Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 888
Prior to the twentieth century Shakespeare critics tended to interpret King Lear as a conventional or classic tragedy and saw Lear himself as an Elizabethan version of the "tragic hero." Like the ancient Greek character Oedipus, Lear is a majestic figure at the start of the play whose character flaw of hubris or pride compels him to initiate acts that lead to his ultimate demise. In this traditional reading of Shakespeare's King Lear, the hero's downfall, however, has redemptive qualities: a lesson is taught and learned and the audience experiences a sense of moral uplift at the end.
Several facets of the traditional Lear as tragic hero thesis are plainly valid. Like all the classic figures of tragedy, Lear is a royal personage, a king and, indeed, a man who stands above the rest of the characters (albeit for only a few scenes). He is a commanding figure at the pinnacle of his powers. Lear is presented to us by Shakespeare as the majestic monarch, ushered onto the stage with the ceremonial pomp and trumpets. In short order, we learn that during his reign, Lear has proven himself to be an able ruler, adding to the commonwealth's prosperity and estate. Thus, Lear is worthy of his prospective status as a tragic hero.
But, like Oedipus, Lear has a basic character defect. He is excessively proud of his accomplishments as regent and, beyond that, of the love that he deserves from his three daughters. When his youngest daughter Cordelia refuses to openly affirm unlimited affection for him, Lear's wounded pride forces him to disown and expel her, leaving all his powers in the hands of his duplicitous daughters, Goneril and Regan. They, of course, abuse him and Lear again falls into a rage, leaving shelter and sustenance to become "unaccomodated man" on the storm-swept heath. There he curses his faithless daughters, but he never associates his downfall with his own tragic character flaw. In fact, he remains blind to the connection between his trait of excessive pride and his plunge into raw nature. Near the play's conclusion, having been purged of excessive pride by the rough redemptive power of nature, Lear realizes too late that he has been "a very foolish fond old man" and realizes that he is "not of perfect mind." Therefore, according to the customary view of Lear as a tragic hero, Lear is taught a lesson and the audience comes away from the play with a message about the fatal consequences of unbounded pride.
But in some modern readings of King Lear, critics have come to a far different conclusion as to what Shakespeare's play is about and "who" Lear is. In these revisionist interpretations, King Lear is not a tragedy about a distinguished individual; it is, rather, a black comedy about the human condition at large, in which Lear is a kind of Everyman, a "mortal worm" and no more. We note that, unlike the tight unity of classic tragedy, King Lear embodies a major sub-plot in Edmund's evil plans to deceive his father, Gloucester, into believing that his good son, Edgar, harbors evil intentions toward him. Gloucester's path follows the same trajectory as that of Lear: indeed, the two narrative lines even intersect. The existence of this sub-plot implies that Lear's tragedy is not special or unique in any way, and this, in turn, deprives Lear of the distinction common to true tragic heroes.
As for the lesson that Lear garners from his experience, the seeming insight that he attains on the heath has no actual bearing on the play's outcome; it is simply a crutch that Lear uses to deny the inherent absurdity of the cosmos. Even after his exposure to the cosmic elements, Lear remains blind. His ordeal on the heath does not impart wisdom to him; it leaves him completely addled. When he is reunited with Cordelia, Lear is so mad that he cannot recognize her at first, mistaking his daughter for a spirit. True, Lear does acknowledge that this spirit is his once-spurned daughter, but held captive by the forces of evil (his two older daughters and the bastard Edmund), Lear reconciles himself to the status quo. He now wants nothing more than to be imprisoned for life with his "good" daughter. Even this is withheld from him, and when he realizes that Cordelia's life has been taken, he first denies her death and then dies himself of a broken heart.
As the faithful Kent watches the distraught Lear holding Cordelia's body in his arms he expresses a sentiment that members of the audience may well share, saying "Is this the promis'd end?" (V, iii. l.264). From a revisionist standpoint, there is no lesson to be learned in King Lear by either its title character or the audience beyond the existence of evil in an amoral universe that is indifferent to human conceptions of justice, honor, dignity, and ennobling tragedy. There is no regenerative or redemptive dimension to the play; the evil and the good characters of the play all suffer a bad end. From this critical perspective, then, King Lear is not a tragic hero, he is a pathetic, powerless, and infirm old man whose story resembles that of all human beings, ending not with a bang but with a whimper when the mortal coil of life unwinds.
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King Lear is one of Shakespeare's darkest plays; darker than Measure for Measure, darker perhaps even than Titus Andronicus. So dark is it, that from 1681 to 1838 it was performed only in a tamed, even sedated version by Nahum Tate. The particular cruelty of King Lear is indicated in Shakespeare's alterations to his sources; in Holinshead's Chronicles Cordelia wins the war and restores Lear to the throne (although she does later hang herself). This darkness of tone is accompanied and indeed reinforced by a studied vagueness of time and geography.
The relationship of power and language is prominent from the beginning. Lear is at the height of his power, and plans two final acts which will settle the future of the Kingdom, of his youngest and favourite daughter Cordelia, and of himself. As might be considered typical of family events, tensions are exposed, and Lear's plan to divide the Kingdom between his daughters, marry Cordelia to the Duke of Burgundy and settle down to retirement in their third of the Kingdom is shattered. The power of language to deceive is the first and most obvious point made: Goneril and Regan are willing to say whatever they feel necessary to obtain their promised share, their empty flattery receives its reward, but Cordelia's honesty precipitates disaster.
Goneril claims to love Lear "more than eye sight", "A love that makes breath poor and speech unable, Beyond all manner of so much I love you." (1:1:62-63). Regan declares "I am alone felicitate in your dear highness' love" (1:1:77-78). In successive asides Cordelia allows the audience access to her greater integrity (or resistance) "What shall Cordelia speak? Love and be silent" (1:1:61), "Then poor Cordelia, And yet not so, since I am sure my love's more ponderous than my tongue" (1:1:75). Cordelia gives her own comment on the deceptive power of language: "that glib and oily art to speak and purpose not" (1:1:213-214).
Her fears are justified when her Father turns to her and asks: "What can you say to draw a third more opulent than your sisters? Speak." Her reply is not best calculated to please him: "Nothing my Lord" (1:1:84-85). Cordelia's inability (or unwillingness) to join with her sisters in this charade so angers Lear that he disinherits and banishes her. His loyal servant Kent, who defends her, is also banished. Lear's power is total, and, as many commentators have noted, used unjustly. Part of this power is his ability to name effectively: his word is law. This power to name is expressed in his offer of Cordelia to the Duke of Burgundy: "Unfriended, new adopted to our hate, Dowered with our curse, and strangered with our oath" (1:1:206-207). Lear combines here the authority of the father with the (similarly regarded) authority of the King. He has already delivered the "curse" to which he refers:
Let it be so. Thy truth then be thy dower,
For by the sacred radiance of the sun,
The mysteries of Hecat, and the night,
By all the operation of the orbs,
From whom we do exist and cease to be,
Here I disclaim all my paternal care,
Propinquity and property of blood,
And as a stranger to my heart and me
Hold thee from me for ever.
Lear clearly and confidently employs language to exercise power, invoking the goddess Hecat, the sun, the night and the stars in his support. At this stage, and for the last time, Lear is in control of the world through his use of language. Over the course of the play, Lear's language becomes decreasingly able to shape reality. While Lear exercises the language of power from a position of power his language can impose his will on the world. Once he abdicates power his language is powerful only in its emotional resonances. It can excite the pity of his companions and of the audience, but not direct, or even accurately describe, the course of events. When Lear says "by the power that made me, I tell you all her wealth" (1:1:205-206) he refers to "the Gods", but the power that made him could be construed as Royal, not Divine. Kent has already denied Lear's access to the Gods: "Now by Apollo, King, thou swear'st thy gods in vain" (1:1:158). Soon Regan will say "I pray you, father, being weak, seem so" (2:4:190).
As he had cursed Cordelia, so he is driven to curse Goneril (1:4:244-275). Regan is sure that he will do the same to her "when the rash mood is on" (2:4:158). By 2:4:267-275 his anger has become a futile, childish rage in the face of his daughters' resistance:
No, you unnatural hags
I will have such revenges on you both
That all the world shall—I will do such things
What they are, yet I know what; but they shall be
The terrors of the earth. You think I'll weep
No, I'll not weep.
I have full cause of weeping, but this heart
Shall break into a hundred thousand flaws
Or ere I'll weep. O fool, I shall go mad.
It is during this speech that the storm begins. Lear's power of naming things as they are having been already removed or given away, he can no longer frame in words or even imagine the "revenges" he desires.
Words still exercise their power to control the perception of the world over the blinded Gloucester (who states frankly that "'tis the times' plague, when madmen lead the blind" (4:1:47)). Edgar, his loyal son, impersonates a madman through a series of linguistic tics which may have been recognised by the audience as parts of a hoax. Edgar convinces Gloucester that he is at the edge of a cliff through a descriptive passage which is among the most remarked in the play. This feat of linguistic power is entirely and visibly mendacious. The audience is shown the deception, and Gloucester prepares to plunge to his death in the most extraordinary of several moments in which King Lear veers perilously close to black comedy. Edgar still continues to deceive his father, convincing him that he has been saved miraculously. He soon adopts a ridiculous yokel accent in order to dispatch Oswald, and does not recover his identity until he challenges his half-brother Edmund, now Earl of Gloucester:
What's he that speaks for Edmund, Earl of Gloucester?
Himself. What say'st thou to him?
Draw thy sword,
That, if my speech offend thy noble heart
Thy arm may do thee justice; here is mine.
Edmund responds in defence of his lies:
This sword, this arm, and my best spirits are bent
To prove upon thy heart, whereto I speak
The conflict is expressed in terms of speech, it is what is said to whom and by whom that is in question, it is a matter of honour. Edgar's deceptions were forced upon him, and most critics see them as "redemptive" in their effect on his father. Edmund's, on the other hand, which start as soon as we meet him alone in 1:2, are solely the machinations of the Elizabethan/Jacobean "malcontent", directed towards his own advancement. Even Kent, who repeatedly offends through his bluntness, is forced by circumstances to disguise himself, deceive about his identity, and negotiate with the invading French forces. Perhaps the play does take place in a time of astrological upheaval as Gloucester states in 1:2:95-108, a time in which even the honest are driven to deception in order to preserve the good. For Jonathan Dollimore "King Lear is above all a play about power, property and inheritance." While Lear is about power it is also about "human nature", the influence of the "Gods", social and familial duty, sight, and renunciation. Shakespeare often works with competing imperatives, and in Lear the various relationships between language and power, and the use of language to do harm and to deceive seem frequently in play. In his madness, Lear realises "they are not men o' their words. They told me I was everything; 'tis a lie" (4:5:101-102).
As George Orwell wrote:
Lear renounces his throne but expects everyone to continue treating him as a King. He does not see that if he surrenders power, other people will take advantage of his weakness: also that those who flatter him most grossly, i.e. Regan and Goneril, are exactly the ones who will turn against him.
King Lear challenges the audience's expectations of divine or poetic justice, and significantly interrogates the relationship of language with power. In Lear's last scene, mourning for Cordelia, he achieves a simplicity of expression wholly touching, and entirely lacking the bombast of previous speeches. In the final speech of the play, Edgar (in the Quarto, Albany) enunciates reaction against the false language which has poisoned the body politic. Now we must "Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say."
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Strangely enough, it is G. Wilson Knight, a critic famous (not to say notorious) for a vehemently Christian interpretation of Shakespeare's plays, who notes in The Wheel of Fire some of the comedic aspects of King Lear. Whether or not the harsh moral ecology of King Lear fits comfortably with the Christian ethos of forgiveness, structural elements of comedy are plainly present in the plays, quite apart from the sardonic humour of the Fool. Indeed, a "happy ending" involving the marriage of Cordelia and Edgar was part of Nahum Tate's revision of the play which was the accepted version from 1681 to 1838. Marriage is the traditional ending in Shakespearian comedy, and many critics have found the death of Cordelia to be unacceptably cruel. This is especially true in view of the fact that Shakespeare altered his sources for the story (Holinshead's Chronicle and the anonymous play King Leir). Wilson Knight sees the opening scene as being comedic, a suggestion unique in my experience, but not without foundation, in that Lear's stage-management of his abdication breaks on Cordelia's resistance, leaving his plan in chaos. It is the puncturing of pride and pomposity, the subversion of Lear's assumptions, which provides the possibility of humour, although Lear's reaction to this setback is authentically frightening. Over the course of the play Lear's power to curse—
That thou hast sought to make us break our vows,
Which we durst never yet, and with strained pride
To come between our sentences and our power,
Which nor our nature nor our place can bear,
Our potency made good, take thy reward:
—declines, to become ludicrous and ineffectual:
No, you unnatural hags
I will have such revenges on you both
That all the world shall—I will do such things
What they are, yet I know what; but they shall be
The terrors of the earth.
Where it has been traditional to see the conflict of Act I as a dispute between truth and falsehood, Katherine McLuskie identifies it as an ideological clash between a contractual and a patriarchal notion of authority in the family. This is well observed, but does not entirely account for Cordelia's behaviour, in which the idea of "chastity" in its broadest Elizabethan sense would seem to be involved. Shakespeare's stress on female chastity becomes increasingly marked in the late plays.
If laughter is restrained by fear in Act I, it is equally restricted by pity in Act III. Alexander Leggat identifies various structural elements of the play which are characteristic of comedy as a Shakesperian genre. "Every one of Shakespeare's plays makes some use of laughter, though the laughter can be grim; but none makes such pervasive use of the fundamental structures of comedy, particularly as Shakespeare practised it." Leggat cites Maynard Mack, who sees Lear's journey through the blasted heath as a parody of the forest scene in As You Like It, and Stephen Booth on similarities with Love's Labours Lost, and notes the "full and significant use of disguise" (p.3), very much a feature of Shakesperian comedy, rather than tragedy. Furthermore, I think the use of a prominent sub-plot mirroring the main action is comedic rather than tragic in normal circumstances. Shakespeare, an inveterate explorer of the emerging theatrical conventions, seems to be using the forms and techniques of comedy to produce what nearly all commentators agree are very uncomfortable dramatic effects. Wilson Knight speaks of "the demonic laughter that echoes in the Lear world."
The obvious focus of humour in King Lear is the Fool, whose sardonic commentary on Lear's behaviour is counter-balanced by his loyalty. Some of the Fool's jokes are funny, and perhaps more of them might have been in 1605, but his humour is mordant, and his fixed subject Lear's abdication. Where Lear blames his daughters, the Fool consistently points out that it was he who gave them power over him. The Fool's cultural materialist position is close to Jonathan Dollimore's.
As far as I know, the comic possibilities of Kent's role have been little discussed. At first he opposes Lear's banishment of Cordelia with sharply satirical observations, and is himself banished for his pains. He then disguises himself and earns Lear's approval by attacking Oswald. His outrageous behaviour in attacking him again at Gloucester's castle gets him put in the stocks. In this struggle he delivers a series of insults of considerable comic force.
A knave, a rascal, an eater of broken meats, a base, proud, shallow, beggarly, three-suited, hundred-pound, filthy worsted-stocking knave; a lily-livered, action-taking, whoreson, glass-gazing, super-serviceable, finical rogue; one trunk inheriting slave; one that wouldst be a bawd in way of good service, and art nothing but the composition of a knave, beggar, coward, pander, and the son and heir of a mongrel bitch.
Oswald himself is something of a figure of fun, and is eventually killed by the versatile Edgar in his role as a yokel, whilst attempting to murder the blind Gloucester. But here we touch on the most blatant and frightening example of the humour of cruelty in King Lear, the sub-plot involving Gloucester and his son Edgar. Before dealing with that, it is worth discussing the Gloucester/Edgar/Edmund sub-plot at its outset.
Gloucester is appallingly open to suggestion. The robust and ebullient Edmund, his illegitimate son, finds it absurdly easy to convince him that his legitimate son and heir Edgar is plotting to remove him. Gloucester supports his credulity with reference to planetary influences, a Polonius-like meditation which Edmund ridicules in a short soliloquy.
when we are sick in fortune—often the surfeits of our own behaviour—we make guilty of our disasters the sun, the moon, and stars, as if we were villains on necessity, fools by heavenly compulsion, knaves, thieves, and treachers by spherical predominance, drunkards, liars, and adulterers by an enforced obedience of planetary influence;
Edgar too falls prey to Edmund's scheme, and is thus forced to begin his extraordinary career of impersonations. Edmund's energy and charm might be calculated to win the audience's sympathy, although this will wanes as the play progresses.
Gloucester, blinded as a traitor by Cornwall and Regan, and thrown out of his own castle—"let him smell his way to Dover" (3:7:90-91)—is introduced to Edgar in his role of Poor Tom. As Poor Tom, Edgar has been assisting Lear's slide into madness. Much of his repertoire is derived from the cries of "Bedlam beggars", and some of it from Samuel Harsnett's debunking of a case of spirit possession. Some or all of this may have been considered amusing by its first audience; there is a weird sub-plot involving a madhouse in The Duchess of Malfi.
With a quick change of clothes, Edgar undertakes to guide his father to Dover. Although Gloucester does momentarily suspect him, he retains enough gullibility to be convinced that he is on the edge of a cliff. Seeking death, he flings himself face down onto the stage (we must presume) in what is the most frightening of comedic set-pieces. Edgar then persuades him that he has had a miraculous escape.
Lear re-enters at this point, and delivers a complete comic madman act. He criticises his flatterers: "they told me I was everything; 'tis a lie" (4:5:102). He then engages in a fairly typical contemporary diatribe against woman, which turns darkly misogynistic. He then proceeds to make a series of jokes at the expense of Gloucester's lack of eyes.
I remember thine eyes well enough. Dost thou squiny at me? No, do thy worst, blind Cupid, I'll not love. Read thou this challenge. Mark but the penning of it.
He turns from Gloucester's blindness, and begins to berate the hypocrisy of wealth and power in terms reminiscent of the manner of Puritan satire from Hugh Latimer on.
I do not intend to suggest that King Lear is anything other than a tragedy. It does seem, however, that the play makes use of the techniques and structures of comedy. Perhaps this is one of the factors that makes Lear seem so harsh, a sense of repressed laughter. King Lear interrogates the structures of power through the frame of comedic structures, and with the satirical commentary of first the Fool and later Lear himself. Lear thus throws into question not only the basis of power, but the emerging conventions of theatrical practice.
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King Lear was written in 1604 or 1605, as far as can be established. It certainly incorporates material from Samuel Harsnett's A Declaration of Several Popish Impostures, London, (1603), an exposure of a fraudulent case of spirit possession, and it was registered with the Company of Stationers on 26th November 1607. The Quarto was published by Nathaniel Butler at the sign of the Pied Bull in 1608, and a significantly different version included in the Folio of 1623.
King Lear was rewritten in 1681, twenty-one years after the re-introduction of the Monarchy. The play was no longer considered suitable in Shakespeare's version, and Nahum Tate rewrote it in line with Restoration notions of 'decorum'. Although Tate's version is justly reviled, it is in some ways truer to its sources (Raphael Holinshed's The Third Volume of Chronicles (1587) and an anonymous play King Leir) in allowing Cordelia and Lear to survive. However, in the Holinshed version, Cordelia does eventually hang herself in prison. King Lear was undoubtedly too uncomfortable for Restoration tastes, and it remains a troubling and harrowing play. Shakespeare's version was not restored in performance until 1838.
The range of critical opinion expressed on King Lear in nearly four hundred years is obviously too extensive and varied to detail here. In particular the vast expansion of literary criticism in the Twentieth Century renders an inclusive review impossible. As usual, there are no contemporary accounts of Shakespearean performances, and the first critical response is implied, therefore, in a wholesale rewriting of the play by Nahum Tate in 1681. Although the critical response is varied almost all critics agree on three points; King Lear is 'great'; King Lear is bleak; as Maynard Mack says, 'King Lear is a problem.'1
Tate's 'Dedication' to The History of King Lear states:
Twas my good Fortune to light on one Expedient to rectify what was wanting in the Regularity and Probability of the Tale.
Tate's 'expedient' was to invent a romance between Cordelia and Edgar. The terms Tate uses throw some light on Restoration critical theory. 'Regularity' is a matter of form, of adherence to a set of dramatic and aesthetic rules, although questions of 'decorum' have a moral dimension. More modern interpretations find a high degree of integration in the form of King Lear; although the play deals with chaos it is a highly wrought artefact, both linguistically and dramatically.2
Tate's 'probability' has remained a concern for critics, notably A. C. Bradley, but there is a third and perhaps more significant factor Tate does not explicitly address here, although it clearly concerned him: King Lear seems to lack a comfortable moral overview, a position from which the events of the play can be seen to uphold some over-arching moral position, or postulate a moral direction in the world. The moral interpretation of the play depends on the 'fitness', or justice of the outcome for each individual and of the play as a whole. The judgement of 'fitness' may be based, as for S. T. Coleridge, on the predominant characteristic of each character, or on an Old Testament view in which God punishes the characters for their sins. Other Christian interpretations, such as G. Wilson Knight, see renunciation of the world as the moral lesson to be drawn.
For Samuel Johnson the play was too much to bear. 'There is no scene which does not add to the aggravation of distress. . . .' The pressure mounts relentlessly throughout, and the tragic conclusion seems 'contrary to the natural ideas of justice'.
I was many years ago so shocked by Cordelia's death that I know not whether I ever endured to read again the last scenes of the play till I undertook to revise them as an editor.3
In 1811, A. W. Schlegel disagreed with the verdict that there was an improper conclusion to the play, feeling that 'After so many sufferings, Lear can only die.' (Lectures on Dramatic Art and Literature). The poet John Keats wrote a sonnet on Lear, not one of his finest works, (Jan. 1818), and had previously (Dec. 1817) commented on the play in a letter, praising its
Intensity, capable of making all disagreeables evaporate, from their being in close relationship with Beauty and Truth.4
A. C. Bradley's Shakespearean Tragedy (1904) includes an influential chapter on Lear which sees the play as the story of Lear's education and redemption. Bradley also notes the play's size; 'King Lear is too huge for the stage'; 'King Lear seems to me Shakespeare's greatest achievement, but it seems to me not his best play'. Bradley goes on to enumerate a large number of instances in which he finds the plot and character motivation faulty. These are too numerous to reproduce here, but most are at least arguably accurate. Bradley's chapter on King Lear is often cited; Jonathan Dollimore mentions him with approval in Radical Tragedy (1989). Bradley does however criticise the blinding of Gloucester as 'revolting or shocking' (neither of which could be considered objections in the age of Quentin Tarantino). Bradley concludes that 'Shakespeare, set upon the dramatic effect of the great scenes . . . was exceptionally careless of probability, clearness and consistency. . . .'
G. Wilson Knight, in his highly Christian interpretation of Shakespeare's Tragedies, The Wheel of Fire, tries to justify the cruelties of the play by reference to an overarching Christian redemption. His chapter on Lear draws valuable connections with comedy (Alexander Leggatt points out some of the structural elements of Lear which parallel Shakespeare's Comedies5) but follows Bradley in seeing the play as primarily the story of Lear's education and redemption. This is the only way, it seems, that a positive message can be extracted from the tragedy. Much of the critical history of King Lear is an attempt to ameliorate the bleakness and cruelty of the play by reading a religious moral into it.
In an influential essay which refuses this interpretation and compares King Lear with Samuel Beckett's Endgame 6, Jan Kott finds that
King Lear makes a tragic mockery of all eschatologies: of the heaven promised on earth, and the Heaven promised after death . . . of cosmogony and of the rational view of history; of the gods and good nature, of man made in 'image and likeness'. In King Lear both the medieval and Renaissance orders of established values disintegrate. All that remains at the end of this gigantic pantomime is the earth—empty and bleeding.
Kott's bleak view seems close to the moral universe of King Lear; despite the efforts of Wilson Knight, J. F. Danby and others, Lear seems nihilistic. To take the view that the sufferings of Gloucester and Lear, and the death of Cordelia are justified by their behaviour seems ruthless and brutal, the product of an evil morality.
If King Lear is not morally Christian, some critics have taken the view that it is about power. This is certainly Jonathan Dollimore's view in Radical Tragedy: 'King Lear is above all a play about power, property and inheritance.'7 This view sees the play as being merely realistic in its view of society as a ruthless struggle for power.
Lear remains, then, 'great', 'bleak', and 'a problem', not easily reduced to one theme or interpretation; like much of Shakespeare's late work it provokes many and varied critical responses. It can be 'Christian', 'Patriarchal', 'Nihilistic', about redemption , power, loyalty or renunciation; it is both tragic and comedic.8 Shakespeare's flexibility and adaptability, what Frank Kermode calls the 'patience' of the play, allow a variety of interpretations in line with whatever cultural assumptions are current. This is Shakespeare's great strength, and it springs from his ability to present the viewpoint of each character as independently justifiable, an inherently dramatic talent which resists final closure and definitive interpretation.
1. Maynard Mack, King Lear in our Time, University of California Press, Berkeley/Los Angeles, (1965).
2. On the linguistic aspects see for example Frank Kermode, Shakespeare's Language, Allen Lane, London, (2000), pp. 183-200. For Alexander Leggatt, in King Lear, Harvester Wheatsheaf, London, (1988) 'the last scene repeats with terrible exactness the action begun in the first', pp.7-8.
3. 'General Observations on King Lear (1765)'. In Samuel Johnson on Shakespeare, ed. W. K. Wimsatt, (1960) p.98.
4. In Jonathan Bate, Shakespeare and the English Romantic Tradition, (1989), p.168.
5. Alexander Leggatt, King Lear, Harvester Wheatsheaf, London, (1988), pp.3-4.
6. Jan Kott, 'King Lear or Endgame' in Shakespeare, Our Contemporary, (1964).
7. Jonathan Dollimore, Radical Tragedy: Religion, Ideology and Power in the Drama of Shakespeare and his Contemporaries, Harvester Wheatsheaf, New York and London, (1989), p.197.
8. For a good discussion of patriarchal authority in the play, see Kathleen McLuskie, 'The Patriarchal Bard', in Political Shakespeare: Essays in Cultural Materialism, (eds) Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield, Manchester University Press, Manchester, (1996), pp. 88-108.
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The story of King Lear is a mythic one which existed in the folklore of England long before Shakespeare was born. It seems that only Shakespeare, however, imbued the story with its tragic ending. Even Shakespeare's followers resorted to the optimistic resolve of the Lear tale. In a 1680 adaptation of King Lear, Nahum Tate not only allows Lear and his most-loving daughter Cordelia to live, but restores Lear to his throne. He also abolishes the character of the Fool from his adaptation altogether. The hopeful ending of Tate's adaptation ignores what Shakespeare interpreted as the tragedy of the Lear story. In order to reveal the poetic truths of life, including its negative aspects—betrayal, filial hatred, deception, and death—King Lear must be a tragedy. Moreover, by definition of a tragedy, the death of King Lear and his devoted Cordelia must be understood as a sacrifice to truth that is inevitable from the beginning of the play.
Lear's death is foreshadowed in the play even before he performs the fatal error of assigning all his kingdom's territories to his greedy daughters Goneril and Regan. When Lear prepares to ask of each of his daughters to express her love for him, he states his purpose in doing so:
. . . and 'tis our fast intent
To shake all cares and business from our age.
Conferring them on younger strengths while we
Unburdened crawl toward death.
(King Lear Act 1.Scene 1.Lines 38-41)
The irony of these lines is revealed as their literal truth becomes apparent. Lear has made the decision to donate as a form of dowry the three parts of his kingdom to each of his daughters: Cordelia, Goneril, and Regan. The size of their share depends on how much they love their father and, moreover, how well they can express it. The fact that the words of Goneril and Regan are infused with their own greed as well as that of their suitors, the receivers of the dowry, is apparent to the audience of the play from the beginning; however, Lear believes them and thus appears gullible. Moreover, Lear does not perceive the true love of Cordelia, who replies "Nothing" when it is her turn to articulate her love to her father. The audience, on the other hand, is immediately clued in to the truth behind Cordelia's reticence by the use of asides. In her first aside to the audience, as she struggles over how to fulfill her father's demand to speak her love, Cordelia says: "What shall Cordelia speak? Love, and be silent." (1.1.62) The audience begins to pity her plight with Cordelia's second aside, after Regan and Goneril have spoken: "Then poor Cordelia; And yet not so, since I am sure my love's more ponderous than my tongue." (1.1.76-78) Herein lies the principal tragedy of the play that Cordelia, who is moral and good in the purest sense, is destined to be sacrificed from the very start. The second tragedy of the play is Lear's fatal error in falling for his daughters' lying words while being blind to the radiance of Cordelia's unspoiled devotion. The brilliance of the play is that Lear's tragedy moves the audience to extremes of fear and pity, rather than judgment. Thus, the tension between Lear's doom and his struggling blindness to that fact until the very end is introduced in the first scene of the play and developed throughout.
There are several rhetorical devices used throughout the play to comment upon the inevitable death of Lear. One is the continual appeals and references to Nature and the gods, external and all-powerful forces which seem to seal the fate of men. For example, when Lear disclaims Cordelia, he appeals to "the sacred radiance of the sun" (1.1.109), "the mysteries of Hecate and the night" (1.1.110), and "all the operations of the orbs from whom we do exist and cease to be." (1.1.111) And when Gloucester reflects on the twisted goings-on in the kingdom, including the banishment of the "noble and true-hearted Kent" (1.2.113), he begins: "These late eclipses in the sun and moon portend no good to us" (1.2.101). Edmund, Gloucester's bastard son, mocks Gloucester's belief that the evils in the world are pre-ordained by the gods as man's excuse for bad behavior. Yet Edmund's sarcasm is articulated in twisted words which reflect on his sacrilegious character. Later in the play, when Lear is caught in the storm, the discrepancy between man's vulnerability and the power of the gods is made clear. It is during this scene when Lear enacts his most heart-wrenching struggle with his fate. He appeals to the gods as follows:
Let the great gods
That keep this dreadful pudder o'er our heads
Find out their enemies now. Tremble, thou wretch.
That hast within thee undivulged crimes
Unwhipped of justice.
Just as the rain cannot be stopped, Lear's fate seems inevitable.
Another rhetorical device is the use of irony to foreshadow Lear's death. For example, when Kent appears in disguise to join Lear on his journey to Cornwall, Lear confronts him and questions his identity to which Kent replies, "A very honest-hearted fellow, and as poor as the king" (1.3.17). Lear responds with an added ironic twist, "If thou be'st as poor for a subject as he's for a king, thou art poor enough. What woulds't thou?" (1.3.18). In third-person rhetoric, Lear mocks his own predicament. Furthermore, the phrase "poor enough" carries the weight of death.
A third rhetorical device Shakespeare uses to indicate the tragedy of Lear to which he himself is blind is in the figure of the Fool. It is interesting to note that many of the "optimistic" versions of the Lear tale omit the Fool completely. But this excises the content of the Fool's crudely poetic and mocking words which usually hide a wise commentary on the action of the play. For example, when Goneril rejects Lear from her division of the kingdom, the Fool interjects:
For you know, nuncle.
The hedge-sparrow fed the cuckoo so long
That it's had it head bit off by it young.
So out went the candle, and we were left darkling.
Lear's threatening danger, presented by the initial banishment to wander through his own kingdom, is compared to the fate of the hedge-sparrow. The Fool's common, almost folkloric, analogy ironically carries huge weight and foreboding for the rest of the play. It is no wonder that the Fool is so despised by the play's deceitful characters. Filial betrayal is the Fool's favorite subject. His attempts to warn the King of the evils of Goneril and Regan often assume the form of brutal comedy. When Lear "casts off forever" (1.4.300) away from Goneril, the Fool runs after him, calling out: "A fox, when one has caught her, And such a daughter, Should sure to the slaughter, If my cap would buy a halter. So the fool follows after" (1.4.308-312). Caught up in his own self-mockery (he is foolish for following, yet he follows anyway, because he wears the cap of the fool—hence, it is inevitable), the Fool embeds within his words the foreboding of betrayal.
In the final act of King Lear, the King is reunited with his daughter Cordelia, yet in tragic ironic fashion they are being lead in captivity towards death. Lear takes the opportunity to reflect on Cordelia's endearment and his own unkindness. He is at once deluded with dreams of their living on together: "So we'll live, and pray, and tell old tales, and laugh at gilded butterflies . . ." (5.2.11-13) and resigned to their fate: "Upon such sacrifices, my Cordelia, the gods themselves throw incense" (5.3.20-21). With these words, their tragedy is sealed, just as it was foretold in the first scene of the play and foreshadowed throughout. The inevitability of Cordelia's "sacrifice" was ruled by the gods and hence all the more moving. In this final scene Cordelia, as the sacrifice, represents pure good. And Lear, who must fall along with her, is finally in a state of appreciating her honest goodness and feeling for her fate.
Last Updated on June 15, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1297
William Shakespeare takes his attack on the notion of the divine right of kings one step further in King Lear, as he shows that even kings are fallible when it comes to judging their children. Lear's banishment of Cordelia is the prime illustration of the notion that parents tend to project their own expectations on to their children, sometimes with dire results. While Shakespeare may have imbued his royal tragedies with themes of history and duty and divine right (or lack of it), his characters, like Lear, and Henry IV, were above all individuals, with individual choices to make about the course of their lives. That these choices, through accident of birth, might significantly affect the actions of an entire nation is at the core of the tragedies which have satirical and universal undertones, especially for the reader of Shakespeare.
If Lear, as a monarch and father, is the role model for other fathers and "domestic monarchs," then perhaps Shakespeare is having a very big laugh on his readers. Hoping at last in his old age to enjoy the benevolent care and love which he feels is owed to him by the virtue of his parentage, he is easily flattered by the pumped up expressions of devotion that Regan and Goneril hand him, merely to take advantage of a "ripe situation." Cordelia, on the other hand is berated and punished for expressing the truth about the limits of her abilities to love responsibly. Muir notes that ". . . To a child, the father may be both loved protecter and unjustly obstructing tyrant; and to a parent the child may be both loving supporter of age and ruthless usurper and rival" (pg. xivi). These are the attitudes that are spread among the benevolent and wicked children of Lear, Gloucester, Henry IV and Henry Percy (by wicked here, we can also mean useless and ill cast, for that is the description that typifies Henry IV's son Hal). While the parent goes on with his own expectations and ambitions, which include his perceptions of how his children will behave, the children are busy with expectations of their own. We see this in Gloucester's illegitimate son, Edmund, whose aspirations to legitimacy will stop at nothing, especially fratricide. While it is clear that Gloucester loves both his sons well, and is not averse to helping Edmund gain favor with persons like Kent, it is clear that the disparity in Edgar and Edmund's lineage has embittered the latter, and this bitterness has turned his manipulation of his father's favor into a powerful tool indeed.
And the same can be said for Goneril and Regan, Lear's less than dutiful daughters. Muir tells us that although Lear is ostensibly rejecting love in order to get on with the business of dying, it is obvious that he still "retains the desire for love, and his actions . . . reveal only too plainly that he wishes to retain the authority he is ostensibly renouncing." Goneril knows this and plays on Lear's ego with her protestations of love, as does Regan. We see also that Edmund does the same thing with Gloucester, though in a more subtle manner (perhaps because he is a more skilled flatterer). Thrown upon the framework of a regent, such common themes as parent-child relationships can be magnified. Says Muir, ". . . The selfishness and ingratitude of children, no longer trammelled by the restraints of morality or modified by filial affection, are projected into the monstrous figures of Goneril and Regan. . ."; the result of this family's bickering on a grand scale is ". . . enlarged into an internecine struggle, destroying the peace of Britain" (Muir, pg. xivii).
Children have not only the capacity for selfishness and hate, and in Cordelia, Edgar and Henry IV's Hotspur, we have qualities which expanded from the simple domestic setting to the realm of kings and wars, to become noble, heroic and also tragic. Goddard tells us that Henry IV's son Hal, at least to his father is "unthrifty" and pretty much a scoundrel. Whatever else he may have possibilities for, he often gives the readers clues to his dual identity. Hotspur, son of Henry Percy, on the other hand, is almost the antithesis of his father and uncle, whom Goddard has characterized as cowardly, jealous, and suspicious. Says Goddard, "One cannot help loving Hotspur for his blunt honesty." Similarly, Lear's Cordelia is equally admired for her adherence to honesty. In both, though we note that insecurity and/or humility restrains the most lucid expression of the character. Hotspur, through his fanaticism to honour, shows his insecurities. Goddard says: "The fact that Hotspur talks so incessantly and extravagantly about 'honour' shows that he distrusts his own faith in it" (Goddard, pg. 62). And Fraser leaves us to wonder of Cordelia, "Why does she love, and yet remain silent?" (pg. xxx). Perhaps this fatal reserve of Cordelia's, which helps set the stage for the tragedies later to come, can be seen as a magnification of what happens when even a good person lets others take responsibility for their personal destiny. Of all the children, Cordelia seems to harbor the least in aspirations, she is cast adrift by her own ingenuousness, and is picked up by the gracious and admiring France. But even these seemingly fortuitous events can't save Cordelia and her family from the ultimate fate which their vicissitudes bring them.
However Shakespeare may paint the children of King Lear, and Henry IV, one thing is certain. They are not stereotypes of heroes and villains that are found in fairytales and epic poetry. King Lear and Henry IV, are, after all, only men, with faults which through association and heredity are evident in their children. And the children, though monstrous or mild, chivalric or dissolute, have qualities that make us admire them more as in Lear's daughters, or less, as in Hotspur, for their failings or strengths. It is not by accident that we wished for Cordelia to be more demonstrative, and are disappointed when she is not, as is her father. Shakespeare allows his reader to see the possibilities for good and evil and baseness or moderation which exist in all of us, by magnifying them through the privilege of royalty. In Henry IV, the reader can feel the depth of a father's disappointment in his son and also, Goddard tells us, his own regret at a youth lost when he says of Hal: "Most subject is the fattest soil to weeds;/ And he, the noble image of my youth,/ Is overspread with them: therefore my grief/ Stretches itself beyond the hour of death" (Goddard, pg. 64). Above all in Shakespeare's Lear is the notion that, even though we may have truly learned our lesson about something, we still might have to pay the price for our former mistakes. We see this as Lear, the transformed King, wishes most of all to be reunited with his Cordelia whom he has cast away from favor, only to find out that the gods are not always on our side, and she is dead anyway. Reality intrudes its often ugly head into the dealings of kings and commoners alike.
For the children of Lear, Gloucester, Henry IV, and Henry Percy we find that familial duty does not always come first, or well. What we find, and what Shakespeare may be trying to tell us by the strife and unhappiness that comes from wilfull figures trying to impress that will on others is that an individual's expectations apply only to him.
Bloom, H. ed. William Shakespeare, Modern Critical Views, New York: Chelsea House, 1986.
Fraser, R. ed. King Lear, New York: Signet, 1963.
Goddard, H. C. "Henry IV." pp. 57-111, in Bloom.
Muir, K. ed. King Lear, London: Methuen, 1975.
Sanderson, J. L. ed. Henry the Fourth, Part I, second edition, New York: W. W. Norton, 1969.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3220
Since the early seventeenth century, the opening scene of King Lear has been the subject of extensive literary interpretation and the object of intense critical debate. This is, of course, the scene in Lear in which the aged monarch's youngest daughter, Cordelia, refuses to follow her older siblings' suit by professing an unbounded love to Lear, and as such, it is both the wellspring of the plot and the herald of its thematic contents. As William Martin (1987) has recently stated, critical opinion remains sharply divided on the salient matter of whether Shakespeare's Lear is "a 'Christian' play with optimistic overtones or a pessimistic 'pagan' play affording little or no hope for man in a relentlessly indifferent world" (p.5). In the present writer's view, this dichotomy can be recast as a divide between those "traditional" readers who interpret Lear and its opening scene in context, and those "new criticism" readers who scrutinize the text itself and find meaning outside of its context. In essence, the former interpret a work like Lear by imputing certain explicit intentions to the author (here Shakespeare) on the basis of biographical and source data, the author's historical circumstances, and the work's conformity to norms and dramatic conventions of its day. On the other hand, those following a new critical approach effectively discard all this "background" data from their analyses, jettison the quest to discern the author's singularly purpose, and focus upon the formal, structural and linguistic elements of the text, through "close" reading aimed at the "discovery" of the text.
In the essay at hand, the present writer will first analyze Act I, scene i of Shakespeare's King Lear within context. This will require some preliminary identification of seemingly pertinent contextual dimensions to Shakespeare's composition, and in the subsequent analysis, the present writer will use Irving Ribner's (1960) reading as a "guide" to this approach. The present writer will then investigate the same scene, utilizing the perspective and the techniques of the "new" or "modern" critical approach. While this portion of the analysis will make reference to readings of Lear by Elias Schwartz (1977) and by Martin (1987), the present writer will "parse" the text chiefly through original analysis.
The "traditional" approach to the analysis of literary works attempts to discern "facts" about the composition of a given piece that can then be used to construct an understanding of the author's underling intentions and purposes. In this instance, we can go back to Shakespeare's life in search of such clues; but while the Bard left behind substantial vestiges of his life, e.g., baptismal certificates, marriage and death records, playbills, etc., these fragments and shards provide us with no "insights" into what Shakespeare may have been about in writing King Lear, aside from his desire to compose a work that would be a commercial success in the Elizabethan theater.
Another preliminary step in this approach to the analysis of Lear rests upon a search for Shakespeare's source materials. According to Frank Kermode (1974) Shakespeare was probably familiar with a folk tale that dated back to at least the 12th century (a version of which can be found in the Histories of Geoffrey of Monmouth) in which "a daughter tells her father she loves him as much as salt and dissipates his anger by demonstrating that this means he is essential to her" (p.1250). This same story was re-told in 1574 by John Higgins in A Mirror for Magistrates; a version of it appears in Holinshed's Chronicles; still another surfaces in Book II of Spenser's The Fairie Oueene (Id.). Yet when we set Shakespeare's Lear beside these probable sources, it is plain that the Elizabethan playwright did not simply "copy" and "transpose" his "story" from them; King Lear is radically different in structure and in thematic thrust.
Having followed these two paths toward the discovery of King Lear's context and found them wanting, we note that Lear appears to concern the human condition in some sort of universal or cosmic frame. Admittedly, this is a broad topical designation and there are innumerable works that would fit this same bill. Nevertheless, we can plausibly learn more about what Shakespeare "meant" in Lear by inquiring into his world-view. As Harry Levin (1974) has written: "Shakespeare, of course, was a playwright not a philosopher. Yet drama is dialectic in concrete form: the attitudes and the actions of his characters would have little value or meaning if they were not based on certain philosophical premises" (p.7). Of these, according to Levin, the overarching premise that can be construed from Shakespeare's works and the intellectual currents of his time is that of an orderly cosmos grounded in a Ptolemaic universe, that is recapitulated in the microcosm within individual human nature (Id.).
There is, however, still further work to be done before we can approach the opening scene of Lear from this contextual perspective. We know from a "broader" reading of Shakespeare (and a "peek" at Lear itself), that a father's relationship with a son or daughter serves as a focal point in several of his plays, "fatherhood" or "patriarchy" performing both dramatic functions and also serving as a primary thematic subject in many of Shakespeare's works. At the same time, Shakespeare's concept of "patriarchy," according to such critics as Ericson (1985), Max (1989) and Sundelson (1983), embodied a parallel between the father as head of household and the monarch as the "father" of the realm, these tandem relationships being part of a larger, moral order in a divinely-ordained universe. At the same time, Shakespeare's audiences shared this view of the cosmos. Here we note with Kermode (1974) "that Jacobean audiences would instantly observe that (Lear's) plan to divide the kingdom was liable to breed disaster; many plays had made that point, especially during the previous reign, when succession was a perennial political worry" (p.1251). With this sense of "how" Shakespeare probably viewed Lear's situation, we need only specify how he sought to express this view. Based on evidence available from Shakespeare's cannon at large, we can reasonably assume that he would follow the conventions of the day in producing a tragic play based on a Senecan model and therefore conforming closely to Aristotelian principles.
It is with all of this behind us that we can begin to interpret Lear and its first scene from a "traditional" or "contextual" viewpoint. As an example of this approach, we can follow Irving Ribner's analysis of Lear as it appears in his Patterns in Shakespearian Tragedy (1960). From Ribner's standpoint, "all of the elements in King Lear are shaped by the theme of regeneration which dominates the whole," and as we shall soon see, Ribner's reading of Lear is based on his assumption that Shakespeare's intention was to tell a tale about moral regeneration.
In support of this conclusion about Shakespeare's "meaning" in Lear, Ribner identifies Cordelia's refusal to extend a profession of unadulterated love to her father as a product of her adherence to a natural order of things, a position that Shakespeare and his audiences would have endorsed. Thus, her assertion that, "I love your Majesty according to my bond, no more nor less" (1.93), reflects a natural reciprocation of familial duties that were seen by Shakespeare as "right" and fit." The "bond" to which Cordelia refers in justifying her qualification of duty is identified by Ribner as "the bond of nature . . . which ties the child to its parent in God's harmonious world" (Ribner 1960, p.120). Indeed, when Cordelia later states that, since she intends to marry, she will therefore share her love between husband and father, this also resonates with the proper and natural state of human affairs as viewed by Shakespeare and his contemporaries (Ribner 1960, p.117).
Continuing forward with this approach, it is Lear who introduces the dramatic complication that will ultimately yield the play's tragedy. According to Virgil Whitaker, in the world-view of Lear's Elizabethan audiences, "Lear's abdication of his kingship and his treatment of Cordelia are false to three obligations which he owes in nature: a king should rule; a father should guide and cherish children, even when they do astray . . . and an old man should be wise" (1965, p.212). Indeed, in Ribner's critical account of Lear's downfall, it stems from an Aristotelian tragic flaw, his blindness to the moral order or nature connoted in Cordelia's response to his inquiry about the extent of her filial devotion. In fact, Lear explicitly violates the natural order, for in his rage, he speaks an oath by the radiance of the sun, Hecate and the night "by all the operation of the orbs" (l.110), thereby invoking cosmic forces and disturbance well past his natural and proper ken. Indeed, Lear himself points our attention to this very cycle when he announces his intention to "unburthened crawl toward death." In Ribner's interpretation, Lear not only fails to grasp Cordelia's "moral" viewpoint, he creates the preconditions for his own demise through his premature abdication of his throne, by turning his back on his natural progeny, and above all, by muttering a curse upon his faithful daughter in which he unnaturally attempts to bend nature to his will, calling upon the sun and pagan goddesses to eradicate his natural bond with Cordelia.
We shall return to the consequences of this act as seen from a "contextual" standpoint at the end of our analysis. Before doing so, however, an alternative approach to the analysis of Lear can be pursued through the interpretive methods of "textual" or "close textual" reading. Unlike the "contextual" approach, this method does not require that we delve into Shakespeare's background, his motive, his world-view of any other "implicit" templates. Instead, it seeks to explicate the text on its own terms, i.e., apart from any authorial intention.
As an example of what this approach might yield, we first turn to Elias Schwartz (1977) and to his summary comment that "what emerges," from a close reading of King Lear, "is a vision of blind and confused morals snatching at pious and empty catch-phrases in order to bring some meaning into a world which has utterly lost it" (p.61). As to the play's opening scene, Schwartz interprets Cordelia's refusal not as an endorsement of a natural order, but rather, as an ironic refutation of her father's view that nature and reason are compatible. He elaborates on this point:
She sees that his (Lear's) attempt to deal with love in terms of the traditional, rational order is absurd. And so she replies with strict rationality. . . . Those critics are right who regard her speeches at this point as embodying a traditional view of the relations between father and child. But what they miss is the irony: Cordelia is pointing out the inadequacy of this view in dealing with love. In a way, she is reducing that view to absurdity (Schwartz 1977, p.61).
To get at this view, which cannot be derived from looking at context as a field of clues to Shakespeare's explicit purpose, we must "get down" to the language of the text, and in what follows, the present author will explicate Act I, scene i of Lear by adopting a "new criticism" perspective on Shakespeare's language rather than attempting to determine what his "message" might be (or have been).
In its opening scene alone, there is much to support Schwartz's view of Lear as an absurd, ironic, dark comedy in which the meanings embedded within and among the speeches of its characters conflict and collide at random. At the opening of the scene, Kent and Gloucester are discussing the matter at hand, i.e., Lear's intention to leave the realm to his daughters and their son-in-laws, but this dialogue is immediately interrupted by the intrusion of Edmund, with Kent saying: "Is not this your son, my lord!" (l.8). Learning that Edmund is, in fact, a bastard, the "honest" Kent nonetheless resorts to the vapid salutation "I cannot wish the fault undone the issue of it being so proper" (l.17). This is, of course, ironic since Edmund is not only a bastard but an inveterate villain, but even more importantly, language is seen to devolve from matters of substance to sheer and empty formalities. The sennet then sounds, Lear and his retinue appear, and the King announces to his court that he is about to get to "our darker purpose." Here we observe that by "darker," Lear denoted to Elizabethans that he means "secret." If that is so, language is again in conflict with reality, for clearly Gloucester and Kent already know something about the King's "darker purpose."
Lear then asks each of his three daughters to express their love for him. Goneril is given the first opportunity to speak, and she tells her father that he is dearer to her than "eyesight, space and liberty" (l.56). While this is certainly effusive, one wonders: what logical association do "eyesight, space and liberty" bear in common? From a "new criticism" standpoint, one valid reply to this inquiry is that these things have nothing in common, forming a sort of logical non sequitur. Moreover, when Goneril tells Lear that she has a love toward him "that makes breath poor, and speech unable" (l.60), the reader might reasonably observe that despite all this she is entirely ready and able to express her feelings in words. As for Regan, in an effort to outdo or at least equal Goneril, she tells Lear that "I profess myself any enemy of all other joys" (l.73). Again, this seems to an effusive expression of flattery, but it is also patently absurd given that her purpose in being on the scene is to receive "other joys," i.e., her inheritance, from Lear. It is then that Cordelia responds to Lear's questions with the line "Nothing, my lord" (l.87). When re reacts to her statement, "So young and so untender," Cordelia replies, "So young, my lord, and true" (ll.106-107). This coupled remark underscores that what is occurring here is not a clash of viewpoints through language, but one linguistic system, i.e., Lear's, that is completely out of sync with that of another, i.e., that of Cordelia.
Now enraged, Lear launches into his disownment of Cordelia in a speech that culminates:
The Barbarous Scythian,
Or he that makes his generation messes,
To gorge his appetite, shall to my bosom
Be as well neighbor'd, pitied, and reliev'd
As thou my sometime daughter
While we understand that Lear is disowning Cordelia, yet another question arises: What does Lear's projected compassion for brutal fathers "say" about his perception of Cordelia's value? The answer, again, is nothing that is logically cohesive. Similarly, when Kent intercede, and Lear admonishes "Come not between the dragon and his wrath" (l.122), we are puzzled by how anything can come "between" a creature and his emotions. Once more, a close reading of the text indicates that it is not that Lear's words violate some sort of a moral universe or break natural bonds, it is that his words are absurd, even irrelevant to his circumstances. Indeed, as a rival to Cordelia's line about "according to my bond," from a "new criticism" standpoint, the "key" to Act I, scene i of King Lear might well be France's offhand comment to Burgundy: "Love's not love/When it is mingled with regard that stands/Aloof from the entire point" (ll.238-240), for to this juncture, it can be asserted that the language of the characters is distinguished by missing "the entire point."
Returning to Ribner's "contextual" approach to Lear, drawing upon the world-view that is customarily ascribed to Shakespeare, he interprets the destructive elements which oppress the naked Lear upon the heath as a reflection of the king's own morally disordered worldview, telling us that "the discord unleashed by Lear's wrong moral choice (in Act I, scene i) is to be most effectively symbolized in the storm scenes which show the extension of man's corruption to the plane of physical nature" (1960, p.121). in Ribner's view of how Shakespeare employed nature in Lear, the natural powers which Lear errantly tries to bend to his will are also purifying forces. Indeed, Lear, ultimately tries to fuse with nature by rendering his garments to become "unaccommodated man." Lear is then transformed by his experience in raw nature and accepts his own natural limitations, finding that his place is within, and not above, the natural world. Thus, in his reconciliation with Cordelia, Lear perceives that he is "a very foolish fond old man" who now realizes that he is "not of perfect mind." In Ribner's interpretation then, Lear's exposure to the elements of nature "purifies" the erstwhile monarch, regenerating him as a new Lear, now aware of his position in a natural order which he cannot control. The play, then, is a "tragedy" in which Shakespeare has made due accommodation to the Christian sensibilities of his audiences.
By contrast, Schwartz's "new criticism" approach to the play yields the conclusion that Lear's experience on the heath does not impart wisdom to the king; rather, it simply renders him addled as indicated by Lear's counter-factual efforts to deny Cordelia's death. Hence, the conclusion of King Lear is not an affirmation of a normative order, but a depiction of an individual who remains deluded by the errant hope that some sort of cosmos lies at the bottom of a relentlessly chaotic world. This being so, King Lear cannot be classified as a "tragedy" or a "Christian play." Here we would note with William Martin that:
The absurd anguish of both protagonists and the multiple incongruities that blatantly contradict the conventions of classical or even Elizabethan tragedy require a unique dramatic approach. Furthermore, the confusion of generic elements alien to conventional tragedy militates that one either dispense with orthodox views concerning the nature of tragedy or else re-define the genre (1987, p.7).
Seen in this light and interpreted through the techniques of "new criticism" then, King Lear can be read as an absurdist "black comedy" (Ibid., p.8).
Each of these alternative approaches has its limitations. The contextual or "traditional" approach is predisposed toward finding order and unity in a dramatic work and to attempt the impositions of Aristotelian poetics on a work which resists their application. On the other hand, the alternative close-reading perspective wrenches Lear from the context of its composition, updates the play to conform with a modern sensibility and an existentialist world-view, and thereby threatens to deprive the work of any explicit meaning altogether.
Ericson, Peter. Patriarchal Structure in Shakespeare's Drama Berkeley, CA: University of California, 1985.
Fraser, Russell A. Shakespeare's Poetics in Relation to King Lear. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1962.
James, Max H. "Our House Is Hell," Shakespeare's Troubled Families. New York, NY: Greenwood Press, 1989.
Kermode, Frank. "King Lear," The Riverside Shakespeare. Ed. G. Blakemore Evans. Boston, MA: Houghton-Mifflin, 1974, pp.1249-1254.
Levin, Harry. "General Introduction," The Riverside Shakespeare. Ed. G. Blakemore Evans. Boston, MA: Houghton-Mifflin, 1974, pp.1-25.
Martin, William F. The Indissoluble Knot; King Lear as Ironic Drama. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1987.
Ribner. Irving. Patterns in Shakespearian Tragedy. London: Methuen, 1960.
Schwartz, Elias. The Mortal Worm: Shakespeare's Master Theme. Port Washington, NY: Kennikat Press, 1977.
Shakespeare, William. "The Tragedy of King Lear," The Riverside Shakespeare. Ed. G. Blakemore Evans. Boston, MA: Houghton-Mifflin, 1974, pp.1255-1305.
Sundelson, David. Shakespeare's Restoration of the Father. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1983.
Whitaker, Virgil. The Mirror Up to Nature; The Technique of Shakespeare's Tragedies. San Marino, CA: Huntington Library, 1965.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2144
King Lear is one of Shakespeare's greatest tragedies, but it is also a carefully constructed arrangement of deliberately contrasting characters and human qualities; these contrasting elements make the tragic outcomes inevitable and heighten the emotional involvement of the reader, or playgoer, in what might otherwise be seen as a story that depends upon coincidence and misunderstandings to the point where credibility could be undermined.
The most obvious contrasts in moral character are among the younger people of the play. Cordelia, in her true love for her father, which at the same time refuses to pander to his vanity and degenerate into self-serving flattery, could not be more starkly delineated in contrast to her selfish, hypocritical and amoral sisters, Goneril and Regan. Where Goneril boasts of "A love that makes breath poor, and speech unable" and Regan states that she is "alone felicitate in [her] dear Highness' love", Cordelia tells Lear that "I love your Majesty according to my bond, no more nor less". (I, i, 60, 75-76, 92-93)
The subsequent actions of all three daughters, of course, fulfill what the reader suspects from the moment that the three have spoken of their love for Lear. The elder two daughters proceed to humiliate him whenever possible, attempting to reduce him to a state of utter dependency upon such crumbs of his own largesse that they are willing to bestow back upon him. If anything, they degenerate into almost stock figures of evil as they conspire to betray and even murder each other in their efforts to win Edmund for themselves. Cordelia, of course, remains loving and loyal to her father, no matter how abominably he has treated her through his foolish vanity.
Edgar and Edmund represent the male converse of this relationship, with the good and guileless Edgar as the "Cordelia" of Gloucester's sons and the bastard Edmund as the hypocritical and evil plotter who is ready to betray any and all in his drive to supplant his "legitimate" brother and succeed in life at any cost.
Legitimate Edgar, I must have your land.
Our father’s love is to the bastard Edmund
As to the legitimate. Fine word, 'legitimate'!
(I, ii, 16-19)
In such lines, Shakespeare allows his male villain a certain flair that he denies to the more banally evil Goneril and Regan. Near the conclusion of the play the mortally wounded Edmund, who has set in motion a plot to murder the captured Cordelia and Lear, repents enough to confess what he has done to provide Albany with a chance to attempt to prevent the crime; it comes too late to save Cordelia. Neither of the older sisters is allowed even such limited redeeming features.
The faithful Kent is contrasted with Goneril's unprincipled steward, Oswald, in terms of loyalty to a master (or mistress). Oswald proves himself to be loyal in his own way, although he may be willing near the end of the play to switch his fealty from Goneril to Regan, but it is a perverted sort of loyalty that seems ensured by fulfilling a natural talent for evil-doing.
Kent, almost certainly the strongest and most sympathetic character in the play, is contrasted by Shakespeare in another way and to another person, the Earl of Gloucester. Gloucester, although loyal to Lear, is more of a temporizer, more of a compromiser, than the blunt and outspoken Kent. Gloucester shares with Lear a tragic gullibility as far as his children are concerned, and he pays a terrible price for both the errors of trust and confidence that he makes and his futile attempts to bring about a rapprochement between his royal master and Lear's daughters and their husbands.
When Kent protests Lear's treatment of Cordelia, he is warned by the king to be silent. When the enraged Lear moves to draw his sword, Kent says:
Kill thy physician, and the fee bestow
Upon the foul disease. Revoke thy gift,
Or, whilst I can vent clamour from my throat,
I'll tell thee thou dost evil.
(I, i, 162-165)
As honest as Kent is, he is too out-spoken for his own good and sometimes for the good of those he is attempting to help. This bluntness is at times almost indistinguishable from rudeness and perhaps unnecessarily alienates people before it is necessary. Cornwall, at a time before he reveals his true colors, notes that the disguised Kent is one of those who prides himself on being blunt and honest as an excuse for being rude and insensitive. Since most people have had the experience of knowing people similar to those whom Cornwall describes, it is difficult at that moment not to have some sympathy with him.
This is some fellow,
Who, having been praised for bluntness, doth affect
A saucy roughness, and constrains the garb
Quite from his nature. He cannot flatter, he!
An honest mind and plain, he must speak truth!
An they will take it, so; if not, he's plain.
These kind of knaves I know which in this plainness
Harbour more craft and more corrupter ends
Than twenty silly-duckling observants
What stretch their duties nicely.
(II, ii, 96-104)
These remarks, of course, provoke Kent to utter sarcastic expressions of respect which infuriate Cornwall, giving the reader a first true idea of his violent nature as he orders Kent to be placed in the stocks.
Gloucester says nothing to Lear at the time when Kent is banished after Cordelia's disinheritance, although he indicates to Edmund in the following scene that he finds it difficult to believe what has occurred. The blunt and almost painfully honest Kent is banished upon pain of death, while Gloucester temporizes, mentally wrings his hands, and pays horribly at the hands of Cornwall for his behind-the-scenes efforts to rectify things.
A distinct contrast, not readily apparent at the beginning of the play, is also provided by the differing characters of the royal sons-in-law, Albany and Gloucester. Both, for example, intervene in the first scene of the play to prevent Lear from drawing his sword upon Kent .
In time, however, Cornwall reveals himself first to be someone of violent rages in his treatment of Kent and later to be a monster of cruelty as he gouges out Gloucester's eyes. When the old Earl says that he will see vengeance overtake Goneril and Regan for their cruelty to Lear, Cornwall replies that
See 't shalt thou never. Fellows, hold the chair.
Upon these eyes of thine I'll set my foot.
So brutal is Cornwall that he occasions something very rare in Shakespeare's plays, a sympathetic treatment of the lower classes in revolt against a nobleman. When the enraged duke has blinded Gloucester in one eye, one of Cornwall's servants tells him not to torment him further. When Cornwall contemptuously dismisses his protest and completes the blinding of Gloucester, the servant rushes at him with a drawn sword and, although stabbed from behind by Regan, mortally wounds the duke. The other servants in the room then resolve to leave Cornwall's service and follow Gloucester.
Albany, on the other hand, appears to be something of a nonentity at first, very much in his wife's shadow where Cornwall and Regan have proven themselves to be true partners in villainy. He shows himself to be human in his revulsion when he hears what Cornwall has done to Gloucester, and, although he leads the English army that defeats that of France, he appears to act more from patriotism than ambition. The reader becomes gradually aware that Albany is despised by Goneril, who plans to replace him as her husband with Edmund. In the final act of the play his actions confirm that he is an honorable, if not an appreciably imaginative, man. He allows Edgar to challenge Edmund to trial by combat, vainly attempts to prevent the murder of Cordelia and is outraged by the perfidy of his wife and her sister, shedding no tears at the news of their deaths. To Kent and Edgar, he says:
Friends of my soul, you twain
Rule in this realm, and the gored state sustain.
(V, ii, 319-320)
This balance of good and evil, positive and negative, is sustained by the juxtaposition of even minor characters in the play. After Lear in his rage declares Cordelia to be dowerless and penniless, her suitors, Burgundy and France, are brought upon the scene. Burgundy is the epitome of the noble suitor in so many folk and fairy tales, the man who is interested not in the woman but in the riches, land and power that she can bring to him. Somewhat slow on the uptake, it takes him a while to truly apprehend what has happened, and it brings about the following exchange with Cordelia:
Burgundy. I am sorry then you have so lost a father that you must lose a husband.
Cordelia: Peace be with Burgundy!
Since that respect and fortunes are his love,
I shall not be his wife.
(I, i, 246-249)
The sincere and logical King of France, however, reacts very differently.
Fairest Cordelia, that art most rich, being poor;
Most choice, forsaken; and most loved, despised;
Thee and thy virtues here I seize upon.
(I, i, 250-252)
And what of the title character, King Lear? With whom is he compared and contrasted? Shakespeare contrasts Lear with himself, the vain and foolish king of the first act with the chastened and wiser deposed monarch of the latter part of the play. The early Lear is so relentlessly foolish and obtuse that the reader tends to feel to some extent that he gets what he deserves, that "there is no fool like an old fool." One reader, at least, tends to harbor vestiges of this feeling even at the end of the play. Although what happens to Lear is without doubt a tragedy, the even greater tragedy is what happens to so many good people because of the dotard king's reckless and selfish earlier actions. Cordelia is dead, Gloucester blinded, Kent has been humiliated and physically abused in the stocks, and Edgar has been hunted like a wild animal. Although the natures of Lear's older daughters, Cornwall, and Edmund are such that it is probable that they would have caused problems, perhaps very serious problems, at some point, one cannot be sure of it. Lear's vanity establishes a situation which unleashes that which is worst within them, eventually resulting in their own deaths as well as the evils that they have done to others.
Lear's imperious nature and his compulsive need for adulation are baldly revealed in his early exchanges with Cordelia.
Now, our joy,
Although our last and least, to whose young love
The vines of France and milk of Burgundy
Strive to be interested, what can you say to draw
A third more opulent than your sisters? Speak.
(I, i, 82-86)
When she answers that her affection is according to her bond of natural affection to him,
Lear. So young, and so untender?
Cordelia. So young, my lord, and true.
Lear. Let it be so; thy truth then be thy dower!
(I, i, 107-109)
With adversity comes wisdom, however, before madness overtakes it. Forced out by his daughters unless he accepts shelter on their terms, the king is buffeted by a horrendous storm before he and the Fool are led to an apparently abandoned hovel by the disguised Kent. The experience has opened Lear's eyes to some of what the less fortunate have to bear.
Poor naked wretches, whereso'er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall your homeless heads and unfed sides,
Your looped and windowed raggedness, defend you
From seasons such as these? O, I have ta'en
Too little care of this! Take physic, pomp;
Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,
That thou mayst shake the superflux to them
And show the heavens more just.
(III, iv, 28-36)
The one major character of the play who cannot be contrasted or compared is the Fool. He is important to the early part of the play because he can comment on Lear's foolish and destructive behavior without risking punishment or banishment because he is the Fool, and fools are really not responsible for what they say. And then he suddenly vanishes from the action! Did Shakespeare grow tired of him or merely forget about him? Was he no longer necessary, or did the playwright consider him to be one "odd" role too many when the feigned madness of Edgar and true madness of Lear take center stage? At any event, it does seem poor dramaturgy on Shakespeare's part to just suddenly drop what has been an important and interesting character without any explanation at all. The successful contrasts of character and characteristics that the author has used so well to give strength and emphasis to the tragedy that he relates seem only to have abandoned him in this one instance.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3155
The manner in which Shakespeare treats the nature of kingship in Hamlet, King Lear and Macbeth reflects the essential tone and themes of these works. In Hamlet, a play in no small part pervaded by abstractions, paradoxes and conscious role playing, the kingship is described in terms of abstractions, paradoxes and the self-conscious "playing" of the king. In King Lear, a play which contrasts natural relations with the power of real politic, we find that a duality characterizes Lear's kingship. Finally, in Macbeth, a work of dark and supernatural phenomena, the kingship is described, in similar fashion, as dark and mystical. The unifying strand which all of these respective treatments of kingship have in common is found in the correspondence between the state of the kingship and the state of the kingdom, and in the state of the universe of nature itself. In this paper we shall observe the manner in which Shakespeare's treatment of the kingship mirrors the primary concerns of these three plays and identify the common thread which runs throughout them.
Hamlet is a work filled with abstractions, paradoxes, ironies and the conscious playing of roles, and it is in these terms that Shakespeare characterizes the kingship in this work. As epitomized by the ghost of ur-Hamlet, the king in Hamlet is an abstract and insubstantial role, or, as Hamlet remarks, "a king of shreds and patches." The specter of ur-Hamlet serves as a continual reminder of the abstract nature of kingship, a role pervaded by paradox and irony.
Hamlet's references to the kingship reveal the paradoxical treatment which Shakespeare attributes to the role of sovereign. Hamlet states to Rosencrantz:
Ay, sir, that soaks up the King's countenance, his rewards, his authorities. But such officers do the King best service in the end. He keeps them, like an ape in the corner of his jaw, first mouthed, to be last swallowed. When he needs what you have gleaned, it is but squeezing you and, sponge, you shall be dry again.
And later, in discourse with Horatio:
Imperious Caesar, dead and turned to clay,
Might stop a hole to keep the wind away.
O' that that earth which kept the world in awe
Should patch a wall t'expel the winter’s flaw!
These two passages illustrate the curious and abstract nature of the kingship in Hamlet, for what the kingship is, like so much in this play, is a matter of question.
That the nature of the kingship is in question in Hamlet is brought to light in the commentary of Polonious on the Norwegian affair, as the minister relates:
My liege and madam, to expostulate
What majesty should be, what duty is,
Why day is day, night night, and time is time,
Were nothing but to waste night, day and time.
Rather unwittingly, Polonious is describing kingship as an abstraction, infinitely debatable in nature. This point is reinforced by Rosencrantz as he responds to Claudius's request for help in gleaning Hamlet's mind:
Might by the sovereign power you have of us
Put your dread pleasures more into command
Than to entreaty.
Rosencrantz, in fact, is reminding Claudius that there are several ways in which he may play the role of king. He could merely ordain the use of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, or he could, as he does, request their aid. Neither course of action is required of the king, for the kingship is, by nature, a role pervaded with options, and therefore, doubts.
Then there is the matter of the play within a play which Hamlet uses to discern the guilt of Claudius. Once again we find the kingship treated as a role to be played. Indeed, throughout the work Claudius is, in fact, playing the king. This is most apparent in the ceremony before the duel between Hamlet and Laertes as Claudius is found reiterating directions for the playing of the king:
The king shall drink to Hamlet’s better health . . .
Now the King drinks to it. . . .
The repetition here indicates a certain forced and staged character to Claudius' playing of the king, a certain self-conscious quality involved in this role.
The paradoxes which surround the role of kingship in Hamlet results in a number of ironies. The question of why Hamlet does not act, why he simply does not kill Claudius, is often put, but, perhaps more interestingly, there is the question of why Claudius does not act. As sovereign he could, presumably, order Hamlet's execution. The reason why he does not, to our mind, is that he is uncertain of his power as king, uncertain of the dimensions of the role which he is playing. Ironically, it is the uncertainty of Claudius which determines his eventual demise.
Another irony which relates to the nature of kingship in Hamlet is found in the fate of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. In their first audience with the King and Queen Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are told by Gertrude:
Your visitation shall receive such thanks
As fits a king's rememberance.
The thanks which Rosencrantz and Guildenstern do, in fact, ultimately receive is death. This fate is highly ironical, firstly in light of the Player King's comment that, "purpose is but the slave to memory," and, more significantly, in the fact that their deaths are brought about through the "king-playing" of Hamlet, who forges the seal of Denmark and thereby ensures the death of his former schoolmates.
One further aspect of the treatment of kingship in Hamlet which deserves our attention is found in the reflection of the state of the kingship in the state of the kingdom and in nature. As the oft-cited line, "something is rotten in the state of Denmark," suggests, the sullied nature of the kingship is reflected in the morose atmosphere which is found in the kingdom. In terms of the kingship's relation to the state of the kingdom we note the remarks to Rosencrantz:
The cease of majesty
Dies not alone; but like a gulf doth draw
What's near it with it: it is a massy wheel,
Fix'd on the summit of the highest mount,
To whose huge spokes ten thousand lesser things
Are mortis'd and adjoin'd; which, when it falls,
Each small annexment, petty consequence,
Attends the boisterous ruin. Never alone
Did the king sigh, but with a general groan.
The character and fate of the king, as Rosencrantz asserts, is mirrored in the character and fate of his kingdom. Indeed, the influence of the fate of the king extends even to the stars themselves, as Horatio details:
In the most high and palmy state of Rome,
A little ere the mightiest Julius fell,
The graves stood tenantless, and the sheeted dead
Did squeak and gibber in the Roman streets;
As, stars with trains of fire and dews of blood,
Disasters in the sun; and the moist star,
Upon whose influence Neptune's empire stands,
Was sick almost to doomsday with eclipse:
And even the like precurse of fierce events,—
As harbingers preceding still the fates,
And prologue to the omen coming on,—
Have heaven and earth together demonstrated
Unto our climature and countrymen.
Thus, as we shall also find in King Lear and Macbeth, the state of the kingship in Hamlet is intimately and inextricably connected to the condition of the kingdom and that of nature itself.
In King Lear there is an essential conflict between natural order and political power. Indeed, King Lear is centrally concerned with unnatural relationships as exemplified in the character, and the philosophy, of the bastard Edmund. It is the theme of unnatural relations which informs Shakespeare’s treatment of the kingship in King Lear. At the outset of the play we find Lear caught in a duality involving his natural kingship and his political decision to divide his kingdom amongst his daughters. On the one hand, Lear chooses to, "divest us both of rule/ Interest of territory, cares of state," and on the other he asserts, "only we shall retain/ The name and all th' addition to a king." There is a duality present here which is reinforced by Kent's remark to Lear that, "you have that in your countenance/ Which I would fain call master," in a word, "authority." Although Lear may divest himself through a political action of the powers of kingship, he cannot divest himself of his natural role as king. There is, then, a conflict between the political aspect of kingship and the natural facet of kingship.
This conflict is given direct expression in Lear's later contention that it is within his power to mint coins. Lear maintains, "No, they cannot touch me for coining; I am the King himself," for even though he has divested himself of political power, "Nature’s above art in that respect." This duality is presented in Lear's demand that: "The King would speak with Cornwall. The dear father/ Would with his daughter speak." Significantly, Lear refers to himself both as king and as father, illustrating the inherent duality between the political and the natural aspect of the kingship. This duality is similarly embodied in the alternative postures which Lear assumes toward the heavens in his rage. On the one hand, we sometimes find Lear commanding the forces of nature to uproar, demanding that the hurricanes spout with the imperious authority of a sovereign. On the other hand, we sometimes find Lear in an attitude of supplication, begging the universal powers to take pity on an old man. Once again an unnatural duality is present.
The unnatural conflict between political power and the natural authority of the king is consistently portrayed in the unnatural acts which occur throughout the work. The Fool, for example, observes that Lear's troubles began "since thou mad'st thy daughters they mothers." The Fool’s remark here infers that the abdication of political power by Lear is an act which contravenes his natural role as king. Lear, through political decision has acted against nature, and this fact is underscored in the Fool’s pronouncement, "Thou shouldst not have been old till thou hadst been wise." Later Gloucester will remark of Goneril and Regan and their degrading of Lear, "I like not this unnatural dealing." The entire play is filled with unnatural acts, including the activities of Edmund, who defies nature, and the blinding of Gloucester. For instance, Goneril remarks of Albany’s reluctance to meet the forces of France: "I must change names at home and give the distaff/ Inte my husband’s hands." What all of these unnatural relations underscore is the basic conflict between political power and natural right, the duality which is of such salient importance to Shakespeare's treatment of kingship in King Lear.
One additional aspect of the handling of kingship in King Lear which deserves our notice is the fact that Lear's former station as king makes his fall into the madman of the heaths of even greater pathos than would have been the case were he a mere subject. As a Gentleman remarks of Lear's appearance, "A sight most pitiful in the meanest wretch/ Past speaking in a king." We find then that the fact that Lear is a king increases our sympathy with his fallen state.
Finally, Lear's fallen state is reflected in the turbulent conditions of nature found at the nadir of his fortunes on the heath. The atmosphere is unnaturally disturbed by Lear's unnatural degradation. As Kent remarks:
Things that love night
Love not such nights as these; the wrathful skies
Gallow the very wanderers of the dark,
And make them keep their caves; since I was man,
Such sheets of fire, such bursts of horrid thunder,
Such groans of roaring wind and rain I never
Remember to have heard: man's nature cannot carry
Th' affliction nor the fear.
The unique turbulence found in nature is, in fact, a reflection of the unnatural state into which Lear has fallen through the conflict between political authority and natural sovereignty.
As is the case in Hamlet and Macbeth, the circumstances of the king in King Lear serve as a microcosm for the conditions which prevail in nature. Lear's wrath at his mistreatment finds its most vehement expression, therefore, in the unnaturally disturbed character of nature.
As has been observed, Macbeth is a work in which the supernatural plays a major part. In fact, unless we are willing to admit the possibility of a supernatural activity, the narrative machinery of Macbeth is completely undermined. The presence of the three witches, as well as Hecate herself, is ample demonstration of the centrality of the supernatural in Macbeth. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that the kingship in Macbeth is treated as a supernatural phenomena.
The pronouncement of the three witches on Macbeth's fortune are so intimately connected with the supernatural that a discussion of their edicts leads to a tautology. Consequently, we initiate our discussion of the supernatural treatment of the kingship with the remarks of Malcolm concerning the supernatural power of sovereigns in treating the "king's evil":
'Tis call'd the evil:
A most miraculous work in this good king;
Which often, since my here-remain in England,
I have seen him do. How he solicits heaven,
Himself best knows: but strangely-visited people,
All swoln and ulcerous, pitiful to the eye,
The mere despair of surgery, he cures;
Hanging a golden stamp about their necks,
Put on with holy prayers: and 'tis spoken,
To the succeeding royalty he leaves
The healing benediction. With this strange virtue,
He hath a heavenly gift of prophecy;
And sundry blessings hang about his throne,
That speak him full of grace.
Although Malcolm's remarks here concern the English king, not Duncan or Macbeth, it is apparent that Shakespeare is treating the kingship as more than a natural office, as a supernatural station, in fact, directly in line with the supernatural tenure of Macbeth in general.
The kingship presented as supernatural is surrounded by symbolism. In speaking of the prophecy of the three witches concerning Macbeth's kingship and that of Banquo's descendants, Macbeth transforms the accoutrements of sovereignty into the symbols of unfulfillment:
Upon my head they placed a fruitless crown
And put a barren scepter in my grips,
Thence to be wrenched with an unilineal hand,
No son of mine succeeding.
Symbolism surrounding the kingship is similarly transformed in Macbeth's second visit to the three witches in which he is met with a vision of Banquo's succession of kings. Here the transformation is from the images of royalty to an augury of Macbeth's personal fate. Once again, with the vestiges of kingship used in this symbolic manner, the supernatural nature of that office is underscored.
Much is made during Banquo's reign of the king's schedule. Indeed, when the king sleeps, all of the kingdom is expected to follow suit as Banquo inquires: "What, sir, not yet at rest? The King's a-bed." Indeed, the supernatural power of the king’s condition in determining the hours of the day is alluded to by Ross in his commentary upon Duncan's murder:
Ah, good father,
Thou seest, the heavens, as troubled with man's act,
Threaten his bloody stage: by the clock 'tis day,
And yet dark night strangles the travelling lamp;
Is't night's predominance, or the day's shame,
That darkness does the face of earth entomb,
When living light should kiss it?
Once again we find that the condition of the kingship is reflected in nature, as we shall further find in our discussion of this common thread. Here we note that the king is assumed to have some function in ordering the hours, once again attesting to the supernatural character of the kingship.
The character of the kingship is not merely supernatural in Macbeth, but also dark in character. When Macbeth gains the throne he finds that his woes have just begun. Almost immediately after Duncan's murder Macbeth regrets his action in terms which relate specifically to the office of the king:
. . . better be with the dead,
Whom we, to gain our peace, have sent to peace,
Than on the torture of the mind to lie
In restless ecstasy. Duncan is in his grave;
After life's fitful fever he sleeps well;
Treason has done his worst: nor steel, nor poison,
Malice domestic, foreign levy, nothing,
Can touch him further.
The inclusion of the worries which beset kings in general along with Macbeth's particular pangs of conscience underscores the ironically dark nature of the kingship, the highest office brings the most varied and onerous cares.
As was the case in Hamlet and King Lear, the state of the kingship is mirrored in the state of the kingdom. The vicious and tyrannical nature of Macbeth is transposed upon the countryside as Malcolm remarks:
I think our country sinks beneath the yoke;
It weeps, it bleeds; and each new day a gash
Is added to her wounds. I think, withal,
There would be hands uplifted in my right;
And here, from gracious England, have I offer
Of goodly thousands: but, for all this,
When I shall tread upon the tyrant's head,
Or wear it on my sword, yet my poor country
Shall have more vices than it had before;
More suffer, and more sundry ways than ever,
By him that shall succeed.
Here we find that the state of the kingdom reflects both the condition of Duncan in the "gashes" exhibited by it, and of Macbeth, in the vices which are to follow. Therefore, as we saw in Hamlet and King Lear, there is a direct correspondence between the state and the kingship and the condition of the kingdom, as shown here, and nature, as previously shown in the commentary regarding the confusion of night and day.
In summary and conclusion, we have seen that the manner in which the kingship is treated respectively in Hamlet, King Lear, and Macbeth correlates with the tone and the themes of these works. In Hamlet, as we have demonstrated, the doubts, paradoxes, ironies, and playing of roles which pervade the play are central to our understanding of the kingship. In King Lear the duality between the natural and the legal aspects of sovereignty create the unnatural relationships which are the work's chief concern. Finally, in Macbeth, the dark and supernatural occurrences of the play are mirrored in the dark and supernatural character in Shakespeare's depiction of the kingship here.
There is, despite the prevailing tendency of the treatments of kingship in each of these plays to reflect the particular concerns of these works, a unifying strand which can be found in Hamlet, King Lear, and Macbeth in regard to the kingship. The condition of kingship reflects the condition of the kingdom, and, the condition of nature itself. It is not merely because of the power wielded by the king, nor simply are the conditions of nature an omen of the king's fortune. Rather, as shown in Hamlet, King Lear, and Macbeth, the fortune of king and kingdom are part of a larger and more universal fate which determines both simultaneously.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 931
The Lear that is presented at the beginning of Shakespeare's play is a man subject to "unruly waywardness" (I.i.298) and "unconstant starts." (I.i.300) He casts off the daughter who is most faithful to him because she refuses to match the exaggerated claims of love that her sisters profess for their father. Similarly, he casts off his most loyal subject, Kent, when he defends Cordelia, whom Kent knows to be true to the King. Ill-used by Regan and Goneril once he has relinquished his power to them, madness overcomes him. He is only restored from this madness when he is re-united with Cordelia. His experience of madness teaches him wisdom and he corrects all his previous faults as a result.
Several things attribute to Lear's eventual madness. The Fool, initially, plays a large part in pointing out to the King his foolish mistakes. Even before the onset of Lear's madness, the Fool is anticipating it:
thou hast pared thy wit o'both sides, and left nothing i' the middle.
Lear's gradual realization of the disloyalty of his two elder daughters also leads him to anticipate his oncoming madness. Reproaching himself for his blindness, he says of himself, "Either his notion weakens, his discernings/ Are lethargied," (I.iv.236-37) and later, ". . . let thy folly in,/ And thy dear judgement out!" (I.iv.280-81) It is Lear's reaction to Goneril's refusal to house him together with his whole retinue that marks the first real premonition of his madness, and the Fool suggests that it is his lack of wisdom, which accompanied his old age, that will be the cause of it.
Corresponding with Lear's madness, which is real, the play presents apparent, or feigned, madness in other characters. The disguised Kent challenges Oswald, for reasons Cornwall cannot understand, for he is not aware of the former's disguise. He puts Kent's provocation down to madness, for want of an explanation.
Edgar, also disguised to escape detection, takes on the aspect of madness. Edgar has been falsely rejected by his father, just as Cordelia has been rejected by hers. But Edgar's resulting madness, unlike Lear's, is only assumed. And it is this assumed madness which instills the real one in Lear. His meeting with Edgar as Old Tom completes the King's fall into madness, which Kent perceives. He urges that Lear be led away, for "His wits begin t'unsettle." (III. iv.166)
Gloucester is present at the meeting between Lear and Edgar, and compares his situation with that of Lear. He, too, has unjustly rejected a loyal son, and, noting the King's state, which has been caused by the disloyalty of his daughters, he remarks, "I am almost mad myself. I had a son/ Now outlawed from my blood; he sought my life,/ . . . The grief hath crazed my wits." (III.iv.170-74) But, his madness is rather rage and sorrow. Lear's madness begins in such rage and sorrow at the way he has been used, and he equates his condition with that of the storms and tempests that are taking place, as a parallel in nature, to the condition of his mind.
The Fool continues to allude to madness following Lear's departure into that state, calling it madness to have trust in those whose words and deeds obviously cannot be relied on. The Fool offers no relief to Lear's condition. The King's trial of his two daughters in which he, fallen into madness; the Fool; and Edgar, who is feigning madness, sit in judgment, illustrates the wisdom that his madness is instilling. He comes to a full realization of the lack of insight that characterized his previous behavior. His display of madness makes it difficult for Edgar to maintain his role as a madman, for the latter feels pity for Lear's condition, comparing it to his own pretense, which he can cast off at any time.
Like Gloucester, Edgar compares his condition to that of Lear. But like Gloucester, also, madness is not a reality for Edgar. Though he can compare experiences with the King, Lear's grief has reached greater depths.
In his madness, Lear makes many rational judgments concerning the ills of society, showing a greater awareness than he previously possessed. His identification with Edgar, disguised as Old Tom, makes him aware that the greatness attributed to the role of king still leaves the man underneath, who is no different from all other men. He comes to see, too, the ineffectiveness of justice in the face of sin and evil, and the falsity of the trickster who profits from pretence. His newfound wisdom leads Edgar to remark:
0! matter and impertinency mix'd;
Reason in madness.
Gloucester envies Lear's madness because he believes it brings forgetfulness of the evils that caused it. He, aware of his sorrows and their cause, cannot separate his thoughts from then.
Lear is restored from his madness when he is re-united with Cordelia, and admits his former foolishness. Love and sanity return together, just as lack of love from the two daughters who he had favored, marked his lapse into insanity.
Madness has taught Lear humility and given him a new concept of justice. He recognizes that flattery is worthless and accepts the simplicity of love and affection represented by Cordelia. His progress throughout the play strips him of the inner, as well as the outer, trappings of the role of monarch, and thus, through madness, brings him to a better understanding of human nature. The fact that the realization comes too late does not lessen the relevance of Lear's entry into a more human state.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1616
In Act III of King Lear the crucial event is the king's breakdown into madness. The episode in which the event occurs is based upon the storms that rage inside and outside the king. The substance of the play is that Lear, in a mighty fashion, must suffer emotionally, physically and finally in madness before he can see clearly the error of his ways. After banishing his faithful daughter Cordelia, and being turned out by his two evil daughters, Lear’s emotional journey downwards follows a physical path. In like fashion, the sub-plot of Gloucester in Act IV serves to reinforce Lear’s suffering.
As the episode begins, the scene is a heath in the midst of a storm. Instead of having Lear appear in the opening scene, he is described as "contending with the fretful elements . . ."; he "strives in his little world of man to outscorn . . . the wind and rain." The episode’s theme of the two storms meeting through one man is presented before it is experienced by the audience. The stage is cleared, and Lear enters alone, but for his Fool, raging at the storm and at himself. This is the moment at which he is alone with himself, for the Fool is his mirror. Before he can reach the lowest point of his journey, he must expel his energy in anger at his foul condition. Kent enters, and warns Lear of the danger of the storm, "Man's nature cannot carry the affliction nor the fear." As Kent directs Lear towards shelter in a hovel, the basest dwelling, Lear responds to his compassion, and in moving to seek shelter is still unbroken by his inner raging. The Fool following makes a prophecy, that when everything is upside down, "than shall the realm of Albion [England] come to great confusion." Although the episode of the storm is broken by a return to a sub-plot concerning Gloucester, it is that sub-plot that will reinforce the episode upon the heath.
Lear, in the care of Kant and the Fool, arrives outside the hovel. The stage direction says, "storm still." Lear asks to remain alone in the storm. "The tempest in my mind/ Doth from my senses take all feeling else/ Save what beats there." As he will not leave the storm, he will not leave tormenting himself with his suffering. The theme of ungrateful daughters repeats itself in every speech, with every step of his passage through the storm. It is an obsession.
Kent attempts to persuade Lear into the hovel. Lear responds, "No I will be the pattern of all patience." Kent: "Here is a hovel, . . . repose you there." Lear, about his obsession, ". . . that way madness lies; let me shun that." Before entering the hovel, the Fool is sent in first, only to come out again frightened at the role of madman Edgar must play. The madman's entrance occurs with the arrival of Lear’s madness. Lear asks Mad Tom, "Didst thou give all to thy two daughters?" After another outburst from the madman comes the stage direction, "storm still." Lear says, "What! Have his daughters brought him to this pass?" This double madness is like the double storm, for Lear attributes the sorrow that is making him mad to the man he perceives to be mad. This time when Kent intervenes to bring him back to reality, Lear refuses him violently, "Death, traitor!"
As Edgar continues his bedlam role, it is obvious why Lear cannot yet enter the hovel, and why Mad Tom had to come out. Lear must remain in the storm, for at this moment occurs the nadir of his breakdown: "Unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor, bare, forked animal as thou art." He tears at his clothes, that he also will be reduced to nothing. Gloucester comes to offer food and fire, but Lear prefers to remain in the storm conversing with the madman; he will move into shelter only in the company of the madman. Here the foreshadowing of the future episode that will reinforce this episode occurs, for Gloucester, aiding Lear, suddenly cries out with his own grief at the loss of his son, "The grief hath crazed my wits." Thus the episode of Lear and his companions working their way through the storm on the heath, with the horror of the tragedy that has come upon the king, becoming the form through which the event of Lear's madness can be experienced by the audience.
The episode that in dramatic meaning works as a verification of Lear's suffering on the heath, is the parallel plot of Gloucester in Act IV. The Earl of Gloucester had two sons, Edgar, his rightful heir, and a bastard son, Edmund, who tricked Gloucester into the false belief that Edgar was involved in a plot to kill his father. The old man banished his rightful son under threat of death if he should appear in the kingdom. The bastard son, in order to win his father's title, contrived to accuse him of treason with France. While pleading for Lear's plight, the Earl of Gloucester has his eyes plucked out by Lear's ambitious son-in-law, while Lear's daughter urges him on. Gloucester, thrust into the same storm that rages around Lear, hears that his bastard son was the villain, and that he had wrongly disowned his own son Edgar: "Edgar was abused, kind gods, forgive me that, and prosper him!"
This episode is shaped like a counter-piece to that of Lear. It begins as an actual experience for the audience with the blinding of Gloucester on the stage at the end of Act III accompanied by the realization that he was wrong. He is thrust into the storm on the heath, whereas Lear, in Act III, left under his own will in anger, denouncing his daughters and swearing revenge on them. Lear was followed by the Fool, and sooner or later, Kent, Edgar in disguise, and the distressed Gloucester, who finally was able to bring him to a suitable shelter. In Act IV, Gloucester's journey upon the heath begins, with Edgar in disguise as Mad Tom already there to observe his father's condition. There is no rage or vengeful pride in Gloucester; the old man is abased and he suffers gently, "Ah! dear son Edgar . . . Might I but Live to see thee in my touch," Gloucester is only too aware of the truth; in his physical blindness he is all too sensitive. "I stumbled when I saw." Gloucester asks to be left in the care of the madman, again a parallel with the first episode, and Gloucester refers back to the moment when Lear asked to remain with Mad Tom. Gloucester, however, must be aware of Edgar in Mad Tom, "I' the last night's storm I such a fellow saw, . . . my son came then into my mind." Gloucester attempts to make his way to Dover, for, having advised Kent to guide King Lear there where Cordelia awaits with some of the army of France, Dover stands as a resolution to his problems and an end to his suffering. For though his suffering is of a quieter nature than Lear's, Gloucester suffers no less bitterly, "Dost thou know Dover? . . . There is a cliff . . . Looks fearfully in the confined deep." Edgar leads him from the heath to the country near Dover.
The event of Gloucester's episode is the fantastic ruse which Edgar perpetrates on his father to keep him from killing himself. The purpose of this event is that one who has been cruelly struck can regain his belief in life to finally reach his own truth and the knowledge of his son. As Lear broke down in madness, Gloucester is made to feel that he fell from the height of the cliff and lived, which is madness. Although Gloucester accepts Edgar's deception, he can recognise the change in Edgar’s voice and character. As Gloucester kneels in his supposed suicidal attempt, he says to Mad Tom, "if Edgar live, O, bless him! Now, fellow, fare thee well." Just as Gloucester accepted Edgar's description of the height of the cliff, so he accepted his description of his amazing fall. Edgar has guided his father down through the shock of self-destruction, and up again with the will to live.
The eventual working out of this episode cannot take place as an immediate experience, for it exists only to substantiate the tragedy of Lear. Gloucester's episode weaves in and out of Lear's; they meet on the supposed cliff, where Lear in flowers raves, yet Gloucester recognizes his voice. As Lear is taken away to Cordelia, Edgar pretends to be yet another man to guide his father. When threat to Gloucester appears, Edgar puts on a peasant's accent, kills the would-be assassin, and speaking as before leads his father away again. The last time Gloucester is seen, he is still in the care of Edgar. Although his episode ends there, the end of Gloucester must be recounted by Edgar, rather than to detract from the effect of the supreme grief of Lear's final scene. Edgar's constant care of his father without allowing him to know who he is, is justified; not knowing whether he would return or not from his part in the defense of Lear, Edgar revealed to Gloucester who he was. The old man “too weak the conflict to support . . . twixt two extremes of passion, joy and grief, burst smilingly." Gloucester had followed the same course as Lear; he misjudged his good child and suffered horribly because of the wicked child. He is truly an object of intense compassion, and is witness to the justness of Lear's self-pity, if that is all it can be called.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1899
The setting of King Lear is decidedly pre-Christian, and yet despite the many references to the pagan world, and an undefined pantheon of 'gods', the pervading view of the play is one of redemption through suffering. This is a clearly Christian perspective of life and death.
Lear declares that he is 'more sinn'd against than sinning' (III, ii, 59-60)1, and Cordelia is seen very much as a figure of sacrifice. Both Lear and Gloucester must suffer to an extreme degree before they can come to terms with their lives, and their faults; and through their suffering, they gain understanding, and ultimately forgiveness—from Cordelia (for Lear) and Edgar (for Gloucester).
In examining this view of the play, we cannot separate the parallel Gloucester plot from the main Lear plot. Edgar may well say that Lear 'childed as I fathered' (III, vi, 108), but both men have committed sins against their own children, and against the bonds and duties which are interdependent. Cordelia talks about those bonds and duties in I,i ('I love your Majesty/According to my bond': lines 91-92), and Lear harps on about them throughout the play, linking them with the responsibilities of children. Gloucester too alludes to them when he hears of Edgar's supposedly traitorous plots to have him killed (I, ii, 105). The 'unnatural' acts of the two loving children ironically set off the heinous acts of the truly unkind children (Goneril, Regan and Edmund), and bring the focus of the audience onto the various meanings of the words 'natural' and 'Nature'.
Edmund's (and Goneril and Regan's) self-interest and concern exist at the expense of all others. They possess a deep and black Nature which is opposed to all things of beauty and light. Lear's and Cordelia's (and Edgar's) Nature is the force that keeps the Universe in harmony, and which provides the bonds and responsibilities between Sovereign and kingdom; father and children; children and father. As the one Nature seems to grow dominant at the expense of the other, Gloucester highlights the effects (despite his superstitious accounting of them):
Love cools, friendship falls off, brothers divide. In cities mutinies; in countries, discord; in palaces treason; and the bond twixt son and father . . .
(I, ii, 103-106)
Lear's view of Nature has, of course been perverted; he cannot recognise that the 'empty hearted . . . reverb . . . hollowness' (I, i, 152-153 ). He is beguiled by the rhetorical flattery of the evil sisters (whose qualities both Cordelia and Kent know, but who refuse to name them in public); in the same way as Gloucester is fooled by the manipulative schemes of Edmund (whose tactics, of course, resemble closely those of that other arch-evil Shakespearean villain, Iago). Neither 'good' child is able to speak in his or her defence, but must, like Kent, abide the fall of the arrow once the dragon's wrath is loosed. (An interesting pagan image, the dragon is ultimately killed by St George. King Edgar, historically, eventually freed England of a plague of wolves!)
Both Lear and Gloucester at first seem idiotic and blinded old men. In part, Regan is correct in her description of Lear (II, iv, 143-147):
O sir, you are old;
Nature in you stands on the very verge
Of his confine. You should be rules and led
By some discretion that discerns your state
Better than yourself.
And later : 'I pray you father, being weak, seem so' (II, iv, 199).
They echo Edmund's (supposedly Edgar's) views in that letter: 'aged tyranny, who sways, not as it hath power, but as it is suffered' (I, ii, 47-49) which Edmund later expounds as 'sons at perfect age, and fathers declined, the father should be as ward to the son, and the son manage his revenue' (lines 69-70).
They make bad choices (banishing Cordelia, Kent and Edgar), make themselves both dependant and vulnerable to those who despise and hate them, and they reap the rewards of their own initial foolishness. They can, indeed, be said to have sinned against their own natures, against the duty they should have followed, and against their own dutiful children. In a Christian perspective, they have sinned against the commands of God, showing uncharitableness, pride, anger and a host of other venal sins. Yet the door for redemption does lie open for each of them—after prolonged and extreme suffering. Each must learn, and each must experience the inversion of his experiences, before redemption can be achieved. Lear must descend into abject madness, his tempest of the mind echoing the physical tempest which he 'Strives in this little world of man to out-storm' (III, i, 10). His loss of sanity in IV,vi reflects the gradual understanding he is reaching of the world as he knew it—the lies and deception; the power of the rich to pervert justice; the evils of flattery (ll. 96-100; 149-152; 161-165). It is only through both physical and mental suffering that Lear reaches knowledge and understanding, and it is only then that he can seek both forgiveness and redemption.
The imagery in the reconciliation scene with Cordelia is perhaps the most heavily Christian in the play. It is precursored by her biblical echo (IV, v, 24), 'O dear father/It is thy business that I go about.' When they are reunited, and Lear's madness has calmed through rest, the Christ-like Cordelia is described as a 'soul in bliss' (IV, vii, 46) and a 'spirit' (line 49), while Lear is taken 'out o' th' grave' (line 46) and feels he is 'bound upon a wheel of fire' (line 47). Lear seeks to kneel in front of Cordelia and seek forgiveness while she too kneels in front of him seeking 'benediction' (line 58). The image is repeated in the pathos-laden scene of their capture in V, iii, 10-11; and then they are transformed into figures beyond and above the world as Lear declares,
Upon such sacrifices, my Cordelia,
The gods themselves through incense.
(V, iii, 20-21)
Even Lear's death, struggling as he is with the knowledge of Cordelia's death, has strong overtones of a Christian ending. He has been forgiven by Cordelia, reconciled to her, and he has understood most of what has happened to him. He has gained knowledge of 'poor unaccommodated man' (III, iv, 105) and seen what is 'the thing itself'. He knows that he has 'taken too little care of this' (III, iv, 32-33) and is able to understand better his failure to uphold his end of the lines of duty and responsibility. He has had to learn patience (not just a pagan Stoicism) and endurance—both strong Christian virtues. As he dies, freed at last from the 'rack of this tough world' (V, iii, 313), he believes he is moving to paradise with Cordelia who breathes a welcome to him. There is no agony in his last moments, only a sense of freedom and bliss.
The sense of release is also experienced by Gloucester, who has been kept in the dark by Edgar about his identity, so that Gloucester can learn better his lesson, and be recovered from despair (the worst of Christian failings) to learn patience and understanding. Edgar is able to advise that 'Men must endure/Their going hence, even as their coming hither/The ripeness is all' (V, ii, 10-11), but it takes several attempts before the despairing Gloucester can learn this. He first must be robbed of his rather pagan perspective: 'As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods/They kill us for their sport' (IV, i, 36-37). After his failed suicide, he recognises that he must
. . . bear
Affliction till it do cry out itself
'Enough, enough,' and die . . .
(IV, vi, 76-77)
The mad scene with Lear (IV,vi) reinforces this, though the pathos with which Gloucester reacts to the King's madness comes close to driving him into further despair. The loss of Lear and Cordelia's army does do this :'A man may rot even here' (V, ii, 8), but Edgar again is able to salvage him. Edgar admits he has 'saved him from despair' (V, iii, 190), and then asks for his 'blessing' (line 194) after telling him of their 'pilgrimage' (line 195), an image again with strong Christian overtones. Like Lear, Gloucester is finally brought to knowledge—though his metaphor is different. He 'stumbled when I saw' (IV, i, 19), but in his blindness is able to see more clearly, and gain understanding. Like Lear the knowledge is overwhelming, and he dies 'Twixt two extremes of passion, joy and grief' (V, iii, 197-198).
While Lear and Gloucester are 'saved', it has taken the sacrifice of the three true 'saints' to effect the process. Cordelia is surrounded by symbols of her goodness and Christian charity; but Edgar and Kent have in some ways harder roads to travel. They have the same purpose, but each must endure a disguise, and suffer themselves as they seek to serve the one who has cast them off. Kent did Lear 'service/Improper for a slave' (V, iii, 219-220) while Edgar had to assume 'a semblance/That the very dogs disdained' (ll. 186-187). Cordelia dies; Kent is about to undergo another 'journey' in response to his master's call (line 320); and Edgar is left to obey the 'weight of this sad time' (line 322). Redemption truly comes at a cost.
As foils to the brilliance of the saints, the sinners form a relatively ugly crew. Goneril and Regan are unredeemed and unredeemable. They become associated more and more with animal imagery as monsters, serpents, wolves and dogs.2 Their Nature is Edmund's, and revolves around their self-indulgence and greed. Not content with receiving half the kingdom each, they need to get rid of Lear, and then each other. Not content with their own husbands, they lust after Edmund fulfilling Lear's 'mad' observation: 'But to the girdle to the gods inherit/Below is all the fiends' (IV, vi, 125-126). Ultimately Goneril poisons Regan and kills herself. Excess, superfluity and the imbalance of nature cause this. Their viciousness and un-Christian tendencies leave them as the true monsters of the play—those who sin far more than are sinned against.
Edmund requires a much fuller treatment than can be offered in this essay. He is more complicated because of the disadvantage of his birth and the way that he is treated by Gloucester. But the sympathy we have for him is quickly eroded in I,ii when he uses those disadvantages to rationalise his own greed and maliciousness. We can trace his vicious actions throughout the play but note that in the end he may be partially redeemed when he knows he is dying and tries to save Lear and Cordelia.
The suffering in the play is painful, and the lessons learnt are hard ones. In the end, however, Shakespeare paints a picture for us which is not as gloomy and comfortless as it at first appears. He shows the power of redemption and suffering and indicates that there are rewards for those who can learn lessons and find both self-knowledge and true humility. The rewards may not be of this world, but then, that is why we must look at the pagan situation through Christian eyes.
1. All references to the play are from 'The Arden Shakespeare' edition of 'King Lear', Ed. Kenneth Muir, (Methuen, London), 1982.
2. For excellent studies of the imagery in all of Shakespeare's plays, consult Clemen, W. H., The Development of Shakespeare's Imagery (1951) and Spurgeon, C. F. E., Shakespeare's Imagery and What It Tells Us (CUP, 1935).
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