King Lear and Sonnet 146

King Lear is a play that exposes the ways in which human beings are deeply alienated from themselves when they are totally identified with the demands of their egos. King Lear himself is such a character. It is only through the intense suffering imposed on him by rejection, amplified by his exposure to the elements in the storm, that he is literally forced to his knees. From this position, he begins to see the world feelingly and notices that hardships faced by other human beings:

Poor naked wretches, whereso’er  you are

That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm

How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,

Your looped and windowed raggedness, defend you

From seasons such as these? O, I have ta’en

Too little care of this! Take physic, pomp;

Expose thyself to feel, what wretches feel,

That thou mays’t shake the superflux to them

And show the heavens more just. 3.4.29


In some ways he is like Arthur Boyd’s Nebuchadnezzar who comes to his senses after having been cast out into the wilderness to live with wild animals for some years. During this time Nebuchadnezzar, like Lear, went insane:


Unlike Lear Nebuchadnezzar was restored to sanity after seven years of such punishment. In contrast Lear loses his life and loses his most treasured daughter Cordelia. So Shakespeare’s outlook in this play is unforgivingly bleak. But is it? Is it possible to see the redemptive qualities in Lear’s recognition of how he has failed to be a decent human being (as in the speech quoted above); is it possible to see the wonder and beauty of Lear’s reconciliation with Cordelia, even if it is only for a few hours before they both die:

Come, let’s away to prison;
We two alone will sing like birds i’ the cage
When thou dost ask me blessing, I’ll kneel down,
And ask of thee forgiveness: so we’ll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues
Talk of court news; and we’ll talk with them too,
Who loses and who wins; who’s in, who’s out; —
And take upon’s the mystery of things,
As if we were God’s spies: and we’ll wear out,
In a wall’d prison, packs and sects of great ones
That ebb and flow by the moon. 5.3.8-18

So there are huge questions to explore in this amazing play!

Sonnet 146 provides an amazing parallel to everything that is presented in King Lear.

Poor soul, the centre of my sinful earth,
Lord of these rebel powers that thee array?
Why dost thou pine within, and suffer dearth,
Painting thy outward walls so costly gay?
Why so large cost, having so short a lease,
Dost thou upon thy fading mansion spend?
Shall worms, inheritors of this excess,
Eat up thy charge? is this thy body’s end?
Then soul, live thou upon thy servant’s loss,
And let that pine to aggravate thy store;
Buy terms divine in selling hours of dross;
Within be fed, without be rich no more:
   So shalt thou feed on Death, that feeds on men,
   And, Death once dead, there’s no more dying then.

This sonnet speaks about the “rebel powers” that control us and destroy our inner balance, our equanimity. These are the “rebel powers” that Shakespeare present King Lear suffering from. It is not until he is able to see the controlling forces in his life from outside, from the perspective of being an outcast on the heath, that he is able to take the energy away from these “rebel powers”. It is at this point that his life begins to take a new shape, more in touch with his feelings, with his appreciation of the suffering of others, and more capacity for love. The last line of this powerful sonnet speaks of “Death once dead, there’s no more dying then”. Could this idea apply to Lear at the end of the play? Is his death less important than the inner realizations that he has managed to break through to, almost because of his madness. Think about it!

Blog topics for this week include:

1/ Write a letter to Cordelia, explaining to her how you see the problem that has arisen between her father and her.

2/Write a letter to Edgar telling him how you understand his reasons for taking on this amazing disguise of a Bedlam beggar.

3/Prepare a digital kit exploring the on-line film resources for King Lear.

4/ Give your own account of how you see Sonnet 146 paralleling the life of King Lear. Or maybe give an account  (in poetry or prose) of how you seen this Sonnet telling you something you need to know about where your own life energies are going.

5/ Create your own topic around an aspect of King Lear  that has touched your imagination.



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