King Lear

Analysis and criticism

Analysis and criticism of King Lear over the centuries has been extensive.

.mw-parser-output .quotebox{background-color:#F9F9F9;border:1px solid #aaa;box-sizing:border-box;padding:10px;font-size:88%;max-width:100%}.mw-parser-output .quotebox.floatleft{margin:0.5em 1.4em 0.8em 0}.mw-parser-output .quotebox.floatright{margin:0.5em 0 0.8em 1.4em}.mw-parser-output .quotebox.centered{margin:0.5em auto 0.8em auto}.mw-parser-output .quotebox.floatleft p,.mw-parser-output .quotebox.floatright p{font-style:inherit}.mw-parser-output .quotebox-title{background-color:#F9F9F9;text-align:center;font-size:larger;font-weight:bold}.mw-parser-output .quotebox-quote.quoted:before{font-family:"Times New Roman",serif;font-weight:bold;font-size:large;color:gray;content:" “ ";vertical-align:-45%;line-height:0}.mw-parser-output .quotebox-quote.quoted:after{font-family:"Times New Roman",serif;font-weight:bold;font-size:large;color:gray;content:" ” ";line-height:0}.mw-parser-output .quotebox .left-aligned{text-align:left}.mw-parser-output .quotebox .right-aligned{text-align:right}.mw-parser-output .quotebox .center-aligned{text-align:center}.mw-parser-output .quotebox cite{display:block;font-style:normal}@media screen and (max-width:360px){.mw-parser-output .quotebox{min-width:100%;margin:0 0 0.8em!important;float:none!important}} What we know of Shakespeare's wide reading and powers of assimilation seems to show that he made use of all kinds of material, absorbing contradictory viewpoints, positive and negative, religious and secular, as if to ensure that King Lear would offer no single controlling perspective, but be open to, indeed demand, multiple interpretations.

R. A. Foakes[20]

Historicist interpretations

John F. Danby, in his Shakespeare's Doctrine of Nature – A Study of King Lear (1949), argues that Lear dramatizes, among other things, the current meanings of "Nature". The words "nature," "natural" and "unnatural" occur over forty times in the play, reflecting a debate in Shakespeare's time about what nature really was like; this debate pervades the play and finds symbolic expression in Lear's changing attitude to Thunder. There are two strongly contrasting views of human nature in the play: that of the Lear party (Lear, Gloucester, Albany, Kent), exemplifying the philosophy of Bacon and Hooker, and that of the Edmund party (Edmund, Cornwall, Goneril, Regan), akin to the views later formulated by Hobbes. Along with the two views of Nature, Lear contains two views of Reason, brought out in Gloucester and Edmund's speeches on astrology (1.2). The rationality of the Edmund party is one with which a modern audience more readily identifies. But the Edmund party carries bold rationalism to such extremes that it becomes madness: a madness-in-reason, the ironic counterpart of Lear's "reason in madness" (IV.6.190) and the Fool's wisdom-in-folly. This betrayal of reason lies behind the play's later emphasis on feeling.

The two Natures and the two Reasons imply two societies. Edmund is the New Man, a member of an age of competition, suspicion, glory, in contrast with the older society which has come down from the Middle Ages, with its belief in co-operation, reasonable decency, and respect for the whole as greater than the part. King Lear is thus an allegory. The older society, that of the medieval vision, with its doting king, falls into error, and is threatened by the new Machiavellianism; it is regenerated and saved by a vision of a new order, embodied in the king's rejected daughter. Cordelia, in the allegorical scheme, is threefold: a person; an ethical principle (love); and a community. Nevertheless, Shakespeare's understanding of the New Man is so extensive as to amount almost to sympathy. Edmund is the last great expression in Shakespeare of that side of Renaissance individualism – the energy, the emancipation, the courage – which has made a positive contribution to the heritage of the West. "He embodies something vital which a final synthesis must reaffirm. But he makes an absolute claim which Shakespeare will not support. It is right for man to feel, as Edmund does, that society exists for man, not man for society. It is not right to assert the kind of man Edmund would erect to this supremacy."[21]

The play offers an alternative to the feudal-Machiavellian polarity, an alternative foreshadowed in France's speech (I.1.245–256), in Lear and Gloucester's prayers (III.4. 28–36; IV.1.61–66), and in the figure of Cordelia. Until the decent society is achieved, we are meant to take as role-model (though qualified by Shakespearean ironies) Edgar, "the machiavel of goodness",[22] endurance, courage and "ripeness".[21]

The play also contains references to disputes between King James I and Parliament. In the 1604 elections to the House of Commons, Sir John Fortescue, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, was defeated by a member of the Buckinghamshire gentry, Sir Francis Goodwin.[23] Displeased with the result, James declared the result of the Buckinghhamshire election invalid, and swore in Fortescue as the MP for Buckinghamshire while the House of Commons insisted on swearing in Goodwin, leading to a clash between King and Parliament over who had the right to decide who sat in the House of Commons.[23] The MP Thomas Wentworth, the son of another MP Peter Wentworth – often imprisoned under Elizabeth for raising the question of the succession in the Commons – was most forceful in protesting James's attempts to reduce the powers of the House of Commons, saying the King could not just declare the results of an election invalid if he disliked who had won the seat as he was insisting that he could.[24] The character of Kent resembles Peter Wentworth in the way which is tactless and blunt in advising Lear, but his point is valid that Lear should be more careful with his friends and advisers.[24]

Just as the House of Commons had argued to James that their loyalty was to the constitution of England, not to the King personally, Kent insists his loyalty is institutional, not personal, as he is loyal to the realm of which the king is head, not to Lear himself, and he tells Lear to behave better for the good of the realm.[24] By contrast, Lear makes an argument similar to James that as king, he holds absolute power and could disregard the views of his subjects if they displease him whenever he liked.[24] In the play, the characters like the Fool, Kent and Cordelia, whose loyalties are institutional, seeing their first loyalty to the realm, are portrayed more favorably than those like Regan and Goneril, who insist they are only loyal to the king, seeing their loyalties as personal.[24] Likewise, James was notorious for his riotous, debauched lifestyle and his preference for sycophantic courtiers who were forever singing his praises out of the hope for advancement, aspects of his court that closely resemble the court of King Lear, who starts out in the play with a riotous, debauched court of sycophantic courtiers.[25] Kent criticises Oswald as a man unworthy of office who has only been promoted because of his sycophancy, telling Lear that he should be loyal to those who are willing to tell him the truth, a statement that many in England wished that James would heed.[25]

Furthermore, James VI of Scotland inherited the throne of England upon the death of Elizabeth I in 1603, thereby uniting all of the kingdoms of the British isles into one, and a major issue of his reign was the attempt to forge a common British identity.[26] James had given his sons Henry and Charles the titles of Duke of Cornwell and Duke of Albany, the same titles bore by the men married to Regan and Goneril.[27] The play begins with Lear ruling all of Britain and ends with him destroying his realm; the critic Andrew Hadfield argued that the division of Britain by Lear was an inversion of the unification of Britain by James, who believed his policies would result in a well governed and prosperous unified realm being passed on to his heir.[27] Hadfield argued that the play was meant as a warning to James as in the play a monarch loses everything by giving in to his sycophantic courtiers who only seek to use him while neglecting those who truly loved him.[27] Hadfield also argued that the world of Lear's court is "childish" with Lear presenting himself as the father of the nation and requiring all of his subjects, not just his children, to address him in paternal terms, which infantises most of the people around him, which pointedly references James's statement in his 1598 book The Trew Law of Free Monarchies that the king is the "father of the nation", for whom all of his subjects are his children.[28]

Psychoanalytic and psychosocial interpretations

King Lear provides a basis for "the primary enactment of psychic breakdown in English literary history".[29] The play begins with Lear's "near-fairytale narcissism".[30]

Given the absence of legitimate mothers in King Lear, Coppélia Kahn[31] provides a psychoanalytic interpretation of the "maternal subtext" found in the play. According to Kahn, Lear's old age forces him to regress into an infantile disposition, and he now seeks a love that is traditionally satisfied by a mothering woman, but in the absence of a real mother, his daughters become the mother figures. Lear's contest of love between Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia serves as the binding agreement; his daughters will get their inheritance provided that they care for him, especially Cordelia, on whose "kind nursery" he will greatly depend.

Cordelia's refusal to dedicate herself to him and love him as more than a father has been interpreted by some as a resistance to incest, but Kahn also inserts the image of a rejecting mother. The situation is now a reversal of parent-child roles, in which Lear's madness is a childlike rage due to his deprivation of filial/maternal care. Even when Lear and Cordelia are captured together, his madness persists as Lear envisions a nursery in prison, where Cordelia's sole existence is for him. It is only with Cordelia's death that his fantasy of a daughter-mother ultimately diminishes, as King Lear concludes with only male characters living.

Sigmund Freud asserted that Cordelia symbolises Death. Therefore, when the play begins with Lear rejecting his daughter, it can be interpreted as him rejecting death; Lear is unwilling to face the finitude of his being. The play's poignant ending scene, wherein Lear carries the body of his beloved Cordelia, was of great importance to Freud. In this scene, Cordelia forces the realization of his finitude, or as Freud put it, she causes him to "make friends with the necessity of dying".[32] Shakespeare had particular intentions with Cordelia's death, and was the only writer to have Cordelia killed (in the version by the Nahum Tate, she continues to live happily, and in Holinshed's, she restores her father and succeeds him).

Alternatively, an analysis based on Adlerian theory suggests that the King's contest among his daughters in Act I has more to do with his control over the unmarried Cordelia.[33] This theory indicates that the King's "dethronement"[34] might have led him to seek control that he lost after he divided his land.

In his study of the character-portrayal of Edmund, Harold Bloom refers to him as "Shakespeare's most original character".[35]

"As Hazlitt pointed out", writes Bloom, "Edmund does not share in the hypocrisy of Goneril and Regan: his Machiavellianism is absolutely pure, and lacks an Oedipal motive. Freud's vision of family romances simply does not apply to Edmund. Iago is free to reinvent himself every minute, yet Iago has strong passions, however negative. Edmund has no passions whatsoever; he has never loved anyone, and he never will. In that respect, he is Shakespeare's most original character."[35]

The tragedy of Lear's lack of understanding of the consequences of his demands and actions is often observed to be like that of a spoiled child, but it has also been noted that his behaviour is equally likely to be seen in parents who have never adjusted to their children having grown up.[36]

Christianity

Critics are divided on the question of whether or not King Lear represents an affirmation of a particular Christian doctrine.[37] Those who maintain this position posit different arguments, which include the significance of Lear's self-divestment.[38] For some critics, this reflects the Christian concepts of the fall of the mighty and the inevitable loss of worldly possessions. By 1569, sermons delivered at court such as those at Windsor declared how "rich men are rich dust, wise men wise dust... From him that weareth purple, and beareth the crown down to him that is clad with meanest apparel, there is nothing but garboil, and ruffle, and hoisting, and lingering wrath, and fear of death and death itself, and hunger, and many a whip of God."[38] Some see this in Cordelia and what she symbolized - that the material body are mere husks that would eventually be discarded so that the fruit can be reached.[37]

Among those who argue that Lear is redeemed in the Christian sense through suffering are A. C. Bradley[39] and John Reibetanz, who has written: "through his sufferings, Lear has won an enlightened soul".[40] Other critics who find no evidence of redemption and emphasise the horrors of the final act include John Holloway[41] and Marvin Rosenberg.[42] William R. Elton stresses the pre-Christian setting of the play, writing that, "Lear fulfills the criteria for pagan behavior in life," falling "into total blasphemy at the moment of his irredeemable loss".[43] This is related to the way some sources cite that at the end of the narrative, King Lear raged against heaven before eventually dying in despair with the death of Cordelia.[44]


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