King Lear’s journey from regal to radical

July 4, 2014

"You want to see, but not to feel."
Henry James, The Portrait of a Lady

WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE'S play King Lear is a portrait of a ruling class in crisis.

At its pinnacle is the monarch, Lear, through whose "dark night of the soul" we experience the greatest transformation of character in all of literature. From absolute power and authority, we witness Lear's downfall, through the stages of parental pride, betrayal, political treachery and rebellion, privation and utter exhaustion, before his final descent into madness.

But from madness, Lear emerges a man reborn: able to feel the pain of his lowliest subject, with a vision of a just society that provides for us all.

Lear's kingdom is a feudal society. At its core is human need, the juncture between nature and culture, and dependence--children on their parents; and everyone on cooperative labor. As Chris Harman wrote in A People's History of the World:

The land was divided between warring baronies...Each was a virtually self-contained economy, its people depending almost entirely on what was produced on its lands. For the peasants, this meant a diet dominated by bread and gruel, and clothing spun and woven in their own homes out of rough wool or flax. It also meant devoting at least two-fifths of their energies to unpaid work for the lord, either in the form of labor or goods in kind. As serfs, the peasants did not have the freedom to leave either the land or the lord...

[In a later period], [k]ings became more influential. They were able to formalize their power at the top of hierarchies of feudal lords.

A production of King Lear in Toronto
A production of King Lear in Toronto (Daniel Dimarco)

It is only through being brought low that Lear learns to truly see this society. As we follow his passage in the play through suffering into sight, the theme of "seeing" recurs, along with "knowing," "feeling," "justice," "nature" and "need."

THE FIRST occurrence is at court, when Lear announces that he plans to divide his kingdom among his three daughters. To decide which will get the largest share, he demands a declaration of love from each. Goneril and Regan comply, but Lear's youngest daughter Cordelia refuses to "heave her heart into her mouth." When an insulted Lear disowns Cordelia, his most loyal follower, the Earl of Kent, intervenes fiercely: "See better, Lear."

Lear then compounds his sins by banishing the honest Kent. Cordelia is chosen to be the bride of the King of France. After she bids her sisters farewell, they are left alone on the stage to conspire against their father. Regan confides to her elder sister:

Tis the infirmity of his age; yet he hath ever but
slenderly known himself.

Next we meet Lear at the Duke of Albany's palace, where he is staying with his daughter Goneril. Claiming that Lear's knights are running riot, Goneril insists he reduce his train. Lear defends his knights and privileges in a ruthless argument between father and daughter. At its conclusion, Lear places a curse on her that she should bear no children so she will not know the pain of their ingratitude:

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!...

Lear storms out and sets out to stay with Regan, but Goneril sends word ahead that he will be arriving. When he reaches the Earl of Gloucester's castle, Lear finds Kent, disguised as Caius, who he has sent with a message for Regan, being punished in the stocks. Outraged, he demands to see Regan and her husband, the Duke of Cornwall, but Regan treats him as callously as Goneril.

Soon Goneril arrives, and the two daughters combine forces to demand that Lear reduce his entourage and the privileges he has kept for himself. Humiliated by his daughters, he pleads with them, crying:

O, reason not the need: our basest beggars
Are in the poorest thing superfluous:
Allow not nature more than nature needs,
Man's life's as cheap as beast's...

Lear again rushes off into the stormy night. On the desolate heath, accompanied by his Fool, Lear confronts the tempest raging around him, and also within him:

Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
Till you have drench'd our steeples, drown'd the cocks!
You sulphurous and thought-executing fires,
Vaunt-couriers to oak-cleaving thunderbolts,
Singe my white head! And thou, all-shaking thunder,
Smite flat the thick rotundity o' the world!
Crack nature's moulds, an germens spill at once,
That make ingrateful man!

LEAR, KENT and the Fool seek shelter in a peasant's hovel. There they meet Edgar, also in disguise as Poor Tom. The conclusion of Lear's education through suffering is his recognition of the injustice of the peasants' impoverishment, and the vision of a just society:

Poor naked wretches, whereso'er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your loop'd and window'd raggedness, defend you
From seasons such as these? O, I have ta'en
Too little care of this! Take physic, pomp;
Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,
That thou mayst shake the superflux to them,
And show the heavens more just.

Having experienced the wants of his lowliest subjects, Lear now faces that person in the form of Edgar, who has disguised himself as Poor Tom after being falsely accused:

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.

Within the hovel Lear conducts a mock trial of his elder daughters, whose verdict is his anguished question: "Is there any cause in nature that makes / These hard hearts?"

In parallel with Lear, the Earl of Gloucester has endured an even more frightful ordeal, including unjustly banishing his son Edgar and having his eyes gouged out. Like Lear, it is through loss that Gloucester learns the value of things. Both lose wealth, power and the love of their children. Lear nearly loses his mind; Gloucester does lose his sight. And each demands the redistribution of society's goods from rich to poor. Thus, Gloucester says:

Let the superfluous and lust-dieted man,
That slaves your ordinance, that will not see
Because he doth not feel, feel your power quickly;
So distribution should undo excess,
And each man have enough...

THE MEETING of the mad Lear and the blind Gloucester is one of the great scenes in literature.

Gloucester: ...Dost thou know me?

Lear: I remember thine eyes well enough. Dost thou squint at me? No, do thy worst, blind Cupid! I'll not love. Read thou this challenge; mark but the penning of it.

Gloucester: Were all the letters suns, I could not see one...

Lear: Read.

Gloucester: What, with the case of eyes?

Lear: O, ho, are you there with me? No eyes in your head, nor no money in your purse? Your eyes are in a heavy case, your purse in a light; yet you see how this world goes.

Gloucester: I see it feelingly.

Lear: What, art mad? A man may see how this world goes with no eyes.

What follows is Lear's withering critique of the feudal society he once ruled:

[S]ee how yond justice rails upon yond simple thief. Hark, in thine ear: change places; and, handy-dandy, which is the justice, which is the thief? Thou hast seen a farmer's dog bark at a beggar?...And the creature run from the cur? There thou mightst behold the great image of authority: a dog's obeyed in office.

Lear's speech shifts into verse:

Thou rascal beadle, hold thy bloody hand!
Why dost thou lash that whore? Strip thine own back;
Thou hotly lust'st to use her in that kind
For which thou whipp'st her. The usurer hangs the cozener.
Through tatter'd clothes small vices do appear;
Robes and furr'd gowns hide all. Plate sin with gold,
And the strong lance of justice hurtless breaks:
Arm it in rags, a pigmy's straw does pierce it.
None does offend, none, I say, none; I'll able 'em:
Take that of me, my friend, who have the power
To seal the accuser's lips. Get thee glass eyes;
And like a scurvy politician, seem
To see the things thou dost not...

Ultimately, Lear is taken to the battle lines of the French army, which has invaded England under the command of his younger daughter Cordelia. Humbled and ashamed by his earlier behavior--and embittered by the knowledge that his other daughters deceived him into believing they cared for him, only to betray him in order to advance their power--Lear begs to be forgiven.

Eventually, the schemes of Goneril and Regan, against Lear and very soon against each other, are exposed--but not before the French army is defeated, and Cordelia and Lear taken prisoner and sent to the executioner. Lear survives by killing the executioner, but Cordelia dies. In the play's climatic scene, Lear returns to the stage carrying her lifeless body:

Howl, howl, howl, howl! O, you are men of stones:
Had I your tongues and eyes, I'ld use them so
That heaven's vault should crack. She's gone for ever!

Lear dies in his grief for Cordelia and for the misery that has been unleashed in a society he once presided over. The final words of the drama are left to the repentant Duke of Albany:

The weight of this sad time we must obey,
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.
The oldest hath borne most; we that are young
Shall never see so much, nor live so long.

LEAR'S AGONIZED question haunts us to this day: "Is there any cause in nature that makes ? these hard hearts?"

How can the ruling class witness the oppression and injustice of their society and remain unmoved? If only we could persuade them to surrender their wealth and power. But reason seldom trumps self-interest. And few project that self-interest beyond themselves and their family.

We know from history that ruling classes do not yield their power through reason alone. They create ideologies and rationalizations; resort to sheer denial; and employ the most brutal force to defend it.

From his former place atop society, Lear is sucked downward to the bottom and exposed to the hardships of his lowliest subjects. Having experienced what they experience, the only remedy is to see one's life as connected to ever other and to share all that society has to offer, rather than to hoard it.

Lear's insight echoes the themes of a Marxist critique of the capitalist system that was coming into being as Shakespeare wrote--and of the future vision of society built on the foundations of justice and solidarity.

Further Reading

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