Selfhood: The Need for External Acknowledgement in Shakespeare’s King Lear “The impermanence of power and place. That man had it all, but only for a time.”1
In William Shakespeare’s King Lear, the dialog in the hovel between Lear and Edgar, disguised as the mad beggar Poor Tom, represents the pivotal moment in Lear’s path to redemption through self-discovery. Lear’s path to self-discovery begins when he experiences a psychological struggle over the loss of his royal sovereign power and the loss of his role as a father. Shakespeare hints at Lear’s brewing identity crisis when Regan clarifies that Lear’s problem is not only his age, but also his self-identity. Regan states: “’Tis the infirmity of his age, yet he hath ever but slenderly known himself” (1.1.294-5). Later Lear questions Kent in disguise as the servant Caius. Lear states: “Dost thou know me, fellow” (1.4.26)?2 Another hint of Lear’s
impending identity crisis comes when Goneril states:
These dispositions, which of late transport you
From what you rightly are. (1.4.213-4)
The identity crisis becomes clear when later in Act 1, Lear states: Does any here know me? Why, this is not Lear. …
Who is it that can tell me who I am? (1.4.217-21)
Friedman, Thomas. “Power is Fleeting, Baker Reflects,” The New York Times, February 2, 1990. Secretary of State James Baker describes his reaction to seeing a former White House Chief of Staff from a prior administration, walking alone on the street without any of the trappings of power. !2
Shakespeare, William. King Lear. in The Arden Shakespeare King Lear, New York: Bloomsbury, 2014. All future references to the text of the play will refer to this edition by listing the (Act/scene/line numbers).
As he divides his kingdom and abdicates his throne, Lear tries to maintain a sense of self-identity despite being surrounded by a changing political and social environment. Eventually Lear slips into madness as he struggles with a crisis of identity. Lear cannot resolve his identity crisis until he relinquishes his old self and accepts a new concept of selfhood. Examining Lear’s dialog with Poor Tom, illuminates Shakespeare’s method of communicating to the audience how and why Lear resolves his identity crisis.
More illuminating than considering Lear’s identity crisis through standard literary critical analysis, one can better understand Lear’s struggle through a philosophical lens. The philosophical ideas Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s regarding the formation of selfhood, helps explain how Shakespeare presents his theme of self-discovery in King Lear. Hegel contends that inwardness of selfhood can only develop in an environment which includes external social interaction.3 As Lear encounters the storm, he finds himself at the peak of his psychological
struggle. The storm prepares Lear to face his identity crisis. When Lear seeks shelter from the storm in the hovel, he still holds on to a vestige of his former identity. Through his conversation with Poor Tom, Lear eventually emerges from the hovel enlightened and transformed with a new self-identity. Thus, through a Hegelian lens, King Lear is a play about social interaction and human nature.
Consistent with Hegel’s philosophy regarding the formation of selfhood, Poor Tom serves as the necessary external interaction which Lear requires to unify his internal and external selfhood. This paper argues that Shakespeare uses Poor Tom’s feint at madness as a means for
Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich. “Phenomenology of Spirit,” The Norton Anthology of Theory & Criticism. 2nd ed. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch, New York: Norton, 2010. p. 541.
Lear to come into knowledge which enables Lear to resolve his identity crisis. Additionally this paper extends the argument by stating that without any interaction with a person independent of the king’s former court, Lear could not achieve a new self-identity.
Cited: Flesch, William. Generosity and the Limits of Authority: Shakespeare, Herbert, Milton. Ithaca:
Cornell University Press, 1992
Friedman, Thomas. “Power is Fleeting, Baker Reflects,” The New York Times, February 2, 1990.
Fry, Northrop. Fools of Time: Studies in Shakespearean Tragedy. Toronto: University of
Toronto Press, 1967
Shakespeare, William. King Lear. in The Arden Shakespeare King Lear, New York:
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