The Allegory of Alchemy in King Lear

 by

 

Mather Walker

 

 

hat is the most important knowledge man can possess? Is it the knowledge that enables him to make a better bomb? Is it the knowledge that enables him to explore the depths of the sea? Is it the knowledge which enables him to walk on the face of the moon?

Is it not rather that knowledge which will promote his own inner growth? That knowledge which will enable him to unfold his own being? That knowledge which will enable him to cultivate the faculties which exist in embryo within himself?

This is that knowledge contemporary man has lost, but ancient man, possessed. The greatest monuments of antiquity were built within the human spirit. The most important knowledge man ever possessed, or ever will possess, was already ancient when the pyramids were built. This was the exact science of the regeneration of the human soul from its present sense-immersed state into the perfection of that divine condition in which it was originally created. A science of only a select few, to be sure, but a science always considered by the ancients as the science par excellence-the Sacred Science which exceeded all others as the light of the sun exceeds the light of the moon. 

This is the knowledge the legendary Hermes (whom the Egyptians made into a god, and whom, the Greeks called the Thrice Great) taught in the temples of pre-historic Egypt. A science which is, therefore, known as The Hermetic Science. This title of Hermetic Science was given to the science practiced by the higher order of alchemists, and this is the aspect of alchemy which Francis Bacon concealed in King Lear. 

THE FACE LOOKING TO THE PAST  

In this study of King Lear I have primarily utilized two texts. One is "The Chemical Theatre" by Charles Nicholl. Nicholl gives a good exposition on the alchemical symbolism in King Lear, but he does not understand Alchemy itself. For this I have used what I consider the best text on the subject, the book by Mary Ann Atwood, "Hermetic Philosophy and Alchemy."

A concept central to alchemy, was the idea of correspondences. According to legend when the tomb of Alexander the Great was opened, many centuries after his death, a tablet was found in the tomb which was carved from pure emerald. Engraved on this tablet in just a few lines was a summary of the entire science of Hermes.

It began with words expressing the idea of correspondences:

True. Infallible, and most true. The above is as

the below. The below is as the above. These are

transformations of the One. All came from One....

This was one of Bacon's reasons for placing his story in the legendary prehistory of pagan Britian. Through this setting Bacon deliberately avoided all religious connotations and associations, and, by putting Lear in a direct relation with nature the setting enabled him to show the doctrine of correspondences. G. Wilson Knight says: 

"The world of King Lear is townless. It is a world of flowers, rough country, tempestous wind, and wild, or farmyard, beasts, and, as a background, there is continual mention of homely, countrified customs, legends, rhymes. The world is rooted in nature, firmly as a Hardy novel...We hear of the wolf, the owl, the cat, of sheep, swine, dogs(constantly), horses, rats and such like. Now there are two main directions for his animal and natural suggestion running through the play. First, two of the persons undergo a direct return to nature in their purgatorial progress..."

Bacon also indicates this background of universal nature by his division of characters. 

Good Evil

------ -------

Lear Goneril

Cordelia Regan

Earl of Kent Duke of Cornwall

Earl of Gloucester Duke of Albany

Edgar Edmund

Fool Oswald

These reflect the teachings of the Magi of the opposing forces of Light and Darkness in universal nature. According to the Magi an eternally opposing pair: Ahura-Mazda, and Ahriman were reflected in universal nature. Ahura-Mazda, the Creator, was the God of Light and Good. His adversary, Ahriman, also known as The Serpent, was the God of Darkness and Evil. From each of these came forth six principles, or gods; from Ahura-Mazda principles of Light and Good; from Ahriman principles of Darkness and Evil. 

Lear's direct relation with nature shows the correspondences between the outer world of nature, and the inner world of King Lear. When the storm breaks a direct correspondence is shown with the inner storm within Lear. The doctrine of correspondences in King Lear goes beyond this. The allegory depicts, in vitro, a model of the constitution of man: 

King Lear (Spiritual, Inner man of the spirit) 

1. The Rational Faculty (Cordelia) 

2. The Will 

A. Willing (Goneril)

B. Nilling (Regan) 

Gloucester (Sensual, Outer man of the senses) 

1. The Apprehending Faculty (Edgar) 

2. Moving Faculty (Edmund) 

A. Appetites

i. irascible faculty (anger)

ii. concupiscible faculty (lust) 

B. Motion

The double plot in King Lear has this for its basis. The plot dealing with Gloucester was not in "King Leir and his three Daughters", the source on which the play was based. Bacon created this himself. The reason is evident. He wanted to allegorize the relation of the outer man of the senses with the inner spiritual man. The royal Lear is afflicted by anger. The more lowly Earl of Gloucester by lust. Both have problems with their offspring. Both have one who is good. Lear's problem is with his two daughters,

Gloucester's with his one son. Lear goes mad,- mental blindness. This is reflected in the physical blindness of Gloucester. These correspondences even extend to their deaths. Gloucester perishes between extremes of grief and joy at the knowledge that his son was 'miraculously' preserved. Lear dies between extremes of joy and grief in his desperate illusion of Cordelia's lip movements and his emphatic knowledge that his daughter was needlessly butchered. Both teeter at the very edge of life. For Gloucester this verge is symbolized by a physical cliff, while for Lear it is the more terrible Dover of the mind. Both believe the evil offspring, and disbelieve the good offspring.

The correspondences extend from Gloucester, who is the outer man of the senses, to King Lear who is the inner spiritual man. From the outer storm of nature to the inner storm within King Lear.

From the inner King Lear to the innermost King Lear. The subject touched upon by the remainder of the Emerald Tablet, which moves from the doctrine of correspondences to the alchemical experience, relates to this:

The Sun is it's father. The moon is it's mother. It's nurse is The Earth. This is the origin of all perfection. The end of the whole world. It is perfected by union with earth. Separate earth from fire, subtle from gross, gently and sagaciously. It ascends from earth to heaven. It descends again to earth. It receives the strength of both. So thou hast the glory of the whole world. Darkness flees from thee.

This is the strength of all. It overcomes all things; transmutes the subtle, and the solid. This is how the whole world was created. This is how all wonderful transformations were effected. Therefore am I called Thrice Great Hermes, having the three parts of the philosophy of the whole world. This ends my writing concerning the operation of the Sun. 

In "The Golden Treatise" of Hermes Trismegistus we are told that

"...the operation, therefore, decoction lessens the matter, but the tincture augments it: because Luna after fifteen days is diminished; and in the third, she is augmented. This is the beginning and end."

Mary Ann Atwood says,

"Understand here the diminution and increase of that ethereal light, which is the passive luminary in the Philosophic Heaven, whose changes and manifest operations are described as wonderfully parallel with those of the familiar satellite, by which the philosopher analogically indicates her." George Gurdjieff said,

"Inside us we also have a moon, and a sun and so on. We are a whole system. If you know what the moon is and does, you can understand the cosmos."  

The Alchemical process began with the Materia Prima, or First Matter. It had to be first found (no small task) and then placed in the furnace of the Philosophers, and kept at a constant temperature for a long period of time, until it was finally killed, and after its' death it changed into a new, more noble and better forme.' This was followed by a long process which lasted until the nigredo, the darkness darker than darkness, the 'blackest of blacks', appeared. This was the first sure sign that one was on the right path. The next phase was the appearance on the surface of a starry aspect, which is likened to the night sky which told shepherds and kings that a child was born in Bethlehem. The next sign was the appearance of a great number of beautiful colours, a stage known to the alchemist as the Peacock's Tail.

Then came the appearance of the Albedo, the Whiteness. Once the Whiteness appeared, there was only one step more until the Red King or Sulphur of the Wise appears out of the womb of his mother and sister, Isis or mercury, Rosa Alba, the White Rose.

The Alchemists had a universal formula for the whole process. This formula was "solve et coagula", dissolve and coagulate. This solve et coagula was repeated again and again during the process.  

Certainly some "Guide for the Perplexed" is indicated in the face of this strange symbolism. It is necessary to realize man has three layers of consciousness which exist one within the other. We are familiar with our waking consciousness, and to a lesser extend with the consciousness which exists beneath our waking consciousness. This is the consciousness we experience in dreams. It is possible to dissolve the "waking" consciousness, and, with full awareness, move back to the level of that consciousness we experience in dreams. It is possible, in turn, to dissolve this layer of consciousness as well, and move back to the true ground of all consciousness which the alchemists call the First Matter. The alchemists had techniques by which they could facilitate this process. 

Of the available techniques which may have been used to open and facilitate the inner journey, one was similar to what is known today as "sensory deprivation", another was an induced trance akin to the Mesmeric Trance. The Whirling Dervishes dissolved the surface consciousness by a technique whereby they whirled around and around while doing an intense mental concentration, a counting exercise which maintained their point of awareness, while the surface consciousness was dissolved.

Another technique was "the witches' cradle" which was used at the black sabbath during the middle ages. The witch was wrapped in a sack and dangled from a tree limb. The rotary motion of the "cradle" caused lost of orientation of the physical organism and caused the surface consciousness to dissolve, moving the awareness of the witch from the surface mind to the mind behind the mind.  

The conventional means has always been meditation. Meditation provides some basis for understanding alchemy, but meditation was not the "be all" and the "end all" of alchemy. It entered into a part of it, and it furnishes some parallel experiences which are helpful in understanding alchemy.

 Meditation was certainly familiar to Francis Bacon. In the book titled, "The Art of English Poetry" which is attributed to George Puttenham, but was written by Francis Bacon, Bacon speaks of the use of "deep" meditation, and demonstrates his familiarity with the art. If an individual achieves a necessary state of purification, and meditation is followed as a daily discipline over a long period, the rational mind, with its incessant activity, can be banished and eventually dissolved. Images from the subconcious will begin to flood the consciousness while the individual is wide awake. This is a level of consciousness ordinarily only experienced during sleep when people experience dreams. If this layer of consciousness is dissolved in turn, one moves further back beyond it still to the true ground of all consciousness.

 When Hermes says, in his Emerald Tablet, 'separate the earth from the fire', he is saying,'separate the physical body from the fire of mind or awareness within, and he is also implying methods of purification should be utilized for this separation. He then says, 'It ascends from earth to heaven', i.e. it is then possible for the awareness to ascend from the external sensory awareness all the up to the true ground of man's being. 'It descends again to earth.' The awareness then descends again to the outer sensory man. These are the repeated 'solves' and 'coagulas.' 'It receives the strength of both.' The process gives a new, intensified strength to the awareness.

The nigredo phase, that "blackest of blacks" is a familiar experience in the meditation practice when the awareness has moved beyond the subconscious, and one experiences only a most profound blackness. People have described seeing various colors like a rainbow, the experience which the alchemists call the Peacock's Tail. This experience occurs when the ego approaches it true ground. Mary Ann Atwood says,

"but this mystical substance, this root of the world, returning immediately upon the dissolution of the parts, renews them; nor will then be quiet, but Proteus-like runs from one complexion of light into another, from this colour to that, transmuting himself before the regardant eye into a strange variety of forms and appearances, exhibiting the universal phenomenon of nature in recreant display as he runs forth from green to red and from red to black, receding thenceforth into a million of colours and transmigrating species."

Then the light appears. This light is the First Matter, and is also the gold of the Hermetic Alchemists. The whole cycle of the inner experience must be repeated again and again as described by the alchemists in their repeated dissolves and coagulates.

 The fall of the soul into the phenomenon world was a fall outward from the core of man which still exists in embryo within him. This core exists in a state of Oneness, and has that universal preception of all nature which enabled Adam before the fall to give all things their true names. The Achemists ventured inward to this core, but they did not stop there.

Their science realized that this embryo of the higher self within could be nourished and made to grow, and had the ability to transmute and regenerate all the facets of their lower nature, and, by repeated contact, to bring about the death of the lower man, and the birth of the new, higher man. In the Anatomy of Melancholy Bacon deals specifically with the two functions of that part of the moving soul known as the appetites. This part he says, has two powers or inclinations: the irascible and concupsicible. That is anger and lust. Through these men are led like beasts by sense, giving reins to there anger and to their concupsicence and several lusts. Before any progress can be made these must be brought under control. So Bacon gave special attention to these in his allegory.

The fall of King Lear replicates the Fall of Man. Man was created king of the earth, with the inner, spiritual man, in control. In the created state the rational faculty predominated over the will and the inner faculties directed the outer, sensual man, with his accompanying apprehending and appetite faculties.

The Fall began when the sensual man entered into an adulterous union with nature. The sensual man followed the outer allurements of the senses rather than the direction of the inner faculties.

And man fell from the true ground of his consciousness. We see this at the very beginning of the play when Gloucester is presented to us. The first lines of the play characterize Him. We learn that he has a bastard son (Edmund) as well as his legitimate son Edgar, and that he is a sensual man. He says of his bastard son that

"Though this knave came something saucily to the world before he was sent for, yet was his mother fair; there was good sport at his making..."

He has become brazened to the idea of both His liason and His bastard son. As the play continues the allegory shows the outer, sensual man, Gloucester, without the control and guidance of the inner man is controlled by the appetites (Edmund)which leads to his ultimate blindness. 

A further result of the loss of control of the outer sensual man by the inner man is that the spiritual man also relinquishes control of the inner faculties. The rational faculty (Cordelia) is banished, and control is given over to the will (Goneril and Reagan). We see the truth of Reagan's statement that she is made of that self metal as her sister. They represent the two divisions of the will. With the rational faculty banished, control is given over to the will. But with nothing to govern or direct the will it is drawn into union with the appetite faculty of the outer man, that is with Edmund.

Then, indeed, is the inner, spiritual man cast out. With the rational faculty banished, madness is the final result, and eventually the death of all of the faculties of the spiritual man until the spiritual man himself dies.

The course of the drama after the initial introduction of Gloucester has this as the subject of its allegory. Lear is very old. He is testy as old people often are, but to the willfulness of extreme old age, is added the unchecked self-indulgence of a rich and powerful king, which makes him even worse. He is accustomed to adulation and to getting his own way in in everything. All of these traits can be summed up in in central trait. He is self-willed. 

He has decided to give up his kingdom and divide it among his three daughters:

" 'tis our fast intent

To shakes all cares and business from our age,

Conferring them on younger strengths, while we

Unburden'd crawl toward death."

He decides to make the act an open test of his daughters' love for him.

When Cordelia (the rational faculty) does not play the game as Lear wishes in the drama he has set up for the division of his kingdom among his daughters, and avow her love for him in matchless superlatives, Lear is unreasonably angry. He disowns Cordelia, giving her nothing, and banishes her, and divides his kingdom between Goneril and Regan, the two faculties of the will. When Kent, who sees the situation for what it really is, trys to intervene, Lear banishes him also growling: 

"Come not between the dragon and his wrath."

The allegory also show the Fall in reverse. It is easy to see what the allegory describes from the viewpoint of the inner experience, and hence of alchemy. The whole discipline entails banishing the rational, thinking mind (Cordelia), because it is the activity of this mind which prevents us from moving away from the surface consciousness to that consciousness which exists at the deeper levels of our being. Control of one's inner kingdom must be turned over to one's will power (Goneril and Regan), and the rational mind (Cordelia) must be banished.

THE DRAGON 

The statement about the dragon brings us directly into the symbolism of Alchemy. In Alchemy The Dragon symbolizes the self. When the self centered Lear, says, "Come not between the dragon and his wrath", he shows he is the dragon. The dragon is one of the most familiar symbols of alchemy because Self is the common attribute of Fallen man, and because the primary task of the discipline is the negation of the self. Ripley in his Compound says:

Fire against Nature must doe thy bodies woe;

This is our Dragon as I thee tell,

Fiercely burning as the fire of hell.

The dragon is the self-devourer. We see this in its most ancient and familiar guise: the Dragon eating its own tail. The Dragon thus becomes another manifestation of the circular opus, the death-dealing and life-giving wheel. The description and illustration of the Dragon in Lambspringk's De Lapide Philosophico sums up its paradoxical and circular qualities: 

A savage Dragon lives in the forest....

In the hour of his death.

His venom becomes the great Medicine.

He quickly consumes his venom,

For he devours his poisonous tail.

All this is performed on his own body,

From which flows forth glorious Balm,

With all its miraculous virtues. 

The dragon which devours his own tail symbolizes the Self turned from the outer world and inward on itself. As Christ said,

"Ye must be converted (that is you must be turned about from the outer world toward the inner world) if you would enter the Kingdom of Heaven." for, "The Kingdom of Heaven is within you."

The Self turns within in the process. The sick King announces himself as the Dragon and begins to devour himself. The transmutation of King Lear is under way. As the poem Verus Hermes says in Prodromus Rhodostauroticus: 

A weakling babe, a greybeard old

Surnamed the Dragon: me they hold

In darkest dungeon languishing

That I may be reborn a King. 

DISSOLVE AND COAGULATE 

In contemporary times man knows almost nothing of the Inner Quest. One of the very few men who had this knowledge was George Gurdjieff. In the book by Ouspensky, "In Search of the Miraculous" Gurdjieff said that for man to achieve any kind of development there must be a certain crystallization, a certain fusion of man's inner qualities. This fusion is obtained by means of 'friction,' by the struggle between 'yes' and 'no' in man. If man lives with an inner struggle, especially if there is a direction to his inner struggle, the crystallization will take place. Gurdjieff cites an example. Take, he says, the case of a brigand, a really good, genuine brigand. I knew such brigands in the Caucasus. He will stand with a rifle behind a stone by the roadside for eight hours without stirring. All the time, mind you, a struggle is going on in him. He is thirsty and hot, and flies are biting him; but he stands still. This is an example of how crystallization takes place. But what King Lear deals with is just the opposite. In most men a wrong, incomplete crystallization has taken place. Then, in order to make further development possible he must be melted down again, and this can be accomplished only through a laborous inner process, or through terrible suffering. 

Lear must be melted down again, reduced to naught, in order for further development to take place. And this is exactly what the inner process of alchemy, or even intense suffering does. It dissolves the surface self so one can revert back to the self behind it. Lear, who has scorned Cordelia with his expression 'nothing comes of nothing' is about to be melted down into nothing so he may become something. We watch as the process takes place.

At the end of the first scene Goneril and Regan, now joint Queens of the realm, are left alone on stage. They speak harshly of the father for whom they recently professed such love. The scene ends on a note of undefined menace: 

Regan: We shall further thinke of it.

Goneril: We must do something, and i'th'heate.

The wayward King is to be melted down in the 'fire of the treatment'. This melt down of Lear takes outwardly the form of a relentless reduction of status. Goneril commands Oswald to treat Lear with 'what weary negligence you please'. The father, bereft of authority, becomes no more than a troublesome child:

'Old fools are babes again, and be us'd With checks as flatteries.'

At first it is the name of King which must be demolished. Oswald's first snub begins this process:

Lear: Oh you Sir, you, come you hither Sir.

Who am I, Sir?

Oswald: My Ladies farther. 

From King to 'my Lady's father': the next peg down is provided by the Fool (whose paradoxical allegiances we must soon examine): 

Fool : That lord that counsell'd thee

To give away thy land,

Come place him here by me,

Do thou for him stand:

The sweet and bitter fool

Will presently appear;

The one in motley here,

The other found out there.

Lear: Dost thou call me fool, boy?

Fool: All thy other titles thou hast given

away; that thou wast born with. 

From King to father to bitter fool: the re-naming of the King now reaches its nadir, again the words of the Fool: 'Thou wast a pretty fellow when thou hadst no need to care for her frowning; now thou art an O without a figure. I am better than thou art now; I am a Foole, thou art nothing. So, in name, Lear becomes nothing. This is a symbolic stripping down preparatory to the real one, the King becoming a naked beggar in the storm. The Fool gives another definition of Lear as nothing. 

Lear: Who is it that can tell me who I am?

Fool: Lear's shadow.

This is what Lear must become: his own shadow, the negative of the King, sol niger (the black sun).

This nominal extinction of Lear is accomplished by another reduction, one accomplished by Goneril and Regan with a positively mathematical precison. Goneril's particular displeasure is aimed at the 'disorder'd' and 'debosh'd' behaviour of Lear's retinue of one hundred knights. To Lear, still clinging to the remnants of his symbolic world, the hundred knights are his kingdom: they shelter him from the truth of dispossession.

They must be stripped away. Goneril's steely request begins this reduction.

be then desir'd

By her, that else will take the thing she begges,

A little to disquantity your traine. 

Lear rages and curses; he and his ragged 'kingdom' troop off to Gloucester Castle, already colonized by Regan and Cornwall. The 'disquantitying' of his retinue now accelerates. Regan:

I pray you, Father, being weake, seeme so.

If, till the expiration of your moneth,

You will returne and soiourne with my sister,

Dismissing halfe your traine, come then to me. 

He is down to fifty now, but not for long: Regan again- 

What! fifty followers?

Is it not well? What should you need of more?

Yea, or so many?...

If you will come to me,

(For now I spie a danger) I entreate you

To bring but five-and-twentie.

Believing Goneril will still tolerate fifty, Lear turns once more to her:

'Ile go with thee: Thy fifty yet doth double five-and- twenty, And thou art twice her love.'

It is the same cracked old man, counting up the points, making love a currency to barter in.

Only this time he had no power to bargain, no 'sway, revennew, execution'. This time his bluff is called: 

Goneril: Heare me, my lord.

What need you five-and-twenty? ten? or five...?

Regan: What need one?

In grand theatrical manner, Lear had divided up his kingdom in the first scene. This now is the real division, the unrecognized meaning behind that symbolic partition of the map.

His retinue relentlessly halved away - 100,50,25,10,5,1...0.

'Now thou art an O without a figure;'

a shadow King ruling over a people-less kingdom. The Wheel that began with the word 'Nothing' carries Lear down toward nothingness. This is also part of the purification process, because this melting away to nothing reduces Lear to the level of simplicity which is required before man can hope to contact his true ground. 

As bad as the conduct of the daughters is toward Lear, we understand this is a self initiated process. It is their task to strip Lear down to nothing. This is a part of the discipline, the alchemistic process. We next see Lear, driven toward madness, go out into the night with his fool just as a most stupendous storm breaks. Lear is exposed out in the night of wind and darkness and rain, and terrific tempest. Not even the wolves are abroad. We see that the alchemistic process has been effective. The chrysalis crystallized around Lear's being has been melted away. The effect is that he is now exposed to all the tempetuous influences outside himself, those forces from which his buffer of crystalization protected him before.

Another significant point is that the process of the destruction of the dragon has begun. As Self is destroyed, Lear begins to have empathy for the plight of others. The fool says,

"Good nuncle, in, and ask thy daughter's blessing; here's a night pities neither wise man nor fool."

Kent finds his master raging through the night and tries to persuade him to take refuge in a little hut where he can keep warm in the straw. Lear hears him pleading and for the first time thinks of someone other than himself. He realizes his fool is shivering.

"How dost, my boy? Art cold? I am cold myself."  

He enters the hut, letting the fool go ahead of him. Finally considerate of someone other than himself. His thoughts turn to the helpless poor, who have to endure such storms as this because they have no money to pay for shelter. He has never thought about such matters before, but the chrysalis of Self is dissolved.  

THE FOOL 

A very important character in the play is The Fool. He is Lear's constant companion, an intrinsic part, it would seem, of Lear himself. Also, The Fool has a strange quality. A passage from the Fool's first scene in the play indicates this quality for us:

Lear: When were you wont to be so full of songs, sirrah?

Fool: I have used it nuncle, e'er since thou mad'st thy

daughters thy mothers, for when thou gav'st them

the rod, and put'st down thy own breeches,

Then they for sudden joy did weep,

And I for sorrow sung,

That such a King should play bo-peep,

And go the fools among.

Prithee nuncle keep a schoolmaster that can teach

thy fool to lie, I would fain learn to lie.

Lear: An you lie, sirrah, we'll have you whipped. 

It seems that the Fool is under some kind of compulsion to tell the truth. And this, in fact, is the key that opens the door to the Fool's identity. The Fool is Awareness. The rational, thinking quality of the mind has been banished, as it must for the inner discipline, since for meditation a continued focussed attention is required. Thus the mental quality of Awareness must remain as a constant companion on the inner quest. But the Fool has a special meaning in Alchemy. The word 'fool' derives from Old French 'fol', and the old tarot card of 'le fol' gives us a clue as to his identity in Alchemy. There we see the Fool with a stick over his shoulder, on the end of which is a knapsack containing his belonging, and he is strolling along a road. And in mythology Hermes, or Mercury was the god of travellers, whom he guided on their perilous ways, just as the Fool is a companion and guide for King Lear.  

Like all metals most familiar to the early chemist, Mercury bore the name of a god. The application of Mercury as a volatile spirit ascending and descending, related to Mercury as winged messenger between gods and men. The dissolving aspect of alchemical Mercury linked with the mischievous character of the god Mercury, patron of rogues, vagabonds and pickpockets.

Someone who is mercurial is 'sprightly, ready-witted and volatile' and 'changeable, mobile, quick, excitable, and elusive.' These are precisely the qualities of the Fool in King Lear.

Philalethes warns,

'You must be very wary how you lead him, for if he can find an opportunity he will give you the slip..'

This characterizes the focussed awareness in meditation that requires constant control. For in meditation the focussed, directed awareness, is very much subject to wandering, and will "give you the slip" again and again. It must be moved back again and again to the subject of its focus. 

Something very significant occurs when Lear and the Fool enter the hut in the storm. There they meet Edgar who at the end of the play becomes the new King. In Taoist meditation three parts are described. 1. The part belonging to the circulation of the light. 2. The part belonging to the death of the ordinary man. 3. The part belonging to the conception and growth of the new man. Of course, at this point Edgar is far from being the New Man. He is seen in the guise of Tom, the bedlam beggar. Because in the ordinary man the New Man exists only as a lowly beggar waiting to be recognized within him. Nevertheless, this marks a new beginning point in the process.

THE PHILOSOPHICAL FURNACE 

At the point where Lear meets Poor Tom he has been stripped of all his external accouterments. Now he is stripped to his bare essence : 

Is man no more then this? Consider him well. Thou ow'st the worme no silke, the beast no hide, the sheepe no wooll, the cat no perfume. Ha? Here's three on's are sophisticated; thou art the thing it selfe; unaccomodated man is no more but such a poore, bare, forked animall as thou are. Off, off, you lendings! Come, unbutton heere."

The little hut, which Lear is in, is a model of the furnace of the alchemists. An illustration in the "Atalanta Fugiens" of Michael Maier shows the King nude, sitting in the furnace with the fire burning underneath. The storm with its 'sulph'rous and thought-executing fires', its 'wrathfull skies' emitting 'such sheets of fire, such bursts of horrid thunder', is a furnace wherein the King as Raw Stuff is 'burned upon the fire of the art.' It's supreme violence makes even the rigid King capitulate-

'heere I stand, your slave'-just as the alchemist's furnace provides the 'Heate of mighty Coaction' which will break even 'mineralls that be hard of liquefaction.'

The fire of the furnace (the storm) shatters distinction and hierarchy, it levels everything to a chaotic parity. It reduces the subject to the ultimate 'thing it selfe.' The Storm makes Lear 'nothing' in that it merges him with all things: it removes the outer form which distinguishes the King from all other animals and the relevant utterance from the swirl of possible utterances beneath consciousness. The removal of form is precisely what the alchemist's fire accomplished. Philalethes describes the Raw Stuff being 'set to our fire to digest' until:

"all together become a Broth, which is a mean substance of dissevered qualities, between the Water and the Body, till at length the Body burst asunder and be reduced into a powder, like to the atoms of the Sun, black of the blackest and of a viscous matter." 

This operation, says Philalethes, is called 'Extraction of Natures and Separation...also Reduction to the First Matter, which is Sperm or Seed.' Lear's reduction to nothing reveals the 'sperm or seed' of a new Lear. This reflected in his plea to the Storm,

"Cracke Natures moulds, all germaines spill at once.' 

Lear's reduction to nothing also brings him to a curiously passive state. Mary Ann Atwood helps us understand this.

"The Alchemists say that, in the process, there is a point of passivity, where there is no attraction but rather an indifference to both the life and the death; then the Artist must look to his Work, and seek to stir up the Motion; thus we learn in the language of the older Masters, that when Vulcan appears in the same altar with Minerva the conjunction is ominous. This means that all the desire of life is towards the Wisdom-life, that pure, good, beautiful, passionless life; of itself it needs nothing, but if it is stirred it is taken; what takes it is the self-will." 
THE BATTLE 

We come now to the point where Cordelia, heading the French forces, joins battle with the forces of Edmund, Goneril, Regan, and Albany. This battle has had many prototypes. We see in the Bhagavad Gita, Arjuna, at the head of the five pandavas with all their fighting men ranged for battle on the sacred plain of Kurukshetra against the forces of Duryodhana. And in the process of describing the battle the Bhagavad Gita gives, of all things, a full exposition on the science of Yoga, which is only relevant, of course, if this battle deals with the drama of the inner quest.

Mary Ann Atwood says,

"In the great combat of Life internal on the plain of truth, the will on either side, that of the universal and the self centre, sends forth all its troops, that is, the various powers, as they are called successively; the rational light keeping back to the last, and never aroused into action until deprived of its understanding essence which is taken captive by the rational light on the other side; not being able to subsist without this, the rational intellect goes forth to avenge it and die. This is predestinated from the first; the process, however, goes on over and over again; it is not concluded in this world." 

Another prototype of this battle is Achilles at the head of the Greek forces outside the walled city of Troy. What does this all mean? Mary Ann Atwood says:

 "and, like another Achilles, conscious of self-sacrifice, to besiege the fortress of Self-Will in life, prevailing at length through death and every obstacle, the Divine Will favouring, is not only promoted through the whole identity, and converted to the proper virtue and perfection of its root; but there, likewise, to increase, triumph, and multipy, according to the hermaphroditic virtue of its conceived Law. So life is perfected in Wisdom, and the Will springs up in Paradise with fair golden fruits."

She adds:

 "This war is the war between the two principles of the self-will and the Divine Will. We are born into the self-will, and by the Divine mercy shut up in nature in order that we may not feel the bitterness springing from the course of the self-life, which Behmen called the bitter anguish of the driving wheel of existence. All the whole scheme of Christianity is to redeem us out of that misery by the interposition of God's grace between us and it."

And again.

"There is a war in the Work between the self-will and the Universal Will, and all the faculties and desires are engaged on one side or the other; the effort of the Universal Will is to draw them into its service by first destroying them, and then reproducing them in a transmuted form."

And she repeats her assertion that the self must die.

"For Self-knowledge is impossible unless every other knowledge is deprived; as this selfhood likewise is obliterated in the overwhelming attraction which raises it into the First Cause." 

So in this battle not only are the forces of Cordelia are defeated. Soon afterwards we see a wholesale distruction. Gloucester dies. Cordelia is killed. Goneril and Regan die. Lear dies. Edgar kills Edmund. In the alchemical drama the individual self must die in order for the universal self to assume control. 

As Mary Ann Atwood says:

"There are two magnets in man, i.e., two wills contending for man: the one universal, the other particular; the one related to the Divine Centre, the other to the self centre. Therefore these two contend for the soul. The Hermetic picture of the two dogs, the Corascene dog and that of Armenia, as they sometimes are called, is an illustration of this, as is also the allegory of the Duellum between the two knights; in the common life they are not in contact, they are remote from each other, the one, that related to the self-will, being carried out through the senses; the other, the good life, being hidden and required to be sought out by the will and desire of man turned toward it."

Scattered throughout her book are a number of other passages which all throw light on the subject: 

She describes the final step when she says,

"Once delivered from the exterior bondages of sense and heterogeneous desire, from the passions and false affections of this transitory life, the final step is declared comparatively easy; as transcending by the energy of faith, from the separable selfhood, the Identity passes into universal accord.-To go forth and to return; therefore was the agreement cut off..."

And again:

 "In the vital changes which are intimately connected with the spirit changes occurrent in the process, the vital force in the blood undergoes alchemical changes in its relation to the body. There are three principles in this force, Attraction, Circulation, Repulsion-the Alchemical Salt, Mercury, Sulphur. What is really changed is the magnetic attraction; the medial spirit is changed; life is attracted in, instead of out! There is an action and re-action of the opposite poles (the two magnets before mentioned) to perfect one another, or rather each by the other, in the overcoming the negative law, the evil, the selfhood, into which the original sin resulted. The action of the two to one another resembles that of an acid and alkali, beginning in a violent effervescence and ending in coalescence under a third form, so as Ripley ('revived') says, through Eirenaeus, 'the Corascene dog and the bitch of Armenia, after all their snarling and biting, brought forth a sky-colored whelp.' (This colour is the colour of Wisdom.)" 
THE FACE LOOKING TOWARD THE FUTURE

As is his cutomary practice in his Plays, Bacon also allegorizes a face looking toward the future. This face in King Lear deals with an inquiry into the "form" of anger, the basic trait which Lear has to eradicate as part of his inner quest. In his essay on Anger, Bacon says that anger is a brief madness. So when we see Lear go mad in the play, the form of anger is allegorized.

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