Self and Metamorphosis: Flight and Charity in ‘Lear’

By Nicholas Luke, The University of Queensland

There is a man, Edgar, and he has missed the seminal scene. He wasn’t there when the king raged and the kingdom split but was somewhere else, we don’t know where. Perhaps he had other plans. Or perhaps he didn’t yet exist, for we don’t hear him named or spoken of. His brother was there, however, younger, vital, electric in his desire, railing against the quirks of culture and circumstance that render him illegitimate Edmond to ‘Legitimate Edgar’ (1.2.16). He names Edgar, mocks him and plots to take his land. And so Edgar comes into existence as a ‘character’ in King Lear. We may start to imagine a man, but he is yet to arrive on stage so is still not a man. His brother is a man, ‘O [such a] man!’ (4.2.26). He moves the pieces and arranges it all, so that when Edgar enters he does so into his brother’s hands: ‘and pat he comes, like the catastrophe of the old comedy’ (1.2.122). Edgar arrives as a puppet, a dolt, onstage but barely real.

'King Lear, Edgar and the fool' by George Romney, c.1734-1802. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
‘King Lear, Edgar and the fool’ by George Romney, c.1734-1802. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

This not-yet-man, Edgar, next appears as Kent prays in the stocks for a miracle that will ‘give / Losses their remedies’ (2.2.161–2). (Edgar will later take it upon himself to stage such ‘miracles’ for his father.) Kent’s prayer cues Edgar’s emergence from his hidden chrysalis: ‘I heard myself proclaimed, / And by the happy hollow of a tree / Escaped the hunt’ (2.3.1–2). It is here that Edgar begins to speak as an active, self-regarding, poetic character – one who realises the need to put on a disguise: ‘[I] am bethought / To take the basest and most poorest shape’ (2.3.6–7). He begins to plot, to stage a theatre, rather than be staged by his brother. However, this is no simple ‘self’ but rather an ongoing process of metamorphosis. Hugh Grady writes:

Edgar begins his strange series of metamorphoses after, in his turn, being disowned and losing the name of his father, by hiding in “the happy hollow of a tree” (II. iii. 2) and proclaiming, “Edgar I nothing am” (II. iii. 21).[1]

Most immediately, Edgar’s emergence into something more than a foppish gull or puppet entails his immediate disappearance into his ‘disguise’ (if it is a disguise) of ‘Poor Tom’, who will ‘Enforce their charity. Poor Turlygod! poor Tom! / That’s something yet! Edgar I nothing am’ (2.3.20–1). He is here and not here, Edgar and Poor Tom, a disappearing act that conjures something that was not already there.

It is interesting to think of Edgar’s metamorphosis in light of one of Shakespeare’s favourite sources: Ovid’s Metamorphoses. In Ovid, when a person (or mythological figure) undergoes a change there is also a recognisable and recognised continuity. As Caroline Walker Bynum notes, ‘something perdures’ through Ovid’s metamorphoses, even through ‘transformation[s] that carr[y] [the] self far into otherness’.[2] Even as people become other species, vegetables or solar formations, there is continuity either of an essential nature (Lycon is savage, the wolf is savage) or will (the foolish wish of Sibyl).

In 3.4, when Edgar next enters, however, it’s hard to say he’s Edgar at all. Shakespeare disconnects the two states, the before and after, so that there is barely any communication between them. Edgar wasn’t really ‘there’ before and now he speaks only as ‘Poor Tom’. There are no asides or winks through which Edgar reveals that it is really ‘him’. Of course, there is some continuity: Edgar’s body, the role, the actor. Perhaps, at a stretch, we could discern something of Ovid’s foolish wish mechanism: Edgar wishes to take on the basest shape and Shakespeare gives it to him – brutally. And yet, Edgar’s disguise seems less the wish of a sovereign self than a sort of flight reflex: a flight reflex from his father and (if he knew it) his brother, but also from the social world, its economies of exchange and its functional language.

Apollo and Daphne by Piero del Pollaiolo c.1470–80. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
‘Apollo and Daphne’ by Piero del Pollaiolo c.1470–80. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

In his flight he also shares something with Ovid’s terrified female characters whose flights from the ravagings of the gods end with a metamorphosis into something thing-y and inhuman, often a tree. Daphne is archetypal, fleeing from Apollo. She prays to be transformed so as to ‘destroy / [Her] baleful beauty that has pleased too well’, and of course she becomes a laurel. Ironically enough, the continuity between Daphne and tree is what, in the eyes of the predatory divinity, has always been her defining aspect: ‘all that remained / Of Daphne was her shining loveliness’. She has not destroyed her beauty, only its baleful penetrability. Apart from the fact that he does not turn into a tree but merely turns within one, there are two fundamental differences with Edgar. First, it is unclear what quality ‘perdures’ in the initially quality-less Edgar. If ‘shining beauty’ connects Daphne and laurel, what connects Edgar and Poor Tom? Perhaps a sort of ‘nothingness’: Edgar is empty, a plaything of his fiendish brother, and Poor Tom too is without self-possession, a plaything to the ‘fiend’ (or at least to Shakespeare). Both are blanks, then, fit for devilish manipulation and penetration. And a blank is something altogether different – metaphysically suggestive, filled with unseen possibility – than shinning loveliness.

The second, rather obvious, difference between Poor Tom and a laurel is speech. The laurel Daphne does not speak while Tom speaks incessantly. His blankness is not silence but an excess of speech and of subject positions that seem to wash away the footing of the ‘I’ that speaks. We are lost in a devilish matryoshka doll of possession in which Edgar plays Tom, and Tom Edgar, and Tom, pursued by the foul fiend, in turn plays proud ‘serving-man’ (3.4.80) and is forcibly possessed by ‘Five fiends … at once; of lust’ (4.2.59). If Tom embodies a flight reflex, it is a flight reflex from language in torrents of language, from self in multiple selves, from nothing into nothing self-multiplying in the ‘lake of darkness’ (3.6.7). Pursued by the ‘foul fiend’ (3.4.46), Tom unleashes a blast of wild poetry that is fundamentally more alive in language and body than what was already there: ‘Bless thy five wits! Tom’s a-cold – O, do, de, do, de, do de. Bless thee from whirlwinds, star-blasting, and taking. Do poor Tom some charity’ (3.4.57–9).

Ovid has Apollo pin down the meaning of Daphne’s continuity whereas Edgar seems to disappear into his metamorphosis. This is what gives the part its haunting, haunted, quality. Selves flash in and out of existence with the lightning flashes of the storm. ‘Edgar’ is a noble, conformist thing of the court and then he is gone. ‘Tom’ is a creature of some timeless spiritual netherworld of ‘the night-mare and her nine-fold’ (3.4.111) and then he is gone. There is a blurring of the single perspective that gives the self its unity – the fact that I see through my eyes; that my sense, experience and memory are mine. Rather, the first self (if Edgar is a self) suffers amnesia. But the amnesia is not simply a blank, for a second self takes his place. Then another. It is, in modern parlance, schizophrenic.

And yet, the line of flight is not unproductive, for it is a flight into poetry, and, in some strange sense, into blessing and charity. Pursued by the fiend, Poor Tom both demands (‘Do poor Tom some charity’) and is demanded by charity: his entrance is cued by Lear’s famous prayer for the ‘Poor naked wretches’ (3.4.29). And he in turn enforces a more extreme charity of Lear: his stripping down in the storm, his tearing off the lendings of kingship, his madness. Charity, it seems, is enforced in flight, in utter self-loss, in poetic annihilation. Extirpation is the path to regeneration. In Lear, of course, regeneration is famously and tragically blocked. But Edgar goes on. I would suggest, in closing, that he points to the purged, discontinuous figures of the late plays and their fraught and painful resurrections. He is a gateway to Shakespearean romance not when he (unconvincingly) dons the role of a romance ‘hero’ in Act 5, but in his shattered metamorphosis into Tom. The vacuous half-lobotomised Pericles is next. Then deranged Leontes, destroying his family, sequestered in a cell of shame. Their abjections pointing crookedly, perhaps, toward another man on a tree and another harrowing: toward a dark and twisted charity.

Nicholas Luke is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow with the ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions, based at The University of Queensland. His research focuses primarily on Shakespeare, which he connects with interests in philosophy, religion and law. Nick began his studies at UQ, completing degrees in Arts and Law, before moving to Oxford as a Queensland Rhodes Scholar where he completed an MSt and a DPhil in English literature. Before joining CHE he taught at The University of Hong Kong. Nick’s first book, Shakespearean Arrivals: The Birth of Character, has recently been published with Cambridge University Press (2018).

[1] Hugh Grady, Shakespeare’s Universal Wolf: Studies in Early Modern Reification (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996), p. 145.

[2] Caroline Walker Bynum, Metamorphosis and Identity (New York: Zone Books, 2005), pp. 32–33.


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