Monthly Archives: July 2013

Parents, siblings, and pronouns

(I’ve been wanting to write this post for a while now, but between grading, recovering from grading, attending friends’ weddings, and going to a conference, I never quite managed it.)  

When I cast my eye back over 1.1 of King Lear, I was surprised to find – given how slightingly he speaks of his illegitimate son Edmund – that Gloucester doesn’t resort to the informal or familiar pronoun “thou,” which would be appropriate from a father to a son. Instead, in the only sentence in 1.1 that requires him to choose between the two pronouns (only two of his sentences here are addressed to Edmund, and the other is a command with no pronoun), he opts for the unmarked “you”: “Do you know this noble gentleman, Edmund?” (1.1.23-4). 

As king, however, Lear marks distinctions more clearly. He uses the formal “you” when addressing Albany, Burgundy, and the King of France, but, as one might expect, chooses “thou” and “thee” when speaking to his daughters – up to a point. As I’m sure others have noted, Lear speaks to Cordelia at first using “you,” setting her apart from her sisters: “what can you say to draw / A third more opulent than your sisters?” (1.1.85-6, my emphasis). With pronouns, context is everything: since it’s Lear’s prerogative to use “thou,” and because he does use it to address Goneril and Regan, his use of “you” here speaks to the special relationship he has with Cordelia. Even when she fails to flatter him as he expects her to, he clings to the unmarked pronoun a little longer: “How, how, Cordelia? Mend your speech a little, / Lest you may mar your fortunes” (1.1.94-5). But after this point, Lear’s switch to “thou” reads as contemptuous: “Let it be so, thy truth then be thy dower!”; “And as a stranger to my heart and me / Hold thee from this forever” (1.1.109; 1.1.116-7).

Between love and contempt, though, there’s one more use of the informal pronoun. “But goes thy heart with this?” (1.1.105), Lear asks Cordelia, giving her one more chance to recant her statements of dutiful love and replace them with something more fulsome (or more appropriate to the occasion, depending on how you see Lear’s demands for proof of affection). How should we read this moment? Is Lear pleading with Cordelia, switching to “thy” to call up an even closer intimacy? Is he reminding Cordelia that she is his daughter and his subject, and as such should demonstrate a double obedience to his desires? Or does this pronoun mark the very beginning of the boiling rage that will see Lear banish his youngest daughter? What I love about the shifts in early modern pronoun use is that often, it’s not entirely clear how we should read these moments; they can be messy and indeterminate, just like the emotions they represent. These pronouns highlight social relationships, but don’t prescribe them – leaving open possibilities for interpretation and performance.

One negotiation between pronouns in Lear, though, is much more purposeful in its effects. When Edmund plots to take his brother Edgar’s land, he does so by convincing their father that Edgar planned to murder him, and tried to enlist Edmund’s help in the affair. To do this, he recounts a supposed dialogue between himself and Edgar, in which Edgar readily insults Edmund: 

When I dissuaded him from his intent

And found him pight to do it, with curst speech

I threatened to discover him. He replied,

Thou unpossessing bastard, dost thou think,

If I would stand against thee, would the reposal

Of any trust, virtue, or worth in thee

Make thy words faithed?’…   (2.1.64-70, my emphasis) 

This speech reveals again to us that Edmund is a canny, consummate liar; he even remembers to manipulate pronoun use in addition to using direct insult (“Thou unpossessing bastard”). Because, of course, Edgar never actually speaks to Edmund in such a way. In fact, he insists on the familial connection between them in his first line in the play: “How now, brother Edmund; what serious contemplation are you in?” (1.2.138-9). Not “bastard,” but “brother”; and never “thou,” but always “you.” (Edmund, unsettlingly chameleon-like, responds in kind; Edgar addresses him twice as “brother” in 1.2, and both times Edmund parrots the word back in the next line – allowing Edgar to believe that he reciprocates the apparent affection that Edgar freely gives.) 

Edmund’s sly declarations have their desired effect, and Gloucester promises that he will find a way for Edmund to inherit instead of Edgar: “Loyal and natural boy, I’ll work the means / To make thee capable” (2.1.84-5). And here, we get the familiar pronoun from Gloucester that we didn’t get in the first scene – remarkably, only his second use of the familiar pronoun to Edmund, and the other instance similarly deals with the offer of some kind of reward. When he asks Edmund to investigate the “plot” against him in 1.2, he begs, “Find out this villain, Edmund; it shall lose thee nothing” (1.2.115-6). One wonders, at this point in the play, whether Gloucester possesses a language of affection that doesn’t involve payment of some kind – though of course, he seems to share that lack with his sovereign as well. 


Text: King Lear, ed. Stephen Orgel (Penguin, 1999).