Action and Observation in Shakespeare's King Lear Essay

Action and Observation in Shakespeare's King Lear Essay

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Action and Observation in King Lear

     Auden once asserted that Shakespearean tragedy is necessarily parabolic, pertaining to the only myth that Christianity possesses: that of the 'unrepentant thief'. We as the spectators are thus implicated in the action since each of us 'is in danger of re-enacting [this story] in his own way'.1 The sufferings of the hero could be our own sufferings, whereas in Greek tragedy, such a notion is precluded precisely because the misfortunes of a character can be traced back to the discontent of the gods. Hippolytus is not a moral agent; Hamlet is. The aesthetic of Shakespearean tragedy is therefore dynamic, with an audience that, to a certain extent, are also participants. Auden proposes a model of observing based upon an Aristotelian conception of drama, one that involves the spectator in an emotional relationship with the characters on stage. King Lear too, offers the audience several quite distinct paradigms of both observation and action, and crucially, it is on the varying successes of these models that the tragedy hinges.


One does not need to look far in King Lear for a figure that might fit Auden's mould. Kent surely embodies that which Schlegel termed the 'science of compassion' in the play.2 He is publicly traduced and humiliated by Lear in Act I, Scene 1, and yet, in the guise of Caius, risks his life in order to serve his king still. Kent observes Lear's 'hideous rashness' (I.i.153) and he is motivated into participating in his master's sufferings:


I have a journey, sir, shortly to go;

My master calls me; I must not say no. (V.iii.323-324)


The simple rhyme, metric balance, and monosyllabic plainness of this couplet infuse the lines with a sen...

... middle of paper ...

...onathan Bates, Penguin 1992, p. 381

3 Samuel Johnson, Johnson as Critic, ed. John Wain, Routledge & Kegan Paul 1973, pp. 216-217

4 John Willet, The Theatre of Bertolt Brecht, Methuen 1964, p.170

5 Ibid, p.172

6 Euripides, Alcestis and other plays, trans. John Davie, Penguin 1996, p.80

7 The Romantics on Shakespeare, ed. Jonathan Bates, Penguin 1992, p. 390

8 Kiernan Ryan, 'King Lear: The Subversive Imagination' in New Casebooks: King Lear, ed. Kiernan Ryan, Macmillan 1993, p.80

9 A. C. Bradley, Shakespearian Tragedy, Macmillan 1908, p.55

10 W. H. Auden, The Dyer's Hand and Other Essays, Vintage New York 1989, p.201

11 Harold Bloom, Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, Fourth Estate 1999, p.481

12 William Blake, 'The Marriage of Heaven and Hell' (plate 3 lines 11-12) in The Complete Poems, Penguin 1977, p.181


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