Playing the Indian Card

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Moral Abuse in King Lear

Lear's three daughters. Pope.

In Shakespeare’s King Lear, Cordelia is obviously exceptionally honest. She refuses to exaggerate her love for her father. She could, after all, have lied, as her sisters did. She could almost have said “Me too”; this is about what Regan does. She could have come up with the words; if necessary, they were provided for her.

Moreover, the fact that Lear has already divided up the kingdom without allowing for her share suggests that her honesty was a well-known part of her character. He could predict that she would not flatter.

Cordelia here is faced with a moral dilemma. Granted that any answer was intended to prevent her marriage, had she flattered, she would have been single, but queen of one third of Britain. Honesty was likely to cost her both husband and livelihood.

The same pre-existent passion for honesty is characteristic of Edgar, also abused in the play. Edmund testifies to it:

“… and a brother noble,
Whose nature is so far from doing harms
That he suspects none: on whose foolish) honesty
My practises ride easy.” (Act 1, Scene 2)
Given that King Lear is a study of mental illness, this test of honesty seems important. Yet the issue of honesty seems invisible to psychiatry and psychology. Ferenczi, it is true, saw it; but Freud, by contrast, and with him the psychoanalytic establishment, essentially viewed all neurotics as liars. 

Lear's rage. Brown

Shakespeare, on the other hand, features this moral trial as his first act, from which all else follows—broadly, all mental illness. Lear has deliberately set up a test of Cordelia’s truthfulness, so that she must suffer for it.

Why is such a trial of virtue a critical element in our story?

View things from the perspective of a narcissist. Everyone seems to agree that Lear is a narcissist: that is why he wants lavish praise from his daughters. But calling people “narcissists” is really a euphemism. What that really means is that they are immoral. A narcissist wants to follow his own desires, as opposed to moral duty. Eve was a narcissist in taking the apple, on the promise that she would “become as God.” Lucifer was a narcissist in choosing himself over God. Morality is an impediment to doing whatever you want. Morality, therefore, is the great enemy. That is the essence of being a narcissist.

Such a person cannot tolerate an exceptional child, because a child with special gifts may draw attention from himself or herself. But he also cannot, above all, tolerate an exceptionally moral child. First, a moral child stands as an implicit condemnation of himself, a silent testimony to his guilt. Second, a moral child is likely sooner or later to notice and object to his behavior. Third, a moral child will never totally submit to his will. They follow, in the end, another master, and this is subversive to the narcissist’s desires. There can in the end be only one centre of the universe.

Accordingly, any narcissistic parent will probably feel impelled, before all else, to lead all their children into moral temptation. They will then bully and cajole them to choose the wrong.

The Adult Children of Alcoholics / Dysfunctional Families literature says that dysfunctional families almost always assign children to one of two groups: either “golden children” who can do no wrong, or “black sheep” (better, “scapegoats”) who can do no right.

It is easy to see how this comes about. Shakespeare demonstrates. Each child of the narcissist is whenever possible placed in a moral dilemma, as Cordelia, Regan, and Goneril are; or as Dymphna is in the legend of that saint. If they submit and choose the moral wrong, as their parent demands, they are rewarded and may become the “golden children.” If they insist on acting morally, they may become the scapegoat. And a moral is presented here for the benefit of the whole family: good is evil, and evil is good. 

Cordelia's trial. Gilbert

This is not sufficient to determine which child is designated as “golden” and which as scapegoat; for this almost always happens long before the children reach the age of reason, and are responsible for their own acts. Rather, the designation of some children as one or the other is itself set up to morally subvert the children. Both golden child and scapegoat are learning that rewards have nothing to do with morals or justice: the pampered child is rewarded no matter what they do, and the abused child is punished no matter what they do. Ethics are thus shown to be of no practical significance.

But then, at about adolescence, or about the age of reason, it may well be that such a trial is often set. And as a result, positions might even be reversed. We see just this with Cordelia, heretofore supposedly favoured. Hence perhaps too the motif, as in the Dymphna legend—Freudians sometimes say it is a subtext here in Lear as well—of attempting to “seduce” the child into an incestuous marriage at adolescence. This perhaps stands as an image for seduction into shared guilt generally.

Accordingly, moral abuse is perhaps the key and most important form of child abuse. Other forms of child abuse can often be its expression; and it is the one form of abuse experienced by both “golden children,” pampered favourites, and “scapegoats,” the more conventionally abused.

This arguably most important form of abuse, is almost inevitably overlooked by conventional psychiatry and psychology, because they avoid all reference to morality. How crucial is that, should the essential issue in all mental illness turn out to be a moral one?

And how important is moral abuse in the broader scheme of things? Apparently, among the worst of sins. According to Christianity, according to Jesus in the Gospels:

“If anyone causes one of these little ones--those who believe in me--to stumble, it would be better for them if a large millstone were hung around their neck and they were thrown into the sea.” (Mark 9:42, NIV).

If you believe in eternity, this stands to reason. It is leading another to hell—eternal damnation. That is a far more important consideration than mental illness. Depression might not be so much an illness as a war wound, to be worn with honour. It shows a conscience that survived this onslaught.

Shakespeare also shows, in his play, that narcissistic parents are ultimately foolish to corrupt their children in this way—even if they are thoroughgoing materialists concerned only with their own self-interest. Once a child is stripped of any morals, after all, as are Goneril and Regan, what will guide their actions? It is unlikely to be absolute obedience to the desires of their parent. It is far more likely that they will replace their conscience, just as the parent has, with their own ego and their own desires. Thieves can never rely upon honour among thieves.

It is, accordingly, in the play, Cordelia and Edgar, the moral but abused children, who stand firm in defense of their abusive parent. Cordelia cares more for her father than for herself:

“For thee, oppressed king, am I cast down;
Myself could else out-frown false fortune’s frown.” (Act 5, Scene 3).
She goes to war in his behalf. Edgar, put in a position where he might take any revenge he likes on the father who wanted to kill him, instead does everything he can in his father’s interest, battling Oswald to the death in his defense. 

Act 1. Scene 1. Abbey

At the same time the play makes clear with Lear and Gloucester that an honest conscience can be a consequence as much as a cause of being abused. The experience of being abused naturally makes you more sensitive and sympathetic to the sufferings of others. If love, as Jesus attests, is the root of morality, this will make you moral.

It all comes close to justifying the existence of evil in the universe.

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