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The Two Natures of King Lear

On two views of providence and nature.


In a nightclub in Communist Warsaw a pretty young woman was being arrested by the police. Two men sprang to her defense, certain that there was some mistake: Jan Kott, a professor of drama at the University of Warsaw, and Peter Brook, the English theater and film director. The evening ended at four in the morning at the Komenda Główna Policji, the massive Headquarters of the Polish Police, recently built in the Socialist Realist style. Were they able to persuade the agents of the implacable machine of socialist totalitarianism of the young woman’s innocence? Were the agents’ steely eyes softened by the girl’s pretty face? Were their suspicions assuaged by Kott’s eloquence or Brook’s foreign naïveté? We don’t know. Brook, who recounts the anecdote in his preface to Kott’s Shakespeare, Our Contemporary, does not tell us. For him, the point of the story is the beginning of his friendship with Kott. Brook found in Kott a kindred spirit and an interpretation of Shakespeare that confirmed him in his own. Kott’s influence can be seen in Brook’s greatest film—his adaptation of King Lear from 1971, with Paul Scofield in the title role.

Brook’s King Lear is set in a bleak, winter landscape, the snow-covered dunes of Jutland. What little color there might be in the empty landscape is drained out by Brook’s decision to film in black and white. The characters live in cold, stone fortresses, furnished with bare wooden benches. They dress in rough furs. Humanity seems a fragile episode, soon to be extinct, in the indifferent blank expanse of nature. The camera alternates between wide shots of the landscape and close-ups of the faces. Scofield’s face is a landscape all of its own—restrained almost to impassivity, and yet somehow all the more harrowingly expressive of impotent rage and sadness. There is no music in the film to guide the spectators’ emotions, only the stark images and the words. Brook ruthlessly cuts and re-arranges Shakespeare’s text to give the film the urgent pace of a thriller and to impose his own peculiar vision on the play. It is one of the greatest films ever shot. It is also one of the worst-ever interpretations of Shakespeare.

Jan Kott’s chapter on Lear in Shakespeare, Our Contemporary sees in Lear a grotesque nihilism along the lines of Samuel Beckett’s Endgame. Lear makes a tragic mockery of all eschatologies,” he writes, “of the heaven promised on earth, and the heaven promised after death; in fact—of both Christian and secular theodicies; of cosmogony and of the rational view of history; of the gods and natural goodness.” In this vision, Lear rejects the Christian view of divine providence and the scholastic–Aristotelian notion of teleological nature, and it even rejects the modern notion of a teleology of history. This is clearly Kott’s own vision; the vision of materialist intellectuals who rejected divine providence and natural teleology almost without question, but who had (after the suppression of the Hungarian Uprising of 1956) lost faith in the secular eschatology of Marxism. The world to them was absurd and grotesque, without justice, order, or meaning.

There are certainly anticipations of such a vision in Lear, but they are only part of the story. To make them the whole story, Brook had to change the characters of the play. Lear himself is given only the lines that show his capriciousness and folly—all the lines that show his greatness and tenderness are cut. The behavior of the sisters is rendered intelligible by making their initial accusations against Lear true and moderate. In one memorable scene, Brook has Lear’s knights violently laying waste to Goneril’s house at the very moment when Lear says, “My train are men of choice and rarest parts, / That all particulars of duty know.” Some of Edmund’s lines are put in Edgar’s mouth, so that Edmund’s accusation is partly true. Worst of all, Cordelia is portrayed as sullen and hard-hearted, so that Lear’s rage is almost justified.

What Kott and Brook miss about Lear is that the play shows two different views of providence and nature—there is Edmund’s vision, which anticipates Kott’s nihilism, but there is also the older vision, shown in Edgar and in Cordelia, which holds fast to order and teleology. That Kott is convinced by Edmund is not, perhaps, surprising. There are certain similarities between Kott and Edmund that extend beyond their view of nature. Kott was, Brook tells us, irresistible to women (as was Edmund to Goneril and Regan). Moreover, Kott seems to have had something of Edmund’s opportunism. Although he was of Jewish descent, he founded a magazine called the Young Swastika as a schoolboy. In the early Fifties he was an ardent Stalinist and demanded greater ideological control of culture by the Polish Communist Party. But in the late Fifties, when de-Stalinization set in, and the Gomułka Regime promised greater intellectual freedom, Kott suddenly became a defender of freedom of speech. In the Sixties he used a guest professorship in California as an occasion to defect to the West.

Kott realizes, of course, that Edmund is a bad character, but he thinks the difference between good and bad is of no ultimate significance for the play—everyone comes to the same violent end. The violence destroys all distinctions, laws, and social roles. In the end, “There are only huge Renaissance monsters, devouring one another like beasts of prey.” When this reduction has been completed, the only thing left is to wander the wasteland like a fool or a madman mocking the absurdity of life. There is a certain plausibility to Kott’s account, brilliantly realized by Brook, because Shakespeare gives both visions their due. Shakespeare dramatizes the plausibility and attraction of Edmund’s view, but ultimately Shakespeare rejects Edmund’s philosophy and sides with Edgar and Cordelia.

King Lear was written around the year 1605, the year in which Francis Bacon published The Advancement of Learning, an important announcement of the program of the new mathematical-mechanical science that was beginning to form. Bacon was the propagandist of a science of nature ordered to human power. Nature must be obeyed only in order to be dominated. While Bacon was ambivalent about this at times, the new approach to nature, of which he was one of the pioneers, was to result in a view of nature in which no guidance for human life can be found. Earlier, Machiavelli had already been fascinated by the atomistic materialism of Lucretius. Indeed, the Vatican Library contains a copy of De rerum natura, copied out in Machiavelli’s own hand. It is not difficult to see why Lucretius’ ateleological view of nature as the random arrangement of chance crashes between atoms would have been attractive to a thinker so intent on freeing the assertion of human power from moral limits. But it was Bacon’s secretary Thomas Hobbes who in the next generation would formulate the coherent and terribly persuasive theoretical link between the new ateleological nature and a politics of ruthless, self-interested power.

Edmund in King Lear is a Machiavellian and a Baconian, and he seems almost an anticipation of Hobbes, who would have been a teenager when Lear was first performed. “Thou, Nature, art my goddess,” Edmund says. And yet this goddess of his is not the nature who inclines toward virtue and law, but rather nature as irrepressible force. She looks more kindly on the bastard, born out of vehement passion, than the legitimate son born in accordance with what earlier generations took to be in accordance with the teleology of human conjugal nature. For Edmund, nature’s law is opposed to human legitimacy, not its source.

Edmund mocks his father Gloucester’s naïve astrological assumptions: “My father compounded with my mother under the dragon’s tail, and my nativity was under Ursa Major, so that it follows I am rough and lecherous.” Certainly Gloucester is a fool, and has himself fallen short of the demands of natural law. And yet, Gloucester’s naïve speech on astrological signs proves in the play to be almost entirely correct:

These late eclipses in the sun and moon portend no good to us: though the wisdom of Nature can reason it thus and thus, yet nature finds itself scourged by the sequent effects. Love cools, friendship falls off, brothers divide: in cities, mutinies; in countries, discord; in palaces, treason; and the bond cracked ’twixt son and father. This villain of mine comes under the prediction; there’s son against father: the King falls from bias of nature; there’s father against child. We have seen the best of our time. Machinations, hollowness, treachery, and all ruinous disorders follow us disquietly to our graves.

Although Gloucester is wrong about which of his sons is the villain, he is certainly right that one of his sons has turned against him.

“The King falls from the bias of nature”—in that line Gloucester gives us the key to the whole play. King Lear is old, and his wisdom is mixed with pride and folly. In this he resembles late medieval society in the process of being destroyed by early modernity. It is natural for daughters to love their father, and yet the artificiality of the court speechifying that Lear expects of them is empty of the true interior inclination of nature. Cordelia is the voice of true nature; she expresses the true nature and principle of filial love:

You have begot me, bred me, lov’d me: I
Return those duties back as are right fit,
Obey you, love you, and most honour you.

This is the bias, the slant, or inclination of natural teleology. Nature inclines children to respond with grateful benevolence to the parents who have given them life, trained them in virtue, and warmed their hearts with love. But Lear’s pride is wounded by the plainness of nature, and he replies in anger. He falls from the bias of nature, from natural inclination to paternal love for his best and most grateful daughter.

In his anger, Lear attempts to bring the curse of nature down upon his daughter:

For, by the sacred radiance of the sun,
The mysteries of Hecate and the night;
By all the operation of the orbs,
From whom we do exist and cease to be;
Here I disclaim all my paternal care . . .

But nature’s curse will fall on Lear himself. The terrible storm on the Heath, which is read by the likes of Kott and Brook as a sign of the meaningless indifference of nature, is better read as Lear’s just deserts for having deviated from nature’s bias:

You sulphurous and thought-executing fires,
Vaunt-couriers to oak-cleaving thunderbolts,
Singe my white head! And thou, all-shaking thunder,
Strike flat the thick rotundity o’ the world!
Crack nature’s moulds, all germens spill at once,
That make ingrateful man!

Stung to the heart by the ingratitude of Goneril and Regan, Lear inveighs against “ingrateful man,” but he himself has been ingrateful man to Cordelia.

Gloucester is quite right about Lear. And yet Gloucester does not realize the seriousness of his own transgressions of natural law. Gloucester’s flippant account of his fornication through which Edmund was conceived shows that he is too quick to follow the first impulse of passion. He is not mindful enough of the truth that natural tendencies must be perfected by virtue in order for nature’s deeper end to be reached. Edmund’s treachery is the terrible punishment of Gloucester’s lust in conceiving him. And the ease with which Glouchester falls into Edmund’s trap is another instance of his impulsiveness that neglects the necessity of prudent deliberation to achieve the telos of rational nature.

Nature in King Lear is not the meaningless wasteland of Brook, not Lucretius’s chaos of crashing atoms or Bacon’s machine. Nature yearns for fulfillment in the good, and, deviating from its bias, yields bitter fruit. Even Edmund himself comes to this realization when his Machiavellian plans come all to nought. When his brother Edgar says to him, “The gods are just, and of our pleasant vices / Make instruments to plague us,” he is able to admit “Thou hast spoken right.”

Cordelia is nature perfected. “Thou hast one daughter,” the gentleman says to Lear, “Who redeems nature from the general curse.” The reference to redemption is crucial. Since the Fall of Adam, nature is wounded and weakened. Fallen nature still guides us by its interior tendency toward the good, but she is often unable to secure the good for us: “Allow not nature more than nature needs.” Mere nature must be clothed in grace. Lear’s Britain is pagan: a recollection of the darkness before the coming of the Redeemer and a warning of the evil effects of a return to paganism. At the end of the play, Cordelia dies. Edmund’s repentance comes too late to save her. Lear, leaning over her dead body tries in vain to find a sign that she is not truly dead:

This feather stirs; she lives! If it be so,
It is a chance which does redeem all sorrows
That ever I have felt.

It is not so. Wounded nature has avenged the sins of the various characters, but she has not been adequate to reward the good. But implicit in Lear’s words is the hope for something beyond his pagan horizons: the redemption of Christ, the creator of nature Who Himself took on created nature in order to heal her and elevate her to an even higher telos. In Christ’s redemption we can truly find that “which does redeem all sorrows that ever I have felt.”

In 1950, the great Shakespearean actor and Catholic convert Robert Speaight gave a series of lectures at the faculty of philosophy of the University of Laval in Quebec, “La nature et la grâce dans l’univers shakespearien.” The lectures were later published in English as Nature in Shakespearean Tragedy, a book to which my own reading of Lear is much indebted.

Speaight’s lectures were given at the invitation of Charles De Koninck, then dean of philosophy at Laval. Nine years later, De Koninck himself gave a series of lectures on nature at McMaster University, which were published as The Hollow Universe. To my mind, De Koninck’s Hollow Universe is the best modern defense of teleology in nature. In the key final chapter, “The Lifeless World of Biology,” De Koninck gives a powerful argument for the real distinction between the living and the non-living, a distinction necessarily denied by reductive, materialistic views of nature. At the end of the chapter, De Koninck alludes to King Lear:

What did we know of man before we found out that he is a throng of electric charges? and that he is composed of multitudinous cells? and that the circulation of his blood is an exquisite piece of chemistry and mechanics? Is it possible that, having learned all this, we may remain far more ignorant of him than Sophocles, or Shakespeare? or the people who believe they know what these writers meant? Over the dead body of his faithful Cordelia, the aged Lear had no more need of what is now offered to mankind as science than you and I will feel, if it ever becomes our lot to know such grief.

She’s gone for ever.
I know when one is dead, and when one lives;
She’s dead as earth.

The modern world is a world ruled by Edmunds. The nihilistic vision of Brook’s film adaptation of Lear is so plausible because it is the vision deeply embedded in modern culture, economy, politics, and popular science. To heal this world, we must proclaim the redemption achieved by Christ. But the proclamation of that redemption requires a recovery of the teleological understanding of nature that it presupposes. After all, if nature is nothing more than the crashing together of Lucretian atoms in a blank and indifferent wasteland, then what is there for grace to heal? As De Koninck’s example shows, the study of King Lear can be a spur to such a recovery of the truth of nature.