Authority Without Power
In all of Shakespeare’s tragedies, sudden change and transformations are the catalysts of the disaster that will soon become the plot. Lear, King of England, holds great power and status as King, but blindly he surrenders all of this power to his daughters as reward for their false demonstration of love for him. This untimely surrender of his throne sets off a chain reaction of events that sends him through a rocky journey of finding truth and loyalty in a time when it is hard to come by. Due to his selfish decisions which lead to his loss of power, King Lear’s blindness becomes clear vision, causing his eventual insanity and allowing justice to take its inevitable turn on Lear, his actions, and his family.
As the play begins, Lear quickly makes a wrong decision of surrendering his throne. This action is the first example of justice taking its turn, as his selfish decision soon becomes a large problem. Fueled by his blindness, Lear banishes his formerly favorite daughter who speaks the truth and rewards his two seemingly loyal, but evil daughters with the land that he previously ruled over. He offers his daughters pieces of his kingdom as a form of reward for the false testament of their love to the “great” King Lear2E “Great rivals in our youngest daughter’s love/ Long in our court have made their amorous sojourn/ And here are to be answered. Tell me, my daughters/ (Since now we will divest us both of rule, Interest of territory, cares of state)/ Which of you shall we say doth love us most/ That we our largest bounty may extend/ Where nature doth with merit challenge” (Act I, sc i, 50-58). By relinquishing his throne, he disrupts the great chain of stature that we discussed in class. King Lear surrenders his physical power in an egotistical effort to show his psychological power over his daughters and those that follow and support him. His decision, although, challenges the position that the gods and nature have given him. His undermining of the God’s authority and obvious lack of clarity causes him not only to lose his power but to eventually become insane and in the end, be left with nothing.
Following the surrender of his throne, Lear begins to banish those around him who genuinely care about him. In the beginning, his blindness is still apparent and Lear feels as if everyone around him is still his loyal servant, when in reality, most are plotting against him. Lear soon begins to see the shift of power take affect and he becomes unsure of who his true supporters are and who is just using him. He takes hastened actions against those that don’t obey him or undermine his authority and quickly banishes his true friend, Kent and his loyal daughter, Cordelia. Lear is soon solely surrounded by those that are superficial, leaving him very vulnerable to attack and betrayal.
Justice comes forth as King Lear’s life drastically begins to change. His sudden loss of power leaves him unable to rule over others and without a true sense of home and family. Because Lear has disregarded the wishes of God and those around him and taken part in a selfish decision, he is made to suffer from insanity and extreme physical loss. Lear is even given multiple opportunities to revoke his decision, but rather than listen to the advice of those trying to help him, he banishes them for questioning his selfish decision. Lear’s life and the lives of those around him are beginning to change and now he is unsure of who he is. “Does anybody know me? This is not Lear. / Does Lear walk thus, speak thus? /Where are his eyes? / Either his notion weakens, his discernings/ Are lethargied-Ha! Waking? ‘Tis not so. / Who is that can tell me who I am?” (Act I, sc iv, 232-235). Lear’s loss of power and stature leaves him struggling for someone or something to help him or support him in any way. In his search for meaning, Lear finds the fool who becomes this person.
The fool within the play of King Lear ironically becomes one of the only characters of truth and wisdom that exists. The fool uses his riddles and sayings to shed light upon the truths of the story. Using his caring title of “nuncle” to speak to Lear, the fool offers Lear insight into the mistakes that he has made and how they are affecting the people around him. Lear begins to see the negative consequences of his retirement through the actions of his daughters and their husbands. Regan purposefully tries to weaken her father’s spirits and speak to him as if he truly is stupid and crazy. “O sir, you are old/ Nature in you stands on the very verge/ Of his confine. You should be ruled and led/ By some discretion that discerns your state/ better than you yourself. Therefore, I pray you” (Act II, scene iv, 165-169). Both of his daughters try to undermine Lear by locking Kent in the stocks, not allowing Lear to bring his knights into their castle, and locking Lear outside in the storm. These events are all realizations to Lear that he can no longer command like a King. “O, how this mother swells up toward my heart!?/ Hysterica passio, down, thou climbing sorrow! / Thy element’s below.-Where is this daughter?” (Act II, sc iv, 62-65). King Lear is no longer blind to the actions of those around him. Not only can Lear now see clearly into the true character of his family and friends, but he begins to see how his emotions and societal image are changing for the worse. This harsh reality check of his evident weak stature are what drive him to complete madness. “No, you unnatural hags/ 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 be/ The terrors of the earth! You think I’ll weep./No, I’ll not weep./ I have full cause of weeping, but this heart/ Shall break into a hundred thousand flaws/ Or ere I’ll weep-O Fool, I shall go mad!” (Act II, scene iv, 320-329).
Lear’s mistakes all come back to him as he grows madder and his family begins to fall apart. Lear’s decisions have caused Kent and Cordelia to say things Lear does not want to hear, which causes their banishment. Another person to be hurt by Lear is Gloucester, who loses his stature and even more severe, his eyes. Even his own daughters that have turned against him are affected negatively. Their sudden gain of power turns them even more evil and along with it, greedier. The sister’s sudden gain of power and inherited selfishness eventually turns them against each other, causing adultery and both of their deaths.
King Lear is finally brought down by the death of his youngest daughter, Cordelia. Lear and Cordelia had reunited and Lear felt as if he had finally dug himself out of a hole. But as justice must interfere, Cordelia is killed and Lear is alone again, as well as heartbroken. He grieves for his dead daughter as he soon thereafter dies. “Howl, howl, howl! O, you are men of stones/ Had I your tongues and eyes, I’d use them so/ That heaven’s vault should crack. She’s gone for ever! / I know when one is dead, and when one lives/ She’s dead as earth. Lend me a looking glass/ If that her breath will mist or stain the stone/ Why, then she lives. (Act V, Sc iii, 308-315). Lear recognizes that Cordelia’s death is an action of justice and he is angry that his actions had to come to her death.
All of the pain that Lear suffered is traced back to his blindness and selfishness. Lear’s self-centered decision to divide his throne became his biggest mistake as it brought down his entire kingdom and everyone involved in it. The massive effects of the power struggles and lies that would come from the distribution of his throne drove him mad and killed almost all of those who were involved. But justice must prevail and Lear and his family got what they deserved. “All friends shall taste the wages of their virtue, and all foes/ The cup of their deservings. O, see, see!” (Act V, sc iii, 366-368).
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