In his last exchange with Cordelia, a failing and ecstatic Lear promises that they together will “take upon ’s the mystery of things / As if we were God’s spies” (5.3.16 – 17). Take upon us: what are the implications of this language? Why not invite Cordelia (in the formulations Shakespeare uses elsewhere) to “see,” “discover,” “know,” or “pluck out” mystery? The mystery of things seems here to beckon God’s spies not toward acts of apprehension but rather toward an act of assumption. This essay seeks to make sense of Shakespeare’s language of assumption by looking to a cluster of terms that do important work in King Lear: “take on,” “take up,” “bear,” “bear with.” These terms are all complexly associated, in late medieval and early modern discourses, with the incarnation of Christ, and with the ritual taking of Christ’s body in the Eucharist. And they are all associated with narrative representations of the assumption of Mary, in which the son she has borne and taken into herself now takes her up and bears her to heaven. How, in King Lear, do these narratives and practices of assumption inform tragic action? How does the language of assumption enable this play’s peculiar, participatory grammar of suffering? In attending to these questions, the article sets Shakespeare’s play against the backdrop of ritual practice across the divide of the English Reformation, reflecting on how early modern cultural change matters to this tragic play’s own ritual and cultural work.
Research Article|January 01 2019