In 1998, a friend of mine, Robert Pinsky, who at the time was serving as the poet laureate of the United States, invited me to a poetry evening at the Clinton White House, one of a series of black-tie events organized to mark the coming millennium. On this occasion the President gave an amusing introductory speech in which he recalled that his first encounter with poetry came in junior high school when his teacher made him memorize certain passages from Macbeth. This was, Clinton remarked wryly, not the most auspicious beginning for a life in politics.

After the speeches, I joined the line of people waiting to shake the President’s hand. When my turn came, a strange impulse came over me. This was a moment when rumors of the Lewinsky affair were circulating, but before the whole thing had blown up into the grotesque national circus that it soon became. “Mr. President,” I said, sticking out my hand, “don’t you think that Macbeth is a great play about an immensely ambitious man who feels compelled to do things that he knows are politically and morally disastrous?” Clinton looked at me for a moment, still holding my hand, and said, “I think Macbeth is a great play about someone whose immense ambition has an ethically inadequate object.”

I was astonished by the aptness, as well as the quickness, of this comment, so perceptively in touch with Macbeth’s anguished brooding about the impulses that are driving him to seize power by murdering Scotland’s legitimate ruler. When I recovered my equilibrium, I asked the President if he still remembered the lines he had memorized years before. Of course, he replied, and then, with the rest of the guests still patiently waiting to shake his hand, he began to recite one of Macbeth’s great soliloquies:

If it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well
It were done quickly. If th’ assassination
Could trammel up the consequence, and catch
With his surcease success: that but this blow
Might be the be-all and the end-all, here,
But here upon this bank and shoal of time,

We’d jump the life to come. But in these cases
We still have judgement here, that we but teach
Bloody instructions which, being taught, return
To plague th’inventor.


There the most powerful man in the world—as we are fond of calling our leader—broke off with a laugh, leaving me to conjure up the rest of the speech that ends with Macbeth’s own bafflement over the fact that his immense ambition has “an ethically inadequate object”:

   I have no spur
To prick the sides of my intent, but only
Vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself
And falls on th’other….


I left the White House that evening with the thought that Bill Clinton had missed his true vocation, which was, of course, to be an English professor. But the profession he actually chose makes it all the more appropriate to consider whether it is possible to discover in Shakespeare an “ethically adequate object” for human ambition.

Macbeth himself seems tormented by the question. To be sure, his anxiety derives in part from a straightforward prudential concern, a fear that what he metes out will inevitably be meted out to him, measure for measure. But his queasiness has deeper roots in his sense of ethical obligation, in this case the obligation to obey and serve the king his master. His wife, who knows her husband’s character all too well, has already cannily anticipated his inner struggle:

  Thou wouldst be great,
Art not without ambition, but without
The illness should attend it.


Hence faced with the perfect opportunity to seize the crown—King Duncan is a guest in his castle—Macbeth holds back. He is, he reflects, Duncan’s kinsman and subject, and at this moment he is also the king’s host, “who should against his murderer shut the door,/ Not bear the knife myself.” Above all, there has been nothing in the king’s comportment that would make his murder a remotely justifiable act. (Shakespeare characteristically altered his source in order to eliminate evidence of Duncan’s incompetence and thus to eliminate a rational basis for his assassination.) On the contrary, Macbeth broods,

   this Duncan
Hath borne his faculties so meek, hath been
So clear in his great office, that his virtues
Will plead like angels, trumpet-tongued against
The deep damnation of his taking-off.


“Meek” is a strange word to describe a king whom we have just seen conducting a bloody military campaign and ordering the summary execution of his enemy, the Thane of Cawdor. But it serves to intensify Macbeth’s brooding on the deep damnation that will befall Duncan’s assassin.

The theological language here must, I think, be understood as an expression of the would-be assassin’s inner fears and not as Shakespeare’s own affirmation of the sacredness of kingship. From time to time, of course, we hear such affirmations in his work—


There’s such divinity doth hedge a king
That treason can but peep to what it would


—but they tend to be treated with deft irony. The stirring words I have just quoted from Hamlet are spoken by the fratricide Claudius, successfully pacifying the enraged Laertes. None of Shakespeare’s plays, not even Macbeth, unequivocally endorses the view that any act of usurpation is automatically evil, and none condemns as necessarily unethical the use of violence to topple the established order. Unlike the most conservative voices in his time, Shakespeare did not position himself squarely against the bloody unthroning even of anointed monarchs. Violence, as he well understood, was one of the principal mechanisms of regime change.

Richard III, to take an example from early in Shakespeare’s career, has royal blood and a better lineal claim to the throne than anyone in the realm. (To be sure, he has seen to that by murdering everyone in his way, but ruthlessness was never strictly incompatible with legitimacy.) He is careful to wrap himself in the mantle of moral authority, appearing before the citizens with prayer book in hand in the company of two “deep divines,” and if this show of piety is hypocritical and the popular acclamation manipulated, Shakespeare’s audience easily grasped that such shows were essential elements in the order of things. Some, after all, might have still recalled that Queen Elizabeth ostentatiously kissed a Bible during her coronation procession. Yet Shakespeare’s history play never doubts that it is reasonable, sane, even necessary to rise up on the side of the usurper. The beleaguered king vigorously exhorts his troops to destroy the invading army, “vagabonds, rascals, and runaways” (5.6.46) led by a “paltry fellow” (5.6.53). But the paltry fellow succeeds in killing the king.

But if Shakespeare treated the mystical accounts of kingship with relentless irony, he did not endorse any general principle of resistance. Such principles were readily available in a variety of forms: the tyrannicide advocated by George Buchanan; the passive disobedience proposed by Montaigne’s friend Étienne de la Boétie; the oligarchical republicanism articulated by Thomas Starkey. “What is more repugnant to nature,” Starkey wrote during the reign of Henry VIII, “than a whole nation to be governed by the will of a prince, which ever followeth his frail fantasy and unruled affects?”2 The only way to secure the well-being, dignity, and liberty of men, he declared, was to hold free elections, the elections that fashioned the greatness of the ancient Roman republic and that accounted in his view for the flourishing success of contemporary Venice.

Deeply invested imaginatively in both Rome and Venice, Shakespeare understood this argument very well, yet he kept a critical, ironic distance from it. There are elections in his work—in Titus Andronicus, for example, and in Coriolanus, Hamlet, and Macbeth—but they are all deeply flawed. It is not that the plays are sentimental about the alternative to elections: they offer many variations on a spectacle epitomized by Julius Caesar, surrounded by cynical flatterers, caught up in his own cult of personality, and poised to destroy the tottering liberties of Rome. The republican conspirators who determine to rid themselves of this public menace adhere to a moral principle: “I was born free as Caesar,” Cassius tells Brutus; “so were you” (1.2.99). But it is not clear that they themselves have the will to govern; after all, Brutus makes clear in his oration that it is precisely the manifestation of this will in Caesar that prompted his murder:

As Caesar loved me, I weep for him. As he was fortunate, I rejoice at it. As he was valiant, I honour him. But as he was ambitious, I slew him.


If the conspirators do nonetheless aim to wield power in the newly restored Roman republic, that aim, as the play shows, is doomed by their own internal disagreements, their total contempt for the will of the people, and their fatal errors of judgment. At the close the triumphant Antony briefly pauses to pays homage to what he calls Brutus’ “general honest thought,” that is, his ethical motivation:

All the conspirators save only he
Did that they did in envy of great Caesar.
He only in a general honest thought
And common good to all made one of them.


Then he and Octavius turn to the serious business of carving up the Roman state.

Brutus’ fate is not his alone: in Shakespeare no character with a clear moral vision has a will to power and, conversely, no character with a strong desire to rule over others has an ethically adequate object. This is most obviously true of Shakespearean villains—the megalomaniac Richard III, the bastard Edmond (along with the ghastly Goneril, Regan, and Cornwall), the Macbeths, and the like—but it is also true of such characters as Bolingbroke in the Henriad plays, Cassius in Julius Caesar, Fortinbras in Hamlet, and Malcolm in Macbeth. Even victorious Henry V—Shakespeare’s most charismatic hero—does not substantially alter the plays’ overarching skepticism about the ethics of wielding authority.


No one is more aware than the reformed wastrel Henry V that there is something deeply flawed in his whole possession of power and in the foreign war he has cynically launched on the flimsiest of pretexts. On the eve of the decisive Battle of Agincourt, he queasily negotiates a settlement with God—“Not today, O Lord,/O not today, think not upon the fault/My father made in compassing the crown” (4.1.274–276)—and evidently God is at least temporarily won over. At the end of the play Henry proclaims the death penalty for anyone who denies that the victory was God’s alone. But as the epilogue makes clear, the king’s son and successor soon lost everything that his father had won. And the irony is that this son, Henry VI, is virtually the only Shakespearean ruler with a high-minded, ethical goal: a deeply religious man, he is passionately committed to bringing peace among his fractious, violent, and blindly ambitious nobles. Unfortunately, this pious king has no skills at governance whatever. The nobles easily destroy him and plunge the realm into a bloody civil war.

If one wants to find genuine skills at governance in Shakespeare, they are most attractively displayed by Claudius, the usurper in Hamlet who kills his brother, Hamlet’s father, to become king:

Thus much the business is: we have here writ
To Norway, uncle of young Fortinbras—
Who, impotent and bed-rid, scarcely hears
Of this his nephew’s purpose—to suppress
His further gait herein, in that the levies,
The lists, and full proportions are all made
Out of his subject; and we here dispatch
You, good Cornelius, and you, Valtemand,
For bearers of this greeting to old Norway,
Giving to you no further personal power
To business with the King more than the scope
Of these dilated articles allow.
Farewell, and let your haste commend your duty.


Shakespeare risked this uncharacteristically dull speech in order to convey the voice of authority: businesslike, confident, decisive, careful, and politically astute. And it is, of course, the voice of a murderer, the festering source of all that is rotten in the state of Denmark.

It is those who attempt to pull back from power who fascinated Shakespeare at least as much as those who strive to exercise it: the spoiled dreamer Richard II, who seems to embrace his fall from the throne; the love-crazed Antony, who prefers embracing Cleopatra to ruling the world; Coriolanus, who cannot abide the ordinary rituals of political life; and old Lear, who hopes

To shake all cares and business from our age,
Conferring them on younger strengths, while we
Unburdened crawl toward death.3

What all of these very different characters have in common—and we could add Duke Vincentio in Measure for Measure and Prospero in The Tempest—is the desire to escape from the burdens of governance. And in each and every case, the desire leads to disaster.

For if Shakespeare was deeply drawn to those who want to walk away from positions of authority, he was at the same time convinced that this attempt is doomed. Power exists to be exercised in the world; it will not go away if you close your eyes and dream of escaping into your study or your lover’s arms or your daughter’s house. It will simply be seized by someone else, someone probably more coldly efficient than you are and still further away from an ethically adequate object: Bolingbroke, Octavius Caesar, Edmond, Angelo, Prospero’s usurping brother Antonio.

“Rapt in secret studies,” Prospero loses his dukedom, but even in exile he does not escape the authority to which he was culpably indifferent. Instead he finds himself, together with his daughter, on an island that serves as a kind of experimental space for testing the ethics of authority. Prospero possesses many of the princely virtues that the Renaissance prized, but the results of the experiment are at best deeply ambiguous: one of the island’s native inhabitants is liberated only to be forced into compulsory servitude; the other is educated only to be enslaved.

Prospero does seem to make one crucial ethical breakthrough: though he has his hated brother and his other enemies under his absolute control, he chooses not to exact vengeance upon them. But this choice is made at the urging of the nonhuman spirit Ariel, who declares what he would do “were I human.” Perhaps the more striking ethical choice that Prospero makes—and makes on his own, without Ariel’s urging—is to give up his magical powers (the romance equivalent of martial law), take back the dukedom he had lost twelve years earlier, and return to the city from which he had been exiled. By doing so he deliberately plunges back into the contingency, risk, and moral uncertainty that he had temporarily escaped. And, tellingly, he leaves Ariel behind.

The conclusion toward which these stories tend is not the cynical abandonment of all hope for decency in public life, but rather a deep skepticism about any attempt to formulate and obey an abstract moral law, independent of actual social, political, and psychological circumstances. This skepticism set Shakespeare at odds with the dominant currents of ethical reflection in his period. It is not that he set out, like Marlowe, to swim against these currents or to stage violent protests against them; rather he seems simply to have found them incompatible with his art.

Renaissance moral thought, like the Christian theology on which it drew, was deeply influenced by what the philosopher Bernard Williams calls the “ethicized psychology” invented by Plato. The idea, against which Williams’s powerful book Shame and Necessity struggles, is that “the functions of the mind, above all with regard to action, are defined in terms of categories that get their significance from ethics.” Thus psychic conflict, especially that between reason and desire, is mistakenly understood as inevitably an ethical conflict. In this influential but misguided tradition, “reason operates as a distinctive part of the soul,” Williams observes, “only to the extent that it controls, dominates, or rises above the desires.”4

There is a glimpse of this ethicized psychology in The Tempest, precisely in Prospero’s response to the spirit Ariel’s moral advice. “Though with their high wrongs I am struck to th’ quick,” Prospero says of his enemies,

Yet with my nobler reason ‘gainst my fury
Do I take part.


But the play as a whole—and the great body of work of which it is part—resists the idea of a moralized basic structure of the mind and, with it, the search for an intrinsically just conception of responsibility. Prospero’s character is too complex, his relations with Ariel, Caliban, and the others too fraught, to be mapped comfortably onto a stable distinction between moral and nonmoral motivations.

If Shakespeare evidently found this distinction untenable, his problem with it lay in what Williams identifies as its underlying basis: “a distinctive and false picture of the moral life, according to which the truly moral self is characterless.” For Shakespeare there was no such thing as a characterless self. His doubts were rooted in his practice; that is, they were inseparable from his power as a playwright. A conception of the moral self as characterless was not for Shakespeare a philosophical blunder so much as it was an undoing or denial of his life’s work.

Shakespeare’s characters have a rich moral life, but that moral life is not autonomous. Instead it is in each case intimately bound up with the particular and distinct community in which the character participates. In Julius Caesar Brutus thinks that he is acting on ethical principles entirely uncompromised by peer pressure, but the audience knows otherwise. “Well, Brutus, thou art noble,” remarks Cassius to himself;

   yet I see
Thy honourable mettle may be wrought
From that it is disposed.


It is his failure to understand the extent to which he is “wrought”—his refusal to register the social influences upon him and his fantasy of absolute ethical autonomy—that dooms Brutus.

It would be possible, I believe, to argue that Shakespeare’s tragic vision was the consequence of the political defects of his age. The absence of any conception of democratic institutions and the rule of a hereditary monarch with absolutist pretensions left little or no room to formulate an ethical object for secular ambition. Yet Shakespeare’s own skepticism seemed to extend to the popular voice, so ironically treated in Julius Caesar and Coriolanus. That is, when he tried to imagine electioneering, voting, and representation, he conjured up situations in which the people, manipulated by wealthy and fathomlessly cynical politicians, were repeatedly induced to act against their own interests.

Rule in Shakespeare is the fate of those who have been born to it. It is the fate of those as well who have been driven to exercise it out of desperation, forced, like Richmond in Richard III, Edgar in Lear, or Malcolm in Macbeth, to confront an evil so appalling that they have no choice but to act. A relatively small number of other characters, generally born in the proximity of power but not its direct heirs, actively seek to seize the reins of government, and a few of these are ruthless or lucky enough to be successful, but Shakespeare inevitably depicts them as eventually broken by the burden they have shouldered. Perhaps this was for him a peculiar form of consolation or hope.

Governance, as Shakespeare imagines it, is an immense weight whose great emblem is the insomnia that afflicts the competent, tough-minded usurper Bolingbroke after he has become Henry IV. There are books now that profess to derive principles of governance from Shakespeare’s works, but sleeplessness, tormenting, constant sleeplessness, is one of the only principles that he consistently depicts.

There is one other key principle, which will take us back to Bill Clinton’s remark about Macbeth. Macbeth dreams of killing his guest, King Duncan, and seizing power. He wants the assassination to be swift, decisive, once-and-for-all: mission accomplished. The lure is strong enough, he says, to make him ignore the threat of divine judgment in the afterlife, but still for a fateful moment he holds back:

We still have judgement here, that we but teach
Bloody instructions which, being taught, return
To plague th’inventor.

This is, I think, Shakespeare’s central perception of governance, and it stands in the place of any more high-minded ethical object. The actions of those in power have consequences, long-term, inescapable, and impossible to control. “We still have judgement here”—it is not in some imagined other world that your actions will be judged; it is here and now. Judgment in effect means punishment: whatever violent or dishonest things you do will inevitably serve as a lesson for others to do to you. Shakespeare did not think that one’s good actions are necessarily or even usually rewarded, but he seems to have been convinced that one’s wicked actions always return, with interest.

Even in a play haunted, as Macbeth is, by witches and the ghost of a murdered man, this causal order does not signal the existence of any supernatural necessity. There is no position outside the world or outside history from which Shakespeare’s characters can authenticate their actions or secure an abstract, ethically adequate object for their ambitions. Indeed even the survival of the state itself does not constitute such an object. One final, startling example will serve to make the point. In the wake of Lear’s abdication, the Duke of Cornwall is the legitimate, formally sanctioned ruler of half the kingdom, and yet the play stages and clearly justifies his assassination. The attack comes suddenly and without warning when he is going about the business of statecraft: specifically, he is attempting, by any means necessary, to extract from the Earl of Gloucester certain information vital for national security, information about a French army set upon invasion of the realm.

The audience has already learned what Cornwall does not yet fully know: that the invasion is well under way. A few scenes earlier, the banished Earl of Kent, in disguise, has taken a gentleman into his confidence. “From France,” he whispers,

   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.

In league with this power, Kent gives the gentleman a token and instructs him to make haste to Dover where he will report to “some that will thank you.”5

Kent is not the only high-level collaborator with the invading army. The Earl of Gloucester too has received word, as he tells his son Edmond, that “there’s part of a power already footed” (3.3.11), and he intends to help them topple Cornwall’s regime. Edmond, however, has his own plans. He gives Cornwall documentary proof of his father’s treasonous conspiracy: “This is the letter which he spoke of, which approves him an intelligent party to the advantages of France” (3.5.8–9). Edmond is a swine, of course, but the letter is authentic.

When they receive this news, Cornwall and his wife Regan are guests in Gloucester’s house. Ordinarily their behavior would be strictly bound by this circumstance, but the state of emergency suspends all customary relations and sets the stage for moral and ethical transgression. Cornwall needs to know, and quickly, whatever Gloucester knows about the foreign invasion and why he has sent the old, mad king to Dover. “Go seek the traitor Gloucester,” Cornwall orders his servants; “Pinion him like a thief; bring him before us” (3.7.22–23). Gloucester is duly apprehended and bound to a chair. There follows a tense scene of interrogation chilling in its realistic representation of bluffing, evasiveness, and desperate urgency:

CORNWALL. Come, sir, what letters had you late from France?

REGAN. Be simple-answered, for we know the truth.

CORNWALL. And what confederacy have you with the traitors
Late footed in the kingdom.

REGAN. To whose hands
You have sent the lunatic King. Speak.

GLOUCESTER. I have a letter guessingly set down,
Which came from one that’s of a neutral heart,
And not from one opposed.

CORNWALL. Cunning.

REGAN. And false.

CORNWALL. Where hast thou sent the King?


REGAN. Wherefore to Dover? Wast thou not charged at peril—

CORNWALL. Wherefore to Dover?—Let him answer that.

GLOUCESTER. I am tied to th’stake, and I must stand the course.

REGAN. Wherefore to Dover?


This brilliantly written exchange is almost always left out of critical accounts of this scene because of what immediately follows: the horrendous blinding of Gloucester by the fiend-like interrogators.

Shakespeare’s audience was far less squeamish about the torture of traitors than we are—or than we were until recently.6 The use, for the purposes of extracting information to protect the state, of the so-called “manacles” (that is, the strappado), the rack, the thumbscrew, and the horrible device known as the Scavenger’s Daughter was a matter of public knowledge and general acceptance.7 The common law of England forbade it, but both Elizabeth and James I claimed royal prerogative in ordering its use, upon warrant from the Privy Council.8 The victims for the most part were Catholics: Jesuits, stubborn recusants, and conspirators. The 1597 warrant for the Jesuit priest John Gerard explains that the prisoner “very lately did receive a packet of letters out of the Low Countries which are supposed to come out of Spain.” The examiners in the Tower are therefore authorized to interrogate him,

wherein if you shall find him obstinate, undutiful, or unwilling to declare and reveal the truth as he ought to do by his duty and allegiance, you shall by virtue hereof cause him to be put to the manacles and such other torture as is used in that place, that he may be forced to utter directly and truly his uttermost knowledge in all these things that may any way concern her Majesty and the State and are meet to be known.9

The spectators of King Lear would have had no occasion to see such a warrant for themselves, but they had recently had a full lesson in how far the government would go, in the hideous, well-publicized treatment of the Gunpowder conspirator Guy Fawkes. No one ventured to protest out loud.

In 1610 a company of traveling players in the north of England included King Lear among the plays, for the most part exercises in piety, which they performed at the manor house of a Catholic couple, Sir John and Lady Julyan Yorke. The playing company and its hosts were denounced for recusancy to the Star Chamber. Someone then, during Shakespeare’s lifetime, very likely believed that King Lear, though set in pre-Christian Britain, was somehow sympathetic to the plight of persecuted Catholics. The link is not immediately apparent to modern readers, but perhaps it is in the scene of Gloucester’s blinding that we can most clearly sense it. For in King Lear Shakespeare contrived to represent the practice of torture in such a way as to make it utterly recognizable—the urgent questioning of someone who has been caught conniving with a foreign power to invade the realm and topple the established regime—and utterly unacceptable.

He did so by collapsing the hygienic distance that separated the monarch and the privy councilors, cloaked in the mantle of moral authority, from the vicious underlings who carried out their orders. Torture in King Lear is conducted directly by the rulers, Cornwall and Regan, who are depicted as reptilian monsters. Moreover, Shakespeare subtly uncoupled the infliction of torture from the search for information and hence undermined any simple instrumental rationale. Before Cornwall has even got his hands on the high-born traitor, he has declared his intention to injure him, quite apart from the outcome of the process of interrogation:

Though well we may not pass upon his life
Without the form of justice, yet our power
Shall do a curtsy to our wrath, which men
May blame but not control.


What is at once horrible and familiar about this declaration is its nauseating blend of legalism, sadism, and public relations, as if Cornwall were already thinking about how he will excuse the fact that there were certain regrettable excesses in his otherwise legal treatment of the prisoner.10

The plucking out of the Earl of Gloucester’s eyes is an act that seems to have appalled even hardened Jacobean spectators and that the language of the play cunningly anticipates, so as to intensify its horror. This pattern of anticipation culminates in Gloucester’s response to the repeated question, “Wherefore to Dover?” “Because I would not see thy cruel nails/Pluck out his poor old eyes” (3.7.54–55). Cornwall’s response—“See’t shalt thou never,” he says, gouging out the first of the prisoner’s eyes—provokes a reaction that may, for contemporary audiences, have been more shocking than the act of torture. A nameless servant steps forward and orders his master to stop what he is doing:

  Hold your hand, my lord.
I have served you ever since I was a child,
But better service have I never done you
Than now to bid you hold.


Regan’s exclamation (“How now, you dog!”) and Cornwall’s (“My villein!”) both reflect their astonishment at the source of the intervention: not one of Gloucester’s servants (for they are, after all, in Gloucester’s house) but one of their own. In the ensuing scuffle, Regan grabs a sword and stabs the underling in the back—“A peasant stand up thus!”—but not before the peasant has fatally wounded the duke. And the audience is manifestly invited to endorse this radical act: the murder of a ruler by a serving man who stands up for human decency.

Though his act has important political consequences, the servant is not acting out of political motives, and still less out of personal ambition. He has an ethically adequate object—the desire to serve the duke his master by stopping him at all costs from performing an unworthy action—but no political ambition at all. He does not seek power for himself, nor is there anything to indicate that he supports the French invaders. His dying words to Gloucester—“My lord, you have one eye left/To see some mischief on him” (3.7.78–79)—suggest that in his last moments of life the servant has shifted his allegiance from Cornwall to Cornwall’s victim, but this attempt at consolation only leads to further disaster. “Lest it see more,” rages the mortally wounded Cornwall, turning back to Gloucester, “prevent it. Out, vile jelly!”

In the folio text of King Lear the scene ends with Regan driving the eyeless earl out of his own house with words almost fantastic in their cruelty—“Go thrust him out at gates, and let him smell/His way to Dover” (3.7. 91–92)—while the bleeding Cornwall disposes of the corpse of the servant: “Throw this slave/Upon the dunghill” (3.7.94–95). But the quarto text has an additional brief exchange between two other nameless servants. They too have no large political agenda or ambition, but, like their slain fellow, they express a fundamentally ethical attitude toward authority: “I’ll never care what wickedness I do,” says one of them, reflecting on what he has just seen Cornwall do, “If this man come to good” (The History of King Lear, 14.96–97).

The ruler then serves as a model and a test case: if his actions go unpunished, then, to paraphrase Dostoevsky, everything is permitted. The other servant is thinking not about the husband but about the wife:

   If she live long
And in the end meet the old course of death,
Women will all turn monsters.

(The History of King Lear, 14.97–99)

Here again the ruler is a kind of testing ground, in this case for what it means to be human.

The servants’ closing words turn from moral speculation to action. One of them proposes to find someone to lead the blinded earl wherever he wants to go; the other has a more immediate concern:

 I’ll fetch some flax and whites of eggs
To apply to his bleeding face.

(The History of King Lear, 14.103–104)

In the bleak, stripped-down world of King Lear, this simple human response is itself potentially risky. Given the ruthlessness and the fear of Cornwall and Regan, any gesture of kindness toward the traitor may be regarded as treasonous. Gloucester is anxious to avoid drawing anyone else into danger:

Away, get thee away, good friend, be gone.
Thy comforts can do me no good at all;
Thee they may hurt.


But the quiet reply recognizes Gloucester’s predicament—“You cannot see your way”—and the human obligation to help him.

This fundamental ethical responsibility—reduced to the simplest elements, the flax and whites of eggs applied to the victim’s bleeding face—is echoed repeatedly in other moments of solidarity and comfort, all comparably modest: “Come on, my boy. How dost, my boy? Art cold?” (3.2.66); “Give me thy hand” (3.4.42); “In, fellow, there in t’hovel; keep thee warm” (3.4.156). These small gestures are the core of the play’s moral vision. Larger ethical ambitions, such as those that motivate Cordelia’s refusal to flatter her bullying father, only lead to disastrous consequences.

At the height of the storm scene, the crazed Lear, exposed to the tyranny of the elements, has a fleeting glimpse of a relationship to power different from the one he had embodied:

  Take physic, pomp,
Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,
That thou mayst shake the superflux to them
And show the heavens more just.


The vision of obligation here is modest enough—“shake the superflux” (i.e., let some wealth trickle down to the wretches at the bottom)—but nothing in the play suggests that it is remotely possible to achieve. Lear lurches instead toward the conviction that there is no significant moral distinction between judges and thieves. “See how yon justice rails upon yon simple thief,” he tells Gloucester; “Hark in thine ear: change places, and handy-dandy, which is the justice, which is the thief?” (4.5.143–145) All that secures the difference between them is a monopoly of violence. Have you ever “seen a farmer’s dog bark at a beggar?” Lear asks. When you see the man running away from the cur, you behold “the great image of authority. A dog’s obeyed in office” (4.5.145– 149). Those in power may loudly declare their compassion for the sufferings of the poor, but inevitably the declarations are mere hypocrisy. “Get thee glass eyes,” Lear says bitterly to the blind Gloucester,

And like a scurvy politician, seem
To see the things thou dost not.


Small wonder that the close of the play is a chorus of renunciation. With Cornwall, Regan, Goneril, Edmond, and Cordelia all dead, and with Lear a crazed and broken ruin, the Duke of Albany is the sole legitimate ruler of the kingdom, but he does not want it:

  For us, we will resign
During the life of this old majesty
To him our absolute power.


A moment later Lear is dead, and Albany is still trying to give up his power. “Friends of my soul,” he addresses Kent and Edgar,

  you twain
Rule in this realm, and the gored state sustain.

Kent too will have nothing to do with rule:

I have a journey, sir, shortly to go:
My master calls me; I must not say no.


The final lines of the play are a famous textual crux, for the quarto assigns them to Albany and the folio to Edgar. Since the last words of Elizabethan and Jacobean tragedies and histories were conventionally spoken by the person in command, the stakes are significant, but here, as none of the survivors actually wants power—as if any desire for power has been stigmatized as vicious—Shakespeare evidently was uncertain how to bring his tragedy to an end. He had begun with a king who wished to withdraw from power and to reassure himself with the comfortable falsehoods he demanded from his children. In the course of the play those falsehoods are all relentlessly stripped away, like the train of followers that had given the imperious Lear a sense of his own worth. But in the wake of the devastation, what is left? Shakespeare’s solution was to turn the closing words of his tragedy away from any assumption of authority and toward the obligation to speak what we feel:

The weight of this sad time we must obey,
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.
The oldest hath borne most. We that are young
Shall never see so much, nor live so long.

This Issue

April 12, 2007