Upon Such Sacrifices: King Lear and the Binding of Isaac

“Which of you shall we say doth love us most?” Is it ironic that the tragedy of King Lear, perhaps the most devastating in the English language, begins with a father’s plea for love? The question certainly surprises his court, which is anxious over the disposition of the kingdom.

Here is the situation. Lear, feeling his decline, looks to prevent future strife by settling his succession now. But he does not simply settle. He doesn’t incline to Albany, as his faithful vassal Kent tells us he thought he had and which would have been seen as only right and natural since Goneril, Albany’s wife, is Lear’s firstborn. Nor does he directly vest all in his youngest and dearest, Cordelia, which, had he done so, would have left her sisters gnashing their teeth while France and Burgundy overleaped each other in striving for her hand. Instead, he poses a test:

 

Tell me, my daughters—

Since now we will divest us both of rule,

Interest of territory, cares of state—

Which of you shall we say doth love us most?

That we our largest bounty may extend

Where nature doth with merit challenge.

 

His favor will incline toward love. But first, that love must be manifested. How can love be demonstrated to a father’s—and a monarch’s—satisfaction? His older daughters offer Lear the cloying words they think he wants. “Sir, I love you more than words can wield the matter”; “No less than life, with grace, health, beauty, honour”; “I profess / Myself an enemy to all other joys”; and so on. Cordelia wonders how to follow these extraordinary exhalations, and counsels herself to “Love, and be silent.” And when it is her turn to speak, the words she makes of silence are: 

 

CORDELIA

Nothing, my lord.

 

KING LEAR

Nothing!

 

CORDELIA

Nothing.

 

KING LEAR

Nothing will come of nothing: speak again.

 

CORDELIA

Unhappy that I am, I cannot heave

My heart into my mouth: I love your majesty

According to my bond; nor more nor less.

 

Far from being rewarded for her truth, her spoken silence unleashes a howling void that, by the end of the play, has swallowed nearly all the world, leaving only a wasteland of wolves for the righteous Edgar to rule and the loyal Kent to wander.

It seems an extravagant consequence, even for the legend of an ancient king. Why should the very fate of the world depend on the outcome of such a silly test? Why should one foolish, fond old man’s feeling of rejection threaten to dissolve creation into chaos? I’ve seen at least a dozen productions of the play, but this central question has remained a puzzle to me. Until I reflected that, once upon a time, another, greater king posed an even more terrible love test for a father and his child.

 

The first instance of the verb for love in the Hebrew Bible is in Genesis 22:

And it came to pass after these things, that God did prove Abraham, and said unto him: “Abraham”; and he said: “Here am I.” And He said: “Take now thy son, thine only son, whom thou lovest, even Isaac, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt-offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of.” (Gen. 22:1–2)

Thus begins the story of the akedah, the binding of Isaac. It’s a story that has harrowed both Jewish and Christian commentators for more than two thousand years. And before it is anything else, it is a story of love, of the sacrifice of love, and of the sacrificial nature of love. And, as the story has it, the fate of God’s kingdom, the world, hinged on whether it was passed.

The akedah prompts different questions than King Lear does, not of how so much tragedy could have sprung from a foolish love test, but how the God of all creation could have put his faithful servant to such an unconscionable test in the first place. And so there is a long interpretive tradition that labors to elide that fact in increasingly creative ways. Surely God never intended Isaac to be a sacrifice—the boy was merely to be present at the sacrifice! How could Abraham have thought otherwise, when God had already sworn that it was through Isaac that his promise to Abraham would be fulfilled? Or, alternatively, surely Abraham never doubted that God was merely testing him—after all, Abraham tells Isaac himself that God would provide a lamb to substitute!

Tapestry depicting the sacrifice of Isaac.
Tapestry depicting the sacrifice of Isaac, the King’s Great Bedchamber, Hampton Court Palace. (Courtesy of the Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2017.)

By such means, commentators have sought to relieve the unbearable tension the story reveals at the heart of our relationship with God. Perhaps the best evidence of the fundamental unpersuasiveness of such readings is in the role the akedah plays in the traditional liturgy. Thus in the daily morning prayers, the story is read to remind God of Abraham’s unfathomable faithfulness: “Just as our forefather suppressed his mercy for his only son and wished to slaughter him in order to do Your will, so may your mercy suppress your [justifiable] anger . . .” What merit would there have been if Abraham had merely misunderstood God’s command—or understood it correctly but knew that he didn’t really have to fulfill it?

The akedah is also read from the Torah on the second day of Rosh Hashanah. Thus, as we prepare to face God in judgment, we read the primal story of parental and divine love in its most terrifying and all-devouring form. And yet in one of the most moving prayers of the day, Ha-yom Harat Olam (Today Is the Birthday of the World), we pray:

Today all creatures stand in judgment, whether as children or as servants. If we merit consideration as children, have mercy on us as a father has mercy on his children. If as servants, our eyes beseech You to be gracious unto us in judgment, O revered and holy One.

And we close the service with Avinu Malkeinu—a plea for mercy not only from our king, but from our father.

This is the way we approach God when we want to emphasize the most fundamental level of our relationship. We ask God to consider us as children, and be merciful as a father is, not a master: with partiality toward the unique value of our own selves. But this is the love that Abraham had for Isaac and that he believed God had for both of them as His chosen servants. And it is this, even this, that God demanded Abraham sacrifice to prove his total love for Him, when He commanded Abraham to sacrifice his son.

That is the central, unresolvable tension of the akedah when I read it by the light of Shakespeare’s tragedy, as if Shakespeare were a writer of midrash. Can we merit God’s consideration as children only if we give God that which Lear demanded of Cor-delia—love Him with all our hearts, all our souls, and all our means, reserving nothing for ourselves, for others, or for the world? And if so, then what is left of us to receive that consideration?

 

William Shakespeare was certainly familiar with the story of the binding of Isaac, and not only because of his deep cultural familiarity with the Bible and access to the Geneva translation. Medieval dramatists had repeatedly depicted Abraham’s trial on stage; the typical version explicitly brought out the understanding of Isaac as the great typological forerunner of Christ, and the substitution of the ram as prefiguring God’s substitution of His own son for humanity.

But the akedah also had particular resonance in early modern England. Hampton Court, where Henry VIII resided, included a magisterial tapestry depicting Abraham and Isaac on Mount Moriah, and this was not happenstance. Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his beloved was the paradigmatic instance of the subject’s total obedience, the complete subordination of his will and his interests to those of his sovereign. Moreover, in a country where the king not only ruled by asserted divine right but had made himself the head of the church, the space between royal and divine command had shrunk almost to non-existence.

Painting of Cordelia Comforting her Father, King Lear, in Prison.
Cordelia Comforting her Father, King Lear, in Prison, by George William Joy, 1886. (Courtesy of the Leeds Museums and Galleries, U.K./Bridgeman Images.)

Shakespeare actually alluded to the akedah in a scene in Richard II, as Ken Jackson demonstrates in his recent book Shakespeare and Abraham. It is a comic scene in which the Duke of York denounces his own son, Aumerle, before the newly crowned King Henry IV, demanding that Aumerle be put to death for treason even as the king offers him mercy. What is being satirized here is precisely the psychological situation created by the demands of absolute fealty to the monarch. In a sense, York is testing whether Henry Bolingbroke is the king, whether he will demand loyalty in the most absolute terms, because this is what royal authority means. This is reminiscent of the scenario described in a midrash on the akedah. The angel has stayed Abraham’s hand, and Abraham has seen the ram, and sacrificed it. But now Abraham turns to heaven and protests that he still needs to sacrifice Isaac, else his intention will not have been fulfilled, and it might have been thought that he never intended to fulfill it. For the command to be withdrawn is to put into question either the authority of the one who commands or the loyalty of the one who obeys. Our sympathies in Aumerle’s scene are unequivocally with the natural bond between father and son. But what happens when the sovereign and the father are one and the same, as is the case in King Lear?

King Lear is not usually thought of as having a relationship with the story of Abraham, though a suggestive connection was made by King James I himself. Before ascending to the English throne, James VI of Scotland wrote a political guide, Basilikon Doron, for his eldest son advising him never to divide his kingdom (as Lear does) but “make your eldest son Isaac, leaving him all your kingdoms.” Instead, the most common point of biblical reference for King Lear is Job—because of his extravagant suffering, his demands for justice, the storm against which he rages, and, not incidentally, his trio of daughters (though Job was happier there than Lear was). But just as Richard II and King Lear have a clear kinship—two kings who abdicate, suffer, discover their humanity thereby, and come to wonder how political authority can survive the knowledge that the king is but a man—Job himself, though not an Israelite, is a version of Abraham.

Job’s story begins as Abraham’s climaxes: with a test. Will he remain righteous when God punishes him for no reason? There is even a midrash in which Abraham’s test originates in an argument with Satan that mirrors the frame story of Job. Job, like Abraham, passes his test. He does not follow his wife’s advice and “curse God and die,” nor does he succumb to the false comforts of his friends, who urge him to blame his own sinfulness for his suffering. Instead, he suffers for his fidelity. This is very close to Abraham’s own agony, but Job did not have to wield the knife. Similarly, Lear’s suffering in abdication is akin to Richard’s, but, unlike Lear, Richard did not decide upon his own destruction.

 

Why does Lear need to prove his daughters’ love? He knows his youngest daughter’s devotion. I have never seen a production in which Lear is in any way fooled by his two older daughters’ false comforts. He already knows that Cordelia loves him truly and that Goneril and Regan exaggerate their affection. What, then, is the purpose of the trial?

Well, what is the purpose of Abraham’s trial? God, even more than Lear, surely knows the depth of Abraham’s devotion. From God’s perspective, the command cannot be posed in order to see whether Abraham will be willing to perform the terrible deed. Rather, the purpose can only be to teach Abraham something by going through the experience of preparing for sacrifice, right up to the point the knife is raised, and to teach succeeding generations through the story of his deed.

So, too, I would suggest, with Lear. The love test is almost always staged as a bit of theater: Lear knows what he is going to do, and he thinks he knows what Cordelia is going to do. He has orchestrated this as a teachable moment for his daughters and for his court, a lesson in what love looks and sounds like—love for a father and love for a king, which are, in Lear’s case, one and the same. He would give her all, and he expects that she will demonstrate a love commensurate with that gift: a love that matches all with all. But Cordelia refuses to follow the script. “Love, and be silent,” she tells herself—what is the salience of this silence? I cannot help but hear an echo of Abraham’s own silence in the face of the divine command, a terrible silence that envelops the crisis within which Abraham is caught.

Midrash fills up Abraham’s silences—for example, by way of explaining the prolixity of God’s original command. “Take your son,” God commands, and Abraham, in the famous midrash quoted by Rashi, replies, “I have two sons.” “Your only son” is elicited in reply, “each is the only son of his mother [Sarah and Hagar].” “The one you love”—“but I love both of them.” Only with the name “Isaac” does Abraham run out of ways to escape. But all of this midrashic elaboration only underlines what is missing from the original biblical text: any sign of what Abraham is feeling. 

Although Cordelia begins her speech with a literal “nothing,” she does not stand upon that silence, but interprets it for her father and his court:

 

                                                                       Good my lord,

You have begot me, bred me, loved me: I

Return those duties back as are right fit,

Obey you, love you, and most honour you.

Why have my sisters husbands, if they say

They love you all? Haply, when I shall wed,

That lord whose hand must take my plight shall carry

Half my love with him, half my care and duty:

Sure, I shall never marry like my sisters,

To love my father all.

 

For this, Cordelia is banished and disowned—and we, like the loyal Kent, are appalled. But in this reaction, we are reading Lear as something less than what he knows himself to be, that is, as less than a king. We should take the moment, and Lear’s intentions, more seriously. And reading Lear by the light of the akedah is a way in.

What has God asked Abraham to sacrifice when He calls for Isaac to be set forth as a burnt offering? Remember the three ways God describes him: your son, your only one, whom you love. Isaac is Abraham’s son, the continuance of his own name. Isaac is unique, the vessel through which the entire world is promised blessing and redemption. And Isaac is Abraham’s beloved. Isaac is the child of Abraham and Sarah’s old age, the fulfillment of all of God’s promises to Abraham since He took him out of Ur of the Chaldees. And this—all that God has given him—is what God demands Abraham surrender, to prove his obedience—his love—for God, his ultimate father.

The principle here is terribly simple, and one that Satan’s cynical argument about Job makes explicit. If we obey God in expectation of reward, then our love of God is not pure. So to prove that our love is pure, and not transactional, we must be willing to sacrifice everything—indeed, everything that God Himself promised us—on the altar of our devotion. If we do less than this—if we reserve anything for ourselves, for our own futures, for our destinies on earth—then we have proved ourselves unworthy of those very blessings that were promised.

Cordelia’s response to her father turns this equation on its head. She is to be wedded to a great prince and will inherit the choicest portion of her father’s kingdom—if she demonstrates total and complete love. This is the transactional love that the akedah rejects, a prize for a price. Her response is that if she demonstrates that total love—and implicitly values that inheritance and that marriage at nothing—then the entire ceremony of king and court and of her courtship is pointless. It is not her love that must be total, but his, her father’s—total enough to give her a kingdom knowing she will not return it.

But if we empathize unequivocally with Cor-delia’s resistance, what do we make of Abraham’s obedience? And more troubling still, what do we make of Cordelia’s own tragic end?

 

Photo of performance of King Lear at the Stratford Festival in Ontario.
Colm Feore as King Lear and Sara Farb as Cordelia at the Stratford Festival, Ontario, 2014. (Photo by David Hou.)

I have been very free in my associations until now, moving fluidly between apparently competing identifications. If King Lear can be read as a version of the akedah, then where is God and who is Abraham? Meshalim, allegorical stories that elucidate a biblical text, generally follow a one-to-one correspondence, and where “a king of flesh and blood” is posited, he is usually a stand-in for God. Following that allegorical logic, Lear, who poses the test, is God. But then, who is Abraham? A child or a father?

There is no way to perfectly match up a story with three parties—God, Abraham, and Isaac—and one with two—Lear and Cordelia. But consider the story instead from Isaac’s perspective. God does not speak to him but to his father. And he is tested as surely as Abraham is. A wide variety of midrashim fill in the voids of Isaac’s own silence, but the biblical text gives us only the one question: Where is the lamb? From Isaac’s perspective, God and his father are as one in this moment of trial, and he must have either faith in the rightness of his own slaughter or faith that God will not demand what He appears to be demanding. Is this not similar to Cordelia’s own dilemma when faced with her father’s love test?

Moreover, from both a medieval and an early modern perspective, the line between the monarch and the divinity was blurry. The medieval Christian ideology of the king’s two bodies held that while the king was in one sense just a man, he was also, numinously, the kingdom in himself. This idea clearly informs Shakespeare’s play; much of Lear’s physical suffering can be read as the king experiencing in his actual body the afflictions of the body of state. He grows most God-like on stage precisely when he is powerless in exile from his kingdom and from his children.

But it is precisely God’s absence in King Lear that sheds clarifying light on Abraham’s trial. Where, after all, does the impulse to sacrifice the firstborn originate, but in a sense of primal gratitude? The womb is open, but we cannot take credit for opening it. Who, then, deserves the first fruit? And with promises as extravagant as those embodied in Isaac, how could anyone accept them without first offering to give them back? For Abraham, Isaac is his relationship with God—the living embodiment of all of God’s promises. Even if Abraham had not heard God’s command, he would have known the awesome implications of having been granted Isaac in the first place.

And so King Lear, in which God’s presence is occluded and the monarch stands alone with a test of his own devising, is a useful lens through which to see Abraham’s crisis. Lear is a king, God’s regent on earth. Like Abraham, he is a legendary patriarchal figure. Finally, he is a father, and it is not so simple to divorce from fatherhood that illusion of true continuity, that one’s living legacy owes total obedience in gratitude for their very life, because only in this fashion does one’s own life continue beyond one’s death.

This is the burden that both Isaac and Cordelia bear. Isaac’s own willingness to be sacrificed is a frequent theme of midrash and commentary, from an interpolated dialogue with his half-brother Ishmael that fills in the backstory to the opening words of the akedah, “after these things” (Ishmael brags of how much blood he shed when he was circumcised as a teenager, and Isaac retorts that he will shed far more blood on Mount Moriah), to exhortations by Isaac to his father to bind him fast, so that any involuntary struggle on his part does not result in a less-than-perfect cut with the knife, invalidating the sacrifice.

And by the play’s end, Cordelia also shows her love to be absolute. That husband for whom she reserved half of her love, she leaves behind in France, returning armed to rescue her father from her cruel sisters. When they meet again, and Lear says he knows she does not love him, but that she has cause not to, she replies—in a line that can fail to make you weep only if you have no heart at all—“No cause, no cause.” And when their arms do not avail, and Lear and Cordelia are captured, Lear tells her not to despair, because now they truly have all that they need, which is each other. In describing their future life together in prison, he uses the language of human sacrifice:

 

KING LEAR

We two alone will sing like birds i’ the cage:

When thou dost ask me blessing, I’ll kneel down,

And ask of thee forgiveness: so we’ll live,

And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh

At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues

Talk of court news; and we’ll talk with them too,

Who loses and who wins; who’s in, who’s out;

And take upon’s the mystery of things,

As if we were God’s spies: and we’ll wear out,

In a wall’d prison, packs and sects of great ones,

That ebb and flow by the moon.

 

EDMUND

Take them away.

 

KING LEAR

Upon such sacrifices, my Cordelia,

The gods themselves throw incense.

 

Lear and Cordelia go together to their doom as Abraham and Isaac climbed up Mount Moriah side by side.

 

But only Cordelia dies. God’s angel stays Abraham’s hand at the final moment, while Edmund’s reprieve comes too late for Lear’s poor fool. Cordelia’s death came as a shock to Shakespeare’s first audiences. All the signs pointed to King Lear as a romance rather than a tragedy, situated somewhere between Cymbeline and The Winter’s Tale, a story of sundering and reconciliation, turning the father’s heart to the children and the children’s hearts to the father.

King Lear does contain something like that romance in the story of Gloucester and his sons Edgar and Edmund. There are biblical echoes here as well: Gloucester’s coming to sight through blindness and illegitimate Edmund’s trickery employed to win an inheritance over his brother darkly recall the aged Isaac’s deception by Jacob. Shakespeare gave us all the romance one might want in the good Edgar’s slow succoring of Gloucester away from self-destruction, even to a final reconciliation that kills the father with joy.

Audiences had every reason to expect to see that mood continue to the finale, with Lear restored to the throne with Cordelia by his side. In fact, that was, quite literally, the promised end. In Holinshed’s Chronicles, Shakespeare’s primary source for the story, Lear’s wicked daughters are vanquished by Cordelia, who restores her father to the throne and succeeds him as queen. Shakespeare’s other major source, a play from the 1590s called The True Chronicle History of King Leir—first published in 1605, just in time to inspire Shakespeare’s own effort—ended on a similarly happy note.

Most of Shakespeare’s plays are revisions of older works by other writers (the Gloucester-Edgar subplot came from Sidney’s Arcadia), but in this case he radically revised the ending, swerving suddenly from romance into the bleakest tragedy. Edgar’s triumph butting up so directly against Cordelia’s murder only sharpens the narrative cruelty of the latter. All our expectations, like those of the characters left alive onstage, are crushed. One feels that this isn’t how it’s supposed to end.

Why make this change? It is tempting to conclude that this is of a piece with God’s absence from Shakespeare’s story, that in a world ruled by the biblical God, the blessing of life does not, finally, require a commensurate sacrifice. In a deep sense, to accept the death of Cordelia is to accept an utterly bleak universe. Perhaps that is why the story was revised yet again. For more than a century and a half the English stage never saw Cordelia’s death, since Shakespeare’s play was performed only in the 1681 adaptation by Nahum Tate in which Cordelia lives and marries Edgar. If Cordelia is an Isaac figure, of course she must live and testify to the presence of God in the world.

 

But did Isaac live? If some biblical critics are correct, the akedah narrative as we find it may itself be decomposed into two strands, one for Elokim, who demanded the sacrifice of the firstborn male child as of the first fruits, and one for the God of the Tetragrammaton in the “J” strand, who sent the angel and substituted the ram. On this theory, something older, and darker, was revised out of our akedah story.

And though the biblical text as it has come down to us clearly states that Abraham’s hand was stayed in time, the question nagged at the ancient midrashists. Small gaps in the biblical narrative—why, for instance, doesn’t the text say that Isaac went down the mountain together with his father just as they had gone up together?—support a shocking counter-tradition: Isaac was indeed sacrificed. In his classic book The Last Trial, Shalom Spiegel explored these midrashim, in which Isaac spilled a quart of blood on the altar, was reduced to ashes, and spent three years in paradise before being restored to life on earth. 

Whatever theological significance one imputes to such stories, what they demonstrate first and foremost is a basic narrative dissatisfaction with the akedah. Expectations are raised by the terms of the test: Will Abraham truly grasp the nettle of his terrible position and sacrifice the life of the blessing itself to show his gratitude for that life and that blessing? His last-minute reprieve is a let-down. The story as we have it also poses a problem for anyone facing a situation of terrible, unavoidable sacrifice. As Jews have asked in terrible historical moments (the Crusades, the Holocaust), why is God demanding more of me than He demanded of Abraham? Where is my reprieve? The midrashic tradition of an Isaac who was not merely bound upon the altar but sacrificed responds to that gnawing demand for an ending that completes the awesome task and closes the terrible circle.

But set Shakespeare’s play beside the akedah, with its own history of changes and reverses, and the multiply revised revisions double back upon themselves. There is the potential for tragedy here, and there is the potential for romance here, but we cannot choose; no ending can satisfy. Why should that be?

I read these texts not only as a critic, but as a father. And as a father, I cannot help but be attuned to the central paradox of parenthood. Children are the way in which we continue in the world beyond our lives, and so we want them to carry us with them, as fully and completely as possible. But to continue in the world, they must differentiate themselves, must become less us and more them. And the less us they are, the more we feel a promise unfulfilled: We will not continue beyond our lives.

God’s first command to Abraham was lech lecha—take yourself out, exile yourself, differentiate yourself as radically as possible from the place and people that you came from. Then He promised him Isaac for continuity. This boy would be the fulfillment of the covenant, the means by which God’s name, and Abraham’s, would be known throughout the world. And His last command was to surrender all this, and give it back, with Isaac’s life.

Reading Cordelia as a revision of Isaac, the revision says: I must also go out; I must also differentiate myself. I cannot love you all, not even for the best of the kingdom, because the kingdom is worthless if I cannot inherit it, because there is no “I” to do so. And if I do not go out, there will be no “I,” for to love you all is as much as to die.

If Cordelia’s death is unbearable, it is because we want to believe in reconciliation on those terms. But if Isaac’s survival is also unsatisfying, perhaps it is because we cannot believe in reconciliation after his binding, not because he would not love his father after such an experience, but because the binding was itself a kind of death, a complete submission. Lear’s test, like Abraham’s, cannot be satisfied any other way but by total love, which, it turns out, is death.

And so we turn, and turn again, revise and revise again, finding no ending satisfying. Because the point is, we do not want to end.

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