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Throughout most of Shakespeare’s King Lear, the hero is mad; when not, he is deluded. In his gorgeous speech of V.iii.8-26, Lear displays a newfound, optimistic view of his future with Cordelia moments before Edmund orders her death. Lear’s discovery of his own humanity and weakness in the storm has brought him closer to Cordelia and freed him from his pride; having lost his kingdom, two of his daughters, and much of his sanity, he thinks that nothing can hurt him, for he has nothing left to lose.
In fact, Lear has one thing, and that he loses: Cordelia. Lear is eager to go to prison; he sees it as a refuge, where he and his daughter will be safe. “Come, let’s away to prison; / We two alone will sing like birds i’the cage” (V.iii.8-9), he tells her. A “cage” was also used to mean a prison for petty criminals, adding to the aptness of Lear’s simile. Caged birds often signify the imprisonment of a free spirit, but Lear transforms them into an image of beauty and joy, just as he turns the dismal prospect of prison into a glorious future.
Such reversals are the order of the play; not only is the societal order turned upside-down, with a king freezing in the storm and a father subservient to his children, but the very notions of good and evil are flipped as Gloucester becomes a traitor and Edmund a noble lord. Lear’s offer to “kneel down and ask of [Cordelia] forgiveness” when she “dost ask [him] blessing” (V.iii.10-11) contains many such switches: a father kneels to his daughter, a king to a subject, a lord to a suppliant. The most significant distortion, however, is in Lear’s own personality. When Cordelia suggests that they “see these daughters and these sisters” (V.iii.7), Lear insists, “No, no, no, no” (V.iii.8), the repetition and extra-metricality emphasizing his desire to be with Cordelia and avoid her sisters. In I.i, Lear, preferring his other daughters, wanted her to “avoid [his] sight” (I.i.125), but now she is the only thing he wants to see. This insight into Cordelia’s love is the direct result of another, more fundamental personality change. “Ask her forgiveness? / Do you but mark how this becomes this house?” (II.ii.341-2) Lear asked when he felt himself a king, mocking the idea of kneeling to Regan. Lear then was not a terribly lovable person, as his treatment of Kent and Cordelia in I.i shows, but once he has been humbled by his miseries, Lear is not ashamed to treat Cordelia as an equal and accept her true love instead of the feigned affection of her sisters he craved earlier.
Just as his acceptance of Cordelia marks a radical shift in view, so does Lear’s rejection of her sisters. He does not merely deny them, but the entire court; he plans to “laugh at gilded butterflies” (V.iii.13), a phrase that connotes joy and wonder. Lear is happy enough to forget his wrath even at his objects of distaste, considering them foolish toys. He and Cordelia will “hear poor rogues / Talk of court news; and [they’ll] talk with them too” (V.iii.13-4). Lear’s extreme plainness of diction and syntax in this speech conveys his childlike detachment, as does the cheerful, condescending paradox of the “poor rogues” in the court. Likewise, the string of monosyllables and polysyndeton in Lear’s plans to “live / And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh” (V.iii.12-13) underscores the simplicity of the life he intends. The only connection Lear will retain to the court will be for his amusement; he has gained the ability to laugh at himself.
Certain aspects of court life, however, Lear cannot escape. He says that he will talk with courtiers about “who looses and who wins, who’s in, who’s out” (V.iii.15), politics being part of what he renounces. But Lear cannot avoid the vagaries of fate that characterize court life; he has no king or nobles to court for favor now, but he does have the gods. Whether the gods of King Lear actually exist is for this purpose a moot point, but characters refer to gods and fortune as shaping destiny, punishing the wicked, or just punishing the good out of spite; what is clear is that these people live in a world of unsteady fortunes, both within and without the court. Lear has seen the arbitrary and unjust nature of human authority in IV.vi, where he asks Gloucester “see how yon justice rails upon yon simple thief[…]handy-dandy, which is the justice, which is the thief?” (IV.vi.147-8), but he never seems to see fortune as an entirely external and omnipotent force. This alone sets him apart from most of the characters and places him in the unlikely company of Regan, Goneril, and Cornwall. What differentiates his view of fortune from theirs is that he possesses one; the thought of external interference never occurs to these villains. Lear sees this presence, but he interprets it as the result of human actions. He wants to “wear out/In a wall’d prison, packs and sets of great ones / That ebb and flow by the moon” (V.iii.16-18), but he does not think that the moon’s influence could break through the walls. The most succinct explanation for this viewpoint occurs in what appears to be the beginning of Lear’s madness. Upon seeing Edgar disguised as Poor Tom, Lear exclaims:
[…]Nothing could have subdued nature
To such a lowness but his unkind daughters.
Is it the fashion that discarded fathers
Should have thus little mercy on their flesh?
Judicious punishment, ’twas this flesh begot
Those pelican daughters.
Lear considers the wrongs that he suffers at the hands of Regan and Goneril the result of his own sexual misdeeds or folly in giving up the kingdom, but for all his self-pity, he never views himself as an innocent victim. After his rebirth as a self-styled wise man once the storm is over, he feels that he has paid for whatever he might have done, deciding “they cannot touch me for coining; I am the king himself” (IV.vi.83-4) .
This renunciation of fate’s vagaries includes Lear’s identification with those who are beyond fate. He and Cordelia will “take upon[’em] the mystery of things/As if [they] were gods’ spies” (V.iii.16-17), implying that they literally have some special sight. Lear’s assertion that “upon such sacrifices, my Cordelia, / The gods themselves throw incense” (V.iii.20-1) adds the sense of smell, thus culminating the use of sight to describe worldly, mistaken vision and smell for intuition and truth. Though King Lear is a pagan play, the context of the first quotation makes a reader and an auditor especially take “mystery” in a Christian sense. This, taken with Lear’s request for forgiveness, the idea of “sacrifices” that anticipates Cordelia’s sacrifice, and the Biblical reference to Samson a few lines later, almost connotes that Lear has stumbled onto a possible answer to the question of evil. The concept of such isolated and strong Christian imagery in a play with Roman gods may sound strange, but from a wider viewpoint it makes perfect sense. King Lear is a play about evil, among other things, and why the world is unjust. Placing such a play in a pre-Christian England avoids getting the author in theological or political trouble (besides, imagine writing such a play after the 1606 Act of Abuses, forbidding blasphemy on stage), yet would normally prevent him from showing a Christian perspective on evil. Without this speech by Lear and the death of Cordelia, it is all too easy to take King Lear as referring only to a world without the guiding hand of the true God. These few lines and the shocking, incomprehensible ending suggest that the problems of King Lear are not solved by Christian charity.
Still, to Lear at this point, there are no more problems. He refuses to let Cordelia weep, telling her “wipe thine eyes” (V.iii.23), that there is nothing to fear, echoing his sentiment of IV.vii.72. He also insists that “he that parts us shall bring a brand from heaven / And fire us hence like foxes” (V.iii.22-3), implying that they will be inseparable like the foxes whose tails Samson tied together and attached firebrands to in order to burn down the Philistines’ crops; he also unconsciously anticipates their shared destruction. The allusion eases the transition to the assertion that “the good years shall devour them, flesh and fell, / Ere they shall make us weep! / We’ll see ’em starved first” (V.iii.23-6). There may be a pun on “fell” in the sense of “evil”, emphasizing Lear’s view that “good years” will prevail.
They do not, of course. It does not take long for Lear to realize the wishfulness of his claims. “Why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life / And thou no breath at all?” (V.iii.305-6) he asks his daughter. This is the supreme injustice of the play; it entirely undermines Albany’s claim that “all friends shall taste / The wages of their virtue” (V.iii.301-2) made instants earlier; it is wholly incompatible with any notion of divine justice or the kindly gods throwing incense upon sacrifices, unless that sacrifice was to be Cordelia herself. Lear’s list of beasts, to which the play’s villains are so often compared, lifts the injustice to a higher level; the bad guys may be dead, but evil is not, and although order has been restored to the kingdom, the universe is not any better off for that. Cordelia herself, however, “[has] no, no, no life![…she sha]lt come no more, / Never, never, never, never, never” (V.iii.306-7), leaving Lear to voice the overriding nihilistic theme of the play in a stream of negatives that echoes those of the play’s beginning. Edmund’s dying change of heart seemed a temporizing impulse to do some good at his end now that good has prevailed, but it has come to nothing. Death, with no hint of heaven or rebirth, has won; if “there’s life in’t!” (IV.vi.198) is the attitude of Lear before Cordelia’s death, this is his now.
The stunning beauty and simplicity of Lear’s grief is interrupted by a prosaic note, more stage direction than poetry: “pray you, undo this button” (V.iii.308), but it is a direction over which much ink has been spilled. Perhaps Lear is unable to breathe, overcome with grief, or perhaps he wants to help Cordelia breathe; the latter would explain his “her lips” (V.iii.309), as he thinks that Cordelia is alive and breathing, and so dies in the same joyful delusion as V.iii.8-26. Peter Brook and other directors have taken this concept one step farther by having Lear point at Cordelia’s spirit, hovering somewhere in the air. But that explanation is by no means the only valid one. Lear clearly sees something, as he asks “do you see this? Look on her: look, her lips / Look there, look there!” (V.iii.309-10), but whether he sees it clearly is another question. It is even possible that Lear does see Cordelia breathing and has been too caught up in madness until now to notice it, in the same way that it took a jolt for him to realize the true natures of his other two daughters. Maybe he is mourning Cordelia’s lack of breath. Whether Lear dies in a delerium of joy, true happiness, unbearable grief, or something else entirely, remains an enigma; even a performance could choose to leave the question unsettled. The ending depends on what one chooses to accept as the moral truth of King Lear; like Lear, the audience sees what it wants to.
That what people see is subjective and based on their feelings is hardly a novel idea. What King Lear reveals is the harmfulness and the necessity of such delusions. Recalling himself, Gloucester speaks of the “superfluous and lust-dieted man[…]that will not see / Because he does not feel” (IV.i.70-2). If he had seen clearly in the first place, he would not have suffered; the loss of eyes is a painful price to pay for sight. Lear’s situation is much the same. What Lear and Gloucester must undergo is an abrupt and brutal aging: the loss of physical and mental strength and the gain of wisdom, the exchange of one set of illusions for another. The good and evil of the world are too strong to be seen, for both men must return to fantasy, where Gloucester dies upon meeting unexpected happiness; Lear, unexpected grief. It is neither sight nor illusion that kills, but the inability to accept what one sees.
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