The weight of this sad time we must obey;
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say…’;
These words from Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy came back to me a couple of days ago. I thought how relevant they are to the age of official and social censorship of speech deemed to be offensive. The truth often does tend to be offensive, when one doesn’t want to face it. King Lear thought that Cordelia was being extremely offensive.
This, which is the first part of Edgar’s closing speech at the end of King Lear is, of course, so world renowned that its genius needs no comment from me. Realistically, writers are going to struggle to write anything that comes near the terse, bleak magnificence of those lines.
This speech, given as he stands surrounded by the dead bodies of so many of the main actors in the drama, reflects a spirit of melancholy contemplation after the violent passions, treachery, and carnage of the recent events. It sums up some lessons learnt from the terrible events that led on from the foolish egotism and credulousness of King Lear and (the anachronistic) Duke of Gloucester, the unflinching courage and honesty of Cordelia and the Duke of Kent.
When the touchy and credulous Lear and Gloucester retained their power, honesty was punished, while dishonesty, treachery and flattery were rewarded. That has happened often enough in the real world throughout history, perhaps in our own time more than at any other time, perhaps not.
Both Lear and Gloucester either always were, or with the advancing years have now become, appalling judges of character. That being so, it is a wonder that the straightforward Cordelia and Edgar retained their fathers’ favourites as long as they did.
Of course, Edmund had only just come back from abroad (to overhear his father making coarse jokes about his parentage and stating that he will be sent off again, which arguably provokes him into his campaign to steal his legitimate brother’s inheritance).
Still, it is odd that Goneril and Reagan, who must have long been jealous of Cordelia, haven’t seemingly worked against her before, as neither seems to have been long married.
As a Jacobean playwright, Shakespeare doesn’t seem to have troubled about such minor details of backstory. These inconsistencies are one of the things which I find such a puzzle in reading his works. His characters can seem so human, but they are portrayed with contradictions in behaviour which make no sense to the modern mindset.
After all, a similar objection could be made to Lear’s insisting on having the Fool with him, given his habit of attacking the King with bitter jokes about his idiocy in giving his away kingdom to Goneril and Regan. But maybe the Fool’s wit was less ‘bitter’ before Cordelia was dismissed without a dowry.
Of course, there is the puzzle of the disappearance of the Fool after his exit with the words, ‘And I’ll go to bed at noon’. It is assumed he is dead. After all, his ‘falling away’ after Cordelia’s banishment is commented on by King Lear and by others. He seems to be in a decline. His last words could indicate that he is going to this deathbed.
Some critics suggest that as the character had served his purpose, Shakespeare lost interest in him. This outrages all a modern reader’s ideas, but may be so. Again, perhaps some reference to him was edited out of the Folio’s which have come down to us. It could also be that King Lear is refereeing to him in his mourning over Cordelia’s body, ‘And my poor fool is hanged’. We will never know, given that Cordelia has been hanged herself on Edmund and Goneril’s orders, and King Lear is mourning over her body.
King Lear’s realisation of his idiocy, like all repentance, comes too late to alter the tragic outcome in this play.
When he realises that he is dying, Edmund wishes to undo the evil that he has done, and urges that soldiers run to Cordelia’s prison to revoke the orders he has given for her murder. It is too late.
At least, at this close of the play, there is implied hope for the future, in this evidence that Edgar , as the next ruler, has learnt from this tragic example. The man we have come to know is, as ruler, highly unlikely to banish people for stating uncomfortable facts, not saying what he wants them to say.
That is the only happy outcome from the tragedy of King Lear and his three daughters, and the Duke of Gloucester and his two sons.
…But, perhaps that is not such a little thing, after all.