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There are many, many things I don’t understand.

One thing I’ve never gotten a good grip on is what makes something pedantic or patronizing. I honestly have no filter, alarm, or other detection device for the pedantic or the patronizing. defines pedantic as ostentatious. OK, that’s a big help. Ostentatious, they say, is: characterized by or given to pretentious or conspicuous show in an attempt to impress others. OK then.

Patronizing, they say, is displaying or indicative of an offensively condescending manner. 

Condescending, just for good measure, is showing or implying a usually patronizing descent from dignity or superiority.

OK, none of that helps me a bit.

All of this musing comes from a recent episode of The West Wing. Well, recent for me. I never watched the show in its original run, but with the current monstrosity occupying the White House (was that pedantic or patronizing?), my wife Julie and I have decided, on the suggestion of a friend, to watch The West Wing and pretend it is real life.

Last night we reached the first episode of Season Three, titled “Isaac and Ishmael.” It was written and filmed in three weeks, in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks. The program was a little rough, the dialog could have used some polish, and it completely stepped out of the show’s story line. Even so, I found it to be so important, and to speak directly to what’s going on in our country right now.

Yet when I read reviews of that episode, written immediately after it aired and even many years later, I saw the words “pedantic” and “patronizing,” even “preachy” come up again and again. I don’t get it.

The episode made incredibly important points, including the fact that terrorism never works, that Islamic extremism is to Islam what the KKK is to Christianity, and that our pluralistic society – our commitment to live with people we disagree with – is itself our greatest accomplishment. For a television program to make these points in the aftermath of September 11 – eschewing the far easier points about patriotism and public service – seems to me incredibly brave. To call it pedantic is to ignore that fact that these conclusions are still anathema to far too many people.*

Oops, was that last sentence pedantic? I really need to find that filter.

*For instance, in the August 2017 poll linked above, 30% of Democrats and a whopping 65% of Republicans believe there is a “natural conflict between Islam and democracy.” This despite the fact that 92% of US Muslims agree with the statement, “I am proud to be an American.”

Not an original thought. Millions have experienced the same thing before me. Somehow, though, I was unprepared.
I visited the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC with my family on Monday. I wound through the exhibits, reading of Hitler’s rise to power, of the complicity of Germany, of Europe, of the whole world, toward this growing evil.
I read of whole communities murdered, looked at pictures of young people who would never grow up, never have families of their own. I looked over the maps and the models and read the awful statistics.
And then I came to the shoes.
Thousands of shoes – a tiny fraction of the whole, but each shoe a token. A woman’s shoe, curling back with age. A man’s shoe, dark and crinkled. A child’s shoe, carelessly tossed into the pile. A child’s shoe. Someone loved that child once, someone tried to protect that child. That child held a hand once, gave one last squeeze, one final questioning look. And then rough hands took hold.
And I stood in a room, surrounded by shoes, and I cried.

King Lear is pain. King Lear is familial infighting, parental humiliation, deadly lies, physical torture, mental anguish, suicide (both failed and successful), and the most unjust ending in all Shakespeare, maybe in all literature. Be very, very wary of anyone who claims King Lear as their favorite Shakespeare play.

King Lear is my favorite Shakespeare play.

It took me a while to get here. I first loved Macbeth (another bundle of joy), and on happier days I still revel in As You Like It, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Much Ado About Nothing. I have a deep admiration for Measure for Measure, and I count Henry IV Part One and Othello as two of the most remarkable accomplishments in art.

Hamlet and King Lear always felt, I don’t know, just too great to be someone’s favorite, like saying God was your favorite deity or something. But since I don’t believe in God, these two plays are as close as I get to the divine.

While Hamlet is amazing, mostly because of the singular character of the prince himself who seems like nothing so much as a real person who lives in the pages of a play, I believe King Lear is the greater of Shakespeare’s two greatest tragedies. And I now, after spending several weeks with it, count it not only as the greatest but also my favorite Shakespeare play.

What follows is an extended paen to this powerful play, and an explanation of how, why, and where it shapes my ever-evolving view of the world. I hope this essay adds something to your own understanding.

Act One

Ian McKellan as King Lear

As the play begins, we are faced with Lear, a character who is difficult – no, make that impossible – to like. He craves approval, is narcissistic, authoritarian, and (as we are about to discover) prone to irrational rage. His treatment of his youngest daughter Cordelia, after she tells him exactly what she thinks of his love test, is as cruel as it is nonsensical. As the terrible (but for now justified) Regan says, Lear “hath ever but slenderly known himself.” Lear is about to go on a journey of self-discovery that will reap him more knowledge in a few short days than he has gathered in his previous four score years combined.

Scene Two shows us the bastard Edmund – not the servile and humiliated Edmund of the first scene, but a villain who will thrill us with his daring strategy to usurp his legitimate brother and replace his elderly father Gloucester. His relationship to Iago is clear, yet unlike Iago – whose sense of revenge is hardly rational – Edmund knows not only exactly what he is doing, but why. His aims are clear – those who stand in his way must be eliminated, precisely because they stand in his way. We will see how well Edmund can manipulate his father, convincing him of Edgar’s guilt by arguing against it – because he knows that Gloucester is a fool who values his own powers of deduction much too highly. In an echo of Richard II, where Aumerle has a letter he really must hide from his father Edmund of Langley, our villain Edmund piques Gloucester’s interest by quickly hiding a letter he will attribute to his brother Edgar. We then see how Edmund manipulates that same brother by pretending to believe in astrology – exactly the foolishness Edmund mocks in the scene before – convincing his older brother that this susceptibility in their father spells doom for Edgar. Like Iago before him, Edmund knows exactly what to say to push those already predisposed to foolishness into their own foolish acts.

Next we meet the actual Fool, though unlike others in the play he is anything but foolish in his words. I find a deep connection between the Fool and Cordelia. No, I don’t believe the Fool is actually Cordelia in disguise, despite the “hint” Lear gives at the end of the play (more on that later). I see the Fool as a somewhat grungy and dirty-minded old man – not as old as Lear, certainly (and not as dirty), but old enough to be someone a young girl could not easily imitate. I think both Cordelia and the Fool play the same role in Lear’s life, grounding him, making him live in the now and not in a glorious past or an unrealistic future.

We learn that the Fool has pined away since Cordelia left. This makes sense, because both Cordelia and the Fool can see clearly what Lear’s disastrous choices will lead to. Despite their difference in age, Cordelia and the Fool are kindred spirits, truth speakers, and – along with Edgar, Gloucester, and Kent – examples of the “good” people who for some reason love and honor the foolish and erratic character that is the Lear we’ve seen so far.

So what are we to make of the Fool? He is focused, obsessed really, with Lear’s awful decision to give his kingdom to his other two daughters. I love this line:

Fool: Why, this fellow has banished two on ’s
daughters and did the third a blessing against his will.

This is of course exactly the opposite of what Lear literally did. He banished one daughter (Cordelia) and did the other two a blessing by giving them the kingdom. So what is the Fool up to? I think he’s saying that Cordelia is better off being out of this crazy place, and that the other two are banished from Britain because by Lear’s actions Britain no longer exists.

Lear and his Fool

When Lear says, “I did her wrong,” the Fool redirects Lear. His “wrong” was not his treatment of Cordeila, which the Fool avoids. Rather, it was his initial plan to give his “house” to his daughters. By implication, it was the love test itself that was wrong, not Lear’s reaction to Cordelia’s answer.

It’s not that simple, though. There’s more going on under the surface. The key word in the conflict between Lear and Cordelia is “nothing.”

Lear: Now, our joy,
Although the last, not least; to whose young love
The vines of France and milk of Burgundy
Strive to be interest; what can you say to draw
A third more opulent than your sisters? Speak.

Cordelia: Nothing, my lord.


Cordelia: Nothing.

Lear: Nothing can come of nothing. Speak again.

And then later, to the Duke of Burgundy when he asked for Cordelia’s offered dowry:

Lear: Nothing! I have sworn; I am firm.

By the way, I must add this note. When Burgundy abandons Cordelia for want of a dowry, Cordelia lets him have it right between the eyes with one of her very best lines.

Cordelia: Peace be with Burgundy!
Since that respects of fortune are his love,
I shall not be his wife.

If you didn’t already, you just have to love her after that.

The Fool brings this all back to Lear, and to us. After one of the Fool’s nonsense songs, we get this exchange:

Kent (in disguise): This is nothing, fool.

Fool: Then ’tis like the breath of an unfeed lawyer- you gave me
nothing for’t. Can you make no use of nothing, nuncle?

Lear: Why, no, boy. Nothing can be made out of nothing.

And instantly we’re thinking of what was made of Cordelia’s “nothing” in Scene One.

Not long after that, Lear begins to suffer from self-realization: “I did her wrong.”

Yes, Lear did Cordelia wrong. But Lear never should have put Cordelia, or her sisters (or indeed himself), in such a position in the first place.

The other big event of Scene Four is Goneril’s first betrayal of Lear. But I’ll discuss that more when Goneril and Regan have their dual betrayal scene in the next act.

Act Two

Scene One gives us more insight into Edmund’s cunning. He convinces Edgar to flee without Edgar ever confronting his father Gloucester. If those two ever got together, even for a moment, it would destroy all of Edmund’s plans, so he must be very careful here. Edmund must have known both his father and his brother well to pull off this deception.

Edgar is about to make the transformation from his own identity to that of Tom o’ Bedlam. In this remarkable play, this transformation is perhaps the most remarkable event. I think there is much more to understand in Edgar’s descent into Tom. Why does he go so far and stay with it so long? It seems all out of proportion with what is necessary – consider Kent’s more ordinary transformation, for instance. Edgar’s last line here, “Edgar I nothing am” again brings us back to this idea of nothing that is so central in this drama.

Going back to Lear, we soon find him faced with two daughters allied against him.

The impotent fury Lear is feeling builds and builds as, after Goneril arrives, she and Regan take turns belittling Lear, reducing his army bit by bit until it is gone. And then Lear lets loose as best he can:

Lear: you unnatural hags!
I will have such revenges on you both
That all the world shall- I will do such things-
What they are yet, I know not; but they shall be
The terrors of the earth!

You almost want to laugh at his inability even to devise a revenge. It’s sinking in now. He has no power – no army, no followers, no home, no kingdom. He is at his daughters’ mercy. And, as he is about to discover, their mercy is sorely lacking.

Goneril is the leader of the action here. She and Lear must have some history for him to curse her as he did:

Lear: Hear, Nature, hear! dear goddess, hear!
Suspend thy purpose, if 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 honour her!

While the nastiness between Lear and Goneril is palpable, I continue to be amazed by Regan’s character. As Lear leaves, she is trying to talk herself into believing what she is doing is right and just.

Regan: This house is little; the old man and ‘s people
Cannot be well bestow’d.

Who are you trying to convince, Regan? And then,

Regan: For his particular, I’ll receive him gladly,
But not one follower.

And finally, in words she speaks to Gloucester,

Regan: O, sir, to wilful men
The injuries that they themselves procure
Must be their schoolmasters. Shut up your doors.
He is attended with a desperate train,
And what they may incense him to, being apt
To have his ear abus’d, wisdom bids fear.

“I did what I had to do. I’d take him in if he wasn’t so damned stubborn. Who knows what he and his crazy followers might do?” Quite the self-convincing.

Shakespeare didn’t have to do this. He could have just written two daughters, both equally evil, essentially indistinguisable from one another. But Shakespeare, being Shakespeare, created two distinct personalities even here. Goneril is scheming, conniving, and cold. Regan wants everything both ways – she wants to be the good girl who loves her father, but also to be even more clever than her older sister and come out on top. Regan is a fascinating, deep, an ultimately sad character who deserves further study. But on to the critical act . . .

Act Three

lear in the storm

Lear and the Fool have been thrust out into the storm. Is this where the old man loses all faith in the gods? The comparison with Ahab’s great lightning scene in Moby Dick is quite apt, I think. That scene is about as anti-theist as it gets. Here Lear rails against the gods, with the Fool providing comic relief, taking the blasphemous edge off Lear’s words.

Lear: Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
Till you have drench’d our steeples, drown’d the cocks!
You sulph’rous and thought-executing fires,
Vaunt-couriers to oak-cleaving thunderbolts,
Singe my white head! And thou, all-shaking thunder,
Strike flat the thick rotundity o’ th’ world,
Crack Nature’s moulds, all germains spill at once,
That makes ingrateful man!

Fool: O nuncle, court holy water in a dry house is better than this
rain water out o’ door. Good nuncle, in, and ask thy daughters
blessing! Here’s a night pities nether wise men nor fools.

Lear: Rumble thy bellyful! Spit, fire! spout, rain!
Nor rain, wind, thunder, fire are my daughters.
I tax not you, you elements, with unkindness.
I never gave you kingdom, call’d you children,
You owe me no subscription. Then let fall
Your horrible pleasure. Here I stand your slave,
A poor, infirm, weak, and despis’d old man.
But yet I call you servile ministers,
That will with two pernicious daughters join
Your high-engender’d battles ‘gainst a head
So old and white as this! O! O! ’tis foul!

If this is, in fact, where Lear loses his faith, it is striking that right afterwards he realizes what a horrible king he has been, how he has not taken care of those subjects who have been every day and night exposed to the same foul weather he now decries.

In a short interlude between storm scenes, we next see Gloucester make his fateful mistake. He tells Edmund of the plot by Cordelia and the French army to return Lear to power. Edmund of course takes this information straight to Cornwall, and we know what happens next.

But first we return to Lear on the heath, and the encounter between Lear, the Fool, Kent (in disguise), and Edgar as Tom o’ Bedlam. The text flies thick, as each of the four speaks with an utterly different voice. Kent, trying in vain to hold it all together; the Fool, turning to hopeless lament as his time in this play draws to a close; Lear, now losing his mind and so impressed by the disguised Edgar’s essential freedom that he tries to undress himself. What Edgar is up to in this scene is deep and mysterious. His language is evocative – he almost sounds like the riddling witches of Macbeth. Again, we see Edgar going far beyond what is necessary for his disguise – perhaps just to keep the others off-balance so as not to guess at his true identity.

Gloucester joins the troop, and now Edgar is in real danger. Over the edge he goes in a listing of demons and their designs. On the surface, Edgar’s words are nonsense, but they are so strange and evocative that I think it’s clear Shakespeare is up to something else. In a play so full of the gods not responding to human concerns, the idea that a motivated human can so easily move back and forth between completely lucid strategy, deeply-felt human emotion, and this demonic banter suggests that Shakespeare knew it was all a human invention. The only fiends are those we create ourselves. And those, as King Lear shows us, are plenty scary enough.

In the next scene, we see the brilliant Edmund cashiering his own soul to the much less brilliant Cornwall. Cornwall pathetically tries to buy Edmund by promising to be a father to him – a rather stupid ploy considering how the child/parent relationship has gone so far in this play. Does anyone have any doubt that, had Cornwall not finally succombed to his own toxicity, Edmund would have taken him down, too?

The most interesting line of this scene is the one Edmund says to himself (and to us):

Edmund: I will persever in my course of loyalty,
though the conflict be sore between that and my blood.

This is a shocking admission for our arch-villain Edmund to make. Is it to prepare us for his death wound conversion later? Is it to humanize him above the horrible Cornwall? I think this line serves many purposes. It humanizes Edmund, yes, but that very humanization in a sense makes his actions that much worse. In the same way that Macbeth is a more devastating tragedy than Richard III (well, for many people) because we are closer to the former protagonist than we can ever get to the latter, giving Edmund a bit of humanity here makes his actions more affecting than those of Cornwall.

Once out of the storm, Lear puts Goneril and Regan on mock trial. The same dynamic continues, with Lear out of his mind, Kent trying to talk sense, the Fool becoming more and more morose, and Edgar alternating between playing along as the judge and breaking out of his lunatic character, as here:

Edgar [aside]: My tears begin to take his part so much
They’ll mar my counterfeiting.

After a bit about dogs (I wish I knew what Lear meant by “Tray, Blanch, and Sweetheart – Sweetheart is clearly Cordelia, while Blanch is Regan, whose approach to Lear is both cold and milky white. But why Tray for Goneril? Was Goneril the third child, with two others already dead?), Kent finally gets Lear to rest, and then the Fool utters his last line in the play:

Lear: Make no noise, make no noise; draw the curtains.
So, so, so. We’ll go to supper i’ th’ morning. So, so, so.

Fool: And I’ll go to bed at noon.

It sounds like the Fool is planning on dying. There’s not another mention of him, though Lear – holding the dead Cordelia’s body – says “and my poor Fool is hanged.” More on that critical line when I get to it.

Edgar now comes out of his Poor Tom character for an extended soliloquy that closes the scene. Edgar feels that the king’s true madness is far worse than what he, Edgar, has experienced. However, what Edgar can’t know is that things are about to get much worse for Edgar and his father.

In Scene Seven, Cornwall calls for Gloucester’s capture. Regan wants Gloucester hanged. Goneril, however, is the first to voice the actual, horrible torture that Gloucester will endure:

Goneril: Pluck out his eyes.

But Cornwall takes control of the scene, first sending Edmund off with Goneril – believing that even someone as apparently cold as Edmund will not be able to bear the torture Cornwall is about to inflict upon his father. I’m not so sure.

Gloucester is brought in, and Cornwall and Regan begin the interrogation that is, of course, wholly unnecessary. Regan even says it, “we know the truth.” Gloucester names the very evil to which he is about to be subjected:

Regan: Wherefore to Dover, sir?

Gloucester: Because I would not see thy cruel nails

Pluck out his poor old eyes;

And then Cornwall goes about inflicting just this horror on the old Earl. In one of the almost forgotten gems of this drama, an unnamed character stands up for the audience and says what we’re all thinking.

Servant 1: Hold your hand, my lord!
I have serv’d you ever since I was a child;
But better service have I never done you
Than now to bid you hold.

Regan: How now, you dog?

Servant 1: If you did wear a beard upon your chin,
I’ld shake it on this quarrel.

Regan: What do you mean?

Cornwall: My villain! Draw and fight.

Servant 1: Nay, then, come on, and take the chance of anger.

Regan: Give me thy sword. A peasant stand up thus?
[She takes a sword and runs at him behind.]

Servant 1: O, I am slain! My lord, you have one eye left
To see some mischief on him. O!

[He dies.]

I don’t think the shock or the import of this encounter can be over-stated. In its statement about the world, this short segment represents the entire play. Consider: this man has served Cornwall since childhood; he must know what sort of dispicable characters he and his wife are. Cornwall is now essentially King of half of Britain. Certainly kings have done far worse than pluck the eyes from defenseless old men. And yet here (with King James watching, we must assume), a commoner rises up and says “this far and no further.” Yes, the servant is killed from behind by Regan, but in the struggle he fatally wounds Cornwall. This isn’t divine retribution, this is a single human, knowing he will lose, standing up for something bigger than himself. This man is a hero. If there is one role I’d love to play in a Shakespeare production, this is it.

And what is our hero’s reward? The dying Cornwall shouts it out:

Cornwall: Throw this slave
Upon the dunghill.

And the now-blinded Gloucester receives the cruelest line from Regan:

Regan: Go thrust him out at gates, and let him smell
His way to Dover.”

Act Four

Edgar, miserable for the King, is on the heath. The blinded Gloucester comes in, led by an old man. Edgar now realizes the hurt that’s been done to his own father, and he nearly breaks down.

Edgar [aside]: O gods! Who is’t can say ‘I am at the worst’?
I am worse than e’er I was.

Old Man: ‘Tis poor mad Tom.

Edgar[aside]: And worse I may be yet. The worst is not
So long as we can say ‘This is the worst.’

You will think I’m crazy, but to me this is an optimistic line, one of the most optimistic in the play. Edgar is saying that as long as we have breath, as long as we can speak, things are not as bad as they could be. Where there is life, there is hope. We must endure all, we must keep fighting for the good, keep fighting for life, no matter the odds. Anticipating Winston Churchill some three centuries hence, Edgar never, never, never gives up. So long as we can say “this is the worst,” we still have something to fight for.

Markus Potter as Edgar and Mike Hartmann as the Earl of Gloucester

After these asides from Edgar, Gloucester speaks a critical line that shows just how little he has learned:

Gloucester: As flies to wanton boys are we to th’ gods.
They kill us for their sport.

No, Gloucester, you don’t get it. The gods aren’t malicious. They are absent. It wasn’t the gods who blinded you, it was Cornwall. You were betrayed by your son Edmund. Remember him, the man you humiliated in the play’s first lines? The son you completely misread? Yes, him. We don’t need the gods to rip our wings off and squash us with their thumbs. We’re perfectly capable of creating evil all by our vicious little selves. The Beast is real; it is within us.

And now Edgar, who now anticipates Samuel Beckett’s “You must go on. I can’t go on. I’ll go on.” leads Gloucester toward Dover, where the old blind Earl plans to throw himself from the cliff.

My dear Cordelia is back in England. She is described by a gentleman:

Gentleman: Patience and sorrow strove
Who should express her goodliest. You have seen
Sunshine and rain at once: her smiles and tears
Were like, a better way. Those happy smilets
That play’d on her ripe lip seem’d not to know
What guests were in her eyes, which parted thence
As pearls from diamonds dropp’d. In brief,
Sorrow would be a rarity most belov’d,
If all could so become it.

If this doesn’t make you hunger to know a character better, nothing will. We soon see Cordelia herself. Lear’s youngest daughter has very few lines in this play, but they are drenched with meaning. Whole productions can be made or broken by the casting of Cordelia. Just as in the opening scene of the play, we see Cordelia as both loving and fierce, someone who will speak her mind and take action. If there is hope to be found in this play (and I think there is), it must be centered around Cordelia.

Edgar and Gloucester reach Dover. After Edgar has used some more trickery to convince his father that suicide is not the answer, in comes Lear, completely out of his mind and therefore (as so often in Shakespeare) speaking at his most profound.

I feel totally unqualified to write about this amazing scene. But I’ll do it, anyway.

Lear describes himself as “Every inch a king” and then goes into a description of his duty as king to dispense justice. How as king can he condemn men for adultery when adultery is all around us? Adultery is only a crime because of the stories we humans make up. The deep question Lear is asking is what makes a king, indeed what makes man, so special that there should be laws and lawgivers, enforcers and criminals? Who are we to so order the world with our fictions? The job of a king, just like the job of every human, is an essentially impossible task. How do we find order, meaning, or justice in a world that is essentially disordered, devoid of meaning, and fundamentally unjust? Gloucester, realizing the voice he hears is that of the king, says:

Gloucester: O, let me kiss that hand!

Lear: Let me wipe it first; it smells of mortality.

After all, Lear is saying, we’re all just dirt, and we smell like it.

Even so, we try to rise above. And that, of course, is the point.

And then:

Lear: When we are born, we cry that we are come
To this great stage of fools.

Again we feel this deep connection to Macbeth, and that protagonist’s powerful words about the meaninglessness of life.

Macbeth: Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

We know that Macbeth got to this bleak place by way of his own terrible choices. Lear is headed there, too, but unlike Macbeth, Lear is not quite as alone as he believes himself to be.

And now in this, my favorite play, we reach my favorite scene. Lear is in Cordelia’s kind custody. When Cordelia tries to talk to her estranged father, he is at first still out of his mind. But then a remarkable transition occurs, followed by the most tender and emotional moment I’ve ever encountered in literature:

Cordelia: O, look upon me, sir,
And hold your hands in benediction o’er me.
No, sir, you must not kneel.

Lear: Pray, do not mock me.
I am a very foolish fond old man,
Fourscore and upward, not an hour more nor less;
And, to deal plainly,
I fear I am not in my perfect mind.
Methinks I should know you, and know this man;
Yet I am doubtful; for I am mainly ignorant
What place this is; and all the skill I have
Remembers not these garments; nor I know not
Where I did lodge last night. Do not laugh at me;
For (as I am a man) I think this lady
To be my child Cordelia.

Cordelia: And so I am! I am!

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.

Simple. Beautiful. In this play, full of such anger, such ugliness, such betrayal, and so many questions about whether life has a point at all, this one scene shows that we humans are capable of the most beautiful, sublime, lovely forgiveness. And maybe that is point enough.


Act Five

All this time, Goneril, Regan, Edmund, and Albany have been in a fierce struggle for love and country. Goneril, lusting after Edmund and his cool power, wants to replace her husband with the bastard. Regan knows it, but she (newly widowed) wants Edmund, too, and feels entitled. In her roundabout way Regan tries to find out if Edmund has “found my brother’s way to the forfended place.” What a lovely phrase for doin’ it! Edmund of course denies this conjugal wayfinding, and of course is probably lying, which is what he does, which is what Regan knows, which is why she lusts after him. Oh, complications!

But Edgar has obtained the letter that will doom all their plans. In yet another disguise, he brings to Albany Goneril’s letter to Edmund describing their plot. And now Albany has not just suspicions, but proof that there is a conspiracy against his life. Edmund is running out of time.

But gloriously we still have time for one more soliloquy from our unexpurgated villain. Edmund demonstrates here that he has no intention of letting anyone but himself triumph. Lear, Cordelia, Albany, and both the older sisters are all expendable, their lives subservient to Edmund’s needs. In Edmund’s world, everyone else is a temporary employee.

Edmund: To both these sisters have I sworn my love;
Each jealous of the other, as the stung
Are of the adder. Which of them shall I take?
Both? one? or neither? Neither can be enjoy’d,
If both remain alive. To take the widow
Exasperates, makes mad her sister Goneril;
And hardly shall I carry out my side,
Her husband being alive. Now then, we’ll use
His countenance for the battle, which being done,
Let her who would be rid of him devise
His speedy taking off. As for the mercy
Which he intends to Lear and to Cordelia-
The battle done, and they within our power,
Shall never see his pardon; for my state
Stands on me to defend, not to debate.

And on to the battle. Shakespeare’s stage didn’t really lend itself to enormous battles. (“Oh, for a muse of fire!”) And here the battle, begun and ended in just a few lines from Edgar, is not really the point. This short scene gives us one of the great lines of the play, a line that, because it comes from the character we’ve seen Edgar become, sets this play in direct opposition to Shakespeare’s other great tragic masterpiece.

Edgar: Away, old man! give me thy hand! away!
King Lear hath lost, he and his daughter ta’en.
Give me thy hand! come on.

Gloucester: No further, sir. A man may rot even here.

Edgar: What, in ill thoughts again? Men must endure
Their going hence, even as their coming hither;
Ripeness is all. Come on.

In Hamlet, of course, the Prince says, “the readiness is all.” Here, Edgar says, “ripeness is all.” Big deal, what’s the difference?

All the difference in the world. Where Hamlet has become defeatist, nihilist, resigned to fate, “Let be,” Edgar is exactly the opposite. We must not give up. We must not surrender to the whims of history. If this play shows us anything, it shows us that there is no fate. We make our own destiny. We create our own world. We must rage against the dying of the light. Ripeness is a process. We grow, we change, we ripen, and what happens – well, we don’t know. We can do our best to make good things happen, but whatever comes we must endure it, we must struggle to the bitter end. Do not go gentle into that good night.

Cordelia knows this well. After her capture, she demands to see “these daughters and these sisters.” She’s won’t go gentle. But Lear, now transformed into the fond, foolish old man, says no.

Lear: No, no, no, no! Come, let’s away to prison.
We two alone will sing like birds i’ th’ cage.
When thou dost ask me blessing, I’ll kneel down
And ask of thee forgiveness. So we’ll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues
Talk of court news; and we’ll talk with them too-
Who loses and who wins; who’s in, who’s out-
And take upon ‘s the mystery of things,
As if we were God’s spies

Cordelia knows they’ll do no such thing, but she remains silent. We will not hear her voice again.

That phrase, though, “As if we were God’s spies . . .” You may have noticed (if you can remember that far back) that I titled this ramble with that phrase. In this play, again and again, we see no evidence of gods, or God. Characters are capricious, savage, idiotic, kind, valiant, and honorable, but there’s no pattern, not one, that shows God on the side of the angels or the devils. And yet Lear can use this phrase here. Why? Because he wishes to be like us! We are God’s spies. We in the audience, or reading along, or watching on DVD, are outside this drama (thanks to goodness!) We are watching, reading, being affected by this tragic tale playing out before us, and yet when it is over we will get up, walk out, and go on with our lives. And what will this play have shown us? Well, that’s for each of us to decide. More on that to come.

Lear believes he and Cordelia can become, like us, spectators, mere watchers of the play as it unfolds. Cordelia knows better, and her silence here is perhaps the saddest moment in the play. Or perhaps not. Things are about to go very, very wrong.

Edmund knows Lear and Cordelia stand in his way. They must be eliminated, or he can never claim the kingdom. And so he orders their deaths. “To be tender-minded,” Edmund tells the captain, “Does not become a sword.”

But Edmund’s double dealings are about to catch up with him. While Goneril and Regan vie for his attention, Albany reveals the letter, delivered by the disguised Edgar, that shows Edmund and Goneril in a conspiracy to kill Albany. Meanwhile Goneril has poisoned Regan. She is led away, and will soon be dead.

Edgar enters in yet another disguise, this time as an avenging knight. After an epic battle Edgar wounds Edmund, and then reveals himself, with a particularly nasty dig at both Edmund and Gloucester:

Edgar: My name is Edgar and thy father’s son.
The gods are just, and of our pleasant vices
Make instruments to scourge us.
The dark and vicious place where thee he got
Cost him his eyes.”

Well, nobody’s perfect. Edgar really screws up here, as we’re about to find out. The gods, whoever and whatever they are, are anything but just. Gloucester lost his eyes not because he was an adulterer, but because he was an ass afterward. Edmund acted not from the “dark and vicious place” where he was conceived, but from the dark and vicious place Gloucester and society put him in. Yes, we make our own monsters, but not because the gods are just. We create them from ourselves.

We learn that Gloucester, on finding out that Edgar is alive and has been guiding him through the countryside, died of joy and grief at once. Next we learn that Goneril has taken her own life, and that before dying she admitted to poisoning Regan. Both are gone, and the dying Edmund says:

Edmund: I was contracted to them both. All three
Now marry in an instant.

And somehow, this realization that these two women so loved him, changes his character in one of the most dramatic reversals in all of Shakespeare:

Edmund: Yet Edmund was belov’d.
The one the other poisoned for my sake,
And after slew herself.

This whole thing seems odd – the arch-villain, so adept at tricking others to do his bidding, suddenly becomes all sunshine and light because two terrible women lusted after his loins. But then I think of how absolutely horrible Gloucester was to Edmund in the the play’s first scene. That always seemed out of character for Gloucester, but what if it wasn’t? What if Edmund had been subjected, again and again, to this sort of humiliation? Maybe all he wanted was a connection, and maybe the affirmation he got from Goneril and Regan really was enough for someone so hungry for it.

At any rate, Edmund sends everyone running to save Lear and Cordelia. But it is too late. In one of the most famous scenes in the canon, Lear comes in with four supposedly un-actable howls. I thought Sir Ian McKellan did pretty well with them, though I’d sure like for Patrick Stewart to take a shot.

Cordelia is dead. Her rescue came too late. Lear himself killed Cordelia’s executioner, but he is so distraught by Cordelia’s death that he has not much life remaining.

King Lear – On-The-Run 2014

Lear: And my poor fool is hang’d!

And here we have that famous confusion with the Fool and Cordelia. I think it’s Lear struggling once more to comprehend his reality. Cordelia was his dear one – this is the sense of “fool” at work here. And nothing is about to make one more appearance.

Lear: 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!
Pray you undo this button. Thank you, sir.
Do you see this? Look on her! look! her lips!
Look there, look there!

[He dies.]

And now Edgar speaks the final words of the play. Here I believe he is finally abused of the notion that the gods are in any sense just. But does he really understand what has just transpired?

Edgar: The weight of this sad time we must obey,
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.
The oldest have borne most; we that are young
Shall never see so much, nor live so long.

And that’s it; the most depressing and morose of all Shakespeare’s plays. Right?


What do you mean? Cordelia’s dead. Lear’s dead. Edmund, almost in a footnote, dies off stage just when it looked like maybe he’d try to reform. Add to these deaths Goneril, Regan (that’s all the Lear clan, in case you’ve lost track), Gloucester, Cornwall, Cornwall’s servant, Oswald, and maybe Lear’s fool (his death was made explicit in the Trevor Nunn/Sir Ian McKellan version). Even Kent sounds like he’s about to end his life. Quite the body count, rivalling Hamlet for dead-to-alive ratio.

All true, and yet I argue that this play is finally deeply, profoundly optimistic. Not optimistic in the conventional idea of a religious path to salvation, but in a completely different sense. It is optimistic because it recognizes that we humans have the power to make choices. Some of those choices are awful, and will often lead to awful outcomes. Others are good, and can still lead to awful outcomes. But they are our choices. No gods, no witches, no fairies or fates are choosing for us. We are choosing for ourselves. And we must live with the consequences of our choices. Ripeness is all.

But here’s the thing (there’s that phrase again!) Someone does survive King Lear. We do. We in the audience. God’s spies. Why does that matter? Because we can shape our lives. We can decide we don’t want the world Lear made for himself. We can look on that stage of dead bodies, destroyed dreams, fractured families, and we can make other choices. Maybe they won’t always be the right choices, but it’s only by learning about ourselves and our world that we can take these imperfect, fallible, uncertain steps toward a better future. We can create moments of sublime beauty, give birth to works of art that touch the soul, make scientific discoveries that cause our spirits to soar, and, most of all, love each other, forgive each other, touch each other, with simple, powerful, unconditional love. In the meantime, on the journey, we endure. You must go on. I can’t go on. I’ll go on.

Thanks for reading.


My first book, called The Turtle and the Universe, was published by Prometheus Books in July 2008. You can read about it by clicking on the link above.
My second book, Atoms and Eve, is available as an e-book at Barnes and Noble. Click the link above. You can download the free nook e-reader by clicking the link below.
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A blog by Stephen Whitt

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