Alexander Thom

Photograph of Alexander Thom

Shakespeare Institute
Doctoral researcher

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PhD titleKing Lear, sovereign power, and political selfhood
Supervisor: Dr Erin Sullivan
PhD Shakespeare Studies


King Lear is premised on a split in the office of sovereignty: between the name of ‘king’ and the duties, potencies, and properties of that office. This disconnection, through the political and ethical crises that subsequently emerge from it, dramatises the conceptual faultlines that run through office, duty, and identity. Drawing on and responding to the philosophy of Giorgio Agamben, this thesis contends that King Lear is preoccupied by the fraught intersections between selfhood and politics. Kingship itself was doctrinally articulated as an office that mystically subordinates, and even obliterates, the selfhood of its holder. Finding himself beyond this supremely alienating sovereign office, Lear’s subsequent tribulations can therefore be read as a drama of self-recovery and, in that sense, as a philosophical drama in its truest sense. Alongside Lear’s personal trajectory, this thesis examines the play’s wider depiction of political selfhoods — the legitimate and illegitimate, the citizen and the outlaw, daughters and wives, masculinity and femininity — and contends that these frameworks for understanding self and other can be seen to constrain, and occasionally foreclose, more ethically responsible selfhoods. Lear earns the audience’s forgiveness partly by articulating a philosophical vision for a better life, one which transcends such political roles; and the play’s tragic climax generates much of its force by then terminating that possibility.