Shakespeare on Love: King Lear

from Feb 12, 2014 Category: Articles

Throughout his magnificent corpus of plays, William Shakespeare explored several themes, continually developing them through the dynamic possibilities of drama. He would create characters and then explore their interrelationships by pressing them into different trials and settings. Some of these recurring themes include the nature of man, liberty, judgment, the political project, mercy and forgiveness, and love. We will consider “the greatest of these” by taking a brief look at King Lear, hoping to demonstrate that Shakespeare’s understanding of love is a refreshingly Christian understanding.

The Tragedy of King Lear ends, typically, with death. Lear stumbles onto the stage with his daughter Cordelia dead in his arms. Insane with grief, and apparently believing she has whispered, he cries out: “Cordelia, Cordelia! Stay a little. Ha!/ What is ‘t thou say’st? Her voice was ever soft” (5.3.271-72). Moments later, his final words before dying rivet our attention once more upon her speech:

And my poor fool is hanged! No, no, no life! Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life And thou no breath at all? Thou’lt come no more, Never, never, never, never, never! Pray you, undo this button. Thank you, sir. Do you see this? Look on her, look, her lips, Look there, look there! [Dies.] (5.3.304-11)

My poor fool” is, aside from being an odd term of endearment, likely a reference to the actor’s double role as Cordelia and the Fool (—these two characters are never on stage together, and their roles function similarly in Lear’s life). More to the point, the last violent beats of Lear’s heart compel him to ask for his shirt to be unbuttoned. This final stripping away of Lear is Shakespeare’s decisive catechesis on the nature of man, his way of declaring: Ecce homo, “Behold the man.” At the heart of man is—what child-like wisdom!—man’s heart. Throughout the play, Lear has been divested of power and honor, stripped of land and possessions, rent from familial bonds of affection, and even of humane shelter, devastated to the core by storms both within and without—at what point, we ask, is he still a “man”? “Is man no more than this?” Lear himself asks amidst the fury of the tempest as he tears away at his clothes (“Come, unbutton here“) in the central scene of the play (3.4). Now, in the last scene’s unbuttoning, Lear has been reduced, finally, to his beating heart—and when it stops, needless to say, he dies. Yet, Shakespeare, to be sure, is driving us to ponder something beyond the heart as a vital organ of the human body. Rather, in the last throes of Lear’s heart, the nature of man as a theme flows into a deeper, vaster ocean: the nature of love. By a six-fold emphasis that reads much like a beating heart, Lear’s final words grab the audience’s attention and throw it forcefully to the lifeless lips of Cordelia: “Do you see this? Look on her, look, her lips,/ Look there, look there!” We look—we stare—our concentrated vision burns a hole through the page—what is it? Nothing, silence. There are no intervening lines printed on the page for Cordelia to whisper, no stage directions for her to flutter her lips—nothing. Lear dies. Our attention, then, was focused on silent lips, and not merely silent but dead lips—and this, we will see, is Shakespeare’s point.

Cordelia, whose name almost certainly derives from cor (“heart”) and delos (“revealed”), not only reveals her love but, in doing so, unveils the core of man, of Lear himself. What did Cordelia say? Many scholars have spilled much ink on this question, but the answer remains: “nothing.” This is not to say, however, that through Cordelia’s silence, Shakespeare the poet is not saying something—indeed, to my mind he has never been more eloquent. King Lear begins with a love-test: in the narcissism of his waning fatherhood, where doter longs to be doted, Lear announces that in dividing up the kingdom among his three daughters, he will give the largest share to whichever one will say she loves him most. The elder daughters, Goneril and Regan (who, incidentally, make Cinderella’s stepsisters look like Red Cross nurses), give predictably empty exclamations of flattery. Interestingly, Goneril ends her speech by declaring that her love is such “that makes breath poor and speech unable—/Beyond all manner of so much I love you.” Meanwhile in an aside, Cordelia determines: “What shall Cordelia do? Love, and be silent.” In another aside she declares: “I am sure my love’s/ More ponderous than my tongue.” Thus, when finally Lear turns to his third daughter for a speech on love, here is the unexpected exchange:

Cordelia: Nothing, my lord.
Lear: Nothing!
Cordelia: Nothing.
Lear: Nothing will come of nothing. Speak again.
Cordelia: Unhappy that I am, I cannot heave/ My heart into my mouth… (1.1.89-92)

At the close of the play, Lear’s fivefold “never” (with heaving heart) calls to mind this fivefold “nothing” (and Cordelia’s inability to heave her heart) as a key for interpretation. Without recapping the full plot line, suffice it to say that Goneril and Regan, for all their puffs of affection, prove coldly eager to sever all bonds with their father after they have despoiled him—they are wickedly cruel and scheming, even toward each other. Worse yet, Lear had disowned Cordelia, giving her portion of land, treasure, and troops to her sisters, and he had banished her out of his sight, revoking not only her dowry but also “her father’s heart from her!” And yet, despite her father’s ignoble deeds and hurtful words, Cordelia remains loyal and steadfast in her love—even unto death as she is hanged in prison.

When he had originally banished Cordelia from his presence, Lear had been reproached to “see better” (another theme developed throughout the tragedy) by the trustworthy Earl of Kent. In the end, Lear, with Cordelia’s body slumped in his arms, indeed sees better: he points to his daughter’s lips, frozen in death, “Look there, look there!” The drama that had revolved around a love-test, around the question of which daughter would have the greatest speech on love, comes here to a resolution as Lear fixes our eyes once more upon Cordelia’s speech. The play thus begins and ends with Cordelia’s “nothing,” the bookends of her self-sacrifice. It ends with Lear’s recognition that, betwixt and between the nothings of Cordelia’s living then lifeless lips, he had indeed heard the highest speech, gesturing toward the ultimate expression of love.

Like new wine, the profound eloquence of Shakespeare’s silence bursts the old wineskin of the play’s pre-Christian setting. Without ever declaring the Name above all names, Shakespeare the poet had nonetheless written a speech on love, a love that in dying conquers the grave. For those with eyes to see, King Lear unstops our ears to the gospel itself, and to the God who demonstrates his own love toward us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us (Rom 5.8).

My little children, let us not love in word or in tongue, but in deed and in truth.” (1 John 3:18)

Dr. Michael Morales is Provost and Professor of Old Testament and Great Works at Reformation Bible College. Come study the Great Works of literature and philosophy with us at Reformation Bible College. For more information or to apply online visit ReformationBibleCollege.org.