Paul O’Flinn


Them and Us in Literature


10. Capitalism, Competition and King Lear

Competition, they tell us, makes the world go round. It’s the reason for the appearance of most things from better mousetraps to longer long jumpers. Its presence is the basis of a free society, its absence is why the National Coal Board makes a loss. As long as we each spend our time trying to knock lumps off one another then, apparently, a great civilisation is assured. So beaver about looking after yourself, tread on anyone who gets in the way and we’ll soon put the Great back into Britain. The need for greater efficiency and higher profitability means that those who compete well must be rewarded and those who fail can go and hang themselves. In 1967 Reginald Maudling, the Tory politician who later was to become a world famous failure himself, put this whole argument in terms that may be taken as typical:

We must constantly encourage competition not simply because it is the best safeguard for the consumer but because if competition dies away so the spirit of pride and endeavour will die with it. Then we must change the tax system which at present bears so heavily upon success, particularly individual success ...

Finally, there must be penalties too, because the spirit, we require to see will not be fully forthcoming unless we ally a proper regard for success with a proper acceptance of the consequences of failure. [1]

Competition, in short, means rewards for the rich, penalties for the rest and a better tomorrow for all.

Reginald Maudling, of course, is a fool whereas William Shakespeare was not, so that when Shakespeare came to write a play about a competitive society he saw such a society as tragic. The play’s called King Lear, and since cant about competition shows little sign of withering away it’s a play that’s well worth a look.

Lear’s story was several hundred years old by the time Shakespeare took it up – a simple, well-known folk tale. In its earliest versions it told of a king who asks his three daughters how much they love him. The two older girls flatter him with flowery declarations, the youngest says simply that she loves him as meat loves salt. Furious, the king drives her away but later comes to learn the value of salt and is reconciled to her.

Shakespeare takes hold of this thin material, and alters and expands it to make. it convey his ideas fully. First he joins it with a story of a struggle between the Duke of Gloucester and his two sons, Edmund and Edgar. Hence the battles in the Lear family become not eccentric, the result of one old man’s whim, but rather one more sign of widespread social tension. Second and above all he changes the end of the story to make it tragic. Goneril, the oldest sister, stabs herself after poisoning her sister Regan. Cordelia, the youngest of the three girls, is hanged and Lear dies in despair. The reasons for these radical changes will emerge if we look at the play in a bit of detail.

Lear’s Britain as presented at the start of the play is a feudal society with a rigid hierarchy dominated by two old families, King Lear’s and the Duke of Gloucester’s. Lear decides to dismantle that society and set up a competitive one in its place. He decides that his successor will not be his firstborn, as feudal custom would demand. Instead he sets up a competition between his three daughters. “Which of you shall we say doth love us most?” he asks them, intending to reward the one who answers best and impose what Reginald Maudling “calls the consequences of failure” on the rest. Goneril and Regan compete effectively and get half the kingdom each; Cordelia refuses to play silly games and is thrown out.

After giving away his kingdom, Lear hopes to retain nominal power based on the traditional duties owed to him by his two ruling daughters. However, as his court jester the Fool points out, by getting rid of his property he has lost all claim to proper regard in the new society that’s coming into being. This is a society that respects those who accumulate with competitive ferocity and one which, ironically, Lear himself had helped to create with his love competition in the opening scene. In such a society, Cordelia’s love expressed in formal, feudal terms (“I love your Majesty/According to my bond”) counts for nothing, and characters who continue to act out of the old loyalties are forced into hiding and disguise. Lear is treated with increasing contempt as a boring irrelevance by Goneril and Regan. This contempt, by the middle of the play, drives him mad.

The crudest representative of the new order is Edmund, Gloucester’s “illegitimate” son in the terms of the old society and now in the new society quite ready to sell out his father in order to get his hands on “that which my father loses”. He chases after power in the form of property with a ruthlessness that cuts right through family ties. Thus he first slanders and so secures the disinheritance of his brother Edgar. Then he betrays the efforts of his father Gloucester to comfort the rejected Lear, a betrayal which leads Regan first to tear out Gloucester’s eyes in punishment and then to hand over his estates to Edmund. Thus Gloucester begins to see the cruelty of the new order as it blinds him just as Lear had begun to understand its insanity as it drove him mad. A world that you must be mad to understand and blind to see: it’s through these bitter paradoxes that Shakespeare expressed what he sensed would be the development of the post-feudal, competitive society that was erupting around him.

I hesitate to say that Shakespeare shows the new society eventually, perishing in its own contradictions because that sounds a bit glib, yet in fact that’s more or less what happens. On a simple level, anyone who has played the game Monopoly knows that at first the competitive element benefits most of the players but soon they’re trying to bankrupt each other in order to survive. Similarly, Lear sets up a competitive society in the first scene and those who, like Regan, have no scruples about stamping on people’s eyeballs, prosper hugely for a while. But soon the competition to continue has to feed on itself. Before the play’s half over we hear of “likely wars” between the husbands of Goneril and Regan. By the last scene Edmund, himself wounded and dying after a fight with his brother, is left to note how Goneril and Regan wiped each other out in the struggle for his affections: “The one the other poisoned for my sake/And after slew herself.” As the competitive society collapses in on itself it orders, as a last obscene gesture, the hanging of the innocent Cordelia, an action that causes Lear to die of a broken heart.

What we get, in short, in the second half of the play is a grotesque vision of the future of capitalist society in which, in the words of Goneril’s husband Albany, “Humanity must perforce prey on itself, /Like monsters of the deep.” Kenneth Muir’s edition of the play comments on these words: “There are many parallels in contemporary and preceding literature”, and goes on to refer to half a dozen sixteenth and seventeenth century examples. Clearly when Shakespeare through Albany describes Lear’s society in these cannibal terms he’s expressing a view which many echoed and which therefore points beyond the limits of the play itself to Shakespeare’s own radically disturbed world.


Most teachers of English would not accept this account of King Lear. The consensus is that Art deals with eternal Verities (here all genuflect), with abíding Truths about Man and Nature. It has little to do with fiddling things like politics or the rise of capitalism or the ownership of theatres or whatever it is that Marxists try and read into it. On the contrary, it captures an Unchanging Human Essence. That is why it appeals to all men in all ages – why, indeed, audiences in the age of astronauts and H-bombs still go to see a play like Lear written in an age of maypoles and muskets.

This argument, or more sophisticated versions of it, can fairly be described as the ideological core of most of the teaching of literature. It’s also the point where the Marxist approach meets strongest resistance – resistance because the Marxist insists on seeing men and women as constantly involved in a process of change, changing their societies and their environment and, through that, changing themselves, their nature and eventually their art too. If you see human history this way it doesn’t leave much room for eternal verities and genuflection.

The proof of the pudding is in the eating. The only way we can decide between these two approaches is not through sterile debate but rather by looking at what actually happens in the real world. That means, in the present case, looking at what has happened to King Lear.

The play has had an odd history. Shakespeare wrote it about 370 years ago, around 1605. In 1681 a hack called Nahum Tate took hold of it and radically rewrote it. Crucially, he gave it what he called “Regularity and Probability” by supplying a happy ending in which Lear is put back on the throne and Cordelia gets married. Tate’s version became popular and Shakespeare’s play disappeared from the stage for 160 years and didn’t return till 1838. A curious thing for a work to do if, as it’s claimed, it appeals to all men in all ages. Why did this happen?

I argued in the first half of this chapter that in King Lear Shakespeare sees feudalism dying and watches capitalism’s bloody birth. He sees the new forces of capitalism and especially its competitive basis as In the end monstrous and tragic. But 1681, when Tate’s Lear succeeds Shakespeare’s, marks the start of a violent decade in which capitalism takes important steps to establish itself. The crushing of Monmouth’s rebellion in 1685, the so-called Glorious Revolution and the dethroning of King James II in 1688, and William’s victory over James at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690 are some of those steps. The Glorious Revolution changed English society. It made the crown a clearly circumscribed, bourgeois monarchy, deprived of control over the army and the judges. It set up the Bank of England and instituted the National Debt, thus laying the basis for the development of full-scale capitalism. A society moving rapidly in a direction Shakespeare defined as blind and mad would find his play bewildering and remote. It preferred the “Regularity and Probability” of Tate’s happy version.

Tate’s play held the stage throughout the eighteenth century. Dr. Johnson, the most perceptive of eighteenth century critics, remarked in 1765 that “in the present case the public has decided. Cordelia, from the time of Tate, has always retired with victory and felicity.” He adds that his own judgment falls in with “the general suffrage”.

Early nineteenth century critics, though responding like Dr Johnson to bits and pieces of Shakespeare’s play, generally agreed with Dr. Johnson’s verdict. Charles Lamb, for example, noted in 1811 that “the Lear of Shakespeare cannot be acted.”

But in the eighteen thirties things began to change profoundly and with those changes Shakespeare’s Lear began to be seen differently. In 1834, less than ten years after the legalisation of trade unions, the Grand National Consolidated Trades Union was formed and announced “a different order of things” as one of its main aims. In 1837 the Chartists, described by A.L. Morton as “the first independent political party of the working class”, were launched. In 1839 there’s the first recorded use of the word “socialism” in the English language.

The eighteen thirties then is clearly that decade in English history when at theoretical, organisational and even linguistic levels capitalist society is first radically called into question. For the first time many men and women saw capitalism not as some inevitable, natural order but as something that human beings had imposed and that human beings at last really stood a good chance of changing. And so for the first time they began to organise to bring about that change. Capitalism in the eighteen thirties was no longer just permanently there, like the weather. It suddenly became problematic and replaceable.

At such a moment Shakespeare’s Lear, which intuitively senses and acts out the tragedy and absurdity of capitalist principles, would speak to people, however subconsciously, in ways that it hadn’t for generations. So in 1838 William Macready produced it on the London stage and it’s remained there, on and off, ever since.



1. The Times, October 7, 1967.


Last updated on 12.8.2001