- “The Naked Fellow”:Performing Feral Reversion in King Lear
L’homme est la maladie mortelle de la nature.—Alexandre Kojève
The Singularity of Edgar
King Lear is a play riddled by onlys, haunted by the exceptional. It is the only one of Shakespeare’s major tragedies that has a subplot; the only major tragedy whose protagonist (Lear) confronts a double (Edgar); the only tragedy where madness, real or feigned, is purely Shakespeare’s invention, not to be found in the acknowledged sources. Finally, it is the only tragedy whose actions mainly unfold in non-military outdoor settings, an original feature looking ahead to the late romances.
In view of the above, we may infer that Edgar—the apparently deranged hero of the subplot who extra muros affords the king a jocular version of himself—lies at the core of King Lear’s theatrical singularity. [End Page 133] Sadly, critical approaches to this character seldom live up to his exceptional nature. Though standard interpretations of the play often neglect Edgar, other readings accord him a centrality second only to the king’s. In either case, however, the exact nature of his role remains undecided. Bradley thought he was the character that excited “least enthusiasm,” a dismissal that contrasts with the prominent role he was given in the 1608 Quarto title page, showcasing “the unfortunate life of Edgar, sonne and heire to the Earle of Gloster, and his sullen and assumed humor of Tom of Bedlam.”1 Northrop Frye, who warned that no one can study King Lear without “wondering why Edgar puts on this Poor Tom act for Lear’s benefit,” was probably unpersuaded by Harry Levin’s explanation of Edgar’s “vagrant grotesquerie” in terms of a therapeutic correlative for Lear.2 Today, R. A. Foakes registers the contradictions that remain once Edgar’s symbolic function as “unaccommodated man” who awakens Lear and Gloucester to moral consciousness has been ascertained.3 Partly to avoid these perplexities, the category “pastoral romance” was soon suggested by critics eager to cast Edgar in the role of the Orphic, metamorphic trickster, a type presumably explaining his “swiftly adopted antic dispositions”: poor Tom, peasant, gentleman, and King of England.4 Behind these disguises some spotted Stoic patience and the triumph of re-conquered identity. Such readings assumed a difference between identity and role, and subordinated the trials of abnegation and role-playing to the thrills of comedic restoration. But in King Lear the multiple avatars of Edgar’s assumed alienation fall short of providing the comforts of cognitive deliverance. The pastoral pattern that Maynard Mack links to a learning process through self-recognition in others appears savagely undercut.5 Edgar’s multi-functional part includes “a loving son, a choral device, a complement to Edmund, a voice of dislocation and disintegration in the storm, a thrust of hope and patience in Act IV, and possibly a naïf in process of learning throughout the play.”6 For Rosalie L. Colie, Edgar is a “someone” who has exchanged his identity for a role and who remains throughout “far more complex and significant than his role characterizes.”7 Such excess would involve Lear’s recognizing “in this new outcast a case of his own kind.”8 [End Page 134]
These readings furnish a similar figure: that of a receding identity lurking behind a Protean multiplication of roles. What the hard-pastoral, un-pastoral, or anti-pastoral approach fails to address is the motivation drawing this identity to engage in role-playing. Janet Adelman sees masochistic Edgar as a “moral emblem,” and yet an emblem of what? The strange blending of “moral harshness” and “pity” characterizing Edgar casts him merely into an emblem of delay, intractable intention and failed action, demonstrably in line with Hamlet.9 Other critics are less inclined to overlook the motivational structure of the character’s personality. S. L. Goldberg, for instance, sees him as a “lethal character” moved by violent ambition toward the throne. Latent Machiavellism could be a discernible rationale in the construction of a character that, on this view, would be prefigured only by Prince Hal. And yet, Goldberg admits, “some of the sharpest...