Academic journal article Criticism

"This Is above All Strangeness": King Lear, Ethics, and the Phenomenology of Recognition

Academic journal article Criticism

"This Is above All Strangeness": King Lear, Ethics, and the Phenomenology of Recognition

Article excerpt

Phenomenology and Ethics

The title page of the 1608 quarto oí King Lear informs its readers that the play they hold offers 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." Lear is an ostensibly historical figure from the chronicle tradition, of course, but Edgar is a character imported from romance, specifically from the tale of the Paphlagonian King in Philip Sidney's Arcadia. When discussing the suturing of the romance subplot onto the traditional story of Lear and his three daughters, most critics draw our attention to the ways in which the two fathers - Lear and Gloucester - mirror each other in their respective falls from grace. The title page of the 1608 quarto, however, neglects the father in favor of the son, drawing our attention to the potential centrality of Edgar's narrative, and particularly Edgar's stint as Poor Tom, to early modern readers and audiences. As a figure that seems to have wandered out of the romance tradition, Edgar-as-Tom carries with him certain generic expectations, most notably the expectation that the disguised son and heir will be revealed, recognized. This romance trope is evoked only to be frustrated, however, and this thwarted expectation creates a character who is always more than he seems, always pregnant with a meaning to which other characters - and, in particular, Lear and Gloucester - are blind. In this essay, I track the strange specter of Poor Tom as he wanders across the tragic landscape of Lear, upsetting audience expectation and triggering ethically charged theatrical moments. My argument is that Shakespeare deploys the romance figure of Poor Tom as a kind of ethical catalyst in the play, forcing Lear and Gloucester to wrestle both with the fact of human abjection and with the phenomenological opacity of the other person.

Phenomenology famously struggles with the problem of the phenomenon of the other person.1 Here, I turn to Emmanuel Levinas's radical refraining of this problem to attempt to make sense of Poor Tom's effect in Lear, the effect of the stranger who is all too familiar in his abjection.2 Broadly speaking, I am interested in the epistemological structure of recognition as a coming to knowledge, as a movement from the unknown to the known. More specifically, I am interested in the ways in which Shakespeare plays with the audience's expectations vis-à-vis this advent of knowledge in King Lear. By deferring and denying the coming into knowledge that generic cues promise, Shakespeare draws our attention to the ways in which his characters apprehend the unknown and, in particular, the other person, the stranger. In Lear, Shakespeare seems interested in deferring or denying recognition in order to create dramatically tense and highly fraught ethical encounters. And in those scenes in which characters engage with the problem of Poor Tom, Shakespeare does so, I argue, in order to stage the possibility - or impossibility - of an ethical relation to the stranger.

Unaccommodated Man, Learned Theban

The scene in King Lear in which a dispossessed Lear meets an abject Tom o'Bedlam has long been considered central to the play's reflections on deprivation and need, empathy and human fellow-feeling. It is much less frequently noted that the scene has all the markings of a recognition scene from the romance tradition. Trained to read such scenes, Shakespeare's audience might expect Tom o'Bedlam's unveiling; they might expect Lear to recognize Edgar not as abject and other but as the same, a figure of the same aristocratic class who has fallen as Lear has. In fact, however, Poor Tom is never unveiled on stage, and the audience never witnesses a scene in which either Lear or Gloucester recognizes Edgar once he adopts his disguise. That recognition and the failure to recognize feature heavily in King Lear has been noted by many observers. …

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