Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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

Thursday, May 14, 2015

SHAKESPEARE: King Lear (Act I: Being King Lear’s Daughter)

Recently there was a new film version of the old fairy tale Cinderella.  Many a young girl came to the movie dressed up like a princess.  Being a pretend princess is a wonderful daydream; but being a real princess involves real problems.  This is just one of several themes Shakespeare explores in King Lear.  Whether it’s good to be a princess depends a lot on who your father is.  Lear was no better at being a father than he was at being king.  Early in the play Lear does something fathers should never do.  He puts his children’s love to the test.  Its true God once put Abraham to the test (Genesis, GB Series 1 / The Knight of Faith, GB Series 2).  But Lear is not God.  Not by a long shot.  And he presents this unfair test to his three daughters: “Tell me, my daughters, since now we will divest us both of rule, interest of territory, cares of state; which of you shall we say doth love us most, that we our largest bounty may extend…”  Goneril goes first and says there are no words which can express the depth and breadth and height of her love for Daddy.  Regan goes next and says the same thing except her love is even stronger than Goneril’s.  Lear likes both of these responses.  They’re exactly the kind of thing he wants to hear.  Then it’s Cordelia’s turn.  How well can she play this royal rhetorical game of who lovest Daddy the mostest?  Lear encourages Cordelia by asking what she can add to this love fest.  Cordelia’s response surprises him: “Nothing my lord.”  Lear: “Nothing!”  Cordelia: “Nothing.”  Lear: “Nothing will come of nothing.  Speak again.”  Cordelia does speak again but this time her speech is worse than nothing.  She says what she really thinks.  Cordelia: “I love your Majesty according to my bond; no more nor less… You have begot me, bred me, lov’d me; I return those duties back as are right fit…” 

Ponder this response for a moment.  Lear has three daughters, each one a princess.  What should a princess say?  How should a princess act?  What exactly does a princess do anyway?  In Henry Adams’ terms we might ask what kind of education does a princess need?  It’s an important question.  Goneril and Regan would answer: a princess needs royal rhetorical persuasion techniques.  This is the Machiavellian, Realpolitik approach to governing.  Say what you have to say to get your way.  Love is just one more material factor to be calculated into this worldview.  Cordelia thinks the most important quality for a princess is having a good heart.  This is the Aristotelian approach of governing by virtue.  Aristotle says (Politics, GB Series 2) “mankind always acts in order to obtain that which they think good.”  In Lear’s situation it’s interesting Aristotle also says, “the first thing to arise is the family… the state comes into existence, originating in the bare needs of life, and continuing in existence for the sake of a good life.”  Here’s the problem.  The sisters don’t agree on the nature of the good life.  For Goneril and Regan power is the source of the good life.  Their line of thinking is this: you can’t do anything, either good or bad, unless you have power.  But for Cordelia the good life is based on virtue.  And Cordelia’s idea of virtue is Aristotelian.  She says she loves Lear as a daughter should love her father: “according to my bond; no more nor less…”  In her mind being a princess means doing her duty and “I return those duties back as are right fit…”  This kind of thinking comes straight out of Aristotle’s Ethics; moderation, nothing to excess, not even praise.  But philosophy is too hard for King Lear.  His question for Cordelia is: “So young, and so untender?”  Cordelia’s response is: “So young, my lord, and true.”  King Lear doesn’t know Cordelia is really the true (and good) princess.  Lear should have spent more time reading his Great Books, especially Aristotle. 


Blogger Unknown said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

7/07/2015 12:02 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home