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Shakespeare King Lear free speech

Written by Vanessa Pupavac.

Lear’s Fool and foolish freedom of speech

 King Lear:

what can you say to draw
A third more opulent than your sisters? Speak.


Nothing, my lord.

King Lear:




King Lear:

Nothing will come of nothing: speak again. (I.i)

Shakespeare’s tragedy begins with King Lear’s plan to divide his kingdom between his three daughters. Lear commands his daughters to express their love for him publicly in order to claim their share of his kingdom. The elder daughters pragmatically eulogise the king. However, King Lear’s youngest daughter Cordelia is profoundly disturbed by Lear’s demand, and cannot follow her sisters’ flattery. Even when Lear crudely declares ‘How, how, Cordelia! Mend your speech a little, / Lest it may mar your fortunes’, Cordelia cannot join in the flattery. Lear’s sovereign command injures her true feelings for him. Instead Cordelia pleads her loyalty to him against her using ‘that glib and oily art’ (I.i). However Lear is enraged at Cordelia’s plain-speaking, independent mind. He would rather be flattered than hear truths. So he banishes those speaking out against his ill-judged commands. But the flatters soon prove treacherous ‘smiling rogues’ (II.ii). Freedom of speech is at the heart of King Lear.

Foolish truth-tellers

Strikingly the outspoken truth-tellers in the tragedy are the fools. Lear’s official ‘all-licensed’ Fool relentlessly exercises his freedom of speech, confronting Lear with his fears of going mad, and his folly of dividing his kingdom:

King Lear: Dost thou call me fool, boy?

Fool:  All thy other titles thou hast given away; that thou wast born with. (I.iv)

The Fool does so even as he recognises the perils of speaking out against tyranny ‘Truth’s a dog must to kennel’ (I.iv).

The Renaissance philosopher Erasmus in his 1511 Praise of Folly explores how fools may be more reliable truth-tellers than the wise, whose prudence may lead them to be silent in order to preserve their position. As Erasmus observes:

the wise man has two tongues … one to speak the truth with, the other for saying what he thinks fits the occasion … there’s all the difference between the thoughts he keeps to himself and what he puts into words. (Erasmus, 1971, p. 191)

Shakespeare goes further than in suggesting the privilege of fools to speak the truth, even if they give offence. The Fool is gross and insolent in his home truths. But it is not only Lear’s official Fool who is prepared to risk causing offence, and in order to expose truth. In his desperate efforts to prevent Lear’s hasty dangerous actions, his loyal nobleman Kent resorts to blunt insulting speech, and addresses Lear as ‘old man’:

be Kent unmannerly,
When Lear is mad. What wilt thou do, old man?
Think’st thou that duty shall have dread to speak,
When power to flattery bows? To plainness honour’s bound,
When majesty stoops to folly. (I.i)

Kent declines to be frightened into silence, and asserts the duty of speaking truth to power, when those in authority make foolish decisions against their and their kingdom’s best interests. Throughout King Lear, false speech and true speech are compared. The tragedy suggests that the foolish capacity to speak truth to power cannot be separated from the potential to offend.

Offending free speech

Shakespeare’s King Lear addresses important issues of freedom of speech and speaking truth to power. Yet serious ambivalence towards freedom of speech exists today across society. The ideals of free speech and freedom of expression are invoked more rhetorically, and held more passively or inconsistently. The idea of freeing up speech, and countering false speech with more speech is alien to the thinking of many of today’s social critics. Strikingly little political dissent, for example, was expressed to proposals for tighter press regulation inside or outside parliament during the deliberations of the Leverson inquiry. Indeed much of the furore has been over not introducing more restrictions. Yet the press is already highly regulated and inhibited from publication in certain areas, not least because of the UK’s onerous libel laws.

The exercise of free speech today is entangled in ever expanding speech and ethics codes and laws. Restrictions on free speech are almost invariably introduced or maintained in the name of protecting and empowering the vulnerable. Increasingly we are ask authorised officials to speak on our behalf, and to restrict the freedoms of speech and expression of others with whom we disagree. Consider how in the UK there has been ambivalence towards the satirical secularist magazine Charlie Hebdo, and suggestions that their anti-clerical attacks on Islam represented hate speech and caused their becoming a target of Islamist terrorists. Symbolically some leading figures boycotted the annual Pen awards’ ceremony for its recognition of Charlie Hebdo, while various student unions banned its sale. But curbing speech does not make us free from pain or offence, nor does it prevent abuse of authority.

The expanding restrictions of our freedom of speech may not seek to inhibit speaking truth to power, but they also shield those in authority from public accountability. Official inquiries over the years have continued to highlight problems of speaking truth to power. Indeed one reason for the continuing delays for the long-delayed publication of the Chilcott inquiry on the Iraq War has been not offending and contacting those singled out in the report.

The outspoken Fool warns the freedom to speak truth to power involves the rough with the smooth of speech. A sanitised culture free from offence is antithetical to holding power to account. If only inoffensive speech is socially acceptable then dissent is not possible. There has been wide European condemnation of Merkel’s readiness to support for the prosecution of a German comedian for his insulting satire against the Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan who has been cracking down on individuals speaking out against his military operations against the Kurds. However rather than state censorship of freedom of speech, we are more likely to experience informal social censorship.

Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say

Shakespeare’s King Lear, for all its ruthless tragedy, does not give up on the potential of speech. Edgar, who survives the false allegations in the tragedy by disguising himself as the fool Tom O’Bedlam, observes, ‘The worst is not/ So long as we can say, “This is the worst”’ (IV.i). Shakespeare’s King Lear portrays the reign of disorder, corruption and woe when just rule is not upheld and plain speaking is driven out, injuring all the parties, innocent and guilty alike. Order is only restored when honest, outspoken, compassionate fools come forward, although they are too late to save some victims. Whether it’s questioning dodgy intelligence dossiers or tweeting inanities, Shakespeare suggests we need more fools, not more criminalising of fools, and fewer of those practiced in the ‘glib and oily art’ of honied words. For only fools are prepared to speak truth to power when it matters. The play ends on the hope of a different political culture being established with Edgar’s assumption of the throne, a leader who promises to legitimise the right to ‘Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say’ (V.iii). Edgar’s plea of four hundred years ago is vital today. But speaking truth to power is only supported by a culture prepared to risk offence.

Vanessa Pupavac is an Associate Professor at the School of Politics and International Relations. Image credit: CC by Special Collections Toronto/Flickr

Published inShakespeare

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