The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 13.0445 Friday, 15 February 2002
From: Martin Steward <
Date: Friday, 15 Feb 2002 11:56:44 -0000
Subject: King Lear's Category Errors
This is largely a response to Ed Taft's sensible post from Feb 12th:
"Which of you shall we say doth love us most," asks King Lear of his
daughters as he prepares to abdicate his regal responsibilities in
favour of retirement, "That we our largest bounty may extend / Where
nature doth with merit challenge?" (I.i.51-53). Making it clear that he
will "say" who loves him most, he appears to understand that he cannot
look into their hearts and know for sure; in other words, he seems ready
to accept that "nature" will be overcome by the "merit" of his
daughters' depositions. Goneril and Regan read the signs, and reply in
kind. "I love you more than [words] can wield the matter", begins
Goneril, obscuring the machinery of her rhetoric before expending a good
many opulent words in defence of her "love that makes breath poor, and
speech unable" (I.i.55, 60); Regan, understanding the game, realizes
that she must overreach her sister, and offers, "In my true heart / I
find she names my very deed of love; / Only she comes too short"
(I.i.70-72), again disguising rhetoric with the professed "nature" of
the "true heart". Cordelia alone refuses, or is unable, to behave in the
customary manner, wanting "that glib and oily art / To speak and purpose
Lear appears to make it easy for her to comprehend, asking, "what can
you say to draw / A third more opulent than your sisters'?", that "draw"
meaning both to procure a larger portion of the estate, but also to
"portray" a larger portion of professed love. Cordelia's answer, that
she can draw "Nothing" more, framed with reference to laws of Nature -
"I love your Majesty / According to my bond, no more nor less" - evokes
a suitably Aristotelian observation from Lear, "Nothing will come of
nothing", apparently inspired by the language of the natural sciences.
In fact, however, it appeals to the nexus between "merit" and reward
rather than to nature: "Mend your speech a little," he goes on to
advise, "Lest you may mar your fortunes". With something like the profit
motive of the capitalist, Lear wants and expects his daughters to pay
more, in professions of love, then they can possibly have, and more than
the object of purchase is actually worth. Cordelia's Natural law
rhetoric instead emphasizes balance and equilibrium:
You have begot me, bred me, lov'd me: I
Return these duties back as are right fit,
Obey you, love you, and most honour you.
Why have my sisters husbands, if they say
They love you all? Happily, when I shall wed,
That lord whose hand must take my plight shall carry
Half my love with him, half my care and duty.
(The Tragedy of King Lear, I.i.85-102)
Lear, stung by this unaccustomed refusal, returns to his intitial
coupling of "nature" and "merit" rather unfairly:
By all the operation of the orbs,
From whom we do exist and cease to be;
Here I disclaim all my paternal care,
Propinquity and property of blood...
(The Tragedy of King Lear, I.i.111-114)
Cordelia has refused only to participate in her father's game of
"merit", she has not disavowed the "natural" bonds of progeniture, and
so although it might be justifiable to disclaim her from the "property"
of blood, it is certainly unjust to disclaim her from "paternal care"
and "Propinquity"; this category error culminates in Lear's calling her
"a wretch whom Nature is asham'd / Almost t' acknowledge hers"
(I.i.212-213). To compound this injustice, as an audience we cannot help
but feel that Cordelia's sisters would just as soon disavow the
"natural" bonds of progentiure which ought to support their courtly
rhetoric. Without this, as the Fool tells him, Lear's abdication of
power and property "mad'st thy daughters thy mothers... thou gav'st them
the rod, and put'st down thine own breeches" (I.iv.172-174); the
hierarchy of influence has become so throughly politicized that it
revolts against nature and Lear becomes, as Cordelia puts it, "this
child changed father" (IV.vii.16).
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