King, Destiny and Circumstances
Why, in spite of everything do we like Lear and are on his side?
Ultimately any pathos that lies with Lear is due to the fact that he, like all Shakespeare’s tragic heroes, does not deserve the severity of the punishment he receives. He is, through his lack of wisdom, the victim of circumstance.
Lear’s catastrophic decision to split the kingdom highlights his diplomatic stupidity and immediately shows the audience his one tragic fault; blindness. His rash banishment of Cordelia, who had previously been his favourite daughter, “our joy,” “your best object” and Kent who appears to be his only ‘loyal’ servant suggests he is a very bad judge of character and as Regan eloquently suggests at the end of scene one Lear “hath ever but slenderly known himself”. Kneeling to Regan in act II scene IV visually suggests he has a child-like mentality when he wants something and his outbursts aimed at Cordelia in act I scene II, “The barbarous Scythian”, “I disclaim all my paternal care”, further highlight Lear’s emotional rashness of thought and lack of sagely wisdom. At the end of act I scene III Goneril says that “old fools are babes again” and she is right in Lear’s case because Lear seems unable to make a mature, informed decision about anything.
However we do not turn against Lear because we recognise that, like all of mankind, Lear has flaws and merits. Lear’s actions are not the outcome of any corruption or depravity but are simply a direct result of the fact that his is consistently blind to the reality of the situation surrounding him. In retrospect, our sympathy turns towards Lear when we realise he is a “blind” victim in the situation. Goneril and Regan show us at the end of scene one that they do not love Lear “dearer than eye-sight, space and liberty” as they stated in the love match and that they have in fact manipulated Lear into the position they want him because they realise “what poor judgement he hath now” and intend to further their own machiavellian ends. The end of act I scene I sees the two ‘sisters’ plotting to “hit together” “I’ the heat.” The long sentences in the dialogue at the end of scene I coupled with the lack of punctuation speeds up the pace of the dialogue and gives it a rhythmical, almost curselike feel. Coupled with destructive adjectives such as “infirm” “choleric” and “wayward” we begin to feel that something sinister and perhaps even supernatural is being plotted against Lear. This helps to suggest that Lear, right from the start of the play, is not going to escape the manipulation of those around him because he is not yet wise.
Lear genuinely believes that he is conferring his bureaucratic duties “on younger strengths” and that “future strife may be prevented” through the division of the kingdom. However he is once again thwarted by his “blindness” and this is subtlety suggested by Lear’s continual references to eyes. When talking about Cordelia he says that he hopes lightening will dart its “blinding flames/into her scornful eyes”. The fool also repeatedly mentions eyes, “fathers that wear rags/do make their children blind” and Lear threatens to pluck out the fool’s eyes. “Eyes” and “sight” are mentioned ten times throughout the duration of the main play and the word “see” is mentioned thirty eight times in reference to Lear subtly drumming into the audience through repetition the idea that everyone in the main plot can “see” properly except Lear. The fool tries desperately to show Lear where he is blind, but all his hard-hitting insults, “though art nothing”, fail to show Lear his blindness. Even the wind is described as “impetuous blasts with eyeless rage” a direct personification of the landscape and a reflection of Lear’s rash and blind emotional outbursts. Through repetition and dextrous use of ‘vision’ imagery we realise that Lear is impotent because he is “blind” to the truth. He sees Goneril and Regan’s speech’s despite the fact they are extremely mercenary, “valued”, “rich or rare”, “metal” as a true statement of love and lets Cordelia’s reply of “nothing” wash over his head because he does not listen or “see” what true love really is. He is a bad judge of a situation or a character because he has been flattered all his life by manipulative, power hungry subjects such as Goneril and Regan and can no longer distinguish the genuine from the artificial, however, we as an audience cannot blame him for the situation he is in therefore our sympathies lies with him when we realise his inexorable fate is far worse than the fate he actually deserves.
In examining our pathos towards Lear the Fool can be regarded merely as a dramatic device used to reveal Lear’s caring and rational side as well as his blindness. He repeatedly calls for his fool in act I scene IV and he engages the fool in a warm friendly manner, “how now my pretty knave! How dost you?” suggesting that he might not be the tyrannical ruler we are led to believe. We realise through what appears on the surface to be light-hearted conversation that Lear is human and like us all has faults and talents. He protects the fool when the fool is hit and we see through the fool the attractive side of Lear’s passionate personality.
On the otherhand, like Richard II, Lear thinks he is powerful and almost invincible due to his flatterers. When in the process of banishing Kent he states “do not come between the dragon and his wrath”, which gives an image of the power he knows he holds and the true extent of his animalistic, emotional reaction to every emotive situation. He summons the “mysteries of Hecate” and the power of the “orbs” heightening our realisation that he regards himself as a being slightly above and disjointed from the rest of the court. We realise by the end of scene one that both the country and Lear, the embodiment of his country are very unstable and egocentric and that Lear Is an impetuous and rash autocrat, ruling entirely on his emotions. He does this because he is blind to the consequences of his actions (due to his flatterers) and we therefore have sympathy towards him because he ‘knows no better’. Furthermore, Lear has ruled for nearly eighty years and did not choose the position he is in. He has perhaps even showing some foresight in splitting up his kingdom since he has no male heir. Lear’s huge misjudgement of the situation heightens our sympathy for him as we can see his inevitable downfall on the horizon. Lear repeatedly mentions “Jupiter” and “stars” are mentioned with regard to Lear seven times subtlety suggesting in the mind of the audience that Lear is a victim of fate. Lear’s mention of fortune, “lest it may mar your fortunes” during the love-test gives a sense of proleptic irony and inexorability to Lear’s fate. The suggestion that Lear’s entire life is based on the whims of fate is emphasised by the setting of the play in a pagan world. Furthermore, the fact that Lear is in such a high and mighty position excentuates our pathos towards him when it is taken into account that despite his blindness Lear perhaps has no control over his fate. The godly imagery creates a fatalist world that therefore makes Lear impotent and thus makes us warm to him as fate, rather than Lear becomes the protagonist
Our sympathies must lie with Lear because they cannot lie with any of the other characters. The suggestion of fate controlling (and thus being cruel to) Lear heightens our sympathies. However, we side with Lear, despite his blindness, not just because of the fatalist argument but because he does not deserve the punishment he receives.
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