King Leir and the Very Bad Heir Day
The thing about King Lear for me is its bigness. Lear has big hair. Eighties big, teased out—And a crown of weeds, even! I feel little next to Lear. My hair cannot compete. It cannot. A.C. Bradley, probably the most influential 20th century critic of Shakespearian tragedy, agrees. He has written that to understand King Lear is to understand that we must “renounce the world, hate it, and lose it gladly. The only real thing in it is the soul, with its courage, patience, devotion. And nothing outward can touch that.” And nothing I can say can touch that.
One of the most reassuring things I can do when I’m feeling small next to Shakespeare is to look at his sources, to see what he changed or didn’t change about the story he has decided to tell. But with King Lear even this is a little baffling. To quote Lear in Act 3, scene 4: “That way madness lies.”—Does madness lie? And how does it?—These are some of the questions Lear asks. To quote Hamlet, another play with similar questions: “Though this be madness, yet there is method in it.” (Act 2, scene 2.)
We have evidence that Shakespeare’s King Lear was performed in court in 1605, although it was probably written sometime earlier: Scholars place the play between Othelloand Macbeth, in 1603-1604… Shakespeare was on a hot streak, needless to say. Also in 1605, Shakespeare’s primary source for the play was published: The True Chronicle History of King Leir, l-e-i-r, author anonymous; though this play too had been circulating earlier, since at least 1594. Here, as in Othelloand as he perhaps began in 1601 with Hamlet, Shakespeare approaches his adaptation with what Stephen Greenblatt (contemporary scholar and editor of the Norton) has called “strategic opacity.” In other words, Shakespeare takes a play that made sense, with characters who are sufficiently motivated, and hacks away just enough of the sense and motivation to make his play and his characters truly unhinging and unhinged.
Shakespeare’s Lear opens with “the love test” out of sheer madness or perhaps out of Lear’s extreme insecurity; in L-E-I-R, there is a backstory involving the headstrong daughter Cordell’s vow to marry for love… Leir thinks that in competition with her sisters Cordell will renounce her determination to marry for love and instead marry the man he has designed for her to marry. Another difference in the play’s initial actions is the death of Mrs. Lear: In the sources Queen Lear is recently deceased, setting in motion Lear’s retirement; in Shakespeare’s play we are left to wonder where is Mrs. Lear and what might she have done to stifle this insanity? We might also wonder if Shakespeare did not really intend to ramp up Lear’s audacious absurdity (what the Romantic critic and poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge called its “glaring absurdity”) from the get-go, but was instead relying on his audience’s familiarity with the tale: Maybe Shakespeare just didn’t feel the need to rehearse the backstory yet again.
For the story of King Lear—overthrown by his evil daughters and their husbands; restored to power by his loyal daughter and her husband, the King of France—this was a common tale going back at least as far as Geoffrey of Monmouth’s twelfth century Historia Regum Brittanniae (and included in Shakespeare’s beloved Chronicles of England, Scotlande, and Irelande by Raphael Holinshed, 1587). A familiarity with this version and its ending changes our own perception of Shakespeare’s version quite drastically. When, at the climax of Shakespeare’s King Lear, in what is possibly the greatest and most terrible moment in Shakespearian tragedy, the king enters with his loyal daughter Cordelia dead in his arms, every audience is shocked—But an audience expecting a happy ending is doubly shocked. And doubly disappointed when Cordelia appears briefly to revive: “This feather stirs. She lives,” Lear says: But no, she will “come no more. Never, never, never, never, never.” (Act 5 scene 3)
Shakespeare’s Lear is nearly a complete apocalypse. When Kent asks “Is this the promised end?” it seems both a meta-theatrical comment on the play’s complete reversal of its source’s happy climax, but also an acknowledgement of the play’s eschatological bent—eschatology being the study of the “last things”— in Christian theology: Death, judgment, heaven and hell. A religious person may be compelled to ask him or herself: Why does a God who is good allow suffering? Why does He allow evil in the world? A reader of King Lear or the audience of King Lear might ask the same of Shakespeare: Why would you choose to show evil triumph over all that is good? Why would you so completely annihilate all hope from what was once hopeful?
Let’s recap: In the end, the wretched Cornwall is dead; conniving Edmund is dying on the ground, evil Goneril poisons evil Regan and stabs herself, or Regan poisons herself and stabs Goneril, or the other way around; betrayed Gloucester has finally died (after having his eyes ripped out and stomped on earlier in the play); Cordelia has been hung, Lear has killed the nameless captain that carried out the order to hang her—before he himself dies—and finally the noble Kent dies as well, presumably of a broken heart. Even the fool, who disappeared earlier, has been hanged—either that or Lear has referred to his daughter Cordelia as “my poor fool” —which is not at all out of the question.
Why why why? Those prone to remembering Shakespeare’s job as an entertainer of audiences might answer rather simply: Shock value. Those invested in the Book of Job or in deciphering a Shakespearean cosmology have a field day with this, the end of days, the last judgment. Between these realities, it does indeed seem that King Lear is either a triumph of nihilism or a terrible existential cry into the void.
But back to the sources: Shakespeare lifted the subplot about Gloucester and his two sons Edmond and Edgar from a prose work called Arcadia by Sir Phillip Sidney, published in 1590. By laying together the parallels between Lear and Gloucester—Lear’s figural blindness and Gloucester’s literal blindness— Shakespeare makes deft use of his sources. (This choice also leads to the dizzying effect of the play’s doubleness—but more on that later.) But Sir Phillip Sidney is also an interesting writer for Shakespeare to be ripping off. It’s interesting that we have clear evidence of Shakespeare’s engagement with Sidney’s writing because Shakespeare so blatantly ignores Sidney’s criticism and thinking most of the time. Sidney was a poet and proto-literary critic, a large presence in Elizabethan literature: His sonnet sequence, Astrophil and Stella, which was circulating in the 1580s and published in the 1591, is credited with inaugurating the sonnet craze which gave us Shakespeare’s own Sonnets. Sidney was Queen Elizabeth’s official cupbearer, and the author of “A Defense of Poesy,” 1583, an important early theoretical text which defends the moral and intellectual value of poetry, since ancient times one of the most embattled and belittled art forms. (Plato, for example, would have banned poets from his ideal Republic; he thought poetry’s imitation of reality was as a moral degradation and believed poetry’s ability to incite passionate responses was a danger to society.)
In addition to A Defense of Poesy, Sidney also wrote and thought about the theory of tragedy. Sidney was a firm believer in the classical unities, as derived from Aristotle: The unity of action: a play should have one main action that it follows, with no or few subplots. The unity of place: a play should cover a single physical space and should not attempt to compress geography, nor should the stage represent more than one place. The unity of time: the action in a play should take place over no more than 24 hours. In other words, a play should do everything which a play by Shakespeare does NOT do. Shakespeare’s plays are notorious for their complex and fascinating subplots. Shakespeare’s plays frequently take place across time and space – in The Winter’s Tale, for example, decades and kingdoms pass between scenes; or take Antony and Cleopatra—set between Rome and Egypt with scenes all over the Mediterranean. In Shakespeare there is frequently gender confusions, and genre confusion, but King Lear may be the most genre-bending of all Shakespeare’s non-problem plays, in its sheer extremities: Apocalyptically tragic, and hysterically absurd.
Sidney believed, after Aristotle, that tragedies should be serious business, modeled on “Oedipus Rex” (Sophocles). A tragedy should present a morally upright tragic hero, whose one tragic flaw is his downfall, and who inspires in the audience either pity or fear. Sidney was particularly harsh about what he saw as the muddling and “pure scurrility” of the Elizabethan stage’s genre-blending. He might as well be describing King Lear, in fact: “…besides these gross absurdities, how all their plays be neither right tragedies nor right comedies, mingling kings and clowns, not because the matter so carrieth it, but thrust in the clown by head and shoulders to play a part in majestical matters, with neither decency nor discretion; so as neither the admiration and commiseration, nor the right sportfulness, is by their mongrel tragic-comedy obtained… So falleth it out, that having indeed no right comedy in that comical part of our tragedy, we have nothing but scurrility, unworthy of any chaste ears; or some extreme show of doltishness, indeed fit to lift up a loud laughter, and nothing else.”
Shakespeare is certainly guilty of “mingling kings and clowns” in all of his plays, especially in the “majestical matters” of King Lear. Time after time in Shakespeare we are faced by baffling moments of what the Greek’s called bathos: A sudden downshifting of tone from the serious, tragic or sublime to the commonplace, distasteful, or comedic. Think of the oddly placed scene with the bawdy musicians bantering about sex and feasting after Juliet’s supposedly heartbreaking (but actually faked) death in Romeo and Juliet, or of just about any of the over-the-top scenes or under-the-breath jokes being made in King Lear.
There are many other ways in which King Learmakes no attempt to be a classic tragedy. The main character, for example, is by no means morally sound: We’re not sure if Lear is senile, insane, or a raging narcissist, but in any case he is not our unquestionable hero. We may pity him and we may fear sharing a fate like his, but we wouldn’t put him on a pedestal. As a general rule, Shakespeare is not a moralist and is not interested in the moralizing or educational purposes of poetry or of the stage—there is little to redeem the anti-Semitism of The Merchant of Venice or the gleeful misogyny of Titus Andronicus—Shakespeare is an entertainer. Certainly he has become a pillar of cultural institutions that promote liberal values or “values” at all, but to deduce a moral from any of Shakespeare’s plays or poems requires willful reading. This is amorality is partly what makes his work seem “modern.” King Lear is the example par excellence: To redeem the play, to read it’s heart-rending plot as a kind of passion or a test of faith which the King must endure, is to be generous, or really, to be greedy. In any case: Sir Philip Sidney would have hated King Lear.
In fact, for centuries, a lot of people hated King Lear. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Lear was performed with a rewritten ending, restored to the original happy ending which Shakespeare had chosen to destroy. Nahum Tate rewrote the play, which he called “a Heap of Jewels, unstrung, and unpolisht” in 1681, and that became the standard version: Cordelia is once again triumphant and the world set back in order. The 18th century essayist and poet Samuel Johnson once wrote: “I was many years ago so shocked by Cordelia’s death that I know not whether I ever endured to read again the last scenes of the play till I undertook to revise them as an editor.”
How did we get back to Lear as Shakespeare wrote it? Well, we are a less utopia-oriented, less heaven-driven culture than we were before the industrial revolution and before the world wars, to speak grandly, but we are also a post-Romantic culture. The Romantics introduced a kind of amoral idealism that appreciated the grand passion and the despair of King Lear for what it was: Glaringly absurd, as Colerige wrote, and blindingly sublime. The Sublime as the Romantics understood it is one of the best ways to understand King Lear, I think. In 1757, Edmund Burke published his A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origins of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful, and inaugurated this buzzword (or bugsword, in Shakespearean English), the sublime. The sublime is something so awe-inspiring it is beyond human comprehension; beyond beauty, the Sublime inspires as much terror as it does joy or delight. The Alps are the quintessential image of the sublime for British Romantics: Soaring, glistening, snow-covered mountain spires and infinite vistas the likes of which do not exist in England, which were utterly mind-blowing to poets and intellectuals travelling on the continent.
John Keats, 1795-1821, is one of the most famous and iconic Romantic writers: He quit his job as a pharmacist to live a life of passion and poetry and died at the age of 25, having already left behind some of the greatest poems and Odes ever written. When people talk about Kurt Cobain (don’t make me explain who this is) or Jack Keruac (“On the Road”) as if those artists are doing anything new, please remind them of Keats. And can you guess which play of Shakespeare’s was Keats’ favorite? King Lear, of course. Keats dedicated a sonnet to the greatness of Lear: “On Sitting Down to Read King Lear Once Again” which reads, in part:
Betwixt damnation and impassion’d clay
Must I burn through; once more humbly assay
The bitter-sweet of this Shakespearian fruit.
Chief Poet! and ye clouds of Albion,
Begetters of our deep eternal theme,
When through the old oak forest I am gone,
Let me not wander in a barren dream,
But when I am consumed in the fire,
Give me new Phoenix wings to fly at my desire.
Or consider this passage from Lear, Act 3 scene 4:
No, I will weep no more. In such a night
To shut me out? Pour on; I will endure.
In such a night as this? O Regan, Goneril!
Your old kind father, whose frank heart gave all—
O, that way madness lies; let me shun that;
No more of that.
And then this stanza from a poem by Keats:
Shed no tear! oh, shed no tear!
The flower will bloom another year.
Weep no more! oh, weep no more!
Young buds sleep in the root’s white core.
Dry your eyes! oh, dry your eyes!
For I was taught in Paradise
To ease my breast of melodies,—
Shed no tear.
The King Lear we value today still has a lot to do, I think, with the “impassioned clay” that Keats felt he must “burn through.” The other most important Romantic poet, Wordsworth, famously wrote that “All good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” which was a radical thought at the time (1801) and is exactly the kind of outpouring which the grand madness of Lear on the heath represents. If Lear is an absurd scream into the dark face of the universe, the Romantics, faced with political and industrial revolutions on all sides, felt this cry’s strength and valued this cry’s overflowing poetry. We might look to the famous lines of Act III scene II:
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,
Strike flat the thick rotundity o’ the world!
Crack nature’s moulds, all germens spill at once
That make ingrateful man!
We are, in many ways, still reading as Romantics. But another reason King Lear retains its place of prominence in the modern Shakespeare canon might be because of exactly what Sir Philip Sidney would have hated about the play so much: Its absurdity, its bathos. King Lear reminds me so much of “Waiting for Godot” by Samuel Beckett sometimes, it’s frightening. Have you ever tried to sit through that play? Have you ever tried to sit through King Lear? Controversies continue to this day about whether or not the play is feasible to produce or reproduce or whether it should be read simply as a literary text; and it’s true, the plot is bizarre, unwieldy, and unrewarding in ways strikingly similar to Becket’s absurdist theater of 1948. A play like Waiting for Godot succeeds most fully when it most fully fails, when it makes its audience want to gouge their eyes out, and this is undoubtedly much the same way King Lear works.
In fact, the extent to which King Lear produces, or reproduces, frustration and madness in its reader or audience is perhaps the play’s greatest strength. I have read the play and taught the play and I still can’t keep Regan and Goneril straight; trying to remember whether Edgar or Edmund is the “natural” son or the evil son or the good son and which one becomes Tom the Bedlam and where Kent is and what his second identity is and whether or not Albany is married to Goneril or to Regan and whether Cornwall is married to Regan or Goneril and whether Albany or Cornwall is the one who turns back to Cordelia’s side at the end of the play — all of this is merely the confusion produced on the level of the plot. Stephen Booth, one of our best contemporary Shakespearean scholars, has an excellent reading in his essay “On the Greatness of King Lear” where he too admits to the confusion, and to the sublime effect created by the difference in repetition at every level of the play’s structure: “Consider Tweedledum, Tweedledee…” he suggests, and goes on: “almost any pair of elements one looks at in this play will reveal the essential characteristic of art: like two rhymed words, two verse lines, two metric feet, or two syllables, they will be alike in at least one respect and different in at least one other. That characteristic exercises the mind; when a seemingly infinite number of its manifestations are superimposed on one another as they are in Lear, the mind senses that it has reached or perhaps passed the limits of its endurance.”
The language of King Lear is some of the most relentless and most sublime in all of Shakespeare, and is endlessly fraught with the anxiety of being and seeming. Track the word “nature” or “natural” for example, and the way every single meaning the word could maintain is slipped in and out of , in and out of nearly every page of the play: Nature in the play, both human and environmental, is not ours nor external, not good or bad, but terribly fluid. Daughters and sons betray human nature and their familial bonds; Lear’s mind betrays him; the elements themselves blow and crack in thunderstorms above. A cosmology in King Lear may be impossible to construct (“As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods; They kill us for their sport,” or so says Gloucester in Act IV Scene 1) but if it could be done it could be done through the one word “Nature,” and W.H. Auden has come closest, tracking this trope excellently in his lectures on King Lear; it’s flabbergasting to read the play with an eye on this figure. Shakespeare never beat a horse so dead.
But questions of being and seeming subsume questions of seeing and appearing, as well: Gloucester is figuratively blind before he is literally blinded (he can’t tell his good son from his natural son) and Lear is figuratively blinded by his…Whatever you believe it is: Delusions of grandeur, anxiety of aging, madness… “You cannot see your way,” an old man says to Gloucester, still bleeding from where his eyes were, in Act IV Scene I. “I have no way, and therefore want no eyes,” Gloucester responds. “I stumbled when I saw.” No one is able to tell right from wrong even in their own actions anymore: “See thyself, devil,” Albany spits at Gonoril in the first quarto, in one of the bitterest marital scenes on record. The fools and wits alone perhaps have metaphorical sight or insight, but little good it does any of the play’s main actors.
In addition to the sublime, another way we might think about King Lear is through Freud’s idea of the uncanny. The anxiety in being and seeming, seeing and appearing, is encapsulated everywhere in this play and seems to be straight out of Sigmund Freud’s classic analysis, The Uncanny. In attempting to outline the phenomenon, Freud comes back again and again to repetitions, to doubleness, to doppelgangers, and to sight: To the child’s (and literature’s) fear of the old wives tale of the Sandman – who comes in the night and steals your eyes – to the adult’s fear of castration, of literal blindness as a metaphorical powerlessness which loops back to literal impotency; this symbolic leap between the vulnerability of the testes and vulnerability of the eyes. King Learseems to be built to be read with this line of Freud’s thought, as the King’s anxiety about his power and powerlessness is exactly his anxiety about his identity and ability to identify, as in, to repeat his identity, to be King and continue to be so, but also to repeat his identity in an another, to identify with—And his anxiety of identification– of his ability to see, to tell what is what, what daughter is loyal, what real is.
Aristotle and the ancient Greeks had a word “opsis,” which means spectacle,and was one of Aristotle’s elements of tragedy. Opsis is also the root of our own “optic.” Thinking through this term might help us link the sublime and the uncanny elements of the play; Lear is at once an absurd spectacle, filled with the dissimilarity in similarity, difference in repetition that characterizes art–and the uncanny. But this mad sequence of doubling, of spectacle and vision, of being and seeming, of seeing and appearing, sight and insight —is reproduced not only in the plot, and in the language, and in the audience, but in the textual history of the play as well.
King Lear is one of the Shakespearean texts with the richest histories for scholars and students today. Published first in 1607 in quarto form, the play was republished in a very similar form in 1619, before a significantly revised edition was included in the First Folio in 1623. The ideal would be to believe that the 1623, folio text is the performance text, or a revision for performance, and this is corroborated by the fact that the text cuts down on length and features more detailed stage directions. This ideal would also see the quarto version as “Shakespeare’s” ideal play, or his first draft, before the concessions to the stage were made. This is the sense-making that scholars are hot for, but of course we’ll never really know. Either way, the play’s simultaneity is an uncanny manifestation of its latent and overt doublings: The new Norton edition produces both texts side by side, so that in the experience of turning the page, you must look back and forth from one version to the other, and each time you turn the page, if you forget which way to look, you find yourself in a parallel reality. The effect is sly and even slightly terrifying.
Well. Those are some ways to read the play, staring with the sources. It’s perhaps most important to remember that moment when King Lear enters in the final scene of the play, with Cordelia dead in his arms. For we know that was the most intense, most intentional interruption from Shakespeare’s source materials, but we don’t know why. Did Shakespeare want to portray a world where evil triumphs? Or did he simply want to shock his audience? Another way to think about King Lear is through passion, overflowing emotion, or through the incomprehensible Sublime. Equally important is to remember the absurdity of the play, and to track those tropes of nature and appearance, which lend themselves so well to a reading of the uncanny. But I want to end with that most generous and most greedy reading, the redemptive reading in which we make comparisons between the fire and brimstone of the King James Version of the Bible and the King Shakespeare version of King Lear. Reading Lear as Shakespeare’s Book of Job can give us a kind of solace, when we’re facing down the sheer meaninglessness in the play’s way with meaning.
Job is the story of a prosperous man brought low for seemingly meaningless reasons; a bet between God and Satan. All plagues are brought upon him; there is one particularly nasty passage about scratching his boils with a potsherd. But Job’s faith wins the day, and he is redeemed and restored to happiness and prosperity. Consider the following passages, from the Book of Job, Chapter 3
1: After this opened Job his mouth, and cursed his day.
2: And Job spake, and said,
3: Let the day perish wherein I was born, and the night in which it was said, There is a man child conceived.
4: Let that day be darkness; let not God regard it from above, neither let the light shine upon it.
5: Let darkness and the shadow of death stain it; let a cloud dwell upon it; let the blackness of the day terrify it.
6: As for that night, let darkness seize upon it; let it not be joined unto the days of the year, let it not come into the number of the months.
7: Lo, let that night be solitary, let no joyful voice come therein.
8: Let them curse it that curse the day, who are ready to raise up their mourning.
9: Let the stars of the twilight thereof be dark; let it look for light, but have none; neither let it see the dawning of the day:
10: Because it shut not up the doors of my mother’s womb, nor hid sorrow from mine eyes.
11: Why died I not from the womb? why did I not give up the ghost when I came out of the belly?
And from King Lear, Act III scene II:
Let the great gods,
That keep this dreadful pother o’er our heads,
Find out their enemies now. Tremble, thou wretch,
That hast within thee undivulged crimes,
Unwhipp’d of justice: hide thee, thou bloody hand;
Thou perjured, and thou simular man of virtue
That art incestuous: caitiff, to pieces shake,
That under covert and convenient seeming
Hast practised on man’s life: close pent-up guilts,
Rive your concealing continents, and cry
These dreadful summoners grace. I am a man
More sinn’d against than sinning.
I promised I would stop talking. But there is one more thing I want to include in this introduction to the ways I think about and make meaning from something so daunting as King Lear. Maurice Blanchot, a twentieth century French novelist and literary theorist, has a poignant passage in his essay “From Dread to Language” which helps me here. The difficulties of King Lear, which drive us back to the sources, to a child-like desire to reconstruct Shakespeare’s authorial intentions, and a childlike feeling of betrayal when those choices are revealed to be cruel, remind me of this essay.
“Everything written has, for the one who writes it, the greatest meaning possible,” Blanchot writes—that is to say, we can be generous, we can be greedy, we can find the sublime, we can find the uncanny: “But it has also this meaning, that it is meaning bound to chance, that it is nonmeaning.” … “It cannot succeed, and it is this impossibility of succeeding, of reaching the end, where it would be as though it had never succeeded, that it makes constantly possible… It is filled with dread because it cannot be pure dread.” IE, is this the promised end? IE, King Learis pure, glaring absurdity: It shows us the bathos and tawdriness of human nature, the cruelty and disinterestedness of the Gods or of nature; it shows us we must renounce the world and leave it gladly. “The unknown masterpiece,” as Blanchot continues, always allows one to see in the corner the top of a charming foot, and this delicious foot prevents the work from being finished but also prevents the painter from facing the emptiness of his canvas and saying, with the greatest feeling of repose: “Nothing, nothing! At last, there is nothing!”
But Shakespeare’s masterpiece is not the unknown, unrealized masterpiece. He leaves no ‘charming foot’ escaping in the corner of the frame, no crack of light from a door ajar: King Lear is sealed, and finished, completely. As Lear speaks into the face of the emptiness in the play’s final scene, in what must surely be the most terrifying and dreadful line of iambic pentameter Shakespeare ever wrote:
Never, never, never, never, never.