Rebirth and Renewal in Shakespeare's King Lear
On King Lear by William Shakespeare
Author: Gary Ettari
From: Rebirth and Renewal, Bloom's Literary Themes.
The subject of rebirth and renewal in King Lear is a complex one, in part because so much of the play focuses on disorder, confusion, and betrayal. The play begins, in fact, with both personal and political upheaval. In the first scene, we are introduced to two families, Gloucester's, consisting of Gloucester and his two sons, Edmund and Edgar, and Lear's, consisting of Lear and his three daughters, Regan, Goneril, and Cordelia. Significantly, both families lack a wife/mother figure, meaning the play begins with a vague feeling of incompleteness or absence. One of Gloucester's sons, Edmund, is illegitimate. In Elizabethan drama, bastards are generally villains. This is in part due to the cultural codes of the day: A bastard, a person who was born out of wedlock, was automatically disinherited because English laws and customs did not mandate that children born out of wedlock needed to be formally acknowledged either in one's will or, in the case of nobility, with a title. Thus, most bastards in the drama of the day were driven to achieve what they believed was rightfully theirs even though the customs of the day did not acknowledge that to be the case.
Most of the disorder in the play, in fact, results from the various members of each family trying to obtain their desires via other members of the family. For Edmund, achieving the legitimacy and fatherly attention he craves involves scheming against his "legitimate" brother, Edgar, who is highly favored by Gloucester. In one part of a well-known speech from Act I, Edmund says:
Legitimate Edgar, I must have your land:
if this letter speed,
And my invention thrive, Edmund the base
Shall top the legitimate. I grow; I prosper:
Now, gods, stand up for bastards! (1.2. 15–16, 18–21)
By forging a letter in his brother Edgar's hand, Edmund hopes to disinherit Edgar and gain for himself the "land" held by his father. The closing lines of the quote demonstrate Edmund's frustration at his lot in life. He calls upon the gods to favor bastards in part out of frustration because he feels up to this point as if they have favored his "legitimate" brother Edgar.
Edmund's scheming is relatively straightforward when compared with the predicament of King Lear and his daughters. An old man, Lear wishes to give up his kingdom. He has divided it into thirds with the intention of giving one third of the kingdom to each of his three daughters so that Lear may, in his own words, "crawl unburthen'd towards death" (1.1.32). The only thing Lear requires of his daughters is a profession of love from each. He essentially makes these professions a contest by asking, "which of you shall we say doth love us most?" (1.1.42). Goneril and Regan, the two oldest daughters, give elaborate, hyperbolic, and insincere replies to their father. Because Lear seeks flattery and cannot discern the difference between truth and falsehood, these replies please him. When his youngest daughter, Cordelia, answers in plain, honest language ("I love your majesty/According to my bond; no more nor less"), Lear becomes outraged, disinherits Cordelia, and divides her third between Regan and Goneril (1.1.83–4). He banishes Cordelia from his kingdom, and even though Cordelia is now disinherited, the king of France, who was visiting Lear's court to seek her hand, still agrees to marry her. When Lear's faithful servant, Kent, speaks up to defend Cordelia, he, too, is banished. The decisions Lear makes in this scene have many consequences, but it is important to note another troubling aspect of Lear's character. The main reason he leaves his land to his daughters is that he does not want to continue being king. Because so much of the play's disorder results from Lear's desire to rid himself of the burdens of kingship, it is safe to presume that Shakespeare was trying to highlight the importance of taking one's political and personal responsibilities seriously. In large part, it is because Lear wants to be "unburthen'd" that he makes the foolish decisions he does.
The play therefore begins with a series of familial and political disruptions, and the last four and a half acts of the play are a close study of what people do when they confront both domestic and cosmic disorder. Edgar, Gloucester's legitimate son, for example, goes into hiding because Edmund showed his father a forged letter, purporting to be from Edgar, in which Edgar supposedly discusses murdering Gloucester for his property. Cordelia, disinherited and without property or a place to live, is shown pity by the king of France, who proposes marriage to her. Cordelia then leaves England to live in France with her new husband. Lear, too, becomes dispossessed and homeless. Having divided his kingdom in two, his plan is to stay with each of his daughters in turn. However, once Regan and Goneril gain their respective halves of the kingdom, each banishes her father from her house.
By the conclusion of Act 2, most of the play's characters are bereft of both family and shelter. Significantly, many are wandering in the wilderness. It is a familiar pattern in Shakespearean comedy to place characters from a more "civilized" world into a forest or other green space in order that they might gain a new perspective and return to civilized society changed for the better. The "green world," as critic Northrop Frye called it, has a powerful effect upon those who venture into it. While King Learis a tragedy and not a comedy, the play uses the green space to begin to help characters heal themselves.
The role that nature plays in Lear is a multifaceted one. It is important to remember that "nature" in this play can refer to many things: to human nature, to the natural world, or to the larger, almost cosmic sense of Nature as the ordering principle of the universe. All of these manifestations of nature are at play in King Lear. Once Lear has been banished from the houses of both his older daughters, for example, he and his fool simply wander in the wilderness, allowing nature an opportunity to bring about change in the play's characters.
As Lear and his fool seek shelter out on the heath, a storm comes up; rather than seek shelter, Lear welcomes the storm, addressing it directly even as it rages around him:
Rumble thy bellyful! Spit, fire! Spout, rain!
Nor rain, wind, thunder, fire are my daughters.
I tax not you, you elements, with unkindness;
I never gave you kingdom, call'd you children;
You owe me no subscription. Then let fall
Your horrible pleasure. Here I stand your slave,
A poor, infirm, weak, and despis'd old man (3.2. 14–20).
In this speech, Lear begins to realize the error of his ways. Although he is still bitter about his daughters banishing him, he also recognizes his own state; he is a "poor, infirm, weak and despis'd old man" and not the king he once was. He recognizes that he is at the mercy of the "horrible pleasure" of the elements, and he therefore begins to humble himself when faced with a power greater than he can command.
Many of the play's other transformations take place away from civilization as well. Edgar, the banished brother of Edmund, disguises himself as a madman named Tom O'Bedlam and inhabits the same wilderness as Lear and his fool. Ironically, Edgar meets his father, Gloucester, who has been blinded by Cornwall, Regan's husband, and joins the play's other characters in the wilderness. Failing to recognize his voice, Gloucester asks "Tom O'Bedlam" to lead him to the top of one of the Dover cliffs so he may jump and end his life. Edgar agrees to lead Gloucester up to the cliff but instead keeps him on level ground and tells him he is at the edge of the cliff. Gloucester thanks him, kneels to say a final prayer, and then jumps off what he believes to be a cliff. At this point, Edgar takes on another disguise and pretends to be someone at the bottom of the cliff who saw Gloucester float down. After being convinced that he fell from a great height, Gloucester ceases to despair and resolves to live as long as he can: "Henceforth I'll bear/Affliction till it do cry out itself/'Enough, enough,' and die" (4.4. 75–77). Gloucester, like Lear, has been humbled by his circumstances and now sees his life in a different light.
There is, however, a key difference between Gloucester and Lear. In 4.6, Lear encounters the blind Gloucester and expresses skepticism about a blind man's ability to perceive things, ironically demonstrating his own lack of vision:
Lear: O ho, are you there with me? No eyes in your head, nor no money in your purse? Your eyes are in a heavy case, your purse in a light, yet you see how this world goes.
Gloucester: I see it feelingly.
Lear: What, art thou mad?
Lear's inability to understand the change that Gloucester has undergone signals that he has yet to take the final steps in the transformation from arrogance to humility, from blindness to sight. Gloucester, however, despite his blindness, has become more aware of the world around him and, even more importantly, more empathetic to the people in it. That he now sees "feelingly" indicates that he has acquired empathy and is thus able to "feel" his way through the world, not only with his hands, but with his being.
Many of the transformations undergone by the main characters are partly the result of those characters being removed from their milieu at court and at home and transported to the realm of nature. In Shakespeare's time, the view of nature was heavily influenced by classical Greek and Roman pastoral poetry, stretching as far back as the work of Theocritus, a Hellenistic Greek writer who flourished in the third century B.C.E. Most of the work produced by Theocritus and other Greek and Roman poets, such as Virgil in his Ecologues, offered a highly idealized version of country life, focusing mainly on the lives of shepherds who tended their flocks in fields and meadows. Most of these works described the shepherd's life as simple, easy, and full of leisure. Many writers of the English Renaissance were influenced by these earlier works and produced their own poetry, which often expressed a desire to return to a simpler life. Christopher Marlowe, in his well-known poem, "A Passionate Shepherd to His Love" writes:
Come live with me and be my Love,
And we will all the pleasures prove
That hills and valleys, dale and field,
And all the craggy mountains yield.
There will we sit upon the rocks
And see the shepherds feed their flocks,
By shallow rivers, to whose falls
Melodious birds sing madrigals. (1–8)
That English Renaissance writers would adopt the idealized version of nature from the classical pastoral poets is understandable. Most early modern playwrights, especially the Elizabethans, would, if they wanted to be successful, end up in London, a large and bustling city. Also, many Elizabethan writers were at court, a place that offered opportunities for advancement but that also was fraught with political intrigue and danger, making the simple, pastoral life seem at times more appealing (see, for example, Sir Thomas Wyatt's poem "Mine own John Poinz").
The natural world for Elizabethans, then, offered a respite from the cares of city and court life. In Shakespeare's plays, particularly the comedies, this desire for simplicity results in the setting of the play changing from the court to the country. In the comedies A Midsummer Night's Dream and As You Like It, for example, the difficulties faced by the characters at court are resolved after the characters spend a substantial amount of each play's time in the "green world" of the forest. It is easy to see a similar pattern in King Lear, especially given the role of the storm and the preponderance of the action that takes place out on the English heath, but there are also subtle differences as well. For example, nature in Lear is not quite as friendly or inviting as it is in the comedies. It is harsher and more dangerous, and it does not offer easy solutions. This is perhaps because in this play, Nature has more work to do than to reunite lovers or smooth over courtly quarrels; it must redeem a king, reunify two broken families, and stabilize a kingdom.
Since Gloucester is blind and Lear has begun to be humbled, the process of setting things right has begun. However, because of the play's tragic undertone, there can be neither rebirth nor renewal without loss. Many critics have argued that this recognition of loss's necessity is one of the chief features of Shakespeare's late plays, and Lear is no exception. In fact, one of the ironies of the play is that while Gloucester and Lear are moving from arrogance and blindness to a state of empathy and humility, other characters are descending further into the chaos of the disrupted kingdom. Cordelia, now the queen of France, is back on English soil with her husband's invading army. Edmund, who has been having romantic dalliances with both Regan and Goneril, is now the head of Regan's army and is leading that army to meet the invading French troops. Edgar, disguised now as an ordinary peasant, leads his father, Gloucester, to a safe place and joins the battle on the side of France and Lear. Just as the personal and political spheres were both disrupted at the beginning of the play, they are now brought together again.
The armies clash and Lear's side loses, with the result that Lear and Cordelia are both captured; this provides father and daughter a momentary sense of despair at the defeat of their army and their imprisonment. However, Edgar reveals to Goneril's husband, Albany, that Goneril plotted to kill him and there is a division in Regan and Goneril's army; Albany then suspects Edmund of treason and orders a trial by combat to determine Edmund's guilt or innocence. Edgar officially accuses Edmund of treason and fights him in single combat. Edgar fatally wounds Edmund, who repents; the dying Edmund tries to redeem himself by sending a messenger to stop Cordelia's execution, which he had ordered.
At this point in the final scene, deaths come rapidly. Edgar finally reveals himself to his father, Gloucester, who, caught between feelings of joy and grief, dies. Regan, poisoned by Goneril, also dies, and afterward Goneril kills herself with a dagger. In this whirlwind of action and death, we see the difference between the reordering process in Shakespeare's comedies and his late tragedies. Most of the pastoral comedies end with joyful reunions, usually including marriage, and the transition from the natural world back to the courtly one is for the most part uncomplicated. In Lear, however, the movement from the green world back to the courtly one is fraught with tragic consequences. Despite Edmund's earnest attempt to save Cordelia, she is nonetheless hanged, and in one of the most riveting scenes of the play, Lear carries her onstage in his arms and laments her death:
No, no, no life!
Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life,
And thou no breath at all? Thou'lt come no more,
Never, never, never, never, never.
Pray you undo this button. Thank you, sir.
Do you see this? Look on her! Look her lips,
Look there, look there! He dies. (5.3. 306–312)
The sense of loss in Lear's words is undeniable, as is the finality. With the repetition of "never," the weight of Cordelia's death and the loss of his own sanity are palpable. Here, at the play's conclusion, we see a distinction Shakespeare is making not only between tragedy and comedy but also between loss and the possibility of redemption. At the end of the play, there seem to be almost too many losses to overcome. All three of Lear's daughters, not to mention Lear himself, are dead, as is two-thirds of Gloucester's family. The kingdom as Lear knew and ruled it has ceased to exist. When one thinks of rebirth and renewal, usually such tragic consequences do not enter the picture.
However, as Shakespeare so often insists, even in the face of such dire loss, there is the possibility of redemption and renewal. In King Lear, that possibility takes the shape of a new ruler. Just after Lear dies, Albany tells Edgar and Kent that they must rule the realm and "the gored state sustain." Kent declines, saying, "I have a journey, sir, shortly to go," implying that he is close to the end of his life. One other function of Kent's refusal to rule with Edgar is that Edgar will now be the sole ruler; if he is just, the kingdom divided and fractured by Lear's actions may again flourish as an organic whole. While the possibility of a reunited kingdom with Edgar at its head may seem like small comfort, perhaps what this play teaches is that rash actions have consequences not just for individuals but for kingdoms as well. This is perhaps why the rebirth and renewal in the play seem muted or incomplete when compared to the final scenes of most of the comedies. Nature has, in the case of Lear, still done its work, but the lack of narrative resolution at the end of the play suggests that nature can only do so much. After it corrects what flaws it can, the responsibility to create a better world ultimately rests on human shoulders.