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).

On “King Lear: The Question of Divine Justice” by Timothy Burns

The fourth of five essays in his book entitled Shakespeare’s Political Wisdom, in “King Lear: The Question of Divine Justice,” Timothy Burns examines the “most celebrated of Shakespeare’s tragedies” which is also “among the most difficult to interpret.” According to Burns, “King Lear explores the relations between love –be it filial, paternal, or erotic—and justice: our sense of worthiness, not only to be ruled but to rule and be ruled” (135). Love and justice appear to be at odds in King Lear –the tragedy of a king who attempts to secure enduring justice for his kingdom. And when his plan fails, it exposes the troubled nature of love and politics, which causes a collapse in faith in the gods.

In King Lear, “nature” is referred to more often than in any other Shakespeare play. It is appealed to as the standard of human conduct by the king of Britain, over and against either law or custom, both human and divine. Some characters feel that their “nature” has been subverted unjustly. Others believe themselves deserving of more rewards according to “nature.” This wordplay with the meaning of “nature” illuminates a key problem in the play, namely that characters often believe that justice is a true reflection of nature. In doing so, the play asks us to consider: who is truly deserving of good fortune? Should Albany receive a greater portion of the kingdom than Cornwall as Kent and Gloucester discuss at the play’s opening? Or should Goneril simply inherit the kingdom by right of primogeniture, despite Lear’s awareness that she would not be a fitting Queen? Is it natural for some to undeservedly receive more than others? Despite being a bastard, does Edmund deserve a share of his father’s inheritance since is he loved equally by his father (1.1 19-24)? Burns claims that in the play, as we are cast out from the stately halls of a king, out into a stormy tempest on a barren heath, that “we will be led to reflect on the question of what constitutes true worth or desert, desert by nature as opposed to mere law or convention” (136).

Along these lines, Lear also believes himself to be deserving of more. In old age, he seeks both rest and love from his daughters as he unburdens himself from the shackles of power while also easing the troubles of his kingdom. Thus, he initiates the infamous “love test.” Here, Lear conflates filial and familial affections with his political responsibilities. Is he still to remain “every inch a king?” The only response that seems to meet the moment is Cordelia and her profession of love ‘according to her bond, no more nor less.’ Her love, in this situation, is dutiful above all else, exposing the purity of her intentions –an entirely different response from the limitless love propounded by both Goneril and Regan (who must surely be lying since they are married and thus cannot possess limitless love for only their father). In response to her rejection of the game, Lear curses Cordelia according to the Sun and Hecate, and he declares that the barbaric Scythians –cannibals of their own offspring—are closer to him than Cordelia. Sadly, virtue goes unrewarded by Lear in this moment. The perpetuation of his regime is at stake as those most deserving of rewards do not receive them. Is this a “natural” turn of events?

By cursing both Cordelia and later Kent (by Apollo and Jupiter), Lear still affirms his faith in the gods at this point in the play. In fact, both Lear and Edmund call upon the gods to justify their machinations (“thou Nature art my goddess”). Consequently, natural explanations of eclipses in the sky transform into dark foreboding omens. According to Gloucester, these events foretell of imminent moral decline in human affairs, and he propounds the conservative’s well-trod claim that “we have seen the best of our time.” Men like Gloucester have been moved from accepting mere natural occurrences as fitting, to suddenly delivering an appeal to supernatural forces. On the other hand, Edmund rebels against all customs or conventions –he embraces the notion that the most dishonest are the most deserving. In a world where all people feel they are undeserving, people turn to the gods for divine recompense. Scarcity is the fertile soil in which theology triumphs.

After Lear has been cast out of Goneril’s castle, Burns provides a wonderful explanation of Kent’s behavior. Kent, an outwardly loyal character to Lear who bombastically confronts Regan and Cornwall and battles the sycophantic courtier Oswald, is actually seeking to confirm the rumors that Lear’s knights are excessively rowdy. Kent’s higher purpose is to spark a war between Albany and Cornwall and also initiate the return of Cordelia along with French troops in order to reinstate Lear on the throne. Burns suggests Kent is more akin to a Christian rather than classical figure (indeed Kent is the future seat of the Archbishop of Canterbury), perhaps this explains why Kent is secretly a sower of chaos throughout the play, albeit a devoted and loving servant of his king. Meanwhile, Edgar’s character is also further revealed in Burns’s essay. Like his brother, Edgar is contemptuous of astrology, however Edgar has been unjustly stripped of his conventional birthright and so he “shows resourcefulness in necessity” by assuming the visage of a mad beggar from Bedlam. He becomes natural man in the state of nature.

When Lear is officially cast out by his daughters, he continually appeals to the gods for justice, and in his famous “Oh reason not the need!” speech, Lear believes he deserves more than what is merely necessary at a primal level for “superfluities are a manifestation of worth, over and against mere natural needs” (152). Perhaps most notable of all, in the lowest of moments for Lear, he does not weep. To weep in such a situation would be to admit that “man’s life is indeed as cheap as beast’s.” His resistance to self-pity demonstrates Lear’s greatness of soul. At this point, he still clings to faith that the gods will bring vengeance on his enemies, however he is now wrestling with a new problem. How could the gods have allowed such a deluge of pain to befall him? Are they even gods at all? Can they not control the “terrors of the earth?” Or is the Fool correct when he points out that people should not be guided by a sense of dignity or deserving, sanctioned by gods, but rather by interests provident for oneself first? As Lear cries out into the wilderness, his shouts fall on deaf ears. Could the just gods be simply be absent from the world?

Enter Poor Tom O’Bedlam (edgar in disguise), a former courtier who claims to be suffering some form of divine retribution as punishment for his sins –lust, greed, pride, false oaths, and so on. He proclaims a new form of punishment at the hands of a “foul fiend.” This strange demonic presence comes to represent justice for Tom as a means of averting his own suffering. It is a kind of fairy tale told for the benefit of Lear. In contemplation, Lear decides to imitate Tom in nakedness and poverty, which he assumes to be the highest state of mankind around the midpoint of the play when things seem to be at their worst. Lear is now in pursuit of answers to questions plaguing him –a quest which will eventually lead him to doubt not only the existence of the gods, but also the existence of justice. In the end, after being reunited with Cordelia, the armies of Lear and France lose the battle to Goneril, Regan, and Edmund, and Lear views his newfound imprisonment as a form of deliverance from the suffering of political life. He embraces the idea of being a prisoner and a form of security. When the safety of the kingdom dissolves, it is natural to seek refuge from the storm, even in prison. By now, Lear has been moved from king to beggar in some respects, or at least reoriented away from the practice of political things. And by the end, he has lost all impetus to call upon the those silent celestial gods in the sky.  

“King Lear provides us with the attempt of a thoughtful and remarkably resilient former king whose experiences drive him to an active denial of divine law and move him, through the ‘tempest’ of his mind, in the direction of an understanding of ‘unaccommodated’ man, man as he is by nature and without any of the artful conventions that support the belief in providential gods. Though he considers this path ‘madness,’ and while it does tax his wits beyond what they can bear, it leads him to what might have been a more serene life of greater acceptance of nature’s necessities but for the death of his beloved daughter” (181-182). It is then left to Edgar to better endure the suffering of politics and rebuild the piety of Lear’s kingdom against the deafening silence of an indifferent universe.

Burns, Timothy W. Shakespeare’s Political Wisdom. Palgrave MacMillan. New York, NY (2013).

“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.

On “The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606” by James Shapiro

While many biographers of William Shakespeare have tended to focus almost exclusively on the Bard’s prolific period at the end of the Elizabethan era, in a more recent book entitled The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606 (2015), leading Shakespeare scholar James Shapiro focuses on Shakespeare’s late career resurgence through the lens of a single transformative year in English history: 1606.

It was a year of extraordinary tumult and upheaval –Elizabeth I “The Good Queen Bess” had died only a couple of years prior in 1603. With her death, and consequently the end of the childless Tudors, came the rise of the Stuart dynasty under James VI of Scotland (James I of England). The reign of the new king came with the promise of patching up old problems; James hoped to rule as a peacemaker, both at home and abroad, bringing unity to both England and Scotland, healing the rising religious fervor among the Puritans, Jesuits, and Church of England, and revitalize English art and culture via extravagant pageantry, despite the protestations of Parliament.

Shapiro chooses to begin his book during the holiday season of 1606 at the start of the new year. We are invited to stroll through the dark and whispering alleyways of 17th century London and join six hundred other aristocrats at the Banquetting House of the Palace of WhiteHall where a royal masque is set to be formed (a masque was an opulent, sycophantic stage performance wherein courtiers donned garish costumes and masks, the whole affair was embraced by James I). William Shakespeare, a nationally celebrated actor and playwright in his day who was also a shareholder in the Lord Chamberlain’s Men as well as the Globe Theater, was among the audience members at this masque. He would have known Whitehall well, having staged numerous performances there. At the time, Shakespeare and his troupe had recently been selected by James I to assume the privileged role of The King’s Men.

Shakespeare, himself, never elected to write a masque –a close reading of his plays suggests a personal aversion to flattery– and instead, he focused his talents on questions of political philosophy which would both delight as well as edify the court of crown. Although, at the dawn of the Jacobean era, Shakespeare remained remarkably quiet. Perhaps he was waiting, observing the court of the new king before staging new plays –in the absence of a colorful biography, Shakespeare’s silence sometimes speaks volumes.

Shapiro notes: “Having spent much of the past quarter century researching and writing about Shakespeare’s life, I’m painfully aware that many of the things I’d like to know about –what his political views and religious beliefs were; whom he loved; how good a father, husband, and friend he was; what he did with his time when he wasn’t writing—cannot be recovered. The possibility of writing that sort of biography died by the late seventeenth century, when the last of those who knew Shakespeare took their stories and secrets with them to the grave” (12). Nevertheless, “However much Shakespeare may have preferred to remain the shadows, he can be glimpsed in the glare of what was going on around him” (13).

Therefore, Shapiro guides us through the events of 1606 with an effort to illuminate why Shakespeare might have been relatively silent following the release of Hamlet, before embarking upon a string of seminal plays –King Lear, Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra. At the time, the Palace of Whitehall had come to represent the age –the Banquetting House was initially constructed by Queen Elizabeth when she was courted by Duc d’Alencon back in 1582, but by the Jacobean era it was in great need of repair. King James had grand visions for the palatial revival, but alas the debts inherited from the Tudors prevented him from incurring further debts. He was subsumed by hope, but entrapped by circumstances.

Several key events loomed over the year 1606, and therefore over Shakespeare’s plays, as well. In November 1605, a band of “Papist” terrorists very nearly enacted one of the more notorious acts of treason in history –the infamous Gunpowder Plot to blow up Parliament and assassinate the king. The perpetrators were caught, but the spirit of Catholic uprising had spread throughout the country, including in Shakespeare’s hometown of Stratford-upon-Avon. There was also a lesser-known armed uprising in Warwickshire of Catholic agitators seeking to undo the Protestant Reformation spurred on by Henry VIII, and many of those in the rebellion were known to Shakespeare. Throughout the country, fear of treason and sedition was high. There were rumors among the lower classes of demon possessions and other supernatural and magical fascinations. Among the gentry, there was a growing nostalgia for the return of the Good Queen Bess, while King James, who had hoped for Union between England and Scotland, spawned an internal identity crisis –was he ruling over the divided empire of Britain, or the separate country of England? The notion of divided kingship was therefore a key theme in Shakespeare’s King Lear.

As the year progressed, there was another brutal surge of the plague, following the initial outbreak in 1603, a year in which much of England was shut-down by royal decree, and the King’s expensive coronation ceremony was highly restrictive (all the roads were cleared for the king). This plague was a vicious and unforgiving disease that left many dead in its wake. Tens of thousands died in ghastly quarantined houses (some four thousand people died each week). There were those who decided to simply to roam out into the countryside to die, while others hurled themselves out of windows or drowned themselves in the Thames. Religiosity was ascendant and fiery clerics tended to blame the plague on the nation’s own immoral behavior. There was a predictable return of obsessiveness among the commons regarding demonic and satanic intrigue, and other apocalyptic concerns. Public events and gatherings were widely shuttered, including the Globe, and performances were broadly prohibited. Older plays were put under a rigorous regimen of religious sanitization and censorship, perhaps in an effort to appease the growing Puritanical fanaticism. Church attendance was made mandatory, and those who did not comply were prosecuted. Many Englishmen feared either death or the rising tide of civil war –and many of these popular anxieties found their way into Shakespeare’s plays.

By end of year in 1606, further transformation came to England as ships sailed from London to establish the first permanent American colony at Jamestown. Indeed, England was rapidly becoming Britain, and this new era was not lost on Shakespeare. “Shakespeare had spent much of his career writing about Englishness; indeed, a strong claim can be made that his nine Elizabethan English history plays did much to define English identity, if not English exceptionalism. That changed after he became a King’s Man and his attention, and that of his Jacobean audiences, turned from Englishness to Britishness” (40-41).

By 1606, Shapiro portrays Shakespeare as an aging behemoth of the stage. Once a celebritry actor and writer, in truth, acting was a young man’s game, and by now Shakespeare was in his early forties (on average, people died in their mid-forties in 17th century England). At the turn of the 1600s, Shakespeare was no longer beholden to his grueling writing routine of the 1590s. He was also now a rich man. Much of his wealth was invested in real estate, including a tract of land outside Stratford-upon-Avon that he purchased for 440 pounds, roughly the equivalent of twenty years work for a Jacobean schoolmaster. He remained a shareholder in his profitable play company and he was co-owner of the Globe Theatre. Shakespeare had more than enough money to retire in Stratford with his wife Anne (who had recently turned fifty) and their two unmarried daughters, Susanna and Judith. A decade had now passed since the death of their only son, Hamnet. In the winter of his life, Shakespeare knew he did not have much longer to write.

In the summer of 1605, John Wright began selling copies of a play called The True Chronicle History of King Leir, a play that was first staged in 1590. By now, Shakespeare had moved from his lodgings in Southwark to a quieter, more upscale neighborhood right around the corner from Wright’s bookshop. In need of new material to perform, Shakespeare’s company leaned on their eldest member to craft a new work of genius to please the king. Richard Burbage, the legendary star of the King’s Men who defined his career in such plays as Hamlet, Richard III, and Othello, was set to star as the titular character in King Lear. Burbage was in his late thirties by the time Lear was staged, and thus he was free to portray a more world-wearied, grizzled character, at least according to Jacobean standards. The brilliance of Shakespeare is that he speaks differently to unique audiences in his plays –to the vulgar, Macbeth and King Lear are examinations of evil supernatural events. To a more refined audience, Shakespeare uses these plays to explore the nature and limits of politics, which as Aristotle notes, is itself an examination of human nature.

At any rate, it was in this troubled age that Shakespeare crafted some of his greatest works –a year of superstitious resentments, fantasies, conspiracies, plagues, and religious fervor. The image of the Palace of Whitehall is revisited at the end of Shapiro’s book. He invokes the famous painting of James I wearing the “Mirror of Great Britain” a fabulous jewel which symbolized the prospective union, but it soon became apparent that his hopes were not to be. Like King Lear’s divided kingdom, the Jacobean lineage was to face trouble –there was the death of Queen Anne and Prince Henry (at the age of eighteen in 1612). King James’s daughter, Elizabeth, was married off as Queen of Bohemia but it was short-lived as she was soon exiled, and Prince Charles, who succeeded his father to the throne, would soon confront the many unresolved fiscal, religious, and political problems in the country as civil war and insurrection eventually led to his deposition and public execution on a scaffold outside the reconstructed Banquetting House of Whitehall in 1649.

James S. Shapiro (1955-present) is the Larry Miller Professor of English at Columbia University. He is a Governor of the Folger Shakespeare Library, a member of the Board of the Royal Shakespeare Company, Shakespeare Scholar in Residence at New York’s Public Theater, and was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He and his wife, Mary Cregan, reside in New York City. They have a son named Luke.

Shapiro, James. The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606. Simon & Schuster Paperbacks. New York, NY. 2015.