Not All is Cheerless, Dark and Deadly in King Lear
‘All’s Cheerless, Dark and Deadly’ Are Kent’s Words a Fair Summary of The Tragedy of King Lear?
Samuel Johnson asserted that the blinding of Gloucester was an ‘act too horrid to be endured in a dramatic exhibition’, and that he was ‘too shocked’ by the death of Cordelia to read the play again until he was given the task of editing it.1 Nor was Dr Johnson alone in finding himself unable to stomach the violence and apparent injustices that unfold in King Lear. The 18th century certainly found the play ‘all cheerless’ and preferred Nahum Tate’s 1681 watered-down version of Shakespeare’s original.
King Lear is a dark play, with the near triumph of the malcontent Edmund, the intense sufferings of Lear and Gloucester, and the seeming lack of justice at the piece’s conclusion. Shakespeare locates his tragedy in an extreme and entropic universe that makes his audience uncomfortable, and indeed is supposed to. On its own, the sheer violence of Act III.7 bears witness to Kent’s nihilistic utterance at the plays close. However, Lear’s universe, as I have just stated, is one of extremes, and not merely negative ones. As A.C. Bradley notes:
There is in the world of King Lear the same abundance of extreme good as of extreme evil. It generates in profusion self-less devotion and unconquerable love.2
The play contains a cluster of characters that are unequivocally good. Kent, for instance, is a paradigm of devotion. In Act I.I he is publicly insulted and humiliated. In spite of Lear’s threats, Kent remains determined to serve his master, even braving the storm to be near him. Cordelia too, is traduced and punished by Lear, and yet she is the…
… condemned to short lives – ‘nor live so long’. Edgar’s closing words are disturbingly equivocal. They allude to the antithesis constantly at work in the play a mixture of hope and despair. Perhaps the couplet is ultimately nihilistic, and the play as a whole equally so. Redemption remains unattained. However, while I would agree that Kent’s words that ‘All’s cheerless, dark and deadly’ may be the overriding message of the tragedy, I do not believe that King Lear can be simply summed up in such a comment. To do such a thing would be to see the drama two-dimensionally to ignore the world of polarities, of good as well as evil, which Shakespeare creates in which to hold his play.
1 Johnson as Critic, ed. John Wain, Routledge & Kegan Paul 1973, pp. 216-217
2 A. C. Bradley, Shakespearian Tragedy, Macmillan 1908, pp. 304 -305