HEROISM AND SERVICE: KING LEAR, II
Eugene Narrett, Ph.D
These essays on Shakespeare's King Lear (1606) are more than studies of essential human qualities, relationships, conflicts and beliefs; they do more than show that freedom is a fact of life, that everyone is tested in ways that expose their character, capacity for growth and faith that "the wheel will come full circle." They allude to the perilous state of our culture and to the lengthy, often debased, but vital campaign for Presidency. It may be the last in which citizens can take a major role and thus maintain their humanity, a task that challenges all the qualities and issues discussed in these essays. Consider it one of several critical frames of reference.
Some people prove their words in deeds; fewer speak wisely, sensitively measuring their words, especially reproofs to strengthen friends and amend rather than enflame enemies, or potential enemies of what they hold dear. Those who grow toward heroism develop these abilities in a high degree, none more than Lear's counselor, the Earl of Kent, a great man by many measures and as true a servant as a man can be.
He demonstrates a capacity to suffer in a good if possibly hopeless cause; to do anything, even, like the falsely condemned Edgar, negate and dissemble his identity to work so "the right may thrive"; Kent also knows how to speak tactfully without compromising his principles as well as speak out quickly and boldly at moments of crisis.
He is not perfect but he is perfectly loyal: is that enough at times like his, and ours? Does he meet "his assignment and special challenge" for his generation?
Kent is on stage as the play begins; to the extent that the work is well made this indicates he has a major role in its action and themes. Indeed, he speaks the opening lines that raise the central theme (to the play and our lives) of parental preference that has not only personal but national and international significance. Kent's opening lines indicate that he is unsure how things stand in the royal family and the state, and that he is not ashamed to state his surprise. "I thought the King had more affected the Duke of Albany than of Cornwall" (1.1.1-2). Gloucester, a man of many words while Kent, usually, is one of few, explains the carefully equal division of the kingdom. That's a theme as important in our time as in Shakespeare's. Can a lack of preference and discrimination, and subsequent equal division "prevent future strife" or insure it?
Division of the kingdom in order to prevent division within the family, today we might say "the human family," that is the choice Lear plans to make.
We learn much about Kent from his silences: he does not comment on Lear's plan or Gloucester's explanation of it. Rather, he passes to seemingly simple matters: "Is this your son my lord?" he asks his colleague. In part I we have seen the complexity of Gloucester's wittily embarrassed reply. When the latter asks Kent, "do you smell a fault" Kent demonstrates the delicate care of his intelligence and morals. "I cannot wish the fault undone, the issue [Edmond] of it being so proper" (1.1.17-18). Without saying so directly, Kent has suggested, a word to the wise, if Gloucester is wise, that the manner of Edmond's begetting was a fault, but what's done is done, the young man is here, raised as a nobleman and Kent would not wish it undone: life is a primary value, so are long-abiding friendships essential to the integrity of the state, so is the dignity of the young man.
Kent's next challenge will require a very different kind of care and stance, beginning with careful listening and knowledge of character. For his master, Lear, has a flaw, natural to age, that gets exposed.
One can imagine the unease Kent felt as he listened to the plans for "division of the kingdom"; historically, England was still amidst two hundred sixty years of crisis (c. 1430-1690) as a result of confused claims to the throne and rightful authority. A divided kingdom led to a nightmare of murders, war, fear and impoverishment. The wish to avoid preference, so correct to modern ears, was once known as a recipe for disaster. So is it for a father to make mothers of his daughters (1.4.134-200) as now is routine to State function.
Here we must intertwine the stories of Kent and Cordelia, Lear's youngest and most beloved daughter to explicate the relation of service (including criticism rightly given) to love and the difficulty of measuring one's resistance when predatory forces are near.
One can imagine Kent's unease growing as Lear's two older daughters profess their love for him in terms so grandiose, vague and insulting (Regan never even says that she loves him, 1.1.71-8), knowing, as becomes apparent, that Cordelia never will flatter regardless of circumstance. Indeed, Shakespeare introduces her to the audience via the brief asides she speaks after each of her sister's verbal confections indicating that she feels humiliated by the entire process and rather "love and be silent" (1.1.64,78-80). One of the most profound and timely questions worked out in the subsequent action is whether it is adequate to love and be silent when those who do not love lavishly give "mouth honor."
When Lear finally asks Cordelia "what [she] can say to win a third [of the kingdom] more opulent than [her] sisters," the moment of Kent's next test nears fast and stormily. Cordelia answers "nothing." Lear pretends not to understand and asks again. Again she answers "nothing." He coaxes her saying, "nothing will come of nothing" only to elicit a terse, by-the-book definition of love that sounds, in the context of what her sisters said, cold. "I love your majesty according to my bond, no more, no less."
Lear clearly loves Cordelia greatly and invites her "to mend her speech a little lest it may mar [her] fortunes" (1.1.96-7). Her answer is normative for the play and for our times and I quote it because it soon finds a parallel in Kent's definition of his own loving bond to Lear; both he and Cordelia will define true service, its link to love and social integrity. In their own ways, though they strive greatly and accomplish much, each will be imperfect in meeting the time's challenge.
Cordelia describes love between parent and child: "Good my lord, you have begot me, bred me, loved me. I return those duties as are right fit, obey you, love you and most honor you" (1.1.97-100). Three gifts given and returned: not identical but reciprocal; note that conception (marital sex), birth and upbringing is a basic blessing and show of love . Through Cordelia, then Kent and others great and anonymous Shakespeare shows love to be a series of reciprocal duties, of deeds lovingly even joyously done throughout a life. These forge the "holy cords" which Kent later will invoke (2.2.76) to one who will not, perhaps cannot hear. To love according to one's bond turns out to mean a great deal.
A child is in debt to a parent, returning their loving care with loving obedience and honor . Contrast this model with what our dominant institutions have been showing and teaching parents and children for decades.
Cordelia adds a telling proof of her definition of love's nature and deeds that not only exposes the emptiness of her sisters' words (and marriages, as events will show) but that speak to us: "Why have my sisters husbands," she asks Lear, "if they say they love you all? Surely, "when I shall wed that lord whose hand must take my plight [troth] will carry half my love with him, half my care and duty" with the rest reserved as a heritage for her father (1.1.101-06).
The truth that a wife owes her loving duty to her husband has been destroyed in our times. The results of the breaking surround us with pain, confusion and signs of a culture without a humane future. The error Lear makes in seeking to avoid preference and in mistaking Cordelia's words will open him to merciless abuse by his two elder daughters, evoking lines that define our days: "Is it grown the custom that discarded fathers should have such little mercy shown" to them? (3.4.72-3). Fathers in Anglophone nations have found a police state extant since 1980; so it will be for the old, just as it was for Lear: they will have to "beg forgiveness" and "confess that [they] are old…age is unnecessary" (2.4.151-4). This is what happens in a culture that breaks the functional ties between love, service and deference to fathers and husbands, between legitimacy and illegitimacy: collapse, sadism, tyranny and loss of the "right" to choose one's time of death.
About to give away all he has but his title and respect (he hopes), unsettled by the flattery of his two older daughters and by Cordelia's refusal to give him any 'sweetener' with the truth (it is, after all, a public occasion, the witnessed publishing of legal documents on the transfer of power and property, with the third share already prepared for Cordelia), Lear grows enraged. "So young and so untender" he asks pitifully, giving her one last chance to "mend her speech." "So young, my lord, and true," Cordelia snaps. True she is, but the plain truth and nothing but the truth cannot work here. Too late: "Let it be so!" Lear shouts: "thy truth then be thy dower" and proceeds to curse, disown and banish her.
Kent intervenes forcefully. "Thy youngest daughter does not love thee least!" This is known to all present: "I loved her most," Lear cries desperately, "and thought to set my rest on her kind nursery" (1.1.125-6). Lear had planned to spend the rest of his life with Cordelia in her third of the kingdom. Characters as disparate as his elder daughters and the visiting King of France, a suitor for Cordelia, know this.
Flattery is dangerously manipulative and implicitly self-serving but being "too plain" (a style Kent later will adopt), especially with those one loves may disorder. "Let pride, which she calls plainness marry her," Lear declares. Since Cordelia knows how dangerously self-serving her sisters ("I know you what you are and like a sister am most loathe to call your faults as they are named" (1.1.272-3), would it not be wise, loving, and worthy her duty to her father and the people of Britain to make clear to him how much he means to her to save him from their designs? If her goodness contained prudence, if her love embraced wisdom, would she not refrain, on the verge of her leaving for France, from telling her sisters how vicious their designs are? Would that not give her father, the kingdom and herself better service? Her pride, however true her affections and correct her principles are, is "a most small fault" but its consequences will be large.
Clearly Cordelia should discard pride at such a moment and Lear should discriminate, having his youngest but only true (loving, faithful) daughter exercise rule as his regent. The kingdom should not be divided: bi or tri-national states do not prevent future strife but guarantee it. These all are lessons the play teaches as it uncoils from the conflicts of its first scene which also shows a variety of characters elaborated later, implicitly asking if any anger is justified and whether any can be healthily, helpfully expressed.
A true leader and healer, of families and states must be subtle, patient, brave and true, and must want above all to heal. The only times Kent does not contain his anger is when Lear is threatened or mocked especially by the yes-man servant, Oswald, his antithesis.
But Kent's immediate role as one who loves and serves Lear is to limit the damage if he can. He breaks into Lear's wrath (deflecting it from Cordelia) by stating his service to him in reciprocal terms as Cordelia had done in defining her love and duty. "Royal Lear, whom I have ever honored as my king, loved as my father, as my master followed, as my great patron thought on in my prayers" (1.142-4). Lear has given Kent lands, status, protection, and, to date, his interested attention and Kent, like Cordelia returns those duties with honor, love, obedience and prayer. When Lear, still enraged, commands his silence on pain of death, Kent replies, "my life I never held but as a pawn to wager in thy service, nor fear to lose it, thy safety being [my] motive" (1.1.157-9).
Throughout the play Kent's actions will prove these words. But like Edgar he will have to disguise his appearance to do it for like Edgar and Cordelia he is cursed, disowned, and banished. When he says he will "shape his old course in a country new" he speaks both literally and figuratively for England will be transformed to a place of lawless predation where he will have "to serve where [he] now stands condemned," as a ragged peasant waiting upon the newly penniless and soon despised king who will be broken, body and soul by the errors many people have made. A blend of craft, loving self-sacrifice and timely actions will be necessary to secure a saving remnant of life and spirit for the renewal that must come if utter darkness is not to follow the brutality and chaos let loose by attempts to avoid showing preference and failing to distinguish the right way to show and separate service from a selfish lust for power or even a small taste for pride.
In his magisterial colloquium on the books of Moshe, Nachmanides
(Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, 1190-1268) comments on Genesis 1:22-3
that "blessing pertains to birth" and references the blessing that
the Creator bestows on Abraham and Sarah, 17:16: "I will bless her
and she will give rise to nations."
© 2007 Eugene Narrett
- All Rights Reserved
E-Mails are used strictly for NWVs alerts, not for sale
Eugene Narrett received his BA, MA and PhD from Columbia University in NYC. His writings on American politics and culture and on the Middle East and geopolitics have been widely published. These include four books, the most recent being WW III: the War on the Jews and the Rise of the World Security State (2007) which examines the historical roots and purposes of the war on terror as a late stage in the undoing of the West. His previous book, Israel and the Endtimes (2006) lays the basis for these questions.
Dr. Narrett has appeared on scores of radio programs, both major networks like WABC, Radio America, Eagle Forum Radio and Westwood Communications, as well as regional and local stations. He has been honored for his essays on art and literature and on behalf of the pro-life movement.
Since receiving his doctorate in 1978, Dr. Narrett has been teaching literature and art and creating interdisciplinary courses in the Humanities. He lectures on a variety of topics relating to western civilization, geopolitics and the multi-faceted war on the family that is a striking feature of the postmodern west.
See his web site, www.israelendtimes.com for information on booking a lecture and for contact information.
The truth that a wife owes her loving duty to her husband has been destroyed in our times. The results of the breaking surround us with pain, confusion and signs of a culture without a humane future.