“O, reason not the need! Our basest beggars.Are in the poorest thing superfluous.”

King Lear

Act Two, Part One

By Dennis Abrams


king-lear-044Act Two:  Edmund tells Edgar of their father’s anger and persuades him to flee, at which point Edgar decides to disguise himself as a beggar.  Meanwhile, Kent has attacked Goneril’s steward Oswald and is put in the stocks by Regan and Cornwall; Lear and the Fool discover him there and demand to know why he has been punished, and although Regan and Cornwall release him, they refuse to allow Lear to stay with them unless he dismisses his entire retinue. When Goneril arrives and also refuses her father access, Lear leaves in a fury, bitterly vowing to contend with the wilderness instead.

Even though politics is in a sense the “plot” of King Lear (and one of the elements that makes it a masterwork) it is the appalling (and appallingly human) story of a man driven to madness that gives this tragedy its unique heartstopping intensity.  The King is often reminded that he is too old, that as Regan so callously puts it, “Nature in you stands on the very verge/Of his confine” (2.2.320-1), and as the play develops Lear begins to worry that he will topple over into madness. Though at first it is simply his political actions that are described as “mad” (Kent makes that point quite forcefully in the very first scene), it soon becomes clear that the threat to Lear’s sanity is quite real.

Shakespeare makes madness in all its forms one of the play’s largest concerns. At first it is rooted in Lear’s terrible anger, which foreshadows his mental collapse. Lear’s infamous rant against the storm, delivered as Goneril and Regan make it clear that they are no longer prepared to house the ageing King (their father) along with his rowdy knights, brings his bitter wrath (in the most Biblical of senses) to a head. Declaring his intention to “abjure all roofs” and confront “the enmity o’th’ air” (2.2.381-3) rather than stay with such heartless children, Lear will soon rage at the world and its forces in one of the play’s most memorable images…

To continue with Marjorie Garber:

lear and regan“The character of Goneril is a strong sketch for Lady Macbeth: ruthless, ambitious, purposeful, and thwarted, married to a man – the Duke of Albany – whom she considers weak and womanish. Maleness and femaleness are in the succeeding scenes made into warring factions: the daughters become ‘unnatural hags,” anticipating the Macbeth witches, and the King fears lest the feminine aspects of his own persona emerge to betray him (‘women’s weapons, water drops,’ ‘this mother,’ Histerica passio’). Lear’s ‘nature’ here is not wholly unlike Edmund’s – a destructive goddess, earthy, chthonic, dark, and contrary to order.

Yet Lear holds on to some hope. Perhaps Goneril is the only wicked child. Perhaps Regan will be loyal and natural. No: Regan and her husband, the Duke of Cornwall, will not even speak to Lear, although he now claims the privileges of title he impatiently waived with Kent: ‘The King would speak with Cornwall; the dear father/Would with his daughter speak’ (2.2.266-267). And what is Regan’s view, when at least he gains an audience?

O sir, you are old.

Nature in you stands on the very verge

Of his confine. You should be ruled and led…


As the blind Gloucester will be ruled and led. Once again the desperate Lear is driven to mummery, to acting out, as he kneels and plays out, to Regan, the scene he has refused to act in front of Goneril:

     Ask her forgiveness?

Do you but mark how this becomes the house?

[Kneeling]’Dear daughter, I confess that I am old.

Age is unnecessary. On my knees I beg

That you’ll vouchsafe me raiment, bed, and food.’


‘Age is unnecessary.’ The issue of necessity is growing on Lear, rivaling for the first time the commonplaces of luxury and privilege. But Regan is unmoved by his distress. She is angry rather than sympathetic at his curse upon her sister, and the inexorable, remorseless stripping of Lear continues. We may acknowledge, parenthetically, the likelihood that Lear’s knights are riotous, as the daughters’ claim; that Lear fails to keep them in order; that having abdicated his authority he has given his daughters some faint justification for their complaints. This will make his situation more poignant rather than less. If he does need their succor, their refusal is all the more heartless.

Goneril would let him keep only fifty knights. Therefore, he says,

I can be patient, I can stay with Regan,

I and my hundred knights.

‘Not altogether so,’ says Regan.  In fact, not so at all:

     What, fifty followers?

Is it not well? What should you need of more…?

I entreat you

To bring but five and twenty…

But Lear has not yet learned his lesson. He is still mathematical, still legalistic, and he turns back to Goneril (it is a truly terrible scene):

Thy fifty yet doth double five and twenty,

And thou art twice her love.

‘[T]hou art twice her love’ – as if love could be quantified [MY NOTE:  See more on this in my previous post], and as if the ritual love test of the opening scene could retain any purpose and value. Yet still the sisters chip away at his retinue:


Hear me, my lord.

What need you five and twenty, ten, or five,

To follow in a house where twice so many

Have a command to tend you?


What need one?

Lear’s reply, one of the great speeches in this great play, shows how quickly, and how low, he has fallen in these first two acts:

O, reason not the need! Our basest beggars

Are in the poorest thing superfluous.

Allow not nature more than nature needs,

Man’s life is cheap as beast’s. Thou art a lady

If only to go warm were gorgeous,

Why, nature needs not what thou, gorgeous, wear’st,

Which scarcely keeps thee warm. But for true need –

You heavens, give me that patience, patience I need.

You see me here, you gods, a poor old man,

As full of grief as age, wretched in both.

If it be you that stirs those daughters’ hearts

Against their father, fool me not so much

To bear it tamely. Touch me with noble anger,

And let not women’s weapons, water-drops,

Stain my man’s cheeks. No, you unnatural hags,

I will have such revenges on you both

That all the world shall – I will do such things –

What they are, yet I know not; but they shall be

The terrors of the earth. You think I’ll weep,

No, I’ll not weep…

‘I’ll not weep.’ Like Macduff, Lear thinks of weeping, the show of emotion, as a woman’s weakness. His cry is still the old cry of revenge. But in a brilliant moment of Shakespearean stagecraft the stage direction takes over from him, and shows Lear, once again the limits of language. (‘And let not woman’s weapons, water-drops…’):

No, I’ll not weep. I have full cause of weeping,

Storm and tempest

But this heart shall break into a hundred thousand flaws

Or ere I’ll weep. – O Fool, I shall go mad!

Eyes and weeping, tears, have been with us since Cordelia cautioned her sisters, in that crucial first scene, that she was leaving them with ‘washed eyes’ – her eyes cleansed by weeping, able to see more because they wept. Now Lear, crying out that he will not weep, sees the storm and tempest weep for him, and beseeching the gods to fool him not, calls out in the same breath for his Fool. And the tempest begins in earnest. This is stagecraft of the highest order – here the inner man has come together with the world he inhabits. The King is in high rage, and the storm rages about him. There is no difference between Lear and his tempest, it is within him and without him; he is its cause. He is now ready, and the audience is now ready, for the third act of his tragedy, perhaps the single most extraordinary act of any Shakespearean play.

We have seen that King Lear proceeds by analogy and comparison. Lear is compared to Gloucester. Edmund to Goneril and Regan, Goneril and Regan to Cordelia, Edgar to Edmund, and so on. Situations seem to fan out and become general. In the same way, the play draws dramatic strength from juxtaposition of scene to scene, phrase to phrase, to form a kind of node of meaning, a fulcrum. For example, in act 2, scene 2, the audience sees the spectacle of Kent in the stocks, demoted from his accustomed rank, concealing his real identity, and Kent speaks of the extremity of his position. ‘Nothing almost seems miracles/But misery,’ he says. ‘Fortune, good night;/Smile once more; turn thy wheel.’ The very next thing the audience sees and hears, in act 2, scene 3, is Edgar, newly disguised, also forced to abandon his identity and his rank, also mistreated, also at what he then imagines will be his lowest point, his ‘worst’ – although  both Edgar and Kent will learn again and again that there is worse to come. The play’s design thus presents two low points, two stripped, denuded men, two disguises and two confirmations and a dramatic effect is achieved by juxtaposition.”


Two from Frank Kermode – the first from The Sense of a Beginning, which I think is extraordinary:

“In King Lear everything tends toward a conclusion that does not occur; even personal death, for Lear, is terribly delayed. Beyond the apparent worst there is a worse suffering, and when the end comes it is not only more appalling than anybody expected, but a mere image of that horror, not the thing itself. The end is now a matter of immanence; tragedy assumes the figurations of apocalypse, of death and judgment, heaven and hell; but the world goes forward in the hands of exhausted survivors. Edgar haplessly assumes the dignity; only the king’s natural body is at rest. This is the tragedy of sempiternity; apocalypse is translated out of time, into the aevum. The world may, as Gloucester supposes, exhibit all the symptoms of decay and change, all the terrors of an approaching end, but when the end comes it is not an end, and both suffering and the need for patience are perpetual.”


And to continue from Shakespeare’s Language:

lear and fool 2“Enid Welsford, in her valuable book on the Fool, founding the action of this tragedy ‘the great reversal of the Saturnalia.’ The Saturnalia was classical Rome’s winter festival, remembered in the Christian Twelfth Night, when masters and servants changed places and a mock-king or boy-bishop ruled for a day over an upside-down world. Hear Lear, stripped of additions and in his dotage, ‘discovers…what the evil have known from their cradles…that in this world there is no poetic justice.’ The Renaissance, like St. Paul, found much value in folly, and Erasmus, who wrote a famous book about it, also recorded the adage ‘Kings and fools are born, not made, ‘which Shakespeare may have recalled when he has Lear ask, ‘Dost thou call me fool, boy?’ and receives the reply ‘All the other titles thou hast given away, that thou was born with.’ (I.iv.148-50, Quarto only).

Some understanding of the history and privileges of the Fool is essential to understanding King Lear; he is a perpetual reminder of Carnival, of the commentary on grandees allowed by custom to the humble. The Fool is both loyal and bitter; his master has reduced himself absurdly to a fool’s role, and the Fool is now the source of wisdom, fantastically delineating a world turned upside down. The proper additions of the Fool include a coxcomb, and the Fool offers his to the King to take the place of a crown.

Among the additions Lear vainly wants to keep are his hundred knights, but they are reduced to none by the savage calculations of Goneril and Regan. In the opening scene he has amused himself with calculations: how much love is due from her, how much from her, what exactly their rewards will be. He bargains with Burgundy: as a result of new calculations, ‘her [Cordelia’s] price is fallen. In his turn he hears the Dutch auction conducted by his daughters: what need has he of a hundred knights, indeed of fifty, even of five-and-twenty, even, finally of one? Lear joins pathetically in the bargaining ‘fifty yet doth double five and twenty./And thou art twice her love’ ‘O, reason not the need1’ he cries; to reduce a man to no more than what he need, he remarks prophetically, is to make his life as ‘cheap as beast’s’. For this is the moment when the storm is first heard; Lear is to find himself totally unprovided for, with shelter fit only for an animal. Now, more and more, the text begins to be full of animals – the bear, the lion, the wolf; and the King’s life, without additions, is truly as cheap as a beast’s.

The Gloucester plot is introduced immediately after the departure of Cordelia. First Edmund invokes nature as his goddess, a goddess who despise such human, social contrivances as primogeniture. His argument contests the legitimacy of legitimacy in a purely natural world. But there is more at stake than the ambition of the bastard. At the very outset of his scheming he and Gloucester have a perfectly motivated exchange on the subject of nothing:


What paper were you reading?


Nothing, my lord.


No? What needed then that terrible dispatch of it into your pocket? The quality of nothing hath not such need to hide itself. Let’s see. Come, if it be nothing, I shall not need spectacles.

Much of the poetry in the play depends on these echoes or repetitions; here ‘nothing’ is associated with seeing, sight, and the loss of it, which Gloucester is soon to suffer. Edmund plays his trick on the foolish old man and on his brother, whose fault is ‘foolish honesty.’ The scene is followed at once by another in which we see Goneril’s contempt for her father (‘Old fools are babes again’) and another displaying the loyalty or foolish honesty of Kent, who is at once stripped of his additions and reduced to the status of a servant.

There are so many significant juxtapositions and encounters in the play that one might overlook the importance of Kent’s assault on another servant, Goneril’s steward Oswald, who has been told to insult the King. Their relationship is brief and violent. Kent comes across Oswald again in II.ii and provokes him to fight. Prevented by Cornwall, he characterizes his opponent in words that apply to all the evil persons in the play and to many in anybody’s acquaintance:

     Such smiling rogues as these,

Like rats, oft bite the holy cords a-twain

Which are t’ intrinse t’ unloose…

The figure is of rats biting through the complicated knots that bind together families, friends, societies; they cannot be untied and are destroyed by the evil gnawing of vermin. Shakespeare nowhere else used ‘intrinse,’ but it is a mistake to emend the word to ‘intrench’ as some editors have done; that reading loses the idea of bonds that are visible and owe their integrity to their complexity. The lines are applied immediately to Oswald, the sycophantic evildoer, but they apply with equal force to the wicked daughters and Edmund. The basic idea lingered in Shakespeare’s mind: Cleopatra asks the asp “With thy sharp teeth this knot intrinsicate/Of life at once untie’ (Antony and Cleopatra, V.ii.304-5). Both words seem to be of Shakespeare’s invention. But in the lines from Lear the knot intrinse or intrinsicate (perhaps, as has been suggested, a blend of ‘intrinsic’ and ‘intricate’) is made up of holy cords (the word ‘holy’ is missing from Q1, but I guess it was present in a lost original; it carries so much of the sense of the simile.)

Immediately after the scene in which Kent first accosts Oswald, another loyal dependant of the King, the Fool, makes his first entrance (I.iv.94). This is something of a crisis, for from now on the play develops a dialect of folly and madness, to be heard in counterpoint with the language of an evil that remains horribly sane. The Fool’s significant first gesture is to offer his coxcomb to the King; then he sings, and the King tells him the song is ‘nothing’; and the pair have a dialogue on the nature of nothing (128-33). The King has divided his wit in two, like an egg cut in half, and given both sides away, leaving nothing in the middle. He is a ‘sheal’d peascod.’ The Fool is insistent: ‘Thou hadst little wit in thy bald crown when thou gav’st  thy golden one away’ (162-63; note his privileged singulars, ‘thou’ and ‘thy’). When Goneril insults him, Lear asks, ‘Does any here know me? This is not Lear…Where are his eyes?…Who is it that can tell me who I am?’ (Here one notes a strain, only later perceptible, on the use of the word ‘eyes’; Lear’s question is nothing one could expect: ‘Who am I?’ Where are my eyes?’ is surely, on reflection, strange.) “Lear’s shadow,’ replies the Fool: shadow, being the opposite of substance (an antithesis I have noted earlier as a favourite theme of Shakespeare’s), is therefore a form of nothing. One could compare Donne’s calling a shadow ‘an ordinary nothing’ in the ‘Nocturnal upon St. Lucy’s Day.’ Lear is already thus drastically reduced.

The language of excess and folly allow the intrusion of images and ideas that do not seem immediately relevant but are essential to the fabric of the play. After his frantic curse on Goneril, dismissed by her as ‘dotage,’ Lear threatens to pluck out his eyes (301-2), and the mild Albany wonders how far his wife’s ‘eyes may pierce.’ The Fool asks Lear a riddle: ‘why one’s nose stand i’ th’ middle on ‘s face?,’ the answer to which is ‘to keep one’s eyes on either side’s nose, that what a man cannot smell out, he may spy into.’ (I.v.19-23)

Now, in Act II, comes the disastrous gathering at Gloucester’s house of the daughters and their husbands, with Kent and Lear arriving later. The plot of Edmund (‘Loyal and natural boy’) against Edgar is afoot. Regan’s wicked opening question to Gloucester was much admired by Coleridge: ‘What, did my father’s godson seek your life?’ Here the supposed crime of Edgar is, as it were, by association exclusively attributed to Lear, his godfather. The periphrastic trick of identifying guilt by tracking kinship reminds one of Hamlet: ‘your husband’s brother’s wife’ is an incriminating way of specifying the Queen his mother. Here the language of Regan, as always, characterizes her as without mercy, cold and cunning. That of Lear, in reply to the Fool’s tauntings, introduces his first thought and fear of madness.”


And finally for today, from Northrop Frye:

goneril and regan“When you start to read or listen to King Lear, try to pretend that you’ve never heard the story before, and forget that you know how bad Goneril and Regan and Edmund are going to be. That way, you’ll see more clearly how Shakespeare is building up our sympathies in the opposite direction. The opening scene presents first Gloucester and then Lear as a couple of incredibly foolish and gullible dodderers (Gloucester’s gullibility comes out in a slightly later scene). Gloucester boasts about how he bog Edmund in way that embarrasses us as well as Kent, and we feel that Edmund’s treachery, whatever we think of it, is at any rate credibly motivated. Even at the end of the play, his simple phrase ‘Yet Edmund was beloved,’ meaning that Goneril and Regan loved him at least, reminds u s how intensely we can feel dramatic sympathy where we don’t necessarily feel moral sympathy.

As for Lear and his dreary love text, it’s true that Goneril and Regan are being hypocrites when they patter glibly through the declarations of love they are required to make, but we shouldn’t forget that it’s a genuine humiliation, even for them, to have to make such speeches. At no time in the play does Lear ever express any real affection or tenderness for Goneril or Regan. Of course loving Goneril and Regan would be uphill work, but Lear never really thinks in terms of love: he talks about his kindness and generosity and how much he’s given them and how grateful they ought to feel. He does say (publicly) that Cordelia was always his favorite, and that certainly registers with the other two, as their dialogue afterward shows. But they don’t feel grateful, and nobody with Shakespeare’s knowledge of human nature would expect them to. Then again, while they’re not surprised that Lear acts like an old fool, even they are startled by how big a fool he is, and they realize they have to be on their guard to stop him from ever having the power to do to them what he’s just done to Cordelia. The hundred knights Lear insists on could easily start a palace revolution in such a society, so the hundred knights will have to go.

In the first two acts, all Lear’s collisions with his daughters steadily diminish his dignity and leave them with the dramatic honours. They never lose their cool: they are certainly harsh and unattractive women, but they have a kind of brusque common sense that bears him down every time. A hundred knights would make quite a hole in any housekeeper’s budget, and we have only Lear’s word for it that they’re invariably well behaved. If we look at the matter impartially, we may find ourselves asking, with the daughters, what all the fuss is about, and why Lear must have all these knights. When Regan says,

This house is little: the old man and ‘s people

Cannot be well bestow’d.

what she says could have a ring of truth in it, if we forget for the moment that she’s talking about Gloucester’s house, which she and Cornwall have commandeered. Every move that Lear makes is dramatically a flop, as when he kneels to Regan, intending irony, and she says ‘these are unsightly tricks,’ which they assuredly are. The same thing is true of some of Lear’s allies, like Kent and his quarrel with Oswald that lands him in the stocks. It is not hard to understand Kent’s feelings about Oswald, or his exasperation with the fact that Goneril’s messenger is treated with more consideration than the king’s, but still he does seem to be asking for something, almost as though he were a kind of agent provocateur, adopting the strategy of Goneril’s ‘I’d have it come to question.’

It is not until the scene at the end of the second act, with its repeated ‘shut up your doors,’ that our sympathies definitely shift over to Lear. Regan says, ‘He is attended with a desperate train,’ meaning his fifty (or whatever their present number) knights, but they seem to have sloped off pretty promptly as soon as they realized they were unlikely to get their next meal there, and Lear’s ‘desperate train’ actually consists only of the Fool. When we catch her out in a lie of that size we begin to see what has not emerged before, and has perhaps not yet occurred to them: that ‘his daughters seek his death,’ as Gloucester says. It is during and after the storm that the characters of the play begin to show their real nature, and from then on we have something unique in Shakespeare: a dramatic world in which the characters are, like chess players, definitely black or white: black with Edmund, Goneril, Regan and Cornwall; white with Lear, Cordelia, Edgar, Gloucester, Kent and eventually Albany.

Perhaps the best way of finding our bearings in this mammoth structure is to look for clues in the words that are so constantly repeated it seems clear that they’re being deliberately impressed on us. I’d like to look at three of these words in particular: the words ‘nature,’ ‘nothing’ and ‘fool.’

To understand the word ‘nature,’ we have to look at the kind of world view that’s being assumed, first by Shakespeare’s audience, they by the characters in the play. The opening words of Edmund’s first soliloquy are ‘Thou, Nature, art my goddess,’ and later in the first act Lear, beginning his curse on Goneril says: ‘Hear, Nature, hear; dear goddess, hear.’  It seems clear that Edmund and Lear don’t mean quite the same thing by the goddess Nature, but I think Shakespeare’s audience would find this less confusing than we do.

At that time most people assumed that the universe was a hierarchy in which the good was ‘up’ and the bad ‘down’ these ups and downs might be simply metaphors, but that didn’t affect their force or usefulness. At the top of the cosmos was the God of Christianity, whose abode is in heaven; that is, the place where his presence is. The lower heaven or sky is not this heaven, but it is the clearest visible symbol of it. The stars made, as was then believed, out of a purer substance than this world, keep reminding us in their circling of the planning and intelligence that went into the Creator’s original construction.

God made a home for man in the garden of Eden, which, like the stars, was a pure world without any death or corruption in it. But Adam and Eve fell out of this garden into a lower or ‘fallen’ world, a third level into which man is born but feels alienated from. Below this, a fourth level, is the demonic world. The heaven of God is above nature; the demonic world of the devils is below it; but the important thing to keep in mind that the two middle levels both form part of the order of nature, and that consequently ‘nature’ has two levels and two standards. The upper level, the world symbolized by the stars and by the story of the garden of Eden, was man’s original home, the place God intended him to live in. The lower level, the one we’re born into now, is a world to which animals and plants seem to be fairly well adjusted: man is not adjusted to it. He must either sink below it into sin, a level the animals can’t reach, or try to raises himself as near as he can to the second level he really belongs to. I say ‘try to raise himself,’ but he can’t really do that: the initiative must come from above or from social institutions. Certain things – morality, virtue, education, social discipline, religious sacraments – all help him to raise his status. He won’t get back to the garden of Eden: that’s disappeared as a place, but it can be recovered in part as an inner state of mind. The whole picture looks like this to the audience:

1.  Heaven (the place of the presence of God), symbolized by the sun and moon, which are all that’s left of the original creation.

2.  Higher or human order of nature, originally the ‘unfallen’ world or garden of Eden, now the level of nature on which man is intended to live as continually as possible with the aid of religion, morality, and the civilized arts.

3.  Lower or ‘fallen’ order of physical nature, our present environment, a world seemingly indifferent to man and his concerns, though the wise can see many traces of its original splendor.

4.  The demonic world, whatever or wherever it is, often associated with the destructive aspects of nature, such as the storm on the heath.

When we speak of ‘nature’ it makes a crucial difference whether we mean the upper, human level of nature or the environment around us that we actually do live in. Many things are ‘natural’ to man that are not natural to anything else on this lower level, such as living under authority and obedience, wearing clothes, using reason, and the like. Such things show that the proper ‘natural’ environment for man is something different from that of animals. But when Edmund commits himself to his goddess Nature, eh means only the lower, physical level of nature, where human life, like animal life, is a jungle in which the predators are the aristocracy. When Lear appeals to the goddess Nature to curse Goneril, he means a nature that includes what is peculiarly natural to man, an order of existence in which love, obedience, authority, loyalty are natural because they are genuinely human; an order in which ‘art,’ in all its Elizabethan senses, is practically indistinguishable from nature. Goneril is being cursed because her treatment of her father is ‘unnatural’ in this context.

But we shouldn’t assume that Edmund knows clearly that he is talking about a lower aspect of Nature, or that Lear knows clearly that he is talking about a higher one. Such categories aren’t clear yet in a pre-Christian world. In the Lear world there is no actual God, because there is only the Christian God, and he has not revealed himself yet. Very early, when Kent stands out against Lear’s foolish decision, Lear says, ‘Now, by Apollo’ and Kent answers:

Now, by Apollo, King

Thou swear’st thy Gods in vain.

Lear retorts by calling him ‘miscreant,’ unbeliever. A parody of this discussion occurs later, when Kent is in the stocks. And just as the divine world is hazy and mysterious, so is the demonic world. King Lear is in many respects the spookiest of all the great tragedies, and yet nothing explicitly supernatural or superhuman occurs in it: there is nothing to correspond to the Ghost in Hamlet or the witches in Macbeth. Five fiends inhabit Poor Tom, but we don’t believe in his devils, and wouldn’t even if we didn’t know that Poor Tom is really Edgar. To Shakespeare’s audience, the Lear world would look something like this:

1.  World of impotent or nonexistent gods, which tend to collapse into deified personifications of Nature or Fortune.

2.  Social or human world with the elements the more enlightened can see to be essential to a human world, such as love, loyalty, and authority. In particular, the world represented by Cordelia’s and Edgar’s love, Kent’s loyalty, Albany’s conscience, etc.

3.  World of physical nature in which man is born an animal and has to follow the animal pattern of existence, i.e., join the lions or eat well, or the sheep and get eaten.

4.  A hell-world glimpsed in moments of madness or horror.

As an example of what I’m talking about, notice that one of the first points established about Edmund is his contempt for astrology. If we ignore the question of ‘belief’ in astrology, for ourselves or for Shakespeare or his audience, and think of it simply as a dramatic image revealing character, we can see that of course Edmund would dismiss astrology: it has no place in his conception of nature. Astrology was taken seriously in Shakespeare’s day because of the assumption that God had made the world primarily for the benefit of man, and although the original creation is in ruins, we can still many evidences of design in it with a human reference. The stars in the sky are not just there: they’ve been put there for a purpose, and that’s why the configurations of stars can spell out the destinies of men and women.

Similarly, there are links, however mysterious and fitful, between nature and human events, at least on the top social level. Comets, earthquakes and other natural disturbances don’t just happen: they happen at crucial times in human life, such as the death of a ruler. Not necessarily a Christian ruler: there were, as we saw, such portents at the time of the murder of Julius Caesar. So Lear has some ground for expecting that the order of nature around him might take some notice of his plight and of his daughters’ ingratitude, considering that he’s a king. But one thing the storm symbolizes is that he’s moving into an order of nature that’s indifferent to human affairs. His madness brings him to the insight: ‘They told me I was everything: ‘tis a lie; I am not ague-proof.’ With his abdication, whatever links there may be between the civilized world and the one above it have been severed.

It should be clear from all this that the question ‘What is a natural man?’ has two answers. On his own proper human level it is natural to man to be clothed, sociable and reasonable. When Goneril and Regan keep asking Lear why he needs all those knights, the first part of his answer, in the speech beginning ‘Oh, reason not the need,’ is a quite coherent statement of the fact that civilized life is not based simply on needs. But in this storm world that Lear is descending into, what is natural man like? Lear has hardly begun to formulate the question when Poor Tom appears as the answer to it. ‘Didst thou give all to thy daughters?’ Lear asks, still preoccupied with his own concerns. But we’re getting down now to the underside of the Goneril-Regan world:

Poor Tom, that eats the swimming frog, the toad, the tadpole, the wall-newt and the water; that in the fury of his heart, when the foul fiend rages, eats cow-dung for sallets, swallows the old rat and the ditch-dog; drinks the green mantle of the standing pool…(III.iv.132ff.)

The imagery creates a world more nauseating than Hamlet ever dreamed of. ‘Is man no more than this?,’ Lear asks. In a way Poor tom is a kind of ghastly parody of free man, because he owes nothing to the amenities of civilization. Lear is reminded that he still has at least clothes, and starts tearing them off to be level with Poor Tom, but he is distracted from this. He says in a miracle of condensed verbal power: ‘Thou art the thing itself.’ He has started at one end of nature and ended at the other, and now his downward journey has reached a terminus. Perhaps one of Edgar’s motives in assuming his Poor Tom disguise was to provide a solid bottom for Lear’s descent. Before or behind him is the chaos-world portended  by the storm: the world of the furies and fiends that Edgar is keeping Lear protected from, just as he protects Gloucester later from the self-destructive ‘fiend’ that wants to hurl him over a cliff.”


How’s everybody doing so far?


My next post:  Thursday evening/Friday morning:  King Lear, Act Two, Part Two


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2 Responses to “O, reason not the need! Our basest beggars.Are in the poorest thing superfluous.”

  1. Joe Simon says:

    I’m seeing Lear in a new way. I was particularly struck by the discussion of Edmond and astrology because that was something I’d noticed before but this puts it in a new perspective for me. What I’d noticed was at least four similarities between Edmond and Cassius. Both speak against astrology (“the faul, dear Brutus, is not in our stars…”). Both use forged letters to advance their plots to disrupt a father-son relationship. And when Edmond says “my dimensions are as well compact…” It is a very similar argument to Cassius: “Brutus and Caesar: what should be in that ‘Caesar'”?

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