|Forum Home > Shakespeare > Theorists & Critics for 'Lear', pt 1|
1. Aristotle 2. Nahum Tate 3. Samuel Johnson 4. The Romantics - Coleridge, Hazlitt, Keats & Lamb 5. A.C.Bradley 6. G. Wilson Knight 7. Jan Kott
(these other readers are arranged in chronological order)
1. Theorists: Aristotle
• Tragedy is more powerful and thought provoking than history because, instead of simply recalling what has already happened, it dramatises what could potentially happen; instead of dealing with the particular, it deals with the universal
• A complex tragedy will include ‘peripeteia’ and ‘anagnorisis.’ Peripeteia is the idea whereby a central character produces an outcome which is opposite to his intentions (for example, Lear destabilising the kingdom through dividing it between his daughters, despite intending to stabilise the political situation before his death). It has come to mean a sudden reversal of fate. Anagnorisis is a recognition - a ‘change from ignorance to knowledge’ (arguably seen in Lear’s moral journey as he comes to realise his mistakes)
• Character: The protagonist of the play should, at the play’s start, be ‘renowned and prosperous’ so that their fall will be greater, more emotionally poignant. This change ‘should come about as the result, not of vice, but of some great error or frailty in a character’. For Aristotle the Hamartia could be psychological or a poor decision, but the key point is that the cause of the tragedy can be traced back to the protagonist’s own character. The character will, in the ideal tragedy, mistakenly bring about his own downfall. The tragic hero should also possess ‘hubris’; overbearing pride or arrogance.
• A character should have the six following qualities: 1. ‘good or fine’ meaning that they have at least some moral sense; 2. ‘fitness of character’ in that every character is true to their type (a warrior would be brave, a scholar intelligent etc); 3. ‘true to life’ meaning the character is realistic and plausible; 4. consistency meaning that once a character’s personality and motivations are established, they should continue throughout the play; 5. ‘necessary or probable’ in so far that they fit realistically within the world of the play; 6. ‘true to life and yet more beautiful’ meaning that while the characters should be realistic, they should also be more than that - idealized in a way.
• Thought: over the course of the play, something must be ‘proved to be or not to be’ or a ‘general maxim’ should be ‘enunciated.’ Little said on this aspect. - Does say that speech should serve to both reveal characters and also contribute to the overarching message or maxim of the play (for example, in Lear, it could be argued that Shakespeare is exploring the dangers of following blindly the traditional views of kingship, doing so through the frequent anger and rashness of Lear’s language).
• The end of a tragedy should bring about ‘Katharsis’ - a purging of the tragic emotions (pity, fear, anxiety) of the audience. In viewing the tragic resolution of a play, the audience should feel cleansed so that these negative passions of fear and pity are reduced to a healthy, balanced proportion.
2. Nahum Tate:
• His bowderlised re-write of ‘King Lear’ dominated productions from 1681 -1838. Tate embodied the view that Shakespeare’s play was excessively cruel, the suffering too gruelling to endure.
• He found Shakespeare’s play ‘a heap of jewels, unstrung and unpolished’
• Ended his play ‘in a sucess of the innocent distressed person’
3. Samuel Johnson:
• Expresses similar Age of Reason objections to the play’s supposed excesses: ‘I was many years ago so shocked by Cordelia’s death that I know not whether I ever endured to read again the last scenes of the play till I undertook to revise them as editor’
• The ending of the play runs ‘contrary to the natural ideas of justice’
• The extrusion of Gloucester’s eyes ‘seems an act too horrid to be endured in dramatic exhibition’
4. The Romantics:
• Generally the Romantics celebrated the play, embracing its extremenesses under the concept of the sublime. For the Romantics, ‘King Lear’ was essentially a great Romantic poem, more linguistic than theatrical, to be read to be fully appreciated.
Charles Lamb • “The Lear of Shakespeare cannot be acted.”/ “Lear is essentially impossible to be represented on a stage.”
Schlegel • ‘After so many sufferings, Lear can only die’ • ‘humanity is stripped of all external and internal advantages, and given up prey to naked helplessness.’
John Keats • The intensity of the poetry dispelled the “disagreeables” portrayed • “Once again, the fierce dispute Betwixt damnation and impassioned clay Must I burn through”.
5. A.C. Bradley
In Bradley’s character based criticism he applies Aristotle’s ideas about tragedy but with a psychological emphasis. For Bradley each of Shakespeare’s great tragic heroes had a specific hamartia, which he reads as a fatal character flaw – Macbeth, for instance, suffered from excessive ambition:
• ‘This, it would seem, is, for Shakespeare, the fundamental tragic trait…some marked imperfection or defect: irresolution, pride, credulousness, excessive simplicity, excessive susceptibility to sexual emotions and the like...these contribute decisively to the conflict and catastrophe.’
• ‘The calamities of tragedy do not simply happen, nor are they sent; they proceed mainly from actions, and those the actions of men’ • ‘Gloucester and Albany are the two neutral characters of the tragedy’
• ‘Edmund is an adventurer pure and simple’
• ‘With this religiousness, on the other side, is connected his cheerful and confident endurance, and his practical helpfulness and resource...He is the man on whom we are to rely at the end for the recovery and welfare of the state: and we do rely on him.’ (Edgar)
• By the end of the play ‘we have long regarded Lear almost wholly as a sufferer, and hardly at all as an agent’ • Lear ends with ‘a sense of law and beauty...a consciousness of greatness in pain, and of solemnity in the mystery we cannot fathom’ Like, The Book of Job, it is a Christian allegory on the redemptive power of suffering.
• ‘Lear follows an old man’s whim, half generous, half selfish; and in a moment it loses all the powers of darkness upon him’
• ‘In almost all [tragic characters] we observe a marked one-sidedness, a predisposition in some particular direction; a fatal tendency to identify the whole being with one interest, object, passion or habit of mind’ • That Regan did not commit as many crimes as her elder sister, that she ‘failed to take quite so active a part as Goneril in atrocious wickedness, is quite true, but not in the least to her credit’
• ‘the sub-plot in ‘King Lear’ weakens the structure of the play, and it is only a repetition of the theme of the main plot’
6. Wilson Knight
• Following Bradley, expresses a Christian reading of the play that sees it as an analagous to sufferings of Job. Crucial to this reading is the interpretation of the end of the play as essentially redemptive through the sacrifice of Cordelia as Jesus figure.
• “The tragedy is most poignant in that it is purposeless, unreasonable… Mankind is, as it were, deliberately or comically tormented by ‘the gods’.”
7. Jan Kott
• Kott is important in shifting perceptions of the realism of ‘King Lear’. Writing after WWII, for Kott the play is not excessively or undramatically cruel. Comparing Lear to the absurdist plays of Samuel Beckett, Kott argues that Shakespeare’s play is characterised by disintegration and that it offers no form of redemptiion or consolation. In fact the world of the play is like a giant, cruel 'pantomime'.
• ‘All bonds, all laws, whether divine, natural or human are broken’
• ‘The Fool does not follow any ideology. He rejects all appearances, of law, justice, moral order...The Fool knows that the only true madness is to recognise this world as rational’
Check out this entertaining short film on Aristotle from The School of Life: