Comedy in King Lear
Strangely enough, it is G. Wilson Knight, a critic famous (not to say notorious) for a vehemently Christian interpretation of Shakespeare's plays, who notes in The Wheel of Fire some of the comedic aspects of King Lear. Whether or not the harsh moral ecology of King Lear fits comfortably with the Christian ethos of forgiveness, structural elements of comedy are plainly present in the plays, quite apart from the sardonic humour of the Fool. Indeed, a 'happy ending' involving the marriage of Cordelia and Edgar was part of Nahum Tate's revision of the play which was the accepted version from 1681-1838. Marriage is the traditional ending in Shakespearian comedy, and many critics have found the death of Cordelia to be unacceptably cruel. This is especially true in view of the fact that Shakespeare altered his sources for the story (Holinshead's Chronicle and the anonymous play King Leir). Wilson Knight sees the opening scene as being comedic, a suggestion unique in my experience, but not without foundation, in that Lear's stage-management of his abdication breaks on Cordelia's resistance, leaving his plan in chaos. It is the puncturing of pride and pomposity, the subversion of Lear's assumptions, which provides the possibility of humour, although Lear's reaction to this setback is authentically frightening. Over the course of the play Lear's power to curse:
That thou hast sought to make us break our vows,
Which we durst never yet, and with strained pride
To come between our sentences and our power,
Which nor our nature nor our place can bear,
Our potency made good, take thy reward: (1:1:166-170)
declines, to become ludicrous and ineffectual:
No, you unnatural hags
Where it has been traditional to see the conflict of Act 1 as a dispute between truth and falsehood, Katherine McLuskie identifies it as an ideological clash between a contractual and a patriarchal notion of authority in the family. This is well observed, but does not entirely account for Cordelia's behaviour, in which the idea of 'chastity' in its broadest Elizabethan sense would seem to be involved. Shakespeare's stress on female chastity becomes increasingly marked in the late plays.
I will have such revenges on you both
That all the world shall – I will do such things
What they are, yet I know what; but they shall be
The terrors of the earth. (2:4:267-271)
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