Theoretical Approaches to King Lear: A Wrap-Up

The purpose of looking across a range of scholarly articles that approached the play from different angles was 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 King Lear can read in different ways to support arguments that evaluate elements of the human psyche, power dynamics, and social relations. The really important thing to take away from the work we did is the lesson that, for us, the play is more than just a series of events that ends in tragedy, but that these events allow us to make much broader arguments about who we are and how we live.

Psychoanalytical
Focus: ‘King Lear: 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: The Lear 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 extensive process of self-learning, or developing self-knowledge. It is this process that ultimately gains him wisdom, 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 the discovery that man is but a beast. Once he sees all humanity as beastly, he can no longer separate criminals 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 as more fundamental and anything beyond that is simply covering the truth. This is why the clothing imagery in the play is so important – for Lear, clothing just hides the natural truth, and the natural truth is what matters. So, politics and authority can no longer matter when the natural order requires no 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 human perfection. 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 and Cordelia are able to rise above the politics of their grievances with each other and are just able to see 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 transcended. - So, Shakespeare provides us with both base humanity and perfect humanity, Lear experiences both. 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 able to reconcile the two, and so he ends in a situation where he no longer sees the need for politics and therefore 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 it as 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 this reason 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 this and perhaps reassures us as the reason why we allow ourselves to live in systems of power and authority. Key Quotes:

“And, bound up as it is in his spiritedness, Lear‟s pride was the source of his greatness as well as of his failures as a king.” “In short, we must realise that Lear cannot absorb the kind of unnerving truths he learns about himself and remain the same man.” “man is a composite being, a perplexing mix of body and spirit. It is precisely for this reason that human beings require political life: to deal with the problems created by the tension between body and spirit.”

Marxist
Marxist approaches are interested in how a text is dominated by the underlying attitudes and values of the time in which it was written. Marxist critics would argue that a text cannot exist outside of the social structures under which it was made, and so no matter how much Shakespeare may (or may not) have tried, his writing must be influenced by the values and attitudes of Elizabethan society. Within this, we can consider a Christian reading of the play as a Marxist one, as what we are doing is looking at how the core religious system of the time finds its way into the play. The Christian reading sees the play as a representation of the need for the order and stability provided by God by delivering a God-less world that self-destructs. By seeing this interpretation as closer to what the play was intending, over a reading that is more nihilist for example, we are working in a Marxist manner because we are looking at how the text represents the time it was written in, rather than representing what it means to us now. Focus: ‘King Lear and the Decline of Feudalism’, by Paul Delany What Delaney is ultimately interested in is how the play represents the social conditions of Elizabethan England. At the core of it, Delaney sees the play as representing shifting political viewpoints with a significant tension between an old world of feudalism and a new world capitalism. The feudal system was dying during the 16th Century (when Shakespeare was writing) and was slowly being replaced by a capitalist style of system. While this wasn‟t the capitalism of today‟s world, it was a growing shift from the idea of lords holding land that they allowed people to live on in return for domestic or military services, to a system of more self-determined wealth. The feudal system relied on a tiered system of wealth, with the king at the top, granting land to lords, who would then allow it to be used by others. A capitalist system de-centralised this kind of wealth system, allowing those who weren‟t born into positions of privilege the opportunity to gain wealth and power all the same. The 16th Century was a time of changing attitudes, and what Delaney argues is that King Lear is representative of this shift in values and attitudes towards power and wealth. The argument goes something like this: The older characters in the play such as Lear and Gloucester represent the old guard; a more feudal approach to the distribution of wealth. They are central figures of power who deem that their power and title comes from a central power – in this situation, that central power is the gods. Lear‟s story then shows him dividing up his land so that his legacy might live on. Essentially, this land would remain in the Lear family, with the one family being the central point of power and wealth. This is the same with Gloucester – he is the central point of power and wealth and he passes that on down his family line, which is why Edmund misses out. He is not pseudo-family and as a consequence not entitled to land or title. Goneril, Regan, and Edmund represent the new capitalist order. They see wealth and power that they want and then they work to take it. Neither character is born into a situation where they are entitled to all of the power that they want, yet they work to undermine the systems that currently exist and in the process change those systems to suit how they believe power and wealth should be distributed.

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Edmund is probably the best representation of this – he believes in Nature over God, and he sees power as belonging to those who most deserve it, not those who are lucky enough to be born into it. Edmund is the perfect representation of a capitalist mentality – ultimately selfish, but ambitious and ingenious in methodology. And so we have a conflict between two systems, which represents what Delaney sees as a key conflict happening in Elizabethan England.

What‟s interesting is that Goneril, Regan, and Edmund as seen as evil and selfish beings. There is very little sympathy for any of these characters. It could be argued then that Shakespeare is representing a time that is resistant to this kind of change and it still insistent on keeping wealth and power centralized in the form of God and Queen/King. We get an insight into how Elizabethan‟s felt about capitalist modes of power and wealth distribution and we get a pretty good prediction of the type of world we‟d exist in if things were left to capitalist forces. If anything, Edmund is a prophecy for big business. Key Quotes: “Edmund belongs to the new age of scientific inquiry and industrial development, of bureaucratic organization and social regimentation the age of mining and merchant venturing of monopoly and empire making the age of the sixteenth century and after: an age of competition suspicion glory. He hypostatizes those trends in man which guarantee success under the new conditions” “Edmund is determined to strike of all shackles that might inhibit the free play of his energies” “to his mind (Edmund‟s), the social and natural orders would then be homologous, and would recognize only the one sovereignty of Nature herself” “I shall assume therefore that the opposition between the party of Lear and the party of Regan, Goneril and Edmund is not merely conflict between good and evil persons it conveys a social meaning that derives from the contemporary historical situation as Shakespeare understands it.”

Feminist
The feminist reading of the play can also be considered Marxist because we are, to an extent, interested in how the play represents Elizabeth attitudes towards women. And so, we are looking at how the play is plagued by the patriarchy that existed in Elizabethan society. Beyond this though, what we can also attain is an understanding of how these power relationships come about and so we can perhaps learn something for fundamental or universal about the relationship between men and women that we, in a modern sense, have inherited. Focus: ‘The Patriarchal Bard’ by Kathleen McLuskie McKluskie is particularly interested in the relationship between women and power in the play. There is some particular interest in how she sees the representation of women in power, but also a particular interest in the nature of being a woman and how that differs to being a man. One of her key points is that men are able to straddle both masculine and feminine traits, being uncompromised in the process, yet women are not able to do to the same. Some of her key arguments: We see men capable of embracing what are traditionally feminine qualities – care, compassion, love, gentleness, etc. These traits are seen particularly in Kent and Edgar. We applaud and approve of both of these characters when they show this vulnerability and care for others – it is something we see as a positive for both. It is the same with Lear. When we develops compassion and care for human-kind, when he seems more in touch with the feminine, we approve and applaud him. We also see woman as capable of embracing the masculine. Both Goneril and Regan do this. However, McKluskie argues that when women take on these masculine traits they are despised and seen as monstrous. So, ultimately, women are denied access to the masculine, for if they venture into this territory, they do so at their own peril.

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And so this leads to McKluskie‟s belief that women in power in the play are only able to bring disgrace upon themselves. This is certainly the case with Goneril and Regan. Both take on power and independence, but both are disgraced by the end of the play. Again, we see women denied access to agency and authority. The only woman with any sense of positive power in the play is Cordelia. However, McKluskie argues that this too is undermined. What Cordelia does is bring redemption and she brings with her the ability to return power to its „rightful‟ place. Ultimately, she becomes an agent of the patriarchy, as her only power is to return power back to its masculine home. Her power is ultimately in the service of men. Finally, McKluskie would argue that the tragedy of the play exists because gender norms are undermined or devalued. Men drop from their positions of power, while women stop being the nurturing, gentle beings they are meant to be, and the world falls into tragic disorder.

And so what we get with McKluskie is a striking analysis of the misogyny that exists within the work. She is able to illuminate how the play is representative of Elizabethan power relationships and is able to show how the play works to reinforce the patriarchy that existed at the plays time of writing. We get to see that feminine power is always compromised in the play, which ensures that the audience‟s belief that power should reside in the masculine isn‟t challenged. While an interpretation of the play that stresses this interpretation would probably be poorly received today, McKluskie‟s work helps us to see the enormous battle women had to (and still have to) fight in order to be respected as figures of power and authority. We should also remember that every time the play is read or performed, it is capable of reinforcing these attitudes towards women and so McKluskie‟s work is important if we are to deconstruct those beliefs. Key Quotes: “Women at power can only bring disgrace” “Cordelia...is a redeeming women” “when men are approved of, they are seen as embracing feminine principals whereas women are denied access to the male and are denigrated when they aspire to male qualities.” “His...tragedies are interpreted as...an examination of the kinds of worlds that result when one or other gender principle (where females nurture and give birth, and males kill) is abused, neglected, devalued or exiled.”

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