Which society? Through the lens of King Lear


(What follows is a somewhat stream-of-conciousness entry about King Lear – the process of writing this helped me immensely in getting my thoughts straight after a somewhat plodding read of the text).

I am really hoping that in-class discussion helps to illuminate King Lear a bit more for me. While I recognize this is considered to be Shakespeare’s master work, a multi-layered dramatization with complex meaning – I had a difficult time getting past the hysterical tenor of the scenes involving “Tom” the madman and the Fool, not to mention the fact nearly every single character dies by the end of the play. (Yes, I recognize this is a tragedy, but ten people have to die to make a point about pride?).

As much as I hate to admit it, I found it difficult to get past the “dramatic” nature of this play to get much out of it, and so I’ve since turned to other sources in order to find its deeper meaning. This helps me to place Shakespeare’s King Lear in a similar context to The Prince – that is a society in transition from old-world rules, loyalties, hierarchies and commitments – to a new ruthless and competetive society which favours a different kind of reason, and a different kind of person in success. In Shakepeare’s day, the medieval world was shrinking away to the emergence of a new political reality – seen in the contrast between Edmund (the bastard) and his half-brother Edgar (the honourable rightful heir) and it seems that the audience of Shakespeare would have recognized this tension in their own social order, thus responding to these characterizations quite readily. Likewise, the doting King Lear, is supplanted by his daughters Goneril and Regan who use their newly-inherited estates to attempt to crush their father’s world. It should be noted that Edmund, Goneril and Regan all die by the end of the play, a statement by the playwright about which side of the transition he feels most comfortable on.

But these characters – representative of the new individualism of Shakespeare’s time – are not entirely unsupportable either. We are somewhat sympathetic to Edmund in particular – though he plots against his half-brother Edgar in seeking the father’s estate – for he is to be left with nothing because of his uncertain parentage, while Edgar is somewhat the weaker of the two (in intelligence certainly as he falls for the most dubious ruse of his brother). So there is a great deal of moral ambiguity in the play’s villains. It’s not as simple as to hold up the old order to repulse the new “man” – for we are to understand that these characters have very real grievances stemming from the old way of doing things.

Another way into understanding the intent of the play is to look at the characters who are on the side of moral “good” – Cordelia (who is honest and caretaking), Kent (who is loyal and caretaking), Edgar (who exhibits patience, who cares for his elder father, and restores right at the end through killing his half-brother Edmund), the King of France (who believes in courtly love without the promise of inheritance), the Duke of Albany (who argues against his wife and her sister-in-law a their greed, and in the end attempts to restore Lear to the throne – settling with a sharing of power between Kent and Edgar).  Each of these characters (not all of whom live or are victorious in the end) embodies an ethic of care for each other, in addition to upholding some aspect of the medieval order – birthright, chivalry, care for elders and respect for “natural order”, loyalty to the “natural” king or queen, etc. These are the characters with whom we are to side, even as their weaknesses and character flaws are exposed.

Nature is also hard to ignore in this play – as much of the most dramatic action takes place outside during a blindingly fierce storm – not to mention the words “nature”, “natural” and “unnatural” being mentioned more than forty times in the course of the play (thank Wikipedia for that fact!). Many of these references have to do with human nature, and the so-called natural order of familial and social relations. When Cordelia defies her father – for instance – he is quick to call her unnatural and tell her that nature could not tolerate her treatement of him. Fundamentally the question becomes one of how human nature is most rightfully seen by Elizabethan society. Is it Edmund or Edgar? Goneril/Regan or Cordelia? The Duke of Cornwall or Kent? Is human nature caring or selfish? Both? What does a society in transition reflect about human nature?

Ah, and there’s an interesting question: for one type of society puts a primacy on some aspects of human nature, where another type of society idealizes another – indicating that at the very least, our “natures” are flexible to our context. Unlike Machiavelli’s The Prince, King Lear leaves open the possibility that humans can behave in ways that are caring, generous, altruistic – and still succeed given the right social conditions.  It’s just not a given that the forces of good will win out, and in the interim there may be a lot of violence and bloodshed with casualties on both sides. So there’s that to consider.

There are, of course, many other symbolic readings of the play one can undertake – feminist, Freudian, Jungian and the like – but having read through a number of interpretations, what resonates with me best is that which examines the context of a shifting social order. Perhaps that’s the materialist in me?

Tomorrow I am going to post a second piece on the Book of Genesis which explores the contested nature of the emergence of civilization – and I think Lear posits for us the same kind of debate on the emergence of individualism in society. Our stories are the internal social debates of our time – and as is evident in Genesis and in Lear (and in so many other stories that we tell each other over history) – no social transition goes uncontested. And further to that? The stories we tell each other *do* matter, our ideas matter – because they shape our actions, which shape our society. Lear is a piece of a debate that ultimately is won by the other side, and we are living proof.

One thought on “Which society? Through the lens of King Lear

  1. Plodding? King Lear? Asidie from that, interesting take on the struggle to change social order. Maybe Take a listen to The Tragically Hip’s “Cordelia” if you haven’t in a while.* Clinging to the old ways is hard when the new guard is angry about it.

    Ah, Wikipedia. where facts are fungible. “More than 40” is true, but incomplete. Don’t take my word for it… if you’ve a linux box see what these commands get you:
    $ wget http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/1128/pg1128.txt
    $ grep –ignore-case –count natur pg1128.txt
    50
    $
    (OS X has curl, not wget; on Windows, install cygwin for great justice)
    but then there’s that unusual line, “Allow not nature more than nature needs -man’s life is cheap as beast’s.” which only gets counted once, so 51 it is. Would 51 be better approximated as “More than 40” or “more than 50”?

    * Road Apples, side one, track three (4:11) “Robbing a bank, jumping on a train / Old antiques a man alone can entertain”

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