It’s “patently obvious,” writes Joseph Pearce in The Quest for Shakespeare, that King Lear is a meta-dramatic allegory for Protestant persecution of English Catholics. The king stands in for a secularized Tudor State, demanding total loyalty: “Which of you shall we say doth love us most?” Sycophants that they are, princesses Goneril and Regan instantly profess their absolute devotion, but Cordelia knows a higher vocation and professes a rightly measured love, “according to my bond, nor more, nor less.” She refuses to play her father’s game, and holds her love in reserve for a husband—like Catholics who remained faithful to the divine Bridegroom in the face of harassment from Henry VIII and Elizabeth I. Lear banishes Cordelia as a traitor, while recusants like Kent, Gloucester, and Edgar are forced to adopt disguises. The king realizes too late that Cordelia is the most faithful of his daughters, and she dies a martyr.
Patently obvious? No. Possible? Not impossible. Hamlet presents an allegorical play to catch the conscience of a king, so couldn’t Hamlet’s creator have done the same? Perhaps Lear issued a warning to James I, before whom it was performed, to soften the terms of the Oath of Allegiance, lest his kingdom, like Lear’s, descend into chaos. Yet Pearce’s reading is too pat.
But he does underscore something patently obvious: King Lear is a political play, a drama of kingship. In Lear as in his English history plays, Shakespeare explores what happens when a world loses the political rituals that once ordered it. We call it Lear, as if it were familiar enough to earn a nickname, but Shakespeare named his play King Lear. Macbeth was a king, yet his play isn’t King Macbeth. But Lear is King Lear. Shakespeare wrote many parts for kings, but most of them fall short of true kingship. They are weak, or worldly, or villainous devils like Richard III. Lear becomes, by his own declaration, “every inch a king,” but his progress toward kingship is so tortuous we’re liable to miss it. It’s less a coronation than a Passion Play.
Lear seems most royal in the opening scene, when he’s decked in his intertissu’d robe and crown imperial, exercising absolute power with absolute corruption, banishing Kent and Cordelia with a dragon’s breath. In Shakespeare, seeming is never being. Lear becomes genuinely royal only in the fourth act, when he appears in a very different guise. Eyeless Gloucester hears the king’s voice and cries “Is’t not the king?” Lear answers, “Ay, every inch a king!” (4.6.107). He no longer wears a crown but, in some performances, the Fool’s cap. He no longer sparkles with jewels, but decks himself with flowers. Detached from the court and its networks of relation, Lear is no better than a beast. David Bevington asks, “If humankind cannot satisfy the individual’s need for a sense of himself, how then is man different from a beast?” “Man wears clothes” might be an answer, but Lear comes to realize that clothes are expendable, mere “lendings” that cover the “unaccommodated . . . forked animal” that he is. Yet Lear’s vision of unaccommodated man enables him to see the world afresh, with royal eyes.
Between the opening scene and his encounter with Gloucester, Lear suffers a dis-coronation. “Nothing comes from nothing,” he warns Cordelia, but the axiom is more applicable to Lear than to his daughter. Driven out of his daughter’s house, expelled from human habitation, the king and his small band of misfit outcasts venture into the heath, a natural setting that, in a comedy, would be a place of regeneration. Instead of a moonlit green world, they enter a stormy, nightmarish landscape, a meteorological representation of the tempest of Lear’s mind and the tumult of his kingdom. We know from the comedies that Eden lies outside the walls of the human city. Lear shows that hell is outside as well.
Yet Lear’s passage through hell is a purgative. Kent tells him in the opening scene to “see better, Lear,” and the dark wasteland opens his eyes, just as blindness illumines Gloucester. Lear now sees through the lies that fed his arrogance: “They flattered me like a dog; and told me I had white hairs in my beard ere the black ones were there. . . . Go to, they are not men o’ their words: they told me I was every thing; ’tis a lie, I am not ague-proof”(4.6.96-105). He develops a profound cynicism about power, recognizing how the “clothing” of office covers inequity: “Through tattered clothes great vices do appear; / Robes and furred gowns hide all. Plate sins with gold, / And the strong lance of justice hurtless breaks; / Arm it in rags, a pygmy’s straw does pierce it” (4.6.159-168). Reduced to a bare, forked animal, he learns that he shares the same fragile humanity as the beggar and the slave and mourns his failure to rule with compassion:
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 (3.4.30-38).
It is here that he becomes royal. The heath is his Eden, where he receives a new Adam’s nature. On the heath, he eats the bitter fruit of the tree of knowledge, and his eyes are opened to discern good and evil.
A king who’s suspicious of his courtiers, who feels what wretches feel, who sees how wealth and power tilt the scales of justice: ’Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished. But can such a king reign? It seems not. In contrast to his sources, Shakespeare doesn’t put Lear back on his throne. Instead, Lear fantasizes about living out his life as a bird in a cage, watching the court like one of God’s spies. Yet the play isn’t as politically pessimistic as that. Edgar survives as heir to Gloucester’s estates, and the Duke of Albany, Lear’s surviving son-in-law, cedes his crown rights to Edgar. As the play closes, England’s king has been chastened by suffering and so has become, like Lear, every inch a king.
First Things depends on its subscribers and supporters. Join the conversation and make a contribution today.
Click here to make a donation.
Click here to subscribe to First Things.