The concept of ‘community’ in
King Lear

Richard the Third allocates himself a special status, and so do the ageing Cleopatra, duke Orsino in
Twelfth Night and the shepherd Silvius from As You Like It. Such characters are exposed through the respective plays. Shakespeare's historical plays go further in that they develop the basic theme in contexts much wider than any single pair.

There are, in other words, two major topics here: one, the presentation of individual characters or pairs, the other, extending the consequences of their actions to larger units such as whole sections of society. The theatre teaches its lessons within both major areas.

Where the community is strengthened, we get light, cheerful and triumphant displays. Failures are the most common, however. They can be subdivided into three types, all of them characterised by hatred, misfortune or sorrow:

(a) In
villain-plays both ends and means are harmful, as in King Richard the Third.

Tragi-comedy covers those cases where the insight of the protagonist is so limited that he becomes an object of laughter as much as of alarm. This is possible because the ignorant protagonist is in agreement at least with the aims of the majority.

(c) Finally, the protagonist of a
tragedy behaves sensibly as regards ends as well as means, but only from the point of view of his previous insight. The tragedy makes the audience wiser than the hero by revealing knowledge not shared by him, which therefore brings about his downfall.

In the quintessential tragic set-up the hero could not possibly have this knowledge and is therefore innocent. King Oedipus is such a blameless victim of events altogether beyond his control. All the same such complete innocence on the part of a tragic hero is rather rare, surely because its value as an instrument of instruction is small. Instead most tragedies combine lack of insight in the hero with circumstances indicating that he
ought to have known better and therefore shares some of the responsibility for unhappy events. In Shakespeare's production there is hardly a single tragedy bearing the protagonist's name in which the protagonist himself must not take an important part of the blame for death or defeat.

The ruler

Special tangles occur around benefits that cannot very well be shared. The most complicated case of all concerns power as an indispensable form of government of the state. Such monopoly goods can end up disuniting those to be united. Especially important are the difficulties that present themselves when rule passes from one leader to another. This is the starting point of
King Lear.

England's mythical king wants to abdicate. The transfer of power is mismanaged in such a way that he destroys all that he has been put to take care of.

The king being old, the play can easily be seen as a tragedy about old age. The executioners being two of his daughters, it can equally easily be interpreted as a play about the ingratitude of the world. But in the text both of these themes are subordinate to the wider context, which is the government of the kingdom.

In order to impress the mechanism of the collapse on us, Shakespeare relates a collateral story. The Earl of Gloucester is the king's collaborator and acts the way he does — with an equally miserable outcome. We follow the two old men's fall from their first rash steps to the ghastly end. The dangers are shown through the figures brought to life on stage, which, combined, give a cross-section of those forces with which all responsible leaders have to contend when choosing their successors.

Firstly, there is greed and cruelty disguised as love and care, represented by the daughters Goneril and Regan together with one of the spouses — Cornwall — and the steward Oswald. The daughters flatter and cajole their father but turn around the very moment they have achieved power, and find a new ally in Gloucester's illegitimate son.

Their opponent is the king's youngest daughter. Cordelia loves her father but in contradistinction to her sisters she refuses to feign love for him alone. Instead, her feelings are such as are reasonable. She is fond of her father but will also love husband and children in the future. At the same time she is ready to live up to her words in action. As helpers Cordelia has the counsellor Kent, Gloucester's legitimate son Edgar, and the King of France.

The last corner in the triangle is filled by Lear and Gloucester. To start with, the king is concerned to make a just apportionment among his heirs, even though he values Cordelia more highly than the older two. But later he fails on every score.

First, he
splits the power between his three daughters. Second, he makes the succession depend on the attitude of the younger generation to himself, disregarding the fact that the love of daughters for a father should be a clearly secondary consideration to a king's responsibility towards the country. Third, Lear is blind towards the two oldest, despite their thoroughgoing hypocrisy. Fourth, he is incapable of appreciating the offer of the youngest, with her fine understatement. Fifth, he turns obstinate in the face of sensible advice from Kent and the French king in favour of Cordelia. Sixth, he becomes inconsistent in his views, passing from deep love to complete rejection of his favourite. Seventh, he is lacking in judgement on other points as well; for when his surroundings stop treating him with their usual reverence, the king-that-was nevertheless continues to treat them like cattle.

He fails in everything that concerns power.

King and fool

In a democracy a prime minister receives wide coverage in the news media as long as he is in office, but few ask his opinion once someone else has taken over. Power, then, is no property or characteristic of any one individual but a respect tied to tasks of state that need unequivocal decisions. Lear is wrong to relinquish power but to expect nevertheless to keep his dignity as king. He even wants his daughters to remain obedient as before, although they have actually taken over the government. He is as flabbergasted at the metamorphosis of Goneril and Regan as is Hermia in
A Midsummer Night's Dream.

The contradiction is apparent to the daughters, and their realisation of their father's character is part of their revolt. Kent has seen the king's weakness long ago. He warns his master, calls his actions folly, and takes exception to his “hideous rashness”. So does the fool, and he requires some additional words besides.

As dethroned king, Lear rants and screams, threatening terrible vengeance on his daughters. The fool, on the other hand, is always completely realistic. It is silly to divide power among several persons, even sillier to give it away, since avarice grows when allowed to unfold. It is equally foolish to believe the word of others without further proof, since hardly one of twenty is able to see through empty phrases and Lear certainly lacks the ability to do so. Once the reins have been handed over, however, standing up against those now in power is a waste of time. — Lear has disregarded all this. In other words, the king has grown old without growing wise. The fool's only comfort is that Lear shares his folly with others since everyone is born foolish and unable to see himself.

The Middle Ages place the jester as a counterpart to omnipotence. The king's power is precisely the reason why he needs an outspoken counterbalance, who should never be punished.
King Lear brings the thought behind this role-division much further than is usual. We perceive that the king has overt power and becomes everybody's fool, while the jester is completely powerless but becomes the play's most sensible commentator on events and people. We also understand the reason for the difference between them. A king, possessing power, becomes ignorant because everybody kowtows to him. As for the fool, because he has no authority, no-one who despises him is afraid to show his true self quite openly to him. The fool can therefore observe everybody and judge them reliably. The function of the jester at court is therefore analogous to that of the dramatist at the theatre. He, too, should be in part a detached observer. — In our times the task has been passed to science and research, with Einstein and Sakharov in the roles of 20th century ‘fools’.

Shakespeare's placing of the fool in
King Lear is very consistent. As a caricatured mirror image he follows the king as long as the king still believes he is in possession of his former rank. In the text, the wag disappears the moment the ex-ruler begins to glimpse the results of his actions.

Lear's eldest daughters put him out of the running at once. But the consequences of the king's incompetent choice of successors are not yet over; they lead to ever new calamities. His two sons-in-law fall out, since Cornwall is a hypocrite while Albany is relatively decent. Their wives, on the other hand, both go for Gloucester's handsome bastard Edmund, and in their rivalry the younger poisons the elder, only to discover Edmund's duplicity. She then takes her own life.

And so the war within the family is almost over, and the further consequences befall the country as a whole. Cordelia, having witnessed the treatment of Lear at the hands of her sisters, sends a French army against England. The fall of the kingdom is thus the direct outcome of the ill-judged succession to the throne.

The last result strikes at Lear's deepest values. To be sure, Edgar does manage to destroy the monstrous Edmund, but only after Cordelia has been hung by the bastard's henchmen. That finishes the old man, and his family is wiped out.

Every chain of cause and effect is clearly stated in the text. Goneril is conscious of her father's lack of poise, and Regan holds that he has never known himself. He does, however, begin to understand soon after having renounced power, and then deplores his own foolishness. The summing up is done by Edgar, who pronounces the gods just and holds them to be the source of the fateful conclusion.

Even the unhappy Gloucester fell as a victim of that lust which bred Edmund adulterously and through this action created a hatred that became the father's bane. Edmund's special background is a new contribution by Shakespeare to an understanding of the causes of destructive behaviour in the deeper layers of personality.

The blood-bath at the end

Bourgeois critics have ridiculed the bloody endings of classical drama. When
King Lear ends, almost all the characters are lying lifeless on the stage. The killing of Cordelia is especially revolting, but it is justified by the purpose of the tragedy:

The development of the plot must throw light on life's dangers. That can best be accomplished by showing the results of our ill-considered actions. An effective drama must show these consequences fully, as a play where life itself is at stake.

These severe demands on the theatre go back to Sophocles and classical times.
King Oedipus deals with the most fundamental of all conditions for our most general unit of common life — the family — since all life based on kin groups must build on a prohibition against killing or incest within the nuclear family. In such cases it is irrelevant whether the sinner acts consciously or not.

The extent of the tragedy depends on the size of the unit of community. The simplest of groups are a pair or a small family. With
Romeo and Juliet and Antony and Cleopatra we have seen simple pair formation which is hurt on a superficial level. In either case both parties die. Ibsen's Ghosts shows an extended case. At first it seems that only lieutenant Alving and his syphilis-infected son must die; but as the play develops Mrs. Alving's destiny becomes increasingly terrible. — King Lear aims at an even wider unit, with several subordinate parts.

To start with we have the king's own confrontation with his inadequacies. The confrontation kills him. Further, the human being Lear is irrevocably tied to his family, so the daughters too have to die. But in that case it would be illogical to expect Cordelia to escape, since even the most innocent has to be struck down in order to show clearly how much is at stake when we decide how to act. In addition, Gloucester and most of his family are wiped out. Beyond the individual families lie the tragedies which can be shown on stage only with difficulty, the horrors of war and the atrocities of civil war.

The only ones to escape are Kent, Albany and Edgar. What about the fool? If the half-crazed Edgar is saved, should not the wise jester have been allowed to live? Yes, that would seem reasonable, but there is a line of reasoning pointing in the other direction. For the fool has been constructed as the neglected side of the king — comparable to the unrecognised aspects of the personality in
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde or The Picture of Dorian Gray — and it is therefore reasonable enough that he disappears since Lear does.

Gloucester's son Edgar survives by taking part in the common teaching, when he leads his blind father safely through his tragi-comic suicide at Dover. For otherwise he too ought probably to have been killed off, as the son of his thoughtless father? Or does he perhaps emerge as the new, wise fool when the other disappears? His relationship to his father is comparable to that of Cordelia to hers. But although Edgar's integrity is as great as Cordelia's, she has up to the time she is rejected by her father held an honoured position and takes great pride in honest dealing. Holding at the same time the power of Queen of France, she is always uncompromisingly straightforward in word and action and is therefore actually unable to save either her father or herself. Edgar's situation has long been difficult, he keeps a much lower profile and manages to live through the dangerous times until it is realistic to resume the personality of wise leader, when his status is at last restored to him.

About atrocities in general we may remark:

Every age and every class has its own forms of cruelty. Voltaire and the bourgeoisie came to see classical tragedy as unreasonably bloody. Does that mean that modern man rejects violence for his own part? Yes, when carried out by the sword in the theatre, perhaps, as long as the sentimental Rousseau is allowed to replace tragedy with idyll. The banishment of force from the stage does not, however, remove it from our lives. True, when wars ceased in Europe, the most bellicose individuals went to the colonies, removing part of the problem from our immediate horizon. The violence that remained at home, on the other hand, was still let loose in private life. The upbringing of children in the home and in schools is the sphere best known to everybody. Instead of showing life's cruelties on stage, then, the citizen had to beat up his own children until they understood the facts of life. Ibsen's theatre shows us the last step in the development, in which all that was kept hidden on stage was revenged on the little ones. That is why his Eyolf of
Little Eyolf, Hedvig of The Wild Duck and Alf of Brand die, and the tragedy of the child therefore becomes the one historical piece of news from the middle classes of the last century.

Yes, why not? Unnecessary death is life's final proof of an action gone wrong.