bardseyeview

A Shakespearean Glance at the People and Issues of the Day.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Lear's Edmund and Liberalism

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The birth of a new faith often goes unnoticed. This is particularly true where the faith is a G-dless* one, lacking both church and charity. The definition of communism as a G-dless religion has been put forward before, and it makes sense in many ways. Its adherents' core credos - state ownership of production, collectivist rather than individual identity and the crushing of dissent as a means of achieving an ideal - were always more articles of faith than products of reason. For G-d the Soviets merely substituted nature – though they preferred the term material (hence, materialism; all is matter, nothing is spirit). In King Lear, Shakespeare has his villain Edmund do precisely the same thing, as he announces his vision of life in Act I:

Edm: "Thou, Nature, art my goddess; to thy law
My services are bound. Wherefore should I
Stand in the plague of custom and permit
The curiosity of nations to deprive me,
For that I am some twelve or fourteen moonshines
Lag of a brother? Why bastard? Wherefore base?"

So communism and Edmundism are both quasi-faiths that substitute nature, or what is material, for what is spiritual. And what Edmund and the communists both seem to share as a result is a hostility toward G-dly faith and traditional morality ("the plague of custom"). Well, if all you recognize is the world of things, of material, you will be threatened by people who, beyond this world, see not nothing, but something.

Edmund, of course, is a bastard. He is some twelve or fourteen months short of being legitimate (his parents married a bit too late, making his younger brother Edgar the legitimate heir, the cause of Edmund's irritation). Of course, such accidents of birth are not held against people today, so to make sense of Edmund now, it is useful to interpret the concept of his illegitimacy more broadly.

Let Edmund represent those people who place themselves outside of the great chain of being, the chain that places all the rest of us squarely between ancestor and descendant, with all the corresponding obligations that entails. With Edmund, Shakespeare is commenting on those persons who carry a self-image of exceptionalism, of being special and not subject to the usual rules (the "curiosity of nations," meaning the approval or disapproval of one's peers).

And who would such people be today? Why, liberals.

Here Edmund announces his (liberal) opinion that he carries more vitality than do usual, legitimate men. His novel reasoning is that when most men are conceived (within marriage), their conception is a bit dull and routine – compared to a furtive, exciting, adulterous conception like Edmund's own – and duller conceptions render duller men:

Edm: "When my dimensions are as well compact,
My mind as generous, and my shape as true,
As honest madam's issue? Why brand they us
With base? With baseness? Bastardy? Base, base?
Who in the lusty stealth of nature take
More composition and fierce quality
Than doth within a dull, stale, tired bed
Go to th' creating a whole tribe of fops
Got 'tween asleep and wake?"

In other words, the more you break the rules, the more power you acquire. But at what cost this power is acquired, what Faustian bargain is involved, Edmund does not say. Shakespeare does say, however, as we follow Edmund to his ultimate downfall.

In Edmund and King Lear we see Shakespeare diagnose, 400 years ago, a philosophy or a psychology or a faith comprised of G-d-denying self-assertion, a faith that reappears, century after century, whether as a Napoleonic will to dominate, or a Nietchean will-to-power, or as any of the 20th century forms of communism or fascism that were based on a leader's cult of personality, or - today - as the liberalism that seeks to evade or overthrow any traditional restraints on self-centered pleasure, any call to sacrifice, to charity, to care, to the placing of others before oneself.

Edm: "Legitimate Edgar, I must have your land.
Our father's love is to the bastard Edmund
As to th' legitimate. Fine word, "legitimate"!
Well, my legitimate, if this letter speed
And my invention thrive, Edmund the base
Shall top th' legitimate. I grow. I prosper.
Now, gods, stand up for bastards!"



* In Judaism, one doesn't write G-d's complete name, and hence the missing letter. This is because He is considered essentially nameless. Any appellation we use for Him is merely for our convenience, a place marker for an eternal and unknowable creator and imbuer of moral knowledge.

P.S.: Here's a related post from the estimable, hard blogging Don Surber. (Where does he find the time?) (Or Try Don'>Here ).

And here's a related post from the always recommendable Generation Why?

And a Liberalism-related post from the always recommendable Ace of Spades.

And here's a good one from Confederate Yankee.

And here's one from the estimable Political Teen!

Here's another related post from Confederate Yankee.
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