Bernardo Aparicio García
It too often goes unnoticed that there are strong comedic elements within King Lear. This may seem an outrageous claim with regard to one of Shakespeare’s famous tragedies, but its validity relies upon the classical understanding of the terms “comedy” and “tragedy.” Simply described—tragedies end with death; comedies end with marriage. The reality, however, is much more complex. The basic classical outline of a tragic play is well known: characters who start out with an enviable position in life are brought low through some inexorable chain of events that, in the words of Aristotle, provokes feelings of “pity and fear” in the viewer. King Lear appears to follow precisely such a structure. After all, it is a tale of fathers betrayed by their children: a rightful king is brought to madness by the treason of two beloved daughters while a kindly father meets a pitiable end due to the perfidy of a trusted son. One might therefore think of King Lear as a deeply affecting yet conventional tragedy—a work that is successful to the extent that it epitomizes the virtues of the tragic form.1a Even so, the vision of King Lear as masterful but simple tragedy—a beautiful though disquieting wail at the suffering of the world, a story of loss and disillusionment that elicits pity and fear—is an incomplete picture.
What, then, confounds us in King Lear? If there is no greater evil than biological death, Lear is at his lowest point by the end of the play. There are, however, things worse than death. This is a play about love. It begins with the alienation of a beloved and affectionate daughter by a peevish, controlling father. It concludes with death, and, more importantly, with the transformation of souls and the recovery of the love that was lost. This is the uniting of souls that makes King Lear more complex than the classical structure of tragedy. Through the relationship between Lear and Cordelia we discover that there is more than just loss in love, and that although redemption may not be clearly discernable to worldly eyes, it is nevertheless a palpable reality.
From the play’s troubling first scene, Shakespeare singles out love as a particularly important theme—one with an essential role in moving the play’s action forward. King Lear has decided to abdicate the throne and divide his kingdom between his three daughters, ostensibly in hopes of shaking off “all Cares and Business” from his old age and preventing “future Strife” in the form of a power struggle after his death. 2 Lear does not intend to divide his kingdom in three equal parts; rather, he decides to portion out his lands and riches in proportion to the intensity of each of his daughters’ love for him. In doing so, Lear commits a tragic mistake and reveals a fundamental flaw in his understanding of love, a flaw with consequences that reverberate across the entire play.
Lear’s error is that, in portioning out his kingdom, he has implicitly adopted a quantitative, contractual concept of love. His paternal affection is not a gift but an exchange; its value lies not in the giving, but in the gratefulness, praise, or devotion that he may gain by it. This is not to deny that Lear has truly affectionate feelings for his daughters, but only to say that it is an affection marred by its being made a currency—one that can grow or diminish as a function of merit, that can be used to purchase material and emotional goods. As the drama soon demonstrates, this is not a tenable view of either paternal or filial love.
The untenability of his position is yet another atypical aspect in this tragic play when compared with others of Shakespeare’s works. In Macbeth, for example, the play is carefully structured so that the audience should not lose sympathy with the protagonist until the point when their loyalties shift to desiring the doom that pursues him. Lear loses sympathy almost immediately because of his perverse demands. His character trajectory, therefore, is primed for redemption and recovery. Such a transformation can only be effected through purgative suffering. In a plot hauntingly reminiscent of Greek tragedy, Lear is the stubborn catalyst of his own earthly destruction.
In order to quantify his daughters’ love, Lear organizes an assembly at which each of them must publicly profess the intensity of their feelings for him. In truth, Lear is fondest of his daughter Cordelia and plans to grant her the largest portion of his kingdom; thus, the “contest” is in reality little more than a ceremony. Goneril and Regan, the king’s eldest daughters, readily acquiesce to their father’s wish. They represent Lear’s perspective on love taken to its logical conclusion: devoid of practically all sincerity of feeling, they are skilled at a calculated flattery aimed at obtaining rewards. Cordelia, however, is profoundly troubled by her father’s imposition of this contest for the kingdom and his love. In this way, the quality of her feelings mirrors her father’s better nature—the genuine affection that lies beneath Lear’s unfortunate views and actions. “What shall Cordelia speak?” she ponders. “Love, and be Silent,” she concludes. 3
King Lear believes it is possible to quantify and portion out love without corrupting it, but Cordelia disagrees. She sees through her father’s mistake, and, with perhaps a measure of unconscious pride in her own righteousness, she decides to teach her father a lesson. When Lear inquires what she will say after her sisters’ excessively lofty speeches, she simply responds with “Nothing, my Lord.” 4 Lear is shocked at this response and urges her to say more. “Nothing will come of Nothing,” he says, further confirming that he puts a price tag on the love he offers. But Cordelia is steadfast in her purpose, and she replies with a remark that, in light of her father’s ideas, takes on the character of a subtle rebuke. In a cutting declaration, she takes Lear’s conception of love and turns it back on him: “Happily when I shall wed, / That Lord whose Hand must take my Plight shall carry / Half my Love with him, half my Care and Duty.” 5 It is this phrase, perhaps more than any other, that triggers Lear’s wrath against Cordelia and sets him on the tragic path that will bring about his downfall.
This interpretation of Cordelia’s words—that they are loaded with an almost righteous sarcasm—helps resolve two conundrums detected by many readers. First, it makes her father’s irrational rage more understandable, for it is profoundly painful to hear hard truths about oneself from the mouth of a loved one. Lear’s fury stems both from his frustrated expectations and his frustration as a father at being corrected by his child. Second, this interpretation accounts for the apparent discrepancy between the notion of love Cordelia’s words express and the heroic charity that she demonstrates later in the play. Thus, while Cordelia never intended to set in motion the tragic chain of events that unfolds throughout the subsequent acts, it is hard to miss that through her words she wished, unconsciously or not, to teach her father a lesson.
At this point, it is worthwhile to notice a possible parallel reading of the strange disconnect between Cordelia’s words and actions—one that is more historically-minded. Cordelia’s words to her father—the king—invite questions about the relationship between a subject and his sovereign. For example, can loyalty and love be quantified? What is love for one’s sovereign? Is divided loyalty necessarily treasonous? Such questions were especially pertinent at the turn of the seventeenth century and are bound to arise in light of a re-emerging wealth of literary scholarship on Catholicism during the Tudor period. The writings of Park Honan, Anthony Holden, Michael Wood, Clare Asquith, and Stephen Greenblatt are most notable in this respect. Still, many of these names are considered controversial and, while it is important to notice the existence of this debate, the intention and aim of this essay do not allow or invite a categorical description of the sundry views. An understanding of the historical context in which Shakespeare wrote can add a tense sense of timeliness to an already tense drama, but an interpretation that engages the text directly is ultimately more profitable. After all, it is more interesting to discover what Cordelia says to her father about the nature of love than to make conjectures about what Shakespeare may or may not have been covertly saying to his monarch.
There is much that has to happen before Lear will be ready to learn his lesson. Having disowned and banished Cordelia, Lear divides the kingdom between Goneril and Regan, the two daughters that have supposedly merited his affection. In accordance with his unfortunate view of paternal and filial love, the king expects that his daughters will support him in his retirement, allowing him to live in wealth and comfort, free from the cares and troubles of a head of state. Gratitude, of course, can be a natural consequence of love, and there is nothing unusual in Lear expecting that his daughters will care for him in his old age. However, it is one thing to love and expect gratitude as a happy result, and quite another to love with the aim of receiving such gratitude. The latter approach, Lear’s contractual understanding of love, can easily mar the authenticity of a relationship—for true love seeks the good of another, not another’s goods.
Unfortunately, as Lear’s method for dividing up his kingdom suggests, this is the idea of love with which he has raised his daughters. Lear may be genuine in his feelings for Goneril and Regan, but in teaching them by example that love can be quantified and expressed in units of goods and privileges, he has taught them to love nothing but the goods and privileges themselves. The result is two moral and emotional monsters who lack the capacity to care for anyone without goods or privileges to bestow. Once King Lear has turned over the kingdom to Goneril and Regan and he ceases to be of practical use to them, he soon discovers the utter untenability of his position. Instead of the care and gratitude that his “theory” of love predicted, he confronts a harsh reality of rejection and betrayal. The chasm between his expectations and what actually takes place in the real world, not to mention the pain of a broken, beaten heart, drives the old king to madness.
Lear is at his lowest point when Cordelia meets him next. Separated from his daughters, bereft of his train of knights and attendants, and even homeless, the king has fallen into despair and descended into an emotional and psychological hell. When Cordelia approaches him, Lear’s words about his current state allude to images of Hell and Hades found in the Bible and Greek mythology. “You do me wrong to take me out o’th’ Grave,” he says, “Thou art a Soul in Bliss, but I am bound / Upon a Wheel of Fire, that mine own Tears / Do scald like molten Lead.” 6 The implication in Lear’s description of himself as a damned, despairing soul is that Cordelia appears as an image of divine love. Lear’s description of Cordelia in this passage as a “Soul in Bliss” and as a “Spirit” who comes bringing “Fair Day Light” is consistent with the words of the Gentleman found in act four, scene three. Speaking of Cordelia’s tears when she learns of her father’s plight, he describes how “she shook / The Holy Water from her Heavenly Eyes” and “once or twice she heav’d the name of ‘Father.’” 7 The religious images and allusions in these passages are reminiscent of Dante’s Beatrice coming to lead the poet into Paradiso. They also recall popular depictions of the Virgin Mary, and even Christ’s passion (when he calls up to his Father in anguish) and descent into Hell.
These descriptions of Cordelia are thoroughly appropriate when one realizes the kind of love she brings. Hers is a charity—in the full, theological sense of the word—totally unlike her father’s idea of love. Cordelia, unlike Lear, does not believe that it is possible to quantify and portion out love. After a time of separation from her father, the plot finally gives her the opportunity to articulate with actions her vision of love—a filial love that is not a product of her father’s relative merits, or of the lands and titles that he may choose to give or take away. After all, she already owes him nothing less than her life, and in this she discerns an unconditional duty to love, which is very different from a contract. This is not the joyless duty of a man forced to perform an unpleasant job, but a free and honest response to Lear’s paternal love. In the former case, even if the job were not unpleasant, a contractual duty would in some sense always be joyless, for it does not exist for its own sake but only as a function of some other good. Cordelia’s gratitude is not a measured and proportional payment for favors received, but a gift freely and irrevocably given. This explains her response when an anguished Lear tells her, “I know you do not love me, for your Sisters / Have, as I do remember, done me wrong; / You have some Cause, they have not.” 8 Cordelia’s reply, “No Cause, no Cause,” is not only a statement that she has forgiven and forgotten, but actually a revelation of the character of her love. 9 In saying “No cause” Cordelia means precisely that: she has no cause not to love her father because her love, once given, is not the kind that can be reneged.
If this kind of love sounds too unearthly, it is because that is precisely what it is. It is no wonder that Shakespeare compares Cordelia to a heavenly being. But this unworldly love is necessary, for it is the only kind that has strength enough to introduce a thread of comedy into this renowned tragedy of tragedies. Cordelia’s love succeeds in retrieving Lear from his psychological hell. Moreover, it achieves a reconciliation of which Lear had explicitly despaired, and which it is reasonable to assume Cordelia did not expect. She asks her father to “hold [his] hand in Benediction” over her. 10 Lear, in turn, recognizes his error and begs Cordelia to “forget and forgive,” for he is “Old / And Foolish.” 11 In this manner, Lear and Cordelia bridge the separation that lies at the heart of the entire tragedy. Indeed, they do not merely close the breach. Cordelia’s love actually transforms the relationship between father and daughter, not to mention Lear himself.
This is the only instance in the play of a fully successful reconciliation. It is also the only example of Cordelia’s type of otherworldly charity at work. However, the play suggests that this form of love is truly not “of this world.” Having emerged from Hell, Lear is eager to recreate Heaven on Earth. Hence the speech in act five, scene three, in which he describes his vision of life in prison with Cordelia as a sort of earthly paradise. His words are a beautiful assertion of the fullness of his reconciliation with his daughter, but they are also misguided and unrealistic. Lear still needs to learn that man can make no Heaven of this earth.
The result of the king’s attempt to build a premature Heaven for himself is that Cordelia is hanged in her cell by the treacherous Edmund’s order. The question, then, is what effect this has on Lear before he dies at the end of the play. Does he return to “Hell”? Or has the retrieval of his daughter’s love redeemed him? Does he die in despair or hope? Madness or sanity? The answer is by no means clearly cut, but we may venture an inference in light of our previous interpretation. Lear clearly dies of a broken heart, overwhelmed with sorrow as he holds the body of his beloved daughter. The plan he conceived for Heaven on Earth has miscarried. Lear totters before an abyss of despair as he contemplates that Cordelia will “come no more, / Never, never, never, never, never.” 12 Indeed, Lear has despaired of finding ultimate happiness in the world, but that is not necessarily the whole story. In his final vision, Lear believes he sees life in Cordelia. “Do you see this?” he asks, “Look on her? Look her Lips, / Look there, look there.” 13 Lear leaves the world with an image of hope in his heart; he is no longer the despondent, helpless creature that appears in act four.
Is this a mad hope? Perhaps that is the essential question Shakespeare presents in King Lear. Finding an answer is the very business of life, and therefore beyond the scope of this essay. However, the fact that Lear’s love had to rise from its worldly state to survive suggests a similar process as regards his hope. The love Cordelia has taught him does not pass away with her body. This adds hints of the eternal to his mysterious final vision. And even if Lear dies in madness, he dies reconciled. Certainly, the old king suffers at the end, but one might humbly propose, alongside G.K. Chesterton in his Tremendous Trifles, that “he is a [sane] man who can have a tragedy in his heart, and a comedy in his head.”
This interpretation of the relationship between King Lear and Cordelia makes sense of many parts in the play that at first glance appear as pieces of different puzzles. King Lear is not a pure tragedy; it remains largely inscrutable if one attempts to understand it as such. As the story develops, an element of comedy become essential to the plot: the restoration of the relationship whose breach lies at the heart entire drama. Lear and Cordelia die after they have been reconciled, but the descriptions of their deaths are not nearly as harrowing as Lear’s earlier torture within his psychological Hell. The reason is that this is a play about love, not about the cruelty of mortality. The drama aims to provoke horror at the possibility of life without love, not at the reality that life has an end. By the end, Lear and Cordelia have restored and transformed their love, and it can no longer be shaken by the buffets of the world. Though father and daughter die, they are not defeated. And while King Lear is adamant that no ultimate redemption is possible within the world, it subtly dares to suggest that such redemption may nevertheless exist.
Bernardo Aparicio García is president of Dappled Things. He is an alumnus of the University of Pennsylvania and is currently studying the Great Books at St. John’s College in Annapolis.
1. [There is nothing pejorative in this use of the word “conventional,” one might add; the Iliad is quite a conventional epic, if only because it is the model for all subsequent Western epics.]↩
2. [Shakespeare, William, King Lear, ed. John F. Andrews (London: J.M. Dent, 1993), I.i.40-46.]↩
3. [Ibid., I.i.63.]↩
4. [Ibid., I.i.89.]↩
5. [Ibid., I.i.101-103.]↩
6. [Ibid., IV.vii.43-46.]↩
7. [Ibid., IV.iii.26-32.]↩
8. [Ibid,. IV.vii.71-73]↩
9. [Ibid., IV.vii.73.]↩
10. [Ibid., IV.vii.56.]↩
11. [Ibid., IV.vii.82-83.]↩
12. [Ibid., V.iii.304-305.]↩
13. [Ibid., V.iii.307-308.]↩