Joanna Michal Hoyt examines the Domination System in King Lear
Show the Heavens More Just
Joanna Michael Hoyt
Joanna Michael Hoyt
Introduction: The Image Of Authority
Some critics see King Lear as a defense of traditional views of religious and social order; they claim that Shakespeare wrote out of belief in the Great Chain of Being, the popular pagan and Christian conception of an order in which the obedience of subjects to their kings, liegemen to their lords, wives to their husbands, children to their parents, laity to clergy, women to men and the lower classes to the upper is of the same nature as obedience to God, and any breach of this order invites disaster. Others see Lear as a fundamentally nihilistic and antireligious play, exposing all our ideas of human and divine order as shams. Both explanations seem to me to leave out important aspects of the play.
I find in Lear a sharp critique of that version of faith which has been used, in Shakespeare’s day and in our own, to bolster the power claims of privileged groups. I also see a profound affirmation of the divine presence at work in the world, overturning or transcending its power structures. This strikes me as a profoundly (not exclusively) Christian vision, though it is not the uniformly prevailing message of any branch of the Church in Shakespeare’s time or in ours.
In the course of this exploration I will borrow the terminology of Christians who have deeply explored the contradictory ways in which religion is understood and used. For that system of faith and order which reinforces the claims of power and privilege I will use theologian and activist Walter Wink’s term ‘the Domination System.” This system, as Wink describes it, is marked by a strict sense of hierarchy in which some lives are seen as more valuable than others, and by the willingness, even eagerness, to enforce the humanly and divinely ordained authority by violence. For the alternative vision I will use the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s term, the Beloved Community.
I. No Good Divinity: The Domination System in Lear and in Shakespeare’s time
The destructive social and religious beliefs which undergird the Domination System in King Lear appear in concise and ugly form late in act 4, scene 5. Goneril’s steward Oswald, riding in his lady’s service, encounters a blind and distraught old man being led by a poorly dressed young man. He recognizes the elder as the former Earl of Gloucester, recently blinded and dispossessed for treason, and says:
A proclaimed prize! Most happy!
That eyeless head of thine was first framed flesh
To raise my fortunes. Thou old unhappy traitor,
Briefly thyself remember. The sword is out
That must destroy thee.
When the young man gets in his way he turns to him:
Wherefore, bold peasant, durst thou support a published traitor?....Let go, slave, or thou diest.
This revolting bit of gloating is also a disturbingly sincere expression of faith, and of faithful service, in the Domination System. The suggestion of malign Providence is heightened by the fact that old Gloucester has just prayed the ‘ever-gentle gods’ to take his life themselves and never to let him be tempted to suicide again; Oswald does not hear this prayer but comes ‘pat like the catastrophe of the old comedy,’ just in time to appear to be an answer to prayer. While Oswald does not directly invoke the gods, he appeals to a sense of divine and human order which has been shared by characters who more openly profess religion. Let’s take a closer look at the elements of Oswald’s claim.
First Framed Flesh To Raise My Fortunes
“That eyeless head of thine was first framed flesh to raise my fortunes...” This is clearly a theological statement, an assertion of the purpose for which the old man was created. Oswald is saying that the gods value his own life more highly than Gloucester’s, that Gloucester is rightly seen as an object to be used or disposed of to serve his own purposes; that Gloucester’s life has no value in itself.
Lear’s early statements to Cordelia, made in an explicitly theological context, parallel this assertion. He calls the heavens and “all the operations of the orbs by whom we do exist and cease to be” to witness his disowning and banishing of the daughter who has refused to flatter him, and he tells her “Better thou hadst not been born than not to have pleased me better.” Later, when Lear has been cast out by his older daughters and has discovered that he is neither all-powerful nor universally beloved, he calls on Jove’s thunderbolts to destroy the world and all mankind, since he is more important than them all and they have failed to please him.
Both Oswald and Lear base their claims on their place in the Great Chain. The beings whom they treat as objects are below them on the chain, and they have failed to respond with unquestioning obedience to those above.
The accusation of treachery is made frequently by opposing characters in the play’s power struggles. The accusers conflate rebellion against human authorities with rebellion against the gods, and they believe that no punishment is too severe for traitors. Edgar, challenging his brother to a fight to the death, reinforces the link between the human and divine orders; he calls Edmund a traitor, false to his gods (a debatable point, as Edmund claims to serve only Nature, whom he understands differently than some of the other characters), his father and his brother (that charge is clearly true), and conspiring against the Duke of Albany (true, but it’s not clear at this point whether or not Edmund owes Albany allegiance.)
Lear calls the very loyal Kent a traitor and threatens him with death when Kent corrects Lear’s false assumptions. In Act 1, scene 1, Kent urges the king not to banish Cordelia and give over absolute rule to his other daughters and their husbands. He makes it very clear that he is motivated mainly by concern for the King’s safety. Lear calls Kent a miscreant—literally a wrong believer— who has committed the sacrilegious crime of trying to make Lear break his royal oaths. He also calls Kent a vassal, which he is, and a traitor, which he is not unless one admits Lear’s belief that vassals owe their lords complete and unquestioning obedience. He initially attempts to kill Kent for treason, and when his sons-in-law restrain him he banishes Kent from the kingdom. This is briefly echoed in act 3, scene 4, when Kent, now disguised as a poor servant, tries to explain to Lear that the naked madman on the heath is suffering from something other than filial ingratitude and Lear snaps back “Death, traitor!”
The Duke of Cornwall and his lady Regan, heirs to half Lear’s kingdom, believe themselves to have inherited Lear’s absolute power within their borders. It’s hard to judge the merits of this claim. Lear’s abdication is ambiguous; he tries to keep for himself the privileges of a king (‘the name and all th’ addition due…”) without the responsibilities (“cares of state…sway, revenue, execution…”) He immediately follows this abdication by banishing Kent, which might seem to be one of the powers he has just given up, and he makes his gift of power contingent upon his being treated with absolute deference and attended by a hundred knights. Cornwall and Regan set aside his conditions and his ambiguities and see themselves at the apex of the Domination System on earth.
When Gloucester disobeys them by protecting Lear, first from the storm and then from assassination, and sending him to meet the invading French army, the Duke and Duchess are both surprised and outraged by this disobedience. They curse Gloucester for a traitor, both in his absence and in his presence, and punish his treason by blinding him, dispossessing him and turning him out to beg or starve. When Gloucester calls on his son Edmund for help, Regan answers, “Out, treacherous villain!...It was he that made the overture of thy treasons to us, who is too good to pity thee.” [emphasis mine]. We have seen in scenes 1.1 and 2.1 that Regan is capable of hypocrisy when she’s trying to get her own way, but Gloucester is now powerless and her victim and she has no motive for lying to him; very likely she believes that her claim is legitimate. When one of Cornwall’s servants tries to intervene and stop the blinding Regan and Cornwall are outraged at this breach of the obligations of servant to master; Regan spits “A peasant stand up thus!” Cornwall exclaims “My villein!”, and they kill him.
Oswald, according to this theory, is a good servant. He is his lady Goneril’s faithful steward (the word has religious connotations), even when mocked and beaten by Lear and Kent for his obedience. When both Kent and Lear are driven into the outer darkness, Oswald likely sees Providence at work. So he sees Gloucester, who has tried to help them against the express command of his ‘great arch and patron’ Cornwall, as a traitor and lawful prey, and, like his masters, he is outraged by the peasant who interferes with his role as agent and beneficiary of Providence.
This dynamic would have been all too familiar to Shakespeare’s original audience from their own recent history. England had seen a great deal of bloody contention over the identity of the true sovereign and the true faith. Queen Elizabeth, and Queen Mary Tudor before her, were declared illegitimate by their father, and then relegitimated by their partisans so that they could rule. Both were quite willing to resort to torture and execution in suppressing religious and political dissent, which they saw as closely allied. But their religions were different. Mary’s England was no safe place for Anglicans, Elizabeth’s England was no safe place for Catholics, and neither was particularly hospitable to Puritans or Jews. Similar bloody religious and political struggles were convulsing the Continent. Lear’s remarks in 4.5 about the interchangeability of law officers and criminals are particularly relevant to religious and political crimes: change places, and handy-dandy, which is the traitor, which the patriot? Which is the heretic, which the defender of the true faith?
Joseph Pearce and others have seen echoes of the martyrdom of Jesuits in Elizabeth’s England in Lear; Lilian Winstanley has seen echoes of the massacre of the French Huguenots. When Shakespeare’s plays were first produced the various members of his audience might each have remembered the martyrs of their own faith as they watched the sufferings of the late Lear, Gloucester and Cordelia, and might have remembered those who persecuted them as they watched the early Lear or the Cornwalls. Did any of them think of the martyrs on the other side, or the persecutors on their own? Clearly there were men and women of very different denominations who were willing to work steadily and risk painful death for the true faith as they saw it. But what of the people who promulgated and enforced the laws which made the martyrs? Did the lawgivers, the informers, the torturers and executioners see themselves as agents of Providence protecting God and the State? Did they find it easy to reconcile the Will of God with their own private profit? This must remain ‘something of a queasy question’ for all of us who profess a faith which has produced so many martyrs and murderers.
The Superfluous Man…That Will Not See
Even in the absence of hostility, the Domination System makes life difficult for the less privileged. Those at the top are mindful chiefly of their own power and comfort; those in the middle are looking upward, mindful of their duty to their superiors; the lowborn and unfortunate too often are invisible. This directional blindness is clear in Gloucester and in Lear before their dispossession.
Gloucester lacks the cruelty of the Cornwalls and the complete self-centeredness of the early Lear, but he is anything but attentive to those who have less power. As the play opens he says that he loves his illegitimate son Edmund as much as his heir Edgar, but he makes lewd jokes about the (apparently lowborn) woman on whom he has sired Edmund, and makes them in front of Edmund, apparently with no idea that he is causing pain. He says he has loved Edgar, “no father his son dearer,” but he doesn’t seem to have paid much attention to him; he doesn’t recognize Edgar’s handwriting, doesn’t know who his friends are, and on the basis of an unsubstantiated rumor convicts Edgar in absentia of attempted parricide and gives orders for him to be hunted down and killed. Gloucester is acutely aware of Lear, who is above him; he tries to stop Cornwall from provoking Lear, and when Lear is locked out in the storm Gloucester risks his own life to rescue him. In the course of this rescue he encounters what he takes for a mad beggar, naked, cold and in great distress. He fails to recognize the beggar as his cast-off son; he also fails to consider him as another person in need of shelter, or even to speak to him; he does say indignantly to Lear, “What, hath your Grace no better company?’—to which Edgar’s “The Prince of Darkness is a gentleman,” is a bitterly apt rejoinder.
Shortly after Lear’s ambiguous abdication, when he is still trying to persuade his daughters to maintain his large retinue and make sure he gets what he wants when he wants it, he indignantly insists that “our meanest beggars are in small things superfluous,” and that without superfluities—such as his hundred knights and his daughters’ gorgeous apparel—“man’s life’s as cheap as beast’s.” We know from Edgar’s testimony that among Lear’s subjects are many homeless beggars who lack food, clothing and shelter; the King, however, seems to have remained splendidly unaware of them.
This situation would also have been familiar to Shakespeare’s original audience, used to a system in which both princes of the state and princes of the church (of both the contending churches) indulged in great pomp and luxury while many in their kingdoms went hungry. Tom o’Bedlam was modeled on beggars of Shakespeare’s own time; some were pretending to suffer from madness, all were genuinely suffering from dire poverty.
Oswald calls himself ‘most happy’, and the traitor whose death he intends ‘unhappy’. The adjectives had a richer meaning in Shakespeare’s time than they commonly have in ours. Happiness now usually denotes a subjective feeling of pleasure. In Shakespeare’s time ‘happy’ carried the double meaning ‘fortunate’ and ‘blessed.’ Oswald may not see any distinction between those two meanings. He isn’t the only one to be so confused. Lear, locked out in the storm, praises the elements for terrifying those who have committed sins, but argues that he ought to be preserved, as he is more sinned against than sinning. Even the Duke of Albany, the most thoughtful and scrupulous of Lear’s heirs, repeatedly praises the justice of the heavens when misfortune befalls his enemies. (We’ll look more closely at him later.) There is a very easy and perilous step from the hope that the heavens will reward virtue with success to the conviction that the successful must be blessed and the unfortunate accursed.
Shakespeare’s contemporaries would have been familiar with the idea that God’s Will was revealed in trial by combat, by then on the battlefield; an earlier time when single combat was considered likely to reveal the judgment of heaven had not been forgotten. But in the aftermath of a series of bloody civil wars Shakespeare’s more thoughtful contemporaries must have strongly questioned either the idea that victory was God-given or the nature of the God whose will appeared so changeable.
The Plague of Custom
The Domination System as revealed in King Lear devalues the lives of the less privileged, exacts of unquestioning obedience from them, and insists that their suffering is deserved. The consolations of this religion allow its privileged adherents to neglect the needy, consolidate their own power and treat their enemies cruelly even as they claim divine sanction and political legitimacy. The early Lear disagrees with Cornwall, Regan and Oswald about who holds the ultimate authority, but not about how that authority should be exercised; being younger, less unbalanced and more uncertain of their new power than Lear, they are more sharply cruel in their exercise of authority, but this is a difference in degree not in kind. There are other characters in the play who do not accept the divine nature of the Domination System. This refusal leads to two very different responses.
Edmund, lacking a clear place in the hierarchy because of his illegitimacy, casts a cold eye on the hierarchy and its obligations. He is clearly aware of the hypocrisy which can pervade the Domination System; he berates those who consider themselves “villains by necessity, fools by heavenly compulsion…and all that we are evil in by a divine thrusting-on. An admirable evasion of whoremaster man, to lay his goatish disposition on the charge of a star!” He makes no such evasion to himself, the audience or the gods. He does not bind himself to legal or divine obligations; he is his own providence, relying on his wit, courage and ruthlessness. He disposes of people who get in his way as coolly as though he himself sat at the top of the human chain—and near the end of the play it appears that this ruthlessness may indeed place him in the highest position, as King of all Britain.
His lover Goneril is less given to soliloquizing than Edmund, but she seems to have made a similar choice. Unlike her sister Regan, she does not call on the gods, impugn the morality of those who thwart her, or act the submissive wife. She is openly impatient with her husband’s attempts to weigh out the morality of his choices. She speaks the language of power and desire; she grasps at what she wants, eliminates human obstacles ruthlessly, and makes very little attempt to ‘daub it further.’
Edmund and Goneril’s cold honesty may come as a relief after Lear’s, Regan’s and Oswald’s misplaced righteous indignation and protestations of virtue, but there is little else to commend them. By the end Edmund has caused his brother to be disinherited and hunted for his life, his father to be dispossessed and blinded, the two women who love him to die of murderous jealousy, and Cordelia and Lear to die needlessly. Goneril has connived at the death of both her sisters and her husband. They wreak as much havoc as the devotees of the Domination System.
If this were all, then the nihilist reading of Lear would be convincing indeed. Fortunately, in Lear and in life, religion is not always synonymous with the Domination System, and rebellion against the Domination System is not always cruel or self-serving. There is another way of honoring the divine, another way of understanding authority and service. The second half of this essay will look more closely at the Beloved Community as it appears in Lear.
II. Show The Heavens More Just: The Beloved Community in Lear
In the face of the destruction caused by the Domination System, the Beloved Community offers the possibility of compassion and regeneration. The choice between these systems is not so simple or obvious as the choice between different religious or political authorities. The same deities are invoked to sanction the Domination System and the Beloved Community. Both systems are active in each political faction in Lear, and sometimes both systems work in the life of a given character.
Several key factors distinguish the Domination System from the Beloved Community. The cardinal difference is that the Domination System treats some lives as more valuable than others, allowing those higher in the ranks to use and dispose of those below, while the Beloved Community affirms all lives as miracles, in the hands of heaven and not to be disposed of by any mortal. The other differences follow from this. The Domination System sanctions revenge on enemies, while the Beloved Community requires mercy toward them. Service to humans in the Domination System means unquestioning obedience; service to humans in the Beloved Community means the honest and loving attempt to act for the other’s good. The Domination System justifies inequalities by claiming that wealth, high position and good fortune are given by the gods to the deserving; the Beloved Community acknowledges the reality of injustice and requires the sharing of power and wealth. The Domination System equates service to the gods with service to the powerful; the Beloved Community equates service to the gods with service to those who are in need.
Thy Life’s A Miracle
Act 4, scene 5, includes not only Oswald’s encapsulation of the values of the Domination System but also Edgar’s encapsulation of the values of the Beloved Community. As the scene opens Gloucester has judged himself as harshly as Oswald will judge him. He is blind and in pain, but his body distresses him less than his conscience. He fears that his son Edgar whom he unjustly condemned, and whom he no longer has the power to pardon, may be taken and tortured or killed by the people who have just blinded him. In his despair at this possibility he has spoken against the gods, claiming that they kill and torment men for their amusement; this, he believes, is sacrilege, and perhaps he fears that it will make the gods unwilling to hear his pleas for Edgar’s life and safety. He has also realized, too late, that he has lived in luxury while others went naked and hungry, and that he should have done something about this when the power and wealth of his earldom were still his. He no longer holds the power or position that kept his life from being ‘cheap as beast’s,” and he no longer believes that he deserved them when he had them. His life, then, seems worthless to him. He has decided to kill himself, with the help of the mad beggar who has agreed to lead him to a convenient cliff; he does not know that this beggar is in fact his son Edgar.
Edgar, however, sets a different value on his father’s life. He doesn’t try to reason Gloucester out of his despair. Reason does not seem to be Gloucester’s strong point, and in any case his miseries are too great to be transfigured and made bearable by anything less than an appeal to the transcendent. Edgar pretends to lead him to the cliff’s edge, and after he falls onto level ground returns to him, crying out in a changed voice “Thy life’s a miracle!” Gloucester at first is not disposed to see this miracle as a mercy, but Edgar persuades him that he was led to the cliff’s edge by a demon (basically true, though the demon was the despair in Gloucester’s mind and not the beggar at his elbow,) and that ‘the clearest gods’ have preserved him from that demon. He calls the ‘old unhappy traitor,” who has betrayed Edgar more unambiguously than he has betrayed his country, ‘happy father.” This is clearly not an allusion to the Earl’s subjective state of mind; Edgar is insisting, in spite of his misfortunes, that Gloucester is blessed. Gloucester believes him, and agrees that his life indeed is still required by and at the disposal of the gods, not his own to throw away. Soon afterward, as we have seen, Edgar also asserts at his own peril that Gloucester’s life is not at the disposal of the human authorities.
Pray You, Forgive
Both Edgar and Cordelia go beyond simple forgiveness, risking their lives to protect the parents who have rejected and endangered them for no cause. This may be filial piety at work; it may also be plain compassion. Cordelia speaks of love and her aged father’s right, but dwells on the severity of the storm and his age and frailty, and adds “Mine enemy’s dog, though he had bit me, should have stood that night against my fire…” Edgar, when Gloucester reconciles himself to being alive and asks the identity of the peasant who has befriended him, names himself only as
“a most poor man, made tame to fortune’s blows,
who by the art of known and feeling sorrows
am pregnant to good pity…”
This process works in Gloucester as well as his son. In his time of power, when he believes that Edgar has conspired against him, he orders revenge, leaving the gods out of it. Later, enraged by Cornwall and Regan’s treatment of Lear, afraid of what they are about to do to him for helping Lear and powerless to stop them, he threatens his tormentors with divine retribution, ‘the winged vengeance.” Then he learns that he has wrongly accused Edgar and put him at risk of the same merciless injustice to which he himself has been subjected. He does not curse the people who have just blinded him, or the son who betrayed him. Perhaps, knowing the evil he has done, he is no longer disposed to revenge the evils done by others. He prays for Edgar’s safety in the midst of his own anguish. Thereafter, through all his painful and dangerous pilgrimage, he calls on the gods often, but always in order to bless.
“Known and feeling sorrows” at some points turn Lear toward pity and forgiveness, but in the chaos of his broken images of his gods and himself he is not able to hold onto it steadily. In his madness in scene 4.5 he pardons the imaginary subject who trembles before him, but that subject has not offended against him; later he maintains that ‘none does offend,” but soon after he is thinking again of killing his sons-in-law (one of whom is dead already, and the other of whom has done little to deserve such punishment). When he meets Cordelia again, however, he becomes acutely aware of his own need of forgiveness—and, like Gloucester, offers to die (‘If you have poison for me, I will drink it…’) When he receives Cordelia’s full pardon ‘the great rage’ dies in him.
Even Edmund, at the very end, turns toward mercy. First he forgives the still-unknown man who has killed him; then he is moved to try to spare Cordelia and Lear. He no longer has time or breath to explain his reasons, so readers are left to their own surmises. But it is at the end of Edgar’s brief account of his care for their blinded father that Edmund says, “This speech of yours hath moved me, and shall perchance do good…” Edmund has seen the Domination System at work in Lear’s court, using a mask of piety to cover self-interest and cruelty. It may be that, until this time, he has not seen forgiveness at work. But now his brother has been as deeply wronged by their father as Edmund was, and has responded with compassion. Edmund sees that another way is possible, and with his last strength he turns toward it—too late to save anyone else, but in time to die fully human.
The vision of forgiveness shown in Lear is not what Walter Wink, or Dr. King, or I, would describe as fully Christian; Cordelia leads an army against her sisters, and Edgar kills his brother. Christians still argue about whether any circumstances justify destroying the divine miracle of a human life. However that may be, those characters in Lear who embody Shakespeare’s vision of the Beloved Community demonstrate that, when one’s enemy is at one’s mercy, one must have mercy on him. This rather minimal moral requirement was not widely practiced by the powerful men of Christendom in Shakespeare’s time, nor is it in our own.
In The Way of Service
Against Oswald, the ‘serviceable villain…duteous to the vices of [his] mistress,” Shakespeare sets several characters who combine great loyalty with liberty of conscience.
Cordelia is the first to love and disobey. As she tells her father, she loves him according to her bond and returns her duties as are right fit. That fitness, in her view, does not include flattering, and does include speaking the truth, whatever her father may command. Kent makes the same claim, defying the King in order to defend him: ”To plainness honor’s bound when majesty falls to folly…See better, Lear!” The audience recognizes this as loyalty. Lear does not, and he promptly severs the bonds between them, disowning Cordelia and banishing Kent on pain of death. But they will no more stop loving him at his command than they will blindly obey at his command. Both of them risk, and ultimately lose, their lives in his service.
Cornwall’s nameless servant who intervenes to try to stop Gloucester being tortured makes a similar claim. He is not changing sides, disowning his master; he tells the Duke,
I have served you ever since I was a child,
I have served you ever since I was a child,
But never have I done you better service
Than now to bid you hold.
This is probably not a lie meant to mollify the Duke; a lifetime of serving Cornwall must have taught this man that anything but absolute obedience will be cruelly punished. Nevertheless he gives his life trying to save what is left of Gloucester’s sight, Cornwall’s character, and his own integrity.
Gloucester’s understanding of service changes over the course of the play. In the beginning he believes that the heavenly powers are urging men on to destruction, he sees that the King is acting unjustly and unwisely in banishing Cordelia and Kent, and he knows that Cornwall is high-handed and unreasonable; nevertheless he submits to them. He ventures a few mild suggestions to keep Lear and Cornwall from antagonizing one another; when these are ignored he subsides. His obedient resignation ends only when Lear and Cornwall fall out irrevocably, when he can no longer serve both his masters, when unquestioning obedience to the given order is no longer possible and he knows himself to have an important and irrevocable choice. Then, to his lasting credit, he chooses the master who is no longer in power but is in desperate need.
Distribution Should Undo Excess
We have seen that Lear, early in the play, insists that he needs his hundred retainers, and his daughters their gorgeous apparel, in order to be fully human— “Allow not nature more than nature needs, man’s life’s as cheap as beast’s”--and that he has given no thought to his many subjects who lack what nature needs. When he himself is cold, hungry and homeless his eyes are opened. He sees the misery of the Fool who has followed him into the storm, and for the first time in the play he shows pity for someone other than himself. This particular revelation leads quickly to a wider awareness of the miseries to which he has been blind:
Poor naked wretches, wheresoe’er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your looped and windowed 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…
Gloucester’s fall and awakening closely mirror Lear’s. When he is still Earl and sighted he turns away from the naked beggar on the heath in revulsion. Blind and dispossessed, he gives that same beggar the last valuable things he has—the jewels he carries, and the ‘ancient love’ of the old peasant who will clothe the naked man for Gloucester’s sake. Gloucester, speaking to the beggar, describes this as an act of restitution, not supererogatory charity:
That I am wretched
Makes thee the happier. Heavens deal so still.
Let the superfluous and lust-dieted man
That slaves your ordinance, that will not see
Because he does not feel, feel your power quickly.
So distribution should undo excess,
And each man have enough…
He does not realize, of course, that his gift is made to the son he has disinherited; but the reader knows, and may consider that Shakespeare is reminding us that Gloucester was always more nearly akin to the poor around him than he was willing to realize.
Take Physic, Pomp
Those powerful characters who enter after suffering into the Beloved Community have their understanding of power changed as radically as their view of wealth. Lear, in the beginning, equates his power with the divine power, his will with the divine will. In the love-test he sets his daughters, and in banishing Cordelia and Kent, he shows his conviction that his subjects are there to obey him unquestioningly and the gods are there to hallow his authority and give force to his decrees. Goneril and Regan seem to confirm his beliefs with their fulsome protestations of devotion. When they become less lavish in affection after receiving their inheritance, they threaten their father’s image of the gods, the kingdom and himself. As his comfortable beliefs crack around him, he feels himself slipping into madness.
Early in his conflicts with his older daughters he retains his confidence that the gods will what he wills; he curses Goneril—and at some points carefully refrains from cursing her—with the apparent conviction that his curses would strike home. In his altercation with Regan he begins to question what the gods are and what they want: “if you do love old men, if your sweet sway permit obedience…if you yourselves are old…if it be you that sets these daughters’ hearts against me…” Homeless in the storm, he commands the heavens, pleads with them, rails at them, defies them—and finally, in miserable doubt, leaves the gods be and looks down to see the people around him. In this act of turning he comes to the speech, and the great recognition, quoted above.
For a moment of insight on the edge of madness Lear has left off blaming the heavens for not upholding their obligations to him, and has begun to think of his responsibility for them and their justice. He has seen that this upward responsibility is one and the same thing as his downward responsibility to the poorest among his subjects. And he has seen this precisely at the time when he has nothing left to give, when he has shaken his superflux to his older daughters, who will not redistribute it the interest of heavenly justice. This realization, coming at the same time as his encounter with one of the ‘poor naked wretches’ he has just addressed, may be what drives him further into madness and despair.
After this his critique of the system he once headed sharpens. When he encounters blind Gloucester, the King who has prided himself on his authority says, “Thou hast seen a farmer’s dog bark at a beggar?...An the creature run from the cur, there thou mightst behold the great image of authority. A dog’s obeyed in office.” He notes grimly that those powerful figures who punish the powerless for their crimes usually commit the same crimes themselves, while their wealth and position protect them from the consequences. The man who banished his loving daughter and his faithful liegeman for contradicting him says, “To say ay and no to all I said ay and no to was no good divinity.” [emphasis mine] He no longer describes what ‘good divinity’ might look like in the running of a kingdom; but after his healing his love, longing and care are turned entirely on Cordelia, the daughter whose loving challenge first overturned his well-ordered world.
The Duke of Albany undergoes a similar transformation, in my view. He is less given to soliloquizing than some of the other characters, so we must infer his motives from a handful of choices and speeches. From the beginning he is the most honorable and scrupulous of the rulers we see in power. He acknowledges duties owed by those in high position to those below. He is aware that a man, however sorely provoked, may not lay violent hands on a woman, he speaks courteously to his servants, and even while hurrying to make the last preparations for battle he takes time to listen to the stranger in peasant’s garb who importunes his attention. He is willing to consider that apparent traitors may have good reasons for their choices—he pities Gloucester, and he intends to show mercy to Lear and Cordelia, though they have led a French army against England. But as I see it he persistently tries to make himself believe that goodness and power go together, that wrongdoers will fall and the righteous will prosper, and he continues to try to preserve both his character and his power, with disastrous results.
Before learning of the French invasion he has been preparing for war with Cornwall. When he learns of Cornwall’s death and Gloucester’s blinding he begins by affirming Providence at work: “This shows you are above, you justicers, that these our nether crimes so speedily can venge.” Cornwall’s cruelty has been promptly and spectacularly punished, and Cornwall has also been gotten out of Albany’s way—heavens be praised! Hard on the heels of this consoling reflection comes a less comfortable thought. “But O, poor Gloucester! Lost he his other eye?” Told that he did, Albany reassures himself that, once the power of the kingdom is firmly in is hands, he will be able to avenge Gloucester, presumably on Edmund, who is emerging as the new likely leader of Cornwall’s half of the kingdom; he will still be able to do good and do very well for himself.
Albany goes into battle against the French army with some hesitation, acknowledging their just grievances but finding these outweighed by the fact that they are French and a threat to his state. His army defeats the invaders, leaving Albany free, as he fondly believes, to handle Lear and Cordelia “”as we shall find their merits and our safety may equally determine.” Edgar kills Edmund, thus avenging Gloucester and clearing the way for Albany to become King of all Britain by the grace of the gods. Fortified by these assurances, Albany dismisses his wife’s suicide as another example of Providence at work: “This judgment of the heavens, that makes us tremble, touches us not with pity.” When he learns Edmund and Goneril have prepared a judgment of their own against Cordelia, Albany calls on the gods to defend her. Immediately thereafter she is brought before him, dead.
A harder man might have declared this divine justice, since Cordelia has invaded her mother country. Albany doesn’t take this way out. He does make one last desperate attempt to put all right and restore the hierarchy of the kingdom in accordance with the heavens. “We will resign, during the life of this old majesty, to him our absolute power…” This is unwise, given than the old majesty’s mind, body and heart are broken and he is no longer either capable of or interested in ruling; but it expresses Albany’s remorse, and leaves him free to inherit the kingdom with clean hands when the time comes. In the meantime Albany promises that Kent and Edgar will be restored to their earldoms, and that “All friends shall taste the wages of their virtue, and all foes the cup of their deservings…” At this point in his speech he breaks off, seeing that the old majesty ignoring his disposition of the kingdom, being intent on his dead daughter. Then Lear also is dead, and all Britain has fallen into Albany’s lap. Albany abdicates, this time not temporarily but absolutely.
He doesn’t explain his decision, but in the context it seems likely to me that this is what he sees: There is nothing to stop him taking his place at the top of the human chain—nothing but his own conscience. He has not willed Lear’s or Cordelia’s deaths, but both have been caused by soldiers who were marshaled in his name to fight his battles. He can’t take the crown without feeling that he has won it through murder; he can’t believe that Lear’s and Cordelia’s deaths are the just designs of Providence. His image of the rule of the gods and the rule of kings had been broken. But for him, unlike Lear and Gloucester, the moment of breaking comes when he still has power. He uses that power to give the kingdom it to Edgar. We’ll look more closely at the profound significance of this gift late in the following section.
III. The Promised End
[Enter King Lear with Queen Cordelia in his arms]
Kent: Is this the promised end?
Edgar: Or image of that horror?
Albany: Fall and cease.
What are we to make of the death of Cordelia? Kent and Albany, according to the interpretation of many commentators, are so horror-struck at first that they read her death as a sign of apocalypse; “the promised end’ may well be the end of the world, and “Fall and cease” may be addressed to the heavens and the earth. The most brave and loving character in the play is senselessly and prematurely dead, the great reconciliation between father and daughter has been terribly short-lived, and there is neither justice nor consolation. Small wonder that some commentators assert that the play ends in unrelieved horror and despair. But what has truly ended here, and what has begun?
The Image Of That Horror
Some of the characters of the play see Cordelia’s death as new and terrible thing, a break in the just order of the universe. But throughout the play we have seen very little evidence of a justly ordered universe in the sense that most of the characters imagine. We have seen the triumph of injustice, masked in many cases by the false piety of the Domination System. Cordelia’s death removes that mask. The world is not ending, but the comforting world-image of the Domination System is shattered for the witnesses of Cordelia’s death. After this they will not be able to persuade themselves that power and good fortune are the gifts of the gods or that weakness and suffering are merited and therefore do not need to be relieved. They have seen that the brave, the loving and the innocent suffer and die, crushed by the power struggles of the blind and the unscrupulous.
Cordelia’s purity of heart and her murder present an image of the horror—and the healing—present in that greatest image of suffering innocence, divine love and human mercilessness, the Crucifixion. Jesus was killed in the name of God and the Empire—of the Domination Systems of his time—and the witnesses to his death also found their comforting images of earthly and heavenly order broken. Rene Girard describes this as the triumph of the Crucifixion. It does not end the process of scapegoating or the violence of the Powers that Be, but it reveals them in their full horror and injustice; they can no longer mask themselves with holiness.
Those who have seen the image shatter know that, contrary to the Domination System’s claims, their love and their courage do not ensure their prosperity or security. Lear makes it clear that virtue is not often rewarded in this life, and there is no guarantee of another life given in the play. (There are, however, some glimpses of a hope, which we will consider later.)
Worse, the witnesses know that their own evil and thoughtless actions have terrible consequences which heaven does not prevent. The responsibility for Cordelia’s death rests most heavily on Edmund and Goneril, who directly willed it, but it also touches Lear, whose selfish pride first tore his family and his kingdom apart, and Albany, who was willing to put the interest of his state before his awareness of just grievances. The responsibility for Jesus’s death rests on the Romans, dutifully suppressing all threats to the Empire, and on the Temple hierarchs intent on the security of their people (and their own ecclesiastical prestige), and on the followers who did not understand or trust him enough to stay with him when his way led to suffering and powerlessness. We who witness both deaths must acknowledge the great responsibility we bear for the innocents who suffer because of our own carelessness and self-seeking.
These realizations are terrible but necessary. We must be stripped of the conviction of our own security and our own innocence before we can rightly value the miracles of our own lives or other lives. False faith must be destroyed before true faith can be born, before we can be freed to work and love as servants of the God who suffers in and with us.
Naught Almost Sees Miracles But Misery
This paradoxical union of horror and hope, misery and miracle, is emphasized throughout Lear, the play that contains some of the ugliest events in Shakespeare’s work, and also some of the most beautifully wrought language.
The virtues of the characters shine out all the more strongly in a world where they so clearly fail to reap external rewards. Ken Colston writes that “Lear imagines Christian love in a silent vacuum, which is the only environment in which pure gift-love may exist—otherwise, gift-love becomes a payoff to a bribing beloved.” I see something more than a silent vacuum in the play, but the heightened value of unrewarded love seems clear to me. Often under the Domination System love, courage, honesty and compassion are valued and practiced—or feigned--as means to an end, as ways to gain power and security. Once it is clear that they will not always be so rewarded, we must learn to look at them again and value them for themselves. Then we begin to see their intrinsic power and beauty. The haunting loveliness of Lear’s reunion with his daughter, the much-longed-for reconciliation between Gloucester and the son he wronged, is not diminished by the fact that their remaining time together in the world is brief. Cordelia dies early and violently, and this is horrible, but she lives and dies as Cordelia, and this is a truth which redeems all the sorrows she has felt. The play does not show an end to suffering, but it shows that love, beauty and meaning are present in the midst of the worst suffering. This is one of the seeds of hope present in the Crucifixion. Not that it saves us from loneliness or pain or death, but that it shows us that God has endured all these things, endures them again in and with each of us, and works in and through us in the deepest darkness.
Sometimes, in fact, our darkness and brokenness are the means by which God works. As we have seen, both Lear and Gloucester become fully human and enter into the Beloved Community only after suffering greatly and losing everything. Gloucester is quite clear about this process: “I stumbled when I saw. Full oft ‘tis seen our means secure us, and our mere defects prove our commodities…. Heavens deal so still!” This is not a return to the Domination System’s message that misery is deserved and that therefore it is all right to cause misery to one’s fellow men; the play’s judgment on Gloucester’s tormentors makes that clear. It is, however, an affirmation of the divine presence that abides with us in our miseries and works through them to transform and reconcile us.
This Would Have Seemed A Period…
There are hints in Lear, for those who will take it so, that this transformation and reconciliation may not end with death. Both Lear and Gloucester in their sufferings come to a point where they believe that they are dying, or have died—Gloucester when he thinks to leap from Dover cliff, Lear when he meets Cordelia and believes himself dead. Those who think of resurrection as a sentimentally pleasing prospect might take note that initially both men seem more terrified than reassured by the prospect of new life after death. When Edgar comes to Gloucester, crying out that his life’s a miracle, Gloucester says “Away, and let me die!... Is wretchedness deprived that benefit to end itself by death?” Lear, seeing Cordelia, says,
You do me wrong to take me out o’ th’ grave.
Thou art a soul in bliss, but I am bound
Upon a wheel of fire, which mine own tears
Do scald like molten lead…
But both men are persuaded to live. That new life still includes suffering, but also transformation and blessing. The brush with death weakens Gloucester’s despair and killed Lear’s rage. Both men are reconciled with the children whom they have wronged and are drawn deeper into the life of the Beloved Community.
Given these changes, it is possible to hope that the deaths in the last scene do not end the work of knitting up the Beloved Community. Gloucester may be healed of the blindness of his body and the last vestiges of despair in his spirit. Lear may find his love for Cordelia deepened and purged of the possessiveness which still marks it in the last act. Perhaps even Edmund, who came very late to forgiveness, and Goneril and Regan, who loved Edmund as blindly, selfishly and intensely as their father once loved his daughters, may find themselves and their families made whole. We do not know, but it is possible to hope.
This, at least, is the foreshadowing of hope for the next life that I see in Lear. Other readers have found confirmation of their own hopes, fears or certainties on this matter. Gloucester’s miracle has been read variously as a prefiguring of resurrection or a kindly deceit wrought on a credulous old fool who couldn’t otherwise be reconciled to life. Lear’s last words have been read as a vision of Cordelia’s resurrection or a delusion that she still lives in this world. Among those who see a hope of heaven, some are looking not for universal reconciliation but for the reward of virtue and the punishment of vice. Shakespeare raises weighty questions here, but it seems to me that he refrains from offering unequivocal answers.
There is, however, a clear and significant promise made at the play’s end, a promise of the growth of the Beloved Community in this world. This lies in the fact that the kingdom passes to Edgar.
Heavens Deal So Still
Until the end of the play the Beloved Community persists in spite of all persecutions, but it does not reign. It is the powerless and the unfortunate who recognize each life as a miracle, forgive and serve those who have wronged them, and give generously and sacrificially to those in need. The powerful are self-serving, arbitrary and violent. They take little care for the powerless. They will not see because they do not feel. The reigns we actually see in Lear might seem to substantiate the Devil’s claim that the kingdoms of this world, their power and their glory, are his to give to men whom he can deceive or daunt into his service. This does not make the powerful irredeemable; but for Gloucester and Lear, the fall from power which opens their eyes and brings them into the Beloved Community also makes them unable to remedy the great wrongs done in their blindness. The kingdoms of this world remain under the sway of the Domination System—until Cordelia’s death unmasks the evil of that system, and Albany stops temporizing between power and principle and gives the kingdom to Edgar.
Edgar’s accession offers the hope of another kind of rule. Edgar has been hungry, homeless, hunted, unseen and despised; his eyes have been opened to the harsh realities of the poor of the kingdom; and Edgar will be King. Edgar has loved and protected a victim of torture; if any of his subjects rebel against him and he is tempted to punish them severely he will surely remember his father’s courage and suffering; and Edgar will be King. There is reason to hope that in Edgar power may be reconciled with justice and compassion.
Shakespeare’s Christian audience, unlike Shakespeare’s pagan characters, might have seen in Edgar’s accession the image of Christ’s promised kingdom. Edgar is not altogether an allegorical personification of Christ; he begins the play as his brother’s dupe and ends it as his brother’s killer, his father’s behavior toward him might trouble a strict and devout allegorist, and Shakespeare’s vision in Lear is too complex and paradoxical to be reduced to straight allegory. But Edgar in many moments bears the image of Christ. In his Bedlam disguise, “the basest and most poorest shape that ever penury in contempt of man brought near to beast,” in his identity as the man “by the art of known and feeling sorrows…pregnant to good pity,” in his care for his father, Edgar recalls Isaiah’s description of the Suffering Servant:
He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him,
nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected by men,
a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering.
Like one from whom men turn their faces
he was despised, and we esteemed him not.
Surely he took up our infirmities
and carried our sorrows…”
There is hope for the kingdom that was Lear’s because the new king has suffered what poor men and rebels suffer. There is hope of the Kingdom come on our earth as it is in heaven because God has suffered as we suffer, been broken as we are broken.
As we have already seen, this means that God is with us in the depths of our anguish, our loneliness and our despair. This is strength and a comfort in itself. Edgar, having seen the old King’s affliction, says “When we our betters see bearing our woes, we scarcely think our miseries our foes. Who alone suffers, suffers most in mind…” Dorothy Sayers, writing about Christ’s life and death, speaks of the conception, found in pagan as well as Christian writings, of “a God who can reconcile because He understands and can understand because He has in some way shared the suffering due to sin. It seems that whenever there is a suffering God, there is an end of tragic futility, and a transvaluation of all values…” Furthermore, there is the promise, seen through a glass darkly, that this God who suffers with us will one day come to reign; that distribution shall undo excess and all men have enough; that the cycle of vengeance will end; that righteousness and peace shall kiss each other, faithfulness will spring up from the earth and righteousness will look down from heaven; that they will no longer harm nor destroy, because the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.
We see only the promise, not the realization of Edgar’s kingdom. While he speaks the last words, as the king should, he speaks still as the man of sorrows, not as the triumphant ruler. It could be argued that this is appropriate because Shakespeare’s characters lived before Christ and the Kingdom had not yet come. It could also be argued that Shakespeare was still painfully aware that in his own time Christendom was at war with itself, that too often all the warring parties accommodated themselves to the Domination System, that the Kingdom had not yet come. He had not seen the reign of justice and mercy. Neither have we.
The Kingdom of God is within us and among us, but so far it is only present in the fellowship of the suffering servants. We cannot forcibly impose the Kingdom on the world; kingdoms imposed by force must rise by the methods of the Domination System, and they are captured and corrupted by that system. We cannot even clearly imagine what the Kingdom will look like when it comes.
Neither, of course, could the characters in Lear. The righteous reign promised at the end is not the result of human contrivance, of the sort of power play we have seen in Lear himself, his older daughters and their husbands. Edgar has taken no part in the war between the English and the French, and does not seem to have considered himself, or to have been considered, as a contender for the kingship. He has lived as a member of the Beloved Community, and the clearest gods who make them honors of men’s impossibilities have done the rest.