I’m reading Patricia Churchland’s Braintrust, with much interest and profit.
There’s a great bit at the beginning of chapter 6, “Skills for a Social Life.”
The social world and its awesome complexity has long been the focus of performances – informally in improvised skits around the campfire, and more formally, in elaborate productions by professionals on massive stages. Among the cast of characters in a play, there is inevitably a wide variation in social intelligence, sometimes with a tragic end, as in King Lear. [p 118]
I love that, because it’s not always noticed enough that much of Lear’s problem is that he’s just stupid. He’s stupid in the way that people who have too much status and flattery can be – he’s socially stupid. It’s a special kind of Dunning-Kruger effect that belongs to the rich and/or powerful and/or high-status – their money or power or status deludes them into thinking they are clever and shrewd and wise, and they’re too stupid to realize it’s a delusion. Prince Charles is a classic case of this – he persists in thinking the world wants and needs his views on things, and that they’re good views, informed views, wise views, when if he had the sense of a gopher he would know they’re no such thing.
Poor Lear is thick as a plank. He says to his three daughters “I’m going to reward you according to how much you say you love me” and then he does just that – because he’s lived a whole lifetime without ever realizing that people can lie?
He lacks social intelligence, to put it mildly. Cordelia and Kent make a doomed last-minute effort to teach it to him, but since he lacks it, he sees this as a reason to banish them. Dunning-Kruger, you see.
It’s not really a tragic flaw in the usual sense – it’s not impressive or awe-inspiring, it’s just pathetic and laughable. It’s clever of Shakespeare to be able to make the results tragic all the same…and yet one of the great, blood-chilling things about the play is the way the pathetic laughable aspect is always right there, in your face. Lear is an ancient spoiled baby, like Mr Woodhouse, yet the tragedy is still tragic.