William Shakespeare's King Lear has both personal and political dimensions, just as Lear himself is both a father and a king. How do the family struggles between Lear and his three daughters play out on a national scale? Does the play suggest that families and nations encounter some of the same problems? What are they?
William Shakespeare was so prolific, so knowledgeable, so insightful, and so in command of the English language that virtually any element or facet of the human condition is addressed somewhere in his collected works. King Lear, however, stands out among his tragedies for its harsh indictment of human tendencies towards deceit, misjudgments, conspiracy, sexual manipulation and disloyalty – and that is all just within Lear’s family. Throw in the machinations of Edmund, the cruel and illegitimate son of Gloucester, a nobleman close to and loyal to King Lear, whose “legitimate” son, Edgar, is loyal to his father, and the stage was set for some kind of scathing message regarding human relations at both the macro and micro levels. In some ways, Lear’s difficulties with his daughters, only one of whom, Cordelia, actually loves and is loyal to him (although she is reserved in expressing her emotions to him early in the play), better reflects relations among nations than within nations, but the conflicts central to King Lear can certainly be applied domestically.
King Lear is a tragic figure in his inability to “see” who among his inner-most circle are loyal and who pose a threat, just as Gloucester, who is literally blinded during the play, cannot “see” who among his two sons is loyal and deserving. It is the Fool who is most perceptive regarding the inability of those elites around him to accurately perceive the realities in which they live, as when he says to Kent,
All that follow
their noses are led by their eyes but blind men; and
there's not a nose among twenty but can smell him
And, it is the Fool who laments to the king the latter’s failure to wise up to the intrigues surrounding him and to the loyalties, or lack thereof, among his three daughters:
Thou shouldst not have been old till thou hadst
A common theme throughout King Lear, and certainly applicable to the broader human condition, is the inability or unwillingness of most to take responsibility for their situations in life, as, in Act IV, Scene I, Gloucester blames the gods for his failings, not himself, primarily in his tragic misjudgments regarding his sons:
“As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods.
They kill us for their sport.”
Throughout Shakespeare’s play, the characters are blaming natural forces for their failings, a tendency markedly noted by Edmund, the deceitful and resentful “bastard son” of Gloucester. In Act I, Scene II, Edmund, conversing with Gloucester, is lamenting the fate of the younger, illegitimate son who will receive nothing of his father’s estate while Edgar will receive everything. Edmund is cleverly deceiving his father into believing that Edgar is disloyal and is impatient waiting for his father’s death. After Gloucester exits, Edmund ruminates about the way people blame the alignment of the stars and planets for their failings and troubles rather than take responsibility for their actions:
“This is the excellent foppery of the world, that,
when we are sick in fortune,--often the surfeit
of our own behavior,--we make guilty of our
disasters the sun, the moon, and the stars: as
if we were villains by necessity; fools by
heavenly compulsion; knaves, thieves, and
treachers, by spherical predominance; drunkards,
liars, and adulterers, by an enforced obedience of
planetary influence; and all that we are evil in,
by a divine thrusting on: an admirable evasion
of whoremaster man, to lay his goatish
disposition to the charge of a star.”
Edgar and Cordelia are the loyal offspring of emotionally-blinded fathers, and must endure the conspiracies of their respective siblings in order to both survive and to protect the fathers they love. In the end, it is Edgar who alone suggests that people are improperly blaming nature for their difficulties rather than accepting responsibility:
Let's exchange charity.
I am no less in blood than thou art, Edmund;
If more, the more thou hast wrong'd me.
My name is Edgar, and thy father's son.
The gods are just, and of our pleasant vices
Make instruments to plague us:
The dark and vicious place where thee he got
Cost him his eyes.
And, in perhaps the play’s most poignant and trenchant observation, the final comments between the nobleman Kent and the duke of Albany, the weak, ineffectual husband of the ruthless, scheming Goneril, the two part ways with the following exchange:
The duke of Albany’s observation about the triumph of emotions over reason is particularly applicable to the society in which we live today. Early in Act I, Scene I, the king is with his daughters and, blind to the truth (the sight motif begins), listens to but does not hear the words of those to whom he should be closest:
Sir, I love you more than words can wield the matter;
Dearer than eye-sight, space, and liberty;
Beyond what can be valued, rich or rare;
No less than life, with grace, health, beauty, honour;
As much as child e'er loved, or father found;
A love that makes breath poor, and speech unable;
Beyond all manner of so much I love you.
King Lear can be considered an indictment of human and international relations because anybody who has studied the history of war can find in the seeds of those conflicts the willful blindness, the misjudgments, the machinations, the arrogance and the duplicity that collectively results in catastrophe.