The Tragedy of King Lear

THE tragedy of King Lear, on some of its elements perhaps the very greatest of all the Shakespearian tragedies, is relatively seldom played. It is even possible to have a dark suspicion that it is not universally read; with the usual deplorable result; that it is universally quoted. Perhaps nothing has done so much to weaken the greatest of English achievements, and to leave it open to facile revolt or fatigued reaction, than the abominable habit of quoting Shakespeare without reading Shakespeare. It has encouraged all the pompous theatricality which first created an idolatry and then an iconoclasm; all that florid tradition in which old playgoers and after dinner-speakers talked about the Bard or the Swan of Avon, until it was comparatively easy, at the end of the Victorian era, for somebody like Bernard Shaw to propose an Edwardian massacre of Bards and almost to insinuate that the swan was a goose. Most of the trouble came from what are called 'Familiar Quotations', which were hardly even representative or self-explanatory quotations. In almost all the well known passages from Shakespeare, to quote the passage is to miss the point. It is almost needless to note what may be called the vulgar examples; as in the case of those who say that Shakespeare asks, "What is in a name?"; which is rather like saying that Shakespeare says murder must be done, and it were best if it were done quickly. The popular inference always is that Shakespeare thought that names do not matter; there being possibly no man on God's earth who was less likely to think so, than the man who made such magnificent mouthfuls out of mandragora and hurricanes, of the names of Hesperides or Hercules. The remark has no point, except in the purely personal circumstances in which it has poignancy, in the mouth of a girl commanded to hate a man she loves, because of a name that seems to her to have nothing to do with him. The play now under consideration is no exception to this disastrous rule. The old woman who complained that the tragedy of Hamlet was so full of quotations would have found almost as many in the tragedy of King Lear. And they would have had the same character as those from Hamlet or Romeo and Juliet: that those who leave out the context really leave out the conception. They have a mysterious power of making the world weary of a few fixed and disconnected words, and yet leaving the world entirely ignorant of the real meaning of those words.

Thus, in the play of King Lear, there are certain words which everybody has heard hundreds of times, in connections either intentionally or unintentionally absurd. We have all read or heard of somebody saying, "How sharper than a serpent's tooth it is to have a thankless child." Somehow the very words sound as if they were mouthed by some tipsy actor or silly and senile person in a comic novel. I do not know why these particular words, as words, should be selected for citation. Shakespeare was a casual writer; he was often especially careless about metaphors, careless about making them and careless about mixing them. There is nothing particularly notable about this particular metaphor of the tooth; it might just as well have been a wolf's tooth or a tiger's tooth. The lines quoted only become remarkable when we read them with the rest of the scene, and with a very much more remarkable passage, which is never quoted at all. The whole point of Lear's remark is that, when buffeted by the first insult of Goneril, he breaks forth into a blasting bodily curse upon the woman, praying first that she may have no children, then that she may have horrible and unnatural children, that she may give birth to a monstrosity, that she may feel how, etc. Without that terrible implication, the serpent is entirely harmless and his teeth are drawn. I cannot imagine why only the weakest lines in the speech are everlastingly repeated, and the strongest lines in it are never mentioned at all.

A man might well harden into the horrid suspicion that most people have hardly read the play at all, when he remembers how many things there are in it that are not repeated, and yet would certainly be remembered. There are things in it that no man who has read them can ever forget. Amid all the thunders of the storm, it comes like a new clap of thunder, when the thought first crosses the mad king's mind that he must not complain of wind and storm and lightning, because they are not his daughters. "I never gave you kingdoms, called you children." And I imagine that the great imaginative invention of the English, the thing called Nonsense, never rose to such a height and sublimity of unreason and horror, as when the Fool juggles with time and space and tomorrow and yesterday, as he says soberly at the end of his rant: "This prophecy Merlin shall make; for I live before his time." This is one of the Shakespearian shocks or blows that take the breath away. But in the same scene of the storm and the desolate wandering, there is another example of the sort of thing I mean in the matter of quotation. It is not so strong an example, because the words are very beautiful in themselves; and have often been applied beautifully to pathetic human circumstances not unworthy of them. Nevertheless, they are something not only superior, but quite startlingly different, in the circumstances in which they really stand. We have all of us heard a hundred times that some unlucky law-breaker, or more or less pardonable profligate, was "more sinned against than sinning". But the words thus used have not a hundredth part of the point and power of the words as used by Lear. The point of the passage is that he himself challenges the cosmic powers to a complete examination; that he finds in his despair a sort of dizzy detachment of the intellect, and strikes the balance to his own case with a kind of insane impartiality. Regarding the storm that rages round him as a universal rending and uprooting of everything, something that will pluck out the roots of all things, even the darkest and foulest roots of the heart of man deceitful above all things and desperately wicked, he affirms in the face of the most appalling self-knowledge, clear and blasting as the lightning, that his sufferings must still be greater than his sins. It is possibly the most tremendous thing a man ever said; whether or no any man had the right to say it. It would be hard to beat it even in the Book of Job. And it does weaken the particular strength of it that it should be used, however sympathetically, as a cheerful and charitable guess about the weaknesses of other people.

There are certain abstractions very strong in Shakespeare's mind, without which his plays are much misunderstood by modern people, who look to them for nothing whatever except realistic details about individuals. For instance, there runs through the whole play of King Lear, as there runs through the whole play of Richard the Second, an abstraction which was an actuality of awful vividness to the man of Shakespeare's time; the idea of the King. Under the name of Divine Right, a very unlucky name, it was mixed up with Parliamentary and sectarian quarrels which afterwards altogether dwarfed and diminished its dignity. But Divine Right was originally much more human than that. It resolved itself roughly into this; that there are three forms in which men can accept the idea of justice or the authority of the commonwealth; in the form of an assembly, in the form of a document, or in the form of a man. King Lear is a man; but he is or has been a sacramental or sacred man; and that is why he can be a desecrated man. Even those who prefer to be governed by the scroll of the law, or by the assembly of the tribe, must understand that men have wished, and may again wish, to be governed by a man; and that where this wish has existed the man does become, not indeed divine, but certainly different. It is not an accident that Lear is a king as well as a father, and that Goneril and Regan are not only daughters but traitors. Treason, or what is felt as treason, does break the heart of the world; and it has seldom been so nearly broken as here.

~G.K. Chesterton: The Spice of Life and Other Essays