The Metaphor of the World’s End
‘Nothing, my lord.’
‘Nothing will come of nothing…’
King Lear (I.1.78-81)
Shakespeare saturates King Lear with metaphors which, in their ‘literalization’, aid a single, over-arching metaphor that guides the course of tragedy in the play: nothingness. The entire play is an apocalyptic metaphor for the end of the world, epitomized by the storm and Shakespeare’s direct references to Armageddon in the Book of Revelation. The King himself metaphorically represents the reduction of completeness to nothingness, and every other character aids this through their literalizations of various metaphors focusing on the themes of madness, foolery, blindness and nakedness.
The word nothing appears no less than 34 times in the play, five times within the space of ten words in Act I Scene 1; it is the keynote which defines the idea of loss. Harold Bloom, in ‘Shakespeare: the Invention of the Human’ describes King Lear as ‘the most tragic of all tragedies’ where everything ends in despair and despite ‘spasmodic flashes’ of insight there is no sense of ‘redemption’ as A.C Bradley suggests. Nothing is gained in Lear, only lost and sent to nothingness. Loss of love, loss of wisdom, loss of sanity, loss of sight, loss of life, loss of power and loss of faith, all support Bloom’s conclusion that ‘The play is a storm with no subsequent clearing’, it is an irreversible fall into nothingness. This lack of moral cleansing, and the inundation of tragedy throughout, has led to much critical resentment over the past four hundred years. Frank Kermode described King Lear as ‘unperformable’, and ‘overly submerged’ in death, and Peter Sabor described the tragedy as ‘complex and contradictory’.
The Elizabethan audience was so appalled by the endless misery of the play that in 1681Nahum Tate completely revised Shakespeare’s text for the late Restoration taste; he cut the fool and re-wrote a happy ending where Gloucester, Lear and Cordelia all survive. The final speech in The History of King Lear Revived with Alterations glorifies the success of ‘truth and virtue’, and Lear celebrates the return to peace; ‘Our drooping country now erects her head’ (V.3.153-4). Tate’s adaptation merely magnifies the insistence of complete tragedy and nothingness in the original text when Albany states ‘Our present business Is to general woe’ (V.3.318), and the three survivors are left only to ‘sustain’ the ‘gored state’(V.3.319).
Even compared to Shakespeare’s other tragic works King Lear is comprehensively morbid. The deaths of Romeo and Juliet deliver lasting peace between warring families, Macbeth’s tyranny is bought to an end and a new social order is established, and in the final scene of Hamlet the prince dies but is carried to heaven by ‘flights of angels’ (V.2.371). There is however, as Trevor Nunn states, ‘no sense of divine justice’ in King Lear, and any hints of restoration are merely what Enid Welsford describes as ‘spasmodic flashes’ of insight. The ultimate purpose of the literalization of metaphor is to confound everything to nothingness; as Kent concludes; ‘All’s cheerless, dark, and deadly.’(V.3.288)
Whereas Othello is Iago’s play, and Julius Caesar is Brutus’, King Lear is certainly Lear’s play. Any argument for Edmund’s superiority is flattened by the complete lack of influence he has on the main plot and on Lear himself; they never once utter a word to each other. Harold Bloom unknowingly upholds the idea of literalization of metaphor causing nothingness in his comparison of Lear and the figure of Solomon from the Book of Kings. They embody ‘the aged monarch’ who is ‘wise yet exacerbated’ and ultimately are left with nothing through the literalization of dividing their Kingdoms. Crucially, both of the Kings have a distinct ‘foregrounding in grandeur’ and are presented, in the beginning, as ‘paradigm(s) for greatness’. They are both loved dearly by all of the benign characters in their lives, Lear so much so that even those he casts away return to help him.
Despite Goneril and Regan’s dismissal of their father as a man who ‘hath ever but slenderly known himself’, the King must have been wise and self-aware before the play begins to have earned such love from his subjects. This importantly provides Lear with the highest of all podiums from which to fall; the literalization of his divided Kingdom and descent into madness is made infinitely more tragic with knowledge of the King’s former greatness. Solomon’s wisdom is perversely echoed at various moments throughout by Lear as a reminder of this previous eminence. None are more so tangible than his completion of Solomon’s assertion ‘We are born crying and weeping at the first as all others do’ (Wisdom of Solomon 7:1-6), when, in a frenzy of madness on the heath Lear says ‘When we are born, we cry that we are come / To this great stage of fools’ (IV.6.174). The sardonic mockery of Solomon’s words is one of Lear’s most astute ‘spasmodic flashes’ of insight, delicately hidden between outbursts of foolery. Edgar, in an aside, notes Lear’s ‘matter and impertinency mixed, / Reason in Madness’ (IV.6.170). However, these flashes are merely the fading remnants of his old self, for just a few lines later he replies nonsensically to the Gentleman ‘To use his eyes for garden water-pots.’ (IV.6.192)
Lear dies with equal eccentricity, deluding himself that Cordelia has returned to life; ‘Look on her: look, her lips’ (V.3.308). Though he is still loved and mourned by the remaining characters, Bloom sees this love as ‘pragmatically a waste of time’, for the King ‘knows not what he says’ (V.3.291) and cannot recognise the love that is shown and the truth that is explained. The same can be said of Gloucester when Edgar remarks ‘He childed as I fathered’(III.6.107); both the old men are slain by their paternal love, which may be stronger than death but only leads to death, or the death-in-life for Edgar. As Samuel Johnson famously states, ‘Love is the wisdom of fools and the folly of the wise’; it is no healer and leads only to tragedy. King Lear is without the romance of eternal marital love and thus is ultimately doomed to adversity and nothingness.0
Eric Rasmussen and Jonathan Bate’s allusion to Gloucester’s blinding, the ‘cruellest’ yet most overt ‘literalization of metaphor’, is prevalent solely in the exploration of nothingness with regard to sight and insight. Gloucester has nothing in terms of insight, then has his eyes plucked and has nothing in literal vision which allows him to gain insight in learning the truth of his bastard son Edmund. ‘I have no way, and therefore want no eyes; / I stumbled when I saw’ (IV.1.18-19). This, however, is another momentary flash of insight as Gloucester can no longer have any effect on the plays discourse, and he returns to nothingness in his death in Act V. His physical blindness is the literalization, and perhaps punishment, for the metaphorical blindness that controls both Gloucester and Lear. The two are distinctly comparable in this sense, both choosing their disloyal children as heirs over their loyal ones and only realizing because they have been punished by blindness or madness. Shakespeare makes constant reference to ‘sight’, ‘seeing’ and ‘eyes’ throughout as metaphors for insight of wisdom. The opening scene when Lear dismisses Kent ‘Out of my sight!’ and Kent responds ‘See better, Lear’ (I.1.157-8) is a metaphor which comes true and results in the loss of insight for Lear. Kent being out of Lear’s sight puts his ideas out of mind he can no longer have any effect on Lear when he returns as Caius.
The Fool, despite only appearing in six of the twenty scenes, certainly has the largest influence on Lear in terms of his literalizing madness and foolery. There is great ambiguity as to what the Fool actually is, having been interpreted in production in a number of ways. Lear refers to the Fool as ‘Boy’, ‘lad’, and ‘pretty knave’, and the fool regularly endears Lear as ‘Nuncle’, suggesting a large gap in age. However the Fool has been played as an old man, a physically impaired and demented man and even described a ‘sprite’ or ‘changeling’ by Frank Kermode. Michael Billington describes the fool as Lear’s alter ego, the ‘visible mark of his insanity’, but perhaps the Fool could be an invisible mark of insanity, a projection developed through madness to house the crazed yet sporadically insightful ramblings of the King. If this is the case then the Fool’s role is even more symbolical in representing Lear’s downfall into madness. Lear despises the idea of being mad ‘O! Let me not be mad, not mad, sweet heaven; /Keep me in temper; I would not be mad’(I.5.159), yet as he tries to cling to his sanity his language slips into what Katherine Hodgkin describes as ‘disordered speech’ born from the ‘instability of identity’; his language becomes even more like the Fool’s riddles and rhymes. Wyndham Lewis notes Lear’s ‘swelling blank verse’ as his disgust carries him to the point of incoherence. He deserts iambic pentameter and spits out the words ‘Fie, fie, fie! pah! pah!’ (IV.6.126)
Nakedness provides another metaphor which becomes literal to depict Lear’s madness and fall into nothingness. ‘Clothing’, particularly ‘buttons’ are referred to throughout the opening two acts, the removal of which in later acts symbolizes the reduction to nothingness. Poor Tom, Edgar’s disguise, embodies the ‘naked fellow’ (III.4.37) who is complete nothingness. Lear joins him in nudity after he realises that he has had ‘too little care’ (III.4.33) of poverty, inequality and injustice for the ‘poor naked wretches’ of his kingdom whose ‘raggedness’ cannot protect them from the storm (III.4.33-34). Edgar describes his alias as a man who once ‘had six shirts to his back, three suits to his body’ (III.4.135-6), but is now left with nothing, ‘no silk… no hide… no wool… no perfume’ and is ‘unaccommodated man’ (III.4.105-8). He is the exact mirror image of Lear and the literalization of his naked madness and loss of power through the metaphor of stripping clothes displays Lear as the ‘unaccommodated man’. Lear does certainly learn some humility in experiencing the poverty of nakedness and when he is given a rebirth of clothing with ‘fresh garments’ (IV.7.128) from Cordelia, he is offered salvation. However; Lear is beyond this; he can no longer comprehend the world which surrounds him and as he dies he says to Edgar ‘Pray you, undo this button’ (V.3.308) to remove his metaphorical life support that is clothing and return to nothingness.
Throughout King Lear, Shakespeare very overtly makes use of many Biblical passages which relate to the end of the world, yet chooses to set the tragedy in an explicitly pre-Christian Britain. By doing so he is mocking the idea of creation ‘ex-nihilo’ from Genesis and reversing the holy avowal to a fall back into nothingness. He is very consciously making a parody of the Elizabethan turbulence in faith and fear of the end of the world. The prophecy of Armageddon in Mark 13:21 essentially summarises King Lear in a single paragraph: ‘There shal nation shall rise against nation and kingdome against kingdome… the brother shall betray the brother to death, and the father the sonne; and the children shal rise against their fathers and mothers and shal put them to death.’
John Holloway also notes Gloucester allusion to ‘These late eclipses of the sun and moon’(I.2.137) in Act I scene 2, a line taken directly from St. Luke’s doctrine of the end of the world, before going on to say in Act IV that ‘This great world / Shall so wear out to naught.’ (IV.6.27) The notion that the whole fate of the play is guided toward ‘naught’ is crucial in interpreting the literalization of metaphor as nothingness. Holloway describes Lear as ‘part of a rehearsal of this terrible potentiality of nature’, focusing on the storm which begins as Lear turns to madness on the heath in Act III. The storm not only serves as a metaphor for Lear’s inner turmoil and escalating madness, but also as an antecedent to the end of everything and the fall into nothingness, Holloway illuminates this as ‘universal deflection of nature toward evil and disaster’. The Book of Revelations describes the Armageddon as a storm with ‘voyces, thunderinges, and lightnynges’, Lear opens Act III scene 2 by crying out a similar prophecy at the raging storm:
‘Vaunt-couriers to oak-cleaving thunderbolts,
Singe my white head! And thou, all-shaking thunder,
Strike flat the thick rotundity o’ the world!’ (III.2.4-7)
Rasmussen and Bate argue that storm is ‘cleansing’ and provides ‘divine justice’, echoing A.C. Bradley’s notion of Lear’s ‘redemption’. However Lear is not cleansed, he may recite sporadic flashbacks of wisdom from his foregone time as a noble monarch, but he is still doomed to nothingness and embodies a play which shows only a world where there is ‘no sense of divine justice’ as Trevor Nunn states.
The literalization of metaphor in King Lear exists to exhibit the fall of everything into nothingness, focusing particularly on the character of Lear himself. Blindness, folly, madness and nakedness are utilised within an abundance of metaphors to construct the ‘most tragic of all tragedies’ where all is lost and nothing is gained. Lear perhaps even realises this in one of his final lines when he concludes; ‘O thou’lt come no more / Never, never, never, never, never.’(V.3.306-307)
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Bloom, Harold. Shakespeare: the invention of the human. Pbk. ed. London: Fourth Estate, 1999.
Bradley, A. C.. Shakespearean tragedy: lectures on Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth. 3rd ed. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992.
Clarke, Ernest G.. The Wisdom of Solomon;. Cambridge [Eng.: University Press, 1973.
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