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Irrepressible Britain and King Lear.

We don't usually think of local political issues as raising ontological uncertainty, that is, uncertainty about what exists--about what is "real." Yet a question that persisted throughout the Jacobean Union issue, namely King James VI and I's ambitious but unsuccessful attempt to unite Scotland and England from roughly 1603-8, was a question about the real--whether what exists is Scotland and England or "Britain." This aspect of the Union issue has not gone unremarked. In an essay on the Union issue, Conrad Russell observes: "it has been borne in upon me while I have been preparing this essay that the crucial ambiguity over whether James ruled over one body or two pervades the whole of the official literature of the subject." (1) My essay will suggest that attention to such ambiguity during the Union issue over what existed, whether one body or two, may afford insight into how King Lear, in particular the Quarto version of the play, which we know was performed during the Union issue on 26 December 1606, may be seen as intervening in that issue. (2)

In this essay, I seek to build on a view of the play--in the words of Willy Maley--as a "British play." (3) Maley observes the scholarly consensus that the play is deeply but indeterminately entangled with the Union issue as going hand in hand with a view of it as British; according to Maley, "Everyone now agrees Lear is a British play, but not whether it is pro- or anti-union or pro-or anti-James, which is where the drama lies." (4) My essay proposes that this view of King Lear as a "British play" is, however, itself a basis for observing an intervention by the play into the Union issue. The essay suggests that the very irrepressibility of Britain in the play stands in sharp contrast with the play's "nothings," most importantly, with the play's most famous "nothing"--Lear's kingship in name alone. This contrast would probably have been striking to a Jacobean audience; in the context of the Union issue, the status of Britain and James's proclaimed British kingship were entwined. This essay queries the meaning of King Lear powerfully dramatizing the question of what, if anything, is Lear's British kingship unsupported by matter, yet at the same time distancing its equally powerful dramatization of Britain as a social, political, and geographical community from such inquiry.

The essay will have two parts. The first part seeks to show the deep philosophical stakes of the Union issue, that is, its concern with what is the real. The Union issue was highly contentious, especially in the English House of Commons where it was effectively defeated in 1607. (5) Historians have identified numerous reasons why English MPs so strongly resisted the Union, including bias against the Scots, fear that the Scots would take English offices and resources, and anxiety that the Union constituted an attack on English sovereignty and on the power of the English Parliament as an institution. (6) But, as Russell's observation points toward, these fears and concerns were underpinned by ontological, as well as epistemological, ambiguity. Had Britain been fundamentally and providentially formed as of James's English accession, as James and numerous of his supporters alleged? If so, what was it?

The second part of the essay aims to show that King Lear may be seen as entering the philosophical fray--not, to be clear, as either pro- or anti-Union--but rather by subtly insisting on an account of Britain as undeniable and abiding and, moreover, distinct from the name and person of the king. The play raises the Union issue's core philosophical quandary about what is, but focuses its representation of that quandary on the king, in particular on the king's name absent material support. The play's depiction of Lear raises the highly topical question--what is the name "king" lacking material support--and encourages reflection on disparate answers; it may be something mystical and weighty or nothing at all. Yet the play's attention to such uncertainty does not extend to its representation of Britain. To the contrary, Britain, whether conceived as a whole or as shifting, jostling, interdependent parts, emerges again and again in the play as a basis for understanding geographical, social, and political community. My proposal is that King Lear imaginatively wrests Britain from the wrangling over its alleged providential formation that had come to envelop it in the English Commons. It shows Britain instead as a deep-rooted, on-the-ground interdependence that, far from needing to be alleged as extant, functions instead as what across time cannot be denied.

One Body or Two

The question of what existed--whether England and Scotland or "Britain"--was generated by James's contention that England and Scotland had been providentially united upon his 1603 English accession. In making this contention, James was not making an outlandish claim that the two kingdoms had been instantly legally or institutionally united. He may better be seen as forwarding a potentially risky but also potentially savvy theoretical distinction between the Union's providential formation and its process of perfection, so that the former would be uncontestable while the latter could be pragmatically negotiated. Specifically, about two months after his English accession, James issued a proclamation "for the uniting of England and Scotland," in which he advanced such a distinction. After first proclaiming that upon his accession God had summarily removed the "difference of the Borders, English and Scottish," James further proclaimed:
his Highnes will with all convenient diligence with the advice of the
Estates and Parliament of both the Kingdomes make the same to be
perfited. And in the meane time till the sayd Union be established with
the due solemnitie aforesayd, his Majestie doth hereby repute, hold,
and esteeme, and commands all his Highnes Subjects to repute, hold, and
esteeme both the two Realmes as presently united, and as one Realme and
Kingdome, and the Subjects of both the Realmes as one people, brethren
and members of one body. (7)

James here called on his subjects to regard the Union as formed throughout what he cast as an inclusive perfection process, involving the estates and both parliaments. He thus envisioned a temporal gap between the Union's formation and its material and institutional realization; on his account, the Union has been formed and his subjects are obliged to frame their minds accordingly, yet he recognized that its perfection will require time and the counsel and participation of the key political actors of both Scotland and England. The language above makes clear that James was not seeking any hasty or unilateral unification of legal or economic structures; rather the language suggests that James's distinction was more a gamble on the power of ideas, namely, on the power of the idea that the Union had providentially been formed to generate a mentality within which its material forms could gradually be negotiated and realized.

James consistently advanced a like distinction over the course of the Union issue, though he used a range of imagery to express it. For example, in his opening speech to the 1606-7 English parliamentary session, James chided the MPs for not properly conceptualizing the Union: "there is no Necessity to make an Union, for it is already made; but to knit and bind it, that it do not break into Flaws and into Cracks, as a Contract is necessary unto Marriage." (8) On James's account, the work of the MPs is not to consider whether there should be Union but to "knit and bind it." It is like the contract that accompanies a marriage, which was, for practical purposes, especially legal and economic ones, highly significant, while at the same time not touching the essence of the matter. Likewise, in a speech later in the 1606-7 session, James told the English Parliament not to be adversarial in its negotiations with Scottish counterparts: "this is no new Contract or Bargain, that requires precise Conditions, Res non est entegra. The Union and Bargain is already made; nothing now to be thought on, or dealt in, but the Means." (9)

Per Russell's observation, the controversy over the Union was shot through with disparate views on whether the Union should be understood as formed or not--whether there was one body or two. For instance, on the one hand, a "Declaration of the Lords" read before the English Commons in 1604, urging the recognition of James as king of Britain, included the following description of the Union:
The Thing not new, but made long since; brought to pass by this King,
which no Wit, no Policy, no Art of Man could ever bring to pass.
There was great Offence by the distinct Names:--That being heretofore
Two in Name, they might both now be stiled by the Name of Great
Britain. (10)

The Declaration figures the Union (the "Thing") as beyond the realm of human action, with James having providentially brought to pass what no "Art of Man could ever bring to pass." (11) This "Thing," having been brought to pass, must therefore be named. (12) On the other hand, to give just one example, the anti-Union English MP Thomas Wentworth pointedly observed: "They acknowledge no Crown, no King, no Sovereignty, but that of Scotland; we none, but that of England.... Not Rex Angliae et Scotiae; but, Rex Angliae, et Rex Scotiae:--Reges." (13) For Wentworth there were, decidedly, two bodies with two kingships.

The question of whether there was one body or two was also the subject of explicit debate. During the controversy in the 1604 English parliamentary session over whether to adopt the name "Britain," the following exchange is recorded between Francis Bacon, who represented James's interests in the English Commons, and Sir Edwin Sandys, who spearheaded opposition to the Union in the English Commons. Sandys makes the objections and reply, and Bacon gives the answer:
Object. 2. Shall we christen a Child, before it be born?
Answ. The Child is born, it wants but cradling and swadling:--In
Sovereignty and Allegiance it is born.
Reply. We may give a Name before the Child be born, but not a Name of a
Male or Female...
Ob. 4. Either the Union will succeed, or not succeed; if not, then the
Name is a Shadow. (14)

On Bacon's account, the Union is like a newborn that needs now only to be nurtured. Echoing James, the analogy figures the work of the MPs not as deciding whether there should be a Union, but as supporting and developing it. By contrast, on Sandys's account, the Union has not been born, and, therefore, should not be named. Implicitly dismissing James's view of the Union as providentially formed, Sandys raises the impropriety of christening the unborn; such a name will be a "shadow" in the event birth never happens. This question of whether the Union had been formed or not tended to dominate the English Commons's consideration of the Union: much of the energy of the discussion about the Union in the 1604 English parliamentary session focused on whether to acknowledge the name "Britain"; much of the energy of the discussion about ratification of the "Instrument of Union" in the 1606-7 session focused on whether the Scottish post nati were naturalized in England (even though the "Instrument" also provided for a commercial union and the abolishment of hostile laws). (15) Both discussions were keyed to what existed--whether one body or two.

As the Union issue progressed and the strength of the resistance to the Union, especially in the English Commons, became apparent, James's own rhetoric on the Union registered the conflict over whether the Union was held to have been formed or not. Following the 1604 English parliamentary session's refusal to adopt the name "Britain," James gave a passionately worded response: "I avowe the name of Britany: else were I a rebell and a traytor to God and nature. These two kingdoms are so conjoyned, that if we should sleepe in our beds the Union would be, though we would not." (16) James insists on the Union's formation as irrefutable, but his insistence also emphasizes the philosophical tension within the Union issue over what exists. He contends that "Britain" is more real than his and the MPs' lives. Yet his assertion that "Britain" is more real even than what lives implicitly acknowledges that what is real (on his account) is not necessarily what seems to be real.

The Union archive registers anxiety on both sides of the Union issue about what dangers and vulnerabilities could follow from ambiguity over what is held to be real. Some Union opponents were reported as being apprehensive over whether the name "Union" could conjure, or itself come to be, a threatening presence/non-presence. An anonymous anti-Union English MP reported that the 1604 English parliamentary session deliberately, and with "chaste abstinence," excluded the "word and Title of Union" from the English Act authorizing the Union Commissioners to convene because of "what dangers might be (as in a cloud or miste) wrapt up and involved under that Title." (17) "Cloud or mist," and even the use of the word "wrapt," implies that "Union" is not just a threat but an uncertain, disorienting, or enveloping one. Sir Thomas Wilson (a servant of Cecil) described a 1607 English Commons committee's resistance to using the word "Union": "It seemed they thought the word 'Union' a spirit, for they shunned the very shadow and the name of it." (18) As with Sandys's warning discussed earlier, this idea of the name as a "shadow" associates the Union's dangers with uncertainty--with a kind of dark liminality. In these accounts, the name "Union" is a mist, a spirit, a cloud, a shadow.

If some Union opponents expressed concerned over what they held to be nothing becoming something, some Union supporters expressed concern that James's alleged something might be deemed nothing. One of James's advisors raised concern about James's taking the name "king of Britain," should Britain never be realized. On the heels of the 1604 English parliamentary session's refusal to acknowledge the name "Britain," James issued a proclamation naming himself "KING OF GREAT BRITTAINE, FRANCE, AND IRELAND." (19) Before he did this, though, an advisor, probably Dudley Carleton, warned: "better it were to attend with patience to have the matter preced the name then in all hast to make sure the name, and have no matter follow." (20) The advisor cautions James against effectively casting himself as king of nothing. Specifically, he suggests that the name "king of Britain" would be king of "no matter" and, moreover, that such matter may never achieved. The twin danger of James's British title being perceived as empty and also of never achieving material support may be glimpsed in an enigmatic entry in the parliamentary diary of Robert Bowyer. Bowyer records that at the start of the 1606-7 English parliamentary session one of James's supporters, Sir William Morrice, reintroduced the matter of James's name by proposing a bill recognizing James as "Emperour of Great Britainne," which would affirm James's proclamation. Morrices' proposal reportedly:
moved Laughter in the House; To which mirth, Silence for halfe an hower
succeeded: And so the House arose... Note, That all this day, the
Instrument of Union, lay on the Deske before the Clarke, but not moved
by any man to be reade, or dealt with all. (21)

Here the name--in this case "Emperour"--seems literally to be a joke. The strength and breadth of resistance in the English Commons to the Union at this time is, furthermore, evident in the description of the "Instrument" lying ignored and unread. But the most opaque aspect of the entry--the reported half hour of silence that followed the laughter--perhaps reflects the Janus-faced nature of the name king (or emperor) of Britain; it is at once empty and weighty, laughable and silencing.

Uncertain King; Irrepressible Britain

It has often been observed that King Lear is interested in the idea of a king of "no matter"--in the idea of the name king lacking material support, (22) as Lear divests himself of power ("sway, revenue, execution") and keeps only the "name and all the additions to a king" (1.1.123-25). (23) Despite the significant critical attention paid to the play in relation to the Union issue, the relevance of the play's interest in the idea of king of nothing to the Union issue has, however, been underexplored. An important exception is Richard Halpern, who argues that what he sees as Lear's "failed wager," specifically Lear's splitting of the signs of kingly authority from their material base, "is also the wager of Stuart absolutism." (24) For Halpern, Lear's "failed wager" corresponds with James's conflicts with the English Parliament, including with respect to a split between James's "royal proclamation announcing the union of the kingdom and the failure to get it ratified," and, more broadly, a split between James's idea of "unencumbered royal authority" and his dependence, especially fiscally, on the English Parliament. (25) I too see likeness between the two kings in their reliance on signs of kingly authority unsupported by a material base. The claim I want to make here is, however, the limited one that the play's depiction of the name king absent material support would likely have been understood by a Jacobean audience to be in dialogue with James's contemporaneous proclaimed British kingship with, as his advisor put it, "no matter" to support it.

There is likeness between the two king's predicaments, notwithstanding Lear's association with division and James's with union. Following the events of the first scene, King Lear depicts a king of Britain in name alone who occupies a political landscape of two conflicting kingdoms, a situation not unlike James's at the time of the play's 1606 performance. Recognizing this likeness offers a counterpoint to the conventional but still influential reading of the play as complimenting James by contrast (whereby Lear is the divider and James the uniter) by allowing greater account to be taken of the complexity of the Union issue in the moment. That is, the conventional view tends to assume that James's Union project would have been apprehended in terms of James's ultimate goal, the Union itself, and not in terms of the space that James himself posited between the Union's alleged providential formation and its perfection. James did not of course seek to create this context of two kingdoms standing in somewhat uncertain relation to one another with the name of the king also uncertain in terms of how it represented (or failed to represent) the whole. At the same time, Lear's similar predicament should not be seen as offering a flattering contrast.

Yet Lear's likeness to James is not simply a mirroring likeness. It emphasizes the name's lack of material support over its association with "Britain." The remainder of this essay will explore the effects of the play distancing its inquiry into the question of what is the name king from its representation of Britain as a social, political, and geographical community. But before doing so, I want briefly to point toward another effect of this distancing, namely that the play poses the hot topical question of what is the name king unsupported by matter as a large abstract one concerned with the nature and power of kingship. The play may thereby be seen as making it very difficult for a Jacobean audience to view the controversy over James's proclaimed British kingship as not having implications for how kingship was understood. The play encourages serious consideration of disparate and competing answers. The play's depiction of Lear's post-division kingship could read as cautionary--akin to James's advisor's warning against becoming a king of "no matter." It dramatizes the emptiness of the name king without material support and the vulnerabilities that may flow from opening a gap between status and material power. Yet, as Annabel Patterson has observed, the play may be seen as making a royalist turn, (26) and any interpretation of how the play figures the name king, when standing on its own, would need to take account of the support that seems to grow around Lear as the play's action progresses. Various critics have, moreover, argued that Lear's separation of his name from material support need not be seen as disempowering. For example, Charles Spinosa has claimed that the separation activates a different kind of authority; Lear attempts to become a "culture figure" on the basis of nothing but trust. (27) Spinosa's argument is based on a specific reading of the play as engaging with an emergent legal fiction, the common law of use. (28) But his broader claim that Lear may be seen as relying on trust may pertain also to how James figured his kingship during the Union issue. As passionate as James's Union rhetoric became, he did not seek to force the Union. James theorized the Union as providentially formed, but, as evidenced by the proclamation discussed above, he located the strength of the idea in his subjects' mentality; the material support for the Union's perfection should follow from belief in it and in him as its agent. The play is not decidedly either pro- or anti-Union in how it shows Lear's kingship unsupported by material power. Yet it does show how such a kingship may put subjects in the position of considering, even determining, what is kingly authority.

The play's inquiry into the potential emptiness of the title "king of Britain" might, however, be expected to lead to inquiry into the potential emptiness of "Britain." But it does not. In the play, the vulnerability of a king of Britain whose name lacks material and institutional support does not require that "Britain" be nothing. Far from representing Britain as another one of its nothings, the play in various ways associates Britain with a deep structure of relations across the play's geography--as what is ever there beneath the surface of division. Recognizing this, I believe, opens the door for a fresh perspective on the significance of the play being a "British play."

The play's action of course famously moves from unity to division--from one kingdom to fractured parts, and Philip Schwyzer has argued that the play celebrates Britain's division into England, Scotland, and Wales as a "natural, inevitable, and irreversible historical process." (29) Yet, the play's closing return to Britain suggests cycle rather than devolution. The play begins and ends with like moments--fraught moments of inquiry into the future of Britain. The play's return to Britain, with once again the possibilities of divestment, power-sharing, and division, figures Britain less as what has been lost and more as a resilient understanding of what is the realm, however it may be divided. The play's opening and closing scenes generate a frame in which Britain is understood as the relevant whole.

The scholarship on the play has unsettled the assumption that the first scene necessarily vaunts unity over division by showing how the scene envisions more than one plan of division. Richard Strier has shown that Lear's initial plan to divide the kingdom among his three daughters appears well received by his court as a reasonable solution to his succession dilemma. (30) The first scene thus implies more than one potentially stable configuration of Britain; the seemingly stable united kingdom under Lear might have been replaced by a three-way division among his three daughters that was not necessarily ill-advised, and what is tragic about Lear's revised plan to divide the kingdom between Goneril and Regan is not the condition of division per se.

The play's end further disrupts a reading of the play as unfolding under a melancholy sign of lost unity by returning in act 5 to Britain and once again raising multiple possibilities for how Britain could be geographically and politically ordered. When Albany considers the future at end of act 5, he appears to be considering all of Britain, and there is a mirroring effect between his speech and Lear's in the first scene. Lear's voice echoes in Albany's announcement that he intends to transfer his powers back to Lear. Whereas Lear declared in act 1, "Know we have divided / In three our kingdom, and 'tis our first intent / To shake all cares and business of our state" (1.1.36-38), Albany now declares "know our intent. / What comfort to this decay may come / Shall be applied; for us, we will resign / During the life of this old majesty / To him our absolute power" (5.3.295-99). Just as the possibility of the three-way division in the first scene implies that the play is not necessarily anti-division, Albany's move to resign his power to Lear for Lear's lifetime implies that Lear's initial idea to delegate his power was not intrinsically a bad one.

Also mirroring the opening scene, the last scene envisions British unity followed once again by the prospect of multiple governance configurations. Albany declares his intention to transfer his powers back to Lear, but Lear dies. Albany then, again echoing Lear in his seeming keenness to divest himself of power, asks Edgar and Kent to rule jointly, but Kent refuses. (31) The play ends without resolution. Does Albany consider his offer to extend to rule by Edgar alone? Or does he consider Kent's refusal to have invalidated the offer? Here it may be fruitful to compare the Quarto with the Folio. In the Quarto, Edgar gives no reply and Albany responds with the last lines of the play. In the Folio, Edgar responds by speaking virtually the same last lines as Albany did in the Quarto. Whereas the Folio points toward a future with Edgar as ruler, the Quarto opens a series of possible outcomes, each raised and then receding, and ends without the series coming to a close. There seem at least two outcomes of which neither seems necessarily more likely than the other: Albany might, in speaking the final words, be reasserting himself as sovereign; or, Albany might do what he has already done twice after failing to cede power, namely raise yet another plan. We simply do not know if Edgar will have a part in ruling the kingdom, despite Albany's willingness to have him co-rule with Kent. The series moreover gestures toward a range of forms of government: return to rule by Lear is a return to monarchy; joint rule by Kent and Edgar gestures toward aristocracy; sole rule by Edgar may hint at a more representative rule, not because we hear the voice of the people but because Edgar has represented--and psychologically inhabited--so many stations--aristocrat, beggar, madman, serving man, peasant (some simultaneously)--that he may trope everyman. The Quarto's open-endedness almost requires its audience to reflect on a multiplicity of ways in which Britain might be configured and governed, including how and to what effect they may be inhabited by the play's various personalities. (32) Yet, for all these possibilities, each can only be understood and evaluated with respect to the whole of Britain.

The idea of Britain as still the relevant whole, even when in parts, may be glimpsed in the body of the play as well, in particular in moments in which division is revealed as a condition of interdependent entanglement. John Gillies has challenged a scholarly tendency to view the world of the "heath," a term that he observes is unmentioned in the play, as beyond the social and political. (33) Gillies describes this world below as the "counterpastoral underside of Lear's map," though he does not regard it as offering a competing "unproblematic image of the nation" because of its abjection. (34) For Gillies, this world below affords its needy inhabitants no perspective, no ability to behold. (35) My aim is to pursue Gillies's insight that the "underside of Lear's map" is social and political, yet also to show it as more politically vibrant and potentially efficacious than Gillies allows.

Whispers, rumors, reports, and letters filter into the play's action--with accompanying hints of a world of observers and interpreters beneath the action of the play's political elites. In a conversation about Regan and Cornwall decamping for Gloucester's house, the servant Curan asks Edmund:
You have heard of the news abroad? I mean, the whispered ones, for
there are yet but ear-bussing arguments.
Edmund. Not I. Pray you, what are they?
Curan. Have you heard of no likely wars towards 'twixt the two Dukes of
Cornwall and Albany?
Edmund. Not a word.
Curan. You may then in time.

Curan's report to Edmund implies a world beyond the play's immediate political action that is observing that action and arriving at a consensus about its likely course. Curan's evocative image of transmission via whispers that kiss the ear implies a clandestine discourse, a close and inquisitive give-and-take, yet his description of what is being transmitted as "arguments" about "likely wars" also suggests a discourse that is deliberative and assessing.

The rumors reported by Curan are prescient. They are the first we hear of division between the dukes (since the very opening lines). More strikingly, however, they are well ahead of the play's action, more knowing of events to come than the actors of these events. Neither before nor for sometime after the rumors is there any hint that either Albany or Cornwall intends to go to war with the other. In particular, Albany's tepidity--his cautious concern about the justice of Goneril's attack on Lear--belies any notion that he is covertly plotting against Cornwall. The disparity between the rumors and what we see of Albany's and Cornwall's intentions does not, however, work to discredit the rumors. To the contrary, in a later discussion about Lear's exiled location and about covert support for French intervention, Kent tells the Gentleman:
There is division,
Although as yet the face of it be covered
With mutual cunning, 'twixt Albany and Cornwall;
But true it is. From France there comes a power
Into this scattered kingdom, who already,
Wise in our negligence, have secret feet
In some of our best ports, and are at point
To show their open banner.

This repetition of the substance of the rumors by Kent, arguably the play's most reliable character, affirms their credibility and importance. Yet Kent's assertion of "mutual cunning," makes pressing the question of what is the basis for this ultimately credible political forecasting from below. (36) Albany is not depicted as cunning, nor is he moved to action against "Cornwall" until much later, not in fact until he hears the report of Cornwall's destruction of Gloucester's eyes, by which time Cornwall is dead. It is at this point that Albany abandons the tepidity that had seemed to define him: "Gloucester, I live / To thank thee for the love thou showed'st the king, / And to revenge thy eyes" (4.2.95-97). Other than Kent's observation of prior "mutual cunning," there seems no reason to doubt the passionate effect of the report of Gloucester's blinding on Albany or to see it as a pretext for moving against Cornwall's forces. The play thus seems to allow for the possibility of more than one way of interpreting the unfolding of events such that the observation of "mutual cunning" between the dukes may be acute political forecasting and simultaneously not undermine the particularity of Albany's intentionality. The world below the play's action seems to have purchase on the former and thus to offer grounds for interpreting events that are not based on or dependent on any special access to political elites.

There thus seems a world swirling around the play's action that is busy assessing events and generating a kind of common knowledge. Moreover, this covert discourse maintains a perspective that the play's political elites, beginning with Lear in the first scene, have abandoned, namely one concerned with the stability of the whole of Lear's former kingdom. The winds of rumor seem not to have internalized the lines of division drawn by Lear, but rather to be taking stock of them. If, as Gillies argues, there is an elite gaze objectifying the British landscape, (37) there seems also a gaze coming from the underside of Lear's divided map that objectifies the political relationships of the elites. Lear's vibrant imagining of his and Cordelia's prison life could perhaps be seen taking on this perspective. When Lear is captured, he proposes that he and Cordelia refuse to reenter the courtly world--even to berate Goneril and Regan--and instead to embrace their prison life. This moment is often interpreted as one of attempted retreat and withdrawal. (38) But the contrast Lear draws in this moment is not the political versus the apolitical--or activity versus exile. His vision of prison life is enmeshed in political discourse, and it values what can be divined from those who are socially "low." With some relish, Lear chooses the world with rogues and rumors, and he and Cordelia in the thick of them; he and Cordelia will listen to "poor rogues / Talk of court news, and we'll talk with them too" and "take upon's the mystery of things / As if we were God's spies; and we'll wear out / In a walled prison packs and sects of great ones / That ebb and flow by th' moon." (5.3.13-14; 5.3.16-19). Lear implies here that the perspective of the "poor rogue" can achieve a kind of knowledge, even pierce the mystery of political action--the "pacts and sects of great ones." Lear validates the impoverished but acute world that he has recently inhabited.

These hints of an evaluative community below the play's action seem further to allow for dynamism--the potential for whispered commentary to shift toward action. The closeness of Kent's words to Curan's earlier ones, almost as if Kent is building on what Curan reported, suggests connection between what they are reporting--the "ear-bussing arguments" and the "secret feet" in the ports. The "secret feet" are of course associated with Cordelia's invasion and thus with France, but Kent's hint of a pending shift from clandestine activity to the public raising of a banner which, if understood as a rallying point, is suggestive of local support. The possibility of movement toward action is also suggested by the excuse Gloucester gives Regan and Cornwall for the allegedly treasonous letter he received: "I have a letter guessingly set down, / Which came from one that's of a neutral heart, / And not from one opposed" (3.7.47-49). Gloucester attempts to extricate himself from treason by differentiating between neutral and opposed hearts. His defense implies that there is sufficient talk circulating about the state of the realm that it is possible to defend oneself on the grounds that one is simply reflecting upon it rather than seeking to intervene in it. In the post-division world, Lear's former kingdom is neither united nor uncomplicatedly divided; its parts are in conflict with each other and yet there is a perspective and moreover one grounded in the "underside of Lear's map" that still takes account of the parts in relation to an imagined whole.

The play's last act, however, introduces further complexity into what it means to conceive of Britain as the whole. If consideration of the whole of Lear's former realm had never vanished from the play, the view of "Britain" as the relevant political body returns in act 5 as the dominant perspective so readily it is almost as if Lear had not divided the kingdom. In act 5, Albany seamlessly shifts from leader of a part (Scotland) to leader of the British whole. A messenger tells Cordelia, who is leading her French forces into England, "The British powers are marching hitherward" (4.3b.21); and the dying Oswald identifies Edmund as of "the British party" (4.5.242). Albany's seemingly unproblematic appropriation of name "Britain" would seem to emblematize Britain's irrepressibility within the play and its availability ever to return to the fore.

A difficulty with this reading, however, is that if, as I have argued, there is a perspective that takes account of the whole of Britain in the form of rumors and reports, this perspective is not wholly aligned with Albany's. Kent associates the "secret feet" in the ports with the duke's "mutual cunning" and thus with their negligent rule, suggesting the former is a response to the latter. For Kent, Cordelia's French invasion is seemingly not against the interests of the realm. For Albany, by contrast, instead of the whole being threatened by internal instability, the whole is threatened by Cordelia's foreign invasion, which Albany sees as compromising what he, somewhat remarkably, acknowledges as an otherwise justified popular rebellion. (39) Albany explains his opposition to the rebellion:
For this I hear: the king is come to his daughter,
With others whom the rigor of our state
Forced to cry out. Where I could not be honest
I never yet was valiant. For this business,
It touches us as France invades our land,
Not bolds the king, with others whom, I fear
Most just and heavy causes make oppose

Albany's verbs emphasize the necessary and justified nature of Lear's and his supporters' resistance: the "just and heavy causes make oppose"; "the "rigor of our state / Forced' them to cry out. (40) Albany seems here to accept blame for Cornwall's rule as part of his own. "The rigor of our state" simultaneously elevates Albany to the position of sovereign and assumes responsibility for those bad acts that have given "just and heavy causes" for rebellion, which presumably include the blinding of Gloucester. For Albany, the British state is accountable for these "causes" as a whole, and, from this perspective, the play is not just a "British play" but a British tragedy.

Albany and Kent seem alike in taking account of Lear's former realm as a whole. Albany and Kent seem also alike in their implicit or explicit acknowledgment that rebellion against tyranny may be authorized. The difference is that Albany effectively adds the idea that no matter what the internal troubles, even if they are so great as to justify internal resistance, foreign intervention is intolerable. Albany conceives of "Britain" not just as the whole but also offers a consolidating account of its identity in relation to what is "other," namely France. The play's tragic outcome is thus a function of its Britishness; it flows from Albany's full and empathetic recognition of Lear's and Cordelia's "just and heavy causes" even as his view that they are implicated in foreignness makes him set himself against them. Far from "nothing," it is Britain and, in particular, its status as that which delineates what is foreign on which the play's tragic action turns. With Albany's ready shift from ruler of part to ruler of the whole and with it the return of Britain as the state, the play shows too how "Britain" can be drawn on by political elites and used to consolidate power. Yet, through its representation of Albany, the play suggests potential difference between an idea of a British common good and a unified British state whereby the former justifies what the latter cannot necessarily: active support for "just and heavy causes."

At a moment when the Union issue was at its height, yet its defeat in the English Commons was foreseeable, the play imaginatively rescues Britain as the deep structure of relations on the island, the relevant whole even when in parts. It moreover associates this Britain with the world below the court and shows how it might afford a perspective for evaluating political events and conceiving of a common good. The play's depiction of Britain as an enduring interdependence contrasts sharply with James's view of it as a formed but as yet immaterial "little World" (41) that had providentially come into being on his English accession--and that Union opponents sought to dismiss as effectively nothing. The play raises the possibility that the name king lacking material support may indeed be nothing, a possibility with implications for James's proclaimed British kingship--and for cultural and political understandings of kingship broadly cast. Yet, it also offers a conception of Britain that was not keyed to James's Union ambitions or susceptible to their impending defeat.


(1.) Conrad Russell, "1603: The End of English National Sovereignty," in The Accession of James I: Historical and Cultural Consequences, eds. Glenn Burgess, Rowland Wymer and Jason Lawrence (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006), 4. In this essay, Russell excavates what he sees as an unhealthy English obsession with unified statehood at the expense of more composite notions of sovereignty.

(2.) The title page of the published 1608 Quarto indicates that it was performed at court on 26 December 1606, which is the play's first known performance.

(3.) Willy Maley, "Critical Review: 'Great thing of us forgot'?: New British Angles on King Lear," in King Lear: A Critical Guide, eds. Andrew Hiscock and Lisa Hopkins (London: Continuum, 2011), 156.

(4.) Ibid., 156.

(5.) The 1606-7 English Commons refused to ratify the "Instrument of Union" notwithstanding that it had been negotiated by its own delegates together with Scottish counterparts in London in 1604. For a detailed examination of the sessions and the negotiation of the "Instrument of Union" by the Anglo-Scottish Union Commission, see Bruce Galloway, The Union of England and Scotland, 1603-1608 (Edinburgh, John Donald, 1986).

(6.) See Jenny Wormald, "James VI and I: Two Kings or One?" History 68 (1983): 187-209, esp. 204-7; Brian P. Levack, The Formation of the British State: England, Scotland, and the Union, 1603-1707 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987), 35-41, 178; Conrad Russell, "Composite Monarchies in Early Modem Europe: The British and Irish Example," in Uniting the Kingdom? The Making of British History, eds. Alexander Grant and Keith J. Stringer (London: Routledge, 1995), 133-46.

(7.) "A Proclamation concerning the Kings Majesties Stile, of King of Great Britaine..." in Stuart Royal Proclamations: Royal Proclamations of King James I, 1603-1625, eds. James F. Larkin and Paul L. Hughes (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1973), I: 18-19; my emphasis, hereafter abbreviated in text and notes Proclamations.

(8.) Journals of the House of Commons, 1547-1714 (London, 1803-63), I: 315, hereafter abbreviated in text and notes CJ.

(9.) Ibid., 367.

(10.) Ibid., 173.

(11.) The Lord Chancellor, Sir Thomas Egerton, confirmed this stance with his acknowledgment that sovereignty, allegiance, geography, and religion had been united. The National Archives (TNA): Public Record Office (PRO), SP14/7, fol. 74. Opposition to the Union among the Lords tended to be covert and ambiguous, see Lori Anne Ferrell, "The Sacred, the Profane, and the Union: Politics of Sermon and Masque at the Court Wedding of Lord and Lady Hay," in Politics, Religion and Popularity in Early Stuart Britain, Essays in Honour of Conrad Russell, eds. Thomas Cogswell, Richard Cust, and Peter Lake (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 52-53.

(12.) Kevin Curran calls attention to James's efforts to use "naming acts" in order to replace the current geographical and political order with "an imagined cultural geography of Britishness," Marriage, Performance, and Politics at the Jacobean Court (Farnham: Ashgate, 2009), 22.

(13.) CJ, I: 336.

(14.) CJ, I: 177.

(15.) CJ, I: 318-23.

(16.) TNA: PRO, SP14/8, fol. 93.

(17.) A paper Book in 4to, transcribed (as I suppose) by my Lord's command, from the Papers of some eminent Member of the House of Commons, who in the Parliament A. D. 1606 (when an Union was to be made of both Kingdoms) was against uniting with the Scots, British Library (BL), Harleian MS 1314, fol. 8. The actual title given to the Act was "Commission to treat of the Weale of both Kingdoms," Ibid., fol. 8.

(18.) The Letters and the Life of Francis Bacon..., ed. James Spedding, vol. 3 (London, 1861-74), 344.

(19.) Proclamations, I: 94-98; capitalization in original.

(20.) TNA: PRO, SP14/9, fol. 82.

(21.) The Parliamentary Diary of Robert Bowyer, 1606-1607, ed. David Harris Willson (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1931), 189.

(22.) David Aers and Gunther Kress see Lear's tragic mistake as flowing from his belief that his name and "additions" have force independent of material power, "The Language of Social Order: Individual, Society and Historical Process in King Lear," in Literature, Language and Society in England, 1580-1680, eds. David Aers, Bob Hodge, and Gunther Kress (Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1981), 89. Stephen Orgel similarly observes: "A question the play examines most intensely is what the name of king is--is it another nothing?" introduction to King Lear: The 1608 Quarto and 1623 Folio Texts, by William Shakespeare (New York: Penguin, 2002), 1481.

(23.) William Shakespeare, King Lear: The 1608 Quarto and 1623 Folio Texts, ed. Stephen Orgel (New York, Penguin, 2000). All subsequent quotations are taken from this edition and, unless otherwise indicated, all references are to the Quarto.

(24.) Richard Halpern, The Poetics of Primitive Accumulation: English Renaissance Culture and the Genealogy of Capital (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991), 233-34.

(25.) Ibid., 234.

(26.) Annabel Patterson, Shakespeare and the Popular Voice (Cambridge: Basil Blackwell, 1989), 108-13. See also Kathy Eden, "Liquid Fortification and the Law in King Lear" in Shakespeare and the Law, eds. Bradin Cormack, Martha C. Nussbaum, and Richard Strier (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013). 203-20.

(27.) Charles Spinosa, "'The name and all th' addition': King Lear's Opening Scene and the Common-Law Use," Shakespeare Studies 23 (1995): 162-63. Brian Sheerin too offers an account of Lear as not necessarily disempowered by his affiliation with "nothingness," "Making Use of Nothing: The Sovereignties of King Lear," Studies in Philology, 110, no. 4 (2013): 789-811, esp. 804.

(28.) Ibid., 163.

(29.) Philip Schwyzer, Literature, Nationalism, and Memory in Early Modern England and Wales (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2004), 160.

(30.) Richard Strier, Resistant Structures: Particularity, Radicalism, and Renaissance Texts (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), 177-80. John Kerrigan has furthermore observed that the Quarto "has Gloucester speak of 'the diuision of the kingdomes'... attributing a plurality which makes Lear seem less obtuse when he decides to divide his realm into the traditional domains of the North (or Albany), the Celtic West (governed by the Duke of Cornwall), and England (Cordelia's intended portion)," "Divided Kingdoms and the Local Epic: Mercian Hymns to The King of Britain's Daughter," The Yale Journal of Criticism, 13 no. 1 (2000): 3. See also Philippa Berry's argument that the play's tragic action turns on the two-way division plan, Lear's "sacrifice of the centre" such that there is no mediation of the two daughters by the third, Shakespeare's Feminine Endings: Disfiguring Death in the Tragedies (London: Routledge, 1999), 136.

(31.) Philip Armstrong observes also Albany's echoing of Lear at this moment, Shakespeare's Visual Regime: Tragedy, Psychoanalysis, and the Gaze (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2000), 40.

(32.) Maley sees greater conclusiveness in the Quarto's end: "Lear is a drama focused on British dissolution resolved by fraternal action, as Albany (Scotland) and Edgar (England) salvage union from the jaws of division. Crucially, in the passage from Quarto to Folio, Albany yields to Edgar," 160.

(33.) John Gillies, "The Scene of Cartography in King Lear" in Literature, Mapping, and the Politics of Space in Early Modern Britain, eds. Andrew Gordon and Bernhard Klein (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 124-26.

(34.) Ibid., 114.

(35.) Ibid., 125-26.

(36.) The disjuncture in time could be dramatic strategy, whereby events are anticipated in the background of the play's action as a means of enhancing their probability in the foreground; see the discussion of "double time" in Richard Knowles, "Cordelia's Return," Shakespeare Quarterly, 50 no. 1 (1999): 33-50. The sense of disjuncture here, however, is emphasized by its extension to intentionality; Albany is cunning in the background and not cunning in the foreground.

(37.) Gillies, "Scene of Cartography," 118-21.

(38.) Patterson, for example, sees Lear as retreating in this moment to "political cynicism and privatization," 116. See also Maynard Mack, "Action and World in King Lear," Shakespeare's Middle Tragedies: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. David Young (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1993), 181.

(39.) One of the larger differences between the Quarto and the Folio is the Quarto's emphasis on Cordelia's intervention taking the form of a French invasion. Lisa Hopkins observes that the changes Shakespeare made in the Folio evidence a sensitivity he may have felt in "dramatizing a French-led invasion of England," Shakespeare on the Edge: Border-Crossing in the Tragedies and the Henriad (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2005), 118; Joan Fitzpatrick sees the play as generating discomfort by pairing a "saintly" Cordelia with French invaders, Shakespeare, Spenser and the Contours of Britain: Reshaping the Atlantic Archipelago (Hatfield: University of Hertfordshire Press, 2004), 118-19.

(40.) Likewise, Albany praises the servant who mortally wounded Cornwall, see Strier, 190-99.

(41.) In his first speech to the English Parliament in 1604, James described the Union: "And now, in the End and Fulness of Time, united, the Right and Title of both in My Person, alike lineally descended of both the Crownes; whereby it is now become like a little World within it selfe," CJ, I: 143.


Manuscript Sources

The National Archives: Public Record Office, SP14/7.

The National Archives: Public Record Office, SP14/8.

The National Archives: Public Record Office, SP14/9.

A paper Book in 4to, transcribed (as I suppose) by my Lord's command, from the Papers of some eminent Member of the House of Commons, who in the Parliament A. D. 1606 (when an Union was to be made of both Kingdoms) was against uniting with the Scots, British Library, Harleian MS 1314.

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Armstrong, Philip. Shakespeare's Visual Regime: Tragedy, Psychoanalysis, and the Gaze. Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2000.

Berry, Philippa. Shakespeare's Feminine Endings: Disfiguring Death in the Tragedies. London: Routledge, 1999.

Curran, Kevin. Marriage, Performance, and Politics at the Jacobean Court. Farnham: Ashgate, 2009.

Eden, Kathy. "Liquid Fortification and the Law in King Lear." In Shakespeare and the Law, edited by Bradin Cormack, Martha C. Nussbaum, and Richard Strier, 203-20. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013.

Ferrell, Lori Anne. "The Sacred, the Profane, and the Union: Politics of Sermon and Masque at the Court Wedding of Lord and Lady Hay." In Politics, Religion and Popularity in Early Stuart Britain, Essays in Honour of Conrad Russell, edited by Thomas Cogswell, Richard Cust, and Peter Lake, 45-64. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002).

Fitzpatrick, Joan. Shakespeare, Spenser and the Contours of Britain: Reshaping the Atlantic Archipelago. Hatfield: University of Hertfordshire Press, 2004.

Galloway, Bruce. The Union of England and Scotland, 1603-1608. Edinburgh: John Donald, 1986.

Gillies, John. "The Scene of Cartography in King Lear." In Literature, Mapping, and the Politics of Space in Early Modern Britain, edited by Andrew Gordon and Bernhard Klein, 109-37. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

Halpern, Richard. The Poetics of Primitive Accumulation: English Renaissance Culture and the Genealogy of Capital. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991.

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Kerrigan, John. "Divided Kingdoms and the Local Epic: Mercian Hymns to The King of Britain's Daughter." The Yale Journal of Criticism 13, no. 1 (2000): 3-21.

Knowles, Richard. "Cordelia's Return." Shakespeare Quarterly, 50, no. 1 (1999): 33-50.

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Maley, Willy. "Critical Review: 'Great thing of us forgot'?: New British Angles on King Lear." In King Lear: A Critical Guide, edited by Andrew Hiscock and Lisa Hopkins, 139-57. London: Continuum, 2011.

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--. "Composite Monarchies in Early Modern Europe: The British and Irish Example." In Uniting the Kingdom? The Making of British History, edited by Alexander Grant and Keith J. Stringer, 133-46. London: Routledge, 1995.

Schwyzer, Philip. Literature, Nationalism, and Memory in Early Modern England and Wales (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2004).

Shakespeare, William. King Lear: The 1608 Quarto and 1623 Folio Texts, edited by Stephen Orgel. New York, Penguin, 2000.

Sheerin, Brian. "Making Use of Nothing: The Sovereignties of King Lear." Studies in Philology 110.4 (2013): 789-811.

Spinosa, Charles. " 'The name and all th' addition': King Lear's Opening Scene and the Common-Law Use." Shakespeare Studies 23 (1995): 146-86.

Strier, Richard. Resistant Structures: Particularity, Radicalism, and Renaissance Texts. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.

Stuart Royal Proclamations: Royal Proclamations of King James I, 1603-1625, edited by James F. Larkin and Paul L. Hughes. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1973.I.

Wormald, Jenny. "James VI and I: Two Kings or One?" History 68 (1983): 187-209.
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Author:O'Connor, Marie Theresa
Publication:Medieval and Renaissance Drama in England
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jan 1, 2018
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