Avoiding Edmund : reading acknowledgment as failure in Stanley Cavell’s King Lear




Khoshnood, Alfredo Manuchehr

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Critics of King Lear often remark that the play feels like a dramatic failure despite its place at the very top of the Shakespearean canon. Using Stanley Cavell’s famous essay on the play, “The Avoidance of Love,” as a framework for interpreting Lear, I argue that an epistemological and ethical failure lies at the heart of the play: an inability to acknowledge the presence of others. In my reading, Cavell’s essay works emotively rather than argumentatively, by approximating the affective scenario of King Lear. Appropriately, Cavell’s essay falters in the same way that Shakespeare’s play does: it cannot attempt to acknowledge other minds without enacting the failure of that very effort. I consider this failure primarily in relation to Edmund, the play’s chief antagonist. Using Cavell’s understanding of what it means to be present before others and before oneself, I show that Edmund’s final words are a brief and poignant instance in which he realizes his true position relative to other minds and his own. I argue that Cavell’s argument fails to properly consider Edmund by its own terms, and in doing so, it enacts its own subject: the impossibility of acknowledging the presence of the other. Moving to Lear’s Fool, I argue that the Fool functions as a voice of political consciousness, comparing his position to Cavell’s own context. The Fool imagines a world where the failure of acknowledgment leaves everyone “darkling.” Ultimately, the play imagines human relationships in essentially pessimistic terms: the attempt to recognize the other results in the erasure of any sense of commonality



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