In his study Shakespeare: Time and Conscience, Grigori Kozintsev expresses how the plot of King Lear sets in motion “an unstoppable avalanche of the fragments of structures, attitudes, ties, all intermingled in frenzied movement”. Indeed, Shakespeare’s “great” tragedy is a play of extremes, with its presentation of intolerable suffering and devastating conclusion almost rendering the play unfathomable. Yet it remains possible to discern the thematic structure of wandering and return, largely through the physical and mental journey of King Lear, coupled with Shakespeare’s use of the recurring metaphors of sight, perception and blindness. Moreover, the indiscriminate ruthlessness of the forces of nature within the play raises pertinent questions about whether a true return, or “nostos”, can ever be achieved in the harsh and unforgiving world that Shakespeare evokes.
First and foremost, Shakespeare’s play explores the physical wanderings of its protagonist, marking the tumultuous journey from Lear’s palace to Dover through an unforgiving storm. As a consequence of their respective self-centredness and naivety, both King Lear and the Earl of Gloucester fall from a state of prosperity and comfort, causing them to flee from civilisation and witness their political authority slip into the hands of disloyal offspring. The increasing impotence of Lear in regard to his drifting status is aptly symbolised by the dismissal of his knights, a poignant loss that prompts Kozintsev to write of a sheltered “microcosm” in which Lear inhabits prior to his downfall, thus leaving him unexposed to the cruel reality of life. In this sense, Lear’s departure from regal autocracy to helpless destitution shatters his superficial existence, forcing him to grapple with the concepts of guilt, injustice, and the naked extremes of human suffering.
The physical journey undertaken by Lear is effectively coupled with a mental wandering as the King’s hardships trigger a descent into insanity. Madness, or the threat of madness, hangs menacingly over the play as a whole, reaching a peak in Lear’s climactic expression of psychological disturbance during the storm of Act III Scene II. Using fiery and impetuous language, Lear reveals his antic disposition by challenging the destructive elements to “spout / Till you have drenched the steeples” and “Singe my white head”, thus exposing an association between the storm and his own state of mind. This expression of madness is not solely confined to this instance – throughout his degrading journey to Dover, Lear’s speech is littered with non-sequiturs and fractured expressions of torment (“O, well flown, bird, in the air. Ha! Give the word”), striking a sharp contrast to the flowing blank verse of the King’s opening address. Therefore, the symbolic significance of the storm reminds us that, while a connection between nature and the human mind does exist, humanity is constantly at the mercy of natural forces beyond its control.
In this way, Lear’s psychological wanderings cause him to embrace the primitivism of the natural world, leading him to adorn himself in weeds and flowers in the cornfields of Dover. His naked vulnerability in the face of the “dreadful pother” of nature points towards the relative unimportance of man, with the pathetic fallacy of the storm exposing nature’s utter indifference to human suffering. Lear subsequently recognises that once materialistic goods and simpering words of flattery are stripped away from an individual, man becomes nothing more than base products of nature.
It is this poignant communion with nature’s rawness that forces the audience to confront the pitiless and inflexible laws of the world, making it necessary to question whether the concept of a “return” is feasible within the context of this tragic play. The hopelessness that permeates King Lear is best encapsulated in the lines uttered by a blinded and desperate Gloucester in Act IV Scene I:
As flies to wanton boys are we to th’ gods
They kill us for their sport.
Gloucester’s anguished words, augmented by Shakespeare’s repetition of the word “nothing” throughout (“nothing can come of nothing”), evinces a troubling sense of nihilism within the play. As Kenneth Muir identifies, both Pagan and Christian qualities are present in King Lear, a religious ambiguity that possibly enabled Shakespeare to explore the idea of a world without moral order or justice. This sense of chaotic disorder is intensified by the apocalyptic dialogue adopted during the play’s tragic conclusion, culminating in Kent’s haunting question: “Is this the promised end?” Shakespeare shocks the audience with the outcome of the battle and lets the good die alongside the morally corrupt, making it difficult to identify a reasoning behind the horrifying events of the play. The nineteenth century critic, Algernon Swinburne, therefore argues that Shakespeare’s tragedy is a “terrible work of human genius” through the way in which it renders certain words, such as “redemption”, “pity” and “mercy”, absolutely meaningless. In the light of this, it is possible to conclude that the process of wandering, in both a literal and psychological sense, is fruitless, as the brutality of nature’s forces ensures that a resolution or return is not possible.
However, this interpretation arguably undermines the spiritual journey undertaken by both Lear and Gloucester throughout their ordeal – an aspect that suggests there is a sense of restoration at work in the play. For example, note Shakespeare’s use of foreshadowing in Act I Scene I, where Gonoril hyperbolically quantifies her “love” for Lear as “Dearer than eyesight, space, or liberty”. It is a cruel irony that these three concepts are the ones that are snatched away from Lear and Gloucester following their disastrous errors of judgement, yet it presents the possibility that the characters’ great misfortunes could have been averted. Rather than “make guilty of our own disasters the sun, the moon, and the stars”, as Edmund scornfully accuses his own father of doing, perhaps men should learn from their own blunders. Thus, the motif of blindness, in both a literal and figurative sense, is exercised to great effect, highlighting the discrepancy between sight and true vision. While it requires the forcible removal of his eyes for Gloucester to appreciate his son’s true nature, Lear’s child-like moral blindness in initiating a “love contest” between his daughters grows into a new sense of insight and wisdom over the course of his wanderings. An example of this awareness can be seen during the symbolic storm, where Lear displays an unprecedented degree of empathy and compassion for others:
Poor naked wretches, wheresoe’er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless night,
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your looped and windowed raggedness, defend you
From seasons such as these?
Although the two fathers have cruelly lost the faculties of sanity and sight, they have both gained the sensitivity and understanding needed to survive, both inside the palace walls and beyond, therefore suggesting that wandering is not simply a fact of life, but also a necessity.
As a consequence, it could be argued that a “return” of sorts does occur – albeit fleetingly – in the form of reconciliation between father and child. Before their deaths, both Lear and Gloucester briefly reunite with their faithful children, acknowledging their innocence and perhaps even temporarily restoring the “natural order” through the process of forgiveness – a short-lived moment, yet undoubtedly one of intense joy. Therefore, rather than pointing towards the absence of order and sense in the world, the tragic sequence of events in King Lear possibly illustrates how humanity can be brought to extremes, whether in terms of loss, greed, or love.
In conclusion, it is clear that the theme of wandering can be found throughout King Lear, and largely manifests itself through the physical and mental journeying of the protagonist. It could be further claimed that the spiritual development of both Lear and Gloucester paves the way for a form of “return” and reconciliation. Even so, this moral awakening comes too late and the play inevitably results in tragedy, possibly suggesting that true “nostos” can only be achieved through the consolation of death, which alleviates the pain that the “fearful slumber” of mortal life entails.
Grigori Kozintsev, Shakespeare: Time and Conscience. (London: Dobson Books Ltd, 1967), pp. 64-8.
Dieter Mehl, Shakespeare’s Tragedies: An Introduction. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), p. 92.
Kenneth Muir, Shakespeare’s Tragic Sequence. (London: Routledge, 1972), pp. 140-1.
Algernon Charles Swinburne, “A Study of Shakespeare” . In “The King Lear Perplex”, Ed. Helmut Bonheim. (California: Wadsworth Publishing Company, Inc., 1960), p. 38.