and A. C. Harwood, Shakespeare's Prophetic Mind (London: Rudolf Steiner Press, 1964). See also G. Wilson Knight, The Imperial Theme: Further Interpretations of Shakespeare's Tragedies Including the Roman Plays (1931; repr. London: Methuen, 1965), p. 361; and Edwin Muir, The Politics of “King Lear” (Glasgow: Jackson and Son, 1947). Muir sees Lear as a play filled with “inchoate, semi-prophetic dreams” (p. 7), and more recently John Kerrigan has described Lear as a play “preoccupied with prophecy” (“Revision, Adaptation, and the Fool in King Lear,” in The Divisions of the Kingdom: Shakespeare's Two Versions of “King Lear,” ed. Gary Taylor and Michael Warren [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983], p. 224).

  33. See Eyriak Schlichtenberger, A Prophecy Uttered by the Daughter of an Honest Man (London, 1580), no sigs. Or as Capp observes of Certain Wonderfull Predictions (1604) by Himbert de Belly, these prophecies “offered gloomy vistas of wars, disasters, rebellions and royal mortalities but contained on almost every page a reassurance that they might be averted” (English Almanacs, p. 30). Believing that the Epistles to the Seven Churches of Asia in the Book of Revelation are a model for such warning prophecy, Sampson Price describes the times of backsliding and slumber during which it flourishes and also the conditions under which it is issued: “He [God] sendeth Watchmen to blowe the Trumpet and warne the people; but if they take not warning … he taketh away the Candlesticke” (Ephesvs Warning Before Her Woe [London, 1616], pp. 2-3).

  34. Elton, “King Lear”and the Gods, p. 35.

  35. Basilikon Doron, pp. 57-57v, 75, 103. Thomas McFarland comments suggestively in “The Image of the Family in King Lear,” in On “King Lear,” ed. Danson, pp. 100-01; and David Bevington sets forth this broad principle for interpretation: “Shakespeare probably read Basilikon Doron and set its theories into practice as homage to a new hero” (Tudor Drama and Politics: A Critical Approach to Topical Meaning [Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1968], p. 24).

  36. Flores Regij. Or, Proverbes and Aphorismes, Divine and Morall (London, 1627), p. 5.

  37. Marshall McLuhan, The Gutenberg Galaxy (Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Press, 1962), p. 11.

  38. From the introduction to “King Lear,” ed. Kenneth Muir, Arden Shakespeare (1952; repr., New York: Random House, 1964), p. lvii.

  39. A Paraphrase upon the Revelation of the Apostle S. John, in Works (London, 1616), p. 4.

  40. Ibid., p. 73.

  41. H. S. Bellamy, The Book of Revelation Is History (London: Faber and Faber, 1942), p. 12 (my italics).

  42. A Plaine Discovery of the Whole Revelation of Saint John (Edinburgh, 1593), sig. A3.

  43. Sermons upon the Whole Booke of the Revelation (London, 1599), p. 339.

  44. Pisgah Evangelica (London, 1606), p. 208.

  45. Works, sigs. d3v-d4.

  46. Arthur H. Williamson, Scottish National Consciousness in the Age of James VI: The Apocalypse, the Union and the Shaping of Scotland's Public Culture (Edinburgh: John Donald, 1979), p. 94.

  47. A Discourse of the Powder-Treason, in Works, p. 245. In the early years of the seventeenth century, it was common to use these generic labels to designate political, as well as religious, allies and opponents. In his 1605 preface, entitled “To the Christian Reader,” Gabriel Powel, implying that the Apocalypse is a tragicomedy, says that the Catholics “play all the parts in this Tragedie” while the Protestants, it seems, are the protagonists in this comedy (see Symonds, Pisgah Evangelica, no sigs.).

  48. See E. Lampert, The Apocalypse of History: Problems of Providence and Human Destiny (London: Faber and Faber, 1948), p. 11; and for Christianson's remark, see Reformers and Babylon: English Apocalyptic Visions from the Reformation to the Eve of the Civil War (Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Press, 1977), p. 97. Cf. Walter B. Stone, “Shakespeare and the Sad Augurs,” Journal of English and Germanic Philology, 52 (1953), p. 467, who contends that, after 1583, “eschatological writings shrank to almost nothing; only in the broad sea of the popular mind, where preconceptions and prejudices shift slowly, is there evidence of a continuing devotion to the old ideas.” As evidence, Stone cites Henry Howard's A Defensatiue against the Poyson of Supposed Prophesies (London, 1583); however, the citations in Part I of the bibliography appended to the present volume would seem to tell another story.

  49. A Fruitefull Meditation; Containing a Plaine and Easie Exposition … of the 7, 8, 9, 10. Verses of the 20. Chap. of the Revelation (London, 1603), no sigs. According to James, the Book of Revelation is “a Prophesie of the latter times”—the Day of Judgment is near; see A Paraphrase upon the Revelation, in Works, pp. 7, 73.

  50. For a useful distinction between prophecy and apocalypse, see John F. Wilson, Pulpit in Parliament: Puritanism During the English Civil War Years (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1969), pp. 198-99. Shakespeare is also prophetic rather than apocalyptic according to the terms set forth by Stanley Brice Frost, whose entire discussion of the mythologizing of history and the historicizing of mythology is relevant here (see “Apocalyptic and History,” in The Bible in Modern Scholarship, ed. J. Philip Hyatt [New York: Abingdon Press, 1965], pp. 98-113).

  51. The Sense of an Ending: Studies in the Theory of Fiction (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1967), p. 18.

  52. This is the view of Gary Taylor, “The War in King Lear,Shakespeare Survey 33 (1980), p. 27.

  53. Tudor Apocalypse, p. 171.

  54. Caudwell (Christopher St. John Sprigg), Romance and Realism: A Study in English Bourgeois Literature, ed. Samuel Hynes (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1970), pp. 43-44.

  55. A Plaine Discovery of the Whole Revelation, p. 4. James H. Jones comments pertinently: “The tragedy's religious meaning consists mainly in what happens inside the protagonist, not in what Providence does outside him” (“Leir and Lear: Matthew 5:33-37, the Turning Point, and the Rescue Theme,” Comparative Drama 4 [1970], p. 130).

  56. Chambers, “King Lear,” pp. 10-11.

  57. John M. Lothian, “King Lear”: A Tragic Reading of Life (Toronto: Clarke, Irwin, 1949), pp. 3-4.

  58. Barbara Heliodora Carneiro de Mendonça, “The Influence of Gorboduc on King Lear,” Shakespeare Survey 13 (1960), p. 42.

  59. H.N. Hudson, ed., The Works of Shakespeare, IX (Boston: James Munroe, 1851-56), p. 398.

  60. Frank Kermode, Shakespeare, Spenser, Donne: Renaissance Essays (New York: Viking Press, 1971), p. 176 (my italics). See also Alvin B. Kernan, “Shakespeare and the Abstraction of History,” in Shakespeare: Pattern of Excelling Nature, ed. David Bevington and Jay L. Halio (Newark: Univ. of Delaware Press, 1978), p. 133.

  61. Shelley: A Critical Reading (1971; repr. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1977), p. 272.

  62. Herbert Lindenberger, Historical Drama: The Relation of Literature to Reality (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1975), p. 138.

  63. The Genesis of Secrecy: On the Interpretation of Narrative (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1979), pp. 109, 118. Harvey Cox comments pertinently, explaining that “‘History’ is the name we … give to the horizon of consciousness within which we live” and that fictive histories involve an “attempt to liberate Western man from the ‘tyranny of the historical consciousness.’ Such literature insists that it is only by disenthralling human intelligence from the sense of history that men will be able to confront creatively the problems of the present” (The Feast of Fools: A Theological Essay on Festivity and Fantasy [1969; repr. New York: Harper and Row, 1970], pp. 28, 33).

  64. Lindenberger, Historical Drama, p. 62, and White, “The Value of Narrativity in the Representation of Reality,” Critical Inquiry, 7 (1980), p. 23.

  65. “Heaven-Gate; Or, the Passage to Paradise,” in The Workes … Being the Summe of His Sermons (London, 1629), p. 658.

  66. “Macbeth,” “King Lear” and Contemporary History (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1922), p. 145. Winstanley's historicizing of King Lear, as William Empson remarks, “tells you a lot about the mental background of the first night audience, but not about the play” (The Structure of Complex Words, 3d ed. [London: Chatto and Windus, 1979], p. 126).

  67. John Reibetanz, The Lear World: A Study of “King Lear” in Its Dramatic Context (Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Press, 1977), p. 55.

  68. “Introduction,” “King Lear,” ed. Harbage (Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1970), p. 24.

  69. See Kermode, The Genesis of Secrecy, p. 107.

  70. “King Lear,” p. 13.

  71. Geoffrey of Monmouth, History of the Kings of Britain, tr. Sebastian Evans, rev. tr. Charles W. Dunn (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1958), p. 93. On the Merlin tradition and its bearing on King Lear, see Roland M. Smith, “King Lear and the Merlin Tradition,” Modern Language Quarterly 7 (1946), pp. 153-74, and Donna B. Hamilton, “Some Romance Sources for King Lear,” Studies in Philology, 71 (1974), pp. 173-91. See also the anon. Prophetia Anglicana, Merlini Abrosii Britanni (Frankfurt, 1603; another ed. 1608), and Heywood, Merlins Prophecies and Predictions.

  72. Shakespearean Tragedy and the Elizabethan Compromise (New York: New York Univ. Press, 1957), p. 188.

  73. See Wikander's “English Historical Drama in the Seventeenth Century,” Genre, 9 (1976) p. 196; and Felperin's “Shakespeare's Henry VIII: History as Myth,” Studies in English Literature, 6 (1966), p. 227.

  74. “‘Is This the Promised End?’: The Tragedy of King Lear,” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 33 (1974) p. 23.

  75. Kermode, Shakespeare, Spenser, Donne, p. 172.

  76. “Justice in King Lear,” in Shakespeare: “King Lear,” ed. Frank Kermode (London: Macmillan, 1969), p. 235.

  77. Jones, “Leir and Lear,” p. 126.

  78. Tudor Apocalypse, pp. 71, 233.

  79. The Apocalyptic Tradition in Reformation Britain, p. 60; see also Christianson, Reformers and Babylon, pp. 15-16. Explaining that history is subordinated to some general scheme and thereupon becomes polemical, Levy contends: “The key to that scheme was to be found in the book of Revelation: the mysteries of the text were illustrated by the chronicles, though the chronicles did not supply explanations.” Levy then concludes that, for one, John Bale believed that “‘the text [of Revelation] is a light to the chronicles’” and not vice versa (Tudor Historical Thought, p. 89).

  80. Southern, “Aspects of the European Tradition of Historical Writing,” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 72 (1972), p. 159. Bale's The Image of Both Churches and Foxe's Actes and Monuments are among the age's principal efforts at integrating history and prophecy. Bauckham comments importantly: “In these learned works of the last decade of the sixteenth century the principle of interrelating history and prophecy … reached a peak from which it was not to decline but to advance in the following centuries” (Tudor Apocalypse, p. 140). James I was instrumental in furthering this sort of apocalyptic interpretation; and King Lear, participating in the spirit of the times, contributes in significant ways to that effort.

  81. “Paradise Lost” and the Genesis Tradition (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1968), p. 99.

  82. The Influence of Prophecy in the Later Middle Ages, p. 299.

  83. A Fruitefull Meditation, no sigs.

  84. John Holloway, The Story of the Night: Studies in Shakespeare's Major Tragedies (Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1961), pp. 77, 90.

Cherrell Guilfoyle (essay date 1990)

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SOURCE: Guilfoyle, Cherrell. “The Redemption of King Lear.” In Shakespeare's Play within Play: Medieval Imagery and Scenic Form in Hamlet, Othello, and King Lear, pp. 111-27. Kalamazoo, Mich.: Western Michigan University Medieval Institute Publications, 1990.

[In the following essay, Guilfoyle examines the theme of Christian redemption in King Lear and contends that several figures in the play assume Christ-like qualities.]

The title of this paper is a quotation from A. C. Bradley's lecture on King Lear: “Should we,” he asked, call “this poem The Redemption of King Lear?”1 Bradley was not alone in detecting an underlying thread of Christian imagery in a play which Shakespeare, working largely from a Christian version of the old story, seemed resolute to express in overtly pagan terms. J. C. Maxwell wrote: “King Lear is a Christian play about a pagan world.”2

Shakespeare's principal source, The True Chronicle Historie of King Leir and his three daughters, was a play set in Britain, ruled by a Christian king. In King Lear, there is no direct indication that the king and his entourage are Christians; on the contrary, the king swears by Jupiter, and there are several references to “the gods.” But Shakespeare appears to have made a double move, first reverting from the Christian Leir of The True Chronicle to the pagan king of Geoffrey of Monmouth and Holinshed, and then underpinning his paganized court with both Christian accretions on the Arthurian romance legends (as I have already discussed above3) and scenic forms from the mystery plays. This last line of imagery, combined with biblical references, formed a pattern used by Shakespeare in two previous tragedies, Hamlet and Othello; in King Lear Shakespeare's characters are not Christians, but as the action of the play intensifies, they find themselves acting in scenic forms from the Christian story, whether or not they are supposed to be living before that time, as they are before Merlin's.

The scene of the division of the kingdom goes far back in legend and leaves the way open for multiple parallels. The formal and mythical atmosphere of this scene contrasts strongly with the confused path of the play thereafter; there is no critical consensus as to which is the “eye” scene or where the catastrophe. Fredson Bowers contends that the storm scenes cannot be the “eye” because what happens there does not precipitate the catastrophe; James Black queries, “Where, after all, is the ‘climax’ of King Lear?”4 The indeterminate action is matched by indeterminate time; King Lear is for the most part a “present” play—no ghosts, no calls to remember the past, no re-enactments, and little reflection on the past or future.

Maynard Mack quoted Granville-Barker on this problem: in King Lear, we are conscious “of a vision of things to which the action itself is but a foreground.”5 One aspect of this vision is interpreted with underlying images of Arthurian legend, mythical and arcane (the Church has never given official recognition to the Grail story); another is in images taken from Christian legend, theater and text, also arcane because of the Elizabethan proscription of the mystery plays and the threat of blasphemy.6 There seems to be in the use of Christian analogy and imagery a certain schematic coherence. In the opening scene and at intervals up to the middle of Act III there are Old Testament analogies with the Creation disaster and the Creator's wrath and disillusion with his Creation. A turning point comes in Act III when Lear apostrophizes the “Poor naked wretches, wheresoe'er you are” and recognizes his error: “O! I have ta'en / Too little care of this” (III.iv.28, 32-33). As L. C. Knights has pointed out, self-pity is transmuted to pity at this point.7 From III.vii to line 80 of, Lear is absent from the stage while Gloucester is the central figure in two powerful New Testament evocations, with scenic forms from the blindfolding and buffeting of Christ as well as the temptation by Satan. This imagery forms the counterpart of the Old Testament analogies. In Genesis, God becomes angry with man and repents that he created him; his wrath then abates, and the way is open to forgiveness. The New Testament images are a reminder that this can only be achieved by the supreme sacrifice. At the end of the play the images of the Grail story and of the cycle plays come together in an icon of the Deposition from the Cross.


The Russian film director Kozintsev wrote of King Lear: “The poetry is full of the thunder of Old Testament curses.”8 In Genesis, God's curses start thundering almost as soon as he has finished the work of creating in his own image, since the image obstinately fails to reflect its great original. First Adam and Eve, then Cain, almost the whole of Noah's generation, and the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah are directly or indirectly cursed by their Creator. According to Camus, “la création, c'est le grand mime,”9 and the image was intended to act out its likeness to God by obedience to his laws and with praise of his glory. But the children of God were disobedient and vainglorious; the early chapters of Genesis show Creation as a disaster.

In the cycle plays there is a prelude to the disaster of Creation in the story of the fall of Lucifer, and in scenic form the Lucifer play is reflected in the opening scene of King Lear. The old king, enthroned, requires his children to signify their love and obedience through praise. In the York play, Angelus Seraphyn and Angelus Cherabyn praise God in similar terms, speaking alternately; Regan and Goneril do likewise for their father. Lucifer, the Angelus Deficiens, praises only himself and his power, and is cast out of heaven;10 in N-town he is blamed for his pride:

Thu lucyfere ffor þi mekyl pryde
I bydde þe ffalle from hefne to helle
And all þo þat holdyn on þi syde
in my blysse nevyr more to dwelle. …(11)

The fall of Lucifer is missing from the Towneley Manuscript, but later in the Towneley sequence, in the Noah play, God reiterates what he requires of his children: “Man must luf me paramoure.”12 Lear poses the question, “Which of you shall we say doth love us most?” (I.i.51). Cordelia's restraint, inspired by loathing of her sisters' hypocrisy, is mistaken for pride, and she suffers virtual banishment. Her supporter Kent is truly banished, and his challenge of Lear's authority—“What wouldst thou do, old man?” (I.i.146)—matches Lucifer's defiance.

The opening scene of King Lear can therefore be seen as an antithetical Lucifer play, with the wrong people being cast out of heaven, and forms part of what Clifford Davidson has described as the reversed iconography of King Lear, “the world upside-down.” Shakespeare had previously used medieval scenic form and antithesis in the opening scene of Hamlet.13 However, in King Lear, unlike Hamlet, the opening scene is taken directly from the principal source, The True Chronicle Historie. It has been pointed out that in the earlier play Lear had reasons not only to ask his daughters for a profession of love but also for his rage against Cordelia; however, Shakespeare removes or glosses over these reasons to allow for the unwarranted accusation of pride against Lear's youngest daughter. In Othello Shakespeare similarly excised details in his source which rationalized the action in order that he might develop the play and its imagery in his own way.14

Lucifer is banished for his “mekyl pryde”; Lear, goaded by Cordelia's initial silence and subsequent cursory words, says, “Let pride, which she calls plainness, marry her” (I.i.129). It may be questioned whether Cordelia's words—“I cannot heave / My heart into my mouth” (I.i.91-92)—are really justified in view of the subsequent easy flow of her language when she is pleading with Lear to clear her in the eyes of the King of France (“I yet beseech your Majesty”); but by this time the parallel scenic form is ended. Cordelia's “plainness” served for an interpretation as pride, and the audience as well as Lear may feel the coldness of disobedience in Cordelia's first words to her father (“Nothing, my Lord”) and in the repetition of the word “nothing” four times in the next three lines. When Cordelia takes leave of her sisters, they charge her with Lucifer's crime: “You have obedience scanted” (I.i.279). Earlier, in dispossessing his daughter, Lear used unconscious irony in the words “thy truth then be thy dower,” and followed this with pagan oaths “by the sacred radiance of the sun, / The mysteries of Hecate and the night” as well as reference to “The barbarous Scythian” (I.i.108-10, 116), pointing the antithesis, the error of judgment. The first scene ends with Regan and Goneril lowering their speeches into prose, as their true colors begin to show; and Summers has noted that in Act II.iv the sisters enact a parody of their praises in the first scene as they alternately show less and less love for their father—“What need you five-and-twenty, ten, or five”; “What need one?”15 They no longer pretend to love and obey; they wish to be king—i.e., to supplant their father.

The fall of Lucifer is used only peripherally in scenic form, and since the origin of the Lear legend is not known, the myths may have been shared before Shakespeare began his work. However, I suggest that there are signs that Shakespeare perceived the analogy and the antithesis and that the highly formal opening scene, breeding the seeds of anarchy, may have served as the starting point for subsequent lines of imagery in the play.

After the formalities of the first scene, the Old Testament analogies move to the disillusion of the Creator with his disobedient, treacherous children. Already, in the brief opening dialogue, the audience has been introduced to the parallel characters of the sub-plot: Gloucester, the father who is to be deceived and rejected; Edmund, the younger son; and (by report in the dialogue) Edgar, the elder. In this configuration, the elder child is loyal, the younger disloyal. Immediately following the opening scene, Edmund in soliloquy declares his hand: “Legitimate Edgar, I must have your land” (I.ii.16), like Jacob seeking Esau's birthright. In rejecting Edgar—“O villain, villain!” (I.ii.75)—Gloucester echoes Lear's mistaken rejection of Cordelia. Almost as soon as he is blinded, Gloucester's inner eye is opened to his mistake; like the blind Isaac, he yearns to identify the rightful elder son—“Oh! dear son Edgar, … Might I but live to see thee in my touch” (IV.i.21, 23).16 There is another faint echo of the Isaac and Jacob story (which seemed to interest Shakespeare, as his use of it in The Merchant of Venice I.iii suggests) in Gloucester's unwitting recognition of Edgar when disguised as Tom o'Bedlam—“My son / Came then into my mind” (IV.i.33-34). The blind Isaac, feeling the goatskins on Jacob, says, “The voyce is Iaakobs voyce, but the hands are the handes of Esau” (Genesis 27.22).

When the God of Genesis found that the children of his Creation disobeyed him, he cursed them, and the curses involved not only the punishment of man but the disruption of nature, chaos over the whole of Creation caused by the last and greatest work of the heavenly Father. In the tremendous curse on Goneril which Lear utters (I.iv.284-98) and in the two subsequent curses (I.iv.308-10, II.iv.163-68), Nature is the godhead. God's first injunction to Adam and Eve was “be fruitful and multiply”; after the Fall, Eve's children are to be brought forth in sorrow. For Goneril, Lear reverses “be fruitful and multiply”’ with “Into her womb convey sterility! / Dry up in her the organs of increase!” Later “Blasts and fogs,” “taking airs,” “nimble lightnings,” “fen-suck'd fogs” are invoked to destroy Goneril. Thorns and thistles are sent to plague Adam, and he is finally consigned to dust.

By the time mankind reaches the generation of Noah, God regrets that he undertook the work of creation; in fact the first mention of repentance in the Bible is that of the Creator: “Then it repented the Lord, that he had made man in the earth, and he was sorie in his heart” (Genesis 6.6). In the Towneley Noah, “I repente full sore that ever maide I man”; in N-town, “þat I made man sore doth me rewe”; God swears, “I wol be vengyd of þis grett mysse.”17 Mingled with the regret and the rage, there appears to be, especially in the Towneley Creation and Mactacio Abel, “a reflection of the limited power of the Creator to intervene on behalf of the creatures formed in his image to protect them from the evil he seems impotent to control.”18

Lear rejects his elder daughters in rage and impotence; he swears vengeance but cannot carry it out; he is no longer enthroned. Incoherently he 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” (II.iv.281-84)—words very much in the vein of the Lord addressing Samuel, “Beholde, I wil do a thing in Israel, whereof whosoeuer shal heare, his two eares shal tingle.”19 The Genesis curses reverberate through the Old Testament.

God chose to follow the rejection of his children by wholesale destruction—by water for Noah's generation, by fire for Sodom and Gomorrah. In the Towneley Noah, God swears, “As I say shal I do—of veniance draw my swerd, / And make end / Of all that beris life. …”20 Lear summons up “cataracts and hurricanoes” to drown the world, “thought-executing fires” to burn it, “all-shaking thunder” to “Strike flat the thick rotundity o' th' world”; the destruction is to be completed by the injunction “Crack Nature's moulds, all germens spill at once / That makes ingrateful man!” (III.ii.2-9). God's Old Testament fury was in a sense a rehearsal for the Day of Judgment—the universal destruction, the saving of only a few. There is an early statement of the Judgment theme in Lear's warning to Goneril—“Woe, that too late repents” (I.iv.266)—and in the later “I will punish home” (III.iv.16).21

Lear is like the Old Testament God in that the children of his creation fail him; “repentant” that he has made them, wrathful at their disobedience, he retires from the conflict. In his rage and madness he acts both the part of the disillusioned God and, at times, of the Creation that God is prepared to abandon.

As the play progresses, the Old Testament analogies give way to New Testament imagery; the evocation of God in the first person is overlaid with that of God in the second person, presented in scenic form and with verbal reference. Something of this shift of imagery between the first and second persons of God had been seen in Ophelia's mad scenes in Hamlet, where the godhead is expressed alternately as father (God) and brother or lover (Christ), for which the play characters are respectively Polonius, Laertes, and Hamlet.22 In King Lear, the image of the second person falls first on Gloucester, then on Lear, and finally on Cordelia, who appears as the “real” Christ-figure as the play ends.


The shift in imagery is achieved with the use of a device similar to that found in Hamlet, where the protagonist is offstage for three scenes—scenes which depict the madness and death of Ophelia—and returns much changed in the graveyard scene. The interval in King Lear is much longer; Lear is absent from the stage after the mock trial in Act until he re-enters, fantastically crowned, in In the intervening period, Gloucester, while still taking part in the sub-plot, appears in biblical scenic form representing, in the mystery tradition, the theme of redemption through suffering which is symbolized in Arthurian legend by the Holy Grail; the lines of biblical and of Arthurian imagery converge at Dover, the scene of the resolution of the play and the legendary place of Arthur's landing to regain his kingdom.23 The “interval” scenes include the blinding of Gloucester, the return of Cordelia, and the attempted suicide of Gloucester at Dover.

Gloucester himself sets in motion the “drive toward Dover” and exhorts Kent, “Take up thy master” ( Lear sleeps while Gloucester takes the central role, the pitifully tortured figure of the blinding scene. In Sidney's Arcadia, Shakespeare's main source for the sub-plot in King Lear, the old king was “deprived, not onely of his kingdome … but of his sight” through “the hard-harted vngratefulnes of a sonne.”24 Shakespeare's source gives no more on the subject of blinding than this bare statement; in the play, the staging of the torture, action found unbearable by many critics, goes back to the tradition of the mystery cycles in which, as in the Towneley Coliphizacio, grim details of the torture and crucifixion of Christ were represented on stage.

The scene is set immediately in III.vii when Regan and Goneril, once Cornwall has commanded “Seek out the traitor Gloucester,” add: “Hang him instantly. / Pluck out his eyes.” During the taunting and buffeting of Christ he was blindfolded (“And when they had blindefolded him, thei smote him on the face, and asked him, saying, Prophecie who it is that smote thee”—Luke 22.64). In N-town the torturers “castyn A cloth ouyr his face”; in the Towneley play “a vayll” is “Aboute his heade cast.”25 Typologically the blindfolding was linked to the blinding of Samson by the Philistines.

Shakespeare once again aligns medieval scenic form with the action of the play;26 there are distinct parallels with the Towneley Coliphizacio, given added definition by verbal echoes. In the Towneley play Christ is taunted by the high priest, Caiaphas; dressed in long robes, he would be similar in appearance to the predatory Regan (itself a role played by a boy). Goneril leaves the stage early in the scene; in the Towneley play Annas has only a minor role in the taunting, and leaves the main action to Caiaphas, whose rage and cruelty against Christ are matched by the rage and cruelty of Regan against Gloucester. Caiaphas even exclaims, “Nay, bot I shall out-thrist / Both his een on a raw.” Regan urges Cornwall on: “one side will mock another; th' other too” (III.vii.70). The torturers force Christ to sit, to make it easier to strike him: “Com, syr, and syt downe” (“If he stode vpon loft, we must hop and dawnse / As cokys in a croft”). Gloucester is dragged to a chair: “To this chair bind him”; “Fellows, hold the chair” (ll. 34, 66). The first torturer, while striking Christ, says, “Godys forbot ye lefe, bot set in youre nayles / On raw.”27 With Regan standing over him, Gloucester answers the third “Wherefore to Dover?” with “Because I would not see thy cruel nails / Pluck out his poor old eyes” (ll. 54-56), unknowingly foreshadowing his own imminent blinding.

There is later an echo of the typology of this scene when Albany declares, “Gloucester, I live / To thank thee for the love thou show'dst the king, / And to revenge thine eyes” (IV.ii.94-96). Samson prays to God “that I maye be at once auenged of the Philistims for my two eyes.”28

The blind Gloucester appears in another symbolic scene when he attempts to kill himself by throwing himself off a cliff at Dover. For Gloucester, this action takes place only in imagination; he is not standing on a cliff, nor does he fall any distance; by the same token, his survival is not miraculous. His guide, whom he takes for “some fiend,” is in fact his loving son Edgar. Nevertheless Edgar has constructed the scene, initially at his father's urging, but subsequently with its own momentum, to reproduce the images of the temptation of Christ by Satan on the pinnacle of the temple at Jerusalem: “If thou be the Sonne of God, cast thy self downe from hence, / For it is written, that he wil giue his Angels charge ouer thee to kepe thee” (Luke 4.9-10), and Edgar tells Gloucester that “the clearest Gods … have preserved thee” ( The imagery from biblical sources again coalesces with that of Arthurian legend; Dover is where the apotheosis of the play is to be reached, and represents a holy city and sanctuary for the faithful.29 The setting of the scene in Dover/Jerusalem, the description by Edgar of a “fiend” who led Gloucester there, the temptation of suicide by jumping from a great height, the suggestion that survival after such a jump would be a heavenly miracle—these are components which are indicative of New Testament imagery rather than the image, suggested by R. W. Chambers, of Gloucester being led by Edgar up the mountain of Purgatory.30 Outwardly Shakespeare maintains the pagan setting; thus Lear in the abdication scene has ostentatiously sworn by Jove and Apollo, Gloucester in wishing to abdicate his life invokes “fairies and Gods” and “you mighty Gods,” and Edgar refers to “the clearest Gods” ( 29, 34, 73). The two source figures of Leir and the king of Patagonia invoke the Christian God.31

The scene of the Temptation does not form part of the mystery sequences, but in Shakespeare's scene the mixture of an intensely serious subject with naive, almost grotesque action, with Edgar disguised first as a poor madman and then as a simple countryman (and finding himself in some confusion as to dialect), is reminiscent of the presentation of the mystery plays, with humble people such as shepherds and soldiers playing in conjunction with the central figure.32

Once the two key scenes of the blinding and attempted suicide are over, Gloucester's part is virtually finished. He has a memorable short dialogue with the king, but his reunion with Edgar and subsequent death take place off stage. While the sub-plot continues, with Edmund's intrigues with the two sisters and assumption of his father's title, the New Testament images fall on Lear and on Cordelia. Like Caiaphas, Cornwall was not empowered to take the life of his victim (“Though well we may not pass upon his life / Without the form of justice …”); after the Buffeting Christ was sent to trial, but Gloucester is cursorily dismissed, like Samson after his blinding (“Turn out that eyeless villain”), as his part in the underlying scenic form comes to an end.33

Between the two scenes of Gloucester's transfiguration, Cordelia comes back into the play. Her re-entry is heralded in the Quarto by a short scene in which a “Gentleman” describes to Kent how she received the news of her father's sufferings at the hands of her sisters; she is presented as a glorified and heavenly spirit: her eyes are diamonds, her tears pearls, and she shakes “The holy water from her heavenly eyes” (IV.iii.31). Traversi wrote of this line as “the poetical transformation of natural emotion into its spiritual distillation.”34 The scene is omitted from the Folio, an excision interesting in the light of subsequent development of the imagery surrounding Cordelia; the Gentleman's description is symbolic, but is irrelevant or at best peripheral to this. In the Quarto, Cordelia enters immediately after Albany's vow to avenge the blinding of Gloucester, and thus provides continuity of the Christ imagery, previously established in the scene of the blinding and continued afterwards with the scene of Gloucester's attempted suicide.

As soon as Cordelia enters, she speaks of her father: “Alack! 'tis he … Crown'd with rank fumiter and furrow-weeds, / With hardocks, hemlock, nettles, cuckoo-flowers, / Darnel, and all the idle weeds that grow …” (IV.iv.1-5). The New Variorum edition gives a quotation pointing out that Lear's crown is made up of plants all with “bitter, biting, poisonous, pungent, lurid, and distracting properties.”35 The figure of the king crowned in this way is reminiscent of Christ with his crown of thorns. The point is reinforced when Lear later appears in this guise before Edgar, who exclaims, “O thou side-piercing sight!” (—an echo of the piercing of the side of Christ on the cross.36 Yet the central figure in the final image of the play is to be Cordelia, not Lear; the Christ-image, first enacted by Gloucester, then by Lear, is to rest at last on the innocent, murdered daughter. Indeed, she seems to be the “true” image, in contrast to the parodic image presented by the mad Lear. Cordelia's words “O dear father! / It is thy business that I go about” (IV.iv.23-24) are closely parallel to the words of Christ in Luke 2.49—“knewe ye not that I must go about my fathers business?”—and are a key to the final role which Cordelia will assume.


The tradition of Lear entering at “fantastically dressed with wild flowers,” to quote Capell's stage direction,37 derives from Cordelia's identification of Lear as “crown'd” in a fashion suggestive of the crown of thorns. In Hamlet, the mad Ophelia enters with flowers which she distributes, like funeral herbs, to the people around her who are shortly to die.38 Lear's “rank fumiter and furrow-weeds” may be equally symbolic. Lear had earlier used a figure of Christ crucified by referring to Goneril and Regan as “these pelican daughters” (III.iv.75), inverting the traditional iconography of the young pelicans saved by their parent who pierces its own breast so that they may feed on its blood. Both with this image, related to a passage in Shakespeare's source play,39 and in the crown Lear wears, there is an element of parody; Lear is not the true Christ-figure, and the darkening of the imagery through parody intensifies once Lear has re-entered after his long interval off-stage.

Lear enters “Crown'd”; Edgar exclaims with poetic cadence “O thou side-piercing sight,” but Lear, speaking against this, launches into prose and forces Edgar back into his Tom o' Bedlam role:

O! well flown bird; i' th' clout, i' th' clout; hewgh!
Give the word.
Sweet marjoram.


There follows Gloucester's interjection “I know that voice,” and Lear continues in the prose mode but with verbal references from the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5) for the second time in the play. In Act I after his rejection by Goneril, Lear had paraphrased Matthew 5.29 (“Wherefore if thy right eye cause thee to offend, plucke it out, and cast it from thee”):

                                                            … Old fond eyes,
Beweep this cause again, I'll plucke ye out,
And cast you. …”


Now, seeing the blind Gloucester, Lear laments his loss of authority with words from Matthew 5.37: “Ha! Goneril with a white beard! They flattered me like a dog, and told me I had the white hairs in my beard ere the black ones were there. To say ‘ay’ and ‘no’ to every thing that I said! ‘Ay’ and ‘no’ too was no good divinity” ( Matthew proclaims, “Nether shalt thou sweare by thine head, because thou canst not make one heere white or blacke. But let your communication be, Yea, yea: Nay, nay” (5.36-37). When Gloucester asks, “Is't not the king?” Lear affirms “Ay, every inch a king.” Then he launches into a tirade on adultery and lust, with echoes of Matthew 5.27-32 on the sin of adultery.40 The multiple verbal references and the alternation of prose and poetry in Lear's speech show the old king at once taking over the Christ imagery from Gloucester and, in his dementia, failing to sustain it except in parodic form.

At the moment of his self-knowledge, Lear's wits have given way; but in his madness he can recognize his incapacity. A dethroned Jove, “the thunder would not peace at my bidding” (; no more than a parodic image of Christ, he reproaches Cordelia: “You do me wrong to take me out o' th' grave” (IV.vii.45). The role of Lear is being adapted to that of Cordelia, who is, in death, to be the central figure of the resolution of the play.

Dover Wilson maintained that Cordelia “was conceived as a Christ-like figure.”41 Her paraphrase from St. Luke—“It is thy business that I go about”—has been noted above. When Lear is at last safe in the hands of Cordelia's attendants, the “Gentleman” says that she “redeems nature from the general curse / Which twain have brought her to” ( It may be noted that the Gentleman's lines here appear in both Quarto and Folio, and are not excised from the Folio as was the less relevant imagery in IV.iii. The Gentleman's statement is not unlike that made by Claudius in Hamlet when he refers to his fratricide in terms of the curse of Cain: “O my offence is rank, it smells to heaven, / It has the primal eldest curse upon it. …” The “primal eldest curse” was the first uttered by God directly upon man. In King Lear, the evil done by Goneril and Regan is compared to the sin of Adam and Eve, which provoked the “general curse” on nature: “cursed is the earth for thy sake” (Genesis 3.17). The redeemer from this general curse is Christ. According to Danby, Cordelia “anagogically” is “the redemptive principle itself.”42

The principle is of redemption through the suffering and death of the redeemer. When Cordelia dies, the old king's confusion, his despair sharpened by intermittent hope, is expressed in a halting, disjointed threnody similar in many respects to that of the mad Ophelia. “She's gone for ever”; “She's dead as earth” (“he is dead and gone, lady”): “Thou'lt come no more, / Never, never, never, never, never” (“And will a' not come again? / No, no, he is dead … he never will come again”).43 Ophelia mourns her father, but the figure is conflated in her confused imagination with brother and lover, in the threefold relationship that Christ bore to Magdalen. The young girl in Lear's arms has, by the time of the last apocalyptic entrance, been presented both as a figure of Christ and in analogy with the great romance Christ-figure, Arthur. Yet both mourners seem to be denying the possibility of the Christian doctrine of resurrection, with the repeated negatives, “no, no” (Ophelia), “never, never” (Lear). The doctrine is contained in Lear's cry: “she lives! if it be so / It is a chance which does redeem all sorrow” (V.iii.265-66)—redemption, specifically, of Lear with his sorrows. But the lines reflect the affirmation given earlier: “Thou hast one daughter, / Who redeems nature from the general curse / Which twain have brought her to” (

For Wilson Knight, Cordelia's death is “horrible, cruel, unnecessarily cruel.” Wilders comments on the “terrible irony” of this death in the hour of victory, Bayley on the “painful unfairness” of her death. Another critic writes of “her innocent yet ignominious death”; Charlton states, “her death is sacrificial.” Chambers thinks that Shakespeare here has altered his sources so that Cordelia should not die of despair (in the source stories she ultimately kills herself, an action incompatible with the pure spirituality of Shakespeare's Cordelia).44 If we ignore the Christian reference, her death is indeed unnecessarily cruel, but it is by no means certain that we are meant to do so.

The death of Christ was often referred to as hanging: “whome they slewe, hanging him on a tre” (Acts 10.39). The manner of Cordelia's death probably originated in Spenser: “And ouercommen kept in prison long, / Till wearie of that wretched life, her selfe she hong.”45 This took place at a later stage in the story, but Edmund intended his murder of Cordelia to be disguised as a similar suicide:

He hath commission from thy wife and me
To hang Cordelia in the prison, and
To lay the blame upon her own despair,
That she fordid herself.


Shakespeare first altered the timing of Cordelia's death from his sources so that Lear survives her; now he alters the death itself from suicide to murder. But he keeps the manner of death by hanging (as in Spenser), which itself can be survived. Craik has written of the “equivocal death scenes” in Othello and in King Lear; Desdemona is thought to be dead, but speaks from her deathbed; Cordelia is carried in by Lear, but may not be dead. Williamson, who puts an interesting case for deliberate ambiguity on this point, writes, “It is unthinkable that Lear would call attention to Cordelia's lips because they are not moving.”46

Lear begins his final speech with another ambiguity: “And my poor fool is hang'd” (V.iii.305). As White wrote, “It is significant that we can even ask the question” as to which “poor fool” this is. The Arden editor rejects the theory that the roles of Cordelia and the Fool were doubled, but more recently Stephen Booth has shown that it could be so.47 The weight of critical opinion supports the view that the “poor fool” is Cordelia, although it is conceded that as Lear's Fool has long since disappeared from the scene and is otherwise unaccounted for, this ambiguity may also be deliberate. Shakespeare uses “poor fool” to indicate a person or object regarded with something like affectionate condescension, as with Beatrice's merry heart and Cleopatra's asp; in this sense Lear himself addresses his Fool: “Poor Fool and knave, I have one part in my heart / That's sorry yet for thee” (III.ii.72-73). He also uses the proprietorial “my fool” (five times in I.iv). “My poor fool” in Lear's closing lines can hardly fail to bring to mind the unhappy Fool who would be whipped if he did not speak truth—unlike the unhappy daughter who was disowned for doing so. The ambiguity may be part of Lear's confusion as to his own role and others' roles; it is not certain which of the truth-bearers—accepted or rejected—he refers to, nor what gesture he has made, when Albany exclaims “see, see!” just before the words “And my poor fool is hang'd.”

With the exception of Lear, the successive deaths in Act V.iii are all off-stage. First there is Edgar's report of Gloucester's death. The bodies of Goneril and Regan are carried on, the murdered and the self-destroyed; the dying Edmund is carried off and his death briefly reported later. In the off-stage prison where Lear and Cordelia are confined, Cordelia is hanged. Lear first kills “the slave that was a-hanging thee,” and then takes her down and carries her on stage. The effect of this is to concentrate attention on the relation between Lear and the body of his daughter, and the powerful symbolism of the Deposition and pietà is fed into this final icon both from the New Testament imagery associated with Cordelia and from the Arthurian imagery associated with the culmination of the action in Dover. The legendary figure of Joseph of Arimathia, as the man who took down the body of Christ and later carried Christ's blood to England in the Holy Grail, provides Lear with his closing role in the complex symbolism of the tragedy.


In each of Shakespeare's four great tragedies, the innocent are sacrificed, and in various ways the deaths of Ophelia, Desdemona, Cordelia, and the Macduff children are illumined by biblical imagery. As Knights has said, Shakespeare is not concerned to judge in these matters but simply to reveal; and there is some consensus as to revelation at the end of King Lear. In Christian doctrine the sacrifice of the innocent is the prelude to salvation. Calderwood has pointed out the large number of “visual” words in the last forty-five lines of the play; what we are invited to see, according to another critic, is a door opened to reconciliation.48

When Gloucester falls, as he thinks, from the height of Dover cliffs, and the disguised Edgar comes to his assistance, there is a passage of dramatic irony in which Edgar gives free rein to his imagination in describing the fall. He knows that his father is blind but pretends that he does not know; he exhorts the prostrate Gloucester: “Look up a-height … do but look up.” Gloucester cannot comply: “Alack! I have no eyes” ( At the end of the play, Lear still has the use of his eyes, but they are deceiving him; he exclaims, “Look there, look there!”—presumably at the face of the dead Cordelia, whose lips appear to move. Edgar holds the fainting king—“He faints! My Lord! My Lord!”—and then utters the words that are fully conventional in the circumstances, yet hark back to Edgar's words to his father: “Look up, my Lord” (V.iii.309-12; cf. Gloucester could not look up; but should Lear do so?

When Lear enters with Cordelia in his arms, Kent, Edgar, and Albany speak a short triad of half-lines linking this tragic apparition to the Last Judgment: “Is this the promis'd end? / Or image of that horror? / Fall and cease” (V.iii.263-64). Judgment is the theme of the liturgy for the second Sunday in Advent: “There shall be signs in the sun and in the moon, and in the stars: and in the earth the people shall be at their wit's end, through despair.” The passage continues: “When these things begin to come to pass, then look up, and lift up your heads; for your redemption draweth nigh.”49

The “image of that horror” remains as King Lear draws to a close. Addison wrote of Tate's “happy ending” version of the play: “As it is reformed according to the chimerical notion of poetic justice, in my humble opinion it has lost half its beauty.”50 The judgment evoked by Shakespeare is made of sterner stuff. There are earlier images of horror and punishment; Mary Lascelles points out that Lear's “dreadful summoners” probably summon to Judgment, and that the naked Edgar—and there is some insistence on his nakedness—is stripped as the wretched are for Doomsday.51 When the blind Gloucester is confronted by the shattered remnants of Lear's majesty, he exclaims, “This great world / Shall so wear out to naught” (

“The promis'd end” was presumably in Keats' mind when he described King Lear as “the fierce dispute / Betwixt damnation and impassion'd clay.”52 According to Emrys Jones, “the personal theme of the coming of death is set within another larger theme of the ending of the world.”53 Not for the first time, Shakespeare seems to give his actors roles in a borrowed story, and develop within the overt plot symbolism which draws the characters into symbolic role-assumption; this change of “dress” can take place several times, more or less as the actors themselves in Shakespeare's company would double roles, but perhaps more significantly as several men in the casts of the pageant plays would enact different parts of the life of Christ. Thus Gloucester enacts the Buffeting and the Temptation of Christ, while Lear, the “side-piercing sight” crowned with weeds, enacts the humiliation of Christ. These are passing role-assumptions, but when the apotheosis of the Crucifixion is reached—off-stage—with the hanging of Cordelia, Lear shares with his daughter the symbolic play, taking down the body and carrying it as Joseph of Arimathia did. In Dover the roles adjust rightly; Lear in his disarray is unconsciously putting the “right” question (is she really dead?) and being encouraged by Edgar: “Look up, my lord.” Cordelia is on her way to heaven.

This brings us back to the beginning of the play, with its parodic undertones of God in his heaven and the fall of Lucifer. Mircea Eliade wrote that the mythical visions of the beginning and end of time are homologues;54 they are also the end themes of the mystery cycles, heaven first and last. Segments of the cycle pattern fall across Shakespeare's four great tragedies; in Hamlet and in King Lear, the opening and closing images are complementary. In Hamlet, the images are of the first and second coming.55 In King Lear, the opening parallels are with the Old Testament God who repented that he made man, and the closing images those of the supreme sacrifice which could restore man to heaven. The pattern of the cycle plays is that of human existence, an existence acted out in King Lear in a parodic mode which accords well with the cycle imagery. Kott called the play “this gigantic pantomime”;56 Bradley asked if we should call “this poem The Redemption of King Lear.Pace Bradley, the symbolism reflects not the redemption of Lear but rather some aspects of the pattern of Christian salvation as it had been shown in the “pantomime” of the cycle plays—the sacrifice of the Passion, the call to repentance leading to resurrection, the Judgment which will redeem the repentant and, of course, condemn the rest.

The heaven that presides over the tragedy of King Lear contains first an angry and embittered ruler, disowning one of his children and rejected by the others, and last, an intimation of final Judgment which is “horror.” The promise of redemption by the sacrifice of the innocent is discernible, but only just. For the development of the theme we must turn to the four romances which follow the four great tragedies.

Wickham described King Lear as a prologue to the romances; Charlton wrote that “the romances are afterthoughts to the tragedies.”57 Shakespeare presented a sequence of father / daughter relationships in each of which a pure young daughter brings happiness, or at least peace of mind, to her father after sacrificing a part of her life or liberty. In King Lear the scene of reconciliation between Lear and Cordelia looks forward to the recognition scenes in the romances;58 but King Lear is tragedy, not tragi-comedy, and when the king exclaims that “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.265-67), it appears that the feather is as chimerical as the notion of poetic justice. Lear does not know whether or not his redeemer lives, but the final icon points forward to the resurrected daughters who are the torchbearers of redemption in the romances. The fathers in Pericles, Cymbeline, and The Winter's Tale weep in contrition over daughters who are alive, in this world, if not in the next.


  1. [A. C.] Bradley, Shakespearean Tragedy [1905; rpt. London: Macmillian, 1964], p. 285.

  2. J. C. Maxwell, “The Technique of Invocation in King Lear,Modern Language Review, 45 (1950), 142.

  3. See chap. VIII, above.

  4. Fredson Bowers, “The Structure of King Lear,Shakespeare Quarterly, 31 (1980), 7; James Black, “King Lear: Art Upside Down,” Shakespeare Survey, 33 (1980), 35.

  5. Maynard Mack, King Lear in Our Time (Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 1965), p. 43.

  6. Cf. [Harley] Granville-Barker, Prefaces to Shakespeare [(1930; rpt. London: Sidgwick and Jackson, 1958)], II, 87: in King Lear, “Shakespeare escapes difficulties with the censor by expressly ‘paganizing’ the play.”

  7. L. C. Knights, Some Shakespearean Themes (Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 1960), p. 104.

  8. Grigori Kozintsev, Shakespeare: Time and Conscience, trans. Joyce Vining (London: Dennis Dobson, 1967), p. 62.

  9. Albert Camus, Le Mythe de Sisyphe (Paris: Gallimard, 1942), p. 130.

  10. York Plays, ed. [Richard] Beadle [London: Edward Arnold, 1982], pp. 50-52.

  11. Ludus Coventriae, ed. [K. S.] Block [EETS, s.s. 120 (London, 1922)], p. 18 (ll. 66-69).

  12. The Wakefield Pageants in the Towneley Cycle, ed. [A. C. ] Cawley [Manchester: Univ. of Manchester Press, 1958], p. 16 (l. 80).

  13. Clifford Davidson, “La phénoménologie de la souffrance, le drame médiéval, et King Lear,Revue d'histoire du théâtre, 37 (1985), 352-53, and chap. II, above.

  14. Allardyce Nicoll, Studies in Shakespeare (London: Leonard and Virginia Woolf, 1927), p. 148; see also chap. VII, above, and [Geoffrey] Bullough, Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakepeare [London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1973], VII, 197-202.

  15. Joseph H. Summers, “‘Look there, look there!’ The Ending of King Lear,” in English Renaissance Studies Presented to Dame Helen Gardner, ed. John Carey (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980), p. 81.

  16. The final recognition scene is off-stage; Gloucester and the “real,” undisguised Edgar are never on stage together. Gloucester's initial rejection and subsequent enlightenment are not in Edgar's presence.

  17. Wakefield Pageants in the Towneley Cycle, ed. Cawley, p. 16 (l. 91); Ludus Coventriae, ed. Block, p. 38 (ll. 95, 106).

  18. Barbara Miliaras, “The Politics of Religion and the Heretical Left in Northern England,” Fifteenth Century Studies, 13 (1988), 435-46.

  19. I Samuel 3.11 [Quotations from the Bible are taken from The Geneva Bible: A Facsimile of the 1560 Edition, ed. Lloyd E. Berry (Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1969)].

  20. Wakefield Pageants in the Towneley Cycle, ed. Cawley, p. 16 (ll. 103-05).

  21. In this context, see James F. Calderwood, “Creative Uncreation in King Lear,Shakespeare Quarterly, 37 (1986), 5-19. Calderwood cites the division of the kingdom as “Lear's act of uncreation” (p. 6).

  22. Cf. chap. I, above.

  23. Cf. chap. VIII, above.

  24. See [Kenneth] Muir, ed., King Lear [New Arden Edition, revised ed. (London: Methuen, 1972)], p. 244.

  25. Ludus Coventriae, ed. Block, p. 276; Wakefield Pageants in the Towneley Cycle, ed. Cawley, p. 88 (ll. 388, 391).

  26. As he had done notably in the graveyard scene in Hamlet and in the final scene of Othello.

  27. Wakefield Pageants in the Towneley Cycle, ed. Cawley, pp. 83, 87, 89 (Coliphizacio, ll. 193-94, 355-56, 361, 409-10).

  28. Judges 16.28.

  29. See chap. VIII, above.

  30. R. W. Chambers, King Lear (1940), as cited by Muir, ed., King Lear, p. 1.

  31. Bullough, Narrative and Dramatic Sources, VII, 388, 394, 404-05.

  32. See also the farcical treatment of blind father and unrecognized son in the scene between Old Gobbo and Launcelot in The Merchant of Venice.

  33. King Lear III.vii.24-25, 94.

  34. D. A. Traversi, An Approach to Shakespeare, 2nd ed. (London: Sands, 1957), p. 205.

  35. Farren, Essays on Mania (1833), p. 73, as quoted by [H. H.] Furness, ed., King Lear [New Varoirum Edition (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1880)], p. 257.

  36. John 19.34: “But one of the souldiers with a speare perced his side.”

  37. King Lear, ed. Muir, p. 174.

  38. See chap. I, above.

  39. See also Muir, ed., King Lear, p. 118 (note to III.iv.75) and relevant lines from Leir on p. 226, and Davidson “La phénoménologie de la souffrance,” p. 355; the traditional emphasis on the sacrifice of the adult pelican is reversed to the cruel indulgence of the offspring.

  40. See Joseph Candido, “Lear's ‘Yeas’ and ‘Nays’,” English Studies, 23 (1985-86), 16-18.

  41. Quoted by Ralph Berry, “Lear's System,” Shakespeare Quarterly, 35 (1984), 427.

  42. John F. Danby, Shakespeare's Doctrine of Nature (London: Faber and Faber, 1949), p. 125.

  43. King Lear V.iii.259, 261, 307-08; Hamlet IV.v.29, 190-91, 193.

  44. G. Wilson Knight, quoted in King Lear: A Casebook, ed. Frank Kermode (London: Macmillan, 1969), p. 133; John Wilders, The Lost Garden (London: Macmillan, 1978), p. 55; [John] Bayley, Shakespeare and Tragedy [London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1981], p. 52; S. L. Bethell, Shakespeare and the Popular Dramatic Tradition (London: Staples, 1944), p. 60; Charlton, Shakespearean Tragedy, p. 229; R. W. Chambers, King Lear (Glasgow, 1940), as quoted by Robert B. Heilman, This Great Stage (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State Univ. Press, 1963), p. 316.

  45. The Faerie Queene [The Works of Edmund Spenser: Variorum Edition] II.x.32.

  46. T. W. Craik, I know when one is dead and when one lives, British Academy Lecture (Oxford, 1981), p. 177; C. F. Williamson, “The Hanging of Cordelia,” Review of English Studies, 34 (1983), 418.

  47. R. S. White, Innocent Victims (Newcastle-upon-Tyne, 1982), p. 89; Muir, ed., King Lear, p. 217; Stephen Booth, “King Lear” and “Macbeth”: Indefinition and Tragedy (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1983), p. 135, quoted in review in Modern Language Quarterly, 45 (1984), 91.

  48. Knights, Some Shakespearean Themes, p. 144; Calderwood, “Creative Uncreation,” p. 16; Michael Black, The Literature of Fidelity (London: Chatto and Windus, 1975), p. 59.

  49. Liturgies and Occasional Forms of Prayer Set Forth in the Time of Queen Elizabeth, ed. William Keatinge Clay, Parker Soc. (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1847), p. 80. The Gospel reading in this case is from Luke 21.25, 28.

  50. Joseph Addison, The Spectator, No. 40 (16 April 1711), as quoted by Furness, ed., King Lear, p. 477.

  51. Mary Lascelles, “‘King Lear’ and Doomsday,” Shakespeare Survey, 26 (1973), 76-77.

  52. Keats, “Sonnet: On sitting down to read King Lear once again.”

  53. Jones, Scenic Form in Shakespeare, p. 159.

  54. Mircea Eliade, The Myth of the Eternal Return, trans. Willard Trask (New York: Pantheon, 1974), p. 73.

  55. See chap. II, above.

  56. Jan Kott, Shakespeare Our Contemporary, trans. Boleslaw Taborski, 2nd ed. (London: Methuen, 1967), p. 118.

  57. Glynne Wickham, “From Tragedy to Tragi-Comedy: King Lear as Prologue,” Shakespeare Survey, 26 (1973), 33-48; Charlton, Shakespearean Tragedy, p. 240.

  58. Cf. [Emrys] Jones, Scenic Form in Shakespeare [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971], p. 163.

Ben Brantley (review date 12 September 2002)

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SOURCE: Brantley, Ben. “Every Inch a King, Every Moment a Revelation.” New York Times (12 September 2002): E1.

[In the following review of the 2002 Stratford Festival production of King Lear directed by Jonathan Miller, Brantley compliments the clarity, intimate tone, and quick pace of the production, but reserves his highest praise for Christopher Plummer's Lear.]

The words are spoken lightly, a punch line of sorts in a bantering exchange with a fool. Yet even as it leaves the old man's mouth, the phrase seems to return in reproachful echo: “Nothing can be made of nothing.” The smile on King Lear's face melts into cloudedness. Where has he heard those words before?

A stillness descends on the stage of the Festival Theater here as the title character of King Lear, fully embodied by the wonderful Christopher Plummer, savors his own bewilderment in an early scene in Shakespeare's bleakest tragedy. It is a brief silence, yet it feels outside time.

A window has opened into one man's mind, and for just a moment you share completely his troubled, inchoate sense of his past and his future. “Nothing will come of nothing,” Lear has said earlier, just before banishing his daughter Cordelia. Now, in Mr. Plummer's abstracted expression, there is a premonition of what lies ahead for King Lear, and its frightening name is “nothing.”

The existential value of nothing has been a quantity that all productions of King Lear, especially those in the anxious years of the past half-century, have had to assess. Most high-profile stagings have chosen to emphasize the cosmic, like the 1962 version from Peter Brook, who turned the play into a yawning gray landscape through which Beckett's tramps might have roved.

Jonathan Miller's involving interpretation, the centerpiece of the Stratford Festival's 50th season, instead makes nothingness an intimate experience. This production doesn't start with a philosophical proposition but with one man's all-too-familiar descent into the twilight of old age.

With the journey being led by Mr. Plummer—who has an uncanny gift for projecting subtlety to the back of the balcony—King Lear becomes harrowingly personal. His performance evokes both the fading gaze you might catch in the eyes of a dying grandparent and your own instinctive, angry resistance against the mortal decay of your body.

It goes without saying that Mr. Plummer's doing Lear is a big deal. He is probably the most accomplished classical actor in North America, and Lear is the grandest and most troublesome of all major Shakespearean roles, a summit that many have attempted but few have conquered. Critics from Charles Lamb to Harold Bloom have even stated that live performance can only corrupt a masterpiece better read than played.

Mr. Plummer and Dr. Miller (the former “Beyond the Fringe” member and onetime artistic director of the Old Vic in London) show no signs of being intimidated. They insist on the human scale of King Lear, both as a character and as a play.

There is scarcely a piece of scenery in this Lear, which is performed in Elizabethan costume (designed by Clare Mitchell). And while the production has been superbly lighted by Robert Thompson, atmospheric mood cueing is minimal. The principal burden of interpretation falls squarely on the performers.

It is a burden that Mr. Plummer bears with uncommon grace and even more uncommon modesty. This is, after all, the fellow who won a Tony portraying John Barrymore, that most dazzling of hams, in a one-man show that seemed to fit him like a custom-made fedora. But Mr. Plummer is an exotic phenomenon, an actor whose extraordinary natural presence is matched by his intelligence.

It would have been too easy for him to have turned on the volcano to create an elemental Lear. As it is, Mr. Plummer certainly gives Lear the majesty of someone accustomed to ruling. But he also creates a character who from the first scene is afraid, whether he acknowledges it or not, of encroaching senility. Mr. Plummer makes you see that in such fear, and in senility itself, lie a strength and a logic all their own.

The production signals a conventional frailty in Lear in the opening scene by having him stumble on his entrance and repeatedly forget the name of Burgundy, one of Cordelia's suitors. Possessively clutching a map of the kingdom he plans to divide among his three daughters, Mr. Plummer's Lear suggests a self divided between a hunger for power and the terrifying suspicion that he is no longer capable of deploying it. The balance between these two instincts will shift affectingly as the play continues.

This Lear moves in and out of focus, as if his mind, steeped in intimations of mortality, were calling him elsewhere. Part of him still wants to be a chief player in the game; the other part has already resigned from it. In this context his decision to let go of his lands makes sense, but so does his belief that he will still be treated as a king, as well as his titanic anger when this proves not to be so.

When Goneril (Domini Blythe) comments, “You see how full of changes his age is,” the observation is entirely justified. It also reflects the exasperation with which grown children are too apt to deal with their aging parents.

As Lear's elder daughters, Lucy Peacock (as Regan) and especially Ms. Blythe are excellent in capturing an imperiousness and impatience their characters share with their father and in showing how those qualities inevitably translate into their treatment of him. When Regan tells her father, “You are old,” her contempt is chilling.

Sarah McVie falls into the predictable trap of making Cordelia too noble and stalwart to be true. And Maurice Godin and Evan Buliung, as Edmund and Edgar, are respectively too arch and too passive to bring the essential weight to Shakespeare's most complex pair of brothers. James Blendick, a Stratford regular, is excellent as the elderly Duke of Gloucester, whose own movement from fatuity to insight parallels and anchors that of Lear.

If not every performance is ideal, Dr. Miller keeps the action moving at a clip that for once does justice to the narrative strength of Lear. And the overall clarity of the production—in diction, exposition and dramatic logic—is remarkable.

There isn't a line that Mr. Plummer speaks that hasn't been thought through and then distilled into a crystalline emotional reading. I have never seen such an accessible Lear, and his emotional intensity toward the other characters helps to illuminate them as well. Lear's relationship with his Fool (Barry MacGregor), as a filial substitute and the one person with whom he can relax, has rarely seemed so spontaneous.

The production's greatest pleasure, however, comes from Mr. Plummer's taking you step by step through his Lear's enormous changes in temperament and insight and justifying every turn on both an intellectual and gut level. This is true when Lear is talking to the elements in the storm, and not in Promethean defiance but with a conversational ardor that finds the sense in his insanity. Or discovering, to his delighted amazement, the gift of happiness in his reunion with Cordelia. Or muttering feebly to himself in nonsense syllables when the world has become too much to bear.

Though Mr. Plummer can be the grandest of grandstanders, he tends to play down his actorly magnificence here in favor of a Lear with whom everyone must identify. It's a bold choice, and there may be those who object that Lear has been too domesticated. On the other hand, I have never seen an audience so saturated in tears at the end of King Lear as this one was.

On seeing Lear, now deprived of absolutely everything except life itself, over the corpse of Cordelia, the Earl of Kent (Benedict Campbell) famously asks, “Is this the promised end?” In this Lear it is impossible not to feel that the question is universal.

June Schlueter (essay date 1995)

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SOURCE: Schlueter, June. “The Promised End.” In Dramatic Closure: Reading the End, pp. 13-18. Cranbury, N.J.: Associated University Presses, 1995.

[In the following essay, Schlueter discusses the conclusion of King Lear, noting that the play “both embodies and disrupts” literary conventions.]

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

In Shakespeare's King Lear, the final sequence, beginning with Lear's howls and culminating in his death, may well compose the most powerful image of the play. The death of Cordelia, who earlier exchanged love and forgiveness with her father, astonishes even a reader expecting a tragic ending, for she, like Lear, has become “Great thing of us forgot!” (5.3.240).1 Diverted and preoccupied by the unfolding events, the reader gives little thought to the Captain sent off to do “man's work” (5.3.40) or to Edmund's pending hope to do some good. When father and daughter do reappear, Cordelia hanged, the shattering spectacle urges the reader to feel that if this is the “promis'd end” (5.3.267)—of the world or of Lear and Cordelia—then there is no redeeming of sorrow and no hope of cosmic justice.

Never has the prevailing vision of Edgar, the primary spokesman of conventional consolations, seemed so shockingly inadequate to account for the action that the play presents. If as readers we grieve for the vulnerability of Lear and Cordelia, we also, as Stephen Booth suggests, grieve for “our own”2 and await its explicit acknowledgment. When the acknowledgment comes, it is the more poignant that it comes from Edgar, with the final lines of the play, in a voice chastened by the weight of experience:

The weight of this sad time we must obey,
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.
The oldest hath borne most; we that are young
Shall never see so much, nor live so long.


This concluding utterance seems a small concession and, surely, a perfunctory comment on the meaning of this expansive and enigmatic drama. But for Edgar, who has resisted the daunting lessons of experience throughout, relinquishing formulaic expressions of a visionary ideal to insist on the sad validations of a felt reality involves a basic change in perspective. Edgar is the one character in the play who has lived through the deepest agony of both Gloucester and Lear, serving as mad witness and spiritual guide on both the storm-beaten heath and the Dover shore. And if his heart seemed to break at what he saw, it has also had to absorb the treachery, privation, and pain he has himself known. Yet Edgar has repeatedly sought and created compensations for the “worst,” and in the immediate aftermath of his victory over Edmund, with a hundred fifty-odd lines left in the play, he confidently proclaims, “The gods are just” (5.3.173).

Other characters have made similar affirmations in circumstances that a reader, if not the character, recognizes as less than validating. Albany, hearing of the heroic action of the servant who slew the brutal Cornwall, concludes, “This shows you are above, / You justicers, that these our nether crimes / So speedily can venge!” (5.3.79-81). But while Albany is pronouncing this judgment, Cornwall's partners in crime continue to thrive and their victims to suffer—Lear is mad, Gloucester is blind, and the servant is dead. Likewise, Gloucester, in response to Edgar's fraudulent miracle on Dover Cliff, believes that the “clearest gods” (5.3.73) have preserved him, even after his encounter with Lear in the same scene petitioning the “ever-gentle gods” (5.3.218) and invoking “The bounty and the benison of heaven” (5.3.226). Now Edgar, having proved upon Edmund's person the bastard's “heinous, manifest, and many treasons” (5.3.94), seems legitimately to have vindicated the gods, and, for the time being, the reader may concede, with the dying Edmund, “Th' hast spoken right, 'tis true” (5.3.176).

Events appear to be winding down; the redemptive process appears to be in force. Edgar tells of the joy and grief that burst his father's heart and of Kent's puissant sorrow. Edmund, moved to contrition, proposes to do some good. And the report of Goneril's suicide and Regan's poisoning prompts Albany to acknowledge the appropriate “judgment of the heavens” (5.3.235). But the salutary emotions and the fitting retribution that promise to mitigate past sufferings evaporate in an instant with Albany's “Great thing of us forgot!” The fate of the king and his daughter remains to be assimilated into Albany's sense of justice, Edgar's consoling creed, and the vision of the play. The last line before Lear enters, Cordelia in his arms, contains Albany's desperate prayer: “The gods defend her!” (5.3.260). But the gods do not deliver.

Nevertheless, even as he witnesses the distraught Lear's ministrations to his dead daughter, Albany attempts to offer the summation speech conventionally accorded the reigning dignitary of a Shakespearean tragedy:

You lords and noble friends, know our intent.
What comfort to this great decay may come
Shall be applied. For us, we will resign,
During the life of this old majesty,
To him our absolute power. …
… All friends shall taste
The wages of their virtue, and all foes
The cup of their deservings.


In this formal declaration, Albany means to restore comfort to Lear, order to the kingdom, and justice to the world of the play. It is what he “ought to say” (5.3.329). But, as John Shaw points out in his essay on the final lines of Lear, the declaration is both premature and beside the point. Lear's death is yet to come, and Albany, “who has never been acutely perceptive,” however well-meaning, remains an imperfect judge of the “events taking place before his eyes.”3 With the exclamation “O, see, see!” (5.3.309), he interrupts his concluding couplet and directs all eyes to the final agony of Lear.

Albany's next speech is in the accents of one who has seen Lear die. He speaks only to acknowledge “general woe” and the “gor'd state” (5.3.325), relinquishing rule to Kent, who refuses it, and to Edgar, who speaks the last lines. Unlike Albany's premature declaration, Edgar's quiet reflection does not represent “what we ought to say” (5.3.329): it presents no vision of virtue rewarded, vice punished, or order restored, resting in assurances that are essentially “negative and ambiguous.”4 Though in itself inadequate as a comment on the disturbing substance of the play, however, Edgar's utterance may well stand as the playwright's comment on the play he has made. As Shaw puts it, in “defying the decorous pattern of the usual ending, Shakespeare is implying that any return to routine after the events of this tragedy would constitute an outrage to one's sense of moral justice as well as to one's sense of artistic rightness.”5 Shaw suggests that the full impact of Edgar's speech lies not only in the failure of the cosmic and political order to assert itself but also in the refusal of the conventional artistic order to do so.

If the speech is in effect a comment on the playwright's art, then the lines offer a more satisfying, albeit ironic, conclusion. After all, Edgar has spent much of his play life playing roles and creating dramatic fictions. And it is Edgar who, at the final entrance of Lear, responds to the stunned Kent's question—“Is this the promis'd end?”—with another question—“Or image of that horror?” (5.3.267). The exchange combines anticipations of the apocalypse with expectations concerning the tragic form. It reminds the reader, as the play so frequently does, that this is a dramatic fiction and that the promised end of tragedy is indeed an “image of that horror.” But if Edgar takes the initiative in recalling the tragic imperative as Lear enters, he resists it when Lear dies. The first to react to the king's passing, he misreads the event as a faint, urging his lord to “Look up,” and requires Kent to identify death: “Vex not his ghost. O, let him pass!” (5.3.317-18). Though a practicing artist, who can claim some success in redefining perception and reshaping reality, Edgar is helpless here; he must yield to ineluctable death in both life and the tragic form. His reflexive allusion to the “image of that horror” may indeed suggest that Edgar is not quite sure whether he is a participant in life or, like Gloucester at Dover Cliff, a participant in a play. Now, having failed to affect the course of either, he will at least resist decorous artistic closure in his summary speech. Proposing that we “Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say” (5.3.329), he in fact says little of either. Instead, he replaces tragedy's conventional end, invoked ineffectually by Albany, with two couplets that leave no one—nihilists, existentialists, moral optimists, humanists, Christians, or Aristotelians—content.

King Lear is a play that deconstructs itself repeatedly, subverting one pattern of action and argument with the next in a teasing panorama of self-contradiction. If the reader is left with any moral certainty at the end of the drama, it is that life in both its grand and its gritty dimensions is capricious, refusing to submit to the paradigms of justice proposed by any of its characters. If there is any determinately present meaning to be found, it derives from Edgar's “Speak what we feel,” a directive that settles attention on the imperfect authority of “unaccommodated man” (3.4.105-6). But if this too is searching for definition where there is none, then Edgar's final speech becomes the ultimate comment on the play, for in refusing the promised end of tragedy, it dissolves the elements that are supposed to constitute the tragic vision. Booth is rigorous in his analysis of the irreconcilable paradoxes of the play but reassuring in his conclusion. His thesis is that the “repeated evocation of a sense of indefiniteness generates a sense of pattern and thus of the wholeness, the identity, of the play.”6 His comment on Albany's premature speech illustrates the point.

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). Albany's restitution speech and the inadequacy it acknowledges when Albany breaks off and says, “O, see, see!” embody the paradox precisely: both in substance and kind Albany's speech proclaims a return to order and gratifies one's assumptions that the norms of society and the norms of plays can be counted on; both Albany and his speech fail of their promised ends, and yet the mere repetition of the two kinds of failure balances and qualifies the effect of one of them, the failure of form.7

Booth sees the last sixteen lines of King Lear as emblematic of the experience of the whole. Those final lines, like numerous other phenomena in the play, both disrupt the reader's faith in artistic kinds and use the reader's perception of kind “to compensate artistically for the intellectual terror that the same phenomena generate by illustrating the impossibility of definition.”8

I begin with the promised end of King Lear because it is, in many ways, a model of dramatic closure, engaging as it does the determinations that I believe are necessary to this study. It both embodies and disrupts formal conventions, expressed in language, action, character, and genre. It establishes a contextual, or ideological, field within which the action proceeds, positing—and subverting—an order of human society with its attendant assumptions. It reclaims a previously scripted figure, present in King Leir and other historical and literary sources, affirming the established chronicle but altering it as well (in all the sources, Lear survives the end). It builds into its dramatic structure expectations that the text has of the reader and that the reader has of the text. And it displays an exceptional degree of self-consciousness as it progresses and regresses from and to the promised, yet unpromised, end. King Lear is a play that is both recursive and proleptic within itself and within the history of drama, looking backward to the Greek classics, forward to post-modern plays. Its promised end acknowledges both the point of stability at which an Oedipus ends and, prophetically, the Derridean indeterminacies that refuse to allow a postmodern work to close.


  1. References to King Lear are from David Bevington, ed., The Complete Works of Shakespeare, 4th ed. (New York: Harper Collins, 1992), pp. 1172-1218. Bevington uses the Folio (1623) for his copy text of King Lear, introducing Quarto (1608) only readings in brackets.

  2. Stephen Booth, “King Lear,” “Macbeth,Indefinition, and Tragedy (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983), p. 11.

  3. John Shaw, “King Lear: The Final Lines,” Essays in Criticism 16, no. 3 (1966): 263-64.

  4. Ibid., p. 266.

  5. Ibid.

  6. Booth, “King Lear,” “Macbeth,Indefinition, and Tragedy, p. 21.

  7. Ibid., pp. 27-28.

  8. Ibid., p. 21.

Further Reading

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Buechner, Frederick. “King Lear.Speak What We Feel (Not What We Ought to Say): Reflections on Literature and Faith, pp. 125-54. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2001.

Provides an overview of the principal themes in King Lear, focusing on its mix of tragic and comic elements.

Conrad, Peter. “Expatriating Lear.” In To Be Continued: Four Stories and Their Survival, pp. 95-152. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995.

Investigates the influence of King Lear on seventeenth- and eighteenth-century works of literature and film.

Craig, Leon Harold. “The Perils of Political Improvisation.” In Of Philosophers and Kings: Political Philosophy in Shakespeare's Macbeth and King Lear, pp. 113-33. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2001.

Analyzes the political implications of Lear's decision to divide his kingdom.

Halio, Jay L. Introduction to The Tragedy of King Lear, edited by Jay L. Halio, pp. 1-89. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

Overview of King Lear that discusses its sources and themes and compares passages from the Quarto and Folio versions of the play.

Hamilton, Sharon. “Plighted Cunning, Playing the Good Girl Role: The Taming of the Shrew and King Lear.” In Shakespeare's Daughters, pp. 93-124. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Company Inc., 2003.

Examines the role of the daughters in both King Lear and The Taming of the Shrew, contending that their fathers prefer daughters who are compliant, or at least appear to be so.

———. “Daughters Who Forgive and Heal: Marina (Pericles), Perdita (The Winter's Tale), and Cordelia (King Lear).” In Shakespeare's Daughters, pp. 151-77. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Company Inc., 2003.

Focuses on the nurturing, guiding qualities of the daughters in Pericles, The Winter's Tale, and King Lear, particularly Cordelia's “prescience, compassion, and courage.”

Kronenfeld, Judy. “I'll Teach You Differences: Hierarchy, Pomp, Service, Authority.” In King Lear and the Naked Truth: Rethinking the Language of Religion and Resistance, pp. 123-69. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1998.

Examines the representation of social hierarchy in King Lear and compares the play with religious writings by Shakespeare's contemporaries.

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.

Feminist critique that explores the portrayal of Lear's daughters on stage, contrasting their roles in the play's original productions with several contemporary presentations.

Stuart, Betty Kantor. “Truth and Tragedy in King Lear.Shakespeare Quarterly 18, no. 2 (spring 1967): 167-80.

Contrasts Shakespeare's King Lear with his source, The True Chronicle Historie of King Leir.

Richard Knowles (essay date spring 1999)

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SOURCE: Knowles, Richard. “Cordelia's Return.” Shakespeare Quarterly 50, no. 1 (spring 1999): 33-50.

[In the following essay, Knowles examines Cordelia's unexplained return to England in King Lear, suggesting that Shakespeare purposefully left the matter ambiguous in order to enhance the play's dramatic impact.]

I wish to consider a particular textual and structural problem in King Lear, concerning an event that happens offstage, out of the audience's sight or hearing, and yet upon which the whole outcome of the play depends. As everyone knows, in Act 1 King Lear's favorite daughter Cordelia is suddenly disowned by her father, scorned and dismissed by her sisters, and deprived of any claim to British land or power. Then, just as suddenly, her fortunes are reversed: she is taken to wife by a noble and loving man, is thereby made queen of the great country of France, and is forthwith moved safely away from her father's wrath and her sisters' malice. Why then should she return so soon, almost instantly, to her native country, now alien and hostile to her, only to lose everything, including her life? The tragic genre requires it, of course; she must return in order to die and in order for her death to overwhelm Lear. History also required it: in all of Shakespeare's apparent sources she returns—though more happily, restoring Lear to his throne for several years and then succeeding him. In Shakespeare's play, however, her personal motive for this most crucial of decisions is anything but clear. Like much else in the play, it happens offstage and can be understood, if at all, only from occasional passing hints. Even to attempt to comprehend it, as many critics have done, raises basic critical questions: Should we be able to understand her action? If so, does Shakespeare give us the means to do so? If he does not, why does his play differ so radically from all of his sources, where the motive for the French invasion is always made perfectly explicit? If audiences watching a performance do not much worry about such questions, should anyone else? Is our critical attention to such offstage events mere perversity, an attempt to play omniscient author and convert a dramatic action into a novelistic fiction? Or can it tell us anything of Shakespeare's dramatic art, about his intentions and his degree of success in realizing them?

There is in the sources no mystery about the motive or circumstances of the French invasion. In Geoffrey of Monmouth's twelfth-century History of the Kings of Britain, which is the origin of the Lear story and source of all later versions, after Lear has been forcibly bereft by Albania and Cornwall of the half of his kingdom he had retained, he goes to Gaul and asks Cordeilla and the king of the Franks to help him recover his dominions. They do so out of sympathy. This is essentially the series of events in Holinshed's Historie of England, John Higgins's Mirour for Magistrates, Spenser's Faerie Queene, and William Warner's Albion's England. In the anonymous play The History of King Leir, Leir's complaint is graver—after he has dispossessed himself, two daughters order him murdered—but here, as in all of the other sources, righteous moral outrage on the part of Cordelia and France motivates an armed invasion to restore Lear to his throne.1

What motivates France and Cordelia in Shakespeare's play is much more obscure. We are not given a scene, such as is presented or recounted in all the sources, in which we watch them decide upon a course of action. Instead we hear, repeatedly, vague hints that a French invasion is developing, but we are not explicitly told for what reason. By the middle of Act 4 Cordelia appears onstage with French soldiers and English sympathizers in a scene set on English soil near Dover, but up to this point the objective of the invasion has been wrapped in mystery. A great deal hangs on our understanding of these events: a French invasion is no small matter, and France and Cordelia's intentions determine how much sympathy an English audience can have for them and their enterprise. Many commentators have therefore attempted to reconstruct from the text a sequence of imagined offstage events leading up to the appearance of French troops in 4.4. The great variety of these narratives reveals a remarkable degree of confusion and disagreement about this crucial action. I begin by surveying them.


The oldest narrative asserts that, as in the sources, Cordelia is motivated by distress at Goneril's and Regan's mistreatment of Lear. This theory depends mainly on some lines added to 3.1 in the Folio text of 1623; they replace lines in the Quarto text of 1608 and were apparently added by a theatrical reviser, perhaps Shakespeare, perhaps someone else. At this point in the Quarto, Kent is sending a Gentleman with messages to Cordelia at Dover; in the added Folio lines he informs this messenger that Albany and Cornwall have household servants “Which are to France the Spies and Speculations / Intelligent of our State.” He then continues, in a convoluted and incomplete sentence,

                                                                                                    What hath bin seene,
Either in snuffes, and packings of the Dukes,
Or the hard Reine which both of them hath borne
Against the old kinde King; or something deeper,
Whereof (perchance) these are but furnishings.


As it stands in the Folio and is incorporated in all modern editions, this sentence fragment seems to imply that these spies have reported to France “What hath bin seene”—namely, friction between the dukes, their mistreatment of Lear, or “something deeper,” whatever that is. So says George Steevens in his edition of 1778: “What follows, are the circumstances in the state of the kingdom, of which he supposes the spies gave France the intelligence.”3 It is easy to go one step further and infer that the French invasion is somehow in response to the spies' intelligence. Thus Lewis Theobald in his edition of 1733, justifying his attempt to combine these Folio lines with those in the Quarto: “The [F] Lines seem absolutely necessary to clear up the Motives, upon which France prepar'd his Invasion”; and thus Edward Capell, the greatest eighteenth-century editor of Shakespeare's text: “From [them], we learn the motives of France's invasion.”4 Similarly in this century, George Lyman Kittredge takes Kent's meaning to be that “the French are invading Britain—whether because of what spies have informed them about the quarrels and plots of the Dukes or about their harsh treatment of the King, or, perhaps, for some purpose that the invaders conceal, using these things as pretexts.”5 Less equivocally, Steven Urkowitz states flatly that in the Folio “The French already know of Lear's troubles with the dukes. Reports from their own spies on this subject were a major reason for their intervention.”6

The only thing wrong with this narrative—that Cordelia invades because she and France learn of Lear's mistreatment—is that it is impossible. The first hint that she plans to do anything at all, for whatever reason, occurs at the end of 2.2. Kent, sitting in the stocks where Cornwall has put him, in the darkness before dawn, invokes the sun in order to read a letter recently received from her:

Approach thou Beacon to this vnder Globe,
That by thy comfortable Beames I may
Peruse this Letter. Nothing almost sees miracles
But miserie. I know 'tis from Cordelia,
Who hath most fortunately beene inform'd
Of my obscured course. And shall finde time
From this enormous State, seeking to giue
Losses their remedies.


Kent's word “fortunately” may be misleading. He himself must somehow have informed Cordelia of his disguise, since no one else knows of it until the end of the play. His “fortunately” therefore means happily, not accidentally. As for the miraculous letter from Cordelia, she must have had available to her some unmiraculous means of communicating from France to her friends in England, perhaps through a network hurriedly arranged—who knows? the play tells us nothing—when she left England for France. Kent most probably has just gotten the letter from someone in Gloucester's household, where he has recently arrived; “I know 'tis from Cordelia” clearly indicates that he has not yet read it, as he would have had ample time to do if he had received it at Goneril's house on the previous day. If a realistic explanation can be imagined, the letter must have been sent first to Goneril's house, where Cordelia expected Lear and Kent to be, and it (or a duplicate) must have followed him to Regan's or Gloucester's house. How, we do not know, nor are we invited to ask.

What does the letter say? It probably tells Kent that by 2.2 Cordelia is already planning to invade Britain, since a few hours later, in 3.1, he sends a Gentleman to meet her on British soil; but does it also tell him why she is doing so, as many commentators have thought? In his edition of 1765, Dr. Johnson indicated that Kent reads the letter here and now in 2.2, and many editors, beginning with Charles Jennens in 1770, have marked “And shall finde … remedies” as words that Kent reads aloud from it. Cordelia, they would have us think, is promising in her letter at least to give (unspecified) losses their (unspecified) remedies.8 Now elsewhere in the play, where a character reads aloud from a letter—Gloucester at 1.2.46-54, for example, or Edgar at 4.6.262-70—the Folio sets the quoted text in italic; it does not do so here. Quite possibly Kent is not quoting Cordelia at all but is speaking for himself. He has just said that he needs sunlight, not the present “moone-shine” (2.2.32), to read by; that sunlight cannot have arrived three lines later. In the Folio a period marks a sentence break between “course” and “And” in line 168, but in the Quarto there is only a comma, which makes a mere parenthesis of “Who hath … course” and allows the sentence to continue after it.9 In the Quarto, then, the understood subject of “shall” is not Cordelia but Kent: “I [Kent] know 'tis from Cordelia (Who … course) and [I, Kent,] shall find time” to remedy losses. Many editors have so understood and punctuated the lines, giving a very different meaning from that in the Folio. Having now heard from Cordelia, Kent says that he may soon send news to her (as he does in 3.1) of the “enormous State” of affairs in England. Or he may simply mean, once I am away from this enormous state I am in (the king's messenger, sitting in disgrace in the stocks!), I shall seek out remedies, with the help of Cordelia, for present losses. It is impossible to tell whether Kent might be thinking of Cordelia's losses, Lear's, or his own, or whether any particular remedies are in his mind or hinted at in Cordelia's letter—which in any case he seems not to have read. Whatever he has in mind, he is reporting his own intentions, not Cordelia's.

The final reason to doubt that Cordelia writes that she is invading Britain to remedy her father's losses is Kent's word “Losses” itself. By that word, if it were in her letter, Cordelia could not possibly refer to Lear's loss of status in Goneril's household, or Goneril's threat to diminish his train, or Lear's being goaded to reject her straitened hospitality, or Regan's flight from offering hers. Cordelia can know nothing of these events, since they happened only a half day ago, on the previous afternoon and night; and Lear's being locked out in the storm will not happen for some hours yet, until just before Kent instructs the Gentleman to seek out Cordelia. No word of any of these events could possibly, in the actual world imaginable by an English audience, have gotten from Gloucester's or Cornwall's house, or from Albany's house, presumably further north, all the way to the Channel and across the Channel to Cordelia in France—let alone be the subject of a return letter to Kent which arrives back in Gloucester by 2.2. It is not Cordelia who knows of Lear's recent losses but Kent, who in 3.1 would naturally want the Gentleman-messenger to inform Cordelia of them instantly to motivate and guide her actions. Indeed, in 4.3 (Q only) we hear the Gentleman's account of her reaction to his report, and it is evident from his description of her reaction that the information is new and shocking to her:

Faith once or twice she heau'd the name of father,
Pantingly forth as if it prest her heart,
Cried sisters, sisters, shame of Ladies sisters:
Kent, father, sisters, what ith storme ith night,
Let pitie not be beleeft there she shooke,
The holy water from her heauenly eyes,
And clamour moystened her, then away she started,
To deale with griefe alone.


It should be clear then that Lear's mistreatment by his daughters cannot be Cordelia's motive for invasion in 3.1, since she cannot yet know anything about it.10

The difficulty arises in the Folio lines added to 3.1, which are obscure and probably corrupt, as many editors have suspected, and may not even be Shakespeare's, since their sentence structure and vocabulary are uncharacteristic of him (and of the speaker, Kent). I have argued elsewhere that these added Folio lines give the wrong impression because they were not placed, as the Folio reviser intended, after Q's “The King hath cause to plaine.”11 So placed, the F lines would constitute a list of all the current sources of distress to the king, who had hoped to avoid future strife (“snuffes, and packings”) between the dukes and to insure his own happy retirement (not a “hard Reine”). Instead the lines were inserted in the Folio after “Intelligent of our State,” and so seem to describe the intelligence on which France is acting. But action upon such intelligence is impossible. The word “both” in line 27 is sufficient proof of this; the mistreatment of Lear by both the dukes cannot have been the motive for Cordelia's having landed in England, since Cornwall's mistreatment is scarcely an hour old.12 This narrative of France's invasion simply will not work.

A second narrative is that France began preparations for an invasion immediately upon returning home in order to seek restitution or revenge for Lear's humiliation of himself and his new wife and for their loss of her dowry, one third of Britain. So argues James Bransom in 1934:

Lear's brutal treatment of Cordelia and his crass stupidity in dealing with her share were enough to bring upon his head the rebuke of a strong man. … The French king was by no means reconciled to the permanent loss of the richest province in Britain, which he still regarded as by right his wife's dower, and had his secret service men everywhere. These kept him informed of political movements in Britain, and he bided his time.

And this, thinks Bransom, is how Kent in 3.1 (though not Gloucester in 3.3) understood the situation:

Kent does not speak of [the French landing] in so many words as destined to revenge the king's wrongs. His words convey to me a definite invasion of the land by the king of France for his own aggrandisement. But he sends his gentleman to Cordelia … with a description of the king's sufferings. He must, therefore, have conceived the possibility of turning the invasion to the king's account. … Gloster … may have jumped to the conclusion that this invasion was for the purpose of avenging the king.13

In 1940 Walter Greg carried this line of argument further on the basis of chronology: “There can be no doubt … that the French army had actually landed before Lear had any quarrel with his daughters,” and this being the case, “the preparations began as soon as the king left the British court.14 His reasons are these: in 2.2 Kent has Cordelia's letter before dawn; it must announce her invasion plans, for by the evening of that same day, after Lear has plunged out into the storm in 2.4, Kent sends one of Lear's gentlemen to meet her in Dover. On that same evening Gloucester receives (in 3.3) a letter from someone “of a neutrall heart” (3.7.48), telling of a “power already landed” (Q) or “footed” (F); later that evening Edmund conveys this letter, concerning “the aduantages of France” (3.5.12), to Cornwall. The next morning Cornwall, on this letter's testimony, announces that “The army of France is landed” (3.7.2-3), blinds the “traytor Gloster” (l. 22), and sends him after Lear to Dover. There Cordelia's forces, we hear, are being joined by some of Lear's knights and other “well armed friends” (l. 20)—British “tratours / late footed [afoot] in the kingdome” (ll. 44-45), as Cornwall styles them.15 By the day beginning in 2.2 and ending in 3.6, which is only one day after Goneril drives Lear from her house in 1.4, an invasion, set in motion some time before, is far along.

Greg then proceeds to ask how much time there has been to mount the invasion—essentially, what interval of time elapses between the opening two scenes of the play and 1.3, when Goneril sets in motion Lear's departure from her house. If Lear's expostulation as he is leaving her—“What, fiftie of my followers at a clap, within a fortnight?” (1.4.295)—means “It has only been a fortnight since I arrived, and already Goneril has become so monstrously ungrateful as to halve my train,” then France has had a fortnight, two weeks, to prepare his forces. Greg finds this “the only natural explanation of the phrase” “within a fortnight.”16 But, as Ambrose Eccles noted in his edition of 1792,17 Lear may equally well mean “Goneril has just given orders that my train must be cut in half within the next fortnight.” In this case the time between 1.2 and 1.3 remains undefined. Indeed, Greg, who thinks that the foreground and background events happen at different rates of speed, goes on to show that the interval between 1.2 and 1.3 must be very short for the following reasons. In 1.2 Edmund promises Gloucester an “aurigular assurance … this very euening” of Edgar's guilt, then urges Edgar to hide in his, Edmund's, lodging “some little time” until (in F) “I will fitly bring you to heare my Lord speake” (ll. 92-93, 161, 168-69). Instead of these promised overhearings, Edmund substitutes the mock duel in 2.1, which does not occur until after Lear's “within a fortnight” remark in 1.4 and just hours before Kent receives Cordelia's letter in 2.2. Surely Edgar cannot have been hiding in his brother's room for a fortnight but at most for a day, or a very few days. Those few days at the beginning of the play would therefore be all the time that the King of France has had to prepare his and Cordelia's invasion.

And why might France undertake an invasion of England so quickly, before receiving any inkling of Lear's mistreatment? Because Greg could not bear the thought of “the gentle Cordelia spurring on her husband to the recovery of her portion,”18 he seized on hints that (as in some of the sources) the impulse to invade originated with the King of France. Though at the end of 1.1 Goneril and Regan interrupt their conniving to attend “further complement of leaue taking betweene France and [Lear]” (ll. 302-3), in the next scene Gloucester is dismayed at how “France in choller parted” (1.2.23). Perhaps remembering that angry parting, Lear later (2.4.212) calls France “hot-blouded” (F). Greg therefore surmises “that France, … incensed at some fresh insult to Cordelia, departed in a rage, determined to wrest by force her portion from the favoured ‘son-in-laws’, Albany and Cornwall.”19

This narrative, though logically argued, has two weaknesses. The first is that there is no hint whatsoever in the play that France is invading out of resentful rage. All we know is that he allows Cordelia to lead, or at least to accompany, a French army that lands in England and fights against the armies of Goneril and Regan. The second difficulty is Cordelia's speech in 4.4, where, at our first view of her since her return to England, she says explicitly that she is not motivated by any self-interest but only by concern for her father:

                                                                                                                                  ô deere father
It is thy busines that I go about, therfore great France
My mourning and important [F: importun'd] teares hath pitied,
No blowne ambition doth our armes in sight [F: incite]
But loue, deere loue, and our ag'd fathers right [F: Rite].


If France's and Cordelia's motive had ever been to recover her lands for herself, her purpose must by now have changed. That is entirely possible, of course, as Bransom imagined; it might even be that her tears had something to do with the king's return to France, leaving Cordelia in charge. It might; but again we do not have enough facts to assure us or even to plant this idea clearly in an audience's mind.20

In yet a third narrative, Kent's statement in 3.1 that Cordelia will want to know of the “snuffes, and packings” of the dukes, or of “something deeper,” has led some commentators to claim that France is opportunely taking advantage of Britain's internal disorder for its own territorial gain. In his influential Prefaces to Shakespeare Harley Granville-Barker speculates, “Kent … suggests that it is the threat of [‘likely Warres,’ 2.1.10] which is bringing the French army to England. But the vagueness is suspicious. It looks a little as if Shakespeare had thought of making the hypocrite inheritors of Cordelia's portion fall out over it (an obvious nemesis) and had changed his mind.”21 Greg is doubtful: “This antagonism is an undeveloped motive in the play, either because Shakespeare was content only to hint at it, or because he found he lacked room for elaboration. … [Granville-Barker] puts the importance of the ‘division’ too high; it may have been the occasion, hardly the cause, of France's action.”22 That is, the division between the dukes, if it exists, is perhaps a contributing cause but not a sufficient one to motivate an invasion. René Weis, however, in his 1993 edition, thinks it an important one: “F's version, … by referring to a possible something deeper as the reason for the French invasion, strips it of its crusading character, the restoration in England of true domestic and national harmony. In fact, furnishings would suggest that, if anything, France's motives may be more sinister, perhaps using moral grievances as pretexts for territorial expansion.”23

Once again we have a narrative with a certain plausibility but without clear support in the play and with real difficulties besides. Jacobeans would have found nothing surprising in a French king's designs on Albany's and Cornwall's land, since the French had shown such ambitions centuries later in 1066. Still, there is no explicit suggestion of such designs in any speech heard by the audience, and Cordelia disavows any such intentions. There are three other difficulties. First, the rumors of war probably represent news to be sent by Kent to Cordelia in Britain rather than reports already sent back to France—as I have said above. Second, while one would naturally expect the King of France to lead the invasion himself so as to claim the British lands in person, he is notably absent from Britain in both the Q and F versions. Third, it is hard to imagine why Cordelia should find so many British sympathizers to swell her ranks if they even suspected her aim were to subject Britons to foreign rule. One other possibility, rejected by Weis—that she invades in order to prevent rumored divisions between Albany and Cornwall from escalating into full civil war—is without any textual support. In any case, launching a foreign invasion would simply substitute one kind of war for another, while preventing a civil war would differ from her stated purpose—promoting “our ag'd fathers right.”

One more narrative. According to Peter Stone, Cordelia is so sure her sisters will mistreat Lear that she does not need to wait for evidence:

[T]he audience is intended at first to gain the impression … that the King of France is seizing an opportune moment to restore Cordelia to her rightful inheritance. Both Kent and Gloucester make the connection between the Dukes' quarrels and the invasion. … Regan and Cornwall are convinced that Gloucester is an agent of the French. … [But in Act IV the audience finally discovers that] There is no plot; and there cannot possibly be one. The French King has returned home before Lear arrives in Dover: there is only Cordelia to meet him, and no suspicion can attach to her motives. Then (in … IV.iv.23-8) she reveals the full truth: her husband has merely yielded to her entreaties, and those have been prompted by love, not ambition. There can be only one implication: she has meant all along to rescue Lear from her sisters, whose true nature she had penetrated though he had not; she has not needed to wait for evidence of their cruelties.24

Once again, the play gives just enough evidence to make this narrative barely plausible, but no more than that. During the opening scene of the play, Cordelia remarks repeatedly on the hypocrisy of Goneril's and Regan's promises of devotion to Lear, and at her leavetaking she hints that in future they may not treat him as well as they should:

                                                                                                    The iewels of our father,
With washt eyes Cordelia leaues you, I know you what you are,
And like a sister am most loath to call your faults
As they are named, vse [F: Loue] well our Father,
To your professed bosoms I commit him,
But yet alas stood I within his grace,
I would preferre him to a better place.


Obviously she does not expect her sisters to treat Lear as well as she herself would do. But one would expect grounds more relative than a mere suspicion of future neglect, a hunch, for invading her homeland. Besides, she does seem genuinely shocked when, in 4.4, after landing at Dover, she learns of their mistreatment—apparently for the first time.


One may be impressed not only by the inherent interest of these narratives of Cordelia's return but also by how mightily their authors, highly intelligent critics and editors who care deeply about the play, have labored to provide a coherent explanation for an action that does not even appear in the text. Perhaps most fascinating is their faith that there can be—indeed, should be—an explanation when generations of playgoers have had a satisfactory experience of the play without ever worrying about the question at all. E. A. Horsman says, “In the theater we are not troubled by the possibility that, because news of the invasion reaches Kent by II.ii, it must have been planned before Cordelia could have known anything of her father's ill treatment. We are uncertain of the strict time taken even by the events on the stage and we readily accept the swifter movement of those which are related or implied rather than shown.”25 Doubtless Horsman describes accurately enough the theatrical experience of many in the audience, though I suspect that even more are simply unaware of any discrepancy between strict and swift time. The critics who attempt to rationalize the background events seem to assume that even in a play founded on fairy-tale premises and having similarities to the late romances,26 Shakespeare must or should have imagined and presented a world enough like the real one that its operation can be comprehended in terms of ordinary chronology and cause and effect. It is not an unreasonable assumption, since Shakespeare usually does so. Indeed most of the other offstage actions in this play may be imagined as being plausibly motivated and coherent.27 Here, however, departure from his usual practice has occasioned such critical notice and concern that we may justifiably wonder why the play seems not to give us the information we need in order to understand the invasion.

One explanation—for many the least agreeable—is that the play is faulty. George Pierce Baker, Eugene O'Neill's drama teacher, thinks that Lear is simply too crowded a play—that its inclusion of two fully developed plots cramps adequate development of either: “It is much easier to get climax, a swift and unbroken movement, in manipulating a plot of a single interest than with a complicated plot.”28 Similarly, A. C. Bradley censures the play's “principal structural weakness”:

[B]y means of this double action Shakespeare secured certain results highly advantageous even from the strictly dramatic point of view, and easy to perceive. But the disadvantages were dramatically greater. The number of essential characters is so large, their actions and movements are so complicated, and events towards the close crowd on one another so thickly, that the reader's attention, rapidly transferred from one centre of interest to another, is overstrained.

Discussing the ways in which Regan, Cornwall, Kent, Oswald, Lear, and finally (and unexpectedly) Goneril all arrive at Gloucester's house by 2.4, he says:

Thus all the principal persons except Cordelia and Albany are brought together; and the crises of the double action—the expulsion of Lear and the blinding and expulsion of Gloster—are reached in Act III. And this is what was required.

But it needs the closest attention to follow these movements.29

The play certainly depends heavily on our readiness to accept (if not imagine) a great deal of offstage activity. Consider, as other examples, the offstage movements of two relatively secondary characters, Oswald and a Gentleman. Between 1.4 and 2.2 Oswald travels from Goneril's house to Regan's and then onwards to Gloucester's; between 3.7 and 4.2 he is sent ahead of Goneril and Edmund back to Goneril's house, and soon afterwards follows Edmund back again to Gloucester's house, where in 4.5 Regan tries unsuccessfully to read the letter he bears from Goneril; still following Edmund towards Dover in 4.6, he meets Edgar and Gloucester and is killed. In a comparable odyssey, one of Lear's knights, eventually designated “Gentleman,” follows Lear from Goneril's house in 1.5 to Gloucester's house in 2.4, is thereafter separated from Lear, but in 3.1 is sent by Kent to Cordelia, whom he meets near Dover before he reports to Kent on that meeting in 4.3 (Q only). In 4.4 the Gentleman is back with Cordelia, who sends him to search for Lear, whom he finds outside of Dover in 4.6 and helps to restore to sanity in Cordelia's camp in 4.7.30 In a similar way Edgar journeys to many places between the scenes, even changing his disguise more than once in the process; and the many letters carried by a number of people between the scenes have provided much matter for Lisa Jardine's recent discussion of Shakespeare's “epistolary transactions.”31 The audience must try to find some coherence in these offstage actions if it is to understand how one scene follows from another. While in Folio Henry V it has the help of the Chorus, here it must rely on only its own attentiveness.

Now when he wished to, Shakespeare could give full and leisurely accounts of anterior action (for example, of the murder of Old Hamlet, or the supplanting of Prospero) or of offstage, between-scenes action (for example, Hamlet's capture by pirates and return to Denmark). Rawdon Wilson has recently devoted a whole book to such expository narratives within the plays.32 Even in such a crowded, two-plot play as Lear, Shakespeare found the time to describe at length Cordelia's weeping for her father (in Q's 4.3) and Edgar's reunions with Kent and his father (5.3). Yet Cordelia's reasons for mounting a military campaign against the rulers of her native country—no small matter—remain clouded. One might be reluctant to assume that the dearth of information about such a crucial event is simply the result of oversight or crowding. Might it not rather be intentional?

Another kind of explanation—one that does not posit faulty craftsmanship—is that Shakespeare often left the relationship between background events (such as Cordelia's preparations for a return) and foreground events (such as Lear's tribulations) intentionally vague and the overall time scheme accordingly elastic. The theory of “double time” was first proposed in 1849-50 by “Christopher North” (a pseudonym for Professor John Wilson of the University of Edinburgh) and, independently, in 1849 by the Reverend Nicholas J. Halpin of Dublin. According to this theory, Shakespeare allows background events that would require “long” (North) or “protractive” (Halpin) time to occur simultaneously with foreground events that apparently proceed rapidly in “short” (North) or “accelerating” (Halpin) time.33 Thus Shakespeare creates the impression of passionate and vehement haste in the foreground action, while suggesting sufficient, deliberate time in the background events for the overall action to seem probable. It is part of Shakespeare's great dramatic skill that he achieves both effects of passion and probability even as the relationship of background and foreground events remains so indefinite that their inconsistency never troubles a reader or auditor.

Invoking this theory allows the critic to say that chronological inconsistencies in background events occur but do not matter because they go unnoticed. Thus the critic disposes of a problem by declaring that in effect none exists. Here is Virginia Gildersleeve in 1912:

Not much more than two weeks can have elapsed since Lear divided his kingdom and the disinherited Cordelia departed to France, and not more than two days since Goneril instructed her steward to begin to treat the king with discourtesy and neglect. Yet … [in 3.1] Kent speaks as if months had passed,—time for France to send spies … and to send forces which have secretly landed in several ports. When hearing this play performed one does not note the inconsistency. At some points Shakespeare seeks, by the use of ‘short time,’ rapidity of action; at others, by ‘long time’ he lends plausibility; and he does not permit considerations of theoretical consistency to hinder dramatic effectiveness.34

The general theory of double time has been much debated and has had a number of defenders; others, however, have found it unnecessary or inadequate even when applied to Othello, for which it was first devised.35 Even Peter Stone, who generally accepts the idea of a “wider time-scheme” for background events in Lear, rejects its particular application to Cordelia's return: “Not even the convention of double time will allow the French invasion to be prompted by news of the King's misfortunes: the two sets of events are clearly contemporaneous.”36

A third explanation is that the Quarto and/or Folio texts of the play are faulty because they present different stages of Shakespeare's thoughts about the play. Here is Granville-Barker again:

The King of France comes armed with Cordelia to Lear's rescue, as is natural. Then, by virtue of the clumsiest few lines in the play [4.3.1-6], he is sent back again. Did Shakespeare originally mean Cordelia to restore her father to his throne as in the old play; but would a French victory in England not have done? … Shakespeare leaves us to the end a little unconvinced by the machinery of Cordelia's return. There is no dramatic profit in the confusion. Neither text may be as Shakespeare left it. But in this instance I prefer the Quarto's to an amalgam of the two.37

Thus Granville-Barker constructs a narrative, not just of what happened offstage in this play but of what happened in an earlier, lost version—a narrative by its very nature incapable of proof. Similarly, R. A. Foakes, in his new Arden edition, invents an imaginary version in Shakespeare's early drafts, which, he believes, Shakespeare only imperfectly revised in the texts that we have:

The changes in F in 3.1, 3.5, 4.2, and 5.1, and the omission of 4.3, all may thus be seen as modifying an earlier conception of the action of the play that has left its traces in Q. That earlier conception apparently included an invasion by French forces with the King of France at their head. … It would seem that in F Cordelia takes over the role of leader of the French invading army, which was originally to be commanded by the King of France.38

Foakes does not argue that Cordelia's motives were originally different, only that in Q she appears an emblem of saintly pity, in F a warrior invader39—distinctions that seem to imply somewhat different motives for or attitudes towards the invasion. Foakes is among those commentators who have rejected the claim of some two-Lear critics that Q and F versions of the war in Lear differ, one being a foreign invasion and the other a domestic uprising.40 Yet here he preserves the two-Lear critics' notion that the Folio methodically excises references to France in order to give a different impression of the war—in Foakes's opinion, to make Cordelia rather than the King of France the “leader” of the invading army. Though he concedes that his theory of evolution from a pre-Quarto version is entirely “speculative,”41 his edition excludes some Quarto lines from 3.1 on the basis of that theory. In fact, however, in both Quarto and Folio the King of France is absent from the battle, and in both texts his army, though commanded by a French general, is headed by Cordelia. There is no difference in the conduct or leadership of the French campaign, and of course no evidence whatever that an earlier, pre-Quarto version existed containing still more differences. In Q 4.3 France is mentioned as originally heading the forces; insofar as we can know, he would have been so mentioned in F if the whole of 4.3 had not been cut from that text in order to shorten the play. In both Q and F the invasion has his approval (4.4.25-26); in both he is absent from Britain. In both versions, though Cordelia is the titular or authoritative head of the forces, these are commanded in battle, as they were in the old play Leir, not by her or the King of France but by a French general. In Q he is identified as la Far (4.3.8); in F he is an unnamed commander who leads Cordelia's forces while she is caring for Lear (4.6.215-16). In both texts, though Cordelia enters with soldiers in 4.4 and 5.2, during the battle itself she apparently cedes even her titular leadership of the army to Lear, for in both texts Edgar says, “King Lear hath lost,” adding “he and his daughter taine” (5.2.6). There is simply no evidence that France was ever intended to lead the army into the final battle in Q (or in an imagined earlier version) but not in F, or that Cordelia is ever “a general leading invading troops,” or that this soft-spoken girl is more “active and warlike” in either text.42 J. S. Bratton records productions in which she has appeared “‘as Queen of France’ and escorted by French knights” (Charles Kean, 1858), “in a brilliantly white gown and rich blue surcote” (Byam Shaw, 1959), in contrast to her “less successful” appearance in “forbidding battle-dress” (in Stratford, 1976).43 Her initial motives, of course, remain obscure either way, and theories of textual revision seem not to explain that fact.


All of these explanations may yet be true in some way and in some degree. Lear is a long and crowded play, and its information about background events is often slight. Whether or not a system of double time is operative throughout the play, clearly the time scheme of background events remains vague. And obviously revision has added to the problem. Whoever added the Folio lines about French spies (3.1.24-29) probably intended to give more plausibility to the action by providing a means whereby Cordelia and the King of France might have gauged conditions in England while preparing for an invasion; but like the rumors of dissension between the dukes, these spies quickly disappear. We hear nothing more about them after 3.1, and the added Folio lines, by displacing necessary ones in the Quarto, simply add to the confusion about why Cordelia has landed.

There remains, of course, one other possibility: that no explanation exists for Cordelia's return because Shakespeare intentionally refrained from providing one. If neither the most attentive listeners in the theater nor the most careful critics in their studies find a coherent explanation for Cordelia's and France's behavior, and if Shakespeare customarily provides such explanations elsewhere, then we may suspect either that he was remarkably forgetful here, concerning this most important of matters, or that for some reason he intentionally omitted speeches and scenes that would have made all plain. That is, he may deliberately have sacrificed clarity about the invasion in order to gain other dramatic advantages. This is the assumption of those who invoke double time: clarity and plausibility are sacrificed to speed and passion. But perhaps more particular advantages were aimed at.

Madeleine Doran, for example, has suggested that by having Cordelia return sooner than in his sources, Shakespeare was working for a tight interconnection between the Lear and Gloucester subplots, for heightened suspense, and for thematic emphasis:

In Shakespeare's sources for the Leir story, Cordelia did not come into Britain until after she had been reconciled with her father, who had gone to her in France. … If … Shakespeare intended her to be in Dover thus early in the play, it is readily apparent that he has given the invasion a dramatic importance which it did not have from the beginning. Primarily, it is made an effective tool in Edmund's hands in accomplishing his father's ruin. … [Secondly,] by bringing Edmund into frequent contact with Cornwall, Shakespeare has brought the minor plot into important relations with the principal story. In the third place, he has heightened suspense by the mysterious and ominous rumors, often repeated, of a foreign power afoot in the kingdom; he has increased anticipation of the speedy avenging of Lear's sufferings. Finally, by suggesting that division between the dukes in Britain is the direct occasion for the coming of the French, he has increased the political significance of Lear's abdication.44

Similarly, Geoffrey Bullough thinks that Shakespeare omitted scenes that would clarify the invasion in order to deflect attention from its foreignness and to bring all the major characters from both plots together in one grand final scene:

To intensify the action Shakespeare now makes his most considerable omissions from the old play [Leir]: Cordella's envoy sent to invite her father to France (Sc. 16); her journey with her husband in disguise, Leir's crossing and exchange of clothes with the seamen (Sc. 23); and, later, the embarcation of the Gallian forces, the beacon-watchers (Sc. 27, 29), the landing and the capture of Dover. Shakespeare wished to have Lear meet his daughter on British soil, to avoid emphasizing the French invasion and to bring all his characters together for the catastrophe.45

Surely a desire for speed and momentum lies behind the departures from the Leir play which Bullough lists. Instead of a mid-play interlude, requiring Lear to wander as an outcast for days and weeks while France and Cordelia get news of his fate, decide to remedy it, and then proceed to raise and transport their forces, in Shakespeare's play the atrocities of the daughters and the counter-action from France happen almost simultaneously, allowing the play to move towards its crisis and resolution without any pause in momentum or emotional intensity.46 The second half of the old Leir play, by contrast, plods towards its conclusion in a leisurely succession of episodes.

I think, however, that Shakespeare had a very particular reason for wanting speed and momentum: Shakespeare's play is the only version of the Lear story in which the old king goes mad. The excruciating effect of this madness in the tragedy, and its deepening of themes of order and chaos in nature, of the relationship of blindness, suffering, and insight, and many more, hardly needs any discussion here. The king's madness is one of the additions to the Lear story that lifts it realms above any other version, as Shakespeare surely realized. But as many commentators have noted, stage madness may easily slide over into grotesque comedy, evoking embarrassed laughter rather than horror and pathos.47 Shakespeare confines Lear's derangement to three scenes, the first two (3.4, 3.6) spanning no more than an hour of Lear's wandering in the fields, and the third (4.6) occurring an indeterminate time later, after Lear has reached Dover. Perhaps not even Shakespeare could have extended scenes of the king's madness much further, as he would have had to do if he had made Lear's plight the motive for France's invasion, and if days and weeks of preparations for that invasion had to be accounted for until Lear's reunion with Cordelia could restore him to sanity.

Protecting the pathos of Lear's madness by keeping it brief and preserving the momentum of the play's movement towards its end are both great dramatic advantages that depend on an early beginning of France's and Cordelia's invasion. But the swift pace in Lear would have required that, to be made believable, the early French invasion must have sprung from entirely selfish motives—France's desire for revenge or territorial expansion, Cordelia's to recover her third of a kingdom—not from moral altruism occasioned by news of Lear's mistreatment. But such self-serving motives would have made the French invasion more troubling than in any of the sources and much less sympathetic to Shakespeare's English audience. This may be why we are kept so much in the dark about those motives. Instead of definite clarification, we get a variety of hints, mostly mysterious, possibly even intentionally confusing and contradictory, that Cordelia's instinctive concern, or France's anger, or the golden opportunity of a divisive civil war in Britain, or “something deeper, / Whereof (perchance) these are but furnishings” lies behind the invasion.

Meanwhile, the audience gets a series of passing hints that something is about to happen, for some reason, but can only guess at what exactly is going on. We hear twice that France's hot blood has been aroused but not what he plans to do. Kent risks his life to watch over Lear, but his “made intent” (4.7.9) is a secret to the end. Cordelia writes to Kent from France, but her message, like his means of receiving it, remains a mystery. Kent says that he or Cordelia or both of them will somehow remedy someone's losses, whatever those may be and however they may be remedied. We hear that a French power has landed at Dover, but its size, purpose, and leadership are not specified. Kent sends news to Cordelia there, along with letters (4.3.9) not originally mentioned and whose contents can only be guessed from her reaction to them. Gloucester also hears of a power footed, apparently to revenge the king's injuries (3.3.12-13), but its nationality and location are not revealed until 3.5 and 3.7, and its plans remain obscure. Cornwall learns that the army of France is landed and that British friends of Lear, including some of his knights, are gathering at Dover, but their purposes and relationship with each other are not given. Regan notes what is never shown, that Gloucester's blindness “moues / All harts against vs” (4.5.10-11); Albany notes that Lear and Cordelia are being joined by some British citizens, who might or might not be the ones Cornwall hears of, “whome the rigour of our state / Forst to crie out” (5.1.22-23)—the latter an admission of guilt as startling as it is unsubstantiated. These hints of background movements give the audience a hopeful sense that some kind of countermovement is at work and prepare it for Cordelia's appearance and for the battle in the last act, but they give no real information about when or why Cordelia and France have invaded. They seem consistently and therefore intentionally vague, incomplete, and enigmatic, and of a piece with rumors of an impending civil war that never materializes and with puzzling, apparently untrue references to the mistreatment of Lear by both dukes.

It looks to me, in short, as if Shakespeare is practicing some very clever sleight-of-hand: now we glimpse a foreign invasion, now we don't—at least not steadily and whole enough to think very hard about it. While we know that it (and many other things) are happening, we are kept far enough away that we do not—indeed, cannot—question its raison d'être. When Cordelia finally returns to the stage, she voices her disavowal of ambition, promising blamelessly, in the language of the Gospels, to do her father's business and restore his rights. Such a speech would have made no sense earlier in the play, when she knew nothing of her father's lost rights, and so it sheds no light on her original motives. Not only is the chronology of background events vague, the events themselves and their resistance to rational explanation are consistently hidden from our view.

The notion of deliberate sleight-of-hand goes quite counter to our general sense that “transparency is a … general feature of Shakespeare's tragedies, which adds to the feeling that Shakespeare is a friendly, dependable author for his public.”48 One reason that I am receptive to the idea nonetheless is the growing recognition of a good deal of intentional indeterminacy in Lear, as in other Shakespearean plays. Stephen Booth has argued that the indeterminacy in Lear may be quite conscious and intentional:

As the play progresses, a series of beckoning hints of a coming clash between the two dukes … misleads us down a path to nowhere and does nothing to prepare us for the conflict between the two duchesses. … Whenever we find fault with something Shakespeare does in King Lear, the alternative turns out to be in some way less acceptable. The plotting of King Lear invites adverse criticisms, but what Lear says to Kent on the heath might well be said to anyone who accepts even the most obvious of the invitations:

                                                                                                    Thou'dst shun a bear;
But if thy flight lay toward the roaring sea,
Thou'dst meet the bear i' th' mouth.


Actors, too, recognize the indeterminacy. Here is Alan Howard, who played Lear in Peter Hall's National Theatre production at the Old Vic in 1997, speaking about how the play's factual “slippage” deserves to be a focal point of production: “One person says one thing and someone else says something completely different about an event that is alleged to have taken place. So who is one to believe? Things are never quite as they ought to be.”50 Such indeterminacy or “slippage” in the matter of Cordelia's return seems to me to be very carefully calculated so as not to raise questions in audiences' minds about the event's verisimilitude while allowing for maximum dramatic effect, particularly in preserving the integrity and intensity of Lear's madness and in propelling the action to its denouement.


  1. Excerpts from all of these sources are reprinted in Geoffrey Bullough, Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, 8 vols. (New York: Columbia UP, 1957-75), 7:269-420.

  2. Unless otherwise noted, quotations of King Lear in this essay follow the 1608 Quarto (Q1); act-scene-line numbers given in parentheses are those of The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans et al. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974).

  3. George Steevens, ed., The Plays of William Shakspeare, 10 vols. (London, 1778), 9:450.

  4. Lewis Theobald, ed., The Works of Shakespeare, 7 vols. (London, 1733), 5:156; Edward Capell, Notes and Various Readings to Shakespeare, 3 vols. (London, 1783), 1.2:163.

  5. George Lyman Kittredge, ed., The Tragedy of King Lear (Boston and New York: Ginn and Co., 1940), 170.

  6. Steven Urkowitz, Shakespeare's Revision of King Lear (Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1980), 73.

  7. I quote here from the 1623 Folio; though substantially the same, the Quarto version of this passage erroneously has “not” for “most” and “and” for “their.”

  8. Samuel Johnson, ed., The Plays of William Shakespeare, 8 vols. (London, 1765), 6:59; Charles Jennens, ed., King Lear: A Tragedy (London, 1770), 72.

  9. If, as many scholars now believe, Q derives from a late rough draft, its light punctuation is probably authorial; heavier punctuation was routinely added to Folio texts by their scribes and compositors.

  10. Some editors have seen this difficulty very clearly: thus S. E. Goggin, ed., King Lear, University Tutorial Shakespeare (London, 1910): “Apparently it is from the letter that Kent derives the information he communicates to the Gentleman in [3.1.30-34]. But if that be so, apparently Cordelia hears of her father's misfortunes before they take place. … We learn that a French force has actually been landed in the kingdom, and that Cordelia is at Dover. It is noteworthy that this expedition is stated [3.1.26-28] to be the result either of the quarrels of the dukes or of their ill-treatment of the old king. Yet this ill-treatment of Lear could not possibly be known in France, for Regan and Cornwall had only just refused to receive him, and Goneril's conduct was not yet two days old” (153 and 159). The problem was first recognized by Styan Thirlby, in his manuscript annotations (1733-47) in Theobald's 1733 edition: “How does it agree with Cordelia's being landed with an army to right her father yt she shd not hear of his wrongs (nb. Gonerill's first ill usage) till after her landing” (Folger copy 2, 5:185). P. A. Daniel's solution is “We must suppose, then, that from the spies, darkly hinted at by Kent, she had gained sufficient knowledge of her sister's intentions to convince her that her return to England was urgently required” (“Time-Analysis of the Plots of Shakspere's Plays. Part II. The Tragedies,” The New Shakspere Society's Transactions [1877-79]: 180-256, esp. 220). Although, out of Cordelia's hearing at the end of 1.1, the sisters agree to future discussions of defensive tactics against “vnconstant starts” of caprice on Lear's part, neither sister evidences any actual intentions until Goneril confides hers to Oswald in 1.3, a few minutes before putting them into action in 1.4; and secondhand reports to Cordelia (even if there were time for them) of Goneril's unrealized intent to reduce Lear's train would scarcely be credible grounds for an immediate armed invasion.

  11. See Richard Knowles, “Revision Awry in Folio Lear 3.1,” Shakespeare Quarterly 46 (1995): 32-46.

  12. And there is no evidence whatsoever that Albany has persecuted Lear; at worst, he failed to aid him in 1.4 when Goneril was persecuting him. Perhaps what is meant is that Albany's household (albeit controlled by Goneril) has mistreated Lear.

  13. J. S. H. Bransom, ed., The Tragedy of King Lear (Oxford: Blackwell, 1934), 193 and 190.

  14. W. W. Greg, “Time, Place, and Politics in ‘King Lear’,” Modern Language Review 35 (1940): 431-46, esp. 441 and 443n. The inadequate time to mount an invasion had been pointed out by Henry James Pye, A Commentary Illustrating the Poetic of Aristotle ([London, 1792], 133) and Comments on the Commentators on Shakespear (London: J. D. Dewick, 1807), x-xi.

  15. R. A. Foakes, ed., The Arden Shakespeare King Lear (Walton-on-Thames: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1997), 298, adopts the odd and surely erroneous claim of his student Grace Ioppolo (Revising Shakespeare [Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1991], 175) that these traitors are French soldiers. They must of course be Britons. The Oxford English Dictionary defines traitor as “One who is false to his allegiance to his sovereign or to the government of his country” (2d ed., sb. 2). French invaders can betray no allegiance to a British ruler, having none. Cornwall, having interrogated Gloucester about his connections with the French, next asks about his connection with the British faction of “well armed friends” gathering at Dover, whom Cornwall rightly suspects of disloyalty to him.

  16. Greg, 439.

  17. Ambrose Eccles, ed., The Tragedies of King Lear and Cymbeline (London, 1792), 82.

  18. Greg, 444.

  19. Greg, 444.

  20. France's return is briefly explained in 4.3 (Q only) to be motivated by concern for events transpiring at home. Since that scene is missing from F, apparently having been cut to shorten the play, his motives in that text are left completely mysterious.

  21. Harley Granville-Barker, Prefaces to Shakespeare, 1st ser. (London: Sidgwick and Jackson, 1927), 148n.

  22. Greg, 441-42n.

  23. René Weis, ed., King Lear: A Parallel Text Edition (London and New York: Longman, 1993), 165n.

  24. P. W. K. Stone, The Textual History of King Lear (London: Scolar Press, 1980), 73n. Cf. Thomas G. Pavel, The Poetics of Plot: The Case of English Renaissance Drama (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1985): “It is … reasonable to attribute the early presence of the French army at Dover not only to the French king's awareness of the latent conflict between Albany and Cornwall, but also to Cordelia's foreboding of the breakdown of Lear's arrangements with his older daughters” (101-2). Cf. Daniel, 180-256, esp. 220.

  25. E. A. Horsman, ed., The Tragedy of King Lear, Bobbs-Merrill Shakespeare (Indianapolis and New York, 1973), xxvii.

  26. On Lear's similarities to the romances, see, e.g., Maynard Mack, King Lear in Our Time (Berkeley and Los Angeles: U of California P, 1965), 63-66; John Reibetanz, The Lear World: A study of King Lear in its dramatic context (Toronto and Buffalo: U of Toronto P, 1977), 116-17; and John Jones, Shakespeare at Work (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995), 208-38.

  27. After working out a timetable of comings and goings between 1.1 and 2.4, Bransom concludes: “All these movements, with the possible exception of Goneril's journey to Regan's palace, can be made out with certainty from the text. They are all movements sufficiently well motivated and are perfectly natural; written down in an orderly manner they strike one as obvious. But they are apt to be confusing on the stage. … Shakespeare had very clearly imagined the course of historical events and constantly had it in mind; … he fitted the scenes into it, but in his elaboration of these did not make the course of events very clear to his readers or his audiences” (56). The question remains, of course, why he did not.

  28. George Pierce Baker, The Development of Shakespeare as a Dramatist (New York: Macmillan, 1907), 267-68.

  29. A. C. Bradley, Shakespearean Tragedy: Lectures on Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth (London and New York: Macmillan, 1904), 254, 255, and 449.

  30. Though mathematical proof is impossible, many accept that the Gentleman in these several scenes is in all likelihood the same character and is played by the same actor. See, e.g., Wilfrid Perrett, The Story of King Lear from Geoffrey of Monmouth to Shakespeare (Berlin: Mayer and Müller, 1904), 198-99; and Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor, William Shakespeare: A Textual Companion (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987), who add: “So interpreted, the Gentleman becomes an important minor role, linking the two halves of the play, Lear and Kent and Cordelia” (533). Though Molly Mahood toys with the idea that Q's “Knight” in 1.4 and 2.4 may be different from F's “Gentleman” in 1.5 and successive scenes, she reports that directors usually make “the Gentleman of 1.5 and 2.4 one and the same with the character who meets Kent at the height of the storm, is reunited with him at Dover, and figures in the scene of Lear's recovery (4.7)” (Bit Parts in Shakespeare's Plays [Cambridge and New York: Cambridge UP, 1992], 163-67, esp. 164).

  31. Lisa Jardine, Reading Shakespeare Historically (London and New York: Routledge, 1996), 90-97, esp. 91.

  32. See Rawdon Wilson, Shakespearean Narrative (Newark, DE: U of Delaware P, 1995).

  33. Christopher North, “Dies Boreales, Nos. V, VI. Christopher under Canvass,” Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine 66 (1849): 620-54; 67 (1850): 481-512; Nicholas J. Halpin, The Dramatic Unities of Shakespeare (Dublin: Hodges and Smith, 1849). These pieces were reprinted in condensed form a quarter of a century later in The New Shakspere Society's Transactions (1875-76): 351-412; (1877-79): 21*-41*. For an extended study, based on this theory, of dramatic time in all of the plays, see Charles and Mary Cowden Clarke, The Shakespeare Key (London: S. Low, Marston, Searle, and Rivington, 1879), 105-283.

  34. Virginia Gildersleeve, ed., The Tragedy of King Lear, The Tudor Shakespeare (New York, 1914), 164. Among others who have applied this theory to Lear are Mable Buland, The Presentation of Time in the Elizabethan Drama (New York: H. Holt and Co., 1912), 124-26; Greg, 439-40; Horsman; and Kristian Smidt, Unconformities in Shakespeare's Tragedies (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1990), 146 and 241.

  35. For discussions of critics who have either accepted or challenged the theory, see Horace H. Furness, ed., Othello, A New Variorum Edition (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1886), 358-72; and Ned B. Allen, “The Two Parts of ‘Othello,’” Shakespeare Survey 21 (1968): 13-29, esp. 16 and 27. In The Whirligig of Time: The Problem of Duration in Shakespeare's Plays (Bombay: Orient Longmans, 1961), S. C. Sen Gupta recasts the idea in different terms, distinguishing between definite indications of passing time, which Shakespeare largely “leaves out of account,” and the reader's or spectator's sense of a “continuous flow” of development in character and action, or “duration” (150-61, esp. 150).

  36. Stone, 72-73.

  37. Granville-Barker, 149n and 226.

  38. Foakes, ed., 401.

  39. See Foakes, ed., 74, 139-40, 318, 321, and 401.

  40. The theory first appeared in Gary Taylor, “The War in ‘King Lear,’” SS 20 (1980): 27-34. Among those embracing it are Stanley Wells, “Revision in Shakespeare's Plays” in Editing and Editors: A Retrospect, Richard Landon, ed. (New York: AMS Press, 1988), 67-97; and Jay L. Halio, ed., The First Quarto of King Lear, The New Cambridge Shakespeare (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1994), 26. Among those rejecting it are E. A. J. Honigmann, “Do-It-Yourself Lear,New York Review of Books, 25 October 1990, p. 59; and R. A. Foakes, Hamlet versus Lear: Cultural Politics and Shakespeare's Art (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge UP, 1993), 245-46.

  41. Foakes, ed., 402.

  42. Foakes, ed., 140.

  43. J. S. Bratton, ed., King Lear, Plays in Performance (Bristol: Bristol Classical Press, 1987), 171.

  44. Madeleine Doran, “Elements in the Composition of King Lear,Studies in Philology 30 (1933): 34-58, esp. 45.

  45. Bullough, 7:294.

  46. Perhaps this is what Kenneth Muir had in mind when he said, without further elaboration, “This confusion [about the motive for the invasion], which could be avoided only by slowing up the action, was the result of cunning rather than carelessness”; see his edition of King Lear for the Arden Shakespeare (London: Methuen, 1952), li.

  47. This is one line of argument explaining the astonishing cut from the Folio of Lear's mock trial of Goneril and Regan in 3.6. The potential that the lines might slip into coarse humor is discussed by, e.g., Alfred Hart, Stolne and Surreptitious Copies: A Comparative Study of Shakespeare's Bad Quartos (Melbourne and London: Melbourne UP, 1942), 147; and Muir, ed., xlviii. For discussion of the idea that these lines might seem eccentric and redundant, see Roger Warren, “The Folio Omission of the Mock Trial: Motives and Consequences” in The Division of the Kingdoms: Shakespeare's Two Versions of King Lear, Gary Taylor and Michael Warren, eds. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983), 45-57, esp. 46ff.

  48. Pavel, 109.

  49. Stephen Booth, King Lear, Macbeth, Indefinition, and Tragedy (New Haven, CT, and London: Yale UP, 1983), 56-57.

  50. Alan Howard, as quoted in the London edition of Time Out, 3-10 September 1997, p. 29.

Susan Viguers (essay date March 2000)

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SOURCE: Viguers, Susan. “The Storm in King Lear.CLA Journal 43, no. 3 (March 2000): 338-66.

[In the following essay, Viguers theorizes how the storm scene in King Lear would have been staged during Shakespeare's time and maintains that many modern presentations ignore important staging clues in the text.]

The past twenty years have made us acutely aware of written texts as problematic, a perception given even more obvious weight in regard to King Lear by the existence of two primary texts, the First Quarto and the First Folio, and the argument that they represent different playwright-created versions of the play. And, of course, once we look at the play not as literature but as theater, as this article is doing, its problematic status is compounded. Theatrical performance is less stable than literature or even another performance medium such as film. “When one puts on a play,” comments Peter Brook in The Open Door, “inevitably, at the beginning it has no form, it is just words on paper or ideas. The event is the shaping of the form. What one calls the work is the search for the right form. If this work is successful, the result can eventually last for a few years, but no more.”1 Although concerned with modern productions of the play, the argument of this article begins with the play's original form on Shakespeare's stage—which takes us even further down the road of the problematic. Brook pointedly dismisses at least a certain kind of interest in that “original” production:

Many years ago, it used to be claimed that one must “perform the play as Shakespeare wrote it.” Today the absurdity of this is more or less recognized: nobody knows what scenic form he had in mind. All that one knows is that he wrote a chain of words that have in them the possibility of giving birth to forms that are constantly renewed.2

My bias is to agree with Brook that Shakespeare “is always relevant and always contemporary” precisely because his plays give “birth to forms that are constantly renewed.”3 On the other hand, I would not describe Shakespeare as composing “a chain of words.” Scholars for years have argued that Shakespeare was writing for the theater, in the context of a particular stage and set of stage conventions. Elements of the theater space and staging are embedded in the actual text of the play. Productions had to be developed quickly, with little rehearsal and little direction. Bernard Beckerman in his analysis of Philip Henslowe's Diary summarizes that in the six months between August 25, 1595, and February 28, 1596, Lord Admiral's company “gave one hundred and fifty performances of thirty different plays. Eighty-seven performances … were of the fourteen new plays produced that season”4 A chart included by Beckerman in an appendix to Shakespeare at the Globe reveals that of the one hundred thirteen plays performed between 1592 and 1597, thirty-four were performed only one or two times and only thirty-five were performed more than ten times.5 Moreover, a play produced on one day would not be presented the next.6 A similar pattern presumably characterized Shakespeare's company. The implications are significant. Staging must have been guided by convention and clear signals in the text, and we are missing an essential part of that text if we do not read those signals. I am not suggesting that the original production would be successful on today's stage, but I am privileging that original production (even a hypothetical vision of that production).

The subject of this inquiry is the portrayal of the storm in Lear. Arnold Kettle describes the importance of the storm in a way that seems to me a commonplace of criticism:

The storm in Lear “works” artistically on a number of levels: the elemental storm, the social storm which shakes the divided kingdom, the inner storm that drives Lear mad, all are interconnected and reinforce one another to achieve what is, I suppose, the most extraordinary and harrowing representation of crisis in the whole of art.7

Few critics have examined the play in depth without discussing the storm as an image central to the play's power and philosophy. There has been less attention given to how the storm would have been represented in an original production.8 This article focuses on that delineation of the storm, one that in part would have been realized by the physical movement of characters on stage. I argue that imagining the original staging of the storm scenes can contribute to a modern experience of the play—even aid in the creation of a production of the play.


In no other play of Shakespeare does such a sustained event of nature share the stage with the characters. The lack of sets on Shakespeare's stage meant, of course, that characters carried their settings with them. The storm would have been evoked through their words and actions. Nonetheless, the Folio seven times notes in stage directions the storm's presence, suggesting that there was some external representation of the storm on the stage. Lear himself catalogues four elements of the storm: “rain, wind, thunder, fire” (3.2.15).9 There is no evidence that water actually fell on the stage,10 although it is not impossible that characters entered wet, like the mariners in the first scene of The Tempest. If wind and thunder—the next two elements listed by Lear—were actually represented on stage, they would have been by sound. In the lines of the play, the winds “sorely ruffle” (2.4.303); they “crack” their “cheeks” (3.2.1). Thunder also “crack[s]” (3.2.8), as well as “Rumbles[s]” (14). Ben Jonson in the prologue to his 1616 edition of Every Man in His Humour speaks in disparagement of the use of “roul'd bullet heard / To say, it thunders.” “[T]empestuous drumme / Rumbles,” he continues his complaint, “to tell you when the storme doth come.”11 Act 4 of the early seventeenth-century play The Birth of Hercules ends with the stage direction “ye Drums for thunder”12 announcing a great storm, one described by the handmaiden Bromia in the next scene as “such a thunderinge and lightening … [that] we in the house fell flatt to the grounde for feare.”13 It is quite possible that the only indication of the storm in Lear was a cannon sounding from the upper story of the theater, a “roul'd bullet,” or “tempestuous drumme.”

Thunder and the word “crack” evoke lightning. The fourth element of the storm in Lear's catalogue is fire, and the association of lightning with fire is typical of Renaissance plays. “You sulph'rous and thought-executing fires, / Vaunt-couriers of oak-cleaving thunderbolts,” cries Lear, “Singe my white head!” (3.2.4-6). “Spit, fire!” (114), he exclaims a moment later. Squibs and fireworks were common entertainments (theatrical and other) of the time.14 In his negative reference to current stage practices in the prologue to Every Man in His Humour, Johnson also mentions the “nimble squibbe” which “make afear'd / The gentlewomen” (17-18). Elaborate pyrotechnic spectacle, however, of the sort seen in George Peele's The Battle of Alcazar at the Rose or in Thomas Heywood's Ages plays at the Red Bull did not characterize the Globe.15 Another famous Shakespeare storm begins The Tempest. The stage direction, “A tempestuous noise of thunder and lightning heard,”16 suggests that lightning was represented by noise, just as thunder was. It is quite possible there were no fireworks at all in the original production of Lear. In any case, fireworks hardly supplied realistic images of lightning. It must be remembered that Lear, like other public theater plays, was performed in generalized afternoon light. The gloomy darkness of a storm, a sky lit up with lightning, would not have been possible.

Critics have repeatedly noted the efficacy of the language of the play to conjure up the storm. Lear's “Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks” (3.2.1) is among the best-known lines in the play. Jonathan Goldberg, in his article on the Dover Cliff scene, in contrasting Edgar's remarkably illusionistic description of the cliffs with the prologue of the Chorus in Henry V, points to “the emphasis” in the Chorus's speech on the “verbal, on the power of words to work on the imagination.”17 Unlike the “reduction” implied by the “illusionistic representation”18 of Edgar's vision, the Chorus respects “the limits of representation.”19 The same can be said about the depiction of the storm in Lear. The language is dense and highly figurative. It evokes rather than describes. And although the storm is anthropomorphized through words such as “blow,” “rage,” “spit,” “groans,” “cheeks,” “wrathful,” “eyeless,” “bellyfull,” it is not rendered emblematic. It does not, to use Hannah Arendt's definition of emblems, refer to “already visible illustrations of something invisible.”20 Lear's cry “And thou, all-shaking thunder, / Strike flat the thick rotundity o'th'world! / Crack Nature's moulds, all germains spill at once” (3.2.6-8) compounds images: a storm, an enraged human being, Jove himself, the world as a globe, pregnancy. And essential to the power of the language is its slow, ponderous rhythm with its charged stops; in only eight syllables, “Strike flat the thick rotundity,” there are six stops (k,t,k,t,d,t). Figurative language—unless it is emblematic or unless, to quote Arendt again, it is made up of “outworn analogies that have turned into idioms”21—cannot be literalized. “Metaphor is the means by which the thinking mind seeks to understand inward and invisible activities,22 says Arendt. I would argue that for Shakespeare the storm in part remains inward and invisible.

It is useful to compare the storm in Lear to that in The Battle of Alcazar. The prologue to Act 5 in Peele's play includes a dumb show full of spectacle: “Lightning and thunder,” (1165), a “blazing Starre” (1175), “Fire workes” (1178).23 The Presenter's delineation of how the dumb show reveals what is to unfold on stage functions much like the verse accompanying a picture in an emblem book: “Fire, fire about the axiltree of heaven,” he tells us, “Woorles round, and from the foot of Casyopa, / In fatall houre consumes these fatall crownes” (1177-79). Kent's description of the storm works quite differently: “Such sheets of fire, such bursts of horrid thunder, / Such groans of roaring wind and rain,” he exclaims, “I never / Remember to have heard; man's nature cannot carry / Th'affliction nor the fear” (3.2.46-49). His emphasis is on the storm as beyond human endurance, beyond knowledge. In The Battle of Alcazar the Presenter's words depend on and necessitate spectacle; in Lear an effort to visualize the words through spectacle would reduce them and the significance of the storm.

There is no way of knowing conclusively if the storm in Lear was heard only at those seven times indicated by the Folio stage directions, but I suggest that in fact it was. That hypothesis—and my final reason for arguing against the position of the critic who assumes, like Marvin Rosenberg, that Shakespeare used elements of spectacle “lavishly” to create the storm24—is based on three perceptions about the careful timing of the directions: (1) The storm sounds occur so as not to confuse the audience about the setting for scenes. When the words “Storm still” are present at the beginning of a scene, as they are with 3.1 and 3.2, they define the setting for both characters exiting and those entering. The characters exiting at the end of 3.3 inhabit an inside setting; thus, rather than “Storm still” coming at the beginning of 3.4, the Folio gives us that direction shortly after the characters in the new scene have entered, and after, presumably, the actors in the previous one have exited. (2) The sounds of the storm come at moments that would not drown out dialogue. They always occur at one of two times: before the dialogue begins, as in 3.1 and 3.2, where the first lines suggest that the characters speak several moments after entering, or when a pause or a momentary break is useful. (3) The storm sounds always relate to the dialogue on stage. (The support for my last two points will emerge in part III of this article.)


The storm, although not present as illusion or emblematic spectacle, was extremely important in all four scenes in which it was heard on Shakespeare's stage. The storm is, of course, central to both the plot and the theme of the play. Less obvious, the timing of the storm sounds would have made the storm a presence to be responded to rather than simply a context. Such a statement is commonplace in regard to Lear's “Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks” at the beginning of 3.2, but I suggest that the storm also relates to the dialogue at the other times the Folio indicates it is heard and, when it does, it evokes and is aligned to Lear's evil daughters. I do not intend a reductive contracting of the metaphorical meaning of the storm, but emphasizing that connection grounds those scenes in the dramatic plot, in the emotional rather than the metaphysical. Perceiving that alignment, moreover, gives focus and depth to the lines preceding or following the sound of the storm, particularly the five times that the storm interrupts a scene. Finally, I argue that visually the storm scenes on Shakespeare's stage would have been played out as an enactment of the characters' efforts either, on the one hand, to avoid or mitigate the harshness of the tempest or, on the other, to confront, immerse themselves, or commune with it. And for the choreography of that movement, Shakespeare's stage itself, a thrust platform with at least two doors on the upstage wall, was essential.

The first time we hear the storm is near the end of the momentous fourth scene of Act 2. The stage is full. Lear stands before his two oldest daughters, stripped of his followers, his dignity, his identity, all that separates him from a “life” as “cheap as beast's” (269). “I will have such revenges on you both,” he cries,

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 of weeping,


It is at this point that the storm announces itself.25 It encapsulates his cause for weeping, calling up an image of chaos and dissolution, the ominous voice of both physical and moral nature, and recapitulating the voice of his daughters. And the pause in Lear's speech that the sound of the storm necessitates allows for a shift to the cry of denial and pain that propels him off the stage into the storm:

                                                                                but this heart
Shall break into a hundred thousand flaws
Or ere I'll weep. O Fool, I shall go mad!


The scene climaxes as Lear, after that line, rushes out one door of the stage into the storm.

The dialogue among the remaining characters making up the concluding beat of the scene powerfully creates the sense of a threatening, impending storm. The final movement is shaped by Cornwall's urging those on stage to exit (a door other than the one used by Lear) out of (rather than into) the storm. The first line after Lear leaves is Cornwall's, “Let us withdraw, 'twill be a storm” (289), as are the last lines, “'tis a wild night: / My Regan counsels well: come out o'th'storm” (310-11). The tension at the center of the scene's final movement is between Cornwall's desire to sweep everyone on stage out one door, which represents going into the castle—a movement that articulates abandoning Lear to the storm—and Gloucester's impotent desire—visualized by his brief, anxious exit with Lear and then his return—to bring Lear back through the door he exited.

The next two scenes, 3.1 and 3.2, the Folio stage directions tell us, begin with the sound of the storm—giving us the setting for both the characters exiting and those entering. The storm has taken over the stage. In both scenes the first line is an explicit response to the storm's voice. “Who's there, besides foul weather?” calls out Kent to a Gentleman in 3.1. The question defines the storm as a presence almost in the sense of another character. The words that begin 3.2 are Lear's to that presence itself: “Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks!” In both, the primary evocation is of the storm as a phenomenon of nature, but in both the identification goes further to allude to Goneril and Regan. In 3.1 the Gentleman moves from a description of the raging king to “His heart-strook injuries” (17), and Kent proceeds to inform the Gentleman of France's (and Cordelia's) knowledge of the mistreatment Lear has suffered. In 3.2 the Fool immediately responds to Lear's opening cry to the elements with “O Nuncle, court holy-water in a dry house is better than this rainwater out o'door. Good Nuncle, in; ask thy daughters' blessing” (10-12). Lear moves quickly from addressing the storm to his daughters:

Rumble thy bellyful! Spit, fire! Spout, rain!
Nor rain, wind, thunder, fire are my daughters:
I tax not you, you elements, with unkindness.


The impartiality of the elements dissipates as he connects them to his daughters:

But yet I call you servile ministers,
That will with two pernicious daughters join
Your high-engender'd battles 'gainst a head
So old and white as this.


Both scenes are structured as movements against or aligned with the storm, to avoid or to confront it. In 3.1 Kent and the Gentleman enter from two different doors. The storm is on stage. Their concern is to find the king and get him to safety, but they are caught in the confusion of the tumultuous elements. The conflict in the scene lies in their fighting the weather—“Fie on this storm!” (49) cries Kent—and their lack of clear direction. They stumble on each other. They do not know where Lear is. They go off in different directions, exiting “severally.” Kent's words end the scene: “[W]hen we have found the King, in which your pain / That way, I'll this, he that first lights on him / Hallo the other” (53-55). In 3.2 the tension is between Lear's desire to confront the storm, to interrogate and investigate it—implications, not just for himself, but for humankind—and the desire of the Fool and Kent for him to avoid it. The Fool begs him to find shelter and mocks him for his foolishness in being unhoused; and Kent, entering mid-scene, takes over, urging Lear to take refuge in a nearby hovel. “Hovel,” with its connotation of shelter, is an anchoring word at the end of the scene, spoken three times in seventeen lines. The scene begins with Lear's confronting and communing with the storm and ends with his exiting with Kent, followed a moment later by the Fool, toward the hovel. In both scenes, exiting and what that means about the characters' relationship to the storm is not simply an ending, but the concluding purpose of the scene's movement. In 3.1 Kent and the Gentleman go to find Lear; in 3.2 Lear gives in to Kent's and the Fool's urging: “Come,” he says to Kent, “bring us to this hovel” (78).

The storm's importance reaches its climax in the long, complex 3.4, the only scene in which the storm is heard not once, but four times, once in the first part, twice in the second, and once in the scene's final movement.26 Its initial sounding occurs not as the characters enter, but shortly after, immediately following and giving substance to Kent's words “The tyranny of the open night's too rough / For nature to endure” (2-3). The storm's voice, however, also summons up Lear's cruel daughters, for when Lear responds, “Let me alone” (3), although he is ostensibly talking to Kent, he can also be seen as speaking to the elements of the storm or “ministers” of Goneril and Regan. Kent returns with “Good my lord, enter here” (4), and Lear's words “Wilt break my heart?” (4) can be interpreted not only as directed toward Kent, but also, even more obviously, toward the storm, conflated with his daughters. Kent believes Lear is speaking to him—“I'd rather break my own” (5), he says—but Lear answers with lines that remind us how focused he is on the storm (6-22), and although he speaks first of the comfort it supplies, inevitably it calls forth thoughts of his daughters' tyranny: “In such a night / To shut me out?” (17-18).

The next two times the storm reminds us of its presence, it cuts off the chaotic, frenzied ramblings of Tom o'Bedlam. He is not capable of closure; he needs the interruption that the voice of the storm provides. And on both occasions, Lear follows with words suggesting that the storm is defined in terms of his daughters. The first time, he confounds the storm's meaning for him with that for the madman, thus producing: “has his daughter brought him to this pass?” (63). In response to the storm's interruption of Tom o'Bedlam the second time, Lear alludes explicitly to its presence: “Thou wert better in a grave,” he says to the disguised Edgar, “than to answer with thy uncover'd body this extremity of the skies” (103-05). The word “answer” conjures up the image of a dialogue with the storm. It is an interchange, moreover, that reminds us of the storm's collusion with Goneril and Regan by echoing the end of Act 2 when Lear's answer to the storm (and his daughters) was to leave the security of shelter, to become “houseless.”

The storm's final pronouncement comes in the midst of an exchange between the faithful Kent and Gloucester. The king's “wits begin t'unsettle” (166), explains Kent. “Canst thou blame him?” (166) responds Gloucester. The reason one cannot blame him, the cause of his encroaching madness—his daughters' cruelty—then announces itself in the sounding of the storm. Gloucester's words following that noise can be read as a straightforward gloss on the storm's voice: “His daughters seek his death” (167).

In 3.4, as well as the three scenes previously discussed, the characters' relation to the storm—their desire to embrace or escape it—structures the blocking. And for that blocking the stage doors have considerable importance.

The text implies that the scene begins with Kent, Lear, and the Fool entering through one door and crossing to the door representing the hovel. The first words of the scene, spoken by Kent, would not make sense if said immediately upon entering the stage: “Here is the place, my Lord. Good my Lord, enter.” The movement to the object of the word “here” anchors the audience's attention on the door. It is that door, marking the hovel, that focuses the dynamics of the first part of the scene. Three more times in the next few moments Kent urges Lear to enter. Three times Lear directs Kent or the Fool toward the door. While Lear mediates on “Poor naked wretches” (28), the Fool does go in, only to burst out crying, “Come not in here, Nuncle; here's a spirit” (39). “Come forth” (44), cries Kent to the spirit on the other side of the door, and Tom o'Bedlam emerges from within.

J. L. Styan pictures Lear as showing his indifference to Kent's efforts to get him out of the storm “by a sequence of avoiding movements which carry him down to the edge of the platform.”27 The text indicates that Lear must be farther away from the hovel door than Kent, for it is Kent who gives the Fool his hand when he bursts from the hut. Lear's immersion in the storm is visualized by his moving away from the hovel door, separating himself from the Fool and Kent, who are focused on taking refuge from the storm.

The potency of the hovel door is realized with its belching forth Edgar, the catalyst of the scene's second part. Edgar moves downstage from the door, pushing the other characters aside, propelling them from the entrance, as he comes out crying, “Away! the foul fiend follows me!” (45). His movement away from the protection of the hovel defines him: rather than escape somewhere safe, he has chosen, in assuming the disguise as Tom o'Bedlam, to be a participant, like Lear, in the moral and physical harshness of the world symbolically represented by the storm. Edgar's second sentence acknowledges the presence of the storm: “Through the sharp hawthorn blow the winds” (45-46). I see his third—“Humh! go to thy bed and warm thee” (46-47)—as directed to Kent and the Fool.

This second part of the scene centers on the convergence of Lear and Edgar, immersed in the storm and away from the protection represented by the hovel door. Kent and the Fool anxiously attend Lear, speaking to him twice (65-66, 69), but it is Lear and Edgar who command the placement of the action on stage. The text makes clear that all four characters are now far from the stage doors, for when Gloucester enters, concluding part two of the scene, thirteen lines are spoken until, close but still not upon them, he calls out, “What are you there? Your names?” (131). Edgar's rumblings, interrupted and underscored by the storm's voice, not once but twice, build to the climax of the whole scene, as well as this second part, and to what some feel is the turning point of the play. Gazing on Tom o'Bedlam, Lear asks “Is man no more than this?” (105); he is “a poor, bare, forked animal” (110), “unaccommodated man” (109). Lear tears at his clothing—“Off, off, your lendings!” (111)—an image of his identification with “unaccommodated man,” his shedding the last vestiges of his sanity, his identity, the protection of civilization, of social and political structure, his abandonment to the chaos of the storm. A few moments later, when Kent addresses him, “your Grace” (128), Lear responds, “What's he?” (129). His climactic disrobing would have been played downstage, far from the hovel door, the farthest point on the stage possible from escape from the storm.

Gloucester's coming to bring succor to the king, to take him to the shelter of a cottage, begins the third part of 3.4. As he did at the beginning of the scene, Lear ignores or pushes aside the shelter offered him, this time by embracing Tom o'Bedlam's company. “I will keep still with my philosopher” (180), he declares. He and Edgar are visually linked. In this final part of the scene, the hovel door again is important in focusing the dynamics of the movement on stage, but another door, the one representing the way to Gloucester's cottage, has also become charged. The last fifty lines of the scene are punctuated with phrases that reveal that physical, spatial tension between characters and doors: “Go in with me,” “go into th'house,” “In, fellow,” “Come let's in all,” “this way,” “Take him you on,” “come on,” “Come.” Gloucester and Kent seek to pull Lear toward the cottage and to push Edgar toward the hut. Lear, bound to Edgar, moves with him to the hovel. “Come, let's in all” (179), he says, meaning the hovel. Lear's movement forces Gloucester and Kent to relax their efforts to urge Edgar toward the hovel. “Sirrah, come on,” Kent finally say to Tom o'Bedlam; “go along with us” (183). The holding, focusing power of the hovel door disappears, and all the characters exit through Gloucester's door.

The storm's voice has been heard in all three parts of 3.4. After that, it is heard no more. Scene 6 of Act 3 begins with the characters who were on the heath entering Gloucester's cottage and Gloucester reminding us of the storm outside, now off-stage: “Here is better than the open air” (1), he says to Kent. When Gloucester returns at the end of the scene to warn Kent that he must take Lear immediately to Dover, there is no mention of driving through the storm. It is over. And the outside settings for Lear and Gloucester from now on are not aligned with their cruel children. The storm on the heath is associated with Lear's evil daughters; Dover has associations with the two redeeming children, Cordelia and Edgar. Although still disguised, Edgar on reaching Dover immediately modifies and then puts aside the identity of Tom o'Bedlam. “Methinks thy voice is alter'd, and thou speak'st / In better phrase and matter than thou didst” (7-8), says Gloucester at the beginning of 4.6.

To summarize, the storm, as I have envisioned it on Shakespeare's stage, was not a context in which to see Lear and his followers as much as a presence, one that, of course, supplied the setting for the scenes, but which was non-illusionistic and theater-based in its conception. Rather than being created on stage, it was depicted or evoked by carefully timed off-stage sounds, by the language of the characters (both descriptive of the storm and in dialogue with it), and by movement that depended on the particular physical parameters of the stage. That movement dramatized the tension between efforts to avoid and those to interact with not only the natural elements, but the moral chaos, the evil loosed and represented by Lear's elder daughters and, by extension through the mirroring of the two plots, Gloucester's younger son.


How does such a summary of Shakespeare's portrayal of the storm contribute to our understanding of modern experiences of King Lear? I suggest that that rendering is so embedded in Shakespeare's text that failure to understand it leads to dramatically unrealized and confusing visions of the storm scenes. Such a statement is admittedly dangerous in light of the sheer variety and number of readings and productions of the play, as well as my earlier agreement with Brook's concept of the freshness of the forms that Shakespeare's plays give “birth to.” But I am struck by how hard it is, in my experience, for students—reading the play without envisioning it on Shakespeare's stage—to get a handle on the storm scenes, in particular 3.4. Other teachers have supported that perception. Frances Teague, for example, in an article in Approaches to Teaching Shakespeare's King Lear, mentions in passing that her students find the storm episodes confusing.28

My students frequently miss the fact that there are two shelters, one referred to numerous times in the text as a hovel and the other, a more substantial structure, which I have called Gloucester's cottage.29 They are not alone in this. Leah Marcus, in her essay on the performance of the play in 1606 before the King at Whitehall, speaks of Lear's being shut out by “the doors of the great ones,” finding shelter only in a “hovel,” where he “puts ‘cold’ hospitality on trial,”30 clear reference to 3.6 and the cottage. This apparent merging of hovel and cottage has no bearing on her argument, but it does suggest how easy it is to miss that element in the plot, a detail which seems an extraneous complication unless one sees its importance for the movement on stage, a movement which, I feel, is essential in defining the storm's significance. In Ian Pollock's Illustrated King Lear, a careful (and, I feel, often remarkable) comic-book rendering of the entire play, touted as an aid in helping students understand Shakespeare, there are no visual clues distinguishing the cottage from the hovel. In fact, it is logical to assume that the characters go into the hovel at the end of Pollock's vision of 3.4, making the lines spoken confusing.31 Patricia E. Tatspaugh's review of the Old Vic Theater's 1989 production of King Lear would seem to imply that in that production, also, the characters on stage went into the hovel.32 The lack of clarity in some articles and reviews may simply be the result of the authors' using the word “hovel” to refer to Gloucester's cottage.33 In the case of reviews, it also suggests, however, at least the possibility that the productions themselves failed to differentiate between the two structures.

The storm as metaphor is clearly important in envisioning modern productions of the play. Rosette C. Lamont describes the Rustaveli Theater Company's 1990 production at the Brooklyn Academy of Music as culminating in “the scenery crashing down … tantamount to the destruction of the world.”34 And in the Adrian Noble production of the Royal Shakespeare Company in the winter season of 1993-94, “a massive globe,” George L. Geckle tells us, hung “ominously over the set from the beginning of 2.3 … until the blinding of Gloucester and the wounding of Cornwall in 3.7.” After Cornwall was “fatally wounded in the groin, the globe split … open in a tremendous coup de theatre to release … sand … meant to recall Lear's lines in 3.2: ‘Crack Nature's moulds, all germens spill at once / That makes ingrateful man.’”35

In reading the reviews for the past ten years of productions of King Lear in the Shakespeare Bulletin and the Shakespeare Quarterly, however, I find particularly striking how infrequently the storm is spoken of at all—in not more than one half of the reviews. And when it is mentioned in connection to a scene, it is often in reference to 3.2, which many times is spoken of as “the” storm scene. “The production's most effective scene,” says Justin Shaltz in his review of the Shakespeare Repertory production in Chicago in 1993, “is the storm scene, with Lear standing defiantly and raging and the Fool cowering on his knees. Deeply set atop a raised ledge of broken stage and back-lit against a swirling grey storm background, the two brave the archetypal storm together, visibly shaken by deafening peals of thunder and staggering on the rocks in brilliant flashes of strobe lightning. Lear's hoarse cries and shouts—‘spit, fire! spout rain!’—are dramatically amplifed, his passion competing with bursts of thunder and cracks of lightning.”36 My conjecture is that in many productions 3.2 is memorable in a way that 3.4 is not.

Shakespeare structured his play, I believe, with the climax of the storm not in the short 3.2 but in 3.4, the only scene in which the voice of the storm is heard more than once. The first two scenes of Act 3 are both short and structurally simple enough to allow for one sustained beat, but that is not true of 3.4. In that scene, the storm cannot be conceived, as is possible in 3.2, as simply Lear's antagonist, the force against which he rages; its presence must be delineated in such a way that the characters in the play change, evolve, reveal themselves. If that does not happen, 3.4 emerges as confusing, long, and anticlimactic.

That is how I would describe the storm sequence in two of the most frequently seen films of the play, the 1982 BBC production directed by Jonathan Miller starring Michael Hordern and the 1983 Granada television production directed by Michael Elliott starring Laurence Olivier. Those films are well known because they are the creations of important and well-positioned artists and because they seem theater based. They are both used to help students understand the play as theater. I see their creators, however, as retaining the text of Shakespeare's play without appreciating (and appropriately transforming) its dependence on Shakespeare's stage.

In both films the storm is depicted illusionistically, an inevitability, given cinematic expectations of realism. We hear the rumble and crash of thunder, the noise of wind and rain; we see gloom crossed with periodic flashes of lightning, the rain beating down—in the Elliott film, 900 gallons of water were used37—and wet skin and beards, dripping water, mud. Neither director gives us the sound of the storm at the particular moments indicated by the Folio. In Miller's film it is first heard faintly just before Lear's last line in 2.4, “Oh fool, I shall go mad!” (288). Only after Lear leaves, with Cornwall's “Let us withdraw, t'will be a storm” (289), does it sound loudly. It continues through the next scenes, even those indoors, the backdrop for the unfolding action. In the Elliott film, the introduction of the storm, a thunderous crash, follows Lear's cry that his revenges shall be “The terrors of the earth” (284)—a timing close, but significantly different from that specified by the Folio. Whereas the Folio's placement associates the storm with his daughters' cruelty, the storm at that moment in the Elliott film becomes Lear's creation, an image of his anger. Even that particular identity, however, is subsumed into the illusion of a real storm. “For technical verisimilitude to real-life storm,” Steven Urkowitz complains about the Elliott film, “we pay the price of understanding what Lear says.”38

In neither film does the storm prompt or interrupt. Characters do not pause when it sounds. For the storm is not a presence to which to respond, but the context for the scenes. Rather than commanding, it envelops, infusing the scenes with pathos. It points up Tom o'Bedlam's wretchedness, the Fool's vulnerability, Kent's anxiety, Lear's agony. The storm, moreover, is not anchored spatially, so the movement of characters has no significance in delineating its meaning for them. Indeed, it is the absence of the blocking that I envision on Shakespeare's stage that most obviously undermines the storm sequence in the two films.

The Elliott film is informed by a clear interpretation of the play: the king is an elegant partriarchal figure who suffers and then regains his power. He is heroically purified by his suffering, but—I agree with H. R. Coursen39 in this—is not humbled or significantly changed. His psyche and feelings are magnificently important. A key to the film's vision is the preponderance of close-ups of Lear. Close-ups also have the effect of extrapolating Lear from a social and a physical context. Olivier “insisted that inner feelings not be reduced to the level of domestic conversations,” says Marion Perret in her summary of the comments made by Elliott and the set designer Roy Stonehouse following the New York City preview of the film.40 The movement of characters relative to each other and to the stage structure, which on Shakespeare's stage externalizes the crisis of the storm for the characters, is absent in Elliott's film.

Although as the characters enter at the beginning of 3.4 we see briefly the edge of a shadowy structure, nothing of the hovel is visible when Kent states, “Here is the place (1),” and when three times, in lines 1-5, he says, “enter.” And when Lear says to the Fool, “In, boy; go first” (26), we do not see the Fool leave. The camera is focused on Lear. His “Nay, get thee in” (27), a moment later, sounds like “leave me alone.” He rejects Kent's outstretched hands, but rather than suggesting independent movement, the gesture is perfunctory. In contrast to Kent and the Fool on Shakespeare's stage, where their proximity to the hovel door—physically and metaphorically the way out of the storm—sets up an opposition to Lear, the two characters in Elliott's film simply encourage our focus on Lear's pain. We see them framing Lear, watching him, supporting him. The film gives us a succession of images of Lear's suffering. His meditative prayer “Poor naked wretches” (28) seems without preparation, a moment in a series rather than the culminating beat of the sequence constituting the first part of the scene.

Through much of the Lear-Edgar interchange, in the second part of the scene, we see either Lear or Edgar, not both; when Lear asks, “Is man no more than this?” (105), Edgar is not in the camera frame. Indeed, only once during that speech do we see Edgar. As a result, Lear's identification with Tom o'Bedlam is much less clear than in the play as I have visualized it on Shakespeare's stage. In the film when Lear tears off his clothes, Edgar is outside our focus, outside our concern, and the result, for me, is confusion about dramatic movement.

In the last part of the scene, not only Lear's internal development but also the external plot is unclear. Gloucester enters to “bring” Lear to “where both food and fire is ready” (157), but at the end of the scene Gloucester does not bring Lear anywhere, for we do not see the five characters exiting toward his cottage. Rather, they go into the hovel. The next time we see them (3.6), according to Shakespeare's text, we are in Gloucester's cottage, but the beginning of the scene in the film reads like a continuation of the entrance into the hovel that ended 3.4. Gloucester thrusts the torch he was carrying in that earlier scene into a post hole and declares, “Here is better than the open air” (3.6.1). Near the end of 3.4, his resigned hand gesture accompanying his line “No words, no words: hush” (185) perhaps suggests to the highly attentive viewer that grudgingly he is accepting the hovel as Lear's shelter—if so, the film is changing the plot—but that conclusion weakens Gloucester at a time when he would seem to be growing in courage and produces an anticlimactic conclusion to the scene.

Hardy Cook contrasts the depth-in-field technique with which Miller creates his film to the cinematic montage technique of the Elliott film. “Elliott uses a highly fluid camera,” says Cook; “Miller's camera is largely static—he moves his actors within the frame; therefore, blocking is extremely important to him. Concerning framing, Elliott uses tightly framed one-shots; Miller uses looser, generally medium, ensemble shots.”41 Miller's technique, like Elliott's, is connected to the concept informing his film: King Lear as a family drama. “This production,” says Coursen, “dismisses whatever cosmic issues there may be in Lear and closes in on the family.”42 The depth-in-field technique is instrumental in creating a focus on groups of characters rather than on Lear alone. Again, I would argue, however, that the storm sequence has no clear dramatic form.

We rarely see people exiting and entering a setting; characters simply move in and out of the frame. An image of Lear's face and one of an object bobbing behind him begin 3.2. Not for several lines do we see enough of the Fool to realize that the latter was his hat. The small frame gives us no feeling of Lear and the Fool alone in a vast space and frequently obscures interactions. Lear's line “Come on, my boy. How dost, my boy? Art cold?” (3.2.68) is said presumably to the Fool, but we do not see him. It is again 3.4, however, that for me is the most compromised scene. The constricted frame makes even small movements confusing. Lear's kneeling when he begins his prayer “Poor naked wretches” (28) is visualized by his head dropping in the frame. It is only with a knowledge of the text that one realizes he has kneeled. In the second part of the scene Edgar and Lear share the frame through most, although not all, of their interchange, and Lear's bond with Edgar is thus much clearer than in Elliott's film. But there is so little of Lear's figure in the camera's frame, and the other characters stand so close to him that his unbuttoning seems a slight moment of confusion, subdued by those around him before it is fully articulated—a moment easily missed by the viewer. In the final part of the scene not only is there no sense of two possible exits, but essential lines relating to the pull of those exits are spoken at the same time, contributing unintelligibility, rather than articulating dramatic tension. We see a mass of people struggling with each other; why they are doing so is not clear. It is not even obvious that they go out the same way, since we do not see them exit. Lear is not in the frame with Edgar when Edgar delivers the scene's last lines. The scene is not an unfolding drama, but rather a series of images of an agonized, intertwined group of people.

Peter Brook in his 1971 film of King Lear, starring Paul Scofield, and Grogori Kozintsev in his 1970 production, starring Yuri Yarvet, have created storm sequences that are quite different from those of Elliott and Miller. Both Brook and Kozintsev render the storm illusionistically and neither draws on the blocking I envision on Shakespeare's stage to structure our experience of it. Also, like the Miller and Elliott productions, neither the Brook nor the Kozintsev film distinguishes clearly between the hovel and the cottage. Indeed, Kozintsev conflates the two. But in contrast to Miller and Elliott, the other two filmmakers significantly reconceive the storm sequence.

In Brook's film, settings and movements are ambiguous. In the scene correlating to 3.2, Lear moves with the Fool and Kent toward the hovel, but when we next see them, we have no clear image of the structure. Lear is obviously outside in the rain, but when he turns and sees Tom o'Bedlam, the madman would seem to be inside, leaning across a beam, and now no rain falls on Lear. We do not see Tom o'Bedlam leave the shelter, but when he delivers his mad speeches, the rain beating on him clearly places him outside, as it does when the close-up camera pans slowly down his naked, shivering body, and Lear asks, “Is man no more than this?” (105). When Lear begins to unrobe, there is some movement, Lear pushing the others away, but the spatial relationship of characters is not spelled out. The camera does show us Gloucester coming through the storm—he entreats Lear to go with him to a cottage and Kent encourages him to take the offer—but we do not see the group leave together or enter a cottage. The speech concluding the scene, “Child Rowland to the dark tower came,” is delivered in darkness until the last line and a half when we catch a brief glimpse of Tom o'Bedlam, but no rain. Only if we superimpose the play script on the film does the scene correspond to Jack J. Jorgens's film synopsis, “Lear brings his Fool and philosopher to Gloucester's hovel.”43 We do not see Lear bringing anyone anywhere.

The lack of clarity in placement and movement, however, is part of the disorientation that creates the film's vision of the storm. The sequence is not realistically presented, and the distinction between what is inside and outside Lear's mind is not always apparent. Lear prays for “Poor naked wretches” (28) in silence, in an overvoice, with the sound of the storm suspended. During Tom o'Bedlam's ravings the storm noises are distorted and manipulated. As Barbara Hodgson describes the scene, “The fragmentation of the discourse so limits and denies interpretation by wresting all vision to Lear's perspective that seeing, understanding, and knowing remain problematic.”44

The cottage scene begins with brief flashes of light and disjointed lines spoken by someone unidentified, but with Kent's “How do you, sir?” (34) we are suddenly anchored in a space inside a humble cottage. We see Lear's visions of his daughters as he puts them on trial, but we do not participate in his hallucinations. The camera's presentation of an understandable space is essential for the film's movement to a more objective perspective on Lear.

For Shakespeare, the audience's experience of the storm depends on a clearly defined playing area, since that experience is in part created by the tension on stage between the desire to exit and that to embrace the stage space. In contrast, Brook in the heath scenes confuses placement and movement to thrust us into Lear's subjective experience of the storm.

Kozintsev in his film combines the storm scenes and the cottage scene. Lear runs across the stormy landscape, crying out to the storm, and is found by Kent, who brings him to a structure in which the outcasts of society have taken shelter. Tom o'Bedlam is one of them. It is in “the confined space of the hovel,” “within the context of real human beings with real material needs,” says Lorne M. Buchman, that Lear delivers his prayer of discovery:45 “How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides, / … defend you / From seasons such as these?” (3.4.30-32). The scene moves to Lear's “trial” of his three daughters, with the beggars acting as jurors, and concludes, as does Shakespeare's 3.6, with Gloucester's warning Kent that Lear is in danger. Kozintsev has structured a clear dramatic movement: Lear's experience of the raging storm is preparation for his new understanding about humanity and his final mental and emotional breakdown.

Brook's and Kozintsev's conceptions of the storm sequence seem inseparable from their use of the cinematic rather than the theatrical medium. In contrast, Miller and Elliott do not, I feel, give the language of the play a new context, a new kind of space. My charge that the Elliott and Miller films are comparative failures, however, is not simply based on the fact that those films reference the theater text to a much greater extent. Peter Hall's A Midsummer Night's Dream and Trevor Nunn's Twelfth Night are provocative (and, I feel, moving) experiments in drawing on theatrical as well as cinematic expectations. The storm scenes in Miller's and Elliott's films, however, seem to me to exemplify the mistake of trying to capture what is essential to a theater experience of Shakespeare's play while ignoring the significance of his stage and staging. If one is intent on experiencing Shakespeare's text, I suggest that it is important to try to understand the stage embedded in it. That can clarify and enrich the perception of his plays, and thus is a valuable first step in creating a vital contemporary reading or, to return to Brook's works, in discovering the “form” that the “event” of putting on a play or making a film gives “birth to.”


  1. Peter Brook, The Open Door: Thoughts on Acting and Theatre (New York: Theater Communications Group, 1995) 60-61.

  2. Brook 63.

  3. Brook 122.

  4. Bernard Beckerman, Shakespeare at the Globe: 1599-1606 (London: Collier-Macmillan, 1962) 8.

  5. Beckerman 218.

  6. Beckerman 7.

  7. Arnold Kettle, “The Humanities of King Lear,” in New Casebooks: King Lear, ed. Kiernan Ryan (New York: St. Martins, 1992) 22.

  8. The following mention the scenes only in passing: Beckerman, Shakespeare at the Globe; Jean E. Howard, Shakespeare's Art of Orchestration: Stage Technique and Audience Response (Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1984); T. J. King, Shakespearean Staging, 1599-1642 (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1971); Peter Thomson, Shakespeare's Theatre (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1983). J. L. Styan, in Shakespeare's Stagecraft (London: Cambridge UP, 1967), goes the furthest in discussing the scenes, although not the element of the storm, on Shakespeare's stage.

  9. Quotations follow the Arden edition of King Lear, edited by Kenneth Muir (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1959). References to plays are to lines unless otherwise noted.

  10. One suggestion of the use of rain appears in the stage directions to Thomas Heywood's The Bronze Age (Dramatic Works, 6 vols. [London: J. Pearson, 1874] 183), produced at the Red Bull: Hercules “kils Busyris and sacrificeth him upon the Altar, at which there fals a shower of raine.” Not all the spectacle described in Heywood's Ages plays, however, were necessarily produced on the stage, and, making this passage even less evidence for actual rain in Lear, see note 15 for scholars who have mentioned the lesser use of spectacle at the Globe than the Red Bull.

  11. Ben Jonson, Every Man in His Humour, in Ben Jonson, ed. C. H. Herford and Percy Simpson (Oxford: Clarendon, 1927) 18-20.

  12. The Birth of Hercules, Malone Society Reprints (London: Oxford UP, 1910) 83.

  13. The Birth of Hercules, 83.

  14. See E. K. Chambers, The Elizabethan Stage, 4 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon, 1923) 1: 123, 139; 2: 74, 455; 3: 109, 110; 4: 73, 88, 121, 122, 127.

  15. See Chambers, 3: 108; Andrew Gurr The Shakespearean Stage: 1574-1642 (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1970) 122.

  16. William Shakespeare, The Tempest, ed. Northrop Frye, Pelican Shakespeare (Baltimore: Penguin, 1970).

  17. Jonathan Goldberg, “Perspectives: Dover Cliff and the Conditions of Representation,” in New Casebooks: King Lear, ed. Kiernan Ryan (New York: St. Martin's, 1992) 150.

  18. Goldberg 151.

  19. Goldberg 150.

  20. Hannah Arendt, The Life of the Mind: I Thinking (New York: Harcourt, 1978) 106-07.

  21. Arendt 107.

  22. Arendt 106.

  23. George Peele, The Battle of Alcazar in The Dramatic Works, vol. 3, ed. John Yoklavich (New Haven: Yale UP, 1961).

  24. Marvin Rosenberg, The Masks of King Lear (Berkeley: U of California P, 1972) 184.

  25. Editors have been far from uniform in their placement of the first sound of the storm. Kenneth Muir in the Arden edition follows the Folio's placement: see Charlton Hinman's Norton Facsimile of The First Folio of Shakespeare (New York: Norton, 1968) 803. In contrast, George Lyman Kittredge, in his The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Boston: Ginn, 1936), places it after “O fool, I shall go mad!” (289); G. Blackmore Evans, in The Riverside Shakespeare (Boston: Houghton, 1974), places it after “but this heart” (284); and Russell Fraser, in the Signet Classic edition (New York: NAL, 1963), places it after “No, I'll not weep” (282), as does Alfred Harbage (278) in the Pelican edition (Middlesex, Eng.: Penguin, 1970). My assumption is that the importance of the Folio placement has not been appreciated.

  26. I am following J. L. Styan, Shakespeare's Stagecraft (214), in seeing the scene as divided into three movements.

  27. Styan is not concerned with the particular dynamics of the stage that I am proposing. He focuses on Lear's movement to “the edge of the platform,” where “he stands solitary to accost the storm” (99), a position “marking the isolation of the martyr” (100). The scene for him is “constructed, not of narrative incident, but of symbolic incident designed to make three progressive advances into … [a] world of fantasy” (214).

  28. Frances Teague, “Sight and Perception in King Lear: An Approach through Imagery and Theme,” in Approaches to Teaching Shakespeare's King Lear, ed. Robert H. Ray (New York: MLA, 1986) 84.

  29. It is named only once, when Kent speaks of it as “th' house” (3.4.147).

  30. Leah Marcus, “Retrospective: King Lear on St. Stephen's Night, 1606,” in New Casebooks: King Lear, ed. Kiernan Ryan (New York: St. Martins, 1992) 121, 122. Miranda Johnson-Haddad, in “The Shakespeare Theatre at the Folger, 1990-91,” Shakespeare Quarterly 42 (1991), also uses the word “hovel” to refer to the setting of 3.6 (483).

  31. Ian Pollock, Ian Pollock's Illustrated King Lear (New York: Workman, 1984) 81.

  32. Patricia E. Tatspaugh, review of the Old Vic Theater's King Lear (London, 1989), Shakespeare Bulletin 7 (September/October 1989): 12. “During much of the storm,” she writes, the Fool “cannot be seen, and his final gesture—he reaches out to touch Lear, who is being carried out of the hovel—is barely visible. The Fool remains in the dark hovel with the several shrouded vagrants whose rest has been disturbed” (12).

  33. Russell Jackson speaks of “Gloucester's hovel” in Shakespeare at Stratford-upon-Avon, 1993-94,” Shakespeare Quarterly 45 (1994): 337.

  34. Rosette C. Lamont, “Politicizing the Bard: Two European Productions of Shakespeare,” thesis, Graduate School and University Center, City University of New York, Spring 1991, 26.

  35. George L. Geckle, review of the Royal Shakespeare Company's King Lear, Stratford-upon-Avon (Winter 1993-94), Shakespeare Bulletin 12 (Winter 1994): 11.

  36. For more examples of 3.2 being called “the storm scene,” see Gerald Berkowitz, review of Talawa Theatre Company's King Lear (London, 1994), Shakespeare Bulletin 12 (Summer 1994): 32; Dorothy Cook and Wayne Cook, review of American Repertory Theater's King Lear (Cambridge, MA, 1991), Shakespeare Bulletin 9 (Summer 1991): 32; Maureen McFeeley, review of Arden Party's King Lear (New York, 1994), Shakespeare Bulletin 12 (Fall 1994): 13.

  37. R. Alan Kimbrough, “Olivier's Lear and the Limits of Video,” Shakespeare on Film Newsletter 11 (December 1986): 6.

  38. Steven Urkowitz, “Lord Olivier's King Lear,Shakespeare on Film Newsletter 8 (December 1983): 3.

  39. H. R. Coursen, Shakespearean Performance as Interpretation (Newark: U of Delaware P, 1992) 138.

  40. Marion Perret, “The Making of King Lear, Shakespeare on Film Newsletter 8 (April 1984): 1.

  41. Hardy Cook, “Two Lears for Television: An Exploration of Televisual Strategies,” Literature / Film Quarterly 14 (1986): 182.

  42. Coursen 137.

  43. Jack J. Jorgens, Shakespeare on Film (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1977) 307.

  44. Barbara Hodgson, “Two King Lears: Uncovering the Filmtext,” Literature / Film Quarterly 11 (1983): 147.

  45. Lorne M. Buchman, Still in Movement: Shakespeare on Screen (New York: Oxford UP, 1991) 56.

Michael Edwards (essay date autumn 2000)

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SOURCE: Edwards, Michael. “King Lear and Christendom.” Christianity & Literature 50, no. 1 (autumn 2000): 15-29.

[In the following essay, Edwards disagrees with critics who view King Lear as an expression of a godless existence, contending that the play is “an eminently Christian work” that dramatizes human imperfection and the possibility of redemption.]


Christians are well placed to know that reading, like writing, is never innocent. How we understand a literary work reveals what we think literature to be (why it exists, what it is doing in the world); it also reveals how we conceive of Christianity. The way successive generations approach particular works and reflect in general on literary practice and theory offers more than a study in cultural history. The variety of opinion shows how important it is to think hard about the basic questions, and especially about what kind of world we believe we are living in.

Consider King Lear. Well before a number of directors and critics of the 1960s interpreted William Shakespeare's play as if it had been written by Samuel Beckett or Jean Genet (having missed, into the bargain, the humanity and the untiring, strangely perceptive religious search of the former), there were comments on its closeness to Seneca's “hopeless fatalism” (Eliot), its “hopeless cry to the deaf Heavens for justice” (Welsford), its displaying of Shakespeare's “uncontrollable despair” (Murry), and its demonstration that “faith has entirely disappeared from Shakespeare's theatre” (Claudel). Algernon Charles Swinburne had already written of its “pessimism.” Yet A. C. Bradley saw Lear as being redeemed through suffering, and there exists any number of Christian allegorizings—Cordelia as a Christ figure, for example, or the mock trial as illustrating the abasing of the mighty and exalting of the humble in the Magnificat—to suggest that the play is simply Christian. Having noted what is surely a bizarre failure to agree, what are we to make of it? What does it mean?

We might begin by seeing that, in provoking such a range of contradictory interpretations (I have touched on only a few), King Lear resembles the world. We might then reflect that it is the fallen nature of the world that causes this hermeneutical disarray, one made worse by our difficulty in focusing on that fallenness with precision. Christians say that humans have sinned, that the earth is “cursed,” and that the wrath of God is “revealed from heaven” as well as His love, but the problem is to see just what that entails. I do not pretend fully to know, but I should like to learn from other people's mistakes, and from Shakespeare.

Nahum Tate's adaptation of the play in 1681 and the Neoclassical rejection of Shakespeare's version, which led to its disappearance from the stage for over a century and a half (from 1681 to 1838), have received more criticism than they can bear, yet, however foolish we may find that shying away from King Lear, it retains its interest. Tate must have felt that his “new-modelling” of the work so as to allow it properly to “at once divert and teach the Mind” not only turned it into better theatre but also made it more Christian. And to have Lear recover his kingdom, pass his crown to Cordelia, and retire to a “cool cell” so as to spend the rest of his life in meditation with Gloster and Kent, while Cordelia reigns with her husband Edgar, does look from one perspective satisfyingly Christian. When the last line claims Cordelia as the radiant proof “That truth and virtue shall at last succeed,” we are likely to dissent not from the statement itself but from the vacuity of the play's attempt to sustain it. But what is the perspective from which such an ending, such a solution to a complex of vital problems, can be thought to comply with what a Christian believes? If it were only a matter of shallow optimism, we could dismiss it. That it is much more shows, for example, in this 1715 comment of Lewis Theobald on King Lear itself: “Virtue ought to be rewarded, as well as vice punished, but in their deaths [those of Lear and Cordelia] this moral is broke through.” It is easy to protect oneself from Tate's vanity and from his and Theobald's Neoclassical commonplaces—too easy, because the moral government of the world that they presume is a kind of hallucinated and hallucinating order, which always threatens Christianity and from which we have different ways of failing to escape. Theobald clearly believes that, if his moral is once “broke through,” the very notion of providence is under threat and, to touch on what seems to have been a genuine terror of the time, order could revert to confusion, creation to chaos. Such concerns may be for us merely objects of scholarly inquiry, but how many Christian spectators and readers conclude that Beckett is a nihilist because Vladimir and Estragon wait for Godot, and he never comes, without considering that Christians have been waiting for two thousand years for Jesus to return, and he never does? We all screen ourselves from the most troublesome truths of our faith, in one way or another, according to our temperament and the temper of the times.

An hallucinated order is what Christians create for themselves whenever the import of the expulsion from Eden, of a world awry, of our unflagging desire to sin, becomes too much to bear. And that is what makes Samuel Johnson's response to King Lear so endlessly interesting. For one thing, he clearly entered into the play not less but more fully than most. The famous passage on the really scandalous element of the play—“And, if my sensations could add anything to the general suffrage, I might relate, 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”—far from being an example of eighteenth-century sensiblerie, shows his capacity to relieve a literary work deeply within himself, while being aware of what it bodes for the meaning of life on earth and, in this case, for the distresses that the future may hold. Johnson's restraint, and modesty as to how his private feelings could matter to anyone else, can make John Keats's response to the play seem Romantic and almost overdone: “For, once again, the fierce dispute / Betwixt damnation and impassioned clay / Must I burn through”—except that this “burning,” one realizes, was genuine and the enduring of King Lear essential to Keats's finding himself as a man and as a poet.

It is Johnson's more general comment on Cordelia's death that concerns my argument:

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. … A play in which the wicked prosper and the virtuous miscarry may doubtless be good, because it is a just representation of the common events of human life; but since all reasonable beings naturally love justice, I cannot easily be persuaded that the observation of justice makes a play wise; or that, if other excellencies are equal, the audience will not always rise better pleased from the final triumph of persecuted virtue.

What strikes me first in this other frequently quoted passage is that, as far as I can see, everything that Johnson says is correct, with the exception of those “natural” ideas and that “natural” love of justice. These are surely eighteenth-century intrusions into Christianity, worldly hallucinations that, when taken much further than Johnson took them, became for a while a powerful and surreptitious means of denying consequences of the Fall. Johnson notes Shakespeare's “strange” and therefore purposive decision to invent Cordelia's death. He is perfectly aware that, in the world we experience as opposed to the world we imagine to exist as a fulfillment of our wishes, justice is not observed; and by including the prosperity of the wicked as well as the miscarrying of the virtuous, he extends his clear-sightedness further than the play requires, since the “wicked” characters are in fact thwarted and all, without exception, die. (There is also a formidable strength of character, given the absence from the passage of any gloating on evil, cynicism, or even pessimism, and a weight of inheld emotion expressing itself in the quiet statement that flagrant injustices in life are “common” events.) In supposing also that audiences gain greater pleasure from the triumph than from the downfall of “persecuted virtue,” Johnson would seem to be simply right, yet he does not inquire whether such pleasure is warranted (this is where the danger of believing in a “natural” love of justice begins to appear), and by arguing not that the observing of justice makes a play better but that it does not make it worse, he seems to want a literary work to supply the order that the world itself lacks. One can hardly say that he is wrong. Having experienced Shakespeare's imagination as so “powerful [a] current … that the mind which once ventures within it is hurried irresistibly along,” and having passed through events that “fill the mind with a perpetual tumult of indignation, pity, and hope,” one does indeed want to feel that all this conflictual activity is ultimately ruled by the play's own order. To wish, however, that this aesthetic order in the form correspond to a moral order in the fictive world displayed through that form could become, should it be carried further that Johnson's discrimination and vigilance would be likely to carry it, the desire for the work of art itself to constitute an hallucinated order, a satisfyingly structured other world to save us from the confusion of this one. In contrast, a perfectly ordered play that pushes to a limit the moral discomposure of a world where good and evil are inextricable would both respect the facts and convey the aspiration toward order as what it is: the desire to overcome an immense loss and a present lack, and the recognition of an as yet unobtainable transcendence. Such, it seems to me, is Shakespeare's King Lear.


For instance, what happens to prayers to the gods in the play, and how do we react? On learning that it was Edmund who betrayed him, Gloucester cries: “O my follies! Then Edgar was abused? / Kind gods, forgive me that and prosper him” (3.7.90-91). Maybe what is most important here is that Gloucester repents, asks forgiveness, and prays for someone else's welfare only moments after being blinded, and that, despite his earlier appeal “O you gods!” (3.7.69) not having been heard, he yet calls the gods “kind.” His instantaneous descent into himself followed by an equally rapid opening of his mind to the gods and to his son, in the sudden new world of pain and darkness, suggests that he is responding to a powerful act of grace, should we care to think in those terms. When Gloucester meets Poor Tom, gives him a purse, and prays thus,

                                                                                                    That I am wretched
Makes thee the happier. Heavens deal so still!
Let the superfluous and lust-dieted man
That slaves your ordinance, that will not see
Because he does not feel, feel your power quickly. …


his willingness to be wretched for the sake of another person and his respect for heaven's ordinance about helping others can make us conclude that what he said only a moment earlier about the gods who treat humans as wanton boys treat flies, killing them for their sport (4.1.38-39), was merely a passing dejection, and that only the unforgettable sharpness of the simile has persuaded readers to pluck the lines from their context and to assume that Shakespeare agreed with them. A few scenes later Gloucester will pray to “You ever gentle gods” (4.6.213).

The point at issue, however, is whether or not prayers are answered, and we may think, if we wish, that Gloucester's petition for Edgar to “prosper” is eventually heard, after the many travails through which he has still to pass, when he defeats Edmund and becomes, seemingly, King of Britain. When Albany begins to dread that, unless the heavens send down their “visible spirits” to tame Goneril and Regan, humanity will sink to preying on itself like monsters of the deep (4.2.47-51), one can imagine that the heavens do finally stop the sisters, though with less striking means, by having them die. But one can also imagine that they do not and that the sisters bring about their own destruction; in any case the passage no longer figured in the Folio. And what of Lear's madness? His old man's prayer is moving and insistent, “O let me not be mad, not mad, sweet heaven! / Keep me in temper, I would not be mad” (1.5.44-45, Folio), but it goes unanswered. On the other hand, Cordelia's prayer—her only prayer—for his madness to be healed, “O you kind gods! / Cure this great breach in his abused nature” (4.7.14-15), is very probably heard, since he is cured within a few minutes. Yet one can believe also that the cure is effected not by the gods but by the sleep-inducing simples prescribed for him.

All these prayers leave room for interpretation. Kent's indirect prayer, however, on witnessing Gloucester's offer to shelter Lear despite the evident danger to himself—“The gods reward your kindness” (3.6.5)—can only be intended to cause a shudder, since we know that Gloucester is shortly to be blinded and thrown out of doors. Gloucester's sacrifice, his later warning to Kent to save Lear from a death plot, and his earlier resolution to side with the king in the coming war all lead to hardly conceivable suffering, which no gods prevent, though that is after all the meaning of sacrifice. One needs to look a long way ahead—to his finding of Edgar and of himself, and to his death between joy and grief when his heart bursts “smilingly” (5.3.198)—before being able to think that Kent's prayer may in the end be answered. And no such doubt surrounds the two prayers for Cordelia's safety that most exercise critics and that are, indeed, the crucial ones. By the ending we may have forgotten Kent's on her being disinherited, “The gods to their dear shelter take thee, maid” (1.1.183), but Albany's “The gods defend her” (5.3.254) is followed immediately by the entrance of Lear carrying her body. Those prayers are certainly not answered, and none of the play's prayers is answered certainly: the gods do nothing to save Gloucester's eyes or Lear's mind; they also allow Goneril, Regan, Cornwall, and Edmund to do their worst.

One nonetheless can believe that Cordelia is heard and that other prayers are answered ultimately and according to the gods' own intentions. So the first question to ask oneself is surely why it is possible to explain the fate of the prayers in different ways, and also why it is possible to conclude, reasonably, either that the gods are finally shown to be overseeing the action or that the sky is empty and the characters' piety an illusion. We touch here, it seems to me, not on some definitive instability of literary texts but on a quality of Shakespeare's art. For how can a Christian writer guarantee the reply of the heavens? He devises his characters and the world they move in, but not the God or the gods on whom they believe themselves to depend. Shakespeare shows his characters praying on an extraordinarily large number of occasions, not at prayer but turning spontaneously to the gods out of the events that come upon them, and by leaving what happens to nearly all their supplications undertermined he exercises, I suggest, another kind of “Negative Capability”—a willingness to remain in doubt and to refrain from obliging even pagan gods to do his bidding. The result, surely, is that the world of King Lear resembles very closely, if one wishes to see it in this way, the world of the Christian, where some prayers seem to be answered, others to be answered much later and in ways that one had not foreseen, while others—for the avoidance of war, for example, or against the death of someone close—are clearly (if this is quite the word) refused. When “the gods” allow Cordelia to be murdered, moreover, we might reflect that not only does Christianity not say that prayers are always answered, in the manner looked for, but also that salvation depends on an unanswered prayer, however quickly withdrawn. The Christian owes his life to the silence in heaven that follows these words of Jesus: “Abba, Father, all things are possible unto thee; take away this cup from me” (Mark 14:36).

If Shakespeare abstains, as much for the good of the play as out of religious conviction, from showing the gods responding to prayer, he equally avoids meddling with providence. The characters are endlessly interpreting what happens to them in terms of the supposed activity of the gods, but are they right? We are likely to welcome Albany's explanation of Cornwall's death at the hands of an outraged servant for having blinded Gloucester: “This shows you are above, / You justicers, that these our nether crimes / So speedily can venge” (4.2.79-81). We may equally warm to his describing the deaths of Goneril and Regan as “This judgement of the heavens” (5.3.230). Nothing in the play disproves him, but how could one check? When Edgar says this to Edmund, on the other hand, about their father,

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. …


critics usually demur, and I am sure they are right. It is true that we cannot tell exactly what Shakespeare would think of such a judgment, and it has even been compared to the book of Wisdom—“Wherewithal a man sinneth, by the same also shall he be punished” (11:6)—as if Edgar's insight was unproblematically attuned to religious truth, albeit apocryphal. Yet there is a distance between the general expression of a moral and spiritual principle and its application to an individual, about whose relation with God no one is in a position to judge. While it is clear that Gloucester's adultery, like Lear's nonsensical choice, unleashes a series of horrors and that the play explores the presence in human acts of uncovenanted consequences, Gloucester's blinding is no more a punishment appropriate to his fault than is Lear's madness to his deed of folly. The passage from the “dark” place of Gloucester's sin to the dark world of his blindness (which may also evidence a great compassion, a long-meditated struggle to understand that immense loss) creates a striking image but also constitutes an argument where an imaginative link has supplanted logical connection. By placing Edgar's commentary on Gloucester's blindness quite close to Albany's commentary on the sisters' deaths, Shakespeare may be inviting us to reflect on the arbitrary nature of all readings of the acts of God, even those we find congenial.

Or rather, aside from any hypothetical intention of persuading others, Shaespeare refrains from pretending to know what the gods are doing; he is not plagued by “any irritable reaching after fact and reason” (1:193), to quote again from John Keats's “Negative Capability” letter of 21 December 1817, since he recognizes that a playwright cannot put himself in the place of God. Perhaps in reaction to the insistent but surface Christianity of the anonymous True Chronicle History of King Leir that he is rewriting, Shakespeare declines as much to punish vice as to reward virtue. This may even explain the disappearance, between the Quarto and the Folio, of two passages where the providential accounting for events is nonetheless quite discreet. I have already cited Albany's declaration that humanity will become monstrous if the heavens fail to restrain Goneril and Regan. Following Gloucester's blinding, two servants affirm that if Cornwall “come to good” every wickedness is permitted and that women “will all turn monsters” if Regan dies of natural causes (3.7.98-101). If it was Shakespeare who removed these passages, it may have been so as to make the intervention of the gods in the deaths of Cornwall and of the sisters even more uncertain.

The play is concerned less with interpreting events than with probing the ways in which events are interpreted, at a time when the “new philosophy” gave the act of interpretation a new interest and urgency. Not only does Gloucester seek to understand the troubles of the kingdom by means of astrology (“These late eclipses in the sun and moon” [1.2.103-04]), but Lear also takes it for granted that “the operation of the orbs” determines our life and death (1.1.112-13); even Kent can find no explanation for the difference between Cordelia and her sisters other than that “The stars above us govern our conditions” (4.3.34). We listen to the explanations that the characters supply—from Gloucester's charge that the gods harm us for their pleasure to Albany's confidence in heavenly justice—and their words instruct us not about the government of the world but about themselves. When Edgar tries to persuade Gloucester that “the clearest gods” (and what a superb adjective that is!) have saved him from death in his supposed fall from the cliff (4.6.73-74), should we believe that the gods have indeed preserved him, through the agency of Edgar, from committing suicide? Or should we think that Edgar, who also says of the gods that they “make them honours / Of men's impossibilities” and who thereby quotes, as it were, the Bible (“The things which are impossible with men are possible with God” [Luke 18:27]), is attempting to turn his father's thoughts towards the gods' goodness without really assuming that any special providence was at work preventing his death? By this sanctified lie we enter above all into the relationship of the son to the father and into the equally “clear” character of Edgar.

It may be the same wise abstention that leads Shakespeare to avoid giving any passage to Cordelia elucidating events with reference to divine agency. What she does say is this: “Time shall unfold what plighted cunning hides, / Who covert faults at last with shame derides” (1.1.282-83). Cordelia knows that all wrongs finally come to light, and she can see that her sisters' intriguing will soon be evident; but, rather than involving the gods in her prediction, she speaks of what she knows—of the action, within the world, of time. Yet, if Shakespeare seems concerned to limit himself to natural events (there are no supernatural interventions in King Lear, as there are in Hamlet and Macbeth) and to what can be known through human experience, it does not follow that he is writing a purely human play with no concern for the existence or nonexistence of “the gods.” It is by what must have been a voluntary choice that he resists involving providence as much as he resists deciding which prayers are answered. Jean-Paul Sartre objected (rightly or wrongly) that, in showing his characters to be under the sway of providence, Francois Mauriac interfered with their liberty. One might say of Shakespeare that he refuses to interfere with the liberty of the gods and with the freedom of God. This is a further dimension of his Negative Capability, which seems to me both immensely instructive and profoundly Christian.


Restraint, however, does not imply neutrality. We read the play as we choose, not because of the indeterminacy of the work but because of our limitations and the perspective on the world that we have adopted, and to some readers what I have written of “the gods” will look like special pleading. Maybe it is. Yet numerous Christian hints are demonstrably present in the play—even Oswald, when he thinks that he is about to kill Gloucester, allows him a moment to recall his sins: “Briefly thyself remember” (4.6.225)—and it has been suggested that by such shafts of alien thought Shakespeare opens the pagan universe of the play to the illumination of what he must have considered to be Christian truth.

I should like to propose another such moment, partly with a view to seeing what is involved in accepting or rejecting it, and what it says about the world as fallen and about how literature might respond. Suddenly confronted with Poor Tom, Lear can only suppose in his madness that Tom's daughters have abandoned him: “Judicious punishment, 'twas this flesh begot / Those pelican daughters.” To which Poor Tom/Edgar replies: “Pillicock sat on Pillicock hill, / Alow, alow, loo, loo!” (3.4.73-76). What is going on here? Edgar could be quoting from a song, though none has been found, and the simple meaning of this piece of apparent foolery may be that the cock crows on a hill or a dunghill with a sound like “alow, alow, loo, loo.” Yet “Pillicock” is evidently provoked by “pelican,” and while editors have noted the relation between the pelican, which was thought to feed its offspring on its own blood, and Lear's sense of having sacrificed himself for his daughters, no one as far as I know has reflected on the fact that the pelican was a traditional and well known symbol of Jesus, to the point of being depicted on top of the Cross in representations of the Crucifixion. Theologians saw an allusion to Jesus in Psalm 102:6: “I am like a pelican of the wilderness.” The cock also was associated with the Passion, because of the cock that Jesus said would crow after Peter's denial. Could Edgar be thinking: “Pelican sat on Golgotha hill”? I have had this interpretation in mind for such a long time (since Rodney Hillman suggested it to me when we were both students at Cambridge) that I may simply be looking for arguments to support it. But the following line also conjures up the Crucifixion. Where others hear, perhaps correctly, the crowing of the cock, a cry in hunting or in falconry, or the refrain of a song, I hear Jesus' cry on the Cross, which is equally unintelligible until it is explained: “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?” (“My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” [Mark 15:34]). If this is Lear's first sight of the Bedlam beggar, it is also Edgar's first sight of the king wandering—his wits loose, attended only by the Fool and the disguised Kent—across open country in a storm. The least one could say in defense of this reading is that, faced with the bewildering degradation of Lear to add to his own betrayal and voluntary abasement, Edgar not inappropriately reacts with the deepest thought at the playwright's disposal (I shall return to this anachronism) and interprets his new knowledge with reference to the most signal example of such suffering.

Even if this is what they imply, the lines are in no way solemn. “Pillicock” also means penis; “hill” may refer to the mount of Venus. One remembers that the whole play emerges from a casual discussion in the opening scene of Gloucester's adultery. Yet the Christian seriousness of the moment, if that is what we hear, is in no way diminished by the presence of this vulgar and half-hidden sexuality, any more than by the outlandish obliqueness in the naming of Jesus and the imitation of his cry. On the contrary, what is more Christian than this Crucifixion appearing in the midst of madness, this howl of dereliction reduced to meaningless syllables and accompanied by pornographic innuendo, this Passion humiliated by all the circumstances to which it is exposed? What is more Christian than this possibility of redemption, if that is what it is, arising, suddenly and barely audibly, amid the dispossessed king, the half-wit, and the beggar? Shakespeare, evoking the “foolishness” of the Cross, does so foolishly; he refers to a suffering greater than that of Lear and Poor Tom and serving, perhaps, as a measure of all the sufferings of the play, without allowing it to signify itself clearly. He introduces the idea of salvation into a pagan world in the most appositve way—as a message deformed and hardly comprehensible.

The instant spark from “pelican” to “Pillicock,” the vertiginous fathoming and unprecedented expressing of the Crucifixion and of its relation to the reality of the Fall, make this passage for me one of the most charged in our literature. Though Edgar, living in the eighth century b.c., could know nothing of Jesus, he yet continues to speak, almost immediately, of things he cannot know: “Take heed o'the foul fiend; obey thy parents, keep thy word justly, swear not, commit not with man's sworn spouse, set not thy sweetheart on proud array” (3.4.78-80). He quotes the catechism in the Prayer Book, beginning with the renunciation of the devil and repeating several of the Ten Commandments in a disorder appropriate, once again, to this scene of tragic madness on a storm-swept heath. In the dense knot of meaning that Shakespeare is creating during these few moments, not in spite but by means of the tangled language of his mock madman, we pass from the Crucifixion to entrance into the Christian faith; and scholarly reference to Shakespeare's use, for the creation of Poor Tom, of Samuel Harsnett's A Declaration of Egregious Popish Impostures will not help us understand Edgar's obsession with the devil. He enters crying “the foul fiend follows me” (3.4.45), and when, immediately after his catechizing, Lear asks him “What hast thou been?” he embarks on a lengthy confession in which he imagines himself as having broken the Commandments, descended to the level of the animals, and wallowed in deadly sins before again urging Lear to “defy the foul fiend” (3.4.45-46). Having once resolved “To take the basest and most poorest shape” (2.2.178), and having become “a poor, bare, forked animal” (3.4.105-06), he seems to realize that he is capable of all the vices—or that humans are—and that a spiritual power is at work fomenting them. As the tragedy reaches a kind of paroxysm, Edgar and Shakespeare point to the existence of two superhuman forces, the cause of evil and the love that overcomes evil, not to involve the play in Christian allegory or to impair it with intrusive theology, and in such a way that spectators are perfectly free to avoid those hints if they wish.

If my reading of the Pillicock jingle is correct, it emphatically does not mean that Edgar, Lear, or anyone else is a Christ figure, nor does it indicate that Edgar is knowingly referring to the Cross. It means that Shakespeare allows himself to refer to that vast event, which is not out of proportion to his play. The reference is entirely earned by the real extremes of evil, suffering, and devotion in which his imagination involves us, whereas Perillus's reference in the True Chronicle History of King Leir to him “that saved us all from death” is a mere pious bubble, which illuminates neither the play nor the Cross, and which plies us with no new human experience to undergo and try to understand. Shakespeare's way of sinking an allusion to Jesus into nonsense and folly also says more about the fallen condition of the world than could any overt statement. It is that fallen condition that Edgar goes on to perceive with a quite terrible clairvoyance. In these lines from his short soliloquy at the beginning of act 4,

The lowest and most dejected thing of fortune,
Stands still in esperance, lives not in fear.
The lamentable change is from the best,
The worst returns to laughter.


a modern spectator or reader is unlikely to feel involved, since the wheel of fortune is no longer among the figures by which we seek to explain, and in a way control, the vicissitudes of experience by giving them an agreed and universal form. We shall probably note that Edgar, having reached, as he believes, the lowest position of the wheel's turn, sees himself between lamentation and laughter, and so, we might add, between tragedy and comedy, and this may lead (as well as to thoughts about the relation of tragedy to comedy) to the reflection that the Crucifixion does indeed give way to the Resurrection, that the deepest darkness is finally pierced by light. Yet Shakespeare is surely involving his own spectators in some such false assurance, since, as we know, Edgar is mistaken: there is worse to come, and it comes on the instant with the arrival of the blind Gloucester led by a servant. Edgar does more than learn that he is not yet at the bottom of his fortunes:

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.’


He not only discovers (in these Germanic and monosyllabic lines where Shakespeare reaches down to what feels like the essential core of English so as to say something starkly true) that one can always descend lower into wretchedness but that there is no limit to that descent—that “the worst is not” or, as Gerard Manley Hopkins phrases it at the beginning of a “terrible sonnet” in which, like Keats, he returns again and again to King Lear as a way of understanding his situation, “No worst, there is none.” In human experience there is no “worst.” We can always fall further; the gulf is unimaginably deep.

So what are the implications of that thought for literature and for King Lear? One, surely, is that Cordelia may die. The passage from Edgar reassured that he has plunged as far as he can to the sudden appearance of the blinded Gloucester is repeated even more forcefully in the tragedy's (almost) final move from the repentance of Edmund to the entrance of Lear with the dead Cordelia in his arms. Many readers have felt that her death destroys all the values of love, service, and self-knowledge that the play has so painfully wrought out of misery after misery. In what kind of play should we be, however, and in what kind of world, if the action were to end with act 4, when Lear has been cured (possibly by the “kind gods”) and reconciled to his daughter, when Gloucester has been prevented from suicide and is ready to submit himself to the will of the “ever gentle gods,” when Cornwall has been killed, and when Edgar in possession of Goneril's letter is in a position to ruin both her and Edmund? Or if it ended before Cordelia's death? What act 5 adds is Regan's declaring herself sick, Edmund's being arrested, Goneril's despairing, Edmund's confessing his crimes, Gloucester's discovering his son as his helper, Regan's dying from poison, Goneril's confessing the murder of her sister (has this confession been noticed?) before her suicide, and Edmund's meaning to do “Some good.” Not only might we conclude, as with the older True Chronicle History of King Leir and Tate's adaptation, that this is too good to be true and, however terrible, not fully tragic, but that if Edgar is right one can never cease in principle to discover worse outrages than those already revealed. At the moment when critics claim, in effect, that we have reached the worst and that Lear's defeat, his descent into second childhood, and the imprisonment of his daughter have surely exhausted the miseries that he can be asked to suffer, something like the death of Cordelia needs to occur to remind us of what we thought we had learned. Not, I am sure, that Shakespeare is thinking in these didactic terms. He is exploring and forcing to the brink his own insight—no doubt suffering the death of Cordelia more keenly than his keenest critics, and reinforcing both the pain and the meaning of her death by the fact that it is not intrinsic to the play, that she might have been saved had Edmund spoken earlier, and that his delay is not even entirely understandable.

If we object to Cordelia's death not on exclusively aesthetic grounds but because it is too much both for the play and for our sense of life, we have missed, it seems to me, the meaning of the Fall. And there is a way of accepting her death that is equally, in the end, self-protective. Bradley writes of

… the feeling that what happens to such a being does not matter; all that matters is what she is. … The force of the impression … depends on the very violence of the contrast between the outward and the inward, Cordelia's death and Cordelia's soul. The more unmotivated, unmerited, senseless, monstrous, her fate, the more do we feel that it does not concern her. The extremity of the disproportion between prosperity and goodness first shocks us, and then flashes on us the conviction that our whole attitude in asking or expecting that goodness should be prosperous is wrong; that, if only we could see things as they are, we should see that the outward is nothing and the inward is all.


In many ways this is well said: it is irrelevant to Cordelia's worth whether or not she knows worldly success and at what age she dies. To claim, however, that what happens to her “does not matter” not only risks diminishing and even removing the jolt to the mind when we see her dead, but it also denies the force of what Edgar has understood; it further suggests that death is no longer an affliction once we have discerned what the true values are and realized that they survive the disappearance of individuals. Perhaps if we were in a position to “see things as they are,” by which I take Bradley to mean seeing them as God does or as one might hereafter in heaven, death would appear as a passing shadow in the story of a life. But, from where we are, death is still a condemnation, an evil, a breach in a creation originally “good.” To say that ultimately Cordelia's death does not matter is like saying that Jesus' death does not matter—and about his death one could construct an even more persuasive argument, since it occurred for everyone's good. Cordelia's death matters because, by conceiving it and creating a further level of suffering for Lear, Shakespeare presses his understanding of tragedy and, more than that, of the reality of the world he lives in, as far as it will go.


So what could make a literary work incompatible with Christianity? No atrocity, no agony, no despair would do so in itself, since in the world of waiting between Eden and a “new heaven and a new earth” evil is endless as far as we can see. The most resolutely immoral, derisory, or absurd work is perfectly true as soon as one has a perspective on it. Perhaps, then, one should ask: what makes a literary work truly rather than superficially Christian? Once again, King Lear is the text to study. It would require another essay to show exactly why, but consider the gradual enlightenment of Lear, beginning with the first moment of self-knowledge, “I did her wrong” (1.5.24), so simply expressed and arising with utter suddenness, as if coming from elsewhere, amid the riddling questions of the Fool. Whatever happens to Lear, his growing sense of guilt and his acknowledgment of others' suffering are surely more Christian, more suggestive of real hope and actual possibility, than his final happiness in the True Chronicle History of King Leir and in Tate. Or consider Edgar's brief and overwhelmingly suggestive reply to Albany's question as to how he has known his father's miseries: “By nursing them, my lord” (5.3.180). One would need to reflect on the whole story of Edgar, who finally emerges from the subplot to take over the kingdom as Lear's godson and the person whom Lear has “named” (2.1.91-92), to see just how the play contradicts the Fall and works, lucidly and steadily, toward Recreation. And consider, above all, Edmund's repentance. He has heard Edgar recount his wayfaring with Gloucester, his begging for him and Gloucester's blessing; he has heard of Kent's fidelity to Lear and of his approaching death; he has listened to how others have coped with his own and the sisters' villainies. These are all stories of which he was ignorant and which must seem to occur in another world from his own, and he says: “I pant for life. Some good I mean to do, / Despite of mine own nature” (5.3.241-42). Note the suggestiveness of this simple precision: if Edmund wills to do good in spite of his nature, what is giving him the power to do so?

If the world is fallen, what makes a work Christian is surely whatever counteracts the Fall, whatever we find to be present in the world despite ourselves: love, pardon, acknowledgment of guilt, a desire to follow the good that seems to come from beyond the resources of the individual. Prayers being answered and events turning out according to religious correctness may suggest the external action of providence. Devotion, repentance, and conversion suggest the internal action of grace. One may sense that a writer is manipulating providence for honorable ends. One may sense the same manipulation when a character repents, since God does not actually intervene in a literary work, but at least a character who confesses and asks forgiveness interprets his own actions and does not go about interpreting God's. That is why, despite the unceasing accumulation of evils (accompanied, nevertheless, by the gradual removal of all the evil characters, including the Captain who hangs Cordelia), King Lear is surely an eminently Christian work, whose faith and hope are not in a future world but in this world where, if God seems absent, grace is present. It is through resolving, to adapt Edgar's phrase in the final lines, to “speak what he feels, not what he ought to say,” that Shakespeare is able to adventure so far beyond Christian commonplaces, and so unreservedly into Christian truth.

Works Cited

Beckett, Samuel. Waiting for Godot. New York: Grove, 1954.

Bradley, A. C. Shakespearean Tragedy. London: Macmillan, 1904.

Claudel, Paul. Oeuvres en prose. Paris: Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, 1965.

Eliot, T. S. Selected Essays. London: Faber, 1932.

Harsnett, Samuel. A Declaration of Egregious Popish Impostures. 1603. Rpt. in F. W. Brownlow, Shakespeare, Harsnett, and the Devils of Denham. Newark: U of Delaware P, 1993.

Hopkins, Gerard Manley. Poems. Ed. W. H. Gardner and N. H. Mackenzie. New York: Oxford UP, 1982.

Johnson, Samuel, ed. Shakespeare's Plays. 8 vols. London, 1765.

Keats, John. Letters. Ed. Hyder Edward Rollins. 2 vols. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1958.

Keats, John. “On Sitting Down to Read King Lear Once Again.” The Complete Poems of John Keats. Ed. Miriam Allott. London: Longman, 1970. 295-96.

Murry, J. Middleton. Shakespeare. London: Cape, 1936.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. Situations I. Paris: Gallimard, 1947.

Shakespeare, William. King Lear. Ed. R. A. Foakes. 3rd ed. London: Arden, 1997.

Swinburne, A. C. A Study of Shakespeare. London: Chatto & Windus, 1880.

Tate, Nahum. The History of King Lear. Ed. James Black. Regents Renaissance Drama Series. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1975.

Welsford, Enid. The Fool: His Social and Literary History. London: Faber, 1935.

Alan Rosen (essay date 2001)

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SOURCE: Rosen, Alan. “King Lear Without End: Shakespeare, Dramatic Theory, and the Role of Catastrophe.” In Dislocating the End: Climax, Closure and the Invention of Genre, pp. 6-26. New York: Peter Lang Publishing, Inc., 2001.

[In the following essay, Rosen examines the unconventional dramatic form of King Lear, particularly the appearance of the climax early in the play instead of at the end, where it traditionally occurs.]

That catastrophe informs the substance and texture of King Lear is clear. First performed in 1605-1606, a few years after James I assumed the throne, the play begins with a kingdom ruled by a majestic figure, presiding over a court of respectful and obedient subjects. However, the respect and obedience that grace Lear's court quickly dissipates; soon there is bitter internecine rivalry and eventually civil and international war. Meanwhile, the characters most worthy of our sympathy are subjected to brutality, afflicted with madness, and separated from those to whom they are closest. Even when reconciliation is in the offing, Shakespeare, deviating from his sources, makes sure that death has the upper hand. Furthermore, as if one story of affliction were not enough, Shakespeare adds a subplot (the story of the Duke of Gloucester and his sons) in which the cruelty is, if anything, more raw and intense. By doubling the tragedy, some commentators suggest, Shakespeare wants to teach that the anguish that Lear's family suffers is not unique but, horribly, repeatable—and thus the way of the world.

The unrelieved suffering the characters endure, however, is only part of the story. The other part has to do with the form in which Shakespeare represents Lear's tragedy. For one thing, the play goes on much longer than needed to convey the tragedy that has overtaken Lear and his court. A related issue concerns locating the climax—or, in the language of premodern criticism, the catastrophe—of the play. If one looks to the latter part of play, it initially appears as if the climax has already come and gone. On closer inspection, it appears that the play at least tries to locate the climax in the conventional venue, somewhere around act 5. But even there the climax doesn't work as it should. Rather than seeing these difficulties in locating the climax as symptoms of Shakespeare's ineptitude or indifference, I prefer to see them as clues that signal how the play can be read or viewed. Significantly, the play itself seems to recommend such an approach: by using theatrical terms at key moments in the dialogue, King Lear also evinces a kind of self-consciousness about form, as if the play worries over (or takes pleasure in?) its own deviousness, and, by use of such terms, invites attention to its heterodox exercise in tragic form.

So while the events that unfold in the play are clearly catastrophic in the first sense of the term, it is the second sense, having to do with form, that most interests me here. I assume, then, as have a number of critics before me, that the special nature of Lear's tragedy is connected to Shakespeare's canny manipulation of form. I go further than most, however, in suggesting a longer and more extensive context for tracing King Lear's experiment with tragic form. Crucial to this legacy is the notion of dramatic catastrophe. To appreciate Shakespeare's strategy it is necessary to begin by reviewing the way that catastrophe operates in ancient drama and, particularly, in medieval and early modern dramatic theory. Such a review is clearly apposite for addressing the issues of catastrophe in King Lear.


In the context of the reemergence of classical drama in the Renaissance, dramatists and scholars attempted to retrieve not only the neglected plays of the classical period, but also the dramatic principles by which the plays had been constructed. The fourth-century writings of Donatus, which included the essays De Fabula and De Comedia, as well as a substantial commentary on the plays of Terence, played a crucial role in this effort at reconstruction.1 Indeed, the principles most influential for the Renaissance derived not from Aristotle but from Donatus.2 Initially, in fact, the contribution of Aristotle's Poetics to this excavation of classical dramatic structure was negligible.3 The first major translations of the Poetics were not published until 1538 and 1540, and its influence began to be seriously felt only in the latter half of the sixteenth century. By then Donatus and, through him, Roman playwright Terence had already provided a framework for thinking about the fundamental elements of dramatic structure—including the nature and function of dramatic catastrophe. In order to understand the legacy of dramatic catastrophe, it is therefore necessary to briefly review the notion as developed by Donatus, and then to sketch the course of its assimilation in the Renaissance.

Donatus takes up the notion of the catastrophe in considering the division of drama into its appropriate theatrical and structural parts. There is a fundamental division of the drama into four parts: the prologue, protasis, epitasis, and catastrophe:

The prologue is a kind of preface to the drama. In this part and this part only it is permissible to say something extrinsic to the argument, addressed to the audience and for the benefit of the poet or the drama or an actor. The protasis is the first act and the beginning of the drama. The epitasis is the development and enlargement of the conflict and, as it were, the knot of all the error. The catastrophe is the resolution of the course of events so that there is a happy ending which is made evident to all by the recognition of past events.4

This concise explication of dramatic structure shows that the catastrophe complements the preceding sections of the drama. Where the protasis and epitasis supply the story and complicate its intrigue, the catastrophe resolves the conflict that it inherits. There is, as well, a dispensation of knowledge that occurs in the resolution of the conflict, and what is revealed is thereafter known to all. The catastrophe therefore not only brings to light what was hidden, but ensures that the revelation extends to everyone.5

Along with the terse itemization of the components of catastrophe, Donatus, as already mentioned, sheds light on the elements of drama through his commentary on the plays of Terence.6 The commentary displays how the abstract dramatic structure meshed with the stuff of the plays. For our inquiry into dramatic catastrophe, The Andrian, Terence's clever domestic comedy, offers a particularly apt example.7

In this play, Pamphilus, son of an Athenian gentleman, seduces the low-born Glycerium, who soon becomes pregnant. Pamphilus promises to marry her but learns that his father has already arranged an upscale marriage to Chremes' daughter. While playing along with his father's plan, Pamphilus schemes to have his own way, only to have his hopes dealt a blow when Chremes calls off the marriage, which threatens to dishonor all. By the fifth act of the play, the intrigue between son and father has become so clouded that an unhappy conclusion seems inevitable. It is Crito's arrival on the scene and the precious information he provides—that Glycerium is actually Chremes' long-lost daughter—that brings a solution to a situation seemingly unresolvable.

Listed in the text as “Crito, hospes,” the character who is brought in from the wings has the authority, limited though it may be, to move the play to its conclusion. “Here speaks a character,” comments Donatus at the point of Crito's arrival, “specially devised for the purpose of the catastrophe, for this Crito makes no contribution to the plot except to resolve the misunderstanding.”8 Donatus' pointed phrasing—“no contribution except”—may explain why the character who served this purpose himself became known as “the catastrophe,” an appellation linking this character inexorably to the final movement of the play.

The function of the catastrophe is thus simple, univocal, and yet, at the same time, pivotal. Paul Moorhead's explication of the Donatus commentary delineates further the special features of the catastrophe:

This character is inorganic and his sole function is to loose the error of the play. The Commentator states that at Andria 533 the action has been brought to such a crisis that it does not seem possible that the poet can bring about the resolution dramatically (consilic) but must employ chance (eventu) in the person of Crito.9

Having no role in the drama up till this point, Crito is said to be “inorganic,” for he emerges from outside rather than from within the plot. The momentum for the reversal he renders seems to derive from his outsider status. Furthermore, coming from outside the plot, the catastrophe of The Andrian embodies the element of chance. His arrival on the scene, perfectly timed to eliminate the misunderstanding that impedes the resolution, is arbitrary rather than necessary, contingent rather probable. As Davos, the slave and arch-complicator of the plot, comments upon Crito's arrival: “In all my life I never saw anything fit so perfectly, man, arrival, and moment.”10 Davos' ironic comment on the improbable nature of Crito's arrival will again be heard, albeit in a different voice, when Edmund muses on the fortuitous entry of the catastrophe in King Lear.11

In De Fabula, Donatus observes how Terence was special among dramatists in his use of characters from outside the plot:

Like the Greeks, all the Latin writers but Terence have theoi apo mechanes—that is, “gods from a machine”—to narrate stories. Besides, the other comic writers do not readily admit protatika prosopa—that is, characters drawn from outside the plot—while Terence often uses them since the plot becomes clearer through introducing them.12

The dramatic practice of Terence, we are told, is special on two accounts. First, because he does not bring in “gods” from outside the plot to narrate. He does, however, bring human characters outside—a device known as persona ex machina. While Donatus does not speculate on what Terence loses by omitting the god's narration, he does indicate that the introduction of characters from outside the plot is actually an asset to it. At least to Donatus' mind, then, the introduction of such a character is an admirable practice.

Terence's regular use of the device of the persona ex machina, of drawing in a character from outside the plot, does not, according to Donatus, compromise the organic form of his drama. Terence is able to maintain clarity of dramatic exposition because he “never brings in abstruse material or things that have to be glossed by antiquaries.”13 That he is lucid and accessible can be explained by his competence in dealing with dramatic structure: he is “careful about plot and style … he joined the beginning, middle, and end so carefully that nothing seems extraneous and everything appears to be composed from the same material and to have a single body.”14 The comedies of Terence are thus for Donatus the model of a tight dramatic structure. More important for our purposes is that Terence's construction of the catastrophe using an external agent became a norm for Renaissance drama.

The introduction and consolidation of Donatus' dramatic terminology in the Renaissance occurred through a variety of channels, including commentaries on the six Terentian comedies by such prominent Renaissance figures as Melancthon and Erasmus.15 A significant number of lesser but able scholars also contributed commentaries which attempted to wrest from the plays aesthetic and moral norms applicable to emerging Renaissance ideals.16 The plays of Terence also received considerable attention in the handbooks of grammar and rhetoric, and thus became exemplary for generations of students.17

The extent of Donatus' influence on the Renaissance conception of catastrophe appears great. In commenting on the expression Catastrophe fabulae in his De Adagia, Erasmus, for example, identifies Donatus as his source:

We call the outcome of anything, in proverbial language, the catastrophe or denouement. … Every plot, as Donatus shows, is divided into three parts, protasis, epitasis, and catastrophe. The protasis is the first excitement, swelling as it goes on. The epitasis is a flurry of complications. The catastrophe is a sudden transformation of the whole thing.18

The impact of the Donathusian view can also be discerned in the definitions of catastrophe set forth in English dictionaries of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.19 In the mid-sixteenth century, T. Cooper's influential dictionary terms catastrophe a “subversion. Also the latter end of a comedie, and, proverbially, the ende of any thing.”20 Later in the next century, Elisha Coles, in An English Dictionary (1672), laconically reiterates a common view: “catastrophe, the conclusion (of a play).” As with Erasmus' explication of Catastrophe Fabulae (section 1311), the definitions of catastrophe emphasize the association with dramatic endings and with transformation.

Kenneth Muir, drawing on George Coffin Taylor's Shakespeare's Debt to Montaigne, lists catastrophe as one of the words Shakespeare has likely appropriated from the John Florio translation.21 Though the evidence for a direct link from Montaigne to King Lear seems inconclusive, it is interesting to note the definition given catastrophe in Florio's Italian-English dictionary, first published in 1598: “catastrophe, the conclusion or shutting up of a comedie or any thing else.”22

Renaissance associations continue to inform the writing of the neo-classicists. Having outlined the four-part division of dramatic structure, John Dryden offers a lucid recapitulation of the use and meaning of dramatic catastrophe:

Lastly the catastrophe, which the Grecians called lysis, the French le denouement, and we the discovery or unraveling of the plot: there you can see all things settling again upon their first foundations; and, the obstacles which hindered the design or action of the play once removed, it ends with that resemblance of truth and nature, that the audience are satisfied with the conduct of it.23

While Dryden's seventeenth-century gloss on dramatic catastrophe adds a certain metaphysical and rhetorical dimension, the elements of ending and resolution remain prominent. Indeed, Marvin Herrick emphasizes the consonance that existed between Dryden's view of dramatic catastrophe and that of his predecessors: “Eugenius, in Dryden's Essay of Dramatic Poesy, described the ending of a play in terms that would have satisfied almost any Renaissance student of the drama from Melancthon on.”24

In considering the role of the catastrophe in King Lear, it is important to recall that the Renaissance student of drama was generally able to apply the terms of dramatic structure to tragedy as well as comedy. The virtues inherent in the four-part division of drama, though derived from reflection on the comedies of Terence, transcended the generic particularities of comedy and tragedy. Thus the Italian playwright Giraldi, interested in writing a tragedy, chose as his model Terence rather than the Greeks, “assuming,” writes T. W. Baldwin, “that the Terentian theory of dramatic structure applies as well to tragedy as it does to comedy.”25 Baldwin proclaims the interchangeability of tragedy and comedy with respect to dramatic structure in another context as well: “Aristotle's theory, of course, applied to tragedy; but the Renaissance assumed that fundamentally there was no difference between the dramatic structure of comedy and tragedy.”26 The specific formal dimensions of dramatic catastrophe appeared to apply to tragedy and comedy alike.

In sum, Renaissance conceptions of the function of catastrophe assert the intimate association between drama and the notion of catastrophe. In the context of this association, commentators stressed the connection between catastrophe and endings or conclusions; and also between catastrophe and, in Erasmus' phrase, “sudden transformation.” As we turn to the role of catastrophe in King Lear, we can reasonably assume that these associations were those of Shakespeare as well.27


The appreciation of the importance of the catastrophe centered around a concern with dramatic form. In addition, considerations of dramatic catastrophe went hand in hand with considerations of character motivation. Though only occasionally speaking about these concerns in direct connection with catastrophe, King Lear's critics from the seventeenth century on have emphasized the play's problems around form and motivation. Their objections have centered on several aspects of the play: the torture manifested in the blinding of Gloucester; the grotesque decorum of the fool; the clumsy spectacle of the storm scenes; but particularly controversial is the tragic ending, in which the innocent Cordelia and the repentant Lear suffer senseless death. The provocative nature of these aspects have actually led to alternative versions of the play, the most renowned adaptation being that of Nahum Tate.

Tate's adaptation, The History of King Lear (1680),28 attempted to make the play comply with his generation's more delicate aesthetic standards. He thus expurgated offensive scenes, reworked the poetry, and, importantly, emended the ending, permitting Lear and Cordelia to live and enjoy the fruits of their reconciliation. The emendations proved immensely popular for critics and audience alike, and Tate's Lear became the preferred version for over a hundred years.

It is the latter change rendered upon Shakespeare's Lear which is important to note in the context of a discussion of dramatic catastrophe. Tate refers to the problem of form in the preface to his version of Lear: “I found the Whole … a Heap of Jewels, unstrung, and unpolish'd; yet so dazling in their Disorder, that I soon perceiv'd I had seiz'd a Treasure.”29 Because the problem with the disorder of the play is so profound, Tate feels justified in adding an entirely new dimension: “'Twas my good Fortune to light on one Expediant to rectifie what was wanting in the Regularity and Probability of the Tale, which was to run through the Whole, as Love betwixt Edgar and Cordelia; that never chang'd Word with each other in the original.”30 This “rectification” of the original provides links between scenes that previously were only haphazardly connected. The love affair between Edgar and Cordelia “renders Cordelia's Indifference, and her Father's Passion in the first scene, probable.”31 Tate recast or reworked scenes to supply the motivation that was originally absent or obscure. For Tate, the problem of motivation thus implies a problem of form, and vice-versa.

While Tate's adaptation of King Lear indicated that Shakespeare had not satisfied the demands of the theater, the romantic critics of King Lear felt that theater could not satisfy the demands of Shakespeare. First published in 1811, Charles Lamb's well-known discussion of King Lear argues the incapacity of theater to do justice to the profundity of the play and to the character of Lear himself:

So to see Lear acted—to see an old man tottering about the stage with walking-stick, turned out of doors by his daughters in a rainy night, has nothing in it but what is painful and disgusting. We want to take him into shelter and relieve him. That is all the feeling which the acting of Lear ever produced in me. But the Lear of Shakespeare cannot be acted. The contemptible machinery by which they mimic the storm which he goes out in, is not more inadequate to represent the horror of the real elements, than any actor can be to represent Lear.32

The attempt to dramatize King Lear could only compromise the essential nature of the play. The dramatic idiom, in other words, rather than serving as the natural medium by which the play could be appreciated, was viewed as something extraneous to the play's successful realization.

King Lear's status as a drama was thus considered problematic in at least two ways. The inadequate account of motivation violated the eighteenth century's idea of dramatic clarity. And, in the view of the early romantics, the profound mystery embodied by the play resisted dramatic expression. Both of these concerns were expressed by A. C. Bradley in his influential lectures on King Lear, originally published in 1904. According to Bradley's famous formulation, “King Lear seems to me Shakespeare's greatest achievement, but it seems to me not his best play.”33

While Lamb had expressed reservations regarding Shakespeare's tragedies in general, Bradley is convinced that the special nature of King Lear is at odds with dramatic performance. The conflict between play and dramatic performance, writes Bradley,

is not so with the other great tragedies. No doubt, as Lamb declared, theatrical representation gives only a part of what we imagine when we read them; but there is no conflict between the representation and the imagination, because these tragedies are, in essentials, perfectly dramatic. But King Lear, as a whole, is imperfectly dramatic, and there is something in its very essence which is at war with the senses, and demands a purely imaginative realization.34

The essential nature of the play can only be grasped, according to Bradley, in the realm of the imagination.

The dramatic stature of the play is also weakened by inadequate motivation. Bradley argues this point with particular reference to the death of Cordelia at the end of the play. He refers to Cordelia's death as the “unexpected catastrophe,” and sets forth what makes its motivation problematic: “The real cause [of Cordelia's death] lies outside the dramatic nexus. It is Shakespeare's wish to deliver a sudden and crushing blow to the hopes which he has excited.”35 Bradley faults the death as the catastrophe because it does not proceed from what has come before and from what an audience is led to expect. Bradley's way of characterizing the problem of the catastrophe will be taken up later on.

Modern criticism has again viewed Lear's dramatic irregularities as significant to an understanding of the play. But rather than considering the unconventional structure an obstacle that must be surmounted, it sees the play's disorder as purposeful, and as integral to its meaning. This perspective, referred to by some critics as “antiformalist,” asserts that the calculated disorder of the play's structure involves the audience in a dramatic experience that is essential to understanding King Lear. The play, writes James Hirsh, “does have an artistically purposeful structure, or rather an antistructure that depends in part on the audience's familiarity with conventional dramatic structure.”36 To be understood, the dramatic peculiarities of King Lear must be viewed against the formal coherence that was characteristic of conventional drama. The structure of Lear presents these conventions, but also, in James Calderwood's phrase, “warps and undermines them.”37

In this vein, Stephen Booth has observed that the play sets up endings or boundaries only to repeatedly transgress them.38 For example, the effort to shelter Lear on the heath, a project initiated in act 3, scene 2, is seemingly accomplished in scene 4 of the act. Yet despite all efforts, Lear gains shelter only in scene 6. This signals an ending close at hand: Lear will get out of the storm. But at the same time that the scene moves toward a conclusion, it also seems to protract Lear's quest and postpone the conclusion repeatedly. Booth contends that this pattern is found in numerous scenes and indicates the essential concern of the play as a whole. By repeatedly transgressing boundaries, the play demonstrates that the dramatic structure adapted to contain the action is inadequate to the material at hand.

In the antiformalistic perspective, then, the expectations of the audience play a key role. Indeed, the expectation of the audience is virtually made the subject of the play. As the dramatic structure is incapable of containing the action, so is the audience made aware that its own attempts to structure the experience of tragedy are inadequate as well.

Booth's observations on the subversive structure of Lear can thus be viewed as the most recent in a long series of reflections on the role of dramatic structure in the play. This review of the attitudes taken toward the unconventional dramatic structure of King Lear provides a context in which to consider the conspicuous reference to catastrophe early in the play.


In conventional tragic structure based on classical drama, the catastrophe would come at the end of the play. Having been vouchsafed the crucial information hitherto unknown, the protagonist would undergo intense, climactic suffering and then, in a relatively brief compass of time, the play would conclude. King Lear is different. In Lear the reference to catastrophe comes in the opening stages of the play. The catastrophe that has such profound associations with the conclusion of the drama has been relocated, or, more forcefully put, dislocated.

In act 1, scene 2, Edmund, Gloucester's bastard son, has just inaugurated his plan to defame his noble brother, Edgar, an act of cunning by which Edmund hopes to obtain the inheritance and title denied him because of his birth. On the heels of Edmund's subversive soliloquy, Edgar enters the play and is immediately cast into a theatrical role: “And pat he comes,” says Edmund, “like the catastrophe in the old comedy” (1.2.141).39

Shakespeare invokes the figure of “the catastrophe” here to activate a number of levels.40 Clearly, the term intervenes in the power struggle between the two brothers: by choosing to dub Edgar “the catastrophe” (the character, we recall, whose entry into the play testifies to authorial control), Edmund signals his own mastery of Edgar's fate. But the use of catastrophe here also comments self-reflexively on the form of the play. For the reference comes not at the end of the play but rather early on; not as a career concludes or a fate is sealed, but rather just as the plot is beginning to be advanced and complicated.

To be sure, this change in the position of the catastrophe accords with the view of Elizabethan drama set forth by Bernard Beckerman. Particularly in Shakespeare's plays, Beckerman argues, the climax occurs earlier in the play and endures for a greater period of time than in classical or neo-classical dramatic structure. Rather than a brief, concentrated climax, Shakespeare develops a “climactic plateau,” “a ‘coordination of intense moments’ sustained for a surprisingly extended period.”41

Yet King Lear presents the most radical example of Elizabethan revision of classical practice. For the first-act allusion to catastrophe signals that it enters this play virtually at the beginning and is present thereafter. The suffering usually confined to a single scene, and usually deferred till the end of the play, is then scattered throughout its remaining scenes.

Tellingly, in this scene the overturning of dramatic conventions goes hand in hand with the overturning of social conventions. Through the plot against brother and father, Edmund not only aspires to obtain wealth and title, but also—as demonstrated in his interrogation of the value of birth and stature that opens the scene—hopes to reverse the conventional criteria that determine virtue and privilege. It is then the simultaneous subversion of social hierarchy and of dramatic structure that determines the special character of reversal in the scene.

Shakespeare also reworks other elements associated with catastrophe. Edgar's entry, for example, reverses the formula of the conventional recognition. While the catastrophe traditionally serves as the bearer of information calculated to effect, in Eramus's formulation, the “transformation of the whole,” Edgar as the catastrophe is strikingly ignorant of what awaits him. To contrast here the exposition of Donatus, Edgar's entry achieves not the dissemination of knowledge, but rather the enhancement of deception.

Edmund's nomination of Edgar as the catastrophe registers Edmund's appreciation for the timing of his entry. As when Davos in Terence's The Adrian marveled at the ability of Crito to enter the play exactly when he was needed, so Edmund views Edgar's arrival as perfectly timed to fit in with his malevolent designs. Yet it is important, according to the conventions of the catastrophe, that he appears to arrive by chance. We recall that Donatus defined the arrival of Crito as occurring by “chance” rather than “dramatically.”

Commentators on the allusion to catastrophe in King Lear also note chance as an essential feature of this reference to catastrophe. The Cambridge edition of King Lear, for example, glosses the reference to catastrophe as “an allusion to the clumsy structure of the early comedies, in which the conclusion seemed to come by chance at the very moment it was wanted.”42 Catastrophes betray “clumsy structure” because they show the dramatist's hand in bringing about a desired conclusion. The clumsiness is also evident because the catastrophe's entry “seemed to come by chance”—seems, not does. The clumsy entry of the catastrophe, in other words, exposes the purposefulness of the dramatist's devices in creating the illusion of the drama. The catastrophe's function, metadramatically speaking, is to witness the constructed nature of the drama. By relocating in act 1 the emphasis on catastrophe, Shakespeare reinforces this function.43


In act 1, the early reference to “catastrophe” signals a metatheatrical commentary important to the antiformalist structure of the play. In act 5, another metatheatrical reference serves as a clue to interpreting the dramatic structure. Lear's eldest daughter Goneril, impressed by the formality of the accusations of treason, refers to the exchange between the Duke of Albany and Edmund as “An Interlude!” (5.3.90). Though directed to Albany and Edmund, the description applies to the accusation, the challenge, and the duel as well. Goneril's use of the theatrical term suggests that the action of the duel will achieve the artifice and stylization usually associated with conventional drama, and the scene that unfolds does indeed return to highly stylized legal and dramatic conventions. It is here, moreover, that the play attempts to restore the conventional fifthact catastrophe. And, in this attempt at regaining its dramatic balance, the play draws upon the idiom of the earlier catastrophe.

A summary of the scene suggests the resemblance. As in the earlier catastrophe, it is again Edmund and Edgar who play the key roles. Leaving his father, but maintaining his disguise, Edgar deposits a letter with Albany, arranging for a challenge to Edmund's newly acquired kingship. At the appointed time, Albany accuses Edmund of treason, Edmund counters, and a duel is proposed. Albany orders the Herald to carry out the public announcement of the duel, inviting contenders to respond to the summons of the trumpet. In response to the third trumpet, an unknown knight signals, appears, and claims his right to challenge the traitor Edmund. The unknown knight is of course Edgar, still disguised.

Upon his entry, Edgar has the credentials of the dramatic catastrophe. He appears from off stage, and is situated outside of the characters and events that have constituted the action. His appearance is sudden, and is made to seem even more so by coinciding with the third and final trumpet blast. That the play is now in the fifth act indicates that the time is appropriate for the catastrophe to enter and bring the play to its conclusion.

In light of the premature presentation of the catastrophe in act 1, the return of Edgar as the unknown knight seems an attempt to relocate the catastrophe in its proper place. The unusual stylization of the duel scene enforces the sense of a return to set conventions. Edmund and Edgar, for example, conduct their joust according to the conventions of knighthood and its attendant “trial-by-arms.” Prompted by the abnormal appearance of chivalry in the play, critics draw attention to its peculiar contribution. “The duel,” writes Fitzroy Pyle, “governed by the rule of knighthood” is “little in keeping with the manners and atmosphere of the [rest of the] play.”44 Bridget Gellert Lyons sees the formality of the duel as deviating especially from the complex realism of the main plot: “Like the curious scene on the Dover cliff, the combat—chivalric and medieval—is out of keeping with the main story of King Lear. In this scene the idea of justice is rendered in the archaic mode of romances.”45

The antiquated nature of the duel would be readily apparent, writes Rosalie Colie, to the playgoers of the seventeenth century: “he [Edmund] is to prove himself by an old-fashioned and quintessentially aristocratic method, the formal trial-at-arms outmoded in the late sixteenth century as customary proof.”46 The archaic quality of the trial-at-arms seems to neutralize the realistic dimensions of the play and heighten those of the morality play: the episode “sets the struggle between factions into a simple morality-context, where virtue must be victorious.”47

It is compelling that, as the play renders justice through the archaic ceremonies of chivalry, so the play also struggles to regain its dramatic balance by instituting a fifth-act catastrophe. Furthermore, the details of the duel pointedly hark back to Edgar's earlier entry into the play, and signal a series of reversals. The first-act catastrophe, for instance, occurred on the heels of Edmund passing his forged letter off on his father, which inaugurated Edgar's exile from home and name. In act 5, it is Edgar who provides the letter, which arranges for his return to power and reputation. Whereas Edgar's first-act entry was timed to coincide with Edmund's utterance of his name, Edgar's entry in act 5 emphasizes that his name has been lost:

                                                                                                                        What are you?
Your name? Your quality? And why you answer
This present summons?
Know, my name is lost …


Even the musical phrase—“Fa, sol, la, mi”—which Edmund intones in the first instance has its correlate in the second when Edgar announces his challenge with the sound of trumpet. The phrase, notes the Arden commentary, indicates that “Edmund sings to himself so as to pretend that he is unaware of Edgar's approach.”48 When, in act 5, Edgar enters disguised as a knight, Edmund is truly unaware of his brother's identity.

The pattern of reversals appears to offer a corrective to the sinister character of the catastrophe of act 1. The quality of a corrective has been noted as a feature of the duel scene itself. Lyons observes that Lear's hallucinatory speeches in act 4 are composed partly of fragmented images of a “trial-by-arms”:

There's your press-money. That fellow handles his bow
like a crow-keeper: draw me a clothier's yard. Look,
look! a mouse. Peace, peace! this piece of toasted
cheese will do't. There's my gauntlet; I'll
prove it on a giant. Bring up the brown bills.
O! well flown bird; i' th' clout, i' th'
clout: hewgh! Give the word.


In his fevered associations, Lear perceives a mouse as a fitting opponent for battle. Edmund and Edgar, invested with the privileges of knighthood, follow the customs and formality which organize the violence of revenge into a coherent ritual form. In contrast to Lear's delusions of honorific battle, the trial-by-arms is thus therapeutic for the play as a whole. So Lyons writes: “The chivalric duel in the last act, then, reminds us of the possibility of a more orderly world by ritualizing what is distorted in Lear's imagination and experiences.”49

This ritualization would seem, as Lyons suggests, to return good and evil to their proper places, for Edgar vanquishes Edmund and thereby reclaims his lost name. But the order that the stylized duel represents is under pressure from forces of disintegration within and without. The pressure within arises from Edmund's agreement to battle an unknown antagonist:

In wisdom I should ask thy name;
But since thy outside looks so fair and war-like,
and that thy tongue some say of breeding breathes,
What safe and nicely I might well delay
By rule of knighthood, I disdain and spurn …


Engaged in a trial-by-arms that is governed by the rules of knighthood, Edmund can honorably refuse to accept the challenge of this unknown knight. Colie argues that the temptation to engage in a contest in which participation is defined by aristocratic privilege is too attractive for Edmund to pass up. The duel, in Colie's words, offers Edmund “a chance to act with the full dignity of the high-born, to take up the class-legacy his father did not leave him.”50 Yet Colie's argument seems to miss what is crucial. For Edmund has the same opportunity to affirm “the full dignity of the high-born” by refusing the challenge as by accepting it. Furthermore, not indulging a challenge from one of a lower rank would reinforce his own superior rank. His allegedly high-born status would just as well be proclaimed by his firm adherence to the aristocratic code of the trial-by-arms.

As it stands, Edmund accepts the challenge by using criteria that are anything but aristocratic. The criterion that he draws on to justify his entry into battle—“But since thy outside looks so fair and war-like”—recalls, in fact, his own anti-aristocratic manifesto from act 1:

                    Wherefore should I
Stand in the plague of custom, and permit
The curiosity of nations to deprive me,
For that I am some twelve or fourteen moonshines
Lag of a brother? Why bastard? Wherefore base?
When my dimensions are as well compact,
My mind as generous, and my shape as true,
As honest madam's issue?

(1.2.2-9; emphasis added)

Written out of his father's legacy because of his time of birth and his bastardy, Edmund remonstrates that his physical attributes should serve as signs of his merit and nobility. It is this progressive critique of the aristocratic code that forms the ideological ground for Edmund's assault on his brother and father. Thus, in agreeing to accept the unknown knight's challenge because of the “fairness” of his physical attributes, Edmund is continuing to operate according to the progressive, “new man” terms he originally set forth in act 1.

The trial-by-arms, then, which could “remind us of the possibility of a more orderly world” by retrieving the emblem of an archaic, aristocratic code, is only made possible through Edmund's use of anti-aristocratic criteria. The order, in other words, which the trial-by-arms signifies can be obtained only through the violation of the code representing that order.51

The return to order which the combat is said to signify is also problematized through the placement of the duel in the play. As Lyons notes, the placement “following the defeat of Lear and Cordelia's forces and preceding the even more appalling catastrophe of Cordelia's hanging and Lear's death, points also to the limitations of the order it suggests.”52 Whatever vestige of archaic order the duel represents, it is temporary and tentative. It is, moreover, placed before the most profound disaster the play has to offer.

The duel, then, is better characterized as a dramatic pause than as a dramatic catastrophe. The reference to the duel and its attendant rites as “An Interlude” is thus particularly apposite. Commenting on the meaning and implications of the reference to “interlude” at this point in the play, William Matchett emphasizes the full dramatic import of the term: “Editors are apt to gloss ‘interlude’ merely as ‘a play’ (e.g., Muir in the Arden, Fraser in the Signet), but it surely has the more specific meaning of ‘a comedy’, and probably still carries the connotation of an entertainment between acts of a serious drama. Goneril mocks Albany's mockery as interrupting to Edmund's fate; the whole action is interrupting attention to Lear's and Cordelia's.”53 More aggressive than a simple pause, the “interlude” deflects attention from what is most important and channels it toward entertainment. This can be seen as a metaphor for what occurs to Edgar. Hoping to effect a reversal in the fortunes of the kingdom, Edgar enters as the catastrophe. But his entry, and the duel that ensues, serve as elements of the interlude, bracketed from the main action. As if depicting a mortal contest between two contrary elements of dramatic form, the play refuses to accommodate the conventional catastrophe. Again, the unconventional drama, this time in the form of the interlude, undermines Edgar's attempt to usher in an appropriate ending. The catastrophe is again subverted.

King Lear cannot, in sum, account for the disaster that it so forcefully presents. All attempts, however worthy, by character, critic, or play itself to explain the disaster that triumphs are fated to come up short. To view this inadequacy as fundamental to King Lear is a line of thinking about the play which has a current vogue, likely abetted by the absurdist performances and interpretations of recent years. Its frequency of proclamation, however, makes the basic claim no less true. Characters throughout the play strain to find causal connections between events, and cannot. The clumsiness evinced by Tate's adaptation, meant to provide a motivation where previously there was none, suggests, paradoxically, how important it is that motivation remain opaque.

This opacity was what, in another way, so frustrated Bradley about Cordelia's death. For it could not, to his mind, be accounted for by what had come before in the play. Since it occurred without proper dramatic preparation, Bradley could only refer to the death as the “unexpected catastrophe.” The phrase, however, is probably more telling than Bradley ever thought it would be. For it is the notion of catastrophe that presents this problematic in all its rich complexity. It is, as we have seen, the nature of dramatic catastrophe as formulated by Terence and his commentators to come from outside the plot. The impetus the catastrophe gives to the conclusion of the drama depends on its deployment of external agency. To phrase it another way: the catastrophe cannot resolve the drama by utilizing the logic of the events within the play itself. Superfluous to the plot, coerced by the hand of the dramatist alone, the catastrophe stands for the unmotivated, and thus the arbitrary, the contingent, the unexpected. Only through these ingredients, paradoxically, can the drama be completed.

In reviewing these features of catastrophe, we can better understand the desire of King Lear to make conspicuous the issue of catastrophe. For King Lear is intensely concerned with the difficulty of accounting for motivation, of determining present events in light of past, and especially of making sense of disaster. Catastrophe, as we have seen, is a notion that in its very substance dramatizes these issues.


  1. The essays circulated throughout the Renaissance under the name of Donatus. Modern scholarship, however, has determined that Donatus was the author of De Comedia and his contemporary Evanthius was the author of De Fabula. The standard edition is De Comoedia et Tragoedia, in Commentum Terenti, ed. Paul Wessner, vol. I (Leipzig: Teubner, 1902-05). Following scholarly convention, I will attribute the essays to Donatus when referring to either one.

  2. Robert Miola has recently chronicled the pervasive influence of Terence on Shakespearean comedy and tragedy. See Shakespeare and Classical Comedy: The Influence of Plautus and Terence (Oxford: Clarendon, 1994); see also Bruce Smith, Ancient Scripts and Modern Experience on the English Stage, 1500-1700 (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1988). A generation before, T. W. Baldwin also argued the formidable influence of Donatus in William Shakespere's Five-Act Structure: Shakespere's Early Plays in the Background of Renaissance Theories of Five-Act Structure from 1470 (Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1963). A concise summary by O. B. Hardison, Jr., can be found in his general introduction to medieval literary criticism and specific introduction to “Evanthius and Donathus” in Classical and Medieval Literary Criticism: Translations and Interpretations, ed. A. Preminger, O. B. Hardison, Jr., and Kevin Kerrane (New York: Ungar, 1974) 263-301. There appears to be a virtual scholarly consensus regarding the profound influence of Donatus in the Renaissance.

  3. See Baldwin, William Shakespere's Five-Act Structure. The introduction to H. W. Lawton, Handbook of French Renaissance Dramatic Theory (Westport, CT.: Greenwood, 1974), contains an excellent summary of the state of dramatic theory in the Renaissance. Some critics, including Baldwin, argue that the categories employed by Donatus derive from Aristotle, not unlikely by way of a work that did not survive. A reconstruction of this missing work and the transmission of its legacy is pursued in depth in A. P. McMahon, “Seven Questions on Aristotelian Definitions of Tragedy and Comedy,” Harvard Studies in Classical Philology XI (1929): 97-198.

  4. Preminger 305. Donatus' De Comedia gives a somewhat different inflection to the four divisions:

    Prologue is the first speech, so called from Greek protos logos [“first word” or “first speech”] preceding the complication of the plot proper … Protasis is the first action of the drama, where part of the story is explained, part held back to arouse suspense among the audience. Epitasis is the complication of the story, by excellence of which its elements are intertwined. Catastrophe is the unraveling of the story, through which the outcome is demonstrated


  5. Clearly, the catastrophe as tersely described in this anatomy shares features with the notions of peripety (reversal) and anagnorises (recognition). See Baldwin's comparison of Donatus and Aristotle in William Shakespere's Five-Act Structure.

  6. Paul Wessner, ed., Commentum Terenti.

  7. An analysis of the Andrian is also useful because its plot is considered by many critics to be the exemplar of Terentian dramatic form. Moreover, of the five Terentian plays glossed by Donatus, his commentary on this particular play is the most extensive. See Marvin Herrick, Comic Theory in the Sixteenth Century (Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1950) 107. It is also clear from a review of the Short Title Catalogue that this was the Terence play most frequently translated into English in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

  8. Lawton 18-19.

  9. Paul Grady Moorhead, “The Comments on the Content and Form of the Comic Plot in the Commentum Terenti Ascribed to Donatus” (Ph.D. diss., U of Chicago, 1923).

  10. The translation is Baldwin's.

  11. Miola sensitively shows the circulation of voices from New Comedy to King Lear. See especially Chapter 6, 187-201, focusing on Lear.

  12. Preminger 304.

  13. Preminger 304.

  14. Preminger 304.

  15. Herrick gives a succinct overview of the major Renaissance commentators on Terence 2 ff.

  16. To name a few: Joannes Calphurius (d. 1503); Petras Marsus (1442?-1512); Ambrosius Beradt (d. 1542); lodocus Willichus (1501-52). In the latter part of the century J. C. Scaliger was a dominant figure. Again, see Herrick, Baldwin, Miola, and Smith.

  17. Both Miola and Smith summarize the importance of Terence (and other Roman dramatists) for Renaissance education. See also Joel B. Altman, The Tudor Play of Mind: Rhetorical Inquiry and the Development of Elizabethan Drama (Berkeley: U of California P, 1978), particularly the chapter, “Terence and the Mimesis of Wit”; and David McPherson, “Roman Comedy in Renaissance Education: The Moral Question,” Sixteenth Century Journal 12 (1981): 19-30; on drama generally in Renaissance education, see Baldwin, William Shakespeare's Five-Act Structure; T. H. V. Motter, The School Drama in England (Port Washington, NY: Kennikut Press, 1968); M. L. Clarke, Classical Education in Britain, 1500-1900 (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1959) 9ff.; Lawrence Tanner, Westminster School: A History (London, 1934) 55-59.

  18. Collected Works of Erasmus: Adages Ii1 to Iv100, trans. Margaret Mann Phillips, annotations by R. A. B. Mynors (Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1987) 177.

  19. Thomas Elyot, in 1538, states simply that catastrophe is a “subversion, or volume.”

  20. The sequence of the two primary aspects of catastrophe is reversed in Randle Cotgrave's A Dictionary of the French and English Tongues (1611): “A catastrophe, conclusion, last act, or part of a play; the shutting up of a matter; also th' utter ruine, subversion, destruction, fatall, or finall, end of.”

  21. Kenneth Muir, ed., King Lear, Arden Shakespeare (London: Methuen, 1972) 250.

  22. John Florio, Queen Anna's New World of Words (1611) (Menston, England: Scolar Press, Ltd., 1968). The Scolar Press reprint is from the second edition of Florio's 1598 compilation. As in most dictionaries of the period, the dramatic connotation of catastrophe is here fundamental, and serves as the basis of comparison for other uses. The primary association of catastrophe with the ending of a drama also informs Samuel Johnson's mid-eighteenth century definition: “The change or revolution, which produces the conclusion or final event of a dramatick piece” (A Dictionary of the English Language, 1755 [New York: Arno Press, 1979]). While adding to Florio's definition, Johnson also sees that the essential component of catastrophe has to do with dramatic endings. The example that Johnson cites to illustrate this definition is, in fact, “And pat he comes …”—a reference to catastrophe in King Lear that I will soon consider. There is, to be sure, some irony in Johnson's citation of the passage from Lear. While his definition emphasizes the association of catastrophe with the events at the end of a drama, the quotation from Lear refers to Edgar's initial entry into the play. The reference to catastrophe in Lear thus initiates the action rather than concludes it.

  23. John Dryden, An Essay of Dramatic Poesy, Neo-Classical Dramatic Criticism, 1560-1770, ed. Thora Burnley Jones and Bernard de Bear Nicol (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1976) 17.

  24. Herrick 123.

  25. Baldwin 260.

  26. Baldwin 252.

  27. The degree to which one can assume Shakespeare's inheritance and application of Renaissance dramatic principles and techniques is open to debate. The terms of this debate can be witnessed in the controversy over the basic unit of Shakespeare's drama. Baldwin argues, for example, that the five-act division served as a primary structuring element for Renaissance drama. He argues his point through indirection and a theory of cultural osmosis. James Hirsh, who believes the scene to be the basic unit, counters that just because an element of form is a common cultural inheritance does not mean that an innovative playwright such as Shakespeare would be sure to employ it. The Structure of Shakespearean Scenes (New Haven: Yale UP, 1981). My cautious mode of expression at the end of this section attempts to show respect for the difficulty of answering definitively such questions as these.

  28. Nahum Tate, The History of King Lear, Shakespeare's Adaptations, intro. and notes by Montague Summers (New York: Benjamin Blom, 1967) 175-254.

  29. Tate 177. Tate's remarks take the form of a letter “to my Esteem'd Friend Thomas Boteler, Esq.” Moving in a direction different than my own, Nancy Klein Macguire has interpreted Tate's adaptation of Lear in light of Restoration politics. See “Nahum Tate's King Lear: ‘the king's blest restoration,’” in The Appropriation of Shakespeare: Post-Renaissance Reconstructions of the Works and the Myth, ed. Jean Marsden (New York: Harvester, 1991) 29-42.

  30. Tate 177.

  31. Tate 177.

  32. “On the Tragedies of Shakspeare, Considered with Reference to their Fitness for Stage Representation,” in Critical Essays by Charles Lamb, ed. W. MacDonald (London, 1903).

  33. A. C. Bradley, Shakespearean Tragedy (London: Macmillan, 1963) 199.

  34. Bradley 202.

  35. Bradley 204.

  36. “An Approach through Dramatic Structure,” in Approaches to Teaching Shakespeare's King Lear, ed. Robert H. Ray (New York: MLA, 1986) 89.

  37. James Calderwood, “Creative Uncreation in King Lear,Shakespeare Quarterly 37 (1986): 12.

  38. Stephen Booth, King Lear, Macbeth, Indefinition, and Tragedy (New Haven: Yale UP, 1983).

  39. Muir, ed., King Lear, Arden Shakespeare (London: Methuen, 1972). Unless otherwise indicated, all subsequent citations from the play refer to this edition. In recent years, the text of King Lear has been a crux of debate, the new Norton Shakespeare, for instance, publishing both the folio and the quarto editions, plus a third, conflated text. For a discussion of the controversy see Gary Taylor and Michael Warren, eds., The Division of the Kingdoms: Shakespeare's Two Versions of King Lear (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1983). While sympathetic to Taylor and Warren's theory, I have not found that textual questions are crucial to my particular angle of interpretation. For a similar response, see Richard Halpern's brief remarks in The Poetics of Primitive Accumulation: English Renaissance Culture and the Geneology of Capital (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1991).

  40. Like other Elizabethan playwrights, Shakespeare makes explicit reference to “catastrophe” in several plays: Love's Labour's Lost, All's Well That Ends Well, Henry 4, Part II, and King Lear.

  41. Bernard Beckerman, Shakespeare at the Globe, 1599-1609 (New York: Macmillan, 1962) 42.

  42. George Ian Duthie and John Dover Wilson, eds., King Lear (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1968) 158.

  43. Miola also reads this allusion in light of Davos' antics in The Andrian, focusing not on dramatic structure but on Shakespeare's reworking comic devices for tragic effects. Interestingly, this focus leads him to emphasize the role of chance, again with a eye toward Shakespeare's inflecting New Comedy chance to tragic ends.

  44. Fitzroy Pyle, “Twelfth Night, King Lear, and Arcadia,” Modern Language Review (October, 1948): 449-455.

  45. Bridget Gellert Lyons, “The Subplot as Simplification in King Lear,” in Some Facets of King Lear: Essays in Prismatic Criticism, eds. Rosalie L. Colie and F. T. Flahiff (Toronto: U of Toronto, 1974) 32-33.

  46. Rosalie L. Colie, “Reason and Need: King Lear and the ‘Crisis’ of the Aristocracy,” in Colie and Flahiff 208.

  47. Colie, “Reason and Need” 208.

  48. Muir 32.

  49. Lyons 35.

  50. Colie, “Reason and Need” 208.

  51. Gillian Murray Kendall, interpreting the combat between the brothers in the context of ritual, argues similarly that the emphasis on order is, ultimately, meant to be read ironically; since both brothers are able to manipulate the conventions of the combat for their own purposes, the order purportedly inscribed by ritual is shown to be “arbitrary” and “hollow.” Kendall does not however link her reading to conventions of dramatic structure. “Ritual and Identity: The Edgar-Edmund Combat in King Lear,” in True Rites and Maimed Rites: Ritual and Anti-Ritual in Shakespeare and His Age, ed. Linda Woodbridge and Edward Berry (Urbana and Chicago: U of Illinois P, 1992). The notion that chivalric combat was (or was perceived to be) archaic in early modern England—as Colie, Kendall and I assume—has been challenged by Richard McCoy. See The Rites of Knighthood: The Literature and Politics of Elizabethan Chivalry (Berkeley: U of California P, 1989), especially chapter 1, in which he reviews the literature on chivalry and ritual combat.

  52. Lyons 35.

  53. William Matchett, “Some Dramatic Techniques in King Lear,” in Shakespeare: The Theatrical Dimension, eds. Phillip C. McGuire and David Samuelson (New York: AMS, 1979) 207.


King Lear (Vol. 72)


King Lear: The Tragic Disjunction of Wisdom and Power