«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 ...»
What makes King Lear so significant to the study of Shakespearean exile is the fact that these expectations are foiled, that the marginal is not so easily reassimilated into society, and more important, the play's lasting valorization of the margins. Edgar's wild, demented, and naked beggar appears to Lear as the thing itself, as something he may once have known about humanity but has long forgotten. Of course, Edgar is not really a beggar and his philosophy' is not native wit or understanding. The disgust registered by Kent in his encounter with the beggar is a salutary reminder of the prejudice Poor Tom inspires in a sane man. Yet Edgar's suffering remains an epiphany that is only available to Lear outside society. The King's desire to remain a prisoner alone with Cordelia reinforces this suspicion of political and social structures and of prevailing ideologies. Gonoril and Regan complain that Lear has 'ever but slenderly known himself (1.283-4). Yet the King's misleading self-image is deliberately created by those around him: 'They told me I was everything; 'tis a lie, I am not ague-proof (20.102-3). Lear has fostered such assumptions about the divinity that hedges a king in order to rule but he has also been duped. If kings can be so thoroughly created and destroyed by their own rhetoric then we must suspect the operations of this power on other subjects.
To briefly summarise then, Shakespeare's representation of the exiled king, warrior, and heir does offer a kind of marginal percipience into the foundations of identity and power in his plays and in society. The fact that the great man can be banished is more a reflection of his dependence upon others than a truism about the caprices of Fortune (as represented in A Mirror for Magistrates). Furthermore, the fact that the exile may suffer from hunger, exposure, and contempt, like the lowest stratum of society, and that he is often indistinguishable from such elements further blurs the boundaries between the centre and the margins. This emphasis on perception is crucial. In Henry IV Parts One and Two, we saw that Henry V could only become king by casting off the marginal taint of Eastcheap and by banishing Falstaff. His performance as king depended upon the popular reception of it. Shakespeare's dramatization of exile approaches with varying degrees of tentativeness and conviction the idea that greatness is bestowed by others. It is not just that great men fall but that great men do not know themselves to be great they need others to tell them. Yet those who are responsible for an individual's self-perception may be actively pushing a particular ideology or may be passively in thrall to one. Banishment dramatizes the individual's dependence for a conception of himself upon a consensual discourse or system that serves the interests of society and not the individual. Shakespeare's plays do not seem to suggest that society should suffer for the hero's integrity but they do present the fictionality of identity and the trauma of its loss as tragedy.
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