“In fiction, evil is always more interesting than good,” a professor of mine once said offhandedly in a course on eighteenth-century novels. “But in real life, the reverse is true.” The proposition intrigued me. One theory to explain why this might be so holds that goodness is a real property and evil merely its lack—an emptiness, a void—just as in physics, cold is the absence of heat and has no energy of its own. In both fiction and life, evil generates interest by going to great and hideous lengths to hide its own emptiness from others and even from itself. In both, evil is deflated when we discover the naked need beneath a wrathful exterior.
In King Lear, Shakespeare doesn’t take the bait in terms of glamorizing evil. We should be similarly careful in our comparisons of the play to present-day politics, which proliferated in the final stretch of Donald Trump’s presidency. Like many English teachers over the past four years, I was sometimes struck by the thought that we were living through a protracted real-world adaptation of the play, its acts numbering in the thousands. But parallels between the mad king and the mad president don't hold up under scrutiny, and January 6, 2021 proved definitively that Trump isn’t Lear. He is the bastard Edmund, sowing discord from a safe remove in a misbegotten bid for love. And the arc of Trump’s presidency doesn’t rise to the level of tragedy so much as it sinks into something tawdry, something that would be pitiable if his sordid machinations—like Edmund’s—didn’t leave real tragedy everywhere in their wake.
King Lear has a complicated double plot, in which not one but two old men are toppled by their own scheming children. Two scenes in particular have resonated in the public imagination as far as Trump is concerned: the “love test” that sets the whole play in motion, and the scene where Lear rages on the heath.
In the “love test,” a vain, insecure, and capricious Lear decides to retire early and parcel out the kingdom to his three daughters, oblivious to the fact that a crown split three ways is just a heap of metal. He promises the largest share of land to the one who can offer him the most effusive public declaration of her love. Two of Lear’s daughters, Regan and Goneril—whose name sounded like a venereal disease even in Shakespeare’s day—play along, and to the sycophants go the spoils. His youngest daughter, Cordelia, speaks plainly and truthfully and is banished for her honesty. All the good and honest people in King Lear are banished, actually, a point on which Trumpian life often seemed to imitate Shakespearean art: Trump staged his own “love test” in the summer of 2017, when members of his cabinet took turns fawning over him in front of cameras before their meeting could begin.
But that’s where the similarities between Lear and Trump end. In the play, Lear has the great good fortune to be chastened for his misdeeds. Immediately after he hands over his kingdom to Regan and Goneril, they take away his knights and kick him out of his own house in a terrible storm. His subsequent raging on the heath is redemptive and transformative. Lear is exposed to the elements and unprotected, his retinue reduced to a manservant and a court jester. He is initially so angry at the injustices done to him—“In such a night / To shut me out!”—that he can’t even feel the rain. But a kindly word returns Lear to his senses, awakening some long-buried kindness in him. His self-pity (“I am a man / More sinn’d against than sinning”) gives way to pity for others. First, pity for the Fool who accompanies him: “Come on, my boy: how dost, my boy? Art cold? / I am cold myself.” And then pity for the vulnerable subjects whom he failed to protect as king:
Poor naked wretches, whereso’er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your loop’d and window’d raggedness, defend you
From seasons such as these? O, I have ta’en
Too little care of this!
It is difficult to imagine Trump saying anything of the sort, syntactically or morally. When Trump raged, as far as one could tell from reading the newspaper, he never moved beyond the sense of having been sinned against.
Although Lear never fully regains his sanity in the play, his moral compass is righted on the heath. He even forcibly stops himself from making more excuses for his own past shortcomings as a father and a ruler: “O, that way madness lies; let me shun that; / No more of that.” Whether Trump illustrates the danger Lear foresaw for himself is left to the reader to decide.
Lear’s epiphany is in many ways too little too late. Civil war has broken out, and everything moves toward a denouement so catastrophic that for more than a century English theaters replaced it with a happy ending: The innocent Cordelia is hanged; Lear’s heart bursts from sorrow at her death; and his most loyal servant, Kent, also dies, determined to follow his master even into the world to come.
But as Lear sinks into abjectness, he rises in our estimation. The petulant old man at the start of the play grows in stature and nobility. A tragic hero requires some heroism, however flawed, in order for his downfall to matter: There must be some height for him to fall from. Without it, he’s just a villain.
Which brings us to Edmund. Edmund is a consummate villain. His soliloquy in praise of illegitimate children was a perennially popular choice for the dramatic monologue assignment when I taught at West Point (“Now, gods, stand up for bastards!”). Jealous of his legitimate half-brother Edgar—who is in line to inherit their father Gloucester’s earldom—Edmund orchestrates Edgar’s exile and Gloucester’s torture. He never lifts a sword but instead uses forged letters (the early modern equivalent of disinformation, we might say) to sow mistrust and anger, and then creeps away while others do his dirty work.
As Lear gains dimension and sympathy, Edmund and those other two rebellious children, Regan and Goneril, flatten into cartoonish devils and the plot surrounding them descends into melodrama. They dish out insults and gouge out eyes. They enter into a love triangle after Edmund proposes marriage to both sisters. (This despite the fact that Regan’s husband is newly dead, and Goneril’s still alive.) The unholy trio—who together commit or come close to committing patricide, regicide, adultery, bigamy, and incest—meet the end that people always meet in movies about drugs or gangsters. It’s fun for a while and then it’s not.
The exiles return, armed for war, and legitimate Edgar, anonymous in a suit of armor, challenges his illegitimate brother to a duel. The conniving Edmund quickly receives a mortal wound. But before he can die, a messenger staggers in to say that Goneril has poisoned Regan and then stabbed herself.
Edmund’s response—and here’s where January 6, 2021, comes into play—is to interpret the violence through the lens of his own self-worth:
Yet Edmund was beloved:
The one the other poison’d for my sake,
And after slew herself.
One need not be a psychologist or theologian to see how perverse this idea of love is. It’s almost a deranged antithesis to the self-sacrificing love described in John’s Gospel: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” The greatest love, for Edmund, is Goneril’s willingness to commit harm, even murder—even the murder of her own sister—for his sake.
And so when I read coverage of the horrible events in Washington, D.C., on January 6—specifically the report that Donald Trump could not be pried away from the television long enough to exercise his duties as commander-in-chief, so enraptured was he by the sight of his backers enacting violence on his behalf—the words that came to mind immediately were: “Yet Edmund was beloved.”
According to “a close adviser,” Trump was “‘bemused’ by the spectacle because he thought his supporters were literally fighting for him.” This adviser would not go so far as to say Trump was “enjoying himself,” but if you have to clarify that someone wasn’t technically enjoying a brutal spectacle, then you have already said too much. Trump’s eventual response to the mob was itself framed in terms of affection: “We love you. You’re very special.” My professional training qualifies me to analyze Gloucester’s failures as a father, but not Fred Trump’s. Even so, Donald Trump’s actions on January 6 suggest a very deep need indeed. What haunted Edmund was a fear of being second best.
When Edmund dies, we are not sad. When Goneril and Regan’s corpses are unceremoniously dragged onstage, we feel no grief. Maybe they’ve already ceded everything that makes them human and so death is not much of a falling off. But the ruined King Lear carrying Cordelia’s lifeless body is a terrible thing to behold.
There is an appalling irony in the fact that the cheapest comedic villainy can somehow produce unbearable sorrow and pain. In truth, I never fully understood why the two plotlines in King Lear diverge into completely different genres until we as a nation found ourselves living through the same bifurcated drama. The Trump White House wielded power in such a craven and disorganized way that its actions sometimes verged on comedy, as with the press conference at the Four Seasons Total Landscaping Company. And yet coexisting with the buffoonery at the top were untold numbers of genuine tragedies down below: immigrant children ripped from their parents’ arms; families facing hunger and eviction; hundreds of thousands of Americans dying, often alone, from COVID-19; old racial divides and raw new wounds. The terrible irony Shakespeare dramatized—that a phantom at war with its empty self can wreak great harm on those things that truly exist—became our terrible reality.
However hollow, evil and its sensational posturing make for compelling drama in a way the day-to-day lives of teachers, parents, and police officers do not. But the actions of Brian Sicknick, the policeman who died of his injuries, Daniel Hodges, Mike Fanone, and Jimmy Albright, and and other officers who stood against a vengeful mob should fill us with curiosity and awe. Not everyone can tolerate bear spray, insults, and physical assaults and maintain their composure. Where did these officers get their courage, discipline, and sense of sacrifice? What mother, father, teacher, or colleague helped shape their character and strengthen their resolve? How did they maintain their sense of right and wrong in the face of such harm, and why would they willingly do it all again if needed? To my eyes, that is where the real fascination lies. It’s true, after all. In real life, good is always more interesting.