“There is a cliff, whose high and bending headLooks fearfull in the confin’d deep.Bring me but to the very brim of it…… From that place I shall no leading need.”(IV.i.73)It is often difficult to gain entry into a work of such complete and dazzling genius as King Lear–reading Shakespeare can sometimes feel like trying to get a good long look at the sun on a cloudless day. And yet there are moments when one comes across passages that, by the sheer force of their lyrical, poetic beauty, leap off the page and resonate so strongly within one’s mind that they become a kind of distillation of the entire play. One can read this play again and again, and still be struck anew by Shakespeare’s utter mastery over language; surely there is no other writer who had so full a sense of, and who used to such merciless ends, the power of words. In a genre that denies the novelist’s luxury of narrative explication, language in its barest, purest form, becomes Shakespeare’s precision instrument, and he wields it with a perpetually astonishing combination of force, subtlety and exactitude.The introductory quoted lines, when brought out of their immediate textual surroundings, form for this reader the kind of distilled illumination suggested in the preceding paragraph. These are the words of the sightless and stumbling Gloucester, as he begs a passing stranger, (who, unbeknownst to him is the son he so belatedly recognizes as faithful), to help him to his own death; by the end of the play, this passage becomes a central paradigm. Despite the afore-mentioned obstacle (an obstacle the surmounting of which yields so much pleasure and insight) to readerly intercourse with Shakespeare, one can often recognize and trace logical devices he employed in order the more effectively and precisely to communicate his message. The parallel plot of Gloucester and his two sons is one such device. It is a simplified, politicized, but explicitly correspondent rendition of Lear’s more spiritually basic story; by placing the two story lines, Gloucester’s and Lear’s, in such close juxtaposition, Shakespeare sets the reader up for a more immediate and complete understanding of the latter, while also lending any moral to be gleaned from the play the non-specificity necessary to the universal human relevance of truly great works of literature. Having recognized this, the reader is free to enter into the heart of this transcendent tragedy.We are introduced to Gloucester and his parallel plot line before we are introduced to Lear. In Act One, Scene One, we find Gloucester professing the equal love he bears his two sons, the one legitimate, the other “got tween unlawful sheets”. The moral code that informs King Lear dictates that illegitimacy, the natural’ son who is anything but, bodes nothing but detriment to the harmony of intrinsic order; within the terms of the play, Gloucester’s equal love’ is a fatal flaw of judgment. The reader, paying close attention to language, is able to perceive Gloucester’s unwitting mistake from Edmund’s very first appearance; in a world where the individual vocabulary of each character is a loaded expression of their position on the axis of good and evil, the reader cannot help but notice that Edmunds’s “… I shall study deserving…”(I.i.30) is a foreboding of the duplicity and greed that will stain him throughout the play.Lear’s introduction into the play is similar to Gloucester’s in that, through close analysis of the dialogue between the King and his daughters, the reader gains awful knowledge of the unintentional arrogance and benign ignorance that will soon become his downfall, (and ultimately his perversely bittersweet salvation). From his very first words, Lear is established in all his fateful childish pomposity. The drama of his first speech is at all points excessive–here, the reader discerns, is a man long accustomed to being listened to and indulged in every way. In a moral system transcribed from that of the ancients, this self-importance is Lear’s godless hubris, his pride before the fall. (The reader would like to modify this pride’ though; Lear’s pride seems strangely not to originate within himself, rather it seems forced upon him by the behavior of those around him; he is in a sense the casualty of years of blind and empty worship). As first Goneril and then Regan make their declarations of love, the reader cringes at Lear’s oblivion to their screaming falsity. At Goneril’s “Sir, I love you more than word can wield the matter…”(I.i.55), the reader wishes she were able to point out to Lear that if even this, her very first piece of dialogue, were true, then there could not follow six lines of the hollowest flattery; and there is an eerie chill in Regan’s “… In my true heart I find she names my very deed of love; only she comes too short…”(I.i.70), when the reader glimpses that the depth of these sisters’ evil is such that they will even turn on and try to out do each other in the effort to achieve their sordid ends. Cordelia’s textual introduction, especially in light of her older sisters’, is just as portentous to the reader. To us, her comparative reticence signifies the purity and honesty she embodies; that Lear reads her humble replies as stubborn pride is his greatest transgression against truth, and by association, nature. This moment is the first and foremost tragedy of the play– the reader realizes that the King is so conditioned by years of clattering sycophancy that he is utterly immune to the quieter, truer tones of honest filial love. His very identity is completely bound up in “… all the large effects that troop with majesty…”(I.i.131); part of the cutting irony of the title of this play derives from the fact that Lear’s fatal error is identifying himself as much by King’ as by Lear’. When he is stripped suddenly of the outward manifestations of his sovereignty by his monstrous daughters, the floor falls out from under him; bereft of any sense of himself, he descends into the madness’ that will ultimately be his redemption.”… O fool, I shall go mad!”(II.iv.281)In analyzing Lear’s madness, it is again useful to look to Gloucester for a more rational and complete understanding of its function in the play. Whereas Lear is dispossessed of everything that has come to signify his self-worth and identity, Gloucester is robbed of his sight. Having realized his grievous misjudgment of his two sons, he wanders sightless, crippled by miserable guilt and regret for his faithful son, hoping only for death. Unwittingly he encounters Edgar who, (like Cordelia, his counterpart in the main plot), remains unswerving in his adherence to filial love and duty, despite his wrongful and violent disavowal. In an act that resonates to the very core of the play, Edgar fools his father into thinking he has been brought to the edge of the “… cliff, whose high and bending head looks fearfull in the confinìd deep…”(IV.i.72)– youth misleads old age in order to truly lead, away from self-murder and the confinìd deep’ of suffering and despair. Gloucester’s stumbling passage across the heath is literal– Lear’s is figurative. Naked of the attributes of his majesty, he is left with the vacuum of his humanity and the resulting dirth of resources upon which to fall back in this time of extreme bewilderment; it is the reader’s suggestive elaboration that although he mentions death in his opening speech (“… while we unburdened crawl towards death…” (I.i.40)), this time on the heath is the first occasion for Lear to look fearful in the confinìd deep’ of his own mortality. He is as the newborn child, wawling and crying'(IV.vi.177) with boundless, aimless sorrow at a world whose pure and unchecked evil has struck him dumb. And as Gloucester is led to some biding’ (IV.vi.220) by his incorrigibly faithful son, so Lear is led to the comfort of his daughter’s genuine love by the forces of good that surround him, those angels of persevering and ingenuous love, Kent and the Fool. Gloucester: O, let me kiss that hand.Lear: Let me wipe it first; it smells of mortality.Lear’s return to his castle marks the end of his wrestle with the heretofore opposing forces of nature; tragically late, he has discovered his own humanity. Lear “has learned a new language” , and it is through this so evident vocal transformation that the reader detects the other, wholly internal one. The man who could not distinguish honesty from deception now knows that “… a man may see how this world goes with no eyes…”, and should “… look with [his] ears…”(IV.vi.147). The reader does not quite know how to feel about this change; just as Lear dies between the joy of believing Cordelia still alive and the wretched sorrow of knowing her to be dead, the reader’s emotions are flung between happiness at Lear’s enlightenment and a kind of mortification at its tragic belatedness. It is a defining weirdness of King Lear that it is set in a Pagan world and therefore seems to have no established moral code; in the absence of any kind of Christian reference, the reader must work harder to discern and decipher this code from the narrative. But herein lies one of the brilliances of the play–in obscuring morality within the narrative confines of a God-less universe, Shakespeare frees himself to address this morality with more honesty and ultimately present it as all the more powerful in its non-denomination. The reader cannot deny the presence throughout the play of an over-arching force of benevolence, primarily manifested in the determined and completely genuine goodness of a small core of characters. (If this goodness was not so quietly forceful one would be tempted to label it martyr-like.) By the end of the play, all the attempted evil has been thwarted as we see that Regan and Goneril’s cruel treatment of their father has indirectly led to his final stage of realization; the survival of Kent and Edgar, (who, in a figurative sense, are now left to re-populate the devastated world), indicates the ultimate prevalence of the forces of good. It is at no small cost, but a new peace has been achieved.Thus the reader feels that the scope of the play’s spirituality is vast enough that the forces that have wreaked such destruction extend beyond the earthly lives of its victims; consequently, Lear’s enlightenment serves a higher purpose–it seems, in fact, to right the universe.
King Lear, as both head of state and paterfamilias, has multiple claims to power, and to obedience. His spectacle of dividing the kingdom between his daughters confuses their obligations to him as subjects with their filial obligations, duties which are not necessarily equivalent. Cordelia cannot play both roles at once; she favors her role as daughter over her duty to her father as a subject in his kingdom. The duty that Lear expects can only be acquitted by speaking. Cordelia damns herself by being unable to speak what is expected. Kent, an alternate model of loyalty in the play, incurs Lear’s wrath by speaking too plainly. Kent’s loyalty – which distinguishes itself from obedience – demonstrates the suspicious attitude the play has of speech. He departs from the forms of affection that attempt to measure loyalty in terms of simple, spoken complaisance. A corollary of Kent’s distrust of rhetoric seems to be his attention to physical presence, his dependence on optical proof. This model of knowledge allows Kent to seem nearly prescient in recognizing the deception of Lear’s elder daughters. It also contributes to an important part of his service to the King; looking past the words, spoken in madness, by Lear, he can tend to his Lear’s body, like a doctor. Kent subjection is dramatized, he “did [Lear] service/ Improper for a slave” (5.3.219-20), but this service is not servility. Kent’s loyalty to Lear is not founded on the hierarchical implications of the feudal state, but rather persists because Kent measures an equivalence between his body and his King’s.Kent’s model of loyalty is a foil to Cordelia’s; similar in kind, but more difficult to explain because it is not blood-based. Kent’s manner of sustaining his allegiance to the King is a neat paradox. It is enacted as a pantomime – a subversive act of disobedience. Only by giving up his name and identity, thus any pre-existing expectations or debts, can he fulfill his duty to Lear. Thus, when Kent, in disguise as Caius, he must “raze” his identity. Kent takes special care to modify his language: “If but as well I other accents borrow,/ That can my speech defuse, my good intent/ May carry” (1.4.1-3). One of the attributes he assigns himself is that he can “deliver a plain message bluntly” (1.4.30). This care to modify language is intimated in Edgar’s relation to his father, which parallels Kent’s pantomime to Lear: as Tom O’Bedlam, he can offer solace, but he must take care to cut his language from coarser cloth. The location of truth in rough language reflects the puzzle of the sense found in Lear’s rants – “O, matter and impertinency mixed!/ Reason in madness!” Edgar exclaims, hearing the former king speak (4.6.168-9). In giving up his claims to nobility, however, Kent emphasizes his masculinity. Femininity, throughout King Lear, is linked to treason, madness, and inconstancy. Cordelia is the exception that proves the rule: hearing of her father’s condition, she is moved, but “not to a rage”(4.3.15). She is primarily reasonable. Kent’s insistence on his manhood, over any refinement, is a benchmark of his steadiness. When Lear asks him to identify himself, he is simply, “A man, sir” (1.4.10) and “That which/ Ordinary men are fit for, I am qualified in” (1.4.30-1). The values that he attributes to himself are the stoic opposite of the effusive, effeminate language and action of the courtiers. He is an aggressive, soldierly fellow. He, thus, cannot help but assault the foppish Oswald: “Having more man than wit about me, [I] drew [my sword]” (2.4.41). “Wit”, mental lability, would permit him to countenance insubordination, under the guise of diplomacy. It is important to note that Kent is not naturally impetuous, like Hotspur, but can also assume the courtier’s role, different modes of address. His allegiance is not to courtly forms, however, but to the overall good of the state, that is, the King. In the first scene of the drama – Kent addresses the king, “Good my liege -” (1.1.120) but before he can begin, is interrupted by Lear’s rash oath of resolution to reward the kingship to Albany and Cornwall. Kent, resuming his address to the king, speaks in the same sort of language that Lear seems to want, the language of obligation and deference: “Royal Lear,/ Whom I have ever honored as my king,/ Loved as my father, as my master followed,/ As my great patron thought on in my prayers -” (1.1.139-142). King, father, master, patron – note that each title contains its own independent set of demands and obligations.At this point Lear interrupts him: “The bow is bent and drawn, make from the shaft” (1.1.143). Lear urges Kent to get to the point; he expresses impatience with the same language, the same deferential mode of address he demanded from his daughters. This dismissive gesture is worth noting – it proves that Lear is not merely a fool for pretty language, but relishes the power he has to demand it. Kent’s words also prefigure his later address to Cornwall, which is a parody of courtier’s language (2.2.97-99). Kent is Lear’s subject – a position that we will learn to regard with suspicion throughout the play, where being a servant, being in agreement, is treacherous. It is a nice paradox – when obeisance seems most complete, it is most unlikely. It is almost as though the severance of political allegiance – as with the severance of Cordelia’s filial obligations – is necessary to elicit a demonstration of true loyalty. Thus even Kent’s honorific figures of address, however earnest, will do nothing to mediate the content of the message, and thus are extraneous. Kent notices this, and he seizes upon the language of the arrow and target that Lear introduces. “Let it [the arrowhead] fall, though the fork invade/ The region of my heart” (1.1.144-5), he implores, and later, “Let me still remain/ The true blank of thine eye” (1.1.158-9). This language is apposite. Kent, whose life is staked on the king, finds this martial metaphor suitable to the sacrifice to truth and for Lear that he must undergo. It is almost as if, certain that he cannot assuage Lear’s wrath, he must deflect it. Lear’s utterance in (1.1.143) could also reflect that, just as an arrow, about to be fired, will inevitably be unleashed upon its course with “hideous rashness” (1.1.151), so he cannot reverse the judgement on Cordelia he has already given. Kent picks up this sense – thus his entreaties, which he must suspect shall be bootless. In his attempted deflection, his attempt at reversal, he dramatizes the “untender” fault of Cordelia: “Be Kent unmannerly,/ When Lear is mad” (1.1.146). Kent means that Lear’s foolish actions demand a rude chastisement, uncloaked by courtly circumlocutions. But in the parallel that Kent draws between his stance and Lear’s behavior, Kent presages what will be a clear result: Lear’s madness. This madness, which has something hysterical, unmanly about it, demands the “unmannerliness” – which in its aural similarity to “unmanliness” clearly references emasculation – of Kent to counter its effects. In the close relation between manner and manhood, Kent must take the strictest measures in his treatment of Lear. Lear’s “madness” shall eventually render him powerless; his rashness is the motive of his elder daughters for seizure of the state. Consequently, as Lear is the source of their authority, his dethroning strips his retainers of their proprietary power. Thus, Kent addresses Lear according to his new state, according to how his unfaithful daughters and sons will see him, “What wilt thou do, old man?” (1.1.146). He is an equal, a mortal, but in this admission, there is the possibility of tenderness. Perhaps the most apposite description Kent’s bond with Lear is the one that springs from this new equivalence of state: the relationship between physician and patient. This is a complicated relationship. Though the physician is in the employ of the patient, the patient must obey the physician. “Kill thy physician, and the fee bestow/ Upon thy foul disease” (1.1.164-5). But there is more to this metaphor than the shifting base of power it implies. Kent also seems to acquire many of the methods and attributes of a physician in his treatment of Lear. Kent emphasizes physical fact as the root of truth, in much the same way that a doctor relies on empirical data to draw diagnoses. “I do profess to be no less than I seem” (1.4.12). Likewise, the reason he gives for wanting to join Lear’s retinue is visual: “You have that in your countenance which I/ would fain call masterAuthority” (1.4.24-5, 27). Authority, then, is something intrinsic, something that cannot be obliterated by removal of title. Following this principle, Oswald’s offense can be described: “His countenance likes me not” (2.2.82). There is something intrinsic to Oswald’s aspect that is disagreeable to Kent. It is in the mutability of it, (2.2.64-77), that its ability change, “with every gale and vary of their masters,/ Knowing nought, like dogs, but following” (2.2.71-71). His “blind” obedience has no stable ground, no determinable characteristics. Remember also that Kent becomes a member of Lear’s retinue. Lear’s men are an extension of himself, as they are the only remnant of his authority that he has retained. However, as such, they are purely vestigial, and become a source of weakness, in the possibility of their removal. When Goneril and Regan start curtailing his retinue – they are not only doing away with a creature comfort but also, in a truly malicious sense, chopping at his own body. It is a physical trespass to curtail his retinue – and limiting it thrusts him literally into the cold. Kent identifies himself with this bodily extension of the King. When he comes to Lear in disguise, he claims he is “as poor as the king” (1.4.17). His state is directly dependent upon that of the king, his authority derives directly from it. So, any act taken against Kent becomes one against Lear. In protesting being put in stocks by Cornwall, “I serve the king;You shallshow too bold malice/ Against the grace and person of my master,/ Stocking his messenger” (2.2.120-4). This is a clear violation – to Lear it is almost beyond belief (2.4.14-21). But it is the confirmation of Regan, as well as Goneril’s betrayal. He has almost succeeded in convincing himself that Regan and Cornwall are indeed indisposed, when he lays his eyes on Kent in the stocks. “This act persuades me/ That this remonition of the duke and her/ Is practice only” (2.4.107-9). Kent, exquisitely aware of the continuity of his self with the king’s, pays an exceptional amount of care to Lear’s bodily comforts. When Kent initially identified himself as a physician, he meant, metaphorically, a physician to the health of the state. However, Lear’s body is coterminal with the state, in the sense that the King is the embodiment of the state. Kent’s solicitousness for the King’s body is also a representation and literalization of the oath he has made – to give his life for the king. Like Cordelia, Kent constitutes his obligation to Lear as fundamental to his being, inseparable from his life.Kent, unable to address the injustice done to the King’s unsettled mind, tends to its outward correspondence, the king’s health. Kent, wise to rhetoric, can see through the deception behind Lear’s office: “They told me I was everything. ‘Tis a lie, I am not/ Ague-proof” (4.6.102-3). Flattery, the prize of power, cannot shield the body from mortal facts. Throughout 3.4 he directs Lear to shelter, to warmth, tries to create comfort for him in exile. Lear makes a speech directed towards the “great gods”, as though any imprecation to them can stop the rain from falling (3.2.47-58). Kent’s response? “Alack, bare-headed?” (3.2.58) and tries to shield him from the storm. “Will you lie down and rest upon the cushions?” (3.6.30). He is tender. His care is directed towards the age of the body of the king; his attention is nearly parental towards the “child-changed king.” This tenderness is perhaps influenced by his recognition that: “Nothing almost sees miracles/ But misery” (2.2.157-8). Otherwise, there would be the threat of falling into the same sort of despair as Lear. In the same way that Kent puts his body at the king’s disposal, so he puts his heart. “Wil’t break my heart?” the king says, almost apropos of nothing, entering shelter. “I had rather break mine own” (3.4.5-6), Kent responds. The cruel limitation here is, of course, that Kent cannot transfer his body, or his relative youth, to the king. The king’s fear of death, his resistance to mortality, cannot be assuaged by others putting their bodies at his disposal. He is physically affected by Lear’s tragedy: “his grief grew puissant, and the strings of life/ Began to crack” (5.3.215-6) as he retells, and relives, the story. Later, at Lear’s death, “break, heart; I prithee, break!” (5.3.311) he cries to himself, but death is not responsive to human fiats. Finally, the only avenue left to Kent is to guard Lear’s passing ghost, an insubstantial role: “Vex not his ghost. O, let him pass! He hates him much/ that would upon the rack of this tough world/ stretch him longer.” (5.3.312-4). Lear’s madness repeats the effects of its cause – it prevents him from discriminating between friend and foe. Lear’s acknowlegement of Kent at the end is one in madness. “[Lear] knows not what he says” (5.3.293) and cannot give thanks, or express gratitude. That would be unnecessary, though. Duty is precisely the thing that cannot be conveyed in terms of reciprocal value. It is non-fungible. To try to transfer it to other terms transforms it into something different – a mere exchange, economic. Thus, when Cordelia thanks Kent for his service to her father, he assures her that he shall be given exactly the amount of thanks that he needs – that the deed itself fulfills its own cost. “To be acknowledged, madam, is o’erpaid./ All my reports go with the modest truth;/ No more clipped, but so.” (4.7.4-6). Acknowledgement would create a debt, and that image of perpetual repayment, of perpetually being in debt, is contrary to both filial duty, and to the duty in humanity that Kent exercises towards Lear. Perhaps this is an explanation for Kent’s enigmatic refusal of the throne at the end. His parting words speak of obedience: “I have a journey, sir, shortly to go;/ My master calls me, I must not say no” (5.3.320-1). Who his master is here is unclear. Most likely, Kent means that he shall even follow Lear into death, that his journey is to the next life. However, the double negative, “I must not say no,” reflects the manner of his compliance throughout the play – it is not a mere assent, but allows for modification. Thus it could mean a less morbid continuation of service, a tending to the exigencies of mortal life, a way of life not available to those in the position of ultimate power.
‘All’s Cheerless, Dark and Deadly’ Are Kent’s Words a Fair Summary of The Tragedy of King Lear? Samuel Johnson asserted that the blinding of Gloucester was an ‘act too horrid to be endured in a dramatic exhibition’, and that he was ‘too shocked’ by the death of Cordelia to read the play again until he was given the task of editing it.1 Nor was Dr Johnson alone in finding himself unable to stomach the violence and apparent injustices that unfold in King Lear. The 18th century certainly found the play ‘all cheerless’ and preferred Nahum Tate’s 1681 watered-down History Shakespeare’s original, a tragedy simply too tragic, condemned to be unperformed for almost 150 years. King Lear is a dark play, with the near triumph of the malcontent Edmund, the intense sufferings of Lear and Gloucester, and the seeming lack of justice at the piece’s conclusion. Shakespeare locates his tragedy in an extreme and entropic universe that makes his audience uncomfortable, and indeed is supposed to. On its own, the sheer violence of Act III.7 bears witness to Kent’s nihilistic utterance at the plays close. However, Lear’s universe, as I have just stated, is one of extremes, and not merely negative ones. As A.C. Bradley notes: There is in the world of King Lear the same abundance of extreme good as of extreme evil. It generates in profusion self-less devotion and unconquerable love.2 The play contains a cluster of characters that are unequivocally good. Kent, for instance, is a paradigm of devotion. In Act I.I he is publicly insulted and humiliated. In spite of Lear’s threats, Kent remains determined to serve his master, even braving the storm to be near him. Cordelia too, is traduced and punished by Lear, and yet she is the model of magnanimity and familial love. Even the Fool hides an affectionate character behind his sardonic gibes. In Act I.4 the audience learn that he has ‘pined’ for Cordelia, while his last line in the play, ‘Now, good my lord, lie here and rest awhile’, addressed to Lear, is one of true care and concern. On the one hand we have the sickening reaction of Regan to the torment of her host, Gloucester: Go thrust him out at gates, and let him smellHis way to Dover. [III.7.94-95]And on the other, the gentle, unthinking loyalty of the Old Man who leads his blind master in the scene that follows: O, my good lord,I have been your tenant, and your father’s tenantThese fourscore years. [IV.1.12-14]These two contraries inhabit the very same world and must necessarily do so in order for the play to be tragic. The relentless devotion of Kent augments the cruelty of Goneril and Regan, and the despair of Act V can only be reached from the catharsis and hope of the reunion between father and daughter in Act IV. The first both defines and heightens the second, its opposite. Tragedy involves the characters and spectators oscillating between these two extremes. A play that is truly ‘all cheerless’ would simply overload the audience with one emotion, in the long run immunising them against it. ‘Without contraries [there] is no progression’ as Blake neatly put it. Shakespeare creates an antithesis within the play, one which Lear himself embodies. At moments, his language is the most verbally aggressive of the whole piece: Into her womb convey sterility!Dry up the organs of increase,And from her derogate body never springA babe to honour her! [I.4. 290-293] This string of violently misogynistic maledictions, directed towards his own daughter Goneril, is the cruellest and most horrifying outburst of the play. Nothing that Cornwall, Regan or Edmund say comes close to it. And yet, the very same figure is capable of some of the most tender and lyrical lines ever written, such as the famous ‘birds i’ the cage’ speech of Act V.3. Lear’s language encapsulates the dichotomy of the tragedy. Love and loyalty are just as much a part of the nucleus of King Lear as egocentricity, lust, malice and deception. Nevertheless, the balance must be tipped in favour of the latter for the drama to reach the level of tragedy. Ultimately, the glimmer of hope, the promise of redemption in King Lear is vanquished. My own interpretation is that the second half of the play is a Shakespearian twist on The Passion. Cordelia’s return is met with a sudden increase in imagery from a distinctly Christian, rather than pagan, idiom: There she shookThe holy water from her heavenly eyesAnd clamour moistened. [IV.3. 30-32] Cordelia, if the Gentleman is to be believed, is weeping not tears, but holy water. Even as hyperbole, the playwright is striking a parallel to Christ that is hard to ignore and pervasive in two scenes in particular. In Act IV.3, Cordelia is described to the spectator using a Christian lexicon: ‘passion’, ‘patience’, ‘goodliest’, ‘Faith’ and ‘benediction’. And again, in the following scene, when Cordelia speaks, her language continues this pattern, with words such as: ‘blest’, ‘virtues’, ‘aident’ and ‘remediate’. Here is a figure that has been ostracised precisely because she stood up for truth when those around her valued hypocrisy. Cordelia’s return is one of great promise. She embodies the hopes of both characters such as Kent, and of the audience, for salvation, domestically and politically. She is the ‘Sunshine’ [IV.3.19] the light that shines in the darkness and the ‘medicine’ of ‘Restoration’ hangs on her lips [IV.7.26-27]. Into Act V the parallels between Christ and Cordelia continue. She is condemned to death, though innocent, and is indeed hanged. Having borne his daughter’s corpse on stage, Lear dies in the belief that Cordelia still lives, uttering the words: ‘Look on her, her lips, / Look there, look there!’ [V.3.311-312]. But this is a false-resurrection and Cordelia a false-Messiah. Her execution is not followed by a rebirth. Kent is once again the mouthpiece for the audience, and his question, ‘Is this the promised end?’ [V.3.264], speaks volumes. The answer, of course, lies limp on the stage.Yet, Cordelia’s path in the play is echoed by Edgar, in much the same manner that Gloucester’s plight is comparable to that of Lear. Edgar too is virtuous, but nonetheless suffers and dies not physically, but spiritually when he exclaims: ‘Edgar I nothing am!’ [II.3.21]. And unlike Cordelia, his resurrection is real, when in Act V he reclaims his identity as the son of Gloucester. However, his rebirth does not bring with it healing and salvation – quite the contrary. The revelation of his existence occurs twice, once off stage and once on it, and on both occasions it is met with death: first that of his father and then that of his bastard brother Edmund. So then, if Cordelia is the false-Messiah in King Lear, Edgar is the anti-Messiah. And the message he brings with him is certainly not the ‘promised end’: The oldest hath borne most; we that are youngShall never see so much, nor live so long. [V.III. 327-328] Here, the pun on ‘borne’ suggests new life for the ‘oldest’, while the ‘young’, usually a beacon of hope and fertility, are condemned to short lives – ‘nor live so long’. Edgar’s closing words are disturbingly equivocal. They allude to the antithesis constantly at work in the play a mixture of hope and despair. Perhaps the couplet is ultimately nihilistic, and the play as a whole equally so. Redemption remains unattained. However, while I would agree that Kent’s words that ‘All’s cheerless, dark and deadly’ may be the overriding message of the tragedy, I do not believe that King Lear can be simply summed up in such a comment. To do such a thing would be to see the drama two-dimensionally to ignore the world of polarities, of good as well as evil, which Shakespeare creates in which to hold his play. 1 Johnson as Critic, ed. John Wain, Routledge & Kegan Paul 1973, pp. 216-2172 A. C. Bradley, Shakespearian Tragedy, Macmillan 1908, pp. 304 -305
Auden once asserted that Shakespearean tragedy is necessarily parabolic, pertaining to the only myth that Christianity possesses: that of the ‘unrepentant thief’. We as the spectators are thus implicated in the action since each of us ‘is in danger of re-enacting [this story] in his own way’.1 The sufferings of the hero could be our own sufferings, whereas in Greek tragedy, such a notion is precluded precisely because the misfortunes of a character can be traced back to the discontent of the gods. Hippolytus is not a moral agent; Hamlet is. The aesthetic of Shakespearean tragedy is therefore dynamic, with an audience that, to a certain extent, are also participants. Auden proposes a model of observing based upon an Aristotelian conception of drama, one that involves the spectator in an emotional relationship with the characters on stage. King Lear too, offers the audience several quite distinct paradigms of both observation and action, and crucially, it is on the varying successes of these models that the tragedy hinges.One does not need to look far in King Lear for a figure that might fit Auden’s mould. Kent surely embodies that which Schlegel termed the ‘science of compassion’ in the play.2 He is publicly traduced and humiliated by Lear in Act I, Scene 1, and yet, in the guise of Caius, risks his life in order to serve his king still. Kent observes Lear’s ‘hideous rashness’ (I.i.153) and he is motivated into participating in his master’s sufferings: I have a journey, sir, shortly to go;My master calls me; I must not say no. (V.iii.323-324) The simple rhyme, metric balance, and monosyllabic plainness of this couplet infuse the lines with a sense of tenderness. Kent’s final, elegiac words are, like all his utterances, free of hyperbole and emotionally raw. Throughout the play his response to the action parallels the audience’s own. Kent is the mouthpiece of the spectators when he entreats Lear to ‘see better’ (I.i.159), and his dismay at Cordelia’s death, ‘Is this the promised end?’ (V.iii.264), speaks volumes. However, this should not hide the fact that Kent as a character is ineffectual. His final words do not embody an attempt to resolve or rectify, they are truly fatalistic. Kent then, is the Aristotelian observer. He participates in the action only by way of ‘pity’ for Lear, and the result is that he shares his master’s fate. His observations lead him to emotionalise events, and much like Dr Johnson, who found King Lear ‘too horrid to be endured’, he ‘sees feelingly’.3 But King Lear is a play of antitheses, and one might find a second, opposing model of observation in the character of Edgar. In Act III, disguised as Poor Tom, he is confronted by his aberrant, rain-beaten godfather, and though he fears that his distress may betray his ‘counterfeiting’ (III.vi.59-60), he does maintain his composure. Equally, in the following Act, when presented with the even more excruciating image of the blinded Gloucester, Edgar refrains from revealing his identity. Physically he is a chameleon, but emotionally he is unfaltering: GLOUCESTERKnow’st thou the way to Dover?EDGARBoth stile and gate, horse-way and foot-path. (IV.i.56-57) Edgar’s matter-of-fact reply contains six nouns in only nine words and it could hardly be further from the visceral utterances of Lear on the heath. His reaction to his father here is indicative of his detached response to suffering in general. Edgar is able to observe without becoming emotionally implicated in the situation. He is the Brechtian spectator, one who ‘instead of sharing an experience  comes to grips with things.’4 Brecht’s dramaturgy asserted the belief that distanced observation ‘arouses the capacity for action’, and Shakespeare seems to propose something remarkably similar through Edgar.5 Unlike Kent, who wallows in his own misery, Edgar is brought to a realisation by what he witnesses, and is thus propelled into action. He is the chief redemptive force in King Lear, as he releases his father from suicidal despair and defeats the inverted bastard hegemony of his brother Edmund. Through Edgar the playwright encourages the audience to stand back from the tragedy, to observe rather than feel and to ‘see better’, so that they too are forced to ask, ‘Is man no more than this?’ (III.iv.106).There remains in the character of the Fool, however, a further observer in King Lear. His role is essentially that of a chorus, and he is consequently immutable. Just as the multitude of Corinthian women are incapable of responding to the cries of Jason’s children as their mother kills them in the Medea, so the Fool cannot, by definition, intervene in Lear’s plight.6 Nevertheless, he is a substantially revised representation of this classical device, in that his function is not at all expository, as is the case with the Choruses of Euripides, or even that in Marlowe’s Dr Faustus. His words are, almost without exception, barbed: FOOLGive me an egg, nuncle, and I’ll give thee two crowns.LEARWhat crowns shall they be? FOOLWhy, after I have cut the egg in the middle and eat up the meat, the two crowns of the egg. When thou clovest thy crown I’ the middle and gavest away both parts, thou borest thine ass on thy back o’er the dirt. (I.iv.161-168) Coleridge talked of the character’s ‘inspired idiocy’ and one can appreciate what he meant here.7 The Fool plays with images of inversion and nothingness. The crown, a symbol of harmony, power, and wealth, is reduced to a broken egg hollow and worthless and in turn, Lear’s title is little more than a shell. The picture of ‘two crowns’, a veiled prophecy of civil war, augments the political implications of Lear’s actions in the opening scene. Equally, the absurd image of man carrying ass mocks Lear as doltish (notice the parallel to Ovid’s Midas), and yet, embedded in the role reversal is the notion of an inverted hierarchy: daughters are mothers; kings are toddlers; bastards are oligarchs. The Fool’s language is supremely economical, anti-poetic, but also pregnant. He conjures motifs that, on the one hand, are sardonic gibes, and on the other, elucidate many of the play’s pervasive themes. While he is unable to act, his observations have a forensic precision intended to compel others, Lear in particular, to do what he cannot. In this sense, the Fool’s utterances are active they bring both protagonist and, as Kiernan Ryan notes, audience to a state of realisation.8 For Lear this realisation comes at the close of Act III, in the words:Make no noise, make no noise; draw the curtains; so, so, so. We’ll go to supper i’ the morning. So, so, so. (III.vi.83-85) Lear’s pointless use of epizeuxis here seems a parody of rhetoric. He understands the destructive nature of the ‘glib and oily art’ (I.i.226) of words, hence his appeal for ‘no noise’, and, importantly, also shows awareness of his own hamartia – the topsy-turvy comment about supping in the morning recognises the inverted order that his actions helped to shape. The Fool’s function has thus been fulfilled, and after a final half-line, ‘And I’ll go to bed at noon’ (III.vi.86), he promptly vanishes. Lear, however, is changed by the epiphany, and this scene marks a period of transition for his character, from a blind spectator to an active observer, and in Act IV he becomes Gloucester’s Fool. Plate sin with goldAnd the string lance of justice hurtless break;Arm it in rags, a pygmy’s straw does pierce it. (IV.vi.169-170) The king, as Edgar is aware, speaks ‘Reason in madness’ (IV.vi.179). Lear presents justice as socially protean. The prosperous and powerful, such as Goneril and Regan, transcend the applicability of law and morality, an idea that is manifest visually on stage in the blinded figure of Gloucester. Nevertheless, for all Lear’s lucid observations, he remains essentially passive. Bradley defined him as ‘a hero more acted upon than acting’, and in this respect he is almost unique among Shakespeare’s tragic protagonists.9 Only Othello resembles Lear in passivity, controlled by the arch-actor Iago. But even he is an agent of action and it is Othello, not Iago, who smothers Desdemona. Lear, though, is an active participant in his own story only as far as the first scene, and thus he cannot be considered a true model of action. So if the eponymous hero is not such a model, who in King Lear is? Certainly not Cordelia. Auden notes that dramatically she is a ‘bore’ and her character appears in only four of the twenty-six scenes in the play and is allotted less than ninety lines out of three thousand three hundred.10 Cordelia and her ‘heavenly eyes’ (IV.iii.31) fail to fit the redemptive role set out for her by Kent and the Gentleman. Gloucester, as a parallel to Lear, is equally inactive, while Burgundy is indeed a ‘Milk-livered man'(IV.ii.50). There remains then a triumvirate, namely Goneril, Regan, and Edmund, who may be thought of as agents of action. When one considers the most striking images of King Lear Kent placed in the stocks, Lear on the heath, Gloucester blinded, and Cordelia’s death all are instigated by these three characters, either separately or in collusion. Regan’s imperious and shockingly unremorseful comment that Gloucester should ‘smell / His way to Dover’ (III.vii.94-95) encapsulates the relentless and emphatic manner in which she and her sister both act and speak throughout the play. Yet as models of action they are undermined by their dependence on each other and their self-destructive passion for Edmund. He alone is a paradigm of truly effectual action: Thou nature, art my goddess; to thy law My services are bound. Wherefore should I Stand in the plague of custom, and permitThe curiosity of nations to deprive me, (I.ii.1-5)Edmund’s words are resoundingly forceful both in content and tone, and the accent on the dental plosives in words such as ‘art’, ‘stand’, ‘permit’, and ‘curiosity’, implies that the speech may be spat rather than spoken. Edmund’s emphasis is firmly on the self and his language is univocally subversive: custom and law are a ‘plague’ and he must forge a morality based on his own nature in order to succeed. He is the existentialist anti-hero who roams freely through the play, reliant upon no one and revelling in the role of lover, without ever actually loving. His self-mutilation in Act II, Scene 1, shows him to be as brilliant an improvisationalist as a planner: Fly, brother. Torches, torches! So farewell[Exit Edgar]Some blood drawn on me would beget opinion(Wounds his arm)Of my more fierce endeavour. (II.i.34-36) Edmund is the ultimate opportunist, constantly aware of what is unfolding around him. His brother, Edgar, procrastinates, but Edmund is capable of assimilating the situation with lightning speed and reacting to it in the same manner. Nor could any action be more emphatically cold and disinterested than the drawing of one’s own blood so as to incriminate another. His character is both an arch-actor and also an arch-observer, and he plays both parts with equal measure. Edgar may be the last man standing, but his closing line, ‘We that are young / Shall never see so much, nor live so long’, (V.iii.326-327) is equivocal; there is no guarantee that the bastard’s devastatingly destructive recalcitrance can be reversed, after all the state is still ‘gored’ (V.iii.322).In King Lear Shakespeare offers the audience several models of action and observation, but only one, Edmund, is successful as both. Harold Bloom remarks that the character is ‘frighteningly seductive’ and I hold this to be true.11 He is of the same mould as Milton’s Satan, in that the writer presents him as a dynamic anti-virtue. Though Cordelia, Kent and Edgar are all paradigms of love and devotion, their actions are seemingly futile – and perhaps this is what really offended Dr Johnson. To use the words of Blake, ‘Good is the passive,  Evil the active springing from energy.’12 In the end, the negation steals the show and it is this that makes the tragedy so tragic and its message ultimately nihilistic. Bibliography William Shakespeare, The Tragedy of King Lear, ed. Celeste Flower, Longman 1993 W. H. Auden, ‘The Shakespearean City’ in The Dyer’s Hand and Other Essay, Vintage International 1989, pp.171-272 The Romantics on Shakespeare, ed. Jonathan Bates, Penguin 1992, pp.381-405 William Blake, ‘The Marriage of Heaven and Hell’ in The Complete Poems, Penguin 1977, p.181 A. C. Bradley, Shakespearian Tragedy, Macmillan 1908, pp.7-67, 243-330 Harold Bloom, Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, Fourth Estate 1999, pp. 476-515 Euripides, Alcestis and other plays, trans. John Davie, Penguin 1996, p.80 Samuel Johnson, Johnson as Critic, ed. John Wain, Routledge & Kegan Paul 1973, pp. 216-217 Kiernan Ryan, ‘King Lear: The Subversive Imagination’; Terry Eagleton, ‘Language and Value in King Lear’ in New Casebooks: King Lear, ed. Kiernan Ryan, Macmillan 1993, pp.73-91 John Willet, The Theatre of Bertolt Brecht, Methuen 1964, pp.168-187 1 W. H. Auden, The Dyer’s Hand and Other Essays, Vintage International 1989, pp. 175-176 2 The Romantics on Shakespeare, ed. Jonathan Bates, Penguin 1992, p. 3813 Samuel Johnson, Johnson as Critic, ed. John Wain, Routledge & Kegan Paul 1973, pp. 216-2174 John Willet, The Theatre of Bertolt Brecht, Methuen 1964, p.1705 Ibid, p.1726 Euripides, Alcestis and other plays, trans. John Davie, Penguin 1996, p.807 The Romantics on Shakespeare, ed. Jonathan Bates, Penguin 1992, p. 3908 Kiernan Ryan, ‘King Lear: The Subversive Imagination’ in New Casebooks: King Lear, ed. Kiernan Ryan, Macmillan 1993, p.80 9 A. C. Bradley, Shakespearian Tragedy, Macmillan 1908, p.5510 W. H. Auden, The Dyer’s Hand and Other Essays, Vintage New York 1989, p.20111 Harold Bloom, Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, Fourth Estate 1999, p.48112 William Blake, ‘The Marriage of Heaven and Hell’ (plate 3 lines 11-12) in The Complete Poems, Penguin 1977, p.181
In the first scene of the first act of King Lear Cordelia, Lear’s youngest daughter, is banished from his sight forever. As per his decree, she does not return to the stage until the end of the drama. Yet Cordelia’s actions and attitude reverberate throughout the play, revealing Lear’s motivations and conveying Shakespeare’s message to the audience. Specifically, her character is used to illustrate the importance of being self-assured. Contrasted with Cordelia’s confident perseverance, it becomes clear that Lear’s self-doubt is responsible for his inability to rule and his eventual downfall. The actions taken by the king and his daughter clearly show their sharply contrasting levels of confidence. The implications of this divide are manifest in the reactions of other characters and in the unexpected transfer of power from Lear to Cordelia. This emphasis on attitude also speaks to one of the play’s larger themes; the ultimate importance of internal motivation and individual action.King Lear opens with Lear preparing to divide his kingdom among his three daughters. But when Cordelia refuses to indulge her father in his request for a verbal qualification of her love she is banished. The lands and the power are subsequently divided between the two remaining daughter, both of whom are more than willing help bolster their father’s ego. But at soon as Cordelia leaves Lear’s world begins to fall apart. The daughters to whom he gave everything oust him, and subsequently Lear goes mad. By the time Cordelia returns to rescue her father the kingdom is in a state of totally chaos. Through everything Cordelia remains strong and self-confident, holding fast in the wind of her fathers rage and her sisters hate. It is her personal empowerment that allows her to keep on in the face of adversity so powerful it drives the insecure king mad.As they follow this plot the audience is forced to wonder why such powerful adversity is surmounted by a little girl rather than a mighty sovereign. Indeed, it seems very strange that Lear’s “last and least” should turn out to be a woman of such strength (I.i.82) The answer is that Shakespeare purposefully ascribes this quality to the most insubstantial character in the play, to illustrate just how important attitude is. Cordelia’s station could not be more trivial: she is a woman, she is the youngest of her siblings, and she is repeatedly described as being physically small. The self-confidence that she displays is the only power that she possesses. Because she is able to endure so much with only that power it is clear to the audience that the question of self-belief is one of absolute importance.Cordelia’s empowered attitude is most vividly displayed in the first scene of the play. King Lear tells his daughter that he wants to each of them to tell him how much they love their father so that he can divide his kingdom accordingly. It is vital to note that at this point Cordelia has more at stake than either of her sisters. For Goneril and Regan the portion they receive from the king is simply a matter of power and material possession. Conversely, the land Cordelia will receive is her dowry. This fact is made quite apparent when Lear who points out that Cordelia’s suitors are both come to the kingdom to seek her hand in marriage. But even with this added incentive Cordelia is not compelled to placate the king with false flattery. Because she has nothing to gain by not telling Lear what he wants to hear, we can only assume that Cordelia is motivated by her integrity. In fact, Cordelia is in faces great peril, because of her defiance. Unlike her sisters, she is yet unmarried, and would therefore have nowhere to go if cast out of the kingdom. Cordelia’s willingness to risk so much in order to uphold her ideals shows the audience that she is truly a self-confident individual.Her poise is highlighted again at the end of this first scene when Cordelia and her husband to be are left alone with her two wicked sisters. Though she is younger than they are, smaller than they are, and now disfavored and powerless in their realm she is not intimidated by them. In fact she offers the a thinly veiled threat, “who cover faults, at last shame derides.” (I.i.281) Once again, Cordelia shows that she is not a puppet of circumstance; she is confident regardless of the situation that finds herself in. Lear’s contrasting lack of confidence is all too clear in this first scene. His decision to make his daughters verbalize their love in return for their portion of the kingdom is nothing more than a royal ego-trip. Similarly, the severe reaction Lear has to Cordelia’s silence can only be explained by a negative self-image that leaves him dependent on outside approval. This dependence leaves him vulnerable to those around him, crippling his ability to lead effectively.But nowhere is Lear’s insecurity more conspicuous and unsettling then in his monologue of Act II, scene iv. Stripped of his entourage and his power to command Lear falters: I will have such revenges on you both,That all the world shall I will do such things What they are, yet I know not; but they shall beThe terrors of the earth! (II.iv.275)Suddenly Lear is drowning in his anger; helplessly flailing about a sea of frustration and confusion. His threats are overblown, so overblown that they seem child-like. Indeed, like a child, Lear cannot even complete his sentences. After this speech there can be no question that without the trappings kingship Lear is totally powerless. Once again the audience must ask how a man so vulnerable could ever have reigned over a kingdom. ***Kent & France react to Cordelia proving that she acts out of self-confident pride***Shakespeare emphasizes the importance of self-confidence through a series of role reversals that see young, small, feminine Cordelia attain much of the power that is lost to her father, the king. In these examples the audience is shown how will power and strength of character can overcome natural determinism. In scene one Lear informs his Regan and Goneril that he will maintain one hundred knights in his service once he has passed on the crown. In the early parts of the play such attendants surround Lear constantly, ready to act on his command. But no sooner has Lear passed on his crown then his entourage is taken away from him. The two daughters to whom he gave everything take away his last vestiges of sovereignty. Lear’s insecurity lead him to give power to the daughters who stroked his ego, rather than to the one that truly loved him. With that in mind it is easy to see how Lear’s insecurity contributed to his loss of power. When Cordelia comes to retrieve he lost father she commands, “A century send forth” that they may look for Lear (IV.iv.6) It is no coincidence that she commands a battalion of one hundred men. On the contrary, Shakespeare is telling the audience that the power Lear once had has been transferred to Cordelia. What Lear’s self-doubt had lost his young daughter’s self-confidence has won. A more touching image, which conveys the same idea, takes place at the end of act four, when Lear has returned to his senses. Here Lear stops Cordelia from bowing to him and instead he lowers himself before her. The aged king willingly bows to his littlest daughter. Though it is done on a much more personal, and emotionally significant level, this scene also conveys the power of Cordelia’s self-belief. By never compromising her integrity, even when there was much to be lost, Cordelia has earned the respect and admiration of her father the king. Here he has finally realized that his ego is to blame for all of his problems; in bowing to her he acknowledges that she had what was needed to reign successfully all along. The notion that self-confidence leads to triumph seems, thus far, to be a compelling one. Yet, one might be tempted to think that the murder of Cordelia undermines the entire theory. After all, if Cordelia and Lear both end up dead what compels us to think that her attitude was better in the first place? One might easily conclude that Shakespeare contrasts Lear and Cordelia, only so show the audience that regardless of anything actions they take the characters are merely pawns of fate. But why then does the playwright bother to illustrate the prominent differences in self-image and its divergent effects? The answer to this question can be found in act five scene two, where Cordelia speaks of confronting her evil sisters, until Lear convinces her that they are not worth thinking about. In this exchange the audience sees a subdued battle between Cordelia’s confrontational self-assurance and Lear’s passive timidity. When Cordelia acquiesces, going quietly with her father as a prisoner, Lear’s self-doubt has won. Though they are happy, Cordelia is no longer in full possession of the sense of personal empowerment that characterizes her throughout the play. With this scene is mind it is clear that Cordelia’s death supports, rather than undermines, the theme that power and success require confidence. The theme brought out by Cordelia’s character implies that self-assurance is more powerful than any natural state, be it age, size, or rank. This notion supports the larger thesis – that self-determination is more powerful than fate – which runs throughout the tragedy. As Edmund proclaims in act one, scene two, “I should have been that I am (rough and lecherous) had the maidenliest star in the firmament twinkled on my bastardizing.” Here he rejects fates power to control him, asstering himself as the master of his own fate. Edmunds tendency to evil in spite of his birth is much like Cordelia’s rise to authority despite the position that she was born into. Though she is a young female,Cordelia’s actions illustrate Shakespeare’s message, that every man can and must take responsibility for their own destiny.
A common practice that William Shakespeare employs in many of his works is the experimentation with gender politics. Shakespeare often shows how notions of gender become unstable as a result of social forces. To discuss Shakespeare’s treatment of gender in his plays, it is helpful to use Joan Wallach Scott’s definition of gender, which she presents in her book, Gender and the Politics of History. Scott defines gender as “an element of social relationships based on perceived differences between the sexes, and gender is a primary way of signifying relationships of power.” She notes that gender is constructed, in part, through relationships, including kinship as well as broader gender relations, based on politics and economics. Scott also asserts that the binary between males and females is unstable, and that gender gets constructed and reconstructed as conditions in society change. This phenomenon is played out in one of Shakespeare’s most complex plays, King Lear.A historical event in the context of King Lear that influenced relationships and reconstructed gender roles was the decline of feudalism and the emergence of capitalism. In his article, “King Lear and the Decline of Feudalism,” Paul Delany discusses how the move from feudal politics to capitalism resulted in a corresponding change in relationships, which represented a period of crisis for the aristocracy. Delany suggests that the division of Lear’s kingdom is symbolic of the emergence of capitalism and the decline of feudalism, and that the tragic ending of the play shows Shakespeare’s “attachment to traditional and aristocratic values, combined with a distaste of the fear of the acquisitive, unscrupulous bourgeois values . . .that are taking its place.” To expand on Delany’s premise, I will argue that, while using King Lear as a vehicle for criticizing the fundamentals of capitalism and promoting feudalism, Shakespeare also uses King Lear’s fate to express a fear that aggressive females will be able to take on power roles within the new political structure, and male authority will thus be threatened. Before proceeding with this argument, it is important to examine gender roles as they exist in the overall realm of King Lear.In a book chapter he entitles, “The Situation of Women,” Russ MacDonald describes how gender and power relations in feudal society stemmed from primitive societies, where the greater physical strength of males led to the belief that men were superior to women. MacDonald notes, “that women occupied a position subordinate to men in the early modern period is beyond dispute.” In the larger cultural background of the play, this gender/power relationship (i.e., male superiority) is exhibited, particularly since the women in King Lear are defined with respect to their husbands. This is clear from the first line of the play, delivered by Kent: “I thought the King had more affected the Duke of Albany than Cornwall” (1.1.1-2). Note that he does not say “I thought the King had more affected Goneril than Regan.” The daughters are not truly receiving the kingdom – despite their having to “earn” it by way of Lear’s games of flattery; it will really belong to their husbands. Additionally, since Cordelia does not have a husband, her portion of the kingdom is intended to serve as a dowry. Thus, the female is situated at the start of the play as a marginal figure in the male-dominated world. However, as the play progresses, the females (i.e., Lear’s daughters) become empowered, undermining traditional patriarchal notions that are already threatened by the new capitalist order and the loss of feudal values previously enjoyed by King Lear.The first scene is representative of Lear’s attachment to feudalistic values, such as the accommodation of patriarchal wishes, and the importance of honor and obedience in feudal relationships. Also, Shakespeare immediately connects the loss of Lear’s feudal-aristocratic traditions to the change in gender and power dynamics. King Lear is portrayed as a traditional aristocrat, and one who prizes subservience from his daughters. Although he is giving up power by dividing his kingdom, he clings to his authoritative position, and demands that his daughters publicly express their love and affection for him. Cordelia infuriates him because she refuses to engage in the love game. When asked to put her love for her father into flattering words, she states, “Unhappy that I am, I cannot heave/ My heart into my mouth. I love your majesty / According to my bond, no more no less” (1.1.92-93). Because Cordelia refuses to play along with Lear’s flattery game, Lear feels that she is usurping his patriarchal authority, so he berates and banishes her. Two different readings of Cordelia’s remarks support the notion that is at the heart of the critique of capitalism going on in the play: the new politic order results in the instability of gender roles, as well as the degradation of relationships. Acknowledging both interpretations helps to illustrate Shakespeare’s clever crisscrossing of these two implications of the emergence of capitalism. First, there is Paul Delany’s reading, based on the Marxist theory of the cash- nexus, which holds that capitalism reduces all relations to rates of economic exchange, and makes the only human connection one based on monetary value. As Delany states, “The new order . . .having set up cash payment as the only measure of social obligation, ruthlessly attacks all customary bonds . . .” . He notes that Cordelia’s remarks serve to remind Lear, Regan and Goneril, whose relationships resemble the cash-nexus, that relationships should not be based on rates of exchange, such as the use of flattery to obtain financial security. Relationships should instead be based on a natural relationship, which were associated with feudal economics and politics. In this context, Cordelia seems to endorse traditional feudal bonds and relationships, and to repudiate the new capitalistic relationships.Secondly, Cordelia’s refusal to flatter her father could also be read as a rebellion against her prescribed gender role and a direct challenge to her father’s expectations. As Catherine Cox points out, she contradicts her own silence and becomes defiant toward the patriarchal order, when she tries to justify her silence and questions her sisters’ flattery, saying that they would not have room for loving their husbands if they loved King Lear as much as they proclaimed. Cordelia says, Good my Lord,You have begot me, bred me, loved me. IReturn those duties back are right fit,Obey you, love you and most honour you.Why have my sisters’ husbands, if they sayThey love you all? Haply when I shall wed,That lord whose hand must take my plight shall carryHalf my love with him, half my care and duty.Sure I shall never marry like my sistersTo love my father all (1.1.95-104)Cordelia’s statements can be considered aggressive, and therefore, threatening to Lear’s patriarchal power. As Cox notes, “when Cordelia betrays her own silence, she abandons her identity as a daughter; apparently affronted at having to compete with her sisters in so ludicrous a game, she exhibits a masculine sense of entitlement, as if the ‘bond’ she and Lear share should rightly ensure her place as Lear’s successor and exempt her from public display.” Accordingly, her act of rebellion against Lear can thus be viewed as an attempt to invert the social structure in which she lives. This reading emphasizes the threat of female power that is emerging with the new political order.By acknowledging both readings of Cordelia’s opening remarks concomitantly, one can see that a double context for the critique of capitalism is immediately set up: (i) how it reduces relationships to rates of exchange; and (ii) how it destabilizes gender roles. This double play of the negative results of capitalism is continued throughout the text. While condemning the new order, Shakespeare simultaneously critiques the effects that the changing society has on gender roles. He shows how Lear’s downfall is in part due to the reconstruction of power and the destabilizing of gender that resulted from the changing political order and the breakdown of Lear’s kingdom the end of his natural patriarchal stability. This is further developed through Lear’s relationships with his daughters after the division of Lear’s kingdom.Before the kingdom is divided, Lear’s daughters provide a sense of stability through their affection and loyalty, which Lear considers to be their duty. His daughters were subservient to him while he was King, but that is no longer the case once they claim Queenship. Lear expected his daughters to fulfill his needs, and was dependent on their gratitude and affection. They failed to live up to Lear’s expectations, and he becomes enraged. Lear’s dependence on them for attention depended on their reciprocal reliance on him, since he was the source of their power. When the situation changed and his daughters became empowered, Lear, with his patriarchal values, could not emotionally handle the new power dynamics. He even entertains the notion of regaining his kingdom, during his conversation with his Fool, when he says, “[t]o tak’t again perforce! Monster ingratitude!” (1.5.37). Lear’s statements reinforce the notion that going back to feudalism would enable him to regain his power, which would create a reversion back to his previous relationships with his daughters, when they used to fulfill their role of giving him pleasure through obedience and affection. So, the breakdown of his kingdom perpetuates a change in gender dynamics, and results in the deterioration of Lear’s power and the destruction of his most important kinship his daughters. In this way, Shakespeare connects the decline of strong feudal relationships with the threat of female power both of which followed the emergence of capitalism.We see a similar connection in Act II, when Lear’s daughters deny him his full retinue of knights. Paul Delany discusses how the new social order created “the opposition between a feudal-aristocratic ethic that promotes display, generosity and conspicuous consumption, and a bourgeois ethic that values thrift because it promotes the accumulation rather than the dissipation of capital.” Lear’s insistence that he maintain his full retinue of knights shows his dependence on such feudal values, and it is interesting to observe that Shakespeare makes Lear’s daughters, with their greed and ambition, the power source that deprives Lear of his knights. Lear expects that, of all people, his own daughters should grant his wish, and when they tell him that his retinue and his power are to be cut even further, his remarks serves to express his anger over his daughters’ disobedience, and also to provide an endorsement of feudal consumption: O, reason not the need! Our basest beggarsAre in the poorest thing superfluous.Allow not nature more than nature needs,Man’s life’s as cheap as beast’s (2.4.259281). Lear’s justification for his knights exemplifies his bond to strong feudal, patriarchal values. He is saying that humans would be no different from the animals if they did not need more than the fundamental necessities of life to be happy a feudalistic value and a strong opposition to capitalism, which supports practicality and frugality. Lear needs knights and attendants not only because of the service that they provide him but because of what their presence represents: namely, his identity, both as a king and as a patriarchal figure. Further, Goneril and Regan’s refusal to accommodate Lear’s requests infuriated him because, again, women challenged his authority, and not just any women, but his own daughters. Despite his attempt to assert his authority, Lear finds himself powerless; all he can do is vent his rage and, ultimately, go mad. Again, capitalism is criticized, and ill effects of female power are concurrently portrayed. This crisscrossing of gender, power and politics adds to the complexity of the play and shows Shakespeare’s genius.It is interesting that, right after his daughters undermine Lear’s authority by denying his requests for knights, Lear seems to find himself slipping into a feminine role. He associates himself with the female gender by his discussion of crying a device he attributes to women. He states fearfully, “And let not women’s weapons water drops / Stain my man’s cheeks” (2.2.456-457). Lear is concerned that the new power dynamics are robbing him of his masculinity and patriarchy, and making his daughters the new hierarchy of power. In addition, just as Lear associates himself with weakness and femininity, he later aligns his daughter, Goneril, with masculinity and seniority, when he says of her, “Ha! Goneril with a white beard?” (4.6.96). With these remarks, Lear himself acknowledges the reversal in gender and power roles that has resulted from surrendering his kingdom and granting his daughters Queenship. By this point in the play, Lear’s entire patriarchal order of the world that he so long was accustomed to has become to him a world of disorder and chaos. Lear expresses his disgust with the reversal of authorative roles and the shattered order of the world during the mock trial scene. He talks about authority, and how it is full of deception and confused roles:And the creature run from the cur there thouMighest behold the great image of authority: a dog’sObeyed in officeThou, rascal beadle, hold thy bloody hand;Why dost thou lash that whore? Strip thine own back,Thou hotly lusts to use her in that kindFor which thou whipp’st her. The usurer hangs the cozener (4.6.153-159).Here, Lear criticizes capitalism and the new societal order by describing a world that has been turned upside down, and where images of authority become disconnected from reality. The harsh language in this passage shows how disturbed Lear is by the current order of England, one that is now controlled by a capitalist society as opposed to the stable, feudal hierarchal order that Lear initially represents. When feudal values fall apart, disorder takes over the realm. The theme of disorder and reversed roles in this scene runs parallel to Lear’s previous references to gender reversal, particularly because he then returns to his discussion of crying. He states, “We came crying hither: / thou knowst the first time that we smell the air we wawl and cry” (4.6.178-179). Whereas Lear previously referred to tears as “women’s weapons,” now that he has lost everything and gone mad, he takes on a feminine position by acknowledging that he will end his life in tears. Clearly, the perceived difference between males and females and the gender dynamics that existed prior to the division of Lear’s kingdom have been broken down, and the relationships that Lear depended on for his authority have been overturned. Thus, the play ends with King Lear as a conquered man, stripped not only of power, but also of masculinity. Through the tragic ending of King Lear, Shakespeare shows how the change in politics completely altered relationships and reconstructed concepts of gender; he shows how the decline of feudalism adversely affects power relations and the natural patriarchal order, and changes female roles so that they become threatening to society. Of course, by today’s standards, such anxiety over capitalism and feminism is absurd. In fact, I wish the Bard could be around to see just how powerful capitalism can be for America, especially once a woman, like Hillary Clinton, is elected President.Works CitedCox, Catherine, S. “‘An Excellent Thing in Woman’: Virgo and Viragos in King Lear,” Modern Philology: A Journal Devoted to Research in Medieval and Modern Literature. 96:2 (November 1998).Delany, Paul. “King Lear and the Decline of Feudalism.” Publications of the Modern Language Association of America. 92.0030-8129. (1977).MacDonald, Russ. The Bedford Companion to Shakespeare. Boston: Bedford Books, 1996.Scott, Joan Wallach. Gender and the Politics of History. New York: Columbia University Press, 1977.Shakespeare, William. King Lear. Ed. R.A. Foakes. New York: The Arden Shakespeare, an imprint of Thomas Learning, 2000.
In King Lear, the recurring images of sight and blindness associated with the characters of Lear and Gloucester illustrate the theme of self-knowledge and consciousness that exist in the play.These classic tropes are inverted in King Lear, producing a situation in which those with healthy eyes are ignorant of what is going on around them, and those without vision appear to “see” the clearest. While Lear’s “blindness” is one which is metaphorical, the blindness of Gloucester, who carries the parallel plot of the play, is literal. Nevertheless, both characters suffer from an inability to see the true nature of their children, an ability only gained once the two patriarchs have plummeted to the utter depths of depravity. Through a close reading of the text, I will argue that Shakespeare employs the plot of Gloucester to explicate Lear’s plot, and, in effect, contextualizes Lear’s metaphorical blindness with Gloucester’s physical loss of vision.When the audience is first introduced to Lear, he is portrayed as a raging, vain old man who can not see the purity of his daughter Cordelia’s love for him from the insincerity of her sisters Goneril and Regan. In his fiery rage after disowning Cordelia, Lear commands to Kent, “Out of my sight!” (1.1.156). Kent fittingly implores the aging king to “See better, Lear; and let me still remain / The true blank of thine eye” (1.1.157-8). Kent recognizes love in its most noble form in the person of Cordelia, and is able to see through the hypocrisy of Lear’s other two daughters. In beseeching Lear to “[s]ee better,” Kent is, in effect, asking Lear to look beyond his vanity and inward pride to see the honesty of Cordelia, who refuses to put her love for her father on show. From the very first act of the play, then, Shakespeare has set up the theme of consciousness, using the metaphor of sight. Kent’s imperative to “see better” is prompting Lear not to use his faculty of vision, but, metaphorically, to become conscious of what is going on around him; to see the world as it truly is. It is fascinating that, upon Kent’s imperative, Lear swears, “Now, by Apollo-” (1.1.159). As Apollo is the god of the sun whose maxim is to “know thyself,” it is particularly telling that Lear is invoking the god associated with sharpness of vision and light, when he, himself, remains unenlightened. The unrelenting Kent, recognizes Lear’s blindness as well as the futility of invoking the god of self-knowledge, and, despite the king’s growing anger, declares, “Thou swear’st thy gods in vain” (1.1.161). The theme of consciousness is underscored by the Gloucester plot in King Lear. Gloucester, like Lear, is an aging man who has yet to learn the true nature of his children. In this way, he shares Lear’s metaphorical blindness, but Shakespeare does not stop there; he adds the physical impairment of vision to Gloucester’s character as well. It is mentioned that Gloucester requires the need of “spectacles” in order to read the fabricated letter his son Edmund presents to him. Ironically, even with the use of an instrument to heighten his vision, Gloucester is still unable to see things as they truly are. With no prior provocation, and hardly any “ocular” proof, Gloucester immediately believes that his legitimate son Edgar has formed a conspiracy against him. Shakespeare heightens Gloucester’s metaphoric blindness by casting him offstage during Lear’s banishment of Cordelia. Thus, in this sense, Gloucester is blind onstage. If he were present, Gloucester would have been able to gain awareness of the insincerity of children, as illustrated by Goneril and Regan, and apply it to his own situation. Lear, who is onstage, lacks this awareness. Even the lord of France comments to Burgundy that “Love’s not love / When it is mingled with regards that stands / Aloof from th’ entire point” (1.1.239-241). France is essentially asserting that love is not love when one is just competing for a piece of land. Lear is onstage to hear these words, but he fails to see how this can be applied to his own situation. The tragic descent of Lear into blindness begins shortly after transferring his power to his daughters. Lear becomes disoriented as early as Act 1.4 when he questions his identity in terms of sight: “Doth any here know me? This is not Lear. / Doth Lear walk thus? Speak thus? Where are his eyes?” (201-2). Lear is beginning to question his identity because he is no longer at the same place he was at the play’s opening. He is beginning to see the true nature of his ungrateful daughters, and, as a result, his self has started to disintegrate, as he gradually delves into madness. After being turned away yet again by his daughters, as they question his need for a train of knights, Lear exclaims, exasperated, “O, reason not the need! Our basest beggars / Are in the poorest thing superfluous. / Allow not nature more than nature needs, / Man’s life’s as cheap as beast’s” (2.4.259-262). Here the parallel plot of the Gloucester comes into play, for Edgar, disguised as a beggar and stripped to his barest essentials, becomes emblematic of what Lear is articulating in the above speech. Lear, too, is stripped down: stripped of his sovereignty, his train, and respect from his daughters. Through his wanderings and his experience on the heath, Lear learns to become a more sympathetic character. He is forced to ruminate upon the daily lives of the poor, commenting,
Throughout King Lear, the play’s themes and messages are communicated to the audience using a devastating combination of irony; reversal of situation and fortune; and paradox, underlining the harrowing truth of the futility of human existence presented in the play. This method is particularly effective because it highlights the fickle nature of the course of events. How one interprets this depends upon whether one believes there are gods of some sort in the play: if supernatural beings do exist in the world of the play, and are controlling events, then Gloucester’s lines, “Like flies to wanton boys are we to the gods, / They kill us for their sport” may be true, and if so this reduces the bleakness of the final picture because at least the gods have gained some pleasure from their “sport” and there is some semblance of meaning to the events. However there is much evidence to suggest that these gods do not exist: the belief in such beings is heavily satirized throughout and seen as a weakness and an excuse by those characters who do not believe in the higher powers Edmund says of Gloucester’s belief:”This is the excellent foppery of the world, that when we are sick in fortune often the surfeit of our own behaviour we make guilty of our disasters the sun, the moon and the stars; as if we were villains by necessity, fools by heavenly compulsionAn admirable evasion of whoremaster man, to lay his goatish disposition to the charge of a star!” (I.ii.109-18)If one believes this view, and it is very convincing, then mankind’s sentence is a heavy one. If there are not any gods to direct events then the evil of the play is directly and completely the result of human actions and Lear’s tirade against sex in act IV scene vi rings true. Lear says that it is not adultery that is the problem, as “Gloucester’s bastard son / Was kinder to his father than my daughters / Got tween the lawful sheets” (lines 113-15), but the very act of sex, simply because it results in the continuation of the human race, and because the very nature of humans is evil that is a bad thing: “But to the girdle do the gods inherit, / Beneath is all the fiend’s” (lines 124-25). Procreation is bad because it perpetuates the circle of futility that is human life.A third view could be that there are gods, but they do not have any influence over the world. This is supported by Edgar’s line, “The gods are just, and of our pleasant vices / Make instruments to plague us” (V.iii.170-1). One reading of this line could be to interpret “just” as not interfering, especially as there is no sense of justice in the play, and thus the meaning of the line to be that “our pleasant vices”, i.e. human sins, are solely responsible for our suffering. This view has many of the same implications as the second one: belief in a divine presence which has ultimate control over events is a way of excusing the actions of a fundamentally evil species. Indeed it is this willingness to accept many of the events in the play as pre-ordained or fated which allows many of the atrocities to occur. When the servant stands up to Cornwall in act III scene vii saying, “Hold your hand, my Lord” (line 71), it is the first time anyone has stood up and said, “stop”. Up to this point there has been a worrying lack of human intervention in the terrible events, and along with the actions of Albany and Edgar later in the play this gives some hope for the state of human existence, although the overwhelming picture is one of bleakness and suffering.The question of whether or not there are gods in the play who intervene in the events is fundamental to the power of the play and deeply affects any reading of the meaning. I believe that there are not any gods in the world of the play and that this increases the power of the instances of irony; reversal of situation and fortune; and paradox in the play, because these are therefore entirely consequences of human actions. This increases the tragedy because the ironic incidents are often partly the fault of the victim of the irony, the paradoxes reflect directly on the nature of human existence; and any reversals result from human actions and thus can be interpreted meaningfully rather than dismissed as the whim of the gods. Thus upon the many occasions in the play when characters call upon the gods to help them in some way, there is an underlying irony because in fact their prayers will not be answered. The most powerful example of this is in the final scene of the play, when Albany says of Cordelia, “The gods defend her!” and the stage direction which follows immediately after reads: “Re-enter Lear, with Cordelia dead in his arms”. So much for the gods defending her! This is arguably the most devastatingly bleak moment in the play, and in all of literature, not least because of this irony.Perhaps the greatest irony of the play is the parallel rehabilitation of Lear and Gloucester from “foolish fond old [men]” to men of insight. The irony is that by the time they have gained this insight, both of them are unable to make use of it in any meaningful way, and cannot change the course of events: in the wider context of the eventual outcome of the play, they might as well not have happened at all. Implicit within this irony is a great paradox: in order to make use of power one must have clear and uncorrupted insight; but the very act of having power clouds and corrupts insight in such a way that one is unable to make use of that power in a virtuous way. This is illustrated by the fact that Lear only gains his insight after he has given up all the trappings of power and experienced being “unaccommodated man” (III.iv.101), but having been reduced to this level he cannot use his insight for good. In the same way, Gloucester only “sees” after he has had his eyes pulled out he “stumbled when [he] saw” (IV.i.20) and being blind cannot do anything useful with his clarity of vision.This ironical incongruity between insight and power is again demonstrated in the fool and Kent, who are both highly shrewd but cannot make use of this astuteness because of their positions: they have no power. The fool’s job is to tell Lear when he is wrong he is the only person whom Lear allows to do so and to interpret events in a witty and amusing way. The tragedy is that Lear never listens to the fool’s advice precisely because he is a jester. There is a great bond of affection between the king and his fool, but ultimately the fool is impotent, and it is a harsh irony that Lear never takes his fool seriously.Kent is again a righteous, honourable and brave character, who shows unfailing love for his king when he defies his banishment in order to help him, but like the fool Lear never truly listens to him, originally because his judgement is marred by anger and wounded pride, and subsequently because he is a servant. Kent never makes Lear “see”, even when he gets himself put in the stocks to highlight Lear’s daughters’ treachery, and ultimately is never fully reconciled with the King because Lear dies before he can realise that it was Kent in the guise of Caius who was so devoted and such a “good fellow”. Lear thinks that Caius is “dead and rotten” (V.iii.285), which adds to the tragedy of Kent but also to that of Lear, as it is another element of the king’s unresolved confusion at the moment of his death. The fool passes without having made any impression upon the events of the play, and Kent’s only action is to liase with Cordelia, which ultimately results in her death because she would not otherwise have been in the kingdom although her return momentarily makes Lear happy and provides an element of hope, this quickly disappears and serves only to accentuate the already huge tragedy of the final scenes. Thus both of their roles are essentially futile and unfulfilled. Both Kent and the fool simply disappear when their service is no longer needed: when Lear begins his journey of self-realisation he no longer needs the fool to give him a commentary on events because he is beginning to see for himself, and after Lear’s death Kent has nothing left to live for, in the same way that after Cordelia’s death Lear does not, and Kent goes off to answer his “master” death.Lear’s final appearance is one of overwhelming confusion and anguish, and tragically he dies without having resolved this. He asks what all the waste, the suffering, has been for, and dies before he can find an answer; if indeed there is an answer to be found. This is the final irony of the play it has all been for nothing; suffering for the sake of suffering. This is made all the worse by the series of reversals in fortune in this final scene. It seems that there is some hope when Edgar slays his brother, as Edmund seems to have recanted and Cordelia and Lear may be saved. However, when Lear enters with Cordelia “dead in his arms”, this immediately obliterates the hope and again emphasises the horrific injustice of the play. It shows that Edmund has not really recanted at all; but that he remained true to the last to his destructive nature and was playing for time in order that his command to kill Cordelia and Lear should be carried out, saying, “But speak you on; / you look as you had something more to say”. The irony here is that Edgar and Albany are convinced by this act, and most of Edgar’s two lengthy speeches are overly complex and unnecessarily prolong a story that we already know, having had it played out to us on the stage. This does Edmund’s work for him, and it is indeed ironic that Edgar and Albany are seemingly so willing to delay; they forget about Lear and Cordelia completely until Kent reminds them and Albany’s reaction is the woefully stupid, “Great thing of us forgot!” This is a manifestation of Edmund Burke’s assertion that, “All it takes for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing”, and given the universal nature of the events of the play it suggests that mankind is all too ready to “do nothing”.There is a second reversal when Albany’s phantom normal ending’ (V.iii.295-304), which suggests that the state of the kingdom will return to normal and that “All friends shall taste / The wages of their virtue, and all foes / The cup of their deservings” (302-4), is completely destroyed by Lear’s tormented reminder that there hasn’t been justice at all, because “[his] poor fool is hanged!” These reversals in the final scene amplify the tragedy, because hope is suggested and then cruelly snatched away. Although Lear bemoans the fickle nature of fate, asking of Cordelia’s death, “Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life, / And thou no breath at all?” the lack of gods and any higher power of fortune necessarily lays the blame for Cordelia’s death on human actions in the play. Lear himself is culpable to a certain extent for Cordelia’s death because he split the kingdom and banished her in the first place, but the suffering that he endures as a result of his actions, downfall and her subsequent death is entirely disproportionate to his share of blame. This of course makes him a highly tragic figure.Throughout the play, lines of universal truth are spoken by highly unlikely people, in an ironic manifestation of the line from Macbeth, “The instruments of darkness tell us truths” (I.iii.123), and a line of Regan’s in V.iii of Lear, “Jesters do oft prove profits” (line 72). An example is Regan’s assertion that, “to wilful men / The injuries that they themselves procure / Must be their schoolmasters.” She says correctly that for such an obstinate man as Lear, the only way in which he is going to attain self-knowledge is from within himself. While this is undoubtedly true and is vilified by subsequent events, to hear it coming from Regan’s mouth after she has, as she thinks, sentenced Lear to death on the harsh heath by refusing him shelter, is uncomfortable and certainly an ironic reversal of the way that traditional moral messages are delivered. This is not the only instance of this effect in the play: Goneril points out Lear’s sagely shortcomings in I.iv with, “As you are old and reverend, you should be wise.” Of course, Lear is far from wise at this point, and although the purpose of the line is contrary to the wishes of the audience as Goneril ejects Lear from her castle, it is true that many of the older characters in the play, such as Gloucester, are not wise as they should be but in fact politically inept. It is an echo of Goneril’s earlier line; “Old fools are babes again” (I.iii.19).Paradoxically, instead of life being a “reward” for the survivors at the end of the play, having endured untold suffering and come through it, it seems that, given the bleak judgement passed upon humanity throughout the play, as Macbeth said, “better be with the dead”(III.ii.21). Again this is a reversal of the traditional ending and in this way Lear, although, tragically, he dies without ever finding an answer to his confusion, has suffered a less punishing end than the characters alive at the end: If, as Lear argues in IV.vi.106-129, it is a crime to perpetuate human existence through procreation then it is a crime to perpetuate it through living, and in a sense the punishment is life itself. This truly underlines the futile nature of human life as presented in the play.
It is odd to think that true madness can ever be totally understood. Shakespeare’s masterful depiction of the route to insanity, though, is one of the stronger elements of King Lear. The early to middle stages of Lear’s deterioration (occurring in Acts I through III) form a highly rational pattern of irrationality: Lear’s condition degenerates only when he is injured or when some piece of the bedrock upon which his old, stable world rested is jarred loose. His crazy behavior makes a lot of sense. Despite his age and frailty, Lear is no weak character; it is difficult to imagine how another character could have better resisted such mental and emotional weights as the king suffers under. Lear’s worsening madness is understandable only when interpreted with a proper appreciation of the intense forces acting on him and of the gradual disappearance of everything he finds recognizable about his former world.As Lear sets out from his palace toward his daughters’ homes, he is still sane, though he begins to regret disowning Cordeliathe first sign of mental stress and the first step toward his eventual madness. Lear’s Fool needles him about the rash decision, and the king blurts out, “O! let me be not mad, not mad, sweet heaven; / Keep me in temper; I would not be mad!” (I.v.46-47) It is a harbinger of thoughts to come.Lear’s impending madness is established in parallel with the growing storm; both threaten to break at any moment. But Lear is strong: he does not give in to insanity all at once; instead he holds on as long as he can, only gradually slipping into lunacy. And Lear is strongit is important to note the severity of the stressors acting on him; ignoring them can lead to a misinterpretation of his character as a weak, senile old man instead of a capable leader simply abused by the people he trusted. Perhaps he was foolish to trust them in the first place, but he was not crazy. Above all, Lear’s madness is understandable. It is rooted in dismay. Each time a loved one wounds him, Lear weakens, and so does his increasingly tenuous grip on reality. One by one, the pillars that had for eighty years elevated him above the rest of Britain crumble, eventually leaving him at the bottom of the pile, in frightening, alien territory.When Lear discovers Kent in the stocks at the beginning of Act II, Scene iv, he simply cannot comprehend what has happenedthat his daughter would treat his messenger with such insolence. First, Lear laughssurely this must be a joke! But Kent informs him that Regan and Cornwall are personally behind the humiliation. Lear cannot believe it. Their exchange is almost comical (especially in contrast to the lines that follow): “No.” “Yes.” “No, I say.” “I say, yea.” “No, no; they would not.” “Yes, they have.” “By Jupiter, I swear, no.” “By Juno, I swear, ay.” Lear refuses to see the truth; he desperately seeks some other explanation for what is perfectly obvious. Whatever comedy the dialogue produces is then instantly negated by Lear’s intense lament:They durst not do’t;They could not, would not do’t; ’tis worse than outrage.Resolve me, with all modest haste, which wayThou mightst deserve, or they impose, this usage,Coming from us. […]O! how this mother swells up toward my heart;Hysterica passio! down, thou climing sorrow!Thy element’s below. (II.iv.21-57)A part of Lear’s world that was once cement is suddenly loose, fluid, not at all dependable. He is hurt not just as a king by a subordinate but also as a father by a daughter, which brings its own special pains. Moreover, Regan’s salvo compounds the injuries inflicted by Goneril, so Lear suffers doubly. Note the phrase “down, thou climbing sorrow!” The damage to Lear’s heart is climbing psychosomatically toward his brain. He resists its ascent; when it eventually does overtake him, when the last of the vestiges of Lear’s old world dies, he is subject to the awful floundering usually felt only by creatures in the midst of major earthquakes, when they discover that the one fundamental constant of lifein their case, the solidity of the earth under their feetis no more than an illusion, a sham, and always has been. Lear has no earthquake; he has a thunderstorm, which, with its gusts and torrents, accurately enough mirrors the chaos of his mind. Lear’s brain is at this point overwhelmed by grief in two flavors: he has lost his daughters and his political capacity as well. Lear is not losing his mind so much as having it wrenched away from him. Whatever the method, it is slipping away, and is doing so in time to the worsening of the storm outside. Thunder is heard just after Lear says he is “[a]s full of grief as age; wretched in both!” (II.iv.273) and moans, “O fool! I shall go mad!” (II.iv.286)Lear refuses to deign to stay without his knights at one of his daughters’ homes; instead he chooses to retreat to the woods. Lear’s first entrance on stage is in his formal, rigid palace; next he appears at the lesser homes of his daughters; now he is in the wild. As Lear moves to less and less formal locations, so too does his mind deteriorate.Act III reveals the political disorder that has overtaken Britain. In the absence of the king’s central authority, Lear’s feuding successors create their own mayhem with their machinations against him and each other. Disarray exists in three spheres: mental, inside Lear’s head; political, as the villains scheme for power and each other’s undoing; and physical, in the literal tempest. All of this is in contrast to Lear’s earlier orderly rule.Lear’s madness intensifies. In Act III, Scene ii, he talks to the weather; his rants aren’t wholly mad, though, for they have an element of fun in them: a (once) powerful king having a good time, shouting at the elements to do their worstnothing more. Yet while Lear retains control of his faculties, there is still something unsettling about his tirade. It is the somewhat unconscious knowledge that true lunacy looms, that this kind of behavior will not be pardonable for long. Lear senses it, too:When the mind’s freeThe body’s delicate; the tempest in my mindDoth from my senses take all feeling elseSave what beats there. Filial ingratitude! […]To shut me out! Pour on; I will endure.In such a night as this! O Regan, Goneril!Your old kind father, whose frank heart gave all,O! that way madness lies; let me shun that;No more of that. (III.iv.11-22)Lear alternates scarily between being impressively aware of his mental decay (he breaks off his train of thought, recognizing he’s ranting) and impulsively goading on the rain (the sudden “Pour on”). Lear’s descent into madness is made all the more genuine by the appearance of Edgar, disguised as poor Tom; he feigns craziness with gibberish, like “O! do de, do de, do de” (III.iv.56-57) and “suum, mun ha no nonny,” (III.iv.97) which just seems silly in contrast. The ridiculous babble makes Lear’s authentic insanity all the more threatening. Edgar’s crazy talk makes perfect sense to Lear, though, and while the former king may lose some rationality he gains some humanity when he tears off some of his own clothes in a show of solidarity for his new, naked companion. Lear thinks out loud: “Is man no more than this? Consider him well. […] Ha! here’s three on’s are sophisticated; thou art the thing itself; unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor, bare, forked animal as thou art.” (III.iv.103-106) Lear realizes that there is essentially no difference between a king and a beggar. His old world has been totally uprooted. After such upheavalsuch a precipitous descentLear’s abnormal behavior seems forgivable.Lear’s madness is deftly woven by Shakespeare as it intensifies through the tragedy’s first three acts. Because it is so plausible, given the intensity of the forces acting on Lear, the old king’s plight is universal. What makes King Lear truly great, though, is the swiftness with which Lear’s nation is plunged into absolute despair. The first three acts (minus the last few lines) must be separated from the final two. In the first “half,” Lear is merely pitiable; he has wronged and been wronged and some treachery has transpired, but nothing apocalyptic has taken place. The blinding of Gloucester (this occurs so close to the end of Act III that for simplicity’s sake it will be considered part of the second section of the play) is so violent, so vicious (“Out, vile jelly!” sneers Cornwall gratuitously), in contrast to the relatively tame earlier scenes that it marks a fundamental discontinuity in the tragedy. Before, only feelings were hurt, and reconciliation was a theoretical (if remote) possibility; now blood has been spilled, the storm truly rages, and there will be no turning back. Leaping forward over all the interceding action, the play ends with Lear cradling a dead Cordelia in his arms, the portrait of unqualified grief. This evokes not mere pity from the audience but something more like trauma, so heartrending is the image; instead of a relatively limited work about one man’s descent into madness, Shakespeare has crafted a bitterly nihilistic tragedy. There is some redemptionEdgar defeats the evil Edmund; Lear is redeemed as a man and fatherbut there is no escaping the awful weight of the final scene, driven by madness, and the haunting sense that its coming was all too logical.
Like all Shakespearean tragedies, “King Lear” has several prevailing humanistic themes. Certainly, the plot revolves around the obvious themes of parent-child relationships, sibling rivalries and pride as the downfall of man. However, one common theme incorporates all of these elements: A quest for love. In each respective plot, the characters are pushed forward by a need for recognition and acceptance. Lear’s desire for flattery from his daughters, Edmund’s desire to usurp his brother’s position as heir, and Goneril and Regan’s argument over Edmund’s love all point to the common theme of a thirst for love. By analyzing each plot, one can fnd that the characters’ searches for unrequited love are the central moving force behind the tragedy of Shakespeare’s “King Lear.”Lear’s Need For Flattery:King Lear’s is a sad character from the very start of the play. Lear’s search for love is shown in his insistence for flattery from his daughters. His lack of confidence in the love of his three daughters is introduced in the first scene. By demanding that his daughters flatter him for their dowries, Lear shows that he is in need of constant reassurance of his importance. “Which of you shall we say doth love us most?” asks Lear of his daughters (1.1 line 52). Unfortunately for Lear, his favorite daughter Cordelia refuses to let her father’s vanity humble her in such a way, while Regan and Goneril take advantage of the old man’s bargain for wealth in return for flattery. Cordelia’s refusal enrages Lear and he says, “Nothing will come of nothing” and banishes her from the kingdom (1.1 line 95). The other two daughters conspire against Lear, discredit his sanity and the tragedy begins.Had Lear only realized that genuine love could not be found in flattery, his end would not have been so quick or so terrible. Lear’s insistence for flattery caused his downfall from a proud king to a naked madman. Also, because of Lear’s willingness to rely on Regan and Goneril’s flattery, he never did receive the acceptance he sought, as both of the evil daughters banished him from his former kingdom. At the beginning, he insists that the daughters’ love is spoken, but by the end of the play, his experience has taught Lear not to have any hope for love from his daughters. He screams, “Do thy worst, blind Cupid, I’ll not love” (4.4 line 153). Love has eluded the old man once again, making the play even more tragic.Edmund’s Need for Recognition:Edmund’s tragedy is his status as the bastard son of Gloucester. As a bastard, his lot is basically to be second to his legitimate brother, Edgar. Edmund truly desires to be the favorite of the boys’ father, but he recognizes his illegitimacy saying, “Well, then legitimate Edgar, I must have your land” (1.2 line 15). Edmund is marked by a heartless ambition, however, and creates a plot to be first in his father’s kingdom, even if he can’t be first in his father’s heart. The audience can plainly see that Edmund desires his father’s love. Edmund’s plan to disinherit Edgar follows directly the scene in which Gloucester reluctantly tells Kent that Edmund is a “whoreson” who “must be acknowledged” (1.1 line 22). Certainly with a father who would rather disavow his existence, Edmund has reason to strive for acceptance. Because his father ignores him, Edmund vows, “if not by birth, have lands by wit” (1.3 line 177). He cries out for vengeance: “Now, gods, stand up for bastards!” and hatches his plot to gain Gloucester’s land (1.2 line 22). Edmund takes great pains to gain the recognition of his father. He goes so far to obtain his father’s affection that he draws blood to get attention: “Some blood drawn on me would beget opinion” (2.1 line 34). As a villain, Edmund is extremely devious, but his actions suggest that he has lived a life filled with a desperate need for the recognition of his father.Edmund’s villainy is at its worst during the scene where Cornwall gouges out the eyes of Gloucester. Throughout the play, Edmund had feigned love and respect for the man who had given him life but denied him any inheritance. By befriending his father, Edmund’s eventual betrayal is made all the more diabolical. Edmund not only tells the secrets of his father to the Duke of Cornwall, but he also watches the plucking out of Gloucester’s eyes as his father calls to him for help: “All dark and comfortless! Where’s my son Edmund? Edmund, enkindle all the sparks of nature to quit this horrid act” (3.7 lines 100-103). Edmund’s villainy shows the audience that his personal search for love has gone awry and turned a boy yearning for affection into a man willing to betray his father in revenge.Goneril Versus Regan: Struggle for Love:Another tragic element of “King Lear” is Goneril’s unrequited love for Gloucester’s bastard son, Edmund, and the aftermath of her desire for him. Goneril’s marriage to the Duke of Albany is a failure because of obvious personality conflicts; Goneril is evil and self-serving, while Albany has a well-meaning and loyal nature. Goneril turns to Edmund because he is as strong-willed as she is. When Goneril realizes that her widowed sister also has feelings for Edmund, she vows to keep him away from Regan at any cost saying, “I had rather lose the battle than that such a sister should loosen him and me” (5.1 line 23-24). Goneril goes so far for love that she poisons her sister to keep her from taking Edmund. Also, though the audience is never told the reason for Goneril’s suicide at the end of the play, it is clear that her suicide was pushed forth either directly or indirectly by her relationship for Edmund. She may have wanted to die because her affair was discovered by her husband, or in remorse for killing her sister for jealousy. Either motive shows Goneril’s unrequited love for the bastard Edmund is her ultimate downfall.”King Lear” is a difficult play to understand because of all of the implied themes that run through the course of action. The feeling behind the play is so complex that one can argue for many prevailing themes. Scholars often wrongfully overlook the theme of a search for love, acceptance and recognition. The theme is a very important one to consider if one wants to understand the driving force behind the character’s emotions and actions. “King Lear” is also a play plagued by what is an ugliness in humanity. Every character in the play is driven to a bad end by a need for someone else. In this, Shakespeare has accurately captured the human complexities that surround emotions such as love, need and devotion, and for this reason “King Lear” remains one of the most powerful, emotional, and popular plays written during the Renaissance.