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,...
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.
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.