115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

What Time Unfolds: Nakedness, Truth and Revelation in Shakespeare’s King Lear

Michael McShane, Carthage College

Shakespeare’s King Lear is insistently focused on revelation, in two senses: in its etymological sense, as un-veiling or dis-covery, and in its religious sense, as apocalypse (from Greek -- un-hiding) in the final days. Thus the play gathers together themes of clothing (nakedness and undressing) with those of truth (as aletheia -- unconcealment), divine justice, and temporality (the revelatory agency of Time itself).


In Shakespeare’s King Lear, Time itself is insistently personified. In an eschatological cataclysm, Time’s work is to reveal the truth, now covered over by mere seeming.  Cordelia declares,

 Time shall unfold what plighted cunning hides.
Who cover faults, at last shame them derides. (I.1)

Time discovers the truth by means of unfolding.  It reveals faults  ‘covered’ over by ‘plighted’ – folded - clothing. Cordelia thus imagines a future time of revelation when those who now sin covertly will be stripped naked, rendered visible in their guilt, and thus ashamed.  

 In III.2, Lear echoes Cordelia’s interest in clothing as covering and a denuding apocalyptic moment.  He prays:

 Let the great gods,

That keep this dreadful pudder o'er our heads,

Find out their enemies now. Tremble, thou wretch,

That hast within thee undivulged crimes

Unwhipp'd of justice. Hide thee, thou bloody hand;

Thou perjur'd, and thou simular man of virtue

That art incestuous. Caitiff, in pieces shake

That under covert and convenient seeming

Hast practis'd on man's life. Close pent-up guilts,

Rive your concealing continents, and cry

These dreadful summoners grace. I am a man

More sinn'd against than sinning.

 Again in this passage appears the concern with revelation as apocalypse—as un-hiding.  Later, Lear also repeats Cordelia’s link between clothing and concealed guilt:

 Through tatter'd clothes small vices do appear;

Robes and furr'd gowns hide all. Plate sin with gold,

And the strong lance of justice hurtless breaks;

Arm it in rags, a pygmy's straw does pierce it.  (IV.6)

 What is uncovered by nakedness need not always be guilt in King Lear.  It can also be a deeper philosophical truth, perhaps.  For example, Lear believes he sees what a human being essentially is— “unaccomodated man” (III.4) --  in Edgar’s nakedness. Wishing to share in Edgar’s nakedly plain simplicity, Lear demands, “Off, off, you lendings! Come, unbutton here.”

 On the other hand, while some characters are focused on revelation, justice and nakedness, however, the latter half of the play also weaves in a theme of re-dressing. Across Acts IV and V, Edgar progressively dons clothing appropriate to many social stations, graduating from poor man’s bare blanket to royal attitude. 

 Thus characters in King Lear display two contrasting attitudes toward clothing.  One atttude involves a wished-for apocalypse—a final un-veiling in justice and revelation in nakedness and shame. This is sought as a positive good by the old king, Lear himself, and by those most intimately linked to him, including Cordelia and Kent.  Another attitude, however, is characteristic of younger characters, such as Edgar and others, e.g. Albany, who must try to lead after Lear’s death.  This second attitude involves a persistent re-covering, as if to suggest that too much nakedness – too much truth, too much justice-- is inconsistent with an ongoing, stable human existence. 

 Thus in the final scene of King Lear two different times take place simultaneously, one a time of revelation and another on of (let’s call it) a re-veiling or re-covery.  The difference is consistent with the two variant attitudes toward the apocalypse that are evidenced in the following exchange between Kent and Edgar.

Earl of Kent. Is this the promis'd end?

Edgar. Or image of that horror?  (V.3)

 Here Kent – a representative of an older, tired generation about to die - actually longs for the apocalypse (the “promised end”) as a wished-for revelation.  But the younger Edgar, horrified at the thought of an absolute end-time, hopes that revelation is not yet fully at hand. 

In his own way, each character is correct, as I hope to show in this presentation.