"You want to see, but not to feel"


-p. 203, The Portrait of a Lady, by Henry James.



Shakespeare's King Lear is the portrait of a ruling class in crisis. At its pinnacle is the monarch, Lear, through whose "dark night of the soul" we experience the greatest transformation of character in all of literature. From absolute power and authority we witness his downfall, through parental pride and betrayal, political treachery and rebellion, privation and utter exhaustion to finally descend into madness. But from madness he emerges a man reborn: able to feel the pain of his lowliest subject; with a vision of a just society that provides for us all.


Lear's kingdom  is feudal society.  At its core is human need, juncture between nature and culture. We cannot help but depend on one another: children on their parents; all on cooperative labor. In feudal society "...The land was divided between warring baronies...Each a virtually self-contained economy. For the peasants this meant a diet dominated by bread and gruel, and clothing spun and woven in their homes out of rough wool or flax. It also meant devoting at least two fifths of their energies to unpaid work for the lord, either in the form of labour or goods in kind. As serfs, the peasants did not have the freedom to leave either the land or the lord..." In a later period "...Kings became more influential. They were able to formalize their power at the top of hierarchies of feudal lords..." (p. 140, 145, A People's History of the World, by Chris Harmon). But it is only through feeling that Lear learns to see this society.  And as we follow his passage through suffering into sight, the themes 'see', 'know' and 'feel', 'justice’, 'nature’, and 'need'  reoccur. We shall trace these threads through the tapestry of the drama, focusing on the character of Lear.


The first occurrence is at court, with the ritual division of the kingdom. A declaration of love is demanded by Lear of his daughters. Goneril and Regan, the eldest, comply; but his youngest, Cordelia, refuses to "heave her heart into her mouth". And when Lear disowns her, his most loyal follower, the Earl of Kent, fiercely intervenes  (Page references are to the Pelican Shakespeare, King Lear.):


"... See better, Lear... "(p. 37)


Having disowned his youngest daughter, Lear compounds his sins by banishing the honest Kent. Cordelia is chosen as the bride of the King of France. And after she bids her sisters farewell, they are left alone on the stage to conspire against their father.  Regan confides to her elder sister:


''T'is the infirmity of his age; yet he hath ever but slenderly known himself..." (p. 43)

Next we meet Lear at the Duke of Albany's palace, where he stays with his daughter, Goneril. Claiming that his knights are running riot, she insists he reduce his train. Lear defends his knights and privileges in a ruthless battle between father and daughter. At its conclusion, he places a curse on her, exclaiming:



"...Into her womb convey sterility, Dry up in her the organs of increase,

And from her derogate body never spring


A babe to honor her.  If she must teem, Create her child of spleen, that it may live And be a thwart disnatured torment to her. Let it stamp wrinkles in her brow of youth,

With cadent tears fret channels in her cheeks, Turn all her mother's pains and benefits

To laughter and contempt, that she may feel


How sharper than a serpent's tooth it is


To have a thankless child..." (p. 60, 61)


Lear storms out of the palace. Then Goneril sends word to Regan of his imminent arrival. At Gloucester's castle, Lear finds Kent (disguised as Caius) in the stocks. Outraged, he demands to see Regan and the Duke of Cornwall. Soon Goneril arrives, and the two daughters combine forces to demand he reduce his entourage. Humiliated by his daughters, he pleads with them, crying:


"0 reason not the need! The basest beggars


Are in the poorest things superfluous. Allow not nature more than nature needs, Man's life is cheap as beast's..." (p. 90)

Uttering a malediction against them, he rushes off into the night. On the heath with his Fool, who attempts to comfort him, Lear confronts the tempest without and within him:


"Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks. Rage, blow. You cataracts and hurricanoes, 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 molds, all germains spill at once,


That makes ingrateful man." (p. 94)


Lear, Kent and the Fool seek shelter in a peasant's hovel. There they meet Edgar, disguised as Poor Tom. The conclusion of Lear's education through suffering is his vision of a just society which provides for us all.


"Poor naked wretches, wheresoe'er you are, That bide the pelting of this storm,

How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides, Your looped and windowed raggedness, defend you From seasons such as this! 0, I have ta'en

Too little care of this! Take physic, pomp; Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel That thou mayst shake the superflux to them And show the heavens more just." (p. 100)

Having himself experienced the wants of his lowliest subject, he now faces him in the person of

Edgar, disguised as Poor Tom.


II                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              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. Hal Here's three on's are sophisticated. Thou art the thing itself; unaccommodated man is no

More but such a poor, bare, forked animal as thou art."  (p. 102)


Within the hovel Lear conducts a mock trial of his elder daughters, whose verdict  is his anguished question:


"...Is there any cause in nature that makes



These hard hearts?" (p. 110)


In parallel with Lear, Gloucester-- having had his eyes gouged out- endures an even more frightful ordeal.  And like his sovereign (to paraphrase Schopenhauer), "It is mostly through loss that they learn the value of things."  Each loses wealth and power, the love of their children. Lear nearly loses his mind; Gloucester, his sight.  And each demands the redistribution of society's goods from the rich to the poor.


"Let the superfluous and lust-dieted man, That slaves your ordinance, that will not see because he does not feel, feel your pow'r quickly; So distribution should undo excess,

And each man have enough•••"  (p. 120)


Edgar, disguised as Poor Tom, meets his father and guides him to Dover.  There, blind Gloucester plans to end his life.


Old Man: "You cannot see your way.


Gloucester:  I have no way, and therefore want no eyes; I stumbled when I saw..." (p. 118)

And when Gloucester asks about his guide, he is told:


Old Man:"...                                       Alack, sir, he is mad. Gloucester:   'Tis time's plague when madmen lead the blind." (p. 119)

The meeting of the mad Lear and blind Gloucester is one of the greatest scenes in literature.


Gloucester:" ...Dost thou know me?


Lear: I remember thine eyes well enough. .Read thou this challenge... Gloucester: Were all thy letters suns, I could not see.

Lear: Read.


Gloucester: What, with the case of eyes?


Lear: No eyes in your head, no nor money in your purse?...yet you see how this world  goes.



Gloucester:  I see it feelingly.


Lear: ...A man may see how this world goes with  no eyes..."(p. 137)


What follows is Lear's withering critique of feudal society:



See how yon justice


Rails upon yond simple thief. Hark in thine ear: change


Places and, handy-dandy, which is the justice, which is


the thief?  Thou hast seen a farmer's dog bark at a beggar?


There thou Mightst behold the great image of authority-- a dog's obeyed in office.

Thou rascal beadle, hold thy bloody hand!


Why dost thou lash that whore? Strip thy own back. Thou hotly lusts to use her in that kind

For which thou whip'st her. The usurer hangs the




Through tattered clothes small vices do appear; Robes and furred gowns hide all. Plate sin with gold, And the strong lance of justice hurtless breaks;

Arm it in rags, a pygmy's straw does pierce it.


None does offend, none -I say none! I'll able 'em. Take that of me, my friend, who have the power

To seal th'accuser's lips. Get thee glass eyes


And, like a scurvy politician, seem


To see the things thou dost not..." (p. 137, 138)


Like Lear and Gloucester, Edgar too learns pity:



"A most poor man, made tame to fortune's blows, Who, by the art of known and feeling sorrows,

Am pregnant to good pity..." (p. 140)


After the battle between France and Britain is lost, Lear and Cordelia are taken prisoner. Humbled and ashamed, he begs her to be forgiven.



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..."(p. 152,153)       


They are led off to prison. Later, Lear returns, carrying Cordelia in his arms:

"Howl, howl, howl!  0, you are men of stones.


Had I your tongues and eyes,  l'ld use them so


That heaven's vault should crack. She's gone forever..." (p. 164) He kneels beside her, crying:

“no, no, no life, Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life,

And thou no breath at all? Thou'lt  come no more, Never, never, never, never, never..." (p.166)

The final choral words of the drama are left to Edgar:


"The weight of this sad time we must obey, Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.


The oldest hath borne most; we that are young


Shall never see so much, nor live so long." (p. 167)



Lear's agonizing question continues to haunt us to this day:



Is there any cause in nature that makes these hard hearts?..." (p. 110)

How can the ruling class witness the oppression of their society and remain unmoved? If only we could persuade them to surrender their wealth and power. But reason seldom trumps self-interest.  And few can project that interest beyond themselves and their family. The range of our empathy is limited. The suffering of those we know and love we feel. But that of strangers- those of foreign nations, classes, religions -- is usually well beyond us. And we learn from history that ruling classes do not yield their power through reason, alone. They create ideology, rationalizations; resort to sheer denial; employ the most brutal force to defend it. Like Lear, they must be forced to feel: to see through the "eye of anguish". From his place atop society, he is sucked downward to the bottom, exposed to the hardships of his lowliest subjects. And having felt their needs, the only remedy is to act: to redistribute society's wealth. Lear's insight is one with a Marxist critique and reconstitution of society on foundations of social justice.

© 2015 By Mark Dickman