Category Archives: King Lear

The age of emotional incontinence

Lear on the couch

Was the king demented? asks Dalrymple.

If so, was the dementia of the Alzheimer’s, Lewy body, or multi-infarct type? (His variable mental states suggests the second or third.) Or was he depressed, perhaps as the result of an unresolved grief reaction to the death of his wife, mother of his three daughters? This doesn’t seem likely, since he hardly mentions her, perhaps because she died so long before the action of the play starts. Brief psychotic episode, perhaps? Manic depressive psychosis (rapid cycling type)? Or even personality disorder?

They who emote the most are believed to feel the most

For Dalrymple’s money, the critical point is made by the Duke of Kent:

Thy youngest daughter does not love thee least,
Nor are those empty-hearted whose low sound
Reverb no hollowness.

If, says Dalrymple,

Lear had realised this, then none of the tragedy and suffering would have ensued. And here the play speaks to our age: for we live in an age of emotional incontinence, when they who emote the most are believed to feel the most.

Lear and Cordelia, Ford Madox Brown, 1849-54, Tate

I have no way, and therefore want no eyes

From The Tragedie of King Lear, actus quartus, scena prima

From The Tragedie of King Lear, actus quartus, scena prima

Dalrymple writes that in these nine simple words

of great rhythmic beauty, Shakespeare not only describes utter despair but makes us feel it ourselves, or at least helps us know what it might be like to feel it. And, at the same time Shakespeare tells us that to have no way, literally or metaphorically, is the greatest of human misfortunes.

Shakespeare, says Dalrymple,

seems not only to have described but experienced his myriad characters from the inside, as it were; and because of his incomparable literary gifts, he helps us to do so as well.

On the Cliff: Gloucester and Edgar, Boardman Robinson, 1938

On the Cliff: Gloucester and Edgar, Boardman Robinson, 1938

Why dost thou lash that whore?

Screen Shot 2015-04-18 at 09.59.02Strip thine own back.
Thou hotly lusts to use her in that kind
For which thou whip’st her.

Dalrymple quotes from Lear in discussing accusations of racism, which he says are often a smokescreen for the accuser’s doubts.