The dust jacket of Guy Story Brown’s Shakespeare’s Philosopher King: Reading the Tragedy of King Lear describes the book thus: “The reading shows The Tragedy of King Lear to be a broadly Thomistic portrayal of the problem and reality of kingship, in which there emerges an increasingly explicit and profound—and entirely unsentimental—Christianity that seems as much Augustinian as Thomistic.” One of the more frustrating aspects of Story Brown’s informative study of King Lear is that this statement offers the clearest articulation of the book’s argument. This is due largely to the structure of Shakespeare’s Philosopher King, which takes the form of a detailed scene-by-scene (and often line-by-line) commentary on the 1623 Folio text of the play. The strengths of Story Brown’s approach to King Lear are many. Nearly every puzzle in the plot and text of the play—from Lear’s initial motivation in issuing the love-test at the beginning, to the number and destination of the letter(s) sent by Lear by way of Kent to his daughter Regan, to the disappearance of the Fool after Act 3, Scene 6, to Edgar’s delay in revealing himself to his blinded father Gloucester in the fourth act, to Edmund’s delay in recalling his writ of execution against Cordelia—receives intelligent and provocative commentary. So, too, although Story Brown’s focus is the Folio version of Lear, the book evinces an interest in the discrepancies between the 1608 Quarto and 1623 Folio versions of King Lear, and is helpful in further establishing the significant political and religious differences between the two plays.
However, the major weakness of Story Brown’s methodology is that the central argument he hopes to advance about the Folio Lear, that it begins by engaging Aquinas’ presentation of political order and kingship and moves, by degrees, towards articulating and embracing an Augustinian political realism that is at once deeply Christian and far from cheery, is too often impeded by the glacial pace of the commentary itself. As a result, even when Story Brown makes a connection between the play and the writings of Aquinas or Augustine, the point is quickly swallowed back into the progressing commentary, and is not developed in a persuasive way. For example, Story Brown claims that when in Act 2 Lear asks Edgar, disguised as Tom o’ Bedlam, “whether there is any cause in nature that generates such hardness of hearts,” referring here to his recent treatment by Regan, the “allusion is to Thomas’s discussion of tyranny in On Kingship” (186). This assertion is supported only by a footnote pointing to Aquinas’ discussion of a tyrant’s “malice of heart” in paragraph 44 of On Kingship, and Story Brown neither attempts to show that Shakespeare might have read this text of Aquinas nor, a fortiori, that On Kingship’s discussion of tyranny informs the relationship between Lear and his daughters in the play. What Story Brown seems to have in mind is Aquinas’ observation that the deposer of a tyrant often becomes a “more grievous” tyrant himself, “inasmuch as, without abandoning the previous oppressions, he himself thinks up fresh ones from the malice of his heart” (Aquinas 25). In other words, Regan’s own hardness of heart is tied to her effective deposing of her father, and Lear’s tyranny (never mentioned as such by Story Brown, but entailed by the logic of his point) is replaced by the even greater tyranny of his daughters. This line of thinking has much to contribute to the difficult question of whether King Lear is a politically radical or conservative play. Lear, on Story Brown’s reading, would appear to be a tyrant, and yet his loss of power gives rise (in the short term at least) to an even worse tyranny. However, in this case, as in many others, Shakespeare’s Philosopher King fails to make explicit the interpretive arguments lying behind its proposed allusions.
This is truly a shame, because Story Brown’s reading of King Lear constitutes, on the whole, a valuable addition to Shakespeare studies, one that will be especially helpful for critics working in the much remarked religious turn in early modern literary scholarship. Whereas several of the most helpful Christian contextualizations of King Lear over the past three decades—such as Judy Kronenfeld’s King Lear and the Naked Truth and Joseph Wittreich’s Image of that Horror—develop correspondences between lexical and conceptual foci in the play and contemporary religious discourses in England involving clothing and nakedness or the Book of the Apocalypse, Shakespeare’s Philosopher King adopts a much longer historical view; in this commentary Shakespeare’s interlocutors are neither the figures of the Reformation (radical or otherwise), nor English prelates or royalty, but Augustine, Robert Grosseteste, Thomas Aquinas, and Roger Bacon—whose theory of optics is placed by Story Brown in fascinating relation with King Lear’s investigations into sight and blindness.
In Story Brown’s reading, the central figure of King Lear is Edgar. The play establishes, first, that “Edgar’s innocence…requires instruction, if it is not to remain merely simple or ‘foolish honesty’” (52). It then depicts Edgar’s education across the drama, through which his original innocence becomes “‘wise as serpents,’ adept at all that Gloucester (and Edmund) call ‘wisdom of nature’ (Genesis 3:1; esp. Matt 10:16) precisely to triumph over evil” (52). Casually referencing Dante’s description of comedy in the Epistle to Can Grande, Story Brown suggests that, because King Lear concludes with an educated or wise Edgar triumphing over his foes, “it may be properly and on the best authorities styled ‘comic’” (52). Story Brown’s thesis as to the comic trajectory of the Gloucester subplot is not original, but it is pursued in his commentary with a subtlety and detail that far exceeds its critical antecedents (Battenhouse, 1969; Morris, 1985; Peck, 1967).
As Story Brown suggests (but never actually states), the title of the book, “Shakespeare’s Philosopher King,” refers not to Lear, but to Edgar, who by the drama’s completion has not only been described as a philosopher (albeit by a crazed Lear) but has also assumed sole rule over the ruinous kingdom. Story Brown’s somewhat forced, but nonetheless intriguing, allegorical interpretation of Albany’s concluding address to Kent and Edgar—“Friends of my soul,” he says (5.3.296)—comes as close as any passage in the book to making this thesis explicit. Story Brown claims that Albany’s manner of address, rather than being merely an instance of courtly decorum, contains an entire psychology. For embedded in Albany’s address (so Story Brown argues) is a distinction between Lear, on the one hand, and Edgar and Kent on the other. Lear represents the “body”—both the physical body and “the figure of de corpore politico”—while Kent and Edgar represent different parts of the soul (344). Kent, who refuses Albany’s invitation to rule on the grounds that “I have a journey, sir, shortly to go; / My master calls me, I must not say no” (5.3.328-29) symbolizes the sensus communis, which “begins in the senses of the body (Aquinas)” and cannot exist without the body. Edgar, though, symbolizes the intellectus, the immaterial part of the soul that survives the body’s corruption:
Intellectus, King Edgar, Lear’s godson and true heir…closes the presentation and the play, saying that the burden of our time in the flesh must be borne by helping others, speaking true sense, not made out of considerations of policy, authority,
fashionable correctness, or be pretending to be wiser than we are.
Besides the obvious quibble here—Is this what Edgar really says?—there are two main difficulties with Story Brown’s doubtless creative interpretation of Albany’s speech, each of which is in some sense paradigmatic of Shakespeare’s Philosophy King taken as a whole. First, as is quite clear in the present instance, Story Brown combines an admirable attention to minute details of language, character, and plot with a tendency to subsume these details into allegorical structures whose relevance is not always readily apparent, and whose rigidity at times undermines the best qualities of Story Brown’s slow, careful, and sensitive approach to the text of the play. Secondly, even assuming the validity of Story Brown’s interpretation of Edgar as “intellectus” (and more generally as the “Philosopher King”), we are left wondering how, exactly, this identification matches up with the dust jacket’s synopsis of the book’s argument. What proposes itself to us as a reading of King Lear in which the dialectic between Thomist and Augustinian views of social and political life becomes ever more central to the world of the play concludes by alluding to Plato’s Republic. The Thomistic vocabulary of “sensus communis,” “intellectus,” and the like only superficially alters what is—it seems to me— essentially a Platonic thesis concerning the best regime (the one in which philosophers rule) and a claim to find this thesis embodied in the plot of King Lear.
Shakespeare’s Philosopher King thus offers an interesting, and quite often brilliant, commentary on the Folio text of the play that is most illuminating in its discussion of particular scenes and cruxes of the plot. The book suffers from a lack of immediate historical contextualization and clear argumentation (and it is marked by too many typographical errors), but it nonetheless provides a very helpful avenue for thinking anew about the details of Shakespeare’s tragedy.
Aquinas, Thomas. On Kingship to the King of Cyrus. Trans. G.B. Phelan and T. Eschmann. Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, 1949.
Battenhouse, Roy W. Shakespearean Tragedy: Its Art and Christian Premises. Bloomington, IN: Indiana UP, 1969.
Kronenfeld, Judy. King Lear and the Naked Truth: Rethinking the Language of Religion and Resistance. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 1998.
Morris, Harry. Last Things in Shakespeare. Tallahasse, FL: U of Florida P, 1985.
Peck, Russell A. “Edgar’s Pilgrimage: High Comedy in King Lear,” Studies in English Literature 1500-1900. 7.2 (1967): 219-237.
Wittreich, Joseph. Image of that Horror: History, Prophecy, and Apocalypse in King Lear. San Marino, CA: The Huntington Library, 1984.
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