Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 959
For further information on the critical and stage history of King Lear, see SC, Volumes 46 and 61.
Questions regarding Cordelia's and Lear's deaths, the nature of the king's insanity, the comic element of the play, and the Gloucester sub-plot have consistently interested scholars throughout King Lear's critical history. Twentieth-century criticism has continued to broaden in scope. Major issues of importance to contemporary commentators have involved gender roles, the relation of the drama to social and economic forces of Shakespeare's time, the patriarchy and its influence on the family and state, and the position of women.
One of the main emphases of modern critics has been to apply historical approaches to the play in order to uncover links between the portrayal of both personal and political power in King Lear and the exercise of both during the reigns of Elizabeth and James. Rosalie L. Colie (1974), for instance, used Lawrence Stone's The Crisis of the Aristocracy, 1558-1641 to illustrate how Shakespeare dramatized the eventual decline of the patriarchy as well as the loss of paternal authority. Investigating the overlap between familial and state politics in the world of the play, Kathleen McLuskie (1985) explored the relationship between power and gender, finding that "insubordination" by female characters results in chaos, since it threatens the balance of power within the family. Several other critics have viewed power in King Lear as revolving around both the political, in the form of the collapse of a sociopolitical state, and the personal, involving the breakdown of an individual and his family. Examining Lear's love-test as a testimony to the king's authority, many scholars have speculated on what it reveals about the allocation of power and love between Lear and his daughters. Some commentators have found Lear's motivation to be solely the transfer of power, calling the test a highly developed, politically shrewd plan for the continued success of the kingdom. Others, however, have maintained that the desire for love drives the king; Stephen Greenblatt (1982), for example, contended that Lear "wishes to be the object—the preferred and even the sole recipient—of his child's love," and uses the test to prove that love. Still another critic, Stanley Cavell (1966-67), proposed that Lear's intense wish to avoid revealing his inner self and his love not only motivates the test, but causes his tragic downfall.
Explorations of gender identity, the role of women in a father-dominated family, and male-female bonding mark other arenas of emphasis for contemporary critics of King Lear. An insightful study by Coppélia Kahn (1986) focuses on the absence of a maternal figure in the drama. Assessing the play from a feminist and historicist point of view, Kahn contended that part of the reason for Lear's failure is that he fights against his own repressed need for a mother figure; according to Kahn, Lear begins to recognize and accept his own vulnerability, dependency, and capacity for love only as his life nears its end. Taking as his subject bonding between men within the play, Peter Erickson (1985) concluded that although Lear tries to counter the loss of his daughters with the fellowship and nurturance of other male characters, these male bonds are "finally a minor resource compared with the unequivocal centrality of Cordelia for Lear." Lear's relationship with his daughters, particularly in light of the patriarchal structure under which they live, has also continued to intrigue modern critics. Analyzing the principle of mutuality (or reciprocity) in the play, Marianne Novy (1984) suggested that King Lear criticizes the powerful rights fathers held over their daughters. As Novy pointed out, Lear abuses his authority over Cordelia, then needs her forgiveness. The balance of the patriarchal structure is subsequently threatened, as the traditional ruler/subject relationship is upset.
The study of the individual women characters in King Lear has become an increasingly important part of the play's scholarship. Considering the moral development of Cordelia, Roy W. Battenhouse (1965) described how her experiences with love inspire her to adopt a more altruistic outlook and cast off her former preoccupation with the self. John Bayley (1981) compared Shakespeare's Cordelia with other versions of her character, including her portrayals in the historical Leir story of 1605 and in Nahum Tate's 1681 version. Finding Shakespeare's Cordelia devoid of a past and existing in a "simple reality," Bayley showed how this depiction contributes to the playwright's emphasis on the matter at hand in the play, rather than on the individual stories of the characters. Expounding upon the natures of Goneril and Regan, William R. Elton (1966) found them to be typical of Renaissance pagans, since they possess an intense preoccupation with the natural and with the self. Elton also proposed that the two sisters were modeled after the Machiavellian villain. Several other contemporary critics have commented on Goneril's and Regan's sensuality as well as their cruelty, and at least one commentator has proposed that they prefigure some of the characteristics of the writings of the Marquis de Sade.
Some of the most suggestive criticism of the play has sought to explore and decipher the meaning behind its references to sexuality. Noting the "unpleasant" manner in which Shakespeare refers to women and sexuality throughout the play, several critics have found the playwright's inclusion of sexuality superfluous, and have speculated that Shakespeare's own repulsion toward sex influenced him significantly during the composition of the drama. Other scholars, however, have found the theme of sex wholly necessary to the tragedy. Focusing on Lear's increasing self-discovery during the play, Paul A. Jorgensen (1967) alleged that the king achieves a greater understanding of human nature through his anatomization of the female body. Studying the negative attitudes displayed toward sexuality in King Lear, Robert H. West (1960) observed that the play exalts, rather than indicts, sexuality and love, creating an impression of awe and mystique essential to tragedy.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 13975
Leo Salingar (essay date 1978)
SOURCE: "Romance in King Lear," in English, Vol. XXVII, No. 127, Spring, 1978, pp. 5-21.
[In the essay below, Salingar contends that Shakespeare uses elements of literary romance to intensify the conventions of tragic action in King Lear.]
At first sight, there is something paradoxical about emphasising romance in a discussion of King Lear. Romance implies prominently, especially in the theatre, a tale of trials and strange adventures, culminating in a happy ending for the sympathetic characters—so that we can be 'pleased', as Dr. Johnson says in praise of Nahum Tate's adaption of Shakespeare, by 'the final triumph of persecuted virtue'. But, by removing the shock of Cordelia's death and restoring a fortunate ending to the plot, Tate reverses Shakespeare's decision; whereas the latter, in Johnson's words, has 'suffered the virtue of Cordelia to perish in a just cause, contrary to the natural ideas of justice, to the hope of the reader, and, what is yet more strange, to the faith of chronicles'. He has taken a legend familiar to his first auditors from many previous versions, including the old play of about 1590, The True Chronicle Historie of King Leir, and altered the ending so as to show the deaths of Cordelia and Lear just at the point where all previous writers had reinstated them in happiness and prosperity.
Nor, of course, is the ending Shakespeare's only departure from the old spirit of the legend; far from it. From the king's first outburst of wrath, barely a hundred lines after the opening of the play, it becomes evident that we are to witness a tragedy at the pitch of Hamlet, full of 'danger' from the 'fell incensed points / Of mighty opposites', where the protagonists are to impress us by their will and power, not by a simple opposition of goodness and wickedness, and where the action is to stretch this power towards breaking-point. And not merely does Shakespeare conform to expectations about the pattern of action proper to a tragedy by dwelling on the king's downfall from high estate, but he intensifies that pattern, and drastically reshapes the legend, by recalling the sense of overwhelming guilt, the rage and fury, the death-wish, the violent blinding, and the contrasted motifs of fratricidal strife and a daughter's devotion, from two of the prime models of classical tragedy as the Elizabethans knew it, Seneca's two plays about Oedipus. Sidney's tale of the Paphlagonian king and his sons, the source of Shakespeare's innovatory sub-plot, had already been derived from the Theban legend by way of Heliodorus, as the dramatist no doubt realised; in any case, Gloucester's story, reduced as it is at first to the grade of a domestic intrigue, serves to universalise the terrible and the pitiful in Shakespeare's treatment of the king's story; it serves to make the destructiveness lurking in human beings seem inescapable, omnipresent. It is barely imaginable that Shakespeare himself could have devised an artistically congruent happy ending, even after writing his first four acts; but, had he been forced by circumstances to leave the final act to a collaborator, it is impossible to suppose that fidelity to the legend would have produced any effect other than anticlimax.
Nevertheless, Shakespeare was not tied to literary models, nor were his public. Previously, he had followed convention with his tragic plays to the extent of basing them on stories already stamped as tragic, in the sense of leading directly to the deaths of their protagonists, as in Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar, Othello and Hamlet (if we assume that his principal model for Hamlet was a play by Kyd on the lines of The Spanish Tragedy, rather than the saga of Saxo Grammaticus and Belleforest). But to turn Lear's story into a tragedy was to break from convention. It does not follow, however, that each and all of Shakespeare's innovations in the narrative would have struck his first public as unambiguously tragic, even within the loosely defined (or, as Sidney said, 'mungrell') category recognised by the Elizabethans. Indeed, the first records of his play describe it as a 'history'. Earlier dramatisations of British pseudo-history infused with Senecanism had been printed as A Tragedie of Gorboduc, or The Lamentable Tragedie of Locrine; and the antiquated, anonymous True Chronicle Historie of King Leir, revived for printing in the wake, presumably, of Shakespeare's new production, had figured briefly in the Stationers' Register for 1605 (though not on the title-page) as a 'Tragedie' or a 'Tragecall historie'. But Shakespeare's play was entered in the Stationers' Register as 'Master William Shakespeare his historye of King Lear', and was published, in the Quarto of 1608, as M. William Shak-speare: His True Chronicle Historie of the life and death of King Lear and his three daughters. With the unfortunate life of Edgar, sonne and heire to the Earle of Gloster, and his sullen and assumed humor of Tom of Bedlam. Apparently the classification of Shakespeare's contribution to the legend was less than self-evident, at least for the printers. If so, there is some excuse for their uncertainty, in view of the many episodes hailing from romance, or romanticised moral interludes, interwoven with the patently tragic new developments in the story. The author of the old play had made a romance out of a folk-tale. The substantial paradox in Shakespeare's treatment is that, having converted the old play into a tragedy, suppressing some of its romantic episodes, he not only kept others for his own use but added fresh details in the tradition of stage romance, unknown to previous versions of the legend and foreign to his previous methods in tragedy. As critics have often noted, the reconciliation between Lear and Cordelia points forward to the tone and central themes of Shakespeare's last plays; but this is far from being the only moment in King Lear where the tragic burden is modified, or complicated, by association with romance.
A number of such associations have been pointed out by Maynard Mack, who seeks to analyse the exceptional resonance of the speeches in King Lear, the way the speakers project themselves as emblematic type-figures as well as individuals, by reference to the mixed tradition of allegory and romance which Shakespeare draws upon to amplify the essential données of his story. One 'archetypal theme' that Mack describes as the Abasement of the Proud King is contained in the romance-parables of Robert of Sicily, which are relevant—as Mack shows—to Shakespeare's play, though not to earlier forms of the Lear legend; in the Middle English version of the romance, for example, Robert finds himself degraded to a fool's costume, is forced to eat with the palace dogs, and is repudiated by his own kinsmen, while an angel assumes his appearance and his throne, until such time as the humbled monarch acknowledges himself 'a fool' before God; (it could be added that this romance theme was dramatised several times in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, on the Continent and in England). More generally, Mack draws attention to the resemblances between incidents in Lear and 'exemplary and emblematic' features of the Tudor moralities: for instance, the king's preparation for death recalls Everyman; changes of costume by Kent, Edgar and the king, connoting changes of status or moral condition, resemble changes of costume in such plays as Magnificence (which also dwells on the polarity between kingship and folly); and there are further echoes from the morality tradition in Edmund's Vice-like role as deceiver, in the imprisonment of the virtuous Kent in the stocks, and in Gloucester's temptation by despair. The significance of these parallels is of course generic, not particular; they bring out a vein of latent or incipient commentary, a pattern of moral interpretation and expectancy which the language and unfolding actions of the play will either break or confirm. And in the play as a whole Mack finds an inclusive pattern, 'the shape of pastoral romance'—the shape, that is, of a plot resembling As You Like It, containing type figures of loyalty and treachery, where, because of enmity between brothers, a ruler and his companions are exiled from 'the world of everyday', and its problems, and exposed to unprotected but natural surroundings, where they see the falsities of the society they have left and undergo 'something like a ritual death and rebirth'; on this reading, King Lear is a pastoral 'turned upside-down', or rather, 'the greatest anti-pastoral ever penned'. I find Mack's reading here strongly suggestive, but possibly too limiting and clear-cut; and 'pastoral', in particular, carries some irrelevant associations. It seems to me that the aspects of King Lear Maynard Mack is concerned with can be better designated by reference to the popular tradition of narrative and stage romances like Apollonius of Tyre, which may be described as 'exemplary', in the sense that they illustrate the watchfulness of providence by showing families cruelly separated, exposed to danger and at last miraculously reunited. This tradition (older, more primitive but more inclusive than Renaissance pastoral) had attracted Shakespeare's interest from the beginning of his career (in the framing plot of The Comedy of Errors) and was to fascinate him at the end. Whereas pastoral focused on social conventions, 'exemplary' romance could appeal to hopes and fears about the enduringness of love and the directing destinies of a lifetime. With this scope of romance in view, it seems to me that King Lear can be described as very largely a romance inverted.
Certainly the old play of about 1590 had shaped the legend into an 'exemplary' romance, demonstrating the benevolence of providence through the trials, adventures and ultimate rewards of the virtuous characters. The playwright drenches the legend in domestic sentiment. Leir's love-test is not, as another contemporary has it, 'a fond needless question, as some use to dally with young children', but the well-intentioned ruse of a doting, recently widowed father, who, although he is prudently warned against 'forc[ing] love, where fancy cannot dwell' (line 76), hopes to trick his favourite daughter into consenting to marry. The playwright treats the rivalry between the sisters as a Cinderella story. And he insists on the Christian piety of his sympathetic characters: Leir in his sufferings is called 'the myrrour of mild patience' (755), and when threatened with murder—an innovation in the legend—he responds with, 'Let us submit us to the will of God' (1656); while his faithful counsellor, Perillus (whose presence is also an innovation), has been praying—with good effect, as the event shows—for the help of a 'just Jehova' (1649). For her part, Cordelia is a diligent church-goer—a 'Puritan' (2577), according to the sarcastic Gonorill,—who similarly prays (2540), with similar success, before the battle engaged on her father's behalf by her equally God-fearing husband.
As William Elton has shown at length, Shakespeare obliterates this Christian piety, not only making Lear and his subjects consistently pagan but overturning the trust in divinity voiced by the old play. And instead of 'mild patience', Shakespeare's king lashes himself into 'noble anger'. The whole spirit of the play is transformed, and several episodes inserted by the earlier dramatist disappear completely.
On the other hand, this transformation lends added significance to those episodes, such as the storm, which Shakespeare takes over from the old play, and to those which he attaches to their common scenario. Instead of divesting his tragedy consistently of association with romance, he not merely borrows his supporting plot from the Arcadia, but introduces fresh incidents related to stage romance, without warrant either from the old play or from Sidney. Very possibly (as F. D. Hoeniger has argued, from the feeling for the primitive in King Lear), Shakespeare had heard the main story as a folk-tale, and had begun to turn it over in his imagination, long before seeing it in the old play or reading it in Holinshed. Such a genesis might help to account, for example, for the startling incrementation of the scenes with Poor Tom and the Fool. In addition Shakespeare had been drawn for some time to the theme of authority within the family, or the clash between love and obedience, in settings as much romantic as tragic; during the ten years or so before writing King Lear, he had created a succession of outraged fathers, abusing, rejecting and even cursing their daughters, in quarrels over their daughter's marriages or wishes in marriage: old Capulet, Egeus, Shylock, Leonato in Much Ado, Polonius, Brabantio. In all six plays (except Romeo, where Shakespeare is following his source-story), the father is a widower like Lear; and in the last four, Shakespeare enlarges or alters the story he is working from so as to emphasise the possessive anger in the rôle. And, within a few years of depicting the reconciliation between Lear and Cordelia, Shakespeare was again to turn, in his sequence from Pericles to The Tempest, to plots revolving around father and daughter, but this time with a changed inflexion, showing the love and innocence of a daughter leading to the salvation of an exiled or a self-deceiving father. King Lear occupies a central place, a turning-point, in the total series of such stories and motifs in Shakespeare, most of them associated with the material of romance. Similarly, the variations of a romance type he added to the Lear legend appear to stem from his distinctive treatment of the salient theme of father and daughter.
Unlike the writer of the old play, Shakespeare builds up Lear's position as a king as well as a father; the authority of age, rule, fatherhood and his own commanding temper are bound together in Lear's mind by natural magic and the sanction of the gods. However, his authority is first challenged by Cordelia's response to the love-test, as in previous versions of the legend. In Holinshed, the youngest daughter's reply has the tang of an aphorism or a riddle: 'assertaine your selfe, that so much as you have, so much you are woorth, and so much I love you, and no more'. In the old play she is direct and dutiful:
I hope my deeds shall make report for me:
But looke what love the child doth owe the
The same to you I beare, my gracious Lorde.
Shakespeare's Cordelia seems equally direct:
I love your Majesty
According to my bond, no more nor less;
but, precisely because she invokes the philosophically central conception of a 'bond', her words are charged with a fateful ambiguity. A bond had originally been a fetter of imprisonment (a denotation still active in Cymbeline, with Posthumus's cold bonds'). By conflation with a honomym, meaning peasant or serf, it conveyed the sense of subjection as well as constraint, as in bondman or bondage; this is the twist Edmund gives Cordelia's world in the forged letter where he makes out that Edgar has written: 'I begin to find an idle and fond bondage in the oppression of aged tyranny' (I. ii. 49). On the other hand, bond had also come to signify an agreement or covenant; but even in this sense, which is the most frequent with Shakespeare, it could point in either of two directions, towards alliance or coercion. On one side, the allegedly innocent bond or 'band' between Aumerle and his associates 'For gay apparel' at Bolingbroke's 'triumph day' (Richard II, v. ii, 65), or the 'everlasting bond of fellowship' in marriage between Theseus and Hippolyta (Midsummer Night's Dream, I. i. 85), or 'love's bonds' in The Merchant of Venice (II. vi. 6); on the other side, the specific legal sense (new in the 1590s, according to OED) of a document containing binding obligations. Such are the 'rotten parchment bonds' denounced by Gaunt in Richard II (II. i. 64), and the 'merry bond' referred to more than thirty times in Shylock's play. In Two Gentlemen of Verona (II. vii. 75), Julia fondly believes of Proteus's love that 'His words are bonds, his oaths are oracles'; but she evidently feels that words are less whole-hearted than oaths, and bonds less deserving of faith than oracles. Bonds in this usage imply a possible doubt, requiring a strong assertion to overcome it, as in the proverb, 'An honest man's word is as good as his bond'; bonds may be called sacred, as when Troilus bewails the breaking of 'the bonds of heaven', but in themselves they are merely legal contracts, and to emphasise them in metaphors dealing with love and sincerity implies a secular tone of reasoning, with a glance towards scepticism. Feste, apparently, takes the prevalence of the new, legal sense of the term as a symptom of bad faith and of the disconcerting relativity or ambiguity of language: 'But indeed, words are very rascals since bonds disgrac'd them.
There is something cold and measured, then, in Cordelia's 'bond', and the touch of pique in her father's reproof is understandable:
How, how, Cordelia? Mend your speech a
Lest you may mar your fortunes.
At the same time, his tone arouses the suspicion that what he reacts to in her speech, though refusing to acknowledge it, is predominantly the implication of 'bondage'. From her side, Cordelia tries to press home the sense of convenant for mutual benefit, and reciprocal but not unlimited obligation:
Good my lord,
You have begot me, bred me, lov'd me: I
Return those duties back as are right fit,
Obey you, love you, and most honour you.
Why have my sisters husbands, if they say
They love you all?
(I. i. 95)
Cordelia strikes hard at the superstition of authority. She wants a rational definition of love, compatible with freedom. 'Begot', 'bred', 'lov'd': she details in turn the natural or biological ties with her father, the social or familial, and the spontaneously personal. And, unlike her counterpart in the old play, she looks directly forward to spontaneous love in marriage, which will substract 'half the 'love', 'care and duty' demanded from her by her father.
At the equivalent point in the old play, the pious monarch has his single spurt of rage: 'Peace, bastard Impe, no issue of King Leir' (312). Shakespeare's king does not use the word here (though later he abuses Goneril as 'degenerate bastard' (I. iv. 254), but he storms against Cordelia with more terrible violence:
Let it be so: thy truth then be thy dow'r!
For by the sacred radiance of the sun,
The mysteries of Hecat and the night;
By all the operation of the orbs,
From whom we do exist and cease to be;
Here I disclaim all my paternal care,
Propinquity and property of blood,
And as a stranger to my heart and me
Hold thee from this for ever.
(I. i. 108)
He strips his fatherhood of love and social obligation, reducing it to the one ineradicable tie of birth, which he would renounce if he could. He curses Cordelia as if he thought of her as a 'bastard'. He reduces his mental world to the mental world of Edmund, of whose illegitimacy the audience have already heard, by Shakespeare's interweaving of the two plots. The next scene opens with Edmund's invocation to Nature, the 'goddess' to whose 'law / My services are bound' (obligated, confined and directed). This is the first time that Nature is deified in the play, but Lear has already 'bound' himself, without knowing it, to the same 'law'.
Shakespeare's arrangement of these early scenes suggests that his reasons for talking his sub-plot from Sidney's tale of misplaced trust in a bastard son lay very close to his thoughts about the consequences of treating Cordelia as if she were a 'bastard'. In any event, the word base stands out as a repeated motif in the first half of King Lear, a key to Shakespeare's distinctive innovations on the legend; base, meaning illegitimate, ignoble, low, servile, worthless—the negation of all that Lear and his courtiers have believed in. Six times Edmund repeats 'base' or 'baseness' (as well as 'bastard') in his soliloquy, with scornful defiance for 'the plague of custom' and 'the curiosity of nations'—attributes, however contestable, of an organised society. And base is Kent's term of contempt for the social upstart, Oswald (I. iv. 86, II. ii. 16). But baseness recoils, as it were, against Kent, against the other legitimist, Edgar, and against Lear as well. When, after venting his spleen against Oswald, Kent is forced by Cornwall into the stocks, Gloucester protests on his behalf that this 'purpos'd low correction / Is such as basest and contemned'st wretches / For pilf 'rings and most common trespasses / Are punish'd with' (II. ii. 142); the morality-play icon of virtue martyred in the stocks becomes an icon of social transposition, of the confusion of moral values. Kent's championship of the old order has brought him to what seems like the vilest degradation. But, three acting minutes later, Edgar, who is in part Gloucester's victim, will save his life by assuming voluntarily 'the basest and most poorest shape / That ever penury, in contempt of man, / Brought near to beast' (II. iii. 7). Here again Shakespeare's departure from his narrative sources involves a movement towards 'baseness'. And 'baseness' takes on dynamic force in Lear's mind in his decisive quarrel with Goneril and Regan, when, after appealing in vain to the 'bond of childhood' and fuming over Kent's imprisonment in the stocks, he is compelled to listen to the cold logic of his daughters' refusal to harbour his unnecessary retinue:
Return to her? and fifty men dismiss'd?
No, rather I abjure all roofs, and choose
To wage against the enmity o' th' air,
To be a comrade with the wolf and owl—
Necessity's sharp pinch. Return with her?
Why, the hot-bloodied France, that dowerless
Our youngest born, I could as well be
To knee his throne, and squire-like, pension
To keep base life afoot.
(II. iv. 207)
Baseness here is the counterpart to his rejection of Cordelia; a few speeches later, Lear's thought of it recalls Edgar:
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. 264)
It is in this crucial speech, where Lear glimpses, as if for the first time, the possibility, and even the exemplariness, of total destitution, that he begins to echo the high-pitched tones of Seneca's Oedipus, passionate to visit his own guilt on the world around him. In the Thebais, when Oedipus is told of the war between his sons, he cries out (in language heightened further by the Elizabethan translator), not for peace, but for destruction:
Your weapons and artillery for war bring out
Consume with flame your native soil, and
In ev'ry house within the land; a hurly burly
Confusedly of every thing. Make all the realm
And in exile their days let end; make level
with the ground
Each fenced fort and walled town: the Gods
and all confound,
And throw their Temples on their heads; their
And melt them all; turn upside-down each
house in ev'ry place.
Burn, spoil, make havoc, leave no jot of City
free from fire,
And let the flame begin his rage within my
This civil war is nothing like to that which I
These trifling broils for such a Sea of harms
Some heinous Fact, unheard-of yet, some
Must practised be; as is to me, and mine by
In Shakespeare's scene, the king contemplates for a moment the 'patience' that had been displayed by Leir in the old play, rejects it in favour of 'noble anger', and throws himself into the strains of Oedipus:
No, you unnatural hags,
I will have such revenges on you both
That all the world shall—I will do such
What they are yet I know not, but they shall
The terrors of the earth!
(II. iv. 278)
In the course of his next sentence, comes the first outburst of Storm and tempest; and Lear will soon be heard, on the heath, commanding the hurricane to 'spout / Till you have drench'd our steeples, drown'd the cocks', and ordering the thunderbolt to 'Strike flat the thick rotundity o' th' world', to 'Crack nature's moulds, all germains spill at once / That makes ingrateful man!' (III. ii. 1-9). Whereas in the old play Leir had been tricked by Ragan into going from her court into the wilderness, the immediate cause of departure in Shakespeare's play is the king's angry choice; and by the same dramaturgical decision, Shakespeare turns from the precedent of the old play to that of Seneca. However, there is continuity in Lear's mind, from thoughts of baseness to annihilation.
Moreover, Shakespeare distances Lear's cursings from any Senecan parallel. 'You think I'll weep', Lear tells his daughters, immediately after uttering threats intended to be terrifying (II. iv. 282);
No, I'll not weep.
I have full cause of weeping, but this heart
Storm and tempest.
Shall break into a hundred thousand flaws
Or ere I'll weep. O Fool, I shall go mad!
Exeunt Lear, Gloucester, Gentleman,
Lear's curses are hysterical, grotesque and pitiful as well as tragic according to any Senecan model. His tirades are qualified by an awareness of human weakness and folly, in the vein of folk-tales or moral interludes. At the same time, his helplessness, his pathetic exposure, belongs to circumstances of romance, to the pattern of contrast between castle or city and sea or wilderness that recurs again and again in romantic adventures. In Shakespeare's treatment of the story, exposure to the storm seems an answering consequence to Lear's reduction of his moral world to baseness, his exclusion of love and breeding from the 'bonds' contained in Nature; it is a physically extreme and morally devastating exposure, not, as in the old play, merely an unhappy flight. And Shakespeare's thunder is wholly different from the thunder that is heard as a providential signal in the old play. Nevertheless, in all probability Shakespeare owed his first suggestion for the storm scenes to the anonymous earlier playwright, who had been the first among the narrators of the Lear legend to convert the king's journey to Cordelia for assistance into an episode from romance.
Shakespeare brings in reminiscences from romance, also, even where he alters the plot of the old play, or enlarges it. Although King Lear's world is predominantly pagan, for example, there are moments in the play that recall romances of chivalry. Shakespeare dismisses the absurd wooing scene from the old play where the French king and his companion, disguised as palmers, set out in quest of the famed princesses of Britain and, by a happy accident, meet the outcast Cordella; yet he keeps the tone of chivalry in Lear's reference to France and Burgundy, 'long in our court … [making] their amorous sojourn' (I. i. 47), and in France's resounding troth-plight to 'Fairest Cordelia, … most rich being poor, / Most choice forsaken, and most lov'd despis'd' (II. i. 250)—the counterpoint to her father's imputation of baseness. Possibly because of the magnetic influence of the first authority for the Lear legend, Geoffrey of Monmouth, there are passing references to the Arthurian world (through 'Camelot', 'Merlin' and 'Childe Rowland'). And the trial-at-arms between Edgar and Edmund, with Edgar as an unknown champion, is a chivalric episode independent of Sidney's story.
In the old play, Perillus (a new figure in the legend) accompanies his king, but not disguised, like Kent; in Sidney's tale, the legitimate son, cast off by his father, becomes a private soldier, not a disguised beggar, and goes to help his father intentionally, instead of meeting him unexpectedly. As well as recalling the symbolism of changes of dress in the morality plays, the equivalent passages in Shakespeare's play recall the tradition of romances, with their mysterious encounters, concealed identities, hazardous journeys and unexpected meetings. (As a clumsy token of that tradition, there is the episode in the old play where Cordella and her husband, for no compelling reason, dress up as simple country-folk for an excursion to the French coast, where they fall in with and succour Leir and Perillus, after the old men have been robbed of their money and have been forced to pay for their Channel crossing by exchanging cloaks with the mariners.) With the doubtful exception of Titus Andronicus, Shakespeare had not used personal disguise in his previous tragedies (even Iago cloaks his purpose, but not his identity); the employment of disguises, so frequent in King Lear, is a signal of romance conventions.
Concurrently, however, these romance-like disguises contribute to Shakespeare's variation on the theme of the Abasement of the Proud King. In moralities such as Magnificence and The Cradle of Security, changes of costume had served to show regal pride reduced to the status of folly; but there was an alternative theme, during Shakespeare's early career, in the shape of medleys of allegory, history and romance, showing a king mastering his own vices and searching out hidden crimes in his kingdom with the aid of disguise (somewhat like Henry V on the eve of Agincourt). One such play (which Shakespeare could well have known, since it was acted by his then company, Strange's men, in 1592-3) was A Knack to Know a Knave, which has two series of overlapping episodes; in one series, the king learns to govern his own desires magnanimously, while in the other he purges his kingdom of social abuses through the instrumentality of a new servant named Honesty, who has presented himself to the king, unsummoned, as a 'plain' fellow, 'A friend to your grace, but a foe to Flatterers', and who exposes, among others, an upstart, sycophantic courtier. Honesty is both a personified quality from the moral interludes and the mysterious servant-helper from romance; and Kent's rôle follows the same general lines. In view of the prominence Shakespeare gives to Edgar, who has one of the few Saxon names in a cast otherwise British and Norman, it is worth adding that the monarch in A Knack is another Edgar, the Saxon king.
The early Jacobean variant on plays of this type was a group showing the ruler himself as a detective in disguise—plays such as Marston's Fawn and The Malcontent, Middleton's Phoenix and, in particular, Measure for Measure. In his modifications of the Lear legend, Shakespeare recalls the plays using this motif, at the point where the king, after deciding to 'abjure all roofs', begins to equate himself with the 'poor naked wretches' of whom hitherto he has taken 'too little care'. Only, here, the king's adviser is the Fool; it is the representative subjects, Kent and Poor Tom, who are disguised; and the king's pursuit of ideal justice becomes the fantasy of a madman. In traditional romance, the wandering hero may meet supernatural helpers; here, he meets Poor Tom, apparently possessed by devils. The central episodes in Shakespeare's play depend upon the use, and the inversion, of allegorical motifs from romance.
In the reconciliation between Lear and Cordelia, on the other hand, Shakespeare strikes the note of serious romance more purely and fully than in any of his plays before. The king's return, his rage exhausted, to a childlike contact with nature through his chaplet of flowers, plucked from 'our sustaining corn', even though they are no more than 'idle weeds' (IV. iv. 5); Cordelia's invocation to the 'blest secrets' and 'unpublish'd virtues of the earth' to 'spring' as remedies with her tears; the king's awakening, to music, in the Doctor's care, and finding himself dressed in 'fresh garments' without his knowledge; the 'medicine' of Cordelia's kiss (IV. vii. 26), and her outpouring of the pity, tenderness and forgiveness he has been craving; and Lear's response, unbelieving at first, but then so compelling that later, in defeat, he will prize the love of Cordelia, even in a prison, far above the signs of majesty he had formerly clung to so tenaciously: in this marvellous sequence Shakespeare is surely exerting his deepest powers to dramatise, at the edge of possibility, some of the hopes and wishes implicit in popular romance. And how important to the dramatist this sequence was, with its conjunction of flowers, music and healing, and its dream-like vision of un-earthly serenity, is evident from the Marina episodes in Pericles and the variations on the same underlying themes in the plays that follow. One result of reversing the traditional outcome of the battle between Cordelia's forces and her sisters'—and presumably Shakespeare's reason for changing the legend at this notable point—is precisely that it throws the renewed love between Lear and Cordelia into high relief.
Yet it is also this sequence of tenderness in the tragedy that makes Cordelia's death such a painful shock. At the same time, the shock is not unprepared for. Even in the reconciliation scenes, Shakespeare marks a difference between dream-like vision and the pressures of tragedy. When Lear is wakened by Cordelia, he thinks of himself as 'bound'—'bound / Upon a wheel of fire'; 'And to deal plainly, / I fear I am not in my perfect mind' (IV. vii. 45, 61). It is mentally impossible for Lear to accept and confront all that he has lived through in the course of the play. And when, in defeat, he consoles himself, if not the sterner Cordelia, with 'We two alone will sing like birds i' th' cage; / … And take upon's the mystery of things / As if we were God's spies' (V. iii. 11), he is conjuring up a fantasy—an ironic reprise of the romantic stage-motif of the prince-detective, this time as hermit, scrutinising his kingdom.
On a broader view of the play, moreover, this clash at the end between idealising vision and harsh event follows the general pattern that Shakespeare has imparted to the action, a pattern or rhythm of successive waves of hope reviewed, in the manner of romances, only to be dashed again by waves of misery and anguish. It is a kind of dialectic between romance and tragedy. When, for example, Kent is in the stocks, he reads the letter from Cordelia, and calls upon Fortune to 'smile once more, turn thy wheel!' (II. ii. 173)—as, in romances, Fortune well might; but, with Kent still on the stage, at once Edgar enters as Poor Tom, in a 'shape' even 'baser' than Kent himself—believing, however, that his abject transformation will save his life: 'That's something yet: Edgar I nothing am' (II. iii. 21). And Edgar persistently supposes that he has touched the bottom of misfortune, that 'The lamentable change is from the best, / The worst returns to laughter' (IV. i. 5), only to discover that the world's 'strange mutations' are even more 'hateful' than he had imagined (IV. i. 10)—until, in the remarkably abrupt scene of the off-stage battle (V. ii), his assurance of 'comfort' to Gloucester is revoked within two lines of dialogue, and his only encouragement remaining is to affirm that 'Men must endure'. Equally, for the audience, there have been moments when horror was relieved or hope revived by seeing Cornwall's servant, or Gloucester's tenant, or Gloucester, or Albany react against heartless tyranny; from this point of view, it is sheer luck when Edgar meets Oswald and kills him, intercepting Goneril's letter, and a stroke of poetic justice when he overthrows Edmund and Edmund repents. But 'men / Are as the time is', as Edmund says, and in the 'time' pictured on the stage, the time of Edmund and Goneril, luck and poetic justice are unreliable—powerless against the force of things, the main drift of ruthless self-seeking, which Edmund himself cannot, in the end, control. What Dr. Johnson calls 'persecuted virtue' is vindicated, even where its deficiencies have been most severely tested, on the plane of moral judgement, but it is too much to expect that it will 'triumph' with material trophies as well. Yet even in the closing scene Shakespeare keeps up the pressure of dramatic manoeuvres whereby hope is aroused only to be repressed. After it seems that Edgar has cured as well as rescued his father, it emerges from his 'brief tale' (V. iii. 182) that he has made himself known to him too late. 'Mov'd' by this story, Edmund repents, and prepares to save his prisoners' lives; but he fails to send his message in time. And a part cause of this fatal delay is one of the very incidents in the plot that the audience have been led to expect and look forward to, Kent's return in his own name; his recognition scene with his master, when the moment at length comes for it, is balked. To the very last, Lear is allowed to imagine for the space of a few lines that Cordelia is still breathing; Albany, that he can restore the king to 'absolute power'; and Edgar, for an instant, that Lear has only fainted.
These oscillations between hope and dismay for the audience spring from Shakespeare's changes or extensions of his sources. And most of them are connected with the stage tradition of romance. This is not to say, of course, that all Shakespeare's innovations lead in one direction; much more than the sequence of the plot is involved, for instance, in the new motifs that can be described, by analogy at least, as the Abasement of the Proud King and 'a ritual death and rebirth', and, again, in the latent analogy with Seneca's Oedipus that Shakespeare has brought into the story. Still, most of the effect of suspense in the action goes with new characters, principally Kent and Edgar, whose rôles are largely devoted to that result; and Shakespeare took the movements of these two from the stage tradition of mixed allegory and romance, giving them major if not quite leading importance. And a repeated consequence of Shakespeare's innovations in the plot is to set up a dialectic between expectations belonging to romance and those attached to tragedy, between inalienable hopes and the sternest moral realism. In this respect, moreover, Shakespeare's extensions to the Lear legend seem to follow from his reinterpretation of the core of it. Having taken over the legend as outlined by the old play, with its contribution of romantic adventures, Shakespeare turns these adventures into a myth of guilt and suffering, but also into a myth of loyalty and love. The second bears the stamp of tragedy no less than the first, because, it seems, only the deaths of Cordelia and Lear on the stage can communicate the full poignancy of the ideal values they have come to embody; and hence Shakespeare's most striking alteration of the legend, the change he has made at its end. But he has come to tragedy along a route prepared by romance, and has used allusions to romance, or romance inverted, so as to fortify his tragedy as well as extending it.
'Rebirth' is perhaps too positive and comforting a term for Lear's state of mind amid the agitation, pathos and bleakness of the closing scenes. If the last phase of the tragedy carries a distinguishable moral lesson at all, it is more like Edgar's message of 'ripeness' and endurance. Nevertheless, the scenes of Lear's reunion with Cordelia contain Shakespeare's most powerful evocation of a sense or vision of a new life. When he returns to a similar vision, in his later tragi-comedies, he is careful to distance it from association with the current of everyday reality and to emphasise that it belongs to the realm of theatrical art. But the elements of romance within King Lear are none the less central within his whole development as a dramatist.
Graham Holderness, Nick Potter, and John Turner (essay date 1988)
SOURCE: "King Lear," in Shakespeare: The Play of History, University of Iowa Press, 1988, pp. 89-118.
[In the following excerpt, the critics examine King Lear from a historical perspective, maintaining that the play subverts the conventions of pastoral romance through its setting in an unjust, feudal society.]
In his conclusion to 'Myth in Primitive Psychology' [Bronislaw] Malinowski draws attention to the development of specifically literary forms out of the cultural praxis of myth. 'Myth contains germs of the future epic, romance, and tragedy.… Myths of love and of death, stories of the loss of immortality, of the passing of the Golden Age, and of the banishment from Paradise, myths of incest and of sorcery play with the very elements which enter into the artistic forms of tragedy, of lyric, and of romantic narrative' (pp. 143-4). Gillian Beer has noted [in The Romance, 1970] how 'romance tends to use and reuse well-known stories whose familiarity reassures', so that each new start is also a recapitulation. This ritual element in romance, binding past and present together, springs out of a central pre-occupation which it shares with the related genre of the fairy-tale and which both share with myth: a pre-occupation with areas of sociological strain, with those fault-lines of a society along which its most devastating fractures threaten always to recur. Myth, romance and fairy-tale have taken the most dangerous of experiences to their heart. In fairy-tale (and this accounts for the vigorous survival of the genre today in its current forms) those experiences are commonly centred in the family; in romance they may be more widely located—between friends or lovers, for instance, or even between fellow citizens of a shared culture. But the family remains in both the most frequent area of pre-occupation; and we must remember of course that in Elizabethan and Jacobean England the family, undergoing a period of crisis that provoked a widespread reinforcement of patriarchal authority, was the central unit and the type of all political organization. In these dangerous areas the business of romance and fairy-tale is most commonly with happy endings. They are fictions that men and women tell themselves in confirmation of their faith that the injustices of real life will not destroy their faith in Justice or jeopardize their sense of the worth of survival. Romance, that is, maps the world along the contours of our idealism; and, if its nostalgia or occasional tragedy should signal contradictions imperfectly resolved, its chief aim is nevertheless (like myth) to provide hope, to smooth over the discontinuities of the past and to ease the sociological strains of the present.
Since the publication of Maynard Mack's 'King Lear' in our Time, the romance elements in King Lear have been very widely discussed. For Shakespeare took much of his main plot from The True Chronicle Historie of King Leir, which is in fact gentle pastoral romance rather than chronicle history, and to this he brought a tragic sub-plot out of Sidney's aristocratic pastoral romance, Arcadia: there can be no doubt that he was consciously dealing with what Mack called [in 'King Lear' in our Time] 'the heady brew of romance'. Indeed, the main plot from its very start establishes associations with romance that shape our deepest hopes. We are influenced, consciously or unconsciously, by tales such as 'Cinderella', which tells of parental injustice, of 'the agonies of sibling rivalry, of wishes coming true, of the humble being elevated, of true merit being recognized even when hidden under rags, of virtue rewarded and evil punished' [Bruno Bettelheim in The Uses of Enchantment, 1978]. We are influenced by tales in which pride goes before a fall—tales of 'the Abasement of the Proud King' such as that of Nebuchadnezzar:
they shall drive thee from men, and thy dwelling shall be with the beasts of the field, and they shall make thee to eat grass as oxen, and they shall wet thee with the dew of heaven.…
Wherefore, O king, let my counsel be acceptable unto thee, and break off thy sins by righteousness, and thine iniquities by shewing mercy to the poor; if it may be a lengthening of thy tranquillity.
Kent's story too is traditional romance, worked up out of the undisguised figure of the good counsellor in the source play: for in Shakespeare we see a loyal courtier, banished for honest speaking, enter his master's service in disguise, quarrel with the servants of his master's enemies, and at the last reveal himself in the hope of a final reconciliation. The sub-plot too is typical romance: the good brother disinherited through the stratagem of a forged letter and obliged to disguise himself as a beggar until the time is ripe to return to single combat and the offer of kingship. Even the most extreme of Shakespeare's stage-events—Lear's crown of weeds, or Gloucester's leap at Dover—suggest the customary materials of comedy and romance. Indeed, the whole structure of the play itself, with the movement of its sympathetic characters away from the corrupt centres of power to the houseless nature of its middle acts, is built upon what Michael Long has called [in The Unnatural Scene: A Study in Shakespearean Tragedy, 1976] 'classic festivecomic lines'. It has now become commonplace to consider King Lear alongside As You Like It; and the comparison has particular point if it serves to remind us of the way that the play (unlike any other Shakespearean tragedy) leads us, even when we know it well, to ache after that happy ending implicit in its ancient storylines.
To speak more closely, King Lear is a study in complementary relationships of authority and service; and our response to the central focus of the Lear-Cordelia relationship is shaped precisely by two complementary traditions of romance, each of which is used by Shakespeare elsewhere and which might surely seem sufficient together to bring the play home to a final reconciliation. There is the romance of the ruler whose education is completed by exposure to feel as his subjects feel (utilized most obviously by Shakespeare in Measure for Measure, in both parts of Henry IV and in Henry V). Such romance shows how, through the ruler's incorporation of his subjects' experience, a community may be reconstituted under the protection of sympathetic authority. In the words that Daniel used to praise the sympathetic rule of James, 'the Prince himselfe now heares, sees, knows'. Then there is the complementary romance of the subject, in which a dependant's patience is rewarded after long abuse (as Hermione is rewarded in The Winter's Tale). Here too the community is re-established, this time in the security brought by undeviating service. The conjunction of these two complementary traditions in King Lear creates the expectation that the ruler and the subject together will be brought to recognize both their common humanity and their different, but reciprocal, social responsibilities; the dangers that lurk within all authority-service relationships will thus be defused and society re-established in the ideal self-image of its own dominant ideology. Especially does this seem likely when we perceive the overall structure of the play to be one of pastoral romance. For in romance the oppositional proves beneficent, and regeneration is by that which is contrary: the injustice of society is healed by the ideal equity of nature, the proud king restored by confrontation with houseless poverty, and lowly virtue brought into its full inheritance by the persecution of powerful vice. Such indeed seems the certain direction of the play, as Lear meets Cordelia in the wilds behind Dover at the end of Act IV.
But Maynard Mack's description of King Lear as 'the greatest anti-pastoral ever penned' suggests the nature of the shocks that Act V has in store for us. For this is a play in which the oppositional does not bring re-generation; instead, it breaks out in open contradiction that leads to terminal collapse. Shockingly, the tragedy negates all our expectations, even at the simplest level of the narrative; for this is the first version of the story in which Cordelia does not win a military victory over her sisters and reinstate her father on the throne. Dr Johnson was right, after all, to be horrified; for the play maps reality along the contours of a terrible dis-illusion and leaves us darkling indeed. So deliberate is Shakespeare's design to shock that Gary Taylor's guess seems very plausible: that the play in Quarto was entitled 'True Chronicle Historie', rather than 'Tragedie' as it became in the Folio, precisely to delude its first audiences into expecting the happy ending of its chief source.
Our disillusion at the narrative outcome is also a betrayal of our expectation of romance; for King Lear presents the ideal pacifications of romance in a much more chilling perspective. To borrow a fine phrase from Shelley, all those 'beautiful idealisms of moral excellence' which effect the reconciliatory rituals of romance are here seen to be ineffective when faced with the powerful social contradictions which it is commonly their business to reconcile. The play explores in particular, perhaps, the contrary truths to everything that Spenser had celebrated in book II of The Faerie Queene, where temperance had overcome the temptations of anger and lust and had sealed up the discontinuities of history in a timeless iconography of goodness. Here in King Lear temperance succumbs to anger and lust, and a rift is opened up in history. The poet, using to the full that special licence not granted to the historiographer, has brought forward by nine generations the extinction of Brutus' line; and in so doing he has brought into play that violence and destructiveness which constantly attend upon social contradiction.
King Lear has been called 'a courtly compliment' to King James; it has been considered an Awful Warning to his people and parliament in their resistance to the union of Scotland with England; it may even be considered an Awful Warning to James himself; and no doubt it will yield such meanings. But they are not spelled out for us; King Lear is remarkable precisely for its freedom from the kind of framework that we find in Gorboduc, where all things are made to spell out the credenda and agenda of political orthodoxy. We are left at the end not with dogma but with dead loss. The effect is similar to that which Fulke Greville believed was aimed at in classical tragedy: 'to exemplifie the disastrous miseries of mans life, where Order, Lawes, Doctrine, and Authority are unable to protect Innocency from the exorbitant wickednesse of power, and so out of that melancholike Vision, stir horrour, or murmur against Divine Providence'.
Yet this is not ancient tragedy but tragedy of his own national history that Shakespeare has written. He has assimilated pagan to Christian and barbaric to mediaeval in order to recreate a Tudor myth of national origin; but he has done so, once again, only to betray expectation. For King Lear subverts not only romance but also the mythical charter of its own country. It tells not of a civilization won for the present with heroic difficulty in the past, but of a civilization lost with anguish for all time—a loss which was absolute but is still present with us, informing our understanding of the disastrous miseries, the injustices and the violence which still succeeds, in our lesser world, upon the breakdown of social reciprocity.
IMAGES OF GOODNESS: CORDELIA AND KENT
The question of reciprocity, of course, is crucial. When Lear enters at the end of the play with Cordelia dead in his arms, he is desperately searching for expression that will do justice to the enormity of the sense of injustice that he feels:
Howl, howl, howl! O! You are men of stones:
Had I your tongues and eyes, I'd use them so
That heaven's vault should crack.
These words, in which we hear grief modulating into rage, are deeply typical of a recurrent pattern in the play. 'By none / Am I enough beloved', lamented Wordsworth's Matthew by the fountain. King Lear depicts a world in which no one can say enough, in which neither grief nor rage is satisfied; and in consequence the individual mind is driven to the uttermost extremes of fantasy to conjure up its happiness. Hence in part the play's exploration of the transformational devices of romance. But Lear's cry here, of course, would also transform the world: he would howl until the heaven's vault crack. We cannot tell what mixture of grief or rage is in his voice, whether he aims perhaps at the world's regeneration, or more simply at its destruction, in the cracking of divine remorselessness. It might be either, for pity and anger, sorrow and rage are the antithetical feelings in King Lear through which men and women try to make the justice that they cannot find. Yet it is all to no avail: the power of Lear's words can, in their expression, effect no more than a moment's brief transformation of a reality whose loveless injustice persists. The long clear light of romance that illuminates reality throughout The Faerie Queene has been diffracted; in Donne's words, 'The sun is spent, and now his flasks / Send forth light squibs, no constant rays' [from "A Nocturnall upon S. Lucies Day"].
It is the presence of Cordelia and Kent in the play's opening scene that calls attention to the importance of reciprocity—and also to its dependence upon a common language. For one brief moment in that scene, despite the pressure they are under, they still have access to a language in which they believe they may speak both what they feel and what they ought to say. For one brief moment, then never again, the possibilities of courtesy and honesty appear to coincide—though even here, ominously, Cordelia has already been driven to say in an aside that she would rather 'love, and be silent'. Her difficulties are obvious:
I love your Majesty
According to my bond; no more nor less.
You have begot me, bred me, lov'd me: I
Return those duties back as are right fit,
Obey you, love you, and most honour you.
Why have my sisters husbands, if they say
They love you all?
It is hard to say what mixture of angry defiance and riddling satire colours the love in her voice as she struggles under her father's usurpation of language and ceremony; and certainly her spirited arithmetical talk of dividing her love is not a happy solution. Kent too has to struggle:
Whom I have ever honour'd as my King,
Lov'd as my father, as my master follow'd,
As my great patron thought on in my
Then, two lines later, he is driven into unmannerly plainness. It seems, therefore, that hitherto both Cordelia and Kent have been able to accommodate an ideal conception of their relationship with Lear within the real court world, but that now it has become impossible. They can no longer speak courteously what they feel; and, in destroying that middle ground upon which the reciprocities of conversation rest, Lear is effectively already banishing them from their society.
When Cordelia tells her father that she loves him according to her bond—'no more nor less'—she is using the word that declares her faith in the ideal charter of that society. For Shakespeare has imagined the world of his play much more precisely than it is imagined in any of his sources; he has given it a feudal structure and language in which his audience could recognize the prehistory of their own Jacobean present. Cordelia's bond is the feudal equivalent of the Roman pietas, a matter of neither spontaneous feeling nor legal duty but an alloy the stronger for being compounded of both; and it is the word in which all the themes of the play briefly meet. Nature and society, affection and duty, prudence and love, religion, custom, value, law and the sense of justice: all these are composed in Cordelia's attempt to recall her father and king to her own ideal conception of the responsibilities of his authority. She is declaring that love is defined by its limits, that these limits are determined by the customary proprieties of their society, and that without such limits love becomes tyrannical and extreme. She is declaring that a woman is more than a chattel, a subject more than a slave.
But the ideal which Cordelia and Kent serve is contradicted by the real. The self-constituted ritual in which Lear engages his court in the opening scene of the play should not be seen simply as a love-test; it is an improvised perversion of the feudal ceremony of commendation, when a subject openly declared his loyalty to the king, and the king in return granted him his particular charters. Lear's irresponsible vanity thus does not only strike at the heart of his favourite daughter: it also strikes at the heart of the relationship between love and property which is, ideally, the cornerstone of the feudal system and which all its ceremonies of allegiance are designed to reinforce—and in so doing it draws out that system's latent contradictions into open conflict. No longer after Lear's act can a corrupt system of patronage and flattery idealize itself as a system of loving mutual service. Power is released from the imaginative discipline of sympathy and service, and runs at once to extremes; and, indeed, the rapidity of the political degeneration after Lear's abdication suggests how deeply rooted that tendency already was, both within the royal family and amongst the military powers of the great aristocratic houses.
Critics of King Lear, particularly since Danby, have fallen into a habit of interpreting the play in terms of a clash between feudal and bourgeois ideologies, with Shakespeare's sympathies firmly centred upon the feudal. 'As Nature goes dead, community becomes competition', wrote Danby concisely [in Shakespeare's Doctrine of Nature: A Study of King Lear, 1949]; the 'benevolent thesis' of feudalism succumbs before 'the new age of scientific inquiry and industrial development, of bureaucratic organization and social regimentation' which is somehow represented by Edmund in the play. James Kavanagh similarly writes [in "Shakespeare in Ideology," in Alternative Shakespeares, 1985] of the destruction wrought by 'an individualist ideology that lives the world as a field of calculation, self-gratification and perverse desire' upon 'the hierarchical ideology of fealty, faith and restraint, which lives the world as a field of reciprocal obligation'. It has become the orthodox reading of our time: that 'the old, patriarchal society has been stripped by the new men, the new, hard materialists' [Marvin Rosenberg in The Masks of King Lear, 1972]. Yet it is surely unlikely that two king's daughters and one illegitimate nobleman's son, all of whom are killed, should have been chosen by Shakespeare to express an emergent bourgeois ideology: rather, the true subject of King Lear, it seems to me, is not an old order succumbing to a new but an old order succumbing to its own internal contradictions. The king is unequal to the great demands made of him; the aristocracy cannot harmonize its interests; and the family, the social unit through which political power is both secured and delegated, is nowhere able to ensure its orderly survival. We may think Lear unwise to have divided his kingdom until we remember the results of Gloucester's exclusive favouring of legitimacy and primogeniture. The society fractures along its own fault-lines; and it is of no avail to blame the coarse imaginative self-will of Lear and Gloucester, since that self-will itself is a consequence of the political structure they wish to preserve.
Cordelia is disinherited and Kent banished, but Shakespeare saves them both from the prospect of immediate desolation by dramatic devices characteristic of romance: he finds a husband for the one and a disguise for the other. These are, of course, more than mere devices; they are ways of exploring those strategies by which, in fact and fantasy, men and women sustain themselves in their struggle against injustice. Cordelia makes it known to her suitors that she was disinherited 'for want of that for which I am richer' (I. i.229), and the French king finds himself strangely drawn to this 'unpriz'd precious maid' (1.258) whose virtue has made her despised and rejected of men:
Fairest Cordelia, that art most rich, being
Most choice, forsaken; and most lov'd,
These paradoxical figures of speech, so typical of the inversions found throughout the play, suggest the idealization of which the characters will now stand in need if, deprived of their common language, they are to accommodate themselves to the increasing restrictions of the real. 'Hath not God chosen the poor of this world rich in faith, and heirs of the kingdom which he hath promised to them that love him?' (James 2:5): such idealization, of course, is a familiar consolation for suffering in fairy-tale and romance, myth and religion alike. It holds out the possibility of carrying on, even of starting afresh; and, as Cordelia leaves, her romantic marriage seems to be offering her just such an opportunity of a fresh start. 'Thou losest here, a better where to find' (I. i.260), says France. But King Lear does not follow its sources to France, and there will be no fresh start elsewhere; fortified by her idealization and the power that her marriage gives her, Cordelia will return to the struggle.
Kent will not even leave. When courtesy and plainness fail, his first impulse—like Cordelia's—is towards a transcendental idealism that inverts the world before him. 'Freedom lives hence, and banishment is here' (1.180), he says. Then, in the new perspective which displacement brings, he hits upon the romantic device of disguise that enables him too (as Cordelia's marriage enables her) to continue to serve.
If thou canst serve where thou dost stand
So may it come, thy master, whom thou
Shall find thee full of labours.
This self-disguise enacts a widespread fantasy of neglected servants—and more particularly of unacknowledged lovers (the 'servant' such as Viola in Twelfth Night, for instance)—to win regard by anonymous attentions. The intolerable fact of real neglect and contempt becomes in imagination the ideal opportunity for patience; and Kent, serving incognito, will abase himself that what he really is may finally be gloriously recognized and the ideal relationship between authority and service re-established.
Barish and Waingrow [in "'Service' in King Lear," Shakespeare Quarterly 9, 1958], comparing Kent with the servile Oswald, describe him as "the quintessence of the good servant and the touchstone for service throughout the play'; and of course Cordelia's loyal, self-sacrificial attention to her father's business is everywhere commended. But we need to characterize this goodness, this service; we need to see it in the context of the play's romantic structures. For the compassion that Kent and Cordelia come to feel for Lear, on the dispersal of whatever anger and indignation they may have felt at first, belongs to an idealistic transformation of reality of which the most striking aspect is the idealization of the person of the king himself. Kent in the storm speaks of 'the old kind King' (III. i.28) and Cordelia at Dover of her 'dear father' (IV. iv.23)—words that bear eloquent testimony to their capacity for pity but that also have a curious insufficiency about them. For pity is not enough. Kent and Cordelia, in fact, exhibit a familiar response to threat: they turn back towards an ideal internal object, split off (in part at least) from any real object in the external world. That ideal object is, of course, the sovereign whom they had once seen in Lear and whom now, in Lear's dereliction, they cannot relinquish; and hence the strange incommensurateness of their pity to the man before us on stage, the strange disjunction between the pitiable figure they describe and the tragic figure we see.
The point is, such idealization subtly inhibits the very reciprocities it aims at—something seen most poignantly in the delicate incongruities of the so-called 'recognition scene' (IV. vii). This scene has been persistently sentimentalized by critics who share the romantic illusions of Cordelia and Kent; but the truth is, however, that the scene is not altogether one of recognition. Cordelia (like Kent) addresses Lear with tender courtesy as king, and then she kneels before him. It is hard to imagine a more moving act of forgiveness, a more generous gesture towards restitution; for she offers him her vision of his ideal sovereign self. Yet her terms of address send Lear down at once grotesquely on his knees—dazedly, it seems, half afraid of mockery, half fancying her an angel. The father kneels to the daughter, the king to the subject. The moment is profoundly moving in the depth and value of the feelings and recognitions involved; but—equally important—it is also exquisitely embarrassing in the disjunction between those feelings and recognitions. Lear will hear no talk of kingship. The plain language of his self-description, flickering between shame, wonder, self-pity and humility, coupled with the courtliness of his address to Cordelia, enacts perfectly his intuition that value lies most in the inversion of all that formerly had been. Such is his idealization. Father and daughter, even at this most moving moment of their love, are feeling different things: Cordelia (as in romance) would turn the broken man before her back into the king her father, whilst he (also as in romance) would be reborn as a new man and no king. Shakespeare tempts us with the poignant awakening of romance expectation, only to frustrate us with languages and feelings that do not quite enmesh; and so it goes on to the end. 'Shall we not see these daughters and these sisters?' (V. iii.7), urges Cordelia with tough determination to out-frown misfortune.
No, no, no, no! 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
And ask of thee forgiveness.…
The king runs into prison (under arrest as he is), imagining with his daughter to transform it into a kind of hermit's cell, where the painful mysteries of life will be revealed and loss be hallowed into sacrifice. This fantasy of power and omniscience is opposite to that in which initially he mapped out the division of his kingdom; and it is hauntingly beautiful yet it is far indeed from that full restoration for which Cordelia and Kent had longed, and his daughter can do more than look at him, weep, love and once again be silent.
Silent tears are the last that we see of Cordelia until Lear enters carrying her dead body and demanding that men should howl aloud their cry for justice; and these tears, as she watches the extraordinary behaviour of her sovereign father, seem to express at the last her own paradoxical recognition of how little her pity and her service have achieved and yet how little anything else in the world is worth. There are no words left for her; the language and iconography by which she has lived her life have disintegrated with the disintegration of the society which sustained them, and she seems finally to have become aware of the great distance between herself and her father, between her own lonely images of goodness and the outer world in which they have failed to find accommodation. The fragmentation already begun in the play's opening scene is here completed with the marginalization of those virtues in which a feudal society had seen its best self. That society has now succumbed to its own inner contradictions; and in Cordelia's lament before her frenzied father, as in Lear's lament at her death, we see emblems of how the feudal pieties of pity, love and service, idealized as they have become, can do no more than comtemplate the unjust world which they have been compelled to vacate. For certainly they are powerless to change it.
'Is this the promis'd end?' (V. iii.262), asks Kent. 'Or image of that horror?' adds Edgar with a flicker of his characteristic impulse to qualify. Questions proliferate at the end of the play, searching the seemingly inscrutable whys of injustice. 'Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life, / And thou no breath at all?' (11.305-6). These are questions asked both within the play by its characters and of the play by its audience: for the play's theatrical self-consciousness, here as it concludes its business with the mythical charter of its country, involves the past inescapably in the present. It both re-calls and keeps alive the tragic awareness that, in a society where the reciprocities of authority and service have broken down, there are no answers to such questions, either in the promised ends of religion or romance. The tableau of that curiously inverted pietà, as—shockingly—the father enters with his dead daughter in his arms, undoes not only the audience's faith in its own society and its own history but also every romance and myth by which it has tried to maintain that faith, including (most disturbingly) the Christian one. The gods have not thrown incense upon sacrifice, the girl who went about her father's business will come no more to redeem nature from the general curse which twain have brought her to. Neither faith nor works of any kind can achieve that. For the consolations of metaphysics and art, like those attendant upon everyday goodness, are shown in this play to be ineffective without the primary reciprocities of social justice—and these reciprocities have long since vanished, both from the world of King Lear and from its playhouse, it seems. Their loss, moreover, is absolute; and, significantly, it is the loyal imagination of Kent that is stretched to pronounce the extraordinary epitaph upon the man who for so long, against so many odds, survived their loss: 'He but usurp'd his life' (1.316). Lear usurped his life when he began to live it for himself alone; and in so doing he entailed upon Kent, as upon Cordelia, a paradoxical idealization of the concept of service to compensate for its scant success in reality. Finally now, Kent is prepared to live out this paradox to its furthest extreme: he will obey the supposed summons of the master who could scarcely recognize him, in order to serve him in death. This final paradox emphasizes both the persistence of the human need for reciprocity and the fact of its irretrievable breakdown in the prehistory of the present—a contradiction central to the world of King Lear, and inscribed by Shakespeare into this redrafted mythical charter of his country so that his audience might know not only the past but its own time too by the idealized attenuation, the marginalization, of what yet remain its dearest images of goodness.
IMAGES OF EVIL: GONERIL, REGAN AND EDMUND
There is another way to seek reciprocity and justice, not through pity and service but through contempt and tyranny; for in this way too the master is confirmed in the ideal self-image of his own authority. This is a strategy, however, rendered unstable by its basis in denial and contradiction: it denies the subjective need for love out of which it grows, and it pursues relationship by denying the objective reality of other people. Its cause, nevertheless, is real enough—the unappeasable hunger originating in unacceptable injustice. At the root of it all in the patriarchal society of King Lear is the figure of the father. For the envies of sibling rivalry, seemingly so central to the play, resolve, as Bettelheim noted in his discussion of 'Cinderella', into a still more primary experience of injustice: 'Despite the name "sibling rivalry", this miserable passion has only incidentally to do with a child's actual brothers and sisters. The real source of it is the child's feelings about his parents.' The 'villains' of the piece—Goneril, Regan and Edmund—have been brought by paternal injustice to despise the most central relationship of their society, the filial bond; and now their every thought and deed is an act of revenge upon it.
The play opens as their revenge begins, and it traces their fierce demolition of all the pieties upon which their civilization depends, in order that they themselves might stand freely forth amidst its ruins. Yet there is a deep, potentially suicidal contradiction at the heart of this strategy: they would empty authority of all its true worth in order to assume authority themselves. Some words of Janine Chasseguet-Smirgel, describing the fundamental unproductiveness of perversion, suggest themselves here: 'The pervert is trying to free himself from the paternal universe and the constraints of the law. He wants to create a new kind of reality and to dethrone God the Father.' For Goneril, Regan and Edmund are perverse. However much they might idealize their 'independent intellect', the fearlessness of their prudential self-interest or the talismanic objects of their desires, they cannot create a new, satisfactory kind of reality. Their oppositional energies, even as they destroy the middle ground upon which both the reciprocities of pietas and the negotiations of prudence depend, fall into that instability and inconsolability which Masud Khan has identified as the hallmark of perversion. Edmund's 'no less than all' (HI. iii.24) becomes the precise antithesis in the play to Cordelia's 'no more nor less'. The tragedy of the 'villains', therefore, is one of unsuccessful liberation, of oppositional energies so far marginalized by the experience of social injustice that they fall into perversion; and it is their peculiar distinction that, drawing out the contradictions of the old to its destruction, they yet create nothing new.
We sense at once what is to come from the sisters when they are left alone at the end of the opening scene: they are to be tempted with appalled fascination towards the limitlessly receding horizons of their own desires. Despite the rationalizations of self-interest which they offer, they are in fact seduced by the perverse pleasures that lie on the other side of prohibition—pleasures that lead by inner necessity to the murder of the one and the suicide of the other. The secret heart of these pleasures is envy. Melanie Klein has identified an important psychic opposition between envy and gratitude which is useful to us here: envy is passionate to spoil or to destroy the good object for its tantalizing insufficiency, whilst gratitude is affectionately appreciative of its independent existence in all its imperfections. Cordelia, we remember, could still imagine the reciprocity of gratitude; but Goneril and Regan in the perverseness of their envy become compulsively committed to desecrate the image of their father, who has made their present lives so unendurable to all of them. In this situation Cordelia had returned to the past for images of hope, but her sisters are driven to hunger for future satisfactions; and hence, of course, their incapacity for gratitude. 'Ingratitude, thou marble-hearted fiend' (I. iv.257) cries Lear, denied the sympathy he feels his due: 'Monster Ingratitude!' (I. v.37). But Goneril and Regan know where to lay the blame—'he always lov'd our sister most' (I. i.288-9)—and now the whirligig of time brings in his revenges. The rage with which they seethe ('By day and night, he wrongs me', snaps Goneril at I. iii.4) becomes free to express itself; and the vindictive game by which they strip Lear of his retinue exemplifies, as do the bright ideas that are enacted upon the bound body of Gloucester, the obscene daring of their inventiveness. For they too must transform the world, make it conform to their own idea: all other ways of seeing must be put out.
Edmund proves to be the third person who turns the envy at the heart of the sisters' collusion into a fiercely competitive jealousy—for such is the ironically shrunken conclusion to all the limitless possibilities that had opened out before them. Like a talisman, Edmund comes to emblematize all the idealized male glamour inspired and betrayed by their father, whilst each sister represents to the other all that is most hateful in herself. Goneril's words in fear of Regan say it all:
But being widow, and my Gloucester with
May all the building in my fancy pluck
Upon my hateful life.
Her sense of the hatefulness of her life is not only proleptic, however; for her life is hateful to her now, in both senses of the word—odious to her because filled with hatred, from which the sole possession of Edmund's love seems the only chance to redeem her. Yet, as Lear is cheated of Cordelia by death, so is she of Edmund; and hence her outraged cry that he is not vanquished, only 'cozen'd and beguil'd (V. iii.153). It is a perfect symmetry of felt injustice: like her father she would howl against the injustice of it all, and like her father too she has good cause. The building of her fantasy has been plucked down upon her, and—after one last idealization that shows her to be her father's daughter still ('the laws are mine, not thine'—1.157)—her confession and suicide pronounce the last judgement on her life. For she has created nothing new; her oppositional energies have been marginalized and corrupted by the injustices of the system she has opposed, wasted amongst the destructive perversities of hate and envy. Even her hostility to the 'paternal universe' proves unproductive in the end, as she turns to find in Edmund the man to whom 'a woman's services are due' (IV. ii.27).
It is Edmund, in fact, who most exhilaratingly sets out to create 'a new kind of reality and to dethrone God the Father'. He is the true opposite to Cordelia in the play, and his opening words (aside, like hers, addressed directly to the audience) challenge all the distinctions that she had tried to organize in her understanding of bond—nature and society, affection and duty, prudence and love, religion, custom, value, law and the sense of justice:
Thou, Nature, art my goddess; to thy law
My services are bound. Wherefore should I
Stand in the plague of custom … ?
These are the pleasures of sacrilege: it is wholly characteristic that Edmund's adventure in morality should both begin and end in a sporting challenge, initially of the gods and finally of his elder brother. For, in a fine phrase of Conrad's, he has 'an adventurer's easy morality which takes count of personal risk in the ethical appraising of his action'. He is tempted to dare, to gamble hugely upon the nature of reality with his life as the stake. 'Now, gods, stand up for bastards!' (1.22): such a challenge, dethroning the gods, dispossessing his brother and finally destroying his father, gives him the sentiment of being and the hope of reward that he cannot find in the pieties of love or service. For, of course, as a younger brother labouring under the double burden of illegitimacy and parental disregard, he has no place in his world. He has been done a bitter injustice and his response is correspondingly vindictive: to turn against the male figures and the patriarchal customs that have marginalized him, to deify the immoral fecundity of his absent mother and to bind himself to 'the lusty stealth of nature' (1.11) whose desire has the force of law. His father had boasted that there was 'good sport at his making' (I. i.22); and it is precisely this sense of sport that Edmund revisits upon him. It is indeed, as Marilyn French has observed [in Shakespeare's Division of Experience, 1983], 'a savage imitation'; for the very nature of such children seems to be revenge.
We should perhaps best understand Edmund's ideology, opposing nature to society and thereby turning Cordelia's vision upside-down, as a perverse parody of the pastoral fantasy that shapes our romance expectations of the play—the fantasy that the injustices of civilization may be repaired by invoking the ideal equity of nature. It is perverse because grounded in envy, because (to quote Chasseguet-Smirgel again) 'this reversal of a system of values is only the first stage in an operation whose end is the destruction of all values'. But in its perverseness it serves as a grim reminder of the ineffectuality of romance to bring about the redistributions of wealth and power that matter. There is indeed an appeal open to society from nature, to the centre from the margins, to the wealthy and powerful from the poor and impotent. There is indeed justice in Edmund's demand, and truth in his perception of what he must do to get it; and it is his thoroughness that finally, by the assassination of Cordelia, prevents the play from yielding the consolations of romance. The oppositional is not to be always so easily integrated as pastoral suggests.
It is fascinating to see what Shakespeare has made of the traditional romantic pattern of the rise, fall and death-bed conversion of the villain—for Edmund, dying after defeat at the hands of his brother, determines to do good and, if possible, avert Cordelia's death. Yet nothing could be further from the easy certitudes and naive moral reparations of romance. Edmund is not converted, and he does not repent. His intention is quite precise: 'some good I mean to do / Despite of mine own nature' (V. iii.242-3). It seems that his one good act will be done to spite himself and the world he has built in the image of his own conception. 'Yet Edmund was belov'd' (1.238)—the deaths of Goneril and Regan, following hard upon Edgar's narrative of care for his dying father, complete the change begun in Edmund by his defeat and imminent death. Yet, as he contemplates the perverse reciprocities of that unholy ménage á trois, all three marrying in an instant, how shall we gauge the tones of self-lacerating irony and awakened gratitude in his voice? His admission of a lifelong hunger for love and approval is an important insight into the origins of his own nature; his sense that 'the wheel is come full circle' (V. iii.173) confesses some kind of justice in his death; but the bitterness in his voice reminds us too that he had good cause to hunger for love and for justice. It is consciously an incomplete reparation that he attempts. His death does not integrate him into a reconstituted community, as we might have expected; the injustices of history are not so simply to be set to rights.
By this bitter resistance to the compositions of pastoral and romance, Edmund has helped to draw out the contradictions within the ruling class of Lear's Britain and destroy it. The middle ground upon which love and prudence might have met has been usurped by the fathers; the children's compensatory—even heroic— idealizations of self-sacrificial goodness or self-seeking evil have been extinguished; and the loss is absolute. Furthermore, Edmund—the Bastard, the Unwanted, the Marginalized—emblematizes all the injustices of the history that we have inherited out of Lear's Britain. He does not bear them away as a scapegoat might; even in his death, he brings them into play. Similarly, the sisters—the Wicked Sisters, the Ugly Sisters—emblematize all the envious malice still at the heart of family life. Shakespeare leaves his Jacobean audience (and ourselves too, at our greater distance) to know the lesser world of the present in the shadow of this prehistory of injustice and, most important of all, to know it by the ambivalence with which we participate in its theatrical representation. For, if we see the beauty of Cordelia's goodness, we also see the glamour of Edmund and the sisters. The great hierarchy of authority and service that had ide-ally constituted the reciprocities of feudal society can no longer be invoked by the end of the play; the apparent coherence of both its social forms and its moral language has been destroyed, and nothing is left in its place. Simply, Shakespeare has turned his historical and romance materials upside-down: the heroic past out of which Tudor and Stuart moralists drew their mythical charter yields in King Lear an understanding of the present as a time and place of abiding injustice, where morality remains problematical and reciprocity incomplete.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 32582
Rosalie L. Colie (essay date 1974)
SOURCE: "Reason and Need: King Lear and the 'Crisis' of the Aristocracy," in Some Facets of King Lear: Essays in Prismatic Criticism, edited by Rosalie L. Colie and F. T. Flahiff, University of Toronto Press, 1974, pp. 185-219.
[In the excerpt below, Colie suggests that in King Lear Shakespeare dramatized the deterioration of an aristocratic, hierarchical social order as well as the decline in parental authority during the English Renaissance.]
No; he's a yeoman that has a gentleman to his son; for he's a mad yeoman that sees his son a gentleman before him. (3.6.12-14)
When every case in law is right;
No squire in debt, nor no poor knight … (3.2.85-
Prithee, tell him, so much the rent of his land comes to … (1.4.140-1)
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. (1.2.110-14)
… 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. (1.2.151-6)
These comments from King Lear show some of the topsy-turvyness in the social order that informs the play, which has often been criticized as if its tragedy sprang from the simple disruption of an hieratic, orderly, customary society in which each man knew his place and responsibilities and kept to them both, in which duty and deference were expected and exacted in proportion to a man's known social and political status. According to one interpretation of Lear (as of many Shakespearean and other Renaissance dramas) the plot itself, with its manifold difficulties and sufferings, results from the deliberate abrogation of responsibility by the ruler. This Lovejovian or Tillyardian view has ruled for some time in criticism of the English Renaissance, and only recently has it begun to be criticized, both by literary students who find in the abrogations of degree, priority, and place a less than necessary cause for tragic, or even significant action; and by historians who have consistently found the English Renaissance (like any other historical 'period') full of inconsistency, anomaly, disorder, and disruption. Without quarrelling deeply with the Tillyardian notion of the Elizabethan world-picture, I want to pillage from quite a different historical scheme to illustrate some aspects of the social tensions involved in King Lear; that is, from Lawrence Stone's Crisis of the Aristocracy, 1558-1641, a rich, suggestive analysis of a major social class over a long period of time.
Mr Stone's 'crisis' was a prolonged affair, during which the aristocracy, although it never lost its favourable position in English society, lost its relative importance and was forced to alter its own self-image from that of an entrenched chivalric and 'feudal' group, with particular military obligations of service and general obligations of largesse, to that of a group involved in private lives and obligations precariously facing the problems of an expanding economy and a society increasingly articulate. Although the Tudors elevated themselves above their erstwhile peers, they came out of the aristocratic class and shared, as a family, some of the social and personal problems of that class.
Yet they sought to identify themselves with their state and its administration. Thus public policy underlined their differences from the nobility rather than their likenesses, and the English nobility found itself, like its European cousins, increasingly threatened by the centralizing efforts of the state. Chiefly, the court set out to gentle the armigerous aristocracy, to disarm them in all kinds of ways—by charming the nobles to live at court and to involve themselves in a growing bureaucracy; by cutting the number of armed servants and thus the private military power long enjoyed by local noblemen; by educating the nobility to the gentle pursuits of humanistic learning and artistic patronage; by allowing and even encouraging the greater participation of women in social life—especially at its centre, the court itself. In many ways, central governments sought to domesticate the aristocracy; the aristocracy, too, found some pleasure and satisfaction in domesticating itself—in building houses according to new patterns; in making collections of paintings, sculpture, furniture, and books.
Withal, the aristocracy was faced with the particular problem of self-definition. Those who had given up the sword for the chamberer's graces found their relation to the sovereign somewhat altered: under Elizabeth and James, noble courtiers accustomed to deference themselves had to learn the importance of deferring to a monarch. The greater the family from which a courtier came, the greater the deference the monarch seemed to require. The more opulent a subject's house, the more he was expected to put it at his sovereign's service. In various rather touching ways, noblemen attempted to show their difference from other men. The great 'prodigy houses,' most of them built by Lords Treasurer, of whom Stone so amusingly speaks, were for a while a major proof of class grandeur. With their ancient outlet in militarism gradually being closed off, noblemen and gentlemen tended to substitute the code of honour for the chivalric values. The older system of armigerous behaviour was superseded not only by modern technology and ordnance, but also by modern social arrangements: there was less and less place for the serious tournament or the trial-by-combat, as judicial settlements were otherwise reached. So a nobleman's word came to be defended and upheld by a complicated system of swordsmanship, based on the peculiar anomaly of the long, showy, dangerous rapier, which belonged neither to the old world of weaponry nor to the new. The rapier duel was an invention of a group of men trying to set themselves off socially from the 'others'; the weapon itself, carrying on a social tradition of archaism, was brilliantly and obviously nonfunctional as a practical weapon in an ordnance world.
Another method by which noblemen set themselves off was dress. As Stone puts it, the acid test of living nobly was to have the money to spend liberally, to dress elegantly, and to entertain lavishly. The portraits of the royal favourites, Leicester, Essex, Ralegh, and Buckingham, give some proof of the expense involved in looking the peacock courtier or the 'compleat' Queen. Against such expenditure, even the conservative authors of the homilies sounded their injunctions: preachers never ceased to bewail the ruinous and frivolous preoccupation of the rich with their apparel.
Thou art a lady;
If only to go warm were gorgeous,
Why, nature needs not what thou gorgeous
Which scarcely keeps thee warm (2.4.269-72)
Lear says to Goneril, whose costume we can imagine from the opulent ladies portrayed in Renaissance pictures; and Kent's rage at Oswald—'a tailor made thee!'—records his anger at the upstarts who imitated their social betters.
Conspicuous expenditure and consumption were frequent causes of ruin for aristocratic families: 'Put not your finger in mortar,' Coke wrote, having observed the financial difficulties incurred by many great builders. Critics of gorgeous apparel noted that men 'weare their lands upon their backes.' Yet these particular modes of setting themselves off from other men did not protect the aristocracy from imitation by social inferiors: noble ladies were offended by the liquefaction of merchant capital that could be heard in the rustle of city wives' skirts. Satirical literature of the period is full of upstarts, crow and popinjay, 'nobodies' who deck themselves in the costumes and manners of their betters. Ralegh himself, though an intermittent profiteer from the arbitrary system of favourites, was in effect such a 'nobody': he rose by his wits, his imagination, and his sprezzatura, and he fell for the same qualities. Ralegh had exceptional talent and exceptional personality; the Osrics, Oswalds, and Parolleses of Shakespeare's world are permitted no such virtues. Their showiness is just that: they are the froth thrown up by a roiled social system. Clearly, then, garb and retinue were insufficient protections from social intrusion, and dressed-up nobodies offered a real critique of the methods by which noblemen defended themselves against encroachments upon their rank and exclusive privileges. One can recognize at once the superficiality of distinctions as separate from function, while acknowledging that as function declined, such distinctions seemed ever more necessary. Barred from the automatic recognition conferred by its old sumptuary monopolies, the aristocracy had to find in just such attitudes, attributes, and costumes a substitute means of self-definition, even of self-identification. The sociological importance of the nobility's self-concentration is obvious—and it carried economic implications as well, as shoals of craftsmen, jewellers, tailors, silkworkers, cabinetmakers, stonecarvers, architects, and so on, were called upon to support the aristocratic self-image in England. The lavish expenditure characteristic of the medieval noble way of life was simple, as many commentators remarked, compared to the new ways a nobleman might spend his money—the new commerce, the New World, and the aristocratic need for show accounted for remarkable outlays of income.
Although these signs of aristocracy were important and obvious at the time, they were by no means the only problems an aristocrat faced. Over the long span of time from the accession of Henry VII to the out-break of the Civil War, there was obviously a slackening in the deference automatically due to a lord: the war itself is one gross measure of the change in aristocratic weight in the nation's social world. Other changes took place as well: for one thing, as Stone stresses, even among the aristocracy there was a considerable decline in paternal authority. Very few children adopted the social views Edmund attributed to Edgar, that 'sons at perfect age, and fathers declin'd, the father should be as ward to the son, and the son manage his revenue' (1.2.72-4), but the case of poor Sir Brian Annesley, whose daughters sued to declare him insane that they might get his estate, is relevant to the general problem and perhaps even to the play of King Lear. In spite of marked deference shown parents by their children in England, it is clear that over the century and a half of the Renaissance, fathers lost their unquestioned authority in the disposition of their children's lives and fortunes. Legal requirements came to protect, particularly, daughters. In other cases, fathers took a more active interest in their children's individual personalities and welfare, in particular permitting them to marry with greater attention to need and temperament; often, too, fathers provided so generously for daughters and younger sons (in some cases, for bastards as well) that support for entailed estates was severely jeopardized. As general respect for the individual came to be recognized, paternal authority counted for less; as ideals of social egalitarianism grew more widespread, aristocratic authority counted for less too. All the same, the class was, and remained, particularly privileged. Their crisis, such as it was, was as nothing to the difficulties suffered by the rural and urban poor, some of whom were not even privileged to recognize a 'crisis' in their affairs: life was certainly problematical for many segments of what is now called the middle class. But the nobility did face changes that unsettled many individuals within the class, if not the class itself. Against this particular set of problems, especially in their psychological manifestations, I want to look at King Lear. It is a play deeply rooted in its own period, a play which draws some of its power from the playwright's insight into the peculiar aristocratic situation of the time in which it was written, the situation Lawrence Stone has been at such pains to delineate.
Before beginning on that task itself, I must assert something else, obvious enough. This play will not provide a proof-text for the aristocratic crisis (if that is what it was). Indeed, the adjustments described in Stone's book are too drawn out to have been compressed into one literary work—although, for a critic dissatisfied with a 'crisis' lasting for nearly a century, perhaps the concentration of the play more nearly justifies the use of that term. There is, of course, much in the general aristocratic social situation that is not in King Lear: for one thing, the play does not dwell topically on a major problem occupying the nobility and their advisers, namely, education; for another, though it exploits the question in its metaphors, it does not overtly deal with economics. In the play, actual economics are vague: the curious anachronisms of this play are uncompromised by discussions of pounds, shillings, pence, guineas, rose-nobles, and so on: but it is difficult not to read from this play a profound critique of habits of quantification induced by a commercial revolution. Though certainly questions of deference, of privatism, of personal and class ethos are of the utmost significance, King Lear is something very much greater, very much more complex, than a mere sketch in play-form of the psycho-social problems of new-style sovereigns and magnates. As these essays exist to proclaim, King Lear is made up of so much that to isolate one strand of its meaning is dangerously to oversimplify its multifoliate richness. The play is only in the highest sense an historical 'source,' testifying but fitfully to the problems historians must face head on. Indeed King Lear handles what might be called sociological materials very unevenly; at some points, the text is amazingly allusive, vague, and generalized; at others, remarkably direct and precise. The problem of being 'noble' is no less complicated than many of the purely literary problems this book deals with: the poet is sometimes astonishingly exact in what is here taken as data, and at other times hazy. But the playwright is nonetheless remarkable for what he saw in his society—and furthermore in a segment of society not naturally 'his'—and in his efficient translation into literary structures of the social structure of these problems. Indeed, he used many social paradigms in the terms of his given literary schemes and paradigms: he was able to treat his society, then, as he treated many other non-literary materials, as something to be rendered in the terms of his craft. What is remarkable, too, is that the playwright dealt analytically, evenhandedly, and problematically with social problems, even as he consistently did with literary problems, and, thus, with the same striking insight and originality. If one may turn things about somewhat, the hypothesis might be offered that the play gives us, in its own laying out of social problems untouched by the benefits of modern analytical techniques, one bulwark to Lawrence Stone's massive analytic reconstruction of aristocratic society.
Within the play, historical structures are oddly treated. First of all, English 'history' is telescoped. According to chronicle-myth, the troubles of the Lear family did not end with the king's death; his daughters quarrelled fatally, and Cordelia's sons (imagine Cordelia with her sons!) did too. A train of Celtic king-figures had to reign before the historical Edgar could join the kingdom under a single strong rule. The very names of the major figures in this play serve to fuse the layers of the English past—Lear and his daughters come from the catalogue of British royalty; Edgar and his wicked brother bear Anglo-Saxon names, one of them of the greatest significance in the roster of English kings; Gloucester was a Plantagenet royal title until the fifteenth century and would again become a royal title; the earls of Kent were local noblemen who had died out early in the sixteenth century; the title revived under Elizabeth in 1572. Albany and Cornwall were imaginable titles in the English Renaissance; the earls of Cornwall had been both Plantagenets and Piers Gaveston; the kings of Scotland descended from a darkling Duke of Cornwall, and Albany was one of James I's titles as well. The names 'Albany' and 'Cornwall' are realistic enough, then, but they recall something as well of Arthurian intermarriage. These names reverberate symbolically with English historical meaning; they do for the vertical range of time past what Edgar and Kent between them do for the horizontal range, across the social estates, of English speech, as those figures shift their dialects to offer a schematic section of the local and class languages of the nation. But Shakespeare was careful, too, in his use of title: he observed the rules of precedence, so that the blood royal takes precedence over all others, dukes take precedence over earls, and earls over the rest of the play's population.
By such simple means, then, great implications are suggested. For all its moments of exact social observation and commentary, King Lear is surrounded by questions neither directly met nor directly answered. The action is mysteriously sited both in time and in place. The great rituals of the first scene echo with reverberations of something far deeper than specific reason or policy. We never know the practical details about the kingdom Lear rules and divides. Where does Lear hold court? Where was his palace before he went to lodge with his daughters in turn? That palace vanishes like Prospero's: indeed, except for Dover, we never know where anything takes place. In 1 Henry IV, the rebels divide the kingdom precisely, even arguing about its boundaries—Lear simply draws on a great map we never see. Obviously Gloucester's 'little' house (apparently a small castle of the old nobility rather than a great house of the new, but even so, peculiarly situated: 'for many miles about / There's scarce a bush' [2.4.303-4]) lies within the district allotted to Regan, for Cornwall becomes, Gloucester says, his 'patron.' Where Regan's house is in relation to it, or Goneril's in relation to either, we do not discover: simply, Lear's palace dissolves with his power, and the 'court' is concentrated on where power subsequently is rather than in a specific town or at a specific seat.
Other things are odd, too. Letters pass at an amazing rate from hand to hand—but there is no hint of how they do so. Nor do we know why the Gentleman (evidently the messenger between Cordelia and Kent) so readily trusts Kent on the heath; simply, we must accept that two good-hearted people, devoted to the king and Cordelia, trust one another on sight and do each other's offices willingly for that trust. All we know is that letters and people pass from here and there to Dover; even a beggar can lead a blind man to that critical port.
As with geography, so with other things: much is left unclear. Did Oswald do the act of darkness with Goneril, and if he did, why was he so willing to act as go-between for his mistress and Edmund? What happens to the Fool in fact and (more critical even) what kind of 'journey' must Kent go on, at the end of the play? Albany is left sole ruler of the kingdom, a position to which, judging from the first speech of the play, he had aspired; but without explanation or anything like the ritual fuss of the first act he resigns his rule first to Lear, then to Edgar. Most important of all, does Lear die thinking Cordelia dead or alive—can we tell, or should we try to tell? Within these areas of non-definition, of vagueness and mystery, the lives of King Lear and his three daughters, of the Earl of Gloucester and his two sons, of Kent, the Fool, and the rest are nonetheless lived to an extraordinary degree within the terms of sixteenth-century English society. Maynard Mack has pointed to one thematic and poetic gamut operating in this play, that from morality abstraction to naturalistic imitation of actions; the play moves along another gamut, from ritual and myth to an extremely practical and accurate grasp of local affairs. There are things in this huge, difficult, and shocking play that become a little clearer when we apply to it some of the categories laid out by Stone's paradigm of the English aristocracy in the Renaissance.
Indeed, the more we look at the play, the more clearly we can see in it Stone's schema for the problems of the aristocracy. As he put it, 'the aristocratic ethic [sic] is one of voluntary service to the State, generous hospitality, clear class distinctions, social stability, tolerant indifference to the sins of the flesh, inequality of opportunity based on the accident of inheritance, arrogant self-confidence, a paternalist and patronizing attitude towards economic dependents and inferiors, and an acceptance of the grinding poverty of the lower classes as part of the natural order of things.' These values are striking illuminations of the value-system of the play. For one thing, Kent's extraordinary loyalty to the king is a mark of his commitment to the aristocratic ethos. His behaviour within the play, evidently, is no less consistently loyal than his behaviour before the play began:
My life I never held but as a pawn
To wage against thine enemies.
As a private person Lear assumes the hospitality and generosity of his daughters; and Gloucester's touching confidence that Cornwall cannot mean either his extreme rudeness to the old king or his cruelty to Gloucester's own person is based on his view of the unchangeable relation between host and guest—'You are my guests,' he says (3.7.31) and 'I am your host' (3.7.39). The class distinctions of the play are clear enough, although the play's action in part consists in showing how tenuous they are when faith is bad. Gloucester's tenant comes on stage, it seems, solely to demonstrate how greatly Gloucester's landlordism attached the loyalty of his dependents; Lear shows gentleness, even on the heath, to his dependent, the Fool. Gloucester's repetitious sententiae about the breaking of social bonds are one measure of the limitations of his imagination—he recognizes that social bonds are being broken around him, but not why that is so. For him, as for the composers of the homilies, the social order 'ought' to remain constant, even when he sees it fall into disruption. Hence Gloucester's defencelessness against the deceptions of his son and the brutality of his lieges. Both Gloucester and Kent, adherents of the old aristocratic mores, are tolerant of the sins of the flesh, as we learn in the play's opening interlude; the Fool conforms to the manners of his social betters when, at the end of act 1, he suggests his love-play with the castle maids.
The problems raised by the inequality of inheritance are twice dramatized and very differently stressed. Lear takes a 'modern' solution to his predicament, the absence of a male heir: he divides his kingdom justly among his co-heiresses, attempting to prevent strife later. Gloucester, on the other hand, acts as the old aristocrat would, not noticing, until he thinks himself betrayed by Edgar, the injustice of what Stone calls 'the winner-take-all doctrine of primogeniture'; Edmund's bastardy-speech is, in fact, not a paradox only: it bespeaks a new and fairer view of individual worth in rejecting the automatic second-classness of bastards. These aristocrats are all arrogant, in different personal idioms; Kent never entirely forgets who he is, even when he is stocked for his apparent presumption to Cornwall. Cornwall is wantonly confident of his own power and safety among his servants, as he mutilates his elderly, aristocratic host. Goneril and Regan are high-handed with all others; both Lear and Cordelia are extravagantly high-minded and proud. As Sigurd Burckhardt has beautifully pointed out [in Shakespearean Meanings, (1968)], Lear's absolute trust in his own and other people's 'word' is an outmoded social habit, but one entirely appropriate to his rank and style. Of the noblemen, only Edgar demonstrates his independent awareness of the plight of the kingdom's poor—and yet this same Edgar, companion of poverty, becomes the champion of the whole kingdom, on whose swords-manship the national virtue must be risked. He ranges along the whole social scale, from beggar and Bedlamite, doubly outcast, to the rituals of high-born conflict.
As against the 'paternalistic and patronizing attitude toward economic dependents and acceptance of the grinding poverty of the lower classes as part of the natural order of things,' one must note that Stone's aristocrats were also astonishingly open-handed. Their testamentary charities may not have reached the standards set by the middle class in this period, but their daily and weekly support of the poor and of other odd folk was both steady and generous. In his dealings with the Fool and with Tom, Lear shows some of that characteristic paternalism—in his case, the more poignant because of his personal problems as a father. From his behaviour to the Fool, we can realize both Lear's automatic aristocratic kindness and his personal gentleness:
My wits begin to turn.
Come on, my boy. How dost, my boy? Art
I am cold myself. Where is this straw, my
The art of our necessities is strange,
And can make vile things precious. Come,
Poor Fool and knave, I have one part in my
That's sorry yet for thee. (3.2.67-73)
Finally, in the king's awareness of the plight of the truly poor in his kingdom, lies his achievement of a responsibility which, without his tribulations, he might never have won. There is nothing in the past life of King Lear—indeed, nothing in the play itself—to suggest that 'the people' were important in either the private or the public economy of the nation or of its rulers. Of all Shakespeare's political plays (in which I include all his late tragedies), this one most overtly closes off considerations of subjects, populace, and the non-noble life. In the history plays, in the other tragedies, there is much reference made to the people, English, Scottish, Danish, Roman, even Cypriot; in both Hamlet and Macbeth we are ever aware of potential rebellion against the centres of power. In King Lear, though, the great ones fight out their battles within their own class, and such realization as the audience has of other groups is skimpy and schematic. The more remarkable, then, that from this background and in this setting, King Lear, having renounced his kingdom, comes to realize, at the stretch of his extremity, what it means to be really poor. In his 'houseless poverty' speech ring the echoes of a common configuration of ideas of poverty, charity, clothing, and food:
Poor naked wretches, whereso'er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall your houseless heads and unfed
Your loop'd and window'd raggedness, defend
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.
As in so much else, Gloucester echoes both the king's predicament and his insight; in his blindness, exposed to the miseries the Bedlam beggar illustrates for him, he says, too:
Heavens, deal so
Let the superfluous and lust-dieted man,
That slaves your ordinance, that will not see
Because he does not feel, feel your power
So distribution should undo excess,
And each man have enough.
Both old men began the play securely enclosed in their own convictions of Tightness and security; both under go indescribable psychological torment, Gloucester paying with his eyes for not having 'seen' aright, Lear with his reason for not having understood how to be a proper parent. Both emerge from their class-bound view to 'see feelingly,' as kings and aristocrats were generally spared from seeing and feeling, what it meant to be a plain poor man in the kingdoms of this world. Both men are remarkably modernized by their sufferings, enlarged from the conscriptions of their social status. It comes with some irony that these undefended old men reach their new insights, their astonishing sympathies, under the guidance and by means of the emblematic beggar who seems to them 'the thing itself; unaccommodated man,' but whose unaccommodated state is simply a disguise.
To say that Lear and Gloucester achieve some of their greatness because they break out of the limitations of high-born assumptions does scant justice to the richness of their experience. Yet no more than in real life can this play be presented by some abstraction or social paradigm. In different ways, Lear, Gloucester, and Kent are old-fashioned aristocrats, theirs the noble ethos in the process of erosion during the Renaissance; equally, Albany, Cornwall, Goneril, Regan, and Edmund are domesticated in a 'new' world of power and might, which they intend to keep well within their own control. But just because we prefer Lear, Kent, and Gloucester to the scheming members of the next generation, we cannot explain the play by the glib assumption that Shakespeare asserted his characteristic conservatism by the play's means, praising an old if outmoded way of life for its moral symmetry and beauty; nor can we claim that human virtues are assigned to the old way, vices consigned to the new. Like Shakespeare's other great plays, King Lear deals in problems and problematics: neither way of life is sanctified, neither is regarded as an unqualified success.
This play begins with the situation feared by all men, kings and noblemen alike, with an inheritance to leave behind them, the absence of a male—that is, an obvious—heir. The number of noble families that died out in the period between Elizabeth's accession and the outbreak of the Civil War was frighteningly large. Of royal families, the Tudors themselves died out, and in spite of Henry II's quiverful of sons, the Valois died out too. For a time Philip II feared to die without a male heir; the Stuarts survived by the puny breath of James VI; the nearly-royal Oranges twice just escaped heirlessness, both times at a period critical to the Netherlands' turbulent history. Great families had to worry about male issue, and kings more than others. Shakespeare followed his sources in providing King Lear with no male heir, but he stressed that critical fact not at all, though his sources, including the earlier play, make much of it. We see, then, the king coping with his problem and deciding to deal with his three daughters as co-heiresses. This is not an English or French royal habit—or, at least, not a modern habit, though Charlemagne had split his kingdom three ways long before Lear treats his girls in a thoroughly modern manner, as noblemen and commercial grandees without sons had begun to treat their daughters. Shakespeare followed these same sources in making the king relinquish sovereignty before his own death, and Lear's reason for doing so makes political sense in either a primitive or an early modern kingdom. Lear wanted to be sure, before he died, that his division of the kingdom was acceptable both to his beneficiaries and to the subjects over whom, after all, the girls with their husbands would rule. The division was proclaimed in public, before the lords and with the acquiescence of daughters and sons-in-law, 'that future strife / May be prevented now' (1.1.44-5). As a generation of students has written in criticism of this play, Lear's unwisdom is 'proved' by just this gesture—no king 'ought' to relinquish rule before it has formally ended with his mortal death. Historical rulers were not so obedient to this regulation as critical orthodoxy would suggest—against the rule there are several counter-cases. Not only was there no rule against abdication—Charles V, after all, voluntarily gave up his great Empire; Mary Stuart had perforce abdicated; though Shakespeare's Richard II may have been an anointed king, the playwright does not conceal his unfitness to rule, all the same—but also Lear was unlucky. In cases where a male heir lacked, was young, or was weak, political disruption could be expected, as Machiavelli taught; it could be argued that in trying to secure assent to the division of his kingdom, Lear showed foresight of an unexpected sort.
Although Lear never complains of having only daughters, his assumption that continuance is crucial emerges clearly from his speeches to his daughters: he says to Goneril, 'to thine and Albany's issues / Be this perpetual' (1.1.66-7), and to Regan, 'To thee and thine, hereditary ever, / Remain this ample third of our fair kingdom' (1.1.79-80). The significance of his later cursing Goneril with sterility becomes even more profound when we consider his preoccupation with issue. Apparently, too, Lear was less satisfied with one son-in-law than with the other. In the first words of the play, Kent says, 'I thought the King had more affected the Duke of Albany than Cornwall' (a preference which does the king credit, after all); later we hear of 'inevitable' dissent between the sons-in-law. But, as Gloucester says, Lear had resolved for strict justice between the dukes—
It did always seem so to us; but now, in the division of the kingdom, it appears not which of the Dukes he values most; for equalities are so weigh'd that curiosity in neither can make choice of either's moiety. (1.1.3-7)
In the first scene, the emotional weight of Lear's imposition of the competitive declarations of love for him tends to overbear the fact that, in spite of his psychological inequity, his division of the kingdom was 'just.' He divided the land into three rich parts, intending for his favourite child a third evidently not larger, but 'more opulent,' than those assigned her sisters. There is in the ritual charting of the new rule more than the suggestion that, before he allowed his psychological needs expression in the competition, Lear had taken thought for the political needs of the nation: he was not, in fact, dividing his kingdom solely in response to his daughters' declarations of devotion.
Looked at in the context of contemporary behaviour, Lear's solution for his kingdom was in line with modern aristocratic treatment of daughters, by which the strongly paternalist father strove to provide generously for their futures. The difficulty with Lear's situation is that it did not allow for the roles both of ruler and of father; he did not recognize his situation as unique—though Charlemagne, another dimly historical ruler in Elizabethan imaginations, divided his kingdom into three, British and English rulers customarily did not. But there is an interesting record of aristocratic division of wealth: consideration of daughters' material prosperity often contributed to the financial difficulty of noble families, some of which collapsed at the centre because of generosity in dowries and jointure-arrangements. By treating his kingdom as if it were simply 'his land,' an estate, Lear threatened his land, his 'country,' at its centre, too. It might be said that Lear's kingdom figuratively came to grief just because of his generous division of it among his heiresses. To say this, though, is to offer material substitutes for eventuations in the play sufficiently grounded in character and psychology, to say nothing of the ritual folklore of the deed itself. We do not need to know that, as a matter of economic and social fact, great holdings were often dissolved by division among children, especially female children, to realize that there is something fatal in Lear's act of division; but the modern relevance of that problematic gesture deepens the play's reference to a felt reality. One simplistic observation might be that in making Lear regard his kingdom as his property, Shakespeare made his profoundest comment on kingly misapprehension of rule and on ancient modes of governing.
Just the same, in at least two ways, Lear's disposition of the kingdom did observe modern rules of prudence and justice. In many ways doubtless more important, Lear must be ranged with the conservative noblemen of the play as an adherent, even a blinkered adherent, of the old ethos, dependent upon its values and profoundly endangered by their abrogation. His notion of himself, if not of his daughters and his kingdom, is entirely in terms of the old modes: though divesting himself of 'the sway Revenue, execution' of kingship, Lear chooses to retain 'only,' as he says, 'The name and all th'addition to a king' (1.1.136). In practice, what this means is that Lear wants to spend his latter days surrounded by his familiar household and the signs of his former greatness (in this case, a retinue of a hundred armed knights, a clever Fool, and whatever servants he may require for his personal needs), domiciled with his daughters by turn, on a perpetual royal progress. Under normal circumstances, this arrangement could very well have been made for an old patriarch and even for a self-retired king, at his life's end turning in legitimately upon private and familial pleasures. Furthermore, a great social figure would have had a household—witness Catherine of Aragon after her repudiation, or Mary Stuart in her detention—distinguished by a train of retainers. Retainers were not only a sign of an aristocrat's prestige but a defence of his prerogatives. The sovereign often attempted to cut down on retaining because of its potential danger, but no ex-king could imagine himself entirely without retainers, simply to show his rank. One deep theme of this play is the meaning of deference to those who expected it as their due. The significance of King Lear would be greatly lessened if we could not understand what it meant to the king, to his children, to his nobles and servants, that men were deferred to according to their rank in society. From the vantage-point of the aristocratic ethos, there was nothing odd about Lear's wanting to maintain the 'exhibition' of his former greatness, even after he had delegated its great function to others. From the point of view of the new functionalism, equally, there was nothing peculiar about Goneril's and Regan's attempts to cut down their father's retinue: Elizebeth never allowed Mary Stuart a quota of armed servants.
Since so much of the struggle between early modern rulers and their nobility was over the monopoly on violence, it is obvious that retainers were looked at darkly by the sovereign. The physical inconvenience and danger surrounding a retinue was one thing, the psychological importance of such a train was another. Rulers intent on their own security were unlikely to tolerate a mighty subject surrounded by proofs of his power; a retinue was, as Lear called it in that quantitative language so characteristic of his utterance before the storm, the 'addition' by which a grandee could reckon his importance.
Thus when Goneril says, 'His knights grow riotous,' Elizabethans would scarcely have found her remark incredible—if they knew of Sir Richard Cholmley's liveried retainers, who sneaked into the kitchen and speared the meat out of the pot with their daggers, they might well have sympathized with her. On the face of it, her complaint carried weight; her insistence on the retainers' 'rank and not-to-be-endured riots' was hardly different from Henry's or Elizabeth's. Goneril was, by her father's donation, sovereign in her portion of the country, and certainly in her house. As sovereign, she simply acted the efficient ruler striving for order in her palace and, by extension, her kingdom:
A hundred knights!
Tis politic and safe to let him keep
At point a hundred knights; yes, that on every
Each buzz, each fancy, each complaint,
He may enguard his dotage with their powers,
And hold our lives in mercy.
Later, as the size of Lear's retinue is ruthlessly cut down (only thirty-five or thirty-six of his knights join the king's forces at Dover), Regan states the general argument against a mobile retinue in a speech far more neutral and sensible, in social terms, than it is usually considered:
what! fifty followers
Is it not well? What should you need of
Yea, or so many, sith that both charge and
Speak 'gainst so great a number? How, in one
Should many people, under two commands,
Hold amity? 'Tis hard; almost impossible.
(2.4.239-44; italics mine)
The objections the daughters raised against the knights were those of a practical, modern, civilizing, rationalizing social orderliness; their objections were, in fact, received opinion. Further, from Goneril's remarks about Lear's servitors, we realize what sort of household she kept:
Hear me, my Lord.
What need you five-and-twenty, ten, or five,
To follow in a house where twice so many
Have a command to tend you?
(2.4.262-5; italics mine)
From this hint, we may assume that Goneril's house was—in contrast to Gloucester's isolated little house, typical of the parochial older nobility—a truly 'great' house, a palace, a prodigy house; she had a staff of at least fifty servants, from whom a sufficient number could always be spared to tend to her father's needs. With this glimpse into Goneril's milieu, we suddenly see the degree of pride, of self-indulgence, involved in the lives lived by 'these daughters and these sisters.'
They have their modern ways of conspicuous consumption no less grandiose than their father's old-fashioned train—and far more centred on themselves, on their own comforts and the projected image of their own greatness. Coupled with the fact that Shakespeare makes us witnesses to Goneril's complotting with Oswald to offend the king ('Put on what weary negligence you please' [1.3.13]), this glimpse into her values and manner of living makes us realize that her objections to Lear's knights are not simply those of a sovereign lady intent on maintaining civil peace. Indeed, just as with Edmund, at first sympathetically presented and only later revealed as the cheat he is, the playwright is careful to deny Goneril her claims to justification in this respect. So also with Cornwall, commanding that Kent and Oswald put up their swords—'Keep peace, upon your lives: / He dies that strikes again' (2.2.48-9)—his words are those of any sensible ruler concerned for civil order. We might take them at face value if we were not in the next act to see how Cornwall behaves when he thinks the monopoly on violence securely his. Shakespeare never leaves us long in doubt about these 'new' statesmen.
That Lear's knights were troublesome, we have only Goneril's authority; when we hear Regan linking Edgar and the knights, an association clearly false, we must wonder about the knights' behaviour altogether. Of Lear's 'riotous' train, only a single gentle figure says anything at all, and what he says is, it seems, a remarkable understatement of the actual situation:
My Lord, I know not what the matter is; but, to my judgment, your Highness is not entertain'd 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 you daughter. (1.4.60-5)
'Ceremonious affection' is entirely absent from this house, as we know from Goneril's planning with Oswald to withhold deference from her father. Gradually we realize the symbolic importance of with-holding the ceremony normally due a father and a king: Goneril seeks to destroy the old man's sense of himself long before king-killing becomes part of the action.
Goneril and Regan were, of course, afraid of something other than mere inconvenience; they were afraid that their father, invested with his military power, might discover their aims and seek to stop them by turning that power against them. Their eagerness to strip Lear of his symbols of personal greatness is one thing; but it was quite another matter, a matter of pure power, to want out of the way those hundred knights who might have made up a Lear faction. Since the remnant of the retinue did join Cordelia at Dover, if Oswald's words are accurate, we may assume that at least those knights knew the proper duty of their allegiance and followed it.
One problem of the Tudor monarchs was that, like King Lear, they lacked soldiers. In times of crisis, Elizabeth had to depend upon a very mixed army, composed of trained bands, pressmen (some little better than the crew gathered by Falstaff), and the cohorts of her great lords contributed as private trains, in the old-fashioned way, to the sovereign's cause. During the period studied by Stone, loyalty was never entirely diverted from the great lords to the Crown, for all of Henry VIII's statutes and propaganda of the 'Faerie Queene'; the dutiful behaviour of Lear's knights was still quite understandable to a Jacobean audience. As far as the play itself is concerned, though, the knights barely appear; they are a shadow-retinue, whose importance depends entirely upon the director's, not upon the playwright's, injunctions. Their behaviour is undefined, largely attributed them by the daughters' unreliable words. Lear is effectively stripped of his strong bodyguard, left destitute and alone save for his Fool and a disguised servant. He has not forgotten the orthodox meaning of his retinue, however, as on the heath he recruits the Bedlam beggar as its replace-ment—'You, sir, I entertain for one of my hundred' (3.6.80). That his retinue wore his colours is evident from his next remark to Tom, famous for its beautifully learned associations: 'only I do not like the fashion of your garments: you will say they are Persian; but let them be chang'd' (3.6.80-3). It is important to notice throughout these scenes, the great gentleness of the king. While he has control of his retainers, he never thinks to call them in his own defence against the extraordinary behaviour of his daughters, never thinks of himself as the leader of a band of armed men. For all his childishness, his irascibility, his arrogance, Lear is a civilized man, thinking himself in a civilized country. He lets his defenders slip away from him as if their 'real' function had never crossed his mind. indeed, for him, the knights were simply a means of signalling his dignity to himself and others, never defences against his nearest kin.
The astonishing breaches in decorum in this play are not so immediately obvious to us as to an audience trained in the deference society. When Oswald refuses to stop at the king's command, when he identifies the king as 'My Lady's father,' the shock was almost as severe to the audience as to the defenceless and unprepared Lear. That Oswald 'would not' do the king's bidding utterly shatters Lear; when he finds his servant stocked, he says,
They durst not do't,
They could not, would not do't; 'tis worse
To do upon respect such violent outrage.
(2.4.22-4; italics mine)
Lear's awareness of criminal degree is imperfect, one might say; because, as Kent sits outside the house in which Gloucester's mutilation is soon to take place, we shortly realize how insignificant, beside that crime, the stocking of the king's servant is. But at the time, that punishment is part of the ruthless imposition of their will and rule on Lear and his kingdom that the daughters' party puts into effect. Lear must learn that he is no longer sovereign in Britain; his daughters undertake to teach him.
Of course Lear was arbitrary. Sovereigns were—and could count on absolute deference, even in their tantrums. Hence Lear's fury at Kent's gain-saying him, his attack on Kent in terms of the feudal bond—'Hear me, recreant! / On thine allegiance, hear me!' It is one measure of Shakespeare's art that we come to see Lear's autocratic demands for his dinner naturalistically, as the signs of the childish greed in an old man, rather than as one automatic prerogative of royal position. Goneril has, after all, commanded that dinner be made ready; why should not the king, hungry from hunting, have it when he likes? That Goneril orders her servants to slight the king shows how far she was willing to go, disgracing him, her kin, her father, before outsiders; Regan, literally, went further to show Lear incivility. When he rushes from Goneril's house to hers, Lear could expect (as any sovereign could) to be received. But Regan did what only a few landowners dared to do to Elizabeth; she left her house empty, so that the king was unable to rest on his progress. That she could do such a thing, unthinkable either to a father or to a sovereign, makes it less incredible that Regan could take such an active part in the blinding of her host shortly after.
In terms of the deference society, Kent's behaviour is interesting. He is round with the king, but obviously loyal and dutiful. With Oswald he is violent, outraged that a 'clotpoll' should so treat a king, outraged that his clotpoll should so flout him, even when he is in disguise. When Cornwall makes to stock him, Kent cannot believe that such a punishment, from which noblemen were securely exempt, could possibly be meted out to him; both he and Gloucester remonstrate with Cornwall in vain, urging him not to punish the king's servant. Kent's reaction, like his over-reaction to Oswald, is a remnant of his own aristocratic experience. Such things simply cannot be done to a man like him. That they are somehow prepares us for the outrage done Gloucester within doors.
Indeed, in spite of the control he achieves at stress-points, Kent's reactions are not always under his own control. His outburst against Oswald is that of the old aristocrat, against the falsity of a cowardly, braggart 'new' man, a nobody, a butterfly made by a tailor—'That such a slave as this should wear a sword!' Kent too lacks deference, lacks 'reverence' for those apparently his superiors; his gorgeous rudeness to Cornwall may endear him to the audience, but it brings him to suffer punishments expressly forbidden to be applied to aristocrats. Still, no servingman Caius could speak as Kent spoke to the Duke and Duchess of Cornwall. For all his willing self-degradation in the service of his degraded king, Kent has difficulty in maintaining his servant role, although the violent language he uses to Oswald is certainly matched by other historical noblemen and gentlemen. That difficulty shows in one very interesting context: Kent evidently did not share his master's fellow-feeling for the Bedlam beggar, who later says of him that he, 'having seen me in my worst estate, / Shunn'd my abhorr'd society' (5.3.209-10). When he comes to recognize in the beggar his old friend's son, Kent is joyously reconciled to Edgar—but a remnant of his fastidiousness remained during their time of common disguise.
The question of rank is relevant also to the 'punishment' of Gloucester. Though noblemen could be, and were, put under attainder and executed for treason, they could not be hanged, as Regan suggested, and certainly could not be blinded. Neither were they properly subject to the summary 'justice' meted out by Cornwall (who was himself uneasy about it [3.7.24-7]). The blinding of Gloucester is shocking dramatically, humanly, and socially: the First Servant's reaction to the deed sprang from his outraged sense of decorum as well as from his shock at the cruelty of the deed. The Servant is interesting: he dares give an order to his lord—
Hold your hand, my Lord.
I have serv 'd you ever since I was a child,
But better service have I never done you
Then now to bid you hold.
(3.7.71-4; italics mine; cf. 4.2.73-8)
'Ever since I was a child': the Servant's devotion to Cornwall, which should have been automatic, could only be broken by the horror of what he was forced to witness, this wanton brutality against an old man, a peer, and his master's host. To Regan the Servant speaks as boldly,
If you did wear a beard upon your chin
I'd shake it on this quarrel.
which causes Cornwall, in turn stunned by the disruption of received decorum in his train, to cry, 'My villain!' Unthinkable—'My villain!' Obviously Cornwall and Regan, recognizing their youth, power, and strength, think themselves immune from opposition and above social regulations; but that they too live within the conventions of deference is shown by their shock that a 'peasant' should 'stand up thus!' Regan is never more herself than when she stabs the man, and from behind. For Regan, as she makes plain later, is sovereign and intends to make the most of her independence. She and her husband simply take over Gloucester's house; later, in the rivalry for Edmund, she plays her advantageous widowhood against Goneril. Her 'rights' are in her own gift, and she can 'invest' Edmund with them so that he then 'compeers the best' (5.3.69-70). Regan knows her power and uses her precedence for her own ends.
The rise of Edmund, the bastard, the nobody, the new man, is indeed spectacular. He appears at the beginning, acknowledged but unprovided, a victim of his father's callousness to his predicament. Gloucester says of him, quite calmly, 'He hath been out nine years, and away he shall again,' never thinking that a nice-looking young man (who also happened to be his son) might prefer to stay 'in,' at court. To Cordelia's and Edgar's disinheritance Edmund stands as emblem: we see in Gloucester's carelessness toward this child of his flesh (whose mother he does not even name) a failure of paternity which slightly prepares us for the king's abrupt rejection of his child and for Gloucester's speedy rejection of Edgar later. Cordelia is, of course, incapable of policy altogether, and Edgar's dissimulations trouble him; Edmund's nature, on the contrary, mates with his condition to make of him a natural machiavel, a new man, outside the customary values, as careless of privileged lives as his father had been of Edmund's unprivileged existence. Edmund follows his version of 'nature,' an impartial naturalistic goddess who, with other gods unnamed, stands up for bastards. At first, it seems to be only 'land,' or position, that he wants—and Edgar's, not his father's. That is, as a bastard he wishes simply to stand in his brother's legitimate place, content at the time simply to be his father's heir. That Gloucester took it for granted that an heir he must have, is evident from his remarks to Edmund at Edgar's supposed treachery. Like King Lear and like Henry VIII (who, despairing of a legitimate son, for a while considered legitimating the Duke of Richmond), Gloucester knew the importance of male issue. Thus he can say, almost without thinking,' of my land, … I'll work the means / To make thee capable' (2.1.83-5), acknowledging both the need for an heir and the legal difficulties involved in such a transfer of rights. It turns out that Edmund need not—perhaps could not—wait out his father's natural life; perceiving the means, he betrays Gloucester, and Cornwall takes over the punishment of the old man's 'treason,' sequestering his estates and awarding them to Edmund, who by his father's attainder becomes Goneril's 'most dear Gloucester.' The young simply cancel out the older generation; later, we can read Albany's re-alliance from his refusal to accept Edmund's new title and his references to the old Earl as 'Gloucester.' Once an earl, why not more? So Edmund makes his loves to the two queens, evidently indifferent to their relative charms. As the example of the Earl of Essex attests, if one is granted private privileges by a ruler, it is an easy temptation to fancy one's self as ruler. When Edmund sees the two women dead before him, he says with a pardonable pride but an unpardonable self-centredness, 'Yet Edmund was belov'd'—with never a word to spare for them.
Edmund brutally illustrates the ambitious ethos of the new man (in this respect he is unlike Essex and his aristocratic crew, rather men failed in their ranks than new men aspiring to greater noble position); Edmund is the natural talent unsupported by background who makes his way into the chancy world of Renaissance opportunity. Without respect for the privileged, he nonetheless covets their privileges; his parallel at a lower rank is the opportunist Oswald, a clothes rack, a mock-man, a braggart soldier, a go-between. Whatever can be done for his advancement, Oswald does, in ways that have their real analogue in the dis-oriented men of Essex's train. Oswald's view of the world as made for him emerges from his horrible remarks just before he blunders upon his own death. Seeing the blind Gloucester, on whose head a price has been set, he cries:
A proclaim'd prize! Most
That eyeless head of thine was first fram'd
To raise my fortunes.
'To raise my fortunes'! After this, the audience can see him dispatched without the least qualm. 'Advancement' and 'fortune' are associated with this whole party: Goneril promises Oswald advancement; Edmund purchases the murder of Lear and Cordelia. To his tool, the Captain, he says,
One step I have advanc'd thee; if thou
As this instructs thee, thou dost make thy
To noble fortunes; know thou this, that
Are as the time is; to be tender-minded
Does not become a sword; thy great
Will not bear question; either say thou'lt
Or thrive by other means.
Actually, the 'other means' of thriving is illustrated in the play. When he asks Tom to direct him to Dover, Gloucester gives him a purse, at that point speaking of aristocratic charity not as an automatic duty, but in terms of social justice (4.1.70-1); when he believes himself on the point of dying, he gives Tom another purse, 'in it a jewel / Well worth a poor man's taking' (4.6.28-9). At the end of his 'every inch a king' speech, Lear in turn gives money to the blinded Gloucester, whose condition he recognizes—'No eyes in your head, nor no money in your purse?' (4.6.146-7)—before he admits to recognizing the man himself: 'I know thee well enough; thy name is Gloucester' (4.6.179). The almsgiving of both Lear and Gloucester has become something more meaningful than that largesse traditional to aristocrats: Gloucester at least begins to speak in full awareness of what destitution means, and to realize in personal terms what money can do for a beggar (4.1.76-7), and Lear has made his astonishing remarks about his poor subjects, about those denied justice by their poverty, and about 'the thing itself.'
For the old men, the realization that some men are poor comes as an immense revelation. Unlike them, and in spite of his naïveté about his brother's motives, Edgar possesses remarkable social experience for a young aristocrat. His description of Bedlam beggars may argue a mere sightseeing visit to a madhouse, but his knowing how beggars 'Enforce their charity' (2.3.9-20) and are 'whipp'd from tithing to tithing, and stockpunish'd, and imprison'd' (3.4.137-9) suggests that he has already paid considerable attention to contemporary customs outside the normal purview of the heir to an earldom. This sort of knowledge, got we know not how, argues for Edgar's ultimate fitness to rule the kingdom: he will not, one assumes, take 'Too little care of this.' As king he will be, it is implied, a just judge, a 'justicer' in reality for whom 'Robes and furr'd gowns' shall not 'hide all,' fulfilling the ancient duties ascribed to an earl, or 'Iudex.'
Edgar may seem surprisingly democratic in this respect, but he is impeccably trained in the old aristocratic ethos—his training offers one explanation, indeed, of how he was so easily duped by his half-brother, from whom he could not imagine treachery; and why he was unable to do his father hurt, sorely though that father had hurt him. Edgar's nature makes him the ideal preux chevalier to challenge Edmund; in that short episode of trial-by-combat, when Edmund receives his mortal wound, much is involved. First, Edmund is arrested for 'capital treason' on a charge familiar enough in sixteenth-century England, adultery with the Queen. Second, he is to prove himself by an old-fashioned and quintessentially aristocratic method, the formal trial-at-arms outmoded in the late sixteenth century as a customary proof. The modern equivalent of this sort of combat was the duel, a far more private affair than Edgar's challenge to Edmund; treason trials were judicial, carried on in camera. The anachronism stresses the play's archaism; further, it sets the struggle between factions into a simple morality-context, where virtue must be victorious. With this episode we are back in the world of chivalry of which we have heard nothing in the play and to which, under normal circumstances, Edmund the bastard could never have aspired. The new man, intent only on the main chance, ought to have looked on such an outmoded, hazardous process with contempt—but Edmund found himself subtly flattered by being party to such a procedure, the signature, after all, of the aristocratic life which he had usurped. From his answer to Edgar's formal challenge we can hear how attracted Edmund was to the idea of himself as a 'real' aristocrat, the true inheritor of this beautiful, dangerous, elaborate ritual:
In wisdom I should ask thy name;
But since thy outside looks so fair and war-
And that thy tongue some say of breeding
What safe and nicely I might well delay
By rule of knighthood, I disdain and
Edmund adapts his language to the archaic formalities of chivalric address; his behaviour assimilates to that of the nobleman born. In this hour of his greatest danger, Edmund is at least offered a chance to act with the full dignity of the high-born, to take up the class-legacy his father did not leave him. Evidently, too, there is something purgative about this gesture; though he speaks to Edgar with a condescension dis-allowed by the real facts ('If thou'rt noble, / I do forgive thee' [5.3.165-7]) he admits his guilt and acknowledges the ironic justice of fortune's wheel, to which he was bound from the beginning (5.3.173-4). He resolves to do 'some good' by sending to stop the execution of Lear and Cordelia, and is borne off to die with some dignity before that terrible pietá of parent and child takes place.
Beside the bodies of Goneril and Regan, the bodies of Cordelia and Lear come to lie. Before our eyes, the greatest family in England is brought to its end. What every patriarch feared—even Lear, who could invoke sterility upon Goneril—has come to pass. From 'the promis'd end,' or 'image of that horror' the survivors must build back to some restoration of order, of justice. Kent refuses the commission of the kingdom, resigning his share to Edgar; Albany, who has begun the play ambitious for rule, is glad to relinquish its responsibility; Edgar, who never wished any such thing, lives to rule, his father's surviving son and godson to the dead king. A dynasty has ended, and a different rule is about to begin.
We do not know what the reign will be like: we can only assume that Edgar, having profited from knowing 'The worst' in his own experience, his father's, and his godfather's, having travelled the long road from the heath to the combat at Dover, from destitution to sovereignty, will rule as a Lear 'improv'd.' Just as at the play's beginning we are given no hint of what went before the day of division, at the play's end we are given no warranty of the future, but are simply asked to commit ourselves to Edgar's experience, sense of justice, and human-kindness. As the play began, in medias res, without explanation or motivation offered, to present us with the agonizing exemplum of the complexity of human life and human intents, inexplicable often even to the actors themselves, so it ends without explanation, prophecy, or promise.
That contemporary social problems were analysed and exploited to make up much of the substance of this play may strike us as astonishing, although readers of Shakespeare's history plays will not be surprised at this further link between them and King Lear. Some of the elements of the aristocratic 'crisis'—for example, primogeniture, retinue and service, exhibition of power, and actual power—are obvious enough in plot and theme; but other aspects of the problem, on their face less apparent in society, as well as less prominent in the play, turn out to be crucial. I have spoken of the importance of deference to both old and new aristocrats; Stone regards the decline of respect to the nobility as one of the major social changes that class had to face, and, obviously, monarchs had to come to terms, after 1647, with the regicidal ideas subjects could afford to entertain. Stone gives many reasons for the decline of automatic deference to aristocrats—the passing of aristocratic military power, the relative rise of the gentry and the commercial classes with respect to the nobility, the creation of a 'rival' ethos involving prudence and frugality rather than openhandedness and magnificence, the venality of some noblemen and the wickedness of others, together with a communications system that permitted open criticism of such foibles and faults. Shakespeare, of course, concentrates, translates, and transvalues this process of devaluation in dramatic and symbolic rather than realistic or reportorial terms. For example, the terrible poignancy of the play's situation is heightened by the fact that it is Lear's daughters who, instead of jealously guarding the prerogatives of their rank and family (as would have been the normal 'real' behaviour of even unloving daughters), so calculatingly rob Lear of the deference due him. But 'rule' enforces high stakes: in his private capacity, Lear might expect family solidarity, but as ruler he risked great dangers particularly from members of his family.
A rather silly way of speaking of this play is to suggest that it dramatizes, as no other piece of literature in the period does, the actual decline of paternal authority that Stone has tried to measure in the English Renaissance. Some of the power noble fathers exercised over their children, as we have seen, they themselves relinquished, and did so gladly for the children's sake. Some of the decline in parental authority is related to the gradual softening of behaviour between the generations, as noblemen allowed themselves a greater preoccupation with private pleasures and satisfactions. This tendency toward privatism—symbolically crucial in the play, and ironically expressed in Lear's joy at the prospect of sharing his prison with Cordelia—is apparent also in his early speeches, when he clearly looked forward to retirement in his daughters' houses, especially Cordelia's: 'I lov'd her most, and thought to set my rest / On her kind nursery' (1.1.123-4). Unlike Richard II, whose preference for private pleasure brought an end to his rule, King Lear had evidently fulfilled his public obligations during his reign; but that he could take such pleasure in withdrawing from public power is one mark of the period in which this play was written, rather than the primitive period in which it is supposed to have taken place. Obviously, Lear thinks that he has come to deserve the delights of retirement on his own terms.
In England, a mark of respect paid parents by their children was kneeling for their blessing: in a sermon of 1629, far later than this play, Donne wrote, 'Children kneele to aske blessing of Parents in England, but where else?' Still later, Evelyn commented on the childish dutifulness of grown children before their parents. Against such a background, Lear's cursing his daughters (Cordelia, 1.1.108-20; Goneril, 1.4.284-98; 2.4.147, 163-9), and his denial of benison to Cordelia (1.1.264-5) gain great force, and bring the play out of its Celtic pre-christianity into the sixteenth century; so also does his bitter mockery of the forgiveness Regan counsels him to ask of Goneril:
Ask her forgiveness?
Do you but mark how this becomes the house:
'Dear daughter, I confess that I am old;
Age is unnecessary: on my knees I beg
That you'll vouchsafe me raiment, bed, and
(2.4.153-7; italics mine)
The king's gesture of kneeling to his children is not just a momentary criticism of the children's behaviour to him, but also a confirmation of the Fool's sharp words, that he has made '[his] daughters [his] mothers,' and must kneel to them to supplicate the elemental support that fathers without question provide for their children and can in turn expect from them. From Cordelia, much later, he does receive raiment, bed, and food: she becomes his real mother, on whose kind nursery he can set his brief rest. Not only that, Cordelia asserts her daughterhood the while, by asking the blessing he had withheld from her when they parted—
O! look upon me, Sir,
And hold your hand in benediction o'er me,
she says, cancelling out the harshness of that last exchange. And Lear, as befits the moral and social dependent, kneels to her, a gesture which her dutiful daughterhood cannot permit: 'No, Sir, you must not kneel' (4.7.59). He is still her father and, for her, still king as well (4.7.44). The significance of these gestures of reconciliation sticks in Lear's mind, so that when Edmund's guard carries him and Cordelia off to prison, he welcomes the respite from warlike life and plans, in the safety of the birdcage endlessly to recapitulate his reunion with Cordelia:
When thou dost ask me blessing, I'll kneel
And ask of thee forgiveness: so we'll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and
At gilded butterflies …
The old man's union with his child is, in fact, their fusion: each as parent blesses the other, who asks blessing as a child. The paternal and filial functions, so long misused, skewed, and uncommunicated in the play, finally interchange to become one. When it is too late to do more than assert their value, the old bonds are confirmed and made stronger than ever.
Lear becomes reconciled to his child, and to his own paternity. Stable values are corroborated as he comes to rest, for a tragically brief moment, confident of the security of Cordelia's 'bond.' In other ways, Lear shows traces of 'modern' attitudes toward sexuality and paternity, some pleasant and some unpleasant. Although the play's skilful arrangements with its secondary plot both corroborate and counterpoint the main plot, in one social respect Lear and Gloucester, so often alike, differ markedly. Betrayed as he is by the fruit of his adultery, Gloucester might have been expected to denounce aristocratic licence. Not so, however; the harshest comments on sexuality come from Edgar, puritanical in his view of his father's behaviour, and from Lear, who suffers an extraordinary revulsion from sexuality altogether. Although, presumably, aristocratic tolerance of sexual laxity remained greater than that of other social classes, it too underwent some stiffening over the period of the Renaissance, in part because marriages had more to do with love than hitherto, in part because women emerged as a stronger social force within the class, and in part because real pressure was exerted on the nobility by chaplains, ministers, and disapproving puritan commentators on sexual habits. Lear's attacks on Goneril's sexuality, his comments on the 'rascal beadle' standing in for lustful humanity at large, and his backhanded encomium of adultery and luxury all testify to his obsession with his own begetting, but also represent the greater preoccupation of noblemen with the question of sexual standards, earlier rarely considered at all. As a whole, the play condemns sexual license and casts doubt on the values of sexuality: Gloucester suffers extremely for his early adultery, and their sexuality is one mark of the monstrousness and inhumanity of Goneril, Regan, and Edmund.
In quite a different range of language, another major theme of King Lear is tied to the problems of an aristocracy caught between an old ethos of unreckoned generosity, magnificence, and carelessness, and new values stressing greater providence, frugality, and even calculation. The economic alterations characteristic of the period struck the aristocracy, as everyone else; noblemen made various kinds of compromise with new economic exigencies—dowries and jointures, for example, were initiated as prudential arrangements; some noblemen were faced with choosing between imposing higher rents and receiving still the unqualified reverence of grateful tenants. Old-fashioned aristocrats tended to maintain old ways, with their concomitant bonds of service, in the teeth of economic difficulty; newfangled lords often put their relations with their dependents upon a businesslike basis unknown earlier.
We might well expect Goneril, Regan, and Edmund to think quantitatively—to fractionate and even annihilate Lear's retinue, to set prices on Gloucester's head and Lear's and Cordelia's lives; we might expect, too, that Oswald and the Captain should seek their material advancement by the deaths of these great ones. Such people represent and act out their lives in terms of the material values of both power and accounting. They can always go one arithmetical step farther—'What need one?' 'Till noon! till night, my Lord; and all night'; 'Hang him instantly.'—'Pluck out his eyes.' They know the minimum and the maximum—Goneril calculates to the last, assuring her mortally wounded lover that he had not had to answer the challenge of 'An unknown opposite.' Their naked calculation reduces all human values to quantitative measurement and thus easily loses sight of the 'need' underlying such values, to slip easily over into the utmost barbarity. But the fractionating by Goneril and Regan of their father's train, after all, echoes the same habit of mind and spirit exercised by the king himself, who set a price on his daughters' love and divided his kingdom in relation to their assertions of quantitative devotion. Again and again, characters take account, reckon their own and others' emotions: even the saintly Cordelia (perhaps pedagogically) speaks to her father of bonds and fractions—half her love for her husband, half left with her father. Gloucester tells Kent that Edgar is 'no dearer in [his] account' than Edmund; Kent speaks metaphorically of fee, as does the Fool later. For Lear, bestowing his disinherited daughter as a bad investment, Cordelia's 'price is fallen'; for France, brought up to admire magnanimity, 'She is herself a dowry.' Later, when Goneril's husband tells her she is not 'worth the dust which the rude wind / Blows in your face' (4.2.30-1), we realize how much he has begun to learn of calculation's values. Finally, the language of number is dissolved into paradoxes of 'all' and 'nothing,' thereby running out into areas of meaninglessness and incalculability. Need cannot be reasoned, or measured—nor can love, fidelity, or truth. It takes Lear a long time to come to that lesson: on his way to it, he can still say to Goneril,
Thy fifty yet doth double five-and-twenty,
And thou art twice her love,
only to hear Regan ask a moment after, 'What need one?' Reduced to nothing, he has reached the point of non-support implied when the Fool asked Kent, 'Prithee, tell him, so much the rent of his land comes to' (1.4.140-1)—that is, to nothing. Lear, like Gloucester, passes through a stage of thought involving 'distribution' and 'superflux,' the language of justice in which he arraigns his daughters and criticizes the exercise of authority. He must evidently pass through that stage, which is after all simply another kind of reasoning of need (exposed in Goneril's hard statement of power, 'Who can arraign me for't?') to realize that there are senses, good and bad, in which 'None does offend, none, I say, none' (4.6.170)—and in which even those with cause to harm or punish reject the bargaining code implied by the concept of 'cause': 'No cause, no cause.'
In all kinds of ways, in many ranges of expression and of art, this play passes through ordinary human experience to insist upon the greatness and the abyss of human life. From the simplest, and often the silliest, aspects of human behaviour, its morality is made to open upon an almost metaphysical amplitude. The play forces upon us a realization of the limitations of being human, as well as of humanity's potentiality for transcending and even transvaluing itself. In one particular literary type, the figure of the Fool, we have an example of this transfiguration from naturalistic representation to reverberating symbol. Fools, as the books assure us, were typical appendages of both medieval and Renaissance courts. Interestingly enough, in England James I (famous for his fools and his foolishness, though perhaps not yet for the latter when this play was first put on) was the last English monarch to patronize professional fools; they too went out in the peculiar, muted modernization of life resulting from the War and the Interregnum. Of the figures in the play, the Fool most of all moves along the gamut from morality to naturalism: the Fool speaks both in propria persona and in the stylized persona of the official fool, sometimes 'all-licens'd' and satirical, sometimes sad and despondent, sometimes mixing modes of actuality and metaphor. His 'prophecy' is one such mixture (3.2.81-95); at first he seems to project a Utopian world 'When priests are more in word than matter,' at other times a world upside down in unpleasantness—'When brewers mar their malt with water.' From that point on, the prophecy jumbles ideal with deformed elements, and we are never sure what the measuring-rod is. Why should it be better, or worse, if 'No heretics' are 'burn'd, but wenches' suitors'? Though it would indeed be Utopian if 'No squire' were 'in debt, nor no poor knight,' and if usurers could 'tell their gold i' th' field' secure from theft, still it is an imperfect England that harbours usurers at all; there is, too, no particular virtue in bawds' and whores' building churches. The world of the Fool's prophecy is no schematic world of handy-dandy, where evil systematically replaces good or good evil: the Fool recognizes, even in this utterance, that the world in which he lives is deeply confused. His words to Kent in the stocks, too, both the prose comment on fortune and favour and the little poem reiterating the theme, seem to say that wise men ought not to follow declining patrons; yet he calls those who fly such patrons 'knaves' and insists with pride upon his own 'foolish' loyalty to his powerless lord. The Fool knows the ways of Goneril and Regan—and rejects them. Perhaps it is not so grotesque, after all, that he is one of the justicers of the crazy King's Bench which arraigns Goneril, the joint-stool in a symbolic gesture whose meaning the real woman could never recognize. Like Erasmus' Folly, Lear's Fool knows truth from fiction, and knows their complicated inter-dependence as well.
The Fool disappears—from the play as from English courts, and for just the reason Lear's Fool gives: 'Lords and great ones' usurp his monopoly. The Fool's comment is extremely shrewd. For a time folly was the monopoly, granted by monarchs, as the exclusive privilege of fools, but as the social distinctions upon which such regulated mockery depended fell away, so everyone 'snatched' at all privilege, even the dubious one of folly. Along with the gentleman and yeoman of the riddle, even a king can be a fool. When that happens, deference offers no defence against folly, and professional fools must be got rid of.
Lear becomes, by his own admission, a fool—an old king, caught in the conflict of one ethos with another, trying to be fair by the new standards and yet relying on the privileges granted by the old, becomes a child again, with all the nonsense and the clarity of a child. He fails in the impossible task of doing right by a double standard he cannot even define, but after he has failed, he comes to understand, reject, and transcend those standards to assert a vision even truer than the normal ones, a reason purer than the customary assessments of either need or logic, and a charity greater than even royal munificence could show. One way we can perceive Lear's poignant predicament and accomplishment is to reckon it by the real problems that faced his peers, as Stone's book enables us to do. Shakespeare has not let Lear off easily; as so often, the playwright, for all that his heart lay with the old mores of abundance, kindness, and carelessness, scrupulously shows the problems and limits of such a code. Magnanimous noblemen were careless of costs, wasted human potential in their easy acceptance of the old customs. Ambitious 'new' noblemen may have corrected some of the errors of their conservative elders—but the cost of their correction, as this play demonstrates, is prohibitive. We are forced to acknowledge that there is a crisis of values in this play, and that neither ethos will do—and, though there is no doubt which side the playwright preferred, he was too scrupulous to present the problem simply as a morality, or simply as a conservative argument for 'order' and 'degree.' He saw both the practical Tightness of the position Goneril, Regan, and Edmund abused, and the social grace of the position Lear and Gloucester exploited. But however we come to love and pity the old aristocrats, we know that their unconsidered acceptance of their own values was too expensive, in terms of their own families. Those lapsing fathers counted on unexamined social custom for protection against everything, even against the mysteries of hard hearts and calculating brains. The moral weight of the play comes down decisively with the advocates of old values, but not without having hesitated long enough to show how crucially those values fell short.
Stephen Greenblatt (essay date 1982)
SOURCE: "The Cultivation of Anxiety: King Lear and His Heirs," in Learning to Curse: Essays in Early Modern Culture, Routledge, Chapman & Hall, 1990.
[In the essay that follows, Greenblatt compares a nineteenth-century account of a father's "subduing" of his infant son with the love-test to which Lear subjects his daughters.]
I want to begin this essay far from the Renaissance, with a narrative of social practice first published in the American Baptist Magazine of 1831. Its author is the Reverend Francis Wayland, an early president of Brown University and a Baptist minister. The passage concerns his infant son, Heman Lincoln Wayland, who was himself to become a college president and Baptist minister:
My youngest child is an infant about 15 months old, with about the intelligence common to children of that age. It has for some months been evident, that he was more than usually self willed, but the several attempts to subdue him, had been thus far relinquished, from the fear that he did not fully understand what was said to him. It so happened, however, that I had never been brought into collision with him myself, until the incident occurred which I am about to relate. Still I had seen enough to convince me of the necessity of subduing his temper, and resolved to seize upon the first favorable opportunity which presented, for settling the question of authority between us.
On Friday last before breakfast, on my taking him from his nurse, he began to cry violently. I determined to hold him in my arms until he ceased. As he had a piece of bread in his hand, I took it away, intending to give it to him again after he became quiet. In a few minutes he ceased, but when I offered him the bread he threw it away, although he was very hungry. He had, in fact, taken no nourishment except a cup of milk since 5 o'clock on the preceding afternoon. I considered this a fit opportunity for attempting to subdue his temper, and resolved to embrace it. I thought it necessary to change his disposition, so that he would receive the bread from me, and also be so reconciled to me that he would voluntarily come to me. The task I found more difficult than I had expected.
I put him into a room by himself, and desired that no one should speak to him, or give him any food or drink whatever. This was about 8 o'clock in the morning. I visited him every hour or two during the day, and spoke to him in the kindest tones, offering him the bread and putting out my arms to take him. But throughout the whole day he remained inflexibly obstinate. He did not yield a hair's breadth. I put a cup of water to his mouth, and he drank it greedily, but would not touch it with his hands. If a crumb was dropped on the floor he would eat it, but if / offered him the piece of bread, he would push it away from him. When I told him to come to me, he would turn away and cry bitterly. He went to bed supperless. It was now twenty-four hours since he had eaten anything.
He woke the next morning in the same state. He would take nothing that I offered him, and shunned all my offers of kindness. He was now truly an object of pity. He had fasted thirty-six hours. His eyes were wan and sunken. His breath hot and feverish, and his voice feeble and wailing. Yet he remained obstinate. He continued thus, till 10 o'clock, A.M. when hunger overcame him, and he took from me a piece of bread, to which I added a cup of milk, and hoped that the labor was at last accomplished.
In this however I had not rightly judged. He ate his bread greedily, but when I offered to take him, he still refused as pertinaciously as ever. I therefore ceased feeding him, and recommenced my course of discipline.
He was again left alone in his crib, and I visited him as before, at intervals. About one o'clock, Saturday, I found that he began to view his condition in its true light. The tones of his voice in weeping were graver and less passionate, and had more the appearance of one bemoaning himself. Yet when I went to him he still remained obstinate. You could clearly see in him the abortive efforts of the will. Frequently he would raise his hands an inch or two, and then suddenly put them down again. He would look at me, and then hiding his face in the bedclothes weep most sorrowfully. During all this time I was addressing him, whenever I came into the room, with invariable kindness. But my kindness met with no suitable return. All I required of him was, that he should come to me. This he would not do, and he began now to see that it had become a serious business. Hence his distress increased. He would not submit, and he found that there was no help without it. It was truly surprising to behold how much agony so young a being could inflict upon himself.
About three o'clock I visited him again. He continued in the state I have described. I was going away, and had opened the door, when I thought that he looked somewhat softened, and returning, put out my hands, again requesting him to come to me. To my joy, and I hope gratitude, he rose up and put forth his hands immediately. The agony was over. He was completely subdued. He repeatedly kissed me, and would do so whenever I commanded. He would kiss any one when I directed him, so full of love was he to all the family. Indeed, so entirely and instantaneously were his feelings towards me changed, that he preferred me now to any of the family. As he had never done before, he moaned after me when he saw that I was going away.
Since this event several slight revivals of his former temper have occurred, but they have all been easily subdued. His disposition is, as it never has been before, mild and obedient. He is kind and affectionate, and evidently much happier than he was, when he was determined to have his own way. I hope and pray that it may prove that an effect has been produced upon him for life.
The indignation and disgust that this account immediately excited in the popular press of Jacksonian America, as it does in ourselves, seem to me appropriate but incomplete responses, for if we say that tyranny here masquerades as paternal kindness, we must also remember that, as Kafka once remarked of his father, "love often wears the face of violence." Wayland's behavior reflects the relentless effort of generations of evangelical fathers to break the child's will, but it would be a mistake to conceive of this effort as a rejection of affective familial bonds or as a primitive disciplinary pathology from which our own unfailing decency toward the young has freed itself. On the contrary, Wayland's struggle is a strategy of intense familial love, and it is the sophisticated product of a long historical process whose roots lie at least partly in early modern England, the England of Shakespeare's King Lear.
Wayland's twin demands—that his son take food directly from him and come to him voluntarily, as an act of love and not forced compliance—may in fact be seen, from the perspective of what French historians call the longue durée, as a domesticated, "realistic," and, as it were, bourgeoisified version of the love test with which Shakespeare's play opens. Lear too wishes to be the object—the preferred and even the sole recipient—of his child's love. He can endure a portion of that love being turned elsewhere, but only when he directs that it be so divided, just as Reverend Wayland was in the end pleased that the child "would kiss any one when I directed him." Such a kiss is not a turning elsewhere but an indirect expression of love for the father.
Goneril, to be sure, understands that the test she so successfully passes is focused on compliance: "you have obedience scanted," she tells Cordelia, "And well are worth the want that you have wanted" (I,i). But Lear's response to his youngest daughter's declaration that she does not love him all suggests that more than outward deference is at stake: "But goes thy heart with this?" From Cordelia at least he wants something more than formal obedience, something akin to the odd blend of submission to authority and almost erotic longing depicted at the close of Wayland's account: "He repeatedly kissed me, and would do so whenever I commanded.… As he had never done before, he moaned after me when he saw that I was going away."
To obtain such love, Wayland withholds his child's food, and it is tempting to say that Lear, in disinheriting Cordelia, does the same. But what is a technique for Wayland is for Lear a dire and irreversible punishment: the disinheriting and banishment of Cordelia is not a lesson, even for the elder sisters, let alone for Cordelia herself, but a permanent estrangement, sealed with the most solemn oaths. Wayland's familial strategy uses parental discipline to bring about a desired relationship rather than to punish when the relationship has failed. In his account, the taking away of the child's food initiates the love test, whereas in King Lear the father's angry cancellation of his daughter's dowry signals the abandonment of the love test and the formal disclaimer of all paternal care. In the contrast between this bitter finality and a more calculating discipline that punishes in order to fashion its object into a desired shape, we glimpse the first of the differences that help to account for the resounding success of Wayland's test and the grotesque and terrifying failure of Lear's.
A second crucial difference is that by the early nineteenth century the age of the child who is tested has been pushed back drastically; Wayland had noticed signs of self-will in his infant son for some months, but had not sought to subdue it until he was certain that the child could "fully understand what was said to him." That he expected to find such understanding in a fifteen-month-old reflects a transformation in cultural attitudes toward children, a transformation whose early signs may be glimpsed in Puritan child-rearing manuals and early seventeenth-century religious lyrics and that culminates in the educational philosophy of Rousseau and the poetry of Wordsworth.
King Lear, by contrast, locates the moment of testing, for Cordelia at least, precisely in what was for Shakespeare's England the age that demanded the greatest attention, instruction, and discipline, the years between sexual maturity at about fifteen and social maturity at about twenty-six. This was, in the words of a seventeenth-century clergyman quoted by Keith Thomas, "a slippery age, full of passion, rashness, wilfulness," upon which adults must impose restraints and exercise shaping power. The Elizabethan and Jacobean theater returned almost obsessively to the representation of this age group, which, not coincidentally, constituted a significant portion of the play-going population. Civic officials, lawyers, preachers, and moralists joined dramatists in worrying chiefly about what Lawrence Stone in The Family, Sex and Marriage in England 1500-1800 calls "potentially the most unruly element in any society, the floating mass of young unmarried males," and it was to curb their spirits, fashion their wills, and delay their full entry into the adult world that the educational system and the laws governing apprentice-ship addressed themselves. But girls were also the objects of a sustained cultural scrutiny that focused on the critical passage from the authority of the father or guardian to the authority of the husband. This transition was of the highest structural significance, entailing complex transactions of love, power, and material substance, all of which, we may note, are simultaneously at issue when Lear demands of his youngest daughter a declaration she is unwilling or unable to give.
Love, power, and material substance are likewise at issue in the struggle between Reverend Wayland and his toddler, but all reduced to the proportions of the nursery: a kiss, an infantile gesture of refusal, a piece of bread. In the nineteenth-century confrontation, punishment is justified as exemplary technique, and the temporal frame has shifted from adolescence to infancy. Equally significant, the spatial frame has shifted as well, from the public to the private. Lear is of course a king, for whom there would, in any case, be no privacy, but generally Renaissance writers do not assume that the family is set off from public life. On the contrary, public life is itself most frequently conceived in familial terms, as an interlocking, hierarchical system of patriarchal authorities, while conversely the family is conceived as a little commonwealth. Indeed the family is widely understood in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries as both the historical source and the ideological justification of society: "for I admit," writes Bacon, "the law to be that if the son kill his father or mother it is petty treason, and that there remaineth in our laws so much of the ancient footsteps of potestas patria and natural obedience, which by the law of God is the very instance itself, and all other government and obedience is taken but by equity." In other words, the Fifth Commandment—"Honor thy father and mother"—is the original letter of the law which equity "enlarges," as the Elizabethan jurist Edmund Plowden puts it, to include all political authority.
This general understanding of the enlargement by which the state is derived from the family is given virtually emblematic form in representations of the ruling family; hence the supremely public nature of Lear's interrogations of his daughters' feelings toward him does not mark him off, as other elements in the play do, from the world of Shakespeare's audience, but rather registers a central ideological principle of middle- and upper-class families in the early modern period. Affairs of family shade into affairs of state, as Gloucester's anxious broodings on the late eclipses of the sun and moon make clear: "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" (I,ii). The very order of the phrases here, in their failure to move decisively from private to public, their reversion at the close to the familial bond, signals the interinvolvement of household and society. By the time of Jacksonian America, the family has moved indoors, separated from civil society, which in turn has been separated from the state. Reverend Wayland's account of his domestic crisis is also, of course, intended for public consumption, but it was published anonymously, as if to respect the protective boundaries of the family, and more important still, it makes public a private event in order to assist the private lives of others, that is, to strengthen the resolve of loving parents to subdue the temper of their own infants.
We will return later to the temporal and spatial problems touched upon here—the cultural evaluation of differing age groups and the status of privacy—but we should first note several of the significant continuities between Renaissance child-rearing techniques and those of nineteenth-century American evangelicals. The first, and ground of all the others, is the not-so-simple fact of observation: these parents pay attention to their children, testing the young to gauge the precise cast of their emotion and will. This is more obviously the case with Reverend Wayland, who when his child was scarcely a year old was already scrutinizing him for signs of self-will. The fathers in Shakespeare's play seem purblind by comparison: Lear apparently cannot perceive the difference between his eldest daughters' blatant hypocrisy and his youngest daughter's truth, while Gloucester evidently does not know what his eldest (and sole legitimate) son's handwriting—his "character"—looks like and is easily persuaded that this son (with whom he had talked for two hours the night before) wishes to kill him. This seeming obliviousness, however, signifies not indifference but error: Lear and Gloucester are hopelessly inept at reading their children's "characters," but the effort to do so is of the utmost importance in the play, which, after all, represents the fatal consequences of an incorrect "reading." We may say, with the Fool, that Lear was "a pretty fellow" when he had "no need to care" for his daughter's frowns (I, iv), but this indifference only exists outside the play itself, or perhaps in its initial moments; thereafter (and irreversibly) parents must scrutinize their children with what Lear, in a moment of uncharacteristic self-criticism, calls a "jealous curiosity" (I, iv). In initiating the plot against Edgar, Edmund gauges perfectly his father's blend of credulity and inquisitorial curiosity: "Edmund, how now! what news?.… Why so earnestly seek you to put up that letter?.… What paper were you reading?.… What needed then that terrible dispatch of it into your pocket?.… Let's see: come; if it be nothing, I shall not need spectacles" (I, ii). Children in the play, we might add, similarly scrutinize their fathers: "You see how full of changes his age is," Goneril remarks to Regan in their first moment alone together; "the observation we have made of it hath not been little" (I, i). The whole family comes to exist sub specie semioticae; everyone is intent on reading the signs in everyone else.
This mode of observation is common to Shakespeare's play and Wayland's account, but not because it is intrinsic to all family life: intense paternal observation of the young is by no means a universal practice. It is, rather, learned by certain social groups in particular cultures and ages. Thus there is virtually no evidence of the practice in late medieval England, while for the seventeenth century there is (given the general paucity of materials for intimate family history) quite impressive evidence, especially for the substantial segment of the population touched by Puritanism. For example, the Essex vicar Ralph Josselin (1617-83) has left in his diary a remarkably full record of his troubled relationship with his son, particularly during the latter's adolescence. "My soule yearned over John," notes one characteristic entry, "oh lord overcome his heart." The conflict between them reached a crisis in 1674, when, in a family discussion held in the presence of his wife and four daughters, Josselin put the following proposition before his twenty-three-year-old heir:
John set your selfe to fear God, & bee industrious in my business, refrain your evill courses, and I will passe by all past offences, setle all my estate on you after your mothers death, and leave you some stocke on the ground and within doores to the value of an £100 and desire of you, out of your marriage portion but £400 to provide for my daughters or otherwise to charge my land with so much for their porcions; but if you continue your ill courses I shall dispose my land otherwise, and make only a provision for your life to put bread in your hand.
The father's strategy was at least temporarily successful, as John prudently accepted the offer and "ownd his debauchery."
Josselin's insistence upon the economic consequences of disobedience provides an immediate link to King Lear, where the father's power to alter portions and to disinherit is of crucial importance. We should note that primogeniture was never so inflexibly established in England, even among the aristocracy, as to preclude the exercise of paternal discretion, the power to bribe, threaten, reward, and punish. Lear's division of the kingdom, his attempt both to set his daughters in competition with each other and to dispose of his property equitably among them, seems less a wanton violation of the normative practice than a daring attempt to use the paternal power always inherent in it. This power is exhibited in more conventional form in the subplot: "And of my land, / Loyal and natural boy," the deceived Gloucester tells his conniving bastard son, "I'll work the means / To make thee capable" (II, i). This economic pressure is not, of course, immediately apparent in Reverend Wayland's dealings with his infant, but Josselin's threat to "make only a provision … to put bread in your hand" curiously anticipates the symbolic object of contention in the Wayland nursery and suggests that there too the paternal power to withhold or manipulate the means of sustenance is at issue.
This power should not be regarded as exclusively disciplinary. It is instead an aspect of a general familial concern with planning for the future, a concern that extends from attempts to shape the careers of individual children to an overarching interest in the prosperity of the "house." Francis Wayland's struggle with his son is not a flaring-up of paternal anger but a calculated effort to fashion his child's future: "I hope and pray that it may prove that an effect has been produced upon him for life." Similarly, Lear's disastrous division of the kingdom is undertaken, he claims, so that "future strife / May be prevented now" (I, i), and the love test marks the formal entry into his planned retirement.
These efforts to shape the future of the family seem to reflect a conviction that there are certain critical moments upon which a whole train of subsequent events depends, moments whose enabling conditions may be irrecoverable and whose consequences may be irreversible. Such a conviction is formally expressed most often in relation to great public events, but its influence is more widespread, extending, for example, to rhetorical training, religious belief, and, I would suggest, child rearing. Parents must be careful to watch for what we may call, to adapt the rhetorical term, kairotic moments and to grasp the occasion for action. Hence Francis Wayland, wishing to alter his son's nature for life, "resolved to seize upon the first favorable opportunity which presented, for settling the question of authority between us." Had the father not done so, he would not only have diminished his own position but risked the destruction of his child's spiritual and physical being. Moreover, Wayland adds, had he received his stubborn child on any other terms than "the unconditional surrender of his will," he would have permitted the formation of a topsy-turvy world in which his entire family would have submitted to the caprices of an infant: "He must have been made the center of a whole system. A whole family under the control of a child 15 months old!" This carnivalesque reversal of roles would then have invited further insurrections, for "my other children and every member of my family would have been entitled to the same privilege." "Hence," Wayland concludes, "there would have been as many supreme authorities as there were individuals, and contention to the uttermost must have ensued."
King Lear depicts something very much like such a world turned upside down: Lear, as the Fool says, has made his daughters his mothers, and they employ on him, as in a nightmare, those disciplinary techniques deemed appropriate for "a slippery age, full of passion, rashness, wilfulness." "Old fools are babes again," says Goneril, "and must be us'd / With checks as flatteries, when they are seen abus'd" (I, iii). In the carnival tradition, tolerated—if uneasily—by the medieval church and state, such reversals of role, provided they were temporary, could be seen as restrorative, renewing the proper order of society by releasing pentup frustrations and potentially disruptive energies. As we know from a family account, even Francis Wayland could allow his children occasional bursts of festive inversion, always returning in the end to the supreme paternal authority that his early discipline had secured. But in Lear the role reversal is permanent, and its effect is the disintegration of the entire kingdom. Wayland similarly links permanent disorder in the family to chaos in the political, moral, and theological realms; indeed his loving struggle with his son offers, he suggests, a precise and resonant analogy to God's struggle with the sinner: it is infinitely kind in God to resist the sinner's will, "for if he were not resisted, he would destroy the happiness of the universe and himself together."
Here again, in Wayland's conviction that the fate of the universe may be linked to the power struggle in his nursery, we may hear an echo of Lear:
If you do love old men, if your sweet sway
Allow obedience, if you yourselves are old,
Make it your cause; send down and take my
Of course, as these very lines suggest, what is assumed in Wayland is deeply problematical in Lear: the fictive nature of the play, reinforced by its specifically pagan setting, seems to have licensed Shakespeare to anatomize the status and the underlying motives of virtually all of the elements that we have noted as common to the two texts. This difference is crucial, and it comes as no surprise that King Lear is more profound than Francis Wayland's account of his paternal authority: celebration of Shakespeare's profundity is an institutinalized rite of civility in our culture. We tend to assume, however, that Shakespearean self-consciousness and irony lead to a radical transcendence of the network of social conditions, paradigms, and practices in the plays. I would argue, by contrast, that Renaissance theatrical representation itself is fully implicated in this network and that Shakespeare's self-consciousness is in significant ways bound up with the institutions and the symbology of power it anatomizes.
But if its local ideological situation, its historical embeddedness, is so crucial to Shakespeare's play, what accounts for the similarities I have sketched between King Lear and Wayland's family narrative? The explanation lies first in the fact that nineteenth-century evangelical child-rearing techniques are the heirs of more widely diffused child-rearing techniques in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries—Wayland's practices may be seen almost fully articulated in a work like John Robinson's Of Children and Their Education, published in 1628 though written some years earlier—and second in the fact that the Renaissance English drama was one of the cultural institutions that expressed and fashioned just those qualities that we have identified as enabling the familial love test in the first place. That is, the mode of the drama, quite apart from any specific content, depended upon and fostered in its audience observation, the close reading of gesture and speech as manifestations of character and intention; planning, a sensitivity to the consequences of action (i.e., plot) and to kairotic moments (i.e., rhetoric); and a sense of resonance, the conviction, rooted in the drama's medieval inheritance, that cosmic meanings were bound up with local and particular circumstances.
I am not, of course, suggesting that the nineteenth-century American minister was fashioned by the Renaissance theater (a theater his seventeenth-century religious forebears detested and sought to close) nor that without the theater Renaissance child-rearing techniques would have been far different. But the theater was not merely the passive reflector of social forces that lay entirely outside of it; rather, like all forms of art, indeed like all utterances, the theater was itself a social event. Artistic expression is never perfectly self-contained and abstract, nor can it be derived satisfactorily from the subjective consciousness of an isolated creator. Collective actions, ritual gestures, paradigms of relationship, and shared images of authority penetrate the work of art and shape it from within, while conversely the socially overdetermined work of art, along with a multitude of other institutions and utterances, contributes to the formation, realignment, and transmission of social practices.
Works of art are, to be sure, marked off in our culture from ordinary utterances, but this demarcation is itself a communal event and signals not the effacement of the social but rather its successful absorption into the work by implication or articulation. This absorption—the presence within the work of its social being—makes it possible, as Bakhtin has argued, for art to survive the disappearance of its enabling social conditions, where ordinary utterance, more dependent upon the extraverbal pragmatic situation, drifts rapidly toward insignificance or incomprehensibility. Hence art's genius for survival, its delighted reception by audiences for whom it was never intended, does not signal its freedom from all other domains of life, nor does its inward articulation of the social confer upon it a formal coherence independent of the world outside its boundaries. On the contrary, artistic form itself both expresses and fashions social evaluations and practices.
Thus the Renaissance theater does not by virtue of the content of a particular play reach across a void to touch the Renaissance family; rather the theater is itself already saturated with social significance and hence with the family as the period's central social institution. Conversely, the theater contributes, in a small but by no means entirely negligible way, to the formal condensation and expression of patterns of observation, planning, and a sense of resonance. Hence it is fitting that when Cordelia resists Lear's paternal demand, she does so in an antitheatrical gesture, a refusal to perform: the theater and the family are simultaneously at stake.
To these shared patterns that link the quasi-mythical family of King Lear to the prosaic and amply documented family of Francis Wayland, we may now add four further interlocking features of Wayland's account that are more closely tied not to the mode of the theater as a whole but to the specific form and content of Shakespeare's tragedy: these are the absence or displacement of the mother, an affirmation of absolute paternal authority, an overriding interest in the will and hence in differentiating voluntary from merely forced compliance, and a belief in salutary anxiety.
Francis Wayland's wife was alive in 1831, but she is entirely, even eerily, missing from his account. Where was she during the long ordeal? In part her absence must depend upon her husband's understanding of the theological significance of the incident: in Francis Wayland's Christianity, there is no female intercessor, no Mother of Mankind to appeal to the stern Father for mercy upon a wayward child. Even if Mrs. Wayland did in fact try to temper (or reinforce) her husband's actions, he might well have regarded such intervention as irrelevant. Moreover, we may speculate that the timing of the incident—what we have called the perception of the kairotic moment—is designed precisely to avoid such irrelevant interventions. We do not know when any of the Wayland children were weaned, but fifteen months would seem about the earliest age at which the disciplinary withdrawal of food—the piece of bread and the cup of milk—could be undertaken without involving the mother or the nurse.
Thus the father is able entirely to displace the nurturing female body and with this displacement make manifest his "supreme authority" in the family, a micropolitics that, as we have seen, has its analogue both in the human world outside the home and in the divine realm. Between the law of the father and the law of God there is a perfect fit; between the father's authority and worldly authorities there is a more complicated relation, since Wayland, though an absolutist within his family, could not invoke in Jacksonian America a specific model of absolute power. The most he can do is to invoke, in effect, a generalized image of the social world and of the child as misfit: had his son been left unchecked, he "would soon have entered a world where other and more powerful beings than he would have opposed his will, and his disposition which I had cherished must have made him miserable as long as he lived."
This social vision does not mean that Wayland's primary interest is in outward compliance; on the contrary, a "forced yielding," as he terms it, is worthless. "Our voluntary service he requires," says Milton's Raphael of the Divine Father in Paradise Lost,
Not our necessitated, such with him
Finds no acceptance, nor can find, for how
Can hearts, not free, be tri'd whether they
Willing or no …
… freely we serve.
Because we freely love.
The proper goal is conversion, and to achieve this the father cannot rely on physical compulsion. He employs instead a technique of disciplinary kindness designed to show the child that his misery is entirely self-inflicted and can only be relieved by a similarly voluntary and inward surrender. In short, Wayland attempts to generate in his son a salutary anxiety that will lead to a transformation of the will.
With salutary anxiety we return powerfully to the mode and the content of King Lear. The very practice of tragedy depends upon a communal conviction that anxiety may be profitably and even pleasurably cultivated. That is, tragedy goes beyond the usual philosophical and religious consolations for affliction, and both exemplifies and perfects techniques for the creation or intensification of affliction. To justify such techniques, Renaissance artists could appeal to the theoretical account of tragedy that originated with Aristotle and was substantially elaborated in the sixteenth century, especially in Italy. But like most such theories, this one was inert until it intersected with a set of powerful social practices in the period.
From the perspective of Wayland's account, we may say that the most enduring of these practices is the Protestant cultivation of a sense of sin, the deliberate heightening of an anxiety that can only be relieved by a divine grace whose effect can only be felt by one who has experienced the anxiety. (I should emphasize that I am speaking here not simply of a set of theological propositions but of a program, prescribed in great detail and carried out by English Protestants from Tyndale onward.) To this religious practice, we may add the child-rearing techniques that also appear in Wayland's account, techniques that once again made a self-conscious and programmatic attempt to arouse anxiety for the child's ultimate good. But what is lost by early nineteenth-century America is the practice of salutary anxiety at the symbolic center of society, that is, in the characteristic operations of royal power. That power, concentrated and personalized, aroused anxiety not only as the negative limit but as the positive condition of its functioning. The monarchy, let us remind ourselves, did not conceive its purpose as the furthering of the subject's pursuit of happiness, nor was the political center of society a point at which all tensions and contradictions disappeared. On the contrary, Elizabethan and Jacobean charismatic absolutism battened on as well as suffered from the anxiety that arose from the instability of favor, the unresolved tensions in the religious settlement, the constantly proclaimed threats of subversion, invasion, and civil war, the spectacular public maimings and executions, and even the conspicuous gap between the monarch's ideological claim to perfect wisdom, beauty, and power and the all-too-visible limitations of the actual Elizabeth and James. The obedience required of the subject consisted not so much in preserving a genuine ignorance of this gap but in behaving as if the gap, though fully recognized, did not exist. The pressure of such a performance, demanded by the monarch's paradoxical yoking of the language of love and the language of coercion and registered in the subject's endless effusions of strained but not entirely hypocritical admiration, was itself an enhancement of royal power.
Throughout his career Shakespeare displays the deepest sensitivity to this production of salutary anxiety, a production he simultaneously questions and assimilates to his own authorial power. The fullest metatheatrical explorations of the phenomenon are in Measure for Measure and The Tempest, where both Dukes systematically awaken anxiety in others and become, for this reason, images of the dramatist himself. But Shakespeare's fullest embodiment of the practice is King Lear, and the vast critical literature that has grown up around the play, since the restoration of the text in the early nineteenth century, bears eloquent witness to the power of this anxiety to generate tireless expressions of love. King Lear characteristically incorporates several powerful and complex representations of salutary anxiety, the most notable of which, for our purposes, is the love test itself, a ritual whose intended function seems to have been to allay the retiring monarch's anxiety by arousing it in others. As the opening words of the play make clear, the division of the kingdom has in effect already taken place, with the shares carefully weighed. Lear's pretence that this prearranged legal agreement is a contest—"which of you shall we say doth love us most?"—infuses symbolic uncertainty into a situation where apparently no real uncertainty exists. This is confirmed by his persistence in the test even when its declared occasion has been rendered wholly absurd by the disposition of the first two-thirds of the kingdom, complete with declarations that possession is "perpetual," "hereditary ever." Lear wants his children to experience the anxiety of a competition for his bounty without having to endure any of the actual consequences of such a competition; he wants, that is, to produce in them something like the effect of a work of art, where emotions run high and practical effects seem negligible.
Why should Lear want his children, even his "joy" Cordelia, to experience such anxiety? Shakespeare's sources, going back to the distant folk tale with its salt motif, suggest that Lear wishes his full value to be recognized and that he stages the love test to enforce this recognition, which is crucially important to him because he is about to abdicate and hence lose the power to compel the deference of his children. Marks of deference such as kneeling for blessings, removing the hat, and sitting only when granted leave to do so, were of great significance in medieval and early modern families, though John Aubrey testifies that by the mid-seventeenth century they seemed strained and arbitrary. They figured as part of a complex, interlocking system of public signs of respect for wealth, caste, and, at virtually every level of society, age. The period had a deep gerontological bias. It told itself constantly that by the will of God and the natural order of things authority belonged to the old, and it contrived, through such practices as deferral of marriage, prolonged apprenticeships, and systematic exclusion of the young from office, to ensure that this proper arrangement of society be observed. At stake, it was thought, was not only a societal arrangement—the protection, in an economy of scarcity, of the material interests of geronto-logical hierarchy against the counterclaims of the young—but the structure and meaning of a world where the old in each generation formed a link with the old of the preceding generation and so, by contiguity, reached back to the ideal, sanctified order at the origin of time.
But paradoxically the late Middle Ages and the early modern period also kept telling itself that without the control of property and the means of production, age's claim to authority was pathetically vulnerable to the ruthless ambitions of the young. Sermons and, more generally, the writings of moralists over several centuries provide numerous monitory tales of parents who turn their wealth over to their children and are, in consequence, treated brutally. "Your father were a fool," Gremio, echoing the moral of these tales, tells Tranio in The Taming of the Shrew, "To give thee all, and in his waning age / Set foot under thy table" (II, i).
The story of King Lear in its numerous retellings from at least the twelfth century on seems to have served precisely as one of these admonitions, and Shakespeare's Edmund, in the forged letter he passes off as Edgar's, gives full voice to the fears of the old, that is, to their fantasy of what the young, beneath the superficial marks of deference, are really thinking:
This policy and reverence of age makes the world bitter to the best of our times; keeps our fortunes from us till our oldness cannot relish them. I begin to find an idle and fond bondage in the oppression of aged tyranny, who sways, not as it hath power, but as it is suffer'd. (I, ii)
This recurrent nightmare of the old seems to challenge not only the material well-being of fathers but the conception of the natural order of things to which the old appeal in justification of their prerogatives. "Fathers fear," writes Pascal, "that the natural love of their children can be erased. What kind of nature is this, that can thus be erased? Custom is a second nature that destroys the first. But what is nature? Why isn't custom natural? I am very much afraid that this nature is only a first custom, as custom is a second nature." Shakespeare's King Lear is haunted by this fear, voiced not in the relative privacy of the Pensées but in the public agony of family and state relations: "… let them anatomize Regan, see what breeds about her heart. Is there any cause in nature that makes these hard hearts?" (III, vi).
But it would be misleading simply to associate Shakespeare's play with this uneasiness without specifying the practical measures that medieval and early modern fathers undertook to protect themselves when retirement, always frowned upon, could not be avoided. Such situations arose most frequently in Shakespeare's own class of origin, that is, among artisans and small landowners whose income depended upon continual personal productivity. Faced with a precipitous decline in such productivity, the old frequently did have to transfer a farm or workshop to the young, but for all the talk of the natural privileges and super-natural protection of the aged, there was, as we have seen, remarkably little confidence in either the inherent or customary rights of parents. On the contrary, as Alan Macfarlane has noted in The Origins of English Individualism, "contemporaries seem to have been well aware that without legal guarantees, parents had no rights whatsoever." There could even be a ritual acknowledgment of this fact, as testimony in a thirteenth-century lawsuit suggests: having agreed to give his daughter in marriage to Hugh, with half of his land, the widower Anseline and the married couple were to live together in one house. "And the same Anseline went out of the house and handed over to them the door by the hasp, and at once begged lodging out of charity."
Once a father had given up his land, he became, even in the house that had once been his own, what was called a "sojourner." The connotations of the word are suggested by its use in the Authorized Version of the Old Testament: "We are strangers before Thee, and sojourners, as were all our fathers. Our days on the earth are as a shadow, and there is none abiding" (1 Chron. 29).
Threatened with such a drastic loss of their status and authority, parents facing retirement turned, not surprisingly, to the law, obtaining contracts or maintenance agreements by which, in return for the transfer of family property, children undertook to provide food, clothing, and shelter. The extent of parental anxiety may be gauged by the great specificity of many of these requirements—so many yards of woolen cloth, pounds of coal, or bushels of grain—and by the pervasive fear of being turned out of the house in the wake of a quarrel. The father, who has been, in Sir Edward Coke's phrase, "the guardian by nature" of his children, now has these children for his legal guardians. The maintenance agreement is essentially a medieval device, linked to feudal contractualism, to temper the power of this new guardianship by stipulating that the children are only "depositaries" of the paternal property, so that, in the words of William West's early seventeenth-century legal manual Simboleography, "the self same thing [may] be restored whensoeuer it shall please him that so leaueth it." Thus the maintenance agreement can "reserve" to the father some right or interest in the property that he has conveyed to his children.
We are, of course, very far from the social world of King Lear, which does not represent the milieu of yeomen and artisans, but I would argue that Shakespeare's play is powerfully situated in the midst of precisely the concerns of the makers of these maintenance agreements: the terror of being turned out of doors or of becoming a stranger even in one's own house; the fear of losing the food, clothing, and shelter necessary for survival, let alone dignity; the humiliating loss of parental authority; the dread, particularly powerful in a society that adhered to the principle of gerontological hierarchy, of being supplanted by the young. Lear's royal status does not cancel but rather intensifies these concerns: he will "invest" in Goneril and Regan, along with their husbands, his "power, / Preeminence, and all the large effects / That troop with majesty," but he wants to retain the hundred knights and "The name and all th'addition to a king" (I, i). He wishes, that is, to avoid at all costs the drastic loss of status that inevitably attended retirement in the early modern period, and his maddened rage, later in the play, is a response not only to his daughters' vicious ingratitude but to the horror of being reduced to the position of an Anseline:
Ask her forgiveness?
Do you but mark how this becomes the
"Dear daughter, I confess that I am old;
Age is unnecessary: on my knees I beg
That you'll vouchsafe me raiment, bed,
His daughter, in response, unbendingly proposes that he "return and sojourn"—a word whose special force in this context we have now recovered—"with my sister."
Near the climax of this terrible scene in which Goneril and Regan, by relentlessly diminishing his retinue, in effect strip away his social identity, Lear speaks as if he had actually drawn up a maintenance agreement with his daughters:
Lear I gave you all—Regan And in good time you gave it.
Lear Made you my guardians, my
But kept a reservation to be follow'd
With such a number. (II, iv)
But there is no maintenance agreement between Lear and his daughters; there could be none, since as Lear makes clear in the first scene, he will not as absolute monarch allow anything "To come betwixt our sentence and our power" (I, i), and an autonomous system of laws would have constituted just such an intervention. For a contract in English law implied bargain consideration, that is, the reciprocity inherent in a set of shared obligations and limits, and this understanding that a gift could only be given with the expectation of receiving something in return is incompatible with Lear's sense of his royal prerogative, just as it is incompatible with the period's absolutist conception of paternal power and divine power.
Lear's power draws upon the network of rights and obligations that is sketched by the play's pervasive language of service, but as Kent's experience in the first scene makes clear, royal absolutism is at the same time at war with this feudal legacy. Shakespeare's play emphasizes Lear's claim to unbounded power, even at the moment of his abdication, since his "darker purpose" sets itself above all constraints upon the royal will and pleasure. What enables him to lay aside his claim to rule, the scene suggests, is the transformation of power into a demand for unbounded love, a love that then takes the place of the older contractual bond between parents and children. Goneril and Regan understand Lear's demand as an aspect of absolutist theater; hence in their flattering speeches they discursively perform the impossibility of ever adequately expressing their love: "Sir, I love you more than word can wield the matter / .… A love that makes breath poor and speech unable; / Beyond all manner of so much I love you" (I, i). This cunning representation of the impossibility of representation contaminates Cordelia's inability to speak by speaking it; that is, Goneril's words occupy the discursive space that Cordelia would have to claim for herself if she were truly to satisfy her father's demand. Consequently, any attempt to represent her silent love is already tainted: representation is theatricalization is hypocrisy and hence is misrepresentation. Even Cordelia's initial aside seems to long for the avoidance of language altogether and thus for an escape from the theater. Her words have an odd internal distance, as if they were spoken by another, and more precisely as if the author outside the play were asking himself what he should have his character say and deciding that she should say nothing: "What shall Cordelia speak? Love, and be silent" (I,i). But this attempt to remain silent—to surpass her sisters and satisfy her father by refusing to represent her love—is rejected, as is her subsequent attempt to say nothing, that is, literally to speak the word "nothing." Driven into discourse by her father's anger, Cordelia then appeals not like her sisters to an utter dependence upon paternal love but to a "bond" that is both reciprocal and limited. Against paternal and monarchical absolutism, Cordelia opposes in effect the ethos of the maintenance agreement, and this opposition has for Lear the quality of treason.
Lear, who has, as he thinks, given all to his children, demands all from them. In place of a contract, he has substituted the love test. He wants, that is, not only the formal marks of deference that publicly acknowledge his value, but also the inward and absolute tribute of the heart. It is in the spirit of this demand that he absorbs into himself the figure of the mother; there can be no division for Lear between authority and love. But as the play's tragic logic reveals, Lear cannot have both the public deference and the inward love of his children. The public deference is only as good as the legal constraints that Lear's absolute power paradoxically deprives him of, and the inward love cannot be adequately represented in social discourse, licensed by authority and performed in the public sphere, enacted as in a court or theater. Lear had thought to set his rest—the phrase means both to stake everything and to find repose—on Cordelia's "kind nursery," but only in his fantasy of perpetual imprisonment with his daughter does he glimpse, desperately and pathetically, what he sought. That is, only when he has been decisively separated from his public authority and locked away from the world, only when the direct link between family and state power has been broken, can Lear hope, in the dream of the prison as nursery, for his daughter's sustaining and boundless love.
With this image of the prison as nursery we return for the last time to Francis Wayland, who, to gain the love of his child, used the nursery as a prison. We return, then, to the crucial differences, as we sketched them, between the early seventeenth- and early nineteenth-century versions of salutary anxiety, differences between a culture in which the theater was a centrally significant and emblematic artistic practice, profoundly linked with family and power, and a culture in which the theater had shrivelled to marginal entertainment. The love test for Wayland takes place in the privacy of the nursery where he shuts up his fifteen-month-old infant. In consequence, what is sought by the father is not the representation of love in public discourse, but things prior to and separate from language: the embrace, the kiss, the taking of food, the inarticulate moaning after the father when he leaves the room. It is only here, before verbal representation, that the love test could be wholly successful, here that the conditional, reciprocal, social world of the maintenance agreement could be decisively replaced by the child's absolute and lifelong love. And, we might add, the father did not in this case have to renounce the public tribute entirely; he had only to wait until he ceased to exist. For upon the death of Francis Wayland, Heman Lincoln Wayland collaborated in writing a reverential two-volume biography of his father, a son's final monument to familial love. Lear, by contrast, dies still looking on his daughter's lips for the words that she never speaks.
Marianne Novy (essay date 1984)
SOURCE: "Patriarchy, Mutuality, and Forgiveness in King Lear," in Love's Argument: Gender Relations in Shakespeare, The University of North Carolina Press, 1984, pp. 150-63.
[In the essay below, Novy addresses the vulnerabilities both male and female characters—in particular Lear and Cordelia—experience in the play, maintaining that their suffering results from behaviors imposed on them by the patriarchal structure of their society.]
If Othello explores patriarchal behavior in the husband, King Lear explores it in the father. Critics of King Lear have frequently noted that Lear begins with the power of the archetypal king and father; many of them have also noted that his initial lack of self-knowledge springs in part from the prerogatives of kingship. It has been less observed that the play includes implicit criticism of the prerogatives of the father and an exploration of some behavior that patriarchy fosters in men and women. The apparent mutual dependence of Lear and his older daughters, following conventional patterns of male and female behavior, is deceptive. What the characters need are bonds of forgiveness and sympathy based on a deeper and less categorized sense of human connection.
Maynard Mack emphasizes the importance of relatedness in Lear. This concern, as I have been suggesting, pervades Shakespeare's plays. While the early comedies parallel many different kinds of mutuality, and accept them all, in tragedy mutuality is tested, and many of its varieties are found wanting. If a society is working, the principle of mutuality—or reciprocity, as the sociologist Alvin Gouldner calls it—offers its structure further justification. Places in a hierarchy give reciprocal duties; the subject serves a benevolent master out of gratitude as well as obedience. However, if what the master needs of the subject includes forgiveness, this begins to call the social order into question. The emphasis on King Lear's need for forgiveness reinforces the challenge he makes to his society on the heath.
Although Lear is concerned with the mutuality between father and daughter, it deals with aspects of that mutuality which are also experienced by husband and wife in a patriarchal society, where the authority of fathers over their families, husbands over wives, and men in general over women are all related and analogous. Too great an imbalance in this power makes it likely that attempts at mutuality will be flawed by male coercion and female deception.
Lear's abdication scene provides a paradigm of this danger. He offers money and property in exchange for words of love:
Which of you shall we say doth love us most,
That we our largest bounty may extend
Where nature doth with merit challenge.
Of course, part of the problem with the contest is that it takes words of love as an adequate equivalent of love itself. But this is not just a problem with words; any means of expressing love may be used deceptively, and yet love requires the use of some kind of means. It is the power imbalance behind Lear's offer that makes deception both more likely and more impenetrable. Lear is really trying to coerce his daughters to a certain form of behavior; he sets up the terms and the contract. If a daughter wishes a different kind of contract, she is disowned. As king, Lear is the source of all money and property; in their dependence on him at this point the daughters resemble wives in a patriarchal marriage who can get money only by begging it from their husbands. Nora Helmer's performance in A Doll's House is a variant response to a similar situation. No matter how much the male depends on the female's response, if he has all the external power, the social approval, and the sole right to initiate, the mutuality is deeply flawed by coercion.
In such a situation, the obvious way for a woman to survive is to go along with the social order, as Goneril and Regan do at the beginning. In The Training of the Shrew—closer to Lear than any tragedy or any other comedy in the large number of times the word "father" is used—this kind of survival is what Bianca practices from the beginning and part of what Kate learns by the end. In a comedy we do not much mind Bianca's ability to gull Lucentio, and the ambiguity of Kate's final integration of her individuality and the social order still pleases most audiences or wins Kate more sympathy. But even that play shows in Bianca's final posture the cool self-interest that may underlie such compliance. The pretenses of Goneril and Regan have more devastating effects, but in flattering Lear they are doing a service that women are traditionally expected to do for men. Of them, as well as of his subjects, Lear could say, "They told me I was everything" (4.6.103-4).
Lear's childishness has been noted by many critics of the play, as well as the Fool and, self-interestedly, Goneril—"Old fools are babes again" (1.3.19); but it has been less observed that the similarity between king and child is in part in their assumptions of omnipotence encouraged—for different reasons—by the flattery of those who care for them. Elizabeth Janeway has explained how traditional expectations of female behavior come from nostalgia for a mother's care in childhood. Lear, in wishing to "un-burdened crawl toward death," wants to become a child still omnipotent in his ability to control Cordelia's "kind nursery." The illusory omnipotence of the abdicating king can be compared to the illusory omnipotence of the head of the family within his household, which the sociologists Peter Berger and Hansfried Kellner call [in "Marriage and the Construction of Reality," Diogenes, 1964] a "play area" where he can be "lord and master." Lear really is lord and master at the beginning; but in the love contest he pretends to have more power over his daughters' feelings than he actually has, and this, of course, results in the loss of power that makes the split between his wishes and reality even more glaring later on. Although at first Goneril and Regan have seemed like good mothers in their compliance and words of total devotion, now they are punitive and emphasize Lear's powerlessness, as the Fool suggests: "thou mad'st thy daughters thy mothers; … when thou gav'st them the rod, and put'st down thine own breeches, / Then they for sudden joy did weep" (1.4.163-66). When Lear curses Goneril with his wish that she bear no children or a "child of spleen," it is partly because he feels that filial ingratitude such as he experiences is the worst possible suffering—but perhaps also because her behavior toward him makes him think of her as a bad mother.
The contrast between Goneril and Regan, on the one hand, and Cordelia, on the other, owes something to the traditional tendency in Western literature to split the image of woman into devil and angel, Eve and Mary. Goneril and Regan are much less psychologically complex than most Shakespearean characters of comparable importance. Few of their lines carry hints of motivations other than cruelty, lust, or ambition, characteristics of the archetypal fantasy image of the woman as enemy. Shakespeare gives them no humanizing scruples like those provoked by Lady Macbeth's memory of her father. He does not allow them to point out wrongs done to them in the past as eloquently as Shylock does, or to question the fairness of their society's distribution of power as articulately as Edmund. If their attack on Lear can be seen as in part the consequence of his tyrannical patriarchy, they never try to explain it as an attack on an oppressor. Indeed, even if we follow Peter Brook's lead and imagine a Lear who knocks over tables, whose men really are a "disordered rabble," their cruelty to Lear and, even more, to Gloucester exceeds all provocation. Rather than attacking tyranny, they prefer to attack weakness, and sometimes compare those they attack to women in terms meant to be insulting. Regan says to Lear, "I pray you, father, being weak, seem so" (2.4.196). Goneril says, "I must change names at home, and give the distaff / Into my husband's hands" (4.2.17-18). One of the few suggestions of psychological complexity in their characterization is this hint of a compensatory quality in their cruelty—a hatred of others they consider weak because of a fear of being weak themselves. Here the play suggests that weakness, or the fear of it, can be as corrupting an influence as power. This fear of weakness is, however, a standard enough trait in the psychology of violence that it does little to individualize them.
Cordelia, by contrast with her sisters, is much less stereotyped. Shakespeare's presentation of her shows sympathy for the woman who tries to keep her integrity in a patriarchal world. Refusing pretense as a means of survival, such women often try to withdraw from the coercive "mutuality" that patriarchy seems to demand. Cordelia initially attempts to say nothing; her asides tell us her wish to "love and be silent." As she speaks further, in a mode completely alien to the love contest, her difficulties with language add to the audience sympathy with her; they make us imagine that she feels much more than she says. She describes the parent-child bond in language that emphasizes its mutuality, its elements of reciprocation and response; the possible coldness in her reference to "duties" is counterbalanced by her approximation of the marriage vow:
Good my lord,
You have begot me, bred me, loved me. I
Return those duties back as are right fit,
Obey you, love you, and most honor you.
Cordelia looks more toward the general parental gifts of the past than toward munificent promises for the future; all that she anticipates is a marriage and conflicting loyalties. In Shakespearean comedy, Portia or Rosalind can joke skeptically about professions of absolute and exclusive love; in this tragedy, Cordelia's refusal of hyperbole continues the challenge to Lear's wish to be loved alone and his delight in his special power, and it precipitates her rejection. Lear wants more than the ordinary mutuality of parent and child, but his ability to disown Cordelia when such ordinary mutuality is all she will promise springs from the superior power of fathers in a patriarchal society. Lear's rejection is total: "Better thou / Hadst not been born than not t'have pleased me better" (1.1.233-34).
It is retributive, however shocking and disproportionate, when Lear's older daughters use the power they receive with a coercion like Lear's own. As the Fool says, "I marvel what kin thou and thy daughters are. They'll have me whipped for speaking true; thou'lt have me whipped for lying" (1.4.173-75). What Lear criticizes in them, however, is not their general tyranny and cruelty but their lack of mutuality—their in-gratitude to him. Along with this preoccupation goes a preoccupation with his own generosity: "Your old kind father, whose frank heart gave all—" (3.4.20). Perhaps this suggests something of the intent of his gifts.
But as he experiences the sufferings of the poor and the outcast, Lear begins to imagine less self-interested kinds of giving. He shows concern for the Fool and acknowledges his own responsibility for the condition of the "poor naked wretches" he now wishes to help. And after the fantasy trial he starts to speak of his daughters in different terms as he moves to more general social and existential concerns: "Is there any cause in nature that makes these hard hearts?" (3.6.75-76). In the next scene he denounces the false mutuality that would say "ay" and "no" to everything he said. Here is his longest attack on women: it begins by pointing to someone who could be Goneril or Regan as we see them, but he does not name her, and he attacks her not for ingratitude but for lust and hypocrisy:
Behold yond simp'ring dame,
Whose face between her forks presages
That minces virtue, and does shake the head
To hear of pleasure's name.
The fitchew nor the soiléd horse goes to't
With a more riotous appetite.…
His words are antifeminist commonplaces of Elizabethan England, but the context suggests a basis in revulsion against pretense and sexuality in general more than against women. A bit later he shows deeper insight about the origin of such antifeminist commonplaces:
Thou rascal beadle, hold thy bloody hand!
Why dost thou lash that whore? Strip thy own
Thou hotly lusts to use her in that kind
For which thou whip'st her.
We punish others for our own faults; this is a general phenomenon that Lear denounces here and that Shakespeare often illustrates and describes elsewhere. More specifically, this passage implies the relationship of such scapegoating to patriarchal society's split of human qualities, both vices and virtues, into masculine and feminine. Patriarchal society exerts social and psychological pressure on men to deny qualities in themselves that would be seen as feminine and instead to project them on to women. This analysis suggests that Lear's disgust with women's lust is so strong because it is really disgust with himself; at the same time, his initial expectations of Cordelia's "kind nursery" are so high because he identifies her with nurturing qualities and vulnerabilities not easily admitted by a king whose royal symbol is the dragon.
Both textual and structural details in Lear support this emphasis on projection of feminine qualities; furthermore, it is closely related to the play's concern with connections between people. Lear's own words to Goneril suggest something of his identification with her:
We'll DO more meet, no more see one
But yet thou art my flesh, my blood, my
Or rather a disease that's in my flesh,
Which I must needs call mine.
Sometimes he seems unable to recognize his daughters as persons separate from himself: "Is it not as this mouth should tear this hand / For lifting food to 't?" (3.4.15-16). At other times he blames himself for begetting them, in language that again suggests revulsion from the sexuality with which, as women, they are linked in the imagination of Western culture: "Judicious punishment—'twas this flesh begot / Those pelican daughters" (3.4.72-73). Just after Lear gags at imagining the stench beneath women's girdles, he acknowledges the smell of mortality on his own hand.
From this vision of universal guilt, Lear moves to a vision of universal suffering, the basis for a different kind of mutuality. He responds to Gloucester's sympathy, recognizes him, and speaks with him using the "we" of identification and common humanity.
We came crying hither;
Thou know'st, the first time that we smell the
We wawl and cry.…
When we are born, we cry that we are
To this great stage of fools.
His use of "we" contrasts with his earlier assumption of the royal prerogative of the first person plural and with the "I" of his felt isolation; the imagery of crying makes an equally insistent contrast to his earlier stance:
let not women's weapons, water drops,
Stain my man's cheeks.…
… You think I'll weep.
No, I'll not weep.
And while earlier he described the alienation between himself and his daughters as like an attack by one part of his body on another, now he imagines himself giving part of his body to supply another's disability: "If thou wilt weep my fortunes, take my eyes" (4.6.173). At the same time as he acknowledges his own identity and Gloucester's, and their fellowship, he acknowledges his share in a vulnerability to suffering and a need to express it—the powerlessness of the child, and not its illusory omnipotence—which he had previously relegated to women. And the tears in his vision of all crying for their own suffering quickly become tears of compassion.
The association of tears and women is a commonplace in Shakespeare and in our culture, even though in Shakespeare at least the association is most frequently made by men who do cry themselves (Laertes, Sebastian in Twelfth Night). Nevertheless, it is remarkable both how often Cordelia's tears are mentioned in King Lear and how the imagery strives to make them powerful rather than pathetic. Cordelia credits them with arousing France's sympathy and persuading him to help Lear (4.4.25-26); she prays that they will help restore Lear's health:
All blessed secrets,
All you unpublished virtues of the earth,
Spring with my tears!
And at the climactic moment of their reunion, Lear, whose own tears "scald like molten lead" (4.7.48), touches her cheek and says, "Be your tears wet? Yes, faith" (4.7.71). With Cordelia's tears, as with other aspects of her characterization, Shakespeare is suggesting a kind of power different from the coercion dependent on political rank or violence; it is the power of nurturing, of sympathy, of human connection as an active force.
The physical connection of parenthood, on which Lear relied earlier in his reproaches to Goneril and Regan, has proved too often only a torment to him; in his reunions with Gloucester and, even more, with Cordelia, Lear experiences a connection—based on shared suffering—which can also be called physical insofar as it involves touching and being touched by others, weeping and being wept for. This kind of sympathy underlies Cordelia's ability to restore the parent-child bond rather than simply responding with the revenge Lear expects when he says, even after he has felt her tears,
If you have poison for me, I will drink it.
I know you do not love me; for your sisters
Have (as I do remember) done me wrong.
You have some cause, they have not.
The creative power of Cordelia's compassion transcends the mechanism of revenge; nor, her words suggest, is her sympathy confined to relatives.
Had you not been their father, these white
Did challenge pity of them. Was this a face
To be opposed against the jarring winds?
… Mine enemy's dog,
Though he had bit me, should have stood that
Against my fire.
But for all the universality of her sympathy, she expresses it in the context of their particular relationship: to Lear's "as I am a man, I think this lady / to be my child Cordelia," she responds, "And so I am! I am!" (4.7.69-70). She is too tactful to speak of forgiveness; guilt and innocence seem irrelevant to her sympathy. But it is forgiveness that Lear needs, and finally he can ask for forgiveness instead of praise and gratitude: "Pray you now, forget and forgive. I am old and foolish" (4.7.84).
In his final vision of what their relationship would be, alone and happy together in prison, he says, "When thou dost ask me blessing, I'll kneel down / And ask of thee forgiveness" (5.3.10-11). In Shakespeare's England, Lawrence Stone tells us, kneeling to ask blessing was a common gesture of respect from child to parent, a symbol of generational hierarchy. In Lear's vision, parent kneels to child. The need for forgiveness reverses hierarchies of both age and sex, and suggests their limitations.
Northrop Frye [in "The Argument of Comedy," English Institute Essays, 1948], noting the emphasis on forgiveness in Shakespeare's comedies, claims that it results from "impersonal concentration on the laws of comic form." This does not, however, account for the importance of forgiveness, explicit and implicit, in a tragedy like Lear, and I think there are more basic reasons for the emphasis on the need for forgiveness in Shakespeare's tragedies, problem comedies, and romances. Shakespeare's plays are concerned with both power and relationship. Lear, for example, depends on power—even though he thinks he wants to give it up—and he wants love. Frequently, Shakespeare shows a man's attempt to get, preserve, or control a relationship with a woman resulting in disaster because he abuses his power. Lear and Angelo are the most obvious examples. From the problem comedies on, Shakespeare suggests that in a patriarchal society mutuality between man and woman must include the mutuality of forgiveness and repentance, because the powerful are so likely to abuse their power.
However, before the female characters forgive, the balance often shifts: Lear and Angelo lose power, Cordelia and Isabella gain some. Alternatively, like Desdemona, they forgive when their forgiveness cannot possibly promise to help them. In either case, the forgiveness is freely chosen, not coerced by dependence on their men like the apparent forgiveness of a battered wife who has nowhere else to go. When Shakespeare's tragic and tragicomic heroes receive forgiveness, they have generally given up all expectations of it. Perhaps the women's forgiveness of them comes as even more of a surprise because it avoids the distancing of such self-righteous forgiveness as Prospero's words to his unrepentant brother:
For you, most wicked sir, whom to call
Would even infect my mouth, I do forgive
Thy rankest fault—all of them.
Rather, their forgiveness is acceptance. Reversing the mechanism of projection and scapegoating, it implies a recognition of their own limitations as well, somewhat like the forgiveness Prospero begs from his audience: "As you from crimes would pardoned be, / Let your indulgence set me free" (Epilogue, 19-20).
However structurally important forgiveness is in Shakespeare's comedies and romances, where R. G. Hunter finds frequent affinities to the ritual stages of the sacrament of penance, it is worth noting how much more psychologically realistic and dramatically compelling are Lear's repentance and Cordelia's forgiveness. Nor does Lear leave us with the sense of the inadequacy of forgiveness that Howard Felperin suggests in the problem comedies. Cordelia's forgiveness cannot stop the political consequences of Lear's acts, to be sure, but there is no denying the emotional power of their reunion scene.
We can never completely account for Lear's power to move us, of course, but it is worth considering the possibility that some of the intensity of this scene comes from an element in the play that would seem to move in an entirely opposite direction from sympathy and forgiveness—its portrayal of anger. The experience of Lear depends on the paradox that people are at the same time connected and separate, a paradox to which both sympathy and anger are responses. The intensity of anger may measure the intensity of feelings of loss; it also demonstrates how much sympathy is willing to forgive. Anger and sympathy are both signs of human vulnerability and relationship. In Lear's last scene his sorrow and anger at losing Cordelia merge:
Howl, howl, howl! O, you are men of stones.
Had I your tongues and eyes, I'ld use them so
That heaven's vault should crack.
As he imagines the power his emotions could have with his listeners' help in expressing them, the effect in the theater is that he is also addressing the offstage audience. Before the intensity of his expressions of grief for Cordelia, our responses to our own losses, as well as to him, seem inadequate. We cannot heave our hearts into our mouths.
Earlier I suggested that the mutuality between characters in Shakespeare's comedies is analogous to the mutuality between actors and audience. Stanley Cavell has proposed that in Lear the inevitable separation between actors and audience mirrors the ultimate isolation of the characters, and all of us, from each other: we cannot stop the characters from acting wrongly, from suffering pain, just as they cannot stop each other, just as we cannot stop those closest to us. Yet, although Lear cannot save Cordelia, nor she him, before this ultimate loss he does experience her acceptance. This acceptance includes tragic perception—it is combined with knowledge of his faults. It does not condescend, but it supports Lear in his own new willingness to acknowledge his limitations.
Perhaps this acceptance is a model for our relationship to Lear, and through him, to the play. Cordelia's attitude toward Lear mediates the attitude of the audience toward him. We can neither change Lear nor admire him uncritically, any more than Cordelia can, but we can join her in feeling with him. It is interesting that Shakespeare not only emphasizes his characters' capacity for sympathy, but also, in his descriptions of audiences, frequently presents sympathy as an important aspect of audience response. It may be the experience of feeling sympathy for someone we cannot change, whose faults we accept as we accept our own faults, that Shakespearean tragedy brings to its highest artistic expression, both within the play and between the play and the audience.
There is so much sympathy with Lear at the end that it seems cold to turn from feeling with him to any further analysis of the play in terms of sex-role behavior, but it is worth noting that part of the effect of the play is to impress on us the suffering created by these behavior patterns and then to show how inadequate they are. The forms of suffering in literature reflect the social structure, either directly or indirectly, and it is significant that much of Lear's and Cordelia's sufferings are related to the particular vulnerabilities of men and women in a patriarchal society, as I have shown. But when Lear enters with Cordelia dead in his arms, the visual image in itself suggests a change in him. The allusion to the pieta that many critics have seen here includes the fact that Lear is at this point taking on a posture much more characteristic of women than of men in our society—holding a child, caring for the dead. His patient watch over Cordelia, looking for a sign of life, may recall his expectation of her answer in the opening scene, but it is very different in tone. A performance might emphasize this change in Lear by making the gestures of his attempts to find life in Cordelia similar to the gestures of her attempts to wake him before their reunion. Though he still clings to some of his traditional images of male and female virtues, when he says, "Her voice was ever soft, / Gentle and low" (5.3.273-74), it is his own gentleness we see. Now he would give to her in a way that would be nurturing and not coercive, but it is too late.
His suffering includes a sense of guilt for misusing his past power, but before the ultimate fact of death he feels the powerlessness that we all feel, king and subject, man and woman. At the end of the play, the surviving characters can for the most part only watch Lear's sufferings like the offstage audience, and the only acts they can perform are gestures of sympathy. All Edgar says in the concluding speech establishing his dominance is about feeling and sympathy for Lear. Thus in the sympathy that is the audience's only power we are united with the surviving characters. Cordelia's values spread beyond her and outlive her, but this is no matter for complacent intellectualization. Shakespeare probes in King Lear to the very heart of loss. Although here, unlike the parallel explorations of Antony and Cleopatra and Othello, the issue of sexuality as such remains mostly submerged, he shows with great depth the vulnerabilities to each other that the contrasting social roles of men and women intensify. The only consolation that he offers—and in a theater it is a significant one—is that we feel each other's loss because of our basic connection.
Kathleen McLuskie (essay date 1985)
SOURCE: "The Patriarchal Bard: Feminist Criticism and Shakespeare; King Lear and Measure for Measure," in Political Shakespeare: New Essays in Cultural Materialism, edited by Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield, Cornell, 1985, pp. 88-108.
[In this excerpt, McLuskie employs a feminist and psychoanalytic reading of King Lear, focusing on the issues of patriarchy and misogyny in the play.]
Every feminist critic has encountered the archly dis-ingenuous question 'What exactly is feminist criticism?' The only effective response is 'I'll send you a booklist', for feminist criticism can only be defined by the multiplicity of critical practices engaged in by feminists. Owing its origins to a popular political movement, it reproduces the varied theoretical positions of that movement. Sociologists and theorists of culture have, for example, investigated the processes by which representations of women in advertising and film reproduce and reinforce dominant definitions of sexuality and sexual relations so as to perpetuate their ideological power. Within English departments critical activity has been divided among those who revived and privileged the work of women writers and those who have focused critical attention on reinterpreting literary texts from the traditional canon. In the case of Shakespeare, feminist critics have contested the apparent misogyny of the plays and the resistance of their feminist students by directing attention to the 'world' of the plays, using conventional tools of interpretation to assess Shakespeare's attitude to the events within it.
In a number of essays the feminist concern with traditional evaluations of sexual identity has been used to explore the importance of ideals of violence in the psychological formation of Shakespeare's male characters. Janet Adelman has analysed the importance of structures of psychological dependence in accounting for Coriolanus's phallic aggression and Coppelia Kahn [in "Coming of Age in Verona," The Woman's Part: Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare, edited by Carolyn Lenz, Gayle Green, and Carol Neely, 1980] has described the feud in Romeo and Juliet as 'the deadly rite de passage that promotes masculinity at the price of life'. These essays have built on and developed a feminist psychoanalysis which places motherhood at the centre of psychological development, as Coppelia Kahn makes explicit in her book on Masculine Identity in Shakespeare: 'the critical threat to identity is not, as Freud maintains, castration, but engulfment by the mother … men first know women as the matrix of all satisfaction from which they must struggle to differentiate themselves … [Shakespeare] explores the unconscious attitudes behind cultural definitions of manliness and womanliness and behind the mores and institutions shaped by them.'
Modern feminist psychoanalysis could be applied to Shakespearean characters for the texts were seen as unproblematically mimetic: 'Shakespeare and Freud deal with the same subject: the expressed and hidden feelings in the human heart. They are both psychologists' [Kahn]. Shakespeare was thus constructed as an authoritative figure whose views about men and women could be co-opted to the liberal feminism of the critic. Within this critical practice, academic debate centred on conflicts over the authors' views rather than on the systems of representation or the literary traditions which informed the texts. Linda Bamber, for example, reminded her readers [in Comic Women, Tragic Men] of the evident misogyny of Shakespeare's treatment of his tragic heroines and placed her own work 'in reaction against the tendency for feminist critics to interpret Shakespeare as if his work directly supports and develops feminist ideas'. While noting the fundamental inconsistencies between Shakespeare's treatment of women in comedy and tragedy, she explicitly resists the temptation 'to revel in them offered by post-structuralism'. She finds instead a cohering principle in Shakespeare's recognition of women as 'other', which 'amounts to sexism only if the writer fails to attribute to opposite sex characters the privileges of the other'. In tragedy his women are strong because they are coherent—'certainly none of the women in the tragedies worries or changes her mind about who she is'—and the attacks which are made on them are the product of male resentment at this strength—'misogyny and sex nausea are born of failure and self doubt'. The comic feminine, on the other hand, is opposed not to men but to a reified 'society':'In comedy the feminine either rebels against the restraining social order or (more commonly) presides in alliance with the forces which challenge its hegemony: romantic love, physical nature, the love of pleasure in all its forms.'
These assertions rest on a reductive application of feminist anthropological discussions of nature and culture but their primary effect is to construct an author whose views can be applied in moral terms to rally and exhort the women readers of today: 'the comic heroines show us how to regard ourselves as other … the heroines laugh to see themselves absorbed into the ordinary human comedy; the heroes rage and weep at the difficulty of actually being as extraordinary as they feel themselves to be'. These moral characteristics ascribed to men and women take no account of their particular circumstances within the texts, nor indeed of their material circumstances and the differential power relations which they support. Feminism thus involves defining certain characteristics as feminine and admiring them as a better way to survive in the world. In order to assert the moral connection between the mimetic world of Shakespeare's plays and the real world of the audience, the characters have to be seen as representative men and women and the categories male and female are essential, unchanging, definable in modern, commonsense terms.
The essentialism of this form of feminism is further developed in Marilyn French's Shakespeare's Division of Experience. Like Bamber, she constructs a god-like author who 'breathed life into his female characters and gave body to the principles they are supposed to represent'. Although shored up by references to feminist philosophy and anthropology, this feminine principle amounts to little more than the power to nurture and give birth and is opposed to a masculine principle embodied in the ability to kill. These principles are not, however, located in specific men or women. When men are approved of they are seen as embracing feminine principles whereas women are denied access to the male and are denigrated when they aspire to male qualities. French suggests that Shakespeare divides experience into male (evil) and female (good) principles and his comedies and tragedies are interpreted as 'either a synthesis of the principles or an examination of the kinds of worlds that result when one or other principle is abused, neglected, devalued or exiled'.
The essentialism which lies behind Marilyn French's and Linda Bamber's account of the men and women in Shakespeare is part of a trend in liberal feminism which sees the feminist struggle as concerned with reordering the values ascribed to men and women without fundamentally changing the material circumstances in which their relationships function. It presents feminism as a set of social attitudes rather than as a project for fundamental social change. As such it can equally easily be applied to an analysis of Shakespeare's plays which situates them in the ideological currents of his own time. In Shakespeare and the Nature of Women, for example, Juliet Dusinberre admires 'Shakespeare's concern … to dissolve artificial distinctions between the sexes' and can claim that concern as feminist in both twentieth-century and seventeenth-century terms. She examines Shakespeare's women characters—and those of some of his contemporaries—in the light of Renaissance debates over women conducted in puritan handbooks and advice literature. Building on the Hallers' essay on 'The puritan art of love [in Huntington Library Quarterly 5, 1942], she notes the shift from misogyny associated with Catholic asceticism to puritan assertions of the importance of women in the godly household as partners in holy and companionate marriage. The main portion of the book is an elaboration of themes—Chastity, Equality, Gods and Devils—in both polemic and dramatic literature. The strength of her argument lies in its description of the literary shift from the discourses of love poetry and satire to those of drama. However her assertions about the feminism of Shakespeare and his contemporaries depend once again upon a mimetic model of the relationship between ideas and drama. Contemporary controversy about women is seen as a static body of ideas which can be used or rejected by dramatists whose primary concern is not with parallel fictions but simply to 'explore the real nature of women'. By focusing on the presentation of women in puritan advice literature, Dusinberre privileges one side of a contemporary debate, relegating expressions of misogyny to the fictional world of 'literary simplification' and arbitrarily asserting more progressive notions as the dramatists' true point of view.
A more complex discussion of the case would acknowledge that the issues of sex, sexuality, sexual relations and sexual division were areas of conflict of which the contradictions of writing about women were only one manifestation alongside the complexity of legislation and other forms of social control of sex and the family. The debates in modern historiography on these questions indicate the difficulty of assigning monolithic economic or ideological models to the early modern family, while the work of regional historians has shown the importance of specific material conditions on both the ideology and practice of sexual relations. Far from being an unproblematic concept, 'the nature of women' was under severe pressure from both ideological discourses and the real concomitants of inflation and demographic change.
The problem with the mimetic, essentialist model of feminist criticism is that it would require a more multi-faceted mirror than Shakespearean drama to reflect the full complexity of the nature of women in Shakespeare's time or our own. Moreover this model obscures the particular relationship between Shakespearean drama and its readers which feminist criticism implies. The demands of the academy insist that feminist critics reject 'a literary version of placard carrying', but they cannot but reveal the extent to which their critical practice expresses new demands and a new focus of attention on the plays. Coppelia Kahn concedes that 'Today we are questioning the cultural definitions of sexual identity we have inherited. I believe Shakespeare questioned them too …' and, rather more frankly, Linda Bamber explains: 'As a heterosexual feminist … I have found in Shakespeare what I want to imagine as a possibility in my own life'. However, the alternative to this simple co-option of Shakespeare is not to assert some spurious notion of objectivity. Such a procedure usually implies a denigration of feminism in favour of more conventional positions and draws the criticism back into the institutionalised competition over 'readings'.
A different procedure would involve theorising the relationship between feminism and the plays more explicitly, accepting that feminist criticism, like all criticism, is a reconstruction of the play's meaning and asserting the specificity of a feminist response. This procedure differs from claiming Shakespeare's views as feminist in refusing to construct an author behind the plays and paying attention instead to the narrative, poetic and theatrical strategies which construct the plays' meanings and position the audience to understand their events from a particular point of view. For Shakespeare's plays are not primarily explorations of 'the real nature of women' or even 'the hidden feelings in the human heart'. They were the products of an entertainment industry which, as far as we know, had no women shareholders, actors, writers, or stage hands. His women characters were played by boys and, far from his plays being an expression of his idiosyncratic views, they all built on and adapted earlier stories.
The witty comic heroines, the powerful tragic figures, the opposition between realism and romance were the commonplaces of the literary tradition from which these tests emerged. Sex and sexual relations within them are, in the first analysis, sources of comedy, narrative resolution and coups de theatre. These textual strategies limit the range of meaning which the text allows and circumscribe the position which a feminist reader may adopt vis-à-vis the treatment of gender relations and sexual politics within the plays. The feminist reader may resist the position which the text offers but resistance involves more than simple attitudinising.…
In Measure for Measure the pleasure denied is the pleasure of comedy, a pleasure many feminists have learned to struggle with as they withhold their assent from the social approval of sexist humour. A much more difficult pleasure to deny is the emotional, moral and aesthetic satisfaction afforded by tragedy. Tragedy assumes the existence of 'a permanent, universal and essentially unchanging human nature' [Raymond Williams in Modern Tragedy, 1966] but the human nature implied in the moral and aesthetic satisfactions of tragedy is most often explicitly male. In King Lear for example, the narrative and its dramatisation present a connection between sexual insubordination and anarchy, and the connection is given an explicitly misogynist emphasis.
The action of the play, the organisation of its point of view and the theatrical dynamic of its central scenes all depend upon an audience accepting an equation between 'human nature' and male power. In order to experience the proper pleasures of pity and fear, they must accept that fathers are owed particular duties by their daughters and be appalled by the chaos which ensues when those primal links are broken. Such a point of view is not a matter of consciously-held opinion but it is a position required and determined by the text in order for it to make sense. It is also the product of a set of meanings produced in a specific way by the Shakespearean text and is different from that produced in other versions of the story.
The representation of patriarchal misogyny is most obvious in the treatment of Goneril and Regan. In the chronicle play King Leir, the sisters' villainy is much more evidently a function of the plot. Their mocking pleasure at Cordelia's downfall takes the form of a comic double act and Regan's evil provides the narrative with the exciting twist of an attempt on Lear's life. In the Shakespearean text by contrast, the narrative, language and dramatic organisation all define the sisters' resistance to their father in terms of their gender, sexuality and position within the family. Family relations in this play are seen as fixed and determined, and any movement within them is portrayed as a destructive reversal of rightful order (see I.iv). Goneril's and Regan's treatment of their father merely reverses existing patterns of rule and is seen not simply as cruel and selfish but as a fundamental violation of human nature—as is made powerfully explicit in the speeches which condemn them (III.vii.101-3; IV.ii.32-50). Moreover when Lear in his madness fantasises about the collapse of law and the destruction of ordered social control, women's lust is vividly represented as the centre and source of the ensuing corruption (IV.vi.l10-28). The generalised character of Lear's and Albany's vision of chaos, and the poetic force with which it is expressed, creates the appearance of truthful universality which is an important part of the play's claim to greatness. However, that generalised vision of chaos is present in gendered terms in which patriarchy, the institution of male power in the family and the State, is seen as the only form of social organisation strong enough to hold chaos at bay.
The close links between misogyny and patriarchy define the women in the play more precisely. Goneril and Regan are not presented as archetypes of woman-hood for the presence of Cordelia 'redeems nature from the general curse' (IV.vi.209). However Cordelia's saving love, so much admired by critics, works in the action less as a redemption for womankind than as an example of patriarchy restored. Hers, of course, is the first revolt against Lear's organising authority. The abruptness of her refusal to play her role in Lear's public drama dramatises the outrage of her denial of conformity and the fury of Lear's ensuing appeal to archetypal forces shows that a rupture of 'Propinquity and property of blood' is tantamount to the destruction of nature itself. Cordelia, however, is the central focus of emotion in the scene. Her resistance to her father gains audience assent through her two asides during her sisters' performances; moreover the limits of that resistance are clearly indicated. Her first defence is not a statement on her personal autonomy or the rights of her individual will: it is her right to retain a part of her love for 'that lord whose hand must take my plight'.
Lear's rage thus seems unreasonable in that he recognises only his rights as a father; for the patriarchal family to continue, it must also recognise the rights of future fathers and accept the transfer of women from fathers to husbands. By the end of the scene, Cordelia is reabsorbed into the patriarchal family by marriage to which her resistance to Lear presents no barrier. As she reassures the king of France:
It is no vicious blot, murder or foulness,
No unchaste action or dishonoured step
That hath deprived me of your grace and
Her right to be included in the ordered world of heterosexual relations depends upon her innocence of the ultimate human violation of murder which is paralleled with the ultimate sexual violation of unchastity.
However, any dispassionate analysis of the mystification of real socio-sexual relations in King Lear is the antithesis of our response to the tragedy in the theatre where the tragic power of the play endorses its ideological position at every stage. One of the most important and effective shifts in the action is the transfer of our sympathy back to Lear in the middle of the action. The long sequence of Act II, scene iv dramatises the process of Lear's decline from the angry autocrat of Act I to the appealing figure of pathetic insanity. The psychological realism of the dramatic writing and the manipulation of the point of view, forges the bonds between Lear as a complex character and the sympathies of the audience.
The audience's sympathies are engaged by Lear's fury at the insult offered by Kent's imprisonment and by the pathos of Lear's belated attempt at self-control (II.iv.101-4). His view of the action is further emotionally secured by his sarcastic enactment of the humility which his daughters recommend:
Do you but mark how this becomes the
Dear daughter, I confess that I am old.
Age is unnecessary. On my knees I beg
That you'll vouchsafe me raiment, bed and
As Regan says, these are unsightly tricks. Their effect is to close off the dramatic scene by offering the only alternative to Lear's behaviour as we see it. The dramatic fact becomes the only fact and the audience is thus positioned to accept the tragic as inevitable, endorsing the terms of Lear's great poetic appeal:
O reason not the need! Our basest beggars
Are in the poorest things superfluous.
Allow not nature more than nature needs,
Man's life is cheap as beasts.
The ideological power of Lear's speech lies in his invocation of nature to support his demands on his daughters; its dramatic power lies in its movement from argument to desperate assertion of his crumbling humanity as the abyss of madness approaches. However, once again, that humanity is seen in gendered terms as Lear appeals to the gods to
touch me with noble anger,
And let not women's weapons, water drops
Stain my man's cheeks.
The theatrical devices which secure Lear at the centre of the audience's emotional attention operate even more powerfully in the play's denouement. The figure of Cordelia is used as a channel for the response to her suffering father. Her part in establishing the terms of the conflict is over by Act I; when she reappears it is as an emblem of dutiful pity. Before she appears on stage, she is described by a 'gentleman' whose speech reconstructs her as a static, almost in-animate daughter of sorrows. The poetic paradoxes of his speech construct Cordelia as one who resolves contradiction, which is her potential role in the narrative and her crucial function in the ideological coherence of the text:
patience and sorrow strove
Who should express her goodliest. You have
Sunshine and rain at once: her smiles and
Were like a better way: those happy smilets
That played on her ripe lip seemed not to
What guests were in her eyes, which parted
As pearls from diamonds dropped.
With Cordelia's reaction pre-empted by the gentleman, the scene where Lear and Cordelia meet substitutes the pleasure of pathos for suspense. The imagery gives Cordelia's forgiveness divine sanction, and the realism of Lear's struggle for sanity closes off any responses other than complete engagement with the characters' emotions. Yet in this encounter Cordelia denies the dynamic of the whole play. Lear fears that she cannot love him:
for your sisters
Have, as I do remember, done me wrong.
You have some cause, they have not.
But Cordelia demurs with 'No cause, no cause'.
Shakespeare's treatment of this moment contrasts with that of the earlier chronicle play from which he took a number of details, including Lear kneeling and being raised. In the old play the scene is almost comic as Leir and Cordelia kneel and rise in counterpoint to their arguments about who most deserves blame. The encounter is used to sum up the issues and the old play allows Cordelia a much more active role in weighing her debt to Leir. In Shakespeare's text, however, the spectacle of suffering obliterates the past action so that audience with Cordelia will murmur 'No cause, no cause'. Rather than a resolution of the action, their reunion becomes an emblem of possible harmony, briefly glimpsed before the tragic debacle.
The deaths of Lear and Cordelia seem the more shocking for this moment of harmony but their tragic impact is also a function of thwarting the narrative expectation of harmony restored which is established by the text's folk-tale structure. The folk-tale of the love test provides an underlying pattern in which harmony is broken by the honest daughter and restored by her display of forgiveness. The organisation of the Shakespearean text intensifies and then denies those expectations so as once more to insist on the connection between evil women and a chaotic world.
The penultimate scene opposes the ordered formality of the resolution of the Gloucester plot with the un-seemly disorder of the women's involvement. The twice-repeated trumpet call, the arrival of a mysterious challenger in disguise, evoke the order of a chivalric age when conflict was resolved by men at arms. The women, however, act as disrupters of that order: Goneril attempts to deny the outcome of the tourney, grappling in an unseemly quarrel with Albany (V.iii.156-8) and their ugly deaths interrupt Edgar's efforts to close off the narrative with a formal account of his part in the story and Gloucester's death.
Thus the deaths of Lear and Cordelia are contrasted with and seem almost a result of the destructiveness of the wicked sisters. Albany says of them: 'This judgement of the heavens, that makes us tremble, / Touches us not with pity' (V.iii.233-4). The tragic victims, however, affect us quite differently. When Lear enters, bearing his dead daughter in his arms, we are presented with a contrasting emblem of the natural, animal assertion of family love, destroyed by the anarchic forces of lust and the 'indistinguished space of woman's will'. At this point in the play the most stonyhearted feminist could not withhold her pity even though it is called forth at the expense of her resistance to the patriarchal relations which it endorses.
The effect of these dramatic devices is to position the audience as a coherent whole, comfortably situated vis-à-vis the text. To attempt to shift that position by denying Lear's rights as a father and a man would be to deny the pity of Lear's suffering and the pleasurable reaffirmation of one's humanity through sympathetic fellow feeling. A feminist reading of the text cannot simply assert the countervailing rights of Goneril and Regan, for to do so would simply reverse the emotional structures of the play, associating feminist ideology with atavistic selfishness and the monstrous assertion of individual wills. Feminism cannot simply take 'the woman's part' when that part has been so morally loaded and theatrically circumscribed. Nor is any purpose served by merely denouncing the text's misogyny, for King Lear's position at the centre of the Shakespeare canon is assured by its continual reproduction in education and the theatre and is unlikely to be shifted by feminist sabre-rattling.
A more fruitful point of entry for feminism in is the process of the text's reproduction. As Elizabeth Cowie and others have pointed out, sexist meanings are not fixed but depend upon constant reproduction by their audience. In the case of King Lear the text is tied to misogynist meaning only if it is reconstructed with its emotional power and its moral imperatives intact. Yet the text contains possibilities for subverting these meanings and the potential for reconstructing them in feminist terms.
The first of these lies in the text's historical otherness; for in spite of constant critical assertion of its transcendent universality, specific connections can be shown between Shakespeare's text and contemporary material and ideological conflict without presenting a merely reductive account of artistic production in terms of material circumstances.
Discussing the 'gerontocratic ideal,' for example, Keith Thomas has noted [in "Age and Authority in Early Modern England," Proceedings of the British Academy; 1976] that 'The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries are conspicuous for a sustained desire to subordinate persons in their teens and twenties and to delay their equal participation in the adult world … such devices were also a response to the mounting burden of population on an unflexible economy'. This gerontocratic ideal was not without contradiction, for the very elderly were removed from economic and political power and 'essentially it was men in their forties or fifties who ruled'. Moreover the existence of this ideal did not obviate the need for careful material provision for the elderly. There is a certain poignancy in the details of wills which specify the exact houseroom and the degree of access to the house-hold fire which is to be left to aged parents. However, this suggests that Lear's and his daughter's bargaining over the number of his knights need not be seen as an egregious insult and that the generational conflict within the nuclear family could not be resolved by recourse to a simply accepted ideal of filial piety.
As a corrective to prevailing gloomy assessments of the happiness of the early modern family, Keith Wrightson has produced evidence of individuals who show considerable concern to deal with family conflict in a humane and flexible fashion. But it is equally clear from his evidence that family relations were the focus of a great deal of emotional energy and the primary source both of pleasure and pain. This is also borne out in Michael MacDonald's account [in Mystical Bedlam: Madness, Anxiety and Healing in Seventeenth Century England, 1981] of a seventeenth-century psychiatric practice in which, as today, women were more susceptible to mental illness than men:
Not all the stress women suffered was caused by physical illness women were also more vulnerable than men to psychologically disturbing social situations. Their individual propensities to anxiety and sadness were enhanced by patriarchal custom and values that limited their ability to remedy disturbing situations … Napier and his troubled patients also believed that oppression made people miserable and even mad, but the bondage they found most troubling subordinated daughters to parents, wives to husbands rather than peasants to lords.
This discussion of social history cannot propose an alternative 'interpretation' of the text or assert its true meaning in the light of historical 'facts'. Rather it indicates that the text was produced within the contradictions of contemporary ideology and practice and suggests that similar contradictions exist within the play. These contradictions could fruitfully be brought to bear in modern criticism and productions. The dispute between Lear and his daughters is in part concerned with love and filial gratitude but it also dramatises the tense relationship between those bonds and the material circumstances in which they function. Lear's decision to publish his daughters' dowries is so 'that future strife / May be prevented now': the connection between loving harmony and economic justice is the accepted factor which underlies the formal patterning of the opening scene and is disrupted only by Cordelia's asides which introduce a notion of love as a more individual and abstract concept, incompatible both with public declaration and with computation of forests, champains, rivers and meads. Cordelia's notion of love gained precedence in modern ideology but it seriously disrupts Lear's discussion of property and inheritance. When Lear responds with 'Nothing will come of nothing' his words need not be delivered as an angry calling to account: they could equally be presented as a puzzled reaction to an inappropriate idea. Moreover Cordelia is not opposing hereditary duty to transcendent love—she does not reply 'There's beggary in the love that can be reckoned'. When she expands on her first assertion her legal language suggests a preference for a limited, contractual relationship: 'I love your majesty / According to my bond, no more nor less' (I.i.94-5). The conflict between the contractual model and the patriarchal model of subjects' obligations to their king was at issue in contemporary political theory and Cordelia's words here introduce a similar conflict into the question of obligations within the family.
When in Act II Lear again bargains with his daughters, a similar confusion between affective relations and contractual obligations is in play. Lear asserts the importance of the contractual agreement made with his daughters, for it is his only remaining source of power. Since they are now in control, Goneril and Regan can assert an apparently benign notion of service which does not depend on contract or mathematical computation:
What need you five and twenty? ten? or five?
To follow in a house where twice so many
Have a command to tend you?
The emotional impact of the scene, which is its principal power in modern productions, simply confuses the complex relations between personal autonomy, property and power which are acted out in this confrontation. The scene could be directed to indicate that the daughters' power over Lear is the obverse of his former power over them. His power over them is socially sanctioned but its arbitrary and tyrannical character is clear from his treatment of Cordelia. Lear kneeling to beg an insincere forgiveness of Regan is no more nor less 'unsightly' than Goneril's and Regan's formal protestations to their father. Both are the result of a family organisation which denies economic autonomy in the name of transcendent values of love and filial piety and which affords no rights to the powerless within it. Such a production of meaning offers the pleasure of understanding in place of the pleasure of emotional identification. In this context Lear's speeches about nature and culture are part of an argument, not a cri de coeur; the blustering of his threats is no longer evidence of the destruction of a man's self-esteem but the futile anger of a powerful man deprived of male power.
Further potential for comically undermining the focus on Lear is provided by the Fool, who disrupts the narrative movement of the action, subverting if not denying the emotional impact of the scenes in which he appears. In an important sense the Fool is less an alter ego for Lear than for his daughters: like them he reminds Lear and the audience of the material basis for the change in the balance of power. However, where they exploit Lear's powerlessness with cruelty and oppression he denies that necessity by his continued allegiance. In modern productions this important channel for an alternative view of events is closed off by holding the Fool within the narrative, using him as a means to heighten the emotional appeal of Lear's decline.
The potential for subversive contradiction in the text is, however, restricted to the first part. Lear's madness and the extrusion of Gloucester's eyes heavily weight the action towards a simpler notion of a time when humanity must perforce prey upon itself like monsters of the deep, denying comic recognition of the material facts of existence. Yet even Cordelia's self-denying love or Gloucester's stoic resignation are denied the status of ideological absolutes. The grotesque comic lie of Gloucester's fall from Dover cliff is hardly a firm basis for a belief in the saving power of divine providence and Cordelia's acceptance of her father's claims on her is futile because it is unsupported by material power.
A production of the text which would restore the element of dialectic, removing the privilege both from the character of Lear and from the ideological positions which he dramatises, is crucial to a feminist critique. Feminist criticism need not restrict itself to privileging the woman's part or to special pleading on behalf of female characters. It can be equally well served by making a text reveal the conditions in which a particular ideology of femininity functions and by both revealing and subverting the hold which such an ideology has for readers both female and male.
The misogyny of King Lear, both the play and its hero, is constructed out of an ascetic tradition which presents women as the source of the primal sin of lust, combining with concerns about the threat to the family posed by female insubordination. However the text also dramatises the material conditions which lie behind assertions of power within the family, even as it expresses deep anxieties about the chaos which can ensue when that balance of power is altered.
An important part of the feminist project is to insist that the alternative to the patriarchal family and heterosexual love is not chaos but the possibility of new forms of social organisation and affective relationships. However, feminists also recognise that our socialisation within the family and, perhaps more importantly, our psychological development as gendered subjects make these changes no simple matter. They involve deconstructing the sustaining comforts of love and the family as the only haven in a heartless world. Similarly a feminist critique of the dominant traditions in literature must recognise the sources of its power, not only in the institutions which reproduce them but also in the pleasures which they afford. But feminist criticism must also assert the power of resistance, subverting rather than co-opting the domination of the patriarchal Bard.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 17572
Robert H. West (essay date 1960)
SOURCE: "Sex and Pessimism in King Lear," in Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. XI, No. 1, Winter, 1960, pp. 55-60.
[In the essay that follows, West explores the complex way that the negative attitudes toward sexuality expressed in the play support a sense of awe and mystery necessary to true dramatic tragedy.]
Critics of King Lear are rather generally agreed that in some sense or other it is a pessimistic play. Johnson, Swinburne, Bradley, Spencer, Chambers, Knight, and many others notice that Shakespeare is here picturing a very dark world, which Cordelia's goodness and Lear's redemption by no means lighten entirely. Grant that some of the characters are good and that some become good, still the best die and in circumstances which suggest that the gods do indeed "kill us for their sport." The suspicion that this is so, Gloucester found in his suffering, and if he abandoned it later, that is no sure sign that it was groundless. To this "tremendous and pessimistic drama", says [G. B. Harrison, Introduction to King Lear, in Shakespeare: 23 Plays and the Sonnets, 1948], "… Gloucester's words form the most fitting motto."
Those who set out to weigh the play's pessimism in detail so as to find the "logic" of the whole, usually give most attention not to the discouragement of the afflicted characters but to the decisive events of the play and especially to Cordelia's cruel death, reflected in the wreckage surrounding Lear's. G. Wilson Knight wonders [in The Wheel of Fire, 1949] whether the gods laugh at Cordelia's death, whether the "Lear universe … is one ghastly piece of fun." He concludes that it is not; and in fact, as Bradley and others who remember that the play is a tragedy have observed, the scene of Lear with Cordelia's body has a tremendous dignity and even tranquility. To the audience the quality of the scene is finally not that of an unmitigated horror nor yet of a fire of outrage at the nature of things or of a rebellious assertion of man's loneliness and sole worth. It is rather a calm and particularly poignant awe at the power of Lear's life, seen a near match for the grand finality itself of death. "The oldest have borne most; we that are young / Shall never see so much nor live so long" (V. iii. 325-326). Added up, perhaps, the events and most of the speeches of King Lear give a sum of pessimism, but those who say so almost never mean that it is a desperate pessimism, or a raging, or a defiant, like Strindberg's or Hauptmann's or Sartre's.
One of the major contributions to the impression of pessimism that the play may leave comes from a suspicion of Lear's which is parallel to the suspicion of Gloucester's that the gods are like wanton boys. Lear's is a suspicion not about killing as a joke of the gods, but about procreation as one of the devil's. "But to the girdle do the gods inherit, / Beneath is all the fiend's" (IV. vi. 119-120). To the king, maddened by the offenses of his children against him and his against Cordelia, the act of generation has come to seem an inhuman abyss of the human will.
The wren goes to't, and the small gilded
Does lecher in my sight.
Let copulation thrive; for Gloucester's bastard
Was kinder to his father than my daughters
Got 'tween the lawful sheets.
To't, luxury, pell-mell! for I lack soldiers.
Behold yond simp'ring dame,
Whose face between her forks presageth
That minces virtue, and does shake the
To hear of pleasure's name.
The fitchew nor the soiled horse goes to't
With a more riotous appetite.
(IV. vi. 114-125)
Man begets children by an impulse that Lear now sees as resistless and polluted; that it is natural too puts a new face on nature for him. Generation is a most primitive cooperation, in which personal knowledge and affection cannot live and out of which they cannot come. We have heard Lear put a frightful curse on generation in Goneril; finally the conviction of a primordial curse on it in all times and persons ravages his mind.
If Lear's speech can be taken, as Gloucester's on the wanton gods has been, to be a "keynote" of the play, then clearly King Lear is dreadfully pessimistic on sex. If the play does indeed say that a man's origin is un-redeemed slime, that assertion goes very well with the assertion that his end is a reasonless joke. But the fact would seem to be that the play dignifies generation, after all, as it does death—dignifies them both largely with the preservation about them of their proper mystery, and sex, in addition, with an indication that a sort of miracle may attend its practice.
Plainly most of what characters in King Lear have to say about sex is unfavorable, and most of what the action seems to indicate is the same. Preliminary to Lear's shocking words on the power and horror of sex, are Edgar's account of himself as bedlam, tied largely to sexual predation, and the Fool's commentary on Lear's clash with the evil daughters, most wryly knowing on sexual evils. To Edgar copulation is the "act of darkness", and to the Fool it is that of the reckless codpiece with which the head must louse. At the beginning of the play, Gloucester is a jaunty old lecher, and at the end we hear that it was his lechery, performed in a "dark and vicious place", that cost him his eyes. Edmund early hails this vigorous lechery as a kind of ally in his elemental world of force; lust, if not the gods, stands up for bastards. Later Edmund is himself repulsively soiled with lechery, as are Goneril and Regan. Even Lear's knights are named to us, perhaps with reason, as "debosh'd and bold".
Very clearly all this is "unfavorable", and clearly the fact matters to the play. Lear seems in his madness to imply that sex is an insult to mankind and mercilessly alien—or that man is a beast. We rightly put sex at defiance, or cynically bow to it. "Let copulation thrive", since it does thrive. Yet thrive it never so well, Lear supposes that he knows it now for what it is: "There's hell, there's darkness, there's the sulphurous pit; burning, scalding, stench, consumption" (IV.vi.121-122). Sex is not the sportive arrangement Gloucester thought it. Ginger may be hot i' the mouth in more ways than one.
Yet surely the significance of the sex passages is not that they are an indictment of sex, as some of Strindberg's plays seem to amount to an indictment of woman, or Sartre's of public morality. The sex passages in King Lear do not, finally, express Shakespeare's outrage at the way man is made and reproduces himself. Shakespeare understood very well that sex is here to stay, and his plays are not rebellious against the fact. He never wasted his dramatic time on mere condemnation of anything so basic. King Lear's celebrated pessimism, what Knight calls its "fearless artistic facing of the ultimate cruelty of things", does not include a moral rejection of sex, much less a merely fastidious one. The play does, of course, face such cruel facts as that children may be unkind and that their obligation to be kind has ultimately an unknown ground, if it has any at all.
To the audience the sex horror of the play comes chiefly by way of the strongly expressed revulsion of the sympathetic characters from a self-evident foulness. With a kind of shocked Freudian insight the king detects the mating impulse as a brutal power horrifyingly strong just where it is not ordinarily evident. Behind such revulsion in the characters lies, we may assume, a kindred one, more sophisticated, in the author. Plainly Shakespeare himself considered the causes of Lear's shock and horror sufficient for their intended effect in both the king and the audience. Yet of course they do not move us as they move Lear, any more than the grieved awe we feel at Lear's death is the same as the awed grief that Edgar shows. What is mortal shock to Kent is a tragic pang to the audience. From the immediate causes of feeling in the characters the audience is detached, and its emotion is refined, furthermore, by the language and spectacle of the play. This well-known benefit from a special purchase on events and from the play's artistry is the audience's share in the sophistication of the author. What for the delirious Lear, then, is a frantic intuition of universal depravity in sex, is for the audience the recognition with pity and terror of a corruption the world may show—or of Lear's distressed way of seeing whatever it is that the world does show.
The audience's weighing of Lear's distress does not mean, of course, that the king's vehemence on sex is unconnected with facts or expresses solely his internal state. However distorted his way of seeing may be, Lear has come through an experience which the dramatic clarity of madness connects directly with sex: the hatefulness of his children belongs to the carnality that made them. "'Twas this flesh begot / Those pelican daughters" (III.iv.76-77).
Perhaps no strict computation of the grounds of Lear's sex raving is either possible or suitable, but plainly it stems in general from his daughters' ill treatment of him, real or fancied. One critic [Lilian Winstanley, Macbeth, King Lear, and Contemporary History, 1922] supposes confidently that he thinks of Goneril as the "simp'ring dame / … That minces virtue, and does shake the head / To hear of pleasure's name," yet has an appetite exceeding that of the "soiled horse". If we are bound by the straight-away facts of the plot, he can hardly have spoken from any knowledge he had of looseness in her sex life, for he could not have heard of her liaison with Edmund. The audience does know of it, of course, and understands that the horrid disparity between Goneril's loving profession and her predatory act is matched in the concealment of a riotous appetite beneath a chaste expression. Perhaps we may suppose that Lear projects from her uncovered lust for power a lust of the flesh as yet secret to him. Or perhaps to Lear's sickness Cordelia is the dame who looked modest yet yearned for fornication. She must have been the purest-appearing of his daughters, the one "Whose face between her forks presageth snow." To Lear's outrage she kept half her love for her husband and attracted the "hot-blooded France that dowerless took" her (II.iv.215).
However this may be, the sexual imagery of Lear's long speech in Act IV recalls powerfully events and speeches that have gone before it; his sex horror grounds in his sense of tainted generation. Because of unnatural daughters, the sex act appears a kind of dreadful seizure. The breeding of man, like that of the wren and the fly, is but a compulsive joining, and the chastest-seeming of women are centaurs down from the waist. If these images give justly the nature of propagation, no wonder that parent's claim on child and child's on parent do not hold good. Lear's reasoning circles: if—as his own experience testifies—these claims do not hold good, then the act of propagation upon which, most mysteriously, they rest is as bestial as it seems. The rationale of the pessimistic suspicion that tears Lear and through him affects the audience is logically naive, but resistless to the mad king and, in the sight of his suffering, impressive to us.
The audience with its sophistication understands, nevertheless, throughout that children do have a binding obligation to love and to revere their parents and parents one to love and minister to their children. This much the play takes for granted; it is a given morality in the action. To plead for Edmund and the evil sisters the vexations and humiliations their fathers troubled them with is to go outside the plain intent of the play. Lear and Gloucester, for their part, are clearly "wrong" to reject their good children and then are redeemed. Edgar and Cordelia are as blameless as dramatic characters can be and keep human seeming. The play says to the audience, then, with the most moving particularity, that the faith of child to father and of father to child does exist and ought to exist. By homely appeal to our human sympathy, the play confirms the audience in this faith and its Tightness. This given morality is almost as simple and direct as that of natural reward and punishment which Dr. Johnson wished for in King Lear, and it certainly mitigates the play's pessimism, particularly that connected with sex. If some children are kind, then generation is not all evil.
Notice, however, that the given morality does not accompany a given metaphysics or cosmogony or anthropology, much less an eschatology. King Lear does not offer us any self-assured universal scheme of things from which we may confidently take or make an over-all account of either the final process or the whole meaning of events in the play. What Bradley says of Shakespeare's tragedy in general is especially apposite to King Lear: "Shakespeare was not attempting to justify the ways of God to men, or to show the universe as a Divine Comedy. He was writing tragedy, and tragedy would not be tragedy if it were not a painful mystery. Nor can he be said even to point distinctly where a solution might lie." The given morality of King Lear suits Christianity, certainly, and no doubt it suits many other creeds, but to feel its force in the play does not require a Christian account of it nor any account that fits into a system. This is, of course, a very large question in Shakespeare criticism. I can do no more with it here than try to suggest how dramatically appropriate it is that the critic should allow the play the "painful mystery" of which Bradley speaks. This is a mystery related to that which prevails in the real world, where, however secure we are in our convictions, we must nevertheless acknowledge a vast ultimate uncertainty about whatever speculation we would use to sustain them.
One sign of such uncertainty in the play is, of course, the bafflement of the characters. Very clearly Lear and his friends are intellectually unequal to the questions they confront about generation and its duties. For Lear piety was an unexamined convention: the stars or the "gods" are our generators, and so duty is "natural", cosmic. The barbarous "unnatural" exists, but it is remote, almost mythical—the Scythian or "he that makes his generation messes / To gorge his appetite" (I.i.118-119). Lear conducts increasingly harassed calculations on childlike offices, first trivially in shares of the kingdom and numbers of knights, and then grotesquely in a phantom trial and anatomization. "Is there any cause in nature that makes these hard hearts?" (III.vi.80). He has accounted for Goneril's impiety with "degenerate bastard", and if Regan is not kind and comfortable he will divorce him from her mother's tomb as sepulchring an adultress. Yet "Gloucester's bastard son / Was kinder to his father than my daughters / Got 'tween the lawful sheets" (IV.vi.116-118). "It is the stars", says Kent, and the ineffectiveness of that answer recalls the hard logic with which Edmund disposed of foolishness about the stars. Gloucester, for his part, can account for a thankless child no better than Lear could: "I never got him" (II.i.80).
In a way, of course, these old men are equal to the question; they are serious and great of heart; whereas Edmund talking of the stars is essentially frivolous, like Cornwall commending Edmund's "childlike office" in betraying his brother or Regan tarring Edgar with his friendship to Lear's knights. Lear and Gloucester and Kent genuinely yearn toward universal order. But at their best by neither word nor deed can they do more than assert the given morality. Does their assertion and Cordelia's signify cosmic justice, some compensation in an unwritten sixth act, for their cruel deaths? Does it mean that nature finally is benign? or that God lives? For answering these questions the detachment of the audience and its superior knowledge give no decisive advantage; the bafflement of the characters proceeds not only from their intellectual inadequacies but from real deficiencies in the evidence. We know better than Lear does the evidence from Gloucester's bastard, and we know before Lear that he has "one daughter yet / Who re-deems nature from the general curse / Which twain have brought her to" (IV. vi. 209-212); such knowledge just leads us too to the hope of the given morality, not to any sure ground for it. Is this morality given by a greater authority than human yearning? The action does not positively say so. After the reconciliation of Lear to Cordelia we hear no more, it is true, of his disenchantment with generation, but his new mood is only the tenderest assertion of the given morality. It does not, as Dr. Johnson thought it should, fend off death. And it does not answer the question of the unkind child, but simply adds the question of the kind one. "One self mate and mate could not beget / Such different issues" (IV. iv. 36-37), cries Kent. But it has done so. Lear dies on an ecstatic conviction that Cordelia lives, but that does not answer for the audience why a "dog, a horse, a rat, have life" and she none. In the same way, Lear's purified love is no answer, either for him or for us, to the question of how perversions of nature can arise from the conditions of nature. In the anguish of his madness Lear comes back again and again to this profound question, and the audience, if not the king, is finally left with it. The goodness of the good children gives no explanation of the evil of the evil, and only partial reassurance.
The given morality, then, does not exhaust the sophistication of the author about generation. The play does not, like a novel of sentiment, come comfortably to rest in this morality. Along with the impression of it, the audience retains as strongly an impression of mystery, of unfathomed being. "Men must endure / Their going hence, even as their coming hither" (IV. iii. 9,10). This counsel of poise and patience is all the ultimate hope or explanation that is certain in King Lear about either birth or death.
The play's attitudes on sex, then, sustain its pessimism, but not without the tempering into grandeur that a tragedy must have, and this elevating and tranquilizing is partly the effect of preserved mystery and partly of the simple encouragement that comes from seeing one who justly thinks and has most rightly said stand out as a beacon by which, at last, the protagonist guides. Cordelia's love is "an ever-fixed mark". To what haven she guides Lear or by what right, we cannot be sure; but the dramatic relief is all the greater for the grand uncertainty. In love, the play indicates, is a kind of miracle, so that sex, along with the rest of life and death itself, is transmutable from slime to grandeur. We do not find it said that sex is itself grandeur and not slime, or that a conversion exists to more than our conviction. But the play does say that in our conviction, anyway, sex may be exalted by the miracle of love and so made confrontable, though mysterious still, secure in the doubts and even despair that properly go with great mystery.
Paul A. Jorgensen (essay date 1967)
SOURCE: "Is Man No More Than This?," in Lear's Self-Discovery, University of California Press, 1967, pp. 115-35.
[In the following excerpt, which traces Lear's increasing self-discovery, Jorgensen focuses on Lear's views of female sexuality, which bring him to a fuller understanding of human nature.]
ARE YOU OUR DAUGHTER?
Lear's education in the nature of man is … not confined to the theme of "The art of our necessities." There are several insights, more or less separate from this theme, which help answer the question "Is man no more than this?" One thinks immediately of one of Lear's first recognitions that man is limited by his body. When Cornwall will not admit him, Lear breaks off his anger with the reflection that the Duke may not be well: "nature, being oppress'd, commands the mind / To suffer with the body" (II.iv.109-110). A comparable, though reversed, relationship of mind and body is driven home personally and powerfully to Lear during the storm when he acknowledges that when the mind is free the body is delicate (III.iv.11- 12). And, to take but one more example, he learns also from the storm the frailty and ineffectual quality of his kingly body. Wet by the rain and made to chatter by the wind, he "smelt" out his flatterers and learned that he was not "argue-proof' (IV.vi.102-107). The imagery of the lowly sense of smell, and what it here and elsewhere connotes in the play, reinforces the importance of the body in Lear's education and supports Mrs. Nowottny's fine perception [in "Lear's Questions," Shakespeare Survey 10, 1957]: Shakespeare "has brought home to us Lear's belief that all a man can know is what he knows through the flesh." But we must go beyond this statement. Lear not only learns through the flesh; he learns about the flesh and its limitations, its vileness. And this brings us to the substance of the present section, which is what Lear learns about man's, and his own, tainted body through woman.
Except for Cordelia, all references to women in the play are highly unpleasant. King Lear is, in fact, so rank with the most revolting depictions of women and—even worse—woman, that it has been held, even by some conservative critics, to suggest the nadir of a period of sexual nausea through which Shakespeare himself was suffering. This conclusion has been generally based, for King Lear at least, upon the supposedly gratuitous nature of the sexual passages, by the manner in which they exceed dramatic and thematic requirements of the play. There seems to be little in the first part of the play to prepare for Lear's darkly clinical examination of a woman's body. He has not earlier, with one exception, used sexual imagery, and the vileness of sex seems to have little to do with either the reason for his tragedy or the nature of his ordeal. My explanation for Lear's sexual nausea is not meant to be exclusive of others. All I have tried to do is explore the problem in the context of our subject, Lear's self-discovery, and perhaps in the context of its ultimate conclusion: "Is man no more than this?"
Man's naked body proved for Lear to be grimly instructive. But it stressed for him mainly what a pathetically grotesque creature man was. It did not make man seem revoltingly tainted in flesh. For the ultimate in Lear's discovery of man's naked condition Shakespeare turned to the body and appetites (as opposed to the needs) of woman. "Let them anatomize Regan" is then merely another stage in Lear's study of man's debased condition, but it is the final stage. Such a view makes less gratuitous the role of sex in the play. The anatomy of the female is not introduced because Shakespeare was sick—possibly not because Lear was sick—but in part because Lear was in his self-discovery investigating man's condition, and only woman's body could suffice to illustrate the full depravity of man.
But there is still another reason why we should not regard the theme of sex as an isolated and extradramatic aspect of Lear's characterization. It is placed in context. To appreciate how central it is to the play, we must know both that it is important to Lear's discovery of himself through man, and that the exposure of the sexuality of man (and woman) does not suddenly emerge in the mad scenes, but is in some ways prepared for earlier by other characters and by Lear's own actions and nature.
To Lear's education in the sexuality of woman, two other characters serve, very early in the play, as foils. Both Gloucester and Edmund have completed most of the curriculum, the latter with honors. In the twenty-fourth line of the play, Gloucester has learned that "the whoreson must be acknowledged." And we have already seen how he has become "braz'd" to his sexual life and remembers chiefly that "there was good sport at his making." Gloucester perhaps suffers as a result of his callous sensuality. Edgar later comments to Edmund:
The dark and vicious place where thee he got
Cost him his eyes.
But this recognition never comes to Gloucester himself. Unlike Lear, he never broods over man's mortality in terms of the "dark and vicious place." For all practical purposes within the play, Gloucester's education about sex is completed by the first scene.
Edmund's conception of the sexual element in man's nature is equally prompt and is more natively a part of his temperament. He suffers no disturbing disillusionment about the ideal nature of man and woman because he has never had any illusions. He is in this respect the perfect foil to Lear. Edmund is from the beginning happy with the "fierce quality" (I.ii.12) of sex. It is he who deplores the "evasion of whoremaster man, to lay his goatish disposition on the charge of a star" (I.ii.137-139), and he talks freely and happily about one of the subjects most painful for any sensitive youth (such as Hamlet) to contemplate: How "My father compounded with my mother" (I.ii.139-140).
For both Gloucester and Edmund the sexuality of life is fully, even gladly, conscious. With Lear it seems to be largely unconscious, but of course not absent. Lear's most shattering experience will be the answer to one of his many seemingly innocent questions: "Are you our daughter?" (I.iv.238). The final answer to this question will not be that the daughters are ungrateful, but that they are in the fullest physiological sense women. And not all of this discovery will come from any change in the behavior of the daughters; it will be the emergence of an aspect of himself which he had not known was there. He is discovering himself as well as his daughters. One does not have to subscribe to the theories of psychoanalysis to proceed from the premise that most of our knowledge is unconscious and that much of what we learn about others is in fact a disclosure of what is within us, unrecognized.
The first scene of the play, the "love scene," is a tempting one for the purpose of showing Lear's un-acknowledged sexual attitudes. He is of course an extremely old man, and society—particularly its younger members like Hamlet—likes to think that old age, like infancy, is securely free from sexual needs or even interests. Shakespeare need not have been a modern, versed in the bookish theoric of psychoanalysis, to know that this is not so. This one play, in its sexual scenes, is ample proof of Shakespeare's "modern" awareness. Here we need take only one incidental passage, a kind of choral comment by the Fool: "Now a little fire in a wild field were like an old lecher's heart; a small spark, all the rest on's body cold" (III.iv.116-118).
Now Lear is not an old lecher; and the comment is not applied to him. But most of the Fool's remarks do have some point in the play as a whole, and one is justified in seeing them as at least choral. At any rate, some "small spark" may be present in Lear's anxious attitude toward his daughters' protestations of love. There may be latent incest, as there is in many men, in his wish for the unshared love of his daughters. Goneril and Regan verbally oblige, the latter even suggesting a sexual devotion in her avowal:
… I profess
Myself an enemy to all other joys
Which the most precious square of sense
Although Kenneth Muir cites, in his Arden edition, several less disturbing (but not convincing) meanings of "the most precious square of sense," Neilson and Hill are probably right in glossing the expression as the "most exquisite region of my senses." Imagery such as this is not out of character for Regan as we later come to know her. It is she who will refer to "the forfended place" (V.i.11). However this may be, an expression of sexuality is not, as I shall presently argue, by any means what Lear wants to hear; but what would please him about the speech is the daughter's preference of his love for the pleasure a husband could give her. It is, however, Cordelia's response that he most needs, and so what angers him about it is that a daughter should be willing to share her love for him with a husband. Thence comes a part of Lear's resentment toward France, and his fantasying the successful suitor as "hot-blooded France" (II.iv.215). Latent feelings of incest could, therefore, possibly account for the violence of Lear's rejection of Cordelia: he himself has been rejected. But I am very doubtful about this explanation, which I have presented as sympathetically as possible. I cite it, like the Regan image, only to show the possibility—badly needed to explain his subsequent outbursts—that Lear at the beginning of the play may be more concerned with sex than conventional critics (for whom furred gowns hide all) have recognized.
My own interpretation of Lear's desire in this scene—besides the need for identity through love—is I think based more closely on the text and is more compatible with the painfulness of Lear's self-discovery in terms of a sexual body. What Lear wants from the women in his life is their exclusive devotion to him shown in the form of solicitous cherishing. He gives a clue to what he has wanted, and to the reason why he has preferred Cordelia, when he says:
I lov'd her most, and thought to set my rest
On her kind nursery.
Cordelia had signified for him, not sexuality, but comfort. As contrasted probably with her fierce, passionate sisters,
Her voice was ever soft,
Gentle, and low; an excellent thing in
And when Goneril has failed to give him his "kind nursery," he turns to her sister, "Who, I am sure, is kind and comfortable" (I.iv.328). Whereas Goneril's eyes "are fierce," Regan's "Do comfort and not burn" (II.iv.175-176). What Lear will above all resist, loathe, and fear in women is a sexuality that goes beyond the gentle.
There is of course no decisive sexual meaning in the brutal rejection of Lear by Goneril and Regan. The closest hint of it is in the perversion suggested by the daughters as flagellating mothers (ironically related to "kind nursery"). Goneril says:
Now, by my life,
Old fools are babes again, and must be
With checks as flatteries, when they are seen
And once more there comes to mind the Fool's image of Lear, unbreeched, being spanked by his mother-daughters (I.iv.187-190). But this does not get into Lear's own imagery. His gradual disillusionment with his daughters is expressed, except for "Degenerate bastard!" (I.iv.275), mainly in terms of imagery of animals and of a diseased human body: "Detested kite!" (I.iv.284), "thy wolvish visage" (I.iv.330), "Most serpent-like" (II.iv.163), and
A plague-sore, an embossed carbuncle,
In my corrupted blood.
Although these images show that the daughters are becoming in his mind monsters of depravity, in a bodily sense, the responsibility for his shifting their vileness to sexual terms is Lear's own. He does not know of their lustful passion for Edmund (which at any rate comes later in the play).
He first becomes obsessed with Goneril as a breeder. This is partially understandable in view of her unkindness to the man who begot her. He would not have his unnatural daughter bear a child, and if she must have one, let the child be to her as she has been to him. What is not fully understandable is the violence and clinical precision of the curse in which he prays for Goneril's sterility. This anatomizing of Goneril comes, it should be remembered, early in the play. It is the first sustained expression of his outrage against his daughter, and it is significant that his early revulsion against an act of ingratitude should be concerned primarily with "the organs of increase" and "her derogate body." This early concern at any rate makes less extraneous his final and repellent anatomy of the female in Act IV.
What I think it shows mainly is that the "filth" of the texuality is partly within Lear himself. The imagery of the play as a whole would support the interpretation of a vile imagination projecting its own image on the world, and of concealed vileness breaking from its bounds and disclosing itself. In his mad speech on sex, Lear himself attributes it to his imagination: "good apothecary, sweeten my imagination" (IV.vi.132-133). But other passages in the play are equally illuminating. Lear speaks of "Close pent-up guilts" riving their "concealing continents" (III.ii.57-58). Cordelia also stresses the idea that filth will disclose itself (as it does in the way she predicts): "Who covers faults, at last shame them derides" (I.i.284). And Albany points perhaps most explicitly of all to the source of foul imaginations: "Filths savour but themselves" (IV.ii.39). Lear is, then, in a manner both dramatically and psychologically convincing, discovering—though at first it is more exposing than discovering—some unsavory truths about himself. He is revolted and yet fascinated by the sexual female, as opposed to the kind whose voice is ever soft, gentle, and low.
What, however, is the agent that brings about this exposure? If he were mad, like Ophelia, it would be understandable. But he is still sane. He is, to be sure, in his rising hysteria moving toward madness. It is only a little more than a hundred lines later that he cries:
O, let me not be mad, not mad, sweet
Keep me in temper; I would not be mad!
But it should be stressed that the curse, unlike his later anatomy of woman, is, though intense, cruelly controlled. The sexual imagery is even here close enough to the surface to emerge without madness. It is, then, a fairly conscious part of his growing awareness of sexuality and the horror of the corrupt female body.
And what increases the horror for him, and also shows his early interest in the female body, is that these monsters are seemingly fair creatures. He twice emphasizes their youth and beauty. The child of spleen is to stamp wrinkles in Goneril's "brow of youth." The fen-sucked fogs are to "infect her beauty" (II.iv.168). And they have the outward form of woman ("Thou art a lady," "gorgeous" in dress), which makes their vileness all the more terrible, even as man's furred gowns enhance the guilt that they conceal. Albany later expresses what is doubtless Lear's far more intense disillusionment:
Proper deformity seems not in the fiend
So horrid as in woman.
Lear's own steps in the way of sexual discovery are, as we note in the preceding chapter, materially assisted by the Fool, whose imagery and songs are full of references to sex and to the sexual nature of both men and women. Here again one is tempted to see the Fool as a part of Lear himself. Another catalyst is Poor Tom, who (like the Fool appearing only when Lear is ready for his lesson) not only teaches Lear about unaccommodated man, but helps him, through provocative suggestion, to fantasy genteel ladies seducing curly-headed servingmen to sate their lust. "Let not," he cautions further, "the creaking of shoes nor the rustling of silks betray thy poor heart to woman. Keep thy foot out of brothels, thy hand out of plackets …" (II.iv.97- 100).
But despite these catalysts, it is Lear's own imagination that is responsible for his ultimate anatomy of woman in Act IV. Early references to female sexuality have partially, but not fully, prepared us for this savage outburst. And doubtless if we had been prepared for it, it would have been, as would Ophelia's sex in madness, far less dramatic.
I need not run through all the details of Lear's speech on the anatomy of woman beneath the waist. This is more painful to the senses than the scene of the blinding of Gloucester, for, unlike stage business, imagery cannot be wholly or partly concealed. I suspect, of course, that this speech is usually not "explicated" in college classrooms. This is understandable. I would emphasize, however, that the speech is not pornography; it is philosophy. There is a profound distinction that separates sex in this play from the bawdy of the comedies. Curiously, King Lear is Shakespeare's only tragedy that is, like the happy comedies, a play of "generation." But whereas talk of generation in the comedies takes the spirited, lighthearted, and expectant form of bawdy, in King Lear it is humorless, unprovocative, and pessimistic. In the comedies, generation stands for the joyous vitality and renewal of life, the future of all that the courtship plots are about. In King Lear, generation not only breeds monstrous children; it points toward mortality and sin. It is finally not an agent of renewal, but a fantasy in the mind of a man near death. Critics and teachers who scant Lear's anatomy of woman have the doubtful virtue, then, of silencing not prurience but philosophy. They miss the important aspect of generation in "we came crying hither" (really the tragic sequel to the gay courtship of the comedies), and they miss what Shakespeare's contemporaries may well have considered the play's deepest and darkest view of the nature of man.
What I should like to stress further about the speech, besides its comment upon man, is why the fantasy is the most painful one that Lear could conjure up for himself. For Lear the painful part of the image is not just the horror of "the sulphurous pit," but the fact that this is a usually disguised part of seemingly gentle woman. What revolts him—and this goes back to his preference for the mild Cordelia—is the exposed sexuality of
yond simp'ring dame,
Whose face between her forks presages snow,
That minces virtue, and does shake the head
To hear of pleasure's name.…
As with man, Lear has now anatomized woman, and he has done so "down from the waist." In both instances, what repels him is the nakedness beneath the sophistication. As the Renaissance treatises recommended, he had discovered part of himself through unaccommodated man. But with woman he reaches one step further and sees not just the weakness but the vileness of humanity. It is perhaps this that leads him, when Gloucester asks to kiss his hand after the speech about woman, to say: "Let me wipe it first; it smells of mortality" (IV.vi.136).
It may be objected that, because Lear is mad in this scene, he achieves little valid self-discovery. Actually, however, it is not, as we have seen, the complete lack of reason found in Ophelia's exhibitionism. It is more accurately described by Edgar as "reason in madness" (IV.vi.179). Moreover, earlier in the play, while he was still sane, Lear had reached a recognition of his own share in his daughters' vileness, a recognition that in part is merely fulfilled by his fantasy concerning woman during his madness. The "reasonable" part of his perception during Act IV—amplified to be sure by a powerful projection through his imagination—is that his daughters are but extensions of himself. He had told Goneril:
… yet thou art my flesh, my blood, my
Or rather a disease that's in my flesh.…
And, a little later, when he is verging on madness, he had been able to recognize that
'Twas this flesh begot
Those pelican daughters.
To at least this extent, therefore, he has sanely participated in his final anatomy of woman. And for our purposes he has made an equally important step toward self-discovery, for he has not simply externalized the vileness in some form apart from himself.
But, as at the end of the last section, we must again face the fact that Lear's mad scene does not conclude the play. Having been through this purgatory of self-discovery, he returns to full sanity momentarily and before his final defiance becomes a humble, relatively tranquil man, his "rage" gone. Once more he wants, it would seem, to retire to Cordelia's "kind nursery" when the two are taken to prison. This is dramatically, but not philosophically, a logical outcome of the pilgrimage he has been through. He cannot sustain indefinitely the intensity of his vision. His spiritual pilgrimage, unparalleled in Shakespeare elsewhere, has been accomplished so far as an old man, and so far as Shakespeare looking through an old man's eyes, could accomplish it. There was no more in this tough world for him to learn. What remained was, in Webster's words, "another voyage."
Peter Erickson (essary date 1985)
SOURCE: "Maternal Images and Male Bonds in Hamlet, Othello, and King Lear," in Patriarchal Structures in Shakespeare's Drama, University of California Press, 1985, pp. 66-122.
[In the excerpt below, Erickson examines the power of male bonding in King Lear, contending that, in contrast to earlier Shakespearean tragedies, male-male relationships are less important in King Lear than male-female relationships.]
King Lear elaborates further the dramatic possibilities of the two extreme versions of women between which Othello shuttles. The opening scene makes clear that Lear himself is the major source of this splitting, for he initiates the contest that provokes the division into good and bad daughters. Though they respond differently to this provocation, all three daughters share the common purpose of protecting themselves against the father's total claim on them. Lear subsequently satisfies his need to make a total claim through the absolute, unquestioning loyalty and devotion of the disguised Kent. Frustrated by women, Lear "sets his rest" on the "kind nursery" of male bonding (1.1.123-24).Although Gloucester's programmatic pessimism tells us that "friendship falls off, brothers divide" (1.2.106-7), his own actions provide strong contrary evidence. At the risk of his life, Gloucester makes the commitment to "relieve" Lear with "charity" (3.3.14, 16). This male "kindness" (3.6.5) specifically includes nurturance: "Yet have I ventured to come seek you out, / And bring you where both fire and food is ready" (3.4.152-53). When the two are reunited after Gloucester has lost his eyes for protecting Lear (3.7.56-58), their shared suffering exemplifies "bearing fellowship" (3.6.107). In a more positive sense than Goneril intended, "Old fools are babes again" (1.3.19), as Lear and Gloucester are now in a position to survey their existence from the perspective of birth: "we came crying hither. / Thou know'st, the first time that we smell the air / We wawl and cry" (4.6.178-80). For a brief but moving moment, the two men succor each other.
The comfort of male bonding is a powerful force in the play's final scene. Edgar recounts his reunion with Kent:
With his strong arms
He fastened on my neck and bellowed out
As he'd burst heaven, threw him on my
Told the most piteous tale of Lear and him
That ever ear received.
Edgar, who "by the art of known and feeling sorrows" has been made "pregnant to good pity" (4.6.222-23), also has a "most piteous tale" to tell about "nursing" Gloucester's "miseries" (5.3.181-82). Even Edmund is drawn into this circle of male sympathy when he is affected by his brother's narration: "This speech of yours hath mov'd me, / And shall perchance do good" (200-1). His otherwise implausible conversion—"Some good I mean to do, / Despite of mine own nature" (244-45)—is given cogency by his abandonment of the alliance with Goneril and Regan and his return to the all-male family. Edgar's brotherly gesture of "exchanging charity" (167) completes the process of male purification initiated by the rite of single combat whereas the source of evil is regarded as the female site of Edmund's begetting: "the dark and vicious place where thee he got" (173).
Edmund himself is separated from female contamination because the play treats the three conspicuously evil characters differentially by gender. Goneril and Regan engage in a comical and self-destructive competition for Edmund's body, striving to outdo each other in their haste to promise Edmund the obedience and solicitous care they deny Lear. The sex-role reversal with which Goneril taunts her husband's "milky gentleness' (1.4.341) dissolves when she succumbs to Edmund: "O, the difference of man and man! / To thee a woman's services are due" (4.2.26-27). Unlike Gonerial and Regan, Edmund is not compromised by the ironies of their love triangle, which he is allowed to view with bemused detachment:
To both these sisters have I sworn my love;
Each jealous of the other, as the stung
Are of the adder. Which of them shall I take?
Both? one? or neither?
Edmund's detachment from the women's love is enacted when he ignores Goneril's cue to dismiss the single combat with the disguised Edgar as "practice" (5.3.152). Edmund does not have to say "Shut your mouth, dame" (155) because another male says it for him, but he willingly binds himself to the integrity of this male trial and its outcome. While Goneril stonewalls (161), Edmund imagines "forgiveness" for his "noble" rival (167, 166). Though he has represented the manhood inspired by "the lusty stealth of nature" (1.2.11), Edmund, like Lear, at last gains access to manly pity.
To counter his daughters' "unkindness" (3.2.16), Lear assembles a ragged band of brothers and fashions a male refuge on the exposed heath. Kent, the Fool, and Edgar are Lear's shadows, who try to tell him who he is (1.4.230-31). In Kent's version, Lear's authority rests on masculine firmness backed by the willingness to use force. Kent devotes himself to restoring Lear's "frame of nature" to "the fix'd place" of "manhood" (268, 269, 297). As Lear's surrogate, Kent displays the aggressiveness in which Lear himself has been deficient. Kent's aggression in the service of goodness is instantly recognized by Lear as "love" (88) and rewarded (94) when the disguised Kent trips up the "base football player" (86) Oswald, Goneril's steward. Kent again courts violence with the verbal and physical attack on Oswald (now "the son and heir of a mungril bitch" [2.2.22]) that lands him in the stocks. Kent's antagonism, which elicits the "violent outrage" "upon respect" (2.4.24) and forces Lear into acute awareness of his diminished power, is described by both sides as a product of blunt manliness: "put upon him such a deal of man" (2.2.120) and "having more man than wit about me" (2.4.42). This manhood carries an antifemale note, for Kent's lack of vulnerability to women is one of the qualities by which he recommends himself to Lear's service: "Not so young, sir, to love a woman for singing, nor so old to dote on her for any thing" (1.4.37-38).
In the Fool, Kent's aggressive action takes the form of aggressive wit. The Fool baits both Goneril ("the Lady Brach" [1.4.112]) and Lear to bring home the powerlessness Lear has brought upon himself by disordering the traditional gender hierarchy. Relentlessly exposing Lear's weakness the better to push him toward a renewal of manhood, the Fool mocks Lear's sex. Having given "the rod" (174) to his daughters, Lear's penis is "a sheal'd peascod" (200), an empty symbol of masculine power that makes him a woman: "now thou art an O without a figure" (192-93). The Fool's pointed humor has a misogynist edge: "For there was never yet fair woman but she made mouths in a glass" (3.2.35-36). Edgar, the third member of Lear's male chorus, picks up the antifeminist line when he warns against "the act of darkness" (3.4.87): "Let not the creaking of shoes nor the rustling of silks betray thy poor heart to woman. Keep thy foot out of brothels; thy hand out of plackets" (94-97). However, while Kent and the Fool press their single-minded attempt to shore up Lear's masculinity, Edgar evokes in Lear a more complicated response.
Lear's immediate identification with Edgar—"Didst thou give all to thy daughters? And art thou come to this?" (3.4.49-50)—can be explained in part as a projection that reinforces tough-minded hostility toward women. But Edgar's status as a beggar implies vulnerability—his "presented nakedness" hopes to "enforce their charity" (2.3.11, 20)—as well as defiance. Edgar answers to the self-image of beggar that Lear has already begun to adopt for himself:
"On my knees I beg
That you'll vouchsafe me raiment, bed, and
Why, the hot-bloodied France, that dowerless
Our youngest born, I could as well be
To knee his throne, and squire-like, pension
To keep base life afoot. Return with her?
Persuade me rather to be slave and
To this detested groom.
O, reason not the need! our basest beggars
Are in the poorest thing superfluous
Once on the heath, Lear ceases to resist the beggar image and instead seeks it:
Poor naked wretches, wheresoe'er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall your houseless heads and unfed
Your loop'd and window'd raggedness, defend
From seasons such as these?
Lear's prayer (27) is answered by Edgar's voice calling from within the hovel and, shortly, by the actual presence of his "uncover'd body" (102), a physical state to which Lear exposes himself: "Thou art the thing itself: unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor, bare, fork'd animal as thou art. Off, off, you lendings! Come, unbutton here" (106-9). In his guise as beggar, Edgar performs a service for Lear, of which neither Kent nor the Fool was capable, by facilitating Lear's openness to vulnerability.
Nonetheless, this openly acknowledged vulnerability exacerbates the distrust of women. This moment in act 3, scene 4, can be too easily cited as evidence that Lear learns from his suffering according to the beneficent tragic view: "The art of our necessities is strange / And can make vild things precious" (3.2.70-71). But the newfound preciousness of "unaccommodated man" bespeaks a humanism that coexists with hatred of women, for Lear has two separate visions of the human body depending on whether "the thing itself is male or female. One crux of the play lies in the juxtaposition of the "poor, bare, fork'd animal" that Edgar presents with the "simp'ring dame, / Whose face between her forks presages snow" (4.6.60-67) that Lear "anatomizes" (3.6.76) with all the sanctimony he can summon:
But to the girdle do the gods inherit,
Beneath is all the fiends': there's hell,
There is the sulphurous pit, burning,
Just as the Edgar who occasions Lear's humanist revelation becomes the "most learned justicer" (3.6.21) who helps Lear prosecute Goneril and Regan in the mock trial on the heath, so Lear uses the Gloucester who "sees feelingly" (4.6.149) as an ally in taking revenge against women. Lear's critique of justice—"Why dost thou lash that whore?" (161)—applies to his own rhetorical assault on the female body, but he is blissfully unaware of the self-application.
The "darkness" (4.6.127) of the vagina is synonymous with heterosexual intercourse: "the act of darkness" (3.4.87) is the woman's "dark and vicious place" (5.3.173). Displaced from the male body and projected exclusively onto the female, sexuality becomes female sexuality; "copulation" (4.6.114) becomes a province for which women, not men, are responsible. In this view, the normal superiority of civilization to nature is reversed, transposed into an opposition between male necessity and female "luxury" (117); and between Edgar's salutary nakedness and the bad daughters' "plighted cunning" (1.1.280), literally imaged in their extravagant clothes (2.4.267-70) or in the verbal flattery by which Regan's "most precious square of sense" (1.1.74) disguises her "sulphurous pit" (4.6.128). Male perturbation with sexuality is greater here than in Othello because the sexual act is bound up with procreation. However repulsive the image of "making the beast with two backs" (Othello, 1.1.116-17), however convulsed Othello is by the thought of Desdemona "topp'd" (3.3.396)—"It is not words that shakes me thus. Pish! Noses, ears, and lips" (4.1.41-42)—there is nothing in Othello so alienated as Lear's life-denying curse against Goneril.
Lear takes revenge in a direct attack on her powers of gestation. Into her "sulphurous pit," he would "convey sterility" (1.4.278). If he cannot make her infertile, he condemns her to reproduce the filial ingratitude she has inflicted on him: "Turn all her mother's pains and benefits / To laughter and contempt" (286-87). Lear's earlier curse against Cordelia also strikes against procreation: "Better thou / Hadst not been born than not t' have pleased me better" (1.1.233-34). Lear finds particularly galling the physical intimacy of the blood connection that makes parent and child one flesh: "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" (2.4.221-23). He employs several stratagems to try to sever this indissoluble bond. First, he banishes and disinherits: "Here I disclaim all my paternal care" (1.1.113). Cordelia is now "my sometime daughter" (120), "Unfriended, new adopted to our hate, / Dower'd with our curse, and stranger'd with our oath" (203-4), "for we / Have no such daughter" (262-63).
Second, he attempts a mortificaiton of the flesh, analogous to the self-mutilation proposed by Edgar—"Strike in their numb'd and mortified arms / Pins, wooden pricks, nails, sprigs of rosemary" (2.3.15-16). When Lear calls the storm down upon his head, he punishes his body in order to purify it while at the same time destroying the universal power of procreation that corrupted him: "Crack nature's moulds, all germains spill at once" (3.2.9). Ultimately, the separation of male spirit from female flesh is achieved by the death of the woman. The play comes to rest when the threat posed by the female body is ended: "Produce the bodies" (5.3.231), "seest thou this object?" (239). The potency of the "sulphurous pit" has been canceled, as the exhibition of silent bodies bears witness.
The motif of the missing mother is only a decoy, for the play's "darker purpose" produces mother figures to fill the vacuum left by the absence of Lear's wife. He asks for trouble by turning his daughters into mothers, as the Fool indicates after the fact. Lear's divestment of his authority initiates the dismantling of patriarchal order and the reinstatement of maternal power. A confusion in the ideal of male beneficence emerges: Lear retains the self-pitying image as "Your old kind father, whose frank heart gave all" (3.4.20), when actually he had used giving all as a means to receive all. He makes clear, in retrospect, the terms of the bargain when he desperately appeals to "tender-hefted" Regan to show "The offices of nature, bond of childhood, / Effects of courtesy, dues of gratitude" (2.4.178-79) by immediately reminding her of the gift by which he purchased these dues: "Thy half o' th' kingdom hast thou not forgot, / Wherein I thee endow'd" (180-81). But more often Lear suppresses the logic that connects "So kind a father" (1.5.32) to his desire for "kind nursery" (1.1.124). In the candor prompted by extreme disappointment, Lear admits that he was maneuvering "to set my rest" (123) on Cordelia's care of him. Instead of the maternal comfort he had sought, he inadvertently recreates the pain of maternal abandonment. When he renounces Cordelia after she has denied her undivided affection, Lear elevates his rage to the heroic proportions of the "barbarous Scythian" (116) and the "dragon" (122). But Lear's image of the angry, devouring father is preceded by his invocation of a dangerous goddess—"The mysteries of Hecat and the night" (110)—who modulates into the powerful mother whose victim is Lear.
Lear defends against this mother by standing on the ceremony of manliness (2.4.276-78). But once he has entered the open heath in a stormy night "wherein the cub-drawn bear would crouch" (3.1.12), he gives in to the all-consuming experience of his infantlike vulnerability. This is the burden of Lear's beggar imagery: the infant's needy dependence on a mother's care. Edgar as the embodiment of beggary evokes a whole range of feelings associated with this dependence—from the fear of deprivation to the hope of survival. The "unfed sides" of "poor naked wretches" (3.4.30,28) whose destitution Lear commits himself to share refers in part to the basic necessity of maternal nurturance. Yet Lear short-circuits awareness by attempting to recover an image of benevolent paternal bounty:
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
And show the heavens more just.
Patriarchal liberality that redistributes the superflux is not the appropriate "physic" for Lear's central problem; this fantasy of reparation by a reformed male authority cannot serve as a substitute for the absence of maternal generosity, the "kind nursery" to which Lear has pinned his "unburthen'd" self (1.1.41). Male bounty, independent of women, cannot be sustained.
The crucial importance of women for a sane social order is underscored by Lear's inability to release himself from misogynist rage. Only Cordelia's intervention provides him with the "sweetened imagination" he needs (4.6.131). Cordelia is the "daughter / Who redeems nature from the general curse / Which twain have brought her to" (205-7) because she is both maternal and virginal. The elimination from the play of her husband (4.3.1-6) ensures her exclusive devotion to Lear. Her "organs of increase" (1.4.279) are not at issue because, despite her maternal ambience, she is kept from association with literal child bearing. Upon her reentry to the play, she obliges Lear in the role of the good, comforting mother, to which he had originally assigned her. The maternal aspect of her rescue is implied by her image as "Our foster-nurse of nature" (4.4.12); this physic is hers to bestow, not the doctor's. Cordelia's reference to "our sustaining corn" (6) is linked metaphorically to the natural restorative power of her tears: "All blest secrets, / All you unpublish'd virtues of the earth, / Spring with my tears; be aidant and remediate / In the good man's distress" (15-18).
The image of a patriarchal "pomp" that makes restitution by "shaking" its "superflux" cannot hold a candle to Cordelia's maternal kindness, so necessary to Lear's restoration. However poignant the relations among Lear's company of supportive men, this male bonding is finally a minor resource compared with the unequivocal centrality of Cordelia for Lear—a centrality that dominates the play after her reappearance in act 4, scene 4. This is the significance of Lear's non-recognition of Kent (5.3.279-95) and of his inattention to the Duke of Albany's scheme for patriarchal justice (297-305). Such consolations are irrelevant to Lear's desolation: Cordelia's death makes it impossible for him to "taste" her "cup" (303, 305). The gods do not exist who can revive the "miracle" of her life so as to "make them honors / Of men's impossibilities" (4.6.55, 73-74). In contrast to Othello, King Lear places greater structural emphasis on the final phase in which the male protagonist regains his perception of the woman's innocence. The dramatic potential is increased because Lear is permitted, as Othello is not, to reunite with her while she is still alive and to ask her forgiveness.
This is not to say that Lear's reconciliation with Cordelia is entirely positive; on the contrary, it is irredeemably tragic. The play cautions us against false optimism by undercutting Edgar's premature, sententious "The lamentable change is from the best, / The worst returns to laughter" (4.1.5-6). But Edgar's optimism is incurable; he thinks he can "cure despair" (4.6.33-34; 5.3.192) and returns "the worst" to laughter by means of an upbeat narrative closure: "Burst smilingly" (5.3.200). The main plot, however, defies Edgar's efforts to fashion a happy ending. In Lear's case, the comic rebirth prepared for him "closes the eye of anguish" (4.4.15) in a way that has negative as well as positive implications. Gloucester, misapprehending Lear's madness, desires it to escape his own "ingenious feeling" (4.6.280):
Better I were distract,
So should my thoughts be sever'd from my
And woes by wrong imaginations lose
The knowledge of themselves.
But for Lear the reverse is more nearly true. His madness has shown the way to sharpened awareness; his "repose" (4.4.12) leads to some loss of this acute consciousness.
The correct identification of "good" and "bad" daughters is not enough because Lear proceeds to take advantage of Cordelia's goodness. In the reconciliation scene, Lear discovers that he is to "drink" not the "poison" of Cordelia's revenge as he had expected (4.7.71) but rather her unconditional mercy. Yet the play's final scene begins with Lear's transformation of the original moment of forgiveness into a commemorative routine: "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" (5.3.9-11). His momentary openness to human contact—"Be your tears wet? Yes, faith" (4.7.70)—is superseded by a withdrawal into the hollow posture of omnipotent fantasy, hollow because it denies not only Edgar's reality but also Cordelia's. Authentic communication between father and daughter has ceased. To Cordelia's gentle nudge "Shall we not see these daughters and these sisters?" (5.3.7), Lear can offer only flat resistance: "No, no, no, no!" (8). Cordelia is subsumed in the escapist vision Lear constructs for both of them; she is not consulted: her part is once again to "Love, and be silent" (1.1.62). This appropriation of Cordelia is not an act of love but a violation of it that echoes and repeats Lear's ritual of possessiveness in the opening scene.
The sacrificial nature of Cordelia's role is explicit: "Upon such sacrifices, my Cordelia, / The gods themselves throw incense. Have I caught thee?" (5.3.20-21). Her compliance thus caught, verbal assent is un-necessary: Cordelia accepts her "plight" (1.1.101) by crying. But Lear insists that she stifle her tears as he lapses into the mode of vengeful defiance that blots self-awareness: "Wipe thine eyes; / The good-years shall devour them, flesh and fell, / Ere they shall make us weep! We'll see 'em starved first" (5.3.23-25). Having secured the maternal symbiosis of "kind nursery," Lear redirects the mother's punishments of "starving" and "devouring" against his enemies. Superficially, the tragic ending is the result of external evil forces now beyond Lear's control. Yet the tragedy cannot be made to hinge on the technicality of failing to save Cordelia in time (237-57). To give credence to the possibility of a last-minute rescue is to hold out too much melodramatic faith in a benign resolution and to avoid feeling the depth of the tragic horror. Lear's entrance with Cordelia dead in his arms answers directly to his own evocation of "sacrifices" at the beginning of the scene. Though we are moved by the agony of Lear's deprivation, we must nonetheless question the particular way in which he had expected her to "redeem all sorrows / That ever I have felt" (267-68), as his ready conversion of Cordelia's forgiveness into her sacrifice has just demonstrated. Lear recognizes his immense loss and his initial error, but he repeats the error and never fully understands his contribution to the tragic outcome nor acknowledges his responsibility. He can win from one daughter a suspension of tragic causation—"No cause, no cause" (4.7.75). But another speaks the harsh truth: "The injuries that they themselves procure / Must be their schoolmasters" (2.4.303-4). The play's rigorous tragic logic insists on the necessity that Lear pay the price for the continuing self-evasion exemplified by the dream vision of imprisonment with Cordelia. Though Lear does not want to hear the lesson taught by the stern schoolmaster tragedy, we must.
Coppelia Kahn (essay date 1986)
SOURCE: "The Absent Mother in King Lear" in Rewriting the Renaissance: The Discourses of Sexual Difference in Early Modern Europe, edited by Margaret W. Ferguson, Maureen Quilligan, and Nancy J. Vickers, The University of Chicago Press, 1986, pp. 33-49.
[In the essay that follows, Kahn, writing from a feminist perspective, attempts to uncover in King Lear a subtext based on gender. Kahn focuses in particular on the missing maternal figure in the drama.]
Fleeing Goneril's "sharp-tooth'd unkindness," Lear arrives at Gloucester's house in search of Regan, still hoping that she will be "kind and comfortable," although she was inexplicably not at home when he called before. He finds his messenger in the stocks, a humiliation that he rightly takes as directed at him personally. At first he simply denies what Kent tells him, that Regan and her husband did indeed commit this outrage. Then he seeks to understand how, or why. Kent recounts the studied rudeness, the successive insults, the final shaming, that he has endured.
For a moment, Lear can no longer deny or rationalize; he can only feel—feel a tumult of wounded pride, shame, anger, and loss, which he expresses in a striking image:
O! how this mother swells upward toward my
Hysterica passio! down, thou climbing sorrow!
Thy element's below.
By calling his sorrow hysterical, Lear decisively characterizes it as feminine, in accordance with a tradition stretching back to 1900 B.C. when an Egyptian papyrus first described the malady. Fifteen hundred years later in the writings of Hippocrates, it was named, and its name succinctly conveyed its etiology. It was the disease of the hyster, the womb. From ancient times through the nineteenth century, women suffering variously from choking, feelings of suffocation, partial paralysis, convulsions similar to those of epilepsy, aphasia, numbness, and lethargy were said to be ill of hysteria, caused by a wandering womb. What sent the womb on its errant path through the female body, people thought, was either lack of sexual intercourse or retention of menstrual blood. In both cases, the same prescription obtained: the patient should get married. A husband would keep that wandering womb where it belonged. If the afflicted already had a husband, concoctions either noxious or pleasant were applied to force or entice the recalcitrant womb to its proper location.
In Shakespeare's time, hysteria was also called, appropriately, "the mother." Although Shakespeare may well have consulted a treatise by Edward Jordan called A Brief Discourse of a Disease Called the Suffocation of the Mother, published in 1603, like anyone in his culture he would have understood "the mother" in the context of notions about women. For hysteria is a vivid metaphor of woman in general, as she was regarded then and later, a creature destined for the strenuous bodily labors of childbearing and childrearing but nonetheless physically weaker than man. Moreover, she was, like Eve, temperamentally and morally infirm:—skittish, prone to err in all senses. Woman's womb, her justification and her glory, was also the sign and source of her weakness as a creature of the flesh rather than the mind or spirit. The very diversity of symptoms clustering under the name of hysteria bespeaks the capricious nature of woman. And the remedy—a husband and regular sexual intercourse—declares the necessity for male control of this volatile female element.
Psychoanalysis was born, one might say, from the wandering womb of hysteria. Anna O., the star of Studies in Hysteria, published by Freud and Joseph Breuer in 1895, was its midwife. It was she who named psychoanalysis "the talking cure" and in a sense even discovered it. Afflicted with a veritable museum of hysterical symptoms, when Breuer visited her she spontaneously sank into a rapt, semiconscious state in which she insisted on talking about what bothered her, thus showing the way to free association as the distinctly psychoanalytic technique of treating mental disorders. For psychoanalysis and hysteria both, the discovery that its strangely disparate physical symptoms were in fact symbolic representations of unconscious mental conflict constituted a crucial breakthrough. Relocating the cause of hysteria in the head instead of in the womb, Breuer and Freud were able to make sense of it, treat it, and, to an extent, cure it. Yet, in the Viennese women they treated, we can see that hysteria does indeed come from the womb—if we understand the womb as a metaphor for feelings and needs associated with women. As Dianne Hunter suggests, what Anna O. talked out was her specifically female subjectivity. She expressed through the body language of her paralyzed arm, her squint, and her speech disorders the effects on her as a woman of life in a father-dominated family and a male-dominated world that suppressed the female voice. The matrix of her disease was both sexual and social: the patriarchal family.
Because the family is both the first scene of individual development and the primary agent of socialization, it functions as a link between psychic and social structures and as the crucible in which gender identity is formed. From being mothered and fathered, we learn to be ourselves as men and women. The anthropologist Gayle Rubin [in "The Traffic in Women: Notes on the 'Political Economy' of Sex," in Toward an Anthropology of Women, edited by Rayna Reiter, 1975] describes psychoanalysis as "a theory of sexuality in human society … a description of the mechanisms by which the sexes are divided and deformed, or how bisexual androgynous infants are transformed into boys and girls … a feminist theory manque." A great Shakespearean critic, C. L. Barber, calls psychoanalysis "a sociology of love and worship within the family [in "The Family in Shakespeare's Development," Representing Shakespeare, 1980]. Freud, of course, viewed this family drama from the standpoint of a son; he conceived the development of gender as governed primarily by relationship with the father. Because Freud grounds sexual differentiation in the cultural primacy of the phallus, within the context of a family structure that mirrors the psychological organization of patriarchal society, he enables us to deconstruct the modes of feeling, the institutions, and the social codes in which much if not most of English literature is embedded.
But to use one of Freud's favorite metaphors, to excavate patriarchal sensibility in literature, we must sift through more than one layer. In the history of psycho-analysis, the discovery of the Oedipus complex precedes the discovery of pre-oedipal experience, reversing the sequence of development in the individual. Similarly, patriarchal structures loom obviously on the surface of many texts, structures of authority, control, force, logic, linearity, misogyny, male superiority. But beneath them, as in a palimpsest, we can find what I call "the maternal subtext," the imprint of mothering on the male psyche, the psychological presence of the mother whether or not mothers are literally represented as characters. In this reading of King Lear, I try, like an archaeologist, to uncover the hidden mother in the hero's inner world.
Now, it is interesting that there is no literal mother in King Lear. The earlier anonymous play that is one of Shakespeare's main sources opens with a speech by the hero lamenting the death of his "dearest Queen." But Shakespeare, who follows the play closely in many respects, refers only once in passing to this queen. In the crucial cataclysmic first scene of his play, from which all its later action evolves, we are shown only fathers and their godlike capacity to make or mar their children. Through this conspicuous omission the play articulates a patriarchal conception of the family in which children owe their existence to their fathers alone; the mother's role in procreation is eclipsed by the father's, which is used to affirm male prerogative and male power. The aristocratic patriarchal families headed by Gloucester and Lear have, actually and effectively, no mothers. The only source of love, power, and authority is the father—an awesome, demanding presence.
But what the play depicts, of course, is the failure of that presence: the failure of a father's power to command love in a patriarchal world and the emotional penalty he pays for wielding power. Lear's very insistence on paternal power, in fact, belies its shakiness; similarly, the absence of the mother points to her hidden presence, as the lines with which I began might indicate. When Lear begins to feel the loss of Cordelia, to be wounded by her sisters, and to recognize his own vulnerability, he calls his state of mind hysteria, "the mother," which I interpret as his repressed identification with the mother. Women and the needs and traits associated with them are supposed to stay in their element, as Lear says, "below"—denigrated, silenced, denied. In this patriarchal world, masculine identity depends on repressing the vulnerability, dependency, and capacity for feeling which are called "feminine."
Recent historical studies of the Elizabethan family, its social structure and emotional dynamics, when considered in the light of psychoanalytic theory, provide a backdrop against which Lear's family drama takes on new meaning as a tragedy of masculinity. Recently, several authors have analyzed mothering—the traditional division of roles within the family that makes the woman primarily responsible for rearing as well as bearing the children—as a social institution sustained by patriarchy, which in turn reinforces it. Notably, Nancy Chodorow offers an incisive critique of the psychoanalytic conception of how the early mother-child relationship shapes the child's sense of maleness or femaleness. She argues that the basic masculine sense of self is formed through a denial of the male's initial connection with femininity, a denial that taints the male's attitudes toward women and impairs his capacity for affiliation in general. My interpretation of Lear comes out of the feminist reexamination of the mothering role now being carried on in many fields, but it is particularly indebted to Nancy Chodorow's analysis.
According to her account, women as mothers produce daughters with mothering capacities and the desire to mother, which itself grows out of the mother-daughter relationship. They also produce sons whose nurturant capacities and needs are curtailed in order to prepare them to be fathers. A focus on the primacy of the mother's role in ego-formation is not in itself new. It follows upon the attempts of theorists such as Melanie Klein, Michael and Alice Balint, John Bowlby, and Margaret Mahler to cast light on that dim psychic region which Freud likened to the Minoan civilization preceding the Greek, "grey with age, and shad-almost impossible to revivify." Chodorow's account of the mother-child relationship, however, challenges the mainstream of psychoanalytic assumptions concerning the role of gender and family in the formation of the child's ego and sexual identity.
Because I find family relationships and gender identity central to Shakespeare's imagination, the most valuable aspect of Chodorow's work for me is its comparative perspective on the development of gender in the sexes. For both, the mother's rather than the father's role is the important one, as crucial to the child's individuation (development of a sense of self) as to the child's sense of gender. It is only for the purpose of analysis, however, that the two facets of identity can be separated. Both sexes begin to develop a sense of self in relation to a mother-woman. But a girl's sense of femaleness arises through her infantile union with the mother and later identification with her, while a boy's sense of maleness arises in opposition to those primitive forms of oneness. According to Robert Stoller, whose work supports Chodorow's argument, "Developing indissoluble links with mother's femaleness and femininity in the normal mother-infant symbiosis can only augment a girl's identity," while for a boy, "the whole process of becoming masculine … is endangered by the primary, profound, primal oneness with mother" [in "Facts and Fancies: An Examination of Freud's Concept of Bisexuality," in Women and Analysis, edited by Jean Strouse, 1974]. A girl's gender identity is reinforced but a boy's is threatened by union and identification with the same powerful female being. Thus, as Chodorow argues, the masculine personality tends to be formed through denial of connection with femininity; certain activities must be defined as masculine and superior to the maternal world of child-hood, and women's activities must, correspondingly, be denigrated. The process of differentiation is inscribed in patriarchal ideology, which polarizes male and female social roles and behavior.
The imprint of mothering on the male psyche, the psychological presence of the mother in men whether or not mothers are represented in the texts they write or in which they appear as characters, can be found throughout the literary canon. But it is Shakespeare who renders the dilemmas of manhood most compellingly and with the greatest insight, partly because he wrote at a certain historical moment. As part of a wide-ranging argument for the role of the nuclear family in shaping what he calls "affective individualism," Lawrence Stone holds that the family of Shakespeare's day saw a striking increase in the father's power over his wife and children. Stone's ambitious thesis has been strenuously criticized, but his description of the Elizabethan family itself, if not his notion of its place in the development of affective individualism, holds true.
Stone sums up the mode of the father's dominance thus [in The Crisis of the Aristocracy, 1588-1641, 1965]:
This sixteenth-century aristocratic family was patri-linear, primogenitural, and patriarchal: patrilinear in that it was the male line whose ancestry was traced so diligently by the genealogists and heralds, and in almost all cases via the male line that titles were inherited; primogenitural in that most of the property went to the eldest son, the younger brothers being dispatched into the world with little more than a modest annuity or life interest in a small estate to keep them afloat; and patriarchal in that the husband and father lorded it over his wife and children with the quasi-absolute authority of a despot.
Patriarchy, articulated through the family, was considered the natural order of things. But like other kinds of "natural order," it was subject to historical change. According to Stone, between 1580 and 1640 two forces, one political and one religious, converged to heighten paternal power in the family. As the Tudor-Stuart state consolidated, it tried to undercut ancient baronial loyalty to the family line in order to replace it with loyalty to the crown. As part of the same campaign, the state also encouraged obedience to the paterfamilias in the home, according to the traditional analogy between state and family, king and father. James I stated, "Kings are compared to fathers in families: for a king is truly parens patriae, the politic father of his people." The state thus had a direct interest in reinforcing patriarchy in the home.
Concurrently, Puritan fundamentalism—the literal interpretation of Mosaic law in its original patriarchal context—reinforced patriarchal elements in Christian doctrine and practice as well. As the head of the house-hold, the father took over many of the priest's functions, leading his extended family of dependents in daily prayers, questioning them as to the state of their souls, giving or withholding his blessing on their undertakings. Although Protestant divines argued for the spiritual equality of women, deplored the double standard, and exalted the married state for both sexes, at the same time they zealously advocated the subjection of wives to their husbands on the scriptural grounds that the husband "beareth the image of God." Heaven and home were both patriarchal. The Homily on the State of Matrimony, one of the sermons issued by the crown to be read in church weekly, quotes and explicates the Pauline admonition, "Let women be subject to their husbands, as to the Lord; for the husband is the head of the woman, as Christ is the head of the church." In effect, a woman's subjection to her husband's will was the measure of his patriarchal authority and thus of his manliness.
The division of parental roles in childrearing made children similarly subject to the father's will. In his study of Puritan attitudes toward authority and feeling, David Leverenz [in The Language of Puritan Feeling: An Exploration in Literature, Psychology, and Social History, 1980] finds an emphasis on the mother's role as tender nurturer of young children, as against the father's role as disciplinarian and spiritual guide for older children. Mothers are encouraged to love their children openly in their early years but enjoined to withdraw their affections "at just about the time the father's instructional role becomes primary." Thus the breaking of the will is accomplished by the father, rather than by both parents equally. This division of duties, Leverenz holds, fostered a pervasive polarity, involving "associations of feared aspects of oneself with weakness and women, emphasis on male restraint and the male mind's governance of female emotions, the separation of 'head' from 'body,' … a language of male anxiety, rather than of female deficiency."
A close look at the first scene in King Lear reveals much about lordliness and the male anxiety accompanying it. The court is gathered to watch Lear divide his kingdom and divest himself of its rule, but those purposes are actually only accessory to another that touches him more nearly: giving away his youngest daughter in marriage. While France and Burgundy wait in the wings, Cordelia, for whose hand they compete, also competes for the dowry without which she cannot marry. As Lynda Boose shows, this opening scene is a variant of the wedding ceremony, which dramatizes the bond between father and daughter even as it marks the severance of that bond. There is no part in the ritual for the bride's mother; rather, the bride's father hands her directly to her husband. Thus the ritual articulates the father's dominance both as procreator and as authority figure, to the eclipse of the mother in either capacity. At the same time, the father symbolically certifies the daughter's virginity. Thus the ceremony alludes to the incest taboo and raises a question about Lear's "darker purpose" in giving Cordelia away.
In view of the ways that Lear tries to manipulate this ritual so as to keep his hold on Cordelia at the same time that he is ostensibly giving her away, we might suppose that the emotional crisis precipitating the tragic action is Lear's frustrated incestuous desire for his daughter. For in the course of winning her dowry, Cordelia is supposed to show that she loves her father not only more than her sisters do but, as she rightly sees, more than she loves her future husband; similarly, when Lear disowns and disinherits Cordelia, he thinks he has rendered her, dowered only with his curse, unfit to marry—and thus unable to leave paternal protection. In contrast, however, I want to argue that the socially-ordained, developmentally appropriate surrender of Cordelia as daughter-wife—the renunciation of her as incestuous object—awakens a deeper emotional need in Lear: the need for Cordelia as daughter-mother.
The play's beginning, as I have said, is marked by the omnipotent presence of the father and the absence of the mother. Yet in Lear's scheme for parceling out his kingdom, we can discern a child's image of being mothered. He wants two mutually exclusive things at once: to have absolute control over those closest to him and to be absolutely dependent on them. We can recognize in this stance the outlines of a child's pre-oedipal experience of himself and his mother as an undifferentiated dual unity, in which the child perceives his mother not as a separate person but as an agency of himself, who provides for his needs. She and her breast are a part of him, at his command. In Freud's unforgettable phrase, he is "his majesty, the baby."
As man, father, and ruler, Lear has habitually suppressed any needs for love, which in his patriarchal world would normally be satisfied by a mother or mothering woman. With age and loss of vigor, and as Freud suggests in "The Theme of the Three Caskets," with the prospect of return to mother earth, Lear feels those needs again and hints at them in his desire to "crawl" like a baby "toward death." Significantly, he confesses them in these phrases the moment after he curses Cordelia for her silence, the moment in which he denies them most strongly. He says, "I lov'd her most, and thought to set my rest / On her kind nursery" (1.1.123-24).
When his other two daughters prove to be bad mothers and don't satisfy his needs for "nursery," Lear is seized by "the mother"—a searing sense of loss at the deprivation of the mother's presence. It assaults him in various ways—in the desire to weep, to mourn the enormous loss, and the equally strong desire to hold back the tears and, instead, accuse, arraign, convict, punish, and humiliate those who have made him realize his vulnerability and dependency. Thus the mother, revealed in Lear's response to his daughters' brutality toward him, makes her re-entry into the patriarchal world from which she had seemingly been excluded. The repressed mother returns specifically in Lear's wrathful projections onto the world about him of a symbiotic relationship with his daughters that recapitulates his pre-oedipal relationship with the mother. In a striking series of images in which parent-child, father-daughter, and husband-wife relationships are reversed and confounded, Lear re-enacts a childlike rage against the absent or rejecting mother as figured in his daughters.
Here I want to interject a speculation inspired by Stone's discussion of the custom of farming children out to wet nurses from birth until they were twelve to eighteen months old; at that time they were restored to the arms of their natural mother, who was by then a stranger to them. Many if not most people in the gentry or aristocracy of Shakespeare's day must have suffered the severe trauma of maternal deprivation brought on by the departure of the wet nurse. We know the effects of such a trauma from the writings of John Bowlby: a tendency to make excessive demands on others, anxiety and anger when these demands are not met, and a blocked capacity for intimacy. Lear responds to the loss of Cordelia, the "nurse" he rejects after she seems to reject him, by demanding hospitality for his hundred knights, by raging at Goneril and Regan when they refuse him courtesy and sympathy, and by rejecting human society when he stalks off to the heath. After the division of the kingdom, he re-enters the play in the fourth scene with this revealing peremptory demand: "Let me not stay a jot for dinner; go, get it ready" (1.4.9-10): he wants food, from a maternal woman. I believe that Lear's madness is essentially his rage at being deprived of the maternal presence. It is tantalizing, although I can imagine no way of proving it, to view this rage as part of the social pathology of wet-nursing in the ruling classes.
The play is full of oral rage: it abounds in fantasies of biting and devouring, and more specifically, fantasies of parents eating children and children eating parents. The idea is first brought up by Lear when he denies his "propinquity and property of blood" with Cordelia; that is, he denies that he begot her, that he is her father, as he also denies paternity of Regan and Goneril later. He assures her,
The barbarous Scythian,
Or he that makes his generation messes
To gorge his appetite, shall to my bosom
Be as well neighbour'd, pitied, and reliev'd,
As thou my sometime daughter.
The savagery of the image is shocking; it indicates Lear's first step toward the primitive, infantile modes of thinking to which he surrenders in his madness. When Cordelia doesn't feed him with love, he thinks angrily of eating her. Lear again voices this complex conjunction of ideas about maternal nurture, maternal aggression, and aggression against the mother when he looks at Edgar's mutilated body, bleeding from its many wounds, and remarks,
Is it the fashion, that discarded fathers
Should have thus little mercy on their flesh?
Judicious punishment! 'twas this flesh begot
Those pelican daughters.
Lear seems to think that Edgar first transgressed against his father by "discarding" him as Regan and Goneril discarded Lear, and that Edgar's father then got back at his child, his "flesh," in the flesh, as Lear would like to do. But this fantasy of revenge calls forth an answering fantasy of punishment against his own flesh—a punishment he deserves for begetting children in the first place. The image of the pelican may have been suggested to Shakespeare by this passage in a contemporary text, which I will quote because it elucidates both the reciprocating spiral of aggression and revenge and the close identification between parent and child, which possesses Lear's mind:
The Pellican loueth too much her children. For when the children be haught, and begin to waxe hoare, they smite the father and mother in the face, wherefore the mother smiteth them againe and slaieth them. And the thirde daye the mother smiteth her selfe in her side that the bloud runneth out, and sheddeth that hot bloud upon the bodies of her children. And by virtue of the bloud the birdes that were before dead, quicken againe. [Batman upon Bartholeme, 1582]
The children strike their parents, the mother retaliates, then wounds herself that the children may nurse on her blood. "Is't not," Lear asks, "as this mouth should tear this hand / For lifting food to 't?" (3.4.15-16) referring to "filial ingratitude." His daughters are the mouths he fed, which now tear their father's generous hand; but at the same time, he is the needy mouth that would turn against those daughters for refusing to feed him on demand. Lear's rage at not being fed by the daughters whom, pelican-like, he has nurtured, fills the play. It is mirrored in Albany's vision of all humanity preying upon itself, like monsters of the deep (4.2.46-49), a vision inspired by the reality of Goneril turning her father out in the storm and shortly confirmed by the more gruesome reality of Regan and Cornwall tearing out another father's eyes.
Bound up with this mixture of love and hate, nurture and aggression, is Lear's deep sense of identification with his daughters as born of his flesh. When Goneril bids him return to Regan's house rather than disrupt her own, his first thought is absolute separation from her, like his banishment of Cordelia: "We'll no more meet, no more see one another." But immediately he remembers the filial bond, for him a carnal as much as a moral bond:
But yet thou art my flesh, my blood, my
Or rather a disease that's in my flesh,
Which I must needs call mine: thou art a boil,
A plague-sore, or embossed carbuncle,
In my corrupted blood.
Gloucester echoes the same thought when he says wryly to Lear on the heath, "Our flesh and blood, my lord, is grown so vile, / That it doth hate what gets it" (3.4.149-50).
Children are products of an act that, in Elizabethan lore, was regarded as the mingling of bloods. In the metaphor of Genesis, repeated in the Anglican wedding service, man and wife become "one flesh." With regard to mother and child, however, the fleshly bond is not metaphorical but literal. Lear (like Gloucester) ignores the mother-child fleshly bond and insists that his children are, simply, his "flesh and blood." In the pelican image, he assimilates maternal functions to himself, as though Goneril and Regan hadn't been born of woman. Like Prospero, he alludes only once to his wife, and then in the context of adultery. When Regan says she is glad to see her father, he replies
if thou shouldst not be glad
I would divorce me from thy mother's tomb,
Sepulchring an adultress.
These lines imply, first, that Lear alone as progenitor endowed Regan with her moral nature, and second, that if that nature isn't good, she had some other father. In either case, her mother's only contribution was in the choice of a sexual partner. Thus Lear makes use of patriarchal ideology to serve his defensive needs: he denies his debt to a mother by denying that his daughters have any debt to her, either.
Lear's agonizing consciousness that he did indeed produce such monstrous children, however, persists despite this denial and leads him to project his loathing toward the procreative act onto his daughters, in a searing indictment of women's sexuality:
The fitchew nor the soiled horse goes
With a more riotous appetite.
Down from the waist they are centaurs,
Though women all above:
But to the girdle do the Gods inherit
Beneath is all the fiend's: there's hell, there's
There is the sulphurous pit—burning,
Stench, consumption; fie, fie, fie! pah, pah!
Even if he did beget these daughters, Lear implies, he's not answerable for their unkindness, because they are, after all, women—and women are tainted, rather than empowered as men are, by their sexual capacities. Thus he presses into service another aspect of patriarchal ideology, its misogyny, to separate himself from any feminine presence.
To return for a moment to the social dimensions of Lear's inner turmoil, it is important here that generational conflicts entwine with and intensify gender conflicts. Lear and his daughters, Gloucester and his sons are pitted against one another because the younger generation perceives the authority of the elder as "the oppression of aged tyranny" (1.2.47-52). Stephen Greenblatt remarks that this period has "a deep gerontological bias," revealed in numerous claims that "by the will of God and the natural order of things, authority belonged to the old." At the same time, however, sermons, moral writings, and folk tales of the kind on which King Lear is based voice the fear that if parents hand over their wealth or their authority to their children, those children will turn against them. The common legal practice of drawing up maintenance agreements testifies that this fear had some basis in actual experience. In such contracts, children to whom parents deeded farm or workshop were legally bound to supply food, clothing, and shelter to their parents, even to the precise number of bushels of grain or yards of cloth. Thus the law put teeth into what was supposed to be natural kindness. Lear's contest of love in the first scene functions as a maintenance agreement in that he tries to bind his daughters, by giving them their inheritance while he is still alive, into caring for him. This generational bargain is then complicated by the demands proper to gender as well—the father's emotional demand that his daughters be his mothers and perform the tasks of nurture proper to females.
Regan and Goneril betray and disappoint Lear by not being mothers to him, but in a deeper, broader sense, they shame him by bringing out the woman in him. In the following speech, Shakespeare takes us close to the nerve and bone of Lear's shame at being reduced to an impotence he considers womanish:
You see me here, you Gods, a poor old man,
As full of grief as age; wretched in both!
If it be you that stirs these daughters' hearts
Against their father, fool me not so much
To bear it tamely; touch me with noble anger,
And let not women's weapons, water-drops,
Stain my man's cheeks! No, you unnatural
I will have such revenges on you both
That all the world shall—I will do such
What they are, yet I know not, but they shall
The terrors of the earth. You think I'll weep;
No, I'll not weep;
I have full cause of weeping, but this heart
Shall break into a hundred thousand flaws
Or ere I'll weep.
He calls his tears "women's weapons" not only as a way of deprecating women for using emotion to manipulate men but also because he feels deeply threatened by his own feelings. Marianne Novy [in "Shakespeare and Emotional Distance in the Elizabethan Family," Theatre Journal 33, 1981] has argued that Lawrence Stone, in calling attention to the "distance, manipulation, and deference" that characterized the Elizabethan family, identified "a cultural ideal of Elizabethan society … a personality type that on the one hand kept feelings of attachment and grief under strict control, but on the other was more ready to express feelings of anger." "The model," she comments, "was primarily a masculine ideal." In agreeing, I would suggest that this masculine ideal was produced by the extreme sexual division of labor within the patriarchal family, which made women at once the source and the focus of a child's earliest and most unmanageable feelings.
Despite a lifetime of strenuous defense against admitting feeling and the power of feminine presence into his world, defense fostered at every turn by prevailing social arrangements, Lear manages to let them in. He learns to weep and, though his tears scald and burn like molten lead, they are no longer "women's weapons" against which he must defend himself. I will conclude this reading of the play by tracing, briefly, Lear's progress toward acceptance of the woman in himself, a progress punctuated by his hysterical projections of rage at being deprived of maternal nurture. In the passage that I just quoted, as he turns toward the heath, Lear prays that anger may keep him from crying, from becoming like a woman. He also, in effect, tells us one way to read the storm—as a metaphor for his internal emotional process: "I have full cause of weeping, but this heart / Shall break into a hundred thousand flaws / Or ere I'll weep" (2.4.286-88). Shakespeare portrays the storm as the breaking open of something enclosed, a break that lets out a flood of rain; it thus resembles Lear's heart cracking, letting out the hungry, mother-identified part of him in a flood of tears. Lear exhorts the winds to crack their cheeks and the thunder to crack Nature's moulds and spill their seeds; he envisions "close pent-up guilts" riven from "their concealing continents" (3.2.1-9, 49-59). He wants the whole world struck flat and cleft open, so that the bowels of sympathy may flow. What spills out of Lear at first is a flood of persecutory fantasies. He sees everyone in his own image, as either subjects or agents of persecution. Only daughters like his, he thinks, could have reduced Poor Tom to naked misery; Poor Tom and the Fool are, like him, stern judges bringing his daughters to trial. Gloucester is "Goneril, with a white beard," and then, someone who might weep along with Lear although he has only the case of eyes.
Before Shakespeare allows Lear to feel the weeping woman in himself or to face his need for Cordelia and his guilt for the wrong he did her, he evokes and excoriates a world full of viperish women. Interwoven with Lear's indictments of women during acts 3 and 4 are the imaginary lustful mistresses of Poor Tom's sophisticated past, the wearers of plackets and rustling silks, as well as the real Regan tearing out Gloucester's eyes, and the real Goneril, stealthy and lustful, seducing Edmund and sloughing off Albany. It is as though Shakespeare as well as his hero must dredge up everything horrible that might be imagined of women and denounce it before he can confront the good woman, the one and only good woman, Cordelia.
Cordelia's goodness is as absolute and inexplicable as her sisters' reprovable badness, as much an archetype of infantile fantasy as they are. When she re-enters the play, she is described as crying with pity for her father's sufferings, yet in her tears she is still "queen over her passion." Whereas Lear thought weeping an ignoble surrender of his masculine authority, Cordelia conceives her tears as a source of power:
All blest secrets,
All you unpublished virtues of the earth,
Spring with my tears; be aidant and remediate
In the good man's distress!
In these scenes Cordelia becomes, now in a benign sense, that daughter-mother Lear wanted her to be. Like the Virgin Mary, she intercedes magically, her empathy and pity coaxing mercy from nature. Yet finally, as the Doctor's words imply, she can only be "the foster-nurse" of Lear's repose.
Lear runs from the attendants Cordelia sends to rescue him, who appear just after he poignantly evokes the crying infant as a common denominator of humanity:
Thou must be patient; we came crying hither.
Thou know'st, the first time that we smell the
We wawl and cry …
When we are born, we cry that we are come
To this great stage of fools.
Here he comes closest to admitting his vulnerability, but he must immediately defend against it and see the proffered help as a threat. Stanley Cavell has argued that the reluctance to be recognized by those whom they love most, which characterizes Lear, Kent, Edgar and Gloucester, lies at the heart of this play; he holds that they are reluctant because they feel that their love bespeaks a demeaning dependency. I agree—and I regard that embarrassed shrinking from recognition as part of a masculine identity crisis in a culture that dichotomized power as masculine and feeling as feminine.
And so Lear exits running in this scene, asserting his kingship ("Come, come, I am a king") but behaving like a mischievous child who makes his mother run after him ("Come, and you get it, you shall get it by running," 4.6.199, 201-202). When he reappears, he is as helpless as a child, sleeping and carried in by servants. He awakes in the belief that he has died and been reborn into an afterlife, and he talks about tears to Cordelia:
Thou art a soul in bliss, but I am bound
Upon a wheel of fire, that mine own tears
Do scald like molten lead.
These are the tears of ashamed self-knowledge, manly tears caused by a realization of what his original childish demands on his daughters had led to. In this scene, which I want to compare with the next scene with Cordelia, Lear comes closer than he ever does later to a mature acceptance of his human dependency. He asserts his manhood, and admits Cordelia's separateness from him at the same time that he confesses his need for her: he can say "I am a very fond foolish old man" and yet also declare, "For (as I am a man) I think this lady / To be my child Cordelia" (4.7.59, 69). I want to pause at those three words "man," "lady," and "child." Lear acknowledges his manhood and his daughter's womanhood in the same line and the same breath. He can stop imagining her as the maternal woman that he yearned for and accept his separateness from her. Yet he also calls her his child, acknowledging the bond of paternity that he denied in the first act. He need not be threatened by her autonomy as a person nor obsessed by the fleshly tie between them as parent and child.
Lear's struggle to discover or create a new mode of being based on his love for Cordelia continues to his last breath. Imagining their life together in prison, he transcends the rigid structure of command and obedience that once framed his world:
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
And ask of thee forgiveness. So we'll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and
laugh at gilded butterflies …
Parent and child are equal, the gestures of deference that ordinarily denote patriarchal authority now transformed into signs of reciprocal love. Moreover, Lear now views all power from a quasi-divine perspective that charmingly deflates pretension or ambition as mere toys, while nevertheless carrying a certain grandeur of its own. On the other hand, Lear's characteristically fierce defensiveness continues to shape his fantasy, which is provoked by Cordelia's request that they confront their enemies: "Shall we not see these daughters and these sisters?" The prospect of facing his bad mothers as well as his good mother impels Lear to conceive of Cordelia and himself as forming an impregnable dyad bound together by a complete harmony of thought and feeling more than by the circumstances of captivity. If he did agree to meet Regan and Goneril, he would have to abandon the fantasy that one good woman like Cordelia can triumph over or negate her evil counterparts, as well as the fantasy that a prison can be a nursery in which Cordelia has no independent being and exists solely for her father as part of his defensive strategy against coming to terms with women who are as human, or as inhuman, as men.
Cordelia's death prevents Lear from trying to live out his fantasy, and perhaps discover once again that a daughter cannot be a mother. When he enters bearing Cordelia in his arms, he is struggling to accept the total and irrevocable loss of the only loving woman in his world, the one person who could possibly fulfill needs that he has, in such anguish, finally come to admit. No wonder that he cannot contemplate such utter, devastating separateness, and in the final scene tries so hard to deny that she is dead. At the end of King Lear, only men are left. It remains for Shakespeare to re-imagine a world in his last plays in which masculine authority can find mothers in its daughters, in Marina, Perdita, and Miranda—the world of pastoral tragicomedy and romance, the genres of wish-fulfillment, rather than the tragic world of King Lear.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 16870
Roy W. Battenhouse (essay date 1965)
SOURCE: "Moral Experience and Its Typology in King Lear," in Shakespearean Tragedy: Its Art and Its Christian Premises, Indiana University Press, 1969, pp. 269-302.
[In the excerpt below, Battenhouse, viewing King Lear as a Christian play, examines how Cordelia's sense of morality shifts during the play through her experiences with love.]
Cordelia, we must recognize, does not initially understand love as forgiveness. Her behavior in the opening scene's crisis, while less gravely faulty than Lear's, is nevertheless allied to his and helps precipitate his "hideous rashness." For she too seeks self-justification and acts from a sense of Tightness tinged with self-regard. How else explain the fact that she, who later (by Act IV, scene iii) "heaved the name of Father / Pantingly forth," can not in this opening scene "heave / My heart into my mouth"? She is of course here under constraint from Lear's subconscious coveting of esteem, which encourages the like in her; and she is as flustered by her sisters' apparent dishonesty as Lear is by her ungraciousness. But the sad result is that she becomes so absorbed in proving her own honesty that she ends by parading it as a rebuke to her sisters. She falls victim thus to an irony of self-contradiction. For how honest is it to declare that one can say "Nothing," but then to allow oneself to sermonize at length? Moreover, her sermon views love as a commodity to be measured and apportioned, and thus overlooks merciful love, an unmeasured sharing of fellowship. In this sense, her answer ironically is a "nothing," because it is defective as a response; and Lear's glib adage that "Nothing will come of nothing" proves to be, in one sense, immediately true of both her efforts and his, in that only defect comes from defect. (In another sense, however, this adage is a defectively Lucretian one, blind to the Christian truth of creation ex nihilo.) As any reader of Scholastic philosophy knows, evil is by definition a defect in being, a privation or lack, a nothing. It is what life sinks back into when deprived of love's creative Word.
Cordelia's reply falls back on a merely legalistic reasoning: she will love her father according to her bond, the bond of her conventional obligation, which calls for a returning of duties for debts, no more and no less. She cannot pretend to love her father "all," she argues, because when she marries she will owe half her love to her husband. This mathematical formula for a dividing of love in halves according to merit is strangely like Lear's proposal to divide his land in thirds according to merit. Both cases imply a substitution of calculation for the spirit of free giving. Moreover, to pride oneself on the Tightness of dividing one's love hardly agrees with the biblical adage, "Be fruitful and multiply." Divided love virtually epitomizes tragedy.
Thus the love test has miscarried in polar ways. By eliciting a boastful self-righteousness in both Lear and Cordelia, it has made a great breach in the abused nature of love instead of fostering love. Quite absent, in both tester and tested, is any awareness that the proper proof of love is (as in the Bible), "Feed my sheep." Later in Shakespeare's play, however, Cordelia will learn a shepherding love—when she harbors the homeless Lear, clothes the naked Lear, and visits him when sick and imprisoned. In meeting thus the criteria for Last Judgment (see Matthew 25), she will modify her first judgment. But in her initial test she fails, principally because she is interpreting filial love without brotherly love. She is viewing her father only as a demanding creditor, not as a fellow man who, having fallen among thieves, needs compassion.
But how does Shakespeare bridge the change to the new Cordelia? Dramatically he cannot present on stage each of the phases in her transformation; for he is developing his tragic focus around Lear, whose savagery must lead him to an abyss of disintegration, preparatory to the miracle of his moral reintegration by a Cordelia of charity in full blossom. To whet our anticipation, her advent as rescuer can be rumored in interim scenes, and thereby a modification of her earlier outlook can be inferred by us. But first, as a basis, we need to be shown some seed of change in her—as the aftermath of her banishment, and before the close of Act I. Here is where Shakespeare's introduction of the King of France (a wooer of far different mold from the Petrarchan prototype of the old Leir play) is of crucial importance. The realism of France's courtship lights up the wreckage of Lear's love test with a glimmering of high romance, alien to the England we have seen. His love begins, in fact, the renovation of Cordelia.
The very plight of Cordelia enkindles in France a rescuing love. Her unprized state as a penniless outcast makes her newly "precious" in his eyes. "Be it lawful I take up what's cast away." Here is love according to a new kind of law, which does not measure by merit, or by favors received, or by any customary bond of obligation:
Love's not love
When it is mingled with regards that stand
Aloof from the entire point.
Out of compassion, which gives him an insight into the hidden worth of what Lear has dismissed as "that little seeming substance," Cordelia's soul, France takes Cordelia and makes her his queen. France does not argue that Cordelia's answer was faultless. Instead, he urges Lear to realize that her offense cannot be believed to be "of such unnatural degree" as to make her a monster. Is it not, rather, a "tardiness in nature" which has but left "unspoke / That it intends to do?" With this faith France espouses her.
The attitude of France signalizes a transcending both of Lear's morality tied to impulse and of Cordelia's morality tied to deserving, while at the same time it accords with what is for him both lawful and naturally spontaneous. He has acted from a morality open to the possibility of miracle, open to that supernatural ground of community which is implicit in natural community. He has taken to himself a bride, that he may perfect her—a concept that is basic to the New Testament idea of marriage. In this sense his act is figurally Christian, although he lives in pre-Christian times. We may contrast his outlook with the despairing naturalism of Gloucester who, when seeing the King fall "from bias of nature," idly accepts this bias. Whereas Gloucester regards "eclipses in the sun and moon" as nature's fortune-telling, France's response to eclipses of human judgment and love is in accord with the New Testament concept that such signs (see Luke 21:25) are occasions for men to "lift up your heads," since redemption draws nigh when there is "distress of nations with perplexity." Elizabethan auditors of Shakespeare's play could have recalled that this apocalyptic hope is the Prayerbook's "Gospel" for the second Sunday in Advent, and they therefore could have sensed in the figure of France an Advent truth.
France's faith begins soon to be justified. For by the end of the scene we find Cordelia saying to her sisters:
Use well our father.
To your professed bosoms I commit him.
But yet, alas, stood I within his grace,
I would prefer him to a better place.
A shift in Cordelia's attitude is here I think discernible, although Shakespeare is too careful of psychology to permit its emerging as an abrupt change. Cordelia has not modified her suspicion of her sisters, but she is acquiring the patience not to name their faults. And she is no longer justifying herself to her father, and in their hearing, as being rich by not having a "glib and oily art" and a "still-soliciting eye." Instead, her eye is now solicitous for "our" father's future welfare, and full of regret for having lost his grace. Considering the fact that this speech follows directly after Lear's own ungracious command to her to "be gone" without his love and favor, her compassion for his situation is noteworthy. We can anticipate that such a spirit will grow and deepen in her as Lear's plight worsens. Thus a possibility has been established for that eventual great scene of reconciliation, in which father and daughter will kneel each to the other, forgiving and giving benediction.
The Earl of Kent had defended Cordelia's blunt reply to the love test, declaring on her behalf that she had thought "justly" and had "most rightly said." But Shakespeare, as I have suggested, can scarcely have thought that Cordelia spoke "most rightly." Rather, he has been highlighting an initial flaw in her perspective.…
William R. Elton (essay date 1966)
SOURCE: "Pagan Atheism: Goneril and Regan, Edmund," in King Lear and the Gods, The Huntington Library, 1966, pp. 115-46.
[In the following excerpt, Elton argues that Goneril and Regan fit the Renaissance conception of pagans and that they are modeled after the Machiavellian villain.]
Renaissance expectation was to view the pagan as "saved," superstitious, or atheistical. Through loose construction of both of these last terms, the superstitious person could in his deviation from the Christian mean also be considered atheistical, and so, by a similar construction, might the converse occur. But, in general, … the two were conventionally paired; the first erred by excessive and irrational fear of the deities, while the second erred by inadequate and too rational regard for the heavenly powers. As the whole problem of Renaissance "atheism" is vexed, suffering, it would seem, from an ambiguous use of terms, any attempt at definitive solution is here out of place. But whether or not atheists, in the modern sense, existed in Shakespeare's day, the facts are, first, that pagans could be, and often were, identified as such; and, second, that the religious Renaissance, far from being the relatively monolithic age that recent medievalizers seem to have projected, was fissured by incipient, if not fully formed, doubts.
Through the suggestion of Gloucester as related to the conventional Renaissance conception of the superstitious pagan and through the indication of Cordelia and Edgar as Renaissance "exempted" pagans, we are left with the alternatives that the Renaissance spectator could have with regard to an "ethnic": either (1) the latter was superstitious, (2) he was virtuous enough perhaps to become like the viewer himself, or finally (3) he was atheistic. This last alternative is clearly applicable, with the exception of Lear himself, to all the other major characters: to Goneril, to Regan, and to Edmund.
Whatever their particular religious inclination, however, pagans were, by definition, expected to be polytheistic and probably naturalistic—that is, to find divinity in nature itself through a kind of pantheism. These characteristics the personages in King Lear share; but the particular bias the pagan données take in the individual cases is, of course, of primary interest. In Gloucester … polytheistic naturalism involves superstition; in Cordelia and Edgar the same groundwork also supports an exempted heathenism; but in the villainous trio the emphasis is on naturalism to a maximum degree and thus on a preoccupation with nature and with self, with a minimizing of supernatural interposition, unless that should immediately accrue to the benefit of the natural self.
Well known and frequently rehearsed in the scholarship is the tradition of the Machiavellian villain, with which the pagan naturalist in Lear becomes interwoven; this union is facilitated by the common ground of atheism which both types share, the Machiavellian, virtually by axiom, being a politic libertine and hypo-critical disbeliever. Thus Shakespeare had at hand a conventional character type, already sketched, with some important differences, in Iago and elsewhere, by which he could make dramatically viable his pagan free-thinkers and libertines.
GONERIL AND REGAN
Ethics, in the universe of Goneril, Regan, and Edmund, are Protagorean and extemporized, in a Hobbesian bellum omnium contra omnes. As mankind, according to Hobbes, is determined by nature to acts of natural hatred and hostility, "What more savage, wild, and cruel, than man," observes Hooker, "if he see himself able either by fraud to overreach, or by power to over-bear, the laws whereunto he should be subject?" Although during the play femina viro lupa, at the end the sisters also tear animalistically at each other. "For whiles," points out Fitzherbert in the Second Part of a Treatise, "everie one seeketh his owne private good, without respect of the publike, all become for the most part treacherous, & perfidious, one towards an other: whereby there is neither anie true friendshipp amongst them, nor care of covenant, or promise, nor respect of fidelity, nor regard of oath, nor consequently any common welth" (p. 71).
Analogously, a Renaissance audience could have interpreted Goneril's contempt for her "mild husband" as disdain for the associations of that adjective. Stressing the body, rather than the soul, her scale of human value is measured in terms of force and physical virtù—when Albany calls her "a fiend," she retorts, "Marry, your manhood—mew!" Her motive is rapidity in action, based upon will: "Our wishes on the way / May prove effects."
Compared to direct action, ethical consideration is folly: "a moral fool" she calls her husband. Thus pity is excluded from her cosmos:
Fools do those villains pity who are punish'd
Ere they have done their mischief,
and the selfish end justifies the cruel means. "The ways to enrich," noted Bacon, "are many, and most of them foul." "Honour" is equated by her with action in defense of self-interest, twisted, as is "judgment" above, from its traditional uses; "honour" is clearer to her than it is to Hamlet, for she berates Albany in terms similar to those in which Hamlet accuses himself: "Milk-liver'd man! / That bear'st a cheek for blows, a head for wrongs", a conception of honor she shares with Macbeth's own lady. Contempt for traditional values accompanies disdain for religious forms: "the text is foolish", she sneers at Albany's warning. Returning evil for good—evil, be thou my good—Goneril and Regan parody Christian charity.
In fact, despite her paganism, the striking thing is that Goneril never mentions the gods at all, an indication that her Renaissance garb has completely covered her natural condition; totally self-preoccupied with her lusts and the expansion of her will, she is deaf to such counsels as Edgar's to Gloucester, "do but look up", and Edgar's to Lear, "Look up, my Lord" (V.iii.312). Instead, Goneril bids Edmund, "Decline your head," her kiss "stretching" only his "spirits," in an amatory sense, "up into the air". In contrast to Cordelia's view of marriage, Goneril and Edmund here enact an adulterous and blasphemous parody, the ritual sealed appropriately by Edmund's "Yours in the ranks of death". Like those of the wicked in A Pake of Knaves (after 1640) and unlike those of even such villains as Claudius, her eyes "Looke a Wayes douneward never on the skies" (p. 9). The dimensions of the evil sisters' universe and their self-centeredness are described in Nathanael Carpenter's Achitophel (1629): "Having all their cares bounded in this world," such worldlings "runne alwayes in the same circle, and respect onely their owne center, disdaining … any interest in any superior Orbe. This, they esteeme their highest heaven; without the which … they can imagine neither Locus nor Tempus; neither place to containe their treasure, nor time to adde to their mortality … motif (p. 55).
As Edgar complements Cordelia in goodness, moreover, Regan complements her sister in evil. Like Goneril, she reduces divine reason to practical consideration ("We shall further think of it,") and action ("our businesses, / Which craves the instant use,"); and, like her, she measures value by material gain. Déracinée, like Goneril, Regan also spares mentioning the gods, except once, hypocritically, before Lear, "O the blest Gods!"—a silence which may be eloquent regarding her beliefs. She thus represents an antithesis to Gloucester's concern regarding the heavenly forces. Her ethics are pat. They involve vengeance of inordinate kind ("If it be true, all vengeance comes too short,"); a devilish parody of poetic justice; an ironic perversion of the relation between goodness and pity ("it was he … / Who is too good to pity thee,"); and the proper place of weakness vis-a-vis power ("I pray you, father, being weak, seem so").
As a heathen villainess, sprung fully grown from the head of the Renaissance Machiavel, Goneril exhibits few differences from her sixteenth-century Italianate model; the implication is that, sharing the common ground of atheism, the pagan and the Machiavellian are expected to behave in a similar manner against God and their fellow men. Like all Machiavellian opportunists, the sisters, little worlds made cunningly, exist in a material time-space world, whose dimensions are present minutes rather than eternity. "And in good time you gave it", Regan sneers at her astounded father. Further, in contrast to Cordelia's "governance" and "knowledge," Goneril's ideals are practical judgment and action; remarking Lear's "poor judgment" in worldly self-regard, she is quick to act in what she conceives as her own self-interest: "We must do something, and i' th' heat", she replies to Regan's "We shall further think of it". Indeed, for her, "mind" is almost the same as will, a far leap from the Aquinian or Hookerian nous, or reason; her world is a visible one, without cosmic hierarchy and principle, and must be constructed through frenzied acquisition, status claims, climbing, and opportunism; lacking Cordelia's bond, Goneril ironically creates disorder and is, indeed, in herself an aspect of disorder—chaos and evil being twins in the Elizabethan view.
Like Marlowe's Pride, the evil sisters "disdain to have any parents"; and they combine the features of the three daughters described in Nashe's Christs Teares over Jerusalem (1593), pride in gorgeous attire, delicacy, and disdain. Moreover, in her pride Regan is like her sister, above the laws of God, man, and nature: "A peasant stand up thus!", she shouts, ironically regarding a point of protocol neglected by her betters. Similarly, it is ironical that Goneril should, at her moment of loss, summon up a legal reference. When Edmund falls at the hands of his brother, she shrieks,
This is practice, Gloucester:
By th' law of war thou wast not bound to
An unknown opposite;
for immediately thereafter she exclaims, "the laws are mine, not thine: / Who can arraign me for't".
Parodying Genesis, Regan, in turn, creates chaos: giving herself to Edmund, she pronounces, "Witness the world, that I create thee here / My lord and master". "In my rights, / By me invested," she informs her sister and the latter's husband. In like fashion, "They have made themselves," shouts Lady Macbeth, with unconscious irony, at her recalcitrant partner. Similarly, Albany's reply to Goneril, "Thou changed and self-cover'd thing, for shame, / Be-monster not thy feature", suggests self-generation and self-creation, monstering nature. In addition, since "cover," in a relevant sense, is used mainly of horses, it suggests a link with the Ixion-centaur motif.
Where Edgar can be "pregnant to good pity," sympathy being a creative force, the evil sisters can only, like Iago, labor in sterile activity, bringing forth chaos (Iago's "Muse labours," for example, creating "this monstrous birth,"). Paralleling Lady Macbeth in relation to her husband, Goneril's injunction to Edmund, "Conceive", and her use of "fruitfully" involve an ironic reversal, as do her sneers at Albany's "cowish terror". In Lear's "Centaurs", as in his "Ha! Goneril, with a white beard!", the reversal is further emphasized, the centaurs being male, notoriously addicted to rape.
In addition, for Regan as for Goneril the body and its uses are all that exist. Thus weakness of the body should be ruled by those who have strength, where nature is equated with physical nature in the pagan sense; their contempt for the aged Lear is partly involved with their criterion of natural potency. Hence sexual concerns and jealousies arise, as in V.i.10-11, with regard to Edmund. Although Goneril exclaims over Edmund and Albany, "Oh! the difference of man and man", the difference of woman and woman displays itself in the contrast between Cordelia's sapientia and the evil sisters' sapientia carnis. In Donne's terms ("Elegie III," 1. 12), more "hot, wily, wild" than beasts, "Their blood," as Mendoza exclaims in Marston's The Malcontent (1600-1604), "is their onely God".
Yet, while they can add, like Edmund and the accumulator Don Juan, they cannot, being a breed of barren metal, multiply. In acting alone, in uniting through lust, in being above the law, the sisters have in truth cast themselves outside order, which is the law of heaven, into chaos and loss. Theologically, then, Goneril and Regan as depraved pagans who never regard their gods are, like Cornwall and Oswald, atheists, reprobate by action and belief.
THE CHAOS OF QUANTITY
Goneril and Regan move within a universe of confused proportions in which the only unit of measurement is quantitative, and the main value word, "more." Their motive is not service but the new appetitus divitiarum inflnitus. For them "love" means both physical and material gratification. "I'll love thee much", Regan promises Oswald, if he lets her unseal the letter. Indeed, "love" early signified both "appraise, estimate or state the price or value of," as well as, from a different root, its more common meaning. To Lear's love test, Goneril replies with a detailed and material catalog, and Regan estimates her love in the imagery of "metal". While filial piety is for Cordelia an unshakable duty, for her sisters it is a means of extracting "more" from their father. Whereas, in reply, Cordelia asserts a fixed and due proportion, Lear's desire for "more" love violates the eternal bond of "proportion, season, form." As Antony, when asked "how much," was to observe, in another context, "There's beggary in the love that can be reckon'd" (Antony and Cleopatra,). Though the king would "love" according to the affection tendered him, the good characters, such as Kent, demonstrate a love and service beyond price.
Indeed, as Goneril and Regan know the price of everything and the value of nothing, so Lear unvaluingly throws away a pearl richer than all his tribe. His initial question, "How much?" throws open the tragedy to the ironical consequences of posing quantitative human measurements against the cosmos. Further, the conjunction of ignoble quantitative attitudes seems acted out in the joint departure near the close of the first scene of the like-minded Lear and Burgundy and verbalized in the king's exit line, "Come, noble Burgundy". Conflicting appraisals emerge when to Goneril's claim, "I have been worth the whistle," Albany rejoins with an estimate of her self-valuation: "You are not worth the dust …". Although, like the Stoics (for example, Epictetus), Cordelia recognizes a distinction between outward and inward "worth"—she is, says France, "herself a dowry"—it is only the body and its show that exist for her sisters. While they, acceding to his demand for "more" and professing "to love their father all," would violate their avowals, Cordelia would continue, in due proportion, her duties as daughter and wife. Previously, in the proposed, and severed, match between Burgundy and Cordelia, Shakespeare has effectively contrasted the antithetical values of quantity and the bond.
Later she is accompanied by the Doctor, who orders a louder music, which may "wind up" Lear's "untuned and jarring senses" and restore him to his "better tune". Her healing "restoration" extends even to the balance between the loss of his knights and the company of soldiers she issues to seek him: "A century send forth". In contrast to her "numbers" and the ancient and hermetic Renaissance union between number and universal harmony, the villains' sterile quantitative chaos "untunes that string" and produces only harsh "divisions" and disharmony. In short, shattering the old personal bond of love as loyalty and service beyond compensation, the evil characters bring in the nexus of the new acquisitive society, lust and money.
Significantly, Goneril and Regan's conception of love as quantitative finds its seventeenth-century analogue in the quantitative lover, Don Juan; prefigured by Edmund, for him units of physical experience are endlessly computed and scored. Appropriately, the credo of Molière's Dom Juan, "that two and two make four … and that four and four make eight," evokes his valet's practical judgment, "Your religion is arithmetic, I see".
In the seventeenth century's new atomistic and fragmented universe, "all in pieces, all coherence gone," the hard clarities of number began to be shored up against the frustrating mysteries of providence: if humankind could not "know," it could at least reckon. Circumscribing the limitless space of which the mathematician Pascal expressed terror, the seventeenth century commenced its quantification of mystery. Thus, despite his occasional bad dreams, mathematical man bounded himself, relatively, in a nutshell and counted himself a king of infinite space. But if Pascal could apply the game of chance to eternal bliss, and "infinity" come to replace eternity, what was to become of the valuation of man himself? In Lear's "nothing" and in the acquisitive scrambling of his villains Shakespeare, entering the world of quantity, provided an answer: "Nothing can come of nothing." " … what is man," demanded Pascal, "in Nature? A cypher compared with the Infinite.…"
As in the case of Sophocles' Oedipus (the name suggesting "foot" or "measure"), number thus furnishes a grid against which the ironical evaluation of Shakespeare's characters might be perceived. Although Aeschylus' Prometheus considers number, which he invented for man, "prime sovereign of all sciences," man, in his pride, becomes not only the measurer but the measure. Yet, between Pythagorean number mysticism and Protagorean exaltation of man as the measure, Sophocles' chorus, adding up the sum of mortal generations of men, derives the total, zero. Like Sophocles, auditing the Protagorean equation of man as the center of the universe, Shakespeare reckons up and finds wanting man's traditional role as Creation's most exalted and cherished object.
In Lear those characters who are busily quantifying mystery finally divide up nothing and at the end become, like the hero of the first act, "an O without a figure." For it is an irony of calculation that precision is ultimately meaningless under the ambiguous "pudder" of the thunder and within a shifting world without a frame. Both the villains' ethic of calculation and the hero's hubristic quid pro quo are ironically thrown up against the screen of cosmic ambiguity. In Shakespeare, as in Sophocles, the self-confident pursuer and measurer becomes the thing enigmatically pursued and measured, but by mysterious divinities themselves beyond rational reckoning.
In this hard new world of number the Fool, many of whose jests involve figures, teaches Lear the simple arithmetic of division and subtraction. But it is only at the close of two scenes of ciphering lessons that Lear's arithmetical proficiency is approved. When he can discern the obvious and see that "The reason why the seven stars are no mo than seven," which is "a pretty reason," is "Because they are not eight," Lear is declared to develop from a monarch imprudent to a fool practical. "Yes, indeed," the Fool, with ironic foreshadowing, applauds his graduation into the clear light of common sense, "thou would'st make a good Fool". Between those two scenes, as well as in the next act, Goneril's "disquantitying" of her father's knights also offers him a vivid worldly lesson in lower mathematics. One hundred … fifty … five-and-twenty … ten … five … nothing. It is "as hard," complained Swift, "to get quit of Number as of Hell". As Goneril continues inhumanly to subtract and divide, Lear, in his critique of practical "reason," cries, "O! reason not the need".
Stanley Cavell (essay date 1966-67)
SOURCE: "The Avoidance of Love: A Reading of King Lear," in Must We Mean What We Say?: A Book of Essays, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1969, pp. 267-353.
[In the following excerpt, written in two parts during 1966 and 1967, Cavell explores the motivations behind Cordelia's silence and Lear's demands during the opening "'love-test. ."]
We … begin an analysis of the most controversial of the Lear problems, the nature of Lear's motivation in his opening (abdication) scene. The usual interpretations follow one of three main lines: Lear is senile; Lear is puerile; Lear is not to be understood in natural terms, for the whole scene has a fairy tale or ritualistic character which simply must be accepted as the premise from which the tragedy is derived. Arguments ensue, in each case, about whether Shakespeare is justified in what he is asking his audience to accept. My hypothesis will be that Lear's behavior in this scene is explained by—the tragedy begins because of—the same motivation which manipulates the tragedy throughout its course, from the scene which precedes the abdication, through the storm, blinding, evaded reconciliations, to the final moments: by the attempt to avoid recognition, the shame of exposure, the threat of self-revelation.
Shame, first of all, is the right kind of candidate to serve as motive, because it is the emotion whose effect is most precipitate and out of proportion to its cause, which is just the rhythm of the King Lear plot as a whole. And with this hypothesis we need not assume that Lear is either incomprehensible or stupid or congenitally arbitrary and inflexible and extreme in his conduct. Shame itself is exactly arbitrary, inflexible and extreme in its effect. It is familiar to find that what mortifies one person seems wholly unimportant to another: think of being ashamed of one's origins, one's accent, one's ignorance, one's skin, one's clothes, one's legs or teeth.… It is the most isolating of feelings, the most comprehensible perhaps in idea, but the most incomprehensible or incommunicable in fact. Shame, I've said, is the most primitive, the most private, of emotions; but it is also the most primitive of social responses. With the discovery of the individual, whether in Paradise or in the Renaissance, there is the simultaneous discovery of the isolation of the individual; his presence to himself, but simultaneously to others. Moreover, shame is felt not only toward one's own actions and one's own being, but toward the actions and the being of those with whom one is identified—fathers, daughters, wives … , the beings whose self-revelations reveal oneself. Families, any objects of one's love and commitment, ought to be the places where shame is overcome (hence happy families are all alike); but they are also the place of its deepest manufacture, and one is then hostage to that power, or fugitive.—L. B. Campbell, in Shakespeare's Tragic Heroes, collects valuable examples of Renaissance "doctrine," and sorts them perspicuously around Shakespeare's topics. But she follows a typical assumption of such investigations—that if Shakespeare's work is to be illuminated by these contemporary doctrines, he must illustrate them. For example:
It must be evident, then, that there was in Shakespeare's day an old and firmly founded philosophy of anger, finding its sources in ancient medicine and ancient philosophy and in the mediaeval makings-over of those ancient sources as well. According to this philosophy, pride or self-esteem is the condition in which anger takes its rise, vengeance becomes its immediate object, and some slight, real or imagined, is its cause. Anger is folly; anger brings shame in its train. The sequence of passions is pride, anger, revenge, and unless madness clouds the reason altogether, shame.
But in King Lear shame comes first, and brings rage and folly in its train. Lear is not maddened because he had been wrathful, but because his shame brought his wrath upon the wrong object. It is not the fact of his anger but the irony of it, specifically and above all the injustice of it, which devours him.
That Lear is ashamed, or afraid of being shamed by a revelation, seems to be the Fool's understanding of his behavior. It is agreed that the Fool keeps the truth present to Lear's mind, but it should be stressed that the characteristic mode of the Fool's presentation is ridicule—the circumstance most specifically feared by shame (as accusation and discovery are most feared by guilt). Part of the exquisite pain of this Fool's comedy is that in riddling Lear with the truth of his condition he increases the very cause of that condition, as though shame should finally grow ashamed of itself, and stop.
The other part of this pain is that it is the therapy prescribed by love itself. We know that since Cordelia's absence "the fool hath much pin'd away" (/, iv, 78), and it is generally assumed that this is due to his love for Cordelia. That need not be denied, but it should be obvious that it is directly due to his love for Lear; to his having to see the condition in Lear which his love is impotent to prevent, the condition moreover which his love has helped to cause, the precise condition therefore which his love is unable to comfort, since its touch wounds. This is why the Fool dies or disappears; from the terrible relevance, and the horrible irrelevance, of his only passion. This is the point of his connection with Cordelia, as will emerge.
I call Lear's shame a hypothesis, and what I have to say here will perhaps be hard to make convincing. But primarily it depends upon not imposing the traditional interpretations upon the opening events. Lear is puerile? Lear senile? But the man who speaks Lear's words is in possession, if not fully in command, of a powerful, ranging mind; and its eclipse into madness only confirms its intelligence, not just because what he says in his madness is the work of a marked intelligence, but because the nature of his madness, his melancholy and antic disposition, its incessant invention, is the sign, in fact and in Renaissance thought, of genius; an option of escape open only to minds of the highest reach. How then can we understand such a mind seriously to believe that what Goneril and Regan are offering in that opening scene is love, proof of his value to them; and to believe that Cordelia is withholding love? We cannot so understand it, and so all the critics are right to regard Lear in this scene as psychologically incomprehensible, or as requiring a psychological make-up—if that is, we assume that Lear believes in Goneril and Regan and not in Cordelia. But we needn't assume that he believes anything of the kind.
We imagine that Lear must be wildly abused (blind, puerile, and the rest) because the thing works out so badly. But it doesn't begin badly, and it is far from incomprehensible conduct. It is, in fact, quite ordinary. A parent is bribing love out of his children; two of them accept the bribe, and despise him for it; the third shrinks from the attempt, as though from violation. Only this is a king, this bribe is the last he will be able to offer; everything in his life, and in the life of his state, depends upon its success. We need not assume that he does not know his two older daughters, and that they are giving him false coin in return for his real bribes, though perhaps like most parents he is willing not to notice it. But more than this: there is reason to assume that the open possibility—or the open fact—that they are not offering true love is exactly what he wants. Trouble breaks out only with Cordelia's "Nothing," and her broken resolution to be silent.—What does he want, and what is the meaning of the trouble which then breaks out?
Go back to the confrontation scene with Gloucester:
If thou wilt weep my fortunes, take my eyes.
The obvious rhetoric of those words is that of an appeal, or a bargain. But it is also warning, and a command: If you weep for me, the same thing will happen to me that happened to you; do not let me see what you are weeping for. Given the whole scene, with its concentrated efforts at warding off Gloucester, that line says explicitly what it is Lear is warding off: Gloucester's sympathy, his love. And earlier:
GLOU. O! Let me kiss that hand.
LEAR. Let me wipe it first, it smells of
(IV, vi, 134-135)
Mortality, the hand without rings of power on it, cannot be lovable. He feels unworthy of love when the reality of lost power comes over him. That is what his plan was to have avoided by exchanging his fortune for his love at one swap. He cannot bear love when he has no reason to be loved, perhaps because of the helplessness, the passiveness which that implies, which some take for impotence. And he wards it off for the reason for which people do ward off being loved, because it present itself to them as a demand:
LEAR. No. Do thy worst, blind Cupid; I'll not
(IV, vi, 139)
Gloucester's presence strikes Lear as the demand for love; he knows he is being offered love; he tries to deny the offer by imagining that he has been solicited (this is the relevance of "blind Cupid" as the sign of a brothel); and he doesn't want to pay for it, for he may get it, and may not, and either is intolerable. Besides, he has recently done just that, paid his all for love. The long fantasy of his which precedes this line ("Let copulation thrive".… "There is the sulphurous pit—burning, scalding, stench, consumption …") contains his most sustained expression of disgust with sexuality (11. 116ff.)—as though furiously telling himself that what was wrong with his plan was not the debasement of love his bargain entailed, but the fact that love itself is inherently debased and so unworthy from the beginning of the bargain he had made for it. That is a maddening thought; but still more comforting than the truth. For some spirits, to be loved knowing you cannot return that love, is the most radical of psychic tortures.
This is the way I understand that opening scene with the three daughters. Lear knows it is a bribe he offers, and—part of him anyway—wants exactly what a bribe can buy: (1) false love; and (2) a public expression of love. That is: he wants something he does not have to return in kind, something which a division of his property fully pays for. And he wants to look like a loved man—for the sake of the subjects, as it were. He is perfectly happy with his little plan, until Cordelia speaks. Happy not because he is blind, but because he is getting what he wants, his plan is working. Cordelia is alarming precisely because he knows she is offering the real thing, offering something a more opulent third of his kingdom cannot, must not, repay; putting a claim upon him he cannot face. She threatens to expose both his plan for returning false love with no love, and expose the necessity for that plan—his terror of being loved, of needing love.
Reacting to over-sentimental or over-Christian interpretations of her character, efforts have been made to implicate her in the tragedy's source, convicting her of a willfulness and hardness kin to that later shown by her sisters. But her complicity is both less and more than such an interpretation envisages. That interpretation depends, first of all, upon taking her later speeches in the scene (after the appearance of France and Burgundy) as simply uncovering what was in her mind and heart from the beginning. But why? Her first utterance is the aside:
What shall Cordelia speak? Love, and be
This, presumably, has been understood as indicating her decision to refuse her father's demand. But it needn't be. She asks herself what she can say; there is no necessity for taking the question to be rhetorical. She wants to obey her father's wishes (anyway, there is no reason to think otherwise at this stage, or at any other); but how? She sees from Goneril's speech and Lear's acceptance of it what it is he wants, and she would provide it if she could. But to pretend publicly to love, where you do not love, is easy; to pretend to love, where you really do love, is not obviously possible. She hits on the first solution to her dilemma: Love, and be silent. That is, love by being silent. That will do what he seems to want, it will avoid the expression of love, keep it secret. She is his joy; she knows it and he knows it. Surely that is enough? Then Regan speaks, and following that Cordelia's second utterance, again aside:
Then poor Cordelia!
And yet not so; since I am sure my love's
More ponderous than my tongue.
(I, i, 76-78)
Presumably, in line with the idea of a defiant Cordelia, this is to be interpreted as a re-affirmation of her decision not to speak. But again, it needn't be. After Lear's acceptance of Regan's characteristic out-stripping (she has no ideas of her own, her special vileness is always to increase the measure of pain others are prepared to inflict; her mind is itself a lynch mob) Cordelia may realize that she will have to say something. "More ponderous than my tongue" suggests that she is going to move it, not that it is immovable—which would make it more ponderous than her love. And this produces her second groping for an exit from the dilemma: to speak, but making her love seem less than it is, out of love. Her tongue will move, and obediently, but against her condition—then poor Cordelia, making light of her love. And yet she knows the truth. Surely that is enough?
But when the moment comes, she is speechless: "Nothing my lord." I do not deny that this can be read defiantly, as can the following "You have begot me, bred me, lov'd me" speech. She is outraged, violated, confused, so young; Lear is torturing her, claiming her devotion, which she wants to give, but forcing her to help him betray (or not to betray) it, to falsify it publicly. (Lear's ambiguity here, wanting at once to open and to close her mouth, further shows the ordinariness of the scene, its verisimilitude to common parental love, swinging between absorption and rejection of its off-spring, between encouragement to a rebellion they failed to make, and punishment for it.) It may be that with Lear's active violation, she snaps; her resentment provides her with words, and she levels her abdication of love at her traitorous, shameless father:
Happily, when I shall wed,
That lord whose hand must take my plight
Half my love with him.…
(I, i, 100-102)
The trouble is, the words are too calm, too cold for the kind of sharp rage and hatred real love can produce. She is never in possession of her situation, "her voice was ever soft, gentle and low" (V, iii, 272-273), she is young, and "least" (I, i, 83). (This notation of her stature and of the quality of her voice is unique in the play. The idea of a defiant small girl seems grotesque, as an idea of Cordelia.) All her words are words of love; to love is all she knows how to do. That is her problem, and at the cause of the tragedy of King Lear.
I imagine the scene this way: the older daughters' speeches are public, set; they should not be said to Lear, but to the court, sparing themselves his eyes and him theirs. They are not monsters first, but ladies. He is content. Then Cordelia says to him, away from the court, in confused appeal to their accustomed intimacy, "Nothing"—don't force me, I don't know what you want, there is nothing I can say, to speak what you want I must not speak. But he is alarmed at the appeal and tries to cover it up, keeping up the front, and says, speaking to her and to the court, as if the ceremony is still in full effect: "Nothing will come of nothing; speak again." (Hysterica passio is already stirring.) Again she says to him: "Unhappy that I am, I cannot heave my heart into my mouth"—not the heart which loves him, that always has been present in her voice; but the heart which is shuddering with confusion, with wanting to do the impossible, the heart which is now in her throat. But to no avail. Then the next line would be her first attempt to obey him by speaking publicly: "I love your Majesty according to my bond; no more no less"—not stinting, not telling him the truth (what is the true amount of love this loving young girl knows to measure with her bond?), not refusing him, but still trying to conceal her love, to lighten its full measure. Then her father's brutally public, and perhaps still publicly considerate, "How, how, Cordelia! Mend your speech a little, lest you may mar your fortunes." So she tries again to divide her kingdom ("… that lord whose hand must take my plight shall carry half my love with him …"). Why should she wish to shame him publicly? He has shamed himself and everyone knows it. She is trying to conceal him; and to do that she cuts herself in two. (In the end, he faces what she has done here: "Upon such sacrifices, my Cordelia.…" Lear cannot, at that late moment, be thinking of prison as a sacrifice. I imagine him there partly remembering this first scene, and the first of Cordelia's sacrifices—of love to convention.)
After this speech, said in suppression, confusion, abandonment, she is shattered, by her failure and by Lear's viciousness to her. Her sisters speak again only when they are left alone, to plan. Cordelia revives and speaks after France enters and has begun to speak for her:
Sure, her offence
Must be of such unnatural degree
That monsters it, or your fore-vouch'd
Fall into taint; which to believe of her,
Must be a faith that reason without miracle
Should never plant in me.
(I, i, 218-223)
France's love shows him the truth. Tainted love is the answer, love dyed—not decayed or corrupted exactly; Lear's love is still alive, but expressed as, colored over with, hate. Cordelia finds her voice again, protected in France's love, and she uses it to change the subject, still protecting Lear from discovery.
A reflection of what Cordelia now must feel is given by one's rush of gratitude toward France, one's almost wild relief as he speaks his beautiful trust. She does not ask her father to relent, but only to give France some explanation. Not the right explanation: What has "that glib and oily art" got to do with it? That is what her sisters needed, because their task was easy: to dissemble. Convention perfectly suits these ladies. But she lets it go at that—he hates me because I would not flatter him. The truth is, she could not flatter; not because she was too proud or too principled, though these might have been the reasons, for a different character; but because nothing she could have done would have been flattery—at best it would have been dissembled flattery. There is no convention for doing what Cordelia was asked to do. It is not that Goneril and Regan have taken the words out of her mouth, but that here she cannot say them, because for her they are true ("Dearer than eye-sight, space and liberty …"). She is not disgusted by her sister's flattery (it's nothing new); but heart-broken at hearing the words she wishes she were in a position to say. So she is sent, and taken, away. Or half of her leaves; the other half remains, in Lear's mind, in Kent's service, and in the Fool's love.
(I spoke just now of "one's" gratitude and relief toward France. I was remembering my feeling at a production given by students at Berkeley during 1946 in which France—a small part, singled out by Granville-Barker as particularly requiring an actor of authority and distinction—was given his full sensitivity and manliness, a combination notably otherwise absent from the play, as mature womanliness is. The validity of such feelings as touchstones of the accuracy of a reading of the play, and which feelings one is to trust and which not, ought to be discussed problems of criticism.)
It may be felt that I have forced this scene too far in order to fit it to my reading, that too many directions have to be provided to its acting in order to keep the motivation smooth. Certainly I have gone into more detail of this kind here than elsewhere, and I should perhaps say why. It is, first of all, the scene in which the problem of performance, or the performability, of this play comes to a head, or to its first head. Moreover, various interpretations offered of this scene are direct functions of attempts to visualize its progress; as though a critic's conviction about the greatness or weakness of the scene is a direct function of the success or unsuccess with which he has been able to imagine it concretely. Critics will invariably dwell on the motivations of Lear and Cordelia in this scene as a problem, even while taking their motivation later either as more or less obvious or for some other reason wanting no special description; and in particular, the motives or traits of character attributed to them here will typically be ones which have an immediate visual implication, ones in which, as it were, a psychological trait and its physical expression most nearly coalesce: at random, Lear is described as irascible (Schüking), arrogant, choleric, overbearing (Schlegel), Cordelia as shy, reluctant (Schüking), sullen, prideful (Coleridge), obstinate (Muir). This impulse seems to me correct, and honest: it is one thing to say that Cordelia's behavior in the opening scene is not inconsistent with her behavior when she reappears, but another to show its consistency. This is what I have wanted to test in visualizing her behavior in that scene. But it is merely a test, it proves nothing about my reading, except its actability; or rather, a performance on these lines would, or would not, prove that. And that is a further problem of aesthetics—to chart the relations between a text (or score), an analysis or interpretation of it, and a performance in terms of that analysis or interpretation.
The problem is not, as it is often put, that no performance is ideal, because this suggests we have some clear idea of what an ideal performance would be, perhaps an idea of it as embodying all true interpretations, every resonance of the text struck under analysis. But this is no more possible, or comprehensible, than an experiment which is to verify every implication of a theory. (Then what makes a theory convincing?) Performances are actions, and the imitations of actions. As with any action, a performance cannot contain the totality of a human life—though one action can have a particularly summary or revelatory quality, and another will occur at a crossroads, and another will spin tangentially to the life and circumstances which call it out, or rub irrelevantly or mechanically against another. Some have no meaning for us at all, others have more resonance than they can express—as a resultant force answers to forces not visible in the one direction it selects. (Then what makes action bearable, or comprehensible?) I cannot at will give my past expression, though every gesture expresses it, and each elation and headache; my character is its epitome, as if the present were a pantomime of ghostly selections. What is necessary to a performance is what is necessary to action in the present, that it have its autonomy, and that it be in character, or out, and that it have a specific context and motive. Even if everything I have said about Cordelia is true, it needn't be registered explicitly in the way that first scene is played—there may, for example, be merit in stylizing it drastically. Only there will be no effort to present us with a sullen or prideful or defiant girl who reappears, with nothing intervening to change her, as the purest arch of love.
Nor, of course, has my rendering of the first scene been meant to bring out all the motivations or forces which cross there. For example, it might be argued that part of Lear's strategy is exactly to put Cordelia into the position of being denied her dowry, so that he will not lose her in marriage; if so, it half worked, and required the magnanimity of France to turn it aside. Again, nothing has been said of the theme of politics which begins here and pervades the action. Not just the familiar Shakespearean theme which opens the interplay between the public and private lives of the public creature, but the particularity of the theme in this play, which is about the interpenetration and confusion of politics with love; something which, in modern societies, is equally the fate of private creatures—whether in the form of divided loyalties, or of one's relation to the State, or, more pervasively, in the new forms love and patriotism themselves take: love wielding itself in gestures of power, power extending itself with claims of love. Phèdre is perhaps the greatest play concentrated to this theme of the body politic, and of the body, torn by the privacy of love; as it is closest to King Lear in its knowledge of shame as the experience of unacceptable love. And Machiavelli's knowledge of the world is present; not just in his attitudes of realism and cynicism, but in his experience of the condition to which these attitudes are appropriate—in which the inner and outer worlds have become totally disconnected, and man's life is all public, among strangers, seen only from outside. Luther saw the same thing at the same time, but from inside. For some, like Edmund, this is liberating knowledge, lending capacity for action. It is what Lear wants to abdicate from. For what Lear is doing in that first scene is trading power for love (pure power for mixed love); this is what his opening speech explicitly says. He imagines that this will prevent future strife now; but he is being counselled by his impotence, which is not the result of his bad decision, but produces it: he feels powerless to appoint his successor, recognized as the ultimate test of authority. The consequence is that politics becomes private, and so vanishes, with power left to serve hatred.
The final scene opens with Lear and Cordelia repeating or completing their actions in their opening scene; again Lear abdicates, and again Cordelia loves and is silent. Its readers have for centuries wanted to find consolation in this end: heavy opinion sanctioned Tate's Hollywood ending throughout the eighteenth century, which resurrects Cordelia; and in our time, scorning such vulgarity, the same impulse fastidiously digs itself deeper and produces redemption for Lear in Cordelia's figuring of transcendent love. But Dr. Johnson is surely right, more honest and more responsive: Cordelia's death is so shocking that we would avoid it if we could—if we have responded to it. And so the question, since her death is restored to us, is forced upon us: Why does she die? And this is not answered by asking, What does her death mean? (cp: Christ died to save sinners); but by answering, What killed her? (cp: Christ was killed by us, because his news was unendurable).
Lear's opening speech of this final scene is not the correction but the repetition of his strategy in the first scene, or a new tactic designed to win the old game; and it is equally disastrous.
CORD. Shall we not see these daughters and
LEAR. No, no, no, no! …
(V, iii, 7-8)
He cannot finally face the thing he has done; and this means what it always does, that he cannot bear being seen. He is anxious to go off to prison, with Cordelia; his love now is in the open—that much circumstance has done for him; but it remains imperative that it be confined, out of sight. (Neither Lear nor Cordelia, presumably, knows that the soldier in command is Gloucester's son; they feel unknown.) He is still ashamed, and the fantasy expressed in this speech ("We two alone will sing like birds i' the cage") is the same fantasy he brings on the stage with him in the first scene, the thwarting of which causes his maddened destructiveness. There Cordelia had offered him the marriage pledge ("Obey you, love you, and most honor you"), and she has shared his fantasy fully enough to wish to heal political strife with a kiss (or perhaps it is ju# the commonest fantasy of women):
CORD. Restoration hang
Thy medicine on my lips.…
(IV, vii, 26-27)
(But after such abdication, what restoration? The next time we hear the words "hang" and "medicine," they announce death.) This gesture is as fabulous as anything in the opening scene. Now, at the end, Lear returns her pledge with his lover's song, his invitation to voyage ("… so we'll live, and pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh …"). The fantasy of this speech is as full of detail as a day dream, and it is clearly a happy dream for Lear. He has found at the end a way to have what he has wanted from the beginning. His tone is not: we will love even though we are in prison; but: because we are hidden together we can love. He has come to accept his love, not by making room in the world for it, but by denying its relevance to the world. He does not renounce the world in going to prison, but flees from it, to earthly pleasure. The astonishing image of "God's spies" (V, iii, 17) stays beyond me, but in part it contains the final emphasis upon looking without being seen; and it cites an intimacy which requires no reciprocity with real men. Like Gloucester toward Dover, Lear anticipates God's call. He is not experiencing reconciliation with a daughter, but partnership in a mystic marriage.
If so, it cannot be, as is often suggested, that when he says
Upon such sacrifices, my Cordelia,
The Gods themselves throw incense.
(V, iii, 20-21)
he is thinking simply of going to prison with Cordelia as a sacrifice. It seems rather that, the lines coming immediately after his love song, it is their love itself which has the meaning of sacrifice. As though the ideas of love and of death are interlocked in his mind—and in particular of death as a payment or placation for the granting of love. His own death, because acknowledging love still presents itself to him as an annihilation of himself. And her death, because now that he admits her love, he must admit, what he knew from the beginning, that he is impotent to sustain it. This is the other of Cordelia's sacrifices—of love to secrecy.
Edmund's death reinforces the juncture of these ideas, for it is death which releases his capacity for love. It is this release which permits his final act:
… some good I mean to do
Despite of mine own nature. Quickly send …
(V, iii, 243-244)
What has released him? Partly, of course, the presence of his own death; but that in itself need not have worked this way. Primarily it is the fact that all who have loved him, or claimed love for him, are dead. He has eagerly prompted Edgar to tell the tale of their father's death; his reaction upon hearing of Goneril's and Regan's deaths is as to a solution to impossible, or illegitimate, love: "All three now marry in an instant"; and his immediate reaction upon seeing their dead bodies is: "Yet Edmund was belov'd." That is what he wanted to know, and he can acknowledge it now, when it cannot be returned, now that its claim is dead. In his following speech he means well for the first time.
It can be said that what Lear is ashamed of is not his need for love and his inability to return it, but of the nature of his love for Cordelia. It is too far from plain love of father for daughter. Even if we resist seeing in it the love of lovers, it is at least incompatible with the idea of her having any (other) lover. There is a moment, beyond the words, when this comes to the surface of the action. It is the moment Lear is waking from his madness, no longer incapable of seeing the world, but still not strong enough to protect his thoughts: "Methinks I should know you and know this man …" (IV, vii, 64). I take it "this man" is generally felt to refer to Kent (disguised as Caius), for there is clearly no reason to suppose Lear knows the Doctor, the only other man present. Certainly this is plausible; but in fact Lear never does acknowledge Kent, as he does his child Cordelia. And after this recognition he goes on to ask, "Am I in France?" This question irresistibly (to me) suggests that the man he thinks he should know is the man he expects to be with his daughter, her husband. This would be unmistakable if he directs his "this man" to the Doctor, taking him for, but not able to make him out as, France. He finds out it is not, and the next time we see him he is pressing off to prison with his child, and there is no further thought of her husband. It is a standing complaint that Shakespeare's explanation of France's absence is perfunctory. It is more puzzling that Lear himself never refers to him, not even when he is depriving him of her forever. Either France has ceased to exist for Lear, or it is importantly from him that he wishes to reach the shelter of prison.
I do not wish to suggest that "avoidance of love" and "avoidance of a particular kind of love" are alternative hypotheses about this play. On the contrary, they seem to me to interpret one another. Avoidance of love is always, or always begins as, an avoidance of a particular kind of love: men do not just naturally not love, they learn not to. And our lives begin by having to accept under the name of love whatever closeness is offered, and by then having to forgo its object. And the avoidance of a particular love, or the acceptance of it, will spread to every other; every love, in acceptance or rejection, is mirrored in every other. It is part of the miracle of the vision in King Lear to bring this before us, so that we do not care whether the kind of love felt between these two is forbidden according to man's lights. We care whether love is or is not altogether forbidden to man, whether we may not altogether be incapable of it, of admitting it into our world. We wonder whether we may always go mad between the equal efforts and terrors at once of rejecting and of accepting love. The soul torn between them, the body feels torn (producing a set of images accepted since Caroline Spurgeon's Shakespeare's Imagery as central to King Lear), and the solution to this insoluble condition is to wish for the tearing apart of the world.
Lear wishes to escape into prison for another old reason—because he is unwilling to be seen to weep.
The good years shall devour them, flesh and
Ere they shall make us weep: we'll see 'em
(V, iii, 24-25)
See them shalt thou never. And in the end he still avoids Cordelia. He sees that she is weeping after his love song ("Wipe thine eyes"). But why is she in tears? Why does Lear think she is? Lear imagines that she is crying for the reasons that he is on the verge of tears—the old reasons, the sense of impotence, shame, loss. But her reasons for tears do not occur to him, that she sees him as he is, as he was, that he is unable to take his last chance; that he, at the farthest edge of life, must again sacrifice her, again abdicate his responsibilities; and that he cannot know what he asks. And yet, seeing that, it is for him that she is cast down. Upon such knowledge the Gods themselves throw incense.
It is as though her response here is her knowledge of the end of the play; she alone has the capacity of compassion Lear will need when we next see him, with Cordelia dead in his arms: "Howl, howl, howl! O! you are men of stones." (Cf. the line and a half Dante gives to Ugolino, facing his doomed sons, a fragment shored by Arnold: "I did not weep, I so turned to stone within. They wept.… ") Again he begins to speak by turning on those at hand: "A plague upon you, murderers, traitors all!" But then the tremendous knowledge is released: "I might have saved her.…" From the beginning, and through each moment until they are led to prison, he might have saved her, had he done what every love requires, put himself aside long enough to see through to her, and be seen through. I do not mean that it is clear that he could, at the end, have done what Edmund feared ("… pluck the common bosom on his side, And turn our impress'd lances in our eyes …"); but it is not clear that he could not. And even if he had not succeeded, her death would not be on his hands. In his last speech, "No, no, no, no" becomes "No, no, no life!" His need, or his interpretation of his need, becomes her sentence. This is what is unbearable. Or bearable only out of the capacity of Cordelia. If we are to weep her fortunes we must take her eyes.
John Bayley (essay date 1981)
SOURCE: "The King's Ship," in Shakespeare and Tragedy, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1981, pp. 7-48.
[In the following excerpt, Bayley compares pre-Shakespearean depictions of the youngest daughter in the Leir legend with Shakespeare's portrayal of Cordelia, finding that the latter "does not seem an original or unusual character to find in a play, but one who is not properly of it or in it. "]
We escape into the metaphysical in order to deal with King Lear, where the eighteenth century took a simpler, more robust, way out. The Romantics, Keats and Lamb for instance, have accustomed us to the idea of 'burning through' the play, and Hazlitt to the idea, which even Wilson Knight would be a little shy of countenancing too openly, that it is the play in which Shakespeare 'was most in earnest.' Lamb's query—'What gesture shall we appropriate to this?'—hits one nail on the head, but then opts for the meta-physical category of the sublime—the sublimest tragedy. Dr Johnson and his contemporaries took a different view. In spite of its formidable effectiveness as a tragic tale, the play had been made deliberately harrowing by Shakespeare: like Titus Andronicus only more so.
They were right. It is remarkable that though the play is without a spirit, without a style, it is none the less based on a version of the story which has clearly been used because it is the most painful conceivable. This might mean that the style itself becomes graphically agonising: Titus Andronicus is designed to enact stoicism and suffering as Hamlet is designed to enact a style and a despair in its own right. But in selecting the most painful way the story of King Lear could go, Shakespeare dispenses with any style that becomes the painfulness, and rises to it appropriately. Our general sense of this issue is in fact very much to the contrary of what the Gentleman says about Cordelia's grief for the sufferings of her father:
Sorrow would be a rarity most belov'd
If all could so become it.
The Gentleman adds his name to the many others in the play who try to respond appropriately to its pitiableness and outrage. This is his way of saying: 'This is the worst.' Cordelia, he thinks, is exactly right as the grieving daughter. But what is to come will deprive her of any such status, and what is to come is already implicit in the blur that surrounds her, the fact that no one looks the right way, if indeed there is a right way to look.
Tate solved the problem with a typical sort of eighteenth-century common sense. If the plot is to be changed, made both more melodramatic and happier, then she must be quite a different sort of person. The most important thing about his version is not so much the happy end as the thoroughgoing 'humanisation' of Cordelia. She is apparently the same girl, but it would be impossible to have hanged in the prison so engagingly commonplace a heroine as Tate provides—a Cordelia who has picked out Edgar to be her man, and behaves towards him with all the coquettish possessiveness that the new part demands. To kill such a girl in the way Shakespeare did would be worse than a crime, it would be a blunder. The ingenuity of the Tate version consists in making Shakespeare's look wrong. Shakespeare (they felt) made the error of creating a real and delightful and sympathetic girl, and then wantonly turning the screw of horror in order to create as succulently awful a finale as possible. And in a sense Tate and his contemporaries were quite right: Shakespeare does go too far in King Lear. But, having done so, he also produces no stylistic justification for doing so. That, to us, is the final effectiveness of his art here, but to the eighteenth century it must have seemed quite singularly uncalled for.
Even Dr Johnson thought so, and preferred Tate. But one wonders whether he was not accepting Tate's Cordelia as much the same sort of person as Shakespeare's. His praise of the play that 'hurries you irresistibly along', suggests that speed and excitement struck him as its leading characteristics, and these would be enhanced by the change and given the added justification of melodrama. Once Cordelia has become Edgar's sweetheart his cliffhanger rescue of her and her father is wholly proper to the form, as is Tate's Cordelia herself. Her chief preoccupation at the love-test ceremony, and it gives her just the kind of added personal motive such a heroine should have, is to avoid betrothal to her father's nominee, Burgundy.
One interest of Tate's Cordelia is that she is as 'right' in his version as all the pre-Shakespearean Cordelias were in theirs. Spenser's few stanzas in The Faerie Queene are concerned with a warlike and determined lady who gains a victory over her sisters and their husbands, restores her father, and is then deposed and imprisoned after his death by her nephews,—'Till wearie of that wretched life herself she hong.' Heroic suicide is just the thing for this Cordelia, who is also suited to its leisurely dynastic anecdotes and tales of things 'done long ago and ill-done'. Cordelia too, in the old Leir, is just right for the sentiment of that play, and in her romance relation with 'the Gallian king' seemed to Furness, the Variorum editor, 'more lovely and loveable' than the Cordelia of King Lear.
All these Cordelias are right for their situations: only Shakespeare's is not, in the sense that she is not the kind of character who can make plain that a situation is going on, and of what kind. On the part of critics and directors the sure way to a vulgarising of the play is to interpret her as fitting a situation, as her sisters do. This can be done in the most popular version of the play current today, in which the implications of the comic-grotesque are purposefully worked out. It makes a situation and a play intended to be, to quote Wilson Knight again, 'the most fearless artistic facing of the ultimate cruelty of things in our literature'. And this suggests a play as clear-cut in what it intends to be, and to do, as is the old sentimental Leir play, or Tate's melodrama. In every case the appropriate Cordelia is fitted to her situation, in the modern case in a play of grotesque incongruities, which require her death as a part of them. Every age gets its King Lear in the genre it requires.
And, more generally, its notions of the tragic. Every age has its own way of imposing a stereotype on a Cordelia fitted neither to its notions of tragedy, nor to its ideas—usually less variable—of how things should be done on the stage. Cordelia is the embodiment of that aspect of King Lear which tends to elude and disappear from itself, from its status and form as tragedy. Not only is she not made for tragedy: she does not seem to be made for art at all. Now this is obviously an inexact sort of thing to say, because anyone in a play has been designed for and put into it. Most modern drama in any case tries to give the impression that the characters have wandered in from outside, that they are not in any usual or conventional sense theatrical characters. But by not being so, they become, of course, theatrical in a novel and opposing sense. Cordelia is not like that; she does not seem an original or unusual character to find in a play, but one who is not properly of it or in it.
The way this impression is created—and as always with Shakespeare impression is everything—is initially quite simply done. Lear has cast himself—quite deliberately as it appears—for a role in a play, a play in which he as hero will be beloved father and wise ancient who renounces his powers to the young and strong. And of course this goes badly wrong, partly because Lear has cast himself for a role he does not really believe in—does an old man really grasp that he is old? Lear's big scene fails, and in failing produces the superbly effective drama of his range and his rejection of Cordelia. But in a less direct way the scene goes wrong not because Cordelia insists on playing the wrong part, but because she does not understand the business of playing a part at all. Lear, one could say, would be less exasperated by a defiant daughter, who opposed her own kind of part to his own, than by a daughter whose non-playing threatens his whole dramatic conception of himself.
Lear is much more evidently concerned with a part than are Shakespeare's other tragic heroes, and this itself serves to increase the sense of Cordelia's non-participation. Tate, one feels, was determined to bring her back into the play, and make her as exuberantly a part of it as the Cordelia of the old Leir.
Tate's Cordelia is as much concerned with the question of marriage as she is with gently opposing the part her father wants her to play, and substituting her own. To Shakespeare's Cordelia the question of marriage, as treated by her father and suitors, seems part of the whole unreality of the play situation. Lear himself draws attention to this: 'Sir, there she stands.' To stand there is indeed all that Cordelia can do. She does not even have to accept France formally, or to reply to his chivalrous speech. The 'hideous rashness' of her father reveals a theatre where the opposite number will not play at all. At this moment Lear is not just an old man. He has elected to overcome the disability by acting the part for all he is worth. As the play opens he chooses the play world, with all its passions and poses; the world in which Cordelia can only be uninvolved.
This brings up the question of what they have been doing until now, and how behaving? Here, as in so many other ways, the play is off-key, off-key to the usual Shakespearean harmony of character realisation. For, as Morgann observed, that realisation normally includes the previous, invisible, undisplayed experience of his characters, and makes it a part of themselves as we see them in the play. We have only to think of the unseen life of Gertrude and Claudius and Hamlet, or of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. That life is so imaginable precisely because it seems part of the total life of the play. In the case of King Lear it does not seem so. Another factor operates. Something in the tragedy depends on the presences of matters not of the tragic world, not of the play world at all; and this effect goes with the other we have noted: the tendency of the characters to protect themselves from their experiences with utterances and sentiments suited to a play.
A play like Hamlet or Macbeth would reveal with instant and invisible mastery what Cordelia was like. It would reveal her past, and its relations with her present. In their elementary way the Leir play and the Tate version both do this. Their Cordelia is like any other character in art. The old Leir play indeed rushes in with relish here, informing us that Gonorill and Ragan couldn't abide their sister, because she was 'so nice and so demure / So sober, courteous, modest and precise'; and moreover that she had the exasperating habit of looking much more attractive in any new fashion of clothing they took up than they did themselves. Imogen, Portia, Helena, Desdemona—any other heroine of Shakespeare would thrive on this kind of disclosed domesticity. And in the Tate version there is the love relation with Edgar, which supplies instant intrigue, story and background.
In King Lear no background exists. Instead it is as if life and choice had been forced to begin together from scratch by the great ceremony of the opening. Everything till now has been in abeyance, in eclipse. Now Lear has resolved to be himself and act his part and require others to endorse it, most especially his favourite daughter. Cordelia cannot enter into existence on these terms. Her existence itself is absolute, it has no 'story' to it; and this is conveyed by the blankness of her acceptance of marriage with France, as by the blankness of her rejection of her father's need that she should play a part with him.
In the other tragedies characters not only have a past but have a future as well. Although they die they might have lived. They themselves, or their friends, can imagine what might have been the case if they had. Hamlet 'was likely, had he been put on, / To have prov'd most royally.' Lady Macbeth 'should have died hereafter,' in the natural course of life's history: her story has a past and a possible future. Cordelia's life and death do not appear to come within the compass of this sort of fictional art, which Shakespeare is normally such an adept in supplying.
These aspects of Cordelia, suggested in the impression she makes in the great power of the piece, are none the less insubstantial enough—they do not have the air of an intention. The words she speaks are sufficiently like those of other people to excite no comment, as it were, in the context of a play in blank verse. And yet they are different, as everyone feels, and they produce subtle kinds of misunderstanding. Although Cordelia can heave her heart into her mouth perfectly well on occasion, as the overall convention of a play requires, she can also appear to discredit poetry, not intentionally, but by not embracing it, as the others do, as an extension of their wills and personalities. Lear, his other two daughters, Edmund and the rest, use poetry as they would use rhetoric. Shakespeare suggests—and it is an extraordinary feat of style to do so—that Cordelia cannot do this. She is as devoid of studied human eloquence as an angel might be. It is Romeo who says about Juliet
O speak again bright angel, for thou art
As glorious to this night, being o'er my head,
As is a winged messenger of heaven
Unto the white upturned wondering eyes
Of mortals that fall back to gaze on him
When he bestrides the lazy-pacing clouds
And sails upon the bosom of the air.
II. ii. 26-32
Poetry is being used, though for the most lyrical of reasons; the winged messenger himself would have no need to command such eloquence. The Gentleman speaks of Cordelia's tears in the same vein that Romeo does of Juliet.
You have seen
Sunshine and rain at once? Her smiles and
Were like a better way. Those happy smilets
That played on her ripe lip seemed not to
What guests were in her eyes, which parted
As pearls from diamonds dropped.
IV iii. 17-22
The fervour is undoubted, even though there is a comical incongruity between the Gentleman's eloquence and our sense of its object. (His phrase-finding has one point of real observation in it, none the less, and that is how an impression of Cordelia is at a loss for ordinary studied consistency: she baffles the summerup by her unselfconsciousness, even in the matter of her appearance in joy and grief.) But the use of poetic eloquence contrasts with the odd plain word that comes from Cordelia herself when she leaves with her new betrothed husband, the King of France, and, as she says, 'with washed eyes'. When Lear sees her again, on waking from distraction, her tears are the first thing he sees. 'Be your tears wet?' This, the most moving moment of the play, is so because it is the only time in it that the speech of father and daughter coincides. Neither is using words for effect or purpose, but like a kiss or touch. Lear has had no time to reassemble his sense of self and the language that goes with it.
LEAR. I feel this pin prick. Would I were
Of my condition.
CORD. O look upon me Sir
And hold your hands in benediction o'er
No Sir, you must not kneel.
LEAR. Pray do not mock me.
I am a very foolish fond old man,
Fourscore and upward, not an hour more or
And to deal plainly
I fear I am not in my perfect mind.
Methinks I should know you and know this
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
Where I did lodge last night. Do not laugh
For, as I am a man, I think this lady
To be my child Cordelia.CORD. And so I am, I am.
LEAR. Be your tears wet? Yes, faith. I pray,
If you have poison for me I will drink it.
I know you do not love me, for your sisters
Have, as I do remember, done me wrong.
You have some cause, they have not.CORD. NO cause, no cause …
LEAR. You must bear with me.
Pray you now, forget and forgive. I am old
IV. vi. 56-75, 84-5
His words—'mainly', 'plainly', 'not an hour more or less'—have the same ring as hers, and the most moving thing is not their 'togetherness'—so consciously emphasised in the old Leir play, but the seeming incompatibility of both estrangement and taking each other thankfully for granted. Since her sisters have done him wrong she can't love him either; but he knows she does, and takes it now for granted as much as he had once insisted on its expression.
Perhaps the most moving thing is the sense that, whatever happens, it cannot last. Lear is not that kind of man, and taking things for granted is not in his nature. There could be no greater contrast than between this scene and the one after the battle, when Lear in the full exaltation of assertive consciousness sees himself and Cordelia united forever at last.
Upon such sacrifices, my Cordelia,
The gods themselves throw incense. Have I
Tragedy for Lear is as much what would have happened as what actually does. In his relation with Cordelia, Lear enjoys at the close of his fortunes a transcendent and visionary moment of life. That the vision is impossible does not alter the truth and happiness of it in Lear's eyes:
We two alone will sing like birds i' the cage.
When thou dost ask me blessing, I'll kneel
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
Who loses and who wins: who's in, who's
And take upon's the mystery of things
As if we were God's spies.
V. iii. 9-17
Mystery means mastery, in the sense that a craft or profession is mastered. Lear's vision is again one of power, of his kingship by other means, but that is not the most of it. Cordelia will now be entirely his, completing the fantasy of life that sprang into existence at the beginning of the play. And, in the face of this, Cordelia, like reality itself, again has nothing to say. Her last line has already been spoken, and in its into-nation is one of her simplest and most characteristic and yet strangest in the play: 'Shall we not see these daughters and these sisters?' For her it is the matter in hand that counts and the relational aspect of her normal duty. Lear in any case has forgotten that she is a married woman, and that her husband the King of France has responded to her appeal to restore Lear to his kingdom.
Not surprisingly, for France is as shadowy a figure as the battle from which he is absent—rather necessarily absent—is perfunctory. But it is important that he exists, for he is part of the simple reality in which Cordelia lives. There are moments in the play, and this is one of them, when the impression with which it opens, of existence and choice beginning for two people, makes all the 'stories' in it seem not worth bothering about. In fact they are, as we shall see, and in a manner unique to this play; but the unstoried relation of Lear and Cordelia is none the less apart from them. The tragedy of the relation is that it cannot exist as Lear wishes it to, and she can do nothing to help the matter.
The play begins with a declaration of love. This means that, whatever the story tells us, nothing would satisfy Lear. He wants the impossible. Cordelia knows this and accepts it. It does not change her duty or her love, but the real significance of her reply is that she knows that what Lear wants is not hers to give. The mystery that surrounds her ordinariness is that of a plain and unacceptable truth. Goethe said that every old man is a king Lear, but it is also true that every man, old or not, tends to be one.
The play's universality is concerned with this. Browning must have intuited it when he took the line 'Child Roland to the Dark Tower came', and made it into a poem. Much has been written about the meaning of that poem, and its deliberate mysteriousness, but its allegory is clear enough. The Dark Tower is the end of strenuous illusion; it is the mere thing in itself. Browning wrote the poem in Paris, after the difficulties of his marriage had begun to reveal themselves. Now the reality had begun: the thing itself was there. At the beginning, Lear addresses himself to the achievement of his ideal, and to the part he will play to get it. The reality of Cordelia is itself the Dark Tower. But he neither knows it for what it is nor is he capable of accepting it.
A PLAY IN EARNEST
No wonder that Hazlitt said that this was the play in which Shakespeare was most in earnest. Everyone feels that, and the fact that he was not in earnest in the normal sense—the sense in which Dante and Milton were—does not alter the matter. The story let his genius work in the deepest understanding of things, and give the completest form and pressure to his sense of tragedy. It is concerned with discrepancy: the absolute difference between Lear and Cordelia, the absolute difference between life as a play to be arranged, and as the space between our coming hither and going hence. But out of this simplicity comes a very great deal of complication, complication that works on different levels and through different modes of discourse. In none of the plays are these more oddly related to one another, or more productive of further rewards and fascinations. In none does earnestness itself seem to become more earnest, however subtle and peculiar its relation is to what is off-key. In none do virtue and simplicity appear more evidently. In none does deliberation amount to so little.
'Oh the difference between man and man,' says Goneril. Such differences are especially marked not only between the persons in it, but between different aspects of the play. In Shakespeare's Tragedies of Love H. A. Mason took the bull by the horns when he called it not only the most irritating but even the most disappointing of Shakespeare's tragedies, because it is so good in some places and so extremely bad in others. Middleton Murry and critics before him made the same kind of point. That Shakespeare is sometimes 'bad'—mechanical or perfunctory or stereo-typed—is of course a commonplace, but the objection here is that these things not only get in the way of the play's greatness but give it a quality of uncertainty, of the accidental.
Mason takes particular objection to Edgar's killing of Oswald, whom he thinks should merely have been frightened, and to the odious way in which he describes his disposal of the body ('Here in the sands / Thee I'll rake up, the post unsanctified / Of murderous lechers'). He cannot abide the contrivance by which Edgar and Edmund come to their armed confrontation, and particularly dislikes the complacency of the victorious Edgar's summing-up of the situation ('That dark and vicious place where thee he got / Cost him his eyes').
Such criticisms, exhibiting the pedantic or priggish views of a given age and society, have always been voiced. But their importance in relation to the world of Lear, and the particular vehemence with which Mason in particular has made them, do show something of importance. In fact such things are as essential to the world of Lear as anything else, for they help dispose of any conscious aura of its earnestness and sublimity. The story is part of the bewilderment of living and its minor incomprehensibilities. Meeting and divergence—as Lear's with Cordelia—go together with its humble necessities. In Hamlet plot contrivance is closely integrated with the intellectual atmosphere: the two are part of the same art. But in King Lear they are very different parts.
Lear and his daughter, like Gloucester and Edgar, are in one sense deeply attached, in another utterly apart and separated. That is in any case a normal family thing. But the unwinding of the plot emphasises it. The encounters of Edgar and Oswald, of Edmund and Edgar, are as hasty and provisional as the last we see of Lear and Cordelia in life together. In the context of action truth to life is a momentary truth, as we are hurried irresistibly along, and this is the most strangely and richly momentary of plays. There is no liaison between soliloquy and plot, as in Hamlet or Macbeth. Nothing profound, to be questioned or thought on or decided, interrupts the immediacy of experience. And yet of course the inquirer knows that in the midst of this medley is the most earnest, touching and profound of Shakespearean imaginations. No wonder he wants to separate one thing from another, the chaff from the wheat.
But it cannot and should not be done. Triviality will have its say: again, not in the sense that Hamlet has the Osric scene, and the Polonius and Reynaldo scene, to remind us of other aspects of life. All aspects cohere here, and in cohering reveal the sort of sensationalism on which living is based. The most startling example, which a modern audience cannot respond to as the old one would have, but which is none the less of great significance, is the loss of the battle by Lear's party. This is signalised by Edgar rushing in to carry off his old father from a spot now grown mortally dangerous.
EDG. Away old man! Give me thy hand.
GLOU. No further sir—a man may rot even
EDG. What, in ill thoughts again? Men must
Their going hence even as their coming
Ripeness is all. Come on.
V. ii. 5, 8-11
Lear's eloquence in the next scene, his vision of a motionless Elysium of loving and detached repose in the prison with Cordelia, is swept out of the way by the next bit of action. The better informed among the old audiences must here have been in a state of high curiosity and expectation. In the old play, and in all versions they might have heard, Cordelia and her father win the battle, though in a ballad (afterwards collected by Percy) the victorious girl herself dies in action. What an audience would not have expected to see is the triumph at this point of the play of the forces of evil, even if they were British. Again, all is uncertainty, and immediately the pair are led away something sinister—but what?—passes between Edmund and one of his captains. From this, and from Edmund's soliloquy before the battle, it is clear that he intends to make away with the pair if he can—but will he succeed?
This suspense overlays the ensuing action and separates itself from it. In the same way action both over-rides the family theme and is irrelevant to it. The chivalry of the encounter between Edgar and Edmund, and their 'exchange of charity' after it, is not eclipsed by what may be going forward in the unseen prison, as a result of that secret instruction. All aspects of the play are now proceeding independently, each insuring that no general tone or atmosphere will dominate it. These separate actions are each as valid in their way as the sentiments uttered as a result of them: sentiments like Edgar's about the 'dark and vicious place', like Albany's about the 'Justicers' above, and the heavens sending down to 'tame these vilde offences'. Only someone determined to make sense of the play, according to a preconception, or desire to sort out the good and bad in it, is exasperated by the way in which such action and sentiment moves separately, and regards it as evidence of confusion or weakness.
All are in a way echoes of the fact that the gap, the distance between Lear and Cordelia, remains as constant as the love. One thing so unexpected and effective in their scene together after capture is how they have changed places, though the same gap remains. She is stoical, but her passionate desire is to confront 'these daughters and these sisters' and passionately to express her indignation and abhorrence, if it is the last thing she does. There is nothing in her 'personality' to explain this, but it is her simple desire to do it, as were her previous needs to speak the truth to her father, then to rescue and shelter him. By contrast there is a great deal in Lear's personality to explain his exaltation. He no longer has the slightest interest in catching and killing his daughters and sons-in-law, for he has 'caught' Cordelia herself.
Have I caught thee?
He that parts us shall bring a brand from
And fire us hence like foxes.
Have / caught thee? should be the intonation. Their capture has given him his chance to be her captor, a state of affairs still more satisfactory to his imagination than to be the tyrant of her 'most kind nursery'. And indeed no one can part them, for they have never been joined.
She is as distant from him as is Edmund from the two sisters to whom he makes love. The 'difference between man and man' is again well exemplified. Compared to Macbeth's actions, or those of Claudius or Richard III or Iago, Edmund's activities display only the contented self-absorption of most human business. His orders for the prisoners' death, like his plot against his father, and his sudden reversal of fortune, seem like an interlude in the foreground of the suffering and bereavement which they cause, but with which they do not appear connected. As so often in King Lear one is reminded of the technique of great narrative painting, with its apparently uncoordinated detail of separate event.
Edmund's 'repentance' has the same lack of co-ordination here as Cordelia's obstinate wish in defeat to confront her sisters. It used to be a critical question whether his repentance were genuine or not, one body of opinion inclining to the ingenious idea that he deliberately postponed repentance and reversal of orders until he knew it could do no good, thus achieving the maximum 'Oh if only we'd remembered a bit earlier' effect. But this sort of criticism is like Mason's and Middleton Murry's, seeking to excuse where they wanted to censure, but both trying to tidy things up and put them in order. Edmund is a wholly spontaneous figure, his part lying on that side of the canvas where impulse naturally joins hands with the hurry of action. The audience see the arrangement that leads them to look into every scene in it, however disjunct, as parts of a spacious whole. Having lost, why should Edmund not have the impulse to undo mischief, just as he did it? The appalling damage he does is not what he deliberately wants, but the result of his will to action, as if he had accidentally killed several people when deciding to drive very fast from A to B. This now is a last flourish of his will, for which he finds an appropriate formula: 'Some good I mean to do, / Despite of mine own nature.' In the same spirit he says of Goneril and Regan: 'I was contracted to them both: all three / Now marry in an instant.' It gives him joy that they loved him, and even that 'The wheel is come full circle: I am here.'
Edmund's last scene and lost death is typical of the ease of King Lear, the way in which corny historical-type drama becomes a part of it. Edmund is so well fitted for this part that the casualness with which he ruins those against whom he has no hate helps to spread the load of the play still wider, to reduce even more the sense in which it demonstrates itself as an earnest play on a sublime theme. The effectiveness of Edmund, in terms of his own self and of a simplistic convention, is the way in which he helps to show how little intensification the play needs, how much more moving it is without invoking it. His death 'is but a trifle here', as Albany says, but because it is a death of melodrama, or of tragedy, it shows the nature of such a death in contrast with death of another kind. The difference between one and another is no less, in this context, than that between man and man.
The natures of Cornwall, of Goneril and Regan, are as different from his as both are from those of Kent or Cordelia. They are bad and dreadful in the family sense, like the kind of children who torment animals and pull the wings off flies. They are dreadful but also sluggish, without the gaiety and will to achievement that is in Edmund, and to which they respond, the women idolatrously. Edmund, who does the most harm, is none the less outside that family area in which both the real harm and the real good are done. Gloucester's blinding, from which Edmund is excluded, is a family scene, its Cordelia being the servant who served Cornwall since he was a child and now bids him 'hold his hand' and refrain from the wanton wickedness of the action.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 615
Berlin, Normand. "Boundary Situation: King Lear and Waiting for Godot." In The Secret Cause: A Discussion of Tragedy. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1981, pp. 87-107.
Attempts to uncover the "secret cause"—what Berlin believes is the essence of tragedy—in both works.
Brooke, Nicholas. Shakespeare: King Lear. London: Edward Arnold Publishers Ltd., 1963, 62 p.
Summarizes the play, addressing plot, poetic language, imagery, and sources.
Burke, Kenneth. "King Lear: Its Form and Psychosis." Shenandoah XXI, No. 1 (Autumn 1969): 3-18.
Suggests that readers take a very generalized view of King Lear in order to discover its underlying "psychosis"—that element or pattern in the play that contributes to its mass appeal.
Callaghan, Dympna. Woman and Gender in Renaissance Tragedy: A Study of "King Lear," "Othello," "The Duchess of Malfi," and "The White Devil." Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press International, Inc., 1989, 187 p.
Analyzes the impact of gender issues in the plays cited on the social order portrayed in each.
Danson, Lawrence. "King Lear." In Tragic Alphabet: Shakespeare's Drama of Language, pp. 163-97. New Haven, C.T.: Yale University Press, 1974.
Explores the role of language in the play.
Delany, Paul. "King Lear and the Decline of Feudalism." PMLA 92, No. 3 (May 1977): 429-40.
Examines ways that a shift during the English Renaissance from an aristocracy to a bourgeoisie affected Shakespeare's depiction of personal and social relationships in the play.
Fraser, Russell A. Shakespeare's Poetics: In Relation to King Lear. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1962, 184 p.
Close reading of the play with individual essays treating such themes as redemption, anarchy, reason, and fortune.
Heinemann, Margot. "'Demystifying the Mystery of State': King Lear and the World Upside Down." Shakespeare Survey 44 (1992): 75-83.
Argues that the play involves both the downfall of an individual and the collapse of a sociopolitical structure.
Honigmann, E. A. J. "The Uniqueness of King Lear: Genre and Production Problems," pp. 73-92. In Myriad-Minded Shakespeare: Essays, Chiefly on the Tragedies and Problem Comedies. London: Macmillan Press Ltd., 1989.
Notes that Shakespeare's focus on inner action makes King Lear unique among his tragedies and results in staging difficulties.
Kermode, Frank, ed. Shakespeare: King Lear; A Casebook London: Macmillan and Co. Ltd., 1969, 304 p.
Collection of important essays on the play, from early commentators such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge and John Keats, to twentieth-century critics including G. Wilson Knight and Northrop Frye.
Nevo, Ruth. "King Lear." In Tragic Form in Shakespeare, pp. 258-305. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1973.
Studies in detail the themes, motives, characterization, and philosophy presented in the play as they are developed in each act, and, in some instances, in each subsequent scene.
Peat, Derek. "'And That's True Too': King Lear and the Tension of Uncertainty." Shakespeare Survey 33 (1980): 43-53.
Uses the Dover cliff scene and Lear's death scene to evaluate the overall sense of uncertainty the play evokes in audiences.
Salingar, Leo. "King Lear, Montaigne and Harsnett." In Dramatic Form in Shakespeare and the Jacobeans, pp. 107-39. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986.
Speculates that Shakespeare drew on Samuel Harsnett's Declaration of Egregious Popish Impostures and John Florio's translations of Montaigne's Essays while composing King Lear.
Stampfer, J. "The Catharsis of King Lear." Shakespeare Survey 13 (1960): 1-10.
Enumerates ways in which the ending of King Lear resolves the various perspectives on God and salvation presented in the play.
Thompson, Ann. "Are There Any Women in King Lear?" In The Matter of Difference: Materialist Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare, edited by Valerie Wayne, pp. 117-28. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1991.
Surveys feminist, historical, and materialist readings of King Lear and speculates whether or not the approaches are mutually exclusive.
Wittreich, Joseph. "Image of That Horror": History, Prophecy, and Apocalypse in King Lear. San Marino, C.A.: Huntington Library, 1984, 185 p.
Examines the prophetic elements of King Lear.