Act Five, Part Two
By Dennis Abrams
To continue with Harold Bloom:
“The double plot of King Lear adds considerable complexity to what would already be the most emotionally demanding of Shakespeare’s plays, even if the grim story of Gloucester, Edgar, and Edmund did not complement the ordeal of Lear and his daughters. Suffering is the true mode of action in King Lear; we suffer with Lear and Gloucester, Cordelia and Edgar, and our suffering is not lessened as, one by one, the evil are cut down. Cornwall, Oswald, Regan, Goneril, and finally Edmund. [MY NOTE: He’s right – there’s no real sense of relief on our part when they are killed.] I think that Shakespeare allows us no choice but suffering, because Lear’s immense (though waning) vitality possesses such a capacity for pathos from which we cannot exclude ourselves (unless we have started with a good morning’s resentment of Lear, ideologically motivated). To trace the giant fluctuations of affect in Lear is a harrowing project, but the play’s greatness cannot fully be apprehended without it, since a close reading will find in Lear’s suffering a kind of order, though no idea of order, it is only entropy, human and natural, that is formalized. No vision – neither Montaigne’s skepticism nor Christian redemption – is appropriate to this surging on of superior vitality into copious suffering and meaningless death. You can deny the pragmatic nihilism of King Lear or of Hamlet if you are a firm enough theist, but you will be rather beside the point, for Shakespeare neither challenges nor endorses your hopes for a personal resurrection. Suffering achieves its full reality of representation in King Lear, hope receives none. Hope is named Cordelia, and she is hanged at Edmund’s command; Edgar survives to battle wolves, and to endure a heroic hopelessness. And that, rather than ripeness is all. [MY NOTE: I full endorse that.]
A drama so comfortless succeeds because we cannot evade its power, of which the largest element is Lear’s terrible greatness of affect. You can deny Lear’s authority, as some now do, but you still must apprehend that in him the furnace comes up at least. Nothing I know of in the world’s literature, sacred or secular (a distinction this play voids), hurts us so much as Lear’s range of utterances Criticism risks irrelevance if it evades confronting greatness directly, and Lear perpetually challenges the limits of criticism. Lear also demands our love: ‘That we our largest bounty may extend/Where nature doth with merit challenge.’ I have not located any criticism worthy of Lear that did not start with love, difficult as we (with Cordelia) may find it to express such love. The significant action of King Lear is mostly suffering, domestic more even than political. How do you convert even intensely dramatic suffering into aesthetic pleasure, without merely gratifying the audience’s sadism? Shakespeare’s Jacobean followers – the playwrights Webster, Tourneur, and Ford – rely entirely on their indubitable eloquence, and the consequence is a moderately triumphal sadomasochism. A more or less normative audience does not experience sexual excitation from watching Gloucester’s eyes gouged out, or from seeing Lear stumble onto the stage with the hanged Cordelia in his arms. Love redeems nothing – on that Shakespeare could not be clearer – but the powerful representation of love askew, thwarted, misunderstood, or turned to hatred or icy indifference (Goneril, Regan, Edmund) can become an uncanny aesthetic value. Lear, surging on through fury, madness, and clarifying though momentary epiphanies, is the largest figure of love desperately sought and blindly denied every placed upon a stage or in print. He is the universal image of the unwisdom and destructiveness of paternal love at its most ineffectual, implacably persuaded of its own benignity, totally devoid of self-knowledge, and careening onward until it brings down the person it loves best, and its world as well.
I am aware that the sentence just concluded is inadequate, because it would apply almost as well to Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman (post-Ibsenite Lear) as to Shakespeare’s incommensurate tragedy. The difference is that Lear is one of Chesterton’s ‘great souls in chains,’ as are Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth, Cleopatra, and – utterly distinct – the Falstaff rejected by Prince Hal. King Lear is also the image of royal, legitimate authority, and more mysteriously the image of the wayward, frightening Yahweh of the J writer, earliest of Hebrew authors. The death of Lear is the end of the father, of the king, and of that part of the godhead that is father-king, Blake’s Urizen. Nothing, in Shakespeare or in life, goes down for a final time, but after Lear something vanishes from Western literary representations of the father-king-God. Aesthetic and spiritual defense of Milton’s God in Paradise Lost are never persuasive, and the culprit is as much Shakespeare as the Milton whom he overinfluenced, despite Milton’s rugged wariness. I have a permanent affection for the Satan of Paradise Lost, and yet he shamelessly imitates his intellectual superior, Iago. Milton’s God, I find unbearable: he is a cursing scold, bellowing against ‘ingrates,’ shamefully imitating King Lear, without in any sharing in the mad king’s furies of love demanded and love rejected. Lear drowns the stage in a rigorously modulated pathos, Milton’s God is an avalanche of self-congratulatory provocations to defensive satire.
There is no King Lear in our time; individual scale has become too diminished. Lear’s largeness is now part of his enormous value for us, but Shakespeare severely limits that largeness. The death of Lear cannot be an atonement for us, any more than it serves as an atonement for Edgar, Kent, and Albany. For Edgar, it is the final catastrophe, his godfather and his father are both gone, and the contrite Albany (who has much to be contrite for) abdicates the crown to the hapless Edgar, Shakespeare’s most reluctant royal successor, at least since the childlike Henry VI. The remorseful Albany and the aged Kent, soon to join his master Lear in death, do not represent the audience; Edgar the survivor does, and his despairing accents send us out of the theater unconsoled.
Shakespeare denies Lear’s death the transcendental aura that he imparted to the dying Hamlet. Horatio invokes flights of angels to sing the prince to his rest, while Lear’s survivors stand dazed and shattered, confronting what must be termed their loss of love. I have mentioned my difficulty as a teacher during the academic feminist seventies and eighties, attempting to convey to skeptical or even hostile women students that Lear, in Shakespeare’s darkest paradox, supremely incarnated love. The worst of those difficulties have vanished in these apocalyptic nineties, but I remain ruefully grateful for the chastening experience, since that precisely is Lear’s endless relevance: to expose love at its darkest, even its most unacceptable, yet also at its most inevitable. It is fascinating that initially Lear attributes Cordelia’s recalcitrance to join in her sister’s pompous hyperboles to ‘pride, which she calls plainness.’ Lear and all three daughters suffer from a plethora of prides, though Cordelia’s legitimate concern is with what John Keats would have called the holiness of her heart’s affections. Freud most peculiarly thought that Lear burned with repressed lust for Cordelia, perhaps because the great analyst did for his Anna. Lear, however, seems incapable of repressing anything whatsoever. He is simply, by light-years, the most violent expressionist in all Shakespeare:
Let it be so, thy truth then be thy dower:
For, by the sacred radiance of the sun,
The mysteries of Hecate and the night,
By all the operation of the orbs
From whom we do exist and cease to be,
Here I disclaim all my paternal care,
Propinquity and property of blood,
And as a stranger to my heart and me
Holds thee from this for ever. The barbarous Scythian,
Or he that makes his generation messes
To gorge his appetite, shall to my bosom
Be as well neighbour’d, pitied, and reliev’d,
As thou my sometime daughter.
This is so horrible as to court grotesque comedy, if anyone other than Lear shouted it forth. The foregrounding of this play would involve a long career of outbursts, which presumably helped convert Regan and Goneril into mincing hypocrites, and the favorite Cordelia into someone who learned the gift of patience silence. I have suggested that the models for Lear were the darker Solomons of Ecclesiastes and the Wisdom of Solomon, two saturine expressionists weary of eros, and of all else. ‘Better thou/Hadst not been born than not t’have pleased me better,’ Lear’s vicious remark to Cordelia, is apt prelude to a drama in which everyone would have been better had they not been born. It is not so much that all is vanity; all is nothing, less than nothing.
Is this Lear’s culpability, or is he merely the genius of his realm and era? ‘He hath ever but slenderly known himself,’ Regan says to Goneril, who replies: ‘The best and soundest of his time hath been but rash.’ Of the dozen principal roles in King Lear, eight are dead by the final curtain (Lear, Cordelia, Edmund, Gloucester, Goneril, Regan, Cornwall, Oswald) and the Fool has vanished. The survivors Edgar and Albany are of the younger time, Kent, soon to take his last journey, doubtless would be considered ‘rash’ by Goneril, who appears to mean ‘wholehearted’ rather than ‘impetuous’ or ‘ill-tempered.’ Lear’s rashness, at its most destructive, remains a wholeheartedness, in constant contrast to Edmund’s cunning brilliance. Though Lear’s most frequent metaphors tend to be hyperboles, tempests in his mind, they are partly redeemed by their largeness, fit for the king’s capacious soul. I specify the redemption of figures of speech, because no person, not even Lear, is redeemed in this harshest of dramas. Cordelia, tragic heroine, requires no redemption, and Lear’s enormous changes, his flashes of compassion and of social insight, essentially are emanations of his wholeheartedness, rather than the transformations Bradley and most subsequent critics have judged them to be. Edmund follows the Shakespearean paradigm of changing at last through self-overhearing, but Lear is something different, even for Shakespeare: he is the most awesome of the poet’s originals.”
And from A.D. Nuttall’s Shakespeare the Thinker, a different perspective:
“I said that the mythic resonance of Cordelia’s ‘nothing’ held a suggestion that the King must be unmade before he is made anew. The latter part of the sentence implies that we should expect an upward-turning at the end of the play. In the scenes on the heath and in the reunion with Cordelia we seem to find that upward-turning. The man who when sane was coarsely insensitive to the feelings of others learns, from his descent into hell, to pity the naked wretches and homeless people and to repent of his own negligent kingship (III.iv.26-33). Reunited with the daughter he had wronged he seems inwardly to grope his way, even as they are being hauled off to prison, to a charity that extends, with full Christian force, even to his captors. Cordelia’s ‘Nothing’ has annihilated the old Lear and made possible the regenerate man. So far we appear to have moved from a scheme in which bloodless mathematical subtraction is a simple foil to human compassion to a more profoundly imagined scheme, in which subtraction and division work in alliance with good, as the necessary preliminary to redemption. The story of the foolish king who descended into hell and learned charity is a Christian commedia (comedy in the medieval sense, ‘story with a happy ending’). Johnson, Tolstoy, and many other Christians have felt that this is the proper form of the play. For Christians, meanwhile, the proper form of the universe it itself comedic, not tragic. We are in God’s hands, and God is good. That is why the greatest religious poem of the Middle Ages, the poem reflecting the structure of the universe, is called the Commedia. Even the death of Christ on the cross, terrible as it is, is finally a comedy, not a tragedy. Thus, Nicholas Grimald’s neo-Latin poem on the death and resurrection of Christ, Christus Redivivus (Cologne, 1543), is described on the title page as a comodeia tragica – that is, not a ‘tragi-comedy’ but a ‘tragic comedy.’ But Shakespeare, having completed his commedia, went on to smash it. When Lear and Cordelia are taken off to prison we can easily think, ‘Everything that can be done to human beings has been done to these two, and yet they love all humankind; a love that rises in this way above circumstance and confusion is transcendent, is what Christ taught.’ But Shakespeare says, ‘Wait a moment; look what happens when I kill his daughter.’ Lear tells us how he instantly killed ‘the slave’ he found hanging Cordelia and the audience is almost moved to applaud. He is no longer the exemplar of regenerate love but has reverted to the primitive figure we saw at the opening – but now with an immense charge of tragic power. Then, in the Folio text, he dies not with that final insight that is supposed to dignify the tragic hero at the close but in the pathetically mistaken belief that Cordelia is still alive.
There has been a general drift in the criticism of this play from ‘redemptive’ to ‘bleak’ endings, from A.C. Bradley to J.F. Danby to Barbara Everett and John Holloway. Sometimes the ‘bleak’ reading reaches a point of intensity at which the word ‘nihilism’ is used. Dr. Johnson seriously averred that he could not endure to read the play through and avoided doing so until as an editor he was forced to. King Lear, up to Act V, Scene iii, is a profoundly moving Christian drama. To take that away from us, not by any august mechanism of causal necessity, but through the trivial accident of a message sent too late (V.iii.244-62), is indeed hard to endure. Naught for our comfort. Does this mean that the fundamental important of the play is a negation of all value, that there is a final decay of all moral hope to correspond to the physical entropy with which we began? – ‘This great world/Shall so wear out to nought.’ (IV.vi.134-35).
I have long argued that the savage ending of King Lear – Shakespeare’s deconstruction of his own Christian commedia – makes it an anti-Christian play. If there is any divine power it is as Gloucester imagines it: the gods are morally squalid beings who delight to torture us as boys delight in tearing the wings off butterflies. (IV.i.36-7). I was shaken in this view by an essay by Stephen Medcalf. Medcalf like many before him sees Cordelia as a kind of Christ. The entry of Lear with Cordelia dead or near death in his arms immediately evokes for Medcalf the Pieta of Christian iconography, in which the dead body of Christ is shown in the arms of his mother. The transposition of sexes, a female Christ and a male mother, has always ruled this out for me. But let us know remember the law that says, ‘Whatever you think of, Shakespeare will have thought of first.’ This applies to Medcalf’s thought. Shakespeare too has seen that Cordelia is a Christ: after all, he gives her the words, ‘It is thy business that I go about.’ 9IV.iv.24). It is too easy for the skeptic to shoot this down [MY NOTE: Count me a skeptic] by pointing out that the business to which Cordelia here refers is sordidly political, the recovery of Lear’s power, so that the scriptural reference is at best parodic. In fact the echo of Christ’s words in Cordelia’s speech is never received by an audience as parodic. Instead we seem to hear, for a second, another music, from the upper air. Medcalf corroborates his case with a strong frame of reference to romance materials. He is perfectly aware, as was Bradley, that King Lear shows no justice in this fallen world. After all Christianity has always affirmed that we live in just that, a fallen world, and that the kingdom of Christ lies elsewhere. To look for justice here, then, is a theological mistake. The commedia of natural justice in which the good end happily, the bad unhappily, the play Johnson wanted, would have been at best a coarsely materialized Christianity.
In the course of history Christians have said many things. The undoubtedly Christian armies that fought in England’s Civil War took victory in the field to mean that Christ was on their side. The whole notion of providence, that we are held here and now in the hand of a benign power who ensures that all things turn out as they should, is prominent in Christianity, and this is clearly thoroughly exploded in Shakespeare’s play.
Since the tide turned against the ‘redemptive’ reading it has become customary to dismiss Bradley’s intuition of transcendence in the death of Cordelia as a self-indulgent critical evasion. But Bradley was a great Shakespearean critic, and nothing that he says is foolish. He is aware of the supremacy of evil forces in the world of the play; he observes that not only are the wicked parties strong, the evil they do leads to no good; it founds nothing. He is likewise aware that Lear’s last words in the Folio, ‘Look her lips/Look there, look there!’ are spoken by a man who is making a mistake in thinking his daughter is alive, and are therefore pathetic rather than nobly tragic, and that they bring ‘a culmination of pain.’ He says that King Lear does not contain a ‘revelation of righteous omnipotence or heavenly harmony or even a promise of the reconciliation of mystery and justice.’ Yet he speaks of Cordelia as one mysteriously exempt from the events of the play, as ‘a being calm and bright and still,’ and says that she resembles certain other tragic figures in that she is rather ‘set free from life than deprived of it.’ Cordelia, he says, is ‘a think enskied and sainted.’ Interestingly, Bradley has borrowed the phrase ‘enskied and sainted’ from Lucio, the streetwise libertine of Measure for Measure. Such language can sound to modern ears like so much Edwardian sentimental twaddle, but it is possible that a mind still open to a diffuse religious resonance – a mind such as Bradley’s or Medcalf’s – will perceive things in the play that are actually there.
Cordelia is swiftly characterized in Act I, Scene I, as a socially awkward, deeply moral young woman, but she is also haloed by a certain light that never leaves her. that is why the line in which she says she is going about her father’s business remains obstinately beautiful, despite the ‘low’ context of political maneuvering. When Bradley argues for a transcendental reference on the ground that Lear at the very end experiences joy (while we experience pain), he does not persuade me. The very intensity of Lear’s joy increases our sense of his error and so deepens the pathos. But when Bradley writes, ‘If we condemn the universe for Cordelia’s death, we ought also to remember that it gave her birth,’ he hits something important. Suddenly we realize that King Lear is not ethically nihilist. An ethically nihilist play would leave one thinking that ‘good’ and ‘evil’ have no meaning. King Lear leaves us with a sharpened sense of the difference between good and evil, and, lying behind that, of the difference between goodness and nothingness. [MY NOTE: I’m not sure if I buy this argument or not.]
The bitter practical sequence of events in the play does, still, work against the Christian transcendental belief. Christianity is at bottom optimistic, because God is all-good as well as omnipotent. Samuel Johnson was disgusted by the shallow quasi-Leibnizian theological optimism of his time, but in the very review in which he reduced the optimists to a heap of rubble he knew that meanwhile every Christian must finally affirm that the world is a good world. The action of the play supports the pessimist, but the whole point of transcendent value is that it exists elsewhere – not here. This is a kind of goodness that, ex hypothesi, is instantiated nowhere in our experience but is rather heard far off, like distant music. My reading earlier in this book of the ‘alienated’ comic ending of All’s Well That Ends Well actually works against my resolutely anti-transcendentalist reading of King Lear. There I argued that the very imperfection of the human participants worked not to satirize or falsify the value of marriage but to throw it into relief, as something independent of the variously shoddy fallen individuals who are drawn, blinking, into the circle of light. To affirm that ‘good’ and ‘evil’ are meaningful terms is to reject full nihilism yet does not carry us as far as transcendentalism. But my word ‘independent’ begins to do just that. There is nothing ‘tragically cleansing’ about the death of Cordelia, and Lear is denied the kind of final insight into truth that gives grandeur and dignity to other tragic heroes. It may be that this very withholding of the usual consolations of genre also operates finally to abolish the goodness of Cordelia.
The transcendence is still a very ‘this-worldly’ transcendence. The absolute separation of Plato’s Forms is a thing alien to Shakespeare’s genius. This is true both of beneficent marriage as it sanctifies the union of errant persons in comedy and of the goodness of Cordelia, powerless but mysteriously operative in a darkened world. The final tension in King Lear is between Nothing and Good, and Nothing proves, indeed, frighteningly strong. In the ‘Dover Cliff’ episode Nothing fights a rearguard action and almost triumphs over value.
The ‘Dover Cliff’ episode does not take place on Dover Cliff, but one of the persons involved and three quarters of the audience are persuaded, for a good ten minutes, that that is the location. The newly blinded Gloucester is led by his own son Edgar to believe that he is standing on the brink of a high cliff. Edgar, who is at this stage in the play disguised as a crazy beggar, knows that his father is close to despair and wishes to die. Edgar becomes yet another of our ‘prompters,’ close to the ear of Gloucester as Iago was at Othello’s. He implicitly invites Gloucester to hurl himself from the cliff-edge. Gloucester pitches forward, towards what he thinks is certain death, and falls abruptly on level ground. This could have been the moment at which the old man realized he had been tricked, the moment of ‘disconfirmation,’ but Edgar steps forward at once and speaks in an altered voice, expressing amazement that Gloucester should still be alive after so terrible a fall. From Gloucester’s point of view an independent witness has confirmed everything his Bedlamite companion had said to him seconds before. Gloucester believes that after all he did fall from the cliff-top – and has been saved. Edgar explains to the audience that his motive in this strangely cruel piece of trickery was benevolent; he was teaching his father to reject thoughts of suicide and to trust in the benevolence of divine power. Indeed, the stratagem works. Gloucester is grateful to the power that has so miraculously preserved him. [MY NOTE: Of course, he’s also dead soon thereafter.]
The snag is that there was no miracle. The old man has bumped his nose in a sequence having a certain affinity to other instances of rough late medieval humour (the blind leading the blind and all falling into the ditch, and the like). Everyone who sees the scene is made uncomfortable by a sense that Edgar is partly the loving son, partly devilish. Eerily, when Edgar speaks to Gloucester after the fall, he says he saw a hideous devil standing beside him at the top of the cliff, just before Gloucester jumped. This makes perfect sense as a part of the benevolent therapy: Edgar, by suggesting that a devil prompted the death-leap, drives home the idea that suicide is a sin. But the devil is described as standing exactly where he, Edgar, had been standing, close at the ear of the despairing man. We may say that all is still well. If Edgar played the devil, temporarily, in prompting suicide, it was all in the service of the happy outcome. But the discomfort persists, because Edgar lies. God has not saved Gloucester through a miracle. The brilliance of Edgar’s theatrical stratagem is infected with moral dubiety. Power like this is unholy, as perhaps the power of the dramatist to coax the indefinite otherness of human beings into dapper formal sequence.
The pain of the episode arises from the discrepancy between theatricality and human suffering. It is sometimes maintained that the entire ‘Dover Cliff” episode is manifestly an implausible fiction, a game. I once explained the sequence to a distinguished experimental psychologist who knew nothing about Shakespeare. ‘Could a man, in these circumstances, be made to believe that he had really fallen and survived?’ I asked. He replied, ‘He was in shock, had just been violently blinded so that he is now dependent on any voice he hears; he fully expects to die, the shock of the impact on level ground merely dazes him, but then the second, confirming voice, describing his spectacular fall would do the trick. You can make people believe far odder things than that. Like Richard III’s seduction of Lady Anne, the episode is both astonishing and credible.
The entire passage is especially disquieting for the author of this book, because it is very nearly a destructive parody of that redemption through comic form I have discerned elsewhere. In All’s Well That Ends Well the stratagem of the bed-trick results in the real marriage of the principals, a thing good itself. In King Lear Edgar’s stratagem brings about the repentance of Gloucester and his subsequent turning towards life. But in King Lear there is a spillage from the corrupt trick into the supposedly happy outcome. The devout and virtuous state attained by Gloucester is predicated on the lie. He now believes because he thinks, wrongly, that he has been divinely saved. If All’s Well That Ends Well had told the story of a young man who fell deeply in love with a lady because he believed, quite erroneously, that she had behaved generously to him, the comedy would have been as disquieting as King Lear at this point. In All’s Well That Ends Well as we have it there is a clean division between, on one hand, the human participants, the formidable Helena and the baffled Bertram, and, on the other, the wedding, merry, immemorially traditional, simultaneously ideal and able to accommodate human frailty. Marriage in the comedy is one respect thoroughly this-worldly, but at the same time it is actually more fully transcendent, more unproblematically separate than Gloucester’s regeneration, compromised at its heart by the fact that it is founded on a lie. If one thinks of Christian Goodness and Nothing as forces contending mythically in the play, Nothingness has here entered the very sanctum of Goodness, like a poisonous gas. The gloriously redemptive plot-trick of the comedies really seems for a moment to become a nihilist victory. No wonder Samuel Beckett responded strongly to this play.
But Christian love is an evident reality in the dreadful pre-Christian world of King Lear. Shakespeare probably did think of Christ when he conceived the character of Cordelia, and he took steps to ensure that some in his audience might think along the same lines. Nothing in the play, meanwhile, backs belief in God the Father. Bradley, with that readiness to admit spiritual resonance that our age too curtly dismisses as absurd, rightly identified a quasi-transcendent moral music in the play. This music is set against the almost unrelieved pain of the practical sequence. This gives us a Cordelia above the pain of events, above the pain of her own death, but it does not clearly enforce a doctrine of immortality. At the end of the play we are not sure that Cordelia is in heaven, but unless we are entirely brutalized, we do feel that we have glimpsed, beyond the chaotic horror, something of infinite sweetness that we cannot fully comprehend.”
Thoughts? Agree? Disagree?
And finally, as a bonus for the weekend – as I mentioned early on in our discussion of King Lear (as have several of the critics I’ve cited), Tolstoy had major issues with Shakespeare, and with King Lear in particular. The great George Orwell examined Tolstoy’s views in the essay “Lear, Tolstoy, and the Fool.” To read it in its entirety, click here.
I think I might have included this in a much earlier post, but now that we’ve read the play in its entirety…
This is magical:
My next post: Sunday evening/Monday morning.
And don’t forget, our next play…the truly wonderful and wonderous Antony and Cleopatra.
Enjoy. And enjoy your weekend.