King Lear: The Lost Leader; Group Disintegration, Transformation and Suspended Reconsolidation
Brown, Dennis, Critical Survey
King Lear (1605-6) is the primary enactment of psychic breakdown in English literary history. It constitutes, also, the most spectacular instance of a controlled explosion of the formal `container' in Western drama -- such that it not only violated whatever Aristotle or Boileau might have to offer on the proper structure of tragedy but provoked, too, the very different sensibilities of Dr Johnson and Count Tolstoy. Set in its raw pre-Christian world, the play remains the major Shakespearean rebuttal of Sophoclean fearful symmetry (Oedipus Rex) -- corrosive in its existential negativity, yet paradoxically fructive in spawning such twentieth-century `countertransferential' progeny as George Bernard Shaw's Heartbreak House, Samuel Beckett's Endgame or Edward Bond's Lear. Keats, on rereading it wrote about the `bitter-sweet' of being `consumed in the fire', with all the intensity of one closely associated with `Consumption'. From a postmodern standpoint, there are moments when absurdist irony threatens to undermine the play's basic contingency and solidarity:
GENTLEMAN: Help, help! O, help! EDGAR: What kind of help? (V, 3,220-1). (1)
Yet King Lear remains a cultural constant both in performance and in the reading of it: a psychic `transitional area' (2) wherein succeeding generations have encountered terribilita itself, suffered imaginatively, reacted, phantasised, and sought meanings which might amount to an interpretation. Yet the experience has always exceeded the meaning: `Enter Lear with Cordelia in his arms ...' (v, 3).
The play commences in near-fairytale narcissism, where the ageing king wishes to retain all the trappings of his sovereignty yet relinquish all its responsibilities. In this, he recklessly throws into confusion (shortly into armed conflict) the focal site where the personal is the political in a hierarchical society -- kingship. Kent, in horror, hastens to underline what that role has been for Lear's loyal subjects:
Whom I have ever honoured as my king, Loved as my father, as my master followed, As my great patron thought on in my prayers -- (1, 1, 140-2).
In terms of contemporary group-theory, Lear has been undisputed leader of the core `feudal' group -- the court: the matrix as S H Foulkes terms it, or W R Bion's group-`culture'. (3) Lear's kingship is, in short, central -- even more central than England or Englishness in this play, since when France invades, challenging the malign coalition between Gonerill and Regan, the audience's sympathy is likely to be with Lear's foreign champion. Overall, the play remains predominantly concerned with the wanton self-destruction and partial reconstitution of the lost leader -- psychoanalytically the embodiment of Freud's `His Majesty, the Ego'. Hence it is more than usually tempting, here, to extrapolate all the other dramatic characters as split-off parts of the one representative personality. However, in fidelity to the text's overt construction (and to stress its major contribution to an awareness of group-dynamics), the point to emphasise is that as Lear's fortunes deteriorate and `madness' takes hold, the forces of `Goodness' -- of fellowship, sustenance and therapy -- are staged as a residual `small group' who operate in terms of recognisable group strategies.
The seeds of this development are sown in the crucial first scene. The opening words between Kent and Gloucester constitute typical group gossip as to whom the leader most favours in terms of eventual succession. Gloucester suggests that the honours are even in the `division of the kingdom' -- but it is not clear then, or in the Edmund interlude, how imminent they feel the division to be: certainly they appear quite relaxed about it. Such equanimity is almost immediately shattered once the king enters and begins to reveal his `darker purpose'. Old King Lear, doubtless a merry old soul, demonstrates his senile `folly' in tying the divided succession (itself a disastrous plan) to the most childish form of game-playing: `Which of you shall we say doth love us most ... / speak' (51-4). His last act of leadership is a descent into a leader's narcissism, forcing the rivals Gonerill and Regan into fulsome flattery, the more honest and perceptive Cordelia into the rhetorical equivalent of silent withdrawal -- `nothing'. This brings down on Cordelia's head the full intensity of Lear's psychotic `othering':
The barbarous Scythian, Or he that makes his generation messes To gorge his appetite, shall to my bosom Be as well neighboured ... / As thou my sometime daughter' (115-9).
At this outrage, Kent is moved to outright challenge: `Reserve thy state,/ And in thy best consideration check/This hideous rashness' (149-51). But the king is beyond all `consideration' -- possibly in the grip of some disease of ageing. (4) Kent is banished and Cordelia handed over to the honourable King of France, and by the end of the scene the counter-group of the elder sisters is left plotting to take advantage of the vacuum of leadership: `We must do something, and i' th' heat' (306). The best that can be said of Gonerill and Regan, here, is that perhaps they, too, are in a state of shock at the rapid turn of events. At any rate, they act in terms of group dynamics: if the leader renounces the role, leadership challenge will follow. (5) Meantime, the `scapegoat' (6) Kent, and the rejected golden child Cordelia, (7) hold out the only hope of a resuscitated `good' group.
The increasingly sinister counter-group, for all that in the following scenes it is able quickly to cut the old king down to size and gather its forces, is doomed from the outset by its flawed double-leadership. As long as the duumvirate have a credible opposition against which to mobilise `Fight' assumptions, it can force the remnants of the king's party into `Flight'. (8) But the dual rule cannot last, even though it is able to attract willing group members and exercise an increasingly demonic cruelty in the deployment of Will-to-Power. The rise of Oswald and Edmund, and the rapid coarsening of Cornwall, have their psychic parallels not only in the black phantasies of clinical psychotics but also in the more chilling activities of such tyrannical super-groups as those which have recently supported the like of Stalin, Hitler, Franco, Mao, Pinochet, Poi Pot, Saddam Hussein or Slobodan Milosevic. However, the concern here will not be with some anatomy of human destructiveness (9) but with the lost leader and attempts to reassemble the recuperative potentialities of a royal group.
`Storm still. Enter Lear and the Fool' (III, 2) -- it is the king now who is the rejected scapegoat; and he is currently down to just one follower, an `all-licensed' quip-artist so far. However, as critical commentators have often observed, it is precisely …
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: King Lear: The Lost Leader; Group Disintegration, Transformation and Suspended Reconsolidation. Contributors: Brown, Dennis - Author. Journal title: Critical Survey. Volume: 13. Issue: 3 Publication date: September 2001. Page number: 19+. © 2001 Berghahn Books, Inc. COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group.