King Lear and the uses of mortification 

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Drawing on the discourses of medieval monasticism, Reformation theology, and modern psychiatry, this essay argues for the centrality of mortification—self-inflicted pain—to King Lear. I demonstrate that the uses of mortification in the play range from strategic deception (Edmund) to the induction of a protective anesthesia (Edmund and Edgar) to sensory reawakening and the arousal of sympathy (Lear). And yet all these uses are tied together by a dialectic of sensation and numbness that is crucial in both religious mortification and psychiatric self-injury, and that stems from the fundamental ambivalence of the skin as an organ at once protective and receptive, numb and sentient. As the play proceeds, the intentional arousal of pain seems only to leave its characters plunged deeper in numbness than before; for Lear in particular, the self-conscious effort to “feel what wretches feel” gradually deprives him of “all feeling.” While glimpsing, in total loss of consciousness, the possibility of temporary relief from this cycle, King Lear at the same time suggests that it is inexorable. Thus if the play offers a tragic reading of the human condition, it is not because it presents that condition as essentially “unaccommodated,” but rather because it shows how unaccommodation itself, in an involution of its own vulnerability, threatens to mortify both sentience and the sympathy that depends on it.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)319-343
JournalShakespeare Quarterly
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 1 Oct 2016


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