Sub Plot of King Lear Echoes Jacob-Esau

26 Jan

Shakespeare adapted the subplot of King Lear from a section in Sir Philip Sydney’s Arcadia. The blinded king of the Paphalogonians (north central Asia Minor) grieves his metaphorical blindness in trusting his bastard son, Plexirtus rather than his good son, Leonatus who stands by him until he is relieved. Shakespeare greatly expands and deepens the resonance of his source in the family of Lear’s senior advisor the Earl of Gloucester and his two sons, Edgar a legitimate and slightly elder son and Edmund, the bastard who is ‘some ten or twelve moonshines lag of a brother” as he puts it (1.2), that is, ten or 12 months younger than Edgar.
One of the most interesting features of this aspect of the play is the extent to which it draws on or at least strongly suggests influence from the story of Jacob and Esau. Jacob an “ish tam” (“perfect” or “complete” or “wholesome” man), “dwelling in tents” (within his father’s traditions and authority) is paralleled by Edgar, the “brother noble” Edmund admits, “whose nature is so far from doing wrong that he suspects none.” In the same way Jacob will be repeatedly imposed upon by Uncle Laban and will have to flee the homicidal intent of Esau, as Edgar must flee the games and malice of Edmund, — “Well, legitimate Edgar, I must have your land…” (1.2) who also plans to overthrow his father. In a short time, as Esau turned to Ishmael, Edmond turns to Cornwal and betrays his father to death. As it turned out, a loyal servant and the loyalty, love and growing sagacity of Edgar – Jacob healed Gloucester in a lengthy process that dramatizes how people can create a miracle from love, faith, hard work and timing…

The parallel is not exact, Edgar and Edmund are not twins and do not have the same mother an absence in Sydney but, perhaps, deadly to Gloucester. Moreover Jacob is a few seconds younger than Esau while Edgar is both elder and legitimate. But the “bastardy” and “baseness” of Edmund are both literal and thematic-moral and are a primary driver of the action of the play.

In beginning this discussion, one should note the etymology of the names of Gloucester’s sons: Edgar (literally, Etgar) means “challange” in Hebrew and the main feature of Edgar’s place in the drama is that his insight and abilities consistently are challenged by his brother’s games, deceit and betrayal of him and his father. It is a challenge that he gradually achieves and surmounts after a long dark night of impoverishment and exile in which his “name is lost” and he must fight in many ways to recover his inheritance. Edgar, like Jacob (and like David later) must play a role his despises and even feign madness in order to survive and have a chance to redeem his father’s error in trusting and empowering the homicidal son who has “game in his mouth.”

“Edmund” also has a telling Hebrew root that identifies the part he played in Shakespeare’s mind in developing this greatest of plays. The root is Edom -red clay or simply red (like the lentil – cabbage stew Esau demands instantly and for which he throws away, then sells, his birthright). In the accusative, Edmon, the link is even more clear as in the Hanukka hymn, Maoz Tzur (“Fortress Rock”): in the last stanza the verse, “Az Edmon, betzeil tzalmon...” Drive Edom [“Rome”] to the uttermost shadow…” Edmond, he is Esau… (Genesis 36). Just as Esau’s Canaanite wives embitter the lives of Rebecca and Isaac, and harm Isaac’s sight, so Edmund has two illicit liaisons in progress, — with Goneril and Regan whose motives and traits match his. This doubling of illicit ‘wives’ also hints at Esau’s taking to wife a daughter of Ishmael when he finally grasps that his Canaanite wives are not part of the covenant. As Esau can’t wait for his father to die so he can murder Jacob, and as the Midrash shows him seeking to get Ishmael to murder Isaac upon which he will murder Jacob, so Edmund takes a surrogate father in Cornwall, “the hot Duke,” betrays his father’s kindness to him, and with Cornwall seeks the murder of both Edgar and his father.

Beyond the characteristics of the half brothers there are many slightly veiled references to the Jacob-Esau story. Among them are the near blindness of the two fathers in both cases caused by the games and rebellious spirit of the evil son (the Canaanite wives of Esau and their idolatrous practices immediately precede mention of Isaac’s failing sight”) and the forged letter Edmund writes, and his equivocal words ‘blind’ Gloucester to his game just as he cannot make out “the hand” who wrote it. The disguised hand of Jacob is a major feature of Rebecca’s intervention to insure Isaac’s blessing on the wholesome and loyal son. When Edmund begins his deceit of his father, whom he intends to kill (a job that Esau repeatedly tries to delegate to Ishmael, modern geopolitics following an ancient midrash) it is Edgar’s hand as well as his ‘voice’ or attitude that he counterfeits, a voice of filial respect and concern that any son should lust after his father’s title, possessions and life, as he, Edmund does…

Strengthening the sub-plot’s link to the Isaac-Jacob-Esau story that is its template are the many references of the blind Gloucester to Edgar’s apparel (4.1.39-40, 3.4.). Edgar’s own references to his identity (“in nothing am I changed but in my garments,” 4.6.8-9) underscore the role-playing of Jacob, albeit directed by Esther meant to redeem reality to divine Providence and grace. In each case, the blind father must be deceived to find the truth and the miracle his mistaken liking for the aggressive son, the man of action has made. Indeed, as Isaac said, “the voice is the voice of Jacob, but the hand is the hand of Esau,” so Gloucester, being brought to the saving illusion of the ‘climb’ to the cliffs of Dover, says, “Methinks thy voice is altered and thou speak’st in better phrase and manner than thou did” (4.6.7-8). As Gloucester from the first must “smell out what he cannot spy [look] into” so Jacob was entranced by the “fragrance of the fields” on the garments of Esau with the reference to scent, in Jewish sources, dating to the Garden and spoliation of the senses. In Lear this sense is associated with lust and the decay of status and fortune and with blindness, figurative and literal.

As Gloucester blesses Edgar when he knows not who he holds by the hand (4.6.40) and later reiterates his blessing when he learns whom he has blessed unawares (4.6.228-9, 5.3.197), so Jacob reaffirms his blessing of Jacob repeatedly and establishes the true line of succession, precisely the pattern in Lear (and As You Like It and The Tempest inter alia). As in Shakespeare’s last play, the true heir returns to reclaim his inheritance as Jacob does, gaining the honorific, Israel after exile and impoverishment and the shrewd shifts and sense of timing that Edgar must master to bear the weight of the kingdom and the sad time. Indeed, the latter, noted by Edgar in the play’s last four verses (two rhyming couplets to stress the point) is the next step for Israel as he must bear the kidnapping of Joseph and the descent to Egypt. He will bear the weight of the sad time that stretches, as Edgar foresees for England, far beyond his days to centuries of exile. It even is apt to note that Edmond finally is undone by the machinations, jealousy and ambition of his two forbidden ‘wives,’ Goneril and Regan as Esau separates himself increasingly from the covenant by transgressive marriages that are “a bitterness of spirit” to his parents and the source of Isaac’s impaired vision.

There is much to be explored in following Shakespeare’s interest in and adoption of this story pattern in his plays. I note in closing the situation in As You Like It, his last comedy per se, in which the older brother, Oliver, persecutes the younger and good natured Orlando, keeping him a simple man (the usual translation for Jacob’s first epithet, Ish tam (literally a “perfect man” but usually translated “simple” or “wholesome”). Oliver tries to get Orlando killed by a professional wrestler just as Jacob is confronted and must wrestle for his life, blessing and honorific name with “the man” who turns out to be an angel, identified as the sages as Satan or Esau’s angel. Orlando goes on to win the admiration and love of two wonderful young women, cousins not sisters in another allusion to or result of the suffusion of the pattern into the Bard’s oeuvre. It is an intriguing substrate to some of the most highly charged themes and conflicts in the plays and always organized around the theme of wrongful exile and return. Something for scholars and general readers to ponder…

[to be continued]


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