Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

SHAKESPEARE: King Lear (Act I: Being King)

In our previous selection we read about Henry Adams never getting the education he believed he needed in order to have a successful life; in this selection we read about a king who never got the education he needed to be a successful ruler.  In The Education of Henry Adams we see a young man who doesn’t know any better; in King Lear we see an old man who should have known better.  King Lear never learned the things it’s vital every king should know.  In the very first scene of the play we see the seeds being planted for Lear’s downfall when he says: “Know that we have divided in three our kingdom; and ‘tis our fast intent to shake all cares and business from our age, conferring them on younger strengths, while we unburden’d crawl toward death.”  King Lear proposes to abdicate the throne and divide his kingdom among his three daughters.  This is a bad idea for at least two reasons.  First of all, he’s dividing his power instead of consolidating it.  He never learned the lessons of power: how to get it, how to hold on to it, how to use it wisely.  Lear would have been wise to read Machiavelli’s The Prince (GB Series 3) before abdicating.  Machiavelli says “there is nothing more difficult to carry out nor more doubtful of success nor more dangerous to manage than to introduce a new system of things.”  Abdicating the throne definitely qualifies as a new system of things.  Lear will no longer be in charge, his daughters will.  This is dangerous.  Lear believes his daughters love him and maybe they do.  However, Machiavelli says “it is much safer to be feared than loved, if one of the two must be lacking.”  This is a sad commentary on human nature but Machiavelli elaborates on this theme by noting “love is held by a link of obligation, which, since men are wretched creatures, is broken every time their own interests are involved; but fear is held by a dread of punishment which will never leave you.”  As a father Lear’s daughters may choose to love him or not.  As a king Lear’s daughters will at least fear him.  But as an old man without any power Lear’s daughters obviously won’t be afraid of him.  Lear should have learned how important it is to assess human character and discern the political motives lurking beneath the surface, even in one’s own family.  He would have known not to mistake enemies for friends and friends for enemies.  Machiavelli’s counsel was this: “the lion has no protection from traps, and the fox is defenseless against the wolves.  It is necessary, therefore, to be a fox in order to know the traps, and a lion to frighten the wolves.”  Lear was neither a fox nor a lion and two of his daughters turned out to be wolves laying traps.  Machiavelli would have advised Lear to keep the army under the command of the king because “if he has good armed forces he will always have good friends.”      

The second reason Lear should not have abdicated is this.  He wants to retain the privileges of being a king without shouldering the burdens of kingship.  This is understandable.  Creon makes the same argument in Oedipus the King (GB Series 6) when he says: “I was not born with such a frantic desire to be a king; but to do what kings do… As it stands now, the prizes are all mine; and without fear.  But if I were the king myself…” things wouldn’t be so good.  Creon wants the same things King Lear wants: the privileges of being king without the responsibility of actually governing.  Governing is hard work and Lear is an old man.  If Lear just wanted to retire and live out his life in peace and quiet it wouldn’t be a problem.  But Lear wants to use old age as an excuse to quit working and party.  He wants to keep a hundred knights so they can hunt and drink and carouse all night.  No good can come of this.  Lear should have read his Great Books.


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