Re-reading Shakespeare: King Lear

(1) Yes, Lear is more sinned against than sinning. But only just. Throughout the twentieth century critics started judging him more harshly, and that’s a turn we may not have seen the back of.

He really doesn’t start off well. We begin with an exercise in flattery, the pre-eminent sin of court life back then (whenever then was) as it is now. Today I think we may be less likely to feel sympathy for the old guy. Lear is a familiar type: enjoying living in a bubble of privilege maintained by his wealth, power, and celebrity. In olden days this was an exalted condition pretty much exclusive to royalty. The monarch or lord of the manor could surround himself with people who would only tell him what he wanted to hear. When, late in the play, Lear complains that “they told me I was everything: ‘tis a lie, I am not ague-proof,” he seems doubly shocked in a way that’s startling. Is he put out because his courtiers lied to him, or to find that he is not ague-proof? Either way, he must have been pretty far gone to have put any stock in such flattery. Admittedly he’s quite old, and has probably lived in this bubble his entire life, but still. I think today the lesson would be the familiar one (to us) that you’re in trouble when you start believing in your own publicity.

Then again, why not? If you have enough money you can afford to buy your own version of reality. Lear’s house, Lear’s rules. It’s wrong to think of Lear as being entirely foolish here. He has a plan for the succession, it’s just that he’s not used to being crossed. Then the problems start when the plan comes apart in a way he hadn’t anticipated. The illusion machine stops being greased and the posse of riotous retainers instantly disappears. This is the madness that Lear fears: not that the world will stop making sense but that his world will stop making sense, will indeed fall to pieces.

This strikes me as being a message that’s still very much relevant to our own time, and one that’s just as disturbing today to think about. Put simply: wouldn’t it be better to maintain the illusion, even knowing it to be all a lie, and self-awareness be damned? This is the lesson of Plato’s parable of the cave. We all live in a world of make-believe, after all. Cordelia is just ruining it for everyone, and upsetting Lear’s actually rather careful plans for the succession, by not playing along.

This gets to the question of how much Lear actually believes in all of this court bullshit. “Thy truth then be thy dower,” is how he condemns Cordelia. I wonder if “thy truth” is related to what we mean today when we say people speak “their truth.” In any event, he’s saying that if that’s the way she wants to play it then she doesn’t get a cookie. So much for the truth. Cornwall is even more cynical when faced with Kent’s plain speaking:

This is some fellow
Who, having been praised for bluntness, doth affect
A saucy roughness, and constrains the garb
Quite from his nature. He cannot flatter, he:
An honest mind and plain, he must speak truth!
And they will take it, so: if not, he’s plain.
These kind of knaves I know, which in this plainness
Harbour more craft and more corrupter ends
Than twenty silly ducking observants
That stretch their duties nicely.

This actually echoes something Lear says in the first scene where he refers to Cordelia’s “pride, which she calls plainness,” but takes it even further. I wonder what’s worse: to not believe that people can speak truth, or to rage against it when they do? Cornwall’s way of thinking is more dangerous to the social order because nobody can be trusted (except to lie out of self-interest), while Lear’s is more dangerous to himself because it leaves him exposed when reality comes knocking. Either way, I think Lear comes off looking worse. He’s a spoiled old fool in the first act, and even out on the heath seems a bit too much like a child having a tantrum. Someone who rides on a tiger can never dismount, and if you live in a bubble you can never leave.

(2) Why so much interest in sexual matters, expressed in such lurid terms? This doesn’t seem to me to be a play about sexual passion at all. The only lusty ones on stage are the “murderous lechers” Goneril and Regan, and their feelings toward Edmund are not reciprocated as he’s indifferent to which of them he’ll end up with. But then there’s Edgar. As Poor Tom he implies, I think, that he’s lost his mind to syphilis, his downfall the result of having lived a life of dissolution (one who “slept in the contriving of lust, and waked to do it”). This is also connected indirectly to Gloucester. When Edgar reveals himself to Edmund at the end he says that “The dark and vicious place where thee he got [that is, where Gloucester begot Edmund, presumably in a brothel] / Cost him his eyes.” This may be another indirect nod to syphilis but it’s also just Edgar being moralistic again and looking to find some way to interpret what happened to Gloucester as effect following cause. I don’t think we need to follow his lead and draw the conclusion that some critics do: that Gloucester’s blindness is the wages of sin (in his case the physical sin of lechery). But aside from Edmund having been begotten between unlawful sheets some twenty or more years earlier where else is Gloucester’s lechery in evidence? This isn’t Ibsen’s Ghosts. (Marjorie Garber is one critic who has it in for Gloucester, saying that he has “been established in the play as the ‘old lecher’.” But the words “old lecher” are only a bit of figurative language used by the Fool and are not necessarily directed at Gloucester.)

Lear is more direct and forceful in his language, raging right up to the end about animal lechery. Below the waistline there’s only hell: “there’s darkness, there is the sulphurous burning, scalding, stench, consumption. Fie, fie, fie! Pah, pah!” This reminds me of Hamlet always being distracted by thoughts of his mother and Claudius romping in incestuous sheets (he even repeats the “Fie on’t! O fie!”). Hamlet’s father has to warn him about tainting his mind in this way. But to return to what bugs me: we expect this kind of language from Othello given the kind of things Iago is whispering in his ear, and even to some extent Hamlet, but why does Lear go down this road?

Such imaginings are the ravings of an unbalanced mind. Hamlet and Lear are getting carried away and finding in the language of runaway lust a sort of mental release valve. Claudius, Goneril, and Regan are villains who need to get their comeuppance, but their greatest sins aren’t lechery (and there’s no indication Lear is aware of his daughters’ chasing after Edmund anyway). Hamlet thinks Claudius a satyr but there’s little to no evidence for that, and he even acknowledges that the heyday of his mother’s blood is tame and humble so that she isn’t being driven by her hormones. Hamlet’s the only one who sees things in these terms, just as Lear is. And in many ways I find Lear’s raging about sex even stranger. I saw an interview with Ian McKellen where he was talking about playing Lear and musing over the same thing. He likened it to his elderly mother-in-law’s fascination with sex just before she died, and found it to be true of other old people as well. Is there anything more to it than that? Perhaps not. In any event, I don’t think Shakespeare wants us to believe that bad people are all bad in the same predictable, bestial ways.

(3) In a footnote in his book on Shakespearean Tragedy A. C. Bradley dips a toe into the matter of linking Shakespeare’s biography to the writing of King Lear and draws the following tentative conclusion: “Shakespeare during these years was probably not a happy man, and it is quite likely that he felt at times even an intense melancholy, bitterness, contempt, anger, possibly even loathing and despair.”

Shakespeare changed his sources to give the play its unhappy ending, one that mocks the idea of poetic justice. This was so shocking and ahead of its time that for a couple of hundred years it had to be cleaned up. But it was obviously quite deliberate because that notion of poetic or divine justice is directly invoked only to be slapped down again and again. This really was a point Shakespeare was insisting on.

I don’t think Shakespeare believed in poetic justice outside of what would play well. He seems to have had a cynical view of how justice works. It crops up here in several places. Lear himself talks about how if “change places, and handy-dandy, which is the justice, which is the thief?” Only “Place sins with gold / And the strong lance of justice hurtless breaks.” Goneril has learned well from her father, and when confronted by Albany with proof of her own evil she can be dismissive: “the laws are mine, not thine: Who can arraign me for’t.” That’s not a question.

Justice, like truth, is something everybody expects can be bought.


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