King Lear interweaves the story of Lear and his daughters with the parallel story of Gloucester and his sons in such a way that we cannot truly speak of plot and subplot but only of co-plots woven together with majestic skill. Lear is betrayed by the deception of his self-serving daughters Regan and Goneril; Gloucester by the deception of his illegitimate son, Edmund. Cordelia, the loyal and faithful daughter of Lear, suffers the hardships of exile because of her father’s blind arrogance; Edgar, the loyal and legitimate son of Gloucester, suffers the hardships of exile through his father’s blind ignorance.
Lear and Gloucester lose everything in the worldly sense but, in the process, gain the wisdom they were lacking. The overarching moral theme resonates with the Christian paradox that one must lose one’s life in order to gain it, or with the words of Christ that there is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. Lear and Gloucester embody the truth of the former; Cordelia and Edgar (and Kent), the truth of the latter.
At the beginning of the play, King Lear promises political power to those of his daughters who “love us most.” He demands absolute loyalty to the state, above all else. Caesar demands all. There can be no room for other loves. Goneril and Regan outdo each other in sycophantic promises of absolute allegiance. Cordelia is a recusant, refusing to render unto Caesar that which is not rightfully his, choosing instead to “love and be silent.” She cannot offer King (or state) any allegiance beyond that which her conscience dictates is appropriate morally. The parallels with the position of Catholics during the tyrannical reign of James I is patently obvious.
In addition to the play’s allegorical applicability to the politics of Jacobean England, especially in relation to the plight of Catholic recusants in the face of a king who demanded absolute allegiance as his “divine right,” King Lear also serves as a profound meditation on the nature and meaning of wisdom. Paradoxically, the contemplation of the meaning of wisdom is revealed through the voice of the play’s two “fools.” The Fool, representing the presence of worldly wisdom in the first half of the play, is replaced in the play’s latter half by another “fool,” the exiled and disguised Edgar in the guise of “Poor Tom,” who represents the “foolishness” of the Cross (1 Corinthians 1:18).
At the pivotal point in the play, when Lear experiences the “madness” of his conversion from the worldly wisdom of the Fool to the Franciscan foolishness of Poor Tom, the Fool disappears without rhyme or reason, as if he’s been exorcized. The deepest insights in King Lear come, therefore, from those who come to wisdom through suffering, not from those, like the Fool, who seek comfort in comfort itself.
“Nothing almost sees miracles but misery,” says Kent, his words serving to introduce the exiled Edgar, who enters in rags declaring that “Edgar I nothing am.” It is in his very “misery,” being “nothing” in the eyes of the world, that he is fit to see miracles, or fit to be the means by which others may see them. When Lear first sets eyes on Edgar, who is disguised as Poor Tom, a “madman,” Edgar is reciting a line from a ballad about the Franciscans (“Through the sharp hawthorn blows the cold wind”).
The connection with the Franciscans is apposite considering that St. Francis was known as the jongleur de Dieu—God’s juggler, or a “fool for Christ”—who famously stripped himself naked in public. Alluding to the Ten Commandments and candidly confessing his sin, Poor Tom repeats the refrain from the Franciscan ballad. It is at this very moment that Lear, pricked with the hawthorn of conscience more than the cold wind on the heath, emulates the example of St. Francis by tearing off his clothes and proclaiming, “Off, off, you lendings!” This moment of “madness” signifies Lear’s conversion from worldly pride to poverty-embracing humility. It is the madness of the sanity that desires sanctity, the love of the cross which is nothing but foolishness to the world.
King Lear’s conversion is paralleled by the conversion of Gloucester, who has been cruelly blinded by his enemies. His blindness enables Shakespeare to play with the axiomatic paradoxes at the heart of the play: the blind seer, the wise fool, and the sane madman. “I stumbled when I saw,” Gloucester proclaims, alluding to his “blindness” (when he still had his sight) in believing the treachery of Edmund and in condemning the innocent Edgar. He continues with the equally paradoxical complaint that it is “the times’ plague, when madmen lead the blind,” a barbed observation which is as applicable to Jacobean England as it is to anything happening in the play itself. Seeing more clearly now that he is blind, he speaks disdainfully of the lust of the eyes of which he had himself boasted in the play’s opening scene, condemning the “lust-dieted man” who “will not see because he does not feel.”
The play’s final scene finds Lear reunited with Cordelia, the daughter whom he had wronged in the play’s first scene. Finally reconciled with her, he is ready to suffer with her at the hands of their enemies. “Come, let’s away to prison,” he says, telling her that, together, they can take upon themselves the mystery of things, “as if we were God’s spies.”
In this politically charged speech, Shakespeare turns for inspiration to the poetry of the Jesuit martyr St. Robert Southwell, as he had done in earlier plays, such as Romeo and Juliet, The Merchant of Venice, and Hamlet. The phrase “God’s spies” would have been seen as a thinly-veiled reference to the Jesuits, the connection becoming unmistakable when connected with Southwell’s phrase, “God’s spice” in his poem, “Decease Release.” This poem, written in the first person with Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, as the narrator, on the eve of her execution, refers to the executed queen as “pounded spice” and continues thus:
God’s spice I was and pounding was my due,
In fading breath my incense savored best,
Death was the mean my kernel to renew,
By lopping shot I up to heavenly rest.
Like the martyred queen of whom he wrote, Robert Southwell was also destined to be “pounded spice” whose essence is more pleasing and valued for being crushed: “God’s spice I was and pounding was my due.” As a Jesuit in Elizabethan England, Southwell had been one of “God’s spies” who, being caught, became “God’s spice,” ground to death that he might receive his martyr’s reward in Heaven. “Upon such sacrifices,” Shakespeare exclaims through the lips of Lear, “the gods themselves throw incense.”
As for the final words of the play, enunciated by Edgar, the saintly “fool,” it is a lament for the contemporary England in which Shakespeare and his fellow Catholics found themselves:
The weight of this sad time we must obey,
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.
The oldest hath borne most: we that are young
Shall never see so much, nor live so long.
Yet hope remains. “All friends shall taste the wages of their virtue,” Albany had said a few lines earlier, “and all foes the cup of their deservings.” Edmund, Goneril, Regan, and Cornwall are dead. It is true that Cordelia and Lear are also dead, but there is an inkling in Lear’s final vision that the lips of Cordelia, and those of Lear himself, are about to “taste the wages of their virtue.” And, of course, there is sublime hope in the fact that the kingdom is left in the hands of Edgar, whose baptized Christian conscience had restored Lear to his sanity. It is the meekness of Edgar that inherits the earth, not the Machiavellian madness of Edmund or the more benign secularism of the Fool. As with the climax of all good comedies, even those masquerading as tragedies, all’s well that ends well.
Editor’s Note: This is the eighteenth in an ongoing series of articles explaining the great works of literature “in a nutshell.”
[Image: “King Lear: Cordelia’s Farewell” by Edwin Austin Abbey]