Lear’s 100 Knights

When King Lear resigns his kingdom to his daughters (spoiler alert: Big Mistake), one of his conditions is that he retain 100 knights as his entourage. The knights are not speaking parts, although they sing, led by the Fool. Different productions put more or less knights on stage, acting more or less riotously. At one extreme, they literally bust up the furniture, leaving the stage a shambles and making it seem justified when Goneril tells her father that his knights are no longer welcome. He storms off in a huff, expecting no such restrictions from Regan. When Regan takes the same line, and then Goneril shows up and the sisters join forces, Lear knows he’s in trouble. When Lear departs into a literal storm, the knights seem to disappear. Regan speaks of him being “attended with a desperate train” (2.2.495), suggesting she’s still worried the knights might put up an armed resistance, but then they’re just…disappeared into the storm, as the Fool will later disappear.

The knights can be understood as a plot necessity: they provide the pretext for the daughters’ hostility, and different productions make this pretext credible, although later events show it was a pretext. I find the knights more significant than that; they earn a place in how I think about myself and people around me. We all have our own version of 100 knights, and a lot is at stake in the maintenance of whatever those knights are. Our claims on others to recognize the legitimate importance of those knights are foundational to our relationships with those others. We expect those closest to us to willingly contribute to the maintenance of those knights, even if that requires them to accept some disruption.

When Lear’s daughters question why he needs the knights, his reply is, to me, one of the most poignant lines in the play: “O, reason not the need!” (2.2.453). Functional need can be reasoned; it admits “I need it because…” statements. We might call the need that cannot be reasoned identity need. We need what we have decided makes us who we are, and King Lear is all about characters either making claims to be someone more than they have been (the evil Edmund, plotting to gain his brother’s title and lands), or realizing that in order to survive, they must give up what they have claimed (the threatened and displaced Edgar), or subordinating their claims to the needs of another (Kent assuming the disguise of a servant in order to continue serving Lear), or struggling to maintain their sense of who they are, as that identity is threatened. “Does any here know me?” Lear asks rhetorically, or maybe not so rhetorically. He then turns to irony: “Why, this is not Lear. Does Lear walk thus, speak thus?” (1.4.217-18). Lear asks ostensibly for others’ recognition, but he may also be asking how he can know himself, in the circumstances he is suddenly thrown into.

Once again, I’m back where I started, a very long time ago, with the early work of Erving Goffman–The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, Asylums, and Stigma–in which the core problem is how people sustain the claims we humans are constantly making to be a self that is entitled to others’ acceptance of those claims. Goffman’s word for that acceptance is deference; for Hegel it was recognition; for many philosophers and bioethicists the words are dignity and autonomy. Goffman’s insight is that claims for the self are literally propped up; we need material props that substantiate our claims.

What I think Goffman didn’t spend much time thinking or writing about is what happens when people can’t see why certain props are necessary to someone else’s claims. I’m interested to imagine an alternative Lear in which the daughters are honestly intentioned toward their father. In this alt-Lear, Goneril and Regan are not the sort of people who poison and torture, respectively. The daughters just want what they start off claiming to want: household peace. That seems like the everyday situation we all find ourselves in when we question someone else’s need to something that’s disrupting the household and is, to us, excess baggage.

I notice that when Lear’s daughters are being, at face value, not unreasonable, he’s the one who pushes back disproportionately, cursing them in what may be the play’s most virulent language. To some extent, this scenario can play out at any stage of life. But in King Lear, age counts. After telling, or pleading, not to reason the need, Lear says: “You see me here, you gods, a poor old man, As full of grief as age, wretched in both” (2.2.461-2). A person of any age might protest, “O, reason not the need,” but Lear’s age intensifies that line; it somehow counts more, and exactly how tells me something about the vulnerability of old age. Although if you ask me what that is, I either babble some embarrassingly simplistic cliché or I have to tell you the story of Lear again.

I think these thoughts because of just spending time with my father, who is well beyond Lear’s age. I reflect on how easily I can find myself playing the Regan/Goneril part, questioning his need for something that seems to me to cause not only significant trouble for the household, but from my viewpoint it makes him unhappy. At such moments, it’s useful to stop and tell myself, O, reason not his need. Having 100 knights in attendance makes Lear feel like he’s a King, King Lear. We all need our 100 knights.

I myself am increasingly full of age though not, right now, feeling any particular grief. I write this surrounded by piles of all my belongings taken out of the rest of the house while we endure a once-in-a-lifetime repainting and flooring. Things had gotten pretty well worn, to put it nicely. It was an interesting enough experience piling everything into my study, one room we’re not redoing, and it will be more interesting putting things back, or I hope deciding what not to put back. There’s an awful lot that doesn’t stand up to any reason of need. I have to ask myself what self it sustains, what it props up. King Lear teaches me that aging well means not putting one’s children in the position of having to question their parent’s need in order to preserve the peace. Shakespeare eventually raises the bar so high on Regan and Goneril’s bad behaviour that when Lear claims he is more sinned against than sinning, we tend to believe him. But when I reflect on the play, it’s a close call.

I hope that as a companion story, Lear gives me greater patience not to reason the needs of others, but also greater willingness to reason my own needs. The 100 knights are a good metaphor with which to live a vulnerable life.

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