Dunbar, Edward St. Aubyn’s novelistic adaptation of King Lear, re-presents the role of metaphor in Lear’s madness as an experience of disorientation. Abused by his two older daughters, Dunbar finds visual and conceptual distinctions dissolving into ubiquitous similarity. This essay takes St. Aubyn’s visual metaphor for metaphor itself as an incitement to view the role of this figure as an agential force upon the linguistic topography and structure of the tragedy. The breakdown of Lear’s world, I argue, begins with the love test as a staged metaphor that seeks, unsuccessfully, to associate land with his definition of love. Thereafter, metaphor operates with an element of agency and dramatic irony: Lear’s comparison of unfaithful daughters to sexually monstrous women, and his self-parody, are metaphors whose resonances transcend his epistemology and intent. While traditional semiotics do not account for language’s agency, I offer a reading which extends Alfred Gell’s theory of art as index to texts as a model for this agency. Via Gell, I explore the process whereby Shakespeare’s language unshackles itself from semantic meanings in moments of sonic repetition and, concomitant with this freedom, creates new associations between concepts within Lear’s language and across the action of the play.
Many thanks go to Stephen Greenblatt for reading and responding to multiple versions of this piece as it evolved. I also owe a large debt of gratitude to Marjorie Garber for her feedback on the semiotic and theoretical interests of the work, and to John Kerrigan for a stimulating discussion on dramatic irony which helped me to develop my argument, and for his unflagging support as usual.
No potential conflict of interest was reported by the author.