Edmund’s Justification Soliloquy
One of Shakespeare’s most celebrated features as a writer is his refusal to take a clear moral stand relative to his characters and the problems they present. He puts them in play, but does not judge them. Consider Edmund, perhaps King Lear’s central villain. We first see Edmund being treated dismissively, even contemptuously, by his father, justifying his sense of undeserved subordination. He did not choose to be born a bastard—why should he suffer?
Shakespeare then develops Edmund’s ambitions based largely upon circumstances. He is around the sisters because Lear has provoked them into being at Gloucester’s house; the combination has fostered a radically unstable politics, into which he is thrown, or throws himself, to emerge out the other end when “the wheel is come full circle,” a suggestion that Fortune played as strong a role as Edmund’s intentions. The daughters have surely contributed. His deathbed confession has the ring of redemption. We may judge him, but the play makes any clean and definite judgment problematic. Even Cornwall has his reasons—Gloucester did betray his country, a crime normally punished by execution. And Lear’s madness may or may not exempt him from responsibility for his actions. On the other side, Cordelia has some sharp edges that remove her from immediate sainthood.
As a consequence, King Lear provides one of the richest fields of interesting thematic questions of any piece of fiction ever written. But by its very nature, to harvest its thematic concerns we must make a considerable contribution from our own perspective. Thus the thematic ideas below come in the form of questions, not answers. Have ideas to about the themes in the play? Present them in the comments below.
“Reason In Madness”
Like many great works of literary fiction, King Lear contains a scene which captures many if not all of the work’s thematic interests in one place, packed in perhaps like canned fish, but nevertheless accessible to an examining eye. Much can be learned about the play by tearing apart Lear’s madcap reunion with a blinded Gloucester somewhere on the road to Dover (middle part of Act IV, Scene 6). It begins with an ironic allusion to royalty and patriarchy—Lear says, “I am the king himself.” It ends with Lear’s own take on royalty and patriarchy—“kill, kill, kill, kill, kill.” In between, Lear and Gloucester discourse on family, state, nature, sex, corruption, justice, blindness and insight, reality and illusion, and fate, what Lear describes as “this great stage of fools.” They are mad and blind, but in some ways clear as a bell; Edgar, a witness, calls it “reason in madness.” And this scene can be acted as the play’s most intense moment of affection and warmth. Making sense of this scene makes sense of the play as a whole. It would be our recommendation of a place to start.
The final words of King Lear link back ironically to the first words. Edgar says, “The oldest hath borne most; we that are young / Shall never see so much nor live so long.” The play opens with Kent saying, “I thought the king. . .” He refers to King Lear changing his mind unexpectedly. What happens between can be seen as the ravages of age, of a man, once a king, losing his grip on reality and those around him. The irony of Edgar’s final sense is that we of course do live so long, now longer, but until we get there, that is as long as we are still youth, we cannot understand (“see”) the condition of senescence, of old age. Does the play help us overcome this disadvantage? Can we who are not old yet, or that old yet, grasp some of the mental and physical problems of when we will be that old by watching and examining Lear’s progress? Does the fact that Lear was a king bear on how we think about his aging?
Parents and Children
Almost every parent knows the greatest grief comes with the early loss of a child. Whatever we may think of the reasoning of Lear and Gloucester, they in effect lose their favorite child, and are then abused by the children who remain. No wonder then that the play’s most famous line is, “that she may feel how sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child.” But one must ask if this encompasses the play’s point, or is it the platform of human drama (and built in tragedy) that enables the play to make other points? Put another way, does the play say anything out of the ordinary about fathers and their children? If not, as painful as the unfolding anguish may feel, it does not rise to something the play hopes to either teach us or help us understand—we already understand it. If so, then we have a responsibility to sort out the jewels from the bread crumbs. What is it about the relationship between Lear and his daughters and Gloucester and his sons that makes for these hard hearts? Is it native (on the gods’ watch), or developed (on our watch)? Does it lead to everything else, or is it just a metaphor for everything else?
While King Lear seems to be about the madness of Lear, the play is actually saturated with various kinds of madness. Edmund is deranged in some ways. Kent’s behavior towards Oswald makes no sense. The daughters obviously lose it, and the Fool certainly puts on an antic disposition. For his part, Edgar feigns madness in ways that suggest satire, not insanity. Furthermore, one cannot easily distinguish madness from anger at many moments. What does the play say about madness? How does it connect madness with moral responsibility? Is madness an individual state, or a collective one? If one “intends” to be mad, is he mad? At what point does madness require Bedlam, complete segregation from the community? Does the metaphor of madness in the play suggest a kind of Bedlam, an extreme alienation, among the play’s manifold characters?
Politics and Power
In his great tragedies, Shakespeare almost never takes a straight shot at the question of power. Brutus struggles with the very idea, Hamlet is more upset with his mother sleeping with his uncle, Othello’s problem is jealousy, Macbeth would not do it but for his wife, Antony and Cleopatra find their affair to radically confuse their duties to the state, and Coriolanus cannot decide who he is, a ruler or a statesman. None of the conflicts in Lear begin, according to the play, with raw political ambition. (This is particularly noticeable when compared to the other Lear plays.) Yet the play’s second plot becomes political, and its link to the first is political. We are asked, it seems, to consider politics and power as essential, but complex and perhaps not primitive forms of human congress. It would be interesting to map out the play’s power struggles in terms of what was a cause and what was an effect. And then ask what it means.
Liberty and Justice
It has been said that “Liberty and Justice for All” not only cannot be simultaneously achieved, its grammar hides the crucial fact that they are different types of things, the one seen from the point of the view of the individual, the other from that of the state, and that they often therefore compete. Can we find any sense of justice in Lear? If we started the play over, what would be Edmund’s rights (as we would want it), and how should he have conducted himself in the face of familial and political abuse? The opening words of the play suggest favoritism and intrigue; are these necessary parts of any court apparatus, which necessarily limits the capacity of court to deliver justice to its constituency (hence the play was inevitable before Lear decided to divide the kingdom)? The play clearly shows that power itself cannot determine its own outcome. Does the play suggest ways in which power can be more usefully constrained than the anarchy finally visited upon all at the end? Does the play suggest a deeper hand in the affairs of men than any man can fully comprehend, dashing hopes for a rational system of justice? Is this conception of justice (yoked in its way with liberty) the one motivating our own Constitution, that both are irrational, hopelessly conflicted, and hence only serviceable when severely constrained on both sides and submitted to ad hoc dialogue (juries and legislators) for small and large scale dispositions, themselves never perfect or completely durable?
What Kind of Kingdom?
Lear divides his kingdom, and catastrophe ensues. A Renaissance view might be that any division of a kingdom that compromises monarchy will be disastrous. A more modern view might be that King Lear puts in play a variety of ideas about political organization. One the one hand, it could be a defense of undivided monarchy as the superior constitution. On the other, it could be an argument that Lear did not go far enough, that to “avoid future strife” he should have instituted some form of republican, elected government, because any lingering form of monarchy, even split monarchies, must end badly. Which is it, or some other, or none? Is it possible to assess the play’s take on politics without impressing upon it our own norms about monarchy and democracy? Is that good or bad?
Why Does Lear Keep Asking All Those Questions?
There is something fundamental in King Lear about the idea of human loss and its relationship to our sense of being. Lear keeps asking questions about our being: “Which of you shall we say doth love us most?”; “Who is it that can tell me who I am?”; “What hast thou been?”; “Is man no more than this?”; “Is there any cause in nature that make these hard hearts?”; and at the end, “Why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life and thou no breath at all?” Connected with many of these questions is a reverberation on the words “nothing” and “never.” Does the play suggest that man has no essential make-up beyond his physical being, creating himself by what he does or thinks? Or does the play treat these questions ironically, suggesting that Lear’s recovery and acceptance of his condition are only possible because he learns that being a king cannot define his essential self. Alternatively, is there any idea in the play that man cannot be understood outside his community, and that his essence, or soul, or self, derives from the community’s essence, soul, or self? Can this question be formed without an implied religious connection?
Edgar says, “speak what you feel, not what you ought to say.” This would seem to be an argument for free speech. Yet in the play the instances when people speak what they feel always end badly, or have no effect whatsoever, as if free speech is either dangerous or impotent. This should feel familiar. Even our state tends to get anxious about free speech when it might be both seditious and effective, and our universities have become positively vicious about certain kinds of speech specifically because they might be effective (hate speech or speech insensitive to diversity or speech defending unattractive political views). What does the play really recommend relative to “speak what you feel,” how should we think about those recommendations, and what should we “feel” rather than “ought to say” in general.
Family and State
King Lear rather clearly asks us to draw analogies between the family and the state. Lear’s division of the state divides the family, and Edmund’s division of the family divides the state. How does the play ask us to think about the figure of the father, and then the correlative figure of the monarch, the “father” of one’s country? Does the play in any way make the analogies difficult, suggesting that the state and the family are not so easily equated? In the Renaissance (and before), the king had two bodies, one physical, the other political, which was connected to the spiritual (the source of “the king is dead, long live the king”), and the divine right of kings. Does Lear suggest this in any way? If not, does it thereby question the concept of the king’s two bodies. (And do not think we are finished with this idea. The rhetoric around our president often distinguishes the man from the office, or the man and his power, or the man and his inherited duties, customs, and constraints.)
Shakespeare was preoccupied his entire writing life with sexual confusion. King Lear reveals itself on this topic by combining two women who become kings, one women who leads an army, with sex ruining the first two, and sex apparently entirely absent from the interests of the third. The King of France extols her virtue, not her beauty. But of course Shakespeare does not give it to us so simply. We never really know the nature of the relationship between Edmund and the two daughters; nothing in the play requires them to have slept together (Edmund merely says that he has to each of them “sworn my love.”) What might we say in the end about the play’s take on sexuality and gender? Does Goneril saying “the laws are mine” come at the expense of her femininity and sexuality, or is it provoked by her concupiscence, represented by Edmund—she also says, “oh, the difference between man and man”? Does the power to forgive require sexual innocence, a kind of Christian pure heart? Does the play say anything about what a normal relationship between a man and a woman might look like?
All You Need Is Love, But There is None to be Found
A famous Beatles’ song goes “all you need is love.” Lear seems to conduct itself almost entirely without love of any kind—maternal, fraternal, romantic, spiritual—and when love shows up, it always leads to disaster. Is this one of the play’s negative spaces, one revealing the way the world would be without love? Or does it reveal the way the world really is, generally without love? Do the hints of love redeem the otherwise dark landscape? What happens between the rebel sisters and Edmund would not be called love, but it is the only sex in the play (if there is sex in the play); does this put a sharp line between sex and love?
Disguises, Lies, and Misunderstandings
The plot of King Lear builds itself through disguises, lies, and consequent misunderstandings. These are more than devices. No one in the play seems able to act exactly as they might want, or in a way that would promote their self-interest, and no one operates knowing everything they need to know to function properly (except perhaps the Fool, but he would rather be anything than a fool). Does this play suggest that this is a condition of mankind? Is this then a broad claim for what an academic might call “epistemic opacity,” the inability to know enough to judge our own actions ahead of time? What does this say about the audience’s ability to understand the play? Does our understanding the play refute the play’s commitment to misunderstanding, or does the play settle upon us some elementary confusions that confirm its representations of confusion itself?
Who Controls the World—Us or Fate
On many occasions someone in the play appeals to nature or the wheel of fortune. Both contend with human intention. Lear begins the play hoping to carry out a “purpose,” which we assume is his purpose, and Edmund makes the distinction between nature and purpose explicitly. Yet no intention in the play works itself out exactly as intended; most turn ugly. Is the cause circumstantial, the nature of the beast or the wheel of fortune or ignorance of all possible consequences? Or the natural collision of competing intentions, and therefore a reason to distinguish individual and community intention? Or our own misunderstanding about what it means to intend something? This last surmise would bring modern psychology into the play, an anachronism, but a possibly useful one. However, it raises another issue around intention, namely, our own intentions when interpreting the play—the extent to which they are conscious or unconscious, and the extent to which they make a material contribution to what the play means.
The Written Word and Trust
Letters play an important role in the play. Some are false, some are true, but all lead to violence and death. We must say at least that letters are not self-authenticating, but at the same time independent authentication cannot always be summoned. We cannot trust them, and we cannot afford not to trust them. Does this lead to a general distrust of the written word? Or do we pay more attention to how the words are used, the purposes to which they are put? The play can be considered a series of letters to us. Are we being told that the play itself cannot be fully trusted, or that we must look outside the play itself for authentic meaning?
Where Have All the Mothers Gone?
There are no mothers in King Lear. Lear only mentions his daughters’ mother once, and Edmund’s mother is no more than the target of “sport in the making.” This strips the play of even the possibility of maternal love, or maternal malevolence. (Mothers make rare appearances in Renaissance plays, even though Shakespeare creates some riveting ones in Hamlet and Coriolanus; still, a play about families without any mothers is strange.) Can the play be universal without mothers? Or is this one of the play’s negative spaces, in which the lack of mothers contributes to the disasters that befall everyone? Can this be construed as a commentary on patriarchal systems generally?
Who Is In Charge?
The play makes a mess of who’s in charge. Lear cedes power but wants to be treated as a king still. Both married couples exhibit strains between husband and wife. Gloucester loses complete control of his own household. Edmund and Albany contend for control of what seems at the time to be victory. Even Edmund as master manipulator cannot control the forces he has unleashed. And in the end Albany, who is the king of the moment, cedes power to, it seems, Edgar, who has no claim on the throne. Does the play suggest that this is a natural condition, one in which titular power can never translate to absolute power? Or does the play suggest that failing to have someone in charge who is really in charge leads to disaster? Or does the play suggest that the idea of someone in charge is itself problematic, that conditions of life are sufficiently capricious and out of control that who is in charge should be fluid, always subject to renegotiation, or collaboration?
Redemption or Nihilism—the Play’s Take on Mankind
The two largest interpretative poles of King Lear concern redemption and nihilism. For the first half of the last century the play was generally thought to be redemptive, Lear attaining “through apparently hopeless failure the very end and aim of life,” as A. C. Bradley declared. Since 1960 the play has more often than not been treated as entirely bleak, a demonstration of the moral emptiness of the world. The McKellen production takes a middle road, but veers to the bleak. Which is it? Does one have to decide? Can the play be presented either way (making it a director’s decision or a reader’s decision rather than Shakespeare’s decision)? Or is this the wrong dichotomy? The play appeals to the gods frequently. Does the play suggest that the gods provide an external moral absolute, what we often expect from religion or philosophy, or does the play deny the possibility of any moral absolute? If the latter, does the play then deny moral judgment altogether, or does the play provide for moral judgment built on human community, that man is the only measure of man? The McKellen film makes an obvious reference to Beckett’s Waiting for Godot (look for the tree). Does Godot represent any form of moral judgment, or just moral judgment based on external moral absolutes?
Tragic and Tragedy
King Lear is a tragedy. It portrays tragic events. The former describes a genre, what kind of play we are watching. The latter describes what happens in the play, its claim on the human condition. Can we define “tragedy”? If we could, does it help us understand the play? Can we define the “tragic”? Over the centuries a variety of ideas of the “tragic” have been proposed. Can we distill from the play its particular mode of the tragic? Does it help to have settled on one outside the play and then interpret the play in terms of our prior understanding of the tragic?