Consider the following passages from an excellent essay on the play by Coppelia Kahn called “The Absent Mother in King Lear.” Kahn argues that Lear’s transformation over the course of the play involves his gradual understanding of–to put it bluntly–the woman in himself.
It’s a fascinating premise, especially when applied to a play from the early seventeenth century–that Lear must learn to welcome those “women’s waterdrops,” the tears that he is so afraid to shed, along with a more “feminine” kind of power whose source is the emotional life. Here are a few excerpts from Kahn’s essay.
But what the play depicts, of course, is the failure of that presence: the failure of a father’s power to command love in a patriarchal world and the emotional penalty he pays for wielding power. Lear’s very insistence on paternal power, in fact, belies its shakiness; similarly, the absence of the mother points to her hidden presence . . . .
When Lear begins to feel the loss of Cordelia, to be wounded by her sisters, and to recognize his own vulnerability, he calls his state of mind hysteria, ‘the mother,’ which I interpret as his repressed identification with the mother. Women and the needs and traits associated with them are supposed to stay in their element, as Lear says, ‘below’ – denigrated, silenced, denied. In this patriarchal world, masculine identity depends on repressing the vulnerability, dependency, and capacity for feeling which are called ‘feminine.’
Despite a lifetime of strenuous defense against admitting feeling and the power of feminine presence into his world, defense fostered at every turn by prevailing social arrangements, Lear manages to let them in. He learns to weep and, though his tears scald and burn like molten lead, they are no longer ‘women’s weapons’ against which he must defend himself.
This passage relates to the reunion scene with Corelia (Act 4, Scene 7):
These are the tears of ashamed self-knowledge, manly tears caused by a realization of what his original childish demands on his daughters had led to. In this scene, which I want to compare with the next scene with Cordelia, Lear comes closer than he ever does later to a mature acceptance of his human dependency.
Kahn’s argument is reasonable, but it downplays the pre-existence of Cordelia’s unspoken and unconditional love for her father, which never wavers from the play’s onset to its terminus; it also does not account the ability of other males in the play to express their emotions. Lear’s transmogrification ultimately comes from his acceptance of the limitations of his new position, i.e. an old man without power and reliant on others around him, which Kahn mentions but does not consider extensively.
While Lear’s paternal attempts to demand love from his daughters in the opening scene do expose his general ineptitude for tenderness, his relationship with Cordelia is already such that she is willing to risk her life to save his even after he banishes her from the kingdom despite her inability to make such a profession aloud when asked. That reflects a bond deeper and stronger than words can express.
Why is Cordelia so committed to Lear whereas his other daughters are not? Is this because Lear is the only parent Cordelia has ever known? Queen Lear’s cause of death remains a mystery throughout the play, so it is pertinent to consider Cordelia’s birth as a possibility.
In such circumstances, Lear would have had to play the role of both mother and father to Cordelia, and perhaps her laconic avowal of love toward her father, which even Lear notes as being “untender,” reflects the dearth of a feminine influence in Cordelia’s upbringing (I.1.118). That does not mean that solely Lear’s discovery of emotion drives his transformation in the play.
Edgar caring for the blind Gloucester on the beach at Dover reveals to the on-looking Lear and the audience the real lesson behind the play: not only can one rely on others unconditionally, and one should only rely on those who love him unconditionally.
Prior to and during his exchange with Gloucester and Edgar, Lear oscillated between saneness and senility, which Edgar notes to the audience as “reason in madness” (IV.6.193). After this scene, however, Lear lands firmly on the side of reason, despite the consequences of such an understanding.
Lear can plainly tell Cordelia that he is just a “very foolish fond old man,” confessing to her that did not remember where he slept the night prior or how he got there, begging her “do not laugh at me” (IV.7.70-80). This acceptance shows that Lear now understands that love needs no words and that he must now rely on the love of others.