‘King Lear’ is a Tragic Play
‘King Lear’ is a tragic play consisting of evil and malevolence in 17th century England. It symbolises what can happen in a kingdom if a bad ruler takes the throne. Shakespeare wrote the play in 1603, which was just before King James took the monarchy in 1605. The play could have been written for this reason, to warn James of the problems that can face a ruler.
Another theory of how this play came about is that Shakespeare based it on the story of Sir William Allen during his stay in London.
Sir William Allen, who was a former mayor of London, had split his estate between his three daughters who had then arranging to live with them alternately. The daughters had then treated him with disrespect.
Throughout the play Shakespeare shows an upside down Chain of Being, with less important characters receiving the main role and the new king or queen being selected by the king and not God.
Shakespeare is an artist of words and brought about on of the biggest advances in the use of the English language.
This perfection is shown in all his works and plays. Before this there were only plays on sections from the Bible, which did not inspire the people. Shakespeare changed this by making new tragic and comic stories. King Lear is a tragic play because the character Lear’s life goes from good to bad and at the end he dies. This makes him the tragic hero of the play. Shakespeare also used the words for emotions and feelings because there were no special effects in Shakespeare’s time. The stage may have only had one or two set-up per play and so the words have to show changes in situation and mood as well.
Shakespeare language is different to other writers because he makes use of a variety of techniques such as empathy and dramatic irony to give his plays a twist and to keep an audience interested. Since King Lear is a tragic play the words have to show evil and just how bad life can get.
In act 3 scene7 Shakespeare dramatises evil by using extreme language for the time and not hiding anything from the audience along with more writing techniques. In brief Cornwall, Regan, and Gonerill feel that Gloucester should be punished for sending the King to Dover and the problems with France invading. Cornwall does this with torture and having Gloucester banished from his own home.
Shakespeare effect on the audience starts almost instantly in this scene with Cornwall saying “Post speedily to my Lord your husband;
Show him this letter: the army of France is Landed. Seek out the traitor Gloucester.”
The word ‘Traitor’ puts the image in the beholders eyes that at the moment Gloucester is the more evil one. Also Shakespeare shows a relationship between the country, treachery, and Gloucester. In Shakespearean times a traitor to the country would be regarded as a very serious crime. This relates to evil because Cornwall is accusing Gloucester of a crime he did not commit, and punishing him for it. This section links in with the blindness theme woven throughout the play as Cornwall is being blinded from the truth and so has become confused.
Shakespeare the writes “hang him instantly,
Pluck out his eyes” This is said by Regan and Gonerill about Gloucester and is a firm use of dramatic irony. The characters do not know what will happen in the future, but the audience know something bad is going to happen from the language used. ‘Instantly’, showing that Regan cannot wait for Gloucester to be punished, suggests that this is a matter of great importance. The short lengths of the lines break the rhythm of the iambic pentameter making the words different, stand out and dramatic. The word ‘pluck’ is used instead of take or remove because it has a sharp ‘ck’ sound and more effect.
Next Cornwall reinforces what he has said by repeating ‘traitorous’ again. He then says farewell to Regan and farewell to Gloucester as if predicting that Gloucester is going to die. “Farewell, dear sister, farewell, my lord Gloucester.” This could be seen as a threat on Gloucester’s life, which goes with the dramatic irony shown before, adding tension to the scene.
Language and threats like these are also shown in act 1 scene1 where Lear disclaims Cordilia. Shakespeare uses language to dramatise evil here by using words and images, which would shock a Shakespearean audience such as “The mysteries of Hecate and the night.” (17th century people were very superstitious and believed witchcraft was a practice of magic linked to the devil and unnatural spirits). Hecate was believed to be the goddess of the lower world and patroness of magic and witchcraft. To be used in context with the disclaiming of Cordilia implies that Lear is deadly serious and does not intend to give Cordilia a chance to redeem herself. Shakespeare then uses extreme language to show how Lear’s anger is growing by using the words ‘barbarous scythian’.
Lear describes himself as a dragon and what he is doing as his wrath. “Do not come between the dragon and his wrath”. Shakespeare writes this because he needs to show how enraged Lear really is. Using imagery like the dragon and Hecate in a speech help to dramatise the evil shown. This is similar to how Gloucester compares Regan and Gonerill to wolves in act 3 scene 7. “Thy cruel nails pluck out his poor old eyes; nor thy fierce sister in his anointed flesh rash boarish fangs”. The phrase ‘rash boarish fangs’ is very powerful and puts Shakespeare’s point of evil across very quickly. This imagery is used to show that Regan and Gonerill are seen as animals chewing at their father for land, wealth, and power. Shakespeare uses ‘Anointed flesh’. ‘Anointed’ meaning holy suggests that Gloucester has a lot of respect for Lear. It also shows that if Lear is so highly regarded Gonerill and Regan are very evil to have thrown him out of their homes and out of the monarchy.
Shakespeare shows Gloucester fearing for his life in act 3 scene 7 with the words “He that will think to live till he be old,
Give me some help! – O cruel! O you gods! Here he is begging Gloucester for mercy and praying to the gods for forgiveness in a last attempt to redeem himself because he can see Cornwall is about to gouge out his eyes. Shakespeare uses exclamation marks to break up the pace of the text and to signify the terror Gloucester must be feeling as he dares to insult Regan.
Not only the Language Shakespeare uses but the characters actions, reactions and relationships also help to dramatise evil.
From the very beginning of the play tension is shown in family relations when Lear punishes his favourite daughter because she tell the truth about how she feels. This is very powerful drama because Lear not only punishes Cordilia but goes as far as to disown her and sell her to France as if she was nothing. The audience would have seen this as cruel and unfair because Cordilia did not get a say in deciding her fait. Shakespeare may have included this to start off the tragic hero pattern where Lear’s life goes down hill or he may be showing on of the problems that can come when the new rulers are chosen by the king and not god maybe to warn the new king James.
The evil shown here is a much more menacing evil because it is all done with words. This contrasts with act 3 scene 7 because the evil shown there is much more physical.
The evil portrayed by the characters in this scene starts with Cornwall openly discussing how traitorous Gloucester has been in front of Edmund. Then Cornwall sends Edmund away because he does not want he does not want him to witness what he is going to do. This has a dramatic effect because of what Cornwall is doing and because of what Edmond is not doing. He knows his father is going to be tortured but does nothing. Even though Edmund is illegitimate the audience would expect him to react by defending his father. However he does not and this provides a contrast to what is expected to emphasise the importance of this evil. After Gloucester arrives some barbaric things happen. However, the audience also know that Edmond has set up his brother in a plot to become the heir to Gloucester, which may be why he does nothing.
Cornwall says “See shalt thou never. Fellows hold the chair. Upon these eyes of thine I’ll set my foot”. This implies that Cornwall intends to make it so that Gloucester cannot see by taking out his eyes and crushing them with his foot. Shakespeare sets this scene in Gloucester’s own home and to the audience this and the fact family members are present makes it even more astonishing. Also this gruesome action would have been acted live on stage and not just described by another character, which makes the action of the play tenser.
At the beginning of the play Lear and Gloucester both appear to have happy successful families, however by the end of the first scene Lear has torn his family apart and in the openings of the second scene Edmond reveals the plot against his brother, which will destroy Gloucester’s family. For this to happen in such a short amount of time shows that Shakespeare has set out with an evil intent, when writing this play, and is showing the audience the atmosphere of the play. In the first scene Lears anger grows, building up tension that is then sustained in the second scene by Edmonds deceit.
The situation with the two families then follows the same path again. In act 2 scene 4 Lear is rejected by his daughters when he goes to stay with them with his men. Gloucester is thrown from his home by Cornwall and then both the men wander around with servants loyal to them. Shakespeare has included these two mimic stories to emphasize his point of evil shown by the families rejecting the eldest and most powerful member.
Within the play some characters are obsessed with the process of inheritance. Regan and Goneril answer their fathers question with glib and over-blown statements so they can have his kingdom and some power. Because Lear has announced the splitting of his kingdom some suspicion is aroused in the audience with Regan and Geonerill’s flattery, realizing they are only saying what he wants to hear for his power, by using phrases such as “Dearer than eyesight, space, and liberty;……..No less than life, with grace, health, beauty, honour;”. This is comparable to the way in which Edmond plays off his brother.
In Shakespearean times there was a very organised hierarchy system with God at the top then the king and pope to barrens and bishops the knights then yeomen, farmers and finally slaves, and servants. In each section the women are seen as lower than men. Also since god was regarded as highest he is to decide who is to be king. Shakespeare completely breaks that code in King Lear, as there are to be 3 women rulers, ruling a country split into 3 decided by the King and not God. This would have been seen as wrong and as if the Chain of Being had been twisted.
Act 3 scene 7 ends with the servants talking. For the lesser characters to take the main parts and be the only ones on stage is different and gives a contrast to the main characters dominating. This is evidence of how Shakespeare used the upside down Chain of Being to create a tenser atmosphere in the audience because the people who watched his plays were of higher class themselves and wanted to see the more powerful characters dominating to show their superiority.
Throughout the play the characters refer to blindness and how blind they have been. This feeling of not knowing what is going on because families are turning to enemies and people are being banished is continued in Act 3 Scene 7 when Gloucester is blinded. This is the climax of the story with more action and violence makes the point of how characters are being confused by what they don’t know because Gloucester sent the King to Dover for good reasons and is innocent. Dramatic irony helps twist the story and characters into believing things that are not true.
In act 1 scene 1 Kent talk of how blind Lear is with the phrase “See better, Lear…….The true blank of thine eye.” This identifies Lear’s moral blindness, lack of self-knowledge, and misunderstanding of his daughters. This is true when he came to deal with Cordlia’s refusal to obey him. The underscore of images to do with sight and blindness sharply emphasizes the dramatic effect of Cornwall’s literalness of Gonerill’s threat in act 3 scene 7. Shakespeare has made the theme of blindness very important in King Lear with several references to it in each act to show how some characters are blinded from the truth and believe what they want.
In Act 3 scene 7 Cornwall has a fight in which one of Gloucester’s servants is killed and Cornwall is wounded. Regan then pampers Cornwall with no remorse for what they have just done to Gloucester. This contrasts what the audience expect as the more needing of the two characters deserves the attention, which is Gloucester, but he gets none. This shows evil because there is no pity shown by Regan towards Gloucester.
At the beginning of act 1 scene 2 Edmond sets up his half brother, so he may enjoy Gloucester’s land and money when he dies, by writing a false letter saying Edgar is going to get rid of Gloucester. The audience know this is a staged letter but the characters do not (except Edmond). Shakespeare makes this deceit very clear to the audience by having Edmond explain the plot and then lie to his father. This again shows close family tension because Edgar is lying and because as soon as Gloucester sees the letter he turns against Edgar without investigating any further. “I’ll apprehend him. Abominable villain”. ‘Abominable’ meaning inhumane in Shakespearean times shows Gloucester has made up his mind.
In my opinion this play was written to show the audience how bad events can turn out because at the beginning the daughters express their love for their farther and by the end they have tormented him so much that he goes mad. Then all three daughters die along with Lear and Edmond. This play fulfils the tragedy rules because Lear’s life is good and then he is rejected and finally dies. It would thrill an audience because it has a range of fierce emotions and violence.
Shakespeare works the play well because in sections where extreme violence is shown the audience have to watch and cannot escape. For reasons like this the play is made more dramatic and the audience remember details maybe to help them understand the complicated plot.
Overall Shakespeare was an artist of language who created some of the best plays and is recognised as being one of the largest influences on a change of the use of the English language. He showed how powerful words can be.
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