10 February 1991
Michelangelo conceived sculpture to be a process of removing from the stone blank everything that is not man. Shakespeare in King Lear undertakes to answer the question ``what is man?'' by destructive distillation, by stripping from his characters everything that is not essential, and examining the residue. Placing characters under great pressure, subjecting them to hardships, privations, and danger -- these are the hallmarks of adventure fiction. However, Lear resists -- defies -- analysis as an epic story of heroic individuals in extremis. There is no cosmic justice, though many characters call for it; rather than having courage and nobility focused and made more meaningful by adversity, Shakespeare includes courage and nobility with the other valued possessions he peels from the ``poor, bare, forked animals'' that are the subjects of the experiment that is King Lear.
The process of human distillation is carried out most exactingly upon Lear himself. As he stands on the heath, where ``For many miles about there's scarce a bush,'' he has lost not only his position, the respect of others and his self respect, reason, love, and hope, but also all contact with a human scale and frame of reference. Striving ``in his little world of man to outscorn the to-and-fro-conflicting wind and rain'' he has pitted himself against forces completely out of proportion to himself and completely indifferent to his fate. Yet even here, perhaps especially here, we call him ``man'' without hesitation or reservation. Alan Bean's painting ``That's How it Felt to Walk on the Moon'' similarly contains absolutely nothing of human scale, no earthly color, nothing friendly toward or even concerned with man. The figure is monstrous; its legs dissapear as into the ground-fog of a storm-swept heath.
Figure 1: That's How it Felt to Walk on the Moon, Alan Bean, 1988.
Photo from lithograph in author's collection.
The setting is geometrically clean, with no concessions to comfort, no acknowledgement of man's existence. Yet the first word that comes to mind when trying to describe the painting is ``man.'' Perhaps Bean's monster merely triggers an evolved neural pathway that subtly recognizes members of our tribe, or perhaps it is a learned response to associate heroism with his subject. Likewise, perhaps it is just sympathy we feel for Lear, recognizing him for a member of the tribe who has fallen on hard times. If it is mere mechanism then it is a remarkably robust one, able to recognize our fellow man with such serene certainty despite the best efforts of painter and playwright. But it is also possible that we respond this way because when context and ``addition'' are thus stripped away from ``sophisticated'' man we see most clearly the common essence of mankind, ``the thing itself.''
It is conventional in analysis of Lear to divide the significant characters into a ``good'' group and a ``bad'' group. Such a division is cleanly consistent with the present analysis; both the arcs described by the characters as they fall and their ultimate condition -- the residue of their distillation -- fall neatly into two classes. Lear, Gloucester, Kent, and Edgar enter the stage at the height of their fortunes and immediately begin their descent. Their losses are initially the gains of Goneril, Regan, Cornwall, Edmund, and Oswald; only later do their skyrockets burn out, dropping them one by one back to earth. The fall of each good character is occasion for lamentation by other good characters; the ends of their lives find them holding on to a kind of dignity that we would fain call human. By the time the bad characters begin to fall, none are left who would lament them; their deaths occasion no more notice than would that of the beasts to which they are repeatedly likened.
Let us examine in outline the arcs described by each character and the values they lose or leave behind. Then we will look more carefully at where they land, figuratively, and what things of value are left to them. Kent sacrifices, with his eyes open, his title, lands, power and position out of loyalty. As he conceives it, loyalty requires him to speak the truth to the king even when commanded not to. For the sake of that loyalty he takes on the appearance and manner of a common man and works a way to serve the king who has quite plainly promised to kill him -- for seeking to have the king reverse a promise. Oswald, meanwhile, is a commoner with nothing to lose. By serving Goneril loyally in her dishonorable dealings he becomes a ``gentleman'' and gains, at least for a while, all the things Kent has lost. The Fool poignantly spells out to the stocked Kent the issue over which his fortunes and Oswald's have pivoted:
Let go thy hold when a great wheel rolls down a hill, lest it break thy neck with following. But the great one that goes upward, let him draw thee after. [...]The injustice of this is too much for Kent to bear quietly, and as a result he is stocked, inadvertently bringing more pain and disquiet to Lear. After thus stumbling, Kent perseveres to the end in service to Lear and is rewarded on three separate occasions by being cursed as a liar by the king he serves -- for speaking truth. Oswald is killed, by the noble-born Edgar disguised as a commoner, reaching for the culmination of his ascent in the death of good Gloucester.
That sir, which serves and seeks for gain,
And follows but for form,
Will pack, when it begins to rain,
And leave thee in the storm.
But I will tarry; the Fool will stay.
And let the wise man fly.
The knave turns Fool that runs away,
The Fool no knave, perdy.
Edgar has his position and future, his father's love and all hope for reconciliation stolen from him by Edmund. To preserve his life he, like Kent, disguises himself as a common man. Paralleling Lear, he gives up the appearance of his reason, and assumes a station even lower than Kent's. Edmund's star is propelled upward by the stolen goods, and he rides it while despising those who ascribe their fortunes to fate. Yet when he finds himself in extremis he too resorts to the language of fate, ``the wheel is come full circle,'' forfeiting self-consistency. It is a curious feature of King Lear that the members of each group seem to recognize one another (as kindred spirits, not by name) instinctively. Among the good at least, this sensitivity is greatly magnified by distress, hence the bond that Lear forms with Kent and Edgar and blind Gloucester's reliance on Edgar. Edmund is also recognized instinctively: Regan tells Gloucester ``Thou call'st on him who hates thee.'' In a strange use of the word ``good'' she adds: ``[Edmund] is too good to pity thee.'' Albany's lines, a few pages later, give us Shakespeare's diagnosis of Regan's ``good:''
The Edgar/Edmund conflict shares with that of Kent and Oswald a consciousness of the distinction between common and noble. As with Oswald, that consciousness figures conspicuously in Edmund's death scene.
Wisdom and goodness to the vile seem vile:
Filths savor but themselves.
Goneril, Regan, and Cornwall enjoy rising fortune from the windfall of Cordelia's third of the kingdom right up to the scenes in which they die. This seems to have caused some distress for many critics, for whom a sense of justice demands that evil not be allowed to ``prosper.'' If the life these three purchased with their souls -- short and filled with suspicion, deceit, and treachery -- is ``prosperity,'' this critic bids them enjoy it in good health. Still, humans have a powerful need to find order and justice in the universe, the characters of King Lear no less than its critics, and, Albany's pious pronouncements notwithstanding, the play confronts us all with the terrifying spectre of a universe that is simply indifferent. The quick and relatively painless deaths of the unnatural sisters and ``the hot Duke'' do not even begin to balance the lingering agony of Lear and Gloucester. Shakespeare has kicked the crutch of cosmic justice from under his audience just as viciously as he stripped away Gloucester's sight and Lear's mind. For the ``bad'' characters the only identifyable values are possession and respect. All five spend their careers seeking to possess things, titles, people, and acquiring or protecting respect. Malcolm's speech (in MacBeth, when he is testing MacDuff's purpose) gives a good summary of the value systems of these characters:
Each of them dies in that pursuit: Edmund on the brink of having Cornwall, Oswald on the brink of serious advancement, Cornwall in rage over Gloucester's defiance, Regan and Goneril fighting over Edmund. That possessions and respect are but the first of many values lost by the good characters is an important point -- it shows us how low on the scale of human values these lie, and it demonstrates how superficial the evil characters are.
With this there grows
In my most ill-composed affection such
A staunchless avarice that were I king
I should cut off the nobles for their lands,
Desire his jewels and this other's house,
And my more having would be as a sauce
To make me hunger more, that I should forge
Quarrels unjust against the good and loyal,
Destroying them for wealth.
The good are initially no less superficial than the bad. Gloucester and Lear both hold their possessions and respect very dear, Gloucester believing Edgar would have him murdered for his title, Lear having an identity crisis over the abatement of his train. The test of their mettle comes, as in an adventure tale, after these precious things are denied them. Gloucester's defiance in bringing aid and comfort to Lear is conventionally heroic: ``If I die for it, as no less is threatened me, the King my old master must be relieved.'' Nothing in his heart has changed yet, as evidenced by his contempt for Poor Tom at their first meeting: ``What, hath your Grace no better company?'' It is not the loss of his eyes that ultimately breaks him, nor the loss of his position with Cornwall -- both of these and worse he expected when he went out to the king, and he could accept them as the cost of courageous service. It is when Regan tells him that Edmund won't be riding to the rescue that his world collapses. In that moment he knows that he has been the butt of the universe's cruel joke, that his sacrifice is meaningless, that he has been tricked into ordering his loving son's murder by the Bastard, and that the bastards are, as far as anyone can tell, going to win. So the blind victim of fate sets out, Oedipus-like, longing for reconciliation but hoping only for death. When he meets Poor Tom for the second time his attitude has changed, as we will see, profoundly.
Lear's own decline occurs in a series of steps, with madness rising to claim his mind as he is robbed progressively of his title, possessions, respect, love, self-respect, and hope. We are told early on that ``he hath ever but slenderly known himself,'' and when he has lost only half his train and some promptness of service from Goneril's household he already has lost what he thought was Lear:
To which the Fool answers ``Lear's shadow.'' But Lear's shadow still possesses Knights, Kent, Fool, sanity, and hope. He has a long way yet to fall, and on the way down he learns, if only by losing them one by one, what things Lear was truly made of.
Does any here know me? This is not Lear.
Does Lear walk thus? Speak thus? Where are his eyes?
Either his notion weakens, or his discernings
Are lethargied -- Ha! Waking? 'Tis not so.
Who is it that can tell me who I am?
Lear associates his downfall with the process of reproduction, and he utters deep and broad curses against it. His speeches are also laced with invocations of chaos, which he comes to regard as a kind of antidote to life in general and reproduction in particular:
The affection that Job's diety has for his beasts of destruction expresses the recognition that generation and decay are duals, each an inseparable part of nature. Lear's affection for destructive forces has a different root: he looks for the negation of generation in a general purge of the earth, like the commander of an overwhelmed outpost calling artillery onto his own coordinates, hoping to take his ``pelican daughters'' down with him. In the end even indignation is taken from him, and he cannot relish the news of their deaths.
Vengeance, plague, death, confusion!
Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks. Rage, blow!
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout [...]
Rumble thy bellyful. Spit, fire. Spout, rain!
To have a thousand with red burning spits
come hizzing in upon 'em --
Arms, arms, sword, fire! Corruption in the place!
There's hell, there's darkness, there is the sulpherous pit,
Burning, scalding, stench, consumption, fie, fie, fie!
Then kill, kill, kill, kill, kill, kill!
Two positive human values are left to the good characters in the end. First is a sense of of the community of mankind, and with it generosity and a consciousness of or concern for social justice. The speeches of Lear and Gloucester on social justice and the related commentary by Kent and Edgar seem strangely out of place in King Lear until they are seen as reactions to the revelation that each of them, though noble born, is kin with the poor and downtrodden. Before the blind Gloucester meets Poor Tom he tries to shoo away the Old Man, whose attentions incidentally indicate that even the unreformed Gloucester was a kind landlord:
Later he feels such compassion for Poor Tom, tinged perhaps with guilt, as Tom had reminded of Edgar, that he is willing to tender the duty the Old Man feels toward him, which he would not use for his own benefit, to get clothing for Tom:
Away, get thee away; good friend, be gone:
Thy comforts can do me no good at all;
Thee they may hurt.
And to Tom (in prayer):
Then, prithee, get thee gone: if for my sake
Thou wilt o'ertake us hence a mile or twain
I'th' way toward Dover, do it for ancient love,
And bring some covering for this naked soul,
Lear experiences much the same feeling of social guilt when he finds himself unhoused on the storm-swept heath, and offers up a similar prayer:
Let the superfluous and lust-dieted man,
That slaves your ordinance, that will not see
because he does not feel, feel your pow'r quickly;
So distribution should undo excess,
And each man have enough.
Lear's speeches excusing adultery and denouncing justice for whipping the poor while winking at the rich spring from the same well, though the first is also wrapped up in his obsession with matters generative.
Poor naked wretches, wheresoe'er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your looped and windowed raggedness, defend you
From seasons such as these? O, I have ta'en
Too little care of this! Take physic, pomp;
Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,
That thou mayst shake the superflux to them,
And show the heavens more just.
In Lawrence of Arabia Lawrence is captured by the turks, beaten, and raped. In that scene he goes from irrationally convinced that he is invulnerable to a broken man literally overnight. Sherif Ali, like Kent to Lear, tries to prevent his folly, then at peril to his life does what he can to put Lawrence back together. Lawrence tells Ali:
I've come to the end of myself, I suppose. [pinching his breast] Look, Ali, look. That's me. [to what's left of his army] You may as well know, I would have told them anything. I would have told them who I am, I would have told them where you were. I tried to.This Lawrence was not broken by pain or humiliation alone as much as by the senselessness of his torture. Had he been beaten for information he could have laughed it off, holding fast his heroic self image. Broken he is, though, and in that state he finds that he has something in common with the rest of humanity after all. So this self-made Bedouin returns to Cairo by ``easy stages'' and asks General Allenby for reassignment for ``personal reasons:''
[Ali:] So would any man.
Well, any man is what I am. And I'm going back to Allenby to ask him for a job that any man can do.
Personal? Are you mad?In Lawrence as in Lear the idea has the ring of truth: the audience finds it credible that at the bottom of life's slide one finds a sense of commonality with mankind, and with it a quiet kind of dignity.
No. And if you don't mind, I'd rather not go mad.
That's my reason too.
What the hell do you want, Lawrence?
I told you, I just want my ration of common humanity.
The second positive value in King Lear is endurance, or patience. Roused from contemplation of his own sad state by the sight of his father ``poorly led,'' Edgar makes the case for despair:
But he thwarts Gloucester's suicide and restores his patience, his ability to endure life:
World, world, O world!
But that thy strange mutations make us hate thee,
Life would not yield to age.
And when he despairs again, Edgar again keeps him going:
henceforth I'll bear
Affliction till it do cry out itself
``Enough, enough,'' and die.
Gloucester's last hours are spent doing nothing but enduring, and in that endurance too is a kind of dignity. Lear calls out for patience on several occasions, and this one boon the universe grants him. As Kent says:
No further sir; a man may rot even here.
What, in ill thoughts again? Men must endure
their going hence, even as their coming hither:
Ripeness is all.
Gloucester's patience is rewarded by his reconciliation with Edgar but Lear lives long enough to see Cordelia, the one thing he had left in the world, whom he thought he had lost but who was there to catch him at the bottom of his slide, killed. Bootless as it is, his endurance is itself admired, acknowledged as an affirmative value, by the few who are left standing.
Vex not his ghost: O, let him pass! He hates him
That would upon the rack of this tough world
Stretch him out longer. [He is gone indeed.]
The wonder is he hath endured so long
Lear's death scene is punctuated by his killing an armed soldier with his bare hands, himself ``four-score and upward'' and on the verge of death, and by the sublime tenderness of his grief. The deaths of the ``bad'' characters are marked by a bestial tone, both in the language of the scenes and in the desperate, snarling, irrationally violent ways in which they die. In contrast with the core of affirmative values that the ``good'' characters possess in extremis it is as though the ``bad'' characters deflate when punctured, or dissolve like the Wicked Witch of the West. Kent tells Oswald ``A tailor made thee,'' later Albany tells him he ``had turned wrong side out.'' From there it is not hard to imagine him as a ragdoll or an inflated suit of clothes when he is killed, his sword defeated by Edgar's staff. There is nothing in his death that makes one prefer to think of him as a man rather than a ragdoll. Edmund lies bleeding on the stage more like a mortally wounded animal than a man, an object of curiosity and contempt, not pity. His decision to do some good sounds like a conversion:
but when it is juxtaposed with his false moralizing over the betrayal of Glocester:
I pant for life: some good I mean to do,
Despite of mine own nature.
I will persever in my course of loyalty, though the conflict be sore between that and my blood.we hear only the sound of a trapped wolf gnawing on its leg.
Over and over the question is asked -- ``what are you?'' In one form or another it is asked of Edgar and Kent several times each; Lear asks it about himself. Over and over, the answer is a variation on Kent's answer when Lear asks him ``what art thou?'' and he replies simply ``A man, sir.'' The question is never asked of the ``bad'' characters, largely because they do not lurk about in disguise very much. Oswald's identity does come into question several times, and in those cases he is not questioned but rather diagnosed by one or another of the ``good'' characters. Kent of course gets in his licks, but so do Albany (``wrong side out''), Lear:
This is a slave, whose easy borrowed pride
Dwells in the fickle grace of her he follows
Kent volunteers his own identity to Cordelia's Gentleman:
I know thee well. A serviceable villain,
As duteous to the vices of thy mistress
As badness would desire.
I am a gentleman of blood and breeding [...]
For confirmation that I am much more
Than my out-wall, [...]
The idea of an out-wall reverberates through King Lear. Some
are more than their out-wall, others much less. Lear sheds his out-wall
piece by piece; Cordelia offers ``all my outward worth'' to any who
would help him. Some, like Gloucester's old tenant, never had an
out-wall; others, like Oswald, are nothing but out-wall.
Edgar takes on a false out-wall, Kent exchanges that of an Earl for
a servingman's. In peace and plenty the out-walls, like the shadows
in Socrates' cave, seem to be men. It is only in life's storms, its
hurricanoes and civil wars, that we see through to ``unaccommodated'' man.
Then the sheep are separated from the goats -- not because we have
a chance to show off our courage and our Swiss Army knives, but
because our out-walls are dissolved or blasted away leaving us
to face the elements with our souls bare. O, ho! 'tis foul.