Is man no more than this
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‘Is man no more than this?’. King Lear and the Collapse of Civilisation. The collapse of civilisation. Freud: Civilization and its Discontents (1930) . According to Freud, man is ‘a savage beast to whom consideration towards his own kind is something alien’ (1962: 59).

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Is man no more than this

‘Is man no more than this?’

King Lear and the Collapse of Civilisation

The collapse of civilisation

The collapse of civilisation

Freud civilization and its discontents 1930

Freud: Civilization and its Discontents (1930)

  • According to Freud, man is ‘a savage beast to whom consideration towards his own kind is something alien’ (1962: 59).

  • ‘The word “civilization” describes the whole sum of the achievements and the regulations which distinguish our lives from those of our animal ancestors and which serve two purposes – namely to protect men against nature and to adjust their mutual relations.’ (1962: 36)

  • ‘This replacement of the power of the individual by the power of a community constitutes the decisive step of civilization. The essence of it lies in the fact that the members of the community restrict themselves in their possibilities of satisfaction, whereas the individual knew no such restrictions.’ (1962: 42)

The collapse of civilisation in king lear

The collapse of civilisation in King Lear

  • Kenneth Tynan on Peter Brook’s Lear in the theatre:

    • ‘The play is a mighty philosophic farce in which the leading figures enact their roles on a gradually denuded stage that resembles, at the end, a desert graveyard or unpeopled planet. It is an ungoverned world … a world without gods, with no possibility of hopeful resolution.’ (1967: 132)

Is man no more than this

The collapse of civilisation in king lear1

The collapse of civilisation in King Lear

LEAR. Allow not nature more than nature needs,Man’s life is cheap as beast’s. (2.2.425-6)

LEAR. Is man no more but this? Consider him well. Thou owest the worm no silk, the beast no hide, the sheep no wool, the cat no perfume. Here’s three on ’s are sophisticated; thou art the thing itself. Unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor, bare, forked animal as thou art. (3.4.93-8)

The collapse of civilisation in king lear2

The collapse of civilisation in King Lear

  • Animal imagery:

    • wolves, vultures, tigers, serpents, rats, bears, and a huge number of types of dog (bitches, curs, mastiffs, grey-hounds, mongrels, hounds, spaniels, ditch-dogs)

  • Inhuman actions:

    • blinding of Gloucester

    • shutting out of Lear into the storm

    • arbitrary deaths of Cordelia and Lear

      • ‘The timing of these two deaths must surely be seen as cruelly, precisely, subversive: instead of complying with the demands of formal closure … the play concludes with two events which sabotage the prospect of both closure and recuperation.’ (Dollimore 2010: 203)

Civilisation and authority

Civilisation and authority

  • What keeps us from this terrifying chaos? What enforces civilisation? The play’s answer seems to be authority…

    LEAR. Who wouldst thou serve?

    KENT. You.

    LEAR.Dost thou know me, fellow?

    KENT. No, sir, but you have that in your countenance which I would fain call master.

    LEAR. What’s that?

    KENT. Authority. (1.4.23-9)



  • But this mythologised idea of authority comes just seconds after a very different use of the term:

    GONERIL. Idle old man,That still would manage those authoritiesThat he hath given away! (1.3.16-18)

  • On what does Lear’s authority rest? And why does he lose it?



LEAR. … Only we still retainThe name and all the additions to a king.The sway, revenue, execution of the rest,Beloved sons, be yours; which to confirm,This crownet part betwixt you. (1.1.127-31)

  • Symbolic role of Lear’s hundred knights



  • Lear begins to speak in the third person when he realises that his former social identity is not the same as his current one:

    LEAR. Doth any here know me? Why, this is not Lear.Doth Lear walk thus, speak thus? Where are his eyes?Either his notion weakens, or his discerningsAre lethargied. Sleeping or waking, ha? Sure, ’tis not so.Who is it that can tell me who I am?Lear’s shadow? I would learn that, for by the marks Of sovereignty, knowledge, and reasonI should be false persuaded I had daughters. (1.4.220-8)

  • ‘Shadow’ and ‘marks of sovereignty’ – authority is about outward signs…

Lear s collapsing authority

Lear’s collapsing authority

LEAR. Hark, nature, hear: Dear goddess, suspend thy purpose if Thou didst intend to make this creature fruitful.Into her womb convey sterility.Dry up in her the organs of increase,And from her derogate body never springA babe to honour her. (1.4.268-74)

REGAN. I pray you, father, being weak, seem so. (2.2.359)

LEAR. I will have such revenges on you bothThat all the world shall – I will do such things – What they are, yet I know not; but they shall beThe terrors of the earth. (2.2.438-41)

Lear s collapsing authority1

Lear’s collapsing authority

  • The play takes on an increasingly absurd and tragicomic tone as Lear progresses into madness.

  • Railing against the storm – a futile attempt to exert control over nature.

    • ‘When Lear strips off his clothes to reveal himself as “unaccommodated man,” Shakespeare boldly reveals the natural body of the king as one that appears to bear little value in its own right.’ (Tennenhouse 1986: 139)

Lear s collapsing authority2

Lear’s collapsing authority

  • By the end of the play, Lear’s faith in social order is shattered. Power and authority, he realises, are amoral:

    LEAR. See how yon justice rails upon yon simple thief. Hark in thine ear: change places, and handy-dandy, which is the justice, which is the thief? Thou hast seen a farmer’s dog bark at a beggar?

    GLOUCESTER. Ay, sir.

    LEAR. An the creature run from the cur, there thou mightst behold the great image of authority. A dog’s obeyed in office. (Folio 4.5.147-55)

Lear and real authority

Lear and real authority

  • The first Quarto edition of King Lear (1608) tells us that it was

    ‘played before the King’s Majesty at Whitehall upon St. Stephen’s night in Christmas Holidays, by his Majesty’s Servants playing usually at the Globe on the Bankside.’

  • A corresponding reference in the 1607 Stationer’s Register confirms that Shakespeare’s King Lear was performed before the King on St. Stephen’s Night (26 December) 1606.

James i 1566 1625

James I (1566-1625)

  • Previously James VI of Scotland

  • Became King of England in 1603

  • Importance of lineage: ideological project (in which plays and pageants played a part) to cement his claim to the throne.

  • Shakespeare’s company – previously the Lord Chamberlain’s Men – appointed the King’s Men in 1603.

James i 1566 16251

James I (1566-1625)

  • Divine Right of Kings (Absolutism).

  • As James I himself put it in a speech to Parliament in 1610:

    • ‘to dispute what God may do is blasphemy, … so is it sedition in subjects to dispute what a king may do in the height of his power.’

  • The Project of Union.

  • In 1604, at the height of the debate surrounding the Union of England and Scotland, James condemned Parliament for

    • ‘preferring war to peace, trouble to quietness, hatred to love, weakness to greatness, and division to union.’

  • (England and Scotland were not legally unified until 1707.)

King lear or things you should never do when you re king

King Lear: or, Things You Should Never Do When You’re King

  • Divide a united Kingdom (note Gloucester’s reference at the beginning of the Quarto to the recent ‘division of the kingdoms’);

    • Banish your loyal subjects;

    • Reject your legitimate daughter, casting her off without a dowry;

    • Overrule the laws of inheritance and succession.

  • As Leonard Tennenhouse puts it, ‘to deny primogeniture is to undermine the Stuart argument on the metaphysical body of power’ (1986: 137).

Lear james

Lear / James

  • James, like Lear, was a keen huntsman.

  • James’s fool Archie Armstrong ‘treated the king and men of high rank with astonishing familiarity’ (Patterson 1989: 106).

  • James rewarded his favourites at court by granting them monopolies (exclusive privileges to trade in a particular commodity):

    KENT. This is not altogether fool, my lord.

    FOOL. No, faith; lords and great men will not let me. If I had a monopoly out, they would have part on’t, and ladies too, they will not let me have all fool to myself – they’ll be snatching. (1.4.146-50)

  • James’s authority to ‘coin’ was also being debated around 1606:

    LEAR. No, they cannot touch me for coining. I am the King himself. (4.5.83-4)

Lear as carnival

Lear as carnival

  • St. Stephen’s Day was a key date in the festive calendar, during the period of ‘Misrule’.

  • It was, according to Leah Marcus, ‘the holiday most associated with the granting of traditional hospitality… the high were to look out in pity upon the tribulations of the low’ (1988: 154):

    • ‘The preservation of old holiday customs was a very important policy matter for King James I. He had already issued royal proclamations calling for the keeping of open house during the Christmas season according to the traditional “laws” of hospitality; a decade or so later, he would codify his position in the Book of Sports.’ (1988: 156)

Lear as carnival1

Lear as carnival

  • Thus, Marcus concludes, the potential subversiveness of these satirical references to the King would ultimately have been contained by the festive context of the performance:

    • ‘For anyone who remembered what St Stephen’s Day was about (and who could possibly forget?) the quarto Lear was framed within a markedly conservative ceremonial context.’ (1988: 158)

The fool

The Fool

  • The platea-like figure of the Fool is a crucial element in the play’s politics.

  • Metatheatrical dramaturgy and intertextual casting

  • Images of the crown and authority as empty signifiers:

    • The hollow eggshells (1.4.150-6)

    • ‘Thou hast pared thy wit o’ both sides and left nothing in the middle.’ (1.4.179-81)

    • ‘Now thou art an O without a figure. I am better than thou art, now. I am a fool; thou art nothing.’ (1.4.186-8)

Is man no more than this

FOOL. Can you make no use of nothing, uncle?

LEAR. Why no, boy. Nothing can be made out of nothing.

FOOL. (to Kent) Prithee, tell him so much the rent of his land comes to. He will not believe a fool.

LEAR. A bitter fool.

FOOL. Dost thou know the difference, my boy, between a bitter fool and a sweet fool?

LEAR. No, lad. Teach me.

FOOL. (sings) That lord that counsell’d theeTo give away thy land,Come, place him here by me;Do thou for him stand.The sweet and bitter foolWill presently appear,The one in motley here,The other found out there.

LEAR. Dost thou call me fool, boy?

FOOL. All thy other titles thou hast given away. (1.4.126-44)

Lear as fool

Lear as Fool

  • In his madness and poverty, Lear’s alienation finally allows him to ‘see how this world goes’ (4.5.142-3):

    LEAR. When we are born, we cry that we are comeTo this great stage of fools. (4.5.171-2)

    LEAR. …I am e’enThe natural fool of fortune. (4.5.178-9)

Civilisation and authority1

Civilisation and authority

  • King Lear does not, then, offer us a straight choice between tyrannical authority on the one hand, and destructive chaos on the other.

  • ‘King Lear is the greatest Marxist play ever written.’ (Cicely Berry, voice director of the RSC, at the British Shakespeare Association conference, February 2012)

  • Authority, it seems, is simply the ownership and control of physical resources (‘land’), and enforced only by a combination of actual and threatened violence (soldiers), and empty ideological signs (‘titles’, ‘marks of sovereignty’).

  • It could be argued that the play offers only a hollow and superficial reaffirmation of patriarchal values at the end of the play.

King lear and social change

King Lear and social change

  • Seeing the human being as an unprotected animal suggests to Lear (however temporarily) an alternative social order:

    LEAR. Poor naked wretches, whereso’er you are,That bide the pelting of this pitiless night,How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,Your looped and windowed raggedness, defend youFrom seasons such as these? O, I have ta’enToo little care of this. (3.4.25-30)

King lear and social change1

King Lear and social change

  • Freud concluded Civilization and its Discontents with the following observation:

    • ‘The fateful question for the human species seems to me to be whether and to what extent their cultural development will succeed in mastering the disturbance of their communal life by the human instinct of aggression and self-destruction.’ (1962: 92)

  • At the height of the play’s cruelty, three unnamed servants behave in a way which provides the play’s most hopeful answer to Freud’s question (in the Quarto, at least)…

King lear and social change2

King Lear and social change

  • In Act 3 Scene 7 (the blinding of Gloucester), Shakespeare presents what Richard Strier describes as ‘the most radical possible sociopolitical act in a way that can only be interpreted as calling for his audience’s approval’ (1988: 119).

  • As Robert Shaughnessy puts it, ‘for a servant to “stand up thus” (3.7.83) is not only an act of rebellion but a theatrical coup comparable to a piece of scenery coming to life to berate the actors’ (2011: 244).

Ambiguous politics

Ambiguous politics

  • Just as we saw with the carnivalesque inversions of Twelfth Night, the tragicomic chaos evoked in King Lear is politically charged, but highly ambiguous.

  • Is the behaviour of the servants an extension of Kent’s class-coded fealty to Lear? Or does their willingness to defy their social superiors suggest a revolutionary impulse?

  • Were the play’s subversive suggestions ultimately contained by its festive context? What about the play’s performances in different (public) contexts?

  • Would the play have left its audience with a renewed faith in the existing social order, or might it have fostered a radical scepticism?



  • Dollimore, Jonathan (2010) Radical Tragedy: Religion, Ideology and Power in the Drama of Shakespeare and his Contemporaries, Reissued Third Edition, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

  • Freud, Sigmund (1962) Civilization and its Discontents, trans. James Strachey, New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

  • Marcus, Leah S. (1988) Puzzling Shakespeare: Local Reading and Its Discontents, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

  • Patterson, Annabel (1989) Shakespeare and the Popular Voice, Oxford: Blackwell.



  • Shaughnessy, Robert (2011) The Routledge Guide to William Shakespeare, Abingdon: Routledge.

  • Strier, Richard (1988) ‘Faithful Servants: Shakespeare’s Praise of Disobedience’ in Heather Dubrow and Richard Strier [eds] The Historical Renaissance, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, pp. 104-33.

  • Tennenhouse, Leonard (1986) Power on Display: The Politics of Shakespeare’s Genres, New York: Methuen.

  • Tynan, Kenneth (1967) Tynan Right & Left, New York: Atheneum.

  • Unless stated otherwise, text cited from King Lear is from the 1608 Quarto.

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