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Beauty in the Breakdown

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Beauty in the Breakdown



“When the world is mad, only the mad are sane.”

-Akira Kurosawa’s Ran,

an adaptation of King Lear










Jason Helms

December 15, 2004

ENG 741 Dr. Paulson

King Lear is a tale of familial love gone awry—of love and life dissipating into the disorder of entropy.  Entropy within Lr. is the sand in the hourglass, running down, leading inevitably toward death.  The characters find that in every area of their lives including their minds, decay is rampant, and that—while they can attempt to overcome it with love—entropy rules all.

From the first few lines the audience may smell a fault in the judgments of the ruler—a fault that leads to his demise:

Kent.   I thought the king had more affected the Duke of Albany than Cornwall.   

Glo.     It did always seem so to us; but now, in the division of the kingdom, it appears not which of the dukes he values most; for equalities are so weighed that curiosity in neither can make choice of either’s moiety. (1.1.1-7)


Though the Duke of Albany has long stood in Lear’s favor, the king has recently allowed the situation to become such that neither Albany nor Cornwall would envy the other’s position.  We might wonder why he is dividing his kingdom in the first place—why not allotting its entirety to his favored duke, or as we find soon after, to his most beloved daughter.  The king’s motives have little to do with reason, though.  He wants instead to gain their flattery, and in turn give them a bribe—his land.  That love cannot be bought becomes the crux of the play.  Lear cannot accept the power Cordelia exerts over him in replying to his obvious bribe with silence.  His inability to discern the real situation, his true daughter’s love from his false daughters’ flattery, leads to the decline pervasive throughout the play.

Lear starts his descent from an impossibly high precipice, and it is through division that his decay comes.  In dividing his power he thinks he will perpetuate his rule, but unwittingly causes his own fall.  In the first scene he is a wealthy king judging prospects for his favorite daughter’s husband.  By the end of that scene things have begun to unravel, and any final dénouement must be superficially imposed by the reader.  Lear betrays and is subsequently betrayed by his daughters.  He quickly realizes the error of his ways (to some degree) but finds himself powerless to turn the tide.  Nature has caught hold of him, and nature’s chief law is entropy: “though the wisdom of nature can reason it thus and thus, yet nature finds itself scourged by subsequent effects.  Love cools, friendship falls off, brothers divide” (1.2.114-16).

Entropy may be seen as not just a theme within Lr., but the theme.  Within Lr., Harold Blooms says “it is only entropy, human and natural, that is formalized” (Bloom 505).  In a play where “ferocious cruelty is not so much an aberration as the norm” (Fraser 192), cruelty, deception, madness, and death all fall under the heading of entropy, the “measure of the degree of randomness or disorder of a system” (Stryer 185).  Investigating Shakespeare’s trope of entropy leads us through the worlds of physics, chemistry, biology, and information theory.

Thermodynamics, the study of the relation between energy and heat, states in its second law that isolated systems move spontaneously toward entropy.  When Carnot began to frame the laws of thermodynamics in 1824 he remarked, “the production of heat alone is not sufficient to give birth to impelling power; it is necessary that there should be cold; without it, the heat would be useless” (Zencey 188).  It remained for Claussius to name and further explicate this theory.  Entropy—from the Greek tropoV, meaning transformation—became more than the movement of hot (potential energy) toward cold (inactivity), and is now thought of more in the sense of a tendency toward randomness and inertness inherent within everything. 

Though usually depicted in relation to physics, thermodynamics is used extensively throughout both information theory and biochemistry.  Within information theory entropy becomes a measure of “the amount [of information] that is lost through noise” (Marshall and Zohar 141).  Just as in a game of “telephone,” the more operators a message has to go through the more garbled it will be when it gets to its final recipient.  This garbling is what information theorists call “noise”: nonsense that infects the message.  The more time goes by, the more noise enters the message.

Within biochemistry entropy provides the direction to every chemical process.   It may help to look at these processes as equations—on one side is the original chemical; on the other, the result.  The process can only occur in a direction which leads to an increase in entropy (S).  The equation,

(ΔSsystem + ΔSsurroundings) > 0 for a spontaneous process

gives a visual representation of this principle.  Thermodynamically speaking, a reaction is spontaneous if it occurs naturally, without any input of external energy.  We may say, “that a process can occur spontaneously only if the sum of the entropies of the system and its surroundings increases” (Stryer 185).  This aspect of entropy has often been whimsically summed up as, “there’s no such thing as a free lunch.”  Essentially the theory states that something must always pay; and paying in the biochemical sense means incorporating energy from the outside (bringing it in as food, sunlight, etc.).  While the value of S can tell us whether or not a reaction will occur without further input of energy, it cannot tell us how quickly that reaction will take place—a common misconception.

Similarly, within physics entropy tells us the direction of time without of course altering its speed.  Hawking tells us that “the laws of science do not distinguish between the past and the future” (183).  He gives the example of a glass of water falling to the floor and shattering.  The same motions and forces would be used were the glass to reassemble itself and land back upon the table in an exact reversal of its fate.  Why then do glasses not reconstruct themselves regularly?  Entropy.  The second law gives a universal characteristic in that, if we view the universe itself as a gigantic closed system, its entropy must increase.  It is therefore analogous to time.  As time moves forward, entropy increases.  Hawking describes three “arrows” of time: the thermodynamic (the universal increase of entropy), the psychological (our subjective perception of time, dependent upon the first arrow), and the cosmological (the constant expansion of the universe and its tendency toward heat-death) (187-195).

Just as the scientific effects of entropy may not be limited to physics, within literature it has expanded from individual authors becoming what Zencey calls, “a root metaphor.”  In Zencey’s view a root metaphor is the core metaphor within a particular philosophical tradition.  He cites four major root metaphors within western philosophy and adds entropy as a typically modern root metaphor.  But metaphors are entropic too and their meanings often dissipate into areas their authors never predicted.  In keeping with the entropic nature of metaphors, I extend the entropy metaphor from the ordered state of a specific era, modernity, into a disordered state applying to all literature. 

Since the beginnings of literature, writers have labored under the weight of this world in which we eat by the sweat of our brows.  The world around us requires that work be put into it if we want order to come of it.  This complaint against work is ubiquitous and Shakespeare was aware of this entropic tendency hundreds of years before Carnot.  With Shakespeare the entropic trope becomes a central theme in western literature.  Beckett feels entropy’s pull, remarking, “elles accoucent à cheval sur un tombe, le jour brille un instant, puis c’est la nuit à nouveau[1] (Beckett 126) and further, “A cheval sur une tombe et une naissane difficile.  Du fond du trou, rêveusement, le fossoyeur appliqué ses fers.  On a le temps de viellir.  L’air est plein de nos cris[2] (128).  While Beckett’s may be the most gut wrenching depiction of life and death among madness since Shakespeare, Lr. is not the cyclical, continuous, pointless existence of Waiting for Godot, but studied outrage against the forces of death.

            In 1902 James Clerk Maxwell discovered a problem with the concept of entropy as it was understood.  Maxwell posited a creature that could see molecules in their paths and organize them according to speed.  Since speed is intimately related to heat and therefore energy, this division would convert an inert system into a system in which work could be done without energy being put into it—a thermodynamic free lunch.  The creature became known as “Maxwell’s demon,” and forced thermodynamics to deal with the concept of discernment.  The entropic trope “takes Maxwell’s demon as an archetypal image” (Zencey 193).  Maxwell’s demon reflects the realization that it is not enough to add energy or heat; one must add discriminately for a reaction to take place and not tend toward inertness. 

These two central themes envelope Shakespeare’s Tragedy: decline and discernment.  Though he was surely unaware of their thermodynamic causes, common sense and various contemporary influences gave Shakespeare ample material to exploit these themes in tragic form.  Lr. retraces various threads of English history—Holinshed’s Chronicles, Sidney’s Arcadia, and the anonymous True Chronicle History of King Leir.  While ingeniously interweaving these varied texts among others, Shakespeare does not merely rehash but rather contorts these stories to his will.  John Lothian asks, “what, then, did Shakespeare do with this many-times-told tale?  First, he gave it an unhappy, tragic ending” (5).  The Tragedy of King Lear cannot of course end happily, but it as if the combined weight of these contexts feels the pull of gravity and the grave more than they did when divided—as if by their very combination the assembled elements long to dissipate.

Charles Morgan once said, “it lies at the root of our sanity to believe that the nature of the universe is harmonious, and not chaotic” (Lothian 100).  Shakespeare reveals this as little more than wishful thinking, agreeing more with Nietzsche’s Silenus who told King Midas, “What is best is beyond your reach forever: not to be born, not to be, to be nothing.  But the second best for you—is quickly to die” (180, Emphasis author’s).  Physicality tends toward just this: “nothing.”

Nothing is a key concept within Lr., or rather, “nothing” is.  When Cordelia gives “nothing” to Lear by way of flattery, Lear responds, “nothing can come of nothing”  (1.1.92).  Later the fool tricks him into echoing his former words:

Fool. Can you make no use of nothing, nuncle?  

Lear.  Why, no, boy; nothing can be made out of nothing.  

Fool.  [To KENT.] Prithee, tell him, so much the rent of his land comes to: he will not believe a fool.  (1.4.133-139)


“Nothing” is the heat-death toward which Lear’s world careens.  Helpless to stop it, he can only have his words redounded upon him with the mock foolishness of the wise, loving fool.

At the time of Lr.’s composition, Shakespeare had already used “nothing” as a pun for female genitalia in the title, Much Ado About Nothing.  The pun subtends Lear’s fear and loathing of the female body,

Though women all above: 

But to the girdle do the gods inherit,  

Beneath is all the fiends’:  

There’s hell, there’s darkness, there is the sulphurous pit,  

Burning, scalding, stench, consumption; fie, fie, fie! pah, pah! Give me an ounce of civet, good apothecary, to sweeten my imagination: there’s money for thee. (4.6.127-33)


Often cited as evidence of Shakespeare’s misogynism, Lear’s tirade can be read instead as a fear of propagation.  Bloom, taking a cue from Silenus, sees Lr. as “a drama in which everyone would have been better had they not been born.  It is not so much that all is vanity; all is nothing” (509).  In Lear’s mind the evil of women is not their dark mystery, but their very capability of bearing young—nothing will come of “nothing.”

Shortly after Lear’s misogynistic diatribe, his madness culminates in an  acute awareness that his hand “smells of mortality” (4.6.135).  Death is all around and Lear is profound in his depiction of it:

Lear.    Yet you see how this world goes.

Glo.     I see it feelingly.

Lear.    What! art mad? A man may see how this world goes with no eyes. Look with thine ears: see how yond justice rails upon yon simple thief. Hark, in thine ear: change places; and, handy-dandy, which is the justice, which is the thief? Thou hast seen a farmer’s dog bark at a beggar?

Glo.     Ay, sir.

Lear.    And the creature run from the cur? There thou mightst behold the great image of authority; a dog’s obey’d in office. (4.6.149-161)


The injustice explicit in this section reveals an innate tendency of the world toward evil and death.  Entropy is both final justice—in the sense that in the end all will be equally dead—and thief—in that it steals heat and energy.  Gloucester’s blindness is not really a disadvantage when all that can be seen is death—the world goes poorly, whether we can see it or not.  The creature/cur pun gets to the heart of the issue.  “Creature” would fit the dog as aptly as it does the beggar.  “Cur,” while literally referring to the dog, could easily become an epithet for the beggar.  How does one distinguish which Lear is talking about?  That’s his point: it depends on your view—blind as it may be—of the world.  Is this a world where men run from dogs or dogs from men?  The next line clears up the ambiguity and extends the metaphor to his daughters: “a dog’s obey’d in office.”  Even his inimical daughters subject their father.

Lear’s subjugation is due originally to his faulty discernment.  He is almost a rebuttal of Maxwell’s demon: the irony is not that he is unable to divide good from evil, but that he divides them perfectly and names them incorrectly.  The impossibility of the demon is its ability to divide, which Lear does with seeming ease.  Whereas Bloom feels that, “we are beyond good and evil because we cannot make a merely natural distinction between them,” (512) Lear proves that the distinction is the easy part—the difficulty lies in recognizing which is which.

Lear.   His notion weakens, his discernings  

Are lethargied. Ha! waking? ’tis not so.  

Who is it that can tell me who I am?  

Fool.    Lear’s shadow.  (1.4.234-7)


The shadow is the end result of entropy: neither light nor heat nor matter.  When “discernings are lethargied,” entropy takes control and death follows at its heels.  Lear adeptly separated Cordelia from Goneril and Regan—the wheat from the chaff—, but aligned himself with the chaff.

Language is the key to discernment.  It allows us to separate and is only necessary in a world where good needs to be separated from evil, leading Norman Brown to remark that “the fall is into language” (Love’s Body 257)—the only good therefore being the “verbum infans” or “ineffable word.”  Bringing this realization into an apt interpretation of the play Brown sees that, “it is the fool king Lear who asks his daughters how much they love him.  And it is the one who loves him who is silent” (265).  Just as within information theory a preponderance of communication leads to more noise; love must be communicated wordlessly or risk becoming a hollow gesture of flattery.  Language is then an agent of entropy, revealing, “the irony inherent within language” (Lacan 49).

It is this realization that drives Lear to lunacy, not the awareness of his plight but recognizing the irony of his decision—the irony all around him.  In coming to terms with the fact that, “Man’s life is cheap as beast’s” (2.4.266), he takes the only course left to him: “O Fool, I shall go mad!” (l. 285).  Bloom sees “the fool…[as] a chorus” (494).  Nietzsche defines a chorus as “a living bulwark against the onslaught of reality” (211).  Experiencing this “onslaught of reality” in his daughters’ betrayal, Lear can only “show the heavens more just,” (3.4. 36) when familial trust fails.  But the heavens are not just; or if just, lead only toward death as Lear soon learns.  The fool affords us a look into Lear’s addled psyche by prophesying, “then shall the realm of Albion come to great confusion” (3.3.91-2).  As Lear’s external and internal realms turn to great confusion, the fool sympathetically reminds us, “this cold night will turn us all to fools and madmen” (3.4.78-9).  Lear’s warm lucidity is pulled toward the cold air of decay around him.

The reader tossed in media of Lear’s decomposing res finds that, “men must endure / Their going hence, even as their coming hither: / Ripeness is all” (5.3.9-11).  While Bloom feels that, “‘ripeness is all’ warns us how little ‘all’ is,” (483) Brown sees promise, “at the biological level, the death instinct, in affirming the road to death, affirms at the same time the road of life: ripeness is all” (Life Against Death 103).  Ripeness, then, may be viewed as either death or life, an ambiguity foreshadowed by Heraclitus—“the path up and down is one and the same” (Allen 40)— and echoed more recently by Freud’s death drive.

Freud originally saw the pleasure principle “as a Nirvana-principle, aiming at inactivity, rest, or sleep, the twin brother of death” (Brown, Life Against Death 87).  This then is pleasure, “to sleep, perchance to dream,” (Hamlet, 3.1.64) not a raging hedonism, but a quiet rest.  Just as molecules tend toward heat-death, we crave rest.  Freud saw that “the goal of all life is death” (Gay 613).  More than the subjective longing of our individual death, “the reunification of Life and Death…can be envisioned only as the end of the historical process” (Brown, Life Against Death 91).  Universal heat-death is the end result when “the stars, / Above us govern our conditions” (Lear 4.3.33-34).  In the end—just as cosmological expansion mirrors universal decay in our perception of time—“the weight of this sad time we must obey” (5.3.325).  For in this world, “time is what man makes out of death…time is negativity and negativity is extroverted death” (Brown Life Against Death 102).  Lear’s plunge, then, is the tale of time as an avenue of death.

Cordelia provides the only means whereby we may fight death: a love that cannot be bought.  Though seemingly trite, this is a variation of Nietzsche’s

mystery of tragedy: the fundamental knowledge of the oneness of everything existent, the conception of individuation as the prime cause of evil, and of art as the joyous hope that the bonds of individuation may be broken in augury of restored oneness. (231)


Individuation in this sense is breakdown into lesser components, rather than the achieving of separation from those lesser components, and is therefore an aspect of entropy—the “prime cause of evil.”  Brown integrates art with Eros (and we must remember that for Freud and Brown there is no distinction between erotic and familial love), remarking that “the function of art…is to help us find our way back to sources of pleasure that have been rendered inaccessible by capitulation to the reality-principle” (Life Against Death 60).  Art and Eros are bound in an attempt to assert life over death.  While love “may be stronger than death, it leads only to death, or to the death-in-life for the extraordinary Edgar” (Bloom 486), the sole survivor.  Managing to survive by chance and force of will, Edgar’s survival is hardly the happy dénouement the reader sought.  Edgar has learned little or nothing—revealing his true identity to his father only to gain blessing on a duel—and is left with the unenviable task of reuniting a broken England.

Cordelia’s unbuyable love is entropy’s counter-trope.   Instead of a mathematical give and take, it is a force which can only give and never receives back in full.  Bloom, however rightly finds that “love redeems nothing…but the powerful representation of love askew, thwarted, misunderstood, or turned to hatred or icy indifference…can become an uncanny aesthetic value” (506).  This aesthetic is similar to the irony with which the new critics frame literature.  Irony,

unites the like with the unlike.  It does not unite them, however, by the simple process of allowing one connotation to cancel out another nor does it reduce the contradictory attitudes to harmony by a process of subtraction.  The unity…is a positive unity, not a negative; it represents not a residue but an achieved harmony.  (Brooks 962)


 This beauty of paradox can be applied to Lr.  The thanatotic tendencies within the play can only be battled with a love that cannot be bought.  Yet time is inextricably tied to death by entropy.  So as time goes by, death will naturally ensue.  The characters may struggle against the forces of death by asserting the power of love, but what few survivors remain must yield to “the weight of this sad time.”







Works Cited


Allen, Reginald E.  Greek Philosophy: Thales to Aristotle.  3rd ed.  New York: Free Press, 1991.


Beckett, Samuel.  En attendant Godot.  Paris: Les Editions de Minuit, 1952.  Translated by the author as Wating for Godot.  New York: Grove Press, Inc., 1954.


Bloom, Harold.  Shakespeare: the Invention of the Human.  New York: Riverhead, 1998.


Brooks, Cleanth.  “The Heresy of Paraphrase.”  Critical Theory Since Plato. Rev. ed.  Ed. Hazard Adams.  Fort Worth: University of Washington, 1992.  961-968.


Brown, Norman.  Life Against Death: the Psychoanalytical Meaning of History.  New York: Random House, 1959.

---.  Love’s Body.  New York: Random House, 1966.


Fraser, Russell.  “The Date and Source of King Lear.”  The Tragedy of King Lear.  New York: Signet, 1987.  190-211.


Gay, Peter.  “Beyond the Pleasure Principle,” The Freud Reader.  New York: Norton, 1989, pp. 594-626.


Hawking, Stephen.  The Illustrated A Brief History of Time.  New York: Bantam, 1996.


Lacan, Jacques.  “Function and Field of Speech and Language.”  Ecrits. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1977. 30-113.


Lothian, John M.  King Lear: a Tragic Reading of Life.  Toronto: Clarke, Irwin, & Co., 1949.


Nietzsche, Fredrich  “The Birth of Tragedy,” The Philosophy of Nietzsche.  Ed. Willard Wright.  Trans. Clifton Fadiman. New York: Modern Library, 1927, pp. 163-340.


Ran.  Dir. Akira Kurosawa.  Japan, 1985.  DVD.  Fox Lorber, 2002.


Stryer, Lubert.  Biochemistry. Fourth ed.  New York: Freeman, 1999.


Zencey, Eric.  “Entropy as Root Metaphor,” Beyond the Two Cultures: Essays in Science, Techonology, and Literature.  Ed. John Slade.  Ames: Iowa State University, 1990, pp. 185-200.

[1] Pozzo’s line.  “They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more” (Beckett 57).

[2] Vladimir’s line.  “Astride of a grave and a difficult birth.  Down in the hole, lingeringly, the grave-digger puts on the forceps.  We have time to grow old.  The air is full of our cries” (Eng. 58).

Copyright (c) 2004 Jason Helms.
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