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Shakespeare’s Undirected Letters: Critical Confusion in King Lear

Alan Stewart is Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, and International Director of the Centre for Editing Lives and Letters in London. In his new book Shakespeare’s Letters he shows how and why Shakespeare put letters on stage in virtually all of his plays (111 letters appear on stage in all but five of his dramas). In the excerpt below he looks at some of the confusing letters that appear in King Lear.


The letters in King Lear have infuriated critics. Exhausted with coping with the play’s idiosyncratic time schemes and wilful geographical vagueness, scholars from A.C. Bradley to Jonathan Goldberg have admitted defeat when faced with the vagaries of the play’s letters. Letters circulate at high speed, miraculously reaching characters who are hiding in disguise; characters appear to be in receipt of information that cannot possibly have reached them. Rosalie Colie’s response is representative: she sums up the epistolary exchanges in the play as ‘odd . . . Letters pass at an amazing rate from hand to hand—but there is no hint of how they do so . . . All we know is that letters and people pass from here and there to Dover.’ Many of the critical complaints about inconsistency centre on questions of place: in a world where characters depart from one space to another on the spur of the moment, how do letters reach them? Bradley’s objection is typical: ‘Lear and Goneril, intending to hurry to Regan, both send off messengers to her, and both tell the messengers to bring back an answer. But it does not appear either how the messengers could return or what answer could be required, as their superiors are following them with the greatest speed.’41 But these qualms disappear once we accept that early modern messengers are not sent from place to place but from person to person; their address, as we’ve seen, is to a person not a place; the messenger must report back, or carry a letter back, to the original sender, who might well be mobile, and so locating that sender is part of the messenger’s duties.

Knowles’ analysis here is astute, but it importantly misunderstands what it would mean for Cordelia to send a letter to Kent. Once again, it follows our modern assumption that the letter would be sent to the place where Kent is thought to be, and then forwarded to the place where Kent actually is (say, from Goneril’s to Regan’s or Gloucester’s house), and finally handed over by ‘someone in Gloucester’s household’. But this is not how early modern letters operated, and especially not the kind of letter Cordelia would be sending to Kent, from the king’s disowned daughter to a banished nobleman. By simply existing, such a letter would be dangerous, its messenger liable to extreme punishment if found. Cordelia would instruct a personal servant to deliver it to Kent: not to the house where he was expected to stay, not to the house where he was staying, not to someone else in that house, but to Kent in person. But this then begs the question: how would a bearer know of Kent’s disguise, or his whereabouts?—and his disguise and whereabouts are inexorably linked, since in using the phrase ‘obscured course’ (2.2.166) Kent himself conflates his physical disguise and his erratic journey. The play does not provide an answer: it simply demands that we accept that the mechanics of letter delivery are such that a good bearer will find his man, even when that quarry is on the run, in disguise, and moving swiftly between multiple locales.

The letter problem is compounded by a geography problem. The geography of King Lear is notoriously inadequate. As Stanley Wells has noted, Shakespeare ‘opens up the play’s action’, by replacing specificity with ‘multiplicity of suggestiveness’—or, in other words, ‘delocalization’. Although some scenes are situated—Gloucester’s castle, Albany’s seat, Cornwall’s palace—we don’t know where any of these are geographically located. Reason would assert that Albany would have his seat in Scotland, and Cornwall in the extreme south-west of England, but the distances between these places would make the play’s action implausible—so even characters deliberately known by geographical signifiers are then detached from those places. The result, I shall suggest, is a play of purely interpersonal relations between individuals, in which letters brought by personal bearers are crucial.

The most egregious example is the peculiarly healthy correspondence transacted between Cordelia in France, and Kent, flitting between the court, Albany’s house, Cornwall’s house, Gloucester’s house and the so-called heath. In 2.2, Kent, in the stocks at Gloucester’s house very early in the morning, produces a letter and calls on the ‘warm sun’ to ‘[a]pproach’ so that ‘by thy comfortable beams I may | Peruse this letter’ (2.2.160–2)

I know ’tis from Cordelia,
Who hath most fortunately been informed
Of my obscured course, [reading the letter] ‘and shall find time
From this enormous state, seeking to give
Losses their remedies’. All weary and o’erwatched,
Take vantage, heavy eyes, not to behold
This shameful lodging.
Fortune, good night: smile once more; turn thy wheel. (2.2.164–71)

This passage has caused editors considerable grief. How does Kent have a letter from Cordelia in his possession? How did it reach him? Does he open it and read it at this point? Are some of these words then Cordelia’s—as R. A. Foakes’s edition, cited here, suggests—or all of them Kent’s?

Richard Knowles argues that Kent ‘himself must somehow have informed Cordelia of his disguise’, pointing out that ‘no one else knows of it until the end of the play’, so Cordelia ‘hath most fortunately’ (‘happily, not accidentally’) ‘been informed’ of his state. Cordelia, meanwhile, ‘must have had available to her some unmiraculous means of corresponding from France to her friends in England, perhaps through a network hurriedly arranged . . . when she left England for France’. Building on this supposition, Knowles speculates that ‘Kent most probably has just gotten the letter from someone in Gloucester’s household, where he has recently arrived’—since he has not read it, he is unlikely to have received it previously at Goneril’s house. ‘If a realistic explanation can be imagined’, he concludes, ‘the letter must have been sent first to Goneril’s house, where Cordelia expected Lear and Kent to be, and it (or a duplicate) must have followed him to Regan’s or Gloucester’s house. How, we do not know, nor are we invited to ask.’

Recent Comments

  1. David Basch

    Shakespeare replicates verisimilitude, not reality. It is sufficient that the action is plausible to the audience. The audience would be so involved in the action that they would scarce
    notice such discrepancies, which, in any case, are not important to the message of the play. It is that message which is crucial to the playwright.

    The play is the story of a flawed king that grows to a moral ripeness through his suffering. It is then that he becomes a Jobbian figure who, though a good man, suffers — the same fate visited on other good people in the play, though there are some characters — Edgar, Kent — who are restored as Job was.

  2. [...] Lear may be one of the most letter-heavy in the Shakespearean canon. A recent article highlighted a segment of Bard-related scholarship that has sought to make sense of these letters. As it turns out, these apparently simple devices [...]

  3. Bruce Oksol

    I think some folks have too much time on their hands! This is what theatre and film is all about: to suspend belief, either for enjoyment or for a greater message. Look at all the action-drama movies today, and there is no way the hero could do the things the director has him/her do. We go go the movies to suspend belief. But, it must be believable. “Shakespeare” did that very, very well.

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