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The Two Kneelings of King Lear

ISSUE:  Summer 1984

As tragedies, King Lear and Othello resemble each other in how great a portion of the play is given over to an extended exhibition of the suffering which the principal character undergoes. Many critics have testified to how painful it was for them to sit through the long and intense scenes in which Othello and Lear endure mental and emotional agony. Indeed, both plays might be shortened considerably without damage to the working out of the plot if the torment of the principal character were not so long drawn out. Just as Othello is shown as driven over the edge into fits of incoherence and unconsciousness, so Lear is shown as driven over the edge into fits of hysterica passio—that is, the physical sensation of swelling around the heart, of constriction and smothering—and insanity. And both men draw upon all of Shakespeare’s eloquence in expressing their agony.

Images of torture and torment fill both plays. Othello cries out to lago: “Thou hast set me on the rack.” So Lear too cries out: “Let me have a surgeon, I am cut to the brains!” And when he comes out of his sleep (act 4, scene 7) and Cordelia asks “How does my royal lord? How fares your Majesty?” he replies:

You do me wrong to take me out of the grave
Thou art a soul in bliss, but I am bound
Upon a wheel of fire, that mine own tears
Do scald like molten lead.

As with Othello, so with Lear, the agony is the very marrow of the play. And the agony so invests and permeates us that at the very end, when Edgar tries to revive Lear, we protest with Kent: “Vex not his ghost! O, let him pass! He hates him that would upon the rack of this tough world stretch him out longer.”

There is, however, a great difference between the two plays in what the suffering accomplishes. It is not until the closing scene of the play that Othello realizes what a terrible mistake he has made in entrusting himself to lago and castigates himself with “O fool! Fool! Fool!” And there really is no time for him to learn much more or to change much inwardly, for he kills himself soon—in fact, less than 30 lines—after that realization. But as early as the end of act 2, Lear has come to a full realization that he has made a terrible mistake in entrusting himself to Goneril and Regan, and even earlier (act 1, scene 4) has realized enough to strike his own head: “O Lear, Lear, Lear! Beat at this gate, that let thy folly in and thy dear judgment out!” And there remain three acts to show him undergoing change as he suffers.

And Lear is a man who near the end of a long life is forced to undergo great change indeed and to learn lessons that others learn much earlier. Because of his many years of absolute power, of self-will and self-indulgence, he has never been made to think of anyone but himself. He gives way too easily to foolish rashness, uncontrolled bursts of anger, and stubborn willfulness. As a result, he has no real understanding of others. Nor of himself. In this sense, he is much like a child who, at the center of his own world, understands neither himself nor those about him. “Know thyself” is an age-old adage. “Know others” should accompany it. These are lessons that self-indulgence and vanity keep us from learning. Yet at some time, sooner or later, the occasion to learn them is likely to be thrust upon us. The test of a man is whether, when the crisis comes, he has the emotional, intellectual, and moral capacity to learn them. And they are among the central lessons of life, at least in the ethical and religious teachings of most cultures that we are acquainted with. For to know oneself is to learn the lesson of humility, and to know others is to learn the lesson of charity. As the play progresses, Lear proves to have the capacity to learn these difficult yet essential lessons, and at a time in life when most men are no longer capable of learning much of anything.

To measure for us how great that change has been, how great a distance Lear travels emotionally and intellectually, Shakespeare employs a simple, yet wonderful piece of stage symbolism. King Lear, who has never had to kneel to anyone before in his life, is shown as kneeling twice in the play. The first time he kneels (act 2, scene 4), it is in mock humility. For Regan has just suggested that he return to Goneril: “Say you have wronged her.” He is outraged: “Ask her forgiveness!” And then subconsciously misdirecting his anger from her to Goneril, he indulges in a piece of histrionics as he kneels in a travesty of a father humbling himself and begging a daughter to forgive him:

Dear daughter, I confess that I am old.
Age is unnecessary. On my knees I beg
That you’ll vouchsafe me raiment, bed, and food

It is, as Regan says, an unsightly trick.

And when, soon thereafter, Lear is driven out into the storm at night, he is brought to his first encounter with the admonition “Know others.” For as he endures the fury of the storm, Lear’s well-known prayer is, along with certain prayers in the Bible, one of the great utterances on charity. Brief as has been his own experience of being without shelter in a storm, he has come to a vivid sense of what others have suffered:

Poor naked wretches, wheresoe’er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm!
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your looped and windowed raggedness, defend you
From seasons such as these? O, I have taken

Too little care of this! Take physic, pomp.
Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,
That thou mayst shake the superflux to them
And show the Heavens more just.

Here in an elementary way Lear has come to some understanding of others. He has quickly learned the essential lesson of charity. The capacity for learning, the sensitivity and imagination and generosity, was always there in him, though not until this moment has it been called upon. It is this capacity and the compassion brought forth which, despite all his annoying traits and his temporary obsession with vindictiveness, endow him with nobility.

The hovel happens, by Shakespeare’s contrivance, to be the place where Edgar, now disguised as the madman Tom o’Bedlam, has taken shelter from the storm. And the Fool, badly frightened, comes running out: “Come not in here, nuncle! Here’s a spirit! Help me! Help me!” Edgar rushes forth also, clad in rags and filth, crying out a farrago of lunacy in his role as Tom o’Bedlam. Lear’s mind, which has been pressed to the verge of insanity and has already begun to descend into a swamp of vindictiveness, the fogs of which cling to him through most of the play, breaks at the sight of Tom o’Bedlam. The obsessive hatred for Goneril and Regan takes hold, and as Lear descends into insanity, every object and every gesture serves to remind him of them. He immediately takes Tom o’Bedlam to be, like himself, a father ill-treated by his daughters: “Didst thou give all to thy daughters? And art thou come to this?” From now on, Lear’s mind is a dark whirl of vindictiveness, hatred, obsession, delusion, hallucination, madness, shot through by an occasional glint of sanity. And in the farmhouse where he has taken temporary shelter (act 3, scene 6), Lear is mad almost beyond recall and holds a trial for his two hated daughters. We need only compare this and the later mad scenes of Lear with the conventional-stage mad scenes of other Elizabethan and Jacobean plays to realize how profound an understanding Shakespeare has acquired of the murky areas of the unhinged mind.

But the second time Lear kneels, two acts after the first travesty of kneeling (Act IV, Scene 7), the humility is genuine. He humbles himself to Cordelia in one of the most touching scenes in all drama. And when Cordelia protests “No, sir, you must not kneel” and falls to her knees with him, he responds:

Pray do not mock me.
I am a very foolish fond old man,
Fourscore and upward,
Not an hour more nor less.
And to deal plainly,
I fear I am not in my perfect mind. . . .
You must bear with me.
Pray you now, forget and forgive.
I am old and foolish.

Thus it may be said that through suffering Lear learns the two great lessons of charity and humility, which have long been preached, if not always practiced, by Christianity. And the lesson of humility bears the stamp of approval not only of various religions but also of Greek tragedy, as is exemplified in the fate of Oedipus.


Shakespeare does invite moral and psychological speculation, and I should like to comment on the view that we learn through suffering. Certainly that view is currently common, as in the proverbial wisdom of the fortune cookie: “He who suffers remembers.” In many religions, too, suffering is a central element, essential to the process of salvation and redemption. And in drama, as well as in fiction, suffering is often portrayed as ennobling or as the vehicle by which we come to a profound understanding of ourselves and of life. Still, life and drama, or life and art, are by no means the same. Or rather, drama and art extract from life only whatever is useful to their purposes and conforms to the conventions which they have developed. I suppose that we may learn as valuable lessons from happiness, and even from boredom, as from suffering. Suffering is not in itself holy or sacred. In actuality, it can be an ugly business, often degrading and debilitating, yielding a mean and bitter fruit. And in much recent drama, as in Samuel Beckett, Tennessee Williams, and John Osborne, suffering is shown as such a depressing actuality. True, perhaps suffering ought to bring us to face up to “the rack of this tough world.” Yet not always is this so. On the contrary, suffering at times leads us to withdraw from this tough world into a whimpering self-pity or to invent all manner of comforting and evasive illusions or to turn savagely and unjustly on those around us.

Nevertheless, the conventions of tragedy, at least until recent times, have made of suffering a dramatic necessity as the instrument by which the central character or characters may learn and through them the audience. And we may, I believe, accept those conventions as applying generally to Shakespeare’s tragedies. Thus, as we have already observed, in enduring the physical pain of the night storm (act 3, scene 4), Lear learns the lesson of charity and invokes compassion for “poor naked wretches, wheresoe’er you are.” And in the course of his wandering in the fields near Dover (act 4, scene 6), he descends into the depths of bitterness and disillusionment and pessimism, where all is lunacy and anguish: “Why, this would make a man a man of salt, to use his eyes for garden waterpots, aye, and laying autumn’s dust.” But he does come through the slough of despond and emerge into the radiance of humility and love.

In critical discussions of Lear, one frequently comes upon terms like “purgatorial agony” and “salvation” and “redemption, ” which are essentially religious and particularly Christian. In fact, some recent critics have gone so far as to make King Lear a Christian morality play. Thus G. Wilson Knight, in The Wheel of Fire, sees the play as a revelation of “creative suffering” in which “mankind are working out a sort of purgatory,” and in which, as with Gloucester, “an act of goodness buys the inestimable gift of purgatorial agony.” And he says of Lear: “He wins his purgatorial reward in finding that which is most real to him, his love for Cordelia. For the first time he compasses his own reality, and its signs are humility and love.” We need not insist upon the Christian terms and the Christian doctrine, the application of which to Shakespeare is a dubious occupation. We can take a simpler secular view of redemption. It derives from the Latin word “redimere” for “to buy back.” It means ransom, saving, rescue, deliverance. It involves not merely learning or understanding but also healing.

In the process, Lear does cleanse his heart and mind of the poisons generated there by the bitter shock given him by Goneril and Regan. In a kind of psychiatric treatment, by acting out his innermost troubles, as in the delusive trial scene, he does at last get rid of his hatred and obsessive vindictiveness. Only after this healing has taken place can there be room in his mind and heart for other possibilities. Only then can he realize that many may be good and generous, and that love may be a reality. Certainly Lear now appreciates love as he never did before. Even when he is taken prisoner together with Cordelia by Edmund and things look black indeed (act v, scene 2), he can rejoice in being reunited in a bond of love with his favorite daughter:

Come, let’s away to prison.
We two alone will sing like birds in the cage.
When thou dost ask me blessing, I’ll kneel down
And ask for thee forgiveness. . . .
Upon such sacrifices, my Cordelia,
The gods themselves throw incense.

This new understanding of love in Lear, this opening of his heart to love after having been usurped by bitterness and hatred and vindictiveness, may surely be considered a form of redemption.

However, not all critics accept the idea of redemption in Lear. And especially in recent years, just as some critics have come to see the play as an expression of the Christian doctrine of redemption, others have come to see it as a grotesquerie, the hero or the antihero of which is not at all a tragic figure whose sufferings bring understanding. In Shakespeare Our Contemporary, Jan Kott sees Lear not as a tragic hero undergoing redemption but as a grotesque figure in the theater of the absurd, much like the characters in Beckett’s Endgame and Waiting for Godot. For Kott, the world of Lear is the world of the preposterous, a world with no rational purpose and no meaning, where “there is nothing, except the cruel earth, where man goes on his journey from the cradle to the grave.” It is a world about which Lear can say: “When we are born, we cry that we are come to this great stage of fools.” In this world, which “has something of the circus about it,” Kott sees Gloucester and Lear not as tragic figures but as clowns.

Certainly King Lear can lend itself to this kind of interpretation. By stressing or distorting passages and scenes, and ignoring or omitting others, we can make almost anything we wish of the play. No doubt, the world of Lear is as raw and cruel as Kott suggests, and there is much of the capricious, irrational, or absurd in the play, and especially in its shocking conclusion. For Edmund’s last-minute effort to save Cordelia and Lear from death comes just that last minute too late, and Lear, carrying the body of Cordelia on stage, is reduced to ululating: “Howl! Howl! Howl! Howl” Nevertheless, the emphasis of the play is elsewhere. And to insist, as Kott does, on the theater of the absurd distorts the play nearly as much as Nahum Tate’s 18th-century revision of the play to give it a happy ending. Just as Tate’s happy ending is for an audience uneasy in the presence of the actuality of malevolence and capricious brutality, so Kott’s theater of the absurd is for an audience uneasy in the presence of the actuality of benevolence and goodness and the possibility of man’s redemption. Just as Tate’s happy ending is not playing for keeps as one must upon the rack of this tough world, so Kott’s bleak view sees man as always losing the game and allows for no saving grace. And just as Tate’s improbable happy ending cheapens Lear’s suffering and makes a mockery of it, so Kott’s grotesquerie distorts Lear into a clown.

For what Kott ignores is the clear evidence which Shakespeare gives us in the two kneelings of Lear, and the great change in him from the thoughtless rage and vanity of the opening scene to the humility and love in his reunion with Cordelia. It seems to me that the more familiar view of such critics as Bradley and Granville-Barker is much closer to the spirit of the play. That view has been expressed with clarity and eloquence by Bradley in his Shakespearean Tragedy: “The gods, it seems, do not show their approval by defending their own from adversity or death, or by giving them power and prosperity. These, on the contrary, are worthless or worse; it is not on them, but on the renunciation of them, that the gods throw incense. They breed lust, pride, hardness of heart, the insolence of office, cruelty, scorn, hypocrisy, contention, war, murder, self-destruction. The whole story beats this indictment of prosperity into the brain. Lear’s great speeches in his madness proclaim it. . . . And here adversity, to the blessed in spirit, is blessed. It wins fragrance from the crushed flower. It melts in aged hearts sympathies which prosperity had frozen. . . . Let us renounce the world, hate it, and lose it gladly. The only real thing in it is the soul, with its courage, patience, devotion. And nothing outward can touch that.” It may be that the Victorian moral certitude in Bradley’s statement, the Christian overtones, the use of such a word as “soul” are all alien to our way of expressing ourselves today. But with all of King Lear in mind, and many of the other plays, we must, I believe, find this statement to be at the heart of Shakespeare’s intention.


It is true, as many critics have found, that King Lear presents a terrible indictment of man and society and often expresses the most profound pessimism, a pessimism suggesting a period in his life when Shakespeare may have seen man as cruel, hypocritical, greedy, and contemptible, human society as perverted and hopeless, the world as made up of stones and rocks oozing blood as if in a Dantean inferno. Certainly there are passages aplenty to give countenance to so bleak a view and to suggest the triumph of moral chaos. Conversely, however, as many passages can be marshaled on the other side, to affirm, in the words of Albany, that the heavens do send “their visible spirits” down “to tame these vile offenses,” though perhaps not as quickly as we might wish. If not the visible spirits of heaven, at least the playwright contrives that the worst possibilities of pessimism do not come to pass and that moral order ultimately is restored. In King Lear, as in Shakespeare’s plays generally, the comforting adage “Murder will out” holds, even though in the actual world we never can know about the murders that will not out. And unlike such a modern play as Maxwell Anderson’s The Bad Seed, Shakespeare almost never leaves evil triumphant at the end and out loose in the world.

Even more significant than the restoration of moral order is the restoration of emotional order or what should perhaps be called emotional healing and reassurance. I am not thinking here only of the personal healing that Lear and Gloucester undergo but of a healing that all the world in the play partakes of. It is not that the world is going to be essentially and permanently good and healthy because evil has been punished and the agents of evil are all dead. No, the world will go on as before. Behind its facades and masks, there will still be injustice and cruelty, rottenness and decay. Nor is man to be translated from the grim picture presented by Tom o’Bedlam into perpetual sainthood. What then is the healing? Certainly not something easy and simple to explain. And, of course, the crucial consideration is that the healing reaches out from the characters and world of the play into the minds and hearts of the audience. The components of that healing are so many, so complex, and even so ineffable that the efforts of the most acute critical minds have produced only a partial analysis. It seems obvious that by the vicarious experience of sharing the emotions of Lear and Gloucester, the audience, like those characters, is cleansed, at least temporarily, of rashness and vanity, of bitterness, vindictiveness, and hatred. It also seems obvious that the audience is granted reassurance when it sees that Gloucester dies knowing that his son Edgar has been loyal and loving, and that likewise Lear dies knowing that Cordelia has been faithful and loving. Furthermore, it is reassuring to the audience to see the virtues of compassion and humility awaken in Lear, so that he ultimately rises above the anguish which he has to endure. And there is the even greater reassurance in this play, as in Hamlet and Macbeth, that society is capable finally of ridding itself of an evil, though only after a convulsion, as a body can ultimately rid itself of a disease.

Nevertheless, there is more to the process of healing and reassurance in the audience than what has thus far been suggested. Perhaps the process can be better understood if we try to answer this question: why, despite all the terrible scenes in King Lear and in the other Shakespeare tragedies, do we arise at the end of the play not downcast and depressed but emotionally uplifted and even exhilarated or exalted? A good answer is provided, as so frequently is true, by Bradley in his idea that “the tragic world, if taken as it is presented, with all its error, guilt, failure, woe and waste, is no final reality, but only a part of the reality taken for the whole, and, when so taken, illusive; and that if we could see the whole, and the tragic facts in their true place in it, we should find them, not abolished, of course, but so transmuted that they had ceased to be strictly tragic—find, perhaps, the suffering and death counting for little or nothing, the greatness of the soul for much or all, and the heroic spirit, in spite of failure, nearer to the heart of things than the smaller, more circumspect, and perhaps even “better” beings who survived the catastrophe.” A parallel in the actual world is to be found in the inspiration and encouragement and consolation which we receive from noble or generous or selfless behavior in tragic circumstances.

Yes, in large part, our exhilaration arises from the sense of healing and goodness, of benediction and grace, which pervades the closing scenes of the play, in particular the scene (act 4, scene 7) in which Lear awakens from his restoring sleep and recognizes Cordelia, and the scene (act 5, scene 3) in which though Lear and Cordelia are taken prisoner Lear’s heart is filled only with joy in their reunion and his love for her. If the anguish of Lear is the marrow of the play, the love of Cordelia is its heart. In act 4, scene 7, she awakens him with a kiss: “O my dear father! Restoration hang thy medicine on my lips.” And Shakespeare did keep in reserve a brilliant piece of theater, capping the arch with a keystone to hold it all together. “Enter Lear with Cordelia in his arms” is the simple stage direction in the folio. But in a passing comment in his essay Legend of the Three Caskets, Freud, as he so often does, touches the very heart of the play by suggesting that King Lear should not end with Lear carrying the dead Cordelia in his arms but rather with Cordelia carrying Lear in her arms. For it is in her arms that Lear at last finds the “kind nursery” that he had so yearned for in the opening scene of the play. And we as audience are also in Cordelia’s arms and share the healing and reassurance with Lear.


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