The Use of Paradox as Related to the Theme of Truth in King Lear

May 18, 2019 by Essay Writer

“May not an ass know when the cart draws the horse?”1 (I.iv.223). This question, posed by the Fool, is aptly descriptive of the world of King Lear,which is a world turned upside down, a cart before the horse existence, whichsets the characters spinning in a clamorous storm of chaos. Shakespeareincludes countless examples of the paradoxical circumstance in this play. Theinclusion of these contradictory circumstances add an appropriate, true tolife sense of irony to the play as well as a thematic suggestion of theoutcome of a refusal to accept or recognize the truth.One particularly noteworthy example of this is that in King Lear theparents become the children. Once Lear has divided his kingdom, he becomesdependent upon his daughters for support. He enters into this agreement,unaware that in doing so two of his ungrateful daughters will deprive him ofpaternal authority and further patriarchal position within the kingdom.Goneril suggests this idea when she says,…Idle old man,That still would manage those authoritiesThat he hat given away! Now by my lifeOld fools are babes again, and must be usedWith checks as flatteries, when they are seen abus’d (I.iii.16.20).Later in the play, Regan, in speaking to her father, suggests much thesame thing when she declares, ” You should be rul’d and led/ By somediscretion that discerns your state/ Better than yourself,”(II.iv.148-150).The Fool echoes this suggestion when he exclaims in reference to hissong, “I have us’d it,nuncle, e’er since thou mad’st /Thy daughters thymothers, for when thou gav’st them/ The rod, and put’st down thine ownbreeches “(I.iv171-173).Not only do Lear’s daughters assume parental authority and control,Gloucester’s son assumes the position in a more nurturing capacity. WhenGloucester’s eyes are gouged out and he is as helpless as a child, Edgar,disguised as Tom’Bedlam, becomes his protector and guide. As a parent wouldseek to provide an object lesson of experience for a child, Edgar joltsGloucester from his despondency by leading him to the nonexistent edge of thecliff. Later he again encourages his father to continue when he is despairingwhen he says, ” What? In ill thoughts again? Men must endure/Their goinghence even as their coming hither,/ Ripeness is all. Cone on”(V.ii.9-11).Gloucester’s other son Edmund, like Lear’s two daughters, wishes to usurphis father’s position and authority. Ironically, he accuses Edgar ofconspiring to this as well when he says to his father concerning Edgar’s evilintent,” Never my lord. But I have heard him maintain it to be fit that, sonsat perfect age and fathers declin’d/ The father should be as ward to the son,and the son manage his revenue'(I.ii.71-74).A second paradoxical situation is depicted as Regan exclaims, ” Jestersdo oft prove prophets(I.ii.71-74). Indeed, in King Lear the Fool, in hisgadfly manner, is a spokesman for wisdom. Repeatedly he suggest that Lear hasbeen mistaken in his actions, dividing his kingdom and banishing Cordelia.The Fool says to Lear, “Why, after I have cut the egg i’ th’ middle and eatup the meat, the two crowns of the egg. When thou clovest thy crown i’th’middle and gav’st away both parts, thou bor’st thine ass on they back o’erthe dirt. Thou hadst little wit in thy bald crown when thou gav’st thy goldenone away. If I speak like myself in this, let him be whipt that first findsit so”(I.iv.158-165).The third paradoxical circumstance closely related to a prominent themeof the play is the idea that the speaker of truth is not to be believed andis thereby punished. Cordelia is banished for her refusal to lie or evenembellish her proclamation of the extent of her affection for Lear. France,in support of Cordelia’s display of honesty, states with an appropriateseries of poignant ironies, ” Fairest Cordelia, that art most rich beingpoor,/Most choice forsaken, and most loved despis’d/ Thee and thy virtueshere I seize upon,/Be it lawful I take up what’s cast away:(I.i.250-253).Kent, as well, is banished for his refusal to deny the truth when hesays,Think’st thou that duty shall have dread to speakWhen power to flattery bows? to plainness honor’s boundWhen majesty falls to folly. Reserve thy state.And in thy best consideration checkThis hideous rashness. Answer my life my judgment,Thy youngest daughter does not love thee least,Nor are those empty-hearted whose low soundsReverb no hollowness (I.i.147-153).In a later scene, after Kent’s confrontation with Oswald, he isadmonished for his outspokenness by the Duke of Cornwall. Cornwall addressesthe subject of Kent’s blatant candor in the following speech:He cannot flatter, he,An honest mind and plain, he must speak truth!And thy will take it so; if not, he’s plain.These kind of knaves I know which in this plainnessHarbor more craft and more corrupter endsThan twenty silly-ducking observantsThat stretch their duties nicely ( II.ii.98-104).King Lear contains numerous other examples of paradox within the language andthe action. Lear describes the inappropriateness of a beggar running from adog when he says, ” There/ Thou mighst behold the great image of authority: adog’s obey’d in office.” Goneril speaks to Edmund of assuming the role ofher husband when she says, ” I must change names at home, and give thedistaff/ Into my husband’s hands”(IV.ii.17-18). The blind Gloucester seesmore clearly, the mad Lear speaks more wisely, and Cordelia, the most sinnedagainst, is the most forgiving.As the play draws to its conclusion, no order has been imposed; no senseof justice reaffirmed. The guilty Edmund, Goneril and Regan die along withthe noble Cordelia and Gloucester. Yet in a striking visual image at theclose of the play, Lear reassumes the role of the father as he holds his deadchild in his arms. The Duke of Albany suggests that some order be restoredand the kingdom set right again by Edgar and Kent. In the final lines of theplay, Edgar proclaims a return to harmony, armed with a new knowledge of theessential significance of recognizing and accepting truth.The weight of this sad time we must obey,Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say:The oldest hath borne most; we that are youngShall never see so much, nor live so long (V.iii.324-327)It is suggested by his words and by the very nature of his character thatEdgar will lead his kingdom into a more enlightened age, with the samestrength, wisdom, and compassion with which he led his blinded father.In all, though the outcome of the play is tragic, there is a sense ofreassurance which asserts itself in the knowledge that the inverted, chaoticworld of Lear’s divided kingdom may be set right again. Edgar’s reaffirmationof adherence to the truth helps to dispel the chaos of opposites which issuggested by the many examples of paradox within this play.1 The Riverside Shakespeare, gen. Ed. Blakemore Evans (Boston, 1974)All subsequent quotations from Shakespeare are from this edition.

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