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Home :: Archive :: 2002 :: April ::
Re: Edgar and Edmund
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 13.1106  Tuesday, 23 April 2002

[1]     From:   Martin Steward <
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        Date:   Monday, 22 Apr 2002 18:02:12 +0100
        Subj:   Re: SHK 13.1091 Re: Edgar and Edmund

[2]     From:   Annalisa Castaldo <
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        Date:   Monday, 22 Apr 2002 13:53:56 -0400
        Subj:   RE: SHK 13.1091 Re: Edgar and Edmund

From:           Martin Steward <
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Date:           Monday, 22 Apr 2002 18:02:12 +0100
Subject: 13.1091 Re: Edgar and Edmund
Comment:        Re: SHK 13.1091 Re: Edgar and Edmund

"WHY is it that no one learns from his/her mistakes in this play?" asks
Edmund Taft. "Could it be that the failure to acknowledge mistakes is
the reason they cannot be rectified?  Maybe the division of the kingdom
is not the only mistake Lear makes (or made in the past). After all, why
are Goneril and Regan such emotional basket cases? Did Lear mistreat
them in a way somehow analogous to the way Gloucester mistreated

Ed is is surely right: the division of the Kingdom is a political
howler, but it refers to a kind of deep-seated part of his character
which also seems to generate his other mistakes (including his
mistreatment of Goneril and Regan).

"Which of you shall we say doth love us most," asks 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. Cordelia alone refuses, or is unable, to behave in the customary
manner, wanting "that glib and oily art / To speak and purpose not"

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 (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).

Lear himself only comes to recognize his daughters' lack of sincerity
later in the first Act, and then only reluctantly. It did not matter to
him, in the opening scene, that he could not see into the hearts of his
daughters, because he was so assured of the naturalness and sincerity of
their affection, beyond the rhetorical games: "let them anatomize Regan;
see what breeds about her heart", he agonizes later in the play,
reaching after the unknowable, "Is there any cause in nature that make
these hard hearts?" ( He is always reluctant to accept the
possibility of a dissociation of "nature" from "merit". That his
daughters live according to such a dissociation strikes him with such
horror that his anger turns back upon himself. "I am asham'd / That thou
hast power to shake my manhood thus", he rails at Goneril, and even at
this point he still convinces himself that "I have another daughter, /
Who I am sure is kind and comfortable" (I.iv.296-297, 305-310).
Realizing that Goneril has no respect for the laws of Nature, he calls
upon her - "Hear, Nature, hear, dear goddess, hear!" - to "Dry up in her
the organs of increase, / And from her derogate body never spring / A
babe to honour her!" (I.iv.275-281); but once all hope for Regan has
been dashed, this curse only reveals how thoroughly his own injustice
has ruined himself. His power of progenitorship will be destroyed if his
daughters have no children, and the royal line will cease, and so Lear
laments his feminization, "O how this mother swells up toward my
heart!", his descent into "[Hysterica] passio" (II.iv.56-58), which
recalls his earlier, unwitting insight into the truth of his injustice
against Cordelia and against Nature: "So be my grave my peace, as here I
give / Her father's heart from her" (I.i.125-126). It is this injustice,
sending her away, that finally empowers her over her sisters as the sole
Queen of France, as her fianc


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