Despite the three-hundred-year-old debate regarding the lack of unity in the plot of King Lear, it is one of the most readable and gripping of William Shakespeare’s dramas. The theme of filial ingratitude is presented clearly in the depiction of two families, whom circumstances eventually bring together as the two narrative lines converge. King Lear is not only an absorbing drama but a disturbing one. The beauty of diction and the overwhelming pathos of the treatment given to innocence and goodness add to the poignancy of the emotional play. Like all great tragic dramas, the story of Lear and his folly purges the emotions by terror and pity.
King Lear’s first entrance in act 1 is replete with ritual and ceremony. He is full of authority and assurance as he makes his regal way through the ordered court. When he reveals his intention to divide his kingdom into three parts for his daughters, he exudes the confidence generated by his long reign. The crispness and directness of his language suggests a power that, far from senility, demonstrates the stability and certainty of long, unchallenged rule. From that point on, the play acts out the destruction of that fixed order and the emergence of a new, tentative balance.
In the opening scene, Lear speaks as king and father. The absolute ruler decides to apportion his kingdom to his three heirs as a gift rather than bequest. In performing this act, which superficially seems both reasonable and generous, Lear sets in motion a chain of events that exposes his vulnerabilities not only as a king and a father but also as a man. Shakespeare shows that it is foolish to divest oneself of power and responsibility and yet expect to retain the trappings of authority. This is exactly what Lear does when he relies with ill-placed confidence on the love of his daughters. He asks too much and he acts too precipitously, but he is punished by an inexorable universe out of all proportion to his errors in judgment.
When he asks his daughters for a declaration of love, as a prerequisite for a share of the kingdom, he is as self-assured a parent as he is an overbearing monarch. He credits the facile protestations of love by Goneril and Regan because they are what he wants to hear and because they conform to the ceremonial necessities of the occasion. Cordelia’s honest response, born of a greater love, are out of keeping with the occasion. Lear does not look beneath the surface. He lets ritual appearances replace internal reality; in fact, he refuses to distinguish between the two.
The asseverations of Goneril and Regan soon emerge as the cynical conceits they really are, but by then Lear banished Cordelia and the loyal Kent, who sees through the sham. Lear is successively and ruthlessly divested of all the accoutrements of kingship by his villainous daughters, who eventually reduce him to the condition of a ragged, homeless madman. Paradoxically, it is in this extremity on the heath with Edgar and the fool that Lear comes to a knowledge of himself and his community with humanity that he never achieved while enjoying the glories of power. Buffeted by the natural fury of the storm, which is symbolic of the chaos and danger that come with the passing of the old order, Lear through his madness sees the common bond that connects him to the rest of humanity.
The experience of Lear is, on a more manageable, human level, mirrored in the Gloucester subplot. Gloucester, too, suffers filial ingratitude, but not one raised to a cosmic level. He, too, mistakes appearance for reality in trusting the duplicitous Edmund and disinheriting the honest Edgar, but his behavior is more clearly the outgrowth of an existing moral confusion, which is reflected in his ambivalent and unrepentant affection for his illegitimate son. His moral blindness leads to physical blindness when his faulty judgment makes him vulnerable to the villains. In his blindness, he finally sees the truth of his situation, but his experience remains that of a father and a man.
Lear’s experience parallels Gloucester’s in that his figurative madness leads to a real madness in which he finally recognizes what he lacks. He sees in the naked Edgar, himself a victim of Gloucester’s moral blindness, the natural state of man, stripped of all external decoration, and he realizes that he ignored the basic realities of the human condition. His experience finally transcends Gloucester’s, however, because he is a king, preeminent among men. He not only represents the hazards of kingship but also the broadly human disposition to prefer pleasant appearances to troubling realities. Because of his position, however, Lear’s failure brings the whole political and social order down with him.
Lear violates nature by a culpable ignorance of it. The result is familial rupture, physical suffering, and existential confusion. Brought low, Lear begins to fashion a new salutary view of himself, human love, and human nature. In his insanity, Lear assembles a bizarre court of mad king, beggar, and fool that reasserts the common bonds of all men. Once he achieves these realizations, the play’s evil characters, so carefully balanced against the good in Shakespeare’s precarious world, begin to kill each other off and succumb to the vengeance of regenerated justice.
It is, however, a mark of Shakespeare’s uncompromising view of reality that there is no simple application of poetic justice to reward the good and punish the wicked. The good die, too. Edgar finishes off his brother in a trial by combat, and the machinations of Goneril and Regan result in the destruction of both, but the redeemed Lear and Cordelia, the perfection of selfless love, also die. That Lear should die is perhaps no surprise. The suffering he endures in his confrontation with the primal elements does not allow an optimistic return to normal life and prosperity. He looks into the eye of nature and there is nothing left for him but to die.
The death of Cordelia is more troublesome because she is the perfectly innocent victim of the evil and madness that surround her. She dies gratuitously, not because of any internal necessity of the plot but because the message to save her arrives too late. The dramatist creates his own inevitability to represent the ruthless consequences of the evil and chaos that are loosed. When Lear enters with the dead Cordelia, he accomplishes the final expiation of his unknowing.
Out of these sufferings and recognitions comes a new moral stasis. Nevertheless, the purged world does not inspire great confidence that it will attain stability in the future. When Kent, who is old, refuses kingship, Edgar assumes authority, but despite his rectitude there is an unsettling doubt that he has the force or stature to maintain the new order in this volatile world where evil and chaos always exist not far beneath the surface.