Dragon Fathers and Unnatural Children: Warring Generations in King Lear and Its Sources
Skura, Meredith, Comparative Drama
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. …