The Theme of Sin in Play ‘King Lear’ by Shakespeare
“King Lear” is a play all about the cruelty of human nature and the ways in which all people, “good” and “bad”, can sin, or be sinned against. Lear is a very difficult character to categorise as either “good” or “bad” as he is both “sinned against” and “sinning”. It is also very difficult to use these sins as a measure of his character as they a varying in severity.
When we first meet Lear he is in the process of dividing his kingdom into three, preparing to hand it to his three daughters.
This is a sin, as according to The Divine Right of Kings, each monarch is chosen by God, and is there fore answerable to none but him. Having been chosen by God to rule, it would be wrong for him to surrender his sovereignty. Apart from this, it was incredibly foolish of Lear to give the crown to more than one heir, as it leaves a huge problem of a possible civil war.
Other characters can at this point see the folly of the King’s actions. Kent advices the king to “reserve thy state”; in saying this he is advising the King not to give away his rule. Our sympathy at this point is almost certainly not with Lear, particularly after seeing the egotistical love test he imposes on his three daughters before giving them their share of the kingdom.
“Tell me, my daughters,
(Since now we will divest us both of rule,
Interest of territory, cares of state),
Which of you shall we say doth love us most?”
His test is a ridiculous one, as it is obvious that the amount of love his daughters have for him has absolutely no effect on their ability to rule a country.
Lear reinforces the audience’s ill opinion of him by banishing his youngest daughter and his most trusted advisor when the daughter refuses to lie about her love to her father.
“Unhappy that I am, I cannot heave
My heart into my mouth: I love your majesty
According to my bond; no more nor less.”
Cordelia speaks honestly and sensibly, but by doing so she injures Lear’s pride, and for this she is disinherited. And when the King’s most trusted advisor takes Cordelia’s side, the Lear is forced to banish him also to save face. So far Lear appears more sinning than sinned against.
His two eldest daughters both lie about their love for him in order to claim their inheritance. Goneril claims;
“Sir, I love you more than word can ever wield the matter”
To which her sister, Regan, agrees;
“I am made of the same mettle as my sister”
Neither of the two can state a legitimate reason for their love, one claiming that words cannot describe her love, and the other simply agrees. However, I feel that they can be forgiven this sin, as their father had left them with little choice, as is shown by his mistreatment of Cordelia. This must be counted as a sin against the King, as Goneril and Regan did lie with vicious intent. Considering that the daughter’s sin stemmed from that of the father, we must still consider Lear the greater sinner at this point.
Having divided his kingdom, Lear intends to stay with his daughters. This may be considered as imposing on the girls, but Lear is left with very little choice, as he has sent away the daughter he intended to stay with. He is forced to stay with each of his two remaining for alternate months, as Regan reveals and the end of Act 1, Scene 1:
“That’s most certain, and with you; next month with us.”
Lear has been, up until this point, fooled by his daughter’s feigned love for him, and is genuinely shocked and upset when his daughter’s contempt for him is finally revealed.
“Does any here know me? This is not Lear:
Does Lear walk thus? Speak thus? Where are his eyes?”
He finds it amazing that he is experiencing such disrespect having given up his power. It is at this point that we first begin to feel sympathetic towards the king, with his daughters against him, having given away all of his rights, he has no where to live and is forced out onto the heath, where he gradually goes mad.
By act three scene six, Lear is thoroughly mad. He holds a mock trial for his daughter, Goneril, assisted by the Fool, Edgar, and a reluctant Kent. He charges her with kicking the king. He takes the whole thing very seriously.
“Arraign her first; ’tis Goneril. I here take my oath
before this honourable assembly, she kick’d the poor
king her father.”
The charge is a very bizarre one, and he has no other to put forward. He is obviously very confused by the whole situation. Our sympathy for the king grows as his madness grows.
Though it is clear that Lear has many enemies in the play, we must also recognise his allies, who suffer both at as hand or as a direct consequence of a previous sin of his. For example, Gloucester has his eyes gauged out for supporting the French, who invade in order to protect Lear, and the country. Kent is banished under pain of death by Lear himself because of his attempts to make the King see sense. Cordelia is eventually hanged in her jail cell having allied herself to Lear. It is difficult to decide weather these events should be counted as sins of Lear’s own making, or as sins against the King. The banishment of Kent can certainly be blamed on him, as it is due to his pride that he refused to see sense. However, the fait of Gloucester and Cordelia is very difficult to account for. Lear certainly blames himself. Lear feels particularly guilty about Cordelia’s fate.
“I might have sav’d her; now she’s gone for ever!”
Lear was not with Cordelia when she was hanged, and when he arrived it was too late for her, and for this he cannot forgive himself.
It is certainly due to Lear that these deaths were allowed to take place, but I think that we must acknowledge Edmund, Goneril and Regan as the sinners in these cases.
In conclusion, I feel that, though the King made many foolish and unforgivable mistakes, they all stemmed from one fatal error of judgement; his belief in his daughter’s and ally’s love and respect for him. He realises his mistakes and shows great remorse. Edmund, Goneril and Regan are the sinners of this play as they were, at all times, aware of the evil of their plots and only seem to regret being found out. I believe that Lear is justified in declaring himself to be “more sinned against than sinning”.
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