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Forum Home > Shakespeare > Theorists & Critics for 'Lear', pt 2

Neil Bowen
Posts: 837

1. Arnold Kettle

2. Modern criticism*

3. Productions - Brooks, Eyre, Nunn, Mendes


* Key critics include: Juliet Dunsiberre, Terence Hawkes, Kathleen McLuskie, Susan Bruce, Coppelia Kahn, Valentine Cunningham, Germaine Greer, Jonathan Dollimore, Stephen Greenblatt, Kiernan Ryan, Terry Eagleton, Frank Kermode...



1. Kettle – a Marxist perspective

• ‘On the one hand are those who accept the old order which has to be seen as, broadly speaking, the feudal order; on the other hand are the new people, the individualists (Goneril, Regan, Edmund, Cornwall) who have the characteristic outlook of the bourgeoisie.’

• “The ultimate inadequacy of Kent despite his decent, old world virtue, is one of the expressions in the play of the impossibility of a return of the feudal past.”

• Lear’s story is a “story of his progress from being a king to being a man, neither more nor less” 9. Contemporary critics Cambridge guide: “In modern criticism, the origins of tragedy lie in identifiable social causes, and are capable of being resisted.”




2. Modern criticism


Kathleen McLuskie

• ‘In ‘King Lear’...the narrative and its dramatisation present a connection between sexual insubordination and anarchy, and the connection is given an explicitly misogynistic emphasis’

• ‘The representation of patriarchal misogyny is most obvious in the treatment of Goneril and Regan’

• ‘Patriarchy, the institution of male power in the family and the State, is seen as the only form of social organisation strong enough to hold chaos at bay...’

• The action of the play depends “upon an audience accepting an equation between ‘human nature’ and male power”.

• “Family relations in this play are seen as fixed and determined, and any movement within them is portrayed as a destructive reversal of rightful order.”

• “Goneril and Regan’s treatment of their father… is seen not simply as cruel and selfish but as a fundamental violation of human nature”.

• “women’s lust is vividly represented as the centre and source of the ensuing corruption”. • “a rupture of ‘Propinquity and property of blood’ is tantamount to the destructive of nature itself”.

• “the misogyny of King Lear, both the play and its hero, is constructed out of an ascetic tradition which presents women as the source of the primal sin of lust, combining with concerns about the threat to the family posed by female insubordination.”

• Cordelia’s saving love “works less as a redemption of womankind than as an example of patriarchy restored.”



Jonathan Dollimore:

• “King Lear is above all a play about power, property and inheritance.”

• Shakespeare investigates what happens when there is a “catastrophic redistribution of power”

• “What makes Lear the person he is, is not kingly essence (divine right), but, among other things, his authority and his family.”

• Society is “torn apart by conflict” because of its “faulty ideological structure”.

• On Edmund: ‘the Jacobean not the antithesis of social processes but its focus...the focus of political, social and ideological contradiction’.



R. A. Foakes:

• The final speech is better placed in Edgar’s mouth than Albany’s as it rounds off ‘the enhancement of Edgar’s role’



Terence Hawkes:

• The first scene is improbable, and Lear’s question of how much do you love me is improper, and his equation of much love = much land is immoral

• 'Right from the first moments of the play, a wholly debased kind of 'loving' can be seen to operate throughout Lear's court and to inform all of its procedures'

• 'Where Lear reduces love to the level of the assessment of the price of land and property, Gloucester reduces love to the level of lust gratified by a whore'

• 'Edmund is illegitimate. Worse, his mother was a prostitute and he is a 'whoreson''.

• Edmund is a 'socially, politically and financially destabilizing force' expressing in his soliloquy a new, individualistic 'self-defining' understanding of identity and a 'powerful sexuality confined by no social restrictions'

• Modern audiences may feel more sympathetic to Edmund than Jacobean ones. Edmund's attractiveness is a necessary aspect of great villains.

• In the first half of the play, the presentation of Edmund pulls in the audience in opposite directions. He is emblematic of a wider breakdown 'of logic and coherence' that is 'inevitable whenever the periphery invades the centre': 'The story's clear injunction to us to disapprove of illegitimacy turns out to be drastically at odds with the rhythm, tone, the gestures, the alliterative and bodily momentum which builds up its overwhelming energy in Edmund's lines'. The 'logic' of the plot pulls us one way, but the 'rhetoric' of Edmund's character pulls us another.


Kiernan Ryan:

(A 'radical humanist' critic who elaborates on many of the points Kettle made in his 1964 essay. From his 1989 essay, "The Subversive Imagination")

Critiquing previous interpretations:

The first few pages are a scathing criticism of past critics.

G Wilson Knight: "...The enigmatic silence holds not only an unutterable sympathy but the ripples of an impossible laughter whose flight is not for the wing of human understanding" : this is a beautiful expression of what many, many critics have said before, about Shakespearean tragedy "confirming that human pain is universal, and therefore permanent and unavoidable; that the reasons for this pain are beyond human comprehension; and that the pain is somehow beautiful and necessary in a sense we cannot fathom".

Ryan argues that these are all incorrect reductions of the tragedies. These interpretations, Ryan argues "strive above all else to defuse these explosive plays by denying their depiction of reality as a changing social process made, and hence transformable, by men and women." Everything that occurs in the play, according to Ryan, springs from the fact that 'men/ are as the time is', i.e. through human agency and not, through the direction of 'nature of the gods'.

He continues that in these traditional, often Christian readings: "The plays are forced, against their grain to testify to an underlying order of experience." So, in essence, these criticisms impose an order on King Lear that ISN'T THERE.

Now, we're getting to what he actually thinks...

"The present meaning and value of the tragedies stem rather from their refusal to resolve the intolerable contradiction between justified human desires and their unjustifiable suppression."

The tragedy is defined by "Its meticulous demonstration that what happens in these plays is the result of a specific constellation of particular conditions and pressures, and thus that the lives of human beings such as the protagonists exemplify could evolve along quite different lines under other conceivable circumstances." This is a radical alternative to the 'conservative' interpretations he has just criticized.

The tragic heroes in Shakespeare "appear in retrospect as figures born before their time, citizens of an unanticipated era whose utopian values their suffering discloses, pointing us towards more desirable versions of human existence yet to be scripted by history."

Concerning the Gods/nature debate...

He argues that Christian critics such as Bradley have "forced the tragedy to fit the... petrified Christian form," again imposing an order that isn't there.

To prove his point, he emphasises how religious views and explanations of events in the play are articulated by the characters only "in order to be rudely shattered time and time again by fresh horrors, the last and most excruciating being the sadistically gratuitous death of Cordelia and King Lear himself" This is an alternative view to their death as being a redemption.

BUT the opposite (that the play is the supreme nihilistic play of the 'theatre of cruelty', as argued by Jan Kott) can't be true either:

For example, Gloucester's statement that "Flies to wanton boys are we to th' gods" is "ironically framed and deliberately disqualified within the tragedy."

Here's what the conflict is, according to Ryan: An "assault on the traditional structures of social domination by a ruthlessly competitive and acquisitive individualism" -- sounds A LOT like Kettle's interpretation of the new order vs the old feudalistic order. However, he is different to Kettle, because:

"Both the old code based on service and the new self-serving realism are subjected to a searching dramatic evaluation" and surprise, neither is completely embraced.

Useful quote about the point of the play: it "poses problems whose solution demands that we probe beyond the facts of Lear's personal fate as such to examine the codes which determine the form that fate takes."


Concerning madness, sight & a better. alternative vision of society:

"Lear's disillusioning 'madness' expels him into a licensed space outside the perceptual framework contrived by class society, a space in which he is soon joined by the blind Gloucester, once he too has learned to 'see....feelingly'" He continues that this space is opened up by Cordelia in the first act and inhabited by "the classless and timeless figure of the fool, with whom Cordelia is subliminally identified at the end in Lear's line, 'And my poor fool is hang'd!"

 Hence 'Lear's violent dislocation from the social framework and the ideology which defined him as king' is necessary as it 'makes the growth and discovery' of a new 'standpoint possible'.


On the fool:

The Fool is a key figure in opening up new ideas, perspectives 'spaces' in the text. He delivers his speech in III.ii.80-95 in "that richly ambivalent dramatic zone between the illusionistic play world and the reality of the audience, the Fool sardonically shuffles together bitter actualites and millenial possibilities, challenging us to discern and turn our minds to the tragic contradiction between history and utopia which pulses at the heart of King Lear.. "

"The Fool furnishes a vital reflexive means of activating and monitoring our awareness of the fundamental issues at stake in King Lear." 

Further, argues that the Fool "dissolves" because Lear has taken up his role.


Summary of Ryan's argument:

So the entire message of the play...lies in Lear's lines "None does offend, none, I say none, I'll able 'em."

This line "leaves us no choice but to identify the problem as the indefensible subjection of men and women to the injustices of a stratified society, and to seek the implied solution in the egalitarian standpoint created and vindicated by the play as a whole".

Argues there is no redemption in the end. We're left with nothing. Except we understand now "the mainsprings of the tragedy, and thus of the intolerable price still being paid in needless human suffering to keep our society divided." Notice there the shift in pronoun: This is a call to arms to do something about social injustice in our world.



May 31, 2015 at 5:18 PM Flag Quote & Reply

Neil Bowen
Posts: 837

Coppelia Khan: (In 'King Lear') 'Generational conflicts entwine with an intensify gender conflicts'.

June 8, 2015 at 5:21 AM Flag Quote & Reply

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