traglear The Tragic Truth of King Lear

traglear The Tragic Truth of King Lear

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The Tragic Truth of King Lear

     King Lear is another story of a soul in torment, a "purgatorial" story. Again the tragic writer has internalized a commonplace action, the facts of which were legendary and presumably known to Shakespeare's audience. Like the Poet of Job, who dramatized the tragic alternatives to the folk story, and like Marlowe, who saw the elements of tragic dilemma in the story of Faustus, Shakespeare transformed the tale of the mythical, pre-Christian King Lear ("who ruled over the Britons in the year of the world 3105, at what time Joas ruled in Judah") into a dramatic action whose shape and quality define Christian tragedy in its full development. This is not to say (as it should now be clear) that the play accords with Christian doctrine --- certainly not the Christian view of death and salvation, although the values of the Christian ethics are abundantly illustrated. Nor does the term "Christian tragedy" make a statement about the author's faith or lack of it. It suggests the meeting in a single dramatic action of the non-Christian (Greek, pagan, or humanist) with the Christian to produce a world of multiplied alternatives, terrible in its inconclusiveness --- as, for instance, the "terrifying ambiguity" with which Faustus confronts us --- in which the certainties of revealed Christianity lose the substance of faith and become only tantalizing possibilities hovering about but not defining the action, like Horatio's "flights of angels" or the "holy water" of Cordelia's tears. Marlowe followed out the old story, even to the devils carrying off Faustus amidst thunder; but his actual Hell is humanist ("Where we are is hell," said Mephistophilis) and, like the Heaven Faustus reached for in the end, functions in the play less as an objective Christian belief than as a way of dramatizing inner reality. The one absolute reality that Faustus discovered, and the absolute reality all tragedy affirms and to which Christian tragedy gives new emphasis and infinite dimension, was the reality of what Christianity calls the soul --- that part of man, or element of his nature, which transcends time and space, which may have an immortal habitation, and which is at once the seat and the cause of his greatest struggle and greatest anxiety. Compared with Faustus, King Lear shows this situation in a much vaster ramification, until it seems to touch the highest ("the gods that keep the dreadful pudder o'er our heads") and the lowliest, and is finally caught up in a Greeklike fate that carries the action to a swift and terrible conclusion.

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Recent scholarship has sufficiently demonstrated the main outlines of the Elizabethan world-view which, inherited from the teachings of the medieval theologians, the tragic dramatists now ventured to put to the full test of action. For all the centrifugal, disruptive forces at work in the Renaissance, what remained deep in the imagination of western man was the sense that, in spite of appearances, there was order in the universe which should find its counterpart (and did, when society was in a healthy state) in the ordered life of man on earth. The terrestrial hierarchy was an emblem of the celestial, with king, priest, father (of the family), and master (of servants) exercising each in his area of influence a divinely sanctioned authority. In man the individual, reason was king and the passions were its subjects. Thus the father was God and King in the family, and his children were bound to him by more than filial ties of love and devotion. Below man was the world of animals and below animals the world of inanimate things. This "great chain of being" was, moreover, a sensitive affair. Disorder in any of the parts might affect the whole; weakness in any link might cause a vital break, even to cutting man off from God and the hope of salvation. Marlowe, more openly iconoclastic in Tamburlaine than in Faustus, was the first of the tragedians to posit a shockingly different universe, whose principles are disorder, strife, and force, where Olympian dethrones Titan when he wills and can, and gives divine sanction to the restless will-to-power in man. So Tamburlaine justifies to Cosroe his bloody conquest:


The thirst of reign and sweetness of a crown,

That caus'd the eldest son of heavenly Ops

To thrust his doting father from his chair,

And place himself in the empyreal heaven,

Mov'd me to manage arms against thy state.

What better precedent than mighty Jove?

Nature, that fram'd us of four elements

Warring within our breasts for regiment,

Doth teach us all to have aspiring minds...


In this Marlovian world Tamburlaine defied all principles of order and hierarchy, followed his passion for conquest until there was little left to conquer, and died unrepentant, unpunished by the hand of man or God, and plotting new conquests for his sons. Lear shows no such relish of disorder. The tone of the play is of a world where disorder is a fearful threat and so frequent a reality as to suggest a universe where order is illusory or where, at best, it comes only as a momentary longed-for respite from the warlike conditions of existence.

The first actions of the play show hierarchy broken and order imperiled. Lear abdicates, with equivocal provisos, and divides his realm. His youngest and fondest daughter asserts her will against his. In a burst of temper he banishes her and his loyal follower, Kent, who had tried to stay his rashness. His two elder daughters, now emboldened, conspire against him; and in the second scene, as if through spresd of contagion, the Earl of Gloucester learns of the supposed treachery of his favorite son, Edgar. Gloucester's despairing soliloquy (I.2) sets the modal background of the play, like the lament of the chorus of Theban citizens in Oedipus over their dying city. The series of shocks has given him a glimpse into the depths --- a glimpse that throws his world into a new and terrifying perspective. "Love cools, friendship falls off, brothers divide. In cities, mutinies; in counties, discord; in palaces, treason; and the bond crack'd 'twixt son and father. This villain of mine comes under the prediction; there's son against father: the King falls from bias of nature; there's father against child. We have seen the best of our time: machinations, hollowness, treachery, and all ruinous disorders follow us disquietly to our graves," Gloucester is old, gullible, and superstitious; the rest of the play bears out his none-too-sturdy character; but he expresses a sober truth about the reality the play presents. He had seen the best of his time, and he and a number of others were soon to be followed to their graves by events then taking shape. All this is dire and (as he says) "strange." His broodings are consistent not only with the subsequent action but with the many other ways by which the play suggests the terror of the human condition. The insistent beast imagery ("Tigers, not daughters..."), the pictures of man reduced to beast ("poor, bare, forked animal as though art"), the thundering chaos of the storm, the scenes of bestial cruelty ("Out, vile jelly!") and of pitiful madness show how precarious order is. This is the destructive element, the blight man was born for.

As before, from Job to Oedipus to Faustus: If this is the condition of existence, what to do about it? "How to be?" The tragic artist sets up a new hierarchy (so to speak), a hierarchy of values or responses, ranging from the choric to the heroic. The Chorus looks on and despairs. Job's wife saw no hope and urged suicide. Jocasta pleaded with Oedipus to withdraw from the action. The Good Angel and the Old Man urged Faustus to desist. Although Gloucester is later drawn into the action and transcends himself, his immediate response is to view, like a true pagan or member of the chorus, the present ominous events as signs of a fateful disturbance in the celestial and human orders. All is dark and foreboding: "These late eclipses in the sun and moon portend no good to us. Though the wisdom of nature can reason it thus and thus, yet nature finds itself scourg'd by the sequent effects." The upshot of such a view, as Edmund promptly points out in sturdy Christian ethical terms, is to lay all our ills to "the charge of a star," "all that we are evil in" to "a divine thrusting on." No tragedy (surely not Lear ) partakes of such unmixed fatalism. But (on the other hand) the upshot of Edmund's view is, by laying evil to the charge of the sinful will, to turn Lear into a morality play. "Tragedy," remarked Paul Tillich, "combines Guilt and Necessity," and the response of the hero is neither to yield to fatalism nor humble himself in total guilt, but to press on in his action to find by experience the truth of his own nature and of the nature of man. This is the "dark problem" that Hawthorne presents in The Scarlet Letter , the meaning of the "labyrinth" through which Hester and Dimmesdale thread their precarious way. Lear, soon brought to a very Christian sense of guilt by the nagging of the Fool and the twinges of his conscience, finds that the effects of his original hasty action have ramified beyond the question of his guilt, and that he is involved in consequences (the plot of Goneril and Regan against him) which stir in him very different feelings. Had the play been a Christian play, it's rationale might have been satisfied with Lear's "Woe that too llate repents" and with his new and more charitable view of the "poor naked wretches" of whom he had taken little care. But the mills of quite unchristian gods seem to be grinding. Lear cannot rest in his own remorse, which at best is never unmixed with hate and hurt feelings. As he feels the pressure from Goneril and Regan ever more insistent, the evil closing in, the question of who is to blame --- whether it is the "most small fault" of Cordelia or his own "folly" --- ceases to be the issue. Caught up in the action which he had unwittingly precipitated, he refuses to default or compromise (in spite of the pleadings of the Fool) and presses on in heroic pride to justify himself. It is in this mood that he curses Goneril and Regan, vows dreadful vengeance, and plunges into the storm.

Why did Shakespeare choose to dramatize the inferno-purgatory of the subsequent actions? He had a happy ending direct to his hand in the Holinshed account, which tells of the reunion of Lear and Cordelia , the success of their armies, Lear's restoration to the throne, his two-year reign, quiet death, and state burial. Why the painful madness ("A sight most pitiful in the meanest wretch, / Past speaking of in a king!")? the blinding of Gloucester? the death of Cordelia? Why did Oedipus dash out his eyes, or why did the people of the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance like to see their Savior suffer and die? Such questions pose basic aesthetic problems, ranging from the mysteries of the creative process and its motivation to problems of the response of audience and spectator, "catharsis," the taste and temper of whole cultures. "Tragic moment," "involvement," "gesture," "action" suggest aspects of the truth, certainly, but they beg enormous questions. F.L. Lucas once discussed the various theories of tragic pleasure , found none of them satisfactory, and proposed that what we seek is truth --- as near the whole truth as we can get, man at his worst and at his best. "Destiny scowls upon him: his answer is to sit down and paint her where she stands."

The temptation with King Lear , as with many tragedies written in the Christian era which inevitably include Christian modes, patterns, and terms, is to give the picture a too-Christian hue: to read the play as reconciling the inferno and purgatory in the perfect goodness of Kent's loyalty, Cordelia's Christlike love, Lear's humility, and (some have even suggested) the reunion of father and daughter after death in a Christian Heaven. But "Christian tragedy" is still tragedy. It may turn the Christian conceptions of Hell and Purgatory to metaphoric use as psychological realities; its heroes may "sin," suffer remorse, and (like Lear) know what "repentance" is. But whatever redemption the hero wins is not through Divine Grace but, like the Greek hero, through his own unaided efforts. He has no comforter on the dark voyage, no Heavenly City as his destination, where his bundle of sins drops miraculously from his back. What is Christian about Christian tragedy is not eschatological but psychological and ethical. Hamlet's was a soldier's burial, not a saint's or martyr's. When in the final scene of Lear the King enters with Cordelia in his arms, Kent, Edgar, and Albany pronounce a choric verdict on the pitiful spectacle:


KENT. Is this the promis'd end?

EDGAR. Or image of that horror?

ALBANY. Fall and cease!


The Christian hope is shattered. The promised Judgement confuses evil and good, and both perish. The original terror looms close, all the more shocking and disillusioning by virtue of the high promises of the Christian revelation. In one sense, this is the end. The Chorus, as at the end of Oedipus, have spoken truly. Cordelia is "as dead as earth," and the best his friends can wish for Lear is that he be allowed to die:


KENT. O let him pass! He hates him

That would upon the rack of this tough world

Stretch him out longer.


Loss is as irretrievable and final as that of any pagan tragedy.

So the action concludes. But as Sophocles showed in his presentation of Oedipus, or the Poet of Job of his agonizing hero, there is another action, internal, a "counter-action," which functions vitally in the tragic dialectic and comprises an important part of the meaning. The turn which Christianity gave to tragedy being inward, this counter-action --- the inner workings of human beings under stress, the discovery (or rediscovery) of "soul" or the lack of it --- is more fully developed and given in greater detail in Christian tragedy than any Greek tragedian would have thought justifiable or relevant. The initial action of Scene 1 having been taken, what Lear becomes (rather than what becomes of him), and what each of the other characters becomes or shows himself to be, prove the choric verdict only partly true. The counter-action qualifies the terrible implications of the action and reveals possibilities which make the whole more bearable.

Like Job and Oedipus, Lear shows himself more than sinner, more than sinned against. He does evil, and evil is done to him; but in the course of his ordeal, which in part he brought on to himself, he transcends both these categories. Like the other heroes, he ends victor as well as victim. His victory (as Cedric Whitman calls the victory of Oedipus) is pyrrhic and, like everything else about him, ambiguous. His path toward it is tortuous, revealing goods and bads inextricably mixed. It is a pilgrimage (if the term can be dissociated from its Christian promise), and it is presented with characteristic Renaissance-Christian interest in the journey or the process --- an interest which foreshadows the harassing "pilgrimages" of Dostoevski's heroes and of the protagonists of the modern psychological novel.

Lear's pilgrimage commences true to a pattern now familiar. A man is wounded to the quick --- not an ordinary man, but for his age and time "the first of men." His estimate of himself, of his position in the state, in society, in his family, his view of man and the universe, are suddenly called in question. Gloucester's dire thoughts are in part Lear's also, as in Cordelia's action and later in Goneril's and Regan's, he sees his universe tottering. His response is not despair but violence --- characteristic, as Goneril and Regan assure each other, of the rashness of old age and of a temperament never stable; but characteristic also, as the developing action of the play shows, of the initial response of the hero. His new and shattering knowledge of the irrational and the demonic forces in himself and in the world around him drives him to the edge of madness. He has moments of fearful nihilism. His curses against his daughters and his railings in the storm recall the dark and destructive mood of Job's opening curse or the frenzy of violence in which Oedipus struck out his eyes. But, like Job and Oedipus, he does not stay long in such a mood, which, even at its worst, is ennobled by his appeal to justice beyond and above the world of man. And in his time of stress new and saving qualities appear --- not only his remorse but his increasing efforts toward restraint and patience (hard won from his knowledge of the disastrous effects of his own impatience) and his enlarged sympathies for the humble and the oppressed.

As the Chorus said about Oedipus, Lear is "twice-tormented," in body and mind, and his mental suffering is in itself twofold. As he sees the large consequences of his moment of rashness, he feels guilty and innocent at the same time. He is plunged into the middle of Job's problem: effect is out of all proportion to cause; justice has lost its meaning. "I am more sinned against than sinning." Like Job's, his universe has gone awry, and a recurrent theme of the scenes of his madness, or near-madness, is his longing, like Job's, for instruction. He wants to know the reason of things. "Teach me, and I will hold my peace," Job said to the Counselors. Lear in his confusion takes Edgar for a scholar, a "learned Theban," an "Athenian," one who can give him instruction:

First let me talk with this philosopher.

What is the cause of thunder?

"What is man that thou are mindful of him?" Job had asked, and Lear's questions are of the same kind, the basic and (as here) often explicit question of all tragedy, "Is man no more than this?" "Is there any cause in nature that makes these hard hearts?" Finding no answer, he would, in his fantasy, himself bring reason and justice to the world, as in his mad "arraignment" of Goneril and "anatomizing" of Regan. This is the theme, too, of his ravings later to blind Gloucester (IV.6):


Thou rascal beadle, hold thy bloody hand!

Why dost thou lash that whore? Strip thy own back.

Thou hotly lusts to use her in that kind

For which thou whip'st her. The usurer hangs the cozener.

Through tatter'd rags small vices do appear;

Robes and furr'd gowns hide all. Plate sin with gold,

And the strong lance of justice hurtless breaks.

Arm it in rags, a pygmy's straw does pierce it.


He would himself right the fearful unbalance: "None does offend, none --- I say none! I'll able 'em." But in another instant this clear insight, even in his madness, into the universal nature of the problem (like the moments, before his mind cracks, of true Christian repentance and enlarged sympathies) reverts to the mad desire for revenge:


It were a delicate strategem to shoe

A troop of horse with felt. I'll put't in proof,

And when I have stol'n upon these sons-in-law,

Then kill, kill, kill, kill, kill, kill!


The cause of justice and suffering humanity is badly mixed with pride and hate --- with Job's nihilism and Ahab's vindictiveness. Even the remnants of reason are gone and passion rules. Lear shouting his "Kill, kill, kill..." images the ultimate disaster, when chaos is come again. As with the other heroes, the path is never straight up; the balance is always precarious. Lear is never "born again."

But these are not Lear's final words, nor are they his responsible words. The dialectic is not played out. In the final moments of the scene he fancies that his friends are his pursuers; he jests madly with them, and runs impishly off the stage, fairly gibbering --- "Sa, sa, sa, sa!" We next see him in the French camp, with Cordelia at his bedside and soft music playing to ease his return to consciousness. The scene of his awakening and reconciliation with Cordelia is as close to redemption as tragedy ever gets. Christian images and spirit pervade it. Lear mistakes his daughter for "a soul in bliss" and starts to kneel for her benediction as she asks for his. All is repentance, forgiveness, harmony. Here, if ever in tragedy, we are in the presence of the peace that passeth understanding. But it is wrought out of the dialectic of experience and through no conversion or doctrine or miracle --- except it be the one miracle that tragedy witnesses, the miracle of the man who can learn by suffering.

But it was fated that Lear learn too late. Fatefully free, Lear was free to choose his own fate. He became by that action freely fated, and fate must run its course. The peace and harmony of the reconciliation were real but momentary. Nothing saves him --- not his own hard-won self-knowledge and humility or Cordelia's richer humanity and more expressive love or Gloucester's regeneration or Edgar's bravery or even Edmund's last-minute repentance. The repeated mischances of the last act seem, like Job's misfortunes, systematic. Edmund repented too late. His message revoking Cordelia's execution arrived too late. Lear slew her executioner, but too late to save her life. There is nothing Christian in Lear's response to this awful fact, and the heaven he invokes as he carries her in his deaf indeed:


Howl, howl, howl, howl! O, you are men of stones!

Had I your tongues and eyes, I'd use them so

That heaven's vault should crack. She's gone for ever.

I know when one is dead, and when one lives.

She's dead as earth.


No wonder Edgar sees in the scene a world where time and chance happenth to all, deserving and undeserving alike.

Although some have pointed to the redeeming fact that Lear seems to die in an ecstasy of love and hope in his moment of fancy that Cordelia is still alive, the final scene hardly affords such comfort. Nor does the scene say anything about a reunion of father and daughter in a Christian heaven. It says much about loss, decay, suffering, and endurance. "The wonder is," says Kent, "he hath endur'd so long." "The oldest," concludes Edgar,


...hath borne most; we that are young

Shall never see so much, nor live so long.


It says nothing about salvation, only a wan restoration, after great loss, of a kind of order. The kingdon has, in a sense, been purged --- even, indirectly, by Lear, whose defiance of his daughters precipitated the crisis, brought Cordelia back, kept the dialectic of action going and the future still open to possibility. It is not that the "forces for good" triumph over the "forces for evil." Practically speaking, no one triumphs. Lear, Gloucester, and Cordelia die, and they are as dead as Goneril, Regan, and Edmund. Kent sees his own death near. The monstrous and the bestial, the petty and the weak in man have taken a fearful toll, and with these qualities a perverse fate has worked in seeming conspiracy. The play suggests no adequate compensation; there is no discharge in that war, except in death, which, as Edgar pleads for Lear, means only a cessation of pain.

The best that can be said is that human nature, in some of its manifestations, has transcended the destructive element and made notable salvage. Not only Lear, but Cordelia, Gloucester, Edgar, and Albany have grown in knowledge and self-knowledge, have entered a new dimension, achieved a richer humanity. Even the repentant Edmund and the servant who defends Gloucester against his persecutors figure in this repeated pattern. But when Albany says in the concluding moments of the play that "we are young / Shall never see so much," what does he mean? So much evil? So much suffering and endurance? Or so much nobility, self-sacrifice, and love? (The bodies of Lear and Cordelia are there before him as he speaks.) True to the tragic vision, the play answers these questions ambiguously.

But the play embodies tragic truth in another important way. The goods and bads may be shown as inseperable --- that is, eternally present in all human actions and in the nature of the universe --- but both are real (good as well as evil), and they are distinguishable. Further, though the good cannot be said to triumph, neither can evil. A balance, however precarious, is maintained. If the play denies the comfort of optimism, it does not retreat into cynicism. Its world is hard; evil is an ever-present wolf at the door. But man is free to act and to learn. If Lear never learned what makes these hard hearts, he learned much about the workings of his own heart. He could have found it all in "the old moral catechism," but such is the nature of modern tragic man that he must learn it (like Faustus) in his own way and on his own pulses. He had heard by the hearing of the ear, but at last he saw. What keeps the atmosphere of the play still sweet is just that substance of traditional knowledge, relearned through agonizing experience, an affirmation in the face of the most appalling contradictions.

Works Cited and Consulted

Artaud, Antonin. The Theatre and Its Double. Grove Press Inc. New York. 1958

Billington, Michael. Gielgud: His Greatest Triumphs. "The Age." May 24, 2000.

Brook, Peter. The Empty Space. 1st Touchstone edition. Simon and Schuster Inc. 1996.

Noguchi, Isamu. Isamu Noguchi On the Dance. "Texts by Isamu Noguchi."

Partee, Dr. Morriss  Henry. Shakespeare Improved. University of Utah English Dept.

Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of King Lear. Jay L. Halio. Ed. The New Cambridge Shakespeare. Cambridge University Press. New York. 1992.

Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of King Lear.  Ed. Russell Fraser.  New York: Penguin, 1998.
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