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Do we owe parents our gratitude for our upbringing? What if they haven’t done such a great job? And anyway, perhaps we inevitably resent all the forces that have shaped the characters that confine and limit us. If so, the quest for filial gratitude is ultimately hopeless. It could even be a kind of madness: a foolish attempt to transcend the same formative forces that we resent in our parents, to be “unaccommodated,” free of the “plague of custom.” Wes and Erin give an analysis of William Shakespeare’s King Lear.
The conversation continues on our after-show (post)script. Get this and other bonus content at by subscribing at Patreon.
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Thanks to Tyler Hislop for the audio editing on this episode.
Wes: All right, so we would start with a little bit of a synopsis.
Erin: So King Lear is a play that takes place in pre Roman England, so in Celtic times, and King Lear is a man who, in the first scene, he’s a very powerful king, but he wants to abdicate his throne, so he gathers everyone around, and he asks his three daughters, Goneril, Regan and Cordelia to profess their love for him and thereby win a third of his kingdom. And so Goneril and Regan make very fawning statements about how much they love him. But Cordelia, even though she’s his favorite and she actually loves him the most, really can’t bring herself to make this kind of public declaration. And Lear sees it as a lack of love and a betrayal. And so he cast her out and instead divides his kingdom in half, giving half to Goneril and half to Regan. Basically, what he discovers is that Goneril and Regan do not love him and just continually downgrade his retinue and insult him. And ultimately they cast him out into a storm on a terrible night and don’t give him shelter in either of their homes. This leads to his madness, to Cordelia coming back to save him, and ultimately, in both of their deaths, tragically. And meanwhile, a secondary plot, the Duke of Gloucester, who’s a nobleman, of course, has two sons, one of whom is legitimate, Edgar and won his illegitimate Edmund, and he also has some problems with his children. So Edgar really does love Gloucester. Edmund does not. Because of his illegitimacy, he feels as though he’s constantly being ridiculed for his lesser state. And so he plots against his father and brother, resulting in his father’s blinding and Edmund’s own death. And at the end of the play, it’s presumed that Edgar takes over the kingdom because everyone else is dead.
Wes: Everyone ends up dead. As you know, one of Shakespeare’s tragedies has come to an end.
Wes: So I thought I’d give a little… some of the background because I looked into this a little bit. Some of the source material that Shakespeare uses for this. So there’s a play that was registered in 1594 and published in 1605 called The True Chronicle History of King Leir (“King Lear” spelt L. E. I. R.). So that play was written anonymously, and I read a lot of that play as well, and it’s really amazing to read. You can see some of the things that Shakespeare has incorporated. Although the play is way more basic, it’s really the.. there’s a dramatic difference in the level of sophistication between the two plays. But this story goes back a long way, so of course it’s, you know, it’s pseudo historical, it’s a legend, sort of in the same category as King Arthur. But it’s told in Raphael Holinshed’s The Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland, which is where Shakespeare got a lot of his source material. But it goes back to a book called History of the Kings of Britain, written in about 1136 by Geoffrey of Monmouth. There’s also a… around the same time, a little bit before, around 1574, something called Mirror for Magistrates by… I guess, by John Higgins. But it’s a bunch of different authors, I think, with a lot of different legends and their poems basically, and one of them is called Queen Cordilla (there are various ways in which your… her name is put) but it’s written in first person, and in the original tale, it’s actually sort of a sort of a happy ending. So Lear is restored to the throne and rules for two years and then dies. But then there’s more antics with Goneril and Reagan, and Cordelia is put in prison, where she ends up committing suicide. I recommend that people go look at some of that, and the play written around the same time, just before, I think. So here is Cordelia, at a critical scene, in the anonymous play: “I cannot paint my duty forth in words. I hope my deed shall make report from me. But look what love the child does owe the father. The same to you I bear, my gracious Lord.” One of the reasons I bring that up is just I was thinking a lot about the motivations for what happens in the first scene, which is… It’s a really weird scene, and I’ve always thought that and then, getting more into this, it seems like, you know, it’s something that’s much discussed critically, because Cordelia is King Lear’s favorite, but he’s very quick to basically completely disown her, and she’s somewhat obstinate and refusing to allay his concerns. And, you know, he feels slighted by her failure to declare her love for him. It seems almost like a little bit of a contrived conflict or exaggerated, and actually in the source texts, it really is… it’s less… the conflict isn’t quite so dramatic and nor is… nor is anything that happens. So the madness of King Lear in this play, for instance, isn’t nearly so intense in any of the source material. Shakespeare does lots of interesting and sophisticated things. And the other thing for people who do any comparisons is that you’ll see that the language that Shakespeare is using is not ordinary, or at least by comparison. You can read the other King Lear play from start to finish without ever looking up a word or being confused about something that’s going on syntactically, which is for me, not the case with Shakespeare. You know, it’s interesting to compare those sources when thinking about the motivations, because it’s clear that Shakespeare is doing something very deliberate. And the unlikeliness, maybe, or the very dramatic quality of this conflict is deliberate and there’s lots of hints.
Erin: It’s kind of odd to me, too, the structure of it, I guess, because we don’t get any indication of who Lear is as a man, or who any of his daughters are. We have to see it play out. So, except for these 30… on line 35 of the first scene, Lear comes in and this all begins. So there’s this very brief conversation between Gloucester, Kent and Edmund, where we set up the one family, Gloucester and his relationship with his two sons, but very briefly, only 34 lines worth. And then Lear comes in and the whole thing starts, the whole ceremony starts, and that’s it. We don’t get any context in order to understand these people.
Wes: And yeah, and that’s something that we badly need because we want to understand how it is that Lear could put such trust in Goneril and Regan, because they don’t seem like such nice people. We want to know how they came out so bad and how Cordelia came out so good. And we want to know why he would be so quick to cut off the daughter who was his favorite. We want to know more about what motivates this guy to do something so risky and strange, which is to give up his kingdom and become completely dependent on his daughters and not reserve any power for himself and do something so drastic. Yeah, so as you pointed out, we don’t really get any of that. And what we do get, very quickly thrown into the conflict. The other thing we want to know is why he, someone who seems so rash, has such fierce loyalty from his… from Kent, and from Cordelia herself, and Gloucester, and the Fool, and ultimately, Edgar, yeah. So he’s obviously admired. He’s done something to be admirable. We just don’t know what it is because he doesn’t act that way in the play. [laughter]
Erin: That’s exactly what I was going to say. The strange thing for me reading this… So I hadn’t read this in a really long time, and then I read it, sort of, more or less three times, and the first time I kind of was like, “Wow, this Lear guy is really…” I don’t remember him being kind of the villain [laughter] like he’s so terrible. And then the second time I was like, “Oh, okay, you know, maybe he’s just like a flawed guy.” And then finally, the third time, I felt as though I got to, you know, maybe the reading I’m supposed to have where he’s so put upon. But it’s only from, I think, those three times of experience with Lear, the character. It’s weird. It’s almost like reading it those three times gave me three times as much background knowledge on which to judge the play itself, or just kind of get used to the way that Lear is and to see him for his complexity. But if we look at this opening scene where he makes this request and I watched one adaptation of this, I listened to one, with John Guildwood radio adaptation on YouTube, which I really recommend. But then I watched the Olivier adaptation of this and Olivier… It’s pretty good. John Hurt is the Fool, which is kind of cool, and Diana Rigg is Regan. But Olivier plays this scene with a real twinkle, that Guildwood does not have. So Guildwood plays it very straightforward, like “Okay, I’m going to ask you all to say how much you love me, and that’s a reasonable request.” Whereas Olivier is like, “Hmm… maybe you all can say how much you love me and it’ll be fun for me, you know, like that, that kind of thing.” And so he’s kind of amused, and he’s sort of playing this game with them. And then when Cordelia doesn’t play the game, he gets mad as a result of that. But it was an interesting choice. But the only real section where he makes this request, he says, (this is online 50, Act 1, Scene 1) “Tell me, my daughters (Since now we will divest us both of rule, interest of territory, cares of state), Which of you shall we say doth love us most? That we our largest bounty may extend where nature doth with merit challenge.” This is him setting up the stakes. So I think this is the first mention of nature in the play and that word “nature” appears a ton, a ton of time. So here, I believe he’s referring to nature as regards to just relationships. So the natural relationship of a father to a daughter. I think what he’s saying is that this is going to be pitted against whoever has the greatest merit, so whoever is the best speaker, so that merit is presumably determined by who will speak the best of their father. But for two out of the three daughters, that means whoever is the greatest liar, so whoever actually has the least merit. But why, if he has these three grown daughters, two of them already married, one of them being courted, does he not already know who has the greatest merit? We know that Cordelia is already his favorite.
Wes: Well we also know that the territories are… it’s already mapped out and divided, and that’s the way the entire scene begins. So Shakespeare is very clever with this.
Wes: So the very first line is “I thought the king had more affected the Duke of Albany than Cornwall” (Albany is married to Goneril and Cornwall is married to Regan) and then Glocester says, “It did always seem so to us; but now, in the division of the kingdom, it appears not which of the Dukes he values most, for equalities are so weigh’d that curiosity in neither can make choice of either’s moiety.” which is to say, the way their kingdoms are divided, whether we are left to guess a little bit, but I think it’s meant to be in every possible way, whether in any way you might think about the differences between the way he’s dividing things up, whether it’s the amount of land or whether it’s the quality of the land or anything like that, it’s so equal that you can’t detect any preference for any of the daughters. Could also be the case that Goneril and Regan get exactly the same amount. But he’s reserved a larger portion for Cordelia. I like to think of it as he’s engaged in this act of pseudo magnanimity, where he’s just evenly… he’s already evenly divided things for the daughters for one of the published editions. So this is a colation of, or conflation, as they call it, of various different versions of King Lear. There’s some differences, and one of them, instead of saying “for qualities are so weigh’d”, it says “for equalities are so weigh’d”, and I think people had trouble making sense of that. But it makes sense of it if Shakespeare is being clever, right, about this whole concept of everything being equal. The upshot is the whole thing is a farce. He’s not really figuring out how to allot his kingdom, based on what they say to him. He’s doing something else. And not only is it a farce, but it’s openly such. It’s not like everyone else doesn’t know that it’s… things are already divided up. So that’s actually something very strange about the first scene.
Erin: He’s maybe trying to entertain himself or he’s trying to, you know, because his court is all in attendance. He thinks of this as some kind of a show or the formal ceremony where he gives this land, and he wants to maybe make other people not think that they’re earning it because, right, they already know, but maybe just to show off how much his children love him, or to make a show of giving them a big present that everyone already knows they’re getting. But yeah, I like the way Olivier played it because he made it seem like it was a joke that then Cordelia didn’t buy into. And the jokey kind of nature of it not only shows Lear’s sort of good humor, I mean, good humor that’s easily punctured, but it shows that everyone else is in on the joke as well, that he’s already divided it.
Wes: This question of his motivation is really important. It’s hard to pin down. And that’s one of the reasons I talked about the source material because that’s what… kind of what I was looking for was some information on his motivations. And it’s something that Shakespeare has consciously avoided. In one of the versions… it differs, so… but in one of them, it’s just that Cordelia doesn’t want to get married. So Lear wants to pin her down by getting her thinking about how much she loves him. She’ll profess how much she loves him, and then he’ll say, “Okay, if you really love me that much, then you have to get married to the sky.” That’s the motivation. Here it’s much more… Shakespeare’s made a dramatic choice, and a very good one, to make us wonder about what the motivation could possibly be. What the motivation for retiring in this way is, you know, he talks of wanting to give up business and crawl towards death, and you know, we’ll find out in the play. It seems like what he really wants to do is party, get drunk with his men and the harasses, to be rude to his daughters and their servants or… I guess he’s only rude to Goneril, to Goneril and her servants. But we have to think of some of the deeper motives involved, you know. So, for instance, being treated like a child by Cordelia. “I loved her most and thought to set my rest on her kind nursery” and this idea will come up, again and again, of him sort of reverting to childhood and turning his children into his parents. But the idea was to do that with Cordelia, specifically.
Erin: What I realized, the more times I went through the text, is that so many of the characters are kind of overlapping. I mean, certainly Lear and Gloucester are supposed to marry each other, and they sort of learn the same or attempt to learn the same lessons over the course of the play. But there’s a lot of overlap between Lear and a lot of the other characters, even between Lear and Edmund and Lear and Edgar. And at the end, when Edmund dies, right before he does, he has that moment where he realizes that he’s been toying with both Regan and Goneril’s affections, and he realizes that they both actually love him and that all he ever wanted was the love of his father. In this opening scene, I understood his again, you know, his motivations, more in reading it multiple times, but he seems to me to be a very insecure old man who is used to people fawning and flattering him, but maybe never was sure that people loved him for himself or because of his office, and really was the kind of person who’s constantly fishing for compliments because they’re desperate for someone to tell them that they love them. And, of course, that’s never satisfying because you’ve procured the compliment in the first place, right? So maybe he’s asked this of people before and then is never satisfied because he’s not sure well, do they really love me? Or are they just telling me this? And in the end, who ultimately ends up with the love of Regan and Goneril but Edmund, who then, his sort of internal conflict of being this unloved, illegitimate child, is then immediately resolved. Because, he says, “Oh! Two people really did love me, and now it’s okay. And now I want to make good.” I wonder if Edmund is, in many ways, a less complicated character than Lear, so perhaps his nature is more easily resolved with that realization. But I wonder if that’s the same, in a way, Edmund gets what Lear is denied: the love of Regan and Goneril.
Wes: That’s interesting. It’s about love. But it’s also… well, it turns out to be about love for Edmund. In the beginning, what seems to have happened is he’s being insulted. You can guess that it’s a lifetime of that when Kent hasn’t made Edmond’s acquaintance and asks Gloucester about his son, Gloucester does something very cruel. So this is set up at the beginning, where he volunteers the information that Edmund is a bastard and does it jokingly and tries to make a light of it and to say, you know, “but I’ve accepted him as if he were fully a son.” But you could imagine Gloucester doing this for Edmund’s whole life, for every introduction: “Yeah, this is my bastard son.” And so you can understand Edmond’s resentment, and he’s preoccupied during the play with the idea, and this will talk more about nature, but the idea that this is all a matter of custom, and it’s silly, he’s not really any different from Edgar just because there wasn’t some marriage ceremony performed before he was conceived. So he becomes the representative of nature over and against custom. So what he wants in the beginning, I think, is what he’s been deprived of his respect, and he seems to want revenge for that and to take his father’s estate from Edgar and from the father at any cost. So I think, as you pointed out, he sort of ends up with the idea that he’s beloved, and that’s critically what he’s been deprived of as well. Getting back to the relationship to Lear’s motivations I think Lear is… I think of him as the parent who’s not sure of his children’s gratitude. So he’s putting it to the test in a way that we see in other tales of this type. A lover may put their beloved’s loyalty to the test by setting them up with someone who’s going to seduce them as, for instance, happens in Cymbeline. But that’s kind of a trope in literary history. He’s putting filial gratitude to the test because he’s given so much and not just that, but he is… as a parent, this comes down to the relationship between parent and children, but also between creator and creature, creator and what they have created. And that is something very important and powerful, right? So it’s about being their progenitor and also about raising them and giving them so much care. And then when you get to the end of your life, what you’re left with instead of children, is adults with their own lives, married or, in Cordelia’s case, about to be married, and he’s about to lose Cordelia essentially, which I think is the trigger… which I guess is the trigger for a lot of this. He’s approaching empty-nest syndrome territory, so instead of tolerating that he’s going to set things up so he could go be taken care of by Cordelia. But he’s gonna put filial gratitude to the test in a very ill- considered way so that he’s primed to be really offended by Cordelia, really wounded. And that’s where we get his explosive disowning of her.
Erin: I’m curious to know how much in the equation of the parallels between the two families, Gloucester and his two children, and Lear and his three, I wonder if Regan and Goneril are the equivalent of Edmund. If, as you say, when Gloucester says “This is my son Edgar, and my illegitimate son, Edmund,” in the same way, Lear says, you know, “This is… these are my daughters, Regan, Goneril and my favorite Cordelia.” The question for me that kept coming up in the entire play, because the term nature, the concept of where we get our natures from, comes up throughout, as does ingratitude. And it leaves me with a question, you know, what do we owe our parents? In Edmonds’ case, perhaps he doesn’t owe his father very much because he feels so put upon by his father’s treatment of him. And I wonder if we’re supposed to extend that parallel to Regan and Goneril, because, like I said, on the first read, Lear almost seemed to me a villain who… Regan and Goneril, they have his number. They know what he wants. They give it to him. That’s kind of a sign that they’ve played this game before. They know, for lack of a better term, what a pain in the ass he is, [laughter] and they know how to play the game, and they know how little Lear’s own self knowledge is. And if Lear has been flattered and fond over his whole life and perhaps running a kingdom had had little time for his children. I mean maybe they’ve grown up with this sense that he didn’t care very much for them. So he wants them to be extremely grateful for this gift. Whether they got it now or after he died, there would have to have been some reckoning, some division of the kingdom, probably if he died and all three were ready to inherit her if he had stipulated it in his will. I take this first scene as Lear, almost trying to crash his own funeral. He’s deciding to abdicate and give it all away and have this premature death ritual, and he wants to spy on everybody’s eulogies for him [laughter] only he’s right there, so they can’t be honest, but they were probably going to get it either way. Now, many children who have terrible relationships with their parents, the parents still leave all of their estate to their children. He wants things both ways, right? He’s still king, and of course, he should still be shown respect. But he wants a certain amount of power after he’s abdicated, and, of course, he wants basic good treatment from his children. But it seems to me that Regan and Goneril’s behavior must stem from some deep seated issues with their father that they have no intention of… once he hands over the power, they have no intention of being kind to him, perhaps because he wasn’t kind to them.
Wes: I think we’re kind of left confused about Lear’s character, what it is before all of this happens. Because Regan and Goneril will say yes, he never knew himself very well, and he’s always been rash like this. But I think it’s Kent who will at some point say, “don’t deviate from that patience that you pride yourself on. You’re supposed to be this wise.” I think it’s said multiple times by various people. Your reputation is for a sort of wisdom. Which I don’t think we’re supposed to take at face value, either. I think we might imagine someone who’s played at that, right, so he’s trying to play the role of the parent who doesn’t favor this whole idea of equality again between estates. It’s… we’re meant to think of it in terms of daughters as well, who hasn’t shown favor overtly for any of his daughters in particular and is very conscious of that in the same way he rules this kingdom he has tried to be wise and just in all of these things. But I think we’re meant to believe that that was just on the surface and that it was somewhat hypocritical or just it didn’t run very deep. And one of the signs of that, of course, everyone knew he actually really loved Cordelia the most. And if that’s true, and she seems to adore him, so we know that he doesn’t need her to say anything about her love. They’ve probably had this very obviously close relationship that has induced envy and rage in Cordelia’s sisters. But at least Lear thought of himself as trying to be fair and equal. But that’s all speculative. But whatever the case, I think when we get the question of what… I think we are supposed to think about, in this play, what children owe their parents more generally. And that’s a really interesting question because we, in this whole nature-versus-nurture question, in the nature part, we inherit certain qualities genetically, right, from our parents, but then we’re also raised by them, so I think we have to take the creature-creator relation very seriously. There are lots of forces that go into shaping our characters, for instance, and that includes forces other than our parents. But our parents are very, very important. That’s what we are bequeathed initially, not their estates or their goods when they die. Our inheritance is the sins they’ve visited on us, or our good qualities of character and bad. And you see this especially in adolescence. But that’s a gift in a way, especially if you’re thinking about the good qualities, the ways in which our education, the ways in which our characters and abilities are formed by our parents. But it’s also something confining and imprisoning, right? Character is a sort of prison. It tends us to shape the way we behave. It’s included in character, our hang-ups and our defenses, and those are all sorts of things that you can blame on your parents. The very thing that a parent wants gratitude for is the very thing that we tend to blame them for. It’s a difficult situation. [laughter] I raised you and I nurtured you and I loved you. Yeah, and that’s exactly what screwed me up. You may have done your best, but even the parents who do their best to screw the kids up in one way or or another. It’s always tragic for a parent to look for filial gratitude because, really, it’s just a thankless job and you have to accept [laughter] you’re only going to get the blame in the end.
Erin: Right. I think Kent really puts a button on it towards the end of the play in Act 4, Scene 3, when he said his famous lines. “It is the stars, the stars above us, govern our conditions; else one self mate and mate could not beget such different issues.” So as you say, there’s this tension throughout between what governs us, fate or the stars (is another way of putting that). Edmund is able to kind of play on Gloucester’s belief in astrology and the fact that eclipses cause people to act strangely. And Edmond says, “You know very strongly he doesn’t believe in this,” he says, “it’s just pure nature that he believes in.” Lots of different characters have different things to say about this, but here, Kent says that fate must make us who we are, not parentage, or else how could Cordelia be the child of Lear and Regan and Goneril could be the child of Lear. It has to just be a matter of the stars, fate. Another thing that Lear kind of discovers throughout the play is how much like he is other men. So the fact that he’s a king really has, in the face of that great storm… the storm doesn’t care that he is a king. [laughter] That’s the great equalizer, as Madonna would say. Nature will drop a tree on your head whether you’re a king or peasant. He has this realization, when he’s brought low, that being a king really has no bearing on one’s mortality per se. What’s interesting about this quote from Ken, I guess, is… carried to its logical conclusion, this means that no one is better or worse than anyone else by virtue of birth. It’s just by fate that you turn out to be a good person or a bad person, which is interesting because that also means that a king could have terrible daughters, okay, so then, who’s supposed to inherit the kingdom? It’s supposed to be… the prevailing logic of the day is that kings are anointed by God and that that line has to continue and that each subsequent child is anointed by God in order to rule over the kingdom. And if you’re a king and then you have really crappy children, that logic falls apart. And with Lear, that nature has to be weighed against merit, as he says in the opening scene, troubles all of this, because one’s nature, i.e. being born into a certain situation, may not indicate merit. The fact of being a king doesn’t make you a better person. The fact of being a peasant doesn’t make you a better person. As Kent says, it’s all just a crapshoot, basically. So all of these things are layered on top of each other in this really kind of confusing way, because all these characters have different opinions about this, about what makes you a good person and what makes your character, what determines your character, and then also what makes you just the same as everybody else. It’s almost, to me, at the end, maybe, kind of like an anti-monarchical play, or maybe a play that comes to no definitive answer as to what makes you you. And yet we see examples of children who I think, you know, the play is trying to tell us, are made bad by bad parenting.
Wes: That’s interesting because the different ways to see fate, ultimately, what we’re thinking of are causal influences as opposed to our freedom. Those causal influences might be genetics, they might be the influences of parenting, other environmental issues, things that happened in the womb, it may just be temperamental stuff. Every parent knows this. Children end up very different, and it’s just siblings will have very different temperaments from each other naturally, and the same children can nominally get the same parenting, and some of them end up having very bad character [laughter] or having good characters. So I think what Ken is pointing to there is when he’s talking about the stars above, in a way, he’s talking about randomness. He’s talking about things that transcend the natural order and transcend natural causality because he can’t think of any other way to explain it. You know, we might say, scientifically, we can’t use the natural order to explain these kinds of variances. The assumption is, yeah, if you’re getting the same upbringing then why would all these children be different? You mentioned that scene… so Act 1, Scene 2, where we get all the stuff about Gloucester’s interest in astrology and the way Edmund will end up making fun of that. So this is around line 91, Act 1, Scene 2. Gloucester will say “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.” He’s saying that astrological explanations are more fundamental than natural scientific explanations. So superstition is given a kind of precedence. And he’s saying, Yeah, I understand that there’s natural science and that all works. So that’s its own little contained system and there’s still something outside of that system that disturbs it. That’s the astrological… And so that’s one way of thinking about fate, except in the sense that it’s outside of this natural causal order. It explains, but it doesn’t explain, so it could just be Goneril, maybe, was born under one star, and Cordelia was born under another star, and therefore one is this way, and one is another way. And in a way, that’s an explanation. In a way, you’re attributing causes to things, but in a way, it’s not. In a way, it really is just another way of talking about randomness, because why is one star associated with one thing and another star associated with another? There’s no way to explain that. There’s no sensible way to make sense of that. And so when you talk about fate in these astrological terms, you’re just trying to say that some things are actually naturally inexplicable.
Erin: And Edmund answers that. I mean, as soon as Gloucester exits, Edmond says, “This is the excellent foppery of the world, that, when we are sick in fortune, often the surfeit of our own behaviour, we make guilty of our disasters the sun, the moon, and the stars; as if we were villains on necessity; fools by heavenly compulsion.” And then he says, “My father compounded with my mother under the Dragon’s Tail, and my nativity was under Ursa Major, so that it follows I am rough and lecherous. Fut! I should have been that I am, had the maidenliest star in the firmament twinkled on my bastardizing.” Yeah, so we can’t blame the stars, he says, we have to blame our own behavior. The problems in our own characters, which in the same way that you say, we use the stars as a cause and you trace that back and well, really, there’s no cause, well, we might then ask, okay, well, what do we have to blame for our own behavior? And if we take fate to be anything outside of our own control, I mean, certainly, once you reach the age of reason and then especially, you know, adulthood, there is a sense in which you can no longer blame other people for your own behavior, right, you have to be responsible for your own behavior. But what major character does? Well, you might argue, okay, being born into that family. Well, that’s something outside of your control.
Wes: It’s complicated. Edmund is the naturalist. He’s representative of the new sort of world that’s emerging, right, around the time of Shakespeare, a different way of thinking of things. It’s clear that Edmund and Lear are sneering at astrology and that type of stuff, and you could imagine the audience got that and laughed at that, right. We’re now at the point in history where people can laugh at all of that superstitious stuff. Natural causes are a form of necessity. So as a naturalist, you would think he can’t simply abandon necessity. He would just say, oh, it’s not about astrology. It’s about all these other natural causes that make us who we are, which could include our parents, but it does include a lot of other stuff, too, as I pointed out. But instead, what he’s thinking about is personal responsibility and freedom. So he’s not quite to the point of the full naturalist for whom, maybe, that wouldn’t make sense. The full on naturalists would say freedom is an illusion because we’re biological machines determined by things outside of us.
Erin: And Lear, when he’s talking about Cordelia’s treatment of him, this is in Act 1, Scene 4, line, from me, around 273, Lear says, “O most small fault, how ugly didst thou in Cordelia show! Which, like an engine, wrench’d my frame of nature from the fix’d place; drew from my heart all love and added to the gall.” Basically, he’s saying that Cordelia’s flaw, so the wrong that Cordelia did to him, has changed his fixed nature, has actually changed his character, somehow. It bent him completely out of shape.
Wes: So wait, what does he mean by small fault there?
Erin: This is now in relation to the larger fault that Goneril has displayed by kicking him out.
Wes: Is he saying that’s his own small fall?
Erin: I think he’s saying it’s Cordelia’s: “How ugly didst thou in Cordelia show!”
Wes: Oh, sorry. I didn’t realize we were talking about Cordelia.
Erin: He’s reflecting on what Goneril did to him and saying that Cordelia is… maybe now seems a little bit smaller in comparison.
Wes: So he’s saying, “I magnified this tiny flaw in Cordelia’s character to something really ugly and…”
Erin: And yet it was possible that this flaw of hers…
Wes: So he was the princess with the P right. This tiny thing wrenched his frame of nature, and
Erin: Exactly. That one’s frame of nature is so susceptible to the slightest little P. Exactly. And if he was so susceptible to someone not flattering him, I mean, he couldn’t have been impermeable to people’s words before this happened. There’s a part, too, that’s kind of interesting. The Fool talking to Lear about Goneril in that same scene, Act 1, Scene 4. He’s sort of chiding Lear for having given away all of his power, and he says, “Thou wast a pretty fellow when thou hadst no need to care for her frowning. Now thou art an O without a figure. I am better than thou art now: I am a fool, thou art nothing.” So he says, To Lear, you know, you were better off when you didn’t have to care whether or not she frowned. So presumably when he was king, he didn’t have to worry about whether or not his children were frowning. And now that he’s giving away his power, he sort of lives at their pleasure. Now he has to care whether or not she frowns, wouldn’t he always have an interest in his children’s happiness?
Wes: “Thou wast a pretty fellow when thou hadst no need to care for her frowning. Now thou art an O without a figure.” So in my notes, the O is a zero, which should be accompanied by…
Erin: …a digit to give it value.
Wes: Yeah, a digit. He doesn’t fully signify. To signify the zero would have to be supplemented by another.
Erin: Right. It just struck me that the Fool’s conception of Lear’s rightful place is as the king, an all-powerful king who doesn’t have to bother with how anyone else feels, basically. And maybe that’s been the problem all along. I mean, it’s certainly Gloucester’s problem that he doesn’t care how Edmund feels or thinks he does, but doesn’t really get it. That comes back to bite him. Maybe I’m reading into it too much by using Gloucester and Edmund’s relationship as kind of a cipher to understand Lear and Regan and Goneril’s relationship. But I watched a couple of interviews with Ian McKellen about his interpretation of Lear, and he said that he felt as though… because of the age difference, that Regan and Goneril probably came from a first marriage and Cordelia from a second marriage. He made a really interesting point that Cordelia would have been probably the age of Cordelia’s mother at the time that Lear married her. Something that just seems very true to me about that, because in my family, there are two siblings and then a large gap and then two more siblings, the same parents for both sets of children. But I think probably my parents would say that they were very different parents to the two younger children than they were to the two older children. And here, maybe even more so with the fact that, you know, as Ian McKellen takes it, there were two different mothers. And you know the fact that Cordelia is the youngest and the favorite maybe plays into that, that she’s almost functioning as a… I see her as having almost a granddaughter-type relationship with Lear rather than a parental relationship.
Wes: the whole idea that he’s nothing here in the scene. I related it back to the first scene in which he tells Cordelia, nothing comes of nothing because she says nothing. There aren’t really words appropriate to her expression of love, so she can only say nothing. He desired in some sense, to become nothing, to become powerless, to become dependent on his daughters. And that was the getting back to what Children owe their parents. That’s what he’s trying to get from them. He’s trying to reverse the parent-child relationship. That would be the only way to get repaid as parents. And of course, that’s disastrous. That’s not something we should seek out, because otherwise we become nothing in this sense. We retreat into being people with, in a way, unformed characters. There are people without identities, which is what the madness will speak to.
Erin: That flipping on its head of the parent-child relationship, I mean, isn’t that a function of old age?
Wes: I mean, it is a natural function of old age in the sense that (and this is mentioned in the play a lot) where, as parents get really old, ultimately the parents, if they have good children, the good children will help take care of them and not just shove them into a nursing home, right, or let them wonder about on the… in the the storm.
Wes: That’s one essential part of aging. But Lear’s situation goes beyond that because he wants to do that emotionally as well. There are resemblances to old age and having to crawl again, so he uses that word crawl right between that in infancy, crawling towards death and being taken care of. But what he thinks he’s going to get out of this, what he thinks the payoff for old age is going to be is going to be an emotional sort of infancy as well.
Erin: The fact of his age, and Goneril and Regan really have their heads on straight about this where they say, you know, he was never a great person to deal with, even in his prime. Now that I know that he is going to be an old man, you know he’s going to be even more of a handful. But they use his age against him where… I think it’s Act 2 Scene 4, Regan says to Lear, you know, you’re old so you should just apologize to Goneril, like they frequently use this as evidence against him like, well, you’re old, so what do you know? But it’s not fair. He can’t control the fact that he’s old. He is old, but they use that as evidence that therefore he is idiotic or foolish. And in fact, the Fool says to Lear, “Thou shouldst not have been old till thou hadst been wise.” So even the fool thinks the problem isn’t the fact that you’re old, the problem is that you’re old and you’re not wise yet, whereas Regan and Goneril just kind of want to say, “Listen, you’re old, you don’t know what you’re talking about” as a way to control him or kind of quiet him down, and he can’t argue that fact because he is old.
Wes: I think that’s really interesting. There’s the possibility that aging is not necessarily a form of wisdom. We see that in the ending when we get Edgar saying, “he but usurped his life.” So after everything has gone down and Lear has died, Kent will say, “the wonder is he hath endured it so long he but usurped his life…” and then skip a little bit and Edgar will say, “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.” The reason why I’m going here now is it kind of wraps up some ideas about this relationship between younger people and older people, which is a big preoccupation in the play. What does it mean exactly to say that he usurped his life, right? So if it were a case of usurpation when it comes to a kingdom, it would be someone who took his kingdom away by force, right where it might even be a relative who kills you so they could take the throne or something like that. It’s a little unclear, I think, what this means, so there’s a few possibilities, but what it seems to suggest is that in the same way that a usurper might not inherit a kingdom by blood, life is the same way, or at least in Lear’s case. But I think it actually probably generalizes, but life is not something that was his by inheritance exactly, but something that he usurped. So it was only on loan in some sense, and only for a brief time on Earth. So I think it’s another way of saying that we are all impostors to some extent, and not simply by nature but dressed up in custom. And when we talk about life, we are not just talking about the biological phenomenon, but we’re talking about something inherently social, something inherently suffused with custom. But the other part here is that, as the older generation gets older, power is naturally given over to the young, and, as we pointed out, that’s a natural process. And then the young might take care of the old, and Lear seems to have this extraordinary desire to return to childhood, but that makes it seem like it’s the younger generation that takes back what is it to do from the usurper. At some point, Edmund, in his letter that he uses to frame Edgar, says that the power of older people is actually not real. It only exists insofar as children make it so, and insofar as they obey and observe the pretenses of custom, and they could take it away at any time if they just dissipate. So he’s attributing that to Edgar. Of course, parents in the beginning do have all the power: that’s the potency of creating and giving birth and then having power of their children. You might also see the younger generation as the usurpers. So you get this dual contradictory idea of the older generation as being usurpers and the young take it back in a way and then vice versa: the younger generation is usurping the older, and it’s hard to say which is true exactly. All of that speaks to a natural reversal of this creature-creator relation that I’ve talked about. I think what the significance of saying “we that are young, shall never see so much nor live so long” is to say that once we are old, we will never be the same. It will not be our eyes that are seeing at that point. We’ll be so changed that we can’t say it’s us who are living so long and doing the seeing. This maybe I’m reading too much into it.
Erin: I have a quote to bolster what you’re saying. This is what I was alluding to before, but I didn’t read it full out, in Act 2, Scene 4, “Oh, Sir, you are old. Nature in you stands on the very verge of his confine,” You’re nearing the end of your life because there is a point at which you’re getting to the end of your rope. Nature is standing on the edge in the same way that by usurping your life, you sort of go out of bounds. She’s kind of imagining a boundary here. “You should be rul’d and led by some discretion that discerns your state better than you yourself.” You’re old and by the fact of your oldness, that means that it’s my turn. Someone needs to rule you and you need to step back. And she uses this as a reason for Lear to then apologize to Goneril. She says, “Therefore, I pray you that to our sister you do make return. Say you have wrong’d her” and Lear responses, “Ask her forgiveness. Do you but mark how this becomes the house: ‘Dear daughter. I confess that I am old…” (and he kneels and sort of makes a show of this) “(kneeling) Age is unnecessary. On my knees I beg that you’ll vouchsafe me raiment, bed, and food.” This is kind of the interesting thing about… this is Regan and Goneril, at the beginning, accused Lear of having too little self knowledge, and it seems to me that to what you’re saying about old age, that part of Lear’s journey over the course of this play is to have… I mean, part of it is to have empathy for other people, what he seems not to have much of at the beginning of the play, and part of it is actually to accept his age and to accept the fact that he has to give up his power. And at this point, he makes a show of kneeling and says, “Oh, I confess that I am old,” but he’s imagining what he’s saying, “Oh, is this what you want me to say to Goneril? I confess that I am old. Age is unnecessary. On my knees I beg that you’ll vouchsafe me, raiment, bed, and food.” So he’s saying, I’m old and therefore I’ve made myself unnecessary and useless. The interesting part about this is that in Act 4, Scene 7, when Lear sees Cordelia, he kneels to her as she says, “Oh, look upon me, Sir, and hold your hand in benediction o’er me. You must not kneel.” but he says in response, “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.” He kneels to her and admits that he is old, that he’s foolish and fond, and that he’s four scoring upward, so he’s over 80 years old. And to be honest, I fear I’m not in my perfect mind. [laughter] I think I think I’ve gone crazy. So this very scene that he says, “Oh, you want me to act out the scene to Goneril and basically admit that I’m old and I’m useless now?” Well, later, he does this very thing: he kneels to Cordelia and admits that he’s old and not in his right mind, and therefore the subtext there is that he’s kind of useless, that he’s lost his mind. And so it seems to me that this is him finally making his abdication and admitting that he is old and that he does need to move on as being part of this growing self knowledge that the plot has been kind of forcing him to obtain over the course of the play.
Wes: Yeah, that’s interesting, because I want to stay here because I can’t help mentioning this. But in the other King Lear play, this scene is actually quite extended and comic, and it involves Cordelia kneeling and asking for his forgiveness and then saying, “No, youstand up, I’m gonna kneel and ask for your forgiveness.” And they do this over and over again, like, “No, you forgive me.” “No, youforgive me.” [laughter] I think this is important because this idea of him acknowledging his age because even though it looks like he’s done that in the beginning, in a way, by retiring, of course he hasn’t really done that or he wants to eat his cake and have it, too, in a sense. He is giving up power, but he somehow thinks that their love for him is gonna earn him the kind of indirect power. That’s the bet that he’s making. So I have none of the responsibility or hang out at the daughters’ castles and party and ultimately become childlike and dependent. But I’m trying to get at what it is to really acknowledge your age, you’re aging, not even sure it necessarily has to be that we’ve gotten old, but what it is to acknowledge that we are at some stage of maturation that has left something else behind or what it is, you know, to be in the current day and to have every other day behind you and to actually believe that every other day is behind you. When one might not necessarily believe that exactly one might think that you can retrieve those days in some sense or relive them or not ever really actually give them up on the surface again. It seems like he’s acknowledging his age at the beginning of the play, and yet he’s not really doing that.
Erin: I think there’s maybe a conflicting message, or just a complication about what the play wants us to think about, what is an acceptable way to go into old age? And maybe this is why the Fool disappears part-way through the play. The Fool, who we take to be a reliable source of information, is constantly telling Lear that he’s made a huge mistake by giving up his power, by yielding to old age. He says, even in Act 1, Scene 4, “… thou mad’st thy daughters thy mothers; for when thou gav’st them the rod, and put’st down thine own breeches, then they for sudden joy did weep, and I for sorrow sung, that such a king should play bo-peep and go the fools among.” He’s saying: by giving them your power, you’ve made them into your mothers, which is what Leer wants, right? He wants to rest on Cordelia’s kind nursery, as he says…
Wes: …and play bo-peep, by the way, is peekaboo.
Erin: Right. And the implication there is covering one’s own eyes, blinding oneself, which is gonna be maybe a Gloucester reference or something. So he’s saying, by doing this, you’ve given them the stick to spank you with, and then you’ve pulled down your own pants, so you’ve allowed them to take advantage of you by giving away your power. So the Fool’s message to Lear is constantly right. You’ve pared your wit on both sides and left nothing in the middle. So you’ve taken the two halves of your brain and given them away to Regan and Goneril, and there’s nothing left. So now you’re nothing. You have nothing. Well, the Fool keeps saying this to Lear, so we, or at least I, as the audience, say “Okay, so this is bad. He shouldn’t have given up his power.” And, of course, it’s bad for him because he’s given it away to people who don’t have his best interests in mind. And yet there’s also the sense in the play that Lear has to come to terms with his age. He has to truly abdicate in order to move on, and what moving on is, I don’t know. And what the necessity of acknowledging his own age is for Lear’s development of character, I mean, that seems a little bit clear to me, right? He has to acknowledge that he’s a king, but he’s also just a man that he ages that he’s no better than anybody else. That seems clear. But it’s just funny that the Fool was telling him, “You shouldn’t have done this. You shouldn’t have given away your power.” I don’t think it’s the giving away the power that is necessarily the problem. It’s giving it to the wrong people. That’s the problem. If he had given it to Cordelia and she had become his (quote-unquote) “mother”, she would have been a good mother. What do you think about that?
Wes: It’s interesting, because what the Fool says is, “Thou hast pared thy wit o’ both sides and left nothing i’ th’ middle. Here comes one of the parings.” That’s the way he introduces Goneril, which is great. “Here comes one of the parings.” And that’s a continuation of his talk. Or, I guess, I’m not sure if it’s continuation elsewhere, the Fool will talk of him dividing his crown and to… where the pun is on “crown”, what you wear on your head and the crown as in your head. So the idea that the division of power and the giving up of power is also a division of one’s mind and one’s identity and a giving up of one’s sanity. Maybe it’s not so much the giving up of worldly power as it is the significance of that for Lear. What kind of power is he actually trying to give up? I don’t wanna be this underground, but mentioned the idea that he wants to be a child again, in the sense, and to make his daughters his mothers. But what is the sense of power that one might give up that makes you mad? When I think of one of the parings, the Fool is kind of saying, “Goneril and Regan are pieces of your mind that you’ve ejected into the world,” which I think parents have something of that experience, right? This is their part of me, and now they’re in the world. The idea is that you have to stay within yourself, in some sense.
Erin: I think I have a bridge here because I think that identity is a really good way to go off from that here. When Lear sees Edgar and his interactions with Tom, he realizes maybe the precariousness of his identity. The Fool has, in that scene, in Act 2, Scene 4, he has this little rhyme. “Fathers that wear rags do make their children blind; but fathers that bear bags shall see their children kind. Fortune, that arrant whore, ne’er turns the key to th’ poor.” So I guess fathers that are poor make their children blind, which I suppose means indifferent to their father’s misfortune, so they don’t care. “Well, you have nothing to offer me. So I don’t care about you because you’re poor.” But fathers that bear bags like moneybags shall see their children kind. So the fool has this incredibly just mercenary idea about children and parents and the relationship between them. So children are only kind to their parents, to the extent that their parents can give them something back and therefore that people who are poor are unlucky. And this is kind of an interesting bridge, I guess, because what Lear will come to understand with Tom is that Tom as a poor person, has been treated badly by fate. And he sees Tom and Tom’s nakedness as revealing something about his own identity to him. So now that he has no bags to give his children, (picturing like Mr Monopoly or something, with the canvas bags with a dollar sign on them) now that he’s given them away to his children, he has nothing left, so he is like a poor man. And he has no retinue, they’ve sent away all his knights, he has no place to go because they won’t let him in out of the storm. So now he’s like a poor beggar who is susceptible to the elements. So who is he then? He’s constantly asking, “Well, who am I? Can you tell me who I am?” Because he no longer has his identity, which is the kingship. And so he realizes that he is just like anyone else, like, what is, the bare forked animal, like Tom.
Wes: Yes. The poor unaccommodated man. Poor, bare, fork’d animal. And the thing itself. “Thou art the thing itself: unaccommodated man.”
Erin: The thing itself. Yeah. So you’re just a man. This is just what we are.
Wes: The thing itself is opposed, right to all the appearances involved in clothing, involved in anything artificial and customary. All the things that we think of as culture.
Erin: Yeah, no, exactly. Lear then gets into this idea of clothing, that rich men, with their clothing, can get away with committing crimes, that poor men can’t get away with because they have nothing to protect them. In the same way, perhaps, as rich men, who have these castles can hide from a storm. But poor men can’t. Now Lear is on that plane with the poor men. So in other words, maybe the very thing that the Fool was telling him was a bad idea is actually a good idea. He’s gotten rid of all of the trappings of his power…
Erin: …and has made himself poor, vulnerable, susceptible to the cold, susceptible to the storm and therefore suddenly then capable of both empathy and self-knowledge. Like he says in Act 3, Scene 4, “Poor naked wretches, wheresoe’er you are, that bide the pelting of this pitiless storm, how shall your houseless heads and unfed sides, your loop’d and window’d raggedness, defend you from seasons such as these? O, I have ta’en too little care of this! Take physic, pomp; expose thyself to feel what wretches feel, that thou mayst shake the superflux to them and show the heavens more just.” So he’s saying not only does he feel pity for these beggars who are suffering the storm who don’t have a roof over their heads or anything to keep them warm. He then is going the extra mile and saying, “When I was a king, I didn’t do enough to help you.” And so he says, “take physic pomp.” So here’s the medicine for people who are pompous, presumably like him, the way he was, “expose thyself to what wretches feel.” So go out and learn empathy by understanding what it is to not have anything in this storm, and then you will show the heavens more just, so then you will understand what it’s like, and then the world will be more fair. So it’s a good thing that he’s suffered this and had to go out into the world, and he prescribes it to other rich people that they go out and understand what this is like. I guess I just realized the parallel here between this scene and the last scene of the play, that the last thing that Lear says, he looks at Tom’s nakedness when he says “Thou art 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.” So he wants to take off his clothing. So he’s saying, “Oh, lendings”, like I guess his clothing was lent him from animals or whatever. So he wants to take it off and just be a bare, forked animal, like Tom, that just chimed with the last lines that Lear says When Cordelia is dead in his arms, he says, “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.” The more I read this, the more I see all these incredible symmetries in the play. So earlier, when he’s talking to Tom, he has this desire to join Tom and his nakedness out of the tremendous empathy he feels for Tom that he wants to take off his clothing and be like Tom, a bare, forked animal. And he’ll take his identity from just being the thing itself, just being a man and then, with Cordelia dead in his arms, he asked someone to help him undo his button. The note in my edition says, presumably because it’s suffocating him. But maybe that suffocation is mental as well as physical.
Wes: Yeah, he himself might be having trouble breathing at that point. So she’s not breathing. And that’s the beginning of his descent to the same position. Maybe the parallel here is between being wretched and naked and being mortal and capable of dying like this.
Erin: Just as he’s ready to take off his clothes out of empathy for Tom, now, in his sorrow over Cordelia he’s ready to shake off his mortal coil and die with Cordelia.
Wes: Let’s see, what else do we have to talk about here? Gloucester’s blinding…
Erin: So gross!
Wes: “Out, vile jelly!”
Wes: It’s one of the hardest things to watch in any Shakespeare play, even though they usually face Gloucester’s back to you. And…
Erin: So Edmund has betrayed Gloucester to Cornwall and Regan. So they think that Edmund actually loves his father but just had to reveal the fact that Gloucester was being disloyal to them. So Cornwell says to Edmund, “the revenges we’re bound to take up on your traitorous father are not fit for your beholding,” which I love. He’s like, “Oh, you know, it’s gonna be hard for you to watch when we take revenge on your father. It’s not fit for you to see, so you should probably go.” They’re making Edmund, I guess, blind to what they’re about to do to Gloucester, which is blind him. And then there’s even more Gloucester than when he’s in front of Regan in Cornwall. He’s asked why he sent Lear off to Dover and he says, “because I would not see thy cruel nails pluck out his poor old eyes nor thy fierce sister in his anointed flesh stick boarish fangs.” And then he says, “I shall see the winged vengeance overtake such children.” He’s kind of suggesting, like I wonder if the fact that he describes Regan as having cruel nails that pluck out Lear’s old eyes, I wonder if he’s then putting the idea in Regan and Cornwall’s heads that they should blind him. And, of course, anything that happens to Lear has to happen to Gloucester. So by metaphorically saying they’ve plucked out their eyes by maybe making him crazy, his mental eyes have been gouged out because the fact that he’s lost his sanity now it has to happen to Gloucester. But it will happen to him physically. He’s going to be upset, actually, that he can’t be crazy, that he can’t retreat into madness, the way Lear has, because he’s so upset.
Wes: So what’s the significance of this blinding? People can go listen to our Partially Examined Life episode, where we talk about Stanley Cavell’s essay on King Lear called The Avoidance of Love. So there’s this idea of Lear being motivated by shame. And it’s a shame inherent to love, because love creates vulnerability and dependency and powerlessness. In shame there’s a desire to avoid the recognition, avoid being seen by others in order to avoid seeing oneself. Maybe the causality goes the other direction. But I think Cavell claims that there’s something appropriate in Gloucester’s blinding in the sense that he has denied Edmund proper recognition as a human being and that this is an apt way of punishing that.
Erin: Yeah, I think that’s right.
Wes: So this refusal to fully see and acknowledge others just thinking about the parallel here between Edmond’s being shamed essentially, so in a way, it’s a failure to acknowledge, but it’s an acknowledgement of the fact that he’s a bastard. And, as you pointed out, in a way, Goneril and Regan are bastards. In fact, Lear calls Goneril a bastard at some point.
Erin: Yes. Degenerate bastard.
Wes: Yes. [laughter]
Erin: Good one. [laughter]
Wes: Yeah, she’s a bastard. She’s not really his child. It’s another way of disowning her. There’s the idea here that there’s been some sort of failure to acknowledge Goneril and Regan as real daughters. And currently, there’s been an over-acknowledgement and something wrong with his relationship with Cordelia. We hear nothing of a mother in this, right, so she’s gone and we don’t know why. And something about Lear and Cordelia’s relationship seems to be off in its level of closeness. We might think that she’s become a surrogate and Goneril and Regan are treated as step children in a way. So I don’t know if that fully explains the stuff with blindness. And…
Erin: So Gloucester has to then come to terms with how he has been blind. When you think something that Cavell kind of gets out in that essay is that Lear never quite learns his lesson. And maybe Gloucester doesn’t quite learn his lesson, either. I mean, immediately after the blinding, he says, “All dark and comfortless. Where’s my son, Edmund? Edmund, enkindle all the sparks of nature to quit this horrid act.” So “quit” like “requited”. Then he’s told that it was Edmund who gave him up. So then, of course, he immediately learns that Edmund is the one who has hated him all along and that he caused this breach between Gloucester and Edgar and that Edgar really did love him. Gloucester says, “Well, I have no way and therefore want no eyes. I stumbled when I saw.” So he’s saying, like, “I’m not going anywhere, so I don’t need to see because I’m not going in any particular direction. And when I did see I stumbled, I made mistakes.” But we don’t get the sense from Gloucester that he knows what mistakes he made. To not treat Edmund well? Well, it turns out, Edmund wasn’t the great son that he seemed to be momentarily to Gloucester. So presumably the mistake he made was by allowing Edmund to warm himself into his affections to the detriment of Edgar.
Wes: Part of the “not seeing” is just very straight forward, right? Lear has the wool pulled over his eyes by Goneril and Regan and, as Cavell points out, in some sense, he’s asking for that because real love is not quite what he wants. He wants sincere flattery or sincere insincerity. He wants this contradictory thing because it’s safer than actual love. So similarly, the parallel is that Gloucester gets the wool pulled over his eyes by Edmund in the way that Edmund sets up Edgar. But the deeper senses of stumbling when you see, is seeing the wrong thing and then not seeing other things. He doesn’t see in the sense that he doesn’t acknowledge Edmund as a person with someone who might feel shame over the bastard thing and not when it’s mentioned every time they meet someone, “Here’s my son, the bastard.” And then what he does is he sees them through that lens, which Edmund early on protests and makes an association between that and the nature-versus-custom distinction, right? God, stand up for bastards. He’s the representative of nature. I think I mentioned this in the beginning because he’s born outside of custom, in a way. And what Gloucester sees is… he looks at things through the lens of the customary and the same sorts of things that Lear is railing against when he talks about the poor, and how you could just dress up. The difference between the just and the unjust is the just are dissembling, they’re just dressed up that way. So that’s where our vision tends to get blocked at the level of social artifice and custom and stops short of penetrating to unaccommodated men. So the blindness, I think, in a way, is a way of talking about the inability to see beyond those layers. The reason why it’s a blindness that goes along with seeing is that one site becomes preoccupied with the surface level layer, with the appearance, as opposed to the underlying reality. There’s a connection here to the myth of Oedipus, where Oedipus blinds himself after he realizes that he’s slept with his mother and killed his father. And the stumbling that Oedipus was doing when he was seeing was he thought he was consciously evading his fate. He stumbles into it in virtue of the process of evasion, right? He’s fleeing home, what he thinks is his home, and his adoptive parents, in order to avoid that fate. But he becomes preoccupied with everything but himself, maybe it’s the right way to put it. He becomes preoccupied with everything but his own agency. So I think one way of thinking about this is that to see through the layer of custom to what’s unaccommodated in another person is also a form of self knowledge, and one acknowledges others through focusing not on external circumstance. But this is kind of an existentialist idea. To acknowledge others is to acknowledge them in their subjectivites and as freedoms, as people who are free, and one only does that through one’s own autonomy and freedom. And that’s something that’s compromised just as much by attempts to evade fate. The sort of superstitious way of thinking about things that Gloucester embraces, right, with the eclipses and all that, but evade or I’m going to try and take account of these cosmic forces that are affecting me instead of thinking about my own character, my own subjectivity, my own responsibility. You want to be thinking about one’s behavior, not as an evasion of a fate, in a sense, but as something else.
Erin: I think you’re right. I mean, Oedipus too… he’s not only blind to his fate or tries to avoid his epilepsy and then blames everyone else for being the one who brought the pestilence on the city, right?
Wes: Right. I was thinking of that, too.
Erin: Yeah, First, he blames Tiresias, who is constantly telling him that even though Tiresias is physically blind, that Oedipus is actually the blind one.
Wes: I am blind, then I see and you see, but you’re really going to…
Erin: Right. And then he blames Creon and he doesn’t understand the extent to which his own rage, which then turns on Tiresias and Creon and everyone else, the extent to which that is a function of his own faulty character and which actually caused the death of his father in the first place. The idea of constantly blaming other people for one’s problems, or some outside cause, for one’s problems.
Wes: Right. There’s a natural projection…
Wes: …that occurs with seeing so that seeing becomes a distraction because we get focused on the trappings, as opposed to the underlying unaccommodated reality, and then it becomes a distraction because we tend to be focused on the way we’re affected by external circumstances.
Erin: Cavell says this about Lear that, you know, in the end Lear just wants to escape everything and go. You know, he doesn’t mind going to live in a prison with Cordelia that there they can love each other and live kind of almost in secret.
Wes: Let’s talk about that scene just a little bit because it’s so wonderful. Yeah, so this is Act 5, Scene 3, which is a long scene where a lot of different things… in a way it’s many different scenes rolled into one. So at the very beginning… And it’s funny because earlier, Lear, in his madness, thought Cordelia’s people would come for him. He’s thinking, “No, you know, you may put me in prison. No, I’m… no way.” But here Cordelia will say, “We are not the first who with best meaning have incurr’d the worst. For thee, oppressed king, am I cast down; myself could else outfrown false Fortune’s frown. Shall we not see these daughters and these sisters?” “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-…” (they’re gonna watch a lot of reality TV together, too) “And take upon ‘s the mystery of things, as if we were God’s spies; and we’ll wear out, in a wall’d prison, packs and sects of great ones that ebb and flow by th’ moon.” So wonderful! I think, in the Cavell as he doesn’t have such a high opinion of this as I do. But there’s an element of delusion, maybe, to it. Or maybe it speaks to the too much love that Cavell sees in the unseemly kind of love between Lear and Cordelia. But I see in this mainly something genuinely loving that I don’t know that I’ve seen at any other point in the play. It’s almost like a fantasy of getting old together except it no longer involves him being in her nursery, right, that image that we got at the beginning, but of them having this relationship and talking and gossiping, and gossiping specifically about people in power and the vicissitudes of power, but outlasting them because they’re not the ones who were going to get deposed and they’re not gonna be involved in the conflicts that go along with power. They’re just going to live and have this relationship that is now outside of power.
Erin: Yeah, and perhaps that represents the journey that Lear has taken up to this point. That he no longer needs the trappings of the kingship and of royalty, that he just needs Cordelia’s love and that he could be sustained on that. And the two of them can create this relationship away from the rest of the world. So it represents some development on the part of Lear’s character. But not all Cavell says, because of still this desire to retreat from the world. And he says this directly in response to Cordelia asking, “Shall we not see these daughters and these sisters? So should we not go and confront them?” And he will not see them. Maybe again, this is a parallel with Gloucester. He won’t acknowledge them. He won’t deal with the problems in front of him because the fact of the matter is, he is a king. Cordelia is not only his daughter and a princess, but also the wife of France and so this retreat into fantasy is where Lear goes, not to the confrontation of what’s gone on here and what’s gone wrong, but a further retreat away from that. And again, what’s the term we use with Gloucester not coming to terms with reality here, the desire to…
Wes: Not denial. But eva…
Erin: …evasion, you have to retreat and escape into some other way of life that involves not having to deal with reality.
Wes: It’s a recapitulation, right, of what happens at the beginning. Nominally, he’s giving up power in the very beginning, but he wants to have his cake and eat it, too. And he’s giving up power without giving up power without any real surrender. By the way, this relationship between power and customary trappings is important: the thing that blinds us, the thing that we get distracted by when we see in a certain way, the preoccupation with power and status and recognition and respect from other people. That’s inherently related to trapping social and the outward social appearances, including, in Lear’s earlier speech, just wearing a judge’s robe. But you know, also in our mannerisms and our habits that can note class and in many, many other ways. But what I like about this, what’s different in this, is yes, it’s another retreat from power, but I think it’s a more appropriate retreat from power. It’s the kind of retreat we should all make in a sense, which is not to evade confrontation, and you can’t avoid ambition and status and power. You can’t avoid those things being a natural part of one’s life, but they can also become too much. One can become over focused on them and many psychological pathologies are simply predicated on this. They’re predicated on Lear’s narcissism. And I think we’ve used that word yet and his proneness to narcissistic injury or having his pride wounded the way he does in the beginning and his focus on admiration and status. These are part and parcel of what psychoanalysts we call narcissistic pathologies, where there’s a fundamental confusion between what’s good in the sense of something that arises out of care and love for oneself and others, and then what’s just a matter of flattery and admiration from others, or what, you know, sometimes psychologists call it narcissistic supply. So, to really enjoy intimacy and authentic relationships, we have to get beyond that layer. This is again another way of getting the unaccommodated underlying reality, But we have to mourn that, in a way to have the kind of fantasy that Lear is having here, in which two people are just enjoying each other’s company even though they’re imprisoned by it, in some sense, in the way we are by our relationships with other people.
Erin: It’s a step beyond what Gloucester’s wish is when he says, “How stiff is my vile sense, that I stand up, and have ingenious feeling of my huge sorrows! Better I were distract. So should my thoughts be sever’d from my griefs, and woes by wrong imaginations lose the knowledge of themselves.” So he wishes that he were, I guess we could say, you know, imprisoned in madness so that he could be severed from his knowledge of his woes. But here I think you’re saying that Lear has moved beyond Gloucester by saying, “Okay, well, I want to be away from it. But with someone else, not just off in my own madness as an escape, but in the company of someone else, as a kind of further development on Lear’s part.
Wes: It’s a retreat, and it’s not a retreat, right? I think he put it very well. It’s a retreat into truly being in the company of someone, which is another kind of confrontation. It’s not the one Cordelia is talking about, but it involves spending time with people, which could be frustrating. [laughter] As opposed to the retreat he’s trying to make at the very beginning of the play, which is not a retreat into company. It’s a regressive retreat into… you know, people are just going to take care of him and feed him and allow him the… like I said again, party and be at their house. But did he ever mention, “Yeah, I’d love to spend time with you, Goneril, Regan.” It’s not a retreat into company. It’s a retreat into this other type of child-parent relation
Erin: That leads us to the very end of the play. And there’s a suggestion here to me and maybe I’m reading this wrong, that the only way everything is resolved, the only way we truly confront and everything, the only way we’re truly together is in death.
Wes: Mm. The three marry in an instant,
Erin: Three marry in an instant, Yeah, and the idea that then Lear dies with Cordelia…
Wes: …will be bashed out here at the end [laughter]
Erin: Yeah. [laughter]
Erin: We could talk about the extent to which the ending is just or unjust to its characters. I mean, for a long time, of course in the 19th century, they rewrote this because it was… people found it to be too unjust. So Gloucester, after he’s blinded, he has his most famous line “as flies to wanton boys are we to the gods; they kill us for their sport.” He just acknowledged that he stumbled when he saw… he’s not seeing any purpose in his blinding ultimately, because he says, “Well, this is all meaningless. The Gods are just toying with us out of their desire for entertainment.” But Edgar, in the last scene, says that there is. He says, “The Gods are just and of our pleasant vices make instruments to plague us. The dark and vicious place where thee he got…” ( ie, where Gloucester conceived you) “…cost him his eyes.” So Edgar says that Gloucester’s blinding, that the gods actually are just, they’re not just toying with us, that everything has a reason behind it and that our own vices… there’s a reckoning there, where we’re given punishment according to what our vices were, and Edgar reads the punishment for Gloucester’s blinding as a punishment for the fact that he had an illegitimate son in the first place, which is kind of an interesting reasoning there. But that kind of leads us to the ending, which in the 19th century people saw as being fundamentally unjust that Cordelia, the innocent, should die. And so I suppose maybe we should talk about whether or not this is a just ending for Cordelia, whether it proves Gloucester’s point, that we’re just flies to wanton boys, our relationship to the gods, or whether it proves Edgar’s point that the gods are just that we get what we deserve.
Wes: Just to say one thing to that speech by Edgar. In a way, it’s indirectly making the Cavell argument, because you could read the dark and vicious place, you know. So he’s having sex out of wedlock, and I think they share the same mother. So he’s talking about his own mom there. But the dark and vicious place you could read that as the frame of mind of Gloucester, which is one of lust, right, and so one of looking with the eyes at another person and seeing a desirable body for instance, and nothing else. And then the cost of that being a blindness because in a way, it is already a form of blindness. It’s a failure of acknowledgement, of subjectivity and the person inside. And that’s what Cavelll was saying about the aptness of Gloucester’s blinding, that it was a failure of an acknowledgment of Edgar himself. And so you do kind of get an explanation of the preoccupation with Bastardi and it’s shamefulness, because it’s a carrying over of whatever people feel guilty about and ashamed of in we could say objectifying relationships but purely lust-based encounter to go to what you want to talk about with the ending and you’re asking the question of… say it again, whether the gods really are just or…?
Erin: Yeah, whether the message that we’re supposed to take from Cordelia’s death and from the death of everyone in both families except for Edgar, that were supposed to take this as indicative of the meaninglessness of life and the cruelty of the gods, or maybe the lack of the gods existence, that maybe this is a completely atheistic world vision or even crueler, that the fact that the gods are cruel, or that the gods are just that everyone gets their comeuppance in the end and that the comeuppance is in proportion to the… sin. So the prevailing argument for a long time is that this is a nihilistic play, because Cordelia dies and Cordelia was sinless, she was blameless and therefore Shakespeare is making the argument that Gloucester was right. The gods are just toying with us, and nothing evens out in the end. That’s one reading of it. Not one I agree with.
Wes: It’s a tragedy. So if you don’t want to see a tragedy, as, I guess, I don’t know how long they used the alternate ending for this, but it was quite a long time. If you can’t tolerate it doesn’t become meaningless just by virtue of being a tragedy, were nihilistic just by virtue of being a tragedy, because the redemptive part of tragedy is not necessarily internal to the plot, it is in some sense, you know, if we take the Aristotelian paradigm of there being a reversal on a recognition, supposedly the tragic character with their flaw, right, there’s some sort of development, and they have some sort of realization, even though they’re going to die as well. They’re usually going to die. But with tragedy, it’s less about that recognition internal to the plot than it is about the entire work. The entire drama is an enactment of recognition from start to finish that the audience is supposed to participate in, I think, so that the redemptive feature of this, the recognition and the true feeling of loss that the play is supposed to convey go hand in hand. And this again, is this seeing through to the unaccommodated. This is the willingness to see nakedness and wretchedness and to acknowledge it as one zone and not just joke about it being a bastard byproduct of you that you can deny. [laughter]
Erin: So what you’re saying is very active attending a tragedy is redemptive, in a sense?
Wes: You want the ending where everyone does, because that’s the means to experiencing total loss. The whole point of experiencing total loss… loss is integrating, loss is integrating in the sense that what you lose on the outside gets internalized on the inside. And the paradigm for this is progressing in childhood during maturation and childhood, giving up one’s, you know, speaking of parent-child relationships, giving up that relationship of complete dependency and going through separation, individuation of becoming one’s own person. But what you do in that process is you internalize those parental functions, the ability to mother oneself, the ability to father oneself to, love oneself, make rules for oneself. All of that stuff comes inside, but it only comes inside by virtue of accepting its loss on the outside and what people, what narcissists do is they don’t accept that loss. So they maintain an attachment to an idol of sorts, an idol that is essentially the fantasy of a relationship in which that loss is never given up, in which there is this other who is ministering to you in this way. And it gets set up in the external world as an attention to the admiration of others. So again, an attention to those trappings, the admiration, the relationship is close between this attention to admiration and attention to the customary as opposed to the natural. But back to tragedy, in a way, I see it as, and I’m borrowing from… there’s a really good paper on psychoanalytic aesthetics by this psychoanalyst named Hanna Segal, and she’s working with another psychoanalyst, Melanie Klein. I mean, she’s adapting the ideas of Melanie Klein to aesthetics. But the idea is that you want to experience total loss and tragedy because what you get out of that is a recapitulation of the movement in which some of other recordings that we’ve talked about this, including the Keats recordings, but the movement from the manic moment to the depressive moment, which is what maturation is and that movement exists in the artistic process. And then the audience, in participating in the product of the artistic process, is participating also in the creative, it also gets to experience those psychological moments that I think that go into the creative process. But the whole point is that it’s a recapitulation of some fundamental maturational movement. And if you don’t allow loss into this, if you have to have a happy ending, or if you get focused on vengeance and justice, for instance, like you would in an action film, films today, even when really, really bad things happen, they’re not genuinely tragic because you’re not focused on the acceptance of that loss. You might be focused on remedying it or undoing it, but… So I think it’s tragic. It’s a cop out. It’s a tragic cop out to change the ending of the play. And it’s… unfortunately it’s something that people are allergic to. They have trouble experiencing this today, you know, and I suppose always, although the ancient Greeks seemed to like it, but…
Erin: Part of what you’re saying, but maybe I’m going off in a slightly different direction here, is that by attending a tragedy, you are essentially participating in a rehearsal of your own death. And in Hollywood, which is, you know, a money making industry, it’s very hard to get someone to buy a ticket to attend a tragedy and be reminded of their own mortality. They want to be told that everything is going to be okay in the end, so it’s difficult maybe in this day and age to get people to do that. That’s why it takes us hardcore theatergoers to want to participate in this.
Wes: But it’s an enormously pleasurable experience, as Aristotle points out. This is one of the interesting paradoxes, like normally witnessing pain should itself be painful but through poetry… and there’s a very deep connection between tragedy and poetry, but through poetry and tragic poetry we’re able to get pleasure out of what is ordinarily painful, and that’s really important.
Erin: That’s the recompense of the whole thing, it’s that on the one hand it is redemptive and you’re participating in the creative process. That on the one hand. On the other hand, it is a rehearsal of death. But I think what you’re saying is that in order for that transaction to happen where you allow yourself to experience that kind of death, there has to be the redemption of the beauty of it, the creative part of it, the participation in the poetry, the high before the low, I guess.
Wes: Yeah, part of the redemption is aesthetic, right? Part of the redemption is in the form or the beauty of it. And in this particular art form, I think it’s too much to say it’s just formal, because of the way metaphor works. But anyway, there’s an aesthetic compensation and that aesthetic compensation… it has something to do with the highly structured and put together nature of an artwork that again, I’m trying to relate that to the feeling of internal psychological integration as a compensation for loss. So when an artist compensates us, it’s not just accidental, it’s not like “I’m gonna sugarcoat this horrible thing.” They’re intimately related. One thing follows from the other.
Erin: I think that’s great. And that’s not a compensation, typically, that Hollywood is able to make right.
Wes: People aren’t there for beauty. Exactly. They’re there for titillation and for… Hollywood can do comedy, right? I think they can do that pretty well, and it can do action. I mean, it does those things well. It’s just… in general, it’s not going to do real tragedy and even sad films with sad endings. I think, for the most part they’re not really tragedy, because the whole point of this is to maximize the loss. That’s why you’re talking about kings and great people. And Aristotle says they have to be important people…
Erin: …to have the highest fall.
Wes: Yeah, you really gotta have to accentuate the fall. And the reason why is because that fall that we experience, leaving the infantile behind, is so terrible, so traumatic, so horrible. That’s the only way to do it justice, it’s to do this losing everything. Nothing else can approach it.
Erin: That’s good. I think that’s a good place to stop.
Wes: Yeah. I mean, there’s so much more to talk about, but we were out of time and we’re gonna have to say goodbye to Cordelia and Lear and everyone else
Erin: Well, that’s the tragic part of this is that…
Wes: It is.
Erin: …this episode has to die.
Wes: It does. All right, That was a lot of fun. Thank you.
Erin: Thank you.