Sovereignty and subversion in King Lear

Professor Kiernan Ryan argues that the subversive spirit of King Lear remains as powerful as ever, four centuries after it was first performed.

A play fit for a king

It’s impossible to overstate the audacity of the vision at the heart of King Lear, which Shakespeare’s company, The King’s Men, staged for the entertainment of their patron, James I, at Christmas in 1606.

An omnipotent monarch, who believes that his royal blood renders him innately superior to his subjects, is robbed of his royalty and the roof over his head, and forced to experience the bitter cold, the deprivation and the blank despair that the homeless, hungry outcasts of his kingdom must endure. A ruler who, like James I, author of The True Law of Free Monarchies, regards himself as divinely endowed with absolute power, is disobeyed by his own daughters and driven insane by impotent rage and inescapable guilt. His derangement estranges him from everything he once took for granted, compelling him to call into question his own sovereignty and the whole social order it served to sustain. Lear’s remorseful recognition of the blame he must bear as a king and a father is not enough, however, to redeem him. His relentless suffering is rewarded at the end not with deliverance, but with yet more anguish and an excruciating death, as he gazes in disbelief upon the lifeless lips of his beloved Cordelia.

The True Law of Free Monarchies by King James VI and I

The True Law of Free Monarchies by King James VI and I

This book contains The True Law of Free Monarchies, in which James sets out the doctrine of the divine right of kings.

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Boydell's Collection of Prints illustrating Shakespeare's works

Boydell's Collection of Prints illustrating Shakespeare's works

King Lear, Act 5, Scene 3 by James Barry

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Photograph of Ian McKellen and Romola Garai in King Lear, 2007

Photograph of Ian McKellen and Romola Garai in King Lear, 2007

Romola Garai as Cordelia and Ian McKellen as King Lear,in the RSC’s 2007 production of King Lear.

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The impact of Lear’s appalling fate is amplified in a parallel plot by the fate of the Earl of Gloucester, which follows the same pattern of agony, insight and oblivion. The price Gloucester pays for helping Lear, and for the gullibility that places him at the mercy of his bastard, Edmund, and that outlaws his loyal son, Edgar, is to have his eyes gouged out on stage with undisguised gusto by Cornwall and Regan. Yet, just as the madness that afflicts Lear paradoxically empowers him to understand the way things really are, so Gloucester’s blindness allows him to ‘see how this world goes with no eyes’ and ‘see it feelingly’ (4.6.149-51), with profound compassion for the victims of poverty and oppression.

Nor is the trauma of enforced enlightenment confined to Lear and Gloucester. Stripped of his identity like Lear, Edgar adopts ‘the basest and most poorest shape / That ever penury, in contempt of man, / Brought near to beast’ (2.3.7-9). As the gibbering, demented beggar Tom o’ Bedlam, he becomes the living embodiment of the lesson Lear and Gloucester must learn, and his own capacity for empathy with the misery of others expands as a consequence. When he abandons the persona of Poor Tom after the spellbinding Dover Cliff scene, in which he contrives to cure Gloucester’s suicidal despair, he presents himself to his sightless father as ‘A most poor man, made tame to fortune’s blows, / Who, by the art of known and feeling sorrows, / Am pregnant to good pity’ (4.6.221-3).

The king and the beggar

That the vital part played in the tragedy by Edgar’s transmutation into Poor Tom was already apparent to its first audiences is borne out by the title page of the 1608 quarto of King Lear, which gives second billing after Lear and his daughters to ‘the unfortunate life of Edgar, son and heir to the Earl of Gloucester, and his sullen and assumed humour of Tom of Bedlam’ rather than to the earl himself. And it’s not hard to see why. If any scene in the play can claim to encapsulate its vision, it’s Lear’s storm-lashed encounter with Edgar in the guise of a self-lacerating lunatic plagued by imaginary demons.

Quarto 1 of King Lear, 1608

Quarto 1 of King Lear

The title page of the 1608 quarto of King Lear shows the significance of Edgar’s role to the play’s first audiences.

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No sooner has the mortified Lear knelt to pray for the ‘Poor naked wretches’ he has neglected, whose ‘houseless heads and unfed sides’ must ‘bide the pelting of this pitiless storm’ (3.4.28-30), than a real poor naked wretch materializes before him. ‘Thou wert better in a grave’, says the houseless king to the houseless beggar, ‘than to answer with thy uncover’d body this extremity of the skies’:

Is man no more than this? Consider him well. Thou ow’st the worm
no silk, the beast no hide, the sheep no wool, the cat no perfume. Ha?
here’s three on ’s are sophisticated. Thou art the thing itself:
unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor, bare, fork’d
animal as thou art. Off, off, you lendings! Come, unbutton here.

It’s an astounding moment, rendered all the more astounding by the thought of its being witnessed by King James. Before the audience’s eyes his majesty’s legendary predecessor on the throne of Albion is exposed to ‘The tyranny of the open night’, which is ‘too rough / For nature to endure’ (3.4.2-3), and finds out for the first time what it feels like to be destitute. But Shakespeare refuses to leave it at that. He invents an encounter that compels the king to realize that beneath his royal robes and a mad beggar’s rags shivers the same ‘poor, bare, forked animal’, the same ‘Unaccommodated man’, and to enact that realization on stage by tearing off his robes, the tawdry trappings of majesty that Lear now derides as mere ‘lendings’, because he knows he has no natural or divine right to possess them.

The fact that Edgar is really a nobleman impersonating a mad beggar detracts not a whit from the scene’s significance. On the contrary, it reinforces it. By having Edgar adopt Tom o’ Bedlam as his alter ego, Shakespeare reveals the ‘poor, bare, forked animal’ normally concealed by the costly garments that distinguished the aristocracy at a glance from their ill-clad inferiors. The shattering truth Lear discovers and voices as he addresses Poor Tom is already visibly incarnate, before Lear opens his mouth, in the helpless human creature facing him, whose body is both a lord’s and a beggar’s, as well as the body of the actor who unites them by playing them both.

A Declaration of Egregious Popish Impostures by Samuel Harsnett, 1603

A Declaration of Egregious Popish Impostures by Samuel Harsnett, 1603

Shakespeare borrowed many words and phrases for King Lear from this work, including the names of the devils tormenting Poor Tom.

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No account of King Lear that fails to face the conflict it dramatises between the inhuman drive to divide and dominate epitomized by a king, and the human need for equality, kindness and community embodied by a naked beggar, can begin to do justice to the tragedy Shelley called ‘the most perfect specimen of the dramatic art existing in the world’. Through the harrowing transformations of Lear, Gloucester and Edgar the play demolishes the pillars of disparity that support all forms of class society, then and now, and the unequal distribution of wealth and power on which class society depends. It climaxes in Lear’s snarl of contempt for all who claim the right to impose their will on others: ‘a dog’s obey’d in office’ (4.6.154-5). And in place of institutionalised greed, exploitation and oppression the tragedy advocates a compassionate, egalitarian ethic, rooted in the fundamental kinship of all human creatures: ‘So distribution should undo excess, / And each man have enough’ (4.1.70-71).

‘The great image of authority’

What King James and his court made of his company’s play when they watched it ‘upon St Stephen’s night in Christmas holidays’, as the 1608 quarto informs us, is not recorded. Given that the Feast of St Stephen (now better known as Boxing Day) was traditionally associated with giving alms to the poor, they should at least have felt duly chastened, even if James remained impervious to the tragedy’s bearing on his own regime. But whatever their response was that night, for Shakespeare to stage a play for his monarch, in which a king spurns the absurd fancy dress of dominion, cries ‘Take physic, pomp, / Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel’ (3.4.33-4), and mocks ‘the great image of authority’ (4.6.158) as nothing but a dog barking at a beggar, undoubtedly took some nerve – especially when the mockery is endorsed by Edgar in an aside as ‘Reason in madness!’ (4.6.175). And to ditch the happy ending of his primary source, The True Chronicle History of King Leir, in order to deny the king restoration and consign him to a heartbroken death, was surely pushing his luck to the limit.

The True Chronicle History of King Leir, 1605

The True Chronicle History of King Leir, 1605

A source for King Lear, first performed in 1594 and published in 1605.

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James may well have been oblivious to the seditious thrust of King Lear, but it’s worth recalling that a few decades later, in 1649, ‘the great image of authority’ in the form of his son, Charles I, was sentenced to death by Parliament and his kingdom replaced by a Commonwealth. It’s perhaps not entirely fanciful to suppose that King Lear had a hand in creating the climate that made that revolution possible.

Paintings of London in the friendship album of Michael van Meer, c. 1614-1615

Paintings of London in the friendship album of Michael van Meer, 1614-15

King James in the House of Lords, with Prince Charles at his side.

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Nothing renders that supposition more credible than Nahum Tate’s notorious rewriting of King Lear to suit the post-revolutionary Restoration world of Charles II. Tate cut the role of the Fool, with his insubordinate satire and riddling prophecies; he changed Edgar and Cordelia into virtuous lovers, to whom Lear bequeaths his restored kingdom; and he spared the lives of Lear, Gloucester and Kent, who retire to a ‘cool Cell’ to ruminate in tranquillity on ‘Fortunes past’. To make the tragedy palatable, in other words, Tate turned it back into the sentimental tragicomedy Shakespeare had deliberately demolished. ‘Tate has put his hook in the nostrils of this Leviathan,’ wrote Charles Lamb in 1811, ‘to draw the mighty beast about more easily.’ That Tate’s travesty usurped Shakespeare’s mighty Leviathan on the English stage from 1681 until 1838 is a testament to the subversive ferocity of the play Shakespeare wrote.

David Garrick’s annotated copy of The History of King Lear, an adaptation by Nahum Tate

Garrick’s prompt book of King Lear

Nahum Tate’s rewriting of King Lear turned the play into a sentimental tragicomedy.

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The power of King Lear to disturb and provoke its audience has not diminished with the passage of time. Absolute monarchs may be a dying breed in the twenty-first century, but autocratic rulers and despotic regimes are far from extinct, social divisions and economic injustices thrive, and hunger and poverty persist on a scale beyond even Shakespeare’s imagination. To such a world, the tragedy that reveals the same ‘poor, bare, forked animal’ beneath a king’s royal gown and a beggar’s rags, the tragedy that declares ‘distribution should undo excess / And each man have enough’, has more to say than ever.

Banner illustration by Merrilees Brown

  • Kiernan Ryan
  • Kiernan Ryan is Emeritus Professor of English Literature at Royal Holloway, University of London, an Emeritus Fellow of Murray Edwards College, University of Cambridge, and an Honorary Senior Research Fellow of the Shakespeare Institute, Stratford-upon-Avon. He is the author of Shakespeare (3rd edition, 2002), Shakespeare’s Comedies (2009), Shakespeare’s Universality: Here’s Fine Revolution (2015) and the Introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of King Lear (2015). His next book, Shakespearean Tragedy, will be published by Bloomsbury in 2020.

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.