As the crisis of Brexit continues week after week, commentators search for parallels in history. When else have we experienced comparable political paralysis? At what other time have we felt so uncertain about who governs Britain or where ultimate authority lies? When have the passions of hatred and violent division been expressed so vehemently? While historians have talked about the greatest crisis since the Second World War, or recalled the epic divisions over the 1846 repeal of the Corn Laws, the closest comparison may lie not in our factual past but in our literature. Shakespeare arguably captured such themes best in his greatest tragedy: King Lear.
Both Brexit and the play begin with questions which seem unprovoked and unnecessary. “Do you want to remain in the EU”? “Which of you shall we say doth love us most?” Lear’s question allows him to “divide in three” his kingdom, allotting a portion to each daughter who gives him a pleasing answer. Two of the daughters exaggerate and are economical with the truth to secure their reward; the third daughter is unable to game the system. The ratio is more one-sided than the referendum but the tactics are similar.
After Lear’s decision is determined by the rhetoric of his elder daughters, Goneril and Regan, and his own gullibility, the bonds which held together communities, families and the court begin to fray. The cruel and unscrupulous seize the opportunities the political vacuum affords. As one courtier, Gloucester, comments, “love cools, friendship falls off, brothers divide: in cities, mutinies; in countries, discord; in palaces, treason; and the bond cracked ‘twixt son and father”. It could be a report from Brexit Britain.
As Shakespeare’s tragedy continues, families are divided, servants turn on their masters and the kingdom wonders whatever held it together in the first place. The sense of belonging or loyalty turns out to have been always based on an intangible assumption. Once it is put to the test by Lear’s question, everything becomes interrogated and open to violent or corrupt abuse. Only the Fool in the play offers a different perspective, an ineffectual but wisecracking wisdom from the sidelines. Is that figure represented by our contemporary satirists and cartoonists for whom Brexit has been a rich source of inspiration? News programmes and even the BBC Parliament channel are now essential viewing, creating gripping entertainment from political misery.
The parallels between the chaos, acrimony and stalemate of Brexit and King Lear are striking. But what is the point of this comparison? Can any lessons be learned from Shakespeare’s play on resolving the situation? In King Lear, after the king has been turned out of court onto the heath and lost his sanity, and after the new government has gouged out Gloucester’s eyes on the spurious grounds that he is a traitor, or what the Daily Mail would call an “enemy of the people”, there is an invasion from France. It takes outsiders to bring the turmoil to an end. Will we need an intervention from the EU to sort out our mess?
The invasion from France in Shakespeare’s play, led by Lear’s exiled third daughter Cordelia, is initially repelled by the British, with its leaders imprisoned. But what finishes off the corrupt regime is its own internal divisions. The machinations of the opportunist leader, the bastard Edmund, become self-defeating. The two sisters, Goneril and Regan, are at each others’ throats, plotting and poisoning. A general weariness prevails. The leaders kill each other and the people are carried with them into defeat.
Of course, in the tragedy of King Lear, the “good” characters suffer too. Cordelia is killed, hanged in prison on Edgar’s orders. And Lear dies romf old age, exhaustion and a broken heart following Cordelia’s death. Only two of the play’s principal characters, Edgar and Albany, are left standing by the end. But they ultimately take over the government and heal the broken kingdom based on the principles of quiet resignation and selfless acceptance. Edgar deliver the equivalent of the Queen’s Speech, outlining his administration’s new agenda:
The weight of this sad time we must obey;
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.
The oldest have borne much. We that are young
Will never see so much, nor live so long.
Edgar’s statement marks a return to the simplest truths, the plainest words. He reaches for the ideas we can hold onto and still believe. This is what we have in common, beyond politics, beyond rhetoric and argument. It’s not much. But it’s enough.
Jennifer Wallace is Harris Fellow and director of studies in English at Peterhouse, Cambridge University