King Lear - Is That All Man?

Wassily Kandinsky, Painting in Blue, 1924.


Considerations on William Shakespeare's play

“If the heavens do not / speedily send their avenging angels to quell such vile offences, / chaos will ensue, men will devour one another / like monsters from the abyss” (SHAKESPEARE, William. King Lear, IV, 2).

King Lear brings into play a fear that permanently haunted Shakespeare's England: the triumph of man in a state of nature. The two motors that drive the whole action - Lear's political stupidity, Edmund's practical intelligence - amplify this fear by producing an inversion movement that elevates the bastard, the natural son, to the throne, and demotes the legitimate prince to primitive animality. constituted. While Lear, poor and naked, is given over to the fury of the elements, Edmund, wealthy and well dressed, savors the pleasures of authority.

The restoration of order, when it occurs, is flawed and belated, insufficient to exorcise the ghost evoked by the triumph of the bad guys throughout virtually the entire play. The unbearable poignancy of the ending, in which the purity of virtue disappears and the brutality of nature survives (“Why does a dog, a horse, a mouse have life and you no longer breathe?” – V,3)[I] it does little to lessen the anguish that springs from the narrative as a whole. In King Lear, all action can be read as an arc leading from the highest of the political man (king) to the lowest of the natural man (animal).

Perhaps this is one of the reasons why King Lear, as Shakespeare wrote it, had a relatively short life on the contemporary stage. In fact, shortly after the reopening of the theaters (which were closed between 1642 and 1660 under pressure from the Puritans), Nahum Tate[ii] decides to rewrite King Lear, giving voice to a feeling of discomfort that, from the beginning, marks the reception of what is today celebrated as one of Shakespeare's most exquisite tragedies. In this new version (the basis of the presentations between 1681 and 1838), Cordélia and Edgard are in love from the beginning (which justifies the daughter's obstinacy, in the opening scene, as a skillful device to avoid a marriage with someone other than her true love) and overcome, after many adventures, the evil of Regan, Goneril and Edmund to ascend to the throne and offer Lear a peaceful old age in a kingdom again united and at peace. The Shakespearean mass grave, which holds together Cordelia's integrity, Lear's repentance, and Edmund's vileness, ceases to exist, and the public can congratulate itself on not having to attend the pathetic funeral procession with which Shakespeare closes the plot. .[iii]

Interestingly, because of its reverse side and the changes it promotes to make the tragedy more palatable to the public, Tate's work helps us to better understand some of the possible reasons for the Jacobite public's resistance to Shakespeare's text. What seems to make Lear's tragedy particularly unbearable is the complete annihilation of the order with which it ends, and the fact that it strips bare and thoroughly explores the theme of the rise of natural man and the political consequences of his triumph - a theme which Hobbes , as you know, would dedicate his best reflection. Tragedy also presents the corresponding decline of modes of political action based on the beliefs and axioms of the previous order: in no other play by Shakespeare does the shattering of the medieval system appear with such crudeness and breadth.

This fundamental antagonism between political order and nature, between legitimate and bastards, is established from the beginning of the action and allows us to predict, by the inversion between wisdom and madness, the overwhelming dissolution with which the play ends. In the very first moments, Lear, head of the body politic, renounces de facto power ("since I intend to abdicate all authority, land holdings and functions of the State" - I,1), foolishly confident that the fabric of secular conventions that supported the sovereign's powers would be sufficient to guarantee him authority and prestige. In the scene immediately following the senseless division of the kingdom, Edmund, Lear's perfect opposite, claims power, putting into practice the lesson of The prince that fortune and power surrender to those who have the courage of action:

“Edmund – You, Nature, are my goddess; to your laws my actions are bound. Why should I submit to the curse of custom and allow the prejudice of the people to disown me just because I was born twelve or fourteen moons after my brother? Why bastard? and therefore infamous, if my proportions are as correct, my soul as noble, and my form as perfect as any son of an honest lady? Why are we branded infamous? With infamy? Infamous infamy? Infamous infamy? Who, in the furtive lust of passion, receives more vital fire, more robust constitution, we, or those germinated in a tasteless bed, without heat, tired bed, a race of weak and depraved, generated between sleep and insomnia? For then, true Edgard, I must have your lands. Our father's love is divided equally between the bastard and the legitimate. What a beautiful word this legit! Well, my legitimate, if this letter convinces and invention triumphs, the infamous Edmund will precede the legitimate. I grow, I grow. And now, O gods! on the side of the bastards!” (I,2)

Edmund, making the central opposition of the plot (nature and custom; legitimate and bastard) explicit to the public, courageously presents his belief that the distinctions on which the entire hierarchy of the medieval body politic is based are fundamentally unjust. More than that, he enunciates a coherent political thesis, capable of justifying his actions. If his natural talents and individual abilities are equal to or greater than those of his brother, if he was begotten from the joy of desire and not from the weariness of duty, why should he be deprived of lands, rights and titles - as prescribed by the Elizabethan right?[iv] What reason but the curse of custom (which Hamlet had already lamented) justifies this unbridgeable gap between legitimate and bastard?

If Edmund decides to embrace the role of villain, it is because he intuits that the alternatives are resigned submission and frightened silence in the face of the established order. The obedient passivity of the noble Cordelia (“And what will Cordelia say now? Love; and shut up” – I,1), leads, at the mercy of her class, to the throne of France, but for the bastard, inaction would mean absolute ostracism Social. “Nothing will come from nothing” (I,1) – all the father's properties, as well as titles and benefices, will go to the rightful Edgard. If these are the rules of the world, it is necessary to act to reverse them, even if, for that, it is necessary to resort to what the official discourse presents as villainy. Edmund's evil, as he skilfully articulates in his speech, is not the result of individual perversity, but of a constitutive injustice of the current political system: If men were all good, this way of acting would be bad, but since they are not,[v] it is legitimate to have the courage to seek to reverse the harshness of fate.

The bastard thus represents the incarnation of two of the greatest political fears of Elizabethans and Jacobites: the Machiavellian perspective on power and the logic of action of the natural man (interest, self-preservation). What will make it especially dangerous – and supremely successful – is the consistency with which it articulates the two terms that make it up. The prudence with which he plans and executes his acts shows not a blind and desperate desire, but a new way of understanding the relationship between nature and politics, a way that demands from the subject the courage of transforming action and the refusal to comply with the penalties of the State that cemented the old order.

Abandoning the kind and rational God who designed cosmic harmony – in which each one occupies a place from which he should not move –, Edmund invokes the willful and incomprehensible gods who reward those who seek to satisfy their own will: “And now, O gods! on the side of the bastards!” The word nature and its variations (natural, unnatural) are pronounced fifty-one times throughout the play, a recurrence that leaves little room for doubt about its centrality to the plot.

Machiavellianism and brute nature will inform Edmund's entire career, reciprocally confirming each other as twin dangers. The bastard will show all the virtues of a successful prince: he will know how to be the fox (he deceives his father and brother) and the lion (he does not hesitate to order Cordelia's death), he will know how to use cunning and strength. And this political skill will ensure that, by the end of the play, he is, in fact, the winner: not only does he take over his father's titles and lands, but he also has the prospect of increasing his wealth and power by marrying one of Lear's daughters. His success is so absolute that it completely reverses the established hierarchy: while the old sovereign is rejected by his daughters, young Edmund is fought over by them (literally) to the death. At first excluded from power, Edmund, at the end of the play, finds himself invested with the political and military power that is the prerogative of established sovereigns.

Predictably, this triumph of man in the state of nature must have a dramatic consequence of an evil, violent and brutal world. Kent's humiliating punishment, the betrayals between the sisters, the denial of shelter to an aging king and father even on the most inclement of nights ("even the hound of my enemy could take shelter in my hearth" (IV,7)) and , above all, the scene of incomparable cruelty in which old Gloucester has his eyes pierced by Cornwall boots (“I will put my feet over your eyes” (III,7) make clear to the audience the paroxysm of evil that will set in if the collapse of the traditional order occurs. they do not submit to their husbands, children do not obey their parents, servants are insolent to their employers. Under the dominion of the natural man, life becomes, in Hobbes' famous phrase, "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short." .[vi]

What makes King Lear Even more unbearable, however, is that the chain of events that allows the rise of the evil ones has its origins in the prince's political folly. Lear's tragedy opens with an atmosphere that in no way allows us to anticipate the nihilistic anguish of its overwhelming outcome. Nor threats of war (as in Henry V), nor scary sorceresses (as in Macbeth), nor apparitions of spirits (as in Hamlet): the plot begins, in fact, with the presentation of Lear at the height of his powers. Sovereign respected by his subjects, father esteemed by his daughters, lord of a kingdom united and at peace, Lear enjoys, in all its fullness, the maximum realization of the very idea of ​​royalty. But it will be precisely in the heart of this calm that the terrible storm will be formed that, a few scenes later, will punish, with all the fury of the elements, a Lear without a throne, without daughters, mad and naked.

To the consternation of the audience, it will be he who, intoxicated with his own fullness, will conjure up the elements of disgrace that will fulminate vice and virtue alike:

“Lear – In the meantime, we will reveal our most reserved intentions. Give me that map there. Know that we have divided our kingdom into three. It is our firm resolve to lighten the weight of years by ridding ourselves of all burdens, business and tasks, entrusting them to younger forces, while we, released from the burden, walk lighter towards death. Our son from Cornwall, and you, our no less beloved son from Albania; the time has come to proclaim the various dowries of our daughters in order to avoid any divergence in the future” (I,1).

The reaction of contemporary spectators to the royal determination to divide what is united could only be one of astonishment and disquiet. Indeed, for seventeenth-century English audiences, the folly of Lear's action had particularly disturbing colors. England at the time still had painfully vivid memories of both the horrors of the so-called Wars of the Two Roses (1455-1485) and the bloodthirsty actions with which internal dissensions were resolved after the death of Henry VIII. The unity of the kingdom was a desire whose importance it would be hard to overstate. Lear himself testifies exactly to this concern when, paradoxically, he seeks to justify the division of the kingdom with the argument of unity (in order to avoid any divergence in the future). His actions, however, make the prospect of the outbreak of civil war between Albany and Cornwall looming over the action incessantly.

By splitting what is united, Lear – from the height of the very authority of his throne – contradicts one of the basic elements that constitute him as a monarch. Center of gravity around which revolves the unity of the whole kingdom, he whimsically shatters what was one – madness for which he will soon be reprimanded by the fool (“Lear: Are you calling me a fool, Fool? / Fool: You gave up all other titles; this one is by birth” I,4). Having broken this basic principle of sovereignty, Lear will immediately produce a dizzying series of equally unthinkable divisions (he separates virtue from justice in ordering Kent's exile; he separates Cordelia from her dowry; he separates the honors due to the king from the exercise of effective power) that will have its apex in the division of the crown, the maximum symbol of an indivisible sovereignty by definition: “I will keep only the royal title and all the hours and prerogatives due to it. The power, income and disposition of the rest belong to you, beloved children. Confirming what I have, I give them this crown for them to share” (I,1).

To the movement of separating what should be united, Lear adds another, in the opposite direction, by which he unites what should be separated. By wishing to discharge all duties, business and tasks, he mixes his individual desires with the duties of the public figure he represents. The discomforts of age can afflict any elderly person, but they do not serve to found the political action of the person who embodies the collective. Invoking reasons from one sphere as a basis for actions in another is to make converge what, since always, should remain distinct. Lear - the old and weary man - may be allowed tranquility to prepare for death, but the sovereign who guides the whole is not given the privilege of "walking more lightly towards death" (I, 1). When he uses the authority that gives him the position to satisfy an individual will, Lear initiates a process of annulment of limits that will culminate in the undifferentiated annihilation of good and bad.

The most disturbing thing about Lear's action is that, far from being an index of an individual's episodic dementia, it reaffirms the constant and subterranean presence of a desire for subversion. In his own way, Lear re-proposes, from the apex of the pyramid, the crisis between individual desire and hierarchical place that tears apart an infinity of Shakespearean characters, from the humble workers of A Midsummer Night's Dream, even the young aristocrats in Romeo and Juliet e So much noise for nothing, from the young bourgeois in The Tamed Shrew even the noble warriors in Macbeth e Hamlet. Lear, like the others, wants something different from what is allowed by the set of conventions that dictate the possibilities of existence for both commoner and prince. His transgression has absolute dimensions because he represents the cornerstone on which the entire system rests.

Moved by desire, the king promotes this elimination of contours between necessarily different elements that, bad in itself, becomes terrible due to the way in which he carries out the unplanned project. Merging, in speech and action, dimensions that tradition articulated at separate poles, Lear-king promises a public-political reward (the best share of his kingdom) to the daughter who manifests the greatest love for Lear-father: “Tell me, my daughters – since I intend to abdicate all authority, possessions of lands and functions of the state –, which of the three can I say that loves me more, so that my greatest reward will fall where the natural merit is found” (I,1).

From what place does Lear propose this strange competition between Goneril, Reagan and Cordelia? If he speaks as a father to his daughters - rather foolishly wishing to be reassured of their love - how can he promise as a reward the best part of the kingdom? If he speaks as a king, addressing his subjects, how can he demand anything more than loyalty and respect? Lear's gesture erases boundaries by establishing a cause and effect relationship between the manifestation of genuine personal and psychological affection and political reward.

Goneril and Reagan shrewdly respond to their father with the rhetorical eloquence with which sovereigns are flattered and which, in fact, is supposed to be found in the king's speech. Goneril vows to love him more than words can say; Reagan protests that she is the enemy of any joy other than that of enjoying a father's love. And both, as loving daughters, are rewarded with a third of the kingdom. The public, like Kent, immediately recognizes that Lear fell prey to the cunning of flatterers, a danger that political theorists of the time denounced at length. Machiavelli (The prince – 1532), Balthazar Gracian (The Cortegiano – 1528), Edward Sutton (The Serpent Anatomized: A Moral Discourse Wherein That Foul Serpentine Vice of Base Creeping Flatter – 1623) and John Locke (Treaties on the Government – 1689) are just some of the best-known names in the very long list of authors who warn the prince against this danger common enough to be known even by the most primitive of spectators (“Time will reveal what is hidden in the folds of perfidy” – I,1).[vii] Lear, however, becomes the perfect victim for the hypocrites' stratagems because he is blinded by the action of desire and a naive belief in the appearance of things.

Cordélia refuses the preposterous nature of making the conventional rhetorical exchanges coincide with the spontaneous nature of psychological affections. From the beginning, in the asides she offers to the public, Cordélia signals that she refuses to link political advantage to personal affection: “And then, poor Cordélia? But yet I don't know; for your love, I am sure, is deeper than your speech” (I,1). By dissociating the unspeakable of inner affect from the sayable of public discourse, she implicitly reaffirms the essential distinction between the two spheres that Lear foolishly disregards.

From then on, the double rejection that he will suffer from Lear as a father and as a king will inevitably be traced:

“Lear – (...) Now our joy, though the last and youngest, for whose youthful love the vineyards of France and the meadows of Burgundy vie in love; what can you say that she deserves a third more opulent than theirs? He speaks.

Cordelia – Nothing, my lord.

Lear - Nothing?

Cordelia – Nothing.

Lear - Nothing will come from nothing. Speak again.

Cordelia – Alas for me that I cannot bring my heart to my mouth. I love Your Majesty as is my duty, no more and no less.” (I,1).

The nothingness with which Cordélia surprises her father clearly points to the ban on erasing the distinctions between the public and private figure of the sovereign: Cordélia cannot say anything to deserve a more opulent share, since the characteristic of her genuine affection is precisely the gratuity with which it manifests itself. In Cordelia's speech, the public and private spheres are kept carefully apart (modest silence for private affection for her father; decorous speech for public subservience to the king) and her protestations of esteem are, significantly, directed to the sovereign and not to the king. father (“I love Your Majesty as is my duty, no more and no less” – I,1). In the final scenes, faced with a Lear ousted from power, Cordelia will finally be able to express her individual feelings more freely, repeatedly calling the sovereign her father ("O dear father!; my poor father” – IV,7).

The vertiginous nature of Lear's disillusionment, in the scenes subsequent to the division of the kingdom, will reinforce, due to its intensity, the perception that the initial action, less than a whim of a foolish sovereign, was the expression of the disruption of a fundamental balance. A breach that is characterized by allowing, as has been said, the natural man to prevail over the political man. Lear inadvertently sets up a competition between the two (“so that the reward may fall where natural merit is found” – I,1) that the political man is not capable of winning.

At the basis of Lear's action, and in the approximation he makes between nature and merit, is an implicit belief in the benign character of nature, a tacit understanding that it is the external manifestation of the universal harmony willed by a God as merciful in his acts as rationally. understandable in their designs. From this perspective, it is natural for daughters to love their parents, for the elderly to be honored, for sovereigns to be obeyed. As has already been said about Edmund, however, there is another dimension, another sense of nature that Lear ignores and whose terrible force he will soon discover. It is not an expression of the rational order, but of the inscrutable will of a fearsome God, and makes men incessantly seek their interest and self-preservation. Without the structure of the body politic, it leads men to live in a perpetual state of war (“You, Nature, are my goddess… And now, O gods! on the side of the bastards”).

It is cruelly fitting, therefore, that Lear's political blindness is remedied by the brutality of the natural world. It will not be long before Lear, banished by both daughters, without the retinue of knights without which he could not constitute himself a nobleman, far from the pomp of the royal hall where he commanded both obedience and affection, finds himself reduced to the animality of the naked body. , to the most primitive human state: “Is man only this? Watch him well. It does not owe its silk to the worm, nor its odor to musk. Oh! here we are three, so adulterated. Not you, you are not the thing itself. Man, without the artifices of civilization, is just a poor animal like you, naked and forked” (III,4).

Reduced to its primary condition (the thing itself), Lear sees an echo, in his own suffering, as well as in Edgard's misery and extreme hardship (in which the human is barely distinguishable from the animal), the absolute collapse that his initial speech produced. . The wretched nakedness he witnesses and the nothingness he approaches finally make manifest to the old king the magnitude of the forces he had overlooked. The raw truth of man, without the artifices of civilization – which owes nothing to the social or the collective, and everything to his state of nature –, that poor animal like you, naked and bifurcated, the thing itself questions, in its primordial radicality, the solidity of the sophisticated constructions that distinguish beggar and king.

Lear's epiphany – like Gloucester's – will be a belated, bitter and useless epiphany: the ingratitude of the daughters and the inclemency of nature will teach him what the faithful fool and the madman Tom o'Bedlam knew all along: man it is a fragile animal in its body and corrupt in its spirit. The gilding of political and social conventions that Lear so superbly relied on is nothing. “Nothing comes from nothing”. The present world is manifestly brutish and cruel and does not bend to “the royal title and all the hours and prerogatives due to it, but to the folds of treachery and brute force (“Cornwell: And why this rage? / Kent: Why I see a scoundrel like that having a sword, not having a minimum of honor to defend himself” – II,2).

“World, world, o world! if it weren't for the strange mutations that make us hate you, life wouldn't accept death!" (IV,1). Gloucester's lament summarizes the disenchantment in which his belief in the supremacy of nobility and honor agonize: triumph belongs to the natural world and human corruption. Faith in the harmonious order that shaped the old system loses its vigor and the older ones, who were anchored in it, can only crawl towards death, not calm, as Lear wished, but perplexed and anguished:

“Gloucester – (…) Love grows cold, friendship breaks, brothers divide. In the city, revolts, in the fields, discord; in palaces, treason; and the ties between parents and children are broken. This villain I created fell to that curse; he is a son against his father. The king deviates from the laws of nature: he is father against child. We have seen the best of our time: perfidies, betrayals, impostures and all kinds of disastrous agitations will accompany us without rest to the tomb” (I,2).

From the particular family affections to the collective life in cities, everything shows that it is foolish to believe in a world of altruistic daughters and disinterested subjects. Notwithstanding contemporaries' aversion to Machiavelli's supposed impiety, his penetrating political vision is implicitly confirmed in King Lear. Men are not good. To govern them, and keep the peace, one must understand this truth and accept its implications. And it is because they understand this new logic that the youngest – Cordelia, Edgard, Edmund, Goneril, Regan – become wiser than the elders. The meager recomposition of order, when the curtain falls, will only bring a single breath, paradoxical in its combination of hope and cynicism: the new generation already knows, to the fullest, the pathetic limitation of the old symbolic framework and the interest that moves the human heart . A new way of governing is imposed.

*Jose Garcez Ghirardi is a professor at FGV Law. Author, among other books, of John Donne and Brazilian criticism: three moments, three perspectives (Ed. Age).


[I] SHAKESPEARE, William. King Lear. Translation by Millôr Fernandes. São Paulo: L&PM Pocket, 2001.

All citations throughout the text refer to this translation.

[ii] Nahum Tate (1652-1715) was an Irish poet and playwright. From 1692 until his death he was “poet laureate”, an honor that, in addition to signaling public recognition of his poetic excellence, earned him a stipend paid by the English Crown. Tate adapted several of Shakespeare's plays, freely changing the plot structure and character names. His version of King Lear, while controversial among critics (condemned by Charles Lamb, championed by Samuel Johnson), was quite well received by audiences.

[iii] I presented a preliminary version of this argument in Our Most Reserved Intentions: Speech and Disorder in King Lear. See CEP of psychology, v. 10, noo. 1, 2003, p 165-175. I am grateful now, as then, to Prof. Dr. Arthur Marotti for his precise insights about the public/private relationship in King Lear.

[iv] See The Law in Shakespeare and the Law – Jordan, Con. & Cunningham, K. (eds.) New York, Palgrave MacMillan, 2007, 2010.

[v] Cf. Machiavelli, The prince, chap. XVIII.

[vi] Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan: Matter, Form, and Power of an Ecclesiastical and Civil State. Translation by João Paulo Monteiro and Maria Beatriz Nizza da Silva. São Paulo: Martins Fontes, 2019, chap. XIII, p. 107.

[vii] Cf. CHUAQUI, Tomás – “Locke and adulation”. In: Philia & Philia, Porto Alegre, vol.1, jan/jun. 2010, p.148-166.

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