Let Me Talk with This Philosopher
Edgar's role in Shakespeare's King Lear
by Christopher Dow
Except for Lear, Edgar is the most crucial character in Shakespeare’s King Lear. Edgar’s significance stems neither from his ascension to the throne at the end of the play nor from his admittedly vital role in settling the political disturbances that form much of the plot. Instead, Edgar is essential for his advisory relationship to Lear and for the results that his advice have on the king. When Lear meets Edgar in III.4, the king is in the midst of an identity crisis, confused about how to deal with the loss of his position and power. In an attempt to regain his identity, Lear fixes upon madness, and he does so in direct response to Edgar’s behavior as “Poor Tom.” Thus, Edgar directly catalyzes Lear’s descent into madness by providing a model of behavior that Lear believes will both release him from suffering and give him a means to construct a new identity.
Lear’s personal identity has always been bound in the fabric of his social context: his position as monarch and head of state, his authority and power, the presence of subjects for him to rule, and most important, possessing heirs to whom he could bestow his kingdom. His view of personal identity is, therefore, entirely dependent on external definition. For him, people are defined by, and only by, their social context. As a result, Lear can consider only external manifestations of personality when he inquires into the identity of other people. Thus, the lies of Gonerill and Regan when, as a condition of inheritance, they profess to love him (I.1), seem to him to be accurate reflections of their true feelings. The deep and very real feelings Cordelia has for Lear, however, are not as easily verbalized as the lies of her sisters. Her emotions are beneath the surface, where Lear cannot discern them, and so, for him, they seem not to exist.
By the end of Act II, Lear finds himself bereft of all external definitions that have formed his identity: kingdom, power and authority, and subjects. Even that most basic external definer, family context, has vanished, for he has rejected or been rejected by all his children. Lear, a person totally dependent on external definition to delineate his identity, has lost every single one of his definers and, so, has become a person without an identity. Further, since Lear’s identity has always come from external sources and not internal resources, he finds himself without the inner means to construct a new identity for himself. Instead, he must seek personal identity, just as he always has, through an external definition. He must be told who to be.
But despite being in the throes of an identity crisis, at the beginning of Act III, Lear is not insane, merely lost, angry, and emotionally distressed. He vents his feelings in a fury that damns his oppressors and his present condition when, in apostrophe, he rages at the storm:
“Rumble thy bellyful! Spit, fire! Spout, rain!
Nor rain, wind, thunder, fire are my daughters.
I tax not you, you elements, with unkindness;
I never gave you kingdom, called you children.
You owe me no subscription. . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
But yet I call you servile ministers,
That will with two pernicious daughters join
Your high-engendered battles ’gainst a head
So old and white as this.” (III.2.14–24)
These are words of righteous anger rather than madness, for though Lear personifies the elements, he does so out of familiarity with their action upon himself, not because he actually believes the elements have consciousness or volition to conspire with his daughters against him.
In fact, given the choice to go mad or remain sane, Lear chooses the latter. He responds to Kent’s suggestion that they seek shelter with a speech that starts: “My wits begin to turn” (III.2.67). This line shows that Lear understands that his mind has not been focused on the exigencies of reality that the storm have forced on him and his companions. The following six lines expand this understanding into a reply indicative of sane responsibility overcoming Lear’s indignation and adverse circumstance rather than of imminent irrationality threatening his mind:
“Come on, my boy. How dost my boy? Art cold?
I am cold myself. Where is this straw, my fellow?
The art of our necessities is strange
And can make vile things precious. Come, your hovel.
Poor fool and knave, I have one part in my heart
That’s sorry yet for thee.” (III.2.67–73)
Here, Lear is clearly not mad, for he retains all the qualities of sanity: sense of self, awareness of the necessities of life, the ability to heed the counsel of his advisors, and responsibility toward other people. The frequent repetition of self referents—I, my, myself— further emphasizes the qualities of self possession, or sanity. And at the same time, these referents reinforce the idea that Lear’s sense of self is determined by external definition, for here he is “himself” most when acting as “ruler” of others.
But even if not mad, Lear is in a precarious mental state. Because he cannot create an identity for himself, he desperately needs an external force—an advisor—to give him identity. Thus, not only is he open to any influence that may bring him relief from his loss of identity, he actively seeks such an influence. Outside Edgar’s hovel, Lear cries:
“Poor naked wretches, wheresoe’er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your looped and windowed raggedness, defend you
From seasons such as these? Take physic, pomp;
Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,
That thou mayst shake the superflux to them
And show the heavens more just.” (III.4.28–36)
Here Lear’s externally dictated personality has been wiped away by the external turbulence of his life—symbolized by the storm— and he calls on the most wretched of humans to give him personal knowledge of how to survive in his present state and to teach him how to create from within himself his own identity. He calls on these people because, though homeless, poverty-stricken, and near-naked, they nonetheless manage to survive.
Enter Edgar, or rather, enter Lear into the sphere of Edgar’s influence. Immediately after Lear ends his call for guidance, Edgar replies, “Fathom and half, fathom and half! Poor Tom!” (III.4.37) Edgar introduces himself as the “poor naked wretch” Lear has just called for, and he does so in terms a mariner uses when sounding the depths.
Significantly, Lear and Edgar meet in III.4, the central scene of the central act—the major balance point of the tragedy. Lear’s sanity pivots on the axis of this scene; before meeting Edgar, Lear is sane, and afterward, he is mad. Although Lear does enter this scene in a vulnerable state, the genesis of his madness develops from the particular circumstances and occurrences depicted here. First, is the importance of the setting. Lear meets Edgar at the door of the hovel—the boundary between the external world which Lear has inhabited both physically and as head of state, and the interior world of Edgar’s persona, mad Tom. Lear, wishing to gain identity for himself, must learn to create his own identity, and to do that he must enter into an interior world that has, until now, been foreign to him—a world in which identity isn’t always as ordered as is externally defined identity, a world where stereotypes yield to archetypes, a world in which mad Tom is at home.
The setting is also a vital indication of the forces at work, for the hovel belongs to Edgar, the rightful future Earl of Gloucester. Thus the meeting is a grimy likeness of a visit by a royal monarch to the castle of a lord for the purpose of aid and advice during a time of state crisis. The submerged context of king seeking a mode of operation from an advisor is pointedly paralleled earlier in the play when another monarch, Regan, speaks to Edgar’s father, the present Earl of Gloucester, during her visit to Gloucester’s castle:
“Thus out of season, threading dark-eyed night—
Occasions, noble Gloucester, of some price,
Wherein we must have use of your advice.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Lay comforts to your bosom, and bestow
Your needful counsel to our business,
Which craves the instant use.” (II.1.118–127)
This speech counterpoints, in its ordered neatness, Lear’s wild words outside Edgar’s hovel, but its intent echoes and emphasizes Edgar Gloucester’s capacity as advisor, teacher, and role model when Lear pays him a visit “out of season, threading dark-eyed night, for counsel which craves instant use.” Considering Lear’s unconscious need to have his identity externally defined, his awareness of his lack of identity demonstrated by his verbalized cry for instruction, and his present vulnerability to external influences, Edgar’s role as Lear’s advisor takes on paramount importance. The fact that the advisory persona is not Edgar, a rational nobleman, but Tom, a wretched madman, provides the key to Lear’s own madness.
The Fool immediately senses the danger, for the instant he sees Tom he cries, “A spirit, a spirit!” (III.4.41) Edgar is not actually mad, but as Tom, he does carry the spirit of madness like a sort of infection. Even Edgar intuits the danger and says, “Away! The foul fiend follows me. Through the sharp hawthorn blow the cold winds” (III.4.44–45). He is warning Lear that a brittle mental state, even if it is well-armed against tangible foes, affords no protection from the winds of unreason. He tells Lear to “Go to thy bed and warm thee” (III.4.46). Lear should retreat to a place where his response to confused identity will not be madness but rest.
Lear does not retreat, however, but immediately seeks to understand Tom, a person who survives without an externally defined identity, for his is a feat that Lear himself must now accomplish. When Tom asks, “Who gives anything to Poor Tom?” (III.4.49), the condition of withheld identity so directly mirrors Lear’s own fate that Lear immediately begins to equate himself with Tom. Further, the sentence leads a prose passage where Tom openly voices Lear’s personal conviction that “the foul fiend hath led [him] through” adversity, thrown him at the mercy of corrupted domesticity by having “laid knives under his pillow and halters in his pew, [and] set ratsbane by his porridge,” and forced him into a raging wilderness devoid of human context (III.4.49–59). As a result of this passage, Lear begins such a complete identification with Tom that he insists Tom’s “daughters brought [Tom] to this pass” (III.4.60), or in other words, that he and Tom are equal, even though Kent points out that Tom “hath no daughters” (III.4.66). Lear ignores Kent and persists in equating himself with Tom, indicating that the king now prefers the advice of Tom over the counsel of his former advisor, Kent. Lear now views Tom as a role model to be emulated for his ability to exist in the new context in which Lear finds himself.
In direct response to Lear’s acceptance of him as advisor, Tom delivers the recommendation to “Take heed o’the foul fiend, obey thy parents, keep thy word’s justice, swear not, commit not with man’s sworn spouse, set not thy sweet heart on proud array” (III.4.77–79). The truth and sanity of this exhortation to remedy the social ills of disobedience to parents, dishonesty, adultery, greed, and pride strikes so close to the conditions of both Lear and the state that it cements Lear to Tom. He asks Tom, “What hast thou been?” (III.4.81) Ostensibly Lear here asks for background information from Tom, but underlying the question is a hidden request for identity, as if Lear is subliminally asking Tom to teach him how to create identity from within.
At this request for further identity from Tom, Tom enters into a second prose passage delineating the fictitious life of a member of the serving class: a proud, vain gigolo who was “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.4.82–94). While the particulars of this fabricated life do not mirror Lear’s own life experiences, the general condition of descent from a higher to a lower station of life reflects Lear’s circumstances. More important, Lear identifies with the results, for both men are outcasts.
Lear replies to Tom’s account with his own prose passage, as important for its prose form as for its content. Prose speech, lacking the structured music of the blank verse spoken by the majority of the characters, is indicative of formlessness and disorder. Prior to Tom, the only other character who has spoken extensively in prose has been the Fool. Due to its unmusical formlessness, prose is the manner of speech proffered by fools and the insane. Before listening to Tom, Lear has had only two minor prose passages (I.4.40–44, 66–71). However, after Tom speaks prose, Lear instantly replies extensively in the same form. Afterwards, until recovering his sanity in IV.7, nearly half of Lear’s speeches of more than two lines are prose. Lear has decided to learn from Tom, and in keeping with his reliance on externals to define identity, naturally mimics this external aspect of his model when he replies in kind to Tom’s prose.
In content, Lear’s prose speech proclaims that he believes that man in his natural state owes nothing and is owed nothing:
“Thou owest the worm no silk, the beast no hide, the sheep no wool, the cat no perfume. Ha! Here’s three on’s are sophisticated. Thou art the thing itself! Unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor, bare, forked animal as thou art.” (III.4.98–105)
The line, “Thou art the thing itself,” shows that Lear has an inkling that personal identity can come from within, and to him, the madness manifested by Tom seems to be a means to self-create identity. At this moment, he decides to completely imitate Tom. As an outward sign of his emulation, Lear tears off his clothes. “Off, off, you lending! Come, unbutton here” (III.4.98–105). Naked now, like Tom, Lear formally invites Tom to be his mentor: “First let me talk with this philosopher” (III.4.146). Then he asks Tom to join him: “Noble philosopher, your company” (III.4.166). And finally, he voices his desire to have Tom’s continuing example: “With him! I will keep still with my philosopher” (III.4.169–170). Thus Lear’s rapidly growing identification with Tom progresses from the somewhat removed “this philosopher,” to the more familiar “you,” and finally ends as the completely identified “my philosopher.” Lear is now totally reliant on Tom’s advice and example.
Unfortunately for the king, Lear’s intuition that Tom is able to self-create identity is supported by a dark undercurrent. Tom indeed has the ability to create himself, but on a much deeper level than Lear suspects. The persona of Tom is, indeed, truly self-created—completely and convincingly manufactured from whole cloth by Edgar. This means that Lear accepts as teacher and role model an individual who is totally false and unreal. Ironically, in his search for an internally created identity, Lear has not only once again accepted another external definition of identity, but worse, has fabricated an identity that is based on a persona invented in another person’s imagination. And if this isn’t disastrous enough, Lear’s newly adopted persona is that of a madman. In his search for identity, Lear now finds himself once removed from it, and from sanity itself.
Lear’s conversion to madness has now taken place, and only afterward do the other members of the company notice a change in his mental state. By the end of the third act, Kent says of Lear, “His wits have given way to his impatience” (III.6.4–5), but this is not so. Lear’s wits have given way in a misguided attempt to emulate Tom. Even Edgar, who had not recognized the king’s vulnerable mental state, much less considered that Lear might mistake Tom’s behavior as a valid response to loss of identity, begins to consciously realize that he has unwittingly caused Lear’s degeneration. He says, “How light and portable my pain seems now, When that which makes me bend makes the King bow—He childed as I fathered” (III.6.96–98, emphasis added). In this last line, Edgar himself accepts that he is the father, the genesis, of Lear’s madness. The darkly humorous aspect of Lear’s acceptance of Tom’s madness is the fact that after the king’s descent into insanity, Edgar “recovers” and assumes a role of externally defined responsibility, indicating that he accepts that self-created identity is not only insane but disconnected from the social fabric.
Lear’s misunderstanding, however, is predictable since he has consistently considered only the exterior of people when trying to understand identity. In the final analysis, the real tragedy might be that Lear met a madman rather than a saint.
Shakespeare, William. King Lear. Ed. G. K. Hunter. London: Penguin, 1972.