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WHILE he spoke, he was opening and shutting his hands like valves; so conscious all the time of that touch of shame, that he shrunk before his own knowledge of his meaning” (1.19.190).1 That picture of the Father of the Marshalsea, as he is called in Dickens’s Little Dorrit, has always stuck in my mind. Only Dickens, perhaps, would think of the man’s shame being betrayed in this way by his hands. The most coherent satire in the same novel features the great financier Merdle (the French connotations of his name unmistakable) “with his hands crossed under his uneasy coat-cuffs, clasping his wrists as if he were taking himself into custody ” (1.33.331). Merdle’s conscious guilt can be glimpsed only so; Dorrit’s shame is implicit in the very fact of being a prisoner for debt, though his Lear-like grandiosity strives to conceal it. In this essay I propose to use Dickens’s novel to help trace the experience of shame in Shakespeare’s King Lear itself. Initially on view is the shame of old age, the helplessness in the face of dependency that seems especially to afflict males of our species. Both the novel and the play then link this experience to what it means to be human. Shame rather than guilt is the issue. As students years ago, we were told that we could never properly understand King Lear unless we realized how great a stake Shakespeare’s original audience had in monarchy. For a king to SOCIAL RESEARCH, Vol. 70, No. 4 (Winter 2003) A King Lear of the Debtors’ Prison: Dickens and Shakespeare on Mortal Shame ALEXANDER WELSH divide and parcel out his kingdom could only result in disaster, and that was the moral of this play. But since this grave misjudgment occurs in act 1, scene 1, what was the rest of the extraordinary tragedy about? Neither for Shakespeare’s time nor for the time of the action (pre-Christian Britain) is this your average king; King Lear is a very old man. After his searing experience and partial recovery, he is able to confess that he is “a very foolish, fond old man” and admit to being “fourscore and upward”—over 80 years old (4.7. 60-61).2 In the opening scene, in fact, when the king has rashly disowned his favorite daughter Cordelia for refusing to flatter him, his follower Kent exclaims, “What wouldst thou do, old man?” (1.1.147). Since Kent is a loyal monarchist, his abrupt rudeness tells unmistakably that Lear’s senility has been on everyone’s mind. When left to themselves at the close of the scene, Lear’s other daughters, Goneril and Regan, remark on it also: “You see how full of changes his age is”; “’tis the infirmity of his age” (1.1.290, 294). One of the uncannily familiar aspects of the action of King Lear as it unfolds is the impatience of these two in putting up with their parent. Their mounting cruelty is only latent at first; they shut the old man out of doors at the end of act 2 to teach him a lesson. In Shakespeare’s theater, tragic heroes were usually kings or other beings higher in the social scale than the audience—it was an era of “high-mimetic” representation, in Northrop Frye’s well-taken historical criticism (1957). But such is Shakespeare’s naturalizing talent that this conflict between a father and his children could be happening in our own families. King Lear is the tragedy of a man without an obvious heir (he has no sons) who has outlived his authority or, indeed, his usefulness to anyone. If there is doubt on this score, one should try reading Tolstoy’s bitter attack on the play when he was 78 (1963 [1906]). It is hard not to agree with George Orwell (1950: 32-52) that Tolstoy picked on this particular example of Shakespeare’s art because he identified all too closely with its helpless protagonist. King Lear has had one of the strangest stage histories of any famous play. Shakespeare himself converted an existing drama, 1232 SOCIAL RESEARCH...


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