On KING LEAR (Shakespeare)


by Joseph Suglia


“One has not observed life very carefully if one has failed to see the hand that gently—kills.”

—Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, Paragraph 69


“Achieved art is quite incapable of lowering the spirits.  If this were not so, each performance of King Lear would end in a Jonestown.”

—Martin Amis, “Philip Larkin: His Work and Life”


Any writer who has received a Letter of Rejection knows the sting of malignancy behind that letter’s boilerplate politeness: “Every month, we are sent thousands of manuscripts for review.  Unfortunately, your manuscript was not among the few that reached our editorial board.  We will keep your query on file should another opportunity arise.”  Any suitor whose desires have been refused knows the malicious assertion of power that surges and throbs behind the superficially gentle refusal, so unkind in its apparent kindness: “Thank you.  I am very flattered; unfortunately, I am not available for dating.”  When American corporatists say, “I am sorry that you feel that way,” this means: “I don’t care how you feel.”  When Disney employees cheep and chirp, “Have a Disney Day!” to tourists, this is another way of saying, “Kill yourself!”

Such is what Slavoj Žižek calls the “unmistakable dimension of humiliating brutality” inherent to polite responses (In Defense of Lost Causes, p. 17).  Politeness is ambiguous because it seems to be a form of gallantry and respect for the other person’s feelings; just as often, it conceals a radical disregard for a person’s sensitivity.  Open expressions of dislike must be avoided in polite society; therefore, one’s contempt for others maintains itself as disguised contempt.  Respectfulness and tact are, often enough, screens behind which disrespectfulness and insensitivity lurk.  There is, in a word, such a thing as aggressive politeness; there is such a thing as being aggressively polite.

I believe that the ambiguity of politeness is evident in Shakespeare’s traumatizing King Lear (1605-1606).  Let me be blunt: The play concerns a king who is thrown down to the level of a homeless beggar, and he is subjected to a series of brutal humiliations throughout the play, as are Edgar, Gloucester, and Lear’s rough yet loyal-to-the-death servant Kent.  The abjections begin long before the King’s exposure to the cold gusts of the open heath.  Lear is humiliated long before he experiences undisguised elder abuse, long before he is pushed out of doors, long before he is diminished to an undignified poverty.  The degradations begin with the manifest politeness of his two eldest offspring, Goneril and Regan.  Lear is mapping out and parceling out his kingly estate—prematurely, I would add—to his three daughters, Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia, before his “[u]nburdened crawl toward death” [I:i].  His crawl toward death turns out to be a severely burdened one, despite his expectations.  His decision to give away his land, property, and revenue is an undiscerning one—hence the ocular imagery that spreads throughout the play.  The gruesome enucleation of Gloucester in Act Three: Scene Seven, for instance, mirrors Lear’s own blindness, his inability to leer.  The play’s twin metaphors are blindness and nothingness.[i]

When Lear asks his youngest daughter, his favorite, to declare her love for him, Cordelia’s response is monstrously inappropriate: “Nothing, my lord” [I:i].  (Inappropriate yet not as cruel as the pointed flatteries of Goneril and Regan, which I will turn to below.)  Inexpressive Cordelia says this to herself, and so we know that it is genuine: “I am sure my love’s / More ponderous than my tongue” [Ibid.].  She knows that language always lies, she knows that any word that she could possibly say would belie the love that she has for her father, transmuting her feelings to their converse,[ii] so she chooses to say nothing: “Nothing, my lord.”  She utters the following to explain her mutism: “I cannot heave / My heart into my mouth” [Ibid.]—“to heave” means “to lift.”  She cannot raise the profundity of her feeling to language, with all of its manifold evasions, pomposities, and solecisms.  Undiscerning Lear misses Cordelia’s meaning: All Cordelia is suggesting is that she loves her father according to a wordless obligation.  She is “[s]o young” and “true” [Ibid.]—and Lear, dotard that he is, mistakes his youngest daughter’s brazenness and refusal to dote on him for disloyalty.[iii]

Again, Lear’s successive humiliations begin not with Cordelia’s inadvertent insult, but with the politeness of Goneril and Regan.  Cordelia, the malapert minx, with her saucy bluntness, is kinder than Goneril and Regan, who are empty flatterers and who are cruel in their flattery.  Politeness and manners are cruelty.  Goneril and Regan are followers of the conventions of the court; their intimacy is a kind of formalized intimacy or a kind of intimate formality.  One of Goneril’s inflated flatteries goes thus: “Sir, I do love you more than word can wield the matter…” [Ibid.].[iv]  Undiscerning Lear, who “jointly” “invests” his eldest daughters with his “power” [I:i][v] trusts their statements—statements that are no more meaningful than the proposition “Banana trees eat cheese.”

Cordelia’s resistance is nothing in comparison with Goneril and Regan’s insubordination, for they undermine their father’s standing and resources before pushing him out into the cold of the storm.[vi]  The point that I am trying to make is that Cordelia’s resistance, however inapposite it might be, is far less destabilizing than the savage overthrows of her older sisters, who wear the mask of politeness.

Lear is a literalist.  He literalizes Cordelia’s impoliteness, as if it represented disloyalty, when it does not.  He literalizes Kent’s bluntness, his “unmannerliness,” his “plainness” [I:i], as if it represented rebelliousness, which it does not.  Instead, he prizes Goneril and Regan’s “oily” and “glib” [I:i] flatteries, which conceal a deep and deadly disobedience.  To repurpose something once said by George Carlin, their version of politeness is contempt pretending to be manners.

The King’s demand is for the expression of love, as if the expression of love were love itself.[vii]  Lear prefers expressions of politeness to genuine loyalty.  He believes that Goneril and Regan love him because they say that they do.  When he finally grasps the venom with which their polite formulae is saturated, Lear makes the logical error of associating the inhuman behavior of Goneril and Regan with the behavior of all women.  Lear becomes a full-blown misogynist on account of this logical error (the Fallacy of Composition), which is similar to the unfortunate mistake of some critics who think that the play is misogynistic because the character Lear blindly becomes a misogynist.[viii]

Lear’s absolute authority at the beginning of the play is gradually triturated.  Contemptuously, Oswald refers to the King as “My lady’s father” [I:iv].  “My lady’s father” places the emphasis on the “lady” (Goneril) and thus suggests the unmanning of Lear.  Everyone in the hall knows this nasty bit of pseudo-politeness for what it is: an insult to the King.  Kent accordingly gives Oswald a good drubbing—Kent, who is blunt and painful in his honesty yet far, far kinder than those flatterers, those sycophants, those sophists, whose loyalties lie in their mouths and not in their deeds.

The eldest daughters are the cuckoos that bite the head off the hedge-sparrow, their father.  The Fool to Lear: “The hedge-sparrow fed the cuckoo so long / That it’s had it head bit off by it young” [I:iv].  The most shocking thing about the second line is the intentional absence of proper grammar.  The grammatical way of composing the lines would be: “The hedge-sparrow fed the cuckoo so long / That it had its head bit off by its young.”  The intentionally bad grammar intensifies the shocking character of the image.  Since the cuckoo and the hedge-sparrow belong to different species within the avian kingdom, the Fool might even be suggesting that Lear’s daughters belong to a different species than the King—though, to be historically precise, Linnaeus established the separate classification of dunnock and cuckoos slightly over 150 years after this play was composed (in 1758).  If the Fool intends that they belong to the same family, this is an image of the daughters cannibalizing their father.

Soon after his eldest daughters drive him down, inverting the traditional father-daughter relationship,[ix] Lear becomes estranged from himself; he becomes unrecognizably other.  Alienated from himself, alienated from his estate, which he has imprudently given to his eldest daughters, Lear can no longer recognize himself: “Who is it that can tell me who I am?” [I:iv].  His previous self is foreign to him: “Does any here know me?  Why, this is not Lear” [Ibid.].  He is the father who is father no more; he is the king who is king in title only.  For much of his life, he thought of himself as father and as king.  Now that the roles of father and king have been robbed of their substance, he does not recognize who he is.  This non-self-recognition is madness.[x]

Lear tries to strip off his royal habiliments in the storm, which would be a kind of stripping-away of the symbols of royal authority, but is restrained by the Fool.  The Fool is introduced in Act One: Scene Four, three scenes after the befooling of Lear has been initiated.  The Fool disappears in Act Three: Scene Six, right after Lear says, “We’ll go to supper in’the morning” [III:vi], which means that Lear is now completely demented.  Now, it is the King who has become the Fool.  What use is the Fool when the King is foolish?  It is only when the Fool is hanged that we hear of the Fool again.

Even though, on the surface, Cordelia has “scanted” her “obedience” [I:i] by avoiding an explicit declaration of love for her father, she shows signs of real devotion to him toward the end of the play, when she leads a charge into England to restore him to the throne.  After the first scene of the first act, we do not see Cordelia again until the fourth scene of Act Four, wherein she reemerges as the Queen of France.  At least, this is the case in the Quarto of 1608.  There are significant discontinuities between the Quarto of 1608 and the First Folio of 1623.  In the First Folio, Cordelia reappears in the third scene of “Actus Quartus,” surrounded by pendants, drums, and her entourage: “Enter with Drum and Colours, Cordelia, Gentlemen, and Souldiours.”

One of Cordelia’s roles, after she accedes to the queenship of France, is to re-man, to re-virilize Lear, to undo the unmanning to which he has been subjected: “How does my royal lord?  How fares your majesty?” Cordelia asks her father in the seventh scene of the fourth act—without ever addressing him as her father!  No, she gives Lear a higher status than that of a father, than that of a biological progenitor.  He is the King, her royal lord, his majesty once more, and he is addressed with respect—and yet, for once, one senses that there is no malice beneath a shifty veneer of respectfulness.

The play does end in a certain restoration—the King reunites with his disowned daughter—and it is a beautiful resipiscence, a beautiful reconciliation between father and daughter, which makes the play almost endurable.  At the risk of sounding facile, this is a very dreary, very abjective, and quite nauseating play, but it does contain one positive value, and that is the value of covert loyalty.  Whereas Harold Bloom inflates the role of Edgar, I would emphasize the magnificent Kent.  Even when he disguises himself and escapes banishment, Kent does so in order to better serve his master.  Kent’s dishonesty masks a deeper honesty, his deceptions mask a deeper loyalty, as Cordelia’s phenomenal coldness masks a profounder warmth.  Kent shows a deeper obedience to Lear by standing up to the King and telling him, in essence, that the King is acting against his own best interests.  Kent is the very model of disloyal loyalty, of traitorous piety, of the fidelity of treason, which is something that Nietzsche knew well.

Joseph Suglia

[i] These are not matters that I am able to pursue in this essay directly, so I will place the relevant citations within an endnote.  Concerning the ocular metaphors: Goneril claims, phonily, that her father is “[d]earer than eyesight” to her [I:i].  Lear exclaims to Kent: “Out of my sight!”  Kent’s response: “See better, Lear, and let me still remain / The true blank of thine eye” [Ibid.].  Lear says to his own eyes: “Old fond eyes, / Beweep this cause again, I’ll pluck yet out…” [I:iv].  Concerning the metaphors of nullity, within which Harold Bloom would see a creative gnostic vacuity: There are Cordelia and Lear’s “Nothings” in the first scene.  Edmund says to his father, “Nothing, my lord” in the second scene of the play.  In the fourth scene of the first act, Lear tells the Fool that “nothing can be made out of nothing.”  The Fool says to Lear: “I am a fool, thou art nothing” [Ibid.].

[ii] Cordelia knows the deceptiveness of language, as does her male double, Edgar.  Edgar says, to himself, that “the worst is not / So long as we can say ‘This is the worst’” [IV:i].  The verbal articulation of one’s condition nullifies that very condition.  One is not fully lonely, as long as one can say, “I am lonely,” to follow Blanchot.  One is not fully sad, as long as one can say, “I am sad.”  One at least has energy enough to say that one is sad; one still opens the possibility of an addressee or an auditor when one says that one is lonely.

[iii] So scandalized is Lear that he (ostensibly) delights in the company of his youngest daughter no more than he delights in the company of cannibals: “[H]e that makes his generation messes / To gorge his appetite, shall to my bosom / Be as well neighboured, pitied and relieved, / As thou my sometime daughter” [I:i], Lear intones to Cordelia.

[iv] Cordelia, by contrast, is reticent: “To speak and purpose not—since what I well intend, / I’ll do’t before I speak” [I:i].

[v] By way of an illocutionary performative speech act.

[vi] Regan and Goneril’s insubordination of their father is mirrored by the bastard Edmund’s insubordination of his father.  Edmund betrays his father, the Earl of Gloucester, as Goneril and Regan betray their father, Lear.  Edmund, at least, becomes sympathetic in his dying.  In his final moments, he has a coda of self-acknowledgement.  Not so Goneril and Regan.  Edmund is an obvious sociopath but is less dislikable than Goneril and Regan.

[vii] Lear is King James I perceived through the speculum of a funhouse mirror.  Much as James I, who patronized Shakespeare and whom Shakespeare served when this play was first performed, King Lear demands absolute obedience.  James I asserted his absolute authority in writing, in The True Law of Free Monarchies; or, The Reciprocal and Mutual Duty Betwixt a Free King and His Natural Subjects (originally published in 1598).  Anyone who reads this text will see that James I considered obedience to the King to be identical to obedience to God.  Intriguingly, Shakespeare seems to be subtly criticizing his patron.  Both James I and Lear make the mistake of believing that an outward show of submission is true obedience.  Moreover, James I similarly divided his estate, giving it to his sons, renouncing the ownership of moieties of his land and money.  Instead of burbling about Shakespeare’s “universalism” or “infinity,” it is important to place the plays within their proper historical contexts.  “Universalism” and “infinity”: Such are a few of the pomposities and vaporizings of Harold Bloom, who is otherwise often admirable.

[viii] Lear is nothing if not the Father.  If he is not patriarchal, then no one is.

[ix] Lear is infantilized, becoming son to Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia.  In this play, daughters are mothers to their father.  “Old fools are babes again,” Goneril says of her father to Oswald [I:iii].  The Fool tells Lear, “[T]hou mad’st thy daughters thy mothers” [I:iv].  Similarly, Edmund says of his brother Edgar that the latter claimed: “[T]he father should be as ward to the son and the son manage his revenue” [I:ii].  Likewise, Edgar says of his father, “He childed as I father’d” [III:vi], implying an inversion of relation between father and son.  It is an inverted world in which the characters are dwelling, one in which the home-space is outside of the kingdom and the outside is within: “Freedom lives hence and banishment is here” [I:i], as Kent phrases it.

[x] There is a great deal of self-estrangement in the play.  Edgar disguises himself as Poor Tom, peasant and bedlamite, before becoming the next King of England, and Kent disguises himself as Caius before being recognized for who he is by the dying Lear in the final act.  In the guise of Poor Tom, Edgar dispatches the vermin Oswald and Edmund, who have verminated England.  Interestingly, there is a legend that the historical King Edgar committed lupicide, dispatching and expelling wolves from Albion immediately after he became king.


Keats and the Power of the Negative: Part One: “La Belle Dame sans Merci”: A commentary

Keats and the Power of the Negative: Part One

An analysis of “La Belle Dame sans Merci”

by Dr. Joseph Suglia

Dedicated to C.S.

Composed on April 21, 1819, in a single afternoon or early evening, “La Belle Dame sans Merci” has haunted the minds of readers for almost two centuries now.  In twelve stanzas, Keats says more than whole worships of writers say in their entire existence.  The poem is so sleekly, treacily, and elegantly composed, without a single false word, that it is imperishable.  Indeed, it is one of the few perfect English poems.

I will analyze the ballad stanza by stanza.

O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
Alone and palely loitering?
The sedge has wither’d from the lake,
And no birds sing.

The question is the narrator’s—whoever the narrator might be—to the honey-starved zombie knight.  For the published edition, Keats foolishly substituted the words “wretched wight” for “knight-at-arms.”  “Wight” recalls the Isle of Wight, where Keats would indite lust letters to Fanny Brawne, the lust of his brief consumptive life, which makes the published text of the poem faintly ludicrous.  “Knight-at-arms” is a much better choice of words, since it invokes strength, which contrasts nicely with the knight’s ailment, which is clearly love-psychosis.  It also sounds and reads better, infinitely better, than “wretched wight.”

The narrator is asking an epidemiological question (when one compares the first stanza with the twelfth): What is the source of your illness?  Even though the autumnal landscape is withered and songless, the knight is loitering around as if he were a beggar.  The flora are desiccated, much like the knight; there are no fauna, it seems, in the loveless expanse.  Nature has dried and shriveled up.  The birds that are not there are perhaps nightingales.  Readers of Keats will know that the nightingale is emblematic of the supernatural.  If this is the case, then the supernatural has withdrawn from the deathscape.

A nice instance of parechesis appears in the first stanza—a repetition of the grapheme LON in the words “alone” and “loitering.”

O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
So haggard and so woe-begone?
The squirrel’s granary is full,
And the harvest’s done.

The granaries and the harvest have yielded a superabundance of food–food that is suitable for human consumption–but our love-zombie will never eat it. He will never eat the food because he cannot eat the food.  The knight is famished, starving for food that no human mouth can eat: It is the food that only his beloved faery princess can feed him.

I see a lily on thy brow,
With anguish moist and fever-dew,
And on thy cheeks a fading rose
Fast withereth too.

The syntax here is confusing: The lily that is embroidered on the knight’s brow is moist with anguish and moist with fever-dew.  The anguish-moist lily and the fading rose embroidered on the knight’s face-flesh: These are symptoms of his love-starvation.

I met a lady in the meads,
Full beautiful—a faery’s child,
Her hair was long, her foot was light,
And her eyes were wild.

This is where the knight’s answer begins—an answer to the question, “What ails thee?”  Already, the reader is getting subliminal cues from the poem that the knight should run like hell away from the faery princess.  For one, she is the daughter of a faery and therefore any romance between the knight and the princess would be an interspecies romance.  Secondly, the wildness of her eyes might very well be the wildness of craziness.

I made a garland for her head,
And bracelets too, and fragrant zone;
She looked at me as she did love,
And made sweet moan.

The number three is important in the poem: The faery princess’s physical attributes come in threes (her long hair, her light foot, her wild eyes), the food that she feeds to the knight comes in threes (relish root, wild honey, manna-dew), and here we have a triumvirate of decorations for the Beautiful Lady to wear (garland, bracelets, perfumed belt).  We might know three of her physical attributes and three things that she is wearing, but who is she, really, on the inside?

I set her on my pacing steed,
And nothing else saw all day long,
For sidelong would she bend, and sing
A faery’s song.

What kind of a knight is he, to let a woman he does not know ride his pacing steed?  And how can someone set someone else on a steed that is pacing?  Her sidelong look–her askance glance–lets us know that she is unconcerned with him and that his love will be unreturned; sharp readers should question the integrity of her intentions.  That he can see nothing else besides her radiance suggests that the knight has already plunged into total lunacy.

She found me roots of relish sweet,
And honey wild, and manna-dew,
And sure in language strange she said—
‘I love thee true’.

How, precisely, does the knight know that the faery princess has declared her love for him?  The answer is: He does not. Her words are inaudible to him.  She speaks in a language that he cannot understand, and the suggestion is that the knight has projected his desire-to-be-loved upon her incomprehensible dark words.

The fact that communication between the knight and the faery princess is impossible intimates that contact between the knight and the faery princess is impossible.

“Honey” is sensuous, but the manna-dew is ethereal, heavenly: bread that rains from heaven.  “Manna” is customarily a noun, but here, it is used as an adjective and evokes, of course, The Book of Exodus.

“Manna-dew” was not in Keats’ original draft.  The lines read, in the original version: “She found me roots of relish sweet / And honey wild and honey dew.”  Keats was very wise to modify the wording.  The manna-dew that she feeds the knight reminds us that the faery princess is not a child of nature, but rather an otherworldly entity, one who comes from a transcendental province, much like the Grecian urn and the nightingale.  She exists outside of time and is not bound by the laws of nature.

The food that she feeds the knight is supernatural nutriment, and he will never be able to eat anything else.  All other food has become inesculent to him, even though the granaries are full and the harvest is done.

She took me to her elfin grot,
And there she wept and sighed full sore,
And there I shut her wild wild eyes
With kisses four.

She dwells in an elfin grotto, then.  If there is still any question on the subject, at this point, the argument over whether she is human has been settled: She is a chthonic being.  The fact that she dwells in an elfin grotto might imply that she is the Queen of Elphame, the elf queen who transported Thomas the Rhymer into the otherworld.

Why is the elf-girl weeping and sighing?  Is it because she knows that contact between her and her human lover is impossible?  If she is weeping and sighing over the impossibility of interspecies romance, does this not militate against the interpretation that she is wicked?

“Wild wild”: the use of anaphora (repetition) underlines her chaos, her untrammeled nature.  In Stanza Four, her eyes were described as “wild.”  Her eyes appear even wilder now.

And there she lulled me asleep,
And there I dreamed—Ah! woe betide!—
The latest dream I ever dreamt
On the cold hill side.

The faery princess anaesthetizes the knight, drugging him with Ketamine.  “The latest dream I ever dreamt”: The knight will never dream again.  Will he ever sleep again?

I saw pale kings and princes too,
Pale warriors, death-pale were they all;
They cried—‘La Belle Dame sans Merci
Hath thee in thrall!’

Listen to the chorus of love-hungry kings, love-hospitalized princes, and love-hurt warriors.  They tell you who they think the girl really is: The Beautiful Lady without Pity! They are the ones who call her “The Beautiful Lady without Pity.”  She never identifies herself, nor does the narrator, nor does the love-slaughtered knight at arms.  We don’t know her perspective at all.  Why should you believe the chorus of pallid loverboys?

The word “thrall” connotes enslavement.  To be in thralldom is to be in bondage to a master or a mistress.  In this case, the chorus of once-powerful men, of which the knight is now a member, is enslaved, enthralled, to the Beautiful Lady without Pity.

I saw their starved lips in the gloam,
With horrid warning gaped wide,
And I awoke and found me here,
On the cold hill’s side.

After the love-drug wears off, the knight awakens and finds himself in desolation and a place of natural destitution.  The only things in the dream-men’s mouths are warnings.  Much like the knight, only the food of the faery girl can nourish them; no other food can sate them.

And this is why I sojourn here,
Alone and palely loitering,
Though the sedge is withered from the lake,
And no birds sing.

The faery-intoxicated knight is doomed to walk along the withered shore of the lake in a perpetual autumn, sapped of his vitality and potency.  He has been enervated by the psychosis-inflicting Beautiful Lady without Pity.  The poem suggests that she is a witch, but she might as well be a lamia or a succubus.  The women in the Keatsean poetic universe are all Belles Dames sans Merci.  “Misogyny” is a label too easily applied these days, but how can we avoid calling this a misogynistic poem?

Dr. Joseph Suglia


There is an alternative interpretation that is possible: The figure of the woman would be the vessel into which the misogynistic delusions of the knight are projected, into the vacuum which stands for that which cannot be symbolized.  This evacuates the pallid, forlorn night.  The figure of the female has now become an agglomeration of split-off parts that represents him.  The figure is then a void to which the knight is inexorably drawn and from which he is driven in horror.  Keats’s pallid, forlorn knight has an experience of horror vacui.

The knight-at-arms would then have projected all of his disjecta membra into the figure of the female, thus rendering himself as servile and exhausted.

In other words, the Beautiful Lady without Pity is a construction.  What we are left with is only the imaginary.  This is, sadly, psychosis.  It is all too common.  The poem might then be a descriptive instantiation of delusional misogyny.

My only reservation with this alternative interpretation is that it is ahistorical.