Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1170
Dearer than eyesight, space and liberty
Goneril introduces a long series of eye and sight references which reverberate around Gloucester's blinding (3.7). Her formal rhetoric of love is manifestly insincere, but satisfies the vain and foolish Lear, who gives her half the Kingdom. Cordelia cannot compete with her sisters lies. Lear consistently misunderstands love, thinking it can be quantified – when Goneril and Regan combine to reduce his following he says 'Thy fifty do yet double five and twenty, And thou art twice her love' (2.2.448-449).
nothing will come of nothing. Speak again.
Lear, finding his vain-glorious set-piece of flattery falling flat, tries to wheedle some more fitting compliments from Cordelia. 'Nothing' is one of the key words in the play, and Lear's chilling formulation introduces the grim nihilism which is Lear's central mood. It is already a proverb when Shakespeare uses it.
O let me not be mad, not mad, sweet heaven!
Perhaps Lear's mind begins to go as he struggles with the consequences of giving away his power. He has already had difficulty in understanding the treatment he now receives in 1.4. He has always been King, and now he is not, he no longer recognises himself. To the Fool, he is already 'Lear's shadow' (1.4.222). Lear's madness may be thought to predate the beginning of the play, (or he would never have given everything away0, and this may be a lucid moment. Is it that the behaviour and expectations of a King are mad in someone without actual power?
O, reason not the need !
Lear's point is that he should be allowed something not out of need, but love, or at least politeness and custom. He carries on: 'Allow not nature more than nature needs / Man's life is cheap as beasts' (2.2.455-456). If we have only what we truly need, we are no better than animals. Lear is shortly to extend this critique, taking the other side of the argument, standing in the rain and shouting, and decrying wealth and privilege.
I am a man / More sinned against than sinning
Lear, now cast out on the heath, attempts to claim the storm as part of a scheme of divine justice, but the storm is apparently indifferent. He is probably wrong about sin: it is his pride that has got him into this mess. He still does not see himself, and the remark is merely self-pitying. However, as the surrounding evil continues to mount, we come to feel sorry for Lear ourselves.
the rain it raineth every day
The Fool, (as does Edgar later), preaches stoicism; endurance in the face of life's difficulties. There is a humorous resignation in his song which accords with the British climate. The song is related to Feste's at the end of Twelfth Night. Both Feste and the Fool were probably played by Robert Armin, a dwarfish clown noted for his wit.
As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods / They kill us for their sport
Gloucester is in the depths of despair, and resolved on suicide. Improbably, he decides to walk to Dover, guided by a madman (actually Edgar, his son, in disguise), and throw himself off a cliff. Gloucester is now entirely cynical about divine influence, seeing the gods as malicious.
'Tis the time's plague when madmen lead the blind.
Gloucester's irony sums up his outlook. The time is plagued, or cursed. There is a Biblical echo in the proverbial 'blind leading the blind' (Luke 6.39). The nihilism of the play darkens to reach its first peak at Gloucester's tragi-comic 'fall'.
Humanity must perforce prey on itself / Like monsters of the deep.
Albany predicts what already seems clear to other characters, that if heaven does not intervene, humanity (in the sense of civilised behaviour, at least) will perish. The chain of events caused by Lear's abdication -or his rejection of Cordelia- is running out of control. Gloucester is blind, Lear running around mad, France has invaded, and his wife is having an affair with the bastard Edmund, by now Duke of Gloucester, although he doesn't know about that yet. Albany is stirred to action rather than despair.
O dear father / It is thy business that I go about
Cordelia does her best to soften the fact of a French invasion (never very popular in England, and certainly not in Shakespeare's time) with this further Biblical echo ('I must go about my Father's business', Luke 2.49). That she is fighting against England with a French army presents a difficulty for audience sentiment. Shakespeare is usually Nationalistic, although only occasionally militaristic. The Biblical echo is daringly close, creating a saintly aura around Cordelia.
But to the girdle do the gods inherit
Lear means that women are the evil's below the waist. The alarming misogyny of this speech is in part justified by Lear's daughter fixation, and is in part a reflection of contemporary religious disapproval of sexuality, and patriarchal denigration of women. Lear's sexual revulsion seems somehow doubly indecent in an old man, but starts with traditional-sounding complaints, perhaps revealing the foulness beneath contemporary morality; more likely a general underlying male fear of female sexuality. Shakespeare's own stress on female chastity is considerable, and increases as time goes on.
Plate sin with gold / And the strong lance of justice hurtless breaks
Lear's moral satire on wealth and privilege is reminiscent of the Protestant reformer Hugh Latimer, and the pamphleteers of the English Civil War. There is a strong thread of satire on wealth in English Protestantism, as in the Gospels, and this runs through King Lear. Edgar calls Lear's speech 'Reason in madness' (4.6.171), and Lear has become an example of the 'Holy Fool', a prophetic figure. Lear (3.4.28-36) and Gloucester (4.1.73-74) have both already attacked social injustice, and Lear philosophised on 'unaccommodated man' on meeting Edgar as 'Poor Tom'(3.4.105).
Thou art a soul in bliss, but I am bound / Upon a wheel of fire.
One of many references to wheels, as in the wheel of fortune. (Fool: 'Let go thy hold when a great wheel runs down a hill' (2.2.261); Edmund: 'The wheel is come full circle' (5.3.172). Lear, recovered by Cordelia's men, wakes from his sleep to find himself in a strange place with music playing and Cordelia bending over him. He believes himself dead, and by some error in Heaven, mistaking Cordelia for an angel. G. Wilson Knight entitled his contentious Christian-redemptive study of Shakesperean Tragedy The Wheel of Fire.
Ripeness is all.
Edgar counsels his father against suicide, an example of his stoicism which has been taken as a moral for the play.
Why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life / And thou no breath at all?
Lear mourns Cordelia with this unanswerable question. Some of the most moving lines I have read, especially in their context. Lear dies shortly after. Cordelia's death could easily have been avoided, had Edmund spoken sooner, or anyone bothered to enquire where she was. Cordelia's unnecessary death hardens the play's nihilism, leaving little room, one would think, for a redemptive reading.
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