Cross-Dressing & Ghosts Obviously: Elisa Gabbert Interviews John Cotter on King Lear

by John Cotter

When Lighthouse offered me some blog space to talk about next week's Reading as a Writer: King Lear class (four weeks on Thursday nights beginning July 9), I wasn’t quite sure where to start. So the poet Elisa Gabbert – who I know but slenderly – asked me some questions about it over dinner, and I decided to put our conversation to paper:

EG: George Bernard Shaw wrote, "No man will ever write a better tragedy than Lear.” Do you agree?

Lear 2JC: Well, Shaw certainly didn't write a better one. I think 'never' and 'ever' are words to be avoided generally (and never ever combined), but there's something to it. Someone could make one better, I think – as in 'more entertaining' or 'more educational' or whatever. I'm not sure anyone could make one more tragic. Just as in The Tempest, Caliban’s only profit in learning English (or, in context, Italian) is that he knows how to curse, so in King Lear, the old King's only profit in recognition of his folly is that he can feel new extremes of grief. I can't think of another play not by an Irishman where so much hope dies at the end.

EG: Why do you think disguises, trickery, and mistaken identity are such popular themes in Shakespeare, and how do they function in Lear?

JC: Shakespeare got a lot of it from Plautus, but you're right that he wouldn’t have made so much of it if it didn't naturally obsess him. As far as plot-construction went, he loved nothing so much as doubling (well, cross-dressing and ghosts, obviously – though not at the same time – but aren't they both a kind of doubling? the man and woman in one body: the dead and the living in one shape?).

Lear 1In Lear we find Edmund and Edgar, one brother good and the other evil; mirror sisters Goneril and Regan; pairings of tautologies like “nothing will come of nothing” and, a few scenes later “nothing can be made out of nothing”; or the bit where Regan reproves Lord Cornwall after he's stomped out one of Gloucester's eyes: “One side will mock another; th'other too” and squish it goes.

What's interesting to me though is how this sinister mirroring operates on the larger scale of the plot too. Edgar and Edmund mock-scuffle in Act I, presaging their fight to the death in Act V. Even the disguising is doubled, or double-doubled: Edgar's voice goes unrecognized by his father when he's playing the part of Poor Tom, just as Kent's face weirdly goes unrecognized by the King when he returns as Caius. Indeed, before he briefly disappears, Kent urges the increasingly crazy Lear to heed his advice, to “see better, Lear, and let me still remain / the true blank of thine eye.” By the middle of the play, he's blank in Lear's eyes indeed.

EG: You mention Gloucester getting his eyes gouged out (spoiler alert there) and there are several suicides, which feels very Greek. How would you compare the Greek and Shakespearean tragedies?

JC: There's a weird ceremonial stateliness to the violence in Greek tragedy, one that's less present in Shakespeare's own. This makes sense, since he would only have known the Greeks by way of the Romans (there hadn't been any popular Greek-to-English translations of the plays by 1606 and Shakespeare, unlike the university boys, couldn't speak it; his frenemy Ben Johnson would tease him about that).

But you're right that there's something in the mood of the play that feels Greek and I wonder if it has to do with a force we might as well call fate? Shakespeare's other mature tragedies – Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello, Julius Caesar – are thinky and talky, people ponder and worry and debate themselves in long soliloquies. Because of this, they feel more real to us, more plausible. That's where Harold Bloom got his pompous Invention of the Human idea, this crazy idea that real people didn't really think things through until Shakespeare taught them how to.

Lear 3But Lear isn't like that. It's more like the history plays: think of Richard III walking in like the Stage Manager in Our Town, opening his own story by telling us “here are all the horrible things I'm going to do and this is exactly why and how. ” His mind was made up before you found your seat. Think of Henry V, which actually has a Greek Chorus, reminding everyone to turn their phones off and filling in backstory for us. As a result, what's brought home to us isn't some Victorian idea of “well, history didn't have to happen this way, except that ...” No, it's history as fate.

But Lear doesn't debate going mad, like Hamlet does – he just goes mad, and then reflects on it, madly, afterward. Edmund doesn't sit around wondering whether it would really be the best thing for all concerned if he committed a murder, like Othello and Macbeth and Hamlet do. He arrives decided. “I am rough and lecherous,” he just frankly tells us, and the illegitimate scoundrel would have been that way even if he'd had “the maidenliest star in the firmament twinkling on my bastardizing.”

That's what a lot of Greek tragedy feels like too: Tony Robbins was not invited; characters all have the willpower of 14-year-old meth heads. They're completely at the whim of fate, and of the curses of others, and equally-compelled divinities. “As flies to wanton boys are we to th' gods,” Gloucester spits from high on the cliffs, “They kill us for their sport.”

Lear is more like the history plays, but it isn't history, it's pre-history, propelled not by the grudging mercy of the Christian God, but by the unpredictable leanings of the pagan gods, forces of nature, wind and rain.

EG: The play was produced with alternate, happier endings, written by Nahum Tate, for almost 150 years. What would happen if Lear was given the focus group treatment today?

JC: Exactly the same thing.

John Cotter’s first novel Under the Small Lights appeared in 2010 from Miami University Press. His short fiction and poetry have appeared in Puerto Del Sol, Volt, The Lifted Brow, New Genre, and Redivider.  He graduated Emerson’s Creative Writing program on a Performing Arts scholarship and Harvard’s Extension School with a master’s degree in English & American lit. He lives with his favorite poet in Denver, Colorado. Learn more at

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