Goneril to Lear: “Hear me, my lord:
What need you five and twenty, ten, or five,
To follow in a house where twice so many
Have a command to tend you?
Regan: What need one?”
King Lear Act 2, Sc. IV ~ William Shakespeare
“You will own nothing and be happy” ~ World Economic Forum propaganda
The story of Shakespeare’s tragedy of King Lear will be familiar to all Pitchfork Papers readers, but in case it isn’t or the gist has been forgotten, the play starts with the aged Lear planning for retirement and asking his three daughters to tell him how much they love him. The two eldest daughters, Regan and Goneril, try to outdo each other in lavishing praise and professions of unsurpassed daughterly admiration for their vain father, whilst the youngest Cordelia, until now Daddy’s favorite, throws His Royal Highness into a tantrum by providing a no-frills answer of
Cordelia “Unhappy that I am, I cannot heave my
My heart into my mouth. I love your Majesty
According to my bond; no more nor less.”
Lear “How, how , Cordelia! Mend your speech a little
Lest you may mar your fortunes.”
Cordelia: “Good my lord,
You have begot me, bred me, lov’d me; I
Return those duties back as are right fit,
Obey you, love you, and most honour you.
Why have my sisters husbands, if they say
They love you all? Haply, when I shall wed,
That lord whose hand must take my plight shall carry
Half my love with him, half my care and duty. “
King Lear Act I Sc. I ~ William Shakespeare.
Lear duly banishes her to France and then divides the inheritance up between the other two, determining to spend half his time with one and then the other of them in their respective castles, his retinue in tow. This does not go well and when Goneril complains that his retinue of 250 soldiers is rude and making an unholy mess of her home, he moves to her sister’s place, howling at her ingratitude and duplicitous behaviour as he leaves. Arriving at daughter number two’s place, he finds her just as unhappy with his contingent and when Goneril arrives in his wake they both try and persuade him that he is being entirely unreasonable and that he doesn’t need 250, or for that matter fifty or twenty five or even ten servants and soldiery. “What need one?” Regan asks him poignantly.
Stripped of his dignity and effectively powerless, he leaves them in a rage ending up on the heath in a storm, effectively mad with frustration and helplessness, accompanied only by his court jester and a few other loyal characters, all of whom have their own stories and crosses to bear. Long story short, Regan and Goneril end up having an affair with the same dastardly villain, Edmund, and eventually kill themselves over him whilst Cordelia returns to England from her exile in France with an army to reclaim her inheritance. She loses the battle and is captured but is finally reunited with Lear who recognizes her truth and honesty but is already exhausted and no longer fully compos mentis. She is assassinated by a hitman sent by Edmund, causing Lear to die of a broken heart.
“And my poor fool is hang’d! No, no, no life?
Why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life,
And thou no breath at all? THou’ll come no more.
Never, never, never, never, never.
Pray you undo this button. Thank you, sir.
Do you see this? Look on her. Look, her lips.
Look there, look there! [He dies]
King Lear Act V Sc. III ~ William Shakespeare
The old loyalists who have been steadfast in their honourable support of the King and strong and virtuous in the face of terrible personal adversity, are left at the end to pick up the pieces of the shattered kingdom and, one assumes, keep the show on the road.
I think it was whilst reflecting on Neil Postman’s “Building a Bridge to the 18th Century” that the idea first formed that King Lear might usefully be seen as an Enlightenment morality play, an extended metaphor for the dynamic relationship between the three great forces of science, capital and individual humanity that were unleashed in the early 17th Century, found their fullest expression in the 18th and 19th Centuries and whose consequences we are attempting to deal with at the start of 21st.
Human progress has always been determined by constraints to growth. The constraint points at which the collective energy bottlenecks create societal pressure which requires resolution through creative intelligence. The pressure that built up through, for instance, the church’s monopoly hold on knowledge and through the compound effect of slow but steady knowledge proliferation, gave rise to the printing press and to Martin Luther’s Reformation some 500 years ago. The original societal bottleneck was knowledge - science if you will - and the release of the pent-up demand for truth. The catch-up period in which the pursuit of knowledge and the satisfaction of that demand characterized the late 17th and all of the 18th Century. This “age of discovery” led to its own bottleneck and new constraints, viz. the utilization of that knowledge for productive aims.
The new constraint allowed capital and with it capitalISM to emerge as the problem-solving answer and it too took off with tremendous energy altering the paradigm of life on the planet in ways unimaginable to previous generations and millenia. This period of two roughly 150 year blocks each, starting properly at the beginning of the 18th C until around 1850 and another one overlapping and dominating the following 150-year period until the beginning of our current century we refer to as The Enlightenment.
Where does Lear fit into all this?
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