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Deadly letters in 'King Lear.'

King James, then King of Scotland, wrote to his cousin Queen Elizabeth, probably in 1586, annoyed that she had failed to respond to an earlier letter: "For ye know dead letters cannot answer no questions."(1) I will explore some of the letters in King Lear and try to answer a few questions. This examination will become a means finally of illuminating the Gloucester-Edgar-Edmund plot in this play, what we sometimes inadequately refer to as the "subplot." I will focus on the indirect discourse of the Gloucester story, epitomized by letters, and how this discourse differs from Lear's.

At rare moments letters may have talismanic force, serving even as icons. The etched in glass letters from soldiers that form the Vietnam Memorial in New York City may constitute just such an icon. One may also recall the experience of a fifty-century nun, presumably named Egeria, who travelled extensively throughout the Holy Land; her trip included a visit to the shrine of St. Thomas the Apostle in Edessa. Egeria reports in her journal: "Our Lord Jesus Christ had promised in a letter, which He sent to King Abgar through the messenger Ananias, that Saint Thomas would be sent to Edessa, after His ascension into heaven; and this letter is preserved with great reverence in the city of Edessa, where his shrine is located."(2) Not only does Egeria get to read the letter from Jesus, she also hears from the bishop about its mystical power. For example, under attack by Persians, King Abgar carried the letter to the city's gate; "and as he held in his upraised hands the open letter, suddenly there was a great darkness" (p. 79). Eventually the Persians retreated, unable to conquer the city. "Ever afterwards, whenever an enemy decided to come to attack this city, this letter was brought out and read at the gate, and immediately, by the will of God, all the enemy were expelled" (p. 80). The bishop gave Egeria copies of the letters. She reports: "Although I had copies of them at home, I was clearly very pleased to accept them from him, in case the copy which had reached us at home happened to be incomplete; for the copy which I received was certainly more extensive" (p. 81). This "postscript," as it were, testifies to the apparent popularity and renown of Jesus's letter, as it also underscores the difficulty in a scribal culture of securing and reproducing the authenticity and completeness of copies of documents. If Goneril's letter to Edmund, which Edgar finds on the slain Oswald, does not have talismanic force, it at least galvanizes Edgar into action and eventual confrontation with Edmund.

Admittedly, most letters serve more ordinary means of simple and complex communication. At this distance from Shakespeare's time and surrounded by technology that enables instantaneous transmission of information, we may need to remind ourselves that letters were essential to the social and political lives of persons living in that earlier era. Letters became the principal means, for example, by which King James came to know Queen Elizabeth, whom he never met. Of course, such indirect discourse opens widely the possibility for misunderstanding. Francis Bacon observes in his essay "Of Negotiating": "It is generally better to deal by speech than by letter...."(3) But sometimes circumstances make letters necessary. Bacon adds: "Letters are good, when a man would draw an answer by letter back again; or when it may serve, for a man's justification, afterwards to produce his own letter, or where it may be danger to be interrupted, or heard by pieces" (pp. 145-46). Interestingly, in its distinction between the advantages of direct confrontation versus letters, Bacon's essay could serve as a gloss on Lear. Mark Taylor notes: "Personal letters in plays are not, of course, merely personal letters; they are, additionally, a means of generating plot, a means of compressing large events into small space, and one means of presentation available to the dramatist."(4) Shakespeare chooses this means frequently in Lear, thereby underscoring the problem of indirect discourse and locating it primarily, though not exclusively, in the Gloucester story.

Out of the twenty-six versions of the Lear story preceding and contemporaneous with Shakespeare only he includes the story of a father with two sons, one illegitimate and the other legitimate--the Gloucester story. Naturally we wonder why. In one sense surely the Lear narrative doesn't need the Gloucester story. Gloucester tells us nothing about tragedy and suffering that we cannot learn from Lear's experience. The ingratitude of Edmund and the harshness visited upon Edgar only remind us that Lear is not the only parent to have felt the sting of filial ingratitude nor Cordelia the only child to be spurned by a parent and outraged by siblings. Cinderella, which has some parallels to Lear, can tell us the same thing. Lear himself universalizes his experience as when he encounters the disguised Edgar as Tom o'Bedlam on the heath and immediately assumes that filial ingratitude must account for Tom's madness.

And yet we know that the play would be diminished without Gloucester. One need only recall that poignant meeting of the blind Gloucester and the mad Lear in act 4, scene 6, to know how much Gloucester has come to mean to us and to the play. Gloucester, though blind, recognizes his king and says: "O, let me kiss that hand." And Lear responds: "Let me wipe it first; it smells of mortality" (131-32).(5) Small wonder that Edgar speaks a sentence of monosyllabic response that doubtless corresponds with ours: "I would not take this from report--it is, / And my heart breaks at it" (139-40). No letter or report could possibly convey the full resonance of this moment. Increasingly, the play moves away from mediated discourse to face the thing itself.

At the beginning of this century A. C. Bradley published his influential Shakespearean Tragedy where in the discussion of Lear, he aptly notes a series of "improbabilities" in the play. He writes: "The improbabilities in King Lear surely far surpass those of the other great tragedies in number and grossness. And they are particularly noticeable in the secondary plot. For example, no sort of reason is given why Edgar, who lives in the same house with Edmund, should write a letter to him instead of speaking; and this is a letter absolutely damning to his character."(6) Only for a fleeting moment should this letter writing seem an improbability; numerous historical examples abound that reveal such correspondence between members of the same household. But I do not want to argue from historical evidence. Rather I will be maintaining that Shakespeare has placed an extraordinary reliance on letters in the Gloucester story in order to open up another level of discourse, one in contrast to Lear's. I will reflect on and expand some ideas from a brilliant essay by Sigurd Burckhardt, first published now thirty years ago.(7)

Difficult to count precisely, numerous letters circulate in the play. Checking the Shakespeare concordance, I note that Shakespeare uses the word letter thirty-three times in Lear. No other tragedy comes close in such frequency. Interestingly, the use of letter corresponds exactly with the frequency of the word nothing, which also appears thirty-three times. I will resist for the moment the attempt to make something out of nothing. At the very least, however, we must in studying and thinking about this play pay attention to the quality of nothing and the letter. Commenting on the second scene of the play--the encounter between Gloucester and Edmund--Burckhardt writes: "With this scene, the letter becomes the emblem of the illicit and dangerously mediate--so clearly so that the sight of Lear reading a letter would strike us as somehow incongruous; for a letter is speech reduced to signs, discourse become manifestly indirect" (p. 239). That is, a letter can only offer indirect, mediated discourse--signs, not reality. It exists on the paradoxical boundary between confrontation and report; in and of itself, for example, it offers no possibility of immediate correction, should it be misunderstood. It is; and we must make the best of it, reading between its lines in order to grasp the tone. By its indirection we attempt to find direction out.

Although Burckhardt says that the sight of Lear reading a letter would seem incongruous, I offer a slight modification by looking at a major source for Shakespeare's play, the anonymous play King Leir, dating from about 1594 and first published in 1605--not long before Shakespeare's version of the story. In the important scene 19 of the anonymous Leir, Leir and his companion Perillus, wandering through the countryside, pause to rest their weary bodies. They are sleepy; but Leir says: "Ile sit me downe, and read until she [a daughter! come."(8) Apparently they have brought books with them. He later in that scene reads the letter from Gonorill that the Messenger has brought; it orders the murder of Leir. Mercifully, Leir and Perillus escape, thanks to the intervention of nature--much kinder in this play than in Shakespeare's--and the softening of the Messenger's heart. Shakespeare changes all of this and discharges such energy of reading principally in the Gloucester plot. To assist the comprehension that the letters may seem deadly, I will begin with the play's first scene in order to establish the context for letters as an alternative to Lear's pattern of discourse; I will draw on the anonymous Leir.

Shakespeare's play starts not with Lear but with Gloucester, who in the first 30 lines (or more precisely 33!) reveals to Kent the bastardy of his son Edmund, who accompanies him. In this amiable and non-threatening conversation Gloucester's acknowledgement of Edmund as his son strikes us as commendable, if unusual. And yet this somewhat peculiar manner in which to begin a drama presumably about Lear signals right away that Gloucester and the relationship to his sons may be important. It also opens this initial scene to at least four major violations of well-established principles: social, political, moral, and personal/familial. Gloucester has abrogated social custom and moral law by fathering an illegitimate son; Lear will rupture political convention by dividing the kingdom, and he will sever personal and familial bonds by the imposition of the love test.

Within fifteen lines of his first appearance, Lear announces the test: "Which of you shall we say doth love us most..." (1.1.51). By contrast, the older play King Leir has devoted 200 lines of preparation before Leir imposes the test. Also, that play begins with Leir's lamentation for the death of his wife, a point curiously and probably significantly absent in Shakespeare's version.(9) Also, Gonorill and Ragan in the older play have a scene (scene 2) in which they complain about their favored sister Cordella and in which they learn from the mischievous Skalliger what Leir intends to do. Therefore, they take time to rehearse their answers to Leir's probably question of love. When in scene 3 this king imposes the test, he states it somewhat indirectly as the resolution to a doubt that he has: "Resolve a doubt which much molests my mind, / Which of you three to me would prove most kind; / Which loves me most..." (p. 343).

But Shakespeare's Lear asks: "Which of you shall we say doth love us most." That additional clause, "shall we say," highlights the power of direct discourse for Lear. What will finally be important is what he will be able to say--to speak--about his daughters' love. This becomes far more than merely a test of their love; rather, it examines how one can articulate the nature of love or perhaps of anything. Certainly we can fault Lear for asking such an unfair question, and yet most parents have at least contemplated it. I insist that in addition to the question of love Lear remains vitally interested in discourse. For him, saying things makes them true--a flaw in his royal character that the play will tragically exploit.

Lear commands: "speak first" (54). As many critics have observed, this play operates mainly in the imperative mood, at least for its first half. Lear will have to be stripped of his imperatives before he can be worthy of reconciliation with Cordelia. In response to her father's imperious command, Goneril speaks the desired words of love. Similarly, Regan follows suit. Knowing the little that we know, we must take their words at face value: their words and their character presumably cohere. Even Cordelia's asides in response to their statements of love do not call into question the sincerity of her sisters' comments. By contrast, in the older King Leir we know that Gonorill and Ragan have planned their language in advance so that their father will hear what he wants to hear. And Cordella observes their insincerity and duplicity: "O, how I doe abhorre this flattery!" (p. 343); and, "Did never flatterer tell so false a tale" (344). Shakespeare, by contrast, shifts the burden first to us to ascertain the veracity of what is being spoken. For the moment we assume with Lear that words directly correspond to what they intend, that direct speech carries validity.

But then Lear turns to his favorite daughter, "Now, our joy, / Although our last and least;... / ... what can you say to draw / A third more opulent than your sisters? Speak" (82-86). If I may be irreverent for a moment, this sounds a bit like the late Groucho Marx telling contestants on his quiz show: "Say the magic word, and you can win $100." The potential of resulting money--"a third more opulent"--demonstrates convincingly the power of discourse. The Cordella figure in King Leir says: "I cannot paynt my duty forth in words, / I hope my deeds shall make report for me" (p. 344). But Shakespeare's pithy, pointed exchange takes our breath away:

Cordelia. Nothing, my lord.

Lear. Nothing?

Cordelia. Nothing.

Lear. Nothing will come of nothing. Speak again.

(87-90) For the first but not the last time nothing enters the play's vocabulary; it will reverberate throughout the remainder of the story. For a man to whom direct language accounts for everything, hearing nothing inflicts profound hurt and disturbs his understanding of how public discourse should function.

Within a few lines the incredulous and now angry Lear disowns his favorite daughter: "Here I disclaim all my paternal care, / Propinquity and property of blood..." (113-14). But Lear does not yet understand that just because he says certain things they will not necessarily become true. In fact, he cannot legally, morally, or linguistically "disclaim" Cordelia by merely speaking the words. As Burckhardt notes: Lear's mistake "is the regal one of taking people at their word in the most radical and literal sense ... He cannot be lied to by his daughters, because, in transferring his sovereignty to them, he also endows them with its noblest attribute and prerogative: to speak creatively, substantially, with automatic truth" (p. 238).

Kent heightens the language problem as he attempts to pull Lear back from the precipice of rashness and limited understanding. He asks: "What wouldst thou do, old man? / Think'st thou that duty shall have dread to speak / When power to flattery bows?" (146-48). Kent incisively places his finger on the conflict between power and discourse. In response Lear also banishes him: "Out of my sight!" (157). He might have said: "Out of my voice." Unwittingly, Lear understands what Kent tries to do when he says: "... thou hast sought to make us break our vows, / ... To come betwixt our sentence and our power, / Which nor our nature nor our place can bear..." (168-71). Shakespeare does not resist the pun in sentence, which may first mean an imposition of justice or judgment but which also resonates with the meaning of a syntactical unit. Nothing threatens Lear more than the possibility that one can come between his sentence (his language) and his power. For him, he speaks, and it is. But Kent and the play insist that discourse has many sides: one may need to read between the lines.

Enter Gloucester in scene two, but only after we hear Edmund's rousing soliloquy in favor of bastards. He asks a string of rhetorical questions: "Why brand they us / With base? with baseness? Bastardy base? Base?" (1.2.9-10). Edmund refers to society's capacity to place word labels on persons or things; to name an activity in many ways confines and contains it. Therefore, he moves to the Latinate word to characterize his brother Edgar's favorable position: "Fine word, 'legitimate'" (18). Language has empowered Edgar's position by the word "legitimate" as it has diminished Edmund's by the opposite term. Is not Edmund wrestling with the same problems of discourse evident in scene one? Naming things, assigning words to them, may shut down complexity and nuances. Instead of placing all value on the word "legitimate," why not judge the deeds and character of Edmund? His position in effect duplicates Cordelia's. But in contrast, Edmund intends by means of a letter to deceive his father and damage his brother.

The word letter enters the play by line 19, just as nothing had entered early in scene one. When Gloucester appears, Edmund pretends to read the forged letter, presumably written by Edgar. Gloucester asks: "Why so earnestly seek you to put up that letter?" (28); and Edmund compounds the deception by hiding the letter, thereby increasing Gloucester's interest. And he asks again: "What paper were you reading?" (30); Edmund responds: "Nothing, my lord" (31). Nothing and letter now join. Gloucester does not accept Edmund's "nothing": "What needed then that terrible dispatch of it [the letter] into your pocket? The quality of nothing hath not such need to hide itself. Let's see. Come, if it be nothing, I shall not need spectacles" (32-35). Lear insisted on "speak"; and Gloucester says, "Let's see." One man accepts the inherent veracity of language and the other wants to question what he hears, to determine its validity by inspection and investigation. Burckhardt astutely points out: "... for Gloucester speech is the opposite of substantial; he sees in it 'mere words,' insubstantial signs which, as likely as not, have been made to point in the wrong direction.... And because to him words are merely a medium, he falls victim to a mediacy.... Determined as he is to distrust the direct word, he is at the mercy of report, of hearsay, of signs" (p. 239). Gloucester in Lear's position in scene one would have had little difficulty in dealing with Cordelia's "nothing"; he would have seen it as a possible indirection. Similarly, Lear in Gloucester's position would have accepted Edmund's "nothing" and moved on.

Gloucester insists: "Give me the letter, sir" (39); and he begins to read the insidious letter that hints at killing him and the advantages that will accrue to the sons. For the first of only two times in the play we actually hear the contents of a letter. Edmund adds to his father's incredulity by telling how he came upon this letter: "I found it thrown in at the casement of my closet" (59-60)--the conveyance of a dead letter if ever there was one. The father asks Edmund: "You know the character to be your brother's?" (61). The word "character" in Shakespeare's time meant handwriting, but the word resonates with an additional meaning for us. Edmund has duplicated Edgar's character (handwriting) but not his character (noble personality). Edmund confirms: "It is his hand, my lord; but I hope his heart is not in the contents" (66-67). Edmund opens discourse to threatening possibilities, namely, that a gap may exist between what we write and what we actually mean: the gulf between hand and heart. We may understand this as a "character" issue.

Mark Taylor rightly questions: "Why does he [Gloucester] not ask how the real Edgar could have produced this aberrancy and seek to show that he could not have, or that somehow there must be extenuating circumstances?" (p. 39). I disagree with Taylor's conclusion: "His immediate conviction shows both that he does not know Edgar and that he wants to believe the worst." Further, in Taylor's view Gloucester has a predilection "to find the favored son inadequate or treacherous." I see no evidence of such a predilection. Instead, Edmund successfully exploits Gloucester's vulnerability to the question of how discourse means. As Francis Bacon notes in "Of Negotiating": if one would successfully "work any man," then one must exploit the other's "weakness and disadvantages, and so awe him" (p. 147). Taylor accepts the presumed "improbability" of this encounter and Gloucester's belief. But Edmund demonstrates, better than anyone else, that he understands two fundamental tropes by which to comprehend the world: the world as book and the world as theater.(10) In Edmund's fiction, Edgar's alleged letter captures his understanding of the world, a world threatening their father. If all the world is a book--a letter--then we understand its necessarily indirect language.

The mediated nature of this letter Shakespeare underscores by having Gloucester never be in the company of his son Edgar until much later in the play when he is blind and cannot recognize Edgar. This mediated language also reinforces the indeterminate nature of such discourse. The language of the letter must be tested, first by confirming that it contains Edgar's handwriting. Then Edmund proposes ocular proof: "... I will place you where you shall hear us confer of this and by an auricular assurance have your satisfaction..." (88-90). Edmund now accepts the trope that all the world's a stage. He will arrange a theatrical scene by which his father may overhear Edgar. But even the theater may not provide simple, unvarnished, unproblematized discourse; it does not always hold the mirror up to some pristine, uncomplicated nature. But only by such an overheard encounter will Gloucester presumably be able adequately to read between the lines of the letter, to come between the sentence and the power of language. Then and only then may he understand that "through the power of language men construct deceptions in which and for which they live."(11)

Gloucester says: "I would unstate myself to be in a due resolution" (97). Lear cannot imagine unstating himself; that would be to deny the prerogative of his power. Shaken by what he thinks he understands, Gloucester cannot take refuge in an imagined strength of language; instead, he would unstate himself. Striving to articulate what has happened, Gloucester reaches into the natural world: "These late eclipses in the sun and moon portend no good to us" (101-2). The signs of nature substitute for the signs of language. He closes with, for him, rare imperatives: "Find out this villain, Edmund; it shall lose thee nothing; do it carefully" (112-13). Indeed, Edmund, the bastard son, risks nothing and therefore can lose nothing.

Offering an alternative interpretation of the late eclipses of the sun and moon, Edmund finds his father's analysis to be "the excellent foppery of the world" (115), an "admirable evasion" (123). Although the master of indirect discourse, Edmund sees the potentially foolish and misleading consequences of such language: his position closely resembles Lear's. Quite unexpectedly, Edgar suddenly appears "like the catastrophe of the old comedy" (130), Edmund says. The master of improvisation, Edmund simply works him directly into his plans, setting up the encounter for the next act. Edmund tells Edgar that he reads an interpretation of the eclipses: "I promise you, the effects he writes of succeed unhappily" (139-40): Edmund the interpreter of discourse. But he quickly shifts direction by asking his brother: "... when saw you my father last?" (147); and he hints darkly of some offense that Edgar has presumably given Gloucester. Edmund tells Edgar: "I have told you what I have seen and heard; but faintly, nothing like the image and horror of it" (168-69). Language fails to offer a complete representation: the conflict between direct experience and mediated discourse. Having to rely on report becomes an increasingly important issue, especially in the Gloucester story. Edmund sends the credulous Edgar on his way as he continues to "fashion fit" (177)--a self fashioning that rests largely on indirection. Such had been the duplicitous and incriminating letter that contains nothing of Edmund, nor of Edgar for that matter. It manifests handwriting that looks like Edgar's; but in fact it is all false, nothing, dead, but deadly.

But something comes out of this nothing. In act 2, scene 1, Edmund brings together separately his brother and his father. Edmund, the forger of letters, has a keen sense of textuality in his life. Learning that the Duke of Cornwall will be arriving at his father's castle, Edmund says: "This weaves itself perforce into my business" (2.1.15). If we recall that text means a woven object, we can grasp the idea of a text that Edmund constructs. Obviously he also has a well-developed theatrical sense. During Edgar's brief appearance, Edmund asks him: "Have you nothing said / Upon his [Cornwall's] party 'gainst the Duke of Albany?" (25-26). And Edgar answers in his only line in the scene: "I am sure on't, not a word" (28). He has said nothing. Edmund urges him to flee and then cuts his own arm so that he can pretend to his father that Edgar has wounded him. He fabricates an elaborate fiction of the encounter with Edgar, one that Gloucester immediately accepts--as always the vulnerable victim to report, hearsay, and indirect discourse. Gloucester determines to track Edgar down: "By his [Cornwall's] authority I will proclaim it / That he which finds him shall deserve our thanks ..." (60-61). Unlike Lear, Gloucester cannot assert in his own authority; he defers to the language of power possessed by those with higher political authority.

Edmund's elaborate report to his father includes eleven lines of alleged direct quotation from Edgar, who, we recall, has actually spoken only eight words. Forged conversation now joins the earlier forged letter: false theater and false book. Irony pervades this moment because in fact the presumed language of Edgar actually incriminates and indicts Edmund. Gloucester's concept of language, which accepts mediated discourse, makes this work. Edgar allegedly has asserted that if he had opposed Edmund, nothing could make Edmund's "words faithed" (70)--that is, give them credence. The "faithing" of words precisely says what this is all about. Edgar has also presumably said that should Edmund "produce / My very character" (72), he would deny everything, "turn it all / To thy suggestion, plot, and damned practice" (72-73)--an exact description of what Edmund has done. Gloucester does not understand that Edmund cannot in fact produce Edgar's "character." He may succeed for the moment in duplicating handwriting, but he cannot provide their father with Edgar's true personality. At best Edmund can offer a distorted representation of Edgar. Gloucester responds: "O strange and fast'ned villain! / Would he deny his letter, said he?" (77-78). In Gloucester's mind Edgar cannot possibly deny the letter (his "very character"), for he himself has read it and has now confirmed its contents by this ocular and auricular test--the "proofs" accumulate. We know that if Gloucester and Edgar could engage in direct discourse, all problems would evaporate. Instead, the play breaks their bond and will not bring them together until Edgar has taken on the guise of Tom o' Bedlam, often speaking nonsense, and Gloucester has lost his sight. The deadly letter has produced a death in relationships, which hover on the brink of tragedy.

But that is not the end of Gloucester's experiences with letters. Act 3 focuses for Gloucester on the letter that he receives presumably from Cordelia. Had Bradley wanted to, he might have discussed this "improbability." We learn at the beginning of act 3, scene 3, that the Duke of Cornwall has in effect expelled Gloucester from his own house; and Gloucester tells Edmund: "Go to; say you nothing" (3.3.7). He explains a strange and threatening event: "I have received a letter this night--'tis dangerous to be spoken--I have locked the letter in my closet. These injuries the King now bears will be revenged home ..." (9-11).(12) But as Edmund has demonstrated earlier, letters locked in closets need not remain there; privacy will not be honored. This letter, arriving mysteriously in the dead of the night, carries words of potential hope for Lear; but the consequences of the letter spell doom for Gloucester. Once Gloucester exits, Edmund asserts that he will instantly let the Duke know of the letter.

This he does in act 3, scene 5, bringing with him the letter taken from his father's closet. Edmund tells Cornwall: "If the matter of this paper be certain, you have mighty business in hand" (3.5.14-15). Like his father, Edmund adopts the stance of one worried about the indirect discourse of letters, implying that it will need to be tested. Cornwall suggests that whether the letter be true or false, it has in effect made Edmund the new Earl of Gloucester. He tells Edmund: "Seek out where thy father is, that he may be ready for our apprehension" (17-18). "Apprehension" carries multiple meanings: "capture," "fear," and "understanding." This understanding will grow out of an examination and determination of the veracity of the letter. Cornwall, like Gloucester, remains slightly suspicious of such mediated discourse. Edmund in an aside adds: "If I find him comforting the King, it will stuff his suspicion more fully" (19-20). Stuffing suspicion has been Edmund's strategy throughout, playing off the uncertainty of indirect discourse.

Act 3, scene 7, makes Gloucester's apprehension complete. Cornwall reports that the army of France has landed--Cordelia's response to her father's plight--and orders the capture of Gloucester, who is brought in shortly. Regan and Goneril have typically brief and malicious suggestions: "Hang him instantly" and "Pluck out his eyes" (4-5). Edmund's departure from the scene of his father's torture has always puzzled and slightly amused me. Has the hard-hearted Edmund suddenly gone squeamish? Cornwall says: "Edmund, keep you our sister company. The revenges we are bound to take upon your traitorous father are not fit for your beholding" (6-8). Several explanations seem plausible. First, Edmund's continuing appearance in this scene would doubtless prove most distracting to any theater audience: we would probably be as fascinated with his reaction to events as with his father's suffering. Because Edmund does not arrange the torture or explicitly set up this scene as a theatrical event, he may seem a bit irrelevant. This scene does not unfold by his book or theatrical plan. Finally, indirect discourse takes a beating here: all is harsh, immediate, direct. Edmund's skillful exploitation of mediated discourse with his father has now reached its fruition. Bacon observes that "In all negotiations of difficulty, a man may not look, to sow and reap at once ..." (p. 147). Edmund has sown the seeds of distrust and indirection; others will reap with the cruel blinding of Gloucester.

The torture of Gloucester begins; it hinges on Cornwall's question: "Come, sir, what letters had you late from France?" (41). Gloucester equivocates: "I have a letter guessingly set down, / Which came from one that's of a neutral heart ..." (47-48). One would be hard pressed to find a scene more inherently cruel in all of Shakespeare, as Cornwall plucks out first one eye and then the other of Gloucester. Blinded, Gloucester cries out for Edmund. But Regan with some glee opens his mind to apprehension: "Thou call'st on him that hates thee. It was he / That made the overture of thy treasons to us ..." (88-89). And Gloucester sighs in one of those tragic moments of recognition: "O my follies!" (91). Everything that he has believed since the second scene of the play has come crashing down on and around him. Deadly letters have tripped him up: the forged one of Edgar and the one sent from France that he thought safely hidden in his closet. The structure of discourse in which he has placed his faith has proven false. The power of language opens the possibility to deception, and indirect discourse remains problematical. What does he have left? Nothing. Regan says: "Go thrust him out at gates, and let him smell / His way to Dover" (92-93). No longer will he be able to read letters; they have become irrelevant. Like Lear, who at the end of act 2 heard the doors shut and lock behind him as he went into the darkness of the storm, so Gloucester at the end of act 3 finds himself thrust into a special, unrelieved darkness, smelling his way to Dover.

Shakespeare constructs a bridge between the Lear and Gloucester stories in part through the letters that Regan and Goneril write not only to each other but also to Edmund, whose sexual favor each seeks. Edmund, the writer and discoverer of letters, now finds himself to be the subject of love letters. Their existence helps finally to condemn Regan and Goneril. Goneril in act 4, scene 2, receives a letter from her sister and proposes to send a response to be carried by the messenger. But Regan's question in act 4, scene 5, raises another possibility, as she asks Oswald: "What might import my sister's letter to him?" (4.5.6). She implies that Oswald carries a letter from Goneril to Edmund, a point confirmed by Oswald. Regan also puts her finger precisely on the question of why anyone should write: "Why should she write to Edmund? Might not you / Transport her purposes by word?" (19-20). That is, why this indirect discourse? Regan becomes not only suspicious of Goneril's intentions toward Edmund but also of letter writing itself: why not speak in direct discourse? Despite Oswald's protestations, Regan apparently unseals the letter and reads it. In this she resembles Edmund who does not respect the privacy of letters. She makes clear to Oswald that she is much better suited to Edmund than her sister if for no other reason than that she is now a widow. Although the text is not altogether clear, it seems probable that Regan, too, writes a letter to Edmund. She does say to Oswald: "Therefore I do advise you take this note: / ... If you do find him, pray you give him this ..." (29, 30). Some editors have gone to needless trouble to try to explain this away. Why shouldn't Regan also send a competing letter? Her failure simply to destroy Goneril's letter may be more improbable. In any event, for one who first questioned the efficacy of letter writing, she has quickly gone over to the other side and joined the epistolary battle.

A battle of another sort concludes the long and important act 4, scene 6, as Edgar kills Oswald who has attempted to kill Gloucester. Oswald makes a final dying request: "And give the letters which thou find'st about me / To Edmund Earl of Gloucester" (4.6.244-45). Edgar thinks that the letters may be his friends; and, finding the letters, he says: "Leave, gentle wax and manners: blame us not / To know our enemies' minds" (255-56). Unlike Edmund or Regan, Edgar understands the sanctity of letters but here sets aside that principle for a greater cause. He reads aloud the letter from Goneril, a fascinating document of indirection, which begins: "Let our reciprocal vows be remembered. You have many opportunities to cut him off" (258-89). Reading between the lines of this discourse, Edgar interprets correctly that Goneril plots the murder of her husband so that she might be fully available to Edmund. Edgar buries Oswald but not the letter; instead, he will in the "mature time / With this ungracious paper strike the sight" of Albany (270-71)--suggesting a possible talismanic power of the letter. If I am correct that Regan has also written anamorous letter, what has happened to it? (Oswald after all does refer to letters.) Edgar says nothing about it: a dead letter for certain. And yet, ironically, how appropriate that the sister who initially distrusts the indirection of letters should have hers misplaced. In the swirling mass of letters in this play surely one or two will end up in the dead letter section: such is the likely fate of some indirect discourse. This absnece joins others in the play to add to the drama's mysteries. Direct discourse, on the other hand, can never be lost.

At the opening of act 5, scene 1, Regan has a chance for direct conversation with Edmund, observing first that something must have happened to Oswald: "Our sister's man is certainly miscarried" (5.1.5). Part of the evidence must be that Edmund has apparently received no letters. So, instead, Regan asks directly: "Do you not love my sister?" (9); and she fears that Edmund and Goneril have had sexual relations. Regan instructs Edmund: "Be not familiar with her" (16). The sudden arrival of Albany, Goneril, and soldiers breaks off the conversation. As the group departs, Edgar appears to Albany and gives him Goneril's letter, which Albany would instantly read in Edgar's presence; but he insists: "I was forbid it" (48). Shakespeare defers for the moment the full effect of the letter on Albany as Edgar constructs his own fiction about presumed instructions.

Two letters discharge their energies in the play's final scene: the one written by Edmund that orders the execution of Lear and Cordelia and Goneril's letter with which Albany confronts her. When Goneril equivocates about the letter, Albany becomes increasingly direct: "Shut your mouth, dame, / Or with this paper shall I stop it" (5.3.156-67). He asks: "Know'st thou this paper?"; and she responds: "Ask me not what I know" (161). She might have answered her husband as she did earlier when he insisted that she was not "worth the dust which the rude wind" blows in her face: "No more; the text is foolish" (4.2.37). The foolishness of her text, her letter, now offers tangible proof of her evil intent. She thus exits to her suicide, having been trapped by her own discourse. This encounter between husband and wife marks quite a change from the older play King Leir where Leir himself confronts Ragan in that play with the letter that she has written ordering his murder. Leir asks her: "Knowest thou these letters?" (p. 401); she snatches and tears them and says: "Think you to outface me with your paltry scrowles?" In Shakespeare's version such letters carry their major impact in the Gloucester plot; Lear has no final confrontation with his daughters Regan and Goneril. The dying Edmund says: "... my writ / Is on the life of Lear and Cordelia" (5.3.246-47). Could not Shakespeare say the same, for he has changed the inherited story to lead to the tragedy that he has written? Edmund's letter has condemned Lear and Cordelia to death; so has Shakespeare's play.

On 26 December 1606, King Lear was performed before King James I at court in the first recorded production of the play. It would be fascinating but impossible to know what this king thought of the play; he himself had three surviving children, although none was obviously guilty of the ingratitude that Lear and Gloucester experience. Concerns for family issues and political matters flow with considerable intensity through the life of the Stuart royal family.(13) Like Lear, James had to be concerned about succession. Certainly in 1606 that problem seemed thoroughly resolved because of the three royal children. I have argued that jealousy and neglect simultaneously characterize much of King James's reaction to his family, especially to the children. Like Gloucester, James experienced the problems of indirect discourse; like Edmund, he also understood the potential advantages of such discourse.

If King James paid any attention to the letters that appear significantly in Lear, he would have readily understood the necessity of letter writing as a practical means of carrying on some parts of diplomacy and government. He also would have recognized how important letters may be in personal relationships. Fortunately, many of James's letters survive, leading us to understand that he was himself a masterful writer of letters. He knew, as Jonathan Goldberg explains, that the "letter is the space of a beseeming seeming, the simulations of a rhetorical culture that writes all forms of behavior."(14) And James clearly perceived the problematic nature inherent in such indirect discourse, especially manifest in his relationship with two women who figure crucially in his life: his mother Mary Queen of Scots and his cousin Queen Elizabeth. Like Gloucester, King James depended wholly on mediated discourse--report, hearsay, and letters--in order to understand these important women.

By the time that James was a year old in 1567, his mother had been forced to abdicate the Scottish throne and into exile in England. There she languished until her execution in 1587. Therefore, James had no conscious awareness of his mother. Everything that he knew about her he learned through indirect discourse. Their letters ebb and flow with moments of affection and then moments of fitful pique. Just a few weeks before her execution, Mary wrote that her son was a liar and a double dealer; and James wrote to Elizabeth, insisting that he had been steadfast in his attempts to prevent his mother's death. Clearly here and elsewhere these writers shaped their intentions "to suit the situation of writing" (Goldberg, p. 252). Elizabeth herself had signed a writ on the life of Mary.

When James wrote William Keith in November 1586, he used an image that captures much of the essence of his relationship to Elizabeth: "And would God she might see the inward parts of my heart where she should see a great jewel of honesty toward her locked up in a coffer of perplexity, she only having the key by which her good behaviour in this case may open the same."(15) James has put his finger on the central question of interpretation as he and Elizabeth each tried to fathom the other. In his "Chinese box" metaphor, one has to penetrate the heart, then find the "jewel of honesty," only to discover that it is "locked up in a coffer of perplexity." Presumably Elizabeth possessed the key, but that remains doubtful. James raised to a high art the posture of inscrutability; it exists as a means of defining his power. While James ostensibly invites Elizabeth's presence, he doubtless takes comfort in her absence. Letters confirm such an absent presence, as they do also for Edmund in Lear; indeed, such a rhetorical and social arrangement suits the letter writers' purposes. The indirect discourse of such letters, the foundation of James's relationship to Elizabeth, invites problems of interpretation, those coffers of perplexity in which one tries to come between teh sentence and the power of the sovereign.

Kings and writers alike understand the necessity of mediated discourse. Shakespeare holds in solution in King Lear the opposing discourse of Lear and Gloucester. By the end, Gloucester has been, as Burckhardt observes, delivered over entirely to report as he becomes wholly dependent on the disguised Edgar as his means of knowing what is happening. Lear has come to recognize that where the possibility of the lie does not exist, truth cannot exist either; he discovers the gap between his sentence and his power. The powerless Lear asks a most direct question in the closing moments as he holds the lifeless Cordelia in his arms: "Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life, / And thou no breath at all?" (5.3.307-8). This simple, yet powerful, monosyllabic sentence remains unanswered and unanswerable in the play. Lear, given over wholly to direct discourse stripped of style, can only hold Cordelia. His words contain an implied truth but not the truth. "We face the ending of this play," Maynard Mack has observed, "as we face our world, with whatever support we customarily derive from systems of belief or unbelief.... Tragedy never tells us what to think; it shows us what we are and may be."(16)

Shakespeare has sent us a letter: his mediated discourse of this play brings us nevertheless face to face with a direct awareness of suffering and leaves us struggling to answer some of life's hardest and harshest questions. Like Cordelia, we may simly utter "nothing" because language itself often remains inadequate to convey our feelings. The rest is silence.

The University of Kansas


(1)Letters of King James VI and I, ed. G. P. V. Akrigg (U. of California Press, 1984), p. 71.

(2)Egeria: Diary of a Pilgrimage, trans. George E. Gingras (New York: Newman Press, 1970), p. 76. Scholars now of course discredit the authenticity of this letter. I thank Richard Hardin for calling my attention to Egeria.

(3)Sir Francis Bacon, The Essayes or Counsels, Civill and Morall, ed. Michael Kiernan (Harvard U. Press, 1985), p. 145. I have slightly modernized the text.

(4)Mark Taylor, "Letters and Readers in Macbeth, King Lear, and Twelfth Night," PQ 69 (1990): 33.

(5)King Lear, ed. Alfred Harbage (Baltimore: Penguin, 1970). All quotations will be from this edition.

(6)A. C. Bradley, Shakespearean Tragedy (London: Macmillan, 1904), p. 207.

(7)Sigurd Burckhardt, "King Lear and the Quality of Nothing," in Essays in Stylistic Analysis, ed. Howard S. Babb (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1972). Originally published in The Minnesota Review 2 (1961): 33-50.

(8)The True Chronicle Historie of King Leir in Geoffrey Bullough, Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1973), 7:372. All quotations will be from this edition.

(9)See Coppelia Kahn, "The Absent Mother in King Lear," in Rewriting the Renaissance: The Discourses of Sexual Difference in Early Modern Europe, ed. Margaret Ferguson, Maureen Quilligan, and Nancy J. Vickers (U. of Chicago Press, 1986), pp. 33-49.

(10)For a superb exploration of these tropes see Robert S. Knapp's Shakespeare -- The Theater and the Book (Princeton U. Press, 1989). Frances Teague has explored how Edmund's dealings with his father owe much to Shakespeare's own theatricality: "Omitted in the sources, the false letters, the window of the closet, the betrayal of one man by another close to him are all elements of the stage motif found in Julius Caesar" (p. 92). See her article: "Letters and Portents in Julius Caesar and King Lear," Shakespeare Yearbook 3 (1992): 87-104.

(11)Stephen Greenblatt, Renaissance Self-Fashioning (U. of Chicago Press, 1980), p. 215.

(12)Mark Taylor argues that we are to hear in the name Gloucester the word "glossator," thereby signifying his important role as an interpreter in this play (see p. 141). I think that this unduly strains the argument. After all the name Gloucester is only a title. One would have to look at other Gloucesters in Shakespeare's work to see if they, too, function as interpreters.

(13)David M. Bergeron, Royal Family, Royal Lovers: King James of England and Scotland (U. of Missouri Press, 1991).

(14)Jonathan Goldberg, Writing Matter: From the Hands of the English Renaissance (Stanford U. Press, 1990), p. 253.

(15)Quoted in Bergeron, Royal Family, Royal Lovers, p. 47.

(16)Maynard Mack, King Lear in Our Time (U. of California Press, 1972), pp. 116, 117.
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Author:Bergeron, David M.
Publication:Philological Quarterly
Date:Mar 22, 1993
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