Wednesday 20 March 2024

Will and Health: two factors of governance in Shakespeare's King Lear


How health and will emerge as two interrelated components of governance (self and state) in William Shakespeare's tragic play, King Lear.


As discussed before, from the very opening of the play, Lear's Britain is a state with a projected perilous health, yet the solution (neutralising his two eldest daughters who each plot to gain the crown by bloody civil war) is perhaps too unfatherly/impious/legacy-unfriendly/precedent-setting for Lear, who instead engineers a solution to send beloved youngest daughter to safety while the other sisters (literally) duke it out. By retaining one hundred knights and doddering between them, Lear can even Yojimbo-like take the weaker side until both Albany and Cornwall are exhausted and Cordelia can return with powerful French backing.

Old King Lear in right foreground, looking down from balcony on map of Britain surrounded by his three daughters: Goneril and Regan (with husbands) gesticulating, Cordelia bandaging a dog's paw.
King Lear ruminating on the future health and division of his state

First, we will review an extensive series of quotations from the text (included partly because some are frequently omitted from productions of this very long play), with brief notes.

Then we will consider significant ways Health and Will are represented, and how they relate to Governance (both of self and of state).

Finally, we will try to understand what Shakespeare's play is really saying about the nature of Health and Will in Governance, and whether that leads us to reject some political systems in favour of others.

Key Quotations from the Play, with brief Notes and Scene Summaries

A play which takes from 3 to 3½ hours in theatre, says director Richard Eyre of his television movie of Lear, can be cut down by omitting whole or partial scenes, lose 'complicated plots' and compress dialogue, and so on. The full text is a better guide to the issues under consideration, and I cannot recommend any particular production/performance. However, the BBC's version with Michael Hordern as Lear is worth the watch, though it is not my current interpretation of the play.

Act 1

A1s1 Lear suggests his health is failing and he wants to prevent future strife. Cordelia considers love as riches. Lear speaks of The vines of France, the milk of Burgundy, which indicate the health of the states of Cordelia's two suitors.

Lear’s wilfulness (express our darker purpose) has the effect of granting Cordelia a love match and a safe haven, with Kent banished for future team-up. The sway goes to Cornwall and Albany.

Kent: Kill thy physician, and the fee bestow upon the foul disease.

Lear’s sentence overrides his nature To shield thee from diseases of the world with the kind banishments of Kent and Cordelia with those infirmities she owes.

Regan: ‘Tis the infirmity of his age: yet he has ever but slenderly known himself. Goneril: the unruly waywardness that infirm and cholerick years bring with them.

A1s2 What is a healthy relationship between parent and child to the Glosters?

Why bastard? wherefore base?
When my dimensions are as well compact,
My mind as generous, and my shape as true,
As honest madam's issue?

A1s3 Lear's knights riotous, king upbraiding.

A1s4 Steward’s contest of will with Lear. Fools whipped. Ungrateful cuckoo chick. Lear’s sterility curse on Goneril. A dotard in command of dangerous knights.

A1s5 Lear: O let me not be mad.

Act 2

A2s1 Edmund cuts himself to support his lie. Gloster: my old heart is crack’d. Regan: waste and spoil of his revenues.

A2s2 Kent: anger has a privilege.

A2s3 Edgar mortifies himself as poor Tom.

A2s4 Fool says falling leaders stink. Sickness excuse not to meet Lear.

Lear: “Infirmity doth still neglect all office,
Whereto our health is bound; we are not ourselves,
When nature, bring oppress’d, commands the mind
To suffer with the body: I’ll forbear;
And am fallen out with my more headier will,
To take the indispos’d and sickly fit
For the sound man. Death on my state!”
Regan: “If, sir, perchance,
She have restrain’d the riots of your followers,
‘Tis on such ground, and to such wholesome end,
As clears her from all blame.”

Lear wishes lameness on absent Goneril. Lear imagines Goneril both flesh-and-blood and a disease in his flesh.

Regan: “What need one?”
Lear: “O, reason not the need: our basest beggars
Are in the poorest things superfluous:
Allow not nature more than nature needs,
Man’s life is cheap as beast’s: thou art a lady;
If only to go warm was gorgeous,
Why, nature needs not what thou gorgeous wear’st, which scarcely keeps thee warm — But, for true need,—”

Cornwall: ‘Tis best to give him way; he leads himself. Gloster protests king lacks storm-shelter.

Regan: “O, sir, to wilful men,
The injuries, that they themselves procure,
Must be their schoolmasters: Shut up your doors;”

Act 3

A3s1 Lear reportedly contends with storm while even hungry predators cower.

A3s2 Lear calls on the will of the storm sulphurous and thought-executing fires to punish himself and others, spilling all nature’s seeds:

Lear: “let fall
Your horrible pleasure; here I stand, your slave,
A poor, infirm, weak, and despis’d old man”
Lear: “My wits begin to turn” Fool: “tiny wit… fortunes fit”

A3s3 Gloster and Edmund discuss the savage and unnatural. Excuse of illness. Gloster: “If I die for it, as no less is threatened me, the king my old master must be relieved.” Edmund: “The younger rises, when the old doth fall.”

A3s4 Kent: The tyranny of the open night’s too rough For nature to endure. Lear: When the mind’s free, The body’s delicate: the tempest in my mind. You houseless poverty Lear to Fool (another indication that the play originally intended the Fool at this point to be Cordelia in disguise).

Lear: “O, I have ta’en
Too little care of this! Take physick, pomp;
Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel;
That thou may’st shake the superflux to them,
And show the heavens more just.”

That is, redistributing wealth is both healthy and just. Edmund/Poor-Tom is tormented and cold, blamed on vice and the foul fiend?

Gloster: “Go in with me; my duty cannot suffer
To obey in all your daughter’s hard commands:
Though their injunction be to bar my doors,
And let this tyrannous night take hold upon you,
Yet I have ventured to come seek you out,
And bring you where both fire and food is ready.”

Gloster: The grief hath craz’d my wits.

A3s5 Cornwall: I will have my revenge.

A3s6 Lear, apparently losing touch with reality, convenes a trial of absent Goneril and Regan. Friends rally round him.

A3s7 Regan, Goneril and Cornwall mean harm to Gloster, approved by Edmund; loyal knights have taken Lear to Dover.

Cornwall: Though well we may not pass upon his life
Without the form of justice, yet our power
Shall do a courtesy to our wrath, which men
May blame, but not control. Who's there? the traitor?

Gloster: You are my guests: do me no foul play, friends. Unnamed servant of Cornwall intervenes to save Gloster’s remaining eye, fatally wounds Duke in fair combat and is fatally backstabbed by Regan. Cornwall finishes blinding Gloster. Remaining servants are appalled by the wilful acts of their ‘betters’.

It is worth noting Gloster's earlier hypocrisy in calling Cornwall 'fiery' when Edmund has so easily stoked Gloster's wrath towards Edgar.

Act 4

A4s1 Gloster: I stumbled when I saw, and As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods; They kill us for our sport. wanton here is equivalent to wilful. Gloster, humbled, now sees redistribution of wealth as key to health, reducing the diseases of rich and poor alike.

Gloster: “Here, take this purse, thou whom the heavens' plagues
Have humbled to all strokes: that I am wretched
Makes thee the happier: heavens, deal so still!
Let the superfluous and lust-dieted man,
That slaves your ordinance, that will not see
Because he doth not feel, feel your power quickly;
So distribution should undo excess,
And each man have enough.”

Gloster asks Poor Tom (son Edgar) to lead him to high Dover cliff (and leave him).

A4s2 Goneril: Conceive, and fare thee well. Edmund: Yours in the ranks of death. Albany upbraids wife for monstrosity even before hearing of Gloster’s blinding, Cornwall’s death-by-servant and Edmund’s treachery. Albany: Wisdom and goodness to the vile seem vile: Filths savour but themselves.

A4s3 Kent and Gentleman discuss Cordelia’s state on hearing news.

A4s4 Cordelia’s description of Lear suggests latter has been self-medicating with wild herbs. Physician prescribes rest and sedatives. Cordelia fears Lear’s ungovern’d rage dissolve the life That wants the means to lead it.

A4s5 Regan regrets letting Gloster live, as his injuries attract sympathy.

A4s6 Edgar: Why, then your other senses grow imperfect By your eyes’ anguish. (a deception). Edgar: Why I do trifle thus with his despair, Is done to cure it.

Gloster: “Is wretchedness depriv’d that benefit,
To end itself by death? ‘Twas yet some comfort
When misery could beguile the tyrant’s rage,
And frustrate his proud will.”

Lear appears wreathed in flowers. Lear: they told me I was every thing: ‘tis a lie; I am not ague-proof. Lear wants general copulation to provide him with more soldiers. Lear seems to have been energised by partial loss of wits and reconnection with nature away from toxic courts. Steward sees Gloster’s life and death merely means for own advancement.


Cordelia: “O my dear father! Restoration, hang
Thy medicine upon my lips; and let this kiss
Repair those violent harms, that my two sisters
Have in thy reverence made!”
Cordelia: “Mine enemy’s dog,
Though he had bit me, should have stood that night
Against my fire;”
Physician: “the great rage,
You see, is cur’d in him”

Dogs are mentioned a great many times with notable inconsistency in King Lear, but this comment links to a previous quip by Cordelia-Fool. In this case, even the health of biting dog of an enemy is valued. Rage here is Will-linked, ungoverned; and pacified Lear is no longer giving commands, but regaining health and sense.

Act 5

A5s1 Goneril: I had rather lose the battle, than that sister, Should loosen him and me. on Edmund, who plots his ruthless upwards path.

A5s2 Edgar tries to raise spirits of depressed father again.

A5s3 Lear tells Cordelia they can be happy enough in prison.

Edmund: “At this time
We sweat and bleed: the friend hath lost friend:
And the best quarrels, in the heat, are curs’d
By those who feel their sharpness”

Goneril poisons love-rival sister Regan. Gloster has reportedly died of joy and grief by Edgar’s nursing revelations. Goneril reportedly dies by her own knife. Edgar kills Edmund in challenge, who has just enough time to warn… Too late, Cordelia has been murdered by hanging in cell, Lear killed her murderer. Lear: And my poor fool is hang’d! Lear faints and dies.

Key Concepts


See also Weather, Tyranny, Gods, Sport, Revenge, Excess, Want (there is a double meaning in Want, which can be Need — ie Health — or Desire — more like Will).

Will is associated with emotions, but which ones in particular does the play foreground? Rage is a common theme; Lear, Cornwall, tyrants and storms rage to inflict their will; Kent claims anger has a privilege. But rage seems an enemy to good governance, and in each case threatens health: Lear's exposure, servant mortally wounds Cornwall, Kent is stocked. Lust, in the competition between Goneril and Regan for Edmund, and Edmund for land, leads to the wilful deaths of all three. Grief can also 'craze wits'. Fear (of growing old, becoming sick or injured, or mad etc) is another, linked partly in the play to aging and loss.

Wills can sometimes change like the weather.


See also Need, Nursing, Beasts, Wholesomeness, Disease, Nature, Justice, Mortification, Bastards.

How does loss of health (physical, mental) in one affect others? Edgar as Poor Tom mortifies his own flesh, copying beggars; Edmund cuts himself to support a lie; and as we have seen, Regan says Gloster's injuries attract sympathy. Yet many of the characters also wilfully injure others, or at least plot their deaths.

How does loss of health in oneself affect how you see others? Lear has apparently been oblivious to his subjects' health until the night of the storm awakens empathy. But it can also turn yourself inwards, narrow your concerns.

Cordelia-Fool also describes the political sickness of a falling leader, something which might harm followers if they stay loyal. Political sickness can be catching.

Edmund, who considers disinherited bastards like himself healthier than legitimate heirs, rails at a perceived injustice imposed by the wills of a dynastic ruling class. Although rational against convenient superstition, Edmund's will is also a source of injustice.

And what of a healthy society or political system? Gloster’s blindness during conflict shows that ill-health or impairment is multiplied by a sick society, but therefore made more comfortable by a healthy society.

Redistribution, Lack and Superfluity

It is Gloster who, when injured and humbled after willingly risking his life for Lear, attributes the cause of harmful poverty to the vices of the rich and the injustices of an inequitable political-social-economic system. This is loaves-and-fishes communism. Lear had argued that without superfluity, human lives would be worth those of beasts, but his mind changes focus during the storm towards alleviating the poverty of his subjects.


Haste can be interpreted as unhealthy or desperate will-driven speed. Gloster makes a hasty misjudgement of Edgar. When speedy action is required at the end of the play, haste is too little too late to save Cordelia.


One supposedly-requisite virtue of rulers, wisdom, is treated in various interesting ways in the play. Albany, dividing the factions and own marriage into good and evil, says wisdom is repugnant to the vile, which as much to say wisdom implies a healthy conscience. Gloster talks of the wisdom of nature in a sense of natural laws (perhaps opaque to the science of the time, more transparent nowadays).

The relation of Health and Will

Lear makes a distinction between sick in mind and sick in body, though when bodily sickness diseases the mind, we are not ourselves. Ill health can sometimes make us despair, or retreat upon ourselves; yet it can also create empathy with the misfortunes of others, and look outwards (as Lear does in the storm, recognising at last his lack of care for his subjects). Sick minds can will ill on self and others.

Health and Will in Political Systems

Hereditary Monarchy

Shakespeare's panoramic critique of hereditary monarchy suggests it may be the sickest of all political systems. Typically the throne attracts psychopaths, and even the subjects of peaceful rulers might live in terror of whimsy, incompetence, neglect, succession struggles, religious and civil wars, toxic court politics, foreign entanglements and so forth. There is no solution to the problem of succession in Lear, nor an enfeebled monarch, or plotting Dukes, or warring princesses. Shakespeare's monarchs tend to impiously disdain nature, for example in Cymbeline. Lear may fear the storm is partly nature's revenge upon his misrule. Without retirement or timely death, the subjects of hereditary monarchy might spend considerable time under gerontocracy (the current condition of many countries).

Lear’s court is full of contriving theatrical stratagem and deception, which he describes in his last speech to Cordelia. We are taken back to the start of the play, in the royal court, where we might see the opening act of Lear's great gamble, a strategm now almost played out with the ending he strove so hard to avoid, Cordelia's death. Nobody is taken in by the love-protestations of Goneril and Regan, and from that, the interpretation of the play must understand the illusory-theatrical, false-deceptive, deadly-toxic, sharp-elbowed, cunning-competitive nature of royal courts: plots and counter-plots.


Shakespeare does not tend to directly represent democracy on stage, but the theatre itself may have been a temporary mini-parliament during his time. Elections are not usually favourably represented; usually townsfolk seem content to elect idiots to official duties they cannot be bothered doing themselves. But as a Will-prioritising political system, democracy is at the mercy of the kinds of flaws of governance in Lear, such as rage and desire, grief and fear. An elderly demographic, the play suggests, may be particularly prone to fears relating to loss, decline, replacement by younger generation, injury, disease, diminishing mental capacity, dementia and death.

An unhealthy society will tend to produce unhealthy policies, regardless of how its democracy conforms to ideals. While a healthier society might be able change and improve its form organically, learning from its old people without bowing to them.


Shakespeare's plays offer some interesting views on natural governance, from the anarchistic idyll of the Tempest's Gonzalo, to Timon of Athens imagining the world better run by beasts, to the gardeners of Richard II, to the horned burgers of the Forest of Arden (As You Like It), to the (some plant-named) fairies of Midsummer-Night’s Dream, all of which have some features of biocracy. The sense is that animals and maybe plants govern themselves on the basis of naturally-defined health rather than will, as indeed in biocracy.


Wills are essentially unresolvable: there is no political solution that pleases everyone. Health is essentially resolvable: there will be a political solution that maximises the health of a population. Wills are often hidden, to better get one over on rivals. Health is usually transparent.

In a theological/hereditary monarchy, or a democracy, Will (whether divine, channeling-the-ancestors or popular) is paramount, so there can be little scope to question a culture of maldevelopment. Only under a Health-based political system like biocracy can social changes be considered maldevelopment as such. Lear eventually realises his realm has been maldeveloped (he takes personal responsibility but it is also the ruthless political system at fault), and reverts to nature, bedecking himself with wildflowers and using animals as models of behaviour.

Will and Health: two factors of governance in Shakespeare's King Lear by Sleeping Dog is licensed under CC BY 4.0

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