Shakespeare’s King Lear Analysis – Stoicism, Depression, and Redemption

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T is the time’s plague, when madmen lead the blind.
-King Lear

The weight of this sad time we must obey,
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.
The oldest hath borne most; we that are young
Shall never see too much, nor live so long”
King Lear

Brief Overview – Lear has been an extremely successful English king in medieval times, but is now ready for a more peaceful life. He devises a cock-and-bull method of dividing his empire amongst his three daughters. Whoever declares their love most fervently gets the most. The two older daughters take hyperbole to a new level and declare their undying affection for him, while the youngest, Cordelia, refuses to lie in such a manner. She says that she loves her father as a daughter should. Lear is angry, disowns her (though she still marries the King of France) and suffering ensues.

The Moral – The message is that life is full of horrific events, and not all human affairs are saved by deus ex machina. Sometimes, it really is too late. Sometimes, life is miserable and ends miserably, and that is that. For this it’s refreshing to read Shakespeare in the midst of our Hollywood happy-ending saturation.

But what can redeem any of it? Is it wisdom? Lear finds wisdom in the end, when he no longer values material possessions (we see him ripping off his clothes) and no longer concerned that his knights have left him. But only very briefly does he get to rejoice in this new-found wisdom once he’s reunited with Cordelia. They both die soon after. Thus, wisdom cannot offer much solace if only at the expense of many trials and tribulations can it be gained, not to mention that one cannot expect too many rewards from living a good and honest life. However, ultimately Shakespeare’s message is that these things are rewards in themselves.

It’s been suggested before that he may have been influenced, if indirectly, by Stoicism. Whether or not he was conscious of this, one can imagine Cordelia relating to this passage from Epictetus:

Go then and take a part, but I will not. “Why?” Because you consider yourself to be only one
thread of those which are in the tunic…But I wish to be purple, that small part which is bright, and
makes all the rest appear graceful and beautiful. Why then do you tell me to make myself like the
many? And if I do, how shall I still be purple?

Another cornerstone of Stoicism is that we fundamentally do not control anything except our own behavior. The author of this wonderful essay writes, “The universe is not a machine, it’s a roulette wheel, and though the Stoics do advise us not to count on controlling anything except one’s self, they nevertheless try, else why all this talk about virtue and striving against all odds.”

Cordelia’s Motives – In the Stoic view of life, Cordelia had no choice but to act as she did. She could not live with herself if she did otherwise, and anything gotten at the expense of degrading behavior would be tainted and bring no happiness. The author of the same essay writes that she “seems self-righteous and flimsy to us simply because we don’t know what the word love means in her lexicon.” You are honest to those that you love. Love is an obligation, and a duty, which she fulfilled, come what may. This is what is redeeming about life. It is also a reward in itself, for the greater struggles you must pass through, the stronger you grow. The closer to living in accordance with nature you become.

Kent – In Kent we see the same themes repeated. He is loyal to King Lear to the end and will offer him good counsel and honesty, in spite of the great risk in incurring a king’s anger. He could do no else and still be able to look at himself. Even when he is banished by Lear, he returns to serve him.

Lear’s Mistake – In great contrast to these wise characters, Lear is the true fool. He is a vain man who doesn’t understand the worth of actions as compared to words. When Cordelia refuses to stoop to flattery to get material goods, he tells her:“thy truth then be thy dower.”

And so we see Kent trying to talk sense into Lear saying “Nor are these empty-hearted whose low sound reverbs no hollowness.” Her words are majestic simplicity, the elegant lines of Venus of Milo, but he sees only barrenness. Or as later Albany would say, “Wisdom and goodness to the vile seem vile: Filths savour but themselves….Humanity must perforce prey on itself, Like monsters of the deep.” But this is lost on him.

Shakespeare believed that the “straight and narrow” path is by far the more difficult one, being fairly inevitably accompanied by suffering. But, in the end, the bad are their own greatest victims. In his tragedies, they do not escape unscathed. While both the good and the bad characters die, it’s better to have lived the life of Cordelia or Kent who sought to be blameless than to live the life of Lear (or Edmund, Goneril, etc) who lived a life based on fleeting emotions and desires rather than eternal principles. Lear is not insane in the beginning of the story, not more than the rest of us. He’s unwise and guided by bankrupt principles. Regan says of the king, “he hath ever but slenderly known himself,” a reference to Greek philosophy. The story is supposed to illustrate the ravages of such a life because for all Lear has accomplished, without wisdom he comes to nothing.

The other primary principle of Greek philosophy is also present (the first being “Know thyself”–inscribed on the Temple of Delphi), which is “Moderation in all things.” Every extreme is bad. King Lear is almost like the story of Achilles. When his pride is wounded he’s content to let the Greek army be destroyed rather than swallow his pride. While Achilles eventually realizes he is wrong before it’s too late and he leads the Greeks to victory, Lear does not. Death flourishes around him.

Insanity or Wisdom – It becomes clear by looking at other works of Shakespeare that a theme is that what society considers “insanity” can sometimes be wisdom, a keener perception. As in Hamlet, it’s logical to be pessimistic much of the time, in this world full of shadows, and so we see that Lear eventually does go insane throughout the play, as does Edgar. I include the fool in this discussion because it sticks with the theme of reason where everybody expects nonsense.

For this reason, many of the lines in his plays have a double meaning. For example, when the French king is asking for Cordelia’s hand in marriage he says,
Fairest Cordelia, that art most rich being poor,
Most choice forsaken, and most lived despised.

What is taken to be madness (a king marrying a woman with no property), is actually truth, in that he sees perhaps more merit in the marriage this way. Another example of this double-speak is when Lear runs into Kent (in disguise) outside the hut during the storm, and Kent says, “I do profess to be no less than what I seem; to serve him truly that will put me in trust…” Kent clearly is more than what he seems.

The entire character of the fool further illustrates this point. The fool is, of course, wiser than the king, and can see the political events in the play for what they are. Nevertheless, he is fated to play quite a different role in this world. Humorously, he tells the king that though his royal title can be taken away, the title of fool cannot; “that thou was born with.”

And it’s through the fool that Shakspeare once again expresses Stoic values:
Have more than thou showest,
Speak less than thou knowest,
Lend less than thou owest…

Yet in the end the fool, too, seems to become a victim of the King. It’s often portrayed that he is killed by Lear during the storm, for we never see him again after that scene.

Edmund and Edgar – The other plot in the book is that between Edmund, Edgar, and Gloucester. Edmund is Gloucester’s bastard son and he deeply resents his position in society. He creates a plot to make it look like Edgar, the legitimate son, has been plotting to kill their father in the belief that “This policy and reverence of age makes the world bitter to the best of our times; keeps our fortunes from us till our old cannot relish them.” So, there’s a parallel here. We first see Lear’s two bad daughters screwing him (and everybody else) over, and then we have Edmund screwing both his father and brother over. That both of King Lear’s evil daughters love Edmund is a further testament to his character. Are people so much elevated over the less-conscious beings as we imagine ourselves?

As a result of Edmund’s actions, Edgar is forced to debase himself to stay alive:
Brought near to beast: my face I’ll grime with filth,
Blanket my loins, elf all my hair in knots

A line of Edmund’s is very revealing about the theme of this subplot as well. He said it’s when we are sick in fortune—often the surfeit [excess] of our own behavior—we make guilty of our disasters the sun, the moon, and the stars: as if we were villains by necessity, fools by heavenly compulsion; knaves, thieves, and treachers, by spherical predominance; drunkards, liars, and adulterers, by an enforced obedience of planetary influence.

What he’s saying is that people abhor accepting responsibility for their own actions. It’s very painful to fail another person and especially to deal with the consequences of it. This idea again goes back to the ancient ideas of wisdom. In those days, people were not so quick to blame others. If you killed somebody, it could have been Mars making you do it. There was a removal of responsibility for both the good and bad that you did. We were all on a stage, and the gods manipulated us as they pleased. Or as he says in King Lear, “As flies to wanton boys, we are to the gods; They kill us for sport!”

In Judaism and Christianity, there’s also an element of this—evil spirits, the devil who tempts us, etc–but there’s a much greater emphasis on personal responsibility, perhaps due to the division into good and evil that there traditionally was not before. In any case, the principle idea is that those who use forces out of our control as an excuse to justify their actions are cowardly, but those who take the lessons to heart and move forward with their life are good.

The Storm – During the famous storm scene with the fool and Lear, the latter pulling out his hair and screaming to the skies, basically punishing himself because nothing can actually be gained by that behavior. This is not the beginning of his wisdom as some might suppose; it’s his rock bottom. In his depression he wishes for mankind to be destroyed:
Smite flat the thuck rotundity o’the world!
Crack nature’s moulds, all termins spill at once
That make ungrateful man!

The fool leads him to shelter in a hut, yet he’s still unable to see outside of himself because when he meets a poverty-stricken Edgar, he assumes that Edgar too has given everything away, unable to picture depression on other terms. Rather, his true turning point is when he tears off his clothes. This is when he rejects his former value system. Yet his victims keep piling up, and the fool is often portrayed dying when they are in the hut.

Briefly returning to the theme of destruction, there’s recently been a surge of arguments for anti-natalism: the belief that one should not have children because life is suffering. Shakespeare would have been appalled at this idea. He’s a huge fan of having children, as evidenced by his many sonnets encouraging reproduction. Yet in the play we see Lear wishing his daughter would be barren:
To make this creature fruitful:
Into her womb convey sterility:
Dry up her organs of increase,
And from her derogate body never spring
A baby to honour her!

I believe that Shakespeare meant this to be a sign of excess, immoderation and irrationality. This is not the reaction he would intend for us to have toward the world, though he has compassion for it. Rather, our solace is in kindness.

Kindness Is Redemption – We see that the moments that are redeeming in the story are moments of kindness and goodness. That is what makes life worth living, in the end, for Shakespeare. But I think that he sees these moments as a grand of sand in the sad ocean. Chuck Palaniuk expressed something similar when he writes in Fight Club that, “One minute was enough…a person had to work hard for it, but a minute of perfection was worth the effort. A moment was the most you could ever expect from perfection.” Kindness is our saving grace, the spots on the leopard and the bustling of the spring.

Edgar and Cordelia both undertake acts of kindness when they would have some justification in acting otherwise. Cordelia takes lead of the French army when her husband bails, in the belief she’s doing the fighting for her father. Edgar is put into a position of leading his father Gloucester (who abandoned him), now blinded, to a cliff. But instead of taking him for him to kill himself, there he leads him to a normal field and saves him. Thus, just as he can have compassion for a person seeking to end the human race, or to kill themselves, he doesn’t believe this is the answer. Plays are, of course written, not for the characters in them but for the audience. Live justly, he’s telling the audience, while you still can. It’s not too late.

Hamlet and Lear – Hamlet and King Lear are often said to be Shakespeare’s two greatest works, and both are tragedies. However, there’s a huge divide. Where Hamlet knows too much about life, has gazed too deeply into its state of affairs, Lear has failed to gaze into the nature of life. When he finally does see things for how they are, he is happy; the opposite feeling takes hold of Hamlet.

Is there then an inconsistency in Shakespeare’s worldview? I do not have a definitive answer for this, but it is possible that he felt that his philosophy was not adequately expressed in Hamlet, written about five years earlier. It reads more like the work of a young man, one who sees the travesty in life but does not yet have an adequate way to cope. Perhaps he learned to find happiness in spite of the bad around him. Yet Shakespeare was not happy with the way that Lear turned out. Harold Bloom writes that he was the the “Arabian moon in Wallace Stevens that ‘throws his own stars around the floor.’” Maybe he decided that stoicism was a cop out. We’ll never know.

English Context – Though the wisdom of nature can reason it thus and thus, yet nature finds itself scourged by the sequent effects: love cools, friendship falls off, brothers divide: in cities, mutinies…in palaces, treason….We have seen the best of our time: machinations, hollowness, treachery, and all ruinous disorders follow us disquietly to our grave.

In other words, we suffer disappointment at every turn, and especially from the things we once thought were secure. In his own time, Shakespeare felt that “the stone arch of English society [was] collapsing” (Source). He saw “the Catholic sin of usury inevitably transformed into the Protestant virtue of banking” for example (Source). But rather than any specific facet of society, it’s the cumulative reversal of values that irked him. Thus, Shakespeare saw the way that Lear bargains about the number of knights that he is allowed and pits his daughters against each other in a verbal contest for his land as perverse, as perverse as the new merchant class in his own times.

This is especially reflected in the fool’s words (and one of my favorite passages):
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 usurers tell their gold I’ the field,
And bawds and whores do churches build
Then shall the realm of Albion
Come to great confusion”

*

Long live the Shakespearean embrace of reality.


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