“We have been trying, like Lear, to have it both ways: to lay down our human prerogative and yet at the same time to retain it. It is impossible. Either we are rational spirit obliged for ever to obey [absolute value], or else we are mere nature to be kneaded and cut into new shapes for the pleasures of masters who must, by hypothesis, have no motive but their own ‘natural’ impulses.” (Lewis, 73)
This passage sheds some light on the differences between Lear and Edmund that prevents the two most memorable characters of the play from ever interacting. Harold Bloom wrote that “King Lear is a play in which the prime villain, Edmund, and Lear never speak to one another,” and “Shakespeare wants us to surmise why it would be unfeasible for them to communicate.” Why it is infeasible is such an interesting question that it merits inquiry. Even if Lear and Edmund had conversed, I believe it would not have been true interaction, for while they speak with the same words they use different vocabularies of the soul.
Lear is an absolutist. While he is correct to believe in absolute value, he is foolish to believe that words are its true reflection. He is naive. The play begins and he is shocked to find that his youngest and most prized daughter will not indulge his vice–the desire for flattery. His belief in value and order conducive to the veneration of elders and respect for authority is not the root of his error; rather, Lear is blind to the pragmatic dishonesty of his two older daughters. He cannot fathom the rejection of truth, value, and order; so, when he has first been deceived, he regards Cordelia’s subsequent instruction to be insult rather than a better image of that absolute value that he sees only through a glass darkly. “So young and so untender?/So young, my lord, and so true.” (I.i.118)(emphasis added) Lear then unknowingly sells away his humanity in exchange for a mind free of worry, believing that he can retain his honor, “[t]he name and all th’ addition to a king.” (I.i.152) He has thrown away his authority and humanity and has left the exercise thereof to his daughters’ discretion.
In contrast, Edmund sees clearly, however twisted. He is the epitome of the modern man in every age. He is a relativist, a social darwinist, and a nihilist. He is not a liar; for him words are not a matter of right and wrong but of cleverness and efficacy.
“A credulous father and a brother noble,
Whose nature is so far from doing harms
That he suspects none; on whose foolish honesty
My practices ride easy. I see the business.
Let me, if not by birth, have lands by wit.
All with me’s meet that I can fashion fit.” (I.ii.186)
To Edmund, the rightness of actions are decided by the advancement they afford him. A villain that is immoral is to be feared for the evil of his actions. A villain that is amoral is to be feared for more fundamental reasons. A villain like Edmund undermines the foundations of civil society and denies the worth of humanity. However, in order to thrive Edmund requires others to both be naive and hold onto absolute values. He can only exist parasitically on the credulous and noble.
γνωθι σεατον. It is interesting that the villain of the story nonetheless possesses a virtue–insight–that Lear does not. In a speech given in the second scene of the play, Edmund tells us that he understands his nature and accepts full responsibility for it, his actions, and the outcomes thereof.
“This is the excellent foppery of the world, that
when we are sick in fortune (often the surfeits, of
our own behavior) we make guilty of our disasters
the sun, the moon, and stars, as if we were villains
on necessity; fools by heavenly compulsion; knaves,
thieves, and treachers by spherical predominance;
… … …
… I should
have been that I am, had the maidenliest star in the
firmament twinkled on my bastardizing.” (I.ii.125)
Contrarily, as late as the second act Lear defers responsibility of knowledge and action.
“You heavens, give me that patience, patience I need!
You see me here, you gods, a poor old man
As full of grief as age, wretched in both.
If it be you that stirs these daughters’ hearts
Against their father, fool me not so much
To bear it tamely. Touch me with noble anger,
And let not women’s weapons, water drops,
Stain my man’s cheeks.” (II.iv.313)
However, we should desire for Lear not to have the virtue of insight but, rather, the higher cardinal virtue of prudence. Nietsche was wrong; nihilism, relativism and amorality are not an advance but a regress to barbarism.
After passing through hell, “…I am bound/ Upon a wheel of fire, that mine own tears/ Do scald like molten lead,” (IV.vii.52) Lear surpasses Edmund, knowing himself with wisdom–not merely cunning. He begins a skeptic:
“I will not swear these are my hands…
… … …
I fear I am not in my perfect mind.
Methinks I should know you and know this man,
Yet I am doubtful, for I am mainly ignorant
What place this is, … … …” (IV,vii,62)
It is this same doubt that, in time, leads to wisdom. When we see Lear again in Act V Scene III the scales have fallen from his eyes. He is now as wise as befits his age (I,iv,43).
Act V Scene III is downright awkward in Shakespeare’s painfully obvious sidestepping of any direct confrontation between Edmund and Lear. For, immediately prior to where the action picks up, they must have had some degree of interaction. Edmund has just conducted a military hearing regarding Cordelia and Lear. But to include the exchange would have wasted time; Edmund’s treachery, the assassination order, and Lear’s cheering speech do more to delineate how high Lear has risen and how low Edmund has sunk. The spiritual planes they occupy are presently too distant to be bridged. Lear:
“No, no, no, no. Come, let’s away to prison.
We two alone will sing like birds i’ th’ cage.
When thou dost ask me blessing, I’ll kneel down
And ask of thee forgiveness. So we’ll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues
Talk of court news, and we’ll talk with them too–
Who loses and who wins; who’s in, who’s out–
And take upon ‘s the mystery of things,
As if we were God’s spies. And we’ll wear out,
In a walled prison, packs and sects of great ones
That ebb and flow by th’ moon.” (v,iii,9)
Lear is become a stoic transcendentalist. Edmund, on the other hand, is proud of his treachery, even after having fallen under Edgar’s sword.
“What you have charged me with, that have I done,
And more, much more. The time will bring it out.
‘Tis past, and so am I. But what art thou
That hast this fortune on me? If thou ‘rt noble,
I do forgive thee.” (v,iii,195)
Till the end he is remorseless and nihilistic, dismissing his imminent death, desiring only to know who has outmaneuvered him, who was more cunning. Yet, after hearing Edgar’s speech, he claims that his heart has changed, and sends his sword to stop his last machination. The token arrives too late, and–supposing the deathbed conversion is legitimate–now, instead of a vocabulary, a wall of guilt separates Edmund from Lear. In death they are separated further. Lear’s death is so sublime that it inspires Kent to follow; Edmund’s death is dismissed as a trifle.
As Lewis implies, we cannot have it both ways. Edmund is a man turned inward obeying his nature. Lear is a man turned outward, a rational spirit striving to obey the absolute. These two ways produce antithetical vocabularies that work in the souls of the characters in the play; one, Lear’s, regards men as ends, while the other, Edmund’s, regards men as means. With such a fundamental difference, the two vocabularies would have talked past each other, had they met. As it is, their separation provides a sort of dramatic tension that allows each of the two vastly different characters room to emote without getting in the way of the other.
Lewis, C.S.. The Abolition of Man. San Francisco: HarpersCollins, 2001.
Shakespeare, William. King Lear. New York: Washington Square Press, 1993.