Tragedy of Disorder

King_LearThe fall of “good guys” in King Lear.

Amidst the other, whose med’cinable eye

In an earlier essay, I suggested that Shakespeare’s tragedies are tragedies of sin. Informed readers will have an immediate rejoinder: King Lear.

Lear begins the play with everything. He is rapidly reduced to nothing. The word “nothing” echoes and re-echoes through the play. Without his crown and robe and scepter, he is no longer a king. Even the fool has an identity: “I am a fool,” he tells Lear, “thou art nothing” (1.4). Exiled on the heath during a vicious storm, Lear strips off the last tattered remnants of human culture. Without these “lendings,” he is “unaccommodated man,” no more than “a poor bare forked animal” (3.4).

What has he done to deserve this? Nothing more, it seems, than making preparation for the future of his realm. After distributing his kingdom among his daughters, he wants to “shake all cares and business from our age” and “unburthen’d craw toward death” (1.1). He might summer in Vegas or Miami. He’s had a busy, full life. Blissful rest beckons. Who can blame him? Shakespeare can and does, and sadistically run Lear through humiliation after humiliation.

And what has poor Cordelia done? She is reticent to express her lover for Lear; she cannot “heave my heart into my mouth.” We hardly blame her for refusing to play Lear’s manipulative emotional game show where love can buy a kingdom. We know she loves her father more than she can say, far more than her fairy-tale wicked sisters. Shakespeare adds to the pathos by coloring her christologically. She is said to redeem from the curse (4.5); France speaks of her as being loved despite her forsakenness (1.1); and Cordelia says that she must be about her “father’s business” (4.3). Near the end of the play, though, Albany prays for Cordelia’s safety; then, immediately, “Enter Lear with Cordelia in his arms,” howling at the heavens (5.3). And there is no resurrection.

Lear’s howls bounce off the firmament. There is no hope; no saviors are likely to arrive. Gloucester delivers one of the bleakest comments about the ways of the gods in literature: “as flies to wanton boys are we to the gods. They kill us for their sport” (4.1). In another moment of frustrated hope, Gloucester’s son Edgar, disguised for his own protection as “Poor Tom,” a homeless and insane wanderer, no sooner finishes saying “things can’t get worse” when he sees his father tottering across the heath with blood-stained bandages on his vacant eyes (4.1).

Why they fall: two possibilities
If anything governs this hall of horror, it seems to be impersonal, uncaring fate. Gloucester thinks so. 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:

These late eclipses in the sun and moon portend no good to us. Though the wisdom of nature can reason it thus and thus, yet nature finds itself scourged by the sequent effects: love cools, friendship falls off, brothers divide. In cities, mutinies; in countries, discord; in palaces, treason; and the bond cracked ‘twixt son and father. This villain of mine comes under the prediction: there’s son against father; the king falls from bias of nature: there’s father against child. Machinations, hollowness, treachery, and all ruinous discords follow us disquietly to our graves (1.2).

The irony of the scene, of course, is that Edmund, not Edgar, is the machinating traitor against brother and father.

Edmund will have none of it. 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:

This is the excellent foppery of the world, that when we are sick in fortune – often the surfeits of our own behaviour – we make guilty of our disasters the sun, the moon, the 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 influence; and all that we are evil in by a divine thrusting-on. An admirable evasion of whoremaster man, to lay his goatish disposition to the charge of a star (1.2.118-128).

The play offers some options: A world ruled by indifferent fates, by cruel gods, or by the will of the willfully goatish. Not much of a choice.

Why they actually fall: a deeper cause
Yet the play is more poetically just than is often supposed. Innocents are engulfed in the tragedy, as innocents always are, but the characters who deserve death die – Edmund, Goneril, Regan, Oswald, and Cornwall. Characters who suffer despite their loyalty and love, particularly Kent and Edgar, are vindicated and live to tell the story.

And the tempest unleashed against Lear is not random. Shakespeare’s plays display, as I have suggested in an earlier essay, the Elizabethan obsession with hierarchy and chaos. Offenses against order bring disaster, and Lear has offended against order. He “clove” his crown in the middle and gave away both halves, proving that he has “little wit in thy bald crown” (1.4, words of the fool). Though a father, he made himself a child to his daughters, and the fool tells him that if he has dropped his pants he shouldn’t be surprised if Goneril and Regan spank him (1.4). If Lear gets dizzy, it’s because he’s turned the world upside down.

No passage in Shakespeare expresses this theme so fully as the speech of Ulysses from Troilus and Cressida 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 specialty of rule hath been neglected;
And look how many Grecian tents do stand
Hollow upon this plain, so many hollow factions.
When that the general is not like the hive
To whom the foragers shall all repair,
What honey is expected?  Degree being vizarded,
Th’unworthiest shows as fairly in the mask.
The heavens themselves, the planets, and this center
Observe degree, priority, and place,
Insisture, course, proportion, season, form,
Office, and custom, in all line of order.
And therefore is the glorious planet Sol
In noble eminence enthroned and sphered
Corrects the ill aspects of planets evil
And posts, like the commandment of a king,
Sans check, to good and bad.  But when the planets
In evil mixture to disorder wander,
What plagues and what portents, what mutiny,
What raging of the sea, shaking of the earth,
Commotion in the winds, frights, changes, horrors,
Divert and crack, rend and deracinate
The unity and married calm of states
Quite from their fixture!  O, when degree is shaked,
Which is the ladder of all high designs,
The enterprise is sick. . . .
Take but degree away, untune that string,
And hark what discord follows.  Each thing meets
In mere oppugnancy.  The bounded waters
Should life their bosoms higher than the shores
And make a sop of all this solid globe;
Strength should be lord of imbecility,
And the rude son should strike his father dead;
Force should be right; or rather, right and wrong,
Between whose endless jar justice resides,
Should lose their names, and so should justice too.
Then everything includes itself in power;
Power into will, will into appetite;
And appetite, an universal wolf,
So doubly seconded with will and power,
Must make perforce an universal prey
And last eat up himself.

Gloucester’s lament to Edmund sounds a lot like this speech of Ulysses, but Ulysses’ analysis of the causes is completely different. The wily Greek would have recognized that the state of Lear’s world – wolfish appetite devouring itself – as the expected result of “untuning” the string of degree. It was a result of an assault on the proper order of the world.

Shakespeare’s biblical worldview
Ulysses’s 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 is another Macbeth, or, better, he is Duncan and Macbeth rolled into one – both king and king’s murderer. He is Adam, and his “original sin” of abdication makes his world a bleak and hopeless place.

What makes the morality in King Lear hard to recognize is not the play itself but our domestication of evil. Instead of being a tool for a subtle analysis of human motivation and action, as it was for Augustine, original sin has become 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 Job, Jeremiah and Paul, human depravity is a doctrine offered as a cheap “explanation” for the nasty way things go. Instead of being 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 Netflix?”

Few works of art are better designed to shatter our complacency than King Lear.

Next steps

Take one of the obvious acts of sin in recent history, say, the kidnapping of nearly 300 girls in Nigeria, or the deaths of nearly 300 high school students on a Korean ferry, or the untimely deaths of veterans due to negligence in the Veteran’s Administration. See if you can’t find root causes for these in original sin, as you discuss with a friend. Next, take something in your own life you recognize as sin—and do the same analysis on yourself. What’s the remedy?


Now that you know something about how to read King Lear, try it (again, if you had to read it for school, and couldn’t make sense of it). It’s available through the Colson Center online bookstore in the Folger Shakespeare Library edition. Or if the Elizabethan English is more than you want to wrestle with, this one might be easier: King Lear Worktext Grade 5 Reading Level. It’s still great literature.


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