If a poll were to be taken amongst Shakespeare-lovers to determine Shakespeare’s greatest play (insofar as the term “greatest” is at all meaningful in this context), I suspect King Lear may well come top of the pile. This is rather odd for a number of reasons. Firstly, it is generally admitted that it is not the best constructed of Shakespeare’s plays: too many plot complications (e.g. the Goneril-Regan-Edmund triangle) are introduced comparatively late in the play when the audience’s attention is already focussed on other matters, and when there isn’t enough time to deal with these new elements in a satisfactory manner; the principal subplot is so similar to the main plot that the denouement of this subplot has to take place off-stage to avoid repetition; the motives of one of the main characters – Edgar – are left so vague as to be frequently incomprehensible; and so on.
And, on top of this somewhat careless construction, the characters are relatively simple: certainly, compared to the intricacy and subtleties of characterisation that may be found in earlier tragedies such as Julius Caesar, Hamlet or Othello, the characters here really are quite straight-forward: there really isn’t too much more than what one may see on the surface. For instance, compare Othello, Iago and Desdemona with Gloucester, Edmund and Edgar: we have a similar situation in both these triangles – an evil person poisons the mind of a credulous person, and convinces him that a genuinely good person is actually bad. But there is such depth to Othello, Iago and Desdemona that we continue arguing and disagreeing over them even after centuries of detailed thought and analysis. In comparison, there isn’t really too much to be said about Gloucester & co. (It is interesting to note in this context that in Bradley’s classic critical text Shakespearean Tragedy, his essays on King Lear remain, by general consent, the least convincing: this is surely because this is the play that responds least well to Bradley’s approach, with its focus on analysing character.)
So it is reasonable to ask why it is that this play, with all its flaws and shortcomings, makes so overwhelming an effect both in the theatre and in the study (and even, in my case, on the commuter train). Indeed, in writing up my impressions, I find it tempting simply to look up the word “overwhelming” in Roget’s Thesaurus, and to embed within a few sentences every adjective I can find. For there is no doubt that this play does overwhelm, and that, even with the help of Roget’s Thesaurus, one’s powers of articulacy seem helpless in the face of this fact. But trying to understand why it has such an effect is a tricky matter, and far from obvious.
Towards the end of the play, at its heartbreaking conclusion, Edgar and Albany comment:
– Is this the promised end?
– Or an image of that horror?
These two lines seem to me to reflect accurately what we feel: for we feel that what we have witnessed is no less than an image of the apocalypse itself. In Hamlet, we had witnessed one man’s concern with the value of life in the face of human frailty and of death; in Othello we had witnessed one man destroying that which is most precious, and damning his own soul in the process: in both these dramas, we had been caught up with the heartbreaking tragedies of the protagonists, and of those around them. But what we see in King Lear seems to be on a vaster scale: the tragedy affecting these individuals on stage seems a reflection of a broader tragedy that engulfs the whole of humanity itself.
One is tempted at this point to use the word “cosmic”, but before we do so, it is worthwhile to examine some comments made on this point by Jonathan Miller, who has directed this play with great distinction several times both on stage and on television, and probably knows it as well as anyone. He objects to the use of the word “cosmic”: the characters, he insists, are contending against each other, and not against cosmic forces. That they are contending against each other cannot be denied, but it seems to me to be worthwhile to ask ourselves why it is that so many readers and viewers feel that these admittedly human conflicts seem also to have a cosmic dimension. After all, the humans involved in these conflicts are not particularly profound characters – at least, not very profound when judged by the standards of Hamlet or Othello. Can it be possible that we find ourselves overwhelmed merely by these conflicts between sets of characters who are not in themselves particularly profound? Is it not, rather, that we see in these human conflicts evidence of forces that are greater? – i.e. “cosmic” forces?
This is not to dismiss Jonathan Miller’s point. Shakespeare, unlike, say, Dante or Milton, was not interested in presenting to us visions of a cosmic order. Even when he does approach such themes (as he does, I think, in this play), the focus is still on human affairs: what cosmic elements there are manifest themselves through these human affairs. But for all that, if we are to see this play purely in terms of humans contending against each other, it becomes difficult to account for the extraordinary impact it makes. Even so, perhaps it’s best, when we’re trying to understand and come to terms with so daunting a work, to start trying to understand purely on the level of human affairs, and then see if it leads us into other areas. If we were to jump straight into the metaphysics (something I feel frankly unqualified to do), we run the danger, I think, of losing our bearings. And in this of all plays, it’s very easy to lose one’s bearings.
The storylines are very simple, and well known. The principal one concerns Lear and his three daughters. Old King Lear, blinded by flattery, divides his kingdom between his two evil daughters who flatter him, and exiles the good daughter who doesn’t. But when the evil daughters turn him out during a storm, it’s the good daughter whom he had previously rejected who comes to his rescue. Summarised in such terms, it seems like a fairy story – a neat morality tale dramatising such trite morals as “One can’t judge by appearances”, or “One shouldn’t bend to flattery”. It seems, frankly, very unlikely material for what is universally regarded as one of the most powerful of all literary achievements.
To this simple story, Shakespeare adds a subplot that, in its outline, is virtually identical. The old Earl of Gloucester has two sons, one legitimate and the other illegitimate. The illegitimate son convinces his father that the legitimate son harbours murderous designs, and the father, believing only what he sees on the surface, orders the arrest of his good son, who has no option but to flee. But the illegitimate son then informs on his father, and the old man has his eyes gouged out, and, like Lear, is cast out into the elements, away from everything he had previously taken for granted. And now, in his deepest distress, it is his rejected child who tends to him.
What could Shakespeare have been thinking of, I wonder, in duplicating the plot? It may be argued that the duplication strengthens the impact of the story, but at the same time, it also makes for dramatic clumsiness: the climax of this subplot – where Edgar reveals himself to his father – could not even be played on stage, as that would be repetitive: we had already had the scene where Cordelia had revealed herself to her father. And yet I doubt there’s anyone who regrets Shakespeare’s decision to duplicate the plot: without this duplication, we wouldn’t have had that extraordinary scene where the mad Lear and the blind Gloucester meet on the moor. The whole essence of tragedy seems concentrated into this one single scene, and the odd bit of dramatic clumsiness seems a small price to pay.
But the point of this repetition is, it seems to me, to suggest a sense of the universal. A single picture of the dissolution of a single family is nothing more than the depiction of a particular, unfortunate case; but when we see the same pattern repeated, the impression is given of something more universal, as that single repetition suggests the possibility of many more. And this sense of a general pattern – this sense that what we are seeing is not restricted merely to these particular cases – conveys a sense of dissolution not merely of families, but of all bonds between human beings. Early on in the play, when Edmund starts first to poison his father’s mind against Edgar, Gloucester is given the following speech:
These late eclipses in the sun and moon portend no good to us: though the wisdom of nature can reason it thus and thus, yet nature finds itself scourged by the sequent effects: love cools, friendship falls off, brothers divide: in cities, mutinies; in countries, discord; in palaces, treason; and the bond cracked ‘twixt son and father. This villain of mine comes under the prediction; there’s son against father: the king falls from bias of nature; there’s father against child. We have seen the best of our time: machinations, hollowness, treachery, and all ruinous disorders, follow us disquietly to our graves.
We may, as Edmund does, laugh off Gloucester’s superstitions, but, coming as it does immediately after we have witnessed the breakdown of one family and seen the beginnings of the breakdown of a second, we are inclined to take seriously the image of a universal breakdown. The very repetition of the motif of breakdown impresses upon our mind its universal quality – the impression that what we are seeing is a sort of synecdoche, a part standing in for a greater whole.
This impression is strengthened in the storm scenes in Act Three, at the very centre of the play. In these scenes, quite astonishingly, the tragedy intensifies and the scope broadens at the same time. This is when Lear finds himself at the very nadir of his fortunes – when he, who had all his life taken for granted his royal status finds himself without even so much as a roof over his head. This is when his mind, for the first time ever, starts wondering about other human beings. How do other human beings – those “poor naked wretches, wheresoe’er [they] are” – live through storms such as this? And soon, he sees one such poor naked wretch – Poor Tom. In the previous scene Lear had argued (“Reason not the need …”) that human beings must have far more than merely basic necessities: but now, he sees a human being without even these basic necessities, and at this horrific sight, his mind begins to unhinge. His first reaction is to draw this poor naked wretch into his own tragic world: did his daughters reduce him to this? It couldn’t be anything else! In his own disintegrating mind, his own particular tragedy is now expanding to cover all of suffering humanity. For this is what it is to be human:
Is man no more than this? Consider him well. Thou owest the worm no silk, the beast no hide, the sheep no wool, the cat no perfume. Ha! here’s three on’s are sophisticated! Thou art the thing itself: unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor bare, forked animal as thou art. Off, off, you lendings! come unbutton here.
And Lear, in his new found knowledge that under his clothes he too is such a bare, forked animal, starts to tear off his own clothes.
This shocked recognition expands the scope of his tragedy: Lear’s tragedy is reflected in all of humanity – none of us can be exempt. Where, in, say, Othello, we had become immersed in the tragedy of Othello and of Desdemona, here, the tragedy of Lear seems to expand its scope to include us: by the mere fact of being human, we are part of this vast tragic picture.
However, Lear’s sudden concern with the question of what it is to be human isn’t introduced gratuitously merely to make a point: Shakespeare was far too good a dramatist for that. Lear has to ask himself this question because his sense of his own identity has collapsed. Like Richard II in the earlier play, Lear’s sense of his own identity was predicated on the fact of his being king. Indeed, so deeply was this fact impressed in his mind, he had not even paused to consider the possibility that he would no longer be seen as a king after his abdication. But now, he is robbed of everything – not merely his status, not merely his authority, but even of shelter during a pitiless storm. And as with Richard II, his sense of his own identity collapses. The only fact that he is left with concerning his own identity is that he is a human, and, this being the case, he has to ask himself what that means. And at that very point as if in answer to his question, appears Poor Tom, a bare, forked animal – homeless, starving, mentally deficient, the most wretched and pathetic specimen of humanity.
(Of course, Shakespeare has pulled off here a daring sleight of hand, for Poor Tom, we know, is actually Edgar in disguise. Shakespeare gets away with it – partly because we know that such people do exist (Edgar had modelled his persona on real people he had himself seen), and also because the disguised Edgar is undergoing the sufferings that the Poor Toms of this world endure.)
At this point, it isn’t merely Lear’s mind that collapses: everything seems to collapse – even language itself:
Bless thy five wits! Tom’s a-cold,–O, do de, do de, do de.
Pillicock sat on Pillicock-hill:
Halloo, halloo, loo, loo!
Still through the hawthorn blows the cold wind:
Says suum, mun, ha, no, nonny.
Dolphin my boy, my boy, sessa! let him trot by.
Poor Tom continues mouthing gibberish, the Fool continues with his fooleries, and Lear is increasingly incapable of speaking coherently – what a curious set of figures to populate the stage at the climactic centre of the story! And all three are out in the open in the storm – completely vulnerable to the elements. The frame of the whole world seems out of joint. Has there ever been a more despairing picture of humanity than this?
How did we get to such a point? There are some commentators who think that the opening of the play belongs to the realm of fairy tales, and that, in the course of the early acts, we move almost imperceptibly from a world of fantasy into a terrible world of reality. I can’t say I agree with this. If we can dismiss the opening merely as a fairly story – i.e. if we think that the opening lacks psychological credibility – then the rest of the play won’t make much sense. The world presented at the opening must be credible – or its dissolution will mean little.
It seems to me that the opening scene is entirely credible, and that it gives us a picture of the character of Lear that is essential if we are to understand what follows. The instruction to his daughters to tell the court how much they love him is not a whim: it is a public spectacle – a piece of theatre ceremoniously to mark the king’s abdication. And a piece of theatre such as this could only have been devised by a man who is so self-absorbed that he really does appear to think that the whole point of the existence of the world, of the existence of other people, is to glorify and to adulate him (“Better thou hadst not been born than not to have pleased me better”). The daughters no doubt knew of this planned piece of theatre: they may even have had their speeches prepared. The only one who comes unprepared is Cordelia, and it may legitimately be asked why. Surely, having lived with her father all her life, she would have known what kind of person he was: Goneril and Regan certainly did. And equally, having been familiar with the court, Cordelia must have known that her refusal to play her father’s game in court would be humiliating for him, and that to humiliate the king in his own court must have very serious consequences. It is understandable that Cordelia finds the game absurd and distasteful and is, as a consequence, unwilling to play the part demanded of her, but given that she could not have been unaware of the consequences, it is hard to understand why she behaves in so sullen a manner. After all, her reply to Lear goes much further than a refusal to flatter: it appears sullen, and conveys nothing of the love that we later find out she has for her father:
Unhappy that I am, I cannot heave
My heart into my mouth: I love your majesty
According to my bond; nor more nor less.
It has been suggested that we shouldn’t ask too many questions about this – that we should merely accept Cordelia’s curious behaviour as a given, and move on to see where it leads. I don’t accept that for a minute. It is true that the characterisation in this play is simpler than that found in other plays, but that is not to say that it doesn’t exist at all. I think Cordelia’s words are sullen because, as a character, she is sullen; I think she betrays an extraordinary lack of awareness of the social and political niceties of the situation because she is socially and politically ignorant. There is something almost autistic about her failure to recognise the effect her words and actions have on others.
These elements of her character appear later also. She says in the opening scene that she “cannot heave [her] heart into [her] mouth” – i.e. she cannot put into words what she feels. She certainly fails very badly in this first scene. But she fails later as well. In that extraordinarily beautiful scene later in the play where she is reconciled with her father, it is Lear who does all the talking: Cordelia hardly says anything at all, and Lear’s reference to her tears (“Be thy tears wet?”) indicates that she is weeping. Later, when she and Lear are captured, it is once again Lear who does all the talking, and he tells her to wipe her tears. Even in the very first scene, she takes her leave from her sisters with “washed eyes”. I get the impression of someone whose heart is full of love, but who is unable to express it: when emotions need to be expressed, she has no words – merely tears. And what words she does have are the wrong ones. All she is capable of is – as she puts it herself – “love, and be silent”. Such a character does not have the guile necessary to play the role demanded of her in the first scene, but, worse than that, she is not sufficiently articulate to express what she does feel. She never was.
So why did Lear demand her to play a role that he should have known she was unable to play? The reason, surely, is that Lear is so completely self-absorbed, that he had not even paused to consider her capabilities. But once she refuses to play the game, Lear has no choice: as Claudius knew all too well in the court scene of Hamlet (I,ii), a monarch cannot afford to be humiliated in his own court.
What happens in that opening scene seems to me entirely realistic. The alleged unreality lies not in the dramatic situation, but in Lear’s interpretation of that situation. So used is Lear to being in a position of absolute authority, to being the centre of universal adulation, that he cannot imagine being otherwise: even after his abdication, he expects these things to remain unchanged. And he continues to fly into rages, seemingly quite unaware that lacking as he now does the power that had once made his rages so fearful, these rages now mean absolutely nothing. The rages are pretty vile, all the same:
Hear, nature, hear; dear goddess, hear!
Suspend thy purpose, if thou didst intend
To make this creature fruitful!
Into her womb convey sterility!
Dry up in her the organs of increase;
And from her derogate body never spring
A babe to honour her! If she must teem,
Create her child of spleen; that it may live,
And be a thwart disnatured torment to her!
Let it stamp wrinkles in her brow of youth;
With cadent tears fret channels in her cheeks;
Turn all her mother’s pains and benefits
To laughter and contempt; that she may feel
How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is
To have a thankless child!
Of course, Lear gets his “come-uppance”, and there a lesser dramatist might have left it. But for Shakespeare, this “come-uppance” is but the start of a long and painful spiritual journey.
As has been commented, the first half of the play depicts a “double action”: as Lear’s status falls from King to that of a homeless vagrant, his moral stature rises: for the first time in his life, he becomes aware of the existence of others; he becomes aware of his own status – not of king, but of a human being: he learns compassion. This has led some commentators, especially of an earlier generation, see King Lear as essentially a Christian play – a play of a man who loses the own world, but gains his soul. Nowadays, this may appear a sentimental interpretation, but I don’t think we should jettison it completely: this element is, after all, present in the text. The problem is that there are quite a few other elements also present in the text. The modern fashion takes completely the opposite viewpoint, and sees it as a nihilistic play, but once again, I don’t think that tells the whole story. There is far too much in a text as endlessly rich as this for any single label such as “Christian” or “nihilist” to appear appear anything other than simplistic. This is a play in which, I think, all possibilities are present, but none is confirmed. (A bit like life, really…) There is no certainty of anything – not even the certainty of nothingness. What we can be sure of is that we are in the presence of big themes – cosmic themes, whether the good Dr Miller likes it or not.
Having posed the question “What is it to be human?” Shakespeare proceeds to give us evidence from the extreme ends of the spectrum: there is no room here for moderation. The momentous third act ends with possibly the most horrendous scene in all drama, where the aged Gloucester is tied on to a chair and has his eyes gouged out onstage. This scene, for me, dwarfs all the horrors in Titus Andronicus put together. And yet, even in this scene of monstrous evil, we witness an act of goodness that is equally extraordinary: a servant, whom we had not seen before, gives his life trying to protect Gloucester.
For the rest of the play, Shakespeare continues to give us evidence from both ends of the spectrum: we see the incredible goodness and love of Cordelia, of Kent, of Edgar, of Gloucester who would relieve the king even if it cost him his life; and cheek by jowl with this god-like goodness, we see also the Satanic evil of Cornwall, of Regan and of Goneril, of Edmund. This is what it is to be human: humanity encompasses the most unbelievable extremes, and Shakespeare does not comment on whether the good atones for the bad, or whether the bad nullifies the good. What is inescapable, though, is the endless suffering.
After that astonishing third act, the fourth act gets under way with a bit of a splutter. Shakespeare belatedly introduces new plot elements at the very point when the audience’s attention is fixed on other matters. In the Folio text – which is most likely Shakespeare’s own later revision of the play – he very wisely cut down one of these scenes, and completely excised another: the rather sentimental description in the Quarto of Cordelia weeping to hear of her father’s fate merely holds up the momentum for no good reason, and it seems to me unfortunate that so many productions still insist on including this scene for the sake of completeness.
But the storm scenes are not the end of the play. Lear may have redeemed himself morally in that third act, but he still has a long way to go. And in the meantime, we get a most curious scene in which Edgar encourages Gloucester to think he is on the edge of a precipice, and, when Gloucester jumps forward to put an end to his life, he falls merely on flat ground. It is a very striking scene, but I must admit that even after all these years, I still don’t quite grasp its significance.
And then follows the scene between the blind Gloucester and the mad Lear. One can only wonder in awe and astonishment at an imagination that could even conceive of such a scene, into which the whole essence of human tragedy seems concentrated. Lear’s mind, by this stage, is gone: random nonsense alternates with a horror of the injustices and the cruelties human beings inflict on one another, and also, rather curiously, a horror of human sexuality:
Down from the waist they are Centaurs,
Though women all above:
But to the girdle do the gods inherit,
Beneath is all the fiends’;
There’s hell, there’s darkness, there’s the
Burning, scalding, stench, consumption; fie,
fie, fie! pah, pah!
And those commentators who see in the play a dramatisation of Lear’s moral regeneration may find it a trifle difficult to account for the following:
And when I have stol’n upon these sons-in-law,
Then, kill, kill, kill, kill, kill, kill!
Throughout, the question is asked of the role of divinity in all this. What is the role of the gods, or of God? Gloucester thought that humans are to the gods what flies are to boys – “they kill us for their sport”. Lear later speaks of being “God’s spies” – although it’s unclear whether he means spies on God – i.e. to find out what God is up to – or spies on behalf of God, i.e. to report on human affairs back to a God who is not capable even of seeing them. Either way, this God is inadequate: He is either not benevolent, or not omnipotent. He is not someone to whom mankind can turn.
The ending, as is well-known, is pure heartbreak. And it is entirely gratuitous. We all hear much about the “inevitability” of tragedy: but here, Cordelia is killed because they are a few minutes too late in sending for her. It is the sheer arbitrariness that shocks: how can the most important things in life be so arbitrary? After having witnessed so much dumb, animal suffering, are we to be left with nothing more inspiring than the sheer pointlessness of it all? There is nothing in all literature that conveys with so deadening an effect the sheer finality of death:
No, no, no life.
Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life,
And thou no breath at all? Thou’lt come no more,
Never, never, never, never, never.
And then, in the Folio text, we have the following addition:
Do you see this? Look on her, look, her lips,
Look there, look there!
It’s an extraordinary addition. What did Shakespeare mean by this? Does Lear, at the very point of death, see some redeeming vision? Or is it just another delusion? Each reader and each viewer will interpret it after their own fashion.
One feels a sense of exhaustion by the end of this play – an exhaustion both physical and spiritual. At the end of Hamlet., the question of succession mattered: here, it doesn’t. The whole frame of life itself seems to have been wrenched apart: we have seen an image of the promised end, and it seems to matter little who will now reign.
As with any major work of art, King Lear defies any attempt at a definitive interpretation. It is, in many ways, a monstrously unwieldy work, deeply flawed and carelessly constructed. But the wonder is that it was written at all.