Thoughts on King Lear

In Shakespeare’s King Lear, villain and bastard Edmund delivers the somewhat famous line, “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.”

To understand Edmund, note his “Thou, Nature, art my goddess; to thy law/ My services are bound.”  Thus, his philosophical justification for his evil deeds is a rejection of conventional norms through appeal to Nature, which allows us all to take what we can get and favors the cunning and strong. 

Isaac Asimov in his Guide to Shakespeare notes that Edmund’s is a proto-Hobbesian view of the state of nature, but the view is also that of the Sophist Greek school.  The play takes place in pre-Christian and pre-Christ Britain, and Shakespeare keeps the explicit moral themes pagan.  A character notes Lear’s failure to know himself, which is of course a violation of the Delphic command, and the play is (like Oedipus) about attaining self-knowledge.  The Duke of Gloucester has a parallel journey to self-knowledge, and is blinded in the process, seemingly an obvious Oedipus allusion.  The difference is, Oedipus pursues knowledge and blinds himself when he cannot find it, whereas Gloucester attains knowledge only when he has had his eyes gouged out by others.

About the “excellent foppery of the world” line, Asimov says in his Guide to Shakespeare: “Shakespeare may have intended this to further damn Edmund as an atheist and cynic, but fashions have changed and the bastard’s rational comments force the modern audience to approve of what he says…”  Asimov is being too sensitive about atheism and rationalism here.  Shakespeare had Edmund say this because it’s exactly what he would say.  Someone like Edmund would obviously disbelieve in astrology, but this does not mean all who disbelieve in astrology are like Edmund.

Asimov also says it wasn’t until Rousseau’s time that the idea that people were good in the state of nature, and that society corrupted them into striving after power, came to prominence.  Yet Lear delivers a powerful (although half mad) monologue to Gloucester along those lines: “A man may see how this world goes with no eyes.  Look with thine ears: see how yond justice rails upon yond simple thief. Hark, in thine ear: change places; and, handy-dandy, which is the justice, which the thief?—Thou hast seen a farmer’s dog bark at a beggar?  And the creature run from the cur?  There thou mightst behold the graet image of authority: a dog’s obeyed in office.—Thou rascal beadle, hold thy bloody hand!  Why dost thou lash that whore?  Strip thine own back; Thou hotly lust’st to use her in that kind For which thou whipp’st her.  The userer hangs the cozener.  Through tatter’d clothes small vices do appear; Robes and furr’d gowns hide all….”

Edmund’s own affinity for nature comes from the fact that convention has wronged him by stigmatizing bastards, while he is by nature handsome, strong and clever.  Possibly his distorted notions of natural law are themselves a reaction to, and thus a product of, corrupting convention, not of actual nature. 

He eventually finds himself in a self-contradictory position.  Though he claims to make Nature his guide, his ambition leads him to betray his own father, knowing what it will lead to (Asimov’s suggestion to the contrary notwithstanding), and Edmund grants that such a betrayal of one’s own father is unnatural.  He then goes against what he himself describes as his own nature by trying to do something good at the end of the play.  He does it almost as an afterthought, and perhaps only because he can no longer benefit from not doing it, since he is dying.


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