King Lear is perhaps the greatest work of literature in the English language. It is about everything: God, life, love. It can also be read as a study of mediation.
The play begins with a ceremony. Complacently convinced that he has lived a fulfilled life and is ready to retire, the King intends to partition Britain between his three daughters. He also intends to marry off his youngest and best-loved daughter, Cordelia, with whom he hopes to spend his old age.
At first, the ceremony goes to plan. Lear’s older daughters flatter him grotesquely, and get their parts of Britain. But Cordelia refuses to flatter her father, and explains that her love cannot be expressed in words. She also hints that her older sisters are not what they seem.
Lear: So young, and so untender?
Cordelia: So young, my lord, and true.
Lear: Let it be so:
Thy truth, then, be thy dower!
Lear proceeds to disinherit Cordelia: who ends up marrying the virtuous King of France, rather than the avaricious Duke of Burgundy. Within a vertiginously short time, Lear is cast out by his older daughters into a bitter storm, where he becomes seriously ill. His delirious ravings, however, show a rapid growth of self-knowledge that eluded him when he was in power. He is rescued by Cordelia: Lear does indeed spend his final hours with her, but in a prison cell, before she is hanged and he dies.
Could a mediator have helped avert this tragedy? Yes: if the following conditions were met:
The mediator is the right person. Most of Lear’s courtiers, exemplified by Oswald, are time-servers. However, the Duke of Kent and the Fool are deeply insightful and loyal unto death (which is usually not required of a mediator).
The mediator has a role. Lear, as a king, has had no equals, just loved ones and servants. Indeed, to make and stand by decisions is his religious duty. However, he also has the duty to listen to what is true and just. He has no archbishop to advise him, but has a Fool, whose moral insight is profound and whose wit and low status allow him to survive in a court. In England, before the civil war, the King’s Fool had licence to mock anybody, in the name of truth: one of the last fools, the Scottish former sheep rustler Archie Armstrong, had a bitter rivalry with Archbishop William Laud, who finally had him expelled from court after one sally too many: which did the kingdom no good.
The mediator has a stage. Like the Fool, a mediator, at his best, is a mirror through whom people start to see themselves, and act with insight and compassion. Paradoxically, people find it difficult to abandon folly in public: mediation is best done in a quiet, shared space.
Regrettably, these conditions are not met. The Fool is given special licence by Lear, who even strikes a courtier for chiding the Fool. But the Fool is absent from the ceremony. Cordelia has the Fool’s wit and insight, but her quiet sobriety and dignity do not circumvent her father’s ego as the Fool might have done: nor does she have the Fool’s costume that would give her licence to clown and provoke. The Duke of Gloucester, who is truly loyal if not—yet—overflowing with insight, is absent when Lear erupts. The Duke of Kent does intervene:
Be Kent unmannerly
When Lear is mad. What wouldst thou do, old man?
Thinkst thou that duty shall have dread to speak
When power to flattery bows? To plainness honour’s bound
When majesty falls to folly. Reserve thy state;
And in thy best consideration check
This hideous rashness. Answer my life my judgement:
Thy youngest daughter does not love thee least.
But Kent’s plainness causes Lear to draw his sword. Within a short time, Lear is listening to his Fool:
Lear: A bitter fool!
Fool: Dost thou know the difference, my boy, between a bitter fool and a sweet one?
Lear: No, lad: teach me.
Fool: That lord that counselled thee
To give away thy land,
Come place him here by me—
Do thou for him stand.
The sweet and bitter fool
Will presently appear:
The one in motley here,
The other found out—there.
Lear: Dost thou call me Fool, boy?
Fool: All thy other titles thou hast given away; that thou wast born with.
But it is too late. The Fool, Kent, and Gloucester cannot rescue Lear from his vicious older daughters; nor from the grace that can only be expressed through adversity.
As in Othello, Hamlet, and Antony & Cleopatra, the tragedy in Lear is providential. A character who slips from the path of self-knowledge ends up becoming a true human being, for which a shortened life is a small price to pay. Innocent victims of injustice, such as Cordelia, are recompensed by having pure souls and, in those more religious times, by the implicit promise of paradise:
Lear: Upon such sacrifices, my Cordelia,
The gods themselves throw incense. Have I caught thee?
He that parts us shall bring a brand from heaven…
Tragedy is an inescapable part of life, as true as the fall of man. But we can choose the quality and depth of our tragedy. King Lear makes great theatre partly because of the magnanimity of its sympathetic characters. But we wish they had better luck. They needed a Fool—or a mediator.