Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Thursday, May 21, 2015

SHAKESPEARE: King Lear (Act II: The Nature of Families)

In Act I of King Lear we meet Edmund, the illegitimate son of the Earl of Gloucester.  Edmund isn’t happy about his status.  By society’s standards he’s a bastard.  So he turns away from social norms and proclaims, “Thou, Nature, art my goddess; to thy law my services are bound.”  He decides to follow the laws of Nature rather than conform to the artificial laws governing society and asks, “Wherefore should I stand in the plague of custom…”  This is the same question asked by generations of young men and women: why should I live under society’s rules?  Edmund will make his own rules and forge his own destiny.  He says, “I grow; I prosper.  Now, gods, stand up for bastards!”  Edmund isn’t the only one who has ever followed this path.  There are different interpretations of Nature and what is “natural” regarding family life.  Rousseau interprets Nature this way (The Social Contract, GB Series 1): “The most ancient of all societies, and the only natural one, is that of the family.  Yet children remain bound to the father only as long as they need him for self-preservation.  As soon as this need ceases, the natural bond dissolves.”  Apparently the family is not a part of Rousseau’s Social Contract and Edmund has chosen to dissolve the “natural bond” that binds him to his own father, Gloucester.  He will look after his own interests now.  He will be his own master.  The opposite view is expressed by another Edmund, Edmund Burke (The Revolution in France, GB Series 5): “unmindful of what they have received from their ancestors or of what is due to their posterity, (they) act as if they were the entire masters…destroying at their pleasure the whole original fabric of their society, hazarding to leave to those who come after them a ruin instead of a habitation…”  For Burke destroying the bonds of family ties destroys the whole fabric of society and the State will soon fall apart.

In Act II we see the beginning of the dissolution of two families, King Lear’s and Gloucester’s.  This is also the beginning of the end of the kingdom Lear once governed.  Edmund isn’t the only child who wants to be out from under the influence of a father.  Regan is Lear’s legitimate daughter but she feels the same way Edmund does.  This is what she tells her father: “O, sir, you are old; Nature in you stands on the very verge of her confine.  You should be rul’d and led by some discretion that discerns your state better than you yourself.”  Edmund rejects Gloucester as a father because he’s an illegitimate son.  Regan’s argument is different.  She isn’t totally rejecting Lear as a father but she is rejecting his authority over her.  In Rousseau’s terms Regan no longer needs Lear for “self-preservation” so she’s dissolving the bond of daughter and father.  Or, if not actually dissolving it, she’s changing the terms of the contract.  Now that she has economic and political power she’ll be her own woman.  This has a modern ring to it and Regan makes her case for becoming a liberated woman.  Her argument also sounds modern because it’s both rational and utilitarian: I’m doing this for your own good.            

This is Regan’s public motivation.  But modern readers are interested in psychological motives and it’s interesting what Freud has to say regarding fathers (Civilization and Its Discontents, GB Series 1): “The derivation of religious needs from the infant’s helplessness and the longing for the father aroused by it seems to me incontrovertible, especially since the feeling is not simply prolonged from childhood days, but is permanently sustained by fear of the superior power of Fate.”  What is the Fate of children who reject their fathers?  Edmund and Regan are about to find out.


Blogger SMJ said...

Actually, this play has very little to do with fate and a lot to do with ambition. When Freud uses the term "fate," the adjective "irrational" is implied because Freud believes that fate is an irrational fear of forces (or events, such as death) which you cannot control. King Lear's fatal flaw is his egoistic need to believe that he is loved by his daughters and respected (or feared) by those who serve him. Yet great power has a way of inflating one's ego so that you are no longer able to see things as they are, but only as you wish them to be. It turns out that Lear is not loved equally by all his daughters, and the only "fate" at work in this play is the nature of Lear's own personality, which operates under the assumption that all who serve the king do so out of love rather than fear. But fear cannot be sustained without power. Once Lear divides his kingdom, he undermines his own authority.
Machiavelli could have told Lear that no ruler can expect obedience without the fear of punishment. Once Lear gave away his fortune, he no longer had the means to enforce his will upon others, especially his own daughters, who, it turns out, have ambitions of their own.

5/26/2015 12:57 PM  

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