By Joyce Carol Oates

Originally published in the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Fall 1974. Reprinted in Contraries.

Thou art a soul in bliss, but I am bound
Upon a wheel of fire, that mine own tears
Do scald like molten lead.


The moment of Lear’s awakening is one of the most moving scenes in our literature, coming as it does after so much grotesque and senseless horror; it marks not simply the reconciliation of King and mistreated, exiled daughter, the reconciliation of the tyrannical, aggressive Lear and his loving, all-forgiving Cordelia, but the mysterious moment of “awakening” of the soul itself— for Cordelia, with her unearned kiss, symbolizes that moment of grace that forces the tragic action to a temporary halt, and allows a magical synthesis of the bliss of eternity and the tragedy of time that is so powerful in Shakespeare, because it is so rare.

contrariesIt is moving, yes, but bitterly moving, and our emotions will be turned against us shortly, for the visionary experience of a timeless love cannot compete in Shakespeare with the tragic vision, the grim necessity of history. Only when he chose to call attention to the magical —and therefore “unserious”—elements of his own artwork, as in The Tempest, could Shakespeare go beyond the terrible tradition of history, that enemies be put to death, that no one be forgiven except the dead. In reality, history cannot be stopped, and history is no more than the recording of men’s actions against one another—so Shakespeare might have concurred with Napoleon’s cynical remark that history is the only true philosophy, and he would have eagerly chosen as a villain the man of modern times who, like Edmund, placed so passionate a faith in his ego’s powers as to claim that such sentimental concepts as “friend” and “enemy” do not exist except as the ego forces them into being.1 We accept, unquestioning, the prejudice of a personality that disguises its pessimism in the form of art, especially if the art is that of “tragedy”— which demonstrates by its surface action the rightness of such a prejudice, but only by its surface action. The mysterious core of tragedy is its ritualistic affirmation of the life-force; as a form of religious observation, tragedy becomes “artistic” only as the artist steps forward to declare his individuality, his unique powers of perception. No one has really written about tragedy from the inside—that is, from the point of view of the writer of tragedy, who deals not only at second-hand with the spectacle before him (or at third- or fourth-hand, since as late as the time of Pope true genius was ‘”carefully, patiently, and understandingly to combine,” not to invent), but immediately and intimately with his own personality, his largely unconscious attitudes grouped as external elements of character, event, in King Lear even as setting. If the Shakespeare who brought together the various lively elements that constitute Hamlet could have anticipated, or imagined, the naive response of a Partridge (in Tom Jones) to that work, he might have had faith that, for some members of his audience, or for some layers of the human personality, the original magic of the ritual still worked. Yet it seems to me doubtful that Shakespeare did believe this: moments of transcendence in his plays are usually fleeting, often expressed by women, and in any case when they are brought to trial against the “cheerless, dark, and deadly” night of the unredeemed universe, they are always defeated. External history takes precedence over subjective experience, and the violent wheels that are individuals, mad for power, must turn full circle; whatever “promised end” the soul yearns for, imagining that a certain measure of suffering has crucified its sinful egotism, must be thwarted by the demands of history, which is unredeemed.

For most writers, the act of writing is itself a triumph, an affirmation, and the anguish experienced by an audience is not really in response to an emotion within the work itself (since real life would furnish much more convincing emotions) but the artist’s genius, his ability to transmute into formal images an archetypal human drama. In the case of tragedy, this is an inconsolable grief that nevertheless testifies to a higher, supreme order—not the raw ritual any longer, which is experienced immediately as “religious” and not enjoyed in our sense of the word, but the ritual brought into human terms, incarnated into flesh, into heaving, bleeding conflict.

“Tragic” Visions

Why is the underplot of King Lear in which Edmund figures lifted out of Sidney’s Arcadia and spatchcocked onto a Celtic legend older than history?

Stephen Dedalus
in the library scene of Ulysses

As tragedy evolves from simple ritual into art, and into increasingly complex, stylized, and individualized art, a new force enters history—the diminishment of tragic “elevation” in the anonymous, rather democratic art of folk-tales and ballads, which always remain for all the wisdom they convey more or less artistically naive; and, in formal art, the increasingly important factor of the self-conscious and self-declaiming creator, the arranger of the elements of ritual. A deliberate and deliberating consciousness asserts itself. When scholars like Hardin Craig, G. B. Harrison, and Russell Fraser draw our attention to the discrepancy between the Lear sources and Shakespeare’s transformation of them2 —as well as to the violent yoking-together of the Lear and Gloucester stories, never before united—we must remember that individual expressions of the tragic vision of life, however aesthetically and emotionally powerful they appear, are, first of all, to the artist a challenge of his individual artistry and an opportunity for him to experiment with partly conscious or totally unconscious elements in his own personality; but only in so far as these liberated elements can compete with the principle of reality itself, in tragic times usually represented by—not symbolized by—a political and social order involving a great deal of oppression. What we experience as infinite and universal, then, must be seen as a direct response to a given environment: not necessarily our environment, but valuable so far as the repressive nature of any force external to the individual can be externalized as a historical given. Is the tragic view of life necessarily the highest view of life, or the most beautifully rendered view of any life possible at the time of its having been rendered.9—which is a way of questioning our usual acceptance of the artist’s “formal” message (which the environment of his time forced into him and then from him) to the exclusion of those incontestably exciting moments, at times no more than in the interstices of the overwhelming general action, in which the liberating forces, the rebellious forces of life itself, are honored.

Harry Levin states bluntly that he can see “very little point in pretending, through some Hegelian exercise in cosmic optimism, that tragedy is other than pessimistic,”3 and yet it seems possible that one can redefine the concept of “pessimism” itself and determine whether, in certain historically determined works of art, there is not a possibility of some transcendence, however forced by the conventional plot to be defeated. Not that Desdemona, Cordelia, Edmund, Hotspur, Falstaff, and others who cannot be contained within the established society are defeated—but that they have been imagined into being at all, that their voices, their imprudence and vitality, have been given any expression whatsoever—this does represent a triumph of the artist’s personality, and we have only to remove the troublesome rebels from these works to see how pointless, how nakedly propagandistic, the “tragic vision” would have been. And how inexpressive of the complexity of Shakespeare’s genius! But if this does not quite answer the charge that tragedy fails to elevate, that it is profoundly pessimistic, one can consider whether pessimism, as such, is always negative; Nietzsche in his preface to The Birth of Tragedy claims that the ancient Greeks required the “art-work of pessimism” in order to evolve into a higher consciousness:

. . . Is there a pessimism of strength? An intellectual predilection for what is hard, awful, evil, problematical in existence, owing to well-being, to exuberant health, to fullness of existence?

—and the obvious Yes to these queries leads us into one of the great works on tragedy, which seeks to define it in terms of the issue Nietzsche would develop throughout his life, the relationship of the individual as Creator to the vast process of evolution in which he participates. Nietzsche’s vision is the fundamentally religious position that one cannot be allowed an “easy” belief; like Job, great suffering must attend and strengthen faith. But Nietzsche’s faith in a tragic joy, in an awakening of stopped-up Dionysian wonders by the sheer violence of external events, is not at all Shakespeare’s—as Tolstoy believed, the natural religious temperament, the mystical as opposed to the institutionally religious, is somehow missing in Shakespeare; one finds nobility, stoicism, momentary alliances like that between Lear and Cordelia, in which human love is celebrated, but the Dionysian energies in themselves are felt as dangerous, chaotic, and never healthy.

When Matthew Arnold spoke of the assumption by poets of the religious and philosophical function,4 he anticipated a coordination of moral and intellectual faculties that would allow one to distinguish between aesthetic values on one hand, and the “unconscious poetry” he saw in the religious temperament on the other; otherwise he would not have been as optimistic as he was. For, without the psychological experience of which the “religious” attitude is an intellectual result, the pessimism of certain great works of art is experienced apart from the ritualistic impulse that allowed them to be, originally—if ever—affirmative. And we come to accept as a universal statement about the condition of man what the artist knows to be, from the inside, hypothetical and sometimes playful variations on a theme.5Above, I grouped Desdemona and Cordelia along with Edmund, not meaning to eradicate the traditional divisions (at least in Lear) into “good” and “evil” camps, but to suggest that, for the artist, a more important consideration is whether or not he can locate any crevices, any openings, any fountains in his work, through which the life-force can move, regardless of moral distinctions. The Unconscious supposedly does not recognize socially accepted distinctions of good or evil, but craves only some form of organism-centered completion, the release and celebration of energy in some form—and, though the art-work is infinitely more complicated than the biological organism, the need to push forward, to violate the existing homeostatic condition, is just as natural, just as relentless. Allowing for the restrictions of the era, which are not always antagonistic to the individual, the art-work becomes the public vehicle for the artist’s private vision; and the more melodramatic the better, since the form of dramatic conflict best parallels the conflict of the personality’s various elements, conscious or unconscious contents that can never reach a stable equilibrium so long as life continues. (Questions of haphazard organization of scenes, unlikely disappearances and reappearances in Shakespeare’s plays, as in contemporary films, are relevant only to the experience of these works on the printed page; as visual spectacles, which release emotions in a sequence of scenes, they need answer to the same logic as our dreams, which they very much resemble.)

Whether tragedy in its “highest” form is really affirmative, or only worked, historically, to frighten its viewers into an intellectual affirmation of the status quo, there is no doubt that individuals in our time experience it as pessimistic, regardless of what they have been taught. The naive response is, after all, one’s best expression of human instinct. One does not analyze a dream in order to know what sort of emotions to feel about it; one uses the emotion to seek out the meaning, inseparable from the experience itself. Thus, Lear is profoundly pessimistic for us in the twentieth century, and we cannot know or approximate its value to the past. Once we distinguish our intellectual expectation of emotion from our actual emotions, we are prepared to approach a work of art from our own point of view, and only by this method can we discover what might be timeless in it.


That moments of transcendence must be followed, and dramatically, by catastrophic endings is part of the fabric of tragedy; one might speculate that an art-form that is in itself predetermined will most convincingly present a worldview that is predetermined—in contrast, for instance, with the greater freedom of the realistic forms of drama and fiction that have followed Shakespeare’s time. Where formal freedom is enjoyed by the artist, freedom is more likely to be enjoyed by his characters, though the evolution of “freedom” in its various aspects is always related to the historical moment.

However, the incompatibility of the visionary and the tragic in King Lear is excessive even for tragedy, and a way of isolating and analyzing the terms of this incompatibility is by noting the work’s presentation of women: goddesses, all, but of a totally unpredictable and possibly terrifying nature.

The world of Lear is one in which the particularized, personalized human being finds himself in some contention with his role—a representative of his species, his rank, his “place”—King, Father, Everyman, God-on-Earth; Daughter; Bastard; Loyal Servant; Madman; Traitor. The terms in which he dramatizes these roles soon become uncontrollable by him, though he imagines initially—as Lear certainly does —that he is in absolute control, and even the wise Cordelia miscalculates her power to absorb the violent emotions in her father which she has provoked; it is not so much raw aggression that leads to tragedy, but the loss of control that results from a simple refusal on the part of a “character” to conform to a “role.” Hence, the youngest and fairest daughter of the king refuses to be the daughter of a king, but insists upon speaking as a woman who is Cordelia, and no other. In the acknowledgment of a separate, unique destiny, a personality possessed not by the sovereign but by the individual, there is a hint of the Void: formless horror, the music of the spheres violated, the unstoppable upheaval of raw nature. In this woman’s insistence upon a moral intelligence not determined by her social role we have rebellion, the first and the most surprising of all. The others are for gain, for power, for exciting, new, lustful alliances, but Cordelia’s is without any ostensible purpose: she declares herself unwilling to lie, she declares herself as a self.

The “self” of Lear, however, is overwhelmed by the authority of the “King,” in the grip of the most primitive of emotions, a human being dying inside an archetype. By the time of Lear’s redemption, however, from this ignoble self, what is mortal in him has been lost to any role that might be accommodated in the structured world of man—of politics, of history. Shakespeare’s cynicism is darker than one thinks, at least in Lear, for, though one may be broken upon the wheel of betrayal—the denial of Kingship by both a kingdom’s subjects and by Nature itself—and “cut to the brains,” the only knowledge he returns with is the knowledge that one cannot operate sanely in that place where “poor rogues/Talk of Court news.” The necessary withdrawal of the enlightened man from politics, from the world as it exists in history, must have seemed to Shakespeare the only way in which a measure of transcendence, or true “selfness,” could be retained. And yet—to surrender the world to those who demand it, precisely those who should not possess it! Part of the play’s terrible pessimism is due to this assumption of a (saintly) passivity in the face of history, as if politics, the world, history, time, contaminated the morally virtuous: an assumption that is probably quite psychologically valid for most people, and yet presents, in art, an intolerable paradox.

However, having detached himself from the “role” he had been cast in, having fled into and through Nature itself, Lear satisfies our emotional demands for a dramatic rejection of the ego (by way of rejecting the superficial, time-determined roles of that ego), and his loving alliance with Cordelia suggests a wedding of sorts, an embrace of contrarieties: male and female, civilization and “great creating nature” rather than nature in its evil sense. A critical approach that examines the play as a coherent narrative, dealing with fully realized psychological events, arranged in a causal pattern, may be quite rewarding in that it satisfies our uneasy wishes that a work of art make sense on the most fundamental level, but it may be ultimately self-defeating; for one cannot disagree with Tolstoy, who was angered by the absence in Shakespeare’s work of recognizable human beings, as well as the multiplicity of “unnatural” events— one may only disagree about whether these elements are always essential. It is impossible, now, knowing what we do about the effects of environment upon all human beings, including artists, to pretend that a work may not be valuable precisely in what it omits, what it rejects, what it demonstrates as unconscious assumptions unconsciously given voice in the externalization-process that is art.

One of Lear’s more desperate passions is to know whether there is “any cause in nature that makes these hard hearts” (III, vi, 75). His fate is to learn that there is, there must be, since the hardness of hearts unites (in Shakespeare’s imagination) man with nature, and nature must always be chaotic because it is not the Court, because it is not Art— it promises no immortality because it has no memory. The very form of the sonnet is outrageously and shamelessly egocentric, and allows the ego a pleasure that somehow activates guilt for its very celebration of form and language: hence the sonneteers acknowledge their constant terror of death, by guaranteeing themselves and their patrons the word “immortality,” if not the condition. Confronted with the ungovernable processes of nature, many men—and not just the baffled, infuriated Lear—imagine that their “wits begin to turn.” For nature when it is Nature, when it is experienced as outside the human ego, the human intellect, the human capacity for tyrannies of any kind—the most subtle, the most winning, the tyranny of language itself—is always the enemy, always fallen; and if animals are evoked they are not animals, but “beasts,” and we experience the rage of authoritarian disappointment in terms of savage wolves, tigers, serpents, vultures, kites, adders and insects, rats, and “mad” and “biting” dogs.

Tragic enough, certainly, yet the ultimate tragedy is the experiencing as “enemy” the entire female sex, even one’s dead and buried and presumably docile queen. The dilemma is that, for both Lear and Shakespeare, redemption must come only from the female, temporarily exiled in France, but required—and so pragmatically, as well as instinctively—in order that some measure of salvation be assured. If there could be a force or a being somehow uncontaminated by nature, a creature immaculately conceived, perhaps, then Man might be saved; the old kingdom restored. But there is only one savior possible, Cordelia: that one daughter of Man who, in the anonymous gentleman’s words, “redeems Nature from the general curse/which twain have brought her to” (IV, Vi, 2023. Yet Cordelia is a woman, and as a woman she is Nature; she will not die and so she must be murdered.

Shakespeare deliberately alters the ending of the Lear story, in order to defeat the very salvation his work, from the inside, requires; it is not necessary to assume, as some critics do, that Shakespeare was projecting his own revulsion for women into the play, but it seems necessary to assume that whoever came to embody Nature, whoever spoke and acted freely, spontaneously, naturally, and rejected the archetypal role in order to affirm individuality, must be murdered—her magical powers, undeniably wonderful, stem from Nature and are therefore dangerous. Harbage notes that Shakespeare alone “and in defiance of precedent conducted Lear to ultimate misery”; pre-Shakespearean forms of the story ended happily.6 One feels that he acted in defiance not only of precedent but of the unconscious folkwish the play surely dramatizes, that the mortal ego be reunited with its soul, its own capacity for divinity, felt as such an irresistible psychological necessity that, as everyone knows, and imagines to be absurd, Nahum Tate rewrote the conclusion in 1680, in the order that Cordelia and Edgar might marry: if not the old man, then at least let Edgar have her!—the folk-impulse gratified, and yet curiously unworkable. The play is so baffling, so unconvincing, and yet so unforgettable, precisely because there is no conclusion possible at all, given the premises of the problem Shakespeare set himself—that fallen Nature somehow engenders a being not corrupt and not fallen, a savior. It was an impossible task. And, while the play is remarkable, even for a Shakespearean play, in its disregard for verisimilitude, the offstage event in which Cordelia is “killed” seems to me unimaginable from any angle. One cannot visualize that scene, not even with the greatest good will, for it requires us to believe that a soldier might enter Lear’s and Cordelia’s cell, noticing neither Lear nor Lear’s agitation at his daughter’s hanging—that Lear wait as the soldier hangs his daughter, and then that he spring to life, and murder the soldier. It is so preposterous a scene, even in an allegorical work, that had Shakespeare wanted to bring it into the dramatic action he could never have made it work—not delicacy but good sense required that it be kept offstage, like the Greek catastrophes it seems to parallel. (It is unfair, of course, to analyze a poetic work in terms of naturalism—but perhaps justified in this unusual case, since Shakespeare himself invites us to question that ending, by daring to force it out of its natural curve toward redemption.)7 What is “cheerless, dark and deadly” is the conception of Nature as antithetical to Art or Artifice, and this curse determines the tragedy, quite apart from characters and their motivations and actions. Great art usually allows the instinctive life its articulation on a high, aesthetically satisfying plane: in Lear the very lifeforce itself is denied, and it is impossible to see the work as “religious” in any way.

Yet Arthur Sewell, along with other scholars and critics, would defend the play against charges of nihilism; Sewell even goes so far as to ask, “Does not the play look forward to Dostoyevsky, rather than back to Seneca?”8 How peculiar, to have read Dostoyevsky in such a way that the possible death of Sonia or Alyosha could have been entertained— to have misread Dostoyevsky as a tragedian, rather than a mystic, whose vision of mankind is comparable to Dante’s and whose “comic” side could accommodate a saint who disappoints his adolescent worshippers by beginning to smell quickly after his death—yet is no less a saint, for embodying nature’s caprices. What Dostoyevsky and Shakespeare certainly have in common, along with their genius, and their fantastic imaginations, is the belief that suffering democratizes and allows growth and the awakening of wisdom; but this is not a “tragic” view necessarily. Folk-art teaches us the same thing.

Yet there is no single man, no single “Shakespeare”; Anthony Burgess’s novel, Nothing Like the Sun, for all its gorgeous language, bitterly disappoints us in its portrayal of only the Shakespeare of the darkest plays, ignoring the Shakespeare of The Tempest. And in this we see how difflcult, how very nearly impossible it is, for the serious artist to deal with the religious, affirmative spirit, or even with the phenomenon of a changing self, a self in flux. The critic must limit himself, in all honesty, to speaking only of the author of the work before him. Therefore, though I use the name “Shakespeare” I am really referring only to the author of Lear, a temporary personality, yet one in which many of the inclinations revealed in other works (in Hamlet and the sonnets, for instance) are given specific, savage voice: the wholesale denunciation and destruction of the female element, though this action will result in the thwarting of the tragic element itself, and the play as a whole will impress us as the aesthetic equivalent of a suicide. (Re-enter Lear, with Cordelia dead in his arms: mortal man, his soul dead inside him.)

Because Shakespeare was a dramatist, it was natural that he perceive his characters more from the outside than the inside, as “actors” in a total spectacle, and that he force their individual personalities into roles, especially when he dealt with history. The more individual a character is, like Hotspur, Falstaff, Edmund, Mercutio, and the irresponsible Prince Hal before he becomes the responsible and priggish Henry V, the more it is necessary to subdue him, to annihilate him or transform him so that, at the play’s conclusion, the audience is left with a single impression. One can interpret this from a pragmatic point of view—all professional dramatists are wonderfully pragmatic—or, as C. Wilson Knight does, more sympathetically, as Shakespeare’s attempt to create a “poetic wholeness” that allows in a work like Lear “the most fearless artistic facing of the ultimate cruelty of things in our literature.”9 For Knight, Lear is a great work in that it confronts the very absence of tragic purpose, and that it gives us a tragic purlfication of the “esentially untragic.”

Whether Shakespeare’s Lear is an intensely private vision of evil, or whether the joining-together of the two stories and the alteration of the ending is a dramatist’s private attempt to outdo earlier versions, or whether bothpossibilities are operating here, one cannot tell: we are left, however, with no single personality in the play that is not firmly trapped in “Nature,” since only Edgar and Albany survive, and the single means by which Nature was to have been redeemed is dead. All is subdued to this conclusion, which bears little resemblance to the cathartic and rejuvenating conclusions of more conventional tragedy. Edmund may have contemptuously rejected the planetary influences (as the doomed Hotspur also rejects them), but Shakespeare dare not reject them as a dramatist, for to do so would be to strengthen his rebels’ sense of freedom. When Shakespeare himself is freer, in terms of sympathizing with both sides of a conflict (as in Antony and Cleopatra, and Troilus and Cressida), it is important to note that he tends toward cynicism, rather than the more truly tragic realization of, for instance, Aeschylus in Libation Bearers—that “Right clashes with right.” In Lear he suggests a tragically false dualism: Edmund’s “Goddess,” raw nature as interpreted by a bastard son of instinct, by which is meant sheer anti-social egotism, and, by contrast, the asexual “Goddess” it is Cordelia’s fate to give life to, and to die in. She is also her own father’s “soul in bliss,” the perfect savior and the perfect victim. As Lear’s unrepressed “inner voice” she speaks defiantly before the Court—the world—like another Eve involving us in another Fall, an unfortunate dividing of the kingdom into two and not into the mystical, indissoluble three. The “promised end” is the Apocalypse, in one sense; in another, the inevitable horror that follows when Nature (or woman) is given the freedom to act spontaneously, to upset ritual, rising in rebellion against masculine authority. All the “goddesses”— the “good” Cordelia, the “evil” Goneril and Regan—must die, the kingdom must be totally purged of the female, not in order that mere evil be eradicated, but that the life-force itself be denied. Lear generates excitement through its dramatization, in fantasy, of the suicidal wishes that lie behind all political and moral repression.

A Kingdom Without A Queen

The disgust expressed in the play toward women is more strident and articulate, and far less reasonable, than the disgust expressed in Othello and Hamlet and certain of the sonnets. In other works, Antony and Cleopatra, and the comedies, women are allowed a certain measure of equality with men, but only through having lost or rejected their femininity; though Cleopatra is alluring, a temptress, we are shown the ways by which she deliberately calculates her triumph over Antony’s defenses, and she emerges as more of a comrade, an “equal,” not an intensely feminine and therefore magical (the interpretation is Iago’s) woman like Desdemona, whose very innocence is fatal. In Othello and Hamlet and in the sonnet sequence, sexual loathing is in response to real or imagined infidelities on the part of beloved women; in Lear, however, sexual loathing is only a part of the general fear and loathing of Nature itself, most obviously represented by women. Cordelia is virginal and all but sexless, yet she is no less a woman, “a wretch whom Nature is ashamed/Almost to acknowledge hers” (I, i, 215).

Lear goes on to rail against Goneril and Regan as if their attitude toward him, in subsequent scenes, sprang from something inherently feminine in their nature, even something erotic; but in fact both daughters are behaving toward the old King, at this point in the play, like rebellious sons who are testing their father’s authority. There is nothing feminine about them at all, and in the original Lear story in the Arcadia it was really Lear’s sons-in-law who rebelled against him in order to get his kingdom, not his daughters. But Shakespeare deliberately goes against his source and makes both daughters enemies, and Albany a sympathetic character. In order to give a poetic wholeness to the antifeminine brutality of the play, it was necessary that Shakespeare do this; in a causal sequence, Cordelia initiates the tragic action, her sisters continue it, her sisters die, but their evil continues so that Cordelia herself is executed, as a consequence of feminine rebellion of one kind or another. Edmund, of course, behaves in an evil way toward his father, but we are told that he is a bastard who has sprung from some “dark and vicious place” (that is, an unmarried woman’s womb) and that Gloucester’s succumbing to sexual instinct, so many years before, has now cost him his eyes. Intolerable as female evil is to men, yet for some reason it cannot be easily annihilated, as Albany laments:

See thyself, devil!
Proper deformity seems not in the fiend
So horrid as in woman.
. . .
Thou changed and self-covering thing, for shame,
Bemonster not thy feature. Were’t my fitness
To let these hands obey my blood,
They are apt enough to dislocate and tear
Thy flesh and bones. Howe’er thou art a fiend,
A woman’s shape cloth shield thee.

[ALBANY to GONERIL, IV, ii, 59ff ]

So, while women like Goneril and Regan do not hesitate to obey the promptings of their “blood,” like the bastard Edmund, a truly noble man like Albany does resist—for though such evil is obvious, it is shielded by “a woman’s shape.”

In purely metaphorical terms, Cordelia’s natural mate would be Edmund: both are those dangerously spontaneous children, those outcasts, through whom the life-force leaps so explosively. But in terms of the plot Edmund is the mate both sisters desire, implausible though it is that such fiendish creatures could succumb to genuine love—for love it is, and not simply lust, since no man or woman ever chose to die for lust:

GON (Aside) I had rather lose the battle than that sister
Should loosen him and me.

[v, i, 18-19]

No attempt is made on Shakespeare’s part to account for the sentimental rivalry over Edmund that would lead the vicious sisters to such extreme statements, and to death, for though Cordelia is granted the transcendence of the flesh that makes her into a “soul in bliss,” her sisters are seen in these famous terms:

Down from the waist they are Centaurs,
Though women all above.
But to the girdle do the gods inherit,
Beneath is all the fiends’.
There’s Hell, there’s darkness, there’s the sulphurous pit,
Burning, scalding, stench, consumption, fie, fie, fie!

[IV, vi, 126ff]

It is not dramatically clear why the sisters’ cruelty to their father should be related to sexual desire, or why Lear should speak of “divorcing the tomb” of his dead wife, unless madness may be used to account for all his excesses. Yet he is not “mad” in the first act of the play, in which he threatens Goneril with the “kindness” of her sister:

I have another daughter
Who I am sure is kind and comfortable.
When she shall hear this of thee, with her nails
She’ll flay thy wolvish visage. Thou shalt find
That I’ll resume the shape which thou cost think
I have cast off forever.

[I, iv, 327ff]

The bestiality of women, then, is not an absolute; when it is in the service of the King it is “kind and comfortable.” What is absolute is the King’s authority—even when he is raging, when he is mad—so that Gloucester quite naturally asks if he may kiss Lear’s hand, after the impassioned curse quoted above, which compares women to Centaurs, and Kent’s buffoonery before Gloucester’s castle is honorable. It is a world in which the masculine archetype can do things wrongly, and yet never embody wrong, and in which the highest embodiment of the feminine, Cordelia, is represented as totally selfless, the perfect sacrifice.

One of the strangest interpretations of Cordelia’s role is Freud’s, in an early essay (1913) called “The Theme of the Three Caskets.” Freud argues that Cordelia, as the third daughter, is Death itself, and that the “silent goddess” who destroys Lear is the last of the three forms his relations with women must take. Since nearly everything in Freud’s cosmology is related back to the Oedipal complex, it is not surprising that Lear, an elderly patriarch who manages to attain a true transcendence of his personal miseries, should nevertheless be seen in these reductive terms: “. . . it is in vain that the old man yearns after the love of woman as once he had it from his mother; the third of the Fates alone . . . will take him into her arms.”10 Since Freud tended to equate the “feminine” with the “Unconscious,” and both with those contents that threaten civilization, and the masculine ego, with dissolution, he is led to the extreme of reversing the play’s general insistence upon Cordelia as lifebearing and spiritual, rather than a deathly embodiment of the Earth Goddess, and his interpretation cannot possibly account for the play’s conclusion, in which the old man appears with Cordelia dead, in his arms. Cordelia as a form of Death cannot be supported by any evidence within the play, in terms of poetic imagery, for she is not only dissociated from raw, unspiritualized passion, but Lear is led to speak of her, at the play’s conclusion, as dead as earth itself— so that she seems to us as far removed from the Magna Mater, the Terrible Mother, as it is possible for a female character to be. It would not be ironic that she is dead as earth itself, if “earth” had been, in any way, a suitable metaphor for her. What is curious is that Freud does not remark upon the imbalance of the kingdom—the one-sidedness of a kingdom ruled only by a king. A psychology that has as its model a balance of male-female, or “masculine-feminine” characteristics, might have speculated that “tragedy” issued from such one-sided development, both in the individual and in culture. Freud’s psychology, of course, does not have this kind of balance as a model.

King Lear strikes us, at the same time, as an experimental work—one that poses and tests a vision of life necessarily related to the social and political milieu of the times (in which intrigue, hypocrisy, scandal, and murder were commonplace), but timeless in its anguished tension between what is “natural” and what is “unnatural” in human experience. How, given the savage terms of the play’s universe, can man be redeemed from a partial, one-sided, blind fate? —pulled in one direction by the archetypal role he must play, and in another by a human, emotional, instinctive need that cannot be suppressed, or expressed, without violent consequences? Scholars suggest that the play was written sometime before December 26, 1606, but probably after the death of Elizabeth in 1603—after the death of a queen; and the work is characterized by a nightmarish sense of peril, of impending apocalypse that has nothing to do with the masculine hierarchical world, but stems directly from nature itself:

GLOU. These late eclipses in the sun and moon portend no good to us: 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 countries, discord; in palaces, treason; and the bond cracked ‘twist son and father. . . . We have seen the best of our time: machinations, hollowness, treachery, and all ruinous disorders, follow us disquietly to our graves.

[I, ii, 111ff]

True, no doubt: as it seems generally true today, and true for all times, since the Apocalypse as a form of collective ego-despair and ego-love is always imminent, and always expressed by an era’s imaginative artists in such terms. Yet for some reason the feminine forces arc if not in actual league with—not so vulnerable to the sequent effects. The play issues a stern, puritanical warning to all men: if one strays outside the harmonious structure as it is realized by men, if one descends to that “dark and vicious place” where the bastard Edmund is conceived, civilization itself will be destroyed.11 The wheel will come full circle.


Lear is experimental as well in its dramatizing of the soul’s yearning for infinity, the desire of man to reach out to a higher form of himself, if not actually to “God” (Shakespeare’s atheism seems unarguable). In purely psychological terms, Lear is the incomplete personality, the immature adult, forced by suffering to undergo a transformation that takes him far beyond himself. If hubris necessarily invites the death-blow of nemesis, the neurotic or unfulfilled personality necessarily indicates a higher self, the potentiality for fulfillment on a higher level that is totally lacking in contented, “normal” human beings, who have reached the end of their development. Clinical psychology and imaginative literature may or may not support a theory of the neuroses as unfulfilled contents of the self that are immensely valuable; and that are in some way related to unfulfilled elements in culture itself, but the aesthetic structure of a dramatic work is built upon the presupposition of change of some kind, in time; an incomplete condition is allowed its completion. In the melodramatic tragedy Shakespeare wrote, the latent villainy and the latent heroism of such a man as Macbeth are allowed their development, and the “man” who embodies them—the character who is called Macbeth—must be seen as little more than the vehicle, the metaphor, for that development. One is not given a character, Macbeth, whose psychological state leads him to certain acts of villainy, and ultimately to a kind of transcendental courage, but rather the illustrative acts themselves, flowering out of circumstances, to some extent “fated” by nature. G. Wilson Knight is surely correct when he stresses, in Shakespeare’s tragedies, the significance of the pattern rather than the particles that make it up.

Lear demonstrates more powerfully than Shakespeare’s other works the value of experience, even if that experience is suffering and death itself. In resisting and banishing the “Other,” that part of the soul that is highest in man, Lear exaggerates man’s natural tendencies to resist his own fulfillment, just as this tragic work exaggerates the literal dangers of such resistance: “I fear I am not in my perfect mind,” Lear says, after he has been broken out of his “perfect” egotism, and succumbed to temporary madness. In order to complete his soul and be redeemed (in psychological terms: to activate his fullest identity) the hero must unite with the element that seems to oppose him. Because King Lear rules a world by himself, without a queen, his inclination toward the most dangerous of all masculine traits— tyranny—cannot be checked, except by the rebellion of a spontaneous intuition within the soul, but out of reach of the conscious mind. Hence, Cordelia, the youngest and fairest of the King’s daughters, a part of his flesh itself, must oppose him. She is instinct’s unsuppressable truth, required by Lear’s one-sided soul; yet it is a supra-individual predicament, a one-sidedness that is symptomatic of Lear’s culture itself, and not so readily cured.12

The vision Shakespeare might have been attempting in King Lear is the mystic’s synthesis of self and “Other,” time and eternity, the finite and the infinite, poetically symbolized by a union of male and female elements. Act IV shows us Lear asleep in the French camp, with “soft music playing”; when he is wakened by Cordelia he believes, at first, that he is dead, in hell, and that his daughter is a spirit:

You do me wrong to take me out o’ the grave.
Thou art a soul in bliss, but I am bound
Upon a wheel of fire that mine own tears
Do scald like molten lead.

[IV, vii, 44]

She tells him that he is “in his own kingdom”; the great rage of his former personality is now “killed in him.” Cordelia functions as the embodiment of grace, that which is unearned, the redemption of the personality from the inside, out of the control of the conscious will. “Grace” is the usual religious term for this miraculous self-healing, but all of the healing sciences—medicine, psychology—are based upon the ability of the organism to heal itself, with or with out the active interference of the will.

From this point onward Lear demonstrates a wholeness of personality that takes him beyond the nobility of soul possessed by any tragic hero in Shakespeare. He does not lust for revenge, but is prepared to “wear out,/In a walled prison, packs and sects of great ones/That ebb and flow by the moon” (v, iii, 17-19); he speaks of himself and his daughter as “sacrifices.” Not until Cordelia is hanged does he commit any act of violence himself. When Lear carries Cordelia onstage, dead, Kent asks “Is this the promised end?”—that is, is this the end of the world, the Apocalypse itself?—and we feel that the “promised” completion in terms of the hoped-for rejuvenation of Nature has been totally thwarted, while the play’s deeper movement, toward an eradication of all transcendental awareness that is predicated upon the feminine, has been brought to absolute completion. The Apocalypse serves man’s purposes, for it brings together “Heaven” and “earth” but excludes the kind of raw, sensuous nature that Edmund worships. This “religious”—one might almost say Protestant—Apocalypse is not a mystical union of all of the universe, experienced as divine once history is suspended, but rather an expression of political rage, as in Young Clifford’s words upon seeing the body of his dead father, in II Henry VI:

O, let the vile world end,
And the premised flames of the last day
Knit earth and Heaven together!
Now let the general trumpet blow his blast,
Particularities and petty sounds
To cease!

[v, ii, 40ff]

“Ripeness is all”: a statement of the body’s limitations, and the need of the spirit to adjust itself, stoically, to such limitations. There is no visionary release from the body, or from history, and the play’s ostensible hero—who will inherit the kingdom—seems to be saying, in these lines, that the vicious gouging-out of his father’s eyes was somehow deserved:

My name is Edgar, and thy father’s son.
The gods are just, and of our pleasant vices
Make instruments to plague us.
The dark and vicious place where thee he got
Cost him his eyes.

[v, iii, 169ff]

A puritanism that is so uncompromising draws the ideal into flesh only at the terrible risk of having to murder the ideal, because it is flesh: Cordelia, like Christ, is an inevitable victim. But it is unlikely that Shakespeare would say, as Milton did, that the Fall of Man might be justified—might even have been a good—since it brings the redemption, the divine into flesh. The Fall is not an event in Lear’s world so much as a norm; one does not want to survive, given these conditions—Kent speaks of a “journey” he must take soon, indicating that, like Lear, he will not long outlive these images of revolt and chaos. To remain alive and rule the kingdom, as Edgar will, is a duty, an obligation only. The world has been emptied of all vitality, that of the soul’s spontaneous rebellion against the ego, as well as that of bastardy and excess. Though Cordelia is murdered, one feels that the value she represents should not have been murdered; yet Edgar will rule the kingdom as Lear did, without a feminine counterpart.

Because the Lear stories concentrate upon the masculine predicament of kingship and fatherhood, and the dangers in relinquishing both forms of authority, it is dramatically necessary that the queen be already dead. Symbolically, however, it is the psychological value of the queen—the feminine—that is dead, absent, so that below the level of consciousness Shakespeare might have been led to attribute to that very absence a power for harm, dissolution, and terror: much as repressive and ego-fixated cultures tend to attribute to the suppressed elements (normal instinctive urges) an uncanny power. Within the individual, the melodrama is a familiar one, raised to tragedy when the instincts are so violently suppressed in the name of “rationality” that destruction results— aggression turned outward upon a usually innocent object of one’s projected emotions, or aggression turned inward in the form of madness or suicide. In Erich Neumann’s monumental The Origins and History of Consciousness the projection of “transpersonal” contents upon individual persons is discussed at great length, as well as the dangers to sanity that result from a helpless confusion of one’s own person with the archetype one partly embodies. The patriarch’s unspoken imperative, Away from the unconscious, away from the mother, is dangerous precisely because it is unspoken, unarticulated, kept below the threshold of consciousness itself. But, because the “unconscious” is so feared, the ego begins to project these fears upon the outside world, and so we have the common phenomenon of paranoia, which rages in those individuals who attempt to direct their lives away from the unconscious and in line with an idealized moral code. One of the extraordinary things about life—which Shakespeare’s tragedies reflect so powerfully—is that while men of good will and intelligence can recognize the unconscious elements determining another’s paranoia, they are invariably blind to their own projections; and, indeed, there is no way to determine what is real and what is simply projected, except insofar as one begins to experience intense emotions that are out of proportion to what other people are experiencing, given the same objective stimuli. The psychology of the puritan, the zealously moral man who overreacts to sin, and who is fascinated with sin, is only available to analytical study when his culture has developed away from him, so that he is italicized against it: so Shakespeare gives us that paradoxical but wise “dark comedy,” Measure for Measure, in which repression itself generates the drama, but, in King Lear, it seems to me that Shakespeare was too involved in Lear’s sexual paranoia to clearly delineate the psychopathology that has gripped the king. Very exciting it is, extremely convincing—Lear’s dread o f the daughter who will speak her mind, the chaos of nature that will not be governed, the female impulses that leap, uncontrolled, to the most forbidden of all objects, the illegitimate son; and it is exciting and convincing because Shakespeare feels Lear’s passion from the inside.

When the feminine or maternal is not objectified, it begins to take on too powerful an essence. It “haunts” the conscious mind. Denied finite objectivity, the feminine is inflated out of all proportion to any individual’s ability to contain it, just as any unconsolidated, unvoiced yearning becomes inflated and deadly, threatening to crowd consciousness out altogether. There is no clear dividing line between the harmless eccentricity that is one’s “humour” and the obsession that ultimately drives one to madness—and the sense of bewilderment and gradual distaste we feel in reading such comically obsessive writers as Swift and Louis-Ferdinand Celine (both of whom seemed to despise quite ordinary natural functions) grows out of our not knowing, as readers, how serious the obsessions are. Dealing with them as “art,” we are inclined to experience them with a certain detachment, and to imagine that the writers themselves felt this detachment—until we learn more about them through letters or journals. It is rare that an obsessive writer like Dostoyevsky (who hated Jews, Roman Catholics, and various “foreign elements”) can produce works of art that avoid this violent identification of author and subject, and transcend limitations of the personal ego.

Ironically, Cordelia functions as that archetype of the soul, the sister or “anima,” that is not maternal and that— in such forms as Athena and the Virgin Mary—represents a triumph over the Terrible Mother, the formless and all-devouring force of the unconscious that threatens dissolution; yet Lear (and Shakespeare, perhaps) responds to her initially as though she were an enemy. When she is banished, all of nature becomes suspect, and her two sisters—far closer to the “unconscious” instincts than Cordelia herself—rapidly degenerate. The primordial form of all godliness is the Magna Mater or the Terrible Mother who, like the Hindu goddess Kali, gives birth and devours without regard to individual achievements, personalities, gradations of consciousness: in short, the nightmare that threatens civilization itself. The “anima” figure, however, is intimately connected to the male, and is a helper of the male: so Athena springs full-grown from the head of Zeus, and does not require a woman in order to be born. Lear’s three daughters have no mother, in a sense, but are his. Yet, because the very differing functions of the “anima” and the “Magna Mater” are confused, because all of the feminine contents have been imagined as evil, Cordelia is identified with the very force she should be defeating. In Neumann’s words, the “activity of the masculine consciousness is heroic” insofar as it voluntarily takes on the struggle to raise itself out of ignorance,13 but it is doomed to tragedy when the struggle is involuntary, when paranoia blinds a man like Lear and causes him to imagine enemies in those who love him best.

And so the value Cordelia represents does die with her. Though one may argue about whether the play’s conclusion is “uplifting” or “depressing,” it seems incontestable that the drama’s few survivors experience it as an “image” of the horror of the Apocalypse that is, an anticipation of the end of the world. We are left with no more than a minimal stoicism (though Kent does not intend to live) and an acquiescence to the “gods” as they punish “pleasant vices” with wholesale devastation that wipes out the innocent along with the guilty. For what purpose?—to turn the wheel full circle, it would seem, back to the primary zero, the nothing that is an underlying horror or promise throughout. As the Fool tells Lear in the first act: “. . . thou art an O without a figure: I am better than thou art now; I am a fool, thou art nothing” (I, iv, 211ff).

Nothing will come of nothing: a self-determining prophecy.


1. “I can declare anyone enemy or friend at will”—Hitler.

2. Hardin Craig considers the linking-together of the Leir and Plangus (Gloucester) stories as a “stroke of genius,” in his edition of the Works (New York, 1951), p. 981, while G. B. Harrison speaks of Shakespeare’s having “transmuted an old tale in which evil is punished and good restored into a tremendous and pessimistic drama,” in which the Gloucester story underscores the tragic irony of the Lear story (in Harrison’s 1952 edition of the Works, p. 1137), though the final product remains difficult, perhaps a kind of poetic experimentation with imagery. However, Russell Fraser’s commentary in his Essential Shakespeare (New York, 1972) suggests that the Shakespearean version of the stories leaves us with a sense that both have somehow been violated, and that “abnormal behavior is the norm” (380).

3. In “Shakespeare end ‘The Revolution of the Times,”‘ Triquarterly Special Issue: Literature in Revolution, Winter-Spring 1972, p. 244. In the universe of Shakespeare’s time there could be no true freedom, since men’s actions had planetary significance, and could unhinge the entire cosmos; to defy this cosmic order initiates “tragedy.”

4. Matthew Arnold, “The Study of Poetry” (1880) .

5. And sometimes the variations are severely conditioned by the class to which the artist belongs, or has rejected; by the immediate events in his private life which are transfigured into objective and frozen attitudes in his art; by his patrons’ or his audience’s demands. In an essay largely concerned with the powerlessness of art to alter political conditions, Louis Kampf questions the validity of what he calls the “humanist thesis,” which allows artists to “generalize from their personal concerns to those of all people. If the artist feels tragic, the sense of tragedy becomes the human condition.” “Understanding the Concrete Needs of the Historical Moment,” Arts in Society: The Humanist Alternative, Spring-Summer 1973, p. 66.

6. Alfred Harbage, The Complete Pelican Shakespeare (New York, 1970), p. 1060. Harbage acknowledges that the play “ends as it began,” and that its main gift for an audience is the gift of “feeling pity.” When Harbage states that Lear is “religious, as all great tragedies are religious” and that the brutal killing of Cordelia is therefore a “sacrifice” and not a mere turn of the screw, one experiences that sense of vertigo, that bewilderment one was taught never to express as an undergraduate: to declare a tautology a tautology is to speak, like poor doomed Cordelia, against the Institution, and risk exile. One may learn very little about the “great works,” but a great deal about one’s own time, by studying critical responses to those works.

7. When the instinctive pattern is violated, everyone suffers, there is no possibility of an authentic “catharsis.” As Erich Neumann in The Origins and History of Consciousness (Princeton, 1971), states:

So long as a content is totally unconscious, it regulates the whole and its power is then at its greatest. But if the ego succeeds in wresting it from the unconscious and making it a conscious content, it is—mythologically speaking—overcome. As, however, this content still goes on using up libido, the ego must continue to work at it until it is fully incorporated and assimilated. Ego consciousness cannot therefore avoid further dealings with the “conquered” content and is likely to suffer. . . . the ascetic whose ego consciousness has triumphantly repulsed the instinctual components that threatened to master him experiences pleasure with his ego, but he “suffers” because the instinct he has denied is also a part of his total structure. [348]

8. Arthur Sewell, “Tragedy and the Kingdom of Ends,” in Shakespeare: Modern Essays in Criticism, ed. Leonard Dean (New York, 1957), p. 331. Dostoyevsky fuses archetypal and individual features because he experienced the world in this way and because, to him, Sonia might be Sonia, a prostitute, and also St. Sophia; Alyhosha might be the youngest son of a depraved nobleman, and yet a form of Christ. Sewell fails to see that it is through an examination of the vital differences between Shakespeare and Dostoyevsky that one can approach some valuable understanding of both.

9. G. Wilson Knight, The Wheel of Fire: Interpretations of Shakespearian Tragedy (New York, 1968), p. 174. Knight’s deep, thoughtful study, at times more a meditation than an analytical work, was originally published in 1930, reissued countless times, and remains one of the finest works of criticism on Shakespeare, or on any subject. In his prefatory note to the 1947 edition of The Wheel of Fire, Knight states clearly his belief in dramatic relationships that take precedence over individual “particles,” the “poetic wholeness” he finds in Shakespeare having a similarity to the emphasis placed upon pattern rather than permanence, in modern physics. Poetry is

. . . pre-eminently a blend of the dynamic and the static, of motion and form; and, at the limit, the perfectly integrated man, or superman, is to be conceived as a creature of superb balance, poise, and grace. Interpretation is, then, merely the free use of a faculty that responds with ease, and yet with full consciousness of the separate elements involved, to this space-time fusion, or relationship, this eternity, of art, in which every point on the sequence is impregnated by the whole. [viii]

10. Freud, in Character and Culture, ed. Philip Rieff (New York, 1963), p 79

11. If the life-force is always to be interpreted as a threat, and in political terms any enforced change in the status quo is “unnatural” and therefore “evil,” what is suppressed (whether instincts or human beings like Edmund himself) will always overwhelm the status quo eventually. There can be no perfect order, no permanent authority. It was not the Apocalypse that was coming, but the Puritan Revolution; so Jan Kott’s claim that Fate, in Shakespeare, is “represented by the class struggle” makes sense of a kind, though one might say, paradoxically, that the “class struggle” in certain works (Othello as well as King Lear) accounts for the tragedy itself. But Kott can reimagine King Lear only in terms of grotesque dark comedy, an Endgame of the Renaissance. See Jan Kott, Shakespeare, Our Contemporary (London, 1964).

12. John Danby speculates upon the probability of the “Shakespearean breakdown of confidence” being a reaction against Elizabeth’s “overstimulation of the cult of Gloriana”—see “The Fool and HandyDandy,” in Shakespeare’s Doctrine of Nature: A Study of King Lear (London, 1949). In The Story of the Night (London, 1961), John Holloway discusses King Lear in terms of being, among other things, a “rehearsal of the end of the world.”

13. “The deflation of the unconscious, its ‘dethronement’ by the patriarchal trend of conscious development, is closely connected with the deprecation of the female in the patriarchate…. The association of the unconscious with feminine symbolism is archetypal, and the maternal character of the unconscious is further intensified by the anima figure which, in the masculine psyche, stands for the soul. Consequently, the heroic-masculine trend of development is apt to confuse ‘away from the unconscious’ with ‘away from the feminine’ altogether.” See Neumann, p. 340. It is interesting to note that when Shakespeare abandons the world of grim political reality, of “history,” he can translate these various tensions into The Tempest: Cordelia becomes Miranda, Edmund, Caliban, Prospero, not only authoritarian ruler but poet, creator, as well—which is to say God, omnipotent and all-forgiving. The maternal elements are absorbed into the paternal Prospero is both everything and nothing, like Shakespeare himself. But only in fantasy: only on that island. In England, in Lear’s time-tormented world, masculine consciousness must triumph over all opposition, including life itself.

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