Models of Action and Observation in King Lear

July 5, 2019 by Essay Writer

Auden once asserted that Shakespearean tragedy is necessarily parabolic, pertaining to the only myth that Christianity possesses: that of the ‘unrepentant thief’. We as the spectators are thus implicated in the action since each of us ‘is in danger of re-enacting [this story] in his own way’.1 The sufferings of the hero could be our own sufferings, whereas in Greek tragedy, such a notion is precluded precisely because the misfortunes of a character can be traced back to the discontent of the gods. Hippolytus is not a moral agent; Hamlet is. The aesthetic of Shakespearean tragedy is therefore dynamic, with an audience that, to a certain extent, are also participants. Auden proposes a model of observing based upon an Aristotelian conception of drama, one that involves the spectator in an emotional relationship with the characters on stage. King Lear too, offers the audience several quite distinct paradigms of both observation and action, and crucially, it is on the varying successes of these models that the tragedy hinges.One does not need to look far in King Lear for a figure that might fit Auden’s mould. Kent surely embodies that which Schlegel termed the ‘science of compassion’ in the play.2 He is publicly traduced and humiliated by Lear in Act I, Scene 1, and yet, in the guise of Caius, risks his life in order to serve his king still. Kent observes Lear’s ‘hideous rashness’ (I.i.153) and he is motivated into participating in his master’s sufferings: I have a journey, sir, shortly to go;My master calls me; I must not say no. (V.iii.323-324) The simple rhyme, metric balance, and monosyllabic plainness of this couplet infuse the lines with a sense of tenderness. Kent’s final, elegiac words are, like all his utterances, free of hyperbole and emotionally raw. Throughout the play his response to the action parallels the audience’s own. Kent is the mouthpiece of the spectators when he entreats Lear to ‘see better’ (I.i.159), and his dismay at Cordelia’s death, ‘Is this the promised end?’ (V.iii.264), speaks volumes. However, this should not hide the fact that Kent as a character is ineffectual. His final words do not embody an attempt to resolve or rectify, they are truly fatalistic. Kent then, is the Aristotelian observer. He participates in the action only by way of ‘pity’ for Lear, and the result is that he shares his master’s fate. His observations lead him to emotionalise events, and much like Dr Johnson, who found King Lear ‘too horrid to be endured’, he ‘sees feelingly’.3 But King Lear is a play of antitheses, and one might find a second, opposing model of observation in the character of Edgar. In Act III, disguised as Poor Tom, he is confronted by his aberrant, rain-beaten godfather, and though he fears that his distress may betray his ‘counterfeiting’ (III.vi.59-60), he does maintain his composure. Equally, in the following Act, when presented with the even more excruciating image of the blinded Gloucester, Edgar refrains from revealing his identity. Physically he is a chameleon, but emotionally he is unfaltering: GLOUCESTERKnow’st thou the way to Dover?EDGARBoth stile and gate, horse-way and foot-path. (IV.i.56-57) Edgar’s matter-of-fact reply contains six nouns in only nine words and it could hardly be further from the visceral utterances of Lear on the heath. His reaction to his father here is indicative of his detached response to suffering in general. Edgar is able to observe without becoming emotionally implicated in the situation. He is the Brechtian spectator, one who ‘instead of sharing an experience [Š] comes to grips with things.’4 Brecht’s dramaturgy asserted the belief that distanced observation ‘arouses the capacity for action’, and Shakespeare seems to propose something remarkably similar through Edgar.5 Unlike Kent, who wallows in his own misery, Edgar is brought to a realisation by what he witnesses, and is thus propelled into action. He is the chief redemptive force in King Lear, as he releases his father from suicidal despair and defeats the inverted bastard hegemony of his brother Edmund. Through Edgar the playwright encourages the audience to stand back from the tragedy, to observe rather than feel and to ‘see better’, so that they too are forced to ask, ‘Is man no more than this?’ (III.iv.106).There remains in the character of the Fool, however, a further observer in King Lear. His role is essentially that of a chorus, and he is consequently immutable. Just as the multitude of Corinthian women are incapable of responding to the cries of Jason’s children as their mother kills them in the Medea, so the Fool cannot, by definition, intervene in Lear’s plight.6 Nevertheless, he is a substantially revised representation of this classical device, in that his function is not at all expository, as is the case with the Choruses of Euripides, or even that in Marlowe’s Dr Faustus. His words are, almost without exception, barbed: FOOLGive me an egg, nuncle, and I’ll give thee two crowns.LEARWhat crowns shall they be? FOOLWhy, after I have cut the egg in the middle and eat up the meat, the two crowns of the egg. When thou clovest thy crown I’ the middle and gavest away both parts, thou borest thine ass on thy back o’er the dirt. (I.iv.161-168) Coleridge talked of the character’s ‘inspired idiocy’ and one can appreciate what he meant here.7 The Fool plays with images of inversion and nothingness. The crown, a symbol of harmony, power, and wealth, is reduced to a broken egg ­ hollow and worthless ­ and in turn, Lear’s title is little more than a shell. The picture of ‘two crowns’, a veiled prophecy of civil war, augments the political implications of Lear’s actions in the opening scene. Equally, the absurd image of man carrying ass mocks Lear as doltish (notice the parallel to Ovid’s Midas), and yet, embedded in the role reversal is the notion of an inverted hierarchy: daughters are mothers; kings are toddlers; bastards are oligarchs. The Fool’s language is supremely economical, anti-poetic, but also pregnant. He conjures motifs that, on the one hand, are sardonic gibes, and on the other, elucidate many of the play’s pervasive themes. While he is unable to act, his observations have a forensic precision intended to compel others, Lear in particular, to do what he cannot. In this sense, the Fool’s utterances are active ­ they bring both protagonist and, as Kiernan Ryan notes, audience to a state of realisation.8 For Lear this realisation comes at the close of Act III, in the words:Make no noise, make no noise; draw the curtains; so, so, so. We’ll go to supper i’ the morning. So, so, so. (III.vi.83-85) Lear’s pointless use of epizeuxis here seems a parody of rhetoric. He understands the destructive nature of the ‘glib and oily art’ (I.i.226) of words, hence his appeal for ‘no noise’, and, importantly, also shows awareness of his own hamartia – the topsy-turvy comment about supping in the morning recognises the inverted order that his actions helped to shape. The Fool’s function has thus been fulfilled, and after a final half-line, ‘And I’ll go to bed at noon’ (III.vi.86), he promptly vanishes. Lear, however, is changed by the epiphany, and this scene marks a period of transition for his character, from a blind spectator to an active observer, and in Act IV he becomes Gloucester’s Fool. Plate sin with goldAnd the string lance of justice hurtless break;Arm it in rags, a pygmy’s straw does pierce it. (IV.vi.169-170) The king, as Edgar is aware, speaks ‘Reason in madness’ (IV.vi.179). Lear presents justice as socially protean. The prosperous and powerful, such as Goneril and Regan, transcend the applicability of law and morality, an idea that is manifest visually on stage in the blinded figure of Gloucester. Nevertheless, for all Lear’s lucid observations, he remains essentially passive. Bradley defined him as ‘a hero more acted upon than acting’, and in this respect he is almost unique among Shakespeare’s tragic protagonists.9 Only Othello resembles Lear in passivity, controlled by the arch-actor Iago. But even he is an agent of action and it is Othello, not Iago, who smothers Desdemona. Lear, though, is an active participant in his own story only as far as the first scene, and thus he cannot be considered a true model of action. So if the eponymous hero is not such a model, who in King Lear is? Certainly not Cordelia. Auden notes that dramatically she is a ‘bore’ and her character appears in only four of the twenty-six scenes in the play and is allotted less than ninety lines out of three thousand three hundred.10 Cordelia and her ‘heavenly eyes’ (IV.iii.31) fail to fit the redemptive role set out for her by Kent and the Gentleman. Gloucester, as a parallel to Lear, is equally inactive, while Burgundy is indeed a ‘Milk-livered man'(IV.ii.50). There remains then a triumvirate, namely Goneril, Regan, and Edmund, who may be thought of as agents of action. When one considers the most striking images of King Lear ­ Kent placed in the stocks, Lear on the heath, Gloucester blinded, and Cordelia’s death ­ all are instigated by these three characters, either separately or in collusion. Regan’s imperious and shockingly unremorseful comment that Gloucester should ‘smell / His way to Dover’ (III.vii.94-95) encapsulates the relentless and emphatic manner in which she and her sister both act and speak throughout the play. Yet as models of action they are undermined by their dependence on each other and their self-destructive passion for Edmund. He alone is a paradigm of truly effectual action: Thou nature, art my goddess; to thy law My services are bound. Wherefore should I Stand in the plague of custom, and permitThe curiosity of nations to deprive me, (I.ii.1-5)Edmund’s words are resoundingly forceful both in content and tone, and the accent on the dental plosives in words such as ‘art’, ‘stand’, ‘permit’, and ‘curiosity’, implies that the speech may be spat rather than spoken. Edmund’s emphasis is firmly on the self and his language is univocally subversive: custom and law are a ‘plague’ and he must forge a morality based on his own nature in order to succeed. He is the existentialist anti-hero who roams freely through the play, reliant upon no one and revelling in the role of lover, without ever actually loving. His self-mutilation in Act II, Scene 1, shows him to be as brilliant an improvisationalist as a planner: Fly, brother. Torches, torches! So farewell[Exit Edgar]Some blood drawn on me would beget opinion(Wounds his arm)Of my more fierce endeavour. (II.i.34-36) Edmund is the ultimate opportunist, constantly aware of what is unfolding around him. His brother, Edgar, procrastinates, but Edmund is capable of assimilating the situation with lightning speed and reacting to it in the same manner. Nor could any action be more emphatically cold and disinterested than the drawing of one’s own blood so as to incriminate another. His character is both an arch-actor and also an arch-observer, and he plays both parts with equal measure. Edgar may be the last man standing, but his closing line, ‘We that are young / Shall never see so much, nor live so long’, (V.iii.326-327) is equivocal; there is no guarantee that the bastard’s devastatingly destructive recalcitrance can be reversed, after all the state is still ‘gored’ (V.iii.322).In King Lear Shakespeare offers the audience several models of action and observation, but only one, Edmund, is successful as both. Harold Bloom remarks that the character is ‘frighteningly seductive’ and I hold this to be true.11 He is of the same mould as Milton’s Satan, in that the writer presents him as a dynamic anti-virtue. Though Cordelia, Kent and Edgar are all paradigms of love and devotion, their actions are seemingly futile – and perhaps this is what really offended Dr Johnson. To use the words of Blake, ‘Good is the passive, [Š] Evil the active springing from energy.’12 In the end, the negation steals the show and it is this that makes the tragedy so tragic and its message ultimately nihilistic. Bibliography William Shakespeare, The Tragedy of King Lear, ed. Celeste Flower, Longman 1993 W. H. Auden, ‘The Shakespearean City’ in The Dyer’s Hand and Other Essay, Vintage International 1989, pp.171-272 The Romantics on Shakespeare, ed. Jonathan Bates, Penguin 1992, pp.381-405 William Blake, ‘The Marriage of Heaven and Hell’ in The Complete Poems, Penguin 1977, p.181 A. C. Bradley, Shakespearian Tragedy, Macmillan 1908, pp.7-67, 243-330 Harold Bloom, Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, Fourth Estate 1999, pp. 476-515 Euripides, Alcestis and other plays, trans. John Davie, Penguin 1996, p.80 Samuel Johnson, Johnson as Critic, ed. John Wain, Routledge & Kegan Paul 1973, pp. 216-217 Kiernan Ryan, ‘King Lear: The Subversive Imagination’; Terry Eagleton, ‘Language and Value in King Lear’ in New Casebooks: King Lear, ed. Kiernan Ryan, Macmillan 1993, pp.73-91 John Willet, The Theatre of Bertolt Brecht, Methuen 1964, pp.168-187 1 W. H. Auden, The Dyer’s Hand and Other Essays, Vintage International 1989, pp. 175-176 2 The Romantics on Shakespeare, ed. Jonathan Bates, Penguin 1992, p. 3813 Samuel Johnson, Johnson as Critic, ed. John Wain, Routledge & Kegan Paul 1973, pp. 216-2174 John Willet, The Theatre of Bertolt Brecht, Methuen 1964, p.1705 Ibid, p.1726 Euripides, Alcestis and other plays, trans. John Davie, Penguin 1996, p.807 The Romantics on Shakespeare, ed. Jonathan Bates, Penguin 1992, p. 3908 Kiernan Ryan, ‘King Lear: The Subversive Imagination’ in New Casebooks: King Lear, ed. Kiernan Ryan, Macmillan 1993, p.80 9 A. C. Bradley, Shakespearian Tragedy, Macmillan 1908, p.5510 W. H. Auden, The Dyer’s Hand and Other Essays, Vintage New York 1989, p.20111 Harold Bloom, Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, Fourth Estate 1999, p.48112 William Blake, ‘The Marriage of Heaven and Hell’ (plate 3 lines 11-12) in The Complete Poems, Penguin 1977, p.181

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