“King Lear” by Shakespeare
Throughout King Lear (1606), Shakespeare depicts a dark world torn apart by deception, hate, and selfish values of self-social mobility. In Lear’s distribution of his land and power to Albany and Cornwall – husbands to his daughters Goneril and Regan, respectively – the social order is disheveled, and the result is a brewing civil war as described by Kent (“there is a division … ‘twixt Albany and Cornwall”); the invasion of England by France; and the usurping of Lear’s power by his daughters which leads to his madness and aged deterioration.
Mirroring this is the subplot in which Shakespeare depicts the division constructed by Edmund between his father, Gloucester, and brother, Edgar – his motives similar to the two daughters in his pursuit of social mobility (“legitimate Edgar, I must have your land”). However, while all seems bleak in a world of deception and disloyalty, not all moral values are lost: Kent, even through rejection, stays as a loyal servant to Lear; The Fool is continuously loyal, and acts as Lear’s conscience, even in emotional turmoil; Cordelia, upholding Lear’s feudalistic values of loyalty, is quick to reaccept him in IV, vii, as he accepts he has treated her wrongly (“if you have poison for me, I shall drink it”).
However, what redemption there is for the actions of the antagonists in King Lear, is often marred by pain and suffering. While Goneril and Regan destroy each other in just retribution for their disloyalty, this does not come without the death of Cordelia and, as a result, Lear’s demise, his final words as tormented and confused as he had been before his reconnection with Cordelia, emotionally wailing in conflict over her state of being (“The feather stirs; she lives!”); Edmund is not justly punished in death without the demise of Gloucester, the latter’s heart described by Edgar as “burst smilingly”. That said, in some cases, actions of loyalty result in redemption: Cornwall is killed by a servant of Gloucester after he takes out Gloucester’s eyes. Not only does this redeem Gloucester’s blinding, but it also allows him to gain ‘tragic sight’ – an Aristotelian convention of tragic theatre, in which a protagonist gains sight into the truth by losing their physical ability to see, popularised by such texts as ‘Oedipus Rex’. However, is death actually redemption for the immoral actions of characters in the play? Ben Schneider (1995) writes:
“… death used to be the rule, now it is the exception.”
In reality, while a modern audience would identify death as harsh punishment for immorality, in Jacobean England – a time during which audiences would literally have to brave the plague, risk death, to watch plays like King Lear – it is likely that it would not have carried so much weight. Death was simply the nature of things, the natural order at work. Perhaps, then, the dramatic emphasis of death is not on its finality and action as punishment, but actually as symbolic for the natural order.
Furthermore, a critic sympathetic to Edmund may suggest that Gloucester’s blinding was actually redemption for his neglect, openly declaring the immoral pleasures gained through Edmund’s conception at the very start of the play (“This knave came somewhat saucily into the world”, “there was a great sport in his making”) in front of Edmund – a clear example of emotional neglect. It’s interesting, then, that in Renaissance England, blinding was seen as the conventional punishment for immoral sexual acts such as adultery, as practiced by Gloucester.
One of the central divisions of King Lear is in the separation of the ‘old’ values of aristocracy and feudalism against the ‘new’ rising bourgeois class; the former representing selfless loyalty and honor, whereas the latter represents selfish gains and immoral social mobility. The two values are symbolised by the two key camps in which the characters reside, which is turn is dictated by either their loyalty to Lear’s rule or their support of the new order, symbolised by the rise of Edmund. However, while the ‘old’ values are depicted as the ‘moral way’ and aligned with the protagonists, Marxist critics may suggest that Lear’s rejection of such values as unequal to his peasantry (“O! I have taken too little care of this … Take physic, pomp!”) undermine them as fair and further mists the moral leanings of the play. The play focuses on characters of a higher social class and makes little reference to the impact of their actions on ‘normal’ people, so while this clash of values is apparent among the upper classes, both work to disenfranchise those of a lower social rung. Alexandr Smirnov (1936) writes:
“He [Lear] begins to sense the monstrous injustice of the feudal-aristocratic system, that system which he had unthinkably upheld”.
Indeed, it is difficult to say that the “devastated world” of King Lear is redeemed by feudal values because we are only given a glimpse at a handful of aristocrats. Even the central protagonist, a King going through emotional turmoil, is able to eventually sense the inequalities that have underpinned his kingdom under his rule. Can we argue that the ‘old values’ – which are denounced by their primary benefactor – being victorious over the ‘new’ (symbolized by Edmund’s death) is a victory for Lear’s society in total? Looking at our central actors from a micro perspective, it is certainly just. Even Edmund, the main supporter of the ‘new’, argues that his demise and Edgar’s loyalty to Gloucester is justice (“Thou hast spoke right, ’tis true; the wheel comes full circle”). But in a world where both protagonist and antagonist alike are picked off by the ever-present numinous – as Gloucester suggests, “like flies to wanton boys” – can we really say there are immoral actions to redeem? Are the Gods really so omnipotent, or has Lear’s neglect of his kingdom been the demise of his dynasty? It’s notable that the only character not marred by the sins of their father by the end of the play is Edgar. Perhaps, then, that is the true redemption in the devastated world of King Lear – a character we can believe will have renewed loyalty to the “poor naked wretches” described by Lear is left to rule them with a fair hand. It is not the aristocracy that is redeemed by love and loyalty, as all are punished – it is the society that had been ruled under them.
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