King Lear: From Christ to Cordelia
The English Review 6, 4 (April 1996), pp. 2-6
[Originally published under the title ‘King Lear: Christian Fairy Tale’]
This article explores King Lear as both a play of conventions and a play on conventions. It debates the relation between tragedy and comedy, reality and fantasy. Seeking to link Cordelia’s plight with that of Cinderella, it argues that both stories are more fantastic than realistic. Above all, it proposes that Christianity itself, the ultimate ‘source’ of Lear, involves an imaginative logic which takes us beyond narrow definitions of tragedy.
Perhaps it goes without saying that Shakespeare’s comedies are not realistic. Think of A Midsummer Night’s Dream or Much Ado About Nothing: they follow a set formula of young love triumphing over adversity by the most unlikely means. We accept that the story follows a formula, beginning ‘once upon a time’ and ending with the characters living ‘happily ever after’. Indeed, it is this structural principle which, strictly speaking, defines them as ‘comedy’ – not the clowning, joking and bawdy, which are additional treats, as it were.
On the other hand, we often talk of the tragedies as something more than a game or ‘play’. Perhaps this is because we have a prejudice in favour of classical, Greek notions of dignity and seriousness, thinking of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex as the ideal to which Shakespeare was aspiring. Thus we expect Hamlet and King Lear, for instance, to reveal the rational truth about adult life, not to feed our childish imaginations. We accept the Dream as ‘juvenile’ but want Lear to be ‘mature’. Even though the latter has its Fool and more than a few moments of farce, we think that, because it leads to misery and death, it is more ‘real’. We overlook that what is involved is, again, a structural principle, no more true to life than that of comedy. What counts in both cases is the convention: what is suggested by the particular form chosen.
Once we have accepted the notions of convention and choice, we will be less inclined to impose our prejudices on this or that play, and grant Shakespeare the right to produce whatever he finds imaginatively effective. This may include playing off one form against another, savouring the tension between tragedy and comedy, which are, after all, complementary rather than exclusively opposed. (In the words of Williiam Blake: ‘Excess of sorrow laughs; excess of joy weeps.’) In doing so, as a playwright working within a Christian context, he is only following the example of the Bible. The fall of Adam and Eve from their innocent state of happiness in the garden of Eden (tragedy) necessitates the crucifixion of God’s son, Jesus (tragedy), which in turn allows for the resurrection of the one true Christ and the salvation of all humanity (comedy).
Tell me the old, old story…
For a ‘mature’ tragedy, King Lear has as absurd a plot as you could wish. A foolish old king (Lear) poses a preposterous love test. Two wicked elder daughters (Goneril and Regan) indulge him; the youngest (Cordelia) refuses, and is banished. In another family, again with a foolish father (the Duke of Gloucester), the honest son (Edgar) is maligned by his scheming half-brother (Edmund) and has to flee for his life, resorting to disguise as a beggar (Poor Tom) in order to survive, but never having his identity suspected. Soon the king’s wicked daughters begin to show their true colours by taking over the kingdom themselves….
Need we go on? It should be obvious that we are in the world not of reality but of fairy tale. Only while this one begins ‘once upon a time’, it would be difficult to describe the characters as living ‘happily ever after’. Given that this is a Christian rather than a classical drama, perhaps we should allow for things not being as simple as they seem. (Here, of course, I am in no way dismissing the achievements of the great Athenian playwrights.)
Fairy tales are usually comic in shape, but it is interesting to note the affinities between a popular example, ‘Cinderella’, and the tragedy of King Lear. In the most familiar version, a mixture of the transcriptions of Charles Perrault in 1697 and the Brothers Grimm in 1812, the plot is as follows. A young, beautiful heroine is spurned and savagely mistreated by a wicked stepmother. Her elder sisters are given anything they wish, while she is denied everything. But eventually she meets and, after much confusion of identity, finally marries her prince. Love and innocence triumph over hatred and experience.
But what of King Lear – written nearly a century before Perrault and two centuries before Grimm? True, we have two selfish, grasping sisters, and even a ‘Prince Charming’ (the King of France) who wishes to marry the heroine at whatever cost. These happen to anticipate the fairy tale we know, but of course Shakespeare himself was working with a much earlier version. According to the novelist and cultural historian Marina Warner, in her book From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and their Tellers (1994) this was the already archaic tale discovered and transcribed by Geoffrey of Monmouth in the twelfth century. In this tale, called ‘Love Like Salt’, most of the comic trappings are absent, with one single theme predominating: the parent-child conflict and its outcome. This, then, is what we might call the old, old story.
In the Perrault and the Grimm versions, the parent responsible for the heroine’s suffering is the stepmother; the father is a shadowy and, presumably, very weak figure – if the way he allows the girl to be treated is anything to go by. But in Lear, the father takes centre stage: there is no wife, and it is he who is directly responsible for Cordelia’s plight. This is best explained by Shakespeare’s use of the archaic source. In the Monmouth version we find not only the same focus on the father, but also his same outrageous demand for protestations of love from his three daughters, drawing a similarly cryptic challenge from the youngest. After pronouncing the word ‘Nothing’, Cordelia elaborates only to the extent of appealing to her natural, filial ‘bond’; the young heroine of the earlier story declares that she loves her father ‘as meat loves salt’. Both replies provoke outrage.
There are differences, however, the most important being the endings. Though ‘Love Like Salt’ treats the heroine’s wedding as only incidental to the main plot, the point is made quite clearly that she survives to enjoy a permanent reconciliation with her father. Cordelia, however, returns from exile for only a brief moment of forgiveness before the hatred that Lear has unleashed, by his unnatural demands, destroys them both. Thus we call the one a ‘comedy’ and the other a ‘tragedy’. But – and this must be emphasised – what unites them is the element of fantasy, of make-believe.
The valley of decision
We could put this last point another way by saying that King Lear is a kind of game – a ‘play’ – in which we are invited to explore what might just happen if a father were to offend against nature, a king against kingship. As Lear himself unwittingly foretells, in his angry riposte to Cordelia’s reply: ‘Nothing will come of nothing.’ We are compelled from then on to witness both king and kingdom reduced to ‘nothing’.
It is at Dover that this process of destruction reaches its climax. But it is there also that we are given signs of a meaning beyond catastrophe. As we read in the Bible, though human wickedness is great, ‘the day of the Lord is near in the valley of decision’ (Joel 3:13-14). The decision, of course, is not left to ‘the Lord’ alone: his people have to choose the path of salvation or damnation, hope or despair. Dover might be seen, then, as an image of choice, a valley of decision’, rather than a real place.
When Lear wakes up there, in the French camp, we must bear in mind that, in banishing Cordelia and giving away a divided kingdom, he has denied the order of nature. Now, significantly, he is unsure whether he is in hell (‘bound upon a wheel of fire’) or, seeing his faithful daughter, in heaven (‘Thou art a soul in bliss’). Postponing both, he opts after defeat to treat the prospect of captivity with Cordelia as a means of escape to an earthly paradise. He hopes to regain the innocent world which Adam and Eve originally inhabited. He wants to undo the consequences of the fall:
… so we’ll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues
Talk of court news (V.iii.11- 14).
It is probably better for the reader to share Lear’s sense of possibility than to trust to the reality represented by Edgar, whose faith in the merely natural order of things seems inflexible, un-Christian. Thus he forces his father, Gloucester – first morally, now physically, blind – to see the error of suicidal despair, by deceiving him into thinking he has plunged over Dover’s cliffs. Later he announces to his scheming half–brother Edmund:
The gods are just, and of our pleasant vices
Make instruments to plague us.
That dark and vicious place where thee he got
Cost him his eyes (V.iii. 170-3).
The imaginative logic of the play takes us beyond such natural ‘justice’, such law.
Cinderella, Cordelia, Christ
If we want to understand the love that transcends all law, we have to see what Cordelia comes to signify in the course of Act IV. First she is described, appropriately enough, in regal terms, as ‘a queen / O’er her passion’: unlike Lear, she is a true monarch, ruling herself as she might be expected to rule her people. Later, she is likened, more boldly now but yet rightly, to a goddess, whose tears are said to be ‘holy water’ from ‘sacred eyes’. Finally, and most importantly of all, ‘Thou hast one,’ her messenger tells Lear, ‘Who redeems nature from the general curse / Which twain have brought her to’ (IV.vi.206-9).
Here we have to respond fully to the Biblical associations: the ‘twain’ are not only the ‘she-devils’ Goneril and Regan, but also Adam and Eve; the ‘general curse’ describes not only the chaos of the kingdom but also the fallen condition of all humanity; and the ‘one’ is simultaneously Lear’s youngest daughter and Jesus Christ. Like him she is sacrificed; as with his death hers is seen as redemptive, cleansing Britain of Lear’s legacy of sin. In other words, we have gone beyond the ‘gods’ invoked stoically by Edgar (‘The gods are just, and of our peasant vices make instruments to plague us” and aggressively by Edmund (‘Now gods, stand up for bastards!’) to the one ‘God’ whom the play finally celebrates. Thus Cordelia may be said to atone to the Father on behalf of the father.
From Cordelia as Cinderella to Cordelia as a Christ-figure may seem a long leap, but in the vastly creative world of Shakespeare’s drama it is not impossible. Nor should we forget that the Christian story is one of the most marvellous examples of the game, the serious game, of ‘What if?’ What if, it asks us, the meek were to inherit the earth? What if the only way to gain your life were to lose it? What if, most outrageously of all, a slaughtered lamb (the crucified Jesus) were to rise and overcome ‘the dragon’, Satan, and marry the ‘bride’ who is his church, as we read in the Book of Revelation? Here is the resilient logic of fairy tale: failure leading to triumph, tragedy leading to comedy.
King Lear offers no definite vision of the future. We are left only with the worthy moralising of the new king (‘The weight of this sad time we must obey…’), because Edgar belongs to the tragic convention of law. The sacrificial love of Cordelia transcends this world, and it is up to us to try to comprehend it. As with the fairy tale, we have to enter into the contract of imagination: we have to rethink both ‘maturity’ and ‘reality’. As with the Christian story, we have to be able to see the spiritual potential in the most extreme tragedy. Or, to put it another way: we have to be willing to understand why Shakespeare’s visionary predecessor, the medieval Italian poet Dante, should call his great work about a journey from hell to heaven a ‘comedy’ – a work which is now universally known as The Divine Comedy.
The article was directly inspired by conversations with Tony Walker of Southport College. I am also grateful to Marina Warner for her encouragement of my interest in myth and fairy tale over the years. (Laurence Coupe)