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Home :: Archive :: 2003 :: September ::
Lear as Prophet?
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 14.1763  Tuesday, 9 September 2003

From:           Donald Jellerson <
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Date:           Monday, 8 Sep 2003 11:09:52 -0700
Subject: 14.1752 Lear as Prophet?
Comment:        Re: SHK 14.1752 Lear as Prophet?

Thanks to Mr. Banker for responding to my posting about Lear as Prophet.

Mr. Banker, you are certainly correct in that prophecy and madness seem
to sometimes coincide -- rather, that prophets are often conspicuously
abnormal people.  In Shakespeare, witness Cassandra (Troilus and
Cressida) and the witches in Macbeth, for example.  I would suggest,
however, that while you could make the case that all prophets are in
some sense mad, it may be more difficult to propose that all mad people
are prophets.

I wanted to suggest that perhaps our post-romantic sense of "prophetic"
is not the same as Shakespeare's.  And that perhaps calling the language
of King Lear prophetic muddles more issues than it clarifies.

A search through a Shakespeare concordance (there is one online at will yield a good sense of
how Shakespeare uses the word "prophecy" (or "prophetic" or "prophet").
Here's one example from Troilus and Cressida V.iii:

Priam: "Cassandra doth foresee; and I myself / Am like a prophet
suddenly enrapt / To tell thee that this day is ominous"

Here's another from Measure for Measure II.ii: Angelo: " a
prophet / Looks in a glass, that shows what future evils..."

In other words, I think the Shakespearean sense of prophecy is not, as
Frye says, a "metaphor for the primary power of vision in human
consciousness," or, as you say, a "primal stage of language."  The term
seems to be related directly to the ability to see the future.
"Prophets," in Shakespeare, tend to have supernatural abilities (e.g.
see Macbeth or Othello III.iv).  They are not necessarily religious in
the Christian sense, and they are certainly not visionaries in the
Blakean sense.

Now, this is not to say that Frye or Bloom should not feel free to
create their own metaphors for Shakespeare's language (be they based on
Blake or the Bible or what have you).  I simply think, in this case,
that it pays to be careful about mixing those metaphors with the
explicit usage in Shakespeare's text.  In other words, I think it's
perfectly fine to attempt to assign Shakespeare's language to a
"prophetic" register as long as one is careful to document the
anachronism of that term.  After having worked on this problem since my
last posting, I believe I see more clearly what Frye and Bloom mean
(though I still have reservations).  On the face of it, however, the
usage was more confusing than helpful.

Is Lear a "prophet" in the play's own terms?  Or in the terms generated
by the body of Shakespearean plays?  I don't think so.  I don't think
that all madness is an indication of the prophetic.  Do Hamlet and
Othello become prophets by virtue of their madness?  A doubtful
proposition.   Is Lear a "prophet" in the Blakean sense of the term?  Or
is the language of King Lear "prophetic."  Well, I can see how that case
can be made.

Donald Jellerson

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