Judy Kronenfeld, King Lear and the Naked Truth: Rethinking the Language of Religion and Resistance. Durham: Duke UP, 1998. 383 pp. ISBN 0 8223 2038 X Cloth.

Ken Jackson
University of Connecticut

Jackson, Ken. "Review of Judy Kronenfeld, King Lear and the Naked Truth." Early Modern Literary Studies 6.2 (September, 2000): 10.1-5 <URL:

  1. In his wonderfully lucid explanation of Jacques Derrida's work in On Deconstruction: Theory and Criticism after Structuralism, Jonathan Culler offers an aphorism, mainly for those anxious about the perceived threat of meaninglessness in deconstruction: "Meaning is context bound, but context is boundless" (123). In brief, Derrida never suggests that signifiers can not mean --of course we understand each other just fine in context; Derrida argues instead the more distinctly philosophical, as opposed to linguistic, point that firm boundaries for a given context can never be established. And the latter point does not contradict the former. To clarify further, Culler quotes Derrida in "Living On": "This is my starting point: no meaning can be determined out of context, but no context permits saturation. What I am referring to here is not richness of substance, semantic fertility, but rather structure, the structure of the remnant or of iteration" (123). Culler then goes on to discuss other key Derridean terms and concepts such as iterability and graft. But, to prevent this from becoming a review of Culler, Derrida, and deconstruction, I will stop here.

  2. It is an appropriate place to quit. For despite such explanations (or disclaimers) as Culler's, many literary critics have stopped reading Derrida at this point in his thought and have proceeded, wrongfully, to build arguments on the notion that Derrida did suggest an "infinite play of meaning" in the sense that there never is a common meaning or set of meanings for given statements. In short, many have used Derrida's work to suggest that we cannot locate common, shared interpretation(s) of a literary work in history. One understands, then, Judy Kronenfeld's efforts in King Lear and the Naked Truth to critique readings of Shakespeare's play that, informed by a mistaken assumption about Derrida and meaning (lessness), have removed important terms--"superflux," "excess," "distribution,"--from their historical context to suggest the play has specific political affiliations. For the most part, Kronenfeld targets "Marxist or neo-Marxist critics" (170) such as John Danby, Walter Cohen, and Jonathan Dollimore whose "poststructuralist historicism" have allowed them to see radical or subversive elements in the tragedy. In challenging these readings, Kronenfeld is marvelously successful, convincing the reader that
    the terms of Lear's and Gloucester's speeches -- which [certain] critics view as radical or subversive, are all terms that belong to the traditional and authoritative, not to say authoritarian, discourse of charity, a discourse used by Elizabethan and Jacobean legislators and administrators--city and town aldermen, justices of peace, church-wardens, and overseers of the poor--and by Anglican and Puritan ministers. The sentiments these words express are not radically egalitarian, but entirely compatible with homiletic exhortations to private and public charity, with the poor laws and other governmental mechanisms of charity, and with Protestant social thought as a whole.(172-73)

    Indeed, the chapter--"So Distribution Should Undo Excess, and Each Man Have Enough: Anabaptist Egalitarianism, Anglican Charity, Both, Neither?"--should be considered essential reading in King Lear scholarship. This includes the impressive list of primary sources dealing with early modern charity and poor relief. Kronenfeld has been, as she suggests is necessary, "painstakingly" historical in qualifying the arguments of widely influential historical critics.

  3. In fact, given the scope of the research, one might understand why, for Kronenfeld, context (contra Culler)does not seem boundless in any sense. The author has explored so thoroughly the context in which certain crucial terms were used that it might seem context has been "saturated." There is no room in this scholarship for "slippery signifiers." Based on a preponderance of the evidence, "distribution" means "private almsgiving" not "egalitarianism" or "levelling." To see it otherwise is to impose our understanding on Shakespeare. In earlier chapters, Kronenfeld has done much the same with "metaphors of nakedness and clothing," showing that "certain statements of value are more likely than others" (231). For example, one simply cannot categorize someone as Protestant because they employ the metaphor of the "naked truth" nor can someone be categorized as Catholic for valuing elegant apparel: "the 'values' of Lear do not inhere in a simple series of contrasted attributes (plainness, silence, the heart, what we feel, nakedness; ceremony, speech, the tongue, what we ought to say, gorgeous array) rigidly embodied in its characters and easily analogous to religious and political positions in Shakespeare's world" (91). The writer emphasizes the "common Christian culture" (91), the "shared values and concepts encoded even in language of opponents" (10). "Opposed parties" (28) chose from a similar range of metaphors. Because of this common range one can not easily identify political or religious affiliation: "the critic should not leap incautiously into the politics of metaphor" (30). More cautiously, Kronenfeld outlines a pattern or "grid" to understand these metaphors regardless of the speaker's politics or religion: "Clothing is not a good if the alternative is the naked truth" and "Clothing is a good if the alternative is a shameful or uncomely nakedness" (27). The analysis of the parameters of metaphor enhances her critique of readings which politicize Lear's "nakedness" or his comments on "gorgeous apparel."

  4. And, as suggested, the contextual parameters drawn do indeed seem firm. So much so that Kronenfeld is prompted to offer a "theory or meaning grounded in a way of thinking about language that is post-Saussurean, but not deconstructionist"(3). The author's "post-Saussurean extensionist linguistic theory" (53) holds out "the possibility there do exist meanings that are more salient than others (that is likely to be foregrounded in people's thoughts) for certain cultures at specific moments, and it shows a plausible case can be made for such salience" (7). Kronenfeld does make a plausible case for salience, but such insights do not, I think, theories make. The arguments here hardly refute or even deal with the central concerns of deconstruction and context. The chapter challenging Derrida's understanding of Saussure is very short. There is, for example, to return to my use of Culler at the outset, no discussion of graft or iterability. Rather, the arguments deal with those who actually believe that Derrida promotes linguistic relativism.

  5. This attempt at developing a theory does not undermine the historical research, but it does reduce the book's overall effectiveness. For example, the book begins on an odd and unpromising note, offering a "reasoned theoretical and practical alternative to both radical relativism and simplistic objectivism," thus begging a question: for who is the author writing, the "radical relativist" or the "simplistic objectivist"? The critic who believes words in Lear can mean anything or the critic who believes the words can mean only one thing for all times and all people? Things improve quickly in the second paragraph at the turn from the ambitiously theoretical to the "particular and practical" analysis, but a distracting bifurcation of focus persists throughout. Instead of admiring the list of works cited, those impressive primary sources, one begins seeing--in trying to assess the theory--its gaps. One finds Of Grammatology and Writing and Difference, but can a work so explicitly challenging deconstruction's claims about meaning and context ignore Limited Inc? Once suspicions are aroused, one moves back to the critique of Dollimore, et. al. How does Kronenfeld's "historical semiotics" deal with sophisticated Marxist readings that rely more on dramaturgical analysis than lexicon, e. g., Richard Halpern's treatment in The Poetics of Primitive Accumulation? And, if the central theoretical question involves deconstruction and history in the Renaissance, why is there so much on explanatory articles that summarize theoretical trends--Jean Howard's "The New Historicism in Renaissance Studies"--and no consideration of complex theoretical works like Terrence Cave's The Cornucopian Text? Theoretical problems aside, the historical research here is admirable and important. So much so that even a Derridean could think, if only for a moment, that context might not be "boundless."


Works Cited

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© 2000-, Lisa Hopkins (Editor, EMLS).