Speak What We Feel: An Introduction to King Lear
[A lecture prepared for English 366: Studies in Shakespeare, by Ian Johnston of Malaspina-University College, Nanaimo, BC (now Vancouver Island University). This text is in the public domain, released July 1999. It was last revised November 11, 1999. For a list of other Shakespeare lectures, please click here.]
[Note that references to King Lear in the following text are from the Conflated Text version of the play in the Norton Shakespeare]
Anyone setting out to deliver a lecture on King Lear begins with a sense of inadequacy: How is one to capture properly this amazingly complex and powerful vision of human life? It’s clear that anything I say here is going to be seriously inadequate. That’s true, of course, about any lecture on Shakespeare (or on any other work of great literature), but for obvious reasons the issue is particularly acute with King Lear. So I am here not going to attempt anything like a comprehensive introduction. What I offer are a few remarks to encourage you to recognize some general things in this play, so that your next reading of it may be more rewarding. I am not here, any more than anywhere else, offering what I take (or anyone else should take) as a final word.
SOME OBVIOUS POINTS
In King Lear, as in so many great works of literature, many of the most important elements are the most obvious, and we should not, for the sake of exploring particular complexities, lose sight of these elements.
First and foremost, King Lear is the story of an old man who moves from a position of enormous power, status, wealth, responsibility, social complexity, and security step by step into a terrible isolation from his fellow human beings, his family, and nature itself, suffers horribly from the stripping away of his entire identity, goes mad as a result of his experience, recovers briefly, and then becomes insane again in the moment before his death. In no other work of fiction (not even in Oedipus or Macbeth) do we witness a total transformation from such magnificence to total despair rendered with such emotional intensity. That intensity is heightened by the fact that Lear’s story is underscored throughout by the similar experiences of the Duke of Gloucester.
Second, King Lear is in many respects a relatively simple story, and its structure has some obvious similarities with old folk takes (“Once upon a time, there was an old man who had three daughters. Two of them despised him, but the youngest one loved him very much. One day he decided to test their love. . . . and so on”). This apparent simplicity is brought out also in the elements of a morality play surrounding the King. The forces of good and evil are grouped around him in almost equal numbers, and the action of the play can be viewed as a struggle for the life of the old man, since to a large extent these rival groups define themselves by their attitudes to the suffering king. These elements give the particularity of Lear’s unique narrative a much wider and more timeless quality. What we are dealing with here is not just a single old man (important as that point of view is), but with human beings generally.
Third, the central struggle in the play (other than the main one going on in Lear’s own mind) is between people who see their relationship with Lear and with others from different perspectives. Those who seek to assist Lear and strive to combat the forces who wish to abuse him (e.g., Kent, Cordelia, the Fool, Edgar, Gloucester, and eventually Albany) are motivated principally by a traditional sense of love, respect, and allegiance--a complex set of virtues summed up in the important terms “bond” and “ceremonious affection.” These people see themselves as defined in large part by their significant relationships with other people, especially with Lear himself.
The other group is made up of those who serve primarily themselves, whose attitude towards others is largely determined by their desire to use people for their own self-advancement (e.g., Regan, Goneril, Cornwall, Edmund, Oswald). For them, traditional notions of the importance of bonds are illusions, outmoded conventions standing in the way of their individual desire for power. Thus, they are ready to violate established bonds (like those between a father and child or between a husband and wife or between a king and subject) in order to pursue their own agendas. In the context of the vocabulary we have been using for other plays, these characters are recognizably Machiavels.
Fourth, by the end of the play, the opposing forces have largely annihilated each other. Those remaining have very little to say. Unlike the end of other Shakespearean tragedies, there is no clear and confident voice of authority directing things (e.g., Fortinbras, Malcolm), and there is no attempt to sum up what has happened or to offer any sort of a tribute to the dead hero. We will be looking later at different interpretative possibilities with the closing moments of King Lear, but if we simply confine our attention to the text, there is little sense of a communal coming together at the end with hopes for a healthy regeneration. Whatever the action adds up to is thus left for us to figure out.
THE DENIAL OF AN EASY MORAL UNDERSTANDING OF KING LEAR
Given the strongly allegorical basis to the groupings of characters in the play, it might be tempting to see the most important feature of King Lear as the illustration of some sort of “lesson” as the working out of some theme or other. This approach, it should be clear from our dealings with other plays, I would like to avoid at all costs, since (as I have repeatedly stressed) Shakespearean tragedy at its finest cannot be reduced to some easy moral summation, some statement about the “meaning” of what we have just witnessed.
Now, one interesting feature of King Lear is that the author seems to have gone out of his way to make any such tendency to moralize the story difficult to carry out. And one obvious (and interesting) way he does that is to have particular characters in the story offer their own moral evaluations of what they are going through (or putting others through). These evaluative statements attempt to invoke some simple moral explanation to account for what is going on. Here is a sample of what I mean:
O, sir, to willful men,
The injuries that they themselves procure
Must be their schoolmaster. (3.1.296-298)
As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods;
They kill us for their sport. (4.1.57-58)
This shows you are above,
You justicers, that these our nether crimes
So speedily can venge! (4.2.79-81)
It is the stars,
The stars above us, govern our conditions: (4.3.31-32)
Men must endure
Their going hence, even as their coming hither;
Ripeness is all. (5.2.9-11)
The gods are just, and of our pleasant vices
Make instruments to plague us. (5.34.169-170)
These moral generalizations attempt to place the sufferings that are going on into some conventional framework of justice. The sayings range from a sense that the gods are irrationally cruel (“They kill us for their sport”) to a sense that there is a providential justice at work in events, to a call for Stoical resignation. But the point is, I think, that they all fail to capture the totality of our experience of what is going on. We recognize such moments for what they are: attempts to rationalize the emotional suffering, to place it in some familiar conceptual framework. But we also recognize the inadequacy of such quick and easy moral summations of events, for the action going on here simply is too complex, ironic, and particular to be contained by a short formula. The pattern of these moments is designed to put pressure on us to recognize that, however we make sense of this play, we are going to have to attend to its detailed particularity and complexity, which will not be fitted easily into the usual simple moral categories upon which we rely most of the time.
This point becomes explicit in the closing lines of the play (spoken by Edgar or Albany, depending on the edition you are using):
The weight of this sad time we must obey;
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.
The oldest hath borne most; we that are young
Shall never see so much, nor live so long. (5.3.322.325)
All one can do, these lines suggest, is seek to honour one’s own deepest feelings about the drama we have witnessed. At such times whatever our moral framework of belief (what "we ought to say") must give way before the genuine expression of our imaginative sympathies, which may well be difficult to formulate clearly.
With this insight in mind, I shall avoid trying to offer a rational explanation of what King Lear is “about.” Instead I will offer some separate observations of things which, it strikes me, are central to any reflections about this play.
THE ISSUE OF LEAR’S IDENTITY: THE DESCENT INTO MADNESS
At the start of the play King Lear has rich, powerful, and complex social identity. He is both king of his country and patriarch of his family, the lynch pin which holds together the structure of the society, which the opening scene presents to us in full formal splendour. Everyone looks to him as the source of order and meaning in the society. The opening scene of this play, like the opening scene in Richard II, serves to give us a full visual symbol of the society united in a shared vision of what matters in the human community. This is the only time in the play where such a vision of the human community stands in working order in front of us. Before the first scene is over, it has already started to fracture.
Lear himself is very powerfully aware of his importance. His vision of himself is perfectly satisfied because the world gives back to him the image of himself that he has, an image which he obviously likes a great deal, because his chief purpose at this stage is to hang onto it. Lear’s sense of himself is clear enough if we ask ourselves just what he is doing in this opening scene. Officially he is transferring the power and the responsibilities of the throne onto his children: he is resigning. We are not given an explicit reason other than that Lear wants to spend the rest of his life free of the cares which come with the position of king. He has carefully arranged an unnecessary ritual in order to celebrate his own importance.
But in surrendering the position, Lear has no intention of ceasing to be treated as if he is, in fact, still the king: He is not going to alter his identity:
Only we still retain
The name, and all the additions to a king. . . (1.1.135-136)
Lear clearly believes that his identity as king is something separable from the actions, duties, and responsibilities which are required of a king (i.e., from his social actions), just as he thinks his authority as a father is something separable from the duties of a father. This suggests initially a very limited understanding, not only of the people he is dealing with, but also of how the society he has been in charge of (or indeed, any society or family) is held together. Cordelia invokes the term "bond," and we shall have more to say about the word later on. Lear’s sense of social or family bonding seems clearly to be that the bonds work in one direction only, that is, they indicate what people owe him. And he assumes by reflex that such one-way bonding can continue once he ceases to discharge the duties of king. So initially there is a strong sense that Lear’s identity, his sense of himself, rests on no firm understanding of other people and his relationships to them.
Some critics make much of the fact that Lear’s decision to divide up the kingdom is a sign of foolishness (symbolized by the division of the crown between Albany and Cornwall) and the fact that the ritual Lear sets up before granting the various allocations of territory (which have been decided in advance) is designed totally to reinforce his powerful ego. But neither of these actions in itself need lead to disastrous consequences, and no one seems to object to them.
The real cause of the sequence of events which leads ultimately to Lear’s death is Lear’s inability to tolerate any view of himself except the one he himself has. What’s important is not that he quarrels with Cordelia for spoiling his self-flattering court pageant but the way he quarrels with her. The extraordinary speed and violence of his response tell us at once that we are witnessing here an enormously powerful ego which simply cannot accept any external check on his sense of how he should be treated because of who he is.
We know from the actions of France (who is the only one on stage equal in social status to Lear) and Kent (who speaks very bluntly and stops only when Lear charges him on his “allegiance”) and from the remarks of the sisters at the end of the scene, that Lear is making an enormous misjudgment. But we also realize clearly enough that at this point that Lear simply cannot hear or see anything which does not fit his own conception of himself. The strength of this solitary ego manifests itself in the extraordinarily powerful and brutal images with which Lear expresses his anger at Cordelia’s refusal to play along with his game:
The barbarous Scythian,
Or he that makes his generation messes
To gorge his appetite, shall to my bosom
Be as well neighbored, pitied, and relieved,
As thou my sometime daughter. (1.1.116-119)
The language here and the emotions it expresses are so incommensurate to the surface events which have prompted it, so in excess of the cause, that there can be only one explanation: Lear is so passionately wrapped up in a particular conception of himself that he simply explodes emotionally when any form of a challenge (however politely framed) from any quarter manifests itself.
The anger here launches the story, which, from this point on, focuses (among other things) on the stripping away of all those things that Lear has always relied upon to reinforce his sense of his own importance, of his identity, until he is left alone, naked, and mad running through nature away from all society. Because Lear cannot tolerate Cordelia’s apparent failure to live up to what he requires from her for his own self-gratification, he unleashes a chain of events which ultimately removes everything from him which reassures him who he is.
It’s in the context of this step-by-step loss of his earlier identity (or the external manifestations of it) that the question of Lear’s hundred knights becomes a central issue. The hundred knights are not, in themselves, at all necessary to Lear’s daily routine and comforts (as the sisters point out, quite correctly). But they are essential to his sense of his identity as the leader, the person to whom others defer and give allegiance. They are there to give back to him the image of himself he wants to maintain.
Regan and Goneril are quite correct to resent Lear’s huge retinue and to sense that their father is gripped by a self-image which has no accurate perception of the new reality. Depending upon how the knights behave in any production of the play, the audience can see the truth in their objections. In Brook’s famous film of King Lear, the behaviour of Lear and his knights is disgraceful; they spend all their time making a great deal of noise, eating and drinking (or demanding more), and in general throwing the palaces into turmoil. So it’s not necessarily the case that denying Lear his knights makes the two sisters bad people. Here again, what matters (as we shall see later) is how they handle the issue.
Lear’s story is a tragedy because, faced with external circumstances which increasingly do not support his vision of himself, Lear refuses to compromise. He will not listen to what the Fool is telling him, he resists his own growing awareness that he might have made a mistake, and, most important, he will not adjust his desires or his conduct to fit what his daughters are prepared to do for him. He would sooner take on the natural world alone and endure the enormous suffering that brings upon him than compromise with his sense of himself in the face of political realities.
This characteristic makes him, of course, a passionately egocentric, loud, and in many respects unsympathetic character. But what redeems him is the quality of his passion and his willingness to suffer. He has launched himself on a voyage exploring what it means to be a human being once one strips away all the extras that help to tell him what he is. That’s not his conscious purpose, of course, but that is the direction in which the logic of his passions leads him. He is not going to compromise his sense of himself to suit the world; he’d sooner reject the world or, more immediately, move away and create his own.
That impetus pushes Lear out into the storm. To return to the castle would be to concede defeat, to admit he no longer is King Lear (as he sees himself), because he would be living by conditions imposed by someone else. Instead he will try to impose his sense of himself on the elements of nature. If he cannot find justice in his family and in his kingdom, he will seek it from the gods:
Let the great gods,
That keep this dreadful pother o’er our heads,
Find out their enemies now. Tremble, thou wretch,
That hast within thee undivulgéd crimes,
Unwhipped of justice. Hide thee, thou bloody hand;
Thou perjured, and thou simular of virtue
That are incestuous. Caitiff, to pieces shake,
That under covert and convenient seeming
Hast practiced on man’s life. Close pent-up guilts
Rive your concealing continents, and cry
These dreadful summoners grace. I am a man
More sinned against than sinning. (3.2.47-58)
At this stage, Lear sees the storm as a possible manifestation of divine anger at the way he has been treated. He is searching for a sign from the gods that he is right. His stance is (to us) absurd (although we have probably all known some old men with a similar tendency to scream at the world if they don’t get their way), but his sense of outrage is so powerful, he is filled with such a passionate self-pity, that he is, like Job, demanding justice from the chaos of natural forces all around him, seeking an answer from God.
But there’s more to Lear’s passion here than his demand for justice. He is also fighting a war against himself, against the growing awareness that he, too, might be a sinner. Earlier, he has given some brief signs that a sense of his own culpability is growing within--for example, the cryptic statement “I did her wrong—” (1.5.20), and his repeatedly expressed sense that he may be starting to lose his mind indicates that his rage at the storm is, in part, an increasingly desperate demand for something to protect his own sense of his identity as king-victim against the corrosive effects of a new awareness of his own responsibilities. His extraordinarily powerful language is his attempt to compensate for a lack of physical power to bring his vision of justice upon those who have offended him as well as his attempt to project his personality out into the world so he will not have to deal with his inner doubts, which make him very afraid, because they force him to rethink who he is.
In this regard, it is significant that, the moment before he goes mad, Lear for the first time stops thinking about himself and calling attention to his own sense of injustice. Instead for the first time he expresses some genuine feeling for the sufferings of others:
Poor naked wretches, whereso’er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall our houseless heads and unfed sides,
You looped and windowed raggedness, defend you
From seasons such as these? O, I have ta’en
Too little care of this! (3.4.29-34)
That final sentence is something we have not heard from Lear before, an assumption of responsibility, a piece of unprompted self-criticism. But this hint is not something that leads, as it might in a comic character, to some growth in his understanding, for the instant later he goes mad. It’s as if he can no longer hang onto the identity he has been defending for so long and he has nothing to put in its place or is incapable of seeing what he might put in its place.
The sight of Edgar disguised as Poor Tom, the naked madman, drives Lear beyond any sense of a sane identity. Having no place in which to find a suitable reflection of himself, Lear throws himself on the insanity of the world. He asked for justice from nature, and it threw a madman in his face.
Is man no more than this? Consider him well. Thou owest the worm no silk, the beast no hide, the sheep no wool, that cat no perfume. Ha! Here’s three on’s are sophisticated! Thou are the thing itself; unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor, bare, forked animal as thou art. Off, off, you lendings! come unbutton here. (Tearing off his clothes) (3.4.95-101)
The act of tearing off his clothes (which, as we shall discuss, Lear repeats at the very end of the play) is the forcible rejection of the last element of civilized life which gives him a sense of who he is and where he belongs. It signifies, among other things, Lear’s inevitable surrender to the torment in his mind which has desperately been seeking for some reassurance. Having found none, he acknowledges the absurdity of the world by joining it, not as the result of reflecting upon what he might have learned and consciously deciding, but because he cannot hang onto any reliable indication of who he is. This formulation may be too neat, however, for there is a sense that the tearing off of his clothes and the leap into madness is something willed. He makes the decision to go mad (which, in itself, may be a sign of madness), thus retaining control over his own life (rather like Oedipus determining to punish himself by gouging out his eyes and banishing himself from the city). Since he feels as if the world has gone insane and since Lear always responds instantly to his most powerful feelings, he commits himself to the full isolation of insanity.
The fact that the sight of Edgar in disguise prompts the action is interesting. Perhaps there’s a sense that Lear recognizes in Poor Tom the nearest image of himself, an “unaccommodated man,” that is, a man without any mark of society upon him, for he lacks the most basic of all the things which help to tell us who we are, clothing and organized speech.
Just as the order in the natural world is rendered absurd by the storm, so the order in the social world is rendered absurd by the absence within it (for Lear) of any vestige of justice, any of that order, ceremonious affection, allegiance, and mutuality which define us in terms of our relationships with others. Lacking the customary social components of his identity, Lear loses any sense of who he is and, consequently, surrenders his grip on reality.
The situation, however, is more complex than this, because, of course, Poor Tom is not really mad and Kent is not really who is appearing to be. And Gloucester is doing what he can to assist. In other words, the social relations necessary to foster a rich identity are present. For Kent truly loves Lear, as does the Fool, and Gloucester has a firm sense of love and duty to the old king. Edgar, too, is only pretending to be mad as a way of protecting himself. So, in a sense, the very thing that Lear most needs are readily available to him.
The problem is that he not attuned to recognize these qualities in others (as the repeated metaphors of seeing and blindness remind us). His old identity only enables him to see what he wants to see. What doesn’t fit doesn’t enter his consciousness, and he dismisses it, drowns it out, or doesn’t listen to it sufficiently to recognize what he later comes to understand when he wakes up in Cordelia’s camp. Act III of King Lear is a vision of world gone mad, not because there is no significant love or trust or courage or virtue in the world, but because King Lear himself is not at this stage equipped to recognize those things. He has tried so hard to impose his will on the world and received no response other than the meaningless storm, that he determines to join it.
A high point of Lear’s initial madness comes in 3.6, in the mock trial scene, in which the mad Lear, the apparently mad Edgar, the disguised Kent, and the Fool set up a court of justice to arraign and try Regan and Goneril, while the storm rages outside the hovel. On the page a good deal of this scene makes little sense, and it certainly loses much of its impact. But we should see its point readily enough. In the world Lear has entered, the world of unaccommodated man, human beings reduced to the minimal humanity of their naked bodies, justice becomes absurd. The demand for justice may be as powerful as ever, but the process by which one seeks it out and the language appropriate to that have become a cruel farce or a meaningless game which simply prolongs the suffering of the players (it’s possible to see in Act 3 of King Lear an anticipation of the Theatre of the Absurd, in which a central concern is the often cruel games people invent simply to convince themselves they are passing the time appropriately).
The intense psychological cruelty of this absurd farce is powerfully underscored by the next scene, one of the most painful in all English theatre, the gouging out of Gloucester’s eyes. This, too, is a “justice” scene, in the sense that someone is being judged and punished. The scene is not played out in the midst of the storm by a bunch of isolated social outcasts, but the physical cruelty of the arbitrary punishment matches the psychological absurdity of the scene in the hovel. Lear’s madness leaves him incapable of dealing with reality, but this scene insists that reality itself has become equally mad, equally unjust, equally cruel. The punishment of Gloucester is carried out in the name of policy by important political officials in a measured and calculated way in the name of self-interested “policy,” for there is no passionate personal animosity involved here. And it has been made possible by a son’s betrayal of his father. It is a vision of life every bit as arbitrary and absurd as the punishment the inner and outer storms are inflicting on Lear (or, rather, which Lear is bringing down upon himself in the storm).
The full terrible absurdity of both of these stories comes together in 4.6, when the blind Gloucester, immediately after his attempted suicide, meets the solitary Lear “fantastically dressed with wild flowers.” Lear at this stage is still evidently completely mad, having lost all faith in any sense of order, meaning, or stablity in the world, obsessed with the intimate connection between evil and female sexuality and the total perversion of justice everywhere.
Yet Gloucester recognizes him (from his voice) as the king, and Lear acknowledges that title (“Aye, every inch a king!” 4.6.105), but for him the very notion of kingship has become absurd; there is no significant place any more for what a king represents and carries out, so he refuses Gloucester’s offer to kiss his hand and torments Gloucester about the loss of his eyes (even though he does admit at last that he recognizes Gloucester). The possibility of sharing something with Gloucester, of acknowledging Gloucester’s love and loyalty or even sympathizing with his obvious suffering (and perhaps being acknowledged in return) Lear rejects in a passionate frenzy against the injustice of the world.
Here it’s as if Lear, reduced to nothing but his overpowering sense of betrayal and loss, can come up with only one way of dealing with the world: “Then, kill, kill, kill, kill, kill, kill.” What will not answer to his sense of who he is and how the world ought to be can only be destroyed. Rather than destroy within himself the egocentric will which demands that the world answer to him, Lear prefers to will the destruction of the world.
By why is it that Lear cannot see Gloucester and accept him as an extraordinary victim? In a well known essay on this play, Stanley Cavell suggests that all of Lear’s actions, from the very opening to the end of the play, stem from a desire to avoid shame, to avoid accepting the world (rather than demanding it answer to him), because accepting the world would mean that he would have to allow the world to recognize him for who he is. Lear’s persistent refusal to express love and let others (especially Cordelia) express their love openly and honestly (which is something quite different from wanting the world to perceive him as a beloved father and king, the motivation for the opening staged ritual) stems from something he senses about himself and does not wish to reveal to the world. Cavell further suggests that Lear’s extraordinary rage at seeing Gloucester comes from his being confronted directly with a consequence of his own attempts to avoid shame. This is not simply a matter of the mutilation of Gloucester but also a merging of Gloucester’s and Lear’s characters. In a sense, Cavell argues, Gloucester is for Lear an image of what Lear has done to himself. (See “The Avoidance of Love: A Reading of King Lear” in Disowning Knowledge in Six Plays of Shakespeare).
Whether we accept Cavell’s argument or not, it is clear in this extraordinary scene that Lear is still far too preoccupied with his own agenda, with discharging his passionate anger out into the world, to pay attention sympathetically to anything going on in the world. The way in which he teases Gloucester about the loss of his eyes may be more than just the effects of madness (an expression which explains nothing); the black humour functions as a protection for Lear. So long as he can joke about Glouchester’s condition, he does not have to do anything about it and can, with increasing desperation, protect himself. He has to push away Gloucester’s offer to pay allegiance in order to make that possible; if he lets Gloucester too close he may have to really look at him and reveal to Gloucester who he really is and acknowledge that to himself, as well.
THE FORCES OF EVIL
Lear, of course, does not himself willingly bring down upon his head the forces which drive him out into the heath. His fault (if that is the right word) is to create a situation where others can give rein to their desire to promote their own individualistic interests, their quest for power, against the normal bonds which restrain them. Lear is not the source of the immediate forces which create his enormous suffering, but he is responsible for giving those who oppose him an opportunity to act successfully against him and his followers.
King Lear thus is the culmination of a frequent Shakespearean theme, the idea that the forces of evil require for their operation the willed neglect or ignorance of or carelessness about the responsibilities which sustain justice in the human community. It’s as if, to invoke the image of order in Ulysses’s speech on degree, the collapse of the moral order which sustains normal life always begins with an important lapse in the responsiblity of those charged with maintaining it. This lapse may come from selfishness, ignorance, an egotistical preoccupation with one’s own importance, or any other such cause. The important point is that once that occurs those whom the moral order normally can deal with have opportunities to violate the traditional rules.
However, the vision of evil here is different in some respects. Evil in King Lear is not a metaphysical presence, as it is in Macbeth, nor is it some personification of the Devil loose in the land, as in Richard III. One of the most reverberating issues in this play is the sense that evil is something normal, residing in the hearts of people all around us, those on the surface indistinguishable from ourselves, people whom we would have no reason to suspect of being capable of evil acts and who, were circumstances different, might very well not turn to evil.
Regan and Goneril, after all, are not witches. Their most distinctive characteristic is, in some ways, their normality. They are ambitious women who have waited a long time to receive the power which is to be their inheritance. And once they have the power, they are anxious to use it for their own immediate self-interest. No special opprobrium attaches to them for telling their father how much they love him. What they say is obviously an exaggerated lie, but they are playing a game which he has set up. And, as I have mentioned above, their objections to Lear’s retinue are (or can be seen as) largely justified. One can even have some sympathy for their sense that if they turn their father loose with all those knights, there may be some political trouble.
The source of their evil is an absence of love or respect for their father, both as a father, a king, and a human being. Lear may very well be a difficult person to deal with--a strong egotist with excessive demands. But Regan and Goneril, once they have power, have no further interest in Lear as a person. He is simply a nuisance. We do not need to demonize this attitude, because Lear clearly is a nuisance. But the casual way in which they rationalize away their neglect of him speaks volumes. They set their own interests above those of anyone else, including their father. This does not spring from any particular desire to hurt their father. It is simply an expression of their pre-eminent concern for their own interests, a concern which enables them to treat anyone who has nothing they want as an object. But the habit, once initiated, leads step by step to conduct of extreme cruelty (like the putting out of Gloucester’s eyes) and his banishment to Dover.
Regan and Goneril thus represent a particular vision of evil as stemming from a self-interested quest for power and self-interest which simply ignores any limits which an attention to traditional “bonds” might require (other than a duplicitous pretense to honour such bonds when it serves their interests). This origin is common enough; that it leads logically enough to uncommonly cruel conduct is something this play makes us contemplate.
Edmund’s attitude is precisely the same. He is not a diabolically evil person, a devil incarnate like Richard of Gloucester. And he has no specific agenda. He is a recognizably normal person who wants to get on the world and who is prepared to abandon ancient communal traditions in order to secure an advantage for himself. He’s not all that interested in being cruel to others or killing them just for sake of hurting others, but he’s not going to let any traditional notions of obligation, respect, virtue, or bonding prevent him from making what he can of his opportunities.
Edmund’s soliloquy at the opening of 1.2 repays close scrutiny, because it indicates his basic attitude to life. For him the idea of “Nature” signifies a world without legitimacy. One is entitled to whatever one can gain by one’s wits. He relishes the notion of being a bastard because that is the most obvious manifestation of his commitment to denying traditions. For him, as for Regan and Goneril, there is no standard of virtue which determines the value of one’s life. People are what they are, and that is simply a compound of desires and talents to seize opportunities. The prose soliloquy at the end of the scene brings this point out very explicitly:
This is the excellent foppery of the world, that, when we are sick in fortune, often the surfeit of our own behavior, we make guilty of our disasters the sun, the moon, and the stars; as if we were villains by necessity; fools by heavenly compulsion; knaves, thieves, and treachers, by spherical predominance; drunkards, liars, and adulterers, by an enforced obedience of planetary influence; and all that we are evil in, by a divine thrusting on. An admirable evasion of whore-master man, to lay his goatish disposition to the charge of a star! My father compounded with my mother under the dragon’s tail, and my nativity was under Ursa Major, so that it follows, I am rough and lecherous. Fut! I should have been that I am, had the maidenliest star in the firmament twinkled on my bastardizing. (1.2.109-122).
This prose soliloquy indicates Edmund’s sense of the total absence of a controlling metaphysical or moral component to human life. Human beings are what they are--and, in Edmund’s view, they are anything but admirable, simply one more greedy animal with a “goatish disposition.” That being the case, his task, as he sees it, is to create for himself out of the materials at hand his own life to suit his individualistic desires.
This, for most of us, is such a natural stance, that we don’t initially have too much trouble in seeing the logic of Edmund’s position. He wants to fashion his own life, rather than being held back by traditional customs which have labeled him unfit or ineligible to attain the sort of life he wants for himself. He sees himself as just as intelligent and able as his older brother and therefore is not willing simply to concede that the customs which will make his brother a duke while leaving him on the sidelines, just because he was born illegitimately fourteen months later than Edgar, should have any bearing on what he chooses to do.
Edmund expresses himself with a rough and candid vigour tinged with self-deprecating humour and a cynical intelligence which is (at first) quite attractive. We can feel in this character something of the same intimacy with the audience as we felt in Richard of Gloucester. In a play which features such characters as Lear and Gloucester, so out of touch at first with the living heart of the bonds which link human beings, so complacent about their own patriarchal authority, Edmund’s response does not lack some justification.
And it’s important to note that Edmund (unlike Richard of Gloucester or Macbeth) does not have his eye fixed on any final goal. He wants to stir things up so that he can improvise his way to a better position, which for him means attain more power and prestige. As he says, “Let me, if not by birth, have lands by wit;/ All with me’s meet that I can fashion fit” (1.2.167-169). He has no particular desire to injure his father or his brother; he just wants them out of his way, so he can be what he wants to be. His later complicity in the torturing of his father is a logical extension of this attitude to life, not part of his original desire to mutilate Gloucester. But his willingness to betray his father indicates just how much he sees other people merely as instruments to be manipulated to his own ends.
As mentioned above, Regan and Goneril are much the same. It’s not that they bear any special animosity against Lear. They are not seeking revenge or anything like that. They just want him out of the way so that they can create their own lives, without the need to attend to Lear’s demands. Like Edmund, they have some justification for this attitude initially, for Lear is in some ways really difficult to deal with. But the logic of their self-interest leads to conduct which most of us reject (that fact that we may at first have some sympathy or admiration for Edmund, Regan, and Goneril, which is later cancelled out when we see the consequences of that attitude more clearly, is one way Shakespeare forces us to recognize, not just the normality of evil, but also the superficial attractiveness of the attitude which can lead to it).
I’m stressing this point in order to underline the presentation of evil in this play. Part of the disturbing power of King Lear comes from the fact that Edmund, Goneril, Regan, and Cornwall are at first so normal in their vision of themselves and their actions. We all know people like them, and we can even feel some genuine sympathy for how they initially behave. What this play forces us to consider, however, is where this individualistic, aggressive self-fashioning stance logically leads. Everything that Edmund and the sisters do in this play is quite consistent with their initial attitude, so that we are invited to consider how the grossest of evils arise out of something we see all around us and perhaps even feel from time to time in ourselves.
In the twentieth century we have become familiar with his vision of evil, largely as the result of World War II, in which horrific evil was organized, carried out, and justified by ordinary people, who often began by simply wanting to “get ahead.” The best known example is Adolf Eichmann, for whom Hannah Arendt, in her study of his trial (Eichmann in Jerusalem), coined the phrase “The Banality of Evil.” The frequent attempt to demonize such individuals, that is, to make them as abnormal and unnatural as possible, is one indication of how uncomfortable we are with the notion that they are recognizably normal.
THE FORCES OF GOODNESS
The way in which Shakespeare here anchors the origins of evil in certain practical, common attitudes with which we are all familiar applies also to much of his treatment of those who seek to oppose Edmund, Goneril, Regan, and Cornwall. The play, in other words, explores the normality or, one might say, the banality of goodness, by which I mean that opposition to evil comes from recognizably normal sources all around us.
Before looking at this in more detail, however, we need to acknowledge that in Cordelia we have a symbol of traditional goodness, unambiguously and clearly presented to us. Cordelia’s name and some of her utterances (and normally also her appearance) suggest that we are to see her, in large part, as the purest form of Christian love in action. She loves her father unreservedly and acts immediately to relieve his suffering, an action which costs her her life. In that sense, King Lear offers us an vision of traditional goodness as an ideal, based on a firm acknowledgment of the essential bonding between human beings, especially between parents and children. She is in the moral realm what Richmond is in the political realm in Richard III.
But what I want particularly to call attention to here is that in this play other people work against the forces of evil in quite a different manner. They are not unambiguous symbols of goodness, but much more naturalistically rendered human characters who have to wake up to their moral responsibilities and act on them. And in this play, such action really matters.
Take, for example, one of my favorite characters in all of Shakespeare, a man whose brave and suicidal actions have a decisive effect on the final outcome. He does not even have a name, but when his moment comes he embodies for us the normality of goodness. I refer to Cornwall’s First Servant in 3.7 who steps forward to intervene in the blinding of Gloucester:
Hold your hand, my lord:
I have served you ever since I was a child;
But better service have I never done you
Than now to bid you hold. (3.7.73-76)
He is a lowly servant, without any power other than his own person, and he has been a servant all his life, trained to obey his master. But he cannot stand by and see his master so degrade himself. He recognizes what everyone in the room knows: that what is going on here is deeply wrong. But he doesn’t rationalize away the danger or remain silent, neutral on the sidelines, or give in to his fear. He acts to intervene. The action costs him his life and does not save Gloucester’s eyes. But his brave moral stance has its effects, for he wounds Cornwall so badly that the latter is not around for the battle at the end of the play.
Let me remind you of how when we looked at Richard III I called attention to the moral evasions of many characters in that play, a pattern which suggests that Shakespeare wants us to witness how the success of evil in the world relies upon the cowardice, ignorance, and self-interest of others who are in a position to stand up against it. This is a similar moment, except that here the anonymous First Servant acts to prevent what his moral sense cannot tolerate.
Moments like these remind us that the moral vision in Shakespeare’s plays so often is all-encompassing. We may be dealing for most of the time with kings, dukes, and various nobles, but the issues which fracture the human community do not leave anyone on the sidelines. Innocence or neutrality is never enough. Whatever our role, however low we may be in the power structure, we still have a moral role to play if we choose to do so.
We see this point made very explicit in the play by the very interesting role played by Albany, Goneril’s husband. Initially he seems politically and morally confused and ignorant, and his wife dismisses him as a weak person. Events take place around him which he does not appear fully to understand, and Goneril clearly wields the power in the relationship. But we see him wake up to his moral responsibilities. He does not let the injustice he witnesses around him dull his moral sense; nor does he evade the issues. Throughout the play, his development is marked by a steady moral growth until he is, at the end, a transformed individual who has played a decisive part in dealing with the evil in the kingdom.
Other characters like Edgar and Kent also manifest an active commitment to goodness, at considerable risk to themselves and with much ingenuity. Their conduct, together with that of the people I have just mentioned, suggests that there is nothing automatic about good overcoming evil in this world. There is no providential system of history here which will guarantee that harmonious order is restored eventually, no controlling divine justice which will right all wrongs if we are only patient. Instead there is the vision that evil can be resisted only if active, intelligent, brave, and resourceful people are prepared to put their lives on the line to counter the spreading triumphs of those who want to use other people as instruments for their own power seeking. Where such people come from there is no way of telling. What turns one man into Cornwall or Oswald and another into Albany or Kent? There is no magic formula about it, nor any divine assistance.
In this connection, it might be worth noting that Cordelia, the idealized vision of goodness in the world, fails. She not only fails to defeat those who are working against her father, but she loses her life in the attempt. The battle in King Lear is speedily concluded, Cordelia and Lear are seized, and taken away (more about this later). There seems to be here perhaps a deliberate emphasis on the fatal weakness of mere idealized virtue, virtue as some ideal at work in the world, virtue as a symbolic embodiment of the highest Christian values. For the really effective work of combating the evil is carried out by much more naturalistically rendered characters, like the First Servant, Edgar, and Albany.
KING LEAR AS AN ALLEGORY
I have been stressing the naturalistic elements of King Lear, and I began this lecture by reminding us that the most important thing about this play is that it is the story of the suffering of one particular old man. Thus, I am not encouraging a view which interprets this play primarily as an allegory, a vision in which the illumination of the clash of concepts is a more important issue than the particular human conflicts presented.
However, King Lear has attracted allegorical interpretations. And it is easy to see why. The fairy-tale nature of much of the story, the clearly positioned groups of "good" and "bad" people around Lear, and the constant reference to words like “bond,” “allegiance,” “nature,” and to questions of the self invite some consideration of allegorical possibilities.
For instance (and I am here looking very cursorily at some ideas suggested by J. F. Danby), if we choose (for the moment) to subordinate the particularity of the characters to the major conceptual concerns of the play, we can see here as a major component of the play at least two rival versions of human life working against each other. The one we might label the traditional communal Christian view, which stresses faith, hope, and charity (that is, mutual love) built upon the sense of a human society held together by “bonds.” A human life most fully realized lives up to the responsibilities of those bonds which tie together the family and the larger social group. Such a view stresses the essential roles of giving and receiving spontaneously and honestly and confers upon individuals a rich sense of a social identity where each person’s place in a hierarchical order is publicly recognized and honoured.
Over against this view is what we might call the new individualism manifested in Edmund, Regan, Goneril, and Cornwall. This sees the good life for human beings as principally a matter of shaping one’s future to fit one’s own sense of oneself. We need not rest on what the community tells us we are; instead, we may actively seek to change what we are by applying our wit to alter our given circumstances as opportunities arise.
The clash between these two groups hinges on the different interpretations of the word “nature.” For the first group, nature is an ordered moral construct in which the signs of the constellations and the actions of the heavens are manifestations of structure in which human societies participate. Its faith is based on an inherent divinely sanctioned system of meaning in the world (that sense of order which Ulysses appeals to in his speech on degree in Troilus and Cressida). The second sees no moral order in the world. What the world is will be what we make of it for ourselves. The first view sees the good life as essentially a matter of service to traditional ideals; the second sees the good life as an aggressive assertion of one’s own individuality.
It is possible to locate this debate historically. And some have argued that Shakespeare’s age, the early 17th century, was a time in which the rising energies of individualism and capitalism were challenging the older order in a contested vision of political and social life and that Shakespeare’s play is, in part, a debate between these two competing visions (between, if we wish to put names onto the debate, the rival visions of Hooker and Hobbes).
If we want to view the play in this manner, and the text of the play invites us to do so in part (how important we make this conceptual level of the play is open for debate), then we may well wonder about whether the play leads us to any firm conclusion. Does Shakespeare take sides in this dispute or resolve it in any firm way?
My sense from the text is that his treatment of such a thematic concern is part of the play’s power, especially the power of its bleaker possibilities. Even if we say, as we might, that there is a sense of nobility and traditional warmth in the vision of the old order, in its ceremonious affections and firm sense of community, it is clear here that the old order is insufficient because some of its most important members do not live up to its demands. They are blind (that central metaphor is, of course, crucial) to their own obligations, insensitive to the complex dynamics of human interaction, and tyrannically addicted to their own power. Gloucester can joke in public about the “sport” he had in conceiving a bastard son and talk about how he has kept him away from court life, and Lear can rage at Cordelia for not playing the role he has determined for her in his self-flattering game. Like Richard II before them, they have an insufficiently intelligent and sensitive appreciation for the demands of virtue on which the old order rests and thus inevitably contribute to fostering a situation in which that old order falls apart.
The new order, in its turn, once self-assertive individualism has room to maneuver, breaks all customary ties, creates temporary alliances for power, and ends up with everyone pursuing his or her own agenda. In the process, sisters murder sisters, sons betray their fathers, and the quest for power leads to its inevitable conclusion, self-destruction.
King Lear offers no sense of a permanently established natural order from which human beings can devise some sense of how they ought to behave towards each other, how they ought to live their lives. When Lear goes out to seek justice in the storm, nature answers with an unintelligible and threatening tempest, from which the only sane thing to do is to huddle down in the nearest hovel and pass the time playing absurd games. Unlike the power of nature in As You Like It, which offers a place full of sunshine and fertility where people can discover in a newly invigorating way who they really are and what relationships matter most to them, nature in King Lear is harsh and unresponsive to human beings’ search for a reassuring moral order. In the Forest of Ardenne, the courtiers, through conversation and song, repair themselves so that they can return to society to lead better lives. On the heath, where there is no conversation, only howls of anger and pain, the only thing Lear learns is that life, reduced to its basic elements, is insane.
NATURE AND FEMALE SEXUALITY
Before moving to consider in some detail the ending of the play, I would like to raise an obvious but deeply ambiguous element in the play, the emphasis on (perhaps even the obsession with) female sexuality as a key element in Lear’s rage. This issue emerges unmistakably in Lear’s passionate denunciations of his daughters and seems even to extend beyond that to include all women in general. What we are to make of this, I’m not sure, but that it’s a key element in the play is surely unquestionable.
To begin with, we note that neither Lear nor Gloucester is married: there is no female partner in their families, and their firmly patriarchal male control thus does not have to answer to any countervailing female presence. Gloucester can therefore joke easily and crudely about the “sport” he had in making Edmund, and Lear can assert his dominating sense of himself from a position of total male control.
Lear’s initial rage is generated by a young woman, his daughter Cordelia, because she speaks up for herself. Many critics have speculated about her motivation, but that seems to me a rather pointless exercise. What Cordelia is doing, as her asides make clear, is speaking her own mind, declaring her own understanding of how she should live her life. This challenge to Lear’s ego exerts its effect not just because it demolishes his tidy little self-gratifying ritual but also because it’s coming from a young woman, who is also his child. The rage is the reflex power of a male ego that will not accept unwelcome responses from children, women, or subordinates.
His rage at Cordelia, which summons up the horrific vision of parents eating their own children, begins with an invocation to “the mysteries of Hecate,” and that’s an interesting allusion, because it is precisely the mysteries of that enigmatic and powerful female goddess of the moon, a graphic symbol of the female principles at work in the cosmos, that Lear is least in touch with. So there’s a powerful irony that he should invoke such a figure in the very process of demonstrating just how incapable he is of even imagining such a presence.
His denunciation of Cordelia, however, is, in some respects, mild compared to the tirades he launches against Goneril and Regan and, beyond them, against women generally. Here the emphasis is explicitly sexual. He wants their femininity and fertility blasted away, as if that is somehow the source of the problem and therefore a suitable punishment for not answering to his wishes.
Hear, Nature, hear! dear goddess, hear!
Suspend they purpose, if thou didst intend
Top make this creature fruitful!
Into her womb convey sterility!
Dry up in her the organs of increase;
And from her derogate body never spring
A babe to honor her! (1.4.252-266)
And at the height of his madness in the storm, at the very centre of Lear’s destructive rage is a violent sense of the sexuality of women (especially of Regan and Goneril) as the source of all the evil which is tormenting him:
Behold yond simpering dame,
Whose face between her forks presages snow;
That minces virtue, and does shake the head
To hear of pleasures name;
The fitchew, nor the soiléd horse, goes to ‘t
With a more riotous appetite.
Down from the waist they are Centaurs,
Though women all above.
But to the girdle do the gods inherit.
Beneath is all the fiend’s; there’s hell, there’s darkness,
There’s the sulphurous pit, burning, scalding,
Stench, consumption! Fie, fie, fie! pah! pah! (4.6.115-126)
Locating hell in a woman’s sexuality, seeing in women’s sexual organs the devil’s home and the source of all the hypocrisy introduces a powerfully disturbing sense of how much Lear’s ego, that hard masculine shell he has encased himself in, rests on a fear of what he cannot understand. The very process of summoning up the image seems to drive him into even deeper agony (as the closing words indicate). As Joyce Carol Oates has pointed out, there’s no particular reason to locate the source of Regan’s and Goneril’s betrayal of him in their sexuality. Their treatment of him springs much more from their masculine qualities (if we can use that term), than from any deeply rooted source of evil unique to women’s sexual life. So Lear’s passionate desire to see in their sexuality the source of his torments (and the world’s evil) links the suffering in this play to a significantly displaced understanding of women. There’s a sense that Lear, unable to understand, accept, or control female sexuality, releases all his pent-up hatred of the world on that, for precisely that reason.
Now, we should be used to this in Shakespeare by now, especially from our reading of Hamlet. For in that play, Hamlet repeatedly generalizes from his emotional distress a sweeping and often harsh indictment of women’s sexuality (which presumably is the source of his violence against Ophelia and Gertrude). But, in comparison with Lear, we might want to argue that Hamlet has more understandable grounds. For Gertrude, his mother, now sleeps with Claudius. But this does not apply to Lear, who is, one assumes, beyond the age where savage sexual jealousy (of the sort which later affects Regan and Goneril) is an important element in his life. The fact that the female sexuality he is objecting to so violently belongs to his daughters (and thus is directly linked to the future of his family) makes the denunciation all the more striking.
We might also want to think for a moment about how different Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are in this respect. They give every indication of understanding very well the importance of sexuality as a creative force in the natural process of things. There is a sense in which they might very well be a sexually compatible couple. That’s why, in planning the murder, Lady Macbeth has to pray to be “unsexed” and Macbeth has to go against his sensitivity to the natural processes of life in order to steel himself for the murder. And unlike Hamlet and Lear (and Othello), Macbeth does not express his tragic suffering in terms which set women’s sexuality up as the source of his torment. In that sense, he seems to have a maturer sense of sexuality than the others, even if he sacrifices that sense to attain his goals. For the fact that the close union of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth falls apart after the murder of Duncan is one of the many painful consequences of their desire to be unnatural. And there’s a deep irony in the fact that after that prayer to violate nature, Macbeth cannot abide the thought of Banquo’s descendants will get the crown.
If we further recall the language of some of the Dark Lady sonnets, those astonishingly passionate denunciations of sexuality ("lust") as the source of the spiritual torment of the speaker, we can better understand why most interpreters want to date them at about the same time as the tragedies and why others see a need for some important biographical event which might trigger such a pronounced shift (especially in comparison with As You Like It).
What we are to make of this I am not sure. But it strikes me that the violence against particular women (verbal and physical), the death of so many women, even those entirely innocent (like Ophelia, Desdemona, Cordelia, and Lady Macduff), and the absence of any women at the end of so many of the tragedies (other than the witches in Macbeth) establish a strong link between the tragic vision of life and self-assertive and distinctively male ego. One point at the very ending of King Lear which seems to emphasize this possibility is the way that the play brings back the bodies of Regan and Goneril (who have died offstage), so that the final image insists upon the deaths of all the women in the family.
There may be other reasons for bringing back the dead bodies (to present a reminder of the opening scene, for example, or to lend a corrosive irony to Edmund’s dying words about how he was “beloved”), but the firm insistence on what this tragedy has cost in the multiple killings of women introduces gender issues which are hard to ignore.
THE ENDING OF KING LEAR
I have many times suggested that King Lear offers us a particularly bleak view of human existence. It shakes our assumptions in many of the most cherished illusions we hang onto in order to confer significance on our lives. But I don’t want to conclude this lecture before looking in more detail at the ending, for there is an important and interesting critical debate about how to read the ending of the play. Is it, in fact, as I have described it, or are there some more optimistic and life-affirming possibilities?
Without exploring many alternatives, I would like to consider some of the material in the closing moments of this play which feeds this debate. The central point concerns Lear’s “regeneration,” his waking up a transformed person in the arms of Cordelia. Here he is apparently very different person from the loud egoist of most of the play. He begs for forgiveness and has a genuine sense of that important virtue, humility. There is clearly a sense here that Lear has discovered or rediscovered his capacity to love and to recognize in that bond the most important element of life.
Thus, when he and Cordelia are captured and sent off to prison, he accepts the event because now being with Cordelia, sharing their love together, is far more important than any question of justice or injustice in the world. His poetry on this occasion is memorable. In response to Cordelia’s practical question, “Shall we not see these daughters and these sisters?” Lear replies,
No, no, no, no! Come, let’s away to prison.
We two alone will sing like birds i’the cage.
When thou dost ask me blessing, I’ll kneel down,
And ask of thee forgiveness. So we’ll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues
Talk of court news; and we’ll talk with them too,
Who loses and who wins; who’s in, and who’s out;
And take upon ‘s the mystery of things,
As if we were Gods’ spies; and we’ll wear out,
In a walled prison, packs and sects of great ones,
That ebb and flow by the moon. (5.3.8-19)
How are we to read these lines? On the one hand, they seem to indicate a transformed understanding within Lear, some transcendent awareness of new priorities which place human love, “bonds,” far above the meaningless power political world of the court with which Lear has been so obsessed. They invite us to think that Lear’s suffering has at last given him a magnificent insight into something of enormous and lasting value.
On the other hand, the speech is also a turning away from any practical action to deal with their present situation (after all, Cordelia’s question is a request to sort out what they should do next). So we can also read the speech as one more illusion Lear is constructing in order to keep control of his life. The enormous distance between the metaphysical power he is here claiming for himself (“As if we were Gods’ spies”) and the reality of his situation is underscored by Edmund’s line immediately following this speech, “Take them away,” a curt manifestation of the real power at work in the world. So if we want to see in this speech some important earned insight into the nature of life, we also have to recognize that it’s an insight that takes no account of what needs to be done and is, in fact, impotent in the face of armed antagonism, in the face of the historical facts of his situation.
There may well be a suggestion here of a theme we have met already (particularly in Hamlet) and are going to encounter again, namely, that love and politics are mutually incompatible. For politics of the modern sort requires an ethic like that of Polonius. And if Lear goes to negotiate with the sister, he will have to descend to their level and, if he is to be successful in any way, to adopt the Machiavellian tactics which guide the world in which the sisters live. Such a world crushes the spontaneous giving on which the highest forms of love depend. On the other hand, to say, as Lear does here, that love is the higher priority and to turn one’s back on one’s political situation is to leave one totally vulnerable to those who make politics their first and only priority. So even if we see Lear’s awareness here as full of a visionary understanding of the mystery of love, there’s a powerful irony underneath that declaration, a tone which insists upon the fact that such insight comes at the high price of political impotence.
And whatever Lear has learned about life is insufficient to sustain him, once Cordelia is killed. He may have thought his newly discovered sense of love would enable him to transcend the world of politics and rest finally on some deeper understanding of the world, but whatever he has learned cannot cope with the sudden destruction of the object of his love. And so his newly found mental equanimity collapses, and he returns just before his death into a fit of insanity, seeing in Cordelia’s death the denial of any significance to human life:
No, no, no life!
Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life,
And thou no breath at all? Thou’lt come no more,
Never, never, never, never, never!
Pray you, undo this button. Thank you, sir.
Do you see this? Look on her, look her lips,
Look there, look there! (5.3.304-310)
And he dies in a mad fit, tearing off his clothes (the same gesture which signaled the onset of his insanity in the storm), still trying to convince himself that Cordelia cannot be dead. He thought he had come to some new awareness, but that insight is removed. The mystery of life is not so benevolent as Lear thought it might be (and as we may have been seduced into thinking by the beauty of Lear’s declaration of love). Hence, the hope of a significant transforming insight is cancelled, and we are left in ambiguous doubt. The remaining characters say very little, and there is no clear assumption of authority by anyone. Kent’s comment salutes Lear’s death as something to be welcomed:
Vex not his ghost. O, let him pass! He hates him much
That would upon the rack of this tough world
Stretch him out longer. (5.3.312-314)
That image of Lear’s life as a torture session does not encourage us to build much hope upon Lear’s earlier declaration of love for Cordelia (of the sort which might be fostered if Kent had said something like "Well, at least he found love again before he died"). If the survivors see nothing of value in what has taken place, we are not given any encouragement to find something on which to build any final reassuring insight.
If the text leaves us little to build any hope upon, the staging of the final moments of King Lear can indicate something to us of where this human community goes from here. And if you ever witness a production of this play, on stage or film, it is worth paying close attention to the final movement. You need to be particularly attentive to whether or not the Fool is present and what he is doing.
THE FOOL: DEAD OR ALIVE?
Lear’s Fool is one of the most interesting characters in the play, and his presence in the ending will exercise an important interpretative effect. In the text, the Fool apparently disappears in 3.6 with the cryptic final line, “And I’ll go to bed at noon” (3.6.78). From the text, he does not seem to reappear. One standard historical explanation for this is that the character playing the Fool also plays the role of Cordelia, and since she is about to reappear, the Fool has to disappear. This, of course, is not an issue for modern productions, where the roles are hardly ever doubled. And so the question arises: What has happened to the Fool?
Lear’s comment near the very end, “And my poor Fool is hanged!” (5.3.304) is normally taken as a reference to Cordelia, although there are those, like Goddard, who maintain that this is a reference to the Fool. So the text is quite ambiguous on the fate of the Fool, and anyone mounting a production of the play will have to decide.
Why should this matter? Well, it matters, in large part, because it’s important for us to know whether the qualities that the Fool brings into the play survive or not. And to assess the importance of this point, we need to consider some aspects of the character’s role in the play.
The Fool has no power other than his language. He is attached to Lear by a strong bond, although he knows that honoring this bond is physically dangerous, for he is fully aware of the consequences of what Lear is doing in his dealings with his daughters and his headstrong rush away from the castle into the storm. As a fool, his role is to provide a stream of riddling verbal commentary on the action, to expose the truth under the words of others. But his commentary is curiously bitter and sad. He knows that his words are ineffective; they may express important truths, but they will never penetrate Lear’s consciousness or do much to change the situation as it unfolds. At a time when the ruling facts of life are clashes of power (military and natural), the Fool’s language has no significant effect on the action. The professional manipulator of language counts for very little when so many others are twisting words to suit their own purposes.
But words are all he has. Faced with the destructive collision of the rival groups and the ensuing suffering and chaos, the Fool does what he can to transform the harshness of events to some form of linguistic play, not because he has any solution to offer but simply because that’s his way of dealing with suffering. So long as one can talk and make jokes (even bitter ones) about experience, one can, to an extent, endure that experience. The sadness of the Fool comes from his awareness of the inadequacy of his language to do anything more than hold back the chaos momentarily and of the necessity of making the attempt, because to stop talking would be to surrender to the meaninglessness of the storm. As Edgar observes, “the worst is not/ So long as we can say ‘This is the worst’” (4.1.27-28).
The Fool is significantly the only source of music in the play. And we should recognize by now that music plays a really important role in Shakespeare’s style as a symbol for human creativity, hope, and joy. The Fool’s songs, like his jokes, are sad, riddling, and thin (nothing like the robust harmonious group singing in As You Like It), but they express at least the human attempt to impose some ordered and creative meaning on the chaotic flux of life, to salvage something from the absurdity of history. They offer us in symbolic form a vision of an impulse upon which it might be possible to construct something valuable. So long as there is music, human feeling will find ordered expression and seek to communicate that to others (at least, that is the hope brought out by music).
That is why the fate of the Fool at the ending of this play matters. His death adds to the quantity of needless suffering which has extinguished love, community, and possibilities for beauty and meaning. The music is over, and nothing rests but the silence of total destruction. His survival, especially if he is given a pivotal role in the closing moments, sets quite a different tone; whereas, his death seems to close the door on all hope (as in a recent London production, where the Fool was battered to death by Lear in a fit of madness).
Here I want to refer to two film versions of King Lear, both very famous and both very different. The first one, by Peter Brook (which is available at Van Isle Video on Northfield Road) provides a really stark vision of the play. The ending of Brook’s version is a scene of desolation, with the survivors (no women among them) huddled together facing a harsh bleak landscape and no sense of where any form of regeneration is to come from. The landscape around them is chillingly hostile. The ending really brings out how the destruction of that original unity has left no remnant from which something healthy might spring. There is no Fool present. He has been destroyed alongside all the others. What remains is absurdity.
The second film is the version of the celebrated Russian director of Shakespeare in film, Grigori Kozintsev (a film which incidentally had its North American premiere in Vancouver in 1971, at a Shakespeare conference which I attended). Kozintsev has, throughout the film, associated the Fool with music, specifically with playing a small wooden flute. In the closing moments of the film, we hear the Fool playing his music above the desolation, and as he plays, we see the crowds of common people (including, significantly, women) slowly and tentatively start to pick up things and move towards the beginning of some reconstruction.
Incidentally, the music in this film (composed by Shostakovitch) is truly memorable, one of the most eloquent reminders in the history of Shakespeare film production of the importance of music in shaping and sustaining a particular interpretative mood.
This final image of the common people initiating a process of rebuilding has important implications for the political sense we take from this play (something I will not be discussing in any detail). For it suggests that the old order of patriarchal feudalism has now gone. Most of its leading members are dead or about to die, and the few remaining (Edgar and Albany) are so isolated that there is no rich social hierarchy for them to repair. The aggressive self-serving individuals are also dead. Hence, the future of the community is going to be in the hands of the people, the ones who earlier in the film looked to the imposing figures of the court for security and guidance. Such a vision would, of course, accord well with any Marxist view that this play envisions the destruction of both the feudal aristocracy (which lacks any intelligent sense of virtue) and the new individualism (which turns everyone loose against everyone else). Any hope for the future thus rests with the common people working, as they are here, together, in harmony.
At the presentation of his film, Kozintsev spoke eloquently about how his vision of Lear had been shaped by the experience of the siege of Leningrad, the site of particularly painful and sustained suffering in World War II. And, as I recall, he referred to how a sense of the recuperative powers of humanity, as presented in King Lear, had sustained him during that horrific time. In the light of that, his subsequent comments on the music in the closing moments of his film were particularly significant. And I can think of no better last word for this lecture than the reflections of this wise artist on Shakespeare’s most famous fool:
Symbols change. The Fool’s cap and bells have long since gone out of fashion. Perhaps the Fool’s foolery isn’t quite what it used to be either? I imagined a paradoxical situation. The Fool is laughed at, not because he is foolish, but because he speaks the truth. He is the one who shams idiocy--no longer a court comedian but an urchin taken from among the most humble. The least significant tells the most mighty that he’s a fool because he doesn’t know the nature of his own daughters. Everyone laughs--but it is the truth.
For these people nothing is funnier than the truth. They roar with laughter at the truth, kick it like a dog, hold it on a leash and make a laughing stock of it--like art under a tyrannical régime. I am reminded of stories about how, in a Nazi concentration camp, an orchestra of prisoners was got together. They were forced to play outside in the compound. They were beaten so that they would play better. This was the origin of the Fool-musician--a boy taken from an orchestra composed of men condemned to death.
This was the origin of the particular tone of the film, its voice. In King Lear, the voice of human suffering is accorded more significance than the roar of thunder. Working on the score with Dmitri Shostakovitch, I dismissed the idea of dignified fanfares and the roll of drums. We were carried away by ideas of a completely different kind of instrumentation--the sound of a wooden pipe, which the Fool has made for himself. I’d asked for the film titles to be written on coarse, torn sacking. This linkage of ideas acted as kind of key. Rags, and the soft sound of the pipe--the still voice of suffering. Then, during the battle scenes, a requiem breaks out, then falls silent. And once again the pipe can be heard. Life--a none too easy one--goes on. Its voice in King Lear is a very quiet one, but its sad, human quality sounds distinctly in Shakespeare’s work. (from “‘Hamlet’ and ‘King Lear’: Stage and Film,” in Shakespeare 1971: Proceedings of the World Shakespeare Congress Vancouver, August 1971 [Toronto: U. of Toronto Press, 1972]: 190-199).