Two worldly problems represented in King Lear are the difficulties of generational change and the associated emotional suffering. Before exploring how this relates to the present historical moment, a quick refresh of the plot is in order.
An old king is tired of ruling, he divides his kingdom up and relinquishes the responsibilities of rule so he can ‘Unburdened crawl toward death’. His divestment of power hinges on a love test in which his three daughters are invited to publicly declare their love for a share of the kingdom. The eldest two (Goneril and Regan) declare their love in grandiose, poetic terms (for example, ‘Sir, I love you … Dearer than eye-sight, space and liberty’). Cordelia responds differently. She actually says ‘Nothing’. Lear is startled by this response and asks her to clarify what she means. Cordelia carefully states that she cannot express love in such ways and that she loves her father ‘according to her bond’. Lear cannot tolerate this particular approach to the love test and banishes her from the kingdom.
Unable to remain in England, Cordelia travels to France with her new husband. From here, things start to go badly for Lear. He immediately begins to argue with Goneril and then Regan. The argument is about the necessity of his entourage of one hundred knights. He refuses to reduce the size of the train and they refuse to house him with the knights. So, he ends up naked and exposed to a storm. Cordelia hears of the conflict in her family and of her old father’s encounter with the bad weather; she returns to England to help. Bringing along the French army to reclaim the throne for Lear, Cordelia reunites with her father and soon after they are both taken to prison as traitors.
Despite the grim circumstances, Lear is excited that he gets to spend some quality time with Cordelia. But, tragically, she is executed soon after. Her death is unseen; it is offstage. Her death is announced by Lear, who carries Cordelia’s lifeless corpse on to the stage. Lear’s tragedy – widely recognised as one of the most iconic representations of decline in the history of Western Civilisation – is symbolised by the physical and existential burden of Cordelia’s dead body. Full of passion, regret and rage, he dies from grief while desperately examining her lifeless body for signs that things could be otherwise. The ending is thus the antithesis of his sought after ‘unburdened crawl toward death’.
A particular production of King Lear is in the headlines at the moment because a tabloid newspaper reported on the sexual harassment of the young actor playing Cordelia. The famous actor playing Lear is the alleged perpetrator. This actor sued a newspaper for defamation. While interpretations of emojis and text messages alongside high-profile witnesses are important for both claimant and defendant, the crux of the case is the alleged sexual assault of the actor’s living body while she was playing dead on stage.
It is not the purposes of this piece of writing to analyse that particular incident. Rather, it is to take focus on the body of Cordelia at this moment and to consider this body and Lear’s tragedy in the contemporary moment (visible in the background: #metoo, Trump and Kavanaugh, the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation, the sordid surge of mainstream misogyny, the undervaluation of care labour in the current economy). Writing this feels necessary because social and political change is hard-won and what seemed yesterday like transformative and irreversible progress towards a more just and equitable world are today revealed as fragile and temporary moments of partial agreement and compromise. There is so much more work still to do. On many days it feels like we – we who care about maintaining difference, repairing historical ills, accommodating diverse desires and living justly together – have to begin again.
Misogyny is an old word with a simple and enduring definition. English inherits it relatively unchanged from the Ancient Greek and misogyny is, by definition, ‘hatred or dislike of, or prejudice against women’. Like all emotions, though, hatred or dislike is rarely pure or simple. Contempt of women is often combined with or exacerbated by desire for a relation with them in one way or another. For instance, the prevalence of sexual violence suggests that hatred and sexual desire can be closely related, even as every case is horribly nuanced. King Lear is a misogynistic character, but his misogyny is not pure hate either. Rather, it emerges from his ailing body and his need for care. He is old, he was once all-powerful but he recognises his body failing and he needs someone to care for him in his old age. He flatly assumes his daughters will take up that responsibility and he especially desires Cordelia to occupy that role. What is tyrannical about Lear’s response to Cordelia in the play’s first scene is the extent to which her deviation from his assumptions and expectations triggers cataclysmic rage. She ultimately promises to fulfil her duty and deliver what he needs, just not with unconditional and unqualified love. In response, he uses his sovereign power to banish her: ‘And as a stranger to my heart and me / Hold thee, from this, for ever.’
Lear’s misogyny is consistent throughout the play. The king’s reactions to any minor resistance from daughters are not framed in gender-neutral terms but rather explicitly relate to the worldly presence they have as women – explicitly as reproductive female animals: the circumstances of their birth and their embodied capacity to create life is often what Lear seeks to police if they disobey. After Cordelia’s banishment he claims she would be better dead than disobedient: ‘Better thou / Hadst not been born than not to have pleased me better.’ His spite grows as the play develops. When Goneril suggests the knights are no longer needed, Lear responds exclaiming he hopes she cannot reproduce:
Hear, nature, hear; dear goddess, hear! / Suspend thy purpose, if thou didst intend / To make this creature fruitful! / Into her womb convey sterility! / Dry up in her the organs of increase.
When Regan next sees Lear, she politely notes that she’s ‘glad’ to see him. He replies that he hopes she is glad, because if she were not sufficiently so he would immediately deny paternity (‘if thou shouldst not be glad, / I would divorce me from thy mother’s tomb, / Sepulchring an adultress’). In other words, the play’s conflict hinges on and develops through the patterns of argument between Lear and his daughters, all of which are triggered by Lear’s inability to tolerate any filial sentiment that is not in absolute obedience and devotion of him. His anger manifests as curses on their birth and on their embodied capacity to give birth. Taken out of context these might seem like non-sequiturs or instances of madness (how does Goneril’s reproductive capacity even vaguely relate to their conflict about the entourage of knights, you might ask), but this is the part of the conflict that is least contentious in most analyses of the play. Misogyny is the basic fibre of this drama. So obvious or essential is the protagonist’s misogyny, that the overtly gendered aspects of the play’s conflict are often relegated to footnotes or specialist think pieces like this one.
King Lear is an extraordinary play to read in gendered terms though, not only because it provides example of the most extravagant masculinist fantasies of control and power, but it also reveals the enduring (412 years and counting) cultural sympathy for such a character. Reading King Lear in 2018 obviously cannot account for the rise of Trump, or the appointment of Kavanaugh, for example, but it can tell us a few things. First, that sympathy for overtly misogynistic male figures has a long, entrenched and powerful history. Second, that misogynists have always recognised they need relations with women (for sex, or housework, or reproduction, or administrative duties, or care), but traditionally fail to see how their quest to control and dominate them is related to that need. This significant blind spot – that male/masculine domination is underwritten by female/feminine labour of all kinds and that this is a (if not the) source of masculine resentment – has not yet been undone by modern feminism. But powerful feminism is much younger than powerful misogyny. If we take systematic women’s suffrage as a guide here, feminism is only barely a century old, with more nuanced, localised, intersectional (antiracist, decolonial, non-heteronormative, not to mention genderqueer) dimensions less than that. This revitalisation of the masculinist hegemon is unfortunate and frustrating, but not a categorical failure of feminism. It is the struggle of intergenerational power shift.
While the gendered dynamics of the play are often footnoted, one thing that does actually occupy the critical archive is the meaning of Lear’s suffering. For anyone interested, this critical history is neatly summarised in 47 minutes by Emma Smith in her Oxford Shakespeare Podcast series. What remains undertheorised is the specificity of that suffering: what is the cause of Lear’s suffering? If we accept that the play represents the absolute worst suffering imaginable (which is what the critical archive would suggest), then the apotheosis of human suffering is defined by the play as the experience and associated feelings of losing absolute power and control, and witnessing some of that power shift to younger women. This is generally accounted for by accusing the daughters of ‘filial ingratitude’, but a tragic hero is structurally the author of his own demise.
To be clear, I am not saying that the experience of losing absolute power and developing a dependence on others is the true apex of human suffering. Rather, that the particular history of the play suggests that a lot of people take this as the absolute worst fate imaginable. In the earliest surviving critical reflection on the play, Samuel Johnson says he only endured reading the play again because he had committed to editing it – he otherwise would have preferred to avoid a reunion with its horrors. On top of this, to be able to perform Lear is frequently understood as climbing a mountain like Everest. The Everest metaphor refers to the steep and dangerous the emotional challenge of confronting the fact that no power is absolute and it requires the support and labours of others. Clinging to power at all costs, being surrounded by yes men and silent women, is apparently a more desirable approach to embodied decline than a frank and open conversation about how to give up power or at least share it differently.
That power shifts, that bodies change, that responsibilities vary, that people are different are all, apparently, secondary to the horrors of watching a once powerful man on the decline.
I write all this because I think King Lear can be instructive for western politics right now if the logic of the tragedy is fully understood. The real or perceived difficulty of both relinquishing power and recognising the labours of others really needs to be talked about (again) right now. Feminism, antiracism, decolonial movements, queer, crip and other civil rights struggles are about the way particular bodies are circumscribed by an unjust distribution of power and daily experiences of fear, hatred and violence as a result; the environmental movement’s desire to award agency or value to the non-human world is related to this too, as is the concomitant refusal to recognise the projected power of climate change. This politics is about a lot of different things, but it all requires a shift in the current distribution of power.
After decades of fighting to claim power – and with wins barely consolidated – civil rights movements of all stripes are facing a resurgent Lear-like force enraged that anyone would dare challenge their power. In real life, Brett Kavanaugh’s testimony is perhaps the clearest display of the structure of the experience of power assumed through privilege we have seen in a while. When someone questioned his claim to power, his response is to extravagantly and painstakingly defend every single action he’s ever taken in his life. Like Lear, Kavanaugh’s response is triggered by a woman’s subtle questioning of his power. After decades of trying to illustrate the unjust contours of power and to change those shapes, where can we turn to continue the fight or, indeed, reanimate a new old discussion on how to relinquish power, how to share it, how to distribute it differently? Perhaps it is about repeating ourselves.
This is where the body of Cordelia comes back in to view. A vexing and properly tragic aspect of King Lear’s critical history relevant to this discussion is the that criticisms of the play are, on the whole, strikingly disembodied, even though the catalyst of the drama is Lear’s own recognition of the problem of his ageing, mortal body. Historically, critics concern themselves with the existential aspects of the play and imagine emotions as disembodied, these considerations seem to sit beside the durational, varied field of embodied existence rather than constitute an essential part of it. What is striking about King Lear though, is just how thoroughly concerned it is with the body – Lear’s power is waning only because his body is ageing; on top of this, concerns circulate throughout the play about how humans procreate, and how a social order is determined by who procreates with whom. Moreover the play explores not only the metaphoric capacities of vision and blindness, of the thunder, lightning, wind and rain, of what it means to be clothed or naked, and the difference between being alive or dead, but also the embodied realities of those things. Cordelia’s dead body is the literal embodiment of the blind spot – the injustice that emerges from the failure to account for the body.
Given a shocking return to a style of politics that pre-dates civil rights movements of the sixties and seventies, a second-wave feminist claim emerging from late in that era seems the most appropriate here: to reiterate the importance and to encourage others to begin to ‘think through the body’, as Adrienne Rich implores in Of Woman Born, despite the fact that ‘fear and hatred of our bodies has often crippled our brains’. The body is what is circumscribed by politics and subject to its violences, and yet perversely the body is the first thing that is forgotten, abstracted, abandoned, too. Thus it is asserting and, as it turns out, repeatedly reasserting, again and again, the primacy of the body, and its basic needs for shelter, food, love and space – that is what we must do. Our bodies must not be seen as a burden on each other, but rather as the dead weight of responsibility we have to each other. The body is what forces us to make room for each other in the world.
Cordelia’s corpse on stage is evidence of what happens when power forgets its dependence on other bodies. Lear’s famous suffering is, for the most part, the selfish pangs of waning power. Lear’s ultimate shock at Cordelia’s death and his sudden breathlessness is his remembering she was real, that her body was not only there for him but was present in itself. Tragically this recognition comes far too late. That for his body to be accommodated, he also needed to accommodate her body. Her body is evidence that his hatred, resentment, fear of loss of power and control are not abstract forces; they have material consequences. And Cordelia’s body, representing an untimely death in the world of the play, symbolises all kinds of untimely ends and unjust deaths that are effects of poorly handled power. The only way for Cordelia to survive in future iterations of this story and to break the seemingly endless cycle of this tragic story, is to learn how to relinquish power without fear and to discover again and again different ways to share it.
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