What are the similarities between the main plot and the subplot in King Lear?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In both the main plot and the subplot of King Lear , both main characters are old men with powerful positions in the world. Both of them make the same mistake in trusting the wrong child and disowning the child who really loves them. In the case of King Lear,...

See
This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

In both the main plot and the subplot of King Lear, both main characters are old men with powerful positions in the world. Both of them make the same mistake in trusting the wrong child and disowning the child who really loves them. In the case of King Lear, it is Cordelia who is rejected, and in the case of Gloucester it is Edgar. There is a certain bitter truth in this, because good people are not always conspicuously good, whereas greedy, selfish, dishonest people typically make a show of being just what they are not. We ought to be able to read it in their eyes, but we can't always do so. Iago in Othello is a good example. Good people do not have to pretend to be good, but bad people do have to pretend to be good because they do not dare to show their real selves. Francois de la Rochefoucauld, who said so many witty things, has said that "Hypocrisy is the tribute that vice gives to virtue."

Both Lear and Gloucester end up utterly destitute. They could not have fallen farther from their former exalted positions. Gloucester is even blind. Lear has gone mad. They are dirty, starving, and freezing. They symbolize the older generation which inevitably gets picked clean and pushed out by the generation behind it, the one they themselves have created and nurtured. Both the plot and subplot are intended to symbolize how each generation creates its own destruction and how each generation becomes thoroughly disillusioned and sick of life. Lear has daughters, Gloucester has sons. This is to accent the underlying truth that the process of displacement is universal. In fact, there has to be males and females to prolong the process. It has been going on among us Homo sapiens for something like seven thousand generations, and it is always the same old story. Each new generation has to find a place for itself--and it can only do that by displacing the generation ahead of it. When Gloucester thinks he is jumping off a cliff, that is symbolic. Each generation is symbolically pushed off a cliff to make room for the generation behind it.

Old age is full of bitter regrets.

What makes old age hard to bear is not the failing of one’s faculties, mental and physical, but the burden of one’s memories.
--Somerset Maugham

Lear's regrets over disowning Cordelia symbolize all the regrets of old age. When they meet again near Dover, he tells her:

You do me wrong to take me out o' the grave:
Thou art a soul in bliss; but I am bound
Upon a wheel of fire, that mine own tears
Do scald like molten lead.      IV.7

The same symbolism applies to Gloucester's regrets over the way he persecuted his son Edgar, the one son who truly loved him.

O dear son Edgar,
The food of thy abused father's wrath!
Might I but live to see thee in my touch,
I'ld say I had eyes again!      IV,1      

King Lear is really not about the tragedies of two men but about the universal tragedy of old age. Both men die and are not the least bit sorry to leave this stage of universal suffering. Both are utterly disillusioned. Lear thought he was loved and lovable. Gloucester thought he was a fine fellow to have created such a good-looking son out of wedlock.

 

 

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Both the subplot and the main plot are intended to illustrate Shakespeare's thesis that each generation blindly creates the generation which will take over all its possessions and leave it to die. Lear has daughters and Gloucester has sons. This is intended to show that the playwright is dealing with a universal truth and not with a specific instance. When Lear is living out in the open country scrabbling for whatever food he can find to eat, including a mouse, he rails on the folly of copulation, which seems so pleasant when it happens but leads to such sorry consequences.

Behold yond simpering dame,
Whose face between her forks presages snow;
That minces virtue, and does shake the head
To hear of pleasure's name;
The fitchew, nor the soiled horse, goes to 't
With a more riotous appetite.
Down from the waist they are Centaurs,
Though women all above:
But to the girdle do the gods inherit,
Beneath is all the fiends';
There's hell, there's darkness, there's the sulphurous pit,
Burning, scalding, stench, consumption; fie, fie, fie! pah,
pah!

Lear sees how he has brought about his own destruction through his sexual appetite. Gloucester's case is worse. Lear at least conceived his hateful daughters "between lawful sheets," but Gloucester conceived Edmund through adultery and even brags about it to Kent in the opening scene because it shows what a lusty fellow he is. Edmund ends up with his father's property and title, while Gloucester ends up homeless and blind. Both old men are cold, filthy, and starving. Lear is eating mice! Gloucester is so disillusioned and embittered that he only wants to die. All of this is only symbolic of how one generation creates the generation which will supplant it and show no love or gratitude. It doesn't make sense for people to create people who are going to "tread them down," as Keats expresses it in "Ode to a Nightingale." But every generation does it. We are manipulated by programming of which we are unconscious.

Shakespeare expresses a very similar idea in his play Measure for Measure. Duke Vincentio disguised as a friar is visiting Claudio in his cell and gives him perhaps the most pessimistic assessment of human life to be found anywhere in Shakespeare, including the following:

 

Friend hast thou none;
For thine own bowels, which do call thee sire,
The mere effusion of thy proper loins,
Do curse the gout, serpigo, and the rheum,
For ending thee no sooner.    (3.1)

Shakespeare needed a subplot to keep the dramatic and visual action going. Lear is absent throughout much of the middle part of the play. He refuses to accept his daughters' terms and goes out into the open country where he wanders aimlessly about. The subplot in which Edmund betrays both his brother and his father takes over as the space in which exciting things are happening. Without the subplot there would be a sort of huge hole in the middle of the play. Lear won't submit to his daughters and they won't relent. That is a dead end. Lear living like an animal has reached the critical point that Gloucester has yet to come to. Then when they meet by chance in an open field they are both destitute and disillusioned old men getting ready to die. 

Only the man who attains old age acquires a complete and consistent mental picture of life; for he views it in its entirety and its natural course, yet in particular he sees it not merely from the point of entry, as do others, but also from that of departure. In this way, he fully perceives especially its utter vanity, whereas others are still always involved in the erroneous idea that everything may come right in the end.        --Schopenhauer

 

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on