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Raymond Nighan, Ph.D.

The Existential Implications of King Lear

Mark Scully

The human condition is the scrutiny of art, Prince Hamlet notes the purpose of art is to hold the mirror against nature. King Lear is a masterful inquiry into the human condition. King Lear is confronted with existence in its barest sense and is forced to adapt to that existence. His adaptation to the absurd provides an invaluable insight for all into the universal problem of existence. Lear is forced into an existential progression that will be traced with the phenomenon of consciousness; the result of this progression is seen ironically in that Lear finds satisfaction in despair.

The point of departure of Lear into the unknown of existence is seen when he plunges himself into the harshness and relentlessness of nature. While immersed in the storm, Lear has been reduced to the bare essentials of man, he has lost those that he perceived as loving, and despite being accompanied by the Fool and Kent, Lear is more alone than he has ever been. The daughters he thought who loved him abandoned him and have taken his kingdom. The daughter who truly loved him was banished by his irrationality; Lear is alone. The presence of the Fool and Edgar should not necessarily be looked upon as that of a companion, but rather as catalyst for Lear’s progression. As for Kent, his presence is barely felt by Lear. Lear’s isolation is critical for his progression. Similar to Sartre’s Roquentin in Nausea, isolation and loneliness are the foundations for becoming existentially aware. “The tempest in my mind/ Doth from my senses take all feeling else”(III, iv 13-14)[1] Lear is completely alone in the universe, abandoned by love and cloistered from all outside emotion; he is now prepared to perceive the reality that has eluded him for so long.

Lear is forced now to contemplate his existence in the universe:

Rumble thy bellyful. Spit, fire. Spout, rain!
No rain, wind, thunder, fire are my daughters
I tax not you, you elements, with unkindness.
I never gave you my kingdom, called you children,
You owe me no subscription. Then let fall
Your horrible pleasure. Here I stand your slave,
A poor, infirm, weak, and despised old man.
But yet I call you servile ministers,
That will with two pernicious daughters join
Your high-engendered battles ‘gainst a head
So old and white as this. O, ho! ‘tis foul.

(III, ii,14-24)

Lear’s phenomenological progression begins with his fury at nature. Lear’s pre-reflective interior consciousness perceives the storm and its relentless ferocity. The storm rages at Lear regardless of who he is and what has happened to him. “Rumble thy bellyful. Spit, fire. Spout, rain!” (III, ii,14).This is Lear’s pre-reflective interior consciousness perceiving nature; in Lear’s terms, there is consciousness of the storm. What makes this significant, however, is not that there is consciousness of the storm, but that it serves as a transcendent object in that ‘consciousness of the storm’ serves as the base for ‘consciousness of Lear.’ Lear reflects on his pre-reflective consciousness as an object in his ego, the ideal state of psychic emotions. “I tax not you, you elements, with unkindness./ I never gave you my kingdom”(III, ii, 16-17) Lear, in reflecting on his interior consciousness contemplates the universe; he does not blame it for his daughter’s harsh treatment and he owes it nothing, in turn it owes him nothing. His psychic perception is that of a violent indifference of the universe, and that violent indifference serves as the basis for his new ego. His ego forms a new conscious impression of the universe, that of violent indifference, which serves as Lear’s first step to transcendence. Therefore, Lear’s basis of his being-in-the-world in relation to the universe is that of complete isolation; the storm rages despite the injustice that Lear has already suffered. Lear’s new self awareness is his transcendent ego which is now aware of the violent indifference of the universe. This ego will be the object for future reflections by Lear occupying a violent indifferent universe. Now holding this new ego, he must evolve into a new existential state.

This violent indifference that the universe exhibits, otherwise considered absurdity, is palpable throughout the play. Lear is repeatedly confronted with it during the storm, and repeatedly reflects on his consciousness of that absurdity:

Their own rough ideas of equity force them to impose on the universal scheme a similar judicial mode. We, who watch, who view their own childish attempts, are not surprised that ‘the gods’ show little sign of a corresponding sense. According to human standards things happen here unjustly. The heavens do not send down to take Lear’s part; his curses on Goneril and Regan have no effect. The winds will not peace at his bidding. [2].

Existence is an absurd task that plagues Lear, and as he comes to the realization that Knight notes he plunges into a sense of forlornness; he realizes that any justice he tries to impose on the universe is a hopeless task because of the universe’s absurdity. This symbolizes his first step into his existential progression. “Then let fall/ your horrible pleasures. I stand here your slave” (III, ii, 18-19). Lear knows that the absurd universe will act harshly with no conception of justice. He is a slave to his existence and a fact of existence is absurdity. The forlornness Lear experiences is the natural existential reaction to an absurd universe. However, the cycle is rapidly dynamic and Lear must now enter the next stage of his progression.

Lear’s next phenomenological step is seen shortly after his forlornness:

The wrathful skies
Gallow the very wanderers of the dark
And make them weep in their caves
…man’s nature cannot
Th’ affliction nor the fear

(III, ii 43-49)

Lear’s pre-reflective consciousness again perceives this violent universe bearing down upon him. This object of consciousness is now posited as an object in the world. Lear’s reflective consciousness then reflects on the object of his pre-reflective consciousness and relates that to his recently formed ego of the absurd universe. Since absurdity has already become a part of Lear’s ego, he must now decide how to react to this absurdity. Lear reflects on his physic emotions of fear, alienation, and helplessness and seems to run from the absurd. His reflective consciousness causes him to deny the possibility of man’s ability to live in the absurd and as his physic emotions dictate, his ego now forms a new state, the state of angst. Lear’s nature cannot endure the human condition in an absurd universe. Now in order to transcend angst his consciousness must reflect on a new psychic state. Therefore, Lear will not be able to immediately perceive his existential state of angst and as a result the actions he takes will not be free acts and as actions they will show nothing more than his angst. “No, I will be the pattern of all patience,/ I will say nothing” (III, ii 37-38) Lear chooses to become passive which shows that he refuses to actively confront his existence, therefore, his angst is unmistakable.

Lear’s angst is a natural existential progression; it is a reaction to the harsh shock that confronts humanity in its forlornness:

Like all virtuous people, they are fools in the sense that a fool is a victim: they utter the cries of bewildered men who can’t see what’s tormenting them, and their explanations, even if they are reassuring for the moment, are random guesses. In this dark, meaningless, horrible world, everyone is as spiritually blind as Gloucester is physically. [3]

Lear’s transition into forlornness cannot be immediate acceptance. He is brutally confronted with absurd universe that is amoral; he can no more distinguish right and wrong now than Gloucester can distinguish visible shapes. It is only human for Lear to shrink from his responsibility of freedom, and to think it not possible for him to exist amidst the absurd.

The case for morality may be made for certain characters such as Edgar and immorality in the case of Edmund, thereby refuting the absurdity of the universe. However, there is no clear distinction between right and wrong in these characters. Edgar does not conceive right or wrong, but rather shows existential awareness. He freely acts and takes responsibility for his actions. “The weight of this sad time we must obey,/ Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say” (V, iii, 326-327). What makes Edgar heroic is his existential awareness and responsibility, not his conceptions of justice or right. As for Edmund, his case for immorality is problematic. As Bloom notes, “Edmund has no passions whatsoever; he has never loved anyone, and he never will.”[4] He then says later that Edmund has “a will to power with no particular purpose behind it”[5] and even at his death, “Edmund is quite dispassionate about his own dying”[6] and when Edmund is told that he was beloved by the two sisters, Bloom notices that “He [Edmund] does not say he cared for either, or for anyone else”[7] Although Edmund does change his ways in the end, he tries to do what he thinks is ‘right.’ However, is not this more evidence for the absurd? Doing what is right or wrong still has the same result, death of the undeserving. The fact of Cordelia’s death will be looked at in terms of Lear; however, at this point it seemed necessary to confront the issue of morality to fortify the absurd. Morality is simply non-existent, and every attempt it makes to climb from the depths of nothingness, it is battered down by the absurd.

Now that the universe is confidently absurd, Lear’s existential progression cannot be forgotten, he remains in a state of angst. “Let the great gods/ That keep this dreadful pudder o’er our heads/ Find out their enemies now. Tremble, thou wretch…” (III, ii 49-51) Ironically, Lear appeals to some higher power to expose the sinful to justify this violent storm. However, Lear’s ignorance is his sin and the storm is doing just what he commands. The violent indifference that it shows serves as Lear’s springboard into acceptance of the absurd. Lear, in trying to justify the violence of the storm, further shows his angst. He appeals to the gods that the ‘true sinners’, Goneril and Regan, receive their share of divine justice; that they will be put down by the ‘good’ of Cordelia who will rightly triumph over her sisters. Of course the irony here is clear; Lear’s appeals are implausible in an absurd universe.

The Fool’s frequent insight is able to perceive the irony and futility of Lear request to the gods.

He that has and a little tiny wit,
With heigh-ho, the wind and rain,
Must make content with his fortunes fit,
Though the rain it raineth ever day.

(III, ii 74-77)

The fool is able to understand the absurd universe in that it does not stop being absurd. He recognizes Lear’s ignorance towards his existence and shows that he is aware that the human condition is not something that can be avoided, but rains down upon man as long as he exists. He also acknowledges that because the human condition is unrelenting that it is only a matter of time before the absurd universe converts Lear’s ignorance into understanding or at least acceptance. The fool also comments on Lear’s appeal to gods: “When priests are more in word than manner…/Then shall the realm of Albion/come to great confusion” (III, ii 81-92). As Lear appeals to the gods that the un-virtuous men be given their due punishment, the fool is able to see that this is simply Lear’s angst speaking, that the absurd universe has no conception of justice. The priests that represent the gods’ power have no true influence in the world and the realm of Albion, the kingdom of Lear, plunges into a state of confusion. The Fool is able to see what Lear, in angst, cannot: that the power of the gods has been muted in favor of the chaos of the absurd.

Lear’s ignorance and angst is also commented upon by Edgar. “Bless thee/ from whirlwinds, star-blasting, and taking. Do/ Poor Tom some charity, who the foul fiend vexes” (III, iv 58-60) Ironically Edgar, who constantly comments that he is cold, blesses Lear from the harshness of nature. Edgar’s repeated mention of how cold he is signifies his bare existence, his knowledge of the absurd, his acceptance of the human condition. However, commenting on Lear’s angst, Edgar calls upon the same gods Lear did earlier to bless and protect him from the absurd. Edgar ironically plays upon Lear’s angst; however, the Fool, again, is able to peer into the true reality of things. “This cold night will turn us all to fools and madmen” (III, iv 78-79). The Fool refers again to the cold motif used by Edgar to show man’s bare existence, then comments upon the revelatory power of the storm. Both the fool and the ‘madman’ poor Tom are existentially aware of the human condition; the cold absurdity of the storm will inevitable turn Lear into the same fool, aware of the human condition.
Lear soon must follow his existential progression, however, remains in a state of angst. This angst is dramatized when he actually chooses prison rather than face the absurd universe in his two daughters.

No, no, no, no! Come, let’s away to prison:
We two alone will sing like birds I’ th’ cage:
When thou dost ask me blessin, I’ll kneel down
And ask of thee forgiveness: so we’ll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues
Talk of court news and we’ll talk with them too,
Who loses and who wins, who’s in, who’s out;
And take upon’s the mystery of things,
As if we were God’s spies: and we’ll wear out,
In a walled prison, packs and sects of great ones
That ebb and flow by th’ moon.

(V, iii 8-19)

This passage shows Lear’s being-in-the-world is that where his ego remains in angst. He would rather be taken away to prison and be sheltered from freedom and absurdity than talk to his other daughters and face his freedom. He believes that he can find substance in forgiveness, prayer, and companionship; his angst causes him to believe that he can contemplate the mysterious nature of God. But as the Fool and Poor Tom know, and what Lear will soon discover, is that these appeals are futile and show his angst. His desire to go to prison with Cordelia clearly dramatizes that his angst does not allow him to be free or to completely come to terms with the consequence of his forlornness, that there is no mysterious nature of God because there is no God. His consciousness of the violent indifference of nature is consciousness of a godless world. Good is absent in the Lear universe; nature rages upon him and he suffers. This is a curious cycle in terms of the Kierkegaardian existentialism. Lear’s angst arises in response to the absurd; ordinarily this would be cause for Lear’s leap from the aesthetic stage into the ethical. However, for Lear there is no other stage than the aesthetic. Perhaps this is why Lear’s angst is so destructive, in the sense of Kierkegaard, he attempts to make a leap but has no where to go. Being reunited with Cordelia offers Lear hope, however, as his wish to live in prison with her shows: his angst fueled by his hope of life with Cordelia simply inhibits his full acceptance of the absurd, and as a result, inhibits his freedom.

Lear became conscious of the absurdity of the storm and naturally slips into angst. The absurd will confront him again, something so absurd that he finally abandons all hope and his ego well develop further when hope is abandoned; he no longer is in angst for hope has been abandoned.

Edmund: He hath commission from thy wife and me To hang Cordelia in the prison, and
To lay the blame upon her own despair,
That she fordid herself
Albany: The gods defend her! Bear him hence

(V, iii, 254-258)

Cordelia, Lear’s hope as the antithesis of suffering, has been put to death, all appeal to the gods are in vain. Is this not absurd? It is an inherent contradiction to the nature of God and Justice that evil may triumph over good. Yet, this is precisely what happens and the suffering of humanity is the direct result. Of course, to the existentially aware there is no concept of good or evil. However, the apparent triumph of evil over good serves as a catalyst into the existential progression, as seen with Lear in the storm; it now has become a universal principle to all characters in the play, marked by Cordelia’s death. As awareness increases morality is abolished because evil is triumphing over good. The fact that Cordelia dies means that hope and morality die with her, the only place it ever existed was in the minds of those in angst. This absurd event brings the characters from angst into awareness of the indifference of the universe. They are brought from angst because her death is the death of morality, no good can come about from her death because good is non-existent, nothingness. The idea of good is an absurd idea because if Cordelia dies, then the universe is plunged into dark nothingness.

Lear is brought from angst into a final acceptance in a rather simple way. “Your eldest daughters have fordone themselves,/ And desperately are dead” Lear’s response to Kent’s news is: “Ay, so I think” (V, iii 293-294). Lear’s simple response shows a somewhat complex phenomenological progression. As he carries Cordelia’s lifeless body onto the stage, his pre-reflective consciousness notes her death and the implications of that death, those of an absurd universe. Lear’s reflective consciousness perceives the object of his pre-reflective consciousness and relates it to his ego, which is again transcended to a new level of being-in-the-world. The psychic object is reflected upon, that of an absurd universe, points to the ego which transcends his former ego of angst into a new being of acceptance of the absurd in Lear’s simple remark, “Ay, so I think,"( V,3, 293) recalling Descartes," I think, therefore I am."[8] Though the phenomenology of Descartes clashes somewhat with the phenomenology used thus far, the concept is the same: the consciousness of Lear is consciousness of the absurd. As he finally becomes fully conscious of the absurd, he accepts it as truth.

The final stage of Lear’s existential progression and the next logical step of the acceptance of an absurd universe is that of despair. “Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life,/ and thou no breath at all?” (V, iii 308-310) Lear despairs; life is despair when confronted with the absurd. Life passes and goes, it matters not who it comes to and who it leaves. Cordelia’s death is grossly trivialized by comparing the value of her life to the value of the life of a dog. This is the ultimate absurdity and Lear realizes this, and despairs. In this despair he is finally free of all hope, the hope that held him in angst, and in that freedom he undoubtedly finds satisfaction.

Mankind are here continually being ennobled by suffering. They bear it with an even deeper insight into their own nature and the hidden purpose of their existence… In some strange way the suffering they endure enriches them, brings them peace. [9]

Lear’s despair brings him freedom, brings him the satisfaction of accepting the universe. This is precisely the ennobling that Knight speaks of, man is ‘noble’ in that he confronts the human condition through his suffering, and is forced to accept it. His angst and his hope were the source of his suffering, for continuing to believe that the universe offers something worthwhile inhibits life. In order for Lear to live he must despair and in that despair he can truly be free. He dies because there is nothing to live for and as a result of that epiphany Lear is finally free to act without being inhibited by anything; he is existentially free. He is no longer forced to suffer and ironically he is finally satisfied because in death he finds freedom, he is no longer weighed down by hope.

The human condition is a bare, harsh, and lonely existence, which Lear brilliantly illustrates. Existence for Lear is similar to that of a great oak tree, at one point filled with life; however, the human condition will not allow that oak to escape existence forever. It is only a matter of time before the leaves fall off and nothing remains but the skeleton of a tree once filled with ripeness. The skeleton is now open to the harsh cold winds of existence:

“In the twentieth century, feelings of alienation and absurdity have arisen that tend to shift the focus to King Lear. All virtuous or evil actions, all acceptances or rejections of religious or political ideology seem equally absurd” [10]

This existence that confronts Lear is absurd and beyond rational thought and none can escape it. The aspect that makes this play such a masterful work of art is that it conveys this universal truth, and at the same time conveys the sharp emotional anxiety that is concurrent with the universal truth. Lear constructs the universal human condition.

Works Cited

1-William Shakespeare. King Lear edited by Russle Fraser.(New York: Penguin Putnam Inc., 1982). All future references will come from this text.

2-G. Wilson Knight. The Wheel of Fire. (London: Mehuen & Co., 1949), pg 193

3-Northrop Frye. On Shakespeare. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986), pg 113

4-Harold Bloom. Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human. (New York: Riverhead Books, 1998), pg 503

5-Bloom, pg. 503

6-Bloom, pg. 504

7-Bloom, pg. 505

8-Descartes. Meditations. Dr. Nighan's British Literature and AP page:

9-Knight, pg. 196

10-Frye, pg. 119