In The Critical Experience, David Cowles tries to explain the theory of deconstruction to befuddled literature students in a boiled-down version of basic tenets that discuss impossibly cloudy concepts like destabilized centers and traces and referents. Though I try to wrap my brain around these ideas, I inevitably fail to get to the heart of what Cowles means. My own interpretive inadequacy feeds on irony, because deconstruction theory itself warns that we cannot "get" to the transcendental center of meaning. King Lear, in its puzzling glory, is like my reaction to Cowles' attempt to explain deconstructive abstraction. I understand part of the play as the words rail at me from the page as vehemently as Lear rails at the heavens. Yet there is an aura of ambiguity that leaves the faintest trace of the text's essential truth, one that is alternately shrouded and then unveiled in the play's language.
Despite my interpretive performance anxiety, reading the play is not futile. Meaning can be derived from Shakespeare's text, but it means looking past the obvious. When King Lear's characters say "nothing" over and over, neither they nor Shakespeare himself really mean nothing, for in King Lear, every word drips with significance. Examining how something comes from nothing lends purpose to Lear's act of relinquishing power, and reconstructs, in the process, charitable redemption from scraps of betrayal and loss.
A key to understanding King Lear is recognizing the importance of reductivism: Characters have to be reduced to near-nothing in order for the tragedy to reveal itself in the text; first, nothing, then something else altogether. Shakespeare makes Lear strip hims...
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...oncrete sympathy for his devolution and devastation. Edgar gets to make his own kingdom that was once wrought with rot, so something else comes from nothing. While there is no flash of brilliant epiphany, Lear's debasement allows him to change, if not for the better, then for magnificent tragedy. And all the while, meaning worms its way up from the darkest trenches, deconstruction be damned.
Works Cited and Consulted
Hales, John. Notes and Essays on Shakespeare. New York, NY, USA: AMS Press. 1973.
Lerner, Laurence. Shakespeare's Tragedies. Middlesex, England: Penguin Books Ltd. 1964.
Shakespeare, William. King Lear. As reprinted in Elements of Literature. Toronto: Oxford University Press. 1990.
Young, David. Shakespeare's Middle Tragedies - A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, USA: Prentice-Hall, Inc. 1993.
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