Theoretical Approaches to King Lear: A Wrap-Up
The purpose of looking across a range of scholarly articles that approached the play from different angleswas to get you thinking about how the play can be used as a means to develop a range of arguments.What we saw was that
can read in different ways to support arguments that evaluate elements ofthe human psyche, power dynamics, and social relations. The really important thing to take away from thework we did is the lesson that, for us, the play is more than just a series of events that ends in tragedy, butthat these events allow us to make much broader arguments about who we are and how we live.
The Tragic Disjunction of Wisdom and Power’, by Paul A. Cantor
What Cantor does is examine the character of Lear as representative of how power works. His approach is
to look at the subtext of Lear’s journey, change, and development, and to see in that a representation of the
connection between humanity, power, and politics. What he ultimately discovers is that there is a fracture
between wisdom and power. For Cantor, Lear’s psychological change across the play from egotism to
wisdom shows that the ability to lead powerfully cannot co-exist with the ability to lead wisely.His argument works as follows:-
ar of Act One “is the captive of many illusions about himself and about his world, but his very
overestimation of his powers is what gives him the aura of authority he needs to command his
subjects.” This Lear is a commanding leader and his subjects follow
him without question. Kent’s
devotion to him is testament to the power and authority he has built for himself.-
As Lear works through the play, his power is undermined and he goes through an extensiveprocess of self-learning, or developing self-knowledge. It is this process that ultimately gains himwisdom, but reduces him to a state where he can no longer have authority.-
What Lear sees and experiences in the process of leading up to Act 4 Scene 6 leads him to thediscovery that man is but a beast. Once he sees all humanity as beastly, he can no longer separatecriminals from authority, and therefore can no longer properly act as a political authority himself,seeing all humanity as beastly.-
The Lear of the storm sees humanity in natural terms, not political terms. He sees the natural asmore fundamental and anything beyond that is simply covering the truth. This is why the clothingimagery in the play is so important
for Lear, clothing just hides the natural truth, and the naturaltruth is what matters. So, politics and authority can no longer matter when the natural order requiresno politics or authority
things just exist in a natural state.-
Beyond this though, what we get in Act 4 Scene 7 can be seen as a representation of humanperfection. Cordelia
’s perfect forgiveness and the perfection of Lear’s reunion with his daughter
show what humanity is ultimately capable of. This is an idealistic view of humanity. Both Lear andCordelia are able to rise above the politics of their grievances with each other and are just able tosee each other naturally, outside of anything else. This is a spiritual reunion, which again
undermines Lear’s sense of politics and authority because here both are being ignored, or perhaps
So, Shakespeare provides us with both base humanity and perfect humanity, Lear experiencesboth. He discovers, as we do that neither animals, nor angels need politics or political figures.Humanity is somewhere in between, which is why we do need politics. However, Lear is never ableto reconcile the two, and so he ends in a situation where he no longer sees the need for politics andtherefore can no longer rule.What the article seems to argue for then are a couple of things:1.
Lear can no longer rule because the way he sees humanity has fundamentally changed
he sees itas either beastly or angelic, and neither need figures of authority to guide them.2.
That as humans, we need figures of power for the very fact that we are not animals or angels. As
Cantor says: “man is a composite being,
a perplexing mix of body and spirit. It is precisely for thisreason that human beings require political life: to deal with the problems created by the tension
between body and spirit.” Unfortunately, Lear is unable to see this, but the play helps us see
thisand perhaps reassures us as the reason why we allow ourselves to live in systems of power andauthority.