Severe Mercy in King Lear

Severe Mercy in King Lear

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Severe Mercy in King Lear

     The best thing about King Lear is that the deeper you dig, the more meat you find. It seems straightforward enough, except that every now and then something leaps out of the dialogue that severs the veil of coherent reality to strike sharp blows at the eternal Within. Even with a minimum of thought, few, I think, when considering King Lear, could emerge unshaken. There are shining archetypes of pain and grace and mercy and redemption. And like all truth, Lear abounds with paradox: we love him, we hate him; he is as King, deity; as father, a child. His beginning is noble yet immature, his end is destitute yet sublime. His subjects, all, are antonyms and mirrors.

The messages come to us disguised as both story and image. The two are hopelessly bound up with one another, but we shall consider them a little separated in hopes of making some progress through such mvstic mire. The images come as flashes of recognition and intuition. We needn't understand something to be affected by it, for intuition is recognition on the sub-conscious level, which is equally, if not more, important. But unlike the "jolts of glory" that images may bear, the story is gradually grasped, perhaps even long after the performance, when the mind may consolidate and review the witnessed events.

On the surface, King Lear is a pagan play, as it is set pre-Christian England. But it has, for all that, no shortage of appeals to deity and interesting speculation. This is, after all, a play set on the brink of eternity and it must make us wonder on the universe in relationship to the characters and ourselves. The first tragedy is that Lear's world is void of revelation. It is simply Man and the awesome silence of the Dead. They are a people with no assurence. We who watch the play with the benefit of a Christian worldview have got to displace ourselves and push our assurances and belief aside, if possible, to let inan inkling of the dispair and horror which must meet each man with no hope.

It is not easy to do, and extremely discouraging when we succeed. Asin Beowulf, one of our language's oldest pieces of mythic literature, a man's only assurance of afterlife was living on in the memory of those who remained alive, and the greatest end would be a heroic ballad, a song through which a man may live forever, if forever it were sung.

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But Shakespeare, and thus his characters, could not cope with this bleak vision of man's existence, and almost in spite of themselves hopes were whispered and oaths wrung. Gloucester, as Edmund tells us, places his hope in astrology (I.ii.130-5), while Edmund himself worships nature (I.ii.1). Edgar hopes upon what seems to be a regular pantheon of gods, and refers to them often. Those at least must look beyond themselves rather than face the prospect of hopelessness. Lear, in fact, upon waking in act four and seeing Cordelia, takes the afterlife for granted and figures himself in a purgatorial state, beholding a "soul in bliss"; even asking her when she died (IV.vii.45-9). Edgar cannot fathom a meaningless end. and instead he demands "men must endure their going hence, even as their coming hither." This is indeed a ponderous line.

A number of times the gods themselves are blamed for the suffering of men. Gloucester says they do it for sport, but Robert G. Hunter comments that that is "an attempt to evade or repress the unbearable knowledge of his mistreatment of Edgar" (Hunter 188). But though Gloucester may for the moment remain in a denial stage as regards his own sins, he is quite fully aware of wickedness in others about him (though still trying to blame it on the stars): "love cools, friendship falls off, brothers divide: in cities mutinies; in countries, discord; in palaces, treason; and the bond cracked 'twixt son and father" (I.ii.114-8).

Edmund continues the list, droning "unnaturalness between the child and the parent; death, dearth, dissolutions of ancient amities; divisions in state, menaces and maledictions against king and nobles; needless diffidences, banishment of friends, dissipation of cohorts, nuptial breaches and I know not what" (I.ii.155-62).A veritable plethora of wickedness through which to wade. Perhaps the worst of all, though,is to be found in Lear himself, as we find him at the beginning of the play. Charles Williams has said that "Mants greatest L-.ais in wanting to be God." And Lear is certainly guilty of that. We see this not only in the obeisance he demands, but also in symbolism which is easily seen once pointed out: as father and king he is truely god-like, but then he wishes to step down and be once again a child. As the Fool puts it, "Thou madest thy daughters thy mother" (I.iv.86-~. This, to the Elizabethan ear would suggest blasphemy, for Lear, like God the Father, is master over all; like God the Spirit he is the impregnator; and like God the Son he would be a child. So with this last abomination the real action begins.

An even more compelling Biblical allusion is proposed by Susan Snyder, who writes that in

... King Lear Shakespeare found ... a story resembling in its broad outlines that of the Prodigal Son: the Protagonist starts by rejecting the one who loves him most, embarks on a reckless course which brings him eventually to suffering and want-and, paradoxically, to the selfknowledge he lacked before-and finally is received andd forgiven by the rejected one. Two features ... were connected ... with the Prodigal Son: family relationships and ... the premature granting of portions. The Prodigal Son parallels reinforce...Lear as a child. His Prodigal is an old man who has lived to a great age without ever reaching maturity (Snyder 362-3).

The comparison is, I think, a deliberate one on Shakespeare's part, and we shall be coming back to it at significant times.

One of the most enigmatic of the play's characters is that of the Fool. He is paradoxically oneof the wisest present; certainly the bravest and perhaps the luckiest for not being the object of Lear's ire in spite of his sharp tongue. If we look at the Fool, though, as a personification of some element within Lear himself, it makes more sense that he could be so loyal, so annoying, andso fortunate not to be executed. L.C. Knight writes "The Fool ... speaks to (and out of) a quite different order of apprehension,' hisfunction is to disturb with glimpses of confounding truths that elude rational formulation. At times he seems like something only partly recognized in the depths of Lear's own personality that will not be kept down." (Knight 122) His conscience, perhaps? The persistent truth that nags at the back of the mind while truth herself, Cordelia, has been banished (Muir 122). This is precisely how the Fool seems to work, with "...those riddling snatches which partly reflect the moral confusion of the world, but whose main function is to cast doubt on such certainties as the world ... thinks it possesses." (Knight 123) We know that Lear's conscience is not dead, it is here before us, damnedly before him, but not forever-for eventually the conscience may be gratified or smothered-but since the Fool's demise is ambiguous, we are left to decide that for ourselves. But for all that, he has valiantly accompanied Lear to the brink of his cathartic baptism of water and Spirit.

Few real conversions are instantaneous; spiritual growth occurs at a subliminal pace for most of us. Lear's growth, though faster than more sedate real-life examples, is also gradual. Sears Jayne points out that during the early stages of the whirlwind of self -revelation, he tries to ride the blast, using the normal human device of blaming humanity:

Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!
Crack Nature's moulds, all germens spill at once
That makes ingrateful man! (III.ii.1-9)" (281)

But eventually the finger points in the right direction, his blame is uttered in the middle voice, and mad as a hatter, adorned with wild flowers, he proclaims "They told me I was everything; 't is a lie...." ( 105-6). His spirit is broken, and though for the moment mad, yet his mind and heart are,perhaps for the first time ever, clear. The price of pain is abhorrent, his rage and grief unbearable for him (uncomfortable for us to watch), yet only at this extreme are his barriers and pride conquered at the end of that is realization. It is paradox at work. The greatest suffering God could summon is also the greatest mercy Lear could receive. It is a pearl of great price and Lear, unkowing, has lost all to gain it. He does not now, perhaps ever in the play, grasp the magnitude of his fortune, but Grace needs not comprehension to invade and renew.

His first act of mercy, though still in his madness, is to pardon Gloucester of his adulterv. One could say he is simply raving, but even so, the heart pours forth. Even though irrelevant, Lear has been merciful; perhaps it is a downpayment on the acts of love which Lear in his heart intends to act out for his own atonement (though he will not find opportunity, it is motivation and intention that counts).

Cordelia says of her father when she sees him
"And wast thou fain, poor father
to hovel thee with swine and rogues forlorn,
in short and musty straw?" (TV.vii.38-40)

This is our only clue that Shakespeare was consciously alluding to the Prodigal Son, and a nice one, too. As the Prodigal in Christ's parable sank to his lowest state, feeding with the pigs which he has been employed to keep, his moment of enlightenment came. "Even my father's slaves live better than this! " is the gist of his cry. So Cordelia chides him, "Have you hoveled with swine in the musty straw?" Since we know nothing of this kind of behaviour in the play, even in Lear's madness, we may safely assume that it is a parallel, which the Elizabethan audience would immediately grasp and appreciate, as the parable of the Prodigal Son was particularly popular in the sixteenth century. (Snyder 361) Immediately after, Lear, like the parallel Prodigal, confesses and begs forgiveness. (IV.vii.84)

The subplot echoes this clearly. Whereas Lear's sin was complete self centeredness, Gloucester's sin is

" intellectual one, a failure to understand, but he has failed not so much intellectually as emotionally. He himself makes this clear when he says, "I see it [the world] feelingly" (IV. vi. 150) and calls down Heaven's vengeance on all such men as himself:

"Heavens, deal so still!
Let the superfluous and lust-dieted man,
That slaves your ordinance, that will not see
Because he does not feel, feel your power quickly;

Because of his early insensitivity, Gloucester is
totally unaware of the starvation for love which gnaws
at Edmund, and so is unaware of Edmund's hatred of
Edgar" (Snyder 280)

Thus Gloucester's confusion("I stumbled when I saw" [TV.i.191), is an embodiment of yet another vital paradox. Enlightenment comes and they make those first toddling steps toward salvation.

Though it may not make us leap for joy, even Edmund is not utterly lost. Fortunately a man must ultimately face God as his only Judge, "Whose quality is always and everywhere to have mercy"(Book of Common Prayer).

We might object

...that such a learning process as Edmund's (snatching grace from the jaws of lust) is utterly repugnant; but surely Lear's journey to grace is no less so. There is, in fact, a clear parallelism between the two; Edmund's experience is Lear's writ small-a movement from pride and stupidity and arrogance and ignorance through personal suffering and an awareness of mortality, through compassion and an exploration of the ironies of strict justice, finally into love and an act of repentance." (Matthews 29)

The ordinary Evangelical Christian may object to our automatically granting salvation to the heathen, but we must ask ourselves if we are more concerned about the heart's condition or the conscious labels. After all, does not Paul inform us in his Epistle to the Romans that the things of God are knowable from what is within them? And that His divine attributes are clearly evident from nature? Has not Lear confessed his sin, recognized himself as a sinner? Does he not ask forgiveness? Has not his regeneration begun? A.C. Bradley describes him as one

"...who learns to feel and to pray for the miserable and houseless poor, to discern the falseness of flattery and the brutality of authority, and to pierce below the difference of rank and raiment to the common humanity beneath; whose sight is so purged by scalding tears that it sees at last how power and place and all things in the world are vanity except love; who tastes in his last hours the extremes both of love's rapture and of its agony, but could never, if he lived on or lived again, care a jot for aught beside" (24-5)

As Kenneth Muir points out,

"Shakespeare goes back to a pre-Christian world and builds up from the nature of man himself, and not from revealed religion, those same moral and religious ideas [that are central to Christianity] that were being undermined" (120-1)

at the time this play was written.

To complete the motif of the Prodigal Son, Lear returns to Cordelia as the son to the Father, asks forgiveness and is received with great joy, kisses and tears. (Jayne 2-79) That Lear continues to suffer at Cordelia's and even unto his own death may be seen as a still greater Mercy, ushering him with Grace from Perdition into Bliss.

The story, as we have seen, conveys the "Pilgrim's Progress" of Lear clearly enough, but there are isolated flashes of Glory, images of salvation that we cannot escape noticing if we havewatched with any attention at all. The most obvious of these is Cordelia as Lear's Christ figure (and likewise Edgar asGIoucester's). The allusions begin from the very start. Cordelia mutters to us in an aside as she realizes that she is necessarily betrayed on account of her very nature: "What shall I do? Love, and be silent" (I.i.63), much like the quiet Christ at the trialbefore the Sanhedrin. He could not deny what he is, nor can Cordelia; he cannot do aught but loveand this we know Ccrdelia does. Soon after,Shakespeare put into her mouth a more direct allusion to scripture. Her confession before Lear that "Unhappy as I am, I cannot heave my heart into my mouth" (I.i.93) echoes the (then canonical) book of Ecclesiasticus: "The heart of fools is in the mouth; but the mouth of the wise men is in their heart." (21:26 Authorized Version) (Colie 123).

The Cordelia/Christ image persists, as a gentleman in act four tells Lear, "Thou hast one daughter who redeems nature from the general curse.1f ( At the most tragic of moments, two images occur in close proximity; the first and most striking is when Lear carries the dead Cordelia into view and sinks to his knees, creating a horrifying reverse pietA. Lear is the Mother of God, cradling the dead Christ in his arms. Shortly thereafter, Lear dies of mistaken ecstasy as his shaking hand betrays him, holding a feather to Cordelia's mouth in hope of her resuscitation-an anticipation of resurrection.

Although it is not as congruent with the story as a whole, Lear himself is a bearer of Christ images. Robert G. Hunter in his Shakespeare and the Mystery of God's Judgements expounds at length on this, beginning with Edgar's exclamation, "0, thou side-piercing sight" (, comparing that with The Gospel of John: "And one of the soldiers with a spear pierced his side, and forthwith came there our blood and water." (19:34) "Edgar's exclaimation, " says Hunter, "is appropriate to what he sees: a tormented mock king, who is yet a true king, the king himself, but who is now crowned, if not with thorns, then with:

...ranke Fenitar, and furrow weeds,
With Hardokes, Hemlocke, Nettles, Cuckoo flowers,
Darnell, and all the idle weedes that grow
In our sustaining Corne. (IV.iii.3-6)

An analogy between Christ's passion and Lear's is suggested by Edgar's brief phrase. Edgar's word's equate the effect of the sight of Lear's suffering upon the beholder to that of the image of Christ's crucifixion upon the Christian mediant." (Hunter 183,5)

It is popular in these, the latter decades of the twentieth century,to approach King Lear nihilistically, ignoring-even going out of the way to deny-any Christian interpretations suggested within the text, and this I think is absurd. It is too rich with images, too obvious, too adoringly crafted after the Image not to suggest a Christian perspective.

As Hunter says:

"By the light of nature [alone] King Lear is either incomprehensible or meaningless, or bothIn fact, I suspect, what the [play] tells us is different from and rather worse even than that. It tells us nothing. It shows us that in a state of nature, without the knowledge or the grace of God, we are nothing." (Hunter 190)

But the characters instinctively know it, hope for it, expect it-find it. Indeed the play is too pregnant with the presence and invasion of God to ignore Him. In this way Shakespeare has captured real life. If He must be denied, then He must be consciously ignored. And sadly, if God's severe mercv enfolding Lear with horror and tender love will not serve as their example, then let them embrace their cold nothingand God have mercy-perhaps severe mercy shall visit them. Let us hope that it will. King Lear is a tale of terror and triumph, in story/parable, and image after striking image. It speaks to us at a primal level of ineffable dispair and infant hope.


Works Cited

Barber, C.L. "On Christianity and the Family: Tragedy of the Sacred." 20th Century Interpretations of King Lear. Ed. Jane Adelman. Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1978.

Bradley, A.C. "King Lear." 20Lh Century Interpretations of King Lear. Ed. Jane Adelman. New Jersev; Prentice-Hall, 1978.

Colie, Rosalie. "The Energies of Endurance: Biblical Echoes in King Lear. Some Faces of King Lear. Ed. R. Colie & F.T. Flahiff. UniversitV of Toronto Press, 19q4.

Hunter, Robert G. Shakespeare and the Mystery of God's Judgments. University of Georgia Press, 19W6.

Jayne, Sears. "Charity in King Lear." Shakespeare Quarterly. Spring, 1964. pps. 27-7-288.

Knights, L.C. "On the Fool". 20th Century Interpretations of King Lear. Ed. Jane Adelman. New Jersey; Prentice-Hall, 1978.

Matthews, Richard. "Edmund's Redemption in King Lear". Shakespeare Quarterly. Winter, 19q5. pps. 25-29.

Snyder, Susan. "King Lear and the Prodigal Son." Shakespeare Quarterly. Autumn 1966. pps. 361-369.

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