“Then Shall the Realm of Albion Come to Great Confusion” A Reading of King Lear

“Humanity must perforce prey on itself,
Like monsters of the deep” (4.2 50-51).

King Lear: Cordelia’s Farewell by Edwin Austin Abbey

In Shakespeare’s seminal work, King Lear, we are conveyed backward in time to the legendary world of ancient Briton, an age of Celtic kings and druid mysteries. If we accept Geoffrey Monmouth’s 12th century History of the Kings of Britain, the historical “King Leir” ruled at some point during the 8th century BC, predating the birth of Arthur, Julius Caesar, and the Anglo-Saxon and Norman invasions. It is also no coincidence that the rule of King Lear coincides with events taking place halfway across the world in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. In selecting this heroic era for his masterpiece, Shakespeare sheds light on the fact that while many things have changed since the 8th century BC, such as the outgrowth of particular customs and religions, the enduring questions of political philosophy, and therefore of human nature, still persist for us today.

At the time Shakespeare was writing King Lear (perhaps 1605-1606), James I had acceded the throne of England and the twilight of the Tudors had given rise to the Stuart dynasty. Son of Mary Queen of Scots, James I was a king known for accepting flattery (Shakespeare often reminds us that kings tend to be surrounded by flatterers rather than honest brokers). The Good Queen Bess had given up the ghost in 1603, and with her childless demise came a fractured body politic wherein rebellion, civil war, and divided kingship were of great concern. And the topic at the forefront of Englishmen’s minds concerned the king’s proposed union between Scotland and England, a proposition which engendered an identity crisis for the two kingdoms. Was there anything natural about England’s division from Scotland? Could there be any unforeseen consequences resulting from James’s proposed union?

Our setting in King Lear is a mist-locked pagan world –a pre-Christian, polytheistic cosmos wherein the stars and planets bode ill-fated astrological omens for humans (“these late eclipses of the sun and moon portend no good to us”). The gods of classical antiquity are also regularly referenced –Hecate, Jupiter, Juno, Apollo and so on—and Nature is referenced over forty times in the play. These religious customs contrast sharply with those of Shakespeare’s world in 17th century Protestant England. As in his other plays, why would Shakespeare once again direct our attention to an ancient pagan kingdom in King Lear? What can this era teach us about politics and human nature? To address this question, we must take a closer look at King Lear.   

At the start of the play, the elderly King Lear is a confident and erudite king. He speaks in iambic pentameter and uses the royal “we.” After some sixty years on the throne, he is approaching the end of a successful reign and his heart is set on retirement –while a comfortable retirement might be fitting for a tradesman, is it a noble end for a king? At this point in his life, the natural continuation and perpetuation of his crown is of paramount concern. He has no sons, and therefore no male heirs, but he has three adult daughters (presumably Lear is a widower, his late queen is never discussed in the play). His daughters are: Goneril, the eldest who is married to the Duke of Albany (Albany is a northern region close to the border with Scotland); Regan, who is married to the Duke of Cornwall (Cornwall is located in the southwest); and Cordelia who is unmarried (her name alludes to couer or “heart”). Rather than simply allowing the customary practice of primogeniture to proceed, Lear decides to pro-actively divide his kingdom among his three daughters so that he may witness his regime’s continuation. As he enters a grand hall, Lear triumphantly announces a “darker purpose” in acknowledging his age and the need to “shake all cares and business… on younger strengths while we unburdened crawl toward death” (1.1.38-39). Therefore, Lear institutes an ill-fated “test of love” for each of his daughters:

“Tell me, my daughters-
Since now we will divest us both of rule,
Interest of territory, cares of state-

Which of you shall we say doth love us most,
That we our largest bounty may extend
Where nature doth with merit challenge” (1.1 48-53).

Here we find Lear’s first invocation of “nature” in the play –he believes it is natural to ask his daughters to engage in a challenge, a proof of their love for their father, keeping in mind that he intends to divest himself of power, land, and other affairs of state, while still enjoying the privileges of remaining “every inch a king.” He intends to remain a king, without actually being a king. The largest share of his kingdom will be given to his daughter who best meets his challenge. For Lear, his test is “Natural,” and Nature in this case is a place wherein political power is dispensed at will –it is a test which incentivizes greed within his family. Perhaps Lear forgets that people tend to appear virtuous and loyal when they stand to inherit. It is also apparently Natural (according to Lear) for a king to retire at the mercy of his children. And his retirement raises a problem which is peculiar to Lear and his kingship. He has grown complacent and has come to confuse the classical Aristotelian distinction which exists between Nature (physis) and custom/convention (nomos), believing that all customs simply emanate from his will and that Nature will merely conform to his wishes. He forgets about the cold and inhuman world of natural phenomena, where storms roll over the land with wanton disregard for either rank or privilege, and where careless rains fall on the dead as well as the living alike. It is a place where justice is absent. However, Nature also speaks to the healthy continuation of the city –a man like Lear simply cannot be both a king, and yet also not a king. Customs, like the rule of primogeniture, require deference, despite Lear’s best efforts.

Lear begins his “love test” by asking each of his daughters to quantify their love for him in exchange for their inheritance. How do they respond? We proceed by age, with the eldest, Goneril, speaking first. She claims to love Lear more than words, eyesight, space and liberty, beyond what can be valued, no less than life, as much as any child or father, and beyond speech. Goneril’s theme is that her love is limitless. Based on this, Lear uses a map to delineate a tract of land with “shadowy forests” and “champaigns riched” with “plenteous rivers” and “wide-skirted meads” –he grants this bounteous land to Goneril and the Duke of Albany and their issue in perpetuity (though they have no children). We are led to believe that this region includes lands which Goneril and Albany already preside over. Next, Regan echoes what her elder sister professed; however, Regan declares herself an enemy to all other joys aside from her father’s love. She narrows her focus and eliminates anything else standing in the way of true love for her father. Whereas Goneril was expansive, Regan is concise. Both daughters illustrate a problem with love –how is it to be measured, quantified, and delineated? Can “good effects spring forth from words of love” as Kent suggests? Love and politics make dangerous bedfellows, and it’s difficult to locate a transference of inheritance in equal proportion to amount of love. It’s no coincidence that a regime premised on such love descends into a monstrous tyranny once egoism is unleashed. A regime based on the quantification of love does not lead to virtue. At any rate, wary of sycophancy and flattery, Cordelia refuses to participate in her father’s game. On the surface it may seem that Cordelia behaves with integrity, however on a much deeper level, she is shown to be a character with all “heart” but no political tact. To understand this problem, we must mine deeper into the heart of the matter.

Why does Lear institute such a test for handing down his throne in the first place? Consider the political situation. Abroad, we are offered a glimpse at a delicate balance between kingdoms. The chief powers on the continent are: France and Burgundy (later, we also hear of Germany). France (ruled by the Franks) is a vast rival kingdom of England. Burgundy, on the other hand, is a smaller regional power which lies further eastward, a wealthy textile hub later associated with the Hapsburgs. The rulers of France and Burgundy are presently in England as rival suitors, jockeying for the hand of Lear’s lovely young daughter, Cordelia (Lear’s personal favorite of his daughters). Stepping into Lear’s shoes, which of these two suitors would be a better son-in-law to select? Choosing the King of France would all but assure a future French king on the English throne –either before or after the passing of Lear. Whereas, the Duke of Burgundy poses minimal threat to England, yet his alliance offers the possibility of geographically isolating France, which sits between England and Burgundy. Therefore, Lear has every interest in quietly selecting Burgundy. However, he cannot simply hand over his crown to Burgundy and Cordelia. His two eldest daughters are already married, and an alliance of the two of them against Cordelia would surely spark a civil war. Lear must appear to be a neutral arbiter. Domestically, there is also competition within Lear’s court –the Earl of Kent (located in the Southeast) worries that Lear favors the Duke of Albany over the Duke of Cornwall, the respective spouses of Lear’s two elder daughters (notably, James I’s two sons also counted the Duke of Cornwall and the Duke of Albany among their many titles at the time of Shakespeare’s writing). With this troubled state of affairs in mind, Lear has concocted the “love test” in order to keep the peace and protect the throne of England. Lear’s greatest problem, and the problem of all monarchies for that matter, concerns the question of succession. How shall a king ensure the perpetuation of his rule? Even though Lear might have been a praiseworthy king in his day, there is no guarantee that his firstborn will continue his grand legacy (and, indeed, Lear seems to think Goneril is unworthy of sole inheritance despite her birthright).   

Meanwhile Cordelia, ever the honest lover, fails to understand this delicately unfolding political dance and she decides to not to play along with her father’s test, believing herself to be the only true lover of her father, even though she actually plays a heavy part in his downfall. Cordelia’s share of the kingdom would have been the largest central section –we might say that Lear hoped she would ally herself with the Earls who are most loyal to Lear and that she might marry the Duke of Burgundy, thereby keeping France at arm’s length and gaining a wealthy new ally. However, Cordelia does not foresee this turn of events. She values love, loyalty, and honesty above all else. Therefore, she marries the King of France after the Duke of Burgundy starts to see his fortunes fading (“respect and fortunes are his loves”), and Cordelia is quickly whisked across the channel to become Queen of France. Her integrity, while admirable in some senses, exposes a tension between the values of politics and the values of truth. Honesty is not always the best policy in the game of politics. Modern readers tend to view Cordelia as a noble martyr, a selfless figure who exemplifies our own modern prejudices in favor of faith, hope, and love, however this interpretation, while common, merely scratches the surface at best.

Following the collapse of the “love test,” the fabric holding Lear’s kingdom together is torn apart as conventional and natural bonds between father and daughter, husband and wife, sister and brother, king and subject soon dissolve. What held these bonds together in the first place? How shall we define this space in between people that allows for such hierarchies, repayment of debts, and fulfillment of promises? This is the central question of justice in Plato’s Republic. In this case, King Lear divides his kingdom equally between his two elder daughters, Goneril and Regan, who quickly reveal themselves to be as ruthless as they are avaricious. Both daughters cast out their elderly father and justify his exile on the vague accusation of “rowdiness” among his hundred knights. With nowhere left to go and a storm rapidly approaching, all the trappings of civilized society are stripped away for the former king as he battles his own descent into madness. Only those most faithful to Lear remain in disguise by his side, especially the Earl of Kent who returns being banished, himself, for counseling the king against cursing Cordelia. Kent reappears covertly as “Caius” (coming down to us from its Latin origin meaning “rejoice”). He is a military man (“a gentleman of blood and breeding”) and he respects the virtues of strength and loyalty more than anything else –at least upon first inspection. He physically assaults Oswald, a sycophantic steward in Goneril’s court which lands Kent in the stocks (Oswald’s demise is later brought about by Edgar, son of the Earl of Gloucester). The scuffle soon leads to the death of the Duke of Cornwall, husband of Regan. Kent remains loyal to Lear, he appears to be a defender of the regime, until we dig a little deeper and begin to see Kent quietly sowing chaos beneath the surface. For example, at the start of the play, it is Kent who encourages Lear’s “love test,” and later, after Lear was banished by Goneril but before arriving at Regan’s home, Kent mysteriously arrives and behaves in a violent manner, thereby confirming Regan’s suspicions that Lear’s knights have all grown rowdy. By landing in the stocks, Kent serves as a wedge between Lear and Regan. Without Kent’s actions, could it have been possible for Lear to be accepted into Regan’s home? And lastly, Kent invites the armies of France onto British soil, encouraging war in his homeland –are we certain that the French King could possibly have the best interests of Lear’s regime at heart? Appropriately, Kent (whose lands will later become home to the seat of the Archbishop of Canterbury) has somewhat questionable political loyalties. He represents the trans-political Christian ethos.

The banishment of Lear leads the former king on a meandering sojourn, wandering out into the barren heath as his knights abandon him and the venerable king assumes the visage of a beggar, shouting into the ether while a foul tempest falls upon the land (a storm is, after all, a disruption of nature’s order). Lear is joined by a truth-telling yet bawdy Fool who ceaselessly reminds him of his own faults and missteps, playfully dubbing the former king “nuncle” and invoking the image of a “coxcomb.” The Fool’s speeches are insightful but not particular life-affirming or helpful for Lear (the Fool curiously disappears during the storm in Act III, and at the end of the play, Lear laments the hanging of his “poor fool” –is this a reference to Cordelia or the Fool?). At any rate, we are called upon to compare the Fool to Edgar (as Poor Tom) since both characters offer important teaching and advice to Lear.

King Lear by George Frederick Bensell 19th century

In the play, we also meet an aging Epicurean, the Earl of Gloucester (south-centrally located) who has two sons, an elder son named Edgar and a bastard son named Edmund (both of their names etymologically originate in Saxon lore). In some respects, we are asked to compare Gloucester with Lear. Both men are abused by their heartless, overly ambitious children –Lear by his two elder daughters, and Gloucester by his resentful bastard “whoreson” Edmund, a nasty child who seeks to overcome his own illegitimacy in order to inherit his father’s title, land, and wealth. He pledges himself to the deification of Nature:

“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?
When my dimensions are as well compact,
My mind as generous and my shape as true
As honest madam’s issue? Why brand they us
With base? With baseness, bastardy? Base, base?
Who in the lusty stealth of nature take
More composition and fierce quality
Than doth within a dull stale tired bed
Go to the creating of a whole tribe of fops
Got ‘tween a sleep and wake. Well, then,
Legitimate Edgar, I must have your land.
Our father’s love is to the bastard Edmund
As to the legitimate. Fine word, ‘legitimate’!” (1.2 1-18).

As a bastard son, Edmund longs to escape the “plague of custom.” After all, it was through the “lusty stealth of nature” that he was conceived but it was only in the political body that he has been condemned as “bastardy and base” (interestingly enough, his anonymous mother apparently died in childbirth). As the kingdom is on the cusp of unnatural devolution, Edmund succumbs to his private desire for advancement –he is the embodiment of resentment. When such egoism is unleashed, and used as the criteria by which the king shall judge his own daughters, private vice overwhelms public virtue, and the kingdom collapses. In both Edmund’s and Lear’s speeches, there is folly in trusting when one truly believes he understands Nature in a comprehensive sense. Nature becomes a blank canvass upon which the characters place their fears and ambitions.  

After hearing Edmund’s yarn detailing how their father, the Earl of Gloucester, intends to punish Edgar for supposedly revolting and claiming the estate for himself (a plot which is actually Edmund’s all along), Edgar decides to assume a disguise, to “take the basest and most poorest shape… brought near to a beast” as Poor Tom O’Bedlam, a former lusty courtier (his name is an allusion to a 17th century anonymous “mad poem” of the same name). Poor Tom is a wise beggar who joins with Lear, and whom Lear refers to as a “philosopher” and a “learned Theban” (an allusion to Oedipus) and a “Noble Philosopher” and finally a “good Athenian.” Like Oedipus, Poor Tom proceeds from being a Theban to an Athenian. Lear and Poor Tom engage in a dialogue between philosophy and kingship in search of natural man and the philosopher king. At this point in Act III, scene IV –the exact midpoint of the play– Lear is stripped of all conventions. He has no food, no shelter, and even his clothes are ripped off. He is truly naked against the unforgiving elements (not unlike Diogenes the Cynic). He becomes man in the State of Nature, further from king and closer to beast. Contra the art and order provided by society, Lear begins to learn that Nature is chaotic, disorderly, and uncaring. Even thunder seems unfazed by his kingly cries. Since being expelled by his daughters, in which his “needs” were questioned, Lear has been on a quest to discover what humankind truly needs to survive (under the false premise that answering this question will illuminate the question of justice).

“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” (2.4 304-307).

Lear is on a fatalistic venture into the unknown wherein all desires and conventions are gutted. What is left is an unrecognizable madman howling into the void. Humankind simply cannot live by the Marxist slogan of “each according to his need,” instead people need the comfort, joy, art, bounty, and beauty that comes from leisure afforded by civilization. However, having been reduced to a foolish old man and a lowly beggar, Lear’s universal Pyrrhonic doubt leads him to suggest that perhaps even the gods are unjust. Lear no longer believes in justice and finds that isolated man in the State of Nature is either a god or a beast, but finding neither, Lear discovers life on this barren heath to be “solitary, nasty, brutish, and short.” Much like Lear, modern political philosophy examines ancient political questions through a reductive lens, as well. In Leviathan (1651), Thomas Hobbes invokes the image of natural man stripped of all conventions, struggling in a war of all against all until forming a compact to secure a temporary peace. This image is predicated on a reduction of the body politic to its component parts (i.e. individual people) so they can form a “social contract” which tempers their inner bestial impulses. However, Shakespeare anticipates this forthcoming school of thought and examines it with a skeptical eye in King Lear. Whereas Hobbes begins with a singular man alone in the State of Nature, Shakespeare begins with an orderly kingdom and we watch as it devolves into chaos. In many ways, Shakespeare agrees with Aristotle that the State of Nature for humanity exists within the body politic. King Lear does not present a speculative fairy tale of an individual human roaming outside the confines of politics. For Aristotle “Man is a political animal.” By nature, humanity is a political species –existing within tribes, cities, kingdoms, and states. Whereas modern thinkers like Rousseau and Hobbes take a reductionist approach to politics, Aristotle, in contrast, defines a thing by its perfection, excellence, or that which is when its growth is completed into its highest form. This is the meaning of nature in the Aristotelian sense. Isolated humans roaming about in the Hobbesian State of Nature would be as unrecognizable to us as beasts. Perhaps this is why Lear and Edgar (as Poor Tom) both appear to be inhuman and animalistic to other people.

At this point in the play, two parallel mock trials occur in Act III, one of Edmund and the other of Goneril and Regan, but both appear to be little more than a farce, a crude perversion of justice. Legal recriminations fall on deaf ears in the State of Nature. In some ways, Lear’s voyage into the State of Nature is the parallel of Shakespeare’s comedy, As You Like It. Both King Lear and As You Like It represent mirror comic and tragic versions of the same story, not unlike the relationship between A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Romeo and Juliet (Shakespeare meets Socrates’s challenge at the end of Plato’s Symposium that the best of poets can craft both tragedy as well as comedy). In comedy there is fertility, abundance, and bounty (such as a lush Arcadian Forest and the burgeoning young love in As You Like It), whereas in tragedy there is dearth and deprivation (such as the childless, loveless barren heath in King Lear).   

At this point in the play, Lear –who has lost everything including his kingship, as well as the bond of his daughters, the support of his knights, shelter, food, and even his faith in justice and the gods—begins to explore re-entry into society. Poor Tom introduces the idea of the “foul fiend.” Who is the “foul fiend”? He comes in many forms –Flibbertigibbet, Modo, Mahu, Smulkin, Frateretto (demons described in Samuel Harsnett’s writings on devils and demonology). In the fabled state of nature, man is fearful, servile, incoherent, bestial, superstitious, and almost unrecognizable, a sub-human being not unlike Caliban in The Tempest. Though it may be merely the garbled ramblings of a madman, the possible presence of the “foul fiend” nevertheless serves to persuade Lear that there may yet exist some form of divine justice, or at least a primordial representation of evil which might be to blame for his present circumstances. For all its failings, religion is shown to be integral to civic life (even as Shakespeare seems to strongly suggest, throughout his plays, that the wise man will keep religious excesses at arm’s length). As long as people believe they are heroes in a grand theological battle between good and evil, order in the city might still be preserved (at least in this respect). At any rate, both Lear and Edgar (Poor Tom) have been abused by their families, they are more “sinned against than sinned,” and they have been forced into a grimy hovel. Irritable, cold, hungry, and fearful, this is the fertile ground wherein a new kind of theology can be introduced –one that is premised on fear (i.e. “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” according to the Bible contra the teaching of Plato and Aristotle). Poor Tom the “Philosopher” describes to Lear certain nightingale hallucinations and other physical manifestations of evil which have been dogging him. Of course, in ancient tragedy, there were no such demons, however in modern tragedy, it is necessary to introduce them. As we previously established, those noble natural pagan deities who once sang the world into a beautiful order were dethroned in an unnatural manner when Lear’s kingdom fell into division and tyranny. Now, the gods must slowly be reintroduced as the city is reconstructed by the play’s end. Poor Tom restores faith not merely in the existence of the gods, but rather in the justice of the gods. No longer is Lear asking, “what is the cause of thunder?” (3.4. 163).

Whereas Edgar (as Poor Tom) reintroduces religion, Gloucester reintroduces shelter and the comforts of society. Lear’s experiment as Natural Man is ended as he is made to be civilized again. From here, Lear’s kingdom is reconstructed. The former king reappears adorned in a lavish crown of flowers, proclaiming “Nature’s above art in that respect.” However, the rule of Goneril and Regan still threatens the king’s life. The French army lands at Dover (in Kent’s territory) as war has come to Briton. It was Kent who had written to Cordelia about the whole affair –was he right to do so? Either way, Kent escapes with Lear to join the king’s allies at Dover, while Gloucester is betrayed by his bastard son, Edmund, and he is brutally blinded, left to wander with his disguised son, Edgar (who assumes yet another visage, this time of a “poor man”). Gloucester, blinded and betrayed, now wishes to leap from the cliffs to his death, but in disguise, Edgar concocts a ruse wherein his father merely believes he has been rescued by divine intervention. As with Poor Tom, Edgar realizes that what matters most to the elder ruling generation of England is what they believe, even if it be a lie. Edgar later reveals his true identity to his father offstage which causes Gloucester such great joy that he dies. Across the country, all parties converge on Dover –the armies under the unnatural rule of Goneril, Regan, and Edmund (who has unnaturally claimed his father’s inheritance) against an uneasy alliance of France, the forces of Kent, and those still loyal to Lear. Notably, the King of France departs before the battle begins in order to attend to more pressing domestic matters. France is not a kingdom divided against itself like England, rather it possesses a king who addresses the nation’s internal woes before seeking his own ambitions abroad. With the king gone, it is left to Queen Cordelia to lead the banner of France (even though earlier in the play we were told Monsieur La Far was left in charge of the French troops).

Tragically, the battle is lost –Cordelia and Lear are led away to be hanged while Edgar is triumphantly called forth by the Duke of Albany to defeat his traitorous brother on the field of battle (it was rumored that Edgar and Kent had fled to Germany). In the end, Edgar reveals his true identity, like Odysseus returning home to Ithaca, and he slays Edmund. Meanwhile, Goneril poisons Regan in mutual lust for Edmund (she actually poisons her sister prior to the battle between Edgar and Edmund), and Goneril commits suicide by stabbing herself offstage. Albany suggests renewing King Lear’s leadership of the kingdom, however Lear enters the scene carrying the body of Cordelia who has been hanged (“my poor fool is hanged”). Lear dies hoping Cordelia might yet still live. Lear and Cordelia die as heroes, their courage invokes feelings of horror rather than pity. Now, the kingdom is left to Edgar and Kent to “Rule in this realm, and the gored state sustain” as Albany proffers. Why does Albany not seek the crown, for himself? All throughout the play, his savage wife Goneril accuses Albany of having “milky gentleness” and “harmful mildness” and derides him for his “want of wisdom.” Like Lady Macbeth, Goneril chides her husband for not dedicating himself to the full measure of their monstrous tyranny. He is a kindly patriot who wants neither the rule of France nor the rule of Edmund, yet he also prefers not to rule himself, perhaps foreseeing grave consequences for the annihilation of the entire Lear bloodline.

Ordinarily, as custom would have it, the king’s crown would pass down to his firstborn. However, by the play’s end, Lear and his seed have all been exterminated. Egoism is outwitted and outmaneuvered as the disastrous effects of the “love test” are finally undone. Therefore, the kingship must be claimed rather than inherited. Rather than jointly ruling the kingdom, Kent ominously departs on a personal journey:

“I have a journey, sir, shortly to go;
My master calls me, I must not say no” (5.3 320-321).

Presumably, Kent departs on his journey unto death where he will join his master (Lear) by falling on his sword like a loyal antique Roman. However, another possible interpretation of Kent’s final words is that his Master is actually the King of France, whom Kent considers an ally. Indeed, Kent and France were close enough in alignment that Kent was the earl who extended the fateful invitation for France to invade England during the reign of Goneril, Regan, and Edmund –is this not a kind of treason? Perhaps now Kent foresees trouble on the horizon in this divided kingdom. His loyalties and motivations throughout the play have been murky. At any rate, he refuses to accept the request to rule the kingdom. In this sobering scene, the last three men standing are disinclined to the assume the burden of power. The crown lies heaviest on those who truly understand its immense gravitas.

Lastly, as is standard in Shakespeare, the final words of the play are reserved for the highest-ranking character left standing. In Macbeth it is Malcolm, in Hamlet it is Fortinbras, and in King Lear it is Edgar, the “philosopher” who wore many disguises, and restored faith in justice among the older generation, before ultimately ending the kingdom’s tyranny as a champion in battle. He possesses both strength of wits as well as strength of arms. Like Henry V, Edgar is Shakespeare’s warrior-king. However, the play King Lear is not merely a simple-minded hero’s tale, wherein good triumphs over evil. Its heroes are courageous, though they are entrapped by nature and fate. The heroism of Lear and Cordelia is cut down in the end and the play concludes in a somber funeral –redemption is not fully brought to the kingdom. In his final words, Edgar laments that the “oldest hath borne most” while “we that are young shall never see so much or live so long.” Edgar’s outlook is grim. His troubles with France are far from over, and internal divisions still persist within the kingdom. It should be noted that none of the surviving men are married –neither Edgar, Kent, nor Albany—and more importantly, none of them have any children. How can a regime survive if it does not produce offspring? The unnatural cruelty of Goneril and Regan is evil precisely because it has the power to destroy rather than to create or produce issue. It is the opposite of natural because it does not provide fertile ground for the future. This is where custom relies upon nature –the two are distinct, yet both rely upon each other in unique ways. In drawing our attention to nature (physis) and custom (nomos) throughout the play, Shakespeare also points us toward the fact that custom and the rule of law often rely upon a natural foundation of birth, growth, reproduction, and old age. There is a natural cycle to life, and likewise there is also a natural cycle to the body politic. Perhaps it was optimistic albeit foolish for Lear to believe that his throne could easily be divided according to a “love test,” exposing him to the mercies of the merciless. Rulers would do well to look toward Natural Right and learn the lessons of King Lear in order to avoid a similar unnatural upheaval in which the young overthrow the old. The revolutionary spirit –children turned against their parents– returns again and again in classical philosophy as a point of grave concern, it is memorably explored by Plato and Aristophanes. It represents a chaotic revolutionary zeal which is unleashed by those who claim not to bring peace but a sword, thereby turning sons against fathers. In closing, the greatest tragedy of all in King Lear is the necessity of politics. In many respects, we are trapped by our need for governance. Like a tempest set to strike ancient Briton, Lear foresaw chaos coming to his kingdom, especially if he was to follow custom and hand his crown down to his first-born, Goneril. But when Lear attempts to delicately steer the ship of state toward a more balanced state off affairs, the kingdom is nevertheless struck by a tempest of its own. Sometimes all that stands between the rule of ghastly people like Goneril, Regan, and Edmund, is the courage of people like King Lear, who despite his best efforts, unintentionally allows for the rule of the worst among us.  

For this reading I used the impressive Arden edition of Shakespeare’s King Lear along with Paul Cantor’s excellent lectures.

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