Most productions of King Lear today center on Lear: a king, a father, a man who "smells of mortality." (1) Gloucester's experience in the second plot simply repeats Lear's in another register--on a lower social level, or on a physical rather than psychological level. But the 1608 quarto title page suggests that seventeenth-century audiences may have seen the play differently: "The True Chronicle Historie of the Life and Death of King Lear and his three Daughters. With the unfortunate life of Edgar, sonne and heire to the Earle of Gloster, and his sullen and assumed humor of Tom of Bedlam" (italics added). The quarto subtitle emphasizes family, not father (Lear and his daughters, Edgar, son of Gloucester), and breaks the symmetry between Lear's two plots by naming one after a father and the other after a son. Lear himself equates--indeed merges--father with child on the heath, when he recognizes Edgar as "the thing itself" (3.4.108-9), the image of his own suffering. Edgar makes the comparison as well, after learning that Lear is "childed as I fathered" (3.6.109). Edgar and Lear are linked elsewhere in the text, as their common enemies are eager to point out. He is Lear's godson, the one Lear named, the one who keeps company with Lear's knights (2.1.91-97). Finally, as in no other version of Lear's story, Edgar inherits Lear s kingdom (5.3.321-28). (2) This essay argues that the title page balance between father-king and child-heir illuminates both the play's human tragedy and its political relevance at the beginning of the seventeenth century.
By balancing a father's story with a child's, Shakespeare's play remains closer to the original plot of King Leir (c. 159?), his primary source, than we have realized. Leir is divided more equally between Leir and Cordella in just this way. Shakespeare's Cordelia disappears from the middle of the play after she is banished, and Shakespeare shows only the results of her actions, as, for example, when Kent reads her letter about arriving at Dover. But, in the original play, audiences watched Cordella's new life in France, presented in scenes alternating with Leir's, and they saw her making plans to rescue her father. Shakespeare's play crowds Cordelia out of the main plot, but he maintains Leir's balance by dividing its story into two separate plots: the life and death of King Lear, who inherits the king's role from the original, and the unfortunate life of Edgar, who inherits Cordella's role.
What Shakespeare does change is the moral imbalance in Leir's presentation of father and child. In the old play, it is clear that Leir is wrong and Cordella is right. She is sinned against, he is sinning. Such moral clarity was common in plays at the time. Robert Greene's (?) Selimus (1591?), for example, reverses Leir's familial guilt. As its prologue promises, "Here shall you see the wicked son pursue / His wretched father with remorseless spite." The wicked son is guilty; the wretched father is wholly innocent. (3) Shakespeare's dual plots suggest instead that father and child are both sinned against and sinning.
For this darker vision of human relationships, Shakespeare moves outside the old Leir play entirely. He borrows from Montaigne's unsentimental account of the nature of fathers and children, who have good reason to hate each other as they compete for scarce resources. (4) Generations always threaten to eat each other like creatures of the deep. They must, if they try to preserve themselves. Every father wants to keep his daughter to himself and subordinate his son's needs to his own, even if he isn't a foolish old man who has "ever but slenderly known himself" (1.1.295-96). Parents harm their children; "they may not mean to, but they do" as Philip Larkin put it. (5) At the same time, children, even if they aren't evil bastards out for themselves like Edmund, hurt their parents. Children, Montaigne says, "cannot in truth either be or live except at the expense of our being and our life." (6)
The mutual destruction in Shakespeare's play is psychologically and painfully realistic, representing a realm of experience ignored in Leir's pieties. For this, he drew also on Samuel Harsnett's study of demonic possession. Lear's childish self-centeredness smothers Cordelia; her youthful declaration of independence tears him apart and drives him mad. The pity and terror elicited from audiences come from watching fathers and children attack, humiliate, and abandon each other. In addition, the destruction is also symbolic of something larger than individual psychology, encompassing not only family entanglements and the Oedipus complex, but also the curse on the house of Laius, something that both is and is not Laius's fault. For "whatever is begotten, born, and dies," the mere ability to reproduce means the inevitability of death. Shakespeare evokes a comic version of Yeats's "dying generations" in the goddess Titania's "votress," who dies giving birth to the changeling at the center of A Midsummer Night's Dream (1595): "She being mortal of that boy did die" (2.1.135). (7) All humans die in childbirth, even if the process takes sixty or seventy years. In King Lear, Shakespeare explores the tragic side of "dying generations."
I. Shakespeare's Reproduction of and Changes to King Leir in His Two Plots
Before discussing the tragedy that Shakespeare made from the original King Leir, it will be useful to summarize the old play briefly: Leir retells the legend of Leir's reign in the chronicles, a plot that was also familiar from traditional fables like "The Abasement of the Proud King" and folktales such as "Love Like Salt." (8) The anonymous playwright combined his sources to make an exemplary or moralized romance, in which a watchful providence presides over dangers and miracles, based on human desires and fears rather than realistic events. (9) The good and the pious are rewarded; the evil are punished.
King Leir opens just after the queen has died, leaving Leir, already old and weak, with daughters he feels incapable of raising. To protect both daughters and kingdom, Leir decides to marry them to politically strategic neighboring lords, who can then rule over the divided kingdom. He sets up the love test to ensure Cordelia's compliance. The two oldest daughters smoothly agree to his plan because, as Leir knows, they have already arranged to marry two of those lords; but Cordelia fails his test and he banishes her. Too late, Leir realizes that the flattery of the eldest daughters was driven by greed for power, and now that he has given it to them, they will use it to get rid of him. Before long, they have made plans to kill him. Meanwhile innocent Cordelia, whom the Gallacian king has married, feels guilty about her role in her banishment and convinces Gallacia to rescue King Leir from the evil daughters. Cordelia and Leir meet, and, although each is in disguise, they recognize one another and beg mutual forgiveness. The evil sisters die in battle against Leir and Cordella, Leir is restored to power, and everyone is happy.
Shakespeare drops the moralizing framework and retells this story twice, once from the father's perspective and once from the child's. In his main plot, the Lear family story, Shakespeare tells the old story from Lear's point of view. In part, he follows the old play. His Lear inherits what is most destructive in the old Leir--the love test, the division, the rash banishment--all of these traits intensified by Shakespeare. Leir errs, but his sin is confined to the treatment of Cordella. He can rightly claim that, except for Cordella, "I am in true peace with all the world." (10) Lear, in contrast, is rash, tyrannically possessive, and vindictive to everyone. Once enraged, he is a "Dragon" (1.1.124), less like the old Leir than like Seneca's Oedipus in power, rage, and tragic stature. (11) Leir, even when mistreated by Gonorill and Ragan, is truly "the myrrour of mild patience" (Leir, 755); Lear has none. In the old play, Ragan lures her father out to the lonely thicket; now he stalks out to the heath himself. The old king sees himself as a "Pellican" that willingly "kils it selfe, to save her young ones lives" (Leir, 512-13). For Lear, the daughters are pelican-vultures who have eaten Poor Tom's flesh away (3.4.72). Lear's curses on them reverberate through the play. He invokes "the barbarous Scythian, / Or he that makes his generation messes / To gorge his appetite" (1.1.118-20); he wants to dry up his daughter's "organs of increase" (1.4.286); women's sexuality, he says, is "all the fiend's. / There's hell, there's darkness, there is the sulphurous pit" (4.6.129-30).
While Lear's tyranny is based on Leir's, he differs from the old king in that he is less aware of what he is doing. The old play takes place in a moral universe where motives are clear and unambiguous. Leir has a reason for setting up the love test. His belief that it would be best for his kingdom is a sin of bad judgment more than temperament, and it is not even entirely his own idea. But he acknowledges it, repents, and never repeats it. The account of Leir in Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Anglicana similarly shows that the king knows very well what he is doing and why. "Since you have preferred my declining Age before your own Life," he says in response to the first daughter's flattery, he will give her land and free choice of husband. (12) Shakespeare's Lear, however, is a man who sees himself as "more sinned against than sinning" (3.2.60). Except for fleeting, if poignant, moments, he never recognizes or changes his desire to possess Cordelia all for himself. He first strides onstage announcing a "darker purpose" (1.1.38) and may never realize how dark his purpose is, how much he wants to swallow his children whole and make them messes.
Lear's excesses, and his power to enact them, bring Lear closer to its premoral fairy-tale origins, where wish and fear become reality. The setting bears out Lear's sense of himself as the center of such a world. His initial omnipotence and demand for accommodation are manifest in a court that bows to his wishes and has no other law. (13) His later apocalyptic disillusionment shakes the foundations of his world (and the audience's). Nature storms when he does. The play's vision of Poor Tom as unaccommodated man is called up from Lear's madness. Symbolic geography is hardly unusual in Shakespeare's plays, but seldom, if ever, is it so dominated by one character's experience. In all earlier versions of the legend, Leir's rash mistake is not final. He repents and everything ends happily. But in King Lear, where wishes come true and anger and can kill, Lear's initial explosion determines the outcome. Shakespeare's play is governed by an unforgiving Nature, for whom the reward of sin is always death. Lear's dragon rage kills Cordelia, even though he soon regrets banishing her and she ultimately forgives him.
Because the Lear family plot is focused more insistently on the father than the Leir play is, Lear's children play smaller roles in it than Cordella, Gonorill, and Ragan. Cordelia is reduced to a supporting character in her father's story. She appears in fewer scenes than Cordelia does and has none to herself. Like Lear, however, Cordelia is more …