King Lear: Construction an Deconstruction of Humanity
William Shakespeare’s tragedy, King Lear, is not merely a story of the ill effects of aging, but an illustration of a man plagued by pride and arrogance. Initially, Lear deems himself a man worthy of worship by his family and friends, an ill for which he suffers profoundly. ‘The world remains what it was, a merciless, heart-breaking world. Lear is broken by it, but he has learned…’ (Stein 69). Through his experiences, Lear gradually realizes that his pride has caused him to lose touch with his humanity, which he regains when he is humbled.
Lear abuses his authority when he plays favorites with his daughters. He is infuriated upon hearing that his youngest daughter, Cordelia has nothing to say while her sisters present an eloquent testimony of their love, only it is that much more insincere. He says “Nothing will come of nothing. Speak again” (I.i. 90). He is arrogant in assuming that he can control the feelings of his children and lacks the humility to accept that his daughter may not feel so strongly about him. Lear’s arrogance prevents him from seeing that Cordeila’s plainness of speech indicated that she loved, but not for gain. Similarly, he is unable to detect the insincerity of the crafty and flattering speeches delivered by Goneril, and Regan. After he is made aware of the truth, he is utterly humiliated at his vile treatment of his beloved, innocent daughter. He says “I am a very foolish fond old man…I am mainly ignorant” (IV.vii 60,65). Lear comes to acknowledge his limitations as a result of being humbled.
Throughout his life, Lear felt that the rules did not apply to him because of his royal position. “Proud obstinacy becomes his case” (Elliott 263). His pride gets in the way when he banishes Kent. His arrogance would not allow Kent or anyone to point out his wrongs. Occupied in his pursuit of power, Lear is unable to see that Kent is one of few who are willing to sacrifice for him. He pushes him further away than anyone and eventually loses him. “His, [Kent’s] passionate affection for, and fidelity to, Lear acts on our feelings in Lear’s favour: virtue itself seems to be in company with him” (Bonheim 19). It is not until he is humbled that he begins to understand that his pride caused him to sink further down and lose his sense of honesty and humanity.
Due to his lack of humility throughout most of the play, Lear has difficulty finding his identity. He embodies that uncertainty as he never succeeds in naming himself. He is much too occupied with his wealth and kingship that he fails to consider his flaws and shortcomings. The identity he does finally settle on is a recognition of present reality and his pitiful condition, a drastic change from an arrogant Lear of earlier scenes. He says “Fourscore and upward, not an hour more nor less;/ and to deal plainly/ I fear I am not in my perfect mind (IV.vi 53-6). He is rather timid and apologetic, trying to kneel to Cordelia. His ability to humble himself in this manner indicates hat he has begun to learn the true essence of humility.
In the same scene, Cordelia is seen tending her father. Because Lear has done her wrong, he sites reason for possible admonishment. His ability to admit to his faults and anticipate punishment is a true mark of his humility. It is at this point that Lear gives away his kingship. He refuses to acknowledge the titles with which she addresses him. When told he is in his own kingdom, he replies: ‘Do not abuse me’ (IV.vi. 71). Lear feels unworthy of praise. After being humbled, he comes to understand that his pride caused him enormous devastation.
Later in the play, Lear puts his guilty daughters on trial. The attempt is futile, but this is justice as he knows it and desires to assert his authority. His arrogance has stripped him of patience and thus he makes this hasty decision. Lear’s mind is constantly on the move, “… in a dynamic pattern of advance and retreat, surrender and resistance” (Leggatt 78). There are instances in which he fights his feelings and those in which he expresses them directly, but since he is recovering from his plague of pride, he is confused. When his frailty of mind and body become apparent, Lear realizes that his pride brought him to this point and that he cannot win and thus he is humbled.
Following the confrontation with Goneril, Lear begins to remember what he has done. “I know you do not love; for your sisters/ Have, as I do remember, done me wrong./ You have some cause; they have not” (IV.vi. 66-8). His identity is gradually reasserting itself.
‘I know you do not love me’ shows him in some danger of repeating his old mistake about Cordelia; but at least he is re-establishing some sense of his identity, not through counting up the number of knights he is allowed, or gestures of respect (he rejects those) but simply through an awareness that he has a relationship with Cordelia (Leggatt 87).
His consuming pride kept him from accepting anyone’s disapproval, but he is now aware that his pride has been the cause of great turmoil and is ready to suffer the consequences by virtue of the humility he has gained.
There exists a tension between Lear’s awareness of his worldly surroundings and his absorption with himself. His kingship was a major distraction that raised his level of arrogance and prevented him from keeping in touch with his common humanity. Goneril’s mistreatment of him leads him to question his identity:
Does any here 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 it that can tell me who I am? (I.iv. 208-212)
Lear’s sense of identity is contingent on how other people treat him. Where as before he was so confident in himself, this experience allows him to realize that his pride caused him to dismiss his humanity. As his question implies, Lear is on the verge of embarking on a journey of self-discovery as a result of his becoming more humble.
Lear’s diminishing arrogance is also apparent when he is given fresh clothes in order to look respectable before Cordelia’s husband. “In his earlier tirades, he was grandly unaware of his absurdity. Now with nothing absurd about him,” (Leggatt 86) he asks gently, ‘Pray do not mock’; ‘Do not laugh at me’ (IV.vi. 52, 61[IV.vii]). Lear’s old self-assertive nature begins to disappear. While he began “… a man that grossly overvalued material things…” (Taylor 365), he is now aware that ostentatious clothing will not erase his pain. He learns that his arrogance had caused him to lose touch with the fact that was merely an imperfect, and limited human. An application of his humility, he no longer deems himself superior and realizes that his conceit lead to his downfall.
Lear’s humbleness is also evident when he displays pity he feels for the Fool in the midst of the storm:
My wits begin to turn.
(To fool) Come on, my boy. How dost, my boy? Art cold?
I am cold myself. ?Where is this straw, my fellow?
The art of our necessitates is strange,
And can make vile things precious. Come, your hovel.?
Poor fool and knave, I have one part in my heart
That’s sorry yet for thee.
Lear grows in compassion, and admits to his own failures. Although the fool is of insignificant status, Lear realizes that humans are vulnerable creatures. Whereas before Lear “…ignored if not through callous indifference, simply because he had not experienced it” (Dollimore 73), he now finds pity for a human other than himself. Lear also sympathizes with homeless poverty because he himself is homeless, and with Poor Tom because he claims his daughter did him wrong. As result of his trying predicament, he comes to discover pity for his fellow man which demonstrates his humility.
As his humility allows him to accept his ill fate, we no longer see the beast like Lear, but one who is calm and further in touch with his humanity.
Rumble they bellyful! Spit, fire! Spout, rain!
Nor rain, wind, thunder, fire, and are my daughters:
I tax you not, you elements, with unkindness;
I never gave you kingdom, call’d you children,
You owe me no subscription; then let fall
Your horrible pleasure; here I stand, your slave,
A poor, infirm, weak, and despis’d old man.
There is some self-pity evident in Lear’s words, but it is apparent that he has lost much pride. “For Lear, the assurance of interconnection between man and nature is breaking down…” (Brooke 33). Through his humbling life experiences, Lear realizes that pride no longer suits him for it was that pride that caused him to lose his humanity.
Lear’s humility is unequivocally a breakthrough that leads to his seeking Cordelia’s forgiveness. This is not to say that he has undergone a complete transformation, but that Lear is slowly learning to be humble. “He gropes reluctantly towards his new life, trying at first to cling to the old certainties of pain and punishment” (Leggatt 88). Lear’s mind is beginning to expand as his concern for his kingship, justice and power diminish. He begins to concern himself less with worldly matters and more about his family, namely, Cordelia. From the reunion, it becomes apparent that Lear is content with losing the battle and being sent to prison so long as he has Cordelia on his side.
Come, let’s away with prison.
We two alone will sing life birds I’th’ cage.
When thou dost ask me blessing, I’ll kneel down
And ask of three forgiveness; so we’ll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues
Talk of court news, and we’ll talk with them too?
Who loses and who wins, who’s in, who’s out,
And take upon’s the mystery of things
As if we were God’s spies; and we’ll wear out
In a walled prison packs and sects of great ones
That ebb and flow by th’moon.
In his heart, there is a void that cannot be removed except with the company of his dearest daughter and he is willing to sacrifice his kingship to be with her. Lear realizes that being proud and only seeking wealth and status inhibits the recognition of his human need to be loved and consequently becomes more humble.
Lear struggles to accept the cold fact that his beloved is dead. Cordelia’s death is the play’s final reality after which the efforts of human words cease to have an effect. His last speech includes aspects of the entire play. “And my poor fool is hanged! No, no, no life?/ Why should a dog, a forse, a rat have life,/ And thou no breath at all? Thou’lt come no more./ Never, never, never, never, never (To Kent) Pray you, undo the button.” (V.iii. 281-6). He mentions the fool, the animals, and Kent’s service. While Lear at one point controlled vast amounts of wealth and servants, as the play comes to an end, it as though everything is bearing down on Lear which makes vivid to him his incapacity to alter destiny. He begins to understand the inevitability of mortality, a concept that was foreign to him before the loss of his kingship and family, and hence he is humbled.
When it comes time for Lear’s death, he is so preoccupied with Cordelia, that he doesn’t know he is dying. He is exhausted and overwhelmed by what has occurred. He says “Do you see this? Look on her. Look, her lips, / Look there, look there” (V.iii. 312-13). He is desperate to see her alive, but again his inability to change his fate is apparent. In this scene, Lear is faced with the depth of his love for Cordelia which ultimately leads to his death. The human need of being genuinely loved and loving comes through clearly. Sadly, it was something his pride caused him to over look and after he grew in humility, it was finally acknowledged, only at too late a stage.
Although Lear endured a great deal of hardship in his life, he came to realize his limitations. It was through this acknowledgment of his humanity that he became humble. “There is nothing more noble and beautiful than the effect of suffering in reviving the greatness and eliciting the sweetness of Lear’s nature” (Bradley 284). While initially priding himself on his high level of authority and status, he learns that pride is evil and the cause of his loss of loved ones and eventually his own life.
Bradely. A. C. Shakespearean Tragedy. London: Macmillan & Co. 1904.
Brooke, Nicholas. Shakespeare: King Lear. New York: Barron’s, 1963.
Dollimore, Jonathan. King Lear and Essentialist Humanism. New Haven: Yale UP, 1987.
Elliott. G.R. “The Initial Contrast in Lear.” Journal of English and Germanic Philology LVIII (1959): 251-263.
Leggatt, Alexander. King Lear. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1988.
Shakespeare, William. The Complete Signet Classic Shakespeare. Ed. Sylvan Barnet. New York: HBJ, 1972.
Taylor, E.M. “Lear’s Phiolopher.” Shakespeare Quarterly VI (1955): 364-365
Beebe, Maurice. The King Lear Perplex. San Francisco: Wadsworth Publishing, 1960.
Danson, Lawrence. On King Lear. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1981.
Bruce, Susan. William Shakespeare: King Lear. New York: Columbia UP, 1998.
Halio, Jay L. The Tragedy of King Lear. Great Britain: Cambridge UP, 1992.
Mack, Maynard. King Lear In Our Time. Los Angeles: California UP, 1965.
Stone, P.K. The Textual History of King Lear. London: Scholar Press, 1980.
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