Saturday, May 26, 2007

On King Lear

The Breath of Clowns and Kings: Empowerment and Illusion in William Shakespeare's King Lear

The relationship between Lear and the Fool in William Shakespeare's King Lear (1600) is a relationship that has been the subject of much critical debate throughout literary history. While some critics believe that that the Fool plays a significant role in bringing about Lear's tragic end, others are more sympathetic to this character and see him as Lear's most sincere companion. I shall examine the scenes where Lear interacts with the Fool in the hope that a close reading of these passages will allow us to determine the extent to which Lear's relationship with the Fool is a factor in the tragedy that befalls him. I will call on the work of Stephen Orgel and later that of Jacque Lacan, for the work of these two critics show how power is obtained, not though force, but through an illusion. The theories of these two critics will help us decide whether this relationship between a king and his clown can be understood either as a representation of the complex social arrangements of the Elizabethan age or if it can be best appreciated from a psychoanalytic perspective.

Stephen Orgel's work is concerned with the history of theatre as it related to the formation of political power in England during the Renaissance. He draws a distinction between two main kinds of theater, the court theater and the public theater. The difference between these two theaters is to be found in the status assigned to the people who attended these performances. In the public theater, Orgel says, the actors were considered to be of low social position, only a step above beggars. This was vastly different in the theater of the royal court, where the actors were distinguished as gentlemen. It is when Orgel analyzes the private theaters at court that his main thesis begins to take shape. In these theaters there is a distinct line separating the actors and the audience, while there is no barrier between the actors and the king. The lack of a partition between the king and the players was intentional, for the interaction between the play and the monarch was seen as an important part of the narrative action, like the dramatic action of the play itself.

Orgels argues that the architectural values that went into constructing Renaissance court theaters such as the Teatro Olimpico in Vincenza, which was built for the wedding of Ferdinando de'Medici, promoted the power of the king by representing his privileged station in ways that suggested intellect and control, thereby consolidating his power. In this way pastoral plays, like many of Shakespare's comedies, are received by the spectator as affirmations of royal power. These illusionistic theaters establish a relationship of power between the play and the monarch, fulfilling an important function in the maintenance of the social world by legislating an ideological consciousness that allowed the power of the ruler to extend itself over the political body. As a gauge that marked the stability of English society, the relation between a king and his actors played a direct role in the production of a power-relation whereby all of the individuals in society came to fall behind the king in a great chain of being. In the Elizabethan age, dramas were used to maintain the hegemonic order, strengthening a particular ideological viewpoint and keeping proponents of other viewpoints under control. If the illusion of power can be created, Orgel contents, then the ideology that supports the king will retain its status, thus ensuring the continual dominance of the ruling powers.

From this last statement, we can see that the title of Orgel's book, The Illusion of Power, is a particularly apt one: with this thesis he is implicitly making the somewhat paradoxical statement that the courtly world, in being organized and reinforced by the world of drama, in drawing its power from a representational medium, it is essentially the product of an illusion. After the establishment of court theaters came the development of dramatic performances, many of which were written for and about the court. For Orgel, the dramatic performance of the actors in the courtly theater represent the artistic triumph of the aristocratic world and its central motifs, such as the belief in the justness of a hierarchized form of social authority and the great faith invested in the power of idealization. The importance of dramas, including those of Shakespeare grows out of a belief widespread in the Elizabethan age, that art has the power to transform society. For this reason, plays were acknowledged as meaningful expressions of royal power.

Knowing that Stephen Orgel depicts how the Elizabethan drama was used to promote empowerment through illusion, it may seem that King Lear is an inappropriate play to use when making this comparison. After all, Orgel stipulates that his theory is most effective in terms of pastoral plays like A Midsummer Night's Dream (1595). However, Orgel's work is still important to our project, for Lear is an instance where this technique of empowerment through illusion fails to occur properly. In opposition to Orgel's thesis, Lear disintegrates into madness as he experiences a radical destabilization of those values that are supposed to ensure his stability. As stated above, we will explore the reasons why Lear succumbs to this destabilization when we examine the work of Jacques Lacan. But first we will discuss the role of the fool, both in English society and in English drama.

Before we commence with our reading of the play, we will look at the character of the fool in dramatic history. According to Marvin Rosenberg, the character of the fool was a common feature in the dramatic productions of Shakespeare's day. Rosenberg says that Elizabethan audiences were familiar with two main kinds of fools: common fools who were of low social position, similar to the vagrants and vagabonds that passed through the city of London and court fools, who earned their living through their ability to formulate intelligent and witty remarks. In the English theater, the fool was a stock character who could be used to represent any of these basic archetypes: a person who is a combination of wise man, madman and child; a false king who is empowered by an unconscious voice or by the will of the underclass; the Renaissance version of the chorus in a Greek tragedy. While the fool was traditionally portrayed as someone who loved pleasure and feared conflict, the fool Shakespeare presents in King Lear contains a wider range of attributes. Rosenberg says that Lear's fool is a fusion of oppositional qualities as he is both "bitter and sweet...practical and idealistic, sensible and foolish...privileged and underprivileged, jesting and melancholy." Northrop Frye's conception of the fool is, like Rosenberg's, dualistic in form. Frye sees two basic types of fools in English drama, the natural fool and the fool of fortune. The natural fool is someone who uses his position to blurt out at the most inappropriate times. The fool of fortune is someone who becomes a victim as the result of some catastrophic event; the dupe of chance, this fool is ruined by the actions of the fates. Frye points out that Lear speaks of himself as the natural fool of fortune, while the Fool affirms this painful truth when he speaks of Lear as having descended from the privileged stage to a lower, more vulgar status.

The premises of dramatic action that eventually lead to a final scene of tragic proportion begins when the aged King Lear who, acting more like a dictator than a benevolent king, demands that each of his three daughters proclaim their devotion to him. By testing the love of his children, Lear tries to obtain incontrovertible proof that his daughters' devotion is to him alone. Two of his daughters, Goneril and Regan, are quick to declare their love but Cordelia, recognizing the problems inherent in a public declaration of her inner feelings, refuses to comply with her father's request. The test Lear makes of his daughter's love develops from his tragic flaw, his hubris, for in forcing his daughters to declare their love, he is seeking to possess something that cannot be possessed. In this way, Lear's tragedy stems from the logocentric principle that full meaning cannot be possessed by a single individual. The love test is Lear's expression of an impossible wish, the desire for the transcendent. In forcing his daughters to express their love in this way, Lear regresses to the level of a child and this regression is on of the main reasons why the Fool takes on such an important role in the play.

When the Fool enters the play, the reader learns that Lear is dependent on him, as is made evident in his speech to the knight: "I have perceived a most faint neglect of late, which I have / rather blamed of mine own jealous curiosity than as a / very pretence and purpose of unkindness... But where's my fool ? I have not seen him this two days" [I.iv.65-69]. After these lines the Fool enters wearing the traditional dress of fools at court. As entertainers appointed to the royal court, fools dressed in costumes appropriate to their station. Coxcombs were worn by court fools as "powerful symbols of the sexual energy [that was] traditionally permitted outlet in the erotic image of the jester." By wearing this coxcomb, Lear's fool symbolically aligns his image with the animal world and, by analogy, links himself to madness, for the Elizabethans viewed madmen as a group who occupied a middle position between the human and animal kingdoms. As we shall see, this is a distraction that taints Lear as well. The Fool offers his coxcomb to Kent and, when asked for the reason why he does this, he gives the following response:

Why ? For taking one's part that out of favor. Nay, as thou canst not smile as

the wind sits, thou'lt catch cold shortly. There, take my coxcomb. Why, this

fellow has banished two on's daughters, and did the third a blessing

against his will. If thou follows him, thou must needs wear my coxcomb.

--How much, nuncle ? Would I had two coxcombs and two daughters


Kent is a fool for serving Lear, a person who is out of favor, and deserves to wear the coxcomb. The Fool then makes a general prediction that if a person cannot adapt himself to the conditions of life, if one cannot smile as the wind sits, then this person is not only a fool, but is a potentially tragic figure as well. Yet as the Fool continues speaking, his response clearly indicates that the coxcomb is meant not for Kent but for Lear himself. After all, Lear is the one who has banished his daughter. However, a careful reading shows that the Fool says that Lear has banished two daughters. One may presume he meant Goneril and Regan, the two who swiftly agreed to make an oath of fealty to their father; he exempts Cordelis from this classification. In a gloss on this line, Alfred Harbage says that the Fool's use of the word 'banished' indicates the inauthentic love of Goneril and Regan, rather than the physical distance separating Cordelis from her father [WS 1071]. In complying with the love test, it is Goneril and Regan who become artificial. The Fool also notes that Cordelia, in being exiled from the kingdom, receives a blessing from her father, as all those who willing serve Lear are fated to wear the coxcomb in the end. When the Fool instructs Lear on the difference between a bitter fool and a sweet fool, Lear takes offence, saying, "Dost thou call me fool, boy ?" [I.iv.141]. The Fool responds, saying, "All other titled thou hast given away; that thou wast born with [I.iv.142-143]. Here the Fool contends that Lear has lost his privileged titles and can only claim the right to call himself a natural fool, the title he acquired at birth. As the Fool calls the ethics of Lear's earlier actions into question, the reader quickly sees that it is the Fool's position in this play is unique; he alone is able to tell Lear that he is making an error.

While the sweet fool of the last scene spoke in poetry, the bitter fool in the next scene does not display the same characteristics; this Fool converses with Lear in prose throughout the scene. There is a profound absence of jesting in this scene, as the dialogue reflects a significant change in the Fool's attitude. As the pressures surrounding him accelerate, Lear becomes absorbed in the past, hampering his ability to communicate with others. Aside from a one-line announcement made by Kent, Lear and his Fool are together in their solitude for the duration of the scene. Some of the Fool's line, such as "If a man's brains were in his heels, were't not in / danger of kibes ?" [I.v.7-8], are meant to distract Lear, bringing him relief from his despair by comparing a man's wits to an inflammation of his feet. Other lines such as "Shelt see thy other daughter will use thee kindly, / for though she's as like this as a crab's like an apply, yet / I can tell what I can tell" [I.b.12-15] are meant to compound his distress. Here the Fool predicts to Lear that his other loyal daughter, Regan, will use him just like Goneril, who departed in a fury at the conclusion of the preceding scene. Through the things he says, the Fool disciplines Lear by forcing him to face the harsh realities of his situation. If King Lear were a modern novel instead of a Renaissance drama, this scene of Lear and the Fool talking together would most likely be reduced to a single character, with the drama being presented through an internal monologue. As it stands, the intimate relationship between Lear and the Fool makes it seem as if the purpose of the Fool is to serve as a vehicle for Lear's unconscious mind. Indeed, in this scene Shakespeare uses the Fool to increase our understanding of the reasons why Lear eventually becomes mad. Like a representation of a guilty conscious, the Fool stands by Lear's side an calmly says things that cause an enormous grief to sink in. The Fool continues taunting Lear, saying, "Thou shouldst not have been old till thou hadst / been wise" [I.v.38-39]. Unable to bear hearing these comments any longer, the storm of madness that is gathering in Lear's mind forces him to cry out: "O, let me not be mad, not mad, sweet heaven ! / Keep me in temper; I would not be mad !" [I.v.40-41]. Lear's mind, which has been subjected to the gradual encroachment of madness, now becomes completely dominated by it.

Lear continues to be confronted with the errors of the ways, as Kent adds to his humiliation by characterizing Lear's house as a place of "shame" [II.iv.44]. The immediate effect of Kent's words is reflected not in Lear's speech, but in the Fool's, who begins to sing a song of sorrow: "Winter's not gone yet, if the wild gees fly that way. / ... Fortune, the arrant whore, / Ne'er turns the key to the poor" [II.iv.45, 50-51]. This song of mourning contains lines filled with images of desolation and solitude, playing on Lear's suspicion that he has been abandoned by his daughters and his fear of living a life of poverty and suffering. :ear responds with yet another cry to ward off the madness that awaits him, "O, how this mother swells up towards my heart / Hysterica passio, down, thy climbing sorrow !" [II.iv.54-55]. As in the last scene, this passage is yet another instance where Lear reacts to the words of the Fool in a way that further increases the dramatic intensity of the play. The next scene in which these two characters trade lines of dialogue begins with Lear challenging the powers of the natural world:

Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks. Rage, blow.
You cataracts and hurricanes, spout
Till you have drenched our steeples, drowned the cocks.
You sulph'rous and thought-executing fires,
Vaunt couriers of oak-cleaving thunderbolts,
Singe my white head. And thou, all-shaking thunder,
Strike flat the thick rotundity o' th' world,
Crack nature's moulds, all germains spill at once,
That makes ingrateful man [III.ii.1-9]

In this speech Lear imagines the terrible and destructive forces that nature has at its disposal. He personifies these forces as an army whose speed and power make it virtually unbeatable. Powerful enough to unleash vast torrents of water and swift enough to shatter an oak before a single thought can be completed, nature's forces are able to dominate the humna world without question. Even more impressive, nature has the power to demolish the 'moulds' in which men like Lear are formed. causing the seeds of the self to fall unharvested as scattered potential that will never come to fruition. That Lear sees himself as the fool of chance, vainly attempting to recollect the qualities that had once made him a great man, is implicit in this passage that reflects a man's complaints against destiny and time.

While Lear's speech characterizes him as man who is possessed by the self-destructive and all-consuming forces of an unstable mind, the Fool's speech emanates from a mind that is clearly more rational than Lear's own: "O nuncle, court holy waters in a dry house is better / than this rain-water out o' doors. / ... Here's a night pities neither / wise men nor fools" [III.ii.10-13]. These two speeches make it clear that the roles have been reversed, for now Lear speaks like a fool and the Fool speaks like the man of wisdom Lear could have been. The majesty of Lear's speech to a universethat threatens to disperse his powers and wipe out his rule as monarch is followed by the Fool's discomfiting words, breaking with Lear's apocalyptic wish to see the world consumed by the power of the self. Lear and the Fool are joined in the Fool's observation, "Here's a night pitied neither wise men nor Fools" [III.ii.12-13], absorbing both men into one continuous identity. Lear ignores the Fool's warnings due to his absorbtion into his own consciousness, while the Fool's rejoiner highlights the irony of Lear's position as a king who plays the fool.

In another passage the Fool personifies Lear through a cod-piece, a sexual image that was associated with fools and, at the same time, linking both men as a single figure whose personality is both wise men and fool: "'s grace and a cod-piece; that's a wise / man and a Fool" [III.ii.40-41]. Perhaps because Lear continues to ignore the Fool's attempts to provide him with practical advice, the Fool tries to intrigue Lear with a riddle, saying, "Prithee, nuncle, tell me whether a madman be a / gentleman or a yeoman ?" [III.iv.9-10]. Lear's answer appears to indicate himself, "A king, a king !" [III.iv.11]. His pitiful condition is made clear as Lear tries, in vain, to assert his own identity. The Fool endeavors to restore Lear's sanity through his humorous speech: "Cry you mercy, I took you for a joint-stool" [III.iv.51]. The death of the Fool is expressed in the line, "And I'll go to bed at noon" [III.iv.83], an explicit reference to the grave. As the Fool disappears from the play after this scene and is not to be heard from again, it falls to the literary critic to explain the reasons for his enigmatic disappearance.

The psychoanalytic theories of Jacques Lacan can be used to augment our understanding of how the process of empowerment through illusion is carried out. Lacan conceives of a theory of psychological development that operates by meconnaissance, a confusion between image and reality, which he calls the mirror-stage. With the child's entrance into this illusory perspective, a time of crucial development and change is underway. Beginning at about six months, the infant becomes aware of the fact that the body is both composed of both an image and a separate being. The mirror-stage is so named because this process takes place as if the child were gazing at itself in a mirror. The child comes to identity with its own image, the Lacanian imago, differentiating it from those images it receives from all the other objects that enters its field of vision. It is at this point that the child forms what Lacan terms the Ideal-I, an immature form of the self which has yet to identity with the image of the other and which has yet to have its consciousness infiltrated by language. Here we have the child standing before the mirror of its consciousness and gazing at an image of itself. As the child's reflection in the mirror is an image rather than a material object, the child's image of itself as a complete and unified entity stands as the signifier. Likewise, the material form of the child who is engaged in this illusionistic process of construcitng an identity is the signified.

Through this explanation of the phenomenon of the mirror-stage, we observe that the sign is constreucted through the unification of both sign and signifier in Lacan's mirror. In coming to identify with this image, for the first time the child finds a wholeness and unity which springs from its cognizance of itself as both material presence and absent image. Indeed, the child is seduced by an image of itself as an integrated whole and fooled into believing it is powerful on the basis of a reflection grasped through the illusory image of a mirrored reality. Knowing that this stage is the first point in an individual's life where the self is able to intellectually grasp the sign of the self as being composed of both both signifier and signified, I believe that Lacan would agree that the Fool, who has been shown to be closely linked with Lear's consciousness, is Lear's imago. According to Malcolm Bowie, Lacan used the concept of the imago, a word derived from the Latin word for 'statue', to indicate a mental object associated with the early experience of the ego. For this reason, Lacan conceives of the ego as a statuefied presence that is derived from the earlier and psychologically more primative formation of the imago. Far from being phantasmic, imagos are actually real. They embody the pre-history of the ego in a mirror image that forms the ego. It is the imago, not the ego, that is the true root governing the formation of the self. In Freudian theory, the ego falsely acquires the stature and standing of an originary formative principle, but in Lacan's view the originary formative principle is more apporpriately given to the imago. It is the imago that determines the subject's behavior and personality, says Lacan, and therefore the imago's developmental priority is clear.

In terms of Freudian psychology, primary narcissism is the stage that precedes the representational split introduced by the specular image. Lacan considers the Freudian model to be confused and obscure, and he revised the concept of the ego into what is essentially an image of an image. In Lacan's counterintuitive theory the double comes first developmentally. He saw the mirror-stage as affecting the primary function of the imago, that is, to provide the ego with a stable relationship between the organism and reality. Throug the successful completion of the mirror-stage, the child comes to see itself as a separate individual, as a body among other bodies. Only through coming to see itself through the eyes of others does the child emerge from the world of immediate experience. While Freud theorized on a series of stages of libidinal development, from infantile narcissism to the phase of adult genital sexuality, Lacan prposed a developmental theory where the narcissistic plateua is the stage at which all relations between internal ego and external object are conducted. Lacanian structural psychology operates on the basis of the narcissistic experience alone, deciphered in the light of the child's experience before the mirror. In truth, the mirror-stage is hardly a stage, for it occurs in the instantaneous moment of cognition.

In his revision of Freudian theory Lacan built on the theory of ego-formation that was put forth in works such as The Ego and the Id (1927), where Freud postulated that the formation of the ego passed through a series of successive identifications, ranging from abandoned objects to the mother and father in one's personal pre-history. In Lacan's neo-Freudian theory, the mirro-stage is a drama which manufactures for the subject a fantasy wherein a succession of images where the fragmented body becomes united in as a whole gestalt and gives rise to a powerful awareness of body and image in the child's mind. But what reason might account for the fact that what is nost familiar to Lear, his own ego, appears to have such destabilizing effects on him ? In Lacanian terms, the imago represented the previously surmounted stage of psychic development, a time when the distinction between image and ego did not exist. During this period, which precedes the mirror-stage, there was no space between ego and image, nor was there any delay between wish and representation or divisionbetween interior and exterior. It is Lear's return to this narcissistic and animistic phase, indicated by his infanile regression at the time of the love test, which causes Lear's image to double into two characters, Lear and the Fool. The primary narcissism of the child, a stage surmounted at the completion of the mirror-stage, returns as the entrance of the double signals the reversal of Lear's psychological development. As a result, far from being a token of power or an assertion of royal immortality, Lear's return to the double becomes a harbinger of death.

If we apply the perspective of Lacanian psychoanalysis to King Lear, we are able to see that the Fool's appearance before Lear may be read as an example of the ego appearing before itself, dividing itself and standing before itself. I believe that this reading is material and relevant to our understanding of the play even though the Fool is a separate character listed among the dramatis personae; this critical perspective does not impute a false interpretation onto Shakespare's text. By viewing the Fool as a subdivision of Lear's ego, a clearer understanding of the character of King Lear becomes evident. Furthermore, if we recall that for Lacan, the imago is the foundation of the ego, it is conceivable that if a character's psychic framework wre to be dislodged due to an ego-imabalance, this ego would the see itself in multiply fragments of a fractured identity. In this sense, a Lacanian interpretation could argue that when a character such as Kent sees the Fool, they are really seeing a representation of Lear's ego.

Reading Lear in terms of Lacanian psychoanalysis eliminates both Rosenberg's debate whether the Fool is a bitter (helpful) character or a senseless (harmful) presence and Frye's debate as to whether the Fool is a natural fool or the fool of fortune. In these debates, the answers rested on the reader's view of Lear as a characater that is potentially open to change. If the reader believes that Lear is able to have him image redefined through the Fool's language, the character of the Fool is seen as containing helpful advice; if if one believes the Lear is unable to be redefined through the Fool's language, the character of the Fool becomes a source of deprecating sarcasm and devious irony. As our analysis of the text has shown, a cas can be made for both types of fools. However, when we subject the relationship between Lear and the Fool to Lacanian psychoanalysis, we are able to view King Lear as a paychodrama where Lear's interaction with the Fool is seen as an internal struggle with his own psychic neurosis; the dialogue with the Fool is to redefine Lear's image of himself by reflecting and embodying those aspects of Lear's consciousness that cause the destabilization of his concept of the self.

In Shakespare's tragedy, Lear's failure is a failure to believe in himself as a powerful subject, a phenomenon that causes Lear to mis-recognize himself as a fool. That Lear suffers from neurosis is undeniable and is hardly new, but this reading of the play offers a new view of Lear's madness. Only by consulting Lacanian psychoanalysis can we make the observation that Lear's advancing neurosis is not a cause but the result of his failure to stabilize his ego by identifying with the specular image. Due to his inability to arrive at a satisfactory relationship between ego and image, Lears suffers from the radical destabilization of those architectural values that governed the formation of the self. The effect of this intrinsic ego-instability is that Lear is denied the opportunity to extend his power under an illusory guise, according to Orgel's thesis. As opposed to as play like The Tempest (1623), which ends in the restoration of Prospero to the throne, King Lear ends in tragedy, depicting the bankruptcy of the power and art of the royal imagination rather than its effectiveness in weilding power. Instead of reifying and increasing his power and mastery, Lear's inability to surmount the mirror-stage leads to his eventual self-annihilation and madness.


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