Action and Observation in King Lear
Auden once asserted that Shakespearean tragedy is necessarily parabolic, pertaining to the only myth that Christianity possesses: that of the 'unrepentant thief'. We as the spectators are thus implicated in the action since each of us 'is in danger of re-enacting [this story] in his own way'.1 The sufferings of the hero could be our own sufferings, whereas in Greek tragedy, such a notion is precluded precisely because the misfortunes of a character can be traced back to the discontent of the gods. Hippolytus is not a moral agent; Hamlet is. The aesthetic of Shakespearean tragedy is therefore dynamic, with an audience that, to a certain extent, are also participants. Auden proposes a model of observing based upon an Aristotelian conception of drama, one that involves the spectator in an emotional relationship with the characters on stage. King Lear too, offers the audience several quite distinct paradigms of both observation and action, and crucially, it is on the varying successes of these models that the tragedy hinges.
One does not need to look far in King Lear for a figure that might fit Auden's mould. Kent surely embodies that which Schlegel termed the 'science of compassion' in the play.2 He is publicly traduced and humiliated by Lear in Act I, Scene 1, and yet, in the guise of Caius, risks his life in order to serve his king still. Kent observes Lear's 'hideous rashness' (I.i.153) and he is motivated into participating in his master's sufferings:
I have a journey, sir, shortly to go;
My master calls me; I must not say no. (V.iii.323-324)
The simple rhyme, metric balance, and monosyllabic plainness of this couplet infuse the lines with a sense of tenderness. Kent's final, elegiac words are, like all his utterances, free of hyperbole and emotionally raw. Throughout the play his response to the action parallels the audience's own. Kent is the mouthpiece of the spectators when he entreats Lear to 'see better' (I.i.159), and his dismay at Cordelia's death, 'Is this the promised end?' (V.iii.264), speaks volumes. However, this should not hide the fact that Kent as a character is ineffectual. His final words do not embody an attempt to resolve or rectify, they are truly fatalistic. Kent then, is the Aristotelian observer. He participates in the action only by way of 'pity' for Lear, and the result is that he shares his master's fate. His observations lead him to emotionalise events, and much like Dr Johnson, who found King Lear 'too horrid to be endured', he 'sees feelingly'.3
But King Lear is a play of antitheses, and one might find a second, opposing model of observation in the character of Edgar. In Act III, disguised as Poor Tom, he is confronted by his aberrant, rain-beaten godfather, and though he fears that his distress may betray his 'counterfeiting' (III.vi.59-60), he does maintain his composure. Equally, in the following Act, when presented...