The Hobbesian State of War in Shakespeares King Lear.

Seminar Paper, 2001

10 Pages, Grade: 1,0 (A)

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In metaphorical terms, the politics of King Lear (ca 1603-1605), one of Shakespeare's most disturbing tragedies, revolve around the conflict between a hippopotamus and a sea monster. These two creatures also appear in one of the most disturbing books of the Old Testament, the book of Job, where they are termed 'Behemoth' and 'Leviathan' respectively. Leviathan, moreover, is also the title of a philosophical treatise by the seventeenth-century scholar Thomas Hobbes, published in Parisian exile in 1651. In the seminal second part of this work, carrying the title 'Of Commonwealth', he pioneered the theory of social contract. This political theory is premised on the assumption that statehood (the Leviathan) is established by an imaginary pact, the social contract, in which all parties mutually agree to be governed by an institutionalized power. The government itself is not a party and therefore not obliged to cede any rights. It is the only body invested with all the transfered power and thereby lies outside the ambit of all contractual parties. Such a government is 'absolute', since, in the original sense of the word, it is detached from its subjects.[1] The condition thus created is, according to Hobbes, the 'legal state', in which an ordered and relatively peaceful coexistence among human beings is possible due to intimidating state power and its relentless implemenation. Outside of the legal state, in the so-called 'natural state' (the metaphorical Behemoth), peace can never be attained because (latent) war is the norm. In Hobbes' political theory, the natural state merley serves as an imagined auxiliary, by which the necessity of strong and centralized statehood is explained. It is the human and social condition before the legal state and might never have existence in real human history. The natural state can only be overcome by the aforementioned contractual authorization of an absolutist power. Only a social contract can thus transform a Behemoth into a Leviathan. Interestingly, there are striking parallels between the natural condition of humans and the bulk of the tragedy of King Lear. Lear's division of the kingdom with the concomitant transfer of power and the subsequent events can be read as a materialization and illustration of the Hobbesian state of war, i.e. the natural condition of man. On this basis, King Lear is an apology for an absolutist state.

This absolutist state, i.e. the governmental Leviathan, is essential because at the very core of Hobbes' theory lies a negative political anthropology. In chapter 13 of Leviathan, he starts from the assumption that there is both physical and intellectual equality among humans. From this equality stems the hope to reach the same goals, which inevitably pitches humans against one another and makes them not only competitors but enemies. They mistrust each other and try to pre-empt any advantage their respective opponents could have over them. Yet the 'augmentation of dominion' (Hobbes 95) for the sake of personal security is the only chance to survive and therefore prescribed by the instict of self-preservation. Such a Darwinian competition degenerates into a 'warre of every man against every man'.[2] Thus, in the natural state, the life of humans is 'solitary, poore, nasty, brutish and short'. (Hobbes 98/97) These five adjectives describe five dimensions of human society: the sociological (solitary), economic (poor), psychological (nasty), juridical (brutish) and political (short). The natural state of humanity is an impoverishment in all of these aspects. In these circumstances, it becomes paramount to build a strong and centralized Leviathan, ready to uncompromisingly enforce law, for 'he is a king over all the children of pride' (Book of Job,41.34).

Instead of being built, the Leviathan in the tragedy of King Lear is destroyed. It is even a self-destruction, since the character of the king himself personified indivisible absolutist state power, which he imprudently divided and distributed. The impossibility to divide absolutist power is metaphorically represented by the 'coronet' which Lear asks Cornwall and Albany to symbolically break into two halves (I,i,139) and which necessarily becomes the bone of contention. Kent forsees this right away and publicly rebukes Lear, urging him to 'check this hideous rashness' (I,i,152). Lear's ill-considered abdication is consequently an inversion of the Hobbesian transition from the natural to the legal state. His self-divestiture opens the floodgates for the human atavism characteristic of the natural condition of man. Nonetheless, the natural state is not materialized to its full exent from the very moment of self-deposition, for Lear's 'reservation of a hundred knights' and the retention of 'the name, and all th'addition to a king' (I,i,134/137) make his self-divestiture incomplete.

As a result, the investiture of his two daughters Goneril and Regan and their husbands is also incomplete; but Goneril recognizes Lear's ignorance of his de facto powerlessness, since he 'still would manage those authorities that he hath given away' (I,iii,18-19). The formal transfer of sovereignty and power is nonetheless partial and thus greatly complicates the governing status of both houses with respect to the king and the power he retained. The lack of any separation of powers in Hobbes' theory makes it absolutely crucial for both houses to complete their deficient investiture, i.e. Lear's deficient divestiture. The power he retained is mainly embodied by his retinue of one hundred knights, which consequently has to be reduced. 'Be then desired ... A little to disquantity your train' (I,iv,238/40) is Goneril's first uncompromising request to have Lear complete his self-divestiture by seeing some of his knights dismissed.

Lear's unwillingness to do so forces the sisters to annihilate his remaining power by isolating him from his officers. Both sisters make the diminution of his entourage a prerequisite for granting Lear access to their respective homes. In act 2, scene 2, he is gradually deprived of all of his courtiers. His retinue of one hundred knights is twice halved by Regan. Goneril then asks 'What need you five and twenty? Ten? Or five?' and Regan completes the divestiture by asking rhetorically 'What need one?' (II,ii,450/453). Furthermore, by alternately denying their father access to their homes in the gathering storm and by advising Gloucester to do likewise, Goneril and Regan succeed in isolating Lear from society as a whole. Lear is entirely stripped of his former status and reduced to the essence of a solitary human being.

The storm scenes (III, i,ii,iv,vi) are an allegory of Hobbes' natural condition of man, insofar as they portray a human being in total isolation outside of an ordered society. Hobbes argues that justice and injustice are 'Qualities, that relate to men in Society, not in Solitude' (Hobbes 98). Such is the case of the solitary Lear, since in scenes 2 and 6 as well as later in the play, he raises precisely questions of justice and injustice, as in '...which is the justice, which is the thief?' (IV,vi,149/50). Legal categories cannot be properly delimited anymore, after legislative and judicial competence and authority have been removed together with executive authority. Goneril can therefore comfortably ask Albany 'Who can arraign me for't?' (V,iii,157), after admitting that she knew about the plot against his life, because there is no legal prosecution she would have to fear. Hobbes expresses this logic in the simple proposition: 'Where there is no common Power, there is no Law: where no Law, no Injustice' (Hobbes 98). Scene 6 in fact portrays a mock trial of Goneril and Regan, in which the half-naked Edgar, the 'robed man of justice' (line 36), and the Fool assist Lear as judges. This scene superbly depicts the absence of legal categories in the natural state.

The juridical vacuum, epitomized by Goneril's 'the laws are mine, not thine' (V,iii,156), is not only imposed by external political changes but is also eagerly sought by some characters themselves. In Edmund's initial soliloquy, the rejection of 'the curiosity of nations' and 'the plague of custom' (I,ii,3-4) illustrate his voluntary break with legal tradition. Instead, he worships 'Nature' in the apostrophe at the very beginning of the scene as 'my goddess' and declares that 'to thy law My services are bound' (II,ii,1-2). He thereby willfully submits himself to the natural state and its lawlessness, in which, as I have mentioned above, there is natural equality among humans as opposed to legal inequality, as for instance between him, the bastard, and his legitmate brother Edgar.

The equality among humans in the natural state engenders mistrust, which itself engenders serious security concerns. 'Anticipiaton', i.e. 'force, or wiles' (Hobbes 95), directly resulting from mistrust, serve to secure one's own status against that of one's opponent. As a result, there is permanent competition and a permanent lack of safety as long as there might still be a stronger opponent. Therefore, goals are not attained within a legal framework but outside of it through machinations and conspiracies, as shown in Edmund's 'Let me, if not by birth, have lands by wit' (I,ii,181). Since there is no room for compromise and the sharing of status, a consequential all-or-nothing mentality and zero-sum reasoning prevail, which explain Edmund's intention to appropriate all of his legitimate brother's land and not just half of it.

The 'augmentation of dominion ... being necessary to a man's conservation' (Hobbes 95) leads to so fierce a competition that total dispossession of one's opponent by all conceivable means becomes legitimate, even indispensible. That is why 'Force, and Fraud, are in warre the two Cardinal vertues' (Hobbes 98), starting with Edmund's plot against his brother and climaxing in the blinding of Gloucester. Before being thus maimed, he is dispossessed of his entire estate by Goneril and Regan. Edmund, his own son, afterwards decides to betray him in the hope of gaining possession of 'no less than all' (III,iii,23) of his father's property. Similarly, Goneril is determined to gain complete control over Albany and to 'give the distaff' (IV,ii,17) into his hand. In her letter to Edmund, in which she reveals her plot against Albany's life, she expresses her concern to be again subordinated after an eventual victory on Albany's part. Liquidating him is on the other hand also the prerequisite to grab hold of Edmund, both desired by her and her sister Regan; they then both engage in a fierce struggle with the ultimate aim of dispossessing one another of Edmund. The result is their mutual destruction. Cordelia's military offensive against Britain, not launched by any 'blown ambition' (IV,iv,27), provides a perfect foil to the present attitude on the island.

Like in a vicious circle, the possibility of mutual annihilation aggravates the pervasive mistrust in the natural state, which accounts for an atmosphere of fear and paranoia. Regan's 'wisdom bids fear' (II,ii,497) and Goneril's 'safer than trust too far' in reply to her husband's 'You may fear too far' (I,iv,320/21), i.e. their concern about Lear's negative influence on his entourage and its subversive potential, might appear as mere pretence aiming at the exclusion and isolation of their father Lear. To the characters in the play, this seemingly artificial fear is part of the collective paranoia, in which danger is perceived to be omnipresent and in which fear and mistrust are even deliberately created for one's own advantage. 'In cunning I must draw my sword upon you' (II,i,30) and lines 64-77 in the same scene show Edmund's projection of his own schemes on Edgar and thus the perversion of this principle. Likewise, Regan, after denying her father food and shelter, projects her own hypocrisy on Lear by telling him that his 'tricks' are 'unsightly' (II,ii,346). Thus, even fear is instrumentalized, for the pragmatic Edmund says himself that 'all with me's meet that I can fashion fit' (I,ii,182).

In chapter 13 of Leviathan, mistrust, fear and paranoia are already equated with the state of war, even though there may not be a fully-fledged physical conflict. The human disposition to use physical violence for problem-solving is contrary to the state of peace and therefore typical of the state of war. In the play, rumour and information based on hearsay about present and future conflict testify to the fact that, even before any physical violence is committed, the natural state is already materialized. Gloucester's astronomical observations, which 'portend no good' (I,ii,104), his subsequent enumeration of apocalyptic events and his advice to Edmund to be careful because 'There is strange things towards' (III,iii,18/19) are at the outset of this conjecturing. The Fool concludes from his prophesy (III,ii) that Britain will plunge into anarchy and Curan asks Edmund if he 'heard of no likely wars towards 'twixt the two dukes of Cornwall and Albany' (II,i,11-12). The latency of this inclination to war is best expressed by Kent speaking of conflict between Albany and Cornwall, 'although as yet the face of it is covered with mutual cunning' (III,i,20).

The latent omnipresence of cruelty and its effect on the human psyche is one of the five dimensions of the natural state, labelled by the five Hobbesian adjectives solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short. The psychological condition as described above, the constant fight against concepts of an enemy, makes human beings necessarily 'nasty'. Nastiness implies a serious deviation from the normal psychological constitution. Derangement, both cause and effect of a paranoid environment, permeates the play and is obviously embodied by the character of Lear. In the third scene of the storm night (III,iv,77), the Fool, himself a paragon of (faked) madness, declares that 'This cold night will turn us all to fools and madmen'. He predicts the collective derangement in the natural state, fully established only by the complete divestiture of Lear out on the heath. In act 3, scene 7, nastiness and brutishness combine in the extreme when Cornwall and his accomplice Regan gouge out Gloucester's eyes.

Brutishness denotes the juridical and social break-down in the natural state, in which 'men are as the time is' and in which 'to be tender-minded does not become a sword' (V,iii,32/3), as Edmund says to the contract killer. Cruelty and predator-like behaviour become the norm. Animal imagery is particularly rich in King Lear and most often refers to savage animals, associated with Goneril and Regan. Goneril reproaches Albany for his 'milky gentleness' (I,iv,338) and the 'cowish terror of his spirit' (IV,ii,13), whereas she is described by Lear as a 'Detested kite' (I,iv,254) with a 'wolfish visage' (I,iv,300) and later as a 'vulture' (II,ii,324), while she has 'boarish fangs' (III,vii,57) in Gloucester's words. In more general and misogynist terms, Lear associates female sexuality with animal mating: 'Down from the waist they are centaurs, though women all above' (IV,vi,121-22), yet it is Albany who best succeeds in expressing both the bestiality of the sisters and the natural state. He addresses them as 'Tigers, not daughters...' (IV,ii,41) and his subsequent 'Humanity must perforce prey on itself, Like monsters of the deep' (51-51) strongly echoes Hobbes' 'homo homini lupus'[3] in the Latin version of Leviathan and the survival of the fittest by predatory killing. The frantic 'Then kill, kill, kill, kill, kill, kill!' (IV,vi,184) shows that even the totally demented Lear has understood the present Zeitgeist.

The unpredictability of mutual destruction explains the ephemeralness of all social combining in the natural state and shortens human life. Such transience cannot produce any lasting social and political foundation on which human civilization could thrive. As a result, there is no agriculture, construction, economy and human culture (Hobbes 96-7). Obviously, this holds true for the tragedy of King Lear. Military preparations are instead the chief occupation because 'the army of France is landed' (III,vii,2-3) and Lear and his remaining knights have joined their 'well-armed friends' (III,vii,19) near Dover. Since there is no economy in the natural state, life is "poor". The last adjective is the only one of the five attributes for which no evidence is found in the text because there is no mention of economic impoverishment due to the natural state. It can therefore not be used to illustrate the natural state in King Lear. These four clarified aspects – nasty, brutish, short and poor – preclude the formation of lasting social and political structures and consequently isolate humans from each other in the most radical way.

Solitariness, the fifth attribute, defines the societal dimension present in the natural state and also in King Lear. All of the main representatives of the natural state in the play become "solitary" owing to the other four dimensions. Social bonding in the natural state is not sincere but rather instrumental in achieving one's personal goals. Edmund's promised loyalty –N.B. to both sisters – is mere utilitarianism and the opportunistic coalition between Goneril and Regan lasts only until they become rivals for Edmund. Goneril distances herself from Albany, while Cornwall's cruelty leads to fatal alienation from his servants. The alliance against the common Franco-British enemy, as instigated by Goneril (V,i,29), is no doubt also functional. Both Cornwall and Edmund are killed; Goneril commits suicide after poisoning her sister Regan and even the disgusting sycophant Oswald does not survive the natural state. Life under such circumstances truly is "solitary, poore, nasty, brutish and short" (Hobbes 97).

The denouement of King Lear is a vain attempt to overcome this state of war, like in Hobbes' theory, by reinvesting Lear with his former power and thereby fully restoring the former legal state. Britain has been conquered and liberated by the Franco-English coalition and the Gentleman's 'You are a royal one and we obey you.' (IV,vi,197) should assert Lear's former royalty. The reinvestiture is most visibly depicted in Cordelia's 'No, sir, you must not kneel' (IV,vii,58) and the act of restraining her father from kneeling, while kneeling down herself. Furthermore, Kent tries to convince the disorientated Lear that he is in his own realm (IV,vii,76/7). The exposure of Edmund's crimes, both his and Goneril's confessions and their as well as Regan's death pave the way for the re-erection of the Leviathan, i.e. the reinvestiture of Lear. Albany resigns his entire power to Lear, who ironically dies immediately afterwards. What is even worse is the fact that the legitimate heiress Cordelia has also been murdered. Again a power vacuum remains to be filled.

The last scene of the tragedy augurs ill for the imaginary future beyond the play. Britain is occupied by an alliance whose previously shared command is now solely in the hands of the absent widower France. Albany, who like Lear divested himself of his power, has assigned Kent and Edgar – 'you twain' – to 'rule in this realm and the gored state sustain' (V,iii,318/9). Thus, the power is again decentralized and the final constellation surprisingly resembles the one at the very beginning of the play. Politically speaking, the tragedy has come full circle. Edgar's (in the Quarto version Albany's) ambiguous lines at the end give us a foretaste of what is to come: 'we that are young / shall never see so much, nor live so long.' (V,iii,324/5). They can either mean that the human plight endured by Lear through his suffering will never be fully understandable to them, or that the future life of the post-Lear generation will be similarly uncertain and fraught with dangers because of potential power struggles ahead. The latter interpretation, therefore, would perfectly fit into the political context I have outlined above.

Lear's ill-considered and partially criticized abdication, the ensuing anarchy, the fruitless restoration and especially the gloomy outlook reminding us of the exposition of the play, of necessity lead us to the conclusion that the powers of a Leviathan, i.e. an absolutist state, must never be separated. Against the backcloth of Hobbes' theory of the natural condition of man, it is legitimate to construe King Lear as a justification of an absolutist and thus centralized state, in which all the power is personified by one person. The Leviathan wields its power unchecked by other institutions and its decisions, as a result, are immune to accusations from its subjects, which are instead forced to completely subordinate.

The purpose of this paper was of course not to prove that the events in King Lear are an indisputable point-by-point illustration of the Hobbesian state of war, which undoubtedly they are not (Albany, for instance, did not submit to the natural state). Logically, there could not have been any copying of ideas from Leviathan into King Lear, since the former was published half a century after the latter. To assume an intertextual relationship based on Hobbes' reading the play and using it to formulate his theory of the natural state seems very unlikely. The possibility of such atavistic behaviour among human beings, as portrayed in both texts, has to have a profounder meaning for human culture. Hobbes' comment about 'the manner of life, which men that have formerly lived under a peaceful government, use to degenerate into, in a civil Warre' (Hobbes 97/8) reminds us of contemporary civil wars among ethnic groups that originate in the collaps of a former '...power able to over-awe them all' (Hobbes 95). The civil war and the atavistic atrocities in the previously multi-ethnic Yugoslavia, which erupted after the dictatorial regime centralized in Belgrade collapsed, is just one of many contemporary examples for the same phenomenon.

Furthermore, King Lear can be contextualized at a more global level. In contemporary theory of international relations[4], four parameters, i.e. idealism vs. realism and anarchy vs. hierarchy, are regrouped in all combinations to explain present and past political constellations. Realism and idealism refer to human behaviour, the former epitomized by Edmund or any other Machiavellian malcontent and the latter by exactly opposite traits. Anarchy and hierarchy refer to political structures. Thus, four worldviews are delineated, of which the anarchic-realist worldview most closely resembles the events in King Lear and in Hobbes' theory. It is this worldview which describes the bipolar world-order that came to an end in the late eighties and early nineties of the last century with the implosion of the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc.

Due to these reasons, Shakespeare's King Lear is particularly amenable to a political reading and staging. To neglect the political processes in its plot and to overemphasize the familial and personal tragedy alone, would be a serious devaluation of the play. The outburst of extreme violence throughout King Lear and in recent and present international politics serves as a reminder that so-called 'civilized' humans can easily degenerate into 'brutish' forms of behaviour – without being aware of it. The tragical irony of the play, Lear's 'constant will ... that future strife may be prevented' (I,i,42/4) and the consequent chaos is probably its most principal message to human society and culture.


Carroll, Robert and Stephen Prickett, eds. The Bible: The Authorized King James Version

with Apocrypha. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Foakes, R.A., ed. King Lear by William Shakespeare. Walton-on-Thames: Thomas Nelson

and Sons Ltd, 1997.

Gabriel, Jürg Martin. Worldviews and Theories of International Relations. New York: St.

Martin's Press, Inc., 1994.

Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1952.


[1] 'Absolutus' in Latin means detached.

[2] The Latin version,'bellum omnium contra omnes', has become proverbial.

[3] The Latin 'Homo homini lupus' meaning 'humans are like wolves to one another' has also become proverbial.

[4] I refer to Jürg Martin Gabriel's Worldviews and Theories of International Relations (see bibliography).

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The Hobbesian State of War in Shakespeares King Lear.
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