The Limits of Politics: King Lear, Act I, Scene i

Harry V. Jaffa, “The Limits of Politics: King Lear, Act I, Scene i,” in Shakespeare’s Politics, 11345


According to that profound student of Shakespeare, Abraham Lincoln, the most difficult task of statesmanship is that of providing, not for the foundation, but for the perpetuation, of political institutions. If the political institutions are the best, to perpetuate them is not only the most difficult, but also the greatest of all the tasks of the statesman.

It is generally agreed that Shakespeare regarded monarchy as the best form of government. It is not generally realized, however, that Lear is the greatest of Shakespeare’s kings. For the moment, I submit only this evidence: the supreme object of monarchial policy in the English histories is the unification and pacification of England. Only Henry V even approaches success in this, but, in view of his questionable title to the throne, he is compelled to create a dubious national unity by means of an unjust foreign war. Yet the first scene in King Lear shows the old monarch at the head of a united Britain (not merely England) and at peace, not only with all domestic factions, but with the outside world as well. France and Burgundy, who represent this world, are suitors for the hand of Lear’s youngest daughter. Never in the histories does Shakespeare represent his native land at such a peak of prestige and political excellence; in King Lear alone do we find actualized the consummation devoutly wished by all other good Shakespearean kings.

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