I DON’T THINK YOU’RE READY FOR THIS VILE JELLY: ON KING LEAR (Shakespeare)
by Joseph Suglia
“One has not observed life very carefully if one has failed to see the hand that gently—kills.”
—Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, Paragraph 69
“Achieved art is quite incapable of lowering the spirits. If this were not so, each performance of King Lear would end in a Jonestown.”
—Martin Amis, “Philip Larkin: His Work and Life”
Any writer who has received a Letter of Rejection knows the sting of malignancy behind that letter’s boilerplate politeness: “Every month, we are sent thousands of manuscripts for review. Unfortunately, your manuscript was not among the few that reached our editorial board. We will keep your query on file should another opportunity arise.” Any suitor whose desires have been refused knows the malicious assertion of power that surges and throbs behind the superficially gentle refusal, so unkind in its apparent kindness: “Thank you. I am very flattered; unfortunately, I am not available for dating.” When Disney employees cheep and chirp, “Have a Disney Day!” to tourists, this is another way of saying, “Kill yourself!”
Such is what Slavoj Žižek calls the “unmistakable dimension of humiliating brutality” inherent to polite responses (In Defense of Lost Causes, p. 17). Politeness is ambiguous because it seems to be a form of gallantry and respect for the other person’s feelings; just as often, it conceals a radical disregard for a person’s sensitivity. Open expressions of dislike must be avoided in polite society; therefore, one’s contempt for others maintains itself as disguised contempt. Respectfulness and tact are, often enough, screens behind which disrespectfulness and insensitivity lurk. There is, in a word, such a thing as aggressive politeness; there is such a thing as being aggressively polite.
I believe that the ambiguity of politeness is evident in Shakespeare’s traumatizing King Lear (1605-1606). Let me be blunt: The play concerns a king who is thrown down to the level of a homeless beggar, and he is subjected to a series of brutal humiliations throughout the play, as are Edgar, Gloucester, and Lear’s rough yet loyal-to-the-death servant Kent. The abjections begin long before the King’s exposure to the cold gusts of the open heath. Lear is humiliated long before he experiences undisguised elder abuse, long before he is pushed out of doors, long before he is diminished to an undignified poverty. The degradations begin with the manifest politeness of his two eldest offspring, Goneril and Regan. Lear is mapping out and parceling out his kingly estate—prematurely, I would add—to his three daughters, Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia, before his “[u]nburdened crawl toward death” [I:i]. His crawl toward death turns out to be a severely burdened one, despite his expectations. His decision to give away his land, property, and revenue is an undiscerning one—hence the ocular imagery that spreads throughout the play. The gruesome enucleation of Gloucester in Act Three: Scene Seven, for instance, mirrors Lear’s own blindness. The play’s twin metaphors are blindness and nothingness.[i]
When Lear asks his youngest daughter, his favorite, to declare her love for him, Cordelia’s response is monstrously inappropriate: “Nothing, my lord” [I:i]. (Inappropriate yet not as cruel as the pointed flatteries of Goneril and Regan, which I will turn to below.) Inexpressive Cordelia says this to herself, and so we know that it is genuine: “I am sure my love’s / More ponderous than my tongue” [Ibid.]. She knows that language always lies, she knows that any word that she could possibly say would belie the love that she has for her father, transmuting her feelings to their converse,[ii] so she chooses to say nothing: “Nothing, my lord.” She utters the following to explain her mutism: “I cannot heave / My heart into my mouth” [Ibid.]—“to heave” means “to lift.” She cannot raise the profundity of her feeling to language, with all of its manifold evasions, pomposities, and solecisms. Undiscerning Lear misses Cordelia’s meaning: All Cordelia is suggesting is that she loves her father according to a wordless obligation. She is “[s]o young” and “true” [Ibid.]—and Lear, dotard that he is, mistakes his youngest daughter’s brazenness and refusal to dote on him for disloyalty.[iii]
Again, Lear’s successive humiliations begin not with Cordelia’s inadvertent insult, but with the politeness of Goneril and Regan. Cordelia, the malapert minx, with her saucy bluntness, is kinder than Goneril and Regan, who are empty flatterers and who are cruel in their flattery. Politeness and manners are cruelty. Goneril and Regan are followers of the conventions of the court; their intimacy is a kind of formalized intimacy or a kind of intimate formality. One of Goneril’s inflated flatteries goes thus: “Sir, I do love you more than word can wield the matter…” [Ibid.].[iv] Undiscerning Lear, who “jointly” “invests” his eldest daughters with his “power” [I:i][v] trusts their statements—statements that are no more meaningful than the proposition “Banana trees eat cheese.”
Cordelia’s resistance is nothing in comparison with Goneril and Regan’s insubordination, for they undermine their father’s standing and resources before pushing him out into the cold of the storm.[vi] The point that I am trying to make is that Cordelia’s resistance, however inapposite it might be, is far less destabilizing than the savage overthrows of her older sisters, who wear the mask of politeness.
Lear is a literalist. He literalizes Cordelia’s impoliteness, as if it represented disloyalty, when it does not. He literalizes Kent’s bluntness, his “unmannerliness,” his “plainness” [I:i], as if it represented rebelliousness, which it does not. Instead, he prizes Goneril and Regan’s “oily” and “glib” [I:i] flatteries, which conceal a deep and deadly disobedience. To repurpose something once said by George Carlin, their version of politeness is contempt pretending to be manners.
The King’s demand is for the expression of love, as if the expression of love were love itself.[vii] Lear prefers expressions of politeness to genuine loyalty. He believes that Goneril and Regan love him because they say that they do. When he finally grasps the venom with which their polite formulae is saturated, Lear makes the logical error of associating the inhuman behavior of Goneril and Regan with the behavior of all women. Lear becomes a full-blown misogynist on account of this logical error (the Fallacy of Composition), which is similar to the unfortunate mistake of some critics who think that the play is misogynistic because the character Lear blindly becomes a misogynist.[viii]
Lear’s absolute authority at the beginning of the play is gradually triturated. Contemptuously, Oswald refers to the King as “My lady’s father” [I:iv]. “My lady’s father” places the emphasis on the “lady” (Goneril) and thus suggests the unmanning of Lear. Everyone in the hall knows this nasty bit of pseudo-politeness for what it is: an insult to the King. Kent accordingly gives Oswald a good drubbing—Kent, who is blunt and painful in his honesty yet far, far kinder than those flatterers, those sycophants, those sophists, whose loyalties lie in their mouths and not in their deeds.
The eldest daughters are the cuckoos that bite the head off the hedge-sparrow, their father. The Fool to Lear: “The hedge-sparrow fed the cuckoo so long / That it’s had it head bit off by it young” [I:iv]. The most shocking thing about the second line is the intentional absence of proper grammar. The grammatical way of composing the lines would be: “The hedge-sparrow fed the cuckoo so long / That it had its head bit off by its young.” The intentionally bad grammar intensifies the shocking character of the image. Since the cuckoo and the hedge-sparrow belong to different species within the avian kingdom, the Fool might even be suggesting that Lear’s daughters belong to a different species than the King—though, to be historically precise, Linnaeus established the separate classification of dunnock and cuckoos slightly over 150 years after this play was composed (in 1758). If the Fool intends that they belong to the same family, this is an image of the daughters cannibalizing their father.
Soon after his eldest daughters drive him down, inverting the traditional father-daughter relationship,[ix] Lear becomes estranged from himself; he becomes unrecognizably other. Alienated from himself, alienated from his estate, which he has imprudently given to his eldest daughters, Lear can no longer recognize himself: “Who is it that can tell me who I am?” [I:iv]. His previous self is foreign to him: “Does any here know me? Why, this is not Lear” [Ibid.]. He is the father who is father no more; he is the king who is king in title only. For much of his life, he thought of himself as father and as king. Now that the roles of father and king have been robbed of their substance, he does not recognize who he is. This non-self-recognition is madness.[x]
Lear tries to strip off his royal habiliments in the storm, which would be a kind of stripping-away of the symbols of royal authority, but is restrained by the Fool. The Fool is introduced in Act One: Scene Four, three scenes after the befooling of Lear has been initiated. The Fool disappears in Act Three: Scene Six, right after Lear says, “We’ll go to supper in’the morning” [III:vi], which means that Lear is now completely demented. Now, it is the King who has become the Fool. What use is the Fool when the King is foolish? It is only when the Fool is hanged that we hear of the Fool again.
Even though, on the surface, Cordelia has “scanted” her “obedience” [I:i] by avoiding an explicit declaration of love for her father, she shows signs of real devotion to him toward the end of the play, when she leads a charge into England to restore him to the throne. After the first scene of the first act, we do not see Cordelia again until the fourth scene of Act Four, wherein she reemerges as the Queen of France. At least, this is the case in the Quarto of 1608. There are significant discontinuities between the Quarto of 1608 and the First Folio of 1623. In the First Folio, Cordelia reappears in the third scene of “Actus Quartus,” surrounded by pendants, drums, and her entourage: “Enter with Drum and Colours, Cordelia, Gentlemen, and Souldiours.”
One of Cordelia’s roles, after she accedes to the queenship of France, is to re-man, to re-virilize Lear, to undo the unmanning to which he has been subjected: “How does my royal lord? How fares your majesty?” Cordelia asks her father in the seventh scene of the fourth act—without ever addressing him as her father! No, she gives Lear a higher status than that of a father, than that of a biological progenitor. He is the King, her royal lord, his majesty once more, and he is addressed with respect—and yet, for once, one senses that there is no malice beneath a shifty veneer of respectfulness.
The play does end in a certain restoration—the King reunites with his disowned daughter—and it is a beautiful resipiscence, a beautiful reconciliation between father and daughter, which makes the play almost endurable. At the risk of sounding facile, this is a very dreary, very abjective, and quite nauseating play, but it does contain one positive value, and that is the value of covert loyalty. Whereas Harold Bloom inflates the role of Edgar, I would emphasize the magnificent Kent. Even when he disguises himself and escapes banishment, Kent does so in order to better serve his master. Kent’s dishonesty masks a deeper honesty, his deceptions mask a deeper loyalty, as Cordelia’s phenomenal coldness masks a profounder warmth. Kent shows a deeper obedience to Lear by standing up to the King and telling him, in essence, that the King is acting against his own best interests. Kent is the very model of disloyal loyalty, of traitorous piety, of the fidelity of treason, which is something that Nietzsche knew well.
[i] These are not matters that I am able to pursue in this essay directly, so I will place the relevant citations within an endnote. Concerning the ocular metaphors: Goneril claims, phonily, that her father is “[d]earer than eyesight” to her [I:i]. Lear exclaims to Kent: “Out of my sight!” Kent’s response: “See better, Lear, and let me still remain / The true blank of thine eye” [Ibid.]. Lear says to his own eyes: “Old fond eyes, / Beweep this cause again, I’ll pluck yet out…” [I:iv]. Concerning the metaphors of nullity, within which Harold Bloom would see a creative gnostic vacuity: There are Cordelia and Lear’s “Nothings” in the first scene. Edmund says to his father, “Nothing, my lord” in the second scene of the play. In the fourth scene of the first act, Lear tells the Fool that “nothing can be made out of nothing.” The Fool says to Lear: “I am a fool, thou art nothing” [Ibid.].
[ii] Cordelia knows the deceptiveness of language, as does her male double, Edgar. Edgar says, to himself, that “the worst is not / So long as we can say ‘This is the worst’” [IV:i]. The verbal articulation of one’s condition nullifies that very condition. One is not fully lonely, as long as one can say, “I am lonely,” to follow Blanchot. One is not fully sad, as long as one can say, “I am sad.” One at least has energy enough to say that one is sad; one still opens the possibility of an addressee or an auditor when one says that one is lonely.
[iii] So scandalized is Lear that he (ostensibly) delights in the company of his youngest daughter no more than he delights in the company of cannibals: “[H]e that makes his generation messes / To gorge his appetite, shall to my bosom / Be as well neighboured, pitied and relieved, / As thou my sometime daughter” [I:i], Lear intones to Cordelia.
[iv] Cordelia, by contrast, is reticent: “To speak and purpose not—since what I well intend, / I’ll do’t before I speak” [I:i].
[v] By way of an illocutionary performative speech act.
[vi] Regan and Goneril’s insubordination of their father is mirrored by the bastard Edmund’s insubordination of his father. Edmund betrays his father, the Earl of Gloucester, as Goneril and Regan betray their father, Lear. Edmund, at least, becomes sympathetic in his dying. In his final moments, he has a coda of self-acknowledgement. Not so Goneril and Regan. Edmund is an obvious sociopath but is less dislikable than Goneril and Regan.
[vii] Lear is King James I perceived through the speculum of a funhouse mirror. Much as James I, who patronized Shakespeare and whom Shakespeare served when this play was first performed, King Lear demands absolute obedience. James I asserted his absolute authority in writing, in The True Law of Free Monarchies; or, The Reciprocal and Mutual Duty Betwixt a Free King and His Natural Subjects (originally published in 1598). Anyone who reads this text will see that James I considered obedience to the King to be identical to obedience to God. Intriguingly, Shakespeare seems to be subtly criticizing his patron. Both James I and Lear make the mistake of believing that an outward show of submission is true obedience. Moreover, James I similarly divided his estate, giving it to his sons, renouncing the ownership of moieties of his land and money. Instead of burbling about Shakespeare’s “universalism” or “infinity,” it is important to place the plays within their proper historical contexts. “Universalism” and “infinity”: Such are a few of the pomposities and vaporizings of Harold Bloom, who is otherwise often admirable.
[viii] Lear is nothing if not the Father. If he is not patriarchal, then no one is.
[ix] Lear is infantilized, becoming son to Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia. In this play, daughters are mothers to their father. “Old fools are babes again,” Goneril says of her father to Oswald [I:iii]. The Fool tells Lear, “[T]hou mad’st thy daughters thy mothers” [I:iv]. Similarly, Edmund says of his brother Edgar that the latter claimed: “[T]he father should be as ward to the son and the son manage his revenue” [I:ii]. Likewise, Edgar says of his father, “He childed as I father’d” [III:vi], implying an inversion of relation between father and son. It is an inverted world in which the characters are dwelling, one in which the home-space is outside of the kingdom and the outside is within: “Freedom lives hence and banishment is here” [I:i], as Kent phrases it.
[x] There is a great deal of self-estrangement in the play. Edgar disguises himself as Poor Tom, peasant and bedlamite, before becoming the next King of England, and Kent disguises himself as Caius before being recognized for who he is by the dying Lear in the final act. In the guise of Poor Tom, Edgar dispatches the vermin Oswald and Edmund, who have verminated England. Interestingly, there is a legend that the historical King Edgar committed lupicide, dispatching and expelling wolves from Albion immediately after he became king.