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"Come, unbutton here": Exposing "the thing itself" in Shakespeare’s «King Lear»

Par Denis Lagae-Devoldère : Maître de conférences - Paris-Sorbonne (Paris IV
Publié par Clifford Armion le 14/02/2010

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The first definition of the verb "to expose" in the Oxford English Dictionary is "to put out", "to deprive of shelter", "to turn out of doors", formed on the original Latin exponere: in King Lear, the king is famously kicked out of his respective daughters' houses and exposed to the elements. Throughout the play, such exposure to danger goes hand in hand with the exposure of something or somebody, which the OED defines as to denounce or to lay open (to danger, to ridicule, to censure)...


The first definition of  the verb "to expose" in the Oxford English Dictionary is "to put out", "to  deprive of shelter" , "to turn out of doors", formed on the original Latin exponere: in King Lear, the king is famously kicked out of his respective daughters' houses and exposed to the elements. Throughout the play, such exposure to danger goes hand in hand with the exposure of something or somebody, which the OED defines as to denounce or to lay open (to danger, to ridicule, to censure). Whether it is Regan and Goneril's hypocrisy (as exposed by Kent, who will be banished for it), Edmund's false exposure of his brother or the king's fool exposing Lear's contradictions, there is plenty of exposing, of unmasking (and its opposite, concealing) in the play. Exposure in its specular unmasking/concealing dialectics takes on an even more specific and concrete meaning in Act 3, scene 4, in a case of (near) indecent exposure, when Edgar disguised as Tom is said to be almost naked and Lear is getting ready to take his ragged clothes off ("Unbutton" 3.4.107) .The common feature of these various types of exposure is the taking off of a protective layer which covers, masks, protects something or somebody, thus leaving the head without a crown, the body without clothes or the truth in all its nakedness in what the French call a "mise à nu".

All these different shades and stages of exposure are inherent in a play that strives at the emergence of the truth or of truths and on discovery. As Michael Neill suggested, King Lear marks the conflation between cartography and anatomy, two cultural and epistemological tropes and procedures typical of the Renaissance (44). Within the dramatic text, one of and on discoveries, this double influence resonates with the exposure of what is hidden or unsaid. In other words, King Lear interrogates and exposes the OB-SCENE, things that were to remain behind the curtain, in the wings, underneath clothes or buried. When Albany says to his wife Goneril : "How far your eyes may pierce I cannot tell" (1.4.341), his words may paradoxically and unwittingly have a programatic ring about them and suggest one of the key interpretative guidelines to the whole play. King Lear forces the spectators on and off stage to have "a good eye", in the words of Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing (2.1.75) and to pierce bodies, garments and masks, including the masks of language and theatre, possibly in search of what Lear himself refers to, somewhat cryptically, as the "thing itself" (3.4.104).

1. The clothing motif

Although a lot of critical commentary has been devoted to the clothing motif in King Lear, it seems that its parallel paradigm, stripping, has often only been given short thrift (Heilman, Greenfield, Charney). It is however a symbolic and metaphorical stripping that sets the whole tragedy going, when Lear decides to strip himself of his political powers. "We will divest us both of rule, interest of territory, cares of state" (1.1.49-50, my emphasis). The use of the verb "to divest" (synonymous with "to disrobe") is very indicative of the dispossession/disrobing combination at work, whereas the use of "unburdened" (1.1.40) is perhaps to be connected with Edgar's reference (or Albany's, in the 1608 Quarto) to "the weight of this sad time" (5.3.322). This marks the beginning of Lear's very own kind of personal striptease : first giving up his crown and lands of his own accord, he then has to endure the steady decrease of his retainers - which Goneril describes with the verb "to disquantity" (1.4.240) - down to zero (2.2.260) before he eventually gets kicked out (first sense of "to expose") of his daughters' houses. As well as being uncrowned, "unbonneted" (3.1.14), "bareheaded" (3.2.60) Lear is "houseless" (3.4.26), "unaccommodated" (3.4.105). As is well known, the physical exposure is matched by mental exposure  ("this tempest in my mind",3.4.12), and this trajectory is paralleled in the so called secondary plot with Edgar, Gloucester and Kent, whose fates are all marked with the stripping of their former status. The same applies to Cordelia, who is stripped of her "favorite daughter"'s title, is banished ("cast away", 1.1.255) and taken away by and to France. The difference is that her stripping happens at her father's hands, not by choice. In reducing Cordelia to nothing, Lear not only strips her of her due inheritance, he tries to deprive her of a husband (he chases off Burgundy), takes her value away ("her price is fallen",1.1.198) as well as her royal and familial identity ("we / Have no such daughter",1.1.264-65). In just a few seconds, Cordelia is stripped of everything that made her identity, and France uses yet another sartorial-stripping metaphor when he remarks on Lear's unfair treatment of his daughter: "a thing so monstrous, to dismantle so many folds of favour" (1.1.218-19). Lear has reduced her to nothing when he pronounces her to be "little-seeming substance" (1.1.199). Regarding the king himself, the stripping motif takes him politically from king to nothing, familially and linguistically from father to infant ("babe", without the ability to speak), and topographically from court/kingdom to the heath, a no man's land, "a topographical dead zone" (Brotton, 228). He is even stripped of his senses, since in in his madness, he is shown to be losing all sense of spatial orientation and his ability to display mastery over space, thus  reversing his arrogant handling of the map in the opening scene. The idea of stripping, both as a metaphor and a structural paradigm, takes on a very physical (and theatrical) aspect in act 3, scene 4.

2. The thing itself?

In Act 3, which is the stormy weather act, scene 4 stages the meeting point of both plots and an encounter between Edgar disguised as Tom beggar of Bedlam and feigning madness, and Lear whose "real" madness seems to be on the increase. Edgar/Tom is naked and the whole issue of his being naked or almost naked, whether he is literally or figuratively so, and of what to do when you stage that scene as a director has caused a wealth of critical debate. Lear interprets Edgar's nakedness as a metaphor of man's condition, a state of utter bereavement made palpable in man's bare skin. Being rid of all the trappings of civilization, man is revealed as and for what he is, in all his ugly naked ontological truth, a "nothing" : "Is man no more than this ?", asks Lear echoing Montaigne (3.4.101). Traditionally enough, exposure seems to go together with a form of superior knowledge, which Lear embraces when following Edgar's example, he claims he wants to become "the thing itself" (104). However this literalisation of the symbolic process that has been at work since the map scene doesn't reveal anything. As Valerie Traub puts it, Lear is "as hapless an anatomist as he was a cartographer" (48), making Lear a poor discoverer indeed.

Edgar's near indecent exposure is commented upon ironically by the fool in his ironical mention of the blanket (64-65). The blanket is therefore a thing (partially covering up Edgar/Tom's body), but the term "blanket" smacks too much of a "blank", that is to say of a void, an empty form without substance, in other words a nothing. The phonetic proximity between "blank" and "blanket" can be construed as an echo of Kent's earlier piece of advice to Lear : "See better, Lear, and let me still remain / The true blank of thine eye" (1.1.159-60), deepening  the metaphorical and symbolic nexus between garments (or the absence thereof) and clear vision and lucidity. What's more, this ironical comment itself takes place in a dramatic situation fraught with dramatic irony, since of the four characters present on stage at that point, 3 are actually in disguise, if one includes the fool (probably wearing motley, typical of the jester's garment) : Edgar/Tom, Kent/Caius and the fool.

It seems to be highly significant that the moment when man's humanity is revealed to Lear in the state of nature, it should be in such a heavy theatrical masquerade. First of all, it occurs through the agency of Edgar, who has become out of necessity the greatest master of disguise and shape-changer in the play : he will be shown on stage, in turn, under the guise of a madman, a devil, a peasant, a knight and even a royal figure (Iselin, 2009, 284). Every disguise is associated with specific languages and accents, which are incidentally commented upon by himself or the other charaters. So man's nakedness is not exposed through Edgar's mere literal nakedness but through his putting on the mask of the beggar. The result is that nakedness is only just another type of garment, a disguise,  in other words a per-sona, that is, etymologically and literally, "that through which words are made to sound", if only because it is a theatrical trick or a metaphorical "turn" of language. What the spectactors witness here is actuallty the baring of a baring, or the representation of a representation, utlimately revealing nothing but its own mechanisms.

The metatheatrical and metalinguistic implications are just too consistent and recurrent to be just a mere coincidence. This incidentally sheds a very ironic light on the "philosophical" and "metaphysical" comments made by Lear at that point. When he asks to be "unbuttoned", willing as he now is to "expose (himself)" ("Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel", 3.4.34), Lear is ready to confront the "thing itself" or possibly the "real thing", to borrow Tom Stoppard's famous title. Lear, presumably, becomes real, thanks to an anagrammatic turn of phrase which had been dormant in his very name. Yet by asking to be unbuttoned, Lear has not become real just yet, if one admits that "to get real", in common parlance, means to become lucid : in his asking - or rather ordering - to be unbuttoned instead of doing it himself, he apparently still considers himself as a king. It may be that the anagrammatic LEAR becoming REAL formula is just what it is and exposed as such, a turn of phrase.

The proximity of what Valerie Traub names Lear's "anatomical encounter" with Edgar and Lear's suggestion to "anatomize" Regan (3.6.73) - a character associated with clothes and social status -  can hardly be a coincidence (Traub 42) : the prying reifying gaze of the anatomist, both in its medical or literary sense, eventually fails to penetrate or reveal much, rendering the very notion of self discovery or discovery a very relative one.

Lear is actually less than his fool, as the latter puts it : "Now thou art an O with a figure ; I am better than thou art now. I am a fool, thou art nothing" (1.4. 183-85). Naked or nearly so and exposed as he is on the heath, placed in a new position where he sees things differently, from a new angle, the former king now a nothing on the social if not ontological scale can expose what is usually covered up, just like his fool. According to Terry Eagleton, the clown's or fool's role is to be roleless (Eagleton, 1967, 226). The absence of any role or status implies the freedom to say anything. Lear can take on the satirical dimension of his new found role: those at the bottom of the social scale articulate truths about the way of the world and the madness of those in power. So Lear can become a satirist, one whose eyes can pierce masks and dig up the core of every being and situation (like Jaques, in As You Like It). Ironically, Kent's earlier attempt at making Lear see his mistakes had been considered too direct, too plain, just like Cordelia's nothing had been too blunt. Unsuccessful in opening Lear's eyes, he was harshly punished for it (out of sight): it is an instance of the whole stylistic confrontation between (verbal) plainness versus flattery that permeates the play, between the straight or blunt course of action and the rounded, circular way, with countless circular and dramatic implications. (as well as satirically religious; protestant plainness versus Roman Catholic roundabout, hypocritical ways). It is the fool who articulates the truth with a somewhat oblique strategy, he produces a highly subversive discourse. Symptomatically, by the end of the play, there is a reshuffling of roles: the King himself plays the role of Kent or of the fool to open Gloucester's eyes: "A man may see how this world goes with no eyes" (4.6.144) mentioning "politicians" who pretend to see what is not (167-68). The ideal aim is to see the world as it is, plainly, what Kent defines to Cordelia as "the modest truth / Nor more, nor clipped, but so" (4.7.5-6, my emphasis).

At the crossroads between the fool and the mad prophet, Lear's new persona and rhetoric recall the mad prophet. On the face of it, he prophesies the apocalypse (what will happen in the future), but in actual fact he is talking not about the future but, far more subversively, about the corrupt state of things in the present time. Lear's satirical discourse denounces social inequality and moral corruption, although his words are somewhat undermined by the fact that he now exposes the system on which his kingly authority used to be founded. Such limitations point to a place where words have no grasp, possibly in the grey areas of Kent's "but so".

3. Beyond language: theatre as exposure?

The Edgar/Lear's indecent exposure moment in act 3, scene 4, along with the blanket reference conjure up an image of what theatre does, i.e. exposes the ob-scene, what lies beyond language, what resists articulation. It is a nothing made something, which is a current enough phenomenon in the play. The inaugural map can be said to be a diagram of the king's will, a drawing, as critics showed, which is exteriorized, outed, in more than one sense. It is a hidden nothing (which the audience will never get to see), a mental representation given shape the moment it is put forth, produced and displayed on the stage ("Give me the map there"). Similarly, at the end of the play, when Lear desperately clings to the phantasm of Cordelia's illusory breath in the mirror, he may be said to be trying to make something out of nothing, an absence made presence (Brayton, 2003, 421).

The notion of exposure in King Lear is resonant with what can be called a "scopic obsession", often used in a context of manipulation. In that respect, Edmund's technique when he tricks his father into believing Edgar is plotting against him in act 1, scene 2 is something of a case in point of the showing/concealing dialectics with a view to create a non existent secret and make it something by creating and displaying it. Edmund conspicuously hides the forged letter to his father, which only makes Gloucester more curious, as expected, revealing what Pierre Iselin aptly names a "scopic appropriation" (Iselin, 2009, 286). The "nothing" motif is taken up again, when Gloucester asks his son: "What paper were you reading?", to which the latter replies with a "nothing, my lord" (1.2.30-31). "The quality of nothing hath no such need / To hide itself. Let's see. Come, if it be nothing I shall not need / spectacles" (1.2.32-35). Edmund goes one step further by underlining the secrecy and interiority of the letter itself: not only he doesn't recognize its contents (secrecy expressed in writing), but it was in the "casement of his closet", he claims (1.2.58), piling up the multiple layers of the hidden at the same time he seems to create them. Something will come of that nothing, and the episode is a fine illustration of the use of discovery and suspicion that permeates the whole tragedy. Putting secrecy on display or making a show of secrecy is at the root of the etymological sense of "theatrum" or "theatron" in Greek, which implies something made specifically to be viewed. Dead against this scopic and exhibition direction, as illustrated by the penetrating, reifying gaze of the "anatomist" - medical and satirist - stand Kent's statement about the "modest truth" or Cordelia's significant avowal: "I cannot heave my heart / Into my mouth" (1.1.91-92). King Lear dramatizes the conflicting quasi ontological inability for display and the use of hypocritical, that is to say, dramatic display.

Undoubtedly Gloucester's horrid enucleation brings this notion of "display" ("monstrum": what is exhibited, produced) to a cruel climax: It exposes man's cruelty, no doubt, so much so that it is thought too obscene for Edmund and Goneril to watch, as Cornwall puts it: "Edmund, keep our sister company. The revenges we are bound to take upon your traitorous father are not fit for your beholding" (3.7.6-9). Ironically enough, the hyper realistic technique is deemed fit for us, spectators, to behold. But this horrible episode is in itself metaphorically taken up in Gloucester's remark about the boundaries between the inside and the outside: his literal blindness, just like Lear's figurative cecity, brings about introspection: paradoxically, his plucked out eyes now enable him "to look fearfully into the confined deep" (4.1.77), and he claims he needs no help to walk since "(he) stumbled when (he) saw", implying that blindness makes you see better ((Indeed, Gloucester can only see Edgar's loyalty and Edmund's treachery once he has lost his eyes.)).

It seems to me that King Lear endlessly testifies to the fact that drama, with the help of language which is one of its essential components, is the only medium to confirm the central ontological question of the play, that something can indeed come of nothing. In act 4, scene 5, the confrontation between the two worn our patriarchs turns into a series of ironical mock situations which the maddened Lear uses to create things out of things that very obviously do not exist. The stripping process goes on ("Pull off my boots", he orders Edgar/Tom before taking off his crown of weeds). So as he keeps divesting himself, he mimicks for instance the role of a king - which he no longer is -  "when I do stare, see how the subject quakes" (4.6.107), and he proceeds to stage a mock trial which sardonically repeats Gloucester's former mock trail: in both cases, it reveals a performative power that no longer performs anything, enhancing performative emptiness. By the same token, Lear had previously admitted that his former royal status was purely the result of a linguistic configuration ("They told me I was everything, 'tis a lie", (4.6.103-104). Lear even stages a mock recognition of Gloucester when he seems to play with the man's eyes, or rather lack thereof: "l remember thine eyes well enough" (132): looking at the two gory rings (an absence, to say the least), he locates there the sign of Gloucester's adulterous "fault", the female pit or hole written across his face, adding that Gloucester's eyes are in a "heavy case" ("case" designating the female genitals). The empty holes are thus reinvested with a new meaning (a variation on the absence made presence equation). Similarly, although the no man's land of the heath is often said to be turned into the space of self discovery and discoveries (the experience of the heath providing an access to knowledge), where what was hidden is brought up and out, it is also exposed as a highly theatrical locus where nothings may become somethings. This theatrical (and obviously metatheatrical) dimension is given full prominence in the famous complex Dover cliff scene which Stanley Cavell sums up neatly as "up no hill to no cliff to no suicide" (55). What may at first seem a cruel practical joke played by Edgar on his blind father turns out to be a brilliant piece of theatrical manipulation. Edgar as playwright, actor and set designer has Gloucester as well as the audience quite literally hanging in the air. Beyond the hypothetical "curative" dimension of the scene (Gloucester's possible regeneration), what is striking is the laying bare, the demystification of the mechanics of drama.


Etymologically and culturally, as Marie-Madeleine Martinet explains, the complex intertwining of tropes relating to clothes, vision and language not only signals but magnifies make believe (58), especially if enhanced by reflexive metaphors (Ricks, 108, 129). Such metatextual and metatheatrical self-consciousness may be at work in the renewed use of the term "unbutton" in the dénouement of the play. Reading the dé-nouement as unbuttoning in Lear's final command (to Edgar, presumably), "undo this button" (5.3.308) marks the ultimate stage of dissociation, dissolution of previously existing links and also the very last stage of the stripping process. The blunt literal meaning given to this "unbuttoning" throws an ironic light on the play's famously ambivalent ending, "the promised end" mentioned by Kent: as it plays with the unbutton-dénouer motif, turning a clothing motif into an actual dramatic trick before our very eyes and ears, it also toys with the classic restorative function of tragedy, and it is possible to see redemption as being exposed as a myth: this parody of a morality play - with Edgar's slightly ridiculous intervention as the masked avenger, his melodramatic reconciliation with the evil Edmund, Edmund's last-minute conversion to the cause of good - exposes the dénouement for the convention it is. The breakdown of language ("howl, howl, howl!", 5.3.255) combined with the undermining of the promised reconciliation (dissociation of a father and his daughter just reunited) reinforces the idea that the only thing that makes some kind of sense in this chaotic ending is that theatre calls attention to its own mechanisms. Not only is this a highly reflexive visual scene presenting a spectacularly specular construction, with several levels of embedding, implying that the spectators are watching the onstage audience watching Lear watching Cordelia but Lear's final "discovery" about the nature of mankind ("you are men of stones", developed with "murderers, traitors all", 5.3.255, 267) gives a strangely inadequate sound, as he is surrounded by friends. The specular construction implies that he may be addressing the offstage audience as well - a classic directorial choice that causes the famous fourth wall to collapse. At last, the dead Cordelia, a very meaningful "nothing", is manifested by her absence of breath. What the looking-glass reflects is "nothing" - a nothing producing nothing, a theatrical operation if ever there was one.

If we agree that Cordelia is, at this point, a dramatic image of "nothing", which the scene invites us to "see" and recognize as a mirror-image of ourselves, the stripping process is paralleled with the emergence of the one and only truth, the theatre's fundamental power of making something out of nothing as well as human - including the spectators - essential nothingness. In that perspective, the elusive "thing itself" mentioned by the distraught king could very well be nothing and this is ultimately what King Lear crushingly exposes.

Références bibliographiques

Heilman, Robert B. 1947. « Poor Naked Wretches Prov'd Array': the Clothes Pattern in King Lear, » Western Review,.

Greenfield Thema Nelson. 1954.« The Clothing Motif in King Lear, » Shakespeare Quarterly 5, 281-86

 Charney Maurice. 1974. « We put fresh garments on him: Nakedness and Clothes in King Lear, » in Some Facets of King Lear, Rosalie Colie, (ed.) Toronto : University of Toronto.

Iselin, Pierre. 2009. « Mend your speech : King Lear et le drame de la langue ». In « The True Blanket of Thine Eye », Pascale Drouet et Pierre Iselin (ed.), Paris : Presses de l'Université Paris-Sorbonne.

Martinet, Marie-Madeleine. 1981. « Pensée et vêtement : Une métaphore réflexive du XVIIème siècle, source d'un symbolisme moderne. » Bulletin de la Société d'Etudes Anglo-Américaines du XVII et XVIIIème siècles 12 : 45-60.

Brayton, Dan. 2003. « Angling in the Lake of Darkness' : Dispossession, and the Politics of Discovery in King Lear. »  ELH 70 (2), 399-426.

Neill, Michael. 1997. Issues of Death : Mortality and Identity in English Renaissance Tragedy. Oxford : Clarendon Press.

Traub, Valerie. 2009. « The Nature of Norms in Early Modern England : Anatomy, Cartography, King Lear. » South Central Review 26 : 42-81.

Brotton, Jerry. 2003. « Tragedy and Geography » in A Companion to Shakespeare's Works, vol.1, The Tragedies, Richard Dutton and Jean Howard (ed). 217-40

Cavell, Stanley. 1987. Disowning Knowledge in Seven Plays of Shakespeare. Cambridge ; Cambridge University Press.

Eagleton, Terry. 1967. « Language and Reality in Twelfth Night ». The Critical Quarterly 9 : 217-28.

Ricks, Christopher. 1978. « Its Own Resemblance' » in Approaches to Marvell : The Ork Tercentenary Lectures, C.A Patrides (ed), Routledge, London. 108-35.


Cette ressource a été publiée dans le cadre de la journée d'étude "Visions dans et sur King Lear", organisée par Estelle Rivier à l'université du Maine le 13 janvier 2010.


Pour citer cette ressource :

Denis Lagae-Devoldère, ""Come, unbutton here": Exposing "the thing itself" in Shakespeare’s «King Lear»", La Clé des Langues [en ligne], Lyon, ENS de LYON/DGESCO (ISSN 2107-7029), février 2010. Consulté le 23/05/2024. URL: https://cle.ens-lyon.fr/anglais/litterature/litterature-britannique/Shakespeare/come-unbutton-here-exposing-the-thing-itself-in-shakespeare-s-king-lear