Michael Kinnucan

Early Retirement: An Essay on Lear


1. Cordelia’s Honesty

Freud’s beautiful essay on The Merchant of Venice and King Lear, “The Theme of the Three Caskets,” rebukes the purveyors of a merely prudential reading of Lear as follows:

To avoid misunderstandings, I should like to say that it is not my purpose to deny that King Lear's dramatic story is intended to inculcate two wise lessons: that one should not give up one's possessions and rights during one's lifetime, and that one must guard against accepting flattery at its face value. These and similar warnings are undoubtedly brought out by the play; but it seems to me quite impossible to explain the overpowering effect of King Lear [thus]... Lear is not only an old man: he is a dying man. Eternal wisdom, clothed in the primeval myth, bids the old man renounce love, choose death, and make friends with the necessity of dying.

I suppose that few of us nowadays would dare read Shakespeare with quite the moral satisfaction which Freud here rejects. And yet such a reading of Lear is not thoroughly dead; it comes naturally. Lear appears, more than any of Shakespeare’s other tragic heroes, to possess a tragic flaw. It would be laughable to understand the hypnotic fascination with which Macbeth pursues to the end his own damnation, or the black beak with which Othello tears his heart, as some sort of mistake; and Hamlet draws the question of error down with him in his fall. But with Lear—and this is what makes him so much more lovable than the others—we think we see what’s wrong. Lear is childish. He wants to amuse himself, and he wants to be loved.

Freud argues that Lear’s failure lies elsewhere. In banishing Cordelia, he isn’t just turning his back on just counsel and inviting flattery; he’s turning his back on death itself, seeking to cling to the last dregs of his life. His choice thus becomes both more desperate and more comprehensible. Freud is characteristically attuned to the way in which every moral choice rests on a prior renunciation, an acceptance of finitude and indeed of failure which will always remain unredeemed; he sees in Lear’s choice not a determinate error but a titanic refusal, a crack in the wall separating the limited order of the state from the dark wilderness of the passions. From this refusal every disaster is to be expected, none more naturally than the death of the one Lear loves most.

But does Lear really expect to cheat death? Can the actions with which he opens the play be understood thus? Hardly. He is a good deal more clear-sighted than that. His decision to “retire” is no attempt to claw his way back to a second childhood; he wishes, he says,

To shake all cares and business from our age,
Conferring them on younger strengths while we
Unburthen'd crawl toward death.
Lear is over 80 years old, and he knows well that he will die; his retirement is an acceptance of this. If there is something that Lear refuses, it lies elsewhere.

2. Lear’s Choice

So what is it that Lear rejects? It is Cordelia who recognizes immediately the point at issue. In the opening scene of Lear, Lear asks each of his daughters to express how much she loves him so that he can divide his kingdom among them accordingly. After her two sisters have given predictably and embarrassingly effusive answers to this question—Goneril says he is more to her than every other joy in her life, Regan that without him she could know no joy—Cordelia answers as follows:

Good my lord,
You have begot me, bred me, lov'd me; I
Return those duties back as are right fit,
Obey you, love you, and most honour you.
Why have my sisters husbands, if they say
They love you all? Haply, when I shall wed,
That lord whose hand must take my plight shall carry
Half my love with him, half my care and duty.
Sure I shall never marry like my sisters,
To love my father all.

Cordelia’s answer is deeply impressive in its moral probity; it is also frighteningly merciless. She answers Lear’s question through an appeal to duty, as though to love him were merely her job. Her sisters claimed that their love knew no bounds, that it was as big as the world; Cordelia sets on her love precise limits. To love thus would be immoral, according to her: Love exists within a symbolic order, an economy of exchange, and love which seeks to transgress this order debases itself and the beloved. Cordelia sees that Lear, at the moment when he is abandoning his duties as father and king and preparing to leave the world of the living, wishes to be loved as more than a father and more than a king—and she rebukes him. A king is replaced by his successor, a father replaced by a husband, and Lear too will be replaced. Cordelia sees clearly that he wishes to be exempt from the law of passage, and refuses with an honesty which borders on cruelty to pretend that this can be. She tells him, in effect: “I love you as a father, and you have no right to demand more than that; I will not die with you.”

She is wrong, though; she will.

3. Lear’s Desire

At this point, in light of Lear’s shocked reaction to Cordelia’s words and of the endless disasters which ensue, it’s worth asking: What in God’s name did he expect to happen? Did he really think that by putting his kingdom up for sale to the daughter who flattered him best he would receive anything but sentimental lies and real contempt from his hypocritical and power-hungry elder daughters? Was he capable of believing that his extraordinarily clear-eyed and strong-willed youngest daughter, the apple of his eye, would reduce herself to participating in this vile competition? Lear may have been mad, but surely he was not such a fool.

So why did Lear organize this scene whose tragic consequences ought to have been visible from the outset? One obvious answer suggests itself: He wanted to be lied to. Such an intention may seem paradoxical, but it is by no means rare; I’d wager that you yourself, dear reader, have at one time or another asked someone you loved to lie to you. Lear is over 80 years old, crawling, as he does not fail to point out, towards death and oblivion; he will sacrifice his power and his throne, he will prepare himself, but he desires in return a comforting lie to lean on. Is that too much to ask?

If this was Lear’s plan, he did not reckon with his youngest daughter. But I would like to suggest, speculatively, that he did—that he knew in a certain sense what Cordelia would answer before he asked. After all, Lear chooses his daughters’ marriage as the occasion for his retirement. He knows well that, whatever they might say to the contrary, he is about to lose them. The very wrath with which he responds to Cordelia’s words surely suggests that he recognizes their truth; and at some level, he must have known that his demand for a lie would provoke this truth. What Lear cannot accept in death is that it will visit only him, while life will go on elsewhere. In this sense, all his daughters will betray him; Cordelia is just the only one willing to admit it.

Lear’s fall begins with his question to his daughters—but Lear is a dying man, and he will fall whatever he does. In light of this, his question is a success, and doubly so. In Cordelia’s answer, he renders public and visible a truth which he cannot bear alone; in the total collapse which follows from his actions, he drags his whole court with him towards his doom. If we are to decide whether Lear is the befuddled failure he seems to be, we ought to ask what success might mean to the dying.

4. The Storm

Lear forces his betrayal because he wishes to make it both absolute and visible. It finds its visibility in the storm he flees towards. The howling night of Act III, the “open night” whose tyranny is “too rough for nature to endure,” as Kent says—is the dark core of Lear, and perhaps the most unforgettable space in Shakespeare. “Things that love night / Love not such nights as these”—Kent again—but Lear, at least, loves this night.

Lear. Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
Till you have drench'd our steeples, drown'd the cocks!
You sulph'rous and thought-executing fires,
Vaunt-couriers to oak-cleaving thunderbolts,
Singe my white head! And thou, all-shaking thunder,
Strike flat the thick rotundity o' th' world,
Crack Nature's moulds, all germains spill at once,
That makes ingrateful man!

Lear curses beautifully throughout the play, and always in vain. In the first two acts he has already cursed Goneril, Regan, Cordelia, and Kent; these curses mark both his foolishness and his impotence. A king can avenge the wrongs done him, but Lear is no longer king, and he can only curse. His dark and terrible words fall on deaf ears. In the first scene his most loyal servant, Kent, tells him as much:

Lear. Now by Apollo-
Kent. Now by Apollo, King,
Thou swear'st thy gods in vain.
Lear. O vassal! miscreant!

Lear’s words in the storm are different—more abstract and more complete. Having failed to curse his ungrateful daughters, he curses the whole world; having lost his position and his name, he demands the destruction of every position and the disappearance of all names. Here at last he has found an ally he can trust: the night which will suck him in and drown everything with him. The storm, of course, does not hear Lear’s words any more than the absent gods do—but this is what Lear loves in it.

Lear. Rumble thy bellyful! Spit, fire! spout, rain!
Nor rain, wind, thunder, fire are my daughters.
I tax not you, you elements, with unkindness.
I never gave you kingdom, call'd you children,
You owe me no subscription. Then let fall
Your horrible pleasure. Here I stand your slave,
A poor, infirm, weak, and despis'd old man.

Nature, because it knows no loyalty, is incapable of the betrayal within all loyalty. It is in the inhuman and un-Christian apocalypse of Act III, in the innocence of nature, that Lear finds his true ally and achieves his full stature. But it is a stature he cannot sustain. Immediately after praising nature for its difference from his daughters, he complains of an unholy alliance between the two:

But yet I call you servile ministers,
That will with two pernicious daughters join
Your high-engender'd battles 'gainst a head
So old and white as this! O! O! 'tis foul!

Lear cannot lose himself in the universality of death; his own troubles are too pressing. This, indeed, is why he has a fool. The Fool enacts a constant parody of Lear’s metaphysical urge, his will toward a general doom, by reminding us incessantly of Lear’s foolishness—the specific acts that placed him where he is. If Lear wants death to be general and entire, the Fool reminds him that this universality will not erase his particular. The parodic side of the Fool is nowhere as evident as in the Fool’s take on eschatology, which closes the scene which opens with Lear’s demand for apocalypse:

Fool. This is a brave night to cool a courtesan. I'll speak a prophecy ere I go:
When priests are more in word than matter;
When brewers mar their malt with water;
When nobles are their tailors' tutors,
No heretics burn'd, but wenches' suitors;
When every case in law is right,
No squire in debt nor no poor knight;
When slanders do not live in tongues,
Nor cutpurses come not to throngs;
When usurers tell their gold i' th' field,
And bawds and whores do churches build:
Then shall the realm of Albion
Come to great confusion.
Then comes the time, who lives to see't,
That going shall be us'd with feet.
This prophecy Merlin shall make, for I live before his time.

“This prophecy Merlin shall make”—Lear, after all, lived long before King Arthur’s time, which in turn is long before ours. The apocalypse Lear desires, the world consumed by its own iniquity and swallowed by the sea, seems always in the offing but will never arrive. And so we’re returned to our particular fates. Lear’s affection for the Fool works against the awful clarity of his madness:

Lear. Come on, my boy. How dost, my boy? Art cold?
I am cold myself. Where is this straw, my fellow?
The art of our necessities is strange,
That can make vile things precious. Come, your hovel.
Poor fool and knave, I have one part in my heart
That's sorry yet for thee.

In the end it is the Fool’s chilliness which draws Lear from the wilderness and gives him the sense to come in out of the rain.

Section 5: Edgar and Mortification

If Lear’s flight into the wilderness is more voluntary than it might at first appear, Edgar’s is so willing as to constitute an obvious problem. When Kent is banished, he goes into disguise and immediately makes himself useful; when Edgar finds himself in a similar position, he refuses use absolutely:

Edgar: ...Whiles I may scape,
I will preserve myself; and am bethought
To take the basest and most poorest shape
That ever penury, in contempt of man,
Brought near to beast. My face I'll grime with filth,
Blanket my loins, elf all my hair in knots,
And with presented nakedness outface
The winds and persecutions of the sky.
The country gives me proof and precedent
Of Bedlam beggars, who, with roaring voices,
Strike in their numb'd and mortified bare arms
Pins, wooden pricks, nails, sprigs of rosemary;
And with this horrible object, from low farms,
Poor pelting villages, sheepcotes, and mills,
Sometime with lunatic bans, sometime with prayers,
Enforce their charity. 'Poor Turlygod! poor Tom!'
That's something yet! Edgar I nothing am.

Though both Edgar and Lear choose after their betrayals to “outface / The winds and persecutions of the sky,” Edgar’s attitude is the precise opposite of Lear’s. Where Lear identifies himself with nature as the force which will consume the human, Edgar decides to be the human so consumed. He practices a mortification of the flesh and spirit without ennoblement: not only will he assume bare life, he will render such life visible. Lear tries to choose apotheosis in the very place where Edgar seeks humiliation. Edgar's constant prating, even when faced with the mad Lear and his own blind father, gets under his own skin as much as it gets under ours—but the path he has chosen requires it. He will play his own fool. Faced with the horror of betrayal, Edgar refuses to be tragic. Or at any rate he tries.

Edgar’s attempt to flee the irredeemable betrayal of man’s world in the anonymity of nature comes to grief in the particular, just as Lear’s does. At the moment when he thinks he has made his escape, even as he is cheerfully claiming that he has nothing left to lose, he sees his father, Gloucester, blinded and betrayed, and recognizes that he can’t escape. There follows the strangest and most farcical episode in Lear: Gloucester, failing to recognize his son, asks the crazy beggar to lead him to the cliffs of Dover so that he can bury his grief and guilt in the sea. The disguised Edgar, instead of revealing himself and providing comfort to his poor father, agrees to do just that—then leads his father to a little hill, lets him jump, and tells him (still without revealing himself) that he was saved from death by a miracle. Gloucester on this basis agrees wearily to live until the gods choose to let him die. (He dies, in fact, an act later, of joy—when Edgar finally sees fit to reveal himself.)

Edgar’s behavior towards his father constitutes an inverted commentary on Cordelia’s behavior towards Lear. Gloucester, like Lear, has opted for “early retirement”; Edgar, unlike Cordelia, talks him down from it with pious lies. Edgar’s sense that Gloucester has a duty to live is utterly unjustified by anything in the play—Lear takes place before the advent of Christianity and contains not a single reference to God, nor does it suggest any immanent reason to live. Edgar insists on his father’s duty to await the pleasure of the gods with an empty and melancholy Stoicism; between the impossible wilderness of nature and the ubiquitous iniquity of man’s world, there is simply nothing left to us but a duty with no touch of the sublime.

Without Hamlet’s brilliance, Edgar nonetheless partakes of Hamlet’s shadow in this sense. After a play’s worth of malingering, he reveals himself and assumes his name again in order to fight his brother. He avenges his father and himself—not so that good will triumph over evil, for those who have witnessed Lear’s fall can scarcely think this true, but out of a sense of obligation to his name and place.

Section 6: A Reckoning

While Gloucester and Edgar wander the wilderness together, Cordelia’s attempt to save her father has failed, and she and Lear are captured. Lear’s words on the occasion give the lie to every simply moral reading of the play:

Lear. No, no, no, no! Come, let's away to prison.
We two alone will sing like birds i' th' cage.
When thou dost ask me blessing, I'll kneel down
And ask of thee forgiveness. So we'll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues
Talk of court news; and we'll talk with them too—
Who loses and who wins; who's in, who's out—
And take upon 's the mystery of things,
As if we were God's spies; and we'll wear out,
In a wall'd prison, packs and sects of great ones
That ebb and flow by th' moon.
... Have I caught thee?
He that parts us shall bring a brand from heaven
And fire us hence like foxes. Wipe thine eyes.
The goodyears shall devour 'em, flesh and fell,
Ere they shall make us weep! We'll see 'em starv'd first.

Lear has “learned” nothing in the course of the play; what he desired in the beginning, he simply welcomes at the end. His daughter, a married woman and queen of France, is to live out her days in prison with him because she insisted on trying to save him? What could be better? The incredible irresponsibility of Lear in these lines, his total failure to recognize the depth of his guilt, suggests how futile were Cordelia’s efforts to rebuke him in the first act; he has no reason to hear her and will not. He is happy to see her imprisoned and will follow her soon to her death.

By the end of King Lear, Lear, Cordelia, Gloucester, Regan, Goneril, Edmund, Cornwall, and even the Fool are dead. Three characters remain on stage: Kent, Lear’s loyal servant; Albany, Goneril’s husband, who has assumed the crown; and Edgar. The last lines of the play are as follows:

Albany: Bear them from hence. Our present business
Is general woe. [To Kent and Edgar] Friends of my soul, you twain
Rule in this realm, and the gor'd state sustain.
Kent: I have a journey, sir, shortly to go.
My master calls me; I must not say no.
Edgar: The weight of this sad time we must obey,
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.
The oldest have borne most; we that are young
Shall never see so much, nor live so long.

Albany, whose impotent moralizing came far too late to avoid the disaster, can do nothing but mourn; Kent, whose only real characteristic is loyalty, knows his last duty too well. The last four lines are given to Albany in the Quarto and to Edgar in the Folio—but they are manifestly Edgar’s, and very strange. The play has done everything to justify the contention of its wicked characters that the old are incompetent, easily fooled, and entirely unfit to rule; what is it they “see” that the young don’t? Edgar, who will assume the crown Lear abandoned, is alone qualified to say. Lear and Gloucester know the endless betrayal of the world which consumes every duty; Edgar knows this too, but he knows that since there is no escape from this, no other world but the mortals’, we must not speak of it. Edgar is the exemplary witness to the tragedy of Lear: he stares it in the face, then turns away.