The Tragedie of King Lear, by William Shakespeare, 1606.
|Woodcut illustration for "The Tragedy of King Lear" by Claire Van Vliet|
I would you would make use of your good wisdom,
Whereof I know you are fraught, and put away
These dispositions, which of late transport you
From what you rightly are. (1.4.213-17)
I would you would make use of your good wisdom,
Whereof I know you are fraught, and put away
These dispositions, which of late transport you
From what you rightly are. (1.4.213-17)
Of the many themes King Lear encompasses, perhaps the most essential is that of the disintegration of order. Natural order, familial order, political order, even finally in the psyche, language, and the body: all fall prey to a process of test and failure that almost, but not completely, destroys the settled world found at the play’s outset. Most fundamental is the fateful fall of Lear himself, both representative and singular man, a confluence of social and metaphysical orders. This fall, whilst foreshadowed from the outset, commences proper in the lengthy, subtle, crucial Act I, Scene iv, as the forces that will destroy Lear and his legacy begin to resolve. In the course of this scene, the breach between Lear and his daughter Goneril properly manifests, and the course of the subsequent drama takes on, from this point, a quality of inevitability, diving towards a nadir of human behaviour in which a handful of exemplary characters labour and largely fail to save each-other from oblivion. What Lear “rightly” is, as king and patriarch, gives way to the vagaries of old age and the insidious potency of the inheriting generation, and small acts of offence and betrayal snowball into calamity. This scene therefore presents the dramatic fulcrum of the first part of the play, whilst raising the question of just what Lear rightly is, pivotal to comprehending a vast moral drama, with subsequent dramas foreshadowed in the characters’ words and attitudes in this early scene.
|Detail from "Cordelia Disinherited" by John Rogers Herbert|
At the outset, one settled order is concluding, and the order that will replace it is the crucial question. Lear’s famous solution, to divide his kingdom for each of his three daughters, Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia, immediately begins to go awry when Cordelia fails to play the game Lear has made an unstated condition of his settlement. In Scene iv, the cracks in Lear’s solution truly begin to show. Characters are now polarising according to the sides they will now take, with
, appearing for the first time
in disguise, ingratiating himself for the purpose of protecting the king. His
opposite, Oswald, the archetypal venal courtier, is introduced. So too is the
Fool, a voice of honesty strained through songs and jokes, meditating upon
Lear’s ill-wisdom. Goneril, offended by her father’s retinue, plots to create a
crisis that will enable her to lay down the law. Kent , as he will continue to, equivocates,
pleads innocence, and lets others fight for him. Lear rejects his daughter’s presumptions,
and storms out. On the level of exposition, this scene sees much that could go
wrong in the opening’s settlement begin to do so, whilst fundamental ironies
rise to the surface. Albany ,
ill-treated and stripped of all that is his, nonetheless proves himself
peerlessly loyal. The Fool offers telling sense, making explicit that Lear is
the real fool for putting himself at his daughter’ mercy. Goneril, having
mouthed pretty speeches as required of her, now reveals herself as manipulative
and disrespectful. By the scene’s end Lear is beating his own head, realising
his folly (1.4.272-3), and the monarch of supreme power is literally on the
road to becoming a semi-crazed vagabond. Kent
|Scene from Grigori Kozintsev's Korol Lear (1971): Jüri Järvet as Lear, Valentina Shendrikova as Cordelia|
King Lear is defined by its relative abstractness and remoteness from all but the broadest political references, based as it is in the accepted conventions of folk-tale-derived material (Bradbrook, 1935: 40). This quality however gives the play scope to explore notions like royalty, loyalty, duty, family, and hierarchy in a less hampered context. This is the Tragedy of King Lear above all. The disparity between Lear the man and Lear the king is apparent, and a certain alienation of one from the other is an aspect of Lear’s character, as Regan notes his lack of self-knowledge (1.1.293-4), and yet their simultaneous unity cannot be ignored. Even in his now aged and intemperate state, Lear is at the outset still a vessel of great power: voice of law, partitioner of the natural and social worlds, a dragon, a father-god, “the summum of all that culture is” (Long, 1976: 170). A fundamental discrepancy, of the mortality of the man and the immutable nature of his role, leads to an ultimate crisis in this culture: we have the “spectacle of a king who overthrows his own kingdom” (Epstein, 1993: 6). The lone voice of tolerated dissent is his Fool, who counters Lear’s misapprehensions through metaphoric jests and allusive mockery, and his concise description of the lot of the honest: “Truth’s a dog must to kennel; he must be whipped out.” (1.4.114-15) Lear’s power, however, cannot do much to prevent him from walking into Goneril’s design, or avoid justifying her subsequent acts, with his aggression towards Oswald and his knights’ general intransigence. When Goneril upbraids Lear for his “dispositions”, taking precedent over his “good wisdom”, it is already clear what these dispositions entail, after Lear’s summary fury in exiling Cordelia and Kent. These are not wise acts, and the lack of wisdom will reverberate throughout the play.
|Romola Garai as Cordelia and Ian McKellen as Lear, in a 2007 RSC production|
Lear compounds his mistakes in I, iv.
himself with the king by indulging his prejudices and participating in his sufficiently
offensive antics. Lear would not have tolerated them; Goneril does not, either.
Lear is no longer, as Goneril’s words indicate what he once was, a man of sound
strategic wit, now irascible and tetchy. He has pinned his fate on what is
essentially an act of faith, that his daughters’ words and actions must accord.
Lear is here inseparable from his self-concept as king and the way meaning and
form flows out from his person, and his mistake is to believe this is felt by
all others to be incumbent upon them. Even his contradictions and switches of
mood are inviolate: “I have sworn; I am firm” (1.1.245). His idea of what his
daughters are for is made clear to Cordelia: “Better thou / Hadst not been born
than not to have pleased me better.” Lear’s heirs are extensions of his own unbounded
ego, and his power is a cultural maxim. “Lear is (a) character who…asks us to
think about the psyche of a ruler from the inside out, of what it must be like
to consider yourself godlike even as your body and your children betray you”
(McEachern, 2010: 192). Good and evil in the play are subsequently defined by
individuals’ relationship with that maxim, even as it is tested and found
wanting. The heroic characters, Kent , and Edgar,
display unswerving fealty even when mistreated. Goneril, Regan, Edmund, and Cordelia,
Kent see value in wresting
such power for themselves, and are willing to ignore sentiment to do so. And
yet in that act they annihilate the very purpose of this leadership caste,
which is to define and uphold certain faiths. All that is left otherwise is
mere power. In Cornwall I. iv, Goneril begins this
process of disentangling the legal and moral shape of a world, much as the
bastard Edmund has already vowed (1.2) to accomplish, which Lear has been the
guardian and definer of.
|Scene from Peter Brook's King Lear (1971): Alan Webb as Gloucester, Paul Scofield as Lear|
The irony of Goneril’s request for Lear’s “good wisdom” is then clear, in that she has no desire for Lear to return to what he “rightly” is, or rather, her definition of that is not one he would recognise. She wants him to behave in a becoming fashion, and adapt to her regime. She is quick to put his anger down to a man giving way to senility: “Let his disposition have that scope / as dotage gives it” (1.4.295-6). Lear has no wish to adapt. For one thing, it is virtually incompatible with the role he is defined by: the king is still the king, a fact which betrays a false assumption in his settlement. His exiling of Cordelia and Kent is the act of a man used to no limits on his power. But Lear is subsequently a reactive rather than decisive force. “The King himself destroys his own kingship, and the remainder of the play shows the restoration of that kingship in him” (Epstein, 1993: 4). Lear’s motives for the division of his kingdom are unstated beyond simply making provision for his inevitably brief future, and yet implicit in it is awareness of his own failing capacity to govern. That he will be alive, and yet no longer an omnicompetent ruler, presents an inevitable tension, which he exacerbates in his insistence on maintaining the privileges of overlordship. Lear’s legacy can be seen as an attempt to avoid making painful choices. He gives up power, but not the form of it; he gives away his country, but instead of favouring either of the most powerful lords in his realm, Albany and Cornwall, connected with his eldest two daughters, he divides it between the three daughters, a balanced act immediately undone because of Lear’s rash temper. From one perspective, Goneril’s sentiments about the behaviour of Lear and his retinue are entirely understandable. And yet she capably avoids the one real price she had to pay for gaining half a kingdom. The breach of this condition is the germ for a tragedy that destroys a governing class.
|"King Lear" by Benjamin West|
The roles of family are here irreducibly linked with those of royalty. Lear’s betrayed prestige is both political and patriarchal; likewise his exile. For daughters to cause their elderly father to wander off in the rainy night would be seen as a failure of care, no matter the era and reason. It is also in this context an act of treason, albeit one Lear’s own lapses have allowed. Lear is at least canny enough to recognise Goneril’s game almost immediately: his riposte to her entreaty, “Are you our daughter?”, comes well after he has sensed the wane of deference and respect for his party amongst her retinue, which he has resisted interpreting until now as purposeful aggression (1.4.68-72). His question recognises the distance between this Goneril and her earlier, fawning filial piety. Lear makes it plain that he was bargaining for a kind of treatment that he now sees he will not receive. Father and daughter now talk past one-another. Goneril has engineered a situation to stoke her father’s anger and justify her own; he refuses to reply to her according to “good wisdom” and instead will not recognise her. These stances can only have one outcome, and Lear is the clearer loser. His savage invocation to nature (1.4.278-292) for barrenness to be visited upon Goneril, concludes with the most telling phrase that “sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is / to have a thankless child.” Here Lear’s pathos as both father and king is clear. Lear, as a lawmaker and supreme figure, sees his own fall as a fall for all humanity, invoking the wrath of gods on his daughter’s womb, and then at mankind in general (3.2.1-24), before, in his “mental fragmentation” (Brailowsky, 2009: 208), giving way to a complete dissolution of moral and sexual propriety which is, by his standards, an embrace of total nihilism even before the cast begins to die like flies. That development may in fact, considering the potency of Lear’s relationship as king with the metaphysical order, be rooted in his nihilistic curses: his invocations on mankind carry weight with the gods he and others see working behind human actions.
|"Cordelia's Farewell" by Edwin Austin Abbey|
In I, iv, the Fool teases Lear with his mixture of wit and astringent truth, perhaps most enlightening in this screed: “Thou mad’st thy daughters thy mothers; for when thou gav’st them the rod, and put’st down thine own breeches” (1.4.174-76). The inversion of the power relationship of parent and child that is an effect of aging is here given new urgency as a more severe inversion, that of master and supplicant, looms. The threat that Lear will essentially be a child, coddled and scolded by daughter-mothers and reduced to dependence, is a fate he rejects with self-destructive fury. Lear’s settlement again tried to avoid this, but instead he loses all support. The king, defined by his office and power, completely stripped of all trappings of rank and power, returns to a state of childishness, garbing himself in flowers, and rejecting previous moral maxims, newly instilled with “compassion for sin as well as suffering” (Granville-Barker, 1970: 43). When he is finally rescued and awakens before Cordelia, he is both a very old man and a young child, Cordelia both true daughter and mother-blesser, the only force who can restore him to sanity, sanctity, and kingliness. Captured by their enemies, Lear looks forward to sharing childhood with Cordelia in jail, a rebirth in being relieved of all responsibility and laughing at the courtly world he so recently headed. Yet the next-to-final image of him is almost motherly now in himself, “a reversal of the mother-son axis in the imagery of the Deposition as depicted in countless paintings and statues of the Italian Renaissance” (Riemer, 1994: 16), carrying Cordelia in his arms, now a vessel of world-sorrow. Moreover, the plot completes the inversion of the natural in the fashion that Goneril and Regan, having failed in their responsibilities towards a male patriarch, destroy each-other rather in competition for a male pretender, Edmund. Edmund, the anti-social force, is a perfect fetish object for the two daughters.
|Scene from King Lear, 1982 Granada TV production: Laurence Olivier as Lear, John Hurt as The Fool|
Lear’s rhetorical failure to recognise his daughter elucidates how sight, and its corollaries recognition and discernment, becomes a crucial motif. Lear has already failed to recognise
honest friend and then at all. The same with Cordelia, whilst the borrowed verbal
facades of Goneril and Regan have entirely fooled him. Coming after Goneril’s entreaty,
this failure of recognition highlights the constant alteration and alternation
of roles throughout the play. King to vagabond, earl to exile, bastard son to
almost-prince, beloved offspring to hated enemies: characters remain constant
and yet their roles and apparels are in flux, a dangerous state for a society
defined by roles. Whilst disguise is an art of the wicked, it’s also a survival
tool and weapon for the wronged, as it is for Kent and Edgar, and these
disguises both increase the intrigue and the emotional complexity of the play (Bradbrook,
1935: 67). In such a world, the notion that anyone is rightly something seems
almost absurd, when identities can so easily be blurred, usurped, stolen,
adopted. Gloucester’s eyes, instruments which he abuses himself for failing to
tell the difference between good son and bad, are the targets of grim
punishment, in a scene where “the emphasis immediately shifts from blinding to
things which must not be seen” (Peat, 1985: 104), redolent of crossing the
boundaries of taboo, things that are against the shape of the human and world. Kent is then given
a redemption by his son Edgar in a play-act contrivance, as the loss of
physical sight gives way to a clearer vision of the truth. Lear’s own
prescription in the midst of his derangement: “A man may see how this world
goes with no eyes. Look with thine ears” (4.6.151-2). The Fool’s constant wordplay
dresses and undresses the truth, and he gets whipped for all possible
interpretations of his words, for “his philosophy demands of him that he tell
the truth and abolish myths,” (Kott, 1967: 129) in a role that is at odds with Lear’s
as the proponent of form over truth. “These are biblical parables. The blind
see clearly, madmen tell the truth.” (Kott, 1967: 127) Gloucester
There are bonds and feelings that finally do not break, between Lear and Cordelia, Lear and
Edgar and Gloucester, and the servants who aid , and these
confirm the strength of deeper links between humans in the face of nihilistic
forces. These bonds, as well as the cleansing process of his alienation and
madness, partly redeem Lear from his foolishness and obstinacy, and yet the
play finally refuses to depict a world put right. Instead, like a broken gear,
the initial mutual lapses of wisdom and respect smash the entire mechanism. Justice
catches up with the wrongdoers, but the innocent and the misguided are also
victims, and therefore the meaning of the tale moves out of the stage of the
morality play and into a more urgent consideration of the ties and
responsibilities that construct a civilised world. The mighty, the guiltless,
the villainous: all become victims of a form of blindness that fails to
perceive the authentic and the sustaining. By the otherwise desolate finale,
Lear’s own life has undergone a simultaneous evolution and devolution, sifting
the ages and states of man in a desperate process of attempting to find just what
he rightly is, what any human then rightly is, attempting to bear the burden of
crushing sorrows and still, indeed, remain human. Gloucester
Bradbrook, M. C. 1935, Themes and Conventions of Elizabethan Tragedy, C.U.P., Cambridge.
Brailowsky, Yan 2009, ‘“The Lusty Stealth Of Nature”: Desire And Bastardry In King Lear’, And that’s true too: New Essays on King Lear, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, Newcastle, UK.
Epstein, Paul 1998, ‘The purgation of the Shakespearean hero’, in Animus: The Canadian Journal of Philosophy and Humanities, Vol. 3, Memorial University of Newfoundland, Corner Brook, Newfoundland.
Granville-Barker, Harley 1970, ‘King Lear’, in Prefaces to Shakespeare: King Lear, Antony and Cleopatra, B.T. Batsford, London.
Kott, Jan (trans. Taborski, B.) 1967, Shakespeare Our Contemporary, 2nd Edition, Methuen and Co, London.
Long, Michael 1976, The Unnatural Scene: A Study in Shakespearean Tragedy, Methuen and Co, London.
McEachern, Claire 2010, ‘Shakespeare, religion, and politics’, in The New Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare, eds Margareta de Grazia & Stanley Wells, 2nd edition, C.U.P., Cambridge.
Peat, Derek 1985, ‘Responding Blindly? A Reading of a scene in King Lear’, Sydney Studies, Vol. 20, University of Sydney, Sydney.
Reimer, A. P. 1994, ‘The Promised End: Some Last Words on King Lear’, Sydney Studies, Vol. 10, University of Sydney, Sydney.