Filed under: Theatre | Tags: Capitalism, Franz Kafka, King Lear, Marshall McLuhan, Modernity, The Gutenberg Galaxy, Tragedy, William Shakespeare
I’m going to see King Lear at the Globe Theatre in London this week.
Meantime we shall express our darker purpose.
Give me the map there. Know we have divided
In three our kingdom. (1.1.20-22)
In The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962), Marshall McLuhan makes the argument that Lear’s “darker purpose” is the politically daring “delegation of authority from the centre to margins.” In fact, the powerful opening scene intimates the larger fragmentation of power and social structures as Elizabethan England moves from feudalism towards modernity. “King Lear,” McLuhan argues, “is a presentation of the new strategy of culture and power as it affects the state, the family, and the individual psyche.”
Only we shall retain
The name and all th’ addition to a king;
The sway, revenue, execution of the rest,
Beloved sons, be yours: which to confirm,
This coronet part between you. (1.1.124-129)
Edmund, the bastard son of Gloucester (“there was good sport at his making”) is generally the character considered the most Machiavellian in the play, the agent of social fragmentation who rails against institutionalized structures that discredit his birth. He wants nothing more than equal opportunity, to be considered on merit rather than his given social role.
But Lear, who has already separated his duty from his name, is Shakespeare’s chief fragmenter. He has fragmented his power, his state, his family, and even, in his filial demand for bourgeois competitive individualism, merit from nature:
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
Where nature doth with merit challenge. (1.1.32-37)
The wages of this fragmentation are the lives of Cordelia, Kent and the Fool, who cannot overcome this split. “According to my bond,” Cordelia tells Lear. “No more nor less.” To balance the destruction this sea change wreaks, a nostalgia brings low the evil yet modern Goneril and Regan, and forces a belated contrition from Edmund, who cannot outrun our sympathies. Capitalism is displacing aristocracy, and the sympathy the audience feels for Edmund registers the necessity of such a shift. Yet residual social mores that remain embedded in modern life continue to haunt society like Hamlet’s ghost. The play, dealing with such an oppositional force “bursts smilingly,” like Gloucester’s conflicted heart, “‘twixt two extremes of passion, joy and grief.” The thunder that Lear famously interrogates is a contradictory force cleaving society in two. The result is a society that promotes the success of bastards (now Edgar, now Edmund) while forever cursing them for being so.
By the end of the play, Shakespeare has made bastards of us all. Edgar, the epitome of bourgeois mobility and individualism, rather than affirming a new social order in the manner of MacDuff or Fortinbras, gives both a mournful elegy and chilling augury in the play’s final lines:
The weight of this sad time we must obey;
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.
The oldest have borne most: we that are young
Shall never see so much, nor live so long. (5.3.383-386)
Edgar seems to offer a cynical tonic to his earlier, both hopeful and tragic comment,
And worse I may be yet. The worst is not
So long as we can say ‘This is the worst.’ (4.1.34-35)
This is the worst, but the worst is yet to come. It is the tragedy of capitalism that it was both necessary and destructive, emancipatory and fragmentary. Nowadays, the fragmentation presaged by Shakespeare has increased exponentially, and we are expected to pursue its omen even as we know it harbours secret plans to destroy us. But Edgar advises us that this shackling determinacy offers us a kind of playful liberation. If there is hope, it is the kind of failed, tragic hope that Franz Kafka offers us: “Oh plenty of hope. An infinite amount of hope—but not for us.”
Now Gods, stand up for bastards.
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