Patterns of Reversal, Paradox and Irony in King Lear

June 11, 2019 by Essay Writer

Throughout King Lear, the play’s themes and messages are communicated to the audience using a devastating combination of irony; reversal of situation and fortune; and paradox, underlining the harrowing truth of the futility of human existence presented in the play. This method is particularly effective because it highlights the fickle nature of the course of events. How one interprets this depends upon whether one believes there are gods of some sort in the play: if supernatural beings do exist in the world of the play, and are controlling events, then Gloucester’s lines, “Like flies to wanton boys are we to the gods, / They kill us for their sport” may be true, and if so this reduces the bleakness of the final picture because at least the gods have gained some pleasure from their “sport” and there is some semblance of meaning to the events. However there is much evidence to suggest that these gods do not exist: the belief in such beings is heavily satirized throughout and seen as a weakness and an excuse by those characters who do not believe in the higher powers ­ Edmund says of Gloucester’s belief:”This is the excellent foppery of the world, that when we are sick in fortune ­ often the surfeit of our own behaviour ­ we make guilty of our disasters the sun, the moon and the stars; as if we were villains by necessity, fools by heavenly compulsionŠAn admirable evasion of whoremaster man, to lay his goatish disposition to the charge of a star!” (I.ii.109-18)If one believes this view, and it is very convincing, then mankind’s sentence is a heavy one. If there are not any gods to direct events then the evil of the play is directly and completely the result of human actions and Lear’s tirade against sex in act IV scene vi rings true. Lear says that it is not adultery that is the problem, as “Gloucester’s bastard son / Was kinder to his father than my daughters / Got Œtween the lawful sheets” (lines 113-15), but the very act of sex, simply because it results in the continuation of the human race, and because the very nature of humans is evil that is a bad thing: “But to the girdle do the gods inherit, / Beneath is all the fiend’s” (lines 124-25). Procreation is bad because it perpetuates the circle of futility that is human life.A third view could be that there are gods, but they do not have any influence over the world. This is supported by Edgar’s line, “The gods are just, and of our pleasant vices / Make instruments to plague us” (V.iii.170-1). One reading of this line could be to interpret “just” as not interfering, especially as there is no sense of justice in the play, and thus the meaning of the line to be that “our pleasant vices”, i.e. human sins, are solely responsible for our suffering. This view has many of the same implications as the second one: belief in a divine presence which has ultimate control over events is a way of excusing the actions of a fundamentally evil species. Indeed it is this willingness to accept many of the events in the play as pre-ordained or fated which allows many of the atrocities to occur. When the servant stands up to Cornwall in act III scene vii saying, “Hold your hand, my Lord” (line 71), it is the first time anyone has stood up and said, “stop”. Up to this point there has been a worrying lack of human intervention in the terrible events, and along with the actions of Albany and Edgar later in the play this gives some hope for the state of human existence, although the overwhelming picture is one of bleakness and suffering.The question of whether or not there are gods in the play who intervene in the events is fundamental to the power of the play and deeply affects any reading of the meaning. I believe that there are not any gods in the world of the play and that this increases the power of the instances of irony; reversal of situation and fortune; and paradox in the play, because these are therefore entirely consequences of human actions. This increases the tragedy because the ironic incidents are often partly the fault of the victim of the irony, the paradoxes reflect directly on the nature of human existence; and any reversals result from human actions and thus can be interpreted meaningfully rather than dismissed as the whim of the gods. Thus upon the many occasions in the play when characters call upon the gods to help them in some way, there is an underlying irony because in fact their prayers will not be answered. The most powerful example of this is in the final scene of the play, when Albany says of Cordelia, “The gods defend her!” and the stage direction which follows immediately after reads: “Re-enter Lear, with Cordelia dead in his arms”. So much for the gods defending her! This is arguably the most devastatingly bleak moment in the play, and in all of literature, not least because of this irony.Perhaps the greatest irony of the play is the parallel rehabilitation of Lear and Gloucester from “foolish fond old [men]” to men of insight. The irony is that by the time they have gained this insight, both of them are unable to make use of it in any meaningful way, and cannot change the course of events: in the wider context of the eventual outcome of the play, they might as well not have happened at all. Implicit within this irony is a great paradox: in order to make use of power one must have clear and uncorrupted insight; but the very act of having power clouds and corrupts insight in such a way that one is unable to make use of that power in a virtuous way. This is illustrated by the fact that Lear only gains his insight after he has given up all the trappings of power and experienced being “unaccommodated man” (III.iv.101), but having been reduced to this level he cannot use his insight for good. In the same way, Gloucester only “sees” after he has had his eyes pulled out ­ he “stumbled when [he] saw” (IV.i.20) ­ and being blind cannot do anything useful with his clarity of vision.This ironical incongruity between insight and power is again demonstrated in the fool and Kent, who are both highly shrewd but cannot make use of this astuteness because of their positions: they have no power. The fool’s job is to tell Lear when he is wrong ­ he is the only person whom Lear allows to do so ­ and to interpret events in a witty and amusing way. The tragedy is that Lear never listens to the fool’s advice precisely because he is a jester. There is a great bond of affection between the king and his fool, but ultimately the fool is impotent, and it is a harsh irony that Lear never takes his fool seriously.Kent is again a righteous, honourable and brave character, who shows unfailing love for his king when he defies his banishment in order to help him, but like the fool Lear never truly listens to him, originally because his judgement is marred by anger and wounded pride, and subsequently because he is a servant. Kent never makes Lear “see”, even when he gets himself put in the stocks to highlight Lear’s daughters’ treachery, and ultimately is never fully reconciled with the King because Lear dies before he can realise that it was Kent in the guise of Caius who was so devoted and such a “good fellow”. Lear thinks that Caius is “dead and rotten” (V.iii.285), which adds to the tragedy of Kent but also to that of Lear, as it is another element of the king’s unresolved confusion at the moment of his death. The fool passes without having made any impression upon the events of the play, and Kent’s only action is to liase with Cordelia, which ultimately results in her death because she would not otherwise have been in the kingdom ­ although her return momentarily makes Lear happy and provides an element of hope, this quickly disappears and serves only to accentuate the already huge tragedy of the final scenes. Thus both of their roles are essentially futile and unfulfilled. Both Kent and the fool simply disappear when their service is no longer needed: when Lear begins his journey of self-realisation he no longer needs the fool to give him a commentary on events because he is beginning to see for himself, and after Lear’s death Kent has nothing left to live for, in the same way that after Cordelia’s death Lear does not, and Kent goes off to answer his “master” ­ death.Lear’s final appearance is one of overwhelming confusion and anguish, and tragically he dies without having resolved this. He asks what all the waste, the suffering, has been for, and dies before he can find an answer; if indeed there is an answer to be found. This is the final irony of the play ­ it has all been for nothing; suffering for the sake of suffering. This is made all the worse by the series of reversals in fortune in this final scene. It seems that there is some hope when Edgar slays his brother, as Edmund seems to have recanted and Cordelia and Lear may be saved. However, when Lear enters with Cordelia “dead in his arms”, this immediately obliterates the hope and again emphasises the horrific injustice of the play. It shows that Edmund has not really recanted at all; but that he remained true to the last to his destructive nature and was playing for time in order that his command to kill Cordelia and Lear should be carried out, saying, “But speak you on; / you look as you had something more to say”. The irony here is that Edgar and Albany are convinced by this act, and most of Edgar’s two lengthy speeches are overly complex and unnecessarily prolong a story that we already know, having had it played out to us on the stage. This does Edmund’s work for him, and it is indeed ironic that Edgar and Albany are seemingly so willing to delay; they forget about Lear and Cordelia completely until Kent reminds them and Albany’s reaction is the woefully stupid, “Great thing of us forgot!” This is a manifestation of Edmund Burke’s assertion that, “All it takes for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing”, and given the universal nature of the events of the play it suggests that mankind is all too ready to “do nothing”.There is a second reversal when Albany’s Œphantom normal ending’ (V.iii.295-304), which suggests that the state of the kingdom will return to normal and that “All friends shall taste / The wages of their virtue, and all foes / The cup of their deservings” (302-4), is completely destroyed by Lear’s tormented reminder that there hasn’t been justice at all, because “[his] poor fool is hanged!” These reversals in the final scene amplify the tragedy, because hope is suggested and then cruelly snatched away. Although Lear bemoans the fickle nature of fate, asking of Cordelia’s death, “Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life, / And thou no breath at all?” the lack of gods and any higher power of fortune necessarily lays the blame for Cordelia’s death on human actions in the play. Lear himself is culpable to a certain extent for Cordelia’s death because he split the kingdom and banished her in the first place, but the suffering that he endures as a result of his actions, downfall and her subsequent death is entirely disproportionate to his share of blame. This of course makes him a highly tragic figure.Throughout the play, lines of universal truth are spoken by highly unlikely people, in an ironic manifestation of the line from Macbeth, “The instruments of darkness tell us truths” (I.iii.123), and a line of Regan’s in V.iii of Lear, “Jesters do oft prove profits” (line 72). An example is Regan’s assertion that, “Što wilful men / The injuries that they themselves procure / Must be their schoolmasters.” She says correctly that for such an obstinate man as Lear, the only way in which he is going to attain self-knowledge is from within himself. While this is undoubtedly true and is vilified by subsequent events, to hear it coming from Regan’s mouth after she has, as she thinks, sentenced Lear to death on the harsh heath by refusing him shelter, is uncomfortable and certainly an ironic reversal of the way that traditional moral messages are delivered. This is not the only instance of this effect in the play: Goneril points out Lear’s sagely shortcomings in I.iv with, “As you are old and reverend, you should be wise.” Of course, Lear is far from wise at this point, and although the purpose of the line is contrary to the wishes of the audience as Goneril ejects Lear from her castle, it is true that many of the older characters in the play, such as Gloucester, are not wise as they should be but in fact politically inept. It is an echo of Goneril’s earlier line; “Old fools are babes again” (I.iii.19).Paradoxically, instead of life being a “reward” for the survivors at the end of the play, having endured untold suffering and come through it, it seems that, given the bleak judgement passed upon humanity throughout the play, as Macbeth said, “better be with the dead”(III.ii.21). Again this is a reversal of the traditional ending and in this way Lear, although, tragically, he dies without ever finding an answer to his confusion, has suffered a less punishing end than the characters alive at the end: If, as Lear argues in IV.vi.106-129, it is a crime to perpetuate human existence through procreation then it is a crime to perpetuate it through living, and in a sense the punishment is life itself. This truly underlines the futile nature of human life as presented in the play.

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