A timeless tale of renunciation and insanity. How mad is it for a play to muse over the powerlessness and ineffectiveness of language? But that’s how King Lear begins, with Cordelia’s refusal to bandy about words for the sake of it (”Unhappy that I am, I cannot heave / my heart into my mouth”), for artifice, being more concerned with the reality of things than how they appear. Lear lives for others, his abandonment of titles and lands not done out of liberation for the self, but expectation of happiness and recognition from others…all he seeks is external, self-denial for selfish reasons.
Not so for Lear, obsessed with how things appear rather than how they might truly be. It’s no coincidence that, in such a mindset, Lear struggles with prophecies and lies. Or that it’s only near the very end he grasps the importance of actual reality, real relationships, interactions, mindfulness in the moment. His references to the gods trail off as the play continues and he loses faith in the makeup of his world, or at least any heavy-handed guiding of it.
“O, reason not the need! Our basest beggars / Are in the poorest thing superfluous / Allow not nature more than nature needs, / Man’s life as cheap as beast’s”, oh vain attempts to distinguish humans from animals, when “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods; / They kill us for their sport”. The apocalyptic descent into madness and devolution of social order as they play progresses bears lie to these supposed distinctions. Lear surrenders his crown, he extracts himself from the social contracts binding him to greater society, and the world in all its madness is stripped bare to him. Everyone is naked underneath. Edgar’s easy sliding into different roles shows growing awareness of this, of the construction and artifice of all the strictures in place in society, and their shared nakedness brings a greater understanding of that – what difference between a naked “beggar” and a naked king? All men equal under a storm.
The line between madness and sanity doesn’t just blur in the confusion of Edgar’s ravings, oscillating between feigned insanity and stupidity with perhaps real lucidity and wisdom, but with character’s increasing recognition of the artifice underpinning their society. It’s not a coincidence how Edgar tricks Gloucester into new life, Edgar displays a mastery over understanding society and social roles more than anyone else in the play – his survival at the end is meaningful in this regard too. He gains a greater understanding of human nature and different people’s experiences, and the parallels in his family’s storyline with Lear’s perhaps suggests that mindfully coming to such realisations earlier in life gives more chances for peace and happiness.
Lear realises he is insignificant to the greater world, the audience is left uncertain as to how to take that, but Edgar’s mantling of that truth, along with the genuine power in Lear and Cordellia’s reconciliation (and the humility and fulfilling enduringness of that love), suggests to me that it’s mindful appreciation of what’s real as it comes that’s more important than social jockeying and endless dwelling on the past or the future. The terrifying uncertainty of the ending doesn’t have to be damning – it can be liberating. Masterful work. Five storms, and a fool.