King Lear

In The Canticle of the Rose, Poems: 1917 to 1949, we see the development of EDITH SITWKLL, England’s foremost woman poet. We feel the excitement of her early poems with their strange compelling rhythm, and we feel the power and penetration of her later work with its splendid sweep and color. On her visit to America last year, Dr. Sitwell showed the Atlantic her Notebook on William Shakespeare, from which we have drawn two papers, the first on Macbeth, the second on King Lear — each remarkable for its interpretation and scholarship.


IN Shakespeare’s tragedies, somelimcs the gigantic phrases, thrown up by passion, have the character of those geological phenomena, brought about in the lapse of cosmical time, by the sun’s heat, by the retained internal heat of the earth — or they seem part of ihe earth, fulgurites, rocky substances fused or vitrified by lightning, as in Timon of Athens. Or, as in King Lear, the words seem thunderbolts, hurled from the heart of a heaven. King Lear, Timon of Athens, seem the works of a god who is compact of earth and pie, of whom it might be said he is a fifth element.

As flies to wanton boves are wee to the Gods:
They kill us for their sport.

“Here,” wrote Swinburne, “is no need of the Eumenides, children of Night everlasting, for here is vorv Night herself. The words just cited are not casual or episodical, they strike the keynote of the whole poem, lay the keynote of the whole arch of thought. . . . We have heard much and often from the theologians of the light of revelation: and some such thing indeed we find in Æschylus: but the darkness of revelation is here.

“For in this, the most terrible work of human genius, it is with the very springs and sources of nature that her student has set himself to deal. The veil of the temple of our humanity is rent in twain.”

Here, in this play in which the cry sounds always “Poor Tom’s a-cold!” (Man going bare to Death, or Man under “the extremitie of the skies”) unrolls before us the history of a great King powerful and ancient as the heavens, who must learn that his hands “smelle of mortalitie” — and who through the darkness of the mind reaches the Night of the Soul (but not that which is known by the Saints) — and, through the Night of the Soul, reaches the light. And this history is mirrored by that of the great King’s lesser counterpart, his servant Gloucester — the lusts of the heart in Gloucester taking the place of the pride of the will.

Cries the mad Lear to his blinded servant: —

O, O ho, are you there with me? No eyes in your head nor money in your purse. Your eyes are in a heavy ease, your purse in a light:yet you see how this world goes.


I see it feelingly.


What! Art mad? A man may see how this world goes with no eyes (IV, 6).

One of the keynotes of the play, I suggest, is the phrase spoken by the supposed madman, Edgar: —

. . . NCPO is an angler in the lake of Darknesse

(III, 6).

In Book II, Chapter 37, of Pausanius’ Description of Greece, occurs this passage: —

“I saw also a spring, called the spring of Amphiaraus, and the Alcyoninn Lake. Through this lake, the Argives say, Dionysus went to Hell to fetch up Semele; and they say that Polymnus showed him the way down to Hell. The lake is bottomless. I never heard of any one who was able to sound the depth. Nero himself made the experiment, taking every precaution to ensure success. He had lines made many furlongs long: these he joined together and weighted with lead, but he could find no bottom. I was told, too, that smooth and still as the waters of the lake look to the eye, it yet has the property of sucking down any one who is rash enough to swim in it. The water catches him, and sweeps him down into the depths,”

The meaning of this line of Edgar’s, taken in conjunction with the above passage (to which, I would suggest, it must refer), is of an appalling greatness and terror.

“The lake of Darknesse”—the bottomless depths of human nature, in which the mad Lear, the blinded Gloucester (in that world in which child turns against parent, Nature against Man), and the ghost of Nero the matricide, find blackness after blackness, depth beneath depth.

Nor is this all. In many a line of Shakespeare’s, there is a second meaning, — and this lake through which Dionysus went, to Hell to fetch up Semele may also be the lake of human sorrows, through which (in this world of transpositions) Lear and Gloucester, the fathers, went to recover the beloved Cordelia, the beloved Edgar.

Higdon, as translated by Tre visa, uses this appalling phrase: “. . . he [Nero] let kerne his own mod or worn be, for he wolde see the place that he was conceyved in.”

And Shakespeare evidently regarded Nero as the pattern of all matricides.

In King John (V, 2) occur the lines

Yon bloody Nerds, ripping up the wombe
Of your deere Mother England.

I ask myself, therefore, if the image of Nero angling in the lake of Darknesse may not, in addition to those meanings I have suggested, be an image of Lear, who, in his prayer to Nature to kill the sources of life in his daughter, struck at the very heart of Nature, disturbing that lake of Darknesse, the original chaos from which all being arose.

The old King, the events of the play, have the hugeness of Nature’s forces. With the “waters of old fond eies,”

. . . poor old heart, he holp the heavens to raine

(III, 7).

Those tears have the mightiness of the heavens in dissolution, that would “temper clay” — the cold clay of the earth, and of Goneril’s and Regan’s hearts. The clay of his own nature.

At one moment, the King who had left humanity to its wickedness, as Lot’s wife left Sodom, cast a glance over his shoulder at the abandoned and abandoning moved by an instance of kindness, a redeeming pity in the heart of Man.

In answer to the words of the Messenger sent by Cordelia,

You shall have anything,

Lear, the humble, replies: —

No seconds? All myself?
Why this would make a man a man of salt,
To use his eyes for garden water-pottes,
Ay, and laying Autumne’s dust, (IV, 6)

— a man of tears, laying the dust that the fullness of life, the ripeness, has laid upon the heart.

Lear knows, now, that he is Nothing, But with that knowledge of Nothingness comes Patience. “Nothing.” “Patience.” These two words, and the words “Good Night,” echo through the play.

At first, powerful and ancient as the heavens, the great King calls upon them, as upon an equal, to avenge him upon his unnatural offspring: —

O heavens,
If you do love olde men, if your sweet sway
Allow obedience, if yourselves are old,
Make it your cause, send downe and take my part

(II, 4).

And Nature, his mother, having heard the appalling curse he pronounces upon his child: —

Dry up in her the Organs of increase,

— seeing in this prayer a crime against her holiest laws, an unnatural abomination, turns the prayer

All the stor’d vengeances of heaven fall
On her ingrateful top!

against him, pours “the extremitie of the skies” upon his uncovered head.

“How else,” said Nietzsche, writing of the Œdipus myth, “could one force Nature to surrender her secrets, but by victoriously opposing her . . . i.e. by means of the unnatural. It is this intuition I see imprinted by the awful riddle of the destiny of Œdipus. . . . The man who solves the riddle of Nature . . . that double-constituted Sphinx, must also, as the murderer of his father, the husband of his mother, break the holiest laws of Nature.”


IN THIS play, we see the upheaval of all Nature, the reversal of all histories.

In the beginning of the legend, Cronos devoured his own offspring. In King Lear, the brood devours the parent, in whom Age had become Time, and Time a fifth element. In the myth of Œdipus, son of Laius, King of Thebes, the Theban King, having learned from the oracle that he was doomed to the by the hand of his own son, exposed that son upon Mount Cithaeron immediately after his birth, with his hands and feet tied together. Here it is Lear, the father, who having first cast from his bosom his child Cordelia, is then shut from the gates to wander under the “extremitie of the skies,” as an outcast. The eyes, not feet, of Gloucester, the father of Edmund, and the smaller echo of the great King, are pierced, and he is thrust outside the gates, to wander in blindness.

In the Fourth Scene of the Third Act, when Lear says “I’ll talk with this same learned Theban,” the outcast King has reversed his role. He is no longer Œdipus, but is the Sphinx, who must ask the great question. . . . And it is the naked man exposed upon the mountains — one more naked even than the questioner, — one who has nothing but his bare humanity, who is now Œdipus the Theban, who can give an answer to the Riddle. No longer does the Sphinx, as in the ancient legend, put an oblique question, to which the answer is: “This is Man.” Instead, bare and terrible, the question is put. Lear, the Sphinx, asks: “Is Man no more than this?”

But in this work of Night, no answer comes from the Naked Man,— no direct answer, ottly a few meaningless words, like dust from the ruins. But behind that huddle of meaningless words, lies the true answer: “Man is nothing.”

The sounds of the words “Nothing” and “Patience” reverberate through the play.

Almost at the beginning, Lear and his daughter Cordelia reply to each other with this word: —




Nothing, my lord.






Nothing will come of nothing: (I. 1) . . .

There are echoes of this in the Fourth Scene of Act One: —


Can you make no use of nothing, nunele?


Why no, boy, nothing can be made of nothing.

And again:—


Now thou art an O without a figure. I am better than thon art now. I am a Fool, thou art nothing.

This is Man, with his “lendings" off, — and before the light came through darkness, through being blind and having stripped God naked of things.

When, in the Second Scene of the First Act, Gloucester, asking to see the letter Edmund pretends to have received from his brother, says “The quality of nothing hath not such neede to hide it selfe,” — it seems like one of those strange echoes, or sibylline utterances, which abound in Shakespeare.

Nothing. Nothingness, — and jet in Shakespeare there is no waste, no barrenness. All is of some use.

In King Lear, as in other of the plays, tears seem, not a barren waste overflow, but a sign of the quickening spirit of redemption. They are a lifegiving wonder.

All the bless’d virtues of the earth
Spring from these tears.

“Be your tears wet?” Lear asks Cordelia. “Yes faith, I pray, weep not.” Yet by those tears, he knows that she lives yet, and is not a phantom returned to hint from the grave.

Through the night of the soul, a terrible wisdom comes to the mad King, and his blind and lesser prototype. Gloucester says: —

I have no way, and therefore want no eyes,
I stumbled when I saw (IV , 1).

The lust of the eyes, the pride of the heart, are gone.


THIS play would seem to be largely a diatribe against procreation.


The gods are just, and of our pleasant vices
Make instruments to plague us:
The dark and viteous place where thee he got
Cost him his eies (V, 3).


Dost thou know me?


I remember thine eyes well enough. Dost thou squinny at me? No, doe thy worst, blind Cupid, Ile not love (IV, 6).

LEAR (crying)

No, they cannot touch me for coyning:
I am the King himselfe.

— the coining to which he refers is, I think, the procreation of his two elder daughters, that base metal.

The lusts of the heart and of the flesh will not. keep the body warm in the face of Death.


. . . Now a little fire in a wild field were like an old Letcher’s heart, a small sparke, all the rest on’s body cold. Look! (as Gloucenter approaches) here comes a walking fire! (III, 4)

Were it not, however, for the baseness of Alankind, procreation would seem to be the greater good, and the giving of life the purpose behind all Nature. And at first, they seem to be so. As the most appalling of all curses, Lear calls upon his mother and goddess. Nature, to curse Gonoril with sterility.

Heare, Nature, heare! deere Goddesse, heare!
Suspend thy purpose, if thou didst intend
To make this Creature fruitefull!
Into her Wombe convey sterility!
Dry up in her the Organs of increase.
And from her derogate body, never spring
A Babe to honor her! If she must teeme,
Create her child of Spleene, that it may live
And be a thwart disnature’d torment to her!
Let it stampe wrinekles in her brow of youth;
With cadent teares fret Channels in her cheekes,
Turne all her Mother’s paines and benefits
To laughter and contempt: that she may feele
How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is
To have a thankless childe. Away, away (I, 4).

(Here, the second and third lines — it must be remembered that the third line was then pronounced with each syllable sounding: “To make this Cre-ature fru-ite-full”—have no pause, move with the slow irresistible power and horror of a tidal wave. There are pauses of uneven lengths, as it the earth had been worn into chasms by the retreating flood of passion. Sometimes, there seems to be an upheaval of the earth itself, as in the sounds of the words “sterility,” “derogate.”)

At one moment of his madness, the voice of Lear, the great King, pardoning the life of a man who should die for the sin of adultery, changes to that of Nature herself, blessing the procreation ol all life: —

Thou shalt not dye! dye for Adultery! No!
The Wren goes too’t, and the small gilded Flye
Do’s letcher in my sight.
Let Copulation thrive: for Gloucester’s bastard Son
Was kinder to his father than my Daughters
Got ’tweene the lawfull sheets.
Too’t Luxury, pell-mell! for I lacke Souldiers (IV, 6).

The first part of this speech is beneficent but unseeing, like the sun whose warmth brings into being the life hidden in insect’s egg, in chrysalis, on a garden wall.

After this, the voice that speaks is no longer that of Nature alone, but is also, once again, the voice of the King who may condemn. The two voices are fused into one, as in uncaring tones, the true reason for the procreation of life is divulged: that there may be struggle and destruction:—

For I lacke Souldiers!

This is followed by the Stygian, smirching darkness of Lear’s invective against Woman, the lustful, the life-giving. This darkness at first has shape, but then crumbles, falls at last into that Chaos in which the world will end.

It is not without a reason that the vastly formed verse of the first lines, blessing the procreation of life, gutters down, gradually, into an unshaped prose, whose very words seem “the grosser parts of Chaos falling down toward the centre of the earth.”

Behold yond simpering Dame,
Whose face between her Forkes presages snow;
That minces virtue, and does shake the head
To heare of pleasure’s name:
The Fitchew nor the soyled horse goes too’t.
With a more riotous appetite.
Downe from the waste they are Centaures,
Though Women all above:
But to the Girdle doe the gods inherit,
Beneath is all the fiends.

There’s hell, there’s darkness, there is the Sulphurous pit;

Burning, scalding, stench, Consumption: Fye, fie, fie! pah, pah! Give me an Ounce of Civet, good Apothecary, to sweeten my imagination: there’s Money for thee.


O! let me kisse that hand.


Let me wipe it first:
It smelles of Mortality (IV, 6).

“Are not all things generated out of their opposites? I mean such things as good and evil, just and unjust. . . . And I want to show that in all opposites there is, of necessity, a similar alternation. I mean to say, for example, that anything which becomes great must become greater after being less.”

Thus spoke Socrates, just before his death; and the words were reported in the Phaedo Dialogue, which I believe may possibly have been in Shakespeare’s mind at the time of the creation of certain passages in King Lear.

I advance this suggestion with the greatest humility, since I do not wish to exhibit such a spirit as that of “the late Mr. Simpson,” to whom Swinburne paid tribute in A Study of Shakespeare, as one “who must have had beyond all other sane men most assuredly beyond all other fairly competent critics — the gift bestowed on him by a malignant fairy, of mistaking assumption for argument and possibility for proof. He was the very Columbus of mares’ nests; to the discovery of them, though they lay far beyond the pillars of Hercules, he would apply all shifts and all resources possible to an Ultra Baconian process of unphilosophical induction.”

But it is certain that from Lear (the element of fire, the will, the pride, the passion, which are the essence of fire), generated the endless cold of Goneril and Rogan. To become greater, Lear became less. Out of his madness was born, his wisdom.


IN THIS play, of which the beings are gigantic as phantoms from Thebes or Cyclopean cities, but yet have tides of blood beating in their veins, one theme is t hat of the war between the ordinary nature end the King-nature, the sacred madness that is genius; — the war of the waking workaday world, the “world of appearance, with its exceeding distrust of the Titanic powers of Nature,” against “the rapture of the Dionysian state, the annihilation of the ordinary bounds end limits of existence.”

At first, Goneril and Kogan are not, in their own view, nor from the world’s point of view, wicked. Their practical natures, the nature of the waking world, must protect the old mad genius-King against himself and his fires.

Indeed, at one moment, the voice of Regan, the evil daughter, seems that of the discerning Fate that will bring the old man wisdom: —

O! sir, to wilful men,
The injuries that they themselves procure
Must be their schoolmasters (II, 4).

At first, these daughters tell themselves that they are but doing their duty towards their father, and towards the world. The sane workaday world, the world of Appearance, must be protected against him. Economies must be effected, a Quiet life ensured. But, with power, their coldness hardens, and the evil takes shape. Of the two sisters, Goneril is the greater, in force, in coldness. The difference between them appears when Regan says of Gloucester: —

Hang him instantly.

The colder, infinitely greater Goneril says:—

Plucke out his eyes (III, 7).

Then Hogan, from the low horror of her nature, conceives the idea, more frightful even than that of Goneril: —

Goe thrust him out at gates, and let him smell
His way to Dover.

Gloucester, the sensual man, is to be reduced to the most animal of the senses . . . that in which Alan is most deficient, but which is most powerful in, and makes the greatness of, the Beast.

The blind man is to smell, not feel, his way to Dover. The sense of touch is what separated Man from the beasts, and gave him reason.

Gloucester is to become one of the company of the Lion.

“He [Shakespeare] seems to have been asking himself” (said Bradley) “whether that which he loathes in man, may not be due to some strange wrenching of the frame of things, through which the lower animal souls have found a lodgement in human forms, and there found, to the horror and confusion of the thinking mind — brains to forge, tongues to speak, and hands to execute, enormities which no mere brute can conceive or execute. He shows us in King Lear these terrible forces bursting into monstrous life and flinging themselves upon these human beings who are weak and defenceless, partly from old age, partly because they are human and lack the dreadful energy of the beast.”

“Thou chang’d and self-cover’d thing, for shame,” says Albany to Goneril. And constantly Lear refers to the covering of Man. It is as if these beings wished to hide their evil souls, taking upon themselves the covering of the beast.

There are references to the “detested kite,” or to the “false of heart, light of earc, bloudy of hand; Hog in sloth, Fox in stealth, Wolfe in greedinesse, Dog in madnesse, Lyon in prey.”

There is a passage relating to the transference of the baser souls into the bodies of certain animals, in the Phaedo Dialogue:

“SOCRATES: . . . The souls, not of the good, but of the evil . . . are compelled to wander about . . . in payment of the penalty of their former evil way of life; and they continue to wander until through the craving after the corporeal which never leaves them, they are imprisoned finally in another body. And they may be supposed to find their prisons in the same natures which they had in their former lives.

“. . . Those who had chosen the portion of injustice and tyranny and violence, will pass into wolves, or into hawks and kites; — whither else can we expect them to go?”

However, there is also much to suggest that Harsnet’s Declaration was the source of this. For in that work there is a scene in which the Jesuits cast out of the possessed Mainy the seven deadly sins, in the shape of animals, — Mainy, with each casting out, acting that particular sin. This book, A Declaration of Egregious Popish, Impostures to withdraw Her Majesty’s Subjects from their Allegiance, etc., written by Dr. S. Harsnet (afterwards Archbishop of York) by order of the Privy Council, and printed in 1603, is referred to more than once in the scenes with Edgar the supposed madman. Frateretto, who brought the news about Nero, was one of the devils mentioned in the Declaration.

As for

The prince of darkness is a gentleman
Modo He’s call’d, and Mahu,

in Harsnet, we find, in the deposition of the possessed Richard Mainy: —

“Furthermore it is pretended . . . that there remaineth still in mee the prince of all other devils, whose name should be Modo.” (He is referred to, elsewhere, as “the prince Modo.”) Mahu was the chief devil possessing Sarah Williams.


WHEN, in Act II, Scene 4, Lear says of the supposed madman Edgar, “I’d talke a word with this same learned Theban” — may not the Theban have been at once (Edipus, son of the King of Thebes, — he who could answer the question of the Sphinx, — and one of those two Thebans who were the last companions of Socrates when, released from his chains, he awaited Death? We read of their conversations with Socrates in the Phaedo Dialogue:

“The execution of Socrates having been deferred. Socrates talks with two Thebans, Simmias and Cebes, whom by his enchantments he has attracted from Thebes.”

In the Dialogue, after a long discussion about the evils of the body and of the senses and the lusts of the body, and of the vain nature of the clothing of Man, it is asked: “Have sight and hearing any truth in them?" “He [who] has got rid, as far as he can, of eyes and ears and of the whole body, which he conceives of only as a disturbing element, hindering the soul from the acquisition of truth and knowledge ... is not this the sort of man who, if any man, is likely to attain to the knowledge of true being?”

Later, Socrates says to the two Thebans, “Like children, you are haunted with a fear that when the soul leaves the body, the wind may really blow her away, and scatter her, especially if a man should happen to die in a great storm, and not when the sky is calm.”

To which Cebes answers: “Then, Socrates, you must argue us out of our fears — and yet, strictly speaking, they are not our fears; but there is a child within us to whom Death is a sort of hobgoblin: him too we must persuade, not to be afraid when he is alone in the dark.”

In King Lear, we have one to whom the darkness of the mind brought a wisdom greater than that of Socrates (one, who, like Socrates, is soon to cast off the chains of the body) —enduring the utmost rigours of a storm such as might blow the soul away, speaking of the vain nature of the clothing of man, then comforting one who is alone in the dark through the blindness of the eyes, but who had stumbled when he saw. The great King who has known all splendours, all the richness of life, and their true worth, comforts the destitute — him from whom even the sight of the world has been taken:—

Thou must be patient: we came crying hither:
Thou know’st the first time that we smel the ayre
We waul and cry. I will preache to thee: Marke.
When we are borne we crie that wee are come
To this great stage of fooles.

“Are not all things generated out of their opposites?" Patience from madness, the richness of the spirit from the destitution of the body.

After the piteous humility of the moment when the King proclaims himself no higher than a beggar at whom the dogs bark: —

. . . the little dogges and all,
Trey, Blanch, and Sweet-heart, see they barke at me (III. 6),

and: —

You must bear with me.
Pray you now, forget and forgive; I am old and foolish (IV, 7).

(although there are moments when he thinks that the mortal wound to his brain was gained in battle, as if he were young and great and still acknowledged to be a King: —

. . . Let me have surgeons:
I am cut to the braines (IV, 6)

the two beings, Cordelia, from whose sorrows

All you unpublished virtues of the earth
Spring with my teares (IV, 4),

and the old King whose eyes are

. . . garden water-pottes,
Ay, and laying Autumne’s dust,

await the coming darkness.

When Lear says: —

Pray you, undoe this Button: thank you, sir (V, 3),

— he is, I think, asking to be released from his outworn life . . . from his “lendings.” . . . So little a thing, now, is Death to him — only the undoing of a button, then the casting-off of the rags of mortality.

That world of night, King Lear, contains all degrees of darkness, from the lines spoken by Goneril: —

. . . Where’s thy drum?
France spreads his banners in our noiseless land

(IV, 2)

(where, by the use of the word “noiseless” we are given a land of night where all the sounds of life are quenched in darkness) — to the advance into a still darker night of

Childe Rowland to the darke tower came (III, 4).

Both the quartos print this alternative: —

Childe Row land to the dark towne came.

It is not for me to pronounce on the rightness or wrongness of this, when men who are learned have judged it better not to do so. But my instinct (and this, alone, can guide me) tells me that “towne” may have been in that giant mind, and that certain reasons have led to the change to “tower.”

If he wrote “towne,” originally, then we know, beyond any doubt, what he meant. The “dark towne” is Death (and the passage was so understood by Byron). But the reasons for the change may have been these. In the dark towne the roofs are low ; our house is our coffin. We are huddled together, are one of a nation, are equal.

If we come to the dark tower, we are alone with our soul. The roof is immeasurably high, —as high as heaven. In that eternal solitude there are echoes.