This Great Stage of Fools
Christian Orthodoxy in Shakespeare’s King Lear
by Peter J. Leithart
Today, King Lear is widely considered Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy and even his greatest achievement. Elements of the play that made it unpalatable to earlier generations are viewed as peculiar strengths by modern critics. Especially in the mid-twentieth century, when absurdist theater was in its heyday, Lear was seen as an important precursor.
Though absurdism now looks positively quaint, critics commonly interpret the world of Lear as if it were Elizabethan absurdist theater. Judah Stampfer concludes that the play is a “tragedy of penance” that takes place in an “imbecile universe” in which there is no hint of “charity, resiliency, or harmony.”
Similarly, Nicholas Brooke argues that the play makes “it impossible to retain any concept of an ordered universe” and promotes “the reflection that any system of order results in very strange notions of justice.” In Brooke’s reading, the play directly challenges Christian notions of salvation: “In the end the subtlest and most tempting order of all is undone—the order of repentance, forgiveness, redemption and regeneration is reversed in unregenerate Lear’s tottering broken-hearted into madness and death.”
Some have found a more hopeful note in the final scenes, claiming that Lear dies happily, thinking that Cordelia is still alive. As William F. Zak points out, even if this is true, it only serves to thicken the darkness. The gods have toyed with Lear throughout his life, and as he breathes his last breath, they play yet another cruel trick. Similarly, S. L. Goldberg argues that taking Lear’s “delusion” as a sign of “final optimism in the play” is “so visibly at odds with the impersonal dramatic facts as to be both gratuitous and sentimental.” Whatever Lear’s hopes, the play begins and ends in a world without hope of resurrection.
Critics seem to have strong grounds for taking Gloucester’s comment as the play’s theme: “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods; they kill us for sport” (4.1.37–38). As some have pointed out, Lear never moves far from its first scene. It begins with Lear divesting himself of all the accouterments of kingship, renouncing his daughter Cordelia because she can say “nothing” to express her love for her father, and sending faithful Kent, who defends Cordelia, into exile.
The play ends on the same note. Shortly before the final scenes, Lear impatiently drives Kent from his sight (“Prithee away”) and weeps over his beloved Cordelia, who is again silent, this time in death. And, significantly, Lear dies calling out for someone to help him unbutton his robe (5.3.307). The wheel turns. The tide moves in, the tide moves out. Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.
In other respects the design of the play consistently raises hope only to frustrate it. Gloucester’s son Edgar, disguised for his own protection as “Poor Tom,” a homeless and insane wanderer, no sooner finishes saying “things could not get worse” than he sees his father tottering across the heath with bloodstained bandages on his vacant eyes (4.1.1–12). Near the end, Albany prays for Cordelia’s safety; then, immediately, “Enter Lear with Cordelia in his arms,” howling at the heavens (5.3.254f). Every time we feel that things might at last turn around, our hopes are sadistically dashed.
Lear’s use of comic conventions has similar effects. There are comic elements in Shakespeare’s other great tragedies. Hamlet lurches toward farce at several points and has inspired zany offshoots like Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. Even austere Macbeth has its drunken porter. But no tragedy has so much in common with comedy as Lear.
Spatially, the movement of the play is reminiscent of comedy. Peter Saccio has pointed out that Shakespearean comedies are often comedies of escape. Lovers (especially lovers) find city or home frustrating: Its rules are obstacles to desire, its structures of authority are suffocating, its authority figures (notably fathers) are tyrants. The solution? Escape to the woods, to a pre-political and pre-social Eden where the difficulties of life can be set aside and where all can be renewed.
Lear shares this structure with A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Cymbeline, The Tempest, and other comedies and romances. King Lear begins with a disordered world, where child stands against father and father against child, an apocalyptic world of blood, fire, and vapor of smoke. Lear and his small band of outcasts go out into the heath, a natural setting that, in a comedy, would be a place of regeneration. Instead of a brightly lit green world, they enter a stormy and nightmarish landscape. Their return to nature does not bring renewal to the social and political world, for the play ends as disastrously as it began. We know from the comedies that Eden lies “outside” the walls of the human city. We learn from Lear that hell is outside as well.
Lear’s Fool, moreover, plays the role that fools normally do in Shakespearean comedy—to highlight the actual folly of the world by the wisdom that shines out from their pretended folly. Lear has a prominent fool because it is about the world as a “great stage of fools.” Jokes that are funny in the drawing room of Illyria (Twelfth Night), however, echo ominously in the empty world of Lear.
Shakespearean comedy (following the conventions of Roman New Comedy and anticipating P. G. Wodehouse) frequently arises from mistaken identities: Two characters, often a master and servant, exchange clothes and names, and the play traces the comic confusion that ensues.
Again, Lear is unique among the tragedies in the prominence of this device. To be sure, Hamlet is all about acting—Hamlet acting out an antic disposition, Claudius acting as if Denmark is safe and he is legitimately king, the players acting out the murder of Hamlet’s father. But Lear’s characters actually adopt alternative identities. Hamlet playing mad Hamlet is still Hamlet. But Kent becomes Caius, and Edgar becomes Poor Tom and pretends to be a Dover fisherman after his father “falls” from the cliffs.
In all these respects, Shakespeare teases us with comic conventions and raises expectations of a comic resolution, only to pull out the props from under us. The play is generically a tragedy, but these comic elements give it the feel of black comedy.
This thoroughgoing desolation is undoubtedly deliberate on Shakespeare’s part. Holinshed’s Chronicle, one of Shakespeare’s main historical sources, recorded that Lear was in the end restored to power, with Cordelia alive and fully restored to his good graces. Of this comic ending, there is virtually nothing in Shakespeare’s play. The horrifying parallel plot of Gloucester and his sons is likewise Shakespeare’s own contribution to the story.
A closer look, however, reveals that an absurdist interpretation cannot account for all the features of the play. Though the play takes place in a pagan world, occasional glimpses of Christian terminology and belief flash out from the darkness. Cordelia is said to redeem from the curse (4.5.202–203), and France speaks of her as being loved despite her forsakenness (1.1.251). Cordelia at one point says that she must be about her “father’s business” (4.3.23–24). Edgar disguises himself as Poor Tom by sticking nails into his flesh (2.2.179). (Some productions enhance the Christological symbolism by dressing Tom in a loincloth and putting a crown of thorns on his head.)
More importantly, though the play is hardly poetically just, the distribution of punishments is not wholly random. Innocents (e.g., Cordelia) are engulfed in the tragedy, as innocents always are, but in the main the characters who die deserve death—Edmund, Gonerill, Regan, Oswald, and Cornwall. Characters who suffer despite their loyalty and love, particularly Kent and Edgar, are vindicated and live to tell the story. Lear himself is in a different category, and his tragic trajectory will have to be treated at more length below. Suffice it here to note that Lear is not an innocent, and his death is not absurd.
Cynical theological assessments from some characters are challenged by other characters, and in one case a single character offers opposing viewpoints. Gloucester, as we have noted, delivers one of the bleakest comments about the ways of the gods, yet following his “miraculous” survival after falling (so he believes) off the cliffs of Dover, he offers thanks to the “gentle gods” (4.5.215). To be sure, this incident highlights Gloucester’s gullibility, but even when that is factored in, his theology has undergone a fundamental shift.
Even if Gloucester were the only character to comment on the character of the gods, then, his statement about the malicious gods could not be taken simplistically as the play’s theme. More generally, nihilistic moments and comments occur in many of Shakespeare’s plays, but none endorses an ultimate cynicism or ontological nothingness. In fact, the only way to sustain the absurdist interpretation of Lear is to suggest that Shakespeare became a nihilist late in life, or that he pretended to be a nihilist for a few months while writing the play. Absurdist interpretations of Shakespeare end in their own absurdities.
The nihilistic moments demand explanation, but they can be fully explained by a Christian reading of Shakespeare—or rather, by reading Shakespeare as a Christian playwright. Far from promoting absurdism or nihilism, Lear, like most of Shakespeare’s plays, presents a profoundly Christian vision of man and creation.
As in Christian orthodoxy, there are three aspects to this vision. First, man is free, not compelled to do evil; Adam was created good and chose to sin. Second, man is inherently flawed, a fool from birth, and therefore consistently uses his freedom to do evil and to pursue folly; Adam’s children are “in Adam.” Third, the world is so ordered that man’s neglect of and attacks on cosmic and social order have unforeseen and uncontrollable consequences; Adam submitted to a beast and brought a curse on the world.
The first two points are established early in Lear in a conversation between the bastard Edmund and his father Gloucester. When Edmund falsely informs Gloucester that his legitimate son, Edgar, is conspiring against him, Gloucester claims that the treachery has been foretold in the stars:
The setting illustrates the horrors listed in the speech, for Gloucester is speaking to Edmund, the real treacherous son.
Edmund, however, will have none of it, for he knows that the problem is not in the stars but in ourselves. After listening to his father’s ruminations on astrology, he soliloquizes on fate and free will:
That Edmund is himself of thoroughly “goatish” disposition, that he is the epitome of “whoremaster man,” does not alter the orthodoxy of his statement, which captures both the Christian notion of freedom and the Christian doctrine of original sin. These two points are essential ground for any interpretation of Lear. The world is a “great stage of fools,” for sure, but it is so because man has chosen folly over wisdom and loved darkness rather than light. Man is not evil by “spherical predominance” or through a “divine thrusting-on.”
In what follows, I want to concentrate on the third point—that offenses against order bring disaster. No passage in Shakespeare expresses this theme so well or so fully as the speech of Ulysses from Troilus and Cresida (1.3). Ulysses is describing the effects of Agamemnon’s foolish leadership of the Greek warriors at Troy, and his analysis is so relevant to King Lear that it must be quoted at more than polite length:
The turmoil Ulysses describes is similar to the disorders of which Gloucester complained. Ulysses’ analysis of the causes is completely different. His speech analyzes social and political chaos in terms of what E. M. W. Tillyard called “the Elizabethan world picture.” Ulysses would have recognized that the state of Lear’s world—wolfish appetite devouring itself—was the result of “untuning” the string of degree. It was a result of an assault on the proper order of life.
Macbeth’s famous “sound and fury” speech provides another perspective on Lear. Learning of his lady’s death, Macbeth responds with utterly Stoic resignation:
This is as bleak a note as anything in Lear, but it is hardly the play’s final word on the world. This is the speech of a man who has drenched himself in blood, who has waded so far into the river of slaughter that plunging on ahead has become far easier than repenting. The closing lines of the play could not offer a starker contrast: Malcolm, the legitimate king returned to Scotland, promises to do all that is necessary to restore his land “by the grace of Grace” (5.6.111). No doubt the world is absurd to Macbeth, but Macbeth has made it so.
These two passages are especially relevant to Lear. Ulysses’ speech could almost be read as a summary of Lear, beginning with the untuning of the string of degree and ending in (nearly) universal carnage. Lear, moreover, is another Macbeth, or, better, he is Duncan and Macbeth rolled into one—both king and regicide. He is Adam, and his “original sin” makes his world a bleak and hopeless place.
Nothing Comes from Nothing
Lear makes the world meaningless first of all for himself. This dynamic is evident from the opening scene of the play, in which Lear divests himself of all responsibility for rule, retaining the title of king but none of the duties. He intends to “divide in three our kingdom” in order to “shake all cares and business from our age,” while he “unburdened crawls toward death” (1.1.37–41).
From the moment that Lear removes his crown and kingship, he starts down a path that leads toward “nothing,” a key word in the opening scene. When Lear demands that Cordelia express her love for him, she has “nothing” to say, and the exchange between Cordelia and Lear hammers the point home:
Like the repetition of “murder” when Hamlet meets his father’s ghost, this repetition establishes a leitmotif that runs through the opening scenes.
Though Lear claims that Cordelia will receive nothing for saying nothing, in fact “nothing will come of nothing” more accurately describes his own future. Cordelia finds a true lover in the king of France, who considers her “most rich, being poor, most choice, forsaken, and most loved, despised” (1.1.250–251). For France, Cordelia’s honesty and beauty are sufficient dowry. She is given all she needs. Something did come from her “nothing.”
But the king who gives nothing, the king who wants only to receive, ends with nothing. Nothing comes from his “nothing.” Lear voluntarily deprives himself of all authority to rule, and his favored daughters Gonerill and Regan progressively deprive him of soldiers, servants, and finally shelter and sanity.
This stripping of Lear comes to a telling climax in an exchange with Regan and Gonerill, who are debating how many servants and soldiers Lear needs in his entourage. Regan insists that he cannot come to her house with more than twenty-five, and Lear appeals to Gonerill for more favorable treatment:
Anguished, Lear cries “O, reason not the need!” If man is allowed no more than he needs, “man’s life is cheap as beast’s” (2.4.259–262). Exactly so. Lear’s needs have been “reasoned” out, and a moment later, Lear is driven from the house and sent into the outer darkness. Eventually he sheds his last ragged pieces of clothing. He is reduced to “nothing” but his essential, bestial self.
Lear is not only deprived of all accommodations of civilized man, but also removed from all fellowship and communion. Again (like Macbeth) this outcome is a direct result of his own actions, his abdication. He fails to discern the true feelings of Regan and Gonerill, just as he misreads the genuine love behind Cordelia’s “nothing.” As a result, he pushes away the only ones who are truly loyal to him, the two members of his court who tell him the truth—Cordelia and Kent—and associates himself instead with “treachers.”
Untune That String
The tragedy, of course, is not Lear’s alone. He discovers that nothing comes from nothing, and learns that beneath all the clothing and trappings “unaccommodated man” is nothing more than “a poor, bare, forked animal” (3.4.103–105). But the fact that the king comes to nothing means that the kingdom, too, descends into the void. These two dimensions to the play are directly connected, and both arise from Lear’s original sin.
When he gives up his throne and crown, Lear expresses the hope that this early peaceful division of the kingdom will prevent future violent division (1.1.43–45). In fact, his divestiture makes conflict inevitable: “Untune that string and see what discord follows.” Without a tamer on the throne, beasts are unleashed and the righteous go into hiding in caves and hovels. The disorder that Gloucester foresaw actually happens, not because of the stars but because of Lear’s folly.
In a sense, this result is exactly the result that Lear had asked for. When Cordelia refuses to flatter him, he rejects her with terrible curses, abdicating as a father even as he has abdicated as a king:
Lear believes that Cordelia is like the barbarian who “makes his generation messes,” feeding on the father who had given her all. In fact, he is throwing himself at the mercy of Scythians, Regan and Gonerill, who gorge their appetites on their father’s wealth, who “digest” portions of his kingdom (1.1.93–94), who prove themselves “pelican daughters” (3.4.76–77). Animal imagery clusters around Gonerill in particular. She is a kite, wolf, boar, and tiger, and her own husband says that in her world “humanity must perforce prey on itself / Like monsters of the deep” (4.3.49–50). Echoes of Ulysses’ speech once again.
Appetite for power is joined to run-of-the-mill and rather tawdry sexual lust. Gonerill and Regan, partners in reducing Lear to nothing, become rivals for the love of Edmund, who plays both of them like a master musician. Edmund’s rise to prominence depends partly on his skill in playing to the sisters’ lusts. In the fallen world after Lear’s withdrawal, it is fitting that Edmund, the bastard child of appetite who is wholly governed by goatish appetites, should worm his way to prominence.
The social and political results of Lear’s abdication come to fullest expression in act 3, whose structure underlines the fact that bestiality and barbarity rule the kingdom. Scenes on the heath focusing on Lear and his company alternate with scenes of the court focusing on Edmund, Cornwall, and Regan. On the surface, it appears that the “community” on the heath is the community of beasts and barbarians; they are, after all, unaccommodated with house or clothing. But the scene’s structure makes it clear that the real barbarism is elsewhere. A world of fools and madmen is more humane than the world of the sane. Though the men on the heath are stripped of all the “lendings” of nature and become utterly unaccommodated, they are merely exposing to view what is true beneath the finery of the court.
On the heath, Kent and others help Lear find shelter, and they even give assistance to Poor Tom (Edgar) when they mistakenly invade his shelter. Meanwhile, the “civilized” world is a house of horrors. Edmund plots against his father (3.3), treacherously accusing him of being a traitor and finally receiving his father’s title as a reward (3.5). In the last scene in the court, Cornwall and Regan savagely torture Gloucester and pluck out his eyes, while Cornwall is fatally wounded in the scuffle (3.7). These are the civilized?
Lear captures the point precisely:
Though this passage might be taken as support for an absurdist interpretation, it is far more compatible with a Christian reading of the play. No one who has read the Bible or Augustine can doubt that hypocrisy and injustice dominate much of the world. That is simply one of the consequences of original sin. And in the context of the play, the unjust rule because a king has vacated his throne and allowed Scythians to fill the vacuum.
Even if critics do not, Lear’s Fool recognizes that the turmoil in the kingdom is a product of Lear’s own folly. He summarizes the orthodox position of the play in much the same way that Edmund did at the beginning. When Lear calls him a “bitter fool,” the Fool offers to distinguish between the bitter and sweet fool:
Lear catches his point: “Dost thou call me fool, boy?” And the Fool admits it: “All thy other titles thou hast given away; that thou wast born with” (1.4.146–148). Beneath Lear’s other titles, beneath his accommodations, Lear is, like all men, a born fool, who once came with a “wawl and cry” to the “great stage of fools” (4.6.180–184).
According to the Fool, however, Lear’s inherent foolishness was not alone responsible for his current state of “nothingness.” Rather, he was brought to this condition by a supreme act of folly:
The Fool adds that giving away the kingdom was like dropping his pants to allow his daughters to spank him (1.4.169–170). If Lear is getting dizzy, it is because he turned the world upside down.
Lear’s Final Tragedy
If the play is as orthodox as I claim, then redemption must be possible in the world of Lear. And it is: Edgar gets his revenge on his brother and survives, and Gloucester, blinded though he is, comes to see things as they are. If redemption is possible, why is Lear not redeemed? Do we, in the end, have to fall back into an absurdist interpretation of the play?
The answer to the last question is a firm no. Lear is not wholly redeemed, to be sure, but that is because he never wholly recognizes or acknowledges the extent of the damage he has caused. Act 4, scene 7, is a wonderfully touching scene of the reunion of Lear and Cordelia that one critic called the greatest comic scene in Shakespeare. It is day, Lear has slept, and he is in new clothes: He is re-accommodated man. As he awakes, he speaks of being brought up from the torments of the grave: “You do me wrong to take me out o’the grave. Thou art a soul in bliss; but I am bound upon a wheel of fire” (4.7.44–46). He has been recalled to life, redeemed from the tortures of hell or purgatory, by Cordelia, his Beatrice.
More, the scene is an unutterably poignant recognition scene, which is simultaneously a reconciliation scene:
The daughter Lear had renounced is now, tenderly, “my child.” When Lear confesses that Cordelia has some cause to hate him, Cordelia, who has identified herself with a theologically pregnant “I am,” puts Lear’s sin behind her, far as the east is from the west.
If Lear’s only sin were against Cordelia, his death would be unjust in the extreme. Indeed, if Lear had done nothing but offend Cordelia, continuing the play for another act would be an artistic blunder of the highest degree. But Lear has done far more than offend Cordelia. He has favored two monstrous daughters who helped promote Edmund, he has stepped aside from his public responsibilities, and he has led England into a dark age. It is impossible for Shakespeare to end the play here, impossible for him to ignore Lear’s other sins.
And so the play lurches on into further, and climactic, tragedy. Lear’s divestiture has unleashed consequences that are not going to be stopped simply because of his reconciliation with Cordelia. Lear hopes to go away into a cage and spend his life in confinement with Cordelia (5.3.8–19), but this is just another way of expressing his original craven plan to crawl unburdened to the grave. Civil war, the plottings and machinations of Edmund, the invasion of France—these threats to the kingdom will not vanish simply because Lear loves his daughter again. Lear’s deed, once done, cannot be undone.
This is not an absurd world, but exactly the opposite. It is a world where actions have consequences that are often far greater than the actors could have foreseen. But it is a world where the consequences flow from actions.
Perhaps more fundamentally, Lear never recognizes the enormity of his crime. His whole attention is concentrated on his wrongs to Cordelia, and there is never a hint that he repents for wrongs done to Kent, to Gloucester, to the entire kingdom. When Lear is hysterical with grief over Cordelia’s death, Kent attempts to comfort him and is met with an abrupt dismissal: “Prithee away” (5.3.265). When Edgar reminds Lear that he is speaking to “noble Kent, your friend,” Lear is recalcitrant: “A plague upon you, murderers, traitors all!” (5.3.266–267). He does recognize Kent later in the scene (5.3.279), but when Kent attempts to describe his tenacious loyalty to the king (he has “from your first of difference and decay . . . followed your sad steps”), Lear barely listens. Lear never takes the least responsibility for the political disasters of which he was the ultimate author; he never realizes that England has become a “gored state” (5.3.318).
What makes Lear’s orthodoxy hard to recognize is not the play itself but our domestication of orthodoxy and its claims about sin. Instead of being a tool for a subtle analysis of human motivation and action, as it was for Augustine, original sin is another dusty locus in the anthropology section of a systematic theology text. Instead of being a cause for anguished dismay in the presence of God, as it was for Jeremiah and Paul, human depravity becomes a mere doctrine offered as a cheap “explanation” for the way things go. Instead of being horrified and inflamed by injustice and hypocrisy, as Jesus was, we trot out our orthodoxy to justify our indifference—“What can you expect? We’re all sinners. What’s on Fox?”
Orthodoxy tells us that the fallen world is far more disturbed and disturbing, far more haunting and haunted than we like to think, and King Lear is completely orthodox when it mangles our complacency and dramatizes that fact.
Letters Welcome: One of the reasons Touchstone exists is to encourage conversation among Christians, so we welcome letters responding to articles or raising matters of interest to our readers. However, because the space is limited, please keep your letters under 400 words. All letters may be edited for space and clarity when necessary. firstname.lastname@example.org
“This Great Stage of Fools” first appeared in the January/February 2003 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
An introductory subscription (six copies for one year) is only $29.95.