Madness, Blindness, and Armageddon in King Lear
The 20th century finally invited King Lear in off the heath. Its post-industrial bleakness found him apt company, bid him come out of long exile to rest his weary bones next to his spiritual brethren: “The Snow Man,” Endgame, Beyond Good and Evil, and all the other nihilistic works of existentialism, deconstruction, and Eastern ideas of “nothing” as a desirable state—much of the work to spring from the late Victorian era to the present. It took long enough. Early modern audiences found the play’s godless rejection of Christian eschatology unbearable; Nahum Tate produced a grotesque comedy out of it (which was what people read and produced for centuries); Samuel Johnson could stand to read it only once, after which he quickly edited it; even A. C. Bradley, who admired the play, called it “Shakespeare’s greatest work, but not… the best of his plays” (248). In “King Lear or Endgame,” Jan Kott remarks of Lear that “All that remains at the end of this gigantic pantomime is the earth—empty and bleeding” (112), and that, like the listener in “The Snow Man,” fits just fine in the 20th century. We can take it. God is dead, after, all; the world is brutal and uncaring and ruled by competition for survival; and we all know that, in Beckett’s words, “We give birth astride the grave.” The very fact that the word “nothing” appears 34 times in the play makes it a great fit within the worldview of late-stage capitalist meaning-making, where we watch the procession of simulacra with horror, but without recourse. In King Lear, Shakespeare presents an abyss that, when we gaze into it, truly gazes back into us.
One of the most powerful scenes in the play, for its raw, crazed energy, is Lear in his initial stages of madness on the heath, provoking the storm to do its worst:
Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks. Rage, blow!
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
Till you have drenched our steeples, drowned our cocks.
You sulph’rous and thought-executing fires,
Vaunt-couriers of oak-cleaving thunderbolts,
Singe my white head. And thou, all-shaking thunder,
Crack Nature’s molds, all germains spill at once
That makes ingrateful man. (III.ii.1-9).
Lear’s rage at the storm is pointless… and admirable. Lear, abandoned by his children, fallen, in less than a month, from king to pauper, makes believe that he is controlling the weather, in a heartbreaking negotiation with the pathetic fallacy. He is at once child-like and god-like. On the one hand, he exercises a child’s omnipotence fantasy, imagining he has control of forces out of his control; on the other, the audience wonders if he is indeed controlling the weather—if the tempest in his own mind has actually been expressed outside himself. It is an act that inspired awe in the Romantic poets. This is a roiling I suspect we all feel at times: faced with the void, what are we to do but imagine we can control it? In King Lear in Our Own Time, Maynard Mack comments on the universal appeal, to 20th century man, of Lear: the “…abysses of the play,” he says, “are in fact wrapped in the enigma of our own ignorance of the meaning of existence, its peals echo with cries of triumph and despair so equivocal that we are never sure they are not ours” (84). One can see why the suggested meaninglessness in the cosmology of the play would have distressed early modern audiences (and Restoration audiences even more), leading to its exile. After all, the Medieval and Renaissance worldview was one of an ordered universe with a just and comprehensible God. Lear offers no such comfort. Mack goes on to opine that the play has no true hero in the traditional tragic sense. Moreover, the lack of a hero, he says, sits “…more easily with our present sensibility (which is pathologically mistrustful of heroism) than the heroic resonances of the usual Shakespearean close” (Mack 84). We don’t believe in heroes, and, as in Waiting for Godot, the play gives us none, just the all-too-human struggle of a man stripped bare and forced to confront the often-malign indifference of the universe.
Blindness, too, like frenzied madness, is a current that runs through the play, this time exemplified literally by the story’s secondary plotline. Blindness and madness seem to be the only clear paths to a rarified kind of sight: self-knowledge, true love of others, and freedom from the fear of death. They, metaphorically or literally (the play does not make it entirely clear), prepare the old for a peaceful—at least a resigned—death. Lear’s ally Gloucester, blinded and, like Lear, abandoned by his child, somehow finds the mad Lear on the heath, and there begins a journey of the blind truly leading the blind. The culmination of Gloucester’s plot is his “suicide” off the cliffs of Dover. Gloucester is with his disguised son, Edgar, but does not recognize him. Edgar describes the terror of the void below them:
Come on, sir; here’s the place: stand still. How fearful
And dizzy ‘tis to cast one’s eyes so low!
The crows and choughs that wing the midway air
Show scarce so gross as beetles. Half way down
Hangs one that gathers samphire, dreadful trade!
…The murmuring surge
That on the unnumb’red idle pebble chafes
Cannot be heard so high. I’ll look no more,
Lest my brain turn and the deficient sight
Topple down headlong (IV.vi.11-24).
The problem? He is lying. They are not at the cliffs of Dover, but on a small rise near the cliffs, and he is not describing what is actually below them: he is describing a seascape to a blind man, in order that he might jump, and survive, and be metaphorically reborn. Gloucester does jump, and does survive, and is reborn in what Edgar (now pretending to be a fisherman down on the beach) labels a marvel: “Thy life’s a miracle. Speak yet again,” he says (IV.vi.55). This prepares Gloucester for a loving reunion with the former king, and finally, his own actual death. A cold comfort, perhaps, but the only one afforded the old man, even though the audience feels more ambivalent about his ordeal. In our contemporary world, within the Weltanschauung of existentialism/deconstruction, we can hope for little more than a brief access to grace before we die. The play understands us—clearly more than it understood our antecedents.
Along with human disaster—blindness and madness—the entire world of the play seems to be careening toward eminent catastrophe, and the ending does not correct that trajectory. Everywhere are allusions to Armageddon. As Mack says, “Intimations of World’s End run through [the play] like a yeast. In the scenes on the heath, elements are at war as if it were indeed Armageddon” (85). Armageddon has agency and energy, unlike the passive depression of, say Hamlet, which presents a foul, stilted world in need of resurrection. The characters in Lear, in contrast to Hamlet, (and at times the weather and the environment are characters), all seem to be heading toward a precipice of non-being, but it is a place of creative action, not stasis. Says Mack:
Under [the play] run tides of doomsday passion that seem to use up and wear away people, codes, expectations, all stable points of reference, till only a profound sense remains that an epoch, in fact a whole dispensation, has forever closed… To this kind of situation, we of the mid-twentieth century are… sensitively attuned (86).
This apocalyptic rhetoric also includes, in Mack’s words, a “strong undertow of victory” (87). In Gloucester’s case this victory arrives with his rebirth on the false cliffs; for Lear in his erroneous belief that his daughter, after their heartrending reunion, has been resurrected. For both, the victory is illusory, but no less poignant—and no less real a triumph—for not being true. When he is reunited with Cordelia, Lear finally abandons his power and releases himself into the care of family, and to true grace:
…Come, let’s away to prison.
We two alone will sing like birds i’ the cage:
When thou dost ask me blessing, I’ll kneel down
And ask of thee forgiveness: so we’ll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
At gilded butterflies (V.iii.8-13).
When Cordelia perishes, and Lear holds her in his arms, he says, “Do you see this? Look, her lips, / Look there, look there” (V.iii.312-13). He then expires. In all the “nothings,” this small hint of a “something” must suffice… a hint at redemption, or resurrection (though perhaps not in a Christian sense). Lear dies, perhaps, thinking that his child lives, and as such he dies happy. The world, at the end of Lear, is not restored to rights by a tragic death (for Mack is right: there is no hero here to sacrifice himself for the restoration of equilibrium). Rather, we are in a world still heading we know not where—a world of teleological uncertainty—that eerily resembles the world that we now know ourselves to inhabit. After revolutions in science, after World Wars and cosmological upheaval, after the invention of massive weapons of destruction, and the knowledge that we are the tiniest speck in an immense universe, after the knowledge that the universe will likely end with a whimper and we will not even be a footnote—in this world, the barren heath of Lear finally makes sense to us.
King Lear confronts the abyss, is chewed up by it, and finds a way to make meaning anyway. It finds a way to live with it. Finding a way to live with it is something we are all of us trying to do: existence is, by definition, uncertainty. We have left the garden of blissful ignorance, and no system of beliefs feels complete any longer: religion, once comprehensive and far-reaching, has been sufficiently contradicted by science for reasonable doubt to creep in (except in our most stalwart adherents to faith—and maybe even in them). If we need to deceive ourselves into surviving in all this uncertainty—whether through the pathetic fallacy, through intentional blindness, through madness, through (ideally) love and kindness, or through self-delusion—so be it. Welcome home, Lear.
Bradley, A. C. Shakespearean Tragedy: Lectures on Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth.
2nd ed. London: Macmillan, 1905.
Kott, Jan. “King Lear or Endgame.” Shakespeare Our Contemporary. Methuan, 1963, pp. 100-33.
Mack, Maynard. King Lear in Our Time. Routledge, 2005.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. Beyond Good and Evil. Tr. Helen Zimmern. Millennium Publications, 2014. 41.
Shakespeare, William. King Lear. Signet Classic, Published by New American Library, Penguin Group, 1972.