Unconscious ambiguities in King Lear

by Robert Silhol

December 24, 2012


King Lear is a play about parents and children. (Every fool can tell that!) Good children and bad children, but also bad parents, but parents who, as the play develops, do not seem so bad after all or, rather, seem to have learned something about themselves. This is how I see Shakespeare’s tragedy, not a play about «redemption» (Wilson Knight, 1930; Dover Wilson, 1960), but, more specifically, a play about the «anatomy» of desire, that is to say about a revelation about oneself, almost, in fact, as in a psychoanalysis.


                                                Robert SILHOL



                                  Unconscious ambiguities in King Lear


King Lear is a play about parents and children. (Every fool can tell that!) Good children and bad children, but also bad parents, but parents who, as the play develops, do not seem so bad after all or, rather, seem to have learned something about themselves. This is how I see Shakespeare’s tragedy, not a play about «redemption» (Wilson Knight, 1930; Dover Wilson, 1960), but, more specifically, a play about the «anatomy» of desire, that is to say about a revelation about oneself, almost, in fact, as in a psychoanalysis.


The main sources of King Lear are well known: The True Chronicle of King Lear and his three daughters, Holinshed’s Chronicle, The Mirror for Magistrates and the Faery Queen (Canto X), which tell the story of old Leir and Cordeilla,  but also Sidney’s Arcadia (book II) which in  turn tells the story of the king of Paphlagonia where an old blind man and his son look for shelter in a storm. I take Shakespeare’s choice of such sources to be significant and, while one may speak of a sub-plot or of two different stories, I would rather like to consider these two tales as forming the «manifest» part of Shakespeare’s discourse, a «surface» comparable to the «day’s residue» used by unconscious desire in a dream in order to express itself. In the end, the apparent duality of the two stories conceals in reality a unity of purpose (1) and corresponds to a central fantasy which I take to be the architect of the play. Considered from the point of view of their conditions of production, the words which constitute King Lear reveal the discourse of  a «subject», a subject who borrowed the original story of the old king and of his daughters and retold it in his own words, thus enabling us today to distinguish «behind» these words other meanings than those of the simple «realistic» representation given.


This naturally leaves open the question of the particular insight of the author of the discourse under analysis, his willingness to collaborate with the «analyst» in a way; it is a central question and will be dealt with in due time, once our analysis is well under way.


Two plots, then, which merge into one at the end of Act IV, two different stories, as we shall see, but which, under the surface as it were, are the expression of the same central movement.  So that even before examining the events represented in the tragedy, and Shakespeare’s poetic diction, Shakespeare’s words, which are not far sometimes from constituting a clear-sighted commentary of the action, almost an interpretation indeed, I would like to point out the essential ambiguity of the work, an ambiguity which makes sense and can be explained, I think.


If I analyse the details of the central fantasy I have just mentioned, I discern three main points which at the end of the analysis can be worked into a fourth one that will precisely clarify this notion of ambiguity. These three, or four, motives naturally correspond to what one would find in the analysis of a dream, and I hope it will be seen that they constitute a brilliant representation of what takes place--unconsciously--in our lives between parents and children .




Let’s start with the beginning, then, and say bluntly that in King Lear there is no mother or rather that the image of the mother that we first encounter in the play is that of an absent or even wicked parent.


Curiously indeed, even before Lear’s entrance, the play opens upon a discussion of bastardy, in a scene between Kent, Gloucester and Edmund, and here, clearly, the mother is the «villain». I have counted four occurrences of «mother» in King Lear, and it seems the first instance, in the first page, tells us all Shakespeare wants us to know about her:


     GLOUCESTER:  His [Edmund’s] breeding, sir, hath been at my charge. I have so often 

                                   blushed to acknowledge him [...]


                     KENT:  I cannot conceive you.


     GLOUCESTER:  Sir, this young fellow’s mother could; whereupon she grew

                                  round-wombed, and had, indeed, sir, a son for her cradle ere she had a

                                  husband for he bed. Do you smell a fault?  (I.1.8-15) (2)


In one instance, only the signifier mother is used, the signified being a disease, Hysterica passio, and this also deserves analysis.


This is no doubt the place to mention Lear’s curse which he addresses to Goneril:


                     Hear, nature, hear; dear goddess, hear

                     Suspend thy purpose, if thou didst intend

                     To make this creature fruitful!

                     Into her womb convey sterility!

                     Dry up in her the organ of increase;  (I.4.267-271) 


Exit the bad mother, then, while her role as a destructive parent is taken over by Goneril and Regan in their treatment of Lear. For indeed, the physical absence of a mother in the play is meant, I take it, to point out the lack of a good (enough) mother. It does not take too much analysis to interpret the relationship between Lear and two of his daughters as a symbolical representation of what happens between infant and frustrating mother. In the first Act, still, scene 3, Goneril is not far from expressing herself as a mother would in front of her child’s misbehavior:


                     By day and night he wrongs me. Every hour

                     He flashes into one gross crime or other

                     That sets us all at odds. I’ll not endure it. (1-3)     


And while it is true that senility can sometimes turn old men into capricious infants--"Old fools are babes again;" remarks Goneril in the same passage--, I cannot help seeing in «her» comment an allusion about the infant in us.


Cordelia is a more complex character. In a previous article, (3) I tried to point out how her «nothing», her refusal to comply with her father’s neurotic demand, made her, by her silence, in advance as it were, a convincing representation of the modern analyst who refuses to confirm to his or her patient that totality, the One, can be attained. But I also analysed Cordelia’s muteness as the representation of the failure of the exchange between parent and infant, meaning that in the dramatic scene between Lear and Cordelia, at the opening of the play, one could also witness how a child was being refused something. Such a reading doesn’t belittle Cordelia’s essential honesty; it simply emphasizes the difficult position of the analyst when faced with a demand impossible to satisfy; as such, it represents the patient’s frustration. Thus can Cordelia’s complexity be deemed realistic while it also perfectly corresponds to the essential ambiguity which I think characterizes King Lear.




And I do not speak of «ambiguity» just to use a fancy word, for I consider the notion central to Shakespeare’s play. Indeed, not only does it point to a fundamental duality in us--something like conscious and unconscious, if you like, or just what is apparent and what is concealed--, but, more specifically, corresponds to the very structure which organizes the relationship between children and parents. 


Now, this ambiguity is also present in the architecture of the play, and in more ways than one. Indeed, not only do we have two plots: Lear and Cordelia’s story and that of Gloucester’s two sons, Edmund and Edgar, but if we consider the articulation of the various events reported in the play, what happens between Lear, Goneril and Regan, that is to say Lear’s destitution, cannot be, from the point of view of narrative logic, considered as a direct consequence of what took place in the first act, cannot really be seen as the result of what happened between Cordelia and her father. It is in fact as if there were two sets of unrelated events: Lear’s fury at Cordelia’s mute honesty and the cruel treatment he suffers at the hands of Goneril and Regan. The only link, by way of contrast, is the opposition between good children and bad children. (4) We have to wait until the very end of the fourth act (scene 7), with Cordelia’s return to England, to see all the strands of the tale worked into one.


                                     !             !                                !              !

                                     !             !   Cordelia’s story   !               !

                                     !     I       !----------------------- !        V    !

                                     !             !  Gloucester’s story !              !    

                                     !______ !_______________  !_______!                                           


In fact, the coherence is greater between plot and «sub-plot» (Gloucester, Edmund and Edgar’s story) than between the first act and the rest of the tragedy, as if the main «thesis» developed in the play were the ingratitude of children.


Which brings us back to parents, and to fathers specifically, the mother having been termed absent and wicked from the start, a conviction amply verified by the way Goneril and Regan behave with their father. And while it is true one can say that King Lear is a tragedy about the ruin of the father--this is obvious--, what must be acknowledged is that Shakespeare’s observation reveals much more than what meets the eye at first. The simpler case is that of Edmund and we have seen how the play opened with this. The theme, at first, this time, is a brother’s jealousy and the vindiction of the bastard son, as Edmund’s first long speech reveals, Act I, scene 2:


               Thou, Nature, art my goddess; to thy law

               My services are bound. Wherefore should I

               Stand in the plague of custom, and permit

               The curiosity of nations to deprive me?

               For that I am some twelve or fourteen moonshines

               Lag of my brother? Why bastard? Wherefore base?

               When my dimensions are as well compact,

               My mind as generous, and my shape as true

               As honest madam’s issue? Why brand they us

               With base? With baseness? bastardy? Base, base? 


               Legitimate Edgar, I must have your land. (1-16)


Strongly reminiscent of the very first words spoken by Richard Gloucester in Richard III, the speech constitutes a plain introduction to Egdar’s perverse doings from which, besides, an oedipal motive is not absent. For it is clear that what he describes as his brother’s design is his own, as can be seen on several occasions:


              EDMUND: [...] I have heard him oft maintain it to be fit that, sons at perfect age and

                                  fathers declining, the father should be as ward to the son and the son 

                                  manage his revenue. (I.2. 71-74)



      GLOUCESTER: Where is the villain, Edmund?


               EDMUND: Fled this way, sir, when by no  means he could...


      GLOUCESTER: By no  means what?


               EDMUND: Persuade me to the murder of your lorship; (II.1.41-45)




     GLOUCESTER: [...]These injuries the King now bears will be revenged home [...] we must

                                  incline to the King. I will seek him and privily relieve him. 

                                  ...................................................................................  (Exit)

              EDMUND: This courtesy, forbid thee, shall the Duke

                                  Instantly know [...]

                                  This seems fair deserving and must draw me

                                  That which my father loses, no less than all.

                                  The younger rises whern the old doth fall.    (III.3.11-24)


This is dramatic irony at its best, no doubt. Thus are father and brother caught in the trap of the deceiver, but the father is the one who has to pay the highest price.This has of course been noted by most commentators: Gloucester’s story is the exact parallel of Lear’s, in his case we also witness the destruction of a father. Although led to safety by Edgar, Gloucester dies in the end and his fate is no less tragic that Lear’s, «tied to [a] stake» (III.7.53), somewhat in the way the old King is «bound upon a wheel of fire» (IV.7.46-47). At the hands of Cornwall, he is most horribly tortured  :


            CORNWALL: [...] Fellows, hold the chair ;

                                     Upon these eyes of thine I’ll set my foot.


                                      [...] Out, vile jelly! (III.7.66-82)


Left a poor destitute blind man, «led by an Old Man,» no less than Lear he symbolically exemplifies the murder of the father.


In the rich complexity of Skakespeare’s play, this constitutes the second important feature of a general picture whose theme is the child’s relationship to his or her parents. Together with the portrait of the bad, refusing mother--Goneril and Regan (5)--, the central acts of the play, II, III, IV, are organized around the destruction of the father. These three acts are the scene of Lear’s downfall; but the whole picture is more complex, and Lear’s fate can be read in two different ways, for the old King represents the tyrannical ruler whom the child wishes to replace, the authority and at the same time the frustrated, helpless, forlorn infant. Also, if one looks closely at these three central acts, one notices that a lot of text is given to Edmund and Edgar: the two plots running in fact along the same line.This is the first remark.The second remark concerns Lear’s portrait and the change that occurs in the old King’s behavior: in the three acts we are now considering, his rage at Cordelia’s silence gradually gives way to dejection, the immediate cause of which being his abandonment and destruction at the hands of two of his daughters.


                         Does any here know me? Why, this is not Lear.

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


                        Who is it than can tell me who I am? (I.4.217-221) (emphasis mine.)


The «assault» began just before, at the end of the first act. Goneril was the first to strike:


                        Come, sir,

                        I would you would make use of your good wisdom,

                        Whereof I know you are fraught, and put away

                        These dispositions, which of late transport you

                        From what you rightly are. (I.4.210-214)


The allusion to «transport» (but the Quarto has «transforme»)--to be carried away by poweful emotion--was no doubt pointing at Lear’s uncontrollable anger with which the play opened, but it nevertheless served as a good reason for reducing the old King’s suite: from a hundred knights, as promised, to fifty; and soon this will be twenty-five and then...nothing. No wonder that the King, here chided as if he were a child--Goneril spoke of «pranks»--strongly reacted to this «disquantification». (6)


At this point, it is not too difficult to interpret Lear’s «folly» as a symbolical representation of neurosis, the response of the frustrated infant: from rage to grief to helpless despair, and even regrets, such is the King’s progress. If there is a link between the first act and the rest of the play, it is here that we shall find it. Goneril and Regan can then be identified as a composite image of the bad mother. Hence the cursing:


                        No, you unnatural hags

                        I will have revenge on you both [...] (II.2. 467-468; scene 4 in some editions)


But there is more, and we can now look in the direction of the other parent, for the allusion to «disquantification» provides us with a good example of the shift that may take place in the infant’s mind: from the absent mother to a menacing father:


         REGAN: O, sir, you are old:

                         Nature in you stands on the very verge

                         Of her confine. You should be ruled and led

                         By some discretion that discerns your state

                         Better than you yourself. (II.4.335-339)


A few moments earlier, Lear had cried to Goneril:


                         Life and death! I am ashamed

                         That thou hast power to shake my manhood thus; (I.4.288-289)


Here, the said «sub-plot» plays its role: following the description of an unfortunate relationship with the mother comes, if not the oedipal triangle, at least the son’s desire to take the father’s place. In Act III, Edmund will say it quite plainly: «The younger rises when the old doth fall.» (III.3.24) (7)


But again, in King Lear things are not so simple and we must not conclude too hastily, for indeed, although there is no central triangle in the play and the main issue is not essentially about the son’s desire for his mother, there is more dimension than one to Edmund. Shakespeare has not forgotten to give us with this character a complete portrait of the «son»: not only does the latter desire to take Gloucester’s place, he also wants to marry Goneril...or Regan.


       GONERIL: (to Edmund): [...] Wear this. (She places a chain about his neck.)

                                                                               Spare speech,

                           Decline your head. This kiss, if it durst speak,

                           Would stretch thy spirits up into the air.

                           Conceive, and fare thee well. (IV.2.21-24) (8)


An apt way in fact of increasing the competition between the two «bad» sisters, which constitutes yet another symbolical functions of Edmund as a signifier. Listen to what Regan has to say to Oswald:


          REGAN : I know your lady [Goneril] does not love her husband,

                           I am sure of that; and at her late being here

                           She gave strange oeillades and most speaking looks

                           To noble Edmund [...]


                            I speak in understanding [...]

                            Therefore I do advise you take this note.

                            My lord is dead; Edmund and I have talked,

                            And more convevient is he for my hand

                            Than for your lady’s [...]  (IV.5.25-34)


Later on, in the final act, Edmund will let his feeling, and his hesitation, be known:


                            To both these sisters have I sworn my love,

                             Each jealous of the other, as the stung

                             Are of the adder [...] (V,1.56-58)


which completes his portrait as oedipal son, although we must remark that the passage mainly reinforces the Machiavellian side of the character.






But what about Edgar, Edmund’s brother?  In King Lear, Edgar and Kent are the only two innocent or guiltless characters, a little too ideal, perhaps, but unambiguously pure, for we have seen there was some ambiguity in the character of Cordelia. (9) Edgar is (a representation of) the loving child--as is Cordelia, of course, in the last act. In this tragedy where everything goes in twos, I think Edgar can be interpreted as Cordelia’s other half. And in Lear also there are two «sides», from tyrant to victim, or, more specifically, from blindness to awareness. The same can  be said of Gloucester, and we remember his «I stumbled when I saw» (IV.1.21) which could well apply to the old King.


What takes place in the three central acts of King Lear, after Lear’s destruction and his ensuing madness, is his recovery, his return to sanity. Not without pain or regrets, not without doubts either--«Yet I am doubtful» (IV.7.65)--, but an encounter with «his» truth, (10) all the same. Such a progress may not be explicitly presented, but we can no doubt read it as forming one of the symbolical dimensions of these central acts.The last scene of Act IV and the whole of Act V reveal Lear’s return to reality:


           Where have I been? Where am I? Fair delight?

           I am mightily abused. I should e’en die with pity,

          To see another thus. I know not what to say. (IV.7.52-54)


           I am a very foolish fond old man,


           I fear I am not in my perfect mind. (60-63) (11)


At last reunited with Cordelia--the infant and the good mother--he asks for forgiveness from one who insists she has «no cause» to hate him, the ideal child again. Just before this, the two «plots» have merged into one. The «tempest» in the King ‘s «mind» (III,4) has ended, and even though Lear and Cordelia must die--for reasons of catharsis perhaps, as we shall see--, what the spectator is given to witness amounts to a clinical review of the events reported. The scene replaces Lear in the symbolical role of the infant,(12) and we remember how, earlier, in Act III, at the height of his most furious moments, he had laid down the terms of the problem:


                                     [...] I am a man

          More sinned against than sinning. (III.2.59-60)


The phrase--which by the way also epitomizes Egdar’s lot--constitutes the turning point in Lear’s progress towards truth and can be considered, I think, as Shakespeare’s comment on the «case»: it expresses what Lear will gradually discover. One may of course accept Albany’s verdict at the very end of the play: «He knows not what he says [...]» (V.3.291) (13) and decide that the old King does not really recover his reason, (although we can also imagine that the remark refers to Lear’s sorrow at the loss of Cordelia), but that a change in him has taken place cannot be denied, and I take the «second» Lear to express, if not a desire for peace (which implies an acknowledgment of reality), at least a desire to understand. Earlier on, hardly out of the storm, he had mentioned his wish to know:


          Then let them anatomize Regan; see what breeds about her heart. Is there any cause in

          nature that makes these hard hearts? (III.6.73-75) (my emphasis).


It is perhaps of such wisdom that Edgar speaks in the final act, like an echo of Hamlet’s «the readiness is all».


                                                                   Men must endure

                    Their going hence, even as their coming hither:

                    Ripeness is all [...] (V.2.9-11)


The movement from sinned against to sinning reveals a chronology, first the cause, then the effect, and this can be interpreted as pointing to a desire Other, the «desire of the Other», as we say today.The hypothesis I wish to offer, then, is that King Lear is a play about our determinations, a study of causes and effects. In a way, it is as if Shakespeare’s character had reached the end of his «analysis»--a never ending «end» perhaps, but a relative and asymptotic end all the same--: understanding how all this came about, accepting his responsibility, Lear no longer condemns:


                                                                      You must bear with me.

                      Pray you now, forget and forgive; I am old and foolish. (IV.7.83-84)


From rage to lunacy to peace. A play about «filial ingratitude» and generations, King Lear, more widely, reveals Shakespeare’s preoccupation with ethics. Act III can indeed be read as a meditation on evil, and the «anatomize» of scene 6 should be taken very seriously.


Just before this, in scene 4, Edgar gave an impressive list of his sins (14) and was elected as Lear’s philosopher:


         LEAR: First let me talk with this philosopher:

                     (to Edgar) What is the cause of thunder?


                     What is your study?


     EDGAR: How to prevent the fiend and to kill vermin. (150-155) (my emphasis)


The answer needs no comment, «philosopher» was indeed well chosen, and the quest for knowledge continues when we see Lear on stage next, in scene 6, precisely, when he organizes an imaginary trial, that is to say a reflexion on ethics or cause and effect. This is where we find «anatomize» and the subsequent fundamental question on evil which is worth repeating: «Is there any cause in nature that makes these hard hearts?»


Is a partial answer given in Edgar’s short soliloquy at the end? This is how I read these lines, although they were suppressed in the Folio:


                   When we our betters see bearing our woes,

                   We scarcely think our miseries our foes.


                   How light and portable my pain seems now,

                   When that which makes me bend makes the King bow,

                   He childed as I fathered! [...] (III.6.99-107) (my emphasis


Lear has suffered because of his children, Edgar has suffered because of his father; from a concrete point of view, the equation neatly sums up what happens in King Lear. But the phrase may well hold more than this description, and if, behind the events narrated, we accept to interpret Lear’s daughters as a symbolical representation of the absent mother, it seems the cause of these events can be read in the formula.The equation brings us back to the debate on generations and on moral responsibility; its symmetry reminds us of what we found in sinned against/sinning, where the «sinner» appears as determined by sins other than his own.


Which means, as we have seen, that I interpret the lunatic Lear as also an image of the frustrated infant, but this is not so far, after all, from «the child-in-the adult» which may seem more acceptable. It may also help to clarify what I mean when I speak of the King’s progress as suggesting the end of analysis.    


Thus does my own identification with Shakespeare’s characters, my own response, change as the play develops: on the side of Cordelia in the first act, and of Lear and Gloucester in the rest of the play.The essential ambiguity of King Lear is here: the bad parent, the tyrannical father, suddenly becomes (metaphorically) the victimized infant, and this provides an answer to the question about cause and effect.There may be other readings, but--as I have insisted--one cannot deny that a change in the King’s status has occurred («something» in fact not unlike the successful mourning which should conclude an analysis). I take the notion to be central to the play.


Thus, as readers or spectators, we benefit from such a great variety of meanings: I can first enjoy Cordelia’s rebellion, and then the tyrant’s donwfall, perhaps, thanks to this, satifying some secret oedipal grudge, while in the rest of the story I may follow Lear’s progress as if it were my own, hoping he regains his reason (which, by the way, will not prevent me from nourishing some secret sympathy for the Machiavellian Edmund), and to all this we may add the ruin, in the end, of the two «bad» daughters, images no doubt of an absent mother, with whom we may have a bone to pick.


Drawing a list of the possible responses to King Lear, however, is in no way sufficient to account for the production of the discourse which constitutes Shakespeare’s play, a discourse whose logic may reveal a real subject within the words. For King Lear does not end with the happy reunion of father and daughter at the end of the fourth act; it is a tragedy, and a fifth act is to come which must cause me to question my optimistic interpretation. Indeed, to write: «After the King’s downfall / his rescue, after the rage and the pain / psychoanalytical wisdom», may correctly describe what duality there is in the play, and perhaps what ambiguity, but does not do justice to the complete picture and to the death of Lear and Cordelia. If it is correct to say that the second architectural design does correspond to the King's deliverance, it must not be forgotten that this is followed by a third, tragic, movement which cancels Lear’s rescue. (Naturally, one may, as some critics have, consider Lear’s death as a sacrifice religious in nature,(15) but this fails to explain why Cordelia should be sacrified too.)


So that we are now left with a question: why must Lear and Cordelia die? Or, to put it in a more psychoanalytic fashion: what symbolical significance is there in such a tragic ending? What Shakespeare consciously chose in the myth about parents and children in Holinshed and Sidney, and what was unconscious in his particular handling of it, it is impossible to say, but the fact is that he decided to give his own play the tragic conclusion we know. In the end, the above question concerns my hypothesis about Lear’s progress.






The first, and most obvious, reason why Lear and Cordelia’s story must end tragically lies in the ethical nature of the tale: the moral lesson would indeed have little weight if father and daughter, like too reunited lovers, lived happily together for ever after. For it is the essence of tragedy to remind us of a fundamental loss at birth:


              LEAR: When we are born we cry that we are come

                           To this great stage of fools. (IV.6.178-179) (16)


Does, however, this first correct statement, this sad and plain description of our human condition, remain too general to account for the complexity of the play? I do not think so and I hope the rest of our analysis will show how a simple unifying principle organizes words and plot(s) in this tragedy; once we manage to lift the various masks which describe reality as it is first concretely and naturally perceived--but where causes are not apparent--, this should be seen.What remains to be done now, then, is a close investigation of what happens at the end of King Lear and repeats our pressing question: but what is the final lesson ?


The first remark is that Act Five stages the punishment of the most obvious villains :  Regan, Goneril, and Edmund all die in the end, a foregone conclusion indeed, and a very moral and conventional one. But Cordelia is murdered, and her death remains unexplained, for we cannot in her case speak of poetic justice. Lear also dies, and he may have been judged guilty of a fault, as may have Gloucester, his double--for his blindness--, but  isn’t the pain out of proportion with the crime? Yes, in the end, what is the moral lesson?


And with this question reappears one of the problems with which we started: for how can an oneiric construction whose function it is to give masked expression to an unconscious desire also be said to express a moral judgment which can only be presented as the result of a conscious decision?The answer is simple: the moral lesson that we may be able to draw from King Lear today proceeds from the state of our present knowledge, a product of our time in a word, but this judgment also depends on the material which we have at our disposal, and Shakespeare’s King Lear, through its symbolism, constitutes a very good «case», an extremely accurate representation of life.


The events narrated in the final act of the play and the way Shakespeare’s characters speak and behave should then help us to answer the question touching the moral lesson in King Lear and serve as a verification of the hypothesis I have presented about unconscious desire.


Let us look at all these deaths and try to find out what they «tell» us. The first to occur is  



            REGAN:                                        Sick, O, sick!

        GONERIL: (aside) If not, I’ll ne’er trust medicine. (V.3.96-97)


The cynical aside not only designs who is responsible for this murder, it also completes the portrait of two most contemptible human beings : there is no room for pity here, as there won’t be either when we learn of the murderess’ death a few moments later:


        ALBANY: Produce the bodies, be they alive or dead.

                           This judgement of the heavens, that makes us tremble

                           Touches us not with pity. (V.3.228-231)


Exit the «bad» mother(s). With Edmund, who is the next to die, things are not so clear cut: no doubt he is Goneril and Regan’s malevolent double and sends Lear and Cordelia to their deaths without any hesitation, but his portrait is somewhat more ambiguous than those of the two wicked sisters.

                                                                 [...]As for the mercy

                     Which he [Albany] intends to Lear and Cordelia,

                     The battle done, and they within our power,

                     Shall never see his pardon; for my state

                     Stands on me to defend, not to debate. (V.1.66-70)(17)


The last line discreetely reminds us of Edmund’s status as an illegitimate child, and we shall find the same ambiguity when he prepares to meet his brother Edgar in a decisive duel, apparently convinced of his right:


                     There’s my exchange. (Throws down his gauntlet.) What in the world he is

                     That names me traitor, villain-like he lies.

                      Call by the trumpet: he that dares approach,

                      On him, on you--who not?--I will maintain

                      My truth and honour firmly. (V.3.98-102)


He will die, eventually vanquished by good Edgar. Poetic justice again? Death of a villain?


                      What you have charged me with, that I have done,

                      And more, much more; the time will bring it out.

                      ‘Tis past , and so am I [...] (V.3.160-162)


And it is true he is the one who gives the order to execute Lear and Cordelia; (18) given the mores of the time, his punishment is hardly surprising. But then, why should Shakespeare have felt the need, at the very last minute, just before making his villain die, to have him repent? 


                       I pant for life. Some good I mean to do,

                       Despite of mine own nature. Qickly send--

                       Be brief in it--to the castle, for my writ

                       Is on the life of Lear and on Cordelia;

                       Nay, send in time. (V.3.241-245)


Is such a sudden change of heart convincing? For nowhere in the text do we find an allusion to Edmund’s fear of damnation. Naturally, this last minute transformation reinforces the ambiguity of the character, all bad...but perhaps not so bad after all. But I see a second reason for this unrealistic shift in the «scenario» and it is that Shakespeare needed someone to counteract Albany’s generosity:


    ALBANY:                                 You have the captives

                       Who were the opposites of this day’s strife:

                       I do require them of you, so to use them

                       As we shall find their merits and our safety

                       May equally determine. (V.3.41-45)


But we have just heard what Edmund had in mind: «They[...]shall never see his pardon». Try as he may afterwards to save his two captives, he will fail: he had to fail indeed, even at the price of verisimilitude, for the conclusion of the tale had to be tragic and for this needed such a negative Deus ex machina as it were.


Have we found out what the moral lessons was? Not quite, and we have to wait for the last two deaths to begin to form a final opinion. The passage is well-known:


                      LEAR : Howl, howl, howl, howl! O, you are men of stones!

                                    Had I your tongues and eyes, I’d use them so

                                    That heaven’s vault should crack; sh’s gone for ever.

                                    I know when one is dead and when one lives;

                                    She’s dead as earth.   (V.3.255-259)


Twice more, the theme is repeated:


                                    A plague upon you murderers, traitors all;

                                    I might have saved her; now she is gone for ever.

                                    Cordelia, Cordelia, Stay a little. Ha? (267-269)


                                    And my poor fool is hangeed. No, no, no life!

                                    Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life

                                    And thou no breath at all? O Thou’lt come no more,

                                    Never, never, never, never, never. (304-307)


We feel the strength of the negation, there is no issue! It expresses our human condition, what I have called our original loss at birth which, less dramatically, brings to mind Freud’s «reality principle». For it must not be forgotten that the whole sequence of tragic events began by a division, a division that can be interpreted as a symbolical loss. A few moments earlier, at the opening of this terrible third and final scene, when the two prisoners were at last reunited, Cordelia drew the moral of the tale:


          CORDELIA:                                                       We are not the first

                                 Who with the best meaning have incurr’d the worst.

                                 For thee, oppressed King, am I cast down;

                                 Myself could else out-frown false fortune’s frown. (V.3.3-6)

                                                                                                                (my emphasis)


Those are her last words; the duality in her remark--and perhaps we can judge that this is no longer simply ambiguous--at last gives form to the moral lesson: our behavior may not be led by what we consciously believe, we are moved by unconscious forces.


But there is more still and, beyond the above rather commonplace remark, one comes to observe that King Lear actually proceeds to the anatomy of desire and tells us something of our determinations as unconscious subjects.The insistence on duality can then be read as a representation of our human status as subjects, that is to say not only as beings separated from the world, subject/object, but as subjects structured by an essential dichotomy where conscious is opposed to unconscious, and today, better still, where the I appears as the object of an Other--the «abject» Richard speaks of in Richard III indeed.Such is the ambiguity of King Lear: Shakespeare’s ambiguous treatment of his characters illustrates what is double in our nature or, to put it somewhat more technically, what the subject has introjected of the Other. For there is no difficulty in accepting the statement that the original cause of the tragedy was the desire of a parent. That Lear, as character-signifier, could afterwards be considered as symbolically representing the child in the adult doesn’t contradict the above judgement: the play on such duality is simply a sign of Shakespeare’s insight. This is how we should understand the prevalent ambiguity--and duality, as I have just said is the better word--which distributes the various roles and controls the action. We are «double», we are moved by forces we know not of, and there is no need to resort to Gloucester’s «gods» (19) or to Kent’s «stars» (20) to explain this. Fate is an effect of desire, and desire is of the Other. In King Lear, each character is faced with forces responsible for his or her destiny: Cordelia and Lear, Lear and the dyad Goneril-Regan,Edmund and Gloucester or vice-versa, Kent and Lear or Kent and Cornwall (21) (while Edgar-Poor Tom and the Fool can be considered as exceptions since they are in a different relationship to truth). (22)


There remains a last question, for we still do not know why Cordelia had to die and we remember that this was Shakespeare’s deliberate choice since none of his sources were quite as tragic. 


The final scene of the tragedy had begun on a somewhat romantic note:


                                    No, no, no, no. Come, let’s away to prison;

                                    We two alone will sing like birds i’the cage.

                                    When thou dost ask my blessing, I’ll kneel down

                                    And ask of thee forgiveness. So we’ll live

                                    And pray, and sing [...]  (V.3.8-12)


The «No» is there, it is true, repeated four times, (23) a sombre herald of what is to come, but the rest of the passage shows no sign of despair; the mood is rather melancholy than tragic, and the repetition of ask--suggesting a happy exchange-- adds to the harmony of the scene which indeed is not unlike a love scene.


Shall we content ourselves with saying that Lear is delirious and hasn’t yet recovered his reason? We can, but as we well know, even a delirium has meaning, at least for the psychoanalyst. In fact, it is as if Lear were in a dream--not yet a nightmare--, and it is as such that I wish to analyse those last moments of the play. This is in any case the only way I find to explain Lear’s strange declaration about the attitude of the gods:


                                    Upon such sacrifices, my Cordelia

                                    The gods themselves throw incense. Have I caught thee?

                                                                                                                         (Embraces her.)



Are we attending some religious ceremony in which victims are offered to the gods? Again, we can accept this interpretation, but to do away with the apparent contradiction which opposes «sacrifices» to «incense» we must conclude that the two sacrifices are gladly accepted by the...victims.


In any case, the bliss of the reunion of father and daughter could not last. Edgar’s sharp and unyielding order signifies the end of the love scene:


                                    Take them away. (V.3.19)


Thus are Lear and Cordelia led to their deaths. But first we must wait and, as spectators, remain suspended perhaps to the hope that something will happen to save the two victims, a miracle! Yes, we must wait for more than fifteen minutes, and whereas this can be judged a sure sign of Shakespeare’s dramatic talent, we are nevertheless left with our question about Cordelia’s sacrifice, a question on its symbolical meaning, that is to say an interrogation on the nature of the author’s unconscious desire.


Will the fifteen minutes or so devoted to the fate of Edmund and Edgar help us to understand and form at last an opinion on the ethic signification of King Lear?


As we have seen, we had to have a villain here, someone who would be the agent of the death of Cordelia, and it is not surprising that the interruption I am trying to analyse starts with Edmund’s instructions to the executioner for it announces a separation: (24)


                                   Come hither, captain, hark:

                                   Take thou this note. Go, follow them to prison.


                                    About it and write 'happy’ when thou’st done’t.

                                    Mark it, I say, instantly; and carry it so

                                    As I have set it down. (V.3.27-38)


But after this, silence, and at this point we cannot help noticing that the architecture of these last moments of the play, Act V, scene 3, is curiously similar to the general architecture of the organization of the tragedy as a whole. As we know, Cordelia is only presentin the first scene of act one and does not reappear until the end of act four, the central acts beings devoted to Lear’s torments and to the parallel story of Gloucester, Edmund and Edgar.  



                                               I __I_______I__I


The pattern is reproduced in the final scene of Act V, whe we have: 1) Lear and Cordelia’s happy reunion, and Edmund’s pitiless order to put them to death, 2) a long interruption of some 215 lines occupied by what I shall call Edmund’s story, and finally 3) Lear’s tragic re-entry with Cordelia, dead in his arms.


Can such a structure be interpreted , and can I go as far as deciding that it represents a fantasy of fusion with the mother, an unconscious wish to be contained, held and loved without limits, a return to the One in fact?


The hypothesis is very tempting, but it obliges me to admit that the interpretation I am here presenting alters the nature of my interrogation. Indeed, not only does this interrogation seem to forget the question we started out with about the moral, universal lesson in King Lear, but it also changes the nature of the object under analysis, the new object I am analysing. Until now, this object has been Shakespeare’s characters, that is to say the portraits of persons sufficiently well observed to serve as a basis for an analysis of human behavior. Naturally, the conviction that a real subject, a subject of flesh and blood, the author namely, was the architect of the whole picture never left me, but I felt that the quality of the observation offered was such that there was no need to resort to the analysis of this actual subject. The infant and his or her absent mother, the childish and distracted father and even, more abstractly, the violence of separation, the loss of an ideal object, all this could be found in the story told. And suddenly I realize the approach I have used so far no longer works, is unable, that is, to account satisfactorily for what I find in the final act of the play and in the details of Shakespeare’s discourse. Admittedly, this failure of my method of analysis may be due to my incompetence as a critic, but the fact is here: whereas until now I had been able to discern some coherent meaning in what I had found in the first four acts of the play, I was now no longer able to form a clear understanding of what I was reading in the final act. For even if my interpretation of the first four acts of King Lear was a projection--and unmistakably it was also that--, the «object» I was constructing was not without coherence and did seem to account for the general organization of Shakespeare’s tragedy and for the logic behind the behavior of the characters portrayed. With the fifth act, however, I no longer find this dialectical synthesis possible for I come across too many unresolved problems. The «verification» of the above hypothesis about mother and child will have to wait. My impression is that in this last scene Shakespeare wanted to give a conclusion to all the situations he had created, tying up all the loose ends of his bipolar plot, and somewhat did not quite manage to do so with as much harmony and unity as he had in the preceeding acts.


A list of the «themes» presented may be useful at this point. We first find a quarrel over authority: who is to rule here? Albany, who, as we have seen, requires that Edmund hands him his two prisoners: «You have the captives [...] I do require them of you» (V.3.42-46), or Edmund, who does not comply with the order:


                                  The question of Cordelia and her father

                                  Requires a fitter place. (58-59),


or the two sisters who, besides competing for the love of Edmund, claim their rights:


                  REGAN: Methinks our pleasure might have been demanded [...] (63)?


What are we to think of Albany’s portrait in this scene? Why so much procrastination on his part?Is his authority so frail, and what is the point of this last minute addition to the other portraits which were so clearly drawn? One may decide that this fight about authority, Regan’s «rights» and Goneril’s opposition, justifies the Duke’s sudden intervention, but it is obvious that Albany could have acted before, and for instance in the preceding page. And why does Shakespeare has him first insult Edmund before he formerly arrest him? 


                                    Half-blooded fellow, yes. (81)


                                    [...] Edmund, I arrest thee

                                    On capital treason [...]  (83)


Is it to justify this almost unexpected action on the part of one who so often seems faltering (and kind)? No doubt, the two sisters’quarrel is in character and their amorous  furore complete their portrait, but I find Albany’s action very badly timed and the episode unconvincing. For if ill-born Edmund had to be arrested--and convention may have required this--, there was no reason to delay his arrest thus. In the end, one wonders what the cause may have been of such strange and erratic behavior on the part of Albany...and of the dramatist.


For this is not the end, and, for a second, one may seriously wonder whether Edmund has actually been found guilty and arrested since Albany calls him «Gloucester» and suggests he defend his title:


                                     Thou art armed, Gloucester. Let the trumpet sound.

                                      If none appear to prove upon thy person

                                      Thy heinous, manifest and many treasons,

                                      There is my pledge. (Throws down his gauntlet)

                                                                      I’ll make it on thy heart[...]  (91-94)


The accusation is there, certainly, but why this conditional, and why so much precaution, and what are we to make of the Duke of Albany’s weak nature? (25) Obviously, the «If none appear» is a cue directed at Edgar who is about to make his entry, but if it means that Shakespeare wanted a dramatic confrontation of the two brothers, one may be surprised at this sudden change of theme; the transition remains artificial and weakens the coherence of the scene.


Which brings us to the theme with which the play actually started and that in fact underlies the said subplot: the fate of the bastard and his relationship to his father’s name.


Not unlike a medieval mystery play, King Lear needed a villain and a champion, and apparently it is not too difficult to decide who is who when drawing a list of the characters: on the side of the girls, two wicked daugthers and an angelic one, on the side of the boys, good Edgar vs bad Edmund. As we have noticed, however, the ambiguity which presided over the «conception» of the children’s portraits--even though this applies more to the sons than to the daughters--qualifies the above statement about the division into good or bad persons. This is particularly evident when we look at the fifth act of the tragedy.


Challenged to defend himself and the title he claims, Edmund--perhaps now Gloucester--curiously reverses the accusation he is the object of.


                                                                [... ] what in the world he is

                                         That names me traitor, villain-like he lies.

                                         Call by the trumpet: he that dares approach,

                                         On him, on you--who not?--I will maintain

                                         My truth and honour firmly.  (99-102)


A last perverse manoeuvre meant to enhance the machiavellian nature of the character or a proof of his entire good faith? There is your ambiguity again; but the words Shakespeare put in Edmund’s mouth clearly attest of a most earnest conviction.


In the last moments of the play, the word name, repeated six times in 40 lines (99-139), is one of the keys of the confrontation between the two brothers, for indeed they are fighting over the transmission of a title, and we are not surprised that the other important word is father (6 times in 80 lines; 132-212).


Enter the champion, then, who is curiously cast in the role of the one who has to prove his good right:


                                                                       O know, my name is lost,

                                           By treason’s tooth bare-gnawn and canker bit;

                                           Yet am I noble as the adversary

                                           I come to cope withal. (V.3.119-122)


He comes on stage all «armed», it is true, and this is no doubt the reason why he is not recognized, but I cannot help finding his answer to the Herald curiously unsure, as if, of the two brothers, Edmund, the bastard, were more certain of his right than Edgar the legitimate child. His victory will confirm the latter’s birthright, but how ambiguous his challenge to Edmund is!


                              Draw thy sword,

                              That if my speech offend a noble heart,

                              Thy arm may do thee justice. Here is mine. (Draws his sword.)


                              Maugre thy strength, youth, place and eminence,

                              Despite thy victor sword and fire-new fortune,

                              Thy valour and thy heart, thou art a traitor:

                              False to thy gods, thy brother and thy father,


                              A most toad-spotted traitor.      (V.3.124-136) (my emphasis.)


After this, they fight and «Edmund falls», and all is well, but one really feels as if Shakespeare regretted he had to punish «his» villain, particularly when we recall Edmund’s retort to his brother’s accusation: «Back do I toss these treasons to they head» (144) (26)


For he is not dead yet and, as we shall see, will be given time to redeem himself. In the end, his utter wickedness may have had reasons, as we can read in Edgar’s generous proposition to «exchange charity»:


                               I am no less in blood than thou art, Edmund;

                               If more,the more thou’st wronged me.

                               My name is Edgar and thy father’s son. (V.3.165-167)


Again, isn’t the formulation strange, and doesn’t it sound as if Edgar were the one who must ask for forgiveness: «no less», «thy father»? This is not simply ambiguity, and if it is, it does not seem to have been conscious. I have already alluded to this when commenting the preceding acts, but now it is clear that the villain is someone who may have been the objet of obscure determinations.


                               The gods are just and of our pleasant vices

                               Make instruments to plague us:

                               The dark and vicious place where thee [thy father] he got

                               Cost him his eyes. (168-171)


Finally, is it to provide Edmund with a really good reason to amend that the above scene is followed by some eighteen lines in which Edgar gives Albany almost a complete summary of Act Four? If so, it is unconvincing and Edgar’s speech does not seem necessary. The Folio did not keep those lines, and we can understand why since the spectators know quite well what took place in the previous scenes. Yet, those lines were written and we can only conclude they had some importance for their author. What I can «read» in this page, where the word «father» is pronouced four times, is a desire to speak of the person of the father with some kindness. Which means that I am not here considering the play from the point of view of its dramatic, or rational, logic, but as the discourse of a subject.


In this perspective, another remark comes to mind: Edgar is seen, once again, as the perfect son:


                                The bloody proclamation to escape

                               That followed me so near......................

                                ...................................taught me to shift

                               Into a madman’s rags.............................

                               ....................................and in this habit

                               Met I my father with his bleeding rings,

                               Their precious stones new lost; became his guide,

                               Led him, begged for him, saved himfrom despair; (V.3.183-190)


Was there a need to further convince the spectator of Edgar’s goodness or was this a consequence of Shakespeare’s desire to conceal his indecision as to which of the two brothers he preferred? This is a question.


Naturally, to speak of «the discourse of a subject», as I read the last scene of King Lear, does not mean that unconscious forces were not equally at work in the writing in the rest of the play; simply, I think the attention to verisimilitude was greater in the first four acts than in the final one, where this attention does not seem to have been sufficiently vigilant. Why it was so is not easy to understand; at least can I present an hypothesis in an attempt which will try to explain the production of such a discourse.


As for the inconsistencies in the scene we are examining, they are evident. Edgar’s speech has moved his brother and the latter says so. His redemption is at hand, he may save Lear and Cordelia yet:


                                This speech of yours hath moved me,

                                 And shall perchance do good [...]  (198-199)


But Edmund’s resolution is not followed by any action; instead of this, we have his curious question:


                                 You look as you had something more to say. (200)


The scene is interrupted, Edmund’s interrogation will receive no answer.


Once again, the transition is strange. Naturally, Shakespeare’s sense of suspense may have been at work here, and it is true that the spectator will have to wait to know what happens to Lear and to Cordelia. On the other hand, I cannot help thinking that this refusal of a straight narrative line has some (unconscious?) symbolical meaning. This succession of short passages which delay the action is indeed not without reminding me of the disorganized surface of a dream. See for instance the lines which immediately follow the two brothers’ exchange:


      GENTLEMAN: Help, help, O,help!


                 EDGAR:                                 What kind of help?


              ALBANY:                                                               Speak, man.


                 EDGAR: What means this bloody knife?


       GENTLEMAN:                                           ‘Tis hot, it smokes,

                                  It came even from the heart of--O, she’s dead! (V.3.221-223)


The change of subject is indeed abrupt!And yet, because of the dramatic: «O, she’s dead!», one must admit the diversion is not entirely devoid of meaning since, although the phrase concerns the two wicked sisters, it makes me think of Cordelia. Announcing her fate, no doubt, these words may also suggest that the three women will suffer the same end.


What we have therefore lost in continuity we may have gained in meaning, but we must also realize that King Lear’s last scene, as I have remarked, does deserve a particular status. For it now sems obvious that the production of discourse in this particular case was far less controlled by the intention to tell a fairly credible story than submitted to a desire which must express itself whatever the cost in verisimilitude.


The consequence of this is that, as in a dream, each short passage is significant in itself; as an independant signifier, its meaning does not depend on its role in the original conscious project for it is not subjected to any narrative logic. Doesn’t this correspond to the relative carelessness with which the last scene of King Lear was planned?


Finally, we can distinguish two projects in Shakespeare’s play, two actions at work: a very conscious wish to tell a story--in this case to re-tell a well-known legend--, and, articulated to this first enterprise, but this time escaping consciousness, the undertaking which consisted in the expression of the desire of a «subject», the architect of the whole process being this unconscious subject. (27) (The description, naturally, applies to all literary works, although the articulation of what is conscious and of what is unconscious varies with each work: in some cases a plausible «surface» satisfies our curiosity and our sense of logic, in others, because of the nature of the façade--and sometimes there is almost no façade--, we content ourselves with speaking of mystery or of strangeness without going any further into what was at stake in the writing of the text. In all cases, however, unconscious desire remains the architect and controls the whole enterprise.)


Should we need a further example of the unconscious carelessness I have just mentioned--which in fact simply corresponds to the oneiric nature of King Lear’s last scene--, the lines following the tragic «O, she’s dead» will furnish it. First, there is the ironical counterpoint of Edmund’s dark humor, hardly necessary it seems and little in harmony with his intention to change:


                              I was contracted to them both; all three

                              Now marry in an instant. (V.3.27-28)


And this is immediately followed by Kent’s return, as if the plot had been badly in need of this entrancce in order to remind the other characters, and us, that the King and his daughter have been forgotten!


                 KENT:                                               I am come

                             To bid my King and master aye good night.

                              Is he not here?


           ALBANY:                             Great thing of us forgot!

                             Speak, Edmund, where’s the King? And where’s Cordelia? (V.3. 233-236)


«Great thing of us forgot» indeed! And most strange, unless we decide that the so-called sub-plot, behind its façade, tells the same story as that of Lear and Cordelia.


It  may be remembered how, minutes before, Edmund’s redemption had been abruptly interrupted and his query to Edgar unanswered; this part of the action is now resumed:


          EDMUND: I pant for life. Some good I mean to do,

                              Despite of mine own nature. (V.3.241-242)


And perhaps at this point we begin to wonder why Edmund should have so much wanted to have Lear and Cordelia murdered.(28) Was this a way to insist on his utter villainy, even though, once again, such villainy was not without ambiguity ? It is difficult to find another reason, and it would be a poor reason, a poor argument, if behind, or under, the visible surface of this portrait we didn’t discern the wish to demonstrate that such villainy was a consequence of a desire other than Edmund’s own, a desire which became manifest in his very «conception», as the first lines of King Lear have told us.


Now it may be, of course, that this interrogation about determinations is only second to another theme, perhaps not so conscious, a theme which would be more personal to the author and which is also present in the first pages of King Lear. (29) I am here alluding to the relationship between siblings, to the rivalry between the two brothers, to their dispute for their father’s title and name. For Shakespeare, it seems to have been an important issue, but it is an issue about which the psychoanalyst cannot say anything unless he gets some help from the biographer...or from the author himself.The ultimate source of Edgar’s perfection, of Edmund’s ambiguous nature, and of the competition between brother and between sisters, may be found there.


But Goneril and Regan have another symbolical function, and while we can appreciate their duality and their opposition to their «good» sister, I essentially interpret these two characters as a representation of the «bad» mother. And now they are dead, and their bodies «are brought in», and we wonder whether the action, again, is not going to be interrupted and Albany’s question forgotten; for if the Duke seems to urge Edmund to reveal what has happened to his two prisoners--«Speak, Edmund, where’s the King, and where’s Cordelia?»--, he also strangely points to the two sisters’dead bodies:


                             Seest thou this object, Kent? (V.3.237)


Undoubtedly a short diversion from a dramatic point of view, the passage is not devoid of significance. In fact, the logic of the dream has now taken over and we can try to interpret the meaning of this strange arrival on stage. For the «object», in its symbolical function, is no other than the body of the dead mother, and it is higly significant that Kent’s «Alack» should be followed by Edmund’s «Yet Edmund was beloved» (238) which will have to be explained.The theme, now, is death: Cordelia’s death, Lear’s death and Edmund’s death. As we shall see, it is possibly the most secret, the most unconscious dimension of our play, and it is essential.


A few more lines and Lear will make his most dramatic entrance with Cordelia dead in his arms:


                             Howl, howl, howl, howl! O, you are men of stones! (255)


Lear’s desperate cry tells our horror of death, our dismay at the irreversibility of time--«She’s    gone for ever!» (257)--, our mad denial of such a catastrophe--«This feather stirs; she lives» (263)--, our blind revolt--«A plague upon you murderers, traitors all» (267)-- in short our despair at our human condition, at our finitude, at our helplessness:


                                And my poor fool is hanged. No, no, no life! (30)

                                Why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life

                                And thou no breath at all? O thou’lt come no more,

                                Never, never, never, never, never.  (304-307)


The repetition stresses the ineluctable character of the loss suffered. For it is not so much the fear of death that is expressed in Lear’s speech as his distress at the loss of his object of love: «She’s gone for ever» is repeated twice.


What the spectator is invited to watch is the loss of the love object and perhaps--since literary pleasure implies a certain amount of identification--to symbolically share the King’s suffering. This is how I understand catharsis, and the reason why we so readily identify with the characters of tragedy is that they are so much like us.


But what is the exact nature of our pleasure, then, and can the discourse of the «architect» help us in our search for meaning? I think the theme of the infant’s love of its mother--in fact our desire for fusion--may help us to clarify some complex issues in King Lear and even point out what Shakespeare’s overall unconscious desire may have been when he chose to write a tragedy inspired by a legendary tale about a parent and his children. I offer what follows as an hypothesis.


To understand what is unconsciously at stake in the last scene of King Lear we must return

for a moment to the beginning of the scene. There, we saw father and daughter at last reunited, and Lear finally at peace, imagining a life of bliss with Cordelia: «We  two alone will sing like birds i’ the cage» and «So we’ll live, /And pray, and sing [...]». The scene is a love scene and it can be read as proceeding from a desire of union with the mother.


Our human condition, however, forbids such an ideal fusion; this is what we lose when we are born, and this is what we try to recover throughout life: libido. (31) In short, nothing could alter the tragic sequence of events which began with Cordelia’s banishment:


                                 Here I disclaim all my paternal care,

                                 Propinquity and property of blood,

                                 And as a stranger to my heart and me

                                 Hold thee from this for ever.  (I.1.114-117)


«Care», «propinquity», «blood»», «stranger to my heart», «for ever», the terms are strong, and while they are pronounced by a father, the analyst, considering the text in its symbolical nature, that is to say as in a dream, simply reads «parent» in this signifier. But also, and this is probably more accurate, we can interpret Lear’s role in this passage as that of the father of the «Law of the father» (Lacan), this third person whose presence amounts to a separation of mother and child at birth. We must remember that the play opens on a division of the kingdom. In the last act of the tragedy, the happy reunion of the two «lovers» could not last; Edmund’s last decision and first good deed could only fail (32), Cordelia had to die. This is no doubt what was meant when Lear spoke of sacrifice (V.3.20).


A tragic ending then, and yet not quite the end. Ambiguity again. For I think we can read the death of Lear--which follows close Cordelia’s death--as the representation of the recovery of the union lost at birth, a fantasy of return to the One, but in death. We must listen to Kent when, with Edgar, he attends Lear’s last moments:


                      EDGAR: He faints: my lord, my lord!


                         KENT: Break, heart, I prithee break. (V.3.310-311)


Lear dies, and Kent, again:


                                      Vex not his ghost; O, let him pass. He hates him

                                      That would upon the rack of this tough world

                                      Stretch him out longer. (312-314) (my emphasis)


At this point, the psychoanalytic commentator has a choice: either he or she will speak of a death instinct in humans and conclude that Cordelia’s and Lear’s deaths illustrate the tragic «drive» (Trieb) in humans to come to a final rest--Freud’s Nirvana principle--or interpret Shakespeare’s decision to have his two characters die as the poetic representation of a desire of fusion, an unconscious wish to be reunited with the object lost at birth, our first love object, our mother. My own interpretation is that Shakespeare had Lear and Cordelia die so that they at last could be together for ever. And to the possible objection that the price of this dream-come-true is death, the answer is of course that we are dealing with a work of literature, a representation only, a work of language and imagination whose organization was dictated by an unconscious fantasy.


Freud, in his brief comment on King Lear, («The Theme of the Three Caskets" (1913) Standard Edition XII, 291-301) identified Cordelia with death:


          [...] psychoanalysis will tell us that in dreams ‘dumbness’ is a common representation   

          of  death.


          These indications would lead us to conclude that the third of the sisters between whom

          the choice is made is a dead woman. But she may be something else as well, namely

          Death itself, the Goddess of Death.


          The third of the sisters should be the Goddess of Death, nay, Death itself; in the

          Judgement of Paris she is the Goddess of Love [...], in The Merchant of Venice the

          fairest and wisest of women, in Lear, the one faithful daughter. Can a contradiction be

          more complete? [...] However, contradictions of a certain kind, replacements by the

          exact opposite, offer no serious difficulty to analytic interpretation [...] we shall

          remember that there are forces in mental life tending to bring about replacement by the

          opposite, such as the so-called reaction-formation [...] The third of the sisters is no

          longer Death, she is the fairest, best, most desirable and the most lovable among

          women. [...] So far we have been following out the myth and its transformation, and it

          is  hoped we have correctely indicated the hidden causes of this transformation. [...]The

          regressive revision [the dramatist] has thus applied to the myth which was distorted as

          it was by wishful transformation allows us enough glimpses of its original meaning to

          enable us perhaps to reach a superficial allegorical interpretation of the three female

          figures in the theme.We might argue that what is represented here are the inevitable

          relations that a man has with a woman: the mother who bears him, the woman who is

          his mate, and the woman who destroys him; or that they are the three forms taken by

          the figure of the mother in the course of a man’s life: the mother herself, the beloved

          who is chosen after her pattern, and finally the Mother Earth who receives him once



It is only at the very end of his article that Freud speaks of the mother, but this is certainly sufficient to put us on what I think is the right track.


In King Lear in the end we are confronted with two different dramatic enterprises, two different ways with which a subject--William Shakespeare--represents the fantasies which I take to be the unconscious source of his tragedy.The characters are the same, the object they represent--the models for these portraits, possibly unconsciously chosen--are the same and their symbolic dimension is maintained throughout the five acts, but with the fifth act, the nature of the dramatic discourse changes as if the distance to his own desire had diminished, something akin to what happens when we dream, the «primary process» being in command and censorship less active, hence the rather disorganized nature of the fifth act. All is there, from beginning to end, the absent or bad mother(s), the childish father(s) both tyrannical and weak, the competing sisters and brothers, except that the focus has changed, perhaps because of a greater visibility, lisibilité, of desire.


Two different registers, then, with the character of Lear--the child in us--insuring some unity to the whole. We are not looking at two different plays, but the subject matter of what I call the second part, because of the new nature of discourse, reveals a desire not visible in the first four acts. It is as if the first four acts were devoted to the father, whereas the last act deals uniquely with the relationship of the subject to his mother.




It is given to Kent, the faithful attendant and friend, to pronounce a final comment on what I have called an ambiguous tragedy. Speaking of Lear, so distressed at his daughter’s violent death, Ken explains:


                              If Fortune brag of the two she loved and hated,

                              One of them we behold.  (V.3.278-279)


The comment is wise: a tragedy about parents and children, King Lear tells the story of the rescue of the once hated tyrannical father--no doubt a feature of the generic parent--and thus reveals a fundamental duality in us, men and women. Hate and love, destruction and rescue: we always love our parents, good or bad, and whatever the consequences. This, already, may account for the architecture of a plot in which the salvation of the parent puts an end to his destruction.(33) In a way, this first conclusion is Shakespeare’s answer to the two legends he used as starting points, and this is also true of his description of a process of psychic regeneration leading to the «end» of an analysis. But there is more, much more, and we have seen that the «reconstruction» of the weak father--yes, weak because of his childishness and his rage--was not the only theme which can be distinguished in King Lear. (34)


Indeed, we cannot forget the wickedness of the two «bad» sisters, and perhaps the ambiguity of Cordelia’s «Nothing». It is not too difficult to analyse these two portraits of women as a representation of a mother who no doubt was «absent» and certainly not «good enough», while on the other hand the fantasy of a happy reunion in death of mother and child can be interpreted as a correct representation of a universal desire for fusion in humans.


But what can we say about the prevalence of the two and the obvious importance of duality in King Lear? Can the violent competition between sisters and between brothers in the play be read as a sign that such a competition had something to do with the personal history of the dramatist? This is a question for the biographer. But the distance between duality and ambiguity is small and here we may have one of the sources of Shakespeare’s extraordinary intuition about our fundamental division between conscious and unconscious.







1. We know that Freud considered that all the dreams occurring on the same night formed part of a single unit. See: The Interpretation of dreams, The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, London: the Hogarth Press, 1953-74: «The content of all dreams that occur during the same night forms part of the same whole; the fact of their being divided into several sections, as well as the grouping and number of these sections--all this has a meaning and may be regarded as a piece of information [...]» (this sentence added in 1909). (Vol. V, 333-334). 


2. See: «FOOL: [...] even since thou madest thy daughters they mother [...]» (I,4), which clearly characterizes Goneril and Reagan as symbolical mother figures. 


3. «On Cordelia’s ‘nothing’,» Literature and Psychoanalysis, ISPA: Lisbon, 1999, 73-77.


4. The remark does not of course take into consideration the fact that within the play’s complexity the character of Cordelia also symbolically represents a frustrating parent.


5. The case of Cordelia, as we have seen, is somewhat more subtle.


6. See: «GONERIL: [...] The shame itself doth speak

                                  For instant remedy. Be then desired,

                                  By her that else will take the thing she begs,

                                  A little to disquantify your train (I.4.237-240) (My emphasis.)


7. An interesting formula, at the end of Act III, perfectly sums up what we may call Edmund’s desire (but not at all unconscious here): «He childed as I fathered!» (III.6.107)


8. «Up into the air »: interpretation is permitted, and «conceive» which just follows is not without interest either.


9. See «CORDELIA: We are not the first

                                   Who with best meaning have incurred the worst.» (V.3.3-4)


10. I think an echo of this can be read in Edgar’s speech at the opening of Act IV:


          Yet better thus, and known to be contemned

          Than still condemned and flattered. To be worst,

          The lowest and most dejected thing of fortune,

          Stands still in esperance, lives not in fear.

          The lamentable change is from the best,

          The worst returns to laughter [...] (my emphasis)


11. Shakespeare makes him repeat this:


           «You must bear with me. Pray you now, forget and

           forgive; I am old and foolish.» (IV.7.83-84)


12. From the point of view of realistic representation, it is true that in this scene Lear does represent the outraged father («Hast thou given all to thy two daughters?»), but isn’t there more here than this, and doesn’t the whole atmosphre of the passage amount to a consideration on life, on the plain fact of being born? That is to say of being a child? Here is what Lear says to Poor Tom (Edgar, a son) :


          Why, thou wert better in a grave than to answer with thy uncovered body this extremity 

          of the skies. Is man no more than this? Consider him well. [...] thou art the thing itself.

          Unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor, bare, forked animal as thou art.



I have emphasized the central question. The meeting of Lear and Poor Tom, half naked in front the «unkind» elements, no doubt has a symbolical dimension. Indeed, against the fury of the  storm it seems the only «protection» is a hovel--a grave?-- into which Lear and Tom are entreated to go:


   KENT: Here is the place, my lord: good my lord, enter;

                The tyranny of the open night’s too rough

                For nature to endure. (3.4.1-3)


Hamlet’s question here comes to mind, of course. 

Finally, at the opening of the scene, the reference  to food, in passing, and to a mouth, is not without interest; this seems also the place to quote Cordelia, who is about to meet her «child-changed  father» (IV.7.17).  


13. This is also Cordelia’s opinion in Act IV, scene 4:


          Alack, ‘tis he. Why, he was met even now

          As mad as the vexed sea; singing aloud,


          ..........................What can man’s wisdom

          In the restoring his bereaved sense?

          He that helps him take all my outward worth. (1-10)


But there is hope in the words of the «Doctor»* who answers her--the title is not devoid of interest--, and this makes a difference:


          There is means, madam.

           Our foster nurse of nature is repose,

          The which he lacks: that to provoke in him,

           Are many simples operative, whose power

           Will close the eye of anguish. (11-15)


Again, we encounter the dual structure: sickness and recovery.


*(The Quarto has «Doctor», but in the Folio «A Gentleman» replaces the «Doctor», which perhaps impoverishes the passage.)


14. «A serving-man, proud of heart and mind, that curled my hair; wore gloves in my cap, served the lust of my mistress’ heart and did the act of darkness with her; swore as many oaths as I spake words and broke them in the sweet face of heaven. One that slept in the contriving of lust and waked to do it. Wine loved I deeply, dice dearly; and, in woman, out-paramoured the Turk: false of heart, light of ear, bloody of hand; hog in sloth, fox in stealth, wolf in greediness, dog in madness, lion in prey.» (III.4.83-92)


15. Even though no price is too high to pay to save the soul of the believer, we must remark that there is nothing specifically religious in the play and that Shakespeare speaks of the stars and of the gods rather than of a particular God. 


16. We have already met: «Men must endure / Their going hence, even as their coming hither:» (V.2.9-10) where the equivalent treatment of birth and death is interesting. And to this can perhaps be added Lear's «You do me wrong to take me out o’ the grave.» (IV.7.45).


17. Also, his cynism makes no doubt:


                To both these sisters have I have sworn my love,

                 ................................Which of them shall I take?

                 Both? One? Or neither? Neither can be enjoyed

                 If both remain alive. (V.1.56-60)


To this can be added Edgar’s judgement:


                  ….....…................................thou art a traitor:

                  False to thy gods, thy brother and thay father; (V.3.131-132)


18.  Unlike Albany, he is firm in his purpose, and the opposition, here again, is worth noting:


    EDMUND: Know of the Duke if his last purpose hold,

                        Or whether since he is advised by aught

                        To change his course. He’s full of alteration

                        And self-reproving [...] (V.1.1-4)


Many reasons may account for the Duke’s hesitation («Where I could not be honest/I never yet was valiant» (V.1.23-24)), but it could also be argued that the whole of this first scene is tinged with doubt, as if Shakespeare himself (unconsciously?) wavered as to the direction of the action to come. A few minutes before, at the very end of Act Four, Kent had warned us: «Report is changeable; ‘tis time to look about.The powers of the kingdom approach apace.» (V.1.92-93) (my emphasis), and to this we can add Edgar’s advice to Albany: «If you have victory [...] If you miscarry[...]» (V.1.42-45). But this may also be the result of a clever sense of suspense...


19. «As flies to the wanton boys, are we to the gods,

       They kill us for their sport.» (IV.1.38-39)


20.                                              «It is the stars,

       The stars above us govern our condition;» (IV.3.33-34)


21. Kent’s case is not so obvious, it is true, as he often acts as one who tells the truth, like Edgar-Poor Tom and the Fool: «I am no flatterer.» (II.2.108).


22. And we can even invent an Other for Goneril and Regan: for in the general architecture of the tale, that is to say outside the realistic convention, they too are confronted with an absent mother anda tyrannical father.


23. This is a reply to Cordelia’s «For thee oppressed King, am I cast down», but it may also announce what is to come.


24. Was Shakespeare somewhat conscious that he was delaying the action? See Foakes: «An interlude or farce was originally a comic entertainment staged to fill an interval in a longer feast or play.» (371) 


25. Was the scene necessary to picture the end of an order, as Albany proclaims in the last four lines of the play: « The weight of this sad time we must obey...»? But what order? And does this fit with the general ethical demonstration? Could it simply be the effect of the rebellion of the «underdog», the revolt of the bastards? Within the general coherence of the play, only the line about «what we feel» and «what we ought to say» seem relevant.


26. See also: «With the hell-hated lie o’erwhelm thy heart.» (V.3.145)


27. «Montrer/cacher»: to show and conceal, such is the task of language, which is best seen at work in the dream, a representation where a manifest «layer» expresses and hides what is latent; the terms are Freud’s.


28. Just before we learn of Cordelia’s murder, Shakespeare explains:


                EDMUND: He (the captain) hath commission from thy wife (Goneril) and me

                                    To hang Cordeliain the prison and

                                    To lay the blame upon herown despair,

                                    That she fordid herself. (V.3.250-254)


Isn’t this a last minute explanation? I doubt if the «and me» suffices as an argument to clarify Edmund’s conduct.


29. See: «I thought the King  had more affected the Duke of Albany than Cornwall.» (I.1.1.) and    «[...] it appears not which of the dukes he values most [...]» (I.1. 4).


30. For whether this applies to the Fool or to Cordelia, it still speaks of death, that is to say, here, of the loss of the love object.


31. This was precisely the nature of Freud’s exchange with Romain Rolland, in 1919, about an «oceanic feeling» in humans and the regretted discovery of a «reality principle», and we have noted how Lear, helpless and forlorn in the storm, seemed a good representation of the new-born infant. On this subject, see: Robert Silhol, «MALAISE, mal être, ma lettre», Psyart, an Online Journal, 2012.


32. We may note Edmund’s words in front of the dead bodies of Goneril and Reagan: « Yet Edmund was beloved: « (V.3.238)


33. It is only Act V, scene 3 that we learn of Gloucester’s death for certain:


           EDGAR: I asked his blessing and from first to last

                           Told him our pilgrimage. But his flawed heart,

                           Alack, too weak the conflict to support,

                          ‘Twixt two extremes of passion, joy and grief,

                           Burst smilingly. (V.3.194-198)


«Joy and grief», «Burst smilingly», the ambiguity, again, is worth noticing.


34. To this can be added the complementary interpretation that sees in Lear’s tyrannical behavior in the first act a representation of the father of the law (Lacan) that is to say the person, the presence, who comes between mother and baby at birth, the third summit of the triangle in fact. He is the one who divides, separates. 






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ELTON, William. King Lear and the Gods. Lexington: the University Press of Kentucky, 1988.


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SILHOL, Robert. «On Cordelia’s ‘Nothing’», Literature and Psychoanalysis, Lisbon: ISPA, 1999, 77-78.


       ‘’           ‘’    . «MALAISE, mal être, ma lettre», Psyart an Online Journal, 2012.


SKILES, Howard. «Attendants...in King Lear», Theatre Survey 32, 1991, 187-213.

To cite this article, use this bibliographical entry: Robert Silhol "Unconscious ambiguities in King Lear". PSYART: A Hyperlink Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts. Available http://psyartjournal.com/article/show/silhol-unconscious_ambiguities_in_king_lear. April 12, 2024 [or whatever date you accessed the article].
Received: December 18, 2012, Published: December 24, 2012. Copyright © 2012 Robert Silhol