ANONYMOUS: THE HEROIC HINGE OF KING LEAR
Eugene Narrett, Ph.D
The two previous essays have discussed themes arising from the character, conflicts and challenges of the major figures in Shakespeare’s King Lear. But at the climax of the play it is an anonymous bit character that steps forward and changes the plans and hopes of the mighty, good and evil both. All the machinations and conflicts of the last two acts would be very different without the choice he made, expressed and put into deeds.
Who was he, what did he say and do, why did he act as he did and what was his reward?
Recall the main, public business of the play’s first scene: Lear had “a constant mind to publish [his] daughters’ several dowers,” to divide the kingdom in three equal parts “so future strife may be prevented now.” When he asked his daughters to express their love for him before giving away all he has and becoming their ward, Goneril his eldest flatters him in grandiose and hollow terms; Regan, the middle daughter slyly instructs him to give her at least as good a portion as her Goneril who, she says with catty elegance, has “come too short” in her praise. Ashamed and angered by these performances, Lear’s youngest and only loving daughter, Cordelia answers begrudgingly; tersely didactic, when she finally explains the depth of her remarks it is too late. Thus matters begin to unravel leaving Cordelia and Lear’s counselor, Kent banished and Goneril (with her husband, the Duke of Albany) sharing the kingdom with Regan and her husband the Duke of Cornwall. Soon afterward, the elder daughters’ mistreatment of Lear begins.
The anonymous hero upon whom the play’s action turns at its climax is a servant of Cornwall, “the hot [wrathful] duke” who is known and feared for his “fiery quality” (2.4.90-102). The hero’s name is Servant #1 and he has with him two fellow servants, #s 2 and 3. Like most people, their names are not needed to sketch the thrust of history but they each act in ways that change the play, illustrate its central themes and join them to others who struggle to defend and repair the “holy cords” that bind people in essential love and duties. Together they form an embattled, perfected community that recognizes the justice and mercy of providence.
Let’s set the scene, even if it takes us away, for awhile from the anonymous hero. But this seeming digression to establish context is true to life: few of us are present or involved in the events and choices that eventually shape our lives, sweeping into our realm of action at some unexpected point so that we must deal with things as they have come to be…
The scene is the main hall of Gloucester’s castle. Acts II and III are set in or near his castle by a series of events but also to test and purge his character.
After Lear disowned Cordelia and sent her off to France whose King chose to marry her because of her honest modesty and sincerity (“she is herself a dowry”), he splits his kingdom in half between Goneril and Regan . At the end of the long tumultuous scene, these two remain on stage alone, talking for the first time since their gaudy professions of love for Lear. Rather than being delighted or satisfied with their portions or shocked by the disinheriting of their sister, they profess fear of Lear’s “poor judgment” (ironically, in preferring them), “infirmity” and ignorance (“he hath ever but slenderly known himself,” Regan sniffs, 1.1.295-6). “The best and soundest of his time has been but rash,” Goneril adds; “we must look from his age to receive not only a long-engrafted condition but the unruly waywardness of infirm and choleric years...We must do something [about him], and in the heat” [quickly].
After a scene in which Edmond speaks his real thoughts in a soliloquy, fills his brother and father with fear, setting his father against his brother, Goneril orders her servant Oswald to insult and provoke her father who is living with her (alternating months with each daughter). “I would have [his behavior] come to question,” she says, so that “I may breed from hence occasions” for scolding him in public, humiliating him and driving him out of her residence. Oswald proceeds to do precisely what he’s told despite how cruel, dishonorable and illegal it is by terms of the inheritance. If you empower the wrong people, forget about law, honor, restraint or compassion. When Oswald duly insults him, addressing him as “my lady’s father,” Lear, served by the disguised Kent, storms out, un-fed with a remnant of his hundred knights hoping to find refuge with Regan with whose help he will revenge himself on Goneril.
While Goneril knows her sister better than Lear (“if he distaste it, let him [go] to my sister’s, whose mind and mine in that I know to be as one – not to be overruled”). She’s right: in that regard, she and Regan, as Lear’s loyal Fool comments, are as like one another as two crab apples are to each other, both sour.
She’s right but won’t trust Regan not to take Lear’s side to get rid of her. So she sends Oswald with a letter to Regan saying that by all means she must not let Lear in and lead them to fight each other. Lear sends Kent to Regan with a letter explaining why he’s coming weeks sooner than expected. Kent, being the man he is, arrives first and presents his letter; but when Oswald belatedly appears, Regan sets aside her father’s note, reads Goneril’s and with her husband Cornwall and some servants sets out for Gloucester’s castle so she will have an excuse for not hosting Lear, veiling her hostility, as long as she can, with a rationale. Though equally relentless, she always is more subtle than Goneril.
Eventually, all the main characters still in Britain arrive in the courtyard of Gloucester’s castle. This is part of Gloucester’s test, the conflict in which his own flaws will begin to be purged away. Whom will he serve: the Dukes and their wives, the Co-Regents are his superiors: he owes them his counsel, which they request, though they do not heed, no more than Lear heeded Kent. But he still feels and articulates the respect and honor he owes to Lear, so long his king and still, by agreement, entitled to “all the honor and addition of a king.” When Cornwall intervenes in Kent’s quarrel with Oswald and orders Kent put in the stocks, Gloucester musters his courage to protest that “he is the king’s messenger” and servant and cannot be thus treated. Kent adds, on Lear’s behalf and on that of the social order that “you shall do small respect, show too bold malice against the grace and person of my master, stocking his messenger” (2.2.130-57). Cornwall reiterates his order, Regan comes over and, in a parallel of her remarks one-upping Goneril in scene one, says an overnight in the stocks is not long enough: let it be thirty-six hours (“till noon? Till night, and all night, too”). Though this not just a dishonoring but a crippling sentence, Regan and Cornwall shut down all protest. When Lear rides into the courtyard later, sees (the disguised) Kent in the stocks, and learns that his daughters will not greet him (“they are sick, weary?”), he begins to get enraged, but then calms himself and pleads with Regan to honor him and the terms of the dowry agreement, to at least show some human and filial gratitude. The more he pleads, the more explicitly she tells him he is a nuisance, foolish, and that he should beg Goneril’s pardon for annoying her. After Goneril joins Regan in heaping on these insults and adding that Lear needs not one hundred, fifty, ten or even one knight to attend him, that their servants (like Oswald) will care for him, Lear, maddened with grief runs out into the storm in the middle of the night, attended only by the Fool and Kent. Regan and Cornwall order Gloucester to lock the gate, noting sarcastically but with some truth, “O sir, to willful men the injuries that they themselves procure must be their schoolmasters. Shut up your doors!”
While this may be true, they are sadistic in applying the correction; as his children, much benefited by him, unnatural, a major point of the play being that passions like greed, jealousy, lust, wrath, and lust for power destroy natural affections and, in time, judgment.
Gloucester spends the scenes of Act III going back and forth from his castle to the moor outside, alternately pleading with Cornwall, Regan and Goneril on Lear’s behalf and bringing news, food, dry clothing, lodging in a barn and fire to the party out in the storm. An additional irony is that this group includes the nearly naked Edgar in his mad man’s disguise as Tom O’Bedlam, groveling in the straw, muttering about devils and hallucinating (or pretending to hallucinate). Gloucester does not recognize his son, again, but his son recognizes him.
By this time, Edmund has securely attached himself to the two sisters and Cornwall (Albany had not gone with Goneril when she insulted and baited Lear into leaving her castle; he did not stop her, but he would not join in). When Gloucester, still trusting Edmond, his “true” son, confides that “we must incline to the king” and that, “the king my old master must be relieved, though I die for it,” Edmond promptly informs on him to Cornwall. Gloucester’s love for Lear leads him to dare the wrath of Cornwall, with which he is well-acquainted, and even the explicit threat of “pain of perpetual displeasure” in order to bring the material goods that save Lear’s and perhaps Kent’s and Edgar’s lives. When he returns to the castle from one such mission, Cornwall and Regan have him seized and bound to a chair for cross-examination. It’s a summary court with pending judgment on a nobleman in his own home; Cornwall admits that they are ignoring even “the form of justice” but states that their legitimate, limited powers “shall do a courtesy to our wrath which men may blame but not control” (3.7.25-8): that is, might makes right, no one can stop us. With Goneril and Regan urging him on, he gouges out one of Gloucester’s eyes. Thrilled, Regan cries out, “one side will mock the other; [won’t you gouge] the other too?”
At this point, servant #1 speaks up: “Hold your hand my lord! I have served you since I was a child, but better service have I never done than now to bid you hold” (3.7.73-6). The language emphasizes that service requires one sometimes to tell a superior to stop, to disagree, even forcefully in order to be a true servant and not a lackey, someone who tempers the passions of their master or mistress or boss rather than enflames them .
Regan and Cornwall don’t want service but automatic obedience. Infuriated, Regan calls the servant a “dog.” Cornwall draws on his “villain” (serf, peasant), and they fight. Servant #1 wounds his unworthy master but Regan runs at him from behind with a sword and kills him. As he dies, he says to Gloucester, “my lord, you yet have one eye left to see some justice on him” (3.7.82-3). The last words, like the deed, are exemplary. To set the contrast, the extremes of human character and choice, the bleeding Cornwall sneers, “lest it see more, prevent it” and grinds out Gloucester’s other eye.
Cornwall has the servant thrown on the castle dunghill and Regan has Gloucester “thrust out the gate…to smell his way to Dover” harking back to the play’s first page and the question of whether Kent could smell the fault of Edmond’s illegitimate conception. It’s brutal, just, and atoning: Gloucester is alive and out of the hell his house has become. But the parallel of thrusting out the victims is instructive: both were struck because they dared pain to protect those deserving protection and support and instructing those above them who were erring.
What of servants 2 and 3? They’re each a little different than their fellow who had the self-sacrifice to rebuke “the hot duke” in the midst of his bloody rage. They didn’t have that degree of courage: not all of us do. But they agree that all moral standards and self-restraint will cease, and that “women will all turn monsters” if the crimes they have seen go unpunished. There can be no crime without a punishment if divine providence is not to be doubted and human beings start “to prey upon each other like monsters of the deep” (4.1.49-50) as Albany tells Goneril when he sees her soon afterward. Gloucester’s blinding and the maddening and banning of the king were moments of decision for him, too .
But these servants do not only care or comment about the practical need of a moral order and divine justice. Servant #2 goes off to look for a guide, Tom O’Bedlam to lead the poor old Earl to Dover while his fellow goes for some flax and egg whites to bandage Gloucester’s wounds. While they would not risk their lives directly, they do so after the fact and each does something essential, showing mercy, deference and courage, helping frame the pattern of choices and events that produce a miracle.
It’s about this point that one notices that for all the carnage and ferociously selfish main characters, most of the people in the play are good, caring and loyal when push comes to shove, even at great risk to themselves.
Servant #1 is dead, his body lying on a heap of manure. In the storm of events to come he is all but forgotten . But by reminding Cornwall of the line he was overstepping, by reminding all observing and listening what true service is and by so serving he mortally wounds Cornwall. This leads Regan and Goneril to begin jousting for possession of Edmond which, driven by their appetites and habit of getting their own way, they do more and more openly. Edmond, as is his wont, uses them to further his own ambitions. They manage to defeat Cordelia’s French army in battle but only because Albany leads the forces, he is now the ranking authority in Britain and he makes clear to everyone that he fights to rid the nation of foreigners, to save and restore the king and to punish those guilty of crimes: the goodness of his character also emerges as evil discloses itself. In due course, with continued loving and brave service from many people, the self-serving help others defeat them as their clever plotting dissolves in the fire of their appetites.
Because Servant #1 interposed himself between his master, Cornwall and the bleeding Gloucester, the sisters undo themselves. Most of the good were killed or traumatized; purging the flaws that contributed to the hiding of the Divine Presence in the world till Goneril seemed to be its god: “the laws are mine,” she screams; who can arraign me for it” [the attempted murder of her husband]). But Edgar grows to full stature and inherits the kingdom, having learned discernment, patience and authority: “the distribution of challenges [for every person] takes into account the true nature of all parties and circumstance and is decided by the Highest Wisdom” . This is the lesson and essence of all of Shakespeare’s tragedies. Every one’s choices, thoughts, words and deeds become part of the texture in every one else must struggle to suppress evil and sustain what is good, -- qualities that Shakespeare’s plays define in word and action. There is a God, and He is both merciful and just; “the wheel comes full circle,” nothing is lost. 
“Thou hadst little wit in thy bald crown when thou gavest thine
golden one away” the Fool will tell him, 1.4.164-7.
© 2008 Eugene Narrett
- All Rights Reserved
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Eugene Narrett received his BA, MA and PhD from Columbia University in NYC. His writings on American politics and culture and on the Middle East and geopolitics have been widely published. These include four books, the most recent being WW III: the War on the Jews and the Rise of the World Security State (2007) which examines the historical roots and purposes of the war on terror as a late stage in the undoing of the West. His previous book, Israel and the Endtimes (2006) lays the basis for these questions.
Dr. Narrett has appeared on scores of radio programs, both major networks like WABC, Radio America, Eagle Forum Radio and Westwood Communications, as well as regional and local stations. He has been honored for his essays on art and literature and on behalf of the pro-life movement.
Since receiving his doctorate in 1978, Dr. Narrett has been teaching literature and art and creating interdisciplinary courses in the Humanities. He lectures on a variety of topics relating to western civilization, geopolitics and the multi-faceted war on the family that is a striking feature of the postmodern west.
See his web site, www.israelendtimes.com for information on booking a lecture and for contact information.
Cornwall has the servant thrown on the castle dunghill and Regan has Gloucester “thrust out the gate…to smell his way to Dover” harking back to the play’s first page and the question of whether Kent could smell the fault of Edmond’s illegitimate conception.