In the plays of Shakespeare, the self takes center stage. Shakespeare’s characters are constantly struggling to define themselves within the environments they inhabit, and for Stephen Greenblatt “the power to impose a shape upon oneself is an aspect of the more general power to control identity – that of others at least as often as one’s own” (Greenblatt, p. 8). For Shakespeare it is the individual who “brings[s] himself into unity, to make himself a Being, to act authentically toward self-recognition and acceptance of Self as part of a community and unity” (Holly, p. 172).
The philosophy of Shakespeare’s play, and particularly in King Lear, however, is often at odds with the prevailing philosophical beliefs of the time. Naturalism and humanism were the dominant approaches towards the human experience. Shakespeare, though, introduces a competing philosophy in which an existential search for self is central to human existence. Warren Taylor suggests, “amid the turbulence of Lear’s last days, Shakespeare so contrasts the substance of what Lear actually was with…his almost willful mutilation of his identity as person” (Taylor, p. 513). As Shakespeare sets his vision of King Lear in opposition to the naturalism of Francis Bacon, the philosophy implied in the play’s tragedy comes closer to the existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre three centuries later. While Bacon and his contemporaries argue that there is a natural order to the world and that natural laws govern the universe, King Lear rejects the natural order of the world and sets out on a search for truth through existential crisis. Like the existentialist philosophers, Shakespeare is deliberately criticizing the systematic philosophies as superficial and removed from the actual human experience (Kaufmann, p. 12).
The central preoccupation of existentialist philosophy is a concern for man’s being in reality. Existentialism is the philosophy of human existence. In existentialism, an individual begins their journey disorientated and confused in the face of an apparently meaningless or absurd world. Central to the human condition is the imposition of severe limitations; life is extremely bounded. Primarily, it is bounded by birth and death. Not only that, but the individual is stuck in this particular time, in this particular place. The individual is a prisoner to time and space, as each of us has only a very limited amount of time in this world.
King Lear has a mythical, almost fairy tale element. Catherine Belsey recognizes the story of Cinderella as an appropriate parallel, in that Lear’s staged competition “is as arbitrary and unmotivated as any folk love test” (Belsey, p. 45). Cordelia is a Cinderella figure; there are two sisters, selfish and mean; the third is not only beautiful, but is also good. In the Natural world, the virtues that Cordelia represent – truth, humility, and grace – will triumph over the arrogance and greed of Goneril and Regan. “Shakespeare’s audience is invited to choose Cordelia” (Belsey, p. 45). Lear, however, defies the natural order because he envisions a separate order to things. In Lear’s universe, daughters placate the strange whims of their fathers, and Cordelia, of all, should love him more. Taylor observes, “To Lear, his image of himself is that of a king and father who is wise and just and his image of a family is that of children, who because they are children, cater to his personal pleasures. The division of his kingdom and the disinheritance of a daughter who will not flatter him are beyond reproach” (Taylor, p. 509). Cordelia’s inability to play into Lear’s reality threatens to disorient the order of things for Lear. His subsequent rejection of Cordelia is his way of maintaining order, subconsciously. Self-deception is key to the tragedy of Lear, and here Sartre’s concept of “bad faith” is most evident. Bad faith is defined as a lie to oneself within the limits of one’s own single consciousness. Sartre argues, that “as a being compelled to decide the meaning of being… most of the time we flee anguish in bad faith” (Sartre, p. 104).
GONERIL You see how full of changes his age is. The
observation we have made of it hath not been
little. He always loved our sister most, and with
what poor judgment he hath now cast her off
appears too grossly.
REGAN. ‘Tis the infirmity of his age. Yet he hath ever but
slenderly known himself.
It is ironic that Regan and Goneril, so superficial and false in the competition, see the truth of Lear. While Lear is old, perhaps senile, it is Lear’s tragedy to have always been blind to himself. In vain, Kent challenges Lear’s judgment, “Think’st thou that duty shall have dread to speak / When power to flattery bows? To plainness honor’s bound / When majesty falls to folly.” (1.1.150-2). Lear’s self-deception has finally caught up with him to the detriment of the perceived natural order.
One of the essential concepts in existentialism is Heidegger’s “Thrownness”, or “Geworfenheit” in the original German, of our being hurled into this world and unable to reflect upon our situation (Kaufman, p. 211). Lear defines this condition for Gloucester towards the end of their journey:
We came crying hither.
Thou know’st the first time that we smell the air
We wawl and cry.
When we are born, we cry that we are come
To this great stage of fools.
The last line implies Lear’s own participation in the “stage of fools”. The concept is further illustrated in Lear’s initiation into his existential crisis. An existential crisis is a stage of development at which an individual questions the very foundations of life. Lear’s crisis is provoked by the rejection of Cordelia and the division of his kingdom. The crisis initiates, however, when Lear visits Goneril. Lear presumes the natural order is still intact, but when Goneril does not oblige his entourage Lear begins to lose his grip on reason:
LEAR. Does any here know me? Why, this is not Lear.
Doth Lear walk thus? Speak thus? Where are his eyes?
Either his notion weakens, or his discernings
Are lethargied. Ha, sleeping or waking? Sure, ’tis not so.
Who is it that can tell me who I am?
FOOL. Lear’s shadow.
LEAR. I would learn that. For by the marks
Of sovereignty, knowledge, and reason,
I should be false persuaded I had daughters.
Sartre found the essence of the existential crisis in the work of Dostoevsky: “If God does not exist, all things would be permitted” (Kaufman, p. 53). Thus, if the actions of Goneril and Regan are to be permitted, then, for Lear, God must cease to exist. Lear rages against the gods: Rage, blow! / You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout / Till you have drenched our steeples” (3.2.1-3). An existential crisis may lead to a state of dissonance, in which the individual holds conflicting emotional reactions resulting in surprise, dread, anger, or embarrassment (Kaufman, p. 176). The audience witnesses Lear go through all these emotions as he struggles to fathom the situation he has been thrown into. Like a new born baby, Lear cries at the sight of his new world; “I am ashamed that thou hast power to shake my manhood thus, that these hot tears which break from me perforce should make thee worth them” (1.4.292-95).
Another essential concept in existentialism is being towards others, and Lear is ill equipped to exist among other beings. Lear is at once a tyrant, “Come not between the dragon and his wrath” (1.1.123), and infant, who never learned tact as it was never necessary to learn. A large part of the play is Lear’s education in humanity. He has, for one thing, to unlearn court flattery; “They told me I was everything. ‘Tis a lie; I am not ague-proof” (4.6.105-06). He must learn to take responsibility in his actions. Lear’s education, however, is more than an education in humanity; it is an education in the bare fundamentals of the human condition. When Lear sees poor Tom with nothing but a blanket around him, he say; “Unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor, bare forked animal as thou art” (3.4.103-04). Lear learns to strip off appearance and to face reality, but his initiation into humanity is a rough one. Only through suffering does he learn to have concern for the suffering of others. He sees with penetrating insight into the injustice of the social order and his own failures as king:
Poor naked wretches, whereso’er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your looped and windowed raggedness, defend you
From seasons such as these? Oh, I have ta’en
Too little care of this! Take physic, pomp.
Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,
That thou mayst shake the superflux to them
And show the heavens more just.
When Lear awakes from his existential journey, he embraces the miraculous reality of Cordelia’s love. Through his journey, Lear has become an authentic being. Authenticity is the greatest existential virtue. To be an authentic person is to be one who faces the human condition, resolutely accepts his finitude and his death, creatively responds to life, and assumes responsibility for all his decisions (Kaufman, p. 308). It is a new and spiritually reborn Lear who asks little of life except to be with Cordelia: “Come, let’s away to prison. We two alone will sing like birds i’ th’ cage. When thou dost ask me blessing, I’ll kneel down and ask of thee forgiveness” (5.3.9-12). This new humility is in remarkable contrast to the old arrogance.
Existentialist philosophy often focuses on the experience of anguish, as well as other commonly shared emotions, such as love and hate. Anguish is experienced in difficult decisions or choices, but anguish, existentially, is defined as one’s feeling in the face of existence as a whole (Kaufman, p. 282). Hate pervades the play, for example, in Lear’s terrible curse on Goneril, “Into her womb convey sterility” (1.4.271), and his calling Goneril and Regan “unnatural hags” (2.4.278). Hatred is evident, as well, in the quarrel between Albany and Goneril:
Were ’t my fitness
To let these hands obey my blood,
They are apt enough to dislocate and tear
Thy flesh and bones.
The threat is strong, coming from a “milk-livered man” (4.2.51). King Lear is a play of extremes, and the love is as uncontained as the hate. Cordelia’s devotion to her father, though at first stubbornly naive, is shown in few words and eloquent acts and represents love in its purest form. Love does not seek to alter that which it loves, as Scheler writes, but “brings about the continuous emergence of ever-higher value in the object” (Kaufman, p. 45). When Lear reconciles with Cordelia, he no longer has to deserve her love as he now has it, unconditionally. Lear as being is filled with a terrible anguish due to an experience of ingratitude and betrayal. This anguish is at the heart of the play. It is clear, as well, that the blinded Gloucester is experiencing his own anguish on par with Lear’s. Gloucester’s realization of his own “bad faith” comes too late, as he pays for his blindness with eyes: “O my follies! Then Edgar was abused. Kind gods, forgive me that, and prosper him!” (3.7.95-96). Despite his lack of sight, Gloucester sees the condition of man as clearly as Lear:
I have no way, and therefore want no eyes.
I stumbled when I saw. Full oft ’tis seen,
Our means secure us and our mere defects
Prove our commodities. O dear son Edgar,
The food of thy abused father’s wrath,
Might I but live to see thee in my touch,
I’d say I had eyes again!
Similar to some existentialists, Gloucester rejects the will of God: “As flies to wanton boys are we to th’ gods. They kill us for their sport” (4.1.41-42). This comes in a fit of despair, however, and shouldn’t be taken for the ultimate philosophy of the play. Anguish is so very evident in the tragedy of King Lear that it becomes not about individual anguish but about the pure existential anguish of being.
Another essential concept in existentialist thought is the awareness of time and death. In King Lear, the theme is enforced by Lear’s response to Gloucester’s desire to kiss Lear’s hand: “Let me wipe it first, it smells of mortality” (4.6.126). It is present, too, in the Gloucester’s attempted suicide: “Henceforth I’ll bear / Affliction till it do cry out itself, / ‘Enough, enough,’ and die” (4.6.77-79). As Camus professed, “there is only one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide” (Kaufman, 313). Further, it is difficult to ignore the short time that Lear and Cordelia have together, after their reconciliation. From that moment on, the play quickens to its tragic end. This is paralleled by the even shorter time that Edgar and Gloucester enjoy together. The redemption of Lear and Gloucester into authentic beings seems to bring death along with joy, so that death and redemption are simultaneous. Death does not suffer fools and comes inevitably for all, good or bad. Death becomes so inevitable in King Lear, that when Edgar’s death is announced, Albany notes: “That’s but a trifle here” (5.3.309). However, the possibility of transcendence is not outside the realm of existentialism or King Lear. Under the imminent shadow of death, Lear and Cordelia experience a love that seems to transcend time and space. The transcendence, however, is not immortality or heaven:
Howl, howl, howl, howl! Oh, you are men of stones.
Had I your tongues and eyes, I’d use them so
That heaven’s vault should crack. She’s gone forever.
I know when one is dead and when one lives.
She’s dead as earth.
The transcendence, perhaps, exists in whatever kindness man shows, whatever truth man uncovers, or whatever man creates before death comes. The theme of seeing and blindness runs throughout the play, and may guide us to the true nature of being. When Gloucester meets Lear, after his suicide attempt, Lear commands Gloucester to, “Read.” Gloucester replies, “What, with the case of eyes?” (4.6.135-36). Then Lear says:
Oh ho, are you there with me? No eyes in your
head, nor no money in your purse? Your eyes are
in a heavy case, your purse in a light. Yet you see
how this world goes.
Gloucester’s response: “I see it feelingly” (4.6.140). To see feelingly, to see with the sense of touch, and more than that to see with empathy, to see intuitively, this is what Lear learned when he learned to see what “naked wretches” are exposed to. For Sartre, essence is something discovered through existence, it is not inherent in existence. “Man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world – and defines himself afterwards” (Kaufman, 288).
Existentialism is not a distinct philosophy. The term refers to many writers and writings, often applied after the fact. The central trope of existentialism, however, is the human condition within the actual experience of existence. When examined closely, it is not unreasonable to declare King Lear an existential work. For Shakespeare, the old and current philosophies were not sufficient enough to define the actual experience of man’s existence. Shakespeare challenges the natural order through Lear’s great journey of existential anguish and proves that the human experience is far more disoriented and confused. For Lear, and indeed Shakespeare, the only path to self-knowledge, or authentic being, is through suffering. “O matter and impertinency mixed! Reason in madness!” (4.6.163-64).
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Greenblatt, S. (1980). Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
Holly, M. (1973). King Lear: The Disguised and Deceived. Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 24, No. 2, pp. 171-180.
Kaufman, W. (1956). Existentialism: From Dostoevsky to Sartre. New York: Meridian Books.
Sartre, J.P. (1984). Being and Nothingness. New York: Washington Square Press.
Shakespeare, W. (2011). King Lear. In The Complete Plays of Shakespeare. Kindle Edition.
Taylor, W. (1964). Lear and the Lost Self. College English, Vol. 25, No. 7, pp. 509-513.