Thursday, April 03, 2008

Edmund and Lear

Somehow, while grading exams on King Lear, it suddenly struck me how the following soliloquy from Edmund could provide context for how we discuss the entire play:

"This is the excellent foppery of
the world, that when we are sick in fortune,
often the surfeits of our own behavior, we
make guilty of our disasters the sun, the moon,
and stars; as if we were villains on necessity;
fools by heavenly compulsion; knaves, thieves,
and treachers by spherical predominance;
drunkards, liars, and adulterers by an enforced
obedience of planetary influences; and all that
we are evil in, by a divine thrusting on. An
admirable evasion of whoremaster man, to lay
his goatish disposition on the charge of a star."

The play as a whole emphasizes the possibility that nature or the gods are malevolent or indifferent. Perhaps, indeed, the cosmos or God is indifferent to human suffering and human behavior. But...doesn't Lear bring his tragedy on himself? He disowns Cordelia and banishes Kent. He turns the kingdom over to his greedy daughters Regan and Goneril. He makes mistakes; his own character and his own actions bring on suffering for himself, his kingdom, and Cordelia. It isn't just Lear, of course; he and others are also victimized by the play's villains. But again it is not nature or the gods that make people suffer further: it is evil people that cause further suffering. The good, loyal characters suffer because of the machinations and actions of Edmund, Cornwall, Regan, and Goneril.

So perhaps Edmund is speaking to the audience directly here. He's warning us not to get distracted by all the foolish characters who continually muse on "nature" and the gods. They're distracted: it is distinctly human behavior that brings on the suffering of the play. It's silly to lash out at indifferent or malevolent gods, to complain about the emptiness of the cosmos. Human suffering is brought on by the mistakes of good people and the machinations of evil people.

In the play, Edmund and Lear speak not a single word to one another. Perhaps, in a very indirect way, Edmund in this passage speaks to Lear. But perhaps Lear doesn't even need the message. It is possible that Lear and Edmund are the only two characters that never actually lash out at "nature." After Lear is cast out into the storm, he recognizes he can't blame "nature," but must blame his daughters:

"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, called you children,
You owe me no subscription. Then let fall
Your horrible pleasure."

Here Lear recognizes it is bad people that caused his suffering; indeed, throughout his insanity in the storm, Lear repeatedly fixates on the betrayal by his daughters. Other characters experience suffering and speculate on the gods; Lear experiences suffering and pins it on a human source. And later, Lear recognizes that it was his own mistakes, telling Cordelia

"I am a very foolish fond old man"


"You must bear with me./ Pray you now, forget and forgive. I am old and/ foolish."

In Shakespeare: the Invention of the Human, Harold Bloom writes that Shakespeare never allowed Edmund and Lear to speak to each other "because they are apocalyptic antitheses: the king is all feeling, and Edmund is bare of all affect." They had nothing to say to each other, according to Bloom, because they were opposites: Lear is all emotion, full of whatever feeling possesses him, while Edmund is "ice-cold, indifferent." Insightful, yes, but it also highlights one of my frustrations of Bloom's reading of Shakespeare in that book. He places all emphasis on characters, and explores very little of the ideas. Bloom as a reader loves unique characters (a reading mode I could appreciate if Bloom didn't so frequently lash out at anybody who reads Shakespeare differently than he does).

Let me provide another theory:

Edmund and Lear have nothing to say to each other because they already know the same thing. While many of the characters in the play spend time making grand claims about indifferent nature and the malevolent gods, Edmund and Lear each recognize that human affairs are governed by human character and human behavior. Each recognizes that it is not something outside of humanity which causes the greatest of human suffering, but the frailty and evil of humanity itself that causes the worst of human suffering. In the IDEAS of the play, Edmund and Lear have nothing to say to each other because they both embrace the same "truth."

Is King Lear a play about an indifferent universe, about a lack of divine justice? Perhaps. But perhaps Edmund warns us not to look to the stars for an answer to human suffering. Perhaps we see in the tragic hero Lear a character that never attempts to blame "nature." Perhaps King Lear reminds us not to speculate on "nature" or "the gods" when we should look to humanity for answers to human suffering.

And an extra thought
I can't help but think Moby-Dick is involved here somewhere. Doesn't Moby-Dick explore the relationship between that which humans are responsible for and that which is beyond human control? Ishmael says:

"chance, free will, and necessity--no wise incompatible--all interweavingly working together. The straight warp of necessity, not to be swerved from its ultimate course--its every alternating vibration, indeed, only tending to that; free will still free to ply her shuttle between given threads; and chance, though restrained in its play within the right lines of necessity, and sideways in its motions directed by free will, though thus prescribed to by both, chance by turns rules either, and has the last featuring blow at events."

And doesn't Moby-Dick often tempt us to consider Ahab and the sorry souls on the Pequod victims of "fate" or of "nature," when we should also look to human character and human behavior to explain events?

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