The EU Egg

When King Lear sits and talks to his Fool it is clear that the king, who has divided his kingdom, is the one who is truly a fool. Despite all warnings to the contrary, King Lear decides to divide his kingdom up, and give away his responsibilities. Although Lear banishes those who advise against his decisions, the Fool is able to speak truthfully to him through skits and riddles.

Fool: Give me an egg, nuncle, and I’ll give thee two crowns.
Lear: What crowns shall they be?
Fool: Why – after I have cut the egg i’ the middle and eat up the meat – the two crown of the egg.”

The Fool draws a parallel between the egg and the kingdom (the crown represents the kingdom) that King Lear has cut into pieces. As with an egg, the fracturing of a kingdom is irreparable. The halves of the shell can be called “two crowns” but they are worthless. The yellow treasure inside the egg has had to be consumed or cast away to achieve these crowns. The egg only had value, and the potential to be productive, when it was whole. In the same way, Lear’s kingdom and kingship is lost and worthless. It is not long after it has been split up that Lear’s former kingdom is riven by civil conflict and foreign invasion. In the run up to the EU referendum, King Lear’s egg has been on my mind. While many elements of this complex discussion cannot be compared with King Lear, I am quite certain we would indeed be fools to break from the EU. As part of the EU we are part of a productive and valuable community, marketplace, and support system. Why break this up for an idea of national independence that would be as illusory and empty as the two crowns of an egg? To throw away our close ties with Europe at this tumultuous time, so that we could claim a British sovereignty, independent of Europe, seems as vain and foolish as King Lear’s arrogant disregard for his advisors and for common sense at the opening of the play.

Being given an empty crown doesn’t work out well for anyone in King Lear. At the start of the play Goneril and Regan appear to be on the same team. Let’s call it Team Survival. They confide in one another, and their worst crime seems to be pragmatically flattering a tyrannical father, who has “ever but slenderly known himself”. Can we blame them for wanting to avoid Cordelia’s fate? The pair also appear quite rational when we first meet them. They discuss the trouble they can see on the horizon and how they will deal with it. Goneril comments, “You see how full of changes his age is. The observation we have made of it hath not been little. He always lov'd our sister most, and with what poor judgment he hath now cast her off appears too grossly.” They can see that Lear was unwise to cast off both Cordelia and Kent, and that things are going to get worse. In Act 1 Scene 1 the sisters do not appear to be terribly nice women, but they are eminently sensible ones. When they are both given the crown to their portion of the kingdom, however, they go quite bonkers. As soon as they have power, they guard it closely. Lear’s retinue of knights (symbolic of power, but also with the physical potential of taking power) become the site of conflict. Both Goneril and Regan decide that the knights have to go. Together they haggle Lear down from one hundred to one, and as they strip him of this retinue they strip him of his dignity. Once the common enemy (the spectre of Lear’s power) is out of the way, the two rulers begin quarrelling between themselves and competing for limited resources. The limited resource in this case is Edmund. These formerly pragmatic and sensible women transform into a pair of desperate harpies, ultimately murdering one another. Meanwhile, with no clear unity in the kingdom, a French invasion force has landed at Dover. French invasion force aside (and let’s just draw a veil over all of Shakespeare’s depictions of the French), we, with our EU egg in hand, have a lot to learn from Shakespeare’s vision of both a disordered nation and a disordered family. Imagine Europe as one kingdom or one family; working together we can face threats and crises. There may be members of the family that aren’t particularly nice all the time (there always are), but pragmatism tells us, it’s in our interests to get along. What happens then, when this kingdom is split into autonomous regions, each with competing interests? I’m afraid these interests will be pursued without an eye on the bigger picture or a long term plan. The decline of Shakespeare’s Goneril and Regan unfortunately reflects that bit of human nature that will pursue selfish interests, blinkered to the bigger picture. Without the shared interests and regulations of the EU, the “free market” will take on a nightmare quality, like Goneril and Regan lusting after Edmund. Not only do we risk losing our close ties to the rest of Europe, we also risk losing sight of not only our own interests, but our humanity, in a rush to charge that extra pound here, and spend a pound less there on someone’s wages. As Gordon Brown puts it, we’re not just a market, we’re a community. There are also security implications to breaking the EU egg. Rejecting the rest of our European family, like the proud, mad Lear, heading off into the cruel storm, we will become vulnerable. It’s not scare-mongering, but common sense, to point out that now is not a good time to go wandering naked on the heath (metaphorically speaking).Now is the time, to band together, pool resources, and think big.

Metaphor often points out difference as much as similarity. The image of the egg as crown brings two things together from wildly different realms. The egg is found in the kitchen, the garden, or the farm yard, and its smooth ovoid is a familiar feeling to many a hand. The crown, on the other hand, immeasurable in value, is sought after by an elite few, but touched by fewer still. An egg can feed you, a crown cannot. When the Fool explains Lear’s mistake with the image of the homely and humble egg, I think he is also calling on common sense; the sort of common sense that anyone who knows how to hold an egg without breaking it can claim. Common sense tells us that we’re better together. Team work gets things done. Splitting up is never a good plan in horror movies or in politics. Don’t break the EU egg. Vote Remain. 

Image by Lokilech - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,


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