«by JANE ELIZABETH KINGSLEY-SMITH A thesis submitted to the Faculty of Arts of the University of Birmingham for the degree of DOCTOR OF PHILOSOPHY The ...»
Poor Tom the Bedlam Beggar, was popularly known as a man who adopted a particular costume, rhetoric and gestures, even mutilated himself, to 'enforce charity' as Edgar puts it. 51 Just as the boundaries between deception and reality were blurred, the outcast and mutilated beggar both fraudulent and genuine, Edgar's performance of alienation reflects the annihilation of Edgar as it reveals his identity. 52 Moreover, Poor Tom offers others a symbol of alienation with which to identify. Lear is instantly fascinated and proceeds to appraise him
Thou owest the worm no silk, the beast no hide, the sheep no wool, the cat no perfume. 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. Off, off, you lendings! Come on, be true. (12.94-9) Lear identifies him as something essential though, paradoxically, Edgar's nakedness is a disguise. Gloucester's son has the ability to slip out of his role as Poor Tom to comment on the action and will eventually throw off this shape. If the exile of Edgar diverges from the reassuring pastoral model, he does share with Cordelia and Kent a resilient sense of self.
Michael Long expresses it thus:
Through all three there runs a core of humane life which does not require the securities of role-definition to support it. The Law does not define or circumscribe their beings. Their human status is not just a function of a particular social status. Their 'attachment' to the Law is flexible; so that, tossed about by the crises of social life, they do not collapse into that characteristic disorientation which besets men whose entire definition of themselves has been made in terms of (say) Roman caste or Venetian courtesy. They have a peculiar capacity for being 'translated' in social role but unmoved thereby in essential being. 53 51 See William C. Carroll, Fat King, Lean Beggar: Representations of Poverty in the Age of Shakespeare (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1996), 180-207, 193-5.
52 Ibid., 203.
53 The Unnatural Scene: A Study in Shakespearean Tragedy (London: Methuen, 1976), 204-5. See also Van Laan who contrasts Cordelia's adherence to her role as daughter with Lear's divestiture of kingship or with Gloucester and Edgar's loss of father and son roles, 'Acting as Action in King Lear', 63.
Marcia Holly quotes Sartre's dictum that to tell a lie one must know the truth. She writes of Kent and Edgar: They are able to disguise themselves to others because they themselves know exactly who they are; they also understand their unity with nature and remain constant to the purposes they set themselves 1. 54 There are also suggestions here of playfulness in exile, of the creativity typical of pastoral, that allows the exiles to fulfil some aspect of their natures previously constricted or denied. Kent's invective against Oswald (7.13-22), his slapstick performance when he trips the servant, and his defiance of Cornwall suggest this. Whilst disobedience to authority is at times a moral obligation in the play, 55 it is also temporarily liberating for Kent.
Similarly, we might see in Edgar's frenetic changes of accent and costume a measure of creative exhilaration. On Dover Cliff, he transforms his own identity and recasts the landscape in Gloucester's imagination. Edgar's theatrical tour de force creates in Gloucester the belief that he has fallen and thus has been saved. In comparison with Kent, whose stagemanagement has only limited success, Edgar uses disguise to seize control of events and to gradually raise himself from beggar/madman to peasant to knight, thus gaining increasing control of the play itself. 56 The experience of the banishers, Gloucester and Lear, when they too are expelled into the wilderness, is tragically different. These men do not accept the need for adaptation but keep 54 'King Lear. The Disguised and Deceived', Sh. Q. 24 (1973), 171-80, 174.
55 See Richard Strier, 'Faithful Servants: Shakespeare's Praise of Disobedience' in The Historical Renaissance:
New Essays on Tudor and Stuart Literature and Culture ed. by Heather Dubrow and Richard Strier (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1988), 104-33.
56 Leo Kirschbaum suggests that Edgar is more a 'dramatic device' than a character with 'mimetic unity' in 'Banquo and Edgar: Character or Function?', E. in C.. 1 (1957), 1-21, 9. See also Michael E. Mooney, "'Edgar I nothing am": Figurenposition in King Lear, Sh. S. 38 (1985), 153-66, on the realistic, symbolic and choric nature of Edgar's role.
referring back to their former identities. Having exiled those who loved and recognised them.
the two old men have no selfhood to fall back on. Lear becomes increasingly aware of his amorphousness, 'Doth any here know me? Why, this is not Lear' (4.220) and he warns Gonoril that he will resume the shape he seems to have cast off (302-4). Transformation becomes an agonising process. Lear describes Cordelia's ingratitude, 'That, like an engine, wrenched my frame of nature/ From the fixed place' (4.262-3). Rather than adopting disguises to await the circumstances for their return or to create that return as Edgar does, Lear and Gloucester insist on permanent and universally acknowledged identities in a world that recognises no such thing. They cannot resist transformation. Indeed, both men are subjected to a policy of marginalisation, leading to exile, by their enemies.
In the subplot, Gloucester is made to feel the irrelevance of age and tries to fight against it.
The letter Edmund has contrived reads, 'I begin to find an idle and fond bondage in the oppression of aged tyranny, who sways not as it hath power but as it is suffered' (2.47-50).
Edmund confirms that his brother had often argued for the elderly father becoming ward to his son (71-4). In fact, it is Edmund who cannot wait for his inheritance to come to him once the true heir has been dispossessed. His associates appropriate Gloucester's house and deprive the Earl of the right to succour guests of his own choosing. When Gloucester's treachery is discovered, his title is stripped from him with his estate and all his goods. The plucking out of his eyes leaves him mutilated and in the dark, outside the world of men.
Regan orders her servants, 'Go thrust him out at gates, and let him smell/ His way to Dover' (14.91-2). Transformation has overcome Gloucester. Broken by such changes in the world and in himself, he seeks only the change that comes with death. When Edgar leads him to the supposed edge of Dover Cliff, he describes his father as standing near 'th'extreme verge' (20.26). Gloucester's first attempt to dictate his own transformation or to embrace marginality by dying is also prevented. Edgar too, violently imposes another shape upon the Earl.
Unlike Gloucester. Lear is at first complicit in his own displacement. He admits the need to confer the kingdom upon 'younger years' and is preparing for retirement with Cordelia.
Moreover, in his banishment of Kent and Cordelia, Lear enforces the association between age and senility. This misjudgement confirms his daughters' opinions of the 'unruly waywardness that infirm and choleric years bring with them' (1.288-9). Regan confronts the king directly
with his marginality:
Lear has directly related his age to babyhood by referring to Cordelia's 'kind nursery' (1.116). It is an association that others will use to justify his exclusion from the adult and rational world (3.18-20, 4.166-71). His passions are redefined as childish tantrums or 'unsightly tricks' (7.315); his complaints are trivialised. This rejection crystallises into a policy of marginalisation whereby the King is thrust out beyond all defining limits. The question to what extent exile can be explained as a human action rather than the workings of a malevolent deity or author is simplified here. If Gonoril and Regan pursue a policy of banishment against their father they have seen such an action at work from the moment at which their power was first decreed. Their success has already depended upon the banishment of Cordelia.
The first hint of such a policy is given in Gonoril's orders that the King be treated with a weary negligence' by her servants (3.12. 22-3). Courtesy is crucial to Lear's self-definition, an indication of hierarchical standing but also an expression of love. The Servant who remarks on the rudeness shown to the King, speaks of a lack of 'ceremonious affection' (4.56). Lear concurs, perceiving in it 'a very pretence and purport of unkindness' (4.67). On meeting the King at Gloucester's house, Regan tells him that she is glad to see him. Lear
looks beyond the commonplace greeting for an expression of duty and affection:
As shown by servants, this discourtesy suggests the radical decentralisation of Lear in society. He has become only 'My lady's father' (4.76). Moreover, Gonoril uses the servants' ordered neglect to prove her argument that Lear can no longer command respect. She refers to his 'all-licensed fool' and his 'insolent retinue' and argues that he is no worthy master who would allow such riotousness (4.202-3). That the King has lost authority is explicitly suggested by Regan when she offers him the use of her servants: 'If then they chanced to slack you,/ We could control them' (7.403-4).
Gonoril's reduction of Lear's retinue to fifty knights is a more serious blow to his identity.
Whether the knights have been riotous or not, their dismissal is politically expedient. 57 Since she was promised power, Gonoril has feared that the King might interfere or attempt to reclaim it (1.293-5), but long after Lear has ceased to be a threat, the two sisters are still 57 -Reason and Need', 199-200.
invoking the spectre of rebellion to justify their cruelty (7.462-4). The reduction of Lear's train is a calculated assault upon the name of the King. His presence is literally reduced by its loss, his bulwarks weakened against the onslaught of non-recognition.
Meanwhile Gonoril and Regan begin a process of physically shutting him out. In scene 2, Gonoril denies him access to herself and Albany. Regan takes this further by actually fleeing from her house when she hears that Lear is on his way, thus leaving the King beating in vain at her gates. Kent's disgrace, imprisoned in the stocks outside overnight, is a further manifestation of this attitude. When the King is finally granted an audience at Gloucester's
house, he distinguishes Regan from Gonoril in an image of painful appropriateness:
Not only has Regan effectively done this by abandoning her house, but both she and Gonoril advocate opposing the bolt against Lear in this very scene, leaving him to wander the deserted heath in a thunderstorm. 58 In The True Chronicle Historie, Leir specifically refers to himself as 'banished' (24.2137).
Ejected by Gonorill (who hopes that a little travelling might kill him)59 and nearly murdered 58 Liebler describes how violations of the home and the neglect of hospitality presuppose the existence of the liminal heath, the antithesis to these domestic, 'civilised' values, Shakespeare's Festive Tragedy, 204-8. Leah Marcus considers the poignancy of this denial of hospitality at the play's performance on St Stephen's Day, 1606, a feast day devoted to the succouring of the poor, Puzzling Shakespeare, 154-5. On the political significance of this succouring see this chapter, m. 60.
59 She ponders, 'He happely may, by travelling unknowne wayes,/ Fall sicke, and as a common passenger,/ Be dead and buried'(12.974-6).
by Ragan, Leir travels to France with his faithful servant Perillus to be reconciled with Cordelia. On arrival he apostrophises his lost country: 'Ah, Brittayne, I shall never see thee more,/ That hast unkindly banished thy King:/ And yet not thou dost make me to complayne,/ But they which were more neere to me then thou' (2136-9). In Shakespeare's play, Lear never leaves Albion but he is more completely exiled than any of those upon whom an official sentence has been passed. According to his own definition of exile, he finds himself part of the savage, the barbarous, the Wild. Crucially, he is not outside Albion but at its centre. Lear is finally brought to confront the fantasy that was his kingdom and thus the fantasy of his own identity as king and father. The landscape is not that lush pastoral idyll Lear imagined but a barren waste, its inhabitants half-naked men such as Poor Tom, shivering in a hovel. Such were Lear's subjects, dependent upon his munificence, but men of whose existence he had no knowledge: *O, I have ta'en/ Too little care of this' (11.29-30). 60 If Lear can endure the discovery of his fantasy of Albion, its concomitant revelation of his own insignificance is much harder to bear. Lear had assumed a command over Nature and his battle with the storm is not merely for his own survival but for that imagined potency. The Gentleman who reports back to Kent on Lear's condition describes how Lear
60 Marcus explores the relationship between Lear's division of the kingdom and James I's struggle for reunification with particular reference to the Scots who remained outside the protection of English law and alienated within the kingdom. There may be a suggestion that Lear, like James, recognises his responsibility for those alienated men at 11.29-30. Marcus, however, suggests that Lear becomes one of them: 'A king becomes a beggar, looks for succor and is denied it, as a result of the "unnatural" division he has earlier unleashed: he becomes, in contemporary terms, an outcast "Scot" himself, suffering the same scanted courtesy to which King James's northern subjects had been unjustly treated in England', Pu::ling Shakespeare, 154.
He is a frenzied conductor urging on the wind, cataracts and hurricanes to 'Smite flat the thick rotundity of the world' (9.7) and calling upon thunderbolts to 'singe my white head' (6).