Many scholars have argued that King Lear draws inspiration from the early modern sciences of anatomy and cartography, even as it critiques the modes of knowledge (violent and penetrative or rational and imperial) they represent. Taking its cue from the conflation of anatomical and cartographic tropes in Shakespeare’s play as well as in scholars’ accounts of it, this article tracks the material and ideological interaction of anatomical illustrations of the human body and representations of human figures on maps; it then reinterprets the play in light of that confluence. Rather than offering judgment on the efficacy or pretensions of science, the use of anatomy and cartography in King Lear participates in an emerging epistemology of human embodiment: a universalizing logic of the grid by which humans would be identified and differentiated, classified and compared.

Read in relation to the play’s invocation of nature, Lear’s creation of an abstract, representative human reveals a genealogy of the modern concepts of norms and the normal. Scholars have contended that the logic of normality first emerged in the Enlightenment and gained traction over the nineteenth century. From the prospect provided by Lear, we access a prehistory to the discourse of normality—one that shows the concepts of nature and norms interacting, not through shared prescriptions of bodily conduct, but through their common commitment to universalizing styles of reasoning. In addition to shedding light on the play and critics’ treatments of it, this genealogy of normality enables a reassessment of aesthetic appraisals of Shakespeare’s “greatest tragedy” as well as the critical controversy that long attended the play’s performance history. King Lear bequeaths to us the terms of abstract universal humanity—a discourse of normality infused with and bolstered by appeals to our common nature—by which we still judge the play, and each other.