Dennis Maust | Essays | King Lear: Lessons
Contemplating Lessons of Tragedy in King Lear
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. (lines 5.3.322-25)
In his ultimate King Lear passage, Edgar (Albany, in some editions) voices a lesson learned from the tragic events that Shakespeare plotted. Line 323 encapsulates the explicit lesson which, at first glance, seems a reasonable aphorism. However, further reflection raises a compelling question. Does Shakespeare seduce his audience into thinking that “Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say” sums up the tragic events in King Lear – or does he mean for his readers to dig deeper into King Lear to find a larger, more meaningful lesson? This examination explores the issue in three steps. First, it examines line 323 as a possible universal truth. Second, it attempts to retrospectively apply Edgar’s conclusion to some of the characters in King Lear. Third, conditioned on the merit of and satisfaction with line 323 determined in the first two steps, it looks for another possible lesson.
A cursory reading of “Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say” might lead to the oversimplified perspective to speak naturally about our feelings, not calculatingly about our thoughts. Perhaps this occurs because we tend to look for opposites. Feelings and thoughts, though not strictly opposite in meaning, may take on the quality of opposites because we tend to dissociate the two and because we often characterize feelings as irrational but thoughts as rational. A comfortable sense of truth also inheres in speaking what we feel, while what we ought to say implies an uncomfortable sense of something false or at least something contrived. In either case we must speak or remain silent. If we choose to speak, then in either case we must voluntarily process thoughts in order to choose precise words and phrases to describe our feelings or to say what we ought to say. So, no simple dichotomy exists in Edgar’s aphorism.
Adding to their misperceptions as opposites, Edgar’s two aphoristic clauses also raise problems with mutual exclusivity. What we ought to say can include reasoned opinions, factual recollections, inoffensive dinner comments, diplomatic resolutions, and promising problem solutions, among many other non-feeling oriented possibilities. However, what we ought to say may just as well include both accurate and inaccurate – or less than true – expressions of our feelings. For example, in the case of brokering compromises, parties generally make little progress if no one moves away from speech that accurately expresses their initial feelings. So, as a universal truth, “Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say” suffers at least perceptive problems regarding opposites and actual problems regarding mutual exclusivity.
The clause, “what we ought to say,” includes not only responses, it also includes well-formulated questions that do not place respondents in awkward positions. This fact leads directly to an examination of Edgar’s ultimate passage as it pertains to characters in King Lear. Lear begins the play’s cascading series of tragic events with his strange, offensive, and selfish love-query. Supposedly, he constructs it in order to divide his kingdom among his daughters, confer to them and their husbands all royal “cares and business,” avoid “future strife,” and provide his now-unburdened self with a sort of nursing-home existence (1.1.36-40). If we assume Lear truly loved at least Cordelia prior to this query, then from his opening lines, Lear spoke neither what he felt nor what he ought to have said, else these lines began his madness. All of Lear’s daughters, his loving servant the Earl of Kent, and even the King of France variously protested or commented on this, his unusual behavior.
“Which of you shall we say doth love us most, / That we our largest bounty may extend / Where nature doth with merit challenge” (1.1.51-53). Given such a test for Lear’s daughters, what would Edgar’s ultimate maxim retrospectively prescribe for their answers? We get the sense that Goneril and Regan spoke in character, and that Cordelia truly loved her father more than her sisters loved him. Yet, her sisters expressed their love in terms so out of proportion to their actual love, that to eclipse their flattery, Cordelia would necessarily have had to lie. So, Cordelia, true to herself, stayed in character. Lear mistook for pride the almost unfeeling accuracy with which Cordelia tried to convey her love. Her remarks about returning her father’s love dutifully and about dividing her love between husband and father elicits pangs of sympathy for her truthfulness. In a sense, all Lear’s daughters spoke what they ought to have said according to character. Perhaps, though, we encounter a circular argument because the words and actions Shakespeare gives Lear’s daughters evoke their character. At least we get a sense that Cordelia, in addition to speaking what she ought to say, also spoke what she felt, as best and as truly as she could.
Lear created his tragic circumstances. His own error brought about his downfall. The public setting for his love-query apparently afforded no one the opportunity to admit mistakes or to diplomatically call into question the whole affair. Lear recognized his personal error, the false witness of Goneril and Regan, and Cordelia’s true love too late to avert tragedy. If Lear’s daughters had spoken what they truly felt, Cordelia would have walked away with the entire kingdom and a husband, most likely (but sadly) the Duke of Burgundy. She would have cared for her father lovingly for the rest of his days. Of course, such speech and actions leave us without a tragedy.
So, in retrospect, Edgar’s advice to “Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say” works specifically in this case, providing a fix for Lear’s beginning error, his improper love-query. However, at most it serves as only a partial, penultimate, almost too obvious, unsatisfying, and maudlin lesson. Can we contemplate a more significant lesson?
If we focus on Lear’ s state of mind and apparent degree of naïveté at such an old age, we pick up clues to at least one higher-level lesson. This wisdom derives from the tragedy’s many allusions to self-knowledge via the eyes: eyesight, my sight, thine eye, washed eyes, fond eyes, piercing eyes, seeing, weeping, side-piercing sight. Shakespeare accentuates this beckoning to self-knowledge through Gloucester’s parallel tragedy and his exclamations that “to see thee in my touch, I’d say I had eyes again” (4.1.25-26) and “I see it feelingly” (4.6.145). Shakespeare also hints at Lear’s lack – or loss – of self-knowledge in Regan’s observation that “yet he hath ever but slenderly known himself” (1.1.294-95). With these references, do we approach a less-than-explicit yet more universal truth to know thyself? Such a lesson would also have helped avert Lear’s tragedy. Would further contemplation reveal others?
Perhaps Shakespeare desires to challenge his audience and readers to find less obvious truths rather than complacently settle for a supposed truth presented at the end of his play. If he understands that our pleasure derives from contemplation and learning, as Aristotle advocates (Poetics, IV), then he might hope that we not satisfy our reflection with a penultimate or easy lesson. Such a lesson may even prove unfounded or unproductive. My guess is that Shakespeare asks us to dig deeper into his tragedies. In so doing, interestingly, both our personal action in the form of contemplation and Shakespeare’s action in the form of plot and characters give us pleasure. Perhaps we will even discover more subtle but more universal truths like the Delphic Oracle’s timeless “gnôthi sauton.”
Aristotle. Politics & Poetics. Trans. Benjamin Jowett and S.H. Butcher. Norwalk, CT: Easton P,
Shakespeare, William. King Lear. Ed. R.A. Foakes. London: Arden Shakespeare, 2003.