On “The Limits of Politics: King Lear, Act I, Scene I” by Harry Jaffa

In Harry Jaffa’s essential essay on King Lear (“The Limits of Politics”), which appears as the final essay in Allan Bloom’s book entitled Shakespeare’s Politics, Jaffa begins by reminding readers of Abraham Lincoln, a great student of Shakespeare, and the difficult task for leaders who face the need to preserve a political regime from one generation to the next:

“According to that profound student of Shakespeare, Abraham Lincoln, the most difficult task of statesmanship is that of providing, not for the foundation, but for the perpetuation, of political institutions. If the political institutions are the best, to perpetuate them is not only the most difficult, but also the greatest of all the tasks of the statesman” (113).

Jaffa then makes the case that Lear represents the greatest of Shakespeare’s kings. Nowhere else in Shakespeare’s plays, particularly in his English histories, do we see a king who rules over such an orderly and peaceful kingdom. Jaffa says, “the supreme object of monarchical policy in the English histories is the unification and pacification of England” (113). Only Henry V even comes close to meeting this policy with success. However, at the outset Lear presides over a unified and peaceful kingdom of Britain (not just England). There is no domestic strife, and abroad, rivals line up as suitors for Lear’s youngest daughter, Cordelia. “Never in the histories does Shakespeare represent his native land at such a peak of prestige and political excellence; in King Lear alone do we find actualized the consummation devoutly wished by all other good Shakespearean kings” (113-114). Why does Jaffa travel to such great lengths to remind us of Lear’s greatness? For starters, it bolsters our understanding of the depth of this tragedy.  

Jaffa provides a clever bit of conditional statements in examining this question. If it is true that Lear is Shakespeare’s greatest king and that the perpetuation of his regime is a greater task than establishing it, then the opening scene of King Lear illuminates the “supreme problem” of his career –“that of providing for the succession to his throne.” However, the opening scene might also represent more. If it is true that Lear’s succession is his greatest act, and if it is true that Shakespeare regarded monarchy as the best form of government (albeit only in a theoretical sense) and if Shakespeare, a “renaissance classicist,” regarded man as a political animal, then it is possible that Lear’s act of succession is Shakespeare’s presentation of the highest human function.

Jaffa continues by challenging the popular criticism of Samuel Taylor Coleridge who suggested that omitting Lear’s first scene from the play would still allow for everything else in the play to remain intact. Coleridge likens King Lear to an absurd fairy tale. Jaffa then draws swords with Coleridge by noting that Shakespeare paid considerable attention to details in his plays and rarely wantonly added frivolous material –“That he was neither lazy nor indifferent in his attitude toward his stories is obvious from the fact that he frequently and freely altered his source materials” (115). Jaffa also expands upon A.C. Bradley’s well-regarded essays on Shakespeare to note that Coleridge is wrong in his assumption that the opening scene is somewhat careless.

Jaffa analyzes the political situation in this scene as Lear’s reign comes to a close. By now, there is a remarkable unity in Briton. Lear’s two elder daughters, Goneril and Regan, have been married for some time yet they have received no doweries (and have no children). Their husbands, Cornwall and Albany represent the extremities of Britain, north and south. Abroad, France and Burgundy make amorous overtures for the hand of Cordelia. Lear’s “original plan” was to dwell with Cordelia in her “more opulent” middle section of the country while Cornwall and Albany serve as his deputies in the far-flung regions. Therefore, a carefully crafted plan (with “intellectual precision”) is needed to secure Lear’s successorship.   

Once establishing the importance of the opening scene, Jaffa also critically examines popular theories of Lear being insane. “The generally accepted explanation is that of Bradley: Lear is a foolish, vain, selfish old man whose wits are beginning to fail” (117). If Lear is merely a foolish old man, our understanding of his suffering is diminished. “But great passion, be it that of Lear, of Oedipus, or of Jesus, implies greatness in the soul of the sufferer. A great passion is always, in some sense, compensation for a great error. As Plato teaches in the Republic, great errors are the work of great souls, souls capable of either great good or great evil” (117). Lear is hardly a feeble old man –we see him hunting while staying at Goneril’s castle, and even in the closing scene of the play, Lear still manages to kill a man single-handedly (he slays the hangman).  

Then why does Shakespeare show us the failure of a great king like Lear? Jaffa argues that we would be unable to see the greatness of the action if we did not witness its downfall. “In determining the tensile strength of a cord, it is necessary to find the least weight that will break the cord in order to find the greatest weight the cord will support. So it was necessary for Shakespeare to show us the point at which the most skillful policy of his most successful king broke in order to point us, and thus define for us, the limits of kingly virtue” (129). Jaffa suggests that Lear’s anger at Cordelia is actually a deep frustration with the collapse of his own elaborate plan –a plan which is premised on Lear’s godlike desire to control the comprehensive unfolding of events. “A god could be loved without loving, but a man cannot” –and therein lies the flaw in Lear’s love test. When Cordelia declines to participate in her father’s test, Lear quickly becomes alienated not only from his daughter, but also from himself and his knowledge and belief in justice. Cordelia’s rebellion exposes a tension between the values of truth and love against the value of justice. In spite of the uncaring skies and the gods who dwell therein, “the problem of the perpetuation of the perfect regime” persists and reminds us of the supreme tragedy in King Lear.    

Jaffa, Harry. “The Limits of Politics” as featured in Allan Bloom’s Shakespeare’s Politics (1964) University of Chicago Press (paperback edition).

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