100 Level Entry
Shakespeare’s King Lear: The Abyss of Hubris and the Redeeming Substance of Benevolence
To arrive where you are, to get from where you are not,
You must go by a way wherein there is no ecstasy.
In order to arrive at what you do not know
You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance.
In order to possess what you do not possess
You must go by the way of dispossession. (Elliot, “East Coker”)
In William Shakespeare’s play King Lear, the narrative of a short-sighted king who places ingratiation above truth and power above responsibility unravels. King Lear, a fool and slave to his own ego, divides his kingdom through a foolish competition of flattery between his evil daughters, Regan and Gonoril, while also exiling the only subjects loyal enough to refuse the folly of Lear’s game: Kent and Cordelia. Paralleling the narrative of the foolish king is Gloucester and his two sons. Edmund, the illegitimate and evil son, fabricates a cunning fable leading Edgar to hide in the disguise of Poor Tom for the sake of his life. Lear and Gloucester must both descend into a state of utter nothingness and become as beasts before wisdom can embrace them; however, they both perish because of the turmoil of their hearts. As products of their own vicious pursuits, Edmund, Gonoril, and Regan are beckoned to the grave. Finally, Cordelia and Kent, who have maintained loyalty, humility, and compassion, are tragically led to their various ends, while Edgar alone remains to govern a wounded and weeping kingdom. Woven into this tear-stained narrative is the invaluable truth that pride and passion lead to depravity and death, while humility and compassion lead to the only substantial good known to a heathen land. The only hope for Lear’s pagan kingdom marked by destructive passions and pride birthing utter nothingness, as is exemplified in Lear, Regan, and Gonoril, is the compassion and humility exhibited in Edgar and Cordelia who remain steadfast in virtue even amid desolation.
King Lear unveils that the passionate refusal to grapple with, and in humility accept, the great desperation of the human condition as a meek state of profound contingency is to walk the road of insanity, emptiness, and grief. In grave hubris, Lear demands that his daughters compete in a game of flattery to take possession of his kingdom. When faithful Cordelia refuses Lear’s narcissistic game, Lear viciously disowns her declaring that she will be “as a stranger to [his] heart and to [him]” (Shakespeare1.107). As Lear’s “power to flattery bows,” he utterly destroys his family and his own dignity eventually finding himself standing deprived as an animal in a storm (1.139). His hubris leads him to the humble cry: “Here I stand your slave, / A poor, infirm, weak, and despised old man” (9.19-20). Unwilling to recognize his humanity and, therefore, his cosmic helplessness, King Lear descends into insanity and agony because “a pride that fights at all costs against shame is always and terribly vulnerable, unless at the same time it accepts that [man is] nothing” (Welsh 1251). Indeed, the very pride that claims to deny all fragility is but composed of porcelain and illusion—its crown “weeds and flowers” and its hand “smell[ing] of mortality” (Shakespeare Sc. 20, p. 15; 20.128). In his attempt to claim glory in the absence of duty, to heed flattery instead of honesty, and to maintain kingship without the burden of the crown, Lear is complicit in the destruction of his own life, his daughter’s lives, and his kingdom. He is driven by ego and, therefore, becomes a sorrowing fool saying, “Man’s life is cheap as beast’s” (7.425). Lear’s pride drowns him in destruction and desperation.
Similarly, Gonoril and Regan reveal that the proud pursuit to make something of oneself, to defy the depravity of the human condition in hubris and passion, is exemplified in King Lear as a path leading to desolation. Gonoril and Regan are unwilling to halt their desires to establish their thrones and declare that they “must do something, and i’ th’ heat” (Shakespeare 1.296). Whatever is in the way of their desire for glory and power must be destroyed, regardless of whether it is their father, husband, or sister. This pursuit is fulfilled in the insanity of King Lear and their own tombstones. In the clutches of their greed, Gonoril and Regan swear endless love to Lear but betray their words as their quest for power grows. Their words become death upon Lear, as Gonoril writes to Edmund mandating her father’s execution. They deny their father of all dignity, substance, and grieve him to the point of insanity as they seek his destruction. The destination of Regan and Gonoril’s quest is satisfied in the desolation of the kingdom and one another. Their pursuits “end in ‘kill, kill, kill;’…[and] they become…bound to the wheel which ultimately crushes them,” as Regan is poisoned and Gonoril commits suicide (Peck 235). Indeed, Regan and Gonoril meet the kiss of death that they planted on many cheeks. Regan and Gonoril have pursued every garment, crown, and title that should have bestowed them with substance as they are each given half of King Lear’s kingdom, and yet, they end in ruin with their legacies ringing of death and nothingness. In pursuing greatness, they become ash and dust, proving that Lear’s words, “nothing can come of nothing” had been misdirected (Shakespeare 1.81); these words should not have been addressed to the humble Cordelia, but to the hubris of Regan and Gonoril. They have shown that the way of pride and passion is that of a ravenous beast, and its hunger will not be satisfied until all is consumed and made nothing—prey and predator alike.
Humility, compassion, and virtue are the antidotes to the death conjured forth by blooded passion and pride. Justice has abandoned the kingdom and allowed weeping, madness, and chaos to reign. However, the kingdom is not doomed to its state as a hellish abyss. As heaven infiltrates the abyss, it becomes the place where wisdom unveils the beauty of fragility. This remnant of goodness is the redemption of “the gored state” (Shakespeare 24.315). The deaths of Cordelia, Kent, and Lear are not to be viewed as the victory chant of meaninglessness but as the tender and honest invitation to embody heaven on earth; for as Cordelia and Edgar supply holy beauty to the land, they defy its descent into entropy and mark it with the divine. Regardless of what lays beyond their tombstones, Cordelia and Edgar embrace a weeping world with hope. Shakespeare’s work is an invitation to join the costly but divine dance of virtue, humility, and compassion to redeem the ensuing chaos and emptiness of nations. Injustice in the kingdom is warred not in finalities and ultimatums, but in the courage and integrity of the next drawn breath as Edgar says: “Thy life’s a miracle. Speak yet again” (20.55). However, this miracle of courage will be found only once the truth of human depravity and fragility is embraced. From the foundation of humility redemption arises.
In the strength of her humility, Cordelia knows that vanity and passion are fatal, and she, therefore, is unthreatened by the foreboding taunts of being made nothing When Cordelia wisely refuses to join the Lear’s choir of flattery vowing that she will instead “love, and be silent”, her place as a daughter, family, and dowry are all savagely stripped from her, leaving her emptyhanded but for her naked integrity (Shakespeare 1.56); yet, her nothingness does not overwhelm her nor disrobe her dignity, for she inhabits humility and compassion, even as she is threatened by saying, “unhappy that I am, I cannot heave / my heart into my mouth. I love your majesty” (1.82-83). Where integrity is established within and without, the taunting abyss is without force. Because of the security of her person, Cordelia becomes like the “balm in Gilead” erasing wounds and restoring shattered crowns instead of descending into madness (The Bible, ESV Jer. 8:22). Being anchored in humility permits Cordelia to prophesy the healing words, “no cause, no cause”, that redeem Lear’s dignity and restore his honour by flooding the empty chasm of his pride with the substance of her sacred compassion (Shakespeare 21.73). Indeed, a gentleman is awed as he recognizes the miraculous power cloaked in Cordelia’s humility declaring, “Thou hast one daughter / Who redeems nature from the general curse” (20.195). Cordelia embodies the strength of divine mercy in the face of pain and steadfastly clings to hope knowing that “[she and Lear] are not the first / Who with best meaning have incurred the worst” even as they face imprisonment (24.3-4). Cordelia’s acceptance of her nothingness permits her to be a redeeming presence to an accursed kingdom.
Edgar follows in Cordelia’s way of sacred meekness as he reckons with his own state of depravity and develops a compassion and humility that permit him to reign over a grieving kingdom with wisdom. When Edgar solemnly proclaims, “Edgar I nothing am” and disguises himself as Poor Tom, he is stripped of his possessions, name, family, dignity, and violently made nothing (Shakespeare 7.184). From his position “as an outcast he learns immediately the vanity of names, titles, and manners, and he learns that the essential man which remains once these vanities have been stripped away is little more than the ‘bare, forked animal’” (Peck 224). Despite the bitter cruelty with which he is stripped and made as a beast, he, as Cordelia, does not permit rage, grief, and madness to govern his blood. He defies the passion of ego and, from his lowly place, finds compassion and wisdom, for he has learned that mercy is the divine antidote to torment (Peck 230). Indeed, when Lear learns of his daughters’ plot to kill him, Edgar is so moved by compassion that he remarks, “my tears begin to take [Lear’s] part so much / They’ll mar my counterfeiting” (Shakespeare 13.55-56). It is this meekness and empathy that permit Edgar to rule a kingdom of wounds, political rifts, and rivers of tears, for it has gifted him integrity. As his nothingness becomes sacred substance, he quietly wars against the injustices of the kingdom singing, “let the bones that you have broken rejoice” (Psa. 51:8).
While the gods of the Lear-universe may be unjust, there is beauty in the tragedy of King Lear; for there is hope in the humility and compassion that subdue pride and passion by bringing substance to vast nothingness as Edgar and Cordelia testify. Shakespeare does not explicitly unveil what lies beyond coffins, but he reminds readers that the miraculous is found in the next drawn breath. Meekness, benevolence, and virtue are the only means by which to redeem the encroaching abyss. If this life is all that remains and justice is as mindless as wind, then the only hope of the world hangs on the abandonment of ego to nurture the other in interdependence and love. For as Maillet suggests, substance and divine being may ironically rise from the pits of grief, emptiness, and insanity (40). Shakespeare testifies of the beauty of God amid the mystery of pain without attempting to unravel its unknowns: he allows man to be man in the mystery and to see that humility and compassion are the only elements of true substance.
Eliot, T. S. Four Quartets. Harcourt, Brace & World, 1943.
Maillet, Greg. Learning to See the Theological Vision of Shakespeare’s King Lear. Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2016. EBSCOhost.
Peck, Russell A. “Edgar’s Pilgrimage: High Comedy in King Lear.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, vol. 7, no. 2, 1967, pp. 219-237. EBSCOhost.
Shakespeare, William. The Oxford Shakespeare: King Lear, edited by Stanley Wells, Oxford University Press, 2000.
The Bible. English Standard Version. Crossway, 2008.
Welsh, Alexander. “A King Lear of the Debtors’ Prison: Dickens and Shakespeare on Mortal Shame.” Social Research: An International Quarterly, vol. 70, no. 4, 2003, pp. 1231- 1258. EBSCOhost.