The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 14.1717 Tuesday, 2 September 2003
Date: Monday, 1 Sep 2003 12:23:03 -0700
Subject: Lear as Prophet?
There seems to be a curious correspondence in the criticism of King Lear
by those two famous rivals, Northrop Frye and Harold Bloom. I wonder
what you make of it.
Frye: "Whatever is turning in King Lear [e.g. wheels] also keeps turning
into other things. The language of definition is helpless to deal with
this: the language of prophecy can come closer, because it's more nearly
related to the language of madness." And "I keep using the word
'prophetic' because it seems to me the least misleading metaphor for the
primary power of vision in human consciousness, before it gets congealed
into religious or political beliefs or institutions" (Northrop Frye on
Shakespeare, Yale U. Press, 1986, p. 120).
Bloom: "This Lear is mad only as William Blake was mad: prophetically,
against both nature and society." And "...Lear's prophecy fuses reason,
nature, and society into one great negative image, the inauthentic
authority of this great stage of fools" (Shakespeare: The Invention of
the Human, Riverhead Books, 1998, p. 515).
I wonder what the Shakespeare scholars on the list might make of this
emphasis on "prophecy." It seems undeniable that the whirlwind of King
Lear attempts to tear down the fabric of the symbolic order, exposing
the abyss of nothingness and raw "nature." The relentless redefinitions
of "nothing" and "nature" (and the emphasis on images of divesting and
monstrosity) testify to this. Much excellent criticism has been done in
this area: my recent favorite is Hugh Grady's Shakespeare's Universal
Wolf (1996). But my feeling is that the readings of Frye and Bloom, in
trying to make sense of this exposed madness as "prophecy," may rely too
heavily on the ontological framework of the Romantic era.
Is Lear, in effect, a prophet? Can the language of madness in King Lear
be adequately described as prophetic? Can we square this with a
Jacobean sense of prophecy? After all, the prophecy that the fool
speaks (III.ii), for example, seems more parody than vision.
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