The Royal We The Divine I: Narcissitic Imbalance in the Worlds of King Lear and Paradise Lost

by Julia C. Guernsey-Shaw

January 1, 2005


In King Lear and Paradise Lost the narcissistic excesses of those in power lead to narcissistic imbalance in other characters. Consistent with the theories of Kohut and Winnicott, narcissistic disorder rips through the boundaries between persons self-regard becomes a matter of exchange in an interpersonal economy just as money or property is. In both texts, we get a vivid sense of the importance of good enough mothering as grown children sacrifice themselves to become their fathers' mothers. But while Shakespeare's play shows the tragic effects of the king's narcissistic arrest, offers an interlude of hope for the transformation of his narcissism, and ends in the loss of the good-enough mother figure who could facilitate that transformation, Milton's epic dramatizes the successful transformation of narcissism at the top of the chain of being. The Son as good-enough mother mirrors the Father so as to open the path to object love.


In an article entitled “Eve's Narcissism,” James W. Earl offers a discussion of “Milton's theory of narcissism” as it relates to human self-love in Paradise Lost. Earl suggests that if his analysis “were to extend beyond the human realm” he might discover Milton's “theology of narcissism.”1 If such an endeavor seems almost as ambitious as Milton's attempt to “justify the ways of God to men,” it may nevertheless prove intriguing (PL 1.26).2 Here I will make a start, examining not only the theology of narcissism in Milton's Paradise Lost but also the politics of narcissism in Shakespeare's King Lear.

Similarities between King Lear and Paradise Lost begin with narcissistic dynamics that pervade and tear the relational fabric of the polis or cosmos. The narcissistic excesses of those in power (king and God, in both cases fathers) lead to narcissistic imbalance in other characters. Consistent with the self-psychology of Heinz Kohut and the object relations theory of D. W. Winnicott, narcissistic disorder rips through the boundaries between persons; self-regard becomes a matter of exchange in an interpersonal economy just as money or property is. The texts, both mythic in scope, have absent mothers in common as well, and in both we get a vivid sense of the importance of good enough mothering as grown children sacrifice themselves to become their fathers' mothers. Yet as I will show, narcissistic dynamics play out differently in the two texts. While Shakespeare's play shows the tragic effects of the king's narcissistic arrest, offers an interlude of hope for the transformation of his narcissism and ends in the loss of the good-enough mother figure who could facilitate that transformation, Milton's epic dramatizes the successful transformation of narcissism at the top of the chain of being. The Son as good-enough mother mirrors the Father in such a way as to open the path to object love.

Attention to these texts with reference to the ideologies informing them will show that the pathology of narcissistic individuals, played out in the interpersonal domain, has immense social ramifications, especially when these individuals are practically as important as they believe themselves to be. 

The Royal We in King Lear 

At the level of depth psychology, the tragedy of King Lear is that of a narcissistic king who rejects those who love him because they refuse to mirror him. He bears scarcely sustainable insults from his two oldest daughters and at last finds a good-enough mother in his youngest child Cordelia, who returns to aid him in spite of his having disowned her. Lacking power to protect Cordelia, he loses her and the “kind nursery” she provides before he can benefit fully from her nurture (Lear 1.1.124).3 Tragic effect is heightened because nearing the play's conclusion, the most primary of human needs (for love, nurture, and holding) is shown to be non-illusory, a need that could be—yet is not—met. Lear regresses to a pre-narcissistic phase and begins to grow interpersonally but only to be abandoned and die before he can realize his human potential.

This reading of King Lear shares several insights with other critics. In regard to Cordelia's mothering of Lear, Coppelia Kahn and Janet Adelman both discuss Lear's pre-Oedipal desire for merger with Cordelia as mother.4 I will start with their ideas, but rather than generalize Lear's psychology from beginning to end as “pre-Oedipal,” I will differentiate between two pre-Oedipal phases relevant to Lear's character: the phase of secondary narcissism, where Lear begins, and that of primary narcissism to which he regresses during the storm. This regression works to the end of exposing a vulnerable self that Lear has tried to conceal, one who stands to benefit more from Cordelia's nurture than the narcissistically-fixated self stands to gain from her flattery. Hence she is willing to meet her father's needs at the end of the play when she has everything to lose, but not to meet his demands in the beginning when she has much to gain. In discussing Cordelia's manner of mothering, I will agree with Dennis Brown that Cordelia and others provide a Winnicottian holding environment for the king. 5 As part of that holding environment, Cordelia offers a potential space where Lear can discover Cordelia in her otherness to be good enough.6

In regard to Lear's narcissism, critics frequently discuss its overt manifestations.7 Lear's egoism, his sense of omnipotence, and his appropriation of others to mirror a grandiose self are characteristic of one kind of narcissistic psychology as Kohut describes it. So are his lack of empathy, his propensity to rage, his incapacity to admit guilt, and his underlying vulnerability.8 Adding Kohut's ideas to Winnicott's will allow me to bring Lear's self experience into sharper focus and to suggest how that experience derives from and determines self-other relations. Where Brown notes with interest that “it is more than usually tempting [. . .] to extrapolate all the other dramatic characters as split-off parts of the one representative personality,” I will argue that other characters are split-off parts of self from Lear's perspective, since he experiences and uses them as self-objects.9 In this way “king centered” ideology fosters a narcissistic disequilibrium in the king's subjects, who are, after all, irreducibly other-selves in the world of the play. King Lear represents Renaissance absolutist ideology as a lose-lose situation in which the king sustains the grandiose self at the expense of genuine connection to others and the “reality principle itself,” while others, overtaxed, lose self altogether or else live embittered lives licking their narcissistic wounds.

“The play” as Brown asserts, “commences in near-fairytale narcissism.”10 King Lear's overblown sense of self seems at first to fit within the mythic expansiveness of a text set in the legendary prehistory of England. Fairy-tale like characters—Cordelia as a Cinderella figure with her two wicked sisters and her own Prince Charming (France)—develop as all good or all bad, as a narcissist might perceive them, and they define themselves as such by how they treat King Lear. In this regard the king's narcissistic misperceptions regarding which daughters are good or bad vie against the implications of a text of which the ethos is also king-centered. Ideologically Lear errs not in defining good and evil with reference to himself but in misunderstanding his own good, which is coextensive with the good of the kingdom.11

At the start of the play, fanfare punctuates the king's arrival, and a histrionic display of the map reveals the land, the king's second body, which he intends to divide among his daughters. Ideologically and psychologically, he will be giving each daughter a piece of himself, the largest being reserved for the one who can say she loves him most. Since from a narcissist's point of view, others worthy of attention are experienced as extensions of self or self-objects, Lear may initially experience giving away his land more as a recompartmentalization of self than as a deed of his parts to others. Indeed if Goneril and Regan were the mirrors they represent themselves to be, Lear's kingship would become a repressed rather than relinquished identity; his mirroring self-objects would step into the foreground as extensions of Lear's ego or conscious mind to enact the responsibilities of power so that Lear could step back, unconscious of the “cares and business” of state, to enjoy the privileges of power (1.1.39). Lear's “darker” purpose then is an unconscious plan, a plan to become the unconscious of his daughters; in a dress rehearsal for his demise he wishes to drop back and observe his self-objects acting precisely as he would act.

When Lear asks Goneril how much she loves him, she knows how to reassure him:

Sir, I love you more than [words] can wield the matter,

Dearer than eyesight, space, and liberty,

Beyond what can be valued, rich or rare,

No less than life with grace, health, beauty, honor;

As much as child e'er lov'd, or father found;

A love that makes breath poor, and speech unable:

Beyond all manner of so much I love you. (1.1.55-61)

On the surface, she says what he wants to hear. Claiming that her love for him is ineffable, the material fact of her love exceeding the signifying force of her words, Goneril represents her love as a sword that words are too feeble to wield. Unconsciously the image suggests that love is a weapon, phallic, with associations of castration, of separation. On the surface Goneril goes on to vow that she loves Lear more than eyesight, space and liberty.” Thus she implies that she loves him more than her own perceptions (eyesight or even ?I'-sight), her separateness (space) and her autonomy (liberty). She claims to love him more than herself—more, even, than her sense of self. She further claims that she loves him beyond all material goods. If these statements were true, she would be giving herself over to Lear so fully that he would be giving his kingdom back to a part of himself. She would love Lear so much more than the land she is trying to attain from him that Lear would lose nothing by giving it. When Goneril says that she does not love her father less than life with grace, health, beauty and honor, he may believe she is valuing him in terms of the life he provided for her. In later scenes, it becomes questionable whether Goneril at all loves grace as a spiritual virtue, health in the body politic, beauty in a Platonic sense, or honor in any sense; it is only life she loves—her life which is “cheap as beast's” given the deficit of her human nature (2.4.267). In the light of these qualifications, Goneril's assertion that she loves Lear as much as a child ever loved a father is worse than a lie. As narcissistic and antisocial as she is, she may actually believe that no daughter loves her father truly. She believes that love of Lear would suffocate her (mak[e] breath poor); that love of Lear would silence her ( make “speech unable”). And love, on Lear's terms, would.

Regan too understands what her father wants to hear, though like her sister's, her words betray meanings of which Lear remains unaware:

I am made of that self metal of my sister,

And prize me at her worth. In my true heart

I find she names my very deed of love;

Only she comes too short, that I profess

Myself an enemy to all other joys,

Which the most precious square of sense [possesses]

And find I am alone felicitate

In your dear highness love. (1.1.69-76)

Regan claims to be made of the same stuff as her sister. In one sense, that stuff is Lear's flesh and blood. Thus Regan reminds Lear that she is an extension of his body and self. At the same time, metaphorically she represents the stuff of which she is made as a precious metal and apprizes herself to be worth as much as Goneril is in these terms. The fact that self-worth is measured in material terms suggests not only that these daughters are thinking in terms of their narcissistic entitlement but also, from an angle more pleasing to Lear, that the self is a commodity the daughters will exchange for their share of the kingdom.

The phrase “self metal” may further covertly imply that the self needs armor—as defense against Lear's appropriation-- or perhaps that the self is armor, its hardness a necessary quality for its survival. While focus on the self's value reveals Regan's narcissistic concerns, her image of the self's defensive function suggests that to comply with her father's demands, Regan mobilizes a false self who can simultaneously please her father and protect the true self from exploitation. Both narcissistic fixation and false self development are psychoanalytically predictable qualities of a child with a narcissistic parent.12 Regan's reference to her “true heart” in the next sentence underscores a discrepancy between the outward, false self (armor) and the inward, true self (heart), though of course the play as a whole belies the notion that she has a true self left to speak of. As C.L. Barber argues, Lear's demands on his older daughters may have “atrophied their tenderness making them [ . . .] eager to destroy the impossible old man who has destroyed their full humanity.” 13

The “deed” the daughters offer in exchange for the land is “love.” A deed is both an action and a title. The only deed of love these daughters do is talk, precisely what Cordelia will be unable to do when Lear commands her to “speak” and then to “speak again” (1.1.86 and 90). The “deed of love” in the sense of a title that makes their love Lear's property suggests again an abandonment of self to Lear. The self again becomes a commodity exchanged for the deed of the land and again seems to cancel out the very notion of exchange, since once Lear is assured that he owns his daughters fully, his gifts to them do not diminish himself.

In claiming that Goneril's deed of love is her own “only it comes too short,” Regan uses the narcissistic strategy of outdoing what another has just said. In this way, she seeks to earn more of her father's love than her sister has—or more precisely more of his land. Regan claims that she loves her father more than the pleasures of the senses, her “precious” body's joys. The libidinal implications of such delights support Oedipal interpretations of the passage, especially when one considers the next two lines where Regan claims that she is happy only in Lear's love (not in her husband's, an implication later amplified by Cordelia). Yet the line break between the last two lines of the speech makes the meaning ambiguous. Might Regan be truly “felicitate” only when she is alone? Might she even be felicitate in her father's love (expressed through the deed of his land) only after he dies and leaves her alone? Interestingly, Regan refers to “Your dear highness” rather than “dear your highness,” implying that Lear's “highness” is more “dear” than Lear himself. So maybe Regan is happy only in the love of “dear highness”—a status currently Lear's, which she covets for her own.

Perhaps even more than the elder daughters' saying what Lear wants to hear, Lear hears in what they say what he desires—that which confirms his sense of self, and self / self-object relations. It is precisely in saying “nothing” that Cordelia confounds her father's desires, opening an interpersonal space between them filled with loving silence rather than echo. In Winnicottian terms she opens the potential space where Lear will later find her as good-enough mother but only after he has psychically destroyed her with his rage.14

In response to her father's insistence that she “speak again,” Cordelia offers object love rather than mirroring: “I love your majesty / According to my bond, no more nor less” (1.1.92-93). Though condensed, the syntax suggests an equivalence between “I” and “your majesty” and between “Your majesty” and “my bond.” This sense of reciprocal relation between two people suggests a degree of intimacy not possible from a self-object. Cordelia further underscores this sense of interpersonal emotional exchange in her next statement:15

    Good my lord,

    You have begot me, bred me, lov'd me: I

    Return those duties back as are right fit,

    Obey you, love you, and most honor you. (1.1.95-98)

Cordelia's appositive, “Good my Lord” contrasts Regan's construction “Your dear highness.” The contrast emphasizes first that Cordelia is regarding her father as a good man, rather than regarding the king's quality of highness as dear; second that Cordelia thinks in terms of her relation to Lear (my Lord) rather than Lear's status (Your highness); and third that Cordelia responds to Lear's relational virtue (“goodness”), rather than his narcissistic superiority (“highness”). Cordelia thus responds to the person rather than his status. Appropriately given that Lear is relinquishing his kingship, she asserts a relationship that will outlast his retirement.

Reciprocity is emphasized by parallel grammatical construction in the second and fourth lines of the passage (lines 96 and 98). The subject “you” takes three transitive verbs with their objects (“me”); the subject “I” takes three transitive verbs with their objects (“you.”). Also line 97 begins with “You” and ends on “I,” and line 98 clearly sums up the notion of reciprocity or “return . . . back,” giving Lear priority in the covenant relationship because he is the elder, the father and therefore the author of it, but giving Cordelia “duties,” of which the fulfillment must emerge from her will rather than Lear's. Thus even the medieval ideology of the feudal covenant underscores that the notion that it takes two to make a relationship work.

In addition to stating her love for Lear in terms commensurate with the reality of her separateness, Cordelia refuses to indulge Lear in the delusion that she will continue to put him at the center of her relational sphere after she marries: “Happly when I shall wed / That lord whose hand must take my plight shall carry / Half my love with him, half my care and duty” (1.1.100-102). In marrying, Cordelia asserts, she will take a second “lord,” and since Lear insists on a measure of her love, she divides the love of one by two. Not understanding that the quality of love cannot be strained by ludicrous division, Lear takes the measurement literally and feels insulted. Narcissistic insult leads to narcissistic rage, expressed first in Lear's grandiose “curse” on Cordelia. Lear swears by day and night, sun and moon, and the planetary influences determining life and death—by opposites encompassing all that is —that he disowns Cordelia. He swears by powers exceeding his personal and political control. His narcissistic rage is expressed second in his perception of Cordelia in her separateness as utterly alien. He calls her “a stranger to my heart” and compares the compassion he will feel for her in the future to what he would feel for a “barbarous Scythian / Or he that makes his generation messes / To gorge his appetite” (1.1.116-118). The last comparison is ironic since, in terms of narcissistic libido, Lear has been feeding on his children and engorging himself at their expense.16

The defenses Lear uses to cope with narcissistic insult thus include grandiose assertions of power, narcissistic rage, and devaluation and dehumanization of others who fail to mirror him. These relational strategies remain, throughout the play's first two acts, characteristic of Lear under stress. Beginning with Lear's next move of banishing Kent who “come[s. . .] between the dragon and his wrath” to defend Cordelia (1,1.122), Lear manifests an inflated sense of self (a dragon is mythic, large, and terrible) and of the significance of his rage (the dragon's fiery breath has consuming power). Also he continues to use what power he has to punish those who dare displease him.

Lear's sense of his own importance becomes increasingly less realistic as power changes hands. Concomitantly his need for a mirror grows. Thus after a brief altercation with Goneril, Lear says to his fool:

    Does any here know me? This is not Lear.

Does Lear walk thus? speak thus? Where are his eyes?

Either his notion weakens, his discernings

Are lethargied—Ha! waking? Tis not so.

Who is it who can tell me who I am? (1.4.226-30)

Lear's referring to self in the third person is more than the linguistic habit of royalty here. The reference underscores Lear's sense of the gap between his imaginary self—the grandiose, narcissistic king—and the present vulnerable self. Psychoanalytically speaking Lear's image of having misplaced his “eyes” not only furthers the play's blindness motif but suggests that because he has lost his mirrors--the eyes of others and other I's—he has lost his “I” as well. When Lear asks “Who is it who can tell me who I am,” he is explicitly seeking a mirror. The fool both plays the part and modifies the grandiose reflection Lear desires in answering, “Lear's shadow.” In one sense the fool indicates that Lear is his own shadow, a diminished version of who he once was. In another sense, the fool says that only Lear's shadow can tell him who he is.17 The shadow offers a more accurate reflection than mirroring others do even though it is nothing, a darkness in the shape of a human figure.

As the insults Lear sustains become increasingly more real, his power to do anything about them diminishes. When Goneril asks Lear to reduce his company of knights, keeping only men who are fit company for an old man, her demand is realistically an affront in that Lear has given his daughters everything with the one proviso that he be allowed to keep one hundred men. Rather than appreciate all that he has given, she seeks to take more away. Politically speaking, Lear's knights, especially those young enough to fight, may threaten the current regime. But Lear's purpose for retaining them is more psychological than military. Although Lear has reduced his “sizes,” he wishes to retain one hundred mirroring self-objects in order to maintain a “self.”18 Thus, like Regan's later action of putting Lear's servant (the disguised Kent) in the stocks, Goneril's threat to reduce his retinue is “worse than murther”—a psychic violence that could cause a vulnerable self to disintegrate. (2.3.23).

Lear's reaction to Goneril's demand again includes grandiose self-perception, narcissistic rage, and devaluation and dehumanization of the other, showing how little his defenses have changed in spite of new circumstances. Lear commands as much as he petitions Nature, demanding that the “dear goddess hear” and make his daughter sterile (1.4.275). From a Renaissance perspective, a woman's natural purpose is to have children; Goneril has shown herself to be an unnatural child and thus, as Lear sees it, she deserves to be abandoned by Nature, the mother/goddess in charge of child bearing. Since Goneril seeks to diminish Lear, he seeks, through magical utterance (part command, part prayer, but finally the mere wish of a self felt to be omnipotent) to have her “organs of increase” dried up (1.4.279). Since she fails to honor her father, he asks that there be “no babe to honor her.” (1.4.281) Or if his beastly daughter must “team,” Lear asks that Nature make her child as full of spleen, as unnatural and tormenting to Goneril as Goneril is to Lear, “that she may feel / How sharper than a serpent's tooth it is / To have a thankless child (1.4.281ff; 287-89). As if images of a sterile womb in a teaming beast were not monstrous enough, Lear further dehumanizes Goneril by comparing her to a biting viper. That his narcissistic sense of justice requires that the other who has hurt him should suffer precisely what he suffers suggests that Lear's sense of reciprocity is the converse of Cordelia's.

But of course Lear can no longer bring actual harm to Goneril. He can only walk away, expecting better treatment from Regan, who quickly disappoints him. Regan insults Lear not only by putting Kent in the stocks but also by being unavailable when Lear arrives (as if he were not important). Furthermore, she refuses to take Lear's side in the conflict with Goneril, instead advising, “That to our sister you do make return / Say you have wronged her” (2.4.151-52). At this point Lear is scarcely capable of taking responsibility for wrongs he has done—much less accepting blame when someone has wronged him. When Lear later claims to be “a man / more sinned against than sinning,” he declares the fullest extent of a narcissist's capacity for guilt—assigning most of the blame to others and maintaining relative innocence by comparison, in spite of his wrongs. In response to Regan, Lear refuses to apologize and curses Goneril again as if his words had power: “all the stor'd vengeances of heaven fall / On her ingrateful top! Strike her young bones / You taking airs, with lameness!” Also, he continues to appeal to Regan, hoping to split the two daughters so that at least one sides with him against the other. When Goneril arrives, Lear addresses her with manipulative rage:

I prithee, daughter, do not make me mad.

I will not trouble thee, my child; farewell.

We'll no more meet, no more see one another.

But yet thou art my flesh, my blood, my daughter—

Or rather a disease that's in my flesh,

Which I must needs call mine. Thou art a bile,

A plague-sore or embossed carbuncle,

In my corrupted blood. (2.4.218-25)

Lear's rage changes key as he prays not to the gods to strike his daughter—“I do not bid the thunder-bearer shoot,” he claims, “nor tell tales of thee to high-judging Jove”-- but to his daughter not to make him mad. (2.4.227-28). Preconsciously he is beginning to realize that she has the power now. Their flesh and blood connection cannot be severed completely, though Lear experiences this former self-object as if she were simultaneously part of a one-body relationship (“in my flesh”) and foreign. No longer perceived as a natural extension of self, Goneril has become not another human to Lear but a cancer.19 Thus, Lear devalues as other one whom he still feels to be part of himself.

Lear's imagines that he still has a retreat in Regan: “I can be patient, I can stay with Regan, / I and my hundred knights (2.4.230-31). But the daughters quickly undermine that fantasy when Regan indicates that while Goneril will give place to fifty knights, she will allow only twenty-five. As in the play's first scene, Lear takes numbers as a measure of their love for him. But now they barter over the extent to which they will let Lear maintain a self rather than how much of themselves they will abandon to him. Once Regan reduces the number to twenty-five knights, Lear turns back to Goneril, who then reduces the number further until the daughters agree that Lear needs no knights at all. Reduced to nothing, Lear vents his rage:

No, you unnatural hags,

I will have such revenges on you both

That all the world shall—I will do such things—

What they are yet I know not, but they shall be

The terrors of the earth! You think I'll weep:

No I'll not weep.

I have full cause of weeping, but this heart

Shall break into a hundred thousand flaws

Or ere I'll weep, O Fool, I shall go mad. (2.4.278-84)

One can almost hear the voice of a small child saying, “I'm going to—I'm going to—well, I don't know what I'm going to do, but it's going to be really bad!”20 Lear has no power left on which to predicate his threats. Although grandiosity remains as he asserts that “all the world” will be affected by his curse and that he can mobilize “the terrors of the earth,” Lear's dawning awareness of his limits shows when Lear admits that he does not know what he will do. In the end, Lear can only refuse to weep, believing that his daughters expect this “unmanly” reaction from him. Rather than weep, Lear threatens to disintegrate into a hundred thousand pieces and go mad. This feeling of immanent disintegration is itself terrifying from a narcissist's point of view, since ego disintegration leads the self to the brink of psychosis. Yet this is the path Lear chooses rather than show weakness to his daughters.

    In his madness, Lear shows himself to be as grandiose as before, issuing commands to the storm:  Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage, blow!

You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout

Till you have drench'd our steeples, [drown'd] the cocks!

You sulph'rous and thought-executing fires,

Vaunt-couriers of oak-cleaving thunderbolts,

Singe my white head! And thou, all shaking thunder,

Strike flat the thick rotundity o' th' world!

Crack nature's moulds, all germains spill at once

That make ingrateful man! (3.2.1-9)

Whether we interpret the correlation between Lear's psychological state and the storm's disorder as Shakespeare's exploitation of the ideologically scripted mirroring relationship between microcosm and macrocosm, or as Lear's projection of self onto the environment, Lear's imperative mode address to the storm conveys his own rage as much as the winds'. In his fantasy of omnipotence, Lear speaks as if he were himself “the thunder bearer . . . high judging Jove” commanding a great flood (2.4.227-28). His commanding the lightening to fall on his own head may register anger at himself or defiance of nature's power to do him further damage. Finally when he commands thunderbolts to strike the world flat, crack the moulds and spill the seeds that germinate in man, he shows that in his all or nothing conception of human relations, humanity as a whole has betrayed him through his daughters.

Feeling utterly abandoned, Lear progresses in his madness toward a capacity for empathy, though he goes only as far as his own experience takes him in understanding other people's pain. Because Lear himself is exposed to the elements, he can at last identify with the “poor naked wretches . . . that bide the pelting of this pitiless storm” and chide himself for his failure to consider their difficulties before:

O, I have ta'en

Too little care of this! Take physic pomp,

Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel

That thou mayst shake the superflux to them,

And show the heavens more just. (3.4.32-36)

Even as Lear recognizes his need to purge himself of pride, he romanticizes the efficacy of his suffering, which can no more redeem the others Lear pities that it can redeem Lear.21 No “superflux” remains for him to give. When Lear at last feels compassion for “poor naked wretches,” it is a scarcely sublimated version of self-pity, and his delusion of having resources to remedy their situation is a messianic fantasy providing Lear escape from the reality of his own condition.

As Lear's boundaries expand to encompass others whom he once considered alien, he gets self and others confused in a new way. Rather than expect others to mirror him, he attempts to mirror them, yet fails in that he projects the specifics of his own situation onto them. Lear's projective identification is most evident when he meets poor Tom (Edgar in disguise) and assumes that Tom's madness is the consequence of daughters who took everything from him. As Lear's madness increases, he regresses further, yet in so doing becomes open to new opportunities for development. Potential space reopens for him as he plays the scene of putting Goneril and Regan on trial. Although his treating the cat as if it were Goneril and the joint-stool as if it were Regan is clearly psychotic, it is also the way children treat transitional objects such as blankets or teddy bears; these objects represent the mother and enable the child to work through issues with her (most especially the issue of her separateness and failure to respond to the child's attempts to control her through imagined omnipotence).

Though regressive, Lear's negative use of potential space to pass judgement on Goneril and Regan constitutes progress beyond his previous “foreclosure of potential space.”22 When Lear at last reunites with Cordelia, he has come naked through the stormy waters, which Adelman interprets as signifying “a terrifying female moisture” into a new birth. 23 This rebirth is not so much spiritual, a birth from above, as psychological, a birth from within.24 Lear's narcissistically-fixated self has been disarranged, and the new, infantile self has potential through Cordelia's maternal provision, to be rearranged into a more harmonious relation to the object world. When Cordelia reunites with Lear, she offers both physical and psychological nurture. She employs physicians to care for Lear and servants to carry him in a chair as an infant might be carried.25 She provides soft music to lull him in his sleep, and a soothing “kiss” to “repair those violent harms” her sisters have done (4.7.26-27). All of these actions are part of Winnicott's extended definition of maternal holding. So is Cordelia's empathy:

Was this a face

To be oppos'd against the [warring] winds

[To stand against the deep dread-bolted thunder?

In the most terrible and nimble stroke

Of quick cross lightning? to watch—poor perdu!—

with this thin helm?] Mine enemy's dog,

Though he had bit me, should have stood that night

Against my fire, and wast thou fain, poor father,

To hovel thee with swine and rogues forlorn

In short and musty straw? Alack, Alack,

Tis wonder that thy life and wits at once

Had not concluded all. (4.7.30-41)

Although Cordelia previously refused to mirror the narcissistic Lear, here she looks in her father's face and mirrors the vulnerability and gentleness of the fragile self that Lear has tried to hide from the world. As part of her “holding,” Cordelia summarizes Lear's recent experience in empathic terms, adding together the fragments of his experience to reflect back a whole picture. In a move reversing Lear's dehumanizing of others by comparing them to barbarians, monsters, vipers and tigers, Cordelia responds with concern to the basic physical needs Lear shares with any domesticated animal and to the specifically human need of her “poor father” for empathy and relation.

As Lear awakens, she verbalizes unconditional love and forgiveness in response to his admission of wronging her, claiming she has “no cause, no cause” for anger (4.7.74). Cordelia's repetition, though characteristic of her speech, may be read as tonally soothing and reassuring—like a mother's repetitive words of comfort to a small child.

Lear's progress becomes debatable in the next scene, when he and Cordelia are arrested and Lear accepts rather than resists imprisonment since Cordelia's presence will make even prison a holding environment for him. Wheeler asserts that “he continues to deny her a place in the world beyond that created by his own need.” 26 Yet Cordelia is the first to accept the reality with which she is confronted:

We are not the first

Who with best meaning have incurr'd the worst.

For thee, oppressed king, I am cast down,

Myself could else out-frown false Fortune's frown.

Shall we not see these daughters and these sisters? (3.1.4-8)  

In spite of her best intention to save Lear, Cordelia incurs the worst outcome of losing her own freedom with her father's, yet she accepts her fate in a completely non-narcissistic way. As false Fortune's wheel turns downward, Cordelia quietly registers that her suffering is not unique. In the next two lines, she asserts that alone she might have averted imprisonment but is “cast down” for Lear's sake. The tone is not that of a martyr but of a person in touch with the reality that things sometimes do not turn out as one wishes. The same lines may also be taken to mean that Cordelia feels unhappy or “cast down” only because the king is “oppressed”; if he were not involved she could stare down the forces opposing her.27 Cordelia does not feel bad for herself in other words.

Lear answers Cordelia's last question regarding whether or not they will go to meet Goneril and Regan, with “No, no, no, no! Come let's away to prison / We two alone will sing like birds i' th' cage.” Adelman argues that Lear's four no's articulate multiple objections to what she has just said: “Lear does not want to believe that Cordelia is cast down for him, does not want to be reminded of those daughters and sisters; more fundamentally he does not want to hear her dividing we into its constituent thee and I.” For Adelman, the no's thus “negat[e] everything outside their union in prison” and “must necessarily negate Cordelia too; she can be made to serve his vision only insofar as he can deny the possibility of difference between them, dissolving Cordelia's identity into his own.”28

As I read the lines, Lear's response is to an ambiguous question. On the one hand, Cordelia's question is “we shall see these daughters and these sisters, shall we not?” In this sense she asserts inevitable reality and at the same time invites Lear to go with her willingly rather than put up a fight. On the other hand, the question is “shall we not-see (refuse to see) these daughters and these sisters?” Lear's “no's,” which double a double negative, signal his attunement to the second meaning. His refusal to see is not as in the first scene a destructive manifestation of ego. Rather it is the playful manifestation of the “as. . . if” attitude available through potential space. They will act as if Goneril and Regan are not there; they “two alone”—together--will rise above circumstance through creatively re-envisioning the external world so that it maintains a good-enough fit with internal desires. Although Adelman's and Wheeler's point that in accepting imprisonment Lear denies Cordelia's separateness, her need to go back to her life, is plausible, it overlooks two salient points. First, since Cordelia accepts her situation before Lear does, he does not impose acceptance on her. Second, Cordelia's return to France would be impossible even if Lear felt differently. In turning the prison into a potential space, Lear merely removes Cordelia's reason to feel “cast down” for his sake.

Other imagery in the scene suggests that Lear's sense of the relationship is more reciprocal than before. As Lear envisions Cordelia kneeling down “to ask [his] blessing,” he claims that he will “kneel down” to ask her “forgiveness,” thus raising her up again (3.1.10-11). Their motions will be interdependent, forming an alternative to the wheel of fortune—a wheel of grace, shaped by willing mutuality rather than fierce competition and harsh coincidence. Others will “los[e]” and “wi[n],” go “in,” go “out” and “ebb and flow by the moon,” but Cordelia's and Lear's concentric relation to each other will stabilize them (3.1.15, 18). Here, in spite of all that has happened to him—powerlessness, abandonment, exposure to the elements, ego disintegration, madness, imprisonment—Lear comes to believe in the promise of potential space: that life in the object world can be good-enough to sustain him after he has relinquished the delusion of omnipotence. Lear's faith is not unconditional, however. The object world can be good only so long as the good-enough other is there. Lear has not yet internalized his good-enough mother. Although she is beginning to be real to him as a separate person, felt dependence increases with psychological separation.

At this most vulnerable time, just as Lear is beginning to trust Cordelia and through her accept all of life in its otherness, the harshest possible version of reality intrudes. On Edmund's order, Cordelia is hanged. “Enter Lear with Cordelia in his arms.” (5.3) Lear tries to deny her death, begging others in attendance, “Lend me a looking-glass / If that her breath will mist or stain the stone/ Why then she lives.” (5.3.262-64). The looking glass stands in stark contrast to the interpersonal mirrors Lear sought previously. It stands to mark a genuine absence of the other rather than reflect an imaginary presence of the self. As Lear imagines in the movement of a feather further hope that Cordelia is alive, he expresses the full extent of what is at stake for him: “If it be so, / It is a chance which does redeem all sorrows / That ever I have felt” (5.3266-68). But it is not so. Although Lear continues to look for signs of life—“do you see this? Look on her! Look her lips, / Look there, look there!”-- Lear's chance will “come no more” (5.3.311-12 and 308).

Wheeler blames Lear for Cordelia's death, tracing the chain of causes that eventuate in her loss back to Lear's initial actions:

In his longing, Lear destroys Cordelia by creating her presence in the image of his own need and imprisoning her in that image. But the consequences of Lear's actions extend throughout the world of the play. He has tragically altered the conditions of an actual world in which Cordelia must be destroyed, cannot be retrieved, cannot be used. In the play's symbolic action, the malevolence of that outer world mirrors the inner destructiveness of Lear.29

This reading overlooks the eye of the storm. Before the final scene, Lear loses himself in madness. On reconciling with Cordelia, he is reborn. The second destruction of Cordelia is separate from Lear's earlier psychic destruction of her. It occurs in the object world after she has survived Lear's rage and become separate enough in his experience to be useful in facilitating his growth. (cf. Wheeler, 162-63) The play's tragic effect hinges on this possibility of a happy ending—just as it hinges on the possibility that Cordelia might have lived happily ever after with France or might be saved in time by Edmund's stay of execution order. It is the reality principle itself, as Shakespeare represents it, that forecloses the fruition of Lear's human potential. The absent mother becomes present; the projected mother becomes actual—but only to be lost forever. Much to our horror, we learn (and we already know): without a good enough mother, life is not good enough: “never, never, never, never, never.” 

From Shakespeare to Milton 

King Lear is tragic because just as Lear shows willingness and capacity to change, the good-enough mother who could facilitate that transformation is lost forever. In Paradise Lost, on the other hand, the Father works through his narcissism by using the Son as mother. Or if we insist that Milton's God does not change, we may say instead that the Father, through the Son, exchanges his narcissistic persona for another, more loving one.

In both texts self-sacrificing children mother narcissistic fathers who hold positions of great power. The result is a fundamental transformation of the father in terms of how he understands (or represents) himself and relates to others. King Lear tests the limits of power and self by representing what could happen if a king decided not to be king; it explores Lear's self-fragmentation in conjunction with his division of the kingdom. Without surrendering political power Lear would never discover the limits of self. Only as a “bare, forked animal” with a deconstructed social identity can he come apart sufficiently to be re-formed. It follows that in the political terms of King Lear, the prerogatives of power are incompatible with the growth of the self. In Lear Shakespeare explores flaws inherent in absolutist self-construction of the monarch and consequently of those subject to the monarch. Paradise Lost begins with much the same picture, but in contrast to Lear, the Father does not have to lose power in order for the self to alter his relational style. The impulse toward transformation originates within the Father himself though he effects the transformation in relation to another. This transformation is necessary to create object love, the only way back to a creation that has “othered” itself against the divine will. 

The Divine “I” in Paradise Lost

Like Shakespeare's polis in King Lear, Milton's paradise operates by narcissistic dynamics.30 These dynamics are scripted by the Father, who, “Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end,” centers all creation around himself. There is no object love in Eden, only ostensibly higher versus ostensibly lower forms of self love. Object love becomes possible only as God foresees the fall; it originates as the Father is mothered by the Son and translates into the Father's capacity to re-establish a relationship to those who have differentiated themselves as “not me” and “not mine” in relation to him. There can be no felix culpa without the growth of God

In Book Eight of Paradise Lost, Raphael upbraids the unfallen Adam for “attributing overmuch to things / less  

excellent” (565). Specifically, Raphael scolds Adam for loving Eve—a mere thing—too much. The angel means  

that Adam is crediting more excellence to Eve than she deserves—that is, giving false tribute. But if we listen with  

our senses as well as with our minds, we may hear a deeper message. The meter has primary stress falling on the first syllable of attributing and secondary stress falling on the third syllable, suggesting that Adam is more actively projecting upon Eve his own attribute of excellence—that is, investing some of himself, now separated from her, in her.

The angel continues:

For what admirst thou? What transports thee so?

An outside? fair no doubt and worthy well

Thy honoring, thy cherishing, thy love

Not thy subjection: weigh with her thyself:

Then value: Oft times nothing profits more

Than self-esteem, grounded on just and right

Well manag'd. (567-573)

In labeling Even an “outside,” Raphael suggests that she is more a surface than a self, an image who stands in relation to Adam as her own “shape within the watery gleam” stands in relation to her in the famous scene of her creation (4.60). Although he correctly labels Adam's sense of “transport” in Eve's presence—the uplifting sense of two becoming one as the psyche invests self in other—Raphael analyzes rather than empathizes with Adam's subjective experience of Eve. From Adam's perspective, Eve is experienced as part of the self. Having come from Adam's rib, she is Adam's inside turned out. Eve is the one who calls forth Adam's sense of his own potential; she is his outer limit, inviting an expansion of self. Hence Eve is not an outside; she is Adam's outside. In Eve's prelapsarian state, her exteriority is unproblematic, enabling Adam to grow in self-knowledge, to experience himself positively by relating to an unconditionally loving Other felt as his own psyche. When Adam's outside separates from him, first physically and later through misuse of her free will, Adam's outwardness takes a downward turn. Adam's alienation from Eve, from God, and from himself, begins.

Many critics have argued that Adam's fall—like Eve's and Satan's before it—is narcissistic.31 Since the Father creates Eve as Adam's “other self,” Adam's choice to die with Eve is a manifestation of inordinate self-love. They are right. But as Raphael sets up the alternatives, what Adam fails to do is as narcissistic as what he does: Adam fails to esteem himself more highly than he esteems his “other self.” One the one hand, he chooses a narcissism of self-sacrifice rather than a narcissism of self-preservation.32 On the other hand, he shows that he loves the self in relation to Eve more than he loves the self in relation to God.

Critics who argue that narcissism is the origin and nature of fallenness in Paradise Lost are accurately perceiving half a picture.33 William Kerrigan apprehends the other half when he discusses the fall of Satan in terms of self psychology. As Kerrigan notes, Kohut discusses two manifestations of narcissism in early child development: “In one the `grandiose self' of the child contains in its absolute omnipotence the imago of the parent. In the other the child attaches himself to the imago of the idealized parent, great in being contained within this superior greatness.”34 For Kerrigan, Satan errs in choosing grandiosity over idealization. Narcissistic idealization of the Other is “the posture with a future,” according to Kerrigan, since “the narcissism of the contained ego prefigures submission to the otherness of the superego.”35

Kerrigan thus confirms that the problem for prelapsarian creatures in Paradise Lost is not whether to be narcissistic but how to go about it. His eliciting of Kohut to heap damnation on Satan is more in keeping with Milton and Freud than with Kohut, however. Kerrigan fails to note how, in Kohut's theory, “imagoes,” (the child's archaic images of self and other) are transformed through, or frozen by, actual relationships.36 Just as no healthy child is author of him or herself (though Milton's Satan claims to be) so no troubled child is the author of her or his own confusion (though Milton's Father claims that Satan is.) From this perspective, Satan's narcissistic fixation is a consequence of the Father's relationship to him. What makes idealization preferable to grandiosity is not the child's developmental needs but the Father's preference. The Father, being narcissistic himself, desires to be idealized, to be mirrored.37

Kohut posits that grandiosity and idealization are both essential to healthful development.38 As a baby grows out of the primary stage of undifferentiated fusion with the mother (as Adam recognizes that Eve is now separate from him, for example) the toddler comes to experience both parents as self-objects. In a patriarchal culture, the child (particularly a boy) idealizes the father, though the mother may also serve as an ideal. The child feels important in being related to the all powerful parent. Also, traditionally more in relation to the mother, the child experiences the self as God-like in importance and deserving of praise, love, admiration, and attention. 39 To paraphrase Milton, the child discovers that “The [self] is its own place and in itself / Can make a heaven of hell”—hell in this context connoting separateness (PL 1.254-55). The mother's appropriate response is to mirror the child, to support the emerging sense of wholeness, self-sufficiency, and self-worth with verbal and nonverbal affirmation. In healthful relationships, eventually the mother tempers her adulation with more realistic appraisal, and the child puts the father in perspective. Optimal frustrations of the child's desire for narcissistic gratification become appropriate as the child becomes ready for the reality principle. As the child grows, narcissism transforms itself into mature human capacities for humor, creativity, empathy and wisdom.40

In Paradise Lost, the Father is a single parent who sets himself up as eternal ideal but will not mirror his children. He rejects Lucifer when Lucifer's grandiose self emerges, and although he provides Adam with a mothering figure in Eve (technically Adam's mother and practically Adam's spouse) he later abandons Adam for preferring Eve over him. The Father maintains his self-esteem at the expense of his children's—as Lear does, but without the same risk of retaliation. He dominates over his children or, if domination is precluded by a child's grandiosity, the Father withdraws love. Children may either comply, foregoing allegiance to their true selves, or alienated from the Father they may seek to construct worlds which revolve around their narcissistically fixated true selves.

In Paradise Lost, then, the Father's narcissism is not injurious to the self and not completely out of touch with textual “reality.” Nevertheless, it is pathological or pathogenic rather to the degree that it arrests the growth of others he creates.41 Milton's God thwarts the growth of his creatures by treating them as self-objects rather than selves. The Father creates others of his substance, in his image, and for his gratification, according to his will. As Milton asserts in The Christian Doctrine, “The Father is not only he of whom but also from whom and for whom, and through whom and on account of whom are all things” (CD 1.7). The role of creatures in the prelapsarian universe is to mirror the Father: to praise, honor, admire, adore and obey him unconditionally. Only the Father's love is supposed to be conditional.

Although God creates the angels and humankind as potentially autonomous beings, the purpose of free will is not individuation but willing compliance to the Father, who is always, absolutely, indeed tautologically right. That which is good in Milton's universe accords with the Father's will. There is no higher justification for God's ways than God's will, and no higher justification for God's will than God's identity as God.42

Like Lear, the Father reacts with narcissistic rage and complete empathic failure to those who differentiate themselves from him by departing from his will.43 Satan and other rebellious angels are cast into a hell characterized not only by its spatial and temporal distance from heaven—“nine times the space that measures Day and Night / To mortal men”—but also by its separateness from God, who omnipotently circumscribes and limits the Satanic environment but invest no part of himself in it or its inhabitants (1.50-51). Hence Satan and his disciples are the first to stand as objects rather than self-objects to the Father.

Demarcating himself as an other in opposition to God, Satan eventually becomes not merely a hated other but an it, a hissing snake, not only in God's eyes but in the fictional reality defined by the interplay between the Father's “I see” and his “I will.” The scene occurs after Satan returns from sabotaging Eden. Entering Hell, Satan expects cheers but gets “a dismal universal hiss, the sound / of public scorn” (10.508-09). Before he can figure out what is happening, he begins to change:

His Visage drawn he felt to sharp and spare,

His Arms clung to his Ribs, his Legs entwining

Each other, till supplanted down he fell

A monstrous Serpent on his Belly prone

Reluctant, but in vain . . . (10.511-15)

As for the other demons, expecting to see “in Triumpth issuing forth thir glorious cheif,” they are surprised by a torturing spectacle (10.537):

They saw but other sight instead, a crowd

Of ugly Serpents; horror on them fell,

And horrid Sympathy; for what they saw,

They felt themselves now changing; down thir arms

Down fell both Spear and Shield, down they as fast

And the dire hiss renew'd, and the dire form

Catcht by Contagion . . . (10.538-44)

Readers tempted to see the fallen angels as heroic in the beginning are here taunted with figures, sympathy for whom becomes “horrid.” As if it were not psychologically horrifying enough for readers to witness angelic bodies metamorphosed into reptilian form and, in the passage on Satan, to imagine in tactile terms the contortion of the visage, arms sticking to ribs, feet twisting together—as if we were not already empathically distanced by the sheer discomfort of identification—the text warns further that “sympathy” has a magical component: within the text witnesses, even as they sympathize, are themselves transformed.

I concede that Satan's punishment is just in the same way the punishments of Dante's sinners are. Having once claimed that he created himself, Satan has become his own author, albeit the intentional fallacy must be elicited to explain the results.44 First, as the narrator emphasizes, Satan chooses serpentile form and then is “punisht in the shape he sin'd” (10.516). Second, having chosen himself over the Divine Other, Satan has been damned to himself. His initial grandiose assertion, “The mind is its own place and in itself / Can make a heaven of Hell, a hell of heaven,” has yielded to more tragic insight: “Which way I fly is Hell, Myself am Hell” (1.254-55; 4.75). Third, having chosen to destroy God's image in others, Satan has lost all traces of that image in himself.

It is as difficult to sympathize with Satan through the whole of Paradise Lost as it is to pity a mass murderer because he was an abused child. But our incapacity to side with Satan does not require us to side with the Father—not at this point anyway. As Foucault's Discipline and Punish suggests, the more the punishment fits the crime, the more unempathic the one who legislates, the one who executes, and the ones who witness the punishment must be, and the more like the criminal they doom themselves to become.45 Satan has re-enacted his subjective experience of God's tyranny through setting himself up as the absolutist monarch of hell. He has grown up to be the narcissistically fixated leader of his own realm, one who, more through manipulation than by force, elicits compliance from others who depend on him. At the same time, the Divine Justice has reiterated, in ostensibly righteous form, demonic wrath and destructiveness. Satan gets what he asks for only because the Father is cruel enough to give it to him.

Thus, in Milton as in Shakespeare, widespread narcissistic disturbance originates in the self-experience of an absolutist patriarch. Though I lack space to develop all the potentially relevant historical correlatives in this essay, even general historical knowledge suggests that Renaissance society operated by similar dynamics. Whether we discuss early modern ideological claims of the king's divine right, analyze psychological repercussions of the one body model of the kingdom and its image of the king's subsuming his subjects within his own extended subjectivity, discuss the historical behavior of courtiers toward their superiors when they sought to advance their self-interests, or appeal to biographical evidence regarding the interpersonal styles of monarchs like James I and Charles I, we are likely to end with the same sense: in history as in literature narcissistic excess in the “head” of the body politic leads to narcissistic disequilibrium in the society's members. The same effects may be hypothesized on a smaller scale from the early modern, father-centered household.

Stuart Lasine argues that the God of the Hebrew Bible is narcissistic since “Yahweh the parent us[es] his children as mirror.”46 Clearly the old Testament vision of Yahweh is one source of Milton's representation of God. But even more than the Bible, historical human experience accounts for the more objectionable features of Milton's God: his authoritarian demands for compliance, his relentlessly self-serving designs, his proclivity to rage when he does not get his way, and his tendency to enjoy inflicting pain on those who oppose him. All these narcissistic traits are apparent from the Father's first appearance in Paradise Lost. But so is the Father's potential for a more loving interpersonal style.

The scene occurs as the Father foresees the fall of Adam and Eve. Noting the progress of Satan toward Eden, the Father tells the Son about what is to occur:

. . . Man will harken to his glozing lies,

And easily transgress the sole Command,

Sole pledge of his obedience: So will fall

Hee and his faithless progeny: whose fault?

Whose but his own? ingrate, he had of mee

All he could have; I made him just and right,

Sufficient to have stood, though free to fall. (3.93-99)

Irene Samuel reads the Father's tone as “cold and impersonal” and argues that the passage conveys the “toneless voice of the moral law.”47. I disagree. The Father's labeling of Satan's lies as ?glozing,” his global judgement of Adam's progeny as “faithless,” his calling Adam not merely ungrateful but an “ingrate,' and his repetition of the word “sole” all add affect to objectivity. The speech delivers not judicious assessment of moral facts but the Father's personal outrage that his desires will not be heeded. Even more telling than anger is the Father's reflex to ward off possible blame—just as the postlapsarian Adam and Eve will try to do. Milton superimposes on Yahweh's Old Testament wrath a self-justifying mentality which is at best superfluous and at worst insufficient.

After the Father vents his anger, he gets down to more objective assessment. Judging that Adam and Eve are less culpable than Satan, the Father indicates that he will be more merciful in dealing with humanity than with the fallen angels. The rest of the scene is a dialogue between the Father and Son. Samuel argues that in the drama which unfolds, the Son “speaks his own mind, not what he thinks another would like to hear,” and the Father incorporates the Son's suggestions without compromising the “unalterable essence” of the Father's plan.48 As I read the scene, the Son does not so much voice his own opinions as mirror the Father's statements back to him in a revisionary light.

Even from the scene's first reference to the Son, we may see how the Son functions as the Father's mirror:

Beyond compare the Son of God was seen

Most glorious, in him all his Father shone

Substantially express'd, and in his face

Divine compassion visibly appear'd,

Love without end, and without measure Grace (3.138-42).

A mother's face is precisely where a child first sees him or herself “Substantially express'd,” the result being that the child is able to become him or herself more fully. 49 In Milton's text, the Father has just delivered a tirade of over fifty lines; he has mentioned his intention to be merciful only in the last four of them. Turning to his son, he views unspeakable love. He sees “all” of himself, including a side we have not seen before, one not yet actual. The Son is a creature so selfless that he serves as the Father's other self, able to call forth the Father's potential.

Verbally as well as visually, the Son all but ignores the Father's wrath, instead mirroring his compassion:

O Father, gracious was that word which clos'd

Thy sovran sentence, the Man should find grace;

For which both Heaven and Earth shall high extol

Thy praises, with th'innumerable sound

Of Hymns and Sacred Songs, wherewith thy Throne

Encompass'd shall resound thee ver blest.

For should Man finally be lost, should Man

Thy creature late so lov'd, thy youngest Son

Fall circumvented thus by fraud, though join'd

With his own folly? that be from thee far,

That far be from thee Father, who art Judge

Of all things made, and judgest only right. (3.144-55)

First, as Michael Bryson cogently observes, the Son brings the Father into focus as a God of love by emphasizing the word which closed the Father's sentence to the exclusion of all the Father's other words.50 Next, the Son reinforces this self-image by appealing to the Father's narcissistic motivational system. He points out how an act of mercy will bring the Father more praise. Finally, the Son negates the Father's identity as God of wrath by emphasizing that it would be “far from” God to damn humankind.

The Son concedes “human folly” and the Father's right to be angry in a short subordinate clause. Thus he de-emphasizes a point central to the Father's speech but leaves the point intact. Psychoanalytically speaking, the strategy is just right. In many cases, a person who seeks to be mirrored can hear a self-object only if the self-object reiterates what the person has just said.51 The Son repeats the content of the Father's speech, but at the same time, he restructures it. Telling the Father who the Father is more or less in the Father's own words, the Son successfully subordinates righteous anger to gracious love.

Subsequent parts of the Son's speech further show the Son's insight into the Father's personality. First, the Son draws on the Father's us and them mentality, pointing out that Satan wants humankind destroyed. After engaging the Father's hatred of an adversary who is completely other to make humanity see less alien, the Son figures humanity as “thy Creation,” eliciting the Father's sense of property rights (3.163). The Son appeals to the Father's pride, pointing out the implications of unmaking for Satan what the Father made for his own glory . 52 Such destruction would feed Satan's narcissism at the expense of the Father's. The Son also appeals to the Father's self-image, stirring paranoia that the Father's destroying his creation might result in malicious slander: “So should thy goodness and thy greatness both / Be questioned and blasphemed without defense” (3.165-66). In short, the Son successfully rationalizes the redemption of others in terms of how it can serve the Father's grandiose self.

The Father's response indicates that the Son's mirroring has been successful: “All has thou spoken as my thoughts are, all / As my eternal purpose hath decreed” (3.171-72). Given the text's premises, it would be inaccurate to say that the Father claims credit for thoughts not his, though a narcissist might behave in this way.53 Rather the Father narcissistically approves of another's thoughts because he had them first. He congratulates the Son for reading his mind correctly. He goes on to credit himself with a plan to redeem humankind. Announcing that “Man shall not quite be lost,” the Father couches man's salvation in terms which make the Father the subject, man merely the subject matter of his plan (3.173):

Upheld by me, yet once more he shall stand

On even ground against his mortal foe,

By me upheld, that he may know how frail

His fall'n condition is, and to me owe

All his deliv'rance and to none but me. (3.178-82).

Utterly self-centered, the Father focuses on the way that frail human beings will derive all their strength from him; he emphasizes all that man will owe him. The passage epitomizes what Erich Fromm calls authoritarian religion, to which Fromm objects because it leaves the believer narcissistically fixated.54 The relationship that the Father prescribes for redeemed humankind remakes creaturely narcissism in the idealizing mode. In subsequent lines, the Father indicates that he has chosen “Some . . . elect above the rest” (3.183-84). Through narcissistic idealization of the Father, redeemed human beings, though emptied of themselves, will be more special than their peers. Here indeed is Milton's “theology of narcissism.”55

Notably the Father stresses his own part as author of humanity's redemption to the exclusion of the redeemer. This point seems particularly striking since, given Milton's Arianism, the Son is not literally an extension of the Father but a separate, created being. In Milton's text the son is “begotten” the day the Father prefers him over Lucifer. The Son's begetting may be construed as the occasion when the Father narcissistically appropriates him. God's plan is to sacrifice not himself but his most precious self-object in other words. Yet the Father claims full credit for the sacrifice.

As Justice, the Father is willing to give nothing up but says of Adam: “Die hee or Justice must; unless for him / Some other able and as willing pay / The rigid satisfaction” (3.210-12). Asking the key question, “where shall we find such love,” the Father is met by silence among the angels (3.213). Predicating his willingness to die on the Father's “word” now “past,” the Son volunteers: “Behold mee then, mee for him, life for life / I offer, on mee let thine anger fall; / Account me man” (3.227, 236-37). In faith, the Son supposes what the Father afterwards confirms: absolute annihilation of the Son is not the Father's plan. Justice requires not an irrevocable sacrifice but a one time satisfaction.

Alice Miller claims that the image of Isaac in the Bible and in later art, trusting the father who plans to kill him, is symbolic of the true self's destruction in the hands of a narcissistic parent.56 In Paradise Lost, the Son's willingness to be sacrificed is analogous. But if by complying so utterly with the Father's desire, the Son shows that he is a false self, he nevertheless realizes his created nature perfectly. As his future act of total love will restore human selves, his present deed of unconditional obedience enables the Father to become himself more completely. The Father is at last able to integrate his righteousness with his potential for object love. The Father's true self is actualized through the Son's perfect mirroring.

Since the Son's value to the Father is enhanced by the Son's willingness to be sacrificed, the Father's willingness to surrender the Son becomes a genuine sacrifice on the Father's part. That the Father becomes less self-serving is indicated also when he promises the Son a reward that amounts to the Father's sharing of absolute power. Having agreed to stand as man before the Father, the Son will stand as the Father before the angels and humankind. He will bring the strengths of both natures to fruition: in the Son, the prelapsarian innocence of Adam will merge with the postlapsarian love of the Father.

In the eternal scheme of things, “God shall be all in all” only because the Son's goodness exceeds the Son's desire for greatness (3.341). Because the Son paves the way for generosity, the Father becomes more able to be good as well as great. This, we may assume, was the Father's plan all along. But foreknowledge is not the same as actuality. The Father as Omega is the actualized version of the Father's Alpha potential. God as Omega realizes himself only through another, his true Son.

The best justification for Milton's God rests not on the Father's narcissistic self-righteousness but rather on the creator's dialogical self-actualization in relationship to the Son. To come to terms with human beings on the verge of separating from him, the Father must further his own development. He requires an other selfless enough to function as his mother, to mirror him and be his other self. In accordance with the Father's plan, the Son facilitates the transformation of the Father's narcissism and enables the Father to realize his potential for object love. The fall is rendered fortunate not only for humanity but also for the Father and the Son.


Although Milton's theology of narcissism initially appears to valorize narcissistic relational patterns in a cosmos centering around the Divine self, in the end Milton represents the Father's growth beyond narcissistic fixation. We see transformations of narcissism not only in the Father's developing capacity for object love but in the wisdom, creativity, empathy and self-sacrifice he manifests in making a new plan for his creation. In a sense the Father transcends his own narcissism by creating an alter ego who can mirror him, enabling a fuller realization of his Godhead. Thus he solves the paradox of how to maintain integrity as a self and authority over others yet integrate flexibility to their needs. In Paradise Lost, the Reformation concept of selflessness comes to mean not a priori self-denial but fulfillment of self through the Other, followed by a willing relinquishment of narcissistic aims.

On the other hand, at the political and familial level in both King Lear and Paradise Lost, we see the tragic effects of leaders and fathers who exploit their place in the social hierarchy to gratify their narcissistic desires. We see some selves diminished, others in violent revolt, and, in each text, one self-sacrificing child who forges ahead of the “packs and sects of great ones ” to create alternative ways of relating (Lear 3.1.66). Perhaps in doing so, Cordelia and the Son prefigure the birth of egalitarianism as a political goal. Or maybe they prefigure more beneficent forms of intersubjectivity than those facilitated by the competitive individualism of modern democratic cultures. A narcissistic tug of war among selves “created equal” differs from the absolutist king's tugging at puppet strings to exercise his narcissistic prerogatives primarily in quantitative terms.

As psycho-social corrective, we might consider the words of Marx, “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need” not as they apply to labor and capital but as they might apply to an interpersonal economy of narcissistic exchange based on the genuine needs of children and the ability of adults to make a profound difference in their lives. The full promise of a child-centered society may never be realized of course. But if narcissistic prerogative extended most to “the least of these my children,” the maternal promise that the world can be good enough—that Christ's “kingdom of heaven is at hand”-- just might prove true enough. Even in reality. 

Julia Carolyn Guernsey-Shaw

University of Louisiana at Monroe


  1. James W. Earl, “Eve's Naricissism,” Milton Quarterly 19 (1985), 13-16. (Back to Main Text)
  2. John Milton, Paradise Lost in Complete Poems and Major Prose, ed. Merritt Y. Hughes. (New York: Macmillan, 1957). All Milton quotations will come from this edition. (Back to Main Text)
  3. William Shakespeare, King Lear in The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974). All Shakespeare quotations will come from this edition. (Back to Main Text)
  4. Coppelia Kahn, “The Absent Mother in King Lear” in Rewriting the Renaissance: The Discourse of Sexual Difference in Early Modern Europe, ed. Margaret W. Ferguson, Maureen Quilligan, and Nancy J. Vickers. (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1986), 40 and 49; Janet Adelman, Suffocating Mothers: Fantasies of Maternal Origin in Shakespeare's Plays, Hamlet to The Tempest. (New York, Routledge, 1992), 116-129. (Back to Main Text)
  5. See paragraphs 9-10 of Dennis Brown, “King Lear: the lost leader; group disintegration, transformation and suspended reconsolidation,” Critical Survey 13.3 (September 2001), 19-41. Expanded Academic ASAP, Gale Group Databases, University of Louisiana at Monroe Lib., Monroe Louisiana, 31 May, 2003. (Back to Main Text)
  6. Others argue that potential space is missing in Lear's relationships. See esp. Murray M. Schwartz, “Shakespeare through Contemporary Psychoanalysis” in Representing Shakespeare: New Psychoanalytic Essays, ed. Murray M. Schwartz and Coppelia Kahn (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1980), 27-28 and Richard P. Wheeler, “`Since first we were disservered': Trust and Autonomy in Shakespearean Tragedy and Romance” in Representing Shakespeare: New Psychoanalytic Essays, ed. Murray M. Schwartz and Coppelia Kahn (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1980), 162. For Winnicott's ideas on transitional objects and potential space, see esp. Playing and Reality, (London: Tavistock , 1982), 1-25 and 86-94. (Back to Main Text)
  7. E.g., J.S.H. Branson, The Tragedy of King Lear. (1934. New York: AMS. Press, 1973), 15; Mariane Novy, “Patriarchy, Mutuality and Forgiveness in King Lear, in Modern Critical Interpretations: William Shakespeare's King Lear, ed. Harold Bloom (New York: Chelsea House, 1987), 87; Schwartz, “Shakespeare through Contemporary Psychoanalysis,” 27-28; Wheeler, “Since we were first disservered” 162; and Brown, “King Lear: the lost leader,” paragraph 4. (Back to Main Text)
  8. See esp. Kohut, The Analysis of the Self: A Systematic Approach to the Psychoanalytic Treatment of Narcissistic Personality Disorders , (New York: International UP, 1971), 1-34. (Back to Main Text)
  9. Brown, “King Lear: the lost leader,” paragraph 4. (Back to Main Text)
  10. Brown, “King Lear: the lost leader,” paragraph 3. (Back to Main Text)
  11. Cf. Brown, “King Lear: the lost leader,” paragraph 3. (Back to Main Text)
  12. See Alice Miller, Prisoners of Childhood, trans. Ruth Ward (New York: Basic Books, 1981), passim. (Back to Main Text)
  13. C L. Barber, “The Family in Shakespeare's Development,” in Representing Shakespeare: New (Back to Main Text)

Psychoanalytic Essays, ed. Murray M. Schwartz and Coppelia Kahn ( Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1980),


  1. Cf. Wheeler, “Since we were first dissevered,” 162. (Back to Main Text)
  2. On Cordelia's language of reciprocity in this passage, see Novy, “Patriarchy, Mutuality and Forgiveness,” 88. (Back to Main Text)
  3. On Lear's primitive fantasy of feeding on his children, see Schwartz, “Shakespeare through Contemporary Psychoanalysis,” 28; Kahn, “The Absent Mother in King Lear,” 41-42; and Adelman, Suffocating Mothers, 119. (Back to Main Text)
  4. David P. Collington, “Self-Discovery in Montaigne's `Of Solitariness' and King Lear,” Comparative Drama 35.3/4 (Fall 2001/ Spring 2002): 247-69. Wilson Web Databases. University of Louisiana at Monroe Lib., Monroe Louisiana. 23 June, 2003,, par 43. (Back to Main Text)
  5. Murray Schwartz asserts that “separate existence itself is at issue” in this scene, for “If the King exists, others are nothing but his instruments; if others exist he is nothing but the locus of their power” (“Shakespeare Through Contemporary Psychoanalysis,” 28). I take this statement to imply that Lear's separateness more than his biological continuation is the source of conflict. So long as Lear has ego strength, he can perceive others only as self objects. If he grants them personhood—separateness—the narcissistic equilibrium shifts; Lear loses his own personhood, and becomes nothing but a self-object for them. (Back to Main Text)
  6. Schwartz, “Shakespeare through Contemporary Psychoanalysis,” 28. (Back to Main Text)
  7. Ruth Perry also notes the childish, tantrum-like quality of Lear's tone here. See paragraph 7 of “Madness in Euripides, Shakespeare and Kafka: An Examination of The Bacchae, Hamlet, King Lear and The Castle,” The Psychoanalytic Review 15.2 (1978): 253-79. Literature Resource Center. Gale Group Databases. University of Louisiana at Monroe Lib, Monroe Louisiana. 14 June, 2003 (Back to Main Text)
  8. Jonathan Dollimore notes the irony of the situation: “Insofar as Lear identifies with suffering it is at the point when he is powerless to do anything about it” (74). See “King Lear and Essentialist Humanism.” Modern Critical Interpretations: William Shakespeare's King Lear, ed. Harold Bloom (New York: Chelsea House, 1987) (Back to Main Text)
  9. Schwartz, “Shakespeare through Contemporary Psychoanalysis,” 28. (Back to Main Text)
  10. Suffocating Mothers, 110. (Back to Main Text)
  11. Cf. Harold C. Goddard, “King Lear” in Modern Critical Interpretations: William Shakespeare's King Lear, ed. Harold Bloom (New York: Chelsea House, 1987), 37; and Kay Stockholder, Dream Works: Lovers and Families in Shakespeare's Plays (Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1987), 140. (Back to Main Text)
  12. Cf. Kahn, “The Absent Mother in King Lear,” 47). (Back to Main Text)
  13. Wheeler, “Since we were first dissevered,” 163. (Back to Main Text)
  14. Stockholder, Dream Works, 141; Bruce W.Young, “King Lear and the Calamity of Fatherhood” in In the Company of Shakespeare: Essays on English Renaissance Literature in Honor of G. Blakemore Evans, ed. Thomas Morsan and Douglas Bruster (Cranbury N.J.: Associated University Presses, 2002), 55. (Back to Main Text)
  15. Suffocating Mothers, 122. (Back to Main Text)
  16. “Since we were first dissevered,” 163 (Back to Main Text)
  17. On narcissism in the text, see e.g. James Earl, “Eve's Naricissism.” Milton Quarterly 19 (1985), 13-16; Kenneth J. Knoespel, “Textual Expansion of Narcissus in Paradise Lost,” Milton Studies 22 (1986), 79-99 ; Claudia M. Champagne, “Adam and His ?Other Self' in Paradise Lost: A Lacanian Study in Psychic Development,” Milton Quarterly 25-26 (1991-92), 48-59 ; Don Parry Norford, “The Separation of the World Parents in Paradise Lost,” Milton Studies 12 (1978), 3-27. ; and Diane McColley, Milton's Eve, (Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1983), esp. 74-95. (Back to Main Text)
  18. E.g. McColley, Milton's Eve, 83 and 85; Champagne, “Adam and His ?Other Self,'” 52 and 56; William Kerrigan, The Sacred Complex: On the Psychogenesis of Paradise Lost (Cambridge Massachussetts: Harvard UP, 1983), 70; Arnold Stein, Answerable Style: Essays on Paradise Lost (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P., 1953), 109; and Michael Lieb, The Dialectics of Creation: Patterns of Birth and Regeneration in Paradise Lost, (Amherst: U of Massachussetts P, 1970), 151. (Back to Main Text)
  19. See Kohut, Analysis of the Self,5-50. (Back to Main Text)
  20. E.g. McColley, Milton's Eve, 85; Norford, “Separation of the World Parents,” 10; Lieb, Dialectics of Creation, 142-51; R. A. Shoaf, Milton Poet of Duality: A Study of Semiosis in the Poetry and Prose (New Haven: Yale UP, 1992), 27-28 and 229-30; William Flesch, Generosity and the Limits of Authority: Shakespeare, Herbert, Milton, (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1992), 244; and Marshall Grossman, Authors to Themselves: Milton and the Revelation of History (New York: Cambridge UP, 1987), 45. (Back to Main Text)
  21. Kerrigan, The Sacred Complex, 169; see also Kohut Analysis of the Self, 1-33. (Back to Main Text)
  22. The Sacred Complex, 169. (Back to Main Text)
  23. Kohut, eg Analysis of the Self , 28. (Back to Main Text)
  24. On the Father's narcissism, see Flesch, Generosity and the Limits of Authority, 245, n.15; and Roberta Martin, “How Came I Thus: Adam and Eve in the Mirror of the Other. College Literature 27.2 (Spring 2000), 58. (Back to Main Text)
  25. E.g. Analysis of the Self , 27-28. (Back to Main Text)
  26. On the gendering of self- object functions, see Jay R. Greenberg and Stephen A. Mitchell, Object Relations in Psychoanalytic Theory (Cambridge Mass: Harvard UP, 1983), 354; and Kohut, Self Psychology and the Humanities: Reflections on a New Psychoanalytic Approach, ed Charles B. Stozier. (New York: Norton, 1985), 226-27. (Back to Main Text)
  27. Kohut, The Search For the Self: Selected Writings of Heinz Kohut: 1950-1978, ed. Paul H. Ornstein, 2 vols. (New York: International UP, 1978), 427-60; cf. 618-20. (Back to Main Text)
  28. Cf. Norford, “Separation of the World Parents,” 7. (Back to Main Text)
  29. Anthony Low, “Milton's God: Authority in Paradise Lost, Milton Studies 4 (1972): 19-38. (Back to Main Text)
  30. On difference as source of narcissistic rage see Kohut, Search for Self 644. (Back to Main Text)
  31. . On the limits of Satan's authority over himself, see Stanley Eugene Fish, Surprised by Sin: the Reader in Paradise Lost (Berkeley: U of Cal P, 1971), 336-39. (Back to Main Text)
  32. Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: the Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Pantheon Books, 1977). (Back to Main Text)
  33. Stuart Lasine, “Divine Narcissism and Yahweh's Parenting Style,” Biblical Interpretation 10.1 (2002), 37. (Back to Main Text)
  34. Irene Samuel, “The Dialogue in Heaven: A Reconsideration of Paradise Lost, III. 1-417,” PMLA 72 (1957): 603. (Back to Main Text)
  35. Samuel, “The Dialogue in Heaven,” 604 and 607. 48 (Back to Main Text)
  36. D. W. Winnicott, Playing and Reality (London: Tavistock Publications, 1982), 111-18. (Back to Main Text)
  37. Michael Bryson, “ ?That far be from thee': Divine Evil and Justification in Paradise Lost,” Milton Quarterly 36.2 (May 2002): 95. (Back to Main Text)
  38. See Kohut Analysis of the Self , 286. (Back to Main Text)
  39. See Bryson, “?That far be from thee,'” 95. (Back to Main Text)
  40. Cf. Bryson, “?That far be from thee,'” 96 (Back to Main Text)
  41. Erich Fromm, Psychoanalysis and Religion, (New Haven: Yale UP, 1950), 21-60. (Back to Main Text)
  42. Earl, “Eve's Narcissism.” (Back to Main Text)
  43. Alice Miller, The Untouched Key: Tracing Childhood Trauma in Creativity and Destructiveness, trans. Hildegarde and Hunter Hannum (New York: Doubleday, 1990), 137-45. (Back to Main Text)
To cite this article, use this bibliographical entry: Julia C. Guernsey-Shaw "The Royal We The Divine I: Narcissitic Imbalance in the Worlds of King Lear and Paradise Lost". PSYART: A Hyperlink Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts. Available October 1, 2023 [or whatever date you accessed the article].
Received: January 1, 2005, Published: January 1, 2005. Copyright © 2005 Julia C. Guernsey-Shaw