Friday, May 15, 2009

King Lear: That Way Madness Lies

Handsome, witty, powerful and rich, Lear has lived in this world for
eighty years with scarcely a thing to vex him. The one thing he
does not have is a son. He has three handsome daughters who 
who love him dearly, or so he thinks. Each is about to receive, as
dowry, roughly a third of his kingdom.

There is nothing that Lear will not do for his daughters. They have
only to ask, to receive. If happiness is defined in Hobbes’ terms as
continuing success in getting what one wants, whatever that may be,
Lear’s family ought to be almost perfectly happy. And it would be, but
for one common flaw. Lear does not love his children equally or
in quite the same way, nor do they all love him. It is not necessarily a
tragic flaw. Such inequalities are bound to happen.  

Lear has a favorite child, his youngest in this case, whom he openly
favors over the others. It’s an old story, told and retold in folk tales
the world over: a beautiful youngest daughter with a couple of proud,
mean, older sisters. The folk tales don’t explain what makes the third
daughter so special, aside from her beauty and goodness, but the reason
may readily be guessed. The first two daughters are slighted
because they are not sons, for a son is necessary if the family is to hold
on to its property and win honor in the world. These daughters become
resentful and mean. By the time the third daughter comes along, the
parents are reconciled to their fate. This child gets the love and affection
denied to the others. Cordelia, perhaps, is such a child.

Lear loves her as he does not love Regan and Goneril: unconditionally,
for herself alone as we say, with no strings attached. Or so he
thinks and so does everyone else. Her share of the kingdom, as everyone
knows, is to be larger and more opulent than her sisters’. Their
relationship with their father is both simpler and more complicated
than hers: there are hidden strings, implicit conditions. His love has
a price-tag, and so does theirs. He pretends to love his eldest
daughters by giving them money and things, and they pretend to love
him in return by giving him gratitude.

What Regan and Goneril have chiefly learned from their father is
hypocrisy. They understand their hypocritical relationship with their father very well,
but he does not. He knows that he does not feel toward his eldest
daughters what he feels for Cordelia, but he thinks it is just a difference
of degree, not of kind. Lear, in other words, does not understand
himself any better than he understands others. He is, as his daughters
have learned from the experience of a lifetime, a man who “has ever
but slenderly known himself.” And that’s not all. As the Fool’s mockery
will also show, he is entirely lacking in common sense. He is, in
short, a bit of a fool.

A fool—the real thing, that is—is someone who won’t listen to
advice and keeps making the same stupid mistakes. So it is with Lear.
You can teach him but you can’t teach him much. And one of the
things that he will never learn is that he is just a man who happens to
be a king: an extraordinarily powerful man who has been deceiving
himself in some ordinary ways.

Lear wants to retire from the business of kingship without actually
giving up real power, and he thinks he knows how to do it. He will set
up the two daughters whom he does not particularly care about in
carefully balanced dukedoms, and live out his days with the daughter
he loves in the largest and most powerful part of his kingdom. It is a
rational plan and it could have worked, at least for a while.
Unfortunately for Lear and everyone else, he can’t leave well
enough alone. The scheme has an element of arbitrariness which he
finds demeaning, perhaps, or he shrinks from making a public
acknowledgement of the fact that affairs of state are being driven by
his personal needs instead of impersonal justice. At the last minute,
catching everyone by surprise, Lear tries to give his fiat the appearance
at least of due process:

Tell me, my daughters....
Which of you shall we say doth love us most,
That we our largest bounty may extend
Where nature doth with merit challenge? I.1.53
Though the meaning of “nature” here is uncertain—natural affection
or the natural priority to be accorded to the first born, or both—
Lear’s intent seems clear. What had been settled is now up for grabs.
Merit, not his own feelings or primogeniture, is to determine which
daughter gets the largest piece, and the daughter who loves him most
is to be deemed most meritorious. It is, obviously, an absurd proposal.
Only a man who knows nothing about love would propose to measure
it in this way—or suppose that it could be measured at all; only a
man who knows nothing about justice, or himself, would presume to
judge such a case. And indeed the appearance of fairness and due
process is bogus. As we are about to learn, Lear already knows, or
thinks he knows, that Cordelia will win this contest hands-down. And
so does everyone else, including Lear’s eldest daughters. They don’t
object because they never have. The hypocrisy of Lear’s scheme is perfectly
transparent to them, but that’s nothing new.

The only people present who are unaware of Lear’s hypocrisy are
Cordelia and Lear, and this fact tells us something important about the
emotional economy he has unconsciously established over the years in
his own family, or rather with his two eldest daughters. Merit, for
them, has always been defined and rewarded in this way: they have
played their role as meritorious, i.e., loving daughters and Lear has
played his as loving father by giving them things—clothes, horses,
money, property, whatever.

That is why Lear’s test in the first scene presents no difficulties for
Regan and Goneril: this is what they have been doing all their lives.
They know their father does not love them and never has. They know
it doesn’t matter what any of them say. They have only to play their
accustomed role, say something that sounds good, and draw their 
predetermined shares of the kingdom.

The happiness of Lear’s happy family has always been a somewhat
theatrical illusion, and nothing has ever happened to destroy it, until
now. For Cordelia has had a different relationship with her father. For
reasons which are always mysterious, something went right between
them. They haven’t had to pretend to love each other. So she has
observed her sisters’ relationship with Lear from the outside, without
entirely understanding it. It is obvious to her that they have been pretending
to love Lear, but not that he has been pretending to love them,
which is why she does not know that Lear’s test is bogus. And since
he doesn’t know it either, the stage is set, as it were, for a violent confrontation:
Lear’s unlimited egoism against Cordelia's demand for absolute sincerity.
Since sincerity is impossible under the terms of Lear’s test, 
violence is inevitable.

Called upon suddenly to play a role in the same theater that her sisters
have been acting in all their lives, she rebels; called to account for
her rebellion, she exposes and destroys the illusion that Lear and his
eldest daughters have tacitly perpetuated. Since he has always been a
self-deceiver as well as an egoist, he sees Cordelia’s rebellion as
betrayal, and betrayal in a royal family is close to treason, which is
how Lear chooses to take it. Then everything falls apart. As S. L.
Goldberg finely remarks, “once Cordelia refuses to play any role at all,
the current sweeps everyone out among the immediate, but still halfsubmerged
dangers of real emotions.”

Real emotions have been rare in the royal household. At first Lear
feels exhilerated and liberated by his rage. Facts, consequences are
suddenly immaterial to him. He feels lifted out of his ordinary trivial
self. The fact that the object of his rage is the person he loves best in
all the world is, for the moment, a trifle; once off on his rampage he’s
unstoppable. And that perhaps is why the audience too is carried
away, against its better judgment. We, too, are overwhelmed by the
poetry of rage. For the moment at least, Lear seems omnipotent as he
summons all that is sacred and mysterious in nature to witness and
approve his last official act as a divinely appointed King: disinheritance
in its most radical form. This is not a legal but a sacramental act.
Not only is Cordelia not to inherit his property, she won’t even
have his genes.

Let it be so: thy truth then be thy dow’r!
For by the sacred radiance of the sun,
The mysteries of Hecat and the night;
By all the operation of the orbs,
From whom we exist and cease to be;
Here I disclaim all my paternal care,
Propinquity and property of blood,
And as a stranger to my heart and me
Hold thee from this for ever. I.1.116

A breath-taking claim of authority—even God can’t control heredity or
the past. And it gets better later (in I.4) when Lear calls upon nature,
that “dear goddess,” to sterilize Goneril—or, if that’s not possible and
she must teem, make her bear that ultimate infant monstrosity, a
thankless child.

Lear’s passionate outbursts against his children are clearly
over the top, as we would say, the punishments he demands 
don’t even begin to fit the crime. So extreme, indeed, are the 
punishments that Lear calls down on his daughters and so 
extraordinary the supernatural power he lays claim to, that he
throws the possibility of such power into doubt. With that doubt
comes doubt about the supernatural beings he is calling upon.

If Lear does not have the power he thinks he has, no one else does
either. One’s doubts about Lear and his gods extend to all the other
gods addressed or prayed to in this play, and there are a quite a few of
them. Just as Lear’s curses never take effect, except in ways which he
does not intend, so no prayer is ever answered. The most pointedly
unanswered prayer of all is Albany’s, “The gods defend her
[Cordelia]”(V.3.257) which is followed instantly by Lear’s entrance
with the dead Cordelia in his arms.

King Lear is haunted,” says Stephen Greenblatt, “by a sense of rituals
and beliefs that are no longer efficacious, that have been emptied
out. The characters appeal again and again to the pagan gods, but the
gods remain silent. Nothing answers human questions but
human voices; nothing breeds about the heart but human desires;
nothing inspires awe or terror but human suffering, human depravity.
For all the invocations of the gods in King Lear, it is clear that there
are no devils.” 

The play is also haunted by doubt, a doubt more radical than anything
in Montaigne’s Essays. It is a doubt about the foundations of human
existence: the possibility that none of things we care about—
love, justice, decency, the virtues that make it possible for people 
to live together in stable communities—are grounded in anything, 
that neither god nor nature underwrites our morality or our civilizations.

“Nothing” is the key word in this play: it is dinned into our ears, a
desperate, dismal refrain. The door that this key opens leads, as you
might expect, nowhere. Nothing can be made of nothing. We know
nothing, we are nothing, we count for nothing. There’s nothing out
there, no one is listening to our prayers or curses. Though it is natural
for people to believe in gods and demons, such beliefs are never
efficacious. You can call upon your gods and spirits and people do, all
the time, but the question is, as Hotspur ironically remarks, will they

Nothing is what Lear learns about himself. He knows he has made
some extraordinarily stupid mistakes, but he has no idea how he came
to make them. He dies beside his three dead daughters knowing as little
about himself and them as he ever knew: nothing. When Cordelia
says “nothing”, in response to his foolish demand that she should, in
effect, sing for her supper, he wilfully misunderstands her. In death, at
the end of the play, she is still saying nothing and he is still missing
the point.

The job of the professional fool is to make people laugh. He is supposed
to be funny. Tragic heroes are not supposed to be funny, but
Lear is. As G. Wilson Knight showed long ago, he is a hero who is
often unintentionally comic—unlike Hamlet and Cleopatra, say, who
are very witty people and usually know what they are doing when they
are being funny. Lear, who almost never knows what he is doing, is
frequently absurd, especially when he is complaining about his
ungrateful daughters. That ungainly word, “ingratitude,” will not bear
the weight of moral meaning that Lear keeps trying to give it. When
our words betray us by refusing to do what we want them to do, the
effect can be comic as well as absurd.

Ingratitude, thou marble-hearted fiend,
More hideous when thou show’st thee in a child
Than the sea-monster! I.4.261

Ingratitude is not fiendish but common and ordinary, even natural,
and an ungrateful child is not more hideous than a sea-monster—a
grotesque idea. Gratitude is the state or condition of being grateful or
thankful for benefits and favors received. Lear wants Goneril to learn,
should she ever have a child despite his curse,
How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is
To have a thankless child! I.4.289

 The quality of love, as Portia says of mercy, is not strained or
forced. We cannot force ourselves to love others or oblige them to love
us. Love is not an obligation and cannot like a debt be paid or collected.
It is disinterested or it is nothing and it can’t be quantified or measured,
as Lear tries to do. What is it exactly? Don’t ask if you want a straight 
answer. Sonnet 116 calls it an ever-fixed mark

That looks on tempest and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wand’ring bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his heighth be taken.

Something to chart a course by even if you don’t know what it is, a
source of value whose value can’t be measured. The more you try to
define it the vaguer it becomes; measure it and it disappears. To which one must also
add: the more you think about it, the less you understand. Love is like
wisdom: if you think you are wise, you probably aren’t. If you think
your love for another is perfect, it probably isn’t. It is easier to call love
an ever-fixed mark than to find it or hit it. The sonnet admits impediments
in the very words that rule them out. By protesting too much,
it shows us how hard it is to be clear about love. No wonder we are all

Lear’s is not the only family, by any means, to confuse love and
money, by measuring the one in terms of the other. We remove price
tags from Christmas and birthday gifts so as not to fall into that confusion—
only to fall with a louder crash, perhaps, when larger expenditures
are being considered. What is unusual about Lear’s family is
the blind stubborness with which it persists in its confusions.

Lear’s reiterated howls about the “ingratitude” of his daughters and
the comic disproportion between his rage and its object ought to show
us not only that something is wrong but that Lear knows something
is wrong. If ingratitude is a vice, it is a minor one, of slight importance
except as a sign that something else is missing. But Lear won’t go
behind this word and name the thing that’s missing because he knows
why it’s missing. He never loved anyone but himself, until Cordelia
came along. He made Regan and Goneril into the hard, cold, proud
women that they have become.

These words, “gratitude” and its opposite, “ingratitude,” are also
(like “nothing”) key words, and the door they unlock leads straight
into the private apartments of this royal family.It is in some important
respects a rather ordinary family. Lear’s confusions are widely
shared. Just as he is no different from other men in his egoism and
blindness, so his family is like many other families in the value it puts
on wealth and power, and in the way it confuses things that can be
measured, like money and gratitude, with things that can’t.

Unfortunately for Lear and everyone else in his kingdom, these are
matters that he cannot or will not take in. Even when the stark facts
of who he is and what he has done stare him in the face and he is
being prompted by a man who knows what it means to be a nobody
and a nothing in this world—the Fool—he refuses to see himself as the
self-deceiver he is and always has been. He’d rather go mad, and does.

When Edmund acclaims Nature as his goddess, at the beginning of I.2,
he is redefining the word “nature” in order to define himself as an outlaw:

Thou, Nature, art my goddess; to thy law
My services are bound. Wherefore should I
Stand in the plague of custom, and permit
The curiosity of nations to deprive me?
For that I am some twelve or fourteen moonshines
Lag of a brother? Why bastard? Wherefore base? I.2.6

The laws of nature, in the Christian philosophical tradition, are
God’s laws. Customs, morality and statutary law are grounded in
Natural Law which included the principles of ethics as well as physics.
Edmund is jettisoning the entire Natural Law tradition as so much useless
baggage; what’s left is a view of Nature as an amoral, Darwinian realm
where only strength, cunning and speed count, and only the strong, 
the cunning and the quick survive. His motives are obvious: as an illegitimate
as well as younger son he cannot inherit his father’s estate. Well, he
thinks, I’m just as good as my brother—maybe better, since my begetting
was more natural—so why should I allow myself to be fobbed off
by some foolish laws and custom? Since I am by definition an outsider,
that’s what I’ll be. I’ll take what I want. I will make my own laws
and my laws will be Nature’s laws. As an amoral being, Edmund is
merely doing, he thinks, what comes naturally. Nature is rough and
lecherous and so is he.

Edmund is not a bastard because he is a bastard but because his
father not only treats him as one but jokes about it. Edmund’s education,
therefore, closely parallels that of Regan and Goneril: they are all
three hard-hearted opportunists, not because of some bad seed, and
not because of the stars, but because that is what their experience as
children of Lear and Gloucester has taught them to be. Villains are not
born but made, which is nice to know but doesn’t take us very far.

How are they made? Why do some of us jump at the chance to
become unconscionable rogues and rascals while others resist temptation
and remain true to their beliefs? That is one of the many questions
that Lear addresses once he has rid himself of his supposedly
rational mind. “Let them anatomize Regan,” he says, presiding as
judge and jury over the kangaroo court he has convened for the trial
of his hard-hearted daughters. “See what breeds about her heart. Is
there any cause in nature that make these hard hearts?” (III.6.75)

Who does “them” refer to? Not traditional moralists like Thomas
Hooker for instance, but anatomists like Vesalius and his many students
and followers who were trying to understand the anatomical
machinery of the heart. William Harvey had recently returned, in
1603, from his studies in Padua, the leading center for anatomical
research. He was the scientist who would change medical science forever
with his discovery that the heart is a pump. London was not a
huge city, and Shakespeare, who was certainly not a nobody in 1603,
knew his way around. He would have had many opportunities to hear
about the latest findings in this field.
The scientific naturalism of Lear’s question excludes theological or
supernatural causes, though of course he doesn’t know that. Whatever
is breeding about Regan’s heart, it is not the sort of thing that an
anatomist could identify: a malignant tumor, say.

Lear’s is a naive question, to be sure, as naive in its way as Macbeth’s
demand that his doctor should “cast the water of my land, find her disease,
and purge it to a sound and pristine health.” (IV.3.50-52) Both
Lear’s question and Macbeth’s demand reflect, ironically, back on the
speaker. Macbeth is the disease that afflicts Scotland, and nothing
breeds about Regan’s heart but human desires and human resentments,
for which Lear and Lear alone is responsible.

As the passionate intensity of the first scene dissipates, we are left
alone with these sisters and daughters as they comment coldly and
lucidly on their father's mindless rampage.

Gon. You see how full of changes his age is; the observation
that we have made of it hath not been little. He always lov’d
our sister most, and with what poor judgment he hath now
cast her off appears too grossly.
Reg. ’Tis the infirmity of his age, yet he hath ever but slenderly
known himself.
Gon. The best and soundest of his time hath been but rash;
then must we look from his age to receive not alone the imperfections
of long-ingraff’d condition, but therewithal the unruly
waywardness that infirm and choleric years bring with them.
These young women know Lear through and through. The poor judgment
he has shown in the first scene is obviously nothing new but
rooted, “ingraff'd,” in his character. Knowing him, they predict that he
will be a difficult and troublesome guest in their households, and they
are right.

The problem Lear presents is simple enough, but not in a way that
he is able to appreciate: though he is no longer king, he insists on living
as if he were. But keeping a retinue of a hundred men in food,
drink, and lodging would tax the resources of any household, even a
duke’s, nor is it to be supposed that any such group of men would not
include a few drunks, lechers and hot-heads. Provocations, on both
sides, would be only too easy to find.

While it is clear that Goneril wishes to provoke a quarrel, we have
no reason to suppose that she has nothing to quarrel about. Let us
watch this one as it builds. The language Goneril uses as she addresses
her father on this occasion is deliberately provocative:

Not only, sir, this your all-licensed Fool,
But other of your insolent retinue
Do hourly carp and quarrel, breaking forth
In rank and not-to-be-endur’d riots. Sir,
I had thought by making this well known unto you
To have found a safe redress, but now grow fearful,
By what yourself too late have spoke and done,
That you protect this course, and put it on
By your allowance; which if you should, the fault
Would not ’scape censure, nor the redresses sleep,
Which, in the tender of a wholesome weal,
Might in their working do you that offense,
Which else were shame, that then necessity
Will call discreet proceeding. I.4.214

What’s most offensive to Lear is Goneril’s tone of official reproof: in
her voice he hears the hard, impersonal voice of the state, reminding him
that he is not a king any more and should act accordingly. He knows
that voice; it was his own voice, upon occasion, not so long ago. None
of the Fool’s warnings, earlier in the scene, have prepared him for this
humiliation: forced to endure an official tongue-lashing and thinly
veiled threat of real force from someone who had heretofore been happily
dependent on his whims and largesse.

It is now Lear’s turn to offend and, being Lear, he makes the most
of it by becoming not less but more theatrical, more histrionic, more

Does any here know me? This is not Lear.
Does Lear walk thus? speak thus? Where are his eyes?
Either his notion weakens, his discernings
Are lethargied—Ha! Waking? ’Tis not so.
Who is it that can tell me who I am? I.4.230
Goneril has committed the unpardonable sin of addressing him as if he
were an ordinary person, so he pretends to believe he no longer knows
who he is—as if he ever did—and he implies that it is her impertinence
that has caused this catastrophic loss of identity. Fragile identity! But
he does not say any of this directly. Ignoring her, he appeals over her
head to an imaginary but of course very real audience, and we fall for
it. Every audience of which we have any record sides with Lear in this
family squabble. It is not hard to see why: Lear is an impossible person, 
but Goneril will soon become less like a person and more like a creature 
of essentially feral appetites, i.e. more natural, in Edmund’s sense
of that word. Our knowledge of this later development is typically 
fed back into our response to this scene.

Lear is an unusually intemperate man. Whether this has always
been the case or he has merely become more rash and choleric with
age is not entirely clear. The fact that no one is prepared for rage in the
first scene suggests that he has not always been so unpredictable. Yet
even with his absurd denunciation of Cordelia ringing in our ears, we
may not be prepared for the extraordinary violence of the curse he calls
down on Goneril—this “detested kite”:

Hear, Nature, hear, dear goddess hear!
Suspend thy purpose, if thou didst intend
To make this creature fruitful.
Into her womb convey sterility,
Dry up in her the organs of increase . . . I.4.279

No one likes being cursed, and Lear’s curses are especially malevolent
since he believes that he can, by his words, bend Nature to his will.
Little does he know. His words do not have the power he thinks they
have, but they do have power: the power to madden and infuriate, to
bring about the hardness of heart that he blames his oldest daughters
for. It’s only natural that, forced to listen to his verbal abuse, their hearts
should get even harder. As the play quite carefully shows us, they are a 
work in progress.

Perhaps Lear has always been a man of words, not deeds. When words
fail him and he runs out of curses, he learns how weak he really is:

No, you unnatural hags,
I will have such revenges on you both
That all the world shall—I will do such things—
What they are, yet I know not, but they shall be
The terrors of the earth! You think I’ll weep:
No, I’ll not weep:
I have full cause of weeping, but this heart
Storm and tempest.
Shall break into a hundred thousand flaws
Or ere I’ll weep. O Fool, I shall go mad. II.4.286

Weeping, he thinks, is what you do when you can’t do anything
else. Tears are a sign of weakness, and to be weak is miserable. Lear
would rather do anything than let himself be pushed around by his
daughters and he would rather go mad than admit that he might be in
the wrong. “I shall go mad,” says he to the Fool and the ambiguity of
that “shall” tells us that he is making a choice as well as a prediction.

Lear is not forced out into the storm; he leaves of his own free
will—which doesn’t mean that his daughters aren’t glad to see him go.
If it weren’t for the fact that he is going out into the storm of the century,
their indifference would be entirely understandable.

The storm that Lear flees into may be Shakespeare’s most complicated
theatrical event. While it is a real storm it is also a Chinese box of
metaphors: for the rage that even Lear with his immense rhetorical
resources can no longer express, much less understand, for the madness
that he fears and seeks, for political and moral anarchy as he and
his kingdom disintegrate, and the state returns to the state of nature.
Yet through it all it is he, his voice, his poetry and not the storm we
hear. For Lear is the maker of this storm as he is also the maker of the
political storm which is about to tear his kingdom apart. A man who
can make storms is no ordinary man—he really is, or is like, a force of
nature. Yet at the same time he is humanized by it, brought back into
a human scale. He realizes that he can’t “out-storm” the storm and he
realizes that he is not alone in his sufferings; there are lots of people
who are worse off than he.

At first Lear welcomes the storm as if it were the answer to his
prayers, the thing he couldn’t find words for when he was impotently
threatening to bring down upon his daughters “the terrors of the
earth.” So at first the intemperance of his curses exceeds all measure:
the curse of sterility that he had earlier called down on Goneril has
been extended to all of nature. And for what? For creating people who
are capable of what he regards as the sin of sins, ingratitude.

Strike flat the thick rotundity o’ th’ world!
Crack nature’s moulds, all germains spill at once
That makes ingrateful man! III.2.9

This ought to be funny and would be if the audience weren’t almost as
confused as Lear is. The disproportion between curse and object is so
startling, perhaps, that we can’t take it in.

Maybe it even startles Lear, for this thought is quickly followed by
the common-sense reflection that he has no power over the elements
because he never did anything for them. Since wind and rain owe him
nothing, he has nothing to complain about. Nature is just doing its
thing, so let it blow, let it pour. But since Lear is perfectly certain that
he is being needlessly abused, his feelings constantly veer off into

Self-pity is incompatible with self-knowledge. It is also boring.
Since Lear is incapable of self-knowledge, he has to pity someone else
if he is not to bore the audience. While it is an important moment
when Lear’s “wits begin to turn” and he notices that he is not alone,
his wits never turn inward to examine himself. He notices and takes
pity on the Fool, it seems, so he won’t have to look at himself. Indeed,
he deliberately turns away from any such confrontation.

In such a night as this? O Regan, Goneril!
Your old kind father, whose frank heart gave all—
O, that way madness lies, let me shun that!
No more of that. (III.4.22)

No more of what? What is the direction and line of thought that leads
to madness? Does it not lead straight back from his self-pity to the lie
he has been living? He can’t finish his thought about his frank heart
because he knows it isn’t true. His heart was not frank and did not
give all—not, at any rate, to his eldest daughters.

Why does he think the truth, about what his frank heart did or did
not give, might drive him mad? And what does he mean by madness?
The question brings a further paradox of the play into view: when
Lear is rational he is mad. No one can tell him anything. Cross him and
he flies into a rage. No one is safe even, or especially, those he loves.
As his wits begin to “turn” and reason loses its grip, he becomes more
receptive to new ideas and experiences than he has ever been before.
He begins to acquire an oddly childish kind of sanity.

One part of himself begins to take an interest in the people around
him, as we have just seen, in his lines to the Fool: “Come on, my boy.
How dost, my boy? Art cold? I am cold myself.” He sees him as a
person like himself for the first time in the play. Now that he is wet,
cold and homeless, it occurs to him that he is not the only one, that
there are many others in the same predicament and always have been.
Another part begins to think about the fact that the world of the have-nots
is always invisible to the haves.

The meeting of Lear and Edgar, aka Poor Tom, is comic and intricately
connected with the rest of the play. It is the moment when an important
and interesting side of Lear, his thoughtful, even philosophical
side, a side that had heretofore been suppressed, begins to emerge and
flower. It is also a moment that brings out Lear’s endless talent for
self-absorption: a trait that he shares with the rest of us and one that
comedians and satirists take endless delight in. 

At first, Lear can only see Poor Tom as an analogue of himself, a 
fellow sufferer and victim: “Didst thou give all to thy daughters?” 
he asks, “And art thou come to this?” (III.4.50) Lear’s logic is 
crazy, comic, and apt. It’s as if he has discovered a law of nature: 
all fathers who give their all to their daughters end up with nothing, 
as homeless madmen; Poor Tom is almost naked, as well as homeless
and mad; therefore he must have given all to his daughters. When Kent
explains that Poor Tom has no daughters, Lear replies indignantly:

Death, traitor! nothing could have subdu’d nature
To such a lowness but his unkind daughters. III.4.71

What we know and Kent does not is that Lear is right—or at any rate
a lot closer to the truth, in his madness, than rational Kent. Edgar’s
case is indeed analogous to Lear’s. Both are victims of filial ingratitude,
and both are victims of paternal intemperance and stupidity.

His first idea is that Poor Tom must be a victim, like himself, of
unkind daughters, his second that he is doing penance for the sin of
having begotten such daughters in the first place:

Is it the fashion that discarded fathers
Should have thus little mercy on their flesh?
Judicious punishment! ’twas this flesh begot
Those pelican daughters. III.4.75

This line of thought will resurface later when Edgar will say to
Edmund, “The dark and vicious place where thee he [Gloucester] got/
Cost him his eyes.” (V.3.174) At this moment, however, Lear is driven
mainly by curiosity, not guilt: he asks Tom to tell his story. It is a
simple but significant change: his first impulse had been to impose his
own story on Tom.

Lear. What hast thou been?
Edg. A servingman! proud in heart and mind; that curl’d my
hair; wore gloves in my cap; serv’d the lust of my mistress’
heart, and did the act of darkness with her; swore as many
oaths as I spake words, and broke them in the sweet face of
heaven: one that slept in the contriving of lust, and wak’d to
do it. Wine lov’d I deeply, dice dearly, and in woman out-paramour’d
the Turk. False of heart, light of ear, bloody of hand;
hog in sloth, fox in stealth, wolf in greediness, dog in madness,
lion in prey. Let not the creaking of shoes nor the
rustling of silks betray thy poor heart to woman. Keep thy foot
out of brothels, thy hand out of plackets, thy pen from lender’s
books, and defy the foul fiend. III.4.98

Edgar has a talent for deception and camouflage. As Poor Tom, he conjures
this bogus autobiography out of nothing, out of thin air. Who is
this “servingman, proud in heart and mind,” who served the lust of his
mistress’ heart and “did the act of darkness with her”? Well, Edmund
for one, though neither Edgar nor the audience know it yet. But why
is the life of a licentious servingman the one that Edgar chooses for
Poor Tom? Because no gentleman could possibly end up as a naked,
crazy beggar who had once been a servant. No one would suspect that
he could have so declassed himself: Edgar is unrecognizable as Poor
Tom because, as Lear himself has just realized, people like that—beggars
and madmen—are invisible to the upper classes.
Edgar’s story makes for interesting contrasts and parallels with
Lear’s: his pretended madness with Lear’s real madness, his fictional
punishment over against the real punishment that is being meted out
to Lear. More important, Lear’s story, as Lear understands it, is no
truer than Edgar’s: “ingratitude” explains as much or as little as “the
foul fiend.” The foul fiend who is responsible for Edgar’s predicament
is his brother Edmund; the foul fiend who is responsible for Lear’s is
himself. The ingratitude of his daughters is only the proximate cause
of his misfortunes.

There may or may not be devils who punish sins, but it is a certainty
that there are none in this play, a point underscored later on by
Edgar’s tall tale to his father about the fiend that led him—tempted
him—to the edge of the cliff at Dover and the “clearest Gods” who
saved him. Poor old credulous Gloucester, mocked in different ways by each of
his sons, is no more deluded than Lear, who has always deluded himself.
This is a play that insists, in various ways, on being read naturalistically,
and Gloucester’s sons, each in his different way and for different
reasons, assert human responsibility. Edmund is a scoundrel
but he is right about the foppery of the world in general and his
father’s in particular. We are what we are because of what we have
made of ourselves, and others.

While Lear sees the Fool as a person for the first time, he does not
see Edgar; he is hardly able to see Poor Tom, and when he asks, “What
hast thou been?” he is not the least bit interested in his answer. What
interests him instead is his nakedness.

Thou were better in a grave than to answer with thy uncover’d
body this extremity of the skies. Is man no more than this?
Consider him well. Thou ow’st the worm no silk, the beast no
hide, the sheep no wool, the cat no perfume. Ha? here’s three
on’s are sophisticated; thou art 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.III.4.109

Why does Lear feel compelled to imitate Tom’s example? Why is he
suddenly ashamed to be wearing clothes? Tom, he thinks, is the real
thing, human nature in its purest state. We with our clothes on are
inauthentic by comparison, “sophisticated” in the original sense of
impure, adulterated. What’s this all about?

Lear is picking up on a line of thought that seems to have originated
in his earlier argument (in II.4) with Goneril and Regan about the
size of his little army of knights. Tom, in his nakedness, reminds Lear
of what he himself had said to his daughters about their gorgeous
clothes—which barely cover their (sexy?) nakedness—in defense of
his own irrational need for one of the symbols, at least, of sovereignty.
What do you need so many knights for? they ask:

Gon. Hear me, my Lord:
What need you five-and-twenty? ten? or five?
To follow in a house where twice so many
Have a command to tend you?
Reg. What need one? II.4.263

Lear replies that once the necessities of life have been accounted for,
none of the things we think we need can be rationally justified; the
question his daughters have aimed at the size of his train could equally
well be aimed at the fine clothes they are wearing (or not wearing).

O, reason not the need! our basest beggars
Are in the poorest thing superfluous.
Allow not nature more than nature needs,
Man’s life is cheap as beast’s. Thou art a lady;
If only to go warm were gorgeous,
Why, nature needs not what thou gorgeous wear’st,
Which scarcely keeps thee warm. But, for true need—
You Heavens, give me that patience, patience I need!

Lear’s train of thought breaks off because he doesn’t know where it is
heading, and anyway he has a more urgent problem to think about:
how is he to endure what his daughters obviously have in mind, to cut
him down to size by reducing him to the level of a private citizen?
Since this process is unendurable to Lear, like being skinned alive,
patience is not much of a defense and the rest of this speech, as we
have noted, is almost incoherent.

To be human is to have needs that go beyond the bare necessities
of life; if all we truly need is to be warm, dry and well nourished, we
are no different from the other beasts of the forest and field, and what
we call civilization is nothing but superfluous luxury and affectation.
He doesn’t really believe this argument or notice where it is taking
him. It is merely an argument. The storm changes his mind. When he
is forced to feel what wretches feel he also begins to feel the force of
that argument, which is why he identifies Poor Tom as a philosopher.
Tom, he thinks, has turned that argument on its head: since what we
call civilization is nothing but superfluous luxury and affectation, the
only way to be human is go naked. Tom is the thing itself, 
unaccommodated man, because that’s what he, Tom, wants to be,
that’s the point he is demonstrating. He is showing us how to
recover our humanity. Or so Lear thinks.

When Lear loses his reason, he begins reasoning, i.e. trying to
think coherently about causes and effects and meanings. That’s one of
the reasons why we care about him. The question nagging at his mind,
what’s left of it, is what to make of so sadly diminished a thing as he
has now become. Tom was something and now he is nothing and yet
still, indisputably, a man. How does he do it? Maybe he knows something
Lear doesn’t? Perhaps if he follows him he’ll find out. And so
Edgar becomes, briefly, Lear’s guide into the land of the mad, the man
who knows what it’s all about. Lear calls him a philosopher, remembering
perhaps that there were once philosophers in the ancient world,
known as Cynics, who rejected the conventions, rituals and trappings
of civilization on principle in the name of a higher good: the pursuit
of wisdom and cultivation of virtue.

As it happens, Tom becomes his father’s guide and protector
instead, in a world that is neither mad nor rational but simply what it
naturally is, a world of arbitrary brute facts where actions have consequences
and what’s done can’t be undone.

Lear in his right mind is a terrible, tyrannical old man who would have
paid about as much attention to a cynic philosopher (or poet) as
Cassius does in Julius Caesar: none at all. (“Ha, Ha! How vildly doth
this cynic rhyme!” (IV.3.133) He, Lear, had been a man of the world with
no time for dreamers and visionaries. It would never have occurred to
him in his days of power and prosperity that he was neither wise nor
virtuous. As he says later, he had always been surrounded by people
who told him how wise he was and how good: “They flattered me like
a dog, and told me I had white hairs in my beard ere the black ones
were there. To say ‘ay’ and ‘no’ to every thing I said!” The wind and
the rain—and his own folly—changed all that: “When the rain came
to wet me once and the wind to make me chatter, when the thunder
would not peace at my bidding, there I found ‘em, there I smelt ‘em
out.” (IV.6.103) “Cracked open” (Linda Bamber’s apt phrase) and
out of his mind, Lear begins to show qualities that might have made
him a great man and a great king. Though he begins by closing in on
himself and blaming his troubles on others, he also begins to think
and to learn.

Once he recovers from the shock of madness and the loss of a stable
identity, he finds he rather likes his new and radically simplified
life. Unencumbered by Reason, he begins to make a new life for himself
in the world of the mad. For the first time in his life, he is free to
be his own man, his own king—a point that Lawrence Olivier, for one,
carefully brings out. When his Lear meets blind Gloucester out in the
woods or heath near Dover, Lear is happily living off the land. He
catches a rabbit in a snare, makes a meal of its heart and liver and
washes it down with water from a stream. As Edgar and Gloucester
enter (Shakespeare’s stage direction has Lear entering), he is saying,
“No, they cannot touch me for coining; I am the King himself.”
(IV.6.84) Lear is thinking about coining, i.e. making his own money,
because he knows he will need some in his new life in his new kingdom;
he can’t be entirely self-sufficient. Things are looking up. Food
is no problem, because he can catch it, and he can make his own
money. He’ll need an army too, he thinks, and so he sets about collecting
one. Now that money is no problem, he can afford to pay
recruiters (or is it press-gangs?). Having recruited some archers, he
begins testing their skill. And then he meets Gloucester.

It is not a happy recognition scene. Both of these men have been
punished out of all proportion for their sins, which is how it tends to
be in the tragic and the real world, but Lear is past the point of feeling
sorry for himself. His sufferings are remote, far off, and no longer
touch him, and so is the man he once was in that far off land of the
past: a man blinded by power and wealth and flattery. Gloucester is a
man from his past and he too is blind. The difference between literal
 and figurative blindness is of no consequence to Lear in his madness,
but then he has always been like that: a man, that is to say, who took
words for deeds, a man who confused literal and figurative meanings.
Lear knows that but it doesn’t bother him. Indeed, he thinks it’s funny,
which is why he treats Gloucester as a joke.

Ha! Goneril with a white beard? They flatter’d me like a dog,
and told me I had white hairs in my beard ere the black ones
were there. To say “ay” and “no” to everything I said! “Ay”
and “no” too was no good divinity. When the rain came to wet
me once, and the wind to make me chatter, when the thunder
would not peace at my bidding, there I found ‘em, there I smelt
‘em out. Go to, they are not men o’ their words! They told me
I was every thing. ’Tis a lie, I am not ague-proof. IV.6.105

His joke at Gloucester’s expense—his first of several—is cruel, but
then that’s how he sees himself: as the victim of a cruel joke.

Why does Gloucester remind him of Goneril and, through her, of all
that he hates in his previous life? They have two things in common,
the letter g and a lecherous disposition, but that’s enough. It doesn’t
take much to remind Lear of Goneril, who is quite a piece of work, as
we would say.

Gloucester’s arrival interrupts Lear as he is in the process of constructing
his new kingdom, and the association of Gloucester, Goneril
and lechery sets him thinking, again, about the problem of justice.
When he first tried to bring his daughters to justice (III.5 ) he was in
a retributive and self-pitying frame of mind and their trial ended
inconclusively. The judges were unable to agree about the nature of
the crime, the prisoners disappeared, the court and trial hastily
adjourned. Now, having simplified his life with the help of Tom aka
Edgar, and begun to live a life far more closely attuned than ever
before to the animal life of the countryside around him, he begins to
think of Nature in Edmund’s terms. As soon as he begins to think in
this new way, he sees how unnatural and therefore wrong our laws
and customs about lechery and adultery are. (He doesn’t know about
the treachery of Gloucester’s natural son.)

When I do stare, see how the subject quakes.
I pardon that man’s life. What was thy cause?
Thou shalt not die. Die for adultery? No.
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. IV.6.117

Though Lear begins his sermon by taking a tolerant and practical view
of lechery—why get upset at a trait we share with birds, bees and flies,
especially when you need soldiers?—there is something about this
subject that darkens his mind. The more Lear thinks about our sexual
appetite, the more he identifies it as female and bestial, and the more
revolted and horrified he becomes. So virulent is his misogyny that it
disrupts the meter and turns his poetry to prose.

Behold yond simp’ring dame,
Whose face between her forks presageth 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 fiend’s: there’s hell, there’s darkness, there’s
the sulphurous pit; burning, scalding, stench, consumption.
Fie, fie, fie! pah, pah! Give me an ounce of civet, good apothecary,
to sweeten my imagination. There’s money for thee. IV.6.131
It may be that nothing can sweeten this imagination. How did it get
this way?

Lear’s forgiving view of sexuality turns unforgiving because, in
part, that is the view he inherits from Christianity: he knows the
Christian view is wrong but can’t get away from it; it draws him back
just as he is trying to formulate a more natural one. And he has a
motive for seeing his daughters as fiends: if they are fiends, they are
not humanly accountable; if they are not accountable, he isn’t either.
He can’t even be blamed for begetting them, a possibility he glances at
briefly in the line, “Judicious punishment! ’Twas this flesh begot/
Those pelican daughters.” (III.4.75) If Lear is to be believed, women
are such monsters of sexual appetite that his complicity in the begetting
of his daughters could only have been incidental. He just happened
to be in the wrong place at the right time. “Fie, fie, fie! Pah,
pah!” he says, as if to exorcise the memory of these foul embraces.
And who was the woman, his wife, the mother of his daughters? Not,
obviously, the generic monstrosity, Woman, that Lear constructs here.
She has no name and is never referred to, but there must have been
such a person: a real person, not an abstraction. Edgar had a mother
too, but she is never named or referred to either. We don’t even know
if she was alive when his half-brother, Edmund was born. And
Edmund’s mother? Well, she was fair and frolicsome, we are told. And
that is all.

There are no mothers in this play, and there is a good reason for
their absence: the mistakes that Lear and Gloucester make are so stupid
that even a little common sense would have prevented them. I
don’t say there’d have been no play had their wives been present, but
it does go more easily without them. (Just as Macbeth is simplified by
the absence of Macbeth children and babies.)

Misogyny is a man’s last refuge from responsibility, and Lear is no
exception. But while Regan and Goneril are not fiends or monsters,
they do make us feel that Lear has not entirely misjudged them. They
are extraordinarily tough, hard women to be sure, but it would be easy
to find others just like them today or at any time.

Gloucester has been overwhelmed by his injuries, while Lear has been
strangely energized by his. Gloucester knows who he is and who he’s
talking to, and though he can’t see how the world goes, he can feel it.
But that’s all. Lear doesn’t know who or where he is and couldn’t care
less; having lost his (conventional) sense of reality, he feels liberated.
For the first time in his life, thought is free, imagination untrammeled.
This freedom has a price, however: without the conventional constraints
of reason or the agendas imposed by reality, he doesn’t know
what to do with his freedom or what to think about.Gloucester's arrival
is opportune, therefore. He gives Lear something to think and make jokes about. 

Sex and adultery are the first things Lear wants to talk about (perhaps 
because Gloucester is an adulterer), then justice.

Why justice? The subject is germane to the play in several ways and
it is something that Lear needs to think about in his new (secular)
kingdom of one, but that is not why it comes up in this conversation:
as a result, say, of asking the normal, reasonable question, “how did
you lose your eyes?” It comes up because Lear and Gloucester manage,
unintentionally, to back into it. The haphazard course of this conversation
(so to speak) is part of its charm.

Having sworn off love forever (“No, do thy worst, blind Cupid! I’ll
not love”), Lear insists that Gloucester admire the penmanship of the
challenge he has been writing:

Lear. Read thou this challenge; mark but the penning of it.
Glou. Were all thy letters suns, I could not see.
Edg. [Aside] I would not take this from report: it is, and my
heart breaks at it.
Lear. Read.
Glou. What, with the case of eyes?
Lear. O, ho, are you there with me? No eyes in your head, nor
no money in your purse? Your eyes are in a heavy case, your
purse in a light, yet you see how this world goes.
Glou. I see it feelingly.
Lear. What, art mad? A man may see how this world goes
with no eyes. Look with thine ears. See how yond justice rails
upon yond simple thief. Hark in thine ear: change places, and
handy-dandy, which is the justice, which is the thief? Thou
hast seen a farmer’s dog bark at a beggar? IV.6.155

Edgar’s pained aside is understandable but irrelevant as we try to follow
Lear’s mad logic. Instead of asking Gloucester what happened to
his eyes, Lear insists, twice, that he read his challenge. And it is only
after Glouncester has insisted, twice, on his blindness that Lear gives
in and accepts the fact. (Such stubborn indifference to facts is, as we
know, characteristic of Lear.) Forced to acknowledge the obvious, he
still doesn’t ask what happened. What catches his attention is a relationship,
between blind Gloucester and the half-naked beggar who is
leading him: not of course the real relationship but a metaphorical
one. Blindness and poverty literally go hand in hand in this world, he
sees: “No eyes in your head, nor no money in your purse?” The syntax
of Lear’s question suggests an equation (eyes=money) which
strikes him as amusing, so he uses it to make a pun that is more
amusing still (picking up on Gloucester’s use of “case” for sockets):
“Your eyes are in a heavy case, your purse in a light.” Then it occurs
to him that even, or especially, those who are eyeless and penniless
can be called upon to witness, as it were, the great truth about the
world that Lear himself has only just discovered: the only thing that
counts is power. Without power, especially the power of money, one
counts for nothing. (Or as the song says, “Nobody knows you when
you’re down and out.”) Lear’s jokes drive that point into Gloucester
in the most painful way, so when Lear asks him or tells him that he
doesn’t need eyes to see how the world goes, he agrees bitterly: “I see
it feelingly.”

Lear thinks Gloucester is just being slow, that he means gropingly
or tentatively— “I'm just beginning to get the idea”—and reacts impatiently,
“What, art mad?” Did you lose your wits when you lost your eyes? And so,
lapsing out of prose, into poetry, he begins to flesh out for Gloucester his 
great truth and in so doing makes it deeper and more profound than the idea 
he began with. What Lear offers Gloucester is more than an abstract truth about
the way of the world, but a vision (powerfully reminiscent  of Langland’s visionary
poem of the 14th ceentury, Piers Plowman) of a mean, cruel, corrupt, heartless 
world driven by the lash of desire–for money, money, money. It is such a vision of
an unredeemed and unredeemable world as the world hardly understands:

Thou hast seen a farmer’s dog bark at a beggar? 
And the creature run from the cur? There thou mightst behold
the great image of authority: a dog’s obeyed in office.
Thou rascal beadle, hold thy bloody hand!
Why dost thou lash that whore? Strip thy own back.
Thou hotly lusts to use her in that kind
For which thou whip’st her. The usurer hangs the cozener.
Thorough tatter’d clothes small vices do appear;
Robes and furr’d gowns hide all. Plate sin with gold,
And the strong lance of justice hurtless breaks;
Arm it in rags, a pigmy’s straw does pierce it.
None does offend, none, I say none, I’ll able ‘em.
Take that of me, my friend, who have the power
To seal th’accuser’s lips. Get thee glass eyes,
And like a scurvy politician, seem
To see the things thou dost not. Now, now, now, now.
Pull off my boots; harder, harder—so. IV.6.173

And then it is gone. Lear’s vision of the world is always true, then,
now, whenever we hear or read these lines, but boots have suddenly
become more important than truth and getting them off his feet the
most important thing of all. Gloucester, his fellow inquirer after the
truth of the world, becomes nothing but a bootjack. Once more the
point, this time about justice, is made at his expense.

Character is fate in the tragic world: Lear’s and Gloucester’s fates are
written not in the stars but in their banal, unreflective selves as rather
ordinary men of the world. Neither, in his days of power, prosperity and
pride, has ever had an original idea or an unconventional emotion. That
is why neither is prepared when the trap that each has been unconsciously
preparing for himself is finally sprung: each wilfully and imperiously
refuses to understand the character and motives of his youngest
child just when it is most important that he should do so.

Lear’s sermon on justice occurs spontaneously, as a result of his
chance encounter with Gloucester. Though it is, as I have tried to show,
entirely unplanned, it clearly comes from deep within—churned up
from the depths of his soul, as Lamb says, by the tempest in his mind.
It is both original and banal, new and old—what has “oft been thought
but ne’er so well expressed.” It is what Lear himself has always known
but always repressed. Anyone who has lived in the world and is not
a complete fool knows these things.

Now that Lear knows them for real, “feelingly”—and the audience
has been forcibly reminded of what it too has always known—how
should the play end? Should it remain faithful to the ancient story
and end happily with Lear restored to power in England, Cordelia happily
married to the King of France, the two nations at peace? That is
the ending that we all desire, whether we admit it or not, and it is the
ending that Shakespeare deliberately—mockingly, perhaps?—refuses
to give us. Every comforting hope is dashed. What the play seems to
give with one hand it immediately takes back with the other.
Lear is found—captured after a brief chase—by Cordelia’s men and
brought in for medical treatment and the loving care he so badly
needs. Having been “cut to th’ brains,” as he says, he is partially
healed. He will never again be the man he was, however, and that we
may think is probably a good thing. The sweet, simple, direct poetry of
his reconciliation with Cordelia is especially moving because we know
what it cost. Whole layers of Lear’s personality had to be stripped
away before he could meet her or anyone else on these terms.

This brief, fragile scene of sweetness and light is followed by a scene
of barely submerged and thoroughly nasty rivalry between Regan and
Goneril, each aware of the designs of the other, while Edmund, their
object, looks on, hugely entertained. The evidence of his treachery is
written on their feral faces; they are like weasels fighting in a hole. This
is not, you would think, the way to fight a successful war, with the
leaders distracted from the business at hand by mutual jealousy and
suspicion. And in fact, it is Edmund’s lecherousness that does him in.
Had he courted Regan when her husband died instead of making love
to both the sisters and playing them off against each other, all would
have been well, for him at least. But then he would not have been the
foolish as well as unprincipled rascal that he is.

The point of the scene is not to show the potential disunity of the
English forces and raise hopes for an English defeat, but rather to
draw attention, once more, to the way people in a state of nature reveal
their true natures. The fact that it is Edmund, of all people, the amoral,
opportunistic, and self-proclaimed child of amoral Nature, who has
caught the fancy of both Goneril and Regan, shows us what they are.
He and they deserve each other. If they weren’t all such hard, cruel
people, we might find it in our hearts to pity them.

The battle for possession of King Lear and the future of England is
fought out in the distance as Gloucester listens silently in the shade of
the tree where Edgar has parked him—hoping, as Frank Kermode
observes, for “good, conclusive news and comfort and [getting] neither.
That is the way Lear works.”

It is the battle that Edmund has been itching for. If his side wins it,
he will have a pretty good chance of becoming the next king. The Duke
of Cornwall is dead; the Duke of Albany, a man of old-fashioned scruples
and principles, will be no match for him and Goneril—especially
Goneril. But Edmund’s luck has run out though he doesn’t know it yet.
His brother, having killed Goneril’s messenger and read her astonishingly
ruthless love letter, passes it on to her husband where it will
remain until the battle is over, and he is ready to use it.

The English forces win this battle for no particular reason; it could
have gone either way. Lear and Cordelia are taken. Edmund prudently
sends them off under guard with secret orders that they should be
killed as soon as possible. Cordelia has no illusions about their fate
and accepts it with stoic dignity, though she can’t resist one last ironic
gibe at her sisters: “Shall we not see these daughters and these sisters?”
These are her last words. Lear’s response is both characteristically
imaginative and unexpectedly beautiful.

No, no, no, no! Come let’s away to prison.
We two alone will sing like birds i’ th’ cage.
When thou dost ask me blessing, I’ll kneel 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, who’s out—
And take upon’s the mystery of things,
As if we were God’s spies; and we’ll wear out,
In a wall’d prison, packs and sects of great ones
That ebb and flow by th’moon. V.3.19

This, Kermode observes, is “the kind of fantastic poetry that
Shakespeare had long known the trick of.” It is not a trick though—
or not just a trick. Lear’s fantastic poetry is powerfully expressive, as
always, of the man he is, a self-deceiver who is never or rarely completely
deceived. Just as his use of the word gratitude shows that, deep
down, he does know the difference between love and gratitude, so his
poetic fantasy of a life in prison that is out of time, not of this world,
shows that he is not completely deceived about their actual fate. What
he is imagining here is a kind of immortality, a life after death.

The nemesis that has been stalking Edmund is nothing supernatural,
just his outraged brother. Edgar is no longer the patsy Edmund took
him for, but an accomplished killer and secret agent: a master of disguise
who can come and go at will, undetected, anywhere, anytime.
This talent makes him just a little spooky in a play that is otherwise
so insistent on natural causes. When Edgar appears as an unknown
knight and challenges Edmund to judicial combat, it is almost as if he
were coming as the deus ex machina of the play: an embodiment of
the moral principles that Edmund has treated with contempt. There is
no such god of course. If that is what we were hoping for, we
are soon undeceived. In the time it takes to stage this inherently theatrical
form of justice, Edmund’s orders are being carried out. Poetic
justice is what Edmund gets; he is hoist by his own petard. Meanwhile,
off stage, the remorseless logic of the tragic world is grinding away.

Poetic justice is a justice that only the fictive worlds of poetry or theater
or television can supply. In these make-believe worlds the virtuous
triumph and the wicked either get what they deserve or change
their natures and their hearts. The wicked brothers, in As You Like It
have a change of heart and become virtuous, which is how we like it. 
The curse of madness which falls inexplicably upon Leontes in 
The Winter's Tale is lifted, also inexplicably. He gets his wife back
from the grave, and the daughter whom he had tried to destroy. 
All ends happily after all.

Alls well that ends well in the worlds of comedy and romance, and
nature occasionally imitates art in this respect: one lucks out from time
to time and gets a second chance; the wicked are not always as wicked
as they could, or might like to be; people do sometimes learn from their
mistakes or have a change of heart. And so these literary genres, comedy
and romance, don’t quite lose touch with reality, which is usually

There are no second chances in the tragic world or the tragic theater.
Actions have unexpected consequences, and these cannot usually
be reversed. What’s been done can’t be undone. Character is fate,
and the worst of it is we create our own characters, with lots of misguided
or malicious help from our friends and others, when we are too
young to know what we are doing. By the time we acquire a modicum
of self knowledge, it is too late.

The tragic hero learns too late the meaning of his or her actions or
inactions; or maybe, like Lear or Othello, he never learns. All of
Shakespeare’s tragic heroes are slow learners. Though they learn
something from their mistakes, they learn too late, and they never
learn why they made them in the first place. And while the audience
knows more than the tragic hero, it too in the end is left clutching for
explanations. The tragedy of Lear is that whatever he learns he learns
too late: too late for wisdom since his mind is gone, too late for virtue
since his strength and power are gone, too late for love since his children
are gone. Having become what he made them, they leave him.

The most bitter pill of all, and the one that most audiences are
reluctant to swallow (and refused to swallow for almost 160 years) is,
first, that the price of learning, for Lear, is the loss of all those things—
mind, strength, power, children—that would have given point and
meaning to what he learns; and, second, that this price bears no reasonable
relationship to his sins. Lear is indeed a man more sinned against than 
sinning; his punishment doesn’t even begin to fit his crimes. That’s how 
it is in the tragic world, which is, above all, unfair.To demand poetic justice 
from a play or a novel is to demand that art should correct for the basic 
unfairness of the world.

That was the demand that was placed on King Lear for almost 160
years, from 1681 when Nahum Tate undertook the task of revising the
play in accordance with the criteria of probability and good taste that
prevailed at that time, until 1838 when Macready completed the work
of restoration that Kean had tentatively begun in the previous decade.

Other plays of Shakespeare’s have had their ups and downs in the
market-place of public taste and opinion, especially the so-called problem
plays: Troilus and Cressida, All’s Well That Ends Well, and
Measure for Measure. Dryden thought it necessary to completely
rewrite Troilus and Cressida and Antony and Cleopatra, translating
these plays into his own poetic language, in order to make them
acceptable to Restoration audiences. No other play of Shakespeare’s,
however, was actually driven from the stage by popular demand and 
more or less permanently replaced by an inferior version–inferior, 
that is to say, acccording to our romantic or post-romantic standards.
The fact that Tate’s Lear held the stage for such a long time tells us 
something important about art and the judgments, both moral and
esthetic, that we make about works of art. 

If we care about Lear, it is because of his imaginative power and
intellectual originality; it is the force of his poetry that we are responding
to, whether we know it or not. That is to say, our judgments about
King Lear are, in large part, literary, esthetic, moral.The the fact that 
Tate’s version of the play lasted for more than one hundred and fifty years, 
shows how easily literary judgments can be trumped by religious, moral or 
philosophical beliefs.

Here is a choice bit from Tate’s final scene. Albany has just told Lear all
about the wickedness of Regan and Goneril, and about Edmund, whom 
he has just left mortally wounded. He continues:

Since then my Injuries, Lear, fall in with Thine,
I have resolv’d the same Redress for both.
Kent. What says my Lord?
Cord. Speak, for me thought I heard
The charming voice of a descending God.
Alb. The Troops by Edmund rais’d, I have disbanded;
What Comfort may be brought to chear your Age,
And heal your Savage Wrongs, shall be apply’d:
For to your Majesty we do resign
Your Kingdom, save what part your Self conferr’d
On us in Marriage.
Kent.  Hear you that, my Liege?
Cord. Then they are Gods, and Vertue is their Care.
Lear. Is’t possible?
Let the Spheres stop their Course, the Sun make halt,
The Winds be hush’t, the Seas and Fountains rest;
All Nature pause, and listen to the Change.
Where is my Kent, my Cajus?
Kent. Here, my Liege.
Lear. Why I have News, that will recall thy Youth;
Ha! Dids’t thou hear’t, or did th’ inspiring Gods
Whisper to me alone? Old Lear shall be
A King again.
Kent. The Prince that like a God has Pow’r, has said it.
Lear. Cordelia then shall be a Queen, mark that:
Cordelia shall be a Queen: Winds catch the Sound,
And bear it on your rosie Wings to Heav’n.
Cordelia is a Queen.

What is the belief that trumps judgment here? How could anyone who
has read Shakespeare’s King Lear accept such drivel? Here is what a
great critic, Samuel Johnson, had to say:

Shakespeare has suffered the virtue of Cordelia to perish in a
just cause, contrary to the natural ideas of justice, to the hope
of the reader, and, what is yet more strange, to the faith of the
chronicles. Yet this conduct is justified by the Spectator
[Addison] who blames Tate for giving Cordelia success and
happiness in his alteration, and declares, that in his opinion
“the tragedy has lost half its beauty.” ....A play in which the
wicked prosper, and the virtuous miscarry, may doubtless be
good, because it is a just representation of the common events
of human life: but since all reasonable beings naturally love
justice, I cannot easily be persuaded, that the observation of
justice makes a play worse; or that, if other excellences are
equal, the audience will not always rise better pleased from the
final triumph of persecuted virtue. In the present case the public
has decided. Cordelia, from the time of Tate, has always
retired with victory and felicity. And, if my sensations could
add any thing to the general suffrage, I might relate, I was
many years ago so shocked by Cordelia’s death, that I know
not whether I ever endured to read again the last scenes of the
play till I undertook to revise them as an editor.
An honest response to the play and an honest statement of principle.
The purpose of theatrical art, says Johnson, is not to show us the truth
about human nature and the world but to show us what that truth
ought to be. Poetical justice is a justice that only poets can provide,
and it is the poet’s job to provide it. If he doesn’t, show him his error
or do what Tate has done: correct it.

Critics these days are not usually as forthright as Johnson is in laying
out their assumptions. The idea that art should not show us how
things are but how they ideally ought to be, once widely shared in the
sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, is so no longer.
Socialist Realism, the twentieth-century version of that idea, is dead
and so too is its philosophical opposite, the idea that truth in a work
of art is an irrelevant consideration: art alone is what matters, for its
own sake, not for what it says or means.

It is easy to be confused about such matters. Keats’ famous clarification,
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” did nothing to clarify his poem, 
Ode on a Grecian Urn. It is one of those terse formulations, like
“might makes right,” that we can’t live with and can’t live without. For
my part, while I want to say that the poetry of King Lear is what chiefly
matters, I have to admit that I am powerfully affected by what I take
to be the truth of its tragic vision.

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