My rating: 5 of 5 stars
What is King Lear about? “[T]he fierce dispute, / Betwixt damnation and impassion’d clay,” wrote Keats, but both terms seem inapt: “clay”—as in the moist earth from which the Creator molded us—suggests a different image from the acid, sandy soil of the heathland where Lear rages, while “damnation,” with its intimation of cosmic reward and punishment, is a concept difficult to apply to this pre- and post-Christian tragedy. Or is it? I will try to answer that question in what follows.
The play’s plot is fairy-tale simple, though Shakespeare convulutes it with his usual flurry of misdirected letters and changeable personae. The aged king, though at one with his enormous authority, decides to abdicate his throne and divide his kingdom among his daughters (or, more precisely, their husbands) as a reward for their pledges of filial love. His eldest daughters, Goneril and Regan, make elaborate professions of their reverence, while the youngest, Cordelia, refuses to “heave [her] heart into her mouth.” Lear banishes her, along with his plain-speaking courtier Kent, but he soon finds that his elder daughters regard him and his retinue as a nuisance to be disciplined. Attended only by his fool and Kent in disguise, Lear is dismissed from his daughters’ dwellings and put out on the heath in a storm. Meanwhile, Lear’s courtier Gloucester is being manipulated by his bastard son Edmund; Edmund convinces his father to banish his legitimate son, Edgar, as Lear had banished Cordelia. Edmund, Goneril, and Regan join together in villainy, and eventually Gloucester is blinded and sent into the storm also, attended by Edgar disguised as a Bedlam beggar. Cordelia, in the meantime, has married the King of France; she returns to Britain with the French army to restore the kingdom to her father. This being a tragedy, her rescue comes too late and almost every character save Edgar and Kent lose their lives.
A reader could find a Christian message in the play, despite its ostensibly being set in ancient Britain. Shakespeare is the playwright who gave us the coast of Bohemia in The Winter’s Tale and striking clocks in Julius Caesar: with his sublime indifference to consistency or verisimilitude, he fills King Lear‘s dialogue with demonological references in the speeches of Edgar-guised-as-Mad-Tom, and seems to give the dying Lear several visions, including a final one, of Cordelia as a saint in Heaven. Their trials, moreover, inspire both Lear and Gloucester to embrace Christian charity if not outright communism. Lear at 3.3:
Poor naked wretches, whereso’er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your loop’d and window’d raggedness, defend you
From seasons such as these? O, I have ta’en
Too little care of this! Take physic, pomp;
Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,
That thou mayst shake the superflux to them,
And show the heavens more just.
Gloucester at 4.1:
Here, take this purse, thou whom the heavens’ plagues
Have humbled to all strokes: that I am wretched
Makes thee the happier: heavens, deal so still!
Let the superfluous and lust-dieted man,
That slaves your ordinance, that will not see
Because he doth not feel, feel your power quickly;
So distribution should undo excess,
And each man have enough.
The play’s philosophy turns on definitions of nature. The villain and “natural” son Edmund calls on nature as his goddess; he seems to construe by the word an amoral and vitalistic force whereby strength triumphs not only over weakness but also over humanity’s customary restraints on the strong. Nature is the will to power and the right of might. Goneril and Regan, who share Edmund’s outlook, are compared to serpents and sea monsters and “monsters of the deep”—in other words, the most frightful of natural beings, living without morality or mercy. On the other hand, their behavior is consistently denounced by the other characters as unnatural, since by nature children should respect their parents; but Lear comes eventually to understand that nature is not a concept that can come to his aid. When Goneril asks him why he needs such a large retinue, he replies:
O, reason not the need: our basest beggars
Are in the poorest thing superfluous:
Allow not nature more than nature needs,
Man’s life’s as cheap as beast’s…
And when he sees Edgar in his reduced state as beggar, he laments:
Thou art the thing itself:
unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor bare,
forked animal as thou art.
By the end, he is consumed with misogyny, because he understands the proliferation of life itself as the origin of suffering, and he moreover associates sex (and perforce reproduction) with the devil, king of this world, whose fiends have been plaguing Poor Tom all play:
The wren goes to ‘t, and the small gilded fly
Does lecher in my sight.
Let copulation thrive; for Gloucester’s bastard son
Was kinder to his father than my daughters
Got ‘tween the lawful sheets.
To ‘t, luxury, pell-mell! for I lack soldiers.
Behold yond simpering dame,
Whose face between her forks presages snow;
That minces virtue, and does shake the head
To hear of pleasure’s name;
The fitchew, nor the soiled 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 fiends’;
There’s hell, there’s darkness, there’s the
Burning, scalding, stench, consumption…
Edmund’s deathbed repentance gathers these motifs together when his turn toward goodness takes place in spite of nature:
I pant for life: some good I mean to do,
Despite of mine own nature.
The play’s other major motifs reinforce the point that whatever in us is worthwhile is necessarily out of nature, even out of the phenomenal world. The pervasive references to eyes and vision, culminating in Gloucester’s blinding, suggest that the only way to see truly is with the more-than-earthly eye: “I stumbled when I saw,” says Gloucester. Folly and madness grant insight that the respectable, the worldly, and the “superservicable” do not have, and the riddling fool’s implied spiritual identity with the ethereally good and true Cordelia (“And my poor fool is hang’d!”) reinforces the point. Finally, the need for truth (Kent, Edgar) to disguise itself in a world of false appearance (Goneril, Regan, Edmund), down to the revelatory power of the fool’s punning and jesting as against the mundane impotence of Cordelia’s and Kent’s plain speech, suggests that Lear’s ultimate kingdom is not of this earth.
Still, I have my doubts. The blasted Beckettian heathland where so much of the play is set suggests a nature fundamentally evil, not merely fallen; if Shakespearean comedy is based on an opposition between the corrupt court and the redemptive “green world” (per Northrop Frye), the opposition here is between a rotting civilization and a storm-tormented desert, which is to say that there is no opposition at all. Even the characters can be read against the grain: is Lear, who seems to lived for more than eighty years in a state of imperious arrogance, really “more sinned against than sinning”? is Cordelia’s self-righteousness (“So young, my lord, and true”) not a defect equal to her sisters’ flattery? are Goneril and Regan so wrong to fear their father’s fierce temper and riotous retinue? is Edmund so misguided in hating his callous father? And should we take Shakespeare—loving creator of Portia, Beatrice, Juliet, and Rosalind—to endorse Lear’s staggering and grotesque misogyny? Perhaps discriminating between good and evil is misreading the play’s monstrous cosmos, where quiet endurance is more relevant than morality. On this reading, violence of all kinds—including Lear’s and Kent’s intemperate speech, Cordelia’s quietly self-aggrandizing stubbornness, and the vulgar raillery of Gloucester’s that opens the play—is the sin, repose the salvation (and the only one nature offers):
Our foster-nurse of nature is repose,
The which he lacks; that to provoke in him,
Are many simples operative, whose power
Will close the eye of anguish.
George Orwell, in defending the play against Tolstoy’s religious imprecations, writes, “It is doubtful whether the sense of tragedy is compatible with belief in God,” because “[a] tragic situation exists precisely when virtue does not triumph but when it is still felt that man is nobler than the forces which destroy him.” Tragedy was devised by men who believed that the gods and the universe may be against human beings, but that human beings could attain grandeur in meeting their fate. Oedipus, for example, never had a chance; he was doomed before his birth; but his fearless quest for knowledge and his endurance of his destiny show the gods to be if anything less admirable than such a man. Christianity, by contrast, is a divine comedy; Dante’s damnation of the polytropic questing Ulysses is Christianity’s contemptuous verdict on the tragic temper.
It is less the purged Lear and Gloucester, pleading for universal charity, who seem to speak for the pragmatic playwright than Edgar. The cautious Shakespeare—Orwell, who took a bullet in the throat for his own beliefs, calls him “cowardly”—was very probably a man in disguise himself. A writer of uneasy government propaganda, he kept his true, apparently anarchic, political views to himself by putting them in the mouths of fictional fools and madmen; likewise his religious views, whatever those were or if there were any at all, his family’s apparent Catholic background notwithstanding. Edgar calls not for communism but more modestly declares himself made “pregnant to good pity” by “the art of known and feeling sorrows,” associating his endurance of his travails with knowledge and artifice, those gifts of the poet, rather than moral impulse. “Ripeness is all,” he stoically counsels his father, whom he saves from suicide to suffer a living death. Gloucester, sensing his disguised son’s amoral equivocation (why live just for the sake of life?), equivocally replies, “And that’s true too.” It might be the best response to the devastating vision the play discloses, the wounds it opens that its artifice cannot heal; to return to where we began, its relativistic admission of more than one truth is the insight of Keats’s Shakespeare considered as “chameleon poet,” master of “negative capability”—in short, what Keats understood to be the highest art.