King Lear - The Destruction of the Codes

Image: Jan van der Zee


Commentary on William Shakespeare's Play

William Shakespeare builds King Lear like a tragedy in free fall. From the beginning, with the adulation ceremony, to the end, with the death of almost all the characters, King Lear it seems like an unbridled decline, where even the final battle is a lightning bolt that soon spells out the tragic end of the court. In this article I approach the theme of Lear's relationship with his body as the body of the king, producing an interlocution with the analyzes of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari on the body of the despot and those of Michel Foucault on the body of the sovereign king.

In the first scene of the play, Lear already explains the reason for the ceremony, which will become a contest of adulation, a dispute for the strongest proof of love. Already here, the theme of old age is explained: “LEAR – For the moment we will express our most serious intent. Bring the map here. Know that we have divided our kingdom into three, and that it is our firm purpose to lighten our age from zeals and burdens, giving them to younger forces, while, unburdened, we crawl towards death (…) of land tenure, of State charges…” (SHAKESPEARE, 2020, p. 100).

There is here an identity between Lear's physical body and the king's body as the kingdom itself, where old age and the exhaustion of Lear's body forces bring as a consequence the need for a transfer of sovereign power to another support. Lear's body, which will be separated from its identity as a sovereign body, will gain a mortal, perishable dimension. The break with this double aspect of the king's body is what initiates the piece's tragic free fall.

But it is essential that it begins with a ceremony like this, of adulation and proof of love for the king: “Kantorowitz once made a notable analysis of the 'body of the king': a double body according to the juridical theology formed in the Middle Ages, as it comprises, in addition to the transitory element that is born and dies, another one that remains through time and maintains itself as a foundation physical but intangible realm; Around this duality that was, in its origin, close to the Christological model, an iconography, a political theory of the monarchy, juridical mechanisms are organized that at the same time distinguish and link the person of the king and the demands of the Crown, and a whole ritual that finds its strongest moments in coronations, funerals, submission ceremonies.” (FOUCAULT, 1999, p. 28).

Dividing up his kingdom to free himself from the Crown's demands, Lear fragments his sovereign body and separates his physical body from the foundational status of the kingdom. In the ceremony itself, royal sovereignty comes to be taken as the daydreams and stubbornness of an old man, as can be seen in Cordelia's disinheritance and Lear's expulsion from Kent.

Lear, however, is not able to perceive the consequences of this dissociation that fragments the double body of the king, still aspiring to maintain “the name and honors that belong to a king” (SHAKESPEARE, 2020, p. 103). Cordélia's own disinheritance already demonstrates that her “right to 'dispose' of the lives of her children” and “to withdraw their lives, since she had 'given' them” (FOUCAULT, 1988, p. 147) no longer is more so respected: the king of France questions the sudden change in Cordelia's condition, questioning Lear's actions and taking Cordelia as his wife in a defiant act, but disguised under the masks of the court's flattering speech.

Having then divided his crown and his kingdom between Cornwall and Albany (husbands of Regan and Goneril, his daughters), Lear is no longer recognized as king and his main characteristic is no longer sovereignty, but the old age of his physical body: “GONERIL (…) Thus from his old age we will have to expect not only the imperfections of a long-grafted condition, but also the unbridled whims that years of illness and cholera bring with them” (SHAKESPEARE, 2020, p. 108).

This conversation of Regan and Goneril sets up their conspiracy against Lear, which will confirm that Lear's resignation of the sovereign body will nullify not only the Crown's demands, but his name and honors as well. The Fool's speech attests to the radicalism that the dissociation between Lear's physical body and the sovereign body will bring to his destiny: “BOBO – Well, if I cut the egg in half, swallow the core, the two crowns of the egg remain. When you split your crown in half and handed over the two parts, you dragged the donkey on its back through the mud. That bald crown of yours lacked sense when you handed over your golden crown (…) You pruned your senses on both sides and there was nothing left in the middle” (ibid, p. 123-124).

Lear's reduction to nothingness is precisely his reduction to a mere physical body, to a mere old man stripped of the fundamental support value of royal sovereignty. Says the Fool: “now you are just the hollow hole of zero” (ibid, p. 124). Then, in the clash between Lear and Goneril over the dequantization of his entourage, the fall of the despot's body begins.

In their typology of social machines, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari present the primitive territorial machine and the despotic imperial machine as forms of organization of pre-capitalist production. While the former has the Body of the Earth as the source of all production, the despotic machine that organizes societies with a State produces the body of the despot as the source of all production, its “natural or divine presupposition” (DELEUZE, GUATTARI, 2011, p. 446). Lear, formerly a sovereign despot, was the body of the divine sovereignty of the kingdom. When his body is dissociated from this position, the order and stability of society in the play collapses due to the fragmentation of this power, without someone to serve as a new support for it.

The curse that Lear asks Goneril is justified by this: he who holds sovereign power is the source of all productivity, fertility and prosperity in the kingdom, is its natural or divine presupposition. Thus, the curse of infertility against Goneril is Lear's way of corrupting the identity between his potential sovereignty and his physical body: “LEAR Listen, nature, dear goddess, listen! Suspend your design, if it was your intention to make that creature fertile and fruitful. Sprinkle her arid dryness in her womb, wither her organs of propagation, so that a baby may never sprout from her spurious body to honor her.” (SHAKESPEARE, 2020, p. 127).

The infertile body of Goneril, incapable of conceiving a child, would be the absolute contradiction, a sovereign body that is not capable of being the source of all productivity. The appeal to nature is an appeal to a deity prior to the deity of royal sovereignty, a return of the earth's body as the support of all life and all power. Such a return will reach its apex in the storm and at the end of the play, where nature reflects the chaos of the human order and destruction of the sovereignty of the kingdom reaches its maximum level with the civil war.

But even in Act I, it is already stated that the dissociation that Lear produces between his physical body and the body of the sovereign despot establishes a point of no return. The unity of the State that maintained the body of the despot as the “Unengendered” (DELEUZE, GUATTARI, 2011, p. 194), the source and point of appropriation of all production, brings a fragmentation that opens space for the entry of chaotic flows of nature and madness. The catatonia that covers the body of the king in his sovereign exercise full of flattering procedures and the ruled life of the court, “the prescriptions and prohibitions that make him almost always incapable of acting” (ibid, p. 257), is now broken in favor of of another catatonia, more crude and natural: the physical catatonia of the body in old age, the nudity that enraptures Lear: “LEAR Oh, don't judge the need! The lowest beggars in the poorest things have superfluous. Do not give nature more than is necessary, And behold, human life equals that of an animal (…) p. 2020).

Act III introduces a Lear already rejected by his daughters and already completely removed from his condition of support of sovereignty, his body is now just a frail and senile body. Lear's madness is not just a figure of senility that torments his aging body, but a delirium that accompanies the decoding process at play in the play, decoding as the destruction of previously in force codes (GUÉRON, 2020, p. 69), codes that inscribe the power structures of Lear's monarchy.

Lear's delirium in Act III is marked by the storm, something that demonstrates the cosmological impact of the destruction of monarchical codes, of the fragmentation of the sovereign order: “LEAR Thy belly rumble! Spit fire, spurt your butterflies! The wind, the rain, the lightning are not my daughters! I do not blame you, elements, for this ingratitude! I did not give you a kingdom or call you daughters. You don't owe me support. Then fall on me your sinister joy. Here I am, your slave, a poor, weak, sick and despised man! However, I already see you, oh servile ministers, allied with two infested daughters, launching your haughty battle against a head So white and aged! Oh, oh, oh, it's sordid” (SHAKESPEARE, 2020, p. 159-160).

Lear's body here is wholly surrendered to the forces of nature which are realized in the storm and which represent a productive force of the earth's body which now surpasses any human force previously sovereignly guaranteed. The character of an unprecedented event that is the storm is made explicit in Kent's speech (disguised to accompany Lear): “KENT – The raging skies drive even the darkwalkers away and confine them to their lairs. Ever since I was a man, I have never heard of those dreadful rumblings, of the roaring and howling wind, of this squall, of the rivers of fire! Our essence cannot bear so much distress, so much fear” (p. 160).

Lear, Bobo and Kent's encounter with Edgar naked and disguised as poor Tom further deepens the delirium, which results in Lear's nudity and a completely disorderly discursive chain, continuous variation of themes that surround an aberrant, demonic and chaotic nature. The crazy beggar that is poor Tom even makes the Fool, who previously appeared to have a speech that is out of tune with the rest of the court, proclaim: “This cold night will turn us all into fools and madmen” (p. 168). But with poor Tom totally given over to this chaotic flux of nature, one with the body of the earth, part of its self-production, Lear delights.

The ruins of the former sovereign body of the monarchy, which is now on the verge of civil war, are now an opening for Lear to identify with the nakedness of Poor Tom: “LEAR – Between us alone here there are three full of sophistication. But you, you are the thing itself. A man without comforts is just a miserable naked animal, a bipedal animal like you. Away, away with those false rags. Come, unbutton here (tearing his clothes, restrained by Kent and the Fool)” (p. 168-169).

Lear still tries, on the other hand, perhaps in a gesture of mourning, to restore some order. The staging of his daughters' trial is one of the moments where Lear still seeks to return to his condition as the body of sovereignty, the despot from which all law emerges. Then the reenactment of succession to the throne continues, with the political dynamics between the dukes, Lear's daughters and Edmund resulting in the scene of Gloucester's torture, accused of treason.

Evidence of the fragmentation of the monarchical order is the resistance that servants have in participating and witnessing the blinding of Gloucester. Not just a flash of humanity, but frontally an act of questioning the legitimacy of the royal authority that would have been assumed by the dukes and daughters of Lear. With the fragmentation of the kingdom, there is no real succession, only an attempt to maintain a lost sovereignty, which will result in the civil war that accompanies Cordelia's invasion of France.

Lear is the figure of a body invaded by the delirium of the destruction of the codes of the sovereign order and delivered to the forces of nature, where the sovereign body was fragmented and its subjects detached from it, that “long story that will lead the body of the despot to the latrines of city, murdered, disorganized, dismembered, weakened” (DELEUZE, GUATTARI, 2011, p. 279), but as a return to the Body of the Earth. Albany, on the other hand, takes on the role of trying to restore order that is already in ruins; he further believes that the divinity of the sovereign body holds, and applies its justice to crimes committed against that order. After the news of the torture of Gloucester, the revolt of the servants and the death of Cornwall in the clash, his conclusion is: “It shows that you are higher, O judges That so quickly you avenge these earthly crimes of ours” (SHAKESPEARE, 2020, p. 192). Gloucester's suicide attempt appeals to the same order, but in a somewhat more tragic way: in the impossibility of continuing or restoring it, there remains only a protest against it.

Now wreathed in wildflowers and living in the wild, Lear lives in delirium in a conflict between embracing the power of the Body of Earth and mourning the loss of power from the Body of the Despot: “LEAR No, no one will scold me for minting money. For I am the king (…) in this nature surpasses art. Here is your brother-in-law. … When the rain came to drench me and the wind made me squeak with cold; when the thunder didn't want to shut up at my request, that's where I found them, that's where I smelled them. Out of here. You don't have a word. I was told that I was everything. Pure lie, I am not immune to fevers” (p. 203-204).

Living the mourning of the loss of the sovereign body and its powers to mint money or to be “everything” (as we have seen, the natural or divine presupposition of all production), Lear attests to his now fragile, perishable, aging and feverish body; that “smells of mortality” (p. 204). Interestingly, Lear's mourning is accompanied by a distortion of his body's prior identity with the sovereign body: Lear raves about a despotism with no strings attached, without the prescriptions and prohibitions of the court, without the demands of the Crown; which may indicate his own initial desire to remain king in his name and honor without obligations.

Such a delusion of unfettered despotism is clear when Lear says to Gloucester: “LEAR Copper sins with gold, and the strong spear of justice dashes in pieces and leaves them intact. But if they are rags, the pygmy's rod suffices to pierce them. There are no culprits, no, no, no culprits. I absolve: all! Listen to what I say, friend, for I have the power to silence the voice of the accuser” (p. 205).

Cordelia's rescue of Lear brings some horizon of reconciliation and restoration of order. However, a foreign invasion and civil war are still in play, which will result in the climax of widespread death; a line of flight from the monarchical sovereign order turned into a death line of pure destruction (DELEUZE, GUATTARI, 2012). The tempest and ruin of the despot's body will not be able to serve as an opening for a new organization, but will only bring that destruction from a line of death.

Regan poisoned by Goneril who commits suicide, Gloucester killed, Cordelia murdered on Edmund's orders, Edmund defeated and killed by Edgar. The line of death caused by the ruins of the sovereign order showed that the chaotic flows of nature are indifferent to men, who randomly suffer their mutual conspiracies when the despotic body that guaranteed the stability of social production falls. This is Lear's cry that carries the dead Cordelia: “She is dead as the earth” (SHAKESPEARE, 2020, p. 230). For the return of the Body of the Earth, of this chaotic nature that potentiates unruly violence, is in King Lear the point of non-return, the mark of a sovereign body that does not even justify its own immanent violence. Even though it is immanent to the sovereign body, civil war turned to pure destruction in the tragedy of the final scene is utterly meaningless.

Lear's death is the last before general mourning begins. And despite Albany's call for continued state rule, both Kent and Edgar appear in disbelief in the face of such a torn apart sovereign body. Then there are the scattered human bodies, the pure presence of death.

*Bernardo Joao do Rego Monteiro Moreira is studying political science at the Fluminense Federal University (UFF).


DELEUZE, Gilles; GUATTARI, Felix. the anti-Oedipus. Sao Paulo: Ed. 34, 2011.

DELEUZE, Gilles; GUATTARI, Felix. thousand plateaus, v. 5. São Paulo: Ed. 34, 2012.

FOUCAULT, M. Discipline and Punish: Birth of Prison. Petrópolis: Voices, 1999.

FOUCAULT, M. The will to know. history of sexuality, v. 1. Rio de Janeiro: Edições Graal, 1988.

GUERON, Rodrigo. Capitalism, Desire & Politics: Deleuze and Guattari read Marx. Rio de Janeiro: Nau Editora, 2020.

SHAKESPEARE, William. King Lear. São Paulo: Penguin/CDL, 2020.

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