The Reading Room
Lear: a King and Play in Exile
King Lear is a graphic, grotesque, visceral play. Blow after blow strikes Lear and the audience as we see a great man transformed from King of England to homeless, mad wretch, worse than the blind Gloucester and the raving Poor Tom.
We witness favorite daughters exiled without cause, brothers betray brothers, councilors wrongfully dismissed, fathers betrayed, and sisters fighting sisters. The play is one of deep disharmony and palpable discomfort, as the audience rides out the storm with Lear, feeling themselves on that very heath, cheeks cracked by the wind, scalp drenched with Britain’s freezing rain.
There are many reasons to read King Lear, but I want to ask why one ought not read Shakespeare’s colossal masterpiece. The conservative answer might be its many sustained references to bastardy, as the play begins with “locker room talk” between the senior political advisors Gloucester and Kent. Act one, scene one opens with Gloucester claiming his bastard son, Edmund, without shame, admitting that in the past he “so often blushed to acknowledge him that now [he is] brazed to’t” and proudly claiming the fruits of his sexual exploits. Kent is more decorous and generous of spirit and rather than acknowledging Edmund’s lowly status, acknowledges his elevated breeding in the proverbial sense, commending Edmund’s “proper,” faultless character. Gloucester brings the conversation back to the grotesque, stating that his rightful son, Edgar, though lawfully begotten, was not as much fun to make. With Edmund, on the other hand, “his mother was fair, there was good sport at his making, and the whoreson must be acknowledged” (1.1.9-23). Rather than offering any kind of endorsement of Edmund’s character, Gloucester advertises the sexual enjoyment with which Edmund was made before openly insulting him and his mother. As has long been acknowledged, many of the play’s tragedies are due to Gloucester and Lear themselves – the former who “stumbled when he saw” and the latter who even while sane “hath ever slenderly known himself” (4.1.21; 1.1.294-5). In other words, Gloucester’s blinding and Lear’s descent into madness are merely physical manifestations of the weaknesses they had all along: an inability to see people for what they are and a lack of self-knowledge.
Shakespeare sets their parallel plights up brilliantly. The play moves from 1.1, in which we witness Gloucester fail to see Edmund’s actual corruption (i.e., his taste for vengeance), to 1.2 in which we see Lear’s flaw: his penchant for flattery and distaste for political advice. Lear’s first speech of the play places his stubbornness, tyranny, and lack of understanding front and center. He opens his speech with the ominous, “Meantime we shall express our darker purpose,” before asking that a map be brought out. It is not entirely clear what dark purpose Lear sees in the division of the kingdom that ensues. As he asks his daughters to each flatter him in order to secure their rightful portion of land, does he know that this is politically unwise, corrupt, and “dark” in that sense? If so, why would Lear proceed with the love test if he knows it will destabilize his kingdom and imprudently divide the royal power, his daughters’ inheritance, and the kingdom’s land in one fell swoop? These are questions are omnipresent in the following acts. Goneril chalks Lear’s contradictions up to his senility. Regan blames his lack of self-knowledge: the aging king soon becomes the madman.
This brings us to the second reason to ban Lear: it is openly pagan. Lear is very clearly not set in a Christian world. Instead of praying to God, Lear appeals to the gods, not praying for their mercy, but alternating between harnessing their wrath and challenging them to do their worst. When Lear’s appeals and curses to the gods don’t work, he tries to command nature. In one of the most famous scenes of the play, a mad Lear orders the wind: “Blow winds and crack your cheeks! Rage, blow! You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout Till you have drenched our steeples, drowned the cocks!” He challenges nature to “Singe my white head!” with thunderbolts and “Crack nature’s moulds” (3.2.1-8). When Lear loses command over his kingdom, his people, and nature, he begs nature to destroy itself – to crack its molds – and him along with it. The irony of the passage (and the greatness of Shakespeare) is that just as Lear is at his most mad and most pagan, he spits forth a Christian reasoning that could have been lifted from the Old Testament: when man is “ingrateful” and corrupt, God (here nature) must crack the earth’s molds, destroying ingratitude so good may grow. By understanding the Christian undertones, we can begin to see why Lear and King Lear are so problematic: Lear has a God complex. He thinks he can command nature as he commands his subjects. He imagines himself to be all-seeing and all-powerful when the reality is he never had the first (sight) and, by dividing his kingdom in three, has given up the second. All that remains is empty curses that fall on deaf ears.
The end of King Lear, as Lear, Cordelia, and Gloucester die, is without a doubt the most heart-rending of Shakespeare's tragedies. Indeed, Samuel Jonson famously condemned it for being indecorous, lacking poetic justice by “suffer[ing] the virtue of Cordelia to perish in a just cause, contrary to the natural ideas of justice, to the hope of the reader, and, what is yet more strange, to the faith of chronicles.” Restoration playwright Nahum Tate “fixed” this lack of poetic justice by simply rewriting the ending – and much of the middle – of Lear. In the epistle dedicatory to his “edition” (which is what we would call an adaptation), Tate wrote that he found Shakespeare’s manuscript “a heap of jewels, unstrung and unpolished; yet so dazzling in their disorder, that I soon perceived I had seized a treasure. ‘Twas my good fortune to light on one expedient to rectify what was wanting in the regularity and probability of the tale, which was to run through the whole a love betwixt Edgar and Cordelia.” Tate’s decorous, very clearly Christian King Lear in which Lear is also restored to power (clearly a play written for Tate’s restoration audience), was played on stage until 1845.
This means that the original Lear was lost to live audiences until over two centuries after its first performance. Though this is not an official banning per se, it certainly makes Lear a play in exile. Perhaps it is only fitting that the play which features an exiled king, experience an exile of its own and, like Lear, a glimmer of a happy ending. Like the dying Lear who gets a shred of hope in Act 5 as he thinks he sees Cordelia breathe, so too did the nineteenth-century audience get a flash of happiness, thinking there was a world in which Lear and Cordelia could both survive the injustices reflective of the “common events of human life . . . in which the wicked prosper, and the virtuous miscarry” (Samuel Johnson). King Lear is now back from exile and, for better or worse, cracking the molds of audiences everywhere with its visceral, palpable, tragic injustice.