Wednesday, 22 September 2021

King Lear revisited

What can I possibly say about King Lear that hasn’t been said over the past 4 centuries? But I’m going to try anyway, and try to poke at it from different angles, because I first read King Lear several years ago at Universitetet i Oslo and didn’t like it very much at the time, and this is a rereading.

1/ I notice that Edmund uses a similar technique with Gloucester as Iago has used to manipulate Othello: he throws out something to get him intrigued, then pretends that it’s nothing or that he shouldn’t say, to make the listener more and more curious, then offers some fake proof and manipulates him in a subtle way. Contrast them both with Don John in Much Ado About Nothing: Don John is more direct and not so subtle, but he has a collaborator to add to his story, and also offers something that looks like more proof. 

Edmund and Iago are more similar, but unlike Iago, Edmund has his causes. 

“EDMUND Thou, Nature, art my goddess, to thy law

My services are bound. Wherefore should I

Stand in the plague of custom, and permit 

The curiosity of nations to deprive me,

For that I am some twelfth or fourteen moonshines

Lag of a brother? Why bastard? Wherefore base? 

When my dimensions are as well compact,

My mind as generous, and my shape as true, 

As honest madam’s issue? Why brand they us

With base? With baseness? Bastardy? Base? Base?

Who, in the lusty stealth of nature, take

More composition and fierce quality

Than doth, within a dull, stale, tired bed,

Go to th’ creating a whole tribe of fops

Got ‘tween asleep and awake? […]

Now, gods, stand up for bastards.” 

(Act 1 scene 2)

That is a great soliloquy. He is justifying his anger and his scheme, and he is convincing. I note that Edmund addresses Nature and gods, and later on Lear also addresses Nature and goddess when cursing Goneril.  

“LEAR […] Hear, Nature, hear; dear Goddess, hear: 

Suspend thy purpose of thou didst intend

To make this creature fruitful. 

Into her womb convey sterility.

Dry up in her the organs of increase,

And from her derogate body never spring

A babe to honor her. If she must teem,

Create her child of spleen, that it may live

And be a thwart disnatured torment to her.

Let it stamp wrinkles in her brow of youth,

With cadent tears fret channels in her cheeks,

Turn all her mother’s pains and benefits

To laughter and contempt, that she may feel

How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is

To have a thankless child. Away, away!” 

(Act 1 scene 4)

That’s quite a curse (a bit much, no?). Ungrateful and despicable as Goneril is, I can’t help thinking that this says something about Lear.

I put these 2 passages next to each other because it’s interesting that both Edmund (the betrayer) and Lear (the betrayed) think Nature is on their sides.

The word “nature” (with its derivatives “natural” and “unnatural”) and “nothing” seem to be the 2 central words in King Lear, appearing over and over again throughout the play.

2/ More of Lear’s curses. 

“LEAR You nimble lightnings, dart your blinding flames

Into her scornful eyes! Infect her beauty,

You fen-sucked fogs, drawn by the pow’rful sun,

To all and blister her pride.

REGAN O the blest gods!

So will you wish on me when the rash mood is on.” 

(Act 2 scene 4)

Later in the same scene, when Goneril is present, he calls her “a disease that’s in my flesh”, “a boil/ A plague-sore, or embossèd carbuncle/ In my corrupted blood”. This is horrific—it’s hard to read these lines and not think there’s a misogynist in Lear. I’m not defending Goneril and Regan—their villainy and cruelty need not be stated—but Lear’s language is graphic and his curses heavily focus on the body, the female body.

I also can’t help wondering, how was Lear as a king, before renouncing his power? How was he as a father? 

3/ See the thunderstorm.  

“KENT […] Things that love night 

Love not such nights as these. The wrathful skies

Gallow the very wanderers of the dark

And make them keep their caves. Since I was man, 

Such sheets of fire, such bursts of horrid thunder, 

Such groans of roaring wind and rain, I never

Remember to have heard. Man’s nature cannot carry

Th’ affliction nor the fear.” 

(Act 3 scene 2) 

The scene matches, and exceeds, the intensity of the scene of Faustus in hell. Again Lear addresses Nature, but this time it’s different.  

“LEAR Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks. Rage, blow! 

You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout 

Till you have drenched our steeples, drowned the cocks. 

You sulph’rous and thought-executing fires,

Vaunt-couriers of oak-cleaving thunderbolts,

Singe my white head. And thou, all-shaking thunder,

Strike flat the thick rotundity o’ th’ world,

Crack Nature’s molds, all gremains spill at once,

That makes ingrateful man.” 


This is no longer hatred of one person—Lear is raging against the whole world. It is significant (though Tolstoy doesn’t think so) that Shakespeare creates the subplot of Gloucester, Edmund, and Edgar: Lear’s plight is not the plight of a single man. 

Interestingly, I found this on Wikipedia:

“Edmund and Edgar were also the names of the sons of Malcolm III of Scotland who killed Macbeth. Historically Edmund of Scotland had betrayed his immediate family to support his uncle Donald III. Following the death of Malcolm III from being stabbed in the eye, they ordered the killing of Edmund's half brother Duncan II, the rightful heir, to take the Scottish throne. Edgar, Edmund's younger brother, then returned to Scotland and defeated them to become King. Edmund was then sent to an English monastery where he later died. Due to these clear parallels the choice of Edmund and Edgar as names may have been a nod by Shakespeare to the continued story of the Scottish throne following the events of Macbeth.” 

Macbeth is dated after King Lear though. 

4/ One of the (silly) complaints Tolstoy makes about King Lear is that the characters don’t act the way they should (i.e. realistically) and don’t talk in a natural way. I notice that in the scene where Lear, Kent, and the Fool enter the hovel to hide from the storm, the Fool is rather quiet and barely jokes—is that not realistic? 

5/ I think in my first reading of King Lear several years ago, I missed the significance of the idea of necessities.

Lear gives away his authority and power, and makes himself dependent on the kindness of his daughters Goneril and Regan, but still keeps 100 men. Goneril wants to reduce that by half, then causes trouble to make him leave, whereas Regan insists that she wouldn’t accept more than 25 men at her place. They ask him why he would need more than 25 of his own men, when he can be served by Goneril’s or Regan’s servants. 

“LEAR O reason not the need! Our basest beggars

Are in the poorest thing superfluous 

Allow not nature more than nature needs,

Man’s life is cheap as beast’s. Thou art a lady:

I only to go warm were gorgeous,

Why, nature needs not what thou gorgeous wear’st,

Which scarcely keeps thee warm…”  

(Act 2 scene 4)

There is a storm outside but the daughters don’t budge, so Lear leaves in a rage (dare I say… Lear storms out?). The cruel Regan orders to have the doors shut.

In the open heath in the storm and tempest, Lear’s idea of necessities is slightly changed. Kent suggests seeking shelter in a hovel. Lear turns to the Fool:  

“LEAR […] Come on, my boy. How dost, my boy? Art cold? 

I am cold myself. Where is this straw, my fellow? 

The art of our necessities is strange,

That can make vile things precious.” 

(Act 3 scene 2)  

In the hovel, Lear comes across Edgar, who is hiding from Gloucester’s men and disguising himself as mad Tom o’ Bedlam. Edgar is almost naked, having only some cloth to cover himself, and lives in the hovel.

“LEAR Thou wert better in a grave than to answer with thy uncovered body this extremity of the skies. Is man no more than this? Consider him well. Thou ow’st the worm no silk, the beast no hide, the sheep no wool, the cat no perfume. Ha! here’s three on’s are sophisticated. Thou are the thing itself; unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor, bare, forked animal as thou art. Off, off, you lendings! Come, unbutton here.

[Tearing off his clothes]”

(Act 3 scene 4)

(You may notice where the title of my graduation film No More Than This came from).

From the question of necessities, Shakespeare leads to the big question: What is it to be human? The betrayal, the loss, the suffering force Lear to see things and ask questions that never bothered him before, when he was king and everything revolved around him. 

Now compare this scene to the scene in the hut in Ran (Kurosawa’s loose adaptation of King Lear): the effect is very different that in Ran, the emperor Hidetora (now stripped off everything) meets a young man whom he himself blinded and whose family he killed. Hidetora is forced to face his own cruelties in the past, and feels guilt and remorse. In Shakespeare’s play, Lear meets Edgar and the encounter changes them both: Lear sees Edgar and asks “Is man no more than this?”; Edgar sees Lear suffering, and thinks “How light and portable my pain seems now”; they feel compassion for each other, and for all of humanity. 

6/ Evil in King Lear is extreme. When Goneril and Regan and others discover that Gloucester is a traitor, wanting to reinstate Lear to the throne:

“REGAN Hang him instantly.

GONERIL Pluck out his eyes.”

(Act 3 scene 7)

Having gouged out his eyes, Regan says:

“REGAN Go thrust him out at gates, and let him smell

His way to Dover.” 


It is a horrible scene, I shuddered at that line. Earlier Lear asks:

“LEAR […] Is there any cause in nature that make these hard hearts?” 

(Act 3 scene 6)

But he probably can’t imagine how evil his daughters can be. But where are the gods?   

“GLOUCESTER […] As flies to wanton boys, are we to th’ gods, 

They kill us for their sport.” 

(Act 4 scene 1) 

It’s no surprise that Goneril and Regan turn against each other.

7/ The scene of Goneril and her husband Albany in Act 4 scene 2 reminds me of Lady Macbeth and Macbeth. Goneril calls Albany “milk-livered man”, Lady Macbeth refers to Macbeth’s “milk of human kindness”. 

I’ve never thought about how Shakespeare went from King Lear to Macbeth: there are similar themes, King Lear has a cosmic vision whereas in Macbeth, Shakespeare digs deeper into the mind; King Lear presents a vision of apocalypse, a world where all bonds are broken and things turn upside down, where father turns away daughter, brother turns against brother, daughters abandon father, son betrays father, servant turns against master, husband and wife fall out, sisters become jealous of each other, and so on, whereas Macbeth depicts the two main characters losing their soul and suffering the torments of hell on earth.

Lady Macbeth feels great guilt, Goneril and Regan are more evil. 

Now I’m idly wondering if it was the same boy actor in Shakespeare’s company who played both Lady Macbeth and either Goneril or Regan. Must have been.  

8/ In Act 4 scene 6, when the mad Lear appears in the field and starts rambling in front of Edgar and Gloucester, we get an idea of what it was like when he was king and everything revolved around him, and how much of a fall it has been after he gave away all power. It’s no wonder that this is his reaction earlier when Goneril starts treating him differently. 

“LEAR Does any here know me? This is not Lear. 

Does Lear walk thus? Speak thus? Where are his eyes?

Either his notion weakens, or his discernings

Are lethargied—Ha! Waking? ‘Tis not so.

Who is it that can tell me who I am?”

(Act 1 scene 4) 

But for me, the ramblings raise 2 questions. Firstly, what happened to Lear’s wife? There’s no mention of her. What was she like? 

Secondly, let’s look at this rant against women: 

“LEAR […] Behold yond simp’ring dame,

Whose face between her forks presages snow,

That minces virtue and does shake the head

To hear of pleasure’s name. 

The fitchew, nor the soilèd horse, goes to ‘t

With a more riotous appetite. 

Down from the waist they are Centaurs,

Though women all above: 

But to the girdle do the gods inherit,

Beneath is all the fiend’s.

There’s hell, there’s darkness, there is the sulphurous pit,

Burning, scalding, stench, consumption; fie, fie, fie! pah, pah! Give me an once of civet; good apothecary, sweeten my imagination: there’s money for thee.” 

(Act 4 scene 6) 

(fitchew= polecat, and slang for prostitute; soilèd= put to pasture, and hence wanton with feeding; Centaurs= lustful creatures, half man and half horse)

Why this rant against women? The undeniably evil Goneril and Regan are women, but so is good Cordelia. Why does Lear have such obsession, such disgust with the female body? 

I don’t buy the cheap explanation that the misogyny is Shakespeare’s—I have read, so far, 22 Shakespeare plays. So where does it come from? 

9/ This is one of the most moving exchanges in literature. 

“LEAR 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 have not.

CORDELIA No cause, no cause.” 

(Act 4 scene 7) 

The final scene, the final scene is heart-rending. That moment of Lear with Cordelia’s dead body:

“LEAR And my poor fool is hanged: no, no, no life?

Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life? 

And thou no breath at all? Thou’lt come no more,

Never, never, never, never, never…” 

(Act 5 scene 3) 

That made me cry. This and Desdemona’s death must be the most unbearable deaths in literature.

I love the play. 


  1. I tend to connect Lear with several large narratives. First, the wild storm and the focus on judgment links up with the Deluge from Genesis, in which nearly the whole world is judged to be debased and is returned to the primordial waters to begin again. Biblical narrative also includes a stress on mercy in the midst of disorder; likewise, "Lear" has two characters who show and give mercy in the midst of chaos. Another large set of narratives is the Allerleirauh-and-related fairy tales, in which three daughters often appear and the question of a daughter's love for her father is in question. They always involve flight and sometimes return. The risk of forced marriage to the father is an element. At least one version shows the father misunderstanding the daughter's words and thinking she does not love him. I just looked up the history of these, and it seems the earliest recorded version is late twelfth century, and it appears next in the writings of the Anglo-Norman prior and scholar, Nicholas Trevet, a century later. He influenced Chaucer, so... interesting. I just imagine that an audience steeped in Genesis and acquainted with some version of the Allerleirauh/Cap o' Rushes/Donkeyskin etc. stories might see Lear and Cordelia rather differently than we do. Moreover, there's a hagiography of an Irish 7th-century saint (the church in Geel built in her honor became an important pilgrimage site) that also includes the problem of father-daughter love, flight from the King/father, refuge in French-speaking lands, the murder of the daughter, and a king's fool: the life of Saint Dymphna.

    1. Hi Marly,
      Thanks for your comment.
      I looked up "Allerleirauh", and funnily enough there was this line on wikipedia:
      "A king promised his dying wife that he would not re-marry unless it was to a woman who was as beautiful as she was, and when he looked for a new wife, he realized that the only woman that could match her beauty was his own daughter."
      That sounds like The Winter's Tale hahaha.
      In which tales do "three daughters often appear and the question of a daughter's love for her father is in question"? I may check them out, though I may have read that kind of plot before. A few critics do say the beginning of King Lear is like a fairytale.
      "I just imagine that an audience steeped in Genesis and acquainted with some version of the Allerleirauh/Cap o' Rushes/Donkeyskin etc. stories might see Lear and Cordelia rather differently than we do."
      Yeah, I suppose so.


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