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On King Lear

On King Lear

The king is mad. 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 severed from my griefs,

And woes by wrong imaginations lose

The knowledge of themselves

– King Lear, IV.vii


1. Shakespeare’s Worldly Poetry

 Shakespeare is a worldly poet par excellence. One cannot appreciate Shakespeare’s “worldliness” without first contrasting it against poetry that is “otherworldly”. The modern critical consensus on Shakespeare’s “worldly” qualities arose by comparison with “otherworldly” poetry. Late Victorian critic Eugene Benson provides a typical example of such a comparison. For Benson, Shakespeare’s poetry is worldly and modern, “serene and complacent,” whereas Dante’s poetry expresses the otherworldly, “exalted and intense feelings” typical of medieval personality (quoted in Lears, p. 156).

By the time he employed it, Benson’s contrast between Shakespeare and Dante was well-worn. Writing a century earlier, Thomas Carlyle asserted that, while Shakespeare’s poetry is “broad,” Dante’s is “deep”. That is, the breadth of modern intellect—what we might call an “empirical” temperament—typifies Shakespeare’s genius; whereas the depth of Dante’s spiritual world-vision reflects a characteristically medieval “intensity” of temperament.

George Santayana, a contemporary of Benson’s, concurred in this view. Dante’s world-deep belief in eternal judgment, Santayana declares, is a measure of the distance between medieval “wholeness of soul” and the transience of modern secular “worldliness.” For Santayana, the distinction between worldly intellect—what he calls “critical judgment”—and otherworldly, eternal or providential judgment is pivotal:

“Dante read contemporary Italy as the Hebrew prophets read the signs of the times; and whatever allowance our critical judgment may make for generous illusion on the part of either, there can be no doubt that their wholeness of soul, and the prophetic absoluteness of their judgment, made their hold on particular facts very strong, and their sense for impending weal or woe quite overpowering” (90).

King Lear’s Modernity

Although the enlightenment greeted “critical judgment” as the antidote to religious superstition, by the end of the twentieth century the absurdity of the modern “world”— a concatenation of disconnected, meaningless, particular facts—had become for many an article of faith, and also a source of disillusion. One response to this sense of meaninglessness was the proliferation of ideologies claiming the ability to understand, and so properly to order (or remake) the secular world, to make it whole. Ironically, rather than culminate in the end of superstition, fanaticism or partiality the last century of the millennium reveled in apocalyptic violence underwritten by secular ideologies, each of which claimed to possess certain knowledge of the universal world and its fate.

The disingenuousness of these secular faiths was exceeded only by the disastrousness of their results. Little surprise, then, that Shakespeare’s “universal tragedy,” King Lear, became the quintessential tragic poem of the twentieth century. For, as Frank Kermode observed:

“In King Lear we are no longer concerned with an ethical problem that, however agonizing, can be reduced to an issue of law or equity and discussed forensically. For King Lear is about suffering represented as a condition of the world as we inherit it or make it for ourselves. Suffering is the consequence of the human tendency to evil, as inflicted on the good by the bad; it can reduce humanity to a bestial condition under an apparently indifferent heaven. It falls, insistently and without apparent regard for the justice they so often ask for, so often say they believe in, on the innocent; but nobody escapes. At the end the punishment or relief of death is indiscriminate. The few survivors, chastened by this knowledge, face a desolate future. The play demands that we think of its events in relation to the last judgement, the promised end itself, calling the conclusion an image of that horror” (V.iii.264-65).

“Apocalypse is the image of human dealings in their extremity, an image of the state to which humanity can reduce itself. We are asked to imagine the Last Days, when, under the influence of some Antichrist, human beings will behave not as rickety civility requires but naturally; that is, they will prey upon themselves like animals, having lost the protection of social restraint, now shown to be fragile. The holy cords, however ‘intrinse,’ can be loosened by rats . . .” (184)

An Apocalypse of Political Order

Obviously the tragedy of King Lear is also a political apocalypse. Following the classical philosophers, Shakespeare conceived of politics as the pragmatic world par excellence. According to the classical tradition, political life provides “the stage on which the broadest, deepest, and noblest passions and virtues could be played, and the political man [seems] to be the most interesting theme of poetry” (Jaffa, 4-5).

If Shakespeare thus understood the contours of pragmatic life then this should be evident in his political plays. And indeed, more than any other such play, King Lear reveals these contours by forcing us to confront the limits of political existence. In particular, as Harry Jaffa pointed out, the tragedy of Lear is structured around the incommensurable conflict between the political imperative of justice and the human imperative of truth.

That truth and justice may be reconciled is a premise of modern ideology—one it does not share with classical political science. On the classical view, justice—the supreme political virtue—depends upon worldly appearance, or opinion. On the other hand, “truth” designates knowledge that transcends mere appearance. In a sense, if justice is “worldly” truth is “otherworldly”. Machiavelli’s early modern appeal to “effectual truth” elides this classical distinction (and with it, the potential for conflict), between opinion and knowledge. This early modern philosophical elision is the intellectual wellspring of modern ideology. Yet Shakespeare’s early modern drama offers a sort of counterargument, testifying powerfully to the persistence of a tension between justice and truth.

If we today have trouble appreciating the tragic incommensurability between justice and truth, or opinion and knowledge, this only reflects the continuing dominance of Machiavellian opinions about political life. Sophisticated voices reiterate ad nauseum that “appearance is reality”. “Appearance is reality” implies that any truth beyond appearances is either unreal or irrelevant. Consider, also, the contemporary media’s indiscriminate use the word “tragedy” in reference to both natural and man-made disasters, and as if, in principle, “tragic” events are always avoidable with better planning and administration. This reflects the Machiavellian world view which seeks to bring human providence (or foresight) to a state of perfection.

As Lear testifies, the Machiavellian imaginary may not refute the tragic truth so much as evade it. One principle of Machiavelli’s new science of politics is the rejection of unseen reality as a measure of the political good. A second, related, principle is the substitution of fear for love as the sinew of the body politic. The two rejected principles were closely related to one another in both classical and medieval understandings of political life. From Plato’s “city in speech” onward, the unseen reality or unreal image of eternal justice has been a paradigm of worldly justice. And in Eric Voegelin’s words, “the love among men from one to the other because they are all the same in divine reason, is the basis of all political theory.”

The relation between these principles should be clear. In both the classical and medieval schemes, “the love among men from one to the other because they are all the same in divine reason” is the force that binds a community together. This love assumes various symbolic guises such as Platonic homonoia, Aristotelian political friendship (philia politike), or the medieval corpus mysticum. But in any case, these trans-political ideals were the intellectual lodestars of the classical and medieval understanding of politics. At the same time, those traditions evinced an awareness of the limits of our ability to realize these ideals in practical life.

Machiavelli inherited the conceptions of rule by reason and political friendship, yet he offers radically different interpretations of them. In its practical dimension, rule by reason implies a kind of human, not divine, “providence” in the literal sense: an ability to “foresee” (pro-video) the most fit means to acquire and maintain a polity. Classical philosophy asserted the “natural right” of the wise to rule the ignorant, but this was chastened by the Socratic admonition that, ultimately, “only the God is wise.” Similarly, the worldly providence of medieval “Christian kings” was circumscribed by the transcendent providence of God (not to speak of the institutional power of the papacy). But Machiavelli envisions an ideal prince whose technique of manipulation render his control of (and authority over) the political realm as self-sufficient as that of God in his heavenly kingdom.

Classical political science posited political friendship or homonoia as the ideal origin of social cohesiveness. In light of this, conventional justice, while necessary, is only second-best relative to the ideal of perfect political friendship. But Machiavellian statecraft rejects this ideal politics of friendship, precisely because of its imperfectability. Machiavelli’s science of manipulation relies on the axiom that “it is better to be feared than to be loved” because it is not possible even for God to guarantee another’s love. Fear is much easier to inspire in others than affection.

King Lear dramatizes the rupture between these classical and modern stances to worldly politics, the former attuned to ideals of eternal or transcendent truth that can only be approximately realized, the latter aspiring to a perfect technology of human manipulation that would render ideals superfluous. Lear’s initial renunciation of monarchy creates a political vacuum that rewards the “Machiavellian” impostures of Edmund, Regan, Cornwall and company—but only in the short run. As the play proceeds the impostors’ control of events is revealed to have been illusory as well. What connects both failures is the collapse of homonoia (or its Christian version, charity). The Machiavellian obliteration of a politics of love or friendship exposes the pre-political character of love as a force that is at once generative and violently destructive of social bonds.

The Limits of Politics

In “the Limits of Politics,” Harry Jaffa interprets Lear’s abdication as an epitome of the tension between the imperative of justice, which enjoins Lear from abdicating, and that of love, which compels him to renounce his office in order to discover whether Cordelia’s affection is true. As king, Lear is beholden to the ancient conventions of monarchy: he must pretend to be the embodiment of justice, power and truth, the earthly representative of divine providence. Jaffa claims that Shakespeare was aware of this worldly imperative, which casts kings as hypocrites for justice’s sake (419), but this “is a pallid thing compared with that other world, which was [Shakespeare’s] ultimate concern” (427). His daughter Cordelia is not a transcendent being, of course, but Lear’s need to know that her love is true transgresses the constraints of his worldly office. The political logic of justice requires Lear to stay on the throne, but the human logic of love compels him to renounce it. The result of Lear’s transgression is tragedy because the provision of justice in the world depends on the reign of opinion, not truth; whereas love of truth constitutes the highest human virtue.

Here I juxtapose Jaffa’s close, political, reading of the abdication motif with George Orwell’s broader, literary, reading of King Lear as a poetic justification of Shakespeare’s “humanism,” against “religion.” Orwell developed this reading in the context of a psychological critique of Leo Tolstoy—a Shakespeare detractor who, according to Orwell, was unable to accept King Lear’s secular moral that renouncing worldliness is no path to happiness in this life. In many ways Tolstoy and Orwell shared the modern aspiration to reconcile justice and truth, but they disagreed on the path. For Orwell, Tolstoy’s asceticism was politically foolish. Orwell’s rebuff is well aimed, but he overlooks the play’s tragic lesson about the limits of political forms, with its implications for the relationship between justice and truth. Jaffa’s stress on the incompatibility between Lear’s kingly office and desire for happiness (epitomized by his need for true knowledge of Cordelia’s love) resonates with Orwell’s reading of the play, but exposes the tragic conflict between the worldly demands of justice, and the longing for truth that transcends mere appearance, which is the wellspring of the drama. In opposition to Orwell’s political moralism, Jaffa emphasizes the necessary role of political fictions as well as their tension with moral imperatives.

In modern times, it may seem as if the obsolescence of kingship implies the withering away of this conflict between justice and truth, but the opposite is more likely the case. In a sense every modern “individual” is subject to the theatricality of kingship, and thus it is no accident that King Lear seems to hold up a Shakespearean mirror to the terrifying “unreality” of late modern politics. In former times, worldly “providence” was only a monarchical pretense but today it breathes life into social fictions from the omni-competent individual to the expert “scientific” manager, and much more.

The Avoidance of Love

In different ways, both Tolstoy and Orwell assume that the tension between worldly and transcendent values can be overcome. For Tolstoy the path to overcoming requires a renunciation of sensuously pleasant but insincere aesthetic indulgences like Shakespeare’s poetry. For Orwell it requires the opposite: an embrace of sensuous, worldly, existence and the renunciation of asceticism. One might say that, for Tolstoy, salvation lies in renouncing the stage, but for Orwell, in embracing it. What both failed to see became clear to later critics: As Northrop Frye put it, “the stage” of King Lear “is a world” contained unto itself. There is no question of accepting or renouncing it for the sake of humanity. Rather, the play is best understood as an interpellation between its poetic world and the reality that lies beyond it.

The demiurge of Lear’s world is what Stanley Cavell has named the “avoidance of love.” Cavell’s phrase, “avoidance of love,” has a double significance. As a verb, “avoidance” means a theatricalization of others, borne of one’s desire to maintain an illusion of self-sufficiency. As a noun, “avoidance of love” characterizes a universal or open world in which “consequences [become] fully unlimited and untraceable.” In the aesthetic world of the play, “avoidance” means a total social vacuum, a void that draws not only Lear but all of us into the human dilemma and at the center of which is the “incompatibility between a particular love and a particular social arrangement for love” (347). This is the world that erupts from the abdicate Lear’s “bursting” the bounds of political convention.[1]

This “avoidance of love” makes the play a consummate political tragedy. Indeed, Cavell claims that King Lear marks the end of tragedy altogether insofar as it coincides with the historical moment when “the closed world” represented by the closed regime of medieval kingship “burst open into the infinite universe, [and] consequences became fully unlimited and untraceable” (343). Lear’s “bursting is the sign that the play itself, and tragedy as a whole, has burst its bounds”:

“when the King confuses abdication, not only does he drain himself of authority, he saps his institutions of authority altogether. Then ceremony is mere ceremony. So at the end no convention has the force to oppose force, of arms or of feeling; no shared form of life controls vengeance nor shapes passion. Tragedy was the price of justice, in a disordered world. In a world without the hope of justice, no price is right” (343).

The transmission from the closed world in which the fortune of one prince might have national significance, to the “universal” and anonymous world of individual subjects in which “I do not know which fortune is mine and which is yours,” does not mark the perfection of tragedy so much as its interpellation from the stage into the world beyond it. “The world did not become sad; it was always sad. Tragedy has moved into the world, and with it the world has become theatrical” (344).

With the interpellation of tragedy into the world, the political dilemma becomes a generically human dilemma. Out of fear of falling victim to this vacuum, “no love seems worth founding one’s life upon, or…society—and therefore I myself—can allow no context in which love, for anything but itself, can be expressed. In such a situation it can look as if the state is the villain and all its men and women merely victims. But that picture is only a further extension of the theatricality which causes it” (350).

Second Reality and the World-Stage of History

Although it is especially intense in modernity, the human dilemma evoked by Cavell’s “avoidance of love,” is not merely a modern phenomenon. In “The Drama of Humanity,” Eric Voegelin offers a broader perspective on the dilemma. According to Voegelin the first symbolization of a “universal” world and a generically human dilemma arose much earlier, with the axial eruption of self-consciousness amidst the closed symbolic order of cosmological civilizations.

As Voegelin explains, the experience of consciousness engendered a set of interdependent symbols—the “three universals”. These include the “universal world,” “universal humanity” and “universal divinity.” In the classical world this differentiation of conscious experience ran parallel with the emergence of the first “ecumenic” world empires and concomitant collapse of polis civilization. Much later, in the medieval epoch, these universal symbols were institutionalized in a complex and interdependent order in which the “Christian king” played mediator between the closed, temporal realm of “worldliness” (i.e. the nations, the saeculum), and the open, eternal, realm in which universal humanity forms one virtual community under the universal, world-transcendent godhead.

The three universals were novel symbolizations of order constructed in response to the emergence of self-consciousness and the concomitant breakdown of the cosmological order. Crucially, the meaning of each symbol depends upon its relation to the others. “Universal humanity” symbolizes philosophical self-consciousness as representative of specifically human (egophanic) experience; “universal divinity” symbolizes the transcendent ground of being; and the “universal world” accounts for all that remains—the immanent world-stage on which the human drama plays out. A key point for Voegelin’s interpretation of the human drama is that the “egophanic” self-interpretation of modernity involves the separation and hypostasis of the symbol, “universal world,” from the other two “universals”. This immanent “world” became sole the object of modern empirical skepticism’s quest for certainty. Voegelin’s interpretation of the “world” as part of an interdependent complex of symbols illuminates why the modern quest for perfect knowledge, and with it, control, of the immanent world has yielded perpetual disappointments, political and otherwise.

As Cavell suggests, King Lear monumentalizes the tragedy of modern skepticism and modern politics. The appeal to immediate experience warrants the modern skeptic’s embrace of worldliness over against transcendence. But the tragic irony of modern skepticism is that it’s continuous effort to achieve a total intellectual grasp of immanent reality amounts to the loss of immediacy and evacuates the common world of significance. As Cavell puts it:

“in the unbroken tradition of epistemology since Descartes and Locke . . . the concept of knowledge of the world disengages from its connections with matters of information and skill and learning, and becomes fixed to the concept of certainty alone, and in particular to a certainty provided by the (by my) senses . . .[The] world normally present to us . . . is brought into question and vanishes, whereupon all connection with a world is found to hang upon what can be said to be ‘present to the sense’; and that turns out, shockingly, not to be the world. It is at this point that the doubter finds himself cast into skepticism, turning the existence of the external word into a problem.”

“The skeptic does not gleefully and mindlessly forgo the world we share, or thought we shared . . .”

“Rather, the skeptic forgoes the world precisely because the world is all that matters to him; it is the scene and stage of connection with the present. And yet he finds that it vanishes exactly because of his effort to make it present (323). For the skeptic desires certainty of the world in order to find safe harbor from the disappointing uncertainties of humanism or theology. But, Gloucester-like, the skeptic is left eyeless, without direct access to the world, and with the world-stage evacuated.”

Voegelin’s conception of the “drama of humanity”— i.e. the historical drama of the universal idea of humanity—can deepen Cavell’s diagnosis by accounting for the historical-experiential source of modern skepticism’s tragic irony. Voegelin can also shed light on another, more political aspect of this paradox. Intellectually, modern skepticism fails to secure the reality of the world; but its political counterpart is an activist materialism that accounts for the “generous illusions” of consciousness and transcendence as mere functions of the immanent world. This paradox limns the structure of ideological “second reality”. As Voegelin puts it, ideological second realities share a similar structure in which “God” is a function of “man” (consciousness), and man is a function of “the world”. The best known example of this logic may be Marx’s transformation of Feuerbach’s psychology of projection. As is well known, Marx’s turn to the universal world leads to an economic materialism in which the “superstructures” of consciousness and religious belief are merely projections of the “base” relations of production.[2]

Ostensibly, then, modern skepticism is the end of classical philosophy. That is, like other prophesied “ends” (the end of history, the end of art) it belongs to the final consummating act of the drama of humanity. In this way modern turn, whether it leads to the worlds of action or production or survival, to the necessity of self-preservation or the absurdity self-presentation, is in every way a turn against the symbolizations of classical philosophical reason. But this “end” is hardly the consummation of classical philosophy, much less is it a transformation of philosophy into science as Hegel claimed. Indeed, in different ways, both Cavell and Voegelin suggest that the fate of skepticism calls for a Socratic affirmation of the limits of science. For Cavell, the lesson of skepticism is that the world is not to be known but rather, “acknowledged.” For Voegelin, the temptations of second realities spring not from intellectual ignorance but from the spiritual “refusal to apperceive” reality beyond being.

In different ways, Voegelin and Cavell imply the possibility that philosophy and drama have changed places over the course of history. In the old, closed world certain meanings resided in ritual and myth, but science and intellect are the symbolic bulwarks of our new “universal” modern world. Among other things, this means that philosophy today is political in the way drama once was. And just as modern philosophy is bound by political exigency, modern drama is freed to become “philosophical.” If such drama has any special, philosophical, role, it is to remind us of the un-reality of the world. Certainly King Lear can be read under this dual aspect, as a philosophical tragedy about the tragedy of modern philosophy.

2. The World and the Stage

King Lear and the Modern World-Stage

For T.S. Eliot, the chief difference between Dante and Shakespeare was that the former had a “philosophy” –i.e., a doctrine regarding eternity and the conduct of life. Lacking a philosophy, Eliot suggests, Shakespeare’s worldly poetry has little to teach us about the conduct of life. Thus “it is a little irony,” he writes:

“that when a poet, like Dante, sets out with a definite philosophy and a sincere determination to guide conduct, his philosophical and ethical pattern is discounted, and our interpreters insist upon the pure poetry which is to be disassociated from the reprehensible effort to do us good, And that when a poet like Shakespeare, who has no ‘philosophy’ and apparently no design upon the amelioration of behaviour, sets forth his experience and reading of life, he is forthwith saddled with a ‘philosophy’  of his own and some esoteric hints towards conduct. So we kick against those who wish to guide us, and insist on being guided by those who only aim to show us a vision, a dream if you like, which is beyond good and evil in the common sense (“Introduction” to G.W. Knight, The Wheel of Fire).

Orwell entertained a similar view: “Shakespeare was not a philosopher or a scientist, but he did have curiosity, he loved the surface of the earth and the process of life . . . Of course, it is not because of the quality of his thought that Shakespeare has survived . . . His main hold on us is through language.” By “language,” Orwell means specifically poetic language. Poetic language requires no referent. For Tolstoy, such mellifluous nonsense threatens to subvert elementary morality by transporting its auditors to a world “beyond good and evil in the common sense”. On this view, Shakespeare’s poetic worlds betray the higher moral purpose of art. As Orwell explains, Tolstoy “would . . . have rejected the whole notion of valuing poetry for its texture—valuing it, that is to say, as a kind of music.”

Indeed, Shakespeare’s popularity only confirmed Tolstoy’s judgment of the world’s postlapsarian condition, one more proof of the irreligious, earthbound nature of Shakespeare and his admirers. Tolstoy would have said that poetry is to be judged by its meaning and that seductive sounds merely cause false meanings to go unnoticed. At every level it is the same issue—this world against the next: and certainly the music of words is something that belongs to this world.

If this world-making quality is characteristic of all poetic language, then what in particular makes Shakespeare’s poetry so “worldly”? Is it that his language lacks reference entirely? “Evidently,” Orwell surmises, “pieces of resounding nonsense …were constantly appearing in Shakespeare’s mind of their own accord, and a half-lunatic character had to be invented to use them up.” This “resounding nonsense” is the quality that marks poetry, in particular, as “worldly” or even empowers poesy to comprise a world unto itself.

A contemporary critic, Marjorie Garber, tenders another view. For Garber, Shakespeare’s compositions have the uncanny power to mirror the “universal” world of any modern audience. Rather than emphasizing the musicality of Shakespeare’s oeuvre, Garber deploys a visual metaphor:  “Like a portrait whose eyes seem to follow you around the room, engaging your glance from every angle, [Shakespeare’s] plays and their characters seem always to be ‘modern,’ always to be ‘us.’” Still, it is language that produces this effect. “[If] Shakespeare seems to us in a surprising way so ‘modern,’ it is because in a sense his language and his characters have created a lexicon of modernity.”

King Lear exemplifies these effects:

“King Lear as written and performed in its original historical context was concerned with pressing questions for the seventeenth century, like absolute monarchy, and royal succession and the obligations of vassals. For most citizens of the twenty-first century, ‘king’ is an archaic title, as it emphatically was not for the subjects of James I . . .Mid-twentieth-century-readers often translated “king” into “father,” seeing the drama as centered on the family rather than the realm. Lear’s railing against the heavens has often been understood as existential. At various moments, Lear became a sign of male power, of the pathos of aging, even of the end of an actor’s career. ‘King Lear’ is a cultural icon, cited by philosophers, legislators, and politicians, as well as literary scholars—and gerontologists and therapists. The character has a cultural life derived from, but also distinct from, the play.”

Like Garber, Jan Kott accents the play’s historicity. But Kott concentrates on the play’s world more than its characters, emphasizing that world’s mechanical indifference to personal value. Indeed, for Kott, the consummate worldliness of King Lear could be appreciated fully only by an audience living in the most impersonal of epochs, the late twentieth century.

Kott’s essay, “King Lear, or Endgame,” identifies the world of King Lear with the absurdist world of Samuel Beckett’s plays. A vacuous but absolute power presides over this world. There is no moral significance to this power, “[the] absolute is not endowed with any ultimate reason; it is stronger, and that is all. The absolute is absurd.” Nonetheless, there remains a personal imperative to act. “The hero has to play even if there is no game. Every move is bad, but he cannot throw down his cards. To throw down the cards would also be a bad move” (133-135).

The imperative to act in spite of one’s subjection to fate is a theme of ancient tragedy and modern absurdism. In both, the hero’s fate is inevitable, but not unjust, because it occurs according to the logic of its own “Grand Mechanism”. “In its game with Oedipus fate does not invoke the help of the gods, does not change the laws of nature. Fate wins its game without recourse to miracles… The game must be just, but at the same time must be so arranged that the same party always wins; so that Oedipus always loses” (136).

However, modern absurdism differs from ancient tragedy in that it substitutes the mechanism of history for that of “fate, gods and nature”:

“History is the only frame of reference, the final authority to accept or reject the validity of human actions. It is unavoidable and realizes its ultimate aims; it is objective “reason”, as well as objective “progress”. In this scheme of things history is a theatre with actors but without an audience. No one watches the performance for everybody is taking part. The script of this grand spectacle has been composed in advance and includes a necessary epilogue, which will explain everything. But, as in the comedia dell’arte, the text has not been written down. The actors improvise and only some of them foresee correctly what will happen in the following acts. In this particular theater the scene changes with the actors; they are constantly setting it up and pulling it down again” (138–139).

The Tragedy of the Twentieth Century     

Northrup Frye is equally emphatic in associating King Lear with the twentieth century world. For Frye, Hamlet resonated with nineteenth century audiences, “because it dramatized all the central Romantic and nineteenth-century problems: the conception of consciousness as the assassin of action, the sense of the disharmony of inner and outer worlds, the role of the creative imagination in overcoming the disharmony, and the obstacles and failures that the creative impulse meets with” (204). The nineteenth century’s version of King Lear, however, was bowdlerized to avoid depressing the audience with its unhappy ending. The nineteenth century was not yet ripe for King Lear. Lear’s resonance with late-twentieth century audiences derives from is its resonance with the bleak modernist vision of history ascendant in the postwar period.

“All the world’s a stage” may be Shakespeare’s best-known line; but Frye reminds us that this sentiment is uttered in soliloquy and belongs to what we, in this age of Brecht, might call, an alienation speech. It reminds us that we are watching a play, or rather a play within the drama of the world, and a remarkably artificial and withdrawn dramatic scene at that . . . An actor has a life apart from his acting, [but to identify] life with a series of actor’s roles is really what is alienating [about this notion]. [To posit an identity between performing and living implies that man] is simply an acting mechanism, a mechanism that soon wears out (202-203).[3] In contrast to Hamlet, Lear’s leitmotif is this: “When we are born, we cry that we are come / To this great stage of fools.”

The shift from “all the world’s a stage,” to “this great stage of fools”—from Hamlet to Lear—marks a change focus from character to history. Still we are dealing with a mere “acting mechanism.” In the Christian mythos, the Creator’s “intelligent relation” to the world took the form of divine providence. For medieval Christians, “the universe was assumed to have been intelligently designed by its Creator and intelligent meant having some relation to human life” (204). But the “Grand Mechanism” of King Lear’s world is devoid any such providence.

This suspension of divine providence over worldly affairs is renders King Lear a world-stage of fools. “The world-stage of fools in King Lear…is the theater of the Absurd, where no hidden benevolent design becomes manifest, where rebellion, obedience, courage, loyalty, acceptance or rejection of religious belief, all seem to be without direction in a world set up largely to benefit the Gonerils and the Cornwalls.” (207) Under the sign of an absent providence the King’s and Cordelia’s deaths are both essential and necessary, confirming this world’s indifference to human character. The suspension of providence also accounts for the play’s resonances with existentialism. In the ruins of the late twentieth-century, with every ideological claim of secular providence bloodily confounded, King Lear’s vision of a world stripped of any providential order, historical or theological, had finally ripened.

As a “Grand Mechanism,” the world of King Lear may be bereft of providence and “set up largely to benefit the Gonerils and the Cornwalls,” but it is still a “world” that is “set up” in a certain (intelligible) way. Just as we see Hamlet thrashing about in the confines of his own identity, in King Lear, we witness a world thrashing about and we watch the characters try to keep up. Kott compares this effect to a carnival ride called the “‘barrel of laughs’ . . . a score or more people try to keep their balance while the upturned barrel revolves round its axis. One can only keep one’s balance by moving on the bottom of the barrel in the opposite direction to, and with the same speed as, its movement… The more violent [the characters’] gestures and their grip of the walls, the more difficult it is for them to get up and the funnier they look” (140).

Peeling Away the Onion: King Lear’s Dramatic Substance

King Lear is a universal apocalypse for the “universal world” of modernity. Kott describes King Lear’s apocalypse as “a tragic mockery of all eschatologies: of the heaven promised on earth, and the Heaven promised after death; in fact—of both Christian and secular theodicies; of cosmogony and of the rational view of history; of the gods and the good nature, of man made ‘in image and likeness’” (147).

The world-stage of King Lear is like a fugue comprising two movements: one Machiavellian, the other Biblical. Each of these movements ushers in its own “stage.” To borrow again from Kott’s interpretation, the former may be called the “Macbeth stage,” and the latter, the “Job stage.” The Macbeth stage is the outer layer of Lear’s world. It is fit to attribute this “stage” to a Machiavellian demiurge, because the Macbeth stage generalizes “the scene of crime.” On this stage, “[all] bonds, all laws, whether divine, natural or human, are broken. Social order…will crumble into dust. There are no longer kings and subjects, fathers and children, husbands and wives. There are only huge Renaissance monsters, devouring one another like beasts of prey” (153).

The stage of Machiavellian criminality is but the outer surface of things. The core of Lear’s world is “Job’s stage… On it the ironic, clownish morality play on human fate will be performed. But before that happens, all the characters must be uprooted from their social positions and pulled down, to final degradation” (153). The interaction of the two stages conjures a distinctly modern dream-vision of the end of the world. Beneath the criminality of the Macbeth stage is the despair of the Job stage; and, as in a medieval morality play, the former is only the exemplum of the latter. The play’s action “is the cruel and mocking ‘peeling of an onion’ . . .  The onion is peeled to the very last, to the suffering ‘nothing.’ This is the theme of the fall. The concept of man has reduced and all situations have shrunk to the one ultimate, total and concentrated human fate” (157).

The theme of King Lear is the decay and fall of the world. The play opens . . . with the division of the realm and the king’s abdication. [It ends] . . . with the proclamation of a new king. Between the prologue and the epilogue there is a civil war. But unlike [Shakespeare’s other] Histories and Tragedies, in King Lear the world is not healed again . . . Of the twelve major characters half are just and good, the other half, unjust and bad. It is a division as consistent and abstract as a morality play. But this is a morality play in which every one will be destroyed: noble characters along with base ones, the persecutors with the persecuted, the torturers with the tortured. Vivisection will go on until the stage is empty. The decay and fall of the world will be shown on two levels, on two different kinds of stage, as it were (152-153).

Two imagistic patterns within the poetic structure of King Lear provide scaffolding for this dramatic substance. These are the much discussed patterns of clothes-imagery and sight-imagery. Both the clothes metaphor and the sight metaphor refer the audience to the classic philosophical problematic of appearance versus reality. But the apogee of each pattern suggests a profound ambiguity about this distinction. Shakespeare will endorse neither the Platonic appeal to appearance over reality nor the Machiavellian reversal of Platonism. For example, the clothes pattern climaxes and the King is clothed in true nobility, only when he is reduced to tatters on the heath:

Poor naked wretches, whereso’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 (III.iv).

Similarly, with respect to the sight pattern, Gloucester’s literal blinding on the Macbeth stage initiates his descent to the Job stage—a Biblical vision that raises without answering the question of theodicy. Gloucester’s anti-vision, his figurative blinding, is epitomized by his last words in the play.

No farther, sir; a man may rot even here.


What, in ill thoughts again? Men must endure
Their going hence, even as their coming hither;
Ripeness is all: come on.


And that’s true too (V.ii).

The Fool is the only character to offer a philosophical gloss on these patterns. For example, after he has abdicated, Lear takes offense at the Fool’s suggestion that the King, too, is a fool. Famously, the Fool replies: “All thy other titles thou hast given away; that thou wast born with” (I.iv).

“In historical dramas,” observes Kott, “royal majesty is deprived of its sacred character by the stab of the dagger, or by the brutal tearing off of the crown from a living king’s head. In King Lear it is the Fool who deprives majesty of its sacredness” (166). As if in response to Eliot’s and Orwell’s denials of a Shakespearean philosophy, Kott asserts that “Madness in King Lear is a philosophy, a conscious cross-over to the position of the Clown” (165). But madness is a philosophy that cannot abide in authority. For Kott, King Lear enacts the interminable conflict identified by Leszek Kolakowski , between “the Priest and the Clown.” Kolakowski writes: “The philosophy of Clowns . . . in every epoch shows up as doubtful what has been regarded as most certain; it reveals contradictions inherent in what seems to have been proven by visual experience; it holds up to ridicule what seems obvious common sense, and discovers truth in the absurd” (quoted in Kott, 165).

Perhaps the greatest clown of the western philosophical tradition was its founder, Socrates. Yet his greatest disciple, Plato, having witnessed Socrates’ fate, attempted an accommodation between philosophy and political authority. As a result, Plato fashioned many poetic symbols of “majesty” that would reign over the west until the Renaissance and after, such as the imaginary vision of a just republic and the idealization of a “philosopher-king”. To emancipate the world from the legacy of Platonism and Christianity, Machiavelli commenced a frontal assault on the Platonic appeal to “imagined principalities,” urging his readers to see the world as it is and not as it ought to be. Shakespeare belongs to the class of skeptics who accepted Machiavelli’s challenge, but found the real “world” just as furtive and recalcitrant to unmasking as God or the soul. King Lear is a testament to this insight. As a philosophical tragedy, King Lear enacts the confrontation between the Priest and the Clown but it cannot hand down a verdict.



[1] For Cavell, each sense of the phrase also reflects an aspect of modern skeptical empiricism: the first reflects the problem of other minds and the second, (uncertain) knowledge of objective reality.

[2] “Social Darwinism” and contemporary evolutionary psychology are examples of this logic, too. One could adduce many more.

[3] Hamlet displays “how the axiom of the world as a stage can take on tragic form.” Hamlet finds himself imprisoned in his own identity, which is defined by “the limitations of his role-playing powers.” Unable to come to terms with this, and hemmed in, not so much by his past as his future—defined by the duty of vengeance, Hamlet’s “frustration becomes claustrophobic.” What results, dramatically speaking, is “perhaps the most impressive example of a titanic spirit thrashing around in the prison of what he is, longing for death but suspecting that suicide will not release him any more than murder did his father” (203).


Also see “Romancing the Sources: Framing Tales in Hamlet and King Lear,” and “Answering the Question, Question Authority, and Read Inclusively: MacBeth, Othello, and King Lear.”

Alan BailyAlan Baily

Alan Baily

Alan Baily is an Associate Editor of VoegelinView and Associate Professor of Political Science at Stephen F. Austin University in Texas. He has published numerous articles on ancient Greek political philosophy.

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