Conservative Extremists as King Lear

Ian McKellen as King Lear

Ian McKellen as King Lear


Of the major stories from this past year, one of the most remarkable is the supposedly lame duck Barack Obama carrying out some of the most promising initiatives of his presidency. We don’t know for sure, of course, how the international climate change accord or the agreement to stop Iran from developing a nuclear weapon will pan out. If they do, however, it will mean that Obama has been one of America’s most consequential presidents—and this in the face of unrelenting opposition from a GOP in charge of the legislative branch.

The hijacking of the GOP by its right wing shows no sign of abating. I could have chosen any one of innumerable posts about Donald Trump, but I’m reprinting instead an essay discussing how Republican members of Congress actively appealed to the Iranian mullahs to sabotage the deal Obama and Russia, China, Germany, France, and England were trying to strike with Iranian moderates. The parallels with King Lear jump off the page.

Lear’s Lesson: Dividing Leads to War, reprinted from March 12, 2015

Teaching King Lear while watching GOP members of Congress attempt to sabotage negotiations with Iran is prompting me to make some unexpected connections. It’s certainly got me focused on the politics of the play.

Those politics were problematic from the first. When France invades English shores, who were British audiences supposed to root for? Shakespeare couldn’t let France win, but having it lose leads to the death of Cordelia and Lear. For that matter, theatergoers must have felt somewhat queasy that both Kent and Gloucester are collaborating with an invading army.

Here’s Kent behaving a bit like Senator Tom Cotton and the other members of the Senate by making contact with the enemy:

But, true it is, from France there comes a power
Into this scatter’d kingdom; who already,
Wise in our negligence, have secret feet
In some of our best ports, and are at point
To show their open banner. Now to you:
If on my credit you dare build so far
To make your speed to Dover, you shall find
Some that will thank you, making just report
Of how unnatural and bemadding sorrow
The king hath cause to plain.
I am a gentleman of blood and breeding;
And, from some knowledge and assurance, offer
This office to you.

And here’s Gloucester confiding to his son Edmund (who will betray him) that he is secretly dealing with “a power already footed” (the French). The vision that “these injuries the king now bears will be revenged home” sounds as though he’s hoping that the French will make his current king pay for Lear’s mistreatment.

I have locked the letter in my closet: these injuries the king now bears will be revenged home; there’s part of a power already footed: we must incline to the king. I will seek him, and privily relieve him: go you and maintain talk with the duke, that my charity be not of him perceived: if he ask for me. I am ill, and gone to bed. Though I die for it, as no less is threatened me, the king my old master must be relieved. 

To be sure, the GOP may not mind being compared to Kent and Gloucester. Shakespeare’s two lords are dealing secretly with the enemy for a noble cause while the GOP senators are similarly claiming the moral high ground. If Cornwall, Regan and Goneril are perturbed by their behavior, just as Obama doesn’t want the GOP appealing to Iran’s rightwing mullahs to blow up his deal, well, that means that Obama is like these awful characters and doesn’t deserve to be followed.

But let me suggest a different parallel. In working actively against the president as he tries to hammer out a deal with Iran, Britain, France, Germany, China and Russia, the GOP resembles Lear, who divides a country that should remain united. Lear’s wildly irresponsible action ensures that a civil war will break out, which in turn sets up a scenario where a foreign country will invade. Governing is hard and Lear would rather carouse in his daughters’ houses with his hundred knights. He’d rather (to put it in terms of current GOP right wingers) vent like a talk show host about how he’s being mistreated by those who are trying to run the kingdom. It feels good but it’s not what grown-ups should do.

The United States isn’t in danger of being invaded, but these divisive politics—I include John Boehner’s invitation to Benjamin Netanyahu in this—threaten to involve the United States in a disastrous war. If the talks break down and Iran goes full steam ahead on a nuclear bomb, then the United States might choose to attack. The resulting conflagration would be far, far worse than anything we have seen in Afghanistan or Iraq.

But why should I strive to describe a world in chaos when Shakespeare does it so much better. Here’s Gloucester:

[L]ove cools, friendship falls off, brothers divide: in cities, mutinies; in countries, discord; in palaces, treason; and the bond cracked ‘twixt son and father. This villain of mine comes under the prediction; there’s son against father: the king falls from bias of nature; there’s father against child. We have seen the best of our time: machinations, hollowness, treachery, and all ruinous disorders, follow us disquietly to our graves. 

There are two paths we can follow. Like the egotistical Lear, we can act out of our insecurities and petty resentments and set the world on fire. Or we can transcend self and work together for the good of all. The choice is between an uneasy peace and a stage strewn with bodies.

This entry was posted in Shakespeare (William) and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.


  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

  • Sign up for weekly newsletter

    Your email will not be shared or sold.
    * = required field

    powered by MailChimp!