Unreading Lear

by David P. Gontar (May 2014)

I.   Lear

“Once upon a time, far away and long ago, there lived an old king with three daughters . . .”

It has been observed that in both its Folio and Quarto versions, King Lear bears features of a fairy tale. It has even been suggested that its archaic source is the tale of The Goose Girl at the Well. While the simplicity of nursery legend can render a symbolic form conceptually and emotionally accessible, there are drawbacks. The familiar folkloric theme of two wicked elder sisters taking advantage of a younger sibling lulls one into a mood of reduced scrutiny. For just an instant we occupy a world of innocent make-believe, only to have it dissolve and fade before our eyes in gut-wrenching tragedy. This scenario is not without consequences. For the fairy tale aura which suspends disbelief ab ibitio short circuits critical judgment. Too much tends to be taken for granted.

Consider the issue of Lear’s “darker purpose.” (I, i, 35)  Why “dark”? What is darker here? Is it not prudent to make a donation inter vivos? Is not a coronation of sons-in-law arranged by the reigning monarch a matter for rejoicing? (“This crownet part between you.” I, i, 139) The reason we don’t know what he means by that locution is because we never felt the need to investigate it. We merely accept it in our wide-eyed innocence. If audiences and readers just embrace tragedy’s premises as youngsters do the implausible tenets of bedtime stories, is valid criticism even possible?

Switch on the lights.

Do we not recall the anguish of King Richard II when he and Bolingbroke clutched either side of a single crown? (IV, i, 172- 179) Were those two able to rule jointly? Theirs is the sort of government Lear proposes.

Lear’s avowed purpose is to make for a smooth administrative transition at his retirement and to prevent civil strife. (I ,i, 43-45) Yet there is no evidence that Britain has been afflicted in recent memory with dissension or discord. The text alludes to no uprisings or rebellions. One individual has ruled successfully.   Now as he steps down he would secure the common weal and shield it from “future strife” by . . . dividing it into three parts, each to be ruled by a fractious son-in-law. As internal policy that is unthinkable. One doesn’t take a perfectly fine fiefdom that’s been functioning well under a firm and conscientious monarch and chop it into three regions each under the control of an envious satrap  —  certainly not as a device for securing the blessings of domestic tranquility. Remember the travails of Rome under Octavius, Lepidus and Antony. Balkanization is precisely the opposite of order and cohesion, an incomprehensible and fatal blunder. It’s pathological. Contrary to the conventional wisdom, then, the story of Lear’s madness begins not with the flatteries of Regan and Goneril and Cordelia’s silence, but earlier, in the context of the dramatic action, with the King’s big bang, his act of wanton disruption of his own realm. Instead of preventing future quarrels, this bizarre fragmentation fairly guarantees them. The sovereign has taken leave of his senses. Yet no one protests the vivisection of the nation, no one except the Fool, whose protest comes too late. (I, iv, 140-147) As in Sleeping Beauty, everyone is dozing. Courtiers, theater goers, readers and our most astute literary critics all snore soundly as anarchy is ignited. Seeds of destruction are already germinating as oaths of love and fidelity are sworn. From the moment he sweeps onstage with his retinue Lear is wandering in infernal darkness.

Catastrophe is born not on the heath, then, but in privy chamber. And the way we respond to opening events colors our reading of the entire play, our reception and understanding of its characters. Though the world thinks so, Lear doesn’t become “mad” at the discourtesies of Regan and Goneril. He’s already laboring under mental and emotional thunderheads as he utters his first syllables onstage. Bedlam is there, and all the devils loose. So long as King Lear is viewed as the story of a lunacy induced by cruel, ungrateful daughters it is fatally misunderstood. Instead of diagnosing the patient, we form an alliance with him and attribute his “madness” as he does to mistreatment by his daughters (Cordelia included). Lear’s insanity seems strangely infectious. 

What is to be done? The defective product must be recalled, better late than never. Our reading must be scrapped. What King Lear demands of us is nothing less than a thorough purgation or scouring, an unreading of what we’ve been taught by misguided pundits and authorities, our eminent textual somnambulists and zombies. What follows are a few notes towards the demolition and reconstruction of this remarkable work of dramaturgy. Our aim to inoculate against any interpretation which turns out to be an extension of the dream itself.    

This old man is not merely retiring, nor is his action a conventional donation or setting of a trust account. He is abdicating the throne. “We will divest us of both rule, interest of territory, cares of state . . . .”  (I, i, 49-50) Speaking to Cornwall and Albany, he makes the performative utterance: “I do invest you jointly with my power, pre-eminence, and all the large effects that troop with majesty.” (I, i, 130-131) With the disposal of Cordelia to the King of France, it is finished. Lear is no longer King of Britain. But query, having divested himself of rule and invested Cornwall and Albany with all his territories — no longer King — by what authority does he banish the Earl of Kent? It would seem the cares of state still are his. How so? Has Lear gone gently into that good night of superannuation, or does he still cling stubbornly and unaccountably to the vestments of “authority”? (I, iv, 30) This issue becomes central and runs throughout the play, a play in which the only King of Britain is Lear. Yet his legal status and the nature and character of the regime following his seeming resignation are rarely if ever taken up by commentators. He remains, curiously, more “foul” than fish. 

As for the apportionment of the kingdom, there is more that deserves our attention. The heirs’ speeches and their father’s bequests form a comic triptych reminiscent of the rigged casket game in The Merchant of Venice: each daughter must pronounce a pro forma expression of filial devotion, the most fulsome of which will win the grand prize. In other words, the “thirds” to be bestowed are not of the same measure. The grossest flatterer will emerge the victor. The outcome, however, is predetermined by Lear, who is known to favor Cordelia, the youngest. (I, i, 82-83; 1, i, 123; 1, i, 289) There is ambiguity in Lear’s locution, “our largest bounty.” (I, i, 52) Goneril bursts forth with the expected rhetoric and receives a large portion of land. Regan does the same and receives: “this ample third of our fair kingdom, no less in space, validity, and pleasure than that conferred on Goneril.” (I, i, 80-83) For Cordelia, however, has been set aside “a third more opulent” than what the elder siblings have received. (I, i, 86) Do we need to be hit over the head to apprehend this? Is this the sort of magnanimity reasonably calculated to avoid dissension and civil strife? It is pompous lunacy. For suppose that Cordelia fails to outshine her sisters in her praise and affection for the father? What then? Regan and Goneril have already been given smaller “thirds.” If Cordelia’s own verbiage does not outdo that of her rivals, she’ll still have the largest portion and Lear will be covered in embarrassment. That is the risk he takes, a part of his “darker purpose.”  

There is something else, too. Lear and Cordelia are not strangers to one another. If she is his favorite he knows her well. This is his own child, after all. But her personality is quite unlike that of her sisters. Is not Cordelia Cordelia? Why then affect surprise and dismay when she responds as anyone familiar with her might expect? Is Kent surprised? Is the Fool? Not at all. What surprises them is Lear’s reaction on hearing Cordelia’s predictable modesty. The whole episode is a charade burdened by favoritism and short-sighted inequities. Calling disproportionate thirds “equal” was already courting disaster. 

This brings us to confront directly the relationship of Lear and Cordelia, a topic gingerly sidestepped by standard literary criticism. The King is plainly a widower. Goneril and Regan live with their husbands, Albany and Cornwall. It must be presumed that as late as the first scene Cordelia still resides in the patriarchal manse, without the intercessory ministrations of a mother. Given her subdued and Spartan demeanor, is their encounter in Scene 1 the first time Cordelia’s simplicity and honesty would have been experienced by Lear? Impossible. Only received on the level of a fairy tale would his actions make the slightest sense. Transposed to real life we would need to re-think the whole matter. Additional information would help. When did Lear’s wife die? How long has he been a single parent? No nurse is mentioned, as there is, say, in Romeo and Juliet. What’s going on? Why would he expect any words from Cordelia out of keeping with what he has always heard from her? Moreover, it is important to ask, given her sober demeanor and Lear’s importunacy, how in the world did she become his favorite? Favorite? Shouldn’t that be Regan, who tells everybody within earshot that there is nothing whatsoever in life that gives her pleasure and satisfaction except her “dear highness’ love”? (I, i, 69-76) Logically the truly beloved daughter should have been Regan. How would Cordelia have prevailed? What is implied in such a narrative?

As Bruno Bettelheim argued in 1976 in The Uses of Enchantment (Vintage, 2010), exposure to fairy tales, which treat many violent and upsetting themes, has a salutary and instructive effect on youngsters, allowing them to process in a safe way considerations that might cause distress if approached through a reality-based discourse. Little Red Riding Hood, for example, which involves a little girl’s adventures with mother, grandparent, woodsman and a talking animal, touches in its symbolic depths the problematic motif of the good (nurturing) father versus the bad (threatening, sexually aggressive) one, allowing the infant imagination to achieve balance and integration through the resolution of the narrative. This may also be true of great works of art such as King Lear which are based in part on such pictorial materials. Get out the fluoroscope. Behind Lear’s rage at Cordelia, then, can we not discern the outlines of an unhealthy propinquity of father and daughter? This has led to unidentified physical and emotional intimacies. As Elizabeth Archibald comments, “the great majority of literary incestuous fathers are rulers.” (Archibald, 146) As Lear “crawl[s] toward death,” he wishes to do so unburdened of the guilt those intimacies have occasioned. (I, i, 40-41) The mechanism for achieving this relief is two-fold: first, he will give to the child whose privacy and integrity he has invaded and whose psychic closure he has triggered an early and jumbo-sized inheritance capable of attracting the suitor of her choice, and second, her projected praise and thanks will serve as a token of the forgiveness he needs so badly. This is the rationale that lies in the “dark” recesses of the royal mind as it fashions the pageant of Lear’s departure.

The theme of royal incest is familiar to Shakespeare scholars, and was discussed in some detail in Hamlet Made Simple and Other Essays, particularly in Chapters five, eleven and eighteen. The secondary literature on this subject is voluminous, and includes, inter alia, Incest and the Literary Imagination, Elizabeth Barnes, ed., Partriarchy and Incest from Shakespeare to Joyce, by Jane M. Ford, Incest and the Medieval Imagination, by Elizabeth Archibald, Elizabeth’s Glass, by Marc Shell, Bruce Boehrer’s Monarchy and Incest in Renaissance England: Literature, Culture, Kinship and Kingship (Philadelphia, 1992), and of course Otto Rank’s classic, The Incest Theme in Legend and Literature (The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991).

Professor Jane M. Ford draws attention to the 1954 psychoanalytic commentary of Arpad Pauncz in American Imago (40, 51-83):

One critic found the father/daughter theme so central to this play that he coined the term “Lear Complex,” the complex that focuses on the “neglected” adult to define the attachment of the older member of the oedipal twosome. In spite of a wide variety of interpretations of Lear’s initial decision to divide his kingdom, the most immediate result will be to force his periodic presence on his daughters, and Cordelia, whom “He always loved most,” is the only one left unmarried.” (Ford, 41)

In other words, had Cordelia succeeded in receiving her patrimony but not in obtaining a husband for some period of time, Lear’s progress of roistering would have been conducted in her residence as well as those of her sisters. Looking at the denouement of the action, “Lear reaches the depths of human despair and endurance until he finds his peace in death as a ‘smug bridegroom in blessed union with his youngest daughter as the bride.” (Ford, 42) Indeed, her father says to Cordelia, “we two alone will sing like birds i’ th’ cage.” (V, iii, 9) He then begs her forgiveness. The bitter and melancholy end uniting Lear and Cordelia in death comes to appear as the telos of an imprudent father’s original intrusions. Can we not perceive the traces of the leer behind the Lear? Prof. Ford adds, “Lear’s words at the height of the storm have suggested his sense of guilt:

      Tremble thou wretch,
That hast within thee undivulgèd crimes
Unwhipped of justice; hide thee, thou bloody hand,
Thou perjured and thou simular of virtue
That art incestuous . . .
(III, ii, 50-55)

If we apprehend the rationale for viewing Lear’s bond with Cordelia as incestuous, and responsible for his strange behavior in the first scene, then his “madness,” that is, his emotional imbalance or dysfunction,  must long antedate his rude treatment by adult daughters. In the absence of a wife, he seems to have displaced conjugal impulses from spouse to child, with disturbing consequences. Edmond speaks tellingly of “unnaturalness between the child and the parent.” (Quarto, Sc. 2, 139) Cordelia’s tight-lipped utterances limiting her filial affection to her duty reflect not mere modesty and a distaste for flattery, but an inability or unwillingness to give implicit sanction to her father’s intrusive attentions during her childhood. Thus we also come to understand what has never been previously explained, that is, how and why Cordelia became her father’s “favorite.” The pieces finally fit together. Leave out incest and our play becomes a child’s tale in which incomprehensible adults disport themselves in funny ways we must simply accept rather than challenge.   

What is wrong with absorbing King Lear as myth, dream or fairy-tale, then, is that readers and viewers tend to do so unconsciously, making them unaware of contradictions, complexes and aporia whose resolution could have led to a better understanding. If the text were approached properly, we would be in a better position to address the issue of the nature and meaning of Shakespearean tragedy in general.   Lear suffers. But why and how? Is that suffering fraught with religious significance? Does it serve to illustrate the self-redemptive capacities of “man,” as suggested by principles of humanistic criticism? Or, as seen by such schools as “cultural materialism,” is Lear’s problematic best grasped in terms of social, historical and political factors, as, e.g., claimed by Prof. Jonathan Dollimore and his supporters? Implicit in what we’ve seen above is that the bulk of contemporary criticism which purports to analyze Lear, whether from Christian, humanist or “radical” standpoints, is profoundly misguided. The Tragedy of King Lear must be approached with a clear recognition of the structure of his original desire as it is then related to the “darker purpose” declared in the first scene. Waxing emotional occlusions result in a dysfunctional plan of national dismemberment misapprehended as humble retirement from the stresses of leadership. We will find reason to conclude that, far from being illuminated by the tropes of Christianity, post-Christian humanism or cultural materialism, King Lear stands in a tradition of classic tragedy which descends from Ancient Greece, emphasizing the blindness of human existence to its own role in the fashioning of Wyrd, and the deferral of recognition until the last unavailing moment.

Progress in this venture depends most importantly on our capacity for unreading of the play and setting aside partisan analyses in the service of preconceived ideas such as Christianity and Marxism.  

Having in summary form accomplished a preliminary unreading of Lear, we can advance to the figure around whom the action swirls, Edmond, and delve him, as he deserves, to the very root.  

II.  Edmond

Consider the following speeches.

                             (1)                                                                                        (2)

Thou, nature, art my goddess. To the law                            Hear, nature; hear, dear goddess, hear:

My services are bound. Wherefore should I                          Suspend thy purpose if thou didst intend

Stand in the plague of custom and permit                            To make this creature fruitful.

The curiosity of nations to deprive me                                  Into her womb convey sterility.

For that I am some twelve or fourteen moonshines             Dry up in her the organs of increase,

Lag of a brother? Why ‘bastard’? Wherefore ‘base’,             And from her derogate body never spring

When my dimensions are as well compact,                           A babe to honour her. If she must teem,

My mind as generous, and my shape as true                       Create her child of spleen, that it may live

As honest madam’s issue? Why brand they us                     And be a thwart disnatured to torment her.

With ‘base’ with ‘baseness, bastardy  –base — base’ —       Let it stamp wrinkles in her brow of youth,

Who in the lusty stealth of nature take                                With cadent tears fret channels in her cheeks,

More composition and fierce quality                                     Turn all her mother’s pains and benefits

Than doth within a dull, stale, tirèd bed                               To laughter and contempt, that she may feel —

Go to th’ creating a whole tribe of fops                                That she may feel

Got tween a sleep and wake? Well, then,                            How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is

Legitimate Edgar, I must have your land.                             To have a thankless child.

Our father’s love is to the bastard Edmond

As to th’ legitimate. Fine word, ‘legitimate’.

Well, my legitimate, if this letter speed

And my invention thrive, Edmond the base

Shall to th’ legitimate. I grow, I prosper.

Now gods, stand up for bastards!

The first speech is Edmond’s soliloquy from Act I, scene 2 of The Tragedy of King Lear. (I, ii, 1-22) A mere two scenes later we find Lear’s scathing denunciation of his daughter Goneril. (I, iv, 254-269) (Importantly, versions of both speeches are also featured in the Quarto version: Sc. 2, 1-21; Sc. 4, 268-283) These passages are set so close together that it is nearly impossible to encounter the second and not be put in mind of the first — impossible, that is, as long as we’re not in an hypnotic  trance. Both Edmond and the king invoke the identical personified goddess, “nature,” to whom they voice bitter complaints having to do with parent/child relationships. Edmond, nominally regarded as the younger and illegitimate son of the Earl of Gloucester, declares himself the votary of this goddess of nature, soliciting her approval and assistance in his plot to ruin his elder half-brother, the noble Edgar. He would induce the Earl to disinherit this legitimate son, leaving his estate to the sole remaining issue, Edmond. While Edmond feels betrayed by the customs of patrimony, legitimacy and primogeniture, Lear also, for his part, experiences betrayal in the matter of his own succession: after disinheriting his youngest, Cordelia, bequeathing the totality of his estate to his two elder daughters, he discovers neither will honor the tacitly approved stipulation in his donation inter vivos:  that he be permitted the privilege of a monarch’s ‘progress’, a use or partial life estate burdening the demesnes of Regan and Goneril, the beneficiaries being himself (and per accidens his retinue of a hundred boisterous knights). Legally, on abjuration of the condition, that donation could have been nullified by the donor. But Lear hasn’t sufficient rationality to retain counsel. So obdurate and condescending is Goneril that he flies into a towering rage eclipsing his anger at Cordelia’s modesty. He calls on the goddess of nature to either render Goneril sterile, or mar any child of hers with ruinous malice. He too is an initiate in the cult of nature. In both cases, the ‘father against child’ leitmotif identified by Gloucester (I, ii, 9) is featured:  Edmond (the son) excoriates his putative father, while Lear rails against his daughter. The very same divinity is petitioned for favor and support. While Shakespeare often employs a subplot as a foil for the main action, here the Gloucester subplot is elevated as the plot’s logical converse.

The question facing any serious reading of this play is:  as it was not required by or essential to the subplot, why does Shakespeare draw this high degree of similitude in the speeches of Lear and Edmond? After all, the king is the misguided and beleaguered protagonist of the drama, Edmond its fanatical villain. Can both be friends of “Nature”? Could the goddess be sufficiently bountiful  —  or schizoid —  to look with favor on the prayers of two such hostile supplicants? Here is the stuff of tragedy indeed. But perhaps the parallelism is meant to signal an hitherto unconsidered relationship. As these figures occupy different generations and exhibit a single remarkable trait, it would not be unexpected to raise the question of natural affinity. In this play the ‘unnatural’ (mentioned in the text eight times) is the subtext of the theme of ‘nature’ (mentioned 34 times). Might Edmond be regarded as Lear’s son, not Gloucester’s? That would seem impossible, ruled out by the dramatis personae we are provided: “Edmond, bastard son of Gloucester.” Not once is any alternative even mentioned in the text. And yet . . .  a door is left tantalizingly ajar. For all we are coyly told by Gloucester is that “this young fellow’s mother . . . [conceived] him” and “had  . . . a son for her cradle ere she had a husband for her bed.” (I. i, 12-15) His mother was fair, “and there was good sport at his making.”(I, i, 20-21) Grant that Gloucester had an extra-marital affair with Edmond’s mother, does this entail that he, Gloucester, is the actual father? His sole comment is oddly oblique: “His breeding, sir, hath been at my charge. I have so often blushed to acknowledge him that now I am brazed to’t.” (I, i, 8-10) The facts are somewhat uncertain, and possibilities loom. For nothing is presented to rule out successive or simultaneous affairs of this unnamed woman with Gloucester and Lear. Gloucester’s insinuation that he raised the child as his own (“his breeding hath been at my charge”) hardly sets the matter to rest. Did Edmond’s mother ascertain with absolute certainty the identity of the babe’s father? Treat the issue realistically. She may have known scarce more than we do about it. Or, was she dissembling? Might a royal scandal have been avoided by placing a monarch’s bastard in the Gloucester household? Shakespeare goes far out of his way to demonstrate an uncanny likeness of young man and elder. And when we check their backgrounds we find nothing to rule out an account starkly at odds with the official genealogy. Edmond is “acknowledged” by Gloucester, but obviously kept in the background, so much so that he is wholly unacquainted with the Earl of Kent. (I, i, 25) How could that be? Had Edmond resided at court or its purlieu, their paths would have crossed any number of times. Yet the claimed father confesses of his “son,” “He hath been out nine years, and away he shall again.” (I, i, 31-32) “Out”? He’s been “out” nine years? Where? Pursuing a post-doctoral fellowship at Wittenberg? Acquiring street smarts in the alleyways of London? There is no evidence of anything in particular. Gloucester’s blushing words suggest that Edmond has been kept under wraps in some undisclosed location for the better part of a decade and that Gloucester is footing the bills. If he has never met the Earl of Kent, can he be familiar with the other nobles of Lear’s court? If not, he has been deliberately hidden away, and it is reasonable to think twice about the received view of his parentage.   Edmond is a mystery.

If one views the play as a study of hate and anger, we might ask what the fountainhead of those emotions could be. There  is nothing rancid or hostile in Gloucester. It is King Lear, rather, with his umbrageous outbursts, tantrums and rages who stands as the source of bitterness and gall. Goneril and Regan, with their seemingly inborn resentments and envies, plainly inherit their father’s truculence and spite. Edmond too is a bird of that feather. In that regard it is worth noticing that Lear’s experience on the stormy heath climaxes his “madness,” leaving him visibly chastened and repentant. What about  Edmond? He is a rogue to be sure, but unlike so many villains in Shakespeare who go to their graves with imprecations on their lips (e.g., Aaron in Titus Andronicus), Edmond, like Lear, has a dramatic change of heart at the play’s end, and not only confesses his guilt but attempts to atone with a final good deed, trying to save Lear and Cordelia from assassination. Is not this the very pattern of Lear’s own life? The old King carouses in debauchery with his knights; Edmond carries on affairs with Lear’s daughters. Both men swear fealty to nature, and by what appears to be a common character, each follows a trajectory of moral transgression leading them at the end to metanoia and acts of charity. In that respect it is interesting to attend to Edmond’s last invocation nature, which sounds a different note:

I pant for life. Some good I mean to do,
Despite of mine own nature. Quickly send,
Be brief on it, to th’ castle; for my writ
Is on the life of Lear and on Cordelia.
Nay, send in time.
(V, iii, 218-221)

Ironically the scion of “nature” here disavows the implacable goddess and in so doing recovers his deeper nature. Lear’s madness culminates in comparable sentiments.

We may also observe that if Edmond is the son of Lear, he is the half brother of wicked sisters Regan and Goneril. This too prompts intriguing questions. We might accept that one of Lear’s malicious daughters should become enamored of him, but when both compete for his affections one looks for some explanation. Let’s assume for sake of discussion that Edmond is actually Lear’s misbegotten son, and has been “out” for nine years, lately returning to the court. There is something about him that strikes their mutual fancy. What is it? His disenchantment with Gloucester, Lear and Cordelia? But that is politics, not usually a launching pad of concupiscence. There is for these ladies a certain je ne sais quoi about Edmond which sets him apart and piques their interest. Or, continuing with French, call it déjà vu. They seem to recognize him. The reader may recall in The Winter’s Tale Leontes’ excitement at seeing the long lost Perdita, his daughter, whom he believes to have been destroyed. Though she is young and in the company of Florizel, the son of Polixenes, he is instantly smitten by her. In Robert Greene’s play Pandosto, the narrative model of The Winter’s Tale, the King of Bohemia falls into incestuous love with daughter Fawnia. When she marries Prince Dorastus, Pandosto in his unknowingly incestuous desire commits suicide. It is clear that the aspect of consanguinity is part of daughter Fawnia’s allure. Or, think of the extraordinary love shared by Posthumus Leonatus and Imogen in Cymbeline. They are not blood kin, but King Cymbeline has raised the orphaned Posthumus from an early age as daughter Imogen’s “playfellow,” (I, i, 145-146), meaning he is her de facto brother. As a young adult, Imogen finds she can love no man other than him. In Pericles the Prince of Tyre is entrapped by King Antiochus who is having a liaison with his own buxom daughter. Pericles flees Antioch after solving the Oedipal riddle, but is vengefully pursued by Antiochus, which pursuit symbolizes Pericles’ own obsession with incest. He weds Thaisa, who appears to die giving birth to their daughter Marina during a storm at sea.  Though Pericles comes to assume that his wife and child have both perished, Thaisa finds her way to the Temple of Diana, while Marina winds up in a brothel in Mytilene. At one point late in the action, Pericles’ sad peregrinations take him to Mytilene, where his daughter, who has escaped the sex industry, has become a teacher. The implication is that only a series of fortuitous accidents prevent father and daughter from becoming intimate with one another. (See, “the Flight from the Incestuous Father,” in Archibald, 146 ff; see also, 95-96) Of course, incest figures largely in Hamlet as well. (Gontar, 377 ff.) And in The Tempest an all-powerful magician who dallied with a witch has had, for most of Miranda’s life, the craft to make her sleep instantly at the snap of his fingers. He charts her every move and gives her almost no information about her past, and the mother she had back in Milan. Put under the moral/psychological microscope, the Prospero/Miranda relationship appears suspiciously incestuous. (See, Gontar, 83 ff.) These examples show that incest is central in a number of Shakespeare plays; failing to consider its possible function in King Lear may be an unhelpful oversight. 

Furthermore, in treating issues of paternity, in at least three major plays Shakespeare seems to hint broadly that a father/son relation obtains where superficial reading might not detect it. (Gontar,  83 ff; 139 ff;  377 ff) These are Julius Caesar, The Tempest and Hamlet. Shakespeare based Julius Caesar on Plutarch, the Roman historian. Plutarch plainly credits the account in oral history that Brutus is the illegitimate son of Julius Caesar, a view Shakespeare does not expressly mention but reinforces and supports through his dramaturgy, showing resemblances between these men and including  a diptych of conjugal scenes whose implications can hardly be sidestepped. In The Tempest, perhaps the most cogent analysis implies that Caliban is Prospero’s son through Sycorax. Caliban inherits his father’s lofty poetic syntax. (Gontar, 97-98) And there is no denying the resemblance of Prince Hamlet to Claudius (Gontar, 390-393). It is not surprising, then, to discover that Shakespeare builds into the structure of what is arguably his greatest tragedy another potent but camouflaged filial relationship, that of Lear and his illegitimate son, Edmond. Those who would respond to this argument with skepticism are urged to go back, read the plays in question again, followed by a study of Hamlet Made Simple and Other Essays. Things will fall into place — unless popular preconceived ideas should charge into the breach.

III.  Cultural Materialism v. Shakespeare

At the very least, then, the foregoing considerations call for a thorough unreading of King Lear, a spring cleaning in which the staid accretions of 400 years get pared away, allowing us to face the text anew, from the ground up. Yet that is precisely what scholarly treatments, whether conservative or revisionary, so rarely provide. This is all the more astonishing and disappointing in the case of those movements priding themselves on their ability to shake the foundations and challenge stale renderings of Shakespeare. Let us turn to one of the most highly acclaimed of the left-of-center exegetical schools, cultural materialism, to see what it makes of this work. What we will discover is that it too is hobbled by its own intellectual (i.e., Marxist) presuppositions and commitments, and is thus of limited utility when what is sought is a thorough dismantling and fresh exposition of Lear. Though it professes to decrypt the text and circumvent the inevitable censorship of the literary establishment, cultural materialism turns out to be yet another elitist and institutionalized recycling of clichés and truisms surrounding our greatest tragedy. Mere substitution of socialist premises for feudal ones yields nothing of significant value.

Since 1984, the leading exponent of cultural materialism has been Jonathan Dollimore. Though he has distanced himself from academe, his Radical Tragedy continues to exert a wide influence. It launched a broad attack on humanism, essentialism and universalism in Jacobean literary studies, relying on such renegade figures as Bertolt Brecht instead of traditional authorities such as A. C. Bradley and Harold Goddard. In the place of humanist readings exhibiting characters whose suffering leads to essentially redemptive or transcendent transformations, Dollimore sought to feature the “political” significance of the play. However, as Radical Tragedy passed through several editions, its own standpoint seemed to undergo something of a sea change. In a long introduction to the third edition, a strenuous effort was made to tack about and forge links to humanism, and at the same time raise fundamental questions about the very validity of literary criticism. In coming to terms with Dollimore’s vision of Lear, then, we need ponder two distinct phases of his development, first, his campaign to discredit essentialism and humanism, and set forth the meaning of King Lear in political terms; and second, we must assess the effectiveness of his alliance with humanism, and his attack on criticism itself. We will find that Dollimore so compromises cultural materialism that it becomes in fact a weaker rather than a more powerful variant of the humanism it opposed; instead of exposing the dangerous and subversive element in King Lear (identified above), cultural materialism settles for a trite and maudlin version of Lear’s development which reminds us of nothing so much as the conversion of Dickens’ Ebenezer Scrooge from miserly curmudgeon to Mr. Smiley Face. Though at the end the stage floor is littered with the dead, cultural materialism’s acceptation of the play gives us a diminished Lear and drains the play of all tragic sense.

Dollimore considers only two traditionalist options: King Lear is either a Christian exemplar or an illustration of later humanistic philosophy. Stiff-arming the former view, he maintains that the humanistic exegesis is just as unsatisfactory, for it too commits the unpardonable sins of metaphysics, essentialism and mystification. 

What follows is an exploration of the political dimension of Lear. It argues that the humanist view of that play is as inappropriate as the Christian alternative which it has generally displaced – inappropriate not least because it shares the essentialism of the latter. I do not mean to argue again the case against the Christian view since, even though it is still sometimes advanced, it has been effectively discredited . . . . The principal reason why the humanist view seems equally misguided, and not dissimilar, is this: it mystifies suffering and invests man with a quasi-transcendent identity whereas the play does neither of these things. In fact, the play repudiates the essentialism which the humanist reading of it presupposes. However, I do not intend to replace the humanist reading with one that rehearses yet again all the critical clichés about the nihilistic and chaotic ‘vision’ of Jacobean tragedy. In Lear, as in Troilus, man is decentered not through misanthropy but in order to make visible social processes and its forms of ideological misrecognition. (Dollimore, 190-191)

Must we be impaled on the horns of this dilemma? That would entail an absence of alternatives.

What is most significant about this sort of manifesto is that while it conceives of itself as rational discourse, it is nothing of the kind. What we have instead is a series of cavalier and unsupported claims. We are to explore the “political dimension” of Lear. This neatly begs the question. Is there such a thing? The only truly political aspect of the play lies in the protasis in which a demented monarch demolishes his own kingdom. This act of gross misgovernment is never once mentioned. Yet it is the fatal vivisection of Britain from which spring the fundamental conflicts of the play. In the name of “politics,” Dollimore misses the signal political event in Lear.

Look at the rhetoric, impatient and peremptory. Instead of reasoning, we reject and “repudiate” ideas uncongenial or inexpedient. There is no need of facts and tiresome deductions. By mere wafture of an autocratic hand we sweep aside inexpedient ideas. The Christian view is already “discredited.” The play “repudiates” essentialism. Nor does Dollimore “intend to replace” humanism with the “clichés” about nihilism. What are those “clichés” if not important notions we’d rather not take up? An entire hermeneutical movement is tossed aside as of no moment. Arguably, the history of “nihilism” can be traced as far back as the Book of Job. Why bother about that? According to the authoritative Shakespeare search engine, Open Source Shakespeare, “nothing” is mentioned in King Lear 29 times, and 590 times in the corpus. That alone would seem sufficient to induce some scholars to have a look at nihilism in Shakespeare and King Lear, but not the busy Mr. Dollimore, expert in “Jacobean drama.” (Versions of the play date back to 1594.)

It is proposed that a humanist reading should be discarded because “it shares the essentialism” of Christianity. To say that humanism is deficient because it rests upon or entails “essentialism” has force only if it is explained what “essentialism” is and why it should not be embraced. But such tiresome exercises are left to hoi polloi.

This critic appears to derive his general philosophical outlook from the epigram of Jean-Paul Sartre that “existence precedes essence.” (Dollimore, 195) Has that gnomic utterance now become an article of common sense and generally accepted standard of intellectual evaluation? Are we all French existentialists now? If so, it’s convenient, for it relieves us of the need to rationally defend our positions. In the bibliography is listed a single book by the prolific Sartre, a collection of popular essays titled Politics and Literature. But those topical compositions do not reflect the ontological thinking of Sartre, merely his congenital antipathy towards the bourgeoisie. The relationship between “essence” and “existence” in Sartre’s systematic philosophy is set forth in The Transcendence of the Ego, Being and Nothingness, and other metaphysical works, all unmentioned. If existence “precedes” essence, does that mean that essence is of no account? This is as clear as mud. Few today are willing to roll up their sleeves and tackle Sartre’s major treatises. It’s so much easier to drop a few philosophical slogans from the 1950’s (yesterday’s clichés) as the foundation for critical judgments about the meaning of King Lear. Does attaching the label “essentialism” to an idea mean that it is ipso facto disposed of? Non sequitur. Sartre also penned a well-known monograph called “Existentialism is a Humanism,” (Yale University Press, 2007 edition). Query: If Dollimore is an existentialist of the Sartrean variety, he must be a humanist, but how can this be if “humanism” is a species of the “essentialism” he demonizes? Does reading Lear “politically” mean that we must find in Shakespeare an altruist? A Whig? An egalitarian? Before leaping to such conclusions it would appropriate to assimilate the totality of Shakespeare, starting with the episode of the Jack Cade rebellion in King Henry VI, Part Two, IV, ii- IV, ix.

Mr. Dollimore claims that humanism fails to account for King Lear because while it accords to “man” a “quasi-transcendent identity,” the play itself doesn’t do that. Its message is exclusively one of economic redistribution and social uniformity. Yet in King Lear “the gods” are mentioned 29 times, and always in relation to us, to human beings. When the gods ‘throw their incense on our sacrifices’ (V, iii, 20-21) does Shakespeare refer to Magna Carta? Wouldn’t it seem that in a play setting human existence in perpetual relation to divinity it might be inferred that that aspect of human life which addresses it is consistent with a quasi-transcendent humanity, that is, a characteristic not shared by tuna fish and tree toads? At wit’s end with his malicious and conniving daughters, Lear cries, “You see me here, you gods, a poor old man / As full of grief as age, wretchèd in both.” (II, ii, 446-447) Shall the silence of those gods be construed as the play’s denial of “quasi-transcendent identity”? Why? Where poor humanity is concerned, Mts. Sinai and Olympus have never been especially loquacious, and a large part of their fascination and mystery has been their stark verbal economy. Consider again the Book of Job. Before the Lord speaks out of the whirlwind (Job 38)  does Job renounce divinity? No. Neither does Lear. The gods are mute, but still extant is that part of the human spirit which had addressed them previously, that part of us keenly aware of death, fate and our terrible responsibility for terrible deeds. That is indeed our transcendent identity and it is this which Lear constantly discloses to us. Listen to Gloucester: “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods; They kill us for their sport.” (IV, i, 37-38) What sound these notes if not our oppressed and frustrated transcendence? Yet Dollimore insists that the play repudiates the “essentialism” of humanism. Sadly, no definition of essentialism is proffered, but we are assured whatever it is, it is a myth. And yet, how can we speak of “man” and “the gods” without reference to some key ontological or defining features, to nature? This, after all, is the principal focus of the play, not redistribution of the wealth in society or the weaving of social safety nets. 

Few would deny that there are moments on the heath when Lear is brought face-to-face with unaccommodated man, and the ineluctable miseries of the human condition. Rude circumstances compel him to notice and reflect on injustice. And the sequent insights have importance. But those experiences and insights cannot be inflated to support the grotesque proposition that the basic meaning of the tragedy is mere rank and social inequality. Nor is Dollimore the sort of post-structural writer who would dispense altogether with the idea of inherent textual significance. For by his own admission he is in search of the essential and enduring meaning of “Jacobean” drama, and insofar as he pursues that project he tacitly accepts the essentialism he would “repudiate.” Indeed, to presume that King Lear has “a meaning” that can be set down as the most important and valid way in which the play should be received by us is to affirm –not deny– humanism and its traditions. As our common lives possess a certain character, so do our texts have meanings. And malgré lui, Dollimore evinces these meta-philosophical tenets. At the end of his discourse there is a brief acknowledgement of Jacques Derrida, the French philosopher who has been understood as teaching that texts lack independent meanings. Though he cites Derrida approvingly, it isn’t clear that Radical Tragedy is consonant with a deconstructionist approach to literary criticism.

For Derrida, the term “man” as commonly used is a vestigial leftover from religion, a relic of the onto-theological vision which progressive thinkers now so blithely surpass. (Dollimore,  257 ff) And as was observed in Hamlet Made Simple, there is wisdom in this project, for a moment’s reflection will show that there is no such thing as “man,” any more than there is such a thing as “cow” or “shark” or “polar bear.” There are various species, to be sure; zoologists write properly of “homo sapiens,” the species, not “man,” an onto-theological term which stood in relation to “God.” For us, there are just people, cows, crabgrass, polar bears, etc. “Man” means far too much to be viewed with anything but suspicion. Yet ironically, throughout Radical Tragedy, with all its steadfast denial of any quasi-transcendent aspect of human existence, its author talks endlessly and earnestly about “man,” the key term of art in the vocabulary of humanism. Can there be “man” and not humanism? Could anything be more obvious than the failure of Radical Tragedy to break free from the orbit of very humanism it derides?  

There is another curiosity. In the introduction to the second edition, it is declared that “I shall be concerned mainly (not exclusively) with feminism and gender critique . . . .” Dollimore, xiv) It will not be thought churlish to wonder how an elite member of the male sex who constantly refers to the human race as “man” can be regarded as a sound proponent of — and advocate for –“feminism and gender critique.” Why go on and on about “man” and never talk of people? It’s surprising he doesn’t employ the corollary term “woman,” as we find, e.g., in Nietzsche. We have abundant evidence in the second edition that, for all his condescending rhetoric about humanism, patriarchy and sexism, this writer is plainly unable to extricate himself spiritually and intellectually from the legacy of humanism and its various subtexts. Though fond of exposing the alleged contradictions of conventional “ideologies,” he remains blind to his own ideology (a blend of retread Marxism and post-structural shibboleths) and its inconsistencies.

Nothing can be deemed “radical” which fails to acknowledge and come to terms with its own roots. That central precept of philosophy, so vital to the thinking of Socrates, Descartes, Husserl et al., seems to have escaped the view of cultural materialism. Mr. Dollimore remains a purveyor of mere doctrine, not dialectic, a fact of which he seems to feel inordinately proud. What would Karl Marx say? Like Brutus, Mr. Dollimore cannot perceive his own face, only the visages of his bêtes noires, (Julius Caesar, I, ii, 53); we, like Cassius, must serve as a looking glass to help him to detect his own contradictions as clearly as those he would “repudiate.”  

Let us return to the attempt made in the pages of Radical Tragedy to shore up the counterintuitive notion that Shakespeare’s Lear is “above all, a play about power, property and inheritance.” (Dollimore, 197) Think about that. “Power” here means not intensity of will and character, but legal authority. What would it take to render that suggestion persuasive? Not only would all credible rival readings need to be shown wrong-headed — which is far from accomplished — but textual evidence would need to be adduced to demonstrate that “power/property/inheritance perspective” provide greater coherence than any other theme in the play. Dollimore boasts that he reads for “discoherence,” but when criticism founders in its own contradictions it fails to be helpful. For it is one thing to identify textual strands related to power/property/inheritance, but quite another to establish that such a concatenation of “political” materials is what the tragedy is “about.”

Here is a compendium of textual citations offered:

1.  “You houseless poverty (III. iv. 26): Oh, I have ta’en/Too little care of this!” (Dollimore, 191)

2.  “What, hath your Grace no better company? [Gloucester] (III, iv. 138) (Dollimore, 192)

3.  “Like Lear, Gloucester has to undergo intense suffering before he can identify with the deprived. When he does so he expresses more than compassion. He perceives, crucially, the limitation of a society that depends on empathy alone for its justice.” (Dollimore, 192)

4.  “[Gloucester] is led to a conception of social justice (albeit dubiously administered by the ‘Heavens’) whereby ‘distribution should undo excess,/ And each man have enough’ (IV, i. 72-73) (Dollimore, 192)

5.   “Lear experiences pity mainly as an inseparable aspect of his own grief: ‘I am mightily abus’d. I should e’en die with pity/To see another thus’ (IV. vii. 53-4) His compassion emerges from grief only to be obliterated by grief. He is angered, horrified, confused and, above all, dislocated.” (Dollimore, 193)

6.  “But what of Cordelia herself? She more than anyone else has been seen to embody and symbolise pity. But is it a pity which significantly alters anything? To see her death as intrinsically redemptive is simply to mystify both her life and death. Pity, like kindness, seems in Lear to be precious yet ineffectual. Far from being redemptive it is the authentic but residual expression of a scheme of values all but obliterated by a catastrophic upheaval in the power structure of society.” (Dollimore, 193, emphasis in original)

7.  “Significantly, existential humanism forms the basis even of J.W. Lever’s The Tragedy of State, one of the most astute studies of Jacobean tragedy to date. On the one hand Lever is surely right in insisting that these plays ‘are not primarily treatments of characters with a so-called ‘tragic flaw’, whose downfall is brought about by the decree of just if inscrutable powers . . .  the fundamental flaw is not in them but in the world they inhabit: in the political state, the social order it upholds, and likewise, by projection, in the cosmic state of shifting arbitrary phenomena called ‘Fortune.'”  (Dollimore, 194, emphasis added)

8.  “If the Christian mystifies suffering by presenting it as intrinsic to God’s redemptive and providential design for man, the humanist does likewise by representing suffering as the mysterious ground for man’s self-redemption; both in effect mystify suffering by having as their common focus an essentialist conception of what it is to be human: in virtue of his spiritual essence (Christian), essential humanity (ethical humanist), or essential self (existentialist humanist),  man is seen to achieve a paradoxical transcendence: in individual extinction is his apotheosis. Alternatively we might say that in mystifying closure of the historical real the categories of idealist culture are recuperated.” (Dollimore, 194, emphases added)

9.  “Cordelia’s real transgression is not unkindness as such but speaking in a way which threatens to show too clearly how the laws of human kindness operate in the service of property, contractual and power relations.” (Dollimore, 198)

10.  “[]In the act of renouncing [Cordelia], Lear brutally foregrounds the imperatives of power and property relations.” (Dollimore, 199)

What in all of this – or the like – establishes cultural materialism as a force to be reckoned with in Shakespeare criticism? Has “humanism” been debunked? In what way? As we suspected, and as we will see below, Dollimore is himself a confessed humanist. We already see his mode of expression (“man”) is humanist in tone and character. He is committed not to post-structuralist indeterminacy, but to a theory of interpretation which presumes that literature has a discrete meaning and that reader and critic are tasked with unfolding it. Is that radical? References in King Lear to the political repercussions or implications of various actions undertaken by its characters do not warrant the conclusion that the play is über alles “political.” As most of Shakespeare’s plays involve royalty and nobles one could on that basis argue that all of them are fundamentally “political.” Would such a claim have any practical meaning – or leave things precisely in their status quo ante? If King Lear is essentially a ‘political’ tragedy per Jonathan Dollimore, doesn’t that commit him to the very essentialism he claims to reject? Can a play be essentially about “man” while “man” himself has no discernible being? 

One of the reasons we are given for turning away from “humanism” is that it seems to find redemption in human suffering. This is set down as reprehensible mystification. If Lear achieves a state of grace or redemption, it is found in his acceptance of the responsibility he bears to those commoners whom he so often took for granted, not to his agonies on the heath. Had Lear to do things over again, he would be a kinder, gentler overlord. In that lies his redemption. In other words, as said above, cultural materialism  is precisely that: material. It reduces a great tragedy to a Dickensian fable. We’ll buy Poor Tom a Christmas goose to salve our conscience.

Some “humanist” scholars may have written that Shakespearean heroes are redeemed by suffering as such, but that untenable contention can be dispensed with without discarding humanism. To see suffering as such as redemptive is nonsense, unless we turn life into purgatory: the dross of callous indifference is burned away by our own trials and tribulations. Whatever we may think of that view, it isn’t Shakespeare’s. Dollimore is right to challenge it, but wrong to imagine that pointing to its problematic quality means humanism must be scanted. Grant that Cordelia’s death is not “intrinsically redemptive;” is that the end of humanism? How so? Let’s be clear about this. In Act One, Cordelia is imprisoned by the past. She can barely breathe a word. The vain recitation she is commanded to produce would replicate and sanction the abuse she has suffered at her father’s hands. All she can muster at that point is silence. In Act Five we find a different Cordelia. She has witnessed her father in the latter stages of spiritual decomposition, and this has touched her heart, the heart implied in her name. Love and compassion melt away the ice within, and she is free to speak again, much as Hermione does after sixteen frozen years in the last act of The Winter’s Tale. As she embraces her father and gives to him the forgiveness she had been unable for so long to afford, she is redeemed and so is he. And the wonder is that such evident things, the very elements of life, would need to be explained to mature adults. The play is tragic because redemption comes too late, at the cost of heroic lives.

Is the disinheritance of Cordelia best understood as the “brutal foregrounding” of “imperatives of power and property relations”? In that one pseudo-painterly trope we see everything wrong with “radical tragedy.” First of all, no real attempt is made by soi-disant “radicals” to come to terms with or even closely examine the plainly dysfunctional relationship of father and youngest daughter, as explored above. No attention is  paid to the fact that Lear’s mood is “dark” well before the contretemps triggered by Cordelia’s silence. What might that “darker purpose” portend? The opportunity to get at the meaning of Lear’s primal rage is waived. What generates the tragedy is not power and property, but (1) Lear’s anxieties over his possessive relationship with Cordelia, for which he hopes to be absolved by her, and (2) his destructive splintering of his realm, an act not expressive of property relations but transgressive of them. Lear (like Queen Elizabeth I)  declines to designate a successor to the throne and heir to his possessions, and his attempted solution, to fracture the kingdom, hastens the civil war sought to be avoided. The laws of property and inheritance are not “foregrounded” but flouted by him. 

And what of the “tragic flaw”? Is Lear immune to that royal syndrome? For Dollimore that is just another sophomoric cliché. But is it? In Pericles, Shakespeare finally “foregrounds” the issue of incest for the first time. But it was always there. Shall we assume that Lear is wholly innocent of that pathology? How then account for that vexing “darker purpose”? A strong case can be made that he has encroached on his youngest child’s privacy and integrity, and conceived an imbalanced and impossible inheritance as compensation. Further, he has apparently spawned a malicious bastard driven by an unconscious urge to bring ruin to the kingdom and death to its rulers. Is this not the pith of tragedy? We have a tragic flaw when we are undone not by our vices but by our virtues. Lear is a titanic figure, a ruler of prepossessing strength and ardor, who, in his dotage, still has enough vital energy to carouse with a hundred knights in perpetual bacchanal. In his children we see limned in diminished outlines the figure of the father. What was promethean life force in Lear reappears in Regan, Goneril and Edmond as impulsive venality. Lear rages against the gods, against Cordelia, Kent, and against his two ungrateful elder children, sure that they are the villains who are destroying Britain and himself. Only at the end, having lost his wits in the whirlwind, does the fury sufficiently abate that he can perceive that it was his own metastasizing expansiveness that undid him. Though in the introduction to the third edition Dollimore talks about Nietzsche and the diremptive agonies of the life force, in his actual reading of the play he is blind to what is actually good and what is evil in its awful protagonist.

Tragedy is a Greek invention. How does one write an entire book on “Jacobean” tragedy – or tragedy of any sort, for that matter – and never once mention the ancient Greeks? The false dilemma proffered by Radical Tragedy is either to view King Lear from a Christian perspective or that of later humanism. Problem is, there were monumental tragedies long before these two outlooks ever appeared. Can we fairly discern tragedy’s purport by restricting ourselves to the Christian/humanist rivalry? What happened to Sophocles, Aeschylus and Euripides? What about Aristotle? Of these four, only Aristotle is mentioned:  once. The Oedipus trilogy involves a king. Is it above all “political” too? Oedipus remains an important figure in the western psyche not because of the popularized misunderstandings of a Viennese physician, but because he is emblematic of our conception of human existence, an existence that embraces both good and evil. And this is the view Dollimore begins to approximate only in the introduction to the third edition of his book. 

Oedipus lives in the service of knowledge and power, and, as his answer to the riddle of the Sphinx shows, he is a symbol of human existence. It is his quest for knowledge and power which makes him great, but conduces simultaneously to his demotion. It is his destiny as the human embodiment of the life force to extend his field of dominance universally, including the celestial realm, the recognized source of mankind. He would consciously avoid that fate, but is driven to it. As Oedipus unwittingly kills his father Laius, so does mankind kill off the gods in this our modern world. Replacing them as the rulers of the earth, human kind enters into an unrestricted and exploitative relationship with maternal earth or nature which we would remake in our own image, a fundamentally incestuous act. But the incestuous aspect of that relationship must go unrecognized, and does so to this day, by everyone from Dick Cheney to Greenpeace. It is not, then, that the hero has a “tragic flaw” over and against his virtues. Rather, our human virtue (virtu) itself is our vice in relation to both ourselves and our world. The knowing life force bursts onto the fields of heaven and earth and scorches the cosmos. Human existence stands in a fundamentally incommensurable relation to what Karl Jaspers called “the Encompassing.” To put it succinctly, we can grant that human existence bears a noble aspect, but it is a noble aspect fundamentally aggressive and dysfunctional in relation to everything else. 

Jonathan Dollimore seeks to understand a profoundly Greek tragedy, King Lear, in terms of the very bourgeois proprieties which he finally comes to condemn in the introduction to the third edition of Radical Tragedy. Lear is brought down by his own evil. But that is not the evil of a 19th century London miser. Lear isn’t a homunculus like Willy Loman or Ebenezer Scrooge. His evil is colossal, that of a giant, of Prometheus or Oedipus, prototypes of all humanity. Faced with imminent death, he would self-destruct and take all down with him. His death will then be götterdämmurung, the wastage of an entire world. That is the destiny of der Wille zur Macht, the basal ontological contradiction. In spawning Edmond he gives rise to Nemesis, which is a mirror of his own expansive possessiveness. That Edmond is the double of Lear has been observed previously. Consider the comments of Doug Eskew.

I argue . . . that Lear and Edmond are doubled through their mutual desire to rule the verge and mete out a personal justice. Moreover I argue that this doubling is reflected not simply in early modern contrariety — here, the play’s hero and villain, its most legitimate character (the king) and its least (a bastard). Most important for King Lear, these characters are doubled chiastically both in language and in movements on the stage. With a significant exception, Lear and Edmund do not occupy the stage at the same time, but their paths cross once at the play’s beginning and once at its end — times when Lear alternatively loses the verge and then, briefly, regains it. (Doug Askew, “Soldiers, Prisoners, Patrimony: King Lear and the Place of the Sovereign,” Cahiers Elisabethains 78, Autumn, 2010, 29)

On the heath, Lear is stripped of all dissemblance. The king stands unaccommodated as other men are, yet he remains, in his own words, “every inch a king.” Taking Gloucester as the mortal half of Lear, the blindness of Gloucester recalls the act of Oedipus in putting out his eyes on learning the truth about himself. It is the Sophoclean moment. That Sophoclean moment also may be seen in Lear’s heath. Earl Showerman, discussing Timon of Athens, and citing A.D. Nutall writes:

We have the pattern of the humiliated hero, apart from society, in a wild place. To him come, in succession, various figures to upbraid him or (more importantly) to solicit his aid. It is a pattern of great power in Sophocles, strong in Aeschylus, less strong in Euripedes. In Oedipus at Colonus the protagonist, blind, filthy, and ragged is visited in turn by Theseus, Creon and Polynices, who wishes to raze Thebes to the earth in vengeance for the wrong he has suffered. Oedipus, for all his strange aura of sanctity, is more like Timon than one expects.  He embraces his own wickedness and curses those who have wronged him.   (Earl Showerman, “Timon of Athens: Shakespeare’s Sophoclean Tragedy,” The Oxfordian, Vol. XI, 2009, 107)

King Lear and Timon of Athens both stand in the tragic tradition initiated by Sophocles’ restatement of Greek myth, with its uncanny apprehension of the perennial overreaching of mankind. Our “nobility” in relation to the beasts prompts a lethal narcissism which reveals the actual ignobility of a species which recognizes and then traduces the gods. As they are no longer wanted by humanity, not recognized, why should they not withdraw? In the tragic moment given to us by Shakespeare, the hero lifts tear-filled eyes to heaven and implores “deaf heaven” (Sonnet 29, line 3) to hear his cries. Do the gods see our torments and remain impassive? Are they indifferent when Cassius bears his bosom to the thunderstone? (Julius Caesar, I, iii, 45-52) Are they blind to the ravishment and disfiguration of Lavinia? Or do they take sadistic delight in our pain? (Titus Andronicus, IV, i, 7-8) Can they bless Pericles with wife and child and then proceed to snatch them away, even in the very act of giving? (Pericles, Sc. 11, 23-26) Why are the gods silent? We have taken their place. That is the meaning of tragedy, for a man cannot usurp the powers of heaven and at the same time insist on divine succor. As long as Lear rages at the lightning, thunder and the gods, he is still laboring in delusion. Only when fully chastened on the heath, having recovered the guilelessness of childhood, only when he can smell mortality in his very palm, can he finally admit that the fault was his all along, and beg for forgiveness.

Be your tears wet? Yes, faith. I pray, weep not.
If you have poison for me, I will drink it.
I know you do not love me; for your sisters
Have, as I do remember, done me wrong.
You have some cause; they do not.
(IV, vi, 64-69)

When thou dost ask me a blessing, I’ll kneel down
And ask of thee forgiveness . . . .
(V, iii, 10-11)

But cultural materialist dogma would presume to teach us that King Lear is “above all, a play about power, property and inheritance.” (Dollimore, 197) When Lear and Cordelia meet for the last time, is there discussion of “power, property and inheritance”?  No. Why not? If the play were “above all” about those things, they would be acknowledged by the principals, who strangely have nothing to say about them. When Shakespeare uses the idiom “above all,” in the only tragedy sufficiently majestic to stand alongside Lear, it is to refer to our awareness of who and what we are (“this above all, to thine own self be true,” Hamlet, I, iii, 78) and our fidelity to that. Lear has been false to himself and hence false to others, especially  Cordelia and Kent. He listens to his “Fool” but does not heed him, and besides, the Fool’s counsel comes tardily. King Lear is, above all, a play about age and love, and a king who loved “not wisely but too well.” (Othello, V, ii, 353)  

The ideological agenda of “cultural materialism,” its preoccupation with social and political issues, could only serve to blind its proponents to the rudiments not only of literature but of life itself. Seeking to engage Cordelia in his own self-deception in Act I was a stratagem doomed to failure. Her silence implied she would not serve as an accomplice in her father’s bad faith. At that point Lear was running amok, in flight from reality, well before Cordelia’s excommunication. He was in flight from the truth of what he had done to her, in flight from his fatherhood of Edmond, so much his double, in flight from his inability to manage his kingdom, in flight, in the final analysis, from death itself. And it may strike thoughtful readers as rather fantastic that one could seek to comprehend King Lear in any context and say nothing whatsoever about an old man’s thanatophobia, to which all that he does in the play is in one form or another an eloboration and a response. (I, i, 41)

Dollimore’s dilemma with respect to the play in question may be summed up as follows: a so-called “political” rendering of tragic action appears to supplant a transcendent humanist reading, but in light of this critic’s own recognition of promethean evil and the necessity of coming to terms with it,  mere liberal sentiment falls short of the play’s felt immensities. Lear is transformed from egotistical and overbearing patriarch to an elderly and infirm man who, in his traumatic fragmentation, catches a glimpse of the downtrodden subjectivities he had missed as ruler. His sore conscience is plain. Humanism’s religious legacy is to “mystify” the oppressive relation in which ordinary men and women stand to the state, its grand possessors and the predominant social caste. For Dollimore, King Lear is Shakespeare’s attempt to involve the audience in Lear’s spiritual conversion and opening up to the awful plight of the Other and the oppressive inequities which keep him down.

But the problem is that Lear is not about inequities but iniquity. While nothing could be more apparent than his trauma and gross transformation, the so-called “political” interpretation thereof which looks to preoccupations with property and inheritance seizes a mundane theme merely eleemosynary and distal. Taking seriously the introduction to the third edition, it’s hard to see how anyone could rest contented with such thin gruel as conventional leftist editorializing. For instead of one species of “humanism” we now have two, “weak” and” strong.” In its attenuated form humanism is little more than criticism’s congenital revulsion over the harsh actualities of life, death, desire and malevolence. Weak humanism idealizes and so must conceal and camouflage that which is resistant to idealization. Strong humanism would represent a return to Nietzsche’s recognition of the notorious intimacy of good and evil. In light of the perilous propinquity of the noble and the ignoble (e.g., the curious partnership of God and Satan in the Book of Job) any respectable criticism of Shakespearean tragedy should foreground the tragic hero’s nisus towards Mr. Hyde, the darker self, inclusive of lust, avarice and the will-to-power. This is not done.

The apparent shift in thinking from weak humanism to strong, is in the view of sympathetic critic Ewan Fernie, evidence of Dollimore’s adroit capacity to change his mind. (“Dollimore’s Challenge,” Shakespeare Studies, 1/1/07)  But what seems to be a “change of mind” turns out to be more accurately characterized as original ambiguity and contradiction. The shift to humanism in the introduction to the third edition reprises the earlier reliance on the concept of “man” and the willingness to seek a seek a univocal exegesis of the text. It is thus no surprise that on reflection this writer would strive to retain the force of humanism while broadening the attack to target the enterprise of literary criticism itself. But in reverting to an essentially Nietzschean philosophy, which finds in human existence an inextricable jointure of good and evil, nothing is done  to set aside the trivialization and reduction of King Lear which shrinks a sublime drama to a liberal campaign platform. Perhaps more than any other tragedy in the canon (with the possible exception of Macbeth), King Lear is an investigation into the correlations of nobility and naughtiness. Recall Sartre’s maxim that “Nothingness lies coiled in the heart of Being like a worm.” Having declared that the duty of criticism is at all times to fathom the good/evil connection, and have the courage to face the unruliness at work in the soul of the tragic hero, one would expect that this precept would directly if retrospectively impact the treatment of King Lear. Yet all is left in the status quo ante, as though Nietzsche had never been. 

By every measure, this drama has been portrayed as an unflinching and sublime portrait of the fate of maleficence unchained, one which reports on our deepest doubts about the decency and integrity of “homo sapiens.” But though collectivism and the redistributive economic agenda may be prized, Lear’s untoward demeanor and conduct cannot be reduced to mere overreaching and the acquisition of better social graces. Had the needed unreading been carried out,  Lear’s “darker purpose” might have been traced to its depths. One cannot call for a criticism which has the courage to recognize in literature the monstrous traits of human existence, our profound venality, yet fail to follow through by demonstrating the moral monstrosities of Lear. To call for radicalism in Shakespeare studies while declining to confront the major tragic hero in all his unappetizing glory, what is this but to “have the voice of lions and the act of hares”? (Troilus and Cressida, III, ii, 85)

To illustrate, here is a cross section of pertinent epigrams from the Introduction to the Third Edition, followed by comments.

1.  “Arguably everything that distinguishes us as human — I should say everything that distinguishes us as humane –  involves repression, suppression, and exclusion.” (xxxii)

2.  “Those who love art the most also censor it the most.” (xxxii)

3.  “What is censored is art in which ‘what is central is a dangerous knowledge of the dissident desires which threaten rather than what confirms psychic and social equilibrium.'” (xxxiii)

4.  “Time and again . . . the most compelling individual creations [characters] are the ethically confusing ones.” (xxxiii)

5.   “[T]he malcontents in Elizabethan . . . tragedy are charismatic anti-heroes whose deep insight into corruption derives from their willing complicity with it . . . .” (xxxiii)

6.  “To comprehend something thoroughly enough is to move closer to it and to thereby risk entering its thrall . . . . (xxxiv) [A] knowing identification of becomes an imaginative identification with.” (xxxiv)

7.  “For some, this is not a matter of regret: we are most ourselves when we are in this destructive, dangerous, and suffering state of freedom, violating the restraints’ very history which has produced us. This was Nietzsche’s view, which he attributed to Shakespeare.” (xxxv)

8.  “Macbeth does not warn against hubris and ambition; on the contrary, it affirms their attraction.” (xxxvi)

9.  “Shakespeare and his guardians fall on opposite sides of Nietzsche’s great divide between those who affirm the life force and those who turn away from it.” (xxxvi)

10.  Dollimore cites Pascal’s remark “anticipating Nietzsche” that “there is a kind of evil which often passes for good because it takes as much extraordinary greatness of soul to attain such evil as to attain good.” (xxxiii)

11.  Sigmund Freud is the cited:

“[T]he objects to which men give most preference, their ideals, proceed from the same perceptions and experiences as the objects they most abhor, and . . . they were originally only distinguished from one another through slight modifications . . . .  Indeed . . . it is possible for the original instinctual representation to be split in two, one part undergoing repression, while the remainder, precisely on account of this intimate connection undergoes idealization.”   (xxxxiii)

Now it should be fairly clear that to read the Tragedy of King Lear as a “political” object lesson is to engage in censorship, a censorship Dollimore would (or should) condemn. What is featured as Lear’s “greatness” is that “noble” branch of him which can be traced back to the roots of a blindly aggressive life force. Lear is thus a classically confused ethical being, but one left unplumbed by recent criticism. Of course, the reason we are reluctant to attribute actual evil in the classical sense to Lear is that it would entail the fault of humanity as such. We are a bit squeamish about that. To revise Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, it is not Death against whom we play chess, but ourselves.

In the 21st century we measure out our lives with coffee spoons. From the immensity of a leviathan cosmos we hide behind mathematical doodles. Reports of genocide are sandwiched between commercials for toothpaste and dandruff shampoo. Everything about our world is shrinking, miniaturized and micro-chipped. The result is that, despite our best intentions, we cannot be great, or even take the measure of the great.  Greatness is to us incommensurable and thus incomprehensible. But Lear is Life writ large. The 18th and 19th century philosophers got it right. The play gives out on the panorama of the sublime, in “man” and “nature.” Here is some of what we have left behind in our brave new world.

All that is literature seeks to communicate power; all that is not literature, to communicate knowledge. When in “King Lear,” the height, and depth, and breadth, of human passion is revealed to us, and, for the purposes of a sublime antagonism, is revealed in the weakness of an old man’s nature, and in one night two worlds of storm are brought face to face – the human world, and the world of physical nature – mirrors of each other, semi-choral antiphonies, strophe and antistrophe heaving with rival convulsions, and with the double darkness of night and madness, when I am thus startled into a feeling of the infinity of the world within me, is this power, or what may I call it? (De Quincey, 273)

If we were now to arrange the three exegetical positions we have examined, they would with respect to King Lear form the following hierarchy of adequacy.

               i. Strong humanism (Nietzsche, De Quincey, Hesse)

              ii. Weak humanism (traditional essentialism)

             iii. Cultural materialism (‘political’ exegesis)

As the least adequate of the three, cultural materialism must content itself with collecting Lear’s earnest new insights about the common people: e.g., “I really should have paid more attention to the living conditions of those serfs. Their cottages have such substandard drainage.” Bromides like this can hardly rise to the stature of tragedy but remain at best mere sentiment and melodrama. Old TV episodes of Lassie the Dog functioned at that level. Only insofar as cultural materialism rises to the level of weak humanism does it attain any metaphysical backbone (essence) and recognize the possibility of redemption through self-knowledge and admission of responsibility. At the highest level we finally see the commonality of good and evil, and taste for ourselves the attractions of the will to power. Here is the realm of Nemesis and catastrophe. That is the realm of tragedy.

Platitudinous presentations of King Lear tend to identify Edmond as the stereotypical “bad guy,” allowing us to view Lear himself with a larger and illicit measure of sympathy. This is perhaps the crux of the misreading. It is, again, melodrama. Edmond is a dramaturgical device which tends to siphon off Lear’s morally repellent features, leaving a profoundly evil monarch washed clean in our crocodile tears. Questioning this way of approaching the play is thus an important aspect of “unreading.” When we realize that there is still something decent about Edmond we discover at much the same time that avuncular old Lear is the real bastard, one who senses in some corner of his mixed up consciousness how dreadful he has been to his family and country and goes quite crazy. Everything we learn in the introduction to the third edition points in the direction of a far greater depth and depravity in this demonic soul than cultural materialism could ever deliver. 

Lear is Midas. He has touched his daughter and turned her into gold, still and mute, resentful of his attentions. Her heart is cold. Later he learns compassion, it is true, but Dollimore is correct that the meaning of tragedy cannot be found in this. The tragic moment arrives when we come to see the fault not in those we demonize (Cordelia, Regan, Goneril, Albany, Cornwall, et al.) but in ourselves. But as a being carved from the adamantine life force itself, Lear must suffer destruction to learn, and the lesson arrives too late. As Cordelia sees the flickering of compassion in the embers of her father’s soul, her own compassion, long withheld, comes forth, granting him the absolution he demanded so clumsily in Act One. Today’s “true minds” would present King Lear complacently as a cantankerous but lovable geriatric patient with advanced dementia, the victim of elder abuse wrought by his daughters. There is our modern fairy tale, how we see ourselves now, helpless consumers of Prozac, Zoloft and Wellbutrin. In designating King Lear as principally a drama of “power, property and inheritance,” cultural materialism betrays the life force and diminishes all of us. The tragic fate of tragedy in the 21st century is that there is no tragedy.     


It must be pointed out that Shakespeare’s treatment of the father/daughter relationship in a related play, The Tempest, found its way into W.A. Mozart’s The Magic Flute, probably through librettist Emanuel Schikaneder. Sarastro’s intense affection for Pamina echoes the love of Prospero for Miranda. In The Tempest that forbidden love is projected onto the black slave Caliban, while in The Magic Flute it is the black slave Monostatos who is the whipping boy for Sarastro’s own naughtiness. The witch Sycorax becomes the Queen of the Night, etc. See, for example, “The Spirit of Shakespeare in the Mozartian Opera,” by Ecaterina Banciu.


Elizabeth Archibald, Incest and the Medieval Imagination, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 2001

Ecaterina Banciu, “The Spirit of Shakespeare in the Mozartian Opera”

Thomas De Quincey, The Opium-Eater and Other Essays, Ward, Locke & Co., Ltd.,  n.d.

Doug Askew, “Soldiers, Prisoners, Patrimony:  King Lear and the Place of the Sovereign,” Cahiers Elisabethains, 78,  Autumn, 2010

Bruno Bettelheim, The Uses of Enchantment, Vintage, 2010

Jonathan Dollimore, Radical Tragedy, 2d ed., Duke University Press, 1993

________________, _____________, 3d ed., Palgrave Macmillan, 2010

Ewan Fernie, “Dollimore’s Challenge,”  Shakespeare Studies, January 1, 2007

Jane Ford, Patriarchy and Incest from Shakespeare to Joyce, University  Presses of Florida, 1998

David P. Gontar, Hamlet Made Simple and Other Essays, New English Review Press, 2013

Jean-Paul Sartre, Existentialism is a Humanism, Yale University Press, 2007

William Shakespeare The Complete Works, 2d ed., S. Wells, G. Taylor, eds., Oxford, Clarendon Press, 2005




David P. Gontar’s latest book is Hamlet Made Simple and Other Essays, New English Review Press, 2013.



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