The Tragicomedy of "King Lear"


For centuries the goal of ambitious actors was to shine as Hamlet. In "Hamlet" Versus "Lear": Cultural Politics and Shakespeare's Art Reginald A. Foakes has shown why this goal has recently been replaced by that of successfully playing Lear—a challenge great enough for Sir Laurence Olivier himself notoriously to have left it so late that his own age approached Lear's without having conserved Lear's superhuman stamina. The role is certainly an exhausting one: Paul Scofield once said casually that Shakespeare's authorship, as an experienced actor, was illustrated when he gave Lear a necessary half-hour "tea-break" after the storm scenes, and a slow restart thereafter. Originally it was probably a "beer-break" but even so the role requires athleticism. Weaker Lears may have to insist on an anorexic Cordelia to have enough energy left to carry her on stage in the last scene; John Gielgud required a sling and tackle (not unlike Derk Jacobi in 2011). Yet the challenges go beyond mere physical stress to the point of violating aesthetic and psychological norms, which is far harder for actors, in my observation—as when Antony bungles his suicide attempt on hearing of Cleopatra's death. Actually most people don't like to look ridiculous, but Shakespeare insists on this humiliation even for Cleopatra, when she confronts the misogynistic Clown bringing the asps for her suicide (in which her crown slips awry).

So it is perhaps not unexpected to find G. Wilson Knight writing an essay on "King Lear and the Comedy of the Grotesque." Later critics like Reginald Foakes have often claimed that King Lear is the supreme achievement of the greatest of dramatists, and thus it has some pretensions to be the greatest example of theatrical, not to say literary excellence. Granted this view, then its initial impact is very paradoxical. A century before Knight, Charles Lamb led the way to a rejection of its tragic effect on the stage, foreseeing the view of some modern interpreters that it is a study in senility: an obtuse old man deservedly brings ostracism and misery, and ultimately death, to his intimates and those he loves best, by foolishly abusing his daughters. In Molière this pattern of inept patriarchy invariably proves comic rather than tragic, as indeed was pretty much the case in Shakespeare's precedent, The Chronicle of King Leir, which ends happily. So much does Shakespeare's play invite this effect that for much of its stage history it was altered to match the Chronicle's happy ending, following Nahum Tate's version which continues to receive sympathetic attention from such distinguished scholars as Norman Rabkin in Shakespeare and the Problem of Meaning. In many versions, including Kozintsev's film, modern directors also continue to find the Shakespeare text intractable enough to require heavy cutting. Kozintsev eliminated the grotesquely abortive suicide attempt by Gloucester at Dover Cliff. In the opposite spirit, Peter Brook's film suppresses the amazing repentance of Edmund in the play's last scene. The fate of so important a character as the Fool is so unclear that Kozintsev brings him back alive, as one of the largely proletarian survivors of the aristocratic holocaust who will build a new world; while Adrian Noble's 1982 RSC production shows Lear himself killing the Fool in a fit of mad rage, for which there is not the faintest textual justification. Clearly, Brook and Noble feel that the script is not tragic enough.

Perhaps some modern directors really do feel their supreme goal is to make their audiences uncomfortable, not to say miserable, sharing current artistic aims of the fashionable art of Francis Bacon. Certainly much critical admiration in the modern theatre is devoted to the downbeat productions of Bertold Brecht, Jean Genet, Harold Pinter, and Arthur Miller. In this vein, the orthodox critic Paul Alpers has argued vehemently in a much-cited essay that Lear does not show us a world with any coherence or causality but a nihilistic vision of life as brutish, violent, and hostile to humanity and humane feelings. For Alpers Gloucester's blinding is not an analogue for his misreading of his sons, though he himself is made to recognize the possibility ("I stumbled when I saw" [4.1.20]): by this view Lear's world must be one where any old man may have his eyes plucked out. W. R. Elton's "King Lear" and the Gods also finds the play devoid of Providence: the gods are sadists, as claimed by Gloucester (4.1.36)—though surely one character's view is not necessarily that of the author? There can be no hope in such a world. In this spirit Peter Brook ends his film of Lear showing its survivors as ineffective and dispirited: vestiges of an irretrievably ruined society. In harmony with a pessimistic reading, films of Lear like Brook's are often shot in black and white, in a low lighting register. In this modern morbid context how dare we seek an entertaining way to perform King Lear?

Ironically, such an option is illustrated by one of the pessimistic interpreters of Shakespeare. Jan Kott has unintentionally vindicated Lear's current humorous potentialities by associating it with Beckett's absurdist dramas in Shakespeare, Our Contemporary. There certainly are close parallels in situation and characters between the scenes on the heath in Lear and Waiting for Godot. There seems to be a rough resemblance between the quartet of social outcasts in each play, for Lear shows us the desperate search for meaning in their lives by an equally bizarre quartet to Beckett's: a senile maniac who thinks he is a king, accompanied by an imbecile comedian, by a supposed escaped Bedlamite accused of parricide, and by an outlaw compulsively serving another social outcast. However, anyone who has seen several productions of Waiting for Godot will have seen that playing it as a solemn morality play achieves a sermon full of boredom and depression. It is essentially an existential farce in which humanity proves resilient in the face of disaster—which does not mean it cannot also display an underlying tragic awareness. Drama requires just this tension between divergent awarenesses, as in black humor which makes misfortune laughable. Shakespeare had already found this option in creating Richard III with its remarkable combination of wit in presenting a horror story. In one of the most exciting scenes ever written, the audience laughs and shudders simultaneously when Richard of Gloucester asks thanks from Lady Anne for sending her husband to heaven "for he was fitter for that place than earth" (1.1070).

Even more strikingly, in Lear the audience is challenged not simply to face human suffering gilded with humor, but to see tragedy sink to grotesque comedy. In terms of traditional tragic suffering Gloucester's blinding and self-discovery in the sub-plot roughly parallel Greek tragedy's zenith in the suffering of Oedipus. But Lear's humiliation is far greater: he becomes ridiculous, even a comedian—a fate unthinkable in classical or even neoclassical heroes, who may make horrendous misjudgments but are never comic. The accurate performance of Shakespeare's script as written requires the presence of true comedy almost throughout: that the Fool be funny, not a solemn, sententious chorus; that Edmund's black humor glitter to his death; that at least until the final scene Lear himself should achieve more and more witty, satirical, and paradoxical insights—transcending his own subjective misery by sharing in proletarian ridicule of the hypocritical establishment of which he was once the head. Indeed, it is Lear who helps the audience to transcend the overpowering suffering which is supposed to be the hallmark of the play, recurrently reversing the audience's mood, achieving wonder and delight at these unexpected changes of tone. If all this liveliness seems improbable, let me say that I have seen this reversal done, in Adrian Noble's RSC performance with Antony Sher as the Fool and Michael Gambon as Lear. Ironically they have both since said that they feared the production was a failure, probably because the audience really enjoyed itself and this mixture of comedy and tragedy defied conventional practice.

The gloom was repudiated as the curtain first rose to establish a lighter tone from the first moment with the Fool and Cordelia teasing each other while scrambling about the throne. Nor does Lear first enter as an obtuse tyrant, let alone a senile incompetent one. Literature abounds with analogues of the heroic patriarch as one of the great archetypes of human potentiality and fallibility, from Moses or Beowulf to the Emperor Francis Joseph or Tennyson's Ulysses. And, naturally enough, the patriarch's role is usually focused on regulating the status of sons and the marriages of daughters, whether we think of Abraham and Isaac, Creon, or even the father of Cinderella, whose story disconcertingly parallels Cordelia's, with her missing mother, abasement, and two wicked sisters, not to mention her own Prince Charming in the person of the King of France. The love test echoes folktale motifs linked to the rites of passage celebrated in many fairy stories, as Bruno Bettelheim has argued in The Uses of Enchantment. Just as the prehistoric Denmark of Hamlet's legendary origins evokes the most basic ethical problems of trial by combat and revenge, so ancient Britain allows Shakespeare to strip off many accretions of civilization to expose the heart of family relations.

Yet the core of Lear is the antithesis of Hamlet's theme of youth's attempted self-emancipation from paternal authority. Instead of the theme of how a hero acquires autonomy it deals with the final challenges for any hero: the trauma of withdrawal from active life that impends with age, a professional death that is prelude to the literal one, and which we now recognize as the climactic rite of "retirement." My colleague Marion Diamond and many other gerontologists have stressed that the tragedy of retirement lies not in the incompetence of the senior in question, but the stress of surrendering power at the peak of authority. In King Lear's case his standing is almost literally superhuman: at the age of eighty or more, he has maintained his authority. He stands as strong as the aging Winston Churchill at the end of World War II, yet he is not thrust from power by a recalcitrant electorate: he chooses to surrender it. Tyrants' refusal of this necessity is the bane of non-democratic states like the old Soviet Union. This great theme of the surrender of authority, power, and even autonomy is a timeless one which gerontologists are only now doing justice to. At the start of the play Lear is a magnificent anomaly: an omnipotent octogenarian willing and able to step down from office in a manner almost without parallel, unless we recall the abdication of the Emperor Charles V, another mighty ruler. In his Poetics Aristotle has rightly said that there is no aesthetic interest in tragedy as the merited punishment of deficiency. At the start of the play Lear is not a senile incompetent but an almost irresistible force, more an aging Tamburlaine than a diffident Willy Loman living vicariously through his children. In this dominance he is no different from the initial status of a Coriolanus, or Macbeth, or Othello, or Antony.

Despite the plot's archaic setting in pre-Roman Britain, scholars have uncovered parallels to Lear in more contemporary settings that might have given Shakespeare a sense of its relevance to the experience of his audiences, with consequent positive interest in its outcome. Lope advocated the use of such contemporary material to attract audience attention, as in the case histories exploited in the kind of novelle sources favored by Shakespeare. For example, in Sercambi's collection, there is a story of a Venetian who retires and gives his fortune to his three daughters, trusting them to maintain him appropriately. When they fail to do so he temporarily borrows another fortune from a friend, allowing his disloyal children to see him counting it, at which they recover their attentiveness in the hope of securing a second inheritance. But the Venetian returns the cash to his friend, and on his death his will is found to bestow on them a hammer with which to beat themselves for their stupidity. The wry tone of this story of humiliated age triumphant has a lot in common with Lear's sardonic texture, but it shares a positive outcome with the notorious case in 1603 of the aging Brian Annesley, in which the aging father of three daughters was saved from dispossession of his estate as a lunatic sought by his two elder daughters, as a result of the efforts of his youngest daughter, aptly named Cordelia. This potential misuse of the assets of the elderly is now a major legal concern in most advanced societies, and such examples go to show how critical the play's issues remain. We do not need to have recourse to the interpretation of Lear as senile to validate the plot's plausibility.

Even the suggestion that Lear is merely obtuse at the start of the play misrepresents its positive interest. If we assume that Lear is contemptible from the start, the play loses the catharsis that Aristotle sees as coming from audience identification with the hero. As Bertrand Evans has shown in Shakespeare's Comedies, audiences project themselves into the roles of dominant figures who share their thoughts and feelings directly with the audience, even those that prove villainous, such as Richard of Gloucester. However, by the testimony of the rest of the cast, it is with Othello that Lear should initially be allied, as "one that loved not wisely but too well" (5.2.344). It is false that Lear loves flatterers like Goneril and Regan: his favorite daughter is the outspoken Cordelia; his favorite courtier is the blunt Kent; his favorite diversions are the subversive witticisms of the Fool. He gives minimal recognition and reward to the suave but suspect protestations of Goneril and Regan. An interpretation founded on the idea that Lear is deceived by such servile hypocrites falsifies the carefully established situation in the opening scene. It is clear that the so-called "love test" is not a genuine evaluation made on the spot, merely a public ritual to rationalize a predetermined policy, for Lear announces it as an established fact that "We have divided in three our kingdom" (1.1.37-8). This decision has already been stressed by the crucial opening lines of the play, when Kent and Gloucester reveal that they have been informed of the details of the division: "In the division of the kingdom, it appears nor which of the Dukes he values most, for equalities are so weigh'd that neither can make choice of either's moi'ty" (1.1.3-7). Burgundy confirms the existence of previous negotiations when he admits his interest in securing "what your highness offer'd" (1.1.193). Note further that, according to Kent and Gloucester, this original decision does not even seem to have been made on the basis of Lear's judgment about his daughters' characters but on those of their husbands. Moreover, the limit of the opening lines' discussion to the two (i.e. British) Dukes cannot include the Duke of Burgundy (whose positive involvement as a third duke would complicate the use of the aristocratic title), and this omission indicates that the third intended recipient of a division of Britain must be the King of France, as Cordelia's intended husband. Moreover, it is clear that Lear has orchestrated the division in the King's favor because he rather tactlessly admits that what has been allocated to Cordelia is "a third more opulent than your sisters" (1.1.l86) and his motive ultimately emerges when he confesses that "I lov'd her most" (1.1.123).

What then is the function of the purely ceremonial action in the first scene of the play? It is a public validation of the succession to Lear. But is not primarily designed to honor Lear on his abdication, even though the handing on of great power requires such overt recognition and acceptance by the participants. For retirement is always a recognition point that requires by custom a ritual expression of appreciation and affection for the person withdrawing, matching a gesture of endorsement and validation from that person for his successor. In monarchies the process is usually distinctive in that the person withdrawing is normally dead and honored in a state funeral, as at the beginning of Henry VI. But Lear is not dead, nor is he incapacitated, rather his domination remains total. He loves power and Kent still sees "authority" in Lear long after he has lost power (1.14.30). So why is he abdicating prematurely? He must value something more than power, and the uneven division of the kingdom confirms what it is: the well-being of Cordelia. If we follow the map visible in Olivier's televised Lear showing the divisions of Britain, the Duke of Albany (once, and still, the Gaelic name for Scotland, as in the present Banca na Alba: Bank of Scotland) receives the northern section of the inheritance. The Duke of Cornwall receives the contiguous lands of south-west Britain (Cornwall is the feudal lord of Gloucester, named after a town in the south-west). So what remains for Cordelia?—the south-east: "this ample third of our fair kingdom" (1.1.80), which happens to contain the most developed segment of Britain in which have been sited all its capitals: London, Colchester, Winchester, etc. which is also most contiguous to both Burgundy (now Belgium and Holland in part) and France. Cordelia, appropriately, is closely associated in the play with Kent and Dover.

In Elizabethan times, succession went by primogeniture, and this principle would dictate that Goneril ultimately should be queen of all Britain, as the eldest child of Lear. But he clearly wants to make Cordelia independent of her untrustworthy older sisters and the only way he can do this is to abdicate prematurely while he is still master of the situation and thus can give his favorite daughter a disproportionate inheritance, secured by her marriage to one of the two most powerful contiguous powers in Europe (as Gaul was even in pre-Roman times, while Burgundy was also powerful down to medieval times). While it is true that historically ancient Britain was normally divided into sub-kingdoms, with supremacy firmly vested in one of these only by Saxon times, Lear's action is obviously unwise, and can only be motivated by his obsessive admiration for the virtues of Cordelia, for whom he is willing to surrender his own autonomy, status and effective authority. So far from illustrating a senile incompetent's ineptitude, the events in the first scene of the play involve a terrifying conjunction of issues: the humiliation of retirement accepted only to offset the perilous future of an adored daughter. In the event Lear's compulsive goal is frustrated by the obtuse surliness of his favorite, which is compounded by rejection by his elder daughters. We can surely understand Lear's initial fury that his self-sacrifice should be made futile by the very person it was intended to serve. At a purely ritual moment, Cordelia refuses to sanction the de facto arrangements by falsifying her relationship to her father in the form of a kind of inverted hypocrisy. If you interpret her remarks with extreme precision they may mean the opposite of what they seem to say. When Lear asks her "what can you say to draw a third more opulent than your sisters? Speak" (1.1.85-6) her answer is "Nothing, my lord," presumably because she knows how dangerous it would be for her to seek to be unjustly favored. When Lear incredulously asks "But goes thy heart with this?" (1.1.105), her assent may mean not just that she is determined to avoid specious solicitation, but that she nevertheless still loves him. But that is not the sense which she allows herself to be understood by Lear. Moreover, she recognizes the incestuous overtones of her sisters' professions of affection: Regan's "very deed of love" (1.1.71) and "most precious square of sense" have genital overtones that affront the unmarried Cordelia's sense of marital decorum. While she may be right that Lear's favoritism is unacceptable and unwise, she chooses rather presumptuously to disrupt a public ritual for subjective reasons.

In this she is her father's daughter, for Lear has chosen a public act for private reasons. In the ritual of the love test Lear has chosen to disguise a private opinion of Cordelia's virtue as an official procedure. If we accept the facile idea of a "tragic flaw" Lear's is not the result of senile egotism, but of unwise self-sacrifice from excessive love of virtue, a "defect" he shares with Othello and Coriolanus. If this is so, we can better accept the idea of Lear's anger: having wryly accepted abdication to secure the goal of protecting Cordelia's integrity, he is foiled by the very person his manipulations are designed to protect, and in intense reaction he determines understandably that she will inherit what a third daughter might anachronistically expect to inherit under primogeniture: nothing. This is one consequence of Cordelia's willful failure to help her father at his most precarious moment of self-surrender, with tragic consequences that she scarcely anticipates. If she had ruefully accepted her assigned role to rule the strongest "third" of Britain, she would have been in a better position to avert the civil war between her sisters' lesser dominions, which she can only attempt to resolve now by the unacceptable means of invading Britain with a French army, hardly an ideal solution to an Elizabethan audience (or one of any period?). Shakespeare has Albany make the point explicitly for the benefit of the audience:

For this business,
It touches us as France invades our land,
Not bolds the King, with others whom, I fear,
Most just and heavy causes make oppose.

As a result of her obtuseness, Cordelia risks being judged a traitor, like the well-meaning English nobles in King John who side against their country with French invaders and are threatened with death, "Paying the fine of rated treachery" (5.5.37).

This reading of the opening scene restores the play to true tragic tension, with a monarch unwisely sacrificing himself to his excessive devotion to virtue, and a heroine whose excellence carries with it the penalties of intransigence. As Aristotle says, only such mixed characters are fit for tragedy, for audience sympathy cannot be deeply aroused by the humiliation of a senile tyrant, nor from the destruction of a faultless heroine. Both figures fall from an obsessive love of virtue and truth, a somewhat admirable fault. Lear's preoccupation with justice verges on mania, but we cannot easily consider the cry "justice for all" is the cry of a madman. Yet that preoccupation is the sole concern of Lear during his supposed "madness," which is only a passionate pursuit of the just state which concerns Socrates in Plato's Republic. It is in this context that the play reaches a level of meaning transcending pagan reason. For it is when Lear presses most for justice that his behavior becomes most erratic and violent. When Goneril fails to be grateful for the authority he surrendered to her by his abdication, he curses her and her children (1.4.275 ff) in terms which still upset audiences. When he thinks of his daughters' ingratitude, he hallucinates that they are present and undergoing trial, so intense is his compulsion to seek justice (3.6). In this scene he comes closest to being mad, and it is interesting that, in the Folio version, the text (as revised by the author according to many scholars) omits this extremity. Yet even here he is not raving at random but intensely preoccupied with the administration of justice. Similarly, in the storm scenes, Lear's excessive love of justice is the driving force of his fury:

Let the great gods
That keep this dreadful pudder o'er our heads,
Find out their enemies now. Tremble, thou wretch
That hast within thee undivulged crimes
Unwhipt of justice!

However, such a proper concern for just punishment does not prove a stabilizing factor in Lear's consciousness. The more he concerns himself with absolute justice, the more disturbed he becomes: "My wits begin to turn" (3.2.67). In this scene his indignation at human depravity becomes so great that he sinks into hysterical misanthropy: "Crack nature's molds, all germans spill at once/ That make ingrateful man!" (3.2.8-9).

One of the greatest mistakes in evaluating the play lies in thinking that Lear's shouting match with the gods is its highpoint, or even that he sinks into frantic incoherence in a way too many actors and critics seem to find exciting. As Claudius says of Hamlet: "what he spake, though it lacked form a little/ Was not like madness" (3.1.163-4). There is a willful presumption in almost all commentators to assert that any change in Lear's personality reflects a decline in alertness, yet what at first seems to him to be an incipient loss of all identity proves in practice to be an enormous gain in awareness and concern for others:

My wits begin to turn.
Come on, my boy, how dost, my boy? Art cold?
I am cold myself. Where is this straw, my fellow?
The art of our necessities is strange
That can make wild things precious. Come, your hovel.
Poor Fool and knave, I have one part of my heart
That's sorry yet for thee.

This is the simplest, most considerate, and practical speech that Lear has yet made. It is paradoxical that the previously compulsive autocrat anticipates his change of mood to concern for others as loss of his wits. Far from being a sane man going mad, here he seems a man mad with rage going sane. It is unfortunate that Lear's dawning concern for others is usually held to indicate his increasing insanity.

This progression from futile rage to acceptance of existentially "absurd" truth is not fortuitous. In the next scene, at the hovel, Lear momentarily relapses into his morbid concern for justice, which arouses his rage again, but at the onset of another supposedly "mad" moment he once more returns towards a saner awareness and concern for others:

Lear: 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.

Kent: Good my lord, enter here.

Lear: Pritheee, go in thyself, seek thine own ease.
This tempest will not give me leave to ponder
On things would hurt me more. But I'll go in.
In, boy, go first – you houseless poverty –
Nay, get thee in; I'll pray, and then I'll sleep.
Poor naked wretches, wheresoe'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.

This passage is central to the play's concern with Lear's self-discovery, which is not as descent into madness but the completion of a process of dawning perception initiated by the Fool's teasing. The entry of Edgar disguised as a Bedlamite beggar provides a reinforcement of Lear's awareness of ultimate human degradation. To suppose that it is a sign of madness for Lear to treat Edgar as a "noble philosopher" (3.4.172) is a misunderstanding of Lear's accurate perception of Edgar's significance, for (like that of Diogenes in his barrel) this abysmal condition defines the bedrock of human nature against which every other human circumstance must be measured, a moment akin to Hamlet's wry encounter with the figure of Death in the form of the gravedigger and his skulls:

Thou wert better in thy 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 fork'd animal as thou art! Off, off, you lendings! Come, unbutton here.

Of course, this speech is only the culmination of a progression of discovery carefully scripted by the dramatist. This passage is foreshadowed in Lear's increasing insights while addressing Goneril. He has already decided to adopt a more pacific, acquiescent attitude than his earlier curses: "I prithee, daughter, do not make me mad./ I'll not trouble thee, my child; Farewell." (2.4.218-9). But, confronted with the stripping away of his attendants, he begins to perceive how arbitrary human concerns are:

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. 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 . . .

This insight reflects an incredibly agile mind: Lear is invested here with something like the mental agility of Shakespeare himself. The audience is being prepared for the intrusion of Edgar as the polar opposite of Goneril's sophisticated costume. Yet for his own modesty even Edgar has "reserv'd a blanket, else we had been all sham'd" as the Fool points out (3.465-6) in confirmation of Lear's point. But the flimsy costumes of sophisticated women often also verge on embarrassing nudity.

Other preparatory phases for Lear's experiences on the heath include the Fool's acclimatization of Lear to the ultimate nature of the human condition when deprived of delusions of grandeur: The play has been structured to achieve Lear's progression from arbitrary assertiveness to a rueful acceptance of things as they happen to be: "The reason why the seven stars are no more than seven is a pretty reason" (1.5.34-38). Already Lear can answer correctly "Because they are not eight"—in other words, human reason cannot explain reality, only accept it. Much of the Fool's chatter can be seen as a kind of series of such little Zen-like exercises to free Lear from his entrenched faith in the supremacy of his own judgment.

My point is that, far from portraying an imagined world devoid of possibilities, King Lear simply makes a point of questioning conventional human judgments and expectations as they are likely to exist in a secular (i.e. a pagan) world. But even such a setting does not simply invalidate such motivations, as we can see in Lear's plausible sense of guilt at his neglect of the most impoverished. The invalidation of his initial sense of his world as one which can be effectively governed by traditional justice does not require a meaningless universe, even if it is not one that is governed by pagan reason in the spirit of Plato or by the absolute authority of the law in the Judaic tradition. For example, there is almost a zen-like sense of the absurdity of life in St. Paul's opening to his First Letter to Corinth. Paul censures the relentless rationality of Hellenistic authorities, as well as belief in the unassisted adequacy of the Judaic Law in the face of human fallibility. As Auerbach has argued in Mimesis, Christianity challenges the aristocratic sophistication of Greek heroes and the Law-defined Judaic social structure. Both cultures reacted negatively to primitive Christianity's concern for the persecuted, the outsider, not to say the sinner, or even the criminal, favoring the unprivileged, indeed, all those we used to call the proletariat. Paul defines the resulting tensions:

For it is written I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and will bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent. Where is the wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the disputer of this world? hath not God made foolish the wisdom of this world? . . . For the Jews require a sign and the Greeks seek after wisdom. But we preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block, and unto the Greeks foolishness . . . because God is stronger than men . . . . Not many wise men after the flesh, nor many mighty, nor many noble, are called. But God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty, and the base things of the world which are despised.

(1 Cor. 1:19ff)

These words have some bearing on the structure of King Lear, for we recurrently see how the marginal figures overcome the dominant ones: the Duke of Cornwall is killed by a servant, the successful British general Edmund is defeated by a nameless challenger. And King Lear himself is taught by a Fool, following St. Paul's prescription: "Let no man deceive himself that any man among you seemeth to be wise in this world, let him become a fool, that he may be wise. For the wisdom of this world is the foolishness of God. For it is written he taketh the wise in their own craftiness" (1 Cor. 3:18). By contrast "the natural man" considers so humble a posture mere "foolishness." One recalls Nature's devotee in King Lear, Edmund, with his ridicule of his "credulous father, and a brother noble . . . on whose foolish honesty my practices ride easy" (1.2.178-9).

Still, what we see in Lear is not an overt Christianizing of Britain, like that of Denmark in the script of Hamlet. Even if there is a latent implication in the script's Pauline analogues, Kozintsev misrepresents Lear when he openly introduces Christian symbols and ritual, in the added scene of Cordelia's marriage to the King of France. Lear is a pagan hero whose oaths are validated by such gods as Apollo (to whose cult Herodotus ascribes the creation of Stonehenge). Throughout his career Shakespeare consciously experiments with different social models to see how well their assumptions have worked historically, whether with the prehistoric Greece of Theseus in The Two Noble Kinsmen, Republican Rome in Coriolanus or Imperial Rome in Antony and Cleopatra. Like Theseus, both in Shakespeare and ancient Greek drama, the prehistoric Lear is shown to be primarily concerned with regulating social relationships, in a simpler society than that governed by modern politics. But like Theseus in Euripides' Hippolytus, Lear has to learn forbearance and that prompt concern for justice is not always wise. He evolves towards an ethos that is life-enhancing rather than life-destructive, as a result of learning to accept his enforced condition:

I am a very foolish fond old man,
Fourscore and upward, not an hour more nor less;
And to deal plainly,
Methinks I am not in my perfect mind.

Ironically, in this supposedly unstable state of mind he is more gracious than ever before. Nevertheless, like most critics, my Berkeley students in the 1960s held that Lear must be truly mad, as Cordelia thinks up to this point, after she hears of his condition:

Alack, 'tis he! Why he was met even now
As mad as the vex'd sea. Singing aloud,
Crown'd with rank femiter and furrow weeds.

However, the students became a little less confident when I pointed out how delighted they were by the same innocent behavior of the first flower children who shared Lear's delight in nature, and put flowers in the gun-barrels of the National Guard on Telegraph Avenue. It is in this humorous spirit that ancient Tiresias and Cadmus tripped off to the Bacchic revels under the reproaches of the puritanical King Pentheus in Euripides' Bacchae.

A similar gentle subversiveness underlies the beach scene between Lear and Gloucester, which is often falsified as Lear still in raging madness. Rather than his previous extravagances, this scene invites a low-keyed performance in which Lear shows the casual insights of the true sage. I saw Sebastian Shaw play this scene with Gloucester many years ago at a workshop organized by Marvin Rosenberg at the Zellerbach Theatre in Berkeley, and its quiet sanity has remained self-evident to me ever since. As Lear ultimately admits: "I know thee well enough, thy name is Gloucester" (4.6.177); and all his wry remarks turn on another mock trial, directed at Gloucester's lustfulness, which led to the birth of his illegitimate son Edmund:

Ay, every inch a king!
When I do stare, see how the subject quakes.
I pardon this 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
Doth lecher in my sight.
Let copulation thrive; for Gloucester's bastard son
Was kinder to his father than my daughters
Got between the lawful sheets.

My lectures on the play since seeing Shaw's interpretation have been entitled "The Sanity of Lear." Every word of this speech of Lear rises naturally and wittily from his contemplation of the pathetic figure of the blind Gloucester, groveling at his feet. Lear is reviewing the adulterous origins of Edmund via the depraved liaison to which Gloucester admits at the start of the play: "Though this knave came somewhat saucily to the world before he was sent for, yet was his mother fair, there was good sport at his making, and the whoreson must be acknowledged" (1.1.21-4). Lear's subsequent sardonic comments on the immorality of court ladies, implicit in Edmund's origin, plausibly revert to this episode, and do not derive from some morbid tangent of a diseased imagination as is often assumed. It is true that Lear still mistakenly assumes Edmund is honorable, but in his acceptance of him one can even hear an echo of Edmund's cry: "Now, gods, stand up for bastards" (1.2.22). Lear is now as skeptical as Edmund: "To't, Luxury, pell-mell, for I lack soldiers." Every time I read the whole speech aloud to audiences they laugh openly at its wry truth:

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.
Through tatter'd clothes small vices do appear;
Robes and furr'd gowns hide all. Plate sin with gold,
And the strong lance of justice hurtles breaks;
Arm it in rage, a pigmy's straw doth 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.

The as-yet not fully tempered Edgar may not wholly perceive the validity of these observations ("O, matter and impertinency mix'd, / Reason in madness" [4.6.174-5]), but modern audiences invariably see deeper than he does, and can share the insights which ensure Lear will never again pursue rash condemnation. His state of mind is the opposite of madness.

The play is thus not pessimistic though truly tragic in that what destroys the two principals is not innate vice, such as causes the deaths of Edmund and the wicked sisters, but too strenuous a pursuit of virtue. The great affirmative value that we moderns may properly attach to Lear lies in its provocative demonstration that even as old, dictatorial and irascible a figure as Lear can display a capacity for moral discovery and psychological growth. Our activist and destructive age may despise Lear's aspiration to quietism when Cordelia is restored to him, but the powers of adjustment that Lear shows illustrate a human adaptability that is of central importance to our aging society, as gerontologists such as Marion Diamond confirm. To call the processes of this transformation madness is not only a failure in critical observation, it risks a misjudgment of the possibilities of creative retirement in our current aging population.

At Berkeley I have been frequently cited (and sometimes mocked) for saying that my students will probably only be finally able to judge my interpretation of Lear on their deathbeds, which may make their course evaluations unhelpful, so I will conclude my analysis of Lear with a more practical demonstration of how it largely fits Lope de Vega's specifications for tragicomedy, or at least why, while it may be tragic, it is not pessimistic. It certainly involves many deaths, but one must concede that the deaths of Cornwall, Goneril, Regan and Edmund are deserved. While the aged Gloucester suffers agonizingly, instead of dying as a suicide, he dies "smiling" from excessive joy at recovering his son Edgar. We can only hope for such a happy decease. As for Lear, he dies in his eighties, having recovered Cordelia and fought to the death to save her, a hero to the end. May we all live to be so heroic at that age! What most offends critics such as Samuel Johnson is the death of Cordelia. However, it is her intransigence that precipitates disaster, and not just in the destruction of her entire family. For, like Hamlet, her concerns are at odds with the autonomy and survival of her native country: she almost achieves French hegemony over Britain, just as Hamlet hands over Denmark to its dearest enemy: Fortinbras of Norway. In Shakespeare's original source Cordelia dies as a suicide, so at least he chooses to free her from the shame of such despair, since in his version she dies by malicious execution. This killing is also repented of by its cynical perpetrator Edmund, a reversal some modern directors hesitate to stage because of its affirmation of virtue's supremacy over evil, in the person of Edgar. Lear may be made to die crushed by Cordelia's death, but one must question whether he dies so despairingly, for his last words suggest a hint of hope that she still breathes: "look, her lips./ Look there, look there!" (5.3.311-2). If this option seems unacceptable, remember that Shakespeare will soon write The Winter's Tale, which restores to life a woman supposedly dead for sixteen years, following a pattern of survival confirmed by Juliet, Hero, Marina, and Imogen.

One last positive consideration about the play's conclusion may incline one to accept the implication of the last moments of Kozintsev's film. If Kent and Albany both seem too old and exhausted to accept high office, this is not true of Edgar. While Brook's film contemptuously elbows him out of the final frames, Kozintsev centers the first signs of social recovery around the thoughtful survey of his new kingdom by Edgar. Edgar represents a reassuring figure like Malcolm in Macbeth, since he has not merely survived but learned from Lear's sufferings, and has already boldly intervened in the history of his society by defeating Edmund. Edgar seems superior to the flawed and ineffective Cassio who succeeds Othello as ruler of Cyprus, even if he starts off as equally naïve. But by the end of the play Edgar is even more cunning and effective than Edmund without becoming evil. Moreover, he stage-manages a catharsis for his father in his mock-fall from Dover Cliff which purges him of his suicidal instinct, even if it offends many by its grotesqueness, such as Kozintsev, who omits it. However, Edgar proves even more incredible to many modern directors in achieving the repentance of Edmund that almost saves Cordelia. Such manipulative power explains why Branagh chose to cast himself as Edgar in his production of the play, for his sense of the role's supremacy has some historical confirmation.

For Shakespeare inserted the name of this historical Anglo-Saxon king into a legend dealing with pre-Roman Britain, and it does not occur in the Gloucester subplot's source in Sidney's Arcadia, which deals with a king of Paphlagonia and his sons. That the Anglo-Saxon allusion is not accidental is confirmed by the importation of other similar names associated with King Edgar, Oswald and Edmund (as Shakespeare would surely know as his own younger brother was called Edmund). Historically, King Edgar (A.D. 944-975) is best known as one of the most admired Anglo-Saxon kings, frustrating to historians because nothing drastic occurred throughout his reign. The Dictionary of National Biography observed that "It is a sign of Edgar's competence as a ruler that his reign is devoid of recorded incident." However, the vicissitudes of King Edgar's earlier career do parallel those of Shakespeare's Edgar. Each Edgar displays a "rivalry between him and his elder brother," ending with the death of the dominant sibling and his replacement by his "weaker" rival despite some of the sexual escapades unexpectedly confessed by Edgar in the play (3.4.85-98), but true of the historical figure. This Edgar resembles Prince Hal in his reversal of character on becoming king. The historical Edgar accepted a seven-year penance for his earlier sins, and was so repentant as to "postpone his coronation until he felt he had come to full maturity of mind and conduct." By the time of his coronation at Bath in A.D. 973 King Edgar had become "Albiones Imperator Augustus"—the first High King of Britain accepted even by King Malcom of Scotland. His coronation remains a subject of unique interest as "the first coronation of which we have a minute description," including the famous acclamation "Let the king live forever!' and a promise to "command justice and mercy in all judgments." As most English school-children have been taught ever since, in testimony to Edgar's distinction, six British kings including Malcolm rowed a boat across the River Dee under his command.

King Edgar showed such skill as a diplomat and administrator that his reign was frustratingly peaceful: "It was a period of national consolidation, peace and orderly government." One of his key traits was the antithesis of Lear's self-confidence, for Edgar was careful to support existing officers, institutions and law at home; and he maintained peace abroad to a degree that earned him censure from an aggressive nationalist for "his love of foreigners and of foreign fashions and evil ways." For example, "he seems to have carefully forborne from interfering with the customs and internal affairs of the Danish district, which thus achieved its special status as "the Danelaw." His own laws were few, and "the words that stand at the head of his ordinances commanding that every man should be worthy of folk right, poor as well as rich, show the spirit of his administration." With such a discreet policy "The peace of the years between 955 and 980 left a permanent impression on English history in the sphere of religion and culture" for which "King Edgar was a decisive factor." Ancient scholars "regarded Edgar with veneration" and modern historians "include him among the greatest of Old English rulers." In more popular terms, Edgar's "personal character, the events of his life, and the glories of his name made a deep impression on the English people. Not only are four ballads, or fragments of ballads, relating to his reign preserved in different versions of the national chronicle, but a large mass of legends about him, originally no doubt contained in gleemen's songs, is given by William of Malmesbury."

It is with this enduringly popular figure that Shakespeare's audience would have associated the name of Edgar in King Lear. The telescoping of history, here the superimposing of the Anglo-Saxon succession on to a pre-Roman dynasty, is a classic device in Shakespeare, which allows him to demonstrate more boldly the outcome of his plots in a long-term perspective, as can equally be seen in Hamlet (see the essay after the Hamlet single-play bibliography). By the time of Edgar kings no longer display the rigid mind-set of pagan heroic society: it has softened to a subtler, less dangerous view of state affairs. In retelling a later history of a daughter misjudged by her father, by another king of ancient Britain, Cymbeline, Shakespeare shows how a Christian spirit is already emerging in the Western world: for Jesus was born during his reign. Initially severe, Cymbeline evades Lear's harsher fate, in an even more tangled situation requiring judgment of his three children, by concluding: "Pardon's the word to all" (5.5.422). In that context we can see that King Lear is not simply a play about the negative nature of its universe as implied by Aristotle's preferred mode of tragedy, but a study in which a perceptive Christian audience may balance what can happen in an over-judgmental world in which forgiveness and mercy are not yet axiomatic against what they know is happily fated to be achieved under King Edgar. The defining image of British history that a self-conscious Elizabethan audience might carry away from Edgar's survival at the end of King Lear is not a relentless downward sweep of the Wheel of Fortune, as Chaucer's Monk would have seen it, but an upward spiral of Britain's future towards the late romances' happy endings, and indeed reflected in the evolution of Shakespeare's oeuvre as a whole.

Because this idea of seeing the ultimate ending of King Lear as in any way positive may seem merely eccentric in the grim modern world of fashionable criticism, I will conclude this chapter with another critic's analogous analysis, one sharing Kozintsev's vision of Edgar as, finally, a hopeful figure. Abraham Stohl has written:

What most distinguishes the Folio from the Quarto version of King Lear is Edgar's acceptance of the crown in the later play. At the end of the Quarto, the kingdom bounces from unwilling to unable hands after the death of Lear: Albany no sooner succeeds than he tries to pass the responsibility to Kent and Edgar. Kent's response is a poignant refusal; Edgar is simply silent. The crown returns to Albany by default. In his final lines, Albany neither accepts nor rejects it, and nowhere indicates that his present business is anything more than general woe:

The weight of this sad time we must obey,
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.
The oldest hath borne most; we that are young
Shall never see so much, nor live so long.

In the Folio ending, however, Edgar is not silent. He speaks these closing lines, and this greatly changes the tenor of the ending: instead of Albany holding the short straw, we get Edgar stepping forward . . . And if the Folio Edgar is a plausible king, it is a status won out of the text. . . so that he emerges from his own trials not only experienced, but seeming stoic and heroic—acting, that is, like a king. The Folio's Edgar does not make for a comic ending—he hardly redeems the expansive tragedy of the play—but by acceding to the throne he does provide a measure of hope, moving away from the utter despair of the Quarto.

(Stoll, ??)

Whatever the motive for the Folio's revisions of Quarto readings, the phrase "we that are young" hardly seems to fit the jaded and ineffective Albany, which suggests that the Folio reassigns these lines correctly to the new voice of authority on the stage: Edgar establishes the play's very last moment as one latent with recognition of the significance of other characters' experience. Sharing the artistic authority of Lope de Vega, through his memorable films of Hamlet and Lear, Kozintsev may well have earned the right to the last word on the play, when he concludes in Shakespeare, Time and Conscience: "The optimism of King Lear does not only lie in the idea that evil men are punished or kill one another; it lies in the feeling of victory of the worthy over the unworthy" (102). This comes remarkably close to Cinthio's view of tragicomedy.


Stoll, Abraham. 1999. Edgar and Kingship in the Three King Lears. Shakespeare and Renaissance Association of West Virginia: Selected Papers 22: 1-16.


Here is one modern student's corroboration of some of the above arguments:

The plays are wide open for interpretation. Nevertheless, I found some productions anathema to my conception of the text. Brook's King Lear provides a nihilistic interpretation of the play, presenting an unlovable King that almost merits the disregard of his daughters. By taking away my sympathy for the characters, Brook deprived me of an emotional response to his production. Ironically, this tactic confirmed my "Bloom-based" interpretation of the text. Lear must be lovable; if we cannot identify with him then we cannot share in his despair or his redemption.

Joel Short in Triangulating Shakespeare: Steve Marx web site, Cal Poly University

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