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Analysis and criticism of King Lear over the centuries

Analysis and criticism of King Lear over the centuries has been extensive.What we know of Shakespeare’s wide reading and powers of assimilation seems to show that he made use of all kinds of material, absorbing contradictory viewpoints, positive and negative, religious and secular, as if to ensure that King Lear would offer no single controlling perspective, but be open to, indeed demand, multiple interpretations.

R. A. Foakes

Historicist interpretations

John F. Danby, in his Shakespeare’s Doctrine of Nature – A Study of King Lear (1949), argues that Lear dramatizes, among other things, the current meanings of “Nature.” The words “nature,” “natural,” and “unnatural” occur over forty times in the play, reflecting a debate in Shakespeare’s time about what nature really was like; this debate pervades the play and finds symbolic expression in Lear’s changing attitude to Thunder. There are two strongly contrasting views of human nature in the play: that of the Lear party (Lear, Gloucester, Albany, Kent), exemplifying the philosophy of Bacon and Hooker, and that of the Edmund party (Edmund, Cornwall, Goneril, Regan), akin to the views later formulated by Hobbes, though the latter had not yet begun his philosophy career when Lear was first performed. Along with the two views of Nature, the play contains two views of Reason, brought out in Gloucester and Edmund’s speeches on astrology (1.2). The rationality of the Edmund party is one with which a modern audience more readily identifies. But the Edmund party carries bold rationalism to such extremes that it becomes madness: a madness-in-reason, the ironic counterpart of Lear’s “reason in madness” (IV.6.190) and the Fool’s wisdom-in-folly. This betrayal of reason lies behind the play’s later emphasis on feeling.

The two Natures and the two Reasons imply two societies. Edmund is the New Man, a member of an age of competition, suspicion, glory, in contrast with the older society which has come down from the Middle Ages, with its belief in co-operation, reasonable decency, and respect for the whole as greater than the part. King Lear is thus an allegory. The older society, that of the medieval vision, with its doting king, falls into error, and is threatened by the new Machiavellianism; it is regenerated and saved by a vision of a new order, embodied in the king’s rejected daughter. Cordelia, in the allegorical scheme, is threefold: a person; an ethical principle (love); and a community. Nevertheless, Shakespeare’s understanding of the New Man is so extensive as to amount almost to sympathy. Edmund is the last great expression in Shakespeare of that side of Renaissance individualism—the energy, the emancipation, the courage—which has made a positive contribution to the heritage of the West. “He embodies something vital which a final synthesis must reaffirm. But he makes an absolute claim which Shakespeare will not support. It is right for man to feel, as Edmund does, that society exists for man, not man for society. It is not right to assert the kind of man Edmund would erect to this supremacy.”

The play offers an alternative to the feudal-Machiavellian polarity, an alternative foreshadowed in France’s speech (I.1.245–256), in Lear and Gloucester’s prayers (III.4. 28–36; IV.1.61–66), and in the figure of Cordelia. Until the decent society is achieved, we are meant to take as role-model (though qualified by Shakespearean ironies) Edgar, “the machiavel of goodness,” endurance, courage and “ripeness.”Three daughters of King Lear by Gustav Pop

The play also contains references to disputes between King James I and Parliament. In the 1604 elections to the House of Commons, Sir John Fortescue, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, was defeated by a member of the Buckinghamshire gentry, Sir Francis Goodwin. Displeased with the result, James declared the result of the Buckinghhamshire election invalid, and swore in Fortescue as the MP for Buckinghamshire while the House of Commons insisted on swearing in Goodwin, leading to a clash between King and Parliament over who had the right to decide who sat in the House of Commons.The MP Thomas Wentworth, the son of another MP Peter Wentworth—often imprisoned under Elizabeth for raising the question of the succession in the Commons—was most forceful in protesting James’s attempts to reduce the powers of the House of Commons, saying the King could not just declare the results of an election invalid if he disliked who had won the seat as he was insisting that he could. The character of Kent resembles Peter Wentworth in the way which is tactless and blunt in advising Lear, but his point is valid that Lear should be more careful with his friends and advisers.

Just as the House of Commons had argued to James that their loyalty was to the constitution of England, not to the King personally, Kent insists his loyalty is institutional, not personal, as he is loyal to the realm of which the king is head, not to Lear himself, and he tells Lear to behave better for the good of the realm. By contrast, Lear makes an argument similar to James that as king, he holds absolute power and could disregard the views of his subjects if they displease him whenever he liked. In the play, the characters like the Fool, Kent and Cordelia, whose loyalties are institutional, seeing their first loyalty to the realm, are portrayed more favourably than those like Regan and Goneril, who insist they are only loyal to the king, seeing their loyalties as personal. Likewise, James was notorious for his riotous, debauched lifestyle and his preference for sycophantic courtiers who were forever singing his praises out of the hope for advancement, aspects of his court that closely resemble the court of King Lear, who starts out in the play with a riotous, debauched court of sycophantic courtiers. Kent criticises Oswald as a man unworthy of office who has only been promoted because of his sycophancy, telling Lear that he should be loyal to those who are willing to tell him the truth, a statement that many in England wished that James would heed.

Furthermore, James VI of Scotland inherited the throne of England upon the death of Elizabeth I in 1603, thereby uniting the kingdoms of the island of Britain into one, and a major issue of his reign was the attempt to forge a common British identity. James had given his sons Henry and Charles the titles of Duke of Cornwell and Duke of Albany, the same titles bore by the men married to Regan and Goneril. The play begins with Lear ruling all of Britain and ends with him destroying his realm; the critic Andrew Hadfield argued that the division of Britain by Lear was an inversion of the unification of Britain by James, who believed his policies would result in a well-governed and prosperous unified realm being passed on to his heir. Hadfield argued that the play was meant as a warning to James as in the play a monarch loses everything by giving in to his sycophantic courtiers who only seek to use him while neglecting those who truly loved him. Hadfield also argued that the world of Lear’s court is “childish” with Lear presenting himself as the father of the nation and requiring all of his subjects, not just his children, to address him in paternal terms, which infantises most of the people around him, which pointedly references James’s statement in his 1598 book The Trew Law of Free Monarchies that the king is the “father of the nation,” for whom all of his subjects are his children.

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